Always, she arrives near evening. The last few children in blue-and-white uniforms have finished their after-school work and are plodding along in small gangs or, like her, alone. They don't take notice of her; they have screens in their hands, shoves and teasing to repay, snacks bagged in newsprint to grease up their fingers. In their trail, sparrows tussle over fallen fried crumbs and biscuit sticks trampled to powder by little shoes. A pearl-eyed lottery seller, sensing passersby from footsteps and the clap of flip-flops, calls out over an opened case of clothes-pinned tickets to whoever craves luck.
Her nose picks up the ashen smell always in the air. Somewhere, a garbage heap incinerates underneath a highway overpass; in temples, incense sticks release sweet smoke to the holy and the dead; flames curl blue in the open-air gas grills of shophouse food stalls.
She is a child or a few thousand years old. Would it ever matter? The city will stay this way for her. When she was a uniformed primary schooler herself, walking home along these very streets, she liked to make believe she was a bewildered traveler in a foreign city, drawn forward by alluring strangeness. She couldn't have known then that there would be years ahead when she didn't have to pretend, and years still further ahead when pretending was all she could do.
Fresh, fresh, hot, hot, good for kids, delicious for grown-ups, twenty bahts, twenty bahts. She counts on hearing the soy milk lady's singsongy cry ahead of the others. The thicker the crowd on the sidewalk, the louder the hawkers call out. Stampedes of dusty shoes and shopping bags and stray dogs crisscross near the ground; canopies of sun-shielding umbrellas and twisty headphone cords drift above. The fruit sellers have laid parrot-green pyramids of pomelo on their tables. They holler, "Come, pretty young sister! Come sample this!" and she tells them maybe tomorrow, knowing they'll be at the same spot to greet her the next morning as she hurries to catch the 6:45 at the Skytrain station. Auntie Tofu, Uncle Big Mouth, the Egret: she doesn't know their real names, only the monikers her mother mentioned when boasting of discounts negotiated at the produce scale. The vendors pick up halved mangosteens to show off the white flesh balled inside like an unbloomed flower. It's about the time of the year when these particular fruits become more plentiful, though that wasn't always the case, especially during the calamitous years-lifetimes ago it seems-when orchards drowned and few trucks dared brave watery roads to deliver what little of the crop had been saved. Those days are hardly worth remembering, are they? Everything is now back in its place.
The asphalt before her darkens in the shadow of the building she thinks of as home. The usual guard salutes her from the gatehouse, a walkie-talkie raised to his forehead. When building management first upgraded the security setup to attract higher-paying tenants for the rental floors, she thought the cameras were turning to follow her. She'd find out that the motion was simply an automatic preset and the feeds went to backroom monitors attended by no one. She was young then and didn't realize that there was already scant escape from being watched, camera or no camera.
Eyes are everywhere, pointing down from balconies and windows, through the iron fencing and palm thickets that separate the building's grounds from the unruly street. She can feel eyes on her skin, even now. It won't surprise her to turn around from this walk up the driveway and find the guard peeling her with his stare. Where the building's communal shrine stands, a sun-reddened European family, probably one of the short-term renters, is clicking selfies in front of the week's offerings-oranges and bottled cola-for higher entities and land spirits. The pudgy-faced father turns in her direction, eyes widened, before resuming his pose for another shot.
In the lobby, chilled, purified air welcomes her. How many times has she walked over these granite tiles? Always in a rush, out and in. No letting up the pace. There isn't need for any hurry now. She can take the remainder of her life, if she wants. As she passes, the receptionist behind the front desk barely glances at her, occupied by the telenovela playing on a small tablet that slides out from under her folders when the manager isn't around. There's no customer at the coffee nook, where the receptionist also triples as barista and cashier should someone obey the beckoning paw of the Japanese porcelain cat on the counter.
The coffee venture was part of a flurry of renovations management had embarked upon after she left for abroad. One year, she'd returned to find the lobby's gray walls covered up by prefabricated panels of exposed brick and the waiting area's threadbare sofa replaced by sleeker Scandinavian-by-way-of-Thai-factories chaises and sectionals. Another visit, a spa meant for expats and tourists had opened on one end of the ground floor, and the music from the lobby's overhead speakers had switched from Thai pop hits to rain forest sounds laid over tinkling chimes. Even the elevator bank had gotten a makeover, with footlights installed along the walls and the nicked beige doors refashioned with a few coats of auspicious firecracker red for the Chinese renters.
