It did not matter how much Sae thought about it now, he would not change what he did. Or more precisely, what he did not do.
In the first place, that fight seemed two-sided. There was no place for a third party to intervene. Besides, it did not look like anyone needed help.
Sae was fundamentally not a nosy or meddlesome person. There was no reason to do anything about this incident, even though he had personally witnessed it. Moreover, even though he had walked away, someone eventually called the police.
In all truthfulness, what he had seen that night did not leave a deep impression. It didn't cross Sae's mind, not once, and after the passing of weeks he had almost forgotten all about it. Even when all the school could talk about was the fight that forced Shum Deil to transfer, in Sae's mind, the two never made a connection.
But today he saw the boy, and he got asked Where the fuck do I know you from?
That meant that – however involuntarily – their meeting took up some small, subconscious part of Shum Deil's mind. If Shum Deil did not give up trying to find out where they had met, not to mention further run-ins in school were inevitable, sooner or later the situation was bound to become troublesome for Sae.
Lazing on the sofa, Sae stared up at the grey ceiling, feeling the whispers of an oncoming headache. He remained in that position until, at ten past seven, his mum arrived, umbrella and a stuffed paper bag in hand. Drops of water slid towards the umbrella’s tip, drip-dropping on the floor.
"Look who I ran into outside the door," she said as a greeting. A young girl peeked from behind her. Sae’s mum continued, "I was just about to say we should invite Emi over for dinner, and then she was right in front of my eyes!"
inside the front door and Sae went to help with the bag. Delicious scents
wafted from the styrofoam containers in it. His mother smiled at him, handing
the bag over.
She usually only cooked once or twice every other week, while most of the food they ate came from the restaurant she worked at. Sae did not mind. The food at the restaurant was rather tasty.
Manager Hoh and Emi went to the bathroom to unload their umbrellas and wash their hands.
In the kitchen, Sae put plates and the like on the table. At one end of it a microwave sat beside a jar of tea with glasses on a shiny tray. A woven basket box full of vitamins and supplements sat atop the microwave. Before Sae's hand touched any of the glasses, Emi ran over and snatched one to pour herself some tea. She treated the place as her own home.
Sae’s mum came
in and put the envelopes filled with bills next to the woven basket. She heaved
a sigh before sitting down.
"Sweetheart, slow down," she said to Emi, "Are you in a hurry?"
The girl gulped before replying, "No. I'm just really thirsty."
Manager Hoh hummed. "Was club tiring?"
Club: as in the track club. The one that’s training Emi skipped today.
Hearing the question, Sae smirked at Emi with raised eyebrows.
The girl coughed a bit before saying, "It was... manageable." She put the now empty glass down, grabbed another one and filled it with water. She placed it before Manager Hoh to divert the attention.
The woman gave a warm smile. "Thank you, sweetheart."
The little girl smirked back at Sae, and went to sit next to him.
His mum asked, "What time is your mother coming back this week?"
"Saturday morning. She'll stay three days this time." Emi beamed with delight, obviously excited. Manager Hoh shared the girl’s joy, the corners of her mouth on the rise once again. She placed food on the children's plates, and the three of them started to eat.
They chatted intermittently, but none of Manager Hoh's inquiries were burdensome. Perhaps it came from her job, perhaps it was a personal skill, but the woman knew exactly when to probe and when to back off so the conversation's flow never ebbed, remaining easy and light at all times. She was naturally an attentive person and had a lot of experience dealing with people. The little girl had a harmonious meal with the two of them.
Ever since her mother started working in another region of the country, Emi had spent most of her weekdays at Hoh’s house. Of course, she went home to sleep and study and whatnot, but in the remaining times, she frequented Sae’s house as much as she did her own. Even prior to this arrangement, she had been around just as much.
dinner, Sae’s mum shooed the kids away while she prepared a plate of fruit in
the kitchen. The little girl followed Sae into his room. He kicked the door
closed with his foot, then collapsed on his bed.
Emi asked, "Where's my bag?"
"Next to the dresser." Sae's voice sounded muffled by the pillows. He turned his head to the side and watched Emi pull at the bag's strap.
"Thank you, thank you!"
"Didn't mum realise that you don't have the sports bag with you?"
