Luo Yuan walked out of the registration office feeling embarrassed. There were several pretty waitresses with long seductive legs standing by the exit. They looked at him for a while before they shifted their gaze away. Luo Yuan smiled and then quickly walked to his car with Wang Shishi, who had been waiting for him outside. He took out his phone and noticed that it was running out of battery. He wanted to call Wang Xiaguang. He wanted to see her, but apparently she had used his last bit of battery to call her husband.
Luo Yuan was a bit upset as he put his phone back into his pocket. It seemed that they would catch up another time. Wang Shishi and Luo Yuan waited in the car for an hour, but Huang Jiahui did not return. Luo Yuan did not want to wait any longer. He was sure she would not come back. He started the car engine and drove towards the city center.
Hedong City was different from Donghu City. The whole town was filled with a strange vitality. This was not his first time there, but it was not longer the leisure destination it used to be. There used to be a very crowded commercial shopping street, which now had become a giant industrial area. There were too many different kinds of machines and mechanical noises, and people could imagine how hot it was there even though they could not see the worksite.
He passed several of those worksites along the way. There were not many people on the street, but surprisingly that did not make them feel anxious or insecure. They just felt like this was the quiet before the storm. He entered a shop and an attendant came up to welcome him. "My name is Chen Baoqiang. Would you like to rent or buy a house?" the attendant asked.
He offered Luo Yuan a cup of tea, but he declined. "I’d like to rent a house with two rooms and a living room. Do you have anything like that?" Luo Yuan asked.
"Sure we do. Our agency has data on more than twenty units. Would you like to see the properties now?" Chen Baoqiang seemed quite pushy and desperate. Luo Yuan nodded in agreement.
“Alright, could you wait for a moment?” Chen Baoqiang looked excited. He grabbed a contract from the office and started to lock the place down.
“What’s wrong? Are you the only employee working here?” Luo Yuan felt strange watching the agent lock the entire office.
“Hehe, that’s embarrassing. I’m actually the owner of the agency,” he said as he smiled. “You know how it is now. We used to have many employees, but they’ve all been sent home. We’re not making a lot of sales. There are lots of vacant units. I’m barely earning enough to meet my daily needs.”
Luo Yuan seemed to sympathize with him. "Oh, is there any electricity in the residential area?"
"Are you new here? We used to have electricity, but it was cut five days ago," Chen Baoqiang said as shook his head. He then went on to explain, "All small residential areas are the same. The industrial area is the number one priority for power supply."
"There is a nuclear power plant at Hedong Bay, right beside Hedong city. How come there is no electricity?" Luo Yuan asked suspiciously. The nuclear power plant at Hedong Bay had been the first power plant in Jiangnan Province when Luo Yuan had paid his first visit there.
"It’s just a small one, it can’t generate enough power. It definitely can’t produce enough power for the whole of Hedong City. Part of the power supply is produced from hydroelectricity from The Three Gorges Dam. But I guess something must be wrong with the dam as there has been no electricity lately.”
Luo Yuan knew that if there was something wrong with The Three Gorges Dam, it could have a destructive impact on the whole city. In other words, the most developed and sophisticated province in China would have no electricity for its daily operations. He felt anxious. If the largest power station in China was not functioning properly, then other power plants could be affected as well. Anyway, this was all just speculating. He stopped thinking about it right away.
Chen Baoqiang did not have a car, so Wang Shishi had to sit on Luo Yuan’s lap again. Chen Baoqiang looked at Wang Shishi, who was being shy, and asked, “Is this your sister? She’s beautiful!”
After consuming blue ranked meats for a few days, Wang Shishi looked more energetic and pretty than ever. “Yes,” Luo Yuan responded before he asked, “How much longer to the house?”
Chen Baoqiang was very observant and he knew that he had crossed a line. He stopped talking about Wang Shishi and told Luo Yuan, “Just take a turn at the end of this road.”
After a few more minutes of driving, they entered a middle class residential area. Suddenly, they heard a gunshot. Apparently, it was the sound of a machine gun. Luo Yuan got shocked and stepped on the brakes. Chen Baoqiang got out of the car and looked up at the sky. When he had calmed down, he said, "Don’t worry, someone was trying to get the birds. They missed. You’ll get used to it eventually."
