Chapter Two: The Leonids

ASTRONOMERS SAY LEONID METEOR SHOWER MAY BE ONE TO REMEMBER.

Astronomers have predicted that this years Leonid Meteor shower might put up one of the most dramatic light shows in recent times. Singapore’s geographical location is well-suited to view this event in the late hours of Wednesday night 7PM-7.30PM.

Maxine put the newspaper clipping back into her pocket. She was running out of options. The ideal time to view the Leonid meteor shower was tonight. She needed a starchart, as well as a place with clear skies. All of which, at this moment, was nowhere to be found. She peeked from her school canteen. 

The Lu brothers were playing basketball in front of the classroom block. They were horrible. All strength, no skill. And as Maxine watched, her fingers pressed imaginary keys in the air, searching...

Maybe she could take them by surprise?

Rush them and grab their bags?

Maybe her starchart was in--

"Hey."

Maxine turned. Henry stood before her, scratching the bridge of his nose. He reached into his pocket and passed her a small packet. "It’s a doggy biscuit for Woof. I bought it from a pet shop near my house. Thought he might like it."

"Right, thanks," Maxine replied, still thinking, and she slipped the biscuit in her pocket.

Her finger-answers offered two options: either Maxine would steal a new starchart, or she would have to try and reason with the Lu brothers. But something told Maxine that somehow the negotiations between their two nations would fail. As they played, Maxine noticed the Lu’s were constantly trying to kick the pain out of their ankles. Maxine smiled: at least she left an impression.

"Hey, so, I’ve been meaning to talk to you," Henry said, tottering from side to side. "I Googled the meaning of a star chart. It’s like this guide that tells you how to trace the constellations, right? Ha ha, I know. I also know it’s my fault you lost it."

"I just want it back before tonight."

"For the coming meteor shower right? The Leo-wid."

"Leonids, yea."

"My friend in Sec Four is the treasurer of the Astro Club."

A surge of excitement coursed through Maxine, and she had to stop her fingers from shuddering. A spasm of a smile etched across Henry’s round face. "They even have a database with all the best places to view meteor showers, if I’m not wrong." Henry opened the palm of his hand to reveal a rusted key. "We just have to be super duper quiet."

"Why?"

"I borrowed the key." And Henry’s words trailed off into mumbles.

"You stole it."

"Aiya, the guy’s my bro. Besides, I saw him hugging Mindy Low behind the Scout’s club room--he owes me one for not telling her boyfriend, Jackson. People say his father is a real gangster, man. Some retired Ah-Long-bad-money-lender type guy. But that’s just what I heard."

Maxine had no idea, yet again, what that meant, but she knew a good proposal when she heard one. Desperate times called for desperate measures--wasn’t that cliche also totally true?

Maxine nodded and nodded. "All right. Let’s do it. Quickly."

Henry smiled. He began trekking down the corridor towards the Astro Club. Maxine followed, and realised, quite inexplicably, that they were on their way to breaking numerous school rules. And they were thieves. Like the Lu brothers.


#


Their search for a star chart started with Henry opening the astronomy clubhouse door and whispering "What’s the plan?" and ended with Maxine finding a rolled-up star chart in the corner. A spreadsheet entitled “Ideal viewing spots” told them the nearest place to view the Leonids was a park called Chinese Garden. Henry said he knew exactly where to go. 

Maxine resigned to fate: he was coming along.

That night after dinner, she prepared her items in her room. As she munched on a handful of cheesy chips, Woof snored softly beneath her desk. 

Maxine looked down at her new starchart. The crinkled surface showcased two circles side by side, one labelled Northern Hemisphere, and the other, Southern Hemisphere. Crisscrossed lines and dot-to-dot symbols converged into more images: belligerent rams, conjoined twins, archers and lions. They were the signs of the Western astrological Zodiac. Ancient guides, starlit legends. And they were also beautiful.

It was then that she remembered her locket. She had taken it off when she came back from the park. Around her, the room was filled with ziggurats of boxes. It was impossible to find. Maxine closed her eyes.

Finder finder...

Her fingers twiddled timorously, playing that invisible piano once again. She reached under her school textbooks and pulled out the locket. Bingo. 

The ash-coloured chain glimmered softly. Maxine traced her hand across the eight-pointed star engraved on the locket’s cover and opened it, revealing a stone inside. It was hers, a mood stone, a curious puzzle she could never really explain nor understand. It just did its thing: glint, shine, occasionally mist over with colour, and lie still. Right now, it looked like a dark, dusty eye. Watching. She wondered if anyone else was.

