placing the incense on the grave again, the photos faces have blanched and i worry that only a small contour of a person would remain, a curve of hair, a faint patch of clothes. i reckon my parents would have that worry, always thinking of their parents, trying to live with their memory, constantly polishing out of the darkness of unknown tomorrows. i only close my eyes , flattened palms together to pray, hoping in the void that there is some wish or though i could transmit in that moment, those silences between conversations that we tended to remember before bursting into another timely conversation.
i walk with rin through the second floor halls slowly filling with idle chatter, glimpsing tsao outside by the courtyard waiting on birdie to catch up before disappearing into the school.
‘you went to see their grave today, didn’t you?’ she asks.
‘yes, i did. it makes me glad that you remember’
‘you visit them often around this time so i wouldn’t forget’
‘yeah, i was little then but i thought it would be a good gesture to do’
rin nods a moment looking at the forests below, leaves beginning to sparkle in the morning light.
‘we usually visit our great-grandparents altogether. we try to make it a tradition. sometimes, i think it’s the most stable part of the year because we always feel like it’s coming and we’re all prepared to make the trip over. it’s almost...calming, am i a bad person for saying that? that visiting a grave brings me some calm’
‘not at all. actually, i’m kind of the same way. i guess it’s like it’s a duty to me i suppose. something i’m responsible for i guess. never really had that before’
‘don’t you sound proper,’ she jests.
‘well...’ i start almost unable to think of a comeback when we chance upon a group of boys who were known to talk shop about online games now talking about yan.
‘yo, what are you guys talking about?’
‘oh, prefect sheng. we were just talking about a netcafe we were at. we thought we saw yan there?’ one of the boys, nathan, uttered.
‘really? don’t usually hear about yan when you guys ought to be holding your guilds’ i mention referring to the fantasy mmo game they were playing.
‘hey, when are you gonna join up? i thought you played mmo’s’
‘i wish i had the time.’
‘you ought to tell them, they should be focusing on their studies’ rin interjects much to the smirks breaking on the couple of boys behind nathan.
‘ooh, better question is when’s he and prefect hoi gonna go out, c’mon, we’ve been waiting on this romance forever’ one of the boys cackles bringing a chorus of laughter ringing throughout the halls already bisected by sunrays from the long window sills but it didn’t seem as loud as usual.
‘wasn’t there another guy with you?’ i ask.
‘oh, you mean brighton?, he couldn’t make it. said he was sick.’
‘sick? what he get the flu?’
‘hold on, brighton’s in my class and i doubt he would try to skip class even if sick. he showed up once with a face-mask because he didn’t want to miss class’ rin brings this up as the boys shrink to the walls.
‘i mean, he was with us at the internet cafe but left because he had to study. hard to believe that he would do that. maybe he’s just overworked.’ one of the boys brought up.
‘i dunno, he sounded a little agitated.’
‘hm...well, i hope he gets better soon. please tell him we send our regards to him.’
‘sure, we’re running a game later so meet us there or something’
‘i’ll see how my schedule fares.’
we walk off seeing the other conversations in the hallways rippling of last night’s television dramas and rin thinks a moment before saying: ‘that’s kind of odd. someone overworking to study?’
‘that does sound like normal. we do have a test in a couple days’
‘i know but, someone sounding agitated? i would believe it more if he sounded tired, i dunno’ she looks reproachfully before kwan shows up around the corner a little winded.
‘hey, you’re not with thomas?’
‘he’s talking with tsao right now. i’m just doing my rounds’
‘must sound boring without him around’
‘hey, i ought to learn how to survive by myself’
‘always the overachiever...’
the bell chimes and we break off to our classrooms, my fingers tap on the page as if a metronome before copying the lectures. before i knew it, lunch started and i go to the student council room to borrow their kettle, some cup noodles in hand. rin and i run into each other and chuckles a moment saying anymore chance meetings and people will get suspicious before walking into the student council office, a couple students from the council loitering, casually handing off the use of their kettle. rin and i walk around the halls as i sip the noodles, almost missing that we weren’t sitting down per usual. almost passing one of the classrooms with the door closed, i back up only peeking to the door window, a frail-looking student kneeling to some voices possibly demeaning him inside.
‘i know you have them on you, i saw you around the club with them’
‘i-i don’t have any of it’ the student only whimpered.
‘i needed these notes anyway’ another voice sounded.
rin also heard this, an exasperated look leaving a cold stare from her once gentle eyes.
‘them again’ she sighs, ‘natalie and her friends like to bully people but i don’t get why they’re trapping this guy.’we listen for a couple more moments and hear a couple desks get knocked around. rin then motions to me. ‘i got this, follow my lead.’ she knocks and the room falls still for a moment before someone opens the door. walking in, everyone stands still almost as if we’ve walked in surrounded by mannequins, trying to evade any wrongdoing by doing nothing. even the frail student retained his pose of being backed into the desks, only staring at us.
