by Timothy Yeo
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
A foreigner was sitting on the bench, blocking Yixin’s way to class. Amidst the white uniforms flocking about the parade square, his funeral suit stood out, as well as the age lines across his face. As she had been taught, Yixin prepared to make a wide berth.
“Excuse me, young lady,” she heard him call out. “Could I talk to you for a second?”
Unwillingly, she marched towards him. She was going to miss Mr. Lim’s opening address on quadratics. Mother had always said this school was a safe place. If you stood up straight and walked with your head high, not even the boys from the neighborhood school wouldn’t ever bother you. Why him? Why now? The bell for class was about to ring.
But the man didn’t seem interested in that way. “Relax,” he drawled in perfect English tones. “There’s no need to be afraid. I’m a doctor.”
Yixin spoke politely. “You don’t look like a doctor.”
“Not all doctors wear coats. I’m researching a sickness called the Wendigo disease, and I’ve got it from a good source some occupants here might already have caught wind of it.”
She had no idea what he was talking about.
“Doesn’t ring a bell? Of course, your school doesn’t believe in ghost stories, right? Only fake ones,” he jerked his head towards the statue in the parade square, that of Mother Agnes cradling a baby in her bronze arms. Ascribed in the Latin below it was the school’s motto. Labor for all. “Well, if you see anyone salivating from their mouth for some reason, give me a call.”
Several students, united in their whiteness, were looking at them and whispering. No doubt trying to will this strange man away with the power of their gossip alone. Yixin took the name card from his hands and made a show of putting it in her wallet.
He gave her a big smile. “Never be too afraid to ask for help, yeah?”
As if she would seek help from a conman. She bowed her head and hurried to class.
* * *
She was too late. Two minutes in, Mr. Lim had already skipped past the fundamentals, and she scrambled to open her exercise book. The symbols on the board all melted together in an incoherent mess. She felt her spirit drifting away from her chair.
Two minutes. That was all it took for her to fall behind. All of her classmates must be looking at her. This bewildered, slow-witted girl who couldn’t even string two numbers together. When class ended, she buried her face in her desk and wished that she could go to sleep.
“Yixin, do you need to wash your face?”
Black hair, brown eyes, horned-rimmed glasses. This was Mr. Ming. Or Jeremy, as she knew him. The General Education period had arrived.
“Come on, Yixin,” Jeremy said. “We still have a full day ahead of us.”
Cheryl Wong, the second-ranked in the class, piped up from the front. “Mr. Ming, I think Yixin needs to go to the sickbay.”
Cheryl would certainly like that, wouldn’t she. Along with Yixin herself, Cheryl had the honor of a perfect attendance record as well as assignment submission.
“I think Yixin’s fine,” Jeremy said, and it made Yixin smile when her competitor blushed
Jeremy’s lectures always helped her get back on track. Today he told the class about an ongoing war in one of their neigbouring countries. With his marker as a brush, he painted a picture of a terrible divide due to the color of one’s skin, scribbling down a multiple of reasons headlined in red ink.
Finally, he weaved together all these stories and vignettes into one single conclusion, one that she had always known before the syllabus had even appeared on her course notes. In a world torn apart by anger and hate, the only way forward could be found within the white-collared girls sitting at their desks.
After capping off his performance, the school bell rang. Break time. Students filtered out in groups, tittering amongst themselves, and a few stopped to try their luck on Jeremy. Yixin heard their bashful giggling and inane conversations but filtered them out. She was rereading her notes as usual. After Jeremy fended off his admirers and silence fell over the classroom, she felt him approach her.
“Hello,” she said.
He shrugged. “You seemed off today.”
“I was late for two minutes this morning.”
By now he would know how important routine was to her, and he hmmed in sympathy. “Two minutes isn’t the end of the world.”
“Not for Maths,” she said, and hated herself for being so weak.
“Hey, hey. Nothing in this world has to be perfect. You’re still the top in the class.”
She knew he was just making her feel better. He of all people was the one who championed sticking to one’s beliefs, when all the other adults had failed her, but she wanted that glistening intellect behind his frames to tell her something more.
“You were saying something today,” she said. “That we shouldn’t judge based on skin. We should judge based on merit.”
“That’s good,” he said, nodding.
The world was returning to her. All she had to do was look at him and say his lines. “Evaluating each individual without bias or emotion.”
He drew closer to her, taking in every word. “Good, good.”
“Rationality is the foundation of our society.”
“Excellent,” he breathed.
His hand came to rest on the desk. She reached over and grasped it. The skin was rough and firm. Foreign. The unfamiliarity of warmth struck a chord through her body.
He was drawing his hand back.
She didn’t dare look at him.
“Yixin...” he began.
She grabbed her bag and ran for the door.
* * *
Home. That was all she allowed herself to think about. The steps were: Alight at the stop before Yio Chu Kang. A quick greeting to her mother on the couch. Fried rice in a pan, a simple dinner for both of them. Enough carbs to knock out a drunken parent. Up to her room, where her Ten Year practice papers lay. Section 1: MCQ. Section 2: Open-ended. Section 3: Essay.
So, for now, Yixin could cast Jeremy’s face to the back of her mind. Passion was something her mother despised. Yixin’s mother had a few tangles with a man whose name Yixin never dared ask, and the ensuing chaos left their family sharing a three-room flat instead of the condominiums they had been promised.
