Houses in the Sky

Fiction / Nicola Koh


:: Houses in the Sky ::

Okay, sure, fourteen’s a bit old to be build­ing tree­hous­es. But a) I’d nev­er had one and Sal­ly Long said I’d been deprived, and b) this wasn’t going to be just a few rot­ting planks nailed to a branch, this was going to be the best god­damn tree­house east of the Mis­sis­sip­pi. After all, our par­ents were archi­tects at the best firm in Min­neso­ta, and we researched for months, trad­ing design ideas and learn­ing to sketch.

            It was code­named Oper­a­tion House in the Sky and kept strict­ly clas­si­fied. It was going to take a lot to con­vince said par­ents; specif­i­cal­ly, my mother.

            The Mater­nal­ly Ori­ent­ed Parental Unit came from Malaysia, a coun­try where kids appar­ent­ly had no rights. There were zero dis­cus­sion about eight pm cur­fews, the two hours a week allot­ted for video games (pend­ing good behav­ior), or the list of chores which could have tak­en a whole toi­let paper role. We got top grades and won awards, or else. Any sniff of dis­si­dence result­ed in hours-long lec­tures on ingrat­i­tude, self­ish­ness, and my-house-my-rules.

            When I’d point out my moth­er nev­er pushed her sub­or­di­nates half this hard, she’d say, “With them, there’s too much to fix. You’re like a pot with only a few cracks, so of course I want to fix the ones that are there.

Sal­ly thought the best time for me to bring up H.I.T.S was around my birth­day in late July, when she’d be more amenable to requests. I said she’d just think it imper­ti­nent to ask a favor on the anniver­sary of the twen­ty-three hours it took to pop me out. It turned out to be moot either way when ear­ly in the month, the moth­er yelled at me and my broth­er to come to the liv­ing room. We assem­bled, exchang­ing the uni­ver­sal look for what the hell did you do this time.

            My moth­er hat­ed that liv­ing room: trape­zoid with a ten-inch depres­sion that pro­vid­ed less sep­a­ra­tion than a place to trip and a faux-mar­ble fire­place with Gre­co columns designed pre­sum­ably by some­one who’d only watched Disney’s Her­cules. When she sum­moned me and my broth­er there, it was almost cer­tain­ly sit­u­a­tion critical.

            “You two are los­ing touch with your roots.”


            “We’re tak­ing a trip back to Malaysia.”

            Shit, shit, shit.

            The H.I.T.S timetable was offi­cial­ly in tat­ters. For that mat­ter, so was sum­mer. Hell, my life might be at risk—no exag­ger­a­tion. I’ve been chased by packs of mon­keys, twice, and the last vis­it I’d spent three days in the hos­pi­tal with food poi­son­ing where the nurs­es poked me five times look­ing for a vein. We were also warned to be care­ful to wear our bags away from the street because peo­ple on motor­cy­cles might snatch it while you were walking.

            Even sans out­right tragedy, the prog­no­sis was grim. Flights so long we’d be at gen­uine risk of deep vein throm­bo­sis. Days of shit­ty-long jet­lag, the first in the mid­dle of an eight-hour-min­i­mum wel­come by the fam­i­ly (which for Eurasians means cousins, aunts, uncles, sec­ond cousins, and some­times den­tists), where we’ll be con­stant­ly told we look tired and should get some rest, but won’t actu­al­ly be allowed to, and receive the mul­ti­ple ver­dicts on whether we need­ed to eat more or less. Then it’s sweat­ing non­stop for weeks while eat­ing gameshow-weird food and vis­it­ing one site after anoth­er full of great cul­tur­al rel­e­vance and noth­ing actu­al­ly inter­est­ing. Not to men­tion at least ten giant fam­i­ly din­ners and the days-long marathon of goodbyes.

            But Sally’s voice float­ed into my head. Lose the bat­tle, win the war. She’d said that when the moth­er vetoed an Ari­ana Grande con­cert in May and again when I was for­bid­den from pierc­ing my ears. It was attrib­uted to Sun Tzu the first time and Aris­to­tle the sec­ond, but it was almost cer­tain­ly from a meme. It did make sense, though, not that I’d tell her. So I just nod­ded and asked when we were going and what I should pack. My father and broth­er may have stared like I’d gone cer­ti­fi­able, but my mother’s lips curled ever so slight­ly in surprise.

