T/N: I tried to self-edit for a bit, but fortunately for all involved, Mikyuu came to save everyone from me. Thank you, Mikyuu, for your time, and thank you, readers, for the clicks and comments! Hope you all are staying safe and healthy as the year draws to a close~ ( ˘ ³˘)
Day 08 15:15
In order to prepare for the worst, Song Ran went onto the internet to look things up. After verifying that the incubation period of chickenpox was at least ten days, he immediately relaxed.
Ten days was long enough.
Even if he had gotten infected in a stroke of misfortune, he wouldn’t show symptoms until after Mr He returned home. By then, he would have already perfectly fulfilled his obligations and returned the boisterous Bubu to Mr He. At most, he’d lie at home by himself for a few days, exercising his lazy immune system and strengthening his survival skills while he was at it—as a twenty-three-year-old single man with no father or mother or boyfriend, every time Song Ran got sick, he relied on his own good constitution, stubbornly enduring to the end alone and never feeling sorry for himself.
So long as it wasn’t a serious illness, he could get over it by enduring; in the worst-case scenario, it would be just a few days of discomfort.
This was his experience that had accumulated over the years.
However, perhaps the power of the flag he planted was too great; its effects were instant, causing the stated ten-day incubation period to vanish without a trace. On the afternoon of that very same day, Song Ran suddenly developed a high fever.
At the time, Bubu was getting ready for his afternoon nap, and Song Ran was reading a short bedtime story to him. His original plan was to return to his illustration work after reading the story, but as he spoke, his eyelids grew heavier and heavier, sleepiness gradually overtaking him. His grip loosened as he slumped to one side, dazedly leaned against the head of the bed, and fell into a lethargic stupor; the picture book also slipped out of his hands.
As he slept, his body temperature ran amok as though a stable’s doors had been opened, allowing dozens of horses to furiously gallop forth while yanking on tangled reins; in a very short time, he entered the danger zone.
His lungs were scalding hot, like a hundred jin of ‘facing heaven’ peppers had been ground to pieces and forcefully poured into his throat, the scarlet pepper juice soaking into every single alveolus. Waves of heat surged into the air, sweat drenched his back, and droplets the size of soybeans rolled down his neck one at a time, as if he were in S City’s stuffy and humid dog days of summer.
Baked by the heat, Song Ran felt uncomfortable, but he wasn’t clearly conscious of it. Assuming Bubu had a fever again, he wanted to crawl to his feet and take Bubu’s temperature, but his exhausted limbs were like puddles of melted candle wax spread out on the bed; he couldn’t even lift them.
When he managed to sit up, dazzling spots flashed before his eyes and their after-images flickered rapidly. His stomach began to violently churn, and filth made a mad rush up into his throat. He hastily used the wall to support himself so that he could walk to the bathroom; stumbling to the left and tottering to the right, he swayed back and forth as if he were stepping on a floor of cotton. At last, he trudged to the bathroom, where his legs swiftly gave out. Kneeling on the ground, he hugged the toilet and vomited profusely, his head nearly falling into the water.
After vomiting on and off for two minutes, practically vomiting away half of his life, he recalled something again in his daze and tried hard to stand up by pulling on the handrail. As he propped himself up against the washstand, he looked in the mirror.
Because of his high fever, his vision was blurry. He repeatedly squinted, leaned in close to the mirror, and then saw—on his own right cheek, there was a red rash.
After reaching up to touch it, it felt somewhat itchy.
Song Ran dumbly stood there for a while, then turned on the tap, cupped some ice-cold water in his hands, and splashed it on his face.
Within the bedroom, the cell phone that was on vibrate mode began to buzz, vibrating impatiently beneath the pillow. Song Ran himself was unable to hear it since he was in the bathroom, and Bubu, who was sound asleep on the other side of the bed while hugging his little rabbit, didn’t notice the cell phone vibrating either.
It thus repeated three times before the cell phone screen went dark—the other party had given up.
He Zhiyuan put the cell phone in his pocket and sat down in the taxi’s front passenger seat.
He was unsure what had caused his desire to call Song Ran to spring up so unexpectedly; after all, prior to this, he had never gotten in touch with Song Ran when it was the afternoon in China.
Today, there was even less of a reason to call.
