The Skin You Wear

A rapture of sound roused the man from his slumber. He kept his eyes shut, focusing only on the sound with its many layers of textured resonance – first: the layer that screeched and whined, grinding wilfully against the fragile atoms of universal order; second: the layer that groaned and moaned as if pushing against the weight of the world, like an Atlas of true Greek tragedies, and lastly: the layer that seemed to be filled with the whispers from the darkest corners of his mind, both the ones that shriek in irrational fear and the ones that sigh with contented leisure.

That sudden assault of noise was almost painful. The man squeezed his eyes shut and held both hands up to his ears, before realising that had no effect at all. The sound still tortured him. And so he opened his eyes.

A burst of white flooded his sight. He realised then that he was in an empty room, its smooth surfaces starkly white with a deliberate shine, brightness reflecting off each wall in a tedious light show of interior brilliance.

He stumbled to his feet and examined himself. He was barefooted and clad in a set of white cotton shirt and pants. It was undeniably comfortable, soft to the touch, but his skin tingled against the material in an uncanny way, almost as if the clothes were touching him and not the other way around. Each movement he made was met by what felt like a sliver of a caress from the indulgent material. The cotton was thin and it clung to him like an organic, sentient being, breathing warm clouds of air against his skin. It chilled him to his bones, and just then his shirt pressed against his back in planned insouciance and sent a jolt of warmth running up his spine.

The man tried to walk slowly, controlling how much contact he allowed his body to have with his clothes. He walked toward the only object in the room – a wardrobe as white as the walls and thus barely visible. Perhaps some foolish, naïve part of him taught there would be an opening behind the wardrobe to lead him out of this strange room. He pulled open the doors of the wardrobe and saw only more sets of his clothes, all ironed out and smelling of soap powder, new and pristine, hanging inside. In fact, there were so many sets that they covered the back of the wardrobe completely. He was surprised the doors didn’t burst open before. Instinct told him to check behind the clothes.

Gingerly, he stuck his hand inside and immediately felt the uncomfortable sensation of being touched again. The sleeves of the shirts seemed to wrap around his arm with the casual unaffectedness of a light breeze, and he almost pulled his arm out in disgust, until he felt his fingers brush against a glossy surface at the back. He rapped his fingernails against what he assumed must be a mirror, and the returning sound affirmed his assumption.

In his desperation, the man thrust both arms into the wardrobe and yanked out hangers of clothes by his fists. And then he felt it again: fabric wrapping around him like snakes slithering up a Rod of Asclepius, except there was nothing noble about this. It was almost as if the clothes were pulling him into the wardrobe, and he steadied his feet against the base of the wardrobe in resistance. In a burst of strength, he yanked with all his might and the wardrobe rail detached with a loud snap and he went falling down with the pile of clothes.

He lay on the floor, paralysed with fear. Eyeing the clothes with apprehension, he conjured up scenarios in his head of what would happened if he dared to move.

Slowly, he tried picking up the individual articles of clothing and tossing them away. They did not put the fight he expected. After several agonising minutes without incident, the man was finally free from the pile of clothes. Breathing heavily, heart pounding urgently against his chest, the man stared now at himself. Carefully, he peeled the front of his shirt off his body. He shut his eyes in fear. There was a static connection between skin and shirt, as if the hairs on his body ached to reach for the material as it was being pulled away. He swore then that he felt some pang of loss, like when you sheer a significant lock of hair away after growing it out for years, like a part of him was being removed. A lethal moment of hesitation hit him and he released the shirt. He barely felt it fall back down onto his torso; he felt naked, but he was clothed. Where he could feel the material earlier in a constricting, invasive way, he couldn’t feel them at all now.

And then he remembered the mirror. He got up and walked to the wardrobe, now empty.

He watched his own figure advance toward the mirror in its reflection, noting with a pang at how emaciated he was. But his clothes glowed, as if some sacred, mystic glow of ancient grandeur dwelt in every fiber, and he knew then that they will only continue to grow brighter as he fades away.

Under the Sun

One day, the sun disappeared. It was replaced by a pathetic blowtorch that hung miserably in the center of the solar system, rotating slowly and hovering in the emptiness of the universe, purposeless and sad because it believed that it had no meaning in life.

Obviously, the question arose about the nature of the blowtorch – where was it from? Who made it? Who put it there? What’s going to happen when the fuel runs out – which incidentally, is about in half an hour. Well, the answer to all these questions lies in the race of the Zogazoids, from the planet Olympol. Every time the blowtorch ran out of fuel, the Zogazoids would fly 5,698,745,123,548 light years over and replace it with another blowtorch. No upgrades, no change of color, just the exact same blowtorch.

Now of course, many question this practice. The Space Council infuriatingly wondered why the Zogazoids could not just have made another sun for the Earthlings – for after all, the Zogazoids were the ones who were chosen to make all the stars of the universe. They were an incredibly intelligent race, making up in the brains department for what they lacked in looks. But the Zogazoids snubbed the appeals of the Council, and continued to supply the mediocre blowtorches as the source of light and heat for the only life-sustaining planet in that solar system, Earth.

My name is Tobrack, and I’m an angel. Or at least, I believe I am. On one of my yearly visits to the once thriving, lively Earth, many, many years ago, I found a little book written by some short, bearded humans. I believe it’s called a Bible, and it spoke of a human called Adam and his silly wife Eve who sinned in the eyes of a being called God. Gullibility is a sin punishable by death, apparently.

On my planet, we’ve never heard of this God thing. We have Gupworcks, which is a kind of delicacy, and we have Gillyford – my father. Those are the only two words in my planet that start with G’s. Most words start with O’s. In fact, I’m supposed to believe that I’m blessed that my name isn’t Ogarth or Othumrick, which are the most popular names on my planet.

Anyway. When I read about this God thing, I thought, by golly. It must be true. Otherwise no one here would be taking it so seriously! A poor man they called Stephen even got stoned about some lousy debate! So I left my home planet on a quest for the truth, searching tirelessly through the seven dimensions and the 6 billion planets out there for anything remotely resembling what the bible described as “God”. Apparently He is very awesome, and has been the winner of millions of consecutive hide and seek games. They can never find Him, probably because He doesn’t want to be found.

So one day, distraught and disillusioned, as I sat in my spacecraft, drunk with the stupendous fervor of my God-quest, contemplating the point my of expedition, suddenly, a super massive dust ball the size of ten Jupiters floated past my windscreen. I was in awe.

I yelped in my seat and pursued that ball until it brought me to the solar system which housed the planet Earth.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. Right in the center of the system, where a greatly hideous burning ball of gas used to dominate, was now a small little blowtorch, blowing its little flame in the direction of Earth. Panicking, I quickly turned to the dust ball.

“Tell me what to do!” I pleaded, I prayed.

And then suddenly, the dust ball spoke to me. It didn’t actually have a mouth, or a voice box for that matter, but it spoke to me. I heard it’s voice in my head. It said, “I am God. Heed my commands. Go to the planet Earth, and meet the one they call Lestat.”

I didn’t think that humans could survive without a sun, but I had to listen to whatever the dust ball told me to do. After all, it was God, and I believed in it with all my heart, now that I had heard its voice. And surely, if it spoke to me, it must mean that I’m His angel. His messenger, His servant. I smiled smugly to myself. Wait till everyone back home hears that I finally found Him – they all laughed at me when I first brought the bible home and read to them Genesis.

So I flew my little spacecraft to the planet Earth, not so blue and not so pretty anymore. It looked like a glob of oversized Mullipede earwax, or a white marble. But I put my prejudices aside as I reached the atmosphere (if you could even call it that anymore) and descended into the Earthly sky.

Everything looked immensely different. First, I noticed how everything was ruined. And by everything – I mean what was left, and there was nothing much. I looked around for clues of what part of Earth I was in, but there was none. Second, I noticed how it was completely deserted – no signboard declaring “Lestat is here”. Third, I noticed that I couldn’t really see at all. Everything was dark. My computer was providing the only light. That, and an infinitesimal pathetic warmish hue that colored the sky—my guess is that it’s the blowtorch at work.

The computer screen on my dashboard started beeping and it asked me where the hell I wanted to go.

“I’m looking for Lestat.” I said.

“Lestat who?” the computer asked, annoyed. Her name was Zelda.

“I don’t know. God didn’t specify.”

Zelda groaned, “Well, your God friend is awfully ambiguous.”

I shrugged. “I heard that He can be like that sometimes.”

“The nearest living creature named Lestat is 5 kilometers away.” Zelda said.

“Take me there, computer.”

And so contentedly snuggled inside my protected spacecraft, I zoomed away to go find my destiny.

Which is, apparently, a very rugged-looking human with unkempt hair and a dirty face. The computer found him scavenging through a dust pile for food.

When he heard the craft approaching, he jumped back, surprisingly lithe, and scampered away as quickly as a Pongonese Slytrex (four-legged creatures found on the tropical planet of Yubyngwati). I gaped at the creature, whom I now concluded must not be human.

Humans, in my experience, are relatively slow-moving, slow thinking, snobbish, yet sometimes also unassuming bipeds, whose faces were unspectacular and whose bodies just confused me. But this – this Lestat was something else. I actually hooted aloud, looking at him.

He was hiding behind a concrete slab, which must’ve once been a wall of some home, and he was peeking out cautiously, zipping back with lightning speed when he saw me looking back.

“Computer, what should I do?”

“Ask that genius God.” Zelda spat.

I cleared my throat. I was nervous, both about asking God for more answers and about this Lestat fellow.

“God, what do I do now?” but there was no answer. There was no dust ball. I sighed. “Bring him in.” I said.

“If you insist.” Zelda groans, and then with a mighty sucking sound and the flash of a dozen lights, the space craft moved and hovered directly above Lestat as he shielded his eyes with his arm, and then it sucked him in.

There was a thud in the chamber below followed by loud thumping and screaming.

“Your guest is here.” Zelda chimed insincerely.

“Oh, shut up.” I snapped, and I put on my slippers and trudged downstairs.

The chamber was made of glass, and the door was only accessible by password. I found that I was scared to approach the creature, whose physical appearance seemed to completely resemble that of humans, except he was significantly more attractive. Humans seemed to always be cursed with some unfortunate combination of mismatched features or overzealous pimples, but this creature I have before me now seemed to be perfect – his hair was jet black and so were his eyes, darkly and strangely so, and he was tall and broad shouldered and as pale as the white of my spacecraft. He saw me looking and made for my direction.

“Who are you?” he demanded in a surprisingly pleasant, melodic, sing song voice, through the glass.

I smiled nervously and answered him as loud as my shaky voice would let me, “My name is Tobrack. I am from the planet HOO-eehaha, and I have come to rescue you, Lestat!”

Because I assume God must’ve told me to find Lestat to rescue him from his sorry fate of having to dig through rubbish for a meal. Otherwise what other reason could there have been?

He narrowed his eyes at me and walked forward cautiously. He pressed his forehead to the glass to scrutinize me, and then his eyes widened in enlightenment.

“You’re an alien, aren’t you?” he asked.

I flinched. I disliked the term. “No,” I replied in a slightly offended tone. “I’m an angel.”

He grins. “Yeah, angel. Whatever. Now can you let me out of here? It’s awfully hot.”

His accent reminded of the English people of Earth, during the time when even the men were all still wearing frilly dresses and the women bound wires around their waists and threw on ugly, oversized frocks.

“Tell me about yourself first.” I said.

Lestat sighs. “You won’t believe me, I reckon.”

I raise my eyebrows at him. “Try me. There’s nothing I won’t believe.”

“He’s telling the truth.” Zelda butts in.

“Go away, computer.” I frown.

“I like her.” Lestat says. “Okay, fine. You want to know about me? Whatever. You want to take me back to your planet to experiment on me or something,” he raises his hands and does a face, “Don’t care. I’m just glad you got me out of this hellhole.”

“How is it you survived?” I asked in genuine curiosity. Now, what humans normally think of us isn’t true. We don’t just abduct people and experiment on them. Who in the universe has the time for that? Except for a few hostile races, of course… but otherwise, it’s a waste of time – it’s not like humans are particularly special or anything. But this – this Lestat and what he is, is really starting to tempt me to take out the bone drills.

Lestat smiles at my question. “Do you know what I am?” he asks.

I shake my head. “Homo sapiens sapiens?”

He laughs. “My dear friend, you won’t find a single one of those left on Earth. Homo sapiens sapiens… are extinct.” he says brightly, amused, but then his face falters and he looks contemplative.

“Then what are you?” I ask.

“I’m Nosferatu,” he says softly, glaring at me from under his fringe. “You know, vampire.”

I shudder. I’ve heard the term before, used by superstitious, gossipy humans, usually Eastern Europeans. I was at first fascinated by what I heard, but then soon discredited their claims because I never actually saw a real vampire. But now, according to Lestat…

“I wasn’t bitten,” he continues. “I was born like this. Inherent of the disease.”

“You think vampirism is a disease?” I ask.

He looks up at me, thoughtful. “Well at first, I thought it was. I hated the fact that I was a vampire. But then I guess now the only reason I’m alive is because of what I am. If I was human, I would’ve died too.”

“Tell me what happened.” I request.

“Oh, he’s such a nosy nose. Ignore him.” Zelda says, oddly cute.

“Computer, are you attempting to flirt?” I scold, incredulous.

She doesn’t reply, so I turn back to Lestat, who’s laughing quietly.

“I like her.” He repeats.

“Well you won’t for long. So what happened to the sun? I didn’t even know vampires walked the Earth.”

Lestat shook his head. “We don’t. I was in my crypt when I heard the disturbance. I could sense that it was still daytime, my sensory prowess is pretty sharp.” He brags. “And then suddenly there was this huge flash of heat, and I didn’t even hear anything by then, not even people screaming, which they usually do. And then after that overwhelming wave, suddenly, everything was pitch black. Everything was sharply cold. But I knew that my eyesight was brilliant for the nighttime, so I came out of my crypt. Little did I know that I could only see close to nothing. There was no moonlight. And then I saw all my vampire brothers and sisters, but no humans. No animals. No buildings. No plant life. We rejoiced, because now it meant that we could be alone on the planet. A day passed, and then a little of bit light came back, don’t know where it came from–”

“A blowtorch.” I say. “It’s from a blowtorch.”

Lestat raises his eyebrows. “Aren’t blowtorches those little –”

I nod solemnly. “They’ve replaced your sun with a blowtorch.”

He shrugs. “I’m not complaining. Anyway, the days went on and we were all happy but then we realized we had no food. We used to drink blood but now we had nothing. No prey. So we started to attack each other. When you found me just now I was hiding from them and looking for scraps at them same time. Most of us have died out already. You have perfect timing.”

I beamed. So it was true then, I was meant to save him.

“Are you hungry?” I ask.

He nods. “Terribly. Haven’t eaten in 120 years.” Usually when humans say this I ignore them but this time I take Lestat seriously.

“What can I get you?”

He smiles. “Do you have blood? Raw meat?”

I swallow nervously. “Computer!” I call.


“Cook up something for our guest–along the lines of the Peenbrook and Flenagenny diets.”

I turn to Lestat.

“I’m going to let you out now.” I say slowly. “And you are not going to eat me.”

He laughs. “Of course not! You just saved my life, and now you’re preparing a meal for me!”

“Okay then,” I breathe nervously. On the keypad next to the sliding door I key in the password, which for your convenient information is the name of my pet quorky, Goznok. The sliding door hisses open, and Lestat steps out. Only now do I realize how much taller he is than I am. I step back in caution.

He smirks. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“So you say.”

“Wow, you’re much funnier-looking in person. Umm, I mean, alien.”

“So are you.” I say defensively, although it’s not true—he’s much better looking in person.

“So now what?”

“Follow me.” I say and I lead him up the stairs to the control room, where his meal is waiting for him elegantly on the co-pilot’s chair.

“Brilliant.” He murmurs and then he settles down and quietly devours into his glass of Edquee blood and raw Woronbull meat. He turns to me, nodding his appreciation. He looks up and around the spaceship, looking for something. “Thank you, Zelda.” He tries.

“My pleasure.” Zelda says coyly back.

I groan.

“Lestat,” I say.

He turns to me, slightly distracted with his meat. “What?” he asks.

“I’m going to take you back to my home.”

He munches silently.

“You know, to my planet. It’s called HOO-eehaha, and it’s a lovely place. Full of colorful things, which I’m sure you miss. You’re going to meet my family, and then I’m going to tell them how I found you.”

“Which was?”

I cleared my throat again.

“God told me to find you.”

He doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t even give me a funny look, he just put down his meat and drinks his blood, and turns to me.

“God told you?”

“Yes,” I reply. “He did. He told me to find you. I think he wanted me to save you.”

“Well then be sure to thank your God for me.” He says.

“Would you like to read His book?” I ask cautiously. I don’t really know much about this conversion thing, but I’ll try my luck.

Lestat wipes his hands and mouth with a handkerchief primly prepared by a now swooning Zelda. We could hear her beeping happily to herself.

“Oh, yeah, sure.” He says.

I quickly reach inside a compartment on my dashboard and take out the leather-bound book, passing it to him eagerly. “He wrote this all by Himself, you know. Flip the pages carefully.” I remind him.

Lestat takes the book, carefully examining it.

“Uhh,” he says, “I’ve read this already.”

“Oh really?” I exclaim, delighted. “What did you think?”

Lestat looks at my eager face and smiles.

“I found it illuminating.” He answers, not looking at me.

“So you believe?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

I sniff. “Oh. Well, to each his own.”

There was a moment of silence in the spacecraft as it flew through the night sky, me navigating it back to HOO-eehaha.

“You know I saw Him, right?” I say to Lestat after a while.

He looks up at me and this time he does have a funny look on his face.

“You actually saw God?”

“Yes. How do you think He spoke to me to come find you, then?”

Lestat turns away and sighs.

“Tobrack, I don’t think you really knew what you were seeing. For all you know it could’ve been just a dust ball or something.”

I stiffen. “So you have seen him before then?”

“What? No.” he pauses and stares at me. “Wait—you saw a dust ball?”

“Yes. I did. The size of ten Jupiters.”

“So you saw a huge dust ball?”

“I don’t like your tone, Lestat.”

He turns away. “Whatever.”

I frown at him. “What’s the problem?”

“Oh, nothing, I just don’t think the dust ball you saw was God.” He says condescendingly.

“How would you know? God works in mysterious ways, the Bible says so! He can appear in many forms!” I declare.

“For all you know that dust ball –” Lestat freezes on the spot and turns to me. “How big did you say it was again?”

“I don’t know, the computer estimated it to be ten times the size of Jupiter.”

Lestat smacks his palm on his head and begins shaking it in a frustrated manner.

“Tobrack, you idiot.” He mutters.


“I think the thing you saw… was the sun.” he said slowly, in a dangerous voice that made me shift away from him.

