VOICE IN MY HEAD Oleh Lilian Chan

She sat on her white swivel chair doodling as she waited for the next appointment to start. She knew the next customer; a Datin who dripped jewels and carried only Birkins would arrive late – fashionably, of course. It didn’t matter who came in anyway, she realized six months into her first job–she knew they all share the same characteristics: extremely privileged women (thanks to their husbands’ massively successful careers) who lacked pedigree, subtlety, and of course, punctuality. The nouveau riche.
Tessa Goh, however, didn’t share the same luck. Born into a middle-class family, the 23-year-old Malaysian lass recently completed her journalism degree at the local college in her neighborhood. Similar to her peers, all of whom were born and raised as the millennial generation, Tessa was on the hunt for the ‘perfect job’- high pay, good working hours, and lots of annual leave. But for one who wasn’t as fortunate as all the Datins she recognized from the clinic; had to quickly join the workforce and make do with whatever opening she can find. “The economy is suffering. Don’t be so selective!” Her parents’ words rang in her ear daily from the minute she graduated.
And so there she sat, three short weeks after her commencement, at the receptionist table of a well-known dermatologist and cosmetician in Bangsar, the small glamorous hub within Kuala Lumpur that housed expats, up and coming conceptual restaurants, and of course, the socialite Datins. The job pay was mediocre, but Tessa enjoyed witnessing the different personalities who walked in every day. As a receptionist, one can tell so much about a person right from the minute she calls to book an appointment to the second she walks out after her consultation.
Especially for Tessa Goh, who didn’t need to read a person’s mannerism and body language to know who she is. You see, although Tessa isn’t blessed with riches or great looks, she did however possess a gift more powerful than the two combined.
She could read minds.

Tessa always thought her ability to read minds was both a blessing and a curse.
She was twelve when she first discovered the “voices in her head” didn’t belong to her.
It was during a sleepover at her best friend’s house with four other girls when the voices finally made sense. The six girls were inseparable, bonding over boy bands and boys within their reach. The girls were sitting in a circle glossing over fashion magazines while chattering about the latest gossip, or “juice” as they called it back then.
“Tessa, what’s the juice with you and Brad?” Sandra asked. Sandra grew up with Tessa in the same neighborhood, and they were so close people often mistook them as sisters.
“Well… I don’t know. I like him, but I’m too shy to tell him. I don’t think I stand a chance with him anyway.”
The shy one in the group, Tessa always felt insecure about her plain Jane looks. With her mousy, shoulder-length black hair and glasses, Tessa never felt worthy of any male attention.
“OMG Tessa, you should totally confess to Brad. I’m positive he’ll ask you out,” Sandra gushed.
No he won’t. You’ll confess and he’ll laugh at your face because he has the hots for me.
Stunned at the thought that crossed her mind, Tessa blurted, “What did you say?”
“Girl, are you not paying attention? I said, you should tell Brad you like him! He’ll sooo ask you out.”
Ugh, God, Tessa. You’re not just ugly, but you’re deaf too. How many bloody times do I have to repeat myself?
Tessa heard it again. She knew she always had a vivid imagination – she could read a novel and imagine all the sights and sounds materializing in front of her – but why and how could she possibly imagine Sandra having such malicious thoughts of her? Didn’t they just coin themselves best friends for life a year ago?
“No, that’s not what you meant, Sandra. You think I’m unattractive, and Brad would never like me because he likes you!”
What happened next surprised her. She didn’t mean to question Sandra, but with the thought-voice ringing loud in her head, she needed to address it before she felt she had officially gone insane.
Sandra’s face turned a bright red, “Wh-wh-what made you think that. Y-Yo-You’re just making that up.” She was tripping. Embarrassed and shocked that Tessa knew her ruthless thoughts.
Their four mutual friends, aghast at the accusation Tessa had thrown, stopped flipping the magazines; their eyes glued on the two girls.
“Whatever. I don’t want to be friends with an accuser like you. Inside, who knows what you think of me.” Sandra snubbed her. But her gaze faltered and eventually dropped to the ground, obviously taken aback at how Tessa seemed to have read her so accurately.
Tessa, biting back tears, saw right there and then, her so-called best friend Sandra was never really her friend after all.

It had been eleven years since Tessa and Sandra sadly parted ways as friends. More importantly for Tessa, it had been eleven years since she finally accepted her “supernatural” flair for mind-reading.
Sandra’s incident was only the first of many. Tessa discovered most people – if not everyone – including her family – harbored evil thoughts. No, her parents are not evil – but how else could she explain the horrible voices she had heard in her head?
