Edited by DancingDolphinsYo
The sky had been dark since early morning on Sunday.
The rehearsal for Focus Show Music Festival was in the morning, and the red carpet event would be in the afternoon. At night, the show would be streamed live globally, and the schedule was very tight. All members of AOW had gathered at the company at 6am in the morning, and when they reached the venue, they waited for their turn to rehearse. Many singers ahead of them took their own sweet time finding their positions, and by the time it was their turn, it was nearly lunchtime.
Amongst the seven of them, only a few had experience being on stage. Everyone was very nervous, and they could no longer remember how their teachers had emphasised on controlling their expressions and looking for the camera. Even the usually professional Gao Ming made a mistake. While changing their formation after a jump, he ran to the wrong position, bumping into Ning Lan.
Ning Lan was a little low on blood sugar. After getting bumped into, he fell two steps back. His legs weakened, and he fell, sitting onto the ground. Gao Ming had wanted to apologise at first, but seeing how Ning Lan did not stand back up, he felt that Ning Lan was faking it. Who did not come here without eating breakfast?
The music stopped abruptly, and Wang Bingyang, standing nearest to them, went forward to help Ning Lan up. Sui Yi too walked over from the front row, asking what happened. With a pale face, Ning Lan shook his head, and in the end, Sui Yi went to talk to the staff, saying that they had to take a short break, and to let others rehearse first.
Fang Yu took out a few pieces of chocolate from his pocket and gave them to Ning Lan. “Have something sweet first to help. I also have low blood sugar, and so, I often have some snacks on me. Next time when you’re hungry, just look for me.”
Lu Xiaochuan spoke, “The food we ordered will be delivered soon. Let’s continue after eating.”
Ning Lan thought that these two people were actually not too bad when they were not fighting.
After lunch, AOW again went on stage and swiftly ran through their two songs. Zhang Fan then led them offstage to wardrobe and makeup. Zhang Fan was extremely busy today. Many of the artistes under her were performing today, including their seniors V-Wish. She told AOW that the girl group would be walking down the red carpet before them. If they were to take a photo together at that time, they would be able to gain a little more exposure.
In the afternoon, the sky still did not clear up. The clouds were grey and low, seemingly ready to fall onto people.
Ning Lan’s nervousness in walking down the red carpet was not as bad as when he was taking the high school leaving examinations. He looked up at the sky. The weather then was just like this as well, and he had a fever. The words on the exam paper danced and twisted in front of him, and halfway through his examination, he tossed his pen away, losing consciousness on his desk.
In his heart, he persuaded himself. There’s no need to be nervous, it’s fine. This is only a job, and people’s criticisms have nothing to do with me. I’m only here to earn money.
Just like his high school examinations, so what if he was nervous, so what if he put in a lot of effort? He was destined to not be able to enter a university, and he was already very lucky to have been able to finish high school. They all said that studying was the only way for lower-class citizens to liberate themselves from their lives, but he was unable to even get that chance.
Muddleheaded, he walked down the red carpet. While waiting for their turn to be on stage in the lounge, Sui Yi led AOW around to greet their seniors. Ning Lan had seen him studying a book with information on various entertainment artistes in the training room before, and he was very astonished at that time. Were these people not familiar faces who had often appeared on television and the internet? Was there a need to memorise their names?
It was only later then that Ning Lan learnt that the young master had studied classical music, and he had no interest in the entertainment industry. As for why Sui Yi decided to suddenly enter the entertainment industry despite excelling on his violin, Ning Lan pondered over it, and felt that he could only explain it as his rebellious stage, wanting to antagonise his family.
What a wilful life. Ning Lan could not help but sigh.
