Chapter 17:

Center Stage

Sweet like Honey


“You don’t seem to be all right. Can you keep up with me all night? Coz I’m not letting you out of my sight. You’ll forever be my guiding light.”

Unlike the unshaven busker, Shirley’s voice captured everyone. Those who were leaving turned their heads around, their mouths dropping open. Others stood enraptured, absorbing every note that hovered in the cool spring air.

Even without a guitar, I swore I could hear the accompaniment in the background. For a moment, we were no longer standing in front of the steps leading to Mi Tang station. We were on stage, with Shirley returning to where she was at her prime, performing in front of a live audience and bathed in dazzling lights. The audience was no longer just tired commuters, but a boisterous crowd of fans, cheering and screaming voicelessly.

Amidst it all, Shirley sang.

“I gave all of my heart to you. I held you till my hands were blue. Yet you never once turned toward me. I’m as sad as can be.”

Even the busker watched her in awe, his guitar resting on the ground. Far from resentful, he found himself caught up in the mood, smiling as tears glistened in his eyes.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

I understood why he was grateful. Just a minute earlier, he was in despair. Exhausted and frustrated at his failure to retain an audience, and on the verge of giving up because his own music didn’t sound right to him. But now, Shirley’s song had given him hope…had rekindled the passion he had for singing. He had seen a star flare up as a supernova, and was basking in its warm rays, his own hopes and dreams reigniting within his chest.

At least, that was what I thought he felt…because those were currently the sentiments running through my head. That second, we were all connected. Me, the busker, the commuters. All of us sharing in the pleasant joy of listening to Shirley sing.

“She looks familiar,” one person among the audience said softly. He thought hard. “Where have I seen her before?”

“I know this singing,” another said excitedly. “I’m sure I’ve heard this voice before!”

“Yeah, but where?”

The crowd was beginning to murmur among each other. And inevitably, one of them voiced out his suspicions.

“Shirley Li. I can’t be mistaken. That’s Shirley Li!”

“Shirley Li? That ex-idol?”

“Didn’t she retire? What’s she doing here?”

“No wonder her singing is so lovely! She’s a pro!”

“What’s the event, what’s the event? Is there a television program going on? Is she streaming live? Where are the cameras?”

“I don’t know. I don’t see any.”

Fortunately, such comments were kept to a minimum. While the crowd was enthusiastic over the revelation of Shirley’s identity, they were far too enchanted by her singing to interrupt in any significant manner. Shirley continued singing, completely oblivious to their murmurs, and finished it with a flourish. Then she bowed to the raucous cheers.

For some reason, many of the commuters came forward, pouring coins and bills into the bucket. Shirley stepped back and nodded at the busker, who looked up at her speechlessly.

“You can have them all. I don’t need the money.”

“W…wait, but…it was your singing…”

“Just think of it as rental fee. I rented your venue to perform. You gave me a stage to sing in, and for that I’m grateful.”

The busker tried to argue, but anything he said was drowned out by a wave of eager fans as they rushed forward to bombard the former idol with questions.

“Are you Shirley Li?”

“Why did you retire?”

“Encore, encore!”

“Please wait! Can I have an autograph?”

“A photo! Please! A photo!”

Shirley froze. I recognized the signs. The anxiety, the perspiration forming on her bow, and the slight trembling of her hands. The paling of her skin, and her ghastly complexion. If I didn’t do anything, she was going to faint.

Why are you here? Didn’t you vow to escort her home safely?

I snapped out of my stupor and fought my way forward, reaching Shirley. Throwing my jacket over her head, I placed my hands over her shoulders and gently guided her away.

“I’m sorry!” I yelled to the dismayed audience. “But she’s very tired today! She’s been through a lot, and so I ask for your understanding! Please let her return early to rest!”

Ignoring their protests and outrage, I quickly vanished, breaking into a run and nearly carrying Shirley with me. Luckily, she cooperated, her legs moving of their own accord if her blank expression was of any indication.

“Thanks. I’m all right now. Thanks.”

Somehow, we had managed to get away from the densely packed Mi Tang station and toward the more secluded roads that Victor and his thugs ambushed me last night. No such calamity befell me this time, and I was able to walk at a relaxed pace, allowing Shirley to calm down and catch her breath.

“Here, your jacket. It’s chilly, and I don’t want you to catch a cold because of me.” She handed me my jacket and I slipped it back on. Nonetheless, I kept my eyes on her.