‘natalie, it’s been a while’ rin smiles. natalie rights herself with a slight sneer.
‘rin. i’m surprised to see you too. we were just helping ken here, he’s trying to be...get along better.’
‘must be quite some exercise,’ she eyes the boy, ken who only looks down, revealing an ear piercing from his long auburn hair fading into black. ‘prefect sheng, why don’t you take him to the infirmary? i’d like to talk with some friends’
‘sure, have a good chat with them eh?’ i mention before looking to ken, still sitting. ‘c’mon, let’s take a walk’
we leave for a moment and i’m half concerned about rin but considering how popular she was for a time, i thought she might know something about the other girls in the school and other mild conspiracies. it was as if everyone wanted to be around her at some point in their lives, trying to invite her to outings or study sessions. some even thought a couple students might change their behaviour if it meant a couple seconds of talking to her. now, it had only been the graceless struts of a couple groups like tsao that seem to be whispered at hallways. ken looked sideways always lagging behind, not even showing fear but more indignance at being humiliated. i hadn’t even heard of this boy until now so it was difficult to ascertain any common note of conversation.
‘are you okay?’ i ask.
‘being pushed into the desks and saying you’re fine. thought you might’ve sprained something at least.’
‘i know what i said,’ he blurted. ‘don’t show concern for me just because you’re a prefect...’
‘sorry, i suppose i’m still working on uh, diplomacy,’
‘no doubt about it.’ he glared at this detail in particular, that i lacked a way with people that might make them quiver with an intimate revelation, perhaps a gentleness or that one question that would be met with a satisfactory answer.
‘so what about what happened back there? anything you wanna tell me?’
‘it’s like she said, i was just trying to get by with another crowd and fell as all. i just get shaky.’ i knew he was lying but he wasn’t gonna tell me much so we only walked through the hall, my steps behind his as he would walk faster before pausing. ‘i don’t need the infirmary. just say i went okay?’ he sprints off before i can do anything and by then the school bell had rung. before i knew it he stops as kwan appears from around the corner.
‘ah, ken, was looking for you. you brought him prefect sheng?’
‘yeah, i did’
‘he looks like he’s ready for a 100m dash. oh well, i’ll take care of him. thanks for getting him here’ to my surprise, ken is much more willing to go with kwan and they leave me to the quieting hallways as all the conversations recede into the classrooms where the doors begin to close. the incident was enough for me to mull over during class and ken being toyed with by more popular classmen. otherwise, it was out of my hands now and he returned into the thrums of footsteps and fragments of conversations roaming for after-school recreations. before i left, i went to ms. lee, slouching at her chair after a long day teaching. i knock and she rights her posture.
‘ah, prefect sheng.’
‘another tiring day huh?’
‘oh, not at all, just...taking a breather ehehe’ she laughs a little playing off a fatigue like out of some television show where a comedic theme might play in the background.
‘anyway, uh, do you know anything about a student named ken, a little shorter than me, has an ear piercing.’
‘ken fong? what about him?’
‘no, i...’ i catch myself for a moment before rephrasing in case revealing what had transpired earlier might do more harm. other bullying cases would cause teachers to get paranoid, accosting students for the slightest jab or hint of malice. though, confronting students who did indeed harass other students only went nowhere with contradicting stories and eventually the supposed victim wanting the matter to close by saying nothing happened. ‘just wanted to know what he’s like in class. with the hair and everything, i think he might be trying to go with a different crowd.’
‘hm, well...’ she thinks a moment before recalling. ‘he certainly doesn’t talk much, and even when i see him trying to talk to others, it doesn’t lead him to making friends after.’
‘wow, that’s kinda comprehensive. i’m impressed’
‘they made me a teacher for a reason’ she smiles and it really made me believe in her efforts, the attempts at formality that would stiffen her manners before finding some sense of ease that still held weight in that way people called maturity.
‘well, i just haven’t seen him before and wanted to be up to date. i’ll see you tomorrow then.’
‘see you. hope i can finish this performance review’ she sighs flipping through some papers on her desk.
‘yeah, it’s for employee retention.’
‘to keep you around?’
‘yeah, it’s really competitive out there. one wrong move and people get let go. it’s really disheartening.’ she organizes the papers this time and i wish her luck before heading off, my steps that once moved forward echo through the hall as if solemn, those old days of running though parks where our footsteps flew us around playgrounds with our giggling agitations. heading to the minibus stop, yan leans on the sign reading a paperback novel before noticing that i was there, closing his book.
