Ming Shu spent all morning sprawled over his desk, drawing out the shape of a gun. Finally, he produced something he considered more or less satisfactory.
Whenever his grandfather called him down for lunch, Ming Shu usually scrambled downstairs right away. But this time, he kept working in his room for ages until he finally had to tear himself away to eat. Even when he did leave his room for lunch, he only scarfed down a few bites before bolting right back upstairs.
He'd finished the outline. That afternoon, all he needed to do was make the gun. But it was hot, and the rotating fan was turned on at full blast. When the head of the fan spun to just the wrong place, it scattered all the colored scraps of paper Ming Shu had collected.
Ming Shu grumbled unhappily under his breath and hurriedly ran over to turn off the fan. Before long, the room grew unbearably hot. Ming Shu sweated buckets. His tank top and shorts became drenched, like someone had just fished him out of a pool.
But Ming Shu didn't care. He concentrated on making his gun with single-minded determination. He didn't have any attention to spare for the heat.
Meanwhile, Xiao Yu'an was actually climbing out of a real pool.
The swimming pool was quite far from his home. He and his two friends had ridden several stops out on a bus to get there. All three of them had cars at home, and it would have been no problem for them to be dropped off and picked up by their guardians. But for an activity like this, none of them wanted to squeeze into a car. They wanted the freedom of taking public transportation on their own.
No shade fell over the swimming pools, with the sun hanging high overhead. There were two pools—one for children, one for adults. Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue weren't interested in hanging out in the kiddie pool, so they leapt into the adult pool and started swimming around underwater.
Xia Zhong had an inner tube, but he was still afraid to get in. He sat at the edge of the pool, drinking a fizzy orange soda and waiting for the other boys to get back.
Xiao Yu'an had just returned from a trip to a house by the sea. To him, swimming around in a pool like this was a piece of cake. When he and Cheng Yue raced, he left Cheng Yue behind by almost ten meters. Cheng Yue refused to accept the loss and demanded that they race again.
That was fine by Xiao Yu'an. If Cheng Yue wanted to go again, then they would go again. They raced four or five times; each time, Xiao Yu'an left Cheng Yue even farther behind.
Xia Zhong watched like their races were an especially funny show. He laughed as he kicked up some water with his feet. "Cheng-ge, you're hopeless. You can't beat Xiao-ge!"
It was just yesterday that Cheng Yue had lectured Xia Zhong about calling them 'gege'. Today, Xia Zhong was already starting to address them differently. And as soon as he called out 'Cheng-ge' and 'Xiao-ge', he instantly felt those names were indeed way cooler.
Xiao Yu'an climbed out of the pool to get himself an orange soda. Cheng Yue, displeased by Xia Zhong laughing at his expense, turned back around and prepared to do another ten laps to practice. Before he started, he called over his shoulder, "Xiao-ge, grab a bottle of mint pop for me."
There was a big cooler right next to the pool. When Xiao Yu'an took out a bottle of mint soda, he suddenly thought of Ming Shu. Xiao Yu'an didn't really like cold mint-flavored drinks. The iciness combined with the flavor of mint made his whole throat feel numb. But in his moment of distraction, a boy ran up and grabbed the last two bottles of orange soda.
In the cooler, only mint-flavored drinks remained.
Orange soda was everybody's favorite summertime drink. The boss at the pool said he would go pick up more orange soda if Xiao Yu'an could wait fifteen minutes or so. Xiao Yu'an thought about it for a moment, then decided it would be no good. The drinks the boss brought wouldn't be iced, and it was no fun drinking room temperature soda when it was so hot outside.
"I'll just take the mint soda."
Cheng Yue was still swimming. He was the type of person who refused to accept defeat. Xiao Yu'an sat at the edge of the pool with Xia Zhong for a while. Xia Zhong had already put on the pearl bracelet he'd received; it looked good against his pale skin.
Although he'd soundly defeated Cheng Yue, Xiao Yu'an had swam with all his might. He was extremely thirsty after that workout, so he chugged down several gulps of his mint soda in one go. The somewhat sour tang of mint stung his throat, making him wince. It certainly cooled him down, but the sting was pretty uncomfortable.
Xiao Yu'an thought back to having a mint popsicle with Ming Shu. Ming Shu had been afraid the popsicle would melt, so he'd chomped down bite after bite in quick succession. The cold and the sting of mint made his throat burn up. As sugary water dripped over his fingers, he gasped for air. It was honestly kind of funny. If Xiao Yu'an set aside the part where his beloved white shirt had gotten dirty, he could even say Ming Shu was kind of funny and cute.
After finishing his mint soda, Xiao Yu'an got back in the pool and raced Cheng Yue one more time. This time, he let the sports committee member win, without letting Cheng Yue know he'd let him win.
They played until early in the evening, until Xia Zhong started complaining that he was hungry. All three of them had told their families they wouldn't be eating at home that night, and they were all eagerly looking forward to having dinner on their own.
