[SNEAK PEEK] RAHSIA DIARI MERAH

Rahsia Diari Merah oleh Iman Fadia

 

ADAM menunggu penuh sabar di sebuah restoran di Suria KLCC. Tadi dia sempat tanya ibunya di mana ibunya dan Hawa akan beriadah pada hari minggu itu. Dia sengaja pilih restoran di situ supaya dalam masa yang sama dia boleh perhatikan ibunya dan Hawa. Dari tadi dia mengekori mereka senyap-senyap. Jarum jam dilihat sekilas. Hampir lima belas minit dia menunggu Yahya.

“Ben pun belum datang lagi ni.” Adam panjangkan lehernya menjenguk ke arah pintu masuk restoran. Dia ajak lelaki itu sekali.

Adam senyum. Yahya sudah berjalan menuju ke arahnya. Mereka bersalaman seketika sebelum melabuhkan punggung di situ. Minuman dan makanan mula dipesan.

“Maafkan pak cik… Dah lama Adam tunggu?” Yahya senyum. Dia betulkan kerusi yang didudukinya.

“Tak adalah lama sangat. Errr… Alin tinggal dengan siapa?” Adam pula ramah bertanya.

“Pak cik minta tolong jiran sebelah temankan Alin di rumah. Mereka tu sama-sama ambil SPM tahun ni.” Yahya melakar senyuman.

“Oh… macam tu. Emmm… Ada apa pak cik nak jumpa saya ni?” Adam terus saja ke topik perbincangan.

“Ni hah… Pak cik jumpa satu gugus kunci dalam laci bilik arwah Melati dulu. Pak cik rasa mungkin kunci ni boleh digunakan.” Yahya hulur kunci yang dimasukkan dalam beg plastik kepada Adam.

Adam senyum. Memang betul tekaannya. Mungkin Yahya ingin serahkan kunci walaupun dia sendiri masih tidak tahu kunci apa sebenarnya. Dia belek seketika kunci itu. Ada beberapa kunci yang bentuknya lebih kurang sama dengan tempat kunci kotak besi itu.

“Saya simpan kunci ni.”

Mereka berdua mula berbual bersama daripada satu topik ke satu topik. Tidak sedar makanan yang dipesan sudah sampai ke meja.

“Adam!”

Adam mendongak. Benjamin berlari anak ke arahnya.

“Ben ada sekali?” Yahya pandang pula ke arah Benjamin yang kini sudah menjadi tunang Hawa.

“Apa khabar, pak su?” Benjamin bersalam dan mencium tangan orang tua itu.

Adam hanya memerhati tingkah Benjamin. Memang Benjamin sudah banyak berubah.

“Ada hal apa Adam, pak su?” Benjamin pula bertanya. Dia sandar di kerusi, melepaskan lelah berlari tadi.

“Ben, aku dah dapat klu baru. Kunci ni mungkin boleh digunakan untuk buka kotak besi yang aku jumpa di banglo putih tu.” Adam mula berterus terang.

“Kotak?” Serentak Yahya dan Benjamin bertanya.

“Ya, mengikut catatan pada diari merah tu, ada satu tanda X berwarna merah di bilik arwah Melinda, kakak Melissa. Saya pergi cari dan bawah tanda tu, memang ada kotak tanpa kunci. Mungkin salah satu kunci ni sepadan dengan kunci pada kotak itu,” jelas Adam.

Benjamin diam. Dia mula merasa cemburu pada Adam yang beria-ia menyiasat semua itu sedangkan dia yang sepatutnya melakukan semua itu memandangkan Hawa kini sudah menjadi tunangnya.

“Jadi, kat mana kotak tu?” Benjamin mula bertanya.

“Ada dalam simpanan aku. Kalau kita tahu apa isi dalam tu, mungkin kes ni boleh diselesaikan dengan cepat. Semalam, Razak ada hubungi aku, JD terpaksa dibebaskan kerana tiada bukti kukuh dia terlibat dalam kes ini dan juga kes pecah rumah aku dulu.” Adam sedikit mengeluh.

“JD?” Yahya pula terpinga-pinga.

“Errr… JD tu orang yang kejar Melissa dulu pak su. Dia yang arahkan orang kejar Melissa dan curi diari merah daripada Melissa tapi sayang, tak ada bukti kukuh. Terpaksalah dibebaskan.” Benjamin pula mencelah.

Yahya mengangguk-angguk.

“Pak cik kesian sebenarnya dengan Lissa tu. Dia jadi pelarian sampai macam tu sekali. Memang orang yang kejar dia tu tak berhati perut langsung!”

Adam diam. Memang tidak berhati perut. Mengejar seorang gadis yang tidak berdaya dan lebih sadis, ingin membunuh Hawa, waris terakhir Datuk Yusof. Kalau dia dapat tahu siapa dalang semua itu, tahulah nasib orang itu nanti.

“Maaf, pak su. Saya tak tahu selama ini Melissa adalah anak Datuk Yusof. Saya tak pernah tanya dia dulu masa di US. Hidup kami hanya berseronok dan belajar saja ketika itu. Rupa-rupanya baru saya tahu, arwah Datuk Yusof berkawan baik dengan papa.” Benjamin mula merasa bersalah pada Hawa.

Adam diam sahaja.

Tengah hari itu mereka bertiga berbual dan bersembang mesra sebelum beredar dari situ. Benjamin pula mempelawa Yahya bermalam di rumahnya. Adam hanya senyum. Yalah, pak su yang bertanggungjawab pada Hawa sekarang ini dan sudah tentu lelaki itu juga akan menjadi wali pernikahan Benjamin dan Hawa nanti.

SEKALI lagi Adam berjumpa dengan Encik Yahya untuk pulangkan semula kunci yang diambil semalam. Setelah berbincang serba sedikit, Adam menghantar Encik Yahya ke lapangan terbang. Benjamin sudah menempah tiket untuk Encik Yahya dan Benjamin sempat berpesan supaya menghantar pak su Hawa ke KLIA kerana dia terpaksa mengikuti mesyuarat penting.

“Adam, terima kasih.” Yahya bersalam dengan Adam.

“Sama-sama.” Adam senyum.

“Pak su!”

Adam berpaling. Hawa sudah berlari ke arah mereka. Dia berkerut kening. Matanya dialih pada Yahya.

“Pak cik yang beritahu dia.” Yahya senyum.

Hawa menghampiri pak sunya dan Adam. Tergamam dia melihat Adam turut berada di situ.

“Pak su… Ni untuk Alin.”

Hawa hulur sebuah kotak kepada Yahya. Adam di sebelah hanya dipandang sekilas. Mungkin Adam sudah tahu apa yang terjadi semasa di KLCC dulu. Sudah tentu lelaki itu melihat gambar dalam telefon bimbit itu.

“Lissa… Jaga diri baik-baik, ya? Datuk Malik tu baik. Dia yang jaga syarikat arwah papa tu,” pesan Yahya kepada Hawa sebelum dia melangkah masuk ke balai menunggu.

“Ya, pak su. Kirim salam pada Alin, ya?” Hawa mencium tangan pak su.

Yahya mula melangkah ke balai menunggu.

Adam mengalih pandang pada Hawa.

“Kotak besi tu… Saya dah dapat dari bawah lantai marmar.”

“Kotak? Maksud awak… bawah tanda X tu ada kotak?” Hawa terkejut.

“Ya, kotak tu ada di rumah ibu saya tetapi tidak boleh dibuka.”

“Maksud awak, kotak tu berkunci?” Hawa menelan liur.

Adam mengangguk.

“Saya rasa saya ada kunci… Tapi saya tak tahu kunci apa. Kunci itu ada dalam dokumen yang paksu beri kepada saya dulu.” Hawa pula berterus terang.

“Kalau macam tu, boleh saya pinjam kunci tu?” Adam senyum. Hawa dilihat sudah mengangguk.

“Saya nak juga tahu apa isi kandungan kotak tu.”

“Hmmm… Kalau macam tu, jomlah. Awak naik kereta saya. Kita ke apartmen awak… Errr … Maksud saya, saya tunggu awak di bawah.” Adam sudah teruja.

“Baiklah.”

Mereka berdua mula menaiki kereta bersama menuju ke Apartmen Anggerik.

ADAM menunggu penuh sabar di kawasan Apartmen Anggerik. Dia pandang jam. Sudah sepuluh minit dia menunggu Hawa di dalam kereta saja.

Adam berpaling. Ketukan di cermin keretanya menyedarkannya dari lamunan tadi. Kelihatan Hawa sudah tersenyum di situ. Perlahan Adam menapak keluar dari perut kereta.

“Ada tak?”

“Ni… Tak tahulah kalau kunci boleh pakai ke tak. Cubalah dulu.” Satu kunci dihulur kepada Adam.

“Hmmm… Nanti saya cuba. Errr… Awak nak tengok juga kan kotak tu?” Adam pandang Hawa yang masih tersenyum di sebelahnya. Terasa laju jantung berdegup.

“Ya, bila awak nak buka?”

“Malam nanti awak datang dengan Ben, saya tunggu di Restoran Rebung di Bangsar.” Adam beri cadangan.

Hawa diam. Dia tidak menjawab apa-apa.

“Maaf… Saya terpaksa ajak Ben sekali sebab dia tunang awak dan saya tak nak dia salah faham nanti.” Adam mula jelaskan situasi itu pada Hawa.

Hawa mengangguk.

Adam mula masuk ke dalam kereta. Malam nanti mereka bertiga akan bertemu di Bangsar.

ADAM bersiap untuk ke Restoran Rebung di Bangsar. Usai solat maghrib tadi, dia terus saja capai kunci kereta dan menapak keluar dari biliknya. Langkahnya diatur ke ruang tamu. Kotak besi itu diletakkan di atas meja sofa. Dia jenguk ke dapur, ibu sibuk mengemas ruang dapur setelah selesai solat maghrib tadi. Perlahan Adam mendekati ibunya yang leka mencuci pinggan.

“Ibu…”

Rohana berpaling. Dia melemparkan senyuman manis.

“Nak ke mana ni?”

“Saya nak keluar sekejap. Ibu nak kirim apa-apa tak?” Adam senyum. Dia menolong mengelap pinggan yang sudah dicuci.

“Tak ada…” balas Rohana.

“Kalau macam tu, saya pergi dulu.” Adam bergegas ke kereta.

Adam memandu ke arah Bangsar.

“Sangkut la pula.” Adam jenguk ke depan. Kereta hanya bergerak 20km sejam. Entah apa yang berlaku di hadapan jalan itu. Banyak kali Adam melihat jarum jam. Lapan setengah malam. Jam sembilan nanti dia perlu sampai di restoran itu.

Adam pandang telefon bimbitnya. Ada mesej. Mesej itu dibaca sebentar. Dia senyum. Hawa dan Benajmin juga tersangkut dalam kesesakan jalan raya, mereka akan tiba lewat di restoran itu.

“Hmmm… Ingatkan aku aje yang tersadai kat sini.” Adam sedikit lega. Dia tidak suka hanya pandai berjanji tetapi tidak ditepati.

Keadaan sesak tadi sudah mula beransur lancar. Adam membelok ke simpang masuk ke arah bangunan di Bangsar. Tiba-tiba terasa keretanya dilanggar seseorang. Dia pandang melalui cermin pandang belakang. Sebuah kereta berwarna putih sudah rapat dari belakang. Sekali lagi belakang keretanya dilanggar.

“Gila! Ni mesti road bully!” Adam mengetap bibir. Dia tidak hiraukan kereta itu tadi, dia teruskan memandu menuju ke arah restoran itu yang sudah tidak jauh dari situ.

Adam brek mengejut. Kereta putih tadi sudah memotong keretanya. Dia pandang kiri kanan. Jalan agak lengang dengan lampu jalan tidak bernyala di situ. Agak gelap suasana ketika itu. Dua orang lelaki sudah keluar dari perut kereta dan menghampiri keretanya.

“Samseng mana pula ni?” Adam masih berada di dalam kereta. Dia cuba mengundur tetapi keretanya sudah dihalang oleh sebuah kereta lagi di belakangnya.

“Keluar!”

Cermin kereta Adam diketuk kuat. Adam masih diam di dalam kereta. Kedua-dua lelaki itu sudah mengambil sebatang besi, bersedia untuk mengetuk cermin keretanya. Adam cepat-cepat keluar.

“Kau orang nak apa?” Adam pandang seorang demi seorang.

“Geledah kereta dia!” arah salah seorang lelaki itu yang memakai jaket kulit hitam. Adam dikilas tangannya ke belakang dan ditolak ke arah kereta sehingga tersandar Adam dengan pipinya melekat di bonet kereta.

“Tak ada, bos!”

“Tak ada?” Lelaki itu berkerut kening.

“Mana kotak tu?”

Adam menelan liur. Mana dia orang tahu pasal kotak tu?

“Aku tanya, mana kotak tu?” Lelaki itu tadi mula tonyoh muka Adam dengan batang besi tadi.

Adam masih diam. Dia cuba ingatkan semula semasa dia keluar dari biliknya tadi, dia terus ke dapur dan kemudian menaiki kereta. Baru dia teringat, kotak itu diletakkan atas meja sofa di ruang tamu. Mungkin dia terlupa mengambilnya.

“Mana aku tahu! Kotak apa kau orang cakap ni?” Adam tidak mahu mengalah.

“Dengar sini! Aku tahu kau ada simpan kotak tu. Aku nak kotak tu. Kalau tak, awek kau akan jadi mangsa!” Lelaki itu terus menumbuk muka Adam. Mereka terus beredar dari situ.

Adam yang jatuh tersungkur di tepi keretanya sudah berdarah mulutnya. Pipinya pula sudah pedih akibat ditonyoh batang besi tadi. Dia raba pipinya sendiri.

“Gila!”

Darah mula menitis kesan daripada ditonyoh dengan batang besi tadi.

Adam masuk semula ke dalam kereta. Dia mula mencari kotak besi itu. Memang tak ada.

“Hmmm… Jadi aku memang tertinggal kat rumah. Aku mesti balik cepat. Mana tahu mereka serbu rumah mak ayah aku pula.”

Adam segera menghubungi Benjamin. Dia terpaksa batalkan perjumpaan itu. Dia harus segera pulang ke rumah. Keretanya dipandu laju meninggalkan kawasan itu menuju ke rumahnya semula.

