Not. A. Good. Bird.


Author: Wu Zhe, Translated by Ami :3

          According to his mom… Jiang Cheng suddenly thought this way of referring to her was a little strange. So much so that his train of thoughts got weirdly cut off, he suddenly couldn’t remember what exactly she said.

          In all of his seventeen odd years, parents and family were a singular presence. Regardless of whether they had a good relationship, mom was always the woman named Shen Yiqing, and dad was the man named Jiang Wei. And then there was the little brother he was never close with… But now all of a sudden, he had an extra set. Li Baoguo and… some names that he’d already forgotten.

          It was difficult to wrap his mind around.

          His relationship with his family was indeed a tense one. Whether it was his parents or his brother, every time he came in contact with them there was risk of combustion. It had already been about a year since he and his brother last spoke to each other. Even his mom who was always calm had lost her temper a handful of times. 

          But even though this atmosphere lasted from the beginning of middle school all the way until high school, even if he was always thinking about never going home again, never seeing his parents again, especially not seeing that face that looked like it came out of the same mould as their parents… When this moment finally descended upon him like a wish fulfilled, it still completely blindsided him. 

          Yes, blindsided.

          Extremely blindsided.

          From the time his mom said “there’s something I have to tell you”, followed by several months of cold war and paperwork, until now. All of it felt like a nonsensical dream.

          Most of the time he wasn’t too upset about it, nor was he in a lot of pain.

          Only blindsided.

            

          “Cold, eh?” Li Baoguo turned and asked. He coughed out loud. “Way colder than where you were huh?”

          “Mhm.” Jiang Cheng answered behind his mask.

          “It’ll be warmer inside.” Li Baoguo said, speaking and coughing loudly, spraying spit all over his face. “I tidied up a room especially for you.”

          “Thanks.” Jiang Cheng said, and pulled his mask up more.

          “No need for that between us father and son.” Li Baoguo laughed and clapped Jiang Cheng on the back a couple times. “No need for ‘thank you’s between us.”

          Jiang Cheng wasn’t able to respond; the slaps were quite forceful. He already felt like coughing after inhaling the cold air, hearing Li Baoguo cough only made the urge to cough stronger. After the two slaps, he bent down in a coughing fit, which almost made tears come out of his eyes.

          “You’re not in very good health huh,” Li Baoguo watched him. “You gotta exercise. When I was your age I was strong as a bear.”

          Jiang Cheng didn’t say anything, only gave him a thumbs up while still bent at the waist.

          Li Baoguo laughed gleefully, “Exercise! I’m still counting on you to take care of me in the future!”

          Jiang Cheng straightened up and looked at him.

          “Come on.” Li Baoguo gave him another slap on the back.

          “Don’t touch me.” Jiang Cheng frowned.

          “Oooh,” Li Baoguo paused, and looked at him with eyes wide. “What’s wrong?”

          Jiang Cheng looked into his eyes for a while, then pulled down his mask, “Don’t slap my back.”

            

          Li Baoguo’s home was on an old street. On both sides were various decrepit little shops that were also full of the smell of life. They sold food, clothes, and all sorts of daily necessities. Above the shops were several stories of residential apartments.

          Jiang Cheng raised his head and had a look through the many intersecting cables above them. It was tough to tell whether the ambiguous colour of the outer walls was due to the darkening skies, or because that was how it was.

          He turned into a corridor behind Li Baoguo, a mess of emotions in his heart. They passed through heaps of junk and food on the hallway of the first floor and stopped in front of a door at the very end.

          “It definitely can’t compare with what you had before,” Li Baoguo said as he unlocked the door. “But what’s mine is yours!”

          Jiang Cheng didn’t say anything. He looked at a lightbulb in the corridor that was encased in cobwebs, and imagined the lightbulb must be suffocating.

          “What’s mine, is yours!” Li Baoguo opened the door and turned to give his shoulder a couple of hard thumps. “What’s yours, is mine! Now that’s a real father and son!”

          “I said don’t touch me.” Jiang Cheng said, irritated.

          “Whoa.” Li Baoguo entered and flipped the lights on. “Spoiled you are, talking to your elders like this. Let me tell you, I never spoiled your older brother or sister. If you grew up here, I would have beat you to submission long ago… Come, you’ll sleep in this room… it used to be your brother’s…”

           

          Jiang Cheng dragged his suitcase into the room and didn’t bother listening to anything else Li Baoguo had to say. The apartment had two bedrooms, he wondered how the whole family managed to fit before.

          This tidied room… probably wasn’t tidied very often or ever. Without even looking, he could tell with his nose alone the smell of dust intermingled with a faint stench of mildew. 

