Chapter 3 – The Collapse of the Viaduc
‘Ah, habit…’ He looked at the lot where the Maserati was parked last night and saw a Hyundai instead: Guo Xiang must have left. Then he looked up as he prepared to confront his new reality, or at least gather his belongings before his departure from his old life.
Li Yiming climbed upstairs. He opened the door to his apartment and found it empty.
The studio had a rent of 3,800 RMB per month. With Li Yiming’s income, it would be impossible for him to afford such a luxury throughout his university years. Fortunately, both Ji Xiaoqin and him were students in the dance program and often received contracts for performances, so they were able to pay rent.
The room was a little messy, true to the stereotype that many art students were naturally inept at domestic chores. Li Yiming glossed over the familiar room, a little overwhelmed. He walked to the trash can by the bed before he knew it and peered inside almost involuntarily. He found a clean bag with nothing inside.
‘Phew.’ A sigh of relief. Even so, he did not dare to inspect the bed sheets. Instead, he slouched on the sofa with dead eyes and turned the television on. At this time, even a little bit of noise would help alleviate his loneliness.
The news ran on the television. It seemed like a newly constructed viaduct in the outskirts of the city had collapsed during rush hour, causing numerous deaths. Rescue was underway, so it seemed to have occurred not too long ago.
Nowadays, this kind of news was quite common. In a capitalistic society, who would not skimp on the job and stint on the materials? The path between the bid proposal and the contract signing was littered with under-the-table deals. Those needed to be accounted for, so if the construction company did not tamper with the quality of the project itself, how could it expect to yield a profit? The only variability was what new low they were willing to reach in order to boost their income figures.
Li Yiming sighed. He did not continue to watch the scenes of the collapse, as they wrenched his heart. His attention diverted to the half-finished pack of cigarettes sitting on the table and the exquisite lighter next to it. He did not know the name of the brand, but he guessed that it had to be something Guo Xiang left behind…
‘A man who doesn’t drink, no woman he shall have; a man who doesn’t smoke, no son he shall beget…’ Li Yiming laughed in self-derision as he remembered the saying from the man in shorts. He lit a cigarette and took a puff.
A little bitter, and the smoke burned his throat.
Li Yiming exhaled and watched the smoke scatter away. He sighed again. ‘Forget it. If it wants to scatter, then let it fall apart. The rule for campus romance: love ends at graduation.’ To wish for Ji Xiaoqin to return with him to his home in Lishui was unrealistic. He should have known about it, otherwise she would not have equivocated so when he brought up finding a job there. The interview yesterday went nicely, so once he secured a position and settled down, he should be able to find a girl in Lishui and live a quiet life.
He would pack his belongings and rush to catch the bus back home. It was time to put a period to his life here, to this city, and to its inhabitants. Many will perhaps seek an explanation, a reason behind such a betrayal. Yet, for Li Yiming, a clarification was unnecessary. A confrontation would only avail to further embarrassment. Besides, what’s done is done, why make things more difficult for himself and for her? Big brother in shorts was right: such are the rules…
A man does not mature into pragmatism; he simply accepts reality more readily. After “dying” once last night, Li Yiming felt like he suddenly grew up. Since anger and hatred were not useful, then he should just learn to see the world through more empathetic eyes and to put himself in other people’s shoes,. From Ji Xiaoqin’s perspective, she had the right to pursue her own happiness and follow whatever path she chooses. As for the morality of her actions… morality is but a set of rules determined by the majority of society.
After a moment of lucidity, Li Yiming got up and began to pack up his meager possessions. He had barely started when the black box he had slid out from his pocket and dropped onto the ground.
‘This thing…’ He recalled the scenes inside the teahouse. The curiosity he had deliberately restrained rushed forth once again. He stooped down, scooped it up, and sat back into the sofa.
The black box was made of a material unknown to Li Yiming. Yet the workmanship was meticulous, and it did not weigh much at all. It seemed like some kind of high end eyeglass case.
Li Yiming did not have time to examine the object properly until now. He hesitantly opened it.
Li Yiming found a pair of fashionable sunglasses with a black frame and tawny lenses inside. He put it on and his first reaction was to throw a glance at the mirror.
‘Cool! I look quite fashionable!’
Li Yiming looked down and noticed two other things in the case: a bead the size of a fingernail and something that looked like a lighter. The bead was soft when pinched: it was made of soft rubber.
‘What is this? Do you get a free lighter when buying glasses?’ Li Yiming picked up the lighter with curiosity. There was a single button on it. He pressed it.
The space in front of him suddenly distorted. The next moment, one… two… three… four… the figures of the people in the teahouse appeared one by one in front of him. All of them were wearing the same sunglasses and looked at him with surprise. He noticed Qing Qiaoqiao’s obvious excitement as she hurriedly stuffed something into her ear.
‘What’s going on?’ Li Yiming was shocked. He took his glasses off in a panic… The images disappeared. He put it back on… The four faces reappeared again, with the same astonished expressions: Eyeglasses frowned; Grandma Wang squinted her eyes; and Qing Linglong’s lips were opening and closing: she was saying something he could not hear.
Li Yiming heard faint sounds coming from the small bead on the table. He remembered what Qing Qiaoqiao did a moment before. He intuitively reached for it and put it in his ear.
