Chapter 21:

Stalk the Talk

Sweet like Honey


“In high school, there was this girl I liked.” I pictured Helen Huang, with her long blond hair, blue eyes and bright smile. “She was very popular. She was active on the student council, and participated in a lot of community activities. Bright, cheerful, nice…I guess any straight guy would fall for her.”

“So you had a crush on this girl?” A shadow passed through Shirley’s eyes, but she went back to sipping her beer. “You stalked her?”

I winced. “…I guess you could say that. Not anywhere as near as Fan Wong, though. I never followed her home or took pictures of her. I simply did what hormonal and horny teenagers did when they were young, stupid and inexperienced. Whenever we were in school, I would stare at her from afar. It must have been super obvious, because she was clearly uncomfortable. I deliberately took detours so that I would pass by her classroom…or the student council room. That sort of stuff.”

I raised my hands defensively. “But obviously, I never went as far as following her home or anything. At least, except that one time.”

“Oh? That one time?”

“Well…” I closed my eyes and recalled the memory. This was before I was outed as a creep. I had innocently approached Helen Huang, having learned that she didn’t live that far from me.

“Why don’t we go to school together?” I had invited her. She had hesitated at first, but then she shrugged and didn’t object.

“That sounds okay.”

Excited, I had gone to her house the next morning, but…she didn’t come out of her house. Instead, her mom spotted me waiting outside the gate, and decided to drive her daughter to school even though it was within walking distance.

I cringed at the memory and held my head. “After that, I never went to her house again. I got the hint. Her mom thought I was dangerous enough to warrant driving her daughter to school. Yeah, that woke me up a bit. On hindsight, I should have realized that she wasn't very enthusiastic about the idea, but I was too young and excited to read the mood. I think that was when everything got awkward.”

“I don’t blame her,” Shirley said softly, her can of beer still in her hand. It was tilted, but I was relieved to see that nothing was spilling out. She must have drunk quite a bit. “I would be worried too if I saw some unknown schoolmate of my daughter waiting outside my house early in the morning.”

“Yeah, I was stupid.” I groaned. “After that, I stopped following her around. But the damage was done. I think there was one time when she told her teacher that I was staring at her, and I ran away when I caught sight of the teacher watching me. I wanted to bury my head in the sand.”

“So your classmates started bullying you after that?”

“Yeah, I think so. It’s been fifteen years, so my memory is fuzzy. Understandably so, because I don’t really want to remember much of my dark past.” I laughed sheepishly. “But Victor and a few guys got together and threatened me. Told me to stay away. I got scared and listened. I don’t think I ever bothered her after that. In fact, I actively avoided her for the last few months of our third year. I’m such a coward.”

“No, you’re not.” Shirley tipped the can and swirled it, checking to see if there was still any beer left. “You did the right thing. I mean, you didn’t exactly do the right thing with your…behavior at first, but avoiding the girl and listening to those guys was right. Why are they still coming after you, then?”

“I don’t know. I seriously don’t. I haven’t seen them for fifteen years.”

“Fresh start and all that, huh?” Shirley smiled and leaned back on her bed, dropping the can on the floor. I sighed, picked it up and tossed it into the bin she had by her desk. Shirley rolled her eyes, and continued. “I understand now why you wanted to get away from the countryside and have a new beginning in the city, far away from where people know who you are.”

“Yeah.” I hadn’t opened the bottle of fruit juice yet. She frowned, and I obliged by screwing the cap off and taking a sip. At least it wasn’t orange juice, but I wish it was mango juice.

“Is that all you did?”

“As far as I remember, yeah.” I snorted. “If I have done anything serious, the teachers would have taken action and I would have a disciplinary record. I was lucky to be self-aware of my stupidity before I sank into…uh, criminal behavior. Otherwise, I might have ended up like Fan Wong.”

Then I sighed. “But…yeah, that’s why I understood how he felt. We were on the same path. I was able to get out of it and take a new road. Turn over a new leaf and all that. I believe he should get a shot at a second chance. Besides, like me when I was threatened, I’m sure he will never dare to show his face in front of you again. We tend not to be so…uh, confrontational, I guess. Just a warning to wake us up, and that should straighten us out.”

