All things considered, it was not the most uplifting of times for Nicholas. In fact, one might even say that Nicholas's life on sunny Pulau Ubin was the very opposite of uplifting: it was depressing. Bloody damn depressing, despite the tropical climate. Not an uplift to be seen for miles.
And then he met the brindlefarbs.
Nicholas hesitated by the postbox, holding the envelope in his hand. It was sealed and stamped, creased sharply where he had stuffed it in his sweaty pocket on the walk over from the hotel. On the front, scrawled in his cramped handwriting, were the words "TAN TOCK SENG GENERAL HOSPITAL ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE DEPT."
A single check languished in the envelope's interior, and written on the check was something like a compromise. It was a dollar amount slightly too large for Nicholas's comfort and slightly too small for the recipient's. A compromise.
Nicholas took a deep breath. Somewhere back on the mainland, Po Po needed this money. Chemo treatments didn't grow on trees, after all. Nicholas, well, Nicholas needed it too. But was he a good grandson or was he not?
The air was warm in the hours before evening, the rainforest's earthy sog combining with the sharp, boiled-crab stench of the ocean. Salty waves lapped at the ferry pier to his right. Farther out, Nicholas could see rafts and bumboats, black tires clinging to them like overworked monkeys.
Times were hard for everyone, it seemed, since the great Human-Alien financial crisis of 2024. But he hadn't thought it'd be this hard.
He lifted the cover of the postbox and flicked the envelope in, listening for the soft tap it made when it hit the bottom.
He had to go over the numbers again with Boon, but he was fairly sure this month was going to be tight. They had the Malay couple here for the next few days, but after that, no prospects. No reservations for almost four weeks--meaning that the thousand-odd dollars that he still owed for Po Po's chemo treatments was going to remain unpaid for yet another month. The hotel business was tough this time of year. Their little two-room hotel wasn't nearly as popular as he and Boon had envisioned.
His footsteps crunched on the gravel path. A pair of chickens casually ignored him, making only the most grudging of attempts to get out of his way before resuming their hunt-and-peck.
He was so engrossed in his calculations that he almost didn't notice the flying saucer hovering in the air above the hotel.
The saucer stretched roughly twenty meters from rim to rim, the sleek, modern black of an iPhone 16. It hung motionless over the rainforest canopy, blinking green lights marking its circumference.
A thin blue line emerged from the bottom of the saucer and etched a path, ruler-straight, to the ground in front of the hotel. A shape bloomed at the bottom. Blue light bathed the world for a moment, then faded.
Four aliens materialized in the clearing. One big, three small. They wobbled as they moved, their body shape definitely falling into the "eyeballs on legs" category. Two stringy legs extended from a bulbous body, where one large eye blinked pensively. As Nicholas watched, the big one took a careful step in Earth gravity while one of the little ones tumbled to the grass-flecked mud, letting out a squeak of surprise. Their skin was blue and leathery. They had no arms, hands, head, mouth, or nose.
Nicholas frowned. Why would aliens want to come here? Maybe they had lost their way. On behalf of his species, he was almost embarrassed that they had ended up here. If they were looking for a luxurious vacation in sunny Singapore, they were certainly peering up the wrong part. Pulau Ubin was a dump, frankly; a place that seemed to exist solely to remind the tiny nation of Singapore that there was always an island even more miniscule and insignificant. It was a place for weekend getaways, for locals to take a ferry over from the mainland, rent rusty cycles, and walk on the rocky beach. In the six months they had been in this business, he and Boon had found themselves hosting mostly bird enthusiasts, adulterous couples and off-duty police officers doing what he and Boon called WALI: Walking Around Looking Important. Not real tourists.
"Fleep," said the largest brindlefarb when Nicholas came closer. The three smaller farbs clustered behind it, peeping out at him like blue ducklings.
"Eh," he said. "You lost is it?"
It stared at him.
Right. Of course--they wouldn't be used to any dialect but Hollywood. He tried again, in American. "Arr you lawst? Singaporr is that way."
It stared at him.
