In light of He Zhiyuan’s exorbitant offering price, Song Ran felt obligated to cater to his needs. He thought that, apart from the main business, he should also provide some VIP services, such as expressing his genial concern for the employer who was located in a distant foreign land.
The first task to check off—inquiring after his well-being.
A wide smile broke out on Song Ran’s face, revealing eight big white teeth. “Papa He, have you gotten out of bed? What time is it over there?”
He Zhiyuan yawned contentedly. “A bit past six. I haven’t gotten up yet.”
He looked out the window and saw that the pre-dawn sky was a murky grey. In contrast, Song Ran’s voice was very refreshing, like a ray of sunlight that had arrived on Earth before schedule; the sound of it brightened his mood.
Song Ran nodded, falling into a reverie.
If he hadn’t gotten out of bed yet, then Papa He ought to be topless right now, wearing only a pair of underpants while speaking with him on the phone? Bubu was so cute that surely Papa He wouldn’t look too bad either—a man around thirty years old, beginning to show maturity but whose youthful vigour hadn’t yet faded. With the combination of these two qualities, this was precisely the time when one possesses the greatest charm. If his physique were to be just a little better, then that’d… that’d simply…
Song Ran derided himself. You’re already a taken man, yet you still dare to fantasise about Papa He—can you face the Infiniti god after this?
Yanking his wayward thoughts back from abs and mermaid lines, he awkwardly attempted to conceal his filthy heart by finding a new topic. “Anyway… Papa He, I can hear that your voice is a bit nasal. Have you caught a cold?”
“I don’t necessarily have a cold.” He Zhiyuan said, “I had forgotten to close the top of my car last night and drove the whole way back at 80 m.p.h. with the wind blowing into my face. When I woke up this morning, I had a slight headache.”
Song Ran hurriedly said, “That’s precisely an early symptom of a cold. If you don’t pay attention, it can very easily get worse. Do you have old ginger and brown sugar?”
“Old ginger and brown sugar?”
“That’s right, you can brew a cup of ginger tea.” Song Ran quickly spoke, “First, heat some water to a rolling boil. Chop four or five pieces of old ginger and throw them in, then reduce to low heat and simmer for ten minutes. Lastly, add a spoonful of brown sugar. If you don’t have brown sugar, black sugar is also fine. Remember to use old ginger! Don’t use young ginger because young ginger isn’t very effective…”
He Zhiyuan asked with a smile, “Will white sugar also work? I only have white sugar for stirring into my coffee.”
“It works, it works.” Song Ran nodded continuously. “The key is to have ginger!”
“I don’t have any.”
Song Ran was immediately stopped in his tracks. “Uh…”
He didn’t… didn’t even have ginger? Then how could he brew ginger tea?
Song Ran didn’t realise that He Zhiyuan was deliberately teasing him. Furrowing his eyebrows, he racked his brains for ways to solve the problem. But in the end, attempting to make something from nothing was just an exercise in futility. Defeated, he said dejectedly, “Then… then get some extra sleep. Sleeping can strengthen your immune system, and it’s pretty effective. I won’t disturb your rest…”
He Zhiyuan didn’t know why he felt a bit flustered. Fearing that the other would hang up the phone in the next second, he changed the subject right away. “It’s fine. I often forget to close the top, so I’m already used to the wind. I’ll feel better after taking a hot shower later.”
He lifted the covers and got out of bed. After scooping up and donning the dressing gown that had been placed to one side, he walked out of the bedroom barefoot.
“Song Ran, tell me what Bubu has been up to these past two days. I haven’t kept him company in a long time.”
In the kitchen, the espresso machine emitted a clear dripping sound once again, while the digital clock on the microwave flashed steadily, showing the current time: 06:32. Just like yesterday, He Zhiyuan leaned against the counter as he listened to that young man, who was warmer than morning sunlight, tell him about Bubu’s condition.
Bubu told the story of the chipmunk to his friends at the kindergarten, and he earned a pile of small red flower stickers.
Bubu was full of curiosity about the roadside graffiti, and he managed to correctly identify the rectangle and triangle.
Bubu had a hearty appetite. He’d eaten a beef bowl for dinner and even polished off all the carrots and broccoli without being picky.
Bubu was very attentive when listening to stories; he very rarely got distracted, raised his hand before asking questions, and even knew how to copy the giraffe’s dance in a life-like manner.
He Zhiyuan was in a pretty good mood.
Even when he wasn’t around, Bubu was living very well regardless. Despite being taken care of by a complete stranger, Bubu was still as self-assured and clever as if he were in front of He Zhiyuan himself, never causing trouble for people. Anyone who raised him would have an easy time of it, and anyone who looked at him would like him.
Having such a sensible child was truly something to be grateful for.
