The Weight of Our Sky(4)

There’s a pause. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

What is it about mothers? The woman is psychic.

“I’ll be okay, I think,” I say, twirling the cord tight around my fingers, watching them go from pink to white. “I might call again later, though.”

“Fine, but don’t go home too late, and make sure you do your homework.”

“Okay. Bye, Mama. Love you.”

“Bye, sayang.”

I hang up feeling much better. The numbers have done their job. Mama is safe.

Or is she?

Did I miss something? Was there a tiny pause before she said, “I’m fine”? Did she sound sick or hurt? I run over the entire conversation again in my head, sifting through the words for hidden meanings and missed clues. It feels as if the Djinn’s sharp teeth are gnawing away at my frayed nerves as I hover at the phone booth indecisively, biting my bottom lip. Is she really safe? Should I call her again, just to be sure?

Do it, he whispers. You’ll feel better. What’s the harm? Make the call.

I pick up the receiver again, the plastic still warm from my hand, my fingers poised to dial.

Then I set it down again with a bang. From where she stands a few steps away, Saf looks up at me, startled by the sudden noise, and I try to shoot her a smile. No, I think to myself firmly. Mama is fine. You talked to her; you heard her yourself, telling you everything is okay. Don’t listen to him and his lies.

I walk away on leaden feet, trying my hardest not to look back.

? ? ?

The numbers started out as a game, as they so often do for little children. If I can win three games of “one, two, jus” in a row, concentrating hard to anticipate Saf’s rock, paper, or scissors, then Abah will let me listen to that scary show on the radio. If I make it home from the bus stop in exactly twenty-seven steps, then Mama will have made my favorite bubur cha cha for tea, sweet and hot and laden with sweet potatoes and yams and bananas. If I can lastik at least five geckos off the wall, fashioning a makeshift slingshot out of my fingers and the orange rubber bands that came wrapped around our rolled-up newspapers each morning, then they’ll let me stay up late tonight. When it worked, it was a tiny act of magic, a small miracle that only fueled my belief in the power of the numbers; when it didn’t—and, of course, it didn’t, more often than not—it only meant that I’d been doing it wrong.

Most people grow out of it, this belief in magic, this reliance on little wonders, and I did too. But then Abah died, and in the echoing space he left behind inside me, the Djinn rushed in, making himself comfortable, latching onto those old familiar cues. He started off slowly: If you tap your toothbrush against the sink three times before you brush, if you take exactly twelve steps to get from your bed to the kitchen, if you flick the light switch on and off six times before bed, then Mama stays well and happy and healthy. And if you’ve accepted that, as I did, then it’s not that much of a leap to think: If you DON’T do these things, then Mama will NOT stay well and happy and healthy. Mama will die. And if you’ve accepted that, then it begins to consume you. That’s all you think about.

It’s been six months since I first told Mama about the strange, frightening thoughts that had started seeping into my brain, wrestled it into submission, and taken over every inch, filling it with dark, blood-soaked images of death. Her death.

I’d slipped into her room after she’d come home from work, the room she used to share with Abah but was now hers alone. My stomach was a tight cluster of knots, my head filled with numbers. Every step that brought me closer to her door, the voice in my ear screamed: She’ll disown you, she’ll push you away, she’ll think you’re dangerous and have you carted off to the madhouse.

No, she won’t, I remember thinking to myself. Mama could always make everything better, from skinned knees to bruised hearts. Why would this be any different?

You’re about to tell your own mother you imagine her dying—how can that be normal? She’ll think you’re crazy; she’ll toss you into a mental asylum and leave you there to rot.

The voice chipped away my confidence, exposing my weaknesses in a crisscrossing map of scars and wounds. I moved about her room, arranging the ornaments on her dresser, the makeup on her vanity, lining them just so, fidgety and restless and wanting desperately to throw up.

“What is it, sayang?” she asked me gently, putting a hand out to stroke my arm. Tell her, I thought to myself. Tell her; you’ll feel better.

So I blurted it out. All of it: the endless thoughts of her death, the constant counting and tapping and pacing that kept me up at night for fear that doing them wrong meant that I’d wake up in the morning to find her stiff and lifeless in her bed.

And she’d recoiled.

Oh, she pretended she hadn’t. She tried to recover quickly, pulling me in for a reassuring hug. But I’d seen her eyes widen in . . . fear? Disgust? I’d seen her flinch and turn away. I’d seen her pull her hand back for a minute, as if worried I’d contaminate her, or hurt her. Or worse.

“Don’t worry, Melati,” she’d told me, holding me close. “We’ll find a way to get through this. We’ll get help. I’ll make it all better, you’ll see.”

I let her comfort me and tried to forget the look I’d just seen in her eyes.

? ? ?

Petaling Street is rarely quiet, and today is no exception. The sea of tattered rainbow umbrellas and striped red-and-white canopies offers minimal relief from the piercing afternoon sun. Beneath them, shoppers, wanderers, dreamers, and hustlers weave in and out among cars, motorcycles, trishaws, and a parade of vendors peddling their wares. “Fresh bananas,” an old man yells hoarsely, “Come and try my fresh bananas! Cheap, cheap!” From another corner comes the melancholy cry of the man in black, who calls, “Manja, manja . . .” to all the girls who pass, trying to entice them with the table full of powders and potions before him, each promising more luscious hair, whiter teeth, or a second look from a certain special boy. . . . The air is thick with a pungent mix of odors: the delectable aroma wafting from the famous shredded duck buns on the one side; the mysterious smells that emanate from the jars and boxes that line the shelves of the Chinese medicine hall; the heady, overwhelming cologne that trails behind the college boys swaggering down the sidewalk in their ill-fitting drainpipe trousers, combs stuck in their back pockets; and everywhere, a faint undercurrent of stale sweat and cigarette smoke.

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