Keeping Tabs

by Chua Yini

The small car was inching along the Second Causeway and its passengers were getting restless. From her peripheral vision, Anna could see Shana’s side profile and the square piece of small blue cloth pinned on her black t-shirt. She felt Shana staring at her and turned her head the other way, craning her neck to see the cars behind.

Anna’s mother was driving. From the passenger seat, Aunty Lin kept looking at the front view mirror. Anna caught her eye as it wandered carelessly from Shana to her like an afterthought. Sometimes there are accidental things that occur in the tiny spaces in between the islands of formal human contact. They locked eyes in an awkward gaze and Aunty Lin looked away.

The customs between Singapore and Johor Bahru was jam-packed with Malaysians returning home for Chinese New Year or Singaporeans visiting their holiday homes in Iskandar, a development region where bungalows were springing up like weeds in abandoned land. Anna’s savvy mother had seen one of those on sale and snapped it up. Compared to the exorbitant property prices in Singapore, the two-million-ringgit house had been a steal.

Anna’s mother and Aunty Lin were excited at the prospect of fireworks. In Singapore, the setting of firecrackers and fireworks was illegal and people could only see it once a year. But just across the border, boxes of fireworks were sold and let off with relish during Chinese New Year.

“It’s like National Day,” Aunty Lin said gleefully. “Everyone takes turns to set off fireworks like they’re trying to compete who has the best.”

“It’s grand,” Anna’s mother said. 

Shana snorted. The two adults turned silent.

*

At the tzechar restaurant in Johor, Anna’s mother kept smiling at Shana and asking what she wanted to eat. Anna was vaguely jealous and annoyed. It was typical of adults to think that whatever form of attention they lavished upon the younger generation was swallowed up as flattery and cherished. She had insisted that Anna sit beside Shana at the table.

“You two are the same age,” she said, as if it was the most obvious reason in the world. Anna glared at her and took the seat.

There was a big ant scuttling along the pink plastic wrap of the table. Anna cupped her bowl over it, waited for a few seconds, then lifted the bowl. The ant scrambled out. She watched with a perverse pleasure as it tried to escape. It was like playing God, a real life in her hands. She put the bowl over the ant again. On the third time, she miscalculated and the bowl rim landed on the middle of the ant’s body. She felt an unknown horror and lifted it up. The ant staggered, arms twitching, its body clearly broken.

“I don’t know if it’s dead,” Anna said. “But it looks like it’s suffering.” The ant spasmed in a dying dance. She watched, bewitched by the specter of suffering in front of her, wondering if the degree of suffering was limited by the intelligence of the wretched individual. 

“Just put it out of its misery,” Shana snapped. Anna looked up in surprise. It was the first time Shana had spoken to her since they set off in the morning. Her expression was taut, even angry. A flush of shame rang in Anna’s cheeks. She crushed the ant with her thumb and swept its body out of the table. A small black dot remained on her thumb. She wondered what body part it was.

Anna’s mother stood up.

“I’m going to pay,” she said. “Anna, come with me.” Anna followed her mother to the counter. 

“Shana’s getting worse recently,” Anna’s mother said. 

“I thought if the hospital discharged her, it means she’s fine.”

“Just be nice to her.”

“Treat me like an adult, Mom. I’m already eighteen.”

“The doctors said she’s alright now, but it doesn’t take much to send her over the edge again.”

*

Two months ago, Anna had sat down with her family at similar round wooden tables covered with cheap white plastic, eaten sweets and sunflower seeds from a paper plate and drank YEO’s chrysanthemum packet drinks. She’d felt uncomfortable with the forced cheeriness of the adults, the yellow tent and the huge wreaths bearing words of condolences. Following Buddhist rites, they held joss sticks and walked around the coffin while the priest chanted prayers.

“You can say goodbye to Uncle Lin if you want to,” Anna’s mother whispered.

Anna shook her head. Her eyes fell on Shana. Her childhood friend was kneeling down beside the coffin with Aunty Lin, feeding incense paper into fire in a copper basin. They were both wearing black mourning clothes, and Shana looked like she was drowning in her outfit. Flames illuminated her thin face but Anna was chilled by her remote expression.

After the funeral rites, Anna’s mother gave her a red string and instructed her to drop it along the road outside when they left.

“It’s to ensure a safe journey home,” she said.  “I’m going to keep vigil with Aunty Lin tonight so you can go back first.”

Anna saw Shana lounging in a corner and walked over.

“Hey, stranger,” Shana said, as Anna approached. Anna looked at the ground.

“How are you?” she said.

