"So, this is love..."
Chen Ge did not hold back. Du Ming was beaten into a pulp, and he had trouble standing up. He touched the wounds on his face and appeared like he had finally calmed down. The words that Chen Ge said were finally getting through his skull, and he was slowly digesting them.
"Your mother keeps a very close and watchful eye over you, but she did not seem to have tell you what love is, or rather, she has not taught you how to correctly love someone. Love is an ability, love is a responsibility, but love does not equal bliss. It is not only an adoration and admiration you have toward the person you have a crush on, but it includes your attitude toward your family, your friends, and the world at large. Those who understand what love is have kindness running through their veins and a warm glow suffusing their hearts. Even when they are walking in the dark or through a fog, they will not get lost."
Du Ming came from a very strict family. The way his mother treated him was similar to a military-like education. Of course, if this was allowed to continue, in the future, Du Ming would have no choice but to become a good contributing member of society, but it was destined that there would be a part of him that was missing. The wind howled on the rooftop. Chen Ge gave Du Ming enough time to think about what he had said, then he picked up the phone and squatted next to Du Ming. "Was it you who started the rumors around the school about Miss Zhang?"
Chen Ge clicked open the phone's photo album. Most of the pictures had been deleted. There were only two pictures left that were saved in the album. One was the picture of Zhang Ya that was taken when she was not paying attention, and the other was the picture of Zhang Ya and Chen Ge walking out from the school sharing the same umbrella. The second picture was taken from the back. From that perspective, it appeared like it had been taken without the subject's knowledge as well.
"It was not me." Du Ming took a long time before he uttered that. He raised his bruised face. "My mother went through my phone without me knowing one day. She discovered the pictures and asked me who the woman in the picture was, so I told her that she was the new teacher."
"But what does that have to do with the rumors?"
"After she saw the picture of you sharing an umbrella with her seemingly going home together, she had a very bad impression of this intern teacher, so she spread the news among the parent's group." Du Ming's eyes were filled self-recrimination and guilt. He hated how helpless and worthless he was at that moment.
"A parent's group? When did this happen? Did my father know about it?"
"It was on the day you left the school with Miss Zhang. Your father should have known about it. At the time, the people in the group managed to recognize you from your back, and many of them went after your father to demand an explanation. Your father tried his best to come to your defense, but I believe no one was paying him any attention. They merely continued to pile on him until he was kicked out of the group. I thought he would have told you that already."
"My dad has known about this all along?" Chen Ge adjusted the timeline in his mind. That was the day he spent the night at Zhang Ya's home and did not go back home. His father did not blame him or get angry at him but used his actual action to prove his trust in his son.
"The parents all thought this kind of teacher would not be able to be a good model for the students. They all thought she has a reputation problem, so they came to school to find a solution. Some of the parents told their children about this and warned them to stay away from predatory adults like Miss Zhang." Du Ming had known everything all along, but he did not say anything. No wonder he could not gather the courage to speak or even meet Chen Ge's eyes. He merely placed his homework on the table, as if he was using this kind of method to express his apology.
"Zhang Ya's written test and interview score was the highest among all the intern teachers, so naturally, the school would not fire her for just a few pictures. The stalemate between the school and the parents continued for a few days."
At this point, Du Ming's voice took on a deeper shade of guilt. "Because of this, I started to feel dissatisfied with my parents. I have never resisted them before, but on this issue, I refused to budge, but my resistance did not gain the understanding of my family. If anything, my mother thought the time that she had spent years teaching was being spoilt and negatively influenced by the new teacher."
"In other words, your mother had pinned the failure to her own education onto Zhang Ya?" Chen Ge realized before this he had completely forgotten about a crucial person in this story, and that was Du Ming's mother. The woman was the person who cared about Du Ming the most in the world, but at the same time, she was also the one who harmed him the deepest. Before this, it eluded Chen Ge why Du Ming was so unpopular with his good results, and sometimes, he would be appear to be so selfish and cold. People would come to talk to him, and the boy would freeze them out. Now Chen Ge could see why.
"The real explosion of the conflict happened a few days ago when I came home with a less than satisfactory test result. My mother thought that it had to be because of Zhang Ya, and if she left me in the hands of this new teacher, it would have ruined my future." Du Ming's expression was a mixture of bitterness and pain. He was like a bird trapped inside a gilded cage. The people outside the cage admired his 'singing', and they all praised his trainer for it, but they had never considered the internal feeling of the bird before.
"That night, my mother shared the story with the rest of the parents in the group. Many of the parents stepped forward to show her their support. Since this was related to their children's education, they couldn't be too careful about it, so they decided to gang up together and go to the school to ask for a discussion." Du Ming's voice was getting weaker, like his strength was draining as the cooped up story left his body.
