Oreo

Oreo recently underwent a severe tick infection and  woke up one day as a giant tick.

It all started from a few ticks here and there, peppered across his body. He probably caught it from rolling around in grass patches during the evening walks. We should have been more careful and kept to the pavements. Then from there they overtook, fought their way through antiseptic barriers, prying fingernails and extensive grooming. The ticks won, and infested my house with the efficacy of a virus, the frightening imposition of an unreasonable law. My dog suffered, and so did we.

But one morning, all the ticks were gone, every last one. We made sure to check the entire house after our ordeal was over, and sure enough, every last morsel had mysteriously vanished. Except Oreo stood now, crouched over the kitchen sink, a gigantic tick. He was four feet long and as thick as a puffy boaster before your head sinks in.

No one was about to sink anything into the monstrosity. My parents cordoned off the kitchen area, holding their ground. My father told me to stand back from the door as he regarded the thing with fear. “He may stick its stinger thing through the door and suck your blood dry,” he warned. But he’s our dog! I insisted. No one was listening, much less convinced. My mother quickly dialled pest control.

I walked to the window and observed him. The tick had a brownish back that tapered to black towards his head, a few hairs poking out between his eyes. You didn’t notice these things when seen in miniature form, but this was as good as a microscopic view of the damn pest. It was revolting. The stinger probed out, waving about like a wizard wielding his wand in search for an object to cast a spell on. I looked on in horror infused fascination. I was still convinced it was my dog. It had to be.

“Pest control won’t believe us!” Shouted my mother, phone dangling from trembling hands. We were in a state of positive panic. “Why did you tell them the whole truth?” Blared father. My mother placed the phone on the receiver and took a deep breath. “They can’t catch that thing with a butterfly net.”

And she was right. Perhaps a bear trap would have to do, but to think of the juices that would explode and dirty the entire kitchen if it had to come down to using a bear trap. It needn’t come to that, I decided. I had to do something before my parents resorted to the unthinkable. They hadn’t mentioned killing him, but I was afraid the current sentiment would lead to that inevitable conclusion.

I opened the door. My mother ran forward but father held her back. A parent shouldn’t have to watch their kid die, but I was confident they wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I stepped in and closed the door behind me. The kitchen lights were turned off and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. It wasn’t so easy to make out his entire form from the brightness outside.

Beady black eyes followed me as I pranced around the perimeter of the kitchen. He stood on the sink. I was not sure at all about anything he would do, but I was confident it would be anything but to hurt me. I took a can of biscuits from the top shelf. His gaze never left me, and a slight pivot could be discerned as his six legs adjusted to balance on the edges of the sink. It became a game of who could read whom first.

I took out a cream cracker from the biscuit tin and presented it to him. His antennae began to move about wildly, then uncontrollably, almost like ruffled leaves in the autumn breeze. But really, it was more like a dog wagging its tail. It was he. “Oreo,” I called out. He looked up at me. I threw the cracker on the floor in front of the sink and he jumped off like a loaded spring and devoured it. My mother let out a scream outside and disappeared from view behind the glass door. My father watched on, pale faced, holding on to the doorknob, about to burst in on the first sign of trouble. I was doing well. I had to do more to prove he was our dog, and not a hungry tick after our blood.

I reached my hand forward, very daringly and with a heart of faith. Nothing was going to happen. I could pet his brown scaly forehead like I always used to. The texture would be different, the being entirely the same. He made soft squeaky sounds, his demented proboscis of certain death waved about manically, attempting to feel at any flesh that came nearby. But he liked me! I was his owner and he my dog. He wouldn’t use his member against me, would he? It was hard to tell but I reached out, one inch preceding the next before I was a subway 6-inch away.

The door burst open and my father charged in with a hammer raised up high, I could glance from the peripheries, something dark and unnecessary being raised in some sort of aggressive stance, a warrior with his mallet. A huge swing came thundering down with the swiftness of finality. Bang. The floor was struck. Oreo clambered over me before I could react, jumping on my chest but never intending to attack me. One of his six legs clinched onto my shoulder and he propelled himself over me, artfully dodging the hammer, scuttling between my father’s legs like a football. My father fell forward in shock, tumbling over me. The door was ajar, and so Oreo did the sensible thing and scuttled out. Mother was laid out on the floor, struck unconscious by the morning’s interesting turn of events. He sniffed her face before deciding that licking her with the proboscis of doom would do no one any favours. He moved on to the front door, and my mother was none the wiser to his advances. I was relieved.

Father got up in an instant and made a run for the animal. He was in full fight. He’s not going to hurt us, I wanted to say. I should have said. It was hard to get through to a man hardened in life, seeing fingernail size ticks in his fifty-odd years then suddenly encountering a larger, much cuter cousin. Did it even occur to him that maybe, just maybe, this creature was just my dog in a ticks form? Of course not, I thought. We live in a world where form is everything. He would as soon believe Hitler to love the Jews.

I followed closely behind, and saw for myself the true horror of Oreo’s newfound abilities. His proboscis punched hole after hole through the wooden front door, tearing the base of it apart before our eyes like a raging elephant impaling his trainer. Splinters flew, along with my satisfied imagination. My father stepped back, and so did I. It was a work of art. Not the door, mind you. Art is the fact that it was the door, and not us, that was going though this severe treatment. Art is the beauty of a situation despite its potential for ugliness.

He punched a hole big enough for himself and felt about the edges with his feelers. He looked back at us one last time, beady black eyes shimmering. So long old friend, I muttered under my breath.

My Dad and I watched as he scuttled out into the streets. Strangely, there were no screams. Not yet.

“Was he wearing a collar?” I asked.

My father did not reply.

Happy Birthday, I Hope You’re Well

 

courtesy of veryfatoldman.blogspot.com

courtesy of veryfatoldman.blogspot.com

Date: 14/03/2015

 Hello,

 Today was an especially tough day because it is my fifth day outfield. I always thought from the movies and from what people said that it was quite a cool experience, to be out here fighting in the wild and being all macho. But now after five days, I have to admit, it is nothing like what they portray it to be. Now I know that it is tough, and it demands that you give it everything, be it your body or your time with loved ones. I am rather miserable now, and to think that it is my moms birthday tomorrow does not make it any better. I sincerely hope she will be fine, and I hope everyone around her will be fine. I just want to go home. I really do. But when I think of my family, I have no choice but to persevere. This is something I have to do.

