Day 85. Xiao Zhan stared at the numbers written on one side of the bus. The cap of the marker was still in between his teeth. He sighed and capped the marker. Scooting to the nearest window, he looked up to the sky. The sun was going to set soon. Xiao Zhan had checked the door and all the windows again and again. They are locked. Safe. You’re safe.
Xiao Zhan took a seat at the back of the bus, propping his legs up on the seat in front of him. Crossing his arms, he leaned his head on the window. Xiao Zhan doesn’t know why he does it but it’s been a habit. As the sun sets, he would see those infected coming out of their hidden shelters. Bumping into each other, they would chase after any living thing for food. Xiao Zhan had read that they eat brains. Probably. He had never looked long enough to see which part of the dead that they ate.
There weren’t many loitering around the abandoned parking lot. But Xiao Zhan still does see them sometimes. He hears them first. The low growls and incoherent murmurs. Sometimes he hears their bones cracking as they move. If he’s ‘lucky’, they would come to the closed windows of his bus, bumping their heads on it trying to get it open again and again. Eventually they would give up and move along.
Xiao Zhan was observing the peaceful parking lot outside the window when he saw someone running from a distance. And of course, a herd of infected ones chasing from behind. Zombies. That’s what they are. He just prefers calling them the infected ones.
Putting his legs down, Xiao Zhan sat up, trying to see if the person had somewhere to go. He was fast, fortunately. He reached the part of the parking lot where there were lots of vehicles scattered around. Where Xiao Zhan was. The man looked quite young. He scrambled around, trying to open a door, any door, that he could seek temporary shelter until the sun rises again.
Xiao Zhan hesitated a little. Just a little.
And the next second he had his window opened, shouting towards the man. “Here!”
Thankfully the man had heard him, eyes wide as he saw Xiao Zhan. Finally a human, he must have thought. The infected ones were getting closer and the young man used all his remaining energy to run towards the bus. Xiao Zhan had his hand on the button that opens the door. His first thought was to open when he’s there. But seeing how close the herd was, Xiao Zhan took a risk and opened the door.
Stretching his arm as far as possible while supporting himself on the metal in the bus, Xiao Zhan hoped he could catch the young man in time. “Faster!!”
At the corner of his eye, he could see other zombies coming out of their hiding, dragging their feet towards Xiao Zhan. Fuck fuck fuck. Close the door Xiao Zhan. Close the fucking door!
Despite his brain telling him to not try and be a hero, he didn’t retreat his arm. The young man was very close, reaching out to Xiao Zhan’s hand as he ran.
The moment he grabbed onto Xiao Zhan’s hand, he hauled him up with all his might, slamming his hand on the close button within seconds. The zombies slammed their bodies onto the closed door, growling non stop and some by the closed windows.
They were both frozen on their spot, staring at the hungry faces wanting to get in. It took awhile for Xiao Zhan to realise that he was still holding the young man close to him. He let go of the arm when he did and stepped back awkwardly.
“Thanks,” the man said, clearing his throat. Xiao Zhan just nodded and went to pour a drink. He handed it to him quietly.
He thanked Xiao Zhan again before gulping down the water. Sitting down on one of the seats, Xiao Zhan eyed the young man carefully. He was wearing a white t-shirt with a thin flannel over it and a pair of washed out jeans. A short messy ponytail to complete the look. There were some cuts and bruises on his arms and face too. “Where were you going?”
“My shelter. My bike broke down along the way when I was getting away from them so I ran.”
“Parking lot nearer than your shelter?” The young man nodded. “You can stay here till the sun rises. If you want.”
Xiao Zhan got up to move to his usual backseat. It’ll just be for one night. There’s no need to know more than what he’s told. But the young man thought otherwise.
“Thank you so much. I’m Wang Yibo.”
Looking up through his long fringe, Yibo looked at him expectantly. Xiao Zhan hesitated giving his name. He didn’t even ask so there’s no need to. Just nod and move along.
Yibo gave a small smile and sat on one of the seats in the middle.
What Xiao Zhan had expected to be a quiet evening turned out to be totally opposite. Yibo talks. A lot.
“Are you alone?”
Xiao Zhan wanted to give him a look. A look that says ‘are you dumb?’. They are in the middle of an apocalypse and this boy – yes boy – asked him what happened? But he was too lazy to put his leg down and move his body to face Yibo sitting in front.
“One of them went out to look for more resources. She didn’t come back. The other didn’t make it back on time and was bitten. Right in front of this bus.” 85 days. It’s been 85 days since he lost Zhuocheng and Xuan Lu. When it was still the three of them, Xiao Zhan refused to count the days. What for? It’s not like it would make a difference. But counting the days now keeps him grounded. It’s a sign that he has been surviving for 85 days and counting. What’s one more day? Also when it reached 365 days, he knew it’s the anniversary of his friends’ deaths.
Yibo nodded quietly. “Was it scary? Seeing them turn into zombies?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t look.”
Xiao Zhan put his foot down and stared down at him. “I said I don’t know.”
Yibo didn’t flinch. Instead he looked back at him. “Sorry.”
Realising his sudden temper, Xiao Zhan leaned back on his seat, heaving out a sigh. “What about you? Are you alone?”
“Yeah. Had always been. I couldn’t find any of my friends when the virus first happened so I’ve been living for myself.”
They chatted for a while until night fell. Xiao Zhan slept at the back on his makeshift bed while Yibo leaned on the window, crossing his arms. A sudden surprise attack on the window made him jump on his seat. Yibo cursed under his breath as he waited for the zombie to move away from the window. Xiao Zhan tried not to smile seeing the boy’s bravado falter slightly at the sudden surprise.
“Go to sleep. So you won’t see them,” Xiao Zhan said, closing his eyes.
