Chapter 5: Who Died?
Translated by Fefe of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
President Huang laughed and said, “Oh! I didn’t expect—I didn’t expect that Teacher Tang is so close to our Xiao Li. This must be fate!”
Tang Heng nodded, but he didn’t smile. “Indeed.”
The waiters soon served the dishes. He didn’t know what Sun Jihao had said to them, but all the dishes were homely. The alcohol was just cans of Tsingtao beer as well. “Xiao Li, go drink to Teacher Tang,” President Huang started encouraging. “Haha, old classmates, right?” With that, he stood up as well and opened a can of beer. He strode towards Sun Jihao. “I’ll drink to Sun-laoshi too…”
Tang Heng froze and said, “No need—” But Li Yuechi had already come over with his beer and a polite smile on his face. His eyes were still unmoved. The feeling was neither warm nor cold, just a faint feeling of being distant. Tang Heng suddenly thought, Li Yuechi was a scholar from these mountains, a phoenix, and must’ve been well-known among the locals—but then he’d stabbed someone, gotten imprisoned. How many side-eyes and mockery had he suffered these past few years?
Tang Heng wanted impulsively to stand up for Li Yuechi, but to Li Yuechi, it was probably just a boring circus show.
When Li Yuechi arrived before him, Tang Heng finally realized that his hands were empty. He grabbed his can of beer, but the instant his finger hooked inside the pop tab, he heard Li Yuechi’s voice.
Li Yuechi murmured, “Teacher Tang, don’t drink.” A few minutes ago, he’d called him “xuedi” right?
“Beer isn’t too bad,” Tang Heng said.
Li Yuechi didn’t reply. He actually clinked his can against Tang Heng’s unopened one. Aluminum hit lightly against aluminum, emitting a dull sound.
Then Li Yuechi said in a voice that everyone else could hear, “I’ll drink, but xuedi can do as you please.” Then he tossed his head back and gulped down some mouthfuls of beer before leaving.
Until the end of the meal, Tang Heng still didn’t drink a drop of alcohol.
The others had all drunk happily. Sun Jihao was already tipsy by the time the group walked out of the restaurant. President Huang was even slurring. Tang Heng glanced toward Li Yuechi and saw that his expression looked normal. The next second, Li Yuechi stared back unabashedly. His black pupils were like a bottomless lake. Tang Heng felt like his own eyes were pebbles, tossed in without a sound.
“Sun-laoshi, Teacher Tang, your car has arrived…” President Huang burped. “The street is too narrow for it to drive in. Please follow me.”
The group put on an act to bid farewell. Tang Heng shook hands with President Huang, shook hands with Director Zheng, with Secretary Zhu, with Xiao Mo, and finally stood before Li Yuechi. He had his back to the street lamp, both arms hanging. Tang Heng squinted—the white light was like streaks of tears flowing down his arm, inch by inch, finally condensing into a drop at his fingertips—”Li Yuechi!” a bright feminine voice came from behind.
Tang Heng turned and saw a long-haired girl come over on a scooter. It was the one Li Yuechi had ridden last night. When she got closer, she got off and pushed the scooter over.
“Ah, you are…” She smiled at Tang Heng, seemingly shy.
“This is the official.”
Tang Heng and Li Yuechi exchanged looks. This time, Tang Heng finally saw some awkwardness in his eyes. The night wind blew over. The mountains were chilly in early April.
“Uh, sir… Hello, hello.” She listened to Li Yuechi and seemed panicked, hurriedly curling strands of stray hair behind her ears.
Tang Heng could only smile and say, “Hello.”
She had delicate features. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was well put-together. She dressed simply too—a pink plaid jacket, jeans, white canvas shoes.
She made Tang Heng think of the girls who waited for their boyfriends to finish class outside the classroom.
“Shidi, let’s go,” Sun Jihao said. “Manager Qi texted that their car is waiting up front.”
“Oh, okay,” Tang Heng answered. He turned and walked towards Sun Jihao. It was only when he got into the car that he realized he hadn’t said goodbye to Li Yuechi.
After returning to the hotel, Director Xu held a short meeting to assign tasks. Tomorrow, they would visit the nearby villages. Director Xu sipped his tea and tapped his finger on the table. “Tomorrow morning, eat breakfast! Eat more! The village’s nearby, but it’s a two-hour drive. It won’t be as nice as today… Also, let me say one last time—kids, no matter what you see or hear, don’t post it on social media! And especially not on foreign sites!”
“Our students have no clue how poor those villages are,” Sun Jihao whispered to Tang Heng. “We don’t want them to post random stuff. We signed an NDA, you know.”
Tang Heng nodded in understanding. He actually hadn’t gone to villages in poverty either. Before meeting Li Yuechi, he didn’t even have a clear image of “poverty.” He only knew that there were people in this vast country who went hungry, couldn’t afford warm clothes in the winter. After meeting Li Yuechi, he had a more concrete understanding about “poverty,” but as time passed, those memories grew blurry, so “poverty” reverted back to a sociology concept.
