T/N: This chapter is somewhat heavy, so if you are sensitive to topics including mental illnesses and child neglect, please proceed with caution!
Day 03 01:55
That night, after coaxing Bubu to sleep, Song Ran dejectedly shut himself up in the bathroom for half an hour. He ripped apart an entire roll of toilet paper, and the ground ended up covered with crumpled wads of soaked tissue.
He couldn’t understand. The phone call had been going perfectly well, what with them chatting about fresh meat wontons and ginger soup sweetened with brown sugar; how could he have been so senseless and used such rude words to attack Mr He? Mr He was a true gentleman who had received a high-quality education. Even if the other had been seriously offended, he was still able to grasp the weight of his words from start to finish, but what about himself?
He couldn’t conceal the details of his crude upbringing to the very end.
No family discipline and no self-control—it didn’t matter how polite and respectful he normally pretended to be in front of other people.
Actually, over ten years ago a similar situation had happened once before, but more extreme and with more severe consequences. If it hadn’t been for that one baffling incident where he lost control, perhaps Song Ran would be living an entirely different life today.
That year, Song Ran was only nine years old and lived in a children’s welfare institution in T City named ‘House of Hope’. The welfare institution’s children almost all had physical flaws; some were handicapped and some had illnesses. Song Ran was one of the few healthy ones. He possessed a cute appearance and a naturally intelligent disposition, just like a red apple displayed in a store-front window that was as smooth and glossy as a decoration cast from a plastic mould.
When Song Ran had just entered the welfare institution, the teachers told him, You will definitely be able to leave this place very quickly, because parents will line up to bring home a child as good as you.
As a result, Song Ran wholeheartedly waited for that home and waited for that pair of parents who would love him.
But it seemed that it was not meant to be, for Song Ran lived at the welfare institution for many years, missing one adoption opportunity after the next. In the end, he hadn’t managed to wait for the parents who would become his. He was full of hope, but what he didn’t know was that the teachers at the welfare institution gave the same words of encouragement to every single child.
Finally, on a bright and sunny golden autumn day, Song Ran met with a change in his fortunes.
At that time, he was sitting on his cot folding paper stars when the teacher opened the door and called him, saying that the uncle and auntie who had scheduled an appointment a few days ago had come. This time, the exhibition was very special; it was only exhibiting one apple—himself.
The teacher said, “There won’t be any other children to compete with you, so you must firmly grasp this opportunity. Understand?”
Song Ran nodded.
According to plan, he used both hands to hold a bottle filled with colourful paper stars and went out, intending for it to serve as a meeting gift for his future parents—a gift filled with youthful innocence and personally folded by a child, who would dislike it?
But the couple that Song Ran encountered was extremely critical and not easily moved by a child’s paper stars.
They wanted to see the real thing.
The exquisitely-made-up auntie pulled out a piece of paper from her handbag and unfolded its three creases, revealing what appeared to be a tediously-long checklist. Throughout the dialogue with Song Ran, every once in a while she would lift her pen and make a few ticks on the paper. Song Ran was not clear about this list’s particular contents, but he could guess that the more ticks, the greater his chances were of being adopted, because a touch of gentleness would show in the auntie’s gaze every time a tick was made, and she would nod in satisfaction.
Even though the standards were strict, Song Ran’s behaviour was flawless throughout.
In fact, every child at the welfare institution had subconsciously picked up on some discipline, so they knew what they needed to do in order to appeal to the parents. The couples who came to adopt were not completely unaware, but people all had weak points; after seeing a happy and vigorous appearance, they wouldn’t quibble too much about the underlying falsehoods.
Furthermore, Song Ran had an advantage that made him stand out from the rest—he could completely eliminate all signs of an unnatural performance.
Whereas other children smiled with their lips and teeth, Song Ran smiled with his eyes, constantly narrowing them into upwards-curving crescents. They were full of warmth, like early morning sunlight or orange-coloured fruit gummies, and made people feel like they could taste a hint of sweetness on sight.
