Xiao XingChen had always loved animals; no matter how big or fierce they were, he’d befriend them and too often, those animals would respond in kind to him. Growing up, he was the naughty boy who secretly fed the stray cats and dogs in the neighbourhood; sometimes, he even rescued them and brought them to shelters to be taken care of.
Xiao XingChen had a dream to become a veterinarian. He enrolled into a university where he grew close to a fellow classmate whose family owns a veterinarian clinic that he would inherit. Song Lan promised Xiao XingChen that once he inherited the clinic, he would make Xiao XingChen a partner in the clinic; so the two of them could fulfil their duty together.
But this future was shattered one day. The two of them were walking past a park when Xiao XingChen spotted a kitten stuck on a tree. Without waiting for any help, Xiao XingChen climbed up the trunk and carefully balanced on the branch to reach the crying kitten. As soon as he caught hold of the kitten, Xiao XingChen gently dropped it down towards Song Lan, who caught it in hands without a problem. And it was while Song Lan was momentarily distracted that he failed to notice his friend had lost his balance on the branch and fell heavily onto the ground by his feet.
Xiao XingChen laughed off his fall even as he rubbed the back of his head, and refused to have himself checked at the hospital. It was only when he felt his vision started to get blurry frequently that he went to have himself checked. The truth the doctor told him devastated him; the fall he had had impacted his nerves and there was no cure. Xiao XingChen could only stare out of his grey eyes as his colourful world slowly dimmed darker until he could see nothing else.
Song Lan tried to keep to his word; even if Xiao XingChen did not graduate as a veterinarian and dropped out of university, he could still offer him a job as a receptionist at the clinic. But Xiao XingChen politely rejected his kind offer and found himself a job at an animal shelter. Most of the time, he would leave the paperwork to his other colleagues and tend to the animals’ needs. If any of them required a veterinarian’s attention, he would call for Song Lan’s help.
His love for animals remains the same even though the cause of his blindness was due to his own blind love for them. Xiao XingChen was happiest whenever a person walked into the shelter, and left with one of their shelter’s animals in their arms. It was equally devastating whenever an animal died under Xiao XingChen and Song Lan’s care. And it was on such a day that a young man popped into the shelter, and became stunned by the sight of a blind man crying his eyes out and blowing his nose next to a mountain of snot-filled tissue.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Xiao XingChen stood up and put on his best fake smile, “How can I help you?”
Ignoring him, the person asked instead, “What happened?”
Xiao XingChen could feel his tears well up again as he answered, “A litter of puppies… didn’t make it.”
“…oh,” he responded flatly.
“What can I do for you?” Xiao XingChen asked again.
“I…” the young man stopped, “I’m here to volunteer.”
“Oh!” Xiao XingChen beamed. He turned towards the cabinet and reached for a stack of forms. Pulling out a sheet and retrieving a pen with his other hand, he placed the volunteer form on the counter for the young man to fill, “We haven’t found anyone else willing to work full-time and volunteers like you will be of so much help!”
“You’re the only one working?” he asked as he filled in the form.
“Not exactly,” Xiao XingChen answered, “A part-timer does the paperwork and keying in data into the computer. It is a simple job and required little time to do, so she comes in every weekend. Many volunteers come and go, so the shelter has been surviving well.”
“Here,” the young man returned the form by bumping its edge into the blind receptionist’s hand.
Xiao XingChen held the form in his hand and then asked apologetically, “I’m sorry. May I know your name?”
“Xue Yang,” he answered, “And you’re Xiao XingChen.”
He absent-mindedly touched his nametag, and nodded, “That’s me.”
“So, when can I start?” Xue Yang asked, “I am free right now.”
“I’m afraid we’re closing soon,” Xiao XingChen said apologetically, “But I could give you a tour of the shelter and brief you on the duties that you could help with. Is that alright?”
Xue Yang nodded, “Sure~”
Ever since that day, Xue Yang had been dropping by almost every day to help around in the shelter; be it bathing the strays, or cleaning their shit-filled kennels, or force-feeding medicine to the sick ones. In fact, Xue Yang seemed quite happy to get a few scratches and bites, because he could then hog Xiao XingChen’s attention all to himself while he treated his wounds. The first time Xue Yang got bitten, Xiao XingChen had dragged him to the clinic in the next block for a tetanus shot.
But it never quite occurred to Xiao XingChen that as the hours Xue Yang had volunteered gradually increased, the hours that the other volunteers put in seemed have dropped. By the time he noticed, Xue Yang’s presence in the shelter seemed all too natural and as long as work at the shelter got done, Xiao XingChen was more than content. He even convinced himself that the other volunteers had other commitments to tend to. More importantly, he enjoyed Xue Yang’s company and often got distracted whenever the younger boy was around, and he found himself laughing to his stupid jokes and funny antics.
