After enduring a night of unspeakable dreams, Shen Qiao woke even earlier than usual the next morning.
When his consciousness returned, he kept his eyes closed for a long while, waiting to hear the sound of his alarm. But nothing came, and he finally lost his patience. He tightly furrowed his brows and felt around in bed until he brushed the edge of his cell phone.
Once he got his hand on his phone, he dragged it over and cracked open one eye to check the time.
He let out a putrid breath and chucked his phone onto the nightstand. It hit something with a thunk, but Shen Qiao didn't even look over to check what it had knocked down. He threw off the covers and sat up. He just sat there in bed for a while before finally trudging into the bathroom to wash up.
After cleaning himself up, Shen Qiao felt a little more refreshed. Before heading out the door, he went to the closet out of habit and started rummaging around for his swim trunks. But he paused halfway and closed the closet doors again.
That day, he left the room without his usual bag.
The light of daybreak scattered across the whole city. Shen Qiao stood by the side of the road with a bouquet of lilies. He hailed down a cab and climbed in.
"Shifu, to Beiyuan Cemetery."
The driver glanced at him through the rearview mirror, then spun the steering wheel and got them on the road.
Over forty minutes later.
The driver pressed down on the meter and read out the fare that popped up: "One hundred and twenty-three yuan."
Shen Qiao took out his phone and paid with WeChat. He opened the cab door and climbed out. The flowers he held had yet to fully bloom; the small buds bounced slightly, ever-so-slightly, as he walked.
With the bouquet in his arms, he approached the gate to check in. After showing the gatekeeper that he carried only the flowers, and no flammable items, he was admitted to the cemetery.
His black sneakers crossed the stone steps one by one. He followed a path he'd memorized to a familiar headstone.
Turn right. Go straight. Turn right again. Then, on the third level—
After passing four monuments, he saw the black and white memorial photo of a woman with cold, delicate features. Perhaps she'd taken on an overly formal expression for the photo. Her eyes, the corners of her lips, and even the set of her jaw were all especially cold in that image. When one saw that photo attached to a memorial headstone, a chill was likely to run through their bones.
This was Shen Qiao's mother, Shen Jinyi.
To be more specific, this was his adoptive mother.
Shen Qiao set down the flowers. He lifted a hand and rubbed his fingers over the tribute altar in front of the headstone. His fingers came away with a layer of dust and grit.
A faintly derisive look crossed his face before he met the gaze of the woman in the photo. His voice was just a touch hoarse as he started to speak:
"It would be such a simple thing to find someone to clean up here for you every so often. And Lu Chengzhen won't even do that much.
"If you were still alive now, you wouldn't let him walk all over you like this, would you? After all, Mom, you always strove to be the best. You refused to be second to anyone."
That was how she'd treated Lu Chengzhen, how she'd treated Su Qiongpei, and later… how she'd treated Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao had forgotten to bring tissues. He could only wipe at the dust on the headstone with his hand. His clean palm was quickly stained an ashy gray. Shen Qiao didn't mind at all. He lowered his head to blow away the rest of the dust, then placed the lilies he'd brought on the altar.
Dainty droplets of dew still clung to the flowers that had been delicately wrapped by the florist. The singular scent of lilies rose from the bouquet, carrying with it a soft, pitiful aura.
Shen Qiao haphazardly patted some of the dust off his hands, then brought his gaze up to meet the eyes of the woman in the photo again.
"It's a funny coincidence. When I went to pick up flowers at a nearby florist's shop, they strongly recommended their freshest lilies to me. It was only after I checked out and left the shop that I remembered… you seemed to hate these flowers the most.
"You said they were all over the cemetery when you were little. They were clearly such a clean, pure white, but you felt like they were growing out of the graves. You felt ill at ease just smelling them.
"But, besides me, no one is going to come here today. So, Mom, just make do with these."
Shen Qiao rarely ever said so much. He spoke very quietly, but his eyes were already dispirited and full of exhaustion. He paused uncomfortably, until the corners of his lips twitched again.
"I won't be back either, anyway."
His words were as light as feathers, and his tone didn't change at all from what it had been a moment ago. He sounded like he was talking about something pleasant and meaningless, like the weather. But if those words were to be heard by anyone else visiting the grave of a loved one, they would have sent a chill down one's spine.
The location of Shen Jinyi's tomb wasn't very good. Pine and cypress trees lined the paths in the cemetery. Throughout the day, as the sun crossed the sky, each grave would have its moment in the blistering summer heat. It was only Shen Jinyi's headstone…
It was only her headstone that fell under the sun at all hours of day, regardless of the season.
