nik fateen

My Wife Lied to Me

October 10, 2020 in Poetry/Puisi

My wife lied to me.
She didn’t think I knew, but I did
It’s all in the way she breathes.

She said she was fine
But I saw the way she took a breath so deep, it straightened her spine
She only does that when she’s sinking
Thinking too much till she’s drowning.

Whatever it was, it bugged her till bedtime
She breathed in through her nose, eyes closed
Breathed out through her mouth and opened her eyes
She was wishing the thought to a faraway land
Willing to focus on what was in front of her instead.

The next day when I hugged her from behind,
Her breath hitched – she was surprised.
God, I could feel her heartbeat
It was racing, with something other than love
I wasn’t quite sure if I liked it.

In the evening she was out of breath
She sounded the way she usually does after sex
But it was funny to listen to the sound on the phone
While I was still at work and she was at home. Alone.

I know what you’re thinking and I agree
The missus can have fun without me
But like I said, I know how she breathes,
I know ‘one’ is different than ‘two’
And  now I wonder if there’s a ‘three’, minus me.

I tried to test my 1+1 theory
But that night she didn’t moan my name quite the same
She was breathless, yes, but she didn’t even look at me.
So I put two and two together but then I got angry.

The next thing I knew, my missus wasn’t breathing
I was confused. I never saw her did that
So I pulled my hands away from her neck and called the police
Then they put me in handcuffs, but I still don’t know why they did that.

The Screenwriter

October 7, 2020 in Short Story/Cerpen

The wasn’t any food on the table and the fridge was almost empty. John sighed. He knew his mother was disappointed in him but he didn’t think she would refuse to make him dinner altogether.

“You’re in your thirties. Sort yourself out.” John’s mother said to him when he phoned in. He had no other choice but to come home until he had enough money to find a new apartment. The previous landlord had kicked him out after three months of not paying rent. Regardless of what John said, the landlord knew he had no money to pay him and John knew this too. He had gotten fired from his job recently and was lucky enough to avoid a cease-and-desist. So far.

He walked out of the kitchen and into the living room. The grandfather clock showed it was 10 minutes before 11. His mother was most probably asleep in her room and even if she wasn’t, it was clear enough she didn’t want to talk to him at the moment. She had been giving him the silent treatment ever since he got here this evening. It had been several hours since then and he did nothing else but seclude himself in his old bedroom, locking the door so his mother wouldn’t come in and give him another lecture. Well, it worked.

Grabbing his jacket, keys, and a notepad and pen, John went outside. He wondered what could still be open at this hour. He contemplated on driving his car but everything was pretty much at a walking distance and this was a safe town. He grew up here with his older brother, their father passed away when they were in their teens and the mother never remarried. Simple life in a small town. Boring.

That was why John decided to become a journalist. He was tired of boring stories. What exciting thing could ever happen in a small town where nothing happens? It was already dull while he was growing up, surrounded by other kids to play with. Now it was just a town full of old people waiting to either die quietly in their homes, to be taken away by their children, or to be sent to the old folks’ home which was just a few streets away.

After a few minutes of walking, John finally reached the 7-Eleven. The bell rang as he swung the door open announcing his presence but no one even bat an eye. An instant noodle was the go-to meal -if you could call it that- so John wasted no time in buying one. He asked the cashier to pour hot water into the cup then sat at a small table with his dinner. While waiting for two minutes to go by, he pulled out the notepad and pen from his pocket. He looked around to see if there was anything worth writing was happening around him. There were two boys on their laptop, probably writing some college essays that would get them right out of this town. A man was walking up and down the snack isle, a truck driver stocking up his supplies from the looks of it. And then there was the cashier. Unsurprisingly nothing happened.

John thought about the last piece he wrote. It was about a screenwriter who had passed away three months ago ‘quietly in his sleep’, the newspaper wrote. But John had found it odd. He felt like there was more to it. Maybe it was his instinct as a journalist, a crime journalist to be more specific, but he was so sure there was more to the story. The screenwriter’s name was Michael Thompson. But that was about all the public knew about him. Not his face, his age, his family, nothing. The only point of contact to and from him was Wade Turner, his loyal assistant.

John had his eyes on Wade Turner. He found it fascinating how a screenwriter managed to stay anonymous despite his reputation. The first screenplay of his that was made into a movie came out in 2004. Since then he had success after success. Four of his movies were blockbusters, two of them had won awards and multiple more were constantly praised by the critics. He was a big name in Hollywood, but nobody knew who he was except for Wade Turner. Now, with that kind of success, you would think that Thompson was Wall Street rich. And you would think that Turner was paid a good amount of money as his personal assistant. But Turner had never worn an outfit that would cost any more than 50 dollars. Maybe even 20 if he shopped at Goodwill. Which he seemed to be doing. Granted, he never went anywhere that would require fancy clothes. Thompson and Turner avoided award shows at all costs. The only place you would see Turner was at press conferences for the promotion of Thompson’s movies and he would be there in his 20 dollars Goodwill clothes.

John had no doubt in his mind that Turner killed Thompson. Why wouldn’t he? His employer paid him very little, had strict rules about what he could and could not say, and by the looks of it, because of the circumstances Turner had never dated. He was a man in his 40s with no family and he was getting paid the minimal wage when he was actually working under a millionaire. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Nobody would know if he actually killed Thompson because nobody really knew who he was. But John caught up with his lies and exposed him in the newspaper.

Then he got fired and was threatened with a legal action for defamation of character.

His boss agreed to publish the piece but of course he didn’t want to take the heat. So, John had to take the fall all by himself. But that didn’t make him stop. He wanted to prove that he was right. There wasn’t a single doubt in his mind that Michael Thompson was killed by his assistant.

John snapped out of his thoughts when the bell rang. Someone had come in but John was too distracted to take a look. He realized he hadn’t touched his meal so he did just that, staring at the empty page of his notepad in silence. Everything happened three months ago, and now he wasn’t so sure about pursuing his story anymore. He still believed he was right, but he started to think that the risk was not worth the price. He was already unemployed and living with his mother. He didn’t know how much else he could lose.

But that was until he saw the person who walked in. He was wearing a faded green jacket with equally faded jeans, with a pudgy face but sharp eyes. John could not forget those eyes if he tried. The eyes of a cold-blooded murderer. He couldn’t believe his luck that he had to laugh. Wade Turner was 10 feet away from him!

John wanted to get up and wrestle him to the ground, hold him down till he confessed. But no, that wouldn’t be smart. He didn’t even watch Turner for too long. John’s face was on the newspaper. Someone as bitter as Turner would have his enemy’s face memorized. So he looked the other way and strained his ears to listen to the conversation between Turner and the cashier.

“Can I get that pack of gum?” Turner asked.

“Sure, Wade. It’s on me.” The cashier said. John noted that he called Turner by his first name.

“Ah! Just let me pay for it. And here’s some tip for you, I know your mama needs the money.”

They know each other. This is jackpot! Wade Turner isn’t just passing through the town, he lives here. John could not believe his luck. He didn’t even have to follow Turner home to know which house he lived in. He could just ask his mother. Small town folks know everything about each other. He just had to warm her into talking to him.

Finally, something worth writing was happening in this town.

The next morning John woke up early and went to the grocery store as soon as it opened. When he got home, his mother was still in her room. She was most probably awake but still refusing to talk to him. John didn’t even try to be quiet in the kitchen, in fact that would’ve defeated the whole purpose, so he made such a ruckus cooking up their breakfast. A simple meal of eggs and bacon, nothing complicated, but his mother would’ve been amused nonetheless. She always thought him useless except for when it comes to writing.

His mother came out of her room while John was doing the dishes. He tried to hide his smile and stifled from celebrating his victory too soon. Instead, he calmly took a seat in front of his mother and pour himself his second cup of coffee. “Ma, did someone move here recently?”

“Why’d you care about this town? You barely visited since you moved out.” She picked up a strip of crispy bacon and put it in her mouth.

That’s good. She’s annoyed, but not so angry that she’d refuse the meal. “I thought I saw Wade Turner at 7-Eleven last night.”

“Why are you interested in him?”

“You never read the articles I wrote, did you?”

She waved her hand dismissively at him, chewing down her food. “L.A. news don’t usually make their way here. Besides, we only read whatever local newspapers available at the store.”

John couldn’t help but feel impressed. Turner must have done his research. In a small town on the other side of the country where most of the people here were above 50 years of age and they only cared about local news, this was the perfect hiding place. Turner didn’t have to worry about paparazzi or tabloid reporters. He could live freely. But John bet that Turner did not expect him to be here. What would be the odds of that happening, right?

“A famous writer in Hollywood. He just retired all of sudden.” John lied. There was no need to explain the whole situation to his mother. She looked at him with a raised brow as if saying ‘and that’s interesting because?’ “Just wondering if he lives in a three-story house or something.”

His mother smiled. “Close enough. Two. It’s right down the next street. Nothing too fancy, I guess. You said he was famous?” John nodded. “Eh, sure didn’t seem like it.”

Came noon, John went out on a walk. His mission was to take a look at the house. He sure couldn’t drive his car because that would raise even more alarm than a man taking a stroll in the neighbourhood. It took his less than 10 minutes to find the house with ‘Wade Turner’ engraved on a plague by the gate. His mother was right, the house was nothing of the remarkable sort. Except maybe for the gate. No one in this neighbourhood really had a gate.

John didn’t notice this yet because he was too deep in his thoughts and his eyes were scanning the lawn but a man was standing at the front door, looking straight at him. The man was wearing his usual faded cloths, his hands in his pockets, waiting for the visitor to notice him. And when he did, they made eye contact. The visitor was visibly shocked but he didn’t make an effort to walk away. Either he knew it was too late, or he just had poor eyesight.

John knew it was too late to turn around. Turner saw him. At this time, he could only think of any possible excuse he could give to the person he publicly accused of murder in the paper. While his brain was working to build a coherent sentence, Turner was already walking down the steps towards the gate.

Turner open the gate. “Your mother mentioned on the phone that you might swing by for lunch, John Anderson. Come in.”

“My mother? Why would she tell you that?”

“Well, we’re neighbours. And she said you mentioned my name during breakfast.”

His heart sunk to his stomach. He miscalculated. John realized that Wade Turner didn’t choose this town because nobody would recognize him. He moved here precisely because he wanted John to find him. “If you dare lay a finger on my mother, I swear-”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, John! You’re a crime journalist, not a tabloid writer. Use your head.” Turner turned around and headed back to his door, only stopping once he realized John wasn’t following him. He sighed silently to himself before raising his voice loud enough so John could hear him. “Are you joining me for lunch or what?”

