Ming Shu's hopes of visiting the ocean with his gege were left unfulfilled.
On the 27th of the last month of the lunar calendar, the Olympiad classes finally concluded their intensive training and the students were released for winter break. Ming Shu had already lugged his suitcase over to the Xiao family's house that morning, eagerly waiting to depart the next day.
Ming Shu had never been out of town before. In fourth grade, his school had arranged a skiing trip. The ski resort out in the suburbs of the city was the farthest he'd ever been from home. This time, Ming Shu had personally told his grandfather that he wanted to take a trip. Uncle Xiao had spoken to Ming Shu's grandfather as well, and it was only after that that Ming Shu's grandfather agreed to let Ming Shu spend New Year's out of town with his gege.
Uncle Xiao had already bought Ming Shu's plane ticket a week ago, and Jinlan-jiejie had just gotten back from college last night. She'd happily taken Ming Shu shopping as soon as she returned, treating him to food at a Western restaurant and buying him two sets of festive clothing.
"Kids should get dressed up for New Year's," Jinlan-jiejie said, patting his new clothes.
Ming Shu had liked Jinlan-jiejie ever since he was little. Although he thought his brand new New Year's clothes were a bit too colorful and flashy, he still happily put them on. After getting home that night, he ran off to show his gege, only to be shooed away and told to take a shower. After his shower, he had to get straight into bed.
He wasn't going home that night. The next morning, Uncle Xiao would come pick them all up bright and early.
"Scoot over," Xiao Yu'an said. He'd been busy all semester, and it was only now, after his last exam, that he could finally relax. He was sitting by the window, drying his hair.
Years ago, Xiao Yu'an had only found it a bit annoying to have Ming Shu rolling around in his bed. But Ming Shu was just a little thing back then. Even if he sprawled out, he would've only taken up a bit of space.
But things had changed. Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu had both grown bigger. There was no way to squeeze into one bed without inevitably touching or, in the summers, sticking to each other. Usually, Xiao Yu'an didn't let Ming Shu stay over anymore. No matter how hard Ming Shu pleaded, Xiao Yu'an always made him go home.
He'd only let Ming Shu stay tonight because tomorrow was a special occasion.
And that made the little thing so excited that he was rolling around like he was on a bouncy castle at a theme park.
"If you don't behave," Xiao Yu'an warned, "I'll throw you out."
That sort of threat already had no effect on Ming Shu. He continued rolling around, wrapped up in the blankets, and asked, "Gege, how long will we be on a plane tomorrow?"
"A bit more than three hours," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Gege, how big is the ocean?"
"Gege, can I go in the ocean and catch fish?"
"The ocean isn't a river."
"I'm really going to throw you out."
Ming Shu started to giggle, but then he suddenly saw a beam of headlights sweeping down the street outside.
It was already late, nearly eleven at night. The neighborhood was extremely quiet in the late evenings. Usually no cars came or went at that hour.
Xiao Yu'an glanced out the window and watched as that car came to a stop in front of the Ming family's house next door. A woman in a long overcoat, with her hair done up in a bun, stepped out of the car.
From a distance, Xiao Yu'an couldn't recognize that woman.
"Gege, what are you looking at?" Ming Shu asked, moving to climb off the bed.
Xiao Yu'an ushered him back and turned off the lights. "Go to sleep. We have to be up at six in the morning."
As soon as the lights went off, the sounds from outside seemed clearer. A few noises drifted over from the Ming family's house, and that car remained parked outside.
Ming Shu was excited for tomorrow. He grabbed onto his gege's hand and wouldn't let go. But Xiao Yu'an was still distracted by thoughts of that woman.
Who was she? Why had she come to the Ming family's house in the middle of the night?
Before long, footsteps sounded outside Xiao Yu'an's bedroom door. There was a knock, followed by the sound of his grandpa's voice: "Yu'an, open the door."
Xiao Yu'an turned the lights back on. He could tell, just by his grandpa's tone of voice, that something was wrong. But Ming Shu was still confused when he sat up and looked over at the door. When he saw his mother, who he hadn't seen in two years, he didn't recognize her right away.
In the past, his mother would visit him at his grandparents' place at least once per year. But then her visits grew more and more infrequent, until she rarely came at all. Ming Shu wasn't broken up about that anymore; he'd already accepted the fact that he wasn't loved by his parents. Sometimes, he didn't even consider himself a child of the Ming family, but rather a child of the Xiao family.
