Two years, nine months and fourteen days to the day we graduated, Yee Han leaves home, climbs a tree in McRitchie reservoir and never comes back down.
At first, his family thinks this is just a phase. After all, didn’t he hate his work, hate jamming his body into random spaces and strangers on the MRT train every morning? He had also been resentful that his sister got a scholarship to study in Tokyo, just a week after he was passed over for promotion. So maybe he just needed a break.
The days become weeks, and weeks turn into months. Yee Han’s boss puts him on permanent leave of absence. The sister’s departure for further studies is delayed. The family begins to call psychologists and the police, and later anyone who they think can help. When they finally contact me and his former teammates, Yee Han had not been seen or heard for close to half a year.
We meet at the visitors’ centre at McRitchie and follow the directions given by Yee Han’s family to the tree. We stow our stuff in Sunil’s car and lace our running shoes. Even though we don’t say it, returning to the McRitchie reservoir trails and heading into the forest together reminds us of our school days, when we did everything as a team.
The trail is longer, muddier and harder than we imagined. So we have to take turns setting the pace. Sunil, our former team captain, used to fly through the trails with Yee Han. Both of them won at least six cross-country titles between them. But today he guides us, steadily jogging, his dri-fit shirt hiding the dome-like padding of a belly.
It takes us about 30 minutes to reach a small stream by the popular tree-top walk. We trace the stream to our location, where a new trail begins. The place is empty of recreational joggers. The trail itself is a slurry of debris and brown rocks, with boulders stacked like crumbled towers. A huge Chengal tree stands at the trailhead, its exposed roots like fingers gripping the soil, its crown is smothered by the continuous canopy.
At the foot of the tree, Yee Han’s family has arranged a circle of personal effects like holy statues in a shrine. There’s Yee Han’s wallet and Samsung Galaxy in a ziplock bag, pictures of him from happier days and a stack of letters (mainly bills and income tax notices) turning into a mushy tongue of paper.
“Yup. This is it,” Sunil declares.
“Wait. How do they know Yee Han went up this tree?” I ask.
Sunil shrugs. He steps over the items and joins my other ex-teammate Ellie on the other side. The trunk of the Chengal tree is laced with ridges like an alligator’s back. We see the first branch almost five metres up. It’s hard to imagine anyone scaling the tree without equipment.
“Wah lau. What he doing up there sia?” Sunil says.
“Oi Yee Han! Can hear me?” Ellie calls.
“Yee Han! It’s the cross team!” I yell.
Sunil tries his luck: “Better come down ah! I took leave to see you!”
We all laugh. But once our echoes die away, there’s just silence. We stare up into the light-flecked trees. Somewhere near, an animal burps in response. The forest stirs, looking promising. None of us want to say so, but our running days are over. None of us would be here if not for his family’s insistence.
We end up circling the tree again.
“You think he’s really there?” asks Ellie.
I’m not sure what to say. Partly because there’s no evidence he’s really up the tree, and partly because I still find it difficult talking to Ellie. My shyness is a trait leftover from our team days. Not because I don’t like her, but because it’s hard to compare my life with hers and feel better about myself.
Ellie was our vice-captain and individual long-distance champion for all four years of her university life. She ran faster than most of the guys, yet still found time to graduate with first-class honours. She recently announced that she’s engaged to a triathlete boyfriend who looks like an advertisement for a bodybuilding centre on his Facebook photos.
But I don’t want to think of that now. So I shrug. Ellie makes a face, shows the faded strawberry globe of half a tongue.
“Don’t tell me working life has turned you into a Sunil,” she says.
We shout and call out to Yee Han until our voices start to break. It gets dark, and we decide to head back to the visitors’ centre. Before we do we leave a pack of energy gels, a book by his favourite runner and a photo of the four of us at our last race –- our contributions to the shrine.
It takes us another half-an-hour to finish the loop back to the car. We revisit familiar landmarks. A long whip of road near the country club where Ferraris screech out of. A root-infested slope made more treacherous because of recent wet weather. And the boardwalk where we meet finally meet aunties and uncles on their evening walks, as the sun sets over the reservoir waters like a melting chunk of red meat.
I bring up the rear, trying to savour this familiar terrain, a route learnt through muscle memory and straining lungs. Going before us, Ellie leads Sunil and me, her body a twitchy silhouette against the orangey evening.
Dinner immediately afterwards is a reunion of sorts. Sunil lets loose about his long working hours as an accountant for one of the big four downtown. Ellie talks about balancing her runs with her work at a small start-up. I tell them about life doing media relations work for a government agency. We don’t give career advice to each other; just a stream of work-related bitching.
As Sunil goes on about billion-dollar accounts and Ellie’s gives enthusiastic descriptions of angel investors, I can’t help but feel I’ve always been trailing them. All of us are the same age, but my life waiting on my big boss has the colours of a life stuck somewhere, watching others surge ahead.
Sometime in between the last cups of milo and our polite goodbyes, we stare at each other in silence. For a short moment, we’re grasping at words, struggling to add something meaningful to the conversation. The lack of vocabulary feels like we’re missing something. We had no problem with words as students. Now, as adults (or something close to adults), we lack the language that should hold us together.