“But if doesn’t, then that’s when we call the cops. They get no third chance.” Shirley folded her arms and nodded.

“Yeah. No objection to that.”

“To be fair, you did behave like a creep,” Shirley said bluntly, her words lancing into my heart. I grimaced once more. “I’m not going to mince my words. But I’m glad you…changed.”

“Like my friend said, I was socially awkward. I didn’t realize it and thought he was insulting me. I should have listened to him more. I mean, I was ticking all the boxes. I didn’t know how to approach girls, and I screwed up. I shouldn’t have tailed her like a creep.” I exhaled wearily. “After that…after being threatened and avoiding her, I thought it was best if I just… become a voluntary celibate and dedicate myself entirely to manga and anime.. That’s how I ended up becoming an otaku, I suppose. I figured that nobody will get hurt if my affection was directed toward two-dimensional fictional girls.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Shirley asked, laughing her head off. “At least you’re not using that cliché of being hurt by real girls, and claiming that 2D girls will never hurt you!”

“Nah, I’m the one who’s dangerous.” I flinched. “I don’t blame girls for being afraid of me, not after all the nonsense I pulled back in high school. It’s better for the whole world if I stay away from them, so that I won’t become a threat.” Then I swallowed. “I understand if you think I’m disgusting and want me to stay away from you…”

“I don’t,” Shirley cut me off. “I don’t know the Junior from high school. The Junior I know is the one sitting in front of me right now, who knows right from wrong, who’s kind enough to treat me to a warm drink when I’m down, and who saved me from a stalker. That’s the Junior I know and like. I don’t care about your past. Well, actually, I do, and I’m glad you told me everything, but that’s just because I want to know you better, and not because I want to judge you. Everyone has skeletons in their closets.”

She smiled wryly and gestured to herself. “I made stupid mistakes when I was young too. Actions that I regret but can never take back.”

As much as I was curious, I didn’t dare to ask. I didn’t know if I had the right to.

“We were all young and stupid once, but mistakes are what allow us to grow. Without doing stupid things when we can still afford to make mistakes, like in school, we will never realize how much our words or actions can hurt others, and we’ll never become aware and more sensitive.” Shirley sighed and looked away. “My mom…I hurt her badly. Even though she warned me against becoming an idol, I never listened. When I was…how do I put it, a troublemaker – and that’s putting it mildly – even though she disapproved, she believed in me. Yet I…vented my anger on her.”

She buried her face in her hands.

“I killed her.”

“No, you didn’t.” The words were out of my mouth before I knew it. I just knew Shirley didn’t kill her mother. That she was blaming herself for her mom’s death. Because I tended to do the same thing.

Blame myself for everything. People getting hurt. That was all my fault. Helen’s unease. Victor’s anger. If I had handled things better, things would have never come to this point.

“You don’t know anything!”

“Then enlighten me.”

Shirley sniffled and shook her head, her face buried in her knees as she drew her legs to her chest.

“Heartbreak. My mom…I came home one day and found her collapsed on her bed. I didn’t know she was overworking. I didn’t know…she was trying to manage the bad press…all caused by my immaturity and recklessness. She was apologizing to the agencies, trying to convince them to give me a second chance despite my misbehaviors. All that stress went to her, and…her heart just gave out one day.”

She sobbed. “It’s all my fault.”

Rising from the chair, I approached her. Taking a deep breath, I embraced her and stroked her head.

“No. It’s not your fault. As you said, we all learn from our mistakes. We have to move forward together. You and me. We can’t let our past chain us down.”

“You’re right.” Shirley let out a breath and wiped at her eyes. She peered up at me before cracking an awkward smile. “I also have another confession to make.”

“Huh?”

“When you were telling me your past…I couldn’t help but hate that girl. I wish I was in her place. I wish I was the one who knew you back in high school.”

“Uh, well…I think it’s better if you didn’t know my idiotic self back in high school.”

“Silly…I was just being jealous.”

To my shock, Shirley suddenly grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me downward. Before I knew it, I felt the sweet and warm sensation of her lips pressed against mine.

The faint taste of honey, mixed with the bitterness of beer and the saltiness of tears.

That was what my first kiss tasted like.