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My own short novel: Beijing Tonight


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I won the 2nd price of our company's writing contest by this. The requirement of the contest is quite simple: write a story based on a picture. The picture is a red door at the end of a stairway.

I'm really proud of it, because 1. I'm the only foreigner (if I need any reason to post it here, I'm a Chinese) 2. I'm the only programmer 3. I made it to the 2nd place.

Here is commentary from the writing contest judges:

Lisa Ruffolo:

This impressionistic narrative evokes the melancholy, wistfulness, and detachment of the narrator moving from the suspended adolescence of college to the dull predictability of professional life, and views Beijing through the prism of this transition. The juxtaposition of ungarnished descriptions of the outer world with lucid, candid inner reflections is breathtaking.

Tilney Marsh:

What a place, Beijing tonight! This story, sometimes surreal, sometimes understated, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, is driven by a compelling narrative voice. The descriptions of city life are captivating, with the frenetic street-level pace tempered by moments of tranquil reflection set almost in the clouds in an office tower. The social and business customs of Beijing are introduced deftly, with more showing than telling. The narrator's motivations may not always be fully understood, perhaps even to himself, but this is the way many of us operate in life: like the narrator, we go about our business every day, and occasionally we are jarred out of the routine by a tragedy, a chance encounter, or even a nagging sense of deja vu -- these things present an opportunity for self-reflection and re-evaluation of our world. As with many of us, the narrator's life doesn't change dramatically after his strange evening (which is a good thing, in this story -- it is believable, the scale of the story's action and the narrator's reaction to it). But what is so lovely about this work is the drama of the small moment, when the narrator is in the thick of great personal revelation over the smallest of experiences. All of this is set against a richly atmospheric, almost cinematic backdrop to make for an engaging, memorable story.

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Beijing Tonight

In a fast changing world, he makes and sticks to his own way.

But even a lonely wolf could get lost in the full moon night.

----This is a story about the past and the future of a city and a man

My office is 171 feet off the ground. My grandma told me that not living on the ground is no good. She said even flowers wouldn’t live in the office towers. That’s true for me. I had some violets before and none of them lived for more than two weeks, because I always forgot to water them. I replaced them with plastic flowers after that.

Regardless of the superstition, a sad thing did happen here. Some months ago, a desperate vice president of a dot com company on the 24th floor threw himself out of his office window. The tragedy dominated headlines for quite a few days. But no one expected that it resulted in stunningly increasing visits to their website and therefore they were able to get a big investment from foreign capital and hire more people. Among the employees, it’s still the scariest story. They’re afraid if the economy turns down again, their boss would say “Let’s throw somebody out and see what happens.”

In general, my life is simple. I get to work in the morning, have lunch at noon with my colleagues. I’ll give myself a break after lunch, making a cup of tea, putting on the earphones and turning on some noisy music.

I’ll be looking at the city by window.

Beijing has changed so much. That will be the only thought in my mind at that moment, repeatedly every day.

This is a city with no past. Does it sound funny and unfair to its thousands of years of history? It’s not funny, but the deepest sadness. The city discards its past, like a dragon flying out of the sea shrugging off the water and its dead scales, without the least hesitation. It’s so strong and determined that I fear I can not catch up. Where is it taking me to, a promised or an exhausted future?

That probably shall not be my concern.

I normally leave at six, walk for ten minutes to the subway, take a ride of 22 minutes, and then switch to bus 365. Considering the traffic condition is totally unpredictable, it may take from 10 to 30 minutes to send me home. I hate the unpredictable.

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Today, however, I’m not so lucky. The newly hired manager assigned quite a lot of extra work. When I finish my job, it’s already very late. The last time I checked the clock was two hours ago. I start some over-night processes on server for tomorrow’s use, send my manager a brief daily report, clean my desk, and check my programs again to make sure they’re working fine.

On the way to the subway station, I stop at the newsstand that I buy from everyday. It’s closing. I look for a few seconds and decide to get a magazine with an unknown model on its cover. But before my thought turns into words, I hear “You late. Would you like a Mini Ent?” The shop tender says, “I kept the last one for you.” He passes the magazine to me.

“Thanks. But…” I take it. Did I even ask for it? “Did you say you kept one for me?” I ask.

“Yep, I know you. You must buy a Mini Ent if its title is printed in red and a girl in a sweater is on the cover.”

“Do I?” I’m a little surprised, “No, I don’t. There’s no such thing. I don’t even know it’s called … Mini Ent?”

“Whatever.” He’s closing the window.

“Hey!” Now I’m angry. I don’t like that someone pretends to know me more than I myself do.