Defeated and ever-so intrigued, John followed Turner into his home. The first thing he noted was the decoration. Again, nothing too flashy but everything looked tasteful. The designs were old but they were high-quality. Despite their look, John figured they still costed a fortune.

Turner noticed how John was gawking at the furniture, it was rather hard to ignore. It was even harder to stop himself from chuckling when John eyed the other people in the house. There were five in total; a gardener, a housekeeper, a cook, and two bodyguards, and besides the cook and the maid who were going to and from the kitchen, everyone was sat at the dining table. Turner, of course, sat at the head of the table as the host. John sat to his right and one of the bodyguards sat next to him and another one right in front of him. The gardener took the last seat at the right side of the table, leaving the two remaining seats for the housekeeper and the cook. Once the two sat down they enjoyed a hearty lunch without a single word spoken. The thought of his food being poisoned did cross John’s mind but he didn’t think Turner would be that stupid. His mother knew he was here, that would for sure narrow it down to him if John ended up dead or missing.

The plates and the cutleries seemed expensive too. It was like the house was purposely made to look unattractive from the outside to hide all the treasures it had inside.  John couldn’t help but wonder…

“Are you wondering if I used the money I stole from Michael Thompson to afford all of this? The money I took after killing him?”

John didn’t know how to react. Neither did everyone else at the table. Either that or they were trained to keep a straight face and pretend none of the conversation was happening. Probably the latter.

“Come on, John. I read your article. I sent you a cease-and-desist.” There was humour in his voice. And John found it irritating.

“Is this a confession?” John asked.

Turner wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. “A confession to what?”

John knew he wanted him to say it himself. Fine. “That you killed Michael Thompson.”

Everybody at the table chuckled, like they couldn’t hold it in anymore, and Turner was laughing loudly with a hand on his stomach. As if the joke was too funny. Psychopaths, all of them, John thought.

“I’m sorry, I can’t keep this up.” Turner said between laughs. “Everybody, please leave us.” With that all five of them noiselessly went upstairs where John assumed their respective rooms were. “They’re not usually this quiet. We just don’t have guests that often.”

Left alone with Turner, John was at the edge of his seat. He tried to decide if he should run or punch Turner in the face. With both options, he felt like the bodyguards would come sprinting down and kill him instantly. He stayed put instead. Turner, on the other hand, was calm. He had John where he wanted him and he clearly had the upper hand. The only thing left was to make John listen.

“I didn’t kill Michael Thompson.” Turner started. “I erased him.”

John stayed silent. Turner didn’t continue right away. He was waiting for John to let the words sink in.

“John, did it ever occur to you that Michael Thompson was fictional?” Turner asked.

John responded with another question. “What does that even mean?”

The playful twinkle in Turner’s eyes vanished. His voice carried a different weight now. “That Michael Thompson was never a real person. Just a character I wrote so I can live someone else’s life.”

“Hypothetically speaking-”

“It’s not hypothetical.”

“If what you’re saying is true-”

“It is the truth.”

“Michael Thompson doesn’t exist. So, what? He’s just a character you play?”

Turner shook his head. “I don’t play his role. At least not publicly. He was nothing but a name that I came up with. A pseudonym, if you will.”

That didn’t add up. John couldn’t see the point Turner was trying to make. “Why go through all the trouble? Why not just write under your name and take the fame? It’s not like you hide your face anyway.”

“It’s not as fun, John. I figured since the beginning that I would want to ‘kill off’ Michael Thompson. I can’t ‘kill’ Wade Turner.”

“You could just retire. I don’t get it. For all I know you’re bullshitting me, trying to convince me that you’re not a murderer.”

“I’m just a writer.” Turner got up from his seat and paced around the room. This unnerved John. “Maybe I’m a little eccentric, a bit experimental, but I’m only writer. And Michael Thompson was only a character. I have power over him, and I have power over those who believe in him. He was mine.” The last sentence came out as a whisper. And a threat.

Turner stopped pacing and looked at John who was still glued to his seat.

“But you took him away from me when you wrote your article. People wrote about Michael Thompson, yes, but always as a character. My character in the story I wrote. The Hollywood screenwriter. But you, John Anderson, you wrote a different story. And it doesn’t quite fit my narrative.”

“I’m sorry,” was all John could say.

“You don’t mean that.” He was right.

Turner left the dining room and John took it as his cue to get up and follow him. The front door was wide open and Turner was pointing at it. Before John could walk out, Turner said one last sentence. “I don’t care if you believe me or not. But if you write one more piece about Michael Thompson or me, and the storyline is different from mine, well. Let’s just say I know how to write the ending of your story and make a damn movie out of it. I’m a screenwriter after all.”

Precious Little Jenny

April 29, 2020 in Short Story/Cerpen

“Jenny, where are you?” Sam shouted into the woods. There was no reply from her sister. All Sam could hear was the sound of leaves rustling from the wind. It was almost dusk and she regretted not bringing a torchlight with her. It was getting harder to see clearly and the long shadows of the trees on the ground were starting to play tricks on her mind. Well, a girl could only think ahead so much while she was being yelled at. 

“It’s not funny! Where are you?” She tried again but the only answer she got was from crickets. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Answer me!” Chances were Jenny couldn’t even hear her but Sam would rather think her sister was pranking her than imagining her being too lost or unconscious god knows where. Sam wanted to curse her parents for building a house with the woods for a backyard. But she knew that if she started cursing them for one thing, everything else would get piled up and she would not be able to stop herself until she let out all of her anger. 

Sam stopped for a moment to breathe and take in her surroundings. She had only been walking in one direction and if she turned around she could still see the red roof of their house through the leaves and branches. She didn’t want to stray too far from the path or else she would be lost too. She still needed to get precious little Jenny home to Mama and Papa. 

The trees around Sam stood tall and were looming over her. She felt as if they were trying to consume her and their shadows seemed to add to the effect. Then she saw something move behind one of the trees and hid there. Too big to be a rodent, and too small to be a man.

Sam marched down towards the tree and she did not care to be quiet. Twigs snapped underneath her boots and she made it a point to stomp on them as hard as she could. She was right, Jenny was playing games with her. Once Sam was close enough, Jenny tried to run away but Sam quickly snatched her arm and held it in an iron grip. Jenny was still giggling. Too bad Sam did not find any humour in the situation. 

They walked back home following the same trail Sam did and Jenny was silent for the most part. The only time she spoke was to complain that Sam was hurting her but it only made Sam tighten her grip. Jenny did not want to repeat the same mistake. Her sister was furious, she could tell that much. Although, she didn’t quite understand why. All she wanted was to play hide-and-seek with her.

Once they got home Jenny was still oblivious when their parents were yelling at both of them. At Jenny because they were worried. At Sam for being a stupid daughter who couldn’t do a single job right. Jenny wasn’t exactly to be blamed, though. She was only 5 years old. And by the time the shouting got too loud, Mama came to her side and hugged her. Mama wrapped her arms around her protectively, effectively covering her ears until she could not decipher the sound of whipping and the muffled screams coming from her older sister. No, Jenny did not hear nor see any of that. Her precious eyes and ears could not witness any of that.

Sam was used to it by now but that didn’t mean she hated it any less. She knew what was coming for her the second Mama asked the maid if she knew where Jenny was. It was nearing dinner time and Papa just got home, which Sam understood it meant the belt would come in handy. She hated the belt but she hated Papa more for using it on her.

Mama never hit her but that was only because she would be too busy protecting Jenny, making sure she didn’t see what Papa was doing to Sam. And it would almost always be because of something Jenny did. But that didn’t matter, Sam would have to take the blame anyways. 

“You should’ve been watching your sister,” Papa said after he was done. He always said that. “Now look at her, she has scratches all over her body. This is all your fault.” It was ironic, really. Papa could see the nonexisting scratches on Jenny but was completely blind to the bruises he had inflicted on Sam. 

That night Sam didn’t join her family for dinner. The maid, Lisa, brought her food upstairs instead. “Why don’t you go downstairs?” Lisa asked for the sake of conversation.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because my family hates me?” Sam didn’t mean to be harsh or sarcastic towards her but she couldn’t pretend to be polite at the moment.

Lisa sat next to her on the bed and brushed her hair. “They don’t hate you. It’s just tough love.” Lisa didn’t believe a word she just said either, much less Sam. 

“They don’t seem to be tough on Jenny. Not one bit.”

“Well it’s just different, because you’re the older sister.”

“I’m only 13, Lisa.”

“Yes, but they know that you’re strong enough and right now, your little sister needs more of their attention and love.” 

Sam knew Lisa only meant to comfort her but everything just came out wrong to her. “Just because I don’t need it, doesn’t mean I don’t want it. And just because I’m ‘strong’, it doesn’t mean the belt didn’t hurt. You and I both know that’s bullshit.” 

Lisa didn’t have any more wisdom left to offer so she left the girl alone with her dinner. 

The next day Lisa did not come to work because her son was sick. Sam already knew what that meant when Lisa phoned in to inform her employers. She would have to do most if not all of the chores because Mama would be too busy in her home office and Papa would not come home until later in the evening. Not that he ever did any housework anyways.

It was a Sunday morning so a part of Sam was relieved for this to not have happened during a weekday. That would mean she would have to skip school because Jenny could not be left alone without a playmate. Sam was starting to get sick of her. She could still remember the rare days when she was little and Lisa or a babysitter could not come to work. She had to sit quietly in Mama’s office doing god knows what on her laptop. She couldn’t make a sound, could barely move around and she was often threatened with a hiding if she misbehaved. Whatever the hell that meant. 

Since Jenny was born, Sam was always in charge of her and if Jenny ever even opened the door to Mama’s office, Sam was the one who would be punished for not keeping an eye on her sister. And that day was no different than the others.

Sam was in the kitchen preparing dinner for four and she had told Jenny to stay in her room. A five year old could not be trusted around knives. For a brief moment, Sam felt a sense of tranquility. She was only focusing on the sound of her knife on the chopping board and the sizzling of the onions sauteing in the pan. She caught a whiff of the smell and it brought a smile on her face. 

The kitchen had been her private safe place ever since Jenny was born. Sometimes while Mama played with Jenny, Sam would sit here and watched Lisa cook instead. Lisa had taught her some recipes over the years and in the days Lisa couldn’t come to work, she would cook for the family instead. There were days when she cooked just for the fun of it, but more often than not it was to avoid Jenny. It was an unconventional happy little thought that she had and kept to herself. 