            Three cul­tur­al-hori­zons-broad­en­ing expe­di­tions in, how­ev­er, I was start­ing to won­der if the war was real­ly worth it. By the fifth, I was ready to dump Sal­ly in one of the many mud­dy rivers, prefer­ably one espe­cial­ly full of snakes and eels.

            The trip in ques­tion was a vis­it to my mother’s child­hood home in some rail­road vil­lage a thou­sand miles from moder­ni­ty. Every­thing smelled like mud and cow dung and was sur­round­ed by sprawl­ing bush­es and trees with leaves so green they shone. My moth­er didn’t know who was liv­ing there in her old house, so we just walked around it. It was bare­ly more than a hut raised on con­crete stilts in a dirt clearing.

            “Don’t get too close, cobras like to nest under these hous­es,” she said, like it was a per­fect­ly nor­mal thing to say.

            There were two bed­rooms, a liv­ing room, and a kitchen, with a table out back on a slab of con­crete serv­ing as a din­ing room, shel­tered by walls and a roof made of rust­ing tin sheet. My moth­er often told us how my grand­moth­er favoured my uncle. She’d make her and my aun­ty mop while he sat and read the news­pa­per, only mov­ing to raise his legs for them to get under him. She espe­cial­ly brought this up when we com­plained about our hours-long sets of chores. She’d nev­er men­tioned how lit­tle there was to mop.

            “How come the gov­ern­ment didn’t let Grandad have a bet­ter house?” my broth­er asked.

            My moth­er shrugged. “He was just a rail­road con­duc­tor. They didn’t get paid much. He would fight with Grand­ma a lot because she was care­less with the money.”

            In a house that small, where did you hide from yelling?

            “Can we go?” I asked.

            “Look at those vents,” my moth­er said, point­ing to slits about three-quar­ters of the way up the house. “Such a sim­ple and effi­cient way to keep a house cool.”

            My moth­er loved shit like that. She paid her way through col­lege and then got a full ride to Cor­nell for her Mas­ters in Archi­tec­ture. After my father joined her in Min­neso­ta, peo­ple often asked him how he could leave his home and fam­i­ly to be with a new wife.

            He’d say, “Have you met her?” My mother’s will is tsunamic.

            It was hours before we final­ly got back to my aunty’s house in Kuala Lumpur. I flopped on the bed, got out my iPad, and Face­timed Sal­ly. “How’s civilization?”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “It’s not like you’re liv­ing in the jungle.”

            “It’s prob­a­bly less swel­ter­ing in the jun­gle,” I said, jab­bing at the tem­per­a­ture but­ton for the A.C. “My par­ents tried to make me eat chick­en feet.”

            “Ew,” Sal­ly said.

            “They already made me eat the fish head curry.”

            “Fish head??”

            “It was huge, too. I tried to make it talk, but my moth­er told me not to ‘act the child’.”

            “You should have tak­en a picture.”

            I snort­ed. “With what? They gave me a flip phone to use.”

            “Oh, gross. That’s worse than chick­en feet.” Sal­ly sighed. “Still, I wish I was some­where cool like Malaysia.”

            “Trust me, cool it is not,” I said. “In any sense.”

            The moth­er start­ed yelling from downstairs.

            “More famil­ial oblig­a­tions?” Sal­ly asked.

            I shrugged. “Probs screwed up the homework.”

            “Home­work?” Sal­ly said. “Gab­by. You’re. On. Vacation.”

            “Tell that to Drill Sargeant Chili Padi,” I said. “We’re writ­ing reports on Malaysian life.”

            “Good lordy, have fun with that,” Sal­ly said. “And keep but­ter­ing up your mother.”

            “I still say we just plant a tree in your yard. It’ll be faster.”

            The mother’s yells were grow­ing loud­er and decid­ed­ly less patient.

            “Get out of here,” Sal­ly said and hung up.

            Turned out the Por­tuguese col­o­nized Mela­ka not Penang; Malaysia’s inde­pen­dence date was 1957, not some long-ass time ago; and the Dutch and British East India com­pa­nies did not trade ter­ri­to­ries like Poké­mon.

            “Even your gram­mar is atro­cious,” my moth­er said, whip­ping out one of the dozens of red pens she seemed to have sequestered in every bag, pock­et, prob­a­bly the lin­ings of her clothes. After ten min­utes, the pages were more red than black.

