Tick-tock tick-tock, the clock slowly moved. Only after a long time, did Xu Qi remember that there was no clock in this room.
Waiting was terrifying. Xu Qi didn’t know what kind of ending awaited him, and the two possible ends had already been thought of over and over again in the 2 hours to and fro Uncle Liang’’s shop.
He wasn’t willing to touch the worst ending.
Beyond the wall, a key turned to unlock the door. The metal chains on the satchel rustled, ringing out a brisk rattle. It was the first time Xu Qu found this sound melodious and soothing, and along with Liang Yue’s footsteps, it disappeared with the sounds of the door closing.
Xu Qi reached for the phone on his bed frame, a blurry 22:29.
Texting brought warmth and comfort to his icy-cold hands; the frozen blood in his veins started flowing through his body again. Passed away, and brought back to life.
Liang Yue didn’t sleep with Liao Jinxue.
That was the last red line he wouldn’t cross. Good thing was, today could pass by peacefully.
During weekends, Liang Yue’s schedule would be packed full of work. After the age of 27, her career in the design company was slowly rising. She couldn’t afford to be careless with any orders.
The ratio of men to women in the company was severely skewed. Being in a heap of talented and strong competitors, Liang Yue had no choice but to be cruel to herself. Of course, it wasn’t that she was constantly on the phone. It was just that whenever she picked up they would speak for less than 2 minutes before she forcefully hangs up.
Xu Qi recalled when he started to pick up on the signs of her cheating. It was on a Saturday afternoon, when Liang Yue picked up her phone impatiently. The background was full of noise, and she said she was at the dentist’s. But Xu Qi remembered clearly that she had already fixed her single decayed tooth 2 weeks ago.
Intuition is gender-neutral. It preferred whoever pays a little more attention and care.
On weekends when he was free, Xu Qi would often go help out at Uncle Liang’s store. In all these years, the photography studio never had a time when it was packed with people, yet Xu Qi would always persist in going at least once a week.
Sweeping the floors, arranging the cupboards, and then having a casual conversation with Uncle Liang. An entire day’s worth of time would be idled away like this.
It was better than being alone.
The printer buzzed as it worked, and Xu Qi guarded by its side. The photos printed stacked up one by one onto the table, and he aligned the paper cutter to the white edges.
He used the most traditional way of cropping the photo to specific dimensions, and then putting it in the envelope marked by a marker, before waiting for the customer to retrieve it at the scheduled time.
This kind of easy job was something he alone was competent enough for.
As Xu Qi turned, the envelope almost fell out of his hand. Below the two grey cloth hanging on the door frame, a small puppy raised its pair of ears. It laid on the floor, its fluffy tail wagging from side to side, swiping the dust around him away.
Uncle Liang was lying down on the wicker chair that was as old as him, reading his newspaper while shaking his crossed leg up high. He looked askance at Xu Qi who had stiffened. “We’re already old acquaintances and you’re still scared?”
Xu Qi laughed awkwardly and touched his cheeks. “I was only startled.”
The puppy was very sensitive to Xu Qi’s voice, and it crawled up from the floor as a whole. Xu Qi hurriedly left the envelope on the table, and his legs retreated disobediently.
This action caused the dog to have the misconception that he wanted to play a game with it. It barked twice in happiness and used its wet nose to poke at Xu Qi’s trembling calf.
Xu Qi was scared of dogs.
This dog was picked up from the studio’s doorstep half a year ago. The person who abandoned the dog seized the opportunity at night to tie the puppy, who had just started weaning, to the door. When Uncle Liang woke up the next day, he saw the little thing at the door curled up into the size of his palms. The moment the puppy saw Uncle Liang, it started crying pitifully. Its legs didn’t even have enough strength to stand.
Uncle Liang brought the puppy to the vet immediately, and spent a few weeks giving the dog a full body checkup. He bought a collar and leash from the shop on his way out, and the abandoned dog made its home the photography studio just like that.