"You know about what happened later. The 'discussion' turned into an argument. My mother never takes no for an answer. The parents never really understood their children. My mother believed that I should understand the things that she had done for me was for my own good. She truly believed that by making a scene at the teacher's lounge, she would somehow help me and the other students. But once I heard her shrill voice echoing through the hall, I just wanted to find a small space to curl up and hide. I know that she loves me, but now I am afraid of letting people even know that she is my own mother."
Du Ming's mother's education had some problems. Chen Ge felt like he should find a chance to have a meeting with her. "I believe that you should sit down and have a good conversation with your mother. Never admitting her mistake and a strict requirement as well as holding her child under a high moral standard is not a good form of education."
Du Ming could be communicated with normally. Chen Ge gave him a helping hand as he dragged the boy up from the ground. Both of their eyes were bloodshot. "Now, I need you to listen to me. There is one more chance that we have that we will be able to make Miss Zhang Ya stay, but I do not know whether you have the courage to do that or not."
"Yes, all you need to do is to take your phone into the teacher's lounge and tell everyone the truth behind the pictures. There is nothing inappropriate between me and Zhang Ya. That day, we shared an umbrella because I forgot to bring my own, and she loaned me hers. You know about all that. You can be the witness. You can be the one who stops all the rumors." Chen Ge shoved the phone back into Du Ming's hands. "But the question is whether you have the courage to do that or not."
Holding the phone whose screen had broken, Du Ming stood there for a long time and did not speak.
"Tell me when you come to a decision." Chen Ge did not force Du Ming. He looked at Du Ming quietly, but in his mind, it was Yu Jian's shadow that was overlapping the boy's body.
"I..." Du Ming's fingers tightened, and his eyes were red. After a long time, he slowly opened his lips. "I cannot do that."
"How did you interrogate me earlier? Your pain is no lesser than mine, so why don't you have the courage to face it? Actually, you wish to sink in this abyss, don't you?" Chen Ge wanted to help Zhang Ya, but at the same time, he was helping Du Ming. If Zhang Ya really left just like that, Du Ming would live with the guilt forever, and that would become a knot in his heart that would never be unraveled.
"If I go there and explain everything, my mother will be so mad. After all, she did all those things because of me. It was how she showed her love toward me." Du Ming put away his phone. Grayness started to appear at the bottom of his eyes, and the color drained from his face. He appeared suddenly lifeless. It was not easy for him to come to this decision. "Miss Zhang still has you, but my mother's only rock in the world is me. My father left when I was still very young. She is being so strict on me because she has placed all her hopes and dreams in me."
"Is it for your own good that she has turned into a selfish monster? Taking away your happiness, taking away your ability and capability to love others, does your mother often remind you how difficult it is for her, how hard she has to work, how much she has invested and sacrificed for you?" Chen Ge could understand, but he could not approve of it. "Your mother is not raising you as a son; she is raising you into a version that she hopes you will become. I do not deny that she loves you deeply, but that love should not be built on the basis of voiding a person of his personality. Love is mutual. Yes, it is rare that a balance can always be achieved, but most of the time, it should be equal and fair."
Du Ming heard Chen Ge's words and gritted his teeth. Chen Ge did not disturb Du Ming and allowed his words to settle while he studied the little fatty who stood before him. Physically, Du Ming was not disformed in any way, but psychologically, he was missing something important, something that a human being should be born with. That thing was 'love'.
"I will go with you and explain everything to the school." Chen Ge grabbed Du Ming by his shoulder. "I do not mind being expelled. I can give up everything because this is my mistake. I should be the one being punished, not Zhang Ya."
With Chen Ge's continual persuasion, Du Ming finally gave a nod. Seeing Du Ming change his mind, Chen Ge sighed in relief. He accompanied Du Ming, and they left the rooftop together. They knocked on the door to the teacher's lounge. Chen Ge and Du Ming, who were covered in bruises, walked to Mr. Si's table.
"What happened to you two? Did you get into a fight?" When Mr. Si saw Du Ming, he was given the shock of his life. After all, Chen Ge had given the boy quite a beating. He had knocked the boy literally off his feet before he could knock some literal sense into him.
"Mr. Si, actually, Miss Zhang is nothing like the rumors say. She did not do anything that violates the rule of her career and being a teacher." Du Ming took out his phone. "The picture that was first shared among the parent's group is this picture. The real incident that happened that day was Chen Ge forgot to bring his umbrella, and Miss Zhang was afraid that he would get wet in the rain, so she told him to get under the umbrella with her. That was the whole truth. I was just standing beside them at the time, and I heard everything."
