Aisha Hassan
Runner-up

Brothers in Arms

Today

Penny stared at the small girl rising out of the sea. The way her head kept turning towards the deep, how one puckered nipple escaped the yellow bikini, the tummy still glistening with saltwater, round and protruding and smooth as a jellybean. A sour-faced woman tugged the wet child along. Penny watched from beside the dustbin in a small, covered shelter by the beach’s edge. The walls were plastered with stale posters shouting things like “Spectacular Diwali Fireworks” and “Kalina’s curry puffs, order NOW!” The words framed Penny’s mass of black hair and egg-shaped face with its two eyes looking out lost.

The girl clasped her mother’s hand tightly as they inched towards the limp-looking creature by the rubbish. Your job is to throw everything away, the Mother says to the girl, whose bright bikini was now in place. I’m going to start putting things in the car.

The child skittered over to the shelter and quickly emptied her hands before turning her back on Penny. A biscuit wrapper missed its destination and sank noiselessly into the sand. Penny bent over to collect the wrapper, but a ghost from her memory reached out and deftly tossed it into the bin.

I hate it when people litter, Big White says.

Penny ran her fingers through her hair. She didn’t mean to, Penny says. Big White smiled tenderly and a single dimple hollowed out in his cheek, which scraped at an old corner of Penny’s mind. She gingerly moved her fingers to the depression in the flesh and pressed on the dead man’s face. Big White looked deep into Penny and turned his head so her fingers slipped through the dimple with a pop! and hovered inside him. Penny recoiled and jerked her hand away.

We have to stop meeting like this. Penny started circling the outline of a scab on her thigh.

Big White’s milky eyes widened. Then why do you always come to the place where I died? he asks. Big White’s face was a painting in the dark at the exact moment it comes menacingly alive. Does Goldie even know you’re here?

Penny folded her arms in a straitjacket lock and slumped against the corner of the shelter. No, your brother does not know I’m here. Penny eyed Big White intensely. He moved towards her at a slithering pace and Penny’s body began fidgeting like an insect trapped on its back. The ghost buried its face in Penny’s blue-black hair.

Goldie deserves to know. Big White’s voice was muffled by the limpid strands pressing against his mouth. Your boyfriend is probably looking for us.

Years ago 

A gurgle escaped the coconut as Goldie sucked the fruit dry. Big White sat on a red plastic chair, knees spread wide, on the right of his big brother, and read about the latest water cut—this time because of a ruptured pipe—to hit Port Carlson, the coastal sanctum where he would live out his little life. Big White nudged Goldie before shaking the Malaysia Daily into his brother’s face.

Better tell Papa and Mama, Goldie says after reading the first paragraph. We should start saving water from tonight.

The boys lived in a row of terrace houses within sight of the sea. Later that evening, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened that day (and maybe it didn’t), they would wordlessly haul buckets of water to store outside the door beneath the washing line while their parents’ raging voices stretched for the day.

On that afternoon, like most Saturdays, the brothers sat at a flimsy, metal table beneath a yellow canopy. Warm air swallowed them and the beachside restaurant’s spindly owner, Mr. Lim, who was watching a Cantonese movie behind the counter. Mr. Lim’s eyes bulged as a small cry sounded from the screen. He still looked alarmed when he saw the wheat-skinned girl walking in. Penny smiled at the man who had gone to school with her father. She padded straight to the boys and carefully placed a hand on Big White’s shoulder. He absentmindedly clutched her fingers while still eyeing the newspaper. Goldie turned to gaze at his girlfriend but waited for Big White to speak. After a few quiet seconds, Penny went first.

Can you please move over? So I can sit next to my boyfriend?

Big White firmly rubbed Penny’s knuckles with his thumb before standing up to move away. He walked to the opposite side of the table as Penny fell into his seat. She stared at Goldie’s long, horse-like lashes as he reached around her head and twisted a lock of dark hair in his finger slowly, and, slowly again. Goldie watched as his brother sat down. Big White stared at the way Penny’s collarbone sloped.

It feels hotter than usual today, Goldie says, and spun to look towards the beach, turning his finger still.

Penny and Big White followed Goldie’s gaze wave-ward, and three young faces looked out on a sun-sweetened afternoon, the day so humid the air was like a lick.

