Chapter 2:

Teenage (2)

Gifted Education Project (GEP)

I’d like to think that I’m a skeptical person — not to the extent where I lived vicariously through anti-vax conspiracy nuts, but just enough that I’ve never been the victim of a scam.

Whenever I’d meet ‘girls’ online, I’d always ask for their social media before investing emotionally. Back in my Catholic elementary school, I figured out I could just keep my eyes open during prayer since no one else was looking. When I got confessed to by a girl in my class last Valentine’s, I pretended to be deaf. The last I heard was that she transferred schools.

Suffice to say, I was pretty good at sniffing out sus. That’s exactly why as I sat in the hospital ward doing research on National Affiliated High School, the only thing I felt was confusion.

On one hand, the school definitely existed — not just because the government said so, but because there was a living trail of people who attested to its existence. There was a long list of famous alumni that mostly consisted of pop stars, Olympians, startup CEOs and even the current badminton world champion. All of them had gone to great lengths to praise the school in public. I wondered why there were no politicians, but since the school was only 7 years old, that put the oldest graduate at 23 — hardly an age where you could get into politics.

On the other hand, lots of things were blatantly suspicious. Image searches returned nothing but the advertising materials, which was strange, because you’d think a bunch of teens on 6-figure scholarships would be jerking themselves off non-stop on Instagram or (((that app))). Even the idea that a 80-hectare campus would have zero shots of its interior leak out was insane if you considered the amount of staff they’d need to employ.


The weirdest part, however, was that the school’s enrolment criteria was based on a selection test that had zero information anywhere as to what was on it. You couldn’t find any sources for this from official channels or even exam discussion forums, because apparently, no one ever sat for the test and talked about it afterwards.

And for some reason, Shelly is certain I will get in.

“You’ve been staring at your phone and making weird noises all afternoon.”


“Come on, Darren. Tell me what’s wrong.”

A long time ago, I might have described that voice as soothing. At the moment, sadly, that would be a sarcastic joke at best and a lie at worst.

Aunt Huiling’s voice sounded like shit.

The truth was that it sounded closer to gravel being rubbed together than an actual voice. And description wouldn’t be far off from what happened to her vocal cords, really.

“Yeah… I’ve just been thinking,” I mumbled.

“A girl?”


“Then… a boy?”

“…What is wrong with you?”

Was every woman past their thirties obsessed with sex? Was this one of those universal secrets all girls share but don’t tell men?

“Oh, look at you reacting so violently,” my aunt said. “It’s the 21st century. Forgive me for thinking you could possibly be gay.”

“I don’t know about that one.”

I took a quick glance at her.

Where black locks of hair should’ve been was instead scar tissue badly disguised by a beanie, and grey clumps of flesh covered half of her face and neck. Saying that she was unsightly wouldn’t begin to describe how terrible it felt to see her lying in a hospital bed.

To be specific, however, all of those emotions I felt had nothing to do with her physical appearance. I’d love my aunt even if she looked like glorp shitto.

It was the guilt that destroyed me.

“You know, Darren, you don’t have to keep visiting me every day. You’re like what… 17 now?”

“15 and a half,” I corrected.

“Right, 17. It’s the prime of your youth. You should be focused on getting a hot girlfriend, not boring family commitments. Maybe then you’ll look less gloomy.”

My aunt had a habit of pretending like she was completely nonchalant about things — not just about me, but anything that existed outside the confines of her immediate vicinity. I’d say it was a coping mechanism to deal with illness, but she was like that long before she even got stuck in this grey box.

She was actually the sort of person to adopt a 7-year-old orphan unrelated to her by blood despite being single just because the boy was the son of a friend. And then, when that same boy would become a 13-year-old and almost die because he was trapped in their burning apartment, she would give him a second chance at life instead of running away.

That was the sort of person Aunt Huiling was, and the reason I would never let her go.

“You really were thinking of a girl, weren’t you?” she asked.

“Not exactly.”

“Don’t lie. How could the answer to that question not be a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

The actual answer was, I was thinking of Shelly Lam and her offer while scrolling through my phone, so it really was a mix of both. She disturbingly straddled the line between girl and woman.

Because our district is small, we can only nominate two people for the selection test. One boy and one girl. So think about how much you actually want this opportunity and get back to me tomorrow.

The other person caught up in my thoughts was definitely a girl, however.

Fucking idiot.

Her whisper sounded like the rush of eternity to a virgin like me.

“Say, Aunty. Can I ask you a weird question?”

“In a dirty way?”

It took a concerted effort to ignore that.

“...If someone was suddenly angry at you, but you had no idea why… How would you go about fixing it?”

“So you were thinking about a girl after all!”


Maybe in some alternate universe, Shelly and my aunt would’ve been best friends. Actually, if someone told me they were ex-classmates in high school or something ridiculously coincidental like that, I would believe it without question. These two were cut from the same cloth. Frighteningly so.

“Well,” she began, “you know how I am. I would probably just go up and ask.”

“But what if you’re acquaintances?”

“Then there’s nothing to ‘fix’. It’s not like they’re part of your life.”

True. She had a point. I don’t know why I cared about Jiwoo’s sudden shift in demeanour so much. It’s not like I would be talking to her anytime soon… or ever again, really. I didn’t intend to take up one of those two precious test spots from someone who actually had a chance of making it to NHS — it’s not like I was particularly “gifted” enough to pass, so I felt it’d be better to seek out more realistic avenues to make money. Plus I wasn’t entirely convinced it was real, anyway.

There's always a catch.

And for all I knew, Jiwoo’s anger might’ve been because Shelly touched her instead of anything to do with me. In that case, I really had no reason to overthink so much.

“I guess.”

Aunt Huiling smiled. Well, half smiled — parts of her face didn’t work. “Still, the fact of the matter is that if you’re describing this person as an acquaintance, yet still feeling concerned by their mood… then something doesn’t add up. You’re drawn to them, you just don’t want to admit it. Maybe you don’t know why. When’s the last time anyone was concerned by a stranger being upset?”


That made sense. Enough sense that, for a brief moment, I actually felt happy I got called a “fucking idiot” because it sounded kind of hot. And then I realised I was gaslighting myself again.


I had to take out my phone to expel those thoughts.

It’s really impressive how older people can switch from perversion to sincerity at the drop of a hat.


“Shit, look at the time,” I said. “I need to clock in for my shift.”

“Go ahead. It’s time for the nurse to tend to me soon, anyway.”

I picked up my bag, squeezed my aunt’s hand, then bent closer so she could caress my head with the other.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Aunty.”

“Bye bye, Darren. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

It was a fairly rote visit, and a fairly rote goodbye — until I could afford a lung transplant for my aunt, this pattern would continue for the foreseeable future. All I had to do was work hard so this foreseeable future was as short as possible… and then, maybe then, I would be able to give Aunt Huiling the life she deserved. It didn’t matter if I sacrificed mine in the short term.

She did that for me, so it was fine.

Or so I thought.

No one expected her to die in her sleep.