The boy had not eaten or drank anything for nearly a day. He swallowed his saliva, and his throat felt like a rusted piece of metal, with a stale taste. There were black spots in his vision. He stepped on something, he didn't know what; his ankle wobbled and without a word, he fell forward, head first.
The girl beside him grabbed a hold of his collar none too gently. She dragged him along like she was dragging a dead dog, nearly strangling him. The boy struggled to prop himself up against the ground, just barely managing to stay upright. At least, he wasn't falling flat onto the ground. The noise beside his ears sounded suddenly far and then suddenly near, like there was a layer of something obstructing it.
"What's with you?"
"I… I really...."
Really can't run anymore.
Halfway through speaking, the boy ran out of energy. The second half of his sentence suspended precariously in his throat, scattered to pieces by his broken breathing.
"What did you say?" The girl didn't hear him clearly. She drew closer and raised his head by his chin. She looked at his complexion and frowned as she asked. "Did they beat you?"
"No… No." The boy grabbed weakly at her hand that was checking him over carelessly. His breath was as thin as a thread as he spoke. "...L-Low blood sugar… Jiejie…"
"Oh." The girl was briefly stunned when she heard him address her in that way but did not oppose it. A young girl in her teens was not very sensitive to matters related to age. She patted her clothes and finally fished out a piece of chocolate from somewhere. "Here. I think it's expired but I don't have anything else. Make do with it first."
This piece of chocolate had gone through a hard life and who knew how many times it had melted and resolidified. The shape had changed drastically. The boy took it, trembling, feeling like he was unwrapping the shroud on a sticky corpse. But he had no choice but to forcibly stuff it into his mouth. From inside, he tasted a strong flavour of laundry detergent powder.
It was already easy to feel dizzy and nauseous when one was hungry to the point of having low blood sugar. Adding on to that, his throat was inflamed and it was difficult to swallow. This piece of chocolate that had gone through who-knew-what stuck in his throat, neither going up nor down, making the boy choke and retch a few times, tears covering his face.
"Didn't I give you something to eat already? Why are you crying?"
"I… ugh… I'm not crying, I just... can't… ugh… can't swallow it…"
"Princess." The girl's sigh was one of age and experience. She crouched down beside him and waited patiently for him to wipe his tears, then asked, "Hey, I've got a question—do you know why those people kidnapped you?"
"No… Mm, I don't know." The boy used all his strength to swallow the thing in his mouth. He took a few deep breaths. "I don't know them but they have a car and even have a few dogs. I think they'll catch up to us right away. We have to call the police—Jiejie, do you have a communication device? They took my phone."
"I don't. All of us at the village just shout." The girl spread her hands. "Don't tell me you're a young master from a rich family. Did they demand money after kidnapping you?"
"No, my parents are ordinary people." The boy thought a while, then added. "It shouldn't be because of money. They didn't take photos of me and didn't make me call my family to demand a ransom. It was a gang who kidnapped me, a total of seven of eight people. I think that most gangs involved in kidnapping and extortion shouldn't be on such a large scale because more people means more loose mouths and it will be very easy for there to be conflicts due to personal profits. It will be very hard for the gang to be stable."
His words were very logical and he even threw in some formal terms. The girl was all fuzzy-headed from listening to him. "Oh, is that so?"
The boy immediately became cautious for no reason. "...I read it in a book."
The two half-grown kids were in a very deserted area. Not far away was a flyover that led out of the province. At this time, there wasn't even a single car on it. There was no sign of anyone around them but there might be a landfill nearby because the late night wind at the changing of seasons between autumn and winter carried with it waves of an overwhelming rancid stench. The smell made the boy choke until his nose and mouth ached painfully, and he retched a few times out of a physiological reaction. He quickly covered his mouth to stifle himself, and carefully glanced at the girl beside him, as though he was afraid that she would take a dislike to him.
The girl was wearing a very old men's short-sleeved shirt. It was of the style that was popular among village committee members back in the nineties. However, the shirt was totally not the right size for her. It covered her body like a sack and inversely, looked less tacky because of that. A denim school bag hung from one of her hands. The zip on the bag was broken and she had sewn an uneven row of buttons on it. The soft bag straps dangled downwards. It looked as though it had just been fished out from a rubbish bin.
