Gone Lawn
a journal of word-things
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Gone Lawn 55
strawberry moon, 2024

Featured artwork, Lost for Words, by Andrea Damic

new works

Yi Jun Phung

Process of Elimination

It's a weird thing to do: to come to school and pretend aba didn’t disappear.
To hear my friends tell me what they did last night - things you do when you're teenager-bored. Reading. Pretending to read. Having sex behind the dumpster at the mall because the security guards there keep secrets in exchange for pocket money. Loitering outside 7-11 with slurpee-coloured lips. Watching the latest Inspector Kong crime drama on TVB. To hear them go on and on, and I nod and smile and nod again because I can’t tell them I spent last night searching for aba in the gutters near his favourite pub, where the police told me to look for all of the drunks.
To crowd around Encik Bernard’s table in the science lab and see grimy liquids poured into glass cylinders. "Liquid takes up whatever shape it’s in," he reminds us. We’re learning about molecules, how strong acids react violently with water. He pours a blood-like liquid into water, and as expected, they clash. The mixture boils in spurts, spots of red-grey fizzling in the liquid. On my way to the gutters last night, I imagined aba lying face down, blistered and bruised. I imagined carrying him all the way back to our apartment, his deadweight crushing my shoulders. My body would reek of sulphur and rotten eggs, acid scarring the pores of my skin. I imagined how gor and jie would react, to bring filth back home. How we’d clash, all of us at our boiling points. When I found the gutters empty, I felt relieved, then ashamed, then everything at once.
To groan along with my classmates when Puan Aisha tells us there will be a surprise test tomorrow. Tests are a good way to measure loyalty, she says. Loyalty to yourself to get into a good college. Loyalty to your pride. Loyalty to your family’s name. Aba preaches about loyalty to us. How he still comes home even though he could be in the pub, where people listen to him. How he still stayed with ama until her death, even when she caught him in bed with other women. How if he went missing, none of us would look for him. After the class, I make a joke about how dumb her statement is. My friend says Puan Aisha didn’t say loyalty, she said tests are a good way to measure performance. “They’re kind of the same thing,” I didn’t say.
To tell my friends, no, I don't want to go to 7-11, or the mall, or behind the dumpster to watch our horny classmates suck each other off, or to watch Inspector Kong. I need to study for the surprise test tomorrow. Their eyes narrow. As a show of commitment, I take out an exercise book, flip to a random page and read the first question.

Question: How do you find a missing person?
A: Call the police
B: Search online directories or social media
C: Check their phone’s location
D: Go to where they were last seen
E: Convince yourself the person is not missing

Puan Aisha said if you’re unsure what the right answer is, narrow it down by elimination. I cross out A, B and C. I’ve tried those. I go back and forth between D and E. By the time I have circled an answer, my friends are long gone.

Aba’s construction site smells like the gutters from last night, mixed with fresh mud and steel. The fenced site is surrounded by red-brown dirt, littered with sporadic dried shrubs and wandering stray dogs, their eyes searching for old owners who abandoned them here. Inside, men in orange vests are jack-hammering, welding, yelling; noise filling up the hot air. I call aba’s phone again, half expecting to hear his ringtone blare through the cacophony of construction noise. He’ll pick up, tell me to bug off. My heart will sink and swim in relief. But all I hear is the voice call operator telling me, once again, that aba’s phone is not reachable.
Finding this place was by chance. The owner of the pub had spotted me furiously flashing my phone light into the gutter. He thought I had lost my car keys. When I told him I was aba’s son, he raised an eyebrow, said aba never mentioned having a family. But he gave me aba’s work address anyway, having delivered two cartons of beer once. I asked if he had seen aba recently. He shook his head.
“When he stopped showing up, I thought he was dead.”
A flimsy guard house and a boom gate stand between me and the site, between aba being lost or found. The heat licks my neck, its breath stinging my skin, my aching feet. I approach the guard house. A lanky man is seated inside, ruffling through piles of papers. He looks up.
“Are you lost?” He has a thin, triangle moustache, and it arches when he frowns.
“No. I’m here to look for my aba.”
His moustache arches deeper.
“His name is -“
He suddenly stands and pokes his head out towards me with squinted eyes. The sunlight washes his face orange-yellow. He smells like cigarettes and orange peels. “You’re Bo’s kid. The youngest, right?”
I nod.
“Your father’s not here,” he grunts. “He hasn’t shown up since Monday.”
He plops down and ruffles through more paper. I shift my weight back-and-forth, mirroring the thoughts ping-ponging in my head. Monday was also the last time we saw him. The night before, he came home drunk, body slamming into walls he thought were doors, footsteps thick and heavy. He left the next day and never came back.
The first night he didn’t come home, no one thought much of it — this was normal, just a regular night where he forgot at best, refused at worst. On the second night, I tried to remember if we had done anything to piss him off, but the list was too long. By the third night, when I asked jie if we should do something, she just shrugged. Gor had told her to let it be. I turned to the door every time it unlocked — with dread, with hope — but he never walked through. By the fourth, I snuck into his room to look for signs of a runaway. An old photo of aba and ama on their wedding day greeted me, the fade smearing off their faces, turning them ghastly yellow. Next to it were more old photos. Of the three of us when we were little, huddled in a bathtub wearing bubble hats. Of his younger self with his siblings, Uncle Zhen and Aunt Pen, arm-in-arm in front of a Buddha statue. I trudged past the memories and found everything where it was supposed to be. His closet filled with clothes. The unwashed ones spilled over the floor. Polo bun breadcrumbs and cigarette ashes scattered across his bed. Everything as it was.
“Here,” the man points.
It’s a roll call. I spot aba’s name immediately — it’s the only row with five missing x’s, marked in thick, angry red. Five x’s ago; short enough to report a missing person, long enough to bury a dead body.
I make mental checks in my head. He wasn’t at work, wasn’t at the pub, and wasn’t in the gutter. I cross out the answer D in my head, and realise I’m running out of answers. When this happens, Puan Aisha says: try your luck.
“Do you know where else he might be?”
He sighs. “Kid, if you don’t know, we won’t know either.”
I have more questions but he’s looking behind me. A blue sedan appears. The window rolls down and jie pops her head out of ama’s old car. Something in me stirs, like grimy liquids in glass cylinders.
Gor said you’d be here,” she says, her lips forming an approximation of a smile.
I thank the man in the guard house. When I look back from the car, the man is looking down at his papers again. As if I was never there.

