Everything is the same. The same vape shop, the same sundae shop, and the same lingerie shop.
Zhou Shen trudges down the street to a small convenience store where he works part-time at, unthinkingly; he has started working here before university started, and walking down the same path for days does make you memorise it whether you like it or not. Zhou Shen thinks, if he is to walk from the train station to the shop, he can do it with his eyes closed. The store he works at is a small little shop, located fourth in the middle of a long roll of ground floor buildings.
He knocks on the green hinges of the door frame with care, scare that it will fall apart by his own hand one unfortunate day, and yells on top of his lungs: “Grannie! I am here!”
“Shen Shen! My goodness, is that you? You are here early today! Come, come, I need some help carrying these to the conner…”
Zhou Shen quickly dashes in and takes the boxes from the old lady. After putting them to their designated place, he stands up and pats his hand clean, turning around to shove his bag into a locker and putting on his apron while rearranging the small trinkets on the counter. What a busy sight.
Today, the sun shines brightly onto the streets, and Zhou Shen closes his eyes blissfully for a moment to take in the smell that summer brings, no matter how much he prefers spring or autumn more than summer; He can identify the plasticky smell of burnt tyres, the heavy smell of eucalyptus leaves from a bushland reserve not far away, and also a hint of smoke because of the bushfire from the mountains on the other side.
The owner of the shop is an old grannie, who likes to drag a chair to sit by the door of the shop every day at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, tutting her lips and patting the cats that curl always up under the sun with her. It is a familiar sight for Zhou Shen, one that feels like it won’t change no matter how long he will work here. Sometimes she hums small tunes under her breath while sweeping between the aisles, and sometimes, Zhou Shen joins her too.
It is Wednesday, and the shop is generally quiet until the rush hour, so Zhou Shen gratefully takes out his work, sighing at the thickness of the read for this week and sets off to work.
Something feels different today. Zhou Shen can almost see the unfamiliarity itching simmering under his skin, threatening to break free and consume him whole. Taking a deep breath to resist the urge to scratch, he tries to go about his day as normally as he can, but life, being the little shit that it is, decides to mess with him for a little bit.
In his first class, his tutor informs them happily the mark for a group project is being released today, and they can login to their student account to check it. Zhou Shen almost forgets what it was, until he saw the 50.2%, glaring and signalling that he barely pass the assessment. It was an easy project, and Zhou Shen planned to get it done weeks before the due date.
However, not one of them replied to him until four days before the due date. By then, Zhou Shen had already finished his parts, and tried his best to organise what was left for everyone else to do. They managed to finish the project three hours it was due, and by then Zhou Shen had given up hopes for it, and prayed that they would at least pass the assessment.
Now, eyes sweeping around the class, Zhou Shen decides that fuck it, no one is paying attention anyway as the teacher is explaining the problems, so he stands up, grabs his bag and strides out of the class. The teacher says nothing, already use to the student leaving the class whenever they want.
At least the people who did the project with him had enough sense to look ashamed of themselves.
The sweet potato chip from canteen smells good, and is over-priced, as always. Zhou Shen naively thinks that maybe, the itch from the morning was just his imagination after all, because everything seems fine now that he has one of his favourite food in his hand.
From afar, the school garden he always goes to seems to be… blocked off. Upon closer look, he realises with disappointment that a lot of the plants were uprooted, and tree trunks vandalised with crude words. Zhou Shen flinches and tries to swallow down the discomfort. Deciding to go somewhere else instead, he turns around, only to be knocked onto the ground by a person who is skateboarding past.
“Holy f… Are you ok? I am sorry I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough!”
Why is someone skateboarding on the school ground? What the fuck?
The person grabbed Zhou Shen by his arm and pulled him up.
“It’s ok, I am not hurt or anything…”
He trails off when he sees the spilled chips on the ground. He must have looked so sad that the person spoke up nervously.
“I, I can buy you another one?”
