(Note: This is a series of short stories I’m uploading onto my site. You can find the other short stories on this page.)
BOTTLE BRUSH FLOWER
The plane screeched to a stop.
“Thank you for choosing to fly with Qantas today. We wish you safe travels in Auckland and hope to see you again.”
The doors at the front slid open with a sudden suctioning noise. Bodies surged forward at once, dragging their bulky luggage through the thin aisles, tugging at relentless speed even as the fabric ripped and dragged against the sharp edges of the seats.
My hands hovered over my keyboard.
The girl felt like she was breathing new air. She had two hands on the windowsill and half her body tipped at twenty stories high, jutting outward like a laundry line. Never had she seen such activity, such hustle, such open-nerve, sparkling life.
The creaking of the dorm room’s door drew her attention. Her roommate stepped in.
“Oh, I thought you had gone to sleep.”
The girl turned around again, into the city, into the night.
“No,” she said. “I am not sleeping anymore.”
I blew out a thin exhale, slamming down the lid of my new laptop. I threw it into my bag and hauled it to my shoulder, joining the stampede.
“Have a good day,” the flight attendant chirped as I passed the front. She flashed a thousand-watt smile and I attempted to return one, though it looked more like I was baring my teeth. I could feel my own bad breath, practically an entity on its own, curling around my every move like my stringy, unwashed hair. If I stayed still, the grime collecting all over my skin would probably flake off, drifting to the floor like distorted snowflakes.
Barely seeing where I was going, I allowed myself to become swallowed into the mass of arms and legs heading towards the baggage collection.
“—you believe this weather?”
I tried not to listen in, but the couple in front of me were talking loudly, and it was almost peculiar to hear my own accent after two weeks being surrounded by a foreign twang.
“It’s amazing,” his wife replied, “especially for July. We should stop by the old—”
I tuned out then, making a diversion for the fast track exit without any bags to collect, scanning my passport through the electronic shortcut.
The woman at customs took too long looking through my passport. She flipped through with all the time to spare, though I wanted nothing more than to snatch it from her hands and leave. As I stood, feigning patience, the stillness felt like a sickness; I wanted to tear at the passport cover, put twin scratches through the silver glitter of Aoteroa and carve another line of asymmetrical ferns down the side.
“1998, huh?” she finally said.
I nodded briskly.
“I’ve got a daughter your age too,” she continued, handing it back. “You’re brave. She would never fly that far on her own.” She handed me back my passport—finally, finally—pointing behind her. “Through the green lane, love.”
I hurried away.
I got into my mother’s car, slamming the door after me.
She waited as I fiddled with the radio and determined which station would be the least annoying to blare as background noise.
Finally, she seemed to realise that I wasn’t talking.
“So?” she said over the hum of the stalled engine, practically bouncing in her seat. “How was New York?”
In that second, I closed my eyes and saw nothing. Lights stretched into the sky and people never slept, but this, I learnt from others.
I had expected too much. I was not yet awake.
“So fun,” I said, my eyes snapping open. I tried to inject enthusiasm into my voice, but I was tense and the needle couldn’t get through. “Did you get those pens like I asked?”
Mum frowned at my sudden subject change. “Honey, you don’t have to go back to school right away. I know Term 3 starts tomorrow but you can take a day for your jet lag—”
“I’ll be fine,” I cut in. “I promised you I wouldn’t let this trip interfere with schoolwork.”
Mum reached over, scrubbing my head despite the gross state it was in. “That’s my girl.”
We drove in peaceful silence the rest of the way home, under the hazy blue sky that was entirely strange for July. Though I had arrived from northern hemisphere summer, I hardly felt the cold in my sweatshirt, emblazoned with the initials of the writing school I had attended for a week.
It felt more like an obligation than pride.
I reached for my laptop.
The girl had never seen buildings so high. She turned and turned on her heel, spinning in a circle, and each time saw something different.
“There’s always something happening here,” he said to her, holding her by the wrist. “Here, I’ll show you the rooftop.”
A shriek of delight rung from afar, and she felt like it was her own mind, disembodied from her body. She felt big—bigger than life, bigger than a star, bigger than the universe could hold.
“Well, we’re home.”
I connected my phone to the Wi-Fi, immediately flooded with messages from friends wanting to know how the trip went. Though it pumped helium into my leaden heart ever so slightly, I paused before replying to any, looking through my contacts. There were no new additions. I had deleted all my unnecessary apps before leaving to make space, but I hadn’t needed it.
“Have you finished it yet?”
“It?” I said to Mum’s back, following her into the house.
“You know—” She gestured at my laptop bag. “—the novel of the century. The next big bestseller.”
I snorted, but she was being serious.
“Nearly,” I lied. “I haven’t quite figured out how to wrap it up.”
“Oh, you’ll have no problem,” Mum said, almost dreamily as she started swaying to imaginary music, “the city will have given you all the inspiration, I’m sure.”
I looked away, grabbing the keys. “I’m going to take the car out for a while.”
Mum stopped then. “You just got home.”
“I’ll be back before dinner,” I said, already rushing away. “Love you!”
I couldn’t get into the car and slam the door after me fast enough. My feet pressed down on the accelerator, pushing the old metal wreck through the tranquil streets.
I was a rumble in the quiet.
The laptop sat in the passenger seat like a constant, looming threat. It was a bomb, a ticking pressure of only 80 words in a golden word processing document. It was a beginning that had begun over and over again, erased and written and erased and written.
I stopped the car at a nearby beach.
She felt big—bigger than life, bigger than a star, bigger than the universe could hold.
She felt big—bigger than life, bigger than a star
She felt big—bigger than life
She felt big
I lifted my finger from the backspace button, wincing.
In the distance, I could hear the sound of a lawn mower. It reminded me of every lazy afternoon spent cooped up in my bedroom, tapping out words to my latest story. The sky was bright with energy, a third of the blue-green-red colour scheme that unfolded ahead of me, framing the water that lapped quietly onto the sand.
With my laptop balanced on my arm, I dragged myself from the car. This, this was why I had begged to go to New York.
It was the same scenery for seventeen years. It was practiced conversations and tall poppy syndrome, and simultaneously the inability to stop bragging about the one person who had made it out of here alive into the real world.
It was life at the end of a cul-de-sac, wishing and planning for your future to begin, until one day you realised that this was your future now and you had spent so long brooding about being stuck to the suburbia that you didn’t notice it was suburbia that was stuck to you.
It was a scapegoat.
The place didn’t make the person. The person made the person.
In that moment, under the swaying pohutukawa tree, I finally knew how to begin.
The girl was small, but so was everyone else.
She searched cities and deserts and backwater towns, hunting for the place that would make her bigger. She chased down sunsets and road trips and late night fence-climbing, destroying herself to let herself grow, thinking she could be a supernova, collapsing before expanding.
She didn’t know hunger but she knew torture.
It was a special sort of desperation to pretend to be someone else, pushing at her skin to go and go and go at the pace which the living dead operated at.
Still, her heart remained hollow, for she found nooks and corners, empty gaps and cracks in the walls, but no stuffing, no cotton, no ambrosia to fill her insides back up.
At long last, she returned to her little island at the bottom of the world.
There was a reason why it was called the Fish of Maui. It was substance. It was home. She touched the bottle-brush flowers along the noiseless coasts, coating her fingertips with pollen: golden and cool and eternal.
In the unlikeliest of places, this was how she found herself.
© Chloe Gong