In the evening, Guo Changcheng leaves the care centre for children with autism. The sky is murky, and the streets are not easy to get through as snow has just fallen in Dragon City. He can only drive like a snail in the snow, and pray that he will get there before the post office closes.
His small battered car is stuffed with all kinds of books: some are textbooks and exercises, some are young fiction; all wrapped in multiple layers of kraft paper and plastic wrapping. Pile after pile, neatly arranged; at a glance, it looks very much like a delivery from purchasing books online.
Guo plans on giving these to a primary school he is sponsoring before the New Year.
His driving skills are rather mediocre, and he is not very brave. On the slippery road, his car crawls like a giant tortoise, and still, he almost bumps into someone.
A person in grey dashes out into the traffic, and almost rolls under the wheels of Guo’s car. Several cars stop abruptly, luckily everyone has been driving slowly, so no further chaos is caused.
A grumpy driver rolls down the window. He bellows, “Are you sick!? Find somewhere quieter for racketeering, will ya?
But Guo isn’t as fierce. He’s frightened, and his palms are drenched in sweat. He scrambles off the car and his voice shivers, “You… Are you okay? Sorry, I’m really sorry.”
The person who fell is really skinny, so skinny as to appear deformed. A weathered and withering face, the wide brim hat covers almost half the face, as if the whole person is shrouded in darkness. With skin in the colour of a pale yellow, the person looks to be on the verge of death.
The angry driver is still yelling, “Hey bro, leave him, will ya? He’s a lunatic! Why didn’t you just run him over?”
Guo indecisively waves towards the angry driver, but as he looks at the person in front of him, he is even more terrified. He hesitantly extends his hands to help, “Can you stand up? How about… how about I send you to the hospital?”
But the person in a hat doesn’t accept his help and quickly squats his hands away, facing up and staring at Guo. The eyes look dead, and the gaze inexplicably petrifying. Guo shivers.
Then, the person with a hat stands up, and without looking at him again, hurries off.
Guo notices a black stain under their ear as they pass by, like a fingerprint left by a finger covered in ash.
He helplessly stands in place, and shouts from behind, “Are you really okay? How about I give you my contact, if there’s anything you can call me, my name is…”
But the hat-wearer takes a turn into a narrow alley, and is gone.
The angry driver leaves too, and as he does, he says to Guo in the freezing cold, “Bro, you stupid or what?”
Guo sighs. He opens the door to his car. As he does, he sees a person in the reflection… the person with a hat.
The hat-wearer stealthily hides in a corner. Then, two women pass by, and as they do, the hat-wearer suddenly opens its mouth and its head morphs into a half-human form. A several-inch tongue slithers out, and the creature sucks the two passers-by.
Guo’s eyes widen. One of the two women stumbles and almost faints as if from low blood pressure. Luckily, the other helps her stand. Guo cannot make out what they’re saying. He only sees a cloud of substance floating from the body of the woman who almost passed out, which flies into the agape jaw of the hat-wearer.
Guo is astonished, and looks back abruptly. But he sees nothing except a snow-laden street and normal pedestrians.
He scrambles into his car, heart thundering. He pulls out the stun baton Zhao gave him, and stuffs it in a pocket in his jacket, patting on it heavily. It’s as if he found his mainstay, and slowly drives forward.
That stun baton really is the best thing he got from SIU, besides his salary.
The next day, Guo arrives at work, and Zhu Hong’s cafeteria card flies on to his face, “Little Guo, I want a beef cake today, the very crunchy ones, and get me a soured milk too!”
Guo puts down his bag and without saying anything other than a simple “yes”, he rushes to the cafeteria. He runs into Chu Shuzhi who’s munching half a deep-fried cake. Guo stands upright and greets, “Good morning, Brother Chu.”
Chu gives him the cold shoulder, and only glances at him, “Uh.”
He keeps walking, but quickly walks back. He grabs Guo by the collar, and pulls him back, “Hold on, did you run into something dirty?”
Guo stares at him stupidly.
Chu’s hands that smell like deep-fried cakes grab him by his shoulders, and turn him around, patting on the back of his heart and both sides of his waist. Then, Chu wipes his hands with a paper towel, and pushes Guo away, “You were oozing bad luck. Alright, now you’re clean, you can go.”
Guo’s face and ears redden. He runs off with tiny steps. Chu finishes off his meal, “What has this kid been cultivating, his virtue is so thick that it’s dripping oil.”
Hungry Zhu swallows saliva, it sounds like he is describing a tasty pig.
“Food! Food!!!” Zhao crashes the door open, and without saying anything, searches Chu’s body. He finds an egg, and takes it as if it’s his.
Chu is furious but dares not say anything.
Then, Zhao takes out a pack of milk, and drinks it.
Da Qing howls, “That’s mine! Mine! You’re robbing cat food! You shameless prick!”
Zhao looks at it without a care, “Yea I did… short fatty, what can you do?”
Da Qing has nothing to say.
“Why don’t you go to the cafeteria…” Zhu says.
“I’m in a hurry.” Zhao finishes, and crashes into a wall. Guo comes back with a beef cake and sees this. There is not enough time for him to be scared, and Zhao already passes through the wall and disappears.
