Short stories

Helen’s vision


Image credit: MAGGRAV

I was eight when my mother brought me to have my fortune read. It was a small shop behind Fu Lu Shou complex and the place smelled of incense. It was an earthy scent –like a blend of oak, sandalwood and citronella. The orange signboard read ‘HELEN KOH GEOMANCY’.

My mother told me, “Aunty Helen is very good with all these things. She studied geomancy so she knows what she is doing.”

I asked, “What is geomancy?”

***

We were ushered into a room where I was instructed to sit down. I sat facing Helen and she took my hand.

“Girl, the spirits are showing me that glass will cause your death if you’re not careful.”

Helen furrowed her brow, and then continued, “I see snowfall, and you are shivering… You need to be wary of snow. It will chill your bones.”

Other than that ominous warning, I didn’t remember anything else in particular. I was too young to comprehend the gravity of her words, but my mother took it very seriously. My family avoided holiday destinations in the winter, and I was persuaded to avoid handling or being near glass whenever possible.

When I turned twenty four, I told my mother that I wanted to go work in America. She was convinced that it was a bad move. To her, it was the land of guns, gangs and rampant racism. Worst of all, it snowed there.

As a child, I went along with my mother’s wishes. However, I grew increasingly weary of letting what I perceived to be my mother’s superstitions constrain my decisions.

I went ahead with America anyway. A prophecy made by a woman who consulted some spirits in a stuffy shop was not going to stand between my dreams and I.

***

“You need to be wary of snow.”

I was twenty eight when I died. It was not winter when it happened, but it had been snowing all year.

The snow came in the form of fine powdery whiteness. Coke. I nearly smiled, thinking that Helen could have told me that “Coke is not good for you” and my mother would have prevented me from drinking soft drinks. Either way, we got it all wrong.

“I see snowfall, and you are shivering.” I burned up and shook violently as waves of nausea crashed against me. I desperately needed to turn to my side, but my limbs no longer belonged to me. I was still lying on my back when I began to vomit. I choked and struggled against the vile liquid sloshing back against my throat.

Glass will cause your death. Glass. That’s what they called it around here. Not meth, just glass.

My lungs were on fire.

My vision blurred with patches of brightly-coloured circles. The colours bled into one another until a rich blood-orange blend resulted. It was nearly the same colour as Helen’s shop signboard.

It was the last thing I saw as I drew my final breath of air.

The deep end


Source: Pinterest

The tropical heat made the swimming pool a favourite spot for many during the summer holiday. Every weekend, Mei would go swimming with a good friend.

It was a particularly warm day and Mei slathered sunscreen on her arms and shoulders. She noticed a man in his sixties watching her. Mei self-consciously tugged at her new bright orange swimming costume, trying to avoid the man’s gaze. He did not look away. Instead, with his gaze fixed on Mei, his eyes began to water.

“Ignore him. Sometimes there are crazy people here.” Her friend warned her as she pulled Mei away. “Come on!” She said, diving in to the pool.

Mei stood at the edge of the water as it lapped at her toes.

Her friend started to talk about some boy she had just met. “And then he told me about-”

Mei took a deep breath, and plunged in. The water rushed against her body and greeted her skin with its cool temperature. The world around her was silent for a few seconds. Tentatively, Mei surfaced.

She smiled. The pool was no longer the same. The old tiles were in place, and the Jacuzzi at the edge of the main pool was gone.

“Mei!”

She recognised the voice.

Five weeks ago, Mei realised that she would be transported back in time if she dived into the water head-first at the pool. The first time it happened, she met Hock. He found her, confused, crying and crouched at the corner.

She learnt that it was 1982, and the deep end of the pool was a portal where she could travel between two points in time. For every weekend after that, she would go swimming and take a trip back in time to meet Hock. Yet, she never knew how to tell him about her secret.

“I’ve not seen you wear this before.” He said with some surprise.

“Is it nice?” Mei asked. “Too orange perhaps?” She felt her cheeks growing red.

He paused, and then he laughed. “You look great.”

