Written by: Leia Ong (20-U1)
Designed by: Poh En Xi (20-E3)
felix, whispered the voices. felix.
They were at it again.
“I don’t want to say this again,” I said, opening my eyes. Warm three-o’-clock sunlight beamed down on my face as I shook my empty hands over the brackish water. “I’m all out. Zero. Zilch.”
Bulbous eyes stared up at me from the depths. felix, came the burble of many voices turned baleful. bread. none.
“Nope. Maybe next time. Go bother him—he’s got your real food,” I said, pointing at the grey-clad janitor, who’d started throwing food granules into the pond.
The fish were already moving as one body before I’d finished my sentence. A few dissenters: but not bread, but soon enough they were drowned out by the prevailing murmur of food. Their tails flashed in the light like fools’ gold.
I closed my eyes as my mind roiled with the events of only an hour prior. Yes, it was much simpler to be around fish. Unlike other people, I understood them perfectly; also unlike other people, they weren’t immensely angry at me.
“Who can tell me how many nuclei any cell can have?” Miss Lim had said, just an hour earlier. “Register thirteen.”
My benchmate’s hand went up beside me. “One,” Sarah Faraj declared. “Maximum two.” Known for having a Gifted mind of steel, she was everything I wasn’t — except in Science class, where we were equals, or maybe even more.
At the time, I hadn’t thought too hard about what I was doing. It was one of the first Biology practicals I’d ever had, and I was excited. I raised my hand, too. “Miss Lim, cells can have more than two nuclei, right?”
“Right!” Miss Lim said, smiling. “Someone’s been reading. Sarah, time to get started, eh?”
As she proceeded to explain, I sneaked a glance at Sarah beside me. Her hand had formed a pale-knuckled fist around her pencil.
“Please, Felix,” she said later, rolling her eyes. “Why on Earth would you think that this cell has more than two nuclei? Here, we’re clearly supposed to draw it like this.”
I felt a wave of indignation swell inside me, in tandem with the chatter that had amplified as Miss Lim stepped out of the lab. “But it’s true,” I said, staring at her neat, perfect pencil lines rather than at Sarah herself. “I know this onion cell won’t, but other cells do. I saw it in a book. And Miss Lim said so.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes. “Well, you’re not the one with photographic memory. I am.”
“Like, 80 percent of the time,” I mumbled. Sarah’s Gift was still developing, I knew, no matter how much she bragged.
“Shut up,” she said tetchily, cheeks flushing. “I’ve read the whole section in the textbook, and I know nothing in there says that cells have more than two nuclei. There.”
Oh, why couldn’t Sarah just get off her pedestal once in a while? She couldn’t be right all the time. I said something to that effect, and added, “Plus, your Gift isn’t all there yet, and that’s okay.”
That had probably been the wrong thing to say. Hurt flashed in Sarah’s wide, dark gaze, becoming cold and hard as crystal. She said in a clear, venomous voice: “And I should take your word for it, perfect-Gift fishboy. What, do the fish tell you about cells too?”
I stiffened. “You know they can’t,” I said finally, looking away. “And don’t call me that.”
“I wouldn’t know where you get your sources of information from. Maybe it’s fish,” she went on, ignoring me. “And because your Gift is so perfect, maybe your head’s just filled with nothing but fish thoughts! Ooh, like a goldfish. So you forget everything.”
I hated that the resignation I felt was already familiar after only the first two months of secondary school.
She was loud enough that I could feel stares accumulating slowly. The lab was far too warm and stuffy. “I never said…that it was,” I said, feeling my head start to spin. “Sarah, I’m not trying to say I’m smarter than you or anything, come on.”
“Oh, I’d say you are, Felix, with the way you sucked up to Miss Lim earlier. And made me look stupid. My Gift is way better than yours — so don’t pretend it’s not.”
I stood up abruptly, pushing my wooden stool back. Its rubber feet made an awful squeaking noise. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I fumbled out.
On the long walk to the toilet, the fire of adrenaline that had been burning in my belly simmered to a familiar, bitter coal. Why did Sarah have to be so darn proud? Why hadn’t I just kept my mouth shut? And, most importantly, why did everything have to come back to my Gift, which really felt more like a curse than anything?
Having the ability to communicate and understand fish (of all things!) was not normal, I knew. Along with our PSLE results, all twelve-year-olds received a Gift for life: perfect eyesight, or a beautiful voice, or even enhanced flexibility; just enough to make us remarkable, like we’d always been told, but not too much so. Some Gifts, like Sarah’s, were naturally coveted more than others. I felt like a freak — animal, specifically fish, telepathy seemed out of left field, and it felt useless to boot.