            “You might as well rewrite it,” I noted.

            “I’m not doing your work for you.”

            “You did that audi­to­ri­um project.”

            Last Spring our class had tak­en part in a city­wide con­test to design a mod­el auditorium.

            “You know all the par­ents did it,” she mut­tered. “Espe­cial­ly Mr. Long.”

            The last, at least, was true.

            After anoth­er five min­utes, I said, “Can we go to 1‑Utama again?”

            “We didn’t come here to go to malls.”

            “Did you know it’s twice the size of the Mall of America?”

            “You looked that up, but you can’t spell Tereng­ganu properly.”


            “No means no.”

            Sal­ly nev­er had this prob­lem. When I wasn’t allowed to watch Hunger Games until my moth­er vet­ted it, Sal­ly told me dri­ly that Mr. Long wouldn’t have cared if she’d watched Saw. When I was ground­ed for get­ting a B‑plus on midterms, she informed me air­i­ly she got thir­ty dol­lars for an A and twen­ty for a B.

            “Do you get twen­ty-five for an A‑minus?” I asked.

            She sniffed. “Dad­dy says minus­es are just what teach­ers use to annoy their students.”

            When I final­ly returned State­side, Sal­ly and I went to the Coney’s Cones road­side shack to get ice-cream.

            “You have no idea how good this tastes,” I said.

            “It’s just a reg­u­lar old twist.”

            “Malaysian ice-cream sucks,” I said. “Their cows must be deficient.”

            “Aren’t Asians lac­tose intol­er­ant?” Sal­ly said. “Maybe that’s why you fart up a storm every time we come here.”

            “I do not.”

            “It’s the worst.”

            I shoved her almost off the rail­ing, but she stead­ied her­self and stuck out a straw­ber­ry cov­ered tongue.

            “Also, how are you not the slight­est bit dark­er?” she said.

            “The moth­er made us wear buck­ets of sun tan lotion.”

            “One day on the lake, and I still got burnt,” she said, turn­ing her back to show me.

            I traced the burn. “Ouch.”

            “Also, we’re in trou­ble,” Sal­ly said after a moment, strange­ly breathily.


            “Our audi­to­ri­ums made the finals.”

            The burn was the shape of a bird, I decid­ed. It tin­gled on the sticky tips of my fin­gers as if it were electric.

            “So what do we do when our par­ents find out we chucked theirs?” Sal­ly said eventually.

            I shrugged. “Ours were better.”

            Sal­ly gig­gled. “Daddy’s was sooo bor­ing. How is he even a real architect?”

            “The big­ger thing to wor­ry about is H.I.T.S.”

            “You’ve got to talk to your mom. Today.”

            “Dude, I just got back.”

            “To. Day.” Sal­ly turned around and wiped my cheek. “You’re such a slob.”

            She jumped down from the rail­ing. At the traf­fic light, she turned to salute me. When she dis­ap­peared around the cor­ner, I touched the place where she’d smeared ice-cream on my cheek.

            At nine-thir­ty, I found my moth­er fold­ing clothes in the kitchen. “Hey, Ma?”

            “What?” my moth­er said, not look­ing up.

            “Can Sal­ly and I build a tree­house in the oak?”

            She stared at me. “Are you mon­keys? Decent peo­ple live on the ground.”

            “It’s basi­cal­ly a req­ui­site for a sub­ur­ban Amer­i­can childhood.”

            “If Amer­i­cans walked on their hands, would you do it too?”

            I chose not to point out that I was, de fac­to, Amer­i­can. “We’d make it real­ly cool.”

            She huffed. “Every­thing with the Amer­i­cans is cool this, cool that.”

            “I mean sophis­ti­cat­ed,” I said. “Like a mod­el house. All our own design.”

            My moth­er paused with a t‑shirt in her hand. For all the ser­mons on grat­i­tude, I knew she hat­ed our house. The lay­out wast­ed space, it couldn’t hold heat for shit, the walls were paper thin, and the exte­ri­or was a 50s cook­ie cut­ter sub­ur­ban style that was out­dat­ed before the hous­es were fin­ished. And the liv­ing room: the way she glared at it when she thought I wasn’t looking.

            “It could be the best tree­house in the Mid­west. They’d prob­a­bly talk about it on MPR.”

            “Why must every­thing in this coun­try be best, great­est, most,” she muttered.

