20 October 2060
I woke up hungover the day after Kuala Lumpur was supposed to end. At first, all I could understand was the sharp, heavy pain in my head. The outline of the room swam. A whole-body achiness gripped me. Slowly, things started to register: my desk across from the bed, Eddie’s face down next to me, his breathing still deep with sleep—then the smell.
A green fish-tank dankness swirled in the air. A gust of it hit me as I sat up, and bile roiled up from my stomach. I clamped a hand over my mouth, swung my legs out of bed, and screamed: my feet had sunk into slimy water.
“What? What?” Eddie was still groggy.
He rolled over to look, and I fought the urge to vomit at the sensation of warm, viscous, ankle-deep water.
“Fuck,” he said.
I nodded. Fuck, indeed. I felt him get out of bed and come around to my side to help me up and to the bathroom. The water, a murky brown against the white tile, splashed against our calves and made me shudder. He stood next to me and rubbed my back as I crouched over the toilet bowl, retching.
“It’s okay,” he murmured.
Finally, I stood up, brushing away a string of vomit. He poured a dipperful of water into the toilet bowl.
“The plumbing’s probably fucked,” I said.
“Probably.” He shut the toilet lid.
We went to the kitchen. Eddie poured water from our last six-litre bottle into the kettle. I sat down, resting my head on the kitchen table and propping my feet up on the seat of the chair across from me. The clink of a mug and the slow waft of heat roused me. Eddie slipped his arm around my shoulders.
“Drink,” he said.
“It’s too hot,” I said, waving away steam as mint leaves floated to the surface.
He sat down and sighed.
A small bubble of anxiety surfaced through my hangover fog. Was he tired of me? As if sensing my unease, he stroked my back. I relaxed into his touch and blew on the steaming tea.
Everything was still so new between us—but we’d never gotten to enjoy the honeymoon phase of a relationship. No pretending that you didn’t fart or shit in front of your new partner; no agreeing to split a dessert you didn’t care for because you wanted to win them over; no dates in restaurants.
I leaned into him. “It didn’t happen. Again.”
“It did for some people. We’re pretty high up.”
If the water had reached my house, it meant the level had risen again. The images of what we would find came to me unbidden: people’s last treasures floating downward to the city. When would the bodies surface?
“Aren’t you tired?”
His arm slipped down to my waist. “Yes. I wouldn’t have drunk so much if I knew we were going to wake up.”
“I used to get drunk every weekend in college. Can you believe it?”
“It’s different when you’re old.”
“It’s funny how forty is old again. Like medieval times.”
“Let’s go to the roof. It might stink less there.”
We splashed our way to the front door. Mrs. Chan from next door waved at us as she pushed the muddy water out of her house with a big brush. The few children left on our street waded through the water to float boats made from whatever rubbish they could find; their parents had long since tired of warning them about playing in floodwater.
The rain had cleared the air enough that we didn’t need our gas masks. Eddie propped up the ladder we kept by the front gate and held it steady for me to climb. I crawled up the roof and onto the other side, which overlooked what had once been the city. I felt my chest tighten at the thought of what I would see.
My capacity for sadness in these times always surprised me. Every time I thought I had steeled myself for the next loss, I found another small crack that allowed grief to seep in. I settled myself on the roof.
A lifetime ago, when I was twenty, I hosted a New Year’s Eve party at my house. My friends and I walked to a part of Bukit Antarabangsa where we could see the fireworks flower above the city skyline. We stood and cheered on the new year as pink and purple lights flashed against the Twin Towers. The forward momentum of time still held promise then.
Now the city resembled a watery junkyard. Half of the Twin Towers still hulked above everything, like breaching whales frozen in time. The pod and antenna of KL Tower floated to their left, but the smaller buildings were all submerged now. At night there would be no lights.
I could hear Eddie inching up the roof behind me. Finally, he sat next to me, took my hand, and squeezed it. The houses down the hill, desirable about five years ago for being on an incline despite the landslide risk, were gone. The quiet of the aftermath pressed down on us, punctured only now and then by the shouts of the children below us. Every one of their shrieks rattled me.
