Chapter 4:

Where It Begins Again

Life Eats Us Now

During the whole week, my days spun around like a merry-go-round of chores. We worked through heaps of cardboard boxes, tussled with sticky rolls of tape, and dealt with all sorts of stuff that didn't seem important to me. The air felt like it was full of change, and I felt like a boat lost in a messy ocean.

This experience was entirely new to me; we had never relocated since I was born. So, diving into this big change felt like a huge job, but it also felt like a kind of freedom.

"Reol, can you check if these boxes have the right labels?" My dad's voice cut through the chaos, snapping me back to the moment. I gave a quick nod, taking the marker he gave me and doing what he said, writing on the boxes.

As I moved from room to room, tagging boxes and checking for tidiness, my thoughts started to wander. Just in a few days, this place will be entirely empty. But all those unpleasent memories in the past, they'll just remain in the walls and the plaster and the tiled floors. It's like an unexplored trail just waiting for my first step. Just the thought of attending a different school meant I could leave behind the jumble of familiar and unsettling things. I wouldn't have to face my classmates' disapproving glances anymore, their stares filled with judgment and unease. In the new school, no one will know anything about my past. A complete refresh.

And then there was Hugh. Finally, I would be free from his hold. Perhaps he would just move on to someone else to play his games with.

A faint smile crept onto my face as I continued my repetitive task. I hadn't spilled the beans to anyone in my class about the move except my teachers. But to be honest, it didn't seem like a big deal. In a week, they'd notice my empty seat, maybe wonder for a moment, and then the teacher would explain what had happened. For them, life would go on just the same, like nothing had really changed.

But then, someday, another person would sit in that seat and bring their own kind of liveliness to it. Something that I wasn't able to do.

As the evening came, I went back to my room, feeling tired all the way to my bones. Boxes were spread all over, showing how much things had changed for us. In the middle of all the cardboard mess, my bed seemed like a peaceful spot. I sat down, looking at the disorder around me.

That's when I sensed it—the weight of this moment. This was the chance I had been yearning for, the opportunity to bid farewell to the old me and start anew. Those words she had shared with me on the rooftop echoed in my mind. The idea of packing away my past, worries, and uncertainties into these boxes thrilled me. The days ahead lay before me, waiting to be molded. A life I could create on my terms, free from the constraints of others' expectations and judgments.

Of my teachers.

Of my classmates.

With a fresh determination, I stood up and glanced around the room. The things from my past were right there—books, small keepsakes, memories. Everything held a bit of who I used to be, but they weren't what made me now. I felt a burst of energy as I packed things, as if with meaning, arranging each one properly, all set to go with us to our new place.

Amidst the clutter, I discovered something else too. I found clarity. The disarray in my room mirrored the uncertainty of life at times, and it was my responsibility to shape it into something beautiful.

The night before our big move, I found myself perched at my cluttered desk. A faint desk lamp threw a gentle light onto an empty sheet of paper. My pen hovered just above it, ready to strike. I had every intention of drafting a comprehensive checklist—my personal guide to the new me.

I started with the obvious points: "Speak up more," I penned in clear, resolute letters. Then came, "Have a good first day at school," closely followed by, "Make a new friend on the first day." With each addition to the list, a spark of motivation ignited within me. 

It was as if the simple act of jotting down these goals would set me on a path to achieve them.

☐ Engage in conversations while maintaining eye contact.

☐ Be part of a group.

☐ Share meals with others.

☐ Walk home with friends.

☐ Study diligently!

☐ Collaborate on group studies with pals.

☐ Join the track and field club.

☐ Take part in other school activities.

As I moved through the list, my initial excitement ebbed a bit. These weren't mere casual wishes; they were pledges to myself, commitments to bring about genuine change in my life. "Face fears." It sounded straightforward enough in theory, but I recognized that it meant confronting the very anxieties that had restrained me for so long.

Then, as I readied my pen to write the last item on the list, something inside me hesitated.