Temper your heart, do the equations, and you can grow up and buy a mansion. Yixin had long since drilled that mantra inside her. And yet, when she finally closed her book, and the clock beeped nine-thirty, she found that for tonight, that mantra failed to sate her.
Out of twenty questions, she had gotten three wrong. And one of those was a careless mistake. Which was a crisis. She could memorize all the formulas she wanted, but if there was one careless mistake in an Open-Ended question, that was five marks gone, and a full subgrade docked, and a point off the A-Levels, and she could wave goodbye to her university degree.
The details of a horror story from school came to her. A girl in the upper years had gotten pregnant with a boy from across the road, so the rumors went. The girl had sold all her textbooks and stationery and became a prostitute. Eventually, this poor girl sealed herself inside a room with a pile of drugs and never saw the light of day ever again.
Yixin didn’t think she was going to get any sleep tonight.
At eleven p.m., tossing and turning in bed, a strange fire gripped the inside of her stomach. For some reason, she was absolutely ravenous. At midnight, she gave in and went downstairs to fry a plate of quick soy sauce noodles. These much carbs were a sin, but she didn’t care.
The roughness of his callused palm returned to her. And the sight of those horn-rimmed lenses. Gobbling up the noodles and barely feeling the calories as they invaded her body, her phone lay next to her plate, the chat opened, with Jeremy’s profile picture staring her in the face. Her warm belly gave her courage. Typing in with ginger fingers, she said to him, I’m sorry about earlier. Please forget about what happened.
Jeremy believed in what she believed in. He wouldn’t allow any of this to happen. With this comforting thought, she drifted off to sleep in a much more level mood.
* * *
The next day, Jeremy didn’t acknowledge her message, nor did he acknowledge the incident. Another pleasant surprise was that Cheryl Wong was absent for the day, meaning that Yixin had cemented her place in the school’s hierarchy once more. Irrevocably the top. She wrote down the equations as usual, handed in her assignment ten minutes earlier than the rest, and nodded along with Jeremy’s teachings.
At lunch, she picked her favorite table, the small one near the vending machines that could only sit two people at most, and unwrapped her salad. She normally never paid attention to the chatter of her peers, but one of the queen bees from a table across — Jade — was yelling something too loud to ignore.
“Did you hear? Cheryl got attacked last night.”
“Attacked. Did you see the photo? I swear, it’s like a rabid dog went and bit her entire wrist off.”
“Cannot be lah.”
Yixin wanted to go up to them and ask who would be crazy enough to do that. Cheryl Wong was an annoyance, but she was a student of this school. It took a certain kind of daring to lay a finger on one of the girls of the elite.
After school, she went to Jeremy’s office, which was inside the staff room. This was nothing unusual. They had always agreed to meet on Fridays so he could check on her progress. His cubicle was easy to catch amongst the rest, a wall pasted with various monochrome sketches of famous heroes throughout the years: Che Guevarra, George Clooney.
Inside the cubicle was a more cartoony series of decorations ranging from character toys she didn’t recognize to graphic posters of American slogans. She waited next to a figurine of a samurai princess until he finally arrived.
“What did you learn today?” he asked. “Repeat it back to me.”
She did so, articulating the finer points of how the government could have prevented the crisis before it had even started. At the end of her performance, he smiled at her. “Good. I wonder why I even need to worry about you anymore.”
Back then, in the first year, where he had encountered her crying at the grandstand behind the statue of Mother Agnes, he had plenty to worry about.
She said, “Thank you for taking care of me all this time.”
“Did you have a good sleep last night?”
Why would he ask that? “Did you hear about Cheryl?” she asked
“Cheryl...” his face furrowed. “That was horrible. I talked to her parents this morning.”
He squirmed. “I really shouldn’t be telling you.”
“I want to know if she’s okay.”
“She was walking home when someone pinned her to the ground. Whoever it was, they began... they began eating her arm.”
“That was what she said. Someone bit into her skin and chewed. Luckily they didn’t get very deep, and they let her go after a while. She has to get some stitches, but she’s not in any danger.”
A tremor ran through Yixin’s body. She wanted to lower her ears.
“Listen,” he said, sensing her distress, “I’m sorry if I scared you. But I have to let you know that you have to be on guard.”
Cheryl Wong and Yixin lived one block from one another.
“The police are already on the case,” he added.
She just wanted to go home, to cook dinner and return to the numbers in her book.
“Yixin. Hey. Look at me.” He put his hand on hers. “It’s going to be alright. If you want, I’ll walk you home.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Remember what I told you? When I found you at the statue?”
“It’s okay to ask for help,” she repeated.
“Good,” he said, and his hand traveled further up her arm. The staff room was nearly empty. The cubicle walls shielded them from prying eyes. He jerked and released her. Without saying anything, he turned around and stared into the blank screen of his computer.
She touched her shoulder with the tips of her fingers. When Jeremy turned around, his nose brushed her cheek. She turned her face such that her lips were touching his.
Time seemed to stretch out into days.
Eventually, he was the one to end it, gently pushing away. His face was flushed. “Not here,” he said. “I’ll text you tomorrow. We’ll go somewhere quiet.”
“Somewhere quiet,” she repeated, to remind both of them. Jeremy unscrambled himself from her arms, straightened his collar, and waved her a cool goodbye. Tomorrow, he promised.
Somehow, she was sure that it was a promise he wouldn’t break.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Yeo