“Something bothering you?”
“Lots. My bike, my shelter, food, how to get out of here..” Yibo trailed off.
“Get out? You mean this bus?” Xiao Zhan didn’t mean to sound defensive but he had just risked his life to take this boy in and now he’s making it as if it’s a prison.
“No I mean this city.” Xiao Zhan was quiet and it shocked Yibo slightly. He turned to face the older man lying at the back. “You mean you never thought of leaving this city?”
With a scoff, Xiao Zhan turned on his back, looking up at the roof of the bus. “Where? Last I heard, every city and town are infected. There’s nowhere else to go.”
He heard Yibo shifting on his seat and then suddenly he was at the seat right beside his head. Xiao Zhan glanced at the boy as he rested his chin on his arm at the back of the seat. “There must be a place. Or even a country that’s not infected. If you don’t search, you won’t find it.”
“Before you can even find it, it’s already sundown and you get attacked by zombies. Yeah, no thank you.” Xiao Zhan crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. It’s stupid. Xuan Lu only went out to find food and she didn’t get to return. What’s more trying to find if there’s some other place to live? The period between sunrise and sunset is too short to do anything more than just surviving.
“So you’re going to stay here until you run out of resources and die? What’s the point of surviving when you’re not actually living ?” Xiao Zhan could hear the tension in Yibo’s voice. He didn’t reply. Because he knew there was some truth in it. Well there’s a lot of truth in it. Xiao Zhan wasn’t scared of death. He’s scared of turning into one of them. Losing his memories one by one and attacking innocent lives without having any control of his own actions.
Yibo huffed out in frustration and turned to lean on the seat instead. “I want to live. Not survive. And I know there’s somewhere out there we can go to. We just have to find it.”
Morning came and Xiao Zhan woke up to an empty bus. He shouldn’t feel disappointed but somehow he did. Xiao Zhan had been alone for so long that he had forgotten what company felt like. And even though Yibo was a little nosy, it was nice to finally have a conversation with someone. He washed his face and gurgled some water before taking out his marker to write down the day on the usual side of the bus. Day 86.
There was nothing from Yibo. No note of thanks for the temporary shelter or telling Xiao Zhan where he went. That brat didn’t even wake me up when he’s leaving. Whatever. It’s none of my concern anyway.
It was around noon (there was no clock but it’s usually the hottest time of the day) when he heard the loud exhaust of a motorbike. Xiao Zhan frowned. Putting his marker away, he peeked from the window. It was Yibo.
Parking the motorbike right beside Xiao Zhan’s bus, he looked up at the older man with a grin. “My bike is fine!” he cheered, raising both his arms in the air.
Xiao Zhan couldn’t help but to crack a smile looking at the boy’s simple happiness. “Good for you. Why are you again? Shouldn’t you go back to your shelter?”
“Am I not welcomed here?” Yibo got off his bike and went to the door. He stood there, expecting Xiao Zhan to open it. When he realised the older man was not letting him in, he knocked on the door and tilted his head to the side. “Hello~ Anyone home~?”
Xiao Zhan rolled his eyes but went to open the door for him. “What?”
“I’m bringing my shelter next to your bus. It’s a parking lot after all right?” Yibo’s shelter was a minivan. He said it didn’t work anymore though. Was he going to push the minivan here?
“And how are you going to do that?”
Climbing up the little stairs, Yibo passed Xiao Zhan and sat down. He looked up as Xiao Zhan was towering over him slightly which he didn’t mind at all apparently. “I will fix it, find some fuel and drive it here.”
“Why go through all that work when you can just go back to your shelter?”
Yibo’s face softened. A small smile played on his lips but Xiao Zhan was too confused to notice it. “Because I want to live with you.”
The look Xiao Zhan gave away must have been amusing because Yibo started laughing. Laughter. It’s been a while since Xiao Zhan heard anyone’s laughter. 86 days ago when Zhuocheng and Xuan Lu were still around, they joked around a lot despite the apocalypse. Despite not having enough food sometimes, they still had smiles on their faces. Both of them were his strength. But all he had been hearing were low growls and bone cracks outside his bus at sundown. It felt as if Yibo suddenly brought life to his lonely empty bus again.
Yibo waved a hand in front of Xiao Zhan’s face. “Earth to Zhan-ge. Earth to Zhan-ge.”
With a shake of his head, his eyebrows furrowed to the middle. “What did you call me?”
A little surprised, Yibo repeated. “Zhan-ge? You’re older than me aren’t you?”
Pushing aside the weird reaction, Yibo repeated what he was saying when Xiao Zhan was in a daze. “As I was saying, I want to live with you. And I will find that utopia and bring you with me.”
Xiao Zhan raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have to.”
“I want to.” Satisfied with the message he had delivered, Yibo stood up. It was the first time Xiao Zhan had stood that close to Yibo, face to face. He was slightly shorter but his confidence made Xiao Zhan feel smaller.
“I’ll see you soon, neighbour.” Yibo winked and walked past Xiao Zhan, leaving the bus. As he got on his bike, Xiao Zhan felt the urge to call him back. He was fighting within himself for it but Wang Yibo was already about to leave. He rushed to the door and stood on the stairs.
“Yibo!” he shouted against the loud exhaust engine noise. The younger looked up brightly.
“Just take your things.” The look of confusion was very clear on Yibo’s face. Before he could ask Xiao Zhan what he meant by it, he already got his answer.
“You can..stay here. In the bus.” Xiao Zhan was already starting to avert his eyes to anywhere else except Yibo’s face the moment he raised his eyebrows at that suggestion. He quickly added, “I mean if you want to.”
Not even waiting for a response, Xiao Zhan closed the door and rushed back inside. He went all the way to the back of the bus and tried to hide himself by sitting as low as possible. Hopefully Yibo would drive away soon because his back was going to suffer being in that position for long.