"But when your mother came yesterday, that was not what she said. Didn't you tell her about this?"
"I did, but she refused to believe me." Du Ming placed his phone on Teacher Si's table.
"So, it is all a misunderstanding. Look at how this thing has blown up. I need you to call your mother and tell her to come to school now. We will need to explain this all in the open." Mr. Si wanted to resolve this problem. Zhang Ya was the best teacher that he had ever had the privilege to interview. To fire a valuable talent like that because of a mere misunderstanding, it did not feel right to him. Du Ming called his mother, and his mother promised to arrive soon. Mr. Si also gave Zhang Ya a call, but the call was not connected.
"Will something has happened to Miss Zhang?" Chen Ge wanted to go to Zhang Ya's home to check, but Mr. Si did not allow him to leave. According to the discipline head, he was one of the main characters, so he had to be there as a witness for Zhang Ya.
They waited for about half an hour when they heard rushing footsteps coming from the corridor. Without knocking on the door, the door to the teacher's lounge was pushed open, and a middle-aged woman strode in. Her face was already carved with impatience and annoyance, but when she saw the condition Du Ming was in, her expression changed immediately, and she quickly jogged to Du Ming's side.
"What happened? Who did this? Was it him?" The woman glared at Chen Ge. "How many times I have told you not to hang out with people like him? He is a bad student, so why do you insist on spending time with him? Since I am already here, Mr. Si, I demand that you change my son's seat. I want him to be away from this bad influence, as far away as possible."
"Madam, you have been called here because we need to discuss the thing that you told us earlier. The parents have misunderstood Miss Zhang." Mr. Si took out Du Ming's phone. "Miss Zhang did not do anything inappropriate with any of the students. They shared an umbrella because Chen Ge forgot to bring his umbrella that day."
"Who told you that?" The middle-aged woman's face darkened almost instantly.
"It was Du Ming who told me that. Even if you do not believe Miss Zhang, don't tell me you do not trust the words of your own son?" Mr. Si assumed that it would be easy to convince Du Ming's mother, but he did not expect the woman to be so determined and desperate for Zhang Ya to leave.
"Impossible! Someone must have forced him to tell this horrible lie!" The middle-aged woman whipped her head around to glare at Chen Ge. "How did my boy get all these wounds? It must be you, right? It was you who forced him to tell these horrible lies! Admit it!"
Du Ming's mother was like an angered lioness, and her voice kept on raising. The sound of the argument attracted the attention of all the other teachers in the room. Du Ming lowered in head, but his mother was impervious to the scene that she was causing. If anything, she only raised her voice louder and louder.
"Madam, you must calm down. I was the one who interviewed Miss Zhang. She is really a good teacher. She would never do the things that you have insinuated she has done."
"How can you even guarantee something like that?" The middle-aged woman slammed her bag on the table. "From her looks, I know that she is a good for a nothing girl. I sent my child here because I trusted your school, and this is how you treat me?"
"Madam, you are being a little bit unreasonable." Mr. Si was cornered. He had said everything he could, but he could not change the middle-aged woman's mind. He thus turned to Du Ming. "Du Ming, tell me the truth. Did Chen Ge force you to say those things?"
With his head lowered, Du Ming gripped his shirt with his hands, and his face was blanched.
"Du Ming, tell us how Chen Ge forced you to say those false statements! Don't you be afraid of a ruffian like him. I will protect you!" The middle-aged woman was practically ordering Du Ming to do so.
A palpable silence fell over the office. Du Ming did not say a thing. His mother's expression was getting more and more desperate and agitated. Just as she was about to explode, Du Ming finally opened his mouth. "No one forced me to say anything."
Both Mr. Si and Chen Ge sighed in relief, but Du Ming's mother refused to accept this. She gripped Du Ming by his shoulders. "Son, don't be afraid. Be a good boy and tell the truth. You are being threatened by this nasty piece of work to say all these things, aren't you? They are all lies, aren't they?"
"What I said was the truth. Miss Zhang did not do anything inappropriate with Chen Ge. You merely saw the pictures of Miss Zhang in my phone and tried to chase Miss Zhang away because you are afraid that she might affect my school results!" Du Ming had held this in for a long time, and this time, the words burst out from him like a fountain.
"Du Ming?" The middle-aged woman's face clouded over. Her teeth clattered noisily, and her breath was coming uneasily through her nostrils. She did not expect Du Ming to say something like that. The fury and sense of betrayal fired up her mind. "All I ever did was for you own good! Why can't you ever see that‽"
Du Ming did not dare reply. At that moment, the bell rang. Many students ran out from the classroom and gathered at the corridor.
