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June 14, 2012

I Hraet You (14)

Beat 14: Breaks Are For the Lucky

Lloyd leaned forward and adjusted his glasses.  “Well now, this is unexpected.”

The audition room loomed before him, in all its monochrome glory.  The director’s chair behind a long desk.  The stage ahead, with the outlines of curtains.  Wires and lights,   from studio lamps to spotlights on hanging rails; a blank screen on stage, with props and cameras strewn about it.  So I’ve managed to return at last, he thought, stroking his chin.  In which case, I’ve gained some valuable data.  There are two qualifiers for entering the audition room.  First, endearment.  And second, physical contact.  Given my history with Miss Zhang and our…well, accidental contact, it seems I’ve all the proof I need.

He stroked his chin with his index finger.  I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite prepared to have an encounter with Miss Zhang, but I’ll allow it.  So long as I’m here, I may as well begin practicing, and improve my knowledge on matters of the heart.  He turned aside.  Although…

But he cut his thought short.  The pitter-patter of footsteps drew his eyes to the stage -- and then, to Lien-Hua emerging in the center of it.  “Aha, Miss Zhang!  What a delight it is to have you here!” Lloyd beamed, throwing his arms out wide.  “Doubtless you’ll be able to move me quite rea…di…ly?”

Lien-Hua cast her eyes to her feet, her mouth subtly twitching without a sound.  She held onto one arm with a fragile grip, and her script dangled in her hand like browned leaves on a maple tree. 

“M-Miss Zhang?  Are you all right?”

No answer.  She didn’t even bother looking up; she just kept muttering silently to herself, somehow managing to look even more feeble and forlorn than before.  

“Miss Zhang!  Yoo-hoo!  Lloyd here, your old friend and compatriot!  Perhaps a bit of auditioning would help elevate your mood a bit, madam?” He waved cheerfully at her, but wondered if she even noticed; with all the light in her eyes MIA, he feared she’d gone blind.  “Methinks that now would be an excellent time to prove that your soul remains untouched by otherworldly fiends!”

No response.

And here I was, hoping to make some progress, Lloyd thought with a sigh.  All right.  This is no time for tomfoolery, Lloyd old boy.  Your teacher is in grave peril -- plagued by a sorrow that threatens to strangle her from the inside out.  You’re in a position to help her, but only if you can crack through her shell and get to her soft, chewy center.  He glanced to his right.  That was unduly sexual.  But semantics aside, I’d better get to work.

“Miss Zhang!” he called out.  “You seem to be in…er, a rather poor state of mind as of late.  But worry not!  Your sorrow is only momentary at best; I swear, by the sweat of my brow and the beating of my heart, that I’ll soon have you elevated to the acme of mental fitness -- you have only to place your faith in me, and cooperate.  That should be more than enough of an impetus, yes?”

Lien-Hua lifted her head a micrometer.  “Mmmm…”

“Eh?  Say again?”

“Mmmm…make…star…”

Ka-WHOOSH!
               
“I guess that was close enough.”  Just as Lloyd expected, a ball of gas burst from the teacher’s chest -- this time, a pale shade of red compared to Trixie’s blue.  And with that gas came two additional sights: the first, a bird-shaped mask, with a plume of pink and red feathers framing its golden beak.  Rather than the ribbons that had emerged last time, ropes ran around a gaseous orb; moreover, the bird mask looked about ready to burst into tears.  Its face sagged so much that Lloyd wondered if it had started melting.

And as confirmation, the four stars moved into orbit.  As they spiraled around Lien-Hua, Lloyd watched them with an increasingly tense gaze.  One, two, three, four.  Four stars.  Only one of them filled -- and even then, only halfway.

Well, that explains everything.  Lloyd continued his observation of his teacher, holding a hand over his mouth as if to keep himself from vomiting.  The dreaded half-star emerges once more…and judging by her mannerisms, it’s far more serious than when Miss Walters reached that level.  Could it be that different people have different thresholds of tolerance?  That is, if one person’s half-star rating only breaks their confidence, could another’s lead to…?  He shook his head.  He didn’t even want to think about what could happen.

Miss Zhang, you seemed so at peace and cordial mere moments ago.  Was it all just a ruse?  An act to cover up your insecurities, and put your students at ease?  No, that doesn’t matter.  So long as I’m here, I’ll do all I can to mend her heart.

“Miss Zhang, let us begin!” Lloyd declared.  “Speak your heart!”

She twitched a few times before dropping her script and falling to her knees.

“…Or you could do that.”  Lloyd scratched at his temple.  “Miss Zhang, as much as you may enjoy polishing the stage with your shins, I would think that a bit of acting would do you some good.  So why not pick yourself up and give it your best?  Doubtless someone of your caliber has more than enough means to move my heart.”

She didn’t answer.  She just looked like a puppet cut free from its strings.

