MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 22

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Many children didn't like going to kindergarten. They felt like teachers nagged too much and stole away their freedom. But Ming Shu was different; he quite liked going to school. There were lots of kids there, and he had more fun than he did when he was home alone.

What he didn't like was getting out of school in the afternoons.

His grandfather picked him up every day. Outside the kindergarten, there were countless stalls and booths selling colorful toys and snacks. There were rainbow pinwheels and sugary sweets, and all sorts of knickknacks that caught Ming Shu's eye. There was so much that he liked, so much that he wanted. But his grandfather never bought him anything, only saying that boys didn't play with these things.

Food was even more out of the question. His grandfather said all the snacks from those food carts and street stalls were dirty.

The more Ming Shu was denied something, the more he wanted it. Whenever he got out of kindergarten, his heart itched with yearning for those colorful trinkets laid out in front of the school.

Half the people who came to pick up their kids were parents, and the other half were grandparents. Ming Shu had often hoped his mother would pick him up one day. He dreamt of her buying him a golden pinwheel that would spin and spin and spin in the breeze, all the way home.

But it was always his cold, silent grandfather who came to pick him up.

Over time, Ming Shu became a little afraid of getting out of school.

He happily played with the other kids during school hours, but as soon as it came time to go home, he felt as though he'd turned into Cinderella.

Last year, Little Tao-laoshi had read the kids a fairy tale about Cinderella riding her pumpkin carriage and wearing her crystal slippers to a royal ball. But the magic dissipated at midnight, and Cinderella left behind one crystal slipper as she fled.

Of course, Ming Shu wasn't Cinderella. He was a Cinder-boy, and the end of kindergarten was like midnight to him. The magic that made him happy disappeared, and he felt sadder and sadder as he watched the other kids run outside to buy various toys and sweets.

Ming Shu sat on a little yellow stool and stared at the clock on the wall. He heaved a heavy sigh.

School ended at 5:00, and it was now 4:50 already. In just ten minutes, the magic would wear off.

"How old are you? Already sighing like an adult at your age?" Little Tao-laoshi teased.

Little Tao-laoshi was very pretty. She always wore her hair in twin ponytails. When she heard Ming Shu sigh, she stooped down in front of him and waved a little ball before his eyes. "Does this little baobei have something on his mind?"

Ming Shu nodded, then shook his head and hurriedly sat up straight. "No, nothing."

"Then let's hurry up, it's time to get ready to go home." Little Tao-laoshi extended a hand to him. "I saw your grandpa just now. Your grandpa is so lovely, coming to pick you up every day."

Ming Shu's head drooped, and he started to pout.

"Is our little baobei throwing a tantrum?" Little Tao-laoshi smiled and patted the top of Ming Shu's head. "Don't pout anymore. Go find your grandpa."

There was always a commotion outside the kindergarten at this time. It was when the kids were most energetic, calling out for whatever had caught their eye that day.

"Mommy, I want cotton candy!"

"Grandmama, I want chicken drumsticks today."

"Papa, I want some new marbles!"

Ming Shu was wearing new clothes, new shoes, and a new backpack that day. He walked over to his grandfather with his head hanging low. He didn't dare look left or right. That day, he had been surrounded by the other kids in kindergarten because he looked too nice in his new outfit. His backpack had also caught their attention. Chen Yaya had openly envied Ming Shu for his new backpack and had even put on his backpack at one point to prance around in front of a mirror.

All of Ming Shu's new clothes and school supplies had come from his mother. She bought him everything he needed, and once in a while his father would buy him something as well. But they rarely ever brought him new things in person; they usually mailed what he needed directly to his grandparents' house.

If it hadn't been for the praise of his classmates, Ming Shu wouldn't have realized his clothes and backpack looked nice. He was giddy all morning after receiving their attention, but now his spirits were sinking again. Chen Yaya was right in front of him, being carried by a papa and holding a colorful balloon.

Chen Yaya envied him? He was the one who envied Chen Yaya.

Ming Shu followed his grandfather. They were almost at the end of the road full of street stalls now. Ming Shu finally couldn't resist any longer and snuck a peek at his surroundings. Right away, he realized he shouldn't have looked up at all.

His eyes landed on a booth that sold yo-yos. There were yo-yos of every color imaginable there, and some even glowed in the dark. The owner of the booth was throwing around one in each hand, as expertly as the professionals in acrobatics shows on TV.

Yo-yos were a toy that had just become popular that year. Many children were desperate to have one. Ming Shu was a good kid, but no matter how good he was, he was only five years old. There was no way he could keep walking after seeing that display.