“Ok! Wait for me Zhan-ge!” Yibo shouted and then he heard him driving off. Xiao Zhan sat up a little and took a peek at the window. He’s gone. Why did I even hide?? It’s just a normal casual invitation. That’s all. It’s okay, Xiao Zhan. He wouldn’t know that you hid. He’ll just think that you went back inside to do your own work.
The sky was getting darker and Xiao Zhan kept glancing out the window. He doesn’t wish to go through what had happened yesterday all over again. Going back to the artwork on his arm, he tried to calm himself down. It’s therapeutic at times. Especially when he’s focusing on very intricate details. His left arm was almost filled. No blank spaces left. But he still has other parts of his body to draw on. Xiao Zhan loves to draw. Papers are hard to find. He tried to draw on the bus walls instead but the thought of him having to flee from it one day, made him not want to continue.
Finally he heard the motorbike exhaust that he had been waiting for. Xiao Zhan literally leaped from his seat and went to the window to check. Yibo turned his head to him and shot his charming grin. “I’m back!”
Xiao Zhan went outside and helped him with his things. “It’s almost sunset. What took you so long?”
“Sorry. I had more things than I expected. There’s another bag but I’ll just pick it up tomorrow.” Yibo carried a big haversack and a duffle bag while Xiao Zhan helped him with a gym bag. They went into the bus and closed the door quickly. Putting the heavily filled bags onto the seats in front, Xiao Zhan looked at him questioningly.
“Why do you have so many things?”
Yibo chuckled sheepishly. “I go around a lot. I pick up things that are useful or can be. Oh! This is for you.”
He rummaged through the three bags, forgetting which bag the item was in. He handed a thick woollen blanket to Xiao Zhan. “Don’t worry, it’s clean.”
Yibo must have noticed that Xiao Zhan didn’t have any blankets when he was sleeping at night. And night time is where the temperature is the lowest. It’s cold but he learnt to live with it, curling himself into a ball or putting his arms under his shirt for some warmth. He took the blanket carefully, looking up at the younger. Yibo smiled and went back to his things.
“Don’t you need it?” Xiao Zhan asked.
Just as he asked, Yibo fished out a jumper jacket from one of the bags. “Tada! I have a jacket.” Xiao Zhan wanted to argue that it’s so much different as compared to the big woollen blanket he gave. The jacket wouldn’t even cover his legs and Yibo’s jeans weren’t that thick either. But the boy looked so pleased with his finding that Xiao Zhan simply nodded with a smile.
“Thank you. For this,” he said, waving the blanket a little.
They made a makeshift bed for Yibo by breaking one of the back cushions of a seat and laying it flat to join the front and back seats. It was slightly fragile so Yibo placed bags underneath it temporarily. He told Xiao Zhan he would find something better to support it the next morning.
For the first time in awhile, Xiao Zhan had a proper dinner. He has heavier food like instant noodles but he was rationing it for when he’s starving to the point of death. Hence his dinner had always been a piece of biscuit or sometimes just water. But Yibo was different. He had lots of food and bottles of water. Dinner was a bowl or instant noodles each and water.
“Be honest. Was your shelter a minivan or a convenience store?”
Yibo choked on his water a little and Xiao Zhan patted his back helpfully, chuckling. “Really now, Zhan-ge?”
“What? Anyone who sees your stash of food would have the same thought.”
Yibo gulped down some water. “I told you. I go around a lot. The city is abandoned but it’s not barren.”
“And you didn’t bump into anyone? Any bad people?”
“I do. Got beaten up a few times. Threatened with a kitchen knife for a couple of crackers. Everyone was desperate. I just gave in. Don’t fight them. There were plenty of other places I can go to.” Yibo was so casual at it. As if he was talking about fighting over a remote control or not getting good seats for a concert. Xiao Zhan felt like a coward compared to someone much younger than him. Ever since he lost both Zhuocheng and Xuan Lu, the only time Xiao Zhan went out was to look for water. He didn’t even travel far. If he didn’t find any, he would go back to his bus and try another place the next day. Just like Yibo had said before – he was surviving, not living.
Upon finishing up the last bits of his noodles, Yibo looked up, realizing that Xiao Zhan was still looking at him. Xiao Zhan shifted his focus to his bowl of dinner, chewing silently.
“I bumped into lots of people. But you were the first to offer help.”
It made Xiao Zhan’s chopsticks hang in mid air. His gaze moved up to Yibo once again, meeting his smile. “In this chaotic world, everyone is desperate to save themselves. But you’re different.”
“You were chased by the infected ones. Who would turn a blind eye?”
Yibo scoffed lightly, shaking his head. “You’d be surprised, ge.”
He got up and threw the empty bowl into the bag meant for trash. Yibo went to his bed, leaning against the window. “Do you go out, ge?”
Xiao Zhan shook his head, not looking at him.
“Is it because you’re alone? Did you go out when your friends were around?”
Same reaction. Xiao Zhan didn’t want to lie but it didn’t feel good to admit out loud that you’re a coward. His friends were the ones who went out and looked for resources. They never held it against him. They said Xiao Zhan was the one who found the bus for them. They said Xiao Zhan took care of their shelter, making sure it’s always safe for them to run back to before sundown. Xiao Zhan felt useful. But now that he saw what Wang Yibo has done while being alone, he felt useless.
“Do you want to? I can bring you out for a spin tomorrow.”
Xiao Zhan looked up at Yibo as if he could find all his answers on the boy’s face. Yibo waited patiently with a welcoming smile, as if reassuring him it will all be fine as long as they get back before sundown. “I want to. But...maybe not yet.”
