There was a big crowd. People shopping at the end of the year acted like they were dying to get rid of their money. The shops were filled with men, women, old and young, alike. Zhu Yun’s mother grumbled, “I told you to come home earlier, but you didn’t listen. Now everything’s been sold out.”
“How could everything be sold out?” Zhu Yun carried several bags as she stepped out of the elevator onto the third floor. Ladies’ apparel. “There’s a lot here.”
“But they’re leftovers from what others didn’t want.” Her mother was also carrying a handful of bags. “Why didn’t you bring more clothes home from school? Now we have to buy an entire new wardrobe for you.”
Zhu Yun quietly grimaced. She’d been in a rush that day. When she got back to her dorm, she’d only had time to pack up her laptop and books. Like she’d been in the right mind to worry about clothes.
Mother and daughter walked into a clothing boutique. While her mother picked out clothes, Zhu Yun followed behind, her mind wandering.
She checked her watch. Noon.
Was he prepared? Did he leave for the company yet?
Zhu Yun had sent Li Xun a text that morning, but he hadn’t responded. She didn’t dare to call him so hastily, worried that she might disturb him. She grew fretful.
“How’s this one?”
Zhu Yun coughed. She looked at the wide-eyed, gaping-mouthed store clerk and said, “No, I mean… It’s very nice.”
Her mother asked, “You didn’t sleep well yesterday? Why do you seem not yourself?”
Zhu Yun rubbed her nose. “I must be tired from hurrying home.”
Her mother expressed her understanding. To the clerk, she said, “All she knows is studying. The new year is right in front of her, but if I hadn’t mentioned it, she would still be at school. She’s completely uninterested in dressing up.”
The store clerk weighed those words, and then she admired, “That’s great. One look and I can see that our customer would be a great student. She seems extremely oustanding.”
Zhu Yun’s mother handed the dress over to her daughter. “Try this on. It’s very pretty.”
Zhu Yun carried the dress into the dressing room. Changing clothes in the winter was annoying. Zhu Yun took off her glasses, about to pull her sweater over her head. In the middle of this, her phone vibrated. At the phone’s vibration, she couldn’t be bothered with the state of her undress. Sweater around her neck, she pulled out a hand and checked her phone.
Li Xun responded. “I’m on the way. Tell you about it later.”
When was later?
Zhu Yun had a ton of things she wanted to say to him, but she felt she didn’t have the time right now. In the end, she just sent a short text. “Jiayou.”
There was no reply.
Zhu Yun changed her clothes and then walked out of the dressing room, her head low. The clerk smiled at her, about to give a compliment. But then she noticed a major problem. “Customer, your dress is on inside out.”
Zhu Yun looked at herself. “……”
Her mother had been choosing more clothes. She looked over and said, “Zhu Yun ah, what do you spend all your time thinking about?”
Without a word, Zhu Yun returned to the dressing room to adjust her clothes. She walked back out and the clerk finally exclaimed, “It looks wonderful! Customer, white really suits you. Your skin is so beautiful!” Zhu Yun had been about to put her glasses on when the clerk spoke again, “Customer, you look better without glasses.”
If I don’t wear my glasses, I can’t see a damned thing
All dressed, Zhu Yun looked at herself in the mirror. Needless to say, her mother’s taste was great. A white dress of good quality, the bottom hem embellished with flowery petals. A wide deerskin belt wrapped around her waist. Because it was winter wear, the dress also had a matching short, light colored fur jacket. Zhu Yun’s face looked especially small, hidden behind the fur.
“So pretty! This one is really pretty! It suits you so well!” the clerk made a strong recommendation.
Hearing the clerk’s praises, Zhu Yun’s mother asked her, “I chose well, didn’t I?” Zhu Yun nodded. Then her mother told the clerk, “We’ll take this one.”
