[SNEAK PEEK] THE GLASS IS ALWAYS GREENER

The Glass Is Always Greener by Tamar Myers

 

There are those who love to shop at South Park Mall. Then there are those who are afraid to enter without an exit plan, such as a line tied around her waist, a GPS, and a flock of homing pigeons. I say this with great respect, as I am a woman who loves to shop. And while there are probably worse fates than a life lived out wandering in perpetual search of a mall exit (assuming the food court is half decent and the restroom stocked with paper and seat liners), I do have a hunk of a husband waiting for me back in Charleston. There is also a very handsome, very hairy, younger male whom I would miss terribly: my cat, Dmitri. (And yes, I do think that the pronoun whom should be used with cats; they are just as human as many men I’ve known.)

But in order to get to Temptation Rocks I had to traverse a labyrinth of hallways laid out in what was, to me, a very confusing floor plan. The layout was rendered even more torturous because the stores are upscale establishments like Neiman Marcus and Tiffany’s; places where I would normally not shop, but can’t help popping into nonetheless. This is where the GPS comes in helpful, especially if you get the kind that scolds you harshly for deviating from the proscribed path.

At any rate, Temptation Rocks had an understated display window, and I walked past the space twice without noticing it. It was essentially just a gray satin background punctuated by one recessed, brightly lit niche about the size of a PC monitor screen and perhaps six inches deep. The interior of the niche was lined in pale blue velvet and showcased just one gem: a knock-your-socks-off ruby and diamond necklace that was priced at a mere $899,999.99.

As when entering a few other fine shops of its ilk, I had to be buzzed into Temptation Rocks. The woman who let me in wore a badge that proclaimed her to be Hildegard. Her long, golden brown hair was braided tightly and coiled on the crown of her head like the beginnings of a folk art basket. Her perfectly round cheeks were heavily rouged and brought to mind the pair of Gala apples I’d packed in Greg’s lunch bucket before leaving to drive up here.

Hildegard immediately held out a silver tray bearing Baccarat crystal champagne glasses that were certainly no more than half full. “Would you care for some champagne, madam?”

“No thank you; I’m more of beer gal.”

Hildegard recoiled as if she’d been approached by an untouchable. “There is a food court at the end of this hall, and to the left. Perhaps they serve that beverage there.”

“I didn’t come here to drink.”

She appeared to sniff the air as she surveyed the rather impressive rock on my left ring finger. “Oh. Then how may I be of service?”

I made a show of trying to look around her. “Is there a jeweler on the premises?”

“Why do you wish to speak to a jeweler?”

There is an art to delivering that “just so” dismissive look, the one that says that the speaker had no business asking such an impertinent question, and would do well to mind her own business from here on out. I learned that art by watching Rob, who learned it from a former lover who was purportedly minor royalty: he would have been a Portuguese prince had that country kept its king.

“Very well, madam,” Hildegard said. She set the silvery tray on a mahogany stand by the door to the shop. Then she carefully locked that door, before trotting around the counters and through a velvet curtain. Did I mention that she trotted on three-thousand-dollar high-heeled sandals by Victor Illuminati, the blind, but oh-so-gifted Italian designer who is all the rage this year among those who are truly in the know?

I didn’t have to wait long. In fact, I was having a good time admiring the pretties in the nearest case when out from behind the curtain hurried a middle-aged man who carried with him the look of a hunted animal. Right behind him trotted the expensively dressed hostess. She cast me an evil look before resuming her post right inside the door.

“Yes? How can I help you?” The jeweler spoke with the slightest of foreign accents; not Yankee, mind you, but possibly Eastern European.

I held out my hand in the limp fish position. Much to my pleasure, he actually took and kissed it.

“My name is Abigail Louise Wiggins Timberlake Washburn,” I said. After all, European society is ancient, and Europeans respect people with family connections and complicated genealogies.

“Ghurtpen Chergonia.” I had him print it for me. Even then I wasn’t quite sure of his first name.

“Mr. Chergonia, I have heard wonderful things about your work.”

“My work?”

“Your skill! You’re supposed to be the best, you know. Everyone says that.”

“Who is everyone, madam?”

“Connoisseurs of fine workmanship, that’s who. Like the Ovumkophs, for instance.”

“Forgive me, madam, but I do not know these people.” He turned away and began a slow sideways retreat.

“Oh well, Ovumkoph is just one of many names, of course.” I put my hands to my mouth as if I wished to whisper in his ear. “I can hardly use their real names now, can I?” The low-pitched, cultivated chuckle I emitted was also learned from Rob, who no doubt also picked it up from his Portuguese paramour, he of the purified plasma.

The jeweler turned and beckoned me to follow him. As I did so, the hostess became quite agitated.

“You can’t go back there, ma’am.” Her accent, by the way, had shifted suddenly from BBC British to Piedmont American. “Mr. Hunter, the owner, will be very upset.”

“Oh? Where is he? I’ll ask his permission first.”

“He don’t work on Sundays. It’s just me and this foreign guy. Look, I don’t want no trouble. I don’t want to get in any trouble with Mr. Hunter neither.”

“Either.”

“What?”

“I think you meant either. Anyway, I have no desire to get you into trouble. I just want to see a sample of Mr. Chergonia’s craftsmanship. He’s an artist, you know.”

“Uh-uh, get out of town!” she said to the jeweler. “What do you paint? Can you paint a picture of my mama’s dog, Cotton? It’s Mama’s birthday the day after Labor Day but we’re fixin’ to have a cookout down at my cousin Trudy’s place over in Tega Cay. It’s right on Lake Wylie. I mean the deck actually extends right over the water; you can spit right down on the fish if you’re so inclined. And they actually go for it, like it was fish food. I guess they ain’t very smart.”

“What an interesting idea—spitting on the fish; I’ll have to keep that in mind should my husband and I ever decide to build on the water. Or swim in it.”

Hildegard glanced at the door, and seeing it still securely locked, risked a bawdy laugh. “Oh honey, that water has seen a lot worse than that, and folks still swim in it. It’s the lake; not the shower.”

“Gotcha,” I said with a knowing wink. I gave her what I hope was interpreted as a friendly wave and trotted off after the mysterious European on my $39.99 Naturalizers.

***

I am not so stupid as to reveal the exact location of the safe in the backroom at Temptation Rocks, but I will say this about its contents; many of the rocks I beheld were so beautiful that I was sorely tempted to—well, to drop a wad of cash. What else? The trouble was that even though I am well-off, I am not that well-off.

It used to be that glittering gems advertised personal wealth, but that was back in the cavemen days before the technology existed to make cheap fakes—and I mean really cheap. It’s possible to pick up some rings for five bucks or less in tourist traps that will make heads turn, if only for a minute. Because this is the case, because the bling factor can be achieved for so little, there really isn’t a whole of impetus to spend huge amounts on the real thing. Not when there are lots of other status symbols to spend it on. I, for one, would only pay a fortune for the real McCoy when it came to rocks, if I’d checked everything else off my want list, and that included a new Mercedes-Benz.

Nonetheless, I gasped in reverent appreciation, in part because of the elegant gold settings that surrounded so many of the stones. I was particularly fascinated by a ring that looked identical to the one that Aunt Jerry had wished to bequeath me, except that this treasure sported a golden centerpiece.

“It’s a twenty-two-carat golden beryl from Namibia. German cut. Here, hold it up to this light so that you can see the facets. Beautiful, no?”

“Beautiful, yes. Did you make the setting?”

“Yes, madam. Lost wax process. It is an original design, although I have used it since on five other rings.”

I shivered with delight. Surely this feeling was akin to what matadors felt when they were finally coming in for the kill.

“Were they all golden beryl?” I asked.

He made a clicking sound with his tongue. “No. One was aquamarine—that is a kind of beryl too, you know.”

“Yes.”

I may have sounded impatient, because his rejoinder was slightly combative. “You don’t see good aquamarine in American stores; not like in Europe. Now in Japan—only the best there. The Japanese know their stones. Here, mostly the stores sell junk. A good aquamarine is—”

“—deep blue, the color of the ocean when you’ve sailed out beyond the continental shelf.”

He stared at me. “Ah, so you are not a dilettante!”

“Nor an expert either. I’m just a lover of gems.”

He motioned for me to sit on a padded stool that had arms and a back. After I’d hoisted my petite patootie into place, he perched on an identical stool.

“Which is your favorite gemstone?” he asked.

“That depends. Can we, for the sake of this discussion, eliminate the human suffering aspect?” I was dead serious. Most gemstones come to us from Third World countries where they are “mined” under appalling conditions. The workers—often children—are little more than slaves, working twelve-hour days either under the blazing tropical sun or deep under the earth in danger of suffocation at any time. For their labor they are a paid a pittance, sometimes not even enough to sustain them physically. After all, what does it really matter if they die on the job? There is always someone to take their place.

“I guess that we would almost have to eliminate the human suffering element, or we wouldn’t have any gems, would we?”

“Actually, there is a lot of gem mining in parts of North Carolina. Some of it is essentially backyard pits. But honestly, what I’d really like, if the human suffering factor was not an issue, would be a Mogok ruby from Burma.”

He nodded. “That famous ‘pigeon blood’ red. The stones with the fluorescence that can’t be matched by their Thai counterparts.”

“Yes, and all we see are Thai rubies, am I right? Little, itty-bitty ones.”

He laughed. “So you like big stones—like this.”

“Unfortunately, I do. And what’s that famous saying? You can have anything you want in life; just not everything. An eye-clean Mogok ruby the size of this golden beryl would cost five times as much as my house in Charleston—South of Broad Street. What about you? What’s your favorite stone?”

“Madam, I do not know anything about the house prices in Charleston, but I too would not be able to afford my first choice of an emerald from the famous Muzo mine in Colombia. If it were eye-clean—impossible! But with a garden of slight inclusions, then maybe. Emerald is a beryl too, you know.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Madam, you know everything.” He sounded astonished rather than miffed.

“No, but I know a lot.” Play your cards close to your chest, I reminded myself; there was no point in divulging to Mr. Chergonia that my well of knowledge was about to run dry.

He sighed, and locking his fingers, put his hands behind his head. “Then you must know that some gemstones are easier to replicate than others, and that a lab-created emerald has the same physical properties—that is the word, yes?”

“Yes. And yes, it is exactly the same as a natural emerald, except that it took months to grow, rather than tens of thousands of years.”

“There are many times I cannot tell a good synthetic emerald from a natural one, except for under the microscope. As for the glass imitations, they are always greener. Ha, now I make a little joke.”

“Excuse me?”

“You have a saying, yes? The glass is always greener on the other side of the wall.”

I thought of correcting him, but thankfully thought better of it. “That is what we said in my country,” he said. “We had many prisons. But now I want to tell you something truly amazing. This emerald that I desire, the one from Muzo with just a little bit of garden and which is the perfect color of ferns—you know what are ferns?”

I leaned forward on my stool. “Yes. I know what ferns are.”

He leaned forward as well. “I have seen this emerald—right here in my shop. I have held it my hands; I have touched it to my lips. I am telling you, madam, it exists. This fabulous stone is right here in Charlotte, North Carolina.”

“Yes, I know.”

He recoiled ever so slightly. “You have seen it?”

“Yes. I believe that I own it.”

The jeweler shook his head wearily. “Madam, please, it has been a long day. Either you know that this stone is yours, or you do not. It is not a matter of faith.”

“Well, it’s kind of a long story—but I’ll give you the short version. It was given to me by an eccentric woman named Jerry Ovumkoph—an older woman in her seventies—”

“Yes, yes, she is the one! She brings in this ring; at first I think that she has been misinformed; many clients come in with synthetic stones and they do not know it. When I tell them that their stones are worthless, they are, of course, very angry with me.” He shrugged. “But some do know that the stones they have are counterfeits, and their intention is to cheat. Anyway, I studied Ms. Ovumkoph’s stone carefully, and I even asked the opinion of some of my colleagues, and yes, madam—it is real.”

“Did she want to sell it?”

“Madam, you are very charming; a native of the South, yes? But, you still have not stated your business. Are you a buyer, or a seller?”

I thought back to my college days, and what different connotations those words had then. But it was stupid of me to waste even a nanosecond on such memories. I decided to come clean with the jeweler with the vaguely Eastern European accent—well, partway clean, at least. Any Dixie chick with a speck of starch in her crinolines knows better than to spill all her beans at once, even if she has to murder her metaphors.

“I’m neither a buyer nor a seller. You see, the woman who was here—Jerry Ovumkoph—left me that ring in her will. But she’s dead now, and the ring is missing. I’m trying to trace down the origin of that ring for insurance purposes so I can get a replacement value.”

He stared at me. I knew he was trying to read me, to see if I was lying. Of course I was, but I wasn’t trying to scam him out of any money. He didn’t have a thing to lose by telling me the truth. Surely he could sense that.

“She wanted a glass copy made,” he said. “Glass!”

“Scandalous,” I said.

“Are you mocking me, madam?”

“No, sir. I’m quite serious; to put a glass center stone in that gorgeous design of yours would be like hanging a Jackson Pollock painting in the Hermitage. How many diamonds are in the border?”

“Forty-two. Each one is VVSI or better. It is twenty-two-karat Italian gold—not fourteen-karat like the cheap rings one sees everywhere.”

I glanced down at the cheap ring my sweetie gave me. Well, it would take more knocks than a more expensive ring without getting bent out of shape. That’s what I was trying to do in this new marriage: not get all bent out of shape. But as for the knocks—just one literal tap and Greg was out of there. I’d survived one abusive marriage, and I was not going to be a punching bag, foranyone, ever again.

“Of course you Americans are very smart,” Mr. Chergonia said. “You spend thousands of dollars on the dress, which the bride will never wear again. But it is big, and every one can see it even from the back of the church. The ring not so much—even though when the revolution comes, the bride can run and hide with her ring, and then sell it across the border and buy bread for her children if it is high-quality gold.”

“Your point is well-taken, sir. I concede—that means that you win.”

“So—Mrs. Abigail Louise Wiggins Timberlake Washburn—what else do you want to know?”

It took me a minute to scoop up my lower jaw and slap it back into place. “Wow! You’ve got quite a memory for names.”

“And you have an impressive knowledge of stones—for an amateur, yes?”

“Yes, although I do own an antiques store and from time to time I come into possession of estate jewelry. Anyway, what I really came here to find out is if anyone has been trying to unload this ring in the last day or two.”

Madam?” He appeared to be genuinely startled.

“You see, Jerry Ovumkoph passed—that is to say, she’s dead—and she left me her ring in her will, but it was stolen.”

His dark eyes flashed angrily. “I do not deal in stolen goods! Never!

“I know that, sir. I’m just wondering if someone—maybe another Ovumkoph—tried to sell you this ring.”

His response was to hold one of his long, slender, if slightly crooked fingers to his lips. The dark eyes directed me to look at the curtained doorway. There was a gap toward the bottom where the heaven curtains fell apart, and in that space was the hideously expensive toe of a Victor Illuminati sandal.

I smiled and nodded. “Then I dragged the body to the car,” I practically shouted. “Of course I couldn’t lift it into the trunk by myself, so I had to call someone from the family to help me. You wouldn’t believe how fast they showed up. Being the Godfather’s real daughter has its perks, you know. I just wish I’d kept my maiden name, and not those of all my former husbands. Oh well, at least they’re no longer around to bother me.”

By then Mr. Chergonia had risen to his feet. The poor man’s face was as white as parboiled grits and he’d begun to sway like a palmetto in a category four storm. I have never taken a bona fide CPR class; all I really know is that the techniques have changed a bit over the years and—thank heavens—giving mouth-to-mouth is no longer de rigueur. Then again, like I said, I really know squat. I just knew enough to dig my cell phone out of my purse and mentally review the procedure for dialing 911.

“I think you need to sit back down,” I whispered.

“Yah, mebbe, dats a goot idea,” he said.

