According to his mother's words... Jiang Cheng suddenly felt that this title sounded a bit strange, his train of thought was somewhat weirdly interrupted, and he temporarily forgot what his mother had said.
In his decade and a half of life, his parents and family had always been his one and only, no matter how good or bad the relationship was. His mother was just that woman called Shen Yiqing, his father was that man called Jiang Wei, and he had twin younger brothers... But now there was suddenly another set, Li Baoguo and...several names he had already forgotten.
It was really hard to wrap his head around.
His relationship with his family was indeed very tense. No matter whether it was his parents or brothers, they would snap at the slightest irritation, and any spark could lead to an explosion. He and his brothers had barely spoken for almost a year, and even his usually calm and restrained mother had lost her composure before.
But even as this state persisted from when he started middle school all the way to high school, even as he often thought about not wanting to go home anymore, not wanting to see his parents anymore, let alone see those two identical faces again... When this moment that seemed like a dream come true appeared before his eyes, he still felt completely empty.
From when his mother said "there's something I need to tell you", to the months of estrangement and paperwork, up until now, everything felt like an incomprehensible dream.
Most of the time he didn't feel too upset or too much pain.
All he felt was emptiness.
"Cold?" Li Baoguo looked back and asked, coughing a few times, "It's colder here than your previous place, right?"
"Yeah." Jiang Cheng responded vaguely through his face mask.
"It'll be warm once we're inside," Li Baoguo said, his loud cough spraying Jiang Cheng's face with spittle, "I cleaned up a room just for you."
"Thank you." Jiang Cheng replied, adjusting his face mask.
"No need to thank me," Li Baoguo said with a laugh, patting Jiang Cheng's back twice between coughs, "No need to say thanks between us father and son!"
Jiang Cheng was unable to respond. Those two pats were quite forceful, and he had already sucked in some cold air and wanted to cough. Hearing Li Baoguo cough made him want to cough even more. After two more hits on his back, he bent over and broke out in a fit of coughing, nearly coughing out tears.
"You're not very healthy, are you?" Li Baoguo looked at him, "You need to exercise. I was strong as a bear at your age."
Jiang Cheng didn't speak, just bent over with his arm outstretched, giving him a thumbs up.
Li Baoguo laughed happily: "Exercise! I'll have to rely on you to take care of me in the future!"
Jiang Cheng glanced at him.
"Let's go." Li Baoguo patted him again.
"Don't touch me." Jiang Cheng frowned slightly.
"Oh?" Li Baoguo was taken aback, eyes wide as he stared at Jiang Cheng, "What's wrong?"
Jiang Cheng held his gaze for a while before lowering his mask. "Don't pat my back."
Li Baoguo's home was on an old, small street. On both sides were shabby but lively shops selling food, clothing, and daily necessities. Above the shops were low-rise houses.
Jiang Cheng looked up past the mess of crisscrossing wires and surveyed the area. The exterior walls were so discolored that he couldn't tell what their original color was, whether due to the fading daylight or just how they already were.
With indescribable feelings, he followed Li Baoguo into a corridor, passing piles of miscellaneous items and vegetables, until they reached the innermost door on the first floor.
"The conditions definitely can't compare to your previous place," Li Baoguo said while unlocking the door, "But what's mine is yours!"
Jiang Cheng didn't respond. He stared at a lightbulb wrapped in spiderwebs in the corridor, looking like it was about to suffocate.
"What's mine is yours!" Li Baoguo opened the door and heavily patted Jiang Cheng's shoulders twice before turning back, "What's yours is mine! That's how it is between father and son!"
"I said don't touch me." Jiang Cheng said irritably.
"Oh?" Li Baoguo entered the house and turned on the lights, "You've been spoiled, talking to your elders like that. Let me tell you, I never spoiled your older siblings like this. If you had grown up at home, I would've beaten you into shape long ago... Come on, you can sleep in this room...this used to be your brother's room..."
Jiang Cheng stopped listening to whatever else Li Baoguo was saying. He dragged his suitcase into the inner room. This apartment had two bedrooms, he didn't know how the large family had lived here before.