          There was an old wardrobe, a desk, and a bunk bed. The upper bunk was piled with junk, though the bottom bunk was indeed cleared out. The sheets and covers were all freshly changed.

          “Just set your stuff down, you can unpack tomorrow.” Li Baoguo said. “Let’s drink a couple glasses first.”

          “Drink what?” Jiang Cheng was a little thrown. He glanced at his phone, it was almost ten o’clock.

          “Alcohol of course.” Li Baoguo looked at him. “It’s been more than ten years, we gotta have some drinks to celebrate!”

          “…That’s ok.” Jiang Cheng was at a loss for words. “I don’t want to drink.”

          “Don’t want to drink?” Li Baoguo’s eyes widened by another degree. He stared at him for a couple of seconds then zoomed his eyes out again, then started to laugh. “Have you never had alcohol before or something? You’re already in high school…”

          “I don’t feel like drinking.” Jiang Cheng interrupted him. “I want to sleep.”

          “Sleep?” Li Baoguo froze for a long time, and at last turned to walk away with a wave of his hand. He said in a rough voice, “Ok ok ok, you sleep. Sleep away.”

           

          Jiang Cheng closed the door to the bedroom, and stood in the middle of the room for almost five minutes before he went and opened the wardrobe.

          As soon as he opened the door he was overwhelmed by the wave of mothball smells. More than half of this double door wardrobe was stuffed with all sorts of comforters, old sweaters, and blanket towels with edges so torn they were almost tassels.

          It was hard to describe the feeling. Jiang Cheng was sure he hadn’t yet started to miss his family and home that was more than a few hours away, but was very sincerely and madly missing his old room. 

          He pulled out some clothes at random and hung them up, leaving the rest in the suitcase crammed under the wardrobe. Then he took out a bottle of fragrance and sprayed it fifteen odd times into the wardrobe, and only then shut the door and sat on the edge of the bed.

          His phone rang, the caller display showed “Mom”. He answered.

          “You’ve arrived?” Came his mom’s voice from the other end.

          “Mm.” Jiang Cheng answered.

          “The conditions aren’t as good as back here,” His mom said. “You might need some time to adjust.”

          “No need.” Jiang Cheng said.

          His mom paused, “Xiao-Cheng, I still hope you don’t think that…”

          “I don’t.” Jiang Cheng said.

          “This family did not treat you poorly all these years. Isn’t it true that your dad and I never let you know that you were adopted?” His mom’s voice took on the usual stern note.

          “But now I know anyways.” Jiang Cheng said. “And got thrown out.”

          “Don’t you forget, your dad had a fit and had to go to the hospital on New Year’s because of you! And he’s still there!” His mom raised her voice.

          Jiang Cheng didn’t say anything to that. He didn’t understand what he had to do with his dad’s pneumonia induced hospital stay.

          As to what else his mom had to say after that, amazingly, he didn’t catch much of it. It was his superpower, he could stop the things he didn’t want to hear from entering his brain.

          His mom’s stern but empty accusations and her (in his opinion) completely ineffective communication skills might all contribute to his own breakdown.

          He didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to argue in these surroundings that were so new and strange that it made him uncomfortable all over.

          When the call ended, he couldn’t remember what had been said, what his mom said, what he said, couldn’t remember any of it.

          

          Feeling like taking a shower, Jiang Cheng rose and opened the door. He peered into the living room, nobody was there.

          He cleared his throat and coughed a few times. Nobody answered.

          “Are… you there?” He walked into the living room, unsure of how exactly to refer to Li Baoguo.

          The apartment was small, from the living room he could see at a glance all the doors in all the rooms. Li Baoguo was not there.

          Must have been off to play cards again. The man would jump in and play a few hands even when passing by on his way to pick someone up on the streetside.

          “Come now——play a few hands——got plenty of time anyway,” Jiang Cheng sang [1] as he pushed open the bathroom door. “Come now——take a shower——got…”

          There was no hot water tank in the bathroom.

          “Got…” he continued the song and turned to take a look at the kitchen next to the bathroom, and didn’t see a hot water tank there either, only a small electrical heater on top of the kitchen faucet. “Got…”

          He couldn’t continue. After doing a couple rounds around the apartment to confirm that indeed, there was no hot water tank, he felt a stuffiness in his chest. He gave the faucet a smack, “Damnit.”

          After traveling for the whole day, it was impossible for him to sleep without showering.

          Finally he had to drag his suitcase out and pulled out a collapsible pail. In his underwear, he carried the water in and out of the bathroom one pail at a time and managed to also clean himself off in the meantime. 

          A cockroach scuttled past his feet as he walked out of the bathroom. He jumped up to get out of its way and narrowly missed hitting his head on the door.

