Short Fiction/University of Essex International Short Story Prize 2021, 1st place
He tells her he’s twenty-eight. She tells him she’s sixteen.
There’s something off at home. She doesn’t know what. She likes it when no one’s around and she can just sit at the new computer. This was when computers were starting to become a thing and she was still one of the few people in all of town to have one at home.
Her dad’s the president of something. Not the country, not the town. It’s a bit like secret services, the stage workers you see moving furniture between scenes. Black outs. His phone rings all the time. He doesn’t say “Go for Chellaiya” when he picks up. Doesn’t say “goodbye” when he hangs up. She thinks he should. Two of his friends died recently.
Her mom’s a scientist. A biotechnologist. An immunologist. She knew these words even before she knew how to retell a story. That’s the first step in the descent from baby to child. Mom has eight hands, four on each side. Mom’s not on the phone at all, though she has one of those flip phones. But papers. She stacked them all together one day, when the mom wasn’t home. They kept growing and she needed a stool first, then a chair, then a ladder from the cellar to pile more papers on papers till their spine could no longer hold and they swayed to a crash.
Mom’s like time. Dad’s like place.
They could have had a dog.
She’s two minus sixteen but feels like eight plus. He’s sent her a picture of him in a hat, bowtie and suspenders. Some murder mystery dinner he threw for his friends. Another where he’s fishing alone at the Ramganga in the Jim Corbett National Park.
He’s wearing a beret and a pant with pockets everywhere. She’s created a folder within a folder within a folder within a folder called “Brilliant Tutorials – CBSE Maths” where she’s put his pictures, along with the one’s she sent him. She’s seen fishing rods only in pictures.
Mom buys a massive printer, connects it to the computer in her room. The printer prints past her bedtime. Swallow slowly, print side to side, eject in hurry. Dad’s a pen to paper person. Mom brings out a lamp at night and suddenly the dining table is a conservatory. Pictures of all possible things under the microscope look rather similar and make her think that maybe, after all, everything is just the same.
Dad either doesn’t know how to put his phone on silent or doesn’t want to. He should be the first one to hear about his friends dying or his friend’s father who was killed by his friend’s son. When his phone rings past bedtime and the main door opens and closes, she sits up in bed and wonders what story comes her way till mom walks in and pushes her shoulders back to bed, telling her what’s happened or telling someone, the air or the earth, that the dad’s gone out and will be back when he’s taken care of things.
Mom’s a detective of microscopic worlds. Dad keeps visible ecosystems in place.
People do whatever they want on the internet. There are pictures to prove that. She goes on google and searches her own name and looks at the images. There’s a breed of dogs that’s called what she’s called. There’s a jewellery maker in London who is both young and old at the same time. A man from Malaga is also called her and his skin is darker than hers and he speaks a wholly different language. She’s also on the list or the picture of Halle Berry that she’s put up as her profile picture on MySpace is. Someone somewhere who googles her name will think she looks like Halle Berry.
On Yahoo chatrooms, people type “Hallo, ASL?” or just “ASL?” and she tells them she’s sixteen or eighteen. Female or male. Delhi or Cairo or Sydney. Her password is godisgreat.
He knows where she lives in coordinates. When he put it on the internet, a beta version of a distance calculating website told him it would take him 3 hours and 17 minutes to come to her. He doesn’t know that it will only bring him to the Munusamy temple three streets away.
Next to stacks of printed paper are blank sheets and though it takes up space in her room, around the computer table, which is basically common territory, she doesn’t mind them. She takes a few now and then to draw what she thinks the skin under her skin looks like under a microscope or her DNA profile that’s basically colourful thin boxes on two finger spaced lines. She slips these between her mother’s research and it’s a bit like the notes with “Eat the carrots” or “The secret ingredient is not love, its cinnamon” that mom leaves in her lunch box.
During lunch break at school, she sits with three other girls in the school playground under their neem tree. She takes out her mom’s love note, puts it in her pocket and eats balls of lemon rice with soft groundnuts in them. She tells them the story about her dad’s friend’s father who was killed by the dad’s friend’s son. Her least-favourite friend thinks it’s too gruesome to talk about someone hacking someone else to death during lunch. Her second-best favourite thinks it’s crazy that someone would kill someone else for love. Her best-favourite thinks it’s just literally so sad that someone would not let someone be with someone just because they’re from different castes.
She and the best-favourite go into the same cubicle. The best-favourite retrieves a mobile phone from her bra, turns it on and dials a number. She squats down to the toilet and pees as the best-favourite tells someone she loves them. There’s a tiny cockroach in the back corner. It’s that man with the bike who’s been following them all around town. It started a year ago and he basically begged his way into their lives. The Tamil miss who caught her passing messages between biker-beggar and best-favourite told her it’s not right for little girls to be prancing around grown-ass men. But that’s really all they do in movies and everyone’s laughing or crying about it at matinees.
