Sync or swim

Sync or swim

Part 37 of our serial

June 29, 2012
June 22, 2012
June 08, 2012
June 01, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 18, 2012
May 11, 2012
May 04, 2012
April 27, 2012

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Sync or swim_L
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen/SCMP
Ethan and Grandad stared at the floor, too ashamed to respond.

"Did you really think I believed our money was coming from gung gung's website?" Mum demanded. As a cover, Ethan had created a non-functioning home page purporting to sell Grandad's stock online.

Mum looked at the pair and shook her head. "So what exactly have you two been up to?"

While Grandad urged her to stay calm, Ethan slowly and reluctantly went to get his laptop from his bedroom.

"Well," she exclaimed, when he had finished his demonstration of the shamefacebook site. "Why didn't you tell me about this before?"

"Because the doctors warned us you had to avoid all stress," Ethan began. "And because I knew you'd worry about my studies." He hesitated. "But ..."

"But what?" she asked in a faltering voice.

"But I had to look after my family."

Both Grandad and Ethan feared the worst when they saw the tears welling in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," Ethan pleaded. "It was such a stupid thing to do - especially when I knew this would happen if you found out."

"When will you two stop fussing over my health?" she fumed. "I'm crying because you remind me so much of your father. And he would be so proud of you, Sui-man, if he were here right now."

When Chan received the defiant text from Ethan refusing his offer, he was infuriated. However, when an e-mail arrived from his creditors shortly afterwards, he was panic-stricken.

Chan had sunk everything he owned, and much he didn't, into his development project. Now, with still no resolution in sight, his creditors were demanding their money back.

The weirdness began as Ethan approached school the next day, when the Chan twins hurried past, heads down and without making any of their usual sneering comments.

Then, the instant Ethan walked through the gates, a hush fell over the bustling yard and a sea of faces turned towards him. This sea parted as a grim-faced Jenny and Sam headed towards him from the main building.

At that moment, Ethan realised what must have happened. His bluff called, Chan had gone ahead and announced to the world who was behind shamefacebook.

"It's OK," Ethan said. "Well, sort of. Mum knows." He looked around. "Have you seen Maya?"

Yet it was at that moment, as their form teacher, Mr Hemmings, emerged to see what all the fuss was about, that Ethan's old phone buzzed quietly in his pocket.

Throughout the rest of the day, he would have quietly gloried in the excited reaction of his classmates, many of whom were avid users of the shamefacebook site, if it hadn't been for that text message from Maya.

When Ethan arrived at her house after school, she pushed her way desperately out the door, past the stream of men delivering packing crates, and ran into his arms.

"It's some nonsense to do with the eurozone," she wailed.

"But I thought you weren't leaving until ..." He trailed off forlornly.

"Dad's bosses in London have brought forward the date."

He wanted to be brave and strong for her, but there's only so much bravery and strength a teenage boy can muster. "But how am I going to survive without you to talk to?"

She forced an unconvincing smile. "We can talk. Online. And I'll be back to visit."

"But London is, like, 9,500km away."

"Nine thousand-odd kilometres? Puh, that's nothing. Think how far you've come in your life. That's what I call a journey."

"So... when are you going?"

"Hopefully, not for a while. All the flights are fully booked. This ..." she gestured to the packing cases, "... is just for the stuff that's going on ahead."

Yet that was when her mother emerged from the house clutching a phone. "Darling, I've managed to get us on a flight in a week's time ..."

She stopped, noting Maya's expression and the fact she wasn't alone. "Oh, Ethan. I'm so sorry."

The scale model of the soaring block of flats, offices and shops that Chan had planned to build stood almost a metre high. But it took only a few furious blows from his fists to shatter it into pieces that flew across the office to where his children, Charlotte and Gilbert, cowered.

"But we'll still be able to keep going to St Jude's, won't we?" Gilbert whined.

Chan had hoped his tip-off to the local media - informing them shamefacebook was run by a bunch of school kids - would ensure the site sank beneath a tidal wave of ridicule. But his plan had backfired badly. Instead shamefacebook's popularity was booming and the hunt was now on for the vindictive person that had leaked the news.

"You think I can afford to waste my money on your school fees, right now?" his father raged. "I should have let your mother take you to America."

"But you said she didn't want us," a shocked Charlotte gasped.

"Are you two complete idiots? I just didn't want her to have you."

When Ethan got home, he found a small package lying on the mat outside their door. Inside was the smartphone Maya had given him on his birthday that he'd believed he'd dropped on the street.

As he turned it on, the phone beeped to indicate the arrival of a new message - it was from his arch enemies, the Chan twins.

Ethan assumed it would contain some sort of childish insult. But clicking on the text, he found instead, not only an apology for everything they'd ever done to him, but also a warning.

As Ethan ran through the streets, his repeated phone calls to his grandad went unanswered. The few details the twins had provided were never going to be enough to convince the police to take action, so Ethan left a message on Sam's phone alerting him to the danger.

From a distance, Grandad's homely shop seemed an unlikely setting for any drama. However, inside, Ethan found the usual neat stacks of paper offerings now strewn across the floor and Mr Wong, the owner of the neighbouring business, slumped by the counter bleeding from a head wound. As Ethan struggled to control his anger long enough to dial for an ambulance, he heard a muffled banging coming from the storeroom.

"He came at me from behind," Grandad fumed as he was released. "I couldn't see ..." He broke off, gasping in horror when he saw his injured friend. "Give me that," he demanded, snatching the phone from Ethan's hands.

It was then, as he heard someone crossing the floor of the supposedly deserted flat above, that Ethan also caught the unmistakable reek of petrol.

Too late, Grandad glanced up from the phone. "Sui-man! Come back!" he screamed.

Yet his grandson was already racing towards the stairs, to confront whatever awaited him.

To be continued next week

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