In the car, Cass sat straight-backed with her knees together and her chequered uniform skirt in a neat line across her thighs. She stared at the air vent. She’d never really noticed the air vent before. She’d never counted the flaps. If anyone ever asked her how many flaps were on the air vents in the car, she wouldn’t have known. And it was bad not to know something like that. Even worse not to know that you didn’t know it. She counted. Five flaps going up and down and six flaps running left to right. And in between all the flaps were tall rectangular holes. She could use multiplication to know how many holes. She counted six going across the top. Seven going up the side. Six times seven. She could do six times seven.
She would count them. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Jun had to pull over the car because she was crying too hard. Jun was twenty-one. She was a university student. She’d been Cass’s babysitter for the past two years. Cass couldn’t remember how her mum had found Jun. She’d have to ask Jun if she ever wanted to know. Her mum was dead now. So was her dad. That morning, they’d been on their way back to Singapore, coming from a job interview in a place Cass didn’t want to move to. And now they weren’t.
Jun was folded over the steering wheel. Her crying came in and out like a siren, until it crashed and sounded like she was coughing up marbles and then she stopped. She was silent for eight seconds and lifted her head. She wiped her nose with her sleeve, leaving a shimmery slug trail across the fabric. She wiped at her eyes with her fists, until her cheeks were smeared with mascara and snot and tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She exhaled slowly, like she was trying to inflate a balloon. ‘It’s just so awful.’
Cass had been at school when her parents died. She’d been writing a poem based on her name (C is for Creative…) and then the principal pulled her from the classroom. He brought her to his office and made her sit in front of (1) the school nurse, (2) a woman from the airline and (3) Cass’s nanny Jun, all of whom had known her parents died before she did.
Jun put the car back in drive and flipped the blinker on. She slid the car in with the traffic. They looked like all the other cars now. No one from the outside would know that anything was different about them.
‘You’re being so brave,’ Jun said.
Jun was not a brave person. She would hide her face behind her hands when they watched scary movies. She would jump when other people came up behind her. She would cry when she watched the news. The last time Cass saw her cry was because there was a landslide somewhere in China. The plane crash would probably be on the news; Jun would cry over that too.
When they got to the apartment, Cass went straight to her room, slammed her door shut and threw her backpack against the wall. It didn’t explode, so she ripped open the zipper and tried again. Her lunchbox chipped the wall paint; the cardboard cover of her notebook bent; the lid popped off her pink highlighter and stained the carpet. Her best poem from the poetry unit fluttered down on top of the pile. It was called When Your Parents Tell You You’re Moving to New Zealand and it was full of angry similes.
She gathered it in a fist and brought it to her desk to edit. She laid a plastic ruler through the belt line of the title letters and dragged a red biro across the edge, starting at the T in Tell and ending with the little d rounding out Zealand. She ran the pen back and forth until it was empty and there was a thick, red groove worn into the paper. Switching to a black pen, she corrected the title with a single word: Die. Now it needed illustrations.
She brought the pen down right on top of the words and drew a crashing jet, with swirls of dark smoke leaking out of the engines, flames erupting from the tail, and then: impact. Sharp lines swarmed the nose cone and grew over the rest of the plane, swallowing it up entirely. The paper was getting soft spots from dropped tears, which smeared the print and left feather-edged holes when she tried to wipe them away.
Jun had dinner ready at the usual time. She’d made an orange, oily curry laksa. Cass poked at the spongy fish balls with her chopsticks. She didn’t want this. She couldn’t swallow anything anyway. She felt too sick. She picked up a fish ball and let it splash back into her soup.
‘Who’s going to take care of me now?’
‘Your uncle is coming,’ Jun said. ‘Tomorrow morning.’
It would be her mother’s brother. He lived in Christchurch. Her parents had been staying with him while they were in New Zealand. He’d seen them more recently than she had.
‘Is he moving here?’
‘No. He’s taking you back with him.’
Cass planted her chopsticks into the noodles. She let go and they fell against the side of the bowl. They were pointed at the ceiling. It was impolite to let them sit like that because it looked like funeral incense. Her mum would have told her to take them out and lay them flat.
‘Are you staying once he gets here?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Jun said, sliding her fingers beneath her glasses and rubbing her eyes. Her fingers swelled and warped through the lenses. ‘I’m going back to my family.’