Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence


Rachel Heng

Ah Hui prides herself on keeping up with the times. It is because of keeping up with the times that she is able to research the most effective ways of inducing anaphylaxis from the comfort of her own bedroom. Wikipedia confirms that this allergic reaction can be triggered by many foods, including wheat, seafood, milk, and most importantly, peanuts.

Something else the Internet confirms is that anaphylaxis caused by peanut allergies typically happens instantaneously, causing death within minutes if left untreated. This is why, after weeks of discussion, she and Cecilia decided that peanuts would be the best way to do it. Things you see in movies like guns and sleeping pills are not easily procured in a place like Singapore, not least by elderly women.

Ah Hui loves the Internet. It reminds her of the ocean, deep and bewildering, when her father would take her out on his boat as a little girl. Most days the catch was predictable—usually tilapia, maybe cod or grouper if they were lucky—but sometimes they would find gasping strange creatures that had no name, greenish black or purple, with odd, bright eyes, which they would untangle and throw back into the sea as quickly as they could, because to do otherwise would be bad luck. She struggles to imagine what life must be like for her grandchildren, growing up in a brightly lit world without limits, where nothing remains unanswered and no one believes in luck anymore.

The bedroom that Ah Hui sits in is small and square. It contains nothing more than she needs—futon, wardrobe, sink, a single rusty window. And her computer, bought years ago by her children as a birthday gift. The children have long given up trying to change her lifestyle. They do not understand the appeal of simplicity; they think wealth is meant for spending, that money and time are the only limits. She once thought the same way. A long time ago Ah Hui had been a glutton, like children in her hungry generation, but today she lives on a strict diet of boiled eggs, steamed carrots, congee, and the occasional hawker dish. It was only after she turned vegetarian that giving up one or two types of food a year seemed to come naturally. Each little relinquishment felt like a victory in an otherwise infinite world. The children did not understand and thought she was starving herself. It did not stop them from leaving.

Ah Hui is convinced that the different types of people in the universe can be counted on one hand. There are three who represent the entire world: Her second younger brother Ah Yau, a fastidious man who stopped talking to a relative for life because of a missed handshake at a wedding; her cousin Swee Hong, who had abnormally large hands for a woman and asked too many questions; and her childhood next-door-neighbour Boon Kiat, whose malnourishment never stopped him from quarreling with the big boys.

When Ah Hui met her husband, she saw from his habit of opening doors with his feet to avoid dirtying his hands that he was an Ah Yau. And within the first few years of her children being born she could tell that her younger son with his unblinking, greedy eyes was a Swee Hong, while the older daughter would grow up fighting, a Boon Kiat.

It was only on the day she found Cecilia sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk that she remembered Sun Bee. Cecilia was the first Sun Bee she had met in a long time.

Sun Bee was Ah Hui’s widowed aunt who had no children of her own. She passed her days in Ah Hui’s overcrowded childhood home making barley water that no one wanted to drink. She was very young; her husband had died in a car accident six months after their wedding. Sun Bee always carried with her a tiny bottle of drugstore perfume, which she would carefully squirt herself with when she thought no one was looking. The other aunts talked about her vanity in hushed tones behind her back. Ah Hui is ashamed to remember it was she, the ringleader, who convinced her cousins one day to secretly fill the spray bottle with the barley water that Sun Bee had made for them that morning. They watched her eagerly that afternoon, but she just went on squirting herself with the smelly, sticky sweet liquid as if she noticed nothing at all. This disappointed and unsettled them, so they avoided talking to her even more than before. When several months later, they heard Sun Bee had killed herself by walking in front of a passing truck, no one seemed surprised or even too distraught. After the funeral no one in the family spoke of her again. Ah Hui did not break the silence, but from then on, she always kept a look out for other Sun Bees.

She later found out that Cecilia’s sitting on sidewalks was a weekly occurrence. Usually she found her way home, but sometimes strangers or men in uniforms were obliged to call the number listed on her bright yellow wristband. This puzzled Ah Hui because it was quite clear to her from Cecilia’s shining, darting eyes that she knew exactly where she was and what she was doing. I like being outside was the only explanation Cecilia gave.

Her relatives thought that while troublesome, Cecilia’s behaviour was indicative of the inevitable and normal degeneration of a woman who would soon be in her eighties. They decided to put her in a nursing home.