            But I could see it work­ing behind her eyes. After fold­ing a pair of jeans and two shirts, she said, “I’ll think about it.”

            The next morn­ing, I patient­ly chased corn flakes around my bowl until they start­ed to break while my moth­er was on the phone for almost an hour. When she sat down and start­ed but­ter­ing slices of toast with infu­ri­at­ing­ly care­ful strokes, still I kept grave­yard quiet.

            “About this tree­house,” she said, finally.

            “Hmm,” I said with a non­cha­lance I def­i­nite­ly hadn’t prac­ticed for an hour.

            “We can build it.”

            “Oh, cool.”

            I washed my bowl with ago­niz­ing delib­er­ate­ness, then went to fetch our design. It was a thing of beau­ty, print­ed with actu­al blue­print on pro­fes­sion­al 36-by-24 inch sheet, dia­grams and exten­sive notes.

            “What is this?” my moth­er said. She looked at it for a sec­ond, then frowned. “No, that won’t work.”

            She flipped it over and start­ed sketch­ing. It looked noth­ing like our design.

            My throat clenched. “Why not?”

            “Too com­pli­cat­ed to explain.”

            “Can we at least try?” I asked.

            “Why set your­self up for fail­ure?” my moth­er muttered.

            I real­ized then our fatal error. We’d been so focused on the need to con­vince my moth­er to build the tree­house, we for­got we had to also con­vince her to let us build the damn thing.

            And just like that it was all in smoke. H.I.T.S mis­sion report: failure.

            My moth­er went through four drafts and ten revi­sions to her final design. Twice we had to build the imposter tree­house then tear it down because of some triv­ial flaw or another.

            “Still work­ing on that?” Sal­ly asked, nod­ding at the bones of the lat­est attempt.

            We were sit­ting on the lawn, which was grow­ing unruly because no one had time to mow it. I plucked dan­de­lions and blew their spores out.

            “We’ll prob­a­bly be going at the stu­pid thing until the zom­bie apocalypse.”.

            “At least you’ll have a place to hide. Dad­dy refus­es to build a bunker.”

            “You can chill with us,” I said. “My broth­er will want to fight the zom­bies anyway.”

            She start­ed mak­ing a chain of dan­de­lion stems. “I don’t know. Your mom would get on my case about how I shoot them.”

            “Right between the eyes. Or no dessert.”

            “She’d even nag the zom­bies,” Sal­ly said. Her voice went low and stac­ca­to. “Backs straight! Stop limp­ing! Chew the brains before swallowing!”

            I fell over laugh­ing. “Oh my god, don’t let her hear you,” I wheezed. “I’ll be ground­ed for a year.”

            “You got spores,” Sal­ly said when I got up. She start­ed comb­ing my hair.

            My spine shiv­ered. “At least it adds color.”

            “Dude, your hair’s gor­geous. It’s so black and shiny.”

            “But you have the best hair,” I said.

            Sal­ly fin­gered one of her locks, so pale it snatched the reds of the set­ting sun.

            “Yours is bet­ter,” she said.

            I start­ed to protest, but Sal­ly point­ed to the tree­house. “Your mom’s calling.”

            “What, Ma?” I shouted.

            “Come hand me the lev­el,” my moth­er yelled.

            “Give me a minute.”


            Sal­ly looped the dan­de­lion neck­lace over my head.

            “You’d bet­ter go. Got­ta fin­ish that thing before the zom­bies get here,” she said, wink­ing as she got up.


            “O.K, Ma!”

            When I brought her the lev­el, my moth­er looked at me quizzi­cal­ly. “What are you wearing?”

            “Noth­ing,” I said.

            I tried to take the neck­lace off gen­tly, but it broke.

            It was two more months before the moth­er was sat­is­fied. Two half-lev­els, a sloped roof, gen­tly pol­ished wood. And as much as I hat­ed to admit, it was a vir­tu­oso in Amer­i­can tra­di­tion­al minimalism.

            Sal­ly and I vol­un­teered to be the tri­al mon­keys. She said she was only com­ing along to indulge me, but I could tell she was just as gid­dy. Sur­round­ed by all that red and amber and gold, it was like being cocooned by fire.

            “I don’t know why more peo­ple don’t sleep in trees in the Fall,” I said.

            “Because it’s freez­ing?” Sal­ly said. “How are you only wear­ing one sweater?”

            “It’s not that bad. Must be my trop­i­cal blood.”