The best-favourite gives her the secret phone that the biker-beggar bought her for their romance. When she comes back home, dad’s seated at the dining table and she looks at the clock to see if it’s just six pm. Dad’s on a call. She boils milk, pours herself a cup and squishes some honey in it and dad covers the phone to ask her to make him a coffee. He’s doing this thing where he scribbles in his notepad as he enquires about someone’s family to show he cares when in fact he’s just slowly building them up to ask for a favour at some point in the future. He calls it maintaining contacts. It’s not really very different from what she does with the best-favourite. When she tips the hot milk pot over dad’s cup, the phone in her bra vibrates and she drops the pot on the cup. It breaks in half and there’s milk on the counter. Her chest is flashing.
She shuts herself in the tiny storage room, a room that opens only from the outside. The phone keeps buzzing. The best-favourite always kept the phone off in her bra. It’s him. When she turns off the phone, the room is pitch dark and she bangs on the door from within, the smell of rice in coir sacks filling the room. Dad sometimes asks for coffee and just leaves. She bangs on. Her cup of milk-honey becomes cold on the kitchen counter. Dad sometimes doesn’t really care about life or death.
She doesn’t talk to dad for days. There’s a cyclone coming and it’s always clever to organize relief beforehand. They’ll probably need to evacuate two villages south of their town. Dad calls it the yearly nuisance. The best-favourite is mad at her for telling mom about the phone, who then told best-favourite’s dad about it. When she’d banged the door really hard and dad still hadn’t let her out, she’d called mom from the phone and told her she was running out of breath and she’d probably keep trying for another five minutes. She read somewhere that motivation is like breath. You run out of it.
Mom made her clean the spilt milk. Dad drank his coffee.
There’s no internet the week of the cyclone. Someone’s written a paper about the immunity of computers and mom finds it hilarious but comparable at a stretch. It’s really important to juxtapose human immunity with those of other beings – and systems – to imagine multifarious threats. Sometimes you need to look outside the petri dish, away from the microscope. She calls him from mom’s phone when mom showers and he doesn’t pick up. When she goes to buy milk from the box-shop near the Munusamy temple, some men whistle at her. She really must look sixteen plus eight. She keeps her eyes on her feet, the road with its slush and the careless ways in which vehicles just rush past her by a hair. At the box-shop, the man gives her a candy and asks her not to tell her mom.
Mom asks her why she needed best-favourite’s phone. She tells her she wanted to play snake. Mom opens her flip phone and gives it to her. That night when mom’s asleep, she calls him again and he tells her he thinks her dad’s a dick and her mom’s just playing her. This is what adults do. They play each other and that’s why he likes her. She’s like an open book. No games. It doesn’t hurt her conscience that she’s lying to him. She’s lying only because she’s scared he won’t talk to her if he knows she’s two minus.
She googles “sex” and finds a picture of a blonde woman bending in between a horse’s hind legs. It’s funny because the horse’s tail falls to the woman’s butt and looks like her tail. She clicks on the image and it takes her to a page that opens with a shrill noise of a woman moaning. She quickly closes the tab and clears the entry from the browser history. When she researches for a science exhibition on prehistoric mammals the next day, windows pop up without warning, with naked women on very high heels in foreign countries where it’s probably too cold without clothes. She asks him if it’s okay for women to have sex with animals and he replies saying that she should only have sex with him. She deletes the chat but feels like seeing it again and again.
Everything is damp even days after rain. She stops at the Munusamy temple on her way to school and though she’s not a Hindu, she asks the god seated in the shrine to make the best-favourite talk to her again. The pillar hall is flooded so she can’t go close to the shrine but she imagines passing on the message through the man who lifts his lungi up to his hips and walks through the water to the other end. She realizes he’s one of the men who whistled at her and takes back the message.
She’s late to school and the PT master doesn’t believe it takes longer to walk to school when the streets are flooded. She stands in front of the HM’s office for an hour till the peon comes to tell her that she should do ten laps around the playground. He keeps starring at her breasts when she runs past him and laughs when she slips at the same spot twice.
He hasn’t replied to anything because she hasn’t replied to his sex message.
Dad can drop her at school in the car till the streets are dry. Mom has a conference next week in Trivandrum for three days.
Mom prepares slides with colourful pictures of things you see only under microscopes. She’s doing a new thing where she thinks about immunity from a philosophical perspective. Immunity, mom tells her, is not just about defence. It’s a bit like a moral codex your body learns. What to let in, what not to. Your body is constantly learning boundaries and systems, getting to know them intuitively. Cohesion is a key word. There are things under your skin that are relentlessly trying to make you a united whole, a complete individual.