Oh well. If they didn't even understand American English, it was probably safe to assume they weren't here to chat. He turned and went through the lobby doors.
The lobby, with its pale green tile and old red sofas, was hardly five-star. It had a faint Chinese medicine-y smell to it, like burnt orange mixed with cat urine. Nicholas slid onto the stool behind the counter, tossing the 'Be Right Back' sign into a drawer.
The brindlefarbs had followed him inside.
Nicholas looked them up and down. "Dun tell me you want to rent a room," he said.
"Okay," he said, playing along. "We got one room available, very nice one. Platinum Suite. Seven hundred per night."
The brindlefarb's eye did not widen. "Fleep." It lifted one leg and fished a credit card out of a sort of fanny pack that was strapped around its other leg. Its legs were long and flexible, jointless like spaghetti, with three stubby digits at the end.
The card clattered to the counter. VISA. The name embossed on the card read 'MR KHSSYY'G MRGLGRGL.'
Nicholas narrowed his eyes.
"Uh. How many nights you want?"
It lifted the same leg again, holding up all its digits. Then it put its foot down and lifted its other leg, showing two digits.
Nicholas picked up the credit card by its edges, his heart thumping. He'd actually blurted out seven hundred as a joke--they usually rented their rooms at thirty-five or forty bucks per night. Fifty if they looked rich, or foreign. The Malay couple in the Diamond Suite were paying thirty-five. Seven hundred was...
Suddenly, it all sunk in. Five nights at seven hundred was three thousand five hundred dollars! Three thousand alone would pay off his thousand-dollar debt to the hospital and cover Po Po's medical costs for the final four months of chemo, not to mention the rent and the hotel license fees they still owed from last month.
It was too good to be true. Nicholas fingered the edges of the credit card, running his thumb over the embossed letters. Then he casually swiped the card and punched in the numbers. Five nights. Seven hundred. Add standard fifteen percent 'law'. He and Boon called it the law because that's what they said when concerned guests pointed it out on the bill. "It's the law," they said, shrugging.
He stared at the total that appeared. Four thousand and twenty-five dollars exactly.
His heart hammered as he tore off the receipt. The brindlefarb took the offered pen and signed it, with impressive dexterity.
Nicholas heard little cash sounds going off in his brain. He felt a little bad for cheating the poor creature, but it was business as usual, wasn't it? They always charged more for rich foreigners. This one just happened to be richer and foreign-er than most. Sometimes he even suspected that foreigners enjoyed paying more for their rooms. Helped them appreciate things more.
He took the receipt and pushed it through the receipt spike. After months and months of losing money, it looked like things were about to take a turn for the better.
"Boon! Eh, Boon!" Nicholas walked swiftly back across the lobby, towards a door that said 'Employee Only.'
He had tried to make conversation with the brindlefarbs on the way to their two-story chalet out back. Just to show them the fastest way to the beach and where to buy food; the usual things. The alien only responded with "Fleep." Fleep fleep fleep. It could probably get annoying.
He leaned on the door. "Oei, Boon! You wun believe what happened."
Boon sat at his little computer desk, earphones cupping his head. He had on a white singlet and shorts, his long hair half-concealing his eyes. The fan whirred overhead.
"Oei," said Nicholas. "Boon."
"Congratulations," said Boon to himself, in a weird accent.
"Oh my God," said Nicholas, crossing the room in three steps and plucking the headphones from his head.
"Congratu-- eh!" He turned to look at Nicholas. "Wah piang eh. You scared me, Nicholas." He always pronounced it like it rhymed with 'dickless.'
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Huh? Just practicing what. I'm making an advert. For the hotel."
"Ya lor. This type of advert cannot fail one. People browse to some websites, okay, and they see a bright color advert and hear 'Congratulations! You have won a free trip.' Then they click through and get our booking site lor."
Nicholas stared at him. "Um. Whatever lah. But you wun believe what just happened. I just booked our empty room to a alien family. Seven hundred bloody dollars per night!"
Boon jumped up from his stool and gripped Nicholas's hands like a dying sword master in a Mandarin drama. "You better not be shitting me."