            “You’ve been to Malaysia like what, four times?”

            “Blood doesn’t for­get,” I said, solemn­ly. “Or so the moth­er claims.”

            “I’ll nev­er under­stand her,” she said. “No won­der you’re so weird.”

            “Says the girl who eats every­thing in her sand­wich one-by-one.”

            “It tastes bet­ter that way,” she said. “Also, we should be tak­ing pictures.”

            “Why live life through a camera?”

            “Wow, now you’re even sound­ing like her,” Sal­ly said. “And the point of pic­tures is to make oth­ers jealous?”

            She bus­ied her­self choos­ing the right fil­ter and cap­tion. “You see the way Carl’s been look­ing at you?” she said, peer­ing at me from the cor­ner of her eyes.

            I shrugged “He’s got the yel­low fever bad.”

            “I mean three Asian girls in a row. But he is on the bas­ket­ball team.”

            “That’s because he’s already six feet. He can bare­ly toss a ball into a canyon.”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “So you’re not inter­est­ed in him?”

            “No dat­ing until I’m out of col­lege with a job, remem­ber,” I said. “Prefer­ably with a doc­tor­ate or two.”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “Yeah, but if you could date him, would you?”


            Sal­ly nod­ded. “Yeah, I wouldn’t date him either.”

            There seemed to be an empha­sis on him. My stom­ach clenched unpleasantly

Around eight, my moth­er came by to tell us to go to sleep.

            “Oooh, bed­time for the baby?” Sal­ly gig­gled until I shoved her over.

            We got out our sleep­ing bags. “This thing smells like hot dogs,” I said.

            “Tell your mom not to shop at Good­will,” Sal­ly said.

            We talked for bare­ly ten min­utes before Sal­ly fell into inco­her­ence. But I couldn’t get myself to sleep. My breaths mist­ed above me, but I some­how felt uncom­fort­ably warm, like there was a heat gnaw­ing through my chest. I wres­tled my way out of the sleep­ing bag.

            Sally’s face was a pale glow, cheeks trem­bling with every snore.

            I nudged her awake.

            “Move over,” I mumbled.

            I crawled in and set­tled on my side, face-to-face with her, the bag squeez­ing us tight enough that our breasts just bare­ly shift­ed against each oth­er with every breath. When I opened my eyes, hers were fixed on me, almost emer­ald in the dark.

            “Hi,” Sal­ly said. Her voice was quavering.

            It felt like hours before I leaned clos­er. I could smell the gar­lic from spaghet­ti din­ner on her breath.

            The only time I’d ever kissed some­one it was rough and wet and gross. Some cousin of a girl from school at spin the bot­tle. I left the game mak­ing a face.

            These kiss­es were rough, and wet, and beautiful.

            In the morn­ing, after we’d dropped Sal­ly off, my moth­er asked, “Did some­thing hap­pen last night?”

            “No,” I said.

            “I’ve nev­er heard you two be so quiet.”

            “Why do you always have to inter­ro­gate me?” I said, foolishly.

            She pulled over. “You’re hid­ing some­thing, and I do not like it.”

            “Noth­ing happened.”


            “Oh my god. We kissed, okay?”

            “Oh,” my moth­er said, start­ing the car again. “I was wor­ried it was drugs.”

            I couldn’t believe it. I texted Sal­ly—my mom guessed and shes not flipping?

            —holy shit. maybe the zom­bies got her

I start­ed plas­ter­ing the reply box with laugh­ing emojis.

            “Of course, you can’t date.”

            The words didn’t reg­is­ter for a moment. “What?”

            “You know the rule, no dat­ing till after college.”

            My blood turned ice even as my skull felt like it was on fire. “That’s bullshit.”

            “Watch your language.”

            When we got back home, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceil­ing. I was so numb. I stared at the line of laugh­ing faces on the unsent text, then delet­ed them one by one.

            The next day, Sal­ly found me at my lock­er. When she leaned into me, I backed away.

            Sal­ly flinched. “What the hell?”

            “It’s…” I said. “I mean…”

            Sal­ly bit the cor­ner of her lip. “It’s your moth­er isn’t it.”

            I couldn’t look at her.

            “Oh my god, Gab­by, stand up to her for once in your life!”

            “You don’t under­stand,” I said.