 Cheers,

REC (Recruit) Tan Jin Hong

 

I read the diary entry and smiled. Yet another recruit seems to be finding this experience too tough, exactly what this experience aimed to achieve. Misery and heartache are inevitable side effects of being in the army. As a BMT (Basic Military Training) instructor, I knew this all too well. I sat there in the training shed sorting out diary entries. A lot of these entries had sweat stains on them mixed with dark green camouflage cream, the paper moist with the relentless humidity of the dense jungle. I gave it the chop of approval and signed it, before placing this entry on top of the “done” pile. The crickets formed a layer of thick noise above the mini tents the recruits have set up. From my vantage point atop my field chair I could make out two neat rows of tents. We had even forced them to dig up a mini drainage system around their tents so that any rain would be nicely siphoned away from their surroundings.

But of course, all of us knew that it wasn’t going to rain. The weather forecasts for the whole week indicated clear skies, which was highly unusual for such a tropical nation like Singapore. It’s almost cruel to say this, but it seemed to me that all these tents and drains were constructed purely for “experience” and nothing else, experiences that would not help them a single bit in life. I guess being here a few years before, and having experienced it all has turned me cynical. Before long I was done with the entire pile of sixty-six entries. With one leg numb from sitting too long, I hobbled over to my hammock. I had cleverly constructed this between two poles and my substantial frame filled it up to the brim. I fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.

I woke up to an astonishing sound. The sound of rain. It wasn’t just rain, it was a downpour. I sat up and looked around. The tents seemed to be shaking in anticipation in the wind and rain, as if their purpose had been realised. The drain system the recruits painstakingly created was filled with thick, brown, Milo-coloured water. So much for the forecast, I thought to myself. I silently hoped the rain would begin to flood the tents surrounded by shallower drains. Now that would be quite the outfield experience. Sure, it was a sinister thought, but it would teach the lazier recruits a lesson to dig deeper next time.

At this point, a dark figure appeared to my right, coming from the direction of the tents. The figure walked with such sloppiness that it scared me at first. There were many stories surrounding these jungles: genital mutilating female ghosts, and spirits of dead recruits looking for their disemboweled intestines. My freshly awakened self would have jumped out of the hammock if I hadn’t managed to compose myself just in time. It was probably just a fellow instructor or a stray recruit who lost his way to the makeshift toilet.

As the figure drew closer I took a look at his epaulette and saw that there wasn’t any rank attached to it. I let out a deep breath. He was just a recruit. “What you doing here, recruit? Can’t you see the rain is heavy? Go back to your tent!” Once he stepped into the shelter of the training shed he stopped. He stood before me, hunching over, face still partially green and black with camouflage cream. His uniform stuck to his skin and made him look skinnier. Not eating proper food for five days straight had made his face look gaunt and his arms seem lanky. “What are you doing here?” I repeated as if he mattered. He started, “Sergeant Ben, please understand, I didn’t come here for shelter…” I looked him straight in the eye. “I DON’T CARE! YOU GO BACK NOW BEFORE ANY OF THE OFFICERS SEE YOU HERE! THERE IS NO PLACE FOR YOU HERE!” I bellowed. I couldn’t accept this. He had no right to walk here like this, not in the rain or because of nightmares, not in any circumstance. “No, Sergeant. Listen for just a few seconds. I’m sorry that I walked here like this, but, I just came to ask of a favour, one that you will probably refuse, and it may sound very silly to you, but…” I was growing impatient. “Spit it out or leave,” I said calmly. He looked me in the eye. “It’s my mothers birthday today, and I really want to wish her.”

Mothers’ birthday? Why did that sound so familiar? Yes, I remembered the diary entry. One of the recruits said his Mothers’ birthday was soon. I looked at my watch, and it said 02:12 AM. Enraged, I looked up at him. “So what if it’s your mothers birthday? What can you do about it?”

He looked at me and motioned with his eyes to my pocket. I looked down and felt for my smartphone.

I understood his intention. “Wah! Call her now ah! On the stroke of midnight is it! You think this is Facebook is it? Want me let you log into Facebook then you wish her lah, tell her that you are two hours late, how about that!” “Sergeant, I just want to call her.” “GO BACK TO SLEEP!” I raised my voice again. “THE WHOLE PLATOON GOT PEOPLE WITH MOTHER, FATHER, GRANDMOTHER, GRANDFATHER, BROTHER, SISTER, GIRLFRIEND, BOYFRIEND, EX-GIRLFRIEND, EX-BOYFRIEND MAYBE ALSO GOT. TODAY IS THE 15th OF MARCH, ONE OUT OF 365 DAYS. CONFIRM AT LEAST ONE OF THEM ALSO GOT SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY TODAY. I ask you, why do you think there is no queue in front of me now, all asking for my phone to call their loved ones? If you can answer that question, I will let you call.”

He stood quietly in front of me at first and said nothing but then suddenly got onto his knees. I stood over him and looked down at this pitiful sight. His lower lip was trembling. “Sergeant….please. Just thirty seconds. Please. Just grant me that. I beg you.” He glanced up at me, and I could barely make out the soft glow in his eyes, eyes that were pleading for a moment of humanity amidst the madness he was thrust into. But alas, he did not give me an answer. I calmly stepped back into my hammock, trying very hard to ignore his desperation. It pained me tremendously to say, “if I don’t see you gone in the next ten seconds, you’ll be having some special treatment tomorrow morning. This treatment may or may not involve you crawling until your elbows bleed. So look, you can choose. You walk away now, and we can call this a night, and pretend nothing happened. If not…”

I counted to ten, and as I counted I thought of myself as a recruit, breaking up with my girlfriend when I was in BMT and missing out on my father’s birthday as well. Towards the last week my Sergeant barged into our bunk to tell me that my grandmother was in a critical condition. Within an hour, I had to send in my weapon and leave camp for Tan Tock Seng. I remembered tearing profusely on the cab, and thinking how I would have stayed in camp for a thousand more days just for Grandma to be alright. I knew all too well, that serving your nation came with that sort of burden, so what right did he have to call his mother?

