Maxine Starr propelled her bike down a ruddy slope like war was upon her. As the cool night air rushed against her skin, she wrenched the handlebars down, grinding her descent, and had a peculiar realisation: the pedals spun like an electron’s crazed orbit around a nucleus. Okay, she thought, there’s still time.
She skidded to a standstill, mud spraying the air like bullets, and propped her bike against a tree stump. The humid air embraced her. Maxine ran her hands through her sweat-laced hair and the cold chain of her locket. An inevitable truth dawned on her--she had lost her quest to find the stars. It had been lost many times over the past few weeks.
Maxine looked up. The night sky had been distilled into a scratchy darkness, like the inside of a skull. Of course. This was Singapore--not Waddon in Croydon, London. Maxine had hoped another hemisphere would offer new astronomical discoveries. She had hoped she would be surprised. She had hoped everything would be fine. She realised the word ’hope’ was utterly useless in most real-life situations.
Time to hit the space-road.
"Here, Woof! Come!"
Maxine gazed into the night. A form bounded past with a whimper, and as he tottered by, Woof’s rustic-brown coat melded into the dark until he looked like a levitating pair of eyes with teeth. Maxine knelt, rustled his limp, hairy ear--always the left one--as she thought of a solution.
A raspy shrill.
Maxine turned--a muddy grey cat sprinted out from a bush, hissing, hackles raised. She tried to grab Woof’s collar--
Woof sprinted after the wild feline, a German Shepherd on a possessed mission. "What are you doing!" Maxine screamed, before realising it was pointless. "Stop reaffirming animal stereotypes..." And Woof disappeared, the tip of his paintbrush-tail eaten by the dark.
No stars. No dog. Well, ain’t that just fish and chips...
Maxine got to the issue at hand. She reached into her backpack, took out a black file and opened it. An assortment of papers jutted out like crinkled fans. Maxine rearranged them, turned to the first page and illuminated the pages with her phone light.
A two-page spread displayed a chart of the sky. Dots and paths representing the constellations traced a myriad of galaxies and star clusters: Canopus, Procyon, Eridanus and many more. As Maxine traced her finger across them, their shapes and curves, their effigies and beasts, she activated her digital compass with her free hand. She was in the right position, looking South. She turned. Again. A little to the left.
Starchart, starchart, whatcha got for me.
Maxine turned, squinted. Unfurling before her was a hazy blotch. It scampered down the path towards her. She held her breath. Waited. Within moments, the shadow unfolded into a teenage boy.
Maxine was suddenly overcome with several thoughts at once. Was he after her? Was someone after him? Why was he running? Why oh why oh why was there a boy running towards her!
The boy dashed up to Maxine, glasses dangling from his nose, arms swinging around like sweaty pendulums.
"They’re coming," he gasped through spit-shined lips.
Maxine stepped back, studying him. He was Chinese, maybe around fifteen, like her, and dressed in a beige shirt stained with sweat. He also had something slung across his back, the straps crisscrossing his chest like a bandolier. And blood. Thin, stringy whips of it clung to his nose, cheeks and neck. Had he fallen over? Had someone attacked him? Had he attacked someone?
This was Singapore; Maxine realised she had no bloody idea what happened to the regular person after hours.
"What are you doing just looking at me? They.are.coming!"
"The Lu brothers.”
A bolt of recognition struck Maxine’s core. Hadn’t she met the Lu brothers yesterday in class? Maxine realised she was not in the business of settling other people’s beef. Nine out of ten guys were perverted, farting, chauvinistic fools. The other was Brooklyn Beckham.
The boy stared at Maxine; Maxine stared back. She jabbed her finger at a crumbling, fallen log near her bike. "Hide behind that tree and don’t make a sound. And shut your gob will ya."
"Wha--my what?" he said, eyes trembling.
"Your gob?" Maxine coughed, remembering it was British slang. "I mean, erm, your mouth."
"Can, can," the boy said. He sloughed a sliver of blood from his nose, secured his backpack across his chest, and scurried towards the tree.
Frogs grunted, cars honked. Maxine waited. In the distance, three figures stalked out of the darkness. The mandarin light of park lights fell upon them in blotches.
Three teenage boys with glasses stalked towards her. They each moved as individuals, their steps out of sync, heavy. And that was when Maxine saw their faces up close: they looked Asian, and then, not. Mixed for sure, or maybe even Eurasian. They were like her.
"Where’d that boy go?" one of them said, the echo pingponging into the darkness.
Maxine wasn’t sure how to answer. She stood there, hemming and hawing, a warm rivulet of sweat trickling down her left temple. The triplets scanned Maxine.
"Hey," the second said. "You look familiar."
"Yah," said the third. "You’re Maxine Starr with the double ‘r’."
Maxine swallowed. They had a semi-thick British accent. Like hers. "Yeah, that’s me."
One of the boys pointed. “We’re in the same class, right? I’m Sam. That’s Will and Austin,” the one called Sam said, pointing to each of her sisters. "We’re looking for a boy that ran past. He’s got something of ours."
"I didn’t see anyone."
"Oh,” One of them said. “Hey, you’re from England right?"
"We’re from there too. Moved when we were seven." (Left)
"Cool," Maxine replied. "What part of England are you from?"
"Our father is from Wickham." (Right)
"What team you support?" (Middle)
"Crystal Palace," Maxine said. "But I’m not a huge EPL fan."
"Well, it was great meeting you. I gotta get back. I thought I dropped something but it’s not here," Maxine said.
"What did you drop?" (Middle)
"Small thing. Coins."