When jie first used ama’s car, I melted into fits of tears, unable to comprehend why we would use dead people’s things. Jie said it’s what ama would have wanted — function is more important than memory. But my body does not understand. Ama always picked me up at the same time, in the same car, with the same lopsided grin, the one that creased the side of her eyes.
Now, when I get into ama’s car and see jie instead, my mind disintegrates.
The only familiar thing is the questions. I have to prepare for questions jie likes to ask, questions ama used to ask, questions that aren’t questions, like if you had taken extra classes, you might catch up faster (?) and if you hadn’t looked for aba last night, you might look less tired (?) and maybe gor isn’t as cold as you’d think and just wants you to talk to him more (?). False. True. Maybe.
Before jie can start, I take out my exercise book. Scan for questions to avoid hers.

Question: What do you do when someone in your family disappears?
A: Report to the police
B: Start a search
C: Pray
D: It depends on how much you love that person

I’ve tried both A and B, so I’m unsure which one it is. Maybe it’s C? I used to say a prayer for aba to come to his senses — at the altar, by my bed, near the pub he liked to go to, but it must have missed him, reaching God’s ears but not his. I know because there are signs from God. When the water got cut off; unpaid bills flooded in the mailbox. When aba left with a car and came back with just the keys. When he invited the strange woman into our home, who took most of our stuff, even the used cups with chips on the rims. When he was too drunk to realise he was using gasoline instead of water, and almost burned the apartment down.
Puan Aisha said if you don’t know how to answer the question, move on to the next. So I do.

Question: You love your father anyway? True or false?
A: True
B: False

I read the question over and over, until the alphabets spill out of my books and I have to re-arrange them.

When jie drops me off at home I find gor glued to his gaming chair, clicking his mouse as the sniper on the screen fires, fires, fires. I stalk past him. He pauses the game, nostrils flared.
Bu hui jiao ren?” His voice is strained, loaded. He eyes my stained shoes, eyebrows arched.
“Sorry,” I say, setting my sights on the folds of his forehead. “Gor.”
I wait for him to ask him why I had gone to find aba, for him to shoot a barrage of questions. But he swivels back to the screen, resumes his game. Aims at the enemy, as bullets ricochet across the walls of the living room.
I retreat to my room, the one gor and I used to share when we were little, until he decided the room was too small for the two of us and moved to the spare guest room. I used to put toys and games and sweets in front of the door to lure him back. He’d take them, but he never came in.

Question: You love your brother anyway. True or false?
A: True
B: False

I circle A, erase it. Circle B, erase it too. The practice tests are getting harder. I push the book aside, scan through my list of where aba could be instead.
The gutters
The pub down the dark alley
Ama’s grave
The neighbours’ house
Aba’s construction site

I strike out the last one. I think about adding more places aba goes to, but I don’t remember them now. I only remember the things I never need, like how ama used to wait by the school gates for me, how gor and I used to pretend we were in a war zone and our stuffed animals were fallen soldiers, how we used to play jump rope in the living room, when we were still a semblance of a family. Now, we live in fragments. In the same place, but better apart.

