Oneshots

Presence


Presence—Beginning

———

In university, Song Li was often excluded by her roommates. For example, when one of her three roommates would bring back food from the canteen. And each time, they made excuses like:

“I thought you were still in the library.”

“Didn’t you bring your own lunch?”

“Weren’t you still in bed?”

What they were generally saying: we all thought you weren’t in the dorm. 

———

Late into the night, Song Li started to think. 

Twenty this year and still a Plain Jane. 

She was quiet, bland, never stood out. She looked average and performed average whether in school or work. She wasn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel student but neither was she the class valedictorian. Basically, she had no special skills or talents: more average than the average Joe.

Everyday at three, she would disappear into the crowd.

———

She did have friends. Over the past nineteen years of her life, she had a total of three friends. But they would only remember her when they were short one player or one person during their gathering. She was always a back-up body. 

Back then, she would console herself and think that maybe it was because she was not fun enough.

———

Similarly, no guys pursued her. She could fantasize that they were secretly admiring her.

No teachers would praise her either, concerned she would get arrogant or smug.

During her six years of middle school, the number of times she was asked to answer the teachers’ questions was less than ten. Maybe it was because she was such an attentive student that there was no need to make sure she was paying attention.. 

———

But when she got to university, a number of small incidents made Song Li realize the severity of the problem.

One day, when she brushed past one of her dormmates to go to the restroom, she deliberately tripped on the leg of a chair and crashed against the cold ceramic tile of the floor. Her roommate carried on, as if Song Li never registered in her mind.

Her dormmates seemed to have their headphones oneither listening to music, watching a K-drama, or MOBA gaming—bopping their head or tapping to the beat.

Song Li stopped in place for a long time before finally going to the restroom.

It was as if she was invisible.

———

Once she got back to her room, Song Li typed a word into the Baidu search bar: ‘presence’. The explanations she got were all the default, boring meanings. She scrolled down and stopped at an introduction of a book about ‘presence’:

“The state of having presence is to exude an energy more meaningful, more powerful, and more lasting than even beauty and wealth.”

“In a vast sea of people, you might be able to notice a certain someone. It is because this person is different from the others. Such a person has what is called a ‘sense of presence’. In this fast-paced society, if you’re still easily being ignored or overlooked, it is because you lack presence; it can be a very dreadful thing.”

“Now, do you often feel like your self-worth is not valued by others? Do you always feel at a loss? Not confident? Like you are never getting the recognition or praise you deserve?”

“You live, but you are overlooked.”

“You love deeply, but you are belittled.”

“You participate, but you are neglected.“

“You try your absolute best to get in touch with the world, but the more you do, the more you find yourself feeling like you’re a quiet shadow, all alone.”

Song Li, with her chin resting in her hands, looked at the text for a moment then closed her notebook.

———

On the second day when Song Li was on her way to class, she saw a guy from her class wave at her from afar. 

The guy was not bad looking. He had a youthful smile that was as energetic and bright as the sun.

As she was figuring out how she should smile back, she slowly drew out her right hand from her pocket.

A girl brushed past her side and trotted over towards the guy while calling out his name.

Then the two walked shoulder-to-shoulder, walking away laughing.

Turns out he was not waving at her. Song Li couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. But only a little, as she was supposedly used to this.

———

In the afternoon, the class representative came over to the dorms and asked, “Song Li, why didn’t you pay the class fee?”

Confused, Song Li said, “You didn’t collect it from me.”

“Really?” The class representative tried to shirk away from the responsibility, “Maybe you weren’t here when I came over to collect them. Didn’t your roommate inform you?

“No.” Song Li shook her head.

“Why didn’t you guys inform her?” The class representative asked the three in question.

A took out her earphones, “I thought Xiao B would let her know.”

B was a straightforward person, even when it came to speaking, “I forgot.”

B added nonchalantly, “Sorry.”

———

“How can you always forget!” Song Li felt the heat crawl up her face, her blood boiled, “Am I not part of this dorm?! Just because I’m not fun or special, I’m not worthy of any of your attention?”

It was Song Li’s first ever outburst, and she dashed right out of the dorm. The sun shone bright above her head, the sunny outdoors vivid in her eyes.

———

This was the first time she got angry at her roommates after starting college.

There was no doubt this was very immature, like how a child would misbehave just to get an adult’s attention. 

But it was because she was pushed too hard that she snapped.

