What's your price?
Big parked the car in front of a closed restaurant.
“Why are we here?” Elle asked out of confusion and getting out of the car.
“It’s a cover to get to the recreation area of the studio, you know, with the cafeteria, pool, and gym,” answered CeeCee.
“It looks like a typical Chinese restaurant with much less decorations. Does it run?” she asked looking around with JZ holding her hand and leading her inside.
“It doesn’t run.”
“If it doesn’t run, why aren’t there any dust in here?” wiping her finger on a dining table.
“He probably has the cleaning lady dust this place.”
“Doesn’t the public find it suspicious that this restaurant doesn’t run in a neighborhood as lively as this? And there’s a car parked in front of a restaurant that doesn’t run?” she asked going through the kitchen.
“I don’t know. You ask a lot of unimportant questions.”
“Aaah, the familiar pool, cafeteria, and gym. Haven’t been here in five days,” Elle thought to herself.
As JZ led her inside the back of the studio, she placed her hand on the chocolate wallpaper with cherry ganache in thin waves down the hallway. Before she knew it, Elle was greeted with loud music in the music room.
“Hey!” said the musicians in unison.
“Hey!” the five of them said in unison with equal excitement.
Xiong excitedly ran to Elle with his guitar on his back. “How’s your health Miss Elle?”
“Good. Thanks,” she answered in her calm voice.
“She’s lying, kid,” said JZ evenly. “Her health is not good. You will have to look after her if I’m not there.”
“That’s a really big responsibility. I don’t know if I can do it,” Xiong replied with a little concern.
“If you can’t do it, I’ll find someone else in her neighborhood.”
“I can do it! I can do it!” Xiong replied, trying to keep the job he almost lost.
“Shall we begin?” suggested Elle and clapped once.
“You’re not going to rest, huh?” asked JZ.
“I’ve been working for so long, I don’t know how to not work,” she replied.
“Let me get One Word.”
“I’ve composed a short tune for you, Miss Elle,” said Xiong, and took a step back and a breath. He played the tune on his guitar that lasted a minute and a half.
“Can you tell him that I think his music was really fast? Although it went really fast, it felt like it lasted an entire song. Ask him was it because when he knew I collapsed, his heart was racing or did the moment go by really fast?” Elle requested of CeeCee.
“It was both! How did you know?” Xiong wondered with curiosity.
“Tell him I saw the emotion on his face. He looked like he relived the event. Ask him how much did he see?”
He did not make eye-contact. “I saw him shake you really hard to try to wake you up,” he imitated in the air, “but you didn’t. He was shouting too, like he was trying to get you out of a nightmare. Then I suggested that you might have a heart condition because of your tremendous heart, and he did CPR,” imitating the chest compressions. “We heard a crack on the first one he did. He unbuttoned your shirt and fished out pieces of a blue hair clip like this,” he said and showed it with his forceps. “Then he heroically carried you in his arms, down the stairs. I told him I wanted to go to the hospital too, but he wouldn’t let me.”
Elle looked at CeeCee for a translation, and after she heard it, she was so sad. “Wow, he saw the whole thing. I remember he was out of the room,” Elle said in English. She paused. “The way he described it was like a movie.” She came closer to him and ran her fingers through his hair. She said softly, “Can you tell him that he’s so young he shouldn’t have to see such evil?”
Xiong was quiet.
“Good child, obedient child,” she softly said with a smile like she was proud of him. He looked up at her with a slight smile.
One Word entered the music room with JZ.
“How are you feeling,” One Word asked with relief and a little concern.
“Good. Thank you,” she replied calmly. “Shall we get started?”
“Why don’t you rest a bit?” suggested One Word.
“I rested on the car ride here.”
“I told you she insisted on hearing the kid play his little tune,” said JZ.
“Alright. Begin,” said One Word in a firm voice.
Xiong took a few steps closer to the musicians, and played his song. One Word and JZ maintained their serious, firm faces as they watched. Elle’s face had a smile. When he finished, the musicians, Elle, and CeeCee applauded.
One Word and JZ stepped out and Elle closely followed holding CeeCee’s wrist. They turned back and JZ asked, “Why are you here? You have no part of the decision-making process.”
Elle looked at CeeCee, and she translated.
“Tell them to listen to me first and then I’ll get out of their way.”
