At 12:20 in the morning, the artisan apprentice at the mask store was busy packing the shelves and getting ready to end the day’s work.
The apprentice had just finished sorting the orders during the day one by one when the wind chime outside the store rang.
A gentle and handsome man in his 30s walked into the mask store.
The apprentice raised his head and met the other person’s dark eyes. Before he could speak, the other person asked in a gentle manner, “Hello, can I still place an order?”
The apprentice hurriedly put on a polite smile as he entertained the guest. “Hello Sir, can I help you with anything?”
The apprentice looked at the well-dressed gentleman who seemed to be from a wealthy family. At this moment, he noticed that the gentleman was holding a painting wrapped in black cloth.
“I need to customize a mask according to the appearance of the person in this painting. Can it be done?” The guest put the painting in his hand on the counter and carefully lifted the wrapped black cloth. “The details must not deviate by the slightest point.”
The black cloth completely slipped off and the apprentice saw the tearful teenager in the painting. His breathing paused and his heart was inexplicably beating fast.
The moment he saw the green-eyed teenager in the painting, he felt like his entire body was upside down. It wasn’t fear, but a type of shock and solemnity that was full of divinity.
“Can it be done?” The critical-looking guest confirmed it again.
The apprentice finally recovered from the overwhelming sense of sacredness. He thought about it for a moment before daring to nod. “Sir, rest assured, we are the best mask store in the world.”
“…It is just that the price of this finished product is relatively high.” The apprentice gave a price that was enough to make an ordinary person drop their jaws. “What do you think?”
The gentleman who didn’t look bad for money smiled happily. “It doesn’t matter.”
“However, I have one condition,” the gentleman added, “That painting can’t leave me, so I have to watch you finish it the entire time.”
The apprentice was stunned. After all, no guest had ever made such a request. “Just wait, I will ask my master.”
The guest nodded patiently. “Yes, it is hard work.”
The apprentice opened the curtain and walked into the workshop behind the store. Meanwhile, the guest, No 9, held the painting in his arms.
Then he looked at the shelves that contained masks that could be mistaken as real people.
This store wasn’t an ordinary mask store. The masks sold here were enough to make one person become another. The store was engaged in shady transactions. For example, if enough money was given for a customized service, they would choose and hire suitable identity actors for customers and wear the face masks to meet the needs of the guests.
Of course, No 9 clearly wasn’t within the range of such guests who needed to be satisfied. He absolutely couldn’t tolerate others playing Chi Nan. In his opinion, any type of performance was blasphemy.
Five minutes later, the apprentice came out of the production room. “Sir, if you need to supervise the whole process, then you have to bring the painting with you at a fixed time every day and… the price has to be increased from what I told you earlier.”
“No problem.” No 9 was always easy when it came to prices.
After talking to the store owner, No 9 brought the painting every afternoon. The craftsman of the mask store made a mask that fit the face of the tearful boy in the painting.
Face masks were extremely delicate and complex tasks that required repeated polishing over a long period of time.
Fortunately, No 9 had enough money and patience.
“Sir, is the boy in the painting your son?”
It was a long production process, so the apprentice suddenly made small talk to pass the time.
No 9 looked at Chi Nan in the painting and asked with a smile, “Do I look so old?”
“Ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.” The apprentice didn’t dare to offend the rich guest and explained in a panic, “You know, many people’s children died in the war. Their parents will have us craftsmen make the masks and find suitable mask models to provide needed services, including coming home regularly every day to take care of the guests and restore the time when the family of three was still living happily together.”
“These are services that cost money, but they provide spiritual comfort to guests, right?” the apprentice said.
No 9 smiled politely. “No, the person in the painting is much older than me.”
The apprentice murmured in a low voice, “Is this a portrait of when he was young? He looks so good…”
“It can be understood that way, but to be precise, he will always be this young.”
There was a glimmer of light in No 9’s dark eyes as he spoke.
The apprentice rightly interpreted the guest’s words as an exaggerated compliment. “This gentleman must be a very important person to you, right?”
No 9 nodded. “We have only met in person once, but he is my most important person.”
The guest’s words aroused the interest of the curious apprentice. “Can you tell me your story? If emotion is poured into the mask during the production process, the work will become more vivid. The emotions will also give the mask a soul.”
“He was also my customer. I was a down on my luck painter on the streets. It was probably an ordinary rainy afternoon when he showed up in front of me.”
“He didn’t bring any money and I didn’t need him to pay.” No 9 smiled. “At that time, I stupidly asked if we had a chance to meet again.”
“In fact, I should’ve asked for money and wrote an IOU so that he would come back to me in order to pay it back.”
No 9 shrugged.
The apprentice said, ”I’m not sure. Maybe he didn’t want you to paint him? Then you wouldn’t have even had a chance to create this painting.”
No 9 laughed. “Maybe.”
“I created this painting and watched him take it away. On that day, it rained as much as it did tonight.” No 9 looked at the foggy water vapor on the window and paused thoughtfully. Then he continued, “We haven’t been able to meet again after that.”
The apprentice showed sad sympathy. “Have you ever gone looking for him?”
“Of course. He told me that he wouldn’t leave the city. Therefore, I searched every street in the city, including the mass graves, but I couldn’t find him.”