“Isn’t it funny? The Malays have void deck weddings and we have void deck funerals. Two weeks ago there was a Malay wedding, right here.”

 “Are you okay?” Anna said.

“Showing your feelings is a sign of weakness.” Shana looked around and lighted a cigarette. She sucked deeply and exhaled. “I’m pregnant. Going to get an abortion tomorrow. Don’t tell my mom, or yours.”

“But you’re Christian,” Anna said, rather stupidly. Shana flicked her cigarette into the drain and regarded her coolly.

“So it’ll be an angel.”

“Girl or boy?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care.” Shana turned her head away and fumbled with the lighter. It slipped from her grasp and landed with a wet thud into the drain. She flinched and walked away. Anna unwound the red thread between her fingers and watched it flutter down the ground. By the time she looked up, Shana had disappeared.

That night, Anna dreamt of Uncle Lin’s corpse burning. Flames engulfed the body and it shrank into a blackened fetus, writhing and wailing in pain. She woke up with her heart pounding and the conviction that God did not exist.

*

It was only natural that Anna and Shana would grow up as bosom buddies; their mothers were close friends and stayed at the same block of flats. The two girls were born days apart. Anna’s mother had a successful delivery and Anna was born a robust baby of six kilograms, but Aunty Lin suffered complications at childbirth. Shana had somehow twisted in her mother’s womb and emerged feet-first. Her head had gotten stuck in the vagina. According to Aunty Lin, the doctor saw Shana’s feet turning blue as the she ran out of oxygen. He had to resort to an emergency caesarean to save both mother and baby. When the doctor handed Aunty Lin her daughter, she had a flash of epiphany that this child would be the death of her. She peered into Shana’s face and as the baby wailed, a sense of dread solidified and lodged in a small corner of her chest. She clutched Shana tighter in her arms. 

The girls’ circumstances at childbirth had set the path for their lives. Anna grew up an athletic girl with a perennially sun-kissed face and brown limbs. At sixteen, she was the youngest national triathlete to represent the country in overseas competitions. There was nothing remarkable about her appearance – a plain, average-looking girl whose face would blur into the crowd.

Shana was small and thin. She could never stay in the sun for long and had no hand-eye coordination whatsoever. But what Shana lacked physically, she made up for with her willful personality and frail beauty. There was a special aura that drew others to her. People would say she looked like Snow White, with her pale complexion and long black hair. But Anna had always been aware of a deep recess of dark thoughts that manifested in her friend. Shana was afraid of nothing but the dark, strange as it was. It was as if the moon herself feared nighttime.

When the girls were sixteen, both families went on a trip to Perth. On the first day of the holiday, the girls patronized an ice-cream parlor near their hotel. Anna noticed how the boy serving them had smiled wider at Shana, scooped a bigger portion for her and carefully stacked it on a cone. He had brushed his hand against Shana’s as he returned the change.

“Your ice cream is so much bigger,” Anna groused as they found a seat. Shana looked surprised, as if it hadn’t occurred to her that she had received special treatment. That’s how clueless you are, Anna thought bitterly. She scratched at a cluster of pimples that had broken out near her chin.

“We can share,” Shana said.

“I don’t like Pistachio,” Anna said. She stood up and stalked off, leaving Shana in the parlor, a confused smile grazing her lips. 

The next day, they visited Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse. The tower stood thirty-nine meters high from ground level and when they emerged at the top, screaming forty-two-knot winds blew their hair back, giving them a shell-shocked appearance. They had to walk around the small balcony bent forward like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Shana grabbed the railings and leaned out. She turned to Anna and shouted, her face filled with wonder, but Anna could not make out her words. Shana looked beautiful, with her hair dancing around her face, and Anna had a sudden urge to grab her friend’s spindly ankles, toss her over the edge and watch as she hurtled down the tower, hair trailing prettily behind her like a comet’s tail.

*

That night, the girls lounged on the deck chairs outside the chalet, counting stars in the night sky.

“I’ve always felt there’s somebody watching us. Maybe it’s God,” Shana said. 

“Like someone keeping tabs, up there?” Anna said.

“Yeah. Someone who keeps tracks of everything you do. And I mean everything. Your actions, thoughts, whatever. That’s why I’m afraid of karma.”

“I don’t think anyone should be punished for their thoughts. Even if those thoughts were evil.” Anna’s voice was a little too loud.

“Why?”

“There are some things we can’t control.”

“Hmmm. Maybe.” Shana leaned closer. “I’m going to find a Church when we get back,” she whispered.

Shortly after they returned from the trip, Anna was accepted into Hwa Chong Junior College, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, and started training to become a triathlete. Whenever Shana called or texted, she was always busy. She took to taking the stairs instead of the lift.

