The Better People

It takes the federal government six years and two months to build the mosque on Momo Drive. The call to prayer sounds for the first time on the seventh of June, an hour before sunrise, in a low, throaty cadence that cuts across the dark. Under lamplight, the building’s white dome gleams like polished limestone.

+

“Alamak,” Mrs. Wong says on the twenty-second of June, as she chops up fat heads of pickled cabbage for breakfast. It is seven twenty-seven in the morning, and the skin under her eyes is bruised and puffy. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in so long. As if the construction wasn’t noisy enough—now we have their noise to deal with.”

    Mr. Wong looks up from his papers.  There are wire-rimmed spectacles balanced on the rim of his thin nose. A cigarette hangs loosely from his mouth. Sunlight pours in through the house’s stained glass windows, illuminating the kitchen, the knife clutched in Mrs. Wong’s hand, the four empty plates set on the dining room table.

    “To think they would build something like this right across the front yard. Right in the middle of our view,” Mrs. Wong continues. “I don’t want to be selfish, but we’ve been here fifteen years! Remember how clean the street was when we first moved in? Remember the old park, where the children used to play? Now it’s full of hooligans and thugs, smoking and making dirty jokes about women. Now the only way to keep our daughters safe is to keep them locked at home. How else can we make sure our good girls stay good? No one cares about the right things anymore. These things that matter, to good people.”

Her flabby arms wobble as she chops.

    Mr. Wong returns to his papers. The morning sun casts shadows against the deep lines of his face. The ceiling fan in the dining room whirs loudly.

“What to do about it, huh?” he mutters, his lips tight with scorn. “What do you want to do?”

            +

    In the living room, Solomon Wong has his feet propped up against the battered couch, as he lies sprawled across the floor. He does not move, as though the air itself, dense with moisture, has him pinned to the ground. It is the thirtieth of June.

    “Ma, the air-con,” he shouts.     

    “Broken,” Mrs. Wong replies.

    “Ah, what a fucking joke,” Solomon says. Even indoors the midday sun is unforgiving. Heat diffuses through roofs and walls, glass and concrete, down from the ceiling and up through the floorboards. It drowns the family in a terrible flood of warmth; beside his son’s bare feet, Mr. Wong reclines on the couch with closed eyes, while Mrs. Wong sits on a red plastic stool in the kitchen, drowsily slumped over a table. Next to her sweating face, a pile of dirty laundry, topped by a schoolgirl’s pinafore dress. Against the dark blue fabric, the crusty, brown-red stains might as well be invisible.

    1:28 p.m., the clock on the television displays. From across the street, Arabic chanting invades the house, insidious as heat.

    “How amazing,” Mrs. Wong huffs. “That they can still go on in this kind of weather. Maybe they can really speak to Allah after all, and He blows cold air on them from Heaven.”

    Mr. Wong makes a hoarse grunt in the back of his throat. “The stingy Melayu bastards should tell Him to share.”

    Mrs. Wong giggles.

    On the living room floor, Solomon runs a hand through sweat-slick hair. “Eh, if it bothers you so much, Ma, I can do something about it,” he says. “You can count on me.”

    “I know, sweetie,” Mrs. Wong coos. “You’re so good to Ma, I know.”

    “No, really,” Solomon says, rolling over and rising languidly to his feet. The light of noon sheds a strange sort of beauty on him—in the slenderness of his frame and the firmness of his jaw and the proud arch of his neck. “How about I toss a rock through their windows? Or beat one of them up—smack him around a little bit, teach him to be quiet? Or maybe I’ll just burn the whole building down.”

    “Sweetie, ah. Don’t say such awful things,” Mrs. Wong chides.

    Solomon ignores her. Instead he walks to the door, shoves it opens and sticks his head outside.

    “Hey you,” he hollers. “Yeah you, you asshole-piece-of-dog-shit, look at me when I talk to you. Your praying gives me a headache! Every morning you wake my Ma up even though it’s still dark outside. Didn’t your Allah say ‘love your neighbor’? Show me some fucking love, lah!”