Nicholas laughed. "For five nights okay!"
Boon danced around the room. "Yeah!! I knew my Nigeria email campaign would pay off. We're rich, Nicholas! Rich!!"
Nicholas smiled. He thought of that envelope, sitting at the bottom of the postbox, and suddenly he realized: Maybe we can do it. Maybe Po Po, Boon and I can come through this in one piece.
Brindlefarbs, read the Wikipedia entry. The name given to the group of sentient oculopods originating from the planet Brin, in the Forssa sector. Adult brindlefarbs range from 75-125cm in radius, and are full thermivores.
Nicholas clicked through to thermivores and skimmed the article, which had a lot of long bio words in it. It said, if he was reading it correctly, brindlefarbs didn't eat meat or veggies. They ate heat. Because of that they didn't even have mouths--they spoke through tiny orifices on their knees that were only capable of a simple range of sounds.
Heat eaters? Did that mean they didn't even need to provide free breakfast, then? This was getting better and better. And maybe it meant they wouldn't run the air con all day like the Malays.
When Nicholas woke up the next day and went to man the counter, the three little farbs were jumping on the lobby sofa, bouncing off the old red pleather like a trio of clownless juggling pins.
"Ah, morning," he said. "Where's your father? Mr--" He squinted at the name on the receipt. Khssyy'g. "Kosong? Where is Kosong?"
"Farb!" said the middle farb. "Farb! Farb!" The others joined in. Their voices were high pitched, like toddlers on helium.
Nicholas got out his phone and swiped his finger across the screen. He snapped a picture of the three farbs, suspended in the air in an inverted 'V'. Excitement shone from all three eyes.
He smiled, and settled in his seat. It was nice to have kids playing in the lobby. It felt more lively.
There was a pause in the pounding of sofa springs, and Nicholas looked up.
Something seemed wrong with one of the little farbs, the one on the right. Instead of bouncing, it sat on the sofa with a dazed look. It shut its eyelid tightly, like it was about to be sick.
"Oei, you okay not?" Nicholas got up from his seat.
He had only taken half a step when there was a change in the air, a slight pop, and the farb opened its eye again, bright and cheery. But part of the sofa had changed. The pleather had turned almost completely white, frosted over with tiny ice crystals that glittered like snow.
"Farb!" burped the farb, and resumed jumping.
Nicholas frowned. Was this... breakfast?
"Alamak," said Boon softly when Nicholas showed him the room. They were wearing yellow rubber gloves; Boon held a rag and a bottle of cleaning fluid in one hand. Usually they split up and cleaned one room each: Nicholas the upper floor, Boon the lower. But today was different.
The room was completely iced over. The two twin beds were a glossy, cloudy white, like ice trays that had been left in the freezer too long. The rumpled piles of blankets were frozen solid, cold white vapor rising off them. Icicles hung from the ceiling fan. The bathroom slippers were suspended in neat little ice cubes. The table lamps looked more like icebergs--both of them were still on, actually, creating a neat Christmassy effect. The only thing left unfrozen in the room was the inside of the insulated ice bucket, which held 10cm of tepid water.
Outside, palm trees waved.
"Yep," said Nicholas.
Boon stared glumly at it for a good minute. "Just leave it like this? Can or not?"
"Cannot lah. Run hotel must clean room one."
"But... wun they be more comfortable like this?"
"Doesn't matter lah. Come on. Get the hair dryer."
It took the entire day. They thawed the bathroom slippers and strung them up on bamboo poles outside to dry. They broke off chunks of ice from the bed and tossed them off the balcony into the grass below. Nicholas held up a bucket while Boon ran the hair dryer on the ceiling fan and lamps. They changed the sheets, wiped the tables, mopped the floor. Finally, as the sun glowed orange over the horizon, Nicholas brought up a brand new bucket of ice cubes and placed it in the middle of the table.
"Wah piang eh," said Boon, leaning on the mop. "This is harder than secondary school."
"Dun complain lah." Nicholas swiped a droplet of water off the wall.
