A boy meets a girl he always knew of, but never knew and his life changes forever.


1. The First Day


                        It was a Thursday. I remember this because that particular Thursday, I was so sure my life had changed.


            That morning, I woke up, as always, late for school. And when I say late, what I really mean is that I didn’t have the luxury of booting up in the hot shower if I wanted to catch the bus to school on time.


 I jumped out of bed at the sound of the alarm clock snoozing away into infinity, swung an arm over to stop it from ringing, and found myself showering and dressing up and packing my larger-than-life backpack faster than logically possible. My limbs, moving faster than ever, knocking over anything I didn’t need. If I were to compare how long it took my brain to start functioning on a normal weekend, and how fast it was that Thursday morning, well, let’s just say the difference was momentous.


            I made my way towards the door and the moment I my hand reached the knob, I knew something was wrong. I’d forgotten something and I knew that it was something way too important to leave the house without remembering. I went through a list I’d memorized in my mind; I had Math, Physics and English every Thursday. I checked my bag, and yes, I’d packed all of those books. So what in the world was missing then?


           I took one long glance over everything in the room from the door. I didn’t need a very good vantage point, the room was after all, rather small and I could see everything except inside the cupboards. I pulled out my mobile phone from my pocket and checked the date; and it hit me. It was the school’s annual Sports Day. Which meant, no classes. Which, in turn, meant that I didn’t need to bring any books with me. I threw my tiny-human-sized backpack on the floor and grabbed a smaller one, stuffed it with sports attires and sprinted out the house just in the nick of time to get on the bus. I waved hello at the driver and he gave me a grin.


“Late as always, young man.”

“Same ol’, same ol’, old man,” I muttered rapidly.


           I walked down the aisle of the shorter than average bus, still moving fast with the adrenaline rushing through my veins, maneuvering through bags and stray feet and gum on the floor till I got to my usual seat near the back. It took me a while to catch my breath and before I knew it, I was sweating like a marathoner approaching his halfway point. I silently thanked past me for forgetting about Sport’s Day because now at least I had a change of clothing once I got to school. And then I silently scolded past me for forgetting about Sport’s Day because otherwise I wouldn’t have had to rush at all in the first place.


            I arrived 15 minutes before the first bell rang, which gave me time to change out of my sweat-soaked uniform into a jersey with the word RUN! printed on the back in an arc. I walked briskly to the canteen and quickly scanned the area, looking for a particular familiar face but he wasn’t there. Just as I gave up searching, I felt a tap on my right and angled my neck towards that direction but didn’t see anyone. I looked to my left and found him.

“Oldest trick in the book, Derek. Still gets you every time.”

“Oh, shut up, Jim.”

“Ahh, biasa lah tu.”

Which meant ‘As always’, in Malay.  Hakhim always preferred to be called Jim. He found it easier to identify with. He used to introduce himself to new people (Jim never found strangers as strange, just, yet to be known. And so he referred to them as new people instead) as Hakhim and nine times out ten the response would be ‘Sorry?’ or ‘What?’ or ‘Pardon?’ And that was when he decided to use Jim instead, out of pure consideration for strangers. How nice of him.


            We chatted about video games and some random stuff I can no longer recall as we made our way to class. That was the thing about Jim, talking to him was often so easy that it required almost zero brain power and therefore I wouldn’t be able to remember anything we said after an hour or so. Which was good, because I sucked terribly at conversations that demanded any intellectual input. I usually take conversations too seriously and try not to say anything stupid, and because of that, I spend time constructing perfect sentences in my head and usually by the time I’m done making these sentences, the moment would be over and there would just be a cloud of awkward silence raining down between me and the other person.


           The moment we took our seats, his cousin Natalia came over and apparently had an urgent matter to discuss with Jim. Partly due to the fact that he didn’t want to get off his big ass to talk to her, he said, “Hey. Kau nak cakap apa ngan aku, you boleh cakap ngan Derek juga,” which meant that if she wanted to talk to Jim about something, she could talk to me about it too. I put both my hands up as if surrendering, trying to let her know that whatever it was she wanted to talk about, I definitely did not want to hear unless it involved me personally.


