by Tola Sylvan


Our toothbrushes tip
sour powder as pollen

Steam rises from the tub
Anoints our temples

Yes, the Harlem heat
makes us walk nip first

through old doors
sagging and groaning

No one likes the weather
tucked between purple toes

Too hot to hug you
Too hot to crack a smile

Only a cold can
of something sweet

to save us: Honestly,
it’s hell on earth!

We splash our faces
with tap water

Wish for winter
(but not really)

and soak in the salon
like seeds splitting

the all-knowing sun giving us
more than enough love

to grow lush and
closer together

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Tola Sylvan is a poet and writer from Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PoetryVallumKestrel, and elsewhere.

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for Odysseus by Maxine Patroni

I Am Speaking to You, Nobody

Maybe I’m too far gone,

or maybe there’s nothing left

to explain. Some days

I have little hope

and others it glides towards me

like a ship on the cunning sea.

The people want another wedding.

Instead, I weave them a story

about the horizon. They’re waiting,

like all of us, to see how it ends.

I haven’t said your name in years,

but remember how your palms

opened a bulb of garlic.

Before you left, you asked me

who I’d marry if you died.

My response astonished you.

You’ve been away

a long time—maybe too long.

But I have this feeling

you’re still out there,

that my answer,

one time or another,

has saved your life.

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Maxine Patroni graduated from New York University with an MFA in poetry where she was the Teachers and Writers Fellow. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, EcoTheo Review, and Raleigh Review.

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by Maxine Patroni

It's What I've Loved That Kills Me

At the museum            I kept leaning towards a painting—

Picasso’s Minotaur Moving His House.         Bit of defeat

in the beast’s eye        even as he walked toward       a new frontier.

His head turned      to be sure        no mob or man followed.

Maybe that day,          the minotaur      taught me something

about leaving;             his neck wrenched,     looking back.

No amount of distance can ever erase the labyrinth.

The once green ivy     now paler in memory.

The once bright chaos             not as bright    but still there.

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Maxine Patroni graduated from New York University with an MFA in poetry where she was the Teachers and Writers Fellow. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, EcoTheo Review, and Raleigh Review.

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by Aidan O'Brien

The Postponement

The Thai food’s oily steam gave a yellow tint to the otherwise antiseptic air of my wife’s hospital room. A droplet of green curry slipped off her slick bottom lip to slap the blue paper napkin held in place over her chest by two metal clips attached to a grey plastic necklace given to her by the daytime nurse—a muscular Nigerian immigrant named Okafor who engaged in heavily accented, playfully witty banter with her.

Claire thought he was great. Called him “a charmer.” My god he was handsome. He knew all about bodies: their secret ways; their wondrous structures. He made me want to fling myself from the room’s second story window in what would doubtless be a failed suicide attempt, an attempt that would put me right back in the hospital, seated on a padded table with Okafor deftly putting a band-aid on my skinned knee, saying, “We’ve got to be more careful, haven’t we?”

My wife’s spoon trembled en route to her mouth. She moved like cheap stop-motion.

She finished her meal, pressed a button on the panel by her arm to shift her bed into a more reclined position, and closed her eyes. Then, eyes still closed, she said, “I want a divorce.”

This statement took me by such surprise that my brain, struggling to process it, lost all meaningful connection with my mouth. “Are you still hungry?” I asked.

She opened her eyes. “What?”

Almost completely unaware of what I’d just said, I now said, “What?”

“I ate,” she said, and pointed to her empty black Tupperware where wet greenish liquid still pooled in small patches like teaspoons of swamp-water.

“Do you want more?” I asked.          

“Alvin,” she said, “did you hear what I said?”

“Could you repeat it?”

“I want a divorce.”