Knowing people’s deepest, dirtiest feelings exhausted Tessa. Her own mind can’t even make up negative thoughts about other people – it was too busy trying to decipher the intention of others!
She grew up trying her hardest to block the voices since she realized she could only detect people’s downright nasty thoughts.
Why would God grant me this stupid ability? Tessa hated not trusting people. She had pretty much distanced herself from people since then, afraid she would get too attached to someone, and she would suddenly have to deal with a confrontation like what happened with Sandra.
So she kept it a secret, only having it slipped out once to her parents after a major argument broke between them. She spared them the details, only allowing them to know she could “kind of” tell what they thought, but her bewildered mom and dad dismissed her.
Ah poor child, she has no friends. What’s wrong with her? I hope she’s not going crazy… Her mother looked at her, saddened at how an impromptu sleepover at a best friend’s house could change her sweet daughter to a sullen, strange teenager overnight.
Tessa didn’t even have to look at her mother’s sympathetic eyes. That thought in her head sounded like heavy metal blasting in her eardrums. Loud, angry, and completely unnecessary.

“Tessa darling, this location is complete rubbish, you know? Aiyooo, I had to wait in traffic for 30 minutes just to get here!” Datin Shankar waltzed into the clinic; with her lime-green crocodile skin Birkin in tow, and as expected, twenty minutes late.
Ugh, if it wasn’t for Dr. Khoo’s amazing Botox skills, I would never tread to Bangsar, this silly passé place. Filled with wannabes and hipster teenagers!
Tessa stifled a giggle. Datin Shankar’s complaints were consistently heard throughout her one-year stint at Dr. Khoo’s; but no matter how bad the traffic or how “passé” Bangsar had become, she’d still came back for more. It seemed as if Datin Shankar had a personal gypsy who told her she was going to turn 80 overnight and the only person that can cure her is Dr. Khoo. Datin Shankar may be frequently late, but she never once missed an appointment to get rid of her wrinkles. Then again, Tessa thought: wrinkles? What wrinkles? With the amount of Botox Datin Shankar already had, her face was basically frozen taut.
Tessa led Datin Shankar into Dr. Khoo’s room, where she would be getting her fix for a good two hours, leaving Tessa free to doodle some more.
She didn’t even realize two hours had passed until she heard Datin Shankar’s gregarious laughter floating down the hallway.
“Tessa darling ah, Dr. Khoo is so hilarious! You must have such a grand time working for her!”
Tessa smiled. “Yes, it’s always fun to be around Dr. Khoo, Datin.”
“Oh yes, before I forget, can you book my son an appointment with Dr. Khoo? I’m so upset lah! Since he came back from England, his skin has been atrocious. Just atrocious! Next week Friday, 3pm, OK?”
“Of course, Datin. I penciled it in. I’ll call you to remind him on Friday.”
After Datin Shankar left (not without exchanging air kisses with her beloved Dr. Khoo first), Tessa was alone with her own thoughts.
I wonder how Datin Shankar’s son’s like! She has never mentioned him before. I bet, the apple never falls far from the tree…


The rest of the week went by quickly. Dr. Khoo had a reputation of being the best dermatologist and cosmetician in Kuala Lumpur and she was never left sitting idle for too long. She didn’t even realize Datin Shankar’s son was coming in that Friday until a tall young man burst in to the clinic panting.
Tessa, startled by the door slamming after him, looked up from her desk.
“Hi, may I help you?”
“Hello there! I was afraid I was going to be late so I ran. I believe I’m here for a three o’clock appointment?” the man answered, giving away a heavy British accent.
Tessa checked the computer.
“Aran Shankar? Oh, Datin’s son?” Tessa couldn’t help but let her mouth hang open a little. It was ten minutes before 3pm, and Datin’s son was running so he wouldn’t be late? Well –is this really Datin Shankar’s son?
The man nodded. Tessa never could have guessed this man standing in front of her was the son of a successful entrepreneur and his um, well…pompous wife. Aran, who she could tell was blessed by good genes, was dressed in a pair of khaki shorts and a white polo tee that set off his beautiful, smooth mocha skin. But as her eyes traveled further down, she noticed he was wearing flip-flops. Why, flip-flops! She had never seen Datin in less than Louboutins or Manolos. She was so certain Aran would’ve walked in wearing anything but flip-flops.
Aran shifted a little as he wondered why the receptionist was staring oddly at him.
“Do I have something on my face?” he asked as he stroked his stubble.
Could he have left some dahl on his chin? Aran thought. After all, he had hastily finished his favorite roti canai at Devi’s minutes ago. It had been four years since he had left for England, so he had been binge-ing at his favorite mamak since the day he touched down.
