The Weight of Our Sky(11)

But here’s this kindly-faced older woman, staring directly at me and seemingly unfazed by the bizarre barrage of tapping and twitching she’s just witnessed.

“Yes, Auntie,” I say again, cautiously. “I’m finished.” She thinks you’re crazy, the Djinn whispers, sending tiny tentacles of doubt to wrap themselves around my brain. I shake my head quickly, trying to dislodge them.

“Good, good. Can you talk or not?”

“Can, Auntie.” Look at her. Look at the way she’s eyeing you. Like you’re a wild animal.

“Okay. You have a name?”

“Melati, Auntie.” She hates you for abandoning your friend, you know. She knows it’s your fault Saf was killed.

I can feel myself start to panic. Quickly, I blink, three times in rapid succession, then again, then again.

Again. Until you get it right.

“Okay, Melati. You can call me Auntie Bee.” She hoists herself back up with a slight grimace, dusting off her knees. “You’d better come home with me first. It’s getting dark, and it’s not safe for you to be out here.”

Look at you. You can’t even save yourself. And you think you can save your mother? His laughter grates on me like nails dragged across a chalkboard.

I pause ever so slightly before nodding three times—one, two, three. I’ve been given all the talks about going places with strangers, and she’s Chinese, which, based on recent experience, means there’s about a 50 percent chance that she wants to kill me. But considering she just saved my butt for no good reason, stabbing me out here in the streets probably isn’t the highest thing on her to-do list. I don’t see any other alternative; the Djinn weighs heavily on my stooped shoulders, I’m tired, and frankly, Auntie Bee isn’t going to take no for an answer. I can tell. It’s the primal law of auntie-hood: No matter whether Chinese, Malay, or Indian, an auntie can just say something and assume everyone will rearrange themselves to obey, and so strong is this belief in their own rightness that people usually do.

The older woman sighs, looking up and down the empty streets. “How are we going to do this?” she mutters to herself, frowning. Then a jab on my arm. “Come, girl,” she says. “We’d better walk. Maybe we’ll see a car or a bus, somebody who can take us home.”

I stagger onto my feet and allow myself to be dragged by the arm up Petaling Street. Not a sound disturbs the strange quiet all around us, but beneath this veneer of silence, the Djinn cackles gleefully and brings up image after image of Mama’s death, feeding on the charged atmosphere around us: a buzzing undercurrent of thick tension, a sense that there is more to come.

Then, as I count feverishly in my head, it comes.

“What is that?” Auntie Bee frowns, craning her neck to see ahead of us.

Down the road they come, dozens of them, brandishing knives and sticks, the strips of bright red cloth tied around their waists and heads trailing merrily behind them, flapping in the breeze. “Allahu akbar!” they yell. “Allahu akbar!” And for a moment I am struck by how strange it is to proclaim the greatness of God, a phrase we say over and over again in prayer five times a day, while doing their best to destroy His creations.

“Run, girl, run!” Auntie Bee’s shouts break through my reverie and we dash as fast as we can down the street. I have no time to stop, no time to think, no time to count, no time to breathe. I’m not that athletic on the best of days—my PE teacher once wrote a note home to my mother that included the lines “barely able to exert herself for five minutes” and “constantly trying to be excused on the basis of ‘period pain,’ which would be possible only if she had three periods every month”—and it doesn’t take long for me to be gasping for breath, a burning pain radiating from my lungs. I glance to my left; Auntie Bee is doing no better, her face bright red with the effort, but she keeps a firm grip on my arm and hurries me along. Behind us, I hear the sounds of shouting and smashing glass.

“Come on, come on,” she puffs. “We must keep moving.” Her eyes constantly scan our surroundings for possible hiding places; she knows we can’t run forever.

When we turn the corner, I see him: an older man, his brown face worn from the beating of the years and the sun, his mustache and hair peppered with gray. “Here, here!” he says, beckoning wildly to us, and in the absence of any other options, Auntie Bee and I slow down. I can sense her hesitation with each step that brings us closer to him. I can’t really blame her. Malay men are busy burning down Petaling Street; there’s no real way of knowing if this particular Malay man can be trusted.

“Quickly,” he says. “Come quickly.” And he gestures behind him, where I now notice a large drain, partially covered with metal sheeting and blocked from view by a trishaw—his trishaw. “Go in there,” he says, pointing at the drain. “There’s still space. Hurry.”

I look over at Auntie Bee, who nods quickly and grasps the man’s hand in a gesture of unspoken gratitude as we pass. Then we scurry to the drain and I jump into the dark cavern, landing on my feet with a sickening squelch. The floor of the drain is wet and yields slightly beneath my weight, and I try very hard not to think about the reasons why while Auntie Bee lowers herself more cautiously, grunting with the effort. Inside, there are already two others, but beyond the fact that they’re a man and woman, there’s little else I can see in the darkness to identify them. The air is heavy with the scent of sweat and rancid drain water, and I have to concentrate on taking deep, even breaths without throwing up. Through a small hole in the sheeting that covers us, I see the man reposition his trishaw slightly to better hide us from view. His body is tense, muscles tightly coiled as a cat ready to spring. The hands that grip the handlebars tremble slightly.

Hanna Alkaf's Books