Boon gathered up the buckets and rags. Nicholas hadn't seen Boon look so discouraged since National Service, where their commanding officer had mistaken Boon's sluggishness in the mornings as an insatiable desire to do pushups.
"Come on lah. Let's go get satay. My treat."
They walked out to the hawker center together, enjoying the warm evening air. Nicholas's hands were raw and painful from cold. A monkey rustled in a tree by the side of the path. The air around the hawker center smelled like banana leaves and barbecue, and the tin roofs overhanging the multitude of food and drink stalls made the whole place look like a kind of rusty futuristic beehive.
As usual, the place was packed. Cigarette smoke wafted around them, mixing with the aroma of smoky meat.
"You know ah, Nicholas," said Boon suddenly, as they scouted for an open table. "I know we need three thousand of the brindlefarb money for your Po Po's payments, but if we still have a bit left over afterwards, like five hundred or so, maybe..."
Nicholas slid into a seat, swiped clean by an auntie's damp cloth moments before. "Maybe what?"
For a moment, Boon looked almost wistful. "Aiyah. Nevermind lah. I was thinking we should take a vacation ourselves. To Bali or somewhere else nice. Just for a few days. It would be like our stupid business plan finally became a success. But nevermind lah. Let's faster eat and go back."
Nicholas smiled. "Okay."
By night, the island seemed quieter. The gritty heat of daytime faded to a kind of humid darkness that pressed against the orange bustle of the hawker center from all sides. Cicadas shrieked from the bushes, their cries mixing with the clatter of plates and forks, beer glasses and laughter. Across the strait, the bright lights and tall buildings of Singapore stood like a distant, vague reminder.
Boon raised his beer glass. "To the fleeps," he announced.
Nicholas clinked his glass against Boon's. "To the fleeps."
On the way back, they heard the shouting even before they reached the hotel. Nicholas and Boon glanced at each other, then sprinted to the door as fast as they could.
The Malay couple, Mr. and Mrs. Abdul, were standing in the lobby across from the biggest brindlefarb, Kosong. Mr. Abdul and Kosong were staring daggers at each other. Mrs. Abdul and the three little farbs stood off to one side, looking anxious. One of the little farbs sported an awkward pair of flippers on its feet--a trail of wet sand traced its way in from the front door. The littlest one had a sheet of ice frozen around its waist in a ring, like a tutu.
"Bloody hell man," said Mr. Abdul, who had his back to Nicholas and Boon. He was slightly overweight, with a thick moustache and short black hair that curled tightly on his head. His face shone red. "Is this why it was so bloody cold last night? My wife has cough you know. We were shivering like mad. You creatures have no conscientiousness!"
"Fleep!" said the brindlefarb angrily.
"Ahmad," said Mrs. Abdul in a pleading tone. She was a slender woman with a pretty face, gentle but lined. She noticed Nicholas and Boon and went over to grab her husband's arm. "Let's go. Please?"
Mr. Abdul turned, noticing Nicholas and Boon. "You! You also, you bloody bastards. How can you do this with a clear conscience? My wife has cough you know!"
"That's enough, Ahmad." Mrs. Abdul pulled her husband across the lobby, towards the back door.
"This is ridiculous!" he announced once more, before storming out of the lobby.
Drip. Drip. Drip. The ring of ice around the littest farb continued melting, the only sound in the room.
"Fleep!" said Kosong angrily, glaring at Nicholas. He spun suddenly on one leg, whirling in three full circles. "Fleep!"
The air grew cold. A low, moaning sound emanated from Kosong, vibrating the air and increasing in intensity until Nicholas had to cover his ears.
"Fleep!" he said again, and this time two light bulbs on the ceiling shattered, showering the darkened floor with tiny ice chips.
Kosong turned and marched out the back door towards his room. The three farbs traded worried glances, then hurried after him.
"Wah lan eh," said Boon, when they were gone. "So intense."
Nicholas's face burned. He stepped over the trail of wet sand on the lobby floor and sat down on the sofa. It was wet.
Boon sat down at the counter and looked at the ceiling. "Too cold. Really? First time I ever heard that here."
"They even leave their air con on all day."
