Wavering lights

Scarlet petals scatter on the ceramic tiles.

Shadows flicker against the walls as the tea-lights waver.

The crimson rose petals are ringed by a circle of scarlet tea candles. And we, in turn, sit around this ellipse of light.

Today is special: It is the first day we're overseas for our humanitarian trip. A nervous anticipation -silent, yet palpable - hangs thickly in the air. We're beyond the sphere of our comfort zones, bobbing uncertainly on the waves of life.

We were strangers starting out on a journey, never dreaming what we have to go through.

'What happens in Cambodia, stays in Cambodia.' Our leaders swear us to secrecy. Therefore, the following stories hold only sparks of truth. Pseudonyms are used to maintain the veil of secrecy that everyone promises to uphold, details omitted, stories embellished. A world of lies and truths awaits; honeycombs of incandescent bubbles swell, burst and reveal hitherto unsaid secrets.

On this night, we share stories of hope and disappointment, fears and uncertainties. We let one another see our deepest, most vulnerable selves as the candlelights waver.
She was physically abused by her dad.

'My dad loves the family, but he just doesn't know how to express himself. We'd have vicious - absolutely vicious - quarrels. These fights, they're just not normal over-the-table arguments. Policemen will visit my family when that happens,' Jane whispers, 'he would treat my mum and younger sibling roughly.'

The room falls respectfully into silence. All eyes remain on Jane.

'Once, I remember, he held me up by the scruff of my neck, threatening and unyielding. I can faintly recall asking him what he was doing then, handling me like that.' Jane pauses hesitantly, before carefully rolling up her left sleeve to reveal palm-sized bruises the colour of setting sun. 'Shocked?' With her hand, she flicks her brown hair over her shoulder such that the long tresses partly cover her wound.

Her voice trembles, 'it's better now, but I wish that I can be closer to my dad. We're just polite strangers. Strangers.'

The superficial wounds had healed, surface scars scabbed, disappeared. But those within? They remain.
'My family was wealthy. Like, seriously.'

'She had left my dad, broken.'

'For a while, my mum returned.'


'Even now, I feel my dad trying to pull himself together.'
'I'm afraid of kids, afraid of them being needy and clinging to me. Afraid that I can't effect a lasting change in them.'

'I'd met abused kids who wanted to depend on me for guidance and, confused as I was then, I fled from their desperate cries. How cowardly.'

'Kids should be innocent, loved, maybe even a little spoiled. They shouldn't be drugged to make them tamer, abused such that they don't believe their lives are worth anything. They should be treasured, nourished and loved. Yes, they ought to. But, no, they aren't.'
Prison theft. Milk powder.
Chinese lion dance, bulimia, dashed expectations, rigours, his diaphanous dreams, the story of giving up what one cherishes the most.
Brush with death, her prejudice and pride.
David ponders for a while and begins hesitantly:

'My story isn't as heart wrenching as others',' he give an indifferent shrug, 'my dad simply cheated on my mum.'

'When I was in secondary school, my dad brought my brothers and I to the Singapore Science center. It was a day of great fun. Then, we saw.'

David takes a deep breath. His eyelids close halfway, as though he is about to sleep. 'A condom dropped out from my dad's pocket as he was retrieving his van keys. My dad definitely wasn't having sex with my mum. I sleep on a mattress in my parent's room. I'll know if they're. No, they aren't having sex.' His voice holds only the slightest inflection of distress.

'Just recently, my siblings and I overheard my mum demanding for a divorce. We all don't know how this story will turn out.'