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Sam had just turned off the stove when Mama called for her from her office. Sighing to herself, she took off the apron and reluctantly walked down the hallway. She opened the door on her left and felt, with such great force, her little moment of joy vaporizing into thin air.

Jenny was sitting on the floor of the office and she seemed to amuse herself with a box of papers she had found. They were scattered on the floor, yes, but even saying that was an exaggeration. They were barely spilling out of the box and Sam couldn’t understand why Mama was yelling at her. Well, she knew that Mama yelled at her because she could never do the same to Jenny but the papers were barely creased. Maybe Papa and Mama had the same problem where their minds exemplify the situation. Again, ironic how Mama did not see the blacks and blues on Sam’s skin, but saw the almost invisible creases on the papers. 

“You are a waste of space in this house. You can’t do one single thing right,” Mama spat out the words in disgust. But Sam missed the look on her face or her burning eyes because she was looking at Jenny on the floor. Her little sister was staring at her with mouth agape, not understanding what was unfolding in front of her two eyes. Ignorant little Jenny. Precious little Jenny.

A slap landed on her cheek and Sam didn’t know where to look then. Mama never touched her. It was always Papa with his hands or feet or belt but not Mama. It felt like a trust was broken, or whatever was left of it. Sam had never felt emptier than she did that time.

“Mama?” A small voice from behind the mother called. Snapping out of it, Mama turned and hugged her daughter, whispering apologies for the thing she had to witness.

Something hurt in Sam’s chest and she thought she was having a heart attack. Those apologies belonged to her so why did someone else get to hear them? Jenny was never at the receiving end of the pain so why was she the one who got the hugs and kisses? Something told Sam this was unfair and it had nothing to do with being the older sister. Mama and Papa simply never loved her. Lisa had lied to her about it.

In the embrace of her mother, Jenny was reaching out her hand towards Sam as if wanting to include her in the intimacy. Sam appreciated the gesture but she already knew at the moment that she was not invited. Nonetheless she smiled and asked her if she wanted to play hide-and-seek.

“What did you just say?” Mama asked.

Still with that sad smile on her face, Sam repeated the offer. “I asked Jenny if she wanted to play hide-and-seek. You don’t want her snooping around the office, right? I’ve finished cooking, so I can play with her now.”

Jenny didn’t wait for Sam to finish her sentences before running out of the room, yelling, “Come and find me!”

With one last look, Mama stood up and returned to her desk, ignoring Sam’s presence altogether. Jenny already left the room so she figured there was nothing else worth giving her attention to. She almost missed Sam’s “I’m sorry” that she whispered before walking out the room to find Jenny. It wouldn’t matter if she heard it. She wouldn’t accept it either way and if by some miracle she did, she wouldn’t have guessed what the apology was really for.

They played for a while, taking turns hiding in random nooks and crannies in the house. It was fun for the both of them, even Sam could admit that. But every time she paused to catch a breath or think about where Jenny could possibly be hiding, she felt that sting on her cheek again. Absent-mindedly she would bring up a hand and touch where Mama’s palm had landed. It felt warm, but it was only Sam’s imagination. She tried to forget about it and focus on their game instead but every time she found Jenny, giggling without a care, something dark stirred inside of her. 

During one of their rounds of hide-and-seek, Sam took slightly longer than usual to find Jenny because she went to the bathroom in the middle of playing. When she found her in one of the cupboards in the kitchen, Jenny was laughing at her. “Boo! You took too long to find me. Mama could’ve been mad at you again,” she sang. Oh, bless this poor child.

“Why don’t you go hide again and see how fast I can find you this time?” Jenny ran past her out of the kitchen and Sam could hear her footsteps going upstairs. She counted to ten, dragging each syllable out while she formed thoughts and plans in her head. She only moved after her eyes caught a glint from the knife she used to make dinner in the sink. 

Everything went downhill from there.

Papa came home minutes after the exchange in the kitchen happened and the first thing he saw was Sam and Mama crying outside of their home. His first instinct after getting out of the car was to touch his belt and Sam caught him doing that from the corners of her eyes. Both of them were crying, Mama more frantically than Sam, but Papa sensed great fear coming out of her daughter’s voice. 

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Sam pleaded, repeating the two words like some old broken record.

Mama ran into Papa’s arms and sobbed into his dress shirt. “What the hell happened here?” Papa asked them.

Sam fell to the floor then, her legs were unable to support her weight through her trembles and her whole body shook with panic. “I can’t find her. We were playing hide-and-seek in the woods and I lost her. I’m sorry.” She covered her ears with her hands, pushing them against her head as if she herself didn’t want to hear the words coming out of her mouth.

Papa’s face was as white as a sheet and Mama only sobbed harder. He wanted to punch Sam for being stupid. It was only yesterday that Jenny got lost in the woods and today they decided to play hide-and-seek in the fucking woods? He wanted to kick her, no, whip her with the belt because this was unacceptable. And she dared cried on the floor while her sister was probably trembling in fear somewhere under a giant scary tree. But even Papa knew his priorities and that was to save Jenny. He let go of Mama and ran into the woods. Startled, and not wanting to stay with her disappointment of a child who was still curled up like a ball on the floor, Mama went after him. 

As soon as their silhouettes disappeared and blended in with the long shadows of the trees, Sam got up, wiped the tears off her face and dusted herself. She went into the house for a second and walked back out in the same steady footsteps and marched into the woods. She might not know the ins and outs of the forest, but she knew them more than Mama and Papa, and that was enough. She had just visited it yesterday when she went looking for Jenny and she had found her, but she knew their parents would not find Jenny there. 

It was a little past dinner time when Sam came back and took a light shower to clean herself. Still wet from it, she entered Jenny’s room and unlocked the door.of her closet. Her sister was sitting on its floor. She seemed to have exhausted herself from crying that she was left a whimpering mess. Sam felt a bit sorry for her but she reassured herself saying it was necessary. 

“I’m here now, come on. Let’s have dinner.”

It was just the two of them that night, Sam with her fresh new clothes and smelling like strawberry shampoo and lavender softener, and Jenny with her disheveled hair and tear stains still marking her face, sitting facing each other. They were both quiet, save for Jenny’s occasional hiccups and Sam was merely waiting for Jenny to ask her the question.

It came at the end of dinner when both plates were already empty. “Where’s Mama and Papa?” Jenny asked, her voice still hoarse from crying. 

“They’re not coming home.”

“Why not?”

Sam got up and collected their plates. “Why should they? We don’t need them.”

“But I want Mama and Papa.”

She opened the tap and started doing the dishes, deliberately choosing not to look Jenny in the eyes. “Too bad then. Now go to bed.” Jenny wanted to protest but even her small mind could recognize the tone in Sam’s voice. It was the kind that gave no room for any argument.

Later that night Sam was woken up to the sound of knocking on her bedroom door. She checked the clock on her bedside table. It was 11:00 p.m. Jenny was standing in front of her door holding her favourite plush toy, a green dinosaur. She couldn’t sleep because she didn’t get her bedtime story. Normally Mama would do it for her but because she wasn’t home, Sam had to do it in her place. Sam felt a pang in her chest because she tried to remember the last time Mama told her a bedtime story but she couldn’t recall anything. 

Sam agreed to it and was halfway through a story when Jenny started crying. “I want Mama to read it for me.”

Sam repeated the same words from dinner. “Mama and Papa are not coming home. So, I’ll tell you bedtime stories starting tonight.”

Not even one page later Jenny was complaining again. “You’re doing it wrong! You suck!”

“Well maybe I would know how to do it if Mama ever read me some stupid bedtime stories.” Sam snapped and that seemed to silent Jenny. “You don’t need Mama to do it for you. I never needed Mama to do it for me.”

Poor little Jenny started to feel scared and confused because Sam never yelled at her like that. “I want Mama. I want Papa,” she whispered under her breath but Sam had caught it. And she was having none of it. She stood up abruptly and dragged Jenny out of bed while she continued to wail. If no one ever heard her cries when she was getting beaten up, no one would hear Jenny’s cries either. Their nearest neighbours were the forest and all the creatures that came with it, and it was time for another visit.

With a torchlight in one hand and Jenny’s arm in another, Sam led the way into the woods again. “You want to see Mama and Papa, right? Fine, I’ll bring you to them.”

Jenny couldn’t decide what was the scariest thing that night. The trees and their shadows over them, the sound of owls and insects, bright eyes watching them in the dark, or Sam. It could have been the shadows’ fault but underneath the streaks of moonlight, to Jenny, her sister looked sinister. She tried to stop her by pushing her soles into the ground with all the force she could muster but Sam only tightened her grip, surely causing a bruise, and looked at her in the eyes. With a wicked smile she asked, “what’s the matter?” as if everything about the ordeal was nothing less than natural.

They didn’t get to where Sam wanted them to. Because Jenny stepped on what felt like a shoe and she was sure it wasn’t there yesterday. The woods had changed, it had turned evil overnight. And she didn’t want to keep going. “I don’t want to see Mama and Papa anymore,” she said. 

That was enough to satisfy Sam and they walked back home silently. Tomorrow Lisa would come to work and call the police and once they got deep enough into the woods, they could clean up the mess for her. But for tonight, Sam would tuck her precious little Jenny into bed with a warm little kiss on her forehead.

“See? You don’t need Papa and Mama.”

-Nik.

Pet

April 18, 2020 in Short Story/Cerpen

My name is Flynn and I am 19 years old. That night, I was taking the bus home from university. Usually I would wait for the weekend or at the very least during the day to make the trip but not this time. My dog just died a couple of hours ago and I needed to see him before he got buried.

“We don’t know what happened to him. He was fine, he was eating well and very active. Just yesterday your sister took him out for a walk. But today he was suddenly sluggish and the next thing we know he’s stopped breathing. The vet couldn’t tell what was wrong with him either,” my dad told me on the phone before I made the rash decision to come home immediately. In the background I could hear Elissa, my little sister crying in the background. She’s 11 years old, about the same age as Yuki. They basically grew up together.

The bus trip should take about 4 hours and I, exhausted from classes and general sadness over Yuki’s death, fell asleep within the first hour. It was a dreamless nap, though I might have twitched a few times. Thankfully the seat next to me was empty except for my bag that I had briefly packed before taking an Uber to the bus station. So I was spared the embarrassment of having bothered someone everytime I jolted myself awake from twitching. The seat wasn’t necessarily comfortable and I was anxious to arrive home. I guess that was the reason for my interrupted sleep. Once I had calmed myself enough and used my sweater as a makeshift pillow, I finally managed to close my eyes for what felt like 20 minutes.

