After seeing Cao Qianqian off, Luo Yuan and Huang Jiahui arrived at Luo Yuan’s building in the Jingyue District.
“Which floor are staying on?” Huang Jiahui tried to find something to talk about. She was feeling quite nervous. This was the first time that she would be staying at an acquaintance’s house for a few days.
“Fourth,” he said, turning around to look at her.
“Are you staying with her now?” Huang Jiahui asked while she played with her fringe.
“Who? Are you talking about Zhao Yali? She is back in her hometown.” Luo Yuan seemed to idle for a bit at the mention of Zhao Yali. He quickly changed the topic, “All the furniture is still here. You can stay in her room. Please hide the rifle so we can avoid any unnecessary trouble,” Luo Yuan told Huang Jiahui when he saw that she was still holding it.
Donghu City was a mess and no police would bother to arrest them even they knew they had a rifle. However, it would be best for them to be more careful if they wanted to stay there.
"Okay," Huang Jiahui responded before she put the rifle into her luggage.
The two of them arrived on the fourth floor very soon. Luo Yuan could sense that there was someone standing near the fire escape. When he opened the door, he found Wang Shishi standing there and sobbing.
"Uncle, my parents aren’t home. I’m scared,” she said while she looked at Luo Yuan with a pair of big teary eyes.
Luo Yuan felt bad and said, "Why don’t you come stay at my house for a while?"
"Thank you, Uncle!" Wang Shishi responded.
Huang Jiahui felt sorry for her and asked, "You’re such a pretty girl. How old are you?"
"I’m in Year 8. Are you his girlfriend?" Wang Shishi asked curiously.
Huang Jiahui felt embarrassed, and she immediately regretted talking to her. "No, we’re just friends. I’ll only be staying here for a few days,” she replied.
Luo Yuan did not bother listening to their conversation. He just inserted the key into the lock and opened the door. The house was a mess. All the glass had been broken, including the balcony door. Luo Yuan checked around the house to make sure that no one had entered it before he walked into the kitchen. He switched on the gas stove and watched the blue flame get weaker and weaker until it finally disappeared. He cursed silently. Something was wrong.
"Xiao Luo, I’m going to take a shower first," Huang Jiahui shouted from the other room.
Luo Yuan rushed to stop her, "Wait!" he said while he lingered around the room.
"What’s wrong?" Huang Jiahui asked, noticing Luo Yuan’s panic. She was cold, sweaty and scared, and she was feeling really uncomfortable.
"Do you think there will be a water supply if there is no gas supply? The water storage in the city center must have been attacked. Soon there will be no water if nobody fixes it," Luo Yuan said calmly as he thought about it. He did not wait for Huang Jiahui to respond. He went straight to the bathroom and switched on the tap.
Luo Yuan was relieved to see water gush out. “Can you help me bring the plastic pail and the pot over from the balcony?” he asked.
“Okay,” Huang Jiahui said, running towards the balcony. There were lots of pots in the house. Other than Luo Yuan’s pail and pot, Zhao Yali had also left a couple of them behind. There were two plastic pails and four pots in total. Nobody cared which ones had been used to wash the face and which ones the legs.
Luo Yuan filled all the containers with water and then told Huang Jihui, “You can take a shower now. Enjoy your shower while there is still water. We might not be able to have a shower anymore soon.”
Huang Jiahui took a change of clothes and entered the bathroom.
“Uncle, do you think this is the end of the world?” Wang Shishi asked softly.
“Who told you that?” Luo Yuan asked her.
“I knew it,” Wang Shishi said sadly.
“Would you be afraid if it was?” Luo Yuan asked again.
“Fear can’t change anything. My parent are not coming back, right?" Wang Shishi asked again.
"Yes, they are. Perhaps something has just delayed their arrival." Luo Yuan patted her head to comfort her.