It’s the perfect time for a swim, Big White says.

Penny’s head was slumped on the curve of Goldie’s shoulder. I don’t feel like swimming, she murmurs.

She nestled closer to the crook of Goldie’s neck. When they first started dating, this valley of skin was her favorite place. When Penny’s mother cried at home, usually while kneeling in front of the altar that honored the dead, Penny liked to remember the first time she leaned on Goldie’s shoulder in school. Classmates who never spoke to her—not even after her father’s funeral—actually stopped their conversations to stare. For the first time in a while, she felt warmth in her chest instead of a tightening squeeze. She tried to imagine the feeling again now. When Goldie tilted his head to rest on top of hers, Penny tried even harder.

Are you sure? Goldie says, It really is a beautiful day. He sank the rest of his fingers into Penny’s hair and continued to stroke and pull.

Come on, Penny. Big White sounds exasperated. Don’t be a downer. We love swimming.

I know, she says softly. I just don’t feel like doing it today.

Big White cocked his head sideways and peered at the girl. Then he rolled his eyes and looked fixedly at his brother in a silent sibling speech. Penny’s pulse crept up her throat and thrummed in her ears. Goldie always listened to his brother. Everyone at school knew how inseparable they were.

It’s like you get two-for-one, Penny once heard Lilian Po whisper to Rita Mittal during Geography. And they probably, like, both love you. Lilian and Rita exchanged knowing glances and giggled impishly. I wonder why Julia dumped Goldie, Lilian had said.

Apparently they’re really bossy, Rita replied. She shrugged her shoulders before adding, They’re cute though.

Penny started showing up at Mr. Lim’s on Saturdays after that. She never had plans on the weekends anyway. Penny pretended to catch up with the old man, even though he reminded her too much of her father, and would offer to take iced milos to the two boys at the end table.

Eventually, the brothers talked to her at school. When Penny bought mangoes she didn’t need from the boys’ family fruit stall, lent them her father’s old motorbike, and quietly accepted everything else they wanted, Goldie asked her to be his girlfriend. If she was a team player, things would stay that way. But today, Penny was letting them down. She looked across at Big White as he switched his scrutiny from Goldie to her and stuck out his lower lip sadly. Penny tried to lift her head but the swelling weight of Goldie’s chin held it down.

Big White’s right, Penny. You like swimming. Goldie’s fingers twisted into a fist around the inky tentacles of Penny’s hair. He wrung it like a dirty cloth and tugged harder with each breath. She was such a small girl.

Penny’s head soon sputtered into a nod against Goldie’s shoulder. Her scalp was only slightly raw this time. Is that a yes? He asks.

Yes.

The boys smiled at each other.

Today

Big White pulled away from Penny and sat back to survey her. She began fingering the scab on her thigh and unhinged a dark lip of dried blood. The afternoon was melting into evening, and besides the young couple sitting at a far corner of the beach, there was no one else around. Big White abruptly pressed his palm onto Penny’s thigh, which had started to bleed. His brows furrowed when she convulsed and pulled her leg away.

You’re not as pretty as I remember, Big White says, lifting his eyes to look at Penny straight in the face. And you smell.

Penny trailed her eyes to Big White’s hand that was wet with her blood. She thought about how he looked as handsome as ever.

Why are you always here? Big White asks.

Penny shrugged, still looking at his hands. It’s nice by the sea, she says.

Big White scoffed. You hate the sea. He looked at her with wells for eyes, deep and shimmering. You only came because we made you. And because you had no friends.

Penny turned away and looked across the darkening sand to where the teenage couple sat. The copper-colored boy wore a sarong and lightly stroked the girl’s fair skin. Their shoulders touched silently as they huddled in the place where Mr. Lim’s restaurant used to be. Penny wondered if Mr. Lim was watching a movie behind the counter on the day he died. Maybe he felt it coming.

Do you remember when it happened? Penny asks Big White.

He was staring at the waves now, slamming then pulling back from the shore, the gentle crush of water on sand whistling in both their ears. It was so long ago, Big White says. I mean, would you remember the day you died?

Which time? Penny asks. The ghost looks at her and sneers.