He had long since stopped hoping to spend New Year's with his mother and father.
But now, when he was getting ready to go on a trip with his gege, his parents suddenly reappeared together and wanted to take him away.
His mother's eyes were red, like she had been crying for a long time. His father stood behind her; his face was expressionless.
Ming Shu stared at them like they were two strangers.
He had spent more time with Uncle Xiao and Auntie Xiao than he had with his own parents. Xiao Yu'an's parents were extremely affectionate. They would put an arm around each other even in front of the kids, unlike Ming Shu's parents.
The night became a blur for Ming Shu. He heard the adults speaking quietly to one another, but he couldn't hear what they were saying. His ears felt like they had filled up with water.
His gege swiftly dressed him in a jacket and wrapped him up in a scarf. His gege helped him put on his socks and shoes, too.
Ming Shu could actually hear what they were saying, but he didn't want to listen, so he forced himself not to hear. If his gege was helping him get dressed, that must have meant it was already morning. Uncle Xiao must have already arrived. They would leave soon, and his gege was only helping him into his clothes because he was being a lazybones and refusing to get out of bed.
But even as Ming Shu tried to convince himself that that was reality, he was pushed towards his mother, who took his hand and led him downstairs.
His mother's hand was cold, and she was trembling. Ming Shu felt like he was supposed to comfort his mother, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. When they got downstairs, he kept looking over his shoulder, and his gege was right behind them.
But why hadn't his gege changed out of his pajamas? Hadn't Jinlan-jiejie bought new clothes for his gege too?
Why didn't his gege have his luggage with him? Before going to bed, Ming Shu had put his little suitcase next to Xiao Yu'an's. Why was his gege only carrying Ming Shu's suitcase right now?
And why was his gege frowning?
What was his gege worried about?
What were these voices all around him? What were they saying?
It was only when Ming Shu was pushed into the back of a car that the sensation of water cleared out of his ears. Now, he heard everything.
His mother's father—his other grandfather, who he'd never met—had passed away. That was why his mother and father had suddenly come to pick him up. The three of them had to attend his maternal grandfather's memorial service.
The car slowly began to move through the community, towards the gates. Besides Ming Shu's mother and father, there were two other people in the car. Ming Shu didn't recognize either of them.
They were taking him away. They were taking him away from his gege and the sea.
He still hadn't seen the ocean yet.
Suddenly, Ming Shu grabbed onto the handle of the car door and started to shake it furiously. If the doors hadn't been locked, he surely would have flung the door open and rolled out of the car.
Wen Yue was obviously startled. She quickly reached out and pulled him away from the door.
But this was just a pull. Not the sort of embrace a mother would give her son when she thought he was in danger.
"What are you doing?" she hissed reproachfully.
"Let me out! I want to go back!" he shouted, struggling frantically. "I don't want to leave! I'm going to the sea with my gege, to see his other grandpa!"
A resounding slap sounded out in the car.
The slap landed across Ming Shu's face and set him flying backwards. His forehead hit the car window with a muffled thunk.
A buzzing instantly filled his head, but he continued to shout, "I want to go back! I don't want to go with you!"
"Your other grandfather passed away. Who do you think you're going to see?!" his mother demanded. She was his very own mother, but not only had she slapped him, she was shrieking at him with a borderline hysterical look on her face.
Ming Shu glared at her with his eyes wide open. As his gaze bored into hers, there was still only one thought running through his mind—to get out of the car, return to the Xiao family, and spend New Year's by the sea with his gege.
But how could a fifth grader win against his parents? The car had already pulled out of their residential community and started sailing down streets unfamiliar to Ming Shu.
His cheek burned with pain, and his mother's sobs filled his ears. His father didn't utter a single word.
After slowly coming back to his senses, Ming Shu gradually understood what he'd been told. That his maternal grandfather had passed away. But he felt no sorrow over that fact.
He knew this had been a relative of his.
But so what? Ming Shu still remembered how his gege had gone to visit his other grandpa by the sea back when they first met. After hearing his gege talk about his other grandpa, Ming Shu had asked his own grandfather if he could visit his other grandparents as well. He'd asked his grandfather to call his mother and ask.
But what did his mother say?
Ming Shu could no longer remember. But in all the years since then, his mother had never taken him to see his other grandfather.
And his parents had never come back to have New Year's dinner with him either.
What right did they have to take him away now?
He didn't want to see his other grandfather now.
And he didn't need his parents anymore.