It’s for her own good, an especially enthusiastic niece with large, oily pores and a manly voice argued, what if something happens to her on her own like this? What if she gets run over by a car? Cecilia did not want to go; nursing homes are a death sentence in a young country like Singapore. Cecilia did not want to go, but it was Ah Hui who picked up the phone to the niece and shamed her into dropping the plan. A live-in caretaker was hired and Cecilia remained in her draughty three-bedroom family home, where Ah Hui visited every weekend.

But Ah Hui wasn’t there when the stroke hit. Neither was the caretaker, who was out in the garden smoking. By the time the ambulance was called, enough time had passed that Cecilia would lose all functioning in the left side of her body. Cecilia later said she’d called for help, but the caretaker had not heard. I told you so, said the loud niece, if only you had listened.

So this is how Cecilia ends up in a nursing home. This is also why Ah Hui stays up late at night, wading through the brightly lit articles and opinions on Wikipedia and WebMD, searching for an answer that she wishes she could throw back into the deep.


At eleven in the morning, the queue at Chuan Kee’s already snakes past three neighbouring stalls, where disgruntled hawkers fan themselves with paper plates. Usually Ah Hui has a policy of patronising the neglected, those who suffer in close proximity to the famous stalls plastered with laminated tv show awards and photographs of politicians. Today, however, there is no room for charity.

Ah Hui stands at the front of a very long queue. Checking her watch, she notes with satisfaction that she is a minute ahead of schedule. Her early arrival has guaranteed her pick of satay.

‘‘Five chicken, five pork. I put the sauce in the plastic bag. Peanut and chilli okay, Auntie?’’

He calls her Auntie, when he cannot be anything more than five years her junior. He is the age her husband would be if he were still alive.

‘‘Yes, extra peanut sauce please.’’

She watches the satay man fill a plastic sachet, meticulously dribbling the sauce in, no waste.

‘‘Here you go, Auntie. Careful ah, don’t spill, careful, careful.’’

From underneath his matted hair, the satay man’s gaze is polite but dismissive. Her husband too had looked at her that way when she first stepped into his office many years ago. Be careful, he’d said, every time she wrote a check or filed a document. Don’t mess it up. He never stopped saying it, not even twelve years later when they successfully sold the business to a large food conglomerate, thanks to her efforts.

The satay packet is warm and soft to hold, like a beating heart wrapped in paper. For a moment she cradles it in two hands, feeling the heat on her fingers, meditative in the sweaty hawker centre din. But as passing strangers jostle her, Ah Hui remembers that there is no time for reflection. She hurries on her way.


Ah Hui’s first choice of public transport is usually the train because in the past twenty years she can count only three times when a scheduled service failed to run. But at lunchtime the trains seem to doze off, travelling less frequently and at sleepy speeds. Since Ah Hui is already three minutes behind schedule, she has decided to take her chances with the bus. It is crucial that she does not miss the substitute receptionist’s shift, or they will have to put it off again, for yet another three months.

The air-conditioning is on at full blast. Ah Hui holds a railing with just two fingers, minimising contact with the sticky surface. She does not sit down on buses. Neither does she sit down in dentists’ offices or in public toilets. A TV screen at the front of the bus runs looped advertisements for package tours in Switzerland: shaggy dogs superimposed onto snowy mountains. Welcome to a winter wonderland, sings the metallic jingle.

Some time ago Ah Hui tried to take Cecilia with her somewhere, somewhere cold and snowy—You’ve never been to Europe, don’t you want to see the world—but Cecilia thought the idea of two sixty-something-year-olds on a fifteen-hour flight was ridiculous. What if the plane were hijacked? How would they manage the bags? Ah Hui knew she was perfectly capable of managing the bags for both of them, but Cecilia was not to be convinced. She did not go by herself.

There will be no more holidays. Ah Hui tries to remember the last time she travelled. It was more than twenty years ago, when her daughter had just had her first child and wanted to go to the Lake District in England to recuperate. They went in the fall, when the air was so crisp it cut and the trees were all the wrong colour.

On the TV screen, a Singaporean family puts on their skis. The mother holds her child on a leash to make sure he does not fall. They are all smiling.

All of a sudden, the bus jerks to a stop. A string of polite curses from the bus driver informs passengers that it has broken down. He is very sorry for the inconvenience caused and a full refund will be provided to passengers who fill in the Journey Disruption Claim Form.

But a full refund will not help Ah Hui get to the nursing home on time. Now she will miss the receptionist’s shift. The regular receptionist will not allow her to take food in when she sees Cecilia.