“You can close your mouth.” Zhu takes her breakfast, “There’s a door to the library, you’re not capable of understanding anything inside, so naturally you can’t see the door either.”
Chu gobbles down his fried cake, and still feels one egg away from full. He quickly snatches a small piece from Zhu’s beef cake, “Better than me, I can see it but can’t get inside… the library is not open to me.”
Guo asks, “Why not?”
Chu’s grouchy face turns into an eerie smile, and says to him, “Because I have a criminal record.”
Guo is left silenced.
He really is still frightened of his Brother Chu.
A while later, Zhao hurries out of the “wall” with a rotten old book. He throws the egg shell and empty milk packet into Guo’s rubbish bin, and snatches a paper towel from Zhu’s desk. Without a word, he scurries off with a strong breeze at his feet.
And then he disappears for one whole day.
It’s been half a month since returning from the snowy mountain ranges. In the blink of an eye, new year passes. Then Dragon City quickly gets cold in the stormy weather, which brings everybody towards the Lunar New Year.
Chief Zhao is so incredibly busy that he is almost forgetting his own name. He has to prepare gifts for all those with connections, and receive all the gifts from fair-weather friends in all sorts of places. There are non-memorisable dealings, unfulfillable gatherings, and incompletable work reports and meetings. The phone in his office is becoming a railway ticketing hotline.
New calendars are displayed on the working desks in all departments. This day, the sky goes dark early, and Sang Zan floats to criminal investigations before the day-workers leave.
This comrade has a tough life. He was a ruthless conspirator when he was alive, and he entered the Pillar of Nature upon death, being trapped in a lightless and timeless prison for centuries, until he is ready now to lead a new life… no, afterlife. And yet he realises his transformation from conspirator to moron: he can’t even understand human language anymore.
Wang Zheng is the only one left who can communicate with him in the whole wide world. And although Hanga language is Wang’s mother tongue, she only spoke it for less than twenty years, the some three centuries afterwards she has been speaking mandarin. When Sang realises that Wang is much more fluent when she talks to humans and other ghosts, he is determined to learn mandarin.
There’s no holding back when Sang is dead-set on a goal: he even poisoned his own wife and child. In half a month, he almost spends every of his waking moment murmuring Pinyin into Wangs’s ears, which almost gives Wang the ghost neurasthenia. Finally, he begins to grasp the basic rules of pronunciation, and he is now capable of parroting, even making some simple conversations on his own.
Sang spouts out one word after another in putonghua, and announces, “Gelan said at the end of the year besides year… year-end ‘bawnus’, there will be extra benafeets, so… everyone please send, send your flour.”
He hasn’t memorised it well, and is clearly mouthing without understanding what he’s saying.
Lin Jing asks, “Amitabha. What are we sending flour for, are we making steamed buns for New Year’s Eve?”
Sang says while gesturing, “Not bans, it’s ‘sending flour’, butter be ‘trunspart fees’…”
“Chief Zhao said besides year-end bonus we’ll get an additional five thousand as extra benefits. Come get it from me by this weekend, and send me the receipts next week. Better be transport fees, but it can also be labour insurance.” Wang floats downstairs hurriedly, and glares at Sang, “Can’t even speak properly.”
Sang looks at her, and his sombrely fierce face softens as he smiles stupidly, and carefully reaches for her hand.
“Don’t give me trouble, I’m busy.” Wang softly censures him, and asks, “Zhao Yunlan went to a gathering with a brother-in-law of his, but I still have a document for him to sign urgently.”
Sang quickly says, “I… I go…”
Wang retracts her hand, “No you won’t, you’ll scare his brothers-in-law to death.”
Sang doesn’t argue, and silently follows behind her, watching her busying around when it’s dark outside.
Wang turns around and says something no-one else understands. Sang’s face wears a tranquil and satisfied smile, marked with a settled sense of transcendence.
“What I hate the most is PDA, especially in a foreign language. My eyes are going blind.” Zhu lowers her voice and mutters, “That bastard has just stopped his flirting recently, and now these two are doing it!”
Lin says, “Goodness it be, madam please don’t be burdened with envy and hatred.”
Zhu is about to hit him, but her phone on the desk rings. She picks it up, “Hi… oh, where?”
She gestures for everyone to stay behind, as some are about to leave already. She takes out a stack of memo pad papers, “Uh, go on… Yellow Stone Road, Yellow Stone Temple Hospital. Alright, I’ll tell them… oh right, if you have time come back to the office, Wang has things for you to sign.”
Everyone can tell it’s their Chief Zhao calling. Zhu hangs up, and sighs disheartenedly, “Come now, as it always happens in our office… no work during the day, but overtime only at night. Five minutes after close of business and our shady Chief has work for us.”
Lin hears that, and pushes the door open like a surge of lightning, and disappears at the speed of light.
Zhu writes the address on a memo note and sticks it on the wall. She covers half her face with a scarf, “It’s winter, and I’m a girl, I can’t stand the cold…”
Da Qing continues, “This old cat hasn’t got a down jacket.”
Eyes stare at Chu who has no time to react. He faces his bastardly colleagues, and a millions words only turn to one, “Motherfucker.”
Ten minutes later, Chu sits in Guo’s car, heading to Yellow Stone Temple.