Black Photo Frame
Although Li Shan Zhu had turned it down multiple times, Wen Yu insisted on sending the two of them home.
Why? Ning Ning stared at the side of his face. Did he think that she was sick which was why he couldn’t just leave her alone? Just like that time on the roof?
“We’re here.” Li Shan Zhu took a key out.
Ning Ning looked over, the door in front of her eyes slowly opened.
It opened for the three hundred sixty-third time.
Wen Yu looked away. The moment the door opened, Ning Ning held onto his sleeve, showing a subconscious reliance.
“Since you’re already here,” Li Shan Zhu said with his back towards them, “let’s eat together.”
He walked into the kitchen. There was the sound of the stove being turned on, the sound of vegetables being chopped, the aroma of a fish head casserole.
Wen Yu sat on the sofa for a while before his right hand was abruptly turned over by someone. His palm felt itchy. He looked down and saw that Ning Ning was writing on his palm with her finger.
Wen Yu read out the two words. Ning Ning placed the finger that she used to write in front of her lips and made a shushing gesture at him, then looked towards the kitchen.
“…Why?” Wen Yu stared at her for a while. “What happened to your voice?”
Ning Ning looked at him without saying a word.
It was not that she did not want to speak.
It was that she could not say a word.
She had been on the verge of death three hundred and sixty-two times, she had failed a total of three hundred and sixty-two times. Every time she failed, she would go back to the beginning, then accept the same punishment—line reduction.
The door to Li Shan Zhu’s house seemed to have become the key point, her lines started to count the moment she entered the door, it didn’t matter that she had been laughing and talking to Wen Yu previously, now she could not utter a single word. Not to mention talking, if she even exclaimed an onomatopoeia, she would immediately be sent back to the beginning.
To summarise, from now on, the amount of lines she could say was: zero.
All of her thoughts could only be portrayed in writing or gestures.
Trying to explain to Wen Yu was simply too difficult, so Ning Ning could only touch her throat and shook his head at him.
“Your throat is not well?” Wen Yu asked.
Ning Ning nodded.
“Should I buy medicine for you?” Wen Yu asked.
Ning Ning shook her head.
At this moment, Li Shan Zhu brought out the fish head casserole from the kitchen. Upon seeing the bright red chillies floating on the surface of the broth, Wen Yu said to Li Shan Zhu, “Her throat is not well, she might not be able to eat this.”
“Then you can have it.” Li Shan Zhu smiled at him.
Wen Yu was a very polite person, even if Bear Grylls1 were to serve him food with eight legs or four heads, he would at least taste it to show respect for the host. However, he rubbed his palm with his finger. The two words, “don’t eat”, seemed to have the residual heat of Ning Ning’s finger. He hesitated for a moment before he told Li Shan Zhu, “Sorry, I can’t really take spicy food.”
“This chilli is not spicy, give it a try if you don’t believe me.” Li Shan Zhu filled a bowl of fish broth and fish for him, a pair of red wooden chopsticks was laid neatly on the black wooden bowl.
It was hard to turn down such kindness. Just as Wen Yu was about to reach out and take the bowl, a hand reached out from his side and grabbed the pair of chopsticks that were placed on it.
“Big Sister Little Ai,” Li Shan Zhu exclaimed, “is your throat fine now? Can you eat spicy food?”
Ning Ning picked up a piece of the snow-white fish, the chopsticks paused mid-air before it was suddenly shoved in his direction.
Time seemed to have frozen at this moment, frozen on the piece of piping hot fish. The heat gradually dissipated, a drop of broth rolled off the fish and dripped onto the floor, leaving behind a hard-to-wash-off oily stain.
Li Shan Zhu slowly started to crack a smile, opening his mouth to reveal his pearly white teeth. He got close to Ning Ning’s hand and bit down on the fish.
Ning Ning was so shocked that her hand trembled, one of the chopsticks fell to the floor, Li Shan Zhu bent down to pick it up.
“Big Sister Little Ai is really like a little kid sometimes, she can’t even hold her chopsticks properly.” He returned to the kitchen and came out with a new pair of chopsticks. “Here, hold this, don’t drop it this time.”
