On Ning Yiwei’s birthday, precisely at 1:00 PM in the afternoon, he received a message from Zhou Zirui.
Zhou Zirui asked if Ning Yiwei had finished building his Imperial Battleship and if he had any free time in the afternoon. He mentioned that the book Ning Yiwei had chosen was already wrapped up, and he could come over to Ning Yiwei’s place now and contribute a strong force to the Imperial Battleship Project.
Ning Yiwei really wanted Zhou Zirui to come, but he was feeling unwell and couldn’t move on his own, let alone play with LEGO alongside Zhou Zirui.
Helplessly, Ning Yiwei showed his phone to Liang Chong, who was working beside him, and asked, “What should I do?”
Liang Chong glanced down and replied, “Say next time.”
After thinking it over, Ning Yiwei reluctantly replied to Zhou Zirui, “Zirui, I don’t have any time today. But I saved the remaining half for you. We can play together in a few days.”
He asked Liang Chong to take a picture of the half-finished model in his room from yesterday. Liang Chong seemed immersed in his work and without looking up, he sent him a picture.
Ning Yiwei opened the picture Liang Chong sent him, examined it from left to right, but was dissatisfied. He sighed a few times, but Liang Chong didn’t ask why he was sighing. So he said, “Sigh, several piles of pieces are missing in the photo. It looks like a bootleg version of the Imperial Battleship.”
Liang Chong remained silent, so Ning Yiwei continued, “The camera is a bit shaky too, not like a photo taken by a professional LEGO enthusiast like me.”
“Ah,” Liang Chong put down his laptop, turned to look at Ning Yiwei, crossed his arms, and said, “Do you think I’m unprofessional?”
Sadly shaking his head, Ning Yiwei said, “I’m not saying it can’t be shared at all. At least the ship’s hull is captured in the picture.”
After looking at Ning Yiwei for a few seconds, Liang Chong reached out and pinched Ning Yiwei’s face lightly, “Ning Yiwei, are you being silly?”
Ning Yiwei looked at Liang Chong with hopeful eyes and sighed again. Liang Chong shook his head helplessly. “Alright, just wait a moment,” and then he got up and left.
After a while, Ning Yiwei’s phone received a video call. It was from Liang Chong.
Ning Yiwei answered and saw Liang Chong on the other end, in the room where Ning Yiwei was building the LEGO model yesterday. Liang Chong’s voice came through the speaker. Liang Chong said, “Ning Yiwei, the professional LEGO enthusiast, what exactly do you want for the shot?”
“Like this! Like this!” Ning Yiwei instructed Liang Chong to move forward and backward, tilt the phone up, then a little sideways, focus on the ship’s hull, and finally took a satisfactory photo. He sent it to Zhou Zirui.
Zhou Zirui replied with disappointment, “Okay. [Crying emoji] P.S. The photo looks really good. I’ve saved it!”
In the evening, Liang Chong called a chef to come to his house and prepared a beautiful and delicious cake. After a satisfying meal, Ning Yiwei leaned against Liang Chong, lying on the sofa, watching a documentary, and eventually fell asleep.
If Ning Yiwei were to evaluate his 20th birthday by himself, he would consider it as lacking self-discipline. He spent the entire day at home with Liang Chong, doing nothing productive like an idle day.
Except for the good photo taken by Liang Chong under his professional guidance, there wasn’t much else worth remembering.
Not long after Ning Yiwei’s birthday, Zhou Zirui was finally invited to Liang Chong’s house. Together with Ning Yiwei, they completed the remaining battleship.
Liang Chong arranged for a glass display case for Ning Yiwei’s precious model and placed it in the showcase on the third-floor corridor leading to the study, among other valuable items.
The end of the senior year’s first semester was approaching for Ning Yiwei, while Liang Chong started traveling frequently for work. Having spent too long in Australia previously, there were many non-time-sensitive tasks that needed to be completed one by one. Ning Yiwei used to find it manageable, but now he despised the fact that Liang Chong’s house was empty. Therefore, he spent his days studying with Zhou Zirui in the school library.
It was the fourth day of Liang Chong’s business trip, and Zhou Zirui had to accompany his cousin for a blind date in the evening. Ning Yiwei had no choice but to eat dinner alone in the cafeteria and then went to the second-floor reading area in the laboratory to search for some information.