“What do we do?” he said finally.
“Is it worth it to keep going?”
“I don’t think I want to die. Not yet.”
I took his hand and kissed it. Not yet.
• • •
20 December 2059
In the week or so before Christmas, the ghosts of rituals past came back to haunt me. I always felt some guilt at this time of year about the loss of my mother’s baking tools, most of which I had bartered away, rationalising that I was never going to bake a cake or make cookies. Food or torchlights or whatever were more important, or so I told myself.
It was in this low mood that I invited Eddie over for a drink. He was one of the few people I knew from my twenties who still lived in KL. He had secured an apartment in Wangsa Maju just after things really started to heat up, when other people like us—with money and English fluency—were scrambling to get to the climate-adapted countries in the North.
He came over with perfectly ripe pisang emas.
“Where’d you get these?” I asked. I wanted to take them from him, but held back, unsure whether he was sharing the whole comb or only a few. I could understand if it was the latter. I hadn’t seen fresh local bananas in years.
“There’s a guy in my apartment complex who’s turned two units into a greenhouse. He’s got bananas, all kinds of greens and herbs.”
“This must have cost a fortune.”
“I help him out, so I get stuff for free every week.”
I showed him into my father’s wine collection, a stockpile of mostly Australian vintages he had paid exorbitant amounts of money for, reasoning that wine would be just as important as water at the end of the world.
When I turned on the lights, Eddie said, “Holy shit.”
My father had converted a storeroom into something approximating a cellar. It had originally held three wine fridges, but lately I couldn’t justify the energy cost, so I made do with one and kept the rest of the bottles on their sides in the dark.
“I need to bring you more bananas,” he said as I made a selection. “I can’t remember the last time I had real wine.”
I pulled out a Cabernet Sauvignon from the long-gone Margaret River. “Me, either. I hate drinking alone.”
We sat in the kitchen, the coolest room in the house, and I poured the wine. He swirled it around his glass. He loved food, I remembered. When he had still been dating Alya, he had taken her to wine tastings, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and bakeries that had lines out the door. Now, what restaurants were left were reserved for the Datuks and Datins and the Yang Berhormats in power.
We sipped the wine. It tasted like my memories of plum. I peeled a banana, relishing the rasp of the thin skin coming away from flesh, and inhaled the scent.
The first bite surprised me with its firmness. I remembered bananas being mushy, or maybe I had only eaten the soft spotty Cavendish cultivars when fresh fruit had still been available. A honeyed sweetness spread across my tongue.
“God, this is so good.”
He grinned. “Right? These are actually hard to grow.”
I took his hand and squeezed it. “Thank you.”
He returned my squeeze, looking startled. I had only meant to convey how grateful I was. His thumb, calloused on one side, was warm on the back of my hand. I curled my fingers more tightly into his, and felt myself hurtling toward him.
I didn’t want to kiss him so much as feel the press of his body against mine. I gasped when his palm touched my bare back.
“Is that okay?” he asked, pulling back.
I raked a fistful of his hair, pulling his face closer. “Yes.”
His lips on my neck unleashed a wave of giddiness. I stopped to breathe, his touch a shock after hundreds of nights alone. We leaned into each other, our foreheads damp, and started to kiss again, slowly this time. Desire unspooled through me as his hand stroked the back of my neck, and I fumbled with his buttons as he peeled off my T-shirt. I pulled him onto the kitchen floor. We clawed at each other, desperate to close even the slightest space between us.
Afterward, we lay on the floor together, letting the cool of the tiles seep into us. He turned to face me and pushed my hair back from my face. He smiled at me as if to say, At last. I had known him for twenty years now, ten of which he had spent, on and off, with Alya, and yet he felt newly alien to me. I had never noticed how full his lips were or seen the keloid on his shoulder. I traced it, trying to absorb everything about him.
I wanted the waves that lurked on the horizon to rush in and crush us in this moment of perfect happiness—for our last moments to be uncomplicated by the trials of water rations and trying to make the same meal appealing the fifth time we had to eat it.
