It was another day for Lee Chang Ryul.
This morning, while he was sitting on his chair, an egg was thrown straight to his forehead. It made an audible crack, and what most of us did was look at him. Everybody except me laughed, and right at that very moment, he stormed out of the classroom and proceeded to the men's bathroom. I watched every single action he did, until he went out of my sight. Kim Sang Woo, the "deadliest" guy in our school, walked up to where I was and slung his arm around my shoulders.
"So, what do you think of my stunt a while ago?" he said, smiling his treacherous grin. He always did that to him. He loved to bully him, just because Chang Ryul was weak and vulnerable.
"Cool." I said lamely and left him alone. I stopped for a while and looked at the mess Sang Woo created. The thick, and somewhat colorless liquid of the egg lay on the floor.
"Clean it, Sang Woo. Or else I'll let you eat that." I sharply said and left that noisy place.
I wondered if Chang Ryul was still there. I wanted to check on him, to know if he's alright, even though I knew he wasn't. As I opened the door, I saw him leaning on the counter. He silently cried over what happened, and when he looked up, he threw a blank look on my face.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. The way he looked at me in the eyes softened every part of my being. Sang Woo was right. He was weak and vulnerable, but there shouldn't be any reason why he should treat Chang Ryul that way.
"I-I just want you to know how you're doing." I answered, then I noticed the red mark etched on his forehead. I moved a little bit and looked at it closely. It was really red, due to the heavy impact.
"I'm sorry." I said.
He moved a step further away from me. "It's okay." he lifelessly said and walked away from me. I could have spoken if he hadn't left. I wanted to tell him that everything would be fine, and I'd do everything to straighten out Sang Woo's crooked principles.
Ever since Lee Chang Ryul enrolled here in Sungkwon High School, he experienced a series of misfortunes that started to dim his once cheerful face. On the first day of school, he was smiling and vibrant, and when none of us dared to befriend him, he became so gloomy. I could have crowned him as the world's ultimate loner.
And then the bullying took place. Kim Sang Woo, my second degree cousin and my classmate as well, pioneered the harsh act. Something deep inside urged me to stand up for him, but Sang Woo always threatened me to let me suffer more than what Chang Ryul had undergone. So I remained on the corner, just watching Chang Ryul suffered the way he shouldn't be.
One time, as Chang Ryul was walking down the hallway, Sang Woo threw a banana peel on the floor, causing him to slip on the ground. Again, every single student in that place saw it, but never cared to help him. He stood up without saying anything and headed to where he planned to go.
I confronted Sang Woo about this, and he met my own eyes with rage.
"I can't believe you, Yong Hwa! I'm tired of you saying to me to stop harming Chang Ryul. He annoys me every time I see him, and there's something within me that urges me to kill him."
With his words, a sudden memory struck in my mind.
"Can't you still get over about what happened before? I shouldn't have saved you, only to know you'd be that cruel. Got it?" I repeated and turned my back on him.
I repeated and turned my back on him.
Just as I took a couple of steps farther, he grabbed my arm and punched my face. His angry yet affected face didn't move me an inch. Instead it made me eager to fight him.
"Don't you ever dare bring up that thing again, or else I'll surely kill you."
"Kill me if you want. See you in hell." I countered and wiped off the stains of blood scattered on my mouth.
"Oh, and one more thing. Chang Ryul's gonna die out of depression, not because of you." I added and left him alone.
I proceeded to the lockers to get some things. Our PE class was scheduled in the next hour, and I had to prepare my things. Chang Ryul was silently standing in front of his locker, doubting as if he would open it or not. I stood in front of mine and watched him closely. As he put the key in the hole and swung it open, he turned white with what he saw. His rubber shoes was slashed a number of times, and its heel was burned with acid. He couldn't stop his tears from streaming down his face. He held it tightly, and clenched his jaw. And as far as I know, it was his favorite pair of shoes.
I opened my locker and gave my shoes to him.
"Here. Use it for today's class." I said, handing the shoes for him to accept.
He looked at me, stunned. "No. we have a class. You should wear that."
"I don't mind. It's just PE. And besides, Sang Woo's face sucks." I added.
He smiled, and it left me in a state of absolute bliss. It has been months since I saw him smile, to go back to the Chang Ryul I first laid my eyes on.
He took the shoes and wore it. Thank God it fit on his average-sized feet.
"It's yours. Don't bother to hand it back to him." I said.
He looked up. "Thanks…" he said, not knowing what to call me.
"Yong Hwa. Geum Yong Hwa."
"Thanks, Yong Hwa. I guess I owe you one."
"Don't mention it." I said.