Coincidentally, Assistant Cui was also there, and Ning Yiwei greeted him and exchanged a few words.
Close to nine o’clock, Ning Yiwei packed up his things and headed downstairs. His parents were also in D City today. Since he had to cross half the city to get home, he couldn’t stay too late.
As he passed through the first-floor lobby where he had clashed with Kong Zong, Ning Yiwei was suddenly called out by someone.
“Uh, hello there, student.”
The person who called out to Ning Yiwei was a well-dressed lady. She appeared slightly nervous and eager, her voice low. She stood with a straight posture, sporting medium-length hair and light makeup.
Ning Yiwei couldn’t help but feel that she must have been very beautiful when she was younger.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Ning Yiwei stopped and slightly lowered his head to ask her.
She took a couple of steps closer, making eye contact with Ning Yiwei, and somewhat embarrassedly asked him, “Do you know where the mailbox for the Physics Department professors’ mail is?”
“Oh, that one. I know,” Ning Yiwei said enthusiastically, “But it’s not easy to find. Let me take you there.”
To reach the professors’ mailbox, they had to go around the escalator, walk through half of the corridor, and open a door. There was also a private elevator for the professors that required a swipe card to access.
“You’re really kind, student,” the lady praised Ning Yiwei gratefully as she followed behind him.
Ning Yiwei smiled at her with a hint of embarrassment and replied, “Thank you.”
When they arrived at the mailbox, she took an unsealed letter from her bag and stuffed it into Kong Shenfeng’s mailbox.
Kong Shenfeng’s mailbox was the most filled up. Although Assistant Cui seemed to clear it out for him every few days, it was still almost overflowing.
“Why so much stuff.” The lady expressed her dissatisfaction while forcibly stuffing the envelope into the mailbox, folding it several times, causing Ning Yiwei to feel anxious.
Finally, she managed to fit the letter inside, and only then did Ning Yiwei dare to speak up, saying, “Professor Kong seems to be away recently.”
“Is that so? I’m not sure. I’m delivering it on behalf of someone else,” the lady waved her hand casually and casually asked Ning Yiwei, “Do you know Professor Kong?”
“Hmm,” Ning Yiwei nodded, just as she walked out the door but turned in the wrong direction. He quickly called out to her, “Auntie, it’s not that way.”
She turned back, and Ning Yiwei pointed in the opposite direction, “This way, towards the exit.”
“Oh, oh.” The lady suddenly realized and immediately turned back.
Her eyes were bright. She had delicately drawn eyebrows, but there were some barely noticeable wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and around her lips.
She moved closer to Ning Yiwei, as if carefully observing his face, but before Ning Yiwei felt uncomfortable, she stepped back and said with a smiling face, “Thank you, you’ve helped me again!”
Ning Yiwei pursed his lips, shook his head, and said it was no problem, leading her towards the exit.
In reality, Ning Yiwei felt that this lady seemed to have something on her mind. First, she followed him through half of the corridor, then quickened her pace to walk beside him, and turned her head to ask, “Student, how are you getting home so late?”
She wore thin high heels that made a distinct sound when she walked on the floor.
“I’m taking a taxi home.” Ning Yiwei glanced down at her shoe tips and honestly replied.
Ning Yiwei had never encountered such an elderly person before. Among the people he knew, the one who came closest to her might be Kang Minmin, but Kang Minmin was quite different from her as well. Kang Minmin was much more steady, while she was more decisive.
“Taking a taxi?” She frowned and said to Ning Yiwei, “Taking a taxi is too dangerous. A few days ago, there were students from your school who were robbed while taking a taxi. Haven’t you heard about it?”
Ning Yiwei was slightly startled and looked at her in surprise. “Really? I haven’t heard about it.”
“It’s true,” she lowered her voice and said to Ning Yiwei, “There was a male student who booked a ride-hailing car and was robbed by a driver with a fake license plate. They took all the cash he had and left him stranded at an out-of-town bus stop.”
It felt like she was telling a horror story.
After a few seconds, Ning Yiwei slowly responded, “Taxis nowadays are generally more regulated…” Although he said that, he still felt a bit scared, mainly because this lady’s words were quite frightening.
