It wasn't that hard to make a choice when the short man suddenly came from nowhere and asked Angelique Lau whether she would like to play the main character of a new upcoming blockbuster.
"Oh, you are exactly the person I'm looking for. Your hair is exactly the correct shade of black our director wants, and your eyes - your eyes are just perfect for the role," the man gushed.
"Such intensity, such passion behind them! We may have to work on your physique a little - and maybe change your hairstyle - but you are the most suitable person for the role. So, what do you say?"
Angelique stared wide-eyed at the man for a moment, the cacophony of noise from the busy marketplace behind her fading into the back of her mind. A movie star! That would be her ticket out of the slums she was living in! She could finally make her mother proud and be somebody. Not just another girl living in one of Hong Kong's poorest areas.
"So, what do you say?" the man repeated, while grinning winningly at her. "It's going to be a heck of a ride, but it's definitely going to be extremely rewarding."
She didn't need to think twice. "Yes, yes. I'll take the offer," Angelique beamed at him. "When would you like me to start?" she asked enthusiastically.
Hong Kong's sweltering summer caused a bead of sweat to roll down the anxious man's brow as he fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief and produced a small business card. "Here, meet me at this address tomorrow. The director will be there at around midnight so come in at 11.30pm. I look forward to working with you! Good luck!"
He grasped Angelique's hands and shook them quickly. "I have to go now but, if you have further enquiries, just call me at this number."
As Angelique watched the harassed man board a taxi, the feeling of euphoria still hadn't subsided. "I can't wait to tell Ah-Ma about this good news," she muttered to herself, ignoring the curious look of the homeless woman next to her. "I'm going to be a movie star! You hear me! I'm going to be famous!" she cried out. "I've finally been given a chance to change my life." The old woman squeaked as Angelique suddenly engulfed her in a hug, "I'm finally going to change my life."
Fat tears fell from her eyes as she let go of the shocked old woman and ran home. Her Ah-Ma would be so happy for her!
Waving apart the beads of the flimsy plastic curtain, Angelique stopped for a moment as she leaned against the old wooden door of her home to take in the scene. Her mother was sitting in front of the small incense table she used when seeing customers.
Her best friend was nowhere to be seen. "Ah-Ma, where's Cindy?"
Her mother looked up from the deck of playing cards she was building into a house on the table.
"Oh, she just went out to get lunch from Ah-Kau. Why, did something happen?" she asked casually.
Angelique smiled. "Guess what? I'm going to be starring in an upcoming movie!"
There was a moment of silence and the old, rusty fan in the corner whirled creakily. Then her mother jumped up from the table and hugged her in amazement.
"I can't believe it. That's wonderful! You can finally get out of this place and be famous and ..."
Angelique's best friend walked in, with sweat drops on the tip of her nose as she struggled to carry the styrofoam boxes containing their lunch. "What happened?" Cindy Ngai asked wearily, as she motioned for the mother and daughter to move aside so she could place the boxes on the small table and rest her arms. "I'm going to be an actress, Cindy," Angelique said proudly.
Yet to her surprise, Cindy just stood there numbly, and stared at Angelique with an indescribable look on her face.
"Why? What's wrong? Aren't you happy for me?" Angelique asked looking slightly confused.
Cindy wiped the sweat from her brows and took a deep breath, placing both hands on her hips as she started to speak.
"It's ... it's just ... remember Koko? She also received an invitation to star in a movie - or something like that - and after that experience she just came out all ... different. I heard rumours it wasn't exactly a film they were doing, but something more - more explicit."
"I know, but I'm sure this is a pretty legal movie."
Confusion marred Angelique's pretty features as she struggled to remember the incident involving Koko - her neighbour who had died last month. Some of the old aunts had said Koko had taken drugs and was involved in illegal activities, but, out of courtesy for Koko's grieving mother, had all held their tongues.
"Just promise me you won't end up like Koko," Cindy begged. She looked towards Angelique's mother, in a pleading sort of way.
"Ah-Ma, please, I know you want the best for your daughter but ... I don't think this is the way to fame."
Angelique's mother sat quietly, the excitement and elation sliding from her face as she pondered Cindy's words.
"Cindy does have a point," she said cautiously to her daughter. "There was something really suspicious about Koko's death."
Angelique looked at her mother with an incredulous expression. "I can't believe it!" she cried. "Of all people, the two of you should be happy for me. You know how much I want to get out of this place. Papa wouldn't have wanted this for me. He would have supported me."
She picked up her handbag from the floor and marched into the tiny closet which was her room. "I don't care. I'm still doing it. Just go away!"
