He Nuo tried to find a chance to speak to Shi yan for the past three afternoons, but he had always failed because of Shi Yan’s cold indifference towards him. He eventually understood that Shi Yan wasn’t going to pay attention to him anymore. He Nuo was extremely upset; Shi Yan had been a really good friend to him. Shi Yan treated him very well, albeit in a domineering manner, but instead of repaying this favour, he had actually deceived him. He Nuo knew that he was wrong, but he couldn’t pluck up the courage to go and look for Shi Yan everyday in his cla.s.s because ignoring him was one thing, but Shi Yan didn’t even bother listening to him.
The two who had no form of contact with each other both felt lost, but this sense of loss was drowned out by their busy schedules as third years. He Nuo no longer expected Shi Yan to forgive him, and wouldn’t go look for him. He would only look at him from afar sometimes during their morning exercise breaks. When they met each other up close the past two to three times, the look Shi Yan gave him was akin to the look he would give a stranger — his eyes swept right past He Nuo without a trace of emotion within them. And every time this happened, He Nuo would go home and take out his conch sh.e.l.l to take a look, then silently apologise to Shi Yan.
There were no night self-study sessions on Sat.u.r.days. After his school ended, He Nuo had reached home at about the same time as his parents. Both of them came to He Nuo’s room. His Papa got his Mama to empty the contents of He Nuo’s bag, then asked him if he had taken his fifth brother’s keys during the summer holidays. In the beginning, He Nuo didn’t understand what was going on, but afterwards it suddenly occurred to him that he had picked up his fifth brother’s keys. He Nuo’s tables only had four legs and one surface; it didn’t even have any drawers while his younger brothers’ writing desks and his fifth brother’s desks all had drawers. So his fifth brother had attached a lock to his drawer, and he had always kept his drawer locked.
During the summer holidays, He Nuo would often sweep and mop his household. There was once while he was sweeping the floor at his parents’ side when he had picked up a key. And because it was smaller than the key to their courtyard, you could tell at a glance that it was a key for drawers, so it could only belong to his fifth brother. He Nuo had pa.s.sed the key to his fifth brother the moment he returned. He didn’t understand why his Papa was suddenly asking about this. He only saw his Mama shake her head at Papa after overturning his bag and say, “Nothing.”
His parents asked him to stand at one side. Both of them flipped He Nuo’s bed over to take a look, then searched under it and ransacked his cabinets. One of them found the conch sh.e.l.l in his cabinet, while the other found the stack of new books in the carton underneath his bed — these were all brought over by Shi Yan. He Nuo treasures books a lot when he reads them, so even though he had already finished looking through the books, they still looked brand new. They were still here because Shi Yan said that he wanted to read the books in He Nuo’s room during the holidays so he didn’t need to trouble himself by bringing the books to and fro his house, and He Nuo would be able to read it a few more times too.
His Papa first asked him where the conch sh.e.l.l came from. He Nuo answered truthfully that it was given to him by his schoolmate. His Papa didn’t believe that his schoolmate would buy a conch sh.e.l.l for him, because one look at it and he could tell it wasn’t cheap. He Nuo explained that his schoolmate had picked it up by the beaches of Hainan, but when his Papa heard this he just thought that this lie of his was too ridiculous, and was too poorly concocted. Then he asked about the books. He Nuo gave him the same answer, that his schoolmate had lent them to him to read. Such reply just sounded like an answer used to deceive fools, and it made his Papa slap him immediately. His Papa continued to his barrage of questions, but He Nuo didn’t understand what was going on, yet he had no other choice than to say the truth. These are books that belonged to his schoolmate? His Papa jumped in anger and began to whip him with his belt as usual.
His Mama stopped his Papa, then said to He Nuo, “Why are you still lying? Your fifth brother has already written us a letter. You stole his key and took the money that he had saved up recently.”1
He Nuo jumped up in fright, then anxiously guaranteed that he had picked up the key, but he had never opened the drawer or stolen any money.
“Then how did you buy your conch sh.e.l.l and those books?” His Mama didn’t believe him either. The books didn’t look cheap. Borrowed them? Then why hasn’t he returned them? How could the conch sh.e.l.l have been picked up without paying a single cent for them, that’s such a joke. His lies were neither clever nor well-conceived.
He Nuo continued to insist that the books belonged to his schoolmate. So his parents asked him which schoolmate they belonged to, then asked him to get his schoolmate to come to their house so that he could return the books to him in front of them. He Nuo didn’t know where Shi Yan lived, but he remembered that he had Shi Yan’s phone number. His parents asked him to go to a nearby public telephone to call his schoolmate over for verification purposes.
When he called Shi Yan, He Nuo was sweating nervously. Firstly, he had never called this number before. And secondly, Shi Yan doesn’t even acknowledge his existence right now, so when the call got through, he felt his throat tighten up. The phone was picked up on the other end and Shi Yan’s voice travelled over, “h.e.l.lo?”
He Nuo was so nervous his palms were sweating, and it was only after Shi Yan repeated his words that he spoke, “Shi Yan, h.e.l.lo.”
The other side immediately turned silent. He Nuo’s heart was beating rapidly.
“Who are you?” The cold voice that went through the phone line transmitted its cruelty straight into He Nuo’s heart.
“I’m He Nuo.”
“He Nuo?” He paused, then He Nuo heard a few cold sneers, “Why are you looking for me?”
“You…can I trouble you to make a trip to my house?”
“Then can you come over just once when you’re free? I’ve already finished reading the books you lent me, and I want to return them to you. Un, thank you.”
“I don’t want them, just throw them away. Don’t come bother me in the future!” The other side hung up, and He Nuo heard the “dudu” sounds of a severed phone line. He didn’t dare to call back, and he felt very upset for losing a friend.
He Nuo returned home in a depressed state before he remembered that his parents were still waiting for him to find his schoolmate. When he entered the house, his Papa asked him when his schoolmate would arrive. Then after he hesitated to say that his schoolmate wasn’t home, they continued to ask when he would be home. He Nuo wasn’t good at lying; he knew that Shi Yan wouldn’t be willing to come over, and since he didn’t allow himself to call Shi Yan again, He Nuo wasn’t able to answer his parents’ queries. In his parents’ eyes, this seemed like He Nuo just had his lies exposed and he couldn’t manage to find someone whom he could collude with to act as a fake alibi, so He Nuo still couldn’t escape another round of belt punishment as well as kneeling down on the floor to reflect on his actions.
He Nuo still hadn’t changed his statement on Sunday, and didn’t look for someone to verify his story. His Papa gave him yet another ruthless beating, because stealing was indeed a grave matter. On Monday, they made He Nuo stay at home to kneel and reflect upon himself, and would only allow him to attend school after he knows that he was wrong, and after he admits his wrongdoing.
1. Author’s footnote: This Fifth brother has a habit, because he and his twin fourth brother are pampered a bit more in their house and has a higher status, so they can look for their parents to request for an allowance. Also, since he’s still in University, he likes to exchange his money for new notes and place them in between the pages in his notebook. His entire family knew this habit of his, and he would take his notes out to count them when he had nothing better to do. This makes me think of Chibi Maruko Chan; after the New Year, Maruko chan would take her Lunar New Year’s money out countless times until it was confiscated by her mother.