Handed the serial number, Second Uncle didn't know how to respond. Second Aunt got busy. Folks from their generation had all served, so they knew where to look up an assignment.
After she found the official website, Second Aunt entered the numbers and letters in the serial number. When she was done, she triple-checked her input before hitting enter. Then she gazed at the computer screen waiting for the result.
When Second Uncle saw the result, he questioned his eyesight. He checked the website. It was the right one. It was where they had checked their assignments when they served.
"This... This..." Second Uncle looked at the result then looked at Fang Zhao. He couldn't manage a complete sentence. Fang Zhao had changed so much in six years. He could understand the change in personality—that wasn't uncommon. Six years was enough to transform someone's personality, but not anyone could swing a preferential military posting with a phone call.
Fang Yu joined the scramble to check the search result. The length his jaw dropped revealed how surprised he was.
"Company perk for Memorial Day," Fang Zhao said.
"Your company hands these out as perks?" It was the first time Fang Yu had heard of such a thing. Even though past events had soured his impression of Fang Zhao, his cousin was now helping him out, and he couldn't give him simple, perfunctory attention any more. He was in an awkward position. He was also curious how Fang Zhao had secured the posting. People usually kept preferential postings for themselves. No one handed them out so casually like Fang Zhao.
Second Uncle and Second Aunt were wondering the same thing.
"Little Zhao, aren't you due to serve too? Why don't you keep the posting for yourself?" Second Uncle asked in a worried tone. "You may not understand the importance of a plumb posting, but let me tell you..."
"I still have one for myself."
Fang Zhao's comment left Second Uncle speechless. He paused before saying, with a confused expression, "That's... that's great." The hand with which he was carrying his glass was trembling. He wasn't as calm as he seemed.
One preferential posting was enough to blow them away. To think Fang Zhao had one more.
"Little Zhao, Second Aunt thanks you from the bottom of her heart," Second Aunt said while looking at Fang Zhao in earnest. "What a difference six years makes. You're your own man now. And to think that Second Uncle and I were worried that you would struggle at work. You must be much tougher than we'd thought. But even so, if there's anything you need, Second Uncle and I will do our best."
"Of course, of course. Little Zhao, if you need help with anything, don't be a stranger," Second Uncle added.
The huge favor that Fang Zhao had done for them left Second Uncle and Second Aunt at a loss. It finally dawned on them that the Fang Zhao of today wasn't the kid they used to know. He was someone in charge.
"Little Zhao, Fang Yu will take you to your room. If you don't have anything else planned, do spend the night." Second Uncle wasn't particularly articulate. After mumbling a few orders, he joined Second Aunt in the kitchen. They ate takeout or instant food most of the year. There was a dazzling selection of instant food products in the New Era. When the couple was busy at work, they would order from the company cafeteria or have takeout or instant food. The kids ate at school. Only when the family reunited on holidays did the couple cook for themselves.
Second Uncle was in a great mood. First, the issue of Fang Yu's military assignment had been resolved. Second, Fang Zhao had turned out to be quite competent. He was delighted. After all, Fang Zhao was his nephew. As for how Fang Zhao had obtained the two preferential postings, if Fang Zhao wouldn't volunteer, they wouldn't press the matter either.
As Second Uncle and Second Aunt took in Fang Zhao's changes, Fang Yu took Fang Zhao to his room. His father had asked him to vacate his room for Fang Zhao the day before. He would bunk with his younger brother for the time being. Since leaving for university, Fang Yu hadn't spent much time at home. He didn't want to tidy up his room. He only put up appearances with his father breathing down his neck, so his room was still a bit messy.
"Uhm... let me clean up a bit." Fang Yu felt embarrassed. After Fang Zhao took care of his military assignment with two text messages, he had put his cousin on a pedestal.
Fang Zhao had only brought a small suitcase. Apart from the gifts for his uncle's family, he only brought two changes of clothes. He scanned Fang Yu's room. Much of the 20-odd square-meter space was cluttered, but his bookshelves were in neat order.
"Do you mind if I read your books?" Fang Zhao asked, pointing at the bookshelves.
"Feel free. I haven't read them anyway," Fang Yu responded.
The shelves were lined with mostly Fang Yu's secondary school textbooks. There were two types of secondary textbooks: paperbacks and the electronic versions.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that electronic communications were jammed and telecom equipment occasionally malfunctioned during the end of days, but despite the rapid advancement of technology in the New Era, paperbacks were never completely retired.
Students used electronic textbooks for the most part. They were convenient, and physical books took up space. By graduation, their paperbacks were often intact. It was the same case with Fang Yu's textbooks. They were arranged on the top shelf as decoration.
