[SNEAK PEEK] THE BELL JAR

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.

I dropped the compact into my pocketbook and stared out of the train window. Like a colossal junkyard, the swamps and back lots of Connecticut flashed past, one broken-down fragment bearing no relation to another.

What a hotchpotch the world was!

I glanced down at my unfamiliar skirt and blouse.

The skirt was a green dirndl with tiny black, white and electric-blue shapes swarming across it, and it stuck out like a lampshade. Instead of sleeves, the white eyelet blouse had frills at the shoulder, floppy as the wings of a new angel.

I’d forgotten to save any day clothes from the ones I let fly over New York, so Betsy had traded me a blouse and skirt for my bathrobe with the cornflowers on it.

A wan reflection of myself, white wings, brown ponytail and all, ghosted over the landscape.

“Pollyanna Cowgirl,” I said out loud.

A woman in the seat opposite looked up from her magazine.

I hadn’t, at the last moment, felt like washing off the two diagonal lines of dried blood that marked my cheeks. They seemed touching, and rather spectacular, and I thought I would carry them around with me, like the relic of a dead lover, till they wore off of their own accord.

Of course, if I smiled or moved my face much, the blood would flake away in no time, so I kept my face immobile, and when I had to speak I spoke through my teeth, without disturbing my lips.

I didn’t really see why people should look at me.

Plenty of people looked queerer than I did.

My gray suitcase rode on the rack over my head, empty except for The Thirty Best Short Stories of the year; a white plastic sunglasses case and two dozen avocado pears, a parting present from Doreen.

The pears were unripe, so they would keep well, and whenever I lifted my suitcase up or down or simply carried it along, they cannoned from one end to the other with a special little thunder of their own.

“Root Wan Twenny Ate!” the conductor bawled.

The domesticated wilderness of pine, maple and oak rolled to a halt and stuck in the frame of the train window like a bad picture. My suitcase grumbled and bumped as I negotiated the long aisle.

I stepped from the air-conditioned compartment onto the station platform, and the motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and tennis rackets and dogs and babies.

A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death.

My mother was waiting by the glove-gray Chevrolet.

“Why lovey, what’s happened to your face?”

“Cut myself,” I said briefly, and crawled into the back seat after my suitcase. I didn’t want her staring at me the whole way home.

The upholstery felt slippery and clean.

My mother climbed behind the wheel and tossed a few letters into my lap, then turned her back.

The car purred into life.

“I think I should tell you right away,” she said, and I could see bad news in the set of her neck, “you didn’t make that writing course.”

The air punched out of my stomach.

All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.

Then my mouth shaped itself sourly.

I had expected it.

I slunk down on the middle of my spine, my nose level with the rim of the window, and watched the houses of outer Boston glide by. As the houses grew more familiar, I slunk still lower.

I felt it was very important not to be recognized.

The gray, padded car roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage.

I had never spent a summer in the suburbs before.

The soprano screak of carriage wheels punished my ear. Sun, seeping through the blinds, filled the bedroom with a sulphurous light. I didn’t know how long I had slept, but I felt one big twitch of exhaustion.

The twin bed next to mine was empty and unmade.

At seven I had heard my mother get up, slip into her clothes and tiptoe out of the room. Then the buzz of the orange squeezer sounded from downstairs, and the smell of coffee and bacon filtered under my door. Then the sink water ran from the tap and dishes clinked as my mother dried them and put them back in the cupboard.

Then the front door opened and shut. Then the car door opened and shut, and the motor went broom-broom and, edging off with a crunch of gravel, faded into the distance.

My mother was teaching shorthand and typing to a lot of city college girls and wouldn’t be home till the middle of the afternoon.

The carriage wheels screaked past again. Somebody seemed to be wheeling a baby back and forth under my window.

I slipped out of bed and onto the rug, and quietly, on my hands and knees, crawled over to see who it was.

Ours was a small, white clapboard house set in the middle of a small green lawn on the corner of two peaceful suburban streets, but in spite of the little maple trees planted at intervals around our property, anybody passing along the sidewalk could glance up at the second story windows and see just what was going on.

This was brought home to me by our next-door neighbor, a spiteful woman named Mrs. Ockenden.

Mrs. Ockenden was a retired nurse who had just married her third husband—the other two died in curious circumstances—and she spent an inordinate amount of time peering from behind the starched white curtains of her windows.

She had called my mother up twice about me—once to report that I had been sitting in front of the house for an hour under the streetlight and kissing somebody in a blue Plymouth, and once to say that I had better pull the blinds down in my room, because she had seen me half-naked getting ready for bed one night when she happened to be out walking her Scotch terrier.

With great care, I raised my eyes to the level of the windowsill.

A woman not five feet tall, with a grotesque, protruding stomach, was wheeling an old black baby carriage down the street. Two or three small children of various sizes, all pale, with smudgy faces and bare smudgy knees, wobbled along in the shadow of her skirts.

A serene, almost religious smile lit up the woman’s face. Her head tilted happily back, like a sparrow egg perched on a duck egg, she smiled into the sun.

I knew the woman well.

It was Dodo Conway.

Dodo Conway was a Catholic who had gone to Barnard and then married an architect who had gone to Columbia and was also a Catholic. They had a big, rambling house up the street from us, set behind a morbid façade of pine trees, and surrounded by scooters, tricycles, doll carriages, toy fire trucks, baseball bats, badminton nets, croquet wickets, hamster cages and cocker spaniel puppies—the whole sprawling paraphernalia of suburban childhood.

Dodo interested me in spite of myself.

Her house was unlike all the others in our neighborhood in its size (it was much bigger) and its color (the second story was constructed of dark brown clapboard and the first of gray stucco, studded with gray and purple golfball-shaped stones), and the pine trees completely screened it from view, which was considered unsociable in our community of adjoining lawns and friendly, waist-high hedges.