SAMPAI di rumah, Adam meluru ke ruang tamu. Matanya tertancap pada kotak besi di atas meja sofa. Dia bergegas pula mencari kedua-dua orang tuanya. Lega melihat ibu sedang membaca al-Quran di dalam bilik. Ayah pula sedang membaca di dalam bilik bacaan.

Dia menarik nafas lega. Sekali lagi Adam turun ke ruang tamu. Kotak besi itu masih ada di situ. Dia segera ambil kotak itu dan menapak ke bilik. Kotak itu diletakkan atas meja. Dia seluk poket seluar untuk mengambil kunci.

“Mana pula kunci ni?”

Adam seluk lagi poket seluarnya.

Dia bergegas ke kereta semula. Habis diselongkar keretanya mencari kunci di situ. Juga tidak ada. Sekali lagi dia memeriksa. Hampa. Adam menapak semula ke dalam rumah. Kali ini dia cuba mencari di sekitar sofa pula. Juga tidak ada di situ.

“Haih… Mesti Hawa marahkan aku nanti.”

Adam meraup muka.

Dia cuba mengingati kejadian tadi. Mungkin kunci itu sudah jatuh di tempat keretanya dihalang tadi. Sekali lagi Adam meraup muka. Dia sudah buntu sekarang ini.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] SALTING ROSES

Salting Roses by Lorelle Marinello

 

The morning interview with her grandma and Sam’s watchful gaze had taken more out of Gracie than she cared to admit. She still hadn’t glanced at the date on her birth certificate. It seemed like a simple thing, just a few numbers—something she’d always wondered about—but just knowing the actual date would make the last week just a little too real. Already she was beginning to lose track of where Gracie Calloway ended and Katherine Hammond began.

Sam had sensed her need to be alone and reluctantly let her leave with a promise to go straight home. Her grandma had backed off when she said she had to pack for the trip to Montgomery to sign papers, which was the truth. But first she had to fix things with Alice.

Old Man Guilt had been following her around all day and wouldn’t leave her be. The image of Alice’s wobbly lips and dog-sad eyes kept popping into her mind. Alice had come out fighting for her, and she’d just stood there, tongue-tied like a fool with her mind looping around the sparkly image of her flesh-and-blood mama.

Gracie kicked off her sandals on Alice’s back porch and smoothed the wrinkles out of the yellow dress, hoping Clare had delivered her regrets and softened Alice up. Her girlish side had always admired Alice’s frilly kitchen in a moth-to-flame sort of way. It was practically a religious experience, complete with a hand-painted statue of a smiling Lord Jesus who stood guard over Alice’s row of fancy china cups and saucers.

The smells—a mixture of fresh-baked pies, coffee, and Alice’s lavender body powder—hit her as soon she stepped through the doorway. Gracie’s apology went still on her tongue.

Alice clutched a rolling pin in her right hand and offered it to Clare. “Now, if the piecrust isn’t kept chilled, it will get sticky, then hard as wood when it bakes. Might even break your sweetheart’s tooth. And he won’t thank you for it. Then you’ll have a toothless man smiling at you from across the table the rest of your days. Makes me shudder just to think of it.”

Clare looked up from what she was doing. “Your neighbor, Skip Evers, has a nice smile.”

Alice quickly swallowed her surprise, then beamed back at Clare. “Why, yes, he certainly does. Mind you, that’s because I told Millie Evers to make sure he brushes twice a day.” As sly a smile as Gracie had ever seen spread across Alice’s lips. “I hear he came by twice to check on you while I was at work this morning.”

Clare blushed. “He did, and the second time he brought me flowers. No one has ever brought me flowers before.”

“Oh my, but how sweet our Skippy is. Flowers, like teeth, are the mark of a true gentleman. Gracie is immune to his charms. But that’s just as well now that she has her fancy mama to make a fuss over her.”

Alice let out a sorrowful sigh, then reached over to guide Clare’s hands. “Roll it gently now, dear. Not too thin. There you go. Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it?”

“This is fun. I could do this all day.” Clare’s voice had a skip it hadn’t had when she arrived in Shady Grove. “What’s next?”

“Hand me that pie dish from the table, would you?”

Gracie stepped out of the shadows and hurried toward the dish. “Here you go, Alice.”

Alice’s hands flew to her chest as she spun around. “Lord Almighty, you scared the livin’ daylights out of me, child. Haven’t I told you not to sneak up on me when I’m in the kitchen? Clare, bring me my stool, would you? My heart’s nearly out my throat. I need to catch it before it runs off.”

Clare plunked the stool down beside Alice. “I can finish. Just tell me what to do.”

Alice reached for Clare’s arm as she lowered herself onto the stool. “Why, thank you. You are such a dear.”

“I’m just so happy to be here. I can hardly find the words.”

Alice tightened her grip on Clare’s hand. Gracie couldn’t believe her eyes … or her ears. Was that a drawl she’d heard slipping over her sister’s New England accent? Alice had turned Clare into her clone, right down to the calico apron hugging her sister’s waist. Where was the brave girl she’d been sharing secrets with just this morning?

Gracie felt her temper bump up a notch. “Are you feeling sickly? Do I need to call the doctor?”

Alice pulled a tissue out of her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. “I thought you’d be packing for your tea party at the Riverview.” Alice’s sharp gaze was taking in her new dress.

Gracie swallowed the inclination to snap back that she had nothing to pack. “Not yet. I’m only going for one day. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”

Alice leaned toward Clare. “Tell me, dear. What do you think of Gracie in yellow? Did I choose the wrong color?”

Clare’s gaze did the jitterbug, flitting back and forth between Jesus and the teacups behind Gracie’s head. “Yellow turns my skin green, but on Gracie it looks great.”

Bless the teacups and the happy Jesus. The spell was lifted. The Clare she knew was back.

But Alice didn’t seem to notice. She was still considering Gracie’s dress with her finger propped against one cheek. “I suppose it will do for tea with your new mama.”

Clare dropped the rolling pin on the counter and shot Gracie a panicked look. “But I thought you said she’d gone home—”

Alice’s gaze was intent on Gracie’s. “She arrived at the crack of dawn with an entourage of paparazzi.”

“The press was here? Why didn’t somebody tell me?” Clare’s voice jumped an octave.

Alice didn’t seem to notice. She had her laser stare fixed on Gracie. “The street was cluttered with news vans of all sorts, just when that nice Mr. Fontana had told them to stay away. She brought them on purpose, I’ll bet.”

Gracie glared back at Alice. “You don’t know that for sure. She came to invite me to tea.”

“Most folks send a proper invitation.” Alice’s bottom lip jutted out, and her eyes narrowed behind the glare of her glasses. She was still on a snipe hunt.

Clare untied her apron and thrust it at Gracie. “If my mother finds out Lillian is still here, she’ll be right behind her … I’ll have to leave. Where will I go?”

Alice commandeered Clare’s hand and patted it gently. “Don’t worry, my dear. She wouldn’t dare come here, where she’s not welcome.”

Clare stopped dithering and sent Gracie a look of apology. They both knew Alice wasn’t talking about Clare’s mother, but Gracie’s own mama. Artie had been right: This wasn’t a battle Gracie couldn’t win without losing an arm or a leg. She’d only made things worse with Alice.

Gracie slammed through Ben’s kitchen and snatched up the envelope Kate Hammond had given her, then peeked into Artie’s room. He was lying in a sea of new pillows. The oxygen tube still ran from his nose. Playing cards were spread over the coverlet in front of him.

“Quit your spyin’ and get yourself in here. I ain’t had nobody but ornery women bothering me today.”

She’d spent endless hours playing solitaire with Artie: when it was too hot to move, then again when the rains came and they couldn’t go outside and play ball. Artie was the only one she knew who could beat Old Sol with any regularity. Never once had she suspected him of cheating, but Alice claimed he did.

Gracie perched on a stool and studied the cards. “You’ve reached a dead end. Time to fold.”

Artie worked through the cards in his hand one more time. Magically an ace of spades surfaced. Then there was no stopping him. One-by-one, the cards fell into place. A smile tugged at his lips. “You been draggin’ your sorry ass around too long, girl. Don’t you think it’s time for you to pull yourself out of it?” Artie set the last card into place with a snap.

“I’ll drag as long as I want. Besides, I’ve got reason.” Gracie fumbled with the envelope of photos she’d taken from her grandmother.

“Some folks would say you don’t … but they’re not standin’ in your shoes, so you just go on and wallow, now, you hear?” One of his gray brows lifted her way expectantly.

“I haven’t had time to wallow. I’ve got visitors coming out of the walls.”

Artie laid the two of spades on the ace, then shuffled the pile one more time. “That so?” You gonna tell me who, or are you gonna make an old man wear hisself out guessin’?”

“My sister showed up in her mama’s car with a trunk full of fancy new clothes. Now Alice is in her kitchen teaching her to make pies. And I’ve got a grandma who puts a whole new twist on the word Yankee.”

Artie was quiet for a minute, but Gracie wasn’t fooled; his thoughts were working at lightning speed, making connections. “I see you’s wearing Alice’s new dress—even though I knows you never liked yellow.”

“I can change my mind, can’t I?”

“I told you not to worry ‘bout Alice. She might fuss a bit coming out of the gate, but she’ll come ‘round.”

“There was no gate. She cut straight through the fence. All it took was one look at my mama, and she was like a fast horse heading down the track. I tried to slow her down by putting on this silly dress, but she just ran me down and stole my sister. I give up.”

“You know damn well you and Alice ain’t never seen anythin’ with the same pair of eyes. That’s been goin’ on long before this new trouble come along. Why you so worried about what she thinks now?”

Artie’s look told her he knew why, but he wanted her to say it out loud so she could hear the words for herself. What could she say? “My world is burstin’ at the seams. Alice is running off to marry the reverend. Who knows what’s going on between Ben and the Widow Perkins? Did I mention Jimmy is squeezing me out of my job? And you tell me you’ve already bought a space in the Big Man’s parking lot—” She didn’t even bother to add Sam Fontana to the list. “I got more rights than most to feel out of sorts.”

“Yes, you do. But some of those things that’s sucking up your smile is things you can’t change. Let those go. Worry about the things you can change. Facts is facts.” Artie reached for her hand and laced his fingers through hers. “Now, what about your new family? I suppose their faces are witchy and ugly like yours, long-nosed with warts. You bring them along?” Artie pretended to peer past her shoulder. Something told her he already knew the details. From the look on his tired face, she’d guess he’d missed his nap waiting for her to show up and spill the news.

Gracie tucked Alice to the back of her mind and offered Artie a smile. “Chantel’s been tattling, hasn’t she?”

Artie nodded, then released her hand and settled into the pillows. “She came over to brag about how that Yankee gave her time off, paid. That girl is so busy looking for easy street, she gonna miss the turn—unlike you. You’s gonna miss it ‘cause you gots your eyes shut so tight you can’t see where you’re goin’.” Artie’s gaze dipped to the envelope. “What you got there?”

“A headache.”

“I mean, in that envelope you’s huggin’ so tight.”

“Oh, this?” Gracie lowered the package to her lap. “Just some old baby pictures. Nothing much.”

“Hand me my glasses, girl. I want to see if you were as ugly as I remember.” Artie cracked a smile, but it was a good twenty calibers weaker than his usual sassy grin.

Gracie’s heart seized up. He was fading right before her eyes. Reluctantly, she dumped the pictures into his lap, then reached for his glasses while she tried unsuccessfully to press the tears back into her eyes. “Here you go. Knock yourself out.”

Artie let her watery voice slide by without a second glance. “Well, look at you. Why, you weren’t nothin’ but a tadpole. I seen kittens born bigger than you. And this must be your daddy.” Artie moved the photo up and down until he found the right focus through his bifocals. “You got his chin. Must have a pair of mules in his britches, jus’ like you.”

Gracie resisted the urge to grab the picture away before Artie saw something she wasn’t ready to admit to. For some reason, the picture was painful for her to look at, but she’d wanted it more than anything. If her grandmother had refused to give it to her, she would have found a way to get a copy, even if it meant stealing.

Artie moved on to the next photo. Gracie held her tongue through his grunts, snorts, and nods. When he’d finished, he tucked the snapshots carefully into the envelope—all but the one.

Gracie reached for it, but he snatched it away.

Slowly he raised his one-eyed laser stare in her direction. “I figured this would be the one you’d like the best. I knowed, if it was me, it would be the one I’d pick. Makes me feel sorta like I gypped your daddy.”

Gracie swallowed the lump in her throat. “Why’s that?”

“Well, ‘cause he’s lookin’ at you like you could move heaven and earth. I’m thinkin’ he was a lonely man and you was his North Star.”

“Save your pity for someone else. He lived in this town, shopped in my store, sent me flowers, but he never told me who he was. I had a right to know, and he never said boo. Now I don’t know who the hell I am.”

“You’re Gracie Lynne Calloway—the girl who pitched three no-hitters in a row; the girl who spends her Thanks-givin’ deliverin’ food to folks who ain’t got none, and it wasn’t ‘cause Alice and her churchy friends made you. You’s still the same girl—except for them shoes. They’s some kinda ugly.”

“They’re yours.” Gracie blinked away her tears.

“I thought I taught you not to lie. They ain’t ever been on my stylish feet. No, siree. Arthur Dubois may be poor, but he gots his pride. You been fishin’ in Moses Day’s trash heap, that’s what.”

Gracie felt tears crowd her eyes again. She dashed them away with the back of her hand. “Alice burned my clothes.”

Artie laid the picture down on the coverlet. After a long silence, he nodded his head. “Me and Alice don’t agree on much, you know that. But I’m thinkin’ maybe this time she’s right.”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Artie had always been on her side when Alice got pushy. “Right? About what?”

“That you need to leave the nest. Burnin’ your clothes is her way of shovin’ you out. Ben and me, we got too used to you doin’ for us. Don’t you see, this is your big chance, girl, to do something in a big way besides take care of two old men who smell more every year. Ain’t you got no dreams?”

Gracie stared back at Artie. No one had ever asked her that. The answer had to be yes, ‘cause everybody had a dream, right? She could feel Artie’s gaze hanging on hers, waiting for an answer.

But if she was still Gracie Calloway, not Katherine Hammond, like Artie said, then she was the same child who’d been left on the front porch. Even that girl had had dreams at one time—dreams of a fairy-tale mother who thought she was the cat’s meow. But she’d learned over the years just because she wanted something to be true, dreaming didn’t make it so. Gracie met his prying look with a stubborn frown. “I don’t have time for dreams, Artie.”