My wife described a feeling of gnawing guilt that’d been plagued her for, she claimed, years. She didn’t really love me anymore, she said. But she had been going through the motions of loving me and, now, riddled with carcinoma and literally on her deathbed, she wanted to come clean and exit this world by being true to who she truly was. I listened while standing beside her window, gazing out at the copse of paper birch trees on the hill behind the building, and thinking, I’m really going to do it. I’m going to jump right out. But the window was set up so that one could only open it to a gap of about four inches and I realized that, of course, the doctors had already thought of everything, even this exact situation, and that I was trapped. And, being trapped, I became like a cornered animal, vicious and uncaring, and I said, “That chemo really did a number on your brain,” which was not at all the play.

She became quite angry and began frothing at the lips.

Like a preschooler tattling on her classmate, she called for Okafor by pressing a special button on her armrest.

“Please escort my husband out,” she said, like there was some risk of me causing a scene or, at age seventy-three, becoming violent. Like I was going to start throwing chairs around. Like I could lift these chairs.

I wanted to kill her.

“Mr. Podolski,” said Okafor, “lets go.”

And I left, not because I wanted to, or would’ve otherwise, but because Okafor was there, and I have always been incapable of making a scene with my wife in front of a third party. I simply cannot do it. I would rather allow her to walk all over me than let it look like we ever argue. The worst part was that, in the hall, Okafor put a hand on my shoulder and told me that some patients, due to their stress and suffering, can behave erratically and without thinking and that it was best, at such times, to give them space.

And even though I did not want to be comforted by Okafor, I was comforted nonetheless.

At home, eating organic mac-and-cheese out of a pink plastic bowl usually reserved for one of the grandchildren, it occurred to me that I wasn’t so far off when I’d considered killing myself earlier. “It’s not,” I thought aloud, “like you can get a post-death divorce. At that point you’re just a widow or a widower.” I began to consider which method would be the most painless for myself. Sleeping pills, I supposed, or some sort of poison. But I then realized that this wasn’t a situation where I would need to be the one to die, because Claire was already on the way out. “So I just need to stall,” I said.

I called Claire’s doctor. “Doctor,” I said, trying to sound concerned in the right way, “how much longer do you think Claire has to live?”

“It’s hard to say,” he said.

“But if you had to give an estimate. Please. We’re trying to plan for our children to visit her one last time.”

“Two weeks at most,” he said.

Sitting in my study, sipping red wine and taking stock of the situation, I concluded that nothing can’t be put off for at least two weeks.

I checked the clock and saw that it was only six in the evening. I was sure she’d still be up. In fact, she’d probably have just woken up from the evening nap that her condition forced her to take. I picked up the phone. Once I got her on the line, after speaking with the receptionist and then speaking with the attending nurse in the cancer ward—thankfully not Okafor—and waiting while they checked with her to see if she was able and willing to take the call, I told her that there was no way she was going to be able to pull off a divorce before the cancer got her.

“When I married you, I married you for life,” I said, “no ifs ands or buts.”

“I have a lawyer coming to visit me on Wednesday,” she informed me. “You should be there as well. He’s going to bring all the paperwork. I’ve been in contact with him for over a month. We’re going to make it all very simple. I’m not going to be your wife anymore.”

She hung up and left me staring over the top of my mahogany desk at a Mallards of North America calendar that my son Brendan sent me for Christmas—a gift that might seem lame to an outsider but becomes quite sweet if you know me and how much I love ducks—along with a fifty dollar Amazon gift card which I’d used to purchase digital copies of a number of my favorite DVDs so that I could watch them when traveling as long as I brought my laptop. May’s photo showed a mallard from the rear, the blue bands on its wings winking white as it takes off from a still pond at dawn, surrounded in mist and disturbing the silken water. Beneath the calendar sat a tiny branded purple plastic fan that I got as a party favor at one of my last ever company events. One drawer of the desk contained a pile of such products: unsolved branded keychain Rubik cubes and stretchy branded wristbands and even a tiny, clear, still-sealed bubble-wand that I’d found waiting with my prim place setting (the folded napkin, the pure-white plate) at my nephew’s wedding reception at Virginia Beach. 