Without any hesitation, I believed that Sang Woo did that terrible thing to Chang Ryul's shoes. He was the only one who hated him, like he was a monster or something. And now, as I watched him get along with our classmates in our class, I felt sympathy overrule my heart more than any other emotion. He was out of place, and none of them even dared to spend a few minutes with him. From where I stood, I instantly made a decision that would benefit him and kill Sang Woo in anger.
"Chang Ryul!" I called out as he made his way out of the school.
He turned to me. The look in his eyes seemed exhausted, and it softened my heart up to its deepest core, again.
"Yong Hwa." I finished for him. How could he be so forgetful?"
"Right. Yong Hwa." he said.
"Are you going home?"
"Yeah." he plainly said and looked at the shoes that I gave him.
"Can I go with you?" I asked.
He paused for a while to think, and suddenly, he arrived at a certain decision. "Sure, let's go."
I smiled and we both headed home. I knew he felt a little awkward with me because he always preferred to be alone. Trying to get through him was one thing I should do, for I know in myself that I can be a friend to him.
While walking, Chang Ryul suddenly spoke to me.
"It's a good thing I have someone by my die now. Why did you change, Yong Hwa?" he said.
"No, I didn't change. I just want to be your friend."
He grinned, but his eyes told me that he was sad.
"Well, thanks for being one. But if you're only doing this because you feel pity for me or just to piss Sang Woo off, you better stop this one. I don't want to put you in trouble. That costs me a lot of worry."
I was hit, straight through my very being. I don't have to stop, and I won't give him up. There's a bright day ahead of him, and soon he would get out of the dark room he was in.
"I'm not putting myself into trouble, Chang Ryul. I'm ending this, so Sang Woo won't bother you anymore."
He didn't answer, and I managed to shift the topic.
"Can you tell me a little bit about you? I haven't known anything since you enrolled in Sungkwon High."
Again, he was hesitant, but I encouraged him to move on.
"I don't want to boast, but I come from a wealthy family. My dad owns the biggest shopping conglomerate here in Korea. My parents are separated ever since I was a child. I grew up in a secluded world, with all the money I have, but not the people who truly love and care for one another."
"Did you ever see your mother?"
"Yeah, only once. I never saw her again, and as a result, dad became so cold to me. He was always on business trips, leaving me alone with maids and butlers. He also assigned tutors to teach me. That's why I never had a friend. I was kept at the house, because he said the world is dangerous outside."
I felt like everything fell into place. The pity I had for him became stronger, and it urged me to stand by his side, though I would be his only friend. After hearing this, I realized how lonely his life was, and how much he missed the beauty of the world. It must have been hard for him to deal with it. If I were in his shoes, I'd surely feel the same way. Or worst yet, I'd drive myself crazy. Giving up was never an option, and the least I could do is to be there for him. From the outside, he looked weak and vulnerable, but seeing who he is inside was much worse than I thought. Lee Chang Ryul needed a friend. He was alone and utterly helpless. Despite all the wealth that he had, he couldn't but what he needed the most.
"Don't worry, if someone tries to harm you again, you have a shoulder to lean on." I said.
He smiled. "Thank you." And all of a sudden, we stopped walking.
"This is my house." he said.
As I ran my eyes along the structure, my jaw dropped in awe. He was indeed wealthy, living in a very luxurious house.
"Do you want to come in? You're very welcome." he invited.
I shook my head. "No, thanks. I still have something to do." I lied. I was so shy with him, though I never meant it to be that way. I quickly walked to the nearest waiting shed and waited for a bus to come by.
From then on, Chang Ryul and I became good friends. We were always together in school, which the people found so very strange. I always had my arm slung around his shoulders, so that if anyone dared to lay a finger on him, I'd break down his bones. There was even a rumor that we had a hidden relationship. I laughed it out loud and made it clear to them that it was wrong.
"I'm sorry," Chang Ryul apologized one day, when we were eating our boxed lunch in our favorite spot- under a tree with a wooden bench away from the main building. I stopped chewing my food for a while and looked at him.
"There's no need to ask for one." I said.
"I know, but I have to. You've been facing rumors because of me."
"Those are not true, and I proved them really wrong. What do you have to worry about?"
"Okay." he said, understanding what I just explained to him.
It was nice to see him smile again after a long time. He didn't feel bothered by anyone when he's with me. I realized that he was fun to be with, the thing that others didn't see in him, he exuded a joyful character and offered comfort to me. I became at ease with him, and so he was with me.
I was alone in the classroom one time, when Sang Woo and his gang came in to confront me. He grabbed the collar of my shirt and looked at me with a pair of furious eyes.