They bought a few more outfits. By the time that Zhu Yun’s arms nearly lost circulation from all the bags she carried, her mother was finally satisfied. “This seems like enough,” her mother said. “Imagine what it would have been like if you’d visited your aunt and uncle for the new year, dressed in rags.”
On the way home, her mother went over their New Year’s itinerary. Zhu Yun listened absent-mindedly. When they arrived home, her mother started preparing dinner. Zhu Yun didn’t have much of an appetite. She told her mother she had assignments to do and headed up to her room.
“Assignments? The break has just started! You don’t even have the textbooks for your next semester yet!”
Zhu Yun called back, “I meant that I’m reviewing!”
Her mother put on her apron, and then she shouted upstairs, “You can’t stop for two days for the new year celebrations?!”
“Aiyo, if she wants to study, let her study.” Zhu Guangyi was drinking tea and reading the newspaper in the living room. “You get the most angry when she doesn’t study. When she does study, you get irritated. What exactly do you want her to do?” After tying her apron, Zhu Yun’s mother looked up the stairs without saying a word.
Zhu Yun plopped down onto her bed and started tossing and turning. She kept checking her watch, her phone, the internet. Why was time passing by so slowly?
She tried studying and practicing coding, but she couldn’t focus. Her chest felt tight, like something was pressing on it. She was fretful, impatient.
When her mother called her to dinner, Zhu Yun simply had no appetite. She gave lukewarm responses to her parents questions about studying abroad.
“What do you think of Xiao Yu?”
“There aren’t many opportunities to study abroad recently. Since there are fewer students, the conditions are really good. But I heard from your Auntie Jiang that when Xiao Yu had just started studying abroad, he had a rough time. There are still prejudices against us over there.”
Zhu Yun shrugged.
Her mother continued, “But if you’re really able to succeed, that’s a respectable thing. You can’t remain in your own little circle forever. You have to expand your horizon into their large society.”
Zhu Yun was entirely unconcerned by this matter. She glanced over at the window. “It’s snowing again,” she said.
“Again?” Her mother laughed. “This is the first snow of the year.”
Zhu Yun was taken aback.
So that day, it hadn’t snowed here. That snowfall had been theirs alone to see. A sense of comfort washed over her in that moment.
That night, at 2 in the morning, Li Xun’s reply came: “It’s all good.”
Zhu Yun took a long, deep breath. She walked over to her door and locked it. Then she climbed back into bed and pulled her blanket over her head. She called Li Xun.
“Mmh. You’re still awake?” He seemed to be outside; she could hear the sound of the wind in the background.
Zhu Yun said, “I was watching TV with my family.”
He laughed, not at all convinced.
Zhu Yun bit her lip. “About that…”
She heard the sound of a lighter. Zhu Yun didn’t want to talk in circles, so she asked directly, “Did you meet with the Languan representatives? What did they say? Why did it go on until so late?”
“**** I spent ages demoing the software.” (t/n: Censored in original text)
“Were they satisfied?”
“Aside from the logo being ugly, they were very satisfied.”
“We’re going to discuss the details of the contract more tomorrow. It should be taken care of before the new year.”
Li Xun was smoking on the windy and snowy street. This storm was larger than the first. The nighttime temperature was low, and the ground was covered in a layer of snow.
He laughed and said, “Alright, don’t worry. Go to sleep.”
Zhu Yun said, “Wait. Is your cold better?”
Li Xun answered, “Yeah.”
“Then make sure to get more rest. Hurry home for the new year.”
The sound of Li Xun’s breathing paused. Then, quietly, he replied, “Mmh.”
After she hung up, she felt like a heavy stone had fallen from her heart. Zhu Yun stretched out and tightly pressed her face to her pillow. Then she gave a roaring cry, “Ahhh—!!!” She’d been afraid her parents would hear, so she buried her head deep in her pillow. When she lifted her head, she started seeing stars from the lack of oxygen. She rolled around her bed giddily.