Instead, we peeled ourselves off the floor. I dug around in the freezer for the packet of lab lamb I had been saving for some imagined special occasion. He sautéed it with a masala blend long past its best and a long pour of oil while I sat at the kitchen table with a new glass of wine.
“This one’s quite good,” I said.
He came over to steal a sip from my glass. I put an arm around his waist and leaned into the warmth of his body. Most days, especially when the water buses were packed shoulder to shoulder, I enjoyed the solitude of the house, but as Eddie pressed against me, I realised that it wasn’t other people I was sick of—only the lack of choice in being close to so many other bodies.
“It almost tastes like the real thing! It’s amazing,” I said when we sat down to eat.
“It’s all the oil,” he said, beaming at the compliment.
We ate the rest in easy silence, our ankles intertwined under the table. After dinner, we sat on my couch. It sagged in the middle, but I couldn’t bear to dump it in the water down the hill.
“Will you tell Alya?” he asked.
I laughed. “The bro code is so early-2000s, don’t you think?”
“Is she someone you try to call when there’s Internet?”
“What is there to say? ‘Life sucks, you were right to leave’? I don’t want to waste my bandwidth.” He was quiet, so I went on. “I guess I don’t have much to say to everyone who didn’t try to make things better.”
“I get that. But it’s not really their fault.”
“Maybe it would have been different if more people had tried to fight back.”
“Maybe. But they didn’t and it isn’t.”
“Why did you stay?” I was crying, I realized.
“I wanted to change things, or at least try.” He gestured with one hand. “I didn’t think it would get this bad. Then I couldn’t get a visa.” He stroked my shoulder.
“Where would you have gone?”
“Norway. My brother lives there. He got a PhD and found a job. He’s married to a citizen.”
“Was it love?”
“Yeah, the dream.”
“Do you wish you had tried harder to leave?”
“It’s too late, Liz.”
My heart caught on the sound of my name in his voice: so gentle, yet it burrowed into me and dampened my urge to fight. No one had called me Liz since my mother died five years before. I gave in and buried myself in the crook of his arm.
• • •
23 April 2050
A month before the big Earth Day action, Eddie had shown up to a meeting. Hey, I mouthed in surprise from the back of the room. I hadn’t thought his sympathies went as far as direct action. He smiled back and wedged himself into the lone remaining seat near the door. Afterward, he stayed to catch up. Some of the younger kids said hello, shy and pleased to see him.
“Some of my students,” he explained.
“Does Alya know you’re here?”
“You know how she feels about this kind of thing. Besides, I don’t want to worry her.”
On the day of the protest, we found ourselves in the same marching group. Our plan was to walk from KLCC to Dataran Merdeka. Thanks to the crackdowns on environmental activism, there would probably be extra surveillance along the fabled route from what had once been the Sogo mall to our meeting point. Not five minutes had passed and already two drones had buzzed above us.
I watched our feet moving forward. It helped keep me from floating out of my body. When we were across the road from Dataran Merdeka, Eddie slipped his hand into mine and squeezed. I gripped it back, afraid to let go.
“It’ll be okay. Stay close to me,” he said.
I hadn’t been to this part of town by foot in a long time. My eyes watered from the pollution. There were people hanging out by the Victoria Fountain across from Dataran. Some of them wore N95 masks like us; others, bandanas. I tried to identify the climate strikers among them and guessed that those watching the field closely might be with us.
We walked down Jalan Raja past the domes of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, our arms linked. Only a few feet stood between us and the barbed wire that snaked around the square. I could smell the spice of Eddie’s cologne under his sweat. I found that I liked it.
As we waited at the far end of Dataran Merdeka, on a corner shaded by skinny palms, I looked around. There were others scattered nearby, fanning themselves and staring off into the distance. I saw a telltale green hem under a girl’s white T-shirt and reminded myself to breathe slowly and deeply.
Then three sharp blasts of a whistle pierced the heat. We poured out toward the field. People around me peeled off their disguises and revealed their green shirts in different shades. Those of us on the front line cut through the barbed wire, clearing our path. As we surged forward, I pulled out my DARURAT IKLIM SUDAH SAMPAI banner. Eddie took a corner and we moved apart, stretching it between us.