She remembered the look on Cecilia’s face the last time she failed; it was not a look of disappointment or anger. No, disappointment or anger would have been a relief. Instead, all she did was smile. Her smile was encouraging and gay, as if to a child, but behind it was a kindness that Ah Hui could not bear. Don’t worry, she said, it’s not your fault. I know you tried.

No, she cannot fail again. There are no more excuses. The satay is in her bag, she has remembered to check for the peanut sauce, and the substitute receptionist will be there today. It has to be today, bus or no bus.

Welcome to a winter wonderland, sings the jingle as the pixelated family waves. Ah Hui presses the stop button thrice in quick succession, and fellow passengers dinged out of their stupor shoot her disgruntled looks. The looks grow more pointed when the bus driver opens the door to let her out, letting the humid air in.

She steps out of the bus onto the pavement and starts walking towards a taxi stand in the distance. At the intersection a policeman stands in the middle of the road, arms straight and pointing, standing in for a broken traffic light. Another policeman stands on the pavement watching his colleague. As Ah Hui walks by, he turns.

‘‘Auntie, today very hot, better not walk so fast. Why you don’t take bus?’’ he says.

Something in his tone annoys Ah Hui. She eyes his blue uniform, still neat in the thirty-three-degree humidity. He has bad skin and fidgets when he speaks. Who he is reveals itself to her in a flash: He is a Jonathan, the eldest son of her second sister. Like Jonathan, the policeman must have had mediocre exam results despite studying the hardest of all his classmates. Maybe he worked as an administrative assistant in an office before joining the police force, with a renewed sense of purpose and conviction that his life was finally going somewhere. At some point he must have realised what it meant to be a policeman in the safest country in the world. Not immediately, but after weeks of redirecting traffic, setting up buffet tables at grassroots events, and driving lost children home. She can see the toll in the lines around his youthful eyes.

Ah Hui notes with satisfaction that at least her own children are happy, and do not have time to lecture old people. They do not have time for old people.

‘‘Why you don’t call your children to come fetch you? Better not walk so fast ah, Auntie,’’ he repeats.

‘‘Thank you, I’m okay, I’m okay,’’ she replies, ‘‘Don’t worry about me.’’

‘‘Auntie, maybe now you think you’re okay, but you know ah, the other day I saw a senior citizen almost faint by the side of the road because of the heat. Better safe than sorry.’’ His reedy voice makes Ah Hui wonder if he was bullied at school. His voice would have made him a prime target, along with the use of words like ‘‘senior citizen.’’ That and the fidgeting.

‘‘Sorry, I’m in a rush. Don’t worry, I can take care of myself.’’ Ah Hui can see that the taxi queue is growing longer—she has no time for a Jonathan today. She starts walking again.

‘‘Eh, not saying you cannot, but today very hot you know. Why you walk so fast? Running away ah?’’

How can he know? Ah Hui’s heartbeat speeds up. When he laughs at his own joke, she forces herself to smile politely.

‘‘I am late to see a friend. A very sick friend.’’

‘‘Oh, sorry Auntie. Don’t mean to hold you up. Just want to make sure you are okay, you know?’’ All of a sudden Ah Hui notices what he is fidgeting with the whole time: a car key.

‘‘Actually, now that I stop to think about it, I actually feel quite faint. Aiya—’’ Ah Hui places one hand on her forehead and stretches the other out towards the policeman. Right on cue, he rushes forward to support her.


The manufactured smell inside the police car comforts Ah Hui. Everything in the car has its place and purpose: a radio microphone hangs in a cradle, a small laptop on its swivel mount, a spill-proof coffee mug securedcured by the armrest. The car is an air-tight bubble of efficiency and pragmatism, sealed off from the hot decomposing mess outside.

The policeman’s posture behind the wheel is stiff and somehow earnest. As he drives, he scrunches up the tops of his cheeks and the bottoms of his eyes, concentrating on—what? The flat, pothole-free road? The predictable flow of traffic? Then she realises that she has it the wrong way around. It is only because of people like him and his duty that Singapore has the lowest crime rate in the world. But it is that same sense of duty that has reduced him to setting up bu√et tables and driving old people around, now that there are no more criminals left.

The policeman drives fast, just under the speed limit. Better late than never, she thinks, glancing at her watch. Only eighteen minutes behind schedule.


When they arrive at the nursing home, the policeman gets out of the car to help her. She pretends to lean on his outstretched arm, flashing him a grateful, tired smile. His furrowed concern is touching, almost pitiful. As he waves her goodbye with one hand, scratching a scabbed pimple with the other, she finds herself feeling strangely fond of him. If she had been his mother, she would have made sure he was happy. But he is someone else’s to worry about and fight with.

