Min Chow is an emerging Malaysian-Australian writer and second runner up for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2022. She works, lives and writes on Wurundjeri land. Her work has also appeared in the Life in the Time of Corona anthology and Peril magazine. She is working on her first novel.
Papa announced that I would start riding to school with Preeti.
Her, with the sticky eyes.
We had both been in the same class since the start of the year but we had never spoken. I could only remember her going blink blink blink in the corner and her sudden burst of cackles among the group who needed extra help in Matematik.
The battered white Proton Saga pulled up when it was still dark outside. Uncle Balan waved, “Good morning!”
Preeti sat in the front with the window rolled down, munching plain cream crackers from a plastic container.
She sang out, “Haiiiii, Lim Bee Hoon!”
“It’s Samantha,” I replied flatly, watching the wet biscuit paste tumble inside her mouth from one cavity to another.
Preeti blinked. “Sam-what?
“Sa-MAN-tha. My name is Samantha.”
We picked up four other people, all piling in the back sleepily, squeezing and trying to shrink ourselves to fit. The smell of starched uniforms and morning breaths filled the car, along with Uncle Balan’s hair oil and Preeti’s cream crackers.
A girl from a year below was practically sitting on top of me. I felt my warm Milo breakfast swish and swirl dangerously in my stomach. I focused on staring at the younger girl’s left hand clutching her water bottle, a curious map of knots and untidy sewing stitches that started from the base of her thumb down to her forearm.
The journey would take nearly an hour, on dusty roads past tall towers exhaling one long, continuous sigh after another into the sky the colour of the muddy drain that ran behind our house. The Proton sped past endless patches of disemboweled red earth, raw and seething as heavy machines and their claws continued their assault, thud-thud-thud.
Papa liked to use the word ‘development’ when we got to this stretch, back when he drove me to school. He said the trees were making way for important, well-known companies from the USA to give local people jobs. Even to those from the plantation, like Uncle Balan. They were friends, helping us out and we needed a lot of help. Bright foreign names appeared on these big towers that were built in what seemed like weeks. I recognised only Mattel from the boxes of my old Lego sets and Barbie dolls.
My favourite part was when we drove past the airfield where the Australian fighter jets were parked, gleaming under the smoked, watery sun. The air force station had been there for many years. Long before I was born, long before Papa arrived. He said the Australians too were friends, like the USA. They came to help us fight off the bad guys as they had more power, more weapons, more everything.
I saw these Australians sometimes at Berkat, the first department store with air-con that opened just a few months ago. They’re just stopping by, Mama absently said to no one in particular. The airforce families lived over on the island, near the beach, where their children went to a special school. I imagined 10-year olds like me with names like Debbie, Luke, Glenn.
Once past the airfield, the Proton finally pulled up in front of the school foyer just as the bell went. We tumbled out of the car, dizzy from the heat and Uncle Balan’s sharp lane changes in shift change traffic. I wiped sweat off my upper lip with the sleeve of my white shirt and caught a whiff of hair oil.
“Mama,” I said as I set the plates on the table. My father ate at the factory canteen most nights of the week.
“Can I please not go in Uncle Balan’s car anymore?”
“I can take the school bus, like Suzy and Tina. It’s very safe.”
Mama didn’t say anything. A moment later, she came over and placed a hand on my cheek. It was warm and damp, and it said, be a good girl please.
Being a good girl was the easiest on Sunday, my favourite day. When Papa wasn’t too tired, he took us in his treasured second-hand Nissan on the ferry across to the island. The island was where we belonged, our future forever home. We were leaving the mainland behind and moving over in a year. Papa said the same thing last year but there had been a delay with his promotion to ‘corporate’. But it was going to happen. One hundred per cent. He would be the first local man in the factory to go this far.
There was always smiling and chatting on Sundays spent on the island. Nothing would upset Papa, Mama’s eyes danced and her shoulders dropped.