Zhou Shen tries to smile as convincingly as he can and reassures the person one more time that it is fine, readjusts his bag and walks off.
The itch is still there when he walks into the shop. Grannie comes over to him in slow shuffles and pats him on the shoulder.
“Shen Shen? I have some food left for you. I made them this morning, you should take a rest and eat some before you start. It’s ok.”
It is then the tear comes. Zhou Shen sniffles a little bit and wipes the stray tears away.
Grannie always knows when something isn’t right. Seeing the big cinnamon roll makes Zhou Shen feel better, and by the time Grannie gives him her signature chilled lemon tea, his is already cheerier than the last five minutes.
“Thanks, Grannie! You are the best!”
She huffs fondly and pats him again, this time on the head. Zhou Shen beams at her and gratefully takes a huge bite, humming in appreciation at the deliciousness.
“Come sit with me and cats later. There won’t be a lot of people today. Although there is a boy…”
Sometimes, Grannie will say things out of the blue like she can see the future, and truthfully, Zhou Shen was a bit sceptical at first, but soon learns that one shouldn’t doubt her sixth sense. What she says is always accurate and will come true at some point, so he nods at Grannie, and starts his daily routine at the shop.
Just as she said, there are fewer people than usual, and then finally there is none at all when the rare summer thunderstorm rolls in.
Everyone is rushing to get home, no one spares a glance at the small convenience store. Grannie lets the cats into the shop and pulls up two chairs in front of the crackling radio. She hands Zhou Shen a packet of biscuits. The cats purr softly around them, some even try to climb onto Zhou Shen’s lap. He chuckles and lifts them onto his thighs, and sits back to enjoy the moment. The radio blasts old songs, and Grannie is humming lowly to them, creating a peaceful atmosphere.
Zhou Shen isn’t sure how long they spent sitting in front of the radio. The tranquillity is broken when he hears someone running into the shop clumsily, probably trying to find a shelter in the rain.
A boy about his age carrying a faded blue backpack swipes his eyes swipe the shop lightly, taking in the collections of chips and soft drinks that are being sold. Nothing really caught his attention except the glowing freezer at the back. The boy walks over and stands there, seemingly taking a while to select an ice cream or icy poles. He taps his foot impatiently on the tiled floor, tongue sticking out of his mouth, and picks up a double pop. But then, he puts it back, closing the freezer with a sigh. Zhou Shen notices that the boy was wearing a pair of red and yellow mismatched socks, and watches as he walks out of the store without anything, to the bus stop across the street.
For the next few weeks, Zhou Shen would see the boy at the shop, albeit infrequently. Their interactions are few and far between. It stops at the boy handing Zhou Shen a packet of chewing gums, Zhou Shen scanning the said packet of chewing gums, Zhou Shen saying the total out loud, the boy handing him the amount with a nod, and Zhou Shen saying ‘thank you for coming’ to the boy’s retreating figure.
It is the same every time. Nothing more, nothing less. And Zhou Shen thinks the boy doesn’t notice him at all.
Zhou Shen is standing at a beach, the sun nowhere to be seen, and the sky a depressing grey. He looks out, only to see an endless expanse of clouds and he sees nothing, hears nothing. He can remotely feel is the water gently lapping at his bare feet, though. Looking down, the surface of the water is bubbly with foams, clinging onto him when the waves go out. Zhou Shen bends down and scoops them up, laughing lightly at how it feels weightless in his hand.
Then, Zhou Shen feels a tap on his shoulder.
He reels around. There is no one behind him. Scanning around conspicuously for a few more seconds, he frowns and shakes his head in confusion. It was probably the wind or he imagined it, he thinks, despite the stillness and the placidity of the surrounding. Zhou Shen stands up and it feels like a good idea to take a walk around, because why not find something to do before the anticipation of something eats you up from the inside?
Quiet. So, so quiet. Then Zhou Shen starts to walk.
