T/N: Thanks for patiently waiting! I hope everyone’s new year is off to a good start.
Day 09 21:00
While Song Ran slept, the sky turned completely dark.
The street lamps in the residential area were like shadowy moss at the foot of the tall buildings; casting scattered dim light, they were unable to brighten the twelfth floor far above. The tightly-shut bedroom curtains prevent the slightest ray of light from penetrating through, transforming the entire room into an enormous cage with indiscernible sides that was seamless, pitch-black, and oppressive as it locked up the person within.
After his nightmare, his temperature, which had been suppressed by the medicine, went out of control once again.
Song Ran laboriously sat up, only feeling that a ball of raging flames was scorching him as it spread throughout his chest and that his guts were churning endlessly; the slightest movement triggered fierce nausea. Copious amounts of sweat had soaked into his pyjamas and hair, his skin felt sticky, and his breathing was unbearably hot.
He groped along the edge of the nightstand to touch the cup of water that Zhan Yuwen had left behind, then picked it up with both hands and drank a mouthful. The water temperature chilled his very bones when it flowed down his burning throat and forced the temperature of the hot air he exhaled to drop a few degrees before it once again swiftly rose back up.
The bedroom was quiet, but through the door, he heard the sounds of joyous laughter in the living room.
It was probably Zhan Yuwen and Lin Hui playing a little game of tag with Bubu, causing the child to hop and laugh at the same time. As Song Ran held the cup of water in his hands and sat by himself with raised knees, he silently lowered his head.
He unexpectedly felt both jealous and panicked.
This room was really too dark; it was too similar to the cell that imprisoned him in his nightmare—the nightmare was still replaying as he was once again isolated elsewhere, listening to the joyful sounds and happy voices outside but unable to join in because of his illness. The fever made him emotionally sensitive, and his train of thought also easily jumped to extremes. Song Ran’s glass heart was shattered, and he could not help thinking that between Zhan Yuwen and Lin Hui, one was the family doctor employed by Mr He while the other was a kindergarten teacher who had graduated from a professional training program; if they performed better, would it be the case that, from now on, Bubu would no longer need him?
He still had so much love that he hadn’t yet given. If someone else took over caring for Bubu, then who else… could he give his love to?
He really, really, wanted a child very badly.
Right at this time, the familiar Pikachu march started to play. Song Ran’s hand shook, and he spilled some of the water in the cup.
Mr He was calling.
He heard the romping sounds in the living room quieten, followed by Bubu picking up the phone and softly calling out ‘Dada’. The two parties began to chat about this and that, touching on topics such as chickenpox, dinner, and games. Bubu chatted happily, and the nearby Lin Hui and Zhan Yuwen also chimed in from time to time. The atmosphere was so relaxed that Song Ran could envision the present appearance of the living room just from the tones of voice.
Pastel tones and clear, bright lighting with a cat, flowers, and paintings. The colourful picture books would be laid out all scattered, the decorations he personally made by hand would be on the coffee table, and three pairs of cotton slippers would be lying askew next to the sofa. Bubu would be resting on an adult’s knee, his eyes curved upward, and everyone would be smiling.
After putting down the cup of water, Song Ran hugged his knees as he hid in the darkness, his ten fingers slowly curling to grasp the fabric of his pyjama pants.
He knew what he was waiting for.
The thumping of his rapid heartbeats chaotically resounded within his chest. His ears became occupied by a jumbled buzzing; the more he wanted to clearly hear what was going on in the living room, the more he was unable to hear it. The flow of time was relentless, and Song Ran finally could no longer keep waiting. He lifted the duvet and got off the bed, then walked to the door and placed his ear on it.
He heard the lively ‘Nutcracker Overture’—the conversation had already ended, and right now Bubu’s favourite Tom and Jerry was playing outside.
Song Ran quietly retreated into the bed and withdrew into his turtle shell by covering his ears and burying his face into the crack between the pillows.
Mr He hadn’t remembered him. He had hung up right after chatting with Bubu without remembering at all that there was a little tag-along behind Bubu.
Saying even one word would be fine, even if… even if it was just calling out his name.
Song Ran hit the pillow once, then relaxed at the waist, rolled over to face upwards, and weakly lay flat on the bed.
He assumed that, compared to the relationship between employer and nanny or the relationship between neighbour and neighbour, he and Mr He were just a little different. He liked making small talk every day with Mr He, so he projected his own feelings onto the other and naively thought that Mr He likewise enjoyed making small talk with him to the point where he felt that half of the affectionate evening phone calls were for Bubu and half of them were specially for him.
