The fortune teller

One could hardly blame Ceres Euglena from trying to fit the stereotype of a fortune teller. She liked the sashaying, colourful skirts and the beaded necklaces one found all the time in second-hand shops, which was probably where she got her jewellery.
Her office, though, was mercifully free of incense, dead things or discarded shoes; it was bright and airy.
“My dear girl, what brings you here?” she called across the large room.
“Charlie told me to come.” Minerva lingered around the doorway.
“Ah, Charlie. Come in, dear, come in, have a seat, make yourself comfortable!”
Up close, Minerva saw the crow’s feet at Ceres’ eyes, and that her hair was most definitely dyed. Her hands were small, the skin loose, veins protruding like green snakes. She clasped these hands loosely.
“So, Amber, dear Charlie wants you to have your fortune told, doesn’t he?”
Charlie had been tactful, to use a pseudonym for her like that. Minerva said nothing. She shrugged. Hey, if this woman was a clairvoyant, she should know, right? The fortune-teller gestured at her hand.
“Left or right?”
“Dominant hand. Come, come.”
Reluctantly Minerva stretched out her right hand and the fortune teller took it in her wrinkly hands. The woman’s skin felt like loose snake skin, but it was dry and not unpleasant. As Minerva looked around, the woman stared with a curious fixed expression on her face. From time to time she would shake her head and mutter things. Minerva tried to silence the irritation springing up within her. It was the ‘I know more than you do’ attitude which all fortune-tellers seemed to adopt with their clients which had kept Minerva away from ‘such folk’ as much as possible. Until then, of course. Until the dreams she’d had.
Ceres Euglena looked at Minerva full in the eyes.
“Charlie, is he still helping the police?” she asked. Minerva calmed the sudden lurch in her throat.
“Yes.”
“You must be special. What you did. He usually doesn’t let them off so easily.”

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Gregory ascended the stone stairs automatically, sifting through the stack of junk mail that had accumulated in two days’ absence. He rounded the corner, feeling the sudden draft which signalled his apartment- right opposite a pair of French windows which never closed. Even after his concussion, he could remember things like this. Maybe it hadn’t been that bad.

Still not looking up, he unlocked the door and went in.

He was so engrossed in his mail, he tripped over the bag at his door and landed on an errant rug- what was it doing there? Gregory threw his mail aside, closed the door and pulled the bag closer.

That was not his bag. Even though he sometimes got the date or his name wrong, this was definitely not his bag. Too expensive. He touched a finger to the handle and sniffed it.

Leather- real leather- and wood. Branded stuff. Whoever last handled it had eaten bacon and oranges for- no, not breakfast, scent too old- for supper, maybe. And faint scent of perfume and- what was this?- some other smell. Without opening the bag he knew this was a woman’s bag.

But he unzipped it anyway and riffled through its contents: clothes, toiletries, a book. Obviously a woman’s. Amount of clothes: by what he knew of women, enough for maybe a day or two. All the clothes smelled fresh, so she was entering. Entering his house? Why?

Book was cheap- some romantic novel, featuring a busty blonde and a shiny bronzed man embracing. Gregory made a face. Peeking inside, he saw a written name: Susan. Just Susan. Gregory searched his memory. He know anyone named Susan? Uh, no.

Gregory reached the bottom of the bag. He found nothing else of interest, so he put everything back in and zipped up the bag. Satisfied, Gregory made a mental note to tell Pollux tomorrow- except his mental notes rarely lasted. He scribbled on a Post-it, pasted it on his dining table. Help him remember.

Out of habit Gregory ambled over to the bedroom-
“ARGH! Who are you what are you doing here!”
There was a woman- red lips, shoulder-length hair, same perfume as ‘Susan’ but with added smell of fried chicken- on his bed. Gregory clutched a scarf for support.
“You’re… You must be Susan. With the bag.”
“Greg? You okay?”
“Uh, how did you get in? Into my house?”
“You gave me the keys, Greg, are you sure you’re alright? The doctor said there’d be-“
“You smell funny.”
The woman paused, because there never is, really, a good reply to remarks like this.
“I’m your wife! I’m Susan!”
Oh dear. Oh dear, now he had a wife he didn’t know anything about.
“Your bag, then-“
“We- we…”
Gregory frowned, then an idea formed with surprising clarity.
“Take out my notebook on the bedside table, pass it to me, please. Thank you.”
Picking up the phone, Gregory dialled the number labelled, “Emergency”.

