Green Plum Island Ch6
When Sun Rui pushes her three-wheel cart up to Tianqi Used Books and sees me standing outside wearing the employee apron, she’s so shocked, it’s as if she’s seen a ghost.
I put the chalkboard sales adverts I’m carrying onto the ground and ask her what she’s doing here.
“I should be asking you that, shouldn’t I?” she replies. “What are you doing here?”
I stuff my hands into the pockets of the apron around my waist. “Working.”
“Working?” Sun Rui leans over on her toes and peers into the store. “A lazy bum like you who literally never does anything is working? Is the owner still hiring? I want to work here too.”
Sun Rui thinks everyone from the city are young masters and mistresses, living in skyscrapers amongst the clouds, with personal maids and housekeepers.
I put my hands on her shoulders and stop her from going into the store. “Don’t you have to help your dad in the fruit orchards?” I ask her. “Why would you work here?”
Sun Rui’s family has a lot of orchards up in the mountains where they grow apples and green plums. Whenever the holidays come around, she has to join the orchard-tending team, and even during fruit-picking season, she’s often put on fruit-picking duty in the evenings.
One summer when we were children, I went with her out of curiosity. We were all handed powerful flashlights to strap to our head, then jogged all the way up the mountain with Sun Rui’s father, chanting loudly: All thieves shall rot in jail!
We ran and yelled, our voices echoing through the forest. All these years later, I still remember this.
“But I just want to be Wen Ying’s coworker,” Sun Rui says, pouting. “To be squished in a tiny storage room, amongst piles of random things, or hidden in the toilets, doing so and so…”
I don’t even need to ask. The halo of yellow floating above her head is enough to tell me what kind of “so and so” she’s imagining.
“Don’t be stupid, finish selling your fruit first before thinking of anything else.” Her cart is filled with apples, a scale and plastic bags hanging at the front. Clearly, her dad has sent her out to sell fruit again.
Sun Rui’s face darkens. “We got too many apples this year, not even my reputation as a fruit-selling beauty is helping. I’ve been shouting all morning, but I’ve only sold a few kilos.” She nudges me with a hand. “Yu Mian, be a good sis and take it all.”
Sister my ass, I think.
“No way, we don’t have pigs. They’ll go to waste if we can’t finish them.” But since she’s my friend, I offer, “Why don’t you weigh six for me?”
“Alright!” She happily goes to pick out six huge apples for me, bagging them up and weighing them before handing them over. “Don’t forget to say good things about me in front of Wen Ying, especially about my kind, candid character.”
“I know.” I pay her for the apples, wave goodbye, and walk back into the store.
“Apples for sale! Fresh, huge, and sweet!” Sun Rui’s voice gets further and further away as she pushes her cart off into the distance. “Fresh apples picked by the fruit beauty herself, yours truly! Full refund if not sweet!”
Tianqi Used Books opens at nine in the morning and closes at five. For whatever reason, Yan Kongshan acts like he won a lottery at some point in his life and apparently doesn’t care about losing out on evening business.
When Grandpa realised I’d found something to do, he’d risen his hands and feet up in agreement and even made me deliver a bowl of tea eggs to our neighbours in gratitude, to thank Yan Kongshan for luring my degenerate self out of my bedroom and into the sun.
“You went out for just a second and came back with a bag of apples?”
“She was here?” Wen Ying shoots a look outside. “I found the book she was looking for, I was wondering when she’d stop by.”
“She left already, to go sell apples.” Just out of curiosity, I ask, “What book was it that she asked you to find?”
Wen Ying yanks open a drawer and pulls out an ancient-looking thread bound book. The words Jin X Mei grace the vintage blue cover with energetic brush strokes.
Sun Rui, you exposed yourself from the beginning.
In the back of the bookstore, there’s a large room that’s filled with an assortment of miscellaneous items; it serves as a makeshift closet of sorts, and there’s also a small space in it reserved as an employee break room where we can eat and store our things.
I wash the apples and place them in a bowl on the table, and as I’m drying my hands on my store apron, I search around for Yan Kongshan.
After a sweep through the store, he’s nowhere to be found. I assume that he’s in the warehouse next door, and when I go to check, I’m right.
Yan Kongshan is taking inventory of the stock we have. I have no idea how he does it considering the chaotic state of the warehouse, but naturally, I feel the need to offer to help. “Shopkeeper, can I help?”
He’s in the middle of lifting a paper box onto a rack and looks up at my voice, but doesn’t say anything. Indicating towards another rack of books with his chin, he tells me without using words to get to work.
All the books are secondhand and have been sitting in the warehouse for years, giving them a musty sort of smell. I start from the top rack and work my way down, taking note of the titles, sneezing every once in a while.
Then suddenly, through my peripheral vision, I glimpse something small and grey crawling nearer. I clutch tightly onto the book in my hands and cautiously peer closer to find myself looking directly into the eyes of a mouse the size of a hand.
I suppose mice are to be expected in a dark, enclosed warehouse, but I grew up in the city and I’ve never had so much as a hamster in my life. To someone like me, whose only experience with a creature of this sort is Mickey Mouse, the rodent is like Godzilla with a Sadako face. If my mood value index measured for Sanity Points, mine would be sinking down to hell.