“No.” I quickly said. “It was God.”

“That doesn’t make any bloody sense.”

“You have a knack for irony.”

“The sun is about ten times the size of Jupiter—just like your stupid dust ball.”

“It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t God.”

“It’s just a dumb, dead star, Tobrack. You had the star at arm’s length, you could’ve brought it back to the solar system! Or at least to some alien race you know of that could help us fix it!”

“For what? You’d die if the sun was put back.”

“Shut up. Stop the craft.” He says suddenly.

“What?” I ask, surprised. “Stop the craft? For what?”

“Drop me at the nearest planet, I’m not going back with you.”

“Why not?”

“You’re a crackpot, Tobrack. Do you know what that means? Means you’ve lost it—your marbles. You’re either hallucinating, or you’re a gullible little space alien. Yes, I said it again. Alien. Not angel. And I will not go back with you to lie to your people about ‘God’. I don’t believe he exists, and I’m not going to say otherwise!”

I slam my fist on the wheel.

“But you owe me!”

“Not anymore. You saved my life, and I helped clear the dust for you. Literally.”

“I’m sure it was God.”

“Well, I’m not, and I’m not following you back. I’m not going to argue with people like you, Tobrack. Just drop me off. I could easily kill you, but I’m not going to, because I believe that we have some kind of friendship going on here, and that because of that, you’ll respect my wishes when I ask you to drop me off,” He emphasizes the last three words.

And then it hit me. He was an ungrateful little subhuman, neither alien nor non-alien—he was in the middle, homeless and pathetic. He was a citizen of nowhere. I, meanwhile, am a citizen of the great HOO-eehaha, and no matter whether I go back with proof, people are still going to welcome me back with glee and relieved longing. But as for him?

No one wants a vampire around them. And you know what? Neither do I.

“I’m going to drop you off here. Sector 756.” I say shortly.

Lestat peers out the window, looking around.

“There’s no planet here.”

“I didn’t say it was a planet.”

Lestat stares at me, and then he laughs softly to himself. “You’re not serious”

“Actually, I bloody well am.” I bite back.

“You’re going to kick me into the middle of space just because I disagree with you about God?”

I nod. “Yes. You need an awakening, Lestat. But seeing as you’ve already been awake for hundreds of years and that has done you no good, well then I suppose I should dispose of you. You’re unchangeable.”

He gapes at me. “Tobrack…”

“We’re not friends.” I say finally, a kind of sharp, icy sword stabbing my heart. But nevertheless. “Never were. I just thought you were the means to some kind of salvation or epiphany. But clearly you’re just a test from God. And I’m not about to fail.”

“How – how does this relate to… Tobrack, come on!”

“Nope. Not changing my mind. And if you move an inch –” I warn sternly.

“I’m too fast for you.” He smirks.

“But not for Zelda.”

Lestat’s face falls.

“No… No, Tobrack! I’m sorry, OK? I’ll go back to Hahaha with you—”

“It’s HOO – ee – ha – ha, with an emphasis on the HOO. And no, apology not accepted.” I say unashamedly. “Computer!” I call.

Lestat moves back in his sit, eyes wide, his beautiful face stricken with fear.

“Yes, Tobrack?” Zelda answers.

“Disengage the guest.” I say coldly, turning away from Lestat, not a least bit upset that I’m about to destroy this beautiful one of a kind creature, or that he’s going freeze up in milliseconds and shatter into a billion pieces.

“No, please!” he calls.

I smirk smugly. That will teach you, you stupid argumentative, insolent little vampire.

“Oh no, you don’t.” Zelda says. At first I thought she was talking to Lestat, who was trying to run, but then I realized—she was talking to me.

That two faced, cheating, disloyal little –

And then I felt the springs under my chair dislodge themselves. The vent above my head opened, and with a sudden loud bang, I was catapulted into space.

Flying through the peaceful sky, I howled to myself in utmost terror, bawling and calling out for Lestat and Zelda. But of course, in space, no one can hear you, you can’t hear yourself, and my tears immediately crystalised and broke away.

My species were much more durable than humans, meaning we can sustain ourselves in space longer than humans can. Humans essentially, cannot stay in space at all. We can at least suffer an additional few days. But that didn’t comfort me.

I cursed and I cried again, and cursed and cried again, until my throat was sore. I couldn’t hear my own insults towards Zelda and Lestat but it did lift something off my chest.

All that time I was busy complaining about my situation, and I forgot to pray.

On the third day of my solitary voyage through the darkness, I did. I prayed to the great dust ball to come to my aid – I said, “I don’t care if you’re just a stupid ball, or if you’re really the sun, or if you’re God. Just come get me for goodness sake.”

And on the fourth day, it did.

Praise be to Jesus. I was floating sublimely between the asteroid Humbra and the star Poisee, when the dust ball floated by serenely.

I called for it, and miraculously, it heard me. It turned around and made for me, slowly but surely. I was bursting inside with excitement and a sort of smugness, and I thought happily about what I would find inside. I also thought about Lestat and the craft, about how he wouldn’t know how to fly it, and how when the vent opened to spring me out he must’ve suffocated a bit. Zelda, of course, would’ve initiated some kind of protection protocol to ensure he was alright, but then the only place she knows how to get to is HOO-eehaha, and when he gets there, my people are going to read the ship logs and they’re going to find out I was kicked out by Zelda. She can’t erase the records.

The dust ball was still moving toward me silently, and I stared back at it happily. I even waved. Suddenly, the ball started quivering, and it emitted this low, rumbling sound. Lights appeared on its surface and they began flashing wildly, almost blinding me. It was in my last few seconds hovering in outer space that I realized to my horror, that the dust ball was not God, not the sun, and not even a dust ball. It was a space ship. And by the size of it, I’m guessing mother ship.

I was sucked into the ship quickly and in a blur. I couldn’t really see the things around me, and I wanted to, because I wanted to know who had taken me. I had a bad feeling that these were the kind of aliens who did experiment on whomever they picked up.

I was thrown into a chamber by the force of the suction, and two burly aliens in tight latex suits picked me up and dragged me away. I protested loudly, but of course they completely ignored me.

They brought me into an operating room (oh no my fears are being realized) and propped me on top of an operating table (obviously—who was I kidding). They strapped me down and with a loud huff, they stormed away.

An alien doctor loomed ahead of me.

“Hello.” He said. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t at the time place his species.

“What do you want?” my voice quivered.

“We are very interested with you. We heard about how your race were able to live for long periods of time in space and we were very curious. We want those powers too, you know.”

I quickly started rambling about Lestat, about how he has better powers than I do.

“Who’s Lestat?” the doctor asked.

“You told me to pick him up!”

The doctor laughed. “We have never established contact with you before, dear.”

I froze. Never? Then was everything just a dream? A hallucination? Just like Lestat said? I groaned to myself.

“Now, to start the process.” The doctor announced, and he drew out a big needle. “Anesthetic.”

“Please…” I moaned.

“It won’t hurt a bit.” The doctor assured.

“You’re lying.” I started crying, turning my head wildly as the doctor inserted the needle into my forearm, gently emptying the contents into my system.

“Two minutes to slumber.” The doctor whispers sinisterly.

“No! No, please! I’m sorry! Tell them I’m sorry!” I cried.

“Tell who?”

I sighed and shook my head. It’s over. Slowly my eyes began to droop, and my breathing slowed.

“Lestat…” I murmured. I felt horrible. I had betrayed him, I distrusted him. And look now what’s happening to me. “Are you my punishment?” I asked.

The door to the room was opened loudly and a guard stormed in. “Found a ship on its way to HOO-eehaha. Raided it. Found this.” The guard said gruffly, dropping a thick book onto the operating table next to me.

“Interesting. This is from Earth!” the doctor observed.

“No one there is supposed to be alive, but I’m pretty sure I just picked up a human.” The guard continued. “Oh and uhh the star Poisee has just been converted into a ship.”

I squinted my failing eyes at the spine of the book the guard dropped, and faintly made out the words ‘The Holy Bible’. I felt sick to my stomach, but there’s nothing I could do now. Oh Lestat. I have doomed us. The medicine was taking over, and it was really hitting me fast. I thought of what I would say if I met Lestat in heaven. Sorry? You were right? I am a fool? They didn’t seem enough.

Listening to the doctor and the guard’s conversations, I started to believe that maybe this is the sun, and they’re stealing stars to convert them into massive ships. For what—I do not know. I don’t want to know. I thought about home. Will HOO-eehaha too, soon become a dust ball?

Before I closed my eyes for good I looked around me at the room I was in. Dark, dank, cement. I turned my head to look at the Bible again, and then I noticed the shelves behind the doctor.

Row after row after row, stacked neatly on top of one another, and numbered accordingly, were countless blowtorches, exactly the same in design and size. Blowtorch after blowtorch after a thousand more. On top of the shelves was a large white bulletin, and on it, written in large red block letters, were the words:

“Solar Replacements – Ready for Shipping.”

Oh God, what has the universe come to?

My vision fails and the doctor looms above me, smiling and humming a lullaby.

“Blowtorch…” I mutter.

The doctor nods.

“Yes. Solar replacements. We wipe out the suns and replace them with blowtorches. After all, we can’t have the space council suspect us of anything.”

“Zogazoid…” I murmur in a realization of horror. “You won’t get away with this…”

“I’m afraid we already have.”

“No, you have not.” A voice says out of nowhere and I jerk my head upwards to see who said it. But I see nothing. I only see the doctor, dazed-looking, crumple to the floor in a heap. And the I see Lestat holding a blowtorch up, glaring menacingly at the doctor on the floor.

“Lestat!” I groan.

He hurries over and undoes the straps, whispering hastily to me,

“I managed to take over the guards but I won’t be long before the rest of them come over.”

“You came back for me…”

“I didn’t come back for you, fool. They caught up with the ship and brought me here. I only know you’re here because I heard them talking about you.”

“But you came for me, didn’t you?” I could hardly see his face, what with my vision being severely blurred by the medicine, but felt his emotion. He paused and sighed,

“I wouldn’t feel right if I just left you to die here. You saved my life.”

“I thought we didn’t owe each other anymore?”

Just then, he undid the last of the buckles and I was free. He picked up my right arm and draped it around his shoulder. He was incredibly strong, he pulled me along with him just fine and without struggle.

“Where are we going to go now?” I wonder aloud.

“I know where they’re keeping the ship. It’s not far from here.”

He starts dragging me through a hallway, and conveniently no guard come dashing out with lasers and fury.

“Did you see the blowtorches?” I ask weakly.

“I did. Those bastards.”

I turn my head to face him. “You care?”


“You care about humans?”

He doesn’t answer, he just continues dragging me through the hallway.

“I find that very surprising.” I continue.

“Look,” he stops. “Just because I am… what I am, doesn’t make me any less—”

“Any less what? You weren’t going to say human, were you?” I cut him off.

He glares at me.

“You are incredibly difficult even when under sedation.”

“You’re more human than I am.” I suddenly say, not even knowing where I was coming from.

He freezes.

“You don’t know what you’re saying.” He says blankly and then resumes helping me through the hallway.

“All this time I was trying to be something I was not. Searching for god, roaming the earth, establishing relationships with people who will never see me again… but I can never be one of them. You, on the other hand, think that you can never be one of them but actually, deep down inside, fundamentally, you’re made of the same stuff. You’re more human than I am. In more ways than one.”

He slows his speed.

“You came back for me even after I tried to kill you over a stupid argument about a god I never really cared about. You didn’t have to, but you did. You proved one thing for me today, Lestat.”

“And what is that?”

“That even when gods abandon you friends do not. At least, friends with humanity.”

It may be that I was looking for a place where I belonged and he was looking for the humanity left in him.

“I don’t care what you are, Lestat. I just care that we are friends, and that we never hurt each other again.”

He nods silently.

The hallway comes to an end where a stone door guards the entrance. Lestat punches through it.

“I can tell you’ll be a very useful travelling partner.” I comment softly, but he doesn’t hear me. He storms straight into the room, leaving me leaning on the wall outside. I hear a few loud crashes and in a matter of seconds Lestat is back through the door, picking me up.

We trudge into the room and I realize it’s a ship container. I spot my ship in the middle of the room but I also spot a dozen bodies of Zogazoid guards strewn all over the place. He did this. What they said about vampires really was true, then. Lightning speed and titan strength. We hastily board the ship, Lestat effectively giving orders to Zelda, who, for the first time, takes orders. The computer administers for me a shot of countering medicine, and immediately I feel re-energized.

“Zelda,” Lestat says commandingly, “Take us away from this shithole.”

The spaceship hums to life, its engine loudly booming in the container room. The lights flash on and the computers beep incessantly. It was like being in an 80’s disco. Just then, more guards burst through the door and stare in horror at the hovering space ship.

“Now, Zelda!” Lestat yells, and with the speed of light, Zelda propels the ship right through the stone wall of the container room and into space, Lestat whooping triumphantly.

Now, I imagine the Zogazoid guards are choking in what’s left of the room. After all, they can’t stand the open space of space.

“Where do we go now?” Lestat turns to me.

I groan and sit up in my pilot’s chair. “Not home.”

“Why not?”

I look up at him. “There is some serious issues in need of correction.”

He grins.

“They won’t know what’s hit them.” He says slyly.

“We go to the Space Council. Inform them of the situation. Salvage what we can on the way.” I continue.

Lestat plops down in the co-pilot’s chair, grinning silly.

“What are you smiling about?”

“I just—I can’t believe this. I’m in space, I’m going places, I just busted us out of an enemy ship… what an adventure!”

I smile.

“Get used to it.”

“I will.”

“Zelda,” I boom. “Take us to the Space Council. Fly like lightning!”

“Yes, Tobrack.” She replies, and I laugh jovially.

“Oh, Lestat… the wonders you work.”

And off we go into the deep dark universe, filled with unseen peril and unknown trials, swimming through the empty space of time not pointlessly this time, but with a purpose and a mission to save the world. Thus begins the greatest adventure the universe has ever known.





***Meanwhile, on the sorry planet Earth, where the blowtorch was burning more brightly than ever, just having been newly replaced by the Zogazoid mothership, a lone human named Lestat was hiding in the Russian underground train tunnels, eating Twinkies he scavenged from the convenience shop. He glanced wearily at it. It was stocked to the brim with Twinkies. He hated Twinkies. He reached inside his pocket and took out his wallet, flipping it open and staring at it. His photo made him look much more clean cut than he really was. In reality, he was a bit of a rocker and a revolutionary, most famous as an internet sensation for having single handedly exposed Russian corruption by hacking into their systems. He was a tech genius, this one was. Most Russians were, unfortunately for the government. He sighed disappointedly. Just a few days ago he had broken into the command center of the train station and found all the machines beeping madly. He interpreted it as disturbance. But what on earth could possibly be causing a disturbance? He concluded that it must be the very same people who replaced the sun with a blowtorch. He knows of this because why else would blowtorches keep falling from the sky just before it goes dark, and then quickly light again? If you could call that light.

And that’s when he knew. Aliens, he told himself. Using his genius, and the massive amounts of free time he had, he figured out how to transmit messages to any flying object in the sky within 2 light-years of planet earth to come rescue him, although so far none did come. With most of his zeal for creativity having left him after the tedious reprogramming of the machines and his wearisome existence as an underground hermit, he transmitted the message: “I am God. Heed my commands. Go to the planet Earth, and find the one they call Lestat.” He added the God part in for fun. After all, it was immensely boring, sitting around here all day long in a stupid train station eating stupid Twinkies. He had to invent some fantasies to amuse himself, you can’t tell him he’s wrong. He might’ve started hallucinating if he hadn’t! And if people believed him, it wasn’t his fault. It was only testimony to his stupendous ability to convince.


My city is made from mud

It is a meeting of the overflown

A haven for the disowned

Tin miner, race rioter, guerilla fighter, good old Chinese gangster

Store owner, herbs seller, carpet cleaner, kitchen helper

Immigrant neighbour

They hack at the streets of my city

They bite the dust with their barely-there teeth

And all the while we have the designer shopper, white collar worker, immigrant traveller,

But of the rich, privileged persuasion

They live my city but don’t get, any closer

Such fine sights in a tourism poster

My city glorifies violence

Gangs of Kuala Lumpur shoulda been a Scorsese flick,

Gangland Klang with our very own mafia man

Gudang Garam between his lips, fella all slippery slick

As he swings by a kopitiam, legs kicked up on his stool

And the store owner knows his order knows he’s a baller


To lay out handkerchiefs for this esteemed guest

Colonial servitude proudly inflating the store owner’s chest

Kuala Lumpur, or as scores of affected young artist-wannabes say, Cooler Lumpur,

Is made of mud

It is the murkiness in the eyes of the man straining to get his cab at rush hour,

That hustle and bustle that devours

That imprint of chaos found in the mean streets

Its unavoidable modernity, this steel and bricks

It smells like pollution

It looks like advancement

It feels like home away from home

Keep your eyes to your phone,

But grow some at the back of your head in case snatch thieves sneak up on you

Which they always will

My city thrives on inevitability

It cannot lie to itself, it cannot deny its stripes

Stripes of red and white for blood and purity

And so we have the pattering of a million feet bustling through the streets, just like applause

And when two cars collide, just like fireworks.

This city is made from mud

And so we trudge.


Why call someone a “hopeless romantic”?

What’s so hopeless about romance?

Is it that love is not altruistic, or that “it depends”?

What an unsatisfactory answer, a half-assed, barely-there attempt at banter

I demand concrete scrutiny, sufficient expert analysis,

Give me your best impression of a vitriolic Socrates,

and I’ll still smile, wave away meanwhiles, because when we argue it’s just an excuse for me to look at you.

So there’s this new word I’m pretty sure we’d have issue about

It’s this word “literally”.

I’ll say: “The sky is blue and the weather is beautiful and so are you and the world is just revolving around me, literally.”

You say: “Nothing is revolving around you, baby.”

I say: “You’re so literal, oh General Literal, policing the metaphorical and waxing lyrical ever since you discovered your capacity for the critical.”

You say “Baby, no.”

You see, I feel things like an insomniac sleeping, like a dam disintegrating, like a tower collapsing, like a heart breaking,

and to me it’s just colour, sensation, pain, emotion, a smile as a reaction and ceaseless internal narration

So I say: “It’s a metaphor, don’t kill my art.”

You say: “Metaphor for WHAT?”

For the fact that you’re just one person in an ocean of 7 billion, just one person who can’t change poverty or hunger or peace or war

But you have changed the poverty in my heart, the hunger in my soul, my war of emotions, and given me peace of mind

I even take the stairs with you now instead of the lift because while I don’t care about keeping fit I care about giving you fits

This is how I know love is real, because you are real.

So why call someone a hopeless romantic?

What about “hopeful romantic”? Like pining, yearning, desiring, kind of hoping.