“Hidup Bumi, Hidup Rakyat!” someone in front of us shouted.
I stepped into the glorious swell of the chant as everyone began to shout. My fear left me.
Sirens sounded just as a banner dropped from the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Eddie closed the distance between us. Our chant was interrupted by the steady drum of batons on shields in the distance, followed by the pop of tear gas canisters.
I watched them spiral into the air, trailing smoke, but Eddie grabbed me and hustled me to the back.
My legs moved before I could think to run, but not soon enough to escape the gas needling into our skin. We ran down Jalan Raja Laut and cut across to Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman. I felt dizzy trying to run with my mask on and doubled over.
“Come on, come on,” Eddie whispered urgently. He pushed me onward.
We burst into Jalan Masjid India, then collapsed onto the pavement. Eddie handed me a water bottle and I splashed it on my face and arms. An old aunty slipped us another bottle before hurrying away.
Eddie handed me a handkerchief to wipe my face. “We should go,” he said.
We changed in an alley. When he pulled his shirt off, revealing the smooth brown expanse of his back, I looked away.
“Thanks for today,” I said, once it felt safe to look at him again.
He smiled. “Any time.”
• • •
26 September 2048
Alya had found some sourdough bread and invited me and Rahul to her apartment in Kampung Attap. She rented one of the unrenovated units in the Sam Mansion Flats. They had a spare bedroom and a big living room, which made up for the congestion of the area. Twenty-five years ago, my mother told me, there had been a small patch of green across from Alya’s apartment, big enough for monkeys. Now the only green patches were the bougainvillaea plants and microgardens some residents tended on their balconies.
The roads were still slick with mud and dotted with deep puddles from the last flood a week ago, so we took Rahul’s ancient two-door jeep. The bottom floors of the shops we passed were just starting to look clean again.
When we arrived, Eddie was cracking eggs and Alya was still setting the table. She hugged me tightly. We hadn’t seen each other in months. The traffic from the tiny studio I shared with Rahul in Damansara Perdana was bad enough on a regular day, but it was a nightmare to get here after flooding.
“What’s this?” she asked, nodding at the container in my hands.
“Steamed ubi kayu kuih from Rahul’s mum.”
“Oh, wow. We didn’t make anything sweet; what a treat!”
Sometimes I wondered if my friendships had been pared down to the people in my circle who could provide food—who turned up to a potluck with a dish, or knew how to get cheap wheat flour, or knew someone who still sold nasi lemak out of their house. How many times had I held my tongue when Rahul picked his teeth at the table or cut me off mid-sentence, just because his parents lived with another family in an old PJ bungalow with a garden? What were bad manners in the face of papayas and herbs?
Pulling out a chair, I savoured the bread with the pat of butter Alya had generously cut for each of us. “What’s the occasion?” I asked, eyes closed as I chewed my first mouthful. It resisted my bite pleasantly, unlike the rice flour bread we usually got.
“Our windows!” Alya said.
I looked up and saw that the old louvred windows were gone, replaced with smooth glass panes.
Eddie heaped steaming scrambled eggs onto my plate. “Is that enough?”
“Yes, thank you. Congratulations!” I said, and wondered if I needed to say anything more.
“Looks great! I bet they help keep out the dust, too,” Rahul said, giving Alya an excuse to go on at length about how cleaning had been such a headache and how they had needed two air purifiers at all times. It always amazed me how easily Rahul knew how to supply small talk. It felt like an adult skill I lacked, or perhaps Alya and I had just run out of things to talk about.
“And, well,” Alya said, her tone changing and catching my attention, “I’ve heard back from a job overseas.”
“Oh?” I felt my throat go dry, and the bread in my mouth felt bigger than the bite I had taken. I had said goodbye to so many friends already.
“Bioengineering has finally paid off! I had a video call with a lab in New Zealand.”
Eddie stayed silent as he sat down, but Alya continued, undeterred.
“You should really think about moving, Lizzie. You could do so much overseas.”
I laughed. “I have a better chance of being published here. Besides, what’s a degree from Ohio State’s Malaysian campus worth? At least I can be an editor here.”
