"Don't cry anymore," Xiao Yu'an said. He grabbed the roll of toilet paper sitting on the nightstand next to the bed and tore off a big bundle to wipe the back of his hand clean. Then he tore off a bunch more to start cleaning Ming Shu's face.
Ming Shu didn't move or even fidget. He just let Xiao Yu'an wipe away his tears, staring up at Xiao Yu'an the whole time, without even blinking.
When Xiao Yu'an helped Ming Shu out of the tree, he'd already noticed that Ming Shu's eyelashes were extraordinarily long. They curled upwards too, like the lashes of a doll. After crying, Ming Shu looked even more like a doll.
Xiao Yu'an finished cleaning Ming Shu's face and even helped him blow his nose, which was something he'd never done for anyone before. After throwing away the soggy tissues, he turned back to Ming Shu and asked, "Did you mom cut off your eyelashes when you were born?"
When Xiao Jincheng was still a baby, Xiao Yu'an's aunt had told him and Xiao Mu'ting that she'd wanted to clip their eyelashes when they were infants. When they grew back, they would have curved up beautifully and grown to be especially long. But their older brothers had forbidden it, saying the kids were all boys. Why would they care if their eyelashes were long?
After telling them that story, their aunt cheekily asked if they would go stand guard for her while she clipped Jincheng's lashes.
In the end, she didn't get a chance to do the deed. Her eldest brother came back and stopped her before she could put her plan into motion.
That exchange had left a fairly deep impression on Xiao Yu'an. Ming Shu's eyelashes were so long, and they curved so prettily, that they must have been cut when he was a baby.
"Huh?" Ming Shu lifted a hand when he heard Xiao Yu'an's question. He touched his own eyelashes, then answered in a small voice, "No."
If she didn't, then she didn't. Xiao Yu'an couldn't figure out why that made Ming Shu's head droop again. Sometimes, it was really hard to guess what the little kid was feeling.
"My mother doesn't like me," Ming Shu explained after a moment. "She never hugs me, and she never comes home to see me. She wouldn't cut my eyelashes."
As Ming Shu spoke, Xiao Yu'an felt an intense wave of anguish emanating from the boy. So intense that it was almost corporeal. Sadness spilled out of Ming Shu like billowing clouds of smoke. Even after a few seconds, the fog of misery didn't dissipate.
Xiao Yu'an hugged Ming Shu again and patted him on the back. "Your mom must be really busy. She probably just doesn't have time to visit you."
And Xiao Yu'an wasn't saying that just for the sake of saying it. He knew from personal experience that it could very well be true. His own mother was a very busy person; she visited him even less often than his father. When he and his sister went to visit their other grandpa this summer, their father had been the one to pick them up and drop them off. Their mother hadn't shown her face.
But as soon as she had time, Xiao Yu'an's mother would visit him and Xiao Jinlan. As long as she had time, she would always come by to take them and their cousins out to play.
Xiao Yu'an naturally felt Ming Shu's mother must have been the same, only staying away because she was busy.
Ming Shu leaned against Xiao Yu'an and didn't say a word. He didn't seem at all comforted by Xiao Yu'an's reassurances. Xiao Yu'an decided to drop the subject for now. He didn't understand what the Ming family was really like. Later, he would have to ask his grandpa.
Ming Shu's grandfather, Ming Han, finally returned to the room. Upon spotting the bracelets on Ming Shu's wrists, he pulled a disapproving face. Fear seized Ming Shu's heart, and he hastily hid his hands behind his back.
Xiao Yu'an stood up and quickly explained that he'd brought the bracelets back from a recent trip out to the sea. They weren't expensive, and all the kids in the neighborhood had them. Grandfather Ming nodded subtly and uttered a word of thanks, then added that Ming Shu didn't need to wear glitzy, frivolous things and that Xiao Yu'an didn't need to give him anything like that in the future.
Xiao Yu'an was polite and well-mannered, so he simply nodded and said he understood. But in his heart, he fiercely opposed that sentiment.
Xiao Yu'an had met a lot of old men like Ming Han, and he wasn't afraid of them. In fact, most of the older veterans who lived in their military retirement community were like Ming Han—stoic, cold, and old-fashioned. Xiao Yu'an's own mild-mannered grandfather, who laughed and smiled all the time, was a rarity in their community.
When Xiao Yu'an ran into these older veterans, he would always greet them politely and even bow when appropriate. This was the first time he had ever felt loathing and disgust towards one of the seniors in their community.
And the reason for those hateful feelings was Ming Shu, a child who Xiao Yu'an didn't even know that well.
Ming Shu's hands were still hidden behind his back. Xiao Yu'an only needed to take one look at him to see that his eyes were filled with terror. Ming Shu was clearly afraid that his grandfather would force him to take off the bracelets.
The boy's chest was rising and falling sharply, and whimpers were escaping his lips again. But these weren't the same whimpers Xiao Yu'an had heard earlier, which carried a bit of a whine to them. These whimpers were soft and muffled, fiercely suppressed. It wasn't the whimpering of a petulant child, but the whimpering of a terrified one.
The scales in Xiao Yu'an's heart tipped even more in Ming Shu's direction.
Ming Shu peeked at his grandfather, then scooted farther away in bed. He scooted and scooted until he was nearly at the edge, where he bumped into Xiao Yu'an's arm. He tried to hide, even if it was no use.
It wasn't entirely a bad thing that Ming Han was so old-fashioned. There was one quality that these old-fashioned men shared. They cared about keeping up appearances, and they wouldn't air out their family's dirty laundry in front of other people. They wouldn't scold a child in front of other people.
Ming Shu receiving a gift wasn't a big deal in the end, and Ming Han simply let it go after warning Xiao Yu'an against giving Ming Shu any more gifts like that.