The police car drives away. People at the entrance eye her suspiciously as if wondering how she got out in the first place.

Looking through the glass door, Ah Hui sees that either she is too late, or she has got the schedules wrong. Either way, she has made a mistake. But how could she have made a mistake? The receptionist sitting behind the counter is not the distracted, amicable one with pink cheeks and eyes glued to her cell phone. This receptionist is a regular. She has a lined brow and severe lipstick that matches the carpet.

Ah Hui presses the buzzer. The doors open only under command of a button on the receptionist’s desk, for security reasons. On previous visits she has wondered what these reasons were, but today she is racking her mind for what could have gone wrong.

‘‘Hello,’’ the receptionist says.

Ah Hui can feel the heat of the satay packet on her inner arm, through the orange plastic bag and the thin leather of her purse.

‘‘Hello? Can I help you?’’

‘‘Oh, hello. Visiting Cecilia Lee, ward nine please.’’

‘‘Sure, straight ahead and then on the left. Do you need me to show you?’’ the receptionist says.

‘‘No, thank you. I know where it is. Um. Where’s Mimi? I thought she fills in on the first Tuesday every quarter.’’

The receptionist looks at her blankly.

‘‘It’s Wednesday,’’ she says.

‘‘Oh.’’ Ah Hui cannot believe herself. Again, months of careful planning upset by the most obvious error. The thought of facing Cecilia’s smiling forgiveness yet another time almost makes her turn around to go home right then. But that would be an even worse failure. No, she cannot let Cecilia down.

Ah Hui walks towards the turnstile, carefully holding her purse still to prevent the satay packet from rustling. Her heartbeat begins to speed up in a way that is almost pleasurable. A memory surfaces: stealing money from her mother’s purse as a teenager, sliding it between the waistband of her pants and bare skin, senses pricked for the slightest sound of someone coming home. As she pushes through the creaking turnstile now, she can almost taste the same sweet satisfaction.

Then the receptionist says: ‘‘Hold on. Before you go in, I need to check your bag.’’

Aiya. So close. Ah Hui cracks her bag open narrowly.

‘‘What’s that? No outside food allowed for the patients, Auntie.’’

‘‘This?’’ Ah Hui raises the bag of satay in one hand, looking at it with her best expression of confusion, as if she forgot it was there. ‘‘Oh, this is not for Cecilia. This is my dinner.’’

‘‘You can leave it here and pick it up later when you leave.’’

‘‘Hah? No lah. Why so troublesome. You want to eat is it?’’

The receptionist is unmoved. ‘‘You can leave it here.’’

‘‘Aiyo, don’t be unreasonable. It’s just satay. Last time I left something at the reception it got lost you know! Convenient right?’’ Ah Hui allows a petulant tone to enter her voice.

‘‘Auntie, I am not going to eat your satay. Just leave it here and you can get it later, okay?’’ The receptionist says in a bored voice, the kind of voice that cannot even contemplate not following the rules.

There is no point arguing. As she hands over the plastic bag, she tries not to notice the relief behind her frustration. It will just have to wait another three months. Cecilia will understand; Ah Hui can already see her smile.

‘‘Enjoy your visit,’’ the receptionist says.

As she walks down the brightly lit hallway, she can feel the nurses eyeing her hungrily. She is careful to remain alert. They will smother her with caring painkillers and tepid microwaved food the moment she lets her guard down. The windows in this place are always closed.

Cecilia stays in a private room, receiving the best care that the niece’s money can buy. When Ah Hui enters the room, she seems to be asleep, her mouth gently open like a baby bird. Ah Hui sits down next to her and gently shakes her right shoulder, the good side.

‘‘Ah Hui,’’ Cecilia’s eyes, while hooded by crumpled origami skin, are still bright and alert. She tries to smile but only manages a sideways grimace.

‘‘Cecilia,’’ Ah Hui is strong, she smiles a large smile for the two of them.

‘‘You eat yet?’’ Cecilia asks.

‘‘Yes, I ate at home. And you?’’

Cecilia’s gaze points towards the bowl of congee sitting untouched on the bedside table. A thin layer of oil has congealed on its surface.

‘‘You not hungry?’’

‘‘I was waiting for you.’’

Ah Hui does not know how to tell her. The last few times it was easy: Can you believe he gave me chilli instead of peanut sauce? Or: Someone came at seven, bought up his entire stock of satay at one go! But how can she say: ‘‘I forgot it was Wednesday’’?

