*** = Scene change
***** = Timeskip
His world was no longer as dark and monotonous as before.
Qingruo was restricted to one carton of white milk every day, and the same with strawberry milk every week. She always shared the drinks with Xu Nianyang, giving him the lion’s share. Two months passed, and it was during this period that he experienced an unexpected growth spurt. She no longer had to bend her knees.
Despite it being the middle of summer, Qingruo’s parents were busy with work. After either lunch or dinner every day, Qingruo would sneak out to meet Xu Nianyang in the alleyway. The nanny in charge of her meals was not unaware of her little ventures, but she allowed it for two reasons: the house was nearby, and children were often reserved the right to be mischievous.
As usual, Qingruo and Xu Nianyang met up and she handed him a carton of milk. She gave his grimy hands a glance before gently grabbing his sleeve. He looked at her, and she batted her eyelashes.
“Gege, will you let me cut your nails?” she asked as she freached into her little purse and pulled out a pre-prepared nail clipper. Printed on it were patterns of cute cartoon characters.
Xu Nianyang was leaning against the alleyway wall, clad in his usual tattered clothes. The proximity of their bodies made it easy for him to detect the mixed milk and fruit fragrance of her body.
He pulled the attached straw from the side of carton and lazily stretched out his vacant hand. “Mhm.”
Qingruo secretly scrutinized him. Something was off—she had been thinking that since the day after they first met—but she couldn’t figure out what. Every time after entering a new world, she would be cut off from the headquarters, so she could only speculate from the information she had received in the beginning about Xu Nianyang.
Nevertheless, he currently seemed to hold no hostility toward her. As a matter of fact, he appeared to be rather pleased with her companionship. That alone was already enough.
Maybe it was the effect of having a friend, and his world was no longer as dark and monotonous as before?
‘Well, it doesn’t matter.’ Qingruo dispelled her thoughts and took his hand. There was so little flesh on his bones that it was frightening. The underside of his nails were practically black, and the pads of his fingers were covered in calluses.
She worked carefully while trying her best to exhibit a child’s clumsiness at the same time, going as far as to stopping after every clip to ask, “Gege, does it hurt?”
Xu Nianyang took in the scene before him and lightly shook his head in response. “Angle the nail clipper a little more,” he guided her. “Mhm, good.”
Although it would undoubtedly be faster if he did it himself, he seemed to have no qualms about letting a little nine-year-old girl cut his nails for him.
Eventually, all five of the nails on that hand were cleared away, revealing the tender pink fingertips underneath. Xu Nianyang finished drinking his share of the milk and stuck the straw in her mouth before giving her his other hand. He held the carton for her.
They had agreed months prior to let him have two-thirds of the white milk, leaving a third for her, and all of the strawberry milk. When they shared milk for the first time, she had wanted to discard the straw and drink directly from the carton, but she changed her mind after sensing his aura darken.
That had pleased him.
Qingruo lowered her head and took tiny sips from the straw as she focused on cutting his nails. When she was done, the carton still had a small amount of milk left inside. Xu Nianyang lifted the straw to his own lips and finished it off before tossing the empty carton aside.
The little girl pouted. She stuffed the nail clipper back into her purse and ran over to pick up the carton and throw it into a nearby trash bin.
Their meetup had been prolonged by the nail-cutting session, so after returning to his side, Qingruo quickly fished out three yuan from her daily allowance and placed the money in his hands. She plastered on a serious expression and told him, “Gege, you have to eat breakfast tomorrow, okay?”
Xu Nianyang pocketed the money and thought, ‘What a foolish little girl.’ Then he curled his thin fingers and knocked a knuckle on her forehead before moving back to lean against the wall.
”You’re like this with other friends too?” The word “friends” was spoken using a tone of derision.
Qingruo shook her head. ”No, only with gege.”
He liked that. He lifted his chin, and his eyes arched slightly. ”Hm? Repeat the last part.”
The little girl gave a sweet smile and responded, her breath mellow with the fragrance of milk, “Only with Gege.”
The corners of his lips turned upward. “Run along now.”
Qingruo left after saying goodbye. His eyes remained fixated on her scampering figure until it disappeared around the corner, then he turned his attention to his freshly trimmed nails. Lifting a hand, he touched the corner of his lips with a fingertip and wondered how her mouth could be so sweet1 when the milk that they drank was from the same carton.
In the far back of the alleyway was the outdated residential building that the Xu family lived in. The building had no elevator, and its narrow hallways were filled with cracks. The place was a mess and the walls were in no way soundproof, so despite being on the third floor, moving up toward to the fourth, Xu Nianyang could already hear Mrs. Xu’s cursing.
“Where the hell did that good-for-nothing run off to? The dishes need to be washed, I’ll kill him when he gets back.”
Mr. Xu reproached her half-heartedly, “That’s enough, just tell him to do it when he gets back. Yangyang is doing his homework right now, so keep your voice down.”
Hearing that, she immediately quieted down.
When Xu Nianyang strolled in, he saw Mrs. Xu standing in the doorway of Xu Chaoyang’s study, asking him softly, “Yangyang, I’ll go wash you an apple, okay?”
Before they adopted Xu Nianyang, the Xu couple had longed for a child of their own. They’d even thought of the name “Xu Chaoyang” in advance and tied “Xu Nianyang” to it; Chaoyang, the morning sun, and Nianyang, anticipating the arrival of that sun.
As soon as Xu Nianyang closed the door, Mrs. Xu turned and strode forward with vicious intent, a storm of curses and saliva flying from her mouth. “Little bastard, where the hell did you run off to this time?”
He stepped back, deftly avoiding her palm.
“I’ll go wash the dishes,” he said in a low voice, and without sparing her a single glance, walked into the kitchen.