One evening, Song Lan came by the shelter to check on his friend who had not called him in a long while. The second he stepped out of his car, he could hear laughter coming from the reception area. Curious, he stood outside the window and peered inside. Almost immediately, the young stranger stopped talking to Xiao XingChen and glared back at him.
“A-Yang, what is it?” Xiao XingChen asked.
Xue Yang’s face did not match his sweet voice when he answered, “Someone’s here. A potential adopter, maybe?”
Just then, Song Lan entered through the door and called out, “XingChen.”
“Song Lan!” Xiao XingChen beamed at the door and stood up to greet him, “What brings you here?”
“You haven’t called in a while,” he answered, “I thought I’d drop by to check on the animals.”
Xue Yang interrupted, “So this is that vet-friend you’ve been talking about?”
“Yes! This is Song Lan,” Xiao XingChen held onto Song Lan’s arm, and said to the taller man, “And that is Xue Yang. He’s a volunteer at the shelter, and has been a great help lately!”
Xue Yang’s smile made Song Lan felt very uneasy. He knew he did not want this stranger anywhere near his friend. He said, “It’s almost time to close up. I can help XingChen with it. You should go home now.”
Xue Yang would have exploded if Xiao XingChen had not gasped, “Oh! It’s that late already? A-Yang, I’m so sorry to keep you!”
Smiling, Xue Yang replied, “It’s fine, XingChen-gege. I can stay and help.”
Xiao XingChen seemed hesitant for a while, then he made a decision, “Song Lan is here to examine the strays, so I’m afraid we’ll be closing later than usual today. Besides, didn’t you mention you to go to work earlier tomorrow? It’s best to go home early and rest up.”
Not wanting to argue with Xiao XingChen, Xue Yang begrudgingly left. His silent anger was lost on the blind Xiao XingChen but Song Lan knew he had made a new enemy. His discomfort grew as soon as he entered the kennel area. It was much cleaner than he remembered, and much too quiet.
He had walked past a few empty kennels before he turned back to ask, “Where are all the animals?”
“A lot of them got adopted thanks to A-Yang’s friends. The rest are in their kennels,” Xiao XingChen answered, “They must be asleep. A-Yang gave them a bath earlier so they must have been tired from fighting him off.” He laughed.
“Hm,” Song Lan walked in and true enough, most of the strays were asleep… or more accurately, they were all sedated. He could not examine them properly although the cats and dogs at the shelter seemed well-fed and healthy at a glance. Song Lan kept his silence for now, and offered Xiao XingChen a lift.
As soon as Xiao XingChen got into the car, Song Lan noticed a fancy hotel’s paper bag in his hand. Inside was a semi-transparent box containing a small and semi-sphere snow white cake with gold flakes on the top. Song Lan commented, “I never knew you like cakes.”
Xiao XingChen answered, “A-Yang gave this to me. He works as a pastry chef, even smells as sweet as one! The hotel he worked at asked him to come up with a design for Mid-Autumn Festival. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Hm,” Song Lan responded and turned his attention to driving. He decided not to tell Xiao XingChen about the young man he seemed so fond of until he could find out more information about him. He now had the motivation to attend the marriage interview at the same hotel where this young rascal apparently worked at.
In a twist of events, Song Lan’s potential fiancée ordered the same cake that Xue Yang had given Xiao XingChen; it was named as “Bright Moon”. Throughout the entire interview, Song Lan had a scowl on his face whenever he recalled how the petite lady in front of him enjoyed the white cake. Excusing himself, Song Lan walked towards the gents’ room and locked himself inside the last stall.
Soon afterwards, he heard two men came into the gents’ room. He never liked to eavesdrop and would usually leave as soon as possible but this time, he stood away from the door and listened.
“A-Yang, I’m glad I didn’t have to fire you this time,” a voice said, “Bright Moon is selling much better than we expected. We might commission you to design more cakes for the hotel soon.”
“Heh,” Xue Yang scoffed, “Aren’t you just glad your daddy dearest praised you?”
“He was being polite,” said the other voice, “But I didn’t think you’d take my advice to adopt a pet so seriously.”
“It was a great idea,” Xue Yang replied, “I got inspired.”
He asked, “What sort of animal is it? A white and fluffy kitten with golden eyes?”
“Blind eyes, to be exact,” Xue Yang answered.
“Wait,” the other man paused, “There was a blind employee at the shelter I told you to go to… you can’t be serious!?”
“He’s my new pet,” Xue Yang nodded and then sighed, “If only I can bring him home and keep him locked up in my room.”
“A-Yang!” the man wanted to reprimand the young pastry chef.
“I know, I know! That’s why I’m working on turning the shelter empty so I’ll have less work and more time with him!” Xue Yang brushed him off, then added, “Good thing I’ve been getting rid of those sick and filthy strays. XingChen-gege even has this annoying animal doctor friend who comes by to check on the sick ones whenever XingChen-gege calls him. I’ve made sure XingChen-gege didn’t have to call him but that pest came by yesterday and told me to go home! THE NERVE!! I should get rid of him soon!”