Pleased with the answer, Yibo nodded understandingly.
Day 105, Xiao Zhan wrote.
“What’s that?” Xiao Zhan jumped in his skin feeling Yibo’s breath right beside his ear. The boy was standing so close behind him that Xiao Zhan didn’t have any space to move but to land on his makeshift bed. Yibo chuckled at him as if he was doing some circus act.
“You okay?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Why were you so close??”
“Your writing was so small, I had to!”
Xiao Zhan sighed, crossing his legs under him as he closed the marker. Squinting, Yibo leaned towards the ‘calendar’ as he tried to read. He had seen Xiao Zhan write some things on the inner bus near his bed but he’s always rushing off to find things that he didn’t get to ask or look. “Day 105? Is this the number of days since the apocalypse started? I thought it was longer than that.”
“It’s not. It’s the number of days since I lost my friends,” Xiao Zhan said, fiddling with the marker.
Yibo took a seat beside him quietly. Distracted by the artworks on Xiao Zhan’s arm, his finger began tracing some of them.
“What are you doing?” Xiao Zhan said softly close to a whisper.
“Are all these real tattoos?” Yibo knew Xiao Zhan loved drawing on his own arm which is why he always got Xiao Zhan some new markers whenever he went out to explore. But he never knew if some of them are real because they looked like they were.
The gentle touch of tracing started to give him goosebumps but he didn’t retreat his arm from Yibo. “No. Just permanent markers.”
“I love them. Your art.” Yibo stopped tracing as he looked up, giving Xiao Zhan a smile. Xiao Zhan smiled back with a short laugh. This boy could be so random at times. He took Xiao Zhan’s arm and looked at the artworks closer. Being the ever so curious boy he is, questions after questions were asked but the older answered them all. Some were just mindless doodles which he has no explanations to and Yibo made up his own interpretations of them.
“Why is your right arm empty though?”
Yibo snorted, earning a hard slap on his back. “I can help you.”
Horrified, Xiao Zhan shook his head with his eyes wide as saucers.
“I’m good at art too!”
“You’re the type to draw a dick on someone else’s textbook.”
Yibo gasped, clearly offended that Xiao Zhan would think of him as such. “I promise you, I’m not like that. If you’re worried then give me a space where you can cover it if you hate it.”
The younger looked at him with so much expectation like a puppy waiting for the owner to throw him a bone to catch. He eyed Yibo closely and finally gave in. “Fine. But not my arm. If I like what you draw, then you can draw on my arm.”
Yibo nodded enthusiastically, holding out his hand for the marker. Xiao Zhan gave it to him reluctantly. “Ok, so where do you want it?”
Xiao Zhan looked at his own body, scanning blank spaces from head to toe. He would love one on his back but he wouldn’t be able to see it unless he has a mirror. All the more this boy would draw something inappropriate.
It’s decided. “Here.” Xiao Zhan lifted his shirt slightly revealing a blank space right above his hip bone. It felt like there was a certain look on Yibo’s face when Xiao Zhan first looked up at him but it went away quickly when he grinned widely, accepting the challenge.
Clearly it wasn’t thought-through enough and it had slipped Xiao Zhan’s mind that he would have to lie down. He had insisted on sitting but he kept looking down at what Yibo was drawing, it was not making his skin flat enough to be drawn on properly.
“It’ll just take a while. Or you can sleep!”
“It’s not even noon yet, Wang Yibo.”
“Ok then just close your eyes and maybe you’ll fall asleep.” Yibo sat cross-legged beside the makeshift bed, shifting around to make himself comfortable. As he felt the marker touch his skin, Xiao Zhan took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Xiao Zhan didn’t fall asleep. He couldn’t. The feeling of the tip of the marker being drawn against his skin by someone else is totally different from when he does it himself. Maybe it was also the way Yibo’s hand was touching his bare skin. Maybe it was Yibo blowing lightly on his skin as he tried to dry the ink quicker so as to not smear it when he continues. Whatever it was, there was no way Xiao Zhan could sleep.
Just when Xiao Zhan thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. At least for him. He felt Yibo shifting for a better angle to draw whatever it was that he wanted. That’s when he felt Yibo’s arm rested on his lap as he focused on his drawing. As he moved, his elbow got dangerously close to his crotch.
Xiao Zhan opened his eyes and cleared his throat. “Yibo.”
“Hmm?” Yibo answered absent-mindedly, still focused on his art piece.
“What’s wrong with it?”
Xiao Zhan rolled his eyes. He gave up giving hints. “Get your elbow away from my crotch, please.”
Finally it snapped Yibo out of his focus, head turning to his elbow as if it wasn’t under his control. He moved his arm quickly, his face heating up. “Sorry.”
After that Yibo was being very careful and aware where his arm placement was. He kept his arm mostly towards himself no matter how uncomfortable it got. Xiao Zhan felt bad for him but it was better than suddenly having a hard-on in the middle of an art session.
Finally Yibo was done with his piece. From the looks of it, he seemed very satisfied. “I’m done. You can look now.”
Xiao Zhan sat up as he narrowed his eyes at the boy. “You didn’t draw a motorbike, did you?”
“Have some faith in me Zhan-ge. It’s nice. Trust me.”
“If I didn’t I wouldn’t have let you draw on me.”
Xiao Zhan took a deep breath and looked down on his skin, holding up his shirt. It was a drawing of two doves. And it really was indeed, beautiful.
Looking up, he was met with Yibo’s soft smile. “It symbolises hope and peace.”
Xiao Zhan knew what it symbolizes. It’s known to symbolize something else too but he didn’t voice it out. Maybe Yibo doesn’t know, he thought. He smiled back at the younger.
“I love it.”
