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Edition #10
Other Voices, Other Rooms
Ranitz Lhaokunlavanich Wongrat
Edited by Vidushi Aparajita

 Centaur

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“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets.”
― Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

I was raised right and I supposed that soothed my parents’ nerves. According to the report cards I have accrued over the years, I was ‘fast’, ‘perceptive’, and ‘disquieted’. That didn’t matter as long as they were consistently decorated with insipid ‘A’s. I slipped through conferences and debates and classes without ever understanding the appeal of any of it: Life watered down to a simulacrum and criteria that fail to imagine the realities of its inhabitants. So, during ninth grade, I intentionally failed advanced mathematics — ensuring to mix up the operations, misplace decimals, and draw a tiny heart behind every answer. If you looked closely enough at my falsities, you would find the correct answers hidden inside each heart. My poor Indian teacher wept, self-flagellating, as my failure was no fault of mine. The more you knew, the less anything meant anything — this I knew. Not a single substantial thought has crossed my mind, or anyone’s mind, ever since I have sat in this hall, expected to take in valuable insights from my superiors at seven in the morning. You see, the world may be ending with its wars and unrest, but there were to be no upheavals to oppose the relentless grinding of the gears of academia.

 

“Could you go back to slide twenty-five?” The professor asked heavily. He adjusted his rectangular-framed glasses on his shrewd nose. His mousey eyes bent oddly to the prescription lens. With the bottom of his pen, he gestured to the slide once I got to it. He wiped a hypothetical stain from his mouth as if his disappointment held the weight of the world. “Explain this again.”

 

“I could,” Parker spouted, darting glances between me and the professor. He half-stuck his hand up before divulging the contents of the slide. There was a surge in suicides in a local community not far from here; one where the hospital was lined with mangled arms and bereaved relatives. The slide outlined the results from the survey and interviews we conducted with its residents wherein we attempt to decipher the factors contributing to this immediate need for death. Parker went on and on, delivering the percentages and our synthesis in a, quite rather, schizophrenic way. They parroted back and forth for a while about the colour scheme, the wording of the graph titles, hell, and even the acknowledgment. It was the mentally-senile conversing with the mentally-arrested.

 

“When are you planning to send it out for publication?” the professor asked.

“Right after the press conference,” Parker said with haste.

“Good… you shouldn’t thank the hospital for sponsoring transport. It’s too political,” the professor chimed. I sunk back into my seat behind the computer, dissociating into the screen. “Remove the slides with opinions towards the district's administration. The mayor. All of them,” the professor ordered. According to him, it was morally reprehensible to insult the man of the house in his own house. Especially when the Ministry of Health will be there along with the press tomorrow. “The fonts. I find it… why?” he went on, rubbing his bushy unibrow with his hands before biting his nails.

 

“I didn’t do it,” Parker quickly said before looking over to me, fiddling with his fingers. He licked crumbs from his lips and picked at a bleeding spot beside his thumb.

 

“Why?,” the professor said again, now directed at me. I stood up slightly, the chair creaking as I lifted myself out of my slump. “Care to explain?” he asked haughtily.

 

Parker shyly waddled over to hand me his microphone. I had the idea of wielding it. Tossing it with my full range of motion right back at him, into his rat face. Maybe it would break his freakishly large glasses or his bulging forehead. Maybe the blunt impact would un-scatter and align his thoughts for once. Maybe he would realise how pathetic he was, grovelling and prostrating himself. Maybe he would bend and pile to the floor given that he was spineless. But then again, I couldn’t change anyone. I politely took the microphone.

 

“It’s Helvetica Neue,” I cited the name of the font into the black stick, smiling.

 

“And?”

“You use Arial over a white background to teach. Your texts aren’t even aligned.”

 

“What are you trying to say?”

 

“Anyone turn up for your class?” I asked mindlessly. “I’ve been saying a lot, but I mean who cares about the suicides? The font is distracting.

 

”I heard a distant snort, suppressing laughter somewhere from the crowd, but the rest fell into silence.