We ate in Western restaurants with air-con, their windows drawn tightly shut so it was dark even during the day. There was a tealight candle and a vase with a single plastic flower on every table. Papa ordered Fish and Chips, Minute Steak and Spaghetti Bolognese without fail. I preferred chicken rice, but I would pick at the chips and say things like “This is so delicious!” and “I could eat this every day!”.
After that, we visited the supermarket that stocked imported products, where many airforce families shopped for jars of Vegemite and chocolate shaped like frogs. Mama bought a packet of Tim Tams once as a treat for Chinese New Year and stored most of them in the fridge for over a year before they had to be thrown out. Mostly, we drove around the airforce neighbourhood near the beach looking at houses. I pointed out luxurious features, real or imagined, lying within the lacquered gates.
“That one has a balcony! Maybe even a pool!”
“Next year,” Papa said in his jolly Sunday voice, one resolute finger in the air, “we’ll have something grander.”
One morning, Preeti held a small black tube as I climbed into the car.
She caught me staring and said, “I’m keeping it for Amma. See? She says the colour is bright and lovely. Like me.”
Preeti’s Amma worked for an airforce family on the island and came home once a month. She cooked and cleaned for them and called the adults Sir and Mum. Mum had given her the lipstick for Christmas, even though Preeti’s Amma was Hindu.
Preeti uncapped the tube revealing the crayon with a flat top and sniffed greedily. She handed it to me, gesturing for me to smell it. I turned the lipstick tube over in my hands. Melonshine, it said on the little shiny sticker at the bottom.
The tube turned up everywhere with Preeti. She showed it to everyone in class, fiddled with it even when we were meant to stand still at Assembly. Uncle Balan had spoken to Cikgu asking special permission to allow it.
I started rolling my eyes and soon Suzy joined me. It wasn’t as if Preeti could do anything with it. Make-up was forbidden, except when we got to perform at the year-end concert. Girls like Preeti didn’t get picked for that.
Preeti trotted behind me as we were heading out to recess. Suzy and Tina raised their eyebrows at each other.
“Lim Bee Hoon! What are we playing today?”
“My name is Samantha,” I hissed.
“Cikgu doesn’t call you that. Your name is Lim Bee Hoon-lah.”
“My friends call me Samantha.”
“OK. But I’m not calling you your fake name.”
She parked herself on the grass near the edge of our circle without taking care to cross her legs. We could see her underwear and I made a show of screwing up my face and pinching my nose, making Suzy and Tina giggle.
“There are too many of us in the car. It stinks and I can’t breathe the whole way.”
“The windows aren’t even automatic!”
“She’s a bit dumb in class too. She doesn’t even know what’s eight times nine. Eight times nine!”
I went blink blink blink, by then an impression that I repeated almost every day. Unlike Suzy and Tina and my other classmates, Mama didn’t laugh and said enough.
I was still moody on Sunday when we left to see the new bridge. The Nissan joined the massive queue of mainland families eager to cross what they were calling one of the longest bridges in the world. A real global treasure, right here at our doorstep. Papa usually preferred silence in the car until we got to the island, but he popped in a Michael Jackson tape and drummed his fingers to the beat on the steering wheel. He could have waited in line the whole day.
Two hours later, we reached the gate and paid the toll. As the window rolled up and we passed into the transit area, I felt something shift in the car. Mama cleared her throat and glanced at Papa. He smiled at her and changed gears purposefully, climbing the freshly painted tar as Michael sang why why tell ‘em that it’s human nature for the third time. It was so new and modern, not one pothole in sight we could have been part of a blown-up Lego set Mattel from USA made right there on the mainland.
Soon, we were on the bridge, cruising above the water. My stomach fluttered like on the rides at the pesta, only this was much better. We were practically flying across the strait! The tiny stubborn strip on the map that had kept us apart from the island, now linked and forever changed. As the crest of the bridge appeared before us, the sea too had transformed, from the colour of mucus to a sparkling turquoise.
Papa’s mouth hung slightly open the entire time. Mama kept looking over at him and back at me, her pale hand on her throat while she swallowed several times. At the top, dwarfed between the towers that reached into the sky in the bluest shade of blue, the Nissan sputtered twice, as if in awe. The journey was over in less than ten minutes. It was the fastest crossing to the island we ever made but it felt like we had gone much, much further.