But the moment passes when Sunil begins ranting about how the food around his office is shit.
When we depart for the night, there are no promises for a future meeting, no solution on Yee Han. Instead, I turn down Sunil’s offer for a ride home to stay with Ellie until her fiancé arrives. When he does, she gives me a goodbye that sums up the mood of this reunion: “Well, see you when I see you.”
Yee Han’s family keeps us informed on any developments through email. Much of these are simply meaningless updates: a visit to the tree, another letter added to the pile, the sister’s eventual departure for further studies. I read these emails in the cubicle at my office, as I edit a press release that’s been passed between bosses so many times I’ve lost count of the revisions.
In the moments when no words seem to come out, I walk up and down the cubicles. The office is full of window-filtered sunlight and the code-like tapping of distant keyboards. I think of Ellie and Sunil, sheathed in silk, suit and tie in their offices far away. Both driving their lives as purposefully as they used to run. Mostly, I think of Ellie’s wedding invite: an online card with her and her fiancé mock arm-wrestling, with ‘save the date’ written over their peachy biceps.
Finally, I think of Yee Han, and what caused him to suddenly walk out of his life, climb a tree and disappear from the world. Did he want to take control of his life? Was he escaping his working life, or trying to return to an old one?
When I return to my cubicle, my boss tells me that the even bigger bosses upstairs have decided that they will stick with the original version of the press release because it’s less complicated without the edits.
Weeks pass. Then, a breakthrough. Yee Han’s parents tell me that he has started communicating with them –- by throwing things down from the tree. Using this excuse, I call for a second visit to Yee Han’s tree. This time, however, Sunil is busy at work. So only Ellie meets me at McRitchie.
At the reservoir, there’s a secondary school cross-country meet going on. Loudspeakers blast dance music as a continuous palette of students in various colours linger around the carpark. Runners in oversized jerseys speed past the milling students to applause.
“Did we look like that?” Ellie asks as she watches runners come in.
“Like we were willing to die just to get to that finish line.” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. Instead she says, “Race you to the tree.”
The trails are choked with stragglers, so the route is more about dodging bodies than actually running. I lock my eyes on Ellie’s calves, popping up and down like pistons as she leads up and down the stony hills. She’s going much faster than when we last here. For a brief second, I can imagine this as an actual race: the creeping pain in my lungs, the dirt on my legs and the claustrophobia of the still, empty forest. Ellie’s orange Adidas jersey flickers in the shattered sunlight. I do not let it out of my sight.
I overtake her just as the trail ends. The forest breaks, the sky above hangs like a pale blue window. We vault over the stream and let our shoes sink into the cushion of mud at the far bank. When we reach sight of Yee Han’s tree and its shrine, we both double over, each of us panting like trumpets.
“Good run,” I say.
“Nah, I give you chance only.”
As if to respond to us, a branch comes crashing down from Yee Han’s tree. Splinters fly at our feet. But when we look up, we see nothing but the fractal-patterned canopy dotted with blurbs of pure sunlight.
“Yee Han?” I call out.
“You still up there?” Ellie shouts up.
Nothing. We circle the tree again. Before we can make a full round, a rain shower of green seeds falls from above. I look up to see a wispy shadow bouncing around the fluttering leaves and branches.
“Yee Han, is that you?”
This time we wait for a full ten minutes, basking in the shade and in the hollering of hidden cicadas. Yee Han’s messages from above are, at best, ambiguous, if they come from him at all. What does he mean? Is he responding to us or telling us to leave him alone?
“Hoist me up,” Ellie says. “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
Her hands against the trunk, Ellie uses my arms for purchase as I gently lift her up. Only when her shoes are on my shoulders does she have enough height to grasp the lowest branch. Ellie struggles, and I’m afraid she’ll fall, but with an awesome lunge, her biceps contract and bunch, and she propels herself onto the branch.
As she climbs, another branch comes crashing down, aimed for me instead of Ellie. Above, Ellie makes slow progress, straddling the trunk, spider-stretching onto anything that can hold her weight. She inches along branches, then turns and melts into the milky noon light.
I run around the tree, looking at the canopy from all angles, but the entire forest conspires to obscure a clear view of the upper reaches of the tree. I still hear the recoil of each footfall –- or is that just the wind slapping trees into each other –- and the scraping of skin against bark. When the wind rakes through the tangle of leaves and bows the branches, worry begins to scurry through my brain.
Then, something falls: Ellie’s Adidas shoes, still flecked with mud. As I cradle them, her socks float down like torn wings. Her watch follows, then her jersey, sports bra, and finally, the silvery orb of her engagement ring drops like wayward coin.
“Oi Ellie? Yee Han?”
Panic tastes like bile and saliva. It’s the same taste when running too fast without properly training, a watery sensation that comes before puke. I swallow that fear back down and look to the lowest branch. When I cannot jump higher enough, I turn to nearby trees.
I scale a smaller, thinner tree, using its grooves as holds. Halfway up, a mighty blast of wind shakes leaves loose, and the tree sways. As the branch I’m on begins to groan, I look up and see shadows, figures turned into dark smudges by the intense diamonds of sunlight falling through the ceiling of leaves.
I force my body to reach out to them. This time, I know, I’m not getting left behind.