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As night fell, it began to rain outside. Raindrops drummed on the metal roof of the balcony.
His sixteen-year-old brother Leyao was still watching TV in the living room. When Zhou Luoyang opened the door to come in, he subconsciously turned around to glance at the clock on the wall.
“Back so early?” Leyao asked, sounding hopeful. “How was it?”
“Alright.” Zhou Luoyang didn’t tell his brother anything about the meeting; in the afternoon, he had simply said he was going out to discuss a business collaboration which, if successful, could help them to reopen their antique shop.
He walked forward, picked up his little brother from his wheelchair, and explained, “Things went smoothly. The other party said they would consider the offer.”
Leyao looked pointedly at the papers on the coffee table. “You didn’t even bring the reports I made for you.”
“It’s all in my brain,” Zhou Luoyang said, smiling, and carried his brother towards the bathroom.
The rented apartment had a very small bathroom, but fortunately there was at least an old, worn bathtub. Zhou Luoyang pulled open the shower curtain and laid down a layer of disposable plastic at the bottom of the tub.
“Are you going to wash by yourself tonight?”
Zhou Luoyang brought over a chair and sat on the other side of the shower curtain, waiting for his brother to finish bathing.
“Someone called today,” Leyao said from behind the curtain.
“What?” Zhou Luoyang began to feel anxious and wondered if it was the debt collectors.
“After I picked up, the line was silent,” Leyao said.
Zhou Luoyang hummed his approval. “Next time don’t answer, it’s probably just telemarketers.”
“The school emailed me asking if I need anything else.”
“I’ll respond to them tonight,” Zhou Luoyang replied.
Leyao coughed a few times after accidentally choking on some of the water. Zhou Luoyang then pulled open the shower curtain to help him wash his hair. The water streamed down his brother’s body, outlining his scrawny shoulders and arms and reflecting Zhou Luoyang’s face, with his knit brows and worried features.
Leyao was already sixteen years old, but because of his disability, he was smaller than others his age and pale from staying inside all day. He was 170 centimeters tall but weighed barely above 45 kilos.
The life of someone with paralysis was not convenient here, they way it was in other countries. Sometimes, Zhou Luoyang worried if it was the right decision to bring him back to continue his studies in their home country.
At the time, he had considered the fact that, compared to convenience of living, maybe it was more important for his brother to be around family, since they only had each other. More importantly, their financial situation was unforgiving. The inheritance left by their father wasn’t enough to pay for his brother’s tuition in a foreign country, and it would be hard for Zhou Luoyang to get by on his own.
“Were things unsuccessful?” Leyao suddenly asked.
“What?” Since seeing Du Jing again, Zhou Luoyang had been slightly absentminded, and as he met his brother’s eyes, he realized that all his thoughts and worries had been written on his face. He smiled and answered, “No, that’s not it.”
“Dad used to say that finding a business partner is like getting married; if it’s uncomfortable then don’t force yourself, because there are always other opportunities out there.”
Zhou Luoyang understood what Leyao was trying to say and explained, “It’s not because of the collaboration. I’m just afraid that school will be inconvenient for you. I’m used to you being by my side and it’ll be lonely with you over here.”
Leyao nodded. “The teachers are very kind and I can take care of myself. Besides, I’ll have to learn how to be independent someday.”
Zhou Luoyang didn’t answer. Taking off his shirt, he lifted up his brother and moved him to the chair, drying him off and helping him change into his sleep clothes.
“Don’t worry about the shop. Things will work out. Tomorrow I’ll be free. Let’s go do something fun. We haven’t even seen the city since we got back.”
Leyao nodded and used the edge of the bed to hoist himself up onto the mattress. Zhou Luoyang went into the bathroom to wash up.
The hot water flowed down the top of his head, collecting along the faint lines of the muscles on his shoulders and back and tracing the contours of his torso. The bathroom’s mirrors were covered with a thick layer of fog.
Zhou Luoyang wiped the mirrors and stared at his reflection, wet hair hanging in front of his eyes. He looked practically the same as he did five years ago. He thought back to his unexpected reunion with Du Jing.
“My name is Du Jing, like the eight inner gates: Xiu, Shang, Sheng, Du, Jing, Si, Jing, Kai,” Zhou Luoyang muttered to himself.
The rain outside the window continued to swell, just like it had the day he met Du Jing.