Before long, a doctor came in to check on Ming Shu. The doctor said Ming Shu could go home that night and come back in the morning for a check-up, but advised Ming Shu to stay at the hospital overnight. That way, if Ming Shu's condition worsened again, they would be able to treat him promptly.
Ming Han decided to let Ming Shu stay overnight. Xiao Yu'an kept Ming Shu company until well past four in the afternoon. When he finally got up and got ready to go, Ming Shu grabbed hold of one of his fingers and held on tight.
The gift Xiao Yu'an had given him and the tears Ming Shu had shed that afternoon had brought the two of them much closer. Xiao Yu'an had already thought Ming Shu was clingy and delicate. Now, Xiao Yu'an felt like Ming Shu was a piece of candy that had gotten stuck to him and refused to come unstuck.
Xiao Yu'an wasn't Ming Shu's relative; he couldn't just stay there all night. He had to get home to eat dinner, and he'd agreed to play badminton with Xiao Mu'ting that evening.
But Ming Shu was clinging to him again. He'd wrapped both arms around Xiao Yu'an's waist, and he was looking up at him with those big, pleading eyes.
In his language arts class, Xiao Yu'an had heard his teacher read excerpts from outstanding essays written by his peers. One student had written that the eyes were able to speak. Xiao Yu'an had thought that sounded like nonsense. If the eyes could speak, then what did people have mouths for?
But now he was starting to think that student might have had a point. Some people's eyes really could speak. And Ming Shu's eyes were saying—
Gege, don't go.
But Xiao Yu'an had already spent all afternoon with Ming Shu. He'd given Ming Shu a gift, he'd promised to make a paper gun with Ming Shu, and he'd told Ming Shu a bunch of Xiao Jincheng's childish jokes. Xiao Yu'an had never spoiled anyone that much. He really needed to leave.
Ming Shu held on for a while longer before letting go of his own accord. He got the feeling his gege was starting to get upset.
"Gege, can I play with you tomorrow?" Ming Shu whispered hesitantly.
Xiao Jinlan was going to her piano lessons tomorrow. Xiao Yu'an had planned on tagging along to check out the other courses and sign up for an instrument that suited him.
"You'll still need an IV tomorrow," Xiao Yu'an said.
"What if I don't need one?"
By the time Xiao Yu'an got home, everyone else was almost finished eating dinner. His family didn't have any customs or traditions when it came to mealtimes. They ate when it was time to eat, without waiting for anyone who happened to be missing. If anyone was late to a meal, they could go into the kitchen and help themselves to leftovers. It may have sounded heartless, but it was freeing.
Usually, Xiao Jincheng was the one who had to eat leftovers. When he went wild playing, he lost all sense of time. This time, it was Xiao Yu'an's turn to get himself some leftovers. Xiao Jincheng looked pretty proud of himself that night.
The sun set, coloring the horizon with fiery shades of red and orange. The summer heat had yet to subside, but Xiao Mu'ting was already holding their badminton rackets and harping on Xiao Yu'an to hurry up and join him.
Their community hosted a youth sports festival every summer, and it was quite a big deal. Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting had been the doubles badminton champions for the past three years in a row, and they planned on winning this year too.
When they talked to other people about the competition, they acted like it was no big deal. But deep in their hearts, they were both extremely serious about the tournament. Victory was a must; defeat was unacceptable.
They started playing when glowing, orange-red clouds of fire still hung high in the sky. By the time they finished, the sky was filled with stars. Because of everything that happened with Ming Shu that afternoon, Xiao Yu'an had accumulated a ton of pent-up energy.
He vented it all out on the badminton court. He sent spike after spike over the net, each one fiercer than the last. Xiao Mu'ting eventually got tired of taking such a beating and started fighting back with everything he had. In the end, both sides were left thoroughly exhausted.
"Where did you go today?" Xiao Mu'ting asked after collapsing onto the ground.
Xiao Yu'an didn't answer. Instead, he asked, "Have you ever heard of a kid not receiving a single gift until they were five?"
"Huh?" Xiao Mu'ting sat up and thought about it for a while. "Are you talking about the kid from the Ming family? That's impossible, right?"
It was much easier for the two of them to communicate without Xiao Jincheng around. They could exchange just a few words and understand each other perfectly.
Xiao Yu'an hummed a confirmation, then said, "His family is really strict."
"Then we should really send Xiao Jincheng over there," Xiao Mu'ting grumbled. His little brother was irritating enough to make him grind his teeth. "We should trade for Ming Shu."
Xiao Yu'an laughed. "You wouldn't be happy if we really did that."
The evening breeze was comfortable. A few mosquitoes buzzed around underneath the orange glow of the streetlights. After catching their breath, the two cousins made their way back to their house and headed straight for the refrigerator.
Xiao Mu'ting grabbed a mung bean popsicle. Xiao Yu'an suddenly felt like having a mint popsicle, but he rooted through the fridge for ages without finding a single one.
He wasn't the biggest fan of mint-flavored drinks or sweets. But for some reason, he'd had a mint soda at the pool yesterday, and today he felt like having a mint popsicle.
"Here." Xiao Mu'ting found the last mint popsicle in the freezer for him. "I thought you didn't like these?"
Xiao Yu'an didn't offer an explanation. He ripped open the package and headed out to the courtyard to eat. There, he could look up and see a sky full of twinkling stars.
Ming Shu was looking at the same stars in the same sky. Out on the balcony on the top floor of the hospital, the stars were especially bright. When he was younger, Ming Shu had loved the stars more than anything. But now, there was something he liked even more.
He looked at the stars for a while, then looked at his bracelets for a while. Smiling, he touched his wrists together.
The bracelets were prettier than the stars.
And his gege was better than the stars.