“I still can’t trust you.”
The dancers on stage had stopped. There had been too many accidents that day, they thought that everything would return to normal after they had a substitute. Ning Yu Ren started to talk to herself at last.
“If you did not want us to take part in the Nuo dance, you could have told us directly,” Ning Yu Ren said, “but you didn’t say anything, you led us into the village instead.”
Ning Ning was not the only one who could see masked people, Ning Yu Ren could do so too.
The day they had arrived at the village, when the car broke down at the road, when they were arguing about whether to carry on or go back, Ning Qing had appeared. He could have warned them, or he could have turned back and told them to stop—when they were following him—to leave the village…
But he did not say any of those things.
He led them to the village step by step.
“You wanted us to take part in the Nuo dance, is the candidate Ning Ning? Or me? ” Ning Yu Ren fell silent for a moment, she got the answer. “…It’s Ning Ning.”
“Who are you talking to?” A dancer asked her. Although the others didn’t say anything, they were looking around, they were so nervous that their limbs were stiff, they were having goosebumps.
It was not only them, the audience also started to talk among themselves restlessly. Some deliberately talked in loud voices, as if doing so would dispel the fear in their hearts.
Ning Yu Ren did not answer the question, she was still looking at Ning Qing. “Later on, I had the chance to substitute for Ning Ning, the village chief even agreed, but you didn’t… When we found her in the well, your mask was on her body.”
When Ning Ning was found, she was already exhausted, she was so weak that she could not even open her eyes. Ning Yu Ren had wanted to use her condition as an excuse to borrow a car to send her to a hospital in the county, but because of the mask, she could not go anywhere.
The mask that had been lost for decades, the Ning family member that had been missing for decades, the villagers feared losing either of them.
Even if they had to force her, they had to get her to stay.
“This is fate.” The village chief had even prepared an excuse for his and his people’s actions. “Some people’s lives are destined. For example, Ning Ning’s—the moment we held the ancestor worship ceremony, she returned; the mask that had been lost for so long, she found it the moment she came back; what is this if not fate? She was destined to come back and be the owner since she was born.”
“What a joke.” Ning Yu Ren held Ning Ning tightly, just like a mother holding her newborn, her seemingly powerless infant. “The daughter that I was pregnant with for ten months before giving birth to, I’ve borne bitter hardships to raise her. Just by saying ‘It’s her destiny’, you want to take her away from me…”
The villagers rushed up and tore Ning Ning away from her. They locked her and Cui Hong Mei up in an attic together afterwards.
Her phone had been confiscated while they were on the way, her voice could not be heard from the outside, she could not hear anything from the outside either. Days felt like years, she sat idly until one day the door was finally opened again, the one who had stood at the doorway was the village chief, but he was not the reason she was let out early.
“…Is it Ning Qing?” One of the dancers swallowed, he said as he was trembling a little, “Are…you talking to Ning Qing?”
It would have been fine if he didn’t say that. The moment he said that, the number of people on stage was cut by half, the remaining half had all retreated to the edges of the stage, their eyes were wandering around, any movement on stage and they would immediately turn around and jump off.
“Ning Yu Ren, stop playing tricks!” The village chief rushed over with his cane, he said in exasperation, “You think I don’t know what you’re doing? You’re acting!”
After he finished, he waved his cane. The dancers that had jumped off the stage had all rushed back up. “Get up here! All of you get up here! You’re all adults, how can you get tricked so easily! She is an actress, acting is like breathing to her. There is no Ning Qing here at all, he has already rotted down to his bones…”
Before he could finish, pain suddenly shot up his chin.
“Ah!” The village chief reached up and touched his chin. He realised that he had lost a big handful of his beard, it was like that night again. An invisible hand let go (of his beard) in front of him, white facial hair floated to the ground, forming a layer of snow.
Something that could be seen with a naked eye like this was more convincing than any words.
With the village chief as the center, his surroundings immediately emptied out in a circle, everyone looked at him like a bird that was scared off by the twang of a bow.
The village chief’s back broke out in cold sweat. He slowly looked up at Ning Yu Ren, but found that Ning Yu Ren was looking behind him, saying, “Ning Ning, did you see everything? Hear everything?”
Everything she said was not an act for the villagers, it was also not to scare the village chief so he would stop the ancestor worship ceremony—she did it so Ning Ning could hear everything, so that Ning Ning would not be in the dark.
“Admittedly, you cannot trust the villagers, but him…” Ning Yu Ren looked at Ning Qing. “You can’t trust him easily either. He is your grandfather, but he is also a masked person.”
Ning Qing did not rebuke at all. At this moment, all he did was to smile at her, then he continued walking towards Ning Ning.
