This is a 3-part continuation of the oneshot At the End of the World, where the events are told from the perspective of the male lead Lu Hao. Part 1 is about childhood, Part 2 is about the apocalypse events from the first life, and Part 3 is about their rebirth.
There was a little boy sitting in the shadow of the apartments. He looked as small as a cloth doll, especially when hunched over. The strange boy never left the shadow of the apartments, and he watched everyone playing in the park with dull eyes.
“He’s like a ghost,” the kids whispered to each other. “It’s so gross!” They waved their hands and yelled to shoo him.
“Lu Hao, make him go away,” one of the girls whined, tugging Lu Hao’s shirt sleeve. She was one of the cuter girls in the neighborhood, her long black hair held back by a shiny flower pin.
Lu Hao smiled happily. “Okay, wait for me then.”
He jogged across the street to the old apartment. The little boy sat in the dark shade of the awning, his unreadable eyes tracking Lu Hao’s movement. When Lu Hao stood next to him under the shade of the corrugated metal, the boy looked like he had shrunk, becoming smaller and paler than before.
The little boy’s head had turned slightly to keep Lu Hao in his sight. His eyes had no light in them, like a dead person’s.
Lu Hao thought this was a little scary, but also kind of cool. “Are you haunting this place?” Lu Hao asked. Ma had told him about bad kids that played in the streets and got run over, and when they died they had to stay there and never come back home. Maybe this little boy got run over and turned into a ghost, and that’s why he couldn’t leave.
The little boy didn’t say anything, silent just like a ghost would be. But when Lu Hao reached out to poke him to see if his finger would pass through, the little boy flinched.
Lu Hao frowned and stepped forward. The boy moved away. His blank face turned wary, little mouth and eyes tight with tension. The boy’s spine coiled with energy, like he would bolt at any second.
But the boy moved just a second too slow when Lu Hao darted forward to poke him, a finger jabbing into the soft white skin of the boy’s arm. Lu Hao only had a second to realize it wasn’t a ghost before the boy ran away.
“Lu Hao, you’re so cool.” The girl blushed when Lu Hao returned to the park.
“Mm.” Lu Hao looked at her. Even with her hairpin glittering under the sun, he somehow felt the girl looked less interesting than before.
Every day Ma walked Lu Hao home. Mother and son held hands, swinging their arms back and forth, smiles bright on their faces.
“Ma, I thought I saw a ghost today,” Lu Hao said.
Lu Hao nodded lots. “I thought it was a ghost, but it was just a kid after all. I poked him to make sure he was real.”
Ma frowned. “Little Hao, that’s a very rude thing to do. You should apologize and treat him better next time.”
Lu Hao listened sagely, and nodded at her advice. Ma always had the best advice, and Lu Hao made lots of friends by acting how Ma told him to, so he listened this time as well. “Okay, Ma.”
When they got home, Ma went to the kitchen to make dinner while Lu Hao studied. When Pa came home it was dinnertime, and then Pa asked if Lu Hao needed any help with his studies. Lu Hao said no since it was easy, and then it was bedtime and everyone went to sleep. And while Lu Hao slept under his warm and soft blankets in his big and comfy room, he didn’t know that in the old apartment building across from the park, a small and skinny boy was pressing a finger to the bruise on his arm and wondering why one touch could leave a mark that lasted for so long.
Lu Hao saw the little boy walking home from school one day. He was alone, back hunched and head down. He looked different enough in the light that everyone else didn’t recognize him. Lu Hao told his friends to go to the park without him. They complained and pouted, but when Lu Hao said he had to do something his Ma told him to do, they all reluctantly agreed.
Once his friends went out of sight, Lu Hao ran ahead to where the little boy walked.
“Hi,” he said, smiling brightly. “My name is Lu Hao.”
The little boy stared.
“You should tell me your name,” Lu Hao told him.
The little boy turned his head, a slight frown on his face, and his hand went up to touch his arm, where Lu Hao had poked him before.