———

Song Li stayed out late. She sat down by the flower beds on the side of the road and pulled out her phone from her pocket. There were no missed calls, no message notifications; no one looked for her at all.

She opened up her browser and searched for the meaning of ‘presence’: “You live, but you’re overlooked. You love deeply, but you’re belittled. You participate, but you’re neglected…”

Songli repeatedly read the phrases and went back to the search page. She was bored after she cried and vented, so she went on to look at pieces related to ‘presence’ on her search results. Her streams of tears dried by the time she reached the last page. The words read:

Presence—a store that gives you a sense of presence and lets the lucky person’s dreams come true.

———

The store address stated that it was just on the outskirts of this very city, but not too far remote. Song Li knew how to get around. She got on the bus closest to her and walked a few hundred meters down the end of an alleyway to reach the store.

The store looked like a simple abandoned hair salon with glass sliding doors and splashes of graffiti on the walls. It felt like a place with no sense of presence, but on the door was a word in contrasting bright red and black: Presence.

That was the store’s name.

Song li let out a deep breath before pushing the door open to enter.

———

The front hall of the store was indeed an old hair salon, but it was still kept clean and tidy. The dressing tables were arranged side by side along the hall.

Song Li walked down the hall and saw herself reflected off every mirror.

It was as if there were a lot of people looking at herself.

———

A lad dressed in changshan was seated at the last dressing table, all his focus poured into his mobile game. The modern communication device stuck out like a sore thumb against his traditional outfit.

Only his side profile was visible to Song Li, but she saw that he had on a pair of round glasses. He sat there with his legs crossed, not giving a care to the world if he looked rude.

———

Song Li slowed down and stopped two meters away from him. Her hesitation weakened her tone as she said, “Are you the owner….?”

The young man turned around on the swivel chair to face Song Li, “Yes, I’m the owner here. Can I help you?”

His brow raised slightly as he questioned her.

———

“I…” Song Li tried to put together her jumbled thoughts, “I heard that this place here…helps people look for a ‘sense of presence’?”

“No, this place helps you possess a ‘sense of presence’. Those born without a sense of presence, even if you search high and low, you’re still just a transparent nobody. This ‘sense of presence’ can only be obtained with your own hands later in life.”

The owner placed the phone back on the table and stood up.

He was way taller than Song Li expected. To her, those with decent-looking faces were usually smaller in stature. 

“How do you even fill that up later on? Are you going to teach me how to dress up and use makeup to look beautiful? Or teach me how to speak and act so that I can make everyone happy?” she asked.

“Huh..,” the young man sneered, took off his glasses, and wiped the lenses slowly with a corner of his changshan. “My store ain’t that lame.”

“I can let you remain your true self while being the focal point of everyone,” he said as he put his glasses back on.

“How is that possible?!” Song Li’s voice rose a pitch higher, “I’m such an ordinary and easy-to-miss person. There’s nothing interesting or special about me… I thank the Gods if people don’t forget me.”

“So,” the owner walked over, a little impatient. “Do you still want to be noticed? If not please just get out of here. I’m not a patient person. If not for how you patiently surfed through the hundreds of sites to reach Yours Truly’s, I wouldn’t have even wasted so much of my time talking to you.”

“Of course I want it! But, do I really not need to change anything about myself?” Song Li was still doubtful, “And why are you so irritated….I’m just really curious. Will I really get noticed without changing anything?”

———

“Yes,” the young man said, face expressionless as he stared at Song Li. “However, you’ll need to exchange it with something that I want.”

“What?”

“Once you step out of this store, everyone around you will start to pay attention to you. All you need to do is record down how they’re nice to you in detail and send them to me in an email. Also, you will be receiving a lot of gifts. Sum up the worth of the gifts, and every week just pick out half of the worth and give it to me. For example, it’s worth five thousand. All you need to do is give me two thousand and five hundred. All I need are these.”

“What do you need these for?”

“Obviously, the gifts are to pay in exchange for your ‘sense of presence’. As for the favorability and attention you get, it will be collected and passed onto the next person who needs them, like you.” The young man adjusted his glasses out of habit. He looked like a well-mannered teacher of the Republic of China. “If you violate the rules because of greed or forgetfulness, I’ll revoke that ‘sense of presence’ given to you today.”

“If I didn’t violate the rules, will you suddenly take back this ‘sense of presence’?