"Hmm." (Right) The Lu brothers’ smiled. They were handsome. The kind of handsome, she imagined, that you felt would sprinkle onto you if you stuck close to them.
"It was great meeting you. We should hangout some time. Singapore’s not so bad." (Middle)
"Yeah, I’d like that."
"I’m sure." (Left)
Maxine turned to leave—but her foot fumbled over something—a root?!—and she fell forward, arms splayed, onto the grass. By the time she realised what had happened, the shadows had closed in on her like hawks.
The Lu brothers shoved Maxine down with all of their strength. When she could finally see what was going on—her body trembling like electricity ran through her veins—she saw the Lu brothers’ glasses flash in the dim light. They lunged forward, two of them holding Maxine back at arm’s length. Then Left swooped forward, barging past, and snatched a wad of papers into her hands. "The Leonids Meteor Shower," he read.
"Ha..nd...it back," Maxine hissed.
The Lu brothers cackled as one. “We don’t usually do this. But we know you’re lying. That guy came by here, and he owes us," one of them said. "I tell you what. Borrow me that silver necklace and I’ll give it back."
Maxine struggled against their prods and shoves—powerless. She smelt something on the air: cheap shampoo and cigarettes. As she breathed in it, gasp by gasp, she felt something bubble inside her. A rising, burning song. It was enough.
She shot around, teeth bared, and sunk her teeth into the nearest arm.
Left screamed in pain. Maxine tasted copper and sweat. She let go, lunged forward, an animalistic snarl humming across her lips, and feeling her veins shift between her knuckles, peeled back her fist and punched Middle in the knee. The crack sent a shockwave through her wrist, all the way to her shoulder blade. It hurt. Sang again. And Maxine liked it.
She vaulted left. Left shuffled on the spot, unsure, unseasoned. Maxine dug her heel into the ground, swirled on her heels and elbowed Left in the gut. A cracked scream. With a sweeping lunge, she shoved him down with both hands.
Maxine drove her foot into Right’s shin, but she blocked it, and they both collapsed onto the ground. Maxine looked up, her vision framed by a shaky haze of adrenaline. She couldn’t let them take it. She couldn’t let them win.
"You stupid—” one of the brothers yelled.
Heat whisked across Maxine’s eyelids. She coughed, heaving in embers. Sonorous pops came next, like cosmic eggshells being stepped on. Lost in a torrent of cracks and bangs, she felt a thin shadow throw her onto her bike. Her foot brushed the pedals. Maxine instinctively charged forward, and soon, the bike was rocketing down the path. When she finally got a hold of her senses, she glanced back.
The triplets were in a tight knot, hands slapping their heads, embers whorling around them like ferocious fireflies. The smell of crisp, burnt air flittered on the breeze. They continued to scream, slapping each other’s matted hair, as they became swallowed by the dark horizon.
Maxine pedalled faster. Someone gasped for air behind her ear. She finally put it together: the Chinese boy stood behind her on the bolts of her back wheel. She turned back. Jutting out from his backpack in front of him was a stack of sky-blue canisters.
"Are those what I bloody think they are?" Maxine hacked.
"Fire-Pwn 550s,” the boy said proudly. “Top-of-the-line fireworks from Beijing. "You can thank me for my savage aim later.”
"You could have blown us to bits!"
"Don’t worry la. My dad’s a tank gunner in the Singapore Armed Forces. I’m accurate one. It’s in my blood."
Brimming with rage and incredulity, Maxine raced towards the street, clearing a miasma of smoke from her nostrils with each turn. And then with a deep, throaty bark, Woof appeared, running alongside them.
"Is that dog yours?! That’s one awesome dog," the boy screamed.
Maxine focused. She made turned and stopped at the entrance of the park.
They caught their breath. Maxine looked down at her shirt, her bag, and saw everything was smeared with carbon, sweat and blood. Not her own. Not this time.
The boy zipped his bag up, stroked Woof. "I’m Henry. I’ve seen you in school, but we’re in different classes. What’s your dog’s name? It’s your dog, right?"
"His name is Woof," Maxine said, wiping her tear-clogged eyes.
"Wah--that’s an awesome name. I once had a fish called Gills. He died of old age, but it’s hard to tell if a goldfish is old, you know? Hey--did you know that goldfish can regenerate optic nerves if they ever lose their sight? Wolverine level."
"Those monsters live near my flat. They’ve got serious issues lor. I think it’s cos of their divorced parents. I dunno, la. As for the fireworks, I made them," and he prodded the bag. "Illegal. So, shh can? Anyway ah, just now I wanted to try them out. But the Lu brothers were smoking nearby. They saw me and chased me to you. Ha! And now they’re sibeiiiiiii scared man!"
Maxine wiped sweat and blood and spit from her mouth."Sibei?"
"It’s Hokkien. Singlish. Never heard of it ah?”
“No, I…,” Maxine looked back, frantically, trying to piece together what had just happened. She checked for her locket—still around her neck. "No!"
"What what?" Henry asked.
"They have my star chart. I left it behind. I need it."
"Oh! I didn’t mean for that to happen. Really," Henry readjusted his sweat-stained glasses. "Anyway, what’s a star chart?"
Maxine turned away, punched the stiffness out of her shoulder and wheeled her bike home. Woof dragged his paws behind her, whining in the way guilty dogs do. It took a while. Soon, Maxine realised a glaring truth: the humid air, the starless night, the Lu brothers. Maxine did not belong in Singapore. In fact, she hadn’t belonged to a place for a very long time.