“I’m sorry for poking you that time,” Lu Hao remembered to say, and tried to look properly remorseful. The boy glanced at him from the corner of his eye, bobbed his head a little, and then looked down at his feet like Lu Hao had never spoken to him in the first place.
No one ever ignored Lu Hao. Everyone always told him how cool and awesome he was, and adults always said “What a good child”, and when Lu Hao smiled everyone always smiled back. So Lu Hao didn’t know who this boy was to not smile at Lu Hao or talk to him back, but he knew that he didn’t like it. A trace of cunning flashed in his eyes, and Lu Hao smiled even harder.
He moved to loop his arm around the little boy’s shoulders like he often did with his good friends. Everyone was happy when Lu Hao did that because it meant Lu Hao liked you, and Lu Hao was the best.
But instead of being happy the little boy jumped away, looking over his shoulder with startled eyes. A second later, he bolted.
“Hey, wait—” Lu Hao tried calling him, but he had already disappeared down the street.
And Lu Hao was left there alone, his plans failed, his best attempts useless. He’d followed Ma’s advice and had nothing to show for it. He’d chosen to leave his friends for this, and Lu Hao felt a sudden spark of hot and miserable anger.
I’ll show you, he thought, glaring at the empty street.
From then on, whenever the little boy came into Lu Hao’s sights, Lu Hao chased him like a dog after a bone. The little boy was startled into stillness every time he saw Lu Hao, and Lu Hao had caught on after the first few times that as long as he didn’t come too close, the boy wouldn’t run away.
“Hey!” Lu Hao jogged up to him, smiling brilliantly in a way that made girls blush and older women coo.
The little boy looked at him like he was crazy, and Lu Hao deftly ignored the stare. Behind him, his friends sighed and muttered, already walking away toward the park.
As usual, Lu Hao followed beside the boy on the trip back to the boy’s home. Even after all this time Lu Hao still hadn’t gotten his name – in fact, the boy hadn’t said anything at all to him – but Lu Hao didn’t give up.
Lu Hao told the boy about everything and anything that crossed his mind. Funny stories, the latest episodes of his favorite TV show, Mister Wei’s cute but annoying dog, the weather. Though the boy never joined Lu Hao’s one-sided conversation, he also didn’t tell him to stop, so Lu Hao took it in stride. Eventually, he would wear this boy down, and the boy would finally accept his fate of being Lu Hao’s friend.
It was going to be a long process, though. Even after all this time Lu Hao still didn’t know anything about the boy; he didn’t react to anything Lu Hao said and just stayed quiet all the time. Lu Hao couldn’t tell if he liked one type of music over another, or if he had any hobbies, or even what class he was in at school.
At least he knew the boy went to school – he had seen the boy walk out, once, on a stormy day where all the kids had to go home with their parents. Lu Hao’s Ma had come and brought him a raincoat, rainboots, and a big umbrella. Once she’d made sure he was all snug and ready to stay dry Ma took Lu Hao’s hand to walk him out of the school building, but Lu Hao had seen something that made him stop.
Lots of the other kids had left by then, but there at the corner of the entrance, small and quiet, was the little boy. He stared out into the gusty rain, hitched his bag over his shoulder, and took a few steps forward like he was about to just go home in the rain by himself.
A teacher noticed and snapped at him, making the little boy frown at the ground. He reluctantly stepped back as the teacher scolded him, a harsh sound muffled by the rain and the noisiness of the remaining students.
Watching this, a creeping realization came into Lu Hao’s mind. He’d never seen the boy’s parents. The boy had always been alone: sitting alone in front of the apartment, walking home alone from school.
He wondered if the boy was always alone, all the time.
Lu Hao pulled his mom’s hand and opened his mouth, about to ask if they could take the boy home, too – but at that moment the boy’s head lifted, and he stared with dark eyes into the rain.