“Then one day, I met a strange and dangerous friend who came from far away. This friend seemed to know him and knew everything about him…” No 9’s gaze was drawn to the blurred rain and dog outside the window. “This friend also knew everything about me.”
“He told me that the only way to find the person in the painting was to wait, wait endlessly, just like the incessant rain during that time.”
No 9 retracted his gaze from the rain and looked at the blade and mold in the apprentice’s hand. “Then I accepted my friend’s offer and waited a long time. It wasn’t until more than 10 years later that I bought this painting again from the black market.”
The apprentice was fascinated by the guest’s story and raised his eyes again. “Black market? What happened?”
“The city we lived in before experienced a disaster. The land collapsed and sank into the sea, completely disappearing on the map and from people’s memories.”
“People gradually forgot the existence of that city, but I always remembered it. I can’t tell if this is a good thing or bad thing.”
“The painting was salvaged from the bottom of the sea by seafarers. Then it fell into the hands of pirates. After several trips to the black market, I bought it back when I got the news.”
“It was rumored that the painting would bring disaster to anyone who owned him. The pirate ship that stole him inexplicably sank to the bottom of the sea. Several black market traders who tried to resell him at a high price also experienced accidents.”
The apprentice’s hand froze suddenly and he felt a bit creeped out. “Huh? It is so evil… Aren’t you afraid?”
No 9 laughed. “I’m not afraid of curses.”
“Besides, those people didn’t deserve the painting.”
It was a rainy day. No 9 made the payment and retrieved the finished mask from the store.
He returned to his apartment and hung the painting in the position opposite the bed. The mask was placed next to the mirror on the bedside table.
It was especially easy to become sleepy on a rainy and humid evening. No 9 finished dinner, turned off the lights in the room, shrunk into his quilt, and fell into a deep sleep.
Bizarre scenes occupied his dreams again. He had dreamed repeatedly over the years and the scenes in the dreams made him feel both strange and familiar. This vague and ethereal feeling was as if he had foreseen his future in the dream.
In the dream, sometimes he and someone else stood on a cruise ship at dusk. The distant horizon seemed to never come. The air was filled with the strong smell of blood and the sea was dyed red by the sunset.
Sometimes, he came to a small town full of candlelight. The middle of the town had a huge wall of shadows that pressed down on him in the dark of the candlelit night.
At the end of this dream, he always got a bullet through his chest. Blood sprayed and splattered, but it didn’t hurt at all. It was because he fell against someone’s chest before he fell unconscious, and he even remembered the taste of that person’s tears.
Sometimes on snowy nights, the French windows kept the cold out and the warmth of the apartment was like spring. He seemed to be holding someone’s hand on the dance floor until the clock rang for midnight.
In addition, on a deserted highway, he leaned down low in the driver’s seat and reverently kissed the back of someone’s tear-soaked hand in the front passenger’s seat.
There were also countless nights when a raging fire surrounded him and his paintings. He opened his eyes to the choking smell of smoke and the heat burning his skin… He became that ‘someone’…
Every time he woke up from these bizarre dreams, the clock always pointed to 12:20.
This point in time seemed to be some type of hint and metaphor.
He could never clearly see the appearance of the ‘someone’ in the dream. He only remembered that the person had a pair of green eyes with two tear drop moles at the corners of his eyes. They looked chic and melancholy.
These eyes coincided with the teenager in the painting.
Sometimes the dreams were confused with memories and he became a bit confused. He didn’t know if these inexplicably familiar dreams came first, forming that cause and effect so that there was the encounter on the rainy afternoon.
Or perhaps it was because he saw and thought of that person that the strange dreams appeared over the years.
12:20 at night.
No 9 woke up from a dream again.
The rain outside the window made the whole night look bright. He didn’t light the lamp and just stood in front of the mirror, carefully attaching the soft mask to his face.
He had a dream in which there was a twin brother who was crazy to the core. After killing his younger brother, the older brother fell into a pervasive loneliness and confusion. Deformed thoughts took root in his bones and blood. The older brother started to change into the appearance of the younger brother and lived with this appearance in the abandoned house.
No 9 covered his face with the mask of the god. Behind him in the mirror was endless rain and night.
It was as if the whole painting had come alive.
He suddenly understood after buying the painting back from the black market.
Chi Nan, who was born in the City of Dreams, was the god in the Dawn Tower.
He had already completed the task given to him by No 10, but that bad guy didn’t only deceive him, but also tricked him out of the pocket watch that Chi Nan gave to him.
However, he wasn’t angry at all, and he even believed what that person said.
He had a premonition that those dreams were real and that his and Chi Nan’s reunion was also real.
The pocket watch would return to him at 12:20.
He thought that any form of acting was ‘blasphemy,’ but he was doing it.
He even had an inexplicable premonition that one day, God would live in his body, just like in the mirror. The green eyes and tear drop moles would float over his face and God would completely overlap with him.
He didn’t know where this strange hunch came from. Perhaps it was his bizarre dreams or some other energies or realms that he didn’t know about.
If he was to say when…
He guessed that perhaps it was the moment when the time returned to the correct position at 12:20.
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