“Better safe than sorry. But it’s alright,” she patted Ning Yiwei’s shoulder, emanating a gentle fragrance, and said, “As a token of gratitude for showing me the way, let me give you a ride back home.”
Ning Yiwei felt a little embarrassed and tried to decline, “No need, my house is quite far—”
“—It doesn’t matter if it’s far. Besides, I have nothing to do tonight.”
Ning Yiwei couldn’t quite explain why, but he found himself getting into the car with a lady he had only met for less than twenty minutes.
Her car wasn’t very large, but it looked luxurious. Ning Yiwei sat in the passenger seat, obediently fastened his seatbelt, and watched as she entered his home address into the navigation system. He thanked her sincerely, saying, “Thank you.”
He simply gave her directions, but she insisted on driving nearly ten kilometers to take him home.
“Thanks for what?” She looked up, smiled happily at Ning Yiwei, started the car, and tapped the accelerator a few times. Despite the engine revving, the car remained stationary.
“Auntie,” Ning Yiwei pointed out, “I think you forgot to shift gears.”
She paused for a moment, shifted gears, drove a few meters, and then explained to Ning Yiwei, “I don’t usually drive. I have a chauffeur who handles it.”
Ning Yiwei remembered Liang Chong mistakenly shifting gears the last time, so he smiled and nodded.
Perhaps afraid of missing the navigation’s turn prompts, she drove with great concentration. A classic album by an old singer played in the car, and she lightly hummed along, seeming both happy and absent-minded.
After driving for a while, they left the gate of D University and at a bend, encountered a red light. She stopped and glanced at Ning Yiwei, giving a slight smile. She asked him, “What do you think of me?”
Her tone was much softer than when she had frightened Ning Yiwei with the ride-hailing incident. Without waiting for Ning Yiwei’s response, she continued, “Young student, you look quite young. What year are you in?”
“I’m in my fourth year,” Ning Yiwei replied, “I’m in the youth program.”
“So clever,” she exclaimed. “Your parents must be very smart too.”
Ning Yiwei hesitated for a moment and remained silent.
“What do your mom and dad do?” she asked Ning Yiwei again.
Ning Yiwei glanced at her and noticed that she was gripping the steering wheel tightly, her knuckles turning white.
Her tone seemed casual, just an elder having a casual chat with a younger person. But Ning Yiwei couldn’t help but feel that this conversation wasn’t as natural as it appeared.
Subconsciously, Ning Yiwei lowered his head and also looked at his own hands. After a moment of thought, he told her, “My mom and dad run a supermarket. They’re just ordinary people, not particularly smart.”
“Oh?” She seemed very interested. “Which supermarket is it?”
Ning Yiwei mentioned the name of the supermarket, and she nodded, saying she knew it. After a brief silence, she asked Ning Yiwei, “Are they very busy then?”
“Yes,” Ning Yiwei nodded. “They’re always busy contacting suppliers and it’s quite tough for them.”
“With such a busy schedule, do they still have time to spend with you?” She focused on the road ahead, softly pursuing the question.
As they entered the elevated highway following the navigation, the lights on both sides of the road quickly retreated. The current song in the car finished, and after a moment of silence, the intro of another song started playing. It was an upbeat song that made it difficult to concentrate on the conversation. Ning Yiwei listened to half of it before remembering to respond, “They spend time with me when they come back.”
She pressed the accelerator a bit harder, not having a chance to say anything as Ning Yiwei’s phone rang.
It was a call from Lu Jiaqin. Ning Yiwei answered and called out, “Mom.”
Lu Jiaqin asked him, “Weiwei, when will you be home? It’s so late. Your mom either wants to disrupt your studies or she’s worried about your safety at this hour.”
She rambled on a bit and asked Ning Yiwei, “Or maybe let your dad come pick you up?”
Ning Yiwei replied, “No need, I’m in the car. I’ll be home in a little while.”
Lu Jiaqin asked him what he wanted for a late-night snack. Ning Yiwei made a reluctant face and said, “Mom, I’m not hungry at all. I really don’t want to eat.” Lu Jiaqin insisted and said, “Alright, I’ll just steam an egg for you.”
After hanging up the phone, as Ning Yiwei was putting away his phone, the lady who was driving said, “Your parents are really good to you, making you a late-night snack.”