When they were on the red carpet, everything was captured by the cameras, and so, Zhang Fan did not allow them to bring their phones with them. AOW’s performance was arranged towards the end. After the youths had greeted their seniors, they all hid in a corner, tapping at their phones furiously, sharing their emotions about walking down a red carpet with their friends and families. Wang Bingyang was so excited that his entire face flushed red as he spoke into his phone. “Xue Ying, the best actress Xue Ying spoke to me! You definitely will not be able to imagine how pretty she is in real life!”
Ning Lan was holding onto his phone as well. Pressing on the ON button, he made the screen light up, before switching off the screen again. He did not know who he could share his feelings with, as there was no one who would be happy for him.
Just as An Lin came over with her huge canvas bag to collect the phones, Ning Lan’s phone suddenly rang.
It was an unfamiliar number that he had no impression of. He thought it would be a cold call, and straight away rejected it. Within a few seconds, that number called again.
An Lin stopped in front of him. “Quickly answer it, if not, you’ll only be able to touch your phone again 6 hours later.”
So Ning Lan turned around and answered the call.
“Stupid whore, you finally know how to answer a call? Who the hell gave you the guts to change your number and not inform me?”
Ning Lan’s heart jolted. He could only think of one way Xie Tianhao had managed to get his new number.
He shifted to the side, leaving the crowd. “What do you want?”
Xie Tianhao laughed with insolence and wretchedness. “To do you, of course. Stupid whore, I’ve spent so much money, but I only just touched you a couple of times. Say, don’t you think I’ve made a huge loss?”
Ning Lan lowered his voice. “Don’t do anything to my uncle and aunt. I’ll return the money to you very soon.”
“Yo, listen to this,” Xie Tianhao’s voice sounded further away. Noise could be heard from the other side, and it seemed like he was surrounded by quite a few people. “Listen to what your good son has just said. He doesn’t care about you, only caring about his uncle and aunt.”
A shrill voice of a woman could now be heard. “Lanlan, Lanlan, quick, save Mama! Lanlan, they’re going to kill your mom!”
The men on the other side all burst out laughing, and Ning Lan could hear a woman’s pained cry. Xie Tianhao’s voice again sounded in his ear. “Did you hear that? Your dear mother is calling you, begging you to come and save her. Are you going to care?”
Ning Lan’s breath was stuck in his throat. “Let her go.”
Xie Tianhao clicked his tongue. “You make it sound so easy. I’ve spent so much money, wait, how does that phrase go? Oh, I’ve lost the bait along with the fish. How can I swallow this down?” A flurry of actions could be heard through the phone, interspersed with a woman’s pained howls.
“I’ve said that I’ll return the money. Can you let her go first?” Ning Lan himself felt that his words were not convincing at all, but he did not know what else he could say.
Xie Tianhao tossed the rod in his hand away, and a lackey next to him lit his cigarette for him. “How about this, I’ll give you two choices. You either gather that 200,000rmb right now, without a single cent missing, or you immediately appear in front of me.”
Ning Lan had no other choices, and yielded. “Ge, three days, please give me three days.”
There was no need to speak of any sentiment between the two of them. Xie Tianhao slowly exhaled. “Wouldn’t it have been good if you’ve been so obedient right from the start? I’ve been looking for you for so long, and I’m extremely annoyed now. How about this, before the day turns dark tomorrow, I must see either you or the money. I’m giving you your last chance, you should know what to do.”
Ning Lan hung up, taking two deep breaths. He tried his best to return to the group, composed, and spoke to An Lin. “Jie, I want to go back to the company for a bit.”
“Why are you going back? You’re about to go onstage.”
“I-I’ve left my protective amulet in the training studio. Without it, I don’t dare to go onstage.”
An Lin nearly burst out laughing. “Why are you so superstitious at your age? I’ll go and bring it back for you, just sit here and wait.”
Ning Lan hurriedly said, “I’ll go take it myself. You don’t know where it is, I hid it very well.”
An Lin looked at the time, hesitating. “Fine, I know you’re very nervous going onstage for the first time.” She gave Ning Lan some directions. “Leave from the back door. There are many cabs waiting there. Come back quickly once you’ve got it.”
