"Are you alright?" Chen Ge twisted open a bottle of water for Du Ming. "How about some water?"
Du Ming collapsed onto the table, buried his face into his textbook, and held his stomach with both hands. "I did not mean to do it. I did not expect it to turn into something like this."
"What exactly did you do?" Chen Ge did not get mad. If anything, the gaze that he had for Du Ming was filled with more pity than anything else. Du Ming did not respond. He merely shook his head lightly. His mental condition was stretched to its limit, in a way, rather similar to Chen Ge's condition.
After the fourth class, when there was no one around, Chen Ge sneaked his way up to the rooftop of the education block. Zhang Ya was standing by the edge of the roof. He walked to stand beside her silently, the two of them watching Li Wan City expand below them. The education block was one of the taller buildings in the city, and this very moment could not help but remind Chen Ge of the incident that happened in the Li Wan City behind Xiao Bu's door. At that time, Zhang Ya had accepted his request and become part of his shadow.
The wind carried the chilling raindrops that landed on their faces. Zhang Ya's hair was blown aside by the wind behind her. Suddenly, she said, "I might be leaving after some time."
"Is it because of me?" Chen Ge had predicted this outcome. He had spent the whole morning rehearsing this scenario in his mind, but when Zhang Ya laid it out in the open for him, the statements that he had practiced were lodged in his throat.
"It has nothing to do with you." Zhang Ya shook her head rather resignedly. "The reason is because of me. I always assume that I have walked away from the past, and I can begin a new life with a smile, but I was only lying to myself. Working hard, keeping myself busy, everything that I have done is merely a reason for me to escape. Actually, it has been so many years now, but I still feel like I am trapped inside that dim dance hall."
Standing next to Zhang Ya, Chen Ge gripped the rail tightly. He could empathize with her because he was the only person in this world who knew about Zhang Ya's actual past. Be it in the real world or this made-up world behind the door, Zhang Ya had chosen to share her secret only with him.
"If anyone is in the wrong, it is those who began and spread the rumors. Give me some time. I will get to the bottom of everything and show everyone the truth." Chen Ge had been wanting to do that. Even if this was just behind the door, even if everything that had happened was just derived from his own memory, he still had the urge to help Zhang Ya, to give this nightmare a brand new beginning.
"The truth does not matter. What really matters is you. I am afraid that what once happened to me will recur again with you." Zhang Ya cared about Chen Ge. When the whole town was swirling with the rumors about them, Chen Ge still sided with her and trusted her implicitly. She had not experienced that before. Even with the age gap between them, there was one thing that was undeniable-she did sense something that was different about the young man beside her.
"I can leave, and I can try to run from everything, but you can't." Zhang Ya stood before Chen Ge and leaned in close. "Your father is still recovering at the hospital, and you have a little sister to take care of. In the future, these responsibilities will fall on your shoulder. You mustn't let my issue affect your life."
"I already have a general idea of who started the rumors. We can..."
"Chen Ge." Zhang Ya raised her arm, and the slender finger pointed at the heavy and dark sky. "This separation does not mean that we will never see each other again."
Zhang Ya seemed to have already made her decision. If she forced herself to stay, she would continue to be spoken about behind her back. Actually, Chen Ge knew that it was not easy for Zhang Ya to make this decision. She must have taken a long time to consider it again and again. His hands that gripped the rail had turned white, and blood vessels shot out beneath Chen Ge's eyes. He took a deep breath to steady himself. "Sometimes, I feel that this world is a very awful place. It will always reach out toward the kindest person to torture them."
"The world itself is not good or evil, but do not lose faith in the good people in the world. Once there are more good than evil people in the world, the world itself will change into a better place." Zhang Ya reached out to help Chen Ge adjust his hair that was blown disheveled by the wind. Her cold finger stopped at Chen Ge's cheeks. "So, in the future, you have to try to become someone good. It is time for you to go back. You still need to prepare lunch for your family. Do not waste too much time on me."