"You rascal! What makes you think that you can protect Chang Ryul by being a friend to him? You'e just doing it out of pity, right?" he said.
I clenched my teeth in ager.
"Get off me." I answered.
"What?" And he tightened his grip on me.
"You better wake up, man. He's been hurt because of you, and I want to get him out of it. Isn't it that clear?"
He shook me hard. "I told you before. I'll let you suffer just like him. I'm the authority here, so you better bow your head down.""
I kicked his knee and punched his face. When he fell down on the floor, I spat my answer to him.
"Quit pestering me, or else I'll kill you."
The next morning, I saw Sang Woo in crutches, suffering from the pain and injury that he received from me yesterday. His friends were right behind him, always ready to support him if ever something happened. Chang Ryul was quietly walking to his classroom, when he accidentally met him along the way.
"Hey, do you mind if I talk to you for a minute?" Sang Woo said.
"What?" he asked.
Sang woo gave his crutches to his friends and gave Chang Ryul a hard blow on the cheek. It caused him to almost fall, but he stood up straight.
"Do you think you can get away from me? Just because Yong Hwa is always there to protect, you can do everything you want? Don't kid me, Lee Chang Ryul. I know how weak you are. And you'll never get stronger by having someone beside you."
"This is too much." Chang Ryul stressed.
"I said this is enough!" he yelled and pushed Sang Woo with all his force. My cousin fell on the ground, but all he could do was look at him in shock and anger. His friends helped him to stand up, and he snatched something from his pocket. He opened a Swiss knife, and aimed it at Chang Ryul.
"Run away if you don't want to die." he said, but he made it seem like a threat. I quickly ran to where they were standing, and when Sang Woo moved his hand to stab Chang Ryul, I slid in between them and hugged my friend. I felt the knife dig on my side, and a painful groan escaped out of my mouth.
"Yong Hwa!" I heard Chang Ryul shout in panic. My eyelids were beginning to close, and everything around me turned black.
"Yong Hwa?" Chang Ryul's voice awakened me in the middle of a hot afternoon. He was sitting on a chair beside my bed, and panic was obvious in his face. I tried to move but my body hurts.
"Sang Woo stabbed you instead of me. I'm sorry." he said. I recalled what happened a while ago. Damn, my cousin just used his precious knife on me.
"It's okay. Don't think about me. Have you eaten?" I asked.
"No, I'm not yet hungry. Do you want something?"
"I'm fine. I don't want anything. Sang Woo bothered you again, and I have to be there. He almost killed you." I said.
"You don't have to do that. Look at yourself now. You almost died. They're blaming me because of this."
I stopped after hearing what he said. People become so narrow-minded when it came to him, though the one who instigated this was my cousin.
"Where's Sang Woo?" I asked instead.
"He's in the principal's office. In two weeks, he'll be out of school."
I sighed. That was just right for him.
While I was confined for a couple of days, Chang Ryul stayed by my side almost all day. He met my mother and sister, and I told them what happened. I got the best scolding from my mom, and she said she'd kill Sang Woo for this. On the last afternoon before I was discharged, Chang Ryul brought me to the hospital gardens to relax. He pushed my wheelchair, and I breathed all the fresh air that came along our way.
"Okay. We're here." he said, putting me near a bench. He sat there, smiling.
"What's with the smile? Are you feeling happy?" I said.
He looked at me. "I just want to be happy while I'm still with you."
"What do you mean?" I asked, confused.
He let out a big gulp of air. "I hate to say this, but I'm leaving for England tomorrow. Dad wants me to be there and continue my studies. So much has happened here, and I don't want to be your burden anymore." he said.
I couldn't find words to stop him. He was one of my true friends. It was in him that I learned what true friendship means. I swallowed and tried to smile. If it was his decision, I know I should let him be.
"Is that final?"
Though it was hard to accept, I made it clear to myself. Chang Ryul should free himself from all those bullies for him to survive. I reached over and hugged him tightly.
"Yong Hwa, you're back!" Sae In, oe of y classmates, greeted when I entered the classroom two days after I was discharged from the hospital. I smiled and put my bag on my table. Sang woo was just expelled yesterday, and it caused a roaring celebration of the whole school. They've been asking me where Chang Ryul is, and I said he already left for England. Though they didn't care about him, I know they find it strange why we aren't together. I went out for a while and opened my locker to get some books. I saw the rubber shoes that I gave to Chang Ryul when I escaped P.E. class. There was a sticky note attached into it and read:
Thank you for everything. I'm giving these back to you. Take care.
I smiled. He was still thoughtful in any way. Though our friendship spanned in such a short time, I would always remember it forever.
By Franz V. Correa
02:17 pm (Philippine Time)