Chapter 017—Exclamation of a Question Mark

My father, who was fifty years of age, cradled a mirror, turned around, and left the scene. His eyes were all over his own back, as he tried to stare at it through the mirror. ‘Is it crooked? Is it straight?’

It was straight, said Peggy as she consoled her father, who gently rubbed his own back with the back of his palm. Hearing her words, he giggled and mumbled to himself, ‘My back is straight…my back is straight…’

Peggy went home. Her mother was still bundling herself up in the corner of the living room and speaking to herself, ‘His back became crooked…his back became crooked…’

Since Father had been admitted to a mental ward, Mother’s limbs started to tremble, as if she had seen a ghost. She didn’t believe her beloved husband would hunch his back for a seventy-year-old married woman. He had never bent his back before, for his spine looked like it was made of steel.

He once mentioned that only people whose back was straight as an exclamation mark could protect their family from danger. Now, his back became crooked, and his family was about to collapse.

Croaky and feeble, Mother’s voice was quivering. She wanted Peggy to curl up her body like she did. 

‘Remember, your back must be as curved as that of a question mark. That’s the most effective way of protecting yourself. Those who have a straight back like an exclamation mark have to protect their family. I dare not to take on this responsibility, because the people with crooked backs will tie me up and put me into a mental ward.’

Peggy called the cops. Her mother bawled and wailed as though she had gone mad, like a believer calling her god in the midst of danger.

A question mark! A question mark! A question mark!

It was only when the police had spent herculean efforts could they subdue her mother. Afterwards, they carried her into the ambulance. As her shrieks wafted away in the distance, the police officers, who were so worn out that their backs bent forwards, packed up and left.

Can I get off work now? Shall I go to the bar to kill time? Who’s coming? Will my wife be upset? Do I have to ask that hot-tempered wench for permission for everything I do?

Question marks sprouted among the sounds of frolicking.

Such an earsore. Greatly ruffled by the noise, Peggy went inside to watch a soap opera. The plot was about a middle-aged man who was willing to be the secret lover of a married old woman so as to support his family by making a living. Watching the helplessness in the man’s eyes, Peggy couldn’t help but to laugh out loud.

It happened during a friend’s mini party.

‘Hello, I’m Alan.’ 

Alan was a tall, handsome man. He was thirty years old and had just registered as a family doctor.

Having wallowed in the business field for years, Jessica, who knew her fate, forced a smile as she scorned at people with messy titles. What’s the difference between a family doctor and an ordinary doctor?

Alan could see through Jessica’s disdain, and a puerile grin half-wittingly grew on his face. Apart from physical health, family doctors have to look after patients’ psychological needs as well.

Jessica took a sip of red wine. ‘If I find an ordinary doctor and a psychiatrist, then I could replace you.’

Alan had met many who loved to make others yield before them, very much alike this Jessica who apparently had an inflated ego. He didn’t mind her challenge though, shown by the shrug of his shoulders and the unconcerned look on his face. 

‘Ordinary doctors attend to your physical health, while psychiatrists take care of your mental health. Family doctors do both at the same time, looking after patients inside and out. Everything about them. Like a husband.’

Jessica let out a chortle, amused by his answer. ‘That’s quite the good husband!’ 

‘I don’t know whether I am qualified as a good husband, but I’m sure that I’m a good lover,’ Alan said. Reaching over for the glass in Jessica’s hand, he pressed his lips onto the cherry red lipstick stain. With the glass slightly tilted, the rich wine slid down his throat as it brought along seduction tinged with cherry-red stains.

Peggy randomly picked out a bottle of red wine from the wine cellar, relishing its taste carefully. As they say, You lose your head when drunk, though Peggy argued that it was human nature which let loose people’s heads instead of liquor. She clearly knew that she still wanted Jerry to take a look at her back, whether alcohol was involved or not. 

Jerry was ten years older than her. He was an eligible bachelor with a peculiar personality who deeply cared about the contours of the back. Every time during training, he ordered his personal trainer to pay special attention to his back. He couldn’t stand people with a thrawn back; those deceitful, hideous figures made his hair stand.

To please Jerry, Peggy found a metallic strip and sewed it onto her clothes to straighten herself. Although she had only done it for less than a week, Jerry had already taken notice of the newly hired young lady who was only twenty four. He complimented her back being upright. Peggy smiled and said, ‘My back has been straight like this since I was born.’