Taking back her hand, Zhang Ya turned around to look at the school compound that had become her second home for these past few days. It was hard to tell what was going through her mind.
Standing behind Zhang Ya, Chen Ge looked at her back. He raised both of his hands before putting them down again. He left the rooftop and the school to head to the hospital. After buying food for his father, he bought another lunch box by the roadside and returned home to meet Luo Ruoyu. When he reached his own residential area, Chen Ge stopped at the door. Normally, when his footsteps echoed down the corridor, Luo Ruoyu would run over to open the door for him, but that day, the little girl did not show up.
"Nothing will have happened, right?" Chen Ge called Luo Ruoyu's name out loud. He believed that he could hear the sound of suppressed crying coming from inside the house. "Ruoyu?"
Pushing the door open, Chen Ge was hit in the face by a horrible smell of leaked gas. Ignoring the rules, he dashed into the room. The kitchen was filled with puddles of water, and shattered pieces of the glass thermos littered the ground. He ran into the kitchen and saw Luo Ruoyu curl up at the corner with her hands covering her ears. Before her was a broken thermos. Her shirt was wet, and her neck, arms, and fingers had been scalded. Tears hung on her face.
"Who told you to use the stove!" Chen Ge kicked the broken thermos away. He had never been this mad in his life before. Hearing the roar from Chen Ge, Luo Ruoyu cried even harder. Her red and scalded hands shielded her face, and the tears kept on falling. Switching off the stove, Chen Ge did not give it another thought as he carried Luo Ruoyu and ran outside as fast as he could.
Once he stepped out from the door, it was already the beginning of a new day, but Chen Ge was not in the mindset to care about that. He carried Luo Ruoyu, called a cab, and rushed to the hospital. Thankfully, only a small part of her body was burnt. The majority of it was centered around her arms. The doctor applied some ointment on Luo Ruoyu, but the girl was still like a doll whose soul had not returned. She appeared to have been severely traumatized by this incident.
"The condition is not as serious as it looks, but as her family member, you have to be careful. It is too dangerous for a mentally-challenged child to stay at home alone."
After the doctor left, only Chen Ge and Luo Ruoyu were left in the sickroom. When the ointment was still slathered on her skin, it would sting, but after a while, it would give off a chilling feeling. Luo Ruoyu placed both of her arms beside her body. She did not dare look at Chen Ge. She kept her head lowered and wept as softly as she could.
After standing for a while inside the sickroom, Chen Ge placed his backpack down and sat beside her on the bed. He pulled her in for a hug. "I am sorry. I should not have shouted at you."
The girl in his embrace was shaking. A dam seemed to break inside her. She leaned against Chen Ge's shoulder and started to wail.
"I know you just wanted to help. You did not want to be a burden to others. I know you have tried your best. I can see that now." Chen Ge tightened his embrace around Luo Ruoyu. "After all, we are each other's most important family."
In this world behind the door, Luo Ruoyu represented his family and also represented the once homeless haunted house workers as well as the lingering spirits that were trapped inside the deepest abyss of despair before they were offered a home by Chen Ge. So, no matter what happened, Chen Ge would also stand at the forefront, overcoming the training of the night, and was never stingy with his encouragement. Chen Ge did not ask for anything in return; he did all that merely because he had treated them as part of his family.
After she cried for a while, Luo Ruoyu became tired and fell asleep. Even so, her hand was still clutching the edge of Chen Ge's shirt. After tucking Luo Ruoyu into bed, Chen Ge left the room silently. The blood vessels in his eyes were getting more and more pronounced, and the comic in his backpack had started to change.
"The tragedy is slowly approaching. Since this is a dream weaved from my own memory, I shall shatter it myself."
Since he had returned home in the afternoon, it was already a new day. When Chen Ge arrived at school, they were already halfway through the first period. He went to his seat and noticed that Du Ming, who was never late, did not go to class that day. When the first period was almost over, the teacher even went over to Chen Ge to ask if he knew why Du Ming had skipped class that day.