Ning Ning stared at him. She suspected that he did not go back to the kitchen to take a pair of chopsticks, but to take the opportunity to spit out the fish in his mouth.
Li Shan Zhu seemed to be a little embarrassed to be stared at by her for so long, he smiled bashfully again. Ning Ning laughed coldly in her heart in response, she thought to herself, “You smile. No matter how nice it is, your smiles hide a dagger, I will not fall for it, neither will Wen—oh my God, what are you doing?”
Ning Ning almost screamed, because Wen Yu took the chopsticks that Li Shan Zhu had handed to him, grabbed a piece of fish and chewed a few times. His Adam’s apple bobbed, the fish went into his stomach. He abruptly covered his mouth and coughed a few times.
The colour on Ning Ning’s face changed drastically. Just as she was about to shout “Trump for 2017”, Wen Yu put his hand down and told her, “It’s not bad, just a little spicy. Cough, cough. You can try it if you can eat spicy food.”
Ning Ning, “…”
Through the entire three hundred sixty-three iterations, this was the second time she touched the fish head casserole with her chopsticks. To be fair, it was indeed not bad. Li Shan Zhu might not be good enough to cook for a hotel, but he would have no problem walking into a local restaurant as a head chef.
But why? He had poisoned the fish for the previous few hundred times, why did he not do it this time? Did he poison the other dishes?
“Why are you only eating this?” Li Shan Zhu took a bite out of every dish in front of her, smiling. “Look, there’s no poison.”
The air seemed to have frozen, the silence around the dining table was deafening.
“I’m sorry.” Li Shan Zhu slowly turned his head to look at Wen Yu, he sighed again. “Something happened recently that caused Big Sister Little Ai to think that there is someone constantly trying to get her, what is the medical term for this? Persecutory delusion.”
That’s not it! Ning Ning wanted to explain, but she could not speak, she could only shake her head repeatedly at Wen Yu.
“Just like right now.” Li Shan Zhu shifted his vision towards her, saying with a tone of someone who was mocking himself while nursing a grievance at the same time, “Do you think that the food was poisoned? Do you think that I want to harm you? How could I do such a thing?”
Ning Ning trembled with anger, he actually put the blame on her. Clearly, he had already murdered her three hundred sixty-two times, this time was no exception, he just chose a method other than poison.
What was important was what Wen Yu pondered on it. She sneaked a glance at him and saw that his attention was neither on her nor Li Shan Zhu, he was looking at the corner of the room—what was in the corner of the room?
Ning Ning followed his vision. She saw that there was a small cabinet at the corner. There was a bonsai plant that was growing healthily on it, beside the bonsai plant was a photo frame, within the photo frame was three people—no, one of the faces was blotted out, there were only two people left.
With a bang, the photo frame was flipped down.
Ning Ning did not even see who was the person who had been blotted out.
The hand that flipped down the photo frame belonged to Li Shan Zhu, his face looked a little gloomy. After he kept the photo frame, his face turned bashful again.
“That might have been done by the neighbour’s kid.” He closed his eyes. “Naughty kids like to draw on anything. My brother likes children, so he wouldn’t reprimand them even if he were to see it.”
“Your brother?” Wen Yu asked.
“I didn’t tell you?” Li Shan Zhu smiled. “Big Sister Little Ai is my brother’s fiancee. Before my brother left, he told me that I have to take good care of her.”
“Where did your brother go?”
“He had an aircraft accident… ”
Li Shan Zhu’s phone suddenly rang. He frantically avoided the two of them as he answered the phone outside. During the time that he left, Wen Yu asked Ning Ning abruptly, “Did that really happen to his brother?”
Ning Ning was surprised. She did not know why Wen Yu asked that, but she still nodded her head.
“Is that so?” Wen Yu furrowed his brows. She did not know why he was thinking of those things. He then pursued the matter further. “Is this his brother’s house, or his house?”
Ning Ning could not speak, she could only pull his hand over and quickly wrote on his palm, “Both.”