“Are you really all right?”

“Yeah. It’s just…I’m not used to going back to stage. I mean, I thought I overcame stage fright. I performed in hundreds of concerts all over the country…and a few overseas tours too. But…ever since my retirement, I don’t know. I just can’t…I mean, I guess I can still sing in front of everybody, but after the performance, I just…clammed up. When I see everyone running at me like that, I just…my mind just shuts down.”

“I understand.” It must have something to do with her retirement. Some sort of trauma that occurred when performing. If she didn’t want to tell me, I wouldn’t pry. If she wanted to, she would have mentioned it already.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have gone onto stage and sang. I just knew this would happen.”

“Actually, you should.”

“Huh?” Shirley stared at me. I offered an encouraging smile.

“If you like to sing, then sing. I like listening to you sing. And when you were on the steps, singing your heart out, I could feel your passion. Your joy. You were enjoying yourself, and that made me feel warm and fuzzy too. You should sing more often.”

I reached out to hold her hand, giving her fingers a gentle squeeze.

“Don’t worry about freezing or stage fright or whatever. As long as you want to sing, I’ll support you. If you tense up afterward, I’ll swoop in and carry you away. If you hate being in the limelight, I’ll cover you up like earlier. Just continue singing whenever you feel like it. It’s what you love to do, and I love listening to you do it.”

“You sound like my prince charming or something.” Shirley forced a smile. Then she giggled and wrapped her hands around my arm. “Speaking of limelight, it’s too late. Now that I’ve been exposed, I’ll need to relocate. You said you were from the countryside, didn’t you? Why don’t you take me back to your home and let me hide there?”

“My…home?”

Shirley must have noticed my shoulders slumping and my expression hardening, for she looked concerned. “What’s the matter?”

“No…nothing. I just…don’t want to return home. Not to the countryside.”

“Oh, that’s right. Sorry, I forgot.” Shirley’s eyes widened and she raised a hand to her mouth. “You already told me about your high school classmates, and your desire to start afresh here in the city. Of course you want to avoid them.”

“Yeah. It’s not just that, though.” I sighed heavily. “I love my parents. I love my family. I really do. But…I don’t know. I’m too ashamed to return home. My mom, she was against me going to graduate school. She wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. And now…perhaps it’s because of stupid pride or whatever, I don’t want to return to the countryside like this…having failed and dropped out of graduate school with absolutely nothing to show for. Because…I’m afraid that it’ll prove that she was right…and that my decision was wrong. I’m trying my best not to regret choosing this path, but…I don’t know. Going home to the countryside and doing what my mom says will just validate her and completely destroy everything I dreamed of.”

Shirley listened silently, nodding occasionally. “I understand. There was a time when I felt exactly like you too…my mom wasn’t supportive of my dream to become an idol either.”

“Yeah.” I laughed. “I’m glad my dad backed me. He was the one who convinced my mom to let me go. But even he…” I sighed, frustrated. “I think he wants me to find a better paying job than the one at Honey Café. He wants me to invest in property, to prepare for retirement. I’m not getting any younger, and he’s worried. I understand. I do, but…the pressure.”

My shoulders sank further, only for Shirley to rub them and slap me in the back.

“Let’s not think too much about it for now. We’re in the present. The future can wait.”

“Yeah.” I couldn’t help but be bitter. “I’m having so much trouble surviving in the present, where am I going to have the energy or luxury to worry about the future?”

“Um, that’s not what I meant…” Shirley sighed. She then stopped in front of her house, which was a duplex of some sort. A two-story share house, from what I could see, with its own fence and garden. The lights were on, probably because of her roommates. “We’ve reached my home. Keep your phone on, I’ll talk to you later. Cheer up, okay?”

“Oh, sorry.” I shook my head and slapped my cheeks, almost knocking off my own glasses. “I should be the one cheering you up! After the suspected stalker and all that…uh, excitement earlier. You okay?”

“I’m fine. Hell, I forgot all about it because I was worried about you!”

I couldn’t help but laugh as I saw her off at the gate. Shaking my head, I let out a weary breath. “We really are a handful, aren’t we?”

“We sure are. Talk to you later? Don’t you dare switch off your phone and make sure you read my chat messages!”

“I will, I will.” I waved and waited until she was inside her house, her front door shut tightly and locked, before I finally turned and made my way home. When I did so, I blinked and stopped to glance at the corner of the fence.

…I could have sworn I saw someone lurking there earlier.

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