The train was empty, probably because it wasn’t the busiest period and my hometown was not a popular destination. But I was grateful that it was, because my departure from the city I work in was a last-minute urgency.
My early morning departure had made me somnolent. Shortly after the empty train left the station, its gentle rocking lulled me into a deep sleep.
When I opened my eyes around high noon, I saw my father sitting across from me.
My father, a man in his sixties with thin gray hair and mustache, was wearing his favorite yellow T-shirt and brown pants that were too tacky for his age. He was chewing klepon–I could smell brown sugar from him–and was staring intently out the window. My eyes followed along his, and I ended up entranced by lush paddy fields, tall mountains, and cows and goats with their shepherds following behind. A familiar set of scenery–my hometown.
The train will arrive soon. I lifted my phone to record the beautiful landscape. I’ll show it to my mother when I get home.
Look, my father whispered out of the blue. He pointed his finger at the glass. I see a jellyfish outside.
I smiled and stopped recording. We hadn’t played this game in a while.
“Really? Convince me.”
When I was a child, my father took notice of my vivid imagination and invented this game for us both. In this game, one of us would claim that we see something, then convince the other that it exists. We convince each other by asking questions and replying with made-up answers. The game always ends by agreeing that whatever is described does exist. Another rule is that we must conjure up things that are not with us, either born out of imagination or do not exist within our current time and space.
It was something precious for us both. We used to play the game whenever we were bored at home or on a trip. As long as we were together, the game would commence and we’d have fun convincing each other on the most ridiculous things.
The last time we played was three years ago on Eid al-Fitr, so I was excited that he started our game.
I immediately asked him. “What’s it like?” It’s blue, a little green. With glowing star patterns. Very beautiful, like you. “What is it doing?” Just floating by the window. “Can I touch it?” It stings, so be careful. “What’s the cure for the sting?” Those fruit jellies you like. Eat three cups and you’ll be fine.
“Okay. It’s real. I’m convinced,” I said. “Now my turn.”
I thought about what I should describe to him. I leaned on my hand, my phone still in its grasp.
“I see… an old man.” I started.
My father raised an eyebrow, intrigued. What’s he like? “He’s in his sixties. Thin gray hair, mustache. Very handsome for his age.” What is he wearing? “He wears a tacky yellow shirt with equally tacky brown pants.” What does he smell like? “Sweet, like the brown sugar filling of your favorite klepon dessert.” What’s he doing right now? “Sitting across from me. He’s grinning like a cartoon villain.”
He burst into laughter. I covered my mouth, trying to suppress my laugh.
Okay, I’m convinced he’s real. My father smiled. But you broke the rules. You should’ve described something that doesn’t exist!
“Sorry to interrupt your phone call, Miss,” our conversation ended abruptly as I turned around. A conductor came into view–worry and confusion obvious on his face. “We’re going to arrive soon.”
I said a quick thank you and put my phone away. Once the train stopped, I got off and exited the train station.
My uncle was already waiting in front of the station. He waved and, after exchanging greetings, gestured for me to enter his car.
“You should rest first.”
“No. Please take me to him, Uncle.”
My uncle turned on his car and drove. No conversation sparked between us as we passed by the paddy fields, the tall mountains, and the cows, goats, and shepherds. After fifteen minutes, we arrived and got off the car. My feet rushed as we enter the local cemetery.
And there he was—my father.
His grave was marked with a wooden headstone. There were scattered purple and white flower petals from yesterday’s burial.
I had missed my father’s funeral. I knew he was sick and I had planned to visit home next week. But when I opened my phone yesterday after a long day of work to dozens of missed calls, and when I finally read the messages from my mother, my mind went blank. I couldn’t process the fact that my father was no longer alive.
On the train, I played our game by myself–convincing myself that he was still alive. I imagined him sitting across from me on the train and playing our game. No one was there to remind me that he had died. Only when the poor, confused conductor came in had I snapped out of my fantasy. But now that I’ve seen his grave, how could I deny it anymore?
I didn’t break the rules of our game because you no longer existed, father.
I tried to imagine you in place of your grave. You with your thin gray hair and mustache. In your yellow T-shirt and brown pants. And the sweet scent of brown sugar. Just like on the train. Except you were smiling like you always did whenever you welcomed me home.
I cried as I kneeled beside the grave. I hoped that I would hear your voice convincing me you were still here. That this was some cruel joke you made because I hadn’t returned home for so long. But only my desperate wailing echoed in my ear.
No amount of convincing would ever bring you back to existence.
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Azhaar Khair is a writer and translator based in West Java, Indonesia. A graduate of literary studies, Azhaar writes fiction in both English and Indonesian, while occasionally trying to write in Arabic. Her Instagram is @azhaarakhair.