“Are you going to take time off and go home?” In the classroom, the girl in the blue and white school uniform turned her head to ask Cui Zuojing.
“Mmn, I’ve already asked for leave. My mom told me to go back for my birthday.” Cui Zuojing took the notebooks full of notes he’d copied from the blackboard on various subjects and sorted them out. This was the first class in the afternoon, and most of his classmates had left the classroom, heading to either the cafeteria or the street in front of the school for dinner.
This prestigious high school in the northern province was always extremely busy, and so classes typically ended at six o’clock, just in time for dinner. They were given 40 minutes for dinner, then at 6:40 on the dot, English would be broadcasted for them to listen. After listening for three sessions, they were expected to study late at night until school officially ended at 9:30 in the evening.
As a good student with excellent grades, when Cui Zuojing asked his teachers for leave, all of his teachers gave him much preferential treatment and tolerance.
“Do I still need to bring you breakfast tomorrow morning?” Chen Mofei (Murphy) stood up with the intention of heading out for dinner. She was a very thin girl, so that her large uniform hung loose on her tiny frame. She had thick black hair, and her skin was so white that it looked unhealthy. Her lips were also very pale, and the wrists exposed under the cuffs of her sleeves were boney and slender, looking as if they would break with a touch.
She was also a favorite student of the teachers. When choosing seats based on grades, the two top students naturally ended up occupying the two best positions in class, and thus they ended up sitting at the same table.
However, unlike Cui Zuojing, she lived on campus. Every day, she would walk from her dormitory to the cafeteria to conveniently buy food. So, after a few months of getting to know each other, she also helped purchase food for Cui Zuojing.
“Bring it. It’ll still be the same.” Cui Zuojing pulled out his school bag. Unexpectedly, an envelope fell out.
Chen Mofei was surprised and said laughingly, “Did someone give you a letter?”
Cui Zuojing sheepishly looked the envelope over and hurriedly stuffed it into his school bag. He stood up to make way for Chen Mofei and threw the school bag over his shoulder. “Who knows? I’m leaving first.”
The girl patted his arm and said cheerfully, “Happy birthday!”
Cui Zuojing laughed and stretched out his hand. “It’s not enough to just say happy birthday. Where’s my gift?”
“You’re eating fart.” Chen Mofei gave him a roll of her eyes and went to the cafeteria to eat.
As many of his classmates headed downstairs to purchase food one after another, Cui Zuojing walked among many of the students leaving the school. His home wasn’t far from the school. At most, it would only take about 15 minutes if he took a side street.
He did the same this time, as he had done for countless days. He walked back home using an alley, but this time, he wasn’t walking with the usual group of students who lived in the same community. Today, he was alone.
The street lights in the alley illuminated the road conscientiously, but there seemed to be some unimaginable dangers hiding in the dark corners. His footsteps echoed, the sound ricocheting off the walls. He could hear the traffic in the distance. Suddenly, a cat dashed in front of him, appearing and disappearing within two seconds.
Cui Zuojing inexplicably felt a bit of a chill, as if someone was staring at him in the shadows, holding a sharp knife that reflected the cold light and eager to give in to the desire for blood.
He quickened his pace and passed through this alley that he had walked countless times before.
When he reached the main road, he had a better peace of mind. There were many people who came out for a walk after dinner. Cui Zuojing relaxed, only to realize that a layer of cold sweat had somehow beaded on his back.
What was he so nervous about? This was a lawful society, and it was very safe. He shrugged and continued walking home.
After turning the key to unlock the front door, Cui Zuojing pushed the door open. Then he held onto the wall with one hand while he lowered his hand to change his shoes. The sentence that he had repeated everyday came out naturally. “I’m back.”
“It’ll be ready in a moment. Go and wait for a bit.” From the kitchen, there was the sound of his mother cooking. Cui Zuojing called out a sound of acknowledgement and went to his bedroom to put his school bag away. Thinking about the envelope that had appeared out of nowhere in his desk drawer, he sat on the edge of his bed, opened his school bag, and tore the envelope open. An invitation letter fell out.