Her mother and her best friend stood in shocked silence looking at each other, wondering whether they had just destroyed Angelique's future.
Angelique nervously brushed her skirt for any wrinkles and sighed for the umpteenth time. The director was more than an hour late and doubts were starting to creep into her mind. Maybe, just maybe, she mused, her mother and Cindy were right. Maybe this whole thing was just a sham, a con.
However, just as she was debating with herself whether or not to leave, a big, well-dressed man in his mid-50s walked in and headed straight towards her.
"You are Angelique, right?" the man asked in a booming voice that echoed in the small waiting room.
She cautiously sized up the man before nodding with as much bravado as she could muster.
"Yes, I am."
"Good. We should get started immediately, please follow me."
The man turned and walked out of the room as Angelique scooped up her handbag and hastily followed him. She was so glad she had come! The director seemed perfectly normal and she was sure that everything was just going to work out perfectly.
"Put your bags over there and then we can start shooting," the man told her in a brusque tone as they stopped in the middle of a small concrete room.
"But ... where are the other actors?" Angelique asked, perplexed.
"It's an artistic movie, girl. We will be working on shooting the actors one on one so that all of you don't get distracted."
"But I thought ..."
The man was clearly frustrated.
"Hurry up, girl! Make up your mind! You are not the only actress here. We can find dozens of other girls this instant who are willing to take the role." He snapped his fingers as he angrily frowned at her.
Gazing at the lone camera and the green screen set in the middle of the room, Angelique hesitated.
"I ... don't know," she mumbled.
"If you are that unwilling to act, then why did you even sign up for it! It's a waste of my time!" the man shouted at her, as he turned to leave the room.
"Wait!" Angelique shouted in desperation as she watched her ticket to stardom slip away. "Wait, I'll do it. What do you need me to do?"
The man turned towards her and lifted an eyebrow. "Are you really sure?"
"Yes ..." she faltered before nodding vigorously. "Yes, I want to do this."
The man smiled but it wasn't a nice smile. It reminded Angelique of hungry sharks and sharp blades.
"Good. Now get over to the set, strip and then lie down in the middle of the floor in a position you think is comfortable."
"You heard what I said, girl. This is an artistic movie, so we don't do things the normal way. Come on - chop chop - we don't have much time."
Angelique hesitated and proceeded to do as the man asked. It was to prove the one thing in her life that she most regretted doing.
The "artistic movie" continued for the next few months. And Angelique was too ashamed to tell anyone.
Usually, after filming ended, the man would offer her some powder to inhale which he claimed was 100 per cent pure. At first, Angelique had politely refused the offer. But, out of morbid curiosity, one day she tried it. And she was instantly addicted.
Cindy was the first to notice something was wrong.
"Your nose is ... are you getting sick? You look as if you have a running nose all the time," Cindy said cautiously as she observed the change in her best friend. Angelique had become thinner and there were heavy bags under her eyes. She was constantly shivering. "No, no, I'm fine. Hey, could you lend me some cash? I'm running a little low." The meagre salary that she got from the director wasn't enough to cover her needs.
"I don't have much now," said Cindy. She took HK$200 from her pocket. "This is all I have."
Angelique hastily grabbed the money and shoved it in her pocket. "Thanks, Cindy. I really owe you."
Cindy stared at her friend with a desperate and hopeless look.
"Just promise me that you'll take care of yourself. I know I shouldn't judge you, but you should stop doing that, Angie," she begged.
Angelique nodded quickly and gave a shaky smile. "It's almost over. Don't worry."
Cindy stood at the hospital bed crying, as she held onto Ah-Ma's hand.
Angelique looked at the two most important people in her life, her frail hands stretching out.
"I'm really sorry. I should have listened to you," she croaked.
"Just rest now, just rest." Cindy's fragile smile crumbled as she looked at her best friend.
"I love you, honey," her mother sobbed, as she gathered her daughter's wasted 30kg body in her arms.
"I love you, I love you, I love you."
Angelique tried to smile ...
The machine beeped a long time.
Read the other entries to our 2012 Summer Story competition.
- The winning story, Eyes of the Departed, by 16 year old Lorenzo Chim
- Don't Mess with the Old by 13 year old Justin Yu
- I Should Have Listened to My Friends by 13 year old Charlotte Chan
- All's Fair in Life and War by 15 year old Brandon Mok
- A love to remain forever unspoken by 15 year old Lorraine Ho
- The sad tale of a drowned ghost by 16 year old Gene Lin
- A prank goes out of control by 8 year old Anoushka Hemnani
- It will be spring by the time you awake by 15 year old Emily Archibald