By then the ridiculously expensive footwear was no longer to be seen. Having caused such consternation, I took it upon myself to at least see what, if any, the lasting damages were, so I crept to the doorway and gradually peeled back enough of one panel to allow me to peep into the showroom. You can imagine my relief then when I saw the hostess cleaning the top of a display case at the far end of the room. She looked entirely absorbed in her task; calm and peaceful even. The tray of champagne glasses waited nearby on another countertop. All was well with the world.

I scurried soundlessly back to my source of information. “So? Have you been contacted?”

“Ahuuug—” he said, and slid to the floor.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] WHY WE BROKE UP

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

 

So why did we break up? When I think of it now, think of it really, I think of how tired I was Halloween Saturday, from getting up early to sneak off to Tip Top Goods myself to buy these, which I never gave you. Yawning outside later, spray-painting an old thrift-store cap I used to wear freshman year, squinting at the gray to see if it matched my dad’s coat, Hawk Davies floating out my bedroom window to bask all over me, that cool part of “Take Another Train” when he polishes off a solo and you hear someone’s faint cry of appreciation, Yeah Hawk yeah while I grinned in the clear air. It wasn’t going to rain out. You and I were going to the Bash and the Ball and it would be OK—extraordinary, even. I had no feeling of otherwise. I can see my happiness, I can see it and I can say that we were happy too then, not just me. I guess I can cling to anything.

“It’s good to see you happy,” my mom said, coming out with steaming tea. I’d been coiled up thinking she was telling me the jazz was too loud, think of the neighbors.

“Thanks,” I said for the Earl Grey.

“Even if it is in your father’s coat,” she said, this year’s thing of deciding it was OK to talk crap about Dad.

“Just for you, Mom, I’ll try to ruin it tonight.”

She laughed a little. “How?”

“Um, I’ll spill drugs on it and roll around in the mud.”

“When am I going to meet this boy?”

“Mom.”

“I just want to meet him.”

“You want to approve him.”

“I love you,” she tried like always. “You’re my only daughter, Min.”

“What do you want to know?” I said. “He’s tall, he’s skinny, he’s polite. Isn’t he polite on the phone?”

“Sure.”

“And he’s captain of the basketball team.”

“Co-captain.”

“That means there’s another captain too.”

“I know what it means, Min. It’s just—what do you have in common?”

I took a sip of tea instead of clawing her eyes out. “Thematic Halloween costumes,” I said.

“Yes, you told me. The whole team is prisoners and you’re playing along.”

“It’s not playing along.”

“I know he’s popular, Min. Jordan’s mother tells me this. I just don’t want you led around, like, like somebody’s goat.”

Goat? “I’m the one being the warden,” I said. “I’m going to lead them around.” Not true, of course, but fuck her.

“OK, OK,” my mom said. “Well, the costume’s coming along. And what are those?”

“Keys,” I said. “You know, a warden has keys.” For some moron reason I thought I’d include her for a sec. “I thought I’d wear them on my belt, you know? And then at the end of the night I’d give them to Ed.”

My mom’s eyes widened.

“What?”

“You’re going to give Ed those keys?”

“What? It’s my money.”

“But Min, honey,” she said, and put her hand on me. My wrists trembled to spray-paint her in the face and make her gray, although, I noticed suddenly but without surprise, she already was. “Isn’t that a little, you know?”

“What?”

“Symbolic?”

“What?”

“I mean—”

Ew. Like, a dirty joke? Key in the keyhole?”

“Well, people will think—”

“Nobody thinks like that. Mom, you’re disgusting. Seriously.”

“Min,” she said quietly, her eyes searchlighting all over me. “Are you sleeping with this boy?”

This boy. Goat. You’re my daughter. It was like bad food I was force-fed and couldn’t keep down. Her fingers were still on me, skittering on my shoulder like a little pair of school scissors, blunt, ineffective, useless, and not the real thing. “It is none,” I said, “none, none of your business!”

“You’re my daughter,” she said. “I love you.”

I walked three steps down the driveway to look at her, hands on her hips. On newspapers on the ground the hat I was going to wear. Do you know, Ed, how much it fucking punches me in the stomach that my own mother was proved right? I must have shouted something and she must have shouted something back and stomped, she must have, into the house. But all I remember is the music fading, vengefully turned down so it no longer sound-tracked the day. Fuck her, I thought. Yeah Hawk yeah. I was done anyway.

Though I didn’t, did I, give you the keys. The day cooled to dusk while I did a little homework, dozed, missed Al, thought about calling Al, didn’t call Al, got dressed, and headed out with a dagger-glare at my mother pouring little candy bars into a bowl she’d sit and eat while waiting for youngsters. The boy I used to babysit was out on the corner throwing eggs at cars while the sun set. He flipped me off. The world was getting worse I guess, like this Japanese remake of Rip Van Winklecalled The Gates of Sleep that Al and I left early from, each time the hero awoke it was more depressing, wife dead, sons drunks, city more polluted, emperors more corrupt, the war dragging on and more and more bloody. Al said that one should have been called Are You in a Good Mood? We’ll Fix That: The Movie.

I should have known when an old guy on the bus, totally not kidding, thanked me for my service, that my costume was going to be another disaster, but not until I walked under the archway of orange and black balloons looking for you did it really hit me clear, from Jillian Beach of all people. “Oh my God,” she said, already tipsy in red-and-white-striped shorts and a bra of blue bandanas. She was porcupined with goose bumps from the evening cool, Annette was right, I didn’t have to be afraid of her.

“What?”

“You really are out there, Min. A Jewish girl dressing as Hitler?”

“I’m not Hitler.”

“They’re going to expel you. You’re gonna get expelled.”

“I’m a warden, Jillian. What are you?”

“Barbara Ross.”

“Who?”

“She invented the flag.”

Betsy, Jillian. I’ll see ya, OK?”

“Ed’s not here,” she said back to me.

“That’s OK,” I said, but I didn’t even try to be convincing, a Nazi too early for an outdoor party. A nest of freshmen walked around me chattering in mouse ears. A bunch of Draculas preened in a corner. They were already playing that song I hate. The coaches were sipping coffee and sweating in their capes. It was Trevor, who would ever think, who rescued me, limping over with his foot in a cast.

“Hey, Min. Or should I say Officer Green?”

Better a cop than Hitler. “Hey, Trevor. What are you?”

“A guy who broke his foot yesterday and so can’t be in the chain gang.”

“You’ll do anything to get out of dancing onstage.”

He laughed loud and pulled a beer out of somewhere. “You are funny,” he said, as if someone had said otherwise, and took a swig before handing it to me. I could tell he did this with any girl, any person, and that never until me had it been handed back unsipped.

“I’m good.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “You don’t like beer.”

“Ed told you.”

“Yeah, why, am I not supposed to know?”

“No, it’s fine,” I said, looking for you.

“Because, you know, he’s always going to tell me.”

“Yeah?” I said, and then gave up and looked him in the eye. He was drunk too, as usual, or maybe he was never drunk, I realized I didn’t know him well enough to know the difference.

“Yeah,” he said. “Slaterton girlfriends need to learn that and scoot if they can’t handle it.”

“Scoot?”

“Scoot,” he said with a wobbly nod. Even drunk, if he was drunk, he was tough-enough-looking to say words like scoot. “We talk, Ed and me.”

“So what does he say?”

“That he loves you,” Trevor said instantly, without embarrassment. “That you passed the test with his sister. That you put up with his math thing. That you’re planning a weird movie-star party and that I have to get the fucking champagne or he’ll kick my ass. And you don’t let him say gay anymore, which is—can I say gay?”

“Sure,” I said. “You’re not my boyfriend.”

“Thank God,” he said, and then, that’s where you got it I guess, “no offense.”

“None taken,” I said.

“I just mean, I don’t think we’d get along like that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

“We’re just, I mean, I like a fun girl who doesn’t change me around with movies or stores that open first thing in the goddamn morning, you know?”

“Yes,” I said. “And I wouldn’t take you there.”

“I’m just, you know, trying to stay fun. Happy on the weekends, you know, sweating hard at practice.”

“I get it.”

He threw an arm around me like a companionable uncle. “I like you, I don’t care what anybody says,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said, stiff. “I like you too, Trevor.”

“Naw,” he said, “but you’re a good sport about it. I hope you hang around a long time, really I do, and if you don’t I hope it’s not all drama and shit.”

“Um, thanks.”

“Now don’t get all puckered,” he said, finishing a beer and starting another. “I just mean, you guys are like those two planets that crash together in a movie I saw on TV when I was a kid once, the blue people and these weird red guys.”

When Planets Collide,” I said. “It’s a Frank Cranio film. At the end they’re all purple.”

Yeah!” he said loud, his eyes toggly with wonder and joy. “Nobody I ever knew ever knew that.”

“The Carnelian’s showing some Cranio in December,” I said. “We could double-date, you know, with Ed and whoever girl you’re—”

“Not in a million years,” he said agreeably. “That theater’s gay.

“You say that,” I said, “when you’re part of a group of guys chained together dancing.”

“Not me!” he said, raising his broken foot, and we laughed hard, loud, wild, and I even leaned into him, just as you arrived with your chain gang, everyone in striped pajamas and black plastic loops around their ankles. Underneath your flimsy hat your face was flushed and suspicious. “What the hell, Trev,” you said, too loudly, and pulled me away.

“Whoa, whoa,” Trevor said, shielding his beer. “We’re just goofing, Ed. She’s waiting for you.”

“And what are you doing, asshole?” you asked him. “Keeping her warm for me?”

“Hey, Ed, happy Halloween, good to see you,” I said pointedly like a person. I’d never seen this version, this shouting boy jerk, with your eyes frazzled wrong and your hand a claw on my shoulder. It was nothing I’d seen, but I hadn’t, I was thinking, known you that long.

“Dude,” Trevor said to you, smirking like the punch line was coming. “Don’t accuse like that. You know everything but’s not good enough for me.”

The whole chain gang oohed. The tears came to me so quick it was like I’d been saving them up for just this thing. I wished I were Hitler, I would have killed the whole set of them. “Min!” you called to me, your anger chased away in panic, and even took a few steps toward me. But your gang was chained to you, and they wouldn’t let you follow me and make it right. Not that you could. Though you did.

“He’s sorry!” one of the stupid boys called, and laughed. “We all did Viper shots to practice our dance, it always makes Slaterton an asshole.”

“No way!” Trevor said in jealous delight. “You’re doing Viper? Where is it where is it where is it?”

You looked helpless at me, and then the party surged around us like the panic in Last Train Leaving, the coaches starting off the festivities with their fat, dumpy dance to “I’m the Biggest Man.” Go to hell, I thought to everybody, and we were there, everyplace a nightmare of terrible people, screaming, flashing lights, more screaming, worse than a bonfire because there was nothing gorgeous to look at, just the gleamy makeup on people’s faces, the rubber masks like roadkill on boys’ heads, the slutty costume skin on the girls shiny with sweat, the thum-thum thunder from whoever carried in drums, screaming whistles around people’s necks like neon nooses, and then the rhythmic chantings, spread out across the crowd as each school started in, different words cropping up for each team, Eagles! Beavers! Tigers! Marauders!, a clashing of syllables like the mascots were fighting to the death in the sky, and then the captains hoisted up onto drunken shoulders, each school shouting its competing hero, McGinn! Thomas! Flinty! and winning out, Slaterton! Slaterton! Slaterton! as the chain gang clumped up to the stage and began their fake-sissy moves to “Love Locked Up” by Andronika, who sounded in the speakers like she also hated this shit, the hoots of the crowd, realizing you were famous even at other schools, your whole linked gang reaching down your pants to your crotches in gross unison and pulling out bottles of Parker’s when the lyrics said “Drink every drop,” and even with the coaches pretending disapproval the place devastated itself with screaming volume, toppling the cardboard Applause-O-Meter that Natalie Duffin and Jillian were game show gyrating around, and youwon, triumphant in gift certificates, blowing kisses, bowing awkwardly with your legs tangled up, and then Annette crashing the stage in chains and silver boots and a big stagy ax, kissing the whole gang, mwah mwah mwah, just a little longer on you, before raising her weapon and chopping through the chains and setting you free to leap thrilled and drunk, deep into the roaring crowd and vanish for thirty-eight minutes before finding me finally, handsome, beaming, gorgeous, sexy, a winner through and through forever.

I hated you so much.

My face must have blazed with it like Amanda Truewell in Dance to Forget when Oliver Shepard walks into the nightclub with his unexpected innocent wife. Fuming and furious hurt, I was bustled away by the surging crowd and was soon trapped at the goalpost with a guy I half knew from homeroom telling me a story about his dad’s new wife’s white wine problem. I was so angry I knew it would boomerang someplace sometime soon. It growled in me something awful as I just stood frozen and lost. The Bash kept at it, boiling and twisting in costume, until you finally reappeared during the even-worse song, the crowd crying Hey! Hey! Get down I say! frantic with your stripes half-unbuttoned and sweaty hair. “I want to tell you something,” you said, before I could decide which scathing line I’d been polishing to use first. You held both hands in front of you, spread out, a filthy streak on one palm, like I was about to roll a boulder on you. I stepped back and you stayed there, you stood your ground in the blaring battlefield, and you began to count on your fingers, counting the number of times you were saying what you were saying, both hands twice and then almost again. It was the only thing you could say, the perfect thing, is what you said.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

“Twenty-six,” you said, before I could ask you. Everyone was gathered around, or anyway they were around us, swirling like loud, bad surf. The crowd was low in the mix, a few yelps, a few catcalls. “Twenty-six,” you said again, to the crowd, and took a step toward me.

“Don’t,” I said, though I couldn’t decide.

“Twenty-six,” you said. “One for each day we’ve been together, Min.” Somebody oohed. Somebody shushed them.

“And I hope that someday I’ll do another something stupid and I’ll have to say it a million times because that’s how long it’ll be, together with you, Min. With you.”

I allowed you another step. The homeroom guy realized he was still there gaping, and stopped and vanished. There was a tremble in my shoulder, behind my knee. I shook my head, shoveling my anger into a shallow grave waiting to be dug up in some plot twist. But, also, your beautiful self, the way you could move and talk to me. I could not look away.

Anything,” you said, a vast answer to nothing I’d said. “Anything, Min. Anything, anything. If Willows was open, the flowers would be gone, I’d buy every scrap.”

“I’m mad at you,” I said finally. How many are there, movies where the man, or the actress, apologizes in public? I can’t watch them.

“I know,” you said.

“I’m still mad.”

But you’d reached me. Your hands moved to my face and held it. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d kissed me but Ed, you knew better. You just held me like that, warm on my teary cheeks. “I know. That’s fair.”

“Really mad. It’s bad what you did.”

“OK.” The crowd was still there but losing interest.

“No, not OK,” I said, the only fish to fry. “Yes. It was bad.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t say it twenty-six times again. Once was enough.”

“Was it?”

“I don’t know.”

Anything, Min. Anything, but tell me what.”

“I don’t want to tell you anything.”

“OK, but Min, please.”

“This isn’t OK.”

“OK, but what can—how can we start?”

“I don’t know if I want to.”

You blinked fast fast fast. Your hand shivered on my face, and I thought suddenly that now my face was dirty. And, also, that I didn’t care. It wasn’t OK, Ed, but maybe—

“How, Min? Anything. What can I do, what can I—how can I make you want to start?”