As far as I knew, the conversations between them were often held in their native tongue, which I can only understand if it was spoken at a speed 3 times slower than usual. Otherwise, it sounded like a totally different language. So it really didn’t matter if I was there or not, I probably wouldn’t be able to catch anything at all.


            Natalia gave up and started talking right there as Jim let out a sigh so big, as if he had found out he’d gotten an A minus on a Physics test. I could hear the frustration in Natalia’s tone but I could not make out the words she was saying. After about five minutes of nodding and muttering, ‘Ya, ya,’ it was finally over. Natalia left for her own class, two doors down the block.


‘Apa hal? (What’s the matter?)’, I asked.

‘Oh, nothing. Bising je. (Just noise)’


            As we sat dreadfully waiting for an announcement of some sort, we fell back into the meaningless, effortless conversation. And then, all of a sudden we heard, “ALL STUDENTS, I REPEAT. ALL STUDENTS, THIS IS MRS. LIM SPEAKING. I REPEAT. THIS IS MRS. LIM SPEAKING. YOU ARE ALL TO LINE UP OUTSIDE YOUR CLASSROOMS AND WALK TO THE FIELD IN A STRAIGHT LINE. I REPEAT. YOU ARE ALL TO LINE UP OUTSIDE YOUR…” That was all we could hear. The rest of the speech was drowned out by the sounds of cheer and the dragging of chairs against the floors as the students of the entire school rushed to the field, not in single file but more like single swarm. The prefects were as always, useless in crowd control. They were, after all, one of us. They just had to look like they were ‘trying’ to do their jobs when a teacher was in sight. All other times, they were the ones raising hell.


            We arrived at the field, all ready to watch kids (as we call them, even if they were older than us) run around and jumping over fences and stuff. Jim and I placed bets over who would come in last or crash into the most hurdles because the winners were always predictable; the skinniest or tallest usually came in first. However, in our town, kids these days were mostly overweight, like in the case of Jim. Hence the school had an abundance of fat kids and a rarity of athletic ones. And because there had to be a representative from each of the four houses for each event, there was bound to be events in which there were at least 2 or more non-athletic kids.


“Hey Jim, I gotta go get ready. Duty starts right after this event.”

“Okay bro. See you later. Don’t fall into a hole again okay (long story, maybe some other time)?”

“Heh. Don’t worry about me smartass. Alright. Pergi dulu (Which literally translates to ‘Go first’, but is often used to say goodbye.)”


            About a year ago, a bunch of my classmates and Natalia’s went missing for a full week from school. Apparently, they were chosen to do some work at a stadium. They were promised some cash, transportation, a certificate of gratitude and whatnot. But the part that attracted them most was the skipping school for a whole week part.


           They came back, true enough, only after skipping a whole week’s worth of classes, tanned as a foreign worker and sun-burnt till they were on the brink of being classified as toasted. Turns out, they were slaving away at an athletic meet between several schools in the district. The boys were the muscles, carrying stuff around, whereas the girls did paperwork and all the other less physical things.


            I’m not gonna lie, when I found out I could actually ask for an opportunity like this, I screamed with joy like a little girl. I ran up to the teacher in charge, put my name and contact details down and right there and then, I had become a part of the skip-school-for-a-whole-week-once-a-year club. Nobody told me we had to slave around during Sports Day too until much later, but I was okay with that.


            This would be my first time being on duty in school and it seemed pretty interesting for the first half an hour or so. During my shift, we set up the field with goals and cones to get a couple of sort-of-like handball courts going on and then just sat down and watched them play. Watching was fun, but really, there wasn’t much to do, and no one to bet with. One good thing though, was that we were given freedom to walk around the entire field and the badminton and basketball courts or even the canteen if there wasn’t any work to do. But we had to ‘stay close’, whatever that meant.


            After lifting metal from one place to another with a whole gang of other guys, we all decided to take a break and get drinks at the canteen. And then we walked around until there really wasn’t anywhere else to go. I separated myself from the group and walked away after a while and sat down just a little ways away from the handball games to take a break, only realizing then how exhausted I was from just carrying stuff from one point to another. My skinny arms were of course, in no way, used to the amount of punishment it received today.