Xiao Zhan partly regretted giving Yibo the green light to draw (or rather doodle) on his right arm because now the boy wouldn’t stop. The artworks were beautiful nonetheless. His style is much different from Xiao Zhan’s and it made him love it much more. Once, he woke up to Yibo sitting beside his bed on the floor of the bus. He was holding Xiao Zhan’s arm gently, drawing thin lines. Not wanting to disrupt the artist’s concentration, Xiao Zhan watched him draw quietly. With brows furrowed to the middle and tongue sticking out cutely sometimes, Xiao Zhan’s lips curled into a soft smile. Finally a wide satisfied grin came into view once he was done with his latest masterpiece. Yibo turned to look at Xiao Zhan’s sleeping face but got startled instead seeing him already awake.
“Let’s see what mess you did,” Xiao Zhan lifted his arm. It was a very detailed branched out tree with little leaves on them. It made it look like the branches were Xiao Zhan’s veins. It was perfect. Seeing the other’s look of wonderment, Yibo smiled proudly to himself.
Yibo still went out to explore and collect things he deemed as useful. Every single time he went out, he would ask Xiao Zhan the same question.
And every single time he’s greeted with the same response.
It was Day 213 when the light of hope finally came in through the cracks of their city.
Walking past store after store, Yibo heard a voice through a loud hailer out of nowhere. He spun around looking for the source. Along came into view was a big black van, cruising slowly on the road from afar. There was a guy who had his head stuck out from the wound down window, loudhailer by his mouth.
“We are from Exile Village. Anyone out there? Any humans out there? We are from Exile Village. Anyone there?”
He sounded tired, as if he had made the announcement for days – maybe even weeks. The van was driving further away and Yibo quickly went back to his motorbike to chase after it.
Thankfully the van was extremely slow. Yibo managed to drive by their side and the guy stopped his announcement abruptly. He tapped the driver excitedly.
“Da-ge! Da-ge! Stop stop!”
Yibo smiled as both their vehicles stopped in the middle of the road.
“Hello! I’m Ji Li and this is Yizhou-ge.” The guy kept his loudhailer and pointed to the driver. “Do you want to follow us to our village?”
“I’m Yibo. Exile Village right? Where exactly is that?”
“It’s at the borders. Our village was not infected because it’s banned from the rest of the cities and towns even before the apocalypse happened.” The banned village. Of course. There had been news that the head of the village wouldn’t come to an agreement with the city’s mayor and hence they were barred from the rest of the world. Not a single person or item was allowed to leave nor enter the village. They used to be the village that the city and town people sympathised or laughed at. How the tables had turned.
Yibo’s look of realisation must have been something Ji Li was used to getting as he chuckled. “Yeah. That village. So do you want to follow us? The villagers managed to convince the village head to let us help the survivors of this city.”
“Of course! Thank you so much!” Yibo’s excitement was cut short when he remembered Xiao Zhan. “Wait. I need to take someone with me. But he’s quite far from here. Will you be coming back?”
“Every Thursday we would cruise the city in the morning. We would wait at the borders about an hour before sundown just in case there are survivors who had come to enter our village,” Ji Li explained. Yibo nodded, understanding everything.
“Ok. We’ll be there next week.”
“I’m not going.”
Yibo’s mouth hung open in confusion. Xiao Zhan went back to preparing dinner for both of them. With no reason whatsoever, he simply ended the conversation, not even opening it for discussion.
“But why??” Yibo was appalled to say the least. Exile Village was obviously their golden ticket to getting out of this rundown city and Xiao Zhan wouldn’t even think twice about it.
“If you want to leave, then leave. I’m not going.”
Yibo grabbed Xiao Zhan’s arm to make him stop his work and turn to face him. “I’m asking you for a reason. The least you can give me is an explanation.”
There was a tension in his voice as he grit his teeth, holding himself back from shouting at Xiao Zhan. His breathing was heavy and his grip on the older’s arm got tighter.
Xiao Zhan winced, trying to pry his arm away. “Let go. Wang Yibo, it hurts. Let go. ”
Realising that he was hurting the other, Yibo let go of his arm immediately. But he didn’t move away, caging Xiao Zhan slightly against the seat.
“It’s Exile Village. The village that was barred from our city. Do you really think they will let us come into their village without anything in return?” Xiao Zhan raised an eyebrow.
Money? Was that it? Yibo backed away a little, giving him some room. “They know we don’t have any money.”
“Who said anything about money? Do you even know how they treat city survivors there?” Yibo hates the way Xiao Zhan was looking at him. It was as if he was talking to a kid who knows nothing about the world. He hates it.
“No but neither do you,” he said defensively.
“Exactly. But which one do you think makes more sense? Villagers who know they have been laughed at by the city people for years are suddenly helping city people out of a kind heart or villagers who know they have been laughed at are collecting city people to get back at them by treating them as slaves instead?” Xiao Zhan tilted his head, challenging Yibo to answer him.
Yibo stared at him. He didn’t answer but he didn’t break eye contact either. Trust. That was the problem here.
Xiao Zhan was the first to turn away. “I don’t owe you any more explanation.”
Silence loomed over the bus. Neither of them said anything more about it. All that was heard were the low growling noises outside the bus. They ate and finished their dinner quietly. Yibo wanted to argue that Xiao Zhan was wrong. That he should have met Ji Li and Yizhou. He should have seen how friendly and nice they were. But he knew his argument was a weak one. Xiao Zhan could easily say that everyone can put on a kind front to lure you before they eat you.
It was not until both of them were on their beds that Yibo finally spoke. “Do you trust me?”
The lack of response made him think that Xiao Zhan was already asleep. But after a while Yibo heard him. “Why?”
Of course. It’s so like Xiao Zhan to answer him with another question. Yibo took a deep breath, closing his eyes. He’ll give in this time. “If you trust me, you will follow me.”