“Ten.” When I looked up, all I saw was the heavy rain in the background and rows of tents behind. I looked to the other side of my hammock to make sure. Yes, he was gone, nowhere to be seen. By then I noticed that my hands were trembling. It was tiring work pretending to be someone you’re not, and I knew deep down that I was this close to letting him make the call. I felt so cold and empty inside, but at the end of the day, I assured myself that what I did was the professional thing to do. It was my role as an instructor, after all. Like my Commanding Officer told us, once your heart softens, these maggots will not hesitate to crawl over your head. Relieved that I made the right choice, I fell back to sleep, comfortable amidst the rich smell of rain.

The next morning, I woke up to a bright sky. I shot up from my Hammock, startled, and immediately checked my watch. 09:34 AM. I had overslept for 2 hours! How did that happen? It wasn’t my shift as Duty Instructor today but still, it was my unspoken duty to be there and overlook the activities. Sure, I might not have set an alarm, but why didn’t anyone wake me up?

I stood up and toddled over to a group of instructors standing around behind the training shed. They looked smart in their new uniforms and branded sunglasses. Some were smoking, but most just stood around. “Eh paiseh I just woke up, gosh. Why you all never wake me up?!” Warrant Officer Josh looked up first. He looked solemn. “Eh Ben, sorry sorry, we thought of you but then some serious shit happened la.” Serious shit? Maybe last night’s heavy rain could be considered as serious? Anyhow, I probed on. “How come no activities today, I thought the recruits practicing for grenade throw, and you’re the conducting?” Josh sighed. My batch mate Ezekiel chipped in, “Activities are on hold, we had to send this boy back to mainland lah. The call came early in the morning at about 0700, he had to attend to family matters.”

“Yeah, cancer lor. Terrible, feel damn sorry for him.” Josh added, “speaking of which the boy is from your platoon eh, Ben. Yeah anyway damn sad lah, his mother battling cancer for quite long already then this morning she suddenly slipped into a coma. The chances of survival seem slim. I know because the father called, told me the doctor told them she had a few months left so the family still let him come here to Tekong for field camp. But who knew right? Few months can become few weeks, that life can be so fragile and unpredictable? Don’t know how he can take it at such a young age. And the worst part is, we just found out also, that coincidentally, today is the mother’s birthday. Poor boy, poor boy.”

The other instructors nodded along in grave agreement. The crickets continued chirping in the background, invigorated by the entire night of rain.

Level Twelve Bridge Club

We always sat at our favourite little corner after school to play bridge. It was the four of us, the same four every time. We would take the escalator up to the twelfth story after school. There was a nice Sky Garden at this particular bunch of HDB flats, and it overlooked the entire Toa Payoh neighbourhood. It was a nice place to come to after school; to just unwind as the world below us went about its own business.

We sat in a circle as the cards were dealt. Jason was to bid first. “One Spade” he calls. “Walao…I can’t play spade lah. Two Diamonds, ” bids Wei Lun. It was my turn. I had both the King of Diamond and the King of Spade without a particularly strong suit so I just passed, hoping they wouldn’t go into a bidding war. “Two No Trump.” Bids Adam, without much hesitation. Strange, given that I had two kings. I wonder if he had a domineering suit he was waiting to exploit. The game carries on as everybody passes, and Adam subsequently calls for his partner, the Ace of Clubs. It wasn’t a card I had in my hand. This should be an interesting game if it had to come down to my Kings.

At this moment, a woman walks out of the lift behind the boys, and slips to the corner of the Sky Garden unnoticed. She is wearing a pale beige dress with a thin red belt around her small waist. She is probably in her early-twenties by the look of it, though her eyes were sunken and morose, making her look much older than she actually was. She leaned herself comfortably on one of the railings overlooking the north towards Braddell. They can just see her through a small gap in the pillars. Well, they don’t see her yet, but in time they will.

I put down my King. The ace was out during a previous round so this trick was definitely mine. There would be a change of power, then a tough decision to make. Who could my partner be? Could it be Jason with the Spades or Wei Lun with his Diamonds? I look up at Jason and he smiles at me, a very slight smile that makes it certain, all at once, that he couldn’t possibly be my partner. There was no concrete logic to this, and none of the cards thrown before could lead you to this conclusion, but something just felt wrong. I went with the diamonds and threw down a low-value diamond.

Our games of Bridge were not all for fun. The losers usually had to owe something to the winners. We usually played for cash; the losing pair would give the winning pair one dollar each for every round. We had been doing this for a few rounds today and my wallet got lighter with each round. It wasn’t my day for Bridge. Bad cards were made worst with bad decisions, and no matter who partnered me I was doomed to drag them down. Wei Lun claims the next trick, and if my assumption was correct, it would be one more for the win. I would expect him to throw a Diamond so I could claim the next trick with my King. But instead he opts for Hearts and throws out a mid-range Heart.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Sky Garden, the woman looks on into the distance. One look at her posture will tell you a lot about her. She is probably tired as she hunches forward a touch. She looks almost deflated where she stands, as if held up by something beyond her own strength. Underlying that, if you looked really close, was a minute trace of steely determination hidden beneath layers of skin, muscle and bone. It stuck out like a sliver of morning sunlight through a gap between thick curtains. It was slight, but unmistakable. There was a determination she had, a determination to accomplish something.

Eventually, my pair lost. Predictably, I had trusted the wrong person. Wei Lun was not my partner, and the hint of a smile from Jason was in fact a benign gesture. How do you even sense these things? “I don’t want to pay already, partner this guy always lose one!” Exclaimed Jason, who received a playful nudge from me as I tried to defend myself. “I’ll be better next time lah, promise. So far it isn’t my day for this game.” Jason suggests an alternative. “We just play a dare instead lah. Save some money and increase the fun. You just say it, I’ll do it.”

Jason had an impulsive streak within him that would lead him to do incredible things. Well, more like incredibly stupid things. Last year he swallowed a live guppy whole on the account of a dare that got him free canteen food for a week. Stupid Things that Teenagers Do seemed to be the title of his life story thus far. That aside, he was a nice chap, polite and proper. But he just couldn’t resist the chance to show off his bravado.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t one to go for such dares. There was always a proper way to do things, one that didn’t involve public humiliation and putting my poor body on the line. I mean, there had to be a better way so I always yearned to find an escape from such situations. Do a dare? I think not.

