Chapter 8: Something like Guilt
Translated by Fefe of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Then I won’t be able to bear it.
His sentence was light, but it made Tang Heng burn up like alcohol being sprinkled over fire. He flattened his lips and stayed silent for a moment. Then, gathering his courage, Tang Heng asked, “Really?”
If he really couldn’t bear it, then they… Tang Heng’s disorganized thoughts wondered that, if he really couldn’t bear it, then could they have any other possibility after the nine days? No, this wasn’t right. Li Yuechi hated the Tang family. Back then, he’d personally stabbed Tang Heng’s uncle and ruined his own life. How could they have any other possibility? But, but what if—
“What are you thinking about?” Li Yuechi smirked and said lightly, “I’ve already been released for two years. If I really couldn’t bear it, then I would’ve gone looking for you long ago.”
That made sense.
Tang Heng’s body stiffened. That instant felt like… Like what? When he’d traveled in Finland, he’d saw the local shepherds put out bonfires. They’d scooped up basins of freezing water from the river and thrown them over the flames. The fire would be extinguished in a whoosh.
“Don’t worry. I won’t be clingy,” Li Yuechi promised, having an earnest expression for once. “You’ll go back to Macao as soon as the work is done, right? For people like me with criminal records, we probably can’t even get the Hong Kong and Macau Pass. How could I cling to you?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Tang Heng said.
But Li Yuechi just patted his shoulder. “It’s okay.”
But if that was the case, why did he want to be together—for nine days?
Li Yuechi turned and walked forward. Tang Heng had no choice but to follow. Chickens continued to cluck every now and then in the distance, but other than that, the mountain path was quiet and empty. It was like they were the only two left in the world.
“The water pump is up ahead,” Li Yuechi said. “They built it last year. Now, all the households have running water.”
“You didn’t have running water before this?”
“We use well water. The aid group installed water pipes when they came to repair the roads last year, so now we have running water.”
“Oh… That’s good.” Tang Heng was a bit dazed. He tried hard to understand Li Yuechi’s words. The village only got running water last year. Then what about before? A few seconds later, he realized that he couldn’t imagine it at all.
“You didn’t talk about this before,” Tang Heng murmured.
“Six years ago.”
“Oh.” Li Yuechi’s tone was calm. “I was young back then. Self-conscious.”
But he could say it now, easily and without holding back, as if he was describing someone else’s life. He was no longer self-conscious. Or maybe, he no longer cared at all about what had happened six years ago?
Voice taut, Tang Heng asked, “Is your family on the list?” Time was limited, so they picked the households to interview by random.
“Can I visit?”
“Teacher Tang.” Li Yuechi finally turned around and looked at him with a half-smile again. “Do you think it’s suitable for you to go to my house with our current relationship?”
His gaze brushed across Tang Heng’s cheek, almost tangible, like a hint or a wish. That impulsiveness was back again. Tang Heng really wanted to grab onto him, fearing that he’d disappear like a gust of wind. But if he grabbed him, what then? “That’s not what I meant,” Tang Heng said in panic. “I just… I’m just looking around.”
“My house is kinda far from here,” Li Yuechi said, looking away. “It’s nothing special either. The run-down houses were repaired these recent years. They all look the same now.”
Tang Heng gazed at a two-story house in the middle of the distant mountains. “Really?” It was a wooden house, facing the sun. Sunlight basked down entirely, washing it in a layer of golden honey.
Li Yuechi looked over too and nodded softly. “Yeah—but my house is a one-story brick house.”
Tang Heng thought, most of the houses along the way were wooden. After all, there were trees all over the mountain. Building a wooden house was both cheap and convenient. Since Li Yuechi’s family could have a brick house, then they must be well off.
He felt much better inside, for some reason. “You usually live in the city, but your mom and dad still live in the village?” he asked. Remembering that he had a little brother, he added, “Your brother should be in university soon, right?”
“My dad passed. My mom lives here alone.”
“It’s alright. He passed away years ago.” Li Yuechi smiled and said casually, “My little brother is in a high school in Tongren City. He’ll be taking the college entrance exam next year.”
“If he’s going to school in the city, he must have good grades, right?” He was Li Yuechi’s brother, after all. He wouldn’t be too dumb.
Then he must be great, Tang Heng thought.
It seemed that Li Yuechi’s life was pretty good. He’d gone to jail before, but he had a small business now and the income seemed considerable. His family built a brick house and his little brother was studying in the city with good grades. Thinking of this, Tang Heng let out a sigh. The ineffable emotions piled up in his chest lessened a little.
He couldn’t describe that emotion—something like guilt—what was it exactly?