Sleepless nights

The wall clock read 11:59. The silence in the house only reminded him how much he missed seeing his wife ushering their little daughter off to sleep. No more gleeful laughs as she tried to stall time, or secret father-daughter toothbrush capers.

He turned his head on the pillow. It was 12:39. He lay in the stillness. When he closed his eyes, he saw a rush of images. He was afraid to sleep. More accurate to say he was afraid of the dreams sleep would bring.

1.28. He sat up. Gulped down a white bitter pill which the doctor had prescribed, lay back down, waiting for it to take effect. It was useless. When he got up to take a sip of water, he almost fell over. So he perched on the edge of the bed, reading a book.

2.26. He lay down and looked at the ceiling. Nah, not nearly as interesting as the book. He closed his eyes for a while, recalling the psychiatrist’s words. Blank darkness, the doctor intoned. Blank darkness. When his wife’s face appeared, he opened his eyes again.

3.18. The floor creaked as he walked around the bedroom. Outside, a dog barked. He stood at the bedroom window, listening to the insects whir.

4.51. He closed his eyes and hummed a tune. Nearly, but at the last minute, something disturbing flitted across his mind’s eye and again he was sleepless.

5.38. The stars shone outside. He stared at them, smiling as he recalled his daughter trying to play Twinkle on the piano. His wife laughing. The two of them having so much fun.

6.18. The sun was just rising. He had already dressed for work. He poured cornflakes into a bowl and ate them, slowly, like his wife always told him to.

7.37. He was the first at work. He said hi to the caretaker, who was unlocking the doors.

“You look terrible! Have you slept at all?”
“About five minutes. I’m fine.”
“No, you aren’t. This won’t do! I’m taking you to see a doctor.”
“You’re really a lot like my wife.”
An awkward pause.
“Sorry.” Pause. “But you’re still seeing a doctor.”

The guitar player

The streets buzzed with people, all with identical bored, weary looks. So few smiles.

It was peak hour now, when working people went home for a respite before the next day’s work. Su May joined the throng, massaging her aching neck.

Ennui, she realized, was the name for her mood. She had not been truly excited for a long time. Nothing could surprise her nowadays. Nothing touched her deeply. So different from her work partner, who always came to work with a fresh perspective. He often mentioned the years he had spent in sun-filled Greece, eating, walking, laughing with friends, having so much fun. What about her?

In the police station lobby one saw a list of names: that of the people who had contributed greatly to the police. Those noble souls. Su May used to stare at them when she came for work in the morning. Then a thought struck her: when she died, would she fade into oblivion? Or would her name be recorded for posterity on that list?

Interrupting her musings was the sound of…
Of a guitar. She stopped in front of the ragged guitar player and his battered guitar, patched up with duct tape. He was totally absorbed in his music. The guitar was his voice: he sang of shattered dreams and loneliness. His music broke through her jaded exterior and touched her heart directly.
Su May stood there, listening to him, for a long time. People passed around her like a rock in a stream. The guitar player made eye contact with her, briefly. Then she thought: he’s playing for me.
For a while, nothing existed except his music. She felt her eyes pricking; her tensed shoulders relaxed.

His ending chords told her: there is, there always will be, hope.

Silence. The vibrations faded.

Suddenly she reached for her wallet and put a handful of notes in his open case. Tears, usually a stranger to her face, flowed down her cheeks. “Thank you,” she whispered. He understood.

[Author’s note: He’s playing J.S. Bach’s Chaconne in D minor BWV 1007]

Masks

Every little sound was crystal clear: footsteps, the snapping of latex gloves, the rustling of coats….
Just that he was in darkness.
Charlie reached up to feel his eyes and felt gauze. His hand, trembling, made a hasty retreat. Authoritative footsteps approached and stopped. The person checked his IV tubing.
“What happened?” he asked the… whoever.
“There was a bomb. You sustained corneal abrasions, a concussion, burns. We’ll keep you under observation for a week or so.” A doctor, then.
“And when can I see again?”
“We’ll take off the bandages soon.”

Charlie noticed after a while that the voices around him sounded identical. It scared him.