“Oh! I promised another cake for XingChen-gege tonight,” Xue Yang remembered, “I’ll be taking one off the tray! Maybe I should invite him to my home after all?”
The other man sighed, “A-Yang… just… bake us the cakes…”
Song Lan emerged from the stall as soon as the two men exited the gents’ room. His pale face was reflected on the mirror and he quickly left the hotel, discarding whatever reputation his own family tried to cement in front of his potential fiancée and her family. He needed to tell Xiao XingChen everything he knew; he needed to get Xiao XingChen away from Xue Yang.
He only never imagined Xiao XingChen would not believe him, “You must be mistaken!”
“I heard it myself!” Song Lan shouted at him.
“A-Yang has been nothing but kind to me!” Xiao XingChen said, “He treats the strays kindly! He even found them new homes and would sometimes sent them to their new homes! Ever since he came, none of the strays had died!”
“How are you sure they weren’t dead?!” Song Lan argued back, “Did you check?! Or did you take his words as the truth?”
“I could still hear them when they left with A-Yang!” Xiao XingChen stammered, “They were alive! They ARE alive!”
“How sure are you?” Song Lan asked again, “Shall we call up the adopters right now and ask?”
Xiao XingChen fumbled through the file cabinet and pulled up a folder and passed it to Song Lan. He said, “These are the adoption forms. The contact information are all in there!”
Song Lan took the folder and flipped to the latest form. He took up his phone and dialled the number then set his phone on speaker mode; the number was unavailable. The second number he dialled was answered by a woman who confirmed that she had not adopted a puppy from the shelter. The third number could not be reached. The fourth number hung up on them the second they spoke. The fifth and the sixth numbers were unavailable as well.
“Do you believe me now?” Song Lan asked him.
Xiao XingChen shook his head, “There must be a reason…”
“Don’t be so naïve! That boy is dangerous!” Song Lan grabbed his friend by the shoulders.
“You’re wrong!” Xiao XingChen shouted, “He’s a good person!”
“XingChen!” Song Lan shouted back, “Trust him if you want! But don’t come crying to me when things turn for the worst!”
Xue Yang only heard half of what was happening. He had left work early to spend time with his beloved pet, but as soon as he got close to the shelter, he could hear arguments from the reception area. He hid under the side window and heard the pest dialled number after fake number that he had filled into the adoption forms. Xue Yang’s heart raced when he thought about the possibility of Xiao XingChen trusting his old friend instead. He clutched onto the paper bag in his hand in fear but he later smiled when he realized that the pest had removed himself from Xiao XingChen’s life without him lifting a finger.
He waited until Song Lan’s car had gone far away before he got up and entered the reception area, where Xiao XingChen sat alone, with his blind eyes red from crying. He thought to himself, “Ah, the first time I saw him, he was crying too…”
Xiao XingChen knew him by the sound of his footstep, but the young man was silent today. His voice trembled when he called out to him, “A-Yang? Is that you?”
“XingChen-gege,” Xue Yang feigned concern and walked closer, “Are you alright? What happened? Did a stray die?”
“Oh, nothing of the such,” Xiao XingChen answered, “…I just…”
“That’s good! And I brought you a cake, as promised!” Xue Yang quickly responded and began to unpack the cake box. He placed it in front of Xiao XingChen and then shoved a plastic fork into his hand. He went on excitedly, “This is my latest masterpiece! It’s a square cake with layers of blue cream with white blobs of cream scattered on top of it, imitating waves on the ocean, finished with a sprinkle of edible glitter!”
Xiao XingChen wanted to ask him about the adopted animals, “A-Yang, about those…”
Xue Yang playfully tugged onto his arm, “Quick! Taste it and let me know what you think!”
He thought his question could wait for a while longer. His fork found the cake and he managed to cut a small piece to taste. He commented, “…it’s salty?”
“I made the blue cream out of sea salt! Amazing, aren’t I?” Xue Yang giggled, “Take another bite! Tell me what else you think!”
Xue Yang continued to urge Xiao XingChen to take bite after bite of the petite cake, and grinned happily when he had finished it all. He asked, “XingChen-gege! I haven’t given this cake a name yet, will you give it name for me, pretty please?”
Xiao XingChen seemed to struggle to think, as if his mind was hazy. He mumbled, “You said… it’s blue… and sea-salt………. blue… ocean…………………………..”
The blind man slumped unconscious into Xue Yang’s arms. The predator’s grin grew wide.
When Xiao XingChen woke up next, he was lying on the softest bed imaginable. He sat up and froze when he heard the sound of metal chains by his ear. His hands fumbled around the bed and found the metal chain lying beside him, and he quickly realize that one end of the chain was attached to a collar around his neck; the other end was connected to the wall above the bed. His breath quickened and he screamed.
“This is your new home now, my Xiao XingXing,” said a voice.