You tell me it makes no difference and it sounds stupid

I correct your pronunciation.

You call me names.

I’m a messy eater.

You love me. I love you.

And I’ll continue to argue, because it’s just an excuse for me to look at you.

Dear Mother, Dear Father

Dear Father

I wish I were you

No care in the world

Whatever you do a reflection of your swollen intellect, your perfect, complex, vortex of an act

Why put me through these motions of yes no yes no maybe hopefully next year “Hey kid, I’m getting married and starting a new family.”

But even then when you just stand and breathe you glow because goddamn daddy, what a hero

where did you go?

Dear father, teach me all you know

How do I reconcile this far-flung mind with impossible emotion?

How do I hold back distortion and allow contortion, daddy please – the solution

Tell me father, because you must be a model problem-solver

You must be a world class conflict resolver

Teach me how to fight problems like a gambler

How to drown sorrows like a drinker

How would you deal with it?

Oh yeah, I remember.

You’d walk out

Forfeit the round

Be your own man

Dear Mother

You could only be what you needed to be, not what you wanted to be

And right now, god is being cruel

Every penny you spend to keep me full

Nothing you earn to be spent on you

Dear mother

Why must I assure not a hair is out of place and the complexion of my face and even if a hair sticks out it has to be fashionably, oh so intentionally, like those models on Vogue with the side-swept hair those ruffian rogues with sophisticated airs

Why should I bother how trim how thin

When into your depression you sink

Why should I care, oh mother, oh beauty queen

When none of that could help you keep him?

Dear mother, dear father

Is my existence not gratifying enough to justify your suffering

My achievements not constant enough

to delay crisis so crippling

If you need me to validate the bad choices you have made

Then you need me to validate me

This could never heal

But I’m already so wounded I never will

From my heart to my smile to my laugh to my life I will never be still

I will never feel

contentment the way you felt on your wedding night

before it shattered into a million pieces to a sadistic god’s delight

Like the mirror of mother and daughter the reflection of father in daughter I am broken

Oh mother oh father I am forsaken

I adore you like a student would his teacher

I abhor you like a slave would his master

Dear mother, dear father,

All I ever wanted was to be just like you

The Elusive Mr. Wisenbaum


The electric crackle of twigs snapping and leaves crunching beneath the careless footfalls of our capricious explorers alert the forest of their imminent trespass; like the sound of bones breaking and dry skin cracking, the forest hears – no, feels our heroes trudge through its delicate surface, already so tattered and abused by generations of irresponsible hikers, and it reels its roots in, tenses up, shrinks its welcome, and sits on edge, eyeing with pessimistic contempt the arrival of the two boys. No longer will the forest be open to the lecherousness of mankind, and it will do everything in its power to convey that message.

Forest critters provided the soundtrack to our heroes’ hike, but far from it being rousing and symphonic, this music was instead deliberate and eerie, almost in a mechanical kind of way, if you could imagine the manic, redundant chirping of insects as the systematic, informative beeping of a machine. And if music could ever sound watchful, this would be what it sounded like.

Now, our heroes, like many other humans, are largely ignorant of the threats their environment poses to them. This does not concern the forest. It is not its duty to educate children – that’s what parents are for. The forest has worse things to worry about, such as litterers or global warming. But the two boys had an unbridled uncouthness about their purpose, certainly appearing as if there was not much parenting imposed on them in the first place, marking them as yet another source of genuine concern for the already-burdened forest.

The taller of our two heroes was also the lesser-troubled of the two regarding the forest’s unwelcoming nature. He had entered it two weeks ago expecting the absolute worst, and the forest has not disappointed him. He too, does not intend to disappoint. He already looked the part of a misunderstood mastermind with his awkwardly long limbs, height as impressive as his charisma and budding facial hair he proudly refused to shave. But perhaps the most prominent thing about him was his black turban, stately perched on his head. With this boy, the forest was going to have to work extra hard to win his fear.

He turned to the shorter boy beside him, who despite his plumper frame, was struggling with a mound of baggage piled on his back.

“I hate nature,” the taller boy declared with finality, disdain spiking his words. He was deliberately immune to both the charms and threats of nature.

The shorter boy, who wasn’t only shorter, but smaller in every respect despite his chubbiness, grunted incomprehensibly under the weight of the baggage. His dirty blonde hair had a dull nature to it, like it was dried hay collected from the ditches of some abandoned farm and glued callously around his pasty face by a disenfranchised toymaker.

“What did you say?” the taller boy asked.

“I said,” the smaller boy panted. “Okay’. I only said ‘okay’.”

“All that effort for just one word? Duke, you need to plan the things you say. Make them worthwhile. We all know how hard it is for you to get them out.”

For such a grand name, Duke certainly did not look the part. He always thought it must have been some kind of cruel joke for his friends to give him a nickname he could never live up to, unless it was given to him in the same context people name their pets.

The duo continued to trudge on, navigating around and over precariously placed branches and insidious little dents in the ground. It was their third week in the forest, and Duke was beginning to think that they had covered all their ground. It can’t be possible that the forest was that big, could it? Or was it like the Universe, constantly expanding and steeped in engulfing darkness, and like the Universe, would eventually combust in a violent, beautiful end? The thought terrified Duke as much as it thrilled the other boy.

“Ajax, when do you think we can go home?” Duke huffed.

The taller boy scoffed. “Why, you miss mom and dad already?”

Duke didn’t want to admit it to Ajax, but he did. He missed the rattling of the newspaper in the morning when his father would shake it open, he missed the sound of bacon searing in his mother’s non-stick pan, and what more, the smell. But most of all, he missed what these things represented.

“No, I just wanna go home,” he lied.

Ajax stopped in his tracks. He was carrying significantly less luggage; in fact, all he was carrying was a sash across his back and a pack around his waist. He was almost graceful in his movement, like a gazelle pausing in the forest and looking back over its shoulder. Duke however, looked like he was clumsily whipped with inertia at the sudden halt.

The weight of the luggage pulled him down and Duke went crashing into the floor, crying out. Ajax couldn’t stifle his laughter, but he still reached out a helping hand, which is more than he is usually willing to do on a normal day.

“Thanks,” Duke muttered, struggling to adjust the luggage.

Without a word, Ajax grabbed the smallest pack from Duke’s back and flung it over his skinny shoulders.

“You know what I said about speaking up? Making your words count?” he said.

Duke nodded.

“That applies here. If you needed help, you should have asked,” he finished.

Duke didn’t want to bring up the fact that it was Ajax who piled the bags on him in the first place. So Duke nodded in agreement.

“Stand up for yourself, man,” Ajax continued. “When I was your age, my parents made me do all sorts of things I didn’t want to – like piano, tennis, Chinese calligraphy… you know the deal – one day, I had enough. I just told ‘em no. And nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to.”

Duke highly doubted that Ajax learned Chinese calligraphy. He had seen his penmanship, if you could call it that, and when he was writing in English it appeared Chinese, so maybe that was what he meant.

Just a few days ago they had been at the last campsite, which they aptly named Camp 3 for its symbolic ties with Mount Everest. Camp 3, traditionally, would be where people got together and discussed whether they still wanted to go all the way. It would be where dilemmas were ironed out and finalities confirmed, the inevitability of death and danger accepted and integrated into your every decision. That was what Camp 3 was for Duke and Ajax – the place where they said it’s do or die. Or rather, that was what Ajax said, and Duke agreed. He shuddered now in realisition that there was to be a Camp 4, 5, and 6. It was never expected that they would take so long.

On the bright side, it was supposed to be the raining season now, but there had been no rain for the past two weeks. Ajax saw it as the universe’s approval of their quest; Duke saw it as too good to be true, and almost like dark magic, a raindrop fell on Duke’s nose.

“Ajax, rain!”

“Don’t be so negative. The more you say it, the more likely it is to happen. You’re harnessing negative energy and inviting negative energy, and that’s going to affect the environment. And because I’m here with you, it’s going to affect me. And that’s going to make me harness my own share of negative energy…”

Duke allowed Ajax to drone on, but his attention was elsewhere. His eyes were to the sky, visible through the leafy canopy of the forest, watching dark clouds swirl and rage. His ears were tuned to the low rumble of the weather, and his skin felt the pinching moisture in the air. Ajax was right. It wasn’t rain. It was a storm.

“We need to get to Camp 4 soon,” Duke suddenly said, cutting Ajax off.

Ajax gave him a peculiar look, taking a moment himself to survey the environment. He pulled the map out from his pocket, more yellow and crumpled than ever.

“We’re not going to make it on time,” he muttered.

Duke’s heart sank.

“Why are you looking like that? We came here expecting rain, did we not? That’s the only reason we’re here now – because it’s the raining season and no one else would be here,” Ajax said.

Ajax was always correct, but that didn’t mean he was always right.

“If we don’t get to the campsite before the downpour starts, we’re done for,” Duke said.

“That much I know,” Ajax replied. “Come on.”

He sped up, leading the way. He was light on his feet, limber, lithe, and quick. But Duke was weighed down, and he had always been clumsy and slow.

“Hurry up, fatso!” Ajax cried from far ahead. “We have half an hour at most!”

Duke remembered then when he first met Ajax. He had always been fascinated with the neighbours from across the street, with their colourful clothes and spicy food, and especially with their son, who was the only other child for the next few blocks. Duke’s family had been new to the neighbourhood, and after their second week moving in, his parents finally worked up the courage to visit their neighbours officially, though Duke and Ajay had already met before that. True enough, Mr and Mrs Singh were both as remarkable and imposing as their home. Duke’s parents had used such words as “accomplished” and “distinguished” to compliment them, but he didn’t care about the adults. He wanted to make a new friend, but the youngest Singh, then presented to him as Ajay, not Ajax, made it a point to bring up Duke’s weight during the introductions. Normally Duke would roll his eyes when kids at school made fun of him, but on that day, Ajax had told him: “You’re never going to eye-roll your weight away.” And so Duke had stopped responding in any way at all.

Ajax was now still far ahead of Duke. “Wait for me!” Duke meant to shout, but it came out as a whispered whimper. He was going to cry, he knew it. He could barely see Ajax anymore, and the rumbling was getting louder and louder, and the straps of the bags were cutting into his shoulder, and his feet hurt, and –

Ajax appeared out of nowhere and snatched away one of Duke’s bags, draping it over his own shoulder again.

“I can’t wait on you forever, kid.”

This wasn’t fair. What was four years between them both, really? Duke wished now that he could be older. Older and taller and stronger, so that he could lift these bags with ease and his feet wouldn’t hurt and his breath wouldn’t catch and Ajax wouldn’t call him kid.

The tears were already welling in Duke’s eyes, and he knew Ajax saw them. If he could see himself now, he’d see a small, plump boy comically stacked with a mound of bags, his fatty, pink cheeks wobbling under the weight, his runny nose sending cascades of fluids down his lip, puffy eyes darting nervously around the vast forest.

This was what Ajax saw, and the older boy’s heart sank. Which surprised even him.

“Duke, can you make it?” he asked.

Duke nodded fervently, always eager to impress. “Like you said, Jax. I knew what I was getting into.”

But did he really? “Come here,” Ajax mumbled, grabbing onto Duke’s pasty, sweaty hand. He pulled him along, feeling like he was dragging a boulder, the younger boy trying desperately to keep up.

“Slow down, Jax!”

“No, you need to lose some weight, Duke. For a 10-year-old you pack too much jelly.”

“Mom already put me on a salad diet for one week.”

“One week’s not enough, my friend.”

“You try doing a salad diet for one week!”

Ajax smiled. “There we go. Talk back! Come on, do it again!”

“But I don’t have anything to say.”

“Well, maybe your triple chins are too heavy. Weighing your jaw down, y’know?”

A sharp kick to Ajax’s calf sent him lurching forward, face-first, onto the ground. Leaves cushioned his fall but their rough edges scratched against his skin, and the bags he was carrying slammed mercilessly into his back.

He quickly got up and turned to see Duke fuming behind him, brows furrowed, fists clenched. It was like a cloud had descended over him.

“Did you kick me?” Ajax asked, narrowing his eyes. Duke did not reply. “Can’t you speak? I said, did you kick me?”

Duke took two steps forward and shoved Ajax, and though Duke’s push was hesitant, as if someone was grabbing him from behind and controlling him, Ajax, being far skinnier, fell to the ground again.

“What the hell, dude?” Ajax shouted. Above them, the sky roared. Drizzle started to fall. “What was that for?”

“Don’t talk about my weight,” Duke said through gritted teeth.

“What else am I supposed to talk about?”

“I don’t know! What about the fact that we’ve been walking in circles for weeks? Maybe you can talk about how we’re never going to find this stupid chocolate factory!”

“What gives you that idea? We haven’t been walking in circles; we’ve been getting closer every day!”

“Oh yeah?” Duke shouted. “Because I’m pretty sure you don’t actually know where we’re going!” he reached into Ajax’s shirt pocket and pulled out the crumpled map. It was hand-drawn, the ink already faded in places, the directions cartoonishly vague. Any cynic, realist, or simple grown-up would have looked at this map and thought it a parody. “This isn’t even a real map!”

“My grandfather gave that to me!” Ajax yelled back.

“Your grandfather was just as crazy as you are, then!” Duke held the map up, and in three swift motions, ripped the map into shreds.

Ajax gaped at him. “Why would you do something like that?!”

“I’m going home, Jax. You can stay here and find your stupid factory.” Duke turned to leave.

“Yeah, well how are you going to get back without a map, smart ass?”

Duke froze. “I’ll retrace our steps.”

“It’s going to rain and it’s going to take you weeks to get back, with all that weight you’re carrying around, and I don’t mean the bags.”

Duke growled and turned back, running straight for Ajax, who was still on the ground. He reached out for Ajax’s throat but Ajax only had to stick his hand out and hold Duke’s head at arm’s length away from him. He pushed Duke aside and kicked him in the thigh, standing up.

“What the hell got into you?”

Duke lay moaning on the floor, holding his leg. He started to really cry now, face pressed into the leafy pillow of the forest floor.

“What is it? Stress?”

Duke shook his head, sobbing.

“You can’t cave on me every single time you miss your mommy and daddy, Duke! We’ve got bigger things at stake here! And now you’ve ripped up our only map!”

“It wasn’t even a real map!” Duke tried to justify through his tears.

“And how would you know that?” Ajax had never been violent, but he wished with all the boiling rage in his heart now that he could pick Duke up and toss him into the trees. “Gah!” he shouted, throwing his hands up in frustration.

The forest started to grow noisy from the drizzle’s assault, flecking down harder as each moment passed. The sky groaned and swirled, darkness descending over the forest. Ajax could feel the weather taunting him, laughing at him with every rumble and clap of thunder in the distance. Good luck with your quest, kid, said the sky sarcastically as its clouds continued to shift with obscene efficiency, mocking him with all the distasteful jest of a distant in-law pocketing the cutlery at a funeral reception.

This quest was everything Ajax had been working for. Leaving his parents, leaving school, leaving town, all of it would be for nothing now that their only map was gone. He was seething with the righteous rage of a self-appointed Messiah.

“Are you going to apologise?” Ajax demanded. Duke continued sniffling, and the sight of him crumpled and whimpering on the ground only infuriated Ajax further. “If you’re not going to apologise, at least come up with a solution. Right now.”

Children, thought Ajax spitefully, watching Duke slowly start to pull himself together. The boy got up, dusted the leaves off his clothes, and turned a pouty lip to Ajax. He held up the pieces of the torn map and pieced them together. Whatever it showed, it was no longer legible, for it had spent time on the forest floor soaking in the drizzle.

“My grandpa gave that to me,” Ajax repeated, softly this time.

“I’m sorry,” Duke finally managed in a shaky voice, after what seemed to be a quiver of the lip and the harnessing of a large quantity of breath.

“You’re sorry?” Ajax mockingly enquired.

Duke glared at him with steely eyes. “As sorry as you are,” he muttered.

Ajax sighed. He could feel his heart pounding against his chest, beating out like the drums of war rousing soldiers for a fierce battle. But Duke continued to look dejected and exhausted, gingerly rubbing his shoulders where the straps of the bags were cutting in. Ajax silenced the drums.

“Are you calm now?” he asked.

Duke nodded, his cheeks wobbling with the convincing simplicity of childish innocence.

“You do realise we cannot give up?” Ajax prompted him, testing his resolve. If Duke asks him to turn back now, Ajax will know for sure that their friendship cannot continue. It would be the worst form of betrayal.

Duke nodded again, but it was a more hesitant one, as if he needed to think about it. Which was always a bad sign to Ajax.

“Are you going to finish this? As you promised me way before this? As you indicated when we first became friends?”

“But we don’t have a map.”

Ajax sighed. He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out his smartphone.

“I took a picture,” he said. Duke’s eyes widened, whether because he was surprised or impressed Ajax couldn’t tell. “I knew I would have to expect something ridiculous from you.”

The boy continued to stare at the phone. So that’s why Ajax had made him lug around a whole bag of power-banks.

“So are you coming with me or not?” he asked.

Duke took a moment to think. He couldn’t turn back now, not when they’ve come so far. He looked into the sunken face of his friend, dark circles creeping up on his eyes, rain flecking on his olive skin, the turban he so treasured now askew and adorned with leaves, and he decided then that friends are supposed to keep promises. “I’ll follow you anywhere, Jax. I’m sorry. I acted out because I was tired.”

Here’s the thing about best friends. Sometimes, even when their ugly side is showing, you overlook it and focus on turning their lie into a truth. Sometimes, you just cannot lose the one person who makes you, you. And so Ajax looked past the deceitful eyes, the blank voice, the still-clenched fists, and the twitch of contempt that blazed across Duke’s face for a fraction of a second there, and he took the lie as a truth.

Another thing about best friends is that sometimes you feel like knocking the other person in the head and screaming down their ear, but instead you put on a smile and tell them a lie because even you can’t bear to hear your truth. And so Duke managed a small smile.

“I’m sorry too. Come on, then.” Ajax beckoned to Duke. The boy stared at Ajax’s open palm and nodded, although Ajax recognised Duke’s smile as one he too used to give his parents when he was smaller, when they would tell him something seemingly comforting, and he would pretend to be comforted, just so that they could feel better.

“Smart move, taking a picture,” Duke said.

“I’m always smart.”

The two boys then picked up the pieces of their quest from the ground: the fallen bags, pots, pans, sacks, and although they could never quite get their things back the same way they were before they fell, they now shared the load.


It was a lovely day in Suburbia. The children were all at school, the husbands were all at work, and the white-washed homes with their white picket fences gleamed sublimely in the charming summer sun while gardeners tended to the rose bushes with all the devotion of Romantic poets penning sonnets to the saccharine temperance of the suburban outdoors. A bicycle bell tinkled in the distance as the paper boy made his rounds, and birds chirped their welcome to him. ‘How do you do, paper boy?’ they seemed to say. ‘How delightful – the daily news!’