“Not unless you die.” The young man looked at her. 

Song Li still found it unbelievable, “I still think this is beyond imaginable.”

———

WIth a smile, the young man snapped his fingers, and the TV mounted on the wall suddenly turned on.

He lifted his gaze and looked over, his jawline refined yet strong, “She was the customer who came here before you.”

Song Li followed his gaze towards the TV, on screen was the largest entertainment channel in the country.

———

Amidst the loud cheers, a slender-figured woman in a long gown sashayed on the red carpet.

The flashing lights flickered non-stop. She looked like a gorgeous crystal mermaid swimming in the galaxy.

Song Li recognized her immediately because she was on every cover of fashion magazines, and her roommates would put it up on the entire surface of their wardrobe.

Her name couldn’t sound more familiar. The boys would talk about her all the time in class.

They referred to her as ‘goddess’.

———

“Is there anything else I need to take note of?” That was Song Li’s last question. 

“Nothing else. But I gotta warn you, not all that glitters is gold. You may have endless praises, but at the same time, you might face the same in slander,” the young man replied, his tone steady.

———

Three minutes later, Song Li bid the owner farewell and left the store. 

———

Presence—Middle

———

On the next day, Song Li’s life turned upside down. She started to feel the extraordinary concern from her roommate. Even her popularity skyrocketed. 

Roomate A, “Let’s go catch a movie downtown? We can go shopping and grab something delicious?”

Roommate B, “Let’s go, Song Li. If Song Li’s not going then I’m not going!”

Song Li was flustered and smiled embarrassedly, “Of course I’m going.”

Roomate A, “Right, of course we won’t leave out Song Li. What’s the point if she’s not around.”

Roommate C, “Today I’m gonna walk with Song Li. I called dibs.”

———

“Going to the canteen? Don’t forget a takeaway for Song Li.”

“Song Li, I saw this really beautiful watch online. I’ll get one for you as well? How about this, I’ll get the blue and you the pink?”

“Song Li, you must watch this drama!”

“Song Li, let’s go to the library together tomorrow?”

“Song Li, are you asleep? I need to go to the bathroom, but I worry I’ll wake you when I get down.”

“Song Li….”

———

It got out of control. The boys in class started to pay attention to this ordinary-looking girl.

In just a week, Song Li became the main topic of the boys in her department’s nightly pillow talk in the dorm.

Song Li started to receive gifts and love letters written to her in different tones, styles, and even from different genders.

The soft toys she received filled her bunk to the brim.

The fresh bouquets in the vase on her desk would replace wilted ones one after another. 

There was no lack of valuables; from crystal accessories, gold and even silver jewelry to electrical devices. All gifted to deeply express their care and love for her.

———

The counselor called her to the office to speak to her one-on-one, “Do you plan to apply to join the CCP this semester? Placements are very rare, and this is a good opportunity for you.”

During the student council activities, the spotlight would always shine on her even though she did not get on stage to participate or compete. This was because of the council president’s one rhetorical question of ‘why not add Song Li to the list’?

A basketball would always hit her head as she passed by the court, and a good-looking guy would immediately run up to her to apologize and ask for her number.

The arrogant stray cats in the flower garden would stop and stare at her for a while before strolling away.

Her parents would call her every two days to worry over and ask if she was feeling sick or if she got hurt.

———

After twenty years, Song Li finally experienced what it was like to be cared for and to be noticed.

This moment felt extremely huge, and she felt like she was very much taken by surprise. It felt like a dream.

Too unrealistic.

It was late into the night. Song Li was writing a ‘payment’ email to the owner on her phone.

She could only write to him at night because there would always be someone pestering her during the day; from text messages, phone calls, people trying to wrap their hands around her shoulders and even hold her hands. Everyone was reluctant to leave her alone for even one second.

She was worried that someone would find out the ‘Presence’ store’s presence. Worried that if it were found out, her beauty would disappear and slip out of her grasp.

Such sweet burdens were entangled with complicated infatuation.

With that thought, she struck her face with great force.

Ouch—it hurts!

It was real. This really was real.

In the darkness, Song Li covered her mouth and burst into tears.

———

“Song Li, are you crying?” A voice from the lower bunk, questioned. 

Song Li thought her roommates were all asleep! Shocked, she quickly composed herself before replying, “No, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure you’re fine?”

