Yellow School Buses
In Singapore, halfway through her journey, Nandini sits in a cramped room memorizing her fact sheet. Hot air swirls inside the walls, unmoved by the lethargic, creaking ceiling fan. All five of them have been stacked in here for a week—Nandini, her mother, her three little brothers. Her father had stayed behind in Sri Lanka.
Every night since they left, her mother cries and prays in rapid, never-ending succession. During the days, Nandini’s mother sits exhausted against the headboard of the single bed, fanning herself with her own fact sheet. Her brothers nap in a heap, all brown tangled limbs and dirty clothes.
Nandini memorizes her new identity: her name is Preeti Sriranganathan; she is nineteen years old; she wears glasses and lives at 75 Silver Springs Boulevard in Toronto.
“Quick,” she says to her mother. “What color are Canadian school buses?”
Her mother glances at the fact sheet she holds in her hand.
“Don’t look,” Nandini says. “You can’t look during the interview.”
They’ve been given explicit instructions to flush the fact sheets down the toilet upon arriving in Toronto, before they reach the customs officers.
Her mother folds up the fact sheet. “When did you get so bossy? You’re starting to sound like your father.”
Leaving Sri Lanka was her father’s doing. Nandini wrote something in her school newspaper, criticizing the gerrymandering by the Sri Lankan government in the latest election. She wrote the piece in a fury the night the election results were announced, and by the next morning the sol-diers were at their door, interrupting breakfast with their rifles.
“What color are the school buses in Toronto?”
“Black,” her mother says.
Nandini shakes her head.
“Yellow, Amma. You need to focus.”
There were two soldiers, one dark and mean with a scar running down his cheek. He pressed the barrel of the rifle in her father’s face. The other one was shorter, friendlier looking.
Her father begged them to let it go, offered them fancy English whiskey and gold necklaces from her mother’s dowry. He showed them papers detailing his appointment as a doctor at a gov-ernment hospital. They demanded to see Nandini anyway, and she came out shaking from behind her mother’s shadow. They pointed their rifles at each of her brothers, asking their ages and whether or not they were affiliated with the Tigers. After an hour, after drinking her mother’s tea and eating the European chocolate her family had gotten as a gift, the soldiers finally left with a bottle of John-ny Walker and her mother’s necklace made of real gold coins. Her father took the five of them to the embassy that day, and within a week they were on a plane to Singapore, their life savings deplet-ed.
“Okay, then, smart girl,” her mother says, “what color are the uniforms that police officers wear?”
“Blue. Sometimes black.”
“What are the petrol stations in Toronto?”
“Petro-Canada,” Nandini says. She covers up the fact sheet so she can’t cheat. “And…”
“See? I’m not the only one.” Her mother leans back and keeps fanning, looking out the lone window at the bustling street outside.
Nandini goes back to reading. Her name is now Preeti. She is nineteen years old. Her father will soon join them in Canada, and then none of them will have to worry about air raids or white van abductions or soldiers with guns. Nandini will get a job, will go to school, will go to college. Her brothers will be fluent in English. Her mother will be happy.
Her name is Preeti. She is nineteen years old. She lives at 75 Silver Springs Boulevard in To-ronto. She is innocent, she is still a kid. She is going to live in a safe place, free of worry, a place with clean streets and big shopping malls, where police officers wear blue uniforms and school buses are painted yellow.
SJ Sindu is a Ph.D. student at Florida State University. She has received scholarships from the Lambda Literary Retreat, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. Her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, apt, The Normal School, VIDA, Black Girl Dangerous, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is forthcoming in 2017 from Soho Press.