They swam for the whole afternoon and the sun was beginning to set. At the edge of the pool, they kicked the water lazily. Hock leaned in closer to Mei.

“Can I …” Hock began nervously. “Can I call you after this?”

Reality hit Mei in the face as soon as those words left his mouth. There was no way he could contact her as long as they existed on different timelines.

She turned away. “Hock, I… I can’t. I have to go.” She got out of the water, and Hock panicked. “Mei, did I do something wrong? I’m sorry.”

“No. You did nothing wrong.”

She waited until she was safely out of sight before she plunged back in to the deep end, returning to 2017. Five hours had passed with Hock, but time froze in 2017 for as long as she was in 1982. The sun was still burning in the 2pm sky, and she could hear her friend’s voice as she surfaced.

“–that time he went to climb a mountain, he’s so cool!”

——

The next weekend, Hock was waiting for her.  “I didn’t know if you were even coming today – I…”

Mei threw her arms around him and caught him by surprise. “Hock, I’m sorry about last week,” She said softly.

She was afraid that he would disintegrate if she touched him. What if he was a distant dream tucked away in Mei’s mind, ready to evaporate like the beads of water on her skin? But Hock did not disappear. Instead, Mei felt his arms wrap around her tightly. He was warm, solid, and she could feel his heart beat against her chest.

Hock felt real. Hock was real.

Mei was the first to break the embrace. “I have something to tell you, but you have to promise to believe me.”

He promised, and she told him about the first time she discovered 1982. When Hock recovered from his initial shock, he said, “Mei, stay here with me.”

Mei did not know how the portal worked. Currently, she could move freely between the two years, but what if she found herself somehow trapped in 1982? What would happen in 2017 if she stayed in 1982? Would her body sink to the bottom of the swimming pool? Would she disappear without a trace underwater? More importantly, was she prepared to leave everything behind for Hock?

Mei told Hock that it was something that she had to think about, and he promised to wait.

“I’ll wait for you on Saturdays until you no longer wish to see me.” Hock promised.

—-

The next week, there was a problem with the drainage system and the pool was closed for repairs. Mei had to wait another week for the pool to reopen.

She had made her decision. A weekend later, she plunged in to the deep end. She stayed underwater for a while, and when she was ready for her new life, Mei surfaced for air.

Children were running toward the Jacuzzi. There were no metal ladders by the pool.  Mei blinked and looked at the tiles she was standing on.

It was still 2017.

During the repairs, something had changed. The portal no longer worked.

Her heart shattered as she remembered Hock’s voice, “I’ll wait for you here on Saturdays.” She thought about Hock spending his subsequent weekends waiting for a girl who would never show up. Tears began to well up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.

Suddenly, a recent memory came to mind – Mei recalled seeing a man tearing up by the pool a few weeks ago. It was the day when she wore her orange swimsuit for the first time. Could it be -?

—-

Initially, Hock would go to the pool every weekend, hoping that Mei would come. As the years wore on, the frequency of his visits also declined. At the end of 35 long years, Hock was no longer waiting for Mei, but found comfort in clinging to the memory of a place. On balmy afternoons, he would find himself sitting by the pool for old times’ sake.

And then it happened.

Mei finally showed up, albeit in a way he did not expect. Hock looked on as the girl in the orange swimsuit plunged into the deep end of the water. He watched as his past flooded the present. Yet, a gulf of years still separated them – Hock was no longer a young man.

He wiped the tears from his face. It was time to stop chasing the past.

He was ready to never return to the pool again.

—–

Mei scanned the pool area for the mysterious man, but she was four weeks (35 years) too late.

Restaurant Kyo

Restaurant Kyo is a place where relationships converge and intersect with food. This is a story of three couples with three very different dining experiences.

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Barachirashi

There was a queue. L’s legs hurt from the standing, and it was cold. “The wait will be worth it,” N assured her, and L did not doubt N’s impeccable taste in food. With N’s adventurous taste buds, there was never a dull day in the past month that they had dated. True to N’s unconventional nature, they spent most of their time trying different foods. Tonight was Japanese food night.

