MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 6

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Ming Shu didn't know Xiao Yu'an had gone to visit his other grandfather. The day Xiao Yu'an left, Ming Shu hadn't been able to resist climbing up a tree again. When Xiao Yu'an dropped him off at his house after the first day they played together, he had promised that he would come bring Ming Shu back to their house to play again.

But after waiting two whole days, Ming Shu still hadn't seen Xiao Yu'an again.

He wasn't a brave kid, and he had a habit of thinking and overthinking things. When Xiao Yu'an didn't show up, Ming Shu was too shy to run up to the Xiao family's gates and wait for him. He could only silently think that there must have been a reason the Xiao family's gege didn't come for him.

But no matter how much he thought about it, he couldn't understand why Xiao Yu'an wouldn't come. He could only climb up a tree and peek over the wall in hopes of catching a glimpse of what Xiao Yu'an was doing.

He sat in the tree and waited and waited and waited until he had to use the bathroom. But even after waiting all that time, he didn't see Xiao Yu'an.

Two days passed like that, and Ming Shu was starting to get worried. Finally, after lunch one day, he heard the sounds of a scuffle coming from the Xiao family's courtyard. He ran over to their front gate, but before he could even look inside, he heard a shout from behind him—

"BOO!"

Ming Shu was so scared he nearly jumped out of his skin. He quickly spun around and saw it was just Xiao Jincheng.

This time, Xiao Jincheng wasn't carrying his water gun, but he did have two big antennae sticking out from the top of his head. Gu Wei recognized those antennae. He knew they were sold outside the gates of their community, and they could be worn like a girl's headband. The antennae that Xiao Jincheng sported were fashioned to look in Sun Wukong's.

Ming Shu had always wanted a pair, but his grandfather told him it was indecent to wear such things.

In Ming Shu's world, a lot of things were indecent. He couldn't wear those fuzzy antennae, he couldn't put stickers on the refrigerator, and he couldn't fight. He only knew what was indecent; he didn't even have a clear idea of what 'decent' was supposed to mean. He didn't want to be decent, anyway. He only wanted to be the Xiao family's didi.

When he noticed Ming Shu staring unblinkingly at him, Xiao Jincheng felt a little perturbed. He had just wanted to scare Ming Shu a bit because the day Xiao Yu'an brought Ming Shu over, Xiao Jincheng had been in the middle of serving out a punishment. Xiao Mu'ting had made him squat in the courtyard, wearing a watermelon rind on his head. That was just too embarrassing! He was older than Ming Shu, so if he didn't quickly assert his dominance, how could he call himself 'gege'?

But he hadn't meant to scare Ming Shu stupid.

The two children stared blankly at each other. If Xiao Mu'ting hadn't come out looking for Xiao Jincheng, the two of them could have stayed there, melting under the summer sun, all afternoon.

"Xiao Mu'ting." Xiao Jincheng was still feeling a little uneasy when he saw his brother. He was a naughty kid, but he had never scared anyone stupid before. He sheepishly crept behind Xiao Mu'ting to hide. "Look, is this baby… like, stupid?"

Ming Shu finally took a breath and mumbled, "I'm not stupid."

Xiao Mu'ting gave Xiao Jincheng a smack and gestured for Ming Shu to come into the courtyard.

Ming Shu only went up to the gate and craned his neck to look inside. "Is gege here?"

"Which gege?" Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng asked in unison.

Among the children of the Xiao family, the words 'gege' and 'didi' were rarely used. Only their one jiejie was called 'jiejie'. The older brothers weren't friendly enough to call each other 'gege', and the younger brother was disrespectful by nature, so the boys mostly referred to each other by their names.

Ming Shu took a step back. The fierceness of the question had caught him off guard.

"Xiao Yu'an-gege," he finally said.

Originally, the three boys of the Xiao family had all seemed like big brothers to Ming Shu. They were all the same in his heart. But ever since Xiao Yu'an had carried him and treated him to a mint popsicle, he had entered a different league. Now, to Ming Shu, Xiao Yu'an was the only one who deserved to be called 'gege'.

"He went to his other grandpa's house," Xiao Mu'ting explained patiently. He was easily irritated by his own little brother, but he treated other kids pretty well. "Don't stand there looking so scared. Come in and have some watermelon."

In the summer, when entertaining kids, each family more or less brought out the same snacks: watermelon, ice cream, and salt-boiled peanuts. Xiao Mu'ting sent Xiao Jincheng inside to grab some treats for their guests, and this time Ming Shu didn't hold back. Instead of a mint popsicle, he chose the more expensive Huoju ice cream cone.

"When will Xiao Yu'an-gege be back?" Ming Shu asked. After finishing his ice cream, he reached for a fistful of salt-boiled peanuts. He had never even tried them before. At his house, they only had three meals a day. No snacks.

"Dunno," Xiao Jincheng said. "That's his mom's old home, out by the ocean. Have you been to the ocean before? I've been! The ocean is huge!"

"Did he ask how big the ocean is?" Xiao Mu'ting chided.