Ning Yiwei responded with a soft “Hmm” and said, “My mom always thinks I haven’t eaten enough.”
She smiled and said, “Moms are like that.” After a few seconds, as if she couldn’t hold back, she said to Ning Yiwei, “My son is around the same age as you.”
“Oh? Is he also studying at our school?” Ning Yiwei turned to ask her and noticed that she blinked several times and kept pressing her lips together, as if restraining something. But even from her words, he could sense the many emotions.
She nodded slowly and said, “But we’re not as close as you and your parents.”
“I’m not good at taking care of children,” she whispered again. “I’m a failed mother. Lately, I often despise him and can’t bear to see him. Just the thought of him drives me crazy. But when I lie down at night, I realize that what I despise the most is actually myself. I’m so selfish.”
Her voice carried an uncomfortable calmness. After saying that, she tightly closed her mouth, as if regretting saying too much.
It was a strange evening and a strange ride, so strange that Ning Yiwei couldn’t help but feel very sad.
Ning Yiwei felt empty inside, unable to describe the mix of emotions and unsure of what to say. His hand clenched into a fist and then relaxed, clumsily trying to find comforting words. After hesitating, he finally spoke, “Every family has arguments.”
She remained silent, and Ning Yiwei felt that he probably didn’t succeed in comforting her.
“Enough about me. You know,” she abruptly changed the topic, lightly criticizing Ning Yiwei, “You’re too careless.”
“It’s dangerous to get into a stranger’s car at night. I asked you about various things, but what if I were a bad person?”
Ning Yiwei could only blink foolishly at her.
“What if I were the driver who robs students?” she continued, “Be more cautious in the future.”
The navigation suddenly spoke up, “Three parking lots found for you.” They were getting close to Ning Yiwei’s home.
“Your home isn’t far,” she chose not to park in the lots and just told Ning Yiwei, “It’s very close.”
Ning Yiwei glanced at the time. They had been driving for thirty minutes, far exceeding the minimum fare for a taxi. He couldn’t say it was close by any means.
“You should still give me your number,” she picked up her phone from the storage compartment and unlocked it to hand it to Ning Yiwei. “I live near D University, and I don’t usually have much going on. If you’re staying late at the research center and need a ride home, you can call me, and I’ll come to pick you up.”
Ning Yiwei wanted to say it wasn’t necessary, as he didn’t usually stay out that late. He would soon have his driver’s license, and the probability of a driver robbing someone was low.
He lowered his head, intending to decline, but noticed that her hand holding the phone was trembling.
Her hand was fair-skinned, with deep red nail polish. There was a wedding ring on her ring finger and a large diamond ring on her middle finger. She also wore jewelry and a wristwatch, hands that clearly never did household chores. She tightly held the phone and whispered, “Please leave me your number.” The back of her hand touched Ning Yiwei’s palm, feeling cool and slightly trembling, unlike his mother’s hand.
Ning Yiwei glanced down and felt that she was on the verge of tears. He took her phone and saved his number in it.
While typing his name, he told her, “I’m called Ning Yiwei. Ning means ‘calm’, Yi as in also,’ and Wei means ‘unique.'”
“Hmm, it sounds particularly nice,” her chest slightly rose and fell, as if she was making an effort to calm down.
However, Ning Yiwei felt that she didn’t do as well as before. When she said, “Ning Yiwei, a name that sounds carefully chosen,” her voice had become hoarse, unable to get any hoarser.
Out of politeness, Ning Yiwei didn’t look at her face.
Ning Yiwei arrived home, thanked her, got out of the car, and went upstairs to eat the steamed egg made by his mother, Lu Jiaqin. He entered his room feeling somewhat dazed and looked out of the window.
He checked his phone and found no missed calls or unread messages. He sent a message to Liang Chong: “Can you talk on the phone if you’re free?”
Liang Chong quickly called back and asked Ning Yiwei what was wrong.
Ning Yiwei stared out the window and told Liang Chong, “My biological mother came to see me.”
There was a moment of silence from Liang Chong’s end, and he asked Ning Yiwei, “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Ning Yiwei thought back to the scene before getting off the car, and said dully, “But she cried really hard.”
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