Dad’s friend’s father is dead and his son is in jail for killing him. It’s a bit like chopping someone’s hands and legs and just leaving the body for life. They need to have him over for dinner once the mom is back but not cook things that were either the friend’s father’s favourites or the friend’s son’s favourites. She closes her door, turns on the webcam and removes two buttons on her shirt. The picture is blurry and it doesn’t look like she has breasts at all. She removes more buttons, cushions her breasts between her arms but she has to use a hand to take the picture and one side looks smaller than the other. She removes her shirt and takes a picture. Sends it to him. He replies.
Mom calls from Trivandrum on the landline right when she’s ready to leave and she feels like crying. Dad’s got a thing that will probably take all day.
He’s wearing a beret and a green shirt. His lips look swollen and are constantly wet. The red car is dirty, nothing like dad’s. There’s music and they pass from streets she knows to streets she doesn’t. He knows a place where they can be alone. He stops the car and gets out to pee. She watches the stream of piss shooting at soil between his legs. She hasn’t had lunch. Dad’s given her some money. There’s no one around but she recognizes the names of the evacuated villages from the signboard up front. He drives the other way. The palm trees look scorching hot and angry at the dry winds. They check into a resort. The man at the front desk looks at her. She’s put lipstick on for the first time and doesn’t know if it’s on her teeth. The cottages all look like real village huts and theirs has a second floor under a thatched roof. There’s the beach right in front. Mom likes beaches. Dad doesn’t because he feels it’s noisy all the time. She’s got to be careful and not take home sand. He’s brought a Coca-Cola along but she doesn’t drink from it. The toilet doesn’t have a door. It’s all a bit dark. She doesn’t like kissing him. His lips are rubbery and he sucks on hers too hard. His tongue flaps around in her mouth and she feels like swallowing hers. He takes his beret off and there’s very little hair on his head. He looks like he went fishing at the Ramganga many years ago. He smiles. He sucks on his fingers and pushes them inside her. She’s like a misty creature with misty eyes that see only mist. She doesn’t know the difference between fog and mist. There are watchdog patches in the small intestine, but she doesn’t remember their name and she’s sure he wouldn’t know it. Adults aren’t all that clever. She’s both the misty creature and is carried by one. Outside, the beach is sunny and frothing and empty. He doesn’t believe she’s a virgin. He cannot believe she told him she’s a virgin. She stops telling him she is and is angry because she’s not lying and still there’s no way to prove it to him. There should be some science behind it. But she wants him to stop talking, just stop talking so the misty creature can fly farther. He doesn’t have a condom. He’ll pull it out he says. He knows how to do it. He leaves to buy a condom when she says no and it’s so cold and she wished there was a computer as tiny as her hand so she can search where they are and how far away home is. She sits under the thatched roof and looks outside at the waves and a boy who is just a bit taller than her runs to the beach. He stops and falls and grabs sand and throws it on himself and some gets in his eye and he’s laughing and he washes his eyes with the sea and she knows before he does this that he shouldn’t and his eyes burn but he’s still laughing and he takes off his shirt and wipes his eyes and leaves the shirt on the beach and dives into the water. He can’t really swim. He dives and hits sand, dives and hits sand. Sits with legs stretched and lets the sea come to him. It doesn’t feel like anything. He drops her at the closest bus stop. She takes a bus without any empty seats and stands in the aisle holding on to a metal bar. She keeps looking around to see if someone’s looking at her because it feels like someone’s looking at her or everyone is. She can only feel her palms, the way they’ve curled around cold metal.
The rest is vague like the palm trees that run past.
Mom bought two guns for the video game console. They play a game where they pretend to be hunters in wait behind bushes for ducks. She takes aim and shoots but misses and mom’s much better at it though she’s doing it without her glasses. Mom also brought back posters of viruses, antibodies, plasma cytokine profilings, and one where there’s the small intestine and large intestine inside an open stomach and the name comes to her. Peyer’s patches. They take care of immune surveillance in the digestive system. Watch out for pathogens and destroy them, mom says, shaking her by her shoulders as if she wasn’t already shaken.
Dad asks her why she’s like this. Mom takes a few days off work.
Nothing’s real on the internet. He doesn’t message her. She doesn’t message him. She deletes his pictures from the folder within a folder within a folder within a folder called “Brilliant Tutorials – CBSE Maths” and looks at her pictures. It doesn’t feel like her, not in the way she looks different from pictures of her as a baby and her as a ten-year-old. She uninstalls Yahoo Messenger, deletes her MySpace profile. She hasn’t done anything for prehistoric mammals. Revision exams for the pre-board are around the corner.