CeeCee translated. JZ looked at One Word, who nodded slightly. Then they looked at her.
“Ask them if we can go somewhere more private.”
One Word led them to his workroom.
“Tell them I know that Xiong doesn’t play the guitar as well as other kids, but I know he has potential. First, they should keep in mind that he’s from a poor family and lives in the same neighborhood as me, so owning an instrument is already an achievement. Second, he taught himself to play the guitar. Third, his lyrics sound like something JZ would sing.”
“Why are you telling us this?” asked JZ.
“I want him to have my job so I don’t have to work here.”
CeeCee and One Word were surprised, but JZ was more shocked than both of them. “Did I hear her correctly,” JZ asked CeeCee.
“You heard me correctly,” answered Elle.
“Why do you want a replacement?” asked JZ.
“Tell them I’m poison. Think of all the things that happened to me that affected their lives and their employees. I shouldn’t poison them, which is why I want to remove myself.”
One Word was taken aback, but JZ did not believe her sincere face and voice. He looked at One Word and asked, “Do you think she’s poison?”
“Of course not! I think she’s a keeper. However, I do see her point and her poison status could be eliminated if you and the public would stop pestering her.”
“CeeCee, do you think she’s poison?”
“No, but I see One Word’s idea that if she did not have all of these things to deal with, her life here and at home would be so much easier, and she wouldn’t consider herself poisonous.”
“Baby, it bothers me that you think you’re poison when we don’t consider you poison. We want you to stay as a lyricist or song-writer, whatever you prefer.”
“Tell them that they may want me, but this country doesn’t want me. I want to go back to where I was invisible to the public. I want to return to America and forget this country.”
“Do you know how ridiculous you sound by trying to forget a powerful country like China?” JZ said, trying to lighten her mood.
“I’m really old and I’m really tired. I don’t want to fight against this country,” she said, with defeat in her voice, and lightly touched her fists together a couple of times.
“What are you talking about? Nobody is fighting you,” he said in a tone like she’s being ridiculous.
“Tell him he can’t distract me. Even if he is the king of Asia, he is the only one who defends me. Eventually, the king and his vast military will falter against the sea. I am not worth all the sacrifice nor should I be. He doesn’t know it yet, but I’m a liability. Tell One Word that that would be a good topic for his next song since I love all of his historical themed lyrics.”
“I want you to write it in English. I like it when my fans write songs about me.”
“Just take him as my replacement. There, I’ve said all I’ve wanted to say,” Elle said with strain in her voice and tiredness in her eyes and left One Word’s workroom.
JZ sped and blocked the door. She gave him a look that said, “Really? You’re really going to block my way?” with her tired eyes. He gently held her hand and led her to One Word’s couch. “Sit,” he ordered, and she plopped down exhaustedly. Then JZ pulled One Word to the far corner and whispered.
A couple of minutes later, they returned. Elle stood up for the result. “I will only take him as an intern as long as you still work for me as a lyricist or song-writer. He can be your intern if you’d like. However, if he causes trouble he’s not coming back. I’m also adding a couple of extra things. First, you must accept everything I give you. For example, if I give you this phone,” he said and handed her his phone, “then you have to accept it. Second, you have to live in my building next door to ensure your safety from the public and you can arrive at work in a few minutes’ time.”
“In regard to the first additional term, if he decides to ‘give me sex’ or ‘give me a slap across my face,’” making air quotes, “or other physical intrusions onto or into my body, do I have to accept those too? In regard to the second additional term, if he can ensure my safety from the public, can I ensure my safety from him?” she asked seriously with her most serious face.
CeeCee had a face that showed she did not want to be in a conversation like this, ever. She took a breath and translated.
The guys’ eyebrows rose in shock, reflecting their facial expressions of “How does she keep shocking us?” “She’s really direct,” One Word told JZ. JZ regained his composure and said, “For the first one, I wouldn’t do any of those despicable things to her. If I wanted to make love with her, it would always be mutual. For the second one, I can ensure her safety from me too. I won’t put cameras or listening devices in her real apartment. However, I will have a key to her apartment for emergencies. I just don’t want her to waste all that time commuting from home to work, and all of my employees who work nearby live in there, not just her.”