Over the last two days, he had been so busy to the point that he was practically unable to extract any leisure time whatsoever. He worked from eight o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night without stopping for breaks and attended four meetings both before and after work. After getting off work, he drove to San Jose and hastily ate dinner at the airport before immediately taking the 9:30 flight to Los Angeles. Tomorrow, he needed to attend a data security industry authority conference. The conference was going to last three days, but he could only squeeze out one morning time slot to give a lecture on behalf of SwordArc’s R&D group. Immediately afterwards were three technical interviews with doctoral students who also came to attend the conference; this way, they could avoid having to specially make a tiring trip to Silicon Valley. After the interviews, he would catch the next available flight back to Palo Alto, handing over the remaining two-and-a-half days of the conference to his colleagues.
With his work keeping him constantly moving, his thoughts were completely preoccupied by his career; in the first place, he shouldn’t have thought of Song Ran, whom he had never met.
However, after the plane gradually landed on the lit-up runway and docked with the passenger boarding bridge, he walked out of the boarding gate with his briefcase, dug out his cell phone, and turned off airplane mode. The first thing he did was open his contacts list and press Song Ran’s name.
There was a sense of unease in his heart with an unclear origin that urged him to get in touch with Song Ran as quickly as possible, hear that young man’s voice, and verify that all was well with him today.
But from start to finish, nobody picked up on the other end.
Once he left the airport, He Zhiyuan had already called three times in a row without any answer from Song Ran. He persuaded himself that right now was their midday nap time, and Song Ran might currently be accompanying Bubu in taking an afternoon nap. It wouldn’t be late to call tomorrow morning either, so he momentarily put this matter aside. He arrived at the conference hall’s hotel at midnight, both physically and mentally worn out. After taking off his shirt and tie, he carelessly hung them up in the closet, went into the bathroom to take a hot shower, drank half a cup of red wine as usual, then disrobed and went to sleep.
At three o’clock in the morning, his lovely dream was suddenly interrupted.
He Zhiyuan opened his eyes. Outside the window, the night was deep, and the grey shapes of several high-rise buildings overlapped each other before being gradually cast onto the ceiling, giving off a cramped and desolate feeling. With his restless state of mind, he instinctively dug out his cell phone and called Song Ran again.
This time, the call went through.
A light and muffled coughing came from the other side first, followed by Song Ran’s hoarse voice, “Mr He? Were… were you looking for me?”
He Zhiyuan knew something was off as soon as he heard it. He flipped over and sat up, asking, “Song Ran, what’s the matter with you?”
After approximately five seconds, Song Ran gave a delayed reply, “I-I’m fine, I’m doing pretty well, and Bubu is also doing pretty well. Today… I was taking care of him, and he… um, had a few more breakouts, but it’s not serious, and he didn’t get another fever… I applied the topical medicine on him, th-the one that the doctor prescribed…”
Song Ran’s voice was very feeble; it was the kind of feebleness that couldn’t be covered up despite his utmost effort: slow speed, unclear articulation, simple vocabulary, disjointed topics, and a complete inability to grasp the important points… These signs told He Zhiyuan that Song Ran’s present mental condition was relatively poor and that his thinking was also very chaotic.
A stream of background noise came from the phone, clamorous and incessant.
Feeling suspicious, He Zhiyuan asked, “Where are you?”
“Um… A-at the hospital.” Song Ran noticeably hesitated for a moment before his volume faded to the point of being nearly inaudible. “The one near home… The hospital affiliated with F University.”
Right then, the hospital broadcast coincidentally sounded. He Zhiyuan listened to it carefully and seized upon the word ’emergency’—why would Song Ran be at the emergency department?
His misgivings deepened. “Are you by yourself, or did you bring Bubu?”
It was such a simple question, but Song Ran unexpectedly thought about it for a full three seconds. “By myself.”
“Why did you go to the hospital?”
“Uh, I…” Song Ran stuttered for a while, then mumbled, “I came to… get medicine for Bubu.”
He Zhiyuan fell silent.
He could hear that Song Ran was lying.
The silence fell too abruptly. Song Ran leaned against the cold and hard armrest of the waiting room chair, resting his forehead on the back of his hand and fuzzily thinking that Mr He had probably already noticed that something was amiss.
Why did he have to lie over and over again?
In his present state of mind, he couldn’t make up an adequate lie at all, but he simply doubled down, obstinately holding on to that tiny hope and still wanting to keep Mr He in the dark.
He was too naive.
So naive that he himself wanted to laugh.
Song Ran put his hot forehead in his hands, his brain filled with distracting scattered thoughts, and began to muse over those insignificant details. How on earth did Mr He find out? Was it that this hospital’s pharmacy wasn’t open at night, or was it because his tone of voice wasn’t natural enough?