“Even if you are family, after you become a masked person, you will become untrustworthy.” Ning Yu Ren’s voice followed behind him, it was bitter and helpless. “He might not want to harm you, he thinks that what he’s doing is good for you—but the ‘good’, is not what you would want sometime…”
Ning Qing stopped in front of Ning Ning.
“See, I told you.” He looked down at her and sighed. “No matter what I say, no matter what I do, she will still doubt me…because I am a masked person. This is also the reason why I could not look for her and could only look for you.”
Ning Ning held Wen Yu in her arms as she looked at him with a complicated expression.
Ning Qing had told her that Ning Yu Ren would have such a reaction, she had not believed it. Even after he had become a masked person, family would still be family, but who knew…
But she couldn’t blame Ning Yu Ren for having that kind of mindset.
After the doorman disappeared, what did the group of masked people who had escaped from Life Theater do?
Stalking, sneaking, surveilling, monopoly—all those had become ordinary fare, they even committed murder, implicating their lovers, making them suffer anxiety and even putting them at risk to get imprisoned. Didn’t Wen Yu come to the theater to seek answers because of that?
Just as Ning Yu Ren had said, masked people did not want to harm people. Their stalking, surveilling, attempts to monopolise—were usually targeted at the people they loved the most. It was just that they didn’t think, or maybe they deliberately ignored whether the other party would be able to accept them once again, whether they would be able to ignore the looks of passersby to live together with aliens like them in the mortal realm.
“What are you thinking of?” Ning Qing suddenly asked.
Behind him, the drums sounded out again, the dancers on stage suddenly sprang up on their feet. They jumped at the audience like beasts, inciting screams.
Act three, <<Exorcism>>.
The village had been built up, life was getting better and better, the refugees got married and had children on this new piece of land. They started their new lives, but everything seemed to be unrelated to the people in the opera house.
Not every masked person was able to accept the current situation, not every masked person was able to live with their decisions. Some regretted it, some tried to escape the opera house to return to the side of their loved ones.
“I think that…you’re a little different from other masked people.” Ning Ning said as she looked at Ning Qing. “You know, all the masked people—I’m talking about all the masked people who have escaped from Life Theater—they returned to the side of the people they miss the most…”
Masked people were not selfless, Ning Qing had admitted that as well.
“…For this point, I’m no different from the other masked people.” He laughed. “I also have a person whom I want to meet.”
“Where is that person?” Ning Ning asked.
“Right here.” Ning Qing answered.
Among the audience, every masked person found their loved ones, one of them held the hand of the other party and refused to let go. A hand suddenly reached out and grabbed his shoulder, forcefully slamming him onto the ground.
A snow white mask.
It was the exorcist.
He held a whip and whipped the masked person casually. The masked person writhed on the ground after getting whipped, but he refused to give up. He reached out to grab the ankle of his loved one, attempting to get some empathy and consolation from the other party.
That seemed to have angered the exorcist. He rolled up his whip and walked over, ripping off the mask of the other party with one fell swoop. The other party covered his face with both hands. The moment his face saw the light of day, it was as if the face under the fingers was getting burnt by the sun. With silent, mournful wails, he fell to the floor, trembling violently a couple of times before he stopped moving.
The exorcist stood beside him while holding the mask.
Nearby, the masked people bent down. They surrounded him like spirits, some cried, some shouted, some begged, some cursed.
“Who are you referring to?” Ning Ning asked.
Ning Qing shook his head. “There’s no time, are you ready?”
Behind the exorcist, a figure sneaked onto the stage, it was the man who was portraying the sacrifice. Ning Yu Ren walked up to greet him, gently bringing him into her arms. A moment later, she reached out and pushed him away, stumbling backwards as she looked at the bloody dagger in his hand, she then looked down at her bleeding abdomen.
“If you don’t die, families will be separated.” The sacrifice said, “So I’ll kill you, like I’m exorcising a demon.”
Exorcism—the demon in the heart.
To send relatives and friends, husbands and children into the opera house, then to not ever let them out anymore. With enough time, they would turn into masked people, the illness in the hearts of the villagers, the demon in their hearts.
The exorcist returned to the stage while holding a handful of masks which then fell to the floor. He squatted down, picking up Ning Yu Ren from the ground. After half a moment, he picked up the dagger beside her. “I’m sorry, I fell into their trap, I should not have left your side.”
After he finished, he held the dagger horizontally, then fell on top of her.
Exorcism—the strongest demon.
As the doorman of the opera house, as the nemesis of all the masked people, the only thing that could kill him was himself.
Clap, clap, clap!!
Applause sounded out like a wave, the audience stood up one by one, their mouths murmuring repeatedly, “Appear, appear…”
The applause continued for a long time until it gradually turned sparse. Looking at the empty stage, looking at Ning Yu Ren and the exorcist who was getting up from the floor, the audience exchanged looks. They finally looked towards the village chief in rage. “What’s going on! Why did it not appear!?!”