Chapter 24:

Hong Men Banquet

Sweet like Honey

Despite my misgivings, I made the trip back home to the countryside and attended the high school reunion that was held at Crowne Hotel.

The journey by train took over four hours, and so I had let my parents know that I would be home for the weekend, at least. They were delighted, though less so when they heard I would be spending half a night with my high school schoolmates. At least I had the whole Sunday reserved for them.

I was worried about Honey Café, but Bernard and Honey were like, “Just go.”

“I’ll kick your ass out of the café if you don’t go home for the weekend,” Bernard had told me sternly. “Go visit your parents.”

“Give us your regards, and thank them for lending you to us.” Honey had seen me off with a smile. I couldn’t help but return a grin. Here in the city, Bernard and Honey really felt like my surrogate parents. I wondered where I would be without them.

Even though I told Shirley I hadn’t been driven as far as suicide, I doubted I would still be alive if it weren’t for the couple who owned Honey Café. I was seriously considering taking my life during my darkest days of despair, when I realized there was no feasible method for me to complete my dissertation to my advisor’s satisfaction.

When I believed that I was an utter failure who brought shame to my parents and feared going home. I thought I was better off dead…

If Bernard and Honey hadn’t extended a helping hand and hired me, giving me a new temporary purpose, I probably would no longer be on this earth. I was grateful to them for that, at least.

At least I would have a place to go back to if this whole high school reunion went pear shaped.

Standing in front of the entrance to Crowne Hotel, I took a deep breath and steadied myself. I caught my reflection in the massive automatic glass doors and grimaced. The suit didn’t suit me at all (ahem), but Shirley had picked it out for me, and I believed in her taste.

“HEY! Junior!”


I spun around at the familiar voice and waved at one of my few real friends from high school. Travis Yong bounded toward the entrance and wrapped me in a bear hug, chuckling in joy.

“It’s been so long!”

“Not that long. We’ve always been in contact over text messages and emails…”

“Yeah, but we haven’t met in person for years! Ever since you ran off to the city to pursue a PhD.” He blanched. “Sorry, didn’t mean to bring that up. But if you need help, let me know. My firm has a few job openings, and even if you don’t have a PhD, your masters is more than enough to qualify you for a relatively high post.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine.” I patted his shoulder. “I’m doing okay in the city right now, and I’m applying for jobs there. I want to stay there for a while longer. I’ll be returning after the weekend.”

“Sure. But we’ll always have a spot open for you if you need to.”

“You don’t need to. I’m sure I’ll find my path eventually.”

Travis nodded and beamed. “I know you will. But just wanted to give you the option. There are very few people I trust these days, and you’re among them.” He sighed. “It’s hard to…find people who wouldn’t backstab you over petty ambitions or money today.”

Uh…he was a lawyer, right? Were lawyers supposed to be that…competitive?

“Besides,” I said with a shake of my head. “We did meet up more recently. I attended your wedding about four years ago, remember?”

“Ah, right! Anyway, let’s go in. I think everyone misses you, and they will be excited to see you.”

“You’re the only who misses me,” I said with a sigh. “Everyone has forgotten entirely about me. They don’t know I even exist.”

“That’s not true. Victor and Helen, in particular, are looking forward to your return.”

I stiffened at that. That couldn’t be true. Victor, in particular, had tried to cripple me the last time I met him. Helen, though her promise of forgiveness seemed sweet and amicable on the surface, appeared cold and subtly hostile. The fact that she couldn’t wait to get out of Honey Café without even ordering anything set off a lot of red flags.

However, now that I had made the four-hour trip here, there was no going back. Shirley was right. I should confront them once and for all, and then seek closure. And this was a good opportunity to lay my past to the rest, rather than simply breaking ties with them over the phone or something.

Following Travis into the ballroom that Victor – the host – had booked, I watched as over a hundred people chatted with each other, glasses of cocktails or similar drinks in their hands. There was a buffet available, with food laid out in warmed trays with flames under them across tables covered with exquisite silk white fabric.

Someone had certainly spared no expense in making this a grand event.