What he said just then… How did he say it again?
He couldn’t remember at all.
With his temperature having risen to 39°C, his thoughts were as clear as mud, and he forgot his own words as soon as they left his mouth. In this muddled state, he spent a long time attempting to recall them before he was abruptly jolted into a state of alertness by He Zhiyuan. “It’s your turn.”
Song Ran shook his aching head.
He Zhiyuan said, “The broadcast just called for you. Go get your antipyretic shot first, and I’ll call you back later.”
“Oh, okay… I’ll go get the shot…”
Having been exposed to this degree, Song Ran no longer had the face to continue pretending, and in any case, there was nowhere left to hide. The nurse opened the door, stuck out half her body, and called out his name. He stood up and said, right before going inside, “Mr He, Bubu isn’t at home alone. Before I came out, I asked Lin Hui for a favour… She said she’d take care of Bubu for me…”
He Zhiyuan interrupted him, “Go get the shot first.”
Song Ran carelessly swiped at his face; there were warm tears in between his fingers. He was too poverty-stricken and embarrassed, and since the negative feelings doubled his body’s pain, he couldn’t hold back the dampening of his eyes.
It was a matter of only a few minutes to receive a shot in the buttocks; in the blink of an eye, it was over.
Wrapped in a down jacket, Song Ran leaned against the corridor wall, his body feeling cold and hot in turns; when he felt cold, his joints trembled, and when he felt hot, his temples were covered with sweat. He didn’t dare to call He Zhiyuan back, squeezing his cell phone in his hand and exerting so much strength that it seemed like he was going to crush the screen. But in other people’s eyes, he was so feeble that he couldn’t even hold onto his cell phone, weakly grasping it in his fingers while it seemed like it could slide out at any given moment.
He swayed back and forth for a long time. In the end, it was He Zhiyuan who took the initiative to call.
Apart from every evening’s customary affectionate greetings, this was the third time He Zhiyuan made a private call to Song Ran, who should have been over the moon and opened up his little record book to tick the last tick mark. But right now, he didn’t even dare to pick up.
He was afraid that He Zhiyuan would ask him why, despite clearly having asked his parents, he still got chickenpox.
How should he respond?
Should he say that he had been lying this entire time and that he was actually a child nobody wanted?
The embarrassing spectacle of being directly exposed by somebody was something he never wanted to experience again.
When he was in primary school, Song Ran didn’t have anyone to drop him off or pick him up from school. The bigger children in his class always liked to bully him, joking that he didn’t have parents, so he would boast that his parents were both doing business far away from home, making the causes and effects of his parents’ absence clear. To maintain the lie, he didn’t dare to return straight to the welfare institution after school; instead, he walked in the opposite direction, going in a complicated and circuitous loop and wandering about until night fell before going back. The class bully fell for the bluff, allowing him to escape being tormented.
On a certain day later on, he was called up to the lectern by the teacher to receive a single flower and a miniature cake.
The teacher said in a warm tone that Song Ran was the class’s most special child. Despite being an orphan who lived in the ‘House of Hope’, he was resolute and optimistic, never complaining about his lot in life. Today was his birthday, so all of his classmates should sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song together and give him their sincere well wishes.
As a result, with that off-key ‘Happy Birthday’ song, the several months Song Ran had spent taking the long way home turned into wasted effort, and his pitiful dignity that he meticulously protected… also unexpectedly dissipated into nothingness.
From then on, Song Ran was never again willing to celebrate his birthday.
He couldn’t understand why the label of ‘orphan’ was a stain that wasn’t supposed to be a stain; everyone knew that being abandoned by their parents wasn’t the child’s fault, but this label still seemed ‘shameful’. He avoided talking about the past with others as much as possible, and even if he did talk about it, he would carefully blur the details and weave a ‘big family’ by saying that he had a big bunch of younger siblings at home.
It was half truth and half lie, but it made him feel at ease and allowed him to avoid being pitied by others.
After using the same excuse with Mr He, they should have gotten along peacefully, but Bubu unexpectedly developed a bout of chickenpox, which led to a chain reaction that pierced through his lies.
Song Ran was at a loss; it was like that time when he ignorantly stood in front of the lectern and heard the teacher use a gentle tone of voice to expose to everyone present the secret that he had firmly hidden in the depths of his heart.