A woman walked out, thin and pale. Drenched in the rain with only a flimsy umbrella in her hand, she looked like a drowned demon. The other kids grew silent when she approached, watching carefully like she had come to steal their souls. The woman stood at the entrance of the school and turned her cold and bleak gaze to the corner where the little boy stood; the little boy wordlessly stepped forward and joined her. She turned without a second glance and walked off. They didn’t walk close to each other, Lu Hao had noticed. They didn’t hold hands. In fact, they acted like they weren’t even in the same space. The boy walked with his head down to keep the rain out of his eyes, only half-covered by the umbrella with how much distance he kept in between him and the woman.
Lu Hao’s grip on his own mother’s hand tightened, and she looked down at him with a worried and affectionate expression. Sweeping a hand over the hood on his head, she softly said, “Let’s go home now, okay, Little Hao?”
Lu Hao nodded wordlessly. They walked home, hand-in-hand and side-by-side, like they always did. This was how moms and sons were supposed to be, so Lu Hao thought that woman with her cold and heartless face must have been a nanny because he couldn’t imagine that there could be any mother who didn’t love their child like Lu Hao’s Ma loved him.
Lu Hao didn’t see that woman again until a long time later.
The friendship that Lu Hao had been so desperately trying to forge finally hit a breakthrough on the day that a stray cat moved into their neighborhood.
It was an angry, spitfire thing, with spiky grey fur and a sharp face that hissed at everyone that got close to it.
“No, you shouldn’t touch it,” Ma said, pulling Lu Hao back when he tried to go pet it. The cat puffed up where it sat on the gate wall, but when Ma held Lu Hao back the cat settled, tail swishing back and forth, beady eyes tracking them. Ma said sternly, “Cats don’t like when strangers touch them. You need to be their friend first.”
These words struck something in the back of Lu Hao’s mind. He blinked up at his Ma and asked, “Then how do I become its friend?”
“Hm,” Ma peered at the cat sitting alertly in front of them. “This cat doesn’t trust people. See how it watches us? It thinks we might try to hurt it. But if we show that we’re safe, it may come to like us. We can bring it a fish later, when we go to the market.”
“A fish?” Lu Hao asked.
“Yes, cats love to eat fish. Everyone is happy to eat something delicious, right?”
Something delicious, Lu Hao repeated in his head. He accompanied his Ma to the market, and while she bartered for groceries, he looked around at the different shops.
There was a bakery nestled between the stores that sold dry goods and supplies. A sweet smell of sugar and baked bread wafted out of it. Ma and Lu Hao rarely went there; Pa really loved to eat sweet bread, but the doctor said it wasn’t good for an older man to eat too many sweets, so Ma only bought some for him on special days.
Lu Hao didn’t like sweets, but he remembered all of the girls talking about how delicious the snacks were, and how the boys fought over candies. He pulled Ma’s hand and pointed at the bakery. “Ma, can we go there?”
“You want to buy some bread, Little Hao?” Ma indulgently lead Lu Hao over to the bakery. At the window, Lu Hao saw all kinds of things: cakes, pastries, and little snacks of all kinds.
Seeing so many options, Lu Hao became worried. “I wanna bring something for my friend, but I don’t know what he likes…”
“Oh my, a gift. Well, we can get a few things.”
They entered the store, and a small bell rang when the door opened. The girl behind the counter was very pretty, with long black hair tied in a ponytail. She greeted Ma and cooed over Lu Hao. Ma told her that Lu Hao wanted to buy a gift box for his friend, but didn’t know what his tastes were like.
“Oh, that’s not a problem – we can package a variety,” the store employee said, and fetched a box. She asked Lu Hao to pick some of the small treats, motioning to the counter where the store displayed palm-sized dessert snacks.
Lu Hao checked with his Ma, who smiled encouragingly, and then pointed at some random things.
“Okay, so we have some pineapple buns, sponge cake, sweetheart cake, and egg custard tart. Will that be all?”
