LIN HAO watched the raindrops shimmer when the candleflame appeared over his head and again when the headlights of a car splashed by. Overhead, the cackles of thunder and rumbles of the storm failed to hide the heavy breaths and emotions from behind him.
He raised his head and arm and nudged the figure back.
"Xiaoxue, go inside. You'll catch a cold," he said.
She stumbled. The candleflame fluttered and almost extinguished itself. "Brother … don't go. It's raining so hard tonight."
Xiaoxue set the candle at the edge of the doorsteps and sat beside him. She followed his gaze to the streets. There sat a pair of sneakers with holes and loose laces, covered with mud and grime.
They watched the filthy gray color slowly reveal itself under the battering of the rain. Seconds later, another vehicle splashed by. The waves pushed the sneakers all the way towards the curb.
The moment they collided, Xiaoxue dove into his arms. Tears streamed down her face. "Brother, why can't you let me clean?"
The gloominess in Lin Hao's eyes seemed to darken. He adjusted himself before wrapping his arms around her. "To save water. I told you. That's for you to drink. Don't waste it."
One of his hands traced around her arms until they met with her palms. Lin Hao sat up the girl and massaged around her fingers. "Your hands are for studying. Study hard for a degree and then you can help Brother out."
The gentleness seemed to calm the girl down.
"I did all my homework already," she said.
Lin Hao put a hand atop her head and rummaged through her hair. "Then go to bed early, silly. Look through my textbooks if you're really bored."
Xiaoxue glanced inside their slum-like house. "What about you?"
"Work." The word was forced out of his lips.
Lin Hao's voice lingered in the rain for seconds before Xiaoxue erupted.
"No. You can't leave! You musn't!" she shouted, her eyes scowling with worry and fright. She gripped down hard on his right shoulder. Lin Hao could feel her nails pierce through his skin.
Lin Hao couldn't even feel the stinging in his shoulder. It was the pain in her voice that shocked him, and fact of the first tantrum she'd thrown in a long while.
"Sleep with me tonight, brother. Please. It's scary. The thunder is scary without you," Xiaoxue murmured, crying, wailing in between.
Lin Hao could not refuse. His heart was torn with grief seeing her break down but …
"I'll be fired," he said aloud, unknowingly.
Xiaoxue's crying was almost hysterical. His hand on her back visibly shook up and down.
"But … okay. I'll stay with you all night."
She raised her head out of his chest, blinking back the tears. She even gave a heavy sniffle, as if to threaten himself with the tears again. "P-promise? No lies. You can't leave in the middle of the night like you used to!"
Lin Hao's voice turned raspy at the accusation, but his eyes were firm. He wriggled his pinky around her own. "Pinky promise."
"Should I cover the windows?" Lin Hao asked, standing with a dusty towel.
Xiaoxue shook her head. "I want to see the stars tonight."
Lin Hao paused at her words. He remained silent and sat next to her. "There's no stars tonight … so why?"
"Some nights… I'm scared about you, Brother. About the future. Sometimes it feels even the stars can't help us."
Lin Hao froze. It was he who had told her that one day the stars would grant their wish and turn their lives around when she was young. "I've been thinking about what would happen if we meet mom or dad again—"
The atmosphere dropped a few degrees colder.
"—no, Xiaoxue. Don't mention them." Lin Hao cut her off. His eyes were as emotionless as his voice. "They abandoned us. They are not our parents. We are not their children."
Lin Hao noticed that she had shivered under the bedsheet. He inhaled a deep breath.
"Make another wish," he ordered.
"I hope that Brother and I will be happy forever," Xiaoxue whispered.
She glanced at him, at the stars, then curled her eyes into a smile as crawled beside her. The wooden bed was small, short and frail. He had to be careful about moving for he worried that his weight would tear the tablecloth that served as the mattress. His could even dangle over the end of it and still reach the floor. It was cramped and uncomfortable but Xiaoxue seemed to enjoy it. She draped part of the thin, ragged blanket over him and snuggled closer.
Lin Hao cracked a thin smile. "Same wish as you. Now, go sleep. Tomorrow will be a better day."
Throughout the night, insomnia plagued Lin Hao. Anxiety ran rampant on his mind, riddling him with great trepidation. Thoughts on Xiaoxue's emotional outburst earlier that evening and the finances for this week and the rent for this month and the new part-time job he needed to find and graduation and more all clashed with one another into a dreary cesspool.
These dark and heavy emotions were nothing new to him, but they had never come together and mingle so grimly before. This concoction, for the first time, gave rise to a dangerous thought.
"Xiaoxue, what do I do? Sometimes I lose hope," Lin Hao croaked out, hoarse with weariness.