But just as he thought this, Song Ran stalled for a moment before saying, “Papa He, besides these, I still have a few other things I want to talk about. After you hear them, please don’t get upset.”
He Zhiyuan swirled the small silver spoon and spoke in his usual tone, “I won’t, so go ahead.”
Song Ran stealthily glanced at Bubu from out of the corner of his eyes; he saw that Bubu was concentrated on colouring and not paying attention to him, so he lowered his voice and said, “Papa He, Bubu… is actually not as well-behaved as you think. These past two days that he’s been at my side, he has acted very clingy the whole time. He is also very fond of acting spoiled, like a kitten that hasn’t been weaned, and will occasionally even get upset and throw tantrums. When he really gets going with his mischief, even I find it a bit difficult to stomach.”
“Is that so?” He Zhiyuan frowned and stopped stirring his coffee. “He’s never been like this before. It’s probably because your temper is too good, so you don’t know how to refuse him. Hand the cell phone to him, and I’ll give him a few words of warning…”
“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that—please don’t misunderstand!” Song Ran hastily corrected him. “I’m saying that for children at his age, it’s only right for them to be wilful all the time. Being wilful is their natural instinct. On the other hand, children such as Bubu, who are so well-behaved in all aspects, are a bit… not quite normal.”
He Zhiyuan didn’t understand. “Not normal? He’s a bit sensible beyond his years. How is it not normal?”
Song Ran choked and then shook his head.
This slow and clueless father didn’t understand the fragile hearts of children at all. What should he do? It seemed that it was Big Brother Song Ran’s turn to take action and talk seriously with him.
“If you could please wait a moment, I’ll go into the room to explain to you.”
Song Ran swiftly rinsed his hands clean. After covering the wontons with cling wrap and putting them into the refrigerator, he trotted into the bedroom, backhanded the door shut, and jumped onto the bed, carelessly kicking his slippers off in a burst of motion.
He sat down with legs crossed, grabbed a pillow into his arms out of habit, and hugged it. “Mr He, I’m telling you that in reality the more happy a child is, the longer it takes for them to learn to be obedient. Bubu is only four years old and his family circumstances are so well-off, it’s completely unnecessary for him to hurry to grow up. He should happily make a ruckus all day long, and laugh when he wants to, or cry when he wants to. Afterwards, he will naturally become sensible once he gets older.”
“I won’t deny your opinion.” He Zhiyuan calmly said, “But Bubu’s precocity is innate, instead of the reason you stated—unhappiness.”
Song Ran felt that this misunderstanding between father and son was somewhat difficult to untangle, so he became very worried as a result. “Papa He, if it were innate, then Bubu wouldn’t express a different side in front of me. How about I give you an example—do you know where the most well-behaved children in the world are? At the orphanage. Children at the orphanage won’t act spoiled or cause trouble, because it’s fine if they laugh, it’s fine if they cry, it’s fine if they trip and fall, and it’s fine if they get sick. Nobody will care about them, so they will gradually stop acting spoiled. They appear to be more obedient than children from ordinary families, but in their hearts, they actually want to act spoiled more than anyone else.”
The silver spoon fell into the porcelain cup; a few drops of dark brown coffee splashed out.
Song Ran spoke at length, placing his Bubu and children from the orphanage in the same category. Even though it stemmed from good intentions, the unspoken criticism that he’d been neglecting his child… had severely overstepped a boundary.
In the conversation with Song Ran, He Zhiyuan showed a slightly irritated expression for the first time.
On the other hand, Song Ran was not aware in the least; he rambled on, “Last night, when you told Bubu to go back home and sleep by himself, he was very obedient and agreed at the time. But what you don’t know is that as soon as he walked to the doorway, he started to cry. It was me who coaxed him back here. You see, Mr He, Bubu didn’t really want to go home. He wanted to stay here with me, but for the sake of leaving a good impression on you, he could only say words that were the opposite of his true desire.”
“Song Ran, please don’t…”
“Mr He, there’s a very beautiful robot in your home, right?” Song Ran said, “I heard Bubu explain that Little Q is your greatest invention. It can not only deter thieves, but also supervise and monitor. It’s extremely capable, but no matter how capable it is, there is no way it can substitute for you. Only you are the child’s father. What Bubu needs the most is not a nanny, nor Little Q, but you. Using Little Q to make up for it is unacceptable. If I say it like this, do you… understand?”
He Zhiyuan went quiet for a short while. Suddenly, he picked up the silver spoon, and hurled it into the sink.
He picked up his coffee and walked into the living room. After he turned on the cell phone’s speaker mode, he placed it on the surface of the coffee table with the screen side down; with the push of a finger, the cell phone slid toward the other side of the coffee table and stopped precariously at the edge.