Just as I thought, nobody noticed my presence and ignored me, wrapped up in their little bubbles of conversation. Occasionally, people would part and rejoin other isolated pockets, reforming their cliques and seeking new social connections. I noticed that those who were dressed in more expensive clothes or luxurious brands tended to attract more people flocking toward them.

Already, one of the schoolmates who I didn’t recognize was making her way toward Travis, waving at him. He smiled back and raised his hand to wave back, and she froze when she saw the sparkling gem on his finger.

The female classmate uttered an excuse, her cheeks flushed, and she whirled around with a cough. All through that, she didn’t even glance once at me. Given my low pay at Honey Café, I couldn’t afford an expensive suit, and despite Shirley’s best efforts, I ended up buying whatever looked best at Uniqlo for its cost.

“What was that about?” Travis wondered. I sighed.

“She was interested in you.”

“Huh? But I already have a wife.”

“That’s why she ran away. She saw your ring.”

“Heh. I knew this would come in useful.” Travis fingered his ring. “Keeps the other ladies away. If my wife asks, you’ll be my witness.”

“Sure. You can count on me. And I’ll make sure you stay loyal to her.”

“Hah! That’s my man!”

We bumped fists before heading toward the buffet table. Before I could grab some food, though, a voice spoke up.

“Ah, Junior! There you are! We were wondering when you would show up.”

The oily voice of Victor crawled across the ballroom, seeping into my skin and causing goosebumps. I was somehow able to construct a polite façade as I turned around.

“Hello, Victor. It’s been a while.”

“Yes, though it seems like it’s only been a few weeks.” His grin resembled a serpent’s, and I swear I saw a forked tongue dart out to lick his lips. I raised an eyebrow. Did he want to mention that night where he hired a bunch of thugs to beat me up? In front of Travis, a lawyer, no less?

Fortunately, he wasn’t that stupid.

“You’re still working at that café? You haven’t found a new job yet?”

I shrugged. “I like my job at the café. The owners are very nice and take extremely good care of me. I wish to repay them as much as I can.”

“Oh, I see. I guess it’s good that you still know how to return kindness.”

“What are you talking about?” Travis demanded, his brow furrowed. “Junior has always been a nice guy. Even back in high school, he was going around helping others. Cheering up people when they are depressed and encouraging them. I know, because I’m one of them.”

Victor’s expression turned sour, but he managed to conceal that with a sly smile.

“Of course, of course. Despite his…social awkwardness, he was indeed a nice guy.” He chuckled. “I guess no one is 100% good or 100% evil.”

Victor was probably 90% evil, though, but I had to admit that he probably saved a lot of lives as a doctor. Maybe. I didn’t know for sure.

“But what are you doing here? You’re the guest of honor.”

“Excuse me?”

Victor didn’t elaborate and instead shoved me toward the center of the ballroom, where a stage had been set. I almost fell over, but I quickly stumbled back to my feet. However, he placed his hands on my shoulder and forced me to my knees before I could fully regain my balance.

“Everybody! We have a performance prepared for you today!” Victor yelled, and a silence filled the ballroom. He kept his hand on my shoulder and grinned. “If you remember this moron, Junior Yuan, he is here today to make an official apology to me and Helen Huang!”

“Oh, he’s finally here?” Helen sashayed to the front and took the other hand that Victor offered. She cast a disdainful look at me. “So you really came.”

“What are you two doing?” Travis spluttered, outraged. He tried to move forward, but two burly guys – clearly in league with Victor – grabbed hold of his arms and held him back. “Let go of me! And release Junior!”

“Travis, Travis.” Victor shook his head in mock disappointment. “Do you really think we’ll just let Junior go?”

“What are you doing?”

“It’s simple.” Helen was the one who replied instead. She looked down on me, her features condescending. “Remember that I said I will forgive you if you come to the reunion?”

I nodded silently, maintaining my poker face.

She pointed at the ground. “Grovel and prostrate yourself in front of everybody. Then we’ll consider the slate wiped clean.”

My shoulders sank and I sighed heavily. I knew this whole thing was a trap. The whole forgiveness thing was only an excuse to trick me into coming here so that they could humiliate me in public.

Right from the beginning, this whole reunion was a Hong Men banquet.

John Lee H. Wu
Steward McOy