The halls emptied as I sat idle. Heels clacked against the polished tiles as people dispersed and made their way to their respective classes. I wondered where they were all going, imagining my next rooms: A classroom with pale pink chairs designed to give you office syndrome livened by the uninspired chorus of whatever class was scheduled, a strip of fast food chains en route to my apartment where I find solace in studying amongst the overworked atmosphere and greased-up booths, then I would retreat to my room before my stoner roommate could catch sight of me and invite me to a joint. It bored me to imagine my life as a linear stream of rooms. All these spaces and I still needed impossibly more to think and breathe. Here, I sat awaiting my sentence, unable to parse through an increasingly frequent bout of brain fog.

“That was something,” a solemn but gentle voice greeted me. “Didn’t I tell you to be mindful?”

Professor Brand was one of a few who found a liking towards me — something I could not wrap my head around nor rationalise. He was renowned for his fear-mongering. People started nicknaming him ‘Guerrilla Brand’. Once, he shut off his slides, asked us to put away our materials, and stood in silence for fifteen minutes or so mid-class before pointing at heads amongst a crowd and hurling questions on things we were uninformed about. People who I assumed were well-equipped stuttered. I assumed he would learn names, not by faces or achievements, but by tenacity. He was buggish in his ways; proclaiming he despised book smart, but uplifted the book smart.

“You are chosen to work on this. Do you know why?” He asked.

 

“Because I’m desensitised?”

 

“It’s because you’re good. You’re my second person.

 

”I said nothing, offended.

“You’ll make it harder for yourself, swinging at people like that,” he shook his head as he looked somewhere else in thought, drawing the silence out. “So, what are you going to do now?”

“Follow up with the lead. She’s been trying to schedule me for a few days now.”

 

“Why didn’t you meet her?”

 

“How else would I know I had to change the colour scheme?

 

”A pause. “Look, take it from me. Just do what you’re told this time.”

The local news outlet has been covering the sporadic suicides over the past three months. Names of people who I will never get to meet meandered through the crackles of the radio. I turned a sharp corner to head out of the drab town towards the suburbia riddled with half-abandoned mega-malls and swarms of fruit flies. I slid open my car windows, letting the humid air that smelled of green fondle my hair. I took a swish swig from a travel-sized bottle of rum, tucking it into my lap. Through the whisper of wind and the afternoon haze, I felt my thoughts slow, stretching into place like placing beads on a string. My mind began to wander through an inventory of suicides.

 

The data provided only a freeze frame of what was going on. 43 suicides over the span of three months. Ages ranged from pre-teen to the elderly. Occupations varied. Financial stressors, familial stressors, and isolation are the top three contributing factors from the surveys. It was the usual schtick until I started to conduct interviews with Parker seated in the car as he could not hold a conversation for his dear life and his face, quite frankly, pissed me off. The suicides started shortly during the tip of summer marked by the smoke that blew over from the suburbs into town. Upon arrival, trash fire bellowed from backyards and woodlands. The wind occasionally brushed through the streets, but it wasn’t enough to make it breathable. Parker wore an N95 mask which scared off the kids that hung around the convenience store so much they began tossing pebbles at him. I would knock on people’s houses and go through the humdrum procedures of ‘research ethics’ which flew over people’s heads anyway before interviewing them.

 

Luckily, the residents of Centaur weren’t finicky. Probing them right yielded answers in the form of fiery rants, bitter complaints, and even episodes of tears. They were typically distressed in one way or another. At one of the homes, a mother would lull her child in her arms, feeding it diluted formula and condensed milk as she talked about the smoke. ‘They took away our trash cans and trash trucks so naturally people burn them. Budgeting they call it.’ However, the smoke was not the greatest concern to the residents, it was the mayor. ‘New money smarm,’ the mother described. ‘The previous one was at least invisibly neglectful.’ She scrolled through her phone eagerly and showed me a photo of a man in a well-suited tux that lay over a pallid blue shirt and a polka-dotted orange necktie. A squirrelly smile spread across his face, his beady eyes squinting into a black slit, his hair combed back cleanly. The mother leaned over to stop my recording machine. ‘Off the record. I ain’t no luddite. I’m all for faggots, they’re fun and all, and I love it for kids with their eyeliners and escapades,’ she said holding up her hand as if she was praying. She held out her phone, zooming into the mayor’s square head. ‘This fag killed a child and I hope something gets him. I hope something gets him good.’

