The name sounded familiar. Where had he heard it before? A former client? As he dug into his memory, Jun suddenly remembered this was Jingshu's hometown. He nodded his head in agreement.
"But we should take precaution before entering. I don't know if the town has experienced anything. . ."
He stopped talking because he saw the look on Jingshu's face. She was probably remembering the village that had been occupied by the White Tiger Brothers.
Finished with their meal, the two of them laid side-by-side gazing at the myriad stars above.
With his hands folded behind his head, Jun stared at the bright white dots in the sky. "I've been a city boy all my life. This is my third time seeing so many stars like this."
"In my childhood, I used to go stargazing with my family. Out in the countryside, you can see just as many stars. But the Milky Way is denser."
Jun smiled as he thought of his father. "The first time I went stargazing was also with family."
"Really?" Jingshu asked him, her head was leaning on his shoulder.
Jun had not mentioned too much about his family to Jingshu before. Wanting to draw out more information, she asked him, "Did you go with your mom?"
Under the cover of darkness, Jun frowned, but Jingshu was not able to see his expression.
He swallowed the lump in his throat and gruffly answered, "I only went with my dad."
Sensing a change in the air, Jingshu did not make any followup inquiries. If Jun did not want to discuss his family affair, she was not going to force him. She did take mental note to never ask Jun about his mother again.
They went to bed early. Jingshu rested her head in the cavity in between Jun's head and shoulders. She was awfully clingy and close to him, causing a slight tent to form in his groin area. Since she had fallen into a deep sleep, Jun chose to ignore it, until it finally calmed down.
The sun burned the sky in shades of red, orange, yellow and purple. Jun watched the sunrise with Jingshu sitting beside him. The early morning light cast a subtle brightness on her, enhancing her beauty. Jun drank a tea made from some roots he had found. He had discovered dried dandelion roots had a deep earthy bitter taste. It was very similar to tea leaves.
Jingshu took a sniff of his tea, with a curious look on her face.
"I'm being so obvious," she thought.
But Jun did not offer her a drink from his cup. Jun knew about indirect kissing, so he waited for the water to boil, before handing her a newly brewed cup of dandelion root tea.
Disappointed, Jingshu could only smile, while she thanked him.
Jingshu wondered if Jun liked her. It had been about a month since they started their journey. Together, they had faced harrowing situations an average person would have never experienced. These experiences brought her closer to Jun. In their short time together, she felt she knew him better than her classmates or coworkers. Did he have the same thoughts?
No matter, they still had some time left to figure out their feelings.
The two of them walked away from the road heading to Cheng Du and into the direction of Su Chen Village.
Near the village, they were almost discovered by a patrol group. The group consisted of male villagers. Luckily, Jun used his keen sense to avoid them. Hiding in the brush, the two waited for half an hour before they felt the men were no longer close to them. The two of them took a deep breath before proceeding.
"Did you recognize any of them?" Jun asked her.
She shook her head. Although thirty years ago, the norm was for people to stay in their hometown, but the rise of factories in urban areas, changed everything. This marked the beginning of the Great Work Migration. Starting in the early 1990's, the emerging Chinese economy encouraged many young people to leave their rural homes to seek work in the cities. The people who stayed behind in the villages were older family members or those who were too young to work in factories. Jingshu was part of the group that was too young to work.
Like many others, when those factory workers reached retirement age, they returned to their native soil. Speaking of the patrol group members, Jingshu felt she did not recognize them because they had returned when she had grown up and had moved to the same city as Jun.
Jingshu knew Su Chen village wasn't too far from where she and Jun were currently walking. If they continued to walk a distance of twenty meters, they would be at the entrance to the village.
"Shall we head into the village?" Jingshu asked, her expression looked uneasy mixed with excitement. It had been a while since she had returned home.
Having learned his lesson from the previous village, Jun hesitated to enter. It was best to observe the situation first. If it was safe, they could enter.
"Let's be careful. I think it's best to observe the village first. By the way, do you know of a good place for us to set up camp?"
Jun's question was meant to distract Jingshu's thoughts. Jingshu nodded her head before replying, "There's a rock outcropping not far from here."