“Oh, how rude of me! I’m so sorry; I just didn’t think you’re Datin’s son. Let me tell Dr. Khoo you’re here for your consultation.”
Aran chuckled. “Ah, but she is the infamous Datin Shankar. Why didn’t you think I was her son?” He did a little twirl, “Do I not share her pizzazz?”
Tessa laughed. Not only did he have a polite disposition, a charming smile (ugh his pearly whites were seriously to die for) but he also had a sense of humor.
“As a matter of fact, no you don’t. You’re wearing flip-flops! I can’t even begin to think what your mom would say.”
“Oh, loads. She always has a lot to say. I may be my mother’s son but she’s not the boss of me,” Aran said, as he cheekily winked at her before entering Dr. Khoo’s room.
Tessa returned to her seat at the receptionist desk and tried to focus on updating Dr. Khoo customers’ database. But she found herself thinking about Datin’s son, and how he turned out to be such a pleasant surprise. She also started thinking about how handsome he looked with his luscious jet-black hair framing his strong face, and how his deep set brown eyes twinkled a little as he laughed when he saw how genuinely surprised she looked earlier.
Her body started feeling a little warmer and her pulse started to race. That’s when she realized she hadn’t thought of anybody from the opposite sex in a long time. At least not this way. This whole time, her ability to dissect minds had steered her away from the dating scene. The last time she went on a date was to a dance during college, and that wasn’t even considered a real date. It was with her best friend from college, Jeff.
She tried to shake Aran out of her mind. He was clearly out of her league. And while he did make a terrific first impression, she should never judge a book by its cover. Didn’t her “secret superpower” already taught her that?
After half an hour, Aran walked out of the room. Tessa heard his deep voice thanking Dr. Khoo, and she quickly busied herself by updating more files.
Aran, oblivious to Tessa’s sudden move, approached her desk and whispered, “Phew, that was close! Do you know how hard it was for me to convince Dr. Khoo I don’t need Botox?”
Tessa couldn’t help but break into a grin.
“Well, your mother’s a fan of the procedure. Maybe she assumed you were too. But whatever you said to her must have worked. One of the quickest consultations I’ve seen so far.”
“Mother’s just worried I’m not taking care of my skin now that I’m back in Malaysia for good. But, she shouldn’t worry. I’m not made of porcelain! I can take the sun!”
“So I’m assuming you won’t be making another appointment?” Tessa felt a slight pang of disappointment thinking this might be the first and last time she would see him.
“Not for Dr. Khoo, but… if you’re not too busy next week, maybe you could show me the latest hangouts in KL? This Malaysian lad right here has been away for far too long,” Aran answered, his eyes directly piercing through hers.
Tessa’s dark brown eyes widened. She had never expected Aran to find her attractive the way she did him, much less ask her out after their brief exchange that afternoon.
“Sorry, that must be incredibly off my trolley 1to ask you out while you’re still working…” Aran apologized when Tessa didn’t respond.
“No, no, it’s fine. I’d love to!”
“Really? That’s great! Here’s my phone, key in your number. I’ll ring you.”
Tessa did as Aran told, and Aran left Dr. Khoo’s with a wide smile on his face.
Oh my goodness, what just happened? Tessa thought. Did Aran Shankar, son of the infamous Shankars just ask me out on a date? Sure, our little banter was cute, but what did this handsome and incredibly charming man see in me?
Tessa found it difficult to feel even remotely attractive to anyone, despite she had long lost her baby fat, highlighted her hair and wore contacts now, no thanks to the negative voices that stuck deep in her head, planted by the minds of others.
She closed her eyes and tried to listen if Aran’s mind might have let slip a thought.
But there was only silence.

A week flew by, and Tessa found herself swamped with more work. Dr. Khoo’s business was flourishing, and she was looking to open a second branch. Tessa’s original job scope didn’t include contacting real estate companies for a new office location but Tessa liked the fact Dr. Khoo was giving her more responsibility. While she knew being a receptionist was a far cry from her dream job – a Pulitzer-winning writer – for now she’s content working at Dr. Khoo’s.
Unfortunately, with Dr. Khoo’s pending expansion plans, she found herself no time to do what she liked best – write; and spend quality time with her best friend, Jeff. They had known each other since the first day of college at HELP University. Although they were both born and bred in the same town, they had never bumped into each other before then. They met on Orientation Week, where she was most uncomfortable, vulnerable. She hated situations like these – times when she heard everyone around her judging one another in their minds. She could easily tell apart the sincere ones looking to forge meaningful relationships and others who secretly thought they were far more superior and were game to step on each other on the way up.
