Gu Fei sat behind the cash register, playing on his phone while watching Li Baoguo, who had circled around the shelves for the third time. Li Baoguo had no particular goal, just going around in circles, occasionally glancing over at Gu Fei.
Li Baoguo had stolen things more than once, so whenever he came, Gu Fei would stare directly at him. But now that Jiang Cheng had suddenly shown up, he was a bit conflicted on whether to stare or not.
Li Baoguo was not a thief. Sometimes when he gambled away all his money and wanted to buy something, he would put it on credit first. It was not uncommon for people living here at the bottom rungs of society to buy things on credit, but whenever Li Baoguo bought things on credit, he would also try to figure out ways to steal a little more...
"Da Fei," Li Baoguo put his hand into the big cotton coat pocket, then pulled it out again. He went to the freezer to grab a bag of fish balls and came to the cash register. "This one, I'll pay you back in a couple days? Together with what I owe last time?"
"Okay," Gu Fei took out a notebook from the drawer, found Li Baoguo's page, and started writing. "One bag of fish balls, one bottle of Erguotou, the big one..."
"What? I didn't take any alcohol." Li Baoguo said somewhat awkwardly.
"The bottle in your pocket," Gu Fei glanced at him. "Uncle Li, drink a little less, okay? You can't even remember things clearly."
"Oh, oh," Li Baoguo pulled his mouth into a smile and laughed drily a few times, patting his pocket. "Right, I took a bottle of the big Erguotou...also give me a pack of Changbaishan."
Gu Fei grabbed a 10 yuan pack of Changbaishan cigarettes and handed it to him, then recorded it in the notebook.
"You write very nicely," Li Baoguo leaned in to look. "Hey, do you know my son?"
"You mean Li Hui? Of course I know him." Gu Fei said.
"Not Li Hui, my younger son, Chengcheng," Li Baoguo rested his elbow on the counter. "Just got him back recently, couldn't afford to raise him when he was little so I sent him away... He's also in No. 4 High, you know him right?"
"Mm, I think so." Gu Fei nodded.
Li Baoguo grinned, "He studies very well, not like little Hui. He's an honor student, you know what an honor student is right? You rascals are all failing students, but my little son is a good student."
Gu Fei smiled, "Yes."
"You wrote it down right? I'll have Chengcheng bring the money over to you in a couple days," Li Baoguo looked at the notebook again, pointing with his finger, "His writing is definitely better than yours."
"...Okay." Gu Fei kept nodding.
After Li Baoguo left in high spirits, Gu Fei looked down at his own writing in the notebook.
He wasn't sure about the rest, but Jiang Cheng's writing... could only be described as hahaha. It definitely belonged to the type that even if everything was written correctly, the writing was so ugly it could still shock the teacher and get points deducted.
Around noon, his mother came in carrying a lunchbox, "I made some braised pork."
"You didn't go out today?" Gu Fei stood up and propped up the small table next to him. "Did you eat?"
"Go out where! Where could I go!" His mother had an unhappy expression. "If I went out with someone, wouldn't I scare them half to death! I didn't eat!"
"Can't you find someone who doesn't deserve a beating?" Gu Fei said.
"Is there anyone in your eyes who doesn't deserve a beating? When have you ever seen the good in other people!" His mother was very dissatisfied. "You don't like this one, you don't like that one. You're fine with your mom being a widow, is that it!"
"The good in a person has to be there for me to see it." Gu Fei opened the lunchbox lid, took out a small container, and scooped half of the braised pork into it.
"Where's Er Miao?" His mother asked.
"Went off to play, leave some food and she'll come back when hungry," Gu Fei said.
His mom sighed, "Always running wild like this, with that kind of personality... Watching her gives me a headache, what will we do in the future?"
"Then don't watch," Gu Fei sat down and started eating.
"Go today," his mom suddenly said, looking at him.
"Go where?" Gu Fei ate a piece of meat. Though he knew what his mom meant.
"You forgot what day it is today!" His mom slapped the table. "Your dad's been dead for how long and you already forgot!"
"He's been dead a while," Gu Fei said.
His mom glared at him silently, then after a bit took out a tissue and started dabbing her eyes.