Affected by her congenital deficiency, Jessica’s back had been lithe since she was born. Carrying her little brother on her back in the streets, helping her busy mother fetching bags of rice back home, delivering packages for her father’s customers… Her family’s business started to prosper and her parents, now of old age, had stepped down for their children to take over the business. Among all her siblings, Jessica was the most devious. It couldn’t be better for her to be in charge of public relations.

Honourable clients scanned her body up and down, their eyebrows furrowed as they asked her why was her back that crooked. 

Jessica gave an indifferent smile in return. ‘My back only bends for you.’

The business was done, and her back hunched even more. 

Drunk, Peggy was in her birthday suit,laying stiff with her face down on the table. A tearing pain came from her back. Jerry’s fingernails were as sharp as a fractured wine bottle, marking ten bloody scars on Peggy’s smooth back. Ten thousand dollars for one scar. From this, Jessica’s monthly salary rocketed to a hundred thousand dollars. 

No longer confused, Jessica loitered on the streets at night as her inebriated footsteps filled the path.

Finally, someone who appreciated her with a rounded back. He was an alcoholic sixty-year-old. He loved her so much that his cheeks went red as he stripped all her clothes and kept giving praises about the beauty of her rounded back. He broke a wine bottle, leaving ten marks on her back. She thanked him for his deep love with tears, leaving with the signed contract in her hands and a smile. Ten thin sheets of paper, yet they had such a shockingly heavy weight, so heavy that they made her back bend even further and rounder. She looked as if she were a perfect question mark.

All of a sudden, Jessica’s mind was jammed with question marks. There were so many of them, one hooked onto another, forming knots and ties, making a huge mess. The amount of question marks surged in the blink of an eye, almost making her head burst. The migraine was excruciating. She needed answers, despite the fact that she still didn’t understand the root of the problem.

A pair of naked feet covered in dust appeared in front of Jessica. Her back was bent and she couldn’t lift her head up, so she couldn’t see the person’s face. She dove headfirst into her counterpart’s embrace, muttering the same words over and over again: Why? Why? Why? 

The person didn’t retract because of her unusual demeanor, but instead gave her a firm hug. Come here!

Jessica, naked, was carried to a bathtub filled with red wine. The ten marks on her back had now gone berserk, and they tore her flesh open with force, giving a warm welcome to the newly introduced sanguine wine. Following this, Jessica began to kick up a fuss and brought up a commotion, her limbs flinging in the tub. She raised her arms, trying to grab fists of air, but ended up gliding into the bottom of the tub. The fragrance of wine blended with the metallic stench of blood, creating a peculiar sense of content. Numbness spread all over her thrawn back before she passed out. She became light and peaceful, as if she didn’t exist.

Was this the feeling of having a straight back? Jessica enjoyed it, sank into it and slept peacefully with it.

Peggy’s back was in a lot of pain, as she remained sleepless for hours. Jerry drew her a bath of red wine, which the two soaked deep into, and smothered with relaxation. During their bath, he mentioned a piece of news that happened years ago. A mentally-ill patient put a drunk businesswoman into a bath of red wine, claiming that it was for easing her back pain. The businesswoman was traumatised by the whole incident, and she ended up receiving treatment in a psychiatric ward. 

‘Hello!’

‘Hey! How are you doing?’

‘Nothing much. Same as usual.’

‘How so?’

‘Grey hair all over my head, wrinkles furrowing all over my face. Dry skin with spots coming in all shapes and sizes. Eyes lacking vigour, my actions have become slow too.’

‘You’re an interesting person.’

‘That’s because I have a humorous life!’

‘How so?’

‘There are question marks everywhere.’

‘Lend me a mirror please. I want to see if I’ve turned into one.’

‘Here you go.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Thank god I’m still not a question mark!’

‘What are you then?’

‘I was born an exclamation mark with a lot of courage! I’m sure that my purpose is to exclaim for the world!’

‘Is the world terrible?’

‘Yes. This world is indeed terrible! Because it’s filled with question marks!’

‘Are question marks villains?’

‘Question marks are despondent exclamation marks! They have completely worn out, with their backs always curved and incapable of straightening them. What’s even more terrible is that whenever question marks see exclamation marks in high spirits, the sight of their zealous counterparts make them shudder with fear. Just as though they have seen a ghost. Their voices trembled out, ‘Could it be that you’re mentally ill?’

‘Brave exclamation marks will answer, “I am indeed full of spirit, but I’m not sick! Thanks for your concern.” After so, they will be tied up by question marks and sent to the mental ward. On the other hand, cowardly exclamation marks will answer, “You’re wrong, I’m only stretching my back.” Then, they will mimic question marks’ behaviour and bend their backs for the rest of their lives. That’s because they are afraid of being sent to mental wards by question marks.’

