Daphne recovers first, after. You're relatively certain it's because she was exposed to the gas for a shorter time than Ashley was, but you also get the feeling that she was fighting a lot harder to live.
One day before she returns to school, Ashley's still unconscious in the hospital - stable, but asleep.
One day before she returns to school, you hand in your resignation, leave, and don't look back.
You end up applying to a JC. They urgently need a Literature teacher, so they overlook your youth and your lack of experience and make you an offer, one you accept.
You get a good first batch. They are diligent and hardworking and eager to learn. You would never admit it to anyone else, but it is a huge change from 5A. These kids hand in their homework on time, and take notes in class, and stay quiet when you lecture.
They are very good students.
Do you miss 5A, a voice in your head whispers, and you don't know how to answer it, until.
On a whim, you talk to your J1 batch while they're doing a team exercise on Hamlet's madness. "Why do you think all our texts are from the West?"
They glance at each other, brows furrowed, before the class representative raises his hand to answer. "Because they're better."
A soft chuckle echoes around the classroom. Your own Literature representative snorts. "Imagine studying, I don't know, Colin Cheong or whoever for our exams. God. I don't think anyone beyond our shores has even heard of our writers. I barely think anyone in Singapore has heard of our writers."
Others in the classroom chime in. "Yeah. That's why we send our scripts to the UK to be marked too, right? Because people there are known better than the locals. And they know better than the locals."
Someone else from across the room sighs and pushes his glasses further up his nose. "Mrs Lin, what does this have to do with the lesson?"
You swallow hard past the burr stuck in your throat, and manage to smile. "Nothing. I was just curious. Keep going with your work."
Do you miss 5A, the voice in your head whispers, and you think: maybe, possibly, yes.
You see some of the TGS girls in next year's J1 batch.
They are all seventeen years old.
You only recognise them because of the secondary school uniforms they wear on the first week of orientation, before they get their official JC uniforms.
They are all seventeen years old, nary a yellow name tag in sight.
For a long, long week, you can't breathe when you're in the school hall, watching all these new students mingling.
It's easier once they get their JC uniforms, but not by much.
It's not - bad. Really. It's not a bad life.
The kids are diligent and hardworking and eager to pass. They pay attention. They absorb. They ace their internal exams. You are happy when the A Level results come out, and there's a 99% pass rate and a 80% distinction rate for Literature and so on, so forth. They do well.
They hate their texts and they just want their grades and half of them tell you frankly that they took Lit for the easy A like you should expect that statement, but they do well.
And that's what's important, right?
"You never make time for us," he says. "You always prioritise your students, your work. I want kids one day, Sarah, but at the rate you're going - how am I going to explain to them why their mother spends more time with children that aren't her own than children that are actually hers? I have tried, I have actually tried, I have loved you - "
"Do you think I don't love you?" You ask, in disbelief, and he just laughs sadly, softly. "I know you do, Sarah. I know. But I think you love teaching more."
And you want to dispute that, but you can't, not in good conscience.
So he leaves.
You let him.
Six years to the day you first entered the school, a couple of students from your first batch of J1s comes back to visit their alma mater.
Two are in residency, including the boy who was your representative for the class. One is working at an architectural firm. One is getting his postgrad degree in electrical engineering. The last one is a lawyer - that makes you smile, gives you a bit of hope - but then she says she's doing corporate law, working with big businesses, scoffs at people who disadvantage themselves by doing pro bono or aid work.
"Are you still doing Hamlet, Mrs Lin?" The hopeful electrical engineer asks you. You shake your head. "I picked Othello for this batch."
There are murmurs of satisfaction and amusement from the rest. "Thank god," your once-Lit rep sighs in relief. "I hated Hamlet so much, you had no idea. Longwinded and boring as hell."
They laugh, like it's an inside joke that they share.
And you feel like you did when you saw those green name tags again - you can't breathe.
Two weeks later you and some of the other Humanities teachers go for a workshop held by the MOE, hosted at one of the top secondary schools. You're the representative for the Literature department - there's another teacher from the Geography department, and History, and Linguistics, and Art.
"Why doesn't Econs department get an afternoon off?" Your colleague from History jokes over her cubicle to you.
One of the Econs teachers glares over at the both of you from the water cooler with a smirk on his face. "Because Economics is useful, obviously. We don't have to attend a workshop on how to make our subject relevant to the new millennium."