It was Li Yuechi who’d lied to him. It was Li Yuechi who’d stabbed his uncle. It was Li Yuechi who’d said he hated him.
What was there for Tang Heng to feel guilty about? But they’d been in the most intimate relationship before. He knew what kind of person Li Yuechi was: took the exam in the mountains at age 17 and got accepted to Wuhan, studied in the public education major to save money, saved up all his money those four years to break the contract, get exempted from the exam as the #1 student of his grade, get accepted as a master’s student of a different major and become his uncle’s student… Tang Heng had seen many smart and hardworking people after, but only Li Yuechi was smart, hardworking, and utterly mesmerizing.
If this kind of person had too horrible of a life… Tang Heng thought, if his life was too horrible or lowly, who wouldn’t feel guilty or spiteful in their behalf? Let alone the fact that he’d love him before.
Li Yuechi led Tang Heng through the dam group, going and stopping every now and then. They climbed a few hills, visited the water pump, commune, and tiered fields. Soon, it was 1 PM. The sun shone straight down; the sky was a pure blue. The few households they passed by all enthusiastically called them in to eat lunch. Tang Heng got a call from Sun Jihao. “Shidi, where you at?”
“Still at the dam group.”
“Oh, we’re back at the village council. How’s your progress?”
“The students say they have one more household.”
“Okay, okay. Then we’ll wait for you guys to eat! We can go back after we eat!”
Tang Heng hung up and messaged the students. They said they could finish in about ten minutes.
“And then you’ll go back to the hotel?” Li Yuechi asked.
“Yeah, after eating.”
Li Yuechi nodded and didn’t speak. The two sat down beside the well at the foot of the mountain. There was a house around ten meters away on the hill—also wooden, with a small garden across from it. There were a few orange trees on the side. A cow was tied to the trunk and eating grass with its head down.
Tired, Tang Heng closed his eyes. It wasn’t long before he whiffed the fragrance of peppers in oil. He remembered that summer between his third and fourth year of university. Li Yuechi had graduated from his bachelor’s at that time, but he couldn’t move into his dorm as a master’s student yet. He could only rent an apartment by the East Lake. It was a very small and rundown building, reeking of an eternal moldy smell. The first time Tang Heng visited, he’d frowned the entire time he was in there, wondering how Li Yuechi could bear it. The second time, he’d bought fragrance diffuser from the Yintai Creative City. The third time, Li Yuechi had squatted in the corner to cook. Tang Heng had watched as he chopped up the blazing red peppers, piled on the cheap ham, and sprinkled some Sichuan peppercorn. Then he’d plugged it in, heated the pan, poured the oil, waited until the oil was hot and poured it onto the noodles—the hot, choking spiciness exploded with a whoosh, filling the room. At that time, Tang Heng had thought that it worked much better than the diffusers.
The fourth visit, he’d kissed Li Yuechi. Both had been so immersed that they’d almost knocked over the jar of peppercorn on the table.
“Tang Heng, is that your student?”
Tang Heng’s eyes flew open and saw two girls waving at him in the distance. He got up and messaged one of them. “Go find the driver. We’re eating at the village council.”
So the two girls skipped away. Tang Heng shook himself out of his thoughts before he dared to look toward Li Yuechi. “Let’s go back too.”
“You can go. I’ll eat at home.”
Tang Heng stopped. “Then, will you come back to the city with us?”
“I’ll go back tomorrow.” Li Yuechi paused. “You’re not allowed to drink alcohol, got it?”
“Because I don’t like it. Also, you’re not allowed to drink either.”
“If you do it,” Li Yuechi whispered, “we’ll get to the next step tomorrow.”
When Tang Heng returned to the village council, Sun Jihao, the mayor and party secretary were already waiting for him at the dining table. He and Sun Jihao still sat in the host seats. The utensils were all set up, with a small cup of baijiu before everyone.
“I don’t drink,” Tang Heng said.
“Teacher Tang, just drink a little to relieve your fatigue.” The mayor looked earnest. “It must’ve been hard work today, right? The roads are a challenge here.”
“Your village’s roads aren’t bad.” Sun Jihao lifted his cup and took a sip. “All the groups are connected by roads, every house is sturdy. Everything is up to standard.”
The mayor chuckled. “All thanks to the policies. Macao even gave us a budget just for constructing transportation… Sun-laoshi, Teacher Tang, cheers. It must be so tiring to come all the way here.”
“Everyone’s worked hard. You all have to host us too. It must be quite tiring, right?” Sun Jihao raised his cup to the mayor’s.