Mrs. Xu frowned and raised her hand again, but Mr. Xu stopped her. ”Be quiet, Yangyang is doing homework.”
Only then did she relent.
It was after she lost her job that Mrs. Xu became a stay-at-home mother. She was no longer the benevolent woman who adopted Xu Nianyang out of goodwill, as the years she spent away from society and the bitterness she felt toward her current living conditions had reduced her to an embodiment of foul language and hatred.
She was unwilling to acknowledge anyone but her biological son, who she hoped would grow up to become the richest man in the world. As a result, the young nine-year-old boy was overly spoiled and already showing signs of malevolence beyond his tender age.
Mrs. Xu couldn’t bear to discipline Xu Chaoyang, so she vented all of her frustrations on Xu Nianyang. Eighty percent of the injuries on his body were from her repeated inflictions, while the remaining twenty percent came from either Mr. Xu, Xu Chaoyang, or the children from the alleyway.
At home, Xu Chaoyang was allowed to do anything he wanted. Outside, he bullied the weak and feared the strong, always provoking other children and pushing Xu Nianyang forward to face the consequences.
Xu Nianyang readily shielded him, not because he loved this younger step-brother of his, but because the blows that the children dealt were softer than Mrs. Xu’s, and Mrs. Xu would be furious if her precious son returned injured.
It was evident that, influenced by his parents, Xu Chaoyang regarded Xu Nianyang as the family’s dog and treated him as such.
Stepping inside the kitchen, Xu Nianyang was greeted by an all-too-familiar sight on the counter: a medium-sized bowl containing a small ball of rice and beside it, a plate of chewed greens—it was Xu Chaoyang’s leftovers, and Xu Nianyang’s dinner.
He opened the window and dumped the food out.
As he was washing the dishes, Mrs. Xu came in holding three apples. Xu Nianyang retreated to one side, and she went to wash the apples. They didn’t look at each other.
She turned down the water and berated him in a hushed tone, “Why did you turn the water on so high? You looking to die, or did you eat shit? You think water is free?”
Xu Nianyang neither responded nor retorted, and Mrs. Xu left cursing.
Every member of the Xu family was like a thirsting beast of greed. Mrs. Xu dealt in violence and fatal doting on Xu Chaoyang, while Mr. Xu’s ambitiousness and indolence clashed in a constant battle where the latter held the upper hand. Xu Chaoyang was simply a spoiled child beast.
Their apartment was small. A while ago, Xu Nianyang’s bedroom was converted into Xu Chaoyang’s study, and there were no other spare rooms left. Since Xu Chaoyang was occupying the study, Xu Nianyang had no choice but to move to the balcony.
It was seven or eight o’clock on an August day. The wind felt warm, but not hot. On the ground beside him was a pile of sundries.
He put his hands in his pockets. The left pocket contained a piece of fruit candy from Qingruo, and the right contained a wad of her allowances, accumulated over several days. He had not bothered to count the money, so he didn’t know how much was saved.
He leaned against the balcony, his elbows on the railing and his chin pressed against his palm, and stared dazedly into the distance. Qingruo had pointed it out for him once, the direction of her house.
After a short while, a commotion inside pulled him out of his reverie. Undoubtedly, Mrs. Xu had discovered that Xu Chaoyang was playing games instead of studying.
In a bit, she would come to discipline him.
And she did, holding the stick that she used specifically for beating him.
“You useless piece of shit, the hell are you still standing here for? Go help Yangyang with his homework!” As she yelled, she lashed out, landing continuous blows on his back.
Ignoring the pain, Xu Nianyang turned his head and looked into the room. He saw Mr. Xu holding Xu Chaoyang’s gaming console and gently chastising him. The child did not look the least bit remorseful.
Maybe he thought it was Xu Nianyang’s fault too.
Once she got tired of hitting him, Mrs. Xu dragged Xu Nianyang in by the ear, kicked him, and turned to Mr. Xu. “Stop scolding Yangyang, let him go do his homework.”
She kicked Xu Nianyang again. “Little good-for-nothing, you’d better teach Yangyang well.”
After obediently assuring his parents that he would focus on his homework, Xu Chaoyang was able to reclaim his gaming console.
The boys entered the study, and Xu Chaoyang locked the door. He immediately climbed onto Xu Nianyang’s bed, still wearing his shoes, and nibbled on an apple as he turned on the gaming console. He crossed his legs and jerked his chin toward the desk. “Hey, my summer homework’s over there. Go do it, but watch the time. Make sure to finish all of it before school starts.”
Xu Nianyang stared at the shoes dirtying his bed, his eyes frighteningly dark. Then, he smiled and went to sit at the desk. He picked up the pencil and began to work.
When the apple was halfway eaten, Xu Chaoyang didn’t want it anymore. He stretched out his hand and placed it on the windowsill and continued gaming until Xu Nianyang told him that the homework was done. At that, he gave an impatient response and finished another round of the game before getting up.
After storing the gaming console away in his schoolbag, he grabbed his homework from Xu Nianyang and prepared to go show it off to his parents.
Before leaving, he turned his head and said, ”There’s half an apple left, you can have it.”
Words full of pity.
Xu Nianyang nodded while smiling faintly. Xu Chaoyang went into the living room, soon filling it with the sounds of cheerful chatter and laughter.
Did the Xu couple really not know where the homework was from? They just wanted to deceive themselves. Xu Nianyang held them in contempt.
Shortly after, Mrs. Xu came into the study. The first thing she did was turn off the light, then the yellowing apple on the windowsill caught her attention.
“Why didn’t you tell Yangyang to finish the apple?” she asked. Then, without waiting for his response, “You eat it then.”
The door closed, plunging the room into darkness.
No【Black Box】this chapter ????