07 | PENKNIVES AND LIES
As the stained toilet paper disappeared down the toilet bowl, Em let out a small sigh and turned to unlock and open the door—where Eris just so happened to be.
Em instinctively shoved the object into her pocket, slightly hurriedly as she went to wash her hands while shooting the still-staring girl a questioning look. “What?”
“I believe I can now rest assured and be free of your 2am pestering for a while now.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Em muttered, splashing water onto her face at the sink. Eris stepped a little closer to Em and said, “The four of us have been in the CC since birth, Em. I am certain we are all familiar with the objects within it… including a certain penknife that’s currently in your pocket.”
Em remained silent as she turned off the tap and stared straight at her reflection, trying to ignore Eris’ face as she focused intensely on the emerald green shade of her eyes, eyes that were tired by the past few days of little sleep. The perfect emerald shade of her eyes were one of the modifications that she loved the most—but now all she felt as she stared at her pale face was a dark emptiness even colder than any of Eris’ stares.
This emptiness was what had brought back the urge—the urge she succumbed to once again when she pulled out the penknife encased in a pastel mint cover.
“According to professional therapy advice, you ought to talk about your feelings when you feel upset,” Eris said monotonously in an attempt to be helpful even though she knew nothing about the aforementioned topic—one could not possibly talk about their feelings when there were none in the first place. “Did you perhaps do it above the knee this time?”
“I didn’t—” Em whirled around and started to protest, but relented. There was no point; Eris’ logical thinking process was almost always foolproof and anyway, she wasn’t an unhelpful therapist who despised having to swing by the CC every two months. She was Eris. Eris was an Error too. “Yes,” she rasped, “Not like there was any other spot that the uniform could hide.”
After a moment of silence, Em spoke as an afterthought, “You’re going to tell on me to Louis now, aren’t you?”
“Do you want me to?”
“I mean, of course not but—you’re Eris!”
“Recall my catchphrase, Em. I don’t care.”
Em frowned as the cold, hard words slashed at her hard as she had a few minutes ago with the sliding penknife. Words so cold, brutal and uncaring, yet relieving when it appeared that her secret was safe. “But aren’t you also the mindless robot who dishes out model answers that all the adults want? Meaning, you’re supposed to be all sympathetic and—yikes—comforting...”
“I can certainly fake sympathy and concern—but I see no point in that. You could seek out Louis or Eli for that,” Eris stated matter-of-factly as she always did. “But of course, if your destructive behaviour begins to affect me, I will not hesitate to take action.”
“Oh… thanks, I guess.” Em replied, even though she wasn’t particularly reassured by Eris’ answer. But what could she expect out of Eris? Eris only ever made use of logic in her thinking since she didn’t know how to appeal to pathos.
“Well, we need to get to class now. You bandaged your self-harm slashes yet?” Eris questioned. Em grimaced slightly as she nodded, following behind the Error as she left the toilet, grabbing a paper towel on the way out to wipe her face with.
The rest of the school day continued and ended without conflict; Em kept her head down and all the Errors never spoke to their classmates, who were obviously upset by what had happened at lunch—which was just fine with both parties.
“Elijah, can you just sit down and finish the trigonometry? Or if you plan on getting into trouble, just shut up!” Ethan hissed as Eli continued to sing the city anthem—the song that Ethan hated with a passion. A song sung by hypocrites and the ones high up with their luxuries, he angsted as he tried to focus on sine, cosine and tangent—only to focus so much on focusing that he wasn’t able to think.
Thus, the boy stood up, banged his palm down on the table once and grabbed Eli from behind. The blonde struggled in the air, kicking wildly as Ethan hauled him up and carried him to his seat. “Eh! Lemme go! Let me go!”
“Says the childish prick who can’t sit still!” Ethan yelled as he deposited Eli back in his chair rather roughly. The moment both boys were back in their seats, Eli grabbed Ethan’s arm and bit down on it. As the angry teenager screamed and the pink mark formed on his arm, chaos ensued. Eris tuned them out and continued on her assignments as Em lowered her head into her hands in dread.
Louis—as usual—rushed over in a desperate attempt to break up the fight. “Boys, boys! Stop fighting—”
Oblivious to their surroundings but the vicious battle they were fighting in, the boys didn’t stop clawing and flinging punches at each other until a sudden splash of liquid drenched their faces. “What the—” Ethan exclaimed when he turned his head to see Eris, emotionless as usual and holding an empty glass.
“Thank you, Eris,” Louis breathed. “Your quick thinking is much appreciated.”
“No problem,” she deadpanned, “I merely regret wasting water for this our water bill.”
“Suck-up,” Ethan snarled as he gripped his arm that was now patterned by claw marks on top of the bite. Louis sighed deeply, “Boys, I expected more self-control from you! Hasn’t being in the Academy for these past few days taught you to be more tolerant and less… well, aggressive?”
“All I have learnt is the Academy syllabus and that all the students in there are fake as hell!” Ethan retorted. “Do you know that Ryn tried to intimidate us on the basis that she’s apparently a Yang and the prime minister’s daughter? And when Em stood up against her for being a bully, everyone in our class started saying that we were the ones trying to start shit!”