            “Yeah, I don’t,” Sal­ly said. “It’s the twen­ty-first fuck­ing cen­tu­ry. What kind of fas­cist bans a teenag­er from dating?”

            My head snapped up. “Look, I’m sor­ry my moth­er isn’t some pushover you can bat your eyes at and get what­ev­er the hell you want!”

            Sal­ly blinked slow­ly, like a lizard. “My dad’s not a pushover. He’s just not certifiable.”

            “My moth­er only wants what’s best for me.”

            “That umbil­i­cal cord looks real good on you,” she said, turn­ing to leave.

            “God help us all if you don’t get your way for once!”

            Sal­ly stiff­ened, then kept walking.

            The silence between our two desks start­ed to grow thick­er than smog, then spread through the whole class­room as every­one ner­vous­ly gauged the sit­u­a­tion. Halfway through Wednes­day, Ms. Walk­er asked Sal­ly to switch to a dif­fer­ent desk. She moved with­out a word.

            If school was a cold war, home was full nuclear. My moth­er and I screamed our throats ragged as the bat­tle­fronts mul­ti­plied. My ridicu­lous extra home­work. How Amer­i­can­ized I was. How many times I’d been ground­ed for miss­ing a smudge of dust. How, when peo­ple at church asked me how I was, I would respond, “You know, just sur­viv­ing the slave­mas­ter. Wa-pish.”

            When I called her a bitch, my mother’s eyes widened far enough for her eye­balls to roll out. Pass­ing my brother’s room on the way to storm­ing to mine, he was cow­er­ing on his bed.
            “What the hell are you look­ing at?” I snapped.

            The only time my moth­er and I paused hos­til­i­ties was when my father gin­ger­ly brought up fam­i­ly ther­a­py, and we con­cur­rent­ly let him know our shared pieces of mind.

            Mean­while at school, I’d tak­en to wear­ing gobs of con­ceal­er so no one could tell how much I was cry­ing. I laughed loud­ly at the weak­est jokes. Sal­ly still wouldn’t look at me.

            When my moth­er con­front­ed me about my plum­met­ing grades, some­thing broke.

            “I hate you,” I said.

            Her head snapped back, like she’d been elec­tro­cut­ed. “What?” she stammered.

            “You’ve ruined my life.” My voice was as monot­o­nous as an answer­ing machine. Press “1” for How Gab­by Real­ly Feels. “I. Fuck­ing. Hate you.”

            When I passed my parent’s bed­room that night, my moth­er was sob­bing on my father’s shoul­der. He was plead­ing silent­ly for me to say some­thing. I rolled my eyes and went to bed.

            Then a few days lat­er, at lunch in the cafe­te­ria, an announce­ment on the P.A from Vice-Prin­ci­pal Colne. Our mod­el audi­to­ri­ums had won prizes for the city com­pe­ti­tion. My chest clenched. Build­ing those with Sal­ly felt like an episode from some show we’d watched obses­sive­ly then abrupt­ly for­got about.

            “Our own Sal­ly Long’s placed third, and Gabrielle Deli­ma placed second!”

            I glanced at Sal­ly, two tables away, but she didn’t turn around.

            “Please give them a big round of applause.”

            The cafe­te­ria clapped awk­ward­ly. Sally’s voice sliced through the silence that followed.

            “It’s because she’s Asian,” she was say­ing. “Affir­ma­tive Action bullshit.”

            A meat­ball sailed through the air and splat­tered on the back of her head. It took me a moment to real­ize I’d been the one who’d thrown it. Sal­ly whipped around just in time for mari­nara sauce to explode all over her face.

            “Don’t you dare talk about me that way!” I screamed.

            Sal­ly grabbed a glob of spaghet­ti and hurled it back. Sal­ly, per­fect in every way but this: the noo­dles missed me by a mile and struck the the­ater kids.

            “It’s called free speech!” she screamed. “Look it up!”

            Any­thing else she might have said was lost in the ensu­ing mael­strom of food. We stood unmov­ing through it all even as pieces of boiled broc­coli and dis­in­te­grat­ing meat­balls splat­tered on us, and milk and pop soaked our clothes. Nei­ther of us would be the one to look away as fury redou­bled between our eyes like micro­phone feedback.

            “What the hell was that?” Vice-Prin­ci­pal Colne said, nine­ty min­utes lat­er, furi­ous­ly dab­bing an orangey grease spot on his shirt.

