Editor’s Note: This story contains portrayals of mental illness and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.
After a long negotiation with the termites (seventeen of them to be exact) you finally come to the agreement that they can only chew on your tongue and vocal cords. You make sure, quite firmly, that they can have nothing else. But you’re in class now—it’s a one-on-one reading test with the substitute teacher—and you’re just now realising that this was a flawed plan.
Mr Riley is too close to you, ballooned face, and intense eyes under thick brows. You also note how close these walls are, and how much space he takes up, and how much space you take up. You’re counting the words instead of reading them, one, two, three, four—there are thirty-four words on this page, plus a picture with three chickens on it and one farmer. You move your index finger under the words as you count them, but Mr Riley mistakes it for reading so he reminds you to read out loud. His voice is the softest you’ve ever heard it. Too late, sir you think, willing the words into the space between you and him. The termites are already halfway through my tongue, sir. At least you aren’t muttering the numbers under your breath anymore.
You’ve always been a slow one, and you know this better than you know how many buttons are on your school uniform. It’s either four or five or six, but you forget every time so you have to count them all again to make sure. Anyway, everyone knows this, and their faces swell up like Mr Riley’s when they see you. Their eyes too. Big dark moons against a sky full of eye white. You wonder why everyone and their bodies are so ugly.
You’re feeling a little sick now. When you run out of things to count, you count the seconds because you know you can rely on those to march along like the dying little soldiers they are. Mr Riley has told you to take your time, and here you are, taking it, stealing it, you thief.
The termites are done with your tongue and they start to march down into your throat. You’ve got to be stricter with them next time.
That’s what you are. You are a thief of many things, and about half of those things you keep in your pocket. The rest, the things you can’t hold, you keep in a constantly growing mental inventory. You reach for your pocket, making sure your fingers touch everything once, then twice, then three times just for good measure. Your old baby tooth is in there. Three almost perfectly round pebbles. A blue piece of plastic. And two rainbow beads from Delilah’s bracelet that snapped last week. She threw a very loud tantrum about it—you still remember how her big sparkly tears welled up in the corners of her eyes and ran down her cheeks. You wish you could hold tears. You wish you could put them in your pocket.
The termites are done with your tongue and they start to march down into your throat. Some of them, the braver, stupider ones, nibble at your gums a little too. You’ve got to be stricter with them next time. You’ve got to stop making exceptions.
Mr Riley runs out of patience at last, and he leans back in his chair and sighs deeply. That’s all right, he tells you, we’ll just work on this another time. But you’ve got to try, Hasaan. You’ve got to try.
Suddenly you feel like screaming, like digging your fingers into Mr Riley’s eyes, but you can’t; you want to blame the termites for it, but you can’t do that either. You know it’s not their fault. It’s your fault. Why would you think about doing something so terrible? You realise you could make for a very violent thief. You could go to jail. All thieves start small. Then they work their way up. You imagine sitting inside your cell and dragging your nail along the wall to mark your three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth day in prison. A year of prison. You could be in there for longer. Your whole life, even.
Mr Riley leaves the room, and the walls revert back to their normal size. You sigh. You’re allowed to breathe again. You make sure you have everything inside your pocket. You have to keep making sure for the rest of the day until you get home, because the reading test has ruined your day. So have the termites.
Mr Riley makes you stay back after school and asks if you’ve ever talked to a professional. Like a doctor or a therapist. Teachers have asked you this before. They’ve talked to Amma about this; she decided that professional would be God. God’s a professional at everything.
(If God’s a professional, then why do you have to make a deal with the termites every day? Why do you have termites in the first place?)
They ask if you’ve ever talked to a professional. They’ve talked to Amma about this; she decided that professional would be God.
At home, you throw your bag onto the floor of your bedroom and take everything out of your pocket and put it inside your red shoebox. Then you go wash your hands and eat dinner with Amma. You get up to counting thirty-four grains of dahl in your curry when she tells you to stop playing with your food again. She’ll take you to church for this. You feel her eyes on you. Take you to church so God can punish you and your termites. You’ll stay still on your knees, counting the minutes again, pulling prayers from your mouth like teeth. Your mouth will become a shell. You could go to hell for this.
Her face stays small though. Small and sharp, full of bone. She can see right through you. She could be reading your mind right now, rifling through your thoughts like she does with the filing cabinets in the study, deciding which ones are bad and which ones should be punished. After dinner you have to go to your room and study for at least one hour and thirty minutes, that is the rule. It’s maths. Algebra. It’s horrible. You’re bad at maths because all the pages in your notebook are gridded and countable. Every now and then you puzzle over the question for a few minutes, and then write down whatever number makes sense to you. None of them are right. As you trudge through the homework, you can’t help but reach for the red shoebox. You pick out each item, focus on lining them up in neat rows. Then a circle. A heart. You know you’re wasting time, but there’s nothing you can do about that now.
By the end of the one hour and thirty minutes, you’re exhausted. Not that there’s anything to warrant exhaustion. You look at the questions on your notebook. You barely reached twenty. It’s not nearly enough. You’re going to get into trouble. You hear Amma padding outside your door. It’s a sound that gets stuck inside your ears every time you hear it. Sometimes it echoes even after she’s gone and you can hear the faint thump, thump, thump, just outside the shell of your ear.
You stuff everything back into your shoebox as quickly as you can, but ‘quickly’ is still slow when you’re trying to make sure everything stays in one piece. You snatch up your pencil, flip the next page, force yourself to write question twenty-one in the corner. You glare at the textbook question. Termites begin to drop one by one into the pit of your stomach.
The door creaks open. She stands at the threshold, arms folded, feet square, eyes blazing like an angel. She knows. She already knows.
The door creaks open. She stands at the threshold, arms folded, feet square, eyes blazing like an angel. She knows. She already knows. She looks to you, then the open textbook, then you again, then the pencil in you hand.
Good, she says. That’s enough. Now time for sleep.
You lay in bed, counting the star stickers on the ceiling. Nine of those. Not nearly enough. There has to be at least twelve. Then you start working on the seconds again. Wait for the termites to fall asleep so your body can start knitting itself back together. You’ll have to make a different agreement with them tomorrow morning.
This story is the winner of the 2020 KYD School Writing Prize—read the judges’ report from Alice Pung and Alan Vaarwerk.