Chapter 12: Milk
Translated by Fefe of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The second village to visit was only a one-hour car ride away from the city. The road was much smoother too. Their SUV parked outside the newly-built basketball court. Beside that was the village’s library.
“Not bad.” Sun Jihao looked around. “The phone signal is strong here too.”
“I wonder what Shijie’s village is like.”
“It sucks for them.” Sun Jihao shook his head and showed Tang Heng his phone. “They’re still on the way. It’ll probably take more than two hours.”
The phone screen showed his chat history with Lu Yue. She had sent a picture of the blue river between the mountains and a message, Still long ways to go. Tang Heng saw that Sun Jihao had changed Lu Yue’s contact name to Boss and added a moon emoji at the end.
“We can get back earlier today, right?” Tang Heng asked. “I’ll upload the data with you tonight.”
“Should be fine. This village looks pretty good.” Sun Jihao patted Tang Heng’s shoulder and chuckled. “If you help me do it, I can bring your shijie to stroll around the city.”
As he said, the village’s condition was much better than Banxi Village. After making the rounds, Tang Heng saw that quite a few homes had cars parked in the yards. They finished at 3 PM and returned to the hotel.
“Shidi, take your time. We can’t change the data after we upload them, so be careful.” Sun Jihao got up and left after he spoke, seeming like he trusted Tang Heng fully.
Near evening, Tang Heng got a phone. The area code was the US.
“I got it arranged. A grad student from Guizhou University. They’ll get to you tomorrow morning.” When Jiang Ya’s voice streamed out of the phone, Tang Heng felt like he’d time traveled.
“Okay, got it.” Tang Heng paused. “Thanks.”
“Why’re you being so polite with me?”
“I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“Ha, it’s hard to hear you say stuff like this.” Jiang Ya laughed. “I didn’t spoil you for nothing.”
“But seriously, someone poisoned you?”
“Not poison, but I think it’s… sleeping pills.”
“Fuck, don’t scare me!”
“Don’t worry.” Tang Heng stared at the unfinished bottle of milk. “I can handle it.”
Jiang Ya was quiet on the other end of the phone. Tang Heng asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I was just thinking…” Jiang Ya laughed again. “If this was before, you’d already be beating that guy up, but now, you want to verify it first. You improved.”
“Was I really that violent before?”
“Yeah man. Do you still remember An Yun’s bass? You snapped it in half.”
“The silver one.”
“Tang Heng.” He suddenly lowered his voice, growing serious. “I’m going back to China next month. I’m gonna visit Hunan.”
“It’s almost the anniversary of Xiaoqin’s death. I want to visit her. If you have time… we can meet up?”
Tang Heng furrowed his brows. “We’ll see,” he said softly.
Jiang Ya chuckled. “Sure.”
It was so rare. Jiang Ya was actually willing to come back. In Tang Heng’s impression, he’d been abroad for six years and only came back once—and that was for a project in Hong Kong. He hadn’t come to the mainland at all. Tang Heng had thought that he’d never see Jiang Ya again—at least, not in China. As for An Yun, he’d lost contact even more directly. She should be in the US with Jiang Ya, but one was on the east coast and one on the west. They should still have opportunities to meet, but Jiang Ya said they really didn’t. He had no clue what An Yun was busy with.
The three of them had a group chat, but nobody said anything. No matter if it was the Dragonboat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, New Years, or Spring Festival, no one said anything. Not even a holiday greeting. Tang Heng knew it was an unsaid agreement. They couldn’t be friends anymore. No matter where they were or how much time had passed, they knew that the others were still alive in this world and that was enough. If not for the emergency this time, he wouldn’t have asked Jiang Ya for help either.
But Jiang Ya was coming back? Tang Heng stared at Li Yuechi’s profile picture on his screen, a little stunned. It was like they’d all made a deal. People and memories from the past flooded before his eyes, unsettling him.
Five-thirty the next motning, Tang Heng saw that grad student from Guizhou University at the hotel entrance. He’d driven here overnight and looked exhausted.
“Thanks for the hard work.” Tang Heng handed a black plastic bag to him. “It’s this thing… Please take a look when you get back.”
“You suspect the milk is drugged with sleeping pills?”
“I’m not sure it’s sleeping pills, but the effect causes one to sleep.”
“Got it. I’ll go back to school and test it now. The results will come out tonight by the quickest.”
“Thanks. Tell me as soon as the results are out. Also, keep this a secret.”
The boy went back to his car with the plastic bag. Soon, the car disappeared from Tang Heng’s sight. Dawn colored the sky now, a few slivers of sunlight peeking out of the distant horizon. Another clear day, Tang Heng thought. This was his fourth day in Shijiang. If everything went normally, he would be here for seven more days.
He ran into Manager Qi again on the way back to his room. The man was standing by the fountain and smoking alone. He was surprised when he saw Tang Heng. “Teacher Tang, you’re up so early!”
“Couldn’t sleep, so I took a walk.”
“Hey, you’re so young. How can you not sleep?” Manager Qi said with a laugh. “You really won’t be able to sleep at my age.”
“Really?” Tang Heng also smiled. “You can’t be much older than me, right?”
“Around the same as my shixiong.”
“I just feel like my energy dropped drastically as soon as I turned 35.”
“Your job is too tiring.”
“There’s no helping it. I need to make money.” Manager Qi extinguished his cigarette and chuckled helplessly. “Need to support my wife and kid.”
The third village was even further than Banxi Village and the mountain road twisted like intestines. This time, Tang Heng and the driver were the only two people in the car. Tang Heng swayed from the motion when they turned and he realized that the SUV was actually empty without Li Yuechi here. But Li Yuechi was so thin—he couldn’t explain why he felt this way.
“Is Xiao Li busy these days?” Tang Heng asked the driver casually.
“Heard he went to transport products to Chongqing.”
“I think he left yesterday?” The driver sounded envious. “Just think, officer. He went personally to send the products. He must’ve earned a lot this time.”
Tang Heng forced a laugh and didn’t answer. Was Li Yuechi this scared of him clinging onto him? He tried so hard to escape from Tang Heng that he even went out of town. It wasn’t necessary, actually. He wasn’t as reckless as before, wanting to get the people or things that he got his eyes on no matter what.
They didn’t finish their task until five PM. This village was just too remote. Most of the villagers had already moved away and they couldn’t find them, so they could only call each one to ask their situation. The mountain roads were also steep and they couldn’t drive in most places. It was all by foot. When they arrived at the hotel, it was already close to eight PM. The students were all exhausted and leaning on each other. Even Sun Jihao got carsick and threw up along the way. He looked wilted as he waved at Tang Heng, “Shidi, let’s upload the data tomorrow… I’m going to sleep…”
“Not eating dinner?”
“After I wake up… Oh, help me tell Lu Yue. She can video call Keke… I really don’t have the energy.” Keke was their daughter.
Tang Heng agreed and watched Sun Jihao enter his room.