“Tell him I don’t believe him when he says he wouldn’t do any of those despicable things to me. Ask him if he wants to see my tattoos again,” she said with a slightly dark tone.
“Baby, I regret my actions. Please forgive me. I won’t do it again.”
“In America, the perpetrator of domestic violence always says he won’t do it again, but he always does. I’m sure the same applies to the perpetrators in China. Besides, if he’s not talking about work, I don’t believe him.”
JZ sighed deeply. “She’s not going to listen to anything else I say on this matter. Ask her if she’s willing to live in the building next door.”
“I won’t live there because I can’t afford to live there.”
“I’ll charge you the same amount as your landlord. I can match whatever other deal you may have with your landlord.”
“Everything in this neighborhood is so expensive. How can I live here and save as much as I can to send home to my family?”
“If you live in the building next door, you save on commuting expenses and save on food expenses. You can eat in the cafeteria for free. Plus, the doctor said that you needed to eat. Is that why you haven’t been eating? Because you were saving money to send to your family?”
“Tell him before I make a decision, I want something from him.”
“You’re not in a position to make demands.”
“Then tell him to listen to me and keep it in mind.”
“Fine. What is it?”
“I only want an employee-employer relationship with him. At most, a friendship with him when we’re not working.”
“That’s not going to happen. I will keep trying until I get what I want.”
Elle sighed deeply and thought for a moment. “Xiong will get an internship here if I continue working here. I agree to that. However, I will only agree to one of the two additional terms, with what you have said afterwards. Do I need to remind you of what you said?”
“Like I said before, you’re not in a position to make demands. I know what I’ve said and I’ve already agreed to give you more than most. If you really want him here, you have to agree to everything,” JZ said firmly.
“Before she makes a decision, let me talk to you over here for a moment,” said One Word, pulling JZ back to the far corner.
“I think it’s wise,” he whispered, “that she be allowed to agree to one of your additional terms. If you look at the situation from her perspective, she genuinely doesn’t want to be associated with you and this place. She went as far as bringing you her replacement. If you push too hard I think she would quit, even if the kid does get this internship because there’s too much risk for her. Do you want her to quit?”
“I don’t want her to quit. Why does she have to resist so much? It’d be so much easier if she were a robot or a pet. That way she would be programmed to accept everything I want for her or I can train her to be obedient,” he whispered.
“If you don’t get what you want in this agreement, you’ll have to be creative to insert what you didn’t get in every opportunity, right?”
“That’s right,” he said with a slight smile. They returned to the girls. “Alright, I will agree that you can agree to one of the two additional terms. Which one do you want?”
“I want to continue living where I’m living.”
“Then I want you to live in the building next door.”
“I thought I was deciding what I wanted.”
“You’re not in position to make demands.”
Elle glared at him. Her face said, “I may have lost to you this round, but I won’t lose to you again.” “When does he want me to move in?”
“Tomorrow,” said JZ.
“What time or time of day does he want me to move in?”
“Come before you come to work.”
“Ask him who I need to talk to, to go to the correct apartment.”
“I’ll wait for you in the lobby and take you there.”
CeeCee and Elle walked quietly to the music room.
“You were gone for a long time. Did they like my song?” Xiong asked eagerly.
“Hey CeeCee, can you tell him the good news?” Elle said forcing a smile.
“Miss Elle convinced them to give you an internship here. It’s a paid internship.”
“Really?!” Xiong exclaimed, not yet believing he actually got a paid internship at his idol’s record label. “You’re not joking, right?”
“Go call your old man,” Elle said forcing another smile.
Xiong took out his phone and excitedly called his father. Then he handed Elle his phone and said, “He wants to talk to you!”
“Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight,” said the rough and raspy voice.
“Sorry, I can’t. I’m busy.”
“You got him that internship, you will come,” ordered the rough and raspy voice with a stronger hint of anger, and hung up the phone.
Elle handed Xiong’s phone back. “I forgot, did you eat yet?” she asked, trying to sound cheerful.
“I already ate,” Xiong replied with his head down.
She looked at Hero, who nodded her head. “That’s good,” Elle said with a genuine smile. “Hey CeeCee, do you want to have a late lunch with me?”
“Yeah, sure. Let me go to the restroom first.”
“You want to come with us or do you want to stay here with the music people?” Elle asked Xiong.
“I’ll come with you.”