All was well.

Jacob Ellington (just turned eight, not seven, thank you very much) sat on his couch pondering his new bout of flu, propped up by a very reluctant spine and a very sturdy belly. Tissue paper, twisted into rigid form, clogged his nostrils from its incessant leaking while his puffy red eyes continued to tear without respite. The television blared as it usually did, the colourful images swirling before his eyes like autumn leaves blowing in the wind. Jacob gave a little obligatory chuckle at the little obligatory scenes of comedy, and that was all in a day’s work for him.

“Moooooooooom,” he moaned, tugging out the tissue twigs from his nose.

A loud pattering of feet signalled his mother’s acknowledgment, and she came thundering down the stairs at full speed, launching herself straight onto the couch.

“My poor baby,” she cooed, cradling Jacob’s head in her bosom. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head sadly, pouting to the best of his ability.

“Can I have some ice cream?”

His mother’s face fell, her furrowed brow lapsing and her worried lip straightening into a stern line.

“Sweetheart, what did we say about ice cream just last night? No more sugar for you, remember?”

Jacob cried out violently.

“But that was last night! I’m sick today and I want ice cream!”

Jacob’s mother pinched a lump of fat from his belly. “You see this? Do you know what this is?”

He started to cry now, but not because it hurt.

“Let go! It hurts!”

“Oh no, my poor baby,” his mother sighed. She sat with him in her thin arms, her bony fingers trying their best to hold onto his meaty back.

“Fine,” she said dearly. “You can have one little cone. Just one. And this will be the last time you’re allowed to cheat.”

Jacob didn’t let his excitement get the better of him. Instead, he continued to lie miserably in his mother’s lap, biding his time.

“Okay,” he finally said, morosely. “Just one.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” his mother tried, the phony encouragement eating her up from inside as she scrutinised his wobbly chins.

“What are you waiting for?” he shot back.

“Sweetheart, you’re going to have to wait for the van to come around.”

“What? Why? Don’t we have any left in the freezer?”

His mother froze. “I threw them away.”

This was met with a silence so deliberate and fragile, that Mrs. Ellington feared to even breathe.

“Why did you do that?” her beloved son asked her in that shaky voice children use when they try to tear adults apart, tears slowly welling inside his large, dollish, blue eyes.

Mrs. Ellington’s heart welled up with regret, not because she was sorry, but because she knew what she had brought onto herself.

“I didn’t want you stealing from the freezer, sweetheart.”

Jacob burst into tears, sobbing in that way young children do when they scrunch up their eyes and redden their faces and widen their mouths and increase their volume.

“For goodness’ sake, Jacob. I did it for your own good! Because I love you.”

“You don’t love me!” he screamed back at her. “You don’t!”

“Now why would you say that?”

“If you really loved me, you would let me eat ice cream!”

Mr. Ellington would be home soon, and she really did not want him to see their son in a fit. She would have to give in, yet again. She closed her eyes, willing herself to see past Jacob’s belly peeking out tauntingly from above his shorts, and declared in a huff:

“Fine, you can go get three ice creams, okay?”

The crying ceased immediately and Jacob fixed his mother with a stern glare, as if daring her to own up to the consequences of her actions.

“I just want you to know that you hurt me very much,” he said softly.

Mrs Ellington didn’t understand why she had to be the one to face this every day. Jacob had always been perceptive and highly intelligent, but Mr Ellington’s insistence on preaching “frank, forward communication” to his son had worked out well for everyone so far except her. Children should not be seen or heard, she thought drearily.

“I’m sorry, my little duke,” she said through clenched teeth.

Jacob saw the reluctance in his mother’s eyes and thought it was about time to let her off the hook.

“I forgive you,” he said. He then launched into the brightest smile he could muster and fixed her with a bear hug. “I love you, mommy.”

She smiled warmly at him. For such a pain in the ass, you sure are a cute, little thing. Well, not that little. “Go get that ice cream, sweetheart.”

Duke leapt up and ran straight for the dresser next to the door, snatching up some money from the Emergency Jar. He bolted out the front door the way a puppy might at the arrival of its owner.

Standing by the street, he waited patiently for the song of the ice cream van. Across the street, the house that had been vacant for months seemed to have visitors. A minivan with boxes strapped to its roof waiting unassumingly in the street, and Jacob curiously squinted his eyes at the vehicle, trying to distinguish the faces obscured by the partially tinted windows. He didn’t have to wait long however, as a family got out of the car. Jacob was quite sure he had never seen people like them before.

It was a family of three, the two men having colourful turbans, burgundy on the father and bright blue on the teenaged son, that stood out against the background of the looming white house starkly. Jacob’s eyes were drawn to the colourful clothing of the mother, her long blouse reaching down to her knees, pulled over flowy pants Jacob was sure could hide a child in. Her clothes glinted in the sun with all its embroidery and sequins, matching the natural glow of her olive skin, a trait both her husband and son shared with her. Her thick black hair was pulled back into a taut bun, and though there was a regal beauty about her sharp features, Jacob didn’t think he would ever dare speak to her. The father too, had a moustache most formidable and brows that shaded dark and heavy over intense eyes. However, Jacob did think he might like to speak to the son. His bright blue turban bopped alongside his father’s severe burgundy one, and while his parents both donned traditional garb, the boy wore a Spiderman shirt and jeans.

I like Spiderman too, thought Jacob hopefully.

The family began unloading boxes and bags from the car, shifting the bulk into the house slowly. This was not a common sight in Jacob’s neighbourhood – the people here lived to stay, and the only people who ever moved out or in were the children. Jacob had never been able to spend much time with the kids in the neighbourhood, namely because there were none. Most of their neighbours were older couples whose children moved out after marriage or who were in college, and so Jacob commonly went seeking for the company of the critters that lurked in his backyard or his neighbour’s dog, a 12-year-old Golden Retriever called Liz.

Things got old with Liz after a while, and Jacob decided that the comfort of inanimate toys or imaginary beings was more exciting and mutual than that of a dying dog, desperate for cookies and sleep and nothing more.

Just then, the song of the ice cream van ringed down the road. Jacob knew he had to seize this opportunity quick, as the ice cream van only went through their neighbourhood en route to the next neighbourhood, never actually making a real stop. Pointless selling ice cream to retirees, see. Jacob ran out onto the street, sticking his arms out at the approaching van from down the road. The van pulled over by the side, and Jacob turned in time to see the boy with the blue turban running towards the van as well.

Jacob reached the van first and immediately ordered the Double Chocolate. He could hear the other boy run up behind him, breathing hard.

“And another here too!” he called out coarsely, panting in between words.

“That’ll be a dollar,” the ice cream man said to Jacob, holding the cone out to him.

Jacob started to slowly count the coins he brought with him, but the boy with the blue turban pushed past him and shoved his note into the man’s hand first, grabbing the cone from his other hand.

“Thanks!” he called out, running off again without a look back.

A sudden loud cry and the sound of a body hitting gravel pierced the peaceful suburban air and Jacob turned to see that the boy had fallen down. He was on his knees, one hand on the ground while the other held up his ice cream cone at his side.

Jacob rushed to the boy’s side.

“Are you alright?”

The boy nodded gingerly and held his ice cream up to Jacob.

“Take this,” he muttered.

Jacob held the cone while the boy struggled to his feet. Red scars adorned his knees and shins, and the boy examined his other palm to see a deep, raw gash across it.

“Mom’s gonna kill me,” he murmured, shooting Jacob a dark look.

“Uhh…” Jacob began, unsure how to contribute to the boy’s debacle. His eyes were dark and a cloud of foreboding descended over him, shrouding him in an air of gloom. “Umm… tell her it was an accident?”

“Punjabi mothers don’t believe in accidents. That sounds like a good thing for me, but it really isn’t,” he said in a monotone.

“Umm…” Jacob wasn’t sure what Punjabi was, but he thought it might be rude to ask. She might have been ill.

“Go on.”

“Your mother… she uhh… she seems nice.”

“She really isn’t.”

“Oh. Well. Mine isn’t very nice too.”

“Story me.”

“She doesn’t let me eat ice cream.”

The boy paused for a while.

“Yes, but that’s because you’re fat.”

Jacob had endured name-calling at home and at school, but he had never heard it from a stranger before.

“Well, my mom says your people blow up buildings and kill Christians,” he shot back, though he was unsure why she would say that.

“Excuse me?”

“My mom’s a schoolteacher.”

“I guess your mom is not very nice. And schoolteacher, you say? How unfortunate.”

“What does your mom do?”

“She helps criminals stay out of jail.”

“That’s nice of her.”

“Tell that to moral justice. How old are you?”

“Eight!” Jacob said, beaming brightly.

“Explains a lot.”

“And how old are you?”

“Not old enough.”

“That’s not an age.”

“And I need to get my wounds disinfected.”

The boy snatched his ice cream back from Jacob.

“Where is your palace, young prince?” he said, with absolutely no charm.

Jacob pointed to his house. “My mom calls me her duke.”

The boy raised his eyebrows. “Alright, ‘Duke’, take me to the infirmary.”

Jacob didn’t know if he wanted to tell the older boy that ‘Duke’ was a pet name reserved only for his mother, because the other kids in school who call him by that name do so unkindly. He didn’t think the boy would care, but his father always told him that a “good leader and effective moneymaker takes the initiative to stand up for what’s right.”

“Only my mom gets to call me that,” he said softly.

“Does it piss you off when I say it?”

Jacob considered this. This boy hadn’t done anything to him that the kids in school would do. “No, not really.”

“Then you’re Duke to me. I’m bad with names.”

“What’s yours?”

“Boy, I’m bleeding. Take me to your house.”

“Why can’t you go to your house?”

“Damage control.”

And so Jacob, though he guessed he must be Duke now, led the other boy back to his house. He was excited to be bringing a new friend home, though he didn’t dare show it.

“Moooom!” he called out, expecting his mother to be upstairs in her bedroom. “I’ve brought a friend back. His family just moved in across the street.”

It turns out, Mrs Ellington had been waiting on the couch.

“Oh, hello,” she quipped, her eyes doing a quick scan of the boy from his turban to his toes.

“Hi,” he said, gesturing to his wounds. “Can you wrap me up?”

She gave a delightful laugh, the one she practised over the years coiled under her husband’s arm at his dinner functions where his friends would tell her of her husband’s immutable character and she would laugh delightfully, because what else was she there for?

“Come here, child.” She gestured to the couch. “What is your name?”

“Yeah, I’m already 14, and the name’s Ajay.”

“What a beautiful name!”

“What’s your name?”

“Diana Ellington.”

“That’s common.”

Mrs Ellington did a double take. Ajay walked over and plopped himself down on the couch next to her, admiring the living room.

“Sweetheart, can you get the first-aid-kit, please?” she said, smiling warmly at her son.

Duke bounded off and she turned her attention back to Ajay.

“So where is your own mother to do this for you?”

“Frowning at kitchen tiling.”

“What do your parents do for a living?”

“They work. Around somewhere. It’s painfully boring. You would know.”

“Actually, I’m a housewife.”

Ajay turned his head to her, wondering silently how any woman could ever say that with that bright or proud of a smile. And the mother in Mrs Ellington saw right through that.

“You’re judging, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, I will have you know that I find immense joy in this, and you shouldn’t pass judgment on the choices other people make.”

This boy is a funny one, Mrs Ellington thought. His parents must not spend an awful lot of time with him.

Duke came running back into the living room with the first aid kit in his hands. Mrs Ellington thanked her precocious little son, kissing him on the forehead. She tended to Ajay’s wounds in silence, apprehensive of conversing with the offhandish, curt boy. Maybe their people are just like that.

“Hey!” Duke suddenly exclaimed. “I forgot my ice cream!”

“Oh no. Which flavour was it?” Mrs Ellington asked.

“Double chocolate. My favourite.” He pouted, voice going into a pleading whine.

Mrs Ellington sighed. “Take some of the chocolate from the fridge then, sweetheart. The whole bar, in fact.”

Duke’s face lit up, but Ajay raised an eyebrow.

“I hope it’s got zero percent sugar,” he said.

Duke didn’t want to point out that it was Ajay who made him leave his ice cream behind in the first place, so he asked Ajay if he like chocolate as much as he did.

“I do. One of the only things I truly love.”

“What else do you love?” Mrs Ellington asked.

“Oh, my parents, and school, and this town, and everything,” Ajay said sarcastically.

“We will have none of that, young men. Now come on, tell us the truth!” Mrs Ellington insisted.

Ajay held back for a while, thinking. Finally, he said:


“That’s dumb,” Duke giggled.

“Oh, but it’s true. There are always mysteries lurking around everywhere, Duke. If you knew where to find them, you could soon find yourself become the Sherlock Holmes of your own life.”

“There are no mysteries here,” Duke said confidently.

“Oh, sweetheart. Back in my day there were plenty,” Mrs Ellington began wistfully. “There were plenty of suburban legends to keep us kids interested.”

“Like what?” Ajay enquired.

Mrs Ellington’s thin, red lips curled into a smile. “Well, I’ve forgotten some of them, there were just so many. But the one I remember that drove the kids wild was the mystery of the chocolate factory.”

Ajay sat upright, eyes widening.

“There’s a chocolate factory here?” he asked slowly.

“That’s the thing. No one ever found it. It is said that a wealthy businessman used to run a chocolate factory – the best of its time – in the 1900s. He used to put liquor in his chocolates, you see. That’s what made them so special. They’d be wrapped in the most beautiful, colourful papers. He was a highly secretive man and his recipe was considered the most valuable secret in the culinary industry. And for that reason, he built his factory deep inside the forest, in a secret location no one knew. And then, the Prohibition swung around. The government put out a ban on alcohol and it became difficult for the businessman to keep things going as they were. He was a stubborn one, and he refused to make his chocolates any other way. So he closed down during those years and lost a good bit of money, until the Prohibition ended for good. But by then, he had spent the last few years living in depression and despair for his closed factory, and by the time he raised enough money to start business again in the forties, everyone thought he was a senile, eccentric, old man, running a chocolate factory in the middle of nowhere. Nobody wanted to do business with him. Everyone had moved on to new brands, new recipes. He continued to try to make his factory work. You see, to keep his location a secret, he hired only the most secretive people. Some speculated he only hired immigrants who couldn’t speak English, others speculated he hired a former spy to be his assistant. Now, he had to support all these people with his business. So he kept trying and trying for 20 years, but nobody wanted his chocolates anymore. It is said that he eventually fell into sickness, but his people continued to run his factory out of loyalty and determination. And then one day, as he realised what had become of his life’s work, he died of a broken heart.”

Ajay’s eyes were as wide as orbs, his back straight as a stick. But Duke wasn’t so convinced.

“That’s a nice story, mommy. But what’s the mystery?”

“The mystery is to find the chocolate factory,” Ajay cut in softly. “The chocolatier’s people buried him in his factory, building a shrine for him in his office. There, they stocked the final batch of their produce with him. The finest liquor chocolates in America.”

“And how did you know that part of the story? It’s a tale told only to the children of my generation,” Mrs Ellington asked in pleasant surprise.

“My parents are around your age.”

“Oh? Did your parents used to live around here?”

“My mother did.”

Mrs Ellington paused for a while, straining to think. She used to live a few streets away, and she wouldn’t be so bold as to think that she knew everyone in the community, yet it seemed strange she never noticed.

“Do you believe in the legend, Ajay?” she asked.

He nodded. “I believe in all legends. But especially this one.”

“Why is that?” Duke asked.

“I’m not sure I can tell you.”

“Aww… please! Please, please, please!” Duke begged. “I’ll let you have half of the chocolate bar.”

Ajay seemed to consider this for a while.

“That’s all very well, but I need to know this will not simply be empty information for you.”

Mrs Ellington smiled, sensing the friendly tension. She did the last of her cleaning on Ajay’s shin and packed away the first aid kit, slipping silently into the kitchen to let the two boys talk. Duke never had many friends, but she could tell Ajay didn’t either. And they were the only two kids for miles, so they will have to work with what they have.

“It won’t be empty, I swear! I pinky promise.”

Ajay ignored Duke’s finger.

“I don’t think you understand. In the few minutes since your mother told us the story… I’ve been working out a plan.”

“That’s clever.”

“I agree. But what needs to happen now is that you need to be as invested in this plan as I am.”

Duke didn’t know what that meant, but he nodded enthusiastically anyway.

“This is important to me, and I need a partner to help with my plan.”

Duke nodded again.

“Are you a trustworthy fellow?”

Duke thought for a while. “Well, I did bring you back to my house in one piece. I’m not a serial killer.” He grinned.

“I suppose that’s the most I can ask of people these days.”

“So can I know the secret plan, please?”

Ajay squinted, breathed deeply, cracked his knuckles, and finally said,

“I have a map.”


The two boys spent the next few weeks of their burgeoning friendship planning their grand scheme according to Ajay’s map. The big reveal of the sacred artefact had been dramatic. The first day they met, Ajay had sped home to bring the map over, arriving with it held out flat on his outstretched palms.

“Behold,” Ajay had whispered.

Duke was surprised to see that it was just a yellowed sheet of paper with markings and landmarks drawn on by an unsteady hand, with notes scribbled frantically in the margins. Ajay had told him that his grandfather gave the map to him.

“How did your grandfather get the map?” Duke had asked in awe.

“My grandfather worked in William Wisenbaum’s factory. He was just an immigrant from India then, barely spoke a word of English. The workers all lived in the factory and only went out during the weekends for some air. But they were all dedicated to Wisenbaum, most of all my grandfather. He was his butler of sorts,” Ajay said proudly.

“Wisebum spoke Indian?”

“He most certainly did. And French and German and Italian and Chinese and Japanese and Arabic. Wisenbaum was a genius, a very educated man. But most of all, he was kind to his workers. They were happy to stay in the factory. My grandfather was there when Wisenbaum died. He buried him. He built the shrine. He moved the chocolates. Thousands of them, Duke. Heaps. Chocolate that never melted or spoiled, kept fresh and good thanks to self-regulating the freezer, kept alive and working thanks to ever-burning furnaces and a generator of nuclear capacity. And then he hid the key in the factory.

“I only knew my grandfather for a few years before he died. He left me this map. He wanted me to find the factory, Duke. I don’t know why – he never got the chance to tell me. But this is very important to me.”

“How do the furnaces keep burning all these years?” Duke asked.

“That’s one of the things I want to find out.”

Duke always thought it was strange that Ajay didn’t just ask his parents to take him to the factory, but Ajay never spoke about his parents. In fact, Duke had only been to Ajay’s house four times, and three of those times, Ajay’s parents weren’t home. Tonight was the night Duke’s entire family was going to go over to Ajay’s for an official, neighbourly visit.