“Ok fine, we try find something for you two to do ah.” Adam offers. “Wei Lun go find something leh. This Jason like won’t be scared of anything one lor look at him.” “Come, find one please, try to surprise me this time, guys,” taunted Jason. I didn’t like where this was going. Wei Lun looked around for something, anything that could be contrived into a test for Jason. There was nothing. The whole place was largely empty, except for Jason’s ego that seemed to fill up the entire space. “Just wait, I think of one that will make you regret your request.” Promised Wei Lun. It was at that moment that he focused on the small gap between the pillars, and saw her in the distance, just standing there.

She stood there quietly, watching the world go by under her feet and wished that the wind would carry her off into a faraway place. A place far removed from where she was. There were memories she held of this place, memories too dark to reconcile yet too sticky to escape. These memories were like excess oil spilling out of a car engine, seeping into deep cracks in the road. They once served their purpose, but now the excess flowed freely into the long empty roads of her mind. She longed to escape this road.

“It’s not that bad lah” Jason assured me, “just go there, tell her that line, then we can just run away. She also won’t remember us and like honestly I also want to see her reaction.” I sighed. The dare was simple yet honestly really childish. We had to go up to the woman together but only I was to compliment her about how pleasant she looked. We all knew Jason would do this without any thought, so according to Adam, the dare was for him to make me say the words to her. Damn. How could this possibly end well? But I knew I was better off rejecting an insurance agent than Jason.

We walked between the pillars; through the ceramic tiles of the lift lobby then back to the stone path that was the other side of this Sky Garden. She was now just a few meters away. Her small back was facing us, the thin red belt the clear divider between her upper and lower torso. The fabric of her dress was silky and almost dreamy on closer inspection. Her spindle-thin arms shot out, pale and innocent while her legs had a little more flesh to them, but looked equally fragile. A slight nudge would be all it took for her to lose her balance and fall, no doubt about that.

Normally I would have stopped here and hesitated but Jason kept walking forward at a steady pace so I kept with the dare and followed close behind. I thought of a lot of things while going forward. Things like, who is this woman? What if I actually ruined her day with my words? What if she sees me as a threat? What if I had played the damn Spade instead of my weak Diamond? I heaved a silent sigh. All of this could have been avoided. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Adam and Wei Lun at the lift lobby, eager spectators to my embarrassing downfall. I should never have agreed to join tables with them back in Secondary Two, I thought bitterly.

The plan had always been so simple for her. She visualized the steps. To put her dominant left leg over the railing, then to bring her body weight over the edge. She would then lean further until her right leg, too, left the ground. Whatever happened after that, she was confident that it would be better than the place she was in now. Her brains would be splattered over the ground, and there would be nothing left of her. There would be bliss. She concluded that she had seen enough misery, disappointment and grief in just over two decades. She sat up one day and decided that no, this world had no place for me. Simple as that, a resolution was forged. Looking back she tried grabbing at a reason not to leave. On paper, her life had been fine. Her time in university was considerably fun. She had friends to go around and scored slightly above average in her work. Her parents weren’t particularly well off but they weren’t poor by a long shot. By right, she was going to graduate now, leave for the real world out there. On all accounts she was your average Singaporean girl heading for an office job. Average. Yes, that was the problem

 

Being average. That was the problem. She dreamed often when she was young, of a place far away, a place where she could build a new life. A place removed from what society was teaching her to become, a rat driven to death by work. She worked as a primary school art teacher after Junior College only to find out how spiritually deprived all her students were. They came in without a drop of creativity, yearning to improve their strokes to get their parents’ approval rather than pursuing something greater. Something greater. These ideals slowly started to seep from her mind the moment she set one foot into the real world. There was nothing great out there, just a long road of being average. Average. Ugh.

 

Under the encouragement of reality, her dreams leaked out slowly from the folds of her brain. These dreams were replaced by something dark and unfamiliar. Something like excess engine oil: dark, sticky and formless; and worst of all, purposeless. This dark matter filled her thoughts day and night as she struggled to find a way to express them. She spent the last few years staving off these ravenous thoughts, for they were meaningless after all. They were meaningless, yes, she thought. But if my thoughts are all I have, doesn’t that make me meaningless too?

 

Lost in dense thought, a hand tapped softly against her upper arm.

She turned around to face Jason and I, and we stood there staring at each other awkwardly. I had never felt a stronger desire to run away. It was awkwardness on such an intense level that it renders you senseless. Your extremities become numb and your mind freezes. Jason was nudging me fiercely. I could almost read his mind. Just do it, say it! SAY IT! IT WILL BE OVER IN FIVE SECONDS SAY THE WORDS GODDAMMIT. I blared what I thought Jason was thinking within the walls of my consciousness. I opened my mouth with a start, but closed it again. At that point, I saw it. Her eyes.

 

His eyes. They looked at her with sudden concern and flickered to life. He was about to say something but then closed his mouth as if awestruck. She now studied him, a young boy of about 15 years old in his school uniform. Yes, it was the same school she attended as a child a decade ago. His friend stood by his side. He was also in uniform; slightly taller, and urging him desperately to fulfill a certain task. But whatever task that was, it didn’t matter, did it? His eyes. They stared at her with such innocence; with the type of sincerity a fully-grown adult could never have given her. There was no trace of malice, no ill intentions. Ironically these eyes made her think of both her ex boyfriends, precisely because their eyes were nothing like the boy’s. They held something against her from the start and she could sense it. They did what every couple did; confess to each other, hold hands, go on cute dates and made out feverishly when they felt like it. But it felt so…empty somehow. There was a part of her that these men couldn’t fill not because they weren’t enough. She figured it was because she wasn’t enough for herself. There was the darkness that they couldn’t expunge from her because she simply wouldn’t let them. She guarded this part of herself so well that her then boyfriends would eventually give up trying to find it, and become frustrated and hurt in the process. And so one by one they left her on their own terms. They simply couldn’t fix me, she was always left thinking.