    “Solomon!” Mrs. Wong gasps. Fright sharpens her eyes and tautens her spine.

    There is silence, followed by a bark of laughter from Solomon; he laughs and laughs, throwing his head back to expose the pale flesh of that proud neck.

    “Oh Ma, I’m only joking. There isn’t even anyone out there.”    

    Mrs. Wong gives a soft sigh of relief.

    “You shouldn’t be saying those things, Solomon. You don’t know what those types are capable of! Aunty Pam told me some of them even carry knives around and rape girls on the street!”

    “Tch, like I care. Go tell Susanna if you want,” Solomon scoffs, under his breath.

    Mr. Wong clears his throat very mildly.

    “So where is she then?”

    Silence again. Solomon looks away.

    “I asked you a question, boy.” Mr. Wong says. He takes his glasses off to polish them with the front of his polo shirt, wiry fingers swabbing the glass with surprising force. Solomon does not respond.

    “Come here,” Mr. Wong says. Solomon goes to his father, and Mr. Wong’s open palm smacks across his face with a crisp sound that drowns out even the prayers, for a second.

    “If you can’t tell me where she is right now I’ll cane you until your back bleeds,” Mr. Wong says. “You won’t be able to lie down for a week. Then maybe you’ll learn to take better care of your sister.”

    “It’s not my fault!” Solomon replies, through gritted teeth. The faint outline of his father’s hand dominates his left cheek, an angry red against his pale skin. “I went to check her room this morning and she was still sleeping and I locked her door from the outside like always but when I got back home after futsal she was gone! I only left her alone for a minute! She’s the one who wants to get out so bad, it’s not my fault!”

    In the kitchen, Mrs. Wong is shouting: “Leave my poor baby alone! If you’re going to punish anyone, it should be your slut of a daughter! Go find her terrorist boyfriend and beat him if you want!”

    Mr. Wong curls his fingers into fists and says nothing. The prayers have stopped now, but in the stale, sweltering air, the whine of the dining room fan and soundlessness of words unspoken are deafening.

+

    The Grade 12 class of Li Hua Girl’s Secondary School finish their midterm exams on the third of July, at approximately four-thirty in the afternoon. Students emerge in pairs and small groups from the building soon after. They assemble around the iron-grey school gates, discussing exam questions and waiting for their parents’ cars.

Solomon Wong pushes through the crowd, his handsome brow furrowed in vicious contempt, stifled panic and—beneath it all—fear.

    “Hey,” he calls, cupping both hands around his mouth. His school uniform, a starched white shirt tucked into black shorts, is damp with sweat. “Susanna, hey!” Even this late in the day the sunlight is pitilessly harsh; bathed in its glared, the faces surrounding him are hazy and indistinguishable. “Susanna, this isn’t funny! You bitch, Susanna, this isn’t funny!” Solomon screams, until his throat hurts.

    Someone taps him lightly on the shoulder; Solomon turns, but the girl standing behind him is too short and squat to be his sister. “What are you doing here, shit-for-brains? This is the girl’s school,” she says.

    “Ai Ping, tell me where Susanna is,” Solomon hisses.

    “I can’t speak Canto, retard,” Ai Ping snaps back. She rolls her eyes, making a grand gesture of it like some American on television, and Solomon reigns in the urge to punch her across the face. “Talk in English, if you even can.”

    “Tell me where is Susanna, Ai Ping,” Solomon says.

    Ai Ping sneers. “Like I know. No one hangs out with your weirdo sister anymore, not since she got herself a shit-skin boyfriend, and she hasn’t come to school for days anyway. Go look for her at that mosque next to your house, you won’t see her near me.”

    “Fuck you!” Solomon spits. He shoves her in the shoulder, but she barely staggers; he marches off in the opposite direction, and she laughs, scornfully, to his back.