Dodo raised her six children—and would no doubt raise her seventh—on Rice Krispies, peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice cream and gallon upon gallon of Hoods milk. She got a special discount from the local milkman.

Everybody loved Dodo, although the swelling size of her family was the talk of the neighborhood. The older people around, like my mother, had two children, and the younger, more prosperous ones had four, but nobody but Dodo was on the verge of a seventh. Even six was considered excessive, but then, everybody said, of course Dodo was a Catholic.

I watched Dodo wheel the youngest Conway up and down. She seemed to be doing it for my benefit.

Children made me sick.

A floorboard creaked, and I ducked down again, just as Dodo Conway’s face, by instinct, or some gift of supernatural hearing, turned on the little pivot of its neck.

I felt her gaze pierce through the white clapboard and the pink wallpaper roses and uncover me, crouching there behind the silver pickets of the radiator.

I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up.

I had nothing to look forward to.

After a while I heard the telephone ringing in the downstairs hall. I stuffed the pillow into my ears and gave myself five minutes. Then I lifted my head from its bolt hole. The ringing had stopped.

Almost at once it started up again.

Cursing whatever friend, relative or stranger had sniffed out my homecoming, I padded barefoot downstairs. The black instrument on the hall table trilled its hysterical note over and over, like a nervous bird.

I picked up the receiver.

“Hullo,” I said, in a low, disguised voice.

“Hullo, Esther, what’s the matter, have you got laryngitis?”

It was my old friend Jody, calling from Cambridge.

Jody was working at the Coop that summer and taking a lunchtime course in sociology. She and two other girls from my college had rented a big apartment from four Harvard law students, and I’d been planning to move in with them when my writing course began.

Jody wanted to know when they could expect me.

“I’m not coming,” I said. “I didn’t make the course.”

There was a small pause.

“He’s an ass,” Jody said then. “He doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it.”

“My sentiments exactly.” My voice sounded strange and hollow in my ears,

“Come anyway. Take some other course.”

The notion of studying German or abnormal psychology flitted through my head. After all, I’d saved nearly the whole of my New York salary, so I could just about afford it.

But the hollow voice said, “You better count me out.”

“Well,” Jody began, “there’s this other girl who wanted to come in with us if anybody dropped out. . . .”

“Fine. Ask her.”

The minute I hung up I knew I should have said I would come. One more morning listening to Dodo Conway’s baby carriage would drive me crazy. And I made a point of never living in the same house with my mother for more than a week.

I reached for the receiver.

My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward the receiver again, but again it stopped short, as if it had collided with a pane of glass.

I wandered into the dining room.

Propped on the table I found a long, businesslike letter from the summer school and a thin blue letter on leftover Yale stationery, addressed to me in Buddy Willard’s lucid hand.

I slit open the summer school letter with a knife.

Since I wasn’t accepted for the writing course, it said, I could choose some other course instead, but I should call in to the Admissions Office that same morning, or it would be too late to register, the courses were almost full.

I dialed the Admissions Office and listened to the zombie voice leave a message that Miss Esther Greenwood was canceling all arrangements to come to summer school.

Then I opened Buddy Willard’s letter.

Buddy wrote that he was probably falling in love with a nurse who also had TB, but his mother had rented a cottage in the Adirondacks for the month of July, and if I came along with her, he might well find his feeling for the nurse was a mere infatuation.

I snatched up a pencil and crossed out Buddy’s message. Then I turned the letter paper over and on the opposite side wrote that I was engaged to a simultaneous interpreter and never wanted to see Buddy again as I did not want to give my children a hypocrite for a father.

I stuck the letter back in the envelope, Scotch-taped it together, and readdressed it to Buddy, without putting on a new stamp. I thought the message was worth a good three cents.

Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel.

That would fix a lot of people.

I strolled into the kitchen, dropped a raw egg into a teacup of raw hamburger, mixed it up and ate it. Then I set up the card table on the screened breezeway between the house and the garage.

A great wallowing bush of mock orange shut off the view of the street in front, the house wall and the garage wall took care of either side, and a clump of birches and a box hedge protected me from Mrs. Ockenden at the back.

I counted out three hundred and fifty sheets of corrasable bond from my mother’s stock in the hall closet, secreted away under a pile of old felt hats and clothes brushes and woolen scarves.

Back on the breezeway, I fed the first, virgin sheet into my old portable and rolled it up.

From another, distanced mind, I saw myself sitting on the breezeway, surrounded by two white clapboard walls, a mock orange bush and a clump of birches and a box hedge, small as a doll in a doll’s house.

A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.

Elaine sat on the breezeway in an old yellow nightgown of her mother’s waiting for something to happen. It was a sweltering morning in July, and drops of sweat crawled down her back, one by one, like slow insects.

I leaned back and read what I had written.

It seemed lively enough, and I was quite proud of the bit about the drops of sweat like insects, only I had the dim impression I’d probably read it somewhere else a long time ago.

I sat like that for about an hour, trying to think what would come next, and in my mind, the barefoot doll in her mother’s old yellow nightgown sat and stared into space as well.

“Why, honey, don’t you want to get dressed?”

My mother took care never to tell me to do anything. She would only reason with me sweetly, like one intelligent, mature person with another.

“It’s almost three in the afternoon.”

“I’m writing a novel,” I said. “I haven’t got time to change out of this and change into that.”

I lay on the couch on the breezeway and shut my eyes. I could hear my mother clearing the typewriter and the papers from the card table and laying out the silver for supper, but I didn’t move.

Inertia oozed like molasses through Elaine’s limbs. That’s what it must feel like to have malaria, she thought.

At that rate, I’d be lucky if I wrote a page a day.

Then I knew what the trouble was.