☐ Get a

The pen slipped from my grasp, landing with a soft thud on the desk. I leaned back in my chair, staring at the ceiling, lost in thought.

The last one could wait. I didn't have to overcome all my perceived flaws in a single night. I could work on these changes gradually, one step at a time. It was perfectly fine to begin small and grow from there.

I picked up the pen once more, and instead of adding more items to the list, I simply underlined the ones I had already written. I know that I don't need to overhaul myself completely before the move. I just needed to start, to take those initial steps toward change, and to believe in my ability to grow and evolve over time. The last one could wait; I was already on my way.

Not following the instruction manuals others set...

A life sketched by me.

The rush of moving had left my body tired, with sore muscles from all the lifting, carrying, and reorganizing. The air in this new place had a different feel to it, a freshness that revived my mind even though my body begged for rest.

Physically, I might be holding up better than most my age, but the cumulative toll of the past few days wasn't lost on me. Mentally, I was still resilient, buoyed by the excitement of starting anew, of venturing into a different town. I allowed myself a moment of respite, sinking into the comfort of my chair that felt oddly foreign in its new surroundings.

Upon arriving at our new residence, I was swept into action without delay. The task at hand was to unpack my belongings and fashion my new space into a haven of personal comfort. What awaited was a surprise though: a room quite bigger than the one I had left behind. When my brother had moved out of our house, he'd left his things in his old room. My parents hadn't let me switch to that room, even though it was more spacious. But now that he's gone, I moved his stuff to the smaller room, giving me the luxury of claiming the roomier one for myself. And as if fate had granted me an extra bit of kindness, this room even had an adjoining balcony.

Our new town, from the look of it, is far different from the city bustle we were used to. Tucked into a more suburban setting, the town exuded a sense of peace. Even though it was close to the city, as if whispering a gentle song—a melody unfamiliar to me but strangely enchanting in its quietude.

After unloading my things on the first day and recharging with a good meal, all the weariness of the past few days tugged me into a nap that stretched deep into the next morning.

The next day, we set to work getting the entire house in order. We kept at it until evening, by which time the place had started to resemble a home. There were still boxes scattered here and there, but we had enough space to move around.

With nothing else to occupy my time, I took a stroll around the neighborhood. The streets were new to me, but they had a welcoming charm, sharing stories of the past with those who cared to listen.

As I roamed the unknown streets, I made mental notes of the twists and turns I took and the houses I passed. There was a big sign a few streets ahead, written "Welcome to Pine Lawn." We passed right by it when we arrived here. I don't know who gave this neighborhood that name, but surely, I couldn't find any pine trees anywhere along my walk. 

The neighborhood itself was fairly large, and seemed like a maze of houses, all looking nearly identical. The trees lining the streets, the maples, oaks, and elms, no pines though, have shed their summery greens for a fiery wardrobe of reds, oranges, and deep yellows. The chill in the air bit through my jacket. I walked without a clear destination, my thoughts swirling inside my head, while my breath forming delicate plumes in the frigid air. After a bit, the houses began to thin out, and it felt like I had reached the outskirts of the neighborhood. The streets ahead of me extended, a barren landscape with no signs of life.

Then, like shadows materializing out of thin air, a group of boys appeared before me. Their faces held an air of suspicion, their eyes locked onto me with intensity.

"Are you one of those imposters?" one of them demanded, his tone sharp and accusing.

I fumbled for words, taken aback by the sudden confrontation. "W-what are you talking about?"

The question lingered in the air, left without an answer. They stared at me with a silence that wouldn't let up, their faces inscrutable. Then, as if acting in perfect harmony, one of them moved behind me, grasping my arm tightly. Before I could react, a punch struck my stomach, its impact robbing me of my breath.

"What are you guys doing?" I managed to gasp, the pain shooting through my body. They ignored my protests entirely, their eyes locked on me like predators sizing up their quarry. With each blow that landed, panic surged within me. My thoughts raced, struggling to make sense of the situation. Were they part of a street gang? And what did they mean by "imposters"?

