AND THE DEVIL WINKED AT ME A BOOK BY JEREMY HU

Introduction Demons. We all have them. Some lay dormant but ever present, like an old friend that you grew out of, but never quite left you alone. And there are some that keep trying to make a comeback, bouncing back into the ring with a swinging right hook, always hoping to find a crack in your defense and eventually get to you. And each day we live life oblivious to the screaming little creatures raging inside of us. Some of us may be more aware than others, but nonetheless we choose to cast these unpleasant parts of our psyche at the back of our minds. But what actually keeps them there? What keeps them from manifesting themselves in our earthly bodies? It’s whatever good that is in us that’s fighting the war for us. Or at least that’s what I’d like to believe. And that’s what I’d like to continue believing. But sometimes beliefs, like all milk cartons, have an expiry date. Unlike them cartons, though, no one tells you when it is. The date isn’t so conveniently branded on something as intangible, as deep-seeded as a belief. And apparently this particular belief of mine has just gone bad in the fridge. So did it come down upon me like an epiphany? With a divine voice that sounds like Morgan Freeman, and white lights and all? I wished it was that dramatic. But nay, it came to me rather… harshly. I am now sitting in my room in Singapore with my feet swollen and a Y-shaped scar on my head while I’m writing all this down. The events that came to pass and led to my current state shall be covered in this book. That, however, is not what this little book is all about. Which brings me back to the topic of demons. So we fight them. Everyday. But life is no fairy tale. Sometimes they do get to us. And they make us do, say or think some things that we don’t ought to. As much as we’d like to, we can’t take these things lightly. Because apart from being brief moments of freedom of them demons, they also remind us of the monster we can potentially become. My defenses are crumbling down. With expiring beliefs and lots of time on my hands, one of the worst things that could happen is to leave a man to his own devices. And as history has time and again proven the self-destructive nature of mankind, I need to find some way to save me from myself. Hence this book was born. This is not a story about a man renowned for his wickedness. Nor is it about a man praised for his righteousness. This is the story about an ordinary man. He could be the bloke you see at the bus stop every morning, or the dude you see queuing for a cappuccino every lunch break. And this man will show you just how virtuous, and how perverse, “ordinary” can be. Nobody can either be a saint or a sinner only; we don’t have the luxury of choosing sides. And so we weep on our stone pillow, gently loathing ourselves for being scared of what we are and what we can possibly be. This story will be told through the eyes of a man who’s got a much larger reservoir of courage at his

disposal than me. About being honest with himself. About not being ashamed of his inequity. About coexisting with the less pleasant traits in him. You will not like this man. All in all, this is my exorcism by prose. And it is here I shall cast all them demons away into ink and paper, and on them they will stay. But can they be cast away in such a convenient manner? I might be giving words a bit too much credit. But words are all I’ve got, and words are all I will use. This probably won’t be the last I’ll hear from them demons. There will be more of them. Stronger, more potent little critters will come to play with me. But I won’t worry about tomorrow’s problems today. I won’t let this inevitable fate mess up my poor little mind with paranoia and self-loathing. Because I know when they come challenging me to a bout in the ring at the back of my mind, I’ll come swinging with a mighty right hook of my own. And I will win.

Chapter 1 Enter Crowley. A cup of hot chocolate. I’ve always been fond of the sweetness of cocoa, though I usully prefer it in bars and pieces. So the thick elixir swam down my throat as I stood on the balcony of this rundown apartment block near the campus. Taking my daily intake of the scenery on a Thursday morning. Of an even more rundown apartment right across, somehow grateful that I wasn’t standing there. Of the excessive, to the point of redundancy, car workshops all lined up like little dominoes waiting to be toppled. Of the grass field that used to look like a neatly mowed back yard, but now has enough vegetation to make it a prime waiting ground for rapists and robbers. Yeah, this was my home away from home. Then I see some bloke walking on the road. It’s times like these when I let my mind roam. And I begin to wonder: I wonder how it would feel like to stab a rusty fork right above his Adam’s apple, a blunt butcher knife to make the wound just that little bit bigger, and pour some nice thick chocolate syrup into the wound to see him choke. I like chocolate. I brush my teeth with my left hand. What an irrelevant point to note. But I always thought that if one day I lose the ability to use my right hand, I can still keep my teeth clean. My face feels thankful to the yellow water that runs from the tap. It’s unabashedly yellow, as if it’s proud to be so. And it smells funny. But the film of moisture on my face that enunciates the feeling of rebirth? Every drop is worth it. I looked at that face in the mirror. There was one point of time when I was still a pre-pubescent kid and I was just taking a leak on an ordinary afternoon. Yes it was in the afternoon, I remembered that distinctly. Or was it in the evening? No matter. I finished washing my hands, and I would be well on my way to do whatever it is I was doing. But on that faithful day, I just happened to look in the mirror. And probably one of the weirdest, and dumbest when I look back in hindsight, question popped into my head. “What are you, really?” And weirdness, or stupidity if you would call it that, has a tendency to be promiscuous. So in that split moment, it impregnated countless neurons and more of these oddball questions bombarded my then fragile little teenage mind. “Where are you from?” “What are you doing here?”

So on and so forth. That wasn’t the end of it. For some reason that still fails to come into my grasp, the image of the solar system filled up my mindscape. Great. Now I think I’m an alien. But ever since then it’s been a recurring thought about what I’d find if I peeled away this skin. That I might find something not human underneath. Whatever. Now that I’ve gotten that bizarre memory out of the way, we can move on with our lives. Where was I again? Ah yes. I looked at that face in the mirror. I see a man who can’t be shaken, stirred, mixed or diluted. A man who can be bent, stretched, twisted but just won’t break. I see Crowley. And I’m back to normalcy. I get dressed. I put my right foot in my pants, then the left. I put my left hand in my shirt first, then the right. It’s funny how I’m suddenly noticing these little things today. Things that seem so trivial. But these are the things that make us. I just haven’t realized it then. And another thing I haven’t realized was that today wasn’t going to be just another ordinary day. Shit, I’m late for class. Again. But I didn’t run for time. There just wasn’t a point. Because regardless of whether you’re 1 minute late, or 10 minutes late, you’re still late. Believe it or not, that’s what one of my lecturers told me. That was after I ended up with a bad cut on my arm while rushing to his class. It actually makes sense, when you think about it. Sometimes logic saves you the trouble of hurting yourself. I stepped out of the house, and got down to the lobby. I walked out into the light of day and the sun on this particular day was radiant; scorching but kind. I felt more than invincible. The day went on to unfold just like any other. Couldn’t have possible known what lies in store for me in the thereafter. Rendezvoused with my band of merry people after class, strolled through the hallways with unprecedented confidence, and had coffee at our usual spot at the cafeteria. We hugged, we kissed, we laughed; we be merry. It’s times of halcyon like these that you feel like you can take on anything in this world.

There was this glass pyramid overlooking the top of the cafeteria. Sunlight came down softly from it. I was approaching the spot of light under the pyramid, minding my own business, when suddenly this long iron rod crashed through the pyramid, about to come down on some oblivious girl. I pushed her out of the way, and it plunged straight through the centre of my breastbone, and into the tile floors. Blood traced the length of the rod that went through my torso. The movement of my ribcage was so restricted I could barely breathe. I stared into the light and prayed that my life was worth something to the people around me. And then I remained motionless. Well, that was what I wished happened. But it didn’t. The afternoon came to a close. Enter the evening. Went back home for a dump. It feels good to empty your bowels after a long day. With the weight of the world on your ass, the liberating and uplifting feeling you get as gravity and the forces of nature do their work in removing the burden is inimitable. After contorting my face in a myriad of ways, my buttcheeks finally give me the green light to disembark the unloading bay. The chaotic graffiti that I see in the water resembles a teardrop, of all things. An otherworldly work of art. There’s a certain pattern; an orderliness in the ugliest, most chaotic of things. And you can always find some form of beauty in a pattern. As the water spiraled down upon the twist of the flush handle, it bent the tip of the teardrop, creating an uncanny similarity to the stinging tip of a scorpion’s tail. I’ve heard of divination by reading the patterns of tea leaves at the bottom of your teacup. But divination by reading the shape your shit makes in the toilet bowl? I can start a whole new movement with this knowledge. Scorpions. The embodiment of a Post-It reminder. To remind us that death weaves in and out of our daily lives. Through the narrow spaces between our cupboards. Through the vast valley formed between 2 skyscrapers. Like a whisper. A ghostly taunt. And you can actually hear this. If only you’d listen close enough. But the wheels have been set in motion. If only I’d listen close enough.

Chapter 2 The Baby Blue Spandex I decided to shop for some items at a nearby place where you shop for items. Bigfoot tagged along. Bigfoot was a good friend of mine. A man of massive stature he was, though with a disproportionately small head. He has an innate quality where you can just have a good time without any worries. Yeah, we’ve done some crazy things in our heydays. Regardless of how crazy things would get, though, we would just have a good laugh at the end of it. Because that was just how things were for us; any crazy shit we’ve done would be an additional moment to laugh about. We were Dionysus’ fools. And we felt like those days would never end. We arrived at the place where we shop for items with an empty stomach; we were exceptionally hungry for some reason. And boy did we eat. We went to this chicken rice shop and ate like there was no tomorrow. It was only after the chain of events that followed subsequently that we realized the aforementioned statement was written quite in the literal sense. After a quick visit to the loo, it was then and there that we saw it. Everything was there, calling out to us. An army of trolleys, each one squirming, almost seducing, us to put our warm grasps on one of their cold plastic handles. Further beyond was the mouth to the place where it will all happen: The Highway. We looked down the stony slope, with downward arrows carved into the road. The concrete conveyor belt runs for what seems like an eternity, just to be greeted by a cold hard wall. It was perfect. We looked at each other, and we smiled like teenage boys who just discovered a porn stash in the garage. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, man?” Hell yeah. This overwhelming enthusiasm seemed like the right cure for our usual after-dinner boredom. We grabbed the first trolley we saw and readied ourselves for takeoff. Two bored guys. A steady trolley. A downward slope in the parking lot. The recipe for disaster was at hand. But the combined effect of the increased levels of adrenaline and endorphins produced by a wandering imagination can be very… persuasive. So despite the red warning lights flashing all around us, and an authoritative voice out of the loudspeaker barking out “Danger, Crowley!” that I swear I could have heard it on a certain cathode-ray-movingpicture-box, we trudged on into The Highway with our trusty trolley.

I climbed onto the trolley and made myself comfortable for the ride. Bigfoot steadied himself with his great palms rested on the handle. “You ready, man?” Hell yeah. Then came the push. And off I went. As the trolley accelerated down the slope, I still haven’t fully recognized the weight of the situation. It was only halfway down the slope when I suddenly heard a bicycle bell ringing beside me. A man with almost skeletal features, in a tight baby-blue spandex suit was riding a bicycle right beside me. And if the spandex suit wasn’t disturbing enough, he gave me this perverse smile that had a particular inhuman characteristic about it. And it was then that it hit me: it was the Reaper making his daily runs. I glanced forward and the wall finally came into view. It seemed to grow larger with each passing moment, as if the wall is actually looking forward to giving me a wholesome embrace. Which is going to hurt. Real bad. But what I didn’t understand was why the Reaper was there. Because despite all that was happening, I didn’t feel like I was going to go. The idea of death just seemed preposterous. I just seemed to know it, with an assuring confidence; almost an arrogance even: This isn’t my time yet. And this definitely isn’t the way I’m going to go. So I looked at Mr. Spandex, gave him the sweetest smile I could muster, and showed him the finger; the one between the index and the ring. Yeah, that sure wiped that smug grin off his face. He slowed down and eventually I could no longer hear the bell ringing or the pedals hard at work. Now it was just me riding on the highway to hell, all by myself. The speed was terrifying, but the wind blowing through my hair had a strange comforting effect on me that only those shampoo advertisements seem to have on your nerves. I was actually enjoying the ride. The trolley and the wall kissed. I was catapulted out of the trolley, hit my forehead on the wall so hard and landed right back into my trusty vehicle at a speed faster than I could say “fish sticks.” And it was over. After the wind stopped blowing and the wheels stopped rolling, I started putting myself together. Got my bearings back and the first conscious thought was “Oww. My head is splitting.” Touched my forehead and felt a great big lump that was not there just moments before and, since I actually still thought that my head didn’t hit the wall, wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. Second conscious thought was “Ok, is anything broken?” I was looking at my whole body: my hands, my fingers, my torso as if for the first time. It was a funny feeling. My legs were bleeding in a few places, but they weren’t anything to

be worried about. But before I could closely examine my feet, a huge massive body came running down with a light shining down from where his head was. Whoa, I didn’t know angels could be overweight. It turned out to be Bigfoot with his phone camera. I wonder if he captured a man in a spandex suit riding his bicycle beside me in that footage. He came to me and asked what probably was the first logical question he could think of. “Are you ok, man?” Why the hell does he always have to end his sentences with ‘man’? Sometimes logic saves you the trouble of hurting yourself. But for every other time, it’s pretty darn useless. I was still groaning at the excruciating pain pulsing through my forehead. Then as Bigfoot figured that logic was not enough to get a response out of me, he decided to take a less rational approach. “Say something for the camera, man.” He said with a grin on his face that I could really do without at this point of time. “Get that shit out of my face” I replied. Wow. Irrationality saves the day. Bigfoot tried to get me out of the trolley and it was then that I realized that something else was banged up pretty badly: my feet. I couldn’t walk on my own. They hurt so bad every time they touch the ground; it felt like they were run over by a bulldozer driven by a man bigger than, er, Bigfoot. Not that I’d know what that would feel like. I sat down on the filthy floor. I started sweating. I felt nauseous. A whole array of bodily changes suddenly took place that my head didn’t quite know how to face them all. Especially since it’s got its own issues to deal with. But I was conscious all the way. Every single agonizing minute of it. Heck, I was even replying messages from a girl whom I had an appointment with later that night. I still felt I was going to be fine, though. Thought the pain would soon be over. Thought the woe would soon come to pass. “Just give me some time”, I thought. But fast forward half an hour and I realized that there was a part of me that I just couldn’t put back together. Men in white coats and receding hairlines were standing all around me as I lay on an altar of cloth, staring into a white light right above me. I couldn’t make out what they were all congressing about under their hushed murmurs. Then in an almost frighteningly synchronized fashion, they all sang out in a chorus: Humpty Dumpty sat on a trolley.

Humpty Dumpty made a great folly. All the king’s men picked up all the tiny parts But could Humpty be patched up without falling apart? Father, forgive me, for I know not what I do. Luke 23:34. Crowley’s take.

Chapter 3 Meet The Parents I hear a techno beat, pulsating in the background. My head is all banged up and all Bigfoot could think of is to bring me to a club? That just transcends a whole new level of idiocy. My eyes slowly open and I see a fluorescent tube staring right back at me. But still I heard the beat persistently playing, right above my right ear. I raised my right arm to the venue to investigate what the commotion was, just to see tubes desecrating my veins. My old neck creaks like a rusty crane, but still manages to turn, to trace the roots of these tubes, and sure enough I see a water balloon suspended in air. Like a little “Get Well Soon” balloon. Just with stuff in it. And finally I figured what that beat was. It was just chemicals rushing in my bloodstream. Twitch twitch. A twitch that you can’t quite get rid off. Itch itch. An itch that you can’t quite scratch. I touched my forehead and felt a bloody thick padding; almost like a bra, on it. And then the feeling came. A branding iron, white hot, with its steely edges grinded to perfect sharpness, came down on me like an unexpected bitch slap. The pain was so intense. So real. So comforting. I took in a strong breath of air, feeling each and every particle surging through the hair in my nostrils. My ribcage explodes with new vigour. My pupils dilated. The muscles in my body tensed up. And that’s when I knew I’m alive. I looked at my body to see if everything was in place. And everything was in place, albeit a painful tingling when I wiggle my toes. So I stared at my newfound friend staring down at me from the ceiling, and I laughed the kind of laughter that puts the colour back to your face. And the world laughed with me. It’s one those days when you just feel invincible, nothing more. But it was good to feel the life returning to me. One of those men in white coats and receding hairlines entered the scene, now looking much more human. “How do you feel today, young man?” He asked. “Pretty damn good.” “Good to see that you’re recovering well. The 2 surgeries done on your head were not minor ones.” Came the reply. Apparently the right side of my face, my skull all the way down to the jaw, fell into a great number of fragments. And six titanium clips are all that are keeping the pieces in

my head together. The rest are put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Them white coats probably had fun doing it. I can picture them: “Alright, this should go here…” “Give me that, you wanker. This goes there; can’t you tell the difference in the shape of this piece and the shape of that slot?” “Er, you’re shoving a piece of his jaw into his ear, sir.” “Go get your title first before talking to me, trainee.” “Hey, the kid’s got a point. That is his ear.” “Oh shit.” I was too lazy to continue the scenario, so I shrugged it off. The man in the white coat flipped through some papers, wrote some gibberish, and took a last look at me. “So everything’s ok, yes?” He inquired. I sniggered. “How can I not be?” And I winked at the bloke as he walked away, feeling all good about his expertise. For some reason I always knew that this fight was won before it was fought and victory was already mine to keep. I had this unwavering faith that I was undefeatable. It was going to take much more than this to get to me. Suddenly I’m interrupted by a strange clattering and clanking of metal spoons and forks echoing in my mind. Odd. Nonetheless, a part of me was rather flabbergasted by how lightly I’m taking this whole affair. More life was returning to me as the clock ticked and soon enough they transferred me to another place. So I bid farewell to my fluorescent friend and lied still on the cloth altar as distant relatives of his came and went by above me. I reached my new home and it was nice. A morphing cloth altar. A cathode-ray-moving-picture-box of my own. But there it was, what I desired. The window. My avenue to the light of day. No matter how many relatives my fluorescent friend brings along with him, their touch felt obligatory, formal, dutiful; almost mechanical. Nothing is quite like the nubile touch of sunlight on your face. And to see the clouds rehearsing their daily formations brought a smile to my face. It was good to be alive. “It’s gonna take a whole lot more than that to get me.” I thought to myself. My folks arrived, carrying a whole lot of baggage in their hands and minds.

Papa had his usual stoic look on, though looking somewhat grimmer. A lot of new wrinkles were now carved on his face. There was a tired, worn out quality about his posture and the way he carried himself. He looked haggard. But he irrefutably still was very much Papa. Then Mama appeared behind him, looking 10 years older than the last time I saw her. And of course, being her usual teary-eyed and melancholic self. She tried hiding it, but she never quite got around perfecting that artform. She started crying. And that’s what I hated about her. She was always so… unhappy. I always find every reason to laugh about something, while she always finds every reason to cry about something. And everyone around me should always be happy. Then she held me like I was some frail little thing and that pissed me off even more. I’ve always felt it was one of her ploys to make me believe that I was not fine when I am. “I’m ok, Ma” I said in broken Mandarin. Again. And again. And again. But on she went with asking and touching, for nearly an hour. Papa stood still at the side, watching in silence. Some of the colour returned to her face after shedding her daily quota of tears. She finally backed off and sat down, still jittery and radiating with a nervous aura, but looking a whole lot lighter now. She was my very own Chernobyl. Everything builds up through worrying, torturing herself with horrible scenarios in her head, getting pissed at her own helplessness, screaming herself to sleep at night and crying. And then she pours it all down on me. That was how her love was: overbearing, blatant and in-your-face. And I just didn’t like all that weight crashing down on me; it was just too intense. Mama excused herself for awhile, and it was just me and Papa. He sat down slowly at the chair near the window. He always did things in this calm, slow fashion. He looked mighty uncomfortable sitting on the chair, though. “What the hell happened?” He asked. “It was a stupid accident, Papa. But it’s nothing to worry about; I’m feeling pretty good now.” “Don’t give me that, boy. I already know what happened, and I also know that thing on your head is indeed something to worry about.” Nice comeback. “Then why bother asking?” I refused to make him the victor. “What the hell were you thinking when you did this?” The golden question.