The cleaned up room...didn't seem to have been cleaned up at all. He could tell just by smell, without even using his eyes. The scent of dust mingled with a faint musty odor.
An old wardrobe, a desk, a loft bed. The upper berth was piled with clutter, but the lower berth had been cleared out with new bedsheets and blankets.
"Just leave your things for now, tidy up tomorrow," Li Baoguo said, "Let's have a few drinks first, father and son."
"Drink what?" Jiang Cheng was puzzled, glancing at his phone. It was almost 10 pm.
"Alcohol, of course," Li Baoguo looked at him, "We haven't seen each other in over a decade, how can we not drink a little to celebrate!"
"...No thanks," Jiang Cheng said somewhat speechlessly, "I don't want to drink."
"Don't want to drink?" Li Baoguo's eyes widened in surprise, staring at him for two seconds before laughing, "You can't have never drank before...you're in high school already..."
"I don't want to drink," Jiang Cheng interrupted him, "I want to sleep."
"Sleep?" Li Baoguo froze for quite a while before waving a hand and turning away, saying hoarsely, "Fine, fine, sleep, sleep."
Jiang Cheng closed the bedroom door. He stood in the room for almost five minutes before going over to open the wardrobe.
As soon as he opened the door, the overpowering smell of camphor balls assaulted him. Half of the double wardrobe was packed full - quilts, blankets, old cotton jackets, towels with tattered edges.
It was hard to describe what he was feeling. Jiang Cheng was certain he didn't miss home or his family yet, but he truly desperately missed his own room.
He took out some clothes from his suitcase and hung them in the wardrobe, leaving everything else packed away underneath. He then sprayed the inside of the wardrobe with perfume over ten times before closing the door and sitting on the edge of the bed.
His phone rang. He picked it up to see the caller ID display "Mom" and answered the call.
"Reached yet?" His mother's voice came through.
"Yeah." Jiang Cheng responded.
"The conditions won't be like at home," his mother said, "It might take some getting used to."
"No need." Jiang Cheng said.
His mother paused. "Xiao Cheng*, I still hope that you won't feel..."
*T/N: Xiao means 'little', and is a more affectionate way of referring to someone.
"I don't feel anything." Jiang Cheng interjected.
"We didn't mistreat you these past 10-odd years, your father and I never let you know you were adopted, right?" His mother's voice grew severe.
"But I know now," Jiang Cheng said, "And I've also been kicked out."
"Don't you forget, your father was hospitalized right at New Year's because of you! He still hasn't been discharged!" His mother raised her voice.
Jiang Cheng didn't speak. He couldn't understand what his dad being hospitalized for pneumonia had anything to do with him.
He strangely didn't even hear clearly whatever else his mother said after. This was one of his skills - things he didn't want to hear could truly not enter his brain.
His mother's harsh, hollow rebukes and communication methods that he deemed completely useless were the fuse to his breakdown.
He didn't want to listen, didn't want to argue in this unfamiliar environment that made his whole body uncomfortable.
By the time the call ended, he couldn't recall what had been said, what his mother had said, what he had said, he didn't remember any of it.
Wanting to take a shower, Jiang Cheng got up and opened the door, peeking into the living room. Nobody was there.
He cleared his throat and coughed a few times. Still no response.
"Are...you here?" He walked into the living room, really not knowing how to address Li Baoguo.
The small apartment allowed a clear view of all the bedroom, kitchen, bathroom doors from the living room. Li Baoguo wasn't inside.
He must've gone out to gamble, the type who would play a few rounds even just stepping out for a minute.
"Come on - let's play cards - there's plenty of time anyway," Jiang Cheng sang a line, pushing open the door to the bathroom, "Come on - take a bath - well..."
There was no water heater in the bathroom.
"Well..." he continued singing, turning his head to glance at the kitchen connected to the bathroom, still not seeing a water heater there either. He only saw an electric heater attached to the faucet. "Well..."
Unable to continue singing, after circling the room twice to confirm that there was indeed no water heater, he felt a sense of frustration and gave the faucet a smack, muttering a curse.
After wandering outside all day, he couldn't sleep without a bath. In the end, he had to drag out his suitcase from the room, pull out a collapsible bucket, and carry water bucket by bucket into the bathroom while wearing his underwear. He went in and out, half wiping and half washing, until he finally managed to take a bath.