“Teacher Tang, you…”
“Shidi, just drink a little. Work’s over!” Sun Jihao said, half-jokingly. “You don’t have to worry about the rules right now.”
“Yes, Teacher Tang. We brewed this wine ourselves. It’s not very alcoholic.”
Tang Heng was silent for a few seconds, but he still shook his head. “I get carsick more easily if I drink. I’ll pass.”
After 4 PM, the group returned to Shijiang. The students were exhausted and rushed to their rooms as soon as they got to the hotel. Sun Jihao yelled after them, “Remember to eat dinner at the restaurant! There’ll be nothing left after eight!” Then he stretched and said, a bit helplessly, to Tang Heng, “These kids aren’t even as fit as me! It was pretty successful today though. Banxi did quite well. Nothing went wrong.”
“Did something go wrong last year?” Tang Heng asked.
“Oh, it’s a long story.” Sun Jihao patted Tang Heng’s shoulder and handed him a bottle of milk. “Try it, specialty water buffalo milk. You’re tired too, right? Lu Yue and I’ll organize the data. You can rest.”
Tang Heng returned to his room and messaged Li Yuechi: I’m back at the hotel.
He took a shower and waited for 20 minutes, but the other still hadn’t replied.
Tang Heng put his phone on the nightstand and hesitated. In the end, he set it to silent but kept the vibrations.
He slept like a rock, maybe because he really was tired, and didn’t even dream. The next time Tang Heng opened his eyes, it was pitch black outside the window. The room was dark too, with only the dots of green light from the air conditioning.
It took a few seconds for Tang Heng to remember where he was.
He didn’t get woken up by his phone buzzing? Grabbing his phone, he pressed down. Unresponsive. He realized it had died.
Tang Heng started charging the phone and turned it on. It was 9:32 PM. He’d slept for almost five hours in a row and successfully missed dinner.
His phone started buzzing without a stop as messages popped up one after another.
After five PM, Director Xu said in the group chat: Everyone worked hard. Eat more for dinner!
After seven, Sun Jihao asked: Shidi, you eating? Twenty minutes later, he sent another message: Alright, there’s nothing left to eat…
At 8:27, Li Yuechi replied to his message. It was only one word: Okay.
Tang Heng clutched his phone. He wasn’t hungry—not only that, he felt sick and dizzy. Maybe he’d slept for too long.
Just as he was about to open the windows for some fresh air, his phone buzzed again.
Zita: Good evening, Teacher Tang… I’m Lu Meining, year four sociology student. I did research with Sun-laoshi in Banxi Village today… Are you free right now?
Tang Heng: What’s wrong?
Zita: Can you come out for a sec? I’m on the fourth-floor balcony.
Tang Heng: Wait a moment.
Zita: Please come alone. Don’t tell anyone.
There was a sightseeing terrace on the hotel’s fourth floor. Tang Heng pushed the door open and saw two students sitting there. The girl was on the phone, speaking in rapid fire Cantonese; the boy sat on the side with knitted brows.
It’s them, Tang Heng thought. The boy was the one who’d begged Sun Jihao in the morning to put him in the same group as Ah-Ning. It turned out that Ah-Ning’s full name was Lu Meining.
“Teacher Tang.” Ah-Ning hung up the phone and chewed on her lip.
Tang Heng sat down across from them. “What’s wrong?”
“I… We have a problem…” she mumbled. “This…”
“Oh, I’ll say it.” The boy patted the back of Ah-Ning’s hand and said in a low voice, “We aren’t really sure, so we have to ask you.”
“It’s just, when we were visiting today… A granny said the village sent some people away before we came. One got hurt while working and lost his leg, one blind person, one drug addict, and one with mental disabilities. We told this to Sun-laoshi and he said he verified with the mayor. That granny was speaking nonsense… But we feel like, that granny, it didn’t sound like nonsense.”
“We recorded what she said too…” Ah-Ning handed Tang Heng and earbud and whispered, “Can you listen?”
Tang Heng put in the earbud and said calmly, “You can play it.” He was surprised but not actually surprised. He’d heard Director Xu mention similar things before. The village leaders didn’t want them to see certain people—the disabled, sickly, and other vulnerable groups. But actually, they were mostly here to observe their facilities and average income. Vulnerable groups weren’t even on the list.
But the village leaders didn’t understand this. They just wanted to hide the “bad” parts.
The old woman’s voice streamed through the earbud. She spoke in the local dialect. “Work, yeah, broke his leg. He just stays home… And that Gong girl, can’t see… Ah, the second son of the Li family. The Li’s have it bad. The big one, he went to jail. The little one, a retard…”