Ajay’s house was a cultural burst of colour and scent, and the Ellingtons were absolutely delighted with everything. They had never seen such decorations before or tasted such rich food, and Mrs Elllingston was quick to comment on how special she felt. Which did not garner the same return of appreciation from the Singhs she hoped her statement would get.

The Singhs were a peculiar family, speaking very little with one another. It was up to the Ellingtons to make most of the conversation, and even then, it was misguided at best. Mr Ellington spent the night talking to Mr Singh about business and finance, though Mr Singh was an engineer and barely listened.

“The hedge funds are all quite insidious too, if you think about it. It’s a big scam, a roundabout trap to reel people in. You know, I always tell my people – take risks and go crazy with the money – it’s not yours. But when the money belongs to the company, sell, sell, sell,” Mr Ellington rambled, urged on by the wine.

“Have some chutney, my friend,” Mr Singh said gruffly, shooting his wife a dark look. She returned it, herself having to listen to Mrs Ellington talk about nail polish colours, her lips pressed tightly together in disapproval.

“You know, one day that varnish is going to corrode your nails,” she said.

Mrs Ellington laughed delightedly.

“Oh, you’re so funny, Gurpreet!” I can tell where Ajay gets his humour from, she thought scornfully. What a dreadful household for a boy to grow up in.

She looked over at her own son, Duke, and felt relieved for his sake that he had grown up in such a good home. She would never admit it, but she felt proud of herself then.

Mrs Singh sat sourly, scooping the dishes for her guests. She had always disliked hosting. But then again, she disliked visiting as well. She watched Mrs Ellington coo over Duke, scooping large heaps of food into his already stuffed mouth.

“You still spoonfeed your son? Is he not already eight years old?”

Mrs Ellington did not know how to respond, and so she gave a slight smile that answered nothing.

“Mommy says I shouldn’t eat so much,” Duke chimed in.

“The way I see it, your mother is the one who should be controlling herself.”

Mrs Ellington laid Duke’s spoon down and sat quietly.

Ajay and Duke were mostly quiet throughout the night, itching to get away from the table and go upstairs to look over the map again.

This was the day they were going to decide how to find the factory.

“Sheer determination, skill, and wit,” Ajay said upstairs in his room later when dinner had been had and the adults were drinking. He quickly told Duke his entire plan, making Duke make notes in his little book as he feverishly paced his room and gestured wildly, adrenaline fuelling his passion.

Duke didn’t know if he agreed with the details of the plan, particularly with the beginning. But Ajay was his only friend, and when they weren’t talking about the chocolate factory, they were talking about cartoons, science, mysteries, and space. But sometimes, Ajay talked about his parents and how much he disliked him, how unhappy he was. Duke said the same, though he wasn’t sure if he was only saying it to connect with Ajay, or if he was truly unhappy and only now realising. Duke did not like talking about that, so he tried to talk about other things and the chocolate factory as much as possible.

That night after the visit, the Ellingtons went home with full tummies but uneasy dispositions.

“You know, they always unsettled me,” Mrs Ellington said as she changed into her nightclothes in her bedroom.

Her husband had turned to her, grinning foolishly from the wine.

“It’s the turbans, isn’t it?”

She had rolled her eyes, sighed dejectedly. Mr Ellington’s incapability to take anything seriously save his investors and bank accounts always drove her crazy, but the one thing that she could never tolerate was his disinterest in his son.

“Duke’s been hanging out with their son a lot,” she pointed out, but she turned to find her husband already asleep on the bed.

In his room, Duke lay awake on his bed, gazing up at the ceiling with trepidation hurrying his heart along.

Tomorrow was the big day.


            There are a few things in life that are both glamorous and tragic. Suicide, for instance, made one quite the celebrity. Drug addiction was edgy and complex. Depression? Worth a million ballads. The glamorization of tragedy was a human trend that had continued throughout the ages. Maybe it was done to desalinate the validity and reality of human suffering. Maybe it was done to make artistic torment accessible to the commons. Maybe death needed to be marketable.

It was always Ajay’s goal to go out with glory. His grandfather had died of old age, wheezing away in his tissue paper bed, and he remembered as a child watching the old man wither before his eyes. His heart had welled up with love, but his mind had welled up with pity.

His grandfather was the only person he ever truly loved, but Ajay wanted to die glamorous. His grandfather had wasted away. But Ajay didn’t blame him. It was his parents, above all, who were responsible for the miserable situation.

It was nearing midnight and Ajay was almost done packing his bags. He walked over to his window and looked across to Duke’s house, where a small light shone brightly out of a small window.

He’s ready.

Ajay had spent many years thinking about his death. Ever since his grandfather died, the main question of his existence was his eventual nonexistence.

But it had to be glamorous.

Tonight was the first step towards his big ending. Artists, they say, are only truly known to the world by their one masterpiece. Da Vinci had the Mona Lisa, Beethoven had Ode to Joy, Mozart had Fur Elise, and Ajay would have his death. It would be his magnum opus, his handiwork, his craft, and it would be beautiful.

But every ending needs a beginning to match, and Ajay’s beginning was going to be his escape. He was running away from home.

He got the last of his things into his rucksack and went over to his window, placing a flashlight on the sill. The light in Duke’s window went out, and Ajay promptly grabbed the flashlight and pulled his window open. Carefully, he stuck his legs out and began making his way down the scaffolding, then down the pillar, and then he jumped off to land on his feet. He unchained the two bicycles parked unassumingly next to his father’s minivan and along with them, scampered across the street to the sidewalk at Duke’s house, where he could see the small boy slowly making his way down a pillar. Duke landed clumsily, too loudly for Ajay’s liking, and then came hurrying over.

“Hey, Ajax.”

Ajay had told Duke to call him Ajax a few weeks ago, like the Greek hero of the Trojan War. War too, was glamorous.

They got on the bicycles, Duke only after a few minutes of struggling with his bag, and began making their way down the street to the playground.

At a spot underneath one of the apple trees was a small mound under which Ajay had buried some supplies a few days ago. He left the shovel by the tree, knowing no one would take it. The boys got to work, and barely 20 minutes passed before they were off on their bikes again, Ajay carrying the weight of the new bags. It was going to be a 30-minute ride to the forest, and Ajay was thankful that Duke was not speaking. He wondered if it was because the boy was crying, but decided that it was better not to know.

Ajay had always thought his neighbourhood was beautiful, even if it was in a rather dubious way. The wealth was almost indecent, overflowing into its perfectly paved roads and scenic surroundings, roving hills and lakes spread across the billion-dollar landscape. The forest that edged on the outskirts of the exclusive neighbourhood had been there when the developers first started poaching deeper lands for new projects, and Ajay thought that the only redeeming quality of this neighbourhood was its historic value.

Ajay’s parents had inherited the house now live in from their grandfather. But for years, they had lived in a completely different town, in a home that Mr Singh bought himself after his company made its first million. The more interesting story though, is how Grandfather Mahdev, an illiterate immigrant from India, came into possession of a three-million dollar home in an upscale, suburban, white neighbourhood. He never told his daughter, Ajay’s mother, how he got the home. And for years, it was one of the reasons why she refused to speak to him, at least until Ajay was born and it was simply unbecoming of her to deny her father his right to see his grandson. Ajay always seemed to like her father more than he liked his own parents, and though she never admitted it, it made her resent Mahdev even more. The man who was never present during her childhood was now stealing her time with her own child. When Ajay was 13, Mahdev passed away, in his will bequeathing the house to Gurpreet. The act filled her with venom, as if her father’s efforts to reconcile after his death was simply proof of how much he had wronged her when he was still alive. She never wanted to come live here. But when Ajay’s father’s company ran into trouble and they lost their car and their home, she had no choice.

Ajay and Duke were finally on the main motorway, hills on their right and the forest edge on their left, held back by wired fencing. A few kilometres down, the road branched out on the left to a wooden arch that welcomed visitors to the scenic adventures the local government could offer. Ajay whipped out his grandfather’s map and directed Duke further down, where the map indicated an alternate entrance would be for the park’s employees. True enough, there was a smaller, more inconspicuous opening shrouded by overgrown leafs, and Ajay led Duke inside, the torchlight on his helmet shining on the path.

They rode on for a short while before the main office of the Adahy State Forest Reserve came into view, its dark, wooden façade imposing in the moonlight. The office was much like a house, except large enough to accommodate a reception, a souvenir shop, and a small museum. No light shone through the windows but there a four cars and a Harley Davidson parked outside. Ajay assumed they were tourists or campers as well, certainly not hunters as it wasn’t the season, and perhaps even one or two park rangers who lived on site.

He instructed Duke to park his bike next to the Harley. The little boy clambered off his bike noisily, and Ajay immediately unloaded the extra bags and supplies he was carrying and dropped them in Duke’s outstretched arms.

“What now?” Duke asked.

“The point of me asking you to take notes is so you wouldn’t ask me ‘what now.’ Just follow me.”

Ajay led Duke to one of the smaller hiker’s trails.

“We start here.” He turned to Duke. “This is where it all begins.”

Duke nodded.

“I need you to understand the significance of this. Once we go in here, there is no turning back. We don’t know how long we’ll take to find the factory. It could be days. Weeks. We have brought enough to last us that long, but I need you to promise me we won’t get to a point where we are in need of more. Because that implies we were working fast enough. We should not have to hit a snag. We will find it on our first try.”

“I promise, Ajay.”

“And friends keep promises.”

“Does that make me your friend?”

“Depends on whether you keep your promise.”


The Journal of Ajayx Singh – November 19, 2005

Spent the night going through the trail slowly. Got to a small clearing, slept for four hours. Duke threw a fit when I woke him at 6a.m. Warned not to do that again.

Took my time studying the map. The forest is filled with signs and directions, makes things easier. Grandpa’s map is as precise as we could hope it to be. The remarks he made and landmarks he drew were designed for a child to read. There is a rock here referred to as “Grey bear-foot shaped rock”, though an adult would never see that at first sight. I wonder if this map was always meant for me. I wonder how grandpa learned to write English. Wisenbaum must have taught him.

I know exactly where to go next. Looks like we’ll be going through one-third of the map in no time. Duke will be home by the end of the week.


Spent two-and-a-half hours trekking till we reached “Eagle Beak Rock”. The surroundings are described perfectly in the map. A view of Bear’s Foot to the southwest, 70 degrees down from the top, Eagle Beak pointing at a growth of violets along a covered mound, and a patchy canopy through which warm beams of sunshine shone through and formed thick strands of golden light that hit the floor in the shape of a crescent moon. Duke insisted on more food, and I had to remind him that the ice cream truck does not come through these parts.


There was a small stream running through – “Worm Water”, according to the map. I let Duke swim in it for an hour. We had a small picnic after, and then he pushed me in the water. It was fun, but I had to remind him not to push me in when I was still wearing my turban. We swam for another hour, and we discovered fish. I wondered if I could catch some and use it for a special meal, but the map indicates there are more streams to come anyway. I can’t wait to find a waterfall.


Night falls. I think we have covered a good many miles. We set up tent at a small clearing. Duke seems happy so far. He is having fun. I hope this continues until we find the factory.


            A short, light rain had just passed over the forest, almost like dew collected from the top of the canopy consciously thundering down with brutal force to wash the leaves in a routine shower. Two girls ran, laughing and careless, through the forest. Their voices ticked the musky air, both light and full of youth and joy, and their feet ran rhythms across the crunchy forest bed. It was music unlike the forest had ever heard, and the sun shone brightly now to reflect its approval. The rain, despite its short duration, had probably helped throw their pursuers off, and the girls were rejoicing for the blessing.

Pauline grabbed Aleeya’s hand, stifling laughter as she pulled her along the trail, slowing to a walk.

“You think we lost them?” she gasped after a while, turning to Aleeya.

Aleeya shook her head, clutching her waist as she bent over, laughing.

“Douchebags,” Pauline muttered, smiling at Aleeya’s fit, looking over her to see if the men were still in pursuit of them.

“You psycho,” Aleeya finally said, when her fit blew over.

Pauline grabbed Aleeya’s arms. “Hey ma’am, wanna come inside and keep my tent warm? Both my tents, I mean,” she said in an exaggerated deep voice, mocking the men whose campsite they had stumbled across earlier and escaped from through sheer will of wit.

“Freakin’ rednecks,” Aleeya muttered, after another bout of laughter.

“You’re lucky I’m such a hero,” Pauling said, pinching Aleeya’s chin.

“Oh yes, my hero! Save me!” Aleeya pretended to swoon.

“Who do think I’d be? Steven Segal, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis –”

“Bruce Lee, definitely. Hot and deadly.”

Pauline reached for Aleeya’s hand again and led her along the trail, both girls smiling to themselves. Smiles that stopped short at the site before them now.

“What are you boys doing here?” Pauline called out.

The small, plump, blonde boy dropped his water bottle at her voice and stumbled backward a few paces. The other boy, tall, thin, probably Punjabi, simply stared back wordlessly. Judging from his puffy eyes and running nose, the smaller boy had been crying.

“Are you out here alone?” Aleeya asked.

It took a while, but eventually the older boy spoke up.

“Our parents know we’re here.”

“Yeah, right,” Pauline said, narrowing her eyes at the pair of them. They looked like they had brought a good amount of supplies with them to potentially last three weeks. “You never see anyone this deep in the forest.”

“Well, I see you,” the older boy replied.

“We’re 24. You’re what – 13? This other one’s 7?” Pauline retorted, and Aleeya giggled. Pauline squeezed her hand.

“I’m 14. But it doesn’t matter. We’re on an expedition for a school project and our parents have given their consent.”

“Then you should have no problem calling these parents of yours in front us now,” Aleeya said.

“If there’s reception.”

“There is, for the most part. We can wait,” Pauline said.

“It’s 11a.m. in the morning. Our parents are working.”

Pauline turned her attention to the younger boy, who was trying his best to hide fresh tears that were forming in his big, blue eyes. She approached him slowly and said tenderly,

“What’s wrong, sweetheart? What’s going on here?”

He shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, in the pleasantest, most adorable voice Pauline had ever heard. Her heart melted. She looked back at the older boy.

“You’re going to tell me exactly what you’re doing here right now. Either I call the park ranger and have him take your ass home, or you tell me the truth, and I figure out whether I want to call the park ranger. Now speak up.”

Aleeya approached from behind and held out a palm to Pauline’s shoulder.

“We don’t have all day. Speak up!” Pauline continued to insist.

The older boy continued to stare back blankly at her.

“Look,” Aleeya whispered in her ear, jerking her chin at the younger boy, who was clenching a few torn papers in his fist.

Pauline stooped down and asked his name.

“Duke,” he said. “And that’s Ajax.”

She held out her palm. “Please, may I have a look?”

He turned to look at Ajax, who quickly looked away. Reluctantly, he opened his fist over Pauline’s palm and the papers fell out. She picked through the pieces with Aleeya, and they looked to all have initially been part of a larger paper that must have been a map. With a sudden motion, Aleeya picked up a piece of paper and held it out in front of Pauline’s eyes.

“Wisenbaum’s…” Pauline read. A wheel clicked in her brain.

“You crazy kids…” she muttered, turning around. “You’re trying to find Wisenbaum’s old choclate factory!”

Ajax’s eyes lit up. “You know of it?”

The girls were silent for a few seconds, before Aleeya burst out laughing.

“Oh god, this shit never ends,” she laughed.

“What do you mean?” Ajax asked calmly.

“We’ve been coming here since forever, kid. Almost every single time we come here, there’s a bunch of kids, or losers, or weirdos, or lonely hobos, trying to look for the magical chocolate factory. It’s ridiculous.”

Ajax’s eyes seemed to lose their depth, as in some part of his spirit sank all the way down to his toes.

“Did anyone ever find it?” he asked.

“Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“You honestly believe it’s real?”

“I know it’s real.”

“You, kid, have a lot of faith.”

“What else am I supposed to have?”

“Pragmatism. You two could die out here,” Aleeya interjected.

“We came prepared. We fully understood what we were getting into.”

“Really? So why is he crying?” Pauline pointed at Duke.

“We had a small argument. But everyone has been sorted out. We were going to continue with our journey.”

Duke nodded in agreement.

“I’m not crying, I was crying.”

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” Pauline said.

“Admit it – you said so yourself – no one’s ever come as far as we have,” Ajax said.

“That’s fantastic. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are two kids in the middle of a forest searching for a magical chocolate factory,” Pauline snapped.

“I never said it had to be magical.”

“Doesn’t the story say that it has ever-burning furnaces?”

“It’s scientific.”

“Right. Alchemy.”

For the first time, Ajay showed emotion. He glared at Pauline as darkly as he could, but she merely grinned back.

“Kids,” she said, turning to exchange a smirk with Aleeya.

“Why don’t you tell us what you’re doing here?” Ajay demanded, almost shouting. Pauline’s eyes widened in surprise, taken aback by how seriously he appeared to be taking this.

“We’re not the ones who are under-aged and –”

“You either tell us or you leave us alone!”

Pauline’s self-satisfied smile seemed to stretch even wider.

“We’re looking for the chocolate factory,” she said, eyes twinkling.

Ajay’s head shot up, one eyebrow raised.

“Are you mocking us?”

She shook her head and approached him smugly.

“We’ve already found it.” Pauline reached inside the pocket of her leather jacket and pulled out a map, waving it in Ajay’s face.

It felt like a trapped bird was frantically beating its wings against Ajay’s ribcage, trying to burst out and break free.

“How?” he asked softly.

“Been trying for years. Found it the last time we came here a week ago. We didn’t have time to explore because of the rain, so we’re back.”

“Show me,” Ajay whispered. The trapped bird was more frantic now than ever, its desperation leaking through into Ajax’s eyes. He was a wounded animal, one surviving on instinct and adrenaline.

Pauline considered the boy. He had a wildness in his eyes now, like his life depended on seeing the factory. But she knew better than to give kids what they wanted. At the same time however, she couldn’t consider Ajax a child. Something told her it would be for the worse if she kept it from him.

She turned her attention to Duke – sweet, innocent Duke who must not have any idea what kind of situation he was in.

“Alright,” she finally said. “I will show it to you. Briefly. And then when you are done with the place, you have to let me take the both of you home immediately.”

“That’s a good deal!” Duke replied instantly.

Ajax squinted at Pauline. “How do I know you are telling the truth?”

She reached into her jacket pocket again and pulled out a wrapper. A chocolate bar wrapper. She handed it to Ajax, who received it hungrily in his palms. It was yellow with gold linings and font. Wisenbaum’s Special. The best in America.

            “A lone wrapper, stuck on the spike of the fence outside the factory,” Pauline said.

Ajax hadn’t realised he was shaking.

“How did you find it? You had a map before.”