“Uh-huh, that’s what I thought. You’s been so busy worryin’ about other folks, you forgot all about little ol’ Gracie Calloway. I’m talkin’ about big dreams like the ones Martin Luther King and John Kennedy had.”

Gracie felt the day creeping up on her. Her arms and legs ached along with her head. She stared at the forgotten photographs in Artie’s lap, then shifted her gaze to Artie’s face. “You don’t ask for much, do you?”

“I’m askin’ ‘cause you ain’t, don’t you see?”

Gracie felt her voice go small in her throat. She propped one foot on her knee and toyed with the frayed shoelace. “I wanted to sing once. But we both know that isn’t gonna happen.”

“Ain’t that the truth. You got the singin’ voice of a crow. What else? There’s got to be somethin’.”

Sam and his grin skated uninvited into Gracie’s mind. Gracie tried to shoo the image away without success. As soon as one version of Sam was gone, another replaced it, until she felt a serious frown tugging at the corners of her mouth.

When she glanced up, Artie’s eagle gaze fixed on her face. Finally his eyes lit and he cracked that smug grin of his that made his ears crinkle along his cheeks. “You’s in love. Hot damn. About time.”

Gracie hopped off her perch on the bed. “You’re crazy. I’ve got to go pack. I’m going to Montgomery—just for a day, mind you. Don’t go getting any funny ideas about me and Mr. Fontana, because they’re just not so.” Gracie collected the envelope from Artie’s lap.

A broad smile curved his face. “I been prayin’ for this day a mighty long time. Yes, siree. My little chick is about to spread her wings.”

“Well, don’t stop, because it’s not here yet. I’m just going to sign some papers.”

“You go on, now. And get yourself some pretty new clothes while you’s there.” Artie started to cough. The raspy sound was deeper this time.

A rush of fear and lack of sleep the night before made Gracie’s head swim. She reached for Artie’s hand. “I can stay here. Sam can arrange for them to come to Shady Grove, if they need me so bad. I don’t give a damn about the money.”

“You met someone else you want to give it to? Someone who will do good with it? From what you tell me, that money could end up in the hands of some mighty shortsighted folks. I know you, girl. You’d never forgive yourself. It would eat at your socks. Seems to me, you gots some serious thinkin’ to do.”

“I’m beginning to think that’s the problem—too much thinking.”

“Maybe you’re startin’ in the wrong place. First off, you gots to know what your dreams is, ‘cause if you don’t, I don’t see how you can know what to do.”

They were back to that again. Gracie still didn’t have an answer—at least any she was ready to admit to. She prayed that as long as she was still looking for an answer, he’d be waiting. If Artie could trick Old Sol as many times as he had, he could trick the Grim Reaper just once.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] RAVISH

Ravish by Cathy Yardley

 

When Jacob fell asleep that night, he arrived in Rory’s room, just like always—only Rory wasn’t there waiting for him. He was surprised, then he wasn’t. Considering the way he’d left, he could barely expect her to welcome him with open arms, could he?

You’re acting like she’s real again.

He closed his eyes. The damned raccoon. How else could he have known about that strange detail?

“Rory?” he called, searching the room, then the suite. “Rory, please come out.”

He started to feel concerned. He had to find her. He had to figure this out, test her.

Prove once and for all that she’s not real.

He left the room, calling for her down the hallways. When he got downstairs and couldn’t find her, his stomach began to clench, forming a ball of ice as fear stabbed through him. Was she hurt? Was she gone? Had he finally gotten his wish and banished her from his dreams for good?

If you’re not useful, I won’t keep dreaming about you.

Panic flooded his system. Even if she wasn’t real, the thought of living without her touch, without her taste, was almost more than he could bear.

“Rory!” he yelled, rushing outside, scanning the grounds.

He saw her as she was walking up the pathway. She was weeping, looking frightened. When she saw him, she made a strained sob and ran for him. He opened his arms, and she rushed into his embrace. He clutched her frantically, holding her so tight it was a wonder she could breathe. “Rory,” he whispered fiercely against her hair. “I thought you’d gone.”

“Jacob.” She clung to him, burying her face against his chest.

“I’m sorry.” He leaned back, kissing her hard, tasting the saltiness of her tears. “I was an asshole. I didn’t mean it, not any of it…”

“You were right,” she hiccupped. “I didn’t want it badly enough. I thought I was strong enough…”

“You are,” he countered. “You are strong. You’ve made it this long…”

“By doing what?” She shoved away from him, knuckling tears off of her face. “You were right. I was just playing house, wasting time. I didn’t want to face what I was afraid of.” He watched as she swallowed convulsively, her face a mask of shame and pain. “I’m still a coward.”

“No.” He sighed. “You’re not a coward.”

“How would you know?” she asked scornfully. “And why are you even talking to me? I’m not real, remember? I’m just a figment of your subconscious…an unhelpful, useless illusion, at that!”

She turned, ready to head away from him, into the hotel. He looped his arms around her waist, holding tight when she struggled, swearing at him. “Please, please listen to me. I can’t help the fact that it’s hard for me to believe. Would you believe all this, if it were happening to you?”

“It is happening to me!” she spat out, jerking away from him. He followed her through the glass doors.

“If you were me,” he persisted, “a doctor, and you started having sexual dreams about a patient, would you believe that it was someone in a coma actually talking to you while you slept?”

She slowed, and he stepped in front of her.

“You were cruel.” Her eyes were like the moon, silvery and luminescent.

“I know. I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to believe in you. I thought I was losing my mind.”

“And now…?”

He paused.

“You’re still not convinced,” she said. She rubbed her hands over her face.

“I’m close,” he said. “And if you knew what I was like, before I met you, you would understand what a huge concession that is.”

“I don’t know you. For all I know, I invented you.” She looked alarmed, then her face relaxed. “But I know that’s not true. I know you’re real.”

For a second, he was fascinated by her certainty. “How can you be so sure?”

She shrugged. “I just am.”

Her faith humbled him. Even though he’d always prided himself on being logical and rational, for a second, he envied her ability to simply believe, and go with her instinct.

“Where were you?” he asked, putting an arm around her shoulders. “I looked for you everywhere.”

He could feel her shake, pressing tighter against his side. “I was taking your advice,” she said with a trace of bitterness. “I was trying to wake up.”

He stopped, startled. “You were? How?”

“I told you there were things on this island,” she muttered. “Things that frightened me. Well, I went there.”

“And…?” He felt excitement—and, strangely, a little apprehension.

“I’m still here, aren’t I?” she snapped. “It didn’t work. I don’t know how to get myself to wake up. But I don’t ever want to go back there again.”

“Back where?”

They headed toward her room, more out of habit than for any specific reason. “Back to the grove,” she said. “When you head down the path, into the rain forest, there’s a small village. Further on, there’s a path that leads into the darkest part of the woods. That’s where it happens.”

“Where what happens?” Jacob pressed.

“Rituals.” She shuddered. “I’m making myself a cup of tea.”

He wanted to keep asking her, but she was obviously still frightened, so he backed off, sitting on a barstool at the counter of her suite’s kitchenette. He watched as she put the silver teakettle on to boil. “You’ve been there before?”

She nodded, her eyes looking haunted. “When I first arrived here, I had started to realize this wasn’t just a dream—or if it was, it was the longest dream I’d ever been in,” she said. “I decided to explore the island. Like you, I figured my subconscious was trying to ‘tell’ me something.” She chuckled bitterly. “Every place seemed to be abandoned. Then I went to the woods. I heard music, drums, chanting. I figured it must be what I was looking for.”

The teakettle whistled, and she started. Then she rummaged for a cup, pouring the boiling water over the teabag. Jacob waited patiently.

“There was a woman there,” she said slowly, holding the teacup absently, warming her palms around it. “A tall, beautiful black woman. She had drawn something on the ground. There was an assortment of people around her. The chanting grew louder, and she started to dance.”

Jacob found himself mesmerized. “Then what?”

“She fell to the ground, as if she were having a seizure,” Rory said in horrified remembrance. “When she stood up, it seemed like her eyes had changed colors. There was a goat tethered, and she…” Rory gagged. “She slit its throat, catching the blood in a silver bowl.”

Jacob’s eyes widened.

“The crowd started to pass the bowl around,” she said. “They started to sing. And drink.” She put the teacup down with a clatter on the granite countertop. “That’s when I noticed that they weren’t really people. I don’t know what they were, but they weren’t human.”

“And that’s what frightened you?”

She stared at him. “It was more than that,” she said. “If you saw them, felt them, you’d understand. The feelings were unbelievable. Overwhelming.”

Jacob didn’t understand. The answer seemed to lie there, in that grove. Granted, what she was describing sounded unpleasant, but at the same time, it was just a dream. Nothing could hurt her. “So, you went back there today?”

She nodded curtly. “I saw the same woman, the same…people.”

“Did she kill anything else?”

Rory shook her head. “She was too busy having sex.” She grimaced. “With two men.”

Jacob choked at that one. “Why was she doing that?”

“Because one wasn’t enough?” Rory said. “How should I know? She mentioned something about Erzuli.”

“Erzuli…” Jacob frowned. “Wait. That sounds familiar. I think I remember my brother telling me something about that.”

“She said that I couldn’t leave,” Rory continued. “She said that I’d leave when I die. She offered to teach me pleasure and power. Even offered to share her men with me.”

Now Jacob was riveted. “What did you say?”

Rory paused, then smiled bitterly. “Why? Jealous?”

Jacob stood up, almost knocking the barstool over. “Yes.”

Rory looked at him, surprised. “What if I’m not real?”

“I don’t care.” He closed the distance between them, kissing her hard. “Whatever you are, I don’t want to lose you, Rory. I need you.”

Her smile wasn’t the bitter, ironic smile she’d been showing, the past few minutes. It was the smile he knew, pure and sweet and delighted. “I love you, Jacob,” she breathed, kissing him back.

He froze. He’d never said the words. To anyone. She held him close, and he held her back, tight enough to bruise.

“I love you, too, Rory.” Then he held her close to him.

She melted against him, and he cradled her, carrying her to the bed. They took turns removing each other’s clothing, then stretched out next to each other, just holding each other. She pressed a tiny kiss on his shoulder. He caressed the curve of her hip, then stroked her back in long, lazy circles. They pressed together, warmth seeping between them as their flesh met and melded. He kissed her slowly, and she hooked her leg over his hip, curling around him. He positioned his cock and entered her, slowly, lovingly. They moved like dancers listening to their own private, slow love ballad. He entered and retreated, each movement a litany to how he felt about her. It was gentle and tender and endless.

When they finally climaxed together, shuddering against each other with quiet, breathless gasps, he kissed her again. I love you, he thought. No matter what, I love you.

She fell asleep, obviously wrung out by both their argument and the day’s events. She was curled up protectively. He covered her with a light blanket, stroking her cheek. She didn’t stir.

He got up, got dressed quietly, and left the room.

Go down the path, he told himself, hurrying. Past the village, into the heart of the forest…

He loved her, whether she was real or not. But he still had to find out if she really was real.

He made it past the poor village and headed toward the dark interior of the rain forest. Just as she’d described, he heard chanting and the rising sound of music and drumming. He walked toward the sounds.

When he entered the clearing, he saw the strange figures she had spoken of. They looked like humans, but there was something strange about them. A feeling of foreboding chilled him to his bones. He ignored it.

It’s just a dream, he told himself sternly.

Of course, if Rory was real, then what was this?

The drumming stopped. A tall man wearing a black hat and suit stared at him. “What are you doing here? How dare you interrupt our ritual?”

Jacob suddenly fell to his knees. His heart seemed to stop in his chest, and he found himself gasping for air.

“Baron Samedi, please,” a woman’s voice purred, and the pressure suddenly abated. Jacob clutched at his chest, taking gulping breaths. He looked up.

A stunning woman, dressed in a scarlet sarong, was standing in front of him. She was beautiful, but there was an aura of danger around her. “Naughty boy,” she said, her voice husky. She stroked his face. “What brings you to my island? I didn’t invite you here—but now that I’ve seen you, I can’t say that I mind one bit.”

His cock went hard in a flash, embarrassing him. She simply laughed, continuing to touch him. When he finally backed away, her eyes flashed—in surprise, he assumed. And anger.

“You’re not one of mine,” she announced, and there was a grumble among the things assembled. “What brings you here?”

“What did you tell Rory?”

“Rory?” She stared. “That…that child called you here? To my realm?”

“Who are you?” he gasped. “What are you?”

“I am Serafina,” she replied, her back straightening, her breasts jutting out proudly. “I am the most powerful vodun priestess to ever live.”

And with those words, Jacob felt a pull, something stronger than he’d ever felt. As she stared at him, he suddenly had the urge to walk to her, to press his mouth on her breasts and her sex, to do whatever she told him to do…

Rory.

Like a small voice of sanity, he pictured Rory’s face, heard her in his mind. Hanging on to that, he gritted his teeth, staying where he stood.

“Impressive,” Serafina said derisively. “She’s got more power than I thought, to involve an outsider.”

“You’re a dream,” he said. “This is all a dream.”

She shrugged. “So?”

“So you can’t really hurt me,” he said. “Tell me: how can Rory leave this dream? How can she wake up?”

“I’ll tell you what I told the girl,” Serafina replied. “She can’t wake. The only way she can leave is by dying.”

“How did she get here?” Jacob demanded. “Why is she trapped in this place?”

“Do you really want to know?” Serafina walked past him, and he could feel her perfume brushing past him like the whisper of silk. “Look, and I’ll show you.”

She pointed to the ground. There was a drawing, a symbol, formed of some kind of powder. The lines suddenly started to shift and move, like liquid, forming a picture, clear as any television.

He watched in fascination as a younger Mr. and Mrs. Jacquard stood in the same clearing, with Serafina looking the same age, just as dangerously beautiful. Mr. Jacquard scowled, but Mrs. Jacquard’s face showed a heartbreaking desperation.

“Can you help us, Serafina?” Mrs. Jacquard said, in her exquisitely cultured voice.

“I can,” Serafina answered. “For a price.”

“Of course,” Mr. Jacquard scoffed.

“Not money, Henri,” Serafina said with a smile. “The residents of this island know how powerful I am. They come to me because they trust me to help them. I am their leader. But my power needs a wider audience.”

She strode around them, like a cat circling prey. “I will help you have a baby,” she said. “When she is born, you will have a party, inviting your rich off-island society friends. And there, you will introduce me as the reason you were finally able to conceive. You will recognize me, in front of everyone, and tell them of my power and how I helped you. Is that clear?”