Then I woke up with a start. This time it was different and I instinctively checked my phone. 11.56 p.m. Turned out I slept through almost the whole ride. Looking out the window, I saw that the bus had stopped. I tried to find any signage or landmark that could give me a clue of our whereabouts but there wasn’t any building around us. A crooked lamp post was the only thing telling me that we were most likely parked on the side of a road. I assumed the bus driver was taking a break. But I didn’t hear any cars driving past us. Bored of staring at the lamp post, I looked to the other passengers and they were all seemed to be asleep. And that was when I realized that it had been eerily quiet. In fact, even the engine was turned off.

The silence hang in the air and I started feeling suffocated by it. It crossed my mind to walk up to the driver to ask how long we were stopping for, or to wake up the person behind me and ask how long we had stopped for but something told me to sit very, very still in my seat. Suddenly, I heard it. The sound of heavy breathing. And I knew it wasn’t coming from me. I had been holding my breath the whole time, trying to make as little sound as possible.

Look up.

I couldn’t tell if it was my own voice or someone else had said it. But I didn’t do it. I was still waiting. The heavy breathing was louder then, almost aggressive. It was becoming more and more like a low growl and I imagined that I could feel its vibration through my seat and in the walls of this metal box. Something dripped onto my hand and my heart dropped to my stomach when I saw the black liquid slowly leaving a trail on my skin. It was thick and warm and it felt somewhat alive.

Look up.

I did, and what I saw could’ve given me a heart attack. It was a massive beast hanging by his long, sharp claws from the roof of the bus. Its hair was unruly and dark from what I could tell. The worst was his neck. He had turned his head 180 degrees to look at me straight in the face with its pitch-black eyes. His mouth was in a shape of what I could only guess as a snarl, fangs all out and that black liquid was dripping out of it.

I couldn’t decide if the crooked lamp post on the side of the road was a blessing or a curse. It was just enough for me to make up the silhouette of the creature and the way the light fell on him added to his mystic look. Not that he needed any. I didn’t know if I would rather see it just enough, or not see it at all. But the creature was looking at me, alright. Staring into my eyes. Funny how those eyes looked familiar.

He did nothing. He did not move nor ‘speak’ and his breathing seemed to have calmed down the moment I acknowledged his being there. I took a split second to look around me and see if anybody else had woken up but that was not the case. I didn’t think any sane person could ignore the 7 feet tall beast hanging by the roof of the bus if they were awake.

I looked up again, finding a weird sense of comfort in those black eyes. Gradually it became easy to ignore the fangs and the occasional drip onto my lap, and I found myself staring back at the only thing that felt alive in that moment. A wave of sadness washed over me as it occurred to me that he felt as alone as I was and he meant no harm.

“You remind me of Yuki,” I said. The beast whimpered and I might have imagined seeing a change in the light in his eyes.

I woke up again. This time there was no beast on the roof. The bus was still moving and though some people were asleep, I could hear some chatters going on. The time on my phone said it was 11.58 p.m. It was only a dream. But I looked at my hand and even though the black liquid was not there, I swore I could feel its warmth and the way it flowed down my wrist. I could still feel his stare and see that subtle glimmer in his eyes.

About half an hour after that, I reached my stop where my dad was already waiting to pick me up. The car ride was filled with silence and I could tell he was also upset about Yuki. He might not act like it sometimes but he loved the dog too.

The walk from the driveway to the front door was a short one but in those handful steps I heard four paws trailing behind me. I didn’t turn around then. He would’ve asked if he wanted me to. Maybe he didn’t like the body he was in now and I wished he knew I didn’t care. Either way I was glad that he came and allowed to me to see him one last time, with no life left in him except for those eyes.

Today marks a year of Yuki’s death and I thought I would write this story to tell you about him. My parents don’t know about him. I tried telling my sister but I don’t think she’s convinced. But nonetheless, I still take Yuki out for walks everytime I come home. Well, that is if we can call it that. I don’t see him anymore, not since that one time in the bus, but I can always hear his paws trailing behind me and sometimes the sound of his breathing. I wonder if he is actually breathing or if he is just making that sound because he knows it’s familiar to me.

I hope one of these days I would turn around during our walk and see him there with his black glowing eyes looking back at me. He can come in any form or body, but I would always know that those eyes belong to Yuki.

Tunggu

March 17, 2020 in Short Story/Cerpen

Hari ini giliran aku untuk bertugas sebagai bilal di masjid. Usai solat Subuh pagi tadi, aku hanya mampu untuk bersihkan ruang solat ala kadar sahaja. Maklumlah, yang ada cuma aku dan Imam bertugas di masjid. Jemaah juga dah mula berkurang sejak minggu lalu. Selepas jumlah kes positif naik mendadak awal Mac, aku dah agak bilangan jemaah akan terus berkurang. Semua orang sedang ketakutan, hampir panik, dan aku tak salahkan mereka. Satu dunia sedang cemas. Tapi Imam dah pesan awal-awal. Apapun yang jadi, jangan tinggalkan seruan azan. 

“Kalau bukan sebab usaha AJK masjid, azan Subuh, azan Zohor sampai Isya’, mungkin ada di kalangan kita yang terus lupa Tuhan masih wujud. Kita masih mampu sujud, doa. Mungkin tak dapat solat dekat masjid, tapi masih boleh jemaah dengan keluarga,” katanya kepadaku sebelum aku pulang ke rumah. Imam sudah tua orangnya, hampir mencecah 70 dan tubuhnya bongkok sambil berpesan. Aku masih ingat riak wajahnya yang memang jelas risau akan keadaan manusia. 

Sekitar jam 12 aku naik motor kapcaiku menuju ke masjid. Aku lebih selesa bila duduk di sana paling kurang satu jam sebelum azan. Dapat aku susun naskhah-naskhah Quran yang berhabuk di almari, dapat aku lipatkan telekung yang dibiarkan bersepah di sudut paling bawah. Kain yang asalnya putih kelihatan kusam, malah ada bintik-bintik hitam di bahagian muka. Ha, mungkin aku dah terlalu lama lupa untuk bersihkan kain telekung di masjid. Salah aku juga rupanya masjid ini terlalu sedikit jemaah wanita, bahkan sebelum virus ini mula menular lagi memang begitu keadaannya. 

Ada ketika, sehingga dua atau tiga minggu yang lepas, aku akan bertembung dengan jemaah lain di masjid waktu matahari tengah terpacak di atas kepala. Tapi sejak semalam dan melihatkan keadaan waktu Subuh tadi, aku tak sangka akan ada orang di masjid waktu ini. Masuk sahaja ke dalam masjid, aku ternampak satu jasad sedang duduk bersila di saf ketiga, membelek helaian Quran. Subhanallah, aku terbisik sendiri. 

“Assalamualaikum, Pak Mat,” aku tegur dengan suaraku direndahkan semampunya agar dia tak terkejut dengan sapaanku. 

“Waalaikumussalam.” Dia tutup Qurannya dengan perlahan dan memandang sahaja aku yang selamba duduk di hadapannya. Dia hulurkan tangan kanan untuk bersalam dan aku, secara refleks, menghulurkan tanganku sebelum cepat-cepat kutarik balik. 

“KKM pesan tak payah salam sekarang pak cik. Kot-kot la berjangkit.” Aku bergurau dan disambut dengan gelak kecil dari dia. 

“Pak Mat lupa, nasib baik kau ingatkan.”

Terdetik dalam hati aku betapa aku dulu pandang remeh hal bersalam-salaman. “Tangan orang lain basahlah, mak. Peluh. Alang geli la!” Sering aku merengek semasa di zaman sekolah dulu. Setelah aku dilantik jadi bilal masjid empat tahun lepas, barulah aku mulai selesa berjabat tangan dengan Muslimin yang ada di masjid. Benda yang dulu aku geli bertukar menjadi sesuatu yang aku hargai dari saudara seagamaku. Tapi sekarang ia berubah lagi menjadi sesuatu yang perlu dielakkan. Tak apalah, sekadar lafaz salam sudah cukup buat sekarang. 

Aku minta izin untuk bangun dan tinggalkan Pak Mat untuk teruskan bacaannya. Kalau tak silap aku, rumah Pak Mat yang sebelah kedai nasi kerabu di simpang masuk taman perumahan. Anaknya tiga atau empat orang. Yang paling bongsu sekitar usia adikku, sedang belajar di universiti di Kuala Lumpur. Isterinya sudah meninggal beberapa tahun lepas dan jenazahnya diuruskan oleh pihak kami.

30 minit sebelum azan berkumandang, Imam tiba di masjid dan menyapa aku serta Pak mat yang masih tekun mengaji. Suaranya cukup perlahan tapi dari sudut pandanganku aku dapat lihat mulutnya bergerak-gerak membaca kalam Tuhan. Kadang dia terhenti dan teragak-agak untuk menyambung bacaannya, namun jedanya tak pernah lama. Tetap disambung juga.

Apabila masuk waktu solat aku laungkan azan Zohor dengan hanya Imam dan Pak Mat sebagai saksi. Ya, aku tahu pembesar suara di empat sudut masjid akan melontarkan suaraku ke setiap rumah di taman perumahan ini, bahkan lebih lagi. Tapi jujur, aku sayu. Kaki yang terpacak di tikar sejadah ini dapat rasakan getar dan gegar apabila suaraku melantun dan bergema pada dinding-dinding masjid. Kosong. Masjid terasa terlalu kosong. 

Selesai sahaja azan, Imam bangkit berdiri di sebelahku dan dengan penuh hikmah dalam suara tuanya itu, dia berpesan. “Istighfar banyak-banyak.” Cukup ringkas nasihatnya.

Pak Mat tekun meneruskan bacaan Al-Quran setelah selesai menunaikan solat Zohor secara berjemaah. Aku terlintas dalam hati untuk tunggu dan menemaninya, paling kurang buat sementara waktu. Jadi aku capai senaskhah Quran dari almari dan duduk beberapa saf di belakang Pak Mat supaya aku tidak mengganggu konsentrasinya untuk mengaji. 