‘hey prefect, how’s it going?’
‘i didn’t expect you to stick around’
‘i’m a dedicated student, what can i say?’
‘so, see any trouble? in the halls?’
‘some, but nothing too out of the ordinary.’ i answer thinking he’s probing me for rumours.
‘really? some people were saying that you guys stepped in on some kid getting thrown around a room at lunch’
‘talk spreads quick huh?’
‘yeah. but i’m surprised that the matter is just all talk. most kids if they were getting thrown around, they’d snap’ his eyes for a moment seemed to resist the glimmer of sunlight, almost retreating into a different plane brim of unspeakable violence that would only leave hardened limbs thinking their strength was all that could keep them.
‘hey, it’s him!’ a female voice called and it was from sasa accompanied by rin, only giving a nod in my direction. sasa had a different look to rin with a short tomboyish haircut with a taut face that reminded someone of a rough and tumble kid. she sidles up to yan who is taken aback a moment but doesn’t pull away from her advances. ‘thanks for that dinner table. that was a really gentlemanly thing to do’
interestingly, rin blushes a little, shrugging when i look at her as if she herself didn’t have any bearing on her friend’s antics. i had barely seen sasa when knowing rin but i should’ve imagined that she would have a few outgoing friends given her popularity. yan could only give small remarks to sate her but she would keep goading him
‘everything go okay back there?’ i ask rin.
‘yeah, nothing i can’t handle,’ she answers before watching more of sasa try to interrogate yan some more.
‘you know, it’s not exactly normal for a high school student to be able to do this. just who are you anyhow?’ she asks with a tone of might in her voice almost like a judge.
‘well, i guess we’ll have to know each other better huh?’ yan finally smirks and the line delivery surprised me and rin who looks at me a moment while i stifle a few chuckles. sasa looked more interested returning yan’s smirk before turning to rin.
‘say, after the test on friday, why don’t we all go to a karaoke bar in mong kok? it’d be a nice way to celebrate, you can even come too,’ she motions to me.
‘if i don’t have any plans’
‘boo, don’t you have fun tze-ho? if you do that, rin might find you boring you know?’
‘alright, fine, guess i can use the r&r’
‘and you better sing me some yellowcard, mr. california’ she walks up to yan. the minibus arrives and this time it’s full of chatter from sasa and yan, her asking him to say something in english. rin looks outside to the stream of trees clearing to a mid afternoon sky, her face dullens with a reserved kind of beauty that could look contemptuous of surrounding commotion. we all get off at our respective stops, each time the bus halted, i would catch a brief glimpse of yan, rin and sasa giving their farewells before disappearing down avenues, stairways or shopping centres. despite the raucousness of this bus ride, there was something comforting about being able to listen to the teenage fervor from sasa and yan that we would yield from, keeping to fleeting glances or well-mannered smiles. i call to get off at a stop near an mtr station since i was going to visit my aunt sheila today as i hadn’t been able to see her since the banquet for tsui’s engagement. she lived at hong kong island and told me to meet her at a fifth floor dim sum restaurant at causeway bay, getting there by elevator to a clothed affair with poufed curtains and we were watching the highways curved around silver shopping centres already bathed in a blue dusk where streetlights bloom on the streets below. aunt shelia called for me when i arrive, and smiles.
‘have you been well, ah-ho?’
‘yeah. just studying for school. i have a test on friday.’ i answer before pouring tea for the both us.
‘i ordered your favorite dumplings and squid tentacles. i know you like having them’
‘it has been a while since i had them. i do appreciate it.’
she looks down a moment, her pleasant expression brittle.
‘your parents haven’t contacted us in a while. it would be nice to see them. but they’re always so busy.’
‘well, i’m sure that they think of it...’
‘yes, please do take care of them, ah-ho. i know you’re a good boy’ this seemed less of a demand but more of a little hope that she had for me, that no matter what, she would only want me to be well. i could only maintain a bashful smile
‘i will. i will do my best.’
after, we walk through the streets visiting a local food market inside a tiled industrial building, gridded pillars gave to stained canopies above boxes of fruit and vegetables, aunt shelia picked them up, her grasp firms and loosens; what feeling did she have that allowed her to know how ripe an orange was, conjuring vague images of distant rural life or a mother on a summer day picking fruits at an orchard and showing them a softened peach, these hands now slightly worn with a jade ring. we bought some fruits which i took home and at the dinner table, the same news program rang with the stirs of small incidents while we all ate in this familiar silence amidst pixelated speech, this moment without abortive conversations, only passing each other vegetables from the table center, some remarks about the tv drama before yuen finishes eating, us soon to return to our own rooms deserting the hallways, noises receding away into a faint warble akin to airplanes flying overhead.