I

It was summer and the weather was unbelievably hot. I sweated a lot and lolled around in the house, hogging the electric fan. The windows of our tiny house were open but the wind chimes barely tinkled cheerfully, to herald the breeze. I saw my neighbour, Chuck, wave at me to follow him. I ignored him and turned to my side. It's too hot. I'm hungry and Mom is going to smack me for going out, again. As if my brother was not doing the same. I sighed. No doubt, he's just going to bully the new boy, Leo who was our newest neighbour.

Since he came, he received a lot of curious looks from us. His pale skin and his dark features were cleaner and more elegant than ours. Our skin, though pale, had hints of gold due to the days spent playing outside. Besides, he was quiet and so well-behaved that we looked like an unruly bunch compared to his blessed sainthood. It made matters worse that he was standoffish. Always rushing home after school, not greeting or making any friends. The latter being the worse sin because it is a sign of arrogance for a village that thrived in joining the bandwagon. Being raised in a farm, people in a small town like ours, are really wary of newcomers (not to mention small-minded), particularly from the city, who drove in shiny cars on our dusty roads when a good bike or a serviceable van would do.

"Oi! Thor!"

I hated that nickname. After our teacher told about some god dressing up as a bride to get his hammer back, one of my uncreative classmates started playing with my name. From Torie, it was reduced to Thor. I am not a boy! I'm a girl, okay? It's Victoria Smith. It's a perfectly girly name. I pinched my cheeks. I'm cute, okay? I have these round cheeks and this matching bob that, on really bad days makes me look and feel like a mushroom. Just because I'm not delicate and loves to play does not mean I'm a guy. I glared at Chuck. This snot-nosed brat. How dare he?!

"What?" I grumbled. I could hear him climbing the wall while I lay on the cool floor. His shadow fell across me.

"Let's see Leo, okay?"

"Why?" Irritated. I don't want to walk a dusty road in this heat. Just the thought of it makes my head ache.

"His mom says it's his birthday. She wanted to invite his friends."

"So, you're his friend, why don't you go?" I whined.

"Nobody in class wanted to go."

I rolled my eyes. That boy did not have any friends. Not with the way he's acting.

"Besides, I don't want to be the only one being called a pig."

I roused from his words. Who is he calling pig?! I like to eat but compared to him. . . I know I am better than him! Chuck continued to persuade me, comparing my mother's dishes. and the benefits of braving the heat for my taste buds. I saw my mother earlier, chopping some eggplants and some radishes and felt my stomach protest.

Mum did not have anything yummy for dinner.

Maybe I could sneak in some meat before nightfall?

But still, to brave the heat in the company of Chuck?

The thought of delicious food finally lured me. I reluctantly followed Chuck and trudged the dusty roads leading to Old Feng's house. The old man was renting one of his rooms to tourists (though I don't think anybody rented any of the rooms) and Leo and his mother were the only one's renting the place.

Before I could reach for the doorbell, Leo's voice rang. "What are you doing here?" He was standing behind us, wearing a white shirt and cotton shorts that emphasized how pale he was compared to us. His eyes were narrowed at us, turning into dark slits of suspicion.

I smiled at him, showing all teeth. "It's your birthday, we came to celebrate with you." I forgot to tell you. The one who baptized my nickname was this guy.

His scowled and said, "Go home."

"But we just came here and we are hungry." I said. I rubbed my tummy just to emphasize. I'm a growing a girl after all.

"Go—"

The door opened and we all turned to see a female version of Leo, whose face beamed at us. She was young and a trifle tired-looking. Her dark hair was lanky and dull but her eyes were bright and so was her smile. It was warm. I suddenly felt guilty. This beautiful woman really thought that we are Leo's friends. But we're not. Not really.

"Oh. You are Leo's friends?" The warm notes that caressed my ears gave me a cold sinking feeling. "Why don't you come in?"