I hear jie frying something in the kitchen, the crack of the oil hissing as she flips the pan. I’m still half asleep, memories wafting in and out.
Aba’s fight with gor in the kitchen. It was after the almost fire. They screamed at each other, each word louder than the next. I turn into a giant and tower over them, but they still don’t see me.
Watching TVB with aba. The dialogue from the show fills the empty space between us. His knees spread out, mine huddled together. He’s talking to me. I try to make out what he’s saying, but all I hear is ama. She tells me to turn down the volume, she’s trying to sleep by her altar. Hush.
Ama’s lectures about respect. We’re old enough to know the shape of violence, so she drills how to avoid it into our heads. She’s saying: huo. Fire. Like fire in a house, see? If you don’t blow, fire won’t spread. Don’t fight fire with fire. Don't talk back. Don’t throw a tantrum. Don’t show that face. Fight fire with water. Just listen. Nod. Keep it in. In the dream, I listened, but gor and jie burned instead.
Jie pokes my dream with her spatula, tells me dinner is ready. My worries follow her.
The fried thing is fish, its skin shrivelled into black char, topped with ginger mince and soy sauce. Next to the burnt fish is tofu with slathers of minced pork, and steamed bok choy on the side. Three bowls of rice; four chairs around the table. Gor stabs the fish with chopsticks, flicks chunks of meat on my plate. I mumble a thank you, scrape the burnt ends off. Dinner is usually quiet, a habit we continue even without aba. We always thought it was because we had nothing to say to him, but turns out it was because we had nothing to say at all.
But tonight, gor clears his throat.
“If people ask us where aba is, we’ll say he left us. Found a new wife.” He’s looking at me when he says this, his glasses magnifying the steel in his eyes.
The fish comes back alive in my mouth, its scales hot and prickly on my gums. jie takes a slab of tofu onto her plate, mixes it with rice.
“Why can’t we just say he’s dead?” she asks.
“Because that comes with a lot of paperwork.”
I want to say something, but ama taught me better. So I keep it in, take whatever shape I’m filled in.
“What if he comes back?” jie asks.
Bu hui,” gor says. He takes more bok choy, slaps it on his plate. “He hasn’t shown up at work for the past five days.” He looks at me. “Right?”
I swallow the fish as it swims down my throat.
“Shouldn’t we at least tell someone about it?” I want to ask. I’ve watched enough Inspector Kong to know that what we’re doing now makes us the prime suspects. It also makes us the unlikeable characters, the ones viewers shake their heads at, saying tsk, look at these brats, how ungrateful. To have done this to your own father, who still came home when no one wanted him to.
They look at me with shifty eyes. I realise I actually said it out loud.
“Like who?” gor asks. He places the chopsticks on his bowl, leans back on his chair. Aba does this too whenever he’s unhappy with something. Work, ama, us. Usually us.
“We could tell Uncle Zhen,” I say. “Or Aunt Pen.”
“And then what?” he counters.
“That’s it,” I say. “Just so they know their brother is dea– gone.”
My palm twitches, hot flashes coursing through my skin. “Don’t you think it’s weird to only tell them when they ask? They’ll think we killed him.”
Jie chokes on her food. Gor stands, his chair scraping against the floor, the wood screeching in agony. He bellows over us like a giant.
“Then you have nothing to worry about,” he says. “No one would suspect you.”
He stalks back to his gaming chair, puts on his headphones. Presses play on the computer. The sound of bullets rings in my ears.

The next morning, I go to aba’s room to check if he somehow stumbled home. When I find it empty, I let out a breath. Out of disappointment or relief, I don’t know. Unease looms in my chest. It follows me all the way to jie’s car, to the school gates where my friends tell me who sucked who, and I nod and smile and nod again, to my classroom seat. Puan Aisha is at the front of the class, handing out exam papers.
“Good luck, students” she says, “Remember, if you don’t know the answer, skip the question. You can always come back to it after.”
I read the first question.

Question: The person in your family who disappeared is now dead. The person to blame is:
A: Your brother
B. Your sister
C. Yourself
D: All of the above

I skip it. I skip all of the questions, until I’m at the last one with nothing circled. I try again, re-read them, and wonder when Uncle Zhen or Aunt Pen realise their brother is missing. I have no good answers. So I go to the blank page at the end, write down more places aba could be.

Most of Yi Jun Phung's past work revolves around retail & fashion, having contributed to Inside Retail Australia and Inside Retail Asia. Now, she's having a (mostly) splendid time diving into the world of fiction.