The little puppy’s appearance sparkled, and though the earthy fur wasn’t as beautiful as the bred dogs, it stole Uncle Liang’s heart thoroughly. When he was in a good mood he would call it ‘good boy’. If it accidentally broke a photo frame, or scratched his favourite wicker chair, it would be served Uncle Liang’s slippers, and he would scold it with names like ‘soil dog’, or ‘little beast’.
Due to Uncle Liang’s carelessness, the dog still didn’t have a proper name after almost a year.
Not only was Xu Qi afraid of dogs, he didn’t like any animals. When he was younger, he had been chased by a huge black dog throughout the whole street while trying to go home. He was so scared his whole face was smeared with tears. Furthermore, the owner of the dog was behind, leisurely saying that his dog doesn’t bite, is really well-behaved, and simply just wants to play with him.
Xu Qi didn’t know whether it would bite. From that day on, he was afraid of all animals that had fur.
Afraid to touch it, Xu Qi could only step back in discomfort until he reached the shop’s door. The stainless steel bowl with water that the puppy hadn’t finished was still on the floor. Xu Qi hardened his gut and nudged the bowl a little with the tip of his toes. “Little Tu, do you wanna drink water?”
The little puppy had no name, and calling it Earthy Dog seemed rusty and mean, so Xu Qi always calls him “Little Tu”. (*)
It was as if Little Tu understood human words. It ran to the side of the bowl sassily, spraying water everywhere as it drank, and left deep marks of water all over the place.
Xu Qi left out a sigh of relief, but the relief didn’t last for long as the dog sensed that he was about to walk away and immediately stopped drinking. It pounced onto the corners of Xu Qi’s pants and dragged outwards. Xu Qi’s heart was about to jump out of his throat. “Stop grabbing me already, go look for Uncle Liang to play with you, okay?”
From inside the house came Uncle Liang’s sour voice. “This little beast has no conscience. I spent thousands to bring him home, and now he doesn’t even spare a glance at me. Instead, he just sticks to you all day long.”
Xu Qi smiled helplessly and bitterly, unable to think of any words to give a retort. The dog didn’t receive any response and became more aggressive; it started jumping to pull at Xu Qi’s shirt, but landed back on the ground in no time.
It howled to display how wronged it felt, spread its four legs, and ran past Xu Qi.
“Don’t anyhow run, Little Tu, come back.”
Behind was a road. Xu Qi turned his head and frantically called out the dog’s name, but it was too late. The dog had already passed through to the other side of the streets and was circling around someone’s feet, wagging its tail non-stop.
Liao Jinxue looked down at the paws stepping on his shoes; the moment those paws were placed, a grey mark appeared.
The puppy stuck its tongue out and was huffing innocently.
Liao Jinxue quietly lifted his head, looked towards the other side, and Xu Qi felt like he was struck by something; his thoughts were temporarily derailed.
Xu Qi’s dry lips parted slightly, and he stood rooted without speaking a single word. Liao Jinxue waited for the electronic scooters to pass by before his long legs stretched across the narrow road. The puppy immediately followed behind, barking as it pranced about, but no one paid attention to it.
After Uncle Liang called out many times from inside the studio, the little puppy returned reluctantly.
When Xu Qi lowered his head, the first thing he saw was the obvious paw mark on Liao Jinxue’s shoe. “Sorry, do you want a piece of tissue?” He spoke so softly it was almost silent.
Liao Jinxue declined and looked behind Xu Qi, asking, “Do you work here?”
‘Uncle Liang’s Photography Studio’ hung tall above the narrow doors. Having gone through 20 years of storms and wind, the corners of the sign had become damaged and yellow, but it still stood perfectly on guard.
Xu Qi replied half a beat later. “This is my Uncle’s shop, I just come here occasionally to help.”
Before he finished, a possibility flashed through his mind. It was so shocking that he didn’t couldn’t properly hide his intentions to probe, exposing it all in front of Liao Jinxue.