Fang Zhao pulled out a Secondary Two math textbook. The Secondary One and Secondary Two textbooks had been thumbed through somewhat, but the books for years three and onward were all brand new.
When he opened the textbook, he saw the first page inscribed with the large characters: "Fang Zhao is a major idiot."
Fang Zhao: "..."
He flipped some more and discovered scribbles and drawings. Scanning his memory, Fang Zhao realized that, when Fang Yu was a second year, the original owner of his body had just graduated from secondary school. That was also when his relationship with Second Uncle and family was at its worst.
Fang Yu was under his father's tight supervision at the time. One ill-advised remark and he'd be confined to his room reading, so he vented by scribbling in his textbook.
When Fang Yu turned his head after tidying up, he noticed Fang Zhao holding his Secondary Two math textbook and caught a glimpse of the page he had turned to. Images of the insults he had scribbled as a second year came rushing back. He snatched the textbook and shoved it into a drawer. "Oh, I was a clueless brat back then."
Fang Yu was so embarrassed he wanted to hide under a rock. Just half an hour ago Fang Zhao had secured him a preferential military posting, and now he was staring at an insult directed at him scribbled in Fang Yu's Secondary Two math textbook.
Fang Zhao actually wasn't upset. "Decent drawing," he said.
From his point of view, considering what went down between the original owner of his body and the Fang family, Fang Yu wasn't off the mark. But the original owner was no longer around, so Fang Zhao refrained from passing judgment on past events.
Fang Yu didn't want to discuss the past and his previous grievances anymore. He pondered briefly and said, "Oh, Big Brother, are you going to visit Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother on Memorial Day?" He remembered that Fang Zhao would tag along with their family on their previous visits after his own parents passed. But after quarreling with his second uncle a few times, Fang Zhao had stopped going. He hadn't visited his great-grandparents since.
Fang Zhao canvassed his memory and found a bit of relevant information, but not much. He only had vague memories of the great-grandfather and great-grandmother that Fang Yu had mentioned. He only remembered the couple were the most senior members of the Fang family. They lived in a retirement home for former government officials in Yanbei. They should have been in their 150s, even older than Fang Zhao was in his previous life.
"Yeah, let's go," Fang Zhao said.
"Every time we visit, Great-Grandfather hands out red packets. You haven't been in 10 years, no? If you're on your best behavior, maybe Great-Grandfather will be impressed and give you all the red packets you were due for the past 10 years."
Great-Grandfather Fang had retired with merit. Even though he no longer retained his military title, he enjoyed a comfortable retirement package. He didn't have to worry about daily expenses and was entitled to a considerable pension.
At the Yanbei retirement home for former officials.
Elderly residents were starting to get busy. Their daily chores were taken care of—what occupied their time was brainstorming how much cash to stuff in their red packets.
"Old Fang, you're skipping your grandkids again?" a neighbor yelled from his window.
In a room equipped with quasi-antique decor, the spirited old man who sat in his chair leafing through a ledger responded, "Yes. They're so old. Even if I give them red packets, are they thick-skinned enough to accept them?"
"Then it's down to your great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids, then," the voice next door said.
"I'm thinking of skipping my great-grandkids as well. A bunch of little brats. None of them have amounted to anything," Great-Grandfather Fang fumed.
The old woman sitting next to him laughed.
"What are you laughing about? That's exactly what they are," Great-Grandfather Fang grumbled.
Great-Grandmother Fang went silent. Even though her old companion complained that none of his great-grandkids amounted to much, he always included every single one of them on his list, including Fang Zhao, who was alive and well but hadn't shown up in 10 years.
The old lady's laughter subsided when her thoughts drifted to her grandson and his wife who had died young and the great-grandson they hadn't seen in 10 years. Word was that the great-grandson had been accepted to a decent school and moved to Qi'an, but he hadn't bothered visiting before leaving for university. Little did Fang Zhao know how much his great-grandparents had intervened and staved off trouble behind-the-scenes.
So be it. If he doesn't show, he doesn't show. Family members easily became distant to each other in the New Era. If the two of them weren't receiving such a huge pension, few of their kids and their kids' kids would visit on Memorial Day.
Great-Grandfather Fang couldn't keep quiet while doing his math. "That kid Fang Yu is due to serve soon, no?"
The old lady put down her book, removed her glasses, and responded slowly, "I heard a while back about our third son's kids, not Fang Yu, though."
"Tsk." Great-Grandfather Fang shook his head. He was about to speak again but held back. "Whatever. There's no point. Same routine again—if I like what I see, I'll give them a bit more cash. If not, I'll wing it."