During the hour long lunch break between their Saturday classes, Esi and her friend ventured out to a nearby store at the junction to buy some snacks. The other kids had gotten into a taxi and gone off to God knows where. She envied those kids, but all she could afford was a pack of bonbon biscuits, the remnants of which she clutched in her hands.
What are you doing! One of her friends hissed at her, motioning frantically for Esi to move while standing her ground some meters away.
Esi remained frozen in place. She had unwittingly turned to the call of a stranger, and now he was making a beeline towards her. Matted hair, tattered clothes and a layer of dust had engulfed him, making him look as though he had been trekking through a desert. Esi’s eyes darted between her friend and the man. He was at an arm’s length now, and he looked even more terrible up close. His corneas were jaundiced and bloodshot. Esi could see his blackened teeth as he spoke.
Do you have any change to spare? I’d like to buy some food.
Esi’s eyes widened. His voice was strikingly different from his appearance. He spoke with a refined accent that sounded like the foreign actors in the British movies on TV Esi watched all the time.
Im-im sorry, i don’t have any money. Esi stuttered.
Oh, that’s okay…are your friends afraid of me?
Esi glanced back briefly and shook her head.
Our break is almost over, so we have to hurry back.
Do you go to school here? He motioned towards the building at the end of the road.
Study hard, he said encouragingly with a smile.
He turned to leave. Esi’s heart went out to him.
W-wait, Esi blurted. You can have some of my biscuits.
She stretched out her hand with the half empty wrapper. The man smiled again. This time, his face brightened up, and his eyes sparkled. He no longer seemed so scary.
Keep it. But thank you, you’re very kind.
Esi stared at him as he disappeared around the corner. She wondered what had happened to him, and what had gone wrong in his life. Her friend inched back to her side. A bell rang in the distance, and the duo ran back to the school.
Weeks later, Esi sat in the corner on the front verandah of the school, enjoying the shade with her classmates after yet another long day at school. There was a barred gate enclosing the open entry, to prevent passersby from slipping onto the premises. They were not a group she would usually hang around. Esi always felt awkward around them, but she didn’t want to go home just yet. She might as well have been invisible to them, but that didn’t matter to her because he was there too…The one who made her heart flutter whenever she was near him. After about an hour secretly fawning over him from her corner, he had to go home. Esi decided to do the same.
As she got ready to sneak off through the back exit, she heard frantic giggles. Esi turned to the gate to see what had caused the sudden commotion. A scruffy figure headed towards them. She recognized him immediately. Her classmates excitedly whispered and giggled as he drew closer. Some ran away, others drew back from the gate.
You guys should stop being so rude! Esi blurted.
Everyone stopped to stare at her.
Why are you afraid? The man, now at the gate, said to the startled group.
His voice and articulate speech ruptured through like a burst of fresh air.
I’m not here to ask you for money so tell your friends to come back. I saw you pointing and laughing at me, and your friends ran away because of how I look. Even if I asked you for money, am I not human? You shouldn’t treat people that way.
Her dumbfounded classmates, guiltily avoided eye contact with each other.
I know she wouldn’t do that, he continued, and pointed right at Esi. You should all be more respectful, like her.
Esi felt the blood rush to her face. Her ears burned as everyone eyes sear through her.
He gave Esi a small nod and with a sad smile, he walked away. There was a dead silence. If she was invisible to them a few minutes ago, she certainly wasn’t anymore.
To Esi’s surprise, no one brought up the incident the next day. Everyone avoided the topic, and Esi avoided everyone. Her parents made a rare appearance to pick her up from school that day. They were making a trip to the city center. Esi sat back, absentmindedly gazing out the window. Up in a distance, a figure stood still on the corner. Her heart froze before she knew why. A split second later, she was face to face with the disheveled man as the car slowed to a stop at the light. Her first instinct was to duck under the car seat, but she didn’t want to attract attention to herself – so she quickly placed a hand over her forehead in an attempt to cover her face. Slowly, she peeked between her fingers and found herself staring him right in the eyes.
That was when Esi’s heart sank. Her fears melted away, leaving behind a deep sorrow. His eyes, which were so bright and clever the day before, were glazed over. He looked right at her, but Esi knew he could no longer see her.