So instead she says, ‘‘Sorry I’m late. My bus broke down.’’

‘‘Aiyo. Don’t tell you took taxi? So expensive.’’

‘‘No, there was a policeman nearby. He drove me here.’’

‘‘Really? So exciting! He thought you escape is it?’’ Cecilia’s laughter sounds like a bad cough.

‘‘No lah, he was quite sweet actually. I think he had nothing better to do. He was a Jonathan.’’

‘‘Orh, a Jonathan, no wonder,’’ Cecilia says understandingly.

In the silence that follows, Ah Hui cannot think of anything else to say. Usually they talk about what she is here today to do. First Cecilia’s motivations: the desire to take control, the threat of slow decline and eventual entrapment, the peace. Then the implications of the act: whether there is an afterlife (both believe in reincarnation) and if it would be held against either of them (Cecilia has made silent offerings to the gods to make sure Ah Hui is blameless). Once these were resolved, then the practicalities: how (sleeping pills were too slow; the nurses would pump her stomach) and when (today would be the third attempt). Now that every last detail has been talked through, again and again, there is nothing left to talk about. All that is left is to do it.

Ah Hui struggles to think of what they talked about before the stroke. Her family, what they each ate that day, the cost of public transport. The minutiae that makes up a life.

‘‘Ah Hui?’’ Cecilia says.


‘‘We said today, right?’’

‘‘Yes, we did. But—’’

‘‘Thank you. I don’t know what I would do without you.’’ Cecilia lifts up her right hand and places it over Ah Hui’s. ‘‘I am so happy to have a friend like you.’’

‘‘We can’t do it today, Cecilia. I’m sorry.’’

‘‘Why not?’’

‘‘The receptionist. She took the satay.’’

‘‘But I thought you said the substitute wouldn’t know the rules.’’

‘‘The substitute’s not here today. I got the day wrong. I’m sorry, Cecilia.’’ Ah Hui braces herself for the forgiveness. The kindness that makes failure feel even worse.

But Cecilia does not look at her. She stares silently ahead, staying so still that Ah Hui checks to see if she has fallen asleep.

‘‘Cecilia? I’m sorry. I’ll try again in a few months. Don’t worry, she does a shift every quarter.’’

‘‘That’s fine,’’ Cecilia says in a strange, clear voice, still not looking at Ah Hui. ‘‘You know I can stay if you want me to. I have to stay if you want me to.’’

Blood rushes to Ah Hui’s face.


‘‘I can stay if you want me to.’’

‘‘How can you say that? It’s not about what I want. This isn’t about me.’’

‘‘Of course it’s not about you. I’m the one without a choice.’’

Ah Hui tries to catch Cecilia’s eye, but she continues staring straight up at the ceiling blankly.

‘‘Look, it’s not easy for me either.’’ Ah Hui regrets the words almost as soon as she says them, but Cecilia does not react. She does not seem to have heard.

‘‘I’m sorry Cecilia. Why are you talking like this? Let’s not fight, please.’’ The entreaty is foreign in her mouth, artificial somehow. It feels as if she is sitting in a corner of the room, watching herself talk to Cecilia.

Cecilia lets out a long sigh that sounds as if it comes from far away. She tilts her head towards Ah Hui with effort and smiles heavily.

‘‘I’m sorry, Ah Hui. I did not mean what I said.’’

And there it is, that look of kindness she has seen so many times. It is a look of understanding, a look that goes straight to Ah Hui’s painful, erratic heart.

Ah Hui stands up and tells Cecilia that she will be right back. Stepping out of the room and walking back out to the lobby, she stops a short distance away from the receptionist’s desk.

The receptionist sits up straight at her desk, as straight as the policeman at the wheel. The precise angle of her bowed head reminds Ah Hui of the neatly hanging radio microphone in the police car.

‘‘Do you have children?’’ Ah Hui asks, trying to be friendly.

‘‘No children. Not married,’’ the receptionist answers.

‘‘Oh. Not yet. Don’t worry, you are still young.’’

The receptionist does not answer. Her mute expression says what Ah Hui’s daughter used to assert loudly: I am not worrying, I do not need a man to define my self-worth.

Ah Hui sees that the satay packet is exactly where she left it before.

‘‘Finished so soon?’’ the receptionist asks.

‘‘Not yet,’’ Ah Hui says, ‘‘Just wanted some fresh air.’’

‘‘Ah. It can be difficult sometimes,’’ she says in the same bored voice. ‘‘Cecilia is your sister?’’