The rain poured hard that day. The strong winds threatened to topple the dormitory buildings. When Zhou Luoyang arrived alone in this strange, new city, he was soaked from head to toe.
He stumbled into his dorm room, carrying a flurry of wetness inside with him and was met with a tall figure that moved forward to help him close the door. The window frames that shook violently against the wind abruptly quieted as the door shut.
“I can’t close the windows,” the man said. “The draft keeps opening them.”
Zhou Luoyang exhaled. “This year’s hurricanes are unbelievable.”
“It’s my first time experiencing one,” the man said casually. “It’s been making noise all day.”
Zhou Luoyang leaned against the desk, looking disheveled and dripping water everywhere. As he and the man looked at each other, he caught sight of the deep scar across the bridge of his nose.
He would be handsome without the scar, Zhou Luoyang thought to himself.
Their eyes met and they nodded curtly at each other.
They would be spending the next few years with each other.
“Zhou Luoyang,” he introduced himself, “like from the poem: If friends from Luoyang ask of me, tell them my heart is pure and tranquil like ice in a jade vessel.”
“Du Jing,” the man introduced himself as well, “like the eight inner gates: Xiu, Shang, Sheng, Du, Jing, Si, Jing, Kai.”
Zhou Luoyang was shocked to hear his words and turned to look at Du Jing. He smiled. Du Jing did not respond, pulling out a chair to sit in front of his desk and putting in his earbuds, as if he didn’t exist.
What a quiet person indeed…Zhou Luoyang organized his things, facing away from Du Jing. After he took off his shirt, he couldn’t resist looking back at Du Jing, but Du Jing was focused on the book in front of him, his expression cold. His icy expression made his scar especially apparent.
Zhou Luoyang’s grandfather had a friend who was a professor at this school, whom Zhou Luoyang had called before his arrival. The professor’s graduate assistant had asked him if he had any specific preferences for his room and roommate. He had answered: someone well-tempered, quiet, and could mind their own business.
So his college assigned him to the Tingpu building, room 603. Later, Zhou Luoyang found out that this building had few student dormitories and mostly housed the faculty’s family members and others who had special needs or preferences.
In other words, Du Jing’s dorm had also been specially assigned through a personal connection at their school.
The Tingpu building was lovely and quiet, but this was too quiet. The room was filled with an air of lifelessness, and the only sound was the sound of the rain outside the window. It seemed his roommate enjoyed being alone.
By the time Zhou Luoyang had finished bathing and drying his hair, his brother was already sleeping in bed. He tucked him in under the covers and turned off the light.
Thinking back to the day he met Du Jing, the first thing he remembered was the scar on his face. The second was how quiet his roommate was.
It was really a shame. Zhou Luoyang believed that without his scar, Du Jing’s face and figure belonged on the cover of a magazine, both before and in the present.
Before he saw Du Jing again in that room today, Zhou Luoyang believed that he had disappeared from his life forever.
But why did he appear now? What had happened all these years?
Zhou Luoyang got yogurt from the fridge, sighed, and poked his straw inside, walking to his room. He laid down on the bed.
Their introduction was abrupt and so was their separation. Du Jing never even left his contact information. He knew that Du Jing was probably angry at him and angry at himself. It was a bout of anger that had stretched over three years.
For other people, time may be the solution to everything, but it was not so for Du Jing.
Did he get more sick?
Zhou Luoyang lay in the darkness, tossing and turning, Du Jing’s face lingering in his mind. He seemed taller than before, and thinner, too.
The first time they met, they acted like polite strangers. Before Zhou Luoyang even had the chance to get to know him better, a few days later, military training began.
Du Jing was studying automation and Zhou Luoyang was studying mechanical engineering, so the two weren’t in the same regiment. But Zhou Luoyang would sometimes see him on the other side of the track field. With his military uniform, he was the tallest in his group, the one standing in the very back row. During their break, Zhou Luoyang waved at him, blowing his whistle to get his attention. Du Jing looked in his direction but did not respond, merely gazing at him.
Zhou Luoyang noticed that Du Jing didn’t talk much with the others in his class; even during breaks, he sat alone, staring off into space.
“Do you want a coke?” Zhou Luoyang walked over, handing one to him.
Du Jing nodded indifferently, taking the bottle and studying it. He took out a box of cigarettes and held it out towards Zhou Luoyang.