Xiao Jincheng pulled a face at Xiao Mu'ting, then turned back to Ming Shu and continued, "He's been here for a year already. His other grandpa misses him. So I guess he'll be gone for at least ten days, half a month? Something like that?"

"Huh?" Once he heard Xiao Yu'an would be gone for so long, Ming Shu could barely taste the peanuts he was eating anymore.

"What's the 'huh' for?" Xiao Jincheng was starting to think this little sprout was kind of funny. He flicked a peanut at Ming Shu, aiming well and striking him squarely on the forehead.

Ming Shu reached up and touched that spot on his forehead. "I want to play with him."

"You're pretty clingy, aren't you? Are you a puppy? Woof-woof?" Xiao Jincheng accused. He was a pretty irritating kid himself, and yet he still had the gall to think others were annoying. "You got attached to Xiao Yu'an just because he gave you a mint popsicle? He has to go see his other grandpa sometimes. Don't you have another grandpa? Why don't you go see your other grandpa?"

Ming Shu didn't say anything. He did have maternal grandparents, but even his own mother didn't come to visit him very often. When would he ever get the opportunity to visit his mother's parents?

Every time Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jinlan went to visit their maternal grandpa, they would come back with tons and tons of gifts. Xiao Jincheng was easily bribed by sweets. The first time they came home with all those sugary souvenirs, he'd instantly started to adore Xiao Yu'an's other grandpa as though that were his own granpda. He babbled endlessly to Ming Shu about how amazing Xiao Yu'an's other grandpa was, about how awesome the house by the sea was, and about how great the gifts Xiao Yu'an always brought back were.

"Jiejie and Xiao Yu'an will definitely bring us more presents this year."

Ming Shu had never gotten any presents before. His family simply didn't do that. But what kind of kid didn't like presents? He listened raptly as Xiao Jincheng spoke, humming along, until finally he mumbled, "I want presents too."

Xiao Jincheng boldly offered some generosity on Xiao Yu'an's behalf. He patted Ming Shu on the head and said, "Don't worry, I'm sure there'll be something for you."

"But…"

My last name isn't Xiao.

"No buts," Xiao Jincheng stated confidently. "Anything we get, you'll get too."

Ming Shu's mind was preoccupied by all sorts of thoughts when he went home that day. He kept thinking that he would love to visit his maternal grandparents, and at the same time he also thought endlessly about the gifts Xiao Yu'an might bring back for him.

Originally, he hadn't believed there would be a share for him among the presents Xiao Yu'an brought back. But Xiao Jincheng had reassured him with such certainty that he would get something, so Ming Shu had started to believe him.

He stared at the calendar every day, hoping Xiao Yu'an would come home soon.

Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jinlan stayed out on the coast for over ten days, helping their maternal grandpa with his work. Xiao Yu'an didn't care much where he spent summer break. Home was nice, but his maternal grandpa's place was fine too. The food there was different, and the ocean breeze cooled them down at night.

But the piano class Xiao Jinlan had enrolled in was due to start soon, so they had to head home.

The day before they left, their grandpa wandered into their rooms as usual and stuffed their suitcases full of local specialties. Every year was the same. The kids would always go home with way more than what they'd brought.

"What else are you bringing home for Jincheng and Mu'ting this year?" their grandpa asked as the three of them sat on the porch, fanning themselves as they waited for a car to come pick the kids up.

"Seashell guns," Xiao Yu'an said.

Tons of seashells washed up on the beach every day. The Xiao family's boys all liked to play with guns, and they had plenty of toy guns at home. But seashell guns were different, and they could only be bought on the coast.

Their grandpa laughed at that. "You kids… as soon as you get old enough for guns, that's all you want to play with."

He fanned himself some more before smiling and adding, "But that's not a bad thing. The men of the Xiao family all end up dealing with guns."

It was already late in the afternoon when Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jinlan got home from the airport. As soon as Xiao Yu'an got out of the car, he heard Xiao Jincheng's voice:

"Hurry, hurry! Xiao Yu'an is back!"

Xiao Yu'an smiled to himself. Xiao Jincheng was always especially energetic when he knew he was going to receive a gift, and the seashell guns in the back seat of the car would surely keep him happy for at least a few days.

But when he stepped into the courtyard, Xiao Yu'an was surprised to see the boy from the neighboring Ming family sitting there. Xiao Yu'an's grandpa had already set out a bunch of food; it seemed they were just waiting for Xiao  Yu'an and Xiao Jinlan to return for dinner.

"Xiao Yu'an, what did you get me?" Xiao Jincheng demanded, but he didn't even wait for an answer before rushing out to the car, knowing exactly where Xiao Yu'an would have put their gifts.

Half a minute later, Xiao Jincheng rushed back with the two seashell guns in his arms, giddy beyond belief. "Xiao Mu'ting! Guns!"

Ming Shu also felt happy when he saw the two brothers fawning over their new toys. The guns glistened under the light of the setting sun as Ming Shu walked up to Xiao Yu'an.

"Ge, you're back!" Ming Shu greeted. His voice was immeasurably soft and sweet. "Ge, my present… what did you get me?"

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