‘‘Just an old friend. Why, we look alike?’’

The receptionist tilts her head to the side, squinting. ‘‘No,’’ she says, ‘‘But you smile the same way, with your eyes.’’

Ah Hui’s gaze is drawn to the button on the desk. It is flat, grey, and nondescript.

‘‘You want to go outside?’’

‘‘Yes, just for a few minutes. Get some fresh air.’’

The receptionist nods and presses the button. The doors slide open without a sound. As Ah Hui walks through them, she is careful to keep her gait measured and slow, as if it pains her to walk. It is a walk she has perfected over the years. When she is just past the doors, she kicks one foot out and falls forward, hands breaking her fall onto the hot pavement.


The receptionist rushes out from behind the desk.

‘‘Are you okay, Auntie?’’ Her lined brow furrows in concern, the most expression Ah Hui has seen her display so far. She almost feels guilty but then remembers Cecilia’s words. It is not about her.

‘‘So clumsy. Yes, I’m okay.’’

The receptionist wedges her shoulder under Ah Hui’s armpit and stands up. She stretches out a foot to stop the glass doors from closing, and they take one three-legged step towards the inside.

Ah Hui pushes as hard as she can. The receptionist falls backwards and Ah Hui forwards. Her foot leaves the doors, and they slide shut behind her.

Quickly, she stands up. She cannot tell if her heart is racing from the adrenaline or from the physical effort. But there is no time to lose. She does not turn around to face the receptionist, whose access card she knows is in the wallet on the desk. She picks up the orange plastic bag and walks back towards Cecilia’s ward, her gait once again nimble and efficient.

The nursing home is a busy place. At most, they will have five minutes before a passing attendant notices the receptionist stranded outside. That will be more than enough time, if her research on peanut allergies proves reliable.

‘‘You’re back,’’ Cecilia says, ‘‘Where did you go?’’

‘‘Just outside. To get some air.’’

‘‘I was afraid you’d left,’’ Cecilia’s voice is normal again, filled with patience and warmth.

‘‘Of course not,’’ Ah Hui says, ‘‘I just didn’t want to let you down.’’ She takes the satay packet out of the plastic bag.

Cecilia doesn’t say anything but her eyes are shining.

The satay packet is still warm, but just barely. Snapping off the rubber band with a loud thwack, Ah Hui parts the layers of waxed brown paper. A puff of vapour rises like a cloud. The charred fragrance filling the sealed air-conditioned room seems for an instant to contain all the noise and movement of the hawker centre: the clanging pans, shouted orders in Hokkien, floors glossy with dirty grey water.

She searches Cecilia’s face for any sign of yearning or doubt, but her expression is the same blank, kind mask she has worn for the past seven months. It is the same face her aunt Sun Bee had for most of her life, till the night she slipped out of bed and stepped onto the road in front of a passing truck, still in her pyjamas.

There is no time to reminisce. Picking up a stick of satay, Ah Hui sees that the yellow rendered fat is charred and almost translucent, shiny with oil and dotted with soot. She finds that she can no longer remember what meat tastes like. The damp, sweaty smell is associated only with a void that seems to stretch far back, back when her children were still little and her husband loving, when there were no problems to solve or luxuries to sacrifice.

Ah Hui dips the stick into the peanut sauce, turning it efficiently. For the first time, she thinks about what it will be like. The Internet did not make it sound pleasant; there was talk of swelling and spasms. Will being prepared make it any less difficult? She almost wonders if she will be able to take it, but dismisses the thought before it occurs to her.

Before Ah Hui places the peanut-covered satay in Cecilia’s waiting mouth, she wonders if she should say last words of some kind. Cecilia’s eyes twinkle at her, shining and darting, just like the first time she found her sitting cross-legged outside on the pavement, just like the mysterious fish in her father’s net, so many years ago. I like being outside.

‘‘Thank you, Cecilia,’’ is all she can manage.

‘‘Thank you, Ah Hui. For everything.’’

Later the nurses will stream in. Later they will take pulses and pictures, statements and interviews. Later the world will go on and Ah Hui will wonder what she will do with the rest of her life. But now, as Cecilia grips her hand, Ah Hui thinks only about the forgotten taste of meat.

When the spasms subside forever, Ah Hui carefully closes Cecilia’s eyes, as one would shut the windows of a house before going away on a long trip. Then she picks up a stick of satay from the open packet. It is juicy and sweet, the rich animal smell almost sour in its intensity, like a forgotten secret.