Gu Fei never understood what kind of feelings his mom had for her husband. When he was alive they fought every day, fought and beat each other, then she would beg heaven to let the man die soon. But after he died she'd cry at the slightest mention.
Sometimes she'd cry so genuinely, heartbrokenly.
"I went to the cemetery a few days ago," Gu Fei said as he ate.
"Useless, I said going to the grave is useless!" His mom looked at him. "Go where he died! How many times do I have to say it! Otherwise he won't be at peace! If you don't want to go I'll go myself!"
"I'll go this afternoon," Gu Fei sighed.
"Burn some paper," his mom dabbed her eyes. "That idiot was so bad with money, he's probably begging over there."
"You stay in the shop this afternoon," Gu Fei said. "Don't touch money. If you dare take money, I'll tell the King of Hell that what I burnt is all counterfeit."
"...You psycho!" His mother glared at him.
The lake where his dad died was quite far, in an abandoned lot that had been cordoned off with plans for a small park that was never built. Since there wasn't much residential area nearby, there were few visitors on ordinary days.
In the last two years, the water had nearly dried up, so in the winter you couldn't even see anyone there.
If the lake had been this dry back then, if the water had frozen just a little more solidly that winter...his dad would not have died.
When he was summarizing Li Baoguo's situation for Jiang Cheng, he had spaced out for a moment, briefly thinking he was describing his dad to someone else.
Sometimes he didn't dare examine it closely, didn't dare face the fact that he had once wished for that man's death so badly, didn't dare face that even now, he still felt that if he could do it again, he would still hope for that man to die.
His heart and this lake were both places he was unwilling to get close to.
If it wasn't for his mother making him come burn paper every year, he would never come near here.
Leaving home, turning left, going past the small factory, just keep walking straight. No turns, no forks in the road. When you couldn't walk any further, you'd arrive.
After circling past the small factory, there wasn't a single person on the road. Just desolation and bleakness all around, an eerie feeling like having entered another space.
Gu Fei pulled his hat low, made sure his face mask was on right, then took out his earmuffs to put on. Maybe because there weren't many buildings here, maybe because he was afraid, but he felt cold. He felt like the wind could creep into his body from anywhere, slowly radiating chilliness back out layer by layer.
There wasn't much snow this year, but because no one cleared it, there was still a layer on the ground. Faint crunching sounds made him uneasy as he stepped on it.
After walking for a while, he lowered his head to look at the ground and suddenly noticed a trail of footprints.
He froze for a moment, looking back at the road he had come from. Indeed, there were two sets of prints, one going in, none going out.
Someone had actually gone to the lakeside in this kind of weather.
Coming here to burn paper was something he didn't really want others to see. He didn't want people to think he felt guilty.
He didn't feel guilty. All he felt was fear.
Although the lake wasn't big, once he reached the shore, the wind blew much more strongly, stinging his eyes.
He passed through the sparse trees and stepped on the grass piles to get to the water's edge. The previous footprints had disappeared among the broken ice shards.
He looked left and right but didn't see anyone. Hesitating, he stared at the lake bottom already exposed in many places, but no one was there either.
Of course, even if someone had walked on the thin ice and fallen through...the lake was too shallow now to drown anyone, only freeze them.
He found a tree to squat against, threw his bag on the ground, and took out a cigarette to light it up.
He wanted to wait a little longer. He didn't want to continue along the lake's edge. This was the necessary path in and out, so he wanted to wait for the other person to come out before starting to burn the paper.
But after waiting nearly twenty minutes without moving, he would freeze up. He stubbed out the cigarette with frustration, picking up the bag.
He could only go in a little deeper, one to see who had come, two to find a more hidden place.
After walking a few hundred meters inland, Gu Fei heard a crisp crack coming from the middle of the lake. It didn't sound like natural cracking of the ice, more like someone stepping on it or something hitting the surface.
He hurriedly turned to look at the center of the lake, but didn't see anyone there, nor anything else. Everything was still.
He suddenly felt a chill down his back and whipped around again to look behind him.
Still no one there, nothing suspicious either.
Before he turned his head back, there was another crisp crack from the lake surface. He cranked his neck back so fast he nearly twisted it off.
Still nothing. But this time the sound was muffled compared to before.
He slowly backed up a few steps until leaning against a tree. Childish, but having something solid at his back did make him feel more steady.