 

But this young boy, he was different. She felt so naked and exposed. She dropped her defences and he looked right through her with those kind eyes, a graceful dolphin wading in the dark waters of her mind. Perhaps while building her resolution to end her life she had inadvertently exposed more of this inner darkness to the outside world. He must have picked up on that instantly. There was no straightforward way of understanding this, but she would like to think that this boy was special.

 

Her eyes were sunken in, and her face a portrait of despair. She pleaded with these eyes, and at once I knew she had an important story to tell, but had no way to tell it, so I could only guess looking through her eyes. She was probably younger than she looked, her face displaying hints of youth. I could tell that she used to be pretty, her cheekbones were high and her eyes glowed faintly through the curtains of death and despair. There was a hidden vibrancy in her that had been long stowed away and forever lost in transit like misplaced pieces of luggage. I tried imagining her with full cheeks and lips, but couldn’t conjure a solid image. She appeared to be a mere skeleton of her former self. I focused deeper into her gaze. They were searching me, but searching me for what? I was fifteen and I was simple. If I didn’t come up here, I would go home to my X-Box and waste the hours away. Besides, it suddenly hit me that I’ve never looked at anyone, male or female, in such a way before; to stare into the inner recesses of their gaze and to sift out what they had to offer. I had seen little of the world. Every second spent in her gaze was like a brand new encounter, a unifying of two totally different worldviews that melded perfectly to form what we knew as this moment.

We stood there in a comfortable silence. The initial awkwardness had been shed, and I lost track of how many seconds passed, though it couldn’t have been many, because Jason was still tugging at my shirt. There was now something tugging at my right hand, and I looked down to realize it was her left hand holding onto me. I took the hint and held her hand in mine. It felt small in mine and made me conscious of how much I’d grown in the past year. Her hand felt deathly cold too. It was a lack of warmth rather than the cold that disturbed me, as it felt so unnatural, like a dark cloud on a clear day. Yet through the cold, I could sense that this hand was searching for something. I was holding on not to a mere hand but the vessel in which her desires were expressed. Desire for what? I couldn’t go as far to tell, but this was a strong, suppressed desire that should have been expressed long ago. Jason stopped tugging at my shirt and I could see his jaw drop at the periphery of my vision. If he had felt the connection we had, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so surprised. I probably didn’t know better, but at that moment I started to believe there are some things in this world that are meant for only two people to feel.

It was not long before I observed her bottom jaw tremble, and her eyes become glossy. She held on tightly to my last three fingers, and proceeded to lean her body against mine. She locked her arms around my back and pulled me in, hugging me firmly. I did the most I could by putting my arms around her as well. We stood quietly in our tight embrace. I started to feel a steady moisture settle on my shoulder where her face was, and could feel her hiccups as they resonated off her chest. I felt as warmth returned to her, the same way warmth spreads through you when you snuggle into a thick blanket. She held on tighter and wept freely now, saying nothing but showing me everything. I started to understand her story through the convulsions between hiccups and through how her small hands interlocked at the small of my back. I don’t know how, but I could sense it; the dark and vacant space deep within her was steadily being replaced by something greater than she’d ever known. And I was the first person to ever know of this space within.

She knew now, that there were some thoughts that didn’t require words to express. She knew with a sudden finality, that this was the person that would understand her, and understand the depth of her grief. On the edge of her life, she was suddenly willing to lay all her thoughts and fears at the rim of her conscience, and now as he held her close she could feel that he fully understood these feelings. It was this that eventually moved her to tears, the feeling that somebody in the world cared. She hugged him back like the little brother she never had. Within him she saw the part of herself she had wrongfully discarded in the past and replaced with this imperfect version. She understood now, that this was not her time to die. Sure, I may still have terrible issues too deep for anyone to fix, but I will have to face them myself from now on. She thought to herself, that she would do this for him. It couldn’t be coincidence that he would appear in her life, and now he was the only person whose existence made sense to her right at the time she needed it most. No, it wasn’t coincidence. I will live on for him, for he is the reminder that goodness and hope still exists within me. And with that, she decided to walk away from the edge.

 

It ended as abruptly as it began. She released me from her embrace and glanced at me one last time, the kind of glance that entailed a glimmer of hope. Why I could sense this hope from her, I could never quite explain. You just felt these things. She walked away gingerly, looking more at ease than when I first saw her. She made her way through the stone path, past Jason and to the lift lobby where Wei Lun and Adam stood, wide eyed with shock. Did I really just hug her for those few seconds? She pressed the ‘down’ button for the lift and in less than half a minute she was gone, wafted down the elevator shaft in relative safety. There was no goodbye, just the warmth of her body that I still felt on my chest.

It was then that I suddenly felt sick. I felt weak and dizzy and I could feel the colour draining from my face. This feeling came at me strong as Wei Lun and Adam ran over. “Alamak! What did you tell her! She just held your hand like that what in the world, then next moment she just hug you eh. She hug you as if she never hug guy before. But she already so old cannot be what. Should have taken a picture lah Adam, we tell other people sure no one believe one.” Wei Lun was ecstatic. Jason replied first, “But…he didn’t say anything. They just stared for a while then before I knew it she pulled him in and was crying on his shoulder, She was really crying! I don’t believe you so handsome or anything lah, this girl sure got some mental problem. But good job man, you exceeded our expectations lah you damn power.” I appreciated their analysis, but I couldn’t bear to listen anymore, for the weakness sharpened and I felt an intense nausea sweep me off my feet.

I stumbled to the side away from the guys, and kneeled down on the ground. I opened my mouth and a warm, dark liquid came gushing out. I looked closer and realized that this liquid wasn’t merely dark, but black as squid ink. I felt better now but was covered in cold sweat. I kneeled there as the guys surrounded me, asking if I was alright. They looked at what I had produced and grimaced. “What you eat sia?” one of them asked. I had no answer for them. The four of us just watched on as the black liquid started spreading with the help of gravity, and begun to seep into the cracks of the stone path.

The Eternal Underground

I woke up with a start as the train ground to a halt. I opened my eyes to unfamiliar faces straining to take clean breaths in the crowded carriage. Yes, this was my subway stop. The pillars were a darker tinge of brown, something I noticed about this station. These were the small details you would only have noticed if you alighted at the same exact place every working day. I grabbed my suitcase and bolted out the door without a second thought. That was when I realized that something wasn’t right. The whole platform was empty. I looked back into the carriage, and nobody stirred or showed signs of getting out. I got the same feeling you’d get when you accidentally leave your valuables behind in a public space, except I felt that I was leaving my entire self in a place I shouldn’t be. I should jump back in I told myself. This isn’t normal, its 8 AM … there’s no way this station could be empty. 