“Was that a threat?” Xiao Zhan scoffed out a chuckle.
Tired of his games, Yibo got up and went straight to Xiao Zhan’s bed. It was so fast that Xiao Zhan didn’t realise what was happening until Yibo was on top of him, knees by his sides and hands gripping his own by his head. His eyes widened for a second before he regained his cool and looked at Yibo.
“What are you doing?”
“Answer me. Do you trust me?”
Heaving out heavily, Xiao Zhan rolled his eyes. “Yes I trust you. What has it even got to do with following you?”
“If you trust–”
“Stop. There’s no link at all. Me trusting you and going into someone else’s community that I don’t trust are two completely different things. Wake up, Wang Yibo.” Xiao Zhan twisted his wrists, trying to break free so he could push Yibo off him but the boy’s hand was much bigger and his grip was clearly stronger.
“There is.” Yibo eyed the man underneath him. “If you trust me, you know I won’t let bad things happen to you. You know I won’t lead you to somewhere unsafe. You know if things go wrong, I would be there with you. Even if I can’t protect you, I will go through it with you.”
His laboured breathing from before was calming down slowly. Xiao Zhan didn’t say anything, which was a good thing for Yibo because he always has a comeback for everything Yibo says. But he doesn’t have one now. Slightly satisfied, Yibo released his grip on Xiao Zhan’s wrists and got off him. Yibo stood beside the bed.
“Six days. They will come to the border again. You have that time to think.” Yibo went back to his bed and there was nothing else. He didn’t bother Xiao Zhan for the rest of the night. In fact, he didn’t bother Xiao Zhan for the rest of the week either.
Day 219 came too fast for Xiao Zhan’s liking. For the past week he had seen the younger fixing the bus engines and tyres. Even though Xiao Zhan had not told him of his final decision, Yibo still got the bus ready to be driven. To the border. Xiao Zhan didn’t protest against it so he continued fixing the vehicle.
Xiao Zhan was sitting at the backseat of the bus – his makeshift bed – when Yibo walked up the stairs, wiping his hands on his jeans. He looked around for his bottle of water and quenched his thirst in silence. Xiao Zhan fiddled with his fingers, not knowing how to start the conversation. He couldn’t tell if Yibo was angry or he was simply giving Xiao Zhan space to think it over.
“How’s the bus?” He decided to blurt it out of nowhere. Well technically Yibo had been fixing it so it’s not that random.
“It’s ok. It’ll move.” The boy didn’t even turn to look at him. He was busy closing the bottle and looking out the window.
“Have you tested it?” That’s a dumb question and Xiao Zhan knew it. If he had obviously he would know. He’s practically inside the bus 24/7. But if that’ll make Yibo look at him, he doesn’t mind being dumb for awhile.
And Yibo did. But he didn’t make any witty comments. The look was judging Xiao Zhan for the question but he answered it anyway. “Nope. I’ll test it today.”
Today. It was the answer to his question but at the same time a reminder for Xiao Zhan that his time is up. Seven days of contemplating is up. Yibo continued staring at him and it held Xiao Zhan’s eye contact in a way that he couldn’t even look away.
“Do you have fuel?”
“Are the tyres–”
“Yes to all your questions because I’ve checked them all. My turn.” Yibo walked toward him and stood right in front of Xiao Zhan. His heart beat furiously against his chest, thinking Yibo might do the same thing as that night. But he didn’t. He raised an eyebrow, staring him down as Xiao Zhan sat quietly on his bed.
It was the first time Xiao Zhan felt the bus move other than occasional hard pushes from the zombies during the night. It felt steady but the border was far. Which was also why Yibo decided to set off a day earlier just in case they ran out of fuel. If they did reach on Wednesday, they just had to wait for the next day on the bus.
Yibo had everything planned and organised within the six days. From fixing the bus to searching for a city map from any store he could find. He planned out the shortest route possible from the map but it could be inaccurate since there were lots of broken bridges and fallen trees. Xiao Zhan moved to sit right behind the driver’s seat. He leaned forward and rested his chin on the edge of the back cushion.
“What made you change your mind?”
Xiao Zhan hummed quietly to himself. “Your speech was very convincing.”
It made Yibo let out a chuckle and a smile. It had only been six days and Xiao Zhan’s heart ached at how much he missed it. “You could have gone to the village right away when you first met them. It would have been way easier. But you came back. To me.”
Yibo looked over his shoulder and smiled. “I told you didn’t I? I would find that utopia and bring you with me.”
“Man of your words.”
Xiao Zhan didn’t want to let Yibo drive alone. He’s not a driver. Hence he didn’t sit at the back. But upfront Xiao Zhan didn’t know what else to do. Most of his left arm and legs had been fully filled with his artworks. Staring absent-mindedly at Yibo’s veiny arms on the steering wheel, an idea came to mind.
“Would you let me draw on you?”
Somehow he found the question amusing and let out a chuckle. “No more empty spaces on yourself?”
“I just want to draw on you. If, in case, we get separated in Exile Village, I can still look for you.” Yibo’s face dropped slightly. He didn’t like the thought of being separated from Xiao Zhan. It had only been a few months but it was enough for him to feel the attachment towards the older man. Given the chance, he would tie their hands together and bring the older with him everywhere he goes. But of course, Xiao Zhan wasn’t his to keep.
“Sure. I’m driving though,” Yibo laughed dryly. He felt Xiao Zhan get up, probably to take his markers. When he came back, he eyed Yibo’s skin, carefully choosing the blank space he wanted his print to be. Moving Yibo’s flannel down his shoulder slightly, he felt the younger shudder under his touch. Xiao Zhan chuckled, not expecting him to be ticklish. Yibo was wearing a loose sleeveless tank top underneath.