“Yeah, I just think that you girls are such great people. To have met roommates like you when I’m all alone far from family on campus, I feel deeply moved.” Song Li’s tears just wouldn’t stop. Even though it had only been a week, she felt awfully thankful and wanted to give them a lifetime of her gratitude.

“I’m glad to have met you too,” her roommate said gently, as if they’ve been close friends for years.

———

Before closing the mailbox application, Song Li added a ‘Thank you’ at the end of her email and hit the send button.

The owner would always reply with the same word, “Received.”

After three consecutive emails, Song Li concluded that it was an automatic reply from the owner’s email. No matter what was sent, the reply would always be ‘Received.’

But in truth, it was not.

The reply she got today was: “Don’t mention it.”

———

Song Li suddenly felt that this eccentric and nondescript man was actually quite humane.

———

Weekend.

A day before, Song Li had already packed up the gifts she received.  

All of them carefully packed into a suitcase, half of them divided to be sent over to ‘Presence’.

When her roommates asked, she just said that there were too many things in the dorm, so she sent them back home.

Everything went smoothly as planned, and Song Li stayed one night out in a hotel.

The reception was exceptionally well, even gave her an extra toffee.

The receptionist smiled and said that it was rare to have affinity with a guest.

———

The next day, she arrived at Presence as promised.

She did not expect to meet the ‘goddess’ she saw on TV there.

She dressed fashionably, her make up refined. That fair skin of hers made her look as if she was sparkling.

She looked out of place against the shabby salon as the background.

———

Right after Song Li gazed at her, she too caught a glimpse at Song Li. She lit a cigarette before turning to the owner, “Bo Lin, is she your new client?”

“Yeah.” The owner just merely nodded. He was immersed in his mobile game.

After finding out the owner’s name was Bo Lin, Song Li thought it reminded her of Germany, known for discipline and punctuality. 

“Each of your clients are getting worse than the next.” Goddess exhaled a few rings of smoke. It’s true when they say good-looking people look good doing just about anything. “Won’t her level of looks consume more of your power?”

“She’s better than you,” Bo Lin finally turned off his phone and said with a cold face, “The more ordinary the person, the easier for them to express their potential and the easier to satisfy. Your type is the type where one is too beautiful, but your character is flawed. That’s more troublesome.”

Goddess casted Bo Lin a side look, “You won’t understand. Not even an ordinary person will ever learn to be satisfied. Unless, this person reincarnates and starts all over like a blank paper. But of course, this also means the start of another vicious cycle.”

“Just shush,” Bo Lin frowned slightly and looked to Song Li, getting straight to the point, “Did you bring them?”

Song Li pulled the suitcase to him, “Here, I brought them.”

———

Bo Lin crouched down and began to check on the gifts in the suitcase. Goddess continued to speak even though she was shushed, “Miss, are you enjoying it?”

The images of these few days flashed in Song Li’s mind, and she couldn’t help but smile at the thought, “Yeah! I am.”

“Do you like this kind of feeling?”

“I do like it.”

“Ha!” The Goddess let out a chuckle, “You are indeed the next one.”

Song Li tried to join the conversation, “The next one?”

The goddess suddenly smiled, like the fleeting beauty of the Queen of the Night cactus, “I mean, maybe, you’re the next me.”

———

She breathed a sigh of relief when she passed the suitcase check. She then bid him goodbye.

She didn’t ask the Goddess much. She knew they were two completely different people.

Even though their mutual connection was the client of the store.

———

Before leaving, Song Li asked Bo Lin, “How long can my sense of presence exist?”

Bo Lin stood tall in front of his store. His usual sharp gaze blurred out by the darkening skies reaching twilight, “I’ve said this before, till death.”

“I can enjoy this much attention for the rest of my life?” Song Li cried out in surprise.

“As long as you are willing, it will keep growing. It’s equivalent to the ‘payment’ you bring to me.” Bo Lin’s eyes seemed like an endless abyss, “The more you bring to me, the more you’ll receive.”

“No, I think this is just nice.”

“Really?” Bo Lin raised his eyebrows out of habit. The motion gave off a hint of mischief.

“Yes, goodbye.”

“Goodbye, don’t forget your daily tasks.”

“I won’t, and thank you, I am very happy these few days. I am really thankful,” she said before bidding goodbye with a wave. Song Li was sincerely grateful.

This time, Bo Lin didn’t reply.

———

Song Li returned to campus.