Your colleague stands up so fast her chair topples back, her eyes blazing and ready for a fight, and you just manage to grab her wrist and pull her back. "He's just trying to rile you up. Don't let him get to you, come on."
She doesn't move for a second, and you're afraid there's really going to be a brawl, but common sense wins over her rage. "Prick," she growls, going back to her work, but you can hear her seething for another five minutes.
You don't blame her.
Despite the scathing remark, the workshop is genuinely useful and interesting. There's talk of including more Asian, Southeast Asian and Singaporean texts in the Literature syllabus, and that excites you like nothing else. You spend some time after the workshop talking to other Literature teachers in the school canteen, and you get some pretty helpful tips and tricks from them as well. It's a good afternoon.
It's six in the evening when the workshop officially closes, and everyone is filing away from the catered buffet in the canteen. You're disposing of your plate and packing up your bag when you hear it - someone call your name.
And you freeze, because you've been Mrs Lin for so long - because everyone in the school knew you as Mrs Lin before Tim left you and you decided not to invite more gossip than necessary by going back to your maiden name. Even the Express and Special TGS girls who you taught knew you as Mrs Lin, because you never taught them back in TGS.
The only people who'd call you by your maiden name would be your Normal girls, from so long ago.
You turn in the direction of the voice, see the canteen drinks stall, see someone standing in front of it, and your heart stops as you clear away the extra centimetres, the clothes, the shadows under the eyes.
You never kept in touch with anyone from TGS. You never really knew anybody besides Lynette and you could never have forgiven her that betrayal. You lost track of Daphne and Ashley and your 5A girls and your Drama girls a long, long time ago.
You never knew if Ashley woke up. And you have to admit, you didn't really think about it. There were always other things occupying your mind, your time, and you wonder if all this time, you just thought she'd faded out into nothing, she'd -
But now she's standing there, looking a little older than you remember her but still the girl you remember her to be. You can still see that fierce defiance and pride in her eyes, the tilt of her jaw.
"You're alive." It sounds stupid the moment it leaves your mouth but it's the first thing you can think of. She's alive.
At this, she laughs, walks over to you. Her laugh - that sounds different. Quieter, gentler, warmer. "Ya. I woke up, eventually. Didn't want to, but I did. And now I'm here." She glances around at the emptying canteen and gives you a lopsided smile. "Want to sit down and catch up?"
"What are you doing here?" You ask her once you're comfortably seated at one of the tables in front of the drinks stall. Ashley smooths down her apron and just grins ruefully. "I run the drinks stall here. Have been for two years now."
You do the math - Ashley's twenty-three now, and she's been working here since she was twenty-one, running a secondary school drinks stall on her own. She must notice the pity and confusion in your eyes, because her gaze hardens. "I never needed your pity in TGS, Miss Hew, and I don't need it now."
"I'm sorry," you say, meaning it, and she softens. "Nah, I get it. You wanna know how I got here, right?" She doesn't stop to wait for your answer. "After I went back to school, my parents were a bit softer on me, you know, all the shit about their daughter almost dying, and so soon after my grandmother passed away. I just, I kept my head down and tried to study. The teacher who took over you, Miss Chan, she was stricter. She made Brenda cry once. So I tried not to fuck around so much. Daphne took less of my shit also, so, yeah. And Mrs Lim put us on suicide watch, couldn't get away with fucking anything. Like that lor."
"And your O Levels?"
Ashley laughs - it's bitter, but not tired, not resentful, not angry. "Daphne, I don't know how, she hauled ass and studied like crazy, fuck don't know how also, and got 16 points. Went to JC. Not one of the damn high-up JCs, but she went to JC. I got 23 points."
Your eyes widen. "Ashley! That's not too bad, compared to your prelims - did you go to Poly, then?"
She snorts, rolls her eyes. "And study what? I was sick of that shit, okay? Damn fucking sick of - academia and all that crap. My dad was going to close down my grandma's stall, sell it to some shady CEO fucker. I put my foot down and told him I was going to run the stall myself. I was there my whole childhood, okay? Watching my grandma cook wanton mee and collect all the money all on her own, learning how to wrap the wanton and make the noodles, learning how to work the register. I ran the stall myself for three years. I was damn fucking good too. Earned good money, had regulars, was in 8 DAYS once."
The use of the past tense makes you flinch. There are tears in Ashley's eyes, and she hurriedly wipes them away, staring down at the table. "What happened?"
