[SNEAK PEEK] LANGKAH

LANGKAH Oleh Dayang Noor

Bila Onny dan Jannah mengajaknya keluar hujung minggu itu, Saleha cepat-cepat bersetuju. Tak sabar rasanya hendak bercerita dengan rakan-rakannya tentang Bago. Kalau selama ini dia sekadar mendengar kisah romantis percintaan Jannah dan Abang Supervisor kilang, kali ini biar mereka pula ternganga mendengar cerita cintanya.

“Handsome ke? Cute ke? Macam mana rupa Bago kau ni?” Onny begitu teruja bila Saleha mula memberi mukadimah kisah pertemuannya dengan lelaki itu.

“Kalau kau tengok mesti kau kata dia biasa-biasa je. Tapi bagi aku, aku rasa muka dia manislah. Tak jemu pandang. Rasa macam nak tengok siang malam.” Saleha tersenyum malu-malu. Selama ini dia memang jarang memuji lelaki di depan rakan-rakannya. Malah, dia tak pernah jatuh hati dengan mana-mana lelaki pun.

“Dia kerja apa? Dah lama ke datang sini? Ada permit ke tak?” Jannah kedengaran seperti sedikit skeptikal.

“Dia kerja dekat-dekat situlah kot. Kat Seri Jati tu kan ada banyak kilang…”

“Laaa! Kau tak tau ke dia kerja apa? Entah-entah kerja cuci jamban.”

Wajah Saleha tiba-tiba berubah. “Hey! Tak ada bau jambanlah masa aku lepak dengan dia!”

“Oh! Dah pernah keluar datinglah ni? Tak cakap dengan kitorang pun, kan? Kedekut betul kau ni. Kenapa? Takut aku rampas Bago daripada kau ke?” Onny pula mengusik dan Saleha ketawa tertahan-tahan.

“Bukan datinglah, lepak kat area pasar malam tu je. Itupun waktu aku dah habis berniaga.”

Jannah mencubit paha rakannya yang kian kurus itu. “Itu dah kira datinglah, Leha. Kau tau tak masa first time aku dating dengan Abang Haikal, kitorang duduk dekat tepi stor waktu tea break aje, tau.”

“Boyfriend kau tu nama Haikal? Eeeeiiii… handsome-nya nama. Mesti orangnya pun handsome, kan?”

“Bolehlah. Yang penting, dia pandai ambik hati aku,” kata Jannah sambil menayangkan gelang tangan yang bersinar-sinar hingga mencuri perhatian Saleha.

“Amboi! Pandora ke tu? Untunglah kau Jannah.” Saleha tak dapat nafikan dia sedikit cemburu. Dia tahu gelang tangan jenama itu bukan murah.

“Ada satu charm je dekat bracelet tu, Leha. Kau tak payah nak kagum sangat…” Onny tiba-tiba mencelah membuatkan Jannah menarik muka.

“Hey! Bracelet kosong takde charm pun dah berapa ratus harga dia, woi!”

“Onny mana tahu pasal benda-benda macam ni, Leha. Dia tahu .mp3 player, speaker, ear phone, pastu lagu-lagu baru Taylor Swift. Itupun semua kena beli sendiri sebab takde boyfriend nak bagi.” Giliran Jannah pula mengenakan Onny.

“Oit! Cakap baik sikit, eh!” Onny menayangkan buku penumbuk.

“Tak payah gaduhlah, korang ni. Syukurlah boleh dapat benda-benda tu semua. Aku ni?” Saleha mengeluh perlahan dan rakan-rakannya terdiam lalu merenung ke arahnya.

Onny memeluk bahu Saleha. “InsyaAllah nasib kau akan berubah nanti, Leha. Manalah tau, entah-entah Bago ni sebenarnya Prince Charming kau.”

“Tapi kau check dulu dia ada permit ke tak,” Jannah memberi peringatan menyebabkan Saleha ketawa terkekeh kerana pesanan itu kedengaran lucu. “Kau jangan gelak, Leha. Kalau kau dah kawin dengan dia, lepas tu dia kena hantar balik Myanmar, nanti kau juga yang menangis sorang-sorang…”

Tawa Saleha terhenti. “Ya, OK-lah, nanti aku tanya dia.”

“Ha! Mesti dah plan untuk next date ni. Waaaah! Seronoklah tu!” Onny yang tadinya memeluk Saleha terus menunjal-nunjal bahu rakannya itu.

“Tak plan pun. Tapi rumah dia dekat je dengan rumah Mak Su. Mesti selalu jumpa. Lagipun dia selalu datang pasar malam tu.” Saleha menepis tangan Onny yang tak henti-henti menunjalnya.

“Mesti dia dah kemaruk makan cekodok kau, kan? Kau dah mandrem cekodok tu, eh? Dahsyat kau ni,” usik Jannah lagi.

Saleha ketawa.

“Tak baik oi main ilmu hitam ni. Syirik kau tau? Syirik!” Onny menambah membuatkan tawa Saleha kian kuat.

Sudah terlalu lama dia tak ketawa hingga keluar air mata begitu. Pulang dari bertemu Jannah dan Onny, hatinya berasa begitu lapang. Ada lagu Ziana Zain berputar-putar dalam kepalanya. Dia mula bernyanyi-nyanyi lagu Syurga Di Hati Kitadengan kuat. Beberapa budak-budak lelaki yang sedang berehat di tepi padang permainan memandangnya dengan sedikit hairan. Mungkin kerana dia kelihatan seperti perempuan gila yang berjalan sambil bernyanyi dan tersenyum-senyum sendiri.

“Kau pergi mana? Punyalah lama keluar!” Kata-kata separa menengking dari mulut Hafiz menyambut Saleha di muka pintu.

Kegembiraan yang bertandang tadi terus mati. “Saya pergi minum dengan Jannah dan Onny. Kenapa? Tak boleh ke?” soalnya semula sambil terus berjalan ke bilik. Dia malas nak bercakap dengan abangnya itu lama-lama.

“Minum dari pagi sampai ke petang? Korang minum apa?” Abang Hafiz mengekornya sampai ke bilik. “Baik cakap betul-betul kau pergi mana lagi.”

Saleha mengeluh panjang. “Tak pergi mana-mana. Minum, makan, borak-borak… itu aje. Saya bukannya ada duitpun nak pergi shopping-shopping macam orang lain.” Bosannya bila terpaksa melayan soalan-soalan sebegini daripada abang sendiri.

“Kalau aku tanya je, menjawab kau ni sekarang, kan? Belajar mana ni?”

“Abang tanya, saya jawablah. Kalau tak jawab karang, kena marah juga, kan?”

“Dahlah menjawab, dah pandai enjoy-enjoy pula tu. Mana duit kau meniaga sate selama ni? Semua dah habis buat enjoy, ya?” Hafiz menolak pintu bilik dan masuk ke dalam.

“Berapa ringgit sangatlah yang saya dapat. Semua dah belanja buat beli sabun, ubat gigi, bedak, spenda, pad, selipar, kain, baju. Apa lagi yang tinggal? Nak top-up telefon pun selalu tak cukup.”

Hafiz terdiam. Dia memang tahu sebanyak mana Mak Su upah Saleha tapi dia tak ada pilihan. Saleha tak boleh dibiarkan bebas seperti kawan-kawannya yang lain.

Hubungan Saleha dan abangnya kian keruh bila petang itu Mak Su minta tolong siang ayam dan Hafiz buat tak tahu saja.

“Mak Su minta tolong tu, abang dengar ke tak?” soal Saleha ketika berdiri di muka pintu bilik abangnya, merenungnya penuh marah.

“Bila pulak aku ni jadi pekerja dia? Dia upah kau, kan? Ha, kaulah yang pergi siang ayam tu!” jawab Hafiz tanpa menoleh.

 

****

Sementara Makcik Nina berehat selepas makan tengah hari, Saleha berbaring di bilik tempat dia solat tadi. Fikirannya masih bercelaru. Ke mana arahnya selepas ini? Bagaimana dia mahu pastikan Bago ataupun orang upahan Haji Malik takkan dapat mencarinya?

Resit tambah nilai yang dibeli di 7-Eleven pagi tadi dikeluarkan dari dompet. Dia telah mengecas telefon bimbit yang sudah sekian lama tidak dihidupkan. Sungguhpun tidak membawa pengecas sendiri, mujurlah Makcik Nina menggunakan jenama telefon yang sama.

“Kita berdua je dekat Malaysia ni agaknya yang masih guna telefon kurun ke-18 ni,” gurau Makcik Nina ketika dia bertanya tentang pengecas itu tadi.

Selesai memasukkan kod tambah nilai, jantung Saleha berdetak kencang melihat jumlah pesanan suara dan SMS yang tidak pernah dibaca. Dia tiba-tiba jadi takut dan cepat-cepat mematikan kembali telefon itu lalu disimpannya di dalam beg.

Pintu bilik diketuk sebelum ditolak perlahan-lahan oleh Makcik Nina.

“Anak sedara makcik telefon tadi,” bisiknya dengan wajah yang begitu serius, membuatkan Saleha sedikit cemas.

“Kenapa makcik?”

“Katanya ada orang bergaduh di Rumah Selamat pagi tadi. Dua orang mati, dua orang cedera parah. Kamu ada di situ ke masa tu?”

Saleha terus tersentak dan terbeliak. Siapa yang mati? Dia tak tahu bagaimana hendak ceritakan segala-galanya kepada Makcik Nina. Dia hanya mengangguk beberapa kali sebelum air mata laju mengalir ke pipi.

“Ya Allah. Kenapa kau tak bagitau?” Makcik Nina meluru lalu memeluknya. “Patutlah kau nampak macam orang takut je tadi.”

“Diorang bergaduh dengan parang panjang, makcik. Ada ramai tadi,” kata Saleha sambil teresak-esak.

“Kau dengan Bago ada di sana masa tu, ya? Patutlah kamu tak datang sarapan pagi tadi. Eh, Bago mana? Kerja ke?”