“I did. But Aleeya and I wrote that map over the years. It took us three years to find the place, and extensive research. We found groups for people who were took an active interest in locating the factory. Most of them were cuckoo, but they still knew things we didn’t. We searched public records, but there wasn’t much to see because Wisenbaum’s factory was considered private property and somehow, there was just no specific address listed in any of the records that we found. And then of course, we asked local historians, and they all had some rough ideas, which helped. Sheer determination, wit, and skill,” she said.

“Fine. You have a deal.”

Pauline smiled.

“And you have yours. But you will have to keep your promise.”

Duke smiled brightly. “Ajax is a friend. He keeps promises.”


The Journal of Ajayx Singh – November 27, 2005

Grandpa must be watching over me. Pauline and Aleeya know the route like the back of their palms, and really, I don’t think Duke and I would have found the factory otherwise. We take only a few breaks, this being one of the few, because the girls are going slowly, stopping to look at flowers and birds and take pictures, and they insist that it is not going to rain. They better hope it doesn’t rain. Duke looks less tired now. He seems happy to have them here. He is taking pictures with them.


We passed Broken Palm Rock and Duke is swimming with the girls now. I thought about finding Pauline’s jacket and taking the map. Go off now while they’re distracted. The girls could take Duke home. Knowing all of them, they’d come after me instead, but I still might have time to get done what I planned. I’m still considering it.


Everyone’s eating. I don’t think I’ll steal the map anymore. I should have never brought Duke along. If he wasn’t here, I’d take the map. But now I have to reconsider my whole game plan. I can’t possibly do what I need to do with him there. But that’s fine. All I need to do is figure out where the factory is, and come back next time.


Pauline and Aleeya say this is our last break before the factory. They say it is very near now, barely 30 minutes away. Duke was sweating like he has a rain cloud on his head. I took a picture of him with Pauline’s phone. He is smiling in the picture. Goofball. I might miss him in the end. But really, what are the little things in the grand scheme of it all?


We are at the factory.


            Duke had a wild imagination. His teachers at school told him he was creative, and they always made it sound like that made him special. But really, there’s no point to a wild imagination, because in the end, reality disappoints. Duke wasn’t sure what he expected from the factory, but he was sure it wasn’t what he saw now.

It looked like a brown, square slab of concrete smack dab in the middle of a clearing that was now probably not as clear as it was intended to be, whereas Duke had expected a colourful, wildly shaped structure with different building materials ranging from plastic to wood to metal with a waterfall running in the background. An iron gate hung lamely by its hinges, overgrown vines encroaching on its bars and spires. Above the gate were the words “Wisenbaum’s Chocolate Factory”.

“It is rather straightforward,” Pauline said, sensing the boys’ disappointment.

Duke turned to see Ajax’s reaction, but he was already passing through the gates and making straight for the factory. Pauline and Aleeya rushed after him, with Duke in tow.

The entrance to the factory was decorative at best. Ajax pushed it in with a finger, and the thick wooden door inched open.

“Both hands,” Pauline commanded, and Ajax followed suit.

The doors swung inwards and a gust of cold wind rushed out. Dust circled around in the sunlight and the scent of oldness leaked out.

Ajax didn’t wait. He stepped in confidently, flicked his torchlight on, and demanded of the two girls:

“Where’s the freezer?”

“The what?”

“Where they buried Wisenbaum.”

The girls exchanged uneasy glances.

“I’m not sure,” Pauline said.

“Me neither,” Aleeya said.

“My grandfather said it would have been on the ground floor, to the right, past the portrait of Wisenbaum…” Ajax muttered to himself, following his own instructions. He froze at the portrait of Wisenbaum.

“What’s up, Jax?” Duke called out. He ran forward and stood next to Ajax, who was transfixed with the portrait. He shook his head, as if trying to shake out a thought.

“It should be down this way,” he said, leading the way down an empty hall lined with paintings.

As true as his grandfather’s words had always been, there was a door at the end of the hallway. A paper was stuck to the door. In a messy scrawl, the words read: G’s Birthday.

Ajax examined the lock, which was in no way a traditional key-to-lock device. It was a combination of four numbers bolted into the door where the doorknob would have been.

“Who is G?” Aleeya asked from behind.

With all certainty and confidence, Ajax said: “My mother.”

He bent down and rolled the numbers to Gurpreet Singh’s birthday. The lock clicked, and the door swung open. The room inside was pitch black, save for a small beam of light from Ajax’s torch shining onto what seemed to be a desk.

He walked in, felt at the walls on the other sides of the door, and flicked a switch. Nothing.

“Can I have more light, please?” he asked, and his three companions obliged. The desk was not illuminated.

This is no freezer.

            He approached the desk and found it dusty and empty, save for a small envelop in the middle of the desk and a bar of chocolate next to it. He went for the chocolate bar first. It looked new, and it only felt mildly squishy. He passed it to Pauline, who took out her own piece of stray wrapper and started comparing.

“Ajax,” she suddenly said. “Look at this. The manufacturing date. January of last year. Expiry: exactly a year, so a month from today.”

“A month from today?”


“That’s my mother’s birthday.”

“This chocolate bar was made and will be expire on your mother’s birthday?” she asked.

“How do you spell your name, Jax?” Duke asked, holding the envelope. “Is it A-J-A-Y S-I-N—”

Ajax had snatched the envelope from Duke. His name was scrawle neatly on the back of the envelope. He ripped it open and read the letter, his heart pounding.

Dear Ajay,

            I always knew you could do it. Even the elusive Mr Wisenbaum was no match for you, but dare I say it was not exactly fair game. My dear boy, you have come so far. But now, I must ask you to do one more thing.

            When I was 13, my family shipped me off to America. You know this story. I came here penniless, speaking only Hindi, certain I was going to end up someone’s slave. I had no skills, I didn’t know how to do anything, but I did know one thing. How to appreciate good food. You have tasted enough of your mother’s food to know what she learned from me.

I went to find work in a French restaurant, and it was there that I first tasted chocolate. I cannot describe the experience to you, Ajay. I had never had anything like it before. Eventually, my taste for it became so finely tuned, that two Jewish businessmen, regulars at the restaurant whom I served often, by the names of Werner and Weitzmann, offered me a job at their chocolate factory. I took it gladly.

            Werner soon left for Brazil, and Weitzmann was left to run the place himself. I became his butler, and he trusted me most ardently. He taught me all the English I know and everything I needed to know about making chocolate. But the poor man had a cancer most malignant, and soon, he passed away. A week after, word reached us that smallpox had claimed the life of Werner in South America, leaving the factory without a head after only a year of business. I could not let this happen. The factory was my livelihood, as it was for thousands of other people like me. Immigrants, looking only for a better life. And so I did what I must.

            I assumed the identity of a businessman called William Wisenbaum, just returned from France. Former associate of Werner and Wietzmann. I had the look; I could easily pass off as it. The workers at the factory pooled our money together, and I became their representative. It was up to me to be the face of the business, though I always kept it hidden. I devised a new recipe, and though we started very very small, that’s how Wisenbaum’s Special became a hit. We catered exclusively to custom orders and our popularity spread through word of mouth, and this was how we got our first profits to help the business grow.

            I was fairly middle-aged when I met your grandmother. It was unexpected. We married quickly and before we knew it, she was with child. I decided I could not let my family know. The business would be in grave danger if anyone knew I was an impostor. You see, your mother ended up hating me for all those days I spent away from home. She never knew why that was, and I used to come home smelling of the alcohol I put in the chocolates. Both my wife and my daughter did not believe my lies. Your mother never forgave me for driving her mother away, and more still, for forgetting all her birthdays.

            My boy, I need you to give her the chocolate bar. Show her what it was that I was working for all those years – not the business, not the recipe, but so she can have a full life in this country – one I never had, until I pretended to be someone else. I just know that when she tastes it, she will know that my work was not for nothing. That it has created something beautiful, something loved by the masses, the stuff of legends, and she was the reason.

            It needs to be you. I could never have given her this chocolate bar myself. Your mother never had me, but now she needs you.

With all my love,

Your grandfather.


            Ajax’s mother clutched at her son’s back, sobbing quietly into his shirt.

“That stupid, stupid man,” she whispered. “Why does he break my heart?”

His mother was broken. Ajax held her, unsure of when the last time was that they were so close.

“Enough with the crying, mama. Eat the chocolate.”

Hands trembling, she struggled to unwrap the bar, so Ajax reached over and took it from her. He peeled out the paper wrapping first, and then the gold foil inside.

Ajay’s mother gasped.

“That smell. I used to think…”

“Have a bite.”

He held it up to her and she took a small bite, apprehensive. She chewed slowly. In an instant, tears filled her eyes.

“I never thought chocolate would make me cry,” she said softly.

“How is it?”

“Absolutely delightful.”

Later that night, Ajax went to his room thinking of his grandfather. He sent him on a grand journey, gave him the adventure he wanted, but Ajax wasn’t sure what the ending was. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he wanted an ending yet. He went over to his window and looked out across the street. A light was on in Duke’s bedroom. Mrs Ellington must be reading him stories.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would go over and meet with Duke. Perhaps take the boy out to the playground. And then after that he would go to the store and buy some chocolates, and give some to the Ellingtons and bring some back for his parents. And then they would have a meal together, and maybe watch the news. But just for a bit, and then he would make them watch Discovery Channel. You see, Ajax understood it now. He had pondered so often on the big questions on life, his discontent with his parents, his anger at the world. But really, none of that could hold up against a good bar of chocolate. Because in the end, what is the grand scheme of it all in the face of the little things? Ajax took a bite of whatever was left of chocolate bar his grandfather left for his mother, and decided then that the main question of his existence, was love.


The scent seems to follow me everywhere, whether because it lingers in my mind or on my clothes, I don’t know – but the small pinches of the perfume, like the shadow of a phantom, invisible but felt teasing and creeping, make known the presence not of an actual person but rather the untenable reality that the person is everywhere in your mind.

Sweat boils on my skin, droplets of anxiety peppering a canvas of uncertainty, I am sticky with guilt and burning under the pressure of when? How? To argue that it is simply a matter of opening my mouth and saying the words – but the words are too simple, too specific, I would want nothing but to speak of it generally, drawing a picture rather than solving an equation, because that is what this is, isn’t it? Suffering. And suffering is art. Equations calculate certainties, and there is nothing certain about the shadow of a phantom, the perfume of a hopeless love.

Perfume. That scent of enlightenment, instrument of awakening, the enigma that trips your senses awake and drills into your state of denial that YOU DO NOT KNOW YOURSELF because one day, one normal, silly, nothing day, in a nothing week, in a nothing month, when you are doing nothing for the purpose of nothing and feeling nothing, someone will come and be the something you need and you will cry and feel weaker than the time you had your first flu and you will curse all the somethings in your life because ignorance was truly bliss and now that you know what you know, you wish you had never smelt the perfume. Take your enchantments with you, your bewitching command, eyes that sizzle, and yes, take your stupid perfume.

Sweat. I am the sheen of crippling self-doubt that coats any life event with the certainty of oblivion, the sheen that seeks to hide under sweet scent, or does the scent become engulfed by the sweat? Which dies off first – or is it neither, having nothing to die for? Sweat falls to its knees and curls up in the warmth of perfume, rubbing up against its strong softness, its hard sweetness, hands circling around the sturdy waist of the essence of flowers and ocean breeze and musk and self-belief, such confidence that perfume possesses that it in return covers sweat with its loving reparations, dousing the self-hatred with the hope for a beautiful promise, saying never mind, never mind, it is better that you know now and feel now than to have never known or felt, yes?

The smell stays with me even when I’m alone. I could lie down and throw my head back open up my lungs breathe in life and the only thing my mind holds on to is the scent of what isn’t even there, the perfume of kindness and care and appreciation, the dressing of a person who cannot admit that YES, WE ARE or at least YES I AM and all the while sweat yearns and craves and hopes and wills and sweats only more, want bursting from my pores, need cascading down to my toes and all I remember is what perfume looked like that day and the pouring stops, it evaporates and it mixes with the reassuring scent of closeness and the combination of sweet and sour is a sad, sad perfume for it is made out of components that cancel each other out and in the end what is left is nothing in a nothing day in a nothing week in a nothing month all because I wouldn’t let go of something, I wouldn’t let the perfume sit in its cupboard instead I grabbed it and held it close and used it everywhere until I’m convinced I’ve not used it at all.

That’s the thing about perfume – it may be a scent but it is more of an illusion, it may just be mist but you are completely solid to me, and if I could help it I would ban it, I would ban you, but like an addict all I do is self-contradict and it doesn’t help that you too are a hypocrite and I’m so confused, so confused, and so I sweat.

An Ocean Full of Love

Here’s the thing about walking. It’s fun when it’s not taking you anywhere specific. The freedom that comes with being purposeless helps cement the natural forces that define the human joy behind walking – an otherwise meticulous activity – whether it be a solitary walk to ponder on life’s big questions or a moment shared with someone else to revel in each other’s quiet company. In that sense, walking can be spiritual, but above all, it can be romantic.

Imagine sinking your feet into soft sand, slowly but surely being pulled into the earth’s centre. The natural instinct is to hold onto your partner, the person who keeps you on your feet, because the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll just both fall – but you’ll fall together, and that’s not so bad, even if the coarse sand scratches on your skin, even if you graze your hands on the rough beach, even if the microscopic shells embed themselves in your palms like battle scars, badges of honour, only in this case it’s a mark of your wistfulness, not bravery. The next step is for both of you to then stand up, preferably still holding onto each other, stumbling like teenage fools would. There is a lot of laughter, and more still, giggling. And once your feet are firmly – no, reasonably planted (because love is not firm; it wavers and wanders and the best you can hope for is a compromise) and the sand seeps up between your toes the way only water would, you would reach down and wield the roughness of the beach in your tender fists, opening your palms up to the sky so that sand falls down and hits your chest, caressing your arms on the way down in the same paradoxical way a tornado might beat against a cliff violently yet the outcome is not destruction or chaos but simply touch, and the sensation is good only because the roughness makes you yearn for smoothness.

And so you walk on, feet lunging in further with each step. Your hand remains firmly in your lover’s, and that’s enough to assure you that the sinking, slow falling – the inevitable descent into the earth’s burning core – is not necessarily a bad thing. Your ears perk up, appreciating the demanding roar of the ocean. It calls out, seeking attention, getting louder with each wave, roaring for acknowledgment. It is a rough sound – a grinding, churning sound; imagine blending sand with water – which is really what is happening anyway. But it is music to your ears, and it becomes a mantra to your soul. How could such a violent sound bring calm and peace? How could such turbulent emotion bring happiness and humanity? The sound ingrains itself in your subconscious, and it becomes background music to your romance, because you only feel its imagined whisperings of a promised summer
love; you don’t hear nature’s malevolent roar in all its urgency, because you are swept off elsewhere.

Eventually you sit on the edge between dry and wet, safety and danger. The water runs over your legs, trickling back into the ocean, and up again it runs, with all the hasty teasing of a nervous lover. The lukewarm water wraps itself around your legs, up your hips, and eventually you surrender your being to the seduction of the ocean. A wave crashes over your face and submerges you under this watery blanket, its alkaline assault hammering against your eyelids, nostrils, mouth. The taste attacks your tongue, and you try to struggle out of this suffocation, spitting out the water, rejecting the taste of salt and spice. Tears of the earth, they call it. And perhaps this was just you rejecting foreign grievances – your sadness must be your own, and the sadness of the earth was too vast for you to support, and so you try to cough it up, spit it out, but the more you fight against it, the more you end up taking in. But that’s what partners are there for, because eventually you break the surface and hold onto that person, and the sun pierces your eyes with its soft orange, hard yellow, and it paints its majesty across the sky, the blue of the ocean having faded into memory. You are wading in the water now, more attune to your surroundings than ever. The ocean bobs along gently, the horizon meeting the sky awkwardly, green contrasting with orange in a severe line. It looks like an oilpainting, God’s masterpiece, and you smile knowing that this is a private viewing.

You swim back and go back up the beach, the cold shuddering through your body. It smells like the soil’s sweat, the salt mingling with the air’s moisture, the crusty sand absorbing and trapping its essence, emanating moisture from the pores of the earth. If love were to ever be personified, you think, love would be personified as the Ocean. Granted, the Ocean is not a person. It is a cycle of metaphors. But imagine for a moment that the Ocean was a goddess, and that in this imaginary world, things are only untrue if you allow them to be. The Ocean is as temperamental and fierce, as enveloping and suffocating, as pressurising and uplifting, as vast and dark, as mysterious and terrifying as love is, and for all its upheavals and inconsistencies, for all the danger that lurks beneath, you need it. This fact is solidified as you stamp your footprints in the sand right next to another pair of prints, smiling at the one who has taken the journey with you all this while, walked the length of the beach with you and savoured all the same sensations. You are stricken then with the thought: maybe your favourite place is not a where you are, but when you are with love.

Christmas at Mother’s

“Oh celestial concoction of energy and quantum power, floating about in the heavens above, presumably in charge of everything that is anything that exists on this planet Earth, I pray to you on this very strange day. I would like to thank you for this amazing feast—assuming of course that you had any part to play in its preparation. The ham looks wonderful and I bet that all of them are all beautifully and sinfully scrumptious.

“And although most people will say that it was man who made this feast, or in this case, a woman—my dear old mother, I still thank you blindly nonetheless because I have been told that if I do not, the food will poison me in turn and I will die.

“Oh and speaking of death, thank you oh ball of energy for not deciding to kill me thus far and I beg thee to not kill me until the next time I pray for the exact same things again. Because if you summarize it all, if you shorten it, you will find that the outline for all prayers is basically: thank you Lord for not killing me, and please do not kill me later. Thank you and goodbye.

“Now this is funny because the words of mere mortals should not be able to change whether you, oh mighty ball, decide to kill one of your children today or not. Wonderful, isn’t it—being a ball floating about in the heavens? Of course the image of a god being a simple, mediocre, ball of invisible energy was not appealing to most people, so that’s why early humans created the idea of a god who was in man’s image, and—”

“That’s quite enough, Alan. I asked you to pray, not to give a lecture.”

“Oh, sweet sister. Indulge me at least for tonight.”

You were supposed to indulge me!”

“Oh yes, I forgot. I got carried away. Well, that’s what you get when you ask an atheist to pray for dinner.”

“I didn’t ask you to. I advised; suggested that you just try praying for once in your life. The first time I did it I felt a great change come upon me.”

“Well unfortunately, Jenna, we are of a practically different species.”

“What are you talking about? I’m your twin sister, for heaven’s sake!”

“I’m an Atheist and you’re a Christian. What did you expect was going to happen—I’d give a christening and chant a few ‘Hail Mary’s!’ and then baptize myself in the soup? For all things that might or might not be holy, Jenna, grow up.”

“That’s hardly fair. And, that is also Catholicism you were describing there, not Christianity.”

Alan groaned.

“Oh dear me, forgive the atrocity!”

