MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 7

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That question left Xiao Yu'an stupefied. He had brought gifts for a lot of people. Of course that included Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng. It also included people like his grandparents, Cheng Yue, and Xia Zhong.

But he hadn't thought to bring a gift for Ming Shu.

In truth, when he was out by the coast, Xiao Yu'an hadn't thought about Ming Shu at all. Ming Shu was just a neighbor who he'd happened to talk to once. They had loads of neighbors in their community. He couldn't possibly give all of them a present.

But when Ming Shu approached him, asking for a gift and looking at him with those big, watery eyes of his, Xiao Yu'an suddenly felt guilty. Ming Shu looked so hopeful, so expectant. The shadows cast by his eyelashes cut across the light in his dark brown pupils. He was so obviously excited that Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but feel like he should have brought one more gift.

Although Ming Shu was young, his instincts and perceptiveness were finely honed. He took one look at Xiao Yu'an's reaction and instantly knew there was no gift for him.

His head drooped. He fidgeted, twisting his chubby fingers together. And he felt bad.

He felt like he'd eaten a tooth-numbingly sour piece of candy. It was like someone had told him that the sourness was just on the outside, and that the candy inside was incredibly sweet. So he endured the sourness, even though it almost brought him to tears, and waited for that sweetness to burst across his tongue. But while others found a sweet center in their piece of sour candy, Ming Shu's piece was hiding a bitter core.

That morning, Xiao Jincheng had run over and told Ming Shu that Xiao Yu'an would be getting home later that afternoon. Ming Shu was so excited to hear the news that he couldn't even settle down long enough to eat a proper lunch. He couldn't fall asleep for his midday nap, either. In the afternoon, he eagerly ran over to the Xiao family's yard and waited with Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng for Xiao Yu'an's return.

Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng were excitedly waiting for their presents, but Ming Shu was waiting for his gege.

Of course, he was also waiting for the gifts his gege would bring.

He had never been happier.

But now, everyone else had their presents in hand, and Ming Shu knew his gege hadn't brought him a gift at all. Xiao Jincheng had lied to him.

Ming Shu was already five years old, yet he had never once received a present. He was crushed. He wanted to cry, but he knew boys weren't supposed to cry, so he bore it and held it in. Only a few quiet whimpers escaped his throat.

Xiao Yu'an could see the light fading from Ming Shu's eyes. He stooped down in front of him, planning to soothe him with a few words. The car was full of stuff they'd brought back from the coast. His sister had filled a whole box with all sorts of shells and pearls; Xiao Yu'an could easily take one and give it to Ming Shu to make him feel better.

But before Xiao Yu'an could even open his mouth, Ming Shu swiftly turned away and said, "Gege, I'm going home for dinner."

Then he ran away.

Xiao Yu'an froze in place, thoroughly puzzled and perplexed.

Ming Shu ran until he turned a corner and disappeared from sight. He had already told his grandmother that he would eat with the Xiao family that evening, but he'd had no choice except to run away. If he didn't run, he would have started crying right there. He'd tried his best to hold it in, but he just couldn't. He had waited hopefully for so many days, only to find out there wasn't a gift for him after all.

If only Xiao Jincheng hadn't lied to him. Ming Shu hadn't expected a gift in the first place.

Why did Xiao Jincheng have to make him that promise? And why didn't his gege bring him a seashell gun?

He was tired from running, and he was tired from hurting. He squatted down, picked up a rock, and started to draw Xiao Jincheng's new seashell gun on the ground.

That gun looked so cool, and it was so shiny.

He wanted one too.

The narrow path he'd ducked into was situated between their two houses, out of the way of the main road. Usually, no one walked there. Ming Shu squatted there until his feet went numb, but even then he didn't want to go home. If he went home, his grandmother would definitely ask him why he wasn't having dinner with the Xiao family.

Instead, he found a tree and sat against the base of the trunk, looking up at the sky.

The sun had set a long time ago; the bluish-black evening sky wasn't harsh on the eyes at all. But it wasn't long before Ming Shu lifted a hand to wipe at his eyes, and it wasn't long before he wiped at them again. His shoulders shook uncontrollably as he started to cry.

He had actually been unhappy for several days already. After hearing Xiao Yu'an had gone to his other grandpa's house, Ming Shu had asked his own grandfather if he could visit his other grandparents as well. That same night, his grandfather had called his mother to ask; Ming Shu stood by the phone, listening with hope and excitement building in his heart.

His mother's voice sounded out from the other end of the line. She had a pretty voice, and Ming Shu knew she was beautiful. But she said she didn't have time to come pick Ming Shu up for a visit.

"Dad, I know it's hard work keeping the child there. Thank you for your help."

Ming Shu had already heard those words countless times before. For as long as he could remember, whenever he said he missed his mother, his grandfather would pick up the phone and call her. But his mother would only say those same words, every time.

To Ming Shu, those words simply meant his mother wouldn't be coming for him.

He tugged at the hem of his grandfather's shirt. "Can I talk to my mother?"

But it was just then that Ming Shu's mother spoke again: "Dad, I need to get going. I still have some work to do."

Ming Shu didn't get to say a single word to his mother. By the time his grandfather handed him the phone, the only sound coming from the other side was the dial tone.

Ming Shu hated that sound more than anything.

He had sulked for the rest of the day, but his spirits had been lifted as soon as he remembered his gege would be coming back with a present for him. But now, there was no present. He couldn't help but cry, and when he started crying, he couldn't stop.

He cried until the sky was pitch black above his head, until he could no longer ignore how hungry he was.

The tree he sat under was actually right outside the wall of the Xiao family's courtyard. He could hear everything that was going on inside the Xiao family's yard. Grandpa Xiao had prepared a whole table of food, and after dinner the kids stayed in the yard eating grapes. Xiao Jincheng hugged his seashell gun tight, refusing to let it go for even one second; he claimed his was way better than Xiao Mu'ting's.

"I don't have a seashell gun…" Ming Shu mumbled sullenly as he wiped at his tears again. When he heard his stomach rumble, he cried for just a while longer before getting up and going home.

The Ming family hadn't prepared a portion of dinner for him, and he didn't want his grandparents to see his reddened eyes when he snuck back into the house. His grandparents were watching TV when he got in, and they didn't talk to him after simply remarking, "You're back."

He crept upstairs and took a bath by himself, then looked at his own red and swollen eyes in the mirror. He pouted at his reflection and muttered to himself, "What are you crying for? If you keep crying, you won't be a man anymore."

That was something he had learned from his mother.

For as long as he could remember, Ming Shu had lived with his paternal grandparents. His father only came to visit over major holidays, and his mother came even less. Other kids lived with his mothers and fathers, but Ming Shu didn't know how that felt at all.

Once, he had missed his mother so fiercely that he managed to get her to come back to see him. But she only stayed with him for a single afternoon. When she got ready to leave, Ming Shu hugged her tight and refused to let her go, sobbing at the top of his lungs.

His mother had said to him, "You are a man, and men don't cry. Nobody likes a child who cries."

Ming Shu never forgot what she said: Men don't cry.

So he only ever cried in secret.

Over in the Xiao family's courtyard, a big commotion was brewing up. Xiao Jincheng was plenty loud on his own, and after dinner a few of Xiao Yu'an's friends dropped by.

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Chapter 7

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