“This house belongs to both of them?” Wen Yu asked.
Ning Ning nodded.
“What are the two of you doing?” Li Shan Zhu’s voice suddenly rang out from the side. The two of them looked over and saw that he was staring directly at them, at the hands that were being used as pen and paper respectively.
Although the two of them knew they were communicating with each other, from an outsider’s point of view, this type of communication was too unnecessarily intimate— especially when one of the party was Zhang Xin Ai. She used a finger that had pink nail polish to draw in the palm of a young man, this gesture showed some intimacy no matter how you looked at it.
Li Shan Zhu’s expression was even more gloomy, he said coldly, “This is my brother’s house, he’s watching you two.”
“Your brother…” Wen Yu muttered, “might really be watching us.”
Ning Ning looked at him in surprise. What did he mean by that?
A shadow loomed on the side of her face, it was in the shape of a knife. Ning Ning looked over. Reflected in her eyes was Li Shan Zhu with a knife raised up high, the knife that had stabbed her fifty times.
After fighting with him for at least a hundred times, even if Ning Ning failed as a fighter, she could still pass as an escapee. She immediately threw whatever was near her hand at him, then continued to throw things as she ran. When she reached the door, she realised that he was not chasing him. She looked back and saw Wen Yu holding up a chair as a shield to confront him.
Li Shan Zhu’s knife came down and got stuck in the chair. Wen Yu tripped him with his leg, then…then Li Shan Zhu did not have the chance to get up anymore.
Wen Yu pinned Li Shan Zhu’s arms behind his back and placed his knee on Li Shan Zhu’s waist, looking up at Ning Ning and said, “Call the police.”
Ning Ning, “…”
Seeing that she still could not speak, Wen Yu sighed. “Come over and give me a hand, my phone is in my pocket.”
That was when Ning Ning walked over. She reached out and felt around his waist pockets for a moment. She took out his phone and dialled the police before holding it up to his ear. Once the call connected, Wen Yu told the police the current situation. Not long after, the police arrived and brought everyone away.
After they walked out of the room, Ning Ning was still a little absent-minded. She could not help but stop in her tracks and looked back at the door. She blurted out, “I’m out?”
“Why would you not be?” Wen Yu felt his chest become stuffy as he stumbled back a few steps. He looked down and saw that Ning Ning had buried her face on his chest. Her shoulders were trembling uncontrollably as she held his waist tightly with both her arms.
The police in front of them turned back and took a look, he gave him a thumbs up. “Not bad, young man. Saving a damsel in distress, you would definitely be rewarded.”
“I have never wanted any rewards…” Wen Yu explained frantically, he felt embarrassed being hugged in public. He frantically told Ning Ning in a quiet voice, “Quickly let go.”
He did not understand why Ning Ning was so agitated, only Ning Ning knew why.
She had come out.
Come out of the infinite loop.
The time now was two in the afternoon, she only had to hold out for a few more hours before she could leave the movie, to return to the safe, peaceful and eternally conventional world that would, at the very least, not loop.
“Thank you.” Ning Ning choked. “Thank you, Wen Yu.”
“…No need to thank me.” Wen Yu pried her arms open forcefully. “I would help anyone who was in that situation.”
Her passion made him a little scared. After he broke free of her, Wen Yu immediately maintained a distance from her, the two of them did not even exchange a word afterwards.
Ning Ning’s entire body relaxed as she watched the sun gradually set. She was about to give Wen Yu a call to buy him dinner, but after feeling around for a moment, she could not find her phone.
“Where’s my phone?” Ning Ning returned to the police station, her phone wasn’t there. A policeman reminded her, “I didn’t see you bring your phone here, could you have left it at the house?”
Ning Ning was taken aback. At the house, Li Shan Zhu’s house?
She couldn’t lose her phone, her phone was her only means to contact anyone. What was most important was that her phone was in her purse. Her money, her cards, along with the keys to her house were all inside the purse. Without the purse, she wouldn’t even have a place to stay for the night.