Keadaan tidak kekal sunyi terlalu lama sebelum aku mulai terdengar suara tangisan. Datangnya dari Pak Mat dan aku sedikit sedikit teragak-agak untuk bertanya. Namun apabila tangisannya semakin lantang seakan sedang kesakitan aku bingkas bangkit dan mengambil tempat di hadapan dia seperti tadi. 

“Kenapa, Pak Mat?”

Sukar untuk dia menuturkan ayat dalam sebak tapi dipaksakan juga, seakan mesejnya terlalu penting. “Aku tak reti mengaji… Dah lama sangat aku tak buka Quran. Kau boleh tolong aku? Tolong Pak Mat ni?”

Allah. Allah. Allah. Aku berzikir sendiri. Gigih sungguh usaha Pak Mat untuk mengaji sehingga menangis sendiri. Tapi dalam masa yang sama aku sedih. Kenapa tak ditanyakan saja aku dari awal untuk bantunya eja dan baca? Kenapa mesti susah sendiri? Kenapa malu sedangkan niat dan usahanya cukup mulia?

“Anak Pak Mat tersekat kat Kuala Lumpur. Tak tahu dapat balik ke tak. Pak Mat risau, sebab tu Pak Mat nak doa kat masjid, minta Allah pulangkan dia,” luahnya kepadaku dan kutadahkan saja telinga untuk mendengar. “Tapi nak ke Allah dengar doa aku kalau aku mengaji pun tak reti?”

Pesan Imam tadi terngiang-ngiang dalam kepalaku dan aku waktu itu hanya mampu mengulanginya sekali lagi kepada Pak Mat. “Istighfar banyak-banyak, Pak Mat. Inshaa Allah, Allah tolong kita, tolong anak Pak Mat. Kalau Dia tak bagi anak Pak Mat balik sekalipun, Pak Mat doalah Allah jaga dia, jauhkan dari penyakit. Pak Mat kena yakin.”

 

Pak Mat diam seketika dan termenung tapi semangatnya yang tadi tak pernah terpadam. Dibukanya sekali lagi helaian Quran pada muka surat kedua, dan diulanginya lagi lima ayat pertama Surah Al-Baqarah. Aku cuba untuk bantu sekadar mampu, perbetulkan bacaannya menurut apa yang aku tahu. Apabila hampir tiba waktu solat Asar, kami berhenti pada muka surat empat. Alhamdulillah. 

Aku janji aku akan terus ajar Pak Mat mengaji. Apabila diceritakan kepada Imam, dia cadang aku kumpulkan kawan-kawan untuk ajar orang masjid mengaji. Mungkin selepas kes pandemik ini semakin berkurangan dan keadaan diumumkan selamat, aku akan turut cadangan Imam. Tapi buat masa sekarang, aku mampu menunggu.

White Room

March 9, 2020 in Short Story/Cerpen

May wakes up in a white room. 

She blinks the sleepiness away and sits up. Taking in her surroundings, everything she can see is white. From the walls, empty of any decoration nor furnitures, to her bed sheets and blanket and even the clothes she has on her. She cannot remember how she got here, much less does she know what the place is. 

“Hello?” In that tiny voice of a 7 year old, May calls out. There is a door at the centre of the wall opposite from her bed and she has half the mind to walk towards it. But, before she can even set her feet onto the cold tiles, the door opens and in walks a man in a white coat. Another white thing to add to her list. 

The man immediately closes the door behind him so May cannot even dream to peer out so she focuses on him instead. He looks like he is of the same age as May’s parents, in his early 30’s and he smiles at her reassuringly. “Hello, May. Did you sleep well?” The facts that he seems like he could be friends with her parents and that he knows her name put May’s mind a little at ease and she answers his question with a quick nod. “My name is Michael and I’ll take care of you while you’re here,” he says. 

The little girl lights up at the mention of his name. “‘Michael’ like the angel?” She asks with the brightest smile on her face and Michael can only say ‘yes’. “Does this mean I’m in heaven?”

Startled, Michael gulps and then, summoning that same optimism as the child in front of him, he tries to copy her smile. Though, it isn’t without a little twitch at the corner of his mouth when he again says ‘yes’. A conscious adult such as him does not have the heart to say anything else but that. 

“Can I see my parents?” She asks the damned question and Michael is forced to break his pattern of yeses and finally gives her the dreaded ‘no’. 

Michael takes a seat beside her on the bed. “I’m afraid your parents are not allowed to enter… heaven.” He hesitates before continuing. “At least not yet.” The smile on May’s face suddenly falters as if the thought of paradise no longer amuses her because she finds it lonely to be without her parents. Seeing this, Michael rambles on in hopes of helping May recover her spirit. “But, if you keep on being the good girl that you are, I promise that I’ll let them visit sooner. You’ll see them in no time.”

The light reappears in May’s eyes and she reaches for Michael’s hands. “You promise? Angels can’t break their promises.”

“I promise.” 

After their short conversation, Michael excuses himself and promises that he will come back with her breakfast. When asked why she still needs to eat or sleep or goes to the bathroom in heaven, Michael can only offer “because heaven works that way” as an answer. He knows she has so many more questions and it almost deters him from coming back to give May her breakfast for he cannot bear having to lie again to an innocent and naive girl but he has already lied enough and it is impossible to backtrack now without possibly hurting her feelings.

Michael does come back with breakfast of toasts and jam but he does not stay. As early as her first meal in heaven, May already feels lonely and bored. There is not a single thing in the room that she can play with. For one, there is nothing else present except for her bed, a plastic table where she is having her toasts and a small bathroom in the corner without locks on its door. There isn’t even a window where she can look out of. From the ceiling, there hangs a light bulb but staring at it gets boring after a few minutes. May wishes she has some colour pencils and papers to draw on and she makes a mental note to ask for them the next time Michael comes in. 

Lunchtime comes but Michael has a serious look on his face when he walks in and May feels it is inappropriate cause more stress for him so she doesn’t ask for them right away. Instead, she dutifully answers all of Michael’s questions.

“May,” he starts. “You understand that to come here, something must’ve happened to you, right? Something bad. Do you remember what it is?”

May tries her best to answer but a girl can only remember so much while munching down a chicken sandwich. “I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember what happened before you- before you fell asleep?”

“No.” She swallows down the sandwich. 

“What’s the last thing you can remember?”

“Can’t you ask god? He knows.” 

The innocence in her answer could’ve charmed Michael in any other circumstances but not this one. He struggles to keep a smile on his face. “May, I need you to try and tell me the last thing you remember. It’s important to- to know where we shall place you after this.”

Putting her meal down, May frowns at her guardian angel. “But this is heaven. Are you saying I’m going to hell if I don’t answer correctly?” Her lips quiver from the fear of hell, a place so terrible and made for keeping bad people, as her parents have taught her. “I don’t want to go to hell.”

“You won’t,” Michael is too quick with his words but not his thoughts that it takes him some moments to find his next sentence. “But I need the answer so I’ll know if we can put you in a different heaven.” Michael himself is getting confused with his own made up heaven analogy but if that is what it takes to get an answer out of her, he’ll be damned if he doesn’t know how to properly lie to a child.

Scratching the back of her head that Michael knows does not itch, May looks down as if thinking, trying to remember what is lost from her memory. Or at the very least, the fraction of memory that is closely related to the one she lost. “I remember mommy and daddy,” she starts and Michael sits up straighter, leans his body towards her and is all ears. “They were telling me something. A good news. I don’t remember what they were saying but daddy put his hand on mommy’s belly but the belly looked swollen. I don’t know why they were smiling when mommy’s belly was swollen like that. I was scared but they were smiling and laughing.”

“You were scared?” Michael inquires. 

“I was scared.”

“Were you angry, too?”

“Why would I be angry?” May turns her head and looks at Michael. In her eyes, Michael can see confusion, fear and, he believes, the anger that he speaks of.

“May, do you know what ‘pregnant’ means?”

“With a baby,” she answers, nonchalant. She fails to see where Michael is going with this.

Michael nods. “Correct. Your mommy is pregnant with your little brother or sister. That’s why her belly looks swollen.” May looks down at her swinging feet. She has a habit of swinging her feet when she feels nervous. Michael’s tone tells her he thinks she is stupid. “Do you like that mommy is pregnant?”

“I didn’t know she’s pregnant.”

You just don’t remember that you do know that, Michael wants to say but instead, he asks, “Well, now that you do, do you like it? Or are you angry?”

Michael is trying to make sense of what had happened that could cause a 7 year old girl to be sent to this god awful place she believes to be heaven and he thinks he’s being clever with his approach. But May’s response catches him off guard nonetheless. “Why does it matter? I’m dead. I’m in heaven.”

Feeling defeated, Michael lets May eat the rest of her meal in peace and asks no more follow-up questions. She is still a child. Maybe his questions are a little too intense if not condescending. May takes the silence as her turn to ask questions. 

“Can I get colour pencils and papers? I get bored.”

“No,” Michael says. Short and precise.

“How about crayons?”

“No.”

“Can I go outside?”

“No.”

“Do I get to see my parents?”

“No.”

“Are you an angel, Michael?”

“No.”

“Am I in heaven?”

“…No.”

“Oh.” 

That’s it. Michael can’t even keep up his lie for a day. Maybe he is an angel that god created to always tell the truth. 

“Can you leave me alone?”

Finally a ‘yes’ comes out of his mouth and Michael walks out of the room. As soon as the door closes behind him, he hears a scream from inside and in that moment he knows that when he asks May about it tomorrow, she will not remember why her throat hurts.

The Woman in Black

January 30, 2020 in Short Story/Cerpen

I’m being watched. Ever since I got home from… I can’t escape the constant surveillance, or something more sinister than that. Stalked. Yes, maybe that is a more correct term to use. Every movement made, every word uttered, every expression produced are under intense scrutiny of that woman in black. But my mother and my brother told me that there is no such thing as that woman in black. For their sake, for now, I agree to act like it is only my imagination. 

So let me rephrase what I just said in case they find this little secret, this little corner of my brain. 

I feel like I’m being watched. Remember, this is only between you and I. 

I don’t want to go back to that place. I believe their intentions are good, that they want to protect me from myself but that in itself is wrong. It is not I that is harmful to myself but she, the woman in black. But they refuse to believe me, oh, how stubborn they are! Can you see how I am so troubled by this? My family does not want to listen to me yet they say they know what is best for me. 

But you, my loyal friends. If you are reading this from the yellow pages of my book, which I believe you would find later once I am long gone, when that woman in black has already taken me into her arms, it is because I trust you to listen. You would see that I am not lying to anybody, not even and especially not the doctors. 

