Chapter 18:


Life Eats Us Now

On one of those idle afternoons, as I sat at my desk, torn between whether I should write down something productive or just give in to the temptation of doing nothing. Right then, my phone rang, disrupting my train of thoughts right on its tracks.

A text from John.

Hey Reol, what are you up to?

My thumb gently glided across the smooth screen, pondering over the words to craft in response. Should I confess that my day had been a canvas of absolute inactivity? It did seem rather uninteresting, and I knew John would pour forth with sympathy, as was his usual way. Besides, I was uncertain about the tone I should adopt in my response. John appeared quite laid-back; maybe I should adopt a casual approach too? After all, this was my inaugural attempt at texting someone since acquiring this phone.

But just as I was grappling with my reply, another message from John lit up the screen.

My days are going really boring. Dad's super busy with work, so no family trips or anything. How about you?

A small puff of relief passed through lips. It appeared that we were both navigating the same monotonous waters. Swiftly, I typed my response.

Same here. Just a bunch of uneventful days.

I marveled at the curious sensation of texting someone. It held a peculiar familiarity, as if engaging in conversation with someone right in front of me.

John's next message appeared on the screen.

So, what I wanted to say... our class is planning to have a Christmas party on the night of Christmas. If anyone doesn't have plans for that night, they're invited. You in?

My heart soared with excitement.

A Christmas party? I had never attended one, let alone with my classmates. The prospect of reuniting with everyone and celebrating Christmas together filled me with sheer delight. At last, my previously lackluster days seemed to gather momentum.

My response was brimming with enthusiasm, Count me in! I'm already buzzing with anticipation. Can't wait to see everyone.

The mall was bustling with holiday shoppers, each person rushing from store to store, their arms filled with bags and faces filled with a range of emotions, from excitement to anticipation. It was the unmistakable holiday spirit floating in the air.

Wading through this sea of shoppers, I couldn't help but feel engulfed by the enormity of my mission - the quest for the perfect Christmas gifts for John, Emma, and Adica.

I hadn't been much of a gift-giver before. In the past, my Christmas exchanges were limited to my brother, or at best, a visiting cousin. But this year, there's quite a lot to consider. Where should I even begin?

Armed with a neatly written list of gift ideas securely stashed in my pocket, I pressed on through the mall's labyrinth of shops. Walking around, you can find the familiar scents of cinnamon and pine, and the twinkling Christmas lights bathed everything in a warm, inviting glow. It was like a scene plucked straight from a holiday movie, and I found myself getting swept up in the festive atmosphere.

Just as I was weighing my options about which store to visit first, a familiar voice rang out, "Reol!"

I turned to see Emma weaving her way through the crowd, a wide grin on her face. "What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing."

"I'm here to do some Christmas shopping. Thought it'd be nice to get something for Adica for the Christmas party."

"You got the message from John as well?"

"About the Christmas party...?" Emma shook her head, "No, Adica mentioned it to me earlier this morning."

"Well, I'm here for the same reason too. John texted me yesterday. This is my first time buying gifts for friends though... and I can't even think of where to start."

Emma laughed. "Really? Mine too! It's kind of nerve-wracking, isn't it?"

Well, it nice to hear that I wasn't the only one feeling this way. "Yeah, I can't seem to wrap my head around what I should even buy."

Emma flashed a reassuring smile, "Then how about you tag along with me?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah! The more, the merrier!"

Though I said yes, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of unease. It wasn't because I was shopping for gifts, but rather because I was spending time with Emma outside of school. It was a situation I had never been in before, and I couldn't shake the nagging thought of what our classmates would say if they spotted us together. What if Adica happened to spot us?

Nevertheless, I couldn't bring myself to turn down Emma's invitation. She was the one to ask me, and I didn't want to put her down either. So, I pushed my concerns to the side and embraced the moment we shared. Truth be told, navigating the aisles alone had proven more challenging than I'd anticipated, so her company was a welcome relief. Before long, we found ourselves laughing as we sifted through a sea of potential gifts.

Strangely, the two of us seemed to click, even though on the day we first crossed paths, I was convinced to keep my distance when we first crossed paths. It was as though I could be a different version of myself when I was with her, though I couldn't quite grasp the reasons behind this change.

After circling the mall for a while, we found ourselves back in front of the cafe where we had first met. The winter cold had made its way into our bones, and the thought of a steaming cup of coffee was too tempting to resist.

Once inside, we settled into a cozy corner booth, savoring our coffees as we took a well-deserved break from our shopping adventure.

"Wow, it's really fun, you know, searching for gifts for our friends," Emma exclaimed. Her excitement was evident, with her eyes literally sparkling. "And with Christmas so close, it feels like an extra sprinkle of joy! If it wasn't for Adica, I bet I wouldn't have experienced this. I really want to find something super nice for her!"

"Yeah, me too."

"By the way, who are you getting gifts for?"

"Oh, one for John, you, and Adica."