Suzy and I were trying a new game. We sat on the ground under the cool, deserted Blok D stairs, with our pinafore skirts pushed up. We were taking turns running our fingers down each other’s lap. The first to give in to the tickle and laugh would be the loser.
It was funny at first. Suzy’s fat fingers tiptoed up and down my lap, tripping over themselves and it was hard not to giggle. When her turn came to sit still, I pretended to play the piano on her lap, with extra sound effects. We had just gone twice when Preeti appeared and plopped down next to us without asking.
She studied us for a little while before putting her lipstick tube down and cracked her fingers until a few of them popped. With a tongue out in concentration, she raised her right fourth finger and hovered it above my lap. She looked at me briefly and when I didn’t say anything, she placed the finger on me. So gentle was the landing that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been looking. I froze as her finger started trailing upwards, light as an insect. It carefully carried on north to the middle of my lap before it gained speed and slid towards the edge of my underwear.
Suzy too had stopped moving, her eyes wide and glittering in the dimness. Preeti’s breathing was the only sound we could hear. The same softness now descended, silky tips of a make-up brush skimming downwards over tiny bumps that had sprung up on my skin. I felt hot and cold all over, a fever almost, like the kind I got sometimes with the shower head. The kind you didn’t want to stop.
Suzy jumped back suddenly with a yelp. A thin puddle had crept slowly to the edge of her shoe. I stood up, thigh still tingling and stared down in shock as a stain bloomed across my pinafore skirt and fluid pooled in my white ankle socks. I felt the wetness, just as the sharp, sweet tang of acid hit my nostrils.
Preeti’s finger was still suspended in mid-air when I turned to look at her. In the near-darkness, I just about made out her eyes. Blink blink blinking the terror away.
Papa heard from Uncle Balan at work and didn’t miss a beat when he got home. When he was done, he pushed me into the storeroom and latched it shut from the outside. I couldn’t reach the lights, even when I climbed on top of the stack of old newspapers. I sat sobbing, fighting off the hug from the darkness around me, the black creatures emerging.
“Inside or outside today?”
I smiled brightly, “Let’s play inside today.”
It was Preeti’s turn, and she went looking under the desks and behind the cupboard. Anyone else could see there was no one hiding in those places. I waited in the wings, alert and ready.
Uncle Balan arrived late that day to pick us up, after everyone else had gone. He seemed distracted and deep in thought, so I guessed he was no longer upset. The girl with the stitched hands was jerking about next to me, confused if she was meant to sit back or lean forward. I pushed her back and a fold in my skirt fell to one side, exposing the back of my leg. She gasped.
“You should cover those hands up with gloves,” I snapped at her.
Nobody said anything in the car for a long time. When the car came to stop at the lights, Uncle Balan pulled up the handbrake and twisted fully in his seat to stare at me. I could see he was mad, perhaps even madder than Papa had been the other night. I turned away, my heart beating so loudly I could hear it over the motor engines around us. A kapchai throbbed next to us, carrying a younger boy sandwiched between his father and mother, an Ultraman bag from Berkat over her shoulders.
Alone in my room, I retrieved from my bag the prize I claimed at recess. I uncapped Melonshine and dabbed the glossy red on the back of my palm. It turned brown on my skin like rotten fruit, and I kept pressing the flat top of the stick into it to make the colour shine red again. I decided I would keep it for a day or two, just long enough for Preeti to miss it. In case her Amma returned and asked for it.
Preeti didn’t turn up the next day, or the one after that. One week passed and Mama told me that they were putting me on the school bus because Uncle Balan couldn’t drive me anymore. I shrugged and carried on with my homework.
When no one was looking, I let myself into the storeroom and locked the door behind me. I twisted the tube open with my fingers and felt the blackness breathe unhappily on the back of my neck, down my bare arms and my thighs, like Preeti’s fourth finger. I brought the tube close to my nose. I smelled the sugary wax and pressed the stick to my mouth, imagining the places the colour had touched.