The calendar said that today was Monday. I had to wait a whole day for Wednesday.

That night, I lay awake thinking about my wife and trying to picture the lawyer she claimed to have hired. Instead I kept picturing Okafor’s deeply disarming smile.

The next morning I drank black coffee and tried to figure out whether or not to visit my wife. I might exacerbate the situation by showing my face, or, worse, arrive at the hospital and be told that she did not wish to see me like I was our annoying second cousin who is always trying to convert deathbed relatives to her special niche Christian denomination. On the other hand, though, she was still my wife, and I wanted to keep it that way, and if a man has a wife and he wants to keep her as his wife and if she’s going to die in the next two weeks, then he goes to visit her every single day. Perhaps, I thought, there’s a middle ground, like calling her from the hospital café or sitting in the room with her but speaking via text.

I drove over around 7am.

At the front desk, I was told that my wife was still asleep and that I would have to wait. I found myself in the hospital café after all, drinking an ill-advised second cup of coffee that would have me anxious and needing to shit every twenty-five minutes. And now that I was feeling anxious, I went over again and again the argument that I would make to my wife about why we should stay together—an emotional argument in which I would tell her just how much she meant to me and how broken up I was already going to be after she passed and how if she were not only dead but also divorced from me it would absolutely destroy me. I planned to say the words “destroy me” and also “there’ll be nothing of myself left” which I thought sounded like a really powerful phrase, like something someone might say in an award-winning film.

My phone rang at 9:15am and the receptionist told me that I could go up.

She was deteriorating when I found her. Her pale skin appeared to be thinning, becoming diaphanous, such that if I looked hard, I suspected, I might see throbbing organs and the shifting of still-pink muscles.

“Alvin,” she half-whispered.

“Pumpkin,” I said.

“Stop with that,” she said, still in a semi-whisper, and I realized that she could not get any louder.

“Darling,” I said, sitting beside her hospital bed. “I don’t think you understand what you’re doing to me.”

I laid out for her the whole argument I’d concocted while sitting in the hospital café. But I rushed it. I was nervous. I felt shit pressing on my tightened anus. There’ll be nothing of myself left came out as, “I’ll be without anything of me.” Worse, midway through speaking, Okafor came in with my wife’s breakfast which he explained to her like she wouldn’t know what scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and a bunch of cherry tomatoes and two pieces of toast and a cup of applesauce were just by looking at them.

“Hello,  Alvin,” he said when he saw me, bestowing one of his gobsmacking smiles.

I continued only after he left.

When I finished speaking, having worked myself up to the point of almost being unable to form words—being so overcome with emotion, an emotion that throbbed in my throat—my wife said, “I’m not going to let you manipulate me.”

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“You always try to convince me that you are both hyper-rational and that your emotional needs should come first.”

“I don’t do that,” I said.

“You’ve always done that,” she said.

“Then I’ll try to be better,” I said, which is what I always said in situations like that.

“I don’t have the time left for you to be better,” she said.

“Now you look here—” I said.

She pressed the button that called for Okafor.

“Please escort my husband out,” she said as he was entering, and I wondered if, if I ran full tilt and leapt, I could break through the glass of the window.

“We’d better go,” Okafor said to me.

“Alright,” I said. “Alright.”

In my car, I wept. I don’t mind admitting it. Loneliness was coming for me. I could feel it like the empty air on all sides. And I was angry. I had stood beside her for three years. I had driven her to chemo. I had done all the chores. I had spent the first three years of my retirement following her around with the dedication of a support dog. During one week of sickened weakness I’d helped her on and off the toilet, wiping her because she could not and washing her when she soiled herself. There were months of depression when she hardly spoke. There were days when she rebelled against her own illness through a show of unfocused energy—suddenly we would have to clean, clean everything, and then we’d have to fuck, we must fuck, even if I was not entirely in the mood, she would grab me, she would be on me, and then we would need to invite the kids over for a visit, they should be here, we should see them!—an unfocused energy that lead to crazed days with fluttering, frightened trajectories, days that always crashed-landed back on our bed in fits of sobbing. And now she wanted to “be honest to herself” and turn me from a mourning husband into some asshole who pined after a dead ex. Did she not see that her retroactive honesty would make monsters of both of us?