“This is ludicrous,” Mr. Jacquard said, starting to walk away. But Mrs. Jacquard held his arm.

“Henri,” she pleaded. “We’ve tried everything else.”

He looked into her eyes. Then he kissed her, his expression more loving and tender than Jacob would have ever thought possible. Mr. Jacquard turned to Serafina. “All right. We agree to your price.”

In the picture, Serafina’s smile was cruelly triumphant.

The picture shifted, changed, then vanished. “They knew the price,” Serafina said, as the picture disappeared. “They broke it. So I cursed the child, as I told them I would.”

“Rory’s here because of a voodoo curse?”

“Don’t sound so skeptical,” Serafina shot back. “You are also here because of voodoo. The fact that you could enter this realm without my knowledge suggests you have some power. But hear me now: if I decide you’re too much of a bother, I will hurt you. Or worse. Stay away from Rory.”

The overwhelming unreality of the moment struck Jacob like a hammer. “You’re adream! Just a dream!”

“Am I?”

With that, she reached out, clawing his chest with her nails. He hissed at the slicing pain. Then she pulled back, her fingernails red with his blood.

“Remember me, doctor,” she said.

Jacob sat up in bed, abruptly awake. He reached down. His shirt stuck to his chest. There were red streaks. When he peeled the material away, there were four horizontal nail marks, dragged down his chest.

“Jacob, I’m really starting to worry about you,” Aaron said, watching his brother warily.

Jacob paced through Aaron’s apartment as if he’d drunk fourteen cups of coffee. He moved frantically, with almost a slight tremble, and his eyes were wild. If Aaron didn’t know how tightly controlled his brother was, he would’ve suspected that Jacob had indulged in some kind of drug or something to get him so wired. Jacob finally looked at Aaron with wild, bright eyes.

“She’s real,” Jacob said firmly. “Rory’s real, and she’s been communicating with me, I swear to God. It’s not a hallucination.”

Aaron sighed. This was what was causing him the most concern. “Just like I told you on the phone, Jacob—she couldn’t possibly be.”

“Listen, I know you think I’m crazy.” Jacob stopped walking, but he tapped his hand against his leg, obviously without thought. “I’ve wondered myself. But there’s just too much that points to this being real.”

“Like what?”

“The damned raccoon—the one she rescued when she was five,” Jacob pointed out. “I even knew its name. How could I have possibly known about that? No one in her family told me before she did; it wasn’t in any of the case files. How could I have known about that?”

Aaron shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Coincidence,” he tried, but knew it was unconvincing.

“And her brain wave activity,” Jacob pressed. “All the doctors prior to me failed to create any change in her mental state. Now, with these dreams, she’s showing improvement. And she only has activity when I’m asleep. When I’m with her.”

“You still have no proof that there’s a correlation.”

“She’s real, goddammit!” Jacob roared.

Aaron stayed silent, his body tensed. The brother he knew would never get involved in a fistfight. But right now, Jacob wasn’t the brother he knew, and he looked ready to take a swing at someone, and Aaron was handy. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” he said, keeping his voice mild even as he got out of his chair, fists beginning to ball.

Jacob glared at him…then took a deep breath, collapsing into the couch. He rubbed at his chest, obviously unconsciously. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m not making my case well, acting like this. You must think I’m a lunatic.”

Aaron wasn’t sure if this was real or a ruse, so he stayed standing. “So what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to help me.”

Aaron felt a little twinge of relief. “Okay. I don’t think we want to do anything as radical as antipsychotics, but I can prescribe—”

“No.” Jacob’s voice cut across harshly. “I want you to help me with Rory.”

Now Aaron frowned. “With your patient? How? That’s not my field.”

“I think I know what did this to her.” Jacob paused, his mouth puckering as if he’d eaten a sour cherry. “If you didn’t believe me before, this certainly isn’t going to help matters, but…I think she’s been cursed.”

“Cursed.” Aaron drew out the word.

Maybe I should have him put away for a seventy-two-hour psychiatric evaluation. He eyed the phone, calculating whom he should call and how he would restrain Jacob.

Jacob stood, obviously sensing Aaron’s intent. “Hear me out first, okay?” When Aaron nodded, he continued. “In the dream, she took me to see a dark part of the island, where they held rituals. There was a priestess. A voodoo priestess.”

At the word voodoo, Aaron felt enveloped in ice.

“Apparently, Rory’s parents went to this woman because they couldn’t conceive. She promised to help them, in return for introducing her to their rich off-island friends. If they didn’t follow through with their end of the bargain, Rory would be cursed to live as less than a zombie from the first moment she tried to lose her viginity.”

“Are you kidding me?” Aaron blurted out.

“Do I fucking look like I’m kidding you?” Jacob snapped back. “I know how it sounds. But that’s what I saw, what I experienced. And I need to figure out if this is true or not.”

Aaron felt dread start to rise in his stomach. “What do you need me to do?”

Jacob’s expression was set. “That woman, the one you were seeing…”

Aaron closed his eyes. “Mahjani.” Even saying her name was uncomfortable.

“She’s a professor of that kind of thing, isn’t she? Over at NYU?”

“Comparative theology, with an emphasis on tribal magic and lore, yes.” Aaron sounded defensive. How often had he defended Mahjani’s background to a member of his family, or his elite intellectual friends, by using the overblown job definition?

Worse, how often had he failed to defend her?

“I want you to talk to her,” Jacob said. “I need you to find out if she would be willing to help, somehow. If she even thinks she can help.”

“Why don’t I just give you her phone number?”

Jacob looked at him, askance, and Aaron felt like a coward. Probably because that was exactly what he was being. “After the way you left things,” Jacob said bluntly, “I doubt that saying I’m your brother is going to get her to listen to me.”

Aaron winced.

“Listen, if I had time to research this, I would, but you’ve got a ready connection, and I’m sorry, but I really need you to move past whatever happened with this woman and help me out.” Jacob’s eyes blazed with desperation. “Please, Aaron. I really, really need your help. Just smooth things over with the woman, let her know how important this is, and get her to talk to me, okay? Please?”

It must have cost him tremendously, to beg like this.

“I’ll call her,” Aaron promised, with a sigh. “I can’t guarantee anything, but…”

“Thank you.” Jacob stood immediately, the manic frenzy back on him. “I have to get back. When you get her help, could you call me? Any time, day or night.”

“Listen, I told you, she might not cooperate.” Aaron felt like he was being barreled along on a freight train.

“You’ll think of something.” Jacob smiled, a ghost of his normal, reserved grin. It held a twinge of bitterness. “You’re the charming one in the family, after all. The emotional one.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” Aaron’s response was quick and reflexive, since it was a perennial jab: Aaron, the psychiatrist, the only “emotional” one in a family of rational, scientific medical geniuses.

Jacob paused in the open doorway of Aaron’s apartment. “I owe you,” he said quietly. “You need anything—want anything I have—it’s yours.”

That took Aaron aback, and he laughed nervously. “Well, I’ve always had an eye on that Lexus of yours…”

Jacob dug into his pocket, holding out the key.

“I was kidding,” Aaron said, shaken. “Does this case really mean that much to you, then?”

“She means everything to me.”

The vehement way that Jacob made the statement only made Aaron more worried. But at the same time, he saw a passion…a life that his reserved brother had never shown before. He was making a sort of breakthrough.

He might also be having a psychotic episode, the professional part of Aaron’s brain commented caustically.

Right now, Aaron wasn’t acting as a doctor, though. He was acting as a brother.

After Jacob left, Aaron poured himself a large glass of scotch, taking a few manful sips of the stuff. Like the rest of his family, he was too enamored with control to indulge overly in any kind of mind-altering substance, but the prospect of facing Mahjani, even over the phone, was something that needed a little liquid courage.

He dialed her number from memory—even after a year, his fingers still traced the familiar pattern easily. He realized his heart rate had accelerated, and he swallowed nervously as he listened to the phone ring.

After the fourth ring, he realized that she probably wasn’t going to pick up—that he was going to get an answering machine. He felt a combination of regret and relief, trying to mentally prepare the message he was going to leave: Mahjani, this is Aaron White. I need to talk to you. Could you please—

“Hello?”

Caught off guard, Aaron cleared his throat. “Mahjani?”

There was a long pause. “Aaron.” There was no questioning in her voice.

“You don’t sound surprised,” Aaron noted inanely.

“I’m not.”

She didn’t elaborate. Considering how long it had been since he’d so unceremoniously dumped her, he wondered why she was expecting to hear from him.

Probably something creepy and “hoodoo” and superstitious told her that you were going to call.

“Still the same old Aaron,” she added. “What do you want?”

He had the disquieting feeling that she had read his mind, and he immediately felt guilty—and irritated. “I need your help.”

“My help?” Now she did sound surprised. “With what?”

“With…your background. I need someone who’s an expert in your field. I need you.” The minute he said the words, he flinched.

I need you.

How often had he said that…usually when they were entwined, naked, writhing in his bed?

“You can’t even say it,” she scoffed. “Why in the world would you need help with voodoo, Aaron? Got an enemy who’s giving you trouble? Need to win some pretty,suitable woman’s heart?”

The bitterness dripped from her words like acid.

“My brother is working with a coma patient. He thinks she’s been cursed. He needs to speak to you.” The words came out clipped, hard as diamonds. “If you want to help, fine. Otherwise, I’ll find someone else.”

Another long pause. Then a sigh.

“I see. Fine, then.”

He felt a little victory…until her next statement.

“Find someone else.”

The click was followed by the long blare of the dial tone.

“Shit.” He dialed back. The phone kept ringing…she’d obviously unplugged it.

He found himself getting up, putting on his coat. He’d mishandled this, as he’d mishandled so many other things. But his brother, the emotionally closed, super neurologist, needed help from his kid brother, the “touchy-feely” shrink. If he could get through to Mahjani, he might have a solution to his brother’s problem—and potentially help him stop Jacob’s imminent breakdown.

He walked out the door at a fast clip.

If Aaron knew Mahjani’s number by heart, he also knew it took exactly thirty minutes to get to her apartment.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] KARAMEL

Karamel oleh Nasz

 

“ANA!” Aku pusing belakang apabila dengar orang panggil nama aku. Tengok-tengok Kak Ain, admin production tengah tersengih belakang aku.

“Mak aii… sengih macam baru dapat surat increment. Tapi bukan ke kita dapat dua persen je ke? Ke akak dapat lebih? Ni saya suspek akak bukan-bukan ni.” Aku tarikbackpack komputer riba aku dengan beg tangan lepas tu sangkut kat bahu kanan dua-dua beg dan tekan remote kereta.

“Aku suspek kau dulu, takkan dapat dua persen dapat pergi Bandung.” Kita orang sama-sama jalan masuk ofis dari tempat letak kereta.

“Tahun lepas lagi dah beli tiket kak… dengan harapan banyaklah dapat. Alih-alih… alahai, nak sebut pun rasa macam nak menitiskan air mata. Nak beli pisang kat Kartika Sari tu pun tak lepas.”

“Aku ni bajet dapatlah tukar peti ais baharu… rupanya haram.”

“Dah tak ada ayat nak bagi ni kak… macam nak cekik-cekik je Komagan tu. Nasib baiklah dah berhenti. Kalau tak, memang saya calar je kereta dia.” Terbayang saja muka Komagan, bekas bos aku yang bercakap macam menyanyi tu. Maklumlah dari India datangnya. Bercakap pun bunyi macam lagu A.R. Rahman dah. Kadang-kadang dengan aku sekali geleng-geleng kepala tengok dia bercakap sebab dah memang gaya dia orang bercakap walaupun maksud ‘ya’ tapi geleng kepala. Tapi kalau ‘tak’, tak pulakdia angguk.

“Jangan dikenang orang yang dah tak ada…” Kak Ain gelak. “Hah… kau tak jumpa lagi bos baharu kau kan?” Dia bukakan pintu untuk aku.

“Mestilah tak… dah nama pun saya baru masuk kerja hari ni. Handsome ke kak?” aku tanya dengan harapan bos baharu aku tu handsome macam Jang Dong Gun ke, tak pun Wenworth Miller pun dah bersyukur banyak dah. Aku ni bukan apa, kurang-kurang naklah cuci-cuci mata sekali-sekala. Ni alih-alih kena tengok Chin yang dah nak pencen tu; tak pun Albert yang muka memang dah cukup pakej. Sekali tengok dah macam Jiro Wang tapi apakan daya dah ada boyfriend. Kalau kalah dengan perempuan tak apalah lagi, ni dengan lelaki.

Hampa aku mula-mula dengar dulu. Tapi dia memang dah sedaya upaya nak cakap kat semua orang yang dia tu gay, kalau boleh hari-hari duk tukar subang sebelah kiri dia tu. Tapi kita-kita yang tengok ni macam buat-buat tak nampak aje. Sekali dia bawakboyfriend dia, semua pun nganga. Tapi apa hairan, sekarang ni benda biasa aje. Kalau terkejut karang orang cakap tak moden. Adoi, tak tau pula selama ni maksud moden tu kena buat benda-benda yang Tuhan larang.

“Bolehlah daripada HoD lain… ada jugak selera aku nak tengok.”

Aku sebenarnya dah tengok dia kat resume tapi apa sangatlah gambar pasport tu. Tak pernah lagilah gambar pasport aku ni cantik. Huduh je rasa. Walaupun aku ni cantik juga sebenarnya. Ahaks! Agaknya gambar pasport tu memang dah ditakdirkan tak semenggah kut.

“Dah kahwin ke dia?” Kak Ain tanya… kita orang dah terberhenti kat tengah-tengah simpang antara ofis aku dengan productionProduction kena belok kanan… ofis aku belah kiri. Tapi disebabkan kita orang tak reti-reti nak masuk ofis lagi jadi mengumpatlah kat tengah-tengah ni. Ala, lagipun baru pukul 7.55. Aku masuk kerja pukul lapan, ada lagi lima minit apa.

“Bujang kak.” Aku tau dia bujang pun sebab tumpang menyemak tengok resume dia masa Kak Wati yang kerja jadi Human Resource (HR) executive baca sebelum bagi pada Collin.

“Hah… aku memang suka orang bujang.” Dia gelak.

“Dan-dan hah.”

“Betul-betul bujang eh… bukan duda anak enam ke?”