“Could we also get a few of these breads, please,” and Ma purchased some buns to bring back for Pa.
The two of them left the market loaded down with food, and when they got home and put away all of the groceries, Ma said, “Oh, we forgot to get the fish.”
Lu Hao tracked the boy down the next day. The boy peered blankly when Lu Hao said he had something for him, but went quietly to sit at the bench next to Lu Hao. Lu Hao couldn’t wait, quickly popping open his bag and digging out the box. He handed it to the boy, who stared at the little white box until Lu Hao told him to take it in his hands. When the boy just looked at the closed box, Lu Hao had to tell him to open it, too.
Though he was hesitant, the boy slowly lifted the lid. The scent of baked goods wafted into the air, and the boy’s eyes widened. His face had an expression like he’d never seen such food before.
He made no move to touch the desserts. His little throat bobbed, but he kept a very still face. It reminded Lu Hao of well-trained dogs that wouldn’t eat a snack until they were given permission, even if you balanced the treats on their noses, held it in front of their mouths.
“They’re for you,” Lu Hao said.
The little boy looked at Lu Hao, his expression somehow sad and lost. Lu Hao’s heart leaped into his throat.
He’d been excited, at first, ready to bounce out of his skin at the victory – but now he was worried that he’d gotten it wrong, and maybe this wasn’t the right gift, maybe—
“Do you – do you want to eat them?” Lu Hao was about to say that if not, that was fine, Lu Hao could bring him something else – but the boy ducked his head with a small, shy nod.
A sigh of relief left Lu Hao’s lungs. “Then go ahead!” He smiled and waved to the box. “They’re all yours.”
A look of wonder came upon the boy’s face. Lu Hao’s heart thumped excitedly. It was the first time he’d seen the boy look anything other than eerily blank, or wary. The boy turned his gaze back to the box and hesitantly moved his hand inside. Before he touched the pastries he glanced back at Lu Hao, who smiled encouragingly. The boy lowered his hand and picked up an egg tart.
He held the small tart reverently in his hands, the way you would hold a delicate bird. He took another glance at Lu Hao, like he was checking if this was really okay, before he lifted the tart to his lips and took a small bite.
A smile lifted the corners of the boy’s mouth, his cheeks rising and his eyes forming happy crescents.
Lu Hao watched in awe as the boy nibbled on the sweets. The empty-faced, ghost-like boy could actually show such a sweet and happy expression. It was a fragile, fleeting thing, like a thin piece of paper that could get torn by a drop of rain, or blown away by a single breeze. Lu Hao didn’t move a single centimeter, barely even breathing, too afraid of accidentally scaring away the softness of this moment.
When the boy finished licking the last crumbs of the tart from his fingertips, he glanced shyly at Lu Hao from the corner of his eyes. He chewed on his thin lips, then lowered his head and quietly whispered, “Thank you.”
“I—” Lu Hao’s head spun. He’d finally gotten the boy to speak. “You’re welcome.” Did this mean they were friends now? Did Lu Hao finally succeed? The little boy was still smiling, just a slight curve to the shape of his lips, but somehow it was enough to fill Lu Hao’s heart with a strange, swooping feeling of joy. “What’s your name?” Lu Hao blurted, because he had to know, now.
The boy blinked, and he said in that soft voice like falling snow, “Hong Sheng.”
[Originally posted Jan 11, 2018, on NUF]
“Lu Hao POV will be easy!” I thought. “I already finished the story, so writing his side will be a piece of cake!” I thought.
I’m sorry. Here are nearly 4,000 words of just childhood. There’s not even a single zombie.
Part 2 will be about Lu Hao’s apocalypse experience (first life), and Part 3 will be about rebirth.
I also have thoughts of a bonus fluff/smut?/humor short story about their life after society is rebuilt.
I’m starting to get lots of ideas for other stories right now, so I might write a few other ones before going back to Lu Hao. We’ll see.