The Weight of Our Sky(3)

“You are so obvious,” I snigger, jabbing her in the ribs, and we dissolve into giggles as we run for the bus.

I hoist myself up the steps—right foot first: good girl, Mel—and the Djinn suddenly rears up, ready and alert. I feel a sickening weight in my stomach. The right-hand window seat in the third row, my usual choice—the safest choice—is occupied. A Chinese auntie, her loose short-sleeved blouse boasting dark patches of sweat, dozes in the afternoon heat. Whenever she leans too far forward, she quickly jerks her head back, her eyes opening for a split second, her face rearranging itself into something resembling propriety. But before long, she’s nodding off again, lulled by the gentle rolling of the bus.

I can feel the panic start to descend, that telltale prickling starting in my toes and working its way up to claim the rest of me. If you don’t sit in that seat, the safe seat, Mama will die, the Djinn whispers, and I hate how familiar his voice is to my ears, that low, rich rasp like gravel wrapped in velvet. Mama will die, and it’ll be all your fault.

I know it doesn’t make sense. I know it shouldn’t matter. But at the same time, I am absolutely certain that nothing matters more than this, not a single thing in the entire world. My chest heaves, up and down, up and down.

Quickly, I slide into the window seat on the left—still third row, which is good, but on the left, which is most definitely, terribly, awfully not good. But I can make it right. I can make it safe.

The old blue bus coughs and wheezes its way down the road and as Saf waxes lyrical about the dreamy swoop of Paul Newman’s perfect hair and the heavenly blue of his perfect eyes, my mother is floating, floating, floating down into the depths of the Klang River, her face blue, her eyes shut, her lungs filled with murky water.

Quickly, quietly, so that Saf won’t notice, I tap my right foot, then my left, then right again, thirty-three sets of three altogether, all the way to Petaling Street.

Finally, the Djinn subsides. For now.


“WE’VE GOT SOME TIME,” SAF says as the bus deposits us on the corner and rumbles off down the road. “Wanna go listen to some records?”

“Sure,” I say, “but I have to make a call first.”

Saf rolls her eyes. “Again?”

“You know I have to, Saf,” I say, feeling around in my pocket for a ten-cent coin. “You know my mom always wants me to check in after school.”

“Fine,” she grumbles, and we head for a nearby pay phone. I grab the receiver and push my coin into the slot, hearing the clink as it rolls down into the depths of the machine. Saf hangs back a few paces, waiting for me to finish.

Three beeps, and then nothing.

I start to sweat. Come on, come on, I think, fishing around in the depths of my bag for another coin. In the distance, Saf pulls monstrous faces at me, and I stick my tongue out at her in return, trying my best to quell the panic rising in my throat, threatening to choke me. Mama falls to her death from a great height, her body hitting the ground with a thud that echoes through my head.

I dial the number again.

Come on, come on, come on.

The Djinn howls, and I tap my feet quickly, right first, then shifting left, trying to appease him. Three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen . . .


Relief floods through me. “Hello! Umm, hello. Can I speak to Nurse Salmah, please?”

“Is that you, Melati, darling?” I recognize the raspy, sandpapery voice of Auntie Tipah, Mama’s friend and colleague, who goes through half a dozen cigarettes a day—“Never in front of the patients, though, darlings, hand on heart!”—and swears she’ll quit each week.

“Yes, ma’am. Just checking in.”

“Same time every day. You’re better than any alarm clock I’ve ever had! Hold on, I’ll get her.”

Another pause; I quickly fill it with numbers. Three, six, nine . . .

“Hi, Melati.”

“Hi, Mama!” She’s alive. She’s alive! My whole body sags with relief, and for a moment, I allow myself to breathe.

It lasts about ten seconds. Because of course I should know better by now. The relief never lasts. The threat of death still hovers, like a shadow I can’t shake. The Djinn still demands his price.

“Everything okay?” she asks, the way she does every time I call. The sound of her voice and the familiar rhythm of our daily ritual soothes me. She isn’t hurt. She isn’t dead. Everything is okay.

“Yup.” I clutch the receiver, pressing it close to my ear, twirling the cord tightly in my fingers. “Everything’s fine. Are you okay?”

“Yes, sayang, I’m fine. A little tired. I’m on shift tonight; I’ll be home late. Mak Siti has your dinner, okay?”

“Okay.” I make a face, even though I know she can’t see me; Mak Siti is our neighbor, and dinner with her means rice, a meager slice of fried fish, and a watery broth filled with wilted vegetables, all eaten to the accompaniment of the meowing of five cats and a litany of complaints, criticisms, and grouses.

“Don’t complain.” I can hear her smiling; she knows what I’m thinking.

“I’m not! I’m going to the movies with Saf, okay?”

“On a Tuesday?”

“Yeah, her father isn’t home.” Mama knows all about Pakcik Adnan and his rules.

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