By Shaun Phauh
I am at Daniel’s place. I just came back from America about two weeks ago. I’m a boarding student. I’ve been away for nine months now.
Daniel has been making jokes about how much of an asshole I am for leaving all my friends back home.
There’s a tint of seriousness to the jokes.
And I still do have a sense of guilt about it. I feel like I’ve abandoned them in a way.
We’re standing about in his apartment area.
The air is humid and sticks to skin like shrink wrap. Each breath of air feels heavy. But the air is always like this in Malaysia, even though the sun is down and the only light is coming from street lamps or apartment windows. It should get cooler but it doesn’t.
You can’t see stars in the suburbs of Malaysia.
Lights in the sky only come from planes.
We’re now walking through the park inside the gated apartment complex as frogs jump out of the way of our feet.
There is a lit cigarette between Daniel’s fingers. Its embers burn brightly in the night air.
Daniel was born with a hole in his heart, or some such defect. As a result, he’s weak. He can’t really do anything physical without running out of stamina. Daniel always walks with a hunch. But still, he smokes anyway.
His parents stopped giving a shit a year ago. “Just so long as you don’t burn the house down,” they said.
Daniel wears only dark coloured clothing.
He is a Chinese Indian mix.
He always wears a black coloured coat, even when it is a hot and humid thirty-seven degrees outside.
Daniel is not the most sensible of people.
The colour black attracts heat.
I find myself worried about him.
“You know what we should do?” he asks, waving his hand around, cigarette smoke trailing out of the glowing end. Ash falling to the ground like snow.
“We should go to the Curve again. Like what we did last time.”
I nod my head.
It was something I did with Daniel last year. We went out and walked to one of the malls at three in the morning. We were masters of the road during those times. Few cars went about. We could walk down the middle of the highway and there would be nothing to challenge us. We walked past red lights and screamed as loud as we wanted to.
Three o’clock in the morning.
When it’s just us, the rats, and the cockroaches that roam the streets.
I pull my phone out of my pocket. 2:14 AM.
“Might as well go now,” I say.
Daniel has weed in his pockets. You get the death penalty for any kind of drug. I think he’s a little disappointed he hasn’t been caught yet.
We walk out of the main gates, and onto the sidewalk of the street. Cars are still around at two in the morning, but they’re definitely not as rampant as they would be at five in the evening, or some such time when the streets are clogged with cars trying to get home.
We walk on the side of the street where all the food stores, phone stores and 7-Elevens are. We stay far away from the car park and away from the tall trees with roots that go into the soil and above, destroying sidewalk. Birds chirp in the trees, and there’s shit all around the roots of the trees.
You don’t usually walk around there because cockroaches will climb over your feet, and no one wants to get bitten by a rat.
Cigarette smoke hangs in the air, the people at the mamak stores are eating their late night dinners, two dollar meals that taste of home. They’re watching the FIFA 2014 World Cup. Something that’s so far off in Brazil. They’ll probably be there ‘till after the matches are done.
To my right, I can hear the flicks of a lighter and in a second Daniel has another cigarette in his mouth.
“We should do a stop by the park. It’s always creepy in there. Especially since it’s the hungry ghost festival now,” Daniel says, smoke leaving his mouth with each word.
I nod my head excitedly. Scaring the shit out of yourself was one of the best pastimes I could think of. Maybe I don’t have a very good imagination.
It is true that things here got creepy. Especially at a time like this. When ghost reports are heard all the time. A pontianak hiding in the trees, our version of a vampire, only this monster feeds on fetuses and babies. In folklore and countless ghost stories, it would always hang around the house of someone who was late into pregnancy, and was sighted among houses where someone was going into labour. Or maybe you would be robbed by a toyol. It’s an embalmed aborted baby that one must treat like a baby, and feed with milk. If you gave it a few drops of your own blood, the toyol would steal for you.
We walk up to the park. The lights aren’t on, so there’s nothing but humid darkness and trees.
The time? Well, it’s just about 2:45 AM.
“We’ll walk through the park, alright? See if we’ve actually got the balls to go through the whole road,” Daniel says, already lighting up another cigarette.
He’s said he wants to stop. He knows what it does to him.
“Alright. Come on,” I laugh, walking confidently in.
Everyone needs a good scare every once in a while .
The only light comes from our phones now. We can see the huge trees that loom over us in the darkness. A lake is nearby, which is probably the cause for the amount of mosquitoes buzzing around us. In the morning the lake is a constant brown colour. No one can ever be sure if fish reside within it, but there’s always a lining of thrown away plastic bottles and various containers on the lakeside.
We walk deeper into the park, talking about all the different ghost stories we could think of. “Of course then there’s the fucking Orang Minyak. The perviest of all the ghosts,” Daniel says, bright ember between his fingers.
“What’s the first thing you’d do if you saw like a… a pontianak here?”
“I don’t know, probably run away. Trip you so it doesn’t get me.”
“Fuck face,” I laugh, pushing him a little.
Sound directly ahead of us.
Our vocal chords instantly stop.
I slowly bring my phone up, to reveal four people. Sitting on park benches in the darkness. Greasy hair on all their heads, needles on the ground, and something that smells of burnt rubber. A needle in one of their arms.
Daniel and I just stare at them. And they stare back.
One of them reaches for something on the bench, and that’s when we run. We turn around instantly. Our legs are moving so fast it feels like we’re superheroes. But we’re running for safety instead.