And it was the precise external input that I was looking for to actually get me started on figuring out what was I really thinking when I stepped into that trolley. But despite attempts of rationalizing the incident, applying rules of logic and assessing it psychologically, no rational answer could be conjured. So I stopped thinking. And it was then that the answer was clear. Because in all honesty, at the time of the event: I wasn’t thinking. “I… don’t know.” The golden answer. “You don’t know? You got yourself into this because of something you don’t know?” Papa’s voice slowly escalated in a crescendo. He went on to say some other things, but that line basically said it all. The rest was drowned by the dawning of a cold hard fact that just resonated in my patched up head: I’m a fool. To say he was angry would be an understatement. But he wasn’t as angry as I thought he would be. And I was going to find out why. But not quite yet. Mama returned, and as soon she saw me, in the state I was in, she started getting all teary-eyed again. “Do you know how worried I was when I heard that you were going to have an operation?” The classic opener. “Ma, I already told you, I’m alright. See?” I tapped my forehead. “I’m not feeling any pain.” I said with a smile, in good faith that it would at least do that much to set her at ease. “You’re not feeling the pain. Because I’m feeling every bit of it. To see you in this state just gnaws at my heart.” I hate it when she starts getting all melodramatic. “I didn’t ask you to feel all that. Why can’t you just learn to let go? Why do you have to always put everything upon yourself?” I struggled with my native tongue that I was not even familiar with. My voice started amplifying louder than I would like it. “Because I’m your mother. And you can never possibly begin to comprehend the pain that I feel.” I’ve heard this bullshit countless times in countless variations. And I’ve had it with her dragging herself down with depression and her trying to drag me along. A lady in pink appeared just in time before this melodrama got out of hand. She made some checks and left. Silence ensued, but the tension in the room was choking. My blood was still boiling. Then Papa asked Mama to go get something from somewhere. He just seemed to know when to say the right things at the right time. And it was just me and Papa again.

“How dare you be this rude to your mother.” This was not helping me at all. “Shouldn’t you give your son a little more credit? Do you really think he’s as fragile as you’d like to think? Have a little more faith in me, Pa.” “I would give you the credit you deserve if you weren’t such an idiot! The issue at hand is not how your mother is feeling; it’s the fact that you were stupid enough to land yourself here! How can I put faith in foolishness?” “Come on Pa. You know I won’t be defeated so easily.” I actually seemed to enjoy taking pride in surviving this ordeal. “You haven’t learnt a single thing from this incident. You still you’re invincible? You still think there’s glory in being reckless?” He said. “What glory? I never seeked glory.” But I knew I was lying. I knew that despite I don’t exactly know what was going through my head when I rode down that slope, there was an underlying subconscious purpose that was driving me. A purpose that was programmed into me back at a time I knew too well. Before I knew that this whole stunt was going to crack my head, I was basically unabashedly seeking another story to tell everyone. I guess that was my way of bringing attention to me. Despite all my self-assurance, a part of me was still a little boy. And I was going to discover just how big that part really was soon enough. “Fine, you can justify yourself all you want. What has happened, has happened; we can’t fix it or undo it. But what you can fix is your attitude towards your mother. She’s been through a lot for the past few days.” That’s how Papa was. Always trying to fix things. Though some things just couldn’t be fixed by saying mere words to a person who just wasn’t listening. And I didn’t want to listen. I really didn’t. “I’ve… I’ve never seen her like that before. She was writhing, howling, kicking; just trying to find some way to ease her agony. But none of it was working. No, not even the tension-relieving pills the doctor gave us. She just felt this hurt in her that she couldn’t get out of her system. It’s that kind of hurt where you just want to rip yourself out of your skin and watch the hurt eat your body away instead of letting it eat you.” That’s when I knew Mama was right. I couldn’t begin to comprehend such a visceral pain. But the arrogance in me still refused to surrender. “Why must she always be this overbearing? If you really wanted me to get better, just give me some bloody space to breathe.”

“Don’t blame us for being ‘overbearing’, as you’d put it; you landed yourself this way. Now you’ll have to bear with us treating you this way. I know you may not like it. But I’m not asking you to. You gave us something we didn’t like. So now it’s fair trade.” That’s the Chinese in us; we’re merchants by blood. “… Alright.” “And do me this small favour. Please… Just treat your mom a little nicer.” “I’ll… see what I can do.” Insincerity reeked from my breath. He walked out of the room, and I continued enjoying the cloud formations. Despite all he said, I still remained unashamed of myself. I still remained unfazed by my encounter with Death in a spandex suit. But above all, I still felt that I had the moral higher ground of being the victim here, and my folks being the oppressor by smothering me with their affection. That’s how I felt about their affection: a tyrannical chokehold.

Chapter 4 A Salesman Named Jeremy Day turned to night, and slumber beckoned. Then came an unexpected visit by an unexpected guest. There was a gentle rapping on the window. But it didn’t sound like something trying to get in. It was coming from inside the room. My crusty eyes opened and a lean man was looking out the window, one hand rapping to the beat of Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust, the other rested on an exquisitely carved walking cane. He was very well dressed, in a finely pressed black pinstripe suit. He didn’t seem like anyone I recognize, though there was something very… familiar about him. “Sorry to disappoint you, but there isn’t going to be a funeral here. And definitely not a wedding either.” I said. The rapping stopped. He turned around. I couldn’t see his face in the darkness. But slowly he walked towards the cloth altar. There was sureness in each and every step he took; the same absolute and complete confidence of the kind of man who knew what he wanted and how he was going to get it. His features came into view as he stepped into the night light. It was me. But a different me. His hair was a solid black, sleeked all the way back. His face was more finely chiseled, and everything from his eyebrows to the hair below his lip was more mature. He’s like a more refined version of me. But that also made him look more… evil. Ok, something is very wrong here. “I didn’t come for any of them. Otherwise I’d be dressed more casually.” His voice sounded like how I would sound like if I drank and smoked for 10 years. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I tried to hide it, but the gulp rolled down my Adam’s apple far too obviously. “I can taste your fear from here. At ease, soldier boy.” He said. I tried to look away, but there was something very captivating about his eyes. I finally understood how Narcissus felt when he saw his reflection in the lake. “Who are you?” I asked.

“Someone who’s been watching you. Very closely. And boy, you’ve been mighty good fodder for many of my children.” He would have made a great rock vocalist. “Fodder? What the hell you talking about, sir?” Better to play it safe with a formality. “All those times you took the big piece of chicken. All those times you had fun with a rubber glove and a towel in the bathroom. All those times you thought of violently ending the life of an oblivious bloke. All those times you looked down at someone who you deemed wasn’t worth your attention. All those times you could have washed the dishes, cleared the trash, swept your room, but sat idly by as you let poor Mama do everything for you. All those times you secretly coveted the company of the girl who fell into the arms of your pal. All those times you lived your life as you wished. Even when you know that it will hurt the people you love. It all makes for a good afternoon teatime movie.” Each word, painstakingly choreographed, playfully danced off the tip of his tongue and eased their way into my ears. I can try to fight it; I can try to deny it. But all defenses are instantly destroyed by the searing light of the truth. There was a twinkle in his eyes as he said them, taking delight in capturing every detail of the eventual change in my facial expression in his mind. The spotlight was on me. I was buck naked. The velvet curtains were raised high up, depriving me from anything to hide behind. On a stage, laughed at by the audience. And it was a ghastly laugh; the kind that takes all colour away from your face. So this is how it feels like to be judged. “Who the fuck are you, freak?” From fear to anger, I revolted. Courtliness just goes out the window at times like these. “That question, my boy, should be aimed at YOU.” The last word reverberated around the room. “Because if there’s anyone who’s a freak in this room, it ain’t me. I’ve seen some of the things man have committed, and trust me, you can lie in comfort that you aren’t one of the hopeless cases. But that still doesn’t nullify the fact that you are, indeed, pretty darn ugly inside.” I got a much better idea of who I’m talking to right now, as silly as it might seem when I read his name in my head. “…So what now, you here to drag me down to my new home?” I just had to ask. Just to make sure. Hey, come on now, if I actually saw the Reaper in a baby blue spandex suit, anything is possible now. “Easy there, I don’t want you desecrating my kingdom so soon. I actually took the trouble to pay you a little visit because… Well, your little tomfoolery with spandex boy

first brought you to my attention. Anyone crazy enough to willingly give up his soul with an equally crazy act like that should be worth checking out. And be glad to know that you didn’t disappoint me.” Wow. I just earned fame overnight. Except that I wasn’t too entirely delighted by whom I was considered famous by. “I actually kind of like you, sonny. And I know what’s troubling you, kid. But you’re dealing with forces far greater than what you can grasp.” His presence took over the room. But I slowly regained my composure. I wasn’t going to get beaten by him. The screeching of steel knives on a plate echoed in my head. “What, this?” I pointed to my forehead. “I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about that mortal wound of yours. I’m talking about a few friends that have been lounging around inside you since the day you were introduced to this world. And I’ve seen how finely they’ve grown.” “I don’t recall understanding gibberish. What, really, are you talking about?” I was fucking petrified. Because I had this rising fear that I actually knew what he was talking about. My sins. “These friends of yours manifest themselves in almost everything you do, say or even think, Crowley. You just can’t see them; you’re not supposed to. But you let yourself falter. You see, the alluring thing about having these friends is the freedom you’re entitled to. And with an imagination as unrestrained as yours, they found an excellent playground in your head.” “Ok, enough of Psychology 101. And your point is?” Holding up this front was becoming less of a feasible plan as the seconds passed. “It’s alright to be afraid, boy. Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood. You’ll learn that in the days to come. But now, let me tell you a scenario. You can just pay no mind to these friends of yours, and continue living. You’ll eventually recover; your external scar will heal in a month’s time, the flesh and capillaries inside will all grow in place in three, and your skull will fully heal in a year. You’ll go on to live a fruitful life; you’ll enjoy your years in university, and you’ll graduate and land yourself a fun and challenging job. Get moderately rich, have a beautiful girlfriend, and live in considerable comfort. You will live the life you always wanted. Not too bad, ain’t it? But… your relationship with your family, especially your mother, will become increasingly strained. And your inner game will become increasingly reliant on the company you keep. Eventually, when you have outlived your usefulness, you will be retrenched and left to pretty much do whatever you

want. But your life of excess and vice has robbed you of your health that you’d be too feeble to do anything by then, may it be to enjoy what is left of your life, or to do anything for the people you love.” He paused to drink some water. Note to self: Do not touch that cup later. “Crowley, you want to be worshipped like a god. You want to be loved by all. But loved only in the way that you want them to. You perch yourself up on the throne of your tower, built on your own lies and false beliefs, where you sit all high and mighty as you watch everyone kiss your feet. You laugh in glee if they kiss them the right way. But you condemn them if they waver or if they are insincere.” I… couldn’t deny it. “Now there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be king. I’ve seen a couple of cases like that since time forgotten. Let me offer you another scenario now. This time, how your life unfolds, and how it run its course, is irrelevant. You can be a journalist by day and crime fighter by night for all I care. The main difference here, though, is that you can actually do something about your problems. I will make you an offer.” “I don’t want nothing from you.” “Let me finish, fool. You still don’t know what you’re up against, eh? These sins are what make you. Without them you are nothing. Here, I am offering you a fighting chance to take control for once. To sort your life out. To fix things. And don’t you say there’s nothing to fix. After all, to say that the rather heated argument with Mama this afternoon is ‘nothing’ would be a lie. Then again, that’s the language you speak.” “Just… shut it. There is nothing to fix. Now get out of here.” Deceit. That is my native tongue. He laughed a mocking laugh, and said out loud: Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the breath of a proud man. This sinner is finally back from the dead; Let my children know they will be well fed. “You are too easy. Alright, I’m no pushover. I’ll get out of here. But I know you will call on me soon enough.” He slowly stepped back, away from the night light. “The name is Mr. Jeremy. And you will call on me by a song.”

And the room was again still as the night sky.

Chapter 5 The Great Pretender I woke up to the long missed smell of food. Chicken porridge. Not exactly my first choice of food after an extended duration feeding on tubes. But you stop paying any mind when you’re this hungry. I got up and gorged myself with the meal. It was bliss. I heard the clinking of chains in the background. There was also a bowl of chicken soup on the tray. A few pieces of chicken sunk to the bottom of an otherwise empty bowl, filled with a colourless soup base. I used one of the tips of my fork to fuse the oil rings together. I always tried to see if I could merge all the oil rings together into one big one. But there were always just too many. It was one of the many little things that I enjoyed on my own. I drank it all up, down to the last drop. I smiled my first smile of the day. But it seems like my body just couldn’t let me have my share of bliss just yet: everything came right back up. I grabbed the nearest bowl and threw it all out. And just when I thought I was done, my stomach went the extra yard by erupting with an outburst of bile. A dark yellow elixir slowly sunk into the fresh vomit. I rinsed my mouth with some water, but the aftertaste lingered. I pushed the tray aside and just as I was lying down, I realized apparently the cosmic forces haven’t had enough fun with me yet: she walked in then. The Girl. She stood by the door for a bit; almost as if hesitating. The actor in me couldn’t resist; that gave me time to settle down on my cloth altar and pretended as if I was terminal. She walked closer. I saw her carrying a little basket of apples. Nice basket. She put it down on a table and walked even closer. “Hey… how are you feeling?” I missed that voice. “Hey babe… I don’t think I’m doing so well. I… don’t know how much longer I’ve got.” “Come on, don’t joke about these things.” “My body just can’t be put back into the way it was.” I pointed weakly to the mixture of bile and vomit in the bowl, since I knew she wouldn’t figure out what it was. “Oh my God… Crowley…” Her voice quivered. “Before I go… Come here, girl.” She sat on the altar, right beside me. I put my hand on her face. She felt beautiful. A solitary tear rolled down her eye. And she collapsed on my chest, elbowing one of my

ribs accidentally. I gave out a hushed “Hmmpf”, but apparently she didn’t notice. I kissed her hair, and took in a great breath. I always liked how she smelled. She smelled like what angels ought to smell like. There I was staring at her face, her tears dropping on my cheeks. I raised my forehead to touch hers; it was something we always do. And I whispered. “The girl I know doesn’t cry. She’s always got this geeky smile on her face. And she’d walk around like a little fairy, with sunbeams shooting out of her fingers, and toes and the ends of her hair.” Whoa, I was getting ahead of myself here; I wasn’t supposed to be talking so much if I’m supposed to be dying. Slowly the ends of her lips curled upwards. Her cheeks rose in their ever rosy-coloured glory. She was just there, looking at me. And our faces were close enough for me to close my lips around her smile. But as I stared into the reflection of her eyes, there I saw it; in my own eyes. The car crashes. The mushroom clouds. The bludgeoning of a hog. The zeppelins dropping bombs on a graduation ceremony. The child laughing at a mass hanging. I was staring right back at me. That’s when I knew I couldn’t do this to her. I just couldn’t taint something so pretty. “Gotcha, babe.” I winked at her. “Wh, what?” “I’m alright. I’m not dying or anything. But I sure do make an incredibly convincing dying man, eh?” I laughed, muting the horrid picture from my mind. “You doink! You were playing me all along!” She always had a weird way of cussing people. And whack, a hard slap came down on my chest. “Ow. I’m not dying, but it doesn’t mean I’m in perfect shape to take a beating.” “Well, you sure deserve one.” And so we talked. About what? In all honesty, nothing much at all, really. After she confirmed that I was really ok, the tension on her shoulders was significantly relieved. But so did mine. I almost thought that she saw all those unpretty things in me too. I always had this fear that the people whom I wanted to prove myself to would find out that this self-proclaimed righteous man turned out to be a fraud. That this pathetic attempt at being a damaged soul was just a cover of something far worse. Maybe I’m just bringing this all on myself. But my little run-in with Mr. Jeremy last night got me thinking about some truths.

Maybe I’m creating these problems for myself to proudly parade them on the streets. Maybe it’s all in my mind. But mind you, this mind is the result of a life too obnoxiously ordinary. It’s the result of a life that I’ve squandered, stuffed myself with, masturbated, and wasted my afternoons watching reruns of shows I don’t give a damn about. This mind and everything in it was born of a life which I was desperately pleading with any god that would hear my pleas to just give it something; something to make it more… alive. But I digress. I shall leave such heavier things to chew on another day. Normalcy returned and I smiled. She smiled back. And it slowly came to my attention that my acting chops have gone beyond my own expectations. Because I was just pretending that all was nice and dandy in this room with this girl when I knew for a fact that there was something very wrong with the man she was talking to. And it’s not the metal staples in his head that I’m talking about. I couldn’t care less, though. It was such a beautiful lie. Eventually she said goodbye and left and I was on my own again, looking out the window. I decided to walk nearer to it for a view down below; taking it slowly, one agonizing step at a time. I considered calling a cab to get back to the cloth altar. At long last, I finally arrived at the window. Time and again, the world below always fails to show me something I’ve never seen before. A huge slab of concrete, contoured into roads, pavements, highways and the whole shebang. It just looks so stale, static, and stagnant. Despite the gasoline carriages; despite the windowed caterpillars; despite the whole illusion of motion, it just looks like some place that wasn’t here. Some place far away. Some place so detached that you just know you can never be a part of. That you should never be a part of. God, I wanted to get out of here. Badly. Some bloke came walking around the corner. You know, one of them pretty boys with a look so smug it just makes you want to hurt him. Once again my mind wandered, and I wonder how it would feel like to cut a neat line across his abdomen with a shiny new scalpel, and stretch it open just wide enough to insert a closed pipe filled with gasoline and holes carved on top. Then after setting the gasoline on fire through one of the holes, I’ll slowly turn the pipe around to pour it all into his organs. I like fried food. I started rapping at the window, to a random beat. I wondered if anyone could see me. I could just flash my manhood there and then, just for the heck of it. Hmm, sounds like fun. But before that thought could get anywhere near materializing, my folks came in. Sometimes you need someone to save you from yourself. Mama was hysterical to see me by the window. I needed to stay on the cloth altar, she said. I scorn at how she thinks that I’m sicker than I really am. I shouldn’t get off the

cloth altar without assistance or I might trip on my pathetically feeble legs and bang my head on a chair, she said. I scorn at how she underestimates even the minimum capabilities of my physical aptitude as a human. I shouldn’t stand too near a wall or I might hit my head, she said. I scorn at how she makes up barely plausible reasons to worry about. I shouldn’t walk or it might affect my brain and make it explode like a firecracker in a sweet potato pie, she said (Well, she didn’t exactly say the firecracker in the sweet potato pie bit, but you get the idea.). The pain I felt as I gritted my jaw was the only thing keeping me from going homicidal. So out came the actor in me, and I got into character. As a good, obedient son. I slowly walked back to the cloth altar, each step bringing me a fresh, undiluted, nevernumbing pain. She came over to help me. “Here, let me help you.” Her voice hasty and eager. I waved her away. This pain is mine to feel and mine alone, I thought to myself. The arrogance in me just wouldn’t yield. I got back on the cloth altar like a sacrificial lamb, with my folks looking at me with those sympathetic eyes. I couldn’t take that. I didn’t want them to stare at me in this impaired state. I didn’t need their sympathy. But I had to look at the big picture. There was the harmony of an entire household at stake, so the act had to go on. The afternoon passed rather pleasantly. Had a good time with Papa, and that basically showed them that I was still the same me except for a few additional things in my head, in the true sense of the statement. Though he didn’t say it, I knew that even Papa admitted that I was very much alive and well. And I appreciated that: that he respected my own verdict of my current state. Laughter filled the room. Though it only came from me and Papa. Mama just couldn’t seem to simply enjoy herself. She just couldn’t sit back and relax. She was always walking around, checking this, cleaning that, preparing this, doing that. Even Papa was starting to get affected by this nervous energy she was exuding. “Ma, just sit down and relax for once, alright?” I said. “No, I have to make sure you have everything you need.” Mama replied while checking my piss pot. “I’m not that weak. I can get them if I need them.” “Crowley, you should be thankful that you have such loving parents. Some kids don’t even have this privilege. They have to do everything on their own. You just haven’t fully realized how hard life can be. You will suffer without us by your side.” She likes to get all self-righteous.

