Chapter 1: A meeting long overdue
To "see you again" is a terrifying phrase. It implies reunion, whilst also signifying farewell.
When Xu Tingsheng saw Xiang Ning again, he was already 31 years old. On that fateful day, he was sitting in the small shop he had opened by a side street. The store had been open for over a year, and was the sustenance of his aimless, meandering life, during which successive entrepreneurial failures had drained away all the spirit of his soul.
Having surrendered to the winds of fate, Xu Tingsheng no longer had his heart set on business ventures, instead spending most of his time fixated on the computer screen.
"Boss, how much is this?"
Perhaps due to having been numbed for so long, Xu Tingsheng had actually already fallen to the extent of having forgotten this voice, despite how much he had once loved the owner of the voice.
Even still, he remembered this headband. The design was a little out of date, but his shop still had many of them, as that person had always liked to wear headbands, which revealed her reportedly priceless "Emperor Fu Hsi" forehead. And this, was her most loved design.
Usually, Xu Tingsheng did not like establishing eye contact with his customers, as if in fear of others seeing through his inner struggles. However, he would always raise his head to look at girls who bought this brand of headband, not because he yearned for her appearance, but just…fine, he yearned to, in what was just limited to a simple yearning, just once more- to have just one more glance at her.
In that moment in which Xu Tingsheng raised his head, he saw that familiar face, that same familiar smile, any change in her appearance tiny, very tiny-or perhaps there had been absolutely no change in it at all.
The ancients have long conveyed many emotions well, for instance 'a sudden regretful twinge of the heart'. Sorrow and grief rise in the chest; the tears well up, unable to fall in the moment.
"What brings you back here?" Xu Tingsheng enquired.
This was the city of her university, also the city where they had once met and fallen in love.
"I'm here to attend a course," Xiang Ning said.
"Where do you teach now? I did find out that you were admitted, third for the written examination, third for the interview, with the physical examination passed as well. However, I wasn't able to find out which primary school you are at now," Xu Tingsheng said.
"Wenyan Primary," Xiang Ning answered whilst paying for her items.
This pace of events left Xu Tingsheng feeling very helpless. He attempted to return a little more change, but Xiang Ning politely handed it back, leaving Xu Tingsheng even more pressured and helpless.
Xiang Ning walked towards the door.
"Have you gotten married?" Xu Tingsheng couldn't stop himself from asking.
Xiang Ning looked back, smiling as she gently shook her head.
"Can, can you stand here for a while?" Xu Tingsheng stood up, raised his hand and then put it back down, unable to find an appropriate place for it.
"No. I just wanted…to see you again, and, tell you I always believed that you would come and find me," Xiang Ning swung away, and before Xu Tingsheng could catch her expression, she was already unfurling her umbrella, vanishing off into the rainy night.
Xu Tingsheng blanked out for a minute before fishing out his handphone to call Huang Yaming and Fu Cheng.
He said through his phone, "She just appeared, a minute ago, in my shop."
Both of them understood at once. Having been best friends for more than ten years, they were aware of Xu Tingsheng's situation, including his feelings.
"Hurry up and go chase her already," they said one after another.
"Should I?" Xu Tingsheng replied.
"Of course! Just having come back to see you proves that she still hasn't forgotten about you yet, isn't it?"
The same conversation played out twice.
Xu Tingsheng stood up, knocking down the stool behind the counter in his haste.
Those customers leisurely browsing through his shop turned to look at him.
"Boss, you're not going to look after your shop?" a customer asked in jest.
This remark reminded Xu Tingsheng about his current life and his current circumstances as a voice seemed to reverberate within his mind, "Even if you manage to catch up with her, what next? … What would you say to her? On what basis would you be able to get her to stay? … Get her to stay, and then become a burden for her?"
"So what if you find her?"
"So what if you find her?"
"So what if you find her?"
Xu Tingsheng sat down, looking as though the last dregs of his energy had finally been drained from his soul.
Xu Tingsheng had been born in the outskirts of a small district into a rural family. When he was 19 years old, he lost his father to an accident. From then on, his household had struggled constantly, placed under difficult circumstances.
Xu Tingsheng had later gained admission into a teacher's training institute, and upon graduation had become a history teacher at a senior high school in Jiannan City.
He stayed in this position for 4 years.