Jessica loved to interact with brave exclamation marks. By being beside him, she felt like she was an exclamation mark in a question mark’s clothing. After a stretch, she would easily turn back into an exclamation mark rife with zest the next day.

‘The exclamation marks admitted to wards usually don’t end up good!’

‘How so?’

‘They will turn into question marks! Question marks will keep asking exclamation marks a lot of questions. No matter what answer exclamation marks come up with, the question marks will always end up saying that there’s a problem with their mental health. You’re sick. Take your medicine. Those medications will change the exclamation marks’ hormones secretion, altering their cognition and behaviour… ’

The fearless exclamation mark had his spirits down for the whole day. He doubted himself and life itself. Jessica missed the old him; he used to be an interesting person, and his life used to be very humorous.

‘At this point, question marks will say hesitantly, “We seem to have cured it.”’

‘“Not so sure?” “Seem?”’

‘The theories used by question marks are not well-developed enough since a handful of flaws and uncertainties can be found within, and they know this.’

‘So according to what you just said, question marks are a really big problem.’

‘Yes! And the biggest problem is that they don’t think they have a problem! There are so many question marks in this word, and presenting problems have become the norm. Only a lack of questions is considered to be questionable! ’

Jessica and him were discharged from the hospital on the same day.

Her family carefully sent a few cars, helpers, and security to pick her up from the hospital, making sure that she wouldn’t be disturbed by the paparazzi. From the gaps between the curtains of the car windows, she found his shadow. A crooked back on its way, crestfallen. 

Peggy thought Jerry’s story was familiar, yet it didn’t ring a bell. Drunkenly indulging in the tank of blood red, Jerry, who was facing opposite her, stared at her like a wolf leering at a sheep, greed leaking from his penetrating gaze. After years of training, not a single fat tissue could be spotted from his physique. The refined outline of his frame and upright back exhibited his masculinity.

He was an exclamation mark in the flesh.

Immersed in the wine bath, Jessica taught her young son about red wine. Drinking wine was a social skill, and tasting it was a tactic to improve one’s image. Meanwhile, judging it were the basics to accentuate one’s charm. The little fellow couldn’t handle wine well, as shown by his rosy cheeks flushing with redness that resembled fruits for brewing wine, making people’s mouths water. He submissively bowed his back down, put his head between her legs, and tasted the wine. Jessica relished the sight of his young, tender, crooked back. His sublime curves were out of this world, setting up a feast for the eyes. She shuddered with pleasure. The little fellow withdrew from between her legs and critiqued the wine. It was a nice comment. He was a promising youth, and surely he must be a man among men in the future.

Red wine and white fluid swirled together and slid down Peggy’s throat. Jerry’s back was still straight. Even when his guard was down, it didn’t shrivel. 

‘Aren’t you tired?’ Peggy asked. Jerry’s arms wrapped around her from behind and he whispered into her ear, ‘Only those whose backs are straight like an exclamation could protect their family from danger. That’s why I can’t say I’m tired.’ Peggy’s nerves lit up in response, their flames spreading over her whole body from her ears, which made every cell of hers spring into action. Her eyes couldn’t stop swerving, before they unwittingly landed on a clear, large mirror wall next to the bathtub.

Alan consciously caught a glimpse of the big mirror. The Alan in the mirror had a slightly rounded back; he was an exclamation mark with a slightly bent back, pondering over what he would look like if he had completely transformed into a question mark. Twisting and undergoing metamorphosis, terror rose upon his skin. An intense numbness spread wide from his scalp, then throughout his entire body along his spine.

‘Do you want a wine bath?’ Jessica asked him.

Having stripped naked, Alan dove into the wine bath, claiming the two edges of the wine bath with the ancient Jessica. They looked at each other, yet they couldn’t see one another in the truest sense.  What he saw was a question mark composed of a swarm of question marks, while for her, it was a valiant exclamation mark.

Jessica shared a love-hate-relationship with the daring exclamation mark. She loved him for exhibiting the beauty of exclamation marks, yet hated him for provoking her contempt for question marks. She could neither experience the nobility of being an exclamation mark, nor bear the insecurity of being a question mark.