Still nothing?  Hmph…fine.  No matter.  I still have my fair share of stratagems left.  A slight smile crept across his face.  The object of this game, of sorts, is to improve the actor’s mental well-being using the means available to me.  Encouragement, reasoning, and truth -- at least, if Miss Walters’ experience is any indication.  If I can affect the same response from Miss Zhang, then surely I can restore her faith.

But with what?  Lloyd looked down at the table before him; just like before, a slew of sheets had been spread across it.  He drew his face closer to them, scouring the red text for the clue that would help him crack the code.

LIEN-HUA: I see you still have…an interesting way of speaking.

LIEN-HUA: We should get to class now, shouldn’t we?  It’s unsightly for a new teacher to let the class go unattended to.

LIEN-HUA (giggling): Well, I don’t know about that...but still, let’s do our best, okay?

Lloyd leaned back in the director’s chair and let his head hang askew.  These won’t help me at all!  Mere pleasantries exchanged between old friends reunited; niceties between student and teacher!  How am I supposed to work with this?!  He clapped his hands against his cheeks.  No; that’s merely the talk of a cynical dullard!  All you have to do is make a convincing argument for Miss Zhang to have a complete reformation of her metaphysical being and take steps toward realizing her full potential and emotional zenith!  This shouldn’t be hard at all!

“Miss Zhang!” he yelled, slapping a palm against the table.  “You’re…!”

Lien-Hua didn’t even bother looking at him.

“You’re…you’re…!”  He shot a finger at her like one of Artemis’ arrows.  “You’re a cool teacher!”

 He held his finger in midair for a full minute, hoping that Lien-Hua wouldn’t notice his increasingly-sweaty body, or his wobbling smile. 

Fortunately, she didn’t.

Unfortunately, Lloyd doubted she could at that point.  Because at that moment, the one star that had remained half-filled -- the one star that bothered to cast any light -- began to blink rapidly.  Each flash left it dimmer and dimmer, and each star teetered out of orbit.  Even their edges started to erode; softening, ever so subtly, with grains vanishing into the air.

“M-Miss Zhang!” Lloyd yelled.  He threw himself out of the chair and scrambled over the table.  “Miss Zhang!  Hold on!  I-I still have much more to offer!”  Even though he stood before the stage, and reached frantically towards her, it didn’t do anything; slowly, remarkably slowly, the stars began their final motions. 

“Damn.  Damn!  There must be something I can do…there just has to be!”  Lloyd hung his head, wracking his brain for an answer.  What did I do with Miss Walters that I failed to do here?  What step was I missing?  What clue?  If I don’t hurry, then…then…!

And then he spotted it.  There, on his left -- a rectangle, with a circle hanging near its inner right edge.  A doorway?  How long has that been there?  But that thought gave way to a dozen new ones, each one moving as fast as a drag racer.  Is it a failsafe?  Is it an escape route, allowing me safe exit from this situation?  Will it save Miss Zhang?  He turned back to her.  If I leave, what will become of her heart?  Will it continue to erode in my absence?  I can’t afford to leave this task undone!

But wait.  Nothing I’ve done so far has managed to help her.  If anything, I may have made things worse!  If I continue speaking and acting so recklessly, will I end up destroying her heart?  He glanced at the door, then Lien-Hua, then the door again, and finally back at Lien-Hua. 

Forgive me, Miss Zhang, he thought at last.  He bolted for the door, and put his hands atop it.

--STAGE OFF--

“Lloyd?  Lloyd?”

“…H-huh?”

Lien-Hua raised her eyebrows.  “Are you all right?  You kind of spaced out for a minute.”  Suddenly, she gasped and covered her mouth.  “Y-you’re not feeling dizzy, are you?  Do you need to go to the nurse?  Wait right here and I’ll write you a pass!”

But before she could take another step, Lloyd shook his head, and raised his hands in defense.  “I’m quite all right, madam.  You’ll forgive me for my inaction; I was merely…er, startled to see you again.  It seems that time has been kind to you, both in your fortune and your form.”

The teacher put her hands on her hips.  “Now, Lloyd, we can’t have you saying things like that so freely,  It could cause a serious scandal for both of us.”  She waved a finger at him.  “I know you’re a romantic, but try to keep yourself under control, all right?”

“Y-yes, of course!  I wouldn’t dream of doing anything to jeopardize your standing!”  Lloyd rubbed the back of his neck and nodded.  “Yes, I’ll mind my manners -- and that said, I think I’d be able to do that best if I went back to my desk.  It’s the first day of school; surely you have much to explain.”

“That’s true.  I suppose we should get a move on, then.”  Lien-Hua walked past him, arms folded and moving with both graceful and confident steps.  “Coming, Lloyd?”

“I just need a bit of water, and I’ll be right there.  You have my word.”

Lien-Hua nodded, and stepped inside the classroom.  That left Lloyd in the hall, all alone, while wearing a quivering smile.  “Yes,” he said softly to himself.  “I’ll be sure to keep myself under control.” 

TO BE HEARTINUED…

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