“Dia tulis bujanglah… tak pulak dia tulis duda. Tapi kalau duda pun apa salahnya, bukan laki orang pun. Koman-koman dah ada experience. Akak kan suka yang adaexperience.” Aku gelak. Sempat perli dia yang memang kahwin dengan duda anak tiga. Ala, tak kisahlah duda ke apa. Janji baik sudah. Sekarang ni nak cari orang kaya lagi senang daripada orang baik rasanya.

Cehh… sempat mengumpat aku tu. Kalau bujang kirim salam. Duda tak payah.” Dia sengih.

“Aku kena masuk… karang orang tua tu bising. Fasal SOP tu nanti aku e-mel kaulah. Aku tak faham apasal kau orang kena buat holding time tu tapi orang tua tupulak kena sign.” ‘Orang tua’ tu refer kat bos dia yang memang dah tua pun. Tunggu pencen saja lagi.

Aku angguk. Apabila saja aku masuk ofis aku… aku nampak bilik bos dah terang. Mak aii, cepatnya sampai. Eleh, mula-mula aje datang cepat ni. Lama-lama pukul lapan baru nak siram air atas kepala.

Aku letak beg atas kerusi dan keluarkan komputer riba dari beg. Pasang wayar sana sini.

Best ke cuti?” Nana tiba-tiba hulur kepala kat meja aku.

Best lagi kalau tak habis duit.” Aku tak tengok pun muka dia. Terus masukkanpassword kat komputer riba.

“Ni hint-hint kau beli banyak hadiah…”

“Kau menapak tempat aku pagi-pagi ni semata-mata nak tanya hadiah ke? Kut yepun, bawalah air Milo ke… teh ‘o’ ke, kopi kapal api ke. Ni bawak badan je, aku nak kasi hadiah pun rasa tak sudi.”

“Alaa… aku ni bukannya tak nak buat air tu semua tapi sekarang ni kan kempen kurangkan gula. Nak pulak harga gula manjang je naik tak reti-reti nak turun. Lagipun minum air gula ni tak bagus untuk kesihatan. Minum air suam jelah. Di samping dapat kurangkan bajet, dapat juga mengurangkan lemak. Sekian.”

Punyalah panjang jawapan dia, dah boleh buat karangan SPM dengan tajukTerangkan Faktor-Faktor yang Membolehkan Kita Menjana Ekonomi.

“Hah… pilihlah mana nak. Letih aku dengar kau membebel tak tentu fasal. Hah… barang yang kau pesan ada kat rumah. Nanti datang ambil tau.” Aku keluarkan macam-macam benda dari beg tapi kebanyakannya makanan yang aku beli kat Kartika Sarilah.

“Okey bos.”

“Aku rasa kena menghadap bos aku la… karang dia ingat dia tak ada sekretaripulak.”

“Pergilah… kirim salam sekali. Dengan ucapan… sudilah kiranya dia lunch dengan aku.” Nana buat muka gedik.

“Kau ni apa hal? Gedik semacam je… bos aku handsome sangat ke?”

“Nak kata handsome macam Oh Jiho tu memang tak ada harapanlah. Tapi kalau nak compare dengan HoD kita yang dah kertu tu semua, dia boleh menang tanpa bertanding aku rasa. Alaa… kesimpulannya, bos kau tu bakal jadi jejaka terhangat kat sini. Orang kat sini kan macam pantang nampak lelaki bujang. Semua dia nak zass… nak-nak yang tu.” Sempat dia cakap sambil tunjuk bilik Zila yang kerja finance executive. Aku gelak apabila dengar ayat minah tu. Huish! Zila tu macam topik wajib mengumpat Nana. Kalau tak sebut nama dia sehari macam makan tak kenyanglah jadinya.

“Hari tu kemain kau cakap dia ‘sesuatu’lah. Ada kad keahlianlah… sekarangmenggedik pulak.”

“Tu sebelum aku tengok dia.” Aku cebik bibir dengar jawapan dia tu.

Aku jalan nak masuk bilik bos aku, tapi sempat singgah minum air kosong kat pantri yang betul-betul depan bilik bos baharu aku tu. Nama bos aku ni pun aku lupa sebenarnya, tapi aku ingat pula dia bujang ke tak. Maklumlah jumpa pun tak pernah. Dia masuk masa aku cuti seminggu pergi Bandung. Ni pertama kali nak menghadap ni. Tapi sebelum apa-apa, aku berhenti baca nama dia kat pintu… Mohd Arif Mohammad.

Aku ketuk bilik dia yang dah memang terbuka. Dia yang tengah menghadap komputer riba tengok aku lepas dengar bunyi ketukan.

Dua saat pertama dia pandang muka aku, dia senyum. Tapi bila saja masuk saat ketiga dia cancel senyum tu. Walaupun agak musykil, tapi aku dengan mulianya senyum kat dia pagi-pagi buta ni. Aku rasa dia taklah handsome sangat pun. Biasa-biasa aje, dah nama pun orang Melayu. Muka mestilah macam Melayu, takkanlah jadi macam Oh Jiho yang handsome amat tu pulak. Tapi disebabkan dia satu-satunya manager yang bujang lagi muda, jadi mesti ramai yang nak menempel nanti. Sekarang mana kirahandsome ke tak, yang penting kerja apa, gaji berapa, pakai kereta apa, rumah ada berapa biji, ada tanah berapa ekar, kalau bank statement ada lima-enam kosong lagi baik.

“Saya Nory Ana. Sekretari encik.” Aku kenalkan diri sambil senyum penuh keriangan… kenalah kenalkan diri aku yang glamor ni.

Sebenarnya aku ni kerja Document Controller. Tapi disebabkan kilang ni jimat cermat jadi Document Controller cum secretary sekalilah. Disebabkan aku ada dua jawatan jadi kerja aku pun ada lebih daripada dua. Masalahnya ialah, gaji aku tak pula naik dua kali ganda!

Dia macam tak dengar apa aku cakap sebab dia tengok aje muka aku. Apa hal macam tak ada respons aje dengar ayat aku tu? Koman-koman cakaplah hai ke… kalau cakap awak cantik lagilah terbaik.

“Saya sekretari encik.” Aku ulang suara. Mata dia tak beralih dari muka aku macam orang kena sampuk. Tetap tak ada respons. Haa… sudah, agaknya bos aku ni ada masalah pendengaran ke apa. Perlu ke aku guna bahasa isyarat ni? Adoyai… apasaltak ada orang pun warning kat aku fasal masalah pendengaran dia ni? Cuba cakap sekali lagilah.

“Encik?” aku panggil dia lagi… tapi tetap tak ada respons. Confirm dia cacat pendengaran! Terpaksalah pakai bahasa isyarat. Collin ni kut ye pun nak ambil Orang Kurang Upaya (OKU), keluarlah e-mel alert ke apa. Boleh la aku beli buku bahasa isyarat buat standby.

“ENCIK.” Aku lambai-lambai depan muka dia sambil cakap.

“SAYA… SAYA NI.” Aku tunjuk kat muka aku… “SEKRETARI.” Aku tunjuk actiontulis-tulis. Betul ke sekretari action dia macam ni? Apasal tulis-tulis, karang dia ingat aku cikgu pulak. Belasah ajelah dulu. Kalau dia tak faham aku buat action lain pulak.

“SEKRETARI ENCIK.” Aku tunjuk dia.

Baik saja lepas aku dengan gigihnya berbahasa isyarat segala, dia buka mulut. “Awak ni apasal… dah tak boleh cakap slow-slow ke?” Dia marah sebab suara aku boleh dengar sampai bangunan sales kat sebelah.

Eh… eh… dah susah payah aku cakap macam nak terkeluar anak tekak, bolehpulak dia sound-sound aku dengan jayanya. Kecil hati tau!

“Laa… boleh dengar rupanya. Saya ingat tak boleh sebab tu saya cakap kuat-kuat. Lagipun dah banyak kali saya cakap, encik macam tak dengar je…” Aku senyum walaupun menyirap aje dengar dia marah aku tadi.

“Awak nampak muka saya ni macam orang tak dengar ke?” Suara dia memang terang-terang dah naik dua volume. Rasanya kalau Pakcik Mat orang warehouse yang baru buat pembedahan pintasan jantung tu dengar, mau masuk Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL) balik.

Err… macamlah jugak. Kalau tak, taklah saya jerit macam orang epilepsi pagi-pagi ni.” Aku tetap senyum walaupun tengah perli dia.

Dia tengok aku macam nak telan. Motif dia nak sentap aku sound dia padahal dia sedap mulut aje maki aku? Dah tu pulak siap tunjuk muka tak suka aku walaupun aku tak tau apasal. Ajaib betullah dia ni, agaknya memang gaya dia bercakap macam jeneral perang zaman Rome tak pun dia tak puas hati aku lagi cantik daripada awek dia.

“Betul ke awak ni sekretari saya?” Lepas saja jeling aku tadi… dia tanya soalan ajaib ni. Tanya pun macam tak nak aje aku jadi sekretari dia. Sekali dia tak sudi, aku ni lapan kuasa enam belas tak sudi tau! Huh!

Yelah… takkan saya bos encik pula.” Aku buat lawak bodoh untuk soalan tak berapa cerdik dia tadi. Sebenarnya tak ada niat nak buat lawak pun. Niat aku nak sumbat komputer riba dalam mulut dia aje. Dia ingat aku ni saja-saja ke nak buat drama penglipur lara pagi ni untuk hiburkan hati dia dengan mengaku sekretari dia. Lepas tu kalau aku bukan sekretari dia, aku pasrah ke kena maki dengan dia tadi siap dengan pakej sengih macam orang gila. Kalau tak, dah lama aku baling pasu bunga yang ada pokok kaktus sejemput atas meja dia. Kaktus tu pun macam tak berapa sudi nak hidup apabila tengok muka mamat ni. Kurang zat punya orang!

Lagi satu, selama aku kerja tak pernah hayat aku panggil Komagan dulu encik. Aku panggil Komagan je pun. Tapi dengan dia ni aku dengan murah hatinya panggil dia encik segala. Dah gaya macam dialog slot Samarinda aje berencik-encik ni. Tu pun dia tak nampak betapa mulianya aku.

“Berapa umur?” Still tengok macam tak puas hati… soalan tiba-tiba ni macam lalu jekat cuping telinga aku.

“Umur siapa?” aku tanya dia balik dengan muka blur.

“Umur awaklah… takkan umur jiran awak pulak.” Jawapan yang aku tak tau dia buat lawak ke tak. Perlu ke aku gelak ni? Tapi kalau tengok pada rupa dia yang tak berubah dari tadi tu macam bukan lawak aje.

Err… dua… err… tujuh.” Terpaksa je aku jawab. Dia tau tak… perempuan cukup pantang orang tanya fasal dua benda… satu, umur. Satu lagi berat badan. Tak kisahlah dia bos ke tak, bos ada hak ke tanya berat pekerja dia erk?

“Baru dua puluh tujuh…  awak lagi muda daripada saya tau.” Dia sebut sambil senyum sinis.

Eh… eh… macam salah pula aku lagi muda daripada dia. Dia nak sekretari umur empat puluh lima ke apa? Musykil betul aku dengan manusia ni. Aku rasa ramai bos nak sekretari muda, tapi dia nak yang dah nak pencen pula.

“Berapa adik-beradik?”

“Tiga… semua perempuan. Saya yang sulung.” Aku cakap juga walaupun dia tak tanya. Sebab aku rasa, kalau aku tak cakap dia tanya juga nanti. Aku rasa macam aku pula kena interviu sekarang. Bukan ke dia yang baru masuk kerja? Bukan aku pun.

“Dah kahwin?”

“Tak.” Aku jawab juga walaupun agak hairan.

“Saya tanya awak, bukannya adik awak.” Suara dia naik lagi.

“Saya jawab fasal sayalah… saya tak kahwin lagi. Adik saya semua dah kahwin.” Aku betulkan fahaman dia. Kena cakap aku single, manalah tau dia nak kenalkan kawan-kawan kat aku ke. Tapi nak ke berkenalan dengan kawan-kawan dia ni? Huish, macam tak selamat aje. Kawan-kawan dia mesti sama spesies aje macam dia.

“Awak ingat saya bodoh ke.” Dia cakap macam nak tak nak, menyebabkan perkataan-perkataan yang keluar daripada mulut dia macam tak berapa sudi nak masuk telinga aku. Tapi aku dengar jugalah.

“Huh?” Aku dah ternganga kat situ. Adakah dia tanya aku dia bodoh ke tak? Kalau aku jawab dia bodoh, agak-agak dia baling tak fail Risk Kaizen kat depan dia tu atas kepala aku?

“Seminggu hilang pergi mana?” Dia tukar soalan lain. Siap silang tangan tengok aku atas bawah. Hobi dia ni marah orang ke? Agaknya boleh kena leukemia ke kalau cakap elok-elok? Bajet best sangatlah setakat jadi bos aku tu. Belum lagi jadi tauke kilang ni lagi… kalau tak, mau dia pijak-pijak aje kepala aku sekarang.

“Cuti.” Aku jawab sepatah. Suara pun lembut aje lagi. Mampu lagi aku melembutkan suara masa ni. Kagumnya aku dengan diri sendiri.

“Pergi mana? Bandung?” Ni spesies soal siasat ke apa ni? Dahlah cakap Bandung tu macam aku pergi Israel. Rasanya Malaysia tak haramkan pergi Bandung. Tapi dia dapat teka aku pergi Bandung dengan cepat dan tepat ni. Adakah agenda biasa orang cuti seminggu pergi Bandung? Mana tau ada dalam piagam pelancongan Malaysia ke apa.

A’ah… salah ke saya pergi Bandung? Soalan macam berdosa je pergi sana.” Aku tanya balik dengan bengongnya.

“Tak salah kalau pergi sorang.” Lain macam aje bunyi ayat ni. Macam perli aku pun ada. Ni buat darah aku mendidih-didih ni. Motif dia nak perli-perli aku holiday sorang? Suka hati tok wan akulah nak pergi berlapan ke bersepuluh ke berlima belas ke. Dah nama pun aku yang bayar tiket, bukan minta derma kat dia pun. Dahlah kenal tak sampai lima minit. Suka jiwa je nak perli-perli aku.

“Tak tau pula selama ni kena pergi holiday sorang. Akta mana cakap macam tu, boleh kena tahan ISA ke kalau pergi holiday ramai-ramai.” Aku tetap senyum. Kalaulah senyum aku tu boleh rasa, dah macam-macam perisa ada. Pahit, masam, masin, payau.