When their food finally arrived, it took L only one bite to know that N was right. It was worth the wait. They ate silently from large bowls of seasoned rice, topped to the brim with generous chunks of raw fish. The seasoning was delightfully savoury, but left a sweet aftertaste. It was the best thing L had ever tasted.

They wolfed down their barachirashi in content silence. L thought about how the modern dining experience sometimes entailed shallow chatter during the meal. It was as though conversation served the function of filling the void left by subpar food in overpriced restaurants. Today, there was no need for that. Even without words, dining together had become an intimate experience for the both of them.

Before L met N, she was content to stuff herself with convenience store noodles and refrigerated sandwiches from the deli counter. Since then, L and N’s dates always revolved around good food – to N, sharing food was a form of love. “This is how you love yourself and others”, N said. “Food is nourishment not only for the body but also the soul.” She showed L five different ways to prepare linguine, the art of rolling sushi, and the trick behind choosing sweet watermelons. N’s fascination with different foods symbolised her capacity for wonder. It was with small bites that L discovered N’s big heart.

When the last grain of rice had been picked off the bowl, L licked her lips. She was the first to break the silence. “I love this. I love you.” She said.

L’s declaration of love was truncated by the sound of glass smashing against a wall.

matcha-deluxe-parfait-bg-kyo-roll-en-mobile

Img credit: Kyo Roll En

Matcha

S and J finished their sushi dinner. S cupped her hands around a cup of green tea. The scent of the green tea wafted to her nose as she brought the cup to her face. The smell of ocha was familiar, but had conjured some discomforting memories.

“You were having a bad day so I got you this!” He revealed a tub of matcha ice cream he had hidden behind his back. “Green tea! Your favourite!”

Like always, we got two spoons and ate from the tub. The ice cream was sweet, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. There were bitter nodes amidst the sweet and I loved it for the very combination of these flavours that constituted its unique taste. Matcha ice cream was not cloying…Just like our relationship. We gave each other sufficient space. But perhaps, too much space.

When you said that I had changed, we were eating matcha ice cream. Suddenly, the ice cream tasted too bitter.

I haven’t touched it since.

 “Where shall we head to after this?” S asked.

“I’d like to stay for dessert. I love their green tea ice creams.” J suggested.

S felt her stomach sink as J ordered a matcha and vanilla parfait. J scooped some ice cream using her spoon. S watched as the spoonful of matcha ice cream traversed the space between them. It hovered in front of her mouth. “Try this.” J said to S.

S opened her mouth hesitantly as J fed her the matcha ice cream. It was bittersweet, just as she had remembered. She felt the ice cream melt on her tongue as the memories began its slow spill from the crevices of her mind. It was at this point that J leaned over, cupped S’s face and kissed her firmly on the mouth.

 “Does this taste good?”

Her kiss tasted of vanilla.

The vanilla overlaid the taste of the bittersweet matcha, resulting in a delightful combination of sweetness that was perfectly balanced. S took a second spoonful of matcha ice cream. Some of the vanilla ice cream had melted and mixed into it. The bittersweet matcha was in harmony with the subtle fragrance of the vanilla.

The mind forms new associations to sensations when introduced to new memories. With each mouthful, S felt the gustatory imageries of the past overlay, but not override, that of the present. Both old and new lovers had converged and she was slowly beginning to heal. The matcha was no longer as bitter as she remembered.

“Thanks for suggesting we get the ice cream,” she said, knowing that J would not be able to fully appreciate the gravity of her words. A grateful smile spread across S’s lips.

S’ thoughts were cut short by a loud noise in the corner of the restaurant and they both turned to look. “It seems like they’re fighting,” J said.

Sake-Boom

Img credit: AWOL

Sake

 “When were you going to tell me about this?” C exploded.

“I was going to –” W tried to explain, but C cut her off.

 “How could you do this? You didn’t have the right.”

C fumed as she downed her ninth glass of sake. The bottom of the sake glass was not where she would find herself. Sake warms the body on a cold night, but that night, it burned for them both. C regarded the sake glass. For some people, alcohol provided temporary relief – a sanctuary that they retreated to whenever emotions got too overwhelming. For C, there were times when she drank to forget, and when she woke up the next day, the pain would be lessened. Not this time. This time, she would remember and feel the same hurt over and over. How could she possibly forget?