It was past ten when he returned to his room. A bunch of new messages had piled up in his Wechat. Tang Heng swept past them until he saw that dark blue profile picture. Li Yuechi lay quietly in his contact list, like a blurry invader.
Tang Heng clicked into his Moments. It wasn’t set to only show the last three days. Tang Heng realized that he actually let out a sigh of relief, but he also felt lucky. He clicked into each post, reading them one by one. Li Yuechi posted four to five times per month, on average. The content was all the same: Shijiang specialty beef jerky is here (original flavor, mala flavor), can be sold retail or wholesale, cheap but high quality, discount for large orders, message for more details… He scrolled to the end—last October—but it was all beef jerky. Tang Heng spaced out at the screen for a moment before returning to the chat box.
He stared at the empty chat. Would it be too fake to ask Li Yuechi for the cost of the beef jerky? He thought of that girl again. She had a pretty eye smile, making her seem both innocent and pure—Perhaps, everything he did not was just clownish to Li Yuechi.
But why did Li Yuechi play along? Maybe it was because they were old schoolmates, or maybe it was purely because Tang Heng was here for poverty alleviation. Yes, their evaluation would directly affect how much aid Macao gave them. He represented power right now, while Li Yuechi had nothing. He represented power, so Li Yuechi was called over to accompany him. He represented power, so Li Yuechi drank to him. He represented power, so after he impulsively said “xuezhang,” Li Yuechi had to reply with “xuedi” even if he wanted to throw up in disgust.
The screen flashed. Tang Heng thought it was a hallucination, but his eyes widened the next instant. There was a new word after “Li Yuechi” at the top: Typing…
Tang Heng’s heart skipped a beat. He almost dropped the phone.
Li Yuechi: I lied to you last night
Li Yuechi: I don’t have a girlfriend. She’s not my girlfriend
Feeling dazed, Tang Heng asked: Really?
Li Yuechi: Really
Tang Heng: Why are you saying this?
Li Yuechi: No reason
Tang Heng was speechless. He froze for half a minute and suddenly felt that he should find a reason to continue the conversation.
So he transferred 15.5-kuai over.
Li Yuechi: ?
Tang Heng: the motion sickness patches and water
Li Yuechi: No need
Tang Heng: Why?
Li Yuechi: Zhonghua
Tang Heng: Oh.
Then he asked: Do you remember the money you owe me?
Li Yuechi: What?
Tang Heng: 2012 May 7, you took 52.80 out of my pocket while I was sleeping.
Li Yuechi stopped replying.
He waited five minutes, but there was still no reply.
Tang Heng thought in frustration, why did he have to bring this up? After meeting Li Yuechi, he kept saying some stupid things, asking some stupid questions. So out of character.
Tang Heng set down his phone and turned on his laptop. He checked the homework for four groups and wrote a report for the morning’s observations. At 11:30, he turned off the laptop to get ready for bed. His phone screen did not light up; no new messages.
Tang Heng didn’t have the habit of checking his phone before sleeping. He just turned off the light and got into bed, while his phone was still on the table. He felt really dizzy—but he didn’t drink any alcohol.
While he was deep in his thoughts, his phone buzzed on the wooden table. It was abnormally clear in the deep night. Tang Heng shot up. For some reason, he felt that it was Li Yuechi’s message.
A voice note. Duration: two seconds.
His voice sent over by electric currents was a bit raspy, while also tinged with the fatigue after drinking alcohol. Li Yuechi’s low voice said, “Go sleep.”
The next morning was another clear day. Tang Heng walked out of the hotel restaurant with his backpack. It wasn’t time to gather yet, so noisy kids were everywhere. He wanted to find a quiet place to sit alone.
But before he could walk away, he saw Sun Jihao surrounded by a group of boys. Only the top of his head could be seen. Actually, if not for Sun Jihao’s clearly-enunciated Mandarin, Tang Heng probably couldn’t tell that it was him.
One boy called out, “Hao-ge! Can you put me in a group with Ah Ning? Please, please, please!”
“Hey, what’s up with you two?” Sun Jihao asked.
The other students chimed in, “Hao-ge, can’t you tell? Ah Ning just gave him sunblock! Gotta have them treat us to dinner when we go back to Macao!”
“Shut up…” the boy said with embarrassment.
“Yeah, yeah, be quiet.” Tang Heng couldn’t see Sun Jihao’s expression. He just heard him sigh. “Kids, I need to tell you something. Keep it to yourself and don’t tell anyone…”
The boys: “Huh?”
“Your Teacher Tang,” Sun Jihao said in a somber tone. “He had a girlfriend before, from Guizhou. But she passed away. Teacher Tang thinks of her whenever he comes to Guizhou and gets really sad… Try not to bring up dating and love in front of Teacher Tang, got it?”
“Oh my god!”
“Crap, I won’t bring it up! Got it!”
“No wonder Teacher Tang looks so depressed these days…”
Tang Heng: “…”
He decided to leave before they discovered him—get as far away as possible.
But as soon as he turned around, he was met with a pair of eyes.
Li Yuechi looked at him knowingly. Arms crossed, he mouthed to Tang Heng: