“Amitabha,” Lin and Zhao hold the door together. The fake monk huffs and pants and glares at the bouncing skulls outside the windows, “I’m losing hope in a world in which even skulls try to act cute! What is going on?”
Zhao turns and asks Wang, “what are these things that are coming for you? Not only do they bite people they even tried to bite you, are they not afraid of food poisoning from plasticisers?”
Lin has a mild hint that he might have said too much, and pulls at the Chief’s clothes.
The female class captain hears it and giggles. But she covers her mouth as the situation is rather inappropriate for laughing; and her classmates are all staring at her.
“It was 1712, a civil war broke out among the Hanga tribe.” Wang stands up with the help of Zhu and covers her face with the hoodie, “the rebels won, and the Old Headman died. His wives and children, and the one hundred and twelve warriors who followed him were all beheaded and burned. Their heads were buried in the courtyard of the watch house, and they would be enslaved for eternity.”
Zhu hesitates, “so these are their skulls in the courtyard?”
The skulls keep bashing at the door.
Chu Shuzhi instantly tears off his windbreaker; the sweater he wears underneath is very unfashionable, it has a lot of pockets on it, and he looks like a walking storage bag. He checks all of the pockets and gathers a few yellow paper talismans written in cinnabar powder. He sticks one on each corner of the door.
A faint white light shines from the talismans, and the skulls stop banging at the door.
Then, Chu starts sticking the talismans on the windows, the walls and all over the hut like posting advertisements. The skulls outside feel the power and move away from the hut.
Zhao stops holding the door; it’s freezing cold but he is soaked in sweat.
He sits besides the stove and adds some milk powder and mineral water to the cooking pot. He points at Wang, “let’s all drink some milk, and after we finish, you have to explain to me what’s happening.”
“Sorry.” Wang doesn’t talk much, and all she replies is, “you can throw me outside, if I’m not here then nothing will hurt you.”
Zhao calmly asks, “do you hear how ridiculous you sound?”
Although Wang looks frightening, she’s kind and reserved, always polite to everyone but never gets too close to anyone. She seldom talks like that; after Zhao’s comment, she looks down and doesn’t say anything.
Chu stands beside the window, and watches to make sure the skulls are not coming again. He signals to Zhao, “have someone stay up to keep an eye, and the others can go back to sleep. These things are not a big problem, no need to worry.”
Danger has just passed, and the tall bamboo guy is looking for more trouble, “Professor, can I go take a few pictures… I’m not going outside, just beside the window.”
Shen really wants to know how this kid grew up to have such a sense of adventure.
A grabby, dirty hand comes for Shen’s shoulder, and Zhao leans forward, lowering his voice, “it’s not against the rules to take pictures, but you have to know: it’s said that cameras can capture the souls of people. Do you want to bring a few ghosts to keep as pets?”
The bamboo guy trembles in fear after Zhao’s eerie, ghost-story-telling tone.
Zhao smiles and continues, “I guess you could bury them in flower pots, and then whenever midnight comes they will come out and start munching at the pots, munching at your table, and muching at your bed…”
Zhao has yet to finish, and the bamboo guy twitches in discomfort.
Shen’s mouth quivers, “are you alright?”
The boy’s face looks uneasy, and he stutters, “I… I… I have to pee.”
So scared that he’s wetting himself; Zhao is surprised. Soon, he laughs wildly and mockingly.
“It’s only three hours till sunrise.” Chu says, “my talismans can last for five hours, don’t worry… but you better wait till the sky is bright to go to toilet. If something wants to bite you, pee on it; virgin pee repels evil spirits, it might not kill them but they would probably get a brain concussion.”
Wang says softly, “I can stay up and…”
Zhao interrupts, “if something goes wrong, you can’t stop it; let me do it.”
He takes out a wind-resistant lighter, “anyone afraid of second-hand smoke? If not I’m gonna need this little precious to wake me up.”
The students are surprisingly calm; they giggle and return to their sleeping bags… perhaps Zhao makes everyone feel very safe, or maybe they weren’t fully awake.
Shortly, the hut is all quiet. Only the skulls rolling on the ground can be heard. Da Qing falls asleep in Zhao’s arms; Wang sits at a corner, thinking about something.
The torches are all turned off, and only the talismans are faintly glowing in the dark.
Zhao stands beside the window to block a small gap; he lights a cigarette.
When he was awakened by the weird noises, he saw Shen’s gaze. But Shen looked too embarrassed, so he pretended not to notice.
Zhao is almost certain that Shen didn’t just wake up from the noise, neither was he insomniac. His calm and satisfied expression and his convoluted but gentle gaze are heart-wrenching to watch, it’s as if… he had been staring at Zhao all night.
If Shen likes men and is falling for Zhao, that’s very normal… Zhao thinks of his own image as not too shabby: he has a stable income, is of a suitable age, not too old and not too childish. Though he suffers from mild machismo, he
does care for other people’s feelings, sometimes. And he never shows his animalistic ill-temper to people he’s not too close to, so others usually get the wrong impression that he is nice and capable.
But whether it’s lust, affection or just an impulsive crush, Zhao can’t imagine someone would stay up all night and watch him sleep with such passion and obsession.
Zhao thinks of the first time he met Shen.
He must have had a deep connection with Shen without even noticing it.
Zhao is lost in thought for a long time, till the entire cigarette is burned. He puts it off and inconsiderately throws it out the window. The cigarette hits a skull, and it turns black and stops moving.
Before ten years old he didn’t know anything, probably even had trouble telling men from women, so nothing could have happened then. For the periods when he was older, his memories are clear and in sequence, he remembers everything precisely.
There are indeed ways to mess with someone’s memory, for instance hypnosis, or other secret techniques that Zhao can think of. But these methods only prevent the person from recollecting the altered memories. Human experience is incredibly complex, and only that person himself can know in detail what happened.
For instance, if a guy had a car accident, when he looks back, he will realise the accident happened because he was running late. And why was he late? Cos he had a stomachache and was stuck in the toilet. Why did he have a stomachache? Cos he ate too much oily foods. And why did he eat so much? Cos his fast food coupon was gonna expire…
If he keeps going he would think of who gave him the coupon, was it from someone else or did he just get it on the streets, et cetera.
Every minute detail in someone’s memory can be recalled from interconnected events. No matter how smart you are, you can’t possibly figure out all the trivial details in a chain of events and alter them one by one.
If someone’s memory is manipulated, these details will be obscured, and when that person tries to recollect them, it would appear unnatural.
Coincidentally, Zhao is an expert in memory.
Since he was little he knew how fragile and crucial a person’s memory is. When Da Qing handed him the Guardian Order, the first lesson was teaching him to regularly reorganise his memories through meditation. Zhao is certain that he didn’t know Shen Wei before they met.
Then… perhaps the decent and charismatic Professor Shen is actually a stalker who has been in love with Zhao for a long time. But of course, Zhao knows that this is practically impossible. If anything, Zhao would be the creepy stalker.
Then perhaps, this “Shen Wei” is just a pretence, he isn’t just some normal guy.
If Zhao can’t find anything about him, either he is really ordinary, or he is really extraordinary.
Three hours passed by quickly. The sky begins to light up, and the skulls have all fallen to the ground, no longer moving. And the creepy flames have burnt out.
Zhao goes out to the courtyard to confirm that the sun has risen and the ghosts are gone, and he goes back inside and takes a nap by the wall.
“When it’s morning,” he thinks, “I will find a chance to talk to Shen.”
Zhao falls alseep thinking about him.
Perhaps this whole ordeal has really worn him out; Zhao quickly falls into a deep slumber.
An hour later, Zhu wakes him up.
Zhao realises someone gave him a blanket, and he instantly starts looking for Shen. But Zhu interrupts him.
She asks, “Chief Zhao, do you know where Wang is?”