Esak tangis Saleha kian menjadi-jadi membuatkan Makcik Nina mula syak sesuatu. “Kau datang tadi bukan dengan Bago, ya?”

Saleha menggeleng dan menyapu air mata dengan hujung lengan baju kurung. “Diorang datang cari Bago, lepas tu semua pukul dia. Dia melawan.”

“Apa jadi dengan Bago?”

“Saya tak tahu. Saya terus ambil barang, lepas tu lari ikut jalan belakang. Entah-entah diorang dah bunuh dia.” Saleha menekup kedua tangan ke muka.

Setelah tangisnya agak reda, Saleha menceritakan semua yang dia tahu tentang Bago. Bermula dari episod dia dituduh mencuri di kedai Haji Malik sehinggalah dia membelasah Sharul di tepi jalan, pergi mencuri di rumah tuan punya restoran itu dan kedatangan lelaki-lelaki dengan parang panjang ke Rumah Selamat subuh tadi.

“Astaghfirullahalazim. Kalau dah tahu dia macam tu, kenapa kau masih ikut dia, Leha? Seram sejuk makcik dengar cerita kau,” kata Makcik Nina menunjukkan bulu roma di lengannya yang berdiri.

“Saya sayang sangat-sangat dekat dia, makcik. Lagipun, dia memang ambil berat dan jaga saya elok-elok.” Ketika melafazkan kata-kata itu, Saleha kian tersedar perasaan sayang itu sudah tiada makna lagi. Entah apa yang mengaburi mata dan hatinya selama ini.

“Abih tu, sekarang macam mana? Kau tak ada sedara mara dekat sini. Kau tinggal dengan makcik ajelah, ya? Rumah ni pun tak ada orang. Kau boleh tolong-tolong apa yang patut. Nanti makcik bagilah kau upah apa yang termampu. Nak?”

Saleha merenung sayu ke mata wanita yang begitu ikhlas mahu membantunya itu. Dia tahu Makcik Nina berniat baik tapi wanita itu takkan mampu melindunginya dari bahaya yang menanti.

“Saya tak boleh tinggal di daerah ni lagi, makcik,” kata Saleha dengan suara tertahan-tahan. “Orang upahan Haji Malik mungkin tengah memburu saya. Kalau Bago tu belum mati, mesti dia pun tengah cari saya. Dahlah dia tahu rumah makcik ni.”

Makcik Nina melepaskan keluhan berat. “Itulah. Anak sedara makcik tadi kata yang mati tu dua-dua Melayu. Mungkin salah sorang yang cedera parah tu Bago.”

Saleha tak tahu sama ada dia patut berasa lega ataupun makin cemas. Kalau Bago benar-benar sudah tiada, dia mungkin akan bersedih selama beberapa hari. Tetapi selepas itu InsyaAllah dia akan dapat meneruskan kehidupan dengan perasaan tenang. Tapi jika Bago hanya cedera, bila dia sembuh nanti pasti dia akan mencari perempuan yang meninggalkannya hingga ke lubang cacing.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] THE SELECTION

THE SELECTION By Kiera Cass

WHEN WE GOT THE LETTER in the post, my mother was ecstatic. She had already decided that all our problems were solved, gone forever. The big hitch in her brilliant plan was me. I didn’t think I was a particularly disobedient daughter, but this was where I drew the line.

I didn’t want to be royalty. And I didn’t want to be a One. I didn’t even want to try.

I hid in my room, the only place to avoid the chattering of our full house, trying to come up with an argument that would sway her. So far, I had a solid collection of my honest opinions. . . I didn’t think there was a single one she would listen to.

I couldn’t avoid her much longer. It was approaching dinnertime, and as the oldest child left in the house, cooking duties fell on me. I pulled myself out of bed and walked into the snake pit.

I got a glare from Mom but no words.

We did a silent dance through the kitchen and dining room as we prepared chicken, pasta, and apple slices, and set the table for five. If I glanced up from a task, she’d fix me with a fierce look as if she could shame me into wanting the same things she did. She tried that every so often. Like if I didn’t want to take on a particular job because I knew the family hosting us was unnecessarily rude. Or if she wanted me to do a massive cleaning when we couldn’t afford to have a Six come and help.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. And this was one area where I was unswayable.

She couldn’t stand it when I was stubborn. But I got that from her, so she shouldn’t have been surprised. This wasn’t just about me, though. Mom had been tense lately. The summer was ending, and soon we’d be faced with cold. And worry.

Mom set down the pitcher of tea in the center of the table with an angry thud. My mouth watered at the thought of tea with lemon. But I would have to wait; it would be such a waste to have my glass now and then have to drink water with my meal.

“Would it kill you to fill out the form?” she said, no longer able to contain herself. “The Selection could be a wonderful opportunity for you, for all of us.”

I sighed aloud, thinking that filling out that form might actually be something close to death.

It was no secret that the rebels—the underground colonies that hated Illéa, our large and comparatively young country—made their attacks on the palace both violent and frequent. We’d seen them in action in Carolina before. One of the magistrates’ houses was burned to the ground, and a handful of Twos had their cars vandalized. There was even a magnificent jailbreak once, but considering they only released a teenage girl who’d managed to get herself pregnant and a Seven who was a father to nine, I couldn’t help thinking they were in the right that time.

But beyond the potential danger, I felt like it would hurt my heart to even consider the Selection. I couldn’t help smiling as I thought about all the reasons I had to stay exactly where I was.

“These last few years have been very hard on your father,” she hissed. “If you have any compassion at all, you might think of him.”

Dad. Yeah. I really did want to help Dad. And May and Gerad. And, I supposed, even my mother. When she talked about it that way, there was nothing to smile about. Things had been strained around here for far too long. I wondered if Dad would see this as a way back to normal, if any amount of money could make things better.

It wasn’t that our situation was so precarious that we were living in fear of survival or anything. We weren’t destitute. But I guess we weren’t that far off either.

Our caste was just three away from the bottom. We were artists. And artists and classical musicians were only three steps up from dirt. Literally. Our money was stretched as tight as a high wire, and our income was highly dependent on the changing seasons.

I remembered reading in a timeworn history book that all the major holidays used to be cramped into the winter months. Something called Halloween followed by Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Year’s. All back to back.

Christmas was still the same. It’s not like you could change the birth date of a deity. But when Illéa made the massive peace treaty with China, the New Year came in January or February, depending on the moon. All the individual celebrations of thankfulness and independence from our part of the world were now simply the Grateful Feast. That came in the summer. It was a time to celebrate the forming of Illéa, to rejoice in the fact that we were still here.

I didn’t know what Halloween was. It never resurfaced.

So at least three times a year, the whole family would be fully employed. Dad and May would make their art, and patrons would purchase them as gifts. Mom and I would perform at parties—me singing and her on piano—not turning down a single job if we could manage it. When I was younger, performing in front of an audience terrified me. But now I just tried to equate myself to background music. That’s what we were in the eyes of our employers: meant to be heard and not seen.

Gerad hadn’t found his talent yet. But he was only seven. He still had a little time.

Soon the leaves would change, and our tiny world would be unsteady again. Five mouths but only four workers. No guarantees of employment until Christmastime.

When I thought of it that way, the Selection seemed like a rope, something sure I could grab onto. That stupid letter could lift me out of the darkness, and I could pull my family along with me.

I looked over at my mother. For a Five, she was a little on the heavy side, which was odd. She wasn’t a glutton, and it’s not like we had anything to overeat anyway. Perhaps that’s just the way a body looks after five children. Her hair was red, like mine, but full of brilliant white streaks. Those had appeared suddenly and in abundance about two years ago. Lines creased the corners of her eyes, though she was still pretty young, and I could see as she moved around the kitchen that she was hunched over as if an invisible weight rested on her shoulders.

I knew she had a lot to carry. And I knew that was why she had taken to being particularly manipulative with me. We fought enough without the extra strain, but as the empty fall quietly approached, she became much more irritable. I knew she thought I was being unreasonable now, to not even want to fill out a silly little form.

But there were things—important things—in this world that I loved. And that piece of paper seemed like a brick wall keeping me away from what I wanted. Maybe what I wanted was stupid. Maybe it wasn’t even something I could have. But still, it was mine. I didn’t think I could sacrifice my dreams, no matter how much my family meant to me. Besides, I had given them so much already.

I was the oldest one left now that Kenna was married and Kota was gone, and I did my best to contribute. We scheduled my homeschooling around my rehearsals, which took up most of the day since I was trying to master several instruments as well as singing.

But with the letter here, none of my work mattered anymore. In my mom’s mind, I was already queen.

If I was smart, I would have hidden that stupid notice before Dad, May, and Gerad came in. But I didn’t know Mom had it tucked away in her clothes, and mid-meal she pulled it out.

“‘To the House of Singer,’” she sang out.

I tried to swipe it away, but she was too quick for me. They would find out sooner or later anyway, but if she did it like this, they’d all be on her side.

“Mom, please!” I pleaded.

“I want to hear!” May squealed. That was no surprise. My little sister looked just like me, only on a three-year delay. But where our looks were practically identical, our personalities were anything but. Unlike me, she was outgoing and hopeful. And currently very boy crazy. This whole thing would seem incredibly romantic to her.

I felt myself blush. Dad listened intently, and May was practically bouncing with joy. Gerad, sweet little thing, he just kept eating. Mother cleared her throat and went on.

“‘The recent census has confirmed that a single woman between the ages of sixteen and twenty currently resides in your home. We would like to make you aware of an upcoming opportunity to honor the great nation of Illéa.’”

May squealed again and grabbed my wrist. “That’s you!”

“I know, you little monkey. Stop before you break my arm.” But she just held my hand and bounced some more.

“‘Our beloved prince, Maxon Schreave,’” Mom continued, “‘is coming of age this month. As he ventures into this new part of his life, he hopes to move forward with a partner, to marry a true Daughter of Illéa. If your eligible daughter, sister, or charge is interested in possibly becoming the bride of Prince Maxon and the adored princess of Illéa, please fill out the enclosed form and return it to your local Province Services Office. One woman from each province will be drawn at random to meet the prince.