“Jalang! Mari sini! Bitch! Come here!” I hear someone scream.
But we’re not listening. We just keep running.
You get the death sentence for drugs in Malaysia.
We were hoping for ghosts and monsters.
Instead we got people. Maybe a little worse than what we were hoping to find.
We run until the streetlights are lighting us up like stage lights.
We run until we can’t remember which road we took to get there. We run until enough space has been put between us and the park.
And then, when we’re out of breath, and our legs hurt, we start laughing.
“Oh my god. What the fuck was that?!” Daniel gasps. His breath is coming in sharply.
“Those were druggies right?”
“We nearly died! Haha! Holy shiiit!”
“Dude was gonna grab a knife or something! Shit, did you see that!?”
“Holy shit man…”
The tall buildings of The Curve and Ikea are not too far off in the distance.
“We’re nearly there.” I point.
Daniel nods. He takes a look into his cigarette box and throws the thing out.
And so we keep walking. We walk and we talk about the life we have. I now go to a place where the winter is so cold, being outside for a long enough time would probably lead to your death. Or at least a few fingers dropping off. Daniel talks about how he’s going to break into the school I used to attend. The one he’s still in.
He talks about how he’s going to break in with a set of wire cutters. How he’s going to walk in wearing a mask and a black hoodie.
He’ll go in at night with a crowbar.
He’ll break all the windows in sight, he’ll destroy the computers, he’ll throw shit up, he’s going to destroy all the school’s files on everything.
He’s told me that he’s basically going to prison every time he enters the school.
“You might go to prison if you do go in destroying everything.”
“Then there wouldn’t be a difference between the two.”
And besides, he’s told me he’s got everything figured out. Security isn’t the school’s main priority.
We walk down the middle of the street. There are no cars to contest us. We walk past a red light. Law is not something that concerns us. Of course, a speeding, drunk driver could come out of nowhere and knock us both down, probably leading to our early deaths, but it’s a chance we’re willing to take just so we can be above the common laws of people. Even if it is for just a few hours.
Every now and then a car will go by. You can’t really help but wonder what their story must be. What could possibly cause them to be out this late at night? Are the people in these three-in-the-morning-cars running away from something?
Maybe it is just some crazy night job.
Maybe they’re returning from some party. Which would be odd, considering today’s a Thursday.
These cars are always speeding.
They too are above the common law.
When there is no one to see, there is no law.
We finally reach the mall area. The two of us spot the only place that is open twenty-four seven. McDonald's.
McDonald's. From America to Malaysia. The herpes franchise of the world.
We nod at each other, both hungry. Walking across cities is tiresome work.
Burgers in our hands, we’re sitting at one of the tables. Not too far off, there’s a man in grimy looking clothing. His hair is greasy, and he’s got newspapers everywhere. He’s sleeping on the chair.
“He’s homeless,” Daniel says.
“Yeah, no doubt about it.”
“That’s probably gonna be me in a little while.” He gives me an agitated look.
“We need to get cigarettes on the way back. I’m getting the worst fucking headache.”
Daniel takes a bite of his burger. “Wanna know something?”
I’m chewing into my fries, so I nod my head in reply.
“I wish you hadn’t gone away.”
I don’t say anything. I just look at him and continue chewing.
“I wish you wouldn’t leave me alone in this stupid place. You know, I honestly hated you so much when you first left. I had someone to talk to before. Someone who understood things that other people don’t understand. And then you just up and left to America. I can’t do that,” Daniel says, his eyes staring intently at me.
“I’m sorry man…” I don’t know what else to say. I’m really shit at talking in these situations. I never know what to say.
“It’s like you left me for dead, you know?” He chews into his burger again.
“Right… I’m sorry. Alright. I couldn’t not go.”
“Yeah… I know. I don’t blame you for it. Just, for a time, I really hated you for awhile,” Daniel says through a mouthful of food. “And I need a fucking cigarette.”
We finish our shitty food and we leave.
We walk out into the streets. The huge mammoth street cleaners roam about.
Daniel has grown resentful.
He wants to leave but doesn’t know how.
I want to help him but I don’t know how.
I want to tell him that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for having left him alone. For having left him in his time of need. But the apology doesn’t take flight. And I find myself opening my mouth to speak with no words escaping. Besides… What would an apology do? It won’t give him a plane ticket out of here. It won’t get him out of his school. It won’t help with his heart problems.
We walk all the way back towards his house, stopping by a 7-Eleven.
Daniel walks up to the cashier. “Two packs of Marlboros please.”
I put a bottle of Mountain Dew on the counter.
The cashier scans the packs of cigarettes, handing them to Daniel.
Daniel pays for them.
No questions asked.
There’s no doubt that Daniel is underage.
He’s been coming to this store for probably over a year or so now. At first he used to tell the cashier the cigarettes were for his mom. Now he just buys them.
No one here cares if you’re going to kill yourself with a burning fag in your mouth.
Shaun Phuah is a sophomore at Interlochen Arts Academy, where he majors in creative writing. He is from the burning hot and humid land of Malaysia, where “at least the food is good.” He is the winner of three Silver Keys from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for his poetry and prose. His work has been published in the Red Wheelbarrow. When he writes, he enjoys listening to copious amounts of Nirvana and FIDLAR, and drinks copious amounts of coffee. In his free time, he writes music and makes shirt designs. And then gets to work on something that has a deadline in about twenty minutes.