I would not have it. I had to save us.

I lay awake all night, staring at our bedroom’s brushed nickel and walnut ceiling fan and light kit, which I’d picked out from a Home Depot catalogue twelve years prior. I periodically got up to use the bathroom and stare at my porcelain mallard-shaped toothbrush holder. If my wife were to die, or to begin dying, I would still receive a call. I was still her husband.

The next morning, I arrived at the hospital around 6:30am. I did not even approach the receptionist. I went straight to the café and bought coffee and a bagel.

I sat and sipped my beverage and watched night shift workers picking up a snack (a soft muffin, a brittle granola bar) for the drive home.

I asked the receptionist to call up and announce me at 8:00am.

My wife reclined in her bed, her eyes roving the room but her mouth slack. Her skin’s translucent quality had spilled over into the ugly yellow of old parchment. She was deteriorating.

“Can you speak?” I asked her.

She nodded.

“You must speak to prove that you can speak,” I told her. “Say something to me.”

A confused vowel dripped out. She furrowed her brow to focus but the effort undid her and she slipped back into her previous slack expression.

I took my seat beside her bed.

A few minutes later, Okafor came in with her breakfast. He explained the contents to me, as though I would not immediately recognize a slice of quiche, a cup of fruit salad, and a petite raspberry Danish. “For if she is able,” he said, motioning to her. “If she cannot eat in another hour, we will feed her intravenously. Do you understand?”

“I do,” I said.

I could not believe how easy it was all turning out to be.

When the lawyer arrived, he called up from the front desk.

I answered the call.

“I’m her husband,” I explained.

“Oh,” he said. “Is there something I should know?”

“You should just come on up,” I said.

He entered the room cautiously, almost tiptoeing although my wife and I were obviously awake.

He took stock of Claire. “My name is Leonard,” he said, stretching out a hand and addressing himself to me.

“Leonard,” I said, “I want to thank you for taking the time to come by.”

“Of course,” he says. “It’s no trouble. I’m used to doing this.”

He held a black briefcase in his right hand. It was packed, I imagine, with divorce-related documents.    

“Leonard,” I said. “I hate to have to tell you this, but my wife wasn’t in her right mind when she called you.”

She moaned at us.

“I understand,” he said. “But I must try to speak with her. She is my client.”

He turned to her bed, and said, “Claire, can you hear me.” She managed to nod.

“Very good,” he said. “I have the paperwork you requested and I must ask you to sign it. Would you like me to read it to you?”

She nodded again.

He read it aloud. It was a terrifying piece of language. It was the beginning of my total destruction.

He put it on the tray beside her, with a pen.

With great effort she put out her hand and managed to grasp the pen. Her hand shaking. She managed to place it on the paper, but not even in the right place. She could only manage a meaningless scribble.

“Look at this,” I said. “This is not the mark of a person in their right mind. This is the mark an illiterate would make. An illiterate or an infant. You cannot possibly treat this as a document with any legal value.”

“You are right,” he said.

My wife began to writhe, but without much energy. It was almost silly, like a wobbling gelatin.

After the lawyer left, I continued to sit beside her. Her eyes flicked around the room. To my mind, they appeared panicked. I put out a hand to touch her forehead. “It’s alright,” I said. “I’m here. I’m here. I’ll be here right through to the end.”

I reached across her bed and pressed the button for Okafor. When he entered, I pointed at her meal. “She’s not going to be able to eat this,” I said.

“I understand,” he said. He moved to take it.