My phone rang on my lap. I opened the speaker.

 

“Hello? This is Parker,” he said, stuttering. I groaned.

 

“What?”

 

“I just heard from Brand that you’re going to Centaur?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I can’t believe it. I’m also on this project, you know.”

 

“Well, believe it.”

 

“This is our research, not your research. I am the first author of this paper. I’m presenting it. You need to run things by me. Do you understand?

 

”I said nothing.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Go fist yourself,” I hung up.

 

Then, I drove. Birds flocked to congregate the telephone wires that hung lazily from tilted towers. Past Centaur’s town square, a flag flung through the sluggish air at half-mast. A bouquet of blue hydrangeas adorned its base. I headed north, deeper into the vast green. A dark cloud pressed against an invisible strata, whirling grey around a yellowed sky. I rolled up the car windows and turned off the radio as I sped through a heavily ornamental gate. Speeding past ivy that climbed metal barricades and barbed wires, I arrived at Anna Lennox’s house on the hill. The last lead.

A deep rumble ripped through the air. The wind chimes sang loudly against the low whispers through the cracks and crevices of the house. The draft smelled of mildew and fresh laundry. I shuffled into a house that creaked and shuddered. A doily-lace curtain blew violently in the guest room as the first patter of rain began.

 

“Sit, sit,” Anna said as she busied herself with closing windows in other rooms. Instead, I wandered her narrow hall.

 

The house was quaint. Washed-out shades of blue and coral pink flooded pale wood. Anchors and fishbones were embellished on desk lamps and couches. Strange, since we’re nowhere near the sea. The wooden floorboards felt cold against my socks as I inched towards a table that stood at the side of the hall, completely draped in white as if it were a rectangular ghost. I looked at the mirror that was hung above it. I saw myself. My eyes drained, my hair sticky, my shirt worn out with creases at every inch. A crucifix bearing Jesus hung above my drab reflection.

 

I trailed back into the guest room. Anna sat politely. She looked tired and seasick.

 

“I’ll start with routine questions, but feel free to tell me as much as possible,” I said, sitting near her. I pressed the record on my stick recorder.

 

“I don’t want to do this,” Anna shook her head. “Routine questions. I just need to talk to you. You know what… what went down, right? With my daughter?” she winced.“

 

Maja, is it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Miss Lennox, I couldn’t imagine how hard it must be for you,” I said. “I will not try to pretend to understand or force pity on you. I can only listen.”

 

“Do you believe in god?” she asked me dryly, looking straight into me. Something stirred behind her stillness.

 

“Do you?

 

”A pause before she turned to the window overlooking a swaying field. “I did. I really did. I prayed for this to be a dream so that I could wake up. You know, if god was real, he’s one cruel motherfucker.” She took a sip of water from her glass. “But there is a god, alright. She touched people and I birthed her. She was the most beautiful little girl,” her voice dragged into tears. “I’d take her to the nursing home down sixth during my shifts and she’d make impossible people smile. Twelve. No troubles, no fear. She was the most alive person I ever met, you wouldn’t believe it.” Her eyes puffed. “You know, she was leaving this place. This hell hole. Infomercials, then a movie in Los Angeles. Can you believe it?” she laughed tiredly into her hands, falling into a quiet. “People need faith to live. God is too far away. The government is useless. She was going to be a star and people believed in her,” a pool welled up in her eyes. “She was the first to go. Then it was her classmates, their parents, the teacher, and the farmer. I couldn’t keep track.”

 

“What do you mean? Believed in her?”

 

“You’ve been around. Do you think anyone is getting out of here on their own? They couldn’t even afford trash cans,” she said. “People wanted to live through her. To see through her eyes. To leave with her. And this town killed her.”

