The deep gray city was shrouded in heavy rain, the traffic on the road dwindled, and eventually, only the falling rain could be heard. Everyone on the street appeared to be rushing somewhere, and the small bus stop by the roadside was like an abandoned corner that had been forgotten by the world. Chen Ge held his backpack as he continued to study their reflections in the water puddle. Zhang Ya held the umbrella, and surprise crossed his eyes. She was obviously startled by the statement that Chen Ge had made.
As the bus on Route 104 slowly trundled off down the street, it was replaced at the stop by the bus from Route 4. "Miss Zhang, your bus is here. I will see you tomorrow."
Chen Ge waved his hands, and his face had a very happy smile on it. He watched as Zhang Ya walked toward the bus on Route 4 as he leaned against the bus stop sign, the smile on his face slowly disappearing as Zhang Ya walked away from him.
"I cannot go home. The minute I push open the door of my home, night will fall, and when I come out, it will be the beginning of a new day. When the city submerges into darkness, the dirtiness and evil hidden in the corners should be eager to reveal itself. Hopefully, I will gain something of value tonight."
Lifting his head, Chen Ge believed that he was the only one left at the bus stop. The bus whistled to announce its departure from the bus stop. The engine growled, and the bus soon departed from the stop. In the rain, Chen Ge stopped a woman holding a red umbrella.
"Zhang Ya?" The bus had already left the station, but Zhang Ya stood where she was She did not get on the bus. "Why didn't you get on the bus? Wasn't that your bus?"
Chen Ge looked at Zhang Ya curiously. The woman held the umbrella and slowly walked back toward the bus stop.
"I've spent every day ever since I was here preparing my study material for the next day, and then I leave on the last bus of the day." Zhang Ya pointed at the sign that Chen Ge was leaning against. "The bus just now was supposed to be the last bus. You did not get on it, and you did not take an umbrella. I am afraid that you will not return home again, just like last time."
"I..." Chen Ge, who was always quick with words, found himself stammering at that moment. He did not know how to answer or how to come up with a reasonable excusable.
"It seems to me that you are afraid of going home." Zhang Ya walked to stand before Chen Ge. "Can you tell me why?"
"It is nothing important..."
"Did you get into an argument with your family, or have you run into actual trouble in your life?"
Concern was deep in Zhang Ya's voice. Her kindness and warmth were something innate, and that made it exceptionally difficult for one to purposely deceive her.
"I know that under that trouble-maker exterior, there is a kid with a good heart, but in that same heart, there appears to be many other things. I have noticed that you have never really smiled sincerely since I first met you."
Chen Ge did not respond. The rain continued to pour. Even though they were standing under the bus stop, the rain was so heavy that the splash was enough to make both of their clothes wet. Neither of them left. After a while, Zhang Ya opened the umbrella and looked at Chen Ge rather helplessly.
"If you are unwilling to share, I cannot force you to do so." She waved at Chen Ge. "Come on."
"Where are we going?" Chen Ge was startled. This time, he was truly surprised.
"We will go to my home so that we can get you a fresh change of clothes. You will get a cold wearing that set of wet clothes for so long."
"Is that really a good idea?"
"It will be a worse idea for me to abandon you at this bus stop. The rain will not slow down anytime soon, and it is getting late. It is too dangerous for you to stay here alone." Zhang Ya wiggled the umbrella, and the water droplets flung around. She was like the kind sister next door. Even when she pouted in helplessness, it did not detract from her natural beauty. "But you should really try to communicate with your family members. Through my experience, I've found that many problems can be solved through a good communication, especially when it is within a family. Anyway, that is enough lecturing for now. Stop hesitating, come with me."
Chen Ge could not open the door of his own home, so to buy more time, he was half persuaded and half willing to follow behind Zhang Ya. The two walked down the street for quite some time before they spotted a taxi on the road. When they arrived at Zhang Ya's home, the sky was already completely dark.
"Is this where you live?" Chen Ge did not have any memories of Zhang Ya's house or room. In his mind, Zhang Ya had always stayed at the dormitory. When he pushed open the door, he found a small room of about sixty cubic meters. Even though the place was not big, it had everything that a person would need to survive and flourish.