Ning Lan agreed, turning around and leaving. Sui Yi ran up and caught him, taking two pieces of 100rmb out from his pocket. “You didn’t bring any money along, right? You’re going to take a cab with empty pockets?”
Ning Lan did not dare to look at him. Feeling flustered, he accepted the money and thanked him, before walking through the crowd towards the back door.
He reached the dormitory in less than twenty minutes. Ning Lan looked up at the clock on the wall, it was 6pm on the dot. The last bus back home was at 7.30pm, and the journey would take 21 hours. By the time he reached, the sky should have yet to turn dark.
Ning Lan haphazardly wiped the water off his face. The rain that had been threatening to fall for the entire day had finally descended upon them. Disembarking from the cab, he was drenched walking from the entrance to the lift. A spring rain was like a thunderstorm, and the windows rattled away with the rain drops, just like the chaos in his heart.
He had left the show venue on impulse. However, the several minutes he spent in the cab were enough for him to think things through.
Despite how bad that woman was, she was still his only mother. She was the mother who hugged him to sleep as a child, and the mother who sang for him.
Maybe his aunt was the one who told his mother his new number, or Xie Tianhao had gotten it directly from his aunt. No matter which scenario it was, they were both the worst.
He was unable to gather up such a large amount of money, so he had no choice but to appear.
With trembling hands, Ning Lan opened Gu Chenkai’s drawer, as he had seen the child take money out from it before. He found a wallet all the way inside, and he took all the cash out. There was over 1000rmb, and it was enough to buy him a bus ticket.
In the entire dormitory, Gu Chenkai was the one with the worst spending habits. All his snacks were imported, and he never repeated any of his clothes within a month. The loss of a 1000rmb should not affect his life.
There was no one like him in AOW, so down and out. They might even cheer joyfully once he was gone. One less person would disrupt the group formation, but they could just find a dancer to temporarily replace him. Today, Starlight Entertainment had brought along two car fulls of dancers, and every one of them danced better than him. When the festival was over, the company would probably make an announcement, saying that “Member Ning Lan has left the group without any reasons, and is now expelled from AOW.” With their efficiency, they might even be able to find another member very quickly, or they could also just go ahead with six members.
As long as there was not a scourge like him around, everything would be very good.
Maybe because of the day’s weather, Ning Lan felt a stuffiness in his chest, and it seemed like he could barely breathe. He tore out a page from the book which he had filled with musical notations, but did not manage to find a pen after some time. Taking one from Sui Yi’s table, his hand was shaking horrendously. Despite writing the same word three times, the word still could not be read. Finally, with a shift of the pen, a hole was poked into the paper.
He moved the paper away. On the surface of the desk, there were three letters that Gu Chenkai had spent half a night carving when he could not sleep — AOW.
Those youths came from all corners of the country, each with their own goals. Their only similarity was treating this group as a brand new start of their lives. With anticipation, they left their past behind them, walking towards an unknown future filled with hope.
The word “sorry” felt extremely insignificant. Did his apology even mean anything? He was beyond hope, dragging innocent people down along with him, and yet he still sought forgiveness?
Feeling numb, Ning Lan let go of the pen, and did not write anymore. He also did not dare to look at it again, carelessly taking two shirts from the cupboard. When he saw the heat packs and medicated plasters on the bed, he paused for a moment, before picking them up and shoving them into his bag with the shirts.
Ning Lan did not even turn back to take one last look as he left. It was as if the heavens had never given him a chance to go back on his words.
Opening the door, the sound-activated lights above his head lit up. Outside the door, there stood someone who had also been drenched by the rain.
Sui Yi was holding an umbrella, but it was not open. His eyes slowly slid down Ning Lan’s ashen face, stopping at the bag in his hand.
A drop of rainwater dripped down from Sui Yi’s fringe. His voice was as icy as the rain. “Where are you going?”