Luo Yuan opened the window to check and saw a few birds flying in the distance. All he could see was several tiny dots. He was worried. He felt that the area wasn’t that safe.
Luo Yuan checked out the house, which was located on the third floor of the building. It was a safe height, and the renovation was relatively decent. However, he found the electrical appliances wasteful since they were not going to be able to use them. He went to the kitchen and was surprised to discover that there were a gas and water supply. After going through a terrible time in Donghu City, he would be contented as long as he found a safe place with a water and gas supply to stay. Unfortunately, some issues came up when they were about to sign the contract. "Do you only accept food stamps here?" Luo Yuan asked.
Chen Baoqiang explained, “Our money is depreciating every day. Hardly anybody uses it now. I suggest that you exchange it for food stamps at the bank as soon as possible. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for you to make any purchases."
Luo Yuan frowned. He had not expect to have to deal with food stamps. He had only heard some old folks talking about it. He asked, "What’s the current exchange rate between money and food stamps?"
"Yesterday it was CNY23 for 500 grams worth of food stamps, but I think it will rise even more soon. Of course, you can also trade your food to get food stamps as well," Chen Baoqiang suggested as he had noticed that they had lots of food in the trunk.
Luo Yuan did not want to pay using the food he had. He tried to come up with a solution, and finally said, "How about this. I’ll pay you with money now, taking into account the current exchange rate, and perhaps you could exchange it at the bank? I really can’t make it to the bank today."
"If you are comfortable with it, why not?" Chen Baoqiang said happily. "Let me calculate the total amount payable. It’s CNY 14,000 for six months of rental plus a one-month deposit."
That was a good deal considering the rate he got would have been really low even before this chaos. Nobody could suppress the real estate prices during peaceful times, but they fell drastically during hard times. Luo Yuan had expected this, so he wasn’t surprised. He had withdrawn a lot of money from his bank account before the chaos, and he still had about CNY 100,000 in savings in his bank account, which would be more than enough to pay the bills.
Luo Yuan sat down on the couch after Chen Baoqiang left. He felt relaxed and he enjoyed the quiet. “What a good feeling!” After all, no one liked a hazardous life when it might lead to their own death. After resting for a while, he stood up and asked Wang Shishi, “Which room do you want?”
She had looked depressed ever since Huang Jiahui had left them. “I’ll just take the smaller room on the left,” she said. After a while, she asked, “Is Sister Huang really not coming back? What if she is waiting for us there?”
Luo Yuan remained silent. When she noticed his expression, Wang Shishi stopped asking.
After a while, Luo Yuan started moving all their belongings from the car into the house. Wang Shishi tried to help, but Luo Yuan pushed her away. He was feeling frustrated. When he was finished, he took a shower, but he still felt empty. He put on his clothes, took out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and lit one up.
After a while, he put down the cigarette and told Wang Shishi, “You stay here. I’m going out for a bit.”
He rushed out of the house before she could respond. He got into the car and revved up the accelerator until it produced a black cloud of exhaust smoke. He drove towards the junction of the residential area. He didn’t know what he was doing. Perhaps he was trying to figure something out.
He sped up from time to time. The sun was going down and it was almost evening. The refugee registration had already ended and after such long hours of work, the place seemed deserted. Even the iron shelves that had been built especially for the registration were gone. Luo Yuan looked around the place and felt disappointed. However, just as he was about to drive off, he noticed someone squatting down in the distance. He frowned and pushed on the accelerator. The Santana 2000 produced a loud noise. It was a really old car.
As the car stopped, Luo Yuan shouted out the window, “Stop squatting there and just get in!”
Huang Jiahui looked shocked as she raised her teary eyes. She was shivering and she seemed agitated. She felt happy and mad at the same time. “Why are you here?”
“It’s late already. Wang Shishi and I are waiting for you to prepare dinner. Hurry up!” Luo Yuan replied.
It was hard for Huang Jiahui to be touched by that. What Luo Yuan had just said simply drove away any sentimental feeling she might be having. She went up to the driver’s window and grabbed his shirt. “Do you know how many hours I’ve been waiting here? Do you know how hopeless I’ve felt? I’ve lost my daughter! I’ve lost everything! I’m not leaving again, even if you push me away! You’re such a jerk!”
Luo Yuan looked at her with imaginary question marks above his head. Huang Jiahui kissed him square on the lips.