A particularly brutal blow to my stomach left me hunched over, my thoughts scattered like leaves in the wind. Through my blurred vision, I caught sight of the black scarves hanging from their collars, a kind of uniform that suggested their affiliation. It was evident they were part of a group with their own set of rules. Did I walk into their turf? But how does that even make me an imposter? "P-please, stop. I didn't do anything..."

"Just answer, were you one of those fakers, pretending to be one of us?" The question was delivered with a sharpness in each word, heavy with suspicion.

My voice trembled as I tried to defend myself. "What are you guys even saying? I ha-have nothing to do with this! I swear."

Their punches continued, as I just took them without any protest. My mind whirled. Why did I even end up in this situation? It's only my second day here, and I'm already entangled in trouble. How much worse could my luck possibly get?

"Do you think we're fools. Who in his right mind just wanders here at a time like this?"

Another punch struck me, and the world seemed to blur around the edges. Pain radiates from the point of contact, and my skin tingles where the blow landed.

"A-I'm new in this town. I walked t-to here by accident."

"New here? Do you think that'll help you get out of this?"

The beating finally stopped, replaced by the sound of heavy breathing and an oppressive silence. I lay on the ground, my body pulsing with pain, my thoughts a tumult of bewilderment and dread. The boys exchanged looks. "Let's bring him to the boss. He can figure out what to do with him."

"We'll do that. But first..." They began clenching their fists once more. "Let's give him a good beating first. How dare he use our name to make trouble."

"Yeah, you're right!"

The voices merged; their words filled with a shared anger that I couldn't fully grasp. The only thing I could sense was the intensity of their hostility bearing down on me. Yet, from my side, there was nothing I could do.

But just when it felt like my destiny was sealed, a new presence appeared. A figure came forward, hands tucked into pockets, as if his very presence commanded something. He's young, around my age, but the air he exuded said otherwise. His hair was short and jet black, meticulously styled to perfection, along with a pair of dark, penetrating eyes.

His arrival alone hushed the group, as if their defiance was dampened by his coming.

"You guys! What are you up to here?" His voice seemed to carry some sort of authority; his gaze unwavering as he assessed the situation.

Their response was immediate, as their tones got deferential. "Yeah, boss! But he isn't admitting anything. He says he's new in town."

Their supposed boss closed the distance between us, his gaze scrutinizing every inch of my face. I tried not to maintain eye contact, hoping that my evident fear won't betray me. "I don't recall ever seeing his face here," he muttered, his voice sounding like a low rumble. "I think he's telling the truth. You guys must have mistaken him for someone else."

My heart eased a fraction as his words echoed in the dimly lit alley. Maybe I can finally walk away from this encounter unscathed.

"C-can you please just leave me alone then?" I stammered, "I d-don't have anything to do with whatever you guys are talking about."

A tense silence hung in the air for a moment, the only sounds the distant cries of birds returning home. I waited with bated breath for their response, praying that my appeal would be sufficient to free me from this menacing situation.

The supposed boss suddenly flashed a disarming smile, his demeanor shifting from intimidating to almost friendly. With a casual grace, he extended his arm towards me. "Oh, it's not your fault. Blame these idiots here for the confusion." Getting up, he extended his other arm, something gobbled between his fingers. "Take this as an apology. It's my absolute favorite, you know."

I stared at the chocolate bar. What is he trying to mean? An unexpected token of goodwill in the midst of darkness? It was as though he had extended an olive branch, offering a semblance of peace in this tense encounter.

But just then, as he turned away from me, his demeanor took a turn again, almost as if a curtain had fallen over the warmth that briefly graced his presence. The lightness in his eyes darkened, and his shoulders drew down with a sudden heaviness. The same coldness as when he arrived. "And take it as a warning too. It's not a place to be wandering at a time like this."

He's an odd character, even though he was their leader. He didn't seem anything but cold at first, but the sudden shift in atmosphere made me think otherwise. I just hoped we don't cross paths again. Any more trouble on my end would be too much to handle.

With a feeling of resignation, I started the journey back home, my body still throbbing with pain.