Dear Mr. Cui Zuojing:
Please go to ████ on May 16th with this invitation letter. I will wait for your arrival.
The place and the name of the person inviting him were blacked out. May 16th was today.
“What the hell?” Cui Zuojing thought it was someone’s evil prank. He put the invitation letter back into the envelope, threw it into the drawer, ignored it, and left his bedroom.
His sister, who was still in elementary school, was writing in the study. When she heard him enter the living room, she immediately jumped off the stool.
There were a few dishes already placed on the table, with a cake box tied with a red ribbon in the middle. His father was on the balcony, smoking a cigarette by the window. Swirling smoke drifted outside in the evening breeze.
“Don’t smoke!” Cui Zuojing shouted. “Put it out.”
“Smelly boy,” Dad cursed with a smile. He put the cigarette butt out against the wall by the window and closed the window to prevent the smell of smoking from getting inside.
This was a special night; it was Cui Zuojing’s 16th birthday.
Children always couldn’t hide their thoughts. His sister wanted him to open the cake box to see what was inside. After Cui Zuojing turned on the TV, he untied the red ribbon and opened the box, fulfilling her wish.
The news of an escaped serial killer was being broadcasted on TV. Seeing the photos of the criminal being wanted, Cui Zuojing’s breath caught in his throat. A cold sweat rose over his body. His fear was like a monstrous flood, ruthlessly drowning him.
But he didn’t know why he was so scared. Obviously…it had nothing to do with him, right?
Dad clicked his tongue and said, “Why are there still people who can escape from prison? It’s too scary. Ah’Zuo, I’ll pick you up after self-study these next few days. Don’t walk back anymore.”
Cui Zuojing’s tense heart finally settled. He let out an “mmn” and picked up the remote control to change the channel.
He put on his sister’s favorite cartoon, and the topic of conversation naturally shifted. Cui Zuojing was relieved. He looked at the cake on the table, and his mood slowly improved.
He was only 16 years old, and still had a lot of time left. So what about that serial killer…there was no way he would just happen to meet him by chance, right?
Four hours ago, thousands of kilometers away.
The young Dong Zheng got into the passenger seat of the Cayenne and fastened his seat belt. His father was driving while his stepmother, Su Daijun, was sitting in the backseat with Dong Zheng’s backpack and luggages.
They had just participated in the family activities organized by Dong Linhai’s school and were now heading to Hongqiao Airport. The 16-year-old Dong Zheng was scheduled to fly in two hours to study in the United States.
Dong Zheng put on his headphones and opened the glove box for something to drink. He saw an envelope.
“What’s this?” He picked up the envelope and asked Dong Yi.
Dong Yi, who was driving, glanced at him and asked, “I don’t know. Take a look?”
Dong Zheng opened the envelope, and a hard cardstock paper in the form of an invitation letter fell out. But it had very few words written on it.
Dear Mr. _______:
The young Dong Zheng frowned, stuffed the thing back into its envelope, and threw it back into the glove box.
“What was it?” Dong Yi asked.
Dong Zheng took out a bottle of soda and said, “Just a piece of paper with something written on it.”
“Your dad and I couldn’t spare the time to accompany you these past few days. Be careful when you’re alone. Go to your Uncle Wu if you need anything.” Su Daijun checked the inside pocket of Dong Zheng’s package of money, and sorted all the cash and coins into different categories. “I took out two thousand dollars for you. It should last you for a while. Time will go by in a flash, and soon we’ll be coming to visit you.”
“Okay.” Dong Zheng responded. He was already very mature and steady for his age. “Rest assured, I’m not a kid anymore.”
The eight-year-old Dong Linhai also wanted to see him off, but the three people in the car knew that Little Linhai wouldn’t easily give up his dear brother and would definitely cry at the airport. It would be hard to coax him.
Dong Linhai, who was picked up by the nanny, went upstairs and entered his bedroom unhappily. He sat at the table and took out his pencil case from his school bag. Then he took out his tattered textbook and saw something sticking out from the lower right corner.