Ning Ning could only return. The door was already locked. Luckily, the landlord was present when the police came to arrest Li Shan Zhu, he had seen Ning Ning with them. Upon hearing that she left something inside, he happily unlocked the door and let her go in to take a look.
Because of the fight before, the living room was in a mess. The fish head casserole along with the other dishes on the table had all ended up on the floor. After a period of time, the broth had already coagulated on the floor, giving off a terrible smell, there were a few blowflies circling and buzzing above it.
Ning Ning furrowed her brows. She tried her best to avoid the pile of leftovers, rummaging through the living room, but she still could not find her phone, she found a photo frame instead.
It was the photo frame that Li Shan Zhu had forcefully flipped down before.
The photo frame had fallen off the cabinet due to the fight from before, Ning Ning picked it off the floor and flipped it over, only to discover that there was a crack on the glass, but the photo within remained clear as day…the person that had been blotted out was also clear as day.
“…Why is it me?” Ning Ning widened her eyes in surprise.
There were three people in the photo frame—Li Shan Zhu, a man who looked a lot like him, and Zhang Xin Ai.
The three of them looked like they had a very good relationship, they had their arms around each other’s shoulders. The two brothers stood on each side, Zhang Xin Ai stood in the middle, her signature wavy hair draped over her. Coincidentally, she was wearing the same bohemian dress Ning Ning had on at the moment.
It was just that her face had been blotted out. Someone had blotted it out by drawing circles with a pen—up and down, left and right, they were drawn in all directions. It was drawn so forcefully that it left an indentation on the photo, a spine chilling emotion emitted from the strokes.
This was a little surprising to Ning Ning. She had thought that with Li Shan Zhu’s condition, he would have wanted his brother to disappear first, not her.
“Ring, ring, ring!”
A phone suddenly rang. It gave Ning Ning a fright, the photo frame fell out of her hands onto the floor again. She frantically picked it up then walked towards the direction of the ring.
“Hello.” She found her phone then answered it.
“You went back there?” Wen Yu’s voice rang out from the other side.
“Yes, I left my phone and money here.” Ning Ning answered, “That’s right, are you free tonight? You’ve been a big help, let me treat you to a meal?”
“No need for a meal, get out of there quickly.” Wen Yu said, his voice had a trace of haste. “That place did not only have Li Shan Zhu.”
“…What do you mean?” Ning Ning asked.
“That is not a bachelor pad,” Wen Yu said, “at least two men live there.”
Ning Ning was stunned.
Wen Yu’s voice rang out by her ear continuously. She stood alone in the middle of the living room, beside her was a waste basket, it had quite the amount of cigarettes in it. One of them was very fresh, as if it had just been thrown in, you could vaguely see an ember that had not gone out.
“Clack, clack, clack.”
Someone had opened the fridge door and left it open. There was so much emergency food, there was no way a person could finish it alone. On top of that, there was a pile of instant noodle boxes, enough to guarantee that if one were to live here, that person would not need to go out for a very long time.
“Clack, clack, clack.”
There were clothes out to dry at the balcony—that was strange, there were actually clothes of two sizes, did Li Shan Zhu buy the wrong size?
“Clack, clack, clack.”
From a while ago, someone’s footsteps had been ringing out behind her, it got closer and closer to her.
Ning Ning slowly turned her head around.
An unfamiliar man stood behind her.
No, he was not unfamiliar.
Ning Ning took a glimpse of the photo frame in her hand, he looked exactly like the man in it.
“Hello? Hello? Are you still there?” Wen Yu asked.
Wen Yu was standing at the entrance of the police station, the sky was very dark, there were not many people nearby, but there was a dog that was barking non-stop, maybe it was a police dog that had smelled a stranger.
There was no answer for a very long time. Wen Yu stared at his phone, just when he suspected that his phone had problems, Ning Ning’s voice rang out from the other end.
“Wen Yu, you were right.” She murmured, “His brother…was really watching us.”
With a click, the call disconnected.
1Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls is a British adventurer, writer, television presenter and businessman. Grylls first drew attention after embarking on a number of adventures, and then became widely known for his television series Man vs. Wild. Wiki article