Chapter One CHAPTER ONE Friday, November 25, 2022 One Year Later
feeling of unwillingness to do anything
Most people play casual games of Scrabble in their living rooms, squabbling good-naturedly for points over sets their parents bought them in the hopes that it would be “educational.”
No, actually, this is a lie. Most people probably barely even think of Scrabble at all, and the sets they do get wind up gathering dust in the very backs of shelves and cupboards, forsaken in favor of games like Snakes & Ladders or Monopoly or Clue or Twister. You know. Fun games.
The tournament circuit is a different world. Here, people play Scrabble as a game of probabilities and cunning strategies, a math problem to be solved. Here, we carry around reams of paper crammed so full of words it looks like they’re teeming with ants; we recite anagrams with such rapid speed that each syllable hits you with the force of a bullet; we can tell you the most probable combination of letters you’ll get on a rack (it’s AEEINRT, for the record) with which you can score a bingo—that is, to use up all seven letters at once and earn an additional fifty-point bonus. Here, we never stop thinking about Scrabble.
For most of my peers, words are little more than point-amassing units, each tile merely a stepping stone for building high-scoring pathways to victory. For me, the words aren’t just points: They’re the whole point. I collect them, hoard them like a dragon hoards its treasure, reveling in their strange, alien meanings, the feel of them in my mouth. The words are how I process the world. People like Josh say I waste precious brain space clinging to their definitions. “There are one hundred eighty thousand possible combinations of letters you need to know,” he told me once. “Caring about what they mean is beside the point.” But how can you not? Take AEEINRT, for instance. Picture each letter in your head—the reassuringly symmetrical A, the graceful curve of the R—and rearrange them in your head, over and over again. Most people will settle for RETINAE or TRAINEE, but why go for such clumsy, obvious choices when you have the delicate wonder of ARENITE, a sedimentary clastic rock? That gives you the equally lovely CLASTIC—those bookending hard Cs so satisfying as they roll off the tongue—which means composed of fragments, and to FRAGMENT means to break into pieces, and that’s what I’m doing right now, aren’t I? Sitting here in the driveway of a generic three-star hotel, falling apart.
“What are you so afraid of, Najwa?” my mother asks. She’s trying for a gentle tone, but the note of impatience that she can’t keep from sneaking in kills that vibe. My mother has a fondness for things that endure: Birkenstock sandals, melamine dishes, old and usually racist actors who never seem to die. Tough things. Unbreakable things. She likes them low on maintenance, high on durability.
This is not me: One year later and I’m still a mess. Tiny things send me into panic spirals. I lose things. I forget things. I walk from one place to another and then have to walk back because I can’t remember why I ended up there in the first place. It’s as if Trina’s death cracked me open, and now pieces of me keep escaping, scattering themselves everywhere. It’s funny—well, maybe not to anyone but me—to ENDURE also means to suffer something patiently, and my mother is definitely suffering. My therapist has told her to respect my grieving process, but Mama’s patience, like the cheap cotton T-shirts I buy from fast fashion retailers that she hates (“So low quality!”), wears thin fast.
I fiddle with the phone in my hands.
Me: She’s so tired of me
Alina: So am I. Doesn’t mean we don’t love you, mangkuk.
Alina and I have been sending each other WhatsApp messages for the past few hours. She may only be fourteen to my sixteen, but my little sister knows to be on hand when I’m about to do something big, something that could potentially send me careening off-course.
Mama clicks her tongue now as she sits at the wheel of the idling car, waiting for me to reply, to pull myself together, to get my things and get out—or preferably all three at once, I’m guessing. It’s been more than four hours since we left our home in Kuala Lumpur to get to this shining, anonymous box of a hotel in Johor Bahru where the tournament is taking place this weekend; this is more time than we’ve spent with just each other since I was about ten, and neither of us knew quite how to handle it. She tolerated my music for approximately twenty-three minutes (a playlist heavy on K-pop, indie rock, and Taylor Swift) before making me switch to her favorite radio station (playing “easy listening hits,” which seems to translate to “absolutely no songs from the past ten years”) for as long as it took to get out of range. Then when the music gave way to nothing but static, she made me plug in her iPhone so we could listen to some sheikh reciting Quranic verses. Verily, in hardship there is relief.
“It’s a lot to take in, okay?” I fiddle with the friendship bracelet tied around my wrist, then pull the sleeves of my black top down low so only the tips of my fingers peek out of the edges. I’m always cold these days. “It’s been a year. I’m just nervous.”