           

          It was only after getting back to his room and turning off the lights in preparation for some forced shuteye, that he noticed the room didn’t have any curtains. And that the reason he never saw the view outside the window was because the glass was too dirty.

          He pulled the covers over himself, hesitated, then sniffed at it. He let out a breath of relief when he confirmed that it was clean, he didn’t even have the energy to sigh.

          After half an hour of lying on the bed with his eyes shut, enough that his eyes were sore from the effort, sleep still wouldn’t come. He considered getting up for a smoke when his phone pinged.

          He picked it up, it was a message from Pan Zhi.

                    – Wtf, you left already? What’s the status?

          Jiang Cheng lit a cigarette and dialed Pan Zhi’s number. He walked to the window with the cigarette in his mouth and tried to open it.

          There was dirt and rust all over the window sill. He struggled for a while, Pan Zhi picked up the phone in the meantime, but the window still didn’t budge.

          “Cheng?” For some reason Pan Zhi was keeping his voice down as if he was a thief.

          “Fuck.” Jiang Cheng frowned and cursed when his finger got pierced by some unknown object. He gave up on trying to open the window.

          “What’s going on with you?” Pan Zhi still kept his voice low. “I heard from Yu Xin today that you left already? Didn’t you say that you’ll let me know when you leave? I even bought a bunch of things to give to you!”

          “Just ship it over.” Jiang Cheng put on a jacket and walked to the living room with the cigarette. He was about to step outside when he remembered he didn’t have a key, and had no choice but to retreat into the living room and open a window there.

          The irritation in him was like a storm, all his bad mood needed was one more drop and it could all go up in flames of rage.

           

          “So you’re there already?” Pan Zhi asked.

          “Mhm.” Jiang Cheng leaned over the window sill and watched the darkness outside.

          “So how is it? How’s that biological dad of yours?” Pan Zhi continued.

          “You got anything important to say?” Jiang Cheng said. “I don’t feel like talking right now.”

          “Fuck, it’s not like I put you over there.” Pan Zhi tsked once. “What are you lashing out at me for, you didn’t even hesitate at the time when your mom said ‘they need the adoptee’s consent’, but now you’re mad.”

          “Not hesitating and being mad isn’t mutually exclusive.” Jiang Cheng breathed out a puff of smoke.

          Suddenly a small figure jumped out onto the empty street outside, and flew by on a skateboard with shocking speed.

          Jiang Cheng froze for a second and thought of the little girl named Gu Miao from earlier. Who knew there would be so many skateboarders in this rundown city.

          “How about I come over?” Pan Zhi said suddenly.

          “Huh?” Jiang Cheng’s attention was elsewhere.

          “I said I’ll go visit you.” Pan Zhi said. “There’s still a few days before school starts right? I can bring over the stuff I bought you.”

          “No.” Jiang Cheng said.

          “Don’t be stubborn, it’s not like you told anyone else about this, at this point I’m the only one who can offer you some warmth.” Pan Zhi sighed. “Let me go comfort you.”

          “Comfort how?” Jiang Cheng said. “Are you gonna blow me?”

          “Screw your uncle Jiang Cheng, can you have a modicum of shame!” Pan Zhi yelled out.

          “What do I need that for? If you’re so passionate about coming all this way just to see me, of course I’d have to cooperate.” Jiang Cheng circled the apartment a few times holding the cigarette stub, and eventually found an old Eight Treasure Porridge can that was covered with cigarette ashes. Opening the lid, the ancient smoke stink almost made him vomit before he even had a chance to look inside. 

          He threw the stubs in and closed the lid quickly, feeling in that moment that he never wanted to smoke again.

                     

          The strange and troubling environment, the strange and troubling “family”.

          Jiang Cheng thought he’d have insomnia under these circumstances, but after lying down, the torturous sleeplessness he was feeling before was gone, he found himself surprisingly drowsy. Not only drowsy, but tired too. It was a feeling similar to after he pulled half a month of late nights to study for a test.

          Sleep came suddenly.

          After he closed his eyes he slept as if he lost all senses.

          A dreamless night.

           

          In the morning when he woke up, the first thing he felt was an all-over soreness. When he got out of bed Jiang Cheng almost had the illusion that he had a secret identity as a dock worker, the type that hasn’t even worked a full week.

          He checked the time on his phone, it was still pretty early, just past 8 am.

          Walking out of the room, he could see that everything was the same as it was the night before, even the empty bed in the other bedroom. 

          Li Baoguo was out all night?

          Jiang Cheng frowned. He felt a little bad after washing up. His attitude yesterday wasn’t all that great, and it wasn’t with ill will either that Li Baoguo wanted to drag him along for drinks. It was only a difference of habits, but he rejected it so bluntly. Was it because of this that Li Baoguo hadn’t returned the whole night?