Du Ming, who was a well-recognized studious person, skipping class was something that Chen Ge did not expect. The second period only began for ten minutes when a shrill woman's voice came from the corridor. "What else do you wish to do if not come to school? What else can you do? Go back to class immediately!"
The woman sounded like she was lecturing someone, but the voice of the person being lectured was not heard. This was a one-sided altercation. The voice slowly approached the classroom, then the door was pulled open. A woman appeared at the door. She was as angry as she could be. The expression on her face was scary. "Well, are you coming over here or not?"
She dragged the thing behind her rather harshly, and Du Ming was shoved into the classroom. The little fatty looked worse for wear. He kept his head lowered and did not dare to look at anyone.
"Well, get to your seat!" After saying that, the woman turned to the teacher who was conducting the class and bowed slightly. She added in a much softer tone, "The kid overslept, but he was afraid of being punished, so he did not dare come to school."
"It alright, Du Ming. Please just take your seat." The teacher seemed to be slightly afraid of the woman himself.
"So sorry for bringing so much trouble for you, sir." The woman's face changed as quickly as the actors from Chinese Opera. She plastered on a very fake smile and then left in a hurry. After she was gone, the students in the class started to churn the rumor mill again.
"That was Du Ming's mother? She is so strict. No wonder Du Ming's results are so good."
"I thought his mother would be as fat as he is."
"You know what, she looks rather familiar. I remember it now! Wasn't she the parent who led a group of other parents and made a scene in the teacher's lounge that other day?"
"I think you are right. She is so ferocious. Even Miss Si did not dare speak too loud in her presence."
"Actually, if you think about it, being under such a mother must be quite scary. The fact that Du Ming is so reticent and has such a nasty attitude probably has a lot to do with his family."
The words of the rumors travelled into Du Ming's ears. He lowered his head even further. He did not dare look at anyone. He was afraid that once he lifted his head, he would realize that everyone was staring at him.
"Don't mind what these people say. These people will only dare talk behind your back. If you stand before them and look them in the eyes, none of them will say a negative word about you."
Different from the whispering of the other students, Chen Ge voiced his opinion loudly, so loud that even the teacher could hear him clearly. Perhaps it was the effect of the statement or perhaps they were shocked by the fact that Chen Ge would come to Du Ming's defense-in any case, the classroom quieted down again.
The class resumed. Chen Ge did not ask Du Ming why he was late that day. After coming to his rescue that one time, the interaction between them stopped. Chen Ge stopped paying Du Ming any attention. If anything, it was the latter who kept sneaking glances at Chen Ge, like he had something to tell him but failed to gather the courage to say anything. The bell rang. The third period was English class. Like usual, Du Ming took out the English textbook, but Chen Ge was just leaning against the wall, spacing out.
Chen Ge was usually so excited when it was English period. This anomalous behavior from Chen Ge gave Du Ming a very bad feeling. The bell rang again. Five minutes passed, but the teacher still did not show up. Chen Ge seemed to have known this would happen. He turned his head to look out the window.
"Chen Ge..." After who knew how many days, Du Ming finally spoke to Chen Ge again. "Has anything happened to Miss Zhang? Normally, she arrives at class five minutes before the period officially begins."
"Zhang Ya has already been fired by the school." Chen Ge pulled his gaze back from the window and whipped his head around to stare at Du Ming. "She will not be coming to teach us anymore."
"Has been fired?" Du Ming jumped up from his seat. Everyone in the class was focusing on their studying. It was very quiet, so everyone heard Du Ming clearly.
"It was all my fault, but she was the one who was forced to keep apologizing. But in the end, her apology was not accepted." Chen Ge glared at Du Ming, challenging him to hold his gaze. "I tried to complain to her, asking her why this world would always pick on those who are kind. She told me the world itself is not purely good or evil. When there are more good people in the world, the world itself will be a kinder place, and it will learn to treat people kinder."
"Why didn't you tell me this sooner? Did you know this would happen already?" Du Ming's eyes were bulging, and his face was red.
