The orange hue of a sunny autumn morning crept into my room through the window and greeted me as I opened my eyes. It was Saturday, and it was also my favourite day of the week. On Saturdays, there is no need to wake up early so as not to be late for school, and I can stay up as late as I desire because I wouldn’t have to worry about classes until the day after.
I rolled over in my bed with my eyes closed, as if pouring what was left of my drowsiness of the night before from my body. After stretching my long limbs out as far as I could reach, I got out of bed and changed into a T-shirt and jeans. By the time I went down to the kitchen, my stomach was growling like an angry dog.
I was in such a happy mood even the lousy pancakes Dad had made that morning seemed pleasant to my eyes. I gulped them down as a whale would swallow plankton, and walked out to the front lawn to soak in the beautiful day.
The maple tree Mom had so devotedly cared for was swaying its red leaves, a million or more red palms waving good morning to me. The ground was still wet with dew, and the smell of the drenched grass and fallen leaves made the air seem even fresher. Across the street, Ms. Wiggons was taking her giant husky dog, Polar, for a walk. She waved to me when she saw me, and I waved back, smiling at her.
Ms. Wiggons is a divorced woman in her forties. After her husband left her, she took off her housewife disguise and went on with her life, getting a decent job as a chef at the Dynasty Restaurant Leona and I went to the night before, and eventually adopting Polar, whom she treats like her second spouse, even devoting more of her time to caring for the husky than she ever did talking to her former husband. Yet she isn’t one of a kind in our neighborhood. Mrs. Kirma, who lives a few doors next to us and whose husband died of lung cancer only a few months ago, had thought that she would never be able to live without her beloved one. But as it turned out, she used the money her husband had left for her and opened a small gift shop, where she sells all sorts of wooden carvings she has made based on Mr. Kirma’s designs. She says even though her husband has passed away, his spirit is still with her, existing in all the sketches and drawings she had found when she was cleaning up his study room.
Looking towards the direction of Mrs. Kirma’s house, it is hard to ignore the blaming red peonies of Mr. Dai’s garden. Mr. Dai is a Singaporean immigrant who is a better gardener than any woman in town. His famous peonies are as large as a human face, and can bloom all year long. When the snow piles up so high you could walk right across the fences of people’s yards, Mr. Dai’s peonies would still be visible, as if their flaming red petals could melt the falling snow.
It was not until I neared the small stream flowing through our neighborhood that I realized I had wandered off from our lawn. I found a dry rock and lay down on it, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine and the music of the flowing water. When I was younger, younger than Samantha was now, I used to always come to this place to catch whatever I could find. At that time, small fish and tadpoles still swam in the clear, fresh water. Frogs had sat on the green and blue pebbles, croaking away their love songs. Some white herons that had stood as tall as I was had skillfully caught fish with single, carefully-aimed pecks. Now it is more difficult to see these inhabitants of the stream. Even though the community has tried its best to keep the water clean and healthy, trash and dirty fluids still contaminate the stream, killing the fish and all the other creatures that had took the place as home.
Although my old companions are no longer there, I still find myself wandering off to this place whenever I find the time. Although it seems like not a creature dares to live near the water again, there are still many birds chirping in the trees, and occasionally I will find some small frogs hiding behind stones, as if they are still not willing to let go of this place, despite how different it is from before. With the sun shining from above like the fireplace of a chilly winter day, the birds were chirping happy songs above me. Even though leaves were turning red and falling everywhere, it felt like the first day of spring.
Dazed by the sunlight, I dozed off for a while, dreaming about nothing. When I woke up again, I thought I was seeing doubles, because right in front of me were two suns. But as my vision became clearer, the suns turned out to be two round, orange eyes.
“Freeman!” I yelped, flinging my torso up and almost knocking my head with his. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Hahaha! Jamesy looks like he saw a ghost.” Freeman sat down with a thump next to me, poking a finger at my chest as if accusing me of something.
I stood up violently and started to walk away along the stream. I was having such a wonderful day I didn’t want him to ruin it with whatever power he possessed that could destroy any moment of my life.