"I used to live in the city, but after my parents got into an accident, staying in the old house kept reminding me of them. I would walk around the room and think that I saw them standing there. After a while, it took such a toll on me. Therefore, I had no choice but to sell that house, and I used the capital from that sale to purchase this small house in this city."
Zhang Ya seemed to have emerged from the sadness already, judging from the calm tone that she employed to tell the story. Of course, she could have been just putting on the front for Chen Ge. That morning, after she found out why Chen Ge had been carrying the pair of high heels with him at all time, she had felt her heart giving slightly. Because she had been through the same experience, she was able to empathize with him.
Putting away the umbrella, Zhang Ya moved to switch on the light in the living room. "I did all the decoration and the purchasing of the furniture myself, so what do you think? It is not so bad for a non-professional, right?"
When Zhang Ya was speaking, Chen Ge looked around the room. His eyes travelled to the trash can, and he was surprised to notice a few empty cans of beer inside and peels of carrot skin that had gotten brown with spots.
"Teacher, you're a drinker?" That was a habit of Zhang Ya's that Chen Ge did not expect.
"You make it sound like I have a serious problem. I only drink once in a while." Zhang Ya changed her shoes and went to tie up the plastic bag that held the trash inside the can. "I will go get you a set of dry clothes. Please wait here a moment."
Seconds later, Chen Ge changed into the clothes that Zhang Ya offered her. It was a round-neck T-shirt that Zhang Ya herself wore.
"I hope you don't mind wearing that, but that is probably the only thing in my closet that will fit you. I don't think you'll be willing to try on my dresses, right?" She joked.
"No, this is fine." Chen Ge looked down and noticed that he was wearing the same t shirt as Zhang Ya, but the color was different.
"Give me your wet clothes. I will dry them off for you. In the meantime, you should go over to the couch and start working on your homework. It will be time for the mock exams soon. You should pay more attention to that. Perhaps some pressure would be able to help you." Zhang Ya took Chen Ge's and her own wet clothes and entered the bathroom. Chen Ge looked left and right. He placed the backpack that was half wet next to the couch and opened it to give its content an inspection.
"Thankfully, neither the comic nor Zhang Ya's storybook got wet." Chen Ge also felt like taking out his homework to make a good impression on Zhang Ya, but the problem was... he did not even bring his homework with him. Several minutes later, Zhang Ya came out from the bathroom. She took a glance at the clock on the wall. "You must be hungry. Let me see what's inside the fridge. I'm afraid it won't be anything fancy, but I am sure I can whip up something for us to eat."
"Teacher, how about I help?" Chen Ge looked at Zhang Ya, who moved around in the kitchen, and he could not help the smile that appeared on his face.
"You know how to cook?"
"Yes, you've had a long day at work. Let me cook for you. Consider it my appreciation for everything that you have done for me today." Chen Ge nudged Zhang Ya lightly but firmly to the side. He peered into the fridge and saw many common food ingredients. There were several tomatoes, a few carrots that looked so disfigured because the person who went at them with the peeler was so inexperienced, two cucumbers, a whole block of tofu, half a piece of chicken breast that had seen better days, a slice of lean meat, and half a bag of left over pickled mustard plant stem. "Huh, and I thought a Demon God's menu would be much different from us normal people."
"Do you need my help?" Zhang Ya was suspicious of Chen Ge's cooking ability. After all, there were not that many high schoolers who knew how to cook.
"Just take a seat on the coach and try to relax. A kitchen is where a man can work his magic." Chen Ge first pulled out two small bowls. In one bowl, he cracked an egg and seasoned it with salt and other condiments. He then took out the chicken breast and cut it into slices before tossing them into the bowl with the egg mixture to marinate. In the other small bowl, he poured some water and soaked the pickled mustard plant stem inside it.
Then, he opened the stove and drizzled some oil over the pan. He cut the block of tofu into smaller, edible pieces and then fried them until their surfaces were golden brown. He picked up the tofu and set it to the side. Using the residual oil that was left in the pan, he sautéed some garlic, spring onion, and ginger and poured in some sauce that he made earlier along with the tofu back into the pan to simmer.
