Cheng Cheng scowled. She could not believe it. Wen Qiang had stood her up again. It was particularly humiliating this time because she had asked him out.
'Well that’s it! She told herself angrily. No more second chances. Wen Qiang and I are through.'
Her throat choked with tears at the thought. She didn’t want to ever stop seeing Wen Qiang, even if their dates usually didn’t pan out.
'I don’t understand it. He’d risk everything to save my life but can’t get to a movie date. He’s so frustrating!'
Cheng Cheng was about to storm away when Ding Li approached her. “Miss Feng, is everything all right?”
Cheng Cheng shook her head. “No.”
Li scowled over his shoulder. “Are you people stupid to leave Miss Feng standing around like this?”
Cheng Cheng smiled a little. “Li... you’re always so nice to me. Why don’t we go have a drink together?”
Li looked for a moment like he’d really like to oblige but shook his head. “I would love to, Miss Feng but I’ve got to get back...” His voice trailed off as he started to leave.
“Back to what?” Cheng Cheng detained him with a hand on his arm.
Li seemed terribly uncomfortable. “Just home.”
Cheng Cheng shook her head. “You like your new lifestyle too much to ever just ‘go home’ right away. What’s going on?” Li said nothing. “Oh well.” Cheng Cheng shrugged. “I guess I’ll just go out on my own and have a few drinks sans an escort.”
Ding Li looked at her horrified. “Cheng Cheng! Wen Qiang is grieved enough already right now without that!” He clapped his hand over his mouth. “He told me not to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“Why he stood you up.”
Cheng Cheng looked at Li expectantly. “Why?”
Ding Li gave a resigned sigh. “Well you know that Wen Qiang never misses a Sunday volunteering at the orphanage...”
“Including this week when there was a reasonably bad outbreak of influenza.”
Cheng Cheng’s hand flew to her mouth. “Wen Qiang’s sick?” Li nodded. “Take me home right away.” She grabbed Li’s arm and pulled him along.
“Wait here a minute.” Cheng Cheng told Ding Li as he held open her door. “I’m just going to run to the kitchen and grab some of my homemade chicken broth.”
“Well that’s very nice of you, Miss Feng.” Cheng Cheng heard over her shoulder as she dashed for the door.
“I’m back!” Cheng Cheng opened the passenger door herself and popped inside. “Come on then. Let’s go.”
“Miss Feng, what are you doing?”
“I’m going with you to help take care of Wen Qiang of course.”
“Miss Feng, I don’t think...”
And then the sweet, soft-spoken and well- bred girl fixed Ding Li with a look that chilled his blood and made his hand leap for the ignition.
“He’s just through there.” Li told her. “I’ll uh... just get this broth hotted up in the kitchen.”
Cheng Cheng nodded. “Thanks, Li.”
She suppressed a little shiver of excitement upon entering Wen Qiang’s bedroom, taking in the simple, well-kept surroundings until her eyes fell upon the bed.
Wen Qiang’s handsome face was dead white, save a hectic flush at his upper cheeks and covered with a thin film of sweat. His usually well-kept black hair lay rumpled on the pillows and hung damply over his brow. He looked so tragically beautiful that Cheng Cheng felt a lump forming in her throat. He seemed to be sleeping until he abruptly sat up in a fit of coughing. It sounded dry and painful.
There was a glass and a pitcher on the bedside table. Cheng Cheng hurried over, poured a glass and eased it into the hands of the man who now gasped and choked for breath.
He drank some of the water. “Thanks, L...” He looked up. “Cheng Cheng?”
“Hi.” She smiled and waved.
“What are you doing here?” He absently handed her back the glass of water. She replaced it on the bedside table.
“What does it look like? I’m here to help Li take care of you.” She gave his flat and lumpy pillows a quick fluffing and turned them over to the fresh, cool side. “Lie down.”
He looked at her a little ruefully but did as she said. “I told Li not to say anything to you.”
“It’s not his fault. I tortured him dreadfully to get him to talk.” Cheng Cheng picked up a thermometer on the bedside table and popped it quickly under his tongue. She stroked his brow while waiting for the mercury to rise. “Poor Wen Qiang! You feel really hot.” Just then, the thermometer made a slight clicking sound. Cheng Cheng took it out and read. “103.” There was also a basin of cool water and a cloth on the bedside table. Cheng Cheng wet and wrung out the cloth, wiping his face and neck.