    “Haven’t you heard the news? Racial tension rising! Fighting in the streets! Chief minister Rahman says there’s going to be riots, state of emergency, all that shit! Only he’s on their side, isn’t he? We don’t get any say in anything. So who knows? Maybe your Muslim-fucking sister is right! She’s going to help us save all the Chinese people in the country with her cunt!”

    “Fuck you!” Solomon repeats, but the words sound feeble, even to his own ears. He bites his bottom lip and walks to the opposite side of the road where his father’s car is parked.

    “She’s not here,” he says, as he enters through the back door and sinks down next to Mrs. Wong, who plucks nervously at the frayed cotton edges of her dress, her plump face pinched with concern. “She hasn’t been to school in days, but I swear I didn’t know. The day before yesterday I picked her up like usual and she said her Math paper went well. I just—I thought she was better now. I thought that after everything we said to her, she was better. After everything that happened, after what we did...”

    He dares not go further.

    At four forty-eight sharp, the drone of prayer begins to echo from far away, enclosing the car on all sides in a cage of sound. Sitting at the steering wheel, Mr. Wong is completely motionless. Mrs. Wong is close to unraveling the hem of her dress, but she does not notice.

    “What do you want to do? She’s gone. She’s run away forever and now we’ll never have her back because of some… some entitled, arrogant Bumi pig… stealing her away just because he can…” she murmurs. Her voice, thick with tears, quavers like a shimmering wave of heat.

“What do we do?”

+

    Sunset over Momo Drive dyes the clouds dark burgundy against an indigo sky, in a wash of colors that clash like warring lovers. The street, one of the city’s oldest, runs perfectly straight; an unbroken row of terraced-houses stand on its left, and an expanse of grassy field on its right, the symmetry broken only by the mosque facing the Wong family house.

    “I hate it,” Mrs. Wong says, to her husband and young son. She cannot recognize the voice coming from her mouth, the venom of it, the malice in every spat consonant, but she does not stop: “I hate the way it looks and the way they look and how dirty they are and smelly they are and the all the fucking noise they make, I hate it all. I hate them all.”

    Mr. Wong and Solomon do not respond. They only nod, fists clenched atop their thighs, as they squat in the dirty alleyway behind their house. Soon, the evening prayers will be ending.

It is the fifth of July. Three weeks without Susanna. They grab the first boy that wanders past the alley. He startles when they clamp their hands over his mouth, and drops his half-finished bottle of Gatorade with a yelp. Solomon Wong breaks his nose for this.

Then Mr. Wong fractures his ribs and left leg, silently, clinically. But it is Mrs. Wong who takes the steel rod from his husband’s hands and beats the boy to death. She smashes his brains into the tarmac against the fading blue-red light and shrieks: “Where did you take her? Where did you take my daughter?” until her sandals are soaked in blood and her flabby arms ache from exertion.

    The boy is younger than Solomon, and far too young for a girl Susanna’s age. But his skin is dark, and he dies crying for his mother in a different language. That is good enough.

    They hide the body in a dumpster afterwards. They do not leave the house when the dark throng of men and women swarm Momo Drive from across the street, searching for their missing boy. When he is found, the police come but do not stay for more than a few hours, resolving to return the next morning. Solomon stays in his bathroom through the night and does nothing but vomit and sob.

    Mr. and Mrs. Wong do not sleep easily. Mr. Wong dreams briefly of Susanna. He wonders whether she would happy with her parents, for avenging her stolen dignity. He wonders whether she is happy wherever she is now, the white of her arm brushing dirty brown.

    Later at night, when the clock on the television shows twelve A.M., Mr. Wong wakes up to a terrible heat.

    Heat, like a thousand driving palms, like a thousand thrashing fists, coming from every corner of the room. It swallows up the air until he can barely breathe.

    In bed beside him, Mrs. Wong is weeping. “What’s happening?” she asks. “What’s happening?”

    He cannot answer her, because he sees it then. Smoke as black and heavy as sin; the plume grows by the second, pouring from the open door and into every hidden crevice of the room. “You stupid woman, get off the bed!” Mr. Wong roars. The smoke stings the back of his throat. “What about the boy? What about our son?”