Boys their age were only half-grown, but they were already tired of being considered children. Notions of independence were just starting to emerge in their minds. Going out to eat without their parents was something that made their chests puff up with pride.
Cheng Yue chose a food stall. They each grabbed a little folding stool and squeezed into a crowded seating area with lots of adults drinking beer. By the time they finished eating, it was already nine at night. They had to rush to catch the last bus home.
Ming Shu, after spending all afternoon cooped up in a stuffy room with the fan turned off, had broken out in heat rashes. But he was still thinking about his incomplete gun.
When he went downstairs for dinner, he was already feeling unwell. His grandmother had made a sweetened mung bean porridge and chilled it all afternoon. Normally, Ming Shu could have gobbled down two bowls with a side of veggies. But, that night, he set his porridge down and pushed it away after drinking only half a bowl.
He was good at withstanding pain and discomfort. Though he was uncomfortable, he didn't say anything. Though his heat rashes itched like crazy, he just scratched at them and didn't complain. All he thought about was finishing his gun. When he went back to his room after dinner, he still didn't turn the fan back on. He continued to work on his cardboard gun until his grandfather knocked on his door and told him to go to sleep.
At that point, Ming Shu was already disoriented. His mind felt fuzzy, and he was hot all over. Before climbing into bed, he turned the fan back on and set it to point directly at his bed on the most powerful setting. He would let the fan make up for all the fanning he'd missed out on during the day.
The fan was powerful, but Ming Shu didn't feel any better. In fact, he only felt worse and worse. In the middle of the night, he finally couldn't take it anymore. He climbed out of bed and wobbled into his grandfather's room, quietly whispering, "Grandpa, I don't feel good."
Xiao Yu'an got up early the next morning and went for a jog around their community with Xiao Mu'ting. After getting home, Xiao Yu'an sat at his writing desk and began to sketch out a plan for the rest of summer break.
It was already August, and summer break was half over. He'd finished his summer homework long before going to visit his other grandpa, but he still wanted to have some structure to the last weeks of his break. In his planner, he listed out the books he wanted to read. And, since Xiao Jinlan was starting to take piano lessons, Xiao Yu'an decided he wanted to learn to play an instrument too.
When he set his planner aside, he looked up and saw the silk pouch with two bracelets inside. Xiao Jinlan had told him to run over and give the bracelets to Ming Shu yesterday, but Xiao Yu'an had gotten home from the pool too late. He could only go over today.
He wondered if the little kid was still angry. But even if Ming Shu was still angry, the two bracelets would probably be enough to placate him.
Xiao Yu'an knew Ming Shu liked to sit in the garden. But when he went over to Ming Shu's house, he didn't see Ming Shu out front. He only saw Ming Shu's grandmother.
"He's sick," Ming Shu's grandmother said. "He came down with a fever last night. Heatstroke. Heat rashes all over. He's been taken to the hospital."
Heatstroke was common during the summer months, but Ming Shu was only five years old. It would be a disaster if he burned up and burned something important. In Xiao Yu'an's class, there was a boy who had suffered permanent damage to his eardrums after running a high fever. Now, that boy struggled with many everyday activities.
After asking where Ming Shu had been sent, Xiao Yu'an rushed out to the hospital right away. He couldn't stop thinking about the hopeful and expectant way Ming Shu had looked at him while waiting for a present. There had been no reason for Xiao Yu'an to prepare a present for him, and Xiao Yu'an had nothing to do with Ming Shu getting sick. And yet… he couldn't help but feel a little guilty.
Ming Shu was such a good kid. Falling sick after having his feelings hurt… it was only natural that the thought of it made Xiao Yu'an's heart ache.
When Ming Shu was taken to the hospital, he was a little happy. Of course, he was in a great deal of discomfort. But he thought his mother might visit him now. He even asked his grandfather to call her.
Ming Shu didn't know what his mother said over the phone, and his grandfather didn't tell him. He waited for her all morning, but she didn't come. By afternoon, he had started to lose hope.
"Grandfather." Ming Shu was hooked up to an IV drip, and his eyes were a little unfocused. He spoke weakly, without any energy. "Is Mama not coming?"
It was only then that his grandfather told him his mother was out of the country. She wouldn't be able to visit him.
Once more, Ming Shu felt like crying.
He didn't think his grandparents were bad people. When he got sick in the middle of the night, his grandmother and grandfather stayed up with him until dawn. At first light, they took him to the hospital. His grandmother had even made him fish stew for lunch.
But he wanted to see his mother. His mother had never spent time with him, not even when he was sick.
Ming Shu hid under the covers and held back his tears, but he couldn't stop some small whines and whimpers from escaping.
When Xiao Yu'an reached Ming Shu's hospital room, he was just in time to hear Ming Shu's whimpering. Ming Shu was all alone in that room. He was so small, and he looked even smaller with the way he'd curled up under the covers. An IV drip was still attached to his arm.
He was a sad, pitiable sight.