“It’s not... necessary.”
“You hush! It is too necessary. You’re sick, I’m going to help nurse you and that’s it.”
“I don’t want you to catch this.”
“Well if I do then you can just come over and bring me soup.” As if on cue, Ding Li walked in carrying a steaming bowl. “Speaking of which, do you think you could manage a little broth? I made it myself.”
Wen Qiang struggled to sit up a bit. Li handed Cheng Cheng the bowl and helped his brother into a more upright position. Cheng Cheng pressed the bowl into Wen Qiang’s hands, though kept her own at the base to steady it as he drank the broth.
“I know you told me not to tell Brother Qiang, but see what a kind and capable nurse I’ve brought you?”
“You are very kind, Cheng Cheng.” Wen Qiang said after finishing the broth. He lay back down and Cheng Cheng pressed a cold cloth against his brow. “But this isn’t right. You should go.”
“I’m not going anywhere. We had a date tonight and I mean to keep it. I’ll stay with you for as long as we would have been out together for the movie and a drink after. Then I’ll let Li take me home. How’s that?”
“I don’t see how you’d find it much of a fun date with me in such a sorry condition.”
“I find I don’t care what we do as long as we’re together.” Wen Qiang shivered in a sudden chill and Cheng Cheng wrapped a knitted throw blanket around his shoulders. “I am sorry you feel so bad. But I am less sorry that it’s allowing me to spend some real time with you.”
“I’ll just leave you two alone for the time being.” Li said and withdrew from the room.
Wen Qiang still shivered but now that Li was out of the room, Cheng Cheng felt at liberty to wrap an arm around his shoulders and kiss his cheek.
“You are so kind, Cheng Cheng. I don’t deserve it. What have I done for someone to care for me this much?”
Cheng Cheng hugged his scalding, shivering body, feeling that her heart might just break right then and there. She couldn’t speak for fear she’d start to cry.
“That’s not true, Wen Qiang.” She said once she’d gotten something of a hold on herself. “ If anyone in the entire world deserves to be cared for it’s you. You’re always there to help anyone who needs it, you’ve saved me countless times.”
“I’m not as good as you say, Cheng Cheng.”
Cheng Cheng kissed his hot forehead and guided him back against the pillows. “That’s enough foolish talk for now. Try and sleep.” She freshened the cloth and sponged his brow, softly singing his favorite carol they’d worked on with the orphans.
“Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Almost as if on cue, Wen Qiang’s breathing became steady and he dropped off to sleep.
“Miss Feng, can I drive you back now? It’s getting on to 11.”
Cheng Cheng got up reluctantly from where she had been watching Wen Qiang sleep. “I should get home, I suppose. Thank you, Li.”
“I’ll bring the car around.”
The next morning, Cheng Cheng hopped out of Xiang’s car, closing the door behind her. A servant gave her an umbrella as there was a chill downpour that day.
“Thank you, Uncle Xiang.” She smiled brightly and waved as he drove away.
She blinked in confusion at Wen Qiang’s driveway. There were three cars parked in and just outside of it. She recognized his own car and Li’s but there was a third; small and black.
Cheng Cheng shrugged and knocked on the door. Li answered and the grave expression on his face immediately alarmed her.
“What’s happened? What’s wrong?” She demanded as he helped her off with her coat and set the umbrella in the stand.
He let her in the house and absently poured them each some tea. “You’ll have to wait a few minutes to see Wen Qiang. The doctor’s with him.”
“Li, what happened?”
“Brother Qiang tried to get up and go to work this morning. I’m a sound sleeper so I didn’t know anything about it until I woke up myself at about 8. I looked out the window and found him leaning against his car in the pouring rain, no umbrella, no overcoat. He was delirious. I managed to convince him to get back inside, plunged him into a hot bath and called the doctor.”
Cheng Cheng set her tea cup down as she was worried about it falling from her suddenly nerveless fingers. “Wen Qiang,” She whispered and fumbled for her handkerchief.
Li looked suddenly panicked. “Oh, Cheng Cheng! Don’t cry. Dr. Chon is very good. Brother Qiang will be all right.”