I couldn’t. No, I thought, do not cry while you’re saying it. But then, fuck it, you’re crying anyway, and he made you cry. Min, I thought, it’s love is what it is. “Coffee,” I said, crying. “Coffee, extra cream, three sugars,” and you took us away, fast with your arms on me across the field, not a single good-bye to anyone at the Bash, cold through the night to the huddle on the bus, holding my face again, the sweet things you said so soft over the motor, and then marching into In the Cups, pushing the double doors wide slamming open, to proclaim that in penance for mistreating your true love, Min Green, you would like to buy a large coffee, extra cream, three sugars for each and every patron of this fine establishment, which was one bewildered old man with the newspaper who already had a coffee. Insisting that the man be a witness to your solemn promise that never would a drop of Viper touch your lips again. And returning from the bathroom with this tag—saying, look at this cool tag for a show we have to go to tomorrow, because look it’s Carl Haig who used to play drums with Hawk Davies who’s that guy you and Joanie like, just hanging on the bulletin board like thumbtacked destiny near the bathroom where you’d neatened your hair and buttoned back up decent and sobered, please go with you because you loved me.

“Maybe.”

“Oh Min, please don’t say maybe like that.”

“OK, yes,” I said, as the coffee rolled down inside me. I felt embarrassed, boarding the 6, to still say I was angry about something two buses ago. Trick-or-treaters sat across from us, young with the dad madly scrolling through something on his phone. Total strangers, is what I thought. If I was still mad I was alone, Saturday night, Halloween, on the bus. “Yes, OK? But I’m still mad.”

“That’s fair,” you said, but I didn’t want you smiling.

Still.

“You told me, Min. And I’m still sorry and this is us.”

“I know.”

“No, our stop, I mean. Time to get off.”

And we did, to the cemetery, hushed and welcome in the chilly dark, knowing the Ball was still coming, this stupid bad night. Our feet crackled and trampled on the shadowy grass. “Are you sure you want to go?”

Yes,” I said. “My friends—look, I went to your thing.”

“OK.”

“So you have to suffer through mine. Anything, you said.”

“Yes, OK.”

“And I mean suffer. Because I’m still—”

“I know, Min.”

I gave you my hand. It was a little less terrible then, just to walk in the quiet. Something rustled, off to one side, but I was safe there, in the dark light on the graves, the crosses of stone, and the dead leaves, almost OK.

“You know,” you said, your breath mist, “I thought of this place for the party.”

“What?”

“Lottie Carson.”

It was the first time you remembered her name. “It’s nice,” I said.

“But then I realized,” you said, “probably insulting, a bad place for an eighty-ninth birthday.”

“True,” I said. Headlights veered from the street through the trees, the headstones stock-still in the glare, like deer. I could see the numbers of the dates, the life spans long and not long enough. “Maybe she’ll be buried here,” I said. “We’ll have to visit, bring flowers, make sure there aren’t any condoms on her grave.”

You held my hand tighter, we walked on. You must, Ed, have been thinking about your mom and where, when, she’ll end up. You must then, I hope, have meant some of these things you said.

“Maybe we’ll be buried here,” you said, “and our kids will visit with flowers.”

“Together,” I said, couldn’t help whispering. “Together right here.”

It was that lovely thing, that time so beautiful there, that led me back to your corner, Ed. We stayed there a minute and then kept walking. The grass was thick, we stopped holding hands, but we were together heading to the rest of the bad night.

The Scandinavian Hall looked like shit, the same old shit with halfhearted streamers fluttering on it. The same gargoyle cooing the same green-lit steam was there at the door like a drunk uncle. We walked in together but nobody noticed because somebody was already fighting, or maybe just a table knocked over, and then with an embarrassed smile you jolted away, desperate for a bathroom. Someone’s coat was ruined on a table. I walked blinking, turned aside, past Al, sad in his Pure Evil outft of a blood-splattered clown, sitting silent with Maria and Jordan, who were dressed as Republicans with oil stains and flag pins. I never told you what happened in the cloakroom. But now I’ll tell you because it was nothing. In the cloakroom was the fruit punch in a bowl marked hope, but if no chaperones were looking, the boy ladling it out would turn the lazy Susan around, and an identical bowl would come through the curtain with the spiked stuff. And the boy with the ladle was Joe.

“Hey, Min.”

“Oh, hi.”

“What are you? I know it can’t be Hitler, but it looks like it.”

I sighed. “A prison warden. I lost my hat. You?”

“My mom. Lost my wig.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh. Punch? The real stuff ?”

“Yes,” I said. My insides were wild with coffee and the roller-coaster night. I sat down while he poured it.

“Having a good Halloween?” he asked me.

“Never.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

We clinked plastic cups, unsatisfyingly.

“So how’re things?”

“Things?”

“Ed Slaterton, I guess I mean.”

“Yeah, I thought you meant that,” I said.

“Well, everyone’s talking.”

“Give me some more punch,” I said.

Joe obliged me. That had been the problem. “That well, huh?” he said.

“What?”

“Driving you to drink.”

“I guess,” I said, drinking and gesturing dramatically. “I’m a basketball widow.”

“Is it that bad?”

“No, no. But sometimes. You know, it’s a different thing.”

“Well, I guess you don’t give up at the first sign of trouble,” he said, but he wouldn’t look at me while I blinked at him.

“Sure I do,” I said to him, the closest to sorry I ever got. “What about you? I heard Gretchen Synnit.”

“Nope,” Joe said. “That was just a cast party. I’m dating Mrs Grasso now.”

“Oh, nice. Though I think gym teachers are usually lesbians.”

“Really?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve slept with them all.”

“That’s why I’m dating Grasso,” Joe said. “To get closer to you.”

“Shut up. You’re not missing me.”

“Not really,” he said. “Though we did say we’d stay friends.”

“We’re friends,” I said. “Look, we’re having an awkward conversation. If that’s not friendship—”

“How about a dance?” he said, and his body teetered to a stand. Very drunk, I realized, but why not? Maybe a dance was what, somewhere for the fury to go. Why not, why the fuck? Why not rise from the grave and terrorize a little instead of staying buried and dead in the cemetery? It was Halloween, and it was “Culture the Vulture” that was booming through the Scandinavian Hall when Joe led me out onto the floor already twirling, the song Joe just loves, the long version we used to listen to on his bedroom floor with shared headphones, my hand resting under his shirt on his smooth belly, driving him crazy, I knew. My unguarded vengeance, unbuttoning my costume for the first time, showing the lining of my dad’s forgotten coat and also what I was wearing beneath it. Which had been for you, Ed, just my best bra. Spinning and defiant in my head, flush with punch. And the unbuttoned coat. And Joe’s breath against me, sweat I could feel down my neck, the pulse of the second verse. And you, of course, you waiting out the song, self-conscious and stricken, Al too, pretending not to stare, staring, while I danced and pretended not to know. Joe dipping me so low my bra threatened fleshy disaster, I felt my heartbeat beating, brave and fierce, my legs liberated and my arms up in the glorious air, the lights glitter in my eyes, my lips open with the lyrics, and all my thinking erased from my skull while the song roared loud and free. Make it gone, is what I felt. Blow it to hell, kick its ass viciously in high heels, ravish it and rip it up, Ball and Bash both, this cavalcade of battering whatnot, fuck it and let it go. Do it different like they tell you you are. I danced and then I was through, done with every scrap of it, across the floor without looking back, not at Joe now alone, nor Al, nor Lauren, Maria, Jordan, anyone, nobody, everyone else. Just you, the thing worth keeping. The night late, the song over, the singer’s last “Madness!” echoingness-ness-ness, and I got to you and met your eyes staring at me in hungry wonder. I knew who you were, Ed Slaterton. I opened my mouth and kissed you then, the first time all night, attacked you and surrendered completely, and let’s get out of here. I’m ready, I’m finished, let’s not break up, no, no. Take me home, my boyfriend, my love.

 

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[REVIEW] THE ASRAMA ANTHOLOGY

The Asrama Anthology by Zan Azlee

The Asrama Anthology shares 19 true stories of Malaysians who have experienced life in boarding schools, which they believe helped build them into who they are today. There are stories of friendship, heartbreak, family tragedy, conflict, race relations, and yes, there are one or two romantic ones. Chosen and edited by award-winning writer and broadcaster Zan Azlee, whose own true-life hostel accounts are too shocking for this volume.


Zan Azlee made a call for open entries for anyone who wanted to share their experiences in boarding school resulting to  19 different Malaysians who wrote their true experiences in this novel. These Malaysians decipher their experiences in a way that could touch our heart in every possible way. Each chapter is short and packed with life lessons for us that are already in the working life. It makes us look back and reminisce our youths, not regretting anything but simply reminiscing the memories. All of the stories differ and I think those who were from boarding schools could relate to some of the stories. Being shy or outgoing, doing stupid things together with friends, having a crush on someone from your school, struggling with family’s conflict or body weight, all of these are the common things that most of us would have experienced when we were young and dumb. We tend to do stupid things and not having a care in the world because being young is a ticket to having a lot of experiences during school days. I recommend this book to all readers who want to read how these Malaysians pour their experiences into words that are casual, easy for readers to relate on a Sunday evening perhaps at a cafe or on vacation because between all these true stories, they are only a few pages apart but the impact will leave your heart and mind feel at peace.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] TATIANA AND ALEXANDER

Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

 

Morozovo, 1943

THEY CAME FOR HIM a few hours into the night. Alexander, sleeping in the chair, was roughly shaken awake by four men in suits, motioning him to stand.

Slowly he stood.

“You’re going to Volkhov to get promoted. Hurry. There is no time to waste. We’ve got to get across the lake before it gets light. The Germans bomb Ladoga constantly.” The sallow man who was speaking in hushed tones was obviously in charge. The other three never opened their mouths.

Alexander picked up his rucksack.

“Leave that here,” said the man.

“Well, I’m a soldier. I always take my ruck with me if it’s all the same to you.”

“Have you got your sidearm?”

“Of course.”

“Let’s have that.”

Alexander took a step toward them. He was a head taller than the tallest. They looked like thugs in their drab gray winter coats. On top of the coats they had small blue stripes, the symbol of the NKVD—the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs—the way the Red Cross was a symbol of international empathy. “Let me understand what you’re asking me,” he said quietly but not that quietly.

“So it’s easier for you,” the first man stammered. “You’re wounded, no? It must be hard for you to carry all your gear—”

“This isn’t all my gear. These are just my few personal things. Let’s go,” Alexander said loudly, moving out from the side of the bed, pushing them out of his way. “Now, comrades. We’re wasting time.” It was not an even fight. He was an officer, a major. He couldn’t see their rank in their shoulder bars or demeanor. They had no authority until they were out of the building and took his away from him. This police liked to do its work in private, in the dark. They did not like to be overheard by barely sleeping nurses, by barely sleeping soldiers. This police liked it to seem as if everything was just as it should be. A wounded man was being taken in the middle of the night across the lake to get a promotion. What was so out of the ordinary about that? But they had to leave his gun with him to continue with the pretense. As if they could have taken it away.

As they were walking out, Alexander noticed that the two beds next to him were empty. The soldier with the breathing difficulties and another had gone. He shook his head. “Are they going to get promoted, too?” he asked dryly.

“No questions, just go,” said one of the men. “Quickly.”

Alexander had slight trouble walking quickly.

As he made his way through the corridor, he wondered where Tatiana was sleeping. Was it behind one of those doors? Was she there now, somewhere? Still so close. He took a deep breath, almost as if he were smelling for her.

The armored truck was waiting outside behind the building. It was parked next to Dr. Sayers’s Red Cross jeep. Alexander recognized the white and red emblem in the dark. As they got closer to their truck, a silhouette hobbled out from the shadows. It was Dimitri. He was hunched over his casted arm, and his face was a black pulp with a swollen protuberance instead of a nose—earlier courtesy of Alexander.

He stood for a moment and said nothing. Then, “Going somewhere, Major Belov?” His hissing voice placed special emphasis on Belov. It sounded like Beloffffff.

“Don’t come close to me, Dimitri,” Alexander said.

Dimitri, as if heeding the advice, took a step back, then opened his mouth and laughed silently. “You can’t hurt me anymore, Alexander.”

“Nor you me.”

“Oh, believe me,” said Dimitri in a smooth sweet-sour voice, “I can still hurt you.” And right before Alexander was pushed into the NKVD truck by the militia men, Dimitri threw his head back as if in studied delirium and wagged a shaking finger at Alexander, baring the yellow teeth under his bloodied nose and narrowing his slit eyes.

Alexander turned his head, squared his shoulders, and without even looking in Dimitri’s direction as he jumped into the truck, said very loudly and clearly and with as much satisfaction as he could get his voice to muster, “Oh, fuck you.”

“Get in the truck and shut up,” barked one of the NKVD men to Alexander, and to Dimitri: “Go back to your ward, it’s past curfew. What are you doing skulking around here?”

In the back of the truck, Alexander saw his two shivering ward mates. He hadn’t expected two other people, two Red Army soldiers, to be in the truck with him. He had thought it would be just him and the NKVD men. No one to risk or sacrifice except them and himself. Now what?

One of the NKVD men grabbed his ruck. Alexander yanked it away. The man did not let go. “It looks as if it’s hard for you to carry it,” he said, struggling. “I’ll take it and give it back to you on the other side.”

Shaking his head, Alexander said, “No, I’ll keep it.” He wrenched it from the man.

“Belov—”

“Sergeant!” said Alexander loudly. “You’re talking to an officer. Major Belov to you. Leave my belongings alone. Now, let’s start driving. We’ve got a long way ahead of us.” Smiling to himself, he turned away, dismissing the man. His back didn’t hurt as badly as he had imagined: he was able to walk, jump up, talk, bend, sit down on the floor of the truck. But his weakness upset him.

The truck’s idling motor revved up and they began driving away—from the hospital, from Morozovo, from Tatiana. Alexander took a deep breath and turned to the two men sitting in front of him.

“Who the fuck are you?” he said. The words were gruff but the tone was resigned. He looked them over briefly. It was dark, he could barely make out their features. They were huddled against the wall of the truck, the smaller one wore glasses, the larger one sat, body wrapped in his coat, head wrapped in a bandage, and only his eyes, nose, and mouth showed. His eyes were bright and alert, discernible even in the dark, even at night. Bright perhaps wasn’t quite the right word. Mischievous. You couldn’t say the same about the smaller man’s eyes. They were lackluster.

“Who are you?” Alexander repeated.

“Lieutenant Nikolai Ouspensky. This is Corporal Boris Maikov. We were wounded in Operation Spark, on January fifteenth, over on the Volkhov side—we were housed in a field tent until we—”

“Stop,” Alexander said, putting his hand out. Before he continued with them he wanted to shake their hands. He wanted to feel what they were made of. Ouspensky was all right—his handshake was steady and friendly and unafraid. His hand was strong. Not frail Maikov’s.

Alexander sat back against the truck and felt for the grenade in his boots. Damn it. He could hear Ouspensky’s rattling breathing. Ouspensky was the one Tania had moved next to Alexander and put a tent around, the one with only one lung, the one who could not hear or speak. Yet here he was sitting, breathing on his own, hearing, speaking.

“Listen, both of you,” said Alexander. “Summon your strength. You’re going to need it.”

“For getting a medal?” Maikov said suspiciously.

“You’re going to be getting a posthumous medal if you don’t get hold of yourself and stop shaking,” said Alexander.

“How do you know I’m shaking?”

“I can hear your boots knocking together,” Alexander replied. “Quiet, soldier.”

Maikov turned to Ouspensky. “I told you, Lieutenant, this didn’t seem right, to be woken in the middle of the night—”

“And I told you to shut up,” said Alexander.

There was a bit of dull blue light coming in from the narrow window in the front of the truck.

“Lieutenant,” Alexander said to Ouspensky, “can you stand up? I need you to stand up and block the view from the window.”

“Last time I heard that, my quartermate was getting some blow,” said Ouspensky with a smile.

“Well, rest assured, no one is getting blow here,” Alexander said. “Stand up.”

Ouspensky obeyed. “Tell us the truth. Are we getting promoted?”

“How should I know?” Once Nikolai blocked the small window, Alexander took off his boot and pulled out one of the grenades. It was dark enough that neither Maikov nor Ouspensky saw what he was doing.