Two days later, a wave of entertainment tabloids overwhelmingly flooded the major websites. 

During tea break, it became the talk of town. 

*lit. from market to restaurants, offices to parks and even the bustling city to quietest gardens. Translates to : everyone everywhere was talking about it.

Song Li was on route to the main campus walkway. She picked up a page from a newspaper that got blown over to her feet.

———

The story was on the news too.

It was slapped on the front page by the media on full blast. The title was hugely printed out in full exaggeration.

———

The goddess died.

Commited suicide.

She locked herself in a sealed room and turned on the gas stove.

———

Presence—End

———

“Why did Jiang Fengqing commit suicide? Did she really die?”

When she got back to her room, Song Li sent a message to Bo Lin.

Jiang Fengqing was the Goddess’ name, even her name was so goddess-like. And just saying it brought a smile to one’s lips.

Was her life that bad? A superstar, girls were jealous of her, guys admired her, and her career was going great. Why did she choose to leave like this?

Bo Lin responded to her quickly, “Life or death, that’s her own choice. All you need to do is live your own life.”

“Is it because of the sense of presence you put on her?” Song Li remembered Jiang Fengqing’s words for her that day, filled with her deliberate vagueness.

She said Song Li was the next her.

“I’ve said it before. This was all her own choice,” Bo Lin’s reply was extremely calm, and he didn’t even explain or defend himself, “If you don’t want to do this anymore, I can terminate this deal of ours.”

———

She had insomnia that night.

———

Song Li stayed up the whole night thinking about it. When she remembered how it was like before and the difference now, she didn’t want to give up.

Life now was like a dream, she refused to wake up.

This was the life she wanted, and it should stay as such, forever.

———

Song Li didn’t let this magic stop. She embraced it, and the attention she got went on.

Every weekend, she would still travel all the way over to bring Bo Lin ‘the payment’ for his magic.

She’d receive more and more gifts. She was not a weak person, but it was getting harder to carry them alone.

She started taking a cab, and she’d pull up to a corner not far from the store.

After getting out of the cab, she’d walk to ‘Presence’, and throughout, she would always glance around. Her steps quick like the wind, like a paranoid person.

She was afraid that people might find out about the place, find out about Bo Lin’s existence.

This was a bittersweet, deep and dark secret of hers, and it could only be hers.

———

On a Saturday three months later, Song Li once again dragged a big box over to Bo Lin.

Not only that, she also had two carry-on bags in her hand and a backpack slung over her shoulder.

“There’s too many. How am I supposed to carry all these over by myself next time?”

“Would you like me to help you carry them?” Bo Lin replied sarcastically. As per usual, he rolled up his sleeves, crouched down, and starting checking the gifts

“Bo Lin,” Song Li was looking at the top of his head while standing, “Do you think this is okay? I mean, relying on this ‘special’ method to get other people’s attention. I feel like I’m cheating, and it’s not because of my own hard work.”

“You think it’s not good?” Bo Lin carefully wiped the screen of his brand new iPhone 6.

“No.”

Bo Lin stood up. He was two heads taller than Song Li, “You seem to have missed something.”

“What?” Song Li’s eyes widened.

“When you first came to me, you were very timid and hesitant in your way of speech, but now you’re able to express yourself clearly and eloquently. Back then, as if out of fear, you addressed me as ‘Owner’. Today, you call me by my name directly. Don’t you realize that change in you?” Bo Lin stated out patiently.

“Indeed! It’s true, it really is.” Song Li’s heartbeat was quick, cheering internally.

She knew what this was. It’s confidence, a miraculous strength she never experienced since she was young.

Confidence. She was now a person with tremendous confidence.

———

With a joyous mood, Song Li held the empty box and went back earlier than usual, humming happily on the way back to the dorms.

The lights in her room were still lit. It meant her roommates were probably still awake.

But she didn’t want to be a bother again, so she reached for her own keys.

Song Li heard her name. She was mentioned in her roommates’ conversation from inside the room.

———

“Tsk! With looks like that and such mediocre academic results, I don’t see what the boys see in her. Even the counselor, always calling her to the office to help her in this and that. I really don’t understand.”

“Luck came knocking on her door I guess. Someone ordinary with no ounce of harm in her looks, the typical green tea bitch type, usually attracts the opposite sex. Guess she often butters up the counselor.”