Was it… actually just the polite greetings from employer to nanny?
He didn’t want to admit it.
Because he had invested superfluous emotions, Song Ran was ashamed to admit to caring based on this kind of wishful thinking.
A second later, the cell phone beneath the pillow immediately began to vibrate.
As if he’d been given a shot of adrenaline, Song Ran swiftly opened his eyes and dug out the cell phone with the speed of a lightning bolt. In the darkness, the screen was blindingly bright; he unconsciously frowned and held back the urge to vomit while he looked at the contact name.
Like a rope tied around his waist, these two words instantly hauled him out of the depths of the abyss. As the boulder in Song Ran’s heart fell away, he gently closed his eyes, and the cell phone landed next to the pillow again. His sorrow and joy were tumultuous; because he did not yet have time to disperse the grievance from being woken up, the corners of his eyes dampened. With sobs choking up his throat, he didn’t dare to speak after the call connected.
In the quietude, his breathing, which had turned harsh due to his cold, was particularly distinct.
“Song Ran?” He Zhiyuan asked softly, “Are you doing well?”
Song Ran said nothing.
He Zhiyuan paused, then asked, “Did I wake you?”
Only after this did Song Ran feebly reply, “No.”
“You don’t sound too spirited… Your fever still hasn’t receded, right? Is it very uncomfortable?”
“Also no.” As Song Ran listened to his concerned tone, warmth flowed around his entire body and the corners of his lips involuntarily quirked up. He hugged the duvet a little tighter and said, “Mr He, I’m doing pretty well.”
After he finished speaking, he was still sulking a bit, so he asked, “When you called Bubu earlier, why didn’t you ask for me?”
His tone of voice couldn’t conceal his thoughts; once He Zhiyuan heard it, he immediately understood where Song Ran’s earlier despondency had arisen from and involuntarily laughed in a low tone, “You became unhappy because of this?”
Song Ran felt very embarrassed, so he resolutely denied it.
He Zhiyuan explained, “I asked Bubu, and he said you were still sleeping. I didn’t wish to disturb your rest.”
Stunned, Song Ran dumbly blinked a few times.
Unexpectedly, it was such a logical reason? Then earlier, his head had been overheated! What nonsensical things had he been thinking about earlier?!
“That, that’s not right!” He strove hard through his muddled fever to pick out a small contradiction. “If it was like that, then why did you still call me now?”
He Zhiyuan smiled, “I was afraid you actually weren’t asleep.”
Song Ran: “… Huh?”
“I’m saying that I was afraid you were waiting for my call. Of course, you weren’t the only one waiting.” He Zhiyuan said warmly, “Song Ran, we haven’t spoken for a day, isn’t that right?”
There was a smile in his voice that carried a bit of a different intimacy with it, nearly parting the final layer of the veil of ambiguity. At this time, Song Ran’s defensive power was absurdly low, so when he was inadvertently teased by the other, his bones tingled and his cheeks felt hot; he made a sound of affirmation in a voice as quiet as a mosquito’s, seeming exactly like a little wife.
Too… too mortifying.
When He Zhiyuan asked him if he had recovered well, he became happy to the point of feeling giddy and, wrapped in the bedding, rolled back and forth a couple times. With his high fever that hadn’t dipped below 38°C, he was full of wild talk, saying he had recovered particularly quickly, had surpassed the fastest speed in the universe, and guaranteed that he would be able to run a kilometre tomorrow.
The corners of He Zhiyuan’s lips twitched. “Don’t try to show off for me. Zhan Yuwen has to see you for two more days at the very least.”
“Oh.” Song Ran covered his face with his hand, retracting his unbridled bluster from just now. “Then I’ll run after two days.”
He Zhiyuan: “…”
Right as he was getting excited from their conversation, Song Ran abruptly recalled something, and his comfortable outstretched posture half-stiffened. “Mr He, Zhan Yuwen said that you… you looked up my medical history?”
Song Ran’s heart leaped into his throat as he very guiltily asked, “Then besides chickenpox, did you see anything else?”
He Zhiyuan lowered his gaze and thought, then answered factually, “I did.”
He knew what Song Ran was referring to.
The digitisation of T City welfare institution’s medical records was relatively old-fashioned; they were photographed page by page, then sequentially made into PDF files. After acquiring Song Ran’s medical history, He Zhiyuan originally wanted to check the chickenpox record, but he didn’t expect that he would see a line of eye-catching words on the very first page.
Severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Age of diagnosis: six years old.