Kerry, if you could see me now.

Maxine quickly grabbed her phone and found Kerry’s account. There she saw a photo--three weeks ago in grey letters--of Maxine and her best friend on her last day, wearing blazers and a tie, in front of their school gate. She smiled, still remembered. That morning, they had Googled ’Singapore’ together. She remembered Kerry’s shivering voice reading the Google result, as snot dribbled down her cleft lip:


Singapore is an island city-state, a global financial center with a tropical climate and multicultural population. In the past, Singapore was a crown colony of the British Empire that existed from 1946 until 1963. When the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II, the island was handed back to the British in 1945. Singapore gained independence in 1965. Today, some 5.39 million people live in Singapore. Most are of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian descent. 



Interesting fact: In Singapore’s circa-1820 Chinatown stands the red-and-gold Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, said to house one of Buddha’s teeth


Was this the weirdest place in the world? Kerry had never heard of it. As for Maxine, she said she hadn’t heard of it either. She was a good liar.

Maxine had grown up hearing stories from her mother. Singapore brimmed with a bounty of amazing foods; was close to China, but was certainly not China as many people assumed; and was a country with one season: tropically hot. For most, Singapore was known as a small nation with a small population that had accomplished a great deal. However, as far as British kids were concerned, not many had heard of it, eclipsed by more known heavy-weights like China and Japan. And to Maxine, Singapore was simply an alien way of life, halfway across the world.

There were, however, endless things that Maxine loved about England: roadside fish and chips; wind-swept clouds and gloomy skies (yes); crumbly scones with jam; rain-soaked leaves plastered to cold pavements; The Tower of London’s bloody history; a greasy English breakfast with runny eggs and hot beans; the main lobby of the National History Museum—

The door creaked open, breaking Maxine’s reverie.

"How’s Woof doing?" a thin voice asked. Maxine turned. Sarah stood by the door, a hand on the doorframe.

"He’s a tough dog," Maxine said.

"He is. I’m sure the plane ride wasn’t easy for him."

Maxine slipped the locket into her shirt. A car skidded. A bird chirped. Pages riffled. Then a delicate hand fell on Maxine’s shoulder. A distant horn broke the late-afternoon lull.

"That’s the sound of a karung guni,” Sarah stopped, stuttering, restarting her mouth. “It’s like a rag-and-bone-man. They carry a horn to attract people’s attention. Then you can go down and give them things you don’t want. They sell it for money."

"Right."

Maxine looked up. Her mother stood by the window, staring into the metallic grills. "I’ll be visiting your Uncle Raj later, the one that helped us with the travel arrangements. He’s going to help us move to another apartment nearby."

"Sure." More horns.

"And I received a call from your teacher yesterday. She said you had an interesting introduction during your English class."

"It was nothing."

"She said you seemed angry. And I saw the scratches. On your cheek."

"It’s nothing. Just basketball. I’m not angry."

"All right."

"I’m going out to study tonight. With a friend. Might be back late."

"A friend? Great! All right. Just give me a call if you need anything."

Maxine waited for the door to click close. It did not. The air stood still, frozen. And Maxine felt Sarah standing there, silently watching her. When the door finally closed, Maxine snatched up her red baseball cap and planted it on her head. There was no time for idle chitchat.

Meteor showers, like forced immigration, didn’t wait for anybody.


#


Maxine and Woof made their way to Henry’s flat. Maxine decided to wear something comfortable: a hooded jacket, faded jeans, running shoes. In her bag was a small box of her astronomy items, a compass, foldable Cassee-Grain telescope--that she called Scopey--and a few treats for Woof.

Maxine rang the bell, and a few moments later, Henry opened the door. Behind him, sitting on his couch, was a stocky man dressed in a camouflaged uniform, shining his boots. He had a rag in one hand and a container with a label that read KIWI. Woof decided to stay by the door, scratching his limp ear.

"Hey, Pa, we’re leaving," Henry said, putting on his frayed Nikes.

"All right. Don’t come back too late," the man shouted. "Hello, Maxine, right? From England?"

"Yes sir," Maxine said, realising she was talking to an army officer.

"Just call me Uncle," he said with a hard but warm smile. "Unless you’d like to call me Sargeant Major?"

"No sir. Uncle is good," Maxine smiled.

"Be back later," Henry trotted out. He turned to Maxine. "Come. Japat jalan."

