Shang Kai was late coming over and Ming Hui didn’t ask, merely going to the convenience store for dinner instead of the food court and eating fifty minutes later than planned.
From experience and the blessed ability to gauge the situation, Shang Kai would only talk if he felt like it or if it was too important to withhold. The cut on his friend’s cheekbone was impossible to miss even with the hood pulled over his face, but Ming Hui knew better than to press for answers.
After paying, Ming Hui pulled a steamed bun out of the paper bag. As if coming out of a daze, Shang Kai got up from his chair to look through the aisle of packaged sandwiches.
“Plastic bag?” the cashier asked.
“No thank you,” Shang Kai replied, voice perking up at the end. He waltzed back over to the table with his purchase and clambered up the stool.
Ming Hui sipped on his paper cup of tea and pushed a carton of chocolate milk toward Shang Kai. After more insistent nudging towards him, Shang Kai finally took it. He fumbled opening the straw wrapper and stabbed the carton without looking, taking a few gulps of the drink while staring straight ahead.
The convenience store’s steamed bun filling was excessively salty and its ratio to the dough was disproportionately small in comparison. The tea was concentrated in a manufactured way, and a large cup of it was Ming Hui’s favourite indulgence.
Finally, Shang Kai set the empty carton down. Ming Hui swallowed the last bite of his steamed bun, glancing over.
The black hoodie completely engulfed Shang Kai’s frame, making him an unidentifiable black blob.
“Are you mad at me?”
“No. Why do you think that?” Ming Hui took a large swig of his tea, feeling the way it burned in the back of his throat. He really wasn’t though—he really wasn’t angry. Being asked that question already poked the bubble rising in his chest and deflated any irritation.
“I’m sorry I was so late.”
“It’s fine.” And Ming Hui meant it.
After a bit more silence, Shang Kai pulled the hood back and rolled up the hoodie sleeves to his elbows. The cut looked worse under the fluorescent lights and it took all of Ming Hui’s self-control to keep calm and not immediately demand answers.
Shang Kai tore open the packaging of his sandwich but his hands stayed still afterwards. Ming Hui started eating his second steamed bun, judging if he could probe for information. He lifted the cup to his lips and tapped his foot against the floor.
“My grandmother punched me.”
Ming Hui choked.
“She thought I was a thief who had broken into the house.”
Shang Kai scoffed, but a small smile graced the corners of his lips. “She struggles walking even with a cane but on this fine day, she just came flying at me.” He flicked his wrist towards the store interior and ran a hand through his dishevelled hair. “I didn’t even have time to register what happened.”
“Where did the cut come from?” Ming Hui asked, cautiously going back to his cup of tea.
“My glasses. It cut into the skin on impact. My mum noticed it before I did, honestly.” Shang Kai rubbed his eyes and stuffed his hands into the front pocket of his hoodie, leaning back and almost falling off the stool. “By the way,” he added, “I was wondering why you wanted to meet.”
Ming Hui was slightly self-conscious about the cashier who was within earshot but he tried to assure himself that to the man, they looked like any average seventeen-year-old minors unfortunately eating dinner at a convenience store.
He was halfway done with his drink when he tore himself away. Shang Kai had answered all his questions and it was only fair to do the same.
Except, Ming Hui thought his own dilemma was insignificant in comparison.
Shang Kai had told him before that if it mattered to him, he’d care about it too. However, how could he be expected to say anything after what Shang Kai had just told him? It was worse because he knew exactly what Shang Kai’s situation was like.
“I didn’t want to eat leftovers.”
“I was upset because my parents had a disagreement.”
Shang Kai pursed his lips. Ming Hui could practically hear the gears turning in his head, the buzz of electricity as he dissected and joined everything up. He nodded slowly, the weight of that sentence settling in.
It was an easy and usual conclusion to come to—that Ming Hui’s parents had gotten into an argument so terrible that the world should have ended and they’d both left the house to be away from each other, leaving their son alone with an uneaten family dinner on the table.
