MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 40

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The funerary music droned on for seven days. Ming Shu, dressed in mourning clothes, was periodically introduced to adults he'd never seen before. The mourning clothes didn't fit him. They enveloped him like an oversized burlap sack. When the wind picked up, it could sweep him right off his feet if he wasn't paying attention.

Not everyone wore mourning attire. In fact, most people wore black suits or dresses. They looked solemn and reserved.

Ming Shu knew who the others in mourning clothes were. They were nominally his brothers and sisters—grandchildren of the deceased, expected to don proper mourning garments to pay their respects.

But Ming Shu scoffed at the responsibility placed upon his shoulders.

He'd long since reached an age where he understood the ways of the world. When he was younger, he longed for the affection of his family. But now, he rejected that same affection he'd once yearned for. His paternal grandfather and grandmother, for better or worse, at least took care of him. But what had the Wen family ever done for him?

They hadn't been loving elders to him. And now he was expected to play the part of a filial grandchild?

The trip he'd planned with his gege had fallen through, and the dagger he'd planned to give his gege had been lost. Anger burned in his heart, but he held it in. Day after day, he swallowed it back down and successfully contained it. He didn't explode at the funeral.

Because he knew it would have been wrong. It would have been shameful to lose his temper there. His gege had taught him a lot throughout the years. Once, Ming Shu's mother had told him boys weren't supposed to cry. Ming Shu's gege had been the one to tell him that he could cry.

Listen to me, Xiao Yu'an had said. Listen to your gege.

It was okay to cry.

His gege had told him that holding back his tears wasn't a sign of strength, and letting them out wasn't a sign of weakness. The thing that was truly important for boys was to be responsible and reliable.

These words had been engraved upon Ming Shu's heart. Although he felt nothing for his deceased relative, and although he didn't want to play the part of a filial grandchild, he understood. He was reasonable. It was his responsibility to do so.

When her father was entombed, Wen Yue was both saddened and exhausted. All through the afternoon, after waking from his midday nap, Ming Shu sat in place and stared at her with blank, expressionless eyes. The sight gave Wen Yue a strange sensation of panic.

This was her own child, and she was at her mother's home. There shouldn't have been any reason for her to feel panicked.

"You…" Wen Yue straightened and did her best to look calm and composed. Politely, she asked, "Is there something you need?"

When Ming Shu was little, he would be so excited that he couldn't sleep every time his mother visited him at his grandfather's house. He would always want her to hug him or kiss him, but even when she did hug him, it was extremely tense and forced.

Now, he could no longer see the woman sitting before him as his mother.

When these people came and took him away from his gege's house, Ming Shu had been fiercely slapped by this woman. His head had slammed into the glass of the car window. He couldn't remember whether it hurt or not, but he could remember the buzzing that had filled his head.

Like a vile swarm of flies.

"Did you take my suitcase?" Ming Shu asked.

He thought he was doing a very good job of managing his turbulent emotions. He didn't allow any anger or malice to show on his face, and he kept his voice perfectly even and calm. He hadn't thrown a fit and disturbed the funeral over his lost dagger, because his gege had taught him to be responsible and reliable.

Now that the funeral was over, he had to get the dagger back.

But this calm and expressionless demeanor of his was cold and repulsive in Wen Yue's eyes.

How could a child speak to an adult like this?

Wen Yue's heart filled with anger, and she instantly stood up. "I don't have time to worry about your luggage."

Ming Shu lifted his head and met Wen Yue's gaze. He had once feared his mother while yearning for her affection. Now, both those feelings were gone. He only cared about retrieving his gift for his gege.

"I put a dagger in that suitcase," he said, lifting his hands to indicate its size. "An ornate dagger. I wanted to give it to my gege. The suitcase is gone. I can't find it."

Wen Yue furrowed her brow. She got the feeling that this unsettlingly calm child wasn't her child at all.

Ming Shu hadn't been like this when he was younger. His eyes had been big and bright. They always seemed to flash with light when he talked to people, and he always smiled so brilliantly. When he reached out with his little hands and shyly called out for his 'mama', he always seemed like he wanted to get closer but didn't quite dare.

Wen Yue had known, back then, that Ming Shu was trying to get close to her. But how could she let him do that?

Her marriage to Ming Haofeng was nothing more than a business transaction. She could have led a different life entirely, but she was ensnared by this arranged marriage. For a while, she had been afraid to even look at Ming Shu. The mere sight of him reminded her of everything she had lost in life.

She felt almost crazed when she looked at him.

But now, looking at the cold child before her, she found that she almost missed the bashful boy who'd always tried to please her and win her favor.

She didn't want to admit it, but she was a little afraid of this new Ming Shu.

In order to hide her fear, she put on an angry and arrogant air and even raised her voice. "Don't ask me about some knife. Ming Hao… your father has already thrown it away."

She remembered that dagger. Ming Shu's suitcase had been taken aside and inspected at the security checkpoint before they boarded their flight. The dagger was obviously a prohibited item. Ming Haofeng had looked it over, then promptly thrown it out.

In their eyes, the dagger wasn't anything worth saving.

Ming Shu's face finally showed some emotion. "Thrown away?"

"It's your own fault," Wen Yue continued. "Who told you to pack a knife in your suitcase? This kind of dangerous thing clearly can't be brought onto an airplane!"

Ming Shu clenched his fists. Losing the dagger was a big deal to him, but Wen Yue's reaction, strangely enough, actually diluted his anger.

Because he thought she was laughably ridiculous.

When he faced a problem, he knew he was supposed to reflect upon his own actions before trying to blame anyone else. Did Wen Yue not know that?

He stared at Wen Yue, and Wen Yue stared back at him. But that moment didn't last long. Wen Yue quickly covered her own eyes with one hand and said, "I'm tired. Don't bother me with such trivial things."

"That was a gift for my gege," Ming Shu said. "I'm not trying to bother you. I just want to get it back."

"You can't get it back! It's gone! It's been thrown away! Do you not understand? It was thrown away by Ming Haofeng!" Wen Yue suddenly shrieked. She tore open a drawer of the nightstand and fished out a credit card, flinging it down onto the ground beside Ming Shu. "Go buy yourself another one, buy whatever you want! Just don't bother me!"

Ming Shu didn't pick up the card.

He did believe Wen Yue should pay him back for the dagger. It had been 329 yuan. Not a single cent of that debt deserved to be forgiven.

But he didn't want to bend down and pick up the card.

"Get out!" Wen Yue demanded, pointing sharply at the door. Her arm trembled. "Get out, right now!"

Ming Shu stood up, but didn't move from that spot. "Give my dagger back to me."

Wen Yue's rage bubbled over. She screamed, "Don't you know how to buy one yourself?! What was so special about that knife? Why do you have to ask me for it?"

"Because you were the one who suddenly came to fetch me. That's why my dagger was lost. If I don't ask you for it, who should I ask?" Ming Shu took a step forward. His sneakers touched the edge of the card on the ground. "I don't want a different knife. I want that one."

As she watched the slowly approaching child, Wen Yue's head began to ache like it was splitting apart. She felt, fiercely, like she never should have given birth to such a monster—yes, in her mind, Ming Shu was a monster. And this monster was approaching her, demanding recompense.

Unable to restrain herself, she lifted her hand again and swung with all her might at Ming Shu's face.

But what followed wasn't a repeat of what had happened in the car. Ming Shu dodged. Not only was he not slapped, he reached out and caught Wen Yue's wrist in midair.

Wen Yue jerked back, hard. But she couldn't free herself at first. Although she did manage to struggle free after a moment, she'd nearly been trapped by Ming Shu's grip. By a fifth grader!

That only made her panic rise, until she let out a chilling scream.

A sense of satisfaction rose in Ming Shu's chest. He continued, relentless, "You lost my dagger. Give it back to me."

He repeated himself again and again, like a mantra.

Wen Yue lashed out again, this time knocking over a vase and smashing it against the ground. The commotion drew a crowd of people from the Wen family. Ming Haofeng wasn't staying at that house. He and Wen Yue played the part of a perfect couple during the funeral proceedings, but he spent the nights at a hotel; they didn't share a bed.

