Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
It was always the simple, mindless things that sent you into a reel. Even now—as you watch the moonlight wash into the room, painting the room with a transreal, opaque blue glow. Rain patters on the ceiling. The sumo wrestler your nephew drew for you is pasted on the wall opposite you. He glares at you from underneath leech-like brows, his gaze sharp and discerning. It isn’t simple, his crayon-scribble eyes say. It isn’t mindless.
You make a mental note to toss the sumo wrestler into the bin later.
‘I mean—suicide of all things,’ she continues rambling. ‘I don’t understand it. What did I do to deserve this? It’s just—so remarkably selfish of him to go off and do this on his own, no thought of consulting me, asking how it would make me feel.’ She makes a disgruntled sound. ‘I swear if this is all because I threatened to report him for domestic abuse…’
By this time, you are barely registering her words, merely listening to the lulling cadence of her voice. It’s the word ‘abuse’ that shakes you out of your stupor—you blink, your mouth twisting into an odd shape. ‘A...buse?’ you echo.
‘Yes,’ she says, and her voice sounds almost bored. You picture her sitting on her loveseat and smoothing out the creases in a cushion laid out evenly over her lap. ‘Abuse. You know. Punching. Kicking. That sort of stuff. Do you remember the barbeque last year?’
The time you nearly took his eye out with a poker. ‘Yeah, he—he punched you in the face, didn’t he?’ It was makeup. You’d watched her apply it expertly over her cheek, all while complaining that he should talk less to that buxom cousin of his. ‘You’d had an argument and he took a swing at you.’ He’d never hurt a fly. He wasn’t one of those people—aimless, sexual predators who thrived on hurting people weaker than them. He was always the weaker one. Always—putting himself out when he didn’t have to. Letting her walk all over him.
But she loved him, you tell yourself. Not me. Never me. He didn’t deserve her love, so it was the punishment he deserved. Yeah. You shake your head, trying to clear it. The sumo wrestler from across the hall continues to glare at you. You know that isn’t true, it seems to say.
Shut up, you think.
‘You know—it’s funny. Back at art school … all that time we spent together … I could have sworn you were in love with Gareth. He was always especially nice to you. I wonder … maybe if I hadn’t…’ her voice trails off, and you stop yourself from scoffing. Your eyes are round with surprise, and a bitter smile is playing on your lips. Of course she wouldn’t notice. Of course she still hadn’t noticed.
‘I’m not gay, Bee,’ you say carefully. ‘Even though I—you—you know. And all those times he was nice to me—it was pity. I even think he scorned me, in that head of his. Because I wasn’t—you know, like everyone else.’ You breathe in deeply, pinching your nose. All is silent on the other end. It still hurts to know that you can’t admit it to yourself—that it has been twenty five years of you being trapped in this cage of a body, and still being unable to phrase it clearly, for fear that you will make others uncomfortable if you mention it.
Finally, she laughs. ‘I forgot,’ she says smoothly, ‘that you’re an in-between.’
In-between. The word stings, like someone pouring vinegar onto an empty cut, ribbing into your bruised skin with sharp nails. It’s as cold and merciless as peeling away the very skin of your being, but you just hold it in. She doesn’t mean it, you tell yourself. She doesn’t mean it, she doesn’t mean it.
‘Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story,’ you say instead.
‘Tolstoy.’ You feel shaken, somehow, your breaths shallow and odd-sounding to your own ears. Abalone stretches in your lap, and your hand moves of its own accord to tickle his tummy. ‘It reminds me of something my mother said, long ago. When I was a kid.’
‘Yeah,’ you say slowly, testing the words carefully before you thrust them out from between your teeth. ‘She said I was a flower.’ You close your eyes, then open them slightly, picturing the words guttering out from your lips like black sludge—a viscous waterfall that drips over you, netting your legs to the floor. ‘You know how pollination works—stigmas and stamens and all that, right? Well, some flowers just have male parts. Others—others just have female parts. And some’—you pause—‘have both. They’re special that way.’
‘But—you know, you don’t really ask, “hey, does this flower have both male and female parts?” A flower’s a flower, right? And there are other things you look at--the shape of its petals, the scent, the history it carries and the symbolism people give it.’
You shift slightly on the floor, to get the feeling back in your bum. ‘Yeah—anyway, sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I just—hey, do you mind if I tell you something?’ You loop the phone cord around your fingers again. A spiralling staircase. At the top, a prince lying fast asleep. You picture it all in your head, waiting for her answer.
‘Not at all,’ she says, her voice sounding monotone. ‘I mean—I called you, so…’
‘I’m in love with someone, Bee,’ you say. I’m in love with you.
‘Oh! That’s—who?’ She sounds curious, despite herself, and your heart skips a beat.
You. The word is on your lips, single-syllable, so close to being said—but you pause, thinking. The rain shreds the moonlight seeping into your apartment. Everything seems unreal, an instance frozen in time as the word stills on your lips. Abalone paws at you, and you look down at him. You are perplexed to find him wearing the same look as the sumo wrestler—perplexed and rattled. His great, green and yellow eyes shine round and smooth, like marbles picked out of an aquarium. You feel cold, as though someone dropped a wet sponge on the back of your neck.