“‘Participants will be housed at the lovely Illéa Palace in Angeles for the duration of their stay. The families of each participant will be generously compensated’”—she drew out the words for effect—“‘for their service to the royal family.’”

I rolled my eyes as she went on. This was the way they did it with sons. Princesses born into the royal family were sold off into marriage in an attempt to solidify our young relations with other countries. I understood why it was done—we needed allies. But I didn’t like it. I hadn’t had to see such a thing, and I hoped I never would. The royal family hadn’t produced a princess in three generations. Princes, however, married women of the people to keep up the morale of our sometimes volatile nation. I think the Selection was meant to draw us together and remind everyone that Illéa itself was born out of next to nothing.

The idea of being entered into a contest for the whole country to watch as this stuck-up little wimp picked the most gorgeous and shallow one of the bunch to be the silent, pretty face that stood beside him on TV . . . it was enough to make me scream. Could anything be more humiliating?

Besides, I’d been in the homes of enough Twos and Threes to be sure I never wanted to live among them, let alone be a One. Except for the times when we were hungry, I was quite content to be a Five. Mom was the caste climber, not me.

“And of course he would love America! She’s so beautiful,” Mom swooned.

“Please, Mom. If anything, I’m average.”

“You are not!” May said. “Because I look just like you, and I’m pretty!” Her smile was so wide, I couldn’t contain my laughter. And it was a good point. Because May really was beautiful.

It was more than her face, though, more than her winning smile and bright eyes. May radiated an energy, an enthusiasm that made you want to be wherever she was. May was magnetic, and I, honestly, wasn’t.

“Gerad, what do you think? Do you think I’m pretty?” I asked.

All eyes fell on the youngest member of our family.

“No! Girls are gross!”

“Gerad, please.” Mom gave an exasperated sigh, but her heart wasn’t in it. He was hard to get upset with. “America, you must know you’re a very lovely girl.”

“If I’m so lovely, how come no one ever comes by to ask me out?”

“Oh, they come by, but I shoo them away. My girls are too pretty to marry Fives. Kenna got a Four, and I’m sure you can do even better.” Mom took a sip of her tea.

“His name is James. Stop calling him a number. And since when do boys come by?” I heard my voice getting higher and higher.

“A while,” Dad said, making his first comment on all of this. His voice had a hint of sorrow to it, and he was staring decidedly at his cup. I was trying to figure out what upset him so much. Boys coming by? Mom and me arguing again? The idea of me not entering the contest? How far away I’d be if I did?

His eyes came up for the briefest of moments, and I suddenly understood. He didn’t want to ask this of me. He wouldn’t want me to go. But he couldn’t deny the benefits if I managed to make it in, even for a day.

“America, be reasonable,” Mom said. “We have to be the only parents in the country trying to talk our daughter into this. Think of the opportunity! You could be queen one day!”

“Mom. Even if I wanted to be queen, which I thoroughly don’t, there are thousands of other girls in the province entering this thing. Thousands. And if I somehow was drawn, there would still be thirty-four other girls there, no doubt much better at seduction than I could ever pretend to be.”

Gerad’s ears perked up. “What’s seduction?”

“Nothing,” we all chorused back.

“It’s ridiculous to think that, with all of that, I’d somehow manage to win,” I finished.

My mother pushed her chair out as she stood and leaned across the table toward me. “Someone is going to, America. You have as good a chance as anyone else.” She threw her napkin down and went to leave. “Gerad, when you finish, it’s time for your bath.”

He groaned.

May ate in silence. Gerad asked for seconds, but there weren’t any. When they got up, I started clearing the table while Dad sat there sipping his tea. He had paint in his hair again, a smattering of yellow that made me smile. He stood, brushing crumbs off his shirt.

“Sorry, Dad,” I murmured as I picked up plates.

“Don’t be silly, kitten. I’m not mad.” He smiled easily and put an arm around me.

“I just. . .”

“You don’t have to explain it to me, honey. I know.” He kissed me on my forehead. “I’m going back to work.”

And with that I moved to the kitchen to start cleaning. I wrapped my mostly untouched plate under a napkin and hid it in the fridge. No one else left more than crumbs.

I sighed, heading to my room to get ready for bed. The whole thing was infuriating.

Why did Mom have to push me so much? Wasn’t she happy? Didn’t she love Dad? Why wasn’t this good enough for her?

I lay on my lumpy mattress, trying to wrap my head around the Selection. I guess it had its advantages. It would be nice to eat well for a while at least. But there was no reason to bother. I wasn’t going to fall in love with Prince Maxon. From what I’d seen on the Illéa Capital Report, I wouldn’t even like the guy.

****

WHEN I WOKE THE NEXT MORNING, my eyelids felt heavy. As I rubbed the tiny ache out of them, I felt glad that I’d told Maxon everything. It seemed so funny that the palace—the beautiful cage—was the one place I could actually let myself be open about everything I’d been feeling.

Maxon’s promise settled in during the night, and I felt sure that I’d be safe here. This whole process of Maxon whittling down thirty-five women to one was going to take weeks, maybe months. Time and space were just what I needed. I couldn’t be sure I’d ever get over Aspen. I’d heard my mom talk about your first love being the one that sticks with you. But maybe I’d be able to just feel normal sooner rather than later with this time in between us.

My maids didn’t ask about my puffy eyes, they just made them less swollen. They didn’t question my mess of hair, they just smoothed it. And I appreciated that. It wasn’t like home, where everyone saw that I was sad and didn’t do anything about it. Here I could feel that they were all worried about me and whatever it was I was going through. In response they handled me with extreme care.

By midmorning I was ready to start my day. It was Saturday, so there was no routine or schedule, but it was the one day a week we were all required to stay in the Women’s Room. The palace saw guests on Saturdays, and we had been warned that people might want to meet us. I wasn’t too excited about it, but at least I got to wear my new jeans for the first time. Of course, they were the best-fitting pair of pants I’d ever owned. I hoped that since Maxon and I were on such good terms, he’d let me keep them after I left.

I went downstairs slowly, a little tired from a late night. Before I even got to the Women’s Room, I heard the buzz of talking girls, and when I walked in, Marlee grabbed me and pulled me toward two chairs in the back of the room.

“There you are! I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

“Sorry, Marlee. I had a long night and slept in.”

She turned to look at me, probably noting the leftover sadness in my voice, but sweetly decided to focus on my jeans. “Those look fantastic.”

“I know. I’ve never felt anything like them.” My voice lifted a bit. I decided to go back to my old rule: Aspen wasn’t allowed here. I pushed him away and focused on my second-favorite person in the palace. “Sorry to keep you waiting. What did you want to talk about?”

Marlee hesitated. She bit her lip as we sat down. There was no one else around. She must have a secret.

“Actually, now that I think of it, maybe I shouldn’t tell you. Sometimes I forget that we’re competing against each other.”

Oh. She had secrets of the Maxon variety. This I had to hear.

“I know just how you feel, Marlee. I think we could become really close friends. I can’t bring myself to think of you as an enemy, you know?”

“Yeah. I think you’re so sweet. And the people love you. I mean, you’re probably going to win….” She seemed a little defeated at the idea.

I had to will myself not to wince or laugh at those words.

“Marlee, can I tell you a secret?” My voice was full of gentle truth. I hoped she would believe my words.

“Of course, America. Anything.”

“I don’t know who will win this whole thing. Really, it could be anyone in this room. I guess everyone thinks that it’ll be them, but I already know that if it can’t be me, I’d want it to be you. You seem generous and fair. I think you’d be a great princess. Honestly.” It was almost all the truth.

“I think you’re smart and personable,” she whispered. “You’d be great, too.”

I bowed my head. It was sweet of her to think so highly of me. I felt a bit uncomfortable when people talked about me that way, though. . . May, Kenna, my maids . . . it was hard to believe how many people thought I’d be a good princess. Was I the only one who saw how flawed I was? I was unrefined. I didn’t have it in me to be bossy or overly organized. I was selfish and had a horrible temper, and I didn’t like being in front of people. And I wasn’t brave. You had to be brave to take this job. And that’s what this was. Not just a marriage, but a position.

“I feel that way about a lot of the girls,” she confessed. “Like everyone has some quality that I don’t that would make them better than me.”

“That’s the thing, Marlee. You could probably find something special about everyone in this room. But who knows exactly what Maxon is looking for?”

She shook her head.

“So let’s not worry about that. You can tell me anything you want to. I’ll keep your secrets if you keep mine. I’ll pull for you, and if you want to, you can pull for me. It’s nice to have friends here.”

She smiled, then looked around the room, checking to make sure no one could hear us.

“Maxon and I had our date,” she whispered.

“Yeah?” I asked. I knew I seemed overly eager, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to know if he’d managed to be any less stiff around her. And I wanted to know if he liked her.

“He sent a letter to my maids and asked if he could see me on Thursday.” I smiled as Marlee spoke and thought of how the day before he’d done that, Maxon and I had decided to eliminate those formalities. “I sent one back saying yes, of course, like I’d ever turn him down! He came to get me, and we walked around the palace. We got to talking about movies, and it turns out we like a bunch of the same ones. So we went downstairs to the basement. Have you seen the movie theater down there?”

“No.” I’d never actually been in a movie theater, and I couldn’t wait for her to describe it.

“Oh, it’s perfect! The seats are wide and they recline and you can even pop some popcorn—they have a popper. Maxon stood there and made a batch just for us! It was so cute, America. He measured the oil wrong and the first batch burned. He had to call someone to come and clean it up and try again.”

I rolled my eyes. Smooth, Maxon, real smooth. At least Marlee seemed to think it was endearing.

“So we watched the movie, and when we got to the romantic part at the end, he held my hand! I thought I’d faint. I mean, I’d taken his arm when we walked, but that’s just what you’re supposed to do. Here he was taking my hand….” She sighed and fell back into her chair.