He shows his face behind the window again and speaks seriously, “You know where you’re at? City’s Best Planned Newsstand, for I could tell how many newspapers are going to be sold everyday. I’ve been here for years and know your taste and buying pattern. It proved true just now. Does it make sense to you? See this.” He points to an inscribed board behind him. I see it reads “City’s Best Planned Newsstand”.

The window is closed, leaving me astonished.

“What… What’s that?” That’s completely absurd! Did he make that sign by himself? I don’t believe the government or union would award the funny thing to a newsstand that scares its customers! Yes, it’s possible for him to know my hobbies or that I love gadgets. But how could he know I’d buy the magazine for… Oh, I forgot the reason he said.

I walk to the subway. He could not predict my actions. How could he? Of course we know how things work. We call it science. The train arrives. That’s pretty much predictable, isn’t it? It’s usually on time. I find a seat, sit down and look at everyone who steps in. Which seat will the gentleman behind a pair of huge glasses take? Who knows? This is a random world. Suddenly, I stop watching the people. A very familiar face comes into my sight. I slowly recognize him. He’s one of my buddies in college.

I walk to the man, “Hey, Dong… Is that you?”

He turns to me and shouts out after a second, “Wow, who’s this! How are you, Dazhi?”

We start to talk about how everybody is. We realize we’ve been working in the places that are just two blocks away for three years and we take the same train everyday.

“I can’t believe it. We didn’t meet in all those days. Well, maybe because I usually don’t leave so late.” I say. Or maybe it’s because only today I really look at the world around me?

“But still amazing… What you gonna do tonight? Have you eaten?”

“No. Wanna have a meal together?”


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We walk out of the subway station and find a restaurant. Dong was not my most intimate friend. But we did have a lot of joyful times together. He was a hilarious guy.

“How is Yun?”

He pauses, “Are you two still together? Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.”

I shake my head.

“So, how about you? Found your true love? You said you wanted a volleyball girl, right?” I smile.

“Well, I have a girlfriend now. She doesn’t play volleyball, but she’s that type. Ah, I should tell her I’m late getting home. Give me a minute.” He takes out a cell phone and presses some buttons. Waiting for his girlfriend to answer the phone, he says to me, “I’ll introduce you when you visit us.” He looks at me for a while then starts talking on the phone.

I don’t listen to his conversation. By his look, I know he’s talking to a woman. And that makes me think of a girl, whom I met a long time ago. She left me but I didn’t ask her to stay. I know, some day the memories will leave me too and I will not try to hold them either.

There was love between us. I clearly know the fact that the love existed but remember little about how it was. Now it’s simply a cloudy word that is repeated by billions of people in every minute. It was like the very first morning light across my fingers, or pure dew reflecting the crystal sky, beautiful but transient.

People nowadays seem to be obsessed by beautiful but transient things. I’m old fashioned on that point.

“Do you need to call somebody?” He’s finished his call.

“No, I moved out from my parents’ after starting my job.”

“I heard you got a great job, you smart guy. What do you do after work? Do you still play soccer?”

“Oh no, I can’t find many people to play together. Everyone’s so busy. I’ve been building my own blog recently.”

“Hmm, blog. That’s cool.”

In fact I haven’t touched my blog for a few months. Nonetheless, when somebody asks what you do, you can’t just say you watch silly TV shows alone every night, which is what I actually do. Although it sounds pathetic, it’s actually not, until the moment when you turn off the TV and all the voices and sounds fade in the air.

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A decent meal and some beers later, we feel we’re really regaining all the memories and feelings from our college time. The only difference? We’re rich now! Dong spends half an hour on my GPS cell phone. It is right like the song that the restaurant is playing,

“Many skyscrapers standing, like gods on way.

Colorful money spending, beautiful as flowers in May.”

“Do you remember?” He says, “We were really into arcade games, weren’t we? At that time, I thought I would buy one and put it in my dorm if I had the money.”

“Yeah, we loved the Three Kingdoms game. It’s still the best game I’ve ever played.”

“Why not go check?”

“Check what?”

“Red Door! Hey, let’s go to the Red Door.” He gets really excited and urges me to get up.

“No way. The arcade shop near the school? It must have been demolished years ago.”

“It’s not far away. Even if it’s gone, it will still be exciting to see what’s on the site now, right?”

Yes indeed, I want to see it. I liked to wander in street for no purpose. We used to sing along the alley after beers.

When I was a child, people started changing every building along street to shops. After some years, they tear down the ugly shops, demolish whole districts and erect sleek office towers.

We don’t call a cab. We walk, talking and laughing. In the moon, I can feel it. I can smell it. The past emerges from within the air, descends from the sky. The old city is still very much alive. It’s a fine bar with few guests in Back Sea, it is scrolls with six digits price tags in a nameless shop on Glaze Street, it is a napping old man lying in a recliner on the street, with a palm leaf fan in his falling hand.