“I’m sorry to ask,” I said, “but could I have it? I haven’t eaten anything this morning.”

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Aidan O'Brien studied at Sarah Lawrence College, where he received the Creative Writing department's Jane Cooper Scholarship. His stories have appeared in Levee Magazine, Barren Magazine, Eclectica, Failbetter, and the Sarah Lawrence Review. He is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Upstreet Magazine, and currently lives in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife and children.

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by Zachary Hourihane

The Fire Ant Fiend

At school, we played on astroturf. The school board poured concrete over the grass when the fire ants took over. Before the green sprouts of nylon were laid down, we ran through the grass and fell on top of the fire nests. I was no stranger to the small mounds of busy creatures. At my black-and-white, beneath the rambutan tree, I disturbed the nests with a long stick and watched the ants disperse in random patterns. They sputtered and malfunctioned until I euthanized them with the garden hose. I never let them crawl on my skin. There was something serene in this destruction; to inflict the undoing of a home. At school, I fell on a nest in the grass and ran my fingers through the rubble, crumbling the soil and sand between my thumb and forefinger, wondering where the ants would go. Then there was an itch. I scratched at the fleshy part of my thigh and waited for the whistle that called us in from break time. The itch started to burn. It felt like the top layer of my skin was shorn off, and the exposed flesh was raked over hot coals. I howled as the flames spread up my body, crippling my fingers like an arthritic, the crumbs of soil buried under my fingernails.

A teacher sent for the school nurse. “How many times have I told you to be careful in that grass?” the nurse tutted as she iced my hands and legs. I knew the routine. I ran through the grass a lot. Oscar Maguire, a classmate and frequent flier in the fire ant-rehabilitation-unit, was receiving a thick layer of hydrocortisone all over his left side, from his cheek to his collarbone. The nurse unbuttoned his shirt to attend to the itch on his torso. I watched unabashedly, pleased at the sight of his porcelain belly. His tan, like mine, stopped at the clavicle. Oscar swung his legs on the edge of the seat. His knees were bruised in purple clouds. His legs narrowed out beneath them and the thigh was taught to the bone. There is nothing on him to squeeze, I thought. Oscar caught me looking and flashed a wan smile, then jumped at the sting of hydrocortisone and the cold hands of the school nurse.

* * *

I was pleased that I was only bitten on the limbs. The first time I fell into a nest before I knew what the fire ants could do, the flames raged up to my forehead. I should’ve known after that to steer clear of the nests. But I couldn’t stop myself, I had ulterior motives. There was a dry patch in the expanse of grass where we played before the concrete was poured and the astroturf was laid. The brush was brittle, the soil was parched and cracked, the nests were teeming and plentiful. Boys rough-housed in this part of the grass far from hawk-eyed teachers with zero tolerance for violence. They bit, kicked, and swung each other around by the collar. I never joined in but I stayed close. I understood the sudden burst of rage; the need to claw and punch and draw blood. What I couldn’t grasp was the dissolution of this temper. Where did that fury go? Surely it could not dissolve. I thought it would metastasize like cancer and infect the whole system. As soon as the bell rang, the boys threw their heads back and cackled, wiped each other’s bloody noses, and limped back to class on gammy feet, as if they hadn’t been strangling each other moments before. Oscar joined in the rough-housing on occasion. Because his stature was slight, he ended up face-first in the nests promptly. I timed my own collapse strategically so we’d end up with the nurse together.

* * *

In class, there were too many flailing arms and flying pencils to take a good look at Oscar Maguire. He was popular, so his time was taken up by pretty girls and clammy boys vying to be his sidekick. I drew pictures of mermaids and read chapter books under the table to stop myself from staring in lessons. At the nurse’s office, he was mine to peruse. I watched his eyelashes flutter like snowflakes on top of burnt amber eyes. His skin was fair and buttery, not sickly or pale. His hair was blonde but warm, not white nor brassy. His cheeks did not redden with exertion, he had no freckles, his body hair was lighter than his skin. He stood straight and seemed to glide across the classroom. Oscar Maguire was a doll. “Does it still hurt?” The nurse asked with a furrowed brow. My hands and legs were covered in hydrocortisone and the swelling had gone down. I pointed at a small patch of untreated skin on my knuckles and winced. “Just a bit more on here I think,” I said with my eyes locked on Oscar. “It’ll hurt less soon.”