The people who rushed in separated Wen Yue and Ming Shu. Wen Yue continued to sob and scream, and Ming Shu didn't say a word.

He heard those people ask Wen Yue, soothingly, if she'd forgotten to take her medication. They spoke to her with warmth and care, as though Ming Shu were the one who'd wronged her.

Ming Shu didn't want to stay there for even one more minute. He could forget about the dagger. He just wanted to go home.

He wanted to go back to his gege's home.

Even if his gege and Jinlan-jiejie weren't there, he wanted to go back. Xiao Jincheng must have been doing his homework right around then, with Ting-ge supervising. Ting-ge would find tons of problems left blank on Xiao Jincheng's homework papers, and just like that, they would start fighting again…

Ming Haofeng did make another trip to the Wen family's house, after Wen Yue called him.

"You shouldn't speak to your mother like that. She's unwell," Ming Haofeng said to Ming Shu. He was tall and sturdy, almost overwhelmingly so.

Still, Ming Shu only lifted his head and asked, "Where's my dagger?"

Ming Haofeng frowned.

He had sent Ming Shu off before Ming Shu could form memories. Ming Shu's grandparents had raised him for his whole life, and Ming Haofeng knew that Ming Shu's grandparents—his own parents—were strict and severe. He'd expected them to raise Ming Shu into an obedient, well-behaved, and sensible young man.

But Ming Shu had simply asked him, so directly, about the dagger.

The child's face still had a childlike quality to it, but his eyes had already become like knives.

Who had raised Ming Shu to act this way? He was insolent, rude, unreasonable!

It definitely hadn't been Ming Haofeng's own father.

Ming Haofeng had long since known of Ming Shu's frequent visits to the Xiao family's house next door, but he'd always been too disinterested to care. The Xiao family and the Ming family were both respectable families, and Ming Haofeng had known Xiao Lanyue for many years. He'd never imagined allowing Ming Shu to associate with the Xiao family would turn him into this kind of hostile child.

With the cold anger of a grown man bearing down on him, Ming Shu couldn't help but feel some fear and trepidation no matter how hard he tried to square his shoulders and keep his back straight. Ming Shu took a step back and cautiously continued, "I want to go home. When will you send me home?"

Ming Haofeng took a step forward. "Who taught you to speak to your elders with that kind of attitude?"

 

Ever since New Year's Eve, the coast had enjoyed good weather. The sun shone brightly in the sky every day, warming everyone its rays touched. Xiao Yu'an's whole family—him, his sister, and their parents—had come to visit his maternal grandpa that year, and they'd planned on staying until the 10th.

But Xiao Yu'an couldn't stop worrying about Ming Shu. Every time he thought about the way Ming Shu had looked when he was taken away, Xiao Yu'an wondered if he should go back earlier. By the 3rd, he was seriously considering moving up his return date.

His maternal grandfather was getting on in years, and his health wasn't very good. The days Xiao Yu'an could spend with him were numbered, and it was rare for him to have a long enough break to come visit. He knew he shouldn't leave early.

But he really couldn't stop worrying about Ming Shu.

"I'm worried about the little sprout too," Xiao Jinlan said one evening, as she and her little brother took a walk along the beach. "Why don't you go back first? I'll keep Grandpa company."

Xiao Yu'an turned. With just one look, he could tell that Xiao Jinlan had guessed what he'd been thinking about all this time. That was why she'd brought this up now.

"Aiyaya, don't look at me like that," Xiao Jinlan said, laughing and covering her face. "Don't you know your sister can't tolerate handsome men?"

Xiao Yu'an tsked and laughed as well.

Xiao Jinlan slapped him on the shoulder. "My winter break is long. If I go back, I'll have to deal with you three ruffians and a little sprout. It's better for me to stay with Grandpa here for a while longer."

Xiao Yu'an nodded. "I'll think about it some more."

"What is there to think about?" Xiao Jinlan asked, smiling. "You're his gege."

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