I didn’t need to look behind me to know who the crazy footsteps following me belonged to.
“Tutto loves this stream too.” Freeman was practically singing. “Tutto’s daddy always went fishing here with Tutto.”
“Yeah, and why didn’t he just drown you when he had such a big chance?” I muttered and hastened my speed, though I knew I would never be able get away from him.
“Tutto came here every day, ever since he could walk. He knew everyone here. He knew every fish and tadpole in the stream by name, and he could make the frogs approach him with a single whistle. The big white herons would carry him on their backs and take him for a ride, and Tutto also saw Jamesy catching fish beside the water many times too!”
I stopped in my tracks so suddenly Freeman literally crashed into me. He fell into the flowing water with a splash, laughing and cheering at his own misfortune. I hurriedly helped him up before he could do more damage to himself. I made him sit down quietly on a flat rock, and knelt down in front of him, holding his hands and looking into his orange eyes as a father would when he had something important to say to his mischievous son.
“You saw me all those years ago?” I asked, as seriously as I could, though it was hard to act stern when the person you were talking to was drenched to the stomach, bobbing up and down and giggling like a lunatic.
“Tutto knew everyone here.” He said simply, and started shaking his head like a wet dog, sending the water in his hair splashing everywhere around him, including my face.
Despite how frustrated and angry I was, I drew a deep breath and tried again in a calm voice. “Did you know who I was?”
Freeman’s hands escaped my grasp and grabbed my shoulders as he stared straight into my eyes, imitating my stern attitude. “Tutto knew everyone here.” He said again.
I shook my head in disbelief. I never knew anyone had been watching me when I had sneaked over to this stream many years ago. I had always thought this was my own private space, so secret I felt like I was the only living person in the world.
“Did you see me do anything?” I demanded.
“Jamesy was having fun.” Freeman’s sightline was fluttering all over the place, and I could see that he wasn’t telling the truth. I fought back the urge to slap him on the face. Even though I was trying to force out of him whatever he saw, I knew perfectly well what he saw me do that was so private he didn’t find it appropriate to announce.
The ancient scars that dotted my thigh started to tingle uncomfortably. It had been years since I ever thought about them. I tried to push the rushing memories out of my mind, but they were like the pollution in the stream, impossible to get rid of. I remembered how every time I came here, to this calm and fresh stream, I would sit down and scoop up a handful of fish and tadpoles. I would put them into a container that I brought with me, and I would watch as they swam frantically inside their prison, knocking their heads on the insides of the wooden container, as if trying to break through the wood.
I have always been the sunny boy in everyone’s eyes, ever since I can remember. Before Samantha was born, I was the dead center of my parents’ attention. Everything I did was monitored by their proud and caring eyes, and everything they did was for my good. They would take me out to visit other families, and they would encourage me to show off my talents in front of everybody. All the people in my town knew that I could tap dance at the age of four, and could walk around doing handstands when I was only six. They envied my parents because their beloved son was always the smartest student in class, and every teacher in school thought of me as their favourite pupil.
Although I was always praised for my talents and intelligence, I had never wanted to be the one that every parent told their children to look up to. I hated to perform in front of everyone; it humiliated me to make myself look like one of the dancing monkeys in circuses. Because of my cleverness, and the special privileges teachers bestowed on me, many of the kids who thought they could never be better than me cursed me. They didn’t let me play with them at recess time, and always found ways to exclude me when we were doing class activities.
Of course, neither my parents nor my teachers knew how lonely I felt. They all assumed because I was so bright and friendly to everyone, I could get along easily with my peers. I never had the courage to tell them about my problems, because I didn’t want to shatter their expectations for me. I eventually learned the skill of having two faces. When I was with everyone else, especially with the adults, I would put on my sunny-boy mask, smiling at everyone and acting like nothing in the world could trouble my young and pure heart. Yet, when I was alone, I would discard of that pathetic disguise, throw it somewhere far enough so I wouldn’t have to think of it, yet still within reach so I can quickly put it on when I needed to.