“Well, I’ve done what I can,” replied a new voice as Dr. Chon stepped outside the bedroom. He was a smallish, gray haired man with a sympathetic aspect though his face was quite serious. “But I wouldn’t call it a sure thing that Mr. Xu will be all right. Mr. Ding did absolutely right to get him into a hot bath but the chill he took out in the rain’s driven his fever dangerously high. 104.5 at the last reading. I’d almost be recommending hospitalization were I not loath to take him outside even briefly and risk another chill.”
Cheng Cheng couldn’t take anymore. She leapt up from where she sat and ran into Wen Qiang’s bedroom.
He tossed and turned fretfully, groaning softly in a fitful sleep, the pallor and flush of his face both seemed intensified.
Cheng Cheng sat beside the bed and took up the cloth from the bowl on the bedside table and began to sponge his brow. It was alarming how quickly the cool cloth became warm and useless.
“Cheng Cheng?” He opened glassy, fever-bright eyes and looked at her.
“Shhh... it’s all right, Wen Qiang. I’m right here.”
“Good. I thought something had happened to you. You do trust me to keep you safe, don’t you?”
Cheng Cheng swallowed hard. “Always.”
Dr. Chon and Li came into the bedroom.
Li spoke. “Cheng Cheng, this must be too upsetting for you. Let me drive you home.”
“No!” Cheng Cheng said firmly. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Actually, I think if Missy can stand it she should stay. Overall it’s been my experience that patients do better if they can be kept calm. Her presence does seem to sooth him.”
“There!” Cheng Cheng said with a triumphant edge. “Just try and get rid of me when I’m part of the prescription.” Wen Qiang coughed. Cheng Cheng supported his head and carefully tipped some cool water down his throat.
“It’s not my intention to get rid of you, Cheng Cheng. I’m just concerned for your well-being.”
“Li, if I’m prevented from being by Wen Qiang’s side right now I may climb to the roof of my home in the pouring rain and shout obscenities while I decide whether or not to jump.” Cheng Cheng laughed a little at her over-the-top imagery. “If you’re concerned for my well-being then let me stay.” She freshened the cloth and pressed it to his forehead.
“Of course I’l be sending for a professional nurse as well.”
Cheng Cheng nodded. “Of course, doctor. Thank you.”
Li showed him out.
The nurse showed up just as Ding Li and Cheng Cheng finished a quick bite of lunch together. Cheng Cheng had been reluctant to leave Wen Qiang’s side but Li had convinced her otherwise.
“How can I account to your dad if you made yourself ill caring for Wen Qiang? Plus you’d have to be sent home.”
Cheng Cheng had seen the wisdom of this. Better a half-hour than the rest of the day.
As the maids cleared the table, another servant announced, “Nurse Song.”
A pleasant, middle-aged woman came into the room and smiled at Li and Cheng Cheng. Her uniform was quite pristine but she did not look overly starched and formal.
“Where’s the patient?” She asked briskly. “Obviously you’re both rather too healthy to be it.”
Cheng Cheng stood up. “I’ll show you.”
The older followed the younger woman into the bedroom and clicked her tongue gravely.
“Oh, the poor lamb!”
Cheng Cheng looked over at the bed and had to agree with the nurse’s characterization. It was just as well Wen Qiang slept, as he would certainly not have.
The nurse cast an expert eye over the chart the doctor had left her. “Right. I’ll just take his pulse.” She set her hand against his neck and smiled, writing something on the chart. “Holding steady. And his temperature.” She popped the thermometer under his tongue and waited. She took it out and read. “104. Down a little from last time.” The nurse spotted the basin on the bedside table and looked at Cheng Cheng.
The young woman nodded. “I’ve been making a lot of compresses.”
“Good. Looks like they’ve brought his fever down. Keep those up. Now, how much has he been able to eat and drink?”
Cheng Cheng slid out a slip of paper she’d been holding in her sleeve. “Yesterday he managed about half a bowl of Congee with rock sugar and sliced pear, some plain noodles, a glass of water and two small bowls of chicken broth. I was there myself for the chicken broth and asked Li about the rest. Today he’s had some more of the broth and some water.” The nurse looked at her a little impressed. “Dad had pnemonia the winter before I left for school. The doctor had me keep track of what he was able to eat. I figured it was likely you’d want to know about the same things.”
“Well today we’ll switch things up and try a little Congee in a few minutes from now.” She gave Cheng Cheng a considering look. “I must confess my dear, I was a bit wary when I learned a patient’s sweetheart would be present but in your case I believe I’ll have quite the little nurse’s aid.”