Jeff stood out from all of them. For some reason, her mind couldn’t pick up on his thoughts. Unlike the other boys in the group who were loud and rowdy, Jeff was unusually quiet. It seemed like in their entire group, Jeff and Tessa only spoke up when asked. Tessa never initiated conversation with the others but somehow she felt drawn to do so with Jeff.
On the last day of orientation, she decided to take a chance with Jeff. It was uncharacteristic of her but she was tired of always being alone and was determined to make the most out of college. A fresh start, she figured.
“Hey Jeff! Are you excited for classes to start?”
“I am. To be honest, I couldn’t wait for orientation to be over.”
Before Tessa could agree, Jeff flinched.
“I’m sorry – that didn’t come out right. No offense, it was great to be in the same team with you. But I’m just really awkward around large groups of people.”
Tessa laughed. “Believe it or not, I feel the exact same way.”
He let out of a sigh of relief and shot her a smile although his shoulders remained stiff. Tessa smiled. After Sandra, she had been reluctant to let anyone into her life, let alone consider someone as a best friend. But no matter how hard she tried to fight her friendship with Jeff, she couldn’t. He was truly an exception.
Jeffrey Sim, however, was a bit reserved. He had spent his whole life mostly interacting with males. His mother had passed away from breast cancer when he was merely seven years old. His dad, a car salesman, had no idea how to raise his single son without the help of a woman. After his wife’s death, he distracted himself by diving headfirst into work and left Jeff to fend for himself. The best thing Mr. Sim could do for Jeff was to enroll him in St. John’s Institution, an all-boys school. Although his father could not provide him emotional support, Jeff never lacked a solid education. After Jeff graduated honor roll in his high school, he registered for a psychology degree at HELP University.
Although he never spoke directly to Tessa during orientation, he had noticed her on the first day. Unlike the other girls who dressed to impress and carried designer handbags, Tessa was dressed in a pair of dark denim jeans and a simple white shirt. Her long hair had streaks of brown in it, but she had tucked one side of it behind her ear so it didn’t fall across her face, giving him access to study her face clearly. She wasn’t the most gorgeous girl he had laid eyes on, but there was something about her eyes that interested him. They were huge – bigger than most Malaysian Chinese girls – but they weren’t the vacant sort that he saw in plenty of people. No, Tessa’s pair of eyes were always looking, always darting around as if she was curious about everyone and everything that surrounded her. With eyes like that, Jeff expected Tessa to be a chatterbox. On the contrary, she was just as quiet as him, if not more.
So when Tessa spoke to him first, Jeff couldn’t help but feel flattered. He was nervous, and hoped she couldn’t tell, as he was undoubtedly inexperienced with girls.
But the pair hit it off. They shared similar interests: writing, trying out new restaurants and watching their favorite series, Suits. When they first started hanging out, Tessa had little expectations of their friendship. She constantly tried to pick her brain to see if she could detect any animosity in Jeff’s mind but nothing came up. After a year of doubting, she finally loosened up a little and started being herself around him. They spent the majority of their college days together until many people started speculating they were an item.
They were partly right—Jeff had developed romantic feelings for Tessa early on in their friendship—but never dared to confess how he felt about her, fearing he would lose her friendship if she didn’t feel the same way. He cared about Tessa a lot, and her friendship meant the world to him. He didn’t mind even if she dated, as long as they could still be close friends. He also thought Tessa would’ve surely found someone with her gentle and loving nature but she surprisingly stayed single in college.
Since the pair never dated anyone else, they even took each other to the college’s senior dance, furthering the speculation. Unfortunately, it was just a joke from Jeff; who said they should probably take each other to the college’s senior dance, lest should they end up dying without ever having a dance date in their entire lives. Tessa laughed at Jeff’s silly idea but agreed anyway, allowing herself to enjoy a wonderful night of music and celebration with him—as a best friend.
She always thought of Jeff platonically and never questioned if Jeff had cultivated any romantic feelings for her. After many years of loneliness, she was grateful enough for Jeff’s existence. A friend was the missing piece to her complicated life, and she didn’t want anything to ruin her completed puzzle.

“I know, Jeff, I’m sorry! Boat Noodle would just have to wait. I have to find a place as soon as possible for Dr. Khoo. She’s expecting to open her second office in three months! Three months! My weekends are devoted to talking to real estate agents until I can score her an amazing but cheap place,” Tessa whined.
Jeff called her that Friday after her first encounter with Aran, to jokingly tell her off after she canceled their dinner date the night before. Unfortunately he was met with another rejection from Tessa, but she had no choice. She wasn’t going to let Dr. Khoo down, not if she wanted a promotion and a raise by the end of the year.
