As he stepped into the aviary thick with humidity and the sounds of chattering birds, Lucas thought about the words he never spoke to Alyssa. Though never breathed into life, they were the words that compelled him to approach her, the words he wanted to tell her: about how he felt, how his heart raced and he couldn't take his eyes off of her whenever she was near, how he couldn't stop thinking about her whenever she was wasn't, or how his body yearned to catch just one more whiff of her powdery sweet smell. Maybe he wouldn't have shared that last part—she probably would have thought him a weirdo, and even called him a creep, for saying such things—but he felt it nonetheless. He couldn't help it. Weird or not, he liked her smell.
As promised, Lucas found the old man near the back of the building. The man was always there, Lucas had been told; all he needed to do was look around. As Lucas approached from behind, he noticed the man clipping on a bush that looked like roses.
He cleared his throat, and said, "Uh, excuse me."
The man turned around, and Lucas almost gave up right then and there. The Chinese man wasn't just old, he was a relic. Images of horror movies streamed through Lucas's mind: of leathery faced monsters with ghostly white hair, dressed in long robes and sandals, and probably carrying samurai swords. Fleeting thoughts toyed with his motives and questioned his resolve—maybe this wasn't worth it, and maybe he should turn around and run—but the thoughts of Alyssa and the things he wanted to say to her overpowered everything else, so Lucas held fast.
Dark eyes, mostly hidden behind slatted lids, stared down at him. The dusty brown face showed no expression.
"I, uh..." Again, Lucas found himself at a loss for words, and he hated himself for not being able to spit things out. "I was told you could help me."
The lids squeezed tighter. "What is it you want?"
"I need to be strong."
"Then lift weights, do work."
The man started to turn around, and Lucas reached out a hand to stop him.
"No, you don't understand."
"What is there to understand?"
"I need to be strong now. Today."
"You not strong now?"
"No, not strong enough."
The man considered him for a moment, and then said, "Why need you to be stronger?"
This was the part that Lucas dreaded. He suspected he would have to address the question, but suspecting didn't alleviate the fears. It wasn't easy to acknowledge weakness, not for anyone he supposed. He looked down for a moment, again not sure whether it was worth it, but the face of Alyssa tapped into his mind's eye. He saw her again and the mesmerizing way she looked at him before Tommy Moldono showed up and punched him in the face.
His two buddies told him to forget it. Making a play for Alyssa would only go down in flames.
"Dude," Michael had said. "You lost your mind or something? She ain't never gonna go for douche like you."
Lucas ignored the slur. It was just one of many terms that Michael liked to throw around, trying to be cool. He never accomplished his goal.
"Besides," Dillon said. Lucas turned and saw his friend running through a new set of baseball cards he purchased. Unlike Michael, Dillon knew how to restrain his tongue. "Have seen what Tommy can do to guys like us? I mean, he's like notorious for pounding dweebs into pulp. Heck, he even does it to his own friends."
Lucas didn't care. He walked up to Alyssa anyway and started to talk. And things were going quite smoothly, too, until he saw Alyssa's eyes flit to the side, looking past him, over his shoulder. He turned around then to see what he had feared would happen. Standing almost a foot taller than Lucas, and weighing at least twenty pounds more, Tommy didn't have to say anything; his presence alone was enough to intimidate everyone else on the playground.
The look on Lucas's face must have said it all because Tommy cocked his arm, balled up his fist, and slammed it across the bridge of Lucas's nose. Lucas fell on the playground gravel. He was dazed.
"Don't ever let me catch you near her again," Tommy said. And that was that.
Lucas shook off the memory and looked back up at the old man in the aviary.
"You see, there's this girl—who has this boyfriend, and—"
The old man cut him off with a wave of a gnarled hand. "Ah, love then," he said. "And not just love. Young love." Then he shook his head. "I not help you. Go find other girl."
He turned to walk away again, and Lucas blurted out the only thing he could think of.
"Li Huang sent me. He said you could change things."
The old man turned back. He stared so long and deep that Lucas was afraid he had just said the wrong thing. Maybe it was time to leave after all.
The man cocked his head to one side, muttered a "Hmph," and then cocked it to the other side.
"Li sent you, did he?"
After Tommy had leveled him on the playground, Li Huang, a spry asian kid with short clipped hair and an elven face approached. He pulled a rag out of his pocket and handed it to Lucas. "For your nose," he had said.
Lucas took the rag. He dabbed away fresh blood and listened as Li Huang told him about the old man who had helped many boys and girls over the years, and how he might give Lucas some help, too.
The old man muttered again, this time in Chinese, and then nodded.
"Maybe," he said. "Maybe so." He turned. "Come. Follow me."
(to be continued...)
Okay, I did it again. I started on a story, only to get slightly carried away. Along the way, I did some interesting research for this one, which I'll reveal next week as I wrap this up. Stay tuned...