 One night, while Anna was walking home from McDonalds at 3 a.m., she saw a cab stop at the foot of the flat. Shana staggered out in a tight black dress and high heels. A man followed closely behind, one hand on her waist and the other on her ass. She bent over at the drain. A few days later, Anna heard from her mother that Uncle Lin had been diagnosed with cancer and was involved with a Chinese woman who sold handmade noodles at the market. Shana had screamed at her father and threatened to consume a bottle of sleeping pills. That night, while Shana was crying herself to sleep, he left the flat quietly, climbed the stairs to the thirteenth floor, and leaped over the parapet in the common corridor.

*

Anna loved the holiday home in Iskandar. With the winding roads and slopes surrounding the newly built estate, it was a cyclist’s dream come true. But basic courtesy obliged her to look for her guest before she escaped with her bike. She found Shana crouched in a corner of the bungalow, smoking. The tip of her cigarette glowed orange as she inhaled and looked up.

“Have a stick,” she said, proffering a packet of Marlboro’s Blacks.

“I thought you smoked menthol,” Anna said.

“That was before we stopped hanging out. Things change.”

Anna took one and they squatted down in silence. Shana finished her cigarette, threw it on the floor and stepped on it, twisting her foot. Ashes scattered. Anna was reminded of the ant she had killed.

“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” Shana said casually.

“No.”

“Yes, you do.”

Anna fiddled with her cigarette.

“It’s not that bad. The voices only come when I’m bored.”

“Voices?”

“There are two. A man and a woman. The man tells me what to do and the woman screams at me.” Shana lifted up her shirt. Scars, paler than her skin, protruded out in lines from her stomach.

“He told me to do it here so that Mom wouldn’t know. He says it’s my fault they died.”

“ ‘They’?” 

Shana ignored her comment, stood up and leaned back against the wall. Anna lost sight of her face, thrown into shadow. 

“Life is just an accumulation of fuck-ups. All people do is smooth the wrinkles and pretend things are all right.”

Anna fidgeted, silent.

“You know at the hospital, I had a roommate, an old woman who was crazy and kept talking about Doomsday and how the wrath of God would descend on the human race. Stuff like that. I’d hoped she would die soon so I could get the room to myself, and I felt guilty for thinking about it. For the next few days, I was so nice to her the nurses praised me.”

Shana pressed her back harder against the rough wall and shifted slightly. Abrasions were beginning to form on her shoulders.

“But it wasn’t just guilt. There was fear, too,” she said. Anna stood up and the blood rushed to her head. She felt dizzy.

“So what happened to the old woman?” Anna asked. Shana shrugged.

“She was discharged a few weeks later. So I guess I got what I wanted. Maybe it was because I was nice to her. Good karma, you see. Hey,” she looked at Anna in the eye. “Why did you stop talking to me?” 

“I was busy,” Anna muttered. Shana snorted and looked at her with something akin to disappointment. Anna felt something stirring in her chest. A light blazed in a window from the opposite bungalow. Someone shouted.

“Let’s go cycling,” she said with a sudden vehemence. She did not wait for Shana to reply as she wheeled her bicycle out.

The two girls rode around the quiet estate as the sky steadily darkened. Night caught them by surprise. Was there ever a clear divide between light and dark? Or is it a demarcation humans invented to make ourselves feel better – that good and evil could be so easily separated, like oil and water? 

They passed by rows of bungalows, a few occupied but mostly empty. Anna saw the dark windows and imagined them as eyes staring at her. She sensed Shana’s fear beside her. There were no cars around. Street lamps gave them the evil eye.

“Let’s go home,” Shana said. Anna paid no heed and cycled faster. Soon the girls arrived at the top of a steep slope. They surveyed the gradient side by side. Shana whistled in appreciation.

“Truth or dare,” Anna said, suddenly.

“Truth.”

“What was your baby’s sex?”

“It was a girl,” Shana said. “Truth or dare.”

Anna hesitated. “Dare,” she said, regretting it almost immediately. 

Shana cast Anna a pitying smile, took a deep breath and tipped her bike over the slope. Anna followed. At that moment, the first fireworks erupted in the sky.

 Wind tore at Anna’s face, her hair, clothes. The whistling and eruption of the fireworks, and the bright multi-colored lights assaulted her senses. But she felt a strange sense of arrogant power. From the corner of her eye, she saw Shana racing down the slope beside her and wondered how easy it would be for her to reach out an arm and push her friend off her bike. She turned her face and saw that Shana’s mouth was open. She was screaming as she raced down, her face bathed in red light.

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