I giggled out loud. She looked completely smitten. Yes, yes, yes!

“I can’t wait for him to visit me again. He’s just so handsome, don’t you think?” she asked.

I paused. “Yeah, he’s cute.”

“Come on, America! You have to have noticed those eyes and his voice….”

“Except when he laughs!” Just remembering Maxon’s laugh had me grinning. It was cute but awkward. He pushed his breaths out, and then made a jagged noise when he inhaled, almost like another laugh in itself.

“Yes, okay, he does have a funny laugh, but it’s cute.”

“Sure, if you like the lovable sound of an asthma attack in your ear every time you tell a joke.”

Marlee lost it and doubled over in laughter.

“All right, all right,” she said, coming up for air. “You have to think there’s something attractive about him.”

I opened my mouth and shut it two or three times. I was tempted to take another jab at Maxon, but I didn’t want Marlee to see him in a negative light. So I thought about it.

What was attractive about Maxon?

“Well, when he lets his guard down, he’s okay. Like when he just talks without checking his words or you catch him just looking at something like . . . like he’s really looking for the beauty in it.”

Marlee smiled, and I knew she’d seen that in him, too.

“And I like that he seems genuinely involved when he’s there, you know? Like even though he’s got a country to run and a thousand things to do, it’s like he forgets it all when he’s with you. He just dedicates himself to what’s right in front of him. I like that.

“And . . . well, don’t tell anyone this, but his arms. I like his arms.”

I blushed at the end. Stupid . . . why hadn’t I just stuck to the general good things about his personality? Luckily, Marlee was happy to pick up the conversation.

“Yes! You can really feel them under those thick suits, can’t you? He must be incredibly strong,” Marlee gushed.

“I wonder why. I mean, what’s the point of him being that strong? He does deskwork. It’s weird.”

“Maybe he likes to flex in front of the mirror,” Marlee said, making a face and flexing her own tiny arms.

“Ha, ha! I bet that’s it. I dare you to ask him!”

“No way!”

It sounded like Marlee had had a great time. I wondered why Maxon seemed so reluctant to mention that last night. Based on his reaction, it seemed like they hadn’t been together at all. Maybe he was shy?

I looked around the room and saw that more than half the girls seemed tense or unhappy. Janelle, Emmica, and Zoe were listening intently to something Kriss was saying. Kriss was smiling and animated, but Janelle’s face was tight with worry, and Zoe was biting her nails. Emmica was absently kneading a spot just below her ear, as if she was in pain. Beside them the mismatched pair of Celeste and Anna sat having another intense discussion. True to her usual form, Celeste looked incredibly smug as she spoke. Marlee noted my staring and clarified what was happening.

“The grumpy ones are the girls he hasn’t been out with yet. He told me I was his second date on Thursday alone. He’s trying to spend time with everyone.”

“Really? You think that’s it?”

“Yeah. I mean, look at you and me. We’re fine, and it’s because he’s seen us both one-on-one. We know he liked us enough to see us and not kick us out right afterward. It’s getting around who he’s spent time with and who he hasn’t. They’re worried he’s waiting on them because he isn’t interested, and that once he does see them, he’ll just let them go.”

Why hadn’t he told me any of this? Weren’t we friends? A friend would talk about this. He’d seen at least a dozen girls based on their smiles. We’d spent the better part of the evening together last night, and all he did was make me cry. What kind of friend held those kinds of secrets while making me spill all my own?

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[SNEAK PEEK] DENDAM SEMALAM

DENDAM SEMALAM Oleh Zaifuzaman Ahmad

FAKAR menoleh ke arah daun pintu apabila terdengar bunyi ketukan yang bertalu-talu. Seketika dia mengelus nafas lembut.

“Masuk!” ujar Fakar.

Muncul seorang gadis muda yang cantik tersenyum manja melangkah ke arahnya. Melihat kelibat gadis itu, Fakar tersenyum manis. Tanpa dipinta, gadis itu melabuhkan punggungnya di kusyen empuk berhadapan dengan Fakar. Bibirnya tidak henti-henti tersenyum.

“Ni, fail yang you nak tadi,” ujar gadis itu sambil menyorong fail warna kuning ke atas meja Fakar. Fakar membuka fail itu dan menyemaknya.

“Ada apa-apa lagi yang you nak daripada I?” soal Dahlia dengan renungan yang penuh menggoda.

Untuk seketika Fakar tersentak. Kemudian dia cepat-cepat menggeleng.

“Kalau tak ada, I keluar dulu ya,” ujarnya sambil menjeling manja.

Fakar terkedu. Tidak sangka setiausaha barunya ini lebih daring daripada Mary Tan. Fakar perlu berhati-hati. Jangan nanti pekerja lain memandang serong kepadanya.

SIAPA yang tidak kenal dengan Dahlia. Seorang gadis muda yang cantik, seksi dan sosial. Setiap mata yang memandang pasti tergoda tapi bagi Dahlia itu perkara biasa. Memang lumrah alam. Orang cantik akan menjadi perhatian kumbang-kumbang liar. Bukan sedikit lelaki yang bermata keranjang ingin mendekatinya. Namun Dahlia sedikit pun tidak kisah. Berapa ramai pun dia sanggup melayannya.

Selalu juga Dahlia diusik dengan kata-kata nakal. Lebih-lebih lagi Nazri, teman rapat Fakar. Setiap kali datang berkunjung ke pejabat itu, Nazri tidak pernah lepaskan peluang mempelawa Dahlia makan tengah hari atau makan malam bersamanya. Walaupun begitu sering kali juga undangan yang nampak ikhlas itu ditolaknya mentah-mentah.

Nazri tidak rasa kecewa. Dia sendiri sudah tahu hubungan Fakar dengan Dahlia. Hubungan mereka bukan lagi sebagai setiausaha dan majikan. Malah lebih daripada itu. Walaupun begitu, belum pernah lagi Fakar mengheret Dahlia sampai ke bilik hotel. Dia masih lagi ingat dosa pahala.

Dahlia pula biarpun nampak galak dan mudah dipikat, sebenarnya dia seorang wanita yang sukar untuk diperangkap. Taktik dan teknik lelaki miang sudah ada dalam koceknya. Pujuk dan rayulah macam mana sekalipun, dia tidak mudah terpedaya. Pendek kata tidak makan saman. Taburlah hadiah atau apa sahaja kemewahan pada gadis itu, namun untuk meratah tubuh seksi itu tidak mudah seperti yang difikirkan. Dahlia seperti jinak-jinak merpati. Didekat boleh tetapi bila mahu ditangkap, dia cabut lari.

Lama-kelamaan hubungan Fakar dan Dahlia menjadi mesra. Bukan lagi rahsia. Berkepit umpama sepasang kekasih di pejabat tidak lagi sorok-sorok. Sering kali beberapa kakitangan wanita menegur perbuatan Dahlia, namun tidak dihiraukan.

Semakin kuat orang mengata, semakin kuat dan erat pula hubungannya dengan Fakar. Pernah juga beberapa teman rapat, lebih-lebih lagi teman serumah Dahlia, Suhaila menyuarakan kebimbangan mereka pada hubungan itu. Tidak takutkah Dahlia jika isteri Fakar tahu, namun dia sekadar ketawa.

Dahlia begitu berani menyebarkan berita yang hubungan Fakar dan isterinya sudah semakin dingin. Menurutnya Fakar kahwin dengan Hartina bukan kerana cinta tetapi perempuan itu mempunyai harta dan kemewahan. Hartina sebenarnya ditipu dengan kasih sayang yang Fakar berikan. Perkahwinan mereka sebenarnya berlandaskan harta dan bukannya ikatan kasih sayang.

Sejak itu Suhaila, kawan serumah tidak mahu ambil tahu lagi. Cuma dia sering berleter tentang tindakan Dahlia yang dilihatnya semakin berani. Macam belangkas! Ke sana ke sini berdua. Tidak berenggang langsung! Suhaila takut perang besar akan tercetus kalau isteri Fakar melihatnya nanti.

“Eh, bila you potong rambut?” tanya Fakar sambil menyandarkan tubuhnya di kerusi empuk. Rakus matanya memandang fesyen rambut Dahlia yang dipotong paras bahu.

Dahlia yang sudah pun berdiri, melentokkan badannya. Sekilas dia menyebak rambutnya ke belakang.

“Haaahhh…. you panggil I kerana nak tanya pasal rambut I ni ke?”

Fakar ketawa. Agak kasar dan garau bunyinya.

“Malam tadi. I ke salon. Sesekali nak tukar style.”

Fakar mengangguk.

“Kenapa? Tak cantik ke?” soal Dahlia dengan suara yang sengaja dimanjakan.

Sekali lagi Fakar ketawa dan kemudian kepalanya dianggukkan lagi.

“Cantik… memang padan dengan wajah you yang bujur sirih tu,” puji Fakar dengan penuh semangat.

Ternyata Dahlia gembira bila dipuji begitu. Tanpa disuruh, Dahlia melabuhkan punggungnya semula di kerusi. Memandang tepat pada air muka Fakar yang kelihatan agak cemas.

“What’s wrong honey?” Dahlia bertanya lembut.

Fakar tidak menjawab. Direnungnya Dahlia dengan satu pandangan yang luar biasa. Pandangan mereka bertaut.

“No… tak ada apa-apa.”

Dahlia mencebik.

“You nampak cemas.”

Fakar diam.

“Ya ke?”

Dahlia mengangguk.

Fakar mengeluh. Kemudian dia berdiri dan melangkah ke tingkap pejabat. Melemparkan pandangan ke arah kota kosmopolitan yang tidak pernah mati dengan ragam kehidupan. Kota Kuala Lumpur tetap hidup. Tetap bernadi dan akan terus bergerak. Perlahan-lahan dia berpusing ke arah Dahlia semula.

“I cuma fikirkan tentang esok.”

Seperti ada yang lucu, Dahlia terus ketawa. Fakar pula berasa terhina dengan tindakan itu.