Cheng Cheng smiled at the nurse. “I’ll do my best.”
By the time one of Li’s maids had come in with a bowl of Congee, this time laced with tender chicken scraps, carrots and celery, Wen Qiang was awake enough to be fed the somewhat solid food. Cheng Cheng supported his head and carefully fed him.
The older woman had begun by standing beside the bed, waiting to take over if the young woman seemed to tire but that did not look like happening. She had retired to an easy chair and an improving book well within sight of the two in case she was needed.
“Hello madam.” Wen Qiang addressed Nurse Song between bites. “You are?”
“Wen Qiang, this is Nurse Song.”
He smiled wryly. “Am I so ill that I need a nurse?” But Cheng Cheng detected an edge of fear to his voice.
“Well,” She said carefully. “You did frighten us all quite a bit earlier when you tried to get to work.”
“Nothing to worry about, dear.” Nurse Song added. “I’m simply a precaution. I think Missy here’s already seen you through the worst of things.”
Wen Qiang raised his hand the way he’d been asked to once he felt he couldn’t eat anymore. Cheng Cheng set the bowl down and eased his head against the pillows before pressing another cool cloth to his brow. “Yes. She is far too good to me.”
“Just good enough, I hope.” Cheng Cheng smiled gently.
Nurse Song looked at the bowl on the bedside table and wrote something on her chart. “Excellent. I’d say you’re certainly mending, Mr. Xu.”
Smiling, Cheng Cheng hugged her dad as she came home that night.
“And how is our Wen Qiang?” He asked her with a slight chuckle in his voice.
“There was a set-back today but I think he’ll be fine. And I don’t feel so bad having to leave at night with Nurse Song there. She’s very kind and knows her business.”
“How much longer before I get my top water man back?”
Cheng Cheng frowned at him. “Don’t rush him, dad. He’s still very sick.”
“I wouldn’t dream of so incurring your displeasure. It’s late. Get on up to bed now. Shall I have your maid send you some tea and cookies?”
“Mr. Xu, you’re very resilient. I think you will be fine. But you’ve got to give yourself the time to recover properly.”
Cheng Cheng heard Dr. Chon speak these words as she entered the bedroom.
Nurse Song passed her, whispering. “Oh, he’s in a mood today. Go on in, Missy. I need a cup of tea.”
“How much longer is this going to take, doctor?”
“Well it would have been less without your early morning jaunt in the rain yesterday. Certainly you should stay in bed till the fever’s entirely gone. Ideally for about two days after that.”
Wen Qiang scowled.
“I’ve got my rounds to finish.” He picked up his bag and turned around. “Ah, Missy. I was just leaving.” As he passed her on the way out, the doctor said nothing but rolled his eyes with emphasis.
“Wen Qiang, have you not been a very patient patient?” Cheng Cheng asked with a smile as she perched on her chair.
He was not amused. “I’m not some child you know.”
“Oh really? You’ve not made this apparent with your chiding and fussing.”
“I... I’ve just been trying to take care of you.” She protested.
“I don’t believe I ever asked you to!” Wen Qiang snapped. “I’m tired of you bustling about like some mother hen. I don’t need it. I don’t need you!”
Cheng Cheng felt her eyes fill with tears. “I’ve only done my best! But if you don’t want me around, I won’t force my company on you any longer!” She ran from the room and flung herself onto a couch, giving herself over to a storm of crying. Fortunately she was alone. She didn’t want to see anyone.
After a few moments, Cheng Cheng heard a small meek voice.
She wiped her eyes, meaning to give Wen Qiang a cold, cutting stare but she looked away as she felt the icyness melting with a glance at him standing there barefoot, in dark blue pajamas, hair rumpled and the knitted throw blanket clutched clumsily about his shoulders.
“What?” She asked with a sharpness that already sounded unconvincing.
“I’m sorry for how I...spoke.”
Cheng Cheng bit back a cry as Wen Qiang stumbled and fell to the floor. She was at his side immediately, taking his arm to help him up.
Cheng Cheng helped Wen Qiang back into bed and was about to get up and tuck him in when he held her fast.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He said as tears began to run down his cheeks. Cheng Cheng hugged him and felt a few slip down hers as well. His head drooped against her shoulder. “I didn’t mean it. You’ve been an angel to me. I’ve never had anyone take such good care of me before in my life. It’s just... I feel so worthless stuck here in bed. It frustrates me and I’ve been taking it out on everyone today, Dr. Chon, Nurse Song and even you. Forgive me, Cheng Cheng?”