"You don’t have to lie to me, Uncle. I saw a lot of people get eaten by those big bugs in the district. They even swallowed their bones." Wang Shishi was shaking while she talked about the beetles, but she kept looking directly at Luo Yuan.
Luo Yuan stopped patting her for a second. He did not know how to comfort her. Then he realized that she was already in Year 8 and could even be considered a young adult. It was time for her to accept the harsh reality.
“You must be strong, okay? Even if your parents are not here, you must be strong to stay alive.”
“Yes.” Wang Shishi nodded while tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Alright then. Can you help me sweep all this broken glass?” Luo Yuan asked.
Wang Shishi took a deep breath and agreed. She used a broom and dustpan, wiping her tears away while she swept the broken glass. Luo Yuan watched her for a while, and then went into the storeroom. There was an axe, a hammer, scissors, nails, and other tools inside.
He walked back to the living room and cut the dining table into wooden boards, planning to use the edge pieces as firewood. He took a wooden board, the hammer and a few nails, and walked to the window to measure it. He began to nail the wooden board on the window. Although there was an iron grill outside, it was a fragile one that could easily be destroyed by a common thief, even more so by giant bugs. Of course, boarding the windows would not help much, but it was an extra layer of protection, and one that could block them from the bugs and other small animals’ sight. A moment later, Huang Jiahui came out of the bathroom in casual wear. When she saw Luo Yuan and Wang Shishi working, she walked over to offer her help.
Luo Yuan stopped her, “We are good here. It’s quite late already. Can you help prepare dinner? There is rice in the kitchen. Here’s the lighter.”
He raised his chin up and looked up at Huang Jiahui. She looked seductive. Her casual clothes did nothing to conceal her big breasts, and her small waist and round cherry-like butt drove Luo Yuan crazy. He quickly turned his gaze away and signaled for Wang Shishi to bring more wood.
Huang Jiahui took the lighter, but realized it was out of gas. She could only use firewood to cook, so she carried some into the kitchen. She took out a pressure cooker and found rice inside a cupboard. However, when the moment came that she needed to light up the fire, she paused. She didn’t know how to. Although she’d had picnics before, it was usually her male colleagues who would take care of the fire starting part, so she had never learned.
Huang Jiahui asked, "Where should I start the fire? It can’t be on the floor, right?"
"Find a pot and do it inside it," Luo Yuan replied.
Huang Jiahui said, "I can’t do it, could you come and help?"
"Pour a little oil on the wood and then light it up," Luo Yuan told her. A moment later, a choking smell came from the kitchen. Luo Yuan did not bother checking on her as that kind of smell was normal when someone lit up a fire in the kitchen. However, the smoke started getting thicker and thicker, making both his and Wang Shishi’s eyes tear up at the same time that mucus started dripping down from their noses.
Luo Yuan felt that something was wrong and quickly rushed to the kitchen to check. He almost fainted when he saw the pressure cooker on top of the pot and Huang Jiahui holding its handle. She lifted the pressure cooker and blew some air into the pot. Her eyes were red and she looked completely lost.
"What are you doing? How are you going to light it up if there is not enough air in the pot?" Luo Yuan asked.
"How should I know? I’ve never started a fire before." Huang Jiahui looked innocent and sad. She had so much dirt on her face that she resembled a black cat.
"Then you should learn. You will be taking care of all our meals from now on," Luo Yuan said.
Huang Jiahui did not argue. She knew it was dangerous outside, and the only way to remain safe was to follow Luo Yuan. His strength was the main reason she wanted to stay with him. Luo Yuan walked to Zhao Yali’s bedroom and broke the hangers in her closet, making two piles. He put one of them under the pot to stabilize it before balancing a few wires on the edge of the pot. He then lit up the wood and waited for it to burn. He put another pile on the pot and then placed the pressure cooker on top of it.
“Alright, it’s done. Just leave the rest to me,” Huang Jiahui said happily when she saw the fire burning.
“Okay,” Luo Yuan nodded.
