After Xiao Ming’s performance, I quietly slipped away from the eyes of the deputy principal, who was too delighted with the play of this deceiver. I couldn’t wait to meet this pilferer in person and look into his deceitful eyes. How will he be justified now? He certainly will be confused if someone is aware of his theft of someone else’s music work.
I slipped backstage, where pupils from other classes were rehearsing and preparing for their performance. Everyone was too busy with themselves to pay attention to me. However, it was around Xiao Ming like a swarm of bees swarmed. Some pupils and a couple of teachers circled around him as if he smeared with honey. I heard their compliments, full of flattery, girls threw adoring glances, but it didn’t do nothing to Xiao Ming. He was smiling politely, without any signs of attention, perfectly aware of his superiority.
- Hey, Xiao Ming, – I called from a short distance so that everyone could hear and parted. – You performed well.
For the sake of the performance, I even had defiantly clapped my hands and smiled lusciously. The junior pupils looked at each other and hurried to flee out of harm’s way. The music teacher who eloquently praised Xiao Ming’s talent adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, puzzled by my reaction. Another teacher frowned, obviously not happy about my appearance next to one of the outstanding pupils of the school.
Xiao Ming just nodded at my words as a small token of gratitude. Yeah, how could I have expected something more from you. However, this is not why I came here. Coming closer to this guy, a logical chain had already formed in my head, along which I was going to bring him to light.
- Pupil Wang, is there anything else you wanted to say? – the teacher Gao asked primly, the one who frowned with displeasure. He taught Chinese classes and, as one might expect, I didn’t maintain friendly relations neither with him nor with his lessons.
- Teacher Gao, what’s strange that I want to talk to a schoolmate from the parallel class? – I shrugged. – I was very impressed by his play and was going to personally tell about the emotions that captured me during the performance.
- Really? – Xiao Ming spoke without surprise and continued skeptically: – And what did you feel?
I grinned wryly and, because he sat, bent over to him as close as my ego would allow me. Leaning my hand on the back of a chair, I softly whispered in his ear:
- For example, that your play doesn’t match the level of the one who created this music work.
My words had the desired effect: Xiao Ming tensed like a stretched string. Exactly what I wanted. However, the teachers, who were staying around and were not going to leave somewhere, were outraged by my actions.
- Pupil Wang, what are you doing in the presence of your teachers? You are not supposed to distract who is performing on stage. Go back to the assembly hall and sit at your place, – ordered the music teacher, Mr. Han.
- Pupil Xiao, I hope pupil Wang didn’t make you uncomfortable? – Mr. Gao asked, seeing how Xiao Ming’s face changed. – Did he tell you something wrong? Pupil Wang, come out of the backstage or would you like to get a slap on the wrist again?!
- No, it’s okay, – Xiao Ming suddenly said, pulling himself together. – I… was touched by Wang Yibo’s reaction. He felt my music very subtly, that’s all.
The teachers looked at each other. They had heard about the difficult relationship between Xiao Ming and me, as well as about the scandal raised by his mother, so they wanted to keep our communication to a minimum. The irony was that before the scandal with Xiao Ming’s mother, I hadn’t even met his eyes.
- Well, I’m not going to distract my friend anymore, – I summed up, although I didn’t want to call him like that. I patted Xiao Ming on the shoulder and whispered in the end: – Let’s meet at school backyard after the end of the festival. And you’d better not be late.
The afternoon sun illuminated the deserted courtyard. Due to the festival taking place, all the extra classes that Xiao Ming diligently attended were canceled, and I also managed to slip away from cleaning. The festival took place in a large part inside the school and on the front territory, but here, next to the football field, no one was hanging around at that time.
As I expected, Xiao Ming didn’t come. It’s not that I didn’t expect something like this… But I still wanted to give him a chance. Is he really that cocky? Or thinks, since there is no evidence, there is no way to accuse him of plagiarism?
I snorted indignantly. If now I had at least one clue in my hands, which clearly indicated the theft of the composition, I would, without ceremony, give it to the teachers for trial. Although I won’t be surprised if they tried to hush up this incident. So first I had to find a real composer. But how do I do that in this damn school?!
Cursing loudly, I dialed Jackson’s telephone number.
