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Notion Press Singapore Short Story Contest 2017


By Chong Sue Yin in General Literary

Lina starts carrying extra bandages around with her.

A gash here, a scrape there, life after the meteors doesn’t come without its injuries. But Lina doesn’t just carry the bandages to help close wounds. She carries it to remind herself that sometimes there will be people she won’t be able to save, that sometimes there will be rips and tears so deep that she won’t be able to reach. She carries the bandages to remind herself that sometimes even the smallest patch will help.

He’s sitting on the rubble, staring out at the river when she comes across him. Tranquil brown waves lap against all that remains of one of the domes of Masjid Jamek. It’s a peaceful scene – one wouldn’t guess from looking at him that fire had rained from the sky here just a few months ago, obliterating buildings and turning steel to dust. She finds it ironic that the very cornerstone where Kuala Lumpur was built was the very first place to fall. The river is no longer a convergence. It is just a single river with a bridge formed out of chaos.

“You shouldn’t be out here alone,” she says as she climbs gingerly towards him.

“There aren’t a lot of people left who can hurt me,” he replies without looking at her. She sits down beside him and notices him cradling his left hand in his right.

“Are you hurt?” she asks. He turns to her. In the reddened light his untidy black hair looks like the colour of dried blood. His gaunt face is full of grime. Beyond that, his eyes are dead. He nods.

“Slipped on the way up here and probably cracked a bone,” he says soullessly. Lina can’t tell if he’s trying to mask the pain or if he’s simply lost the ability to feel. He wouldn’t be the first. “The price I have to pay for a few hours of forgetting, I guess.”

“Let me see,” she reaches for his hand but he jerks it away before she can touch him. He winces at the sudden movement, and it’s the first time she sees something alive in his face. It’s that little beacon of hope that she always looks for before she goes about patching people up. He blinks and it vanishes behind a veil of death and decay, but’s too late for him. She’s already seen it.

“You should go back,” he shifts a little away from her. “The others need you.”

“No,” she puts her hand on his knee. He tenses up, and all she really wants to do is put her arms around him and tell him everything will be alright. She doesn’t, though. “Right at this moment, the only person who needs me is you.” She thinks she sees a layer of steel lift from behind his eyes.

He lets her wrap up his broken wrist between two scraps of wood that she scavenges from the rubble. He watches her hands as they wind the bandage tight around him. There’s something in his face that seems familiar to her, but she can’t quite tell what it is. Lina is just sticking a band aid over the scratch on his cheekbone, and that’s when it hits her. He has the same look as the musang she used to spy running up and down the fruit trees in her grandfather’s orchard – a little hesitant, a little uncertain, just a little bit wild.

“I was on my way home when the Fall happened,” she says without thinking. The thought of her grandfather’s orchard has her mind lurching back to when she was a child. A carefree, innocent child in an orchard where the skies were still blue and the air didn’t smell of blood and ruin. She had always been talkative as a child. Just recently she hasn’t had many people to talk to. He looks at her, but says nothing.

“I’d just finished class. I remember when the sky turned red, when the first meteor hit. One minute I was chatting with my friend and the next I was talking to no one.” Her fingers are still pressed to the bandage on his cheek. She can feel herself shaking. The world is falling down around her all over again, and there's an acrid smell of burning in the air. “From then on I’ve been by myself. I was never a tough kid, you know. But I knew I had to survive. So I did what I had to do, even if those things made me the most terrible person on earth. Do you understand me?”

She looks back at him. His expression is completely clear, attentive even, but the hollow darkness behind his gaze lingers. She knows it isn’t something that can be filled so easily.

“You know, the guilt haunts you even more than the physicality of actually doing it. I have more nightmares of people than of the world burning around me; of all the people I should have saved but did the complete opposite. It’s not easy trying to rinse the blood from your hands, but I’m trying. I patch people up when they need it the most. Sometimes it's better to not forget.” She smooths down the band aid and moves away slightly. “You remind me of a musang. I used to shine lights on them when I heard them in my grandfather’s fruit trees. Have you ever seen them?” He shakes his head. “They’re quite harmless.”

He doesn't thank her when she’s done. She sits down beside him, watching the water lap calmly over the debris. She wonders how many disasters these waves have washed over, how much destruction they hold within their watery depths. She wonders how far down she will have to go to fix this broken boy beside her. Then: “I’m Chen.”

She looks at him. His smile is nothing more than a shadow of what she’s sure it used to be, wavering on the brink of extinction, but it is there nonetheless. A little glimmer of life.

She reaches out and puts her hand over his bandaged one. He flinches slightly but doesn’t move away. Lina smiles, squeezes his fingers once, and lets go.

“I’ll remember you.” She draws her knees up to her chest and rests her head on them, looking up at the red-tinged sky. The light of the setting sun paints her hands ruby red. “I remember everyone I fix.”

Lina starts carrying extra bandages around with her in case she comes across people who need them. She patches up wounds, closes up gashes. She talks, but never about herself. Sometimes she dreams she’s back in her grandfather’s orchard, running around the trees with a musang that never leaves her side. Sometimes she doesn’t dream at all.

And sometimes when she runs out of hope, of reasons, of bandages, Chen hands her a new roll and reminds her that sometimes even the most broken people are worth saving.

Copyright Chong Sue Yin
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