On his ninth day, a doctor approached and drew the curtains around his bed.
“I’m going to remove your bandages now.” He heard scissors cutting the cloth, then felt the pads over his eyelids being removed.
“Keep your eyes closed now. I’m putting a pair of sunglasses on now. Okay?”
“Yeah.”
The doctor put a pair of glasses on his nose.
“Open your eyes…”
Even through the tinted lenses everything felt too bright. Charlie looked up at the doctor’s face. The mask hid his features, so Charlie couldn’t tell if he was smiling or stern. He was oddly homogenous.
“I can see you!”
“That’s good. You can’t be discharged yet, though, we still have to observe you.”
The doctor pulled open the curtains and left. Several people approached the foot of his bed, all wearing surgical masks. Charlie inspected each face-
All identical. All the same.
“How are you feeling, Charlie?”
“Can you see now, Charlie?”
“I was so worried about you, Charlie…”
They closed in. The masks concealed their faces, making it impossible to differentiate…
“Get away from me!”
“Are you sure you are all right?”
“Go- away-“
Charlie tried to get up from the bed. The figures loomed over him. Their masks. It hid their faces. What was underneath? Why did they need to hide it?
“He seems quite ill…”
He would run, if his legs would listen to him. But the ward was getting darker and darker…
Charlie fell unconscious.

Mad Scientist

Maybe some don’t want us to celebrate for them.

James exited the operating theatre, not to comfort a frazzled relative, but to face up to Lily Tan. She certainly didn’t belong in the frenzied hallways of the hospital. She was dressed too nicely. Her hair was perfectly coiffured. James sighed and adjusted his spectacles. His eyes hurt.
“What?”
“It’s our date, tonight, remember?”
“Lily, I’m on call!”
“Oh, but you promised!”
James sighed again. He looked away, preferring to face the sick and dying patients instead of her face. They were understandable, somewhat predictable, most of them. But not this woman.
“Lily…. after this is over, then we’ll go somewhere nice, okay?”
“I’ll be right here, waiting for you.”
James nodded and ducked back into the OT.
The restaurant was thick with the smell of people and, overpoweringly, cheese. Not just your Phoon Huat cheddar cheese, but real connoisseur cheese. Lily led James into the depths of the dim restaurant, passing couples hunched over tables, hands clasped; children with unusual tastes, enjoying some Brie.
“Look at this!” Lily said with delight at the table reserved for them. The table was overflowing with flowers and candles. Any more and there would be a bonfire. James smiled weakly. He wondered, not for the first time, what had attracted him to Lily. That was actually a good question.

Dana sat in front of the piano. With shaking hands, she flipped open one of her music books to a Chopin prelude. She had loved this prelude – Opus 28 number 2. But recently it had been harder and harder to get the notes to sound like she wanted them to.
She started with the lyrical beginning. No, the left hand was too loud- a tad. So far so good. Three- no, four lines so far! Looked like today was going to be one of her good days.

At the bar leading to the next section, she felt the spider of a tremor in her left hand. Oh no… she managed to get through half the second page without any error- at last, errors that would be heard by a layman. But to a trained pianist like her, it was painfully obvious. She reached the end of the second page, almost not noticing the repeated octaves and the excitement it used to give her.
“No…” she stopped playing. Her fingers.. .they had frozen. Stuck. She was stuck. Again. This was the hundredth time in a month. Some days, the good days, she would have barely a shake. But on others, maybe five times in as many hours would be the norm. This was the end of it, she told herself.

At 3 am, the advertisements on TV were banal, but Dana watched them anyway, as an anasthesia.
Suddenly, something caught her attention.
“Problems at work? Frustrated? Trouble expressing yourself? This is sure guaranteed to work, no matter how desperate you may be!” a pimply teenager said enthusiastically. He held up an exam paper.
“I started off with consistently fail grades,” he said. Looks like his English hadn’t improved much. “But after attending Lillian’s hypnotherapy sessions, my grades improved!”
The TV showed the words, “THERE IS HOPE FOR EVERYONE” with a telephone number.
Dana hurriedly dialled the number.
“Lillian Poon speaking.”
“I’m, um”
“Looking for hypnotherapy,d dear?”
“Yeah! Yeah!”
“Yell you what. I’m free on Wednesdays, 4pm. You can come see me.”
“Sure! Where can I find you?”
“Coronation Plaza… just follow the signs. Have hope, dear!”
Dana felt alive again- alive with hope.