Abalone hisses. You don't just tell anybody your dreams like that, he seems to tell you. And if you do—at least, it's just dreams that they are ready to hear.
Does she want to hear it? you think. At the same time, a nasty voice at the back of your head asks: Do you even love her? You have barely a moment to ponder the question—the moment shatters, and you are again sitting on the cold hallway floor, static buzzing in your ears. You rub your forehead wearily.
‘I’m not saying,’ you respond finally, faking a cheery, cheeky tone. The phone cord around your wrist winds—unwinds—winds… ‘I’ll tell you someday.’
‘Tease,’ she says, and you both laugh, before lapsing into silence.
‘I hope they find your dog,’ you say.
‘I hope so, too.’
It is midnight by the time you hang up. The sculpture you were working on earlier is placed precariously on the dresser in the lounge, where you left it earlier that day. You can see it from your perch against the floor—and you cock your head at it, slightly, smiling. You wonder what Bee would say if she ever saw her replica: the perfectly sloping nose, the eyes open wide, brimming with mirth and cold satisfaction—a gaze that always thrilled you every time you caught it resting on you. You—the person who was bullied throughout school, who found it difficult to trust people, who detested the fact that they couldn’t even feel upset over their best friend’s death.
I am a terrible person, you think.
You gaze dumbly at everything—at the sumo wrestler across from you, with his ever-sadistic grin, and you raise your hands to your eyes once again. Something within you is brimming. Confusion and hate and—a sense of bruised pride. Your veins look like telephone wires. You feel the strongest urge to reach into your skin and pull them all out.
On an impulse, you reach for the phone, and dial Bee’s number.
She picks up, eventually, after ten minutes of trying. Her voice is groggy and tired, but you have never felt more wide awake.
‘Hey, Bee.’ Your voice is soft, but you feel like it is ringing loud enough to wake everyone—dead and alive—from here to Beijing. ‘I’m in love with you.’
This announcement is followed by a heavy silence. You wait with bated breath for a response—anything, a yes, a no, an, ‘I’m so sorry, but my husband just died…’ but there is nothing. Thunder rumbles in your stomach. The wind blows, rattling your window—you can hear the branches of the birch tree outside brushing against the windowpane.
The silence is broken—finally—when she laughs. It’s a deep laugh, one that quakes and rumbles richly against your ear—expectant, pressed hard against the receiver. She laughs and laughs and with every passing moment, it feels like her breath is sucking the happiness of your confession from your bones, until all that is left swirling in the pit of your stomach are the dregs of your brave impulse.
‘Oh, Mill,’ she says breathlessly. ‘You’re so indecisive. You don’t fit into any boxes—I can’t compartmentalise you.’
‘Compartmentalise … me?’ The knot in your stomach tightens.
‘Yes, yes!’ She laughs again. ‘You couldn’t possibly think—well, that I would fall in love with you. You’re so hopeless—hopeless and innocent and oh, God, I love that about you. Gareth loved that about you, too. You’re like a little chick—so unusual—just demanding for some angelic presence to shield you with their wings. But then again, your kind are like that, right?’ Her tone is dismissive, matter-of-fact.
You feel like choking on air. ‘My kind?’ you repeat, full of incredulity. ‘You just—assumed that all people should be put into boxes? By classifying us as a kind. I’m not a kind. I’m a … a’—Sculptor, you think. Painter. Person. The words refuse to form on your lips. ‘You—’ You tremble, half with rage, half with another emotion you cannot fully identify. ‘Did you even hear what I said?’
‘Yes, of course I did.’ It rattles you how—amused she sounds over the phone. ‘I have to make some calls, Mill, talk to you later—real nice chatting again.’ There is a dull thud as she drops the receiver on the other end.
You stand there for a while, bathed in the desperate sound of your silence. Then you drop the receiver to the floor, grab your car keys, and stride out of the apartment.
For some reason, you cannot feel the road under your wheels today.
There is madness in the way you steer, the way you cut into corners and swerve on the wide, empty road, as though avoiding ghost vehicles. Past apartment complexes, past cinemas and electronics’ shops, and a huge fallen billboard that reads ‘Pretty in Pink!’ Sticking your head out of the window, you yell until your lungs unknot themselves in your chest. Rainwater speckles your face—mud grates under the tyres. You call Gareth’s name and Bee’s name and your own name, louder and louder, until your voice seems to have become one with the thunder, until you and the sky are the same.
You and the sky are the same.
You hit the brakes, finally, when you see the sea. Stumbling out of the car, you realise that you do not know where you are—there are no buildings to speak of, and the beginnings of dawn spear over the horizon. It has been four hours since you started driving, and now that you have stopped, you wonder why you did. Would it not have been wiser to just keep driving, on and on, until the world and everything within it disappeared? You rub your eyes with the back of your hands, then walk along the coast, coming to sit down in the sand.
The coast almost seems to breathe—or perhaps, you think, it is the sea that is breathing, and the coast that serves as its shroud, heaving as its companion does. At five o’clock on a monsoon morning, the lines between sea and land seem to blur into one, as do road and pavement, and earth and sky.
