To all readers here at Fanatical, happy Lunar New Year! Joy and peace and health for all of you!
The trip to Inner Mongolia begins.
Chapter 19 — Monuments and Tombstones (1)
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Leaving Beijing, the vehicle headed in the direction of the steppe lands. After passing Zhangjiakou, there were fewer cars on the expressway. The expressway was very flat and also open, so the view through the front windshield was one of a straight stretch of road, blue sky, and white clouds.
After another few hours, they drove onto the national highway. Before long, Lu Yanchen pulled the car over to the side to have a short rest.
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Lu Yanchen took out a map and verified the route to Sanggendalai and then to Xilinhot. His fingers would tap against the map, with a pause between each tap. It was like he was in the midst of carrying out an assignment, and he searched back in his memory for the road conditions along this route. A few years ago, he had taken it once. What approximately would be seen along the way, in which locations was the asphalt surface of the road broken and falling apart, in what places were there ruts made by large vehicles that had passed over—he still had an impression in his memory of almost all of it.
A pork floss bun, still partially sheathed in plastic wrap, was held up in front of his eyes.
Bringing his eyes down, he took a bite from it.
“I thought of something.” Gui Xiao also ate a bite, then said, “Do you remember that man you saw in the airport that day? His name is Xu Yao.”
Seeing her take another bite, Lu Yanchen mused that she must really like this type of bun, and so he selected a plain bun from the plastic bag on her lap, opened the sealed wrap himself, and began to eat it.
“You don’t like pork floss?”
Lu Yanchen wagged the bun that he was holding, the meaning of that being that he was fine with eating this one.
With a nod, Gui Xiao continued, “Xu Yao’s wife is seriously ill. The hospitals in the country diagnosed that she would need her spine operated on. I think it’s a spot somewhere at the back of her neck. With this type of surgery, after its done, there are just endless aftereffects and long-term consequences. He doesn’t dare just casually let anyone do it, and he wants to bring his wife somewhere outside the country to look into it some more. If they can have a certain probability in the diagnosis that it’s actually another type of tumour, then she won’t need to go for surgery and can just do radiation therapy.”
Gui Xiao was unable to give a technical explanation either, so she simply briefly described the circumstance. “They’ve been going to see doctors for this illness of his wife for quite a few years already and he doesn’t have much left for savings, so he came to find me. I set aside a little bit of my savings for myself, enough for my and Qin Xiaonan’s day-to-day expenses, and then all the rest I gave to him.”
Lu Yanchen finished his bun off in two or three bites, then took a couple of swigs of water.
That pair of eyes that seemed as if they see could through and understand everything were locked on her. After gazing at her for some time, he still did not express any sort of comment.
He had heard and grasped the meaning that Gui Xiao had tried to express in that roundabout way: I know you won’t let me help you. I happen to be helping someone else with saving a life right now anyway, so I can’t put in any efforts into helping you… So just entrust the child to me.
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The vehicle was back on the road. Nonchalantly, Gui Xiao spoke up again. “Xu Yao and his wife have known each other since they were kids. Their relationship was on-again-off-again for many years.”
Lu Yanchen decided simply not to say anything, waiting for her to completely pour out all the words that were in her heart.
“It was around the year before last that his wife got sick, and since then she’s been constantly seeing doctors. The girl refused to register a marriage with him because she didn’t want to be a burden on him. So, he threw a wedding. He was going to marry her, come hell or high water.” Looking out the window, Gui Xiao took a drink of water to moisten her throat. “Life is so unpredictable. A year ago you may have been riding on a crest of success and good times, and then the next year you’ve fallen into the mire. His wife got sick; is Xu Yao going to just not want her anymore? And what about all those people who are married; if, after getting married, one person faces a crisis in his or her career, don’t they still have to get through it together?”
Meng Xiaoshan thought that in her eyes there was only love. But that was not true.
She was very realistic and pragmatic. She liked the pleasure of getting deposits into her bank account, and she would weigh the pros and cons in her investments. These all gave her a sense of assurance and allowed her to live in freedom. She was very clear that without Lu Chen, she could still live her life at one hundred percent, live it to the fullest. But with him, her life undoubtedly would be even better.
Who has never experienced a pit in life? You cannot hope that when you fall, your spouse or significant other will selflessly support you all the way, but once things are going smoothly for you, you want only to find someone who is sailing even smoother in life than you. That isn’t being realistic; that’s being fanciful.
After listening to everything she said, Lu Yanchen opened the window and lit up a smoke.
Their vehicle was passing a wind farm. Large, electricity-generating wind turbines stretched as far as the eye could see, all the way to the horizon. Such a magnificent sight to behold.