While smiling, other children frequently revealed hints of worry in their expressions, which was unease stemming from fear of their own behaviour being considered unsatisfactory. Unlike them, however, Song Ran did not. He buried his negative emotions in the depths of his heart; it was the equivalent to self-hypnosis. Instead, he displayed a heartfelt crystal-clear smile that made it impossible for people to find the hidden underlying despair.
Within this game, orphans learned how to deceive and guardians learned how to take precautions against the orphans’ deceptions. Only Song Ran could make even the pickiest guardians unable to discern a single flaw, and assume instead that what they saw was what they would get.
The meeting that day lasted three full hours. At five o’clock in the evening, the sun was setting, and the fastidious auntie had finally filled her list with ticks.
She sat next to Song Ran. Warmly touching his head for the first time, she said to the welfare institution teacher, “Society nowadays is truly more and more difficult for people to understand. An outstanding child such as Song Ran, who is smart, obedient, reacts appropriately, and has enough of a silver tongue, wouldn’t be too embarrassing to take outside. If you made me personally give birth to and raise a child, I’m unsure if I could produce a better one. How could there be someone who did not want him? Teacher, I’ve accurately judged him and found one hundred things to like. I’ll definitely bring him back with me and raise him well.”
Besides agreeing to adopt, the couple had also agreed to donate a large amount of money to the welfare institution as a token of their sincere gratitude. As a result, the welfare institution teacher hurriedly accompanied them to complete the necessary procedures, leaving Song Ran alone in the room.
Song Ran gazed at their distant figures, knowing that he would soon have a home and would soon have people who cared for him. The suffering and grievances that he had kept repressed in his heart for several years gushed out in a torrent.
He pulled out a box of unused coloured pencils from the desk drawer and started to doodle on the paper. But he didn’t anticipate that it would be precisely this final drawing that would lead to an irredeemable blunder.
He wanted to draw a sunflower in full bloom, but after putting pencil to paper, it became an eight-legged spider suspended from a rooftop. He wanted to draw a small hill covered in jade-green grass, but after putting pencil to paper, it became tightly-shut iron fencing. He wanted to draw a flock of happy, playful children, but after putting pencil to paper, they became a rag doll that the handicapped girl in the room across from his held all day long, its broken legs matching hers…
A greedy idea flourished recklessly in Song Ran’s heart.
He wanted to take a risk and remove his mask of falsehoods, lifting up only a single corner to reveal a hint of inconsequential small flaws—the auntie said that she liked him; she willingly stroked his hair and spoke warmly to him, so she would definitely also be willing to accept the small patch of hazy storm clouds beneath the sunlit surface, right?
That time, Song Ran assumed the shallow affection was real and assumed the intimacy born from politeness was real.
As he drew, he casually flipped over the paper and accidentally saw the reverse side. In the exact moment that his gaze fell on the paper surface, his body stiffened.
This was a sheet of paper ripped off from an old notebook and printed with the calendar of a certain month.
A total of thirty-one days.
Song Ran gazed at those five rows of continuous numbers, and his fingers started to tremble slightly. He tightly gripped the coloured pencil. Moving its tip past the final 31, he hastily wrote down a 32 right next to it.
Then came 34, 35, 36, 37… Flying across the paper, the tip of his pencil could no longer be stopped.
The young child was obsessed. He went mad, desperately writing sequential numbers on the paper, one line after another and one column after the next… 107, 108, 109… 1210, 1211, 1212… The densely-packed numerals were like countless ants sallying forth; they swiftly crawled all over the page, filling up every single edge and corner. Song Ran only snapped out of his abnormal behaviour once not even a single blank space could be found on the paper.
He raised his head and saw that the auntie was standing in the doorway. She was clutching the doorknob and staring at him with a terrified expression.
She rushed over and snatched the paper from Song Ran’s hands. Turning around, she slapped it into the welfare institution teacher’s arms and loudly scolded, “Explain to me, what is this?! That child does these kinds of strange things all day long?!”
As soon as the welfare institution teacher saw the page filled with numbers, she immediately knew that the situation was not good. She explained with an apologetic smile, “Mrs Song, he actually doesn’t have any major issues. Everything else about this child Song Ran is good; it’s just that when he was young, he had a slight psychological trauma…”
“What psychological trauma, he clearly has some kind of illness!”
