You are six, and your world trembles gently. Wake up, you hear, and as you rub the sleep from your eyes, you catch the glint off the silver rims of your father's glasses. There is a steely look in his eyes - for a moment you think you're in trouble. Come watch the TV, he says, and because you are six, you obey. You sidle to the edge of your bed, tossing the covers aside to reveal the mustard-colored antlers resting on Kamen Rider Agito's forehead. His stubby arms are locked in the transformation stance, with one hand akimbo on his waist and the other thrust self-assuredly in front of his chest plate, as if taunting his opponent. It’s a familiar power pose you've seen many times on TV and that comforts you at night when the lights are switched off. Clutching the plushie in your arms, you step out from the warm, amber cocoon of the master bedroom into the hallway.
Like most of your classmates, you live in a tall apartment complex built by Singapore's national Housing Development Board. But yours is also an executive flat - your mother tells you that means it's one bedroom larger than where your friends live. From your window on the second-highest floor of the building (so we don't get leaks when it rains, your mother says), you like to gaze out through the metal grills at the sprawling HDB estates that stretch out around your neighborhood. Laid out in uniformly pastel colors, their standardized sunniness resembles the work of a painter keen to maximize the range of his limited palette. Since yours is also the twenty-first floor, you get an expansive view of miles and miles of gauche, high-rise public housing. As night falls and the lights in these distant apartments go out one by one, you feel strangely drawn to the shadowy silhouettes that you glimpse through these foreign windows. Before you go to bed, you like to steal one final glance to see if the old man next block still has his kitchen light turned on in his flat that's apparently one bedroom smaller than yours.
In the living room, you see your mother on the leather sofa with a pile of fresh, unfolded laundry in her lap. A faint scent of lavender hangs in the air. Tsk tsk, your mother shakes her head, eyes trained on the TV set. What? You ask softly to no one in particular. You follow your mother's gaze to the dirty grey columns of smoke that fill up the television screen, threatening to spill over its edges. You've never seen so much smoke before. Like a swirling grey dragon with too much to eat, its distended jaw greedily wolfs down the remnants of what looks like a HDB block, but taller and more monochrome. As the on-screen camera pans out, you see the beast's bloated belly inflate ominously across the sky.
It's a terrorist attack, your father eventually says. You nod at his words, not understanding. The screen cuts to an ashen-faced TV news anchor who is speaking more slowly than usual. We are waiting on an official statement from the White House, he says, and the way he emphasizes each word reminds you of when your father was mad at you just the week before. Feeling bored one day, you’d hidden behind the door of his study and then leapt out with an ear-piercing scream to scare him when he walked past. After he yelled at you for a minute and his eyes finally stopped flashing like daggers, he’d knelt on his knees to speak to you in the same deliberate, measured way as the news anchor. You know, I love you very much, he’d said as he snuck looks at your mother who stood beside you, brushing the tears from your cheek.
But now the words coming from the TV make much less sense. You're not sure what “national security” and “sonic boom” mean. As the camera cuts to a shot of a woman in office clothes but covered from head-to-toe in dust, you wonder why your father woke you up specifically for this. Explosions on TV are not special. You see them every day around dinner time when the news comes on, which is also your cue to switch to Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Occasionally, your finger lingers on the remote control when the breaking news catches your attention – multicar pileups on the freeway, raging forest fires, entire houses borne away by tornados. But then your eyes inevitably glaze over when the graphs show up and all you hear is talk of the economy. Whatever the economy is, you know it's important since the talking heads discuss it every day. Even Kamen Rider Agito, Earth's Greatest Protector, only gets so much airtime once a week on Saturday mornings.
What's El Kaida? You ask, as someone off-camera hands the grey lady a bottle of water that she promptly empties over her head. A man is beside her, similarly blanketed in dust, but hunched over with his hand on a lamppost for support. Retching sounds emerge from the TV.
They're bad guys, your father says. They want to kill people.
Because they're sick, your mother sighs. They're crazy people who want to destroy America.
America, you mutter softly under your breath. It's a name you hear not just on TV, but also many times at home. When they were dating in college, your parents would go on fishing trips about the small town of Pittsburgh where they lived. With freshly-caught fish in their ice box, they would drive home in your father's third-hand Ford Mustang with the leaky radiator, past the shimmering cornfields of rural Kansas, pools of undulating golden light on both sides of the wide, country road. Later, your mother would help to descale the fish as your father prepared his trademark fish sauce. Your father was the chef in the family - though not without incident, as your mother told you once with a nostalgic look in her eyes. One time he was frying rice and there was so much smoke that the building's smoke detector went off. The whole building had to be evacuated.
We just couldn't stay there any longer, says the slouched man on TV, now attempting to stand. The water from the sprinklers was reaching our ankles. Either we climb down or we drown, he sputters before hunching over from exhaustion.
Can I go now? You ask your father. He nods, eyes not once leaving the television set. Good night, you announce nonchalantly to the room before shuffling in your slippered feet back to bed. As you crawl under the covers, a slight buzz tingles through your veins as you replay the image of the ferocious, wraithlike dragon in your head. You bet Kamen Rider could have taken him. In last week’s episode, Agito had fought a snake-themed monster that spit deadly venom from its mouth – but even that was no match for Agito’s signature Rider Kick. Smoke dragon or not, nothing can withstand Agito as he hurtles through the air with the distilled power of his belt concentrated into an ultimate, flying side kick. Not even El Kaida. As your imagination rages with the vision of Kamen Rider Agito wrestling down the gargantuan dragon, you can just barely make out your parents’ voices coming from outside the room.
I wish you wouldn’t show this to your son, your mom says. He’s too small.
Small enough to know, your dad says flatly. This is important.
Your mom tsk-tsks dramatically in response, before adjusting the tone of her voice. Maybe you should at least ask me before you…
But you can no longer distinguish their voices. Eventually you grow tired of the furious fight scenes in your head and fall asleep to your parents’ faint whispers through the walls. Once or twice, you think you hear your father raising his voice, but the sounds are sporadic and taper quickly. When you wake up the next morning, you find that Kamen Rider Agito had somehow rolled off the bed in the night. You step carelessly over his still torso on the wood-paneled floor as you go to brush your teeth.
Wayne Tan recently graduated with a Master of Studies in English from the University of Oxford, with a concentration on Nietzsche. His piece, 'Ontology', is forthcoming in the Fall issue of Angels Flight Literary West. He is currently based in Singapore where he is working on his teaching certification.