The two of them knew each other too well.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Shang Kai asked.
“Come to my house before going home.” Ming Hui folded his arms over the tabletop and leaned forward, resting his head against it like a pillow. The caffeine was starting to settle in and he could feel the rush travelling to his brain. “I have a first aid kit.”
It was a miracle that they had met at all and hadn’t chased each other away. They didn’t go to the same school, lived in different gated parts of the neighbourhood and Ming Hui could still vividly remember crossing the road before the collision with someone on a skateboard, the shock of pain rocketing through his body.
His elbows stung and the world had become a blurry mess from the tears that had automatically pooled in his eyes. When he’d brushed them away, he could see another boy staring down at him in horror, dark hair unkempt like a thorn bush and glasses knocked askew on his nose.
Unbeknownst to Shang Kai at the time, Ming Hui had only moved here two months ago and was completely new to the neighbourhood. He hadn’t heard any kind of whispers or talk about the boy and his mum who lived with that frightening old woman.
Shang Kai eventually told him about his grandmother before the rumours did.
As a young girl, Shang Kai’s mum had been brought up with five other brothers by their widowed mother. Growing up, she’d watched her brothers receive the best birthday presents and be given the best portions of food, be it fish cheeks or chicken drumsticks.
Shang Kai’s grandmother was notorious in the neighbourhood for multiple reasons. The few Shang Kai knew of were fighting, using fists with people at the market for bargains, and accusing neighbours of stealing fruit from the banana tree in the garden. Not many people were aware there was a daughter in the family at all because his grandmother only ever spoke about her sons, who were doted on and spoiled greatly.
After growing up and receiving all the money from their mother, all of those five sons moved away and didn’t come back.
Once she was able to, Shang Kai’s mum left her childhood home to start a life for herself.
“I can’t remember much about my father,” Shang Kai confessed. He loosened his tie and tugged at the collar of his school shirt. “I was around eleven but he just left without saying a word. When I think of him, all I can see is my mother during the immediate aftermath.” He closed his eyes for a short while and shook his head, blinking a few times.
None of the five sons came back when the police called saying they’d found their mother, lost and wandering the streets because she’d forgotten her way back home. Neither did they return when after wrangling her mum to a doctor’s appointment. Shang Kai’s mother had rung to inform them about the diagnosis.
Therefore, when his grandmother started to need constant supervision, the only option was for Shang Kai’s mum to move in, back in the very same home she’d been trapped in as a child.
After hearing a story like that, Ming Hui had been resolute not to let anything about himself slip.
However, one day, they’d gone out after school to a cheap restaurant that only had nine tables. Ming Hui didn’t want to go home and Shang Kai ate separately from when his grandmother did to avoid and prevent any unfortunate incidents.
“I can’t wait to leave this place,” Shang Kai said, holding an empty aluminium close to his chest. It was still slick with condensation and hearing those words had made Ming Hui freeze.
A long time ago, his older sister had said that exact sentence. Their parents had long stopped arguing but the tension had seeped into the walls and permeated every corner of the house.
“Where will you go?” Ming Hui had asked her, turning on his side.
Their beds were only a few metres apart but Liu Jing was a formless lump under the duvet.
“Anywhere but here,” she whispered. “Once I’m done, I’m going.”
Ming Hui really shouldn’t have asked but he was still raw and wounded from hearing the argument downstairs.
“What about me?” he asked. His words were swallowed up so quickly in the dark; he might as well have not said anything at all. “Can you—Will you bring me with you?”
Liu Jing was four years older and Ming Hui had memories of learning to ride bicycles together as well as going to the mall with their parents to buy books and eat ice cream.
In recent years before they’d moved, she hadn’t said much to their parents. She once said she was tired from the usual student stress but nothing more.
During the overlap when they’d been in secondary school together, she never said a word about doing group projects on her own or having no one to talk to in school. She’d kept quiet even when Ming Hui witnessed a group of boys who jeered and called her names.