“It’s ok, Ma. Alright, if you insist, I’ll let you know if I need anything then.” I struggled for a compromise. “No, you won’t. You never tell us anything. You told us that this was just a minor operation. We even had to find out what exactly happened to you from your friend. That’s how you’ve always been, Crowley; you don’t want anyone to worry about you. But that sometimes gets your loved ones hurt along the way.” The taps were slowly opening. “Alright, alright. Go do what you need to do.” I could never beat her at being loquacious. I never looked at their care as a privilege. In perfect honesty, I always found it a burden. I found it a burden that they were always shielding me from the world. All along I could only see the beauty and the wickedness of the world in the comfort of my bedroom window. Because they didn’t want me to suffer; no parents would want their child to suffer. But you know what? I don’t mind. I wanted the world to hammer the shit out of me. I mean, sure I got my hide tanned real good as a kid, but it wasn’t enough; it just wasn’t the kind of beating I was looking for. Shit, I was almost beginning to suspect that I was masochistic. But really, I was looking for the good one; the defining ass-whupping to acquaint me with suffering, if that’s what I’ll be set for in the things to come in life. I haven’t found it so far, though. That’s why I’ve never minded a hard life. I’ve never minded suffering. The fool I was. Mama came over with some wet towels. “Crowley, let me wipe your body with this.” “What? Yeah, my head and feet may be messed up, but I still got my hands, Ma.” I was stunned by how ridiculous this was. Then I caught Papa’s eye and he just shook his head, as if to say “Resistance is futile.” A grown man like me needing the help of his mother to clean himself. My pride just… couldn’t take that. This lie had to stop. But as she was wiping my body while I told my pride to shut up for awhile, I saw this glint in her eyes; the kind you see in a mountain climber who just reached the top of Mount Everest. Could I really continue living this lie where I pretend like we can all get along just fine? I guess she didn’t mind this life, even if it’s a lie. No, that was all wrong. She needed to know at least one thing about me is true. I owe her at least that much. But she probably can’t handle the truth. Not with all of my friends still at large in my head. That’s when I thought about the offer Mr. Jeremy made. If he could really help me fix things, then maybe it’ll all get better.

Maybe it’ll all get better.

Chapter 6 A Faustian Bargain It rained that night. It didn’t just rain; it poured down as if God was having problems with his bathroom plumbing. The rain beat down on my window like they had an old score to settle. The plants outside my window sure as hell won’t be needing any watering for the rest of the day. The noise was a good distraction to keep my mind off thinking about a hundred things at once. About my mother. About those little friends of mine. About the offer. I didn’t want to do it. But I couldn’t seem to find any other way. I knew very well what song he was referring to. Them Seattle rockers always held a place in my heart. And there aren’t that many songs named after him anyway. So I drank some water and cleared my throat. King Jeremy the wicked Ruled his world… With a timely lightning strike, the lights in the room flickered. When the lights came on again, there he was sitting by the window, reading a book. This time, he was dressed in white and had a top hat on. He closed his book, sat on a chair right beside my cloth altar, and took off his top hat. He had really long eyelashes on his right eye, for some reason. And yes, his hair is still neatly sleeked back. “That was faster than I expected.” I could see a bit of myself in that grinning face. “I never pledge allegiance to anyone. So don’t expect me to bow down before you. I just want you to tell me about your offer.” “My boy… Your pride will one day be the end of you. But alright, I’ll tell you all that you want to know about it.” He put his book down. The Tragical History of Dr Faustus. Hmm, sounds familiar. “I will grant you a new right eye.” He speaks at the speed of an Italian mob boss. “What’s wrong with mine?” Couldn’t resist asking. “I just finished my first sentence. In all my years of experience, people usually only start asking questions at the end of the third sentence, at least.” “Go on then.” “I give the orders here, son. Now where was I? Ah, the eye. This new right eye of yours will let you see all your little friends, and all the little games they’re playing in your head.

What you do with this new sight; confront them, negotiate with them, have coffee with them, is totally up to you: whatever you deem fit to achieve your ends.” “And the catch is?” “Ah, the catch. Well, there isn’t much of a catch, really. Besides possessing this eye, that is.” “Please, in layman English.” The whole ‘talking in riddles’ style loses its effect after awhile. “You should know this gift in the possession of a mere mortal is many a terrible, terrible thing. All this while you enjoy the luxury of only seeing what you want to see in yourself. But with this eye... you will see everything. Including all the things you blind yourself to.” I’ve let my mind wandered into that restricted zone before, and the things I see there aren’t very pretty. It’s the Area 51 in your mind: you can deny its existence all you want when the greater functions of your head interrogate you. But you know it’s there. And if what he’s saying is true, accepting this gift basically means to drop me behind these hostile lines and go Rambo. I doubt I can last 5 minutes staying focused on the mission, though. With the ethereal power these friends can give me; it’s like an easy-click nuclear bomb in the hands of a delinquent 5-year old. And I wasn’t going to subject myself to this shit I don’t need. “If it’s such a shitty deal, why are you even offering this eyeball thing of yours?” “My my, you aren’t too quick aren’t you? Well, my boy, if it hasn’t been registered in your two lovely cerebral hemispheres, allow me to explain. You’re unwell.” “No shit.” Is this guy for real? I was starting to doubt his credibility now. “Your knack for interruption is somewhat admirable, though it never quite found a place in my list of favourite traits in the souls I keep. Silence, however, is a sure keeper. Obedience finds its way even higher up. So I believe we both have some form of understanding, yes?” His smile was almost too sweet to be male. “Alright, ok, I’ll keep my mouth shut for as long as I can. Don’t know how long it’ll last, though.” Sometimes, I just seem to be asking for a fight. “I’m the one who makes the demands here, maggot. It’s not everyday that the man himself comes up and gives you a whole run through of the deal, instructions and batteries included.” He straightened his white silk tie. It’s got a black tiepin on it in the form of a pitchfork. Nice touch, I thought.

“You’re unwell. And you’ll continue being unwell. According to Chinese medical beliefs, all forms of illness and disease derives from the fact that your body has a lack of chakra, or life energy. I always found that a tad bit far fetched. But similarly in your case, you’re missing something. You lost it when you said hello to that concrete wall you’re your head. And you’ve been trying to find it ever since.” Wow. He’s well versed in psychology; apparently he’s a medical whiz too. “Well, I’ve got every part of me intact. And I don’t remember leaving anything behind at that place. You still ain’t making sense.” “But of course. I’d have expected this reply. Of course you’d feel there’s nothing to look for if your own pride is giving you your own obnoxious face to look at every time you look into the eyes of those people that you’ve hurt around you. You’re far blinder than you might realize. And that’s why I offer you this right eye.” No wonder I always preferred my curtains open when I’ve got visitors; it was common physics to see a reflection only in the presence of light. “This is the only way you’re going to deal with your dear friends in there. So like it or not, you’ll have to face the ugliest parts of yourself to get those which you don’t need out of the way.” The right eye on its own was already an interesting thing. But it was what he said before that got me wondering. “No, you didn’t finish what you were trying to say. About me finding something.” “Ah yes. The only way to find that something is by first dealing with these friends of yours. In case you haven’t figured it out on your own yet, I can only tell you two things. That this thing you seek means a lot to you. As a matter of fact, it means everything to you. And this thing, now this is a major hint here, is something you can only find in the woman in your life.” I wasn’t too dense to not catch the second one, but the first one is still a mystery to me. As foolish as this may sound, even when I was still clueless about what this thing even was; whatever it was, I actually felt I needed it. I mean, I’m at this point where I feel that there is something really wrong with how things are going between me and my loved ones; the kind of wrong that can’t be made right once it gets past a certain stage. I was, as I realized, desperate. For some form of redemption for the state that my life is in. To keep up this lie; to live an actor’s life on a stage set up in my living room; to maintain a secret identity of a pretender. I didn’t want to keep living like that. And despite the wrath she invokes in me sometimes, I didn’t want Mama to live in a fool’s paradise. I wanted to do at least one good thing in life. “How do I pay you?” But I pretty much already knew what he wanted. “Just surrender your soul to live in eternal damnation in my tropical paradise when you’ve found it.”

Now, I don’t hold any religion, but nor am I an atheist. What I am, I’ll explain later. So the only picture I have of the world down below are just faint ideas summed up from the Bible and Dante’s little trilogy. With my strange fascination of the occult some time in the past and a longtime sympathetic humanization of the fallen angel himself, I naturally thought that perhaps the infamous epitome of all that is evil wasn’t as fearsome as the people used to paint him, and hell was just way overrated. Still, nobody wants to go to hell. But who are we kidding? We’re all messed up in some way or another. So might as well acknowledge the inconvenient truth and stop being a pansy in the face of damnation. But I still wouldn’t go down without a fight. “Wait a second. What if your whole offer is a fake and I don’t get anything the morning after? I don’t want to get my soul conned.” “If you don’t receive anything, then I won’t be receiving your soul either. Even I have my work ethics to live by.” I still wasn’t convinced. “And I don’t see any warranty here. What if this eye gets spoiled along the way? I don’t suppose you have local shops set up around here that fix these little problems, no?” It’s good to be Chinese. His nostrils flared. He closed his eyes. I could almost hear him counting to ten under his breath. “I knew the cheapskate in you would act up. So here’s the deal. And while we’re at it, let’s add a little fun into it. I’ll give you a little… challenge. I’ll give you 90 days to find this ‘something’ and contend with your little buddies. If you succeed at the end of the allotted time, I take away the eye and the nightmares I’m sure it’ll be causing you. Oh, and you get to keep your soul; I think that’s a nice thing to keep with you. But if you don’t…” He paused for effect. “You’ll be checking in for a long, long time, my boy.” He sneered. These were some pretty heavy stakes. Suddenly this juvenile oversimplification that I had of life after death fell apart. It hit me that I will be going to a very, very painful place for a very, very long time. Damn, this is harsh. So I thought of the possibility of clearing up my own mess up myself. Well, first off, I always clean up my own mess, and I’ve always been able to. Second off, I don’t like the idea of owing someone a debt of gratitude. And I certainly do not like the idea of having my bloody soul at the mercy of this man.

For no apparent reason, Mr. Jeremy snapped his fingers. And a whole flurry of thoughts came shoving themselves into my broken head. What if I lose the drive to fix this up? What if somewhere along the way, I’m just not bothered anymore? What if I surrender to the comfort and convenience of this reality of lies? What if someday I will come to compromise with the endlessness of this act? What if I can’t clean this mess? “Never. Tell. Me. What. I. Can’t. DO!!!!!” I screamed at his face. “Don’t go breaking a blood vessel now. Alright, Achilles, if you’re so confident of your own competence, why don’t you take up the challenge and prove me wrong?” He had this smirk on his face I just felt like tearing off. “I don’t need to prove myself to anyone. I don’t owe anyone, especially you, an explanation why.” “Crowley… I know the books you read. I know all about your desire that was impossible to satiate at one point in your life about, you know, ‘understanding the human psyche’ and ‘what drives human behaviour’ and all that jazz. This deal is going to offer you an insider’s peek at what really goes on in your head. So if you can already taste your own victory from here; you’ll have absolutely nothing to lose.” But he clinched the deal already; he got me at the snap. He thinks he can mess with my head. He’s wrong. The jingling of spoons and forks panned between my ears the whole while. “It’s an offer you can’t refuse.” He winked. Me, going to hell? Yeah, I could live with that. “You got a deal.” With the grin of a pedophile that just had his way with two eight-year-olds, he took a clipboard out of his top hat, almost identical to the one I saw in the hands of the man in the white coat. This one had the numbers 5042 etched at the back of it, with a piece of paper secured tightly by the mighty clip. He took out a beautiful red pen from his breast pocket and passed it to me. “Sign here, Mr. Crowley.”

“Fine. Just don’t come giving me any damaged goods now.” I took the pen. As I got ready to sign, a little needle suddenly emerged from a contraption and jabbed my index finger. A faint little tube in the pen was slowly becoming opaque. “What the hell is this?” “Just some standard protocol to follow; nothing to worry about, boy. There you go, you can sign now.” He could have at least warned me first. So the tip of the pen brushed the surface of the paper, then it came down reassuringly. With a few strokes of my wrist, the deal was done. There it was, my name, in blood red. Jeremy didn’t bother hiding his euphoria. “You’ve made a wise decision, Crowley. Now you’re on your way to make things better for your family, the people around you, and yourself. I gotta tell you, though; these friends of yours won’t go down easily. You’ll have to reopen certain doors, cut open old scars and see some pretty darn ugly stuff that you never knew existed inside yourself. But I’m sure you’ll enjoy every minute of the ride. See you at the end of the road, sonny.” He put the clipboard back into his hat and grabbed his book. With a wry smile, he slowly walked towards the window and with another timely flash of lightning; he was gone as suddenly as he came. My index finger was still bleeding; bleeding the colour that will forever remind me of the night I sold my soul for a chance to make things right. Now the greatest battle begins. The battle against the face in the mirror. I could have sworn I heard that line in a picture show somewhere.

Chapter 7 The Fleeting Parade In my years of seeing daylight and the night sky, I don’t actually have any distinct memory of a time when… I was genuinely happy. When you reach a certain age, and you’re slowly exposed to the concept of identity, you start thinking about certain things regarding yourself. You know, it’s that phase when you start asking questions that make people go “What the fuck?” Most significant for me at one time was happiness: what it was, how I was going to get it, and whether getting it was even possible. I remembered having a conversation about this with my sister Ally a good number of years ago. There I was, a growing boy still going through puberty lying on my bed, with Ally doing her thing on the computer. “Hey Ally… are you happy?” And sure enough, she stopped whatever it was she was doing and went, “What the fuck?” “I mean do you wake up everyday, look at yourself in the mirror and earnestly say that you’re a happy person?” “Er, yeah, I guess. Why ask?” She’s still finding the whole thing bizarre. “I don’t know. A lot of things are going through my head lately. This is just one of them.” “Are you sure you’re ok? You’re going through puberty; you should be thinking about women with big jugs and all.” Her candidness was always very endearing. Of course, to say I wasn’t thinking about them would be a lie, too. “Well, I do. But there’s only that much that you can think about women. Every other time, I just find myself thinking about things like… life, the universe and everything in it.” She stared at me. “Crowley… are you high on crack?” “Is it any good? I think it’s kinda overrated. But let’s not get out of focus here. What’s so funny about asking stuff like this anyway?” “It’s just a mighty funny thing for a boy your age to go all self-contemplative. You should relax a little.” “I guess. It’s just that, what got me thinking was… I don’t think I’ve actually been happy before. And I’m just wondering if that was normal.” The silliness of youth. “Well, Crowley, sure you have been happy before. I’m sure you must have been when you won three bloody awards in your graduation. Or when you went onstage and kicked

ass with your guitar and harmonica. You remember those, I hope.” She said with aloofness, typing away at the computer. “Yeah, I remember those moments. But how come I don’t remember being happy in any of them?” The clickety clack of the keyboard continued. It was making me feel sleepy. I had to keep talking to keep myself awake till the end, hoping that I’ll at least get a satisfactory answer to this question. “Are my standards for happiness so goddamn high that I can’t attain it by any earthly means? That I’ll never, ever, be satiated by anything? That’ll be a darn tragedy.” The typing stopped. The chair squeaked as Ally turned around to face me. “You may not remember it now, but you probably felt like the happiest boy in the world in those moments. Let’s face it; you’re growing up in a world that will never be satiated. But life is all about finding these little moments to help you get by. And I’m just guessing you probably haven’t found one to fill up your tank in a long while; that’s why you’re feeling all dried up now, so to speak.” Yeah. I was happy with that. Fast forward to the present. I woke up expecting to see raging demons, burning buildings and the whole city in disarray. But like a pleasant surprise, the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes; both old and new, was a whole army of my friends there in the room. And no, I’m not talking about them demons in my head. I’m talking about the friends whom I shared the good times with. The friends whom I shared the bad times with. And the friends whom I shared the ugly times with. It was good to see them again. And for once in a long, long time… I was happy. We all had a great time. They bombarded me with Get Well cards, stuff to keep me entertained, and things I thought I wasn’t supposed to eat then. But it was their company that made my day. We transformed the room into a photo studio and made this rag I was wearing the next big thing in fashion. I laughed so hard my scar started to hurt. With everything so seemingly normal, the encounter the previous night just felt like some weird dream. Everyone was just starting to make themselves at home, when suddenly my folks came in the room. “What are you doing to him?” She shrieked. Mama went hysterical when she saw some of them trying to get touchy feely with me. Seems like she’s on a roll with this whole hysteria thing.

I gave my friends the cue. Slowly they left, group by group. And soon enough it was just me and folks in the room. “Ma, it’s alright; they’re just my friends.” “Yeah, but there’s no need to get too comfortable with you in this state.” “It’s not like they’re beating my head with a club or something.” “But you’re a sick man, Crowley. You should abstain from too much physical contact at this point. Who knows? They might pat your back so hard it might affect your brain. You never know what might happen. Some of your friends seem like pretty rough people. And why do you have to shake all their hands?” It just boggles me why she has to be this dominating and controlling all the time. “Just take it easy, Ma. Why do you always think the worst about people?” “It’s a crazy world out there, Crowley. Some of the worst things that happen to people are brought about by their closest friends. Speaking of which, where is the friend that was with you in this act of madness?” She said while wiping my hands with a wet cloth as if I just touched something evil. “I don’t know. Probably still sleeping.” Bigfoot was a nocturnal person. “Sleeping in broad daylight? My my, you could already tell what sort of person he is from that. Who knows what he does in the ungodly hours of the night. If you hang out with people like that, how can I trust you in your choice of friends?” A sudden surge of pain went through my head, and for once, I was actually grateful of the timeliness of the pain. “Chocolates? Of all things to give, they’re giving you chocolates?” She was looking through the stuff my friends came with. “What’s the big deal about that?” A little chocolate is good for the heart. “You can’t eat these things in your current state.” She has an innate ability to magnify, amplify and vivify the most trivial of things into life-and-death matters. “For the love of God, Ma, chocolates would be the least of your worries if you’re concerned about any food thing that might kill me.” My stomach rumbled. Once again, Papa gave his trademark head-shake. “Alright, let’s just leave them there until I’m well enough to eat them.”