“Listen Jeff, I’ve got an incoming call. I have to take it, in case it’s Dr. Khoo again. I’ll call you later.”
Tessa hung up and saw an unknown number flashing on her cell phone.
“Hi, Tessa?”
She recognized his voice immediately.
Aran! He called!
“Yes, Tessa here.”
“Oh, great. I’m glad. It’s Aran. I promised I’d ring you this week, I hope you didn’t forget!”
Tessa sensed a slight nervousness in his voice and smiled. Could Aran Shankar really have the jitters while calling her?
“No, I didn’t. How’ve you been?”
“I’m doing well, just a little knackered2 from my jet lag. Are you free tomorrow night for dinner?”
Tessa planned to work on researching some more rentals for Dr. Khoo but she couldn’t help accepting Aran’s invitation.
“What would you like to eat?” Tessa asked. Would the hawker stalls at Jalan Alor be okay? She wondered. Surely he misses Malaysian street food?
“Surprise me, Tessa. I’ll pick you up, just text me your address. Have a good day at work,” Aran replied.
Tessa could almost hear him smiling from the other end.
She honestly didn’t think he’d call although she was hoping he would. Perhaps Aran just had good manners and wanted to keep a promise, she justified. Tessa knew not to have expectations. The last thing she wanted was to fall madly in love with him only to face a huge demon later: his ugly thoughts.
Nonetheless, her spirits were lifted from that phone call and she continued her research for Dr. Khoo beaming from ear to ear.
“I hope that smile doesn’t disappear after I tell you something,” Dr. Khoo teased as she walked into the office after her lunch break.
“Ah, Dr. Khoo! Well, the weekend is here. Surely that must call for a smile. By the way, what’s the news?” Tessa tried to play it cool.
“I’m going to have to ask you to stay a little later today. Unfortunately, Datin Shankar just called. Apparently there’s been a skin emergency. She’s coming in at 5pm. She doesn’t have an appointment, but you know how she is. When she wants something, she’ll have it. There’s no fighting her,” Dr. Khoo said.
Datin Shankar is coming in? Right after she just spoke to Aran? What a coincidence.
“Sure, Dr. Khoo. I’ll let her in, and I’ll close up after.”
She could feel her happy mood begin to dissipate.
Datin Shankar walked in the office at 5pm sharp – another warning sign worthy of suspicion.
“Hello, Tessa. I’m here for my 5 p.m. appointment.”
“Yes, of course, Datin. Dr. Khoo is expecting you.”
Without making any more small talk, Datin Shankar made her way inside Dr. Khoo’s room.
Tessa could usually tell how long Datin Shankar’s session would take – two hours, tops. An hour for consultation and gossip updates with Dr. Khoo, and another for the actual procedure. Today, however, it took a brisk forty-five minutes.
Datin Shankar loved Botox so much that whenever she left Dr. Khoo’s, she would be giggly and happy (even if her face couldn’t show it). But this time, Datin Shankar was remarkably quiet.
“Datin Shankar, when would you like to schedule your next appointment?” Tessa asked.
“Hm, I’ll be traveling soon and I’m not sure when I’m available. I’ll call Dr. Khoo when I am. Oh yes, Tessa, before I leave, I heard Aran has asked you out for dinner tomorrow night?”
What? He’s a grown man! Why would he tell his mother things like this? Tessa felt a hint of annoyance towards Aran.
Embarrassed by Datin’s prying, she tried to avoid her gaze.
“Oh yes, Datin. Aran wanted someone to show him the latest eats since he’s been away for so long. I don’t know why he asked me. Maybe he assumed I knew judging from my size…” she rambled.
“Oh, I was just asking. I’m sure a girl like you will treat my Aran to delicious food!”
Yes, you know you’re just a friend, and that’s what you’ll ever be. Aran would never fall for a girl like you. Look at your roots Tessa, they’re already showing. And that office suit, ugh! Aran would never fall for a girl with that low-class sense of style. Also…my Aran loves a sexy, tall, skinny woman. Not a short stubby one whose face looks like a bao!
Datin Shankar gave Tessa a bright smile as she left, but behind her clenched, artificially whitened teeth, Tessa heard it. Those degrading, malicious words from her mind.
Ugh, how could I have been so stupid to say yes to Aran? I was a nobody, and Datin Shankar never ever welcome nobodies in her life.
Tessa picked up her phone to cancel it with Aran, but Aran’s line was busy.
Okay, just one time. One dinner. That’s it, she thought as she recalled what Datin conveyed of her. This is why you never date, remember?

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