He walked to the living room to continue his work. The wood from the dining table was not enough to board all the windows. He also had to chop up the tea table to cover the rest. The upgraded Zhanmadao was very sharp. Its extreme hardness could almost compete with modern technology. It was very easy for him to chop the wood. Wang Shishi was amazed and surprised as she looked at Luo Yuan chop up the tea table with a long green sword.He made it look as easy as cutting tofu.
The room became darker as he boarded up the windows. Other than the windows in the kitchen, only the screen door leading to the balcony was left. Luo Yuan scratched his head while he looked it. He could not find such a big piece of wood. He looked around the house to see if there was anything that he could use to cover it. Finally, his eyes stopped on a door. He was wondering whether he could chop one of the bedroom doors or the door to the washroom, but one door did not seem enough to cover the whole screen door. After some consideration, he decided to put the issue on hold. He could handle it if four or five bugs came in. As the sun went down, Wang Shishi got even more depressed. She kept looking at the door, on the alert for any activity outside the house. She got up a few times, but sat back down again in disappointment.
Huang Jiahui moved a small table out from a bedroom and put all the dishes and rice on it. She had prepared 2 salted eggs, a plate of zha cai1, and a plate of canned stewed beef. Although that would not normally constitute a good meal, it was considered a gourmet meal under the circumstances.
Luo Yuan began to eat right away. Wang Shishi looked lost in thought while she stared at the food. She did not even respond much when Huang Jiahui addressed her. Luo Yuan smoked after dinner. No one noticed the sweat on his forehead.
When he had finished his cigarette, he turned to Wang Shishi and said, “Shishi, you stay with Auntie Huang tonight, okay? Don’t think too much.”
"Thanks, Uncle." Wang Shishi put down the chopsticks and began sobbing.
Luo Yuan sighed but he did not try to comfort her. He got up from the chair and walked to his room. He lied down on the bed straight away. His face was distorted. The power of the rat meat had been fading and there was not much left in his body anymore. He used his own determination to control and distract himself sometimes, but every time he relaxed the pain took over. He tried his very best to endure it.
Thirty minutes later, there was a system message.
“Beep! Determination +1!”
While he listened to the message in his head, his mouth twitched a bit. Eventually his eyelids shut tightly and he fell asleep. He was awakened again by the sound of bombs.
He grabbed his Zhanmadao and got up from the bed. Although his chest still hurt, he felt a lot better after having a good night’s of sleep. He walked to the window and opened the curtain. That was when he saw the wood and realized that he had boarded up all the windows.
He quickly opened the door and saw Huang Jiahui and Wang Shishi standing at the corner, looking towards the balcony. He got panicked and walked to the balcony to take a look outside. His entire body stiffened when he saw the green beetles flying in the sky. They looked frustrated as they lingered above the ground. He could hear the sound of bombs. Huang Jiahui and Wang Shishi looked relieved to see Luo Yuan.
“The army is here to save us!” Huang Jiahui said, sounding excited.
Luo Yuan was excited as well. The situation in Donghu City would get better if the army took over. Perhaps they could kill all the beetles. Neither the green beetles nor any other mutated animal could fight against their well-prepared modernized army. It would be a totally different kind of battle. Suddenly, a missile exploded into the sky near the district, producing a huge shock, strong enough to kill all the beetles. Some of the beetles closest to the missile exploded even before they could reach the ground.
Luo Yuan felt the building shake. A hot wind came from the balcony as his brain suddenly went blank. People who had been born during peaceful times could never imagine what they were going through. Luo Yuan himself had only watched such scenes in television shows while he ate snacks and commented on the magic of the powerful weapons. He had never imagined the day when he would experience it for real.