He crawled to the back of the truck and sat with his back against the doors. There were only two NKVD men in the front cabin. They were young, they had no experience, and no one wanted to cross the lake: the danger of German fire was ever-present and unwelcome. The driver’s lack of experience broadcast itself in his inability to drive the truck faster than twenty kilometers an hour. Alexander knew that if the Germans were monitoring Soviet army activity from their positions in Sinyavino, the truck’s leisurely speed would not escape their reconnaissance agents. He could walk across the ice faster.

“Major, are you getting promoted?” asked Ouspensky.

“That’s what they told me, and they let me keep my gun. Until I hear otherwise, I’m optimistic.”

“They didn’t let you keep your gun. I saw. I heard. They just didn’t have the strength to take it from you.”

“I’m a critically injured man,” Alexander said, taking out a cigarette. “They could have taken it from me if they wanted to.” He lit up.

“Have you got another one?” said Ouspensky. “I haven’t smoked in three months.” He looked Alexander over. “Nor seen anyone but my nurses.” He paused. “I’ve heard your voice, though.”

“You don’t want to smoke,” Alexander said. “From what I understand, you have no lungs.”

“I have one lung, and my nurse has been keeping me artificially sick so I don’t get sent back to the front. That’s what she did for me.”

“Did she?” asked Alexander, trying not to close his eyes at the image of Nikolai’s nurse—the small, clear-eyed bright sunny morning of a girl, the crisp Lazarevo morning of a sweet blonde girl.

“She brought in ice and made me breathe the cold fumes to get my lungs rattling and working. I wish she would have done a little more for me.”

Alexander handed him a cigarette. He wanted Nikolai to stop talking. He did not think Ouspensky would be particularly pleased to discover that Tatiana had saved him only long enough to be now sent into Mekhlis’s clutches.

Taking out his Tokarev pistol, Alexander got up, pointed at the back door and fired, blowing out the padlock. Maikov squealed. The truck slowed down. There was obviously some confusion in the driver’s cabin as to the source of the noise. Now down on the floor, Ouspensky was no longer blocking the window. Alexander had seconds before the truck stopped. Flinging the doors open, he pulled the pin out of the grenade, pulled himself above the roof of the creeping vehicle and threw the grenade forward. It landed a few meters in front of the truck’s path; seconds later there was a shattering explosion. He had just enough time to hear Maikov bleat, “What is that—” when he was thrown from the truck onto the ice. The pain he felt in the unhealed wound in his back was so jolting he thought his scars were tearing apart a millimeter at a time.

The truck jerked and began to rumble to a sliding stop. It skidded, teetered and fell sideways onto the ice, crunching to a halt at the ice hole made by Alexander’s grenade. The hole was smaller than the truck, but the truck was heavier than the broken ice. The ice cracked and the hole became wider.

Alexander got up and ran limping to the back doors, motioning for the two men to crawl to him. “What was that?” Maikov cried. He had bumped his head and his nose was bleeding.

“Jump out of the truck!” Alexander yelled.

Ouspensky and Maikov did as he commanded—just in time, as the front end of the truck slowly sank beneath the surface of the Ladoga. The drivers must have been knocked unconscious by the impact against the glass and ice. They were making no attempts to get out.

“Major, what the hell—”

“Shut up. The Germans will begin shooting at the truck in three or four minutes.” Alexander had no intention of actually dying on the ice. Before he saw Ouspensky and Maikov, he had had a small hope he might be alone, and would, after blowing up the truck with the NKVD men in it, make his way back to the Morozovo shores and into the woods. All of his hopes seemed to have this one common denominator nowadays: short-fucking-lived.

“You want to stay here and observe the efficient German army in action, or you want to come with me?”

“What about the drivers?” asked Ouspensky.

“What about them? They are NKVD men. Where do you think those drivers were taking you at dawn?”

Maikov tried to stand up. Before he could say another word, Alexander pulled him down onto the ice.

They weren’t far from the shore, maybe two kilometers. It was pre-dawn. The cabin of the truck was submerged and cracking a larger hole in the ice, large enough soon for the whole truck to fit through.

“Pardon me, Major,” Ouspensky said, “but you’re talking out of your ass. I’ve never done anything wrong in my entire military career. They haven’t come for me.”

“No,” Alexander said. “They’ve come for me.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

The truck was disappearing into the water.

Ouspensky stared at the ice, at the shivering, dumbfounded and bleeding Maikov, at Alexander, and laughed. “Major, perhaps you could tell us your plans for what the three of us are going to do alone on the open ice once the truck sinks?”

“Don’t worry,” said Alexander with a heavy sigh. “I guarantee you, we won’t be alone for long.” He nodded in the direction of the distant Morozovo shore and took out his two pistols. The headlights of a light army vehicle were getting closer. The jeep stopped fifty meters from them, and out of it jumped five men with five machine guns all pointing at Alexander. “Stand up! Stand up on the ice!”

Ouspensky and Maikov stood instantly, hands in the air, but Alexander didn’t like to take orders from inferior officers. He would not stand up and with good reason. He heard the whistling sound of a shell and put his hands over his head.

When he looked, two of the NKVD men were lying face down, while the other three were crawling to Alexander, rifles aimed at him, hissing, stay down, stay down. Maybe the Germans will kill them before I have a chance to, Alexander thought. He tried to make out the shore. Where was Sayers? The NKVD jeep was stationary, providing a convenient practice target for the Germans. When the NKVD men got very close, Alexander suggested to them that maybe they should get back inside their vehicle and return to Morozovo with all deliberate speed.

“No!” one of them yelled. “We have to get you across to Volkhov!”

Another shell whistled by, this one falling twenty meters from the jeep—the only transport they had to get either to Volkhov or back to Morozovo. Once the Germans hit their jeep, the cluster of men would last several unprotected seconds on the open lake against German artillery.

On his stomach, Alexander stared at the NKVD men on their stomachs. “You want to drive to Volkhov under German fire? Let’s go.”

The men looked at the armored truck that had carried Alexander. It had nearly gone below the surface of the water. Alexander watched with amusement as self-preservation battled it out with orders.

“Let’s go back,” said one of the NKVD. “We will return to Morozovo and await further instructions. We can always get him to Volkhov tomorrow.”

“I think that’s wise,” said Alexander.

Ouspensky was watching Alexander with amazement. Alexander ignored him. “Come on, all of you. On three. Run to your jeep before it’s blown up.” Aside from wanting to keep alive, Alexander wanted to remain dry. His life wasn’t worth much to him wet. He knew that whether he was in Volkhov or Morozovo he would get dry clothes when donkeys flew. The wet clothes would remain on his body until after they’d given him pneumonia and killed him, and still they’d be wet on his corpse in the March damp.

All six men crawled to the jeep. The three NKVD troops ordered the men to get into the back. Both Ouspensky and Maikov glanced at Alexander with considerable anxiety.

“Just get in.”

Two of the NKVD men got into the back with them. Ouspensky and Maikov breathed out in relief.

Alexander took out a cigarette and passed one to Nikolai and to white-faced Maikov who refused.

“Why did you do that?” whispered Ouspensky to Alexander.

“I’ll tell you,” said Alexander. “I did it because I just didn’t feel like getting promoted.”

Back on shore, the jeep proceeded to headquarters, passing a medical truck heading for the river. Alexander spotted Dr. Sayers in the passenger seat. Alexander managed a smile as he smoked, though he noticed the tips of his fingers trembling. It was going as well as could be expected. The scene on the lake genuinely looked like the aftermath of a German onslaught. Dead men on the ice, one truck down. Sayers would write out the death certificate, sign it, and it would be as if Alexander had never existed. The NKVD would be grateful—they preferred making their arrested parties invisible anyway—and by the time Stepanov learned of what had really happened, and that Alexander was still alive, Tatiana and Sayers would be long gone. Stepanov would not have to lie to Tatiana. Lacking any actual information, he himself would believe that Alexander, with Ouspensky and Maikov, had perished on the lake.

He ran a hand over his capless head and closed his eyes, quickly opening them again. The bleak Russian landscape was better than what was behind his closed lids.

Everybody won. The NKVD would not have to answer questions from the International Red Cross, the Red Army would pretend to mourn a number of downed and drowned men, while Mekhlis still had his paws on Alexander. Had they wanted to kill him, they would have killed him instantly. Those were not their orders. He knew why. The cat wanted to play with the mouse before he ripped the mouse to pieces.

It was eight in the morning by the time they got back to Morozovo, and since the base was coming to life and since they had to be hidden until they could be safely transported to unsafety, Alexander, Ouspensky and Maikov were thrown into the stockade in the basement of the old school. The stockade was a concrete cell just over a meter wide and less than two meters long. The militia ordered the three soldiers to lie flat on the floor and not move.

The cell was too short for Alexander; there was not enough room to lie down on the floor. As soon as the guards left, the three men crouched on the ground, drawing their knees up to their chests. Alexander’s wound was throbbing. Sitting on the cold cement wasn’t helping.

Ouspensky kept on at him. Alexander said, “What do you want? Stop asking. This way when you’re questioned you won’t have to lie.”

“Why would we be questioned?”

“You’ve been arrested. Isn’t that clear?”

Maikov was looking into his hands. “Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve got a wife, a mother, two small children. What’s going to happen?”

“You?” said Nikolai. “Who are you? I’ve got a wife and two sons. Two small sons. I think my mother is still alive, too.”

Maikov didn’t reply, but both he and Ouspensky turned to stare at Alexander. Maikov lowered his gaze. Ouspensky didn’t.

“All right,” said Ouspensky. “What did you do?”

“Lieutenant!” Alexander pulled rank whenever and wherever necessary. “I’ve heard enough from you.”

Ouspensky remained undaunted. “You don’t look like a religious zealot.”

Alexander was silent.

“Or a Jew. Or a skank.” Ouspensky looked him over. “Are you a kulak? A member of the Political Red Cross? A closet philosopher? A socialist? A historian? Are you an agricultural spoiler? An industrial wrecker? An anti-Soviet agitator?”

“I’m a Tatar drayman,” said Alexander.

“You will get ten years for that. Where is your dray? My wife would find it very useful for hauling onions from nearby fields. Are you telling me we were arrested because we had the fucking bad luck to be bedded next to you?”

Maikov emitted a whimper that bordered on a wail. “But we know nothing! We did nothing!”

“Oh?” said Alexander. “Tell that to the group of musicians and a small audience that used to gather in the early thirties for an evening of piano without clearing it first with the housing council. To help defray the costs of the wine, they would collect a few kopecks from each person. When they were all arrested for anti-Soviet agitation, the money they had collected was deemed to have gone to prop up the nearly extinct bourgeoisie. The musicians and the audience all got from three to ten years.” Alexander paused. “Well, not all. Only those who confessed to their crimes. Those who refused to confess were shot.”

Ouspensky and Maikov stared at him. “And you know this how?”

Alexander shrugged. “Because I, being fourteen, escaped through the window before they had a chance to catch me.”

They heard someone coming and fell quiet. Alexander stood up, and as the door was opened, Alexander said to Maikov, “Corporal, imagine your old life is gone. Imagine they’ve taken from you all they can and there is nothing left—”

“Come, Belov, let’s go!” shouted a stout man with a single-shot Nagant rifle.

“It’s the only way you will make it,” Alexander said, stepping out of the cell and hearing the door slam closed behind him.

He sat in a small room in the abandoned school, in a school chair, in front of a table that was in front of a blackboard. He thought at any minute the schoolmaster was going to come in with a textbook and proceed with the lesson on the evils of imperialism.

Instead two men came in. There were now four people in the room, Alexander in the chair, a guard at the back of the class and two men behind the teacher’s table. One man was bald and very thin with a long, thoughtful nose. He introduced himself kindly as Riduard Morozov. “Not the Morozov of this town?” asked Alexander.

Morozov smiled thinly. “No.”

The other man was extremely heavy, extremely bald and had a round bulbous nose with broken capillaries. He looked like a heavy drinker. He introduced himself—somewhat less kindly—as Mitterand, which Alexander found almost humorous since Mitterand was the leader of the tiny French “Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied France.

Morozov began. “Do you know why you’re here, Major Belov?” he asked, smiling warmly, speaking in polite, friendly tones. They were having a conversation. In a moment Mitterand was going to offer Alexander some tea, maybe a shot of vodka to calm him. Alexander thought of it as a joke, but oddly, the bottle of vodka actually did materialize from behind a desk, along with three shot glasses. Morozov poured.

“Yes,” Alexander said brightly. “I was told yesterday I’m getting promoted. I’m going to be lieutenant colonel. And no, thank you,” he said to the drink being offered to him.

“Are you refusing our hospitality, Comrade Belov?”

“I am Major Belov,” Alexander said, standing up and raising his voice to the man in front of him. “Do you have a rank?” He waited. The man said nothing. “I didn’t think so. You’re not wearing a uniform. If you had a uniform to wear, you would be wearing it. Now, I will not have your drink. I will not sit down until you tell me what you want with me. I will be glad to cooperate in whatever way I can, comrades,” he added, “but don’t sit there and insult me by pretending we’re the best of friends. What’s going on?”

“You’re under arrest.”

“Ah. So no promotion then? It only took you since four this morning. Ten hours. You have not told me what you want with me. I don’t know if you know yourselves. Why don’t you go and find someone who can actually tell me? In the meantime, take me back to my cell and stop wasting my time.”

“Major!” That was Morozov. The voice was less kind. The vodka, however, had been drunk by both men. Alexander smiled. If he kept them in the classroom drinking, they’d be leading him to the Soviet-Finnish border themselves, talking to him in soft English. They called him major. Alexander understood the psychology of rank extremely well. In the army there was only one rule—you never spoke rudely to your superiors. The pecking order was precisely established. “Major,” Morozov repeated. “Stay right here.”

Alexander returned to his chair.

Mitterand spoke to the young guard by the door; Alexander didn’t hear the individual words. He understood the essence. This was not only out of Morozov’s hands, this was out of his league. A bigger fish was needed to deal with Alexander. And soon the fish would be coming. But first they were going to try to break him.

“Put your hands behind your back, Major,” said Morozov.

Alexander threw his cigarette on the floor, twisted his foot over it, and stood up.

They relieved him of his sidearm and his knife and pillaged through his rucksack. Having found bandages and pens and her white dress—nothing worth removing—they decided to take Alexander’s medals off his chest, and they also tipped his shoulder bars and they told him he was not a major anymore and had no right to his title. They still hadn’t told him the charges against him, nor had they asked him any questions.

He asked for his ruck. They laughed. Almost helplessly, he glanced at it once, in their hands, knowing Tatiana’s dress was there. Just one more thing to be trampled on, to be left behind.

Alexander was taken to a solitary concrete cell with no window, no Ouspensky, no Maikov. He had no bench, he had no bed, and he had no blanket. He was alone, and his only sources of oxygen came from the guards opening the door, or from opening the sliding steel reinforced window on the door, or from the peephole they peered at him through, or from the small hole in the ceiling that was probably used for poison gas.

They left him his watch, and because they didn’t search his person they did not find the drugs in his boots. He had a feeling the drugs were not safe. But where to put them? Slipping off the boots, he took the syringe, the morphine vial and the small sulfa pills and stuffed them in the pocket of his BVDs. They would have to search more thoroughly than they usually did to find them there.