I needed experience.

How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?

By the end of supper my mother had convinced me I should study shorthand in the evenings. Then I would be killing two birds with one stone, writing a novel and learning something practical as well. I would also be saving a whole lot of money.

That same evening, my mother unearthed an old blackboard from the cellar and set it up on the breezeway. Then she stood at the blackboard and scribbled little curlicues in white chalk while I sat in a chair and watched.

At first I felt hopeful.

I thought I might learn shorthand in no time, and when the freckled lady in the Scholarships Office asked me why I hadn’t worked to earn money in July and August, the way you were supposed to if you were a scholarship girl, I could tell her I had taken a free shorthand course instead, so I could support myself right after college.

The only thing was, when I tried to picture myself in some job, briskly jotting down line after line of shorthand, my mind went blank. There wasn’t one job I felt like doing where you used shorthand. And, as I sat there and watched, the white chalk curlicues blurred into senselessness.

I told my mother I had a terrible headache, and went to bed.

An hour later the door inched open, and she crept into the room. I heard the whisper of her clothes as she undressed. She climbed into bed. Then her breathing grew slow and regular.

In the dim light of the streetlamp that filtered through the drawn blinds, I could see the pin curls on her head glittering like a row of little bayonets.

I decided I would put off the novel until I had gone to Europe and had a lover, and that I would never learn a word of shorthand. If I never learned shorthand I would never have to use it.

I thought I would spend the summer reading Finnegans Wake and writing my thesis.

Then I would be way ahead when college started at the end of September, and able to enjoy my last year instead of swotting away with no makeup and stringy hair, on a diet of coffee and Benzedrine, the way most of the seniors taking honors did, until they finished their thesis.

Then I thought I might put off college for a year and apprentice myself to a pottery maker.

Or work my way to Germany and be a waitress, until I was bilingual.

Then plan after plan started leaping through my head, like a family of scatty rabbits.

I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three . . . nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.

The room blued into view, and I wondered where the night had gone. My mother turned from a foggy log into a slumbering, middle-aged woman, her mouth slightly open and a snore raveling from her throat. The piggish noise irritated me, and for a while it seemed to me that the only way to stop it would be to take the column of skin and sinew from which it rose and twist it to silence between my hands.

I feigned sleep until my mother left for school, but even my eyelids didn’t shut out the light. They hung the raw, red screen of their tiny vessels in front of me like a wound. I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt dark and safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough.

It needed about a ton more weight to make me sleep.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. . . .

The thick book made an unpleasant dent in my stomach.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s . . .

I thought the small letter at the start might mean that nothing ever really began all new, with a capital, but that it just flowed on from what came before. Eve and Adam’s was Adam and Eve, of course, but it probably signified something else as well.

Maybe it was a pub in Dublin.

My eyes sank through an alphabet soup of letters to the long word in the middle of the page.

bababadalgharaghtakarnrninarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!

I counted the letters. There were exactly a hundred of them. I thought this must be important.

Why should there be a hundred letters?

Haltingly, I tried the word aloud.

It sounded like a heavy wooden object falling downstairs, boomp boomp boomp, step after step. Lifting the pages of the book, I let them fan slowly by my eyes. Words, dimly familiar but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain.

I squinted at the page.

The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.

I decided to junk my thesis.

I decided to junk the whole honors program and become an ordinary English major. I went to look up the requirements of an ordinary English major at my college.

There were lots of requirements, and I didn’t have half of them. One of the requirements was a course in the eighteenth century. I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason. So I’d skipped it. They let you do that in honors, you were much freer. I had been so free I’d spent most of my time on Dylan Thomas.

A friend of mine, also in honors, had managed never to read a word of Shakespeare; but she was a real expert on the Four Quartets,

I saw how impossible and embarrassing it would be for me to try to switch from my free program into the stricter one. So I looked up the requirements for English majors at the city college where my mother taught.

They were even worse.

You had to know Old English and the History of the English Language and a representative selection of all that had been written from Beowulf to the present day.

This surprised me. I had always looked down on my mother’s college, as it was coed, and filled with people who couldn’t get scholarships to the big eastern colleges.

Now I saw that the stupidest person at my mother’s college knew more than I did. I saw they wouldn’t even let me in through the door, let alone give me a large scholarship like the one I had at my own college.

I thought I’d better go to work for a year and think things over. Maybe I could study the eighteenth century in secret.

But I didn’t know shorthand, so what could I do?

I could be a waitress or a typist.

But I couldn’t stand the idea of being either one.

“You say you want more sleeping pills?”

“Yes.”

“But the ones I gave you last week are very strong.”

“They don’t work any more.”

Teresa’s large, dark eyes regarded me thoughtfully. I could hear the voices of her three children in the garden under the consulting-room window. My Aunt Libby had married an Italian, and Teresa was my aunt’s sister-in-law and our family doctor.

I liked Teresa. She had a gentle, intuitive touch.

I thought it must be because she was Italian.

There was a little pause.

“What seems to be the matter?” Teresa said then.

“I can’t sleep. I can’t read.” I tried to speak in a cool, calm way, but the zombie rose up in my throat and choked me off. I turned my hands palm up.

“I think,” Teresa tore off a white slip from her prescription pad and wrote down a name and address, “you’d better see another doctor I know. He’ll be able to help you more than I can.”

I peered at the writing, but I couldn’t read it.

“Doctor Gordon,” Teresa said. “He’s a psychiatrist.”

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] PESONA

PESONA oleh Arif Zulkifli

 

Nuha menjamah bubur kosong di hadapannya dengan perlahan. Adik-beradik angkatnya yang lain sedang rakus menghabiskan bubur di dalam mangkuk masing-masing. Hatinya berdebar-debar. Acap kali dia memegang loket yang tergantung di leher. Sudah menjadi tabiatnya suka mengusap loketnya tatkala sedang bersedih, marah ataupun gemuruh.