"Some big fuck came to my stall, tried to make me sell or franchise or some shit," Ashley says, low and measured. "I said fuck no. He kept hassling me, I said get the fuck out of my stall or I'll call the fucking cops on him. Guess my stall was on prime location or fuck, he really wanted it. So he started a smear campaign and other shit."
"Oh my god," you say, horrified. "Ashley, I'm - I'm sorry."
"Why?" Ashley answers, smiling a little. "It was bad lah. I'm not going to deny that. I finally settled, got decent money out of it, and came here to run the drinks stall. It's not a bad life."
You glance around at the canteen, at the setting sun casting shadows over the school. "You're happy here?"
Ashley is quiet for a long moment. "Remember I asked you once, what if I wanted to be a teacher?" She fiddles with her apron string. "I meant it. Kind of. I wanted to help kids like me, something like that, somehow. After I sold the wanton mee stall, I could've gone anywhere you know. I had quite a bit of money, I was a damn good cook. But I came here. Because I thought, you know, I could help the kids some way or whatever. And you know, I do. I talk to the girls a lot, ask them how everything is, their studies okay or not, family, friends, boyfriend or girlfriend. I have girls who will say hi, who just come and talk." She looks up, gaze meeting yours. "I said to Daphne, once, that I thought all these smart girls, Special and Express, they had no right to be sad, because they have everything they could want, they will be OK no matter what. This is a top school, Miss Hew. And I have talked to these girls. And now I know I was wrong. It was true that we didn't have it easy in Normal. It still is. And it's still true that there are privileges of being in Special and Express. But these girls, they all have their own struggles. And I have never had any right to belittle them."
For a moment you can't even speak, because for six years you have had a picture of Ashley crafted in your head - intelligent, brave, charismatic, but also brimming with anger, rebellious, prideful. And while you weren't looking - while you were living a life of your own - she grew up. This is not the Ashley you knew.
Or maybe it was, and all of you were always too busy trying to keep her in line and mould her into the student the education system wanted her to be, to really see it.
"Shit, Miss Hew, you crying?" Her voice breaks into your reverie, sounding concerned. "You okay? What did I say?"
"Nothing, it's alright, I'm fine." You don't know why you're tearing up - maybe you're proud, you're touched, you're humbled. You quickly change the subject. "How's Daphne?"
Ashley's gaze slides away, and she shrugs. "I lost touch with her. JC, you know? She had to prep for A Levels and all that other shit, found a new circle of friends... she came by the wanton mee stall once or twice in J1, but then life got in the way. I haven't seen her in a few years. I just... I hope she's doing OK. And she's happy."
There's silence between the both of you for a minute. You look out at the sky, getting darker, and Ashley follows your gaze. "I guess you're busy. I won't hold you up."
You reach out and grab her arm as she gets up. It's instinctive - you don't even think. She looks down where your grip rests. "Are you free?"
She eyes you slowly, nods, and you feel relief flood you. "I haven't seen you in six years, Ashley. I'd really like to catch up properly. Dinner, my treat?"
Ashley smirks, playful and mischievous, and suddenly you're twenty-four again, a new TGS teacher facing your Normal class for the first time. "Free food, how can I say no?"
You roll your eyes, and she laughs, and it's a girl's laugh, called back from six years ago.
You both end up at a little cafe, sipping coffee with overpriced dinner. Ashley peppers you with questions. "What happened to you? How come you left? It's like, I was lying in that hospital for a week and I had to do physio because my brain got a bit screwed for a while and then I came back and we had some new teacher standing in front of the class. Even Marianne didn't know where you'd gone."
"I - " You pause, fumbling for the words. "I couldn't do it anymore, being in TGS. It wasn't you girls. Really. It was just..."
Ashley snorts. "Miss Ang and Miss Wong and the rest, is it?"
You look at her in some surprise. Ashley rolls her eyes. "Please. We all knew Miss Ang was a fucking bitch. And we all knew how Miss Wong turned on you because of her. Everyone was so eager to tell me all the gossip when they visited me in hospital." She stirs her coffee with a spoon, idly, looking at you all the time. "I understand why you left. I just wish you had given us the chance to say goodbye."
That simple statement hangs in the air, and Ashley continues. "Did you ever miss us? Not that I would expect you to lah. Teaching in a top JC and everything, with all these smart kids who hand in their homework."