Years ago

The day was as bright and clear as sugar water. The brothers flanked Penny on either side as they walked out of Mr. Lim’s open-air restaurant and stepped onto the beach. It was a perfect day. A little boy prodded his shabby sandcastle, a pair of aunties laughed and fanned themselves with folded sheets of newspaper, one pimply teenager shouted at another, Can you grab my hat? As the ground swelled with people, the trio thinned into a single file and Goldie led them towards the water’s edge.

Goldie pulled off his singlet before emptying his pockets. He fished out a packet of dried tamarind and a used tissue, both of which he deposited on his crumpled top. Big White, quickly shirtless too, folded his red garment neatly and laid it down at Penny’s feet. The boys looked at her expectantly. She stood there until she felt the prickly gaze of a group of girls on the left who looked familiar. Penny didn’t want to look awkward next to the two brothers, with their matching almond eyes, who were staring at her and waiting that way. Goldie plucked a loose thread from his brother’s glossy shoulder before glancing at his girlfriend again. Penny pulled off her tattered blouse to reveal a bikini underneath. Had she always planned to swim?

The boys were already treading water, far beyond the shallows, by the time Penny waded in awkwardly. She went on, steps into strokes, until the sea curved around her neck and ebbed against her skin. When Penny finally reached the brothers, she hooked an arm around Goldie’s shoulder and steered him to face away from Port Carlson where there were so many eyes watching, even if they couldn’t see anything.

Penny’s black hair matted and stuck to the curve of each cheek. Her skin glowed like coral under the surface of the water. She saw, in Big White’s probing eyes, how much he liked this: The three of them together in the salty slush of the sea. Just like always. Big White smiled at his big brother. Penny’s eyes rested on Big White’s left cheek, the dimple sinking deeper into his skin, as he moved toward her.

When Big White came close enough to sandwich the girl against Goldie, she looked beyond him but could no longer see where the sea met the sky, both were so blue. Penny could smell salt on skin (hers? The boys?) and feel someone’s toasty breath touching her earlobe. And she could hear breathing as they all tried to stay afloat, water lapping against them, could hear the soundlessness of material pulled and lifted and shifted when it happened beneath the waves. She thought—in a faraway place—of her mother crying.

There was only one other moment Penny felt that way again, the numbness of sensing everything but feeling nothing because it wasn’t worth feeling or couldn’t bear being felt. It happened on a Sunday exactly eight days after that afternoon in the water, which was the last time she saw the brothers alive.

Penny was sitting on the floor of her grandfather’s musty apartment in Kuala Lumpur. Every year since her father died, Penny spent a week each summer in the city with the only grandparent she had left. Penny was sucking on the juicy flesh of a rambutan when the television, which had been playing limply in the background, crackled wildly with noise. Penny and her grandfather turned to look as the screen lit up with a deluge that was strong and fast and biblical. It was a burial. Penny watched, from a bird’s eye view, as dark water swallowed her world alive. Her grandfather started sobbing, or maybe shouting, and saying something about Port Carlson and Penny’s mother.

Penny couldn’t move. She was sinking down somewhere, and all she could see in her mind as she descended was her mother floating by the altar, the tears finally invisible under the waves. Penny pictured the yellow canopy scooping up Mr. Lim’s old body and wrapping him like a funeral shroud as he drowned. And the boys. They would be working at the fruit stall nearby their family’s house facing the sea. Penny could see it all: The flies hovering above the ripe mangoes, how Goldie would look up when he felt the rumble, how he shot out his hand to clasp his baby brother’s arm, the way Big White only had time to touch Goldie’s fingers and turn to face him before both their bodies snapped back, broken, by the torrent carrying them away. Penny’s eardrums beat against the noise, but she knew the sea was roaring.

Today

I’m going to find Goldie, Big White says.

He stood up and looked down on Penny, who stared at him with an expression of longing for something dead. Big White stepped off the shelter’s edge and began walking on the sand.

He’s not my boyfriend any more, Penny calls after him.

On the other side of the beach, the radiant boy and girl turned and squinted their eyes at the body clutching the edge of the bench, as if she was bracing for impact, or to jump. It was the same woman who always sat there.

All of that ended years ago, Penny says to Big White as he turns around. He looked as clear-eyed as the day she last saw him when they were still young. He was still young.

He’s here somewhere, you know, Big White says.

Penny thinks of all the people she once knew.

I know, she says. I know.

 

 

 

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