Blood trickled out of his palm, where he had dug his fingernails deep into. Four years had passed since he and Xiaoxue was abandoned. Four years too early.
Two more years. Just hang on for two more years. Once you're eighteen and legal, everything will become easier. Jobs. Bills. ID.
Xiaoxue curled closer to himself as if responding to his worries. The rhythm of her breathing and her warmth took them away for a minute, but the gnawing feeling in his chest quickly returned.
"The winter months again. I hope the nights won't get too much colder," Lin Hao muttered. "Have to buy new sweater and new coats this year. Xiaoxue has grown again."
Another breeze blew by. Lin Hao was as careful as he could be in removing himself from her embrace and in wrapping the blanket around her. From a distance, he could see her sleeping face glimmer from the moonlight. His heart could not help but soften.
"She can't fall sick again this year."
The door shut with a gentle CLAK. Lin Hao stepped out.
Though the rain too had softened into a gentle shower, the storm clouds still lingered in the sky. Lin Hao stood silently at the steps and gazed at the sky. The pitter-patter of the rain flickered past the streetlights and ripples continued to ebb in the puddles.
There was rumble in the distance. Lin Hao did not notice. He raised a hand into a rain, letting the wetness trickle down his arm. "I won't sit and wallow in self-pity or envy." Lin Hao inhaled a deep breath, shut his eyes, and continued. "If there is a God, please, just help me get through today."
Tension built up in the air with the rumbling. The hair on his skin tingled and his muscles felt numb. Only now did Lin Hao feel that something was wrong. When he wanted to open his eyes, there was a bright white flash, then a loud and sharp crackle. BOOM!
Lin Hao felt something that burned course around his entire body. He tried to move, but he couldn't. The flash of light had blinded his eyes and he couldn't open them either.
Paralysis? I've been struck by lighting?
The burning current around his body suddenly jerked and changed it's course. From the edges of his limbs, the sensation seemed to flow up through his veins and into his brain, compounding as it went along. Lin Hao felt the burning quickly turn to excruciating torment, and passed out at once.
Lin Hao woke up in such a bewilderment he thought he was reincarnated. His forehead still throbbed and his eyes were still numb from the blindness. These sensations quickly snapped him back into reality and forced a recollection on what had just happened to him. The rumble. The flash of light. The thunder. Then pain.
Lin Hao swept his gaze into the sky. Both the rain and sky had completely cleared with no remnants of the storm left behind but the wetness on the streets.
"What was that? Something in my brain?" he asked dumbfoundedly. "An act of God?"
There was a loud and resounding DING! In his mind. Lin Hao glanced around. There was nothing abnormal with his surroundings, and the streets were empty. Then, from the corner of his eyes, he saw a faint line of text slowly appear.
< System Activated >
The text around the blue panel hovered like a hologram in front of himself.
Lin Hao held his eyes shut and opened them after a minute or so. He blinked again. The panel was still there.
"Forget about it, whatever happened tonight. Wake up tomorrow to edit the resume again. That's all I can do." He turned around resolutely and made his way back next to Xiaoxue.
Much to his relief, she was still sleeping soundly, snoring, drooling. Though she clasped the blanket tightly, she didn't seem to notice that he had disappeared for however long he left for. Once more, he carefully wriggled his way into a some-what comfortable position.
As Lin Hao gazed onto the wooden roof-boards of the house, the panel was there, shining brightly in it's blue pixels. He was beginning to get annoyed. This thing was not a dream or a hallucination. Was it not possible to get some shut-eye tonight?
"Go away. Clear," he said, closing his eyes again.
Much to Lin Hao's surprise, clear seemed to be the magic word. The panel really disappeared.
"Open. Appear. Panel?" he tested.
Sure enough, the familiar blue pixels dotted over much of his vision.
"Interesting gimmick," Lin Hao said to himself. "What does it do?"
< I will serve you and help you grow >
< Complete the tasks and be rewarded to fulfill your dreams and wishes >
"You need to use punctuation."
A line of ellipsis appeared under the previous text.
< … >
< Very well, Host. >
Lin Hao's eyes twinkled with some interest. He was not so sleepy and despondent anymore. "It can process my words. Some kind of futuristic artificial intelligence?"
< Correct. >
He pointed to Xiaoxue beside himself. "Her name? Age?"
< Lin Zhixue, 14 years old. >
Lin Hao drew in an uncharacteristic deep breath. "Will you be able to help me give her a better life?"
< Mission Released >
< Financial Stability >
< Money makes the world go round. To live a good life, one must satisfy needs like food and shelter before other aspirations, all of which cannot be done without money. >
< 1. Secure an investment in a business. Progress: (0/1) >
< 2. Earn $1,000 yuan from the investment. Progress: (0/1,000) >