Despite that, she didn't look sloppy; instead, there was a couldn't-care-less air about her.
"Jiejie, do you live nearby?" The boy asked softly. "Where can we go to find some adults?"
"How would I know? I followed them here by clinging to their car." The girl plucked a blade of grass from the ground and dangled one end from her mouth. As she surveyed their surroundings, she seemed to be plotting something. She said carelessly, "They grabbed you at Mudpool Backlane, right? I happened to pass by while buying breakfast but this gang moved too fast. At that time, I hadn't even seen clearly that they had grabbed a person. I just felt that something wasn't right so I followed them to have a look. You can consider yourself lucky."
The boy was dumbstruck.
The girl continued to say, "I haven't asked you yet. Why did a child like you come to Mudpool Backlane, that hoodlums' nest, early in the morning?"
The boy looked like he had been struck by lightning. "You… alone? Just on your own?"
"Mm, yeah. Sorry, I don't have the habit of bringing cheerleaders with me. Maybe my entrance wasn't grand enough."
"You didn't tell any adults? You didn't call the police?" The boy came back to his senses and bristled all over. "You even, what… clung on to the car? Y-You, where did you cling on to? If you had fallen down, you could have been run over by the cars on the road and died. And also, if they noticed you…"
The girl's train of thought was cut off by his non-stop ranting. She turned her head around and looked at him with a resigned face. "Call the police? Where would I go to call them? If I had run from Mudpool Backlane to the local police station, explained what happened to them, then run back there—the key point is that I can't even explain it clearly—this back and forth would have been enough time for you to be dragged to the crematorium and back to the reincarnation pot. Be good, go to the side and recite your 'Rules for Primary School Children.' If you continue to be so long-winded, this jiejie is going to smack you until you cry."
"I am speaking reasonably here. And also, I'm already in junior high!"
The girl huffed a laugh. "In that case, your academic qualifications are really excellent. I-"
Before she finished her words, her face suddenly changed. She seized the boy and pushed him into the bushes at the roadside. The boy unconsciously held his breath. Immediately after that, a hazy beam of light swept past.
It was the light from a car.
There were a few cars. In the emptiness of the night, the sound of the engines and exhausts were especially mighty. The cars turned in circles around them like bomber jets, then stopped at a spot not far from them. Following that, the wind passed on the sound of people spewing obscenities and dogs barking.
They brought dogs to chase them!
The boy hurriedly turned his head to look at his companion beside him. With the help of the dim light, he suddenly realised that she was probably not much older than him and they might even be of the same age. Her cheeks and her jaw still carried a little bit of tender baby fat. It was just that girls matured earlier and she was also very decisive, so it gave others the illusion that she was matured.
Her side profile did not appear as delicately pretty as her front profile because there was a slight hump on her nose bridge. Her brows were thick and long and slanted upwards. Time and age hadn't yet engraved her face, her bones and flesh had yet to fully develop; yet, a touch of an arrogant and stubborn disposition was already evident.
"They have a lot of people, they have cars and even dogs. Catching the two of us… No, catching me is very easy." The boy kept his voice low and urgent. "We should split up. If I'm caught, you must not come out. Listen to me, I think there should be a landfill nearby. There must be an IC payphone near major landfills. Get someone to come rescue me."
"I don't have a phone card."
The vein on the boy's temple started pulsing. "Calling 110 is free! Don't you have any common sense?"
"Oh, really?" The girl had a I-learned-something-new expression on her face. Then, she calmly looked away and spat out the blade of grass in her mouth. "Okay, I'll give it a try when I have the chance. It won't be necessary today. Take off your clothes."
"Take. Off. Your. Clothes." She turned her head around, her eyes flitting past the boy's thin chest. "You're just a bean sprout with no chest and no butt, is it possible for me to take advantage of you? Quick, don't dawdle!"
She moved to take direct action herself as she spoke. The boy curled into a ball, his face and ears completely red. In the end, he was forced to obey. He wasn't wearing a lot; after taking off his baseball cap, his T-shirt and his sweatpants, all he had left on his whole body was one piece of underwear. He was like a shaved puppy, indignant and feeling wronged.