Reacting almost on autopilot, I throw the only weapon I have in my hands–a book–towards the mouse to chase it off. But what I don’t expect is for the book to open mid-flight so that when it lands, it shelters the rodent in the perfectly triangular gap that forms and does absolutely nothing.
My nemesis shakes its head, crawls out from the beneath the book, and looks up at me.
I’m not capable of seeing the moods of animals, but I don’t need to because I can feel the creature’s rage from its beady, scarlet eyes.
“…Sorry, mate. That was wrong of me,” I offer.
It doesn’t appear to accept my apology and lowers its body into a low, threatening stance.
“Shopkeeper?” I start calling for Yan Kongshan repeatedly, my voice coming out reedy and thin because I don’t want to make too much noise.
Fortunately, he hears me.
“There’s…” The words are barely out of my mouth when the mouse charges over and I just about piss my pants. I swirl around and practically fly over to Yan Kongshan, screeching, “Help!”
Rational sense plays no part in moments like this. All I catch is the look of astonishment on Yan Kongshan’s face–when my senses come back to me, I’m already on him, my arms encircling his neck, my legs wrapped around his waist, and I’m hanging onto the man like… a koala.
He shifts backwards a few steps due to momentum and places a hand on my thigh to regain his balance.
It’s my first time hearing him speak this closely; the sound of his voice travels into my ears, stimulating all my hair follicles in a way that makes them feel like they’re dancing all at once, sending electrifying sensations of ASMR through my body.
I cling tighter onto his neck and say softly, “There’s a mouse.”
My heart thumps wildly in my chest, and it isn’t because of fear.
“A mouse?” Yan Kongshan looks around our surroundings. “It seems to be gone now.”
“Hmm,” I nod, inhaling through my nose.
We stay like this for a few moments. Eventually, Yan Kongshan seems to give up waiting for me to let go of him, so he has no choice but to prompt me: “Yu Mian, can you get down now?”
Man, I wanted to take advantage of him for a while longer.
“Uh-huh.” My legs untwine from his waist, I land onto the floor. I scratch a cheek somewhat bashfully. “Sorry, I’m terrified of those things.”
Yan Kongshan bends down to pick up the book lying on the ground, saying, “Why don’t you go back out? I can handle things here.”
Disappointing, but nevertheless, I listen to him.
Just as Sun Rui says, the bookstore sees more female visitors than male. They’re usually just a little older than me, popping in out of the blue to scan the shop.
“Hey handsome, is the owner here today?” One such visitor tugs on my arm inquires in a whisper.
I figure this has to be the only bookstore that’s an island tourist hotspot because its owner is too attractive.
“He’s in the warehouse,” I inform her.
Visibly disappointed, the woman says, “It was so hard for me to make it here…” she pauses, suddenly eyeing me from head to toe looking like she’s just discovered something, then continues, “Young lad, do you have a girlfriend? I have a younger sister, you guys seem like the perfect match.”
“I don’t have any plans on getting a girlfriend…”
“How old are you? My sister is in her first year at uni, she’s probably just a bit older. But that’s totally fine! As they say, blessed are those who make with older women.”
“…” Lady, you could at least listen to what I’m saying. I sigh internally, then decide to put my trump card on the table. “I’m not into women.”
The rest of the woman’s words trail off and dissipate into the air, her mouth half-open. Her mood index turns into an awkward green and a flustered expression takes over her features. “O-Oh… Oh… I see.”
I assume she has nothing more to ask me, so I tell her to come to find me if she needs any help and then walk off to another bookshelf.
As I’m stuffing books that customers have left out back where they belong, a group of people walk in laughing loudly and talking amongst themselves. Several customers who are reading in the store shoot disapproving looks in their direction.
I stuff the last book back in its rightful place and start heading towards them to remind them to keep it down.
“Fu Wei, why’d you want to come here? This island is so boring, it’s totally the sticks!”
“Yeah, they don’t even have any amusement parks. Why don’t we go back to the city? Let’s go to an arcade!”
“I second that!”
“If you all want to head back, go on. I still want to look around.”
I freeze at the sound of that familiar voice. Unpleasant memories rise to the surface of my mind and my scalp starts to prickle with unease.
It’s Fu Wei and a bunch of my former high school classmates, what are they doing on the island?
The voices get closer. I have no desire to see them, so I whip around and walk briskly towards the warehouse-like a deserting soldier.
The door to the warehouse swings opens just as I’m about to push it and Yan Kongshan appears at the doorway. He’s probably finished with his business here and is heading back to the store. The voices behind me are approaching and I don’t have time to explain. I push past Yan Kongshan and walk into the warehouse, turning around to shut the door tightly.
When the danger of running into my former classmates subsides, I lean against the warehouse door and let out a long exhale, my entire being relaxing.
“Ran into someone you know?”
At the question, I suddenly remember Yan Kongshan’s existence. I turn to face him awkwardly, my back pressed up against the door, at a loss at how to explain the situation to him.
“My high school classmates,” I say, my head down.
He doesn’t make me open the door–rather, he takes a few steps back and leans against a shelf behind him. “You don’t like them?”
I purse my lips, then say, “They’re the ones who don’t like me. I wasn’t very likeable in high school…”
I’d have to say it sooner or later, and rather than wait for him to hate me later, I decide to lay my cards on the table right now. After all, if he can’t take it, then I can cut things off where they are so as not to waste my time.
“I… like men.”