Bending reminded him of his sharply throbbing back, which, as the day wore on, felt as if it were swelling and expanding. He debated giving himself a morphine shot, then decided against it. He didn’t want to numb himself to what was about to come. He did chew one of the sulfa tablets, bitter and acidic, without crushing it, without asking for water. He just put it into his mouth and chewed it, shuddering with the swallow. Alexander sat quietly on the floor, realizing they couldn’t see him because it was so dark in the cell, and closed his eyes. Or maybe they had remained open; it was hard to tell. It didn’t matter in the end. He sat and waited. Had the day gone? Had it been one day? He wanted a smoke. He remained motionless. Had Sayers and Tatiana left? Had Tania allowed herself to be convinced, to be goaded, to be comforted? Had she taken her things and got into Sayers’s truck? Had they fled Morozovo? What Alexander wouldn’t give for a word. He was very afraid that Dr. Sayers would break down, not convince her, and she would still be here. He tried to feel for her up close, sensing nothing but the cold. If she were still in Morozovo, he knew that once they started interrogating him for real and once they knew of her, he would be finished. He couldn’t breathe thinking of her still so close. He needed to stall the NKVD for a little while longer until he knew for sure she was out. The sooner she left, the sooner he could give himself over to the state.

She seemed very close. He could almost reach for his ruck and feel for her dress, and see her, white dress with red roses, hair long and flowing, teeth gleaming. She was very close. He didn’t have to touch the dress. He didn’t need comfort. She needed comfort. She needed him so much, how was she going to get through this without him?

How was she going to get through losing him without him?

Alexander needed to think about something else.

Soon he didn’t have to.

“Idiot!” he heard from the outside. “How do you plan to observe the prisoner if he has no light? He could have killed himself in there for all you know. Stupid moron!”

The door opened and a man walked in with a kerosene lamp. “You need to be illuminated at all times,” said the man. It was Mitterand.

“When is someone going to tell me what’s going on around here?” said Alexander.

“You are not to question us!” Mitterand shouted. “You are not a major anymore. You are nothing. You will sit and wait until we are ready for you.”

That seemed to be the sole purpose of Mitterand’s visit—to yell at Alexander. After Mitterand left, the guard brought Alexander some water and three-quarters of a kilo of bread. Alexander ate the bread, drank the water, and then felt around the floor for a drain hole. He did not want to be illuminated. He also did not want to compete for oxygen with a kerosene lamp. Opening the bottom of the lamp, he poured the kerosene down the drain, leaving just a little left at the bottom that burned out in ten minutes. The guard opened the door and shouted, “Why is the lamp out?”

“Ran out of kerosene,” Alexander said pleasantly. “Have you got more?”

The guard did not have more.

“That’s too bad,” Alexander said.

He slept in the darkness, in a sitting position, in the corner, with his head leaning against the wall. When he woke up it was still pitch black. He didn’t know for sure he had woken up. He dreamed he had opened his eyes, and it was black. He dreamed of Tatiana, and when he woke up, he thought of Tatiana. Dreams and reality were mingled. Alexander didn’t know where the nightmare ended and real life began. He dreamed he closed his eyes and slept.

He felt disconnected from himself, from Morozovo—from the hospital, from his life—and he felt strangely comforted in his detachment. He was cold. That attached him back to his cramped and uncomfortable body. He preferred it the other way. The wound in his back was merciless. He grit his teeth and blinked away the darkness.

Harold and Jane Barrington, 1933

Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany. President Von Hindenburg had “stepped down.” Alexander felt an inexplicable stirring in the air of something ominous he could not quite put his finger on. He had long stopped hoping for more food, for new shoes, for a warmer winter coat. But in the summer he didn’t need a coat. The Barringtons were spending July at their dacha in Krasnaya Polyana and that was good. They rented two rooms from a Lithuanian widow and her drunken son.

One afternoon, after a picnic of hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes and a little bologna, and vodka for his mother (“Mom, since when do you drink vodka?”), Alexander was lying in the hammock reading when he heard someone behind him in the woods. When he languidly turned his head, he saw his mother and father. They were near the clearing by the lake, throwing pebbles into the water, chatting softly. Alexander was not used to his parents talking quietly, so strident had their relationship become with their conflicting needs and anxieties. Normally he would have looked back into his book. But this quiet chatter, this convivial closeness—he didn’t know what to make of it. Harold took the pebbles out of Jane’s hands and brought her to stand close to him. One of his hands was around her waist. He was holding her other hand. And then he kissed her and they began to dance. They waltzed slowly in the clearing, and Alexander heard his father singing—singing!

As they continued to waltz, their bodies spinning in a conjugal embrace, and as Alexander watched his mother and father in a moment they had never had before in front of him and would never have again, he was filled with a happiness and longing he could neither define nor express.

They drew away from one another, looked at him, and smiled.

Uncertainly he smiled back, embarrassed but unable to look away.

They came over to his hammock. His father’s arm was still around his mother.

“It’s our anniversary today, Alexander.”

“Your father is singing the anniversary song to me,” said Jane. “We danced to that song the day we were wed thirty-one years ago. I was nineteen.” She smiled at Harold.

“Are you going to stay in the hammock, son? Read for a while?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Good,” said Harold, taking Jane by the hand and heading with her toward the house.

Alexander looked into his book, but after an hour of turning the pages, he could not see or remember a single word of what he had just read.

Winter came too soon. And during the winter on Thursday evenings after dinner Harold would take Alexander by the hand and walk with him in the cold to Arbat—the Moscow street vendors’ mall of musicians and writers and poets and troubadours and old ladies selling chachkas from the days of the Tsar. Near Arbat, in a small, smoke-filled two-room apartment, a group of foreigners and Soviet men, all devout communists, would meet for two hours from eight to ten to drink, smoke and discuss how to make communism work better in the Soviet Union, how to make the classless society arrive faster at their doorstep, a society in which there was no need for the state, for police, for an army because all grounds for conflict had been removed.

“Marx said the only conflict is economic conflict between classes. Once it’s gone, the need for police would be gone. Citizens, what are we waiting for? Is it taking longer than we anticipated?” That was Harold.

Even Alexander chipped in, remembering something he had read: “‘While the state exists, there can be no freedom. When there will be freedom, there will be no state.’” Harold smiled approvingly at his son quoting Lenin.

At the meetings Alexander made friends with sixty-seven-year-old Slavan, a withered, gray man who seemed to have wrinkles even on his scalp, but his eyes were small blue alert stars, and his mouth was always fixed in a sardonic smile. He said little, but Alexander liked the look of his ironic expression and the bit of warmth that came from him whenever he looked Alexander’s way.

After two years of meetings, Harold and fifteen others were called into the Party regional headquarters or Obkom—Oblastnyi Kommitet—and asked if the focus of their future meetings could perhaps be something other than how to make communism work better in Russia since that implied it wasn’t working quite so well. After hearing about it from his father, Alexander asked how the Party knew what a group of fifteen drunk men talked about once a week on Thursdays in a city of five million people. Harold said, himself quoting Lenin, “‘It is true that liberty is precious. So precious that it must be rationed.’ They obviously have ways of finding out what we talk about. Perhaps it’s that Slavan. I’d stop talking to him if I were you.”

“It’s not him, Dad.”

After that the group still met on Thursdays, but now they read aloud from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? or from Rosa Luxembourg’s pamphlets, or from Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

Harold often brought up the approval of American communist supporters to show that Soviet communism was slowly being embraced internationally and that it was all just a matter of time. “Look what Isadora Duncan said about Lenin before she died,” Harold would say and quote: “‘Others loved themselves, money, theories, power. Lenin loved his fellow men…Lenin was God, as Christ was God, because God is love, and Christ and Lenin were all love.’”

Alexander smiled approvingly at his father.

During one full night, many hours of it, fifteen men, except for a silent and smiling Slavan, tried to explain to a fourteen-year-old Alexander the meaning of “value subtraction.” How an item—say shoes—could cost less after it was made than the sum total value of its labor and material parts. “What don’t you understand?” yelled a frustrated communist who was an engineer by day.

“The part of how you make money selling shoes.”

“Who said anything about making money? Haven’t you read the Communist Manifesto?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you remember what Marx said? The difference between what the factory pays the worker to make the shoes and what the shoes actually cost is capitalist theft and exploitation of the proletariat. That’s what communism is trying to eradicate. Have you not been paying attention?”

“I have, but value subtraction is not just eliminating profit,” Alexander said. “Value subtraction means it’s actually costing more to make the shoes than the shoes can be sold for. Who is going to pay the difference?”

“The state.”

“Where is the state going to find the money?”

“The state will temporarily pay the workers less to make the shoes.”

Alexander was quiet. “So in a period of flagrant worldwide inflation, the Soviet Union is going to pay the workers less? How much less?”

“Less, that’s all.”

“And how are we going to buy the shoes?”

“Temporarily we’re not. We’ll have to wear last year’s shoes. Until the state gets on its feet.” The engineer smiled.

“Good one,” Alexander said calmly. “The state got on its feet enough to cover the cost of Lenin’s Rolls Royce, didn’t it?”

“What does Lenin’s Rolls Royce have to do with what we’re talking about?” screamed the engineer. Slavan laughed. “The Soviet Union will be fine,” the engineer continued. “It is in its infancy stages. It will borrow money from abroad if it has to.”

“With all due respect, citizen, no country in the world will lend money to the Soviet Union again,” said Alexander. “It repudiated all of its foreign debt in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution. They will not see any foreign money for a long time to come. The world banks are closed to the Soviet Union.”

“We have to be patient. Changes will not happen overnight. And you need to have a more positive attitude. Harold, what have you been teaching your son?”

Harold didn’t reply, but on the way home he said, “What’s gotten into you, Alexander?”

“Nothing.” Alexander wanted to take his father’s hand, like always, but suddenly thought he was too old. He walked alongside him, and then took it anyway. “For some reason, the economics are not working. This revolutionary state is built foremost on economics, and the state has figured out everything except how to pay the labor force. The workers feel less and less like proletariat than like the state-owned factories and machines. We’ve been here over three years. We just finished the first of the Five-Year Plans. And we have so little food, and nothing in the stores, and—” He wanted to say, and people keep disappearing, but he kept his mouth shut.

“Well, what do you think is going on in America?” Harold asked. “Thirty per cent unemployment, Alexander. You think it’s better there? The whole world is suffering. Look at Germany: such extraordinary inflation. Now this man Adolf Hitler is promising the Germans the end of all their troubles. Maybe he will succeed. The Germans certainly hope so. Well, Comrades Lenin and Stalin promised the same thing to the Soviet Union. What did Stalin call Russia? The second America, right? We have to believe, and we have to follow, and soon it will be better. You’ll see.”

“I know, Dad. You may be right. Still, I know that the state has to pay its people somehow. How much less can they pay you? We already can’t afford meat and milk, not that there is any, even if we could. And will they pay you less until—what? They’ll realize they need more money, not less, to run the government, and your labor is their largest variable cost. What are they going to do? Reduce your salary every year until—until what?”

“What are you afraid of?” Harold said, squeezing Alexander’s reluctant hand. “When you get big, you will have meaningful work. You still want to be an architect? You will. You will have a career.”

“I’m afraid,” said Alexander, extricating himself from his father, “that it’s just a matter of time before I am, before we all become nothing more than fixed capital.”

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[REVIEW] ARKITEK JALANAN

Arkitek Jalanan oleh Teme Abdullah

 

To be honest, aku bosan dah dengar orang cakap, “Belajarlah kerana Allah.” Setiap kali aku mengadu down, setiap kali aku mengeluh nak give up… Aku diam sajalah, acah-acah makan dalam. Yalah, orang picisan macam aku ni, mana layak membantah ayat-ayat daripada budak-budak usrah. Tapi sebenarnya kan… Aku tak pernah faham pun maksud ‘belajar kerana Allah’ tu.

Buku kedua Teme Abdullah ini sangat sesuai untuk bacaan seseorang yang bergelar student kerana dalam buku ini, terdapat banyak pengalaman Teme sendiri yang student boleh relate dan menjadi inspirasi untuk ramai student di luar sana yang sedang belajar dan yang mahu melanjutkan pelajaran ke luar negara. Buku ini diceritakan dalam sudut pandangan orang ketiga dimana cerita tentang Teme dan sahabat dunia akhiratnya yang merangkap teman serumahnya, Ahmad bersilih ganti sepanjang dalam buku ini. Banyak konflik yang wujud ketika mereka di London, konflik dengan orang sekeliling dan juga konflik dengan diri sendiri. Teme ada juga menyelitkan nasihat berunsurkan Islamik tanpa perlu menjadi ekstremis agama. Buku ini juga penuh dengan motivasi untuk pelajar jangan berputus asa, setiap kejadian itu pasti ada hikmahnya dan setiap hikmah itu pasti membawa manfaatnya kepada diri kita. Ayat-ayat yang ditulis Teme sangat memberi inspirasi untuk pelajar-pelajar kekal percaya dengan kemampuan diri sendiri. Secara keseluruhannya, admin recommend readers, mahupun pelajar atau bukan, untuk baca buku ini bagi mendapatkan motivasi dan inspirasi dalam hidup supaya kita tahu ke mana arah tuju kita dengan aktiviti harian yang kita lakukan buat masa sekarang. 

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[SNEAK PEEK] SAMURAI MELAYU

Samurai Melayu oleh Hilal Asyraf

 

Mereka kini berada di tengah-tengah Kotaraya Angsana. Menara Keimanan megah mencakar langit, jelas kelihatan dari tempat mereka berdiri. Bakri dan Faisal menyelinap di tengah-tengah lautan manusia.

“Pusat.” Bakri melekapkan telefon pintar pada telinga.

“Direktor Amiri bercakap. Sepanjang hari tanpa berita, kamu dan Faisal buat apa, Bakri?”

“Kami berada di dalam terowong MRT yang ditinggalkan. Terdapat pangkalan lama Mitsuhide di situ, dan kini digunakan oleh Ryuken. Capaian isyarat komunikasi tidak berapa bagus di sana.”

Tengku Amiri kedengaran mendengus. Namun, dia tidak terus berbicara. Seakan-akan mahu mendengar lebih lanjut laporan Bakri.

“Berita buruk, Ryuken ada menghantar operatif yang nampaknya bukan calang-calang.”

“Maksud kamu?”

“Dia mempunyai kemampuan persis seorang Pemburu.”

Tengku Amiri tidak memberi sebarang respons kepada berita yang baru diterimanya itu. Bakri hanya dapat menjangka yang Direktor Inteligen Kerajaan Malaysia itu sedang terkejut. Mungkin perlu sejeda masa untuk berfikir.

“Apa status operatif tersebut?”

“Kami berjaya melepaskan diri dan kini sedang berada di tengah-tengah orang ramai, sekitar dua kilometer dari Menara Keimanan.” Bakri memandang ke arah simbol kemegahan Malaysia itu.

“Bermakna kamu tidak mampu menewaskannya?”

“Dalam keadaan mengejut sebentar tadi dan terowong gelap tanpa cahaya? Ya, tidak mampu.”

“Kembali ke pangkalan segera.” Tengku Amiri memberikan arahan. Suaranya tegas.

“Baik. tuan.” Telefon pintar itu dimasukkan ke dalam saku.

Faisal di sisinya mengangguk. Turut mendengar perbualan Bakri dengan penuh perhatian. “Engkau fikir, Ryuken ada kaitan dengan Kesatuan Pemburu?” Faisal melontar soalan sambil mereka menyambung langkahan.

“Daripada apa yang kita nampak malam ini? Pasti.” Bakri menjawab pantas. Daripada kerutan pada dahi, jelas kelihatan Bakri sedang mengerah otaknya berfikir. Dia cuba mengingati sepanjang kehidupannya bersama arwah bapa, apakah pernah bapanya itu memberikan maklumat demikian kepadanya.

Tetapi mustahil dia terlupa maklumat sepenting itu, sekiranya ada.

“Dia kenal Hoshi, penembak tepat daripada kalangan Pemburu Handalan. Hoshi dari Jepun. Tetapi kedua-duanya merupakan ahli kepada organisasi yang penuh kerahsiaan. Kedua-duanya bersaing untuk menguasai dunia.” Bakri cuba menjejak logik.

“Tetapi dia kelihatan seperti mahu menuntut bela atas kematian Hoshi sebaik sahaja dia menyedari engkau yang bertanggungjawab menumbangkan Kesatuan Pemburu.” Faisal menambah.

