A little over an hour later, Xiao Xia finished her pile of work. Wan Li had also just finished typing up an essay for her, describing what happened back then.
Back then, I was seven years old. Ah Zhan was also seven, and it was our first meeting. He really didn’t like to talk at the time. Someone unaware would take him for a mute. He would also quietly keep to himself, making him seem a little frightening at such a young age. His gaze was cold, making many in town guess at his origins. Many unkind people came up with the story that he was born from a deceased pregnant woman while in her coffin. They said his origins were unknown and he was born a weirdo.
However, I was especially curious about him. I had always been bold and my parents were very kindhearted as well. They were very respectful of Ah Zhan’s adopted father and also pitied him for being abandoned by his birth parents. They encouraged me to make friends with him. Therefore, no matter how he refused, I would keep harassing him. This is a little similar to what you’re doing, though not quite as excessive. Furthermore, I’m still unclear about his true origins. Hopefully you can solve this riddle. Perhaps he was too lonely, so he gradually stopped shunning me as much. Although he didn’t speak much, he wasn’t opposed to me constantly chattering by his side. From then on, we went to school together, left together, played together and fought together. We got along better and better. I should add that my nickname was Weeds when I was young. I was the sort of kid people and even dogs didn’t like, and was especially hateful.
As you know, boys like to form groups and factions, messing around and causing trouble. Furthermore, since our school’s environment was a little like that, there would be fights breaking out daily. Some upperclassmen probably felt Ah Zhan and I were eyesores since we were prickly and no pushovers. We probably suffered beatings once every few days.
That year, the day before summer vacation, the self-proclaimed tyrant of the school took advantage of Ah Zhan’s absence to block me in the classroom over some trivial reason I can’t remember. He said I’m just relying on a weirdo’s backing, and didn’t have the capability to mess with them by myself. I was enraged and took them up on their challenge. Therefore, we arranged to meet at the abandoned house east of town that night to compete in courage. Whoever doesn’t show up has to bark like a dog outside the school gates for three days.
It was said that prior to the communist liberation, the abandoned residence belonged to an extremely wealthy person’s concubine and her two children. Afterwards, they had mysteriously vanished one night and no one knew if they were dead or alive, or where they had gone. Regardless, that wealthy man no longer appeared and the residence remained empty. Ever since then, the abandoned residence became a strange existence within the town. Everyone was filled with imagination when it came to the place but no one dared get close to it. After many years, some brave soul tried moving in. However, they either fell seriously ill out of the blue or objects in the house would move around by themselves. Therefore, rumors of the place being haunted spread wildly. Many people also vividly described seeing ghostly figures flashing by with their own eyes. They heard a woman singing and children playing. Others said they saw two children with blurry faces carrying a lantern as they walked the streets, a woman in traditional dress behind them.
Whether or not the townsfolk believed these rumors, no one dared go over after dark. Even when they had to walk by the place, they would move hurriedly and never linger. I heard from the adults that the place was scary and I also believed some of the stories. However, I was stubborn and unwilling to admit defeat. Therefore, I toughened myself up and snuck out to the place, keeping my head high the entire way. The older kids said they’ve heard of ghosts who came knocking on people’s doors at night, but never of people who went knocking on ghosts’ doors at night. As long as I dared to go, I would be a hero.
For the sake of being this clueless hero, I went.
The other kids waited far away under a large tree. They were just close enough to see whether I would chicken out, but if a ghost really came out they could escape safely. I walked over by myself, trembling. My steps suddenly sounded especially jarring on the paved road, making me feel they belonged to someone else, like someone was following me.
I shivered as I knocked on the gates. Apart from my breathing, there was no other sound. I knocked once again, and was still met with deathly silence. Right as I was about to knock a third time as per the agreement, I suddenly sensed something moving on the doors.
An abnormally round eye was gleaming as it looked at me through the crack in the doors.
I almost sat down in fright, but at that moment, the doors suddenly opened quietly.
There was a woman standing behind the doors. I couldn’t see her face clearly in the dark, but I could see her gleaming teeth. I sensed that she was smiling, a smile of the dead, a gloomy smile.
Before I could react, she suddenly stuffed a small piece of paper in my hand. The cold of the dead and the smell of rot spread from my hand and nose throughout my whole body. The doors closed with a bang as though they had never been opened.
I was terrified, turning and running. The moon was very bright that night, allowing me to clearly see my own shadow…and another shadow next to mine. I looked around but there was no one behind me. However, there were two shadows on the ground that followed me back to the tree where the others were waiting.
They didn’t expect I could successfully accomplish the task. The weird thing was that no one had seen the doors open and even mocked me for making things up. They didn’t say anything about me being a hero either. I wasn’t in the mind to care about the label anymore. When everyone left, I ran home. Afraid of waking my parents, I didn’t dare turn on the lights. Under the unusually bright moonlight, I looked at the piece of paper that had almost been scrunched to pieces by me. Three crooked words were written upon it: hide and seek.
I didn’t know what it meant but I was alarmed and frightened. I threw it out the window and then shut the window tightly. When I turned around, I saw once again another shadow next to my own under the moonlight.
I hurriedly hid in bed out of fright, and drifted in and out of consciousness until daylight. When I awoke, I saw the piece of paper next to my pillow as though it had grown legs and returned.
Hide and seek.
These three words seemed to have been traced in red ink, and were clearer than before.
I took the paper and threw it into the furnace in panic, watching as it turned to ash. I didn’t know if it was my imagination, but it seemed to be leaping around in the flames, as though in discomfort, constantly shouting “pain….pain….pain….” at me.
Think about it. I was only seven back then. I’m not bullshitting you when I say that it’s a miracle I didn’t die from fright. How could I dare tell my parents about my mischief? They merely wondered if I had fallen ill since I suddenly became an obedient child. Not only did I not make a fuss about going out and playing, I didn’t even approach the stove anymore. It was truly weird. However, they were too busy with work, and seeing that I didn’t have any psychological symptoms, they just casually questioned me a little before heading off to work.
I was alone at home. Despite it being daytime, I still felt someone following me, forcing me to run into the garden in the middle of summer to bake under the sun. The neighbors all said this kid Wan Li had gone crazy from playing too much. Actually, I was just trying to confirm there was only my own shadow.
However, there were still two shadows.
Although one of them was blurry despite the sun being at its peak, I could still see it snuggled up next to mine. It was like another head was growing out of my shoulder.
I felt a burst of strength due to fear and desperately stomped on the additional shadow. To find its source, I repeatedly spun in place like a puppy chasing its own tail. This made many watchers burst out laughing. I was extremely terrified, and couldn’t understand why no one could see I had two shadows.
At this time, Ruan Zhan came to find me. Only then did I recall that his dad was out on business in the neighboring town. He was afraid he’d return late and didn’t want Ah Zhan to be home alone. Therefore, after discussing it with my parents, he decided to have him sleep over today.
I was exceedingly happy to see him, thinking that I can finally discuss last night’s matters with someone. Who would have thought the moment he saw me he would pounce over and ruthlessly give me a slap. I was already angered from fear, and immediately pounced over and got into a brawl with him.
He didn’t block my fists at all, and endured my blows as he repeatedly tried to hammer my head. I was furious, and even tried to bite him. The adults next door pulled us apart and lectured us a little. But we were still struggling until we got back inside.
The moment I entered, I yelled at him: “Why did you hit me?”
He said: “Your soul was leaking out. I helped you knock it back inside.”
Only after did I find out that part of my three immortal souls and seven mortal forms had been scared out of my body that night, unable to return to its place. Also, from then on, I realized Ah Zhan could see things others couldn’t.