- Bring him to me immediately! – I barked without greetings.
- Wow-wow, take it easy! – Jackson whistled. – Whom should we bring to you and where?
- Xiao Ming, that jerk! Who does he think he is, that he is not afraid of anything in this world?! I’m waiting for him at school backyard! Move your feet, hurry!
Jackson must have freaked out at my tone, since I haven’t been pissed off in a while. And as soon as this was done, me, Wang Yibo, turned into a fire-breathing dragon, and it was better not to annoy him.
Fifteen minutes later, Xiao Ming was dragged under escort by Jackson and Yixing. These two were nice fellows, although I never counted them among my close friends. We were brought together by the fact that all three of us often idle during classes or skipped them altogether, because of which the teachers made warnings to us. We were some kind of slackers, and among all of them, for some reason, I became the most authoritative. Probably my origin played a role. In any case, apart from these two guys, I didn’t maintain a close relationship with anyone.
They pushed Xiao Ming towards me, and he rubbed the bruised places with displeasure, glaring at me with an angry glare. Why are you staring like that? I warned you that I assigned you a meeting.
I nodded to the guys, giving a sign that their job was over. They, without asking questions, left Xiao Ming and me alone, stepping aside to stand guard.
- If your monkey boys were supposed to crippled my fingers, all your families would get a huge fine. My fingers are insured, – Xiao Ming said in a tone like he was served tasteless soup at dinner.
I was tempted to blurt out that they were not my monkey boys, but I had to restrain myself. Let him think I have a lot of power. Look, what a sissy, his fingers have their own health insurance, I suppose they get a manicure every two weeks! And the toes, I wonder, have the same privileges?
I grinned sarcastically. But Xiao Ming didn’t seem to be funny at all.
- What do you want from me? – he asked discontentedly, crossing his arms over his chest. – I don’t have much time to waste it thoughtlessly chatting with you.
- Is that how you should talk to a person who knows your secret? – I answered in the same tone.
A fleeting daze passed across Xiao Ming’s face, but was quickly replaced by equanimity. He smiled with the corner of his lips, and the crossed arms on his chest were a shield between us, with which he unconsciously tried to isolate himself from me.
- What secrets can be between people that are not connected with each other in any way? – Xiao Ming tried to change the subject of conversation.
- It’s funny, – I drawled. – After all, it is because of you that our paths crossed. I don’t know what I have annoyed you with, but personally I had no complaints about you for the time being.
Xiao Ming chuckled. Seriously? Do you intend to play with me?
- Did my mother’s words hurt you so much? Try to understand her, any parent would stand up for their child in the same way.
He redirected the conversation in a different direction, as if he had calculated his move in advance, because he knew that this topic was unpleasant to me. Xiao Ming was not at all as simple as it might seem at first glance. Slippery sneaky guy wearing an angel mask. After swallowing his statement, I returned to the right topic:
- I wonder what it will be like for your parents to find out, and to everyone at school, too, that their role model, a musical whiz kid, is just a thief who took advantage of another personэs talent? Just do not deny that all great people in the past have done so – шn your case, this will only be a direct proof of guilt.
Xiao Ming became serious, no trace of his ridicule remained. I managed to open the sensitive wound of his pride. Did you like it?
- This music is mine, – Xiao Ming said.
- It was not you who played it after the classes! – I bristled.
Apparently, Xiao Ming was scared that I suddenly raised my voice. For a moment his hand shook, but he quickly hid it behind his back. He was taken by surprise, and therefore it was difficult for him to come up with a more plausible excuse.
- What does it matter to you? – Xiao Ming went to the attack. – What do you even understand about music? Do you know any musical terms? For example, what is the difference between a sonata and a symphony, or what are variations? How dare you accuse me without reason, without any material evidence! I’m tired of our absurd conversation, I have to go. And henceforth don’t take away my precious time, which, unlike you, I will definitely spend wisely.
Xiao Ming turned sharply and walked away from me. Jackson and Yixing, guarding nearby, blocked his path.
- You didn’t understand, – I said. – I will decide when the conversation is over. But you pissed me off so much that, so be it, go to the four winds and don't be an eyesore to me. But be sure, nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest!
Xiao Ming grinned, then pushed Jackson and Yixing aside, clearing his way, and disappeared behind the school.