The white cigarette was lit. Resting half his arm on the windowsill of the car door, he set his gaze on the road ahead. “Meng Xiaoshan is actually not fully aware of my situation. At most two years and then the debt will be settled.”
Coming towards them was a truck, its body spray-painted red, carrying a full load of yellow hay.
Amid the noisiness of the driving truck, he stared out at the road ahead and added another sentence. “And then I’ll save up money to marry you.”
Gui Xiao turned a look of surprise on him. He, too, cast a sideways glance at her.
With all her might, Gui Xiao restrained her heaving emotions that had arisen when she heard these words. The plastic bag in her hand rustled unceasingly as she flipped and turned it. After a while, she at last darted her eyes over to look out the window, quietly answering, “You wish.”
Lu Yanchen tapped a short length of ash into the ashtray in the storage compartment. “You won’t let me marry you?”
A slight smile tugged at Gui Xiao’s lips. She did not speak.
“If you’re going to let me, then we’ll sleep in one ger tonight. If you’re not, we’ll sleep apart.”
“… We’re staying in a hotel tonight, not a ger,” she told him.
He smiled. “Is that so?”
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She thought Lu Yanchen had remembered incorrectly, because she had already previously reserved a room at an inn.
To her surprise, in a place roughly ten kilometres from their destination, he truly did find a vacation village of gers, one that was not very large and not all that proper-looking. It was the middle of winter, not high season, so there were not many guests.
Lu Yanchen had not told her ahead of time that this place was actually owned by a former comrade of his.
The term “comrade” is rather remarkable. As a child, Gui Xiao had experienced it and had quite an understanding of it. It represents a certain group of people for whom simply sitting together can bring about nonstop laughter and dirty and clean talk intermixed randomly however they please, and who can constantly look back on the past together. Together, they had toted guns. Together, they had fought with their lives and thrown themselves on the line. Only those who have been soldiers themselves can understand those days. This is especially so when someone leaves military service and returns to a normal life. When he remembers the past, it actually seems like it had occurred in a parallel world. It feels unreal, yet he cherishes those memories as well.
“Sister-In-Law, I actually wasn’t part of Commander Lu’s squadron. I wasn’t good enough. Their squadron is the elite of the elites. But Commander Lu once taught me how to disarm bombs, so he can be considered my teacher.” After pouring a full glass of alcohol for Lu Yanchen, the comrade actually looked at Gui Xiao. “Do you know what was the feeling I got the first time I saw him? Too cocky! He came and stood right in front of us, and then the first thing he said was, just the previous year, they had disabled more than three hundred explosives, and that number was during a good year in peace times. He told us all to prepare ourselves. Fighting terrorism is no cake walk.”
Lu Yanchen poured himself a cup of wine and took sips from it, his eyes shining brilliantly.
“The very first day, Commander Lu was already scaring us, saying that there is no absolute expert in bomb disposal, that everyone just puts his neck on the line to do it, and that a foreign expert who had done a knowledge exchange with him the year before had just been killed by an exploding bomb in a war zone.” The man was animated as he recounted this, making gestures and actions along with his words. “On the first day that I started to learn, I was especially cautious, so I felt I’d have absolutely no problems. Snip. With that one cut, right away, the back of my head took a whack from him. Guess what Commander Lu said.”
Gui Xiao was engrossed in listening. “What?”
“You’ve been blown up. You’re dead,” that person stated, grinning cheekily.
With a “pffft,” a giggle burst from Gui Xiao.
When they had drunk until it was almost midnight, the topics that comrade chatted about became increasingly sorrowful. He spoke about how a certain person, in the midst of a pursue-and-capture mission, was sniped in an alley and died. At the end, he even patted Lu Yanchen on a spot at his waist. “Commander Lu ended up taking a shot here because he was providing cover for the others.”
Lu Yanchen gave the man a light jab with his elbow, not wanting him to continue further with his descriptions.
Contrary to his expectations, though, that person did not grasp the essence of the action and misinterpreted its meaning. “Oh, right. Sister-In-Law would have already seen it a long time ago.”
If this relatively ardent welcome dinner could be packaged into a one-hour segment, then truly, in the first fifty-nine minutes, Gui Xiao had been quaking as she listened with her heart in her throat, feeling all sorts of retrospective fear. However, in the one minute that immediately followed, she was thrown straight into a suggestive, mature-audience-only late-night show.
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Fortunately, that man was very mindful, and seeing that these were late hours already, he brought the two to the place where they would be staying.
More than twenty white gers lined the left and right sides of a little dirt pathway that cut through the grass.
“It’s the third one from the end.” After informing them of this, that comrade stepped aside to let them go on themselves. It was not like he should escort the pair of young lovers all the way to the outside of their ger, right? If it was time to get out of the way, then he should get out of there. “I’m going to go help my mom add up the books. Oh, and, Commander Lu, the horses are all over there. If you want to ride, just go choose one yourself.”