“Please stop insulting green tea bitches, at least they are beautiful. But how can you associate her face with the word ‘beautiful’?

“Why did we start befriending her anyways?”

“Nonsense! Everyone wants to be friends with her now. As much as we don’t like it, we still gotta pretend to be her friends. Aren’t you afraid if you try to bully her, she’d go cry to the class representative with a complaint or find one of her boys to teach you a lesson.

“…..”

These humiliations and baseless slanders, they were slowly baring their bloody monster fangs behind Song Li’s back.

Song Li stood there, taking all the damage silently.

———

She did not return to the dorms and instead went back to a hotel near campus.

When she couldn’t sleep, she connected to the Wi-Fi and wrote to Bo Lin.

“Bo Lin, tonight I accidentally heard my roommates badmouthing me. Weren’t they usually kind to me? How could they turn into such awful beings? I am very disappointed.”

Bo Lin replied, “I told you before; praises and criticism, blessings and curses, love and hate, admiration and jealousy. They all look like opposites, but in the end, they coexist. And that’s something you can’t stop.”

“I hate all this negativity.” What he said was right, but Song Li couldn’t help herself and burst into tears. She wiped them away, “But I don’t want to be hated.”

“It’s impossible. No one is able to completely accept another person’s everything. At best you can only convince them and make them tolerate your flaws.” Bo Lin addressed her questions so methodically, unlike a normal person, “Their attitude towards you, half of them comes from your performance and the other half from their heart.”

“What can I do then? I can’t take this anymore. I feel upset every time I replay my roommates’ words in my mind. In all honesty, I didn’t do anything bad. I’m not a mean person. All I wanted was for everyone to like me.” Song Li typed out in despair.

“Come see me tomorrow.”

“Okay, you must help me.” Song Li’s tone, like her, sounded defeated.

———

The next day, Monday, Song Li didn’t attend her lecture. The entire classroom was discussing the matter.

The sudden disappearance of their classmate made them feel uncomfortable.

Halfway through the lecture, the lecturer asked from the podium, “Song Li didn’t attend the lecture today?”

Only when the class monitor replied that she took a medical leave did everyone feel relieved.

———

It was about three days later when Song Li returned to the dormitory. Her roommates felt like there was something different about her.

But they couldn’t put a word to what it was.

She was talking and doing things like usual, but there was something off.

———

The long awaited summer break arrived. Everyone pulled along boxes and suitcases, bid farewell, and exchanged hugs.

“I’ll miss you!” One of her roommates said earnestly by her ears.

Song Li leaned on her shoulder. And when no one could see, the corner of her lips lifted silently.

———

Two months later, everyone came back to campus.

When they saw Song Li, they couldn’t recognize her at all, but they knew for sure it was her.

She got her eyelids, nose bridge, and chin done, all very flawlessly.

She most probably got liposuction done, fixed her teeth, and not to mention whitening jabs done.

That’s all because she looked like she was close to perfection.

No, not perfection. She looked sweet, like a white camellia with fresh droplets of morning dew. 

Fresh, clean, and innocent.

———

“What did they say behind your back?” Bo Lin asked her, back on that day when she pretended to be sick.

“They said even though I was ugly, I pretended to be a green tea bitch. They said I don’t deserve to be loved.”

“Then just be a real green tea bitch,” Bo Lin stroked his chin. “Let them get what they asked for, so they can shut it.”

“How do I do it?”

“We’ll start with your face.”

“Why must I do this?” Song Li was annoyed, “Didn’t you say from the start I didn’t have to change anything about myself to become the center of their attention? Why do I need to change my looks just to please them? Are you trying to scam your client?”

Bo Lin glanced at her coldly, “Are you sure your current self has not changed from your past self? If not because you want to please others, why do you care so much about their opinion? Why do you desperately want to gain presence? Is it for yourself or for others? Do you know what you want?”

Song Li shuddered, not sure how to respond.

———

“Did you get plastic surgery?” Her roommates all gasped in surprise.

“Yeah, what do you girls think?” Song Li casually replied with a small laugh, but there was something sinister behind it.

Her roommates didn’t reply. Their eyes were filled with amazement and fear, astonished by the unknown and afraid of her beauty. It was exactly the result Song Li wanted to achieve.

One echoing another, the news about her plastic surgery spread through campus like wildfire.

In only a week, people would point fingers and judge her whenever she walked by.