“Nervous? Buat apa nak nervous?” Mama glances up at the rearview mirror and adjusts her deep blue headscarf. In her youth, she was a beauty queen; we have sepia-tinted pictures of her poised and smiling on stage, her hair lacquered to terrifying heights, her tight kebaya skimming her curves. Now she adheres to a strict regime of creams and potions designed to scare off any wrinkle foolhardy enough to try making its presence known. “There’s no reason to be. You know this game inside out. You’ve been playing Scrabble most of your life, thanks to your father and me.” (My mother likes to take credit for my word-wrangling prowess, such as it may be, because she and my dad bought me my very first set. “It will help improve your English,” she told me on my eighth birthday, when the present I tore open so eagerly held my first Scrabble set instead of the long-desired Rock Star Barbie I’d begged for with the spangled clothes and the hot pink plastic guitar, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something I’d regret.)
Mama continues, not waiting for my reply. As usual. “You’re good at it. And you’ll be with all your friends.”
“What friends? I only had one.”
Mama stiffens. Like most of the Malaysian parents I know, she doesn’t like it when I bring up “sensitive” topics. She especially doesn’t like it when I bring up Trina, which means I instantly feel like I need to yell it in her face: Yes, that one, Trina, you know, my best friend in the whole world, the one I saw die right there in front of my eyes, at this very hotel in fact. You remember. Mama never did like Trina. Oh, she never said so outright—she was much too big on etiquette, on keeping up appearances, on maintaining face for that sort of thing—but there was a telltale sniff any time her name came up, as if just the sound of it gave her allergies, and I’d catch her discreetly eyeballing Trina’s outfits with distaste whenever she was in sight. Trina came with too many “toos” for my mother to stomach: skirts too short, tops too tight, tongue too sharp, gaze too knowing.
“Yes, well. That was a long time ago. Maybe this is what you need to get some closure.”
CLOSURE, I think. A feeling that a traumatic experience has been resolved, but also just the act of closing something—a door, an institution, this conversation that is making my mother ridiculously uncomfortable. Only how can anything be resolved when we never figured out what caused Trina’s death in the first place? No explanations, no conclusions, only a door forever ajar, letting a million what-ifs drift in as they please.
“Dr. Anusya says it’s time for you to move on, get back to the things you love,” Mama reminds me now. “And you love Scrabble.”
It’s true. I do. There was a time, after it all happened, when even the sight of a tile was enough to set off a tidal wave of anxiety sweeping through my body. But we’ve worked our way up to this point so gently, so carefully, from casual games in Dr. Anusya’s plush office to local Scrabble club meetups to small competitions and now this, the Word Warrior Weekend that takes place every November during the school holidays: part elite tournament, part sleepover, all awkward teenage hormones and chaste, chaperoned social events in between. Scrabble is the one thing in which my brain hasn’t failed me, and each remembered word is a life raft on days when I feel like I’m drowning. Nobody’s dictating my pace here; nobody’s forcing me to move on. I want to do this. I need to do this. So why is uncertainty gnawing away at the frayed edges of my nerves? “Maybe I’m just not ready yet,” I say, and I hate how small my voice sounds.
As if Alina somehow knows how I’m feeling, my phone buzzes again.
You’ve got this, Kakak.
My mother checks her watch surreptitiously; I don’t think I’m supposed to notice, but I do. “Come on, sayang. Berapa lama lagi nak hidup macam ni? It’s time to get out of this cave you’ve built around yourself and get back to being… you.” This time, the gentleness rings true, and my immediate instinct is to want to cry. Nothing undoes me quite like people being nice to me. She’s right, and I hate that she’s right, but I can’t keep living like this.
“Yeah, okay,” I say. I sling my backpack over one shoulder, check the front pocket for my signed permission slip, grab the duffel that holds enough clothes for the weekend. “I’ll see you on Sunday.”
“Have fun,” she says. “Call me to check in.” She gives me one last look, a slight frown on her face. “And fix your tudung. Senget tu.”
I sigh. Of course her final words to me would be to fix my crooked headscarf. What else did I expect? “I will.” The moment is over. I don’t offer a hug or kiss, and she stares straight ahead because she doesn’t expect either one; we’re just not that type of family.
“See you,” I say as I struggle to haul myself and my baggage, seen and unseen, out of the car. Grief is a heavy thing; it weighs you down, turns all your limbs to lead. There have been so many times in the past year when I’ve wanted to stop, wherever I was—in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, in the middle of doing jumping jacks during PE, in the middle of a shower—when I’ve had to fight the urge to just lie down, just rest, feel the coolness of the floor beneath my skin. Bet my mother would have hated that.
“Bye,” she says.
I slam the door shut as if closing it tight enough will trap all my fears and worries and memories in there, as if shedding them means I, too, can become a thing that endures.