He sat on the sofa, opened his laptop, and began to work.
“Mr… Mr He? Are you still listening?
Because the distance had increased, the sound of Song Ran’s voice was somewhat indistinct.
He Zhiyuan replied, “I’m listening.”
Song Ran asked again, “Then, do you understand?”
“More or less.”
“How can ‘more or less’ be sufficient? If you want to be a qualified dad, you must understand very well. For example…” Song Ran paused, feeling that He Zhiyuan’s voice seemed to have become softer. He assumed that something had gone wrong with the children’s cell phone, and pressed the volume up button twice, still cheerfully saying, “You should read up on paediatric psychology, accompany Bubu to play parent-child games, tell him children’s stories, and also kiss and hug him every day. Children and adults are not the same; their hearts are very sensitive, so if you don’t spend plenty of time together, they can get hurt very easily…”
He Zhiyuan interrupted him. “Song Ran, I don’t have that much time.”
This time, the impatience in his voice was too blatant, and it instantly pricked Song Ran. The dazzling smile froze on his lips as he came to a standstill. He asked uncertainly, “Just now… wh-what did you say?”
“I said that I don’t have time to learn how to be a good father. I have more important things to do.”
“More important things?” Song Ran sat bolt upright; he almost did not dare to believe the absurdities that he was hearing. “Bubu is your son, your family member—it couldn’t… couldn’t be that taking good care of him isn’t your highest priority?!”
He Zhiyuan bluntly admitted the truth. Because he had no intention of covering it up, it made him seem particularly heartless.
He typed on the keyboard, replying to one email after another. From start to finish, his line of sight did not leave the screen, and the tone of his voice also seemed indifferent. “I’m guessing that you don’t like hearing this kind of reply, but this is my true feeling—Bubu may be my son, but he is not the highest priority in my life. Song Ran, reproduction is a kind of widespread behaviour as well as a kind of biological instinct. Any random combination of the two opposite sexes can create the next generation, so I don’t think this kind of ordinary behaviour has any particular value. If you believe otherwise, I’m not opposed to it; I’m willing to respect your point of view, but at the same time I hope that you can understand me as well.”
Song Ran was dumbfounded. “Mr He, what are you saying?”
“Regarding families,” He Zhiyuan kept a straight face as he continued talking, “There are hundreds of lifestyles. Family is merely one of them, commonplace but not special. I believe the reason why it is so commonplace is not because it has some high inherent value, but rather because it is suited to act as a cornerstone and assist a person in pursuing other, greater objectives.”
“You’re wrong, you’re wrong. Mr He, there are problems with your way of thinking!”
Song Ran felt as though his chest were being crushed by a boulder; it was uncomfortable to the point where he couldn’t breathe.
He instinctively denied He Zhiyuan’s point of view, gesturing in the air with his hand and striving to elaborate on his own way of thinking. “Of course family has inherent value, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many people who want to get married! It… uh, it is the most important foundation in people’s lives, giving a sense of belonging. Parents, children, and relatives are all sources of happiness. In my opinion, it definitely is more important than career…”
But much to Song Ran’s alarm, he had no way of convincing himself.
Perhaps it was because Mr He’s manner of speaking was too level-headed, and the rhythm of his assertions too stable. In contrast, all that remained on his own side were obvious confusion and words that couldn’t convey his meaning. The conviction that he had relied upon to live received a powerful assault at this moment, transforming into a sheet of cellophane; it also changed into a set of empty words that could only be repeatedly spoken, but didn’t hold much persuasive power.
Song Ran felt profoundly fearful.
How could Mr He have this kind of mindset? How could anyone think this way? Could it be that people with families… were completely unable to realise its value?
He squeezed the pillow in his arms, seeking a bit of strength from the warm down.
“Song Ran, I acknowledge that you are a good neighbour, but regarding feelings towards family, our life experiences are different, so it’s not possible for us to be on the same page. How about we respect each other and set aside our differences for the time being, okay?
Mr He’s somewhat nonchalant voice floated into Song Ran’s ear.
He was trying to compromise.
But Song Ran firmly shook his head. “I refuse. I won’t set aside differences to seek common ground, because… the correct one is me.”
He pursed his lips and obstinately insisted, “Children, partners, and family are a person’s most precious things. Nothing else can compare to them, absolutely nothing else…”
After a pause of about five seconds, he heard Mr He laugh.
“Song Ran, I can roughly guess what kind of person you are. You’re an excellent cook, like children, use environmentally-friendly methods of travel, keep an expensive cat, are single, live alone, don’t lack money, and often volunteer at orphanages—you have most of the characteristics of someone with a good and happy family. It seems that you’ve been sheltered very well by family members since you were young. But you should know, not necessarily everyone has the same circumstances as you. In many people’s eyes, family doesn’t represent happiness and safety. For example… never mind, I won’t bring up old matters since there is no need to bare everything between neighbours. To summarise, in a scenario where I cannot manage both family and career, I will choose my career.”