This felt great. She felt at peace, but that didn’t mean that she could fall asleep. Even after staying awake, excited all night, the next day, she was still overflowing with energy.
A few days later, she started helping her mother prepare for the new year celebrations. Because of Zhu Guangyi’s position, their family received numerous guests every year. They were mostly scholars and educators, and they often had much to speak about. Fortunately, those activites didn’t come until after New Year’s Eve.
The New Year’s Eve family dinner was just with family. They made a reservation at the restaurant more than two months prior, and it was stuffed full. Zhu Yun’s (paternal) grandfather had already passed away, leaving behind her 80-something year old grandmother. Her legs weren’t well, and her mind wasn’t in top form either. Because Zhu Yun’s parents were both busy with work, there was no one to take care of Grandma, so Zhu Yun’s father arraned for Grandma to stay in a top-quality nursing home. They visited her once a week.
Their table started dinner early, at 7pm, and ended by 8. Grandma’s energy was limited. After the New Year’s customs, she grew tired, so they drove her back to the nursing home.
Sounds of firecrackers echoed across the city. It was deafening.
After sending Grandma home, Zhu Guangyi drove home. Zhu Yun was full and too tired to hold a conversation, so she sat with her head against the car window, staring up at the sky.
That night, the sky was more lively than the ground. Fireworks filled the sky.
When they turned onto their block, the buildings were still blocking her view. Zhu Yun took off her seatbelt, getting ready to leave the car. Then, she glanced out the window and saw a person standing at the fountain.
The car made a turn, so she’d only caught a glimpse of the figure. Though she’d only seen his outline—not even his hair—her heart started racing wildly.
Calm down, she told herself. There were tall guys everywhere.
But it was no use. Her excitement wasn’t fading.
After returning home, Zhu Yun’s mother turned on the TV. Zhu Yun headed straight for the bathroom, making sure to lock the door behind her.
She pulled out her phone and called Li Xun. After two rings, he picked up. “Hello?”
“……” What should she say? Finally, Zhu Yun said, “…Happy New Year.”
“Um… How did the software stuff go?”
“We finished ages ago. The contract is settled too.”
Zhu Yun replied, “Mmh.”
Li Xun asked, “What are you up to?”
Zhu Yun sat down on top of the toilet lid and said, “Nothing much. We just had dinner. You?”
“I received the payment, so I’m preparing to hand out red envelopes to the team.”
“Ah?” Zhu Yun asked, puzzled.
“What are you ah-ing about?” He sounded like he was smiling.
“I’m outside your house.”
Zhu Yun tightened her grip on her phone.
I was right! That was you just now! It was you! It was you! I didn’t fucking see wrong!
She stood up and paced in a circle. Quietly and quickly, she asked, “How did you know where I live?”
Master Li replied lazily, “Would it be hard to check your school records if I wanted to?”
That’s not how computing skills are meant to be used.
A knock came on the bathroom door and Zhu Yun’s heart skipped a beat. Then she remembered that she’d locked the door.
“Zhu Yun, we’re going to have some fruit. Do you want mango or pomelo?” her mother asked.
Zhu Yun called outside, “Either is fine. Pomelo then!”
Then her mother left.
She hadn’t heard. I have to thank the firecrackers tonight.
“Um, Li Xun, I might have to…”
“I know.” Li Xun’s voice was calm and even. “Do you know where Lihua Hotel is?”
“Mmh.” It wasn’t far from her house, a couple streets over. A small hotel.
“I’m staying there. Come when you have time.”
She was about to say something when her mother came back to the door. “Why are you taking so long? The apples are already wrinkling.”
Zhu Yun held her phone back to her ear, to find that Li Xun had already hung up.
She walked to the living room to chat with her parents as they watched TV. Zhu Yun stuffed her mouth with fruit as she watched the TV program without really paying it any attention. As she watched the entertaining skit, her thoughts were on the question she’d forgotten to ask earlier.
It was New Year’s Eve, so why hadn’t he gone home?