I realize even if all the houses are gone, no one can take the city away from us. Now, let me see you, the dirty but sweet street that was my play ground.

It survived! I see it with my own eyes. The street is no longer bustling; it seems dilapidated now. The Red Door was on the second floor, at the end of a long and narrow stairway. I remember, behind the door, there were two billiard tables and five arcade machines. There was a man looking after the shop, whom we called Boss.

But what’s behind the door, now?

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The door is opened.

Bong! A clear sound comes from a billiard table. A young man, stripped to the waist, just made a neat shot. He turns and boasts loudly to the other two men behind him. The room is filled with smoke and electronic voices and music from game machines, rough and appealing. The monitors are flashing.

“Ahhhhh!” Everything, is exactly like before.

I jump to the Three Kingdoms game and shout to Dong, “They didn’t even change the game! Get us some coins!”

Even before Dong drops the coins into the slots, I’ve already started tapping the buttons and rolling the stick.

This is a classic action game. We use our fists to conquer the ancient land. Every stage, every trick, skill and strategy, are coming back. We two are once again fighting together.

On stage five, it comes again. “Oh, perverts, how dare you shoot my ass? Take them down. Take those fucking archers down for me!” Dong cries.

“I am! But, the button’s…stuck again!” I command my warrior. “Jump, jump for your own good. Are you too fat to jump? Yes, now you jump! … I didn’t know you’re a part-time ballet dancer. Why do you act like a lady, huh? Oh, it got me again.” My warrior falls. I kick the machine and go to Boss.

“That---crap---does---not---work! You hear me?”

Boss slowly puts down the book in his hands and some words come out of his mouth, “Yes it does.”

“No, it does not. I told you a hundred times! I told you… four years ago.”

“Why do you always complain? Your friend never complained about it.”

“I did. That shit is truly shitty.” Dong yells, without even moving his eyes off the screen. “Come back, Dazhi. I need you here. Don’t waste your time with Boss.”

“Let me show you how perfect it is.” Boss mutters and stands up.

“No, I don’t wanna see a demo.” I don’t, because I know he will swipe a whole army without getting a single hit. “I want you to fix it.”

He shrugs.

Is the person frozen in the time, I wonder? He hasn’t changed a bit. I suspect he’s even reading the same book as before. Can I expect him to do his job now, which he was supposed to do four years ago?

Dong walks over to me, “Let’s get some more coins and continue.”

“No, No… Let’s get out of here.” I walk out, and sit down on the stairs.

“What’s the matter?” Dong sits beside me. “Don’t get mad at Boss. You know him. He just won’t do it. He’s lazy.”

“No, it’s not about him. I don’t know… What am I doing? He made me feel like I’m doing the exact same things as before, saying the same words. It’s no fun, at all.”

Dong looks at me. “Um, yeah.” He sighs, “We don’t belong here.”

“It’s over. It’s very over. I’m tired.”

I don’t know what’s happening today. It’s so unreal and ridiculous that now I’m sitting outside a shop that should have been gone long time ago. I rush into the past but only find a machine that’s not been functioning properly for years. I feel kicked out.

Maybe I shouldn’t look back to the past, or open any door that I don’t know what’s behind. I hate uncertainty. I know that I missed many precious and lovely things because I never open a door that leads to the obscure. But I never regret. I didn’t even regret when I lost Yun. At least in this way, I can control my own destiny.

But, tomorrow… All the work and the new manager’s face come back to my mind. Now I’m not sure what’s certain and what’s in the vague. I’m not even as smart as the freaky newsstand man who could tell what magazine I would choose. He’s still teasing at me in my brain. What I believe might be lies. On the other hand, my uncertainty is merely because I am not brilliant, knowledgeable and informative enough. But will I ever be? Am I hating the perplexity of the world or the weakness of myself?

“Do you need a smoke?” Dong hands a cigarette to me.

“No, I quit. Thanks.”

“We do change, don’t we?” He winks, lights his cigarette. “Do you have time this weekend? You can come over to my place. I said I’d introduce you to my girlfriend.”

“Thank you. Of course, I’ll be there. What’s your number? Do you have a business card with you?”

“Sure.” He takes one from his wallet and hands me it. I give him mine.

“Nice title.” I say. “Maybe… we can do some business together, some time?”

“Definitely.” He looks at my card too, “We’ll do some business.” He nods.

That makes me feel a little better.

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I've been reading a lot of short stories lately, and this one I like. Even more impressive is that you're not a native speaker and still wrote something so good.

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