Shen Qiao almost suspected Lu Chengzhen and Su Qiongpei had chosen that 'exceptional' spot on purpose. Perhaps they'd hated Shen Jinyi so much that they didn't want her to have a moment's peace, even in death.
When she was alive, Shen Jinyi's presence had been so powerful. Lu Chengzhen had loathed her. Su Qiongpei had envied her. And all the servants of their household had dreaded her.
Then, as soon as she passed away, it seemed everyone forgot her in the blink of an eye. All their memories of her seemed to vanish. She was entombed here, where she would remain forgotten and ignored. Perhaps that was the cruelest revenge of all.
Only Shen Qiao still remembered to visit her once in a while.
But from that day on, Shen Qiao wouldn't be able to visit anymore either.
He still remembered when Shen Jinyi's sickness had been at its worst, when she could barely speak. He still remembered Lu Chengzhen standing in the hall outside her hospital room, speaking coldly and sternly into his phone. Lu Chengzhen was clearly separated from the hospital room by a door, but he still wore a mask and a protective suit he'd asked his secretary to fetch for him.
His appearance attracted attention from many people passing through the hall. He looked as though his wife were suffering from some highly contagious disease.
Until Shen Jinyi stopped breathing, Lu Chengzhen wouldn't take one step past that hospital door. Even when the time came to collect her body and arrange her cremation, Lu Chengzhen only arranged for someone else to handle those matters.
The only person who ever entered Shen Jinyi's hospital room was Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao had stood by her hospital bed while she wore an oxygen mask. She struggled to even keep her eyes open, but she stubbornly kept her gaze on him. Her every breath was more labored than the last, and her oxygen mask was opaque with a white fog.
But she still kept her eyes on Shen Qiao.
Her hands, exposed from beneath the white covers draped over her, tightly clutched the ice-cold railings of the hospital bed. Her nails were no longer a healthy, pale color, and a bandage held an IV needle in the back of her hand, making her swollen fingers look even more ghastly.
Shen Qiao looked down at her. He glanced at the machines around her and saw that the numbers were dipping lower and lower. He hesitated for a moment, falling deep into thought, before he finally said, "Lu Chengzhen is outside."
Shen Jinyi didn't have much of a reaction to that name.
She continued to stare blankly at Shen Qiao, with her messy hair sweeping over her forehead. She was an almost terrifying sight.
But Shen Qiao, and only Shen Qiao, didn't retreat.
He met Shen Jinyi's gaze and didn't move a muscle. He suddenly remembered something from back when Shen Jinyi had first gotten sick—
Back then, Shen Jinyi had been trying to find someone to cure Shen Qiao of his 'abnormal' romantic attachment. That was when she'd gotten sick. Members of the Lu family had sent her to the hospital.
Shen Qiao had just finished his own 'treatment' then. He couldn't walk very steadily, but the elevator at the hospital was taking too long to arrive. He took the stairs instead, advancing one floor at a time, until he finally reached the sixteenth floor. He was thoroughly drenched in sweat by then, like someone who had been fished out from a pond.
When he first entered Shen Jinyi's hospital room, she was already conscious. The Lu family's auntie who was in charge of taking care of Shen Jinyi was helping her sit up in bed.
Upon seeing Shen Qiao in such a state, Shen Jinyi let out a warm smile, as though nothing had ever gone awry in their mother-son relationship. She acted as though she were still the poised, dignified woman who'd married into a good family, and as though Shen Qiao were still the happy and fortunate child of that family.
Shen Jinyi patted the bed and called out to him, "Qiaoqiao, come here. Have a seat. How do you feel today?"
Shen Qiao stared at her, utterly expressionless. His eyes were blank and sunken. He didn't sit. He could no longer keep up the act. He couldn't sit with this woman like there was no ill will between them.
He had started to fear this woman.
Shen Jinyi seemed to read and understand the look on his face. The warm expression on her own face didn't change, but her tone became much colder and more cruel:
"Don't blame your mother for any of this. Didn't I tell you before? I don't mind who you date, but Lu Zhe is absolutely out of the question. That woman's child is not an option.
"If you still refuse to repent even now, then you can stop considering me your mother. When I die, you don't have to come see me. After I die, you don't have to visit my grave."
Standing in that hospital room, with Shen Jinyi on her deathbed, Shen Qiao held her gaze. The woman looked like she was on the brink of death already, yet she gazed at him unwaveringly, as though refusing to let go.