This time he stared fixedly at the lake.
After just a few seconds, he saw a small, stone-like object fly out from the withered grass dozens of meters from the shore, hitting the ice.
The sound this time was not crisp, but a muffled "plop".
Someone throwing rocks?
But judging by the speed it flew out, it didn't seem like something thrown by hand.
Gu Fei tugged at his clothes and slowly moved towards that direction.
Before he had walked even twenty meters, he could see a swaying figure in the indented rocky area of the shore, mostly obscured by grass nearly a meter high, but recognizable as a person.
Not a ghost.
He had been scared by someone who was probably just extremely bored and throwing rocks at the lake to play.
Although he felt a bit silly, he still let out a big breath of relief.
He didn't continue forward, but retreated back into the woods, wanting to wait for the person to leave, and also curious what they were doing.
The figure didn't notice anyone approaching, bending down as if picking something up, then extending one arm forward and pulling back the other arm.
A black object shot out with a swish, hitting the ice surface.
Gu Fei immediately realized this person was playing with a slingshot, and felt the clothes looked a bit familiar.
He stared at the figure in the grass a few more times before freezing up.
That was the same coat Jiang Cheng had worn when they fought, hideously ugly with two hand-width strips of greyish white across the chest.
He looked all around again. There was no one else, Jiang Cheng had actually found this place alone?
And was using a slingshot to play on the icy lake?
What an good student...instead of studying at home during his precious time, he ran here to play with a slingshot.
Gu Fei lit a fresh cigarette and watched Jiang Cheng's side.
Jiang Cheng seemed to be using small pebbles, but with the shore frozen over now, pebbles weren't easy to find. Each time he bent over, he had to dig for a while, sometimes even kicking at the ground with his foot.
After watching for a bit, Gu Fei felt Jiang Cheng seemed to be in a bad mood again. Several times when he kicked, the motions were as violent as if he was itching for a fight, clearly agitated.
But after seeing him shoot out four or five pebbles, Gu Fei was also surprised.
He took off his glasses from his inside pocket and put them on, staring closely.
Jiang Cheng was aiming at the same spot every time, around 30 meters from the shore. He was able to hit it accurately each time, and had already pummeled a hole in the ice there.
Lots of people played with slingshots. Among the people Gu Fei knew, many bragged about their accuracy and skill, claiming they could hit chickens from 70 meters away.
But this was the first time he had personally witnessed someone able to repeatedly hit the same hole ten plus times in a row.
As he watched Jiang Cheng stop after shooting for a while, bending over yet again to dig and kick futilely for a long time before standing back up, Gu Fei was astonished again.
He slowly backed up another distance, not wanting Jiang Cheng to discover him here right now, or the two of them really might flatten all the trees around.
"Fuck!" After failing to find any pebbles for a long time, Jiang Cheng shouted in frustration, loud enough to carry over on the wind for Gu Fei to hear clearly.
No pebbles left, so he should leave now right?
But Jiang Cheng didn't leave. Head lowered, he stared at the ground, kicking snow away in a few spots until uncovering a small patch of rocks.
Gu Fei sighed.
Jiang Cheng grabbed a few and put them in his coat pocket, glancing at the lake then turning around.
After a pause, he suddenly whipped around, shooting out a pebble.
With a snap, it hit a thin piece of exposed rebar far away.
Gu Fei was shocked. Without his glasses, he wouldn't even have noticed the rebar.
Jiang Cheng walked a few steps sideways, then swung forcefully around again. The pebble flew out and once more hit the rebar, shattering upon impact.
"Oh! Yeah!" Jiang Cheng clapped and waved the slingshot in the air, taking a few bows around. "Thank you, thank you."
Gu Fei held in his laughter. He slowly retreated some more, certain that if Jiang Cheng discovered him here now, the two of them really would flatten this whole area.
"Contestant Jiang Cheng has decided to increase the difficulty again! He has decided to increase the difficulty again! Wow—" While Jiang Cheng energetically commented, he took two pebbles from his pocket.
This time he didn't turn his back on the rebar, but aimed straight at it.
Gu Fei heard two nearly simultaneous sounds.
He had flung two pebbles out simultaneously, hitting with one while the other veered off, hitting the ground.