* * *

I begged my mother to organize a playdate with Oscar Maguire. She knew his mother from a social club. “Does Ariel need to come too?” My mother asked with a pointed smile as she packed a pool bag with sunscreen and swimsuits. I had been taken with mermaids for some time, dazzled by the neither-here-nor-there predicament of belonging in water and feeling called to land. As an only child, I preferred non-sentient companions that bent to the whim of my dreams. In the playroom, there were several Ariel dolls in various stages of decay. The dolls spent most of their time in the water, so I couldn’t afford to be precious with them. The chlorine splintered the nylon hair so quickly that there was always an understudy. I watched the fire-engine-red mane of Ariel du-jour billow in urgent clouds on underwater expeditions. When I swam before lunchtime, the morning light filtered through the water and bounced diamonds off of the emerald fabric tail. I refused to wear goggles. Goggles spoiled the dream.

There was hesitation to my aquatic preoccupations from my father. He tried to replace Ariel with plastic fish and diving hoops, but those toys held no magic—they were not born of a conundrum. The suggestion to leave Ariel at home was preposterous because there was no game worth playing in her absence. My mother conceded that Ariel could wait at the bottom of the bag, under stacks of towels and sunscreen, until I really needed her. “I don’t think you will need her, though. You’ve been very excited about going to Oscar’s house.” In the car I watched hedges of bougainvillea collide from the window. The slideshow of magenta, fuchsia, and lilac suggested a new adventure. Perhaps this gamble would tether me to a world beyond the red nylon hair stuck in cracked tiles at the bottom of the pool.

* * *

I was a known swindler in the nurse’s office. I conjured a host of ailments to avoid confrontation with a disgruntled teacher or an insulted classmate. The headache was my go-to until I was old enough for painkillers. When I got off the bus in the morning and the school day stretched before me like a year without rain, I went to the nurse’s office to lie down and rest. At first, I invented pain. Then it seemed to follow me like an old friend: a dull throb on my right temple that alerted me to my own weariness. When I got turned away with two painkillers, I conjured nausea and a sore throat to secure a half-hour of peace with the scuffle of the nurse’s plimsolls on the linoleum. Staring at the ceiling fan, I dreamed of alternate realities. The worlds I invented were typically underwater but there was a new vision taking shape in my mind. It came in globs, like wax in a lava lamp.

I saw the world through Oscar Maguire’s eyes—I walked through the halls and puffed out my chest in response to the giggling girls. I joined in with the rough-housing boys like a lion and took fire ant bites to the face like a stoic. I was unstoppable. There was no need for fictitious tonsillitis or respite from the corporeal. On my back in the nurse’s office, I knew that what I needed was a compass. If I were to step inside Oscar’s brain—just for a moment—I’d be pointed due north and the invented pain would subside.

 * * *

I lingered in the foyer at Oscar’s townhouse. The bay windows stretched on forever and white-hot light seared the back of my neck as I wrung my hands and bit my lip. Oscar’s older brother was big and brawny with a thick layer of hair on his arms. I thought the hair looked like moss. I wondered if it was cool and damp. I wanted to touch it and find out. I changed into my swimming costume in the bathroom and struggled with the zip on the back. It was a one-piece, to shield my Irish skin from searing in the Singapore sun. The Maguire’s wore swimming trunks. I was embarrassed by my juvenile attire. The big and brawny brother with shoulder blades like airplane wings tore through the water as though it had done him wrong. I watched the muscles contract and release as he showed off the butterfly.