As he walked out of the bathroom, a cockroach scurried past his feet. He jumped and almost bumped into the door.
Back in the room, ready to force himself to sleep, Jiang Cheng finally noticed there were no curtains in the room. He hadn't seen the outside view because the windows were too dirty.
He pulled the blanket over himself, hesitated for a moment, then sniffed the blanket before finally relaxing, relieved that it was clean. Even sighing seemed too much effort at this point.
He closed his eyes for about half an hour, they were sore from being shut for so long, but sleep was elusive. Just as he was about to sit up and smoke a cigarette, his phone rang.
He picked it up and glanced at it, it was a message from Pan Zhi.
- Damn, you're gone? What's the situation now?
Jiang Cheng lit a cigarette, dialed Pan Zhi's number, and walked over to the window, trying to open it.
The window was covered in dust and rust. He struggled for a while, and even though Pan Zhi had answered the call by then, the window remained immovable.
"Cheng?" Pan Zhi's voice came in a hushed tone, like he was whispering.
"Damn it," Jiang Cheng's finger got pricked by something, he frowned and cursed, giving up on the idea of opening the window.
"What's going on with you?" Pan Zhi still whispered, "Today, I heard from Yu Xin that you left? Weren't you going to tell me when you were leaving? I bought a bunch of things to give you!"
"Just mail them to me," Jiang Cheng put on his coat, cigarette in hand, and walked to the living room. He opened the door, ready to go out, but then he remembered he didn't have his keys. He had to retreat back inside and opened the living room window.
His frustration felt like a storm brewing inside him, a mere penny away from turning into a furious battle song.
"Have you arrived?" Pan Zhi asked.
"Yeah," Jiang Cheng leaned against the windowsill, looking at the pitch-black street outside.
"How's it going? What about your biological father?" Pan Zhi inquired again.
"Do you need something?" Jiang Cheng said, "I don't feel like talking right now."
"Damn, it's not like I sent you over there. What's with your attitude? When your mother said it 'needs the consent of the adoptee', you didn't hesitate at all back then. Now you're unhappy!" Pan Zhi clicked his tongue.
"Not hesitating and being unhappy aren't mutually exclusive," Jiang Cheng blew out a puff of smoke.
Suddenly, a slender figure shot out onto the empty street, riding a skateboard at an astonishing speed.
Jiang Cheng blinked, remembering the girl named Gu Miao he had encountered earlier. There were quite a few skateboarders in this rundown city.
"Should I come over?" Pan Zhi suddenly suggested.
"Huh?" Jiang Cheng didn't catch on immediately.
"I mean, should I come over to see you?" Pan Zhi clarified, "It's not time for school to start yet. I can bring the things I bought for you."
"No," Jiang Cheng replied.
"Don't be stubborn. You haven't told anyone about this. Right now, I'm the only one who can offer you some warmth," Pan Zhi sighed, "Let me come and comfort you."
"How are you going to comfort me?" Jiang Cheng said, "Give me a kiss?"
"Damn it, Jiang Cheng, can you have some dignity!" Pan Zhi shouted.
"If you're so eager to come, I might as well cooperate with you," Jiang Cheng paced around the room with the cigarette, finally finding a jar of Eight-Treasure Porridge covered in cigarette ash. He opened it, but the lingering smell of old smoke almost made him gag before he could see the contents clearly.
He threw his cigarette butt inside and closed the lid. At this moment, he felt like he would never want to smoke again for the rest of his life.
The unfamiliar and annoying environment, the unfamiliar and annoying "relative".
Jiang Cheng had thought he wouldn't be able to sleep under these circumstances, but upon lying down, the previous agony of insomnia vanished. He was surprised to find that he was sleepy, not just sleepy, but the kind of sleepy fatigue after pulling consecutive all-nighters cramming for exams.
It was sudden.
After closing his eyes, it was as if he had lost consciousness and fallen asleep.
He didn't even dream all night.
The first feeling upon waking in the morning was soreness all over. Getting out of bed, Jiang Cheng had the illusion that his true identity was actually a dock worker who moved heavy packages, the kind who hadn't worked a full week yet.