“Did you come here to take a photo?”
“My identification card is about to expire. My colleague said that there was a photography studio in this area which took pretty good photos, so I dropped by here to take a look since it was on the way.”
Liao Jinxue didn’t deny it.
This was the kind of coincidence that Xu Qi wouldn’t even dare dream of. Just when he was wrecking his brain over how to approach Liao Jinxue, an opportunity grew its own feet, ran over, and knocked him dizzy.
Is there really such a coincidental thing?
Xu Qi opened his mouth awkwardly, “You can come in first.”
Liao Jinxue replied, “Okay.”
Xu Qi led him in. The puppy was still lying on Uncle Liang’s knees to play, making purrs. Uncle Liang peered at the figure following Xu Qi, put away his newspaper, and pushed at his reading glasses. “Taking pictures? What kind of photo?”
When Uncle Liang saw Liao Jinxue’s face, he let out a ‘tsk’.
“He’s taking a photo for his ID.”
Xu Qi rushed to speak first, deathly afraid that Uncle Liang would recognise LIao Jinxue and say some irreparable words. “He and I went to the same school, we met at the side of the road just now… pretty coincidental,” he patched shakily.
Liao Jinxue kept his silence throughout. He looked around at the small photography studio, his eyes emotionless as he retracted his gaze. “Can the photo be taken?”
“Yeah, follow me.”
Uncle Liang sent the dog off to the floor and pushed himself up from the wicker chair. The strange exclamation just now seemed to just be a discomfort in his throat, as he let out a cough.
Behind the curtains was where customers took their photos; one spacious room was enough to fulfil all requests. There were a total of six boxes of props stacked in the corner. The board reflector was at the very top, and beside it hung two rows of colourful accessories used to tackle different photo themes.
Taking an ID was the most simple as it didn’t require any props; carrying a chair over, switching the background to white, and all preparations were complete.
“Sit on that chair and look at the camera.”
When Xu Qi walked in, Liao Jinxue was already on the chair, following Uncle Liang’s instructions to adjust his pose.
Perhaps to capture a better photo, Liao Jinxue’s shirt had been ironed flat until not a single trace of wrinkle could be seen. The top button had also been fastened tightly, sticking under his Adam’s apple.
His neck was long, he didn’t have to worry about whether wearing his clothes in that manner would cause a ratio imbalance. He straightened his back, and following Uncle Liang’s words, retracted his chin a little.
No matter how he adjusted, he still looked great.
Xu Qi stood at the door, his figure quietly hidden in the dark corner. He found the bright radiance that he had followed years ago, as well as that feeling of peeping silently.
At least, at that time, he would wish for Liao Jinxue to fall into the dust and become a shadow like him. But now, Xu Qi knew that the boundary between him and Liao Jinxue had been drawn clearly, and there was no possibility of crossing it.
He could only touch the corners of Liao Jinxue’s world for a moment; the scenery inside would never be shown to him.
“Xu Qi, come here.”
Uncle Liang’s voice pulled Xu Qi’s soul back into his body. He raised his head and stared blankly, asking, “Why?”
“Come here when I ask you to, why are you so nervous? No one’s gonna eat you.”
Xu Qi walked from the darkness to Uncle Liang’s side. The light reflecting off the board made him fully exposed in front of Liao Jinxue, and it felt incredibly uncomfortable. He lowered his voice and asked Uncle Liang, “Didn’t you finish taking the photo?”
Uncle Liang stuffed the camera into Xu Qi’s hands, not forgetting to nag at him. Seeing how dazed Xu Qi was, he held the latter’s shoulder and pushed him onto the photographer’s seat.
Now, he had really fully entered Liao Jinxue’s field of vision.
“Since you guys were schoolmates, I’ll leave this photo to you, I’m going to go out and take a rest.”
Xu Qi held the camera that burned in his hands, speechless. “But……”
He could tell that Uncle Liang was doing this on purpose.
