SarEr watched the ball sail into the basket with a smile. It bounced to the tarmac and on to the grass. His best friend raised his arms up in victory.
“Ten to five, I win again,” Zun Lee announced.
SarEr made a face as he picked the ball and threw it back to Zun.
“It doesn’t matter.”
SarEr wiped sweat of his forehead with his arm.
“Oh yes it does.”
Zun clutched the ball against his hip, swiping his free hand over his forehead to stop the sweat dripping into his eyes. His long hair was wet, his sleek muscles glistening since he’d removed his t-shirt. SarEr couldn’t help but admire Zun’s body. He was prime billboard material.
SarEr forced his gaze away from his best friend’s gorgeous body. As handsome as Zun was, the man was straighter than a pin. His thoughts were better off trying to figure out why Zun thought they were in a contest.
Zun was turning their daily basketball routine into a pissing match.
A short glance at Zun’s set jaw and he cursed under his breath. SarEr was afraid to ask because this free time was a gift from his father, and the only time he could spent with Zun without bodyguards hounding him. He couldn’t afford to fight with Zun right now.
“Do you think I’ll ever get out of here?” Zun asked suddenly, his gaze fixed on the park entrance and the town beyond.
The basketball court was in a public park that the community used for relaxation. SarEr’s father owned the land and the real estate surrounding the area. Zun’s family owned a hair salon in the small town where they also lived in an apartment above the shop. Zun was always talking about making it to the big city and owning a large unisex salon.
“Of course you will,” SarEr said.
“I hope you’re not saying that because it’s what I want to hear.”
Zun narrowed his dark gaze at him, no doubt judging the sincerity in SarEr’s answer. They’d been best friends for a long time, and Zun always caught him in a lie.
“I mean it, Zun,” SarEr said.
Zun was too ambitious to remain in such a small town.
“Good,” Zun said, tossing the ball back to him. He went to pick up his t-shirt and started walking out of the park. “Come on, I’ll treat you to a cold soda.”
SarEr bounced the ball on the tarmac path as he followed Zun. They left the park, walking at a sedate pace. A cool breeze ruffled the tall trees along their path to the main street, drying their sweat. Zun kicked a stone and reached up to tug a hanging tree branch before they crossed the street. SarEr marveled at his best friend’s height. He would never reach that branch were he to try. He was only five foot eight inches tall while Zun was six foot two.
“Did you hear what I said?” Zun interrupted his thoughts.
“What did you say?” SarEr asked.
“I need a good plan. My family is depending on me. My mother keeps working overtime. I hate seeing her struggling to make ends meet.”
Zun’s mother was a sweet petite woman who worked too hard to give her son and daughter a good life. What SarEr admired most about her was the fact that she never complained. The exhaustion and worry she went through never surfaced when she was with her children. Instead, she showered her children with hugs, kisses and comforting words. She’d even included him in to her circle, and for a guy who didn’t have a mother, he often found her attention very endearing. He could understand Zun’s determination to get her a better life.
“You keep disappearing on me,” Zun said again. “What are you thinking about?”
SarEr realized that they’d walked a while in silence. They were almost near the main town now. Shops were open, restaurants serving tea to customers on veranda tables. There was only one bank and post office in the small town.
“Nothing important,” SarEr said with a short smile. “Is Mei at the salon today?”
“Nope, not today,” Zun said. “She’s supposedly doing a project in school.”
Zun suspicious tone made SarEr chuckle.
“Why don’t you believe her?”
“I think she has a boyfriend.”
Zun was protective of Mei. Everyone in town knew it. SarEr also knew that Mei found that protective streak annoying. She’d probably lied about where she was going. He hid a smile as Zun continued.
“Today is Saturday, you know, who goes to school on a Saturday when they don’t have to go.”
“Contrary to you and I, there are people who like school,” SarEr teased. They were out of school, but before graduation, school had felt like a burden to both of them.
Zun growled and pushed him playfully.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just saying, give your sister a break,” SarEr said.
“Do you like her?”
He’d yet to tell Zun his secret. He didn’t know how to. In a way, he feared that it might interfere with their friendship.
“Are you going to punch me if I say yes?”
“Hell, yes,” Zun said.
“In that case, no,” SarEr said with a wide grin.
SarEr stepped off the curb and bounced the ball on the tarmac. He was going to have to tell Zun that he was gay one of these days.
They walked down the street, passing the butchery, green grocers, and a supermarket. There was a teahouse where the old men liked to meet and play mahjong. Zun nodded at a man seated on a table outside the teahouse, his beat up old hat pulled down over his eyes.
“Old man Yao is always playing alone. What a strange man.”
“Maybe not so strange,” SarEr said. “Sometimes it’s better to spend time alone.”
Zun chuckled and SarEr frowned.
“You’re the strange one, SarEr.”
Zun slowed down when they reached the salon.
“Alone is never better. Being human automatically makes you crave company. It’s part of our genetic makeup.”
A lavish sign on the windows showed off the salon’s name. The Zheng Ren Salon was a neat little place that acted as both a barbershop and beauty salon. As Zun pulled the doors open, SarEr braced himself to meet the town gossips who always sat at the reception area talking to Xiao Wei.
“Mum, I’m back,” Zun said to his mother.
Xiao Wei was busy setting rollers on a young woman’s hair. She glanced up and smiled at both of them.
“Oh good, hello SarEr,” Xiao Wei greeted.
“Hello, Miss Xiao Wei.” SarEr returned her smile and winked at her. “Need help?”
“You’re a funny one.” Xiao Wei laughed. “Did you have a good game? I hope Zun didn’t beat you too badly.”
“I trounced him.” Zun slumped into a low chair and closed his eyes. “He barely gave me a work out.”
“Hey,” SarEr protested, dropping the basketball on Zun’s lap. “Stop being mean to me. I’ll beat you next time. I was being nice today.”
“You say that each time,” Zun said lazily.
SarEr was about to join Zun on the next chair when Xiao Wei made a whistling sound. She nodded to the windows that showed off the front street when he glanced at her. His heart sunk at the sight of three black Mercedes cars parked at the front. Ten men all dressed in black suits poured out of the cars and started for the salon.
SarEr clenched his jaw as the door opened and a man with a clean-shaven head walked in. The women seated at the receptionist area started whispering to each other. The bald man ignored everyone in the room and came to stand in front of SarEr.
What was Han doing here?
The room was quiet, no one moved.
SarEr wanted to rant and rave at the intrusion but this was not the place to make a scene.
“Young Master you have to come with us,” Han said in a quiet tone.
He might have been quiet, but his tone was full of authority. SarEr knew that his words were an order from his father.
“I still have time,” SarEr said.
Zun who’d been relaxed in the chair stood up so that he was beside SarEr making them a united front. Han noticed but he kept his gaze on SarEr.
“What’s happened?” SarEr asked.
“I can’t say, Young Master, please come with me.”
The tone hadn’t changed. Han wasn’t leaving without him. SarEr looked out again, frowning at the number of men waiting for him. They were quite capable of carrying him out. SarEr met Zun’s gaze unable to hide his frustration. He glanced at Xiao Wei. She was clearly uneasy about the situation, even though she pretended to keep curling her customer’s hair.
SarEr gave in with a simple nod, and Han moved to let him pass.
“See you later, SarEr,” Zun said.
SarEr nodded but didn’t look back. Outside, he walked to the car in the middle. Han opened the back passenger door and waited for him to enter. The rest of the men distributed themselves in the remaining cars.