Finally, Shen Qiao opened his mouth and asked the question that had long been hidden in his heart:
"Mom, are you waiting to hear me swear that I'll never come into contact with Lu Zhe again for the rest of my life?"
When she heard that name, Shen Jinyi reacted. Her fingers spasmed uncontrollably, scratching faint trails into her bedsheets. It was like an act of a struggle, as well as an act of pain.
Shen Qiao's lips twitched and curved ever-so-slightly.
He didn't give her what she was waiting for.
It was almost like he was competing with Shen Jinyi in patience and stubbornness. He stood at her bedside for a long, long time. He stood there until three in the morning, when the machines around her finally sounded out in alarm, alerting the hospital of her flatlining pulse.
Shen Jinyi waited until her death, but she never heard Shen Qiao make that promise.
And so, even in her moment of death, she never closed her eyes.
Shen Qiao remained frozen in that spot, paralyzed by her unseeing gaze. It was ultimately the hospital staff that had to pull him away. The nurses were young, and they hadn't yet seen anyone stand guard in a family member's room like this, silently awaiting their death. They seemed to want to say something to comfort Shen Qiao, but didn't quite know how.
Only Shen Qiao himself knew—
He didn't need to be comforted.
Even when he looked upon Shen Jinyi in that state, his heart was filled with nothing but satisfaction.
"You probably don't remember the first time I saw you two."
Back in front of Shen Jinyi's tombstone, in the present, Shen Qiao began to speak again.
"At that time, I'd just had a fight with some older kids. And I'd lost the fight. I was covered in mud from head to toe, hiding under the slide in the playground. I heard the head of the orphanage talking to someone, and once their voices drifted away, I snuck out to get a look at what rich family had come this time.
"Then, right away, you saw me. You hadn't drifted away at all.
"Later, the head of the orphanage told me I'd been adopted by you and your family. I refused to believe it at first, and I kept asking myself why I had to get into a fight that day. Why didn't I let you see a better side of me?
"At the same time, I wondered if this was just a whim for you. I wondered if you would send me back after just a while…
"I wondered about all that until I saw you again, and you told me, 'Do you know why I chose you? Because you're a lot like me. I like the look in your eyes. You won't ever admit defeat. We're the same, you and I.'"
From that moment on, Shen Qiao had believed that meeting Shen Jinyi was a grand favor that had been gifted to him by the gods of fate.
Shen Jinyi had pulled him out of the quagmire and brought him home. She'd given him all the care he needed, and she'd raised him in the best environment he could have hoped for.
Even if there were mistakes, even if she'd once injected him with omega pheromones, in Shen Qiao's mind—it wasn't that big of a deal. He could write all those mistakes off as Lu Chengzhen's mistakes.
But then, later…
Shen Qiao paused for a long time in front of the tombstone before he spoke again.
"If I'd never met Lu Zhe, I might have become the perfect son in your eyes.
"But you made me fear love. You showed me suffering like I'd never known before. You made me live through hell."
Shen Jinyi had pulled him out of that quagmire, yes. She'd cleaned him off, washing away the mud that stained every crevice of his body. Then, when he was sparkling like new and finally filled with life and hope, she'd so easily lifted a hand and pushed him over a ledge, sending him tumbling into a bottomless abyss.
"When I finally lost all hope, I wanted to seek revenge against you.
"I wanted you to know how it felt, so I deliberately refused to make you an oath before you passed away. I refused to let you die in peace. I deliberately bring the lilies that you hate to your grave. I want you to feel that horror and disgust. That's why every time I come to see you, I tell you over and over again—
"I'll always love Lu Zhe. Forever. I'll always love the son of Su Qiongpei, whom you loathe so fiercely."
In the process of recounting this story, Shen Qiao had paused several times. He revisited the events in starts and stops. It seemed it had taken until that day for him to feel ready to lay those old scars and wounds bare. He was finally ready to let the sun shine down on the toxic, rotting flesh that ate away at him from within, detoxifying and purifying his old ills.
He swiftly cut out all that old hurt, all the pain, the suffering.
"But there's no hate in me now.
"You've already passed away. You'll forever be entombed in this painful place.
"And he… he's already returned to my life.
"This time, I came to tell you that I'll live my life well. I'll quit smoking. I'll listen to my doctor's orders. I'll take my medicine on time. I'll exercise. In my new life, I'll live the rest of my days happily.
"Goodbye, Mom. Thank you for granting me this new life."