But I just stood there.

The train door closed with a vacuum-like sound. A Caucasian boy of about 5 years old wearing a pink shirt and with flowing blonde hair waved goodbye to me from the inside. His mother pulled him back from the window and held him close. I hesitated for a while and then waved back. The train pulled away within ten seconds and I was left utterly alone on a usually busy Thursday morning.

Being alone in a place that should have been bustling with people has two effects on a person. Firstly, you feel confused. You’re confused simply because this isn’t what you’re used to. You only latch onto ideas and put them under the label of ‘reality’ after repeatedly seeing the same things happen, with ultra-predictable outcomes. You see babies cry when they are born, you only hear thunder after seeing the flash of lightning, and you definitely would observe there to be a crowd on a typical weekday morning at a train station with good access to a big cluster of office buildings. When you didn’t see this, then reality has failed you, or worst, you have failed reality by observing something that simply can’t be true! You feel like you’re in an unrealistic world, a world no longer bound by a network of logic. That is the main cause of your confusion. Secondly, you feel terribly lonely. Empty spaces are known to give people a sense of tranquility, but only when there is an expectation of absence. When your mind is so focused on the presence of something, so utterly certain of it, that is when things start to fall apart the moment you realize that there was nothing all along. I stood with one hand on my hip and the other hand scratching my head. I felt lonely. A terrible cloak of dark emotions threatened to swallow me up. I felt like I had been cheated, goaded into leaving the train when everyone knew, somehow, that they had to stay put.

I noticed something amiss immediately. There was a set of escalators that went down. This was a single line station unlike Raffles Place or City Hall. Those stations had platforms on multiple levels, but this station had a simple single-layered platform that only had escalators heading upwards, up to the tap out area and then another set that wafted you up to ground level. There weren’t any escalators that headed down. And yet, there it was: a downward-heading escalator tucked exactly under the upward-heading one. It was totally out of place to the eye, but deep in the recesses of my mind there sparked an uncomfortable familiarity. I couldn’t shut away the after thought that I may have actually been here before, a station with escalators heading up and down. I dragged my focus back to the logical world. Think think think… and then it suddenly made sense. Yes! It had to be that the station was under upgrade. It was under upgrade (maybe it was building a deeper underpass) and so there was an announcement that no one was to get off at this particular stop. This must have been extremely inconvenient for everyone who normally got off here. There must have been audible groans and complains, all-round annoyance and confusion on board, but I was sleeping and none the wiser. But if my theory is true then why didn’t anyone call me back into the train? Singaporeans and their inability to speak up against a wrong! I thought angrily to myself. And now everyone went about their lives while I got stuck in this mess.

The next train arrived, and heaved a sigh as the train doors and platform doors aligned. The doors opened mechanically. I frowned. The entire train was empty; even Chernobyl had more residents. The silence caused a wave of unease to spread through me. I pondered if I should hop on to this empty train, and then thought better of it. I mean, what if this train goes straight to the maintenance hangers or just suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere and plunges into darkness? Nobody would know I was inside. I stood still as the doors closed and the train withdrew from the station. The monitor read “Next train: 5 Minutes”.

Instead of waiting around, maybe it’d be better to try to actually leave this station and just head for work, I began to think to myself. It would be a tremendous hassle to travel to a different station just to come back here by bus. Ignoring the downward heading escalator, I headed up for the tap out to see if I could just jump over unnoticed and escape to the fresh air. I stood on the escalator and it brought me up one level. What I saw up top left me unable to think properly.

What I saw upstairs was the same platform as downstairs. Going up this escalator led me to the exact same platform again. No. This couldn’t be. To my left was the sign ‘to Punggol’ and to my right ‘to Harbourfront.’ The station name was also the same, the plastic signboard hung silently in front of me. No. No. I walked down the steps again and looked around. Yes, upstairs had to be an exact replica of what I saw here. But this couldn’t be possible. At least not in this world, not within the time frame of one day could another identical platform be constructed right above the one I normally got off on.

Before jumping to any conclusions, I doubled down the escalator steps, and jogged to the new escalator I saw going down. What lay below was unchartered territory to me, so whatever I saw would give me a big clue as to the problem I was currently facing. Stay calm now, strange situations like this aren’t entirely foreign to you. As I was walking down these steps I recalled myself as a child, travelling with my family to Yorkshire. We visited a castle and beside it was a huge hedge maze. I was only a small boy no older than five, and rushed into this maze without second thought. It is human nature to explore, find their way into situations that are out of the ordinary. There was a certain unusual kick we sought in this, finding our way through the unknown. Anyhow, I wandered about this maze without telling my parents, but soon realized that I had underestimated it. It was much more complex, much larger and the hedges much too tall for me to simply give up halfway and climb across to freedom. The more I explored, the more new paths I stumbled upon. These new paths of the maze led to more new sections, and just when you thought you were going somewhere, just when you thought that your explorations would lead to your eventual freedom, you hit a dead end. The hedges watched on quietly, blocking any path of escape. Before I knew it, I was stuck inside for half an hour, and by the hour I started to panic; tears and mucus flowing gently down my cheeks and lips, warm and wet. It was the exact same feeling of loneliness and abandonment. You were trapped in a world far removed from what you were accustomed to, and that feeling really stuck with me. I knew from then: I was going to stay in the real world no matter what, a world where things made perfect sense. Eventually I was saved not by my own efforts, but by luck. A tall German tourist chanced upon me and showed me the way out, reuniting me with my worried parents.

