"One bowl of beef stew for here and one beef fried rice to take away, please." Deil blew into his hands and sat down.
The not-quite-yet middle-aged owner of the little restaurant eyed him, dissatisfied, "Will someone join you?"
Deil shook his
head. He came to this place plenty enough, and without fail, every time got
asked this same question. The answer was the same as always, It’s just me.
Exactly for this reason, Deil sat at one of the smaller tables on the side where bigger crowds never ventured.
The owner put a cup and a glass pitcher of water on his table. She sighed before walking away, all the while shaking her head. She probably thought, Wasn’t it sad for a little boy to eat dinner alone every other night outside? The owner looked to have kids of her own so seeing loitering teens made her heart ache.
Though she made pitying eyes at him, Deil was unaffected. He pulled his phone out while waiting for the food to arrive. His father texted him earlier, saying he'd be having dinner with colleagues from the university. They recently started working on a joined experiment with some other school, so these after work discussions were of much importance.
Or so his father said. In reality, it counted more like indulging in liquor into the night.
Deil understood it in some parts. Like how his father, as a distinguished professor teaching for more than ten years at the university, was hardly obligated to attend every single work dinner. How, regardless of this, his father still rather went along than try to tame his unruly son, who only gave him migraines and scares for a lifetime.
At this point, it seemed his father truly gave up on him. The man tried everything he could think of to keep his son in check, but nothing ever worked. As an educated and meticulous person, he understood the root of the problem but could do nothing to alleviate it.
The last time he got called in by the police, seeing the injuries his son had suffered, figuring the implications they carried within, the man almost kneeled down on the floor. Shame engulfed him up to his head. It was a billboard projection of how much of a failure he had become as a father. It was a matter of pride too, but it hurt so much more in deeper layers, heaping together to corrode and torture the relationship between father and son.
Following that day, Deil's dad distanced himself from the issue. It went without saying: the issue basically amounted to his son.
While Deil was
playing on his phone, a call came in. He dismissed it without batting an eye
and continued his game, close to making it to the next level. The phone started
buzzing again, a notification box occupying one-fifth at the top of the screen.
It muddled Deil's concentration, and soon he lost the game. Agitated with this
outcome, he jabbed at the accept icon flashing on the phone’s screen.
"What?" His voice carried his irate mood.
Laughter came from the other end of the call, followed by a scraping noise and the rumbles of engines.
The person on the line drawled, "Deil, my dear friend, you coming to play?"
Deil recognised the voice at once. It belonged to Little Mo, one of his street buddies who liked to follow him around and brag about how crazy this brother was in fights.
In reality, they were far from being friends. More like acquaintances of poor life choices. Most of the time the kid called, it was an invitation for a brawl – kind of a bribe – to stand next to him in fights that were mostly devoid of integrity or winning rate, cursed from the get go.
pressing a hand to his side, laughter spilt from Deil's lips, laced with a
sinister edge. He did not have the mentality to fight now, and wasn't so stupid
as to intentionally send himself to the hospital.
"I'm eating." He hummed, his emotions flitting one right after the other.
"Eat later!" The person on the other end of the call scoffed. "This brother will buy you a whole buffet cart to eat once we're finished. Sounds good, right?"
"Fuck off! I'm not moving." Deil bent his leg to balance an ankle on his other knee. He sneered, half-joking. "Only called to irk me with useless questions?"
"I'm not that stupid! I wouldn't dare," Little Mo said, then hesitated. He was distressed in his heart, actually at his wit’s end on how to approach the next subject. "My brother said the high schoolers you got tangled up with just a little while ago, Lennox and the lot... They go to the same school as my brother.”
listening, Deil took the water pitcher and poured some into a little cup,
taking a sip.
Little Mo continued, “He said they had friends in H Middle School. Said, they were looking for the kid who called the cops.”
Hearing the information, Deil’s hand momentarily stilled. It was true that Little Mo's elder brother, whom everyone just called Monori, went to the same high school those boys were attending. Deil heard it all at the police station.
The line cracked a few times like the reception got wobbly. “They saw –– someone close –– kept watch –– probably –– good terms –– with you." Deil heard the boy nervously sniffle on the other end. "Is that... true?"
"Pfft. Am I insane? Why would I call the cops on my own ass?" Deil put the now empty cup on the table. "They are more simple than I initially thought."
The young male voice on the other end sounded confused. "If you didn't get someone to call the police, then who did? I mean, it was you versus the four of them. They're older, too.” Little Mo lowered his voice at the end of the sentence. “It's nothing to feel ashamed about..."
A bout of laughter spilt from Deil's throat. He almost choked on the remaining water in his mouth. "Whoever feels shame is a dog, not me. I don't have anything to feel ashamed for."
"But... I heard they kind of figured out who that person is."
Skimming his finger over the cup’s rim, Deil listened, quite amused. It had been a long time since he heard such a good joke. He didn't ask further.
"You don't care?" asked Little Mo.
"Should I?" Deil replied, relaxed.
"It's not my business to decide that. If you're really not close to that person…” Little Mo sighed. “You must know that if they truly get into it... I hope that kid can stand his ground. I kinda pity the loser."
Gradually, and to Little Mo’s compassionate nagging, Deil swallowed the bitter pill and grunted, "They have one specific person in mind?"
"From what I've gathered, yes. Is there someone who's around you a lot?" Little Mo probably got farther from the phone as his voice weaved together with other noises. "It hasn’t been long since you transferred; I bet there must be kids lining up to kiss your ass."
