The marker screeched across the white board as its striking red ink marked the clean, conspicuous cut of the heavy numbers in half, its brazen glare daring me to surrender.

Twenty more minutes,’ the conspicuous line teased, its song piercing. 

Amidst its bold, taunting presence, black blades whipped the silence into a ringing, wide-eyed state of awareness with every tick, every strike of clock hands killing time, reminding me just how awake, just how real, I was. 

I couldn’t focus, couldn’t take in any letter or number printed on the page. The paper was too much like the hospital’s white, the ticks of the clock were too painful; that terribly blinding red ink popped in the corner of my vision, a drop of blood gripping onto white cotton sheets. My eyes were too dry. The air was stale. Every minor sound and detail oozed off of the walls as if a thousand crickets had decided to drown this tiny box of space—suffocating me so slowly yet surely—with their screams. 

Images went in one eye and out the other—my eyes barely focusing—whilst my pen worked with its own mind as mine raced through an entirely different space and time. 

While I was here, my pen dancing a battle of speed, neck to neck with time, she was there. There, in a crisp white bed. There, in a room void of colour while metal broke skin. There, in the wild mansion where death had sat atop a gilded throne. 

There, in the hospital.  

Her sweet, wrinkled smile, her hands lined with stringy purple-blue veins—all limp and zapped of life. Lying, waiting for death to take her. 

Because while I was taking this damned algebra test, my grandmother was in the middle of surgery. 

It was first just frequent stomach aches weeks back, and now, just like that, it’s cancer. My frantic mother had always liked to double, triple (sometimes even quadruple) check everything. Her worrying was a sort of paranoia, but then again, weren’t all mothers like that? “Have you got everything?”, she would ask, looking around. “Did you put on sunscreen?”, she would ask again, clutching the bottle with shiny hands. I’m sure simple worries and small bickers like that were normal for everyone. 

But even she could not worry to the point of asking “What if she has cancer?”. 

The blood tests, the scans, they all seemed so normal. Of course, that was before the results came out. 

Everyone was silent then. My dad had turned stern, my mother pale. Of course we tried to be strong, of course we were doing our absolute best to lift my grandmother’s spirits, but it’s pointless.

It’s odd, isn’t it? Once oil has stained your hands, no matter how hard you try to wipe it off, you still won’t be able to hold on, palms slick and useless. No. You won’t be able to grab onto anything again.

 Time was the master of death, except it was merely covered by a silk veil made of white stark light, dressing up as life—your life—until it ran out.

I had never truly despised the idea. Death was washed into being peaceful and forgiving in this society. In a way it is, but only for the person in the question. 

Death is the god of disease. It clings to the corners of the walls where mould would fester, it radiates onto your mind like the sun would to this world. It was a bitter breath. The kind of bitterness of a rotting apple core, the kind which you woke up wrapped around your breath, the kind that stung your tongue when you tried pure black coffee for the first time. 

It had breathed that bitterness against my ear, my home, my soul, thrumming black smoke within the veins of my life which love had gifted me with an open heart—so it was clear as to why now, I could easily take back my previous statement. 

Time snickered through the ticks of the clock. I still had three pages left. Blue ink swam across the empty canvas like a printer itself, pulling my tired soul towards the finish line. 

I was running out of time.

Yet again, when did any of us ever have enough?

The clock echoed through the alarmingly loud silence, sweeping my strides to the finish. Question after question, my mind raced as numbers formed equations, calculators silently clicking away beneath desperate fingers fighting against the markers’ elimination of another ten minutes. Unblinking stress—or more so standards—had raised the difficulty higher than any problem ever could. The clock was my enemy, and not the exam itself. 

Two more pages. I wouldn’t finish in time. 

My poor, frail bodied grandmother bled her time on this earth out on a hospital bed and I couldn’t even finish a test. There was nothing else I wanted other than seeing her smile. 

But time was too cruel for the both of us, and a pen could only have so much ink left in it. 

I push down on the paper, my sweaty hands an imprint. 

Closed my eyes. 

Heavy drops of my grief popped atop my page like bullets, spreading the blue ink within my tears. 

How little time I have left. My back rolled within itself, my head dipping to the table, neck as limp as my grandmother’s hands. 

But then, a familiar screech sounded in front of me. It was the marker again. It had looked a bit odd through the wet blur of my tears. The colours were off, its red seemed too…soft? I wiped my eyes hurriedly, squinting through the pain. Indeed something was off. It was no longer the red which scratched a long, nasty cut across the numbers; It was… pink?

‘Ten minutes left,’ it hummed.

It was my grandmother’s favourite colour (she was always the type to think girls should wear pink). It was softer than the red, more delicate, yes, but it was bolder. Stronger. The vibrant light of it made it seem like a beacon in an ocean of red and white, the line held firm, it held strong. 

It was staring at me, waiting for me, patiently with a kind of determination making me wonder if I somehow cried so much that red had somehow turned to pink. But no. The colour stood tall, spine straight, and then I had sat up too. 

Somehow, no matter where I look, she always manages to appear.

I picked up my pen and wasted no time. Ten minutes left, two more pages to go. 

My mind seized each question with a swiftness that surprised even me. I was sparing with time, yes, but unlike it I didn’t need blades to triumph. All I needed was to move forward.

Minutes passed, seconds flew. My hand raced as my brain was in a whirl of emotions. Seeing my rush, it was truly a miracle how I managed to finish in time. The bell howled its menacing laugh to those who were unfortunate enough to have lost the battle, awaiting their disappointment in a week’s time. 

“Pens down, pens down!” the teacher yelled. 

Soon, everyone’s fate was handed over as I walked out of that classroom, exhaling that tight breath of smoke which had been choking me for the past hour—no, weeks. Immediately, the chirping of all my classmates either expressing their ‘definite’ failure or squealing excitedly at their ‘definite’ success had filled the hall. 

I just smiled. 

The clock was finally silent. I put my pen away, drawing the line of defeat and victory. Picking up my bag, I walked away from the chaos. Ready to visit my grandma. 

As I made my way to the gates, a clear image of her smile had already formed in my mind when I would tell her how I had just successfully passed the test of time.

Writer – Stephanie Lin
Editor – Areeba Zabrina
Artist – Rufina Chan

–April 2024–

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1 Comment

  1. A war against time, a pen as your sword. Such oxymoron making death beautiful yet ugly. Lessons and raw feeling are laid out like your heart on your sleeve. Loved reading this as it resonates with me. Hope this person goes on to write fiction!🥰

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