“Xiaoyu, help Mama take a quick picture!” The woman said as she pulled out her phone, much to the dismay of her son.
“But Mum!” The boy whined as he watched the ice cream start to melt and drip down the side of the cone, quickly losing its shape in the heat of the summer sun.
“Aiyah, don’t rush Mama,” she chided, handing her phone over as he resigned himself to his mother’s whims and quickly took an amateur picture. Li Yuxi quickly sent the image to her friends on WeChat before placating her son, “There, all done.” And with that, her son finally got his hands on the prize. A scoop of ice cream that he’d been waiting all day to have.
The pair continued down the mostly empty street, the woman typing away on the phone while she walked and the son happily enjoying his treat. After a few moments, she noticed the missing presence of her son beside her and turned to look down the street in worry. Standing a few paces away was her son, staring at the floor where his ice cream lay melted, the remaining cone hanging empty in his hand.
“Haoyu! What did you do!” The mother cried out as she stalked towards her son in anger. Her son didn’t react, still staring silently at the pink mixture that continued to spread across the brick tiles. The woman called out his name again as she drew closer, this time out of concern for his lack of reply.
The boy looked up at his mother as she arrived in front of him, eyes closed and smiling innocently, “Sorry Mum! I accidentally tripped.”
The mother sighed, both in relief and guilt over her reaction. “Come, I’ll get you ice cream another time. We’re in a hurry.” She grabbed his hand and dragged him along.
A sharp pain hit the back of her throat. She choked.
The object pulled out and she collapsed, unable to breathe as splatters of blood coughed from her mouth. She raised her hands to her throat, shaking in a desperate attempt to keep the blood inside somehow. She searched hopelessly for her son, only to meet brightly shining red eyes with a sadistic grin.
That wasn’t her son.
The boy raised the bloody knife in his hand and slit his throat. The red faded from his eyes, becoming the soft brown of her son. He was dead before he hit the floor.
The mother reached weakly out to her son, tears running down her face as she continued to choke, unable to breathe. Her hand fell short and she lay still, blood continuing to flow from her wound as her eyes lost their shine.
“Welcome to the Shiguang Photo Studio.” The bell at the door rang as two men entered the store, causing Xiaoshi to look up from where he stood behind the counter, wiping clean various camera lenses. He started to greet the customers routinely before stopping short when he recognised the men.
“Xiao Li? Chen Bin? What are you doing here?” Xiaoshi questioned. Were they here to question him again?
“Official business,” Xiao Li replied as Chen Bin placed an unopened yellow envelope on the counter. “You’ve been tied to a murder.”
Xiaoshi turned pale, “What!?”
“Two victims. Murder-suicide. Thirty-four-year-old woman with a thirteen-year-old son. Your name was found at the scene with a message,” Xiao Li listed, placing a photo onto the counter. Xiaoshi observed the purple flowers, his eyes trailing down the stem until he reached an attached note. ‘To Cheng Xiaoshi, you haven’t forgotten me, have you?’ His eyes widened as he emitted a strangled sound, eyes darting back to Xiao Li.
Xiao Li met Xiaoshi with a stern stare, “I would like you to join the police in solving the case. I want you to go into the pictures in the envelope and find any useful information.”
“But-” Xiaoshi began to protest before being interrupted by Xiao Li lifting a hand to stop him.
“Don’t forget that you and Qiao Ling are still being investigated as suspects in Lu Guang’s case,” Xiao Li leaned onto the counter, “but if you help out, any charges could be lessened or even thrown out. Do you want to put Qiao Ling at risk?”
Xiaoshi shook his head, mind in turmoil as he stuttered, “I- I-”
“Think about it. Contact Chen Bin with your answer. Soon.” Xiao Li turned around and waved as Chen Bin followed. Cheng Xiaoshi looked down at the camera lens he had been wiping, conflicted. There wasn’t much he could do without Lu Guang guiding him. His mind flashed to Emma falling off the bridge. What if he made another irreversible mistake?
He looked at the unopened envelope still on the counter which undoubtedly contained the files about the case. Xiaoshi couldn’t bring himself to open it, fearful of what could be contained inside. Instead, he placed it on the coffee table in front of the couch that had been replaced. There had been no saving it from the stains.
Deciding to try and take his mind off the situation, he headed into the darkroom, intending to finish developing the photos left by the last client. Following the complex steps, first submerging the film into a developing solution, Xiaoshi attempted to switch off his brain but was unable to as thoughts flew wildly within his mind. His mind jumped from situation to situation, imagining all the mistakes and consequences that could arise from working on the case. His thoughts became further jumbled as Xiaoshi thought back to the still ongoing case surrounding the stabbing of Lu Guang.