Sekali-sekala, mereka terpaksa mengelak orang yang lalu-lalang. Kini, mereka berada di sebuah jalan yang penuh dengan pusat membeli belah di kiri dan kanannya.

“Tandanya, mereka berkawan rapat. Mereka tak berahsia sesama mereka. Sekiranya Ryuken dan Kesatuan Pemburu benar-benar bermusuh, mereka takkan sedemikian gayanya.” Bakri meramas-ramas dagunya.

Faisal menanti Bakri mengeluarkan kesimpulannya yang tersendiri. Bagi Faisal, dia sendiri tidak mempunyai maklumat yang lebih. Dia tidak terlibat dengan Kesatuan Pemburu, dan hanya mengenali pemburu bernama Jagat apabila pemburu itu meminta pertolongan organisasinya. Dia juga tidak benar-benar tahu berkenaan Ryuken, kecuali Organisasi Hitam yang menaunginya, merupakan salah satu organisasi yang terpaksa tunduk kepada cengkaman organisasi tersebut.

Dunia gelap penuh kerahsiaan. Sememangnya tidak pernah akan dapat dijangka siapa lawan, siapa kawan. Kerana itu, formula mudah ialah semua orang ialah lawan. Kerana itu juga Organisasi Hitam apabila melihat peluang yang terbuka luas, mengambil keputusan untuk menghapuskan organisasi-organisasi lain, bahkan cuba hendak menundukkan Ryuken. Walaupun usaha itu gagal dengan teruk sekali.

“Aku tak punya apa-apa sekarang. Kaitan yang ada, hanya Hoshi dan perempuan di terowong. Mungkin aku perlu kaji latar belakang Hoshi dengan lebih mendalam. Data-data yang diekstrak daripada Kesatuan Pemburu masih ada di pusat operasi Inteligen Kerajaan Malaysia. Aku perlu…”

Bicara Bakri tidak sempurna. Telinganya menangkap desiran angin yang sangat berlainan dengan suasana. Spontan tubuhnya menunduk sambil dia menarik Faisal bersama.

Beberapa orang awam berhampiran mereka tumbang serta-merta. Darah tersembur ke udara, dan sebahagian besarnya membasahi tubuh Bakri dan Faisal. Mata Bakri terbelalak melihat tragedi itu. Masa seakan bergerak perlahan, memberikannya peluang untuk melihat tubuh-tubuh itu tumbang menyembah bumi.

Segera Bakri berpaling.

“Engkau fikir aku akan biarkan sahaja kalian menghilang? Kalian pandang rendah kepada aku.”

Seorang wanita, berpakaian elegan dengan tema kimono, berdiri dengan tenang dan memandang tepat ke arah Bakri dan Faisal, dalam keadaan jalan yang sesak itu kelam kabut dengan orang ramai yang berlari menyelamatkan diri.

Jeritan kedengaran di sana sini. Kelihatan bapa mendapatkan anak dan isterinya, suami cuba melindungi isteri mereka, ibu-ibu menarik anak masing-masing, masingmasing cuba menyelamatkan diri dan orang yang tersayang.

Di tengah-tengah huru-hara tersebut, perempuan itu melangkah mendekati Bakri.

Faisal terus mengeluarkan senjatanya.

Demikian juga Bakri. “Celaka!”

“Hah, marah?” Perempuan itu tertawa. “Bukankah engkau yang memikirkan diri sendiri dan rakan engkau sahaja, tanpa berfikir lebih panjang akan kesan tindakan engkau kepada orang lain di sekeliling?”

“Engkau memang sengaja, bukan? Siapa gerangan engkau, celaka? Biar aku boleh letakkan namamu pada batu nisan kelak!” Bakri membalas. Wajahnya merah. Sebahagiannya dibasahi darah, sebahagian lain pula dibakar amarah.

Jalan tersebut mula lengang. Orang ramai seakanakan memberikan ruang untuk pertarungan berlaku. Sebahagian pula menanti di dalam bangunan, di balik dinding, untuk melihat apa yang bakal terjadi.

“Aku Tomoe. Hikari Tomoe. Salah seorang daripada Syaitan Bertujuh.”

“Syaitan Bertujuh?” Bakri mengerutkan dahi.

Faisal pula terpinga-pinga kerana tidak memahami perbualan antara Bakri dan perempuan itu, tetapi tangannya bersedia menarik picu senjatanya pada bila-bila masa.

“Kesatuan Pemburu ada Pemburu Handalan, kami ada Syaitan Bertujuh. Operatif terhandal Ryuken.”

Ketika ini telefon pintar Bakri dan Faisal sama-sama berbunyi.

“Angkat.” Bakri memberitahu Faisal, sambil dirinya berjaga-jaga supaya perempuan bernama Tomoe itu tidak mampu melakukan apa-apa kepada mereka.

Faisal segera menyeluk saku dan mengeluarkan telefon pintarnya.

“Apa yang sedang berlaku?” Suara Tengku Amiri kedengaran. “Kami dapat maklumat berlaku kekecohan di tempat kalian berada!”

“Operatif yang kami cakapkan tadi, kini berada di hadapan kami dan telah membunuh …” Faisal menoleh ke belakang, melihat mayat yang bergelimpangan dan darah yang telah membasahi jalan. “… empat orang awam.”

“Bantuan akan tiba dengan segera.”

Telefon pintar itu dimasukkan ke dalam saku. “

Hero akan sampai.” Faisal memberitahu.

Bakri mengangguk. “Tomoe, ada baiknya engkau menyerah. Unit Hero akan sampai dan engkau pasti takkan dapat menewaskan kami semua.” Mendengar amaran Bakri, Tomoe terdiam seketika. Wajahnya seperti terpana. Bakri menjangka Tomoe sedang berfikir-fikir untuk melarikan diri. Tetapi jangkaannya meleset sama sekali.

Perempuan itu ketawa berdekah-dekah.

“Engkau benar-benar memandang rendah kepada aku nampaknya.”

Terlalu berani. Bakri cuba membaca gerak geri Tomoe, tetapi ternyata perempuan itu tidak menunjukkan apa-apa kelemahan. Dia jelas yakin, berani, dan langsung tidak gentar.

Bakri memandang Faisal. “Cari peluang.” Pistol di tangannya dikembalikan kepada Faisal.

Faisal mengangguk.

Bakri membuka langkah, bergerak ke arah Tomoe.

“Oh? Engkau fikir engkau mampu menewaskan aku? Tangan kosong?”

Tawa masih bersisa pada bibir Tomoe. Dia memandang Bakri dengan penuh minat. Dua kunai dikeluarkan dan dipegangnya kemas. “Aku tidak akan bermain secara adil.”

“Aku juga tidak.” Bakri menuding ke arah Faisal yang mengacukan kedua-dua pistolnya ke arah Tomoe.

Senyuman Tomoe meleret. Kemudian, tanpa amaran, dia melemparkan kunai pada kedua-dua tangannya. Satu lurus manakala satu lagi melencong dari arah kanan. Kedua-duanya laju menuju ke arah Bakri.

Bakri mengabaikan kedua-duanya, memecut terus ke hadapan. Menunduk untuk mengelak kunai yang lurus menuju ke arahnya, sebelum menolak kakinya untuk mendekatkan diri kepada Tomoe.

Apabila dua kunai itu bertemu, Bakri sudah melepaskan beberapa tumbukan ke arah Tomoe, yang telah disambut dengan begitu baik oleh Tomoe. Kedua-duanya sama pantas. Tomoe sesekali mencuba untuk melepaskan tumbukan pada rusuk Bakri, kiri dan kanan, tetapi Bakri turut tangkas mempertahankan diri.

Faisal cuba memerhatikan dengan penuh teliti, dan mencari peluang untuk melepaskan tembakan.

Langit tiba-tiba berdentum. Bunyi seperti guruh menghiasai suasana.

Hero semakin hampir.

“Heh.” Tomoe memandang tepat ke mata Bakri, yang kekal serius. Tangan mereka berdua masih bertembung antara satu sama lain, entah buat kali yang keberapa puluh. Tanpa disangka-sangka, Tomoe menjelirkan lidah dan meludah sesuatu.

Bakri terkejut. Hampir sahaja matanya menjadi mangsa beberapa jarum halus. Dia sempat mengelak, tetapi jarum-jarum tersebut sempat menikam bawah keningnya.

“Argh!”

Fokus Bakri terganggu. Tubuhnya menerima beberapa tumbukan. Bakri terundur.

Faisal segera melepaskan tembakan berdas-das. Cuba untuk menghalang Tomoe daripada terus mencederakan Bakri.

Namun, Tomoe lebih pantas mengeluarkan kunaikunai daripada pakaiannya, memukul peluru-peluru tersebut jatuh dari udara, sebelum melepaskan kunai-kunai itu ke arah Bakri.

Bakri kelam-kabut menyelamatkan diri. Dia berjaya mengelak kesemua kunai tersebut, kecuali satu, tertusuk pada bahunya.

Faisal mara, mahu menggantikan Bakri sebagai penempur utama. Tetapi Tomoe lebih pantas, telah bergerak mendapatkannya terlebih dahulu.

“Engkau beruntung kunaiku telah habis.”

Tomoe melayangkan tangannya dengan telapak tangan separa terbuka. Faisal mengangkat tangan mempertahankan diri, tetapi tetap terlutut apabila serangan Tomoe itu bertemu dengan pertahanannya. Keras.

Belum sempat Faisal berbuat apa-apa, lutut Tomoe keluar dari kainnya dan menjamah wajah Faisal. Faisal terus terlentang jatuh. Tomoe yang bergerak dengan pantas itu, segera mengejar tubuh Faisal untuk memberikan serangan yang seterusnya.

Ketika inilah, Tomoe tidak menjangka, yang Faisal masih kejap memegang kedua-dua senjatanya. Picu ditarik berkali-kali. Tubuh Tomoe dihujani peluru pelali.

“Tidur, jahanam!”

Tomoe terundur beberapa tapak, sebelum melakukan lompatan balik kuang beberapa kali, menuju ke arah Bakri. Kunai-kunai yang bertaburan di sekitar pemuda itu diambilnya. Bakri yang baru sahaja berjaya mengatur keadaan diri, kini terpaksa mempertahankan dirinya daripada serangan Tomoe yang mahu membenamkan kunaikunai tersebut pada kepalanya.

Bebeza dengan Faisal, Bakri berjaya mempertahankan diri dengan baik. Tangan Tomoe dikilas dan Bakri langsung bangkit sambil melepaskan satu tumbukan deras. Tomoe sempat mengangkat tangan kirinya untuk mempertahankan diri.

Kini, Bakri dan Tomoe tersekat bersama-sama.

Ketika inilah satu unit Hero turun dari udara dan mendarat berdekatan mereka. Dua tangannya diacukan ke arah Tomoe.

“Sila serahkan diri anda. Kekasaran akan dibalas dengan kekasaran.”

Faisal kembali berdiri, tangannya masih memegang pistol. Luka pada bibir tidak disekanya. Dia tertanya-tanya akan mengapa Tomoe masih tidak tertidur selepas ditembak berkali-kali. Pada jarak yang dekat, sepatutnya tembakantembakan peluru pelali tadi memberikan kesakitan yang teramat. Perempuan itu langsung tidak mengerang.

“Bagaimana? Apa yang engkau mahu lakukan sekarang?” Pandangan Bakri tajam menikam Tomoe.

Tomoe sekadar meleret senyum. Tertawa. Perlahanlahan, Tomoe merenggangkan pegangannya pada tangan Bakri. Bakri turut melepaskan kilasannya.

Tomoe mendepangkan tangan. Seakan bersedia untuk menyerah.

Bakri tidak berganjak. Dia masih cuba membaca riak wajah perempuan di hadapannya ini yang langsung tidak mempamerkan rasa takut, bahkan sekelumit warna kekalahan pun tidak muncul. Hati Bakri tidak senang.

Hero mula bergerak menghampiri Tomoe.

“Hero-X035 melakukan tangkapan.”

Hero itu memberikan laporan. Kini, dia sudah terlalu hampir dengan Tomoe. Tangan Tomoe dicapainya untuk digari.

“Suspek seorang wanita, berbahasa Jepun, wajahnya menunjukkan keturunan dari negara yang sama. Latar belakangnya tidak ditemui dalam pangkalan data.” Tomoe meleretkan senyuman penuh makna. Bakri pula mengerutkan dahi.

“Berhenti!”

***

Langit dibaluti baldu kelam malam. Bulan tidak memunculkan diri. Hanya bintang-bintang yang bertamu. Angin sepoi-sepoi bahasa memukul apa sahaja di laluan mereka. Rumput-rumput beralun mengikut arus.

Mus’ab sudah bersedia. Kekuda sudah dibukanya. Tangan kanan siap untuk menghunus Muramasa, manakala tangan kiri sudah kejap pada sarung katana.

Di hadapannya, Goro, sedang memutarkan nagitana ke kiri dan ke kanan, sebelum senjata itu direhatkan pada tangan kanannya dan dipacakkan ke tanah. Ukiran naga pada pangkal bilah senjata itu bertujuan bukan sekadar hiasan, tetapi untuk menggerunkan musuh, kerana naga merupakan haiwan mitos yang gagah dan megah, bahkan ada yang menjadikannya sebagai Tuhan.

Tetapi tidak untuk Mus’ab.

Mereka kini berada di sebuah tanah lapang, tidak berapa jauh dari taman perumahannya. Tanah lapang yang terdapat di kaki bukit berdekatan. Jika hadir ke sini pada waktu siang, kehijauannya akan terserlah. Pada waktu petang, kadangkala ibu bapa akan membawa anak mereka untuk bermain layang-layang. Dan pada hujung minggu, tidak sedikit orang yang datang untuk mendaki bukit, melihat panorama Kotaraya Angsana.

Waktu sebegini, tempat ini tidak dilawati sesiapa. Senyap dan sunyi. Hanya tiang-tiang lampu sahaja memberikan cahaya.

“Ryujin, engkau sudah bersediakah?”

Mata Mus’ab tajam memandang rakan lamanya itu. Ujisato Goro. Seorang samurai yang sangat minat menggunakan senjata-senjata panjang. Kegemarannya, nagitana. Walaupun badan besar sering dipadankan dengan otak yang kecil, Goro bukan orang bodoh. Walaupun tidak segenius Nobu, Goro agak teliti dalam melakukan kerjanya.

Apabila Ryuken menghantar Goro, ia ibarat menghantar kereta kebal. Goro akan memecahkan barisan lawan, mengkucar-kacirkan mereka. Dengan nagitananya, Goro akan meragut banyak nyawa sekaligus, menusuk rasa gerun dan gentar pada jiwa lawan yang masih hidup.

“Persoalannya, Goro, apakah engkau telah bersedia?”

Matanya tajam memaku wajah Goro. Mus’ab seperti sedang berada di dalam elemennya. Memori sebagai algojo seakan meresap ke dalam tubuhnya. Mindanya pantas berfikir bagaimana dia akan menumbangkan lawan. Jarijemari kanannya mula bergerak-gerak, bersedia untuk menghunus Muramasa.

Goro mendengus, nagitana diangkatnya. Diputarkan, sebelum langkahannya dibuka, memecut ke hadapan. Dalam jarak sedepa dari Mus’ab, Goro melepaskan satu tusukan pantas. Deruan angin yang cukup kuat hadir bersama, menandakan daya yang diberikannya tidak kecil.

Mus’ab bergerak ke kanan, menjauhkan diri dari pusat serangan Goro dengan pergerakan yang amat pantas, seakan-akan telah menjangka yang tusukan itu akan diikuti libasan. Nagitana itu tinggal seinci lagi mahu merobek dadanya.

Goro tidak berhenti di situ. Apabila libasannya sempurna, Goro terus berputar dan dia terangkat ke udara, sebelum nagitana itu diangkatnya tinggi, dan dilibas kembali ke bumi.

