When Anton died, Kevin felt nothing. Not for the first two hours. The announcement of his death was unceremonious. His boss handed him the receiver.
Something happened. Your brother.
Kevin knew what had happened. It was too obvious, written all over his Boss’ face.
Nineteen years old and there he was, in a box that he had just barely managed to fill with the entirety of his frame. His growth spurt came so late into his teens, it wasn’t so long ago that he was a child. But now Anton was gone, just like that.
Fuck, thought Kevin. But not because his brother was dead. No, it was far from that. He seemed to accept that Anton was dead the moment his boss walked towards him, cradling the receiver on that warm Friday afternoon. He was curious as to why he felt almost nothing. He stood at the elevator, waiting. Only his hand phone, car keys and wallet were by his side. He had left all his files behind.
He shuffled his feet impatiently. He looked at the ceiling light. Fluorescent lamps turn most of the heat it generates into light. It is and will always be an efficient alternative to the incandescent bulb. That he knew as a fact. You glean these little nuggets of information as you go along. You gather them and it propels you along. He may buy a house in the future, and very well tell the electrician to install more fluorescent lights to save on the energy use.
You learn a few things every day. Many things, if you’re lucky. The one thing Kevin learnt today was that his brother had died. But you may as well have told him that male seahorses give birth, or that one side of the moon will always be hidden from view. It made no difference. His brother’s death was mere information to him, as it would be on tomorrow’s news.
Not that Kevin wasn’t close to his brother, or that they had drifted hopelessly apart. They had grown up together under the same roof. Kevin was four years older, always the big bully. He would constantly berate Anton, calling him names and getting into pointless debates that would last longer than their worth. Kevin was a real dick. But of course, maturity cast a mellow cloak over their brotherly affairs, and they began to look out for each other in little ways. Kevin would buy occasional suppers back just for Anton, and they would talk about the topics that came with maturity. When Kevin booked out while he was still serving the army they would watch soccer and root for the same team. It was never just about soccer. He chuckled as he reminisced, shuttling down on the lift, tapping his feet. As with any brotherhood, a lot was left unsaid.
Perhaps for that, the emptiness remained.
Something had left his chest, and he felt nothing. Or rather, something had divided his heart into two factions; one that grieved, and one that knew it should be grieving but could not bring itself to. These two factions separated themselves ever so perfectly within his chest, and he was only acknowledging the latter. He knew that his family would be waiting for him at the morgue. He knew he would have to be strong, be strong for them. But not like this. He wanted to be strong, not unfeeling.
I want to feel something, he thought to himself. But then thoughts, for all they’re worth, are easily erased by inaction. He sat in his car and closed his eyes. Nothing. There was nothing in his heart that stirred him one bit. The stones on the sidewalk felt more for his brother than he did and he did not know why.
He remembered how his co-worker patted his back on the way out. She looked at him in earnest, telling him to take it slow, to let it seep in. He remembered the smell of her hair as she leaned in to hug him. Why should he remember that, of all things?
And what did she mean to let it seep in? If people complain all day about not having a grip on overwhelming emotion, then doesn’t he have the right to hate himself for being less than emotive about his brother’s death? Are the emotions of the moment a true representation of what someone means to us?
Kevin didn’t have the answers at all. He started the engine, engaged his GPS. There were five missed calls on his phone. Three were from his home phone, two others from his mother. His mother, who had to bury her son.
Life is unfair that way, he thought. He spent the last nineteen years watching his counterpart grow up and even when this was all crushed in one day, he felt nothing. Crushed between a lorry and a road divider.
Fucking unfair indeed. Why do feelings allocate themselves so unevenly that more feelings have to make up for this lack, plaster over the imperfections? For now Kevin felt guilt, and this guilt covered up the void like white paint over an imperfectly chipped under layer, pinching a small corner of his heart that would have otherwise been torn apart. He kept his eyes forward as he drove past Guillemard drive, down Canton Way.
It was as if the city forgot to smile that evening. Not that it was depressing to look at the city. In fact as the darkness descended upon the streets there was a brightness that permeated, that suddenly stood out. He didn’t remember the streetlights to be so spectacular, so … vibrant. Red, white, blue; the synthetic colours blended more and more into each other as the natural light faded from the sky. But he felt nothing for this as well. It was as if the city strove to be as far removed from reality as possible, distancing itself, almost completely, successfully from natures bid to get us to rest, to get us to forget about the turmoil of daylight. The city stretched the limits of human endeavour, allowing us to function outside darkness, letting greyish backlights illuminate the void. He suddenly felt violently nauseous.