Shoving that particular childhood episode aside, I walked down further. What I saw made no sense, yet perfect sense at the same time. It was, yet again, the exact replica of what I saw one story above, two stories above. I began to feel sick. I walked to the other end to find another set of escalators going down. This was just like above, the new installment of the downward heading escalator. I ran down yet again, and I already knew what I would have seen before seeing it: the same platform again. There were the lonely benches sitting idly, the same signboards and the same tone of lighting. NO. I ran down five more stories, rushing down in a frantic state, with each story down the certainty of seeing another similar platform increased. I observed five more similar platforms and was panting hard. I sat down to think. I couldn’t be stuck here. No. But somehow, in some insane corner of my mind, this made sense. It made sense in explaining the staircase going down, it made sense because only with an entrance and exit could the platforms perfectly replicate themselves, over and over. But first I had to prove this. I had to prove that it was being replicated. I put all logic of the old world I was in aside. That was a world that didn’t entertain the idea of eternity. Everything in the old world worked around the finite. Cars travelled a certain finite distance to get from place to place, skyscrapers had a finite number of stories. When you got married you told your other half till death do us part. The finite even encroached upon the eternal values of love. But damn it! This wasn’t about love. I thought, I’m stuck here. Stuck in this seemingly infinite world, that is more than willing to replicate itself. I came to a conclusion: the only way to have a chance to escape would be to play by the rules here.

I started by making three assumptions of this new world. First was that this world is infinite. It cannot be escaped from because the platforms replicate themselves eternally. I couldn’t possibly prove this by running up and down forever, but I had to ascertain this without substantial proof so I wouldn’t waste my energy chasing a non-existent exit. Secondly, I assumed that I was alone. There was an overbearing silence all around from the start, and my smartphone had no reception upon stepping out onto the platform. I couldn’t find any information from the outside world and there was nobody who knew of my existence here. The third and most crucial assumption was that I could only exit this world the same way I came in. The same way I came in…

The next train arrived on cue, five minutes after the previous. Again, it was empty. Not entirely surprising. This time though, I stepped into the train. I had to. It was my only real chance of getting out; the closest available alternative to the same way I got in; from a train. It didn’t matter if there was an awkward confrontation with the subway staff. It beats getting trapped in an alternate reality of everlasting train platforms. You could only exit the same way you entered. I was banking everything on this assumption. The train doors closed with a sigh and the train started smoothly to the next destination. I was leaving the world of eternity behind. I took a seat and waited, studying the subway map.

The train doors opened, and my mouth went dry. I stepped out onto an empty platform. That would have been bad enough, but then I saw the darker pillars of the station. I saw the downward heading escalator, and saw that the station name was unchanged. The train brought me to the same station again. I stepped out and allowed the train to leave. I walked up 5 stories of repetitive platforms and began to feel sick, my innards so numb from the initial panic that I no longer felt anything. The next train arrived and I boarded it. I needed to confirm with some time that this, too, was a train that would lead me to the same station over and over. I sat there without the slightest hint of an expression on my face as 7 of the exact same station passed before me, the doors opening mockingly each time as if challenging me, challenging me to leave and explore. Maybe there’s a lapse in this world, maybe this station will lead you to an exit. Maybe you can find a glitch within this system and get your life back. Before the doors could open for an eighth time, I took out a pen and a piece of scrap paper from my leather suitcase. I needed to think. I drew a vertical line and a horizontal line. The vertical line represented the infinite layers of platforms that stretched up and down. The horizontal line represented the tunnels that also seemed to stretch on infinitely, bringing me to the exact same station time after time. I imagined that the paper was infinitely big, and replicated the lines accordingly forming a network of lines that looked like the strings on a tennis racket. I drew dots on the intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines. These were the individual platforms themselves. It was like a map of the network I was trapped in. I imagined I was stuck within this network on this piece of paper that stretched on for eternity. Then for the third time today, it all made sense.

Of course, it was that simple. The only way to leave this network could be visualized with the piece of paper I had. I didn’t have to be bound by this piece of paper even if it stretched on forever. This piece of paper was two dimensional, but that didn’t mean I had to be constrained by that. Let’s say a fly landed on an infinitely big piece of paper. It need not walk forever to find the end of this paper until it starved to death. It could just fly away from the paper. That was it! I had to find the third dimension in this world and use that to escape, and with a sudden, instinctive realization I had just the method to find it. Before the train arrived at the next station, I ran to the last carriage. Tucked in one corner were a red button, and a blue button. The red button was the emergency stop with a warning of a fine if misused. The blue button would direct me to the intercom. I quickly decided against activating the intercom. A part of me already knew I would only hear silence on the line. I was like I had already tried this alternative. You are alone in this, I thought, don’t forget that. I held my breath, and pounded down hard on the red button.

The train jerked hard and almost knocked me off my feet. I grabbed onto the rail for support as the train screeched in the act of slowing itself down. It was like the sharpening of a thousand kitchen knives. In my mind’s eye the lights flickered and the wheels produced sparks, though in reality neither of the above happened. Reality, I scoffed. Reality was sorely lacking from my day. Gathering myself, I walked over to the emergency exit at the end of the carriage and yanked on the tab. It came free and pulled along with it a bendable metal pin. It felt therapeutic, like pulling a parasitic worm out from your skin. The door slowly opened, collapsing itself away from me like the opening of an escape pod. I clambered out cautiously, prepared to face a wall of darkness.

As soon as I walked out of the train I realized it was brighter outside than I imagined. I took a few steps forward. There were small lights stuck to the tunnel wall every fifteen meters or so, and they were like a comforting constellation of stars pointing terrified sailors in the right direction. As soon as I took ten steps forward, the emergency exit whirred to life, the gears working to heave the door shut. I stood there and watched. Once the emergency door fully shut, the train came to life and started inching forward, steadily gaining momentum before disappearing from sight entirely. I supposed that the train had to keep within the rules of this world and continue on with the flow. It truly left me without any company, real or imaginary. Just gets better, this day. I couldn’t help but surmise. From being in a busy subway carriage to this: alone in a dark tunnel looking for a way out.