So the deal was closed. But now that she actually brought the subject of food to my attention, I started feeling a little hungry. A few ladies in pink came into the room to remove the staples binding the sides of the scar. Another timely session of pain to dispel my fury. One staple. It felt like an ant bite. Two staples. I actually felt slightly aroused. Started to hurt when it reached near my ears, though. And it was done. Forty seven metal staples are finally out of my head. Papa was there as a spectator to the whole mitzvah. Being a good sport, he actually helped to take a couple of pictures of the staples and the state of the scar. That’s what I like about him; he can bring out the kid in him once in awhile. Before the ladies left, I asked one of them, “Hey, is there anything specific I’m not allowed to eat at this point?” “Well, you’re pretty much free to eat anything, since you’re in a stable condition now.” She said with a sweet smile. Now the slight craving suddenly ruptured into a full-fledge desire to just eat something. Anything. I was rather bewildered by my strange appetite, that was escalating to such a great height that I was even beginning to shiver. Like a food junkie. Lunch made its timely arrival, with its daily rustle as the tray touched the table sounding sweeter than usual. But it was something else I was hearing. And I was about to find out what my new gift was all about.

The Sustain The lunch was down churning in my stomach in less than 5 minutes. I was at a point where anything tasted great. But it still wasn’t enough. Aye, I have been well-known for my massive appetite, but this; what I was feeling now, actually scared me. But the craving of food has already spun out of my control. I had to sink my teeth into something rich. Like a chocolate bar. And I knew exactly where I could find it. Even though Mama’s handbag was in the way, it was no means of obstructing my eyes from my prey. The beast stirred. You know one of them times when you were a toddler and someone puts a new toy on the table, and he specifically tells you not to play with it before leaving the room? That was the kind of situation that was facing me now. But this couldn’t be as easily passed off as just another act of childlike behaviour. There was a much greater force at play. Today was not any other ordinary day. My rather… ‘unordinary’ eye made sure of it. Gluttony wasn’t going to let me off so easily this time around. A bar of chocolate was in my hands now. I ripped open the packaging like a rapist tearing the undergarments off his victim. For some weird reason, I felt far more tempted than ever before. There was almost a sexual anticipation; a carnal desire, swimming upstream from the depths of my head to the tip of my tongue. The distance from that first kiss was getting smaller. And smaller. My mouth opened, exposing an orchestra of teeth that has been licked shiny to welcome the new guest. My eyes rolled up in ecstasy, though my right eye just won’t stop twitching. Like a little indicator that something was going to happen that wasn’t quite right. Then I saw what probably was the weirdest sight since the Reaper in a baby blue spandex. A grotesque human torso, suspended by two chains attached to the ceiling, appeared at the corner of the room near my window. The arms, legs and head were missing. But it wasn’t like they were ripped apart from it or even sewn up, at the very least. It was like they were never there to begin with. The torso wasn’t terribly obese, but it had a slight tummy. A nose-less face was looking back at me. It actually looked kind of funny. In a weird, perverse way. I just sat there, holding on that bar of chocolate so hard I thought I’d fall off a cliff if I let go. The belly button of that hanging torso started moving. Picture a cow mowing grass and you’re somewhere close. But that’s where all the comedy stops. “Hey, anyone taking this?” I’ll take it then. “You want this?” Because I do.

“How many can we take?” I’m going to take more than I’m allowed to, anyway. “Damn, you got a good appetite, eh?” You greedy little bastard. “You’re giving me this piece? Thanks man.” It was mine to begin with. “Hey, next time, it’s on me.” No way in hell, sucker. They were all coming back to me. All the guilt. All the shame. All the times that I stuffed myself so good were coming back to hurt me real bad. There were no filters, no censors to justify my thoughts like I had back in those moments; no shield of self-righteousness to make it a little less disgraceful. I was repulsed by this filthy little creature I have been reduced into. By just how much I was made up of greed. So this was what he meant when he said this eye was a terrible thing to have. Eat, if you want it to go away. I heard my own voice whispering in my ear. Slimy tentacles erupted out of its perfectly smooth milk chocolate coating and tugged at my teeth, pulling itself closer to my mouth. I yanked and yanked and yanked. But it wouldn’t budge, and every yank I gave just seemed to make it that much closer to ripping the teeth out of my gums. The only thing that stopped me from wetting the sheets in the presence of such a primal horror was an empty bladder. It’s times like these that you wished you didn’t do all those things out of conceit. Because those things are just going to leave you with something to regret. But I wasn’t going to be shot down just yet. I found hope in the unlikeliest of things: my eyes chanced upon Mama’s handbag. And I thought of her. The hell am I gonna prove her right. I thought to myself. There was no way I was going to let them catch me brown-handed, with doodoo-coloured paste all over my mouth and all. Sometimes your goddamn pride can actually save your life. I mustered all the courage I could find in the hidden reserves of my head. And this wasn’t exactly easy when I’m dealing with a chocolate bar practically ripping my lips apart and someone’s body hanging from the ceiling like fresh meat in a freezer. “I’m not going to eat this.” There, I said it. The mowing stopped. The tentacles slowly slithered back into the bar. Things started to get a little less freaky. Under the blanket, I was pinching my thighs terribly hard all the while. Because this was all just too surreal to be real, and at the same time, this experience was as real as it could get. And I doubt any amount of drugs can make me hallucinate to this extent. My thighs were probably all red and swollen, if not bloody, by now.

I started to regain my composure and tried to make sense of what was happening. And the most absurd thought went into my head: that Mr. Jeremy’s deal was actually legit. Alright, let’s take it that the whole bargain was real, and this was the so-called manifestation of my gluttony. How would I deal with it? I decided to play along this time, if playing along could get me out of this bizarre situation. “Look here, you may be a part of me. A gargantuan part, at that. But I’m not going to let you become the king of the hill just yet.” I stuttered the last few words. Now this was the tough part: the verdict. I jolly well knew that the decision to keep this friend around will one day come back and bite me in the arse. But I also knew what good it could bring me. I’m always on a high. I must never be sober; I got to keep smoking life into my lungs to keep breathing. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for a better, greater fix; that special something that can keep me going until I find the next best thing. To me, life is a whole series of short fixes and their pursuit. It’s the only way to go for an addict like me. Gluttony and Greed. Those are what drive me to strive for my desires. “But I won’t kick you off the hill either. You just might have another chance to prove your worth.” I was much more composed this time. The hanging torso grunted. I’m mighty thankful to whoever designed this sin to be a mute. “So now, what you’ll do is sit back in my head, shut up and relax. Send my regards to your brothers and sisters in there.” Now I was back to my bold, cocky self. And like a stage prop in a Victorian theatre, the chains started pulling the torso up into the ceiling as it slowly left the scene. “And tell them they’re next.” I winked at the disappearing body. I thought it was just the drugs doing things to my head. But if this right eye was indeed the real deal, then I must say I was actually pretty freaked out from the fact that I wasn’t as freaked out as I ought to be. It’s the first sin I’ve encountered and I’m strutting around making negotiations and compromises with it. It’s an uphill battle from here on. Oh, it’ll be back, I’m sure of it. Be it Gluttony or Greed. I know one day I will succumb to these tempting tendencies to squander and live in excess again. Until then, though… I’m keeping those persistent little buggers at bay. But all that aside, I’d like Gluttony to stay.

To taste the saltiness of hardship. To bear the sourness of a betrayal. To endure the bitterness of a loss. And to savour the sweetness of a lover’s lips. I put the chocolate bar down on the table, and I lay down to sleep.

Chapter 8 Home, Revisited Lying on a bed for the most part. With only a cathode-ray-moving-picture-box and a window as friends. Nice ladies in pink pricking needles in your veins. As wonderfully nice as this sound, I can only take this for so long. It wasn’t all this that I couldn’t take, though. It was the unbearable restlessness you feel when you’re just staring at these four walls staring back at you. You try to make friends with them; have a little fluff talk, ask them about their kin walls, offer them a drink. But they never talk back. Like a little conspiracy among themselves, the window that I thought was my friend now suddenly crossed me. Yes, it showed me everything. But it was exactly because it was showing me everything that I could see everything I was missing out on. Another picture show going on the cinemas. Another life saved. Another song written. Another book read. Another essay submitted. Another picture show going off the cinemas. My only times of refuge lie in the daily visits of my friends. The real ones, not the ones in my head. I should think of some distinct way to differentiate the two. Nevermind. Sometimes they drop by just for a short while. And though the first few minutes are basically standard procedure talk about how I’m doing, we’re suddenly talking about a stall that sells excellent herbal chicken soup soon after. Like nothing ever happened. It doesn’t even matter how long they stay. What matters is that in those scarce minutes that they’re around, suddenly everything is normal again. And I never needed them more, what with this eye I got. These are some troubled times I’m living in. The door opened and sure enough my folks entered in the room. But it feels like nothing has changed. I’m still as unrelentingly angry, proud and foolish as I was before the whole incident. “Crowley, you’ll be discharged today. I tried to ask if you could stay for a few days more just to make sure that you’re stable enough to get back home, but the man in the white coat said there’s no need for that.” You can pretty much figure out by now who said this. “Keep me here any longer and I’ll really be unstable.” A man wrathful by nature and circumstances that make him restless do not mix well. “We’re doing this for your own good. You can never be careful enough.” “I’m sure. So when do we bail out?” “Noon. Crowley, what’s that red pigment in your right eye? Are you ok? Can you see with that eye? Get the man in the white coat, honey.” “Oh, it’s, um, just an aftereffect of the operation, Ma. After all, uh, the surgeries were done pretty near this eye.” Shit, Jeremy never mentioned anything about the eye getting red after usage being part of the package.

And the time of discharged had to be delayed for hours because of that; we had to wait for the white coat man to see if everything’s ok with my eye and head and all. “Oh, don’t you worry about this, M’am. It’s just an aftereffect of the operation. After all, the surgeries were done pretty near this eye.” He said. Wow. Seems like my bullshit can actually get me through medical school. “Alright, here’s your medication. Take one pill a day after food.” He passed me a bottle of pills. I checked the ingredients as if I cared. “Valproic acid, eh? What does it do?” “It’s for your nerves. Helps prevent fits.” Fits? Hmm, interesting. The padding on my head was finally removed and it felt good to feel the cool air on my semi-bald head. Aye, they only shaved half of my head for the surgery. I took a good long look at the scar in the mirror. A layer of flaky dead skin concealed the raw flesh underneath two curving scars. A prominent wide one, right above the forehead, and a neatly sutured one, right above my right ear, run the side of my head until they meet at my right temple, where they leak downwards and come to a screeching halt where my sideburns end. It loosely resembles the shape of a Y. Come noon, and we’re hailing for a cab outside the building. The clouds just had to choose this faithful day to shed some of its weight down on us. Within half of an hour’s time, we reached my rented space. They kept me locked up in there for days. If I were to see some friends, the furthest I’d go would be the little food stall in the basement. But nay, not even that was allowed. After all, I’ve broken my trust bank. Fast forward a few days and a bus journey across the straits, and I was taken hundreds of miles away from my rented space. Away from my friends. Away from Bigfoot. Away from The Girl. So here I was sitting in a cab on my native island home staring out the window, seeing building after building after building. Eventually a familiar building came into view. The place where I was heading to was synonymous to that of a military barrack to a recruit; equally loved and feared. A place that you are attached to yet can’t wait to get out of. I’ve reached home. The creaky lifts, dirty staircases, bad paintjobs, loan shark warnings. It was a rather unreal feeling to actually find solace in what appears to be a hostile environment. It felt more like a crossbreed between a crime novel set in the Bronx and a slasher flick where everyone dies. And there is was; the signature sliding grill gate guarding the door that leads to the place I call home. Totally irrelevant, but I always took pride in that. But when the gate closes shut and the door gets locked tight, that’s when you know it’s real.

I was first welcomed by the distinct smell of home. That is one smell that you can never quite reproduce anywhere else. Even if you’ve got all the ingredients: the aging wooden furniture, the greasy kitchen floor, the peeling ceiling wallpaper and the white leather couch with the smell of skin and sweat that you can never quite clean off; there’s always that missing bit. It’s the little things like these that leave an endearing picture of home in your mind. But in the days to come, I will be made to remember a certain time not too long ago; a time when all I wanted was to get out of here. It took a few days for everyone to settle down, to find their foot on the ground. For Papa to find the right angle to sit on the couch; I still can’t quite figure out why he’s finding such a hard time to just sit down. For Mama to find all the pieces of herself and put them back at their rightful places; it was a big shock for her, needless to say. She doesn’t like to be shocked, you see. For me to come to terms with missing out on a whole semester of school. It’s barely been a month since the start of it, for crying out loud. But it didn’t affect me quite as much as I’d expect. Well, not yet. Nevertheless, life goes on; nothing should change just because of the big bang. That’s how I’d like this family to run. It ain’t easy conveying to this Mama, though; she’s still uneasy about looking at my scar. As a matter of fact, ‘uneasy’ would be an understatement. She looks like she’s on the verge of turning on the waterworks every time she sees it. Papa looks pretty unperturbed by it, though. And it was nice to at least have someone around to bring about some normalcy. Ally was away on a business trip, and she won’t be back for some time. Aside from the fact that I can’t feel the right side of my scalp, a few random bursts of excruciating pulses of pain and swollen feet, I felt pretty up to the task of coming back to class after only a few weeks of rest. Everybody said I couldn’t do it: my folks, my lecturers, even some of my friends. I could prove them all wrong. But just because I’m proud, doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to reason. As a half-assed soldier that was once in the army, we know when to advance our forces. But we also know when to retreat to recover our losses. Hence begun my little holiday. It felt good to just slack around with some of the nice privileges for being at home. But there was a catch. There was a strict and absolute timing for everything. What time to wake up, what time to eat, what time to bathe, what time to brush my teeth, what time to sleep. No exercise, no loud music, no sleeping unguarded, no phone calls for more than 5 minutes, and the whole lot. There was no room for error and exceptions; the warden’s words were final. These were nothing, though, if I could just take a walk outside. But no. The furthest I could be permitted to go was the front gate. It was right out there, just beyond these bars keeping me in: Freedom, mocking and teasing me. I could still swallow all that, though. A jagged little pill to swallow nevertheless, but it was still alright. Because I still got my window. But even the view outside the windows was tainted by grills. I reached my hand out between the bars every day just feel the sun on my hands. I took out my old guitar and started singing some songs to pass the time. But they would shut me up. The closest thing I got to music was the warden screaming at me about the tonnage of my folly, making me feel like a pool of shit. Iron bars and concrete walls on all sides, locking me in like a beast in a cage.

Eventually, a very old memory started rolling its squeaky reel. Sitting on the couch suddenly stopped being all that comfortable. This holiday slowly felt like I was doing time in Shawshank. I missed my little rented apartment. Then again, in those days when my folks were around when I was discharged, they were watching me like hawks. I remembered there was this one time when Bigfoot dropped by my rented place one afternoon to see how I was doing. The rare smile on Mama’s face disappeared. We both sat at the living room, with Bigfoot looking mighty uncomfortable under her glaring eyes. But within a few minutes, we got straight into talking about The Godfather, Bob Marley and Asian politics, like old buddies. Just like nothing ever happened. Mama was flabbergasted. She was more than flabbergasted; she looked like she just wanted to hurt him. But so far, every minute that passed with me and Bigfoot still enjoying the conversation was a minute passed without her emerging from the kitchen with a knife with murder in her eyes. Alas, she wouldn’t resort to such barbaric antics. She has another plan at hand. She came to speak to me when Bigfoot went to relieve some excess weight. “What the hell are you doing, Crowley?” She screamed in her whisper. “Er, scratching my back?” My back has been real itchy lately for some reason. “This is the guy who almost got you killed! Don’t you think he at least owes you an apology? He should be grateful we didn’t direct the bill to him.” “Well it’s not exactly his fault, Ma. It was my stupidity, for the most part.” “Why are you still defending him? Don’t you hate him for landing you in this state?” That’s when I knew what she was doing. Sometimes when you hate a person so badly, you want to hurt him. You just want him to have a little taste of the pain that you had to bottle up all this time because there just wasn’t any way to get it out. But when you know you can’t hurt him, your mind switches to the next most feasible plan: you try to inject your hatred into others. You try get to get people on your side. To join your cause; if not, to sympathize with you. But above all, to share the pain inside you. She was trying to get me to be angry with him, even if just a little bit. But I couldn’t. Because I just couldn’t see the point in doing so. I could hate him. I could make him cower in guilt and regret for what he’s done, but I wouldn’t be hurting him. Yes, it’ll make him feel like shit, but that will not hurt him. If nothing else, I’d be losing a friend, which means one less person to bring some normalcy around here. I don’t put blame where the blame is not due. He may be an accomplice, but that doesn’t make him Judas just because he wasn’t the one on the trolley. Now, putting the blame on someone else is all nice and dandy; you get all the empathy votes. But there’s a whole lot of waiting, silence and drama that you don’t need along the way. You just don’t get any

good out of it. You see, it’s much more pragmatic to just shoulder it on yourself, because then it’ll be your fault. And when it’s yours, you have control over it. So then you can bide your time to make your amends and do your time. Because it’s your mess. “No, Ma. I don’t.” And I always clean up my own mess. Bigfoot finished his business in the toilet, looking a whole lot lighter. And we continued talking like the buddies we are. That’s how I was with my friends: it’s going to take a whole lot more than just hate and hurt to break something as strong as friendship, brotherhood, and all the things those damn hippies talk about. And honestly, I don’t know anything so fruitless and destructive with a magnitude exceeding that of hate. The visiting hours came to an end. Lights out.

Chapter 9 Songs of Freedom As I was getting more and more used to the rules and restrictions of the place, it’s gradually turning back into a home. The couch was slowly becoming comfortable again. It’s tragically hilarious that I have to always go through some sort of a transitional phase just to see the home in this place. That’s how being back home has always been; there’s always that signature slight discomfort you feel when you wear your new shoes. Everywhere you go for everything you do, you always got to step into different shoes for the role. Just like these old slippers I’m wearing now at home. But they never fail to always feel new; always have that squeeze of discomfort, every time I step into them. Something haunts me whenever the sun punches its card for the day. It was the same bugging feeling as I felt in that room before I was discharged. I try to relax and spend an evening doing nothing, but I can’t; I just can’t. It’s always running through my head; all the things I could be doing now. The overwhelming endlessness of all I could be creating through the power of a pen and paper. A guitar and microphone. A hunting knife and some bloke’s juicy jugular vein. When the lights go out, that’s when I’m most awake. Because I can hear everything in my head. I roll around in bed to see if I can knock some of these thoughts out. I keep my eyes widely peeled to stare at the silhouette of the grills from the light coming through the window because I don’t want to close them. Because everything I see inside is so wonderful. So wonderful that it makes me want to walk through life with my eyes closed. They just won’t leave me alone. Despite my restless nocturnal demeanour, my daytime conduct is quite the contrast, but equally disturbed. I’ve gotten so used to the life here that I don’t put my hands out of the window anymore. I don’t hear the voices beyond the gate laughing anymore. I don’t even mind the fact that I’m not getting any social visits or phone calls anymore. Nothing from my friends. Nothing from Bigfoot. Nothing from the Girl. I just feel like staying in all the time now. I’ve been institutionalized. The knives in the kitchen gave up being sharp and sawed through the meat more by the sheer force from a battering arm than a razor blade, and the lights illuminated the hall in a dull, indifferent attitude. Like clerks in a dead-end town. A heap of rubbish infested with photosynthetic bacteria, slowly degraded by the one light that I adored so much; I was not going to subject myself to this state of decay. Something had to be done. With all this happening to me, I knew very well what was going to happen next. And if I let it slip and surrender to it, I am finished. I could let it beat me down, lock me up, and rot my mind. But I couldn’t let it break me; I won’t allow that. I was getting torn apart into two separate entities, determined by the height of the sun in the sky. I was, quite literally, going insane.