“Kenapa you ketawa?” Rasa tidak pasti membuatkan Fakar bertanya.

Dahlia menggeleng dan berdiri menghampiri Fakar. Amat jelas kedengaran nafas Dahlia dari rongga hidungnya. Cukup rapat.

“You tak usah risaukan pasal esok. You pergilah jumpa klien you. Kat sini, I boleh uruskan seperti yang you mahu. Jangan risau I can handle it.”

“You yakin?”

Dahlia tidak perlu menjawab. Cukup sekadar senyuman di bibir.

“I kan setiausaha you. Kalau I tak boleh buat, nak buat apa I kat sini?” ujar Dahlia, lalu dagu Fakar yang licin dicuitnya dengan lembut.

Dengan gaya yang cukup menggoda Dahlia melabuhkan punggungnya di atas kerusi empuk. Memandang Fakar dengan penuh keyakinan.

“You jangan buat silap,” ujar Fakar yang turut sama duduk.

“Kenapa Fakar? You tak yakin dengan kemampuan I?” tanya Dahlia dengan wajah yang berkerut. Dia tidak sangka Fakar memperlekehkan kebolehannya.

Fakar mendengus. Sebenarnya bukan dia tidak yakin. Sebolehnya dia ingin memastikan setiap perancangannya berjalan dengan lancar. Dia tidak mahu ada bebanan lain yang menunggu setelah semuanya selesai. Dia tidak suka begitu. Lebih-lebih lagi ini melibatkan masa depannya.

“Apa yang you nak bimbangkan lagi, Fakar?” Suara lembut Dahlia mematikan lamunannya.

Dahlia bangun dan mendekati lelaki bertubuh sasa itu. Jari-jemarinya lembut menari dan menyisir lembut rambut Fakar yang dipotong pendek. Kemudian jari-jemarinya singgah di bahu Fakar, lalu dipicit-picitnya dengan lembut. Fakar rasa seronok diperlakukan begitu. Satu perbuatan yang tidak pernah dirasai setiap kali bersama Hartina.

“You uruskan klien you tu. I tahulah buat kerja I. Tak usahlah you bimbang. Bila you pulang dari Langkawi, semuanya beres,” ujar Dahlia dengan suara yang lunak dan lembut.

Akhirnya Fakar setuju dan tersenyum manis kepada Dahlia.

MALAM itu, selepas makan malam, Fakar mengemas pakaian dan memasukkannya ke dalam beg. Hartina sekadar memerhatikan sahaja dari birai katil. Asyik benar Fakar dengan kerjanya, langsung tidak mengendahkan kehadiran isterinya.

Semua urusan syarikat Hartina, Fakarlah yang menguruskannya selama ini. Hartina hanya memberikan tumpuan pada perjalanan syarikat agar kemas dan licin. Selebihnya dia tidak mahu menyoal lagi.

Dalam seminggu cuma tiga atau empat hari Hartina menjengukkan mukanya di pejabat. Lagipun dia sibuk dengan syarikat barunya. Terpaksa minta suaminya menguruskan syarikat itu.

Fakar pula tidak membantah. Kesungguhan dia bekerja tidak membuatkan Hartina berasa sangsi. Segala-galanya diserahkan bulat-bulat pada suaminya. Dia memberikan kepercayaan penuh. Cuma sejak akhir-akhir ini, dia merasakan ada jurang yang memisahkan dia dengan Fakar. Macam ada satu tembok kukuh yang menjarakkan hubungan mereka.

Hartina tidak menolak kemungkinan mereka terlalu sibuk dengan syarikat masing-masing membuatkan hubungan mereka agak terbatas. Dahulu tidak begitu. Biar bagaimana sibuk sekalipun, Fakar tetap ada masa untuk bersama. Mereka kerap makan di luar dan berkongsi apa sahaja.

Enam bulan yang lalu segalanya berubah. Ternyata Fakar cuba menjauhkan diri daripadanya. Kemesraan tidak lagi wujud. Senyuman suaminya juga sudah tidak seikhlas dahulu. Bagaikan dipaksa-paksa.

Fakar sudah mula keluar malam dengan alasan hendak berjumpa klien. Punggungnya sentiasa panas. Seperti ada bara. Secara diam-diam Hartina mula rasa sangsi dengan perubahan itu.

Dari desas-desus yang didengar, Fakar menjalinkan hubungan cinta dengan setiausahanya sendiri. Hati wanita mana yang tidak naik angin bila mendengar berita macam itu. Biarpun berita itu masih belum disahkan lagi, namun perasaan terasa dicabar.

Selalu juga Hartina memerhatikan sikap dan tabiat Dahlia. Jika diukur dari segi rupa, memang Dahlia mempunyai kehebatan. Wajahnya ayu. Alis matanya tebal. Bibirnya mongel. Apatah lagi ditambah dengan kemontokan tubuhnya yang mampu membuat hati lelaki cair. Hartina sendiri mengakui yang Dahlia mempunyai daya penarik. Tidak boleh disangkal lagi.

Berbeza dengan diri Hartina. Tubuhnya tetap kurus biarpun mempunyai wajah cantik yang diwarisi daripada arwah ibunya. Sejak sebelum kahwin pun lagi, dia memang kurus dan tinggi. Barangkali kerana tidak mampu memiliki tubuh yang cantik, membuatkan Fakar mencari gadis lain. Itukah alasannya?

Hartina mengeluh perlahan. Mungkin juga kerana dia tidak mampu untuk melahirkan zuriat, membuatkan Fakar beralih pada gadis lain? Lalu kesempatan seperti itu digunakan untuk memikat Dahlia? Lelaki memang pandai mencari alasan! Bentaknya di dalam hati.

Mungkin salah dia juga, fikir Hartina. Sudah hampir enam tahun mendirikan rumah tangga, namun masih juga dia tidak mampu untuk melahirkan anak buat pengikat keharmonian rumah tangga mereka. Terlalu sibuk dengan dunianya sendiri membuatkan dia lupa.

HARTINA tersentak apabila katil bergegar. Dia menoleh ke arah Fakar yang sudah duduk di sisinya sambil melipat dan memasukkan beberapa helai pakaiannya di dalam beg yang sudah ternganga di atas katil.

“Berapa lama abang pergi?” Suaranya yang lembut memecah kesunyian.

Fakar yang leka mengangkat mukanya.

“Tak tahu lagi. Kalau cepat selesai, cepatlah abang balik.”

“Bila abang nak bertolak?”

“Esok, pagi. Kalau abang terlena, Tina tolong kejutkan ya?” Dagu Hartina dicuitnya dengan penuh mesra.

Hartina terasa dikhianati. Entah mengapa timbul rasa itu biarpun tidak pernah dipaksa. Melihat roman Fakar untuk seketika.

“Abang tidurlah awal sikit,” beritahu Hartina. Suaranya kedengaran mendatar.

Secara tiba-tiba muncul wajah Dahlia sedang ketawa mengejeknya. Dia tidak pasti sejauh mana hubungan Fakar dengan gadis itu. Apa yang dia tahu, pasti ada sesuatu di antara mereka berdua. Sepasang kekasih? Mungkin juga Fakar mahu memasang satu lagi? Hartina tertanya sendiri. Rambutnya yang diterjah angin malam, disisirnya kembali dengan lembut.

“Esok Tina akan ke pejabat.”

Fakar tersentak mendengarnya. Cepat-cepat dia mengawal perasaan.

“Kalau Tina tak ada pun tak apa. Lia boleh handle.”

Sekali lagi Hartina terasa dikhianati oleh suaminya sendiri.

“Lagipun abang pergi bukannya lama. Sekejap aje. Mungkin dua atau tiga hari,” ujar Fakar dengan bersungguh-sungguh.

“Boleh percaya ke dengan Lia tu bang?” Hartina mencungkil. Debaran di dadanya bertambah rancak.

“Hei… dia kan dah lama kerja kat situ. Semua kerja dia buat. Kalau abang tak ada, dia jugaklah yang tolong handlekan. Tina pun tahu pasal tu kan?” Renungan Fakar seperti mahu menyejukkan hatinya.

Hartina diam. Meramas jari-jemarinya dalam keresahan.

Hartina ketawa, namun jelas benar kedengaran seperti dipaksa.

“Syarikat tu pun Tina yang punya. Apa salahnya kalau Tina datang jenguk. Dah lama jugak Tina tak ke sana,” usulnya membuat cadangan.

Seterusnya Fakar tidak membantah. Dibiarkan sahaja isterinya dengan keputusan itu. Fakar memeriksa kembali pakaian di dalam beg. Dahinya berkerut-kerut seperti sedang mencongak sesuatu.

Hartina bangun dan berjalan menghampiri meja solek. Tangannya mencapai botol kecil ubat lalu dihulurkan pada Fakar. Lelaki itu menyambutnya dengan teragak-agak.

“Jangan lupa ubat ni. Kalau jadi satu-satu hal, susah pulak,” pesan Hartina.

Fakar mengangguk dan tersenyum kecil.

Sudah dua tahun Fakar menghidap asma. Biarpun serangan ke atasnya jarang-jarang berlaku, namun Hartina tetap bimbang. Jika sekali menyerang keadaan Fakar tidak tentu arah. Rasa kasihan menyelinap masuk memaut tangkai hatinya.

Hartina meninggalkan Fakar yang masih lagi sibuk di dalam kamar tidur. Dia mencapai novel Misteri Julia yang terletak di rak buku dan kemudian melangkah ke dapur. Dibukanya peti sejuk, lalu mengeluarkan pek susu segar. Dituangnya sedikit di dalam gelas. Kemudian melangkah ke balkoni di tingkat atas.

Tumpuannya bukan pada novel Misteri Julia yang dibacanya. Fikirannya melayang-layang mengingati Fakar dan Dahlia. Kedua-dua wajah itu mengganggu emosinya ketika itu.

Cerita-cerita yang didengarinya di belakang amat menyakitkan hati Hartina. Dalam diam-diam Fakar mengkhianati cinta dan membohongi dirinya.