Ketika ini Mus’ab berguling dan menjauhkan diri. Rumput-rumput menjadi mangsa, tanah merekah. Goro tidak membazirkan masa, berguling untuk merapatkan jaraknya dengan Mus’ab. Sekali lagi nagitana dilepaskan untuk menusuk Mus’ab. Mus’ab yang sudah menjangka ukuran senjata tersebut, berundur untuk mengelak diri daripada menjadi mangsa.

Goro tersengih. Mata Mus’ab terbeliak apabila senjata itu seakan memanjang. Hujung bilah nagitana menyentuh dadanya. Mujur Mus’ab sempat menolak tanah dengan kakinya untuk berundur dengan lebih jauh.

Goro berhenti. Begitu juga Mus’ab. Mata mereka bertembung. Mus’ab dapat melihat Goro sedang memegang nagitana itu hanya dengan jari telunjuk dan ibu jarinya, betulbetul di buntut senjata tersebut.

Goro menarik kembali nagitana-nya, merapatkan bilah senjata itu pada wajah. Senyuman sinis melebar. “Engkau cuai, Ryujin.” Darah Mus’ab yang terdapat pada hujung bilah itu dijilat.

Mus’ab tidak memberikan respons balas. Matanya mengerling pada dada. Luka, tetapi sedikit sahaja.

“Engkau cukup berani hadir ke mari tanpa pakaian tempur kita. Atau engkau telah membuangnya semasa engkau membuat keputusan mengkhianati kami?” Mata Goro menjegil. Suaranya meninggi. Buntut nagitana dihentak ke tanah.

Mus’ab masih kekal dalam kekudanya. Tangannya masih seperti awal-awal tadi. Bersiaga untuk menghunus Muramasa.

“Kehidupan kita ialah kehidupan yang sia-sia. Kuasa, duit, perempuan, arak, darah. Kemudian kita akan mati dan selepas itu apa?”

“Nama kita akan diingati!” Goro menepuk dada.

Mus’ab menggeleng. “Negara ini telah mengubah aku. Aku percaya dengan perjuangan negara ini. Negara ini memperkenalkan kepada aku erti Islam yang sebenar, yang kemudian membuatkan aku lebih faham erti menjadi seroang manusia. Aku sekarang tahu makna sebenar kehidupan. Aku hidup ada tujuan, dikelilingi orang-orang yang aku cintai.”

“Engkau telah ditipu. Minda engkau telah dibasuh. Orang-orang politik hanya mementingkan diri mereka sendiri. Agama hanya menimbulkan perbezaan dan menyemarak kematian. Tiada apa yang baik datang daripada kedua-duanya!”

“Jadi Ryuken merupakan alternatif yang lebih baik?” Mus’ab menengking.

“Bersama Ryuken, nasib kita terbela. Tidakkah engkau bersyukur dirimu dijumpai Ryuken, diberikan segalagalanya. Diajar mempertahankan diri, diajar menguasai. Semua orang di Jepun tunduk kepada organisasi kita. Kita memegang segala-galanya!”

“Itu namanya mementingkan diri!”

“Engkau itu yang tidak reti menghargai!” Goro meludah.

“Ryuken hanya mahu menguasai dunia. Malaysia menjadi seteru kerana negara ini sering mematahkan usahausaha Ryuken, bukan? Malaysia telah berjaya membebaskan diri daripada korupsi, dan mula membina ketamadunan. Ryuken tidak lagi boleh mengambil peluang daripada itu semua, bukan? Itu sebabnya Ryuken mengaktifkan aku. Untuk melakukan kerja-kerja kotor semula! Engkau patut membuka mata, Goro!”

Goro mendengus. “Engkau sudah jauh dirosakkan, Ryujin. Benar arahan daripada Koro untuk engkau dihapuskan. Engkau akan menjadi ancaman kepada kami!”

Mus’ab menggeleng. “Aku sebenarnya mahu negara ini sahaja berurusan dengan kalian. Aku yakin mereka mampu melakukannya. Aku tidak mahu masuk campur dengan ini semua, aku tidak mahu lagi menumpahkan darah. Tetapi apabila Shiryu menggugut mahu memperapa-apakan keluargaku sekiranya aku tidak menyahut seruan pengaktifan, ketika itu kalian telah menjadikan aku ancaman.”

“Maka engkau akan menjadi algojo semula untuk kepentingan diri sendiri? Hah, hipokrit!” Goro mengangkat nagitana-nya.

Mus’ab tidak terus membalas. “Aku menjadi alogojo semula untuk diriku, keluargaku, negaraku dan agamaku. Aku tidak akan membiarkan Ryuken menjayakan agendanya.”

Goro ketawa. Semakin lama, semakin kuat.

“Mengapa? Terlalu lawakkah?” Dahi Mus’ab berkerut.

“Engkau tidak tahu agenda kami yang terkini, Ryujin. Bagaimana engkau mahu menghalang kami?” Goro memandang tepat ke arah Mus’ab. “Hah?” Suaranya ditinggikan, mengherdik.

Mus’ab diam. Daripada bicara Goro, dia menghidu Ryuken kini mempunyai agenda rahsia. Apa-apa sahaja agenda Ryuken pula biasanya berbahaya. Kegagalan berkalikali untuk menundukkan Malaysia melalui organisasiorganisasi dunia gelap, ternyata memberikan pukulan hebat kepada Ryuken. Negara ini negara strategik yang mereka mahukan berada dalam genggaman dan kawalan mereka. Ryuken sedang terdesak.

Orang yang terdesak biasanya berani pergi lebih jauh untuk mendapatkan apa yang diperlukan olehnya.

“Engkau pasti tertanya-tanya, apa agenda kami bukan? Hah.” Goro mengacukan nagitana-nya ke arah Mus’ab. Lelaki itu sudah bersiap untuk melancarkan serangan.

“Aku akan mengetahuinya.” Mus’ab menjawab dengan tenang. Dia tidak mahu menunjukkan apa-apa bibit kelemahan kepada musuhnya. “Dengan menumbangkan engkau.”

“Hah, aku beritahu satu rahsia.”

Mus’ab diam, memberikan peluang Goro menghabiskan bicaranya.

“Aku tidak tahu apa-apa.” Goro ketawa berdekahdekah. “Apa yang aku tahu, engkau akan mati pada malam ini.”

Goro kemudiannya terus memecut ke hadapan.

Mus’ab menanti. Bersedia untuk mengelak. Tetapi Goro mengejutkannya dengan melemparkan nagitana seperti lembing. Daya yang dikenakan pula kuat, menyebabkan senjata itu meluncur terlalu pantas.

Mus’ab hanya berjaya mengelak dengan jarak seinci cuma. Bajunya rabak, namun mujur tubuhnya tidak tercedera. Ketika ini, Mus’ab menangkap desiran angin yang kuat. Tidak sempat dia memandang semula ke arah Goro, tubuhnya sudah dirangkul erat dan dibawa menghentam tanah.

Dia dan Goro berguling, sambil Goro melepaskan tumbukan-tumbukan kepada tubuhnya.

“Engkau terlalu angkuh, Ryujin. Engkau tidak menghunuskan Muramasa walaupun aku telah menunjukkan sikap sebagai seorang Samurai kepada engkau. Mengajak engkau untuk menyelesaikan ini dengan pertarungan adil daripada menamatkan nyawa engkau dengan serangan hendap!”

Mus’ab kemudiannya menggerakkan tangan kanannya, menyiku wajah Goro. Darah tersembur dari mulut dan hidung Goro. Tangan kirinya yang merangkul leher Mus’ab, terpaksa dilepaskan.

Mus’ab segera bangkit dan kembali membuka kekuda. Tangan kanannya kembali ke posisi asal, bersiap untuk menghunus Muramasa. Darah yang terkeluar dari mulut, akibat ditumbuk berkali-kali, tidak disekanya.

Goro bangkit. Menyeka darah yang mengalir dari hidung dan mulutnya. Dia memandang sebentar pada cecair merah itu. Kemudian mengoyak sengihan lebar apabila melihat Mus’ab masih kekal dengan postur asal. Menggeleng.

“Engkau menghina aku, Ryujin.”

Goro bergerak mendapatkan nagitana-nya. Senjata itu diputarkan sebelum berhenti pada tangan kanannya.

“Engkau mahu aku membuat kesalahan, kemudian engkau akan menebas kepalaku hanya dengan satu libasan? Teknik menghunus pedang?”

“Aku sebenarnya memberikan engkau peluang, Goro.”

Mata Goro membesar. “Apa dia?”

“Aku sebenarnya mahu memberikan engkau peluang. Untuk hidup. Untuk berubah.”

“Macam engkau?”

“Masih belum terlambat.”

Goro ketawa dengan galak. “Aku tidak sangka engkau seteruk ini, Ryujin. Tidak sepatutnya aku melayan engkau seperti seorang samurai. Engkau sekarang hanyalah ronin. Memalukan!” Goro bersiap untuk serangan yang seterusnya.

Mus’ab menghela nafas. “Ryuken tidak pernah punya agenda yang baik. Ryuken tidak pernah kisah sebenarnya akan orang politik atau agama. Ryuken hanya mahu semua tunduk pada telunjuk mereka. Bergerak di sebalik bayang, mengutip laba.”

“Membela anak-anak yatim seperti kita, Ryujin. Jangan engkau lupa! Anak-anak yang ditinggalkan di jalanan, anak-anak yang terbiar. Masyarakat hanya akan membiarkan kita mati, tanpa pendidikan, tanpa makanan, tanpa pembelaan. Tetapi Ryuken memberikan kita kuasa, harta! Ryujin, tanpa Ryuken, engkau telah lama mati di Okinawa!”

“Kawakami menyelamatkan aku. Tetapi, Goro, siapa yang menggerakkan Kawakami?”

“Hah?” Goro mengerutkan dahi.

“Siapa yang menggerakkan laut untuk menolak aku ke pantai tempat Kawakami sering berlatih?”

Goro terdiam.

“Siapa yang membuka hati Kawakami, yang kita kenal sebagai orang tua yang garang, tegas, tidak berbelas kasihan, untuk mengutip budak yang sudah nyawa-nyawa ikan pada hari itu?”

Mata Goro menjegil. Seperti dapat menjangka apa yang mahu diperkatakan oleh Mus’ab.

“Allah. Tuhan Semesta Alam.” Mus’ab menjawab yakin.

“Celaka. Engkau benar-benar telah dibasuh oleh negara ini!” Goro meludah.

“Aku berterima kasih dengan Ryuken kerana membesarkan aku. Mengajar aku banyak perkara. Tetapi aku telah meninggalkan kehidupan itu.”

Mus’ab menajamkan pandangan. Seolah-olah dengan pandangannya sahaja, dia mahu menamatkan nyawa Goro. Itu membuatkan Goro tambah berang.

“Jangan paksa aku untuk kembali!”

“Kurang ajar!” Goro menengking. Nagitana dihunusnya. Kakinya memecut ke hadapan. “Engkau tidak lagi perlu kembali. Engkau hanya perlu mati!”

Kali ini Mus’ab tidak berganjak. Dia menanti untuk menyambut serangan Goro.

Goro melepaskan nagitana-nya untuk menusuk tubuh Mus’ab. Mus’ab menghunus Muramasa, menebas nagitana itu ke tanah. Senjata itu tidak terbelah, tetapi kini bilah dan sebahagian batangnya sudah jatuh menyembah bumi. Goro mahu mengambil peluang itu dengan melepaskan senjatanya, mara untuk menjamu wajah Mus’ab dengan kedua-dua penumbuknya.

Tetapi Mus’ab segera melepaskan serangan kedua, yakni tangan kirinya menghayun sarung katana, tepat melandas ke pipi Goro. Keras dan deras. Belum sempat Goro tumbang ke bumi, Muramasa sudah diangkat semula dan merodok dada musuhnya itu.

Mata Goro terbelalak. Semuanya berlaku dalam keadaan yang tersangat pantas. Tidak lama kemudian, mulutnya memuntahkan darah. Tusukan itu tepat mengenai jantungnya.

“Maafkan aku, kawan.” Mata Mus’ab bertaut dengan pandangan terakhir Goro.

Goro yang mengenakan pakaian tempur khas, ditenun oleh fabrik yang sepatutnya dapat menghalang cantasan dan tembakan. Tetapi di hadapan Muramasa, pakaian tersebut ibarat pakaian biasa.

Mus’ab tidak lupa menajamkan senjatanya ketika bersiap menerima ‘tetamu’.

“Engkau akan mendapat balasan atas pengkhianatan ini.” Goro bersuara, buat kali terakhir, sebelum anak matanya terangkat, bola matanya menjadi putih, dan Mus’ab menarik kembali Muramasa, kemudian menyahkan darah dengan satu libasan, sebelum dimasukkan kembali ke dalam sarung, hampir serentak dengan tika tubuh Goro menyembah tanah.

Mus’ab memandang pemandu yang setia menanti di hujung padang. Pemandu itu tidak menunjukkan apa-apa reaksi. Mus’ab tahu pemandu tersebut bukan operatif tempur. Hanya pekerja kolar putih.

Mus’ab memandang tubuh Goro yang sudah tidak bernyawa. Menghela nafas panjang.

Ryuken ada agenda, dan nampaknya tidak kecil.

“Lambat lagi baru segalanya dapat kembali seperti biasa, sayang …” Mus’ab bersuara, seakan sedang berbicara dengan isterinya. “… atau dapatkah segalanya kembali seperti biasa?”

Mus’ab tidak pasti, pandangan jatuh pada senjatanya.

Tanpa disangka-sangka, langit kelam menjadi terang-benderang. Satu letupan yang maha kuat berlaku. Terlalu kuat sehingga suasana seperti menjadi siang seketika. Cukup untuk membuatkan telinga Mus’ab berdesing walaupun dia berada jauh dari tempat kejadian.

Mata Mus’ab terbelalak. Apabila suasana kembali gelap, Mus’ab dapat melihat asap seperti asap roket, menjadi seperti menara. Daripada posisi asap tersebut, Mus’ab menjangka ada sesuatu yang terbang ke langit sebelum letupan berlaku.

Posisi asap itu juga membuatkan Mus’ab tahu ia berlaku di tengah-tengah Kotaraya Angsana.

Segera dia memandang pemandu di hujung tanah lapang. Mus’ab mengacukan Muramasa yang bersarung itu ke arahnya.

“Kamu! Aku perlukan kenderaan itu!”

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] TUNGGU AIRA DI KOTA BANDUNG

Tunggu Aira di Kota Bandung oleh Nirrosette

 

EH ABANG! Kak Ilah!” Aira yang sedang duduk di atas kerusi di sisi Encik Zainudin spontan bangun dari duduk. Terkejut apabila tiba-tiba sahaja abang dan kakak iparnya terpacak di depan mata. “Bila sampai Singapore?”

“Malam tadi. Phone Aira minta kena buang dalam gaung eh? Abang telefon banyak kali tak dapat, abangWhatsApp tak reply,” rungut Yusuf rendah. Ketika sampai di Lapangan Terbang Changi semalam, orang pertama yang Yusuf cari ialah Aira. Tapi, hampeh! Panggilannya tak berjawab pun. Mulanya Yusuf nak pulang ke rumah letak bagasinya dahulu sebelum ke hospital. Tapi apabila sampai di rumah, mama ada di rumah. Kata mama waktu melawat dah habis. Cuma seorang aje yang boleh duduk teman pesakit dalam wad. Jadi Yusuf dan Nabilah batalkan sahaja hasrat mereka untuk melawat abah.

Memandangkan malam sebelumnya Puan Suhaida yang tidur di sini, jadi malam tadi Aira menawarkan diri untuk menemani abah. Lagipun, memang seluruh tubuh Puan Suhaida sakit-sakit sebab tidur di atas kerusi.