Boon sighed. "This not good, hor."
"Not good lah."
Boon sucked in his breath. "Nicholas. What if they leave? They could just pack up and go overnight. Without paying." A stomachache of a look passed over his face.
Boon stood up. "Maybe I can swap rooms with the Malays tonight. Since we only got the two rooms at the bungalow, maybe they can stay in my room and I can stay in theirs. I dun mind cold."
"Are you kidding? You sleep on a 5cm mattress in a tiny computer room."
"How about your room?"
"My room is the same size as their toilet room."
"Oh." Boon sat back down and fiddled with the 'Be Right Back' sign.
Nicholas felt the icy water seep through his shorts.
"Eh, Nicholas. If we have to choose, I say we get rid of the Malays, right or not?"
"The Malays. We can move them to another hotel. Sucks lah, but if we lose the aliens..."
"I know, I know. I thought of that already."
"So? We can call up Desmond Chia, see if he got any vacancy or not." He picked up the phone. "I just call to check-check first ah?"
Nicholas frowned. "Wait."
"Wait what wait?"
"Let me think."
Boon put the phone back down. "Think think think. You always want to think only."
But Nicholas didn't answer. He was piecing together the beginnings of an idea.
At 10:35pm that night, the Abduls heard a knock at the door. When they opened it, they found a large basket containing three hot water bottles and two extra sets of towels, blankets and pillows, overlaid with a spray of purple bougainvilleas and a handwritten note. The note said:
"Please accept our sincerest apology apologies. We wish you and your wife good health and a comfortable night. Live long and prosper. Signed, Your Upstairs Neighbors."
At 10:39pm, Mr. Khssyy'g Mrglgrgl opened the door to find a large basket stacked high with hot water bottles, overlaid with a note and three novelty ice cube trays, in which water would freeze in the shapes of animals, numbers, and vehicles. The note said:
"We are sorry for our outburst earlier. Please accept this gift for your children. We apologize, and hope someday to be as gracious, handsome, and financially giving as you. Selamat datang. Signed, Your Downstairs Neighbors."
Nicholas slept well that night.
They mopped the lobby at least twice a day. They blow-dried and sponged off the sofa. For two and a half hours each day, they cleaned the brindlefarbs' room together. They boiled water to refill the hot water bottles, froze water to fill the ice buckets, washed sheets and hung them up to dry in the sun. At night, they ate satay, smoked cigarettes, and slapped at mosquitoes by the ferry pier. The 'Employee Only' room remained empty, except for one day when Nicholas followed some strange sounds and found the littlest brindlefarb locked in fierce competition with Boon's computer.
"Fleep!" said the farb, glaring intensely at the monitor.
Nicholas shut off the computer and herded the little eyeball out of the room.
He went through their finances one afternoon, line by line. Boon was right. If they survived this ordeal, they would have five hundred and forty left over at the end just for them. Enough for a trip to Bali and forty dollars in the savings account. A break would be nice, thought Nicholas. For once in their lives, they could be the ones leaving messes and making unreasonable demands.
They defused another disaster on the third day, when the little farbs accidentally trapped the Abduls in their room by freezing the lawn into shards of razor-sharp ice. Boon raced out to the Indian mama store, bought a $25 rug, sliced it into long pieces and laid out a red carpet for the Abduls when they emerged in a cloud of steam, sleepy-eyed and hungry for breakfast.
Whenever he saw the Abduls and the brindlefarbs together, Nicholas's heart threatened to seize up. He and Boon scrambled to keep the stream of mutual gifts flowing each night--five dollars here, two ninety-nine there. A matching pair of blue-and-pink earmuffs for the Malays one night, one giant sunmonocle for Kosong on the next.
The earmuffs, surprisingly, were the harder item to come by.
Nicholas awoke one morning to the sound of Boon banging on his door.
"Nicholas! Eh, Nicholas!"
He leapt out of bed and opened the door.
"What? What happen?"
Boon had a slightly manic look. "We did it! They all checking out today!"