Mujurlah teman baiknya, Dina membocorkan apa yang berlaku. Jika tidak, mati hidup balik pun dia akan terus ditipu.

Dina memberitahu Hartina yang dia ada terserempak dengan Fakar dan Dahlia di sebuah hotel sedang makan. Kelakuannya cukup mencurigakan. Mesra benar seperti pasangan kekasih.

Bukan sekali dua Dina terserempak dengan mereka. Sudah kerap benar. Makin lama berita itu, semakin membuatkan dia merana dan terasa seperti ditipu hidup-hidup. Hartina melurutkan rambutnya yang panjang. Angin malam agak keras menampar wajahnya.

Kenapa harus Fakar mengkhianati cinta dan kasihnya? Mengapa harus Fakar menemui gadis lain? Adakah dia tidak mampu memberikan kebahagiaan pada lelaki itu? Hatinya mencongak lagi.

Perlahan-lahan dia mengimbau kembali kenangannya bersama lelaki bernama Fakar itu.

****

NAZRI memandang lesu ke arah keranda yang diturunkan perlahan-lahan ke liang lahad. Hatinya menjadi sebak dengan tiba-tiba. Satu pemergian yang tidak akan kembali lagi. Pemergian Fakar adalah untuk selama-lamanya. Pasti dia akan merindui detik-detik yang pernah mereka lalui bersama.

Kenangan itu akan terus disematkan ke dalam hatinya hingga ke akhir hayat. Suasana di tanah perkuburan itu sunyi sepi. Yang kedengaran cuma tali umbut-umbut yang bergesel dengan papan keranda. Terasa ngeri juga dia mendengarnya.

Perlahan-lahan peristiwa pagi tadi terbayang di ruang matanya. Pagi tadi selepas berkunjung ke pejabat Fakar, dia terus ke rumah lelaki itu. Kecewa dengan sikap Fakar sejak kebelakangan ini sering tidak datang ke pejabat. Sangkanya bila tiba di rumah Fakar, dia akan menghamburkan segala kemarahannya.

Hatinya lega apabila mendapati kereta Fakar terparkir kemas di dalam garaj. Lalu dia ke pintu pagar dan menekan punat loceng beberapa kali. Perasaannya menjadi tidak sedap apabila bayangan sahabatnya itu tidak kelihatan. Entah bagaimana tangannya terus menolak pintu pagar yang tidak berkunci. Membuatkan debaran di dadanya semakin hebat.

Perlahan-lahan dia masuk dan menolak pintu kaca dan ternyata ianya juga tidak berkunci. Menambahkan kehairanan di dalam hatinya lagi. Nama Fakar diseru beberapa kali. Menyangka dengan pintu pagar dan pintu utama tidak berkunci, tentu sahaja Fakar sudah bangun. Namun panggilannya langsung tidak berjawab. Rasa sangsi semakin hebat bersarang dalam kolam perasaannya.

Dia menjengulkan kepalanya ke ruang dapur. Tidak kelihatan juga bayangan Fakar. Nama sahabatnya itu diseru lagi. Lebih nyaring dari tadi. Seketika dia memandang ke arah tangga. Tergerak hatinya untuk ke tingkat atas. Lalu dengan langkah yang berhati-hati dia naik. Melihat daun pintu bilik Fakar yang terbuka sedikit hatinya terus terusik untuk ke situ.

Dadanya cemas apabila terpandangkan tangan Fakar di atas lantai. Segera dia menguak pintu bilik dan melangkah masuk. Dia begitu terkejut apabila mendapati Fakar tertiarap di atas lantai dengan pil bertaburan. Dia cuba mengejutkan Fakar namun tidak ada sebarang reaksi. Setelah memeriksa pergelangan tangan lelaki itu akhirnya dia tahu, Fakar sudah meninggal dunia. Mata Fakar yang tercelik, diraupnya dengan tangan. Tanpa dapat ditahan lagi, dia menitiskan air matanya. Kehilangan Fakar seperti kehilangan separuh dari hidupnya.

Nazri tersedar. Cepat-cepat dia menyeka air mata di hujung tubir matanya. Dua orang penggali kubur sudah mula menimbus liang lahad. Nazri menelan air liurnya. Kepulangan Fakar ke rahmatullah secepat ini tidak pernah diduganya. Dina yang berdiri di sebelah Nazri memegang tangan suaminya. Mengharapkan sentuhan itu memberikan sedikit semangat buatnya. Lantas dia meramas semula tangan Dina dengan penuh kemesraan.

Seketika dia melemparkan pandangannya ke arah ayah dan ibu Fakar yang berada di seberang. Jelas rasa duka dan hiba turut bermain di wajah masing-masing. Pilu untuk melepaskan orang yang tersayang, begitulah yang dirumuskan.

Selesai imam membaca talkin, mereka beredar. Nazri juga melangkah ke arah keretanya dengan langkah yang teragak-agak. Ketika itu Dina memainkan peranannya memujuk Nazri. Lelaki itu pula tidak mampu meluahkan kata-katanya melainkan dengan anggukan sahaja.

Tiba di kereta, dia terhenti. Memandang tajam ke arah seorang wanita yang berbaju kurung putih dan berselendang nipis. Cermin mata hitam yang melekat di batang hidung wanita itu membuatkan dia teragak-agak sebentar. Wanita muda itu sekadar mengukir senyuman nipis. Tidak ada sebarang riak yang terzahir. Selamba dan hambar.

“Apa khabar Nazri?”

Nazri agak terkejut. Suara itu seperti pernah didengarnya dahulu. Lantas dia menoleh ke arah Dina mengharapkan sebarang jawapan. Isterinya hanya tersenyum.

“Kau tak kenal aku lagi?”

Tidak mungkin! Bisik hati kecil Nazri.

“Akulah Nazri, takkan kau tak kenal aku?” soal wanita itu agak galak.

Akhirnya Nazri tersedar.

“Hartini? Adik kembar Hartina?” Nazri mengagak.

Pertanyaannya itu dijawab dengan ketawa. Nazri terpinggar-pinggar. Kemudian dia berkalih semula ke arah Dina.

“Tak apalah bang. Sampai rumah nanti Dina ceritakan.” Perlahan isterinya berkata.

Nazri tiada pilihan lain. Masuk ke dalam kereta dan terus menghidupkan enjin. Perlahan-lahan kereta bergerak meninggalkan tanah perkuburan yang semakin diterkam kesunyian.

“Siapa perempuan tu Dina?” soal Nazri sewaktu dalam perjalanan pulang. Rasa tidak pasti membuatkan dia bertanya soalan itu.

“Sampai rumah nanti abang akan tahu ceritanya,” beritahu Dina perlahan. Tudung yang menutup kepalanya tadi sudah ditanggalkan.

“Cerita?” Dahi Nazri berkerut. “Cerita apa ni? Abang tak fahamlah,” keluh Nazri.

Sewaktu Nazri berkalih merenung Dina, isterinya itu sekadar tersenyum kecil dan menggerakkan kelopak matanya meminta Nazri supaya bersabar.

Sampai di rumah, Nazri memarkirkan keretanya di garaj. Galak dia menoleh ke arah kereta biru yang me- ngekorinya sejak tadi. Tanpa menunggu lebih lama lagi, Nazri masuk ke dalam. Kepulangannya disambut oleh anak perempuannya. Namun senyuman anaknya itu hanya disambut dengan keluhan sahaja.

Zura duduk di sebelah Nazri sewaktu Dina dan wanita itu melangkah masuk.

“Zura, masuk ke dalam. Ada sesuatu yang mama nak cakapkan sikit dengan papa,” arah Dina dengan suara yang lembut namun tegas.

Zura terpaksa menuruti kehendak itu. Mesti ada sesuatu perkara penting. Jika tidak, dia tidak disuruh masuk, bisik hati kecilnya.

“Duduklah,” pelawa Dina pada wanita itu.

Nazri turut melarikan pandangannya ke arah wanita yang bertudung putih itu.

“Apa ceritanya ni?” Wajah Nazri yang berkerut seribu turut meminta kepastian.

Wanita itu tersenyum.

“Maaflah Nazri. Bukan niat kami nak mempermainkan kau,” jelas wanita itu memulakan bicaranya.

Nazri berkalih, memberi perhatian penuh.

“Awak ni adik kembar Tina ya? Siapa tu…” Jarinya dipetik beberapa kali cuba mengingati suatu nama yang cukup jarang disebut.

“Hartini?” Wanita itu kemudiannya membantu.

“Hmmm…” Barulah Nazri mengangguk.

Tiba-tiba ketawa berderai dari bibir wanita itu. Terasa dirinya seperti sengaja dipermainkan.

“Aku tak salahkan kau Naz. Sedangkan Fakar sendiri pun ada kalanya tak tahu membezakan aku dengan saudara kembar aku tu,” ujarnya. Tiba-tiba wajah wanita itu bertukar menjadi murung. Ada sebak yang datang bertamu.

“Sebenarnya aku adalah Hartina.” Perlahan-lahan kata-kata itu keluar dari mulut wanita itu.

Nazri membeliakkan matanya. Berkalih pada Dina meminta kepastian. Isterinya itu sekadar mengangguk sahaja.

“Hartina?” Nama itu sekadar bermain di hujung bibirnya. Berasa tidak percaya.

“Tapi… bukankah isteri arwah Fakar…” Nazri mula ditenggelami dengan kecelaruan yang merumitkan.

“Hartina dah mati?” sahut wanita itu dengan galak.

Nazri mengangguk.

“Itulah sebabnya kenapa aku datang berjumpa dengan kau, Nazri. Sebagai sahabat baik Fakar, aku rasa kau dah kena tipu dengan dia,” tambah Hartina lagi.

Nazri terpukul dengan kata-kata itu.

“Apa maksud…” Cuma jari telunjuknya sahaja yang ditudingkan ke arah Hartina.

“Panggillah Tina. Takkan kau dah lupa dengan aku?”