“It’s fine,” Liao Jinxue intercepted, calmly relieving the tension, “it doesn’t matter who takes the photo.”
Uncle Liang quickly continued, “See, your schoolmate also doesn’t mind. It’s just a few photos, hurry up and take them and you’ll be done.”
Xu Qi turned stiffly. Liao Jinxue’s presence was too glaring, reminding him of his time at the clinic when the latter calmly yet caringly said, ‘Is there anything else’.
Embarrassment, alongside unwillingness to be exposed, had disrupted Xu Qi’s thoughts. It looked like Liao Jinxue had already forgotten what he had said, and was waiting for the photo-taking to start. His line of sight flickered past the slender fingers pressing against the black camera, leaving no trace.
Isn’t it just a single photo?
Having taken so many pictures before, this time would definitely be the same.
Xu Qi lifted his camera slowly until the both of them were meeting eye-to-eye. “… turn your head slightly to the right.”
Little jobs like this that required no techniques would often be thrown at Xu Qi, so he had been able to skillfully guide the other party to give the right pose since a long time ago, and the photo-taking could be done within a minute.
But that one minute today had been stretched into long and messy paragraphs; printed on every frame was Liao Jinxue, his eyes staring through the lens to look at him.
Xu Qi held steady the burning camera, and rapidly pressed a burst of shutters.
He lowered his eyes without any pauses, pretending to look through the photos in the camera, not looking back at the Liao Jinxue in front of him.
His sensitive ears picked up a trace of sound. When Liao Jinxue got up, his shirt rubbed against the plastic chair, and his footsteps thumped alongside Xu Qi’s heartbeat. The latter held his breath, but the faint scent of cologne still drifted into his nostrils.
“Can I have a look?”
Xu Qi scrolled to the photos he had just taken. The subsequent photos were as different as chalk and cheese. In fact, as long as that person had hands, no photographer would be able to take an ugly photo of Liao Jinxue.
Not knowing how close the other party was, Xu Qi didn’t dare to move. He looked down to see a pair of leather shoes beside his own feet, and the dusty grey paw mark stood out in contrast.
“Have a look first, I’m going to go take some stuff.”
Xu Qi placed the camera in Liao Jinxue’s hands, went to the reception counter outside, and took two pieces of tissue. Uncle Liang had already returned his wicker chair and was reading his newspaper. Without lifting his head, he said, “It’s that dentist brat right.”
Xu Qi paused. “Yes.”
Two sentences promptly ended the conversation; this was the tacit understanding that they had gained throughout the years.
Xu Qi took the tissues back into the photo-taking room. Liao Jinxue had already finished looking through the photos. He looked up, gaze falling onto the tissues Xu Qi had brought over, paused for a moment before receiving it. “Thank you.”
“It can be wiped off right? Little Tu… Uncle Liang’s dog is too playful, I can’t control him.”
“I thought you were scared of it.”
Xu Qi stared blankly at Liao Jinxue, who was bending over to wipe away the dust. He didn’t think the latter would say those words so nonchalantly.
His cheeks started heating up. The secret that he was scared of dogs was found out, and he tried to find an excuse. “I’m not usually like this. It’s just that today the dog suddenly jumped at me, so I got a little scared.”
Xu Qi didn’t know if Liao Jinxue would believe his explanation. He had already straightened his body, his shoe sparkly clean. The bundled-up tissue was thrown in the dustbin at the side, and they didn’t continue with the conversation. Liao Jinxue opened his mouth, “Where do I collect the photo?”
Uncle Liang placed the cropped photos into a plastic bag, packaged it in an envelope, and sent an electronic copy as per Liao Jinxue’s request. When Liao Jinxue was preparing to pay, Uncle Liao suddenly called out to intercept.
“Giving money makes us feel distant, it’s rare to be able to meet old schoolmates so you don’t have to pay for this.”