It feels like hours has passed when Zhou Shen stumbles across a body, curling up on the sand, their breathing measured and steady. He thinks that maybe he should feel panic at the sight of a potentially dead body, but he knows he is dreaming, and the feeling is being muffled down by the fact that nothing here makes sense. Looking closer, Zhou Shen realises with a revelation that it’s the boy that comes into the shop for an ice pop in the afternoon.
The boy is wearing a red t-shirt, and it seems so loud to Zhou Shen’s eyes in the bland landscape.
“Hey. Hey, can you hear me?”
Zhou Shen squats down next to the boy and pushes him into a better position; there are sands in his hair, sands on his face, sands all over his body. The boy scrunches his eyebrow and blearily blinks open his eyes as Zhou Shen’s eyes slowly light up in recognition.
“Oh, you are the boy from the shop.”
Under the tranquillity of the grey sky and gentle waves, they stare at each other for a few seconds. The boy opens his mouth unhurriedly and grinned at Zhou Shen sleepily.
“ ‘guess we should go back now, now that I am awake.”
Then, before Zhou Shen can say anything else, the boy is grinning at him and he sees the swirl of colour in the boy’s eyes, threatening to spill over, then he wakes up.
It feels like the walls are closing on him, the blanket suddenly too thick and the pillow too hard for his comfort. Disorientated, Zhou Shen sits up on the bed and glances at the bedside clock, which blinks 4:26AM in soft lime flashes back at him. Seeing that the sun is going to rise in maybe 10 minutes, since it’s summer and the sun always rise at the obnoxious hours in the morning in this fiery season, he decides to brush up and take a walk instead.
Zhou Shen loves walking in the bushland by himself.
Despite people telling him that there might be a potential danger, like the handful of poisonous spiders and colourful lizards that he had been warned about, but Grannie had nodded with a small smile when he talked about the bushland, so he guesses it’s fine; nothing will go wrong unless he launches himself at a blue tongue lizard or something. The earthy tang of the soil brings Zhou Shen’s wandering mind to a stop, and he is calm.
By the time his classes finish, Zhou Shen can already feel the tiredness seeping into his bones, and struggles to make the trip to the shop. Lulled by the afternoon heat, Zhou Shen dozes off at the counter not long after arriving. The radio crackles in the background, and the smell of burnt tyres is especially strong today.
Just as he is about to fall into a deep sleep, he is woken up by a light tapping on his shoulder, and the feeling of déjà vu settles in his stomach. He looks up instinctively, and this time, he sees someone there; the boy stands in front of him, as real as he can ever be.
A packet of chewing gum is placed onto the counter once more, but this time a double pop joins in. The boy’s eyes a warm brown, blazing and bursting with purple daisies and yellow dandelions at the seams, and he gazes at Zhou Shen with a tinge of familiarity.
“Hi, sorry to introduce myself so late. My name is Hua Chen Yu. Do you mind sharing this double pop with me?”
Zhou Shen startles for a second, then he smiles, and nods.
And everything is still the same. The same vape shop, the same sundae shop, and the same lingerie shop. Yes, it seems monotonous, yet, with you, comes the colour. It should feel like nothing, but it is everything to me.
- End -
1. At the beach, why didn’t Zhou Shen panic when he came across a body on the ground?
a. The person was still alive, so there was no reason to panic.
b. It was a mannequin, so there was no reason to panic.
c. Because nothing make sense at that moment and he is dreaming, so there was no reason to panic.
2. What is the recurring theme of this story?
a. The recurring theme of how mundane life is
b. The recurring theme of nothing and everything
c. The recurring theme of spending time with oneself, and pondering over the small things in life
3. What does déjà vu mean?
a. An uncanny sensation where you feel that you've already experienced something, even when you know you never have
b. A deceptive outer appearance, or the front of a large, attractive building
c. A bond; a relationship, a link, a connection with someone