Nazri mengeluh. Permainan ini dirasakan terlalu berat. Apatah lagi dia baru sahaja kehilangan seorang teman. Kini wanita yang mirip wajah Hartina datang menambahkan masalah buatnya.

“Sebenarnya Fakar sengaja mahu membunuh aku. Dia mahu merampas segala kekayaan yang aku miliki. Dia mahu bolot semuanya. Sudah lama dia merancang mahu membunuh aku. Tapi untunglah Dina ada. Dia sendiri pernah terdengar mereka merancang begitu di sebuah hotel ketika mereka makan bersama. Untung mereka tak perasan kehadiran Dina.”

Nazri menelan rengkungnya. Meneliti setiap butir bicara yang terluah dari mulut Hartina.

“Mereka merancang membunuh aku apabila Fakar menghadiri mesyuarat di Pulau Langkawi. Fakar mahu melihat kematian aku seperti satu rompakan. Barang kemas aku habis satu laci. Kebetulan pula pada siang hari itu, saudara kembar aku yang duduk di Washington datang dan bermalam di rumah aku.

Malam itu juga Dina telefon aku dan mahu berjumpa dengan aku pasal butiknya. Katanya ada masalah sikit dan malam itu juga Dina menjemput aku. Mungkin kalau Hartini tidak pulang awal malam itu, aku yang menjadi mangsa. Pada mulanya memang Tini ingin bermalam sahaja di rumah temannya. Tapi ketika aku bertemu dengan Dina di hotel, Tini menghubungi aku dan mengatakan kawannya itu sudah keluar kerana ada hal kecemasan. Jadi dia pulang awal malam tu. Dan malam itulah Dahlia datang dan membunuh saudara kembar aku.”

“Jadi… malam tu yang mati bukan kaulah tapi…” Nazri mula mengerti namun tidak mampu menghabiskan kata-katanya.

Hartina mengangguk.

“Ya… saudara kembarku yang menjadi mangsanya.”

Nazri berkalih lagi pada isterinya dan Dina turut mengangguk. Sejurus kemudian Nazri mengeluh. Menongkat tangannya ke kepala. Meleraikan segala kekusutan.

“Aku tahu itu semua adalah rancangan Fakar untuk menyingkir aku. Selepas Tini dikebumikan, aku tak pulang. Aku mengambil keputusan untuk melakukan sesuatu pada Fakar. Lalu aku berjumpa dengan Dina,” sambung Hartina lagi.

“Kalau abang perasan, Dina selalu keluar rumah untuk bertemu dengan Tina,” ujar isterinya pula.

Nazri mengangguk lagi. Memang sejak kebelakangan ini isterinya sering keluar rumah. Malamnya tidak lekat lagi seperti selalu. Hampir setiap minggu isterinya sering beralasan untuk keluar. Malah dia sendiri pun tidak pernah mengesyaki apa-apa.

“Selama ni di mana kau tinggal?” soal Nazri.

“Di hotel. Aku cuba mengelak untuk bertemu dengan Fakar secara terserempak. Untung Dina selalu bersedia untuk membantu aku. Dari dialah aku tahu ke mana dan apa yang sering dilakukan oleh Fakar,” sela Hartina dengan suara yang mendatar.

Belum sempat Nazri menyahut, pembantu rumah datang membawa minuman. Kemudian dia berlalu dan Dina menjemput Hartina minum.

“Tapi macam mana Dina tahu tentang Fakar? Setahu abang, Dina bukannya rapat sangat dengan Fakar.” Soalan itu ditujukan pada isterinya.

Dina tersenyum dan menyambut lembut renungan suaminya.

“Abang kan selalu bercerita pada Dina tentang Fakar. Apa yang selalu dia buat dan ke mana dia pergi. Rahsia Fakar ada dalam poket abang. Dina koreklah. Kalau tidak pun Dina akan buat-buat bertanya pada abang.” Jawapan itu membuatkan Nazri terasa terhukum tiba-tiba.

“Aku dan Dina merancang sesuatu untuk Fakar. Aku buat seolah-olah ‘aku’ masih hidup lagi dalam banglo itu. Setiap apa yang aku lakukan sebelum aku mati, aku terus lakukan. Aku ingin melihat reaksinya. Tak sangka pulak dia begitu takut. Lalu aku terus melakukannya. Aku mahu dia terus hidup dengan diburu oleh bayangan aku.”Seulas senyuman nipis bermain di hujung bibirnya.

Sekali lagi Nazri mengangguk.

“Memang dia ada bercerita tentang abang tentang gangguan yang sering dia alami. Abang ingatkan dia main-main.” Nazri mengeluh lagi.

“Apa katanya bang?” Dina pula bertanya.

“Dia kata dia merasakan seperti isterinya ada lagi di dalam rumah tu. Dia minta tolong dengan abang untuk carikan orang yang boleh menghalau roh isterinya,” jawab Nazri lalu disambut ketawa kecil oleh Hartina. Dina pula sekadar menggelang.

“Dina ingat tak masa abang pergi ke Muar?” Nazri bertanya pada isterinya. “Abang ke sana bertemu bomoh. Tapi tak tahu pula makhluk yang mengganggu Fakar adalah isterinya sendiri. Bukannya hantu.” Dia sendiri hampir tergelak. Namun ditahannya juga.

“Lepas balik dari Muar dia ada mengadu yang dia masih diganggu lagi,” sambung Nazri dengan suara yang perlahan. Riak kesal dan kecewa terzahir jelas di air mukanya.

“Sebab aku bukannya hantu yang boleh dihalau dengan tangkal dan pendinding. Tapi aku manusia yang masih hidup lagi,” jelas Hartina.

Nazri benar-benar tidak sangka dengan apa yang didengarnya. Selama ini hantu yang sering mengejar Fakar adalah isterinya sendiri. Kepalanya digeleng-geleng lagi tanda kesal.

“Kau tadi ada menyebut tentang Dahlia. Benarkah dia pun terbabit sama dalam konspirasi ini?” Baru dia teringatkan tentang gadis itu. Tersedar juga dia tadi, sewaktu pengkebumian Fakar, Dahlia tidak kelihatan. Tidak pula dia berusaha untuk bertanya pada Suhaila.

Hartina ketawa sambil disusuli dengan senyuman mengejek.

“Dia dah mati Nazri.” Pendek sahaja jawapan Hartina.

Nazri tersentak. Terkejut dengan perkhabaran itu. Berkerut-kerut dahinya.

“Apa?”

“Ya… dia dah mati. Fakar sendiri yang bunuh dia,” jelas Hartina lagi dengan suara yang mendatar.

“Fakar…” Bibir Nazri sekadar menyebut nama itu dengan perlahan. Lebih ditujukan pada dirinya sendiri. Apa yang sebenarnya telah berlaku sehingga Fakar sanggup membunuh Dahlia? Lalu persoalan itu diluahkan juga pada Hartina. Seketika Hartina mengerling ke arah Dina. Kemudian berkalih semula pada Nazri.

“Malam semalam aku ke banglo seperti selalu. Macam biasa jugak, aku ikut pintu belakang. Sampai aje di banglo tu aku terlihat kereta Dahlia ada di porch. Jadi aku mengintip.

“Mereka bertengkar. Aku tak pasti apa puncanya. Apa yang aku lihat Fakar menolak Dahlia dan dia terjatuh di sudut meja. Lepas tu aku tengok Fakar mengelabah. Ketika itulah aku terlihat ada kesan darah pada tangan Fakar. Aku pasti benar melalui cara dan riak muka Fakar, Dahlia sudah mati. Kemudian aku terus menunggu. Tidak lama kemudian Fakar naik ke tingkat atas dan mengambil cadar dan membalut mayat Dahlia. Mayatnya diletakkan di boot kereta Dahlia. Aku syak tentu dia buang mayat tu di mana-mana.”

Nazri menggeleng lagi. Sanggup Fakar melakukan semua itu? Sanggup dia membunuh isterinya sendiri dan kemudian membunuh Dahlia juga? Manusia jenis apakah Fakar ini, hatinya mula menyumpah. Selama ini dia merasakan dirinya telah ditipu hidup-hidup oleh Fakar. Kalaulah dia tahu begini perangai sahabatnya itu, sumpah dia akan memutuskan hubungan mereka. Dia tidak sanggup bersahabat seorang manusia berhati syaitan!

“You tahu kat mana Fakar buangkan mayat perempuan tu?” tanya Dina pula. Matanya galak diarahkan pada Hartina.

Hartina menggeleng.

“Tak tahu. Tapi kita tunggulah. Lambat-laun pasti orang akan jumpa juga dengan mayat tu,” sela Hartina dengan yakin.

“Fakar… Fakar…”

Sekali lagi nama itu disebut. Namun bunyinya jauh ke dalam halkumnya sendiri. Tidak pernah dia menyangka yang Fakar sanggup melakukan perkara sejauh ini. Kerana nafsu, Fakar sanggup melakukan apa sahaja. Kerana mengejar kemewahan, kadangkala manusia itu sendiri hilang pertimbangan akalnya. Nazri meraup wajahnya lagi. Jelas ada riak kesal dan kecewa tergaris pada air mukanya. Nafasnya dilepaskan dengan perlahan. Sebentar kemudian dia menoleh ke arah Hartina dan Dina dengan pandangan yang kosong.

DINA memerhatikan Hartina tanpa berkelip. Menunggu sesuatu daripada temannya. Namun riak yang terlukis pada wajah itu langsung tidak mampu dimengertikannya. Hartina pula perlahan-lahan meletakkan surat khabar di atas meja batu di taman kecil di rumahnya. Satu keluhan dilepaskan.

“Kan aku dah kata. Lambat-laun mayat perempuan tu akan dijumpai juga.” Kata-kata itu diucapkan dengan perlahan.

Dina mengangguk tanda setuju. Berita mayat Dahlia ditemui dimuatkan dalam akhbar tempatan pagi itu. Dan pagi tadi juga sewaktu Dina mendapat tahu tentang berita itu, terkocoh-kocoh dia datang menemui Hartina. Tidak sabar rasanya hendak memberitahu berita itu.