“Language, Ethan! Look, I totally understand what you kids are going through. I was a student in there before and I am familiar with the inevitable fact that a couple of the kids aren’t exactly easy to get along with. You don’t have to be best friends with them but you should try your best to be at least friendly acquaintances.” Louis explained wearily. “But I have to say, I’m surprised that the prime minister’s child would antagonise you two like this.”
“Yeah, I always assumed she’d be like Brielle Evans—sweet and good at everything. How the hell is she not in 1.01?”
“Because she’s in 1.20.”
“Holy—she screwed up on her PSLE!” Ethan exclaimed at Em's words. “Oh boy… no wonder she’s such an asshole, it’s because she’s at the other end of the bell curve!”
“Ethan! Look,” Louis elucidated, “Every year in the Academy, improvement to a certain grade average allows you to advance in class ranking. Even if Ryn did poorly on the PSLE, it isn’t the end all be all. There are still chances for a bright future. I mean, I flunked a chinese composition before but I’m still—”
Louis’ SmartGlass mini started vibrating and he fished it out of his pocket. Eli, being a busybody, peeped at the screen from behind.
KARLA - INCOMING CALL
“Oh, I’ve got to take this call—”
“Wait... isn’t that the receptionist at the General Office?” Eli exclaimed as he scrutinised the profile picture of the caller. “It’s her! Oh my God, Louis is dating the receptionist lady!” Ethan exclaimed.
“Oh, no, no, no! I’m not dating her, she’s my sister!” Louis replied frantically, horrified by the assumption as he hurried into his office, “Now if you’ll excuse me!”
“She must be a very scary sister,” Eli said. “Wait… Louis has a sibling? And his sibling is the receptionist lady at the school?” Ethan narrowed his dark eyes in suspicion, “I’m pretty sure he said he didn’t have siblings before...”
“He did indeed say that he was an only child before. This probably means he has something to hide regarding his sister,” Eris deduced.
“He said that? When?” Eli asked.
The Errors all gave Eli a look before Ethan continued, “But what could he have to hide about from us? Why would Louis… lie?”
“No idea… but hey… let’s eavesdrop on the conversation! Maybe we’ll learn something important!” Eli suggested.
Em gave him a look of disdain, one that made his soul shrivel a little on the inside. “That would be rude!”
“Perhaps Louis and his sister don’t have a good relationship,” Eris said. “But it would indeed be rude and impolite to listen in on a conversation that doesn’t involve us. Of course, however, no one is stopping you. Go right ahead if it suits you.”
“Okay, I’m going! Don’t tell on me!” Eli said as he flounced off the chair and put his ear near the door of the room. “Your funeral—” Ethan began but was shut down by a furious ‘shhh’ from the blonde. Eli went back to listening.
“... look, Karla—”
Much to Eli’s delight, the call was on speaker mode, as he’d expected. Louis always said that it was easier to hear everything on speaker without having to smash the SmartGlass mini companion earpiece to his ear.
“How could you lie to us? Do you know how devastated Mama was to find out that you passed the course with flying colours? Was all that you told us lies and excuses for you to destroy your own life?” Karla’s voice screeched through the call.
Eli’s eyes widened. What course? And why did Louis’ passing with flying colours anger his sister so? More confusingly, why did she accuse him of trying to destroy his own life? He was pretty sure he himself would never, ever try to destroy his on purpose, and neither would Louis.
“Calm down, Karla!”
“Calm down?! You—” Karla hollered back, “Do you have any idea what a mess the family is in right now? Do you know what we’ve had to endure these past few years, trying to explain when the relatives asked you where you were off to each family gathering? And Auntie Tara—that annoying woman, she came to our home to shame us about you working such a deplorable job!”
“You’re the one who said they didn’t want to see me—”
“你是个冤家，把我们的脸都丢光了！[You’re the foe of this family and you’ve caused us to lose all face!]” Karla quickly alternated back to english as she screamed, “Dad nearly got a heart attack when he realised you gave up the chance to be a genetic engineer for those Errors!”
Eli’s mouth dropped open. The course Louis passed with flying colours… was genetic engineering? Genetic engineering was one of the most respectable, prestigious courses that a university-level student could choose in the 015 Academy. It was a job that many coveted for—and Louis gave it up to work in the CC? Why?
“Karla, stop it—”
“You have a problem, Louis, you’re too nice! You care too much about those Errors, who aren’t even going to have a decent future ahead of them. Your efforts to be a samaritan with those retards are going to be useless!”
And that was when Louis snapped, the camel’s back broken by the last straw. “SHUT UP, KARLA! If the only reason for this call was to insult me and the Errors, who are in fact getting better each day, then you might as well have not!” Eli’s heart warmed a little when he heard that, reassured that Louis Chang did truly care for them. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about his sister; that Karla receptionist lady was truly difficult to deal with! And rather discriminatory towards the Errors, too!
“Oh, trust me, you’re going to regret choosing this life, Louis!” And with that, a loud beep ended the call.