This last sentence of his completely ignited the fuse. Song Ran’s sense of reason exploded into ashes as blood rushed to his head with a roar and his field of vision blurred. “Can’t manage both? If you can’t manage both, then why did you have Bubu? Did someone hold you at gunpoint and force you to have him? If family isn’t important, then don’t have children. If you have such a low opinion of reproduction, then don’t do it! Be a bachelor like me; then there will be plenty of time for you to pursue your career!”
He Zhiyuan’s face suddenly turned cold, and he closed the lid of his laptop with a slap.
“I truly did not become a father by choice.” He murmured, “I didn’t plan to have children at all before turning thirty-five; Bubu was a complete accident.”
It was better when he hadn’t explained, because once he did, what had been the equivalent of a nuclear bomb swelled dramatically to become a hydrogen bomb. Song Ran lifted his pillow and abruptly flung it down; it bounced a full two meters back up. “Accident? What so-called accident? Do you not know to use condoms when making love, or is it that not even condoms can control your dick?”
He Zhiyuan heavily slapped the coffee table, giving him a stern warning.
Song Ran turned a deaf ear, continuing to scold, “I don’t care how old you wanted to be before having a child. Since you have Bubu now, you must shoulder a father’s responsibility! But you? You can’t even find a mom for him! A four-year-old child that you toss to a nanny to raise for a while, then toss to a robot to raise for a while—is this what normal people do? Do you think that you can express the value of your career by using technology to control your child? Bubu loves you so much, and he is so sensible. If I give him the phone right now, do you dare to tell him yourself that he was the result of your accident?!”
“Song Ran!” He Zhiyuan shot to his feet. “Watch your mouth!”
But Song Ran had already lost all sense of reason, the rims of his eyes filling with tears. “You watch your damn mouth! Believe or not, I’m still full of curses that I haven’t said to you yet! A person like you is scum no matter how much money you earn!”
“Don’t judge me!”1Originally written in English
He Zhiyuan’s rage boiled over. Propping himself up against the coffee table, he leaned over, snatched up the cell phone in one hand, and roared, “Has nobody ever taught you that the most fundamental social courtesy is to not make groundless assumptions based on a tiny bit of single-sided information!”
Then, he cut off the call.
Once he heard the busy tone, Song Ran flung his arm. The cartoon cell phone flew through the air in an arc and rolled into the distant round sofa.
“Fuck your mom.”
He sat with his head hung low, teeth digging into his lower lip; tears rolled down in fat droplets. “Scumbag! Moron! Fuck off!”
Tap, tap, tap.
A gentle knocking sound came from the door.
Song Ran carelessly snatched up a towel to wipe his face. After he dried his tears, he hopped down from the bed and went to open the door. Bubu and Bu Doudou were standing just outside together, both of them tilting their small faces up to look at him.
“Big Brother, who were you arguing with just now?”
Bubu was very concerned.
The big furball had also come over; it used its head to nuzzle his calves, thoughtfully consoling him.
Song Ran sniffled, “It’s nothing. Big Brother is totally fine.”
“But, but Big Brother obviously cried.” Bubu was sceptical. “Big Brother, just then you were on the phone with Dada, right? Was it Dada that…”
How could Song Ran dare to let Bubu guess that it was because of He Zhiyuan? He hurriedly shook his head. “It’s not; it has nothing to do with Bubu’s dad. Your dad is so good, how could he argue with Big Brother?”
“Right.” Bubu nodded continually. “Dada is so good, he wouldn’t argue with Big Brother.”
His eyes brightened, and he turned around to run towards the dining table. After swiping the colouring sheet he had just finished from the table surface, he darted back before handing it over to Song Ran with both hands. “Big Brother, look quick! I already finished colouring, so I’ll give it to you! Don’t cry anymore, Big Brother.”
Song Ran accepted the sheet of paper and saw that on it was a brown chipmunk, a grey squirrel, an orange giraffe, and a little grass-green cricket. The tree leaves were a glittering gold, the mushrooms a tender white, and several growth rings had appeared on the squat old tree stump.
Four-year-old little Bubu had given him a gift filled with love.
Song Ran squatted down and stroked the child’s hair, smiling as he said, “Thank you, Bubu.”
Thank you, darling child.
Don’t worry. Even if things have become like this, I still won’t give up so easily. Your Big Brother Song Ran is very capable; I will definitely help you get back that world’s greatest dad, so that you can remove that false front and never again need to short-change yourself by pretending to be an ‘obedient good child’.
I definitely won’t let you… become like myself from that time.