“Kau tak lalu makan ke Nuha? Cepatlah habiskan bubur tu. Nanti Ummi marah,” bisik Lisa yang duduk di sebelahnya. Nuha menjeling ke arah mangkuk budak itu yang sudah licin. Dia memandang pula ke wajah Lisa yang kelihatan masih lapar. Matanya tak lekang dari memandang mangkuk Nuha yang masih penuh. “Kau ambiklah bubur ni. Aku takde selera.”

“Eh, kau betul ni? Nanti kau lapar kang?” Wajah Lisa berubah gembira sesaat sebelum dia sorokkan kegembiraannya. Dia sudah menjilat bibirnya beberapa kali.

“Takpe. Kau habiskan je.”

Dan dengan rakusnya, dia menghabiskan bubur itu. Tak sampai seminit, mangkuk Nuha sudah licin.

“Wow.” Nuha mengambil mangkuknya dan terus berjalan ke arah singki. Sempat dia menjeling ke arah Mona yang baru keluar dari bilik tidur dengan sanggul di kepala. Mata Mona tajam memerhatikan gerak-geri anak-anak angkatnya. Tatkala mata mereka bertentang, cepat-cepat Nuha masuk ke dapur.

Usai meletakkan mangkuk yang sudah dibasuh ke atas para, dia terus ikut beratur bersama lapan adik-beradik angkatnya yang lain untuk bersalaman dengan ummi dan abi sebelum keluar “mencari rezeki”.

“Ingat pesan ummi, kalau nampak orang yang mencurigakan, cepat-cepat lari dari situ. Ingat target harian kita berapa. Dan jangan lupa balik sebelum maghrib.”

Jantung Nuha berdetak semakin kencang tatkala giliran dia untuk bersalaman dengan ummi semakin dekat.

“Nuha.”

Hampir luruh jantungnya apabila dia mendengar ummi menyebut namanya tiba-tiba. Tangannya yang menggigil, dia sorokkan di belakang. “Ye… ye, ummi?” Setiap saat yang berlalu terasakan infiniti. Alamak, ummi dah tahu ke apa aku nak buat ni? Macam mana kalau kantoi dengan dia? Alamak! Alamak!

“Kamu lupa beg kamu?”

Nuha tersentak. Dia memegang bahu kanannya, tempat biasa dia letakkan beg sandangnya itu. Tiada. Dalam kekalutan, dia terlupa untuk membawa beg itu turun. “Alamak. Lupa ummi.”

Sepantas kilat dia berlari ke atas. Beberapa anak tangga dilangkau untuk sampai cepat. Beg dicapai dan dia bergegas turun. Di ruang tamu tinggal ummi dan abinya saja. Adik-beradiknya yang lain sudah tiada. Dia menelan liur. Perlahan-lahan dia mendekati ummi dan abinya. “Ni ada dah begnya ummi, abi. Maafkan Nuha sebab cuai.”

“Takpe. Ingat pesan ummi tadi?”

Dia mengangguk sekali.

“Bagus.”

Nuha menyalami dan mencium tangan kedua orang tua angkatnya itu, mungkin buat kali terakhir dalam hidupnya. Dia sudah lama bersedia untuk menghadapi hari ini. Walaupun cuak, dia sudah menyediakan diri dari dulu lagi untuk hari ini. Umpama burung yang sudah lama terkurung di dalam sangkar, hari ini dia membebaskan dirinya sendiri dan sayapnya akan dikuak luas dan dia akan terbang, terbang tinggi, jauh dari sangkar neraka ini.

Hari ini hari dia.

“Assalamualaikum ummi, abi.”

Langkah diayun ke luar pintu dan akhirnya dia bebas.

 

──♦──

 

“Kita nak pergi mana ni?” Azlan bersuara setelah senyap sepanjang satu jam lebih perjalanan dengan kereta.

“Akademi.”

“Akademi?”

Emran yang sedang memandu, mengangguk sekali. Sempat dia melontarkan senyuman pada Azlan yang sedang berkerut melihatnya. “Yup. Akademi. Akademi yang dibina Ahmad dan Emma, ibu bapa kandung kamu, khas buat orang-orang Hobat berlatih.”

Kerutan di dahi Azlan semakin bertambah. “Orang Hobat?”

“Ah, ya. Masih banyak yang kamu belum tahu lagi Azlan. Tak apa. Nanti bila kita tiba di sana, akan ada orang yang terangkan semua benda ni kepada kamu.”

“Semua benda?”

“Yup. Semua benda.” Emran menamatkan dialog mereka dengan menepuk bahu Azlan.

Azlan masih tidak puas hati. Jika betul kata-kata Emran itu, maka semua persoalan yang terkumpul di dalam kepalanya selama beberapa hari ini akan terjawab.

“Azlan… Azlan bangun. Kita dah sampai ni.”

Dia membuka matanya perlahan-lahan. Wajah Emran yang sedang tersenyum, mengisi ruang pandangnya. Dia menggosok-gosok matanya bagi membuang kantuk. Sesekali dia menggeliat bagi memastikan perjalanan darahnya kembali normal setelah duduk statik selama entah berapa jam.

Setelah betul-betul segar, dia keluar dari perut Audi milik Emran itu dan benda pertama yang menyambut pandangannya adalah sebuah rumah agam yang sangat besar. Lima batang tiang berdiri terpasak dengan megahnya. Setiap tiang lebih besar daripada sepemeluk manusia. Warna putih dan emas menjadi warna tema rumah agam itu.