Desert Storm. Vietnam. It’s beyond me how them POWs managed to survive the ordeal of being in a period of unspecified suspension. Where the tools of torture are boredom, mental stress and destructive programming. Some escape into a little corner in their minds; a sanctuary where they can be safe. Some think of their family, friends and all they hold dear. Some occupy themselves with physical activity to keep their minds from yielding to the terrible thoughts their tormentors drill into them. This is my survival guide. I lost count of the days, but I know it’s been a long while since I near twitched a muscle in my body. Some parts of me shutting down, going into deep sleep. The steady shrinking of my torso, arms and legs was a documentary of the strength draining out of my body. But it was the stiffening of my fingers that perturbed me. The touch of them steely strings was slipping from my mind as the calluses on my fingertips started to fade. I longed for the lick of my guitar. It’s been a long time that my ears have been buzzing with the rain pouring down in my head. It’s high time that I ought to give them some well-deserved relief from the heavy load of imagination. Even by default, there was just the white noise that you hear on empty channels on a cathode-ray-moving-picture-box. And the only remedy for the noise drowning my head was something louder to wash it down like bitter medicine; anything to deafen me from my own thoughts. I longed for the bliss of song. Roll call on another day, another morning. I opened up my laptop in my room (Yes, I do have a room). Locked the room. Opened up my discography of AC/DC. Blasted it out and turned it up. The screeching guitar. The thundering bass. The ravaging drums. The booming vocals. Yes… I missed this. I missed just locking my brains in a drawer for a few minutes and lose myself in someone else’s noise; someone else’ symphony. I plugged my old Stratocaster into the beat up dusty amplifier and fired it up. It sounded terrible: the rusty strings, the dead pick-ups, the faulty wiring. But I’ll make do with it. The band started playing and I stepped up on to the stage; the crowd roaring like a tidal wave. My fingers felt small and unworthy of this instrument as it laid on the fretboard like a homesick little boy. But after a few minutes there was a familiar tug in the muscles somewhere behind my knuckles. The booting up of the fingers. I could hear the pace quickening, the blood pumping, the heart working hard. I was soaring again. And sure enough, they came banging and screaming at the door. Now this was an incredibly immature and inane act of impulse, I admit. I know I shouldn’t. But I just couldn’t shake off the nudging feeling that everything inside me was telling me not to do what I’m told just this once. Because they can take my freedom away. They can take my dignity away. But they can never take my music away from me. Yes, I’ll probably be in a lot of trouble. Hell, I already am. Yes, I’ll be facing maybe a few hours of solid demonstrations of wrath, at best. All this for the perverse satisfaction I get for not playing by the rules. The rekindling of a dying fire inside this restless body. The consoling reassurance that I haven’t lost my mind. Just how much are they all really worth? Priceless.

Once I had my fill of music, I walked out of the room, and into the fire. They stood waiting there; nostrils flared, eyes scorched red with rage. I know I’m in for a long night. But even with the full knowledge that this is something that a sensible young adult wouldn’t think of committing in his right mind, I didn’t regret it at all. Because this act of defiance was a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit. And I did it: I didn’t let myself slip. But I did let something slip: a wicked little grin on my face, even with all the guns firing at me. Papa, being the cooler rock among the two, came to pacify the commotion. Fast forwarding the whole process, he had a word with me in private. “Why, Crowley… why? He said. “Hey, the music wasn’t that loud, and I would think a little jamming session would do me some good.” I persistently took my stand. “Aye, but please, you just got your head opened up not too long ago; it might not be able to take in that much at the moment.” “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt myself, Pa.” “Alright, you may be right. Maybe all this, this music business may not hurt your head at all. But it’s hurting us, Crowley. Especially your mother. You know very well what sort of a person your mother is. So just give in to her a bit, and tell her the things she wants to hear.” “Don’t you think she ought to slack off a bit by now? It’s about time she puts some of her bags down. I mean, if you wanted me to give in to her so badly, you should’ve told the doctor to get me a lobotomy while he was putting my head together.” I was fuming now. I continued, “With all due respect, Pa, you continuing to take her nonsense in silence isn’t called giving in to her. You’re spoiling her. Because every time you let her have the last say, you’re proving to her that she’s right. And she’ll go on living in her warped little world where she’ll always think she’s right until or unless someone proves her wrong. Which will never happen if we’re all expected to ‘give in’ to her all the time. We can forget about having someone from beyond these four walls to actually put her in her place; she’s petrified at the very prospect of meeting new people in the real world.” Though I might have gone a little overboard on that one, I just had to say what had to be said. Papa stared at the floor and looked like the only way a person stuck between a rock and a hard place would look. Because even he couldn’t deny that it was true. “Please, Crowley… if it’s too much for you, then just… pretend to be a willing subject of all her care and affection. It’s times like these that she needs something familiar to stay

sane. And the only familiar things to her at the moment are you and some control over the things happening around her. So just give her at least that much.” And I knew as I saw his troubled frame that this was more than just about anger. It wasn’t anger in their eyes. It wasn’t fury in their voices. It wasn’t corrosive and destructive that characterized wrath splurging and covering their insides. It was a man stabbed with a jagged blade in the back by his best friend. It was an exploding car engine just a few meters away from the finish line. It was all the hurt and the pain I’ve inflicted in them put inside a red pill. It was disappointment. That’s what love becomes when it meets hate at the other end of the room. I’ve done unto them; my own flesh and blood, so unconsciously, what I couldn’t even think of doing to a friend. Despite the discovery of this very disturbing truth, though, I didn’t fall from grace, as appealing as it is to shroud myself with the thoughtlessness of what I’ve done. I don’t indulge in such nonproductive behaviour. But whenever I look at myself at the mirror; whenever I see that eye, I see the colour that reminded me of that night. I owe it to myself, and to my folks, to do more than to squander what time I’ve got left on my clock in carrying out acts of freedom in my own self-made prison. And I think I should give myself enough credit to be sensible enough to know the things that need to be done, and get on with them. After all, the stakes are high, the game is on, and I don’t intend to lose. There’ll be hell to pay if I do. Aye, everything will be done in their time. After all, these aren’t adversaries that I can deal with without dealing with a part of myself. Rome wasn’t built, or destroyed, in a day. In the mean time, though, I’ll probably have some random outbursts of madness from time to time. And with the faulty filter in my head rapidly breaking down, I have to find some way of blowing off some steam. So I started writing. About everything that has happened up to this point, and will continue writing until my time is up. It all came easy at first, with everything still feeling fresh and raw in my head. But then, as with all things in time, I started to forget all the hurt and the pain. A part of me wanted to remember all this, to patch all the pieces together; to make this whole anthology of pain complete. But another part of me just wanted to keep it all forgotten.

Chapter 10 Bravado In the Thonga, a southern African tribe, each boy has to go through an initiation ceremony to become a man. The young boy first undergoes baptism by pain. The two rows of club-wielding tribesmen in which he was to run in between will make sure of that. If he survives the gauntlet, he is then stripped, shaved and circumcised by force. After this baptism by purification, he is cast off to an isolated place. Without any water to drink, nothing to cover him during the cold winter nights, and daily meals consisting of half-digested grass from an antelope’s stomach, he has to survive for three months. Only after this baptism by endurance can he return and be rightfully accepted into the tribe. Any breach in the rules cannot be compromised, and the punishments dealt out are downright inhuman. The boy is pushed to his limits, and beyond. The tribesmen first show him just how far he can go, and then destroys that faith. And from the ashes, the boy will rise as a man. As the boy goes through this rite of passage, his father watches on with tears in his eyes. But he knows that it was what the boy needed to go through. To be strong. To be prepared. And to be able to handle all the shit life will put in his way. It’s funny how I thought being strong was all I needed to be to take on life. I thought that being the one still standing when life has ran out of shit to throw at you was all that mattered. That’s why I have always wanted a rough and tough kind of family; the type that doesn’t hold back their punches. I wanted to be exiled into the jungle of the strong and the cunning to survive as an initiation to usher me into this dog-eat-dog world. But it was something else that I needed. And I was about to find out what. Papa came back from the market in the ungodly weather with the groceries Mama wanted and a tired face. His shirt was drenched in the rain, and umbrella dripping with water. I limped my way to the door and helped him carry the grocery bags. Mama peeked out of the kitchen and, seeing that the rain was beginning to make their way into the living room, asked me to close the windows. “Crowley, help me to close the windows after you help Papa bring in the groceries.” She spoke through the kitchen curtains. “Ok.” I acknowledged. I’ve been having this strange little semi-condition ever since the operation where I occasionally have these weird memory lapses. Someone could tell me to do something and I can even affirm the request, but fast forward just a minute or less and I would’ve forgotten all about it. This little quirk of mine has landed me in more shit than I could bother remembering. But it wasn’t happening consistently to even be properly declared a condition. And I wasn’t going to put myself in a cumbersome situation by telling Mama about it. It’ll be like broadcasting the menace of Godzilla all across Japan when all it was doing was just passing through.

After we’ve gotten everything in, I went back to work on this little story on my laptop, with the reassuring knowledge that I’ve finished doing all there was needed to be done. Or so I thought. I had forgotten all about the windows. And Papa went to change into something dry and comfortable, with the reassuring knowledge that he can relax for the rest of the afternoon. Or so he thought. “What sort of grapes are these?” He walked out of the bedroom to a screaming Mama. “They’re a new stock that just came in; figured we’d try it out.” Papa replied earnestly. “Oh yea? Well, try this and see how you like it.” She almost crushed the grape she was holding out to him. Papa wondered what the whole deal was all about and ate the grape. “So the skin’s a little thick. Is there a problem?” Looking perfectly fine with it. “Of course there’s a problem! You actually paid extra just to get grapes with barely anything to eat besides its skin! And I know how you eat them grapes; you’re gonna end up making a whole mess out of the living room with all your peeling. And that’ll just give me more things to clean up.” She hurled all sorts of verbal abuse at Papa that made even me cringe; those were some really demeaning and harsh words uttered. To get a better idea of her caliber, let’s just say she could make the dirtiest mouth around go ‘Alright, enough already, woman’. And all that without saying even a single profanity. “Alright, I’ll just peel them all at the kitchen sink then. And it’s just a dollar more expensive; no need to get all fired up about it.” He was bewildered by her overstated anger. Mama stormed out of the kitchen and was on her way to their bedroom when I decided to put in a word or two for Papa. But I realized it was a bad move a bit too late. “They’re just grapes, Ma. Why do you have to be so angry about the difference of just a dollar?” Yeah, this was around the time I realized it. “Just a dollar, you say? Do you know how many things could be done with a dollar back when I was a child? You have no idea how fortunate you are, Crowley. So don’t go speaking as if a little dollar carries no weight to you.” She punctured holes into my skull with those fiery eyes.

“That isn’t the point, Ma…” I scrambled for the next few words in vain with my limited Chinese vocabulary. “Yeah, it’s easy for you to take everything you have now for granted. But you have absolutely no hint of an idea of what your father and I had back then as children.” She liked doing that; bringing up how tough she had it ‘back then’. Aye, so we should be thankful for what we got now, but don’t we oughta start giving credit to what we were supposed to be? They say that every family’s got their own set of problems. And indeed things could have been much worse. But even a broken family acknowledges that it’s broken. We’re a family that can’t at the least acknowledge that there is something very wrong in this household because of a sole person’s blatant denial of the existence of a problem. “We’re not living in the past anymore, Ma; it’s time to move on. Of course life has to be much better now; otherwise everything what you and Papa have worked for in the past few decades would’ve been for nothing. We’re not filthy rich by any means, but we’re not paupers either.” “You’re one to speak; you almost made us a family of paupers with your little trolley ride.” Talk about playing dirty. “And didn’t I tell you to close the windows?” Her nostrils were flaring. Nothing jogs someone’s memory better than flaring nostrils. I quickly closed the windows and, since I had no intention of being the victim of the next wave of her verbal assault, went into the kitchen to offer Papa a hand. “It’s ok, Crowley. You can’t even stand for nuts. Go sit in the living room. And stay out of her radar for the meantime.” Shit, this ship was detected just a second ago. So I turned on my laptop in the living room table and continued my little story. Papa walked into the living room after his peeling business was done and crashed on his usual couch to watch the box like he wanted. “What are you doing, son?” Like an afterthought, Papa said without prying his eyes away from the cathode-ray-moving-picture-box. The rain was beating against the blue-tinged window panes, painting the grey afternoon sky with an even more depressing colour. “Just writing… something.” I typed away at my laptop. “You shouldn’t spend so much time with your eyes on the laptop screen. Just because you’ve got a speedy recovery doesn’t mean you can take it for granted. As a matter of fact, be grateful that you’re still able to make sense of the things around you and use your

fingers to write about them. You could have been a retard or a quadriplegic. Heck, you could’ve been both.” Ah, the standard guilt trip. “Give it a rest already, Pa.” I’ve been feeling pretty dry for quite some time now, so I figured this lecture was a good excuse for a break. With his eyes still on the box, “Crowley, I don’t think you quite comprehend the grand scale of your little incident; of everything you put us through. Alright, to be perfectly honest, materially, it was still forgivable. But you really took our heads for a ride, boy. And not every one of us can tolerate motion sickness.” “Come again?” But I knew who he was referring to. “I’m talking about Mama. You’ve hurt her enough with your head-cracking antic, and now you’ve got to add to the hurt with that attitude of yours. Tell me, Crowley, what’s really going on in your head?” I closed my laptop. I knew this question would come someday, sooner or later. Better sooner. I was pretty surprised at the sudden abundance of words Papa spoke today, though; he was always a man of few words. “Do you really want to know the truth?” “The suspense is killing me. Say it already.” A long pause. Every serious conversation has got to have at least one. “I… I didn’t want to trouble her with taking care of me.” “And you show that by giving her more trouble?” “Let me finish. I didn’t want her concern. I just wanted to be left to fend for my own.” “You still think it’s an appropriate time to play hero? Whether you like it or not, we will show you concern. So instead of making life tougher for yourself and for us, just take it.” And I knew that. But a part of me just kept telling me to fight off anyone’s attempts from making the road easier to walk. The metallic clatter of fork and spoons echoed in my head again. “Life has been easy on me most of time. And it’s a good thing that it never seems to rain on me. But when I pull back from the picture and realize that it’s just been you guys holding an umbrella above my head all this time, it... it’s just all wrong. Please, just let me get wet, get sick, and get well by myself.” Everything was slowly coming out.

“People are running around looking for shelter from the rain, and you want to walk in it. What, do you feel good by inflicting pain on yourself? If you do, we would have a far greater thing to worry about than your head.” “Just… let me find my own strength. You’ve been making me rely on yours for far too long that I don’t know if I have any in me.” “Do you think lesser of yourself just because you have suffered less than others? Does that give you the right to go and deliberately stand in misery’s way?” He finally sat up and turned in my direction. That’s what I’ve been trying to do: I thought I could simulate all the hardships and trials to create a life that can harden me up to make up for all that time lost to living in comfort. It’s sadly comical that I couldn’t do even that. If I really wanted it enough, there would be so many ways to make my life miserable. Yet, I was too much of a wuss to see what it was going to be like if I actually went the whole ten yards. But what I was even more afraid of was how I’ll react. Countless battles, replayed in my head countless of times, I have glorified myself with fabricated victories. But if I was faced with the real thing, just to see that I was going to cop out, I might as well be a retard and a quadriplegic. The funniest bit is that I haven’t even realized just how absurd this deranged state of mind was. “Son, if you want to suffer, there’s plenty of suffering in store for you. Life is just waiting to bite off a good chunk of your ass. Don’t worry; your finest hour will come. But it’s not something that you can have a head start at finding.” “Alright. Fair enough. But is it so hard for you to not give a damn about me so much?” I am the proud owner of the wonderful innate ability to piss myself off. And if I wasn’t agitated enough, Papa just had to chuckle at that moment. “Is it so hard for you to just let your mother pamper you? There are kids out there yearning for a mother’s love, and you just want to throw it away since you’ve had it from the start?” “You know, sometimes I just feel I haven’t done anything to deserve all this love and affection. As a matter of fact, all I’ve been doing is just pissing you guys off, yet she still loves me all the same. She’s always giving so unconditionally, so willingly that there’s nothing left for me to fight for.” I stared at a passing lizard on the ceiling. “I try to appreciate it; I really do. But sometimes she’s just making it really hard for me to do so with her kind of love.” “You can’t choose the terms as to how you want to be loved. And you definitely can’t choose how she wants to love you. I know she can be a little domineering sometimes. Ok,

very domineering. But she just loves you in the only way she knows how.” Papa sat back and resumed his box-watching duties. Point taken. In life, no one actually teaches you how to love someone, may it be your parent, lover, or child. Because you simply can’t teach love like a science. Building rapport through subtle acts. Forging bonds with tough love. It would just sound too… mechanical. I lied down on the couch and stared at the ceiling, slowly getting hypnotized by the pounding of the rain and the buzz of the box. It felt liberating letting my thoughts out. But as my mind wandered once again, I somehow found myself comparing my relationship with my mother with those of other people. Where someone goes forward and another goes backward, and somewhere in between they meet at the right spot. Where everything just seem to fit. And all I wanted was just a workable relationship with her; what I’ve yet to find out is that it’s just me who can’t seem to bring myself to love her like I should. A long pause. Papa thought I was still lost in that zone. “Accept her for what she is, Crowley, and love her for it. Or for the love of God, at least have some sympathy for her.” It’s quite infuriating when you know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not doing it. But there was still one thing I have yet to fully grasp. “… I just don’t get it.” I watched some flying insects fly by. “Crowley, if you’ve got something to say, say it; you don’t have to use your hook-andbait sentences on your father.” Funny, that old man actually knows the tricks I play. But that wasn’t what I was getting at. “She just seemed so content in just washing our clothes, cooking our meals, mopping the rooms. And that just made me…angry. Angry because I just can’t seem to figure out why she can’t dream of the greater things in life and just subject herself to the same old things, day in and day out. It just baffled me that she didn’t wish for something more when she could be so much more. For once, I just want her to do something for her own interests; not her children’s. Because I don’t want her to go on living this life of a martyr; I’m not comfortable with having someone sacrifice so much just for me.” Papa took a good, long look at me. I just continued looking at the flying insects and kept my mouth shut, because I was afraid of the words that might slip out if I didn’t. He finally broke the silence with a question. A question I should have demystified a very long time ago, but was too ashamed to confront.

“You feel like she’s disgracing you?” I was silent. And silence usually means consent. “You should understand that your mother has never been the most confident woman. She never got the education she wanted, she achieved far less than she could have, and her options are rapidly decreasing as her years go on increasing. With most mothers these days actually becoming more and more accomplished, she can’t help but feel inferior. So much that she’s even afraid to make new friends. Afraid of being left out. Being looked down on. Being laughed at behind her back. And her time spent at home isn’t exactly helping her social skills. So the only thing she can do with her life now that she can be proud of is to be a good wife and mother.” I was silent. Mentally nodding in agreement. “But she’s got ample reason to be embarrassed of you too. You aren’t exactly the brightest kid in class; up to today, we’ve never actually heard you play anything we like on your guitar; and for goodness’ sake your Mandarin is pathetic. As a matter of fact, you haven’t actually done much to make us proud.” I was silent. And in this context, it usually means dumbfounded. “Them other folks out there are always comparing and competing with their kids. And honestly, you’ll fall behind a lot of them. But we don’t pay no mind. Because you’re our son. And that’s reason enough to be proud of you.” I was silent. Here, I’m just feeling sleepy. “Son, you can give up trying to get along your mother. You can just put down your badge and not care anymore. But know this: she’ll never give up on you.” I was silent. I’ve spun everything that I was doing into some bizarre way of showing Ma that I care. I’ve justified myself with a million lies that everyone has their own mode of love, and this was mine. And I’ve just been sitting on a carousel propped high up on the stratosphere with my heart continually drifting between the bright and dark sides of the planet. Between my desire to put an end to all this nonsense because I wanted something more out of this household, and my reluctance to do anything about it because I was just too tired to keep trying. Bollocks. I was actually worn out from all that brain activity. Where was stupidity when I needed it? The beating on the window got softer as the sky started clearing. Life started to bustle on the roads again, and everything got into motion, while I was falling asleep. But before the sandman took me, Papa told just exactly what it was that I needed.

