Steph walks into school with Yoona, smiling. Her smile turns into a toothy grin when Sooyoung bounds over to them, cob of corn in hand.
“Hey, Yoona.” A pause. “Hey, Steph. What’s up? Finally got the time to spend with us old friends?” Sooyoung tosses a verbal jab with an easy grin.
“I really was busy.”
“With the new guy. We know. We saw.”
“Not the guy. I was busy with a little boy pup.”
“A pup? What?”
“I saw an abandoned puppy on my way to school on the first day so I smuggled him in.”
“You did what? Puppy? Smuggle? When did you become a puppy smuggler? Is that your identity for the new year?”
Steph rolls her eyes. “No. I wanted to find him a new home but my apartment prohibits pets so I thought I could keep him in the garden shed till I move next weekend but Ha Min found out somehow and told on me.”
“That shrivelled, rotten lady’s finger . . .” Sooyoung frowns. “But why didn’t you tell us about it? We could’ve helped you. So where’s the puppy now? And how much trouble are you in?”
“I didn’t want to get anyone into trouble. I really thought I could get away with it since it would only be for a couple of weeks. Anyway the puppy is at Yoona’s now. And I’m stuck with a week’s worth of gardening duties.”
“The pup’s at Yoona’s? I wanna go see.”
Yoona laughs at her bouncing friend. “After school, Tigger boy.”
“Okay! Oh boy, I can’t wait.”
Steph isn’t looking at him. Taeng is saddened by the fact. It’s only been a few days but he has come to look forward to Steph’s smiling eyes meeting his, as though they were conspiring to take over the world. It sends a thrill down to his toes and gets his blood pumping. And now, he misses it. How can he apologize? How can he make things right again?
It proves to be harder than he thought. Steph is out of the classroom before he can make a move and when he finally finds her in the cafeteria, she’s already seated with other people. The girl on Steph’s left is beyond pretty. She reminds him of a sunflower, radiant and warm. Sitting opposite them is a boy whose legs stretch way past the table they’re sitting at. Who are they? Are they her friends?
“Hey, who ya spying on?”
Taeng jumps in his skin and turns around. “Oh, it’s you. Hi, Hyoyeon.”
“Oh, I see two girls. So it is Steph or Yoona? I’m guessing Steph. I can tell you like her quite a lot.”
“The other girl is Yoona . . .” Taeng mumbles as things finally fall into place. If the pretty girl is Yoona, it might not be Steph that Seo is interested in after all.
“Yeah, she’s really pretty, right? Lots of boys are always asking her out but she sticks to Sooyoung all the time.”
“Does Yoona like Sooyoung?”
“They’ve been friends since middle school. It’s not that kind of relationship.”
“Oh, I see.”
“So it’s Yoona you’re looking at?”
“Huh? No, no it’s not.”
“Steph then? I knew it.”
“We’re just friends.”
Hyoyeon leans in with a grin and he backs up a little in surprise. “Just friends? Are you telling me you haven’t the slightest interest in Steph?”
“I like Steph very much. She’s my first friend in this school.”
“So why are you hiding behind a wall, peeping at them? Go sit with Steph.”
“I made her mad. She hasn’t looked at me all day.” Taeng sighs. “I don’t think she’ll like it if I sit with them.”
“So you need me.” Hyoyeon grabs his arm and grins wide. “Come.”
Taeng is dragged to the table by Hyoyeon the whirlwind and he stands uncomfortably beside Hyoyeon while she goes, “Mind if we join you?”
Steph doesn’t say a word but Yoona and Sooyoung’s smiles are welcoming.
“Sure,” says Yoona.
Meanwhile, Taeng gapes at Sooyoung who just turned around and gave him a huge wink.
“Hey, new guy. What’s your name?”
“I’m Kim Taehyuk but you can call me Taeng.”
“Right. Taeng. You got something to say to Steph?”
“Er, yes. As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Say it already.”
“Okay.” Taeng nods. “I’m really sorry, Steph. I was wrong.”
Steph looks up at him and their eyes finally meet again. Taeng can’t help smiling even though Steph doesn’t exactly look appeased yet. “I guess I was a little too judgemental too . . .”
“No, it’s not your fault at all. I should’ve had faith in you. I should’ve believed in you. I—”
“Okay, okay. This is getting embarrassing. You’re forgiven. Sit down.”
Taeng’s smile splits into a huge grin and he scoots around the table to sit beside Steph. “So where’s Prince?” he asks.
“I asked Yoona for help.”
“I see. I’m really sorry. I should’ve stayed and helped you with Prince.”
“It’s okay. The problem is solved. No harm done.”
“I wish there’s something I can do to make up for my mistake.”
Steph looks him up and down. “You can help me to carry Prince’s food to Yoona’s after school if you really wanna help.”
“Really? Can I?”
Steph finally smiles as she nods. “Yes, you can.”
With a heart light as a feather, Taeng grins. “Then I will.”
“Kim Taehyuk is an idiot.”
“Why is he an idiot?”
Ha Min rolls her eyes at the girl who likes to follow her around because she’s the principal’s daughter. Lee Ri Chae is her name and she’s such a leech. But leeches can be good. Leeches can be useful.
“Don’t you think he’s an idiot if he chooses to be hang out with slut Steph instead of me?”
“Why would he choose Steph over you?”
“Exactly. Only an idiot will reject me.”
Ri Chae’s eyes widen in surprise. “Are you interested in him? Aren’t you dating Choi Minho?”
With a dismissive wave of her hand, Ha Min shakes her head. “I’m not into Minho anymore.”
“But why Kim Taehyuk . . .?”
“He’s cute, isn’t he?”
Ri Chae nods quickly. “Yes, definitely. Very cute.”
Ha Min rolls her eyes again. Ri Chae is always trying to be like her no matter what the situation is. Saying what she says, wearing what she wears. Such a wannabe. Disgusting. “Anyway, there’s something you can do for me this time.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“People are starting to forget what kind of slut Steph is. It’s time to remind them.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea.”
Ha Min flips her hair and smiles. “Of course it is.”
Taeng is smiling from ear to ear as they stand before the cashier watching their purchases adding up on the screen.
“That’ll be a hundred and eight dollars.”
All at once, his hand moves like lightning and almost flings his credit card at the cashier. “Thank you,” he says when the cashier accepts his card with a bemused expression.
Steph prods his arm with her finger. “I’m paying you back for that.”
“You don’t have to. Really.”
“No, I’m not letting you pay for Prince’s food all by yourself even if you seem to be quite rich, what with that credit card you’re pulling out like magic.”
“I-I’m . . .” Taeng catches himself. I’m rich but I can’t tell you that . . .
“Whatever you are, you’re not paying for it.”
“But I really want to help with something. Even if it’s just Prince’s food. I’m his daddy, remember?”
Steph bursts into giggles and squiggles. “Right, okay.” A bright, wholesome smile. “Thanks, Daddy.”