In the first few seconds, he was indeed stunned; unable to connect these four words with Song Ran, he even flipped back to the front cover for confirmation. The child’s name on the cover was crystal-clear: it was exactly Song Ran.
The illness description was a very skimpy handful of scribbled sentences which could be considered as shirking responsibility. The general idea was this child was extremely sensitive to consecutive numbers; no matter if he heard or saw them, he was prone to showing a stress response of refusing to eat or drink while tirelessly continuing to count. Nobody could persuade him to stop, and it would only cease once his physical strength was exhausted and he fell into a stupor. If he miscounted partway through, he would also easily trigger severe anxiety and have emotional breakdowns, often crying by himself until he convulsed all over.
He Zhiyuan paid particular attention to how the diagnosis date of Song Ran’s obsessive-compulsive disorder and the date on which he entered the welfare institution only differed by a few days, which implied that when Song Ran was hospitalized, his mental state was already very unstable.
He remembered this young man’s smiling appearance; his teeth were pure white, his dimples were deep, and his eyes always reflected a brilliance like that of the morning sun at 6 a.m., not showing the slightest sign of a haze.
As if he were a completely different person from what was stated in the medical record.
He Zhiyuan understood that what was recorded in the medical history was the Song Ran from seventeen years ago and that it looked completely separate from his present-day self, but Song Ran’s sensitivity, irritability, and completely inexplicable inferiority complex were none other than the fruits of his childhood experience.
He had found the answer, but still wanted to trace the sequence of Song Ran’s maturation.
“Song Ran, I saw that on the first page of your medical history, it said you developed compulsive-obsessive disorder when you were young.” He Zhiyuan changed to a slightly more relaxed demeanour, comforting him, “Obsessive-compulsive disorder isn’t some serious illness. Many people have it. Amongst some friends I know, some like to tidy rooms, some are fond of stepping on the grid lines when they walk, and some have to eat fries in alternating order between long and short. Everyone…”
“I’m different, I’m different from other people.” Song Ran spoke up to interrupt him, then smiled bitterly and said very softly, “Mr He, you haven’t seen what I’m like when I have a relapse. It’s very frightening, really, I’m not lying to you.”
He gazed at the pitch-black and boundless ceiling, fingers suspended in the air, and his fingertips unconsciously began to tremble a little. He sketched out an Arabic numeral in the air, then swiftly curled his hand into a fist to securely hold back his five fingers, clamping them into his flesh and prohibiting them from continuing to randomly move.
There’s no end to counting. You obviously know there’s no end to it.
Large quantities of jumbled numbers faintly appeared once more and drifted in his mind, dense and plentiful like gigantic shoals of fish that emerged from the waves during migration season, their scales reflecting the light. They aggressively lined up in a row and sharply twittered as a collective; they were only blurry phantasms at first, but then they began to become clearer, wanting to arouse his long-restrained desire.
He wanted to count them one by one, starting from one and counting to the infinite end, as if his childhood undertaking could still be fulfilled and the person he waited seventeen entire years for, still in some distant place, could turn back at any time.
“Mr He, if you aren’t busy, I’ll tell you a story. It’s about me and about my illness, and it’s very short.”
Song Ran reached out with his hands to fumble for the rabbit doll he gave to Bubu, then pulled it into his arms. The rabbit was plump and its fur was soft and warm; its chestnut colour could be made by adding plenty of water to raw umber and applied over broad surfaces or painted one stroke at a time with a 0 brush.1The 0 refers to brush size and is a very thin brush
Colour, shape, temperature, texture… He liked all things that had to do with the senses; because they had nothing to do with numbers, they were safe.
He tightly hugged the rabbit doll until those numbers that intruded upon his brain were driven out by this guardian angel, then whispered, “I always wanted to find someone to tell everything to, but I could never find anyone. There are no close people by my side, and even though I wanted to have someone, I just didn’t… It’s already been over ten years, but I can’t forget and I can’t cure it. If I continue to keep it in, I’ll suffocate…”
He spoke slowly, his voice light and not showing tearfulness, but like a layer of misty drizzle, it made people ache wrenchingly.
He Zhiyuan wanted very much to hold him, to give him some practical consolation besides his words, but he was separated by ten thousand kilometres, and there was nothing he could do except depend on his voice.
“Go ahead, I’m listening.” He Zhiyuan said, “Just act as though I’m by your side, holding you from behind.”
Song Ran nodded, then folded his arms in front of his chest and stroked his own shoulders before gradually tightening them, just like he was really being hugged from behind by somebody.