Dari tempat dia berdiri, rumah agam itu kelihatan berkilau di bawah cahaya matahari. Boleh dikatakan, luas bangunan itu saja lebih besar daripada luas padang bola di sekolahnya. Mulut Azlan ternganga kerana terlalu kagum dengan keindahan bangunan itu.

“Selamat datang ke Akademi Orang Hobat. Biasa-biasa je. Heheh.” Emran di sebelahnya tersengih kerang. “Dah, jom. Ramai yang tak sabar nak jumpa kamu ni.

“Hah? Ramai?”

Pintu utama akademi itu ditolak Emran dan di sebalik pintu itu, terdapat hampir 50 wajah yang sedang memandang tepat ke arahnya.

“Oh, tak sangka pulak semua orang akan sambut Azlan hari ini. Well, guys, inilah Azlan. Orang yang saya ceritakan tu,” ujar Emran selamba sambil tangannya diunjurkan ke arah Azlan.

Wajah mereka semua kelihatan semakin berminat hendak mengenali Azlan.

“Err, hai.”

“Dah, dah. Azlan baru sampai, jadi dia penat. Semua orang pergi sambung aktiviti masing-masing.”

Hampir kesemua orang di situ beredar, kecuali dua susuk yang sedang berdiri di hadapannya. Dua orang yang sangat dia kenali. “Eh, Cikgu Iskandar. Cikgu Laili. Cikgu buat apa dekat sini?”

Mereka berdua datang mendekati Azlan dengan senyuman terukir di bibir masing-masing.

“Akhirnya, sampai jugak kamu di sini,” ujar Cikgu Iskandar tanpa menjawab soalan Azlan tadi.

“Saya ucapkan takziah atas pemergian ayah dan ibu awak. Semoga mereka ditempatkan bersama orang-orang yang beriman. Mereka orang yang baik. Banyak jasa mereka pada kami semua, terutamanya pada akademi ini,” ujar Cikgu Laili pula.

Azlan hanya tersenyum tawar. Apa lagi yang dia patut lakukan? Perlukah dia ucap terima kasih? Atau hanya mengangguk? Segala ucapan takziah yang diterimanya semalam, semuanya masuk telinga kanan dan keluar di telinga kiri. Namun, bila diucapkan oleh cikgunya sendiri barulah rasanya merejam perasaan. Barulah dia merasakan kehilangan. Kekosongan. Hampir saja dia tak dapat bernafas, namun dia cuba mengawal. Dia harus tunjuk yang dia kuat di hadapan mereka. Dia perlu kuat untuk Mak dan Abah. Demi dendam darah yang seharusnya dia balas dengan darah juga.

Bam!

Bunyi kuat itu mengejutkan mereka berempat.

“Den?” panggil Cikgu Iskandar.

Tak jauh dari mereka berempat, kelihatan seorang lelaki sedang berdiri di belakang pintu, tersipu-sipu malu. Dia menggaru kepalanya.

“Kan aku dah cakap hati-hati sikit. Tengok, kan dah kantoi?!” Dari belakang pintu, muncul pula satu suara perempuan yang berbisik kuat.

“Balqis?” Cikgu Laili pula yang bersuara.

Pak!

Perempuan yang dipanggil Balqis oleh Laili itu keluar dari tempat persembunyiannya. Tangannya melekat di dahi, sepertinya dia baru saja menepuk dahinya dengan kuat. “Saya bisik kuat sangat eh tadi?” soalnya, tak ditujukan khusus kepada sesiapa namun semua yang mendengar hanya mengangguk. Dia menggeleng. “Kau punya pasal lah ni!” Laju saja tangan yang melekat di dahinya terbang melayang ke lengan lelaki di sebelah.

“Ow!”

“Dah, dah. Alang-alang kamu berdua dekat sini, lagi baik kalau kamu tunjukkan Azlan kawasan sekeliling akademi kita ni,” ujar Emran. Dia memandang ke arah Azlan pula. “Azlan, kamu ikut diorang ni. Diorang antara senior dekat akademi ni, walaupun diorang yang paling muda.” Emran diam sejenak. “Well, not anymore.” Dia menepuk bahu Azlan sekali, sebelum mengajak Cikgu Iskandar dan Cikgu Laili untuk beredar dari situ.

Lelaki bernama Den itu terus menerpa ke arah Azlan dengan tangan yang terhulur hendak bersalam. “Hai! Azlan! Nama saya Latiff. Tapi semua orang dekat sini panggil saya, Den!”

Azlan menyambut salam Den yang kelihatan begitu teruja melihatnya.

“Jangan tanya saya macam mana daripada Latiff boleh jadi Den. Panjang ceritanya! Kalau nak dengar cerita panjangnya, kita kena duduk ditemani bintang dan bulan dan mug terisi air kopi di tangan, dan unggun api, barulah boleh saya cerita! Oh, salam kenal!”

Azlan memandang wajah Den tanpa sebarang kata. Lelaki di hadapannya itu berambut hitam dan kerinting yang dibiarkan kusut tak bersikat. Kulitnya cerah dengan alis mata yang tebal. Tubuhnya kurus dan tinggi, namun bukan jenis kurus yang tak bermaya. Terdapat sesuatu yang gagah dengan cara dia berdiri walaupun dia sering menampal senyum di wajah.

“Kejap, kejap. Apa maksud Cikgu Emran, not anymore?” Tiba-tiba Balqis muncul dari belakang Den dengan kerut di dahi. Telunjuknya lurus dihunus ke wajah Azlan.

Azlan mengundur selangkah ke belakang. “Err.”

“Berapa umur kau?” tanya Balqis.

Azlan menjeling ke arah Den.

Den yang masih tersenyum hanya mengangkat bahu sekali, seperti mengatakan, ‘lebih baik kau jawab soalan perempuan itu kalau tak nak kena belasah.’

“Emm, 17.”