During this period of time, his younger sister graduated from university, easily gaining employment at the city municipal office, his mother remained healthy, her mood jovial and he repaid the debt owed by the family from a few years prior, though he had still been unable to afford the downpayment for a new flat.
In 2011, when Xu Tingsheng was 27 years old, his pals from university invited him to invest in a joint venture, setting up a small construction materials company. With a desire to completely turn around his fate, Xu Tingsheng had spared no effort in the endeavour, resigning from his previous job to take a leap into the great unknown.
On the third day after he resigned, he and his fated one – Xiang Ning, who had then been in her third year at Jiannan University, crossed paths.
One year later.
The company ran into trouble, one of the three business partners running away with the funds. Xu Tingsheng's business had failed, saddling him with a debt running into the millions.
Not long after, Xiang Ning had graduated from university, successfully making it through the required tests and becoming a language teacher at a primary school. Yet, she had found herself unable to locate Xu Tingsheng afterwards.
Just like that, Xu Tingsheng had suddenly vanished from Xiang Ning's life.
At that time, Xu Tingsheng had still held onto hope, dreaming about the day that he finally made it big, whereupon he would immediately go back for Xiang Ning. This matter weighed down on his mind every single day, he who remained ever in anticipation.
Yet afterwards, his business ventures had failed twice more.
In the year 2015, the next time Xu Tingsheng saw Xiang Ning, he was already 31 years old. The him at this point was still standing, but barely; just like people in their declining years – a dead, lifeless shell, pathetic beyond compare.
That evening, Xu Tingsheng shut up shop early and wandered the streets aimlessly.
This city had too many places which held memories of their time together; their silhouettes, sweetness, laughter, fortune, and sorrows. It was as if Xu Tingsheng could see their past selves, a familiar yet alien image. There they were, standing in the distance, holding hands, waving happily towards him.
There was a street junction at which Xiang Ning had once sat and cried.
Back then, when Xu Tingsheng had brought up the matter of breaking up, Xiang Ning had sat at this spot and cried. She had cried as she walked, and Xu Tingsheng had not chased after her. That night, Xiang Ning had called Xu Tingsheng and told him that she had lost her wallet while crying and walking home. She wanted Xu Tingsheng to accompany her in looking for it, only breaking up after it had been found.
Xu Tingsheng knew, of course, that it was all a lie. But when a proud girl, having once been pursued and pampered by many suitors, was willing to shamelessly and blatantly lie like that just for you, just what more was required for one to feel satisfied? Just what kind of heart wouldn't soften?
That day, they had searched for a long, long time, both pretending to be very earnest and meticulous in the search, till finally their gazes met and they couldn't help but chortle out loud.
Here now was another street junction where Xu Tingsheng had once sat and cried.
"Uncle" Xu Tingsheng did not like taking selfies. The first few times when Xiang Ning had wanted to take selfies with him, he had refused to do so. Thereafter, she had not persisted on the matter. Once, when Xiang Ning had gone to the washroom, with Xu Tingsheng responsible for carrying her bag, he had casually browsed through Xiang Ning's phone.
He had discovered that there was a folder entitled 'Sweet' in Xiang Ning's phone, and that this folder was filled with photographs of the both of them together, only that in those photos, Xu Tingsheng was either sleeping, looking off in another direction, or doing something else. Only Xiang Ning was looking at the camera in the pictures, leaning her face close, smiling like a flower…she had stealthily taken all these photos, stealthily…taken photos together with her boyfriend.
Back then, Xu Tingsheng had cried very terribly. When Xiang Ning had returned from the washroom, she had jumped in shock. Then, Xu Tingsheng, his face smeared with tears and mucus, had held onto Xiang Ning and insisted on taking photos together with her, making for an unpleasant and messy yet comical sight.
Xu Tingsheng walked towards that couple in the distance.
An Audi sped towards him.
Caught in its bright, dazzling headlights, he forgot to evade it.
The piercing, screeching noise of friction resounded as hasty deceleration fought against tarmac, the beautiful lady in the front passenger seat screaming in panic.
Xu Tingsheng felt himself fly into the air, the sensation of weightlessness momentarily overtaking him.
There was also the sensation of pain, but it persisted only for a fleeting moment.
After that, was infinite darkness.