"What does that mean?”

"Aiyo, you really don’t know much about Singapore, do you? It’s Singlish. We mix languages like English and Mandarin and Tamil and Malay all the time. But sometimes we also add words like la, or leh, or lor. Or shiok and kancheong spider. It just gives everything more oomph, you know?" he laughed. "You’ll get used to it."

They started moving. From the MRT station to the gates, Henry talked a lot. He shared his whole life, from the foods he loved--salted egg yolk in a bun called liu sha bao--to his favourite show on Netflix--something about a Korean alien masquerading as an army officer--to his future dreams to become an Airforce pilot. 

Maxine had never met someone who was so open about everything. She decided to tolerate it.

Soon, they came to a sign that read Chinese Garden. Before them stood an open park with a meandering lake, groves of trees and arrow-shaped pagodas that brushed the dusky sky. As they walked in, a Confucius statue greeted junctures of stony paths. The smell of mud-soaked tangerines swam with the breeze.

Maxine looked up: the clouds looked like wispy threads against the cloak of the night. She could already see pinholes of light winking. This was good. This was great. This was hopeful. 

Henry led them to an open patch of grass in front of a wide lake. As Woof tried to chomp the frantic gnats, Maxine took out Scopey, her (stolen) starchart, water, treats for Woof, a bag of peanuts and a Mars bar. That was all she needed.

For a while they sat in silence, exchanging Doritos and peanuts. Maxine took out a small compass and tried to determine where she was facing, orientating her body to match the starchart. And just when she thought she found the best direction, Henry’s phone jutted into her vision, flooding her eyes with light.

"For my Snapcat-fans?" Henry said, his glasses three-quarters down his nose. Maxine looked at the chart, then the sky. It looked like they were in the right spot. For now.

"You have followers?" Maxine asked, waving the phone away.

"Ten so far. Mostly my cousins. Okay, they are all my cousins. Still, counts. How about you?"

"I’m more of a Tumblr girl."

"Tumblr?"

Maxine’s clenched jaw unhinged, revealing a decimated peanut nesting in her mouth. "Only life. It’s a platform where people draw and write and post real stories about life. And I mean real stories. Not that fake stuff."

"Like Facebook?"

"No! Tumble is realer. It’s about real people. People like us."

"I see," Henry said. "What books do you like? I like Harry Potter, Marvel comics, One Punch Man. Love it. All of it.”

“I’ve read Harry Potter…love it, perfection. But don’t you find it weird that everyone, like, married their childhood friends? I love the writing, but I don’t want to date the same guy that saw me during puberty. No way."

"That’s true," Henry mused. "When I was in Primary Five, I was on the bus, and I wanted to give a girl a Valentine’s Day card. I vomited before I could.” Henry smacked his face. “Travel sickness. Still not sure if it was the bus or the card, but I’m sure she doesn’t want to remember it."

"Exactly."

"Hmm, what music do you listen to in England? I like Coldplay, The Sam Willows--they’re a local band."

"I’m more into RnB, pop, rap."

"Oh, like who?"

"Drake is cool. Jay Z’s got style and substance. Eminem is another level. And Beyonce is God,” Maxine smiled.

Wait, am I enjoying this?

Henry gestured to take the photo again. The camera flashed.

Maxine blinked, gazing at the photo. They looked like a right bunch of outcasts: a tousled-haired girl with a red baseball cap, a Chinese boy with his glasses falling off his face and a German Shepherd with a droopy ear. And yes, Maxine’s smile was scrunched into a vague scowl.

"So you look for stars and meteor showers a lot? An astronomer?"

"Not really. I like to think of myself as an ancient planet."

"An ancient planet?"

"Well, the word planet comes from the Greek word meaning ’wanderer’. It was used to describe bodies that move in the sky against a background of stars. During ancient times, some stars were observed to move, unlike other stars that did not seem to move at all. At first, the Greeks called them asters planetei, which means wandering stars. So I guess, in some way, we’re all wanderers to someone else."

"Your parents taught you this stuff?"

"My dad."

"What did he do?"

Maxine dropped the bottle, turned, and she saw a flash of her own anger in his dark glasses. "Look, Henry, this thing we have here, it’s just for tonight. I hope you know that."

"Yeah, yeah, of course."

"After this, you’ll go back to your class, and I’ll go back to mine. Thanks for the help and all but this is not a thing. I just want to see the Leonids."

"Yep, no worries."

"Great."