“Jadi… apa rancangan kau selepas ni, Tina?”

Wajah Hartina yang kelihatan tenang itu direnungnya dalam-dalam. Seketika dia mengeluh. Seperti ada sesuatu yang berat sedang bersarang dalam mindanya ketika itu.

“Aku nak jual banglo ni,” ujarnya membuatkan Dina terperanjat.

“Kau nak jual?” Terbeliak matanya mendengar.

Hartina mengangguk.

“Terlalu banyak sangat kenangan pahit dalam banglo ni, Dina. Aku tak boleh hidup dalam kenangan seperti itu. Aku tak sanggup menghadapinya.”

Dina diam. Mengharapkan agar Hartina meneruskan kata-katanya. Tidak pula dia meluahkannya melainkan dengan isyarat mata.

“Tini mati dalam banglo ni. Dahlia juga mati dalam banglo ni. Fakar sendiri menemui ajalnya dalam banglo ni. Terlalu banyak kematian yang berlaku dalam banglo ni,” ujar Hartina dengan wajah yang tenang. Di kelopak matanya kelihatan berkaca-kaca. Menahan perasaan.

“Kau takut banglo ni berhantu?” usik Dina. Namun tidak pula Hartina tergelak.

“Kau ingat aku macam Fakar?” sindir Hartina. Kemudian dia tersenyum nipis.

“Aku cuma nak bina hidup baru Dina. Rasanya tak terlewat lagi kan?” ujarnya kemudian meminta pendapat Dina.

Wanita bertubuh agak besar itu turut bersetuju. Hartina diam lagi. Membiarkan angin pagi menyentuh dan membelai wajahnya dengan lembut. Gemersik lalang di sebalik pagar mencuit cuping telinganya. Membiarkan hangat sinaran matahari pagi menikam kulit mukanya.

Seketika dia menoleh ke arah banglo di depan matanya. Terlalu banyak sejarah hitam yang terakam dalam banglo besar itu sejak kebelakangan ini. Dan kesemuanya akan cuba dikikis dari ingatannya. Seketika kemudian dia mendesah. Apakah dia mampu untuk menghapuskan ingatan pahit itu dari dalam diari hidupnya? Barangkali masa sahaja yang akan menentukannya, bisik hatinya sendiri.

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[SNEAK PEEK] SERENA

SERENA By Ron Rash

WHEN PEMBERTON RETURNED TO THE NORTH Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.

The conductor shouted “Waynesville” as the train shuddered to a halt. Pemberton looked out the window and saw his partners on the platform, both dressed in suits to meet his bride of two days, an unexpected bonus from his time in Boston. Buchanan, ever the dandy, had waxed his mustache and oiled his hair. His polished bluchers gleamed, the white cotton dress shirt fresh-pressed. Wilkie wore a gray fedora, as he often did to protect his bald pate from the sun. A Princeton Phi Beta Kappa key glinted on the older man’s watch fob, a blue silk handkerchief tucked in his breast pocket.

Pemberton opened the gold shell of his watch and found the train on time to the exact minute. He turned to his bride, who’d been napping. Serena’s dreams had been especially troubling last night. Twice he’d been waked by her thrashing, her fierce latching onto him until she’d fallen back asleep. He kissed her lightly on the lips and she awoke.

“Not the best place for a honeymoon.”

“It suits us well enough,” Serena said, leaning into his shoulder. “We’re here together, which is all that matters.”

Pemberton inhaled the bright aroma of Tre Jur talcum and remembered how he’d not just smelled but tasted its vividness on her skin earlier that morning. A porter strolled up the aisle, whistling a song Pemberton didn’t recognize. His gaze returned to the window.

Next to the ticket booth Harmon and his daughter waited, Harmon slouching against the chestnut board wall. It struck Pemberton that males in these mountains rarely stood upright. Instead, they leaned into some tree or wall whenever possible. If none was available they squatted, buttocks against the backs of their heels. Harmon held a pint jar in his hand, what remained of its contents barely covering the bottom. The daughter sat on the bench, her posture upright to better reveal her condition. Pemberton could not recall her first name. He wasn’t surprised to see them or that the girl was with child. His child, Pemberton had learned the night before Pemberton and Serena left Boston. Abe Harmon is down here saying he has business to settle with you, business about his daughter, Buchanan had said when he called. It could be just drunken bluster, but I thought you ought to know.

“Our welcoming party includes some of the locals,” Pemberton said to his bride.

“As we were led to expect,” Serena said.

She placed her right hand on his wrist for a moment, and Pemberton felt the calluses on her upper palm, the plain gold wedding band she wore in lieu of a diamond. The ring was like his in every detail except width. Pemberton stood and retrieved two grips from the overhead compartment. He handed them to the porter, who stepped back and followed as Pemberton led his bride down the aisle and the steps to the platform. There was a gap of two feet between the steel and wood. Serena did not reach for his hand as she stepped onto the planks.

Buchanan caught Pemberton’s eye first, gave him a warning nod toward Harmon and his daughter before acknowledging Serena with a stiff formal bow. Wilkie took off his fedora. At five-nine, Serena stood taller than either man, but Pemberton knew other aspects of Serena’s appearance helped foster Buchanan and Wilkie’s obvious surprise—pants and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat, sun-bronzed skin that belied Serena’s social class, lips and cheeks untinted by rouge, hair blonde and thick but cut short in a bob, distinctly feminine yet also austere.

Serena went up to the older man and held out her hand. Though he was, at seventy, over twice her age, Wilkie stared at Serena like a smitten schoolboy, the fedora pressed against his sternum as if to conceal a heart already captured.

“Wilkie, I assume.”

“Yes, yes, I am,” Wilkie stammered.

“Serena Pemberton,” she said, her hand still extended.

Wilkie fumbled with his hat a moment before freeing his right hand and shaking Serena’s.

“And Buchanan,” Serena said, turning to the other partner. “Correct?”

“Yes.”

Buchanan took her proffered hand and cupped it awkwardly in his.

Serena smiled. “Don’t you know how to properly shake hands, Mr. Buchanan?”

Pemberton watched with amusement as Buchanan corrected his grip, quickly withdrew his hand. In the year that Boston Lumber Company had operated in these mountains, Buchanan’s wife had come only once, arriving in a pink taffeta gown that was soiled before she’d crossed Waynesville’s one street and entered her husband’s house. She’d spent one night and left on the morning train. Now Buchanan and his wife met once a month for a weekend in Richmond, as far south as Mrs. Buchanan would travel. Wilkie’s wife had never left Boston.

****

Pemberton passed out, and when the pain woke him the day waned. The sun leaned its shoulder into the ridge, and shadows sortied out from the woods into the meadow. Pemberton could smell the leg, its skin now fiery red from kneecap to toes. The limb was dying, would soon enough be black and festering. Pemberton knew he’d lose it, but that would be all right. He could spend his working day on horseback, as Serena did.

His vision blurred and each breath came harder. Pemberton decided he had to start making his way across the meadow. He’d get as far up the trail as he could before full dark and then rest until dawn. They’d crossed a creek halfway down. He’d drink enough water there to get him the rest of the way.

Pemberton pressed both hands to the earth and dragged himself forward a few feet. The broken ankle announced itself anew, and he had to lay his head against the earth a minute. He tried to move again, and when he did the world gave way beneath him, as if trying to pull away. Pemberton clutched a hank of broom sedge and held tight. He remembered the afternoon he’d followed McDowell’s police car out to the Deep Creek turnoff. How he’d sat there in the Packard with his hand on the hard rubber ball, and how, for a few moments, it had been like having the world in his grasp.

In half an hour, Pemberton was in the meadow’s center. He rested and tried to gain up some strength. It was the only way, he told himself, not so much to survive as prove to Serena he was strong enough after all, worthy of her. If he could just make it back to camp, then everything could be again as it once was.

Shadows fell over him. The festering leg was like dragging a log, and Pemberton imagined the leg gone, how unburdened and free he’d be. If I had the knife I’d cut it off right now, Pemberton told himself, leave it and go on my way. Pemberton retched, but nothing rose into his throat. The world shuddered, tried again to tear free. He grabbed another fistful of broom sedge and held on.

When he regained consciousness, it was twilight. A cry like that of an infant came from the meadow’s edge. Jacob, he thought, still safe, still alive. Pemberton raised his head toward the sound, but his vision had receded into some part of himself so deep no light could enter. A few minutes later he heard something brushing the broom sedge, moving resolutely toward him, and Pemberton suddenly knew, knew more surely than he’d ever known anything, that Serena had come for him. He remembered the evening in Boston when Mrs. Lowell had introduced them, and Serena had smiled and reached out her hand to take his. A new beginning, now as well as then. Pemberton could not see or speak, but he opened his hand and let go of the broom sedge, let go of the earth itself as he waited to feel Serena’s firm calloused hand embrace his.

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[REVIEW] ABANDONED

ABANDONED BY LEE SHEPHERD

Terrified. Drugged. Abandoned.

A rural area in the north of England is put on edge as teenage girls start to go missing. The local authorities are stumped in their search for the one responsible.

Charles Lee lives a very normal life, in stark contrast to his troubled past. Putting years of abuse, neglect and loss behind him, he has built a new life in the countryside with his beloved family and border collie. However, his past soon starts to haunt him as burned bridges are resurrected, old grievances resurface and a lust for revenge takes over.

Will Detective Taylor and psychological profiler Georgina Riley suss out the clues and piece together the jigsaw in time to stop the disappearances?


The story of a man who was adopted at a young age and then on losing these parents was then placed in to foster care. What happened to him stayed with him and despite becoming a professional family man the haunts are still there. A chilling tale of how the past can shape our lives if we let it and don’t seek help or are powerless to do so. Hiding a deeply disturbed personality we would think would be hard in someone leading a “normal” life without leaving clues or even small tell-tale signs. A well described book and fast moving enough to keep you hooked. For a first novel this is excellent- keep going Lee!

 

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