- What was it? – Yixing asked me. – What’s wrong with you two again?
- He began to annoy me, – I replied simply, although my insides were shaking with indignation.
- Yeah, he is a ratbag, – Jackson agreed. – And so arrogant!
- I will have a task for you, – I turned to him. – From now on, keep an eye on him. I need someone who can report on his every sneeze.
- Are you serious now? – Jackson freaked out. – Why the hell do you need him?!
- I want to wipe that nasty grin from his face.
- Oh, Yibo, you know how to harness…
- And you, Yixing, get me information about all the pupils who are at least in some way connected with playing musical instruments, in particular – the piano.
The guys sighed, but did not argue. I liked this trait. Saying goodbye to them, I went home. The sun had not set yet, and I had absolutely no desire to go back to school to get under the hot hand of the deputy principal.
I had a vague idea of what I could do in life. Who will I be if I graduate from high school but don’t go to university? More precisely, who I will become… or who I want to become. I didn’t know the answer to this question and didn’t even want to think about it.
It took twenty minutes by bike to get home, but today I felt like walking. I didn’t really think about anything, but the jammed music was spinning in my head. With my hands in my pockets, I walked slowly and tried to hum her tune. On the way, I met street dancers who were rehearsing a variety of tricks and feints in break dance and hip-hop under the bridge. I casually gazed at their acrobatic performances and even stopped. They jumped and tumbled right in the air or spun on one hand or on their heads on a prepared surface, making somersaults unthinkable for me and the laws of physics.
My house was located on the border of the entertainment district, where all the streets were teeming with nightclubs, bars and karaoke. Therefore, at night one could often hear snatches of someone’s conversations and echoes of loud laughter.
Another irony: my house itself was partly one of those establishments. On the first floor, my mom kept a small teahouse, the main asset of which was a luxurious grand piano. It was displayed in front of a single large floor-to-ceiling window, which was served as a showcase for attracting visitors. Almost no one played it, so it served more for decoration than as a musical instrument.
The teahouse itself was the epitome of comfort: openwork curtains in an ash-pink shade with an intricate floral pattern framed the piano on the sides of the window. There were several round tables decorated with white lace tablecloths, on each of which there was a small vase of lavender, which my mother loved very much. The walls were set off with a pleasant color of green tea, small pictures were hung on them, various figurines were placed on nailed shelves and there was a bookcase with books. The menu was full of a wide variety of teas and desserts. It’s so homely and cozy. But…
In the evenings, the door to the basement opened, where a staircase led. This place was called “A butterfly in the night”. The bar my mother owned. She was mistress and often spent time with visitors, like a hostess, bred them for expensive drinks. Of course, there were several young and beautiful girls working there who were supposed to do this, a couple of male waiters and a bartender. Only about ten people, but my mom tirelessly watched how the business was going, because with the money that the bar and the teahouse brought, as well as alimony from my father, which covered many expenses, she already amassed a rather large amount for our cloudless future, if it could have been titled as such, or, in the worst case, for a rainy day.
I had no right to condemn her. Of course, I really didn’t like it when she slept until lunch or woke up in the evening when I returned from school, in most cases with a hangover, but I could not influence this, even as her son. When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, she and I fought constantly because I was ashamed of her way of life. Why can’t my mom be like other moms? Why can’t she, like others, do the housework, cook for me, wash my clothes and help with my homework sometimes? But after a while, I looked at the situation from a different angle.
She also had scars that she could not show even to me. One night, when she was supposed to be having fun with her regular customers, I heard sobbing from her room. We lived on the second floor, where there were two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchenette combined into a dining and living room – three in one. The door of my mom’s room was slightly opened, and I looked through the crack. Mom probably thought that I had been sleeping for a long time. She sat on the floor stroking the framed photograph and hugging it to her chest from time to time. With sobbing, a muttering occasionally escaped. I could not hear him clearly, but there was something like: “Why did you choose not me?”
