Chapter I : NEET

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27/01/2023 ◊ 20:53 ◊ Quick Bite, Cubao, Quezon City

        Anyone would be suspicious of a person who keeps his head low, and half of his face masked in the shadow of his jacket's hood; specially, if he pops out of the dim parts of the street at night. But the security guard of Quick Bite was not alarmed when he saw a figure in a hoodie and long, denim pants approaching the store. He recognized the figure from his light, aimless gait.

        Lifting his head, Yvan walked into the convenience store, and timidly nodded to the security guard and cashier. Both greeted him back with a smile and, “Welcome!”

        When the brown skinned customer noticed the store had no other patron, he slid off the hood of his navy blue sweatshirt. He then took a grocery basket and began combing the grocery aisles.

        “You must be working in the night shift, coming at this hour regularly,” the guy in a yellow polo shirt and cap, the cashier, said as he scanned the items. He remembered the scrawny man in a hooded sweatshirt who had been visiting the store every night for half a year. He took note of the dark circles, which were present every now and then, under the man's dark brown eyes.

        Yvan only nodded when the cashier shared how he admired employees working in the graveyard shift and how he loathed not having time to get a girlfriend. He hated chitchats with strangers. He made sure he raised his cheeks as he feigned a smile and shook his head when the cashier asked him if he would like to add one of the marked down items from the basket beside the cash register. 

        The man shook his head again when the cashier asked him where he works.

        “School?” 

        "Uh, no."  Yvan said in a low, flat voice as his eyes avoided a curious gaze.

        “What are you doing in life?” There was no response. The cashier’s eyes grew and his mouth twisted into a wry smile. His customer died a little inside upon seeing his expression. “My! You’re a NEET!” 

        Old people simply call them 'istambay' (bystanders), the middle aged straightly refer to them as burdens to the society, and the younger generations label them NEET: Not in Education, Employment or Training. They are the people who chose or fell into a life of meandering.

        The scrawny man drooped his head while he sat on the farthest seat at the store’s dining nook, waiting for his pizza sandwich and lasagna. His right eye twitched and his eyebrows furrowed as more customers kept coming in. 

        After closing at nine, employees from a nearby mall visit Quick Bite for refreshments or dinner. It was also at this time that residents around the neighborhood who work or study in far cities arrive home. Being close to an e-tricycle terminal, some commuters detour to the store before getting a ride.

        Yvan had brought the soda out and was going through its nutrition label when someone sat beside him. 

        “One to go meal for our NEET!” the cashier announced as he placed the bag of microwaved food on the counter. Customers in line snickered and exchanged banters as a pale Yvan walked over to the counter. 

        A guy with a short bob haircut leaned to his friend, “What? I thought a NEET doesn’t come out of his room.”

        “No, that’s the hikikomori,” the friend said. The embroidered logo, which consisted of an olive wreath around a torch, on the pockets of their white, short sleeve formal shirts indicated they're collegiates.

        “I wish I could be like that,” a lanky guy in blue polo shirt and black slacks said.

        His friend, who wore the same uniform as him, looked at him, surprised and disappointed, “What? You want to be a freeloader forever?"

      Their taller friend crossed his arms before continuing, "And I thought being a stockroom personnel is pathetic already.” 

        A middle aged woman in a floral blouse, an office employee, became only interested at the cashier's pun when she overheard the mall employees' conversation. She looked at Yvan and scanned him from head to toe, “Must’ve come from a wealthy family. Not needing work to survive.”  

        The laughing stock picked up his to go, snatched his bag of groceries from the table, and darted out of the convenience store. A couple of steps away from the store, he cursed, realizing he had left the fermented soda. A bit pricey, that drink was his favorite. He went back, head held low. 

        His seatmate, who wore a white long sleeve formal shirt, handed his drink with a wry smile, “You may want to put that in a feeding bottle before drinking.” The customers who heard the remark cackled. Throughout the scene, the Yvan wished he could be deaf just for a little while.

        When passing through the doorway, he heard the guard call him, “Thug.”

        As Yvan treaded the almost deserted streets on his way home, events from earlier kept running through his mind. He may be a NEET but he never robbed a bank nor stole something from someone. I never assaulted anyone. Never assaulted anyone? He thought. Ikilled someoneI might really be a thug.

        He never went back to that Quick Bite branch.

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