She especially didn’t mention anything about that, where those people weren’t her classmates or anyone important at all. Just strangers.
Strangers who tripped her up, made jokes about her and laughed with more people Ming Hui also didn’t know. And the truth was that Ming Hui was unable to do anything about it.
Liu Jing pulled the blanket to her chin and closed her eyes. He had waited.
Liu Jing had not said anything.
And two years later, just like she’d wanted, she finished her exams almost at the top of her class and went away to university with no intentions of returning.
Ming Hui had carefully boxed that memory away and left it in the corner of his mind, only grazing the surface when it came to it. Any walls he’d carefully built around it came crashing down the moment he heard that sentence.
Shang Kai should have gone away the moment his friend, whom he’d known for less than a year at the time, had started crying out of the blue at a hole-in-the-wall establishment.
Shang Kai should have left when after consoling and listening to said friend, another crying session had been triggered from the mortification and shame of the first.
But the next day, Shang Kai had dropped by at a good time, meaning any circumstance where Ming Hui’s parents weren’t in the same room. He had a chocolate bar and an invitation to go out for an hour or two, anywhere except their homes.
“Just curious, but why didn’t you tell me?” Shang Kai asked, popping open a canned drink from the community centre’s vending machine. “Too private?”
“Other people have worse things to deal with.”
“You’re thinking about me, aren’t you?” Shang Kai scowled, the first time Ming Hui had seen such an expression on him. “The things you go through are valid, alright?”
Just like now, Shang Kai had stayed.
Exams were no fun. On the day they were finally done with the last paper, Ming Hui had gone to the food court to meet Shang Kai.
“I’m going to fail everything,” Ming Hui said miserably.
“You’re going to get top marks and pass with flying colours,” Shang Kai said, picking up his cutlery to start demolishing his chicken rice.
“But that’s not going to happen.”
Shang Kai stabbed a piece of chicken with his fork and looked up, eyes narrowed “That. Doesn’t. Matter. Anymore. Eat your noodles before they get cold.”
If the exams had been bad, the results day had been the worst thing he had ever experienced.
Ming Hui had planned to go to sleep and try to forget about everything. He’d hoped he would be left alone but soon enough, someone outside the gate rang the doorbell.
The local orchestra had long finished their rehearsal at the community centre and the canteen was deserted. Shang Kai got two cans of a malt chocolate drink from the vending machine and led them over to sit on a bench, allowing Ming Hui to lean against him.
If Ming Hui couldn’t say anything to Shang Kai, who else was there? It had been established long ago there was no one else who came close.
Ming Hui still hated how weak his voice sounded when he finally said, “I’m not like my sister.”
“Well,” Shang Kai said slowly, “I do know your sister would be a different person from you, so you might need to be more specific.”
Ming Hui thought of Shang Kai, who stayed back in the school canteen to finish as much homework as possible. He’d watched his friend stare down an entire chapter of maths questions—he really hadn’t had time to finish—with only one day left before the due date.
“There’s all these subjects and I didn’t get straight distinctions but I can’t be upset because it’s my fault and I’m so ungrate—”
Shang Kai slammed a can in front of him. “Open your drink now. We’re celebrating.”
“Revel me this, but what is there to celebrate?” Despite still blinking away tears, he managed to crack the can open.
“We’re celebrating my okay results and your actually amazing ones.” Shang Kai grabbed Ming Hui’s hand, anchoring him in their worlds that constantly twisted and revolved. His gaze was steely and unwavering when their eyes met. “It’s worth it, you fool.”
“Making it this far, and whatever that will come later.” Shang Kai’s eyes burned bright, like a spyglass catching the sun.
Ming Hui wanted to believe that.
He wondered if he could.
They clinked their cans together even though Shang Kai mostly did the moving. In the silence that followed, Ming Hui rested his head against Shang Kai’s shoulder, a place reserved only for him. He closed his eyes and waited for everything to come to a standstill.
Written by: Zhen Yi