            “She start­ed it,” Sal­ly said.

            “She insult­ed me,” I shot back.

            “I don’t care,” Colne said. “Who start­ed what. Who said what. Deten­tion, two weeks.”

            He silenced our protest with a slash of his hand, then ges­tured toward the door. Mrs. Long and my moth­er walked in. They sat on either side of us, avoid­ing our eyes as they gave the stan­dard words of con­tri­tion and promis­es of good behavior.

            “Now apol­o­gize,” Colne said to us.

            “Sor­ry,” we muttered.

            “Not to me,” Colne said. “To one another.”

            Sal­ly froze too.

            “Look at each oth­er,” he said.

            It was the first time in weeks that I’d been this close to her. I’d for­got­ten how green her eyes were. Con­ceal­er was flak­ing beneath them.


            I was sur­prised how much it sound­ed like we meant it.

            Sal­ly looked away. “Good aim. You should try­out for softball.”

            My lip twitched. “Maybe if they got bet­ter uniforms.”

            When we got home, I start­ed toward my bedroom.

            “Wait,” my moth­er said.

            “Can I at least take a nap?” I said.

            “Please?” she said softly.

            I froze mid-step. I couldn’t remem­ber my moth­er ever say­ing that to me. When she col­lapsed into the sofa in the liv­ing room, I approached war­i­ly and sat down on the arm on the oppo­site side.

            “I want­ed to nur­ture you. Pro­tect you. Push you,” my moth­er said. Her eyes were spi­der-webbed with blood lines. “I thought that’s what a moth­er is sup­posed to do.”

            She leaned for­ward, star­ing at the fire­place, clasp­ing her hands on her knees, as if pray­ing. “Grow­ing up, I felt so alone. Grand­pa was always gone for work and Grand­ma bare­ly paid atten­tion to me.” She looked at me again. “I nev­er want­ed you to feel that way.”

            “What’s that sup­posed to mean?”

            “I just want you to under­stand. I get so caught up in it. You and your broth­er are my joys. You’re the best things I ever made.”

            “Destroyed, more like.”

            “Some­times I want to shield you so much I for­get you have to breathe,” she said. “But I’m try­ing, Gabrielle. I’m try­ing to be better.”

            I stood up. “Too late.”

            In my bed­room, I looked up Sally’s Insta­gram. Only five pic­tures down, there we were, in the tree­house, Sal­ly grin­ning like it was her birth­day and me look­ing like some­one who hadn’t quite fig­ured out smil­ing. The cap­tion said: #BFFs <3

I texted Sal­ly. —can I call?

            A minute lat­er the phone buzzed. —yeah

Hey,” she said. “How much trou­ble you in?”

            “Not sure. The moth­er bot didn’t even yell at me. Must be out of juice.”

            “Mine went full soap opera. What are peo­ple going to think about us?

            I gig­gled. “I miss you.”

            “Me too.”

            “I want to be with you. No mat­ter what my moth­er says.”

            There was silence on the oth­er line.


            “It’s just…” Sal­ly said. “I don’t know. You real­ly hurt me.”

            “I’m sor­ry,” I said. “We hurt each other.”

            “Yeah,” Sal­ly said.

            After a minute I said, “You still there?”

            She exhaled. “My dad’s tak­ing a posi­tion in Chicago.”

            My throat shrank. I could bare­ly whis­per an oh.

            “Yeah,” she said. She paused for a minute. Her breaths came soft and shal­low. “Maybe it’s best… Maybe we just shouldn’t let any­thing happen.”


            “I’ll…” Sal­ly said, “See you around, I guess.”

            I didn’t let the phone drop from my ear even when the two beeps of the hang-up tone came, like the last beats of a heart.

            Any­time now she’ll call back and say it was a mis­take. We were BFFs.

            The snow-coat­ed roof of the tree­house turned gray, then red, then a bruised pur­ple. Best friends for­ev­er. She had to call back.

            How could for­ev­er end like this?

            The tree­house was glow­ing in street­light amber when my moth­er came to sit on the edge of the bed.

            “You win,” I said. “Con­trol my life all you want. I don’t care. Noth­ing mat­ters any­more. Not a sin­gle god­dam thing.”

            “I’m sor­ry,” she said.

            It took me a moment to com­pre­hend what she’d said. That impos­si­ble word had pulled some kind of plug in me, and the rage build­ing in my chest drained in a rush.