She stops in front of the call button, her hands clenched. Maybe this will be the time she gives in to the temptation to push it and wait for the arrival bell, a sound she has heard thousands of times. It's nearly seven o'clock. Both her parents should be home from work. Her father's probably watering the plants on the balcony and doing his evening calisthenics routine-arms swinging and legs lifting-in the Premier League T-shirt and shorts he has changed into, and her mother's probably in her favorite chair by the window, arms spreading and folding the day-old newspaper that she always forgets to take for her train commute. Soup is simmering on the stove in the alcove kitchen. It's either the lotus stem curry that her father brings home twice a week from his favorite shop by his office, or the clear tofu soup he likes to make with vegetables left over from other dishes. The TV is on, as it usually is. To break the silence, as her mother says. The evening news anchors-always the genial pairing of a delicately featured woman and a bespectacled man-are at their desk, pitying the fallen and wounded in the day's roundup. At some point, her mother gets up to knock at the windows to tell her father to come inside. Her father pretends to ignore the knock, and her mother knocks again, with louder authority.
The ding of the bell stiffens her back. The elevator has arrived on its own. Its red doors slide open with no one inside, and her own eyes return her gaze from the mirrored wall inside. She dares herself to step through.
She should have known this already: she won't. She'll turn around and walk out the door at the rear of the building and onto the covered walkway leading to the pool. It will already be growing darker out there, no one to look up at the scatter of lit windows. She'll just slip out and leave, as she has always done.
Before she can decide, something interrupts her. She can't say what it is-not a thing she can see, but different from a mere thought, and more than a feeling. It approaches her, cresting forcefully like a wave that has rippled across oceans. It wakes her, as if she were being shaken out of a dream. This is no dream. It's gathering outside of her. It speaks and says without speaking. A dreadful thing's about to happen.
She squints out the lobby's windows. A dry-cleaning delivery van cruises down the drive, the hanger bags having been dropped off. That's all it probably was: a noisy engine startling an anxious woman. She wonders if any of the others also felt it. In the lobby, the receptionist sits undisturbed, her attention still with the telenovela. A tenant stands at the wall of mailboxes, flipping through envelopes. From the speakers, recorded jungle birds squawk out over a synthesized human choir. Her steps clap forward across the marble floor. She pushes the glass doors into the remaining warmth of the slow-boiled day.
It is only so. Many times exiting through these doors, she mumbles the words: It is only so. It's a phrase she's said since she was barely more than a child, to steel herself for the unknowable day. A swim teacher first said it to her during a lesson, after a sparrow that had broken its neck against a sky-filled window fell dead into the pool, and she clung to the words as if they were a lifeline thrown to her. It is only so. She repeats the phrase three times, out of habit and a need to calm herself, not knowing why she's pacing the circular driveway, looking for what she can't even say.
She suspects the guard is watching her again but doesn't turn around to check. Following the seeming tilt of the land, she lets her feet pull her like hounds toward the garden by the garage entrance, where drivers wait their turn to whirl down the window and tap their entry card. She has long avoided this area for the good chance of running into one of her parents behind the wheel of a car.
The garden is nothing more than a square of yellowing grass and concrete planters. The air here feels thinned out. Her own footsteps, echoing back one, two, one, two, feel faded against an intensifying gradient of sensation.
She's suddenly reminded of the few minutes before a concert begins, when musicians run through their warm-ups onstage. She loves hearing those first discordant notes climbing and collapsing in their collective routine as much as the program to come. What are these instruments that now play for her? She hears the flapping of a buzzard's wings, monsoon rain tapping on window glass. Song of harvest sounding across rice fields. Monks' prayers enveloping a hall of mourners. A hand bounding sharply past middle C.
Some uproar above compels her to look up. She sees only the infinity of the bluing cloudless dusk and the darkened rise of the building, but her instincts command her to cross her arms overhead, turn away, and brace.