Auntie Song extended her hand and pointed at Song Ran, her piercing voice stabbing into his heart like a dagger. “How could I take him home and raise him? If he gets up in the middle of the night to write numbers, he’d scare all the remaining years off my life! Look at his drawings, then look at his clever appearance just a little while ago—how could this be a child? He doesn’t have schizophrenia? Trying to sell rotten apples by passing them off as good apples, you are really daring!”
Upon hearing this sentence, Song Ran sprang to his feet and savagely threw the pencil in his hand at her.
“I am sick! It’s precisely schizophrenia, I’m precisely a rotten apple, but so what? I don’t need to let you raise me!” He clenched a small fist and furiously roared at Auntie Song, “If I also had a checklist, every single item would be a big X for you! You’re completely unworthy of being my mom! Get away from me!”
It was because of this exact incident in which he lost control that he permanently lost any hope of being adopted.
He was a red apple that was bright on the surface, but he had carelessly exposed the rotten flesh underneath. As a result, he was forced off the shelf; after being removed from the bright window used for exhibitions and thrown into a corner of the storeroom, he never again had any chance to show himself to others.
Eventually, he heard from someplace else that the couple who came to pick him that day was very wealthy, but as a result of his indiscretion, the welfare institution missed out on an impressive donation. Naturally, all the blame was placed on his shoulders. Afterwards, he heard that he had become the model for teaching by negative example; before participating in the ‘exhibition’, each child would first be given a word of warning, with the teachers saying, You can copy whomever, but whatever you do, don’t copy Song Ran. He chose to give up the easy life and ruined his future by his own hands.
Indeed, he dug his own grave.
In the following few years, Song Ran quietly passed the time at the welfare institution. At fourteen, he exceeded the upper age limit for adoption. At sixteen, he shouldered his art supplies and left the welfare institution on his own.
There seemed to be no meaning in staying any longer.
Going out to make his way in the world would be preferable.
If there truly was a home on this planet that he could consider his own, it was definitely hidden someplace far away from the welfare institution, because the one that the welfare institution could give him had long ago been shattered to pieces as soon as he lifted off the mask.
At that time, Song Ran had been full of hope, believing he had only embarked on a slightly more arduous journey than other people. At the end of his journey, there would definitely be a wide-open door with the big red character for ‘prosperity’ pasted on it waiting to welcome him. But today, while he was in the bathroom tearing off one long strip of toilet paper after another, he suddenly realized that he would never reach the end of his journey.
Because he was deficient in an essential skill.
He was completely incapable of handling intimacy.
The damage that Song Ran inflicted on his close relationships bordered on devastation; as soon as someone nearby voluntarily expressed a hint of intimacy, he would be overcome with an excessive desire to sound out the other—he would either dig out the darkest parts at the bottom of his heart and expose it without embellishment, or he would recklessly vent his emotions to destroy even this tiny bit of freshly-sprouted sympathetic goodwill from the other person. From then on, the other person would shrink back from him, and he would be given a wide berth.
That time with Auntie Song was like this, and now it was the same with Mr He as well.
Song Ran had learned how to be a normal friend, co-worker, and neighbour, but he couldn’t learn how to be a normal family person.
How long had he been acquainted with Mr He?
Only twenty-four hours, and only three phone calls.
That mature and amiable Mr He was willing to blindly believe in an unknown person’s heart, entrusted his child to a stranger’s care, and was willing to generously pay a salary of fourteen thousand. The other man even teased him from time to time, seducing with his sexy voice… With such a good Mr He, the relationship was ruined by his own hands in only a single day.
Tomorrow, Mr He will find a new nanny to replace him, and Bubu will eat dinner in his own home; the child wouldn’t come over again to listen to his stories or cling to him and call him ‘Big Brother’ anymore.
It had been only two days, but he had once again lost everything.
He was still alone. No matter where he went, he would be alone.