Nicholas felt a slow grin spread across his face. It had been the longest five days of his life, but he had done it. They had done it. Nicholas washed his face, brushed his teeth, combed his hair and was sitting at the counter before 9am. Check-out time was 11.
At 10:59, Kosong and Mr. Abdul came marching up through the back door. Nicholas put his phone away and straightened up.
They did not look pleased.
Mr. Abdul's face was so red it was almost purple. Kosong's gaze could have melted Superman.
"Now listen here," said Mr. Abdul when he saw Nicholas. "You bloody hoaxster." He pointed an accusing finger, holding up his hotel receipt with his other hand.
Kosong held up his receipt too, balancing on one leg.
"How do you explain this price discrepancy?"
Nicholas squeezed his eyes shut. No. No no no no.
"Huh!? How? Speak, man!"
He opened his mouth. "Ahh--"
"And what is this ridiculous surcharge? Fifteen percent? What rubbish is this?"
Nicholas swallowed. Boon had come running once he'd heard shouting--he stood at the front door, his weight resting on the door frame. His eyes reflected everything Nicholas felt.
"Bloody rubbish," said Mr. Abdul.
"You can say that again."
In the end, there was no choice. After Mr. Abdul started dancing around, threatening to call the police and saying that there would be disastrous consequences, they gave Kosong the thirty-five dollar rate for all five nights of his stay, plus a fifteen dollar per night de-icing fee. The Adbuls agreed to pay the fifteen percent law when they heard that it was, indeed, the law. In total the brindlefarbs were refunded three thousand, seven hundred and seventy-five dollars.
Mr. Abdul, Mrs. Abdul, Kosong and his three little farbs stormed off with their luggage, giving Nicholas dark looks.
Room cleaning felt especially long that day.
That afternoon, Nicholas and Boon sat on the beach, in the shade of an overhanging palm. To Nicholas it felt like there was an empty patch in the sky, where the brindlefarbs' flying saucer should have been. They had decided to take the rest of the day off.
Nicholas scrolled through his phone absentmindedly. One browser window still showed the Wikipedia article he had been reading, about brindlefarbs. Brindlefarbs, it now read. These bloody lan cheow dirty ang mohs cheat ur money only lah!!!
Nicholas choked back a laugh. The article went on for several incoherent paragraphs. No wonder Boon had seemed so self-satisfied earlier.
He sighed and pulled up the picture of the three little farbs, their little blue bodies suspended in mid-air, spaghetti legs trailing out under them. They looked so happy. And after all, wasn't the hotel business all about making people happy? In the end it wasn't seven hundred a night, but he and Boon had still gotten a decent rate from them. With a little bit of saving and a few more guests this month, they'd still be able to pay the rent and the minimum on Po Po's fees.
"Still worth it lah," he said, flicking his phone off.
They sat for a while. Nicholas let the hot sand run through his fingers, squinting out at the fishing boats and cruise liners.
"Let's go back lah, hor."
"Okay." Boon stood up and brushed sand off his shorts.
They walked back together, not saying much.
At the front door to their hotel, peering in the locked front door, was someone new. A short, slightly chubby Chinese man.
"Who's that?" said Boon.
"Dunno. Excuse me," Nicholas called.
The Chinese man turned and looked relieved to see them. He was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and pleated pants. "Oei. Are you two the owners of this hotel?"
"Ah, good good. Got any vacancies now or not?"
"Got. Two rooms."
"Ah, damn good. Is three weeks too long to rent both rooms? I'm taking my whole family on holiday until Chinese New Year. I tell you ah, I had the strangest luck this morning--an alien came into my convenience store and paid $10,000 for a bottle of Sprite!"
Nicholas started to smile.
"At first I thought you were closed lah--we almost went to the other hotel down the road. But my daughter says this is the best hotel on Pulau Ubin. She stayed here last time. Very hardworking, she said. Good people."
A wave of happiness rose in his chest. "Ah-- we try our best lor."
"Good good." The man put his hands together. "How much per room per night ah?"
Nicholas looked the man up and down. He had shiny leather shoes, pressed pants and carefully combed hair. A large Rolex gleamed on his wrist.