The cell phone wouldn’t stop buzzing, making his scorching fingertips feel numb. Song Ran knew in his heart that he couldn’t avoid it, so all he could do was steel himself and pick up the call.
“Did you get the shot?”
Draped in his bathrobe, He Zhiyuan leaned against the table, supporting himself with one hand behind him, and frowned. His tone of voice was not as gentle as before.
Hearing a bit of anger in the other’s words, Song Ran retracted his neck. “Yes.”
“What’s your temperature?”
“You had a fever of 39°C, yet still weren’t willing to come clean. Are you treating me as an outsider?”
He Zhiyuan’s anger and worry were mixed together; a moodiness that was difficult to describe arose in his heart, and he could not help raising his voice. Song Ran retracted his neck until he practically had no neck left, buried his whole face in the down jacket, and said in a small voice, “It’s not that. I didn’t treat you as an outsider, I just… was scared to tell you.”
“Scared?” He Zhiyuan raised his eyebrows. “I’m countless miles away. What can I do to you?”
Song Ran hurriedly shook his head. Because the range of motion was too carelessly exaggerated, he saw stars and nearly rushed to the lavatory to vomit again, but he managed to suppress it. While panting, he said, “I… I seem to have been infected with chickenpox by Bubu.”
He Zhiyuan frowned. “Didn’t you get chickenpox before?”
“I-I-I’m sorry, I lied to you.” Song Ran’s voice was very small. “Yesterday… I didn’t call to ask at all.”
Practically infuriated by him, He Zhiyuan forcefully struck the table. “Why didn’t you ask?”
Song Ran retracted his neck again. “I didn’t have any place to ask.”
“Your parents already went to sleep at ten o’clock?”
“I don’t have parents!” Song Ran uncomfortably tightened his grip on the hem of his sweater, gritted his teeth, and confessed in despair, “All that about those younger siblings and a big family from before were all lies! From when I was a child, nobody wanted me! I was thrown into a welfare institution, and when I had just gotten to know you, I was afraid you’d look down on me, so I fibbed. Yesterday, you told me to call home, and I lied again because I was afraid of being found out, but who knew that I would get a fever and spots today and still be caught in the end.”
He Zhiyuan’s gaze suddenly lowered. Pushing off from the table with his arm, he stood up straight.
He had assumed that Song Ran was born into a rich, warm family and lived in a very carefree manner precisely because he hadn’t suffered any of the world’s hardships. Therefore, with a pen and a sheet of paper, he was able to maintain the strange and brilliant imagination of his childhood to this day.
What he didn’t imagine was that Song Ran’s true past would be like this.
With his high fever, Song Ran lacked higher-level cognition and showed an extremely childish temperament. As soon as he let his emotions out, he couldn’t put them back; right then and there, he rambled resentfully and indignantly, “It’s not that I didn’t take chickenpox seriously. I even called the welfare institution today to have them help me check. The man at the welfare institution said I got it before, so I thought it was fine, but who knew that I’d still get infected… What should I do now? I have a fever, so there’s definitely no way I can take care of Bubu. I’ve only gotten him back for two days… I haven’t taken care of him enough, I haven’t even told him that many stories… It’s too much! Even God envies me and relentlessly puts obstacles in front of me…”
What was all this incoherent babbling?
He Zhiyuan felt that Song Ran’s nature was very mysterious—his outward behaviour was so optimistic, but internally he was so sensitive. His logic would occasionally fall apart, causing him to do things like blaming himself while being sick; it exasperated people and made them want to grab him and fiercely scold him a bit.
He Zhiyuan calmed down and asked, “Have you already been diagnosed?”
“Not yet.” Song Ran replied in a muffled voice, “The dermatology department has closed for the day, so I can only register for an appointment tomorrow.”
“Then you haven’t received a definite diagnosis, so you don’t need to carry a mental burden. Regarding the matter of your lies, I don’t blame you, and you don’t need to overthink it. Relaxing and recovering is the highest priority.” He Zhiyuan urged him, “You’re already done getting the shot, right? Sit there first and don’t move. Wait five minutes, I’ll find someone to send you home.”
But Song Ran was stubbornly ungrateful. “No need, I’ll walk back by myself. It’s two streets away, so I’ll arrive after just ten minutes.”
“Move if you dare.” He Zhiyuan suppressed him with a tone of voice that allowed no negotiations. “Behave yourself and keep your butt in that chair. If the person coming to pick you up hasn’t arrived, you aren’t allowed to take even a single step.”