Song Ran once swore to live a positive life. He wanted to converse with people while smiling brightly, be neither overbearing nor a pushover in dealing with others, paint warm watercolours, write healing fairy tales, and have every single day be filled with warm tones—but it was useless, completely and utterly useless.
As soon as he received any provocation, he would still show his true colours and display his ugliest appearance.
The monster in the bottom of his heart had never died; it merely hibernated in the cavernous depths. Occasionally, when a stranger came near, it would emit a fearsome, tremendous roar and scare away whoever was trying to get close.
Song Ran was unwilling to give up so easily. That evening, after he finished crying, he dug out a paper and pen. In the middle of the night, he sat in front of the living room’s French windows to write an apology letter to Mr He, saying that he still wanted to look after Bubu and that in the future he would definitely take care to control his emotions.
Pale blue moonlight shone onto the paper, dyeing it entirely in the cold hue of loneliness.
He wrote one page after another, planning to read it out loud to Mr He during tomorrow evening’s phone call. After he finished writing, however, he felt that it would definitely be too late. His scolding was so unpleasant to listen to, like that of a terribly unreasonable shrew; Mr He probably didn’t even want to hear the sound of him anymore.
Song Ran felt an ache in his heart. He carelessly crumpled the stationery into a ball and threw it to a faraway wall corner.
A big furball leapt up within the darkness. It scurried across the sofa, picked up the ball of waste paper with its mouth, and delivered it back to Song Ran.
Bu Doudou called out sweetly, raising its head and seeking praise.
Song Ran stroked its soft long fur and pinched the tips of its thin, translucent ears. He murmured, “Bu Doudou, why is it that not even you belong to me? I’ll accept some more work and buy you imported cans of cat food, so leave with me, okay?”
Bu Doudou tilted its head and looked at him; within its turquoise eyes was a clear sky.
Song Ran didn’t anticipate that He Zhiyuan was still willing to speak to him.
On the evening of the second day, when Bubu brought over the cell phone, he was silently curled up on the sofa and folding paper stars. He had folded over a hundred of them, and they lay scattered all over like strewn petals next to his feet.
He stared at the shining screen, but after seeing the word ‘Dada’ on it, he didn’t dare to even hold out his hand.
“Big Brother, hurry and take it.” Bubu held it out, urging, “Dada wants to talk to you.”
Song Ran accepted the cell phone and slowly put it up to his ear. He felt like it was a grenade with its safety pin pulled out, ready to explode at any moment; even the soft white noise of the receiver made him tremble with fear.
He didn’t dare to open his mouth, instead simply holding his breath the whole time and waiting with trepidation. A moment later, he heard He Zhiyuan say, “Song Ran, regarding yesterday evening’s matter, I think we need to talk about it.”
His tone was bland; although it was not affectionate, it also was not overly reproachful.
As soon as he heard the other’s voice, Song Ran instantly could no longer endure it. Nose sporadically prickling, he hurried to be the first to speak. “Mr He, yesterday evening… yesterday evening, it was my attitude that was bad. I didn’t think before I spoke and ended up offending you. I earnestly apologise, the kind with a standard ninety-degree angle bow! Great men do not bear grievances against their inferiors, and you are a magnanimous person, so can…”
He wholeheartedly begged, “Can you forgive me?”
But He Zhiyuan replied, “I can’t.”
His hopes were dashed, but the answer was of course within expectations. Song Ran covered the cell phone and nodded blankly. “Then… I can’t look after Bubu either?”
“You can’t.” He Zhiyuan used two concise words to extinguish all of his hopes. “Song Ran, the topic I wanted to discuss with you was this. I contacted the household management company, and tomorrow they will arrange for a new experienced auntie to take care of Bubu. Don’t worry—this time, I personally screened her resume. The new auntie is very young, comes from a family of kindergarten teachers, knows how to tell fairy tales, can wrap wontons, and is also… very skilled at controlling her emotions.”
After hearing that final emphasized bit, Song Ran’s heart instantly sank into the depths of the abyss.
“Song Ran, I ask you to understand me.” He Zhiyuan’s tone was apathetic and distant. “I believe that yesterday evening was only an aberration, and that your moral character also does not have any flaws; however, stemming from a parental sense of responsibility, I can only find a replacement.”