At that moment, righteous anger gripped me. A wave of such unbridled rage rose from within that I wanted to smash the window to smithereens and destroy everything. Perhaps it is natural to feel something like this in relation to your parents, who were unjustifiably offended. I wanted to go to my father and give a good slap on his puffy face until it turns into a bloody mess. Why, why, of all people, did he offend my mother? And now she, pretending to have fun in the evenings, was only creating a mirage for herself, drowning out her inner feelings and loneliness with alcohol and trying to somehow forget herself. Mom, I’m here! I’ve been with you all this time. Why did you never share this with me? Do you still think I’m too small to really understand the state of affairs? Or… did you consider me as a burden?..
I tried not to show her my true attitude. But through my actions, they still became obvious to her. I could be cold and prickly with her when she came back drunk in the morning, but I always cooked for her, washed her clothes and cleaned the house. What she had to do for me passed into my direct responsibilities. Only in this way could I make her life a little easier and not be a burden.
- You came back? – I heard my mom’s voice, as soon as I slammed the door of the teahouse, on which there was a bell. To get to the second floor, you had to go through it. – Today you are early, Yibo!
- We had a festival, – I explained dryly, walking into my room. Mom followed me, leaning her elbows on the door frame and crossing her arms over her chest. A dreamy smile blossomed on her face.
- It seems to me, or have you grown a little more? – she drawled thoughtfully.
I shrugged, getting ready to change clothes.
- Are you still here? – I asked, throwing my jacket on the bed and starting to unbutton the buttons on my shirt. – Are you going to watch me undress?! Pervert!
- What did I not see there? – she chuckled. – I cooked noodles! Let’s eat together. Come to the kitchen when you’re done.
I sighed. Mom, you should eat properly. I should have quickly changed my clothes and rinsed the rice to cook it in the rice cooker.
- By the way, – my mom remembered something while I was chopping vegetables. – Now I’m never bored in the teahouse. Maybe I should open it earlier than at lunchtime?..
- Why? What is so interesting going on there that you even thought of getting up early?
- Playing the piano! Someone now plays it every day. Very nice! Touches right to tears.
- Your new boyfriend? – I asked without interest, throwing vegetables into the boiling broth.
- No, some boy. For quite some time he was simply looked at the window and didn’t take his eyes off the piano, but only recently dared to go inside and touch it. He just comes and plays and then disappears. I like him, even though he doesn’t order anything.
I had nothing to say to that. When the rice and soup were cooked, I filled our plates and made sure that she ate every last crumb so that she would not drink on an empty stomach later. I hid the leftovers in the refrigerator for tomorrow and, wishing good night, went to my room.
Having skipped on homework, I plopped down on the bed and started aimlessly staring at the ceiling. Sometimes I threw a baseball to the ceiling, but today the idea came to my mind to repeat the movements of street break dancers. How did they learn to do this? I was terribly curious and wanted to learn the same. To do this, it was necessary to bring myself into the appropriate shape, so I started doing exercises in order to stretch the rigid body.
At night I had a dream from which I remembered that justice was served and everyone learned about Xiao Ming’s lies. Then he turned into a chicken and ran around the schoolyard. Throughout this, a piano melody played in the background until I woke up. But even then it didn’t stop, quietly reaching my room. I opened my eyes and looked at the clock showing nine in the morning. Who can play so early on weekend when the teahouse is closed until lunchtime? Am I having auditory hallucinations again?
When it dawned on me that this was no imagination at all, I jumped out of bed and, disheveled and in my pajamas, flew down the stairs to the teahouse. Someone was sitting at the piano and playing. Playing one of those tunes that I heard in the corridors of the school when was cleaning. I stood rooted to the spot for a while, trying to understand what was happening. In front of me now was the person whom I tried so desperately to find?.. Or did he find me himself?..
I went up to him and grabbed his hand, abruptly interrupting the play. I shouldn’t have done this, but curiosity and stun prevailed over all manner of manners. I couldn’t wait to find out who it was. Not that pompous turkey Xiao Ming. Then who?
The pianist was frightened and pulled my hand from him, jumping up from his seat and intending to run away. But I intercepted him and turned him around. He struggled, nervous and clasping his trembling hands to his chest, his gaze now and then ran around.
- I have to continue playing… – he stammered, and repeated the same thing several times.
And I recognized him. The boy who was molested in the backyard of the school by bullies. The boy with the face of an angel. The boy whose boundless talent was trapped in a limited mind and body that he could not fully control.
The boy, owing to whom I found my own dream.