XXXII | Pain

I step towards Rowan

and the winged donkey appears.

There’s a funny sensation
in my head,
like I’ve drank too much liquor.

it says in a low voice.

I glare at it.

The feeling fades.

I look around me.

I’m not halfway up some mountain.
I’m not in a different country.

I’m still under the rowan tree
by the back gate of the school.

‘We’re still in school,’
I point out.

‘Uh huh,’
she replies.

Walks to the back gate.

‘Let’s go before we get locked in.’

Eeyore follows her.

‘Oi! Aren’t we going on a trip?’

She picks up the pace.
Trying to escape.

I run after her.

Grab her hand again.

Nothing’s changed.

Her hand is soft.
Her face expressionless.

There’s nothing weird around

except the donkey
—but I’ve already gotten used to seeing it.

The donkey brays.

(I think it’s supposed to be a noise of annoyance.)

Its ears twitch.

When we leave the school,
Rowan pulls her hand from mine.

I look up
and see Aspen

across the road.

He grins at us.

At me.
‘You came after all.’

I sigh.


Hands in my pocket,
‘Aeh, thanks for inviting me.

‘Since your “real” world looks the same as mine,

‘I’m going home.’

I smile,

Aspen pats me on the back,

‘Looks the same huh?
‘You’ll see the difference eventually.’

Got difference meh?




‘Chicken rice for dinner?’
Rowan asks.

I’m about to be sarcastic.
Not like there’s anything else to eat here.

‘I know you don’t really like it.’

I stare at her.

She’s been watching me
more closely than I expected.

I thought

she was only interested

in telling people

how to live their lives.

          Of course,
          this has nothing to do
          with entering her world.

Even without

“stepping past the rowan tree”

I would have learnt this
about her.

‘I’m okay with it,’ I say.

I really want to know
what’s the difference.

Beside me,

Aspen sniggers.


The glass door opens.

The nameless chicken rice shop is crowded tonight.

My mouth hangs open.
I can’t close it.

I’ve never seen it this full of people before.

It’s even more unbelievable
then the winged donkey climbing stairs

up to their apartment with us.

‘It’s usually like this,’
Aspen explains.

No way.

The past few evenings I’ve come,
it was #*%&ing empty!

Aspen stops me
before I start climbing the stairs
after the donkey.

‘Wait here. We’re just putting down our bags.’

I glare at him.

‘Ask my dad for the chicken rice.

He scampers up the stairs.


The door clicks shut behind him.

I stare into space for a while,
thinking if I should just end the farce here

and go home.

Rowan’s father
notices me

even though he’s busy,

chopping chicken,
scooping rice,
pouring soup,
chatting up customers.

‘Uncle, three packets, roasted chicken. Dabao.’

He smiles at me.
Face flushed from exertion.

‘It’s good to see you here, Clyde.’

I’m not sure if ‘here’
means the chicken rice shop

or something else altogether.




We leave the
nameless chicken rice shop

by squeezing through the crowd.

Aspen swings
the packets of chicken rice carelessly,
singing Jesus songs.

I doubt there’ll be any left to eat.

Rowan jabs him in the ribs,
tells him to be quiet.

He stops singing.

They bicker in whispers
as we walk

and it occurs to me
that they’re

behaving like normal people today.

When Rowan says, ‘We’re here’

I recognise the place.

It’s the park near the school
where my friends and I always hang.



to be here
with Rowan.

My friends aren’t here tonight.

It’s the start of the real June holidays,
so maybe they’ve gone to

our favourite bar.

The crickets
don’t sing tonight.

The trees are quiet.
The streetlights dim.

What’s up with this atmosphere today?

The field is empty.
So’s the basketball court,
the stone benches.

We sit
and eat chicken rice.

‘Why here?’
I ask.

‘To see something different,’
Aspen says.

He smiles knowingly.

‘You come here often?’

I don’t answer.

Not because I’m coming up with a retort
about what a creep he is knowing that,

but because I see Kumar.

He’s sitting at the foot of a tree,
obscured by bushes,
head on his knees,
back rising and falling,
breathing hard.


No answer.
I could be wrong.

‘Oi, Kumar!’

Even in the dark,
I’d recognise him anywhere.

The crickets are buzzing now.

It’s not quiet anymore.


I’m next to him,
chicken rice forgotten

—shaking his shoulder.

He groans.


Rowan’s voice
cuts through my panic.

‘Don’t move him.’

I’m about to tell her to #*%& off
when I notice he’s trembling.

She speaks so gently,
I can’t believe my ears—

‘It’s okay. They’re gone.’




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