The way his body moved was of interest to me, but I was more interested in Oscar. There was the torso I had glimpsed in the nurse’s office. His tummy poked out over the waistband of his trunks but it looked firm. On his back, there was a constellation of moles that I wanted to connect with my index finger. Oscar jumped in and wrestled with his brother, they slammed each other beneath the surface and the water splashed and exclaimed in their wake. I stood at the edge of the pool and glanced over at the mothers gossiping on the deck. The beach bag was hidden behind a sun-lounger, but I could still see the pointed fins of a mermaid’s tail jutting out at the very bottom.

 * * *

“We’re going to Chinatown this morning to draw pictures of the shop-houses. Did everyone bring their watercolor pencils?” I had forgotten mine. I stayed up late the night before and drew pictures of the seabed by the otherworldly glow of a green night light. “I’m not feeling well,” the dull throb in my head returned at the thought of sweating in my school uniform and lining up on the pavement for warm apple juice. It was a fine day to lie on my back in the nurse’s office and dream of somewhere else.

“I’ve got a set, we can share,” Oscar said with a warm smile. The throb went away as I sat next to my friend on the school bus to Chinatown and tried to figure out how his brain worked. His pupils fixed on whoever was talking: a boisterous classmate or a cajoling teacher. Our school was in an undeveloped part of Singapore, surrounded by lush greenery and tropical wildlife. The Angsana trees gave way to blocks of squat buildings in primary colors as we rode further into the city. Oscar’s eyes did not glaze over and turn towards the window to watch the magic happen.

 * * *

I couldn’t get in the pool. The Maguire brothers seemed to command all the water. I was afraid that if I added myself to the equation, the pool would rupture and the bottom would fall out, sucking us all into the ground forever. But I was more afraid of the boys. My reluctance went unnoticed as I busied myself with the chlorine filter. It was jammed with rotten leaves. I rescued the crumpled foliage and straightened them out in a neat line in front of the pool. “Lunch break!” his mother called and the two boys leaped out of the water to rush inside for Nasi Lemak, fresh from the hawker center down the road.

The older Maguire shoved fistfuls of rice into his mouth with his hands, then vaulted back in the pool for a swim. “It takes me a long time to eat too,” Oscar said, pointing at my untouched meal. His plate was empty but he sat with me as I nibbled on fried anchovies dipped in sambal.

 “I need her,” I said to my mother as the dishes were put away. She sighed, then brought in the beach bag to give me Ariel. I combed through her coarse hair and shot into the water, safe in the knowledge that if the bottom fell out of the pool and I was pulled into another world, I’d have the perfect companion to explore it with.

 * * *

“Buddy up, and pick a shop-house to draw.” I won Oscar as my buddy because we were sharing watercolor pencils. The other boys hummed and hawed then wandered off in pairs of two. “You can pick which house we draw, I don’t mind,” Oscar said. He walked with his nose in the air and his hands clasped behind his back like a wise old man. I shook my head at the immediate options. The perfect subject materialized as a triplet, at the very end of the cul-de-sac we were given to roam. Three glorious shop-houses in deep ocean colors: aquamarine, sea-foam green, and teal. We knelt on the edge of the pavement and started to sketch. Oscar’s hand was unsteady and impatient, so I linked my fingers over his and showed him how to shade for depth.

There was a pain when our fingers touched: a sting akin to the fire ant bites on my face, but less urgent and more hopeful. We sat there quietly for some time. “When we’re older, and we live here, I’ll paint the shutters red,” Oscar announced with his head cocked to one side. I was glad I hadn’t defected to the nurse’s office. I sketched in a bed of sand and seaweed that flowed up the ornate shutters of the sea-foam center house. “That’s not real,” Oscar said. I smiled. “I know, but we can pretend.”

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 Zachary Hourihane is a culture journalist for RICE Media. He is based in Singapore.

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