Suddenly, you realise that you are not alone. Someone sits next to you, their bare feet propped up on a cushion of sand. You turn your head to look at them, their features hazy, face sliding in and out of view as if hidden behind a smokescreen.
Gareth grins widely. ‘Hi, Mill.’
You look at him warily. ‘Hi.’ A pause, then—‘I would scream, but I don’t quite have the lungs for that right now.’
‘Yeah.’ Gareth stretches, and his entire visible being seems to shudder again. ‘Liaison phoned to tell you the details?’ You nod. Gareth sighs. ‘Yeah—I asked them to. Figured you should know.’ There is an awkward silence, then Gareth says: ‘I know she’s telling everyone I killed myself. I think that’s very unfair.’
‘It is…’ You roll the word around your tongue. ‘Unfair. A lot of what Bee says is unfair.’
‘That’s Bee for you.’ Gareth looks at his watch, then at you. ‘Mill—I don’t want you to … you know, get hurt by her. Bee—she … isn’t the nicest person…’
You snort. ‘You pull an Albus Dumbledore on me, only to give me that middle-grade crap? I know what she’s like. But she’s been one of the only people I could talk to and not feel—you know, like—you pitied me, too,’ you burst out angrily. ‘My entire life, whether it was art or—or just—the way I am.’ You beat your fist against the sand. ‘Does it take much for people to just accept me? My parents—nobody—could ever just decide what I was. Sometimes it was skirts. Sometimes it was shorts. When I told them I was agnostic, they said, “Well, you can’t just decide something like that for yourself.” Like my sex—I had no choice in picking a religion either. Constant identity dysphoria. And now I’m spilling my heart out to a dead man. Whose death I do not feel sorry for.’ You crane your neck to glare at Gareth, and your heart twinges at the look on his face. It makes you feel ashamed, so you concentrate on looking at the horizon instead.
‘Hey, Mill,’ he says. You turn to look at him, and his outline flickers in the sun. ‘Did you really hate me?’
You hesitate before answering. ‘Yeah. I mean—it wasn’t so much hate as resentment, and I did … I did admire you, for as long as my ego would allow me, but…’ You stare at your feet, nervously running a hand through your hair as you try not to meet Gareth’s eyes. ‘You were like family to me, but I really did hate you.’
You are surprised to see that Gareth smiles at this. ‘Glad to know that I was still considered family. After you got that scholarship and left for Canada—I just … we never talked the same way.’
‘You got famous,’ you say quietly. ‘And I was only good for whittling. You married Bee, and I watched. You suffered, and I laughed. It’s strange.’
‘It is,’ Gareth agrees. He checks his watch again—an old model, like the kind you wore as schoolchildren. ‘I should get going. The Liaison were kind with giving me the time to talk to you. Even though I haven’t said what I wanted to say yet—I’m sorry. And, you should know I really didn’t pity you.’
You shrug. ‘Doesn’t matter.’
Gareth gets to his feet. ‘It’s almost time,’ he says. ‘I’m afraid they’re going to put you to sleep after this.’ You both stand up, and he smiles at you. ‘Goodbye.’
‘Goodbye.’ You reach out to grip his hand. ‘Gareth,’ you say, earnestly. ‘I’m sorry. I hated you because I hated myself.’
‘How does one stop hating themself, Mill?’ Gareth asks.
‘I dunno,’ you say. ‘I’ve never really tried.’
You open your eyes to a blinding sun, a sun that at first you fail to recognise for what it is. It rains. It snows. The sky changes colours. Seashells are scattered in the cosmos. You reach out for them, but they disappear. A giant heart pulsates in their place—a sculpted heart, made of wood. You reach out for it, too, but it shatters the moment your fingers skim its surface. You scream. In every shard, you see your own face—but different. As though every reflection is a different person. Mill the weatherman seems to be a form from eons ago—a lighthearted jest.
Who are you? you ask the numerous reflections.
The city within, they answer.
You wake up on the floor in the middle of the hallway, Abalone stretched out on your stomach. It is four o’clock. The microwave hums. All over the floor are scattered pieces of wood—a nose here, an ear there.
Outside, the sun shines on the telephone poles. You watch, gaze unblinking, the sun bleach the earth dry. Slowly, pigeons swoop down on the wires, curving their claws around the lines and tucking their small heads between their wings. The strangest image forms in your head, as you watch the pigeons settle—rows and rows of them, like an audience sitting down to watch a tragi-comedy on some famous stage. You imagine yourself among the pigeons, a crow trying to tuck its head in the same way as them, trying to copy their mannerisms. Every time they coo, you squawk. The pigeons attack you, and you jump from the wire, wings tucked in tightly at your sides—lower, lower, spiralling to the ground. You picture all of this: the crunch of bones against gravel, truck horns blaring, traffic whizzing by, avoiding you by barely an inch—if at all. You picture it all: cold and warmth at the same time. Life and lightness, and a hole opening up in the earth to swallow you, away from all the chaos, away from the cries of a city that has done nothing but forsaken you.
The telephone rings, and a voice resonates through your skull: ‘Hello, this is the Liaison speaking. We are calling to inform you…’