Through that window, Xu Qi could see the reflection of Liao Jinxue’s side profile.
A cup of coffee was placed on the short table in front of his knees, his fingers turning a page of the sprawled magazine. As the light hit his face, every eyelash was illuminated clearly. While Xu Qi was browsing mindlessly, Liao Jinxue’s eyes suddenly turned in this direction, making the former pause in his footsteps.
Time started flowing slower.
“What drink would you like?”
Xu Qi buried his head in the menu the waiter had delivered, and after scanning the page, he couldn’t recall even a single drink’s name. He couldn’t help but drift towards the cup of coffee in front of Liao Jinxue, and pretended to ask casually, “What did you order?”
Liao Jinxue replied, “Latté.”
“I also want that.”
The waiter enquired about the heat level and size of the cup before keeping the menu and leaving.
Xu Qi didn’t have anything he could hold in his hands anymore, and the fingers on his knees churned subconsciously. Liao Jinxue put the magazine back on the table; it was a fashion magazine that could be found everywhere in all coffee shops.
Silence ensued for a moment before Liao Jinxue looked at Xu Qi and asked, “Is it something that can be said here?”
Xu Qi was startled for a moment.
“You mentioned in your message that there was something urgent to say to me, is it okay to talk about it in the coffee shop? If it’s not appropriate we can move to a different location.”
Liao Jinxue explained, unaware that Xu Qi almost forgot the nonsensical reason that he had come up with in order to prevent the two from meeting. He hastily patched up the lie that was almost exposed.
“It’s okay, we don’t have to move, were…”
The waiter served the coffee, interrupting the words hanging from Xu Qi’s mouth.
After the other party had left, Xu Qi lowered his eyes to see two identical cups of coffee on the table. They were placed facing each other, revealing a faint sense of intimacy, and a hidden trace of satisfaction filled his whole body.
At least in this moment, he and Liao Jinxue sat in the same place, at the same level, and drank the same coffee.
It was as if they were the same person.
Xu Qi finished was he wanted to say, “Were you always in the café?”
Liao Jinxue leaned against the backrest, the cramped space beneath the table wasn’t enough for him to straighten his legs. He folded them together and answered calmly, “I was eating with my colleagues. When you sent the message, I was preparing to go home.”
Embarrassment welled up in Xu Qi as he thought about his previous wild guess, but at the same time, he was able to let out a breath of relief.
Liang Yue didn’t go out to meet Liao Jinxue.
“Sorry, did I disturb you?”
After Xu Qi said that, he recalled that he had said the same thing at the clinic that day.
He didn’t know if Liao Jinxue heard the similarity in his words. The latter glimpsed at the clock beneath his sleeve and said nothing, but Xu Qi could still sense that Liao Jinxue didn’t want to continue staying here.
Nervously, he picked up the cup of coffee. He didn’t take a sip, as it was just for reassurance.
Xu Qi forced his brain to dig for a suitable explanation for the ‘urgent matter’, making a dent in the paper cup as he squeezed, the heat burning his hands.
“I might be unemployed soon.”
Pushing out this sentence actually made Xu Qi feel a different kind of relaxation.
Liao Jinxue’s eyebrows furrowed slightly, a solemn atmosphere slowly building up. “What happened?”
Being under the attention of that continuous gaze, Xu Qi’s words were continuously dishevelled and reorganised, and he tried his best to not make himself sound like he wasn’t whining. “I made a mistake today, and my superior got really angry. Furthermore, the company is about to lay off its employers, and I think… my name is on that list.”
This was already the edited version of the euphemism.
Liao Jinxue said, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Xu Qi’s hands gripped the coffee cup uncontrollably. Under his tacky black glasses, there was always a hint of strangeness in his expression that seemed to be doubt, wariness, and a trace of uncertainty.
“Talk… talk about what?”
Liao Jinxue silently scrutinized Xu Qi for a few seconds and adjusted his seat before opening his mouth again, “Didn’t you want to meet me because you wanted someone to confide in? Correct me if I’m wrong.”
Was he confiding in Liao Jinxue?
This foreign yet intimate word gave Xu Qi goosebumps to. He promptly lowered his head, his fingers shifting uncomfortably. After a fierce battle with his inner thoughts, he forced out, “I… I am.”
Xu Qi stepped on the stairs Liao Jinxue handed over and walked down.
“The mistake wasn’t actually made by me. Even though I also had a reason, the other colleague in my company would always rely on his background instead of doing his job properly. Today he……”
He started with much difficulty, but as he spoke he slowly started to dig the depths of his heart out fluently. Even Liang Yue didn’t know about all these happenings, yet Xu Qi when faced Liao Jinxue, a third party that intervened in their relationship, he was able to say it without any hindrance.