“And I think it insulting that you implied I’m immature. I’m older than you, Alan,” Jenna continued.

“By mere minutes. Besides, if you want to find anybody to blame, blame mother for raising twin siblings in different ideologies!”

This time it was Jenna’s turn to groan.

“Oh of all people, Alan, please don’t put the blame on mother. You see her once a year and every time we get together for Christmas it seems you’ve always something to blame her for that happened in the past. Nobody’s perfect.”

Alan huffed and folded his arms, sliding down in his chair a little. Alan had a reputation for being a bit of an egomaniac and a grouch in the family. It seemed the only person who was willing to put up with him was his twin.

“Where’s your husband?” he asked gruffly.

“Why do you still not refer to him as Philip? He considers you his blood brother, you know.”

Alan chortled.


“Alan,” Jenna said softly, “Just tonight, be nice. We’ve brought the kids along this time and I don’t want them seeing their father getting put down by their uncle. You know he’s too nice to refute you.”

“Too nice or too incompetent?”


“Okay, okay. I’ll try my best. But where on earth are they?”

“They’re helping mother in the kitchen.”

Alan smiled.

“Ah. Mother never lets up help in the kitchen.”

“She said it’s because she sees it as a kind of a birthday treat.”

“Our birthday is on the 30th. I think she doesn’t let us in there because of what happened last time.” Alan giggled.

“Which time? When Pastor Kevin came and you hid his fake hair or when Elizabeth came down and you spilled soup on her cat? She could never get rid of the smell, you know.”

“You mean Principal Elizabeth? No, not those two occasions—how is the old hag anyway?”

Elizabeth is doing fine. I hear she’s coming later. Anyway, back to the point, Alan.”

“Oh, I was referring to the time, I don’t know, was it 10 years ago? Give or take. We burnt the fries, the frying pan, the mittens, and we flooded the pantry.”

“Oh my goodness, yes! I remember!” Alan and Jenna sat there at their mother’s dining table, both in violent fits of laughter.

“And the look on her face when she came in—”

“I thought we were going to get it!”

Just then the kitchen door burst open and a delicious waft of smoke blew into the dining room. Philip was standing in the doorway grinning at the pair.

“Clarence boiled his first pot of pasta, Jen!” he declared.

“There’s mummy’s boy!” Jenna’s squeaked as her young son came dashing out the door and into her arms.

“Are you going to try my spaghetti?” Clarence asked.

“Of course, darling. And I’m sure it’s the most delicious thing in the world!”

Alan rolled his eyes.

“Philip!” Jenna and Alan’s mother called from the kitchen.

“Come on, Clarence.” Philip said, beckoning at Clarence and the little boy went running back into the kitchen with his father.

Jenna breathed a sigh of content.

“It’s a beautiful thing, you know. Having a family,” she said.

Alan nodded nonchalantly and changed the subject.

“Who sent mum those lilies? Aren’t those funeral flowers?”



“How are you and Rosalind?”

“We split up.”

“Oh I’m sorry. When was this?”

“A week ago. I haven’t told mother.”

“That’s a shame. Mum genuinely loved her. Unlike your previous girlfriends.”

“Yes, thank you, rub it in.”

“I’m sorry, Alan. I didn’t mean to. It was just small talk.”

“Well you have a knack for it, don’t you?”

“Can you not live a day without being a complete arse?”

“Well some lives are constituted by the way it is lived and if being an arse ensures my continued existence then no, I cannot live a day without being a complete arse.”

Jenna and Alan stared at each other for the longest time, before Jenna broke out into laughter again.

“How do you do that?” Jenna wondered aloud.

“Do what?”

“Say something horrible and then still make people love you after that. I wish I could do that. That way I’d be able to say what was on my mind more often.”

“Do you always hide your feelings in fear that people might hate you for it? Because I never do that.”

“Yes, everyone can see that, Alan. But I’m not like you. Especially when it comes to marriage. You have to be careful where you step.”


“Excuse me?”

“Of all things marriage is the one where you should keep secrets the least! You should be able to say whatever you need to say to the person who’s supposed to love you even as you are old and senile and shitting your pants or if you are buried six feet under! What kind of marriage is a marriage if you can’t say how you feel to each other?”

Jenna sighed.

“You don’t understand.”

“Try me,” Alan challenged, glaring at his sister.

She sniffed and looked away.

“There is such thing as too much honesty in a marriage, Alan. You don’t know – you haven’t been there yet.” She paused for a while. “Philip and I value each other’s discretion very much. It would be ill if that discretion did not exist.”

Alan sat there and stared at his sister. She didn’t need to say anything – he knew. And he was furious.

“Oh my god, Jen,” he said.

Jenna raised an eyebrow at him.

“You use the name of a being you do not believe exists?”

“You use Aphrodite’s name and yet you do not believe she exists. But I don’t care about that. He’s cheating on you, isn’t he?”

Alan’s directness took Jenna by surprise and she recoiled, mouth agape.

“What are you talking about?” she spluttered.

“Do not take me for a fool, Jenna, I can see right through you. We’re twins, remember?” he raised his voice. “I know what you’re thinking before you say it! I see everything you see! Don’t think for a second you can fool me into thinking everything is sweet and nice for you! Don’t lie to me; it would be stupid.”

“Calm down, Alan,” Jenna whispered hastily for Alan was already on his feet.

All through their childhood years Alan had always been very hot-tempered and rash. These characteristics have contributed to his terminal singleness. He is 36 and still without a steady partner, Jenna thought, feeling sorry for him.

“I’m going to tell that bastard—” he began.

“No, Alan! Stop!” Jenna leapt up from her chair just as Alan was about to push the kitchen door open, grabbed his sleeve and pleaded with him,

“Alan, listen to me. You don’t know the whole story; don’t be so impulsive!” she spat. “If you go in there right now and blame everything on Philip, mum is going to hear everything! She shouldn’t have to be troubled with these problems, Alan. Do you not think?”

“What else is there to know?” he demanded. And then he suddenly realized what was going on and laughed at himself for his own stupidity.

“And you call it a healthy Christian marriage?” he snorted.

“Everyone in church has secrets. We don’t pry each other for details of our private lives.”

“Well, that’s not what happened to me when I went for that charity dinner.”

“They don’t get around atheists much, they were simply curious. Now sit down before you do something stupid like flood the pantry again.”

Alan rounded on her,

“It was you who left the tap on, in case you conveniently forgot! And no, I’m not going to do anything. At least until I find out what the hell is going on with you and Philip.”

Jenna sighed.

“Will you at least sit down?”

Alan stormed over to the nearest chair and flopped down on it, facing his sister, opening himself up to her and daring her to start telling her tale. See if she deserved his sympathy.

Jenna sat down slowly, looked her brother in the eyes and said,

“Please don’t judge me.”

Alan’s demeanor immediately softened.

“I wasn’t going to.”

“Whatever it is, I’m telling you because I trust you.”


Jenna breathed in deeply and began,

“It started a year ago, when Philip employed a new secretary for his office. Obviously she’s younger than I am and without all the post-pregnancy weight and all the wrinkles and bleurgh. I could tell immediately that Philip was attracted to her, but whenever the opportunity arose for a heart-to-heart talk where the issue could be addressed I found that I almost… didn’t care to talk about it.

“This pacifism went on for a while until one day when Philip was in Sweden for business he called and said that his flight had been cancelled and he could only come back the week after. I knew he was lying. I called the airline company and they told me that no flights were cancelled. And you know what? I didn’t care. I just hung up and then went about my day as usual. A week later Philip came back, and I didn’t even confront him about it. Didn’t bother. Three days after that I made a visit to his office. He had left his keys at home so I thought I should go take it to him. I had the keys to his office; he had them made for me when we just got married so I let myself in, and I saw him with her. The girl was flustered and embarrassed and apologetic and she literally sprinted out of the room, but Philip and I… we just looked at each other. I left his coat for him, we shared a few words and then I gave him a goodbye kiss and left. After that I started seeing my neighbor John.”

There was a slight pause where Alan digested all that information.

“Wait, so you saw him with another woman and you two didn’t even talk about it? Let alone scream about it?”

Jenna shrugged.

“It’s the strangest thing, but somehow I feel that it was just natural. Philip didn’t seem bothered either.”

“And you still want me to be nice to him?”

Jenna chuckled.

“For the sake of courtesy. We still share a bed, a home… and most importantly, a son. Clarence is the reason you should be nicer to Philip. Not because of anything else.”

Alan shook his head.

“You asked me not to judge you but it’s hard not to.”

“I know, I know. It’s okay. Analyze me,” she smiled, and he looked her up and down.

“I think you guys need therapy.”

“Oh, trust me, it’s the one thing we do not need.”

“You have so much confidence in yourself.”

“And you? Are you not more egotistical than me and Philip combined?”

Alan waved her statement away.

“What about Rose? What happened with her?” Jenna pushed.

“And you were just only talking about how church people don’t pry into your private life,” Alan muttered.

“You’re my brother!”

“Slight correction—I’m your twin brother. Which means I shouldn’t even have to tell you – you should already know what’s going on.”

Jenna rested on the back of her chair, folding her arms and scrutinizing her brother.



“Fashion dispute?”

Alan laughed.

“Oh, you’d expect it of her, but no.”

“Then what is it? One of you didn’t like where the other one put his or her shoes? Toothbrush? Personal hygiene scrubs?”

“Wow, you suck at this. Are you sure we’re related? Cousins have a better chance at guessing.”

“Hey! I just haven’t been in practice. It’s been a whole year since I last saw you, you know.”

“Alright, alright. You got me with the guilt-tripping. It was work that drove us apart, okay?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just didn’t have that much time for her and I felt that she was just suffocating me in this chokehold of things I DO NOT CARE ABOUT so I called it off.”

“Really? That’s it? No secret or not so secret affairs like mine? Wow, you really are more dramatic than I thought you were.”

“Hey, it was really bad, okay? I mean, she wanted to move in and all—”

“Which you did.”

“I know, but then she wanted to go shopping for idiotic things like curtains and tablecloths, and I was like, what do you need me there for? I couldn’t give a rat’s fart about fabric!”

“And I imagine she was offended,” said Jenna, laughing.

“Threw a fit. That’s when I started to realize she wasn’t for me. She cared more for inconsequential things than she did of the real world.”

“Isn’t she working?”

“Yeah, as her aunt’s personal assistant.”

“Wow. It really seems that family’s the only place you could go to and they’d still offer you a job even if you were half a worm.”

“Which she is.”

They both shared a hearty laugh over Alan’s ex-girlfriend, a blonde beauty with gravy for brains.

“You know, you’re right. I mean, look at mother. Look at her in there: she’s probably sweating up a storm just to perfect a bowl of pasta for Clarence, which she didn’t even plan to be part of the menu, and Clarence is not particularly gifted in the line of culinary—”


“And she still calls us her children despite us being so horrible to her, now that I think of it. We visit her what—2, 3 times a year? And that’s for you. I visit her only on Christmas. And I plan to take next Christmas off to go to Europe so that means no burnt pasta for me. Not such bad a thought, actually.”

“You’re going away? That’s a shame!”

“Not for me. I’ve been wanting to for years. I mean, it’s Europe. Not some wonky resort island overpopulated with tourists and merchants selling everything at overprice. No, it’s Europe. Travelling at its finest and most sophisticated.”

“I can’t believe you’re the sort who travels to be sophisticated. I’d like to get rugged.”

“You see, it’s times like these when I truly doubt our blood link.”

“Maybe mum was a cheater.”

“So that’s where you got it from.”

Jenna elbowed Alan in the ribs.

“Every time you doubt our siblinghood just remember that our DNA is virtually the same and you’ll be safe.”

“I hope I didn’t inherit the cheater strain, though.”

“Well, if we’re twins it means that you have to have it.”

“Noooo….” Alan mockingly wailed, sending his sister into fits of giggles.

When she finally cooled down she took a good hard look at her brother. He was handsome in her eyes, even though his hair was graying ahead of its years, and he had a little hint of a pot belly… And even though sometimes he really could be an ass, still… He’s my brother, she thought.

“I never doubted for a second that we were not brother and sister,” she said to him.

And even though it can interpreted as mere small talk, which Jenna has such a penchant for, Alan knew it was more than that.

“Because of our virtually-alike DNA?” he joked.

“No,” she said. “Because I know that whenever I’m down you won’t abandon me. You’re always there for me. Not like, physically, but somehow I know you think of me. And when we do get a chance to talk—wow. You know me more than I know me. Even if we only see each other once a year.”

Alan felt something well up inside him: a fist clenching his heart. He knew if he wasn’t careful genuine emotion might just attack.

“Well,” he quickly stood up and stretched to cover his face, “I’m going to go check if mother needs more help with Clarence.”

Jenna looked surprised.

Alan never ever offered to help. As it was said before, he was quite an ass. But it seemed that just a few words from his twin were enough to get him kickstarted.

When he walked over to the kitchen he had a spring in his step. And when he opened the door to greet his mother for the first time that night he not only called her “mummy”, like he used to when he was a child, but he hugged her and held her. He even smiled at Philip. He picked Clarence up and let the boy rest on his shoulders while he helped his mother stir the pasta sauce.

If it were any other night, Alan knew he would have never enjoyed what he was doing now. But somehow there was a certain magic in the air that night, and it carried him with it so he felt light and happy. He thought over and over about Jenna’s words and made a silent vow to see his mother on at least three occasions next year, which was beyond improvement for him.

And when old Principal Elizabeth finally arrived, he escorted his old teacher into the dining room. He even hung her shawl for her. She was very religious, so when she requested that her old student pray, Alan obliged happily, despite not being a believer.

He prayed,

“Dear God, I thank you tonight and forever for all the wonderful people you have put into my life. They may be seated here tonight, or they may not be. But nevertheless I thank you for them because they are all I have in this world, and every time I get closer to them, I get closer to you.

“Now everybody dig in! It’s a fine Christmas feast and I shall never forget it!”

The Deep Quiet

The Deep Quiet
by Dorothy Cheng

Deep quiet rules the waters;
motionless, the sea reposes,
and the boatsman looks about with alarm
at the smooth surfaces about him.
No wind comes from any direction!
A deathly, terrible quiet!
In the vast expanse
not one wave stirs.

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The cool ocean breeze of the quaint town chilled Amir as he took one last stroll there, weaving his way between makeshift stalls. The line of stalls ended and Amir halted at the overlook, which, at this time of day, was thankfully clear of its usual parasites of tourists and children. He looked out at the sea – the very same sea he had grown up on, and realized that the calmness it once managed to invoke in him was starkly absent now.

This would be his last look at the sea, at least from Terengganu. The calm waters were blue like sadness, still like loneliness, and the waves bopped along monotonously – no, assuredly. This made Amir think of his father and his imposing righteousness, his lofty superiority – the very attitude that’s now driving him to send Amir away to Kuala Lumpur, away from the life that had managed to keep him sane all this while.

He thinks he knows everything, but he’s just an old man who’s never seen the world, thought Amir spitefully, his fists clenched. And now, Amir was going to see the world. Or at least, a particle of it, personified by smog and bad traffic, manifested in the tacky Pan-Asian amalgamation of painstaking commercialisation and raw, violent culture.

He dared his imagination to conjure a daydream of a city not yet maligned by reality, only to shake his head in resignation. There was no way he could fight his father’s will.


Amir stood in the middle of the bustling concourse at KL Sentral, awkwardly aware that he was obstructing the natural flow of human traffic. Out at sea, there was never any problem with congestion. For him, getting lost at sea would be an opportunity rather than a disaster.

The people around him speed-walked hastily, dodging collisions with other turbo-charged white-collar slaves, chattering away into their mobile devices with high-pitched voices of cantankerous authority. Amir strained to remember his mother’s instructions: “Go to Kerinchi station and get a taxi to your cousin’s flat. Don’t let them overcharge you.”

She had fretted over him up until the last minute, packing copious amounts of herbs and other remedies as she repeated tirelessly for him to take care. He had held her wrinkly, small hands in his rough, labour-beaten ones, and promised her, emptily, he would think of home, keep his prayers, and most of all, take care. He didn’t say goodbye to his father.

Now, he was completely lost. It was never like that when he was out at sea. He used to sail out way before dawn when it was still much too dark and spend the first hour basking in the cold, calm solidarity only the sea could offer him. Then he would fish. His father of course, thoroughly disapproved. He wanted Amir to join the main boat, a hulking, rusting beast of solid magnificence, but Amir refused, venturing out each day only in his sampan. His mother never really objected to this, but his father had been a force of disapproval since day one. Hence the need to send Amir away from his one distraction: the sea.

“Hey, do you need help with directions?” a clear voice piped up behind him.

Amir turned to see a young, working man with scruffy long hair shouldering a large backpack, with a bulky camera around his neck. Oddly enough, the stranger had decided that a pair of heavily weather-worn sneakers, fraying dangerously at the soles, was the best pair of shoes to go with his working shirt and slacks. Amir eyed him with trepidation.

“I thought you looked lost,” the man tried again, “I can help.”

Amir tried to size him up, but he had no experience with anyone like that. The man’s ears were pierced and his forearms were embellished with tattoos. Even as a stranger, his eyes twinkled with charm. Amir wouldn’t have normally wanted to talk to a person like that, but he was desperately lost and late.

“Kerinchi?” Amir finally asked.

The man looked relieved to hear his reply. “Right. You should take the LRT for that. I’m actually going there, so you can just follow me.”

Amir had heard tales of the big city in his village. People go there to make money, and that means businessmen, whores, and thieves – the worst kinds of people there were in his eyes. He didn’t want to trust the stranger, but he reluctantly followed him anyway.

As if purchasing a ticket and going through the auto-gate was not stressful enough, the platform was swamped with people and the sight of dozens of city-folk invoked a powerful anxiety within Amir.

“Hey, don’t fall behind,” the man said.

Amir gingerly followed the man as he rushed to the end of the platform where there were less people waiting.

“Is it always like this?” he enquired, panting not from physical exertion, but from an arresting nervousness in his chest.

“You’re gonna have to speak up,” the man said.

The platform was buzzing with intolerable noise, from the announcer’s dull dronings to the chatter of a hundred voices. Amir dearly missed the quiet of the sea.

“You were saying something?” the man asked again.

“I was just wondering if all of KL is like that.”

“Is this your first visit?”


“And you’re going to Kerinchi?” For reasons Amir could not fathom, the man began laughing heartily. Amir frowned at him.

“So are you!”

“No offense, I just have a weird sense of humour, sorry,” the man said apologetically, but Amir pressed on.

“What’s so funny about Kerinchi?”

“Nothing. There’s nothing funny about it. I was being an idiot.”

“My cousin lives in Kerinchi.”

“My guess is you’ve come to KL to try to earn a ‘proper living’?”