“Lizzie still wants to save Malaysia. She’s doing all these secret meetings about climate…what do you call it?” Rahul said.
“Can you not go around telling people ah?” I snapped.
“It’s just them. Tell lah.”
I sighed. “Climate reparations. We’re working with people in the North to get
money to rebuild things.”
Alya snorted. “Good luck!”
“Don’t be so sure about migrating. White people don’t want us in their countries.”
“As if the Malays have ever accepted us here,” Rahul said. “I don’t mean you, Alya,” he added.
“Oh, I agree,” she sighed. “It’s getting worse in my family. My god, the shit they forward to our family group chat when the Internet is good. If I were you, I would leave.”
I felt some regret about coming. “I feel bad about the people who never will.”
Alya rolled her eyes. “That’s nice in principle, but you need to put yourself first these days,” she said.
I shook my head, ready to fight. Rahul’s hand on my knee stopped me.
“Eh thanks again for inviting us,” he said. “This is really good.”
I swallowed my lecture.
“No problem,” said Alya. “When you have good things these days, you know who you should share them with.”
Rahul’s phone rang.
“It’s my sister,” he said. “Sorry.” He went outside to take the call.
Alya turned to me. “Don’t be angry with me, Lizzie. I’m just suggesting this as a friend.”
I forced a smile. “I know.”
She got up to boil water for coffee.
“I get you,” Eddie said from across the table.
I looked up from my plate.
“I don’t want to leave, either. Alya is trying to convince me. We can’t marry here unless I convert. But, well…” He didn’t finish.
“Why don’t you want to leave?” I asked as I slathered butter onto my last bite of bread.
“Maybe it will be easier to get around, and we won’t have to worry about food so much. But I think about everyone who can’t leave, like the kids in the low-cost flats I teach on the weekends. I mean, look at us. We’re eating bread and we can still get Nescafé.”
I nodded. “I really think something better might be possible.”
He raised his water glass and I clinked it against mine. Our fingertips brushed. I caught his gaze, and a small charge travelled down my arm and settled into the pit of my stomach. We laughed. He looked into his glass, and I knew the same shiver had snaked through him.
“What are you two laughing about?” Alya asked, her hands full with three mugs.
Eddie got up to help her, and a wave of guilt doused the heat that had flickered in me just a moment ago.
“How silly we are. Me and Eddie.”
“Tau tak pe,” she said.
I forced a smile onto my face and speared a stray piece of egg with my fork. A tiny fissure of sadness opened inside of me. I risked a glance in Eddie’s direction as he set the mugs down. His eyes flicked up to meet mine, and then away.
• • •
31 December 2040
My parents had agreed to let me host a New Year’s Eve party at our house. I had told them that ten people were coming, expecting maybe eight of my friends to show up. Now, close to twenty people filled the house. Alya, my childhood best friend, had invited her older brother, Arshad, who in turn had invited more friends than the agreed extra three.
“I’m really sorry,” she said as yet another boy filtered into the house looking for him. She filled my glass with more whiskey. “I’ll stay back and help you clean.”
“You better,” I said.
“Okay, but Arshad’s friends are cute, right? That’s why I told him to bring them.”
“Birds of a feather, I guess.”
“Didn’t you want me to marry him so we could be sisters?”
“That was in primary school, before I realised what an ass he is. Come on,” she said, and pulled me into the living room.
We had put the glass coffee table in the guest room and pushed the rest of the furniture against the walls. No one was dancing yet. Alya switched the music to my playlist of retro dance hits from the mid-2000s and beckoned to me.
“Later!” I said, and went to check on the food situation.
The trays of meehoon were still full, but the bowl of potato chips was already empty. I went to get more from the kitchen and encountered another of Arshad’s friends—one of the cute ones. He was tall and lean, and unlike the other boys, who wore T-shirts, he was dressed in a short-sleeved batik shirt.
“Hi, I’m Eddie,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Liz. Do you need anything?”
“Yeah, just a cup.”