Let me start with the beginning, when the woman first visited me in my dreams. It was a rainy night in December 2018 and I was woken up to the sound of a shrill; high-pitched, ear-piercing scream, and it was the voice of a woman. I was lying on my side at the time, looking blindly in the dark. I didn’t want to turn around. I didn’t want to look at who or what it was. And it was still screaming! But my head turned against my will as if someone just grabbed me by my neck and snapped it, forcing me to look at her. 

There she was, standing at the foot of my bed, a pitch black robe clung to her body, as black as those eyes staring into my soul, screaming bloody murder. Nevertheless, I started yelling at the top of my lungs and the louder I got, the louder she seemed to be, almost like she was mocking me. My mother ran into my room and switched the lights on, chasing the figure away and she pulled me into her arms. I was crying by then, completely startled by what I just saw.

“What the hell happened?” She asked me. What she didn’t know at the moment was that she would regret asking that question. Because right after I told her about the woman in black, I felt her arms undoing themselves around me and a mother’s hug losing their warmth. It was in that second she started to lose her daughter.

This happened several more times; I woke up to the woman screaming at the foot of my bed or sometimes she would even be hovering above me, inches away from my face. Oh the smell of her rotting skin! Every single time, I would tell the same story to my mother or my brother, but not once did they believe me. It got to a point where they installed a security camera in my room. Not so I could prove to them that there was something watching me in the dark, but to prove to me that I was going out of my mind. And in that case, they won. 

When we watched the footage the next morning, all it showed was me waking up with a start and suddenly screaming. But I know the woman was there. She was right there in the room and she is right here in the room with me as I am writing this down. After her victory of convincing my family I was no more than a lunatic, she became more daring, tormenting not only in my sleep but also in my wake. She started following me around, standing in the corner of rooms or in the backseat of the car or under the sofa. The woman in black became my reflection and my shadow. 

In October 2019 I was submitted to a psychiatric hospital after…

And now here we are. A lot has changed in the month I was away and more changes happen in the months that follow. I don’t think my family understands what really happened to me and I am not sure I do either. But I can see that they are being careful with me. For every meal, my mother would call me to eat in the kitchen with her and my brother when she normally wouldn’t have batted an eyelash if I skipped dinner or eat the food in my room. She put a note on the fridge that says ‘take your meds’ and will still remind me daily to take them. My brother tries and makes conversations with me, even on things we normally don’t talk about. Everything is nice and all and I know they’re trying to tell me that I am the same person as I was before but they are lying.

I see it in the way my mother stands at the door instead of coming in when she wakes me up in the morning. No more gentle nudge on the shoulder but a cold ‘wake up’ just a few feet away from my bed, a few feet away from where the woman in black stands. I see it in the way small talks are made in passing, on the way to or from his bedroom my brother and I will converse before he disappears again. But during dinner he will stay silent as if talking while sitting next to me is too much for him. I see it in the way we only have two knives left in the kitchen, both are barely 4 inches long that I don’t feel comfortable using them for cooking. But I am no longer allowed to cook. They are being careful because they are afraid of me. 

But they have no reason to be scared of me. The enemy isn’t me, but that woman in black. You see how cruel she is, turning my family against me. Maybe that is her game, to get me alone, so utterly alone that not one soul in this world would listen to my cry as she takes me away. Why, yes. I know she wants to take me away because why else would she torment me like this? She wants me to accompany her because she, too, is alone in that realm. One lonely soul for another. 

That is, my friends, the truth of my loss to madness. But I am not mad, of course. It is only loneliness that seems to mark me as a lunatic because my family doesn’t trust me anymore. Once you find this piece of writing I hope you will believe that I am not insane, that the woman in black is real, and maybe then I will no longer be alone.

Roses

January 25, 2020 in Short Story/Cerpen

Mrs. Stevenson was outside of her house and her old self was struggling to carry sacks of soil into her back garden. George, playing the good neighbour, stopped in the middle of his evening jog to give her a hand. 

“These just came?” George asked while putting the sacks into a wheelbarrow, his voice strained from the effort he took to lift them. How strong was Mrs. Stevenson that she planned to carry these herself?

She put a hand on his back as she walked beside him in small strides. George had the courtesy to slow down his pace and let her guide him. Not that he needed her to, he had been here countless of times in the years that they were neighbours. “Just now, yes. The boy was kind enough to offer to bring them in but he seemed to be in a hurry. You’re not in a hurry, are you Georgy?” 

George shook his head and gave her a little smile. He liked that she gave him a nickname, it made him feel like they were some kind of a family. Maybe she did feel that way about him. Her children only visited during Christmas once every two years, and that was if they were lucky. After they would visit, Mrs. Stevenson spent hours telling George how much her grandchildren had grown over time, her eyes twinkling as she talked. He wanted to have his own kids with his wife one day, and he hoped they wouldn’t do the same thing to them. 

As they walked past a window, George saw that the television was on in the living room. “Since when does Mr. Stevenson watch tv?”

“He doesn’t. He’s in the room, resting. The tv is only on so he won’t get lonely while I’m gardening outside.”

“Is he okay?”

“He’s a little ill.”  She paused for a second. “He’s old now. Very old.” There was sadness in her voice, no doubt of it, but as George started unloading the sacks for the next trip and made eye contact with her, she only smiled. Despite all of those years of marriage, she still had a lot of love for him in her eyes. Or maybe it was because of those years that she could love him that much.

After the second trip, George asked if it would be appropriate for him to check up on her husband before he left but Mrs. Stevenson politely turned down the offer. “That man doesn’t want anybody to see him sick. He’s got an ego, you know?” There was that little smile again as if they had just shared an inside joke. George bade his goodbye then and continued to walk past a few houses before reaching home. 

During dinner, he talked about the evening to his wife, Ada. “Do you think he’ll be okay?” She asked.

“I don’t know.” George swallowed a spoonful of mashed potatoes. “Did I tell you that when they got married Mrs. Stevenson was only 16? And the husband was already in his 30s.”

“How old is she now?”

“In her 70s.”

There was silence in the moment they took to let that sink in. Their neighbours were at that fragile age where it might be best for them to be close to their family, in case something happened. In their eyes right now, something was going to happen and it was only a matter of time before regrets were made and goodbyes were missed. 

While cleaning the dishes, Ada asked George, “Do you think I should send them something or visit tomorrow while you’re at work?” 

“Mr. Stevenson doesn’t want to see anybody at the moment. But maybe you can talk to the missus while she gardens. I’m sure she’d love some company.” 

It was too bad, really, that George and Ada had to play the role of their children. Not that they minded, but George was sure the Stevensons would prefer their own flesh than blood over some neighbours they had only known for, like, what? 8 years? It was George first. He moved into the neighbourhood after getting a job in that town and Ada followed a few years later after they got engaged. Majority of the people came from the city, and they brought their culture with them; which summed up to not knowing their own next door neighbours. George and Ada and a few other people they sometimes crossed paths with came from a small town where everyone knew everyone and the Stevensons happened to be in that group.

George didn’t get to visit for the next few days because he normally worked long shifts three days out of the week but he still kept himself updated through the stories Ada reported back to him. “I saw him sitting in the kitchen the other day and he waved at me,” She would say one day but George would come home the next day to “Mrs. Stevenson didn’t even come out to the garden. I think she was taking care of him inside.”

The next weekend George was jogging past the houses in his street when he decided to stop by. He could hear someone in the back and it sounded like they were shoveling. He opened the gate himself and surely enough he walked into his neighbour doing some rough work. “Mrs. Stevenson, do you need any help?”

“Georgy, my boy. Come here, come here!” She beckoned him to take the shovel from her hands and he started digging.

“Why are you doing this work yourself? This is some hard labour.” 

“I was expecting you to come in and help me.” She said.

“What if I didn’t?” He teased.

“Then I’d give you a call.” He felt her eyes on him while he dug up the earth, making sure that he was doing it right. “I can actually do it myself, you know? But it’s nice that a young man like you would want to help.”

George couldn’t lie to himself even if he tried. The sweat coming out of his pores would have given him away. “You’re really strong if you can do this yourself. How is that possible?”

“It’s all the years of gardening.” Sure enough around them George could see flower bushes with their colourful petals waving at them in the soft wind. Hydrangeas, lilacs and roses and several others he did not even know the name for. This was years worth of work and love.

He was supposed to dig out the soil and replace it with the ones she bought. It was more suitable and fertilized for gardening than the dry, hardened earth that came with the land lot. But she told him not to pour the new soil yet and she deemed that it was enough work for the day. 

Mrs. Stevenson invited George to sit at the small round table next to the plot that he just dug up before excusing herself into the kitchen. “What are you planting next?” He asked when she came back with a tray of tea and biscuits. 

“Roses,” She said, pouring into both of their cups.

“But you already have those.”

“Billy loves roses. Red ones are his favourite. I’m planting them for him.” She looked down into her cup as if she could see the reflection of her beloved husband in the drink, and she managed a sad smile. “I will miss him dearly.”

George had no words then. What could he possibly say to someone who was about to lose their spouse of almost six decades? All he could do was put his hands over hers and squeezed them reassuringly. No one deserved to look this sad, especially not elderly people. “I’m sure he’ll be okay,” George said and it was a blatant lie. He knew it. And deep inside he knew that she knew it too but she still smiled nonetheless. It pained him how sweet the woman in front of him was despite everything.

The next evening he came to visit again to make sure that Mr. Stevenson was okay for at least one more day. But that didn’t happened. He saw it in Mrs. Stevenson’s eyes. When he walked into the backyard, she was watering the new plot. The roses for her now deceased husband. She couldn’t manage a sweet smile when she gestured him to sit at the table. Before she could leave and disappear into the kitchen, George caught her by the arm and asked her to sit with him. “You don’t have to, please. Just sit with me.” She reluctantly obliged and sat down, the watering can placed next to her feet. “How are you feeling, Mrs. Stevenson?”

“I’m okay.” George reached out again and held her hand, same old move from yesterday because what else could he do? “He’s passed now but he’s here.”

George nodded at her words, touched by the simplicity of their love. It was simple, but it ran deep. “Yes, of course. He would always be here with you, in your heart.”

“And in the roses.” 

“Yes, in them too.”

George weighed his next question. “How did he pass?”

“In his sleep.” She whispered. “He was already cold when I woke up.”

“Oh.” They stayed quiet for a second, George wanting to give Mrs. Stevenson moments to grieve. 