          He hesitated for a moment, then pulled out his phone to give Li Baoguo a call. They didn’t drink together the night before, but they could still have breakfast together.

          While dialling, the sound of keys jangling came from outside the door, followed by the sound of lock turning. The noise lasted over 20 seconds, then the door was finally open.

          Li Baoguo walked in wrapped up in cold air. His face was sallow, and wore an exhausted expression.

          “You’re up already?” Li Baoguo said loudly once he spotted him. “You get up pretty early, how did you sleep?”

          “…Ok.” Jiang Cheng noticed the pungent cigarette smell coming from him as he answered. It was mixed in with some other inexplicable stench, like the kind one used to find on the old green and red trains.

          “Did you have breakfast yet?” Li Baoguo took off his jacket and gave it a shake, the smell only got worse. The foul stench permeated the tiny living space.

          “Not yet,” Jiang Cheng said. “How about we…”

          “There’s breakfast places just out the door, quite a few too, go check it out.” Li Baoguo said. “I’m dying to sleep, let me doze for a bit. If I don’t get up by noon you just go ahead and eat on your own.”

          Jiang Cheng watched as he walked into the other bedroom, and threw himself on the bed without taking anything off, only pulling a cover over himself. 

          He’s at a loss for words, “Where did you go…last night?”

          “Cards, been having shit luck lately, but it wasn’t too bad yesterday! Must be you bringing me the good fortune!” Li Baoguo happily yelled then closed his eyes.

          Jiang Cheng took the keys on the table and turned to head out the door. He really was naive for feeling bad earlier.

           

          The snow had stopped. A bone piercing chill swept through the air.

          The streets in the morning were livelier than it was at night. There were people and cars, and even sounds of firecrackers going off. But now that the sun was out, the neglect and decay that was concealed by the dark of night was also exposed out in the open.

          Jiang Cheng walked back and forth a couple times on the street, then entered a bun shop. He ate a few meat buns and a bowl of tofu pudding but the soreness on his body still hadn’t subsided, not only that, but it seemed to have gotten worse as if awakened by the nourishment.

          Feeling like a cold was coming on, he finished his breakfast and went to the little pharmacy next door and bought a box of cold medicine. 

          He stood on the side of the road after that, a little lost. Should he head back?

          The mental image of Li Baoguo engulfed in weird smells and falling right to sleep just made him all sorts of irritated. He didn’t even know what there was to do if he went back there.

          Sleep, or stare off into space?

          After standing outside the pharmacy for a few minutes, he decided to walk around the neighbourhood and familiarize himself with this place. Even though he didn’t know how long he would stay here.

           

          Aimlessly he wandered from the side street to the main road, then turned a corner into another side street that was parallel to the one he was on before. Jiang Cheng wanted to see if there was a way up ahead that would lead him back to where he was.

          On this little street he found a very small musical instruments shop and an ice cream parlour with very pastel decor. Though other than these two stores, there was no discernable difference between his street and this one.

          He stopped when he passed a convenience store that was masquerading as a grocery store but was really a convenience store. He walked in, wanting to buy a bottle of water to wash down the medicine.

          At the same time as he was greeted by the indoor heating that smelled of lemons, Jiang Cheng froze in the doorway. He felt like turning and walking back out.

          Four people were squeezed together in the little plot of land behind the cash register, each person sitting or leaning on a stool.

          As soon as he came in, the idle chatter between them stopped, all the heads turned simultaneously to stare at him.

          Jiang Cheng studied these four people, from their appearances to their expressions, from their clothing to the way they carried themselves. Each one of their faces seem to spell out a word.

          Not. A. Good. Bird. [2]

          While he was wavering between turning around and leaving or going in for the water on the shelf, Jiang Cheng’s peripheral vision caught something else. There were three other bodies crammed in front of a row of shelves.

          He turned around and first, before he was able to make out any faces, he noticed a shiny bald head and bits of short hair littered all over the floor. Then, a pair of large eyes. 


Footnote:

[1] If you didn’t catch the link in the text, Jiang Cheng was filling in his own lyrics to this song

[2] “Not a good bird” is a slang for people who aren’t average law abiding citizens, or those who shouldn’t easily be provoked, but from now on it’s how Jiang Cheng will remember those four friends of Gu Fei’s because his brain capacity is precious and isn’t often used on inane things like names.

Some Stats

  • Raw character count: 5204
  • TL word count: 3614
  • TL time: 5:46:40
  • Edit: 1:07:27
  • Curse words: 2 fucks, 1 shit, 1 damn