Sync or swim

Sync or swim

Part 17 of our dramatic serial

June 29, 2012
June 22, 2012
June 15, 2012
June 08, 2012
June 01, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 18, 2012
May 11, 2012
May 04, 2012

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Sync or swim_L
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen/SCMP
It was the end of the first day of term back at St Jude's International School. Groups of students were still swapping tales of their skiing trips and beach holidays in Bali or Australia, as they headed for the gates where their families' drivers were waiting.

By the banks of lockers, Ethan watched as Maya made her way through the throng to join Keiran O'Shea at the main door.

"So she still doesn't want to talk to you?"

Ethan turned at the sound of Sam's voice. "Nope."

"Puh. That won't last. What's so great about Keiran anyway?"

"Besides the fact he's smart, good looking, funny and a sharp dresser?"

"Ethan, Ethan, come on, you're ... funny. I mean, funny means peculiar, too, doesn't it?"

Ethan gave him a half-hearted shove, appreciating his best friend's effort to take the awkward edge off the situation.

"And he's probably honest with her," Ethan added with a rueful smile. He still bitterly regretted he had been unable to tell Maya the reason why he'd stood her up on their date. However, he had promised his Grandad his work on the website would remain secret. And now ... it was clearly too late for explanations, anyway.

Their conversation was interrupted by the ring tone on Sam's phone. Sam grimaced and took the call.

"Sally." It was the girl he had started seeing during the holidays. "Of course, I'm on my way." Sam shielded the phone from the hubbub in the corridor. "Yeah, I'm almost at your place."

He ended the call. "I better get going."

"And you're probably honest with Sally sometimes, too," Ethan noted.

It was Sam's turn to give Ethan a rueful smile.

"Oh, and Sam ... thanks."

"Ethan...," Sam protested.

"I know, I know, I've said it before but ... without you and Jenny, shamefacebook would never have happened."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll see you this evening, ok?"

For the past five minutes, Ethan had been trying to get a word in edgeways. Together with Grandad, Sam and Jenny, he was huddled around the table in his cramped flat on the Ki Lung Public Housing Estate.

"No, we're not going down that road," he finally managed to interject.

"It's a business, Sui Man!" Grandad snapped. "How would my shop survive if customers didn't pay for the paper offerings they wanted?"

Jenny folded her arms. "Yeah, like, I wish you'd told me I was donating my time and effort to charity."

Ethan, however, had long since decided that shamefacebook was always going to allow its users to patch up relationships, or at least say sorry to someone they had offended, free of charge. But now the number of profiles on the site had passed 1,000, the patience of two of his "partners" had worn thin.

Before Grandad and Jenny could launch into another tirade, Sam put up his hands and smiled.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Ethan and I know how shamefacebook is going to pay its way."

The pair looked at Sam and then turned to Ethan.

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," he sighed.

Late into the evening, Ethan sat alone in front of his laptop.

Soon after Sam and Jenny had gone home, Grandad had also left, saying he needed to check on something at the shop and that he'd be back in an hour or two.

Ethan had intended to do what he'd promised at the meeting and contact potential advertisers. He and Sam had thought it through over the Christmas break and agreed now was the time to start trying to monetise the site. If some of the users of shamefacebook wanted to say not only sorry, but also wanted to back up their apology with a peace offering, a present, then why shouldn't they help them?

Yet Ethan hadn't yet got past "Dear Sir..." on his first e-mail. All he could think of was Maya hurrying to meet Keiran at the main doors of the school.

He glanced at the clock. It was one in the morning, and still gung gung hadn't returned. Where was he? Throughout his sleepless nights during the previous week, Ethan had been sure he had regularly heard the front door open soon after daybreak.

And now he thought about it, even though Mum was finally due to return from hospital in a few weeks' time, Grandad had seemed snappy and on edge for days. There was something going on, something wrong, that he, so preoccupied with his own concerns, hadn't even asked about.

As Grandad unlocked and entered his shop, he was relieved to see that the building it stood in seemed just as he had left it earlier that day.

While the occasional broken window, and the other acts of minor vandalism that had by now become common place, provoked nothing more than dutiful visits from the police, the regular occurrences were more than enough to unsettle the residents of the block.

For the past six days, Grandad had been sleeping at the shop, returning to the Ki Lung Estate only at dawn while Sui Man was still in bed. Despite his own fears, Grandad was determined no one was going to drive him out of business in such a sneaky and underhand way.

And, despite his own fears, as he settled down for the night, he found himself chuckling at the thought of the plan Sui Man and Sam had laid out.

There was no doubt that it was a very different way of doing business, but he had, after all, always had faith in his grandson.

As he approached down the dark and empty street, Ethan saw the huge red banners that now covered many of the windows above the small, familiar shop. What was going on? And why hadn't Grandad mentioned this development?

Ethan prised open a small gap in the shutters. As his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom inside, there amid the piles of paper, candles and other offerings that almost filled the narrow space, he saw the camp bed and Grandad asleep on it. What was he doing?

Then Ethan caught the acrid stench of burning plastic. He glanced down, just as the thin wisps of smoke leaking out from under the shutters started to thicken. Panic rising within him, Ethan began to pound harder and harder on the metal door. "Gung gung! Gung gung!" he screamed. But still his Grandad did not stir.

The back door, the back door. Ethan raced around the building, into the alley behind, and screeched to a halt. Flames were licking up the outside wall, spreading from the mounds of rubbish that had been piled against the only other exit from the shop.

Ethan gasped in horror. The paint on the door was already blackened and peeling, and inside lay his Grandad, in a tinderbox of flammable goods.

To be continued next week

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