Then he asked about the children, if they would come home for the funeral but she shook her head saying that there wasn’t going to be a funeral. “He didn’t want anybody to see him like that. I know my Billy. Didn’t I tell you that, Georgy? Nobody! Nobody!” 

George could see that she was getting riled up with his questions so he decided to ease up on her. She was emotional from the death of her husband. He could understand that, but he was still curious. “Who took care of his body then?”

“Who else if not me?”

George didn’t hear an ambulance pass by this morning so he was sure she didn’t call the paramedics to help her whatsoever so he couldn’t understand what she meant by that, that she had taken care of his body herself. He was going to ask her, but decided not to when he saw that she was staring longingly at the new plot right next to them, all covered up with new soil and rose seeds.

What could he say then? Nothing. 

So Mrs. Stevenson took the privilege of having the last words that evening, with something so sweet yet so dark now that George had understood the meaning of it when she said, “He’s here in the roses.”

Colours

December 24, 2019 in Short Story/Cerpen

“What’s today’s colour?” The father asked during breakfast. 

Nonchalant, the daughter kept on finishing her scrambled eggs and with a mouthful of food, she said, “yellow.”

“It’s a good day, then,” he said. 

“Not the sunshine, sunflower kind of yellow. The ugly kind. You know what I mean?” The parents set their forks and spoons down then and looked at her. With a small smile on each of their faces, they urged her to continue. “Like, faded. And washed. ‘An old yellow shirt left under the sun for a little too long’ kind of ugly.”

The mother’s smile faltered and she pursed her lips. “That’s very specific,” she said before picking up her fork and playing with her food. Her plate was almost empty. The daughter noticed this and figured it was best for her to leave the dining room. She got up and was about to leave when her mother interrupted her. “Honey, you haven’t finished your food.”

“Ugly yellow,” was all the daughter said in reply and she went to her room upstairs.

Sighing, the mother looked at her husband. “How are we supposed to guess what each colour means?” He only managed to offer her a pitiful smile.

In her room, the daughter played a song from her playlist and put her headphones on. On another day, of a different colour, she would’ve ditched the headphones and played the songs out loud instead. Or she would turn down the volume just enough so she could focus while she drew. Or jogged. The songs would be from other playlists which, just like this one, were titled according to colours. 

For today, she sat by the window and looked out onto the quiet street. Nobody was out. It was winter time and too cold for anyone to be outside at this hour for any leisure activities. But she kept waiting even for the subtlest movement, like the light in a room being switched on, or a window being opened before the person closed it right back after regretting that decision, or if she was lucky, a neighbour finally getting out the door and rushing to get to work. Her father might actually leave for work in a little bit, now that she thought about it. But not her mother, because she was a teacher. She, too, was enjoying the winter school break. 

Slowly, as the daughter delved into the thought of her mother during breakfast and kept on staring at the snow-covered pavement, the colour changed in her head and the playlist felt off. With half a mind, she moved away from the window and paused whatever song that was playing. Instead, she disconnected the bluetooth to her headphones and played a piano cover of a song directly on her phone and lied in her bed with her eyes closed. Even when her mother came upstairs and checked up on her in her room, she still had them closed. “How are you feeling? Still ‘ugly yellow’?” The mother asked, leaning her weight on the door frame.

“It’s more of a dark blue now.” The mother threw her hands up at the answer. Thankfully the daughter was completely oblivious to her gesture. 

Clenching her jaw then quickly unclenching it, the mother asked, “how did it change so fast?” 

The daughter opened her eyes then and sat up on her bed before pausing the song. The mother fixed her posture but still remained by the door frame. The daughter said, “I know this whole colour system is a little confusing. And that you’re still trying to make sense of it.” Her voice went quiet, almost inaudible when she finished off with, “I’m trying too.” 

The mother walked towards her daughter and pulled her into a hug. “It’s okay, honey. We’ll figure this out together. If this is what works best for you at the moment then we’ll listen to you, okay? I promise.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back, her voice muffled by her mother’s clothes. 

“What does dark blue remind you of?” The mother asked after a few moments of silence. 

The daughter sat there in her mother’s embrace, unblinking, while she traveled back to a particular memory. “A still lake at night.”

“Again, very specific,” the mother repeated her words from breakfast but this time she was chuckling.

“I’m feeling a very specific feeling too,” she said with a small smile, engaged in the playfulness of a supposedly very serious conversation. “It’s not sadness. Or melancholic. It’s the feeling of staring at a still lake-”

“At night,” said both of them. 

“That sounds kind of scary.” The mother remarked. 

The daughter shifted in her mother’s arms and pulled away a little. “Maybe I am scared. But I put a different name for it. Because ‘scared’ just doesn’t quite cut it.”

Holding her daughter’s hands in hers, the mother asked, “what are you afraid of?”

“Red.”

“The colour?”

“Something about the colour.” Silence. The grip of mother’s hands loosened. It was breakfast all over again. “Has dad gone to work?”

The mother, sort of, paused. Then she answered, “yes, just before I came upstairs. I think I’m gonna go down and do some laundry now.” But she stopped at the door and turned to say, as an afterthought, “I love you.”

I love you.

The words rang in the daughter’s ears and lingered in the air for a moment too long. Love is usually associated with red, so how come the daughter was afraid of it? She thought hard about it but no answer came to mind but that same dark blue feeling. A still lake at night, a deceiving scenery. Such an irony; that image and the feeling she was associating it with. Suddenly she felt unsafe in her own room and figured she could only escape that unmoving mental image by actually moving. So she grabbed her coat and told her mother she was going out for a walk.

“Are you sure?” The mother asked. “It’s freezing cold outside.”

“I got my coat,” she said then immediately left, leaving no room for any arguments.

It was as cold as the daughter was expecting it to be, except maybe a little worse because she was also shivering from the unnerving fear. Flashes of red went through her head, paired with that image of the lake, like the blood moon suddenly appeared in the otherwise pitch black night. 

The streets were still mostly empty and the streetlights were no longer on. Despite it being almost 9 a.m., the sun was nowhere near to be seen, shying away behind thick clouds and the daughter embraced the quietness and the tranquility of the morning. Her mind was already too chaotic and she was overwhelmed enough that the last thing she needed was anymore stimuli. 

She took her time to look around at the snow-covered pavements and the dead trees and the grey sky. A neighbour came out and waved at her politely before minding his own business and started shovelling the snow out of his driveway. That little gesture sent a sense of warmth in the daughter’s heart. For a moment, all she could see in her head was snow falling from the sky and covering an entire field. She felt safe in white.

But that didn’t last long. The silence was interrupted. Her peace was violated. The flashes of red came back. Her body started trembling and she stopped in her tracks, only being able to stare at the source of the noise. Or more precisely the voice. 

“I don’t think you should be walking around in the snow all alone.”

I don’t think you should be outside all alone at this hour.

They were the same voice sending off the same message. Alarming red. 

The voice belonged to an older man she’d known for quite a number of years, her father’s former colleague. She believed he had retired. Her father used to invite him over to dinner, she was even friends with one of his daughters but if she remembered correctly, she hadn’t seen him around at home lately. She never knew what happened between him and her father because they used to be very close friends that he used to invite all of them to join his family vacation at their lake house.

The lake house. The blood moon and the still lake. A deceiving image.

The man walked closer to her but she was still unable to move, unable to even grasp on a single train of thought because all she could see was that image and flashes of red getting brighter and more intense. She could hear an alarm going off in her head and her heart was pounding so hard against her chest. “Would you like me to walk with you?” The man asked.

At that moment, all she could see was red and she started sprinting back home. It was all too much for her to bear, the immense fear was too much for her to handle and in the back of her head, the red started glowing as if in flame and she felt that heat in her chest. She didn’t realize in the midst of everything that her lungs were burning from the lack of air. She was running away from the devil himself; she wasn’t breathing properly and she was sobbing. 

The mother was mortified to open the door to her crying daughter and immediately pulled her inside. A quick look outside showed her nothing; no one was on the street. It appeared the old man didn’t follow her home. 

“I’m right here. You’re safe now,” her mother said.

It took awhile for her to calm down, understandably, but even after that she couldn’t seem to string words to explain what just happened. I saw red, whatever the fuck kind of answer would that be? But she didn’t only see red. She saw the still lake, and the lake house. His lake house. “What happened at the lake house?”

The Girl They Left Behind

December 10, 2019 in Short Story/Cerpen

I wished I could say that the end of the road was near but my sight was limited by the fog around me. It stretched endlessly, far beyond what I could see, that I had to keep my eyes on my feet to make sure I stay on the same path. If I ever found myself away from the paved road, I wondered where I would go instead. I wondered about that a lot, but not once had I ever had the courage to do so. 

My brother always told me I was a coward, but that was before he was also taken away by the fog. One day while we were talking about our missing parents, he suddenly turned quiet. Then, he didn’t even spare me a glance before stepping off the paved road and that was the last time I ever saw him. 

I didn’t stop walking then. We never did. We might slow down our pace, or in some extreme cases, drag the whole weight of our body by our hands, but we never once stopped moving. I kept saying ‘we’ when I was the only one walking blindly in the mist. I used to have my family with me, my mum and dad, and my brother. But like I said, they all went off trail and that was the end of it.

I could describe to you what I could see and occasionally hear from my walk and maybe you could find me. Maybe by some weird chance you could help me find my family too. 

The fog was thick and black, as if someone had fused poison into it. Or that a demon was lurking and waiting for its next prey. But I was talking about that particular moment. Sometimes it would be light gray, and on those days I would walk faster than I usually did, feeling a little light inside. This was, of course, only a delusion of mine. Be it light gray or pitch black, I still couldn’t see anything but the path underneath my feet. 

Should I mention about the time? I probably should.

Time didn’t exist here. I gathered that much. What I meant by that was I couldn’t tell how much time had passed since I lost my family members. I knew the sequence of them happening, starting with my dad, then my mum and lastly my brother, but I didn’t know how relatively close or far apart did those things occur. Nor did I have a clue for how long I had been walking for. 

I didn’t even know if I should keep walking, but the thing was, I didn’t feel like stopping either. I didn’t feel like I had the choice to stop but my walking didn’t feel forced either. Can you understand me? 

Oh, the noises. I almost forgot to tell you about them. Maybe I got so used to hearing them in the background, in the midst of the fog, that sometimes I didn’t notice they were there. Most of them sounded unfamiliar, very few sounded like I should be able to identify them like they belonged to my beloved lost ones. But all of them were unintelligible. I could not make out a single word they were saying. Which was why I called them noises instead. Voices were supposed to be heard, theirs and mine, so if nothing was exchanged between anybody, why not give them a more appropriate name?