In the end, even he wasn’t sure if he was sincerely pouring his heart out about his grievances to Liao Jinxue.
Xu Qi’s desires were simple; as long as someone was willing to stand on his side and comfort him by telling him it wasn’t his fault, it was okay even if it was a lie.
Liang Yue never cared about these matters. He had mentioned it many times, and every single time, she would stand against Xu Qi and point out which areas where he did wrong. Even if Xu Qi was the one being bullied and getting hurt, she would only blame him for ‘being useless’.
He forgot since when, but Xu Qi never brought up unpleasant things that happened at work to Liang Yue anymore.
It was only the third time they met again, but Liao Jinxue was willing to sit in the corner of the coffeehouse late at night, accompanying him, quietly listening to his messily put-together words, listening to him pour his heart out, telling him it was okay to spill out his troubles.
Xu Qi was unable to let go of this lifeline that was so hard to come by, even if came from the person he hated the most.
When Xu Qi finished, Liao Jinxue accompanied him in his silence for a while, as if he was confirming that he had actually finished. He stared at Xu Qi with a steady affirmation and spoke for the first time these few minutes, “You didn’t do anything wrong, they were the ones who went overboard.”
He didn’t do anything wrong, they were obviously the ones that went overboard.
Liao Jinxue’s face became so dazzling it prickled, and Xu Qi turned his head in embarrassment, trying to hide the wetness that surfaced uncontrollably in his eyes.
He just wanted one sentence that comforted him like this, why was it so difficult?
Why was it that in the end, the person who told him this was Liao Jinxue?
“This job isn’t suitable for you, so it’s not a bad thing to resign. You should look for a new job that you like and consider the future carefully.”
Liao Jinxue said.
How long has it been since someone uttered that word to Xu Qi; his future had long been set in stone. He entered an average high school, an average university, and after graduation, he married early and found an average yet stable job. Several decades later, this average life would end, just like thousands of other average people.
Liao Jinxue was different from them.
They were all ants that didn’t know how to speak. They were so small they could only care for themselves. Throughout their lives, they only lived to survive. No one could ever hear the cries of the ants.
“I don’t know,” the corners Xu Qi’s mouth twitched, unsure if his attempt at smiling worked; from Liao Jinxue’s expression it was likely that it didn’t, “it’s not so easy to find a job that I like and is suited for me. My qualifications aren’t as good as yours, so even if I go job hunting, no one would want me. I would probably end up with a job that’s similar to my current one.”
When said the last few sentences, Xu Qi keenly picked up on how Liao Jinxue’s lips tightened. He was as expressionless as ever, but it seemed to be slightly colder than just now.
Liao Jinxue looked at his watch for the second time tonight and said, “It’s pretty late, we should go.”
The parting came too suddenly, and Xu Qi stared blankly as Liao Jinxue stood up, muttering, “Okay.”
The two cups of untouched coffee remained on the table; it had already turned cold, but no one took it.
Xu Qi hailed a taxi here. He was afraid that Liao Jinxue would remember his car plate number and he would be unable to continue stalking him, hence he lied saying that his car broke down and was being repaired.
Liao Jinxue didn’t question him and offered to send him home. The sky had already turned dark, and it was unsafe to call for a taxi.
Xu Qi quietly accepted this polite kindness, hence he walked side by side with Liao Jinxue. Between their shoulders stood a gap, not near yet not far.
Xu Qi could clearly feel the distance between him and Liao Jinxue closing as he spoke, but after the last few sentences, they pulled back to their original positions.
Where exactly did he say something wrong.
Liao Jinxue’s car was parked a few streets away, near where he and his colleagues gathered for dinner. Hence, Xu Qi had no choice but to walk together with Liao Jinxue back to where the car was parked, having fragmented small talks along the way in an attempt to not let the atmosphere become cold.
“Which university did you end up going to?”
Xu Qi asked mindlessly, even preparing an answer to his own question, but heard Liao Jinxue reply, “One of the universities in Xiang City.“
The name of the university wasn’t mentioned.
This answer made it difficult for Xu Qi to continue asking ‘exactly which university’. It seemed like after Xu Qi had confessed everything that happened at his work, Liao Jinxue was still unwilling to share anything about himself.
Xu Qi bit that tooth that was filled not long ago, the taste of defeat inevitably rising.
Xu Qi’s words broke off mid-sentence, unable to finish the sentence.
The artificial lake couldn’t be called big. A row of trees was planted along each side, and the only thing acting as a barrier was the short stones surrounding it. It wasn’t able to play any sort of role in preventing dangers.
Under the night sky, the water was pitch black. It was like a beast, lurking in the dark with its jaws wide open, waiting for an ignorant prey to drop into the abyss with a loud ‘plop’ of satiation.