The first time my extended family had caught wind of it, an aunt had said, “Oh! How unique. His future will be interesting,” but her stare said something like, poor thing. Fisher? Do those even exist anymore? There wasn’t even anything wrong with the job; I just couldn’t see myself doing it. But other people certainly seemed to think there was.
My Gift was a stereotype paradoxically unique only to me. But it was precisely that fact, I thought, looking at the large eco-pond near the toilet, that I wanted to destroy.
When people looked at me, maybe all they saw was a dumb “fishboy” from some nondescript primary school. But that was okay, because they didn’t have to know how I’d felt the world crumbling under my feet when I’d first heard slow — inhuman — thoughts not my own, in my head near a pond, and realise that the words inscribed on my exam certificate hadn’t been a terrible dream. How my mother hadn’t said a word, just wrapped her arm round my shoulder and said, this doesn’t have to be who you are. How I’d wanted to believe that, surrounding myself with the yellowing and well-worn pages, electronic or otherwise, of all manner of biological diagrams, their cellular complexity as familiar as the back of my hand.
How finally I dreamed of a future of pristine laboratories, of relentless scientific pursuit, of being seen for my work, my efforts, beyond the seemingly inane Gift I had been assigned.
Those made up the things, the person, that I wanted to be and more. But that did not mean I had to completely alienate the Gift now a fundamental part of me, of my physiognomy. I could mope over its uselessness…or make something out of it.
That was where I found myself at the pond, letting my mind go blank, trying to tune out the watery burbles of algae. itches and grey two-tail did not bring the worms today leaking into my headspace.
“Don’t tell me you’re actually talking to them.”
I turned round. It was Sarah. “Miss Lim sent me to check on you,” she said, her face unreadable.
“Well, they are pretty noisy,” I responded warily. “I hear them even if I don’t want to. And I don’t. You learn to tune them out.”
“Oh,” Sarah said, her expression imperceptibly shifting. “Let’s — go back then.”
We began the awkward, silent walk back. I steeled my resolve. Even if Sarah wouldn’t apologise, I’d correct my misstep.
“Sarah, I really didn’t mean that your Gift is bad,” I began. “I just meant that it’s still growing — developing, so it might not always work like you think. That just means,” I rushed on, “that you’ll be even more amazing next time.”
She said nothing. Oh, well. At least I’d said it.
“I’m not amazing.”
I looked strangely at first at her, then with shock. Sarah’s face had twisted into an unfamiliar expression of distress.
“Don’t you see? It’s all my Gift. People just think it’s ‘cause I’m smart, and good at sciences, like how they think all photo-memory Giftees are, but I’m really not. Science is great and all, but it doesn’t feel like…me. You know? So I have to — live up to other people’s expectations anyway.” Her torrent of words suddenly dammed. “My parents’,” she said, voice suddenly small.
“So I guess I was upset just now, when I got that question wrong in front of everybody. Even though I’d studied already and should’ve known it. It’s stupid.” Sarah looked down. “How do you do it? It must be so difficult to be as good at Bio as you are. I can’t imagine studying it without my Gift. But you do.”
“It kind of is,” I said. “But because it’s so interesting, it’s easier. But I’m not special. Everyone goes through the same thing, except you, I guess, but you’ve got your problems too.” I’d said something wrong again. “That came out wrong.”
What I meant: Sarah was allowed to make mistakes, too. To be human. I hoped she’d understand what I hadn’t said.
“No, I get it,” she said, her eyebrows creased.
“I think we can be more than our Gifts,” I said slowly. A flash of memory: my mother’s beautiful, ironically Gift-enhanced voice saying something similar.
“But it’s such a big part of who I am. Who we are. Adults say that too, but I can tell they always secretly think differently,” Sarah said despondently.
“Then we just have to prove them wrong.” Certainty swelled in my chest. “I think we can make our Gifts anything we want, even if it’s not what other people expect of us.”
I felt the truth of it ring through my bones. Sarah’s Gift didn’t have to control Sarah, or her future. We were still young. She could use her Gift for a different kind of good — that didn’t have to be science.
“Oh,” Sarah said, an echo of earlier, but with a much lighter tone. Her sable gaze had softened exponentially. “I’m sorry for the awful things I said,” she said. “I don’t think you’re dumb at all. In fact, you’re a lot smarter than I am.”
“Don’t say that,” I said. “You’re plenty smart, too. Especially in Lit.”
“It’s my favourite subject,” she said, a smile blooming on her face. “I never really get to use my Gift the way I’m used to in it, though. It’s great.”
“The old-fashioned way,” I joked, coming to a stop outside the lab.
Sarah huffed a small laugh. “Thanks, Felix,” she said simply, and I felt it was for more than holding the lab door open for her.