"For me too?" She sounded genuinely surprised. "I didn't expect that."

"Well, you and Adica really helped me out during the exams. It's just a small way to say thank you, I guess."

"As for me, I'm only getting something for Adica. I've wanted to give her a gift for a while, but I couldn't figure out the right moment. That's why all this time, I've been counting the days until Christmas. I hope she'll like what I get her."

"Your excitement is evident on your face. And don't worry, she'll be thrilled with whatever you gift her. But to be frank, it still amazes me just how much you care about her."

"I don't expect everyone to understand, but she means a lot to me. A whole lot! You see, Reol, I wasn't always like how I am right now. Quite the opposite, actually. Back in middle school, I was really tall compared to others and pretty loud too, if I have to admit. Just because of those silly reasons, they always kept their distance from me."

I wasn't sure how to respond to a confession like this, so I continued to nod, trying to show that I was listening attentively.

She glanced my way for a moment, perhaps to ensure I was still listening. Taking another sip of her coffee, she continued, "But despite all that, I still had a few friends—people who didn't care about my height or my loud voice. I was happy back then. We spent time together, talked, and walked home as a group. But then, out of the blue, a couple of classmates started spreading rumors about me. They claimed they saw me fighting on the streets. It was a complete lie, but no one came to my defense. The rumors spread like wildfire, and one by one, my friends began to distance themselves from me. I ended up alone. And lonely."

Emma's gaze drifted to her coffee cup, her fingers tracing the rim as if lost in thought. After a brief pause, she let out a hearty laugh, which startled the other customers. She quickly hushed herself, aware of the curious stares directed her way.

"And when I started high school, those rumors still haunted me. Then one day, Adica transferred to our school. Honestly, I didn't really care whether she heard those rumors or not. But then, one day, I listened to her playing the piano in the music room, and everything changed. It was like magic. For some reason, I really wanted to be friends with her. When everything around me felt too heavy and suffocating to bear, just listening to her play the piano made it all okay. It was as if every note effortlessly led to the next, and I felt like I could move forward too."

"But," Emma continued, her voice softer now, "I was scared. Scared that if I approached her, she would reject me too. That she would see me as just another person going with the flow. But Adica, she didn't do that. She didn't push me away. She stood by me, listened to everything I had to say, and then, in turn, she opened up to me as well. That day, she didn't just think of herself; she gave me a chance to speak. And that's why I'll protect Adica from anyone who tries to harm her, even if it means I'll have to make the entire world my enemy."

As I listened to Emma's heartfelt confession, I couldn't help but recall the conversation I had with Bryant a while back. Back then, his words had seemed distant and unrelated to my life. But now, as I heard Emma's words, maybe I was beginning to understand some of the sentiment behind those words.

"It's really wonderful, isn't it?" I whispered softly. "When someone accepts you for who you truly are."

Wearing a facade, all while hiding my true self. Is that what Bryant was trying to tell me? I'd invested so much effort into being on everyone's good side, wearing a mask to blend in. But deep down, I knew that when the time came to reveal my authentic self, I would hesitate, and the fragile friendships I'd constructed would crumble like a house of cards. And so, I continued to struggle, determined not to let my true self slip through the cracks.

I had been trying so hard that I failed to grasp the simple truth: it wasn't just about being accepted for what you showed on the surface. It encompassed everything about you. To protect someone, even if it means making everyone else your enemy... "I could never say that," I murmured to myself, caught in my own thoughts.

Emma looked at me, her eyes searching mine for something. "Did you say something?"

I waved it off with a dismissive smile. "Nah, it's nothing. Just thinking that you're a really good friend of Adica. You're kind-hearted, and you're always looking after others."

"Wh-wh--what are you saying...!?"

"But I really mean it, Emma. I wish I could be like you."

Emma raced out of her seat, throwing a straight and hard chop over my head. "Don't say things like that with a straight face. It's already getting late. Shall we go for a round two?"

After what felt like hours, we finally stumbled upon the perfect gifts we had been searching for. With the final purchase made, we looked at each other and shared triumphant smiles.

"So, Reol, what did you end up getting for everyone?"

"I can't spill the beans just yet. It's supposed to be a surprise."

Emma playfully pouted. "Oh, come on! You can trust me with your secrets."

"Nope," I insisted, shaking my head. "I'm keeping it under wraps. You'll just have to wait until Christmas."

As we stood outside the mall, preparing to part ways, Emma reached into her shopping bag and pulled out a small package, adorned with festive wrapping paper. She handed it to me with a warm smile.

"What's this?"

"Consider it an early Christmas gift. You looked like you were freezing the whole time we were walking around, so I thought this might help."

I eagerly unwrapped the package to reveal a pair of snug hand socks. "Thank you, Emma," I expressed my gratitude, sliding the hand socks onto my cold fingers.

She beamed, her cheeks rosy from the chill. "You're welcome, Reol. After all, isn't this what friends do?

Friends, huh?