"Utter nonsense." The look in Deil's eyes darkened. Unfortunately, he had an idea whom those thugs had their eyes on. Granted, there were not a lot of people he associated with in his new school. It wasn't that big of a riddle. He felt the need to clarify. "Listen. I don't have anyone backing me up, or calling the police for me. I don't know what those high school losers smoke to get so high up on their asses––"
The shop owner returned with a tray and put dishes in front of him. She was about to leave when Deil held the phone away from his ear and said, "Lady, I didn't order these."
Aside from the stew, there were two smaller plates with vegetables as side dishes and an extra portion of rice. The owner sent him a look of feigned displeasure. "What? Afraid to pay more?" She tutted. "You're so skinny it hurts my eyes."
The owner of the little shop was a very warm-hearted woman. She waved a hand in lieu of keeping up her act. "It's on the house. Eat and then go home. It's too cold outside."
Deil flashed her his sweet smile, the one he knew his mother loved. He figured middle-aged ladies must be similar in the matters of getting charmed. Anyhow, he was half right, and the woman turned away while shaking her head in exasperation. But she was smiling.
"Are you still there?" Little Mo asked on the other end of the line.
"Yes." Deil stirred his spoon in the bowl of steaming stew. "Don't go around talking shit, ok? Tell your brother thanks for the concern, but it's unneeded."
There was silence on the line. Little Mo was close to blowing up with anger, but reined in his emotions. "Yeah."
They chatted a bit more before ending the call. Later, Deil ate in a somewhat confused state, trying to pry apart the emotions in his chest to no avail. After paying for the food, he said goodbye to the owner in particular and left.
When Deil arrived home, his father was still out; not much to his surprise. In the previous weeks, father and son barely saw each other and talked even less.
Deil put the fried rice in the refrigerator for tomorrow's breakfast. He took a shower and then flopped onto his bed to play games on his phone.
In the middle of gaming, he couldn't take it anymore. After exiting the game, he searched H Junior High’s private forum. A lot of content flooded his eyes. Going from there, he looked over his classmates' social network accounts. Seeing the interactions and pictures, shared 'status updates' and overtagging, it was like all the kids in the neighbourhood had known each other since birth.
Deil did not have long lasting friends. He didn't learn the familiarity and closeness of knowing the same set of people for years and years. However much he delved into the kids' online life, he did not find what he was looking for. Then, as he was about to toss the phone away, his thumb stopped scrolling.
Deil stared at a picture of a group of kids. His mouth thinned out and moved askew to one side of his face. He looked so long at the picture that his eyes became blurry, and he felt his pulse at the side of his neck.
Deil locked the screen and cussed under his breath. He buried his face into his arms and wanted nothing more than to not be awake, yet, he still couldn’t fall asleep.
After a while, the tossed away phone chimed with an incoming call. Deil looked at the screen and let it ring for a while. Staring at the ceiling, he waited for the room to quiet down. A few minutes later, the phone resumed its ringing. Deil grabbed his head, jamming his forefingers into his ears to shut down the sound. His breathing sped up, and stuffiness diffused his chest, pressing down.
In thirty minutes, his phone rang with six incoming calls. Every time it rang, he glanced at the screen as if the title would magically change to something else. Deil stared at the ceiling until he felt dizzy, then closed his eyes.
At midnight, the front door opened. Closed with a clap.
Deil got up and left his room to greet his father. The professor was a charismatic, clean-cut man. Deil's face took after him to six or seven parts, while he wasn't sure what kind of face the other parts represented. Maybe his grandparents.
"Oh, you're awake," the professor said when he saw him. The lamp was off – he didn't bother to switch it on – and the light coming from Deil's doorway weaved around the teenager like a halo. The professor put his coat on a hanger and changed his shoes. Cold air and the stench of roasted meat mingling with cigarette smoke stirred in the air. His brief bag was left at the entrance.
"Hope it wasn't me that woke you up." The man shrugged out of his suit jacket and went to wash his hands without further chit-chat.
Deil watched his father navigate the house in the semi-darkness. He wanted to say something but his mouth would not move for the world.
The professor left the bathroom and went to the kitchen to have a drink. Seeing the take out box in the fridge, he asked, "Have you eaten? It's quite late." It wasn’t that he no longer cared about his son, because he did, he just didn't know how to handle the child anymore.
"Yes." This was the first sentence Deil said to his father in two days. And it consisted of only one word.
His father slumped into a chair, squeezing a two litre bottle of water in his hands. Looking weary and tired, he sighed and told his son, "I spoke to your mother today. She said she wishes to talk to you." The professor gulped down some water before continuing, "You should answer your phone."
Deil said nothing
about the matter. He stood next to the corner for a while and waited until his
fists uncoiled before shuffling some steps closer.
"Dad, I––" He paused and changed his mind. Backtracking his words, Deil swerved them in another direction. "I need money to buy the sports uniform."
His father truly had the countenance of an intellectual, straight brows and deep eyes. An air of calmness bound his features most of the time, but at the moment, a bit of a silly expression descended on the panes of his weathered face. "You can't participate yet. The doctor clearly stated––"
"I know, but I wanted to buy it beforehand."
His father hummed, then stood to put the water back. As he passed his son on the way to his room, he stopped next to Deil and asked in a low voice, "Are you feeling better?" The question was way heavier than how it sounded. His father first looked at Deil's side; then raised his eyes to see the boy's face.
Deil nodded and after a slight pause his father patted his shoulder before going into his bedroom.
Deil felt the ghost of the warm palm on his shoulder while his fist squeezed tight once again. He went back to his room and stared at the deep aquamarine shadows shifting along his ceiling.
Taking his phone, he flipped through the pictures in its gallery – stopping at a recently downloaded one. He stared at the picture until the pressure on his chest eased; until his eyes felt heavy enough to close on their own accord.