Lu Yanchen cast a glance in the direction he had pointed.
After that comrade left, Gui Xiao followed Lu Yanchen to the outside of their ger. While he was fishing out the key and looking at that little red door, she asked in a small voice, “How many beds are there inside?” His comrade had been a little overly effusive, such that she had already brought her bags over before she had even gone in for a look.
Lu Yanchen held the key between his fingers and spun it in a half circle.
While Gui Xiao was still waiting for his answer, he covered the back of her head with his palm and used his back to block out the night wind of the steppe. Gui Xiao moved backwards a little to make room. With one hand, he stabbed the key into the keyhole while his other palm pulled her against himself. Gui Xiao prayed with all her might that no one would suddenly step out from any of the gers. And then, without speaking a word, he bent down and began kissing her.
Lu Yanchen was much taller than the doorframe. Lowering his head and bending at the waist, he half-pushed, half-carried her inside. Gui Xiao was breathless from his kisses. Her calves bumped into the edge of the bed and she toppled onto it. Voices outside belonging to a man and a woman could faintly be heard. She wondered whether they were like them, a pair of young lovers, and after a night stroll on the grasslands, they were coming back and preparing to do that little thing that adult men and women love to do.
He suddenly released her lips and fixed his gaze on her. “May I?”
That type of low voice that belonged exclusively to a man, one that seemed to press in on her and was so tormentingly rough and grating, now crushed down on her such that she could hear each beat of her heart.
As Gui Xiao opened her eyes as well, it was evident that they had not adjusted to this dim space. A slight sheen of moisture slicked her lips as they parted slightly. “Mm-hmm.”
Lu Yanchen still stared intently at her, not moving.
The noises outside had disappeared. Her heartbeat seemed to have also disappeared. She said, “Back then, when you kissed me… you never asked.”
His breathing was slow and heavy, and he spoke no more.
The two tossed about beneath the quilt, which had been thrown open. Their clothing was damp from their perspiration. Initially, Gui Xiao did not notice anything, and only when everything had been removed from her did she feel that from everywhere there were chilly drafts leaking in. She was cold, yet she was hot. She waited for quite a while. At last, Lu Yanchen lifted off the quilt. On his bare, upper body, his abs were clearly visible. Bending down, he pressed his chest against her body.
Gui Xiao asked, “Why didn’t you…” … take everything off?
“I forgot to bring those. It’s not safe.”
Just earlier, when he got off the bed to rummage through his travel duffel and saw her covering herself up with the quilt, hiding behind it to remove her clothing, he had backed out of his original decision. Hence, without even bothering to search, he had simply taken off his button-up shirt and pants and then slipped under the quilt. A thin layer of perspiration chafed against the arms, chest, back, and legs of both of them. To Lu Yanchen, Gui Xiao’s presence as she simply and chastely laid in his arms was too strong. He was not going to do it, but he could not make himself come to a complete halt either.
Throughout this night, several times she asked, “Lu Chen, if you really can’t bear it…”
“There’s no such thing as ‘can’t bear it.’” Rolling over, Lu Yanchen once more pinned her under himself.
There was a saying—how did it go?—“to quench a thirst with poison.”
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When it was nearly light out, he slipped on his top and pants and then wrapped her tightly in the quilt.
Gui Xiao, after a whole night of being positioned and fiddled with by him, was a little thicker-skinned now. Through the quilt, she touched his body, trying to ascertain whether he still wanted to do it… His eyes narrowing, Lu Yanchen threw her a sideways look of “Don’t you go making trouble” and said, “Are you going to sleep or not?”
“Lu Chen.” With her forehead, she searched for the hollow of his shoulder, and then finding it, she rested her head there. A small voice like a mosquito wafted next to his ear. “In the past, when you were solving your, um, physiological need yourself, in your mind…”
“I’d think about you.” Lu Yanchen, his eyes closed in rest, answered her very easily and directly.
What she wanted to ask was, in the past, had he ever had any other woman on his mind? He had comprehended.
“What did I look like?” Gui Xiao asked. “What clothes was I wearing?”
She opened her mouth ever so slightly, wanting to say something, but then unconsciously pressed her lips back together, muttering, “It’s not like you’d ever seen it before.”
The heat of his breaths was falling right on her forehead, sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter. “Just needed a little bit of thought to know.”
 From Beijing northward to Xilinhot via Zhangjiakou and Sanggendalai, it is approximately 600 km.
 饮鸩止渴 “yin zhen zhi ke.” The idiom “drink poison to quench thirst” describes when an adopted remedy, which may bring temporary relief, in the end creates even worse consequences.
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