“Mr. Li?” He could now clearly hear Qing Linglong’s voice.
‘Holy shit! A virtual reality conference call? This is some high-tech!’ He found himself in a situation which was straight out of a Hollywood movie, which left him completely stunned.
“Mr. Li?” Qing Linglong called again. As for Grandma Wang, she was already showing signs of impatience.
“Ah?” Li Yiming was still in shock.
“Mr. Li, we haven’t parted for long, and you’re already contacting us. Did you find anything?” Qing Linglong noticed Li Yiming’s bafflement, and her voice suggested some discontentment.
“…” Li Yiming did not know what to say. He simply had too many questions.
“Big Sister, look at the television.” After a moment of silence, Qing Qiaoqiao suddenly exclaimed.
‘Television?’ Li Yiming looked pass the hologram, at the television. The rescue operations after the viaduct collapse were still being broadcasted. Big events such as these would certainly be closely followed for a while.
“Eyeglasses, can you have a look at this?” asked Qing Linglong in a serious tone.
“Give me ten seconds.” Eyeglasses lowered his head. He was typing at lightning speed on a tablet. The impatience on Grandma Wang had vanished, replaced by a trace of surprise.
“On the outskirts of the city, forty two minutes ago, a large segment, over 4.23 kilometers of Highway 208, had collapsed. 52 people are confirmed dead, and the amount of injured are still being estimated.” Eyeglasses’s magnetic voice started narrating after barely ten seconds.
“Is this an accident or our clue?”
“Highway 208 was completed in April. Its construction lasted two years and seven months, and the project was inspected in June. Its inauguration was on June 24th, so it’s been only two months minus nine days. For such a large scale project, no amount of skimping should have made a collapse possible after such a short while.” Eyeglasses slowly read the information from his tablet.
“This must be our clue. Good job, Mr. Li. We ought to pay close attention to anything related to this incident. Keep in contact.” Big Sister Linglong smiled as she faded away.
“My old eyes have underestimated you earlier.” Grandma Wang nodded at him and disappeared with Eyeglasses.
Li Yiming took off his sunglasses and stared blankly at the TV screen.
‘Clues? What clues? The clues for what? Can someone tell me what’s going on? Big brother in shorts, the invitation card, the teahouse, the four weirdos, the high-tech stuff…’
Li Yiming’s mood was a melting pot of many things; He realized that he might have been caught up in something big. He was looking forward to it and felt a little excited for its outcome. In an era of Hollywood movies, which child had not dreamt of being exceptional? However, the excitement quickly subdued into uneasiness and a fear of the unknown.
‘Since I’m caught in this, there’s no reason to cower. I might as well step forward and see the end of it.’ Li Yiming decided speedily. When all was said, he was nothing but a hot-blooded young man who had yet to reach the age of circumspection. His curiosity was quite piqued by the novelty of the affair.
‘But what should I do exactly?’ Li Yiming was at a loss.
He took out his cellphone and look at the time – 5:20PM.
‘Food first, then we’ll think about it.’ He was a little proud of his decision. It appeared, quite obviously from his observation of those four weirdos… Correction, those four mysterious people, that they were certainly planning to accomplish something extraordinary. They seemed to consider him as one of their own, which was the perfect opportunity for him to unveil the truth.
He even forgot about packing his luggage. The thoughts about Ji Xiaoqin lessened in his mind. Such was the power of distraction. He carefully slipped the black box and the invitation into his bag and put the “lighter” into his pocket. He put on the sunglasses, since Big Sister mentioned “keeping contact”. Li Yiming hurried downstairs. The moment he closed the door to his rented studio, he felt it was a farewell to his past life, leaving behind memories, parting with his love, and soaring above the mundane.
Yet, life never goes as one wishes. As soon as he exited the building, he was immediately pulled back to reality.
Someone stopped him right in his tracks. A young woman. Lively and cute, yet stylish and dignified, she stood there, without any shyness, and it seemed like she was simply waiting to fly into his arms. She was the embodiment of Li Yiming’s aspiration for love, a vestige of his youth.
Ji Xiaoqin was dressed in a simple milky shoulderless T-shirt, a pink mini-skirt which added a rosy tint to her legs and sandals that supported her thin calves and the ankles Li Yiming found so attractive. She seemed baffled and somewhat shocked.
“You’re here?!” said Ji Xiaoqin. She seemed pleasantly surprised. Her mouth slightly parted, showing her teeth, followed by a lovely smile which beguiled Li Yiming. She walked toward him.
“I arrived yesterday.” Li Yiming blurted out when he saw her approach. His heart trembled as he looked at that face… that smile… He took a deep breath and noticed that she had two bags in her hands, two very common shopping bags which seemed full of clothes. Yet, Li Yiming could only remember seeing the logos in an idol drama.
“Yesterday? I…” The smile on Ji Xiaoqin’s face vanished, replaced by a mixture of mostly panic, some doubt and a sliver of guilt.
The two stood facing each other, with a safe distance between them. It was close enough for Li Yiming to forgo any thoughts of kneeling down and begging her to come back… And far enough so that he could not injure her in a seizure of angry rage…