The summer months pass by quickly.
The three siblings never make a trip back to the river to go hunting for toads that summer. Lily doesn’t come back from the hospital. The children’s father has gone on a business trip to Singapore; he returns every couple of weeks with pineapple tarts and pork jerky. He says it’s because his company wants to open a new branch in Singapore but Daniel has seen the way the hospital bills pile up, the amount of “0”s following the “Amount due” increasing. Daniel has seen the worry that has carved deep grooves into the middle of his father’s forehead.
The mother has quit her job. She practically lives at the hospital. The nurses have a nickname for her that they use to whisper about her behind her back. They make fun of her accent when they think no one is listening, but she can still hear them. Immigrant ears are used to picking up on the whispers of discrimination. When the mother is home, she cries when she thinks Rose and Daniel aren’t listening. Daniel thinks the extra salt he tastes in his morning eggs must be from the tears she tries to hide from him and Rose. She tries to hide her puffy eyes with concealer, but children’s eyes see more than adult’s think they do.
Yeye still verbally berates Daniel. He has started making Daniel memorize Chinese poems and the traditions that he complains his dad should make them do yearly but doesn’t. He hisses under his breath that Daniel’s dad is the reason that soon there’ll be no Chinese left in this family to save. Sometimes, Daniel forgets a line in the Chinese poem he was supposed to memorize that day or asks his yeye questions about his childhood on the farm, and his yeye reaches out to smack him in the back of his head. But Daniel is faster now. He has learned how to dodge and run from his attacks now. He has gotten faster since he started playing soccer with the local neighborhood boys his age. He thinks he could even dodge the likes of Mike and Tommy now.
Daniel thinks it’s strange how easily routines form. He knows the bus route from his apartment complex to the hospital, trading his bus route map for the games on his phone instead. They stopped using Uber a month in because it quickly got too pricey. He’s become friends with the lady at the convenience store on the first floor of the Child’s Ward in the hospital. She sometimes slips him a cherry jolly rancher with a wink and sly smile. Daniel hates the child ward but he likes that lady a lot. She makes things a bit more bearable.
He kicks the pebble a little ways out ahead of him and blows strands of black hair from the fringes of his eyes. He hates how normal illness has become to him. He hates how it feels like he has always had a sibling in the hospital. He hates how it feels like day by day, Lily’s voice is a little less familiar to him. He can’t remember if she rounds her a-sounds or not. He used to know it as well as he now knows the bus route to the hospital.
It’s a beautiful September day. Crisp. Bright. But that’s not what it feels like to Daniel. Daniel is furious. He hates how the hospital has become a routine for him but most of all he hates how he was reminded today that just a couple months ago, the hospital was not a routine for him. He hates the way his mom tip-toed into the classroom, rapped on the door of his homeroom teacher while he was in the classroom and proceeded to inform his teacher and the entire class that the hospital was now a part of his daily routine. He hated how the whispers instantly started, the way girls would come up in little groups and pat him on the arms and tell him how they couldn’t possibly imagine what he was going through. He kicks a pebble particularly hard and it goes flying into the air. Most of all, he thinks he hates the “sorrys.”
It’s not as if Lindsey Wiggens or Camille Campbell made his sister sick. It’s not as if they can make her unsick either. And it’s not as if they ever cared about his existence prior to his sister being sick. It’s not as if they know who Lily is: if she rounds her a-sounds or not. He walks a little faster, eager to make it to the edge of the clearing. He walks a little faster as if walking faster will help him escape the guilty feeling that weighs down the center of his chest that a part of him likes that Lindsey Wiggens and Camille Campbell are finally paying attention to him. He hates the part of himself that is kinda happy that Lily is sick.
He breaks into the clearing, facing the river for the first time since the last time the Sun siblings were all gathered there. All his rage is rattling in his chest, shaking the fragile china of his ribcage. He feels like he’s going to burst. This is what his yeye must feel when he lays his eyes on him. He picks up a pebble and throws it into the sparkling blue water, watching it dive in an upwards arch before crashing into the river below. It’s not enough. He picks up another pebble and hurtles it with all his might. This time the pebble skips across the glittering blue surface. He picks up another and another and another and suddenly he’s throwing handfuls of rocks at the river, screaming at the top of his lungs. In the back of his head, Lily is shushing him, warning him to be careful or the water monkeys will hear him. But he doesn’t care. He wants to rip the river apart – even if, no, especially if there are water monkeys who call that river home. He wants to throw enough pebbles into the river to displace the sparkling blue water. He thinks if he moves enough rocks and moves the river then maybe his sister will come back.
