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Published at 28th of October 2020 09:15:07 PM
Chapter 236: 236
Our party of five stepped into the restaurant, purportedly famous for its broths of meat and innards. Chongxi pulled up another chair from an adjacent table and plopped down on it, calling loudly, "A menu please, waiter!"

Never one to be shy to show his vehemence whenever it comes to his gourmet cravings, Chongxi could be rather insistent or impassioned, if not rabid. Big Sister and Edelweiss could only gawk at his antics with amusement. As for Lin Feng and I, we have long grown accustomed to his antics that we have become numb to his lack of table manners. We nonchalantly set alight a pair of cigarettes as we watched Chongxi recited a list of orders to the waiter.

Before long, the five of us were ripping off barbecued meat off our donkey burgers with bowls of mule offal brew. Chongxi gnashed his teeth as he bit and tore at his roasted bread-wrapped mule meat and slurping down his soup with obtuse boorishness, utterly oblivious of the vulgar noises he was causing around the table that even Big Sister, a fox-demon who had only just entered society, could not help but dip her head with embarrassment and intentionally averted her eyes too, at times. But all was hardly well for her beside her where Edelweiss was also rending her meat with equal ferocity. But what more could I expect from a girl who was formerly an outlaw who used to inhale mead and meat like oxygen without any concern for tactfulness and elegance?

Big Sister could only stare blankly at Lin Feng and me with her eyes gaping wide. Sitting opposite her across the table, Lin Feng and I were holding back our urges to burst out laughing. Her eyes met ours and everyone erupted into howls of guffaws. Big Sister grumbled, in a tone which mirrored Mother whenever she was admonishing me, "Gods in Heaven, look at you lot! Every one of you..." Her voice stuck halfway and she did not know how to go on. "... are so vulgar." I finished for her. She might not understand what I was referring to by "vulgar," but she nodded nevertheless in assent.

As if he had not heard us, Chongxi upended his bowl and gulped down more soup before he hooted again, "Waiter! Two more!" A couple of minutes had barely passed after the waiter had set our table with our order and Chongxi's sudden shout for more food left him dumbfounded as he uttered a surprised "Ah?!". But he quickly saw the empty plate sitting idly in front of Chongxi and yelped a wordless reply before trotting off into the kitchens for more donkey burgers.

The brief episode left Big Sister succumbing to laughter, not knowing what to say to a hopeless Chongxi. "Don't you point fingers, Big Sister." I sneered playfully. "They might have not seen how you were when you first ate hot pot, but I certainly did. And I can safely say you're nowhere better than him!" The elder sister blushed and glared at me like a young flustered lass and said nothing more. Lin Feng and Edelweiss were staring at me curiously. "How was she then?" I looked at both of them, their eyes prodding me for answers, conveying to me their fervent curiosity to find out how Big Sister behaved then.

But from across the table, Big Sister threw at me a glance so scathing and venomous that I almost thought a pair of laser aiming-beams from rifles honing in on me. A classic moment of how a big sister would try to bully her little brother into submission, I mused. I shrugged and pursed my lips, grumbling, "I wouldn't dare. Big Sister won't allow me to! I could be in for a bout of bullying if I were to disclose anything!" Lin Feng cast a strange, cryptic look at me while Edelweiss laughed and they shook their heads with exasperation at the shenanigans of my Big Sister and me.

Just when our exchange ended, Chongxi's hand shot into the air again, "Another two more, Waiter!" We could clearly see the waiter's body shudder before he turned around with a disbelieving ogle at Chongxi before disappearing into the kitchens again. He should be wondering, What is he?! Slimer from Ghostbusters?! But only Lin Feng and I began to realize that something was wrong with him. A usual Chongxi had the loquaciousness that could easily match his appetite whenever he ate. Yet why was he being quiet today?

Lin Feng and I traded quick looks and he placed a hand on Chongxi's shoulder. "What's wrong with you, Chongxi?" Chong Xi did not deign to show that he had heard him. He kept his head down, brooding, as he ate quietly as if he had not heard us. With a slight frown at me, Lin Feng winked a signal at me, indicating that something was truly wrong with our friend. Chongxi's third helping came. Without even a look at it, he whisked them off and deposited them into his mouth, leaving the plate bare as if the burgers hardly existed at all.

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With only a few bites, Chongxi demonstrated to the fullness his efficiency in inhaling the burgers. Then he looked purple as if he was choking. He desperately snatched at his bowl of soup and washed all the food down his throat. Edelweiss and Big Sister too noticed that Chongxi's unusual behavior. The merriment came to a still as they threw knowing glances at Lin Feng and me.

Our brows furrowed in return and we threw back confused looks at Edelweiss and Big Sister, indicating that we did not know what was going on ourselves.