“Shit,” Balqis memandang ke arah Den. “Kita dah tak jadi yang paling muda dalam akademi ni.”

“Berapa umur korang?”

“18!” Den menjawab riang.

“Dah, aku tak nak buang masa sembang dekat sini. Ikut aku. Aku tunjuk semua kawasan akademi ni dekat kau,” Balqis bertutur dengan laju, selaju kakinya melangkah meninggalkan Azlan dan Den yang terkebil-kebil di belakang. “Cepatlah!”

Cepat-cepat Azlan dan Den mengejar.

“Awak jangan terasa dengan Balqis. Cara dia cakap memang macam tu. Dia bukan kurang ajar tau,” ujar Den sambil menggaru kepalanya.

Azlan tersenyum nipis. “Oh, takpe.”

“Lagi satu, sebelum awak datang, dia memang bangga jadi antara penghuni akademi ni yang paling muda. So bila awak datang, mungkin dia rasa kedudukan dia dekat sini tergugat. So from now on, she has her eyes on you. Jaga-jagalah.”

“Great.”

Den ketawa kuat. “Selamat datang ke akademi, kawan!”

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] KATE

Kate by Claudia Joseph

 

Hidden away behind the red-brick walls of her parents’ substantial house in the Home Counties village of Chapel Row in Berkshire, Kate Middleton spent the evening of Friday, 13 April 2007 mourning the end of her love affair with Prince William.

While her former boyfriend drowned his sorrows in the nightclub Mahiki, Mayfair’s latest celebrity haunt, quaffing champagne and drinking its legendary Treasure Chest cocktails, Kate, then 25 years old, spent a quieter and more subdued evening with her family.

It was barely a week since Britain’s most famous romance had drawn to a close – and hours before their separation hit the news-stands – yet the couple’s behaviour could not have been more different, underlining just how far apart they had grown since leaving university. Whereas Kate was looking for more commitment from William, the 24-year-old army officer, who had just left Sandhurst, was not ready to settle down.

News of the couple’s split came as a shock to the public, who had been following every twist and turn in their relationship since they had begun dating at St Andrews University four years earlier. An engagement announcement had been widely expected and few had noticed signs that the relationship was on its way out.

It had all seemed so different four months earlier in mid-December, when Kate and her parents had been invited to watch the prince pass out from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, a ceremony that must have been heart-warming for the Middletons, who had grown close to their daughter’s boyfriend. A regular visitor to their home, William would drive the 33-mile journey around the M25 to visit his girlfriend after training exercises and must have relished the time he spent with her tight-knit family, something he had missed out on to an extent during his own childhood. But everything changed the moment he left Sandhurst and embarked on the next stage of his army career.

For those who looked closely, the cracks began appearing over the festive season, when Kate’s parents decided to rent a £4,800-a-week mansion in Scotland for their extended family. Despite speculation that she might be, Kate had not been invited to spend Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham – only fiancées are afforded that honour, not girlfriends. Instead, the Middletons decided to invite William to spend Hogmanay with them at the Georgian mansion Jordanstone House on the outskirts of Alyth in Perthshire. Set in rambling grounds, the eighteenth-century mansion, which had belonged to the Conservative politician Sir James Duncan and his second wife Lady Beatrice (an actress known in her heyday for being the voice of Larry the Lamb in the Children’s Hour series Toytown), was certainly fit for a prince. Crammed with antiques and old masters, the house still has its original two staircases (one for staff ), a vast kitchen and laundry downstairs, a library of rare books and wood-panelled reception rooms with vast fireplaces upstairs, and thirteen bedrooms furnished with four-poster beds. But William, who spent Christmas at Sandringham, 400 miles away, failed to make an appearance.

It would not be until the following weekend that Kate was reunited with her boyfriend, at Highgrove, but even then it was more of a farewell party for William than a birthday celebration for Kate. The future king was about to follow his younger brother into the Blues and Royals, a regiment with one of the longest histories of any in the British Army. He would wholeheartedly embrace his new role, teasing Harry that he would rise faster through the ranks because he had a university degree.

One of two regiments that make up the Household Cavalry (the other is the Life Guards), the Blues and Royals were formed in 1969 when the Royal Horse Guards (known as the Blues for the colour of their tunics) and the Royal Dragoons, both of whom could trace their origins back to the seventeenth century, were amalgamated. The only mounted cavalry unit in the British Army, the regiment has the unique role of guarding the Queen on ceremonial occasions as well as serving around the world. Its regimental emblem – an eagle worn on the left sleeve of the blue tunic – commemorates the occasion on which it seized an eagle standard from one of Napoleon’s infantry battalions at Waterloo. Now stationed at Combermere Barracks in Windsor, its Colonel of the Regiment is the Princess Royal.

Kate was working at Jigsaw on the morning of 8 January 2007, when Second Lieutenant Wales reported for duty. Little did she realise how much their lives would change in just a few months.

Stepping alone out of her front door 24 hours later to go to work on her 25th birthday, wearing a £40 black-and-white dress from Topshop (which subsequently sold out within days), she was greeted by a barrage of photographers fired up by the conviction that she and her royal boyfriend would soon be announcing theirengagement. For the first time, she showed that the pressure was getting to her and she scowled.

The unprecedented paparazzi turnout provoked comparisons with the treatment of Princess Diana in the final years of her life and led the royal family to swing into action. While Kate’s lawyers Harbottle & Lewis, who also count Prince Charles among their clients, tried to work out a compromise with the media, Prince William authorised his press officer to make a statement on his behalf. ‘Prince William is very unhappy at the paparazzi harassment of his girlfriend,’ he said. ‘He wants more than anything for it to stop. Miss Middleton should, like any other private individual, be able to go about her everyday business without this kind of intrusion. The situation is proving unbearable for all those concerned.’

