After being kicked out of the Olympiad, I had less than a year to catch up with the others before JEE. Returning to the remote school, my parents were disappointed, my teachers had no expectations of me, and even I had dropped all illusions of a better future. I killed my time mechanically working on obscure tests and staring at the hands of my watch.
At the end of the long holidays, the school closed the side entrance to defeat itself from the epidemic and only allowed students to use the main entrance. Most of my classmates who lived in the same neighbourhood as me were troubled that the new policy had extended their journey home, but I was intimately satisfied. For me, the best part of the day was being able to walk home with him after my evening studies, and the long walk was a gift that I couldn't have asked for.
At night, the warm yellow streetlights of Red Valley Venue spilt through the camphor trees onto the unevenly maintained pavement and onto the fallen leaves that always spread widely no matter the season or the work of janitors. I would put my hand on his shoulder - even though it was against the anti-virus measure - and leave behind the anguish under the painful school work to enjoy a moment of peace late at night. I would listen to the distant sound of car engines and the breeze blowing through the canopy of trees; then the intermittent chatter in the playground, the rustle of the leaves as we stepped through them, and finally the breath of the one aside me. I could have just stayed silent, kept my humbleness and modesty with a proper distance and allowed myself to be a random gust of wind or a leaf that fell mutely.
After two hundred metres, it was time to turn onto Jinjiang Road, opposite the high-rise houses that fronted the neighbourhood. If you look up, there is a sense of crampedness in the sky. But I wasn't interested in tall buildings, and my eyes remained straight ahead while glancing at him out of the corner. Of course, the closer we got to the entrance, the more pedestrians there were, and the subtle atmosphere was disturbed considerably. The neighbourhood was a different story. The streetlights are sparse, but there are more types of plants. The mulberry tree at the end of the path forces one to bend down as one passes - we have bumped into its branches in the middle of the trail countless times - and to get up to the door of his flat.
There would be an infested camphor tree and a porcelain dish for feeding stray cats in front of a hollowed-out hole. He insisted he had seen dense, wriggling moths in the spot, but when I made up my mind and pulled him in as a shield to check, there's nothing to be seen.
The brief companionship generally ends here under the pale streetlights. When the footsteps fade away, the door opens and closes and all left to me in silence. I would stop under the window of his room and watch the curtains on the third floor illuminated by the lamp with his shadow sparkling in a blur; the sound of insects fluttering their wings under the light would bring me back to reality, and I would breathe a long sigh of relief as I continued to walk towards my home.
I would turn on the desk lamp on my mobile phone in advance on the way. When I got downstairs, I would look up and see the soft light shining purposelessly but firmly through the beige curtains. I look forward to this light, not because it gives me the illusion that someone is waiting for me in the rented house, but because on the short walk where I can see the window, I can once again enjoy the journey of having a purpose - that there is a light and that's where I'm going - and deep down, I know that this light is soft and would forthwith be consumed up by night; that the goal was illusory and would cease to exist as soon as I stepped through the door of my flat.
Then I walked up the steps and plunged headlong into the glare of lightlessness.
After the entrance exams, my family held up my passport to stop me from leaving the country, which discursively led to the invalidation of all the offers I had. I fled from my hometown to the city where I went to high school in the night, ready to submit a final application as a last-ditch effort. I got on the last train, went back to the familiar underground station, and walked on the same pavement. The warm yellow streetlights and the fallen leaves of the camphor trees were still there, the sound of engines and wind was still there, but it was so quiet that I shivered several times on this summer night.
I turned on my mobile to tell him I was back. He replied immediately, saying that his family could let me stay for a few days. I declined his invitation but involuntarily followed the same route back to the neighbourhood, back to his building, looked up at the familiar window and then sat on the steps in front of the flat. The tree with the hole had disappeared, leaving only the not-so-smoothly cut stump, and the dish with the cat food was still there but covered in stains, probably because the feeder had taken a break from his work. I didn't go over to look - the last time I had done so, I had startled one of the foraging cockroaches and scared him into a rat race.
I smiled at the memory when suddenly my heart fluttered, and my vision became veiled. I blinked hard until I could again make out the flying insects under the lights and the flickering in the window across the street and picked up my phone just in time to receive a message from him, "Found a place to stay yet?"
I was about to type a reply when my fingertips stopped on the screen. The door opens and closes, the sound of footsteps approaching, and all left in silence.