Tracing his finger lightly over the exposed skin on his broad shoulder, Xiao Zhan asked in a whisper, knowing very well his breath would tickle Yibo even more. “Here. Is it ok?”
Shuddering slightly, Yibo stepped on the brakes. He looked over his shoulder to see Xiao Zhan grinning back at him. “You sure you want to tease me like that?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Xiao Zhan pursed his lips together, making an apologetic face. “Continue driving. I will draw very quietly you won’t even know I’m here.”
Narrowing his eyes as a warning, Yibo then turned his attention back on the road and started the bus again. He felt the tip of the marker touching his skin and began relaxing. After a while he started to wonder what was drawn on his shoulder. It felt like a big artwork.
“What are you drawing, Zhan-ge?”
Yibo rolled his eyes at the answer. Since Xiao Zhan doesn’t seem like he wanted to give any clues, Yibo didn’t pry further. He’ll just wait till it’s done.
They stopped once for Yibo to take a short break and fill his stomach with some biscuits. He tried to peek at the half completed artwork on his shoulder but he couldn’t make out what it was. Xiao Zhan laughed, telling him to quit trying or he’ll sprain his neck soon. Yibo pouted at him but Xiao Zhan simply ruffled his hair.
The sky was getting darker but the sun was still up. Yibo tried to speed through so that they wouldn’t spend another half a day on the road the next day. Xiao Zhan was done drawing but he was still still right behind Yibo, accompanying him. He lay his head on the shoulder of Yibo’s backrest, looking at the road ahead of them. It was a comfortable silence between them. Xiao Zhan sometimes fed Yibo crackers and water to help him to stay awake. Fortunately they didn’t come across any bad company who would try to hijack their bus. Xiao Zhan didn’t tell Yibo but he did keep a lookout if he could – by some miracle fate – spot Xuan Lu.
However there were no traces of her at all. He tried to comfort himself that it was better not finding her than finding her in a bad situation. Who knows, maybe she had bumped into the people from Exile Village just like Yibo and followed them to the village. Wishful thinking but that was all he could do at the moment.
The sun was setting slowly and Xiao Zhan tapped on Yibo’s shoulder. “I think you should park it somewhere now.” Yibo simply nodded, driving the bus to the side.
The new environment made it difficult for either of them to sleep in. The parking lot was way more peaceful as it was quite isolated from the rest of the city. Xiao Zhan made sure the bus door was locked and the windows were all closed before going to bed. The growling started just as he tried to close his eyes and it creeped him out that it was much louder than what he was used to hearing. He heard munching near the bus. There was also a sudden loud shrilling scream from afar. Xiao Zhan heard more growling noises, feet running quickly on the road. The scream must have alerted more zombies and now their group was getting bigger.
His heart thumped violently, gripping on his blanket tighter even though he saw none of the situation happening outside. Xiao Zhan shut his eyes tighter, letting go of the blanket and covering both his ears. It reminded him too much of when Zhuocheng got bitten. He shouted for Xiao Zhan to close the door as he was caught by the group of zombies from behind. Too stunned to move, Xiao Zhan fell on his butt after he had shut the door. He saw one of the zombies attacking Zhuocheng’s arm and then his neck. They weren’t even turning him into one of them. They were eating him.
Xiao Zhan had closed his eyes then but he heard his screams. His pain. Until he didn’t hear anything anymore. For days, Xiao Zhan had not moved from his spot, fearing that if he looked out of the window, he would see Zhuocheng’s remains.
A sudden gentle touch on his shoulder startled him greatly as his body shook and he opened his eyes wide. Xiao Zhan didn’t realise he was panting. Yibo was kneeling beside his bed, looking at him with eyes filled with concern.
Xiao Zhan couldn’t speak. His hands were still trembling against his ears. But tears began welling up in his eyes. Without a single word, Yibo leaned forward and took him in his arms. He patted Xiao Zhan’s back, caressing it softly. He couldn’t hug him back but his heart started calming down slowly.
Xiao Zhan woke up early the next day. It was still dark but the sun was up for sure. He didn’t know how or when he had fallen asleep but Yibo was with him. The makeshift bed was too small for two hence Yibo was sitting on the floor, head cradled on his crossed arms, resting on his propped up knee. The boy had stayed beside him the whole night despite having a bed to sleep on. It was still too early to wake him up and he wanted Yibo to get more sleep as he would be driving again. But it was a very uncomfortable position that Xiao Zhan just had to move him back to his bed.
Sliding an arm under Yibo’s knees and one behind his back, Xiao Zhan tried to stabilise himself before trying to lift him up. His legs were just about to straighten up when Yibo woke up.
“Where are you taking me?” Yibo said groggily.
Xiao Zhan laughed awkwardly, removing his arms. “You should sleep on your bed. It’s uncomfortable here.”
Still half awake, Yibo nodded briefly and climbed up onto Xiao Zhan’s bed instead. He snuggled his face into the blanket and went back to sleep. Xiao Zhan didn’t expect him to sleep on his bed but it’s better than sitting on the floor. He tucked Yibo in a little more and went to sit on the other bed.
The sky got a little brighter and Xiao Zhan was about to wake Yibo up when the boy had stirred in his sleep and woken up on his own. He observed the boy’s reaction in amusement when Yibo just noticed that he wasn’t in his own bed. Yibo looked up to where he was and had a sheepish grin on his face when he saw Xiao Zhan looking at him.
“Morning. You’re up early.” Yibo stood up and folded the blanket neatly, putting it to the side. He walked to where the bottles of water were. A different kind look passed his face when he realised the other was wearing his jacket. If Xiao Zhan had seen it, he didn’t mention it.