Chongxi put down his soup bowl suddenly with a heavy thud and shoved another burger into his mouth. The bowl was only on the table when I saw something: a crystalline rivulet fell into his soup with a minuscule splash before melting into it. It was a drop of tear that had rolled down Chongxi's face.

All four of us looked dazedly at each other. But I knew what happened finally. Dawning looks of comprehension soon spread upon Lin Feng's and Edelweiss' faces, leaving only Big Sister still none the wiser. Lin Feng replaced his hand on Chongxi's shoulder and asked with the brimming concern that only a friend as close as a brother could have, saying, "You're thinking about your childhood, aren't you?" Chongxi's head bobbed solemnly with silence, still saying not a word. A tactless Big Sister, who knew nothing about Chongxi's past and experiences, blurting loudly, "What happened to him as a kid?"

Lin Feng and I tossed angry looks at her and Edelweiss hurriedly tugged at her arm, signaling to her to speak carefully. Only then, Big Sister realized that she had misspoken and she hushed down at once. But I understood fully that Big Sister was hardly to be blamed for her ignorance. She did not know what hardships and pain that Chongxi had endured as a child. Added with her ineptitude to observe people due to her long-years of being dissociated from society, Big Sister was only a fox-demon who was far from proficient in the subtlety of human interactions. We continued our dinner in funereal silence in espousal to Chongxi and no one uttered anything else.

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In truth, Chongxi's childhood and experiences hardly mattered to our story. Still, I had always felt it important and significant to relate his accounts for everyone's benefit. It was after all his life that molded Chongxi into the person he was today. A queer friend who was our best friend nonetheless. Hence, I felt that we owed it to him to relate more about his life to explain his peculiar disposition.

Back to the score at hand—Chongxi.

At long last, after countless more donkey burgers and gallons-full of soup, Chongxi finally got up, brushing aside his tears as he opened wide his mouth and released a huge, thunderous burp that sounded like a war horn. The blare of Chongxi's gastrointestinal siren was enough to draw the attention of all the other diners present that curious and wide-eyed stares came from all directions, homing in on the teary little plump boy clutching at his inflated tummy. Naturally, it was a spectacle that we had become no stranger to. Lin Feng patted gently on Chongxi's shoulder at an utter loss for words.

An apologetic Big Sister offered a box of tissue to Chongxi, indicating to him to wipe off the tears and snot that cascaded down his cheeks. He ripped out a piece of napkin and wiped his face, cleaning his face of all the liquid and slime. He ripped out a piece of napkin and wiped his face, rubbing his face off with all the liquid and slime. Then he sat back down. But that was not before he opened his mouth again and let loose another triumphant burp that shook the restaurant. Looking dreamy, he said suddenly, "I bet you remember what I told you about my past." He was not really looking at us when he said the words, his incoherent manner leaving us wondering if he was speaking to himself or to us. But all four of us nodded still, including Big Sister who knew absolutely nothing about Chongxi's past as a child.

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Chongxi's eyes blinked shut and he drew a deep breath. "Remember the time when I told you about how Teacher took me to hustle for cash, then he brought me to this restaurant where he gave me a treat so great that I would never forget for my entire life? Remember me saying that it was the first time I ate food that was hot?" Our heads bobbed again. But I could already see where Chongxi’s tale was leading to and I interjected, speaking in his stead, "And I bet the restaurant that your teacher brought you to sold donkey burgers, am I right?" That elicited a nod from him. With a voice still on the verge of breaking, Chong Xi went on, "I was too young and ignorant to know what I was eating then, only that it was the most delicious food I had ever tasted. But only after my first bite just now, I realized that this was what Teacher had bought me then. Only the taste... the flavor is no longer the same... After so many years... And I'm afraid I will never be able to savor it ever again..."

His voice finally faltered. But we need to hear no more and every one of us placed a hand on Chongxi's back to console him. Chongxi would never be able to forget the taste of his first savoring of donkey burgers. It might have not been as tasty as the meat we were just eating, but the significance of that meal was too deep and momentous for him.

I remembered Chongxi once said that it was somewhere near Shanggu, Hebei where he and his teacher used to conduct their hustling. He was too young to remember exactly where was the barbecue joint at that time, but the taste of the food was something that he would never forget. Not for the rest of his life.

Silence lulled over our table for heartbeats until Chongxi finally recovered from his melancholy and we reverted back to our merriment and banter once more. Chongxi was far from being fickle. In fact, he was anything but that. But his years of pain and suffering had strengthened and steeled him.

As we carried on with our talks, laughter, and revelry, a figure stood up suddenly at one of the tables in the corner. At first, I paid no heed to him, dismissing him merely as a patron who was going to pay for his bill and leave. But instead of moving towards the counter, the man headed straight for us. Sauntering towards us alone, wearing a cool and casually-confident smile.

Unabashedly, he reached for an empty chair not far away and sat right down beside Chongxi.
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