She felt a fire in the pit of her stomach threatening to unleash its fury in the form of verbal carnage. No. She could not bring herself to yell at her lover. In a fit of uncontrollable anger with no other form of release, C smashed her glass against the wall next to them.

The loud noise of glass shattering had alerted the people around them. Some restaurant staff rushed to the table. C had cut her hand smashing the sake glass against the wall. Her lover looked on in shock and horror as crimson streamed down C’s hand.

W had watched helplessly as the glass shattered. It seemed to be a telling metaphor for the state of their relationship. Sake was her favourite thing in this world, but that was before she met C. Tears streamed down her face as W began to sob.

The gift

“Ming, tell us a ghost story!!”

“Tell them about the time you played catching at the old blocks!”

Ming fell silent. The things he saw at the old blocks had scared him. “No la, nothing to say.”

“Tell us about your old house leh!”

“Eh do you think it’s just you, Ming? And all these things are looking for you?”

Ming shook his head. “If they are, I don’t know why they’re looking for me. I’ve never helped any of them before.”

Ming never understood why people were so interested in the things he saw. He also never understood why the spirits kept coming to him. Some beckoned to him, spoke to him in languages he could not understand, and followed him home. Some people called his third eye a gift, but it was hardly a gift. There was no use. He didn’t know what they wanted from him and he couldn’t help them.

——————————————-

Ming lived in the same flat for two years. Strange things started happening when he first settled in. Initially, it was just things going missing and then reappearing somewhere else. There was once he heard knocking on the bathroom door when he was inside. It was several loud raps. Thud thud thud thud. He opened the door but there was no one outside. The house was empty except for him.

For the first few months, he didn’t see anything. But then, they started appearing. There was a girl who sat on a chair, her hair cropped short, framing her pale face. There was a woman who stared at him from outside his room. He hung his clothes at his doorway, and she peered at him from between the fabric. Sometimes, from his room, he would hear women talking loudly in the kitchen, laughing, enjoying themselves. Curled up on his bed, he felt like these women in the kitchen were the real occupants of the house that he was paying rent for. Amidst the noisy chatter he was the stranger, quietly existing in a place that was never truly his own.

Every space is shared. No space is truly our own when we share it with the other entities that drift in and out. Different energies, converging and diverging. The strongest point of convergence happens during the seventh month, where different streams of consciousness interact easily with each other.

That was also when Ming met Shan again.

Shan was about his age, with a pretty oval face and a skinny frame. He was sitting on a park bench when Shan saw him. She asked if she could sit beside him for a while. “Go ahead”, he said, trying to conceal his excitement. Ming sometimes saw her when he walked his dog, but never quite had the courage to say hi. She was too pretty and he was too shy.

Ming took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, lit one and took a long drag from it.

“I’m Shan. You’re Ming right? You stay at the block behind?”

“Yeah, I uh- I used to see you around sometimes…When I walked my dog.”

“Used to?”

Ming was hesitant for a while. “Ah, my dog passed away.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

A few moments of silence passed between them.

“Nice night.” She mused.

Ming nodded. “I see several others are enjoying this weather too.”

“You know, my mother always says: ‘Girl ah, don’t stay out so late, now seventh month you better come home quickly!’. But I like being out at night, you know? It’s so peaceful.”

Ming lit his second cigarette. “She’s right. You don’t know who or what you will encounter. Or if they are good or bad.”

“Well, then are you good or bad?” Shan teased.

Ming smiled. “What do you think?”

They spent a while more talking. Shan was chatty that day and Ming liked it when she was chatty. He liked many things about her. The way her lip curled when she smiled. How she threw her head back when she laughed.

“-Anyway! I have to go now. See you around…Next year maybe.”