Dia tengok aje apabila aku menjawab tadi. Cuak juga aku… dibuatnya dia tembak aku ke simbah asid sitrik ke, tak ke free aje aku terkorban hari ni. Bukan kira orang sekarang ni, ramai yang psiko daripada waras rasanya.

“Buat kopi untuk saya.” Dia mengarah aku.

Aku yang tengah berkhayal macam sentap kejap. “Apa?”

“Kopi! Lain kali saya cakap dengar!”

Kopi? Haram tak pernah aku buat kopi segala untuk Komagan dulu. Semua Head of Department (HoD) ni buat sendirilah kopi dia  orang. Tak ada pun orang tolong-tolong ambilkan. Site director tu pun buat sendiri teh dia. Apa dia ingat aku ni tea lady ke apa? Tulah, banyak sangat tengok drama. Bajet sekretari tu kerja dia mesti pakai mini skirt, rambut belang-belang. Dua tiga helai hitam lepas tu blonde lepas tu hitam balik. Dah tu pula sikit-sikit touch up mekap ke apa. Pagi-pagi datang tanya bos nak minum apa. Banyak cantik! Tapi apa-apa pun dengan ini aku isytiharkan aku tak suka sama mamatini.

“Bos… sana ada mesin. Haa… Collin tengah bancuh teh dia. Apa kata bos join dia… bolehlah mengeratkan silaturahim. Saya keluar dulu.” Aku sengih sambil tunjuk Collin selaku Site Director kita orang yang tengah masukkan green tea dalam mug dia. Collin tu berdiri betul-betul sebelah coffee machine. Dalam tu macam-macam ada, nak latte, kapucino, ada gula, tak ada gula, nak cream ke tak nak pandai-pandailah tekan sendiri. Kalau malas tekan jangan minum.

Aku terus keluar dari bilik malapetaka tu. Aku nampak Nana duduk bertenggek kat meja aku lagi. Minah ni tak reti-reti nak balik tempat dia ke apa?

“Na… aku kena update Job Streetlah.”

“Hah? Apa hal tetiba pulak ni?” Dia yang tengah makan pisang molen daripada Kartika Sari terkejut.

“Aku rasa bos baharu aku tu psikolah. Kesian tau, muda-muda dah jadi macam tu.” Aku duduk kat kerusi aku sambil tengok Nana.

“Masa aku install laptop dia last week, nampak macam waras je. Minggu ni dah tak waras ke?” Nana dah kerut kening.

“Kau tau tak, dia marah aku pergi Bandung. Lepas tu dia macam bengang aku pergi Bandung ramai-ramai. Tak ke psiko namanya?”

“Serius dia marah kau pergi Bandung.” Dia suap lagi pisang dalam mulut walaupun muka macam confuse.

Ye la. Siap tengking-tengking aku lagi. Dahlah baru limit minit aku kenalkan diri. Bukan nak puji baju aku cantik ke apa… terus je keji-keji aku. Psiko tak?” aku tanya lagi sekali fasal psiko tu. Aku tak kira Nana kena kata bos aku psiko baru aku puas hati.

“Agak psiko… aku rasa dia tak suka orang pergi Bandunglah. Mana tau awek dia cabut lari dengan orang Bandung ke. Nak lagi tragik… awek dia mati kat situ. Sebab tu dia tak suka kau pergi Bandung.” Nana dah kasi teori drama dengan sungguh-sungguh.

“Kalau awek dia lari dengan orang Bandung pun, ada aku kisah? Aku rasa awek dia…” Belum sempat aku habiskan ayat telefon pejabat depan aku dah berbunyi. Keluar nama dia kat skrin.

“Orang gila tu…” Aku cakap kat Nana sambil tunjuk kat telefon.

“Angkat! Angkat.” Nana cakap.

“Tak naklah.” Aku buat tak tau walaupun telefon terus berbunyi.

Nana cubit lengan aku. “Apa kau ingat bilik bos kau tu duk kat kilang sebelah ke? Sekali dia jenguk kepala dari bilik dia pun dah nampak kau tercongok kat sini.”

Aku lepas nafas lemah sebelum jawab. “Helo…”

“Mana kopi saya? Saya tak nak awak ambil kopi kat machine. Saya nak awak bancuh sendiri kopi saya. Faham!” dia dah jerit kat aku.

“Kejap ye bos… saya pergi ‘bancuh’.” Aku tekankan perkataan bancuh tu. Aku terus hempas telefon tu. Nasib baik telefon ofis, kalau telefon bimbit aku… alamatnya dah kena tukar baharu.

“Aku rasa awek dia lagi rela lari daripada menghadap dia.” Aku habiskan ayat yang tergantung tadi. Aku terus pergi pantri. Ambil cawan yang dah disediakan dalam kabinet. Mata cari-cari kopi antara balang-balang yang ada depan mata. Kat situ ada Nescafe, Milo, coffee mix, teh, macam-macamlah. Aku ambil balang kopi sambil dalam hati maki hamun bos baharu aku tu.

Aku tuang serbuk kopi dalam cawan. Malas nak pakai sudu, biar jadi kopi pahit.

“Ana… kopi tu dah tamat tempoh. Makcik baru nak tukar ni.” Makcik cleaner tiba-tiba cakap kat belakang. Aku pandang dia yang tengah pegang serbuk kopi baharu.

“Hah? Dah lama ke expired ni makcik?”

“Minggu lepas.” Makcik jawab. Disebabkan semua orang kat sini pakai mesin kopi aje jadi serbuk kopi ni pun terabai begitu sahaja. “Buanglah yang tu…” dia cakap lagi.

Tangan aku baru nak tuang serbuk kopi dalam tong sampah tapi otak aku tiba-tiba ada idea lain. “Tak apa makcik… orang yang nak minum ni memang suka kopi expired.” Aku gelak.

“Sakit perut nanti.” Dia dah risau.

“Tak…” Aku cakap sambil tambah lagi serbuk kopi expired sampai separuh cawan.

“Saya nak pergi kafe kejap… makcik jangan buang tau kopi saya ni.” Aku pesan sambil tengok makcik yang tengah buang serbuk kopi lama.

Aku turun ke kafe sambil sengih.

“Kak… ada Ajinomoto tak?” aku tanya Kak Lin yang duduk kat meja cashier. Dia sebenarnya tauke kafe ni. Dapat tender dah tiga tahun rasanya.

“Mestilah ada… kalau kau tanya minyak hitam logiklah tak ada kat sini.” Sempat lagi Kak Lin sound aku.

“Kak… nak beli Ajinomoto dalam tiga sudu boleh?” Aku sengih.

“Nak buat apa?” Dia kerut kening.

“Ada lah…” aku jawab konon-konon rahsia.

“Kau ni macam-macamlah.” Dia bangun dari tempat duduk dan masuk dapur. Lebih kurang tiga minit… dia datang balik dengan plastik kecil Ajinomoto.

“Ambillah sepeket ni.” Dia hulur kat aku.

“Berapa kak?”

“Ambil jelah.”

“Betul ni? Saya tak bayar ni.”

“Budak ni… karang aku suruh bayar betul-betul kang.”

“Haha… tapi akak dikira bersubahat dengan pelan jahat saya. Kira nasiblah ehh akak derma tuk saya buat benda jahat.” Aku cakap sambil undur belakang.

“Bertuah punya budak.” Dia jerit. Aku gelak aje dengar dia jerit.

Aku jalan cepat-cepat naik ofis aku kat tingkat dua. Nampak kopi expired tu ada lagi dalam cawan. Aku pun tuang air panas dan letak sepeket Ajinomoto dalam cawan.

Aku kacau air dengan sudu sambil sengih sampai telinga. Padan muka dia! Apa, dia ingat aku ni tak ada kerja lain ke nak buat? Kalau teringin sangat nak orang bancuh kopi, ambillah orang gaji tak pun kahwin ajelah. Sengal!

“Agak-agak dia fire aku tak lepas minum air ni?” aku tanya diri sendiri. Ala… apa nak kisah. Ingat senang ke nak buang-buang orang. Setakat nak buang sebab tak reti bancuh kopi, sungguh tak relevan alasan tu. Dulu pun Komagan tak suka dengan GMS Champion dia tapi bukan boleh buang pun.

Aku ketuk bilik dia. “Bos… saya dah buat air spesial untuk bos ni.” Aku letak kopi atas meja dia.

E-Leave saya ada problem. Panggil IT.” Dia mengarah lagi.

“Hai bos… baru kerja seminggu dah nak cuti? Nak pergi Bandung juga ke?” Aku sengih lepas tu keluar dari bilik sebelum dia maki hamun aku.

Aku nampak Nana tak bergerak dari tempat tadi. Budak ni tak nak kerja ke?

“Na… bos aku cakap e-Leave dia ada problem. Baik kau pergi tengok… karang dia baling laptop atas kepala kau.”

Halamak! Serius ke dia psiko wei… aku dah cuak ni. Suruh Zul jelah.” Zul tu IT juga. Relaks aje pass malapetaka tu kat Zul.

“Tak ada maknanya… baik kau masuk sekarang.” Aku paksa dia masuk bilik bos aku.

Wei… apa punya memberlah cenggini.

“Disebabkan aku dah kena pagi ni… jadi selaku best friend aku, kau pun diwajibkan menanggung sama keperitan aku ni. Cepat masuk!” Aku tolak dia.

“Ginilah member.” Dia masuk bilik bos aku dengan cuaknya.

Aku mengendap Nana dari depan pantri. Sambil-sambil mengendap, aku ambil mugyang tulis Nory dalam kabinet. Aku letak mug dekat mesin dan tekan Cappucino. Nampak macam bos aku tak sentuh lagi air dia.

May I?” Nana tunjuk kat komputer riba bos aku.

Please.” Dia senyum. Serius dia senyum kat Nana. Kalau dengan aku tadi nak cakap elok-elok pun malas. Cis!

Dia kemaskan fail yang bersepah atas meja, lepas tu ambil air dan halakan ke mulut. Aku senyum sampai telinga. Muahaha!

Muka dia berubah apabila air masuk mulut. Mau tak terkejut dengan air tu. Tapi dia telan juga sebab tak nak Nana kat sebelah tu lari keluar kalau dia sembur. Aku gelak lagi lepas tu pusing tambah krim dengan gula dalam kapucino aku. Lepas siap aku angkat mug dari mesin dan pusing balik nak pergi balik kat meja.

“Allahuakbar.” Perkataan tu keluar daripada mulut apabila tiba-tiba mamat tu ada depan muka aku.

Dia rampas air kat tangan aku dan bagi mug yang aku bagi dia tadi.

Lepas tu dia terus masuk bilik, cakap dengan Nana sambil senyum. Wah… wah… dahlah rompak air aku. Sepatah haram pun tak cakap. Asbestos punya bos!

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] WHEN WE DANCED ON WATER

 

When We Danced On Water by Evan Fallenberg

 

“Ya’allah, Vivi. You’re crazy. It’s four in the morning. Don’t you sleep anymore?”

Pincho has just come home from work at Indigo to find Vivi hard at work on the living room floor. She is surrounded by photographs, tools, a sewing kit, glue and sequins, picture frames, magazine clippings, and various bits and pieces of junk she has collected over the past few weeks.

“Who needs sleep?” she says, a big, crazed smile on her face. “I’m loving this, feeling so … engaged all the time. You know, I don’t even have time for cigarettes anymore. I think I’ve just given them up without ever meaning to. Anyway, my mother always says there’s plenty of time for sleeping in the grave.”

“I’ve heard that joke,” he says, trying to clear a place to sit on the armrest of the sofa. “But seriously, when’s our apartment going to turn back into a place where two people live?”

Vivi looks up at Pincho. There is glitter in his hair and his trousers look newly pressed, but his beautiful face lacks luster, his eyes are dull. She puts down the photos she is holding. “You are such a dear for putting up with me,” she says. “How did I ever get so lucky?”

“Yeah, yeah, kiss my ass,” he says with a laugh. “You think if you’re nice to me I won’t complain?”

Vivi stands up, stretches. “How about if I give you a tour, show you what I’m working on.”

“You’ve been so secretive, I’ve been afraid to ask.”

“Silly, isn’t it? I guess I just … I don’t know, I want this to work out. I really want to get this right.”

“All right, come on. Show me around my own apartment.”

Vivi takes Pincho by the wrist and leads him to the upended cable spool that serves as their dining room table. “I dug out all my old woodcarving tools,” she says as she lifts a small figurine into her hand and passes it to Pincho. “I didn’t even think I’d find them.”

Pincho handles the polished wood likeness of a male dancer with great care and runs a finger down one smooth thigh then the other. “How … ?” He stops mid-thought, entranced. “It’s just beautiful, Viv. I …”

She smiles proudly. “You didn’t know I could do this.”

“It’s not that I … I know you’re really talented but …”

She plucks the statue from his hand. “I did it from a photograph of him. Something from the fifties.”

“What’s this?” he asks, lifting a jumble of cloth from the back of a chair.

“Oh, wait!” she says. He freezes while she gingerly lifts it from his hands. “It’s full of pins.”

Carefully she holds up a not-yet-finished white bolero jacket with brass buttons and presses it onto Pincho’s body: “It’ll be on a mannequin, you see, black tights on the legs, a white shirt on top and this jacket over the shirt.” She leans her shoulder into Pincho’s torso to hold the jacket in place and reaches to the table for a floppy black bow, which she hangs from the jacket, just under his chin. “It’s an exact copy of the costume he wore for this ballet he danced at the Royal Danish Ballet. Don’t you love it?”

“You’re … you’re crazy!” Pincho says with a laugh. “I can’t believe you’ve managed all this.”

As she drapes the jacket over the chair, taking care with the pins, she says, “I’ve got a few amazing recordings, too. Music from his ballets, even a dance lesson he gave once. The sound isn’t spectacular but you can hear that it’s him. The accented Hebrew, the way he kind of barks when he’s peeved.”

“You’ve really taken this all so seriously,” Pincho says. “Taken him seriously. Shit, Vivi, is there anything you don’t know about the guy by this point?”

She looks aimlessly out the window. “Lots. He’s still a mystery, even with all this unearthing. I have to admit I feel kind of like an archaeologist, dredging up layers and layers of him. Hang on a minute,” she says, ducking into her bedroom, then reemerging with a stack of photos. “This is really the crux of it all.”