Pulling over to the side, he opened the door and immediately got on all fours at a grass patch by the pavement. He choked on saliva, and then on air, gagging uncontrollably but nothing came out. His stomach, it seemed, was empty. It expanded and contracted, like a desperate hand grabbing for something, anything to make sense of. Kevin wiped some overflowing saliva from the side of his mouth with his shirtsleeve. Standing up carefully, he got back into the car. He took a deep breath as he leaned against the steering wheel. In his heart was nothing that could be considered as grief, only layers of guilt painted one brushstroke on top of the next. The guilt of being alone in this car when his family needed him the most, the guilt of not feeling a tinge of sadness for Anton, the guilt of pointless guilt when the world told you that there was more to feel, always more to feel. He started the car again and moved along.
What is wrong with me?
Onto the slip road to the expressway, he turned on the radio. Sticky Leaves was playing, and as far as he knew it was sung by a local artist. The tune melded in with the night, the city lights illuminating each note. He imagined a huge silk scarf being draped over the city. As his car moved along the lyrics guided him into an obscure corner of his heart which he dared not venture. It happened almost instinctively, and he found himself in a dark, unfeeling place.
My love is proud, my love is small.
He turned off the radio immediately and squinted to keep focus. The silence drowned out her voice instantaneously. Why should he feel anything for a silly mistake? Who was Anton but a stupid boy too young to be exploring his limits the way he did?
And then there was a flash. It was faster than he could anticipate. A motorbike rushed past him, with such speed that you could imagine the air rushing past your side window. The biker weaved through, relentlessly beating cars before they had a chance to change lanes or notice. It happened so quickly.
It was then that Kevin did feel something. It gripped his chest lightly at first, and then all at once. He sped up slightly to keep in view of the biker, weaving mercilessly through traffic to catch up. Soon he was going at 130 on the expressway, but he was too caught up with the chase to slow down. He would have gone faster if he had to, he knew that for a fact. But he didn’t have to.
My love is a Friday.
The bike turned out at the Bukit Timah exit and he slowed down as well. Soon a traffic light emerged, and the biker propped himself at side of the road, resting his leg on the kerb.
Kevin pulled up beside the biker. The streetlights shone on his helmet, glistening brightly, proudly. The night was still around them, the street hugging a band of preserved jungle.
He wound down his window.
The biker continued to look forward.
Startled by the unexpected yell, he jolted to the side, facing Kevin. He pushed his visor up. He turned out to be a young Malay man, looking no older than him.
“I saw you just now.”
“So?” Returned the biker.
“That was much too fast.”
“Did I hit you?”
“No, you didn’t.”
The biker looked forward again. “Then what’s your problem? Just drive lah.”
“You don’t get it.”
The biker did not respond, pulling his visor down and looking straight ahead.
“Look at me. Fucking look at me.”
The biker turned towards him, visor still down. He was listening.
And then there he was. All of Kevin’s anger melted away, and then all at once he understood. In front of him was Anton, the young boy so eager to prove himself to this world, to show the world just what he was made of. All 19 years, 179 cm of him. And he was not dead after all, no. Not dead at all. Just foolish in life, but certainly not dead. Kevin choked, but barely managed to compose himself. He had never seen his brother this way before, and of all times it was now that he needed to speak.
People care about you, he wanted to say. People want you back safe. The missed calls, misty eyed parents on lonely Friday nights; you may not get it now, but it shouldn’t take you too long to understand. What youth cannot teach you, you’ll have to learn yourself. That’s what growing up is about. You’ll see eventually that there are things in this life more precious than cutting across lanes and feeling like the king of the world for it. No one gives a dying damn about that in this life. All we need to know is that you’re safe and living for something. So be there, alright? Alive. I’ll meet you there and we’ll talk about soccer and maybe we’ll all realise that it wasn’t your body after all. That you’re fine. Promise me this, that you will be fine. Please.
But he didn’t say anything. The silence enveloped them, made a name for itself, before it became too much. We seem to feel more for the things left unsaid anyway. The light turned green. The biker pointed a hefty middle finger at Kevin, before speeding off.
Kevin stepped on the gas and his car slowly inched forward.
Only then did he begin to weep.
Special thanks to Singer/Songwriter Lin Ying for letting me use her Single Sticky Leaves to illuminate the path for this story!