The next thing Eli heard through the door was something he’d never heard or seen Louis do before—he howled in anger with a loud “Arrrrrghh!” followed by the sound of something crashing onto the ground. The boy shuddered. Louis never lost his temper—the person behind the door couldn’t be the same man who used to bandage Eli’s wounds and tuck the Errors into bed every night until Ethan and Em told Louis it was no longer necessary.
When Eli hurried back to his seat, it became quite clear that the other three had also heard the ruckus. “Eli, what happened? Did you hear anything?” Ethan fired at the boy, before his teeth gritted in an instant of fear and exasperation—the kind that would soon turn to anger very, very fast. “Please tell me you didn’t forget everything you just eavesdropped on.”
“Of course not! The only things I forget are the multiplication tables and my 听写词语 (ting xie ci yu). Speaking of which, what—”
“Back to what you just heard, Eli,” Eris prompted.
“Oh, right! Apparently, the receptionist lady is upset because Louis lied to her. He took genetic engineering in the Academy and he did super, super well, according to the screaming and then Karla insulted us and Louis got super, super angry and ended the call,” Eli blurted out as fast as he could before he forgot everything.
“Are you sure? Genetic Engineering? Louis?” Em grumbled out. “If he really did well in that, then why is he stuck here with a bunch of defective, disabled Errors? He would be one of those snobs up there with plenty of money, not slaving away with low wages in a CC barely scraping by on a low budget.”
“Yeah, are you sure?” Ethan questioned, to which Eli frantically responded, “Yes, I am sure! That’s exactly what I heard! I’m not Gabriel, Ethan! I’m not deaf—”
“Yes, it’s exactly what you heard.”
The Errors whirled around to find Louis behind them, slowly walking towards their table wearily. “Louis, I’m sorry I—” Eli was about to apologise, only for Louis to hold up a hand. “Don’t worry, I’m sure it was all quite loud enough to be heard and you all must want to hear about it. Yes, I passed the 015 Academy’s genetic engineering course… but I chose to work here. In the CC.”
“Why would you do that? Why would you give up the opportunity?” Ethan growled, “You could’ve gotten rich! And successful!”
“Yeah, why would you do that? We’re just Errors...” Em muttered.
“Don’t say that, Em,” Louis chided gently, “You are so much more than ‘just Errors’. All of you are. You and all the others may not be normal, but that doesn’t mean you’re not worth it, okay? You see, I never aimed to be extremely rich or successful in life. All I ever wanted was to be happy. When I was a student in the genetic engineering course, we took a trip to the CC, right here. And I saw this place didn’t seem to have enough people to keep things running. I saw Errors who weren’t given enough emotional support and workers who were too tired to bring any semblance of joy to this place. And I wanted to help. So I signed up for a job and eventually, the old manager retired and had me take over. This will probably sound really mushy and weird but...” Louis’ face flushed over with a faint pink hue, “This job in the CC has made me happy and more fulfilled than ever. And part of it is because of the four of you in particular. You’ve brought a lot of joy into my life here, you know.”
Like a sharp knife shattering a sparkling glass window into smithereens, Eris interrupted Eli with, “However, I don’t quite understand why you would find it necessary to lie about your family to us, Louis.”
“You see… my parents and my sister… I knew they wouldn’t like it if I turned down my chance to do genetic engineering. So I lied that I failed the final exam and told them about this job. World War Four happened at home instantly and my parents lowkey, um, disowned me. It was never really meant for conversation and I guess being kicked out of home has always been a bit of a sore spot for me. I’m so sorry for lying to you all… but I hope you understand.”
“Whoa, they shut you out of their lives because you didn’t want to continue on to be a geneticist? That’s harsh!” Ethan gasped. “Aww, Louis, it’s okay. Being kicked out of your family must be awful… although, we wouldn’t know since we don’t have family,” Eli piped up, dampening the mood a little more. Em and Ethan gave him a look.
“Look, you all may not be related by blood but here’s the thing—we are all family, here at the CC. All of you have been by each other’s sides since birth, and I do hope you will continue to stand by each other no matter what difficulty you have to face. I want you all to love support and help each other because that’s what family does—um, but for Eris… I guess you can focus on support and assisting your fellow Errors,” Louis added upon remember that the girl staring straight ahead at him with a face devoid of emotion was probably unable to fulfill the ‘love’ part.
As the Errors nodded in agreement and Louis smiled approvingly, Eli jumped up. “Can we have a group hug before we go back to our assignments? Please?” He pleaded as he saw his fellow Errors beginning to object. The CC Manager chuckled at Eli’s childlike tendencies and he pulled them into his embrace. Ethan squirmed with a low, annoyed grumble, struggling to escape in particular.
“Okay, okay, group hug over,” Louis said as they slowly pulled away from each other, all but Eli gladly doing so. The blonde let out a reluctant sigh as he went back to his work and Louis walked towards his office. Their SmartGlasses indicated 16 37 as the time as Eris spoke, “I believe it is time for us to retrieve our old SmartGlasses once more. We have a hacker to speak to.”