He pulled the stiff paper from inside his textbook and, with a frown, tried to make out the words written on it, “Dear Mr. blank blank, From something colon?”
He didn’t know what it was, and so he folded the hard cardstock paper in half and turned it into an airplane.
“Hangzhi, the patient on bed 15 needs a liver transplant tomorrow. You have to come and listen to the preoperative meeting.” Lin Hangzhi’s intern advisor, the Deputy Director of Thoracic Surgery, shouted out at him from the office door.
“Hey, coming!” Lin Hangzhi immediately put down the pen in his hand and followed.
“The plan is to transplant one-fifth of the father’s left liver. The current indicators for both of them are very good,” the physician deputy director explained. He spoke in more detail about the transplant operation and about the patient’s medical history. Basically, after birth, the patient’s jaundice did not go away as expected and became even more serious. Later, he was diagnosed with liver failure. In order to save his child, the father chose to transplant a part of his liver to his son.
Lin Hangzhi earnestly remembered every word his advisor said. As a graduate student, he didn’t quite yet have the qualifications to be at the operating table, but these preoperative meetings were important lessons for him.
The meeting lasted for two hours. The whole time, Lin Hangzhi sat in the corner of the long hall, filling his notebook with dense notes. After doing his rounds, he went back to the office and saw an envelope on the table.
The envelope was blank. He asked around but no one knew who it was for. After some hesitation, he opened the envelope by himself.
A messy…invitation letter?
Lin Hangzhi casually threw it into the trash can.
Those no-good, sticky paparazzi were not easy to throw off. Xia Qiongyun was beyond vexed and finally got a hotel room.
As the daughter of the Emperor, there were always unscrupulous paparazzi who wanted to spy on her private life. If they caught breaking news, they would report it for the next day’s headline.
Xia Qiongyun took off her jacket and threw it casually at the foot of the bed. Then she laid down on the bed in exhaustion, raised her arm to cover her eyes, and let out a long sigh.
The envelope appeared silently out of thin air from the crack under the door of her room.
No one put this strange invitation letter to heart.
Cui Zuojing’s family celebrated his 16th birthday. In the evening, he finished writing, turned off the lights, and lay on the bed. Looking at the half moon outside the window, he suddenly felt a sense of unreality.
As if… he shouldn’t be experiencing this.
…It was a really idle thought. What did it mean to experience something that he shouldn’t have experienced? Could he become Ironman and save the world? If only he had so much money.
Cui Zuojing turned over, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
Cui Zuojing belonged to the group of people who had absolutely difficulty in getting up in the morning. The moment he hurried up the stairs and stepped into the room, the morning self-study bell rang punctually at 6:30 sharp. He let out a breath and took out his English textbook. The breakfast Chen Mofei bought him was already placed on his table.
The teacher still hadn’t yet arrived, having been delayed by the head teacher downstairs. All of the students took out their textbooks, but for a while, no one wanted to study. They were all whispering with one another.
“Have you heard that someone was killed last night?” The boy at the back table asked his tablemate .
This bloody piece of news caught Cui Zuojing’s attention. He and Chen Mofei turned their heads together, so the four people in the front and back made up a complete table.
“Really. It was a homeless person. His body was found early this morning. It was by my house too, and it was swarming with police officers. Didn’t a serial killer escape from prison yesterday? For sure he did it.”
“Ah? That’s too scary. This time, you need to pay attention to safety. How is it that prisoners can even escape?”
The head teacher entered with a solemn expression. “Be quiet.”
The class quickly quieted down.
“I must speak about a very important matter. We received notice that a serial killer escaped from prison. Last night, a homeless man was killed on Kunshan Road. In these special times, everyone must pay attention to…”
Cui Zuojing listened quietly, and that sense of unreality struck again.
The rising sun, the dense green leaves of the treetops, the chirping birds, a row of textbooks piled up on the table, these morning readings with Chinese and English tasks on the blackboard…obviously all of this…yes, these were things he’d faced everyday.