“How did you know I smoke?” Zhou Luoyang was surprised.
“You smell like smoke,” Du Jing answered.
In the beginning, Zhou Luoyang thought that Du Jing never talked to him because he didn’t want to be friends, but during training, he realized that Du Jing acted even quieter and even more distant around other people. He concluded that it was just his nature, and his roommate’s coldness suddenly didn’t bother him anymore.
In contrast, Zhou Luoyang was able to make many friends because of his lively, open personality and he quickly grew close with his classmates.
But he was still quietly concerned for his roommate, since he knew they would be spending a long time together.
One day, after Zhou Luoyang’s class was released, he saw the automation class still sweating under the sun outside, but Du Jing was missing.
So he went to the dining hall to get tea and then visited Du Jing’s troop dormitory to talk to their supervisor.
“Are you his friend?” the supervisor asked.
“Roommate.” Zhou Luoyang suspected that Du Jing probably had heatstroke. “I’m here to see him.”
“Zhou Luoyang,” the supervisor said, “from room 603. I know who you are.”
Zhou Luoyang was a little confused. How did the supervisor from Du Jing’s class know him? Had he seen the list of room assignments? Or maybe the supervisor had noticed him when they were assigning the dorms?
But he kept his questions to himself. The supervisor gave him a room number and Zhou Luoyang knocked on the door. There was no response, so he pushed the door open and went inside.
It was a two-person room, and Du Jing was sitting on a mattress, almost entirely hidden in the shadows. He was taking medicine.
“Are you alright?” Zhou Luoyang asked.
Du Jing was very obviously surprised by his entrance, and there was an anxious look in his eyes. Zhou Luoyang asked, “Did you get a heat stroke? I saw you weren’t at training so I brought you some cooled tea.”
“Thank you.” Du Jing’s face smoothed out into his usual expression of calmness, and he put the pill box back in his pocket.
Zhou Luoyang was confused. Just now, he had seen the white pills inside the box and also noticed there were several compartments, one for each day.
Was he sick?
Zhou Luoyang looked around and sat down on the other bed. Trying to change the topic, he joked, “Your room is much nicer than ours. There are twelve of us sharing our room. I didn’t even know that there were two-person rooms.”
“That’s the supervisor’s bed.” Du Jing answered.
“Is it the heat?” Zhou Luoyang asked casually. “Are you feeling sick? Did you eat lunch?”
Du Jing nodded. Zhou Luoyang opened the thermos to pour him a cup of tea.
“It’s so bitter.” Du Jing wrinkled his eyebrows. Zhou Luoyang laughed.
The supervisor came in, too. “Aren’t you going out? Go take your friend for a walk.”
Du Jing collected his camo print cap and stood up, signaling for Zhou Luoyang to follow. After they left the dorms, they walked around to the back of the convenience store, towards the girls’ campsite. Zhou Luoyang had never been in this area. The two walked silently, one behind the other. When they entered a narrow alleyway, Du Jing suddenly said, “Do you want to go visit the class next door?”
“There were quite a few girls talking about you,” Du Jing said. “I’ll bring you over for them to see.”
“Don’t tease me,” Zhou Luoyang laughed. “How do you know?”
“I just heard it,” Du Jing said.
“You eavesdrop?” Zhou Luoyang said. “I didn’t think you were the type to gossip.”
“I only know you, so it caught my attention when I heard your name. Did you finish that pack of cigarettes? I’ll buy you a new one.”
Zhou Luoyang took out the box of cigarettes that Du Jing had bought him. “I haven’t opened it yet. You should take it.”
Du Jing waved it away, surprising Zhou Luoyang. “If you don’t smoke, then why did you buy these?”
“The packaging was pretty.” Du Jing looked away to the side. “So I just bought it.”
Zhou Luoyang had never heard this kind of excuse before.
Zhou Luoyang smoked in the alley in front of the convenience store. Sometimes other students would pass by, whistling at them, and Zhou Luoyang would smile and greet them. As they came and went, each person would look curiously at Du Jing, but Du Jing was always turned away, never facing them.
“Hey, there’s someone taking pictures of you,” Zhou Luoyang’s classmate nudged him, and he turned his head, smiling.
His hair was a mess, and he hid the cigarette by his side so no one would see. Du Jing looked around and then turned away immediately so no one could capture a picture of his face.