The girl glanced at him and laughed wickedly. "That doggy on your underwear looks a lot like you."
"What are you looking at!"
"Follow me!" She beckoned him and then bent down at the waist. Under the cover of the bushes that grew freely at the roadside, she led the boy to squeeze their way through all over the place, nimble and agile.
At first, the boy still had a vague sense of where they were heading. Later on, he was turned around until he was confused and all he knew to do was to keep his thoughts to himself and follow her. The barking of the dogs was drawing closer and even the jumbled, messy sound of footsteps could be heard on the empty road.
"Come here!" The girl in front of him beckoned him. The boy finally realised that the two of them had reached the boundary of the landfill. Right ahead was a wire fence. Before the girl could finish speaking, another beam of light swept past. The two half-grown kids hurriedly crouched down. They were very close to each other. The girl saw the sneakers on the boy's feet—they were very eye-catching, the colour of the shoelaces and the way they were tied were different on both sides, and they were also of a fluorescent shade. "Take off your shoes too. After a while, climb over to the other side from here. Move quick, if someone sees you, you're dead meat. Understand?"
"What are you planning?"
The girl ignored him and continued speaking, "After you get in there, look for the smelliest spot and hide there. When it's nearly daybreak there will be rubbish trucks coming here. Get them to rescue you."
"Okay. Then, you should run away quickly. You need to run further away because the landfill might not cover my scent." The boy huddled nakedly at the bottom of the wire fence, yet was still expounding on pop science with reason and logic, his speech as rapid as a machine gun. "I read in a report that a trained sniffer dog's sense of smell is almost at the level of being able to pick up individual molecules. They have thirty to fifty times more olfactory receptors than an average human. A dog's odor detection threshold- achoo!"
The girl had suddenly taken out a small spray about the size of a human palm, and looked away and shielded her face while spraying him. The liquid sprayed on him seemed to be water, colourless and odourless, yet the boy felt like sneezing for some reason. He was afraid that he would attract their pursuers so he had no choice but to cover his mouth with all his might and keep the noise in his throat.
"My god, how are you so capable of memorising books? Don't tell me you're the physical manifestation of a reciting machine?" After spraying, the girl pushed her hand against the back of his head. "Now's the time, climb!"
Rising together with her voice was the sound of vicious barking. The dog seemed to be very close to them. The hairs on the boy's back stood up on their ends and his mind blanked out. He unconsciously obeyed her words and used all his strength to climb up the wire fence. When he jumped down, something cut his bare foot and he stumbled. He couldn't be bothered to check it; he clambered to his feet in a panicked fluster and looked towards the girl on the other side of the wire fence. "Quick-"
The girl used the clothes he had taken off to make a simple net bag. She threw the socks and shoes into the bag, then popped the baseball cap over her own head.
The boy was momentarily stunned. Then, he seemed to understand something. "Wait a minute, what are you doing?"
The girl turned her head and whistled at him. "In the future, if there isn't a need to, don't go to a bad place like Mudpool Backlane so often. A good boy who's all alone will get bullied. Run away on your own. Jiejie is leaving now."
"You-" The boy hurriedly threw himself onto the wire fence, reaching out to grab a hold of her. Right at that moment, another beam of light swept past. The boy unconsciously shrank back behind a waste container. On the other hand, the girl stood unmoving. This time, the light swept directly across the girl's face. She turned her face away and squinted. A hint of a cold smile emerged in the corners of her lips. There was a bit of a vicious air to it, yet at the same time, it also carried the eagerness of a newborn calf that did not fear the tiger.
He saw her retreat a few steps, pull down the brim of the cap, and hold up her index finger against her lips. "Shh-"
Under the glare of the torchlight that was shining this way, a sliver of that face could be seen. The baseball cap hid her features and only the tip of her nose and the rather sharp corner of her mouth was revealed. She was like the fiery clouds at the break or close of day, her image burning into his retinas.
Then, this "fiery cloud" treaded on the wind and swept past his eyes, disappearing in a flash.