"I have to carry out the roles of both a father and a mother at the same time. Do you think it is easy for me to raise you all by myself? Do you the amount of pressure that I am under?" The middle-aged woman practically hissed through her teeth. "I have placed all my hopes and dreams in you, and this is how you repay me?"
Du Ming's mother's voice was getting louder and louder. The students gathered in the corridor could hear her clearly. More of the students started to gather. They leaned against the window to enjoy the show.
"I am talking to you! What is in that mind of yours! For that filthy woman, you do not even want to listen to my words anymore, huh? What has she done to charm you like this?" The middle-aged woman grabbed Du Ming by his shoulders. "After your father left us, I am the person who has been the kindest toward you. Everything I did was for your own good. As long as you are well, I will be happy. Why can't you understand that?
"In this whole world, I am the single person who loves and cares for you unconditionally! Du Ming! You disappoint me so much!"
The words were like knives cutting into Du Ming's heart. The blood leaked out from the wound, and they were all in the name of love. He gasped hungrily for air. His hands held his clothes tightly until his fingers snapped, and his knuckles turned white. The sound of the argument was getting so loud that the students who were not gathered in the corridor could hear it clearly.
The students' faces appeared on the window, one head piling over another like a wall of strange, inhuman faces. Many eyes wandered all over the room, scanning the figures who were gathered inside the teacher's lounge. Du Ming felt like he was being stripped and left naked on a stage with the spotlight gathered on him. He tried to cover up his privates and desperately sought somewhere to hide.
"Du Ming's mother has come to school again?"
"I could hear her during class."
"Du Ming's mother sure has a temper."
"Quick, this is a good show! They have gotten into another argument."
"Du Ming comes from a single-parent family? His father abandoned them?"
"No wonder he is always acting the way he does. He stutters when he is called to speak in class..."
The words travelled into Du Ming's ears, torturing his mind. The very last shred of pride that he tried to protect was trampled on. His chest rose and fell unevenly. He covered his hands over his ears. He just wanted to run away from this place. His pupils darted about anxiously. His mother's interrogation and scolding fell on him like a waterfall. The strange looks and remarks of the students from the corridor rushed into and overwhelmed his mind.
"Stop, stop talking. Please stop talking. I'm begging you..." His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish. His body was shivering. His legs buckled and staggered backward. They carried him to the edge of the window. His fingers that had gotten numb fell on the edge of the windowsill. Du Ming was like a drowning victim who finally found a pocket of air. His hands shoved the window angrily open. His leg leaped over the window, and it was as if the weight was lifting away from his body. The wind blew into his fall. As his world turned upside down, a pair of hands grabbed him firmly.
"Have you lost your mind‽" What Du Ming saw was Chen Ge's blurry face. It all felt like a dream. "Death is not going to solve any problem!"
Using all the strength in his body, Chen Ge managed to yank Du Ming back to safety. Since Du Ming's mother entered the picture, Chen Ge had noticed the boy's emotions beginning to fray. That was why he had kept his guard next to him, afraid that some accident might happen. His precaution was right.
Everyone in the room was shocked. No one expected Du Ming to do something like this, and that included his mother. All the teachers in the room turned to look at Du Ming. There was not a peep from the students outside the teacher's lounge. The world seemed to have frozen in that moment.
"Why did you do that?" Du Ming's mother was the one who broke the silence after a long time. There was an obvious change to her voice. It was as if there was another person speaking from inside her.
"Why would you choose to die rather than to listen to my words? It has been proven again and again that I am the person who cares the most about you in this world. I am the one who truly understands you and loves you."
Black stains started to surface on the middle-aged woman's face. This world behind the door that mimicked the real world the most started to change. Black threads surged out from the corners, and a horrible stench started to rush in from all sides.
The heavy clouds pressed even lower from the sky. The rain unloaded on the world, washing away the layer of disguise that had covered the small town. The black rain, red rain, gray buildings, and curses weaved together to form this nightmare.
"We are kindred spirits. In this world, only I will be able to understand you; only I can help you. I am the only one who cares about you sincerely. So, why did you choose to die rather than listen to me? All I ever wanted was for you to become a better person, to become someone like me." The middle-aged woman raised her head. The black curse dispersed to reveal a baby face.
The ghost fetus!
When this face appeared, Du Ming's body started to change. The rolls of fat were like a cage made from a curse, and it was entrapping a boy who was as thin as a stick figure.
Du Ming's phone fell to the ground. The woman on the screensaver was no longer an image of Zhang Ya but an unfamiliar woman who was wearing a pair of spectacles.