Song Ran heard his words and laughed dryly. “It’s fine, I-I understand. Indeed… I’m not too suited to child-rearing.”
He picked up a paper star, bit it with his teeth, and chewed it to bits with deep remorse.
See, as expected it no longer has anything to do with you.
Your words were only an unsolicited nuisance, and you only embarrassed yourself.
He chewed the paper star into a long paper tube that dangled from his mouth and swayed back and forth. Bu Doudou leapt through the air and nimbly fished it away with the swipe of a paw. Feeling depressed, Song Ran grabbed another one and stuffed it into his mouth before forcefully chewing it apart. He had really done it this time. Not only did he no longer have a child to look after, his relationship with the neighbour had also become strained. After today, he’d need to first look through the peephole before going out, in case he was unlucky and ran right into Mr He in the corridor only to annoy the other for no reason.
In the whole wide world, how could there be such an idiot like him?
No wonder nobody wanted him.
Song Ran traced an S on the sofa with the big toe of his left foot, while the big toe of his right foot traced a B.1SB stands for 傻逼 (sha bi) a.k.a. idiot or moron He stared at those two letters for a while, restlessly rubbing his feet together, then burrowed even deeper into the corner of the sofa.
He pretended to be a mushroom for a long while, but the other end still hadn’t hung up; Mr He was completely silent.
Hurry and hang up!
His HP was too low, and he could no longer bear it.
Song Ran swallowed his saliva and stammered, “Uh, Mr He, I truly… truly am very sorry. Occasionally, my brain isn’t quite normal. If you still haven’t calmed down yet, how about… you curse at me in return? I promise to accept your critique with an open mind and won’t even say a single word in retort!”
The other party seemed to have sighed softly, but still said nothing.
Unable to wait for the response, Song Ran lowered his head more and more until the centre of his ice-cold forehead was propped up against his knees, an incredibly sour feeling in his chest. “Then… if you do not need anything else, I-I won’t trouble you. Mr He, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He apologised three times in a row, then hurriedly felt for the ‘end call’ button before pressing it as if he were fleeing for his life.
After dropping the cell phone, Song Ran hugged his knees with both arms and sank into a long silence.
Bubu was still focused on drawing in the dining room; sometimes he was immersed in colouring, and sometimes he was picking over the box of coloured pencils. Song Ran lifted his head to attentively observe his small figure before asking, “Bubu, what do you want to eat tomorrow morning?”
“Tomorrow morning?” Bubu put down his drawing supplies. He twisted his body around, clung to the back of the chair, and carefully thought, “Tomorrow, I want to eat poached eggs and porridge. The best would be the super thick kind that smells good!”
Song Ran nodded. “Okay, Big Brother will make it for you.”
Big Brother would make anything for you.
After dejectedly curling up on the sofa for a while, he suddenly stood up, gathered the hundred or so scattered paper stars together, and put them into a glass bottle. Then, one by one he picked up the picture books that were lying around everywhere, neatly stacked them, and divided them into three bundles according to age range. He put the stacks on the coffee table and went to the bedroom to fetch a roll of nylon rope. Then, he securely tied each bundle, finishing them off with beautiful bows.
Bubu liked these illustrated fairy tale books so much. Let’s just consider them as gifts and give them away.
In any case, if he wanted to reference something, he could still borrow from magazines.
Bubu heard the sound of something stirring and curiously turned around. “Big Brother, what are you doing?”
“The living room… is a bit messy, so I’m just cleaning it up a bit.” Song Ran forced himself to smile. “What about Bubu? How is your drawing progress?”
Bubu smiled broadly and said, “It’s going very well, I just haven’t finished yet. There were so many flowers today, and each flower was a different colour, that I was starting to go cross-eyed! Big Brother, how about you draw fewer tomorrow? Draw only two flowers—I’ve already planned it out. One will be pure red and the other will be bright yellow.”
“Okay, tomorrow… Big Brother will only draw two flowers for you.”
Song Ran spoke to the coffee table, his heart empty. He didn’t know who he was replying to.