“Jamey!” Paul greeted me as soon as he saw me walk into the locker room after classes. It was the day after Halloween. “How d’you like our story-telling last night?”
“Yeah, dude.” Albert slapped me on the back with the force that could set a ship off to sea. “We didn’t even see you at the after-show party. Did you leave early?”
I gave them my brightest smile, but slowly backed away. “Yeah. Samantha has an English project due today, and she needed my help.” The statement was half-true. I had left for home as soon as the zombie story ended with Zombie-Boy making friends with a group of people dressed in their Halloween costumes. I had gotten home exhausted yet restless, and when Samantha had asked me if I could help her with her homework, I had been more than willing to. At least I had something to do to temporarily rid my throbbing head of guilt and frustration.
“We really knocked the air out of all those people!” Daichi said, high-fiving the other two boys. “They were laughing their guts out.”
“That Zombie-Boy’s gonna be a star.” Albert said, grinning.
Daichi nodded. “You wouldn’t believe how zombie-ish he was last night when we were helping him do his moves. He was like a dummie or something.”
“Maybe he is dead. He was as stiff as a corpse.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
I silently crept away as the guys chatted excitedly about their successful Halloween performance. I turned a corner and, as if by nature, headed straight for the top of the building.
When I pushed open the heavy iron doors and stepped out into the bright November sun, the guy with the skinny body and two round, orange eyes was standing there, grinning at me as a toddler would grin at a new creature he had just caught.
“Jame-sy.” I didn’t know if hearing that sing-song voice really made me relieved or I was so tired even the maniac could cheer me up.
“Freeman, I have something to talk to you about.” I grabbed his shoulders with both hands, preventing him from starting his pathetic dancing.
There were still some faint traces of red and blue on his pale face. I could see that he had tried to wash the colours off, but it would take some time for the paint to fade away completely. Even parts of his pale hands were stained with the colours. His light amber hair looked worse. Streaks of red, blue, and also purple could be seen hiding near the scalp.
“Tutto’s listening.” The boy cupped his hands behind both ears to assure me.
I sighed. At least he’s himself again.
“Freeman. I want to thank you.”
Freeman stared at me with his large orange eyes and frowned. “Jamesy’s welcome.” His tone was nothing but confused.
“Look. I don’t know if you remember this, but, how many years? Twelve? Twelve years ago you…you saved me.” I looked deep into the nothingness of Tutto Freeman’s pupils. I searched for a flash of recognition, a sudden hint of realization that would dart across the pitch-blackness of the centers of his pupils like a shooting star. But I didn’t see anything.
“You don’t remember?” I asked desperately. Freeman raised an eyebrow and looked at me as I had always looked at him. Maybe I was going crazy.
“We were at the stream. I was…I was stabbing myself with the nail. You can’t forget something like that, can you?” Still no response.
I gave up. Maybe I was just imagining things. Maybe the person who came to stop my self-affliction didn’t have orange eyes. Maybe that person never really existed. Maybe I was spending too much time with Tutto Freeman I was going insane.
“Tutto’s daddy said hurting yourself is as serious as hurting somebody else.” Freeman was looking up at the grey sky. It was nearing the end of autumn, and the air felt dry and cold. “Tutto’s daddy told Tutto that people who commit suicide think there is no hope left in the world. They can’t see the future, and if they did, all they see is sadness and disaster. They can never notice the tiny leaves of a seed sprouting out from all the debris, green and full of life. They forget the fact that nightmares can be put to an end simply by waking up and facing reality. The real world isn’t always as dark and hopeless as these people think it is. All they have to do is look. Look and they’ll see the smile on the faces of people who they thought were suffering; look and they’ll find that even in the gloomy darkness of the night, stars will always manage to give off their small but dazzling light. Look and they’ll realize that it’s so easy to just laugh and go on. Miserable things can happen, but life will always move forward—you just have to allow it.”
I hung my head. At the age of six, when I was stabbing my own thigh with the nail, counting up to the number of fish and tadpoles I had killed, I thought I was releasing myself. I thought, by sinning, I could have an explanation for why I was excluded by my peers; by causing myself pain, I would have every right to curse the people that hated me. I thought, because I was suffering, I had the privilege to sin, and because I was sinning, I can let myself suffer.
But I was only hiding. I was hiding from the jealous glares and harsh insults of my classmates. I was hiding from the responsibility of meeting the expectations of not only my parents but all the other adults. I was hiding from having to pretend to be happy when all I could think of was sadness.
Now I can finally understand this: I was hiding from my real self.
I was always a sunny boy, even when I thought I was pretending. My parents and all the other grownups were always proud of me, even when I was exceeded by other children. I could always get along well with my peers, even when I thought I wasn’t welcomed.
It was the person, with or without orange eyes, who may or may not have come and stopped me from stabbing myself, that made me realize I could really be happy without a disguise. It was the person who told me that it was me who was excluding myself from my classmates because I was scared they hated me. It was the person who showed me that my parents were proud of me not because they thought I was perfect, but simply because they loved me.
“You have a wise father, Freeman.” I heard myself say.
“Tutto’s daddy knows everything.” Freeman was still gazing up at the sky, which was already darkening.
I could sense a pinch of sadness in his eyes.
“Can I ask you something?” I said carefully. When Freeman turned and faced me, I said slowly, “Did something happen to your father?”
Freeman gave me a bitter smile, the kind of smile I would see on the faces of widows or widowers, the heartbroken. It was a lonely smile.
“Tutto’s daddy never told Tutto where he went.” Freeman wasn’t rushing. He was speaking slowly and steadily, as if he wanted me to hear every word. “All he told Tutto before he disappeared was that there was something missing, but he wouldn’t need to go looking for it. He told Tutto that he should grow up now, that he should take care of himself now.”
Freeman didn’t sound sad. He didn’t cry. His voice didn’t crack. His smile was still there. But I could feel the grief literally. It was all in his words.
“Tutto’s daddy held Tutto’s hand and placed it on his chest, where his heart was. Tutto could feel the drummer’s beat in his daddy’s body. It was soft, like the feeling of ripples when you place your palm flat on the surface of the water. And then, it was gone. Tutto was about to look for it when he remembered his daddy’s words, so he didn’t look for it. And he promised his daddy he never will. Ever.”
I thought of the time when we were in my family’s living room, sitting in front of the wooden table with the world map carved onto it. Freeman had talked about World War Three happening in his or his father’s chest. It was hard to determine who and what he was referring to, but now it all made sense.
“Freeman.” I put a hand on Freeman’s shoulder, firm, steady, like the hand of the person who had stopped me twelve years ago. “I think your father had a heart-attack.”
Freeman stared at me with his wide orange eyes. The eyes had started to glimmer, like the starry night sky up above our heads. He was looking at me, but was looking past me, looking at something that was only visible to him.
“Heart. Attack.” He had whispered the words to himself, slowly and carefully, as if learning the words for the very first time.
-羅寗 Michelle Ning Lo