Whenever the topic of Song Li came up, it was always along the lines of, “She’s all plastic.”, “So disgusting, is anything on her body still real?”, “How can she face her parents?”

———

She said nothing about the matter and indifferently submitted her own photo to a campus (flower) popularity contest 

When the contest ended, Song Li emerged as the top. Her selfie was pure and innocent, winning the voices of millions of homebodies (otakus).

Nothing could stop the power of beauty and fame. Song Li signed up for an account on Weibo and became internet famous within a short amount of time with over millions of fans.

There were thousands of comments on each selfie, half of them complimented her beauty while the other half called her fake.

She became the university ambassador and shot a promotional video that was very well received with twenty million views. Netizens would call her, ‘X University’s Goddess’.

She began mingling with popular elites in the industry, A-level celebrities, and various social circles and debutante events.

She began accepting the concept of being a sugar baby. Because of the plastic surgery, she owed Bo Lin a huge sum of money.

———

After two to three years, everyone started forgetting what Song Li used to look like.

What they knew was that she would come and go freely, do as she pleased, and lived in a world that was out of everyone’s reach.

Whenever her juniors would mention her, they would praise that she was pretty and sweet.

Song Li understood, only with enough influence could she make people shut their mouths.

What was equality? What was affinity? What was kindness? And what did sincerity even mean? I used to smile from the bottom of my heart, but what did I get in return?

———

During that one whole year, Song Li lived in a high-class condominium under the care of a sugar daddy. She would only return to the dormitories once in a while.

To her roommates, she no longer needed the fake friendship. There were only compliments out of fear and flattery uttered by the cowardly.

Late into the nights, Song Li would laugh to tears. She knew she did it.

That alone was enough for her.

———

The transaction between Song Li and Bo Lin became short and simple. The increasing attention she was getting meant an increase to Bo Lin’s compensation.

But Song Li was immersed in socialising. She didn’t have time to reorganise the gifts she received anymore, so most of the time she would just use cash to replace the gifts. Bo Lin accepted it. 

Song Li punched in the six-digit value of that week’s remittance. She lit a long cigarette and called Bo Lin’s number. 

“Hey, check your account,” her tone was casual yet sensual, which was the complete opposite from her past self.

“How’s everything lately?” Bo Lin, as usual, would ask about her situation.

“Great.”

“It’s really great.” She said twice, her voice louder, as if she was trying to let a third person hear her words. 

———

Half a year passed in the blink of an eye, Song Li was about to graduate. 

And because of that, the frequency of Song Li staying in her room had doubled.

Tonight, she received an unfamiliar email. The sender was ‘Qingfeng’.

Song Li opened the email.

“Dear Song Li, 

Hi.

I’m not sure if you would still remember me. I’m Jiang Fengqing. We met before back at Bo Lin’s store.”

A surge of memories rushed toward her like the wind. Song Li burst out into cold sweat. 

———

“I know you’re probably shocked silly, don’t be afraid. I wrote this to you before I passed. I didn’t leave any will, and I scheduled for this email to be sent three years from today. After this, I’ll be clearing out all traces of my presence. So I hope after you read this email, you’ll delete it as well? Thank you very much.

Once you read this email, I’m afraid I would’ve been dead for a few years? Ah, I wonder if you still remember me? Does Bo Lin still mention me?”

I guess not, haha.

Song Li, I don’t know why I am writing this to you, and I’m not sure why you’re the only person I want to talk to before I leave this world. It’s probably because the first time I met you, I feel like we have an affinity. Of course, it could also be because of the magic Bo Lin has casted on you. You know, once he casts his magic on you, people will involuntarily start paying attention to you and care about you.

I’m not able to tell how you’re doing now, but I hope it’s not bad? It feels amazing to be cared for by the whole world, right? But of course, it must be quite suffocating too, right? Let me take a guess at how you’re doing. Is it like how it was for me? In the eyes of others, you’re doing great or the complete opposite. But only you know all these hardships and weariness behind it. Am I right?

Song Li, do you like the life you’re living now? If you do, then that’s the best. But I don’t like mine. Do you know why I resort to ending my own life? Because a few days ago, out of boredom, I started looking through my things at home. By accident, I found an old picture of myself.

It was a picture of me when I first got into university. I was super excited, so I went exploring around campus and took pictures of the scenery with my phone. Then, I found a really beautiful place. It was a wooden pergola covered with wisteria. From afar, it looked like a sea of purple clouds. I quickly stopped a passerby and asked if he could take a picture of me with this place.