    Mrs. Wong does not move. The floorboards begin to creak. A jet of flame peeks up through the cheap mahogany and licks at Mr. Wong’s feet. The pain burns and sears and bites away at his skin.

    “Can you see it?” Mrs. Wong whispers. “Is it their God? Is this His light? It’s so bright, it hurts my eyes. Oh God, help me, I’m sorry for what we’ve done, I’m sorry. Susanna, Mommy is so sorry! Mommy is sorry—please, I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die! Don’t let me die, God! Susanna, save me!”

     She grabs her husband’s arm with the desperate strength of a dying woman, but he shakes her off. He leaves her to the flames and does not look back when she starts to cry again.

    Mr. Wong runs to open the windows, but the smoke is entering from below faster than it leaves. Mr. Wong can barely gasp a cry for help before his lungs fail him. The fire eats him up entirely.

+

    Evening prayers end early on the sixth of July. Under the shelter of night, its narrow road lined with the faint, ghostly glow of streetlamps, Momo Drive maintains a convincing illusion of peace. A crescent moon hangs low in the sky, curved like a cherub’s smile, and a kind breeze cools the air.

    Leant against the back fence of the neighborhood mosque, Rosli Anwar takes a minute longer than usual to smoke his post-Isha cigarette. His fingers jitter. Hot ash spills down the front of his shirt. His face, a warm, smooth shade of russet brown, betrays no emotion.

    A while later his sister joins him. “Rosli,” Rohana Anwar says. “Are you alright?”

    “Yes,” Rosli says.

     “Liar,” she replies, without anger or frustration. “You haven’t said a word since we finished prayers. You didn’t even blink after Father told you what Uncle Rahman said about the protests. You usually care so much about these things.”

    Rosli looks at her briefly, but finds he cannot meet her level gaze.

    “It doesn’t matter, okay? I don’t care about the protests or the fighting. I just wish we could all go back to the way things are supposed to be. Everyone quiet and happy with their lives.”

    “Adik...”

    “I don’t care,” Rosli says. He throws the cigarette to the grass and grinds it under the heel of his shoe.

    “Oh Rosli,” Rohana sighs. Her eyes, as dark and beautiful as her skin, are watery, and glisten in the moonlight. She draws her brother into her arms. “I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t have had to. They shouldn’t have made you go.”

    “He was our neighbor, Rohana,” Rosli says. Even within his sister’s embrace his composure is not shattered. “He was twelve years old and they crammed his corpse into a trashcan. How could I have not gone?”

    Rohana only shakes her head.

    Rosli squeezes his eyes shut. “I think there was something wrong with them,” he continues. “Sometimes I used to hear a girl crying from inside the house, like the mother and father were doing something to her. I bet the boy was fucked up too. I bet he helped his parents do awful things. I bet they were all sick on the inside.”

    Rohana presses a kiss to the side of her little brother’s head, and holds him still as his body shakes.

    “What’s going to happen to me, Rohana?” Rosli asks. “Father says we won’t get arrested, but how is he sure? He says the government will take care of us. He says Uncle Rahman knows we don’t deserve to go to jail, especially with crazy Chinamen killing little kids in the streets.”

    He doubles over, clutching his stomach, as though about to vomit. Rohana rubs slow circles into his back and waits for him to finish speaking.

“But I feel sick on the inside too, kakak. Like there’s something living in my stomach that… was glad. Glad to light the match—excited by the smell of smoke—Rohana, what’s wrong with me? We burned that family alive—oh God, we killed them all…”

    “It’s alright, Rosli,” Rohana replies. Her low voice is benevolent, as warm and resolute as an angel’s. “It’s not your fault. We’re the better people. They deserve everything they got.”

There, against the back fence of the mosque on Momo Drive, she comforts him with her words and love, until daylight breaks and the soothing song of morning prayer cleanses the Earth once more.