Closing the lid over the pan, Chen Ge moved onto the next dish to prepare. He grabbed the knife and diced the tomatoes that Zhang Ya had started to cut earlier. Then he poured a generous amount of white sugar over them. He took out the cucumber, peeled the skin off, and took out the seeds. Similar to how he had prepared the tomatoes, he diced it and then seasoned it with salt and other seasoning. He placed the vegetables on the same plate. On the left was the sugared diced tomato and on the right was tossed cucumber. One was sweet and the other salty, two flavors on one plate.
After he was done with that, Chen Ge took the lean meat and cut it into strips. He stir-fried the strips in the pan and then took out the pickled mustard plant stem that had been soaked in the water. He cut the it into smaller pieces and tossed it into the pan to fry together. Then he added seasoning.
By then, the braised tofu was ready. He took a bowl from the kitchenette and served it. After some cleaning up here and there, Chen Ge found a pot, filled it with water, and placed it on top of the stove. After the water boiled, he found a pack of leftover noodles in the fridge and dropped them inside the boiling pot. When the noodles were ready, the kitchen was already filled with the delicious smell of stir-fried mustard plant stem with meat strips. Chen Ge grabbed a colander to strain the noodles and then mixed it together with the stir-fried mustard plant stem with meat strips.
The rice cooker dinged.
Chen Ge looked at it and called out rather naturally, "Teacher, do you mind grabbing two bowls of rice for me?
"For dinner, I have prepared golden tofu, noodles with pickled mustard plant stem, and some popcorn chicken that I will make in a minute. From the appearance, the chicken breast is going to spoil soon. I think we should finish it tonight."
Zhang Ya's eyes were as wide as they could be. Her kitchen had never smelled so delicious before.
The chicken breast had been marinating for quite some time already. The last step was very simple, which was to coat the cut chicken meat with starch powder and drop it into a boiling pot of cooking oil. The chicken bits came out glistening with oil, and the smell was heavenly, but Chen Ge still looked not quite satisfied.
"If only I have some breadcrumbs, the double-coating would make this much crispier."
All the dishes were served. They filled up the small dining table. Even then, Zhang Ya still could not believe that these dishes had been made from the leftovers that she had sitting inside her fridge.
"For the main meal, we have the noodles, tofu, and the chicken. If you think the chicken is too oily, there's the mixed cucumber to help balance out the oiliness. But if you do not prefer salty food, I have also prepared mixed tomato with white sugar. It is a salad with refreshing tartness from the tomato and a kick of sweetness from the sugar." Chen Ge saw Zhang Ya's eyes glowing, and her smile only grew bigger. He cleaned up the kitchen, but honestly, there was not much cleaning to be done because the man had been picking up his trash while he cooked. Finally, he joined Zhang Ya at the dining table. He saw that Zhang Ya had not moved her chopsticks. Obviously, she had been waiting for him to join her.
"Let's start." Zhang Ya took a bite of the tofu. It was crispy on the outside and tender of the inside. The frying was so well done that it secured the juices inside the tofu so that it would burst with liquid once one bit into it.
"So, what do you think?"
"It's wonderfully delicious!"
Chen Ge sat across the dining table from Zhang Ya and watched her eat. The corners of his lips could not help but turn upward on their own. "If only I could cook for you every day."
The storm was brewing outside. It was thundering. But inside the room, the two were enjoying a rare moment of peace, sharing a simple dinner together. Chen Ge wondered when and if they would have this chance again in the future. The dinner was quickly swept up. Zhang Ya volunteered to clean the table and ushered Chen Ge to take a seat at the couch. The latter tried to stop himself from staring at Zhang Ya, but for some reason, his eyes kept wandering over to her. As if feeling his eyes on her, when Zhang Ya put away the utensils, she lowered her head, and she happened to look into Chen Ge's eyes.
Chen Ge held her gaze for less than a second before he quickly lowered his eyes and pulled out Yan Danian's comic and pretended to pore over it.
"Are those your own drawings? They are very impressive!" Zhang Ya, who was done with the dishes, moved to the couch. The living room was not that big. With just the couch and the coffee table, there was not much space left.