“Yeah. Enough sleep for me I guess.” Xiao Zhan’s back was leaning against the window, hugging his legs to his chest. Yibo stretched his shoulder muscles, cracking his neck side to side before washing his face and gurgling some water. He touched his hair, trying to find the band entangled in his bed hair. Once he had found it, Xiao Zhan stretched his arm forward.
Yibo didn’t look surprised at all. He was, in fact, pleased with the offer, sitting down in front of Xiao Zhan and giving him the hairband. Xiao Zhan combed through his hair neatly, making sure he didn’t miss any little strands.
“Thank you. For yesterday.”
Yibo’s smile was a sad, almost guilty, one but he’s glad Xiao Zhan couldn’t see it. “No worries.”
He didn’t ask more. Xiao Zhan would tell him if he did because that’s the least he could do. But Yibo simply sat there quietly.
“Do you know what two doves symbolise?” Xiao Zhan thought about the shooting stars he had inked on Yibo’s shoulder as a little bit of it peeked through the flannel. He can’t help but to remember Yibo’s first artwork for him.
“Hope and peace, right?” That was what Yibo had told him before. Which was true but when a pair of doves are together as how Yibo had drawn them, it represents something else. Xiao Zhan had always wondered if Yibo knew.
“A pair of doves symbolises something else too.” Yibo turned the moment his hairdo was done. Xiao Zhan looked at him, expecting him to continue. Love and fidelity. But instead Yibo smiled at him and got up from the bed.
They were on the road again, getting closer to the border. Xiao Zhan went to draw on Yibo’s biceps to distract him from the view outside. There were more dead bodies lying around. Some still intact, some had been violently torn into pieces like a piece of meat.
He was almost done when Yibo called him. Xiao Zhan looked up and Yibo nudged his head forward, asking him to look at what’s ahead. He had a wide satisfied smile on his face and Xiao Zhan didn’t hesitate to turn. There it was. A big concrete border separating the city from the village. A small part of it seemed to have been hacked down to make a gate big enough for only one van to get through at a time.
The bus parked in front of the border. There was no one there. They were still early it seemed. Yibo noted that the bus would be too big for the gate. They would have to leave it behind.
“We need to pack some things. You can use one of my bags,” Yibo said, getting up from the driver’s seat and moving to the back. He glanced at the new artwork Xiao Zhan had done. It was a compass. The details were amazing. The ‘N’ represents the true north of a compass but from where Yibo was looking at it, it looked like a ‘Z’ instead. Yibo smiled to himself.
Both of them took a bag each. They left most of the food behind, only taking a bottle of water and some packets of crackers with them. Xiao Zhan folded the blanket as small as possible so that it fits in the bag. Seeing him trying to stuff it inside with some difficulty, Yibo asked why he wanted to take it.
“I’ve grown attached to it,” Xiao Zhan simply said, smiling as he looked up at the boy. It looked even more obvious when Yibo was trying to control his smile at that reply. He ended up clearing his throat and helping Xiao Zhan in stuffing the blanket in the bag.
They were done packing and were simply sitting around as they waited for Ji Li and Yizhou. Sitting side by side on Xiao Zhan’s bed, Yibo noticed him fidgeting with his fingers. He enveloped them with his own hands, feeling that it was a little cold.
“Are you cold?”
Xiao Zhan shook his head. “Just. A little nervous.”
Yibo nodded knowingly, taking his hand to rest on his lap instead. “Me too.”
They don’t know what awaits them behind that border. It would be a completely new world. New but not necessarily a good world. Xiao Zhan wondered if he would regret his decision. He turned to Yibo, as if trying to gauge if Yibo has any regrets or if he’s showing signs of wanting to turn back. Yibo turned back to him, giving him a comforting smile.
Trust. He trusts Yibo. It will be fine. Because Yibo is there with him.
A few moments later, an engine of a vehicle was heard. Yibo got up and went to the window. True enough, it’s the van he had chased after a week ago. It stopped beside their bus and Ji Li waved his hand excitedly. He got out of the van. Both Yibo and Xiao Zhan carried their bags and went out to meet Ji Li.
“You made it!” he cheered with a wide smile.
Yibo introduced them to Xiao Zhan and Ji Li was in awe with the amount of drawings on Xiao Zhan’s arm. Yizhou however, spotted the shooting star at the back of Xiao Zhan’s ear. Ji Li welcomed them inside the van, sitting at the back. They were waiting for a while, in case there were others, when Yizhou turned to the back.
“Xiao Zhan, right?” Xiao Zhan nodded. “Do you know someone by the name of Xuan Lu?”
Yibo’s head turned to Xiao Zhan just as his eyes widened. It’s been a long time since he heard her name. He was too stunned to respond even though he really should. He managed a stiff nod just so that Yizhou could continue what he wanted to tell.
A look of relief washed over his face. “We finally found you.”
He turned to Ji Li’s confused look and laughed. Of course this boy wouldn’t remember. “We found her a few months back. She was injured and the sun was about to set. But she insisted on going back to her friends first. I had promised her that we will try to find them for her. She told me you have that shooting star drawing behind your ear.”
“I-is she safe? Is she with you right now?” Xiao Zhan’s hands trembled, eyes welling up with tears. The shooting star was drawn by Xuan Lu. He couldn’t see it but she told him what she drew. Xiao Zhan didn’t even know the drawing was still there after months.
Yizhou smiled and nodded. “She’s safe. She had been wanting to follow us but she’s still injured so we told her we would try to find you.”
Xiao Zhan shut his eyes, trying to process everything in his head. He took a deep shaky breath and opened his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you so much, Yizhou-ge. Thank you so much, Ji Li.”
He turned to Yibo who had wiped his tears by the side. Yibo simply nodded, knowing very well what Xiao Zhan wanted to say. Everything will be ok.