“Right now, just worry about putting some brains into that head of yours. Then you can...” Alas, the sandman couldn’t wait.

Intermission 1 Lonely Planet Alright, let’s take a break from all the melodrama happening here, and let’s shift our attention to the events that occurred outside of my troubled mind. After all, life still went on while I was getting my head patched up and my soul sold to a very neatly dressed salesman. In a world like today’s, getting sick is not a luxury that the poor can afford to enjoy. Also in a world like today’s, everyone is mighty concerned about upholding the image of a person with a big heart. Well, at least for most of the people that I know. So when a wicked twist that churns these two truisms together gives birth to a jackass breaking his head on a trolley ride and getting two major surgeries that requires some very, very expensive equipment, medicine and men in white coats, then there will sure be a rather… interesting situation at hand. To ensure that everything unfolds accordingly, allow me to first introduce the protagonists of this little side story: Papa, Mama and Ally, who are ambiguously dysfunctional almost to the extent of being regular folk. No, they don’t beat one another, have babies they don’t know of, or abuse particular substances that do not exactly put them in the best of health. But they all have their little quirks that makes them that bit impaired. Papa has got quite a thirst for adventure on the high seas and exotic lands; a risk-taker, so to speak. He hailed from a family of four brothers and two sisters, who lived in considerable odds at the time. Imagine able to watch a picture show only after saving up a whole week’s worth of allowance, and going home to sleep like a tuna in a tin box with all his siblings and folks in the same room until the age of eighteen. But he had a dream, and he fought for it. He fought to get his fair share of the greater things in life. Alas, man proposes, Heaven disposes. By a mishmash of unfavourable circumstances and a few bad choices made along the way, the forces that be slowly turned their backs to his dream. Then he got married. He returned to his homeland along with the rest of us after a long stay at a far away land. And as much as he’d like to bring back memories of a time well spent, all that he brought back was a physique that was not as able as it used to be, mediocre financial success, and the awkwardness that comes with rejuvenating stagnant relationships with the brothers and sisters that he was away from for so long. An old man, with the knowledge of an industry that is mostly government-controlled, can’t afford to do something as crazy as starting his own business. He can’t afford to fire that last bullet in the chamber, because if he misses, he’s got nothing to gain and everything to lose. Because for every opportunity that comes, it also comes with a risk. And he is not going to put what scarce bread there is on our tables at stake. Ever since then the fire that was blazing with life in him gradually grew dimmer and dimmer. Less time out in the great unknown, more time on the couch and the cathoderay-moving-picture-box. There was some sort of a taming of something wilder, bigger and hungrier. He threw his guns away and suddenly found contentment in mediocrity.

The wheels slowly lose their momentum, and now he’s just drifting with inertia, making ends meet with a job he repeatedly claims he’s happy with. But we all knew better. He had to shed his desires, his dreams; even his needs, to fit into this life of mediocrity. Heck, he has never bought a single shirt for himself in over a decade; he just couldn’t bear to spend the money. It struck a chord in me to see how much he has sacrificed for us. But I digress. Honestly though, I’d like to know him what he was like back in his heydays. Whether he had that little craziness in his eyes, just like a particular trolleyriding idiot we’re all familiar with. He’s been praying every single day for 27 years to the only gods he knew back when he was a kid, with them joss sticks and all. He says he prays for the safety and wellbeing of the family; the usual standard family guy prayer. But I’d like to think that he probably had a little footnote at the end of his prayer. He was probably praying for something great to just happen and kick him back into motion. Until then, though, he’s living each day with his trademark indifferent demeanor. You’d only hear the stories of greatness. The greatest heroes, the greatest villains, the greatest winners; even the greatest losers. But you never hear about the ones who lie in between. All across time, countless people took the leap and hoped they could fly. These were people who thought hard work, reinforced thick skin and the sheer force of will were all that were needed. And a handful of them did soar, and rise above the life they wanted to leave behind and towards something better for him and his loved ones. But the rest of them just dropped like flies with their eyes darting everywhere, looking for some ledge they can get their fingers on to before they hit the cold hard ground. Aye, some do manage to find safety in a stray ridge somewhere along the way down, though they become nothing more than a forgotten memory, stuck at an altitude too low to feel the light soaked up by the ones hovering above, and too high to be count himself amongst the ranks of the ones scraping at the bottom of the barrel. Maybe all Papa wanted was another chance. But like a certain man from Krypton, spending a prolonged period in the shadow stripped him of his powers. It made him forget how to break away the tricks his mind keeps playing on him. Mama grew up in a life where she never had control over anything. She didn’t have any control when her father ran away with her mother’s sister. She didn’t have any control over her mother’s occasional bouts of berserk. She didn’t have any control over the overwhelming odds of living under a single mother with six sisters and one brother. Being able to choose seemed like a far-fetched idea, much less to dream. So she thought that if life was going to make choices of its own, why bother with the trouble of fighting for them? She was a scared little girl; never quite able to relax. Because she felt like this stationary fixture in a world where everything was just changing too greatly too quickly, and the only thing she’s got left to hold on to was her dusty old set of beliefs that she never quite had a spring cleaning session with. But she still got around, and eventually, she got married. After a burglary into our house, she became a bonafide housewife and became grounded for life.

Ever since then, she and the cathode-ray-moving-picture-box have never been separated. Because that’s her only avenue into the world outside. And she didn’t seem to mind it too much. But you don’t see all the nice and pretty things on the 8 o’ clock news. You don’t see any news reporting all those people who get home safe at night. You don’t see a man who gets through the day without getting robbed blind, disemboweled or driven to suicide on the headlines. You only see the worst possible scenarios that makes the world that much colder and darker. And that’s what she has been watching for 11 years. Gradually, she became more and more detached to reality and more and more attached to one she has created on her own within the four walls of our home. And it is in this selfmade reality that she finally finds something she never had the luxury of having: control. Mama thinks the whole world is out to get us. May it be the bacteria from a handshake, to the possibility of getting robbed for going out at 7 pm. That’s why she’s obsessed with cleanliness and keeping me and Ally grounded as much as possible. All she wanted was just to keep us safe. But sometimes to our expense. As time passed, we found her requests increasingly preposterous, but Ally eventually found her head and became a sensible person. I, on the other hand, became the angry kid. There was a tension between Mama and me parallel to a Big Brother government and the resistance force. She wouldn’t give in, and neither would I. I have always been a problem child in the guise of a decent one. Now Mama is a tightrope walker. She walks it everyday. But her balancing stick is old and corroded, like crumbs falling off a bitten cookie. And down below is the deep, dark pit of depression. She’s always on the edge; praying for that extra bit of strength to hold on. To hold on just long enough to see the day when the love she gave to me given back to her. Ally, my dear sister, has always claimed to be a wildcard, associating that trait to being a Leo. But before she ever got the chance to really go crazy, working life just had to come and spoil all the fun. She, quite like me, wasn’t really one to take orders obediently. But she grew out of that little angst-y rebellious phase; mostly due to the lack of choice and the rest out of plain laziness. She was never the ambitious one; wasn’t that interested in dreaming big and wanting more out of life. Because she knows she would probably lose the passion and the determination to go the whole nine yards even before a fifth of the journey. Oh, there was a time when she dreamt. And she followed through: she ended up pursuing the field she was interested in. But the forces that be played a wicked joke on her too. Upon graduation, almost everything she learnt was replaced by something more efficient and sophisticated. Technology advances as quickly as the second hand ticks, and her knowledge was no longer demanded. A few years passed and now, she’s working in a field that was so limited that you had to be the best to get anywhere, or be trapped in an unanimated state of dead-end jobs. And just to spice things up a little more, she had to compete with younger, more knowledgeable and more competent fresh graduates. It was

in the wake of this spectacular truth that she too dumped her guns in the garbage bin and resigned into a lethargic existence. Despite being a sloth, she was a rather level-headed person with a good head on her shoulder, and sensible enough to get her gears moving when the going gets tough. Because she understands the weight of responsibility of being the eldest child and the prominent breadwinner of the family. A responsibility that she was pretty reluctant to bear at the beginning, though. So many times have I heard her wish she could just up and leave and escape to some place; any place that just wasn’t here. At times when she wasn’t thinking about venturing into unchartered territory, though, she was a walking contradiction. She sometimes offers some very sound sister-like advice, yet at other times she can do some pretty darn stupid things. Guess the little surges of stupidity runs in the family. But once again, life has made some choices of its own, and all she can do now is float along with it, and pray for two things. That she gets somewhere where she can possibly love, or that she can learn to love wherever it is she’ll end up in. But for now, she’s getting by. Albeit with a rather unhealthy dose of Japanese comics books. Now that we’re done with this lengthy introduction, let’s get along with their story. Ring ring, the telephone at home rang on a Thursday evening. Ally picked it up, thinking it was just another phone call, just to hear that it was me, asking my folks’ permission to get my head cut open. From what she told me, they took it rather well, but I knew that them taking something this big ‘well’ was ludicrous. Mama freaked out, as expected. And sure enough, Ally appeared by my cloth altar not too long after I gained consciousness from the surgery, while I was still tangled up in tubes. She was there as a scout, to check on my status. That was their foremost priority. After updating my folks on how I was doing, Papa shifted his worn out attention to the second highest priority: getting the money for the very, very expensive operation. He wasn’t exactly at the best of conditions at the time; he had a hard time getting around and required a lot of rest. He too just got off the operating table; he had a benign tumour at his ass, of all places. His obsession with insurance policies, which I suspect could be influenced by Mama’s paranoia against the world, didn’t quite pay off as he’d expected. None of them could cover this accident, because technically, it isn’t exactly an accident. Bummer. Aye, the only insurance I got was the one from the campus, and it helped. But the amount insured was still a far cry from the amount needed. So that was when Papa decided to reignite old bonds and seek help from his brothers and sisters; mostly due to proximity. Mama was just freaking out all the while. Some say money, used well, brings about the will of God. Others say money is the work of evil forces. I guess it’s more of a tool that weeds out the selfish and the greedy from the honest and the generous. I mean, have some pity on the dollar sign. If anything goes wrong, everyone always blame it on the dollar sign. That’s what the three friends who killed each other over a bag of gold did. That’s what the family who conspired against

one another for inheritance did. A poor misunderstood thing. It doesn’t take sides. It’s impartial. It just shows things, and people, as they are. Nevertheless, until it finds a voice of its own, it will never do itself justice. And for the mean time, it will just have to continue with its weeding services, such as in these circumstances. Even though we had no outstanding debts at hand or anything, we were, in all else, shit broke. In short, if something like this incident comes knocking at our door, we’re screwed. Papa only found out the exact amount needed after he crossed the straits to check on me, so he had to ask Ally to approach Uncle Juttingchin back at our little homeland. He was the closest brother to Papa, and he keeps in touch once in awhile. He’s also probably the most well-to-do among all his siblings, so it would seem like a feasible idea to get him to lend us the money. When Uncle Juttingchin first heard about what happened to me, he was pretty concerned. Asked a lot of questions, told Papa to make sure he gets certain things done; basically showing that he genuinely gave a damn. But this time, when he heard the words “borrow” and “money” in the same sentence, it was quite different story… “We’re in desperate need of money right now, Uncle Juttingchin. We just need to borrow this amount until Papa comes back from across the straits. Then we’ll return the money straight away.” Ally pleaded. “Money? Borrow? Ah, er, umm…” He was never quite the eloquent one. Then his wife came to save his day by ruining ours. “Oh, I’m so sorry, we don’t have that much to spare at the moment. After all, we need the money to pay our son’s school fees when he enters university.” “Is there any amount that you’ll be able to lend us? We would really appreciate it.” Things are not exactly looking good. “I’m sorry, it’ll be really inconvenient for us. As much as we’d like to help out, we have our son’s future to think of.” That would have been a fair enough reason. If the university semester wasn’t starting half a year later. As far as brotherly love goes, there simply wasn’t enough trust between Papa and him; especially when it comes to something as ‘sensitive’ as money. The repercussions of estranging our kinfolk had started to take shape. And Ally was all on her own to fend for herself in these troubled times. Though she may be a brave woman and able of standing her ground, I knew deep inside she had a fragility that had to be handled with care. Meanwhile, Mama was hanging on to her sanity by a thread. We knew we couldn’t count on the rest, except for one: my Godmother. Being the eldest and the wisest, we all thought we could turn to her to sort out this issue. But much to our surprise, we were disappointed again. Out of the amount required, she could only lend us one-twenty-thirds of it. She’s got a valid reason too, since she mentioned that most of her

money were on the stock market, and couldn’t take them out. And it would’ve stayed valid if only we didn’t hear that she was on an escapade in Spain just a few days after. We’ve exhausted all the people we knew in our circle of light. All we could do now was step outside the circle, jump into the dark waters and hope we don’t drown. And we were shooting blindfolded; there was no clue as to what we were going to get by asking the rest. But we found hope in the unlikely zone of grey. We ended up getting more than we bargained for when Ally approached my Second Godmother, a relative whom we consider to know the least about, where upon hearing the request, reacted in a way any Good Samaritan ought to. “How much?” No questions asked. No hesitation. No half-hearted sincerity. Aye, she didn’t contribute much; she didn’t had much to begin with. However, what she had, she gave. It could easily be passed off as another ploy or trick to give less than she could have. But we know sincerity when we see it. And it was a much needed gesture at this hour of darkness. Alas, we’ve only mustered less than half of the required amount so far, and the clock keeps ticking. On the other side of the episode, Mama started to cool down, as time dilutes all human emotions. Desperate, a fatigued Papa decided to turn to his last option and asked Ally to contact an old buddy of his. Nay, an old friend. Nay, an old acquaintance. Papa used to work under Mr. Rag some time back. A very, very long time back. I was surprised he could actually still get in touch with Mr. Rag in the first place. He was a good farmer. He puts his money at the right places in the right amounts, and watches them grow. Oh, he wasn’t a rich man, he was a wealthy man. But being a man who wields material power would not necessarily make him a magnanimous man. And even if he was, there was no cause and reason to extend his generosity to someone whose face he can barely remember. However, when Papa called him all the way across the straits, he was more than happy to lend us the remaining amount. Blessed be him. While all this was happening, apparently Uncle Juttingchin and his wife decided to earn some bonus points in God’s eyes and notified Ally that they’re willing to lend us a minute bit. And they expected us to wait for them to prepare the money on their terms. By the time their money was ready, Papa already received the amount gathered. Thinking we didn’t appreciate their token of goodwill, they decided not to take it lying down and wanted to get even. And they got even by unleashing their wrath on poor Ally that reduced her into tears. Now, there’s a natural inclination to demonize certain people and exaggerate certain facts when it comes to accounting for this event. After all, I am personally involved in it. I don’t blame Uncle Juttingchin, my Godmother, or anyone else for doing what they did, though. They were just looking out for themselves. They’ve got their own interests to protect, and that sometimes forces them to be a tad bit ruthless. And they would be savvy enough with the ways of the world to know that treachery knows no shape, form or face. The greatest betrayals in history were after all committed by kith and kin.

Once again, the infamous dollar sign has revealed to us two types of people; those who can help and those who will help. There’s a chock full of people out there who can help; it doesn’t take much to lend a hand in any of the things we could possibly need help in. But it’s only in the wake of tribulation that tells us just how many of these people would use this latent power to actually help us. So what if there ever came a time when the roles are reversed? What would I do? Would I be the former, or the latter? It’s a tough call. In blatant frankness, my folks have always considered this family as a stand alone unit. There has never been a need for a welcome mat by the front door. When Papa moved the family back here, we were devoid of any friends. Papa wasn’t bothered to, Mama didn’t know how, and Ally wasn’t allowed to. So we went the other eight yards by eliminating the need for them altogether. To ‘save ourselves the hassle’, apparently. ‘At least now we can save money on the gifts for birthdays, Christmas, and any other occasions that required gifts’, they say. Giving never really got the chance to become part of our family tradition. Cut off from the rest of the world in isolation, we were a self-sustaining unit. We had enough in our keep to maintain a monochrome subsistence. Cut off in ignorance, we were living a fool’s paradise. All we’ve got is just everything the box feeds us with; it could fudge us that the other half of the world has turned into the walking dead and we’d be never the wiser. But cut off without friends, we’d stay as poor as we could be. ‘No man is a failure when he’s got friends.’ Har har.

Chapter 11 Lost In Translation Days go by, and the pieces were slowly coming together to show me just how big of a mess I left behind for my family. And it’s the kind of mess that’s greater than just me and myself. The kind of mess that is just beyond me to clean up on my own. It’s a shitty feeling to be left helpless and heart-wrenched as I watched everyone carry the cross that was supposed to be mine to bear. Then it hit upon me that I was starting to feel something that I haven’t felt for a long, long time: Uncertainty. It was not a time and place that I was proud to find myself in, but the arrogant demon in me so conveniently chose this moment to keep my eyes open and make me see what this episode did to my inner game. There suddenly was a hole in the impenetrable fortress wall of my unshakable kingdom. It was that dreadful feeling that slowly creeps up your spine when you realize that you’re not bulletproof when all the gut and intestines start spilling out. That this man of steel was very much more damaged than invincible. But what felt even worse was to be ripped apart by the guilt and regret of someone who messed up and the alpha male that’s telling me to stop acting like a pansy. It just feels like I’m getting everything wrong. So I write. I’ve been writing almost every other hour that I’m allowed my own activities. And gradually, it has been all I’ve been thinking about. I was slowly being enslaved to the captivating and fascinating world of words without even knowing it. Just as obliviously, I betrayed everything that I should be doing here and now; I was forgetting why I begun this anthology. And when you’re serving one master, there simply isn’t enough room for another. Nevertheless, every time I write, the letters form words, the words form sentences, the sentences form paragraphs, and the whole thing grows and grows to sizes big enough to topple the walls and show me a way out. Despite the treachery involved, my new master was helping me get by. I write, as honestly and earnestly as I can, about everything my mind has been conjuring, may it be good, bad or downright ugly. I had confidence in the harsh and unbiased selfcritic in me. But just how true and uncensored could your own self be when criticizing your own flaws? There was always room for error, and hence doubt in its credibility. That’s when I decided to seek the aid of an old friend. Hairyback is probably one of those few friends of mine whose words I actually revere and take in high regard. Not to say that the words from the others are worthless, but he’s got that extra credibility in being relatively well-versed in some the lesser known but nonetheless valuable things that most people our age couldn’t be bothered with: the Classics. There’s a whole treasure trove of wisdom buried in there that a lot of people overlook as outdated and obsolete ideas. He’s a tad bit eccentric sometimes, with a cruel sarcastic edge. Alas, most people of distinction are usually this miserable. And to think this punk ass is actually younger than me. He’s also one of the few people whom I’m in almost constant correspondence with through the electric sea all the while. That’s all we’ve got to keep in contact, with him back at his native land of India now (Hence his name).Through the twenty six alphabets,

ten single-digit numbers and some miscellaneous characters on our keyboard, we converse across miles of waters nearly fully swarming with information, profiles of masochists looking for sadists, news and bestial porn. Hell, look in the right nooks and you can find anything in the electric sea. But we’re safe from all the nastiness hidden in there. Our minds aren’t that twisted yet. He found out about the whole trolley fiasco through the friends who came to visit me. And he was, needless to say, both stupefied and infuriated by the baffling superior quality of my baffling inferior thinking. Through the privacy of a little dialogue box on the screen of our laptops, we initiated our conference.
Hairyback says: What the hell were you thinking?

