The Weight of Our Sky(8)

As the lights dim and the roar of racing engines begins to fill the air, Mama slips in the darkness and breaks her neck with a sickening snap, her body lying limp, limbs akimbo like the rag doll I used to cuddle to sleep.

There is no music to save me this time.

I lean back, close my eyes, and tap my middle fingers on my knees: three times on the right, three times on the left, then back again, and again, and again. I do that forty-two times, until the picture goes away and I can finally concentrate on Paul Newman’s hell-of-aracing-story.

? ? ?

“I have to watch it again,” Saf says. “I just have to.” She sighs, leaning back in her seat. “Oh, Paul. Why is he so perfect?”

I laugh. “You’re not serious.”

“I am, actually. Right now!”

“Saf, no! You’re going to burn through all your pocket money!”

“For Paul,” she says, smiling that dimpled smile, her eyes shining with excitement. “Paul is worth it.”

“You’re cuckoo.” I shake my head. “I’m heading home.”

“Come on, Mel. . . .”

“No way,” I tell her. “Once was enough for me.” And I mean it, though it has nothing to do with how I feel about Paul and his blue eyes, and everything to do with how very, very tired I am with this hidden battle for my own thoughts, the burden of counting, the work it takes to hide it. The Djinn hates it when I’m adrift in the world, trying to live my life; he prefers me anchored to my home, where I can feed his need for numbers without fear of discovery.

“Suit yourself.” Saf jumps up and heads to the lobby. “I’m going to go get another ticket!”

I follow along behind her and make my way outside, waving to her as I go. I have to smile at Saf’s exuberance, her determination to squeeze the joy out of every moment, her willingness to hurtle through life by the seat of her pants. From where I stand, enmeshed in a cage of numbers and secrets, it looks a lot like freedom.

It takes two steps out the door for the smile to fade.

Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.

Petaling Street is deserted.

Where the bustling, heaving, vibrant crowd was mere hours before, there is silence. The shops are shuttered, the vendors have disappeared, leaving only the usual marketplace debris behind them—here, a crumpled paper bag, still bearing traces of its greasy occupants; there, a small pile of sugarcane husks, squeezed dry of their sweet juice. Where the fortune-teller was, a handful of white cards lie scattered on the grubby pavement: remnants of other people’s fortunes. Twilight bathes everything in a curious, eerie light, making it look as if I’ve stepped into another realm.

The Djinn twirls his clawed fingers, shooting delicate tendrils of icy-cold fear into my chest.

A lone trishaw driver cycles by, panting hard, his legs pumping like pistons, his pointed hat knocked askew. “Uncle, Uncle,” I call after him. “Where is everyone? What’s going on?”

He pauses and looks back, taking in my turquoise school pinafore, the half-filled cone of kuaci still in my hand. “Go home, girl,” he says. “Go home. It’s not safe here.”

Safe. I feel it then: the familiar tightening in my throat; the cold sweat trickling down my forehead and forging trails down my neck. “Why, Uncle? What’s happening?”

He pauses. “They’re killing one another,” he says finally. “The Malays and the Chinese are killing one another.”

Then he looks away and cycles off, as hard and as fast as he can, until he turns the corner and disappears altogether. The crumpled paper cone drops from my hand, and white kuaci shells scatter on the sidewalk.


THE MALAYS AND CHINESE ARE killing one another.

They’re killing one another.




The word crashes around my head. My breath comes in shallow pants, and the Djinn is screaming: They’re coming for her. They’re coming for her. They’re going to kill Mama, Melati—they’ll kill her and you’ll have nobody left.

The numbers, I think, the numbers. One, two, three. One, two, three. That’s it. One, two, three. Breathe. The numbers buy me some time, quell the beast momentarily, shut down the images jostling around screaming for my attention, each more graphic and painful than the last, and all of them featuring Mama.

Saf. I have to get Saf. We have to get out of here. I turn on my heels and sprint back into the Rex, making straight for the theater doors, counting each step.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, miss!”

“What?” I turn, breathing hard, my mind so full of numbers I can barely see straight. “What? What is it?”

The gangly youth in the red usher’s uniform looks at me sternly over the top of his spectacles. “You have a ticket, miss?”

“A ticket?” Three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, eighteen . . . This isn’t going to be enough, I think, and I slide my right hand into my skirt pocket and tap my fingers quickly in time to the beat.

“Yes, a ticket. For the movie. No admittance without a ticket.”

A ticket? Is this guy serious right now?

“It’s an emergency! I have to get my friend. There’s—”

“No. Admittance. Without. A. Ticket.” He says it slowly and deliberately, emphasizing each word, as though I am hard of hearing, or hard of thinking, or both.

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