It was a terrible day for Kate to have to face the overwhelming attention. Now working in London, she could no longer escape the limelight by retreating to the sanctuary of her parents’ home and she had to leave her flat each morning to go to work. Without William by her side, there was little that the royal family could do to help her, as she was not entitled to Scotland Yard protection until they became engaged. The pressure would soon prove too much.

At first, William remained the gallant boyfriend, driving up to London to visit his girlfriend and party in the capital, and Kate put on a brave front, donning a stunning £800 silver dress by BCBG Max Azria to attend a party at Mahiki with the prince on 1 February. Run by nightclub impresario Piers Adam and club promoter Nick House, and designed to resemble a Polynesian beach bar, it had become a firm favourite with the couple after they spent a night there before Christmas with Tom Parker Bowles and his wife, Sara. William’s party-loving friend Guy Pelly was the club’s marketing director, and Henry Conway, the son of the now disgraced MP Derek Conway and flamboyant self-styled ‘Queen of Sloanes’, ran Thursday-night parties there.

During his first few weeks at the barracks, William managed to make another two trips to the capital, for a night out at Boujis – when he reportedly gave his girlfriend an antique Van Cleef & Arpels diamond-framed compact as an early Valentine’s Day gift – and a trip to Twickenham on 10 February to watch England beat Italy in the Six Nations Championship. He and Kate cheered on rugby hero Jonny Wilkinson’s record-breaking comeback: he scored 15 points in the team’s 20–7 victory.

However, William’s nights out with his girlfriend gradually dwindled as he threw himself into the life of a Household Cavalry officer, enjoying the feeling of being young, free and single. Torn between spending time with his girlfriend and partying with his fellow officers, it seemed there was no contest. It was a testing period for their relationship.

Kate put on a brave face, clubbing with her girlfriends at Mamilanji on Monday, 26 February, but the writing was on the wall for the relationship as she slowly tired of having an absent boyfriend.

On 4 March, in a last-ditch attempt to shore up their romance, William whisked Kate of on a make-or-break holiday to Zermatt, a village at the base of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps, where they stayed in an exclusive £1,500-a-week chalet. But instead of going alone with Kate, he invited some friends along, including Thomas van Straubenzee and Guy Pelly, the man often described as the princes’ ‘court jester’. From the outside, it appeared as if William and Kate – who missed out on a family holiday in Barbados in order to spend quality time with her boyfriend – were on the verge of an engagement announcement, staying in their chalet while their friends hit the nightclubs, and embracing and kissing on the slopes. In reality, however, things were far from rosy, and an engagement must surely have been the last thing on their minds.

Their last public appearance together was on 13 March 2007, the opening day of the National Hunt Festival in Cheltenham, which had been a favourite with the late Queen Mother, who rarely missed a festival, attending latterly in a buggy painted in her racing colours. Arriving in William’s black Audi saloon, Kate looked comfortable chatting with Zara Phillips and drinking champagne in a box belonging to racehorse owner Trevor Hemmings. But William and Kate’s body language was strained, and fashion writers criticised the pair for looking like ‘lamb dressed as mutton’. It was the first fashion faux pas by Kate, and possibly an indication of her unhappy mood.

Three days later, William was off to the depths of Dorset to begin a ten-week tank-commander course at the army’s training camp at Bovington. But that did not deter Kate from attending the Cheltenham Gold Cup without him. Wearing a sky-blue jacket, brown skirt and matching beret, she looked much more relaxed – and more fashionable – than on her previous visit with her prince. Met on arrival by two plain-clothes police officers, she was escorted to the royal enclosure for a lunch hosted by the Queen’s Master of the Horse, Lord Vestey. There she laughed and joked with guests including van Straubenzee, jumping up and down when she picked a winner and covering her mouth with her hand when she lost. Her appearance that day in the same box as William’s aunt Princess Anne and Camilla’s former husband Andrew Parker Bowles seemed just another confirmation that Kate was on the verge of becoming an official member of the family. But some commentators thought she might have overplayed her hand by appearing in the royal enclosure, a move that was rumoured to have rankled with William.

In any case, it was while William was in Dorset that the couple’s relationship began to fall apart, strained by their constant separation. Instead of making the 130-mile journey to London at weekends, William seemed to prefer to spend his down time with his fellow officers.

During his first night out with the Blues and Royals – nicknamed the ‘Booze and Royals’ in Bournemouth, the nearest large town to the barracks – William pushed Kate beyond her limits. She had always ignored rumours of his roving eye and put up with his flirtatious behaviour towards the girls who threw themselves at him, but his cavalier behaviour at the Elements nightclub on 22 March had unfortunate consequences. Although there is no suggestion that the future king cheated on his girlfriend, two of the girls he encountered that night sold their stories to the tabloid newspapers, which must have been humiliating for Kate. That Thursday night, William and his friends painted the town red as they downed lager and sambuca chasers and flirted with girls in the nightclub, unbothered that they were taking photographs of the prince on their mobile phones.

Ana Ferreira, 18, an international relations student, was in the club when she heard that William was dancing in another room. After going to watch the commotion, she posed for a picture with him, only realising afterwards that the prince had touched one of her breasts. ‘Word went round that William was in a section playing cheesy ’80s music,’ she told The Sun, ‘so we went to look…There were a lot of girls hanging around him and he was posing for pictures. He had me on one arm and my friend Cecilia on the other. I was a little bit drunk myself, but I felt something brush my breast. I thought it couldn’t be the future king but now I’ve seen the picture it’s no wonder he’s got a smile on his face.’