We were interrupted by a crash and the sound of something bouncing across the floor. I ran into the living room, Eddie behind me, to find the Christmas tree on its side and its lights unspooling. Two of Arshad’s friends were chasing after ornaments.
“I’m really sorry!” one of them said, his arms filled with baubles.
Eddie darted forward and righted the tree. I joined him and checked to see if anything was broken. The boys were trying to put the decorations back, but were only hanging them on the same branches in the front.
“It’s fine—just leave it,” I said.
They slunk off gratefully, but Eddie stayed behind to help.
“Is there an arrangement you want them in?” he asked.
“My mum puts the big bells all around, and then one row of silver, and one row of blue.”
I laughed when I saw how much consideration Eddie put into his bell placement.
“What?” he said. “Does it look bad?”
“No, no. You’re doing great. I just like how serious you’re being.”
“Hey, man, the bells really make or break the tree.”
We laughed. It took us another five minutes to get the tree looking more or less as it had originally.
“I think we deserve another drink,” I said.
As he poured our drinks, I fidgeted with a stray thread on my dress, feeling a little self-conscious, searching for an excuse to keep talking to him.
“Do you want some of this cheesecake? It’s tofu, but I swear it tastes like the real thing.”
“Sure,” he said. “I try not to eat too much dairy these days, anyway.”
“Oh, yeah? I love cheese, but I feel guilty. Climate change and stuff.”
“I try to go vegetarian a few days a week. But I don’t know if I can do it all the time.” He took a bite. “This is really good.”
“Thanks,” I said, breaking into a smile.
I wondered if he was just being polite, or if there was any chance he might be interested in me. Most guys gravitated to Alya, who sparkled socially, whereas even at my own party I felt outnumbered and overwhelmed. Alya had always been the one to get the party started. I admired this in her and wished it would rub off on me.
“The air is so nice up here,” Eddie said as he handed me my drink.
I blushed. “This place belonged to my grandfather, and my dad inherited it.”
There didn’t seem to be any hesitation in his voice, so I pressed on with the conversation.
“How do you know Arshad?”
“We’re both taking classes at Michigan State Online.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s all right. It’s nice knowing a few other people you can meet up with. I feel bad for people who do remote totally alone. It must suck to keep going without any friends nearby.”
Before I could say anything more, one of his friends interrupted. “Eh dude! We’re playing poker. Come lah.”
“I’ll be back,” he said as his friend dragged him away.
I waved him away, buoyed by his promise. The booze unwound my shyness and allowed me to play hostess: I chatted with the people I hadn’t talked to yet and topped up drinks. I switched the music to a Best of 2040 station and joined the group of people making a beeline for the dancefloor, with Alya in the lead.
Somewhere in the middle of my next drink, swaying to the beat with my hands raised over my head, I registered that Alya and Eddie were talking, standing close to each other in the corner by the Christmas tree. The edges of my body fizzed with all the drinks I’d had, and I kept staring, trying to understand what I was seeing. They were just talking—right? She laughed at something he said and looked at the floor. I turned away, closed my eyes, and tried to fill my mind with something else.
“It’s almost midnight!” someone shouted.
“We should go outside!” Alya said.
Everyone started to filter toward the door while I stayed back to lock up. The hours of drinking and the prospect of fireworks had unleashed a giddiness in us. Once outside, our group hopped and ran, pushing each other playfully as we made our way to the end of my lorong and to the little clearing that overlooked the city.
Someone started the countdown and we all joined in, voices rising. Partway through, a firework somewhere down the hill went off prematurely and we cheered.
“Four, three, two, one!”
A shower of purple light erupted in front of the Twin Towers. We stood transfixed for a moment, all of us children again. Then a cascade of white sparks burst into the air.
“Happy New Year!”
People hugged and exchanged wishes. In the pause between fireworks, I stumbled into Eddie.
“Happy New Year, Liz,” he said, and leaned down to hug me.
I stretched up on tiptoe to meet him. He squeezed my shoulders and I felt a surge of hope: maybe he and Alya had just been talking. We smiled at each other and turned to the fireworks. Maybe I could still ask him out, I thought, as a jet of red pierced the sky. Maybe in the new year, I would be braver.