Liao Jinxue said, “I can’t do that, the money still has to be paid.”
“I already said no need, your photo was taken really nicely so I was about to ask you whether I could hang it at my storefront. If you agree, then these photos would definitely have to be free of charge.”
The glass cabinet at the entrance displayed customers’ wedding photos, portraits and some very successful ID photos, to attract passersby to take a look.
From what Xu Qi recalled, the photos in the cabinet had already been there for five years without being touched. Since Uncle Liang suggested placing Liao Jinxue’s photo in there, it would mean that he was really satisfied with the ID photo.
Of course, Liao Jinxue’s own hardware couldn’t be excluded from the reason.
“You want to display it in that glass cabinet over there?” When Liao Jinxue entered he had obviously noticed that eye-catching glass cabinet. It didn’t seem like he minded, but there also wasn’t any joy that was supposed to be there from receiving the compliment.
Uncle Liang replied, “Placing it there attracts people outside, all the photos were placed there after obtaining their owners’ permission. In these kinds of situations, I would make their order free.”
Uncle Liang doesn’t take advantage of others, and his straightforward and direct personality definitely contributed to a large proportion of the reason why this photography studio was still standing in this alley after decades.
Liao Jinxue looked down to think for a few seconds. Xu Qi noticed that whenever the former performed that action, the eyelashes that drooped down would cover his eyes, giving the other party the feeling that he was in deep thought, When he raised his eyes again, he replied. “Okay.”
They never talked about the money again.
Things that needed to be done were all done. Liao Jinxue picked up his envelope and walked out of the studio. The puppy on the floor whined at his leaving figure, and Xu Qi stood beside it, watching Liao Jinxue from a distance.
Possibly attracted by the cries of the dog, Liao Jinxue turned his head. Those eyes transversed through 10 years to the past, returning Xu Qi to the time when he was caught stalking for the first time. He didn’t know what was happening to himself, and when he came back to his senses his legs had already carried him to Liao Jinxue. A long time passed. No one spoke a word.
“Want to add contact numbers?” Liao Jinxue’s words cut in front of Xu Qi’s. He looked at the latter. “Was this what you wanted to say?”
Xu Qi, who had been punctured, blinked a few times. The phrase “it’s fine if you don’t want to” hadn’t had time to exit his mouth before Liao Jinxue delivered the phone right in front of him.
Seeing how Xu Qi didn’t move, Liao Jinxue asked, “Not adding?”
Xu Qi hurriedly unfroze his hands and frantically added Liao Jinxue’s contact number.
His WeChat profile picture was a bright crescent moon hanging in the night starry sky. His name was really direct, it was a single “Liao”, Xu Qi took note as he quietly added ‘Jinxue’ behind.
“I didn’t mean to say those words last time.”
Liao Jinxue kept his phone and explained naturally. “I met other schoolmates before, and they all asked me to help them with all sorts of things. I don’t want to be troubled by strangers for no good reason, so my attitude at first isn’t very good.”
Xu Qi nodded his head, “I know, I don’t have any other intentions, I just……”
“Just want my contact number?”
Liao Jinxue halted his words, repeating the phrase he spoke two sentences ago. But this time, Xu Qi saw the corners of Liao Jinxue’s lips curl, forming a extremely slight arc, yet not even a slight ripple was created in his cold eyes.
Startled, Xu Qi accidentally spoke the truth.
“I’ll be off.”
Liao Jinxue sheathed his expression and tossed out this phrase, making it seem as if the tiny grin just now was an illusion.
His figure disappeared into the nearby streets.
Xu Qi’s mind echoed the sentence “Don’t want to be troubled by strangers for no good reason”.
Perhaps he too, was also one of those strangers.
(*) 土 (Tǔ) in Chinese means soil/earth, but it’s also used to describe the colour and since the dog fur is soil colour calling him 土狗 is basically calling him ‘Earthy Dog’. Name translations are literally the bane of my existence.