She creates a table on a Word document and types what she thinks is off at home and asks mom to look at it. Mom extends the table and types “Percentage” next to the column titled “Reason”. At “we don’t have a dog”, mom types 10. When they are done working with the table, it looks like this:
Reasons why home feels off
Dad sits at the computer for the first time and inserts a CD with a lot of information on it. The computer crashes. Mom laughs and because mom’s laughing, dad laughs. Dad wants mom to fix it because he needs the CD and the CD port won’t open. He hits it at the mouth, hits the CPU’s head, shakes it. This is why he doesn’t trust technology. She pulls the plug out of the port, puts it back in, but it really seems like he’s broken the computer. Mom’s still laughing, and mom and dad are speaking in a language she doesn’t understand and mom’s holding dad with all her eight hands and dad looks like the neighbour’s cow that really likes to be petted. Dad decides to go buy dinner and she could either stay home and help mom fix the computer or she could go with him and she feels like she doesn’t know what the outside looks like and doesn’t want to, just like how this computer could be dead for all she cared.
They pass the box-shop and the candy-man, the Munusamy temple and the whistlers. Dad orders mutton and not chicken. Paya and not kurma. Rice and not chapathi. Salty lassi and not sweet lassi. She’s just looking at him and he doesn’t even notice it in all that crowd but he’s holding her hand and the food’s going to taste so good not just because that’s exactly her favourites but because she never thought dad would even know it. On the way back she tells him about the candy-man, his candies, and how he asks her not to tell mom about it. Dad stops the car at the box-shop, they get out. The whistlers are smoking beedis. Dad pulls the candy-man by his collar over the counter, slaps him left and right.
For PT class, the miss who prefers to be called ma’am talks to them about sex and she doesn’t listen like the other girls. Or squirm like them. She’s really two plus, no can deny that. When the ma’am-miss tells them that no one knows when an attack comes or how it comes and sometimes it’s so quiet, she sees the misty creatures again and goes somewhere else. Threat is also something you can’t see and she wonders if you could peel apart people and put them under a microscope to see the truth. She wants to ask the ma’am-miss why she hasn’t been having this wet feeling between her legs and if it’s okay if she never ever has sex again because she doesn’t really like it. She wants to like it. She wants it to be funny like the blonde woman with the horse’s tail or the way those women moaned, like they were being hunted by their own selves. All she felt was her voice just running away and away and... till it was dead.
If you peeled apart mom, there’d be dad. If you peeled apart dad, there’d be mom?
Dad’s friend eats everything to avoid talking. She makes them all coffee, pours herself half a cup and sits in front of the dead computer. She can see her face partly reflected on the computer and she can’t stop looking because that’s how she feels. Half-gone. She calls the best-favourite on mom’s phone to ask if that’s a thing that comes with having sex, with growing up, with giving your body to people when you don’t know if you want to. The best-favourite tells her she’s never had sex before and wants to know everything about it. She cleans the table and empties the food rest on the crow’s plate in the garden, asks mom if best-favourite can come over last minute.
Best-favourite in her pajamas is a sight. They sit in front of the dead computer and now she doesn’t see any of her face and she wonders if something is eating her from inside and how many days she has left. She cannot really tell best-favourite the entire story because it’s all in her mind in patches. Like the misty creatures have taken away most of the ugly bits. Whenever someone swears, dad tells them to wash their mouth with Dettol. She has Savlon in the toilet and wonders if she should use it like a mouthwash, get rid of his tongue still in her mouth. When they hear dad’s friend wailing, they sit on the floor at the partly opened door picking up the pieces.
She puts her head to the cool marble and closes her eyes, takes the best-favourite’s hand in hers. No one speaks but they’re all listening. It’s like an alarm, the neighbour’s cow howling in pain at childbirth, something cracking and bleeding, an aisle of products falling off their shelves, fish when a hook traps it, the tiny cockroach in the bathroom corner before she stepped on it, the emptiness of evacuated villages where homes are dead. Computers around the world catching fire. It’s the wrath that could break her ribcage and give birth to two more hands or four or six till she feels like she’s a tank, a battalion, a banyan. Hands that will swat the stares and whistles and nudges away, scratch that itch somewhere she can’t reach and when there’s no words to tell how she feels, they’ll wrap around her, hold her tight in their cocoon till she spits out the shame. Wrap around her when she feels small out in the world. She wonders if her immune system is learning something from all this.
Quiet tears roll from her eyes and she doesn’t know how one of her mother’s hands got here but it’s scratching the top of her head just the way she likes it.
Avrina Prabala-Joslin is a south-Indian writer living in Berlin. Her works have been shortlisted for the Indiana Review Fiction Prize 2021, Radical Art Review Contest 2021 and the Berlin Writing Prize 2019. She's currently finishing a novel that follows two radicals and two revolutions in two places. Website: www.avrinajos.net