Together they gaze at one photo after the next. First there is a black and white series that she herself has created: the old man reading his mail, sipping his coffee, walking past the coffee shop, chatting with Yossi. He is never caught gazing into the camera, in fact seems not to sense its presence. The photographs then push back in time, through his six decades of dance in Tel Aviv, and earlier.

“Where did you get these?” Pincho asks, all the while staring at the photographs.

“Mostly from the dance archive at Beit Ariella,” she says.

He gives her a horrified look.

“You monster, I didn’t steal them! They’re prints, anyone can get copies. I got his secretary at the ballet and even his housekeeper to cough up some things, too. That one’s no pushover—talk about loyalty to her boss!”

“Wow,” he says, holding up a prewar family portrait.

“Wait,” she says. “The best one’s at the bottom of the stack.”

They scrutinize a few more photos before they reach the last one. In it, an impossibly young Teo Levin, wearing the very costume Vivi has been sewing, stands holding a barely drunk glass of champagne. To his left and slightly behind is a strikingly handsome and well-groomed man in uniform. His gaze is on Teo.

“Who is this?” Pincho asks.

“No idea. It’s from the archive of a Jewish photographer who came to Israel from Germany in the late 1930s. She died pretty young. Her photos wound up at Beit Ariella and I was lucky enough to stumble onto this gorgeous portrait. I might not have noticed it was him, but then there was the costume. I’d seen it in another photograph.”

“The other guy’s an officer,” Pincho says. “High-ranking. German, of course.”

“Bizarre, isn’t it? I wish I could ask him …”

“Does he know about all this?”

“Who, Teo?”

“Of course Teo.”

“He knows I’m working on something but he doesn’t know what.”

“And you think he’s going to be okay with this surprise?”

“Hard to tell. Yes. I mean, eventually. Anyway, nobody may ever be interested in showing it as an exhibition. So he’d never know. But if so, I’ll find a way to break it to him. I think he’ll like it. Ultimately.”

“Well, you know the guy, I don’t. I hope you’re right. But from what I can see, you’re really on to something. This thing’s a winner. So you’d better start thinking how you’re going to handle it.”

They are quiet for a moment as they stare at the photograph.

“Look at this guy’s eyes,” Pincho says, pointing to the German officer. “I know this look.”

“I’m sure you do. Men fall in love with you every day.”

“That’s not love, Vivi,” he says, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “You think that’s a look of love?”

She takes the photo from his hands, studies it. “What do you think it is?”

“Desire. Hunger. He’s looking at Teo like he’s prey.”

“That’s all? Nothing more?”

Pincho pulls the photo away from her and looks at it again. “I don’t know,” he says, a quiet admission. And then: “You can never know, can you? Not really.”

Vivi puts her arm around Pincho’s waist and squeezes. They breathe in unison, his eyes still on the photograph, hers on him.

“Pinch,” Vivi says, after a few long moments, “what do you think about me having a baby?”

He drops his gaze from the photograph and turns his whole body toward her. “Are you pregnant?”

“No, I mean, what if I decide to become a single mother?”

“I’d say you’d better get this apartment cleaned up before you bring a baby here. You’ll never find him.”

“Really, Pincho, what do you think?”

“It’s hard work, Vivi. I have six little sibs, I know what it’s all about. You’d be spending your whole salary on day care. How would you manage?”

“Oof, you’re so practical.”

“Look, you’d make a great mom, that’s for sure. But maybe the timing isn’t right.”

“Timing? I don’t have much time left. Maybe it’s even too late.”

“You really want a kid, huh?”

“I do. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

“I would help. Our schedules are so different, I could probably be here to take over from you a lot of hours.”

“Are you crazy? You’re supposed to be working hard, studying and trying to find the perfect man. Being stuck at home with a baby is not in the plans!”

“I’d do it for you, babe.”

“Thanks, Pinch. I appreciate it. But if I make up my mind it will be because I think I can handle it on my own. Or nearly on my own.”

“You know what?” he says. “I just realized something: you’re happier than I’ve ever seen you. Is this about the project? Or maybe having a baby? Or is it something else?”

She laughs, clearly delighted. “You’re lovely,” she says. “Absolutely lovely. Now let’s see if we can find our way to our beds.”

They hug for a moment. Still smiling, Vivi presses her ear to his chest. She can hear his heartbeat, solid and steady.

On an impulse she takes the phone with her to bed and drifts in and out of sleep waiting for the sky to lighten. She dials her mother from under her comforter. “Are you terribly disappointed not to have any grandchildren?” she asks when her mother answers on the second ring, Leah’s voice only slightly groggy.

Leah used to tease Vivi and her brother, Assaf, gently about this, but with a daughter-in-law unable to conceive and an unmarried forty-two-year-old daughter, she dropped this sport long ago. “I can live without grandchildren, but I’m sorry you and Assaf haven’t had the experience of raising children. It’s like nothing else I know.”

“But as a Holocaust survivor …”

“Ah, that.” Leah sighs. “The war produced so many ironies and incomprehensible situations, it’s just one more on the heap. I’m pleased to have raised two healthy and intelligent and caring children. That was my mission. But why are you asking me about this now?”

“It’s been on my mind a lot lately, that’s all.”

Both women know there is more to say, both remain silent.

“Mother?”

“Yes, Vivi.”

“What do you think about these women who have babies by themselves? Career women, I mean, who get pregnant through a sperm bank or a friend?”

“Hmmm.”

Vivi waits patiently, surprised. Her mother is always so sure of herself; she has always been able to answer any question without hesitation. And here she is contemplative, for once weighing her words with true care and attention.

“Yes,” she says suddenly. “I think you should do it.”

“Just like that?!”

“No, not just like that. I’ve been thinking about discussing it with you.”

“Really, you have? You think it’s a good idea?”

“In your case I do. And I’d be willing to give you all the help I can.”

“You don’t think it’s just too selfish of me, without a husband and all?”

“I’ve come to think that husbands are a highly overrated commodity.”

“You certainly didn’t feel that way about Father …”

Leah is silent for a moment. Vivi waits, quiet. Two crows clamor on the sill outside her window. “It was certainly useful having Amatzia around, at least some of the time, that is …”

“That’s all? Just useful?”

“Well, in the beginning it was more than that. But—maybe we should be having this conversation in person, not over the phone …”

“No, Mother, don’t stop now, please …”

Vivi recognizes the sound of her mother’s morning coffee mug meeting the Formica tabletop. She is clearly steadying herself for whatever comes next. “Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out that he wasn’t for me. His interests weren’t mine, his culture wasn’t mine, and eventually his body wasn’t mine, either. You remember the little hotel we ran back then on Ben Gurion Street?”

“Yes, of course.”

Leah takes a deep breath. “Well, room number six was his, and he did no small amount of entertaining there. Sometimes I saw the girls coming or going, they wouldn’t have known I was his wife.”

“What? Mother!”

“Oh, it was hurtful in the beginning. I wanted a divorce. But life was hard enough and I knew he’d make it harder for me, so I just swallowed it all and went on raising you and running the hotel and talking publicly about my Holocaust experiences and lobbying or protesting for good causes. I had enough to keep me satisfied and busy. And eventually, when he gave up all that skirt-chasing, we got along all right. Relatively.” She sighs deeply. “So that’s why,” she continues slowly, “I think it’s wonderful that women have the option these days to have babies without having to hitch themselves to some man who may hamper them or make them miserable, that’s all.”

“Mother, I don’t know what to say.” She feels oddly detached at this momentous news, as though her budding happiness has provided an extra layer of protection against sadness, anger and loneliness.

“Let’s talk about it when you come to visit. You haven’t been up here in a while, you know.”

Vivi clears her throat. “Do you think … do you think I’ll make a good mother?”

“An excellent mother,” Leah replies soberly. “And I’ll be a first-rate granny.”

“I’m busy now, a new project,” Vivi tells her mother. “But when I finish—”

“All right, we’ll talk more about it. Do you have an idea who you want for the baby’s father?”

Vivi stares up at the ceiling, then pulls the blanket up to her chin. “An idea? Maybe,” she says. They both sense the conversation should end here and they ring off simultaneously without another word.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] PELANGI

Pelangi oleh Syud

“BOLEH KAU TOLONG ulang balik apa yang kau cakap tadi?”

“Yang mana satu?”

“Ayat yang ada sebut perkataan nak kahwin tu.”

Usamah mengerut dahi. “Kau dah suruh aku ulang lebih daripada tiga kali, kan?”

And suppose my ears dont want to believe that?

Usamah jongket bahu. Nonchalant. Dia menguis nasi goreng yang masih berbaki di pinggannya. Perutnya masih lapar namun asakkan soalan demi soalan daripada Hazriq sedikit sebanyak mengganggu seleranya.

Tell your ears. You need to believe it.

Believe that youre getting married?” ulang Hazriq dalam nada tidak percaya. Sejurus kemudian Hazriq ketawa. “You? Married? No way.”

How about yes way?”

Hazriq menggeleng. “Tak mungkin.” Jus tembikai dicapai. “Selama ni aku rasa sebab kau tak ada girlfriend ialah sama ada kau sangat busy atau kau masih pining over Syaz.”

“Dah empat tahun dah Hazriq. Kau ingat aku ni suku sakat setia sampai mati ke? Kalau betul dia tu memang untuk aku, mungkin la. Tapi… judging from what she did… kau ingat aku ni buta ke untuk tunggu dia lagi?”

“Tak.” Cepat sahaja Hazriq menjawab. Namun sahabatnya itu jelas mengukir senyuman mengusik.

“Kau dengan mama aku sama jek. Tau tak? Semua tak nak percaya.” Usamah menggumam perlahan. “Nanti aku bawak lari anak dara orang tu, baru korang tau.”

Bawak lari konon. Yang sorang kat Dublin dulu tu pun tak terjaga….” sindir Hazriq penuh makna.

Usamah kembali menyudu nasi gorengnya. Malas hendak berlawan cakap dengan Hazriq.

“Mesti kau jumpa perempuan Melayu terakhir ni… siapa nama dia?”

Usamah masih lagi setia mengunyah nasi gorengnya.

Come on, spill the details la. Sanggup kau buat best friend kau ni tertunggu-tunggu?” selar Hazriq sambil buat muka kesian. “Bro, cmon.”

Akhirnya selesai juga nasi goreng di pinggannya itu. Mulutnya dilapkan dengan tisu, sebelum meneguk air kosong. Hazriq masih menunggu dirinya bersuara.

“Aku tak tau nama dia. Atau macam mana rupa dia.”

Kidding.

No.

Kerutan di dahi Hazriq bertambah selapis. “Then kau tetiba drop a bomb kata nak kahwin? Kau ni kena demam kepialu ke apa?”

Pinggan kosong itu ditolak ke tepi. “Dia… calon menantu pilihan mama aku.” Usamah memulakan, dan senyuman sinis automatik terukir di bibirnya sebaik sahaja dia menuturkan perkataan ‘pilihan’ itu.

Hazriq dilihat terdiam. Mungkin cuba mencerna kata-katanya.

“Aku tak sanggup dengar mama aku bising lagi. So the solution is… marry the woman that she approves.” Usamah menyambung lagi.

So kiranya this unknown lady is your moms choice?” soal Hazriq. Nadanya membayangkan yang dia masih kabur.

Usamah tepuk dahi. “Kau ni dengar tak apa aku cerita dari awal tadi?”

“Dengar.” Hazriq mengangguk-angguk. Kemudian dia seolah-olah tersedar. “Kau rela la ni?”

Sekali lagi Usamah menepuk dahi. “Its a plan, okay? Kau ni sejak bila jadi slow ni?”

Hazriq sekadar tersengih. Dia menggaru kepala. “Entah. Penat kut. Banyak kerja. So now youre going to tell your mom about this? When?

Usamah tidak terus menjawab.

“Balik kerja ni aku beritahu dia.”

Hazriq memandangnya lama, sebelum menggeleng perlahan. “Aku rasa macam baru sebulan lebih kau balik Johor… tup-tup kau kata nak kahwin… wonder kalau kau balik lebih awal daripada tu. Mungkin dah ada little boy yang panggil aku uncle gamaknya.”

Tawa Usamah pecah mendengar omelan Hazriq. Namun Hazriq tidak turut ketawa. Dia masih kelihatan serius.

I hope youre serious this time, bro.

Tawa Usamah terhenti mendengarkan nada Hazriq yang serius. Dia berdeham beberapa kali.

I really hope youre serious. Youre talking about marriage. Ni bukan benda main-main. Berdosa tau tak, main-mainkan ikatan yang bernama perkahwinan ni.”

Lama Usamah terdiam. Hazriq memang begitu. Julukan nama ‘ustaz’ semasa zaman mereka belajar dulu sememangnya padan dengan Hazriq.

I am serious.

“Bagus.”

Ill let you know how it goes.

Shes a nice lady, right?

“Nampaknya macam tu lah.”

“Bagus. Nanti kenalkan la kat aku.”

“Kalau dia terima… kalau tak…” Usamah jongket bahu. “Tak ada rezeki la kau nak kenal dia.”

“Dan kau pun tak ada rezeki nak kenal dia jugak, kan?”

Usamah ketawa, sambil mengangguk perlahan. Jam di tangan dipandang sekilas. “Almost two. Thank you la sudi lunch dengan aku. Jauh kau datang.”

“Mangkuk. Kau ingat City Plaza dengan Menara Pelangi ni jauh sangat ke? Aku siap jalan kaki lagi.”

Usamah bingkas. “Memang tak jauh… but for me to steal masa emas kau tu… thank you.”

Mereka melangkah keluar dari kafe itu beriringan. Tiba di pintu keluar Plaza Pelangi, Usamah menghulur tangan.

“Jumpa lagi.”

“Kirim salam mama kau.”

“Ada masa datang la rumah aku.”

Spontan Hazriq ketawa. “Kita ni macam takkan jumpa lagi jek. Lawak la kau ni.”

Ye la tu… kau tu sibuk memanjang. Baik-baik jalan.”

Hazriq mengangkat tangan sebelum memusing dan melangkah pergi. Usamah pula mengatur langkah menuju ke lif untuk kembali ke pejabatnya di tingkat sepuluh.

IMAN MERENUNG wajah Mak Su. Terasa sendiri dahinya berkerut.

“Siapa?”

“Cik Kamisah. Iman ingat tak Cik Kamisah yang datang masa tahlil dulu tu?”

“Ingat.” Iman mengangguk laju. “Tapi kenapa dia datang…”

“Dia tanya pasal Iman.”