Something tapped my shoulder. But I kept my eyes down and didn’t stop to look at who or what it was. But my body felt heavier all of sudden and my senses sharpened without my command. I could hear footsteps behind me and labor breathing. Whatever it was, it was trailing behind me.

It tapped my shoulder again. Without thinking, my body broke its pattern of movement. The same way I never had the will to stop or to keep walking but did so because my vessel told me to, that same vessel moved and turned and slowed down until it suddenly stopped and we were eye to eye.

It was a man after all, one I had never seen before, but he was handsome so I didn’t mind him interrupting my walk. His skin was white as snow and so were his clothes and in the midst of the thick black fog, he stood out like a light. It felt as if a saviour had come to my rescue and to bring back my family.

“Do you want to stop walking?” He asked me, his voice as smooth as silk. 

I hadn’t used mine since my brother went missing and supposedly it was a long time ago, I realized, because my throat burned while I forced three little words to come out of it. “I don’t know.” Hoarse but barely audible, I almost didn’t recognize that voice as my own.

“How long have you been walking for?” He asked again and I gave him the same answer as before. He didn’t seem thrown off by that, instead he smiled and offered me his hand. My vessel moved and I took it, then he walked alongside me in the fog. I kept my eyes on him, studying his features because that was the kind of captivating look he had. Beautiful.

“Where are you taking me?” It was my turn to ask him a question.

He squeezed my hand a little, reassuring me, and shot me that handsome smile of his before saying, “to the end of the road. Your family is waiting for you there.” I looked down then, wanting to hide the tears welling up in my eyes from him, and I saw that I was no longer on the paved road. 

Uncle Jim

September 29, 2019 in Short Story/Cerpen

While walking back home, I was surprised to see a man standing on the sidewalk. The distance between us must have been about 10 meters when I decided to pause and take in his appearances. He was wearing a black cloak, the kind you would usually see a person wore at some medieval period-themed party. Part of his face was hidden underneath his hood, casting dark shadows over it, yet I could feel his gaze on me. What I didn’t know at the moment was that he was looking past me, to something beyond. Something about him -his stare, his mannerism- tugged at my memory, but at first I couldn’t quite place where I had seen him before. He stood there unmoved and I couldn’t help but mirror him. 

Lightning struck and thunder rumbled from the sky. His face was lit for only a fragment of a second but it was enough for me to recognize who he was. “Uncle Jim,” I said under my breath as a mere recollection rather than actually calling out to him. Slowly, things were coming back to me, old memories from when I was a kid, and I saw him standing over my bed when I woke up in the middle of the night. I remembered being terrified of him and crying into my mother’s chest. “He’s not real, you were just imagining things,” she whispered into my ear. She told me that I was gravely ill at the time, and my sickness had brought me nightmares in my sleep. 

All of sudden it felt like the wind was knocked out of me and it was hard to breath, as if the memory had carried a curse. Or was it only a nightmare? How could it only be a nightmare or an imagination if I was looking directly at him at the moment? He had a name, for goodness sake! He told me his name. “Uncle Jim!” I didn’t know why I shouted his name but just as I did so lighting struck again and I looked up at the dark clouds hovering over us. Then when I was scanning my perimeter for the nearest shelter, I saw them. 

There were ten to twenty other people that I could see who look like Uncle Jim with their black cloaks and empty stares, looking at different directions. Some of them were standing in the middle of the road, some were on top of buildings and some were even standing on the electric poles. I started to think I was actually hallucinating. Maybe I was just exhausted from going back and forth between home, school and the hospital. Maybe the stress of taking care of my sick mother was finally getting the best of me. Mom was right. This was only my imagination. 

I was bracing myself to keep walking but then my ears caught the sound of chanting and I stopped in my tracks again. It was soft at first, and gradually it got louder but I couldn’t seem to catch what was said. I looked at Uncle Jim and I saw his mouth moving along with the chant. Something about the repetition and the aggressive undertone in their voices sent chills down my spine. I had half a mind to curl myself up into a ball and wait until it stopped but more than anything I wanted to turn around and run back to the hospital. I needed to protect my mother.

In the distance, a church bell rang and my stomach churned as an overwhelming sense of fear washed over me. I didn’t have time to process it, though, as in that exact moment I saw Uncle Jim and the others who dressed like him sprinted in an ungodly speed in multiple directions. Uncle Jim sprinted past me as if I was a ghost and I felt a sudden chill. Or was he flying?

In my head, I was trying to make sense of things but I couldn’t seem to hold on to a single train of thought for more than a second and everything was chaos in my brain. Out of nowhere, I heard a beat drop in my head and snapped out of my daze. I started running back to where I was coming from. Despite my shaky legs and awkward footing, I headed to the hospital, running faster than I could remember myself running. 

The journey to the hospital was one I could hardly recall for my mind was too occupied thinking of what on earth was happening. What I did remember, however, was the sound of my heartbeat in my ears, the burn in my lungs, the heavy-breathing, the ache in my muscles and the inevitable feeling of doom. It must’ve started to rain before I could get to the hospital because the next thing I knew I was already through the door, soaking wet from head to toe and shivering from the bone-piercing cold.

My eyes fell on the strangers in the room, the Uncle Jim’s. Their black cloaks contrasting with the white coats around them in a remarkable irony and they stood there, by patients’ beds with an eerie calmness in the midst of a great commotion. I could almost make out what the doctors and nurses were saying, I could’ve if only the chanting was a little less overpowering. That was all I could hear and this time I could make out their words. “May the weaklings die in peace and the strong ones prosper!”

I ran to my mother’s bed and there he was, my own Uncle Jim, standing over her and chanting those same words. The image of him waiting by a hospital bed brought me back to that night when I fell sick from pneumonia at the age of 4. It was probably in the middle of the night and I was partially asleep, only awakened by a hoarse voice speaking to me. I strained my ears to listen, my clouded mind limited me from doing so, and I heard him say, “I am Jim, and I take you with me.” However, Uncle Jim was repeating those words to my mother now and I heard what he had truly said that night. “I am the Grim Reaper, and I am here to take you with me. May the weaklings die in peace and the strong ones prosper!”

“No, no, no, no!” I tried to move to chase him away, but he took one look at me and I was immediately paralyzed, my mouth shut and tongue tied. My heart sank to my stomach. I was forced to watch him put his wrinkled hand on my mother’s and repeat those cursed words. I wanted to cover my ears with my hands and close my eyes just so I could have the slightest chance of denying what I thought was happening. But he would not let me have it. 

I imagined my mother holding me close to her chest and whispering words of comfort in my ears. “You were only dreaming,” she would say and I would wake up from this nightmare. She would’ve finished chemo in a few more months and we could have dinner at home again. She would wake up and tell me that I was being silly, standing here frozen like a madman with tears running down my face. But I was not a madman. And she was not waking up. 

“May the weaklings die in peace and the strong ones prosper!”

Corpse

September 20, 2019 in Short Story/Cerpen

There is a dreadful sense of nostalgia when I walk into my old bedroom. Dreadful, because remembering what had passed in this very room is never a pleasant trip down memory lane. This is where I spent most of my younger years, always locking the door behind me to seclude myself from the outside world. Why I did that, I can hardly remember now.

The stale smell is the first thing to hit me before my eyes can register the condition of the dingy room, rightfully so. The curtain is closed and likely thickened by a layer of dust, even the shyest amount of sunlight cannot peek through. I tiptoe to the other side of the room to open both the curtain and the window for ventilation and the magnificent morning light falls upon the room, giving it the slightest sense of life. It’s ironic to say that when everything in this room is already dead.

I haven’t been home in only a few years, had purposefully ripped off the life that I had here to begin a new one, yet somehow this room has managed to feel so foreign to me. Or maybe I am the one that is foreign to this place. The only living being. 

I look around -yet avoiding to even glance at the bed- and observe the items that I had deliberately left in this room. My initial plan was to get rid of them, burn all traces of the past, but I realized that that was not the right time. Maybe today is.

The first item that I pick up -my back still turned towards the bed- is the framed photo on the bookshelf. It’s a photo of my high school graduation. My friends and I, squinting and probably drenched in sweat, are smiling in the picture despite the scorching sun above our heads. We took it as a promise of a brighter future together. Amused at the thought, I put the frame down. I can’t even remember the last time I have spoken to them. 

Rebirth. 

Novels and books are lined up neatly on the bookshelf, collecting dust along with the framed picture. It’s a shame I never revisit them. I run my fingers along their spines until, out of old habits, they stop at the fifth book from the left, just at eye level on the shelf, and linger there for a long moment of hesitation. They were my journals and sketchbooks in which I had tried to create what I used to call “art”. For old times sake, I start picking them up and flipping through the worn out pages, catching some familiar phrases and images. Looking back at the words that I wrote, and the colours and patterns that I chose in my paintings, I am ashamed to say that I had produced nothing but mere projection of hatred. 

Rebirth.

It has gotten harder to ignore the overpowering urge to turn around and face the person I have killed in my journey of rebirth. The corpse is still lying on the bed behind me. I know that for a fact. I don’t have to turn around to confirm that he is there. But I still make the move, turning on my heels to finally confront him. 

He lies there, stiff and cold, on the bed where I had left him a few years ago. He had not moved, he never could. His feet bound to the frame, his body wrapped in a blanket, he was always somewhere between asleep and dead. His sins were what made him heavy, or at least that was what he told himself. His bruises became his excuses and later down the line they became his poison. He made pain his companion, all because he had hated himself.

He destroyed himself in ways he could not see for as long as he had his face hidden underneath his pillow. His safe haven, he called it. But what did an insecure man know about feeling safe? How was that possible when he felt threatened in his own skin? However, I understand him and what he went through. He was young and naive, yet egocentric. He thought the world revolves around him, and that made him tired. 

Rebirth.

Standing by his bed and staring at his corpse today, I am glad that he died as only one of us can live. When my heart started to beat to its own song, I knew that his was long gone. And this visit, my coming home is to pay him respect for the life he had lived or lack thereof. Even more than that, I come to let him go and to let him know that all of his sacrifices are not in vain. His sins, his guilt, his hatred, I forgive them. He can rest now. The time has come for his doom and I, in his place, shall bloom.

 

This has been my rebirth.

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