There was laughter at the other end of the alleyway, but when Zhou Luoyang finally tried to catch a glimpse, the person had already left.
“Was it a boy or girl?”
“Not sure. Probably taking pictures of Zhou Luoyang, right?”
“Probably taking pictures of you.” Zhou Luoyang had already gotten quite close with the boys in his class, and his tone was mockingly serious.
People started trying to grab at the coke bottle in his hand, so he passed it around to everyone. When the bottle returned to him, it was empty.
Du Jing walked away in silence. Zhou Luoyang threw the bottle away and followed after him.
“You should go back,” Du Jing said, turning around. He squinted against the sunlight, scrutinizing Zhou Luoyang.
“I’ll be bored anyway. I can keep you company?”
“I don’t need company,” Du Jing said.
Zhou Luoyang observed that no matter what he chose to talk about, Du Jing always swiftly killed the conversation. Maybe that was the real reason why Du Jing hadn’t made any friends.
“I don’t have your contact information.” Zhou Luoyang suddenly realized this and took out his phone. Maybe if they had each other’s WeChat, they could chat online and it wouldn’t be so bad? Lots of people who were quiet in person had a livelier online presence.
“I dropped my phone.” Du Jing fished out his phone to show Zhou Luoyang. The screen was completely shattered, as if the phone had been smashed with a hammer.
“What happened? How did you drop it?” Zhou Luoyang asked in disbelief.
“I wasn’t paying attention and it fell downstairs,” Du Jing answered. “Then, during assembly, someone stepped on it.”
Zhou Luoyang tried to turn the phone on multiple times without any success. “When training is over, let’s go buy you a new one together.”
Du Jing nodded. A whistle sounded in the distance, signaling for students to assemble. Zhou Luoyang motioned towards him and they jogged back to join their regiments.
Afterwards, Zhou Luoyang couldn’t resist sending a classmate to investigate with the automation students. The answers he received were exactly what he had imagined.
Du Jing was basically an outcast among his classmates. He never tried to talk to them, so no one wanted to initiate a conversation with him either.
“It’s probably because he’s self-conscious,” Zhou Luoyang’s classmate said. “His scar is pretty bad, and something in his eyes always feels off.”
“What do you mean?” Zhou Luoyang asked, his tone serious. “Nothing feels off to me.”
“I heard he had the highest math score on the college entrance exam at our school this year,” the classmate answered. “He got a full score.”
On the last day of military training, students from all majors gathered in the dining hall to have a drink together. At Zhou Luoyang’s table, everyone was joking and talking animatedly, when suddenly everyone stopped to look behind Zhou Luoyang.
Zhou Luoyang was the last to notice and turned to see Du Jing standing behind him with Zhou Luoyang’s thermos in hand.
“My roommate,” Zhou Luoyang introduced him to everyone. “Du Jing, do you want to eat together? Sit here.”
Zhou Luoyang had seen how Du Jing had trouble fitting in with the automation students and thought that maybe he would have an easier time talking to the mechanical engineering majors, who were more fun and outgoing.
“Here’s your bottle.” Du Jing handed the thermos to Zhou Luoyang. He pulled down the brim of his cap and left.
“Why don’t you switch dorms?” one of his closer friends said in a low voice. “This guy is way too gloomy and somber. It’s four whole years. Who knows, what if you two have an argument and something happens…”
Zhou Luoyang promptly ended any speculations that his roommate was a potential sociopath.
And for some reason he couldn’t explain—maybe it was some natural instinct—he had never perceived any darkness in Du Jing’s gaze. It wasn’t vengeance in his eyes, but rather loneliness.
It was a very deep kind of loneliness—loneliness that admitted his defeat to the rest of the world.
When he was a high schooler, Zhou Luoyang had enjoyed studying animals, so for a while, he worked at the zoo as a summer job. Du Jing’s eyes somehow reminded him of the animals there—locked in cages to be scrutinized for the pleasure of humans.
As time passed, he slowly came to understand that Du Jing just didn’t want to hurt anyone.
Five years later in his darkened room, Zhou Luoyang rolled onto his side and stopped moving.
As long as they were in the same city, if he tried hard enough, he could find him, Zhou Luoyang thought to himself and then drifted asleep in the lonely night.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Cat.