"They were drawn by my friend." Chen Ge closed the comic, but it was clear the Zhang Ya did not believe him.
"Are you sure you're not lying to me? Actually, I admire those with artistic talent, especially when that is not the only talent they have."
"Alright, you got me. Actually, I drew them myself." Shamelessly, Chen Ge admitted it. After all, Yan Danian was unable to show up to reveal his lie at that moment.
"Jesus, I do not even know to deal with you anymore." Zhang Ya chuckled. She poured two cups of tea and placed them on the table. "How come I feel like you know pretty much everything other than studying and paying attention in class?"
"You are just about right there." Chen Ge thought about it. Indeed, it was true that he was multi-talented and was skilled at many different things.
"Well, someone sure is confident in himself." Zhang Ya shook her head. "But it is not bad to have one's own hobby and to focus on it. To train and channel one's energy into the interest, it's an empowering feeling..."
Chen Ge could pick up the traces of disappointment. He was suddenly reminded of something. In real life, Zhang Ya was studying to become a ballet dancer, and she even won first place at a big competition for it. But in this world, she had somehow turned into an English teacher, a career choice that had pretty much nothing to do with dancing.
He sidled closer to Zhang Ya, picked up the cup of hot tea, and handed it to her. "Actually, I can see that you have been trying to put on a strong and powerful front for the world to see. But from the first moment I saw you, I knew that you have many things hidden in your heart. You just could not find the avenue to share them, or perhaps you are too afraid to say them out loud."
The tea in the cup was wafting with vapor, and the two sat together. A home-cooked meal pulled them closer together. It should be Zhang Ya as the teacher who counsel Chen Ge, but from some indeterminate moment, it was Chen Ge who tried to open Zhang Ya's heart. "Other people only saw you for your good personality, kindness, and gentleness, but I care whether you have been wronged or not. Has life been unfair to you?"
He had silently scooted close to Zhang Ya. Chen Ge picked up Zhang Ya's bedtime story. "I never had that concern about other people before, but after getting to know you, I have a feeling that I am close to someone who is covered in scars but tries her best to show the world that she is fine with a plastered smile on her face."
After a long time, Zhang Ya lifted her head. She looked at Chen Ge, and as per her habit, she tried to respond with her practiced smile. But she failed.
"Actually, I thought you felt familiar when I first saw you. Perhaps because we come from the same background." Zhang Ya took a sip from the tea. "You might not believe this, but I used to learn ballet. That was the love of my life. I loved it more than anything. When I was dancing, I could feel myself being one with the wind. I could fly, open my wings, and drift off from the earthly worries of this world."
"But what happened?"
"When I was at school, no one was willing to be my friend. My classmates all started this rumor that I was soliciting myself, and the rumors only got worse and worse. But none of those rumors stopped me from chasing after my dream." Zhang Ya put down the teacup. "One afternoon, something happened. I was practicing in the dance room, and a drunkard suddenly barged in, shouting. I was so scared. The only thing in my mind was to run away from him. I believe I screamed for help, but no one appeared to have heard me. Still in my dancing outfit, I ran downstairs and finally saw a teacher walking my way. I quickly hid behind him, and he helped me stop the drunkard from getting any closer.
"I thought that was the end of that horrible incident, but who knew it was just the start of a nightmare? The next day, when I came to school, everyone was whispering and pointing at me behind my back. Before the first period was even over, I was called to the office.
"To my surprise, the drunkard was also there. The man and the teacher who saved me ganged up together and said that I was trying to seduce the drunkard in the dance hall. I don't even know why they would do something like that. Perhaps the drunkard was afraid that I might press charges, so he struck at me first. As for the teacher, who knows why he chose to side with an outsider and not his own student? Perhaps he was bought out with money. In any case, no one was willing to stand on my side. Everyone at school took that as the truth."
Zhang Ya found it difficult to continue. "After that, I could not bring myself to enter the dance hall anymore, much less practice alone. In fact, I had a hard time being alone after that for a long time."
Chen Ge patted Zhang Ya's shivering shoulder and allowed her to lean on him.
"But everything is okay now. As I promised you, we'll be close to each other like a person and his shadow. You will never be alone again."