Iman makin kabur. Dahlah Mak Su menelefonnya di pejabat mengkhabarkan ada sesuatu yang serius yang memerlukan Iman pulang ke kampung. Tiba sahaja Iman disambut dengan sebentuk cincin yang terletak cantik di dalam bekas baldu merah itu.

“Tanya?”

Mak Su tarik nafas. “Dia tanya Iman untuk anak dia.”

“Iman…”

“Dia nak pinang Iman untuk anak dia.”

“Iman tahu. Tapi kenapa?” soal Iman pantas. Wajah Mak Su ditenung dalam. Guru matematik itu dilihat tersenyum simpul.

“Mak Su…”

“Mak Su tanya dia tadi… tapi dia kata, dia cuma sampaikan hajat anak dia. Maksudnya, anak dia yang minta dia pinangkan Iman.”

“Tapi Iman tak kenal anak dia!”

“Mak Su pun tak kenal.” Tutur Mak Su separuh mengusik. “Diam-diam ada peminat rupanya anak sedara Mak Su nih...”

Iman tak menjawab. Mak Su ni! Aku tengah pening dia buat lawak pulak… apa nak buat ni?

“Mak Su beritahu Cik Kamisah, yang apa-apa pun, jatuh pada keputusan Iman sendiri. Mak Su takkan putuskan untuk Iman. Lagipun Cik Kamisah kata, insya-Allah dalam dua tiga hari ni, anak dia akan call Iman. Nak bincang pasal ni.”

Iman memegang dahi. Telapak tangannya menggosok-gosok mata yang dirasakan pedih tiba-tiba. Terbayang di matanya, wajah Puan Kamisah yang baik. Dan dia dapat memutar kembali malam majlis tahlil semasa Puan Kamisah datang ke sini. Dan lelaki berbaju Melayu biru muda itu….

Dahinya di tepuk-tepuk. Think Iman think! What shall I do?

“Dah la tu… kesian Mak Su tengok. Iman tak makan lagi kan? Malam ni tidur sini jelah. Esok kan Sabtu. Nak balik pun dah malam ni. Pergi mandi dulu.”

“Mak Su…”

“Lepas ni kita cerita lagi ek? Iman letih tu. Pergi la rehat dulu.”

“SIAPA?”

Some mysterious guy that popped out of nowhere.”

“Kau tak tau siapa?”

No. No idea at all. Except…” Matanya jatuh pada bekas baldu di atas meja solek. “A really nice platinum ring.

A stalker?” Adilah bersuara ala-ala misteri. “You have a stalker. Aku sangat tak sangka kawan baik aku ada stalker!!!

Iman menjauhkan Samsung itu daripada cuping telinganya. Namun masih dapat didengar dengan jelas butir tutur bicara Adilah.

Hire a bodyguard, Iman!

“Kau ni kenapa?”

You have a stalker!

Oh, now Im Paris Hilton? Siapalah nak stalk aku Adi? Dah la hidung penyek, tak lawa pulak tu. Kaya jauh sekali. Aku setakat drive Wira je. Siapa yang tak ada kerja sangat nak jadi stalker aku tu? Baik dia berkebun ke… buat jigsaw puzzle ke…”

“Okey. Aku dah habis berdrama.”

Iman spontan tergelak mendengar apa yang dituturkan Adilah.

“Siapa dia? Aku tau kau tak kenal tapi siapa dia? Menurut Mak Su kau la.”

Iman menarik nafas. “Anak Makcik Kamisah.”

“Bila korang jumpa?”

No idea.

A matchmaking scheme?” Adilah menyoal. Iman terdiam.

“Entahlah… masak otak aku ni….” keluhnya perlahan. “Apa dah jadi ni?”

“Tanya aku pulak…”

Iman baru hendak membuka mulut untuk menyatakan sesuatu namun perbualan mereka terganggu dek satu bunyi menandakan ada panggilan masuk.

“Adilah. Ada call masuk la.”

“Oh okey. Karang kita sambung diskus pasal your so-called stalker ni.”

“Okey.”

Tangannya cepat-cepat memutuskan talian, dan segera menekan butang hold. Dia mengerut dahi seketika. Nombor tidak dikenali.

“Helo?”

“Iman Aisyah?” Satu suara lelaki menerobos cuping telinganya di hujung talian.

Iman terdiam. Kaget bersulam terpaku, dijahit dengan terperanjat. Tiga perkataan yang membawa maksud lebih kurang sama?

Indescribable.

Jantungnya tiba-tiba sahaja bertukar rentak. Lebih pantas.

“Iman Aisyah? Are you there?” suara yang begitu asing itu menyoal, mungkin hairan dengan dirinya yang tiba-tiba senyap.

“S… saya.”

“Ingat dah letak tadi.” Suara itu seolah-olah berseloroh. Masih tidak memperkenalkan diri.

“Taklah. Still here. Siapa ni?” perlahan Iman menyoal, walau hatinya sudah boleh mengagak.

Baju Melayu biru muda….

Suara di hujung sana kedengaran berdeham. Nervous?

“Usamah. Usamah Razif. I believe that my mom had met your Mak Su today, kan?”

Sah. Jantungnya semakin hebat berdegup. Jika tadi ala-ala Gavin DeGraw, kini seumpama My Chemical Romance.

Apa aku nak cakap ni?

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[SNEAK PEEK] BOLLYWOOD CONFIDENTIAL

Bollywood Confidential by Sonia Singh

 

The next morning Raveena was having breakfast alone when Randy Kapoor’s secretary called.

Nanda brought her the phone and silently handed it over.

“Thank you,” Raveena said.

Nanda’s expression remained sulky.

Nandini was definitely preferable.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, ma’am, I’m calling from Mr. Kapoor’s office. Mr. Kapoor would like you to meet him here at one P.M.,” a woman said in precise Indian English.

No wonder outsourcing was going to India. The professionals here spoke better English than Raveena did.

“Okay,” Raveena said. “The only thing is, I don’t know where his office is.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will give you the directions. Where exactly are you residing, ma’am?”

Since arriving in India she’d been called madam and ma’am more times than in her entire life put together.

“Umm, I’m in Bandra. Portugal Road.”

“Very good, ma’am. A beautiful area. Our office is in Bandra as well.”

“It is?”

“Yes, ma’am, Bandra is home to many producers, directors and stars. Now, tell the auto-rickshaw driver to take you to Turner Road and—”

“Auto-rickshaw?” Raveena interrupted. No way was she getting in one of those things. “I was planning on taking a taxi.”

“Oh no, ma’am. A taxi will not take you such a short distance, and why pay extra money besides? Tell the auto-rickshaw driver to take you to Turner Road and from there 14th Road. We are located at 29 Jains Arcade, on the 2nd floor.”

Raveena was scribbling this down as quickly as she could. “Jains Arcade. Got it.”

“Wonderful. I will tell Mr. Kapoor to expect you at one. Have a nice day, ma’am.”

Raveena set down the phone and ate some more of the scrambled eggs Nandini had made. They were delicious, flavored with green chilies, tomato and cumin.

Stuffed, she pushed the plate aside and a large black crow immediately swooped in through the dining room window and scooped the egg off her plate. She screamed and threw up her hands.

The crow then perched on the ledge of the window, gazed at Raveena with a beady eye and promptly guzzled the piece of egg.

Since yesterday, she’d been startled by all manner of winged creatures flying in and out of the house. Because of the heat and Uncle Heeru’s devotion to birds, all the windows were open all the time. When she’d asked her uncle why he didn’t invest in air-conditioning, he’d responded by saying he did not want to catch a cold.

The average temperature in Bombay that winter was eighty-eight degrees.

Earlier, Raveena had seen Uncle Heeru fighting with a crow over a piece of papaya.

With a sigh of acceptance, she pushed her plate closer to the window and addressed the crow. “Dig in.”

Wings outstretched, the crow once more swooped in and grabbed the last piece of egg. Instead of dining on the ledge, the bird flew up into the trees shading the house.

American crows definitely had better manners.

Two hours later, Raveena thought she was going to die.

The auto-rickshaw darted in and out of traffic, at times jumping up on the walkway, before zooming back onto the street. Open on both sides without doors, the contraption made her feel exposed. And she was guaranteed maximum exposure to exhaust fumes.

Raveena had done her hair for the meeting, setting it with Velcro rollers, but the wind and humidity wreaked havoc with the curls. If she was going to be traveling by auto-rickshaw, she’d have to do it Jackie O. style, with a headscarf.

Then again, Raveena saw plenty of Muslim women in burkhas walking up and down the street and thought about wearing one herself for practical reasons. Her hair would be covered. Her face would be protected from grime, and she wouldn’t have to worry about her clothes getting dirty.

The heat was relentless. Not wanting to arrive at the meeting with foundation melting off her face, she’d wiselykept the makeup to a minimum. Just some eyeliner and a dab of Chanel lipgloss.

However, Raveena was regretting her choice of clothing. Her parents had warned her to dress conservatively while in India. So she was wearing beige trousers and a white tailored Oxford shirt.

Meanwhile, right alongside the conservative Muslim women in burkhas were teenage girls in shorts and twenty-something women in tank tops, jeans and everything in between.

Obviously, Bombay was to India what Los Angeles was to the rest of America.

A whole different world.

Raveena especially liked the cute cotton tunics or kurtas she’d seen many women of all ages sporting. They looked comfortable and stylish. Raveena decided to buy half a dozen for Maza and herself while here.

“Fourteenth Road,” the driver said, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the gutter. He was thickset and heavy, sweat visibly seeping through his khaki-colored clothing.

“Okay,” Raveena said, happy the tobacco spray had missed her nether regions. “29 Jains Arcade?”

The driver didn’t reply, so she repeated the question. He gave her an impatient nod.

“Fine,” she said, sat back and watched the scenery chug by. Cars, buses and auto-rickshaws battled each other for the road. Skinny cows walked alongside, nosing through rubbish for food. The barking of stray dogs was everywhere.

The driver stopped beside a small stand where a man was busy rolling bidis—cheap tapered cigarettes that looked like marijuana joints.

Not realizing they’d arrived at the place, Raveena continued to sit in the back of the rickshaw until the driver turned, looked at her and pointed to the right. She turned and saw a large building.

Raveena paid the driver twenty rupees, about forty cents, and very carefully crossed the street, dodging bicyclists, auto-rickshaws, cars and a hungry cow.

There was a guard at the entrance to the building who stopped her before she could go in. He had an AK-47 strapped to his back.

One of them was seriously packing too much metal.

“I’m here to see Randy Kapoor,” she said, trying to look as non-threatening as possible.

The guard looked her up and down, decided she didn’t pose a menace, and nodded. Raveena opened the door and nearly let out a sigh of relief as the air-conditioned coolness washed over her.

She took the elevator up to the second floor and found herself confronted by a set of thick glass double doors. Engraved into the glass were the words:

Karma Productions

Behind the glass she could see trendy twenty-something Indians walking back and forth, answering phones and working on computers. Raveena entered the bright purple and orange lobby—very MTV—and went up to the black circular front desk.

“I’m Raveena Rai, here to see Randy Kapoor.”

“Oh, yes, Miss Rai,” the woman smiled. “Please come with me.”

Raveena followed her through another set of double doors and into a lavish waiting room done up in marble. Two beautiful gold statues of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, occupied alcoves on opposite walls. A second woman sitting behind a black marble desk rose at their entrance.

“Raveena?” the second woman asked, and Raveena recognized her voice from the phone that morning. The woman came forward smiling. “I’m Millie D’Souza.”

Millie was petite, her black hair cut in a shiny bob. A slender gold cross gleamed against her throat. “Mr. Kapoor has yet to arrive. Can I get you some coffee? A cold drink?”

“I’d love something cold. Ah, you don’t happen to have Thums Up, do you?” Raveena had been craving the drink since yesterday.

Millie looked surprised. “Yes, we do. It’s my favorite, but most people prefer Coke or Pepsi.”

Raveena took a seat on a plush burgundy sofa while Millie returned to her desk and pushed a button on the intercom.

A few moments later a young boy entered the room carefully balancing a tray with two tall glasses, his bare feet moving soundlessly across the floor.

Millie waited until he had left, then took a sip of her drink. “In America you do not have people like our office boys?”

Raveena thought about certain personal assistants in Hollywood who were expected not only to make calls, but wash the star’s Chihuahua’s butt, plan parties for the star’s kids, arrange for sex escorts and bring coffee. But she knew what Millie meant.

“No, we don’t. I mean, secretaries will make coffee for their bosses and get lunch, but that’s not their main job. And they’re usually eighteen years old and over.”

Millie nodded.

Raveena sat back and drank her Thums Up. She was getting addicted to the stuff.

By the time she finished her drink, Randy still had not arrived. Millie was busy taking phone calls and working on the computer but would shoot Raveena sympathetic looks now and again.

To entertain herself, Raveena thumbed through several glossy Bollywood magazines. That was how she got two pieces of very bad news.

The first was from an article on, yes, Randy Kapoor. Apparently, his last five films had all been expensive flops. The very last had been a Bollywood rip-off of Runaway Bride.

She peered closely at a picture of a thin, balding gray-haired man in a suit. He was wiping his brow and looked like the worried accountant of a mobster. According to the caption, it was Randy Kapoor’s financier and father, Daddy.

The picture of Randy himself was blurry, and she could barely make out his features. She did, however, make out the bright yellow Tommy Hillfiger jacket he was wearing.

Very Ali G.

The second piece of bad news was from the gossip pages of a Bollywood rag called Stardust. Raveena was shocked to see her name mentioned. Well, not her name per se, but it was pretty obvious who they were talking about. She quickly scanned the lines:

Rumors have it that casting couch Casanova Randy Kapoor has brought in a foreign actress to play the heroine in his next film. According to the copulating Kapoor, the role required someone of Indian origin but with an American accent. However, Stardust tattlers tell the real tale. As it turns out, no self-respecting Bombay actress will work with the randy Randy. We wish the poor unsuspecting Yank all the best. Maybe she should have brought a chaperone with her…

Great. Raveena had barely been in Bombay for two days, and already her reputation was being battered and splattered across the pages of India’s answer to Variety!

About the randy Randy business—sure, the casting couch was a fixture in Hollywood as well. But Raveena had never encountered it.

She couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or offended about that.

Raveena was still deciding when the door opened and Millie looked up. “Mr. Kapoor,” she said.

Raveena put the magazines away and prepared herself.

She was finally going to meet Randy Kapoor.

 

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