Cheng Cheng stroked and kissed his hair. “You’re forgiven. Provided you do what the doctor says from now on. Wen Qiang, your worth isn’t just based on how hard you work. You’re a good person and you deserve this rest and care as long as you need it.”
“Thank you, Cheng Cheng. Would it... would it strain propriety too much for us to just stay like this for a while?”
For an answer, Cheng Cheng grabbed the blankets and tucked them both into bed. They lay down together, arms intertwined and Wen Qiang’s fevered brow against the crook of her neck.
As she held him, Cheng Cheng was conscious of mixed feelings. She did feel truly dreadful that Wen Qiang was so sick and wished she could just somehow magically lift away all the pain he was in. Yet she also knew that she wouldn’t be holding him like this if he wasn’t sick and despite the inferno radiating from him, it felt like heaven.
Cheng Cheng woke up, unsure of why she should be asleep in the middle of the day. The front of her dress felt damp against her skin and she blushed to realize she’d fallen asleep wrapped around Wen Qiang.
“Wen Qiang!” She whispered excitedly and sat up, resting her hand against his forehead that felt cool and moist under her hand. His breathing was relaxed and steady.
“Nurse Song!” She called, leaping out of bed and running for the door. “Wen Qiang’s fever just broke!”
“Wonderful, Missy!” The woman replied. “I’ll draw a bath and you get the maids on some fresh bedding and pajamas for him!”
The two women set about their tasks.
Cheng Cheng arrived back in Wen Qiang’s bedroom with a trail of maids behind her carrying Nurse Song’s requirements just in time to see Li lift Wen Qiang carefully out of bed and follow Nurse Song to the bathroom. The maid with the spare pajamas followed them as well.
She dismissed the maids and set about stripping and making up the bed herself. She was too anxious and excited to do nothing.
“Well now, Mr. Xu,” the doctor made some final notes on his chart. “Apart from being a little tired for a day or so I’d say you’ll be fine. I strongly recommend that you stay in bed for the next two days.”
Wen Qiang smiled wryly. “Whether I agree with your recommendation or not doctor, my knees appear to.”
“And I certainly do.” Cheng Cheng said and squeezed Wen Qiang’s hand with a smile.
“Mr. Feng!” Nurse Song exclaimed and bowed. Everyone else turned around and Cheng Cheng saw her father approaching.
“How are you feeling, Wen Qiang?”
“Quite a lot better, Mr. Feng. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
“Oh, just checking up on a valued employ. Also I’m wondering if he might do a little job for me.”
“Dad!” Cheng Cheng cried indignantly. “How can you expect Wen Qiang to work so soon after being deathly ill?”
“It’s not hard labour that I have in mind, my darling.” He replied to his daughter and handed Wen Qiang a paper. “A particularly petulant journalist has written a surprisingly favorable article on my water project. I’d like you to meet with the man and find out why and see if he’d be willing to give me more good press.”
Wen Qiang glanced over the article. “I know the author. If he praises your water project that means he approves of it. Simple as that.”
Mr. Feng shook his head. “It’s never that simple in Shanghai. You can meet this evening.”
“Dad, no!” Cheng Cheng protested. “The doctor said he’s supposed to stay in bed for another day or so.”
Wen Qiang seemed to be thinking. He spoke after a few moments. “Since I do know the author and consider him a friend, there is no reason he could not visit me here. That would also excite less notice. Why should someone not visit a sick friend?”
“Well, I suppose it’s not so bad if you can stay in bed.” Cheng Cheng relented. “But not for more than two hours at the very, very most.”
“I think we have an accord.” Her father nodded and chuckled slightly. “Cheng Cheng’s very attentive indeed.”
Wen Qiang nodded. “She’s taken good care of me.”
“I still am.” She stood up. “Everyone, please leave. If Wen Qiang must complete a task tonight, he’s going to sleep till it’s time.”
Everyone else withdrew from the room.
Cheng Cheng turned back to Wen Qiang. “Would you like a song or a story to help you sleep?”
“Perhaps a story?”
Cheng Cheng got up and chose a book from the shelf beside the bed. She settled down back in her chair and began to read;
“Call me Ishmale...”
(from here the story will pick up and continue on as written)