He crumples downwards and inwards, hugging his chest where the bruise has long since faded thanks to Lily’s careful bandaging that first night. He tries to breathe but he can’t, letting out long anguished puffs of air. He’s drowning in the air. The world constricts around him. Everything’s too dull and yet too bright. The bright blue of the water seems to be laughing at him, beckoning him to just walk into the waves and never come out. He can’t get enough air, or does he have too much air? There’s too much but then there’s too little air and then he’s crying. He flexes his feet in his white sneakers, digging his fingers into the rough denim of his jeans. He needs to breathe. But wouldn’t it be so much better if he could just stop?
His head lolls against the ground and when he finally can just breathe, he feels the same prickling sensation at the back of his neck that he felt all those months ago when he walked hand in hand with Rose and Lily out of the clearing. And all of a sudden, his breath is caught in his throat again, his throat working furiously to suck in the air. He forces his muscles to move, joint by joint, slowly turning to face what he thinks is watching him. He’s frozen in terror, and he feels like screaming. It’s the eyes again. Or at least he thinks it’s the eyes. Bright yellow. Glowing even amongst blue waves. But then he blinks and it’s gone. His throat is stuck. He can barely swallow. Daniel is not in control of his body; his body is in control of Daniel. It is sprinting from the river and into the forest, not daring to look back. It’s running as fast as it can, leaping over branches and exposed tree roots. It’s trying to survive the way that bodies so often try to do even when the mind no longer wants to.
When Daniel gets back to his room, slamming the door shut behind him and crawling under the covers, he tries to forget those yellow eyes. He stays under the covers even past dinner time. When Rose tells him it’s time for dinner, he pretends he’s asleep. But he can’t sleep because every time he closes his eyes he sees the bright yellow eyes. And when he finally manages to fall asleep, they follow him even in his dreams. In his dreams, Daniel sees Lily fall over and over again as if she was hit by something. In his dreams, Daniel sees yellow bright eyes over Lily’s shoulders as she falls; they wink at him. In his dreams, Daniel finds himself standing over Lily’s hospital bed and Lily opens her eyes for the first time since she’s been hospitalized. Daniel feels like crying. His sister is finally awake. Only, they’re not her eyes. They’re bright yellow. And her lips open up in a bloody maw an-
“Daniel! Wake up!” Daniel snaps awake.
“What the fuck, Lily?!” He snaps.
“That’s a bad word. And you were having a bad dream.” Rose purses her lips. “Also my name isn’t Lily, it’s Rose.” The last sentence was said in a whisper; it lacked her characteristic sass. Rose had been more withdrawn recently, whispering instead of screaming like she used to. She argued less with Daniel. Oftentimes, Daniel forgot his youngest sister was even there. It’s like she had gone and disappeared when Lily was hospitalized.
“Yeah. Sorry. Rose.” Daniel lies back down and turns away from his youngest sister. “Go back to bed. It’s nothing.”
Rose sits by Daniel’s feet for a little longer. Both of them are trying to ignore the achingly loud absence of Lily’s breathing. Daniel doesn’t say it to his little sister, but he appreciates that she checked in on him. He appreciates her for staying with him even though he’s supposed to be the older brother in their relationship. Maybe he should’ve said something though. Maybe it would’ve stopped what happened next.
Instead, Daniel only sighs and waits for his little sister to get tired of sitting and go back to her bedroom, filled with the silent resolve to figure out what happened to Lily. He’s certain now that it wasn’t some freak illness. He’s certain that it had to be a water monkey. They had to be real. Clearly, it wasn’t a random illness because what they had been doing at the hospital hadn’t been working. His crazy yeye might actually be right about something. And if he was right, then this was all Daniel’s fault. If only Daniel had believed, then he would’ve never taken Lily to the river that day. Lily would’ve never gotten sick. Daniel’s dad wouldn’t be in some random country halfway across the world working to escape the endless hospital visitations. Daniel’s mom wouldn’t have quit her job. Daniel would still be happy.
This was all his fault.
But he will fix it. He pinky promised.
That night, he falls asleep dreaming of bright yellow eyes with his fists clenched underneath his Spiderman covers and tears tracing the rounded swell of his cheek.
Thank you for reading part 3.1 of Diving for Water Monkeys by Amanda Chen. Read more about her here. Stay tuned for future literary works by Amanda and our other writers.