I realized I had to work against time. The train tunnel looked awfully narrow. Though I could probably fit myself nicely at the side, I wouldn’t want to risk getting crushed by the next oncoming train. I had to find a hatch, a door. Anything. What started off as a fast walk became a steady jog. I brushed my hand along the concrete wall of the tunnel and looked closely for any sign of a hatch. I made sure I felt the outer side of the tunnel so as to move outwards from this world. To fly away from the paper! Yes, that was it. But after fifty meters of close inspection and feeling about, I didn’t find anything. I cursed myself for not keeping track of time. Given that trains came at five-minute intervals, I had to know the amount of time I had, to the last second, and yet I was clueless. The tiny white lights zoomed past one after the other. This was a subterranean space that truly looked out of this world. In the dim light, my mind wandered back to when I was stuck in that hedge maze in Yorkshire. I felt the same sense of removal, the same sense of loneliness. The more I wandered, the less I discovered. Everything was a dead end or a repetition of the same wall of hedges. Over and over again I debated if I should just cry out for help in my loudest voice but I knew then the same thing I knew now. I was totally, unapologetically alone. Only I could help myself. That was the source of both my joy and despair. To know I had control of my fate was thrilling, yet the responsibility that begot that terrified me. My five year-old self honestly thought I may be lost in there for eternity.

But of course I wasn’t alone at the end of my hedge maze ordeal. Light after light passed me by as I remembered the handsome face of the tall German man who guided me out of the maze. My parents thanked him profusely as I clung onto them and wiped my mucus on my mother’s shorts. At the end of it, I wasn’t alone. What could this mean for my chance of escape here? That I could never conquer this alone? That I was doomed to be trapped unless a certain someone helped me? I decided right there that loneliness is underrated. This line came to me from a youthful Joseph Gordon-Levitt acting his line in 500 Days of Summer. It was funny that I would remember such an absurd moment of the film at such a time, being trapped in a never-ending series of tunnels and platforms, but the human mind dredges up the most irrelevant matters at the most stressful of times. I couldn’t help but think that we had no choice in this world but to account for ourselves. We come into this world alone and we leave it alone. If I had to die solving this problem, I would.

Such hardy resolutions quickly melted away when I saw the dim headlights of the next oncoming train in the distance. It looked like a dim candle at the end of the tunnel at first, but it was unmistakable. This light would soon glow in intensity and engulf me, crushing me against the tunnel walls. My windpipe closed up slightly and fear knocked the breath out of my lungs. Oh fuck. I may actually die here. I started thinking this for the first time. No, I was certain there was a way out. After all this time I couldn’t help but think that I’d actually been in this situation before. Whether it was my past hedge maze experience or something less tangible, I couldn’t say for sure. Anyhow, at the back of my mind one fact remained, and it was that I was going to get out of this. This was a known fact. The clear sky was as blue as my chance of escape. I felt the wall with a fierce concentration; all the while noticing the headlights grow brighter at the corner of my eye. I was at a full sprint now, covering more portions of wall then before. I suddenly felt no fear, but the steely resolution of a man with nothing to lose.

It was then that felt it. It wasn’t very remarkable and could be easily missed if your hand left the wall’s surface for just a short while. But it was unmistakable. The cold smoothness of metal against the warm jagged concrete felt like the sweet kiss of a long awaited loved one. I stopped in my tracks and felt this surface. It was about the size of a mini fridge and had a small rusty handle. I tried for the handle but it wouldn’t budge so easily. The approaching train made itself audible. It screeched and roared in the distance like a pack of hungry wolves. The headlights from the train became so glaring it illuminated this metal contraption. It was probably an emergency escape, given the size and build. It even had the manufacturer label SACKGASSE written on the surface that I hadn’t realized before. Sackgasse…wasn’t that German? I thought back on all the Europe guidebooks I read in my younger days. Yes…it was unmistakably German, though I couldn’t decipher its meaning. I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed as to how it all fit…almost too well. A German man rescued me when I was five, and I was about to escape through a German-manufactured hatch. Ignoring the coincidence, I strained to turn the handle, pounding it with my fists and kicking at it with my work shoes. I observed the area around me illuminating, and the heat of the glaring headlights could now be felt as I desperately pounded at the metal hatch.

The hatch opened with a hiss. Another bright light came from beyond the hatch. Of course, it was the light from the world that awaited me. My heart lifted. I frantically gripped both sides of the opening and pushed myself through in one swift motion. The violent air currents caused by the oncoming train helped to catapult me out into my new world, like a tennis ball leaving a tennis ball machine. It was a narrow escape. I watched the body of the train through the small hatch pass by in a blur. Again, this had the most hypnotic effect on me. It was like staring at the center of a whirlpool or the aggressive white foam created at the base of a waterfall. The power generated and the potential to be crushed to bits intrigues us, draws us in and keeps us humble.

By the time I snapped out of my trance, it was already too late. The source of light beyond the hatch was anything but from a new world. In those few seconds, I thought of the paper, how the fly thought it was so smart to try fly out of it. I pictured a fly stuck in an infinitely high stack of paper, wedged between two pieces and unable to move. Even if it could bite a hole through one piece it would end up facing another piece, then another, then another. The fly was stuck in a three-dimensional system that was determined to hold it prisoner for a long time, perhaps forever. I thought of myself, a commuter on the morning train, getting off to a world of infinite layers. I thought of the Caucasian boy I waved at, my last form of human interaction. I thought of the German man and his big hands. I thought of the world I had left behind, and the people out there, the food, the smells and the freedom. My heart shrank and withered yet pulsated madly as it would before the gallows. The air around me stood still for a split second before a great gush of wind almost knocked me off my feet. Then there was the bright light of an oncoming train, illuminating every part of me. I stood still and for the first time in my life felt afraid.

There was a bright light. I opened my eyes with a start.

I was ensconced amongst the sound of people. The train was coming to a stop.

Did I miss my stop? It is the first panicked thought of every sleepy traveller who dozes off too comfortably. I felt edgy and disorientated as I observed the people around me. An old lady looked down at me as I gathered myself. There was the faint notion of a dream. If I had been dreaming, I couldn’t remember much of it, just the abstract feeling of fear that lingered like a bad aftertaste. Could you even dream so deep on a twenty minute commute? As I wiped the cold sweat off my forehead, the door opened. I observed that the pillars on this station were a darker brown, and with a sudden realisation, bolted out of my seat. I startled the old woman who gave me a grave look of disapproval as I rushed past her out of the door. A Caucasian boy with a pink shirt waved at me and I smiled hesitantly back. I had no intention of being late for work, and even if I was late, missing my stop would be a terrible way to achieve that. Today, though, something was different.

It took me three steps out of the train to realize it. The whole platform was empty.