Alamak! “Phone Aira dah mati la. Aira lupa nak bawa charger. Mama mana? Aira pesan pada mama suruh bawakan charger phone Aira.”

“Mama ada dekat rumah. Mama nak masak dulu, nanti dia datang.” Memandangkan Yusuf dengan Nabilah dah pulang, takkan nak makan nasi bungkus aje kan. Kesian pula Puan Suhaida pada anak dan menantunya tu. Sebab itu pagi-pagi lagi dia sudah ke pasar dahulu, beli apa-apa yang patut untuk memasak. Boleh juga bawakan untuk Aira, jadi Aira tak payahlah beli makanan di medan selera. Makanan di medan selera tu punyalah mahal. Kalau sedap tak apa juga.

“Doktor kata apa fasal abah, Aira?” soal Nabilah perlahan sambil melirik ke arah bapa mertuanya yang sedang tidur. Dah berselimut macam tu, mana Nabilah nampak apa-apa.

“Lengan abah cuma luka-luka sikit je sebab terkena serpihan kaca. Kaki kanan abah yang tercedera. Tapi doktor cakap tak serius. Dalam sehari dua dah boleh keluar dah.”

“Macam mana abah boleh accident ni sebenarnya?” soal Yusuf pula, ingin tahu. Memang Puan Suhaida tak beritahu sangat tentang kecelakaan yang menimpa abahnya. Yang Yusuf tahu, abah kemalangan, tapi tak serius, masuk wad biasa. Tu aje.

“Entah,” Aira angkat bahu. Tak terlintas pula nak tanya Encik Zainudin butir-butir kejadian tersebut. Yang penting, Aira tahu abah selamat. Itu sudah cukup.

Honeymoon macam mana Kak Ilah? Seronok tak? Banyak shopping?” Aira mengalih pandang pada Nabilah yang sedang tercegat di sebelah Yusuf. “Duduk sinilah kak. Biar abang seorang je berdiri.” Sempat Aira menepuk kerusi yang kosong di sebelahnya, mempelawa Nabilah duduk.

Wad kelas A1 tu memang cuma ada dua buah kerusi aje. Kalau ada ramai-ramai orang, terpaksalah berdiri.

“Hong Kong memang best! Kita ada belikan Aira sesuatu, nanti balik rumah akak bagi okey.”

“Beli apa? Beli apa? Beli apa?” Dah bersinar-sinar mata Aira memandang Nabilah. Memang haruslah dia orang belikan Aira oleh-oleh. Mana boleh tak belikan! Aira merajuk setahun karang.

“Adalah,” Yusuf pula bersuara, menyampuk. “Balik nanti kita bagi. Kita pun belum unpack lagi ni. Semalam balik terus knock out tidur, penat sangat. Pagi ni pulak terus ke sini.”

“Okey, tak apa.” Aira sedia maklum abang dan kakak iparnya pasti keletihan. Takkan nak buat perangai budak-budak kan desak suruh beri sekarang.

“Ni Aira cuti sampai bila?”

“Sampai hujung tahunlah, Januari depan Aira ada practicum.”

“Lepas tu graduate?”

Yeap!”

“Yusuf?” Teguran Encik Zainudin mematikan terus perbualan mereka. Suara lelaki itu serak sedikit, pastinya dia tersedar daripada lena apabila mendengar suara orang berbual. Dia cuba mengesot bangun namun lekas-lekas Yusuf membantu membetulkan letak bantal untuk Encik Zainudin bersandar.

“Abah….” Tangan Encik Zainudin diraih untuk disalami. “Abah okey?”

“Abah okeylah.” Bosan pula Encik Zainudin apabila ditanya soalan yang sama tak tahu untuk kali ke berapa ratus.

Semalam aje apabila ada saudara-mara dan teman-teman yang datang menziarahi, penat rasanya mengulang jawapan yang sama. Rasa macam nak ambil pita perakam aje jadi, apabila orang tanya boleh tekan ‘play’. Memanglah niat dia orang baik datang untuk berziarah, tapi kalau dah datang beramai-ramai macam nak buat parti, pening kepala Encik Zainudin nak melayan. “Suf dengan Ilah baru sampai ke ni?”

“Baru jugak bah, dalam sepuluh minit kut.”

“Kenapa tak kejut abah?”

“Abah kan tengah tidur, tak naklah ganggu.”

“Hmm…” Encik Zainudin tak mengulas lanjut.

“Ilah, ambilkan abah air.” Pintanya pada Nabilah.

Nabilah menoleh ke sisi, terpandang satu jag air jarang dan gelas yang terletak di atas meja di sebelahnya. Lincah sahaja tangan Nabilah mencapai gelas tersebut lalu dituangkan air ke dalamnya.

“Sekarang pukul berapa?” soal Encik Zainudin selepas mengambil beberapa teguk air.

“Pukul sepuluh,” jawab Aira pantas. Kebetulan waktu itu dia memang tengah tengok jam di pergelangan tangan.

“Mama tak datang saing Suf dengan Ilah ke?”

“Tak,” Yusuf menggelengkan kepalanya.

“Mama cakap lepas zuhur nanti dia datang.”

“Oh.” Encik Zainudin mengangguk sedikit. “Reza?”

“Hah?” Aira dah ternganga mendengarkan soalan Encik Zainudin.

“Reza?” Yusuf pula dah pandang Encik Zainudin dengan dahi yang berlapis. “Reza siapa?” Seingat Yusuf, dia tak ada pun saudara-mara bernama Reza. Rizal ada, Reza tak ada. Ke Yusuf yang salah dengar tadi?

“Reza, kawan Aira,” jelas Encik Zainudin. Dia meneguk lagi air yang berbaki daripada gelasnya. “Dia tak datang hari ni?”

Aira dah terkebil-kebil tak tahu nak jawab apa. Lebih-lebih lagi dengan renungan tajam abangnya yang menuntut penjelasan. Aira kehilangan kata-kata. Sejak bila Reza tu ada kepentingan pada abah sampai nak kena datang hari-hari, eh?

SO, siapa Reza ni?”

Aira mengangkat mata ke atas mendengarkan soalan Yusuf. Dia memang dah agak dah ini tujuan sebenar kenapa Yusuf ajak dia turun menemaninya ke 7-Eleven. Bukannya Yusuf nak beli apa-apa tapi sengaja nak mengorek cerita.

“Budak Perbayu.”

“Kawan?”

“Sort of.”

Sort of?” Yusuf menyoal kembali, pelik. Apa punya jawapan tu? “Oh… maksud Aira, bukan kawan je eh? Lebih daripada kawan eh?”

No.” Langkah Aira terhenti. Dia berpusing, menghadap abangnya sambil memeluk tubuh. “I don’t think we’re even friends to begin with.”

“Hah?” Makinlah Yusuf tak faham. “Apa kata kita duduk kat situ kejap? Susahlah nak berbual macam ni.” Tanpa menunggu balasan Aira, terus sahaja Yusuf menarik tangan Aira untuk menurut langkah ke sebuah bangku berdekatan.

“Okey, sekarang cerita pada abang A sampai Z.”

“Tak ada ceritalah,” Aira menuturkan datar. Dia tunduk meramas jemari di riba. Dia teruja sebenarnya apabila Yusuf balik. Aira nak tanya macam-macam tentang percutian abangnya. Tapi kalau inilah topik yang Yusuf nak bincangkan, baik tak payah.

“Aira.” Panggil Yusuf lagi, memaksa anak gadis itu untuk memandang ke arahnya. “Pandang abang.”

“Tak nak.”

“Kenapa tak nak? Takut? Aira memang ada sembunyikan sesuatu daripada abang, kan?”

Aira menggelengkan kepalanya laju, menidakkan.

“Tipu.”

“Fine!” Aira dah angkat kedua-dua belah tangan, menyerah kalah. Malas lagi hendak berdolak-dalik. Yusuf memang macam tu, kalau dia nak tahu sesuatu, dia akan korek habis-habisan sampai dia puas hati. Dan Aira tak pandai berahsia dengan Yusuf. Kalau dengan orang lain, Aira boleh tipu. Tapi kalau dengan Abang Yusuf, Aira tak boleh nak lari.

“Dia duduk dekat hall sama dengan Aira. Aira tak suka dia. Tapi mana-mana Aira pergi, Aira nampak dia. Kebetulan masa Aira dapat panggilan daripada mama fasal abah kemalangan tu, dia tercongok depan muka Aira. Jadi dia hantar Aira pergi hospital and the rest is history. Puas?” Senafas Aira menuturkan. Punya laju! Mujur juga Yusuf bangsa yang cepat tangkap. Memang dah biasa dah dengan adiknya yang berbual laju apabila sedang beremosi.

“Kenapa Aira tak suka dia?”

“Kenapa Aira tak suka dia?” Aira tidak segera menjawab. Kenapa Aira tak suka Reza? Sebab Reza mengingatkan Aira tentang Faisal! Sebab tulah. Tapi kalau Aira jawab macam tu, agak-agak, Abang Yusuf pancung tak kepala Aira?

“Aira…” Yusuf memanggil lagi. “Kenapa Aira tak suka dia?”

“Dia orang Indonesia.”

“And?” Kening Yusuf terangkat sebelah. Dia orang Indonesia. Okey, jadi?

“Dia ingatkan Aira pada seseorang.”

“Seseorang…?” Yusuf masih lagi samar-samar. Tak tahu ke mana arah dan hala tuju perbualan ini. Sorry la Aira, kalau nak bagi abang teka-teki macam ni, memang abang tak pandai huraikan. “Siapa?”

“Faisal Syahindra.” Aneh, lancar sahaja bibir Aira menyebutkan nama itu. Seolah-olah nama itu sudah terbiasa meniti di bibir Aira sedangkan dah bertahun kut Aira tak sebut nama tu.

Oh! Untuk seketika Yusuf senyap. Mana mungkin Yusuf lupakan nama lelaki yang pernah menghancurkan hati adiknya suatu masa dahulu.

“Dia macam Faisal ke? In what way?”

“Entah.” Aira angkat bahu. “Bila Aira tengok dia, Aira nampak Faisal. Aira tak suka.”

“You’re not over…”

Belum sempat Yusuf menghabiskan ayat, Aira terlebih dahulu memotong. “Yes, mungkin Aira belum boleh lupakan Faisal. Tapi bukannya Aira masih sayang kat dia. Tolonglah. Aira cuma tak boleh maafkan apa dia buat. Yang tinggal dalam hati Aira untuk Faisal cuma rasa benci dan marah. Apabila Aira nampak Reza, automatically I felt the same way towards him. I can’t help it.” Aira terhenti sejenak untuk menarik nafas. “I’ve learnt to accept fate, yes. But I’ve yet to master the art of forgiving. All it took me was eight days to fall in love. But it’s taking a lifetime to forget the pain, abang.

“Tapi Reza tak bersalah. You’re not being fair to him.”

“Aira tahu!” kasar Aira membalas. Dia meraup wajahnya berkali-kali. Aira sedia maklum, Reza tak patut menerima layanan sebegitu daripada Aira. Tapi Aira tak tahu nak buat macam mana lagi. Sangka Aira, mengelakkan diri daripada Reza ialah cara yang terbaik. Tapi Aira tersilap. Semakin Aira cuba mengelak, Reza semakin datang mendekat.

Saat itu Aira teringat pada kata-kata semangat pemberian Humairah yang ditampal di meja studinya.

But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.

Potongan ayat yang ditafsirkan daripada surah al-Baqarah ayat 216 itu seakan-akan sesuai dengan situasi Aira sekarang. Sesungguhnya dalam apa jua yang berlaku, Dia lebih tahu kan? Pertemuan ini tidak akan berlaku tanpa keizinan-Nya. Pasti ada sesuatu yang cuba Dia sampaikan kepada Aira. Cuma Aira sahaja yang tidak tahu apa.

“Why don’t you make your life easier?” 

“How do I do that?”

“Maafkan dia lepas tu move on.”

“Senang je kan abang cakap? Aira dah cuba okey, sumpah Aira cuba. Aira dah tak ingat pun fasal dia. Tapi apabila Reza muncul dalam hidup Aira, semua jadi huru-hara.”

“Keadaan jadi huru-hara sebab Aira kaitkan dia dengan Faisal. Cuba Aira berkawan dengan Reza sebab siapa dia. Don’t think of where he came from or his race or anything.”

“Susah la abang. Reza selalu dibayangi Faisal.”

“Mungkin susah tapi tak mustahil, kan? Cuba ubah persepsi Aira tentang Reza. Reza dan Faisal ialah dua orang yang berlainan. Abang yakin mesti personaliti dia pun berbeza. Maybe now you think Reza and Faisal are similar a little bit here and there. But do you even know Reza in the first place? Aira tak kenal Reza kan? Kalau Aira dah kenal Reza dengan lebih dalam, abang yakin mesti Aira akan sedar Reza jauh berbeza daripada Faisal. Masalahnya, abang tak rasa Aira beri Reza peluang pun untuk mengenali Aira. Kan?”

Aira tertunduk mendengar nasihat Yusuf yang panjang berjela. Ada betulnya juga kata-kata Abang Yusuf. Aira terlalu cepat menghakimi Reza pada tanggapan pertama. Memanglah tak adil untuk Reza.

“Why don’t the next time you see him, try to be a little friendly. Boleh?”

“Erk?”

“Bukan la abang suruh Aira gedik ke apa! Just be nice. Jangan pandang dia macam nak bunuh orang.” Lekas-lekas Yusuf menjelaskan. Bukan Yusuf tak tahu, pandangan membunuh Aira memang mengerikan. Macam manalah orang nak dekat kalau muka masam mencuka, langsung tak senyum. Kalau pergi temu duga pun mesti tak lepas tau.

“Tengoklah macam mana,” acuh tak acuh Aira menjawab. Lagipun, Aira sendiri tak pasti bila dia akan bertemu Reza lagi. Mungkin dah tak jumpa kut. Jadi tak pentinglah kan pesanan Yusuf ni.

“Tak ada tengok-tengok. Abang nak Aira janji Aira akan cuba.”

Yelah yelah. Aira janji,” Aira menuturkan malas. Tangan kanannya diangkat konon-konon macam tengah angkat sumpah.

“You know… the stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget.”

The wise forgive but do not forget,” Aira pantas sahaja memotong, melengkapkan ayat Yusuf yang dipetik daripada buku karya Thomas Szasz. Kalau temannya, Farah, rasa pelik bagaimana Aira boleh hafal-hafal quote bagai ni semua, Farah patut jumpa dengan abang Aira. The master of quotes. Daripada Yusuf jugalah Aira mula minat untuk membaca buku- buku motivasi dan ilmiah, taklah asyik melayan novel cinta sahaja.

Yusuf sudah tersengih memandang adiknya itu. Kepala adiknya diusap perlahan. “Tau pun!”

“Tudung Aira jangan buat mainlah!” Cepat sahaja Aira menepis tangan abangnya yang sudah mendarat di atas kepala.

Yusuf terkekeh ketawa melihat Aira dah kelam-kabut betulkan letak tudungnya. Sebijik macam isterinya Nabilah. Tudung tu sensitif okey. Boleh merajuk dua minit kalau Yusuf usik. “Jomlah, kita naik atas. Lama pulaknanti dia orang tunggu.”

Beriringan mereka melangkah menuju ke lif, ingin ke atas. Ketika hendak melangkah masuk ke dalam bilik, langkah Aira mati apabila terdengar suara seseorang yang sedang bergelak tawa bersama abah, mama dan Kak Ilah. Yusuf dah tertoleh-toleh ke belakang apabila Aira tidak menurut langkahnya masuk ke dalam.

“Kenapa?” Yusuf menyoal tanpa suara.

Aira sudah melopong. Matanya bulat. Tubuhnya terkaku di hadapan pintu. “Kat dalam tu Reza!”

 

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