Another girl, Lisa Agar, a 19-year-old performing-arts student with a lip ring, claimed that William pulled her onto a podium to dance with him. ‘He said something like, “Come on. Show us how it’s done. You’re too good for this place,”’ she told theSunday Mirror. ‘He was being very flirty and I was quite taken aback but just went for it. He was laughing his head off and waving his hands in the air.’ Lisa, who was dressed in a tight pink top, leggings and heels, claimed that William was following pints with shots of sambuca. ‘I call that stuff rocket fuel,’ she added, ‘because it does give you a huge hit very quickly and gets you rolling drunk.’

In the early hours, William’s friend invited her back to the barracks to continue the party. ‘When I said I wasn’t sure,’ she recounted, ‘Wills came over and said, “Are you coming back? It’ll be a laugh. Come on. We need to go.” I followed them all back to their base in a friend’s car and then we all went into a lounge area in the barracks, lying about on a leather chair and sofas. In the end, I only stayed about 20 minutes. Strangely, I felt a bit sorry for William and I thought maybe he was cheering himself up.’

William’s behaviour that night was by no means unusual for a serving soldier in his 20s, even one who is a member of the royal family. Two days later, Prince Harry showed his own excessive streak when he fell out of Boujis, having downed too many Crack Baby cocktails. The Blues and Royals officer had been in the club after spending a week on exercise with his regiment and was unwinding with friends, including former flame Natalie Pinkham, when he decided to try to avoid photographers by sneaking out the back. Angered that he had been spotted, he was reported to have lunged at one of the paparazzi, before falling over and landing in the gutter, although royal aides claimed he had simply lost his footing and stumbled.

Kate and William spent one last night together on 31 March, when they dined at the King’s Head, Bledington, with their friends Hugh and Rose van Cutsem, whose wedding they had attended the previous summer. However, at this point, the heart and soul had gone out of their relationship and it was drawing to a close.

A few days later, Kate popped over to Ireland with her mother Carole for the private view of an exhibition by a close family friend, Gemma Billington. Mother and daughter slummed it, staying in Dublin’s cut-price three-star Quality Hotel. After looking at Gemma’s paintings, Kate chatted to drummer Ben Carrigan and guitarist Daniel Ryan of Irish indie rock band The Thrills. The following day, she went to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Her appearance at the exhibition of paintings, which took place at the Urban Retreat Gallery in the city’s Hanover Quay, brought in a flurry of publicity for Gemma, the 53-year-old daughter of a Garda sergeant from County Kerry. She and her husband Tim, 63, a farmer and racehorse breeder, are close family friends of the Middletons. They live just down the road, on a 320-acre farm in the village of Stanford Dingley, where William and Kate have become familiar faces in the local pub, the Boot Inn. Their seven children grew up alongside the Middleton siblings and went to the same school, while Carole and Gemma play tennis together.

‘Kate is a lovely girl who is just one of our kids who happens to be going out with a boy called William who happens to be a prince,’ she said in an interview with theSunday Independent to publicise the exhibition. ‘He is just a normal boy, really. I think it’s tough on her, but she handles it well. The Middletons are a very close family who have meals together, watch movies, play sports and go on holidays together. It’s funny how you think people are different, but we are all just muddling our way through life. Whoever you happen to be going out with, you have to take the rough with the smooth.’

While Kate was having a cultured time in Ireland, William was leading an altogether different existence. He spent the evening of 4 April at Bournemouth’s late-night wine bar Bliss with a group of his fellow officers from the Household Cavalry. That night, the place was packed with 200 fans watching acoustic guitarist Dan Baker playing a gig. But halfway through the two-hour set, one of William’s rowdy friends leapt on stage, saying: ‘Please stop playing these crap songs. The prince wants dance music.’ The singer, who halted the gig for ten minutes until the officers had left the room, told a newspaper: ‘I was staggered when this drunken man scaled the stage and ran up to me mid-song. It was the rudest thing I’ve ever experienced. This gig was the pinnacle of my career. I’ve practised for years in the hope of a chance to perform like this.’

Meanwhile, for William and Kate, it was the beginning of the end. The couple’s final showdown came when they met up a few days later over the Easter weekend. William had turned down an invitation to spend the holiday with Kate’s family but the couple managed to get together for a face-to-face conversation and realised they wanted different things out of life. While Kate was looking for some form of commitment from her boyfriend, William felt he was being pressurised to propose. It seemed as if there was only one way forward, but Kate still hoped that William would change his mind.

At midday the following Wednesday, any hopes she might have had of a reconciliation were dashed. It was reported that she had a lengthy conversation with William on her mobile, after which she left work early and disappeared for the rest of the week. Meanwhile, William was said to have phoned the Queen at Windsor Castle, shortly before she left to visit the Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle, to tell her that his and Kate’s relationship had drawn to a close.

By the time William turned up at Mahiki on Friday the 13th, news of the couple’s break-up had not yet emerged. But the prince was aware that he would be on the front pages the following morning and it seemed he was going to ensure he was seen to be having a good time.

Arriving with friends at 11.30 p.m., he was shown to a private table next to the dance floor, where the party downed £450 bottles of 1998 Dom Pérignon champagne before working their way through the cocktail menu, called the Mahiki Trail because it is devised around a treasure map. If guests finish all 18 concoctions, they are rewarded with the club’s infamous Treasure Chest, a mixture of brandy and peach liqueur, lime, sugar and champagne.

At one point during the evening, William is supposed to have yelled, ‘I’m free!’, before performing his own version of the robot dance goal celebration that Liverpool striker Peter Crouch had shown him during a World Cup training session. As the opening chords of the Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ rang out, his friends dragged him onto the dance floor. But the prince’s high spirits slowly turned maudlin, and at 3.30 a.m. he staggered out of the VIP exit to the club and got into his chauffeur-driven car. A royal-protection-squad officer settled the £4,700 bill and the prince went home. Within hours, the world would find out that Britain’s most eligible bachelor was back on the market…but for just how long?

 

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[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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