"Ashley," you cut her off. "I did."
"Oh. Really ah?" She sounds surprised, and you nod. "The JC kids I taught. They were... different. But it's not a matter of good or bad. You girls, you weren't bad, alright? I never believed that. Just because you were 'Normal' - it was just an academic - "
"That which you call a Normal by any other name," Ashley interrupts, nodding sagely, and you nearly choke on your drink. "You remember."
"Funniest Lit lesson, please." She smirks. "Miss Chan never did that kind of thing with us."
Silence again, and she sighs. "I missed you, Miss Hew. Really. You were the first one who - tried. That meant something."
You want to tell her you missed her too, but it sticks in your throat.
You drive her home. It's a quiet ride back. You think she's watching you most of the way, but when you pull up at her block of flats, you turn to her and she's curled up in the passenger seat, eyes closed, sleeping.
You told Lynette once that she was pretty, and she was. Ashley has grown up, lost some of the youthfulness about her face that made her precocious, but in return she's gained a maturity about her features, an elegance that has kept her beautiful.
Her hair is untied, falling in her face, and you reach over to brush it out of her eyes. Your fingers are just touching her temple when she speaks, eyes still closed. "Daphne didn't mean it."
Your heart nearly stops from fright, but you keep your composure. "What?"
"That day in class when she said I was together with Miss Wong. I wasn't with her. I wasn't with anyone. Daphne knew that. It wasn't her I had a crush on."
Your try to grasp for her meaning. "Daphne?"
Ashley laughs, quiet and sleepy. "Daphne and I, we were friends since we were seven. She was like a sister to me." Her eyes open, just the slightest. "You took over Miss Koh six years ago. You never knew her."
"Ashley," you say, but she continues. "I was a damn stupid seventeen-year-old, okay? You knew that also. I didn't know how to love or be loved. My parents never really taught me. My grandma was the only one who really gave a shit about me for myself. When I was thirteen, I tried to tell my mother I might be gay. She actually slapped me for even suggesting it. It was my grandma who came to wash my face and got me to wrap wanton with her to calm me down and told me she would love me no matter what. I never understood how to show affection for real. And then this young, pretty, funny, passionate teacher comes and tries to teach us Normal Sec 5s Lit. I wanted her to look at me. I wanted her to notice me. But my grades were fucking shit and I wasn't talented or whatever so I didn't know how to get her attention. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I acted out. I was the biggest fucking bitch to her, and obviously that backfired like fuck. We came back from March holidays and you were there. Miss Sarah Hew."
You can't speak, breathe, move. Ashley opens her eyes, and they shine in the darkness enveloping the car. "I fucking hated you at first sight. Irrational fucking shit. I knew it was my fault she left, not you. But you were there and I needed someone to take my anger out on. And you reacted the way I wanted you to. Until you didn't." She sighs, and it carries such weight. "You know how many teachers hate us? The Normals? Fucking useless, all failures, going to go to Poly at best or jail at worst, the school's responsibility for one extra year. But you. You tried. You cared. You believed in us."
"I failed you, once," you say, because you clearly remember that day, that spot-check, you're a big fucking joke Miss Hew. "I thought you hated me."
"I thought I did," Ashley agrees. "But I grew up, Miss Hew. And I learned to understand why you couldn't protect us. Why you couldn't protect me."
"I meant it. When I said you were beautiful."
You knew that, too. You played it off as a joke to Lynette, back then, but - you knew.
And it's not that you loved her. You were young, then. She was younger. And it has been six years.
You think of all your JC kids, who have made it the way society defines 'making it'. You look at this woman sitting in your passenger seat, in front of you, who slipped between the cracks and still made her own it for herself. You have already missed six years of her life. You denied her a goodbye - you denied yourself a goodbye, and so much more.
"I missed you too." It sounds so inadequate, but the night is quiet and ethereal and it feels like this could slip away from you coming morning light and it's all you dare to say.
Ashley chuckles, then leans across and presses a gentle kiss to your cheek. "Thanks for driving me home, Miss Hew. See you around." She unlocks the passenger door with a click, and it's drowned out by your own voice. "Ashley."
She turns back to look at you, questioning, and it takes you a second but you find your voice, rough and trembling. "Sarah."
Another moment, and her expression softens. "Sarah," she repeats, and it's like an electric shock down your spine, to hear her say your name, and you close the space between the both of you and kiss her, and it sets your six years right.