They waited. Woof yelped in his sleep. As the night wore on, time seemed to merge into the sonorous calls of cicadas and toads. 

So they just sat there, waiting, staring up at the blanket of the night, listening to night voices. And then a flash of light dashed across the lake’s surface. Maxine stood up. It was like someone was sketching light with a pencil in the sky. Then the glowing dashes grew larger, longer, spinning off into streaks of crackling scarlet.

Maxine laughed, clapping her hands in jubilation. The meteors’ light stroked the night, the lake, their faces, the whole world a runway for its splendour. Woof barked twice, announcing their arrival with energetic swishes of his tail. Henry grabbed his phone and began snapping pictures.

They stood there for a while, captivated by the Leonids, with nothing but their stunted breathing. Something new yet familiar brimmed in Maxine’s soul--and she smiled, brighter, fuller, more radiantly than she ever thought possible.

And then, as quickly as it had begun, the meteor shower whittled down to wing of glowing silver. Gone.

Maxine grinned, threw her arms up. "And there you have it! The greatest spectacle on Earth."

"That’s it? It was great, but it was so short," Henry said, disappointment laced between his words.

"But it was beautiful?"

"Yeah, I guess," Henry replied. He turned and gazed at Maxine. "Wait...it was definitely beautiful."

"Sometimes the most beautiful things in the world don’t last long."

Henry opened his mouth to speak but stopped. He smiled, and Maxine thought it was a good smile, all things considered. She smiled back. Woof stepped out in front of them, made his way to the lake’s embankment.

"Look, it hasn’t finished!" Henry said.

Maxine looked up--upon the horizon, two faded orbs hummed across the night. "What...no it can’t be..."

The wind. A clawing wind. 

Maxine stepped forward. A howl burrowed into her ears. From where? 

Somewhere.

The orbs grew brighter, leaving veins of smoke across the dome of the night. And then they arced upward and changed direction, faced them.

A cold surge of static rippled across Maxine’s skin, and she felt the arm hair straighten, fall and straighten again.

"Henry, run!"

The purple orb sliced through the air and thundered into the ground. The impact threw Maxine off her feet, and when she finally looked up, heat soaking her flesh, burning soil pelting her body, the park was shrouded in smoke.

Maxine breathed--and smoke rushed into her mouth like swirling tentacles.

She hacked until her lungs burned. And then through the swathes of smoke, the crimson orb slammed into a tree, shattering it like glass.

Maxine covered her ears, but it was not enough to stop the core of her bones shaking, her blood running cold, her mind fracturing into a million pieces. She screamed. In her head. 

Fireworks. Someone lit a firework.

Maxine tried to stand but her legs buckled. She rose again, embers spilling down her shoulders, her arms, everywhere. Henry’s voice echoed over the crackling flames. Maxine got up, followed it and dashed towards him. The smoke washed away in the breeze. Henry stumbled to her, clothes and glasses smeared with dirt.

"Are you all right?"

"There was an explosion...a bomb," Henry wheezed.

The smog cleared. Woof bounded in front of Maxine. An electronic thrill simmered in the air.

"Designate: Maxine Starr," a thrumming voice said.

Maxine turned to see a creature trundle its way out of the crater and land on the razed grass. A misty glass dome flashed across a stained carapace, as two monstrous pincers swung by its side. It was more than a robot; it was a mechanised behemoth.

"We’ve found you," another voice boomed.

From the other side of the park, a towering beast tromped towards them. Its hooves kicked the remnants of the tree trunk, cleaving them into burning matchsticks.

Maxine gasped. She had seen this creature before, but she struggled to remember through the ground fog of her mind. Something about a legend, a mythical creature, a Zodiac Sign...

A Minotaur.

Two sharp horns rose from its head, protruding from a gnarled helmet. The Minotaur’s muscular arm shot forward, revealing a spinning gauntlet. And as it opened, a blue beam shot out, warping over Woof’s body.

The Minotaur cracked lips peeled back, revealing jagged yellow tombstones for teeth, "Canis lupus familiaris--Wronth offffffffff--the Coalition--m--ust thank you. You made this too easy." And the creature laughed like a sadistic cannon.

The clawed robot leapt into the air and landed. The ground shuddered. And together they stomped forward, their eyes and weapons spitting with dark flame. Maxine found Henry’s hand without looking; and Woof barked and barked and barked, but they could not hear him over the burning night.

Next Chapter: Chapter Three: The Man in the Black Suit