The spot I chose was near perfect; it was close enough that I could see both games happening at once and yet far enough so that the screaming cheers from the students up on the benches sounded like background music to a movie. It also wasn’t a place people usually walked pass, and that was good, I guess, because I wasn’t really in the mood for talking.


            I enjoyed the serenity of that spot for exactly three and a half seconds before someone nudged my shoulder on the right. I turned, and once again, there wasn’t anyone there. I made a quick mental note to remind myself never to look in the direction of the nudge ever again. I looked the other way, ready to unleash my wrath on Jim for pulling the lamest trick in the world on me twice in one day only to discover it wasn’t him.

She let out a small giggle, obviously amused at my falling for her trick.


“Oldest trick…”

“…in the book. Yeah. I’m aware.”


            All at once, the smile on her face disappeared; as if the words I’d said killed her pet goldfish or something. Her face was expressionless, emotionless. It occurred to me that she might’ve been upset at something. But I thought, if there wasn’t an expression on her face, why would I think she was sad? I recognized the face though; I just didn’t remember the name.


“Is this seat taken?” she asked.

“Well, my butt is only so big.”

“Heh. Thanks. Hello, Derek.”

“Hi there... erm…”

“You don’t know my name, do you?”

“Don’t be silly. Of course I…umm… Nope. Sorry. No clue.”

“That’s alright. I’m Gwen. The name’s Gwendlyn, but I prefer just Gwen.”

“Alright then. Whatever you say, Just Gwen.”

“Har har har. Very funny of you.”


            We started talking and I made an effort to show her how tired I was and that I wasn’t really up for a long conversation but eventually though, I gave in. The things she said to me were, well, meaningless at first. She talked about the games that were happening, how they make us carry stuff around because the teachers are too damn lazy to do it by themselves and even how many pets she had (she did not, in fact, own any goldfish).

           I soon began to pay more attention to her. Her tone changed considerably and it was apparent that she was talking about something more serious than the amount of prawns in the noodles they served in the canteen. It was the way she talked that enticed me. There was just something about this girl, Gwen, I thought. It was as if she reminded me of someone I knew, it was a familiar feeling. As if I’d known her all my life. And true enough, I did know her. Well, not know her. Just know. I knew she existed; I just never bothered to find out her name.


           But now, the things that she was telling me, about how she thought school was just like a factory attempting to produce ‘perfect’ students who score straight A’s and can devour and vomit ‘knowledge’ from a text book on cue.


“It’s all just so superficial and superfluous and super-drives-me-crazy,” she said.


           Was it the name? No. I kept thinking about her as she spoke. I noticed the slight spark in her eyes as she talked so passionately about the topic. I noticed how her breathing became tenser as she proved her point with fact after fact after fact trying to convince me that what she was saying had substance and it wasn’t just some random thought she had over breakfast. There was a certain kind of dedication in her voice, and I could hear it, feel it, so clearly.


           This girl, Gwen, she was amazing, I thought. I envied her passion, and I wished I could believe in something the way she believed in this. I wondered if she was this enthusiastic about any other thing or if it was just this particular subject that intrigued her so deeply. I also couldn’t help but notice how beautiful she was. Her hair; gosh, her hair. It looked as if it could catch fire as the sunlight bounced off it. And that smile that would pop up every time she saw me nodding and having the oh-my-god-that-is-so-true look on my face; it was such a beautiful smile that I still have both dreams and nightmares of it since then. She just looked incredible, sitting there with her legs crossed and her arms flying around the air as if fighting invisible creatures.


           And I had to agree, I never thought of it that way, the whole idea of school being a somewhat poorly built factory with lots of failed products and very few perfect ones. Partly because I, on one hand, am a complete dumbass, wherein I fail at almost every subject, all the time, up until finals, which I only barely skim through. It only works if I stay up the entire night pre-exam scuba-diving in an ocean of textbooks, which makes me a ‘failed’ product. On the other hand, you get people like Jim a.k.a. the perfect product, who can excel effortlessly and still have time to nap 2 hours in the afternoons every afternoon and play video games all night.