 

“What happened?

 

”She was disturbed. Her curious brows tightened into a knot. Her hair seemed more frazzled than it was before as she rose from her chair. “I would never have let her go if I knew… it was late and I was tired. So tired from work and all she wanted was to sleep at her friend’s,” she sunk into an airy whisper. “I just wanted her to be happy. I fucking birthed her.”

 

“We could take a break if this is too much.”

 

“It was a hit and run,” she said calmly, pushing her tongue into her cheek. “Billy, down at the store, found her during a night run.”

 

“Who did it?

 

”Anna slowly reclined on her couch, the violet suede brushed and matted to her skin. It was as though she had crawled away from the skin that stayed intact, regressing into a familiar void, a womb. Somewhere underneath was a woman and somewhere underneath that was a girl. A girl who has lived the beauty of birth — the untethering of a union formed by the grace of nature and nurture passed down a chain of strangers — and outlasted it. If a child is a gift, then the loss of a child is murder. I slowly thought about my mother and how I didn’t stay close nor try to. How I must be killing her.

 

“Why are you doing all this?” she asked.

 

“Truth.”

 

“Isn’t this just for school?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Who gives a shit, right?

 

”I laughed wryly. “My professors. Press.”

 

“Press?” her eyes lit up. She froze, contemplating something before hoisting herself up. Her white dress trailed the floor. Strands of hair twined with delicate folds of her puffed sleeves. As she disappeared into another room, she was almost like a ghost. I sat, listening to my heartbeat in and out of sync with a grandfather clock. On the wall, Maja looked at me from the frame — smiling on a beach in Anna’s frail arms. I tried to imagine her on an eternal summer, listlessly running away from a blanketing wave, laughing. Can children go to hell? I felt cold. It could have been the storm. It could have been the fact that someone passed through its halls, grew, lived, and died. How it still stood aloof to that.

 

Anna stood under the doorframe, tossing something at me. A thumb drive: ‘Property of Centaur Municipal Office’ was scrawled shoddily over masking tape. Amidst the porcelain and seashells, from the dark mouth of the hall, she said something I didn’t register. Pulling myself out of a daze, I heard her for the last time: “Say her name for me.”

 

On the drive back, I called my mother for the first time in a long time.

A pool of indiscernible colloids poured into the toilet. Vats of acid and bile surged from my innards in bouts as I sat dilapidated over the ceramic bowl. Nerves. And perhaps the inebriation from the uncountable bottles of travel-sized rum during my return. I gathered myself, flushed, and assessed. Barely scraping any meaningful sleep, I didn’t look too bad. Or maybe I was biased. That was until Parker walked in. He was dolled up for the cameras. His hair gelled up into a solid — sturdy and dull like plastic dolls you would get just to snap their legs off and dishevel their limbs for fleeting entertainment. He washed his hands, looking at my reflection.

 

“You didn’t add anything on Anna, right? I made all the changes the professor asked for,” he announced in his big-boy voice. “Thank me later.”

 

“We’re not using that.”

 

“Yes, we are,” he scoffed as he adjusted his hair.

 

“And you’re not presenting.”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

“How many suicides were there?

 

”He paused. “Forty-something?”

 

“Forty-three. What’s the name of the first girl?”

 

“The Lennox girl. Marla?”

 

“Maja. What are the criteria for full presentation scores?”

 

“Concise content, structure, applicability…” he began listing with immediacy.

 

“You make me sick,” I inched closer to him. “Are you retarded?

 

”He said nothing.

 

“That’s not rhetorical. I want to know if you’re capable of thinking about anything that hasn’t been pulled out of a professor’s ass.”

 

“You’re jealous,” he derided. “I scare you, don’t I?

 

”I felt my viscera bundle. Knots formed and dissipated. Its cold contents curdled. Sweat formed along my heated head. In a blink, I hurled a chunky brown mixture all over him, trailing down to my shoes. A bodied splat sounded as it hit the bathroom tiles. It smelled of putrid and rotten and it painted Parker. Shit covering shit. I pulled the paper from the dispenser and wiped my lips.“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he recoiled, blinded, searching for the tap over the sink.