What a pity. Alan tried to straighten Jessica’s rounded back. The ten marks on her skin were forcefully torn open because of Alan’s use of great force. The fragrance of wine blended with the metallic stench of blood, creating a peculiar sense of content. The surface of the ice-cold, snowy white marble wall made Jessica’s hitches of breaths bounce off perpetually. Maroon hues of melancholy seeped through her boiling hot skin, making Jessica look young.

If she could be young once more, she would definitely find a piece of metal and sew it onto her clothes. With her body propped up, she would lead a life with her chin up and chest out. Never would she have to bend her back again! She swore on her life to be an exclamation mark, alive with vigour!

Numbness spread all over her thrawn back before she passed out. She became light and peaceful, as if she didn’t exist. Was this the feeling of having a straight back? She enjoyed it, sank into it, and slept peacefully with it.

She woke up. The red wine had quietly slipped away long ago, leaving Peggy, who was in the nude, behind on the bed. Red wine hung upon her delicate, luscious figure as she laid on the flawless snowy white quilt sideways, mirroring the actions of an underdeveloped embryo. Blushes of red trickled from her translucent skin, all while revealing the natural curves of her slightly bent back. They lay between the lines of naivety and maturity, since their shape had already been formed, in spite of not being fixed. She could make a choice, yet she hadn’t done so yet. 

Nonetheless, Peggy must decide at this moment.

She could force herself to straighten her body and stay beside Jerry, pretending to be an exclamation mark.

Or…

She could let her back relax, and worm her way into the crowd of millions of crooked backs. Having gotten away from Jerry’s sight, she could then live as a question mark for the rest of her life.

Peggy was between a rock and a hard place. Her spine thirsted for rest, and it would fight to the death just to achieve it.  Meanwhile, the ten bloody scars didn’t want to waste their efforts in the past. They swore on their lives to fight for their hard work.

 Crooked, straight, crooked, straight, straight, crooked, straight, crooked, crooked, crooked, straight, straight, straight, straight, crooked, crooked, crooked, crooked, crooked, crooked, straight, straight, straight, straight… 

With a series of contraction and relaxation, the muscles on her back broke open the wounds. A stream of reserved crimson flowed out along with the scent of liquor. Peggy caught a whiff of it, then laughed her head off maniacally. She must have been drunk. Why couldn’t she feel anything below her head?

The news that shook the whole city had arrived: Millionaire abandons silver spoon and marries a poor girl.

Worth an arm and a leg, her wedding gown was delicately made by the most famous designers and top-tier engineers. With its jewels glistening in the air, her tiara was a machine connecting her cranial nerves and the spine. Beneath the elegant, sparkling wedding gown were cogs that weighed a few thousand pounds; they helped Peggy in carrying out the smallest manoeuvres. Within the design itself, the part which Jerry was most delighted with, the part which caught Peggy’s attention the most, was the highly flexible metallic strip. So long as it was embedded onto her spine, a lot could be done with the help of mechanical support, movements which couldn’t be performed with normal spines. That included presenting the straightest outline one could achieve.

Her dream came true. With this technology, Peggy could earn Jerry’s favour forever.

The process of inserting the inlay didn’t involve any pain but an expensive bill. 

No big deal.

Money offered her a better life, which in turn brought her more money. The cycle went in a full circle and started again. It was only at this moment did Peggy know why everyone would willingly toil away and bow down for a few pennies. More money meant a better life, and only then could they really live their lives with their head held up!  

Under the dazzling packaging, nobody was aware of the truth hidden within her, their faces struck by astonishment. ‘How on earth does a person have a back this straight? It makes people jealous. That’s a back which costs so much that it can’t be earned back with all the money shelled out from past lives combined!’

After a glamorous wedding, Jerry and Peggy held hands and headed over to meet each other’s parents. In the spacious room, each parent occupied a corner.

The fifty-year-old Alan cradled a mirror. His eyes were all on his own back, as he tried to stare at it through the mirror. Was it crooked? Was it straight?

Peggy’s mother was still bundling herself up in the corner of the living room, speaking to herself, ‘His back became crooked… his back became crooked…’

The ninety-year-old old man was still indulging in liquor, and he loved women with crooked backs the most. 

Jessica, who was seventy years old, peacefully bathed in her tub of red wine. She enjoyed it, sank into it, and slept peacefully in it.

The couple were used to this strange sight. They found a corner and sat down, staying in the same room with four large question marks.

Discomfort crept upon their skin, their minds wanting to escape from the scene. 

The same air, the same room. Opening the door, they leapt over the doorstep. They managed to escape.

The same mindset, the same persistence. Opening the door, they leapt over the doorstep. Yet, they could not escape.


TOC


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