           But what she said did click, and it occurred to me that it wasn’t the teachers who were doing this to us, it was the government. The ministry of education is trying so hard to produce ‘A students’ so that these students can one day become businessmen or scientists or lawyers or doctors and bring profit to the country; which technically makes it a business strategy then. And then I thought, so we’re all just pawns in this screwed up game of Monopoly? Seriously? Are we all just assets and liabilities to the people who run the country we live in? Is our only purpose as citizens of a country to make money and then spend it? That didn't seem right. It seemed, too simple, too plastic, too fake.


            She switched gears before I could make up my response and give her my opinion on the matter. She started to talk about her life, and all the things she’d been through up till this day. And gosh, did she have some sob stories. She told me about how she came to live with a rich family with no kids when her dad gave her away for a meager amount of money when she was just three years old. When she found out about this, she’d confronted her fake dad and demanded to see her real one. It didn’t happen. And from then on, life just sort of started spinning manically and hasn’t stopped since. She often wondered if it was her fault, if she was the cause behind her original family falling apart.


           After going on for a while, it seemed as if she was going to start to tear a little and that was when I knew I had to say something. Anything at all to make her not feel so crappy, although I barely even knew this girl and I thought she obviously had issues if she were to come up to a total stranger like me and start spilling her life’s stories. And so, I did what any dumbass would’ve done; I started to compare her sob stories with mine, trying to make her feel as if she didn’t really have it that bad. I obviously lost in the who’s-life-sucked-more contest, but given the circumstances, I allowed myself a little lie here and there, arranged my sentences to make them seem slightly more sob-ish. I tweaked the facts a little bit to make them seem slightly comedic too and well, it worked wonders.


            She caught the hint that I was trying to make her feel better and we ended up going back and forth, raising our voices with each response and growing more and more animated about the debate. Time passed and eventually, when there was nothing left to say, I agreed that she did have it worse, but it was partly because she couldn’t see the brighter side of it. I realize now that that probably wasn’t a very smart thing of me to say. There was a moment of pure silence. And then suddenly, we started laughing.


           I’m not sure what happened, but she started to laugh this incredibly contagious laugh. It sort of sounded like the kind of laugh you’d hear from a little baby who has had taken a gigantic spoonful of sugar at once. And I had no choice but to follow suit. I didn’t even know what was funny but she was laughing and at that moment she looked so adorably cute and I couldn’t help but smile and just that act of making an arc with my lips led to a grin which then led on to a laugh which lasted for a whole minute. By the end of it, my stomach was aching from pure laughter and I wondered if people could build abs from just laughing.


‘Thanks for this, Derek. You have no idea how much I needed it,’ and she hugged me.

I had no idea what was going on. She was about a foot shorter than I was, and so when she leaned in, she had both her arms just around my ribcage. I could feel her on me, her entire body, the warmth of it and all. It felt strange. But it also felt strangely good. I don’t get a lot of hugs. Unless man hugs (which are really just half hugs since you only put one arm around the guy and the other in a sort of handshake position) counted. But this was different. I put my arms awkwardly around her shoulders and on her back, trying my best not to touch her in a weird way. Before my hands reached each other, she broke away and she wiped a tear from her eye as she turned around, smiled, inhaled, and walked away.


           That little event involved and had lead to many firsts. For instance, that was the first time I had an actual conversation with Gwen. It was also the first time a girl hugged me and the first time I hugged a girl who was not related to me. It was also the first time I had felt so much feeling for a single person whilst having our first conversation. And it was the first time I could swear I was in love.


           Two seconds after she turned a corner and went out of my sight, I found my heart beating at a pace it had never beat before. It was as if this girl had just barged into my life and changed it forever. I wasn’t even sure if it was love I was feeling. After all, what is love anyways? But it did feel different. Unlike anything I’ve ever felt for another person before. The emotional bond I’d formed with this strange girl over the past 20 minutes was so overwhelming; I couldn’t stop replaying that conversation in my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about her sweet voice, her flower-scented hair, the soft touch of her skin. I fell in love with her the way you fall asleep. Slowly, and then all at once.







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