Emi thought about it. "We could say that I stepped out for something from home and we met as I was coming back." She sat on Sae's desk chair and swivelled around to face the bed. The little girl crossed her legs and put them on Sae's lower back. In response, he swatted at her foot but missed.
Emi poked him. "Did you see the new guy? How does he look? The girls and I tried walking around the third floor to catch a glimpse without any success."
At school, different areas and buildings were designated for each year of classes. Since Emi belonged to a class two years below the seniors, most of her classes were on the first floor.
Hearing this topic of conversation, Sae let go of a heavy sigh. He thought back to his exchange with Shum Deil and felt the headache coming back.
Sae grumbled, "Honestly, could anyone talk about something else? No matter where I turn my head, all I hear is the new guy, Shum Deil, the transfer kid. I'm sick and tired of it."
Emi was slightly taken aback. It had been a while since she heard Sae voice his dissatisfaction this strong about... anything. "What is your problem now?"
"Nothing," Sae continued to sulk, which made Emi laugh. This type of behaviour was uncharacteristic.
"Okay,” she said, “I heard he's quite scary in person but really cool."
Sae snickered and plopped onto his back. "Even a puffed up chicken is cool now?"
"What was that?"
"Nothing." Sae mumbled, turning his head to the side.
The little girl stared at him but could not pinpoint exactly what was different about him. Thus, she pulled out her phone to fiddle with, giving up on the impossible.
Sae did not say anything more and a comfortable quiet blanketed the room. After all the food, he felt full and lazy, up until Emi's broach of the topic. But when the only noise in the room remained the tapping of the little girl's nails on her phone, his mood went back to that cosy state.
When his mum called for them to come out and eat, Sae was on the verge of falling asleep. He sent Emi out and remained motionless on his bed.
Half an hour later Sae heard Emi hollering bye from the front door.
Not long after, his mother visited his room. Sae was checking out M High’s courses. On the laptop screen, the school’s liberal arts program presented possibilities for further training in art. Sae snapped the laptop shut the moment he saw his mum.
“Still dozing off?” His mother looked at him and sat on the side of the bed. The mattress dipped under her weight, and she ran a hand over the duvet. "Your head teacher called me today."
Sae hummed in agreement. No surprise there.
In a low voice, his mother asked, "Do you really want to go to M High School?" She was a straightforward person who believed in propriety. When something unexpected happened, she first waited, thinking things through, then addressed the problem by asking questions. She said things as they were and she valued honesty above all else.
Sae stilled her mother's hand and sat up properly. "Mum, what the teacher said wasn't for me. He only wants to boost the school's fame by sending kids to prestigious high schools. He doesn't actually care."
His mother's face was mild. "After the call, I realised that I never sat down to ask you about what you want. It was such an obvious choice to stay in the district. M High is a decent school, has a nice environment and many of the neighbourhood kids will continue their studies there. Maybe, I was wrong.” She sighed. “I never intended––"
Sae stopped her. "Mum. I don't want anything in particular. If I had other ideas, I would have told you already. At M High, even if I don't get a scholarship, the tuition won't be that harsh. What those other schools ask for... it's unreasonable. I wouldn't feel alright with it." His usually solemn eyes were very transparent, full of openness and honesty. "Besides, you know how lazy I am. I don't want to make a fuss with the entrance exams."
His mum looked
at him with rap attention. She knew that her son wasn't truly lazy. A
quick-witted boy ever since a young age, she knew he had a great deal of
consideration towards her. Others often said his temperament was nothing good,
but that was only the disposition inherent to growing up and living just the
two of them.
Sae was actually a very good child with a sweet heart, very studious for her and his own sake.
As she looked on she wondered, just when did her little boy grow up so much.
Sae finished talking and she nodded with a smile. "Good. I started to doubt if your temper softened until you became timid. But that couldn't be right." Sae’s mum played the part of a grumbling parent, but in reality, Sae hardly ever gave her trouble.
A well-practised, almost theatrical sigh followed. "So it was laziness all along. There's nothing to worry about then." She touched his head and then stood up, moving to the door. "If you don't want any fruit, put it in the fridge and eat it later. I have to head back to check everything before closing."
Sae nodded, slumping back to the headboard.
His mum warned, "Don't stay up too late reading again."
Sae leaned back all the way and hummed in agreement.
That night he slept well, with hardly any thoughts circling his head before he fell asleep. He did not dream of anything in particular.