"Lead the way," Jun said, as he gestured with an open arm for her to go before him.
A silly smile appeared on Jingshu's face. This was the first time she saw him act playful. Perhaps the recent experiences had forced him to act tough in front of her. His tough act helped her feel secure. It was good to know she could depend on him.
A rock outcropping laid next to a huge, steep cliff. Jingshu explained how this was a man-made cliff. At one point in time, a big corporation came and dug out one side of the slope. What remained was a new land formation. No one knew what the corporation was seeking, but after two years of digging, they suddenly left.
The soil had been taken away in huge dump trucks. The villagers did not know why the corporation wanted the soil. They also did not know where the corporation had taken the soil. They did not ask nor raised a fuss because the corporation gave them plenty of money.
It would not be until many years later, when Jun found out the reason the soil had been harvested from this place. By then, he regretted not taking some of the soil with him.
Jun smiled at the young girl as she recounted her childhood memories of playing in this place. This was the first time, he had seen her act so carefree. Perhaps, before the Change, she was naturally the lively type. Jun stood on the side, helplessly smiling, as he waited for the girl to finish her reminiscing.
With a sparkle in her eyes, Jingshu stared at the patient man. Realizing she had taken up too much of his time, she stopped babbling.
"It's not early anymore," she finally said.
Understanding her intention, Jun began to set up the tent between two large rocks. The tent was well-hidden when looking at it from two different angles. To ensure others would not be able to find it, Jun stacked a few fresh pine branches around the sides that were not protected by the rock face.
Afterwards, Jun went to forage for some available food in the area. He hoped to find enough to partially fill their bellies.
Hiding behind a large dead tree, Jun mumbled, "Those with something to hide, would work under the cover of darkness." He thought of this saying as he watched the group of men in front of him.
Earlier, as Jun was scouting around the village for food, he encountered a group of suspicious looking people. He followed them out of curiosity.
He watched as they entered a house and dragged the two people inside, out through the front door.
"What do you want?" The man kept shouting this over and over.
"Shut up!" a loud voice cut him off.
A few punches were directed at the shouting man's stomach. By reflex, the shouting man hunched over and clutched his stomach. He no longer shouted.
Another man was holding onto the woman, his hands roaming beneath her clothes.
The woman pleaded with a weak, sobbing voice, "Please don't."
The voice that had cut off the shouting man earlier scolded, "Don't waste time. Hurry up and do it quick. The rest are prepared and waiting with the fire."
Jun didn't know who had said those three sentences, but these words quickly determined the fate of that sobbing woman.
The man who had been holding onto the woman released her. She wanted to run, but the men blocked her path. She was trapped, encircled by them. Holding a big baseball bat, another man swung it, bashing the woman several times on the head.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
With a loud shriek, the woman fell over dead. Her own blood washed her face a ghastly red color.
On the side, her husband tried to stop them, but he was forcefully restrained by two men. His struggling only gained him a few sarcastic remarks by his captives.
"We shouldn't have come here," the man cried out, loud enough for Jun to hear.
"Shut up," one of the villagers said, as he slapped the restrained man. The husband was now reduced to a blubbering mess. His tears choked up his voice, making a gurgling sound in the depths of his throat.
Jun's heart raced. Taking deep breaths to calm himself down, he remained as still as a stone. He wanted to help this pitiful man, but he also did not want to throw his life away. A feeling of guilt rose in his heart, but he knew he would not be able to kill this group of men in front of him. If he attempted to fight them, he would most likely die. Dying meant he would leave Jingshu all by herself. How would she survive in this lawless world? He had too many reasons not to die.
Witnessing the men tying the husband up, Jun tightly clenched his fists. Once the husband was bundled up, they forced him back into the house. Shutting the door, they fixed it with a lock and chain from the outside to prevent anyone from leaving or entering.
Finished with their handiwork, they carried the woman's body away. As the villagers walked away, the one holding the bat gaily said, "I bet she will taste delicious."
The others responded, but by then, they had walked too far away and Jun could not make out their answers.