I think I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked that question.
Impaledfish says: I haven’t actually come up with a decently functioning answer for that, actually.

Impaledfish was my usual moniker in these chats.
Hairyback says: Look, I knew there was something wrong with your head, but I didn’t know it was that bad.

It was actually a compliment, looked in the right way.
Impaledfish says: And it’s probably gotten worse, I guess, with the state that it’s in now. Hairyback says: Crowley, you’re fucking insane.

And the few sentences that came after that were basically derivatives of the same meaning of this statement. Let’s skip all that to get along with the story.
Impaledfish says: Alright, yes, so I am insane. Does that provide a more logical explanation?

Hey, I had to end it somewhere.
Hairyback says: Yeah, that does sound a little better. So, how have you been, dude? Impaledfish says: Still holding the pieces together. Heard you’re not doing too bad yourself.

Hairyback says: I’m getting by. With you in this state, I doubt you can actually do much, much less step out of the house. What can you actually do these days and not kill yourself in the process? Impaledfish says: Well, I’ve been working on a little book of sorts. Hairyback says: My my, what a lofty little project. A book, eh? What’s it about?

I knew for a fact that if I told him about the whole deal with Mr. Jeremy and the hanging torso, and say that it’s non-fictional, he’d just shut me up.
Impaledfish says: It’s a fictional work with bits and pieces of me put in it.

It was a lie that was much easier to swallow.
Hairyback says: Ah, interesting. Having writer’s block yet? Impaledfish says: Not yet. But it’s all starting to get blurry though. Hairyback says: A geyser never dies; it just lies buried. Dig deep enough and it’ll all come gushing back out. - Aristotle.

I smell a lie.
Impaledfish says: For real? Hairyback says: … Ok, it was just something I made up off the top of my head. But a quote you come up with always sounds a little more credible if you credit it to some renowned historical figure, no? Impaledfish says: Point taken. A placebo worth keeping.

So I told him the premise of the whole story and the events that came to pass, both believable and unbelievable.
Impaledfish says: But I added a bit of me in the thoughts, emotions and feelings.

Hairyback says: I figured as much. You dramatic little bastard. Impledfish says: I don’t know if it’ll all come through, though. I do my best to be my own harshest critic…

But before I could finish…
Hairyback says: That’s a whole load of bullshit, man. You can never be your own harshest critic, no matter how hard you think you may be trying. Even if you can bring yourself to the limit, and even if you don’t flinch when you come face to face with the darkest parts of yourself; you can never bring everything out. You’re not supposed to. There will always be something in the way; something stopping you from nipping it from the bud. That’s why writers always lose something in the translation from their head to the paper. Impaledfish says: Any idea how to get around it? With all that has happened, it’s high time I oughta come clean with myself.

Somehow, I already knew I was fighting a lost cause.
Hairyback says: There ain’t no way around it, dude. I get what you’re trying to do, and it’s cool; I respect that. But you simply can’t be trusted to be totally honest with yourself just because you told yourself that you will be. Same goes for everyone else.

And this is when he gets all analytical and diagnostic.
Hairyback says: I mean, I’m not much of a psychoanalyst, but there’s just this something in our heads; some sort of defense mechanism, that preserves the wellbeing of the self. There’s a constant tension between what you’re showing everyone as far as the eye can see, and what you really are inside. After being exposed to the nuclear fallout called life for all this time, it has turned the latter into quite a fucking mess. Now, the filters in your head; the things telling you what’s conventional and ‘right’, will push this wreck into the top secret part of your head. But you, being the occasional nosy parker, may find your way into this shady little section. And just when you’re about to open the Pandora’s box, that’s when this little defense mechanism in your head comes in to stop you. It will do just about anything to protect you from going postal.

Even if it means covering up the dark and twisted parts of your mind with some nice and pretty lies. Impaledfish says: The lecture ended an hour ago, Mr. Freud. Hairyback says: You bloody fool, are you even listening? People actually pay to hear these priceless nuggets of info. Impaledfish says: I hear you man. Loud and clear.

Despite the impossible task to actually fully experience the whole scenario play out in my head, I knew that was what was happening to me. All this; all I’ve written. That’s proof enough. The screaming started. Laptop curfew was up.
Impaledfish says: Hey dude, gotta go now. I’ll go cry and mope in my room now at the pointlessness of my work. Hairyback says: Hardy har har. Send me what you’ve written so far before you go. Impaledfish says: You still want to read it? Shit, who knows, this might actually be the next critically acclaimed work in the world of literature. I’m not going to let you plagiarize my baby. Hairyback says: Hey, if I wanted to plagiarize someone’s work, I’ll pick someone with his brains still intact. Just send it over. It’ll give me something to do during office hours anyway.

Like a message in a bottle, I sent it floating across the high speed currents of the electric sea.
Impaledfish says: Alright, it’s done. Don’t go getting a brain hemorrhage from reading it, now. Hairyback says: Are you being the usual arrogant prick, or am I actually seeing a humble side of Crowley for once?

Impaledfish says: Sorry to disappoint you, dude; you know me better than that. My time’s up. Cheers.

Yeah, that’s where them demons are hiding: the little top secret section in my head. Ironically, the pursuit of literary perfection has brought me back to them. Seems like all the pieces of me I’ve invested in this little book are hiding a deeper, bigger truth about myself that will never see the light of day. A truth that I know will never be exposed unless I rid my head of them demons. And that’s just beyond my means. The most this book can be is the first volume of probably many more diligent, albeit mostly pointless, attempts in the future to get the truth out. Because it’ll always have that tinge of cowardice; that preprogrammed fear of the consequences of letting everything out. But perhaps that ‘something’ in our heads is really doing us a favour by protecting us from what we might see when we do get all them demons out. Maybe we just can’t handle the truth. It seems to be the latest trend in town for things to go breaking down. First my head, then my academic life, and now piece by piece this illusion is collapsing. I was slowly being stripped of my trophies and winnings, and this infallible self was dwindling down. Now that I’ve been brought down to my most fundamental level, I wasn’t so sure who I was anymore. A robot gone haywire. Yeah, it might actually be easier to think of myself that way. A machine that was dysfunctional by design. Slightly impaired and severely confused, what becomes of me now? I become what every other thing that wants to keep living but can’t quite be fixed becomes. To always be in repair. So what now, pack up my bags and walk away from carrying on these words? I can’t walk away now. Not after going this far and putting in this much. Even if it is indeed futile… I’ll squeeze it for what it’s worth.

Chapter 12 Sympathy For Mr. Hyde I was on a train, standing between two cabins, on my way to somewhere. Intervals of light and darkness play out a cosmic battle on the train windows as the train passes lights in the tunnel. I watch the epic struggle between the two; mouth agape in awe at the relentless charging across the fields of the spectrum and unyielding standing of their grounds of the two sides on one part, laughing at the ridiculous futility of the mandatory hostility between the two sides on the other. But I guess that’s what keeps them going. Part of the view was obstructed by the people on the seats, drifting in and out of sleep. I wonder what they dream about. I wonder what’s going through the minds of those blokes with enough piercings on their bodies to require sulphuric acid and sandpaper almost every other week just for maintenance. I wonder what that lady with the generous cleavage is thinking about. And I wonder what this gentleman with the sleek suit standing in front of me is possibly processing in his head while going through a big ass document. The battle came to a close as the tunnel went into perpetual darkness. And I drowned myself in the noise of the wheels on the rails. Suddenly the whole train started shaking terribly. Fearing the cabins might start ripping apart, I pushed the man in the suit to the safety of the cabin to my right. Right then, the metal bar stretching across the centre of the cabin broke loose and, with the velocity that the train was traveling, smashed right through my breastbone. My warm innards made the bar feel colder than it was. A familiar colour oozed out of my chest. My eyes started getting blurry as the people suddenly snapped out of their slumber and came to help me. But nothing could save me now. The consolation I got wasn’t too shabby, though. At least I saved a life before my time was up. My eyes were greeted by sunlight coming through the grills. Roll call. It’s been awhile since I had a dream. And of all dreams to have, I had to have this one. It was such a sleazy attempt at orchestrating the perfect death, but it always comes off gratifying at the end. Was it telling something about myself? I haven’t the slightest clue. So I got up and went back to writing. But before I could go as far as I’d like, an unexpected intervention came knocking on my laptop screen. It was Hairyback, doing his trusty job as a critique.
Hairyback says: Crowley, just finished reading your draft. You better get yourself a new head. Because this one’s filled with shit to the brim. Impaledfish says: Well, hello to you too. Enlighten me. Hairyback says: Ok, tell me something, Crowley.

What do you plan to do with this when you’re done? And for the love of beancurd, be honest. Impaledfish says: It’s just a little personal memoir, dude. I’ll probably keep it at the back of my drawer as a testament of everything that has happened to me lately.

That lie just slipped right off my tongue like second nature. Old habits don’t go down without a fight.
Hairyback says: … Alright, I’ll believe you this time. Because I’ll tell you right now, if you’re actually going to let people read this, it’s going to take a whole lot more than this to make people sympathize with you.

He got me.
Impaledfish says: What’s wrong with it? Hairyback says: Do you really think they will take you for your word that you’re as messed up as you portray yourself to be? As a matter of fact, do you think YOU’RE actually as messed up as you THINK you are? Impaledfish says: I don’t know dude. I… just write it as honestly as I can. Hairyback says: No, you’re just writing it to gain as much attention as possible, you sick little bastard! Dude, you’re magnifying all your sins beyond proportion. You’re just trying too hard to make yourself look pitiful.

Alas, my days of deception have finally caught up me. Of all days it chose to bite my ass, it had to choose the day when I wanted to speak the truth. Then again, my dear reader, who knows this, could just be another lie? A classic textbook example of ‘Cry Wolf’.
Impaledfish says: I meant every single damn word in it. I’m a writer, not a preacher; I can’t make you believe my words if you don’t want to. Aye, maybe I may sound too self-punishing to be sincere. But I can’t deny that I am not a good man. Hairyback says: Just because you’re not a good man doesn’t automatically make you a bad man by default. You’re just an in-between.

A half-assed inert being that is less than good but just slightly more than bad. Not everyone has the privilege to be labeled as a bad man; it’s not that easy. Impaledfish says: Who is to judge who becomes the bad guy then? What’s the friggin’ criteria to pass? Because all the things in my head would make a lot more sense if I was just a bad guy. Hairyback says: I’d expect you to put up a fight, but with your feeble effort, let me fight me on your behalf. You wanna be the bad guy so you’ll have something to put the blame on for all the dirty little things that float around in your head. You’ll have a reason to do all the messed up things you secretly always wanted to do. And if they ask you why you’re doing all this, you’ll have the perfect excuse to get away with it. “Oh, because I’m the bad guy.”

It was indeed a more convenient and pragmatic coat to wear than to sport the tight, restrictive and protocol-laden coat of the saint.
Impaledfish says: Look here, I’m not baring my soul out there just to prove something. And I’m definitely not interested in getting judged by anyone, much less you. Nor I am asking anyone to feel sorry for me; I don’t find the need to resort to that yet. Just know that the person you’re talking is more messed up than pretentious. Hairyback says: You’re not messed up. You see, people who think they’re messed up aren’t actually that messed up. They just WANT to be messed up.

Amen to that. Just like the Good Doctor of Paris who was damned to hell because demons came and took all his good deeds and spun them into conceited acts, maybe them demons are playing tricks with my head. Or maybe I’m just making life more difficult for myself than it is already.
Impaledfish says: I think that’s the largest number of times I saw ‘messed up’ in a reply. Well, maybe you’re right dude. Nobody really knows what we’re all really up to but ourselves. Hairyback says: … What game are you playing, Crowley? This is way out of your character here.

That’s true, even I was surprised with my unconditional concurrence, especially when it was regarding something that I was, more or less, proud of.

Impaledfish says: Aye, it’s quite unlike me to go all introspective, but well, this year started off pretty rough for me, with one thing happening after another, and everything’s been falling apart. My family, my life, my head. And in these times of distress, I’ve said and done some things which I shouldn’t have. So I want to make things right for a change, you know. I guess figuring out which part of me all those things came from would be start. If these are just outbursts from an upset and still-as-yet unrepentant me; nothing more to it, Or if it’s coming from something… more sinister inside. Hairyback says: Relax brother, everyone errs. You can’t expect yourself to be upright all the time. So don’t get over intellectual about the whole thing. Give your head a break. You just broke it not too long ago, for crying out loud.

Ahh, what a nice thing to hear. “Everyone errs.” And for a period of time, it sufficed. But now it just doesn’t have the same oomph it had before. Because when I woke up that morning with that eye, a lot of the statements in my head that I was so sure of have suddenly grown little extensions at their behinds: question marks. So I’m desperately looking for some answers to the increasingly difficult questions assaulting my brain in the form of, literally, splitting headaches. I got to get myself some stronger pain relievers.
Impaledfish says: I don’t mind if the truth sucks. I don’t mind if it’s not what I’d want to hear. Something; just something to help me live with myself a little better, That would be nice.

When you’re desperate for something to believe in, you’re a slut for the next rational notion you hear. You become easily convinced, easily taken, easily bought out. Anything goes. As cheap as I may sound, though, I’m taking it for what it’s worth. Even if I was believing in it just for the sake of wanting something to believe in. Because I couldn’t keep myself afloat on this cloud of nothingness in a sky of questions marks any longer.
Hairyback says: Dude, I think the trolley has really knocked some circuits loose. Go sleep it off. Now you’re giving me a headache. Have a good one now, Crowley. Impaledfish says: Yeah. Thanks for the feedback. Cheers.

The good thing about Hairyback was that he was not one to say all the overused and utterly useless lines every friend says when you’re having a bad time. “Give me a call if anything, alright?” or “I’ll be around if you need someone” and all that crap. It was good to have friends like these; friends who slap you to your senses when you get too whiny. But with all that’s said I still have come to no conclusion on whether I’m a Jekyll or a Hyde. Or maybe I’m just an in-between. Does that mean I get the best of both worlds, or am I instead punished by the flaws of both? I just don’t know anymore. And not knowing is probably the only certain thing our little human minds will ever know. Ignorance was safe, relatable and popular, so it seemed like a practical state to fall back on. I shrugged these matters of intellect aside and went on to check my mail. Nothing from anyone, as usual. I started wondering about how everything was going across the straits. My imagination runs loose every time I let my guard down, and this time, I found myself thinking if there was another me over there right this moment. Has he won over my friends in my absence with the exact same charm and wit that I had? Was he now sitting on my throne and being fed grapes? And it came down to what would happen if we met each other. Whether we’d be bosom buddies, or bitter enemies. Whether we’d be helping each other get whatever we want. Or destroying everything we love. Because with or against each other, we’d probably be unstoppable. Suddenly a strange wave of anxiety came over me. My right eye twitched.

The Attack Part I I knew something was up when my right eye twitched. As I walked back from the toilet to my room, every step taken seemed to inject a dose of adrenaline into my bloodstream. Blood was rushing throughout my whole body; I was getting a bloody erection for no reason. But then it stopped just to be replaced by a deep intense pain I would probably feel if someone stabbed an ice pick right into my eye and broke its handle off. As with any other average person who faces a problem with his eye, I rubbed it. If I rubbed it long and hard enough, I could get whatever is in there out and make the pain stop. But the tears kept rolling, and the pain remained. At a time like this, my brain was preoccupied, assaulted by the pain in my eye to feel any fear. But I could still feel my heart pumping fast. I stumbled and staggered back as the door to my room got that much closer. After the last encounter I had with one of them demons, I have no idea what I’ll be up against now. And I knew that I’d be in no state to face whatever it is when all that I can think of is ripping my eye out. But there was something about the door knob that I couldn’t run away from. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. After all, I paid my soul for this eye; to hell am I going to put to waste the most expensive thing I ever bought. It better not fail me now. Alas, the agony spreading across my eye persisted. My hand gripped the round door knob and quickly turned it, driven by a man who was in excruciating pain, desperately seeking whatever form of solace lies behind the door. But when I stepped inside, it looked nothing like my room. It was a windowless room, with a solitary light bulb hanging above a simple wooden table. The walls were covered with Polaroids in their entirety. The pain was gone from my eye; a strangely comfortable warmth took its place. Bewildered with everything that was happening, I found myself walking towards the table. On the table was a beat up cathode-ray-moving-picture-box, with two bowls, one on each side of the box. They both contained beef jerky, for some reason, though the one on the right was almost filled to the brim, while the one on the left only had a single slice. They were neatly cut, of almost uniform length and width. Looked pretty darn appetitewhetting, if you ask me. I walked nearer and he finally came into view; a young boy, probably in his mid teens, was watching the screen as if someone was going to come and offer him gold if he kept his eyes nailed there long enough. His hair was all messed up and greasy, and his hunched physique made an anorexic boy look obese. But it was his eyes that freaked me out; they were a whirlpool of abominations, sucking in anyone who had the balls to look him in the eye. “What’s eating you, dude?” No pun intended. “Him.” His eyes still straight at the screen, his vision unwavering.