“Supposedly. I’ve never been outstation.”

The man smiles, clearly amused.

Just then, the piercing sound of the train screeching its brakes to a halt interrupted the conversation. Amir looked around him anxiously as he noticed people beginning to inch closer to the edge, almost as if they were forming ranks to lay siege to the train. Without thinking, he reached out a hand and latched onto the man’s arm.

“Ow!” the man winced. “It’s okay man, there’ll be just as many people coming out as there are going in.” But Amir did not release his grip.

A horde of commuters flooded out of the train and Amir squeezed his eyes shut, feeling only the tug of the man pulling him forward. He felt cold air on his face and opened his eyes. The man was giving him a look that bordered between amusement and concern.

“First time on public transport?” he asked.

“First time on a train,” Amir replied.

They were standing inside the chillingly cold tube, surrounded by human sardines.

“You take the train a lot?” Amir asked.

“Yeah, it’s part and parcel of the job. I’ve come to rely on it, appreciate it even. This might be unthinkable to you now, but give yourself a few more months and the LRT will seem like a godsend.”

“What murderous job is it that sends you on this death cart so often?”

He smirked. “I’m a reporter.” He reached into the front pocket of his gargantuan backpack and handed a name card to Amir.

“James,” Amir repeated his name. “I’m Amir.” They shook hands.

“So what do you do?” James asked.

Amir shrugged. “Nothing at the moment. Tell me about reporting.”

James’ face lit up. “It’s awesome if you like being in the thick of things. I happen to love being in the thick of things. It’s an industry that thrives on dedication.”

“You see a lot of dead bodies?”

He laughed. “I’m a crime reporter, so yeah, I’ve seen my fair share of unusual sights, but that’s not why we do what we do.”

“People don’t like reporters,” Amir said, noticing how James shifted his feet uncomfortably at that.

“That’s understandable and unavoidable.”

“So why do you do what you do? It’s clearly not because it’s popular.”

“Truth, man. We do what we do because of the truth. Or at least, I do. We want to see the world and as a reporter, you see the darkest and brightest sides. So what do you do with that information? Do you keep that experience to yourself? No, you share the truth with the rest of the world. We’re like beacons.”

“Of truth?”

“When our work doesn’t get interfered with, yes.”

“It must be difficult being a beacon of truth. Can man really mete out justice and truth when the cradle that carries it is marred with injustice and untruth?”

“We all do our best. We take risks for the truth.”

“What was the last lie you told as a reporter?”

There was a pause. “I’ve never told a lie as a reporter.”

“It’s all truth and justice with you then?”

“On the job, yes.”

“What happens when you have to lie to get justice? Maybe not lie, but just twist things a little bit?”

James eyed Amir carefully, holding back his words.

“What would you do in that situation?” Amir pressed on.

“Well, ideally,” James began uncomfortably, “we always print the truth. Facts only. But if there was a cause –”

“Then you’d lie, wouldn’t you?”

“It’s not lying.”

“It’s the same thing. Isn’t there a saying that the means do not justify the end?”

“You don’t understand the media, my friend. It’s extremely complex. It’s all about influence.”

“So it’s not really about truth and justice then. Perhaps you’ve been wasting your time, fooled to sell yourself to a truth that is not real.”

James frowned at Amir, uneasiness creeping over him.

“That’s really not what reporting is. It’s hard to explain. Maybe you can only understand if you’re a reporter.”

“You mean if I’m put in a situation where I have to choose? I assure you, my friend, I will always choose the truth.”

“Even if it bodes ill for a just cause?”

“Especially if it bodes ill for a just cause. Causes, no matter how great, are meant to fall if they are not built on truth.”

“You take yourself to be some kind of an expert on truth then?”

Amir shrugged, but he really wanted to agree.

“For a small town guy you’ve got a pretty solid worldview,” James said.


“As in, you’re very rooted in it.”

“Oh, I think the smaller the town, the stronger the views. City people tend to be fickle, I think. Kampong people only know one truth their whole life that they stick with, mostly due to lack of exposure.” Amir smiled at this little bit of self-reflection.

“I hope your time spent here will help endear city folk to you. And reporters too.”

“That would take a lot of time.”

“City folk and reporters are kind of the same thing. They can be tremendously nice. They’re also more fun.”

“They’re wild but overall strikingly simple and predictable.”

James raised his eyebrows. “You know many city folk?”

“No, and I understand it’s not an absolute truth. In fact, I’ve been making far too many generalisations. Sorry about that. It’s just… I’ve been cranky, sorry,” Amir admitted.

James nodded slowly but he was still careful with his words. “KL can be pretty overwhelming.”

“And underwhelming.”

“It does start to get a little unoriginal after a while, but underwhelming? KL?” James sniggered knowingly. “Not if you’re a reporter.”

“Well then, you’re going to need to show me, because I see no proof of that,” Amir said as he absent-mindedly admired the view from the train. They passed offices, malls, flats, shop lots, and almost every kind of building you could imagine. Amir had never seen so many in one place.

They train slowed to a stop at Kerinchi station, staggering and screeching with unimaginable effort, and Amir alighted with James.

“You have transport?” James asked.

“I’m taking a cab. Perhaps some lunch first.”

“Well, I hope the food here matches up to what you had at home. Anyway, I have to go. Maybe I’ll catch you another time.”

“Maybe. Thanks for your help.” Amir watched as the reporter trudged off in the opposite direction with his comically bulky backpack, his battered shoes carrying him away from the roar of the world.


Months passed in the seedy, smoky bubble of Amir and his cousin’s shared flat. Amir was still without a steady job, living off the allowance his parents sent him from Terengganu. Occasionally he worked odd jobs, helping his cousin with his logistics work, but every single day, Amir would glance out the tiny window in his bedroom at the rubbish-strewn streets below and think of the ocean. He would look down at the vertigo of granite and litter and think about plunging down to meet with the imagined cool, hard surface of water. The disease of this illusion wracked him each day as the reality of being away from his element seized him.

He hardly went out, only to eat and work, unlike his dear cousin Ashraf who was lost and chaotic and wild. Amir waited on him every night and watched as Ashraf would stumble to his room and fumble at the doorknob.

Occasionally Ashraf would press him to, in his words, “go out, see KL, live life.” Amir always asked him what it meant to ‘see KL’. Wasn’t it just empty wandering? Ingesting smog? Avoiding muggers? It was a daily conversation that never reached a conclusion. Ashraf, a kampong boy like himself, was completely opposite in his attitude regarding KL. He thought it was brilliant.

“You’ve got to go to the places only a real KL-ite would know! Leave that touristy stuff alone. See the real KL,” Ashraf said to him just as he was leaving the flat that night, probably to go clubbing again with his old money friends.

“And what is the real KL, exactly?”

“That’s the problem. You never go out and you have no friends, so it’s impossible to explain to you. Follow me to Changkat tonight and see for yourself!”

“And Changkat symbolizes the real KL?” Amir challenged.

“Well, it’s the awesome part of it. Why wouldn’t you want to go there? Why do you hole yourself up here? Don’t you want to meet some girls?”

“I’m perfectly fine like this.”

“Amir, all you do is look outside the window every day. I don’t even know what there is to see. You make me feel like a terrible host. My friends all ask me why I’m mistreating you.”

Amir froze as he something ticked inside him. “You can tell your friends to keep their comments about other people to themselves.”

His cousin sighed. “You shouldn’t take things so seriously.”

“You shouldn’t tell me what to do.”

Ashraf glared at him from the doorway. “It’s just friendly advice, man. I know you miss home, but you’re not going to make things better for yourself by being this way.”

What way?”

Ashraf gestured wildly. “This! Depressed? Anti-social? I swear that you’ll love KL. The people are really nice.”

“Only when they want something from you. And Ashraf, I could ask you the same question.”

“What question?”

“I could ask you why you’re being this way – pretentious and dishonest about your true standing with these people, trying too hard to be something you’re not.”

Ashraf’s face fell. “What makes you say that?”

“You’re obviously trying too hard. If I can see it, your friends can see it. It’s a mark of their lack of character that they still hang out with you knowing that. They must really want something from you.”

The glare on Ashraf’s face hardened. “What on earth is wrong with you? I guess it’s no surprise you don’t have any friends.” With that, Ashraf left the building.

Amir balled his fists and clenched his jaw tightly. He looked out the window again and saw mighty, white waves crashing against the flat’s walls, calling out to him. His chest ached desperately, following each crash with a strained wanting. He blinked the illusion away.

The ocean is truth. The ocean is peace. The ocean is pure. The ocean serves righteous justice. The ocean is glorified purpose. But man is a cancer.

Amir’s eyes trailed towards the door again and without knowing why, he got up and stormed out the door.


I’ll show you the real KL, thought Amir spitefully as he alighted from the monorail at Chow Kit station. Welcome to the city, the furthest thing away from the ocean. Its ground is tar and its sky is smog, its water green from moss and decay.

Amir stalked the rowdy streets without care, shoving those in his way and bumping callously into other pedestrians. Suddenly, a voice called out.


He turned on his heel, half expecting to find a brazenly angered Ashraf coming back to finish the conversation. Instead, he saw a familiar tall figure with long hair and a scruffily good looking, good natured face waving enthusiastically at him, sporting that ridiculously enormous backpack and camera.

Not again, Amir groaned.

“James, wasn’t it?” he tried to say as politely as possible as the journo hiked up to him.

“Amir! What are you doing here?” James grinned widely.

“Just taking a stroll.”

“What – here?”

“I think it’s lovely.” Amir could barely contain his sarcasm.

“It’s not very safe here for strolls.”

“I can hold my own. How’s the reporting life?”

“The usual,” James smiled. “Teetering between truths and untruths.”

“Ah, so you’ve come to realise the futility of integrity then?”

“No, it’s not futile. It’s just impractical. I did put some thought into what you said.”

“Really? So my musings didn’t just serve to irritate?”

“It wasn’t irritating, man. You’re just straightforward, but I think it’s refreshing, to be honest.”

“Most people find it unbearable.”

“I’m not most people.”

“No, you’re not; you’re a reporter, a beacon of truth.”

“Champion of reality, more like. Anyway, how do you find the sights so far?”

“Chow Kit is a world of its own.”

“Yeah. People don’t just ‘take strolls’ here.”

“Why not? I was just acting on what you said to me the first time we met.”

“And what did I say to you?”

“That I need to see the real KL.”

James frowned. “Did I really say that?”

“You might as well have. So am I doing it right? Am I seeing the real KL?”

“You’re not really experiencing a city if you don’t get around with the people.” James’ eyes twinkled.

Amir paused before replying. “And how exactly would I get around with the people?”


The pub was unbearably smoky. It was quite enough that Ashraf was a heavy smoker whose habits engulfed their flat daily – now Amir was in the company of a hoard of James’ coworkers, all of whom had amber-tipped addictions pressed primly between their lips.

It had been a whole hour of merry-making and alcohol-fueled conversations on philosophy – conversations that Amir had to admit he enjoyed. But he was growing weary and restless, and he could feel impatience well up within him like a storm.

“I really should go home now, James,” Amir tried again, shaking his red-faced friend’s shoulder, trying to lend urgency to his grip.

Amir flinched when James simply waved him off, continuing in uproarious laughter with his friends.

“That’s alright. I don’t need you to send me back. I can take the train,” Amir said to James, allowing his anger to overflow just a little bit. “Thanks for the company,” he said briefly to the others as he made his exit.

He was relieved of the deoxidized air and was just about to turn down the quiet street when James caught up to him.

“Hey, man! I said I’ll send you back.”

“There’s no need. You’re clearly tied up,” Amir said without turning to face James.

“I’m a man of my word.” James jogged up to Amir and slowed down to a stroll. “I said I’ll send you home, and I’d rather be dead than break my promises.”

Amir shot him a look. “I never took you to be this intense.”

“I know, right? You’re clearly the more intense one.” James laughed, clearly high. “But I was raised to hold my word, and it’s what I’m all about.”

“How honourable.”

“Honour’s my thing, man.”

“Is that a promise?”

Just then, a woman called out to them as she strutted over sultrily. She barely got a word out before Amir shoved a hand in her face.

“Not interested.”

“Whoa, man. Take it easy. Let’s hear what this fine young lady has to say,” James draped his arm around Amir’s shoulder carelessly and grinned widely at the woman.

“I’m not one for wasting my time. Get lost,” Amir thundered at the woman.

“That’s no way to talk to a lady, Amir.” James’ grin grew wider. The woman glared at Amir briefly before turning her attention to James.

“Looking for a good time? Come with me, ditch Happy here.” She jerked her head dismissively at Amir.

“I said, let’s go!” Amir roared. “You’re supposed to send me home. Do you keep your promises or not?”

“Hey, I said I’ll send you home, but I never said what we’d be doing in between.”

Amir glared at James as the woman reached out to cling to him, giggling into his broad shoulders. “You come back with me,” she whispered to James again, eyeing Amir smugly.

James’ face fell suddenly and he shrugged the girl off. “Sorry, miss, not tonight. I made a promise.”

She pouted and spun on her heel, cursing in a foreign language.

When they got to James’ car, a battered yet sturdy sedan with peeling paint and modified rims, Amir held open the passenger seat for him, giving him a reproachful stare.

“Dude, what?” James asked, fumbling for his keys.

“Get in. I’m driving us back. You’re drunk. I don’t want us to be stopped.”

Too high to argue, James obediently and clumsily slipped into the passenger seat. Amir slammed the door unapologetically.

As he started the engine he felt a glaring ache in his chest again. He wasn’t used to driving cars; in fact, he avoided it whenever possible. In truth, he hated it. He thought of his boat and his eyes began to well up.

James’ groan jolted Amir out of his memory.

“James,” Amir began softly. “I miss the ocean.”

James appeared to scoff, which offended him. “Go back to Terengganu then.”

“Terengganu is not the ocean, James.”

“Yeah, but you can get there through it, right?”

“You don’t know of which ocean I speak.”

James wrinkled his nose. “You mean there’s more than one ocean surrounding Malaysia? Hold on – there’s no ocean around here. We have seas. They’re different, man,” he said triumphantly, as if stumbling onto some newly-discovered fact.

Amir smiled sadly. “You see? You really don’t know.”

He navigated out of the parking space and proceeded onto the main road, going at a slow pace.

“Do you know where I live, James?” he asked quietly.

James thought for a long time, the effects of the alcohol slowly seeping into his mind. “Was it somewhere around KL Sentral?”

“Something like that.”

“Dude, I just realized. How am I going to get home after dropping you off?” James groaned. “I should never have drunk so much.”

“You have no foresight.”

“Yeah, or I just like to have fun, as in, the complete opposite of what you like to do.”

“And what is it that you think I like to do?”

“Talk about the ocean.” James giggled.

“That’s right. I think you know me better than you think. You know us kampong people.”

“I don’t classify you as a kampong boy. You’re not like them in any way. You’re just… you. I did wonder about you, you know, when we first met.”

“I know you did. I wondered about you too. About how you could live the way you live.”

“Live… what? Live how?”


“Living is deliberate, dude.”

“No, living is an accident.”

“Why do you always have to be so broody?” James asked, smiling a little.

“I’m not broody. I’m honest.”

“Also very silent, but when you start talking you go on forever.”

“Like the ocean.”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“Only kind of? In what way am I not like the ocean?”

“The ocean’s violent. I’d say you’re a pretty mild guy.”

A short silence falls between them.

“Are there any rivers here?” Amir asked suddenly.

“Yeah. Klang River, I guess. Why?”

“Let’s go there.”

James groaned loudly. “We’re supposed to go home! I was thinking of crashing at your place too.”

“Never mind sleep. It’s temporary, nothing like what I have to show you.”

They drove for what seemed like a long while without speaking. James fell asleep; Amir played some oldies on the radio. Halfway through the journey he reached into James’ shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He lighted it with the receptacle in the car, winded down the windows and puffed out a breath of fresh smoke. It was his first cigarette ever. He allowed himself to cough the demons out, he allowed the tears to fall, but he didn’t allow himself to ask why. He sped up and weaved the car dangerously between lanes, thinking of fish in the sea.

I’m just homesick, he tried to tell himself. But when he looked out the window and saw the glittering skyline of KL, his heart welled up with hatred. He took another puff of the cigarette, thick droplets of tears cascading down his face, and coughed violently again.

James stirred awake. “Dude, where are we?”

“Going to find some truth,” Amir answered plainly.


“At the origin of life.”

“And what is that supposed to be?” The short nap had seemed to clear James’ head a little bit. As the reporter took in the scenery around them, he started to recover a sense of trepidation as he observed Amir, whose face was shining with tears.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Never been better.”

“We should both go home. I think I can drive.”

“But I’m taking you to see the truth.”

“At the origin of life, yeah, I get it. Maybe we can do this tomorrow morning.”

“I might change my mind tomorrow.”

“But the truth’s not going to go anywhere, right?” James tried to reason.

“It’ll always be there. It’s steady like the ocean. But I’m human. Humans are not steady. The truth is there for you to grasp but you relinquish it out of fear.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“We’ll see. Do you trust me?”

They had only met twice. The honest answer was no, but James said yes.

Amir stomped his foot down on the accelerator and turned the wheel unexpectedly, causing the grubby old car to lurch forward violently as James knocked into the window and blacked out.

“It’s alright, James,” Amir called out, his voice shaking with fear. “It’s alright. It’s calling for us. You said you would take risks for the truth.”

Up ahead, over the edge of the road, Amir saw shine. A brief glinting, as the surface of the river reflected the light of KL. The car whirred noisily under the strain of speed, but Amir pressed on. With one final ferocious lurch, the sedan crashed into the enveloping embrace of the waters.

James woke up with a loud gasp and began pounding in fear at the door, kicking wildly and hollering for help. Pure horror guarded his eyes as he looked at Amir for some kind of explanation.

Amir calmly picked up the golf stick James kept in the back seat for safety, and in one forceful motion, cracked the window at James’ side. Brown water began seeping in from the fissures.

And then the window exploded.

Shards of glass flew wildly into James’ face. With his eyes shut, Amir reached out for James, finding the taller man’s neck in the water and holding onto to it viciously. He maneuvered around the waterfall of the river and wrapped his arm around James’ neck. He pressed them both into the chair and held James there. The water was filling up the car. Amir smiled.

Life does not come from the ground. It comes from water. That was the truth, and it was a calming, serene, righteous truth.

In his mind, he pictured blue waters and dark horizons and a quiet village, enlarging slowly in his palm as a steady crashing of waves lapped at his heart. He squeezed his palm into a fist and watched the water burst out between his fingers. He could hear the cries of the village people.

He opened his palm again. It was now a beach. He peered at the small world closely, making out two figures lounging on beach chairs. It was him and James. He blew onto his palm and, like particles of sand, the illusion dissipated into the air as it clung onto water vapor for dear life.

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