Ming watched as she walked away, disappearing into the night. For a brief moment, all the other spirits had vanished from his sight and he focused only on her…Her skinny silhouette slinking away. He finished his second cigarette, and walked back up to his flat. Exhausted from the day, Ming lay down on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. His thoughts drifted off to Shan. She was an attractive young woman, and he would have wanted to date her. It was a pity that he was a year too late for any chance of that happening. Ming remembered how he recognised her photo immediately as he walked past the void deck. He remembered being in disbelief, feeling like someone had punched him in the throat. One moment she was here and the next –

Ming sighed a content sigh. Well it depends on where ‘here’ is. She’s still here now. Perhaps his third eye was a gift. Perhaps it wasn’t given to him so he could help others, but rather, to prepare him for the yearly encounters that were to come.

Rooftop

“Hello, my name is Tom, and I work with the police.”

Tom lived a life of detail. Purposeful words chosen with precision. Varying tones, often tailored to suit specific circumstances. Yet, Tom’s gift was in listening. Listening to every detail and absorbing every word, he lapped up thoughts and stories in their entirety.

Five years of persuading people off rooftops could not prepare him for this day.

 

Tom got a call in the morning from his boss. The boss gave him an address. “Woman. Roughly in her twenties. How soon can you get there?”

He reached the building in less than twenty minutes. The woman was sitting on the ledge with her legs dangling loosely below. She appeared relaxed.

“Hello, my name is Tom, and I work with the police.” Tom begins. “I know you’re not here by choice.”

These people don’t believe that they have other options. That’s why they’re here.

Silence.

“I’m here to listen to you.” He usually got people to tell him why they were on the rooftop. Tell me more. Did I get this right? How did that make you feel? Keep going.

“If you kill yourself, it would be a permanent solution to an impermanent problem.” People contemplating suicide do not believe that anybody can help them. This is where you come in. You have to, as much as possible, let them help themselves.

The woman regarded him curiously and finally, she spoke. Her response surprised him. “I am going to jump, but killing myself is not my intention.”

She looked out at the city. Glass, brick and metal sprawling.  “The charm of cities,” She began. “So full of everything and yet nothing. Cities give the illusion of purpose but everything is really just hollow chaos. Like everything else.” She paused, silent for a few seconds. “When the charm is spent, we move on, roaming like nomads from one chaotic universe to another.” The woman looked at her watch. “Looks like I have one more minute.” She says.

“One more minute?” Tom realised that he did not understand what was going on.

The woman rose to her feet and stood on the ledge. “Before the portal opens.” Her skirt swelled around her ankles as it caught the wind.

Tom looked on in horror but maintained his composure. Years of negotiating taught him to stay calm. “You do not have to do this.”

The woman looked at him and smiled. “Some people are meant to stay in this world. And others, to explore.”

“Explore where?” All his negotiation and persuasion techniques were failing him. His words became desperate utterances struggling to latch on to the baffling conversation.

“We only live in one version of a possible universe. Imagine all the other versions and possibilities-” The woman grew impatient. She was running out of time. “-I’m sorry Tom. I have to go.”

Wait! How do I get there? How do I ..explore?”

“You have to jump. Take a leap of faith! …And if you do not end up on the pavement, then maybe I’ll see you sometime.” And just like that, she jumped off.

Tom held his breath and waited for the familiar thud but it never came. His heart in his throat, he ran to the ledge and scanned the street below. He expected to see a body but the woman had disappeared. Confused, he pulled out his phone to call his boss when he noticed something very strange about the call log. The last call was from his girlfriend the day before. No call was recorded that morning. It was like the job and the woman never existed.

Tom looked down at the street again and then out toward the city. The city was filled with tall buildings, their magnificent and tangible height a metaphor for heights of success. The irony of people leaping to their deaths from buildings that symbolised everything that they once strived for. Tom made his life’s work about rooftops and he knew very well that the rooftop held different meanings to different people. Rooftops would never be the same again for him.

Tom thought about the woman and his mind brimmed with questions. Not knowing what else to do, Tom climbed the ledge and stood at the exact spot where the mysterious woman stood.

The city sprawled out in front of him. The wind echoed with the whispers of all the other explorers who had come and gone, but there were no answers, only ghosts.