            “I’m going to make din­ner,” my moth­er said. “I’ll leave some in the fridge.”

            It was past mid­night when I final­ly crawled out of bed. My moth­er was work­ing at the din­ing table.

            “What’s that?” I asked.

            “We’re redis­trib­ut­ing Mr. Long’s remain­ing projects.”

            “Oh,” I said, sit­ting down. The tree­house looked gray and dead. I tried to pic­ture the red and gold of that autumn day back onto it, but I couldn’t. I start­ed cry­ing. Her lips had been so warm.

            “That damn tree­house,” my moth­er said suddenly.

            “Huh?” I said, rub­bing my eyes.

            “It’s crooked.”

            “Doesn’t look it,” I said.

            “A seri­ous struc­tur­al flaw.” She sighed. “Too com­pli­cat­ed to explain. We will have to tear it down.”

            She glanced at me as she said it. “Ah,” I said. “Guess so.”

            The next day, wrapped in a dozen blan­kets, we shiv­ered in front of the fire­place, our coats pool­ing water by the door, nei­ther of us say­ing any­thing. When­ev­er the fire start­ed to fade, I grabbed anoth­er piece of the tree­house and shoved it into the flames. Each piece glowed brighter and brighter, then crum­bled. Like a promise, like a dream.

From the writer


:: Account ::

The germ of this sto­ry was the phrase start over bounc­ing around my head which had me won­der­ing what kind of sto­ry would revolve around that. It was while tak­ing my first MFA class, almost a decade ago, taught by the ines­timably bril­liant and nur­tur­ing Deb­o­rah Keenan, who pro­vid­ed more prompts in a class than you could work through in a year, so many that I was now mak­ing one up on my own. And maybe it was because, while severe­ly depressed and on an ill-fat­ed jour­ney with hor­mone replace­ment ther­a­py, I found myself exor­cis­ing demons around my rela­tion­ship with my moth­er, but the sto­ry I imme­di­ate­ly fell into was about deal­ing with a per­fec­tion­ist father who kept scrap­ping any­thing his kids did that wasn’t up to stan­dards and telling them to start over.

     But as much as the heart of the sto­ry was drawn from my own life, the details weren’t. And in a way it prob­a­bly felt like when a friend tells a sto­ry that you sus­pect has all the impor­tant bits obscured.

     Some­one once told me that writ­ers have to ask them­selves: where’s their skin in the game? Because there are some sto­ries you can’t tell by wad­ing in the shal­lows. So the gener­ic Asian father became a Malaysian Eurasian moth­er, the trip to Malaysia was stuffed with details that could be auto­bi­o­graph­ic, and the con­flict between par­ent and child became the embod­i­ment of all the anger and hurt that I felt grow­ing up. What remained fic­tion­al, such as grow­ing up in the U.S. for exam­ple, did so as a vehi­cle for the sto­ry, not a way to hide.

     One mys­te­ri­ous thing is how I masked my moth­er at a time when our rela­tion­ship was strained. But in the months that fol­lowed, maybe after hav­ing got­ten all that out in that class, I found myself able to move past the hurt she caused by her mis­takes to appre­ci­ate the love that was behind it, and some­how freer to be hon­est about the hard truths of our rela­tion­ship. In the orig­i­nal, the end­ing involves Sal­ly dying and Gabby’s father dis­man­tling the tree­house and ask­ing if they can start over with the plans the girls made, per­haps some kind of wish ful­fill­ment on my part. The new end­ing feels a lot clos­er to the nature of my own accep­tance of my mother.

     And maybe that’s a les­son: art imi­tates life, but some­times as writ­ers we have to let it.


Nico­la Koh is a Malaysian Eurasian 16 years in the Amer­i­can Mid­west, an athe­ist who lost their faith while com­plet­ing their Mas­ters of The­ol­o­gy, and a minor god of Tetris. They got their MFA from Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty and were a 2018 VONA/Voices and 2019/20 Loft Men­tors Series fel­low. Their fic­tion has appeared in places like the Mar­gins, Brown Ori­ent, and A‑Minor Mag­a­zine. Amongst oth­er things, they enjoy tak­ing too many pic­tures of their ani­mal fren­e­mies, craft­ing puns, and lis­ten­ing to pub­lic domain audio books after injur­ing their neck read­ing (which feels like some kind of lit­er­ary wound of hon­our). See more at