Was he willing to risk it?
Cheng Xiaoshi quickly rolled the films into several protective cases, keeping the rolls safe until he returned. He couldn’t efficiently work with his mind under stress. Resolving himself, Xiaoshi stepped out of the shop and locked the door, closing for the day, before he made his way in the direction of the hospital.
Maybe talking to Lu Guang would help clear his mind.
A rapid knocking interrupted Qiao Ling from the spreadsheets of numbers that were slowly melting her brain. She closed the laptop and answered the door cautiously to see Xu Shanshan smiling brightly at her.
“Hey Qiao Ling, it’s been a while! I’ve been worried about you,” she greeted, lifting up a plastic bag she held in her hand, “I bought food!”
“Oh, I’ve just been busy catching up with work,” Qiao Ling smiled in response, “You know me, always obsessed with numbers.” She laughed awkwardly, intensely aware of Shanshan’s searching gaze.
“Bullshit. Let me in,” she demanded.
“Ah, sorry Shanshan, I’m still busy with work. I-”
“Nope. No excuses, A-Ling,” Xu Shanshan cut her off.
Dodging past Qiao Ling and stepping past the threshold, she made her way to the kitchen, searching in the fridge while talking. “No one’s seen your face recently,” she said as she pulled a tub of ice cream from the freezer, “So I took the initiative to go visit you.” She shut the fridge and made her way to the living room. Qiao Ling stood by the door, arms wrapped around herself as she watched her friend invade her house.
Xu Shanshan took no notice of her silence and puttered off to the closet, pulling out several blankets and pillows that had been hidden away. “I think you’ve had enough time alone anyway,” she stated, throwing the blankets and pillows onto the couch and setting the ice cream down on the coffee table. She continued to organise the covers meticulously before standing back and nodding proudly at her work.
“Come,” Shanshan instructed, walking over to her friend and pulling her to the nest of blankets and pillows she had created, “Start talking. What’s wrong?”
The two sat in silence for a few moments as Qiao Ling anxiously fiddled with her hands. She opened and closed her mouth several times before finally settling on, “Nothing is wrong, Shanshan.”
“Stop lying to me. Something is obviously wrong. Talk to me, A-Ling. I want to help,” she pleaded.
“I…” She hesitated.
“Please, I want to help you,” Shanshan said, resting a hand on her shoulder, extending a physical lifeline for her grasp.
Qiao Ling broke. Her feelings held behind a fragile glass wall burst forth in sobs. Xu Shanshan gathered her up in a hug, letting her cry on her shoulder as she rubbed her back. The only sound in the room was the sound of Qiao Ling’s heart-wrenching sobs that tore at Xu Shanshan.
After an indeterminable amount of time, Ling began to calm down, her breathing evening out into occasional shaky breaths. She pulled back from the hug and wiped the remaining tears from her eyes, yearning still for the warmth of the hug.
“Sorry,” she apologised. Xu Shanshan didn’t reply, knowing it was Qiao Ling’s turn to talk.
“I… I can’t stop thinking about what happened to Lu Guang,” she explained, “my mind keeps flashing back to that night.”
“Lu Guang is strong. He’ll be up and about in no time.”
“I know he is. It’s just… I feel so guilty.”
“Don’t be stupid. Why would you feel guilty? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“That’s the thing! I couldn’t do anything. I was useless. I wasn’t strong enough.” Qiao Ling looked away, unable to bear looking Xu Shanshan in the eyes.
“Hey, look at me,” Shanshan grabbed her shoulder, “There wasn’t anything you could’ve done to change what happened. I don’t know the details about what happened that night but I know you, Qiao Ling. I know you tried your best to help. You were able to save him. You called for help. Don’t undermine yourself, Qiao Ling.” She sighed before continuing, “You can’t keep blaming yourself. Let us in, A-Ling.”
Ling laughed bitterly, “I don’t think letting anyone in is going to fix anything.”
“Isolating yourself won’t do anything either. You can’t heal from what happened alone.” Xu Shanshan hesitated, taking a deep breath to steady herself before continuing. “And you can’t leave Cheng Xiaoshi alone either. He was there with you that night. He needs you just as much as you need him, Qiao Ling.”
“I know,” she replied, hanging her head in remorse. Her actions had consequences on others as well.
“Talk to him, A-Ling. Don’t hide away from him.”
“I will. I promise.”
“Now,” Shanshan opened the tub of ice cream she had grabbed and offered Qiao Ling a spoon, “let’s watch a movie. I think you deserve some you time.”