 

“What the fuck!” he swatted the brown towards the floor, spraying it everywhere. Miscellaneous chunks of food latched off his blazer.

 

I fled the scene as a text from Brand pinged my phone: ‘Parker goes on in five. Get here.’ Chandeliers swung past me as I paced through the red hallway. I barged into the conference hall, stunned by the turn-up. This was no university event. Men with cameras camped over one another for a view of the podium. Gimbals, microphones. News reporters lined the tight space below the stage. Some sat on the floor with phones hooked to tripods, live-streaming. I patted the technician’s back politely before heading down to Brand.

 

“I’ll do it. Parker’s not here.”

 

“But I saw him just now,” Brand said, but I already had my back to him.

 

I faced a swarm of lenses. I took a deep breath before introducing myself and divulging the results. The slides were my version: Edited according to the professor’s feedback without straying from their expectations. From afar, beyond the blinding lights from the videographers, the professor and Brand showed no signs of upset. They checked their evaluation sheets, whispering to each other here and there. It’s their tedious colour scheme and typeface now. What more could they ask for? A little more than halfway through, Parker materialised, all fussy and anguished. He refused to sit so Brand escorted him out.

 

I didn’t feel like myself, saying these numbers, talking about these deaths to the world beyond the screens. I was no conduit of reality, but a mere edited and restricted machine. Percents. Charts. Takeaways. There were no names for anonymity. No faces or life behind the numbers. This was what an ‘A’ entails. Numbed, I arrived at my last slide — the only addition.

 

“I would like to thank the kind and diligent people from the Municipal Office of Centaur for providing us with crucial information that aided us in our research. Without your relentless support, we wouldn’t be able to glean into what had happened,” I said before playing a video.

 

For a destitute place like Centaur, you would expect their security cameras to be of no use. Surprisingly, it held through. It was 9.37 PM as labelled by the running time at the lower corner. A pixelated girl stood beside a traffic light until it turned red. She trodded slowly down three lanes to the other side. A light blared her silhouette into white before a black car flung her body through the air into the centre of the intersection as it screeched to a stop. Skid marks painted its route. At the centre of the video, the car held still not far from the girl’s body. Nothing moved. People in the room gasped quietly. At that moment, I thought of what Anna said before I left. Her words slowly came back to me in pieces: “I’m never getting closure anyways.

 

”A man exited his car, and stomped his foot on the ground, pacing around quickly for a few times before getting back on and continuing forward. Silent barbarism. From the camera’s vantage point, the man’s identity was unclear. All I could make out was a stupidly orange necktie. Then, the lights turned green, the streets dipped into purple while the girl rested. Stranded at 9.53.

 

“Maja Lennox was the first to go in the series of suicides at Centaur,” I spoke, looking into the hungry black boxes. “But she will never leave our hearts. I dedicate this project to her and express my condolences to all affected by the Centaur Cluster.”

All became a blur, but I was back in classes. Everything happened in rapid succession. A heated talk with the vice dean on my unacceptable conduct, the publication of our cross-sectional research, and a series of exams that tested nothing beyond memorization. It was another insipid A and everything still meant nothing. On campus, Parker followed Brand around like a lapdog. I have to admit: The sight of him covered in retch will be my favourite memory of him.

 

Over several joints and packs of beef jerky, my roommate filled me in on Centaur. The mayor had fled his chair, abandoned his McMansion, and hopped towns once the footage broke. I don’t think anything will ever happen to him. On the other hand, Anna was radio silent. I sent her a bouquet, but I am uncertain if she ever received it or if she ever will. Progress of state intervention and NGO activities trickled through the radios over a few months before something more sensational circled into the media cycle. A movie based on the suicides will begin shooting there soon.

 

I melted into space, closed my eyes, and watched blues, purples, and greens dance in the dark. For a moment, it felt like I almost had something here, fixed. A reason. An explanation. A place to be. Whatever. I’m graduating soon and I need a fucking snack.

 

THE END

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