I wanted to run but Chuck, this starved eight-year old smiled toothily and pulled me in. His pudgy hands gripped my elbows and dragged me inside. I turned to see Leo scowl at us. I showed him my tongue. Whose fault was it anyway?

A few minutes later, I was regretting my decision. It was one of the most dismal birthdays I have attended. It was just so painful to look. It seemed that Leo's mother tried hard, maybe too hard to make the room festive but failed miserably. Leo just turned seven that day. I was six. The room was small and humid. The windows were open but nary a wind entered. The ice cream and the cake were the cheap ones bought from the nearest convenient store. Even my mother could buy us a slightly better-tasting one. However, as per tradition, noodles and fried chicken were offered at the table. As we started to gorge ourselves with the food, I saw the tight features of Leo. His brow was wrinkled and his lips quivered. It was as if he was struggling not to cry.

I silently blamed Chuck for being a glutton. I blamed Leo for being a sour. . . And I blamed myself for being gullible. Lured by food, now my conscience was knocking nonstop. I looked at the sullen boy across me and felt angry. Why should I feel guilty? We were invited and we accepted. What is his problem?

I looked at his mother who was encouraging us to eat more. However, the more I looked at him, the more the food started to taste stale.

Then before I could say anything, Leo was running out.

"I am so sorry, dears," his mother gave us an apologetic smile and started chase after her child.

It was not until later on, that I heard from my grandparents that his mother was currently raising him while his father was away. It was not until I grew up that I realized that his father divorced his mother and married another richer woman. Leo had always been quiet and nobody in class would dare talk to him or meet his eyes—not the way he was glaring and looking at us with his dark eyes.

Dark eyes and dark lashes against a beautiful pale face. He was handsome but far too quiet to be showy—like the other guys. After his birthday, I did not want to approach him. I felt guilty for some reason. It was even more evident when he rushed past me in the hallways. I felt something squeeze my chest painfully at that snub. Then, the feeling started to ferment. I felt indignant! I was still mulling about this when our homeroom teacher saw me doodling on the corner of my book. He assigned me that day to hand out notes. As I tearfully handed the stacks of papers to my classmates, I was left with another one. It was for Leo. I waited for him but seeing no hint of his shadow, I made my decision. Just as I was planning to leave the paper on his desk I remembered that he was rushed to the clinic. Then, the door of the classroom opened and I saw Leo walk in.

"Teacher s-said that I should give this to you," I pushed the questionnaire to his chest and quickly averted my gaze.

He did not reply but I could feel his eyes on mine.

"Nnn."

I felt absurdly happy when he answered. So, he wasn't angry at me, yes? Frustrated, I turned to him, mimicking the stance of my mother when she wanted to bellow at us. I don't want to miss the episode of my favourite cartoon so I said with all the frustration I felt, "You, didn't you learn anything? You should say thank you when people do something good for you."

He looked shocked but was frozen in place. I did not have the heart to soften my words and instead ran towards the stairs. I need to go home and beat the elders from the TV. During that time, they only showed dramas and news. Few channels show cartoons so those episodes were gold for a starved child.

Unfortunately, when I reached the exit, the rain had started to fall and I did not have my umbrella because my younger brother had already hogged it for the day. So I sat there on the entrance, waiting for the rain to stop. I was cursing my bad luck. Why did it have to rain in the summer, eh? Why did I have to wait for Leo, that ungrateful brat? Then suddenly from behind, someone said to me, "Thank you."

My heart fell out from my chest.

It was the combined effect of his words and his entrance that had me thinking of the horror movies I sneaked with my cousin. Was it me or did I see a glimmer of laughter in those eyes? Before I could further contemplate, he was opening his umbrella and walking away. He stopped a few steps.

I wanted to go ask him but my mouth refused to move. My pride had overridden my love of watching for the first time.

As his figure disappeared, I tearfully prayed for the rain to stop. Next time, I won't do any good deed if I'm the one who's going to be punished!