Many kids and adults were crowded around the yo-yo booth, and the owner could hardly take their money fast enough. There was a sparkly yo-yo with alternating blue and green stripes that Ming Shu wanted so, so badly. He couldn't help but run towards the booth, taking just a few small steps before tugging on his grandfather's sleeve.

"Grandpa, grandpa. I want a yo-yo."

His grandfather only glanced over at the stall. "Flashy little thing. What's the point of it?"

Ming Shu was usually very well-behaved. He'd asked his grandfather and grandmother for toys outside the kindergarten before, but as soon as they said no, he would drop the subject. But this yo-yo looked really, really, really cool.

Maybe the yo-yo was too captivating. Or maybe he had been spoiled too much by all the toys at the Xiao family's home over the summer. For whatever reason, Ming Shu just couldn't accept the refusal this time. He continued pleading, trying to convince his grandfather to buy him the yo-yo.

But his grandfather had never indulged him before. Finally, he snapped, "Are you going to behave or not?"

Ming Shu hadn't been scolded so fiercely in a long time. He had spent most of his summer at the Xiao family's house, and no one there ever yelled at him. Xiao Jincheng teased him sometimes when Xiao Yu'an wasn't looking, but that was all. Now, with his grandfather suddenly snapping at him again, Ming Shu felt a bolt of fear shoot through him. He was so startled and alarmed that tears sprang into his eyes and began to fall.

Despite that, his grandfather refused to buy him anything. He grabbed Ming Shu's forearm and dragged him away from the yo-yo stall.

Xiao Yu'an just so happened to witness the whole thing from across the street. A small frown furrowed his brow.

From his position, Xiao Yu'an couldn't hear what the grandfather and grandson were saying to each other. He couldn't hear Ming Shu crying, either. But he could see Ming Shu wiping tears away with the back of his hand, and he could see Ming Shu struggling to free his arm from his grandfather's unforgiving grip.

Xiao Yu'an had never seen Ming Shu act this way before. When Ming Shu was with him, he was always extremely well-behaved. At most, he would be a little too sticky and clingy when he wanted something. But this sort of scene was very familiar to Xiao Yu'an. Didn't Xiao Jincheng act like this all the time?

It seemed even the little sprout could be as unreasonable as Xiao Jincheng sometimes.

But after watching for a while, Xiao Yu'an began to feel like that wasn't right. Xiao Jincheng often acted out for no reason, and after he threw a tantrum, he usually got what he wanted. Ming Shu wasn't acting up nearly as fiercely as Xiao Jincheng, and Ming Han was already starting to haul him away.

Ming Shu wasn't being unreasonable or shamelessly spoiled. He just wanted a yo-yo.

The other kids from Xiao Yu'an's class had gone ahead to the ice skating rink. Xiao Yu'an was the only one who stayed behind, rooted in place. When Cheng Yue noticed him missing, he searched for ages before finding Xiao Yu'an near the kindergarten.

"Oi, Xiao-ge. What are you standing there for? You wanna go back to kindergarten?"

Xiao Yu'an looked up. "You guys go ahead."

"Huh?" Cheng Yue blinked. "You really want to go to kindergarten?"

"I'm going to buy something," Xiao Yu'an said, starting to cross the street. "You guys go first, I'll catch up later."

By the time Xiao Yu'an reached the other side of the street, Ming Shu and Ming Han were gone. Xiao Yu'an squeezed through the crowd around the street stalls. The kids gathered around were so noisy that his head began to ache.

Over the summer, Xiao Yu'an had started to think little kids weren't that bad. Ming Shu had stuck to him all the time, and he hadn't been all that annoying. This little kid just blinked up at him with his big eyes and called him 'gege'. This little kid was so well-behaved and obedient. This little kid followed him everywhere, and every time he started mumbling to himself, he would stop as soon as Xiao Yu'an reminded him to cut it out. He was a good, quiet kid.

But now Xiao Yu'an was starting to think little kids were pretty annoying after all. The kids in this crowd were like little monsters. Way too noisy.

Fortunately, the yo-yo stall was near the edge of the street. Xiao Yu'an didn't have to push too far through the crowd to get to the shop owner.

Xiao Yu'an was already too old for this sort of toy. He didn't know which one to buy, so he just looked at the biggest and most expensive ones.

"For your didi?" the shop owner asked as he picked up a sparkly, blue-and-green yoyo. "How about this one? A little kid was just here, crying to his grandpa about wanting this one, but his grandpa wouldn't buy it for him. Little boys might all like this color."

Xiao Yu'an wasn't sure if the shop owner was right about which one Ming Shu had pointed to, because Xiao Yu'an himself didn't think the blue-and-green yo-yo looked that good. After thinking about it for a moment, he figured he may as well buy two. He chose a red-and-gold yo-yo as well.

He would let Ming Shu pick one. Xiao Jincheng could have the other.

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