He picked up his phone to check the time. Still rather early, just past 8 am.
After getting dressed and leaving the room, everything in the house remained exactly as it was last night. Even the empty bed in the other bedroom.
Li Baoguo hadn't come back all night?
Jiang Cheng frowned. After washing up, he felt a little bad about his attitude yesterday. Li Baoguo suggesting they drink together didn't have any malintent either, just that they had different habits. Yet Jiang Cheng had bluntly rejected him. Could Li Baoguo have not come back all night because of this?
He hesitated, then took out his phone to call Li Baoguo. Having a meal together in the morning even if they didn't drink together last night shouldn't be a problem.
Just as he was dialing, the sound of keys came from outside, followed by the door lock rattling for a good twenty seconds before the door opened.
Li Baoguo walked in bringing a gust of cold air. His complexion was dark and his expression weary.
"You're up?" Li Baoguo called out loudly when he saw him, "You got up pretty early huh, slept well?"
"...It was fine." Jiang Cheng answered as the pungent smell of smoke assailed his nose, mixed with some inexplicable foul odors, like what could be smelled on those old green or red trains.
"Had breakfast yet?" Li Baoguo took off his coat and shook it. The smell grew stronger, saturating the not very large living room.
"No," Jiang Cheng said, "Why don't we..."
"There are breakfast stalls outside, lots of them. Go eat," Li Baoguo said, "I'm dead tired, gonna sleep first. Go eat on your own if I'm not up by lunch."
Jiang Cheng watched as he went into the other bedroom, not even taking anything off before collapsing onto the bed and pulling the covers over himself. He asked somewhat speechlessly: "Where...were you last night?"
"Gambling. Been on a losing streak lately, wasn't too bad last night! You brought me some good luck, kid!" Li Baoguo said brightly in his hoarse voice before closing his eyes.
Jiang Cheng took Li Baoguo's keys that were left on the table and went out the door. He felt irritated thinking about how he had felt a little apologetic earlier.
The snow had stopped and the air held a piercing chill.
The small street was livelier during the day compared to at night, with people and vehicles about. There were also the sounds of firecrackers, but in the morning light, the shabbiness that could be hidden under the cover of darkness was now in full view.
Jiang Cheng wandered back and forth on the street twice, finally entering a steamed bun shop. He ate a few buns and had a bowl of tofu pudding. The soreness in his body didn't ease; instead, it felt even worse, as if he had woken up from something and was feeling more uncomfortable.
He probably was coming down with a cold. After finishing his breakfast, he went to the nearby small pharmacy and bought a box of medicine.
After buying the medicine, he stood by the roadside feeling a bit lost. Should he go back?
The image of Li Baoguo, who had fallen asleep wrapped in a strange smell, irritated him. He didn't even know what he would do if he went back.
Sleep or just idle around?
He stood at the pharmacy entrance for a few minutes, deciding to take a walk around the area, getting familiar with this place where he didn't know how long he would stay.
Jiang Cheng wandered up and down the small street aimlessly before turning onto the main road and making another turn into a small street parallel to the previous one. He wanted to see if there was a way to loop back from here.
On this small street he saw a tiny music store and an ice cream shop decorated in a very pink style, but apart from these two stores, the other stores were no different from those on the previous street.
When he walked past a grocery store dressed up like a small supermarket, he stopped and went inside, planning to buy a bottle of water to take his medicine first.
As soon as the warm air smelling of lemon hit him when he entered the store, he stopped at the entrance, and wanted to turn around and leave.
In the small space in front of the checkout counter were squeezed four people, each with a chair, either sitting or leaning.
As soon as he came in, the several people who had been chatting stopped and turned around together to stare at him.
Jiang Cheng looked at these four people, from their looks to their expressions, from their clothing to their temperament, and each person's face seemed to spell a word.
Not, a, good, person.
While hesitating whether to turn around and leave or just go to the shelf next to him and grab a water, Jiang Cheng caught sight of three more people squeezed in front of the shelves in his peripheral vision.
He turned his head. Before he could see the person clearly, he first saw a pile of broken hair on the ground and a bald head, then a pair of big eyes.