"Ah, what a pity," Jiang Cheng fished in his pocket for more pebbles as he spoke. "Coach X, what do you think, was that a mistake or is his skill lacking?"
It took Gu Fei a bit to realize what a Coach X was.
"I think there's still room for his skills to improve," Jiang Cheng pulled back the slingshot again. "He seems to want to try a new challenge...is he lowering the difficulty this time or continuing..."
With a flick of his wrist, the first pebble flew out. Before Gu Fei could see the result, he immediately pulled again, shooting out the second pebble, followed rapidly by a third.
Ping ping ping.
Gu Fei watched his back, truly wanting to applaud if not for the current circumstances.
It wasn't just accuracy; the motions were pretty stylish too.
If Li Yan was here to watch this muted scene, he probably wouldn't say it was unpleasant to look at anymore.
But after this amazing performance, Jiang Cheng surprisingly didn't clap for himself or take any bows, just standing there silently.
After a while, he slowly lowered into a squat, hands holding his head.
Gu Fei froze.
That invested in the performance...?
But soon he saw Jiang Cheng's shoulders trembling lightly a few times.
He was crying.
Gu Fei finished the last two puffs of his cigarette, stubbing it out at his feet as he got up to continue deeper inland.
He didn't have much interest in watching this kind of scene. Watching for amusement was one thing, peeking at someone's wounds and watching a guy who normally seemed like a cannon cry had no meaning.
The lake did have an end. Continuing along, you couldn't even circle it once. Up ahead was a mountain shaped like a rotten sweet potato that you couldn't get around.
Gu Fei found a small patch of ground without grass. It took him ten minutes just to get the fire lit.
Then he took out the bundles of paper money from the bag, tossing them into the flames.
Some were gold, some yellow, some flowered. Denominations ranged from worthless to hundreds and trillions. Everything you could want.
Gu Fei watched the rising flames, holding his hands out to warm them.
He probably needed to say something at this moment, others would likely tell him to keep the money, we're all doing fine, don't worry about it, if you run out just say so and we'll take care. But if he were to speak, he truly wouldn't know what to say.
Silently watching the flames change color, rising up in the thick smoke, swaying about in the wind as if waving, then gradually shrinking, until only black smoke remained.
Gu Fei took a tree branch, poked at it, and black ash floated up with sparks, then everything returned to stillness.
He stood up, kicked some loose snow over from the side to cover the patch of black ash, then turned and left.
Every year after this day, Gu Fei felt like a weight was lifted all of a sudden, and life returned to mundanity - watching the store, watching Gu Miao dart around the streets like a rabbit, attending boring classes at school, playing mindless games like candy crush, and watching Old Xu futilely try to save him from the so-called darkness.
Jiang Cheng didn't cry for long by the lakeside that day. When he finished burning the paper and looked again, Jiang Cheng was already gone.
But there didn't seem to be anything unusual when they ran into each other at school. He was still just as prickly, listening in class lying face down or with eyes closed, occasionally taking some notes with eyes half-open.
The two of them didn't interfere with each other during class, nothing much to say.
Just that every time Gu Fei thought back to his performance by the lake, he kept worrying he might burst out laughing.
"Da Fei," Zhou Jing leaned on their desk, "Da Fei? Da..."
Jiang Cheng impatiently whacked him over the head with the book in his hand, lowering his voice, "Spit it out if you've got something to say! Have you never been beaten up for this?"
"Fuck!" Zhou Jing clutched his head and glared at him, then looked to Gu Fei again, "Da Fei, I heard Old Xu mention earlier when I was in his office, seems like the school is organizing a spring basketball tournament next month."
"Don't know," Gu Fei said.
"You should join! Our class is counting on you, we'll definitely lose if you don't join." Zhou Jing said.
"Don't bother me," Gu Fei waved him away.
Zhou Jing turned and slumped back at his own desk.
Jiang Cheng was suddenly a bit stunned - next month? The spring basketball tournament?
Was March considered spring?
Thinking of the basketball tournament, he was hit with a wave of emotions.
Whenever he recalled his days playing basketball at school, it would bring up other unhappy memories, yet he just couldn't stop pondering those exhilarating memories of running around on the court.
Compared to now, those memories were all bright.