Chapter 4:

What Lies Beneath the Mask

Sweet like Honey

Fortunately, the rest of the day was uneventful, and we managed to close shop without too much trouble. As I was locking the cash register and ensuring the counter was clean, Manager Chan called out to me.

“Hey, Junior.”

“What’s up, boss?”

He gestured for me to come closer, and then wiped his hands on the apron. Apparently, he had been doing the dishes and had just placed the mugs on the upper tray for them to drip dry, which explained why his hands were wet. I complied.

“You…talked to your parents yet?”

“I’ve spoken to them,” I said vaguely. “Every weekend.”

“Are you planning on going home anytime soon?”

“I visit my parents every summer. I don’t know how long of a vacation I can take this year, though.” I nodded at Bernard. “Will you be able to manage without me?”

“Of course.” Bernard snorted. “We’ve been doing fine for years before we hired you. Three months wouldn’t be a problem, and I’m sure we’ll have a few part-timers pop up for the summer while they’re waiting for the fall semester. We’ll be fine. But you, on the other hand…”

“I’m okay.”

“Are you really?” Manager Chan frowned. “I mean, I really am grateful for the extra pair of hands, so don’t get me wrong, but…now that you’re done with graduate school…if you don’t intend on continuing, you should go home. Your parents are worried.”

They were, but I didn’t tell my boss that. I knew he was right. He wasn’t the only one telling me to go home. My parents must have been in contact with him, having retrieved the café’s contact information. Either that, or Manager Chan called them, having seen my home telephone number from my resume or application materials.

My parents had asked me to go home. Now that I was done with graduate school, never mind that I had dropped out, they wanted me to return home. After all, they rarely saw me – I only showed my face for three months every year. The rest of the time, I spent it in the capital, struggling with my studies and now thoroughly trashed dissertation.

Why did I ever think that I could do a PhD?

And now, I was lounging in the capital, reluctant to return to my hometown province. I cringed inwardly whenever I recalled how I was bragging to everyone back home that I was going to get a PhD. My family took it in stride, with my parents naturally worried about me leaving to live by myself, and they would frequently tell me not to force myself. Not to overdo it. Not to stress myself out.

Typical parents’ advice, which I never took seriously because I was an idiot.

Consequently, I was too ashamed of returning home, because I would do so as a failure. A laughingstock who couldn’t walk the talk and fell short just meters from the finish line. Seven years, and all for nothing.

Where was I going to find the face to go home?

However, my parents weren’t the main reason why I feared to go home.

Whenever I closed my eyes, I could hear their condescending laughter, I could see their mocking expressions, and anticipate their derisive words…

“Junior? Are you listening?”

“Yes. I will go home in the summer and speak to my parents. For now, though…I just thought I want to stay in the capital for a while longer. To sort things out and assess my options. Maybe I’ll look for a job here. They pay better in the city.”

“True, but the cost of living is also higher here.” Manager Chan sighed and nodded. He placed a hand on my shoulder. “Well, it’s up to you. But just keep in mind that we’ll always be here for you. If you need help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I…I can’t impose on you guys any further,” I protested. “You’ve already helped me a lot. Provided me a job when I was penniless…gave me a purpose in life when I was floundering.”

“This isn’t your purpose in life.” Bernard gave me a stern stare and tightened his grip on my shoulder. I tried not to wince. “I know you well, Junior. You’ve been coming to my café for many years now, and I’ve seen how you’ve…well, grown. You might have found it stressful, but even an uneducated moron like me can tell if you’re happy. And, by the heavens, you were. I know a PhD is hard, but every time I see you coming in here, you were tired but happy. You were doing what you liked. You enjoyed what you were studying. I would see you come to the café and order a bunch of coffee and pastries while struggling under the weight of several books…and when I asked how you were going to finish them all, you had this look. Like you were relishing a challenge. Whenever I ask you about folktales and demons, you would weave an entire story about them. When I asked you what you were going to do with a major in literature, you said brightly that you wanted to be a professor.”

“Yeah…and I failed.” I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice. “I couldn’t finish my dissertation. Hell, I couldn’t write a proper one. One that’s satisfactory for graduation. I had to rewrite it over and over…” I then stopped and shook my head wearily, realizing that I shouldn’t bother my manager with my whining. He didn’t want to hear it. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He smiled warmly and patted me. “But like I said, please remember that we’re always here for you. You’re like family to us now. So don’t be a stranger, and don’t hold back. Family always helps each other out.”

“Thank you. I’m grateful…I really am.”

“If you really want to thank me, then go home. Stop worrying your parents.”

“I’ll think about it. But if I’m gone, who’s going to help you here?” I shrugged and continued before Bernard could respond. “We’re family, right?”

“Sly brat.” Bernard laughed and spun me around before slapping me in the back. “Using my words against me now? You’ve really grown. That’s not the kind of help I need. Now get going and rest. We have another busy day tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.” I saluted him before hanging my cap off the tower and leaving the staffroom. With a sigh, I stepped out into the cool night air and glanced at the moon.

“Are you finally done?”

I stopped at the familiar voice, and I turned around. To my surprise, I saw the girl in the red cap and the mask leaning against the wall, her arms crossed. She tilted her cap toward my direction.

“You always get off this late?”

“What are you doing here?” I blurted out, finally finding my voice. She snorted and cocked her head.

“Waiting for you, obviously.”

“I mean…why?”

“You helped me out this morning. I didn’t have a chance to properly thank you yet.” She removed her cap, sunglasses and mask, allowing her wavy black hair to cascade behind her, the silky strands falling to her waist like a curtain. “Thank you.”

“Not at all. I didn’t do anything.”

“No, you did. You were right.” The girl sighed and lowered her hand, her cap and mask hanging off her fingers. “If I tried to handle the situation by myself, it would have blown out of control and I would have exposed myself. I made a vow to myself not to get involved in any bad press, and I don’t want to have to break that less than a week after my retirement.”

“Bad press? Expose yourself?”

“Oh?” The girl peered at me curiously. “You don’t know who I am?”

“Uh…” I hoped this wasn’t a trick question. “Am I supposed to know you? Did we meet somewhere before?”

To my surprise, the girl burst out laughing. As I watched her, taken aback, she wiped the tears from her eyes and shook her head.

“Sorry…I was just delighted. I didn’t think there would be someone who wouldn’t recognize who I am. I guess…after all I’ve been through, I’m a bit out of touch with reality.”

“Um…are you someone famous?” I asked nervously, though no matter how much I racked my brains, I couldn’t put a name to her face. She certainly was beautiful, and I was sure I would remember her if I had met her before, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t…

“I’m Shirley Li,” the girl replied as she held out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Junior Yuan.”

“Huh? You know my name?” I was shocked. So we did meet before?

However, Shirley simply giggled and pointed toward the space above my breast pocket. I glanced down and suddenly recalled that I had a nametag occupying the area when I was working. Oh. That was dumb of me. Even so, Shirley appeared to find that more endearing than silly. As for me, even with the newfound knowledge of her name, I still hadn’t figured out who she was. She was undoubtedly beautiful enough to be a celebrity, I’m sure. An actress, maybe?

Whatever attempts I had at trying to solve the mystery were shattered by her next words, however.

“If you don’t mind…” Shirley held out her smartphone. “Why don’t we exchange contact information?”
Mario Nakano 64
John Lee H. Wu
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
Steward McOy