A missile had just exploded not long ago when two more missiles exploded nearby, killing all the green beetles in the vicinity in mere seconds. After a few minutes, several armored trucks with 30mm bombs arrived. A bomb was released, flying up into the sky. The sounds made him feel uncomfortable. A few of the remaining beetles were killed, their greenish fluids spilling onto the ground. The cannon kept spinning and releasing bombs, almost hitting some of the nearby buildings in the process. Some of them did get hit, the bombs creating several holes and gaps in the walls.
Luo Yuan watched the scene speechless for a while. After he had recovered from the panic, he realized he was actually sweating. Their building happened to face the commercial street. Once the cannons aimed and released bombs in their direction, the building might collapse and they might all die.
"We can’t stay here anymore! Let’s go!" Luo Yuan urged them.
During modern wars, it was difficult for armies to avoid hurting innocent citizens accidentally, unless they were willing to sacrifice their soldiers. Based on the situation in Donghu City, their main concern was not any accidental injuries, but the destruction of all green beetles as soon as possible. Although he understood that, Luo Yuan was still very mad. When something affected him, it was quite difficult for him to remain calm and make a rational decision.
Huang Jiahui sensed the danger as well. She quickly ran into the bedroom and came back with the rifle in her hand.
“Where should we go?” she asked
Luo Yuan walked towards the main door and said, “Head to the ground floor. At least it’s safer than here.”
“Alright!” Huang Jiahui replied.
Wang Shishi looked like a pale doll. She was just standing there, not moving a muscle. Luo Yuan looked at her and sighed, “Give me the rifle. You carry her.”
Huang Jiahui responded by handing him the rifle, lifting Wang Shishi up and walking towards the door.
Bullets penetrated the walls and produced high pitch sounds while they stepped carefully down the staircase. There were several cracks on the walls as well. Multiple layers of wall separated the outer walls of the building from the staircase, but the bullets could still penetrate them. Luo Yuan was shocked. His heart beat very fast. He looked at Huang Jiahui, who looked pale and speechless. He was relieved to see that she was not hurt.
"Don’t stop, keep running!" Luo Yuan shouted at her. She quickly followed Luo Yuan, both of them running down the stairs.
In one minute, the three of them had reached the ground floor. Apparently, Luo Yuan was not the only smart person in the building though, as the ground floor was packed with people. When they saw the rifle in Luo Yuan’s hand, they all went silent. Nobody screamed, nobody tried to escape. They were not afraid, they were just alert. The ability to accept things was relatively higher during chaotic times than during peaceful times. Swords and knives had become common things, and it had also become very common for people to carry their weapons wherever they went.
Luo Yuan passed the rifle back to Huang Jiahui after she put down Wang Shishi. He believed Huang Jiahui was better at using it.
"Hurry up! Somebody please help her!"
Suddenly, a middle-aged man walked down the stairs with a woman in his arms. The woman was bleeding profusely. The crowd moved away to make space for them.
The middle-aged man seemed like a gentleman. He wore a pair of black-framed spectacles, and he looked anxious and helpless as he hugged the woman tightly in his arms. Blood was dripping down his arm, forming a line.
He put the lady down on the empty space and begged the crowd, "Is anyone here a doctor? Could you please save her? Please…"
He was crying.
Luo Yuan took a look at the woman and quickly turned his gaze away. Her eyes were closed tight and her breathing seemed very weak. She looked as pale as a sheet, and there was a wound the size of a human fist on her chest. It was obvious she would not live much longer.
"Please help her! Please, I’m begging you… I can give you money. No, food. I still have food at home! I can give it all to you!" He looked at the crowd helplessly.
The people around him looked away. Someone said, "Even sending her to the hospital won’t help now. Her injuries are too severe. You have my deepest condolences."
The man’s body shook a little as he grieved. He wanted to touch her face, but his hand began to shake vigorously in the air. He cried out loud as he felt her body getting colder.
1 Zha cai is a type of pickled mustard plant stem originating from Sichuan, China. The name may also be written in English as cha tsai, tsa tsai, jar choy, jar choi, ja choi, ja choy, or cha tsoi.