"I found out yesterday." Chen Ge paused for a moment. "But what was the point of telling you?'
"She is leaving, and you are just going to sit here just like that? Didn't you like her? Shouldn't you have stepped forth and done something for her?" Du Ming was getting agitated. He grabbed Chen Ge by his collar. "Why didn't you stop her? You..."
Before Du Ming could finish, Chen Ge delivered a heavy left hook on his face. Before the boy could react, Chen Ge launched yet another powerful kick at his stomach, causing the boy to crumble to the ground. "Who is the class monitor? I need you to watch over the class and ensure that everyone pays attention to their homework."
Chen Ge grabbed his backpack with one hand and dragged Du Ming by his collar out of the classroom with the other.
"Do you know who that teacher is? Do you know what she represents to me? Do you know what she has experienced in the past?" Chen Ge's punches fell on Du Ming like rain. "You do not know anything."
Pushing open the iron door on the rooftop, Chen Ge flung Du Ming onto the ground. "She trapped herself willingly inside that blood red world filled with despair. She has not seen the light for so long already that perhaps she has even forgotten who she is anymore. And because of that, I wish desperately to leave a good memory for her. Even though I know very well this is just a dream, I tried my best to make this dream as beautiful as it possibly could be."
Chen Ge grabbed Du Ming by his shoulders and slammed him against the wall. "But you guys did not even deign to give me a chance to weave a dream for her."
"I have no idea what you are talking about. All I know is that you keep on saying you care about her, but you have not done anything for her! You do not love her at all! You are just lying to her, using her as a scapegoat so that she will volunteer to take on all the pain on your behalf!" Du Ming growled in a horrible grimace. He waved his arms and tried to hit Chen Ge.
"Is that what love is in your eyes?" Chen Ge did not retaliate. "Do you understand that love is conditioned. For a student at seventeen, no matter how enamored he is, no matter how much he wants to get close to her, you have to understand one thing, your adoration might become her burden. Love is a weight. It could be a pair of wings that allow a person to soar, and it could be a stone that pulls one down into the abyss of despair. If I were you, I would maintain a suitable distance until the day I could shoulder the responsibility for both myself and for her before I dared search for her again."
Du Ming's emotions were getting frayed. He had gotten completely out of control. It was as if the secret deep inside his heart was being peeled out into the open for everyone to see. "You are not me. You will never understand it."
He struggled to get loose, but this time, Chen Ge knocked at him heavily and dropped him to the ground.
When Du Ming slipped to the ground, his phone fell out. The screen broke, and through the shattered screen, one could see that background picture of the scene was a picture of Zhang Ya. The picture appeared like it was taken when Zhang Ya did not notice it. In the picture, Zhang Ya had a faded smile on her face, and it appeared that she was conversing with someone.
"You also like her?" Chen Ge looked at the broken phone screen and took out the hammer from his backpack.
"Do not use the term 'also'. You do not deserve it. When she was being pointed at and scolded by everyone, where were you? When she was tortured by the rumors, what did you do for her?" Du Ming wiped away the blood from his face and climbed up from the ground. "You have done nothing for her. If anything, because you are a student and she is a teacher, due to this distance that cannot be broached, you do not even have the courage to step forward to stay something to defend her!"
Du Ming shouted from the bottom of his soul, but it sounded like he was not scolding Chen Ge but the person that he once was.
"Perhaps from your perspective, the distance between a student and a teacher is far enough for you to feel despair, but have you considered this? There is a distance in this world that is the difference between living and dead." When Chen Ge saw Du Ming's phone, he understood everything. "You like your teacher, but you can use everything in your power to try to close the distance. Take three years or five years to work on yourself until you are capable of taking that step to go and find her. But the distance between life and death, that might not be crossed even in a lifetime."
Picking up the phone from the ground, Chen Ge looked at Zhang Ya in the picture. "Love will never stop from the moment it flares up until death. It will only end when one party chooses to leave."