He was a very nice guy. He immediately agreed to it and helped me take a picture with the wisterias. I even got that picture printed out to put into my own wallet since the picture was really beautiful. There was no one around, no one was looking at me, but I smiled very sweetly, as if I had the whole universe’s confidence shining upon me.

Back then, I hadn’t gotten any plastic surgery done yet. I was a short and ugly nobody. But that smile, it looked more beautiful than any of my smiles now. It was a hundred, no, a thousand times more beautiful. 

———

I was very sad at that moment. I thought that my past self was so far yet so near to me.

I thought the me now is doing great, but I will never be able to smile like that smile again. 

I decided there and then I did not want to live this way anymore, but it was already too late for me to go back.

So, death was my only choice. To liberate and atone for my past self.

———

Ah, thank you. I’m going to leave now. Thank you for lending me your time to read my email. You’re the only person I can talk to, so I’d like to give this picture to you. This was the most precious moment when I was still alive.

Good night, Song Li.

Goodbye, Song Li.

I wish you the best in life.”

———

After she finished reading, Song Li cried silently.

Her roommates didn’t know why she suddenly started crying, and they didn’t dare comfort her.

Because she was no longer the same Song Li from before, not the same friendly classmate of the past.

———

Song Li scrolled down to see the picture that made Jiang Qingfeng feel such regret. 

She kept scrolling until she saw the picture.

Song Li stopped breathing.

Within the white frame, in the midst of purple, it was obvious it was an old picture. In the center was a girl with an ordinary build, flat facial features, and even some unevenness in her skin tone. But that smile of hers was brighter than the sun shining above her head.

And this girl … was herself.

———

Song Li panicked and deleted the email instantly, even emptied out her inbox.

She ran out of the dorm. Her chest hurt so badly she was barely able to stand straight.

The wind blew past her. Song Li wanted to cry, but no tears would fall.

She stopped by the campus’ man-made lake. The street lamps on the other side looked as if they were floating around like giant dandelions.

She stood there for a long time. The anger in her slowly subsided.

———

Ten minutes later, Song Li closed her eyes and dived into the lake.

The moon in the lake was shattered by the loud splashes of water.

She was determined. She didn’t even bother inhaling her last breath before taking the dive.

———

Song Li! Song Li! Song Li! Song Li!

She could hear her name being called out repeatedly by different voices.

She seemed to be struggling to wake from an endless cycle of nightmares, countless hands reaching out to her ankles to pull her into limbo.

She slowly sank, while countless bubbles floated upwards. They looked like eyeballs hidden in the abyss.

They fixed their stares on her.

Watching her every single move, snatching away her weakeaning breaths.

———

Through the trembling lake waters, Song Li thought she saw Bo Lin.

He just stood there by the bridge, watching her indifferently.

———

In the icy cold lake waters, Song Li could feel her hair stand on end.

———

Presence—Epilogue

———

The suicide rate of university students tend to spike nearing the graduating seasons.

Getting lost in the labyrinth of love, buried by mountains of theses, sucked into the pains of depression or discrimination and isolation. 

No one knew the reason behind the death of this girl called Song Li.

She used to live the glorious life of her immeasurable beauty and excellence. She was so beautiful. Everyone would fall for her even without her needing to lift a finger. She was the campus celebrity; she was the campus goddess.

She didn’t seem to have had these so-called difficulties.

———

In the following week, Song Li’s presence on campus and in society was still abnormally high.

Her social presence now was at the peak, higher than when she was alive.

The name: ‘Song Li’ broke all records and made it to the highest standing of social presence.

But she won’t ever be able to see these achievements.

———

Everything would eventually pass, washed away by time without leaving a single trace.

After summer vacation, a new batch of freshmen enrolled. It was a brand new era, the era of the new blood.

The juniors would occasionally bring up the topic of this one senior. She was rumored to be great, but then she died. And no one knew why she died.

They couldn’t even put a name to this rumored senior.

———

It was just another day. The sun would still continue to rise without a change.

On the other side of this city, there was a young man dressed in changshan. He opened the doors to an old and shabby hair salon.

The hair salon was tucked in a remote corner, not easily accessible.

It may not be a good environment for business according to feng shui, but someone would eventually find this place.  


Oneshots

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