It was at this stream that I would reveal my true face.
After the fish and tadpoles in my container gave up trying to escape, I would drain the water by pulling out a long nail I had hammered into the wood. Then I would leave the container out in the blazing sun to dry. Every time I waited for the heat of the sunlight to take the water in the container away, I would notice that the frogs were croaking unusually loudly and furiously, and the birds would be chirping nervously, as if they all knew that something bad was happening in their neighborhood. But I didn’t care what they might have been thinking. I was experiencing enough negative opinions from my peers; how could some angry accusations from these petty creatures do me harm?
When the shadows of the tall trees shifted from west to east, I would slowly walk over to my wooden container. By that time the container would be dry to the bottom, and inside, dried fish and tadpole corpses would lay motionlessly; the sun had stolen the water, as well as their souls.
I would take my wooden container to the flowing water, and one-by-one return my dead victims back into the stream, mentally counting the number of souls I had killed. Then, I would sit down beside the water, and stab my thigh with the long nail I had pulled from the container. Each stab would bring a dot of red blood to my dark skin, and each dot resembled a fish or tadpole I had killed. I would count out loud, stabbing myself until the number I shouted out was equivalent to the number of victims that had laid in my container.
As I retrieved my horrible past from my repressed memory, I absentmindedly rubbed my thigh with a hand. I still know the exact amount of scars that dot my skin: a hundred.
One day I was by the stream, stabbing myself as if it were a routine, a cure for the bitterness in my heart, when somebody came up to me and stopped me with a firm hand. I remember I had looked up, and that somebody had said in a calm and soothing voice, “Now you’ll have something to celebrate The Hundredth Day of School with.”
That was all the person had said before walking away with the heavy footsteps of booted feet. The next day, everyone was busy showing to their classmates the a hundred items they had collected. An obese kid had a hundred chocolate chips pasted onto his T-shirt, and a girl had a huge display of a hundred Barbie dolls in a hundred different outfits.
Although I never showed my hundred nail wounds on my thigh to my classmates, on that day my life in school had suddenly made a turn to the brighter side. When it was my turn to show and tell, I simply said that I was chased by a hundred bees the day before, and that I would show the hundred red dots on my thigh when I could take the bandage off. To my surprise, the class burst out into cheerful laughter, and even the boys that had excluded me from their group gave me high-fives and pats on the back when I returned to my place in the circle we had formed on the carpet. I have been hanging out with the boys until now. Albert Hunter, Paul O’Lee, and Daichi Yamamoto had changed from the jealous peers that made me want to kill myself, to the inseparable buddies I can’t live without. Four years later, Samantha was born, and I was no longer the heart of my parents’ attention. I was actually very grateful of the fact, and I helped my parents take care of my baby sister as if she were my very first pet. The pressure of constantly having to be the best in everything gradually left my shoulders, and I found the sunny-boy mask unnecessary. My happiness was genuine then, and my popularity grew each day. I had pushed my dreadful childhood memories to the very back of my mind, and the stream had turned from a dumpster where I disposed of all my anger, to a place of relaxation and joy.
I never got to learn the identity of the person who stopped me from hurting myself. I couldn’t even be sure whether the person was a man or a woman. I couldn’t even recall his or her age.
But there is one thing I could remember of the person’s face. When my stabbing was stopped by the strong hand and I had looked up, I could clearly recall myself seeing orange, the same colour of the autumn sun, the leaves on the maple tree, and Tutto Freeman’s eyes.
“It was you.” I whispered to Freeman, so silently even I had to wonder if I said something.
Freeman looked at me with his stupid grin, his orange eyes glimmering under the sunlight of the same hue. I didn’t know what he was thinking; I didn’t know if he even knew he had changed my life to the better.
Life is full of surprises: the people who had hated you ever since you knew them could turn out to be your best friends; the person whom you tried your best to ignore could turn out to be your long-ago saviour.
-羅寗 Michelle Ning Lo