Xu Qi stood stagnant, only realising after a long time that the sound of something falling into the water wasn’t a hallucination. Liao Jinxue turned toward the source of the sound. It was blocked by the unstable terrain, and they could only catch a glimpse of the rising waves under the moonlight.
“It could be someone swimming.”
Liao Jinxue’s words did nothing to cure Xu Qi’s current state. He stood rooted to the ground, his sight urgently looking towards where the sound came from. His pale face blended into the night, leaving only his trembling voice. “Just now… was that a person?”
“It could have also been a stone.”
Liao Jinxue walked forward, blocking Xu Qi’s sight, and said without changing his expression, “My car’s on the opposite side, let’s go by the other side so we won’t have to make a detour later.”
Xu Qi knew he should have listened to Liao Jinxue and left, but that sound was like a curse that was playing beside his ear, over and over again. He looked past Liao Jinxue’s shoulders, at the river surface. Vaguely, he could see half a sphere floating above.
It looked like a human’s head.
This scene shattered into pieces in Xu Qu’s mind. The heavy fragments flew wildly, the sharp corners slicing open the box sealed away in the depths of his memory, the thick black waters within overflowing with a foul stench.
The bright sky, the clear waters, and the luscious green lawn beside the river. On that day, the world was covered with a layer of grey, unable to be wiped away, just like the black and white photo that stared at him every night.
Xu Cheng’s small body was like a light floating balloon, helplessly floating on the surface, deserted. There were people in the surrounding who jumped down one after another, the splashes becoming greater and greater. When Chen Fang rushed over he was crying like he had gone mad, and was also grabbing Xu Qi’s arm, trying to toss him into the water like he had gone mad. If it weren’t for the citizens around that stopped him, two brothers of the Xu family would’ve died that day.
Why didn’t you save him?
Why weren’t you the one that died?
Chen Fang repeatedly asked, repeatedly blamed. Xu Qi heard the question too many times; he forgot his original answer.
Why didn’t you save him?
Liao Jinxue’s sudden increase in volume wasn’t able to hold onto Xu Qi, the splash of a heavy object falling into the water sounded more decisively than the one before.
The ice-cold water wrapped around Xu Qi’s body tightly. He used all his might, swimming in that direction non-stop, reached out his hand, and grabbed onto the satiny mass.
It was a plastic bag that had been blown away by the wind.
Two youths that were swimming nearby had been attracted by the noise. When they saw Liao Jinxue running towards the river bank, and Xu Qi’s body that was bobbing up and down in the water, they disregarded everything else and swam towards Xu Qi. The both of them together heaved him back onshore.
Liao Jinxue thanked the youths and declined their offer to look for the police’s help. He waited for the both of them to leave before looking at Xu Qi, who was on the floor, drenched with water. The night wind blew on Xu Qi’s dripping wet clothes and trousers, and the tremble of his shoulders was barely visible.
It seemed cold.
Liao Jinxue squat down and stared straight at Xu Qi, saying, “I’m going to leave for a while. I’ll be back immediately, will it be okay if you stay here alone?”
Xu Qi hugged his soaked body, struggling to understand what Liao Jinxue had just said. Through the darkness, he could see the movements of the other party’s mouth. With the sharp wind blowing on his cheeks, he nodded stiffly.
If he walked onto the streets now, everyone would probably stare at him.
Liao Jinxue left.
Xu Qi closed his eyes and curled his body up. He buried his head into his knees. One moment, Xu Cheng was still alive; he looked similar to himself but was full of vigour. The next moment, he was lying on the river shore, surrounded by layers of people and policemen. Xu Cheng lost all his vitality; all that was left was a grey and stiff young corpse.
The plastic bag flew and enveloped him in darkness.
Xu Qi felt as if that broken part of his was about to spark into flames, cause a huge fire in his body, and burn his flesh and bones till only ashes were left.
This fire that had already been set ablaze in his imagination was put out by a soft blanket that fell from the sky.
Liao Jinxue returned with a blanket. He leaned forward and wrapped Xu Qi’s body with it. Grabbing a corner of the blanket, he gently rubbed Xu Qi’s wet hair to wipe away the beads of water. He pressed his lips into a cold line, but his movements were very light; it was as if he was helping a tiny animal that needed to be rescued.
“This was the only thing I could find in the car.”
Xu Qi caught a trace of the faint cologne smell that would occasionally drift by, suppressing the overwhelming stench of water, and making him fall onto a piece of soft, fluffy cloud.
Liao Jinxue wiped away the water that stained his face, leaned forward to close the distance, and slowed his speech to let Xu Qi, who was still suffering from shock, hear every single word clearly.
“Come, let’s go home.”