I tried to see what he was watching, and all I could see was a man, though his face always seemed to be obstructed by a well-placed or well-timed object. He seemed pretty wellbuilt, dressed rather splendidly and moved with a charming flamboyance. Apparently he was quite the popular one too. By his side was a woman, and a gorgeous one, at that. She was all over him, and seemed totally smitten with the lad. And surrounding him were a group of people that appeared to be his loyal subjects. It was pretty obvious how they genuinely seemed to hold him in high esteem. On his table was some rather impressive looking food that made the beef jerky from before look like horse fodder. Nevertheless, he seemed like someone who could inspire respect and admiration from everyone around him. He is, indeed, living the life. So I can’t quite piece out what’s so bad about this guy that could reduce the young boy watching him into his current pathetic state. “Seems like a pretty cool bloke. So what’s wrong with him?” I asked the boy. “Even you think so, eh? That man is a bastard. He… He took everything from me. Everything.” He sounded tired, but angry. I still had no idea what really was taking place, so I stuck around to hear his story. The young boy seemed like he could use some company, anyway. “What happened?” “Take a seat. And I’ll show you everything.” He motioned to a chair that I swore wasn’t there moments ago. I sat down and watched the screen. The picture quality was not exactly wonderful, so I had to lean forward to actually see what was going on. Gradually, though, the screen started getting clearer and clearer as it zoomed in on the man whose face I still couldn’t see. And the next thing I knew, I had probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on in my arms. It’s not like me to be dazed by beauty, but something was telling me to make an exception this time. So I took delight in the love and affection she was showering me. For some odd reason that was beyond me, I found myself wearing some very fine, and expensive, looking clothes, sitting in a chamber worthy of a king. There was lightness in my movements and a graceful ease in my gestures. Everyone else around me seemed to genuinely enjoy my presence and actually demanded my company. The abrupt overload of attention was all a little too unusual for me, but I quickly snuggled up to the newfound celebrity status. The hands on the clock spun out of control, but the limelight remained on me. It was good to be the man on the screen. So I was relishing this uninterrupted moment with my woman and my friends in my little grand home, savouring the excellent food on the table, each bite rendering me more and more helpless in surrendering my happiness to them. It just felt like my whole world was built upon it. And there was no one else around to take it away; no one who could be

considered a contender. Then I saw him outside the window. The man with no face. Nonetheless, he was just lingering there in the shadows; didn’t seem like a threat. There was a quality of similarity about him, if not a lesser version. Eventually, though, the food ran out. The crowd started fading. My woman’s embrace started loosening. The limelight dimmed. As the life slowly died down in my corner, there seemed to be a commotion happening at another corner. Everyone seemed to be gathering around something. I tried to get a better look and it turned out they were gathering around that man. I still couldn’t quite see his face though. But this man just came and took away everything as suddenly as I got them. Now, he is what I was. And I couldn’t just take that lying down. All those adolescent insecurities that were buried so long ago resurfaced. The insignificant uncertainty that I cast away back in my teenage years came back to remind me just how significant it was back then. Slowly I started reliving those awkward juvenile years, where the irrelevant pursuit of attention and proof of self-worth seemed like everything. It seemed funny at first, but this state of thoughts was starting to feel a lot more real as the seconds passed. And it was consuming me with something I haven’t felt in a long while, but I couldn’t quite put my finger at what it was called. So I went to confront him at his corner; there was no way such a surreal turn of circumstances could have happened. And I came closer… And closer… And I hit my nose against an invisible wall. I found myself back on my chair, my face just inches from the screen. My nose was feeling a funny tingling. I saw that man in screen and I felt this intense urge to rip the box apart to pull him out and do some very disconcerting things to him. I grabbed the box and started shaking it vigorously, hoping that he would hear me, see me in my miserable state through the screen, sympathize with me and give everything back to me. But my wails fell on deaf ears. All I could do now was just watch this man; monitor, study, and plot how I would bring him to his knees and come crawling to me for forgiveness. And I would run that scenario over and over again in my head, like a golfer perfecting his game mentally. The life was dissipating from my body, and my eyes were locked on to that stature that I once respected but now loathed. All the while, I kept speculating what this man looked like; the face of the subject of my vendetta. A voice whispered to me. “What’s eating you, dude?” “Envy.” I muttered mindlessly. I don’t know how much time has passed, but it felt like forever. Then it happened. The man turned around. And unlike every other occasion, there were no obstructions in the vicinity; nothing to get in the way between my watchful eyes and his wretched face. I finally saw his face.

It was me without the scar on my head. If it was any other time, it would have looked like a bad cliché from a cheap B-grade horror picture show. But in this case, this revelation was less of a twist and more of an epiphany. Jealousy warps everything happy into something miserable, and that was simply something I would refuse to my waste my time in. I smacked my forehead feeling so goddamn ridiculed that I ever doubted for a minute my own capability to bring myself happiness. Why bother being the boy when I can be the man? I wouldn’t give in; I refused to. So I killed all the hate and anguish that was currently rendering me defenseless like a traitor in my ranks. Not because the better part of me triumphed, though; I just didn’t want to look bad. My nauseating pride that at other times would have brought me to an early demise saved me once again. Knives and forks rattled in glee somewhere in my head. “Whoa… what the hell was that?” It was funny getting snapped out of a sub-sub-reality into a sub-reality. The young boy was sitting there beside me. This old friend has been playing me all this while. And I was such an enthusiastic participant in his game. Where was intelligence when I needed it? But he still seemed totally engrossed with watching the man. From whispers to screams, I tried talking some sense into him. Nothing worked. I tried to switch the box off. The programme has lost its appeal, and I wanted this boy to snap out of his delusions. Because I knew that somewhere under that shriveled, feeble body in which the corrosive nature of envy has reduced him into, I was looking at myself. But nothing worked. There were no cables or wires plugged into it, nor was there a power button. My hand was rested firmly on a chair. And it was clear what needed to be done. The chair was raised. Hands steady. The wind from the swing moved even the greasy mess on the boy’s hair. And the screen came crashing into a million little pieces.

The Attack Part II “It’s all over, boy. Stop sulking and start making life less miserable for yourself.” I said to him, apparently still in a daze from the heavy watching. And a smile, something that he probably hasn’t done in awhile, appeared on his face. “Yes… it’s finally over, Crowley. That man is dead. He can’t take anything away from me now.” But his smile seemed a little too perverse to be a sign of closure. He stood up weakly, since all the meat was almost stripped from his bones. He dragged himself to the closest wall and started admiring the photographs. He lifted his bony arms and lightly traced the pictures with his trembling fingers. Though it was almost pitch black at where he was standing, I could roughly make out some scrawling on the topside of his forearms, and strips of red on the bottom side. “He’s gone. Everyone will start loving me again.” And he laughed the kind of laughter you hear when someone’s hatred has been lifted just to leave behind a washed out athlete stuck in his glorious championship season that was over a decade ago. Not that I’d know how that would sound like. “Does it mean so much to you? To be loved?” I tread cautiously towards him. “It means everything!!” He shrieked. With a sudden turn, he rushed towards me, albeit clumsily, and yanked me by the collar. “And I know just how much it means to you too, Crowley.” Oh, I recognized that crazy look in his eyes, alright. But then I saw something crazier. Apparently what was scribbled on the topside of his forearms were the words “They Love Me” on his left arm and “They Love Me Not” on his right. And I finally figured out where those slices of beef jerky came from when. “Nice tattoos you got there; very neat. But why only get one on your left?” It wasn’t a very pleasant sight, I can assure you. Especially with the bloody potato peeler in his pocket. “This one was for all the times I tried convincing myself that I was the better man. All the lies, the lies; THE LIES I told myself that they will be back.” My my. Not only is he a psycho, but one with a low self esteem too. Don’t suppose he’ll be gunning down any public schools anytime soon. He probably can’t stand the embarrassment if his gun got jammed in the process. “But they never came back, eh?” I mocked him, not realizing the hypocrite I am. Then something caught my attention. It was the Polaroid that he was gazing at just now.

“Days, weeks, months, years; they’ve left me out in the cold. And I watched them build their home, have their feast, make their love…” “You’re quite the voyeur, aren’t you? Them folks in there should’ve locked their doors.” But my mind wasn’t on his endless drivel. I walked straight towards that picture. “They never locked the door. But they never kept it open for me either.” “If they didn’t lock it, then you can go in there anytime; what more do you want?” My footsteps stopped echoing around the room. “A ‘welcome home’ mat by the entrance. Warm hands to take me in. Hot chocolate made just for me. I want all that and then some!” “Well, boy, life ain’t no fairy tale.” My eyes were now fixed on the picture. All over the wall were pictures commemorating feats of courage and integrity. First I saw some everyday commonplace acts; deeds that rooted from an earnest cause. Gradually, though, the pictures started becoming more and more far-fetched, with demonstrations of bold grandeur. Nevertheless, The face of the working class champion in them was concealed by cutouts of the young boy’s face, including the one I was looking at. But it was undeniable. I was looking at the dream that haunted me some time back, manifested in the form of a photograph. It was depicting the same scenario I envisioned myself in a daydream not too long ago. You know; the ones you read in Chapter 1 and Chapter 12. It was me impaled through the heart. Like Odin hanging on the branches of Yggdrasil. “Tell me something. Where did you get these pictures?” I asked the boy. “These were pictures of that scumbag who took everything away. Yeah, he thought he could bring me down by locking me in here and making me stare at him everywhere, glorified as the unsung hero. But no, no, no… I wouldn’t let him have his way. So I made them mine.” He giggled like a loony. Unapologetically, I took the picture off the wall and ripped off the boy’s face from it. “NO! What are you doing to my favourite one?” He snatched it away from me hysterically. “This… this was what I always wanted to be. The tragic hero, yes, the tragic hero. I’ll be the hero that gave his life to save another. And my memory would live on forever and ever and ever. That’s something not even that man can take away.” He clutched it tightly against his chest. Ok, this guy probably had too much crack for his own good.

“Does that make you feel better, living out someone else’s life?” I strolled around to see the other pictures. “It’s mine! It’s all mine! All eyes are on me!” What would I give for a bottle of kerosene and a match right now. It was time for me to leave all this behind. I walked towards the door. “Wh, where are you going, Crowley?” “Leaving you behind.” “You need me. You and I; we’re made of the same thing. You can’t do without me in your life.” I thought of it. I thought of all those times I was envious. It was like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere. Except that in this case, you’re strapped on to one that had a BBQ pit as its seat cushion. So you keep rocking to keep your ass off the burning charcoal. And it would work for awhile. But as every bloke on the street would know, the more you rock the chair, the stronger the wind that blows through it. And the stronger the wind, the greater the flame roasting your ass. That was something I didn’t want to experience again. “No, we’re quite different actually. I’m strong. You’re weak. I’m Crowley. You’re just a whiny little freak.” He laughed as if it was the most ridiculous he’s ever heard. “So now that you’ve outgrown your old friend, you’re just leaving him in his rut, eh? You ingrate. It was me who guided you along those dark hours. ME. And now where do you think you’re going? Where can you go? What, even you want to go find that man?” “For the record, it was me who was stupid enough to keep you alive all this time. ME. And since when did I start taking orders from you? You, who spend all day watching the life you want instead of creating it. I’m not keen on the idea of seeing everyone as a likely enemy; life is too short to be living in fear. You get to the top by eradicating anyone whom you might think is a possible threat. I go out and compete with the best to get there.” I paused for effect. Think I got into it after the visit from Mr. Jeremy. “And I let them know when they play with me; they’re playing with the best.” I looked him in his bloodshot eyes as I said that. The boy held on to his potato peeler for dear life.

“Misery loves company, but so far I’ve never come across any sort of company who would love to have misery around. Nobody wants to stick around to hear about your bloody problems. Nobody gives a damn about your problems. Everyone’s got their own crosses to bear; they don’t want yours to add to that weight.” The two glass bowls of beef jerky came crashing to the ground as I swiped them off the table. “Be my guest if you want to feel sorry for yourself for the rest of your life. But not here; not in my head. You’re not getting any sympathy from me by doing all this, and you’re not getting any from anyone else either.” I pried the potato peeler away from his feeble fingers and thrust it into the table. It won’t be going anywhere for a long while. I opened the door and I walked out. But just before I closed it, I said to the boy: “I will not lock this door. Nor will I leave it wide open. The door will be right here, waiting for you to open it. All you got to do is leave all this behind.” And the door clicked shut. Such a pity; this poor boy could have been something greater. A fighter. A warrior. A general. A king. Anything that runs on the pure energy derived from the desire of being stronger, better and smarter than everyone else. If only he could get beyond that door. Instead he chose to destroy himself by surrendering to envy. I’ve closed off that chapter of my life; I didn’t need that shit in my life anymore. Indeed I used to be a jealous little creature. I used to be so afraid that someone would come and take everything away from me, and I, with my limited strength, would be powerless to do anything about it. So I found it easier to cast everything away so he won’t have anything to lay his hands on. The more you win, the more you’ll have on your table to lose; if you win nothing, you’ll have nothing to lose. But that was no way to live. You win some, you lose some. Life was not designed to be played by gentlemen in the first place; it’s a hooligan’s game. It ain’t written anywhere that everyone was going to play by the rules. So if we’re hooligans by default, I might as well be the hooligan that wins as much chips from the table as I can. At least I’ll still walk away with some tucked away in a little hidden pocket when them other hooligans rob me. Everyone needs a little hidden pocket. For the chips that were rightfully ours; the chips that no one can buy off us; the chips that no one can steal. And as I walked away, I could’ve sworn I heard the door open.

Chapter 13 Almost Leaving As the progress of my health became increasingly evident with time, my folks slowly introducing some privileges. The one that mattered to me the most was the fact that I could put my foot out of that front gate again. And with timing almost too accurate to be coincidental, an unexpected friend called me out for coffee. To suppress something as intense and persistent as envy wasn’t as instant as cup noodles. I admit it still gets my ass burned from time to time. It’s not something that you can do on your own, because you’re the one driving the one thing that you want to stop. But the world isn’t entirely filled with cold, distant islands. There will be some good people you’ll come across in your life that will save you from destroying yourself. And I probably have to give this one man the credit for making me realize that jealousy doesn’t necessarily have to always be the only feeling you have towards someone better than you. Because when I met this man, there was just no way could I possibly be jealous of him. Bluntly put, he is someone who I wouldn’t mind being second to. Back in my school days, they never really taught me respect in class; all the other times I abided and obeyed was normally out of the fear of the consequences if I didn’t. So I taught myself to respect him. But he taught me to respect myself. He was my officer-in-charge back when I was in the army. Where I was posted to, there were no charges up the hill, no dunking of heads in water, and no knuckle pushups for the entire platoon. I was posted to a place where it was too peaceful for its own good. And I, a hyped up kid in a place that might possibly produce the next batch of modern day heroes, was just standing by; waiting for greatness to call. Until I figured that greatness decided to give this place a pass. Our foxholes were office cubicles. Keyboards were our rifles; mice our grenades. Well, we don’t exactly throw them around or anything, but you get my drift. Serving the army was such a breeze that we could pretty much get through those two years without really giving a damn about anything; all we had to do was clock in the morning, mind our own business, and clock out in the evening. That’s why I salute this man with both my hands for being able to command respect and motivate this ragtag bunch of bored, uninterested personnel. He was, and I’ll say this unabashedly, a man’s man. He excelled in all the things he knows. He assessed and handled things with a poise and confidence no one that I know has. His inner game was unbreakable. Yes, this sounds like some shameless recommendation letter. But it wasn’t all this that put me in awe. Everybody needs someone to look up to, someone to inspire them, someone to tell them “If I can do it, you can do it too; and maybe even better.” Everybody needs someone who brings out the best in them. And it was his drive to bring others up to his level rather than to accentuate how inadequate we are that won my respect. It was based on him that I found the template to build myself into the man that I want to be. I’ve been under construction ever since; after all, I still had these old friends to rid along the way. So I stepped out of the house for the first time in a very, very long time. I took those voices that used to tease and mock me and slapped them in the face. You don’t have to be

a freedom fighter in a war torn land that finally brought down the oppressor to know how it feels to be free. Just emancipating yourself from the prison in your head would give you a pretty good feel of it. And the utter act of simply walking out the front door fully embodied that symbolism. I felt the soft breeze on my cheek. My ears soaked up the rustling of leaves as the trees communed with each other. I rediscovered the love I had for these little things around me. It was beautiful. With a smile on my face, I boarded the buses and the trains that I could only see from my window not so long ago. But it seems like nothing much has changed. Everyone still had that post-coital emptiness in their eyes. Everyone still kept their heads down as if out of fear that the sky would fall on them if they not more than just peeked at it. Nobody made eye contact anymore: that’s what I summed up from my little observation of the masses. Then again, I don’t think they ever did. So I was minding my business, proving my thesis right, when I happened to chance upon a woman looking at my direction. Finally, some eye contact. Now, just for the heck of seeing what would happen, I smiled at her. And she immediately looked away as if I was the Reaper himself. It was pretty darn bizarre, I tell you. What was more bizarre, though, was something more… biological. That woman I smiled at wasn’t exactly gorgeous by any chance. But after being exiled to my tower for around a month, every woman I saw on the street suddenly became beautiful. And at this tender age where hormones are still raging, a month was more than enough time to mess up your mind. I was getting an erection for looking at an elderly woman, for crying out loud. There was something really wrong with my head. But like an oasis in the midst of the desert of the blind, deaf and mute (and the horny), I finally met up with my friend. Manbreasts was sitting in a coffee shop, drinking his milk tea and smoking his cigarette. “It’s been awhile, brother.” I said to him as I sat down and took off my cap to cool off my sweaty head. He slowly looked up. “Aye, indeed… what the fuck happened to your head?” Here we go again. “Oh, this? Traffic accident.” Spares me the trouble of explaining that I’m crazy, but I’m not, but actually I am, a little bit. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. “Ouch, nasty. Looks like you crashed into a wall on a trolley or something. Whoa, that was random.” And he laughed at his utter nonsense. Random, aye. But freakishly spot-on. “Milk tea. With less milk.” I told the stall owner.

“Please, take care of your own head, dude. It’s your life at stake here. You ought to be mature enough to know what you’re doing by now. So that’s why you’re back, eh? Thought it mighty strange of you to pop back in the middle of your semester. How long will you be here?” Manbreasts took a good puff from his cigarette. “Until the start of the next one. This is the first time I’m out of the house in a long while, dude.” “What, you were grounded? Haha... That’s so secondary school.” “Aye, of course you find it incredibly funny. The joke’s not on you.” “Relax dude. Come on, you’re a strong man; you’ll be up and making illegitimate babies in no time.” “I’m surprised I haven’t. How’s working life been treating you?” “Same shitty treatment as the last time you checked. Or the last I checked, for that matter.” “Well, what to do? You’re as much in the mercy of the guy who signs your paycheck as I in the mercy of the guy who prescribes my pills. A very conducive environment for personal growth and all that jazz them self-help books talk about, eh?” We both smirked. “Good to see that you’re alright, Crowley. If it makes you any better, life hasn’t been a bed of roses for me lately either. And I ain’t referring to my job; it’s been crappy right from the start.” “Yeah? Talk to me.” “My grandpa just passed on last week.” A downtrodden look took over his face. The stall owner came with my milk tea, allowing a sufficient period of silence on the table. I took a sip. “Sorry to hear that, bro. Were you close?” “Heh, you kidding? I don’t know anyone who isn’t close to their granddads.” “Well, you’re looking at one now.” “You’re a poor sod.” He took a great breath and heaved it out, like what tired labourers do when they’ve put down the last sack of rice for the day.

“Then again, you’ve always been one, you little shit. What’s your story?” And he’s back to normal grinning self again, puffing his cigarette and drinking his tea. I couldn’t help but smile at his speedy recovery. “Mostly geography. He was never there for me. Or more like, I was never there for him.” I was away from him almost from the get-go. I’ve been away from the people who I ought to love all my life. And I never seem to be around the people who love me when it matters. “The only grandpa I know is the man from the stories my old man tells me. For everything else, I got to fill in the gaps myself. And you know, maybe he doesn’t mind so much to be immortalized as this great man in my head.” That was my grandpa. A fictional character. An imaginary hero. So I can make him as wholesome as I can; with as much purity and no blemishes. Because there will be nothing to bring up his faults or disprove his greatness. It was pathetic that I had to resort to this to make out something out of someone who should have been this great mentor figure to a boy. “No, he would never want that. Nothing can beat the magic of just spending some time with your grandpa. Take for instance a simple moment when you’re sipping some tea with him and you turn to look at him; that’s when you’ll see just how great he really is.” He said placidly. I tried to picture that in my head. But not even the power of imagination can capture that essence. It can’t even come close. “He’s always got some story to tell; always some lesson to give. He’s the only teacher you need. And yeah, he taught me a lot. Your folks teach you stuff that you need to get by in life. But it’s your grandpa that teaches you the things you need to win in life.” “Teachers. Guess we could use a couple more of them in our lives.” I, on my part, wished I had more. "Hey, things aren't all that bad. At least we still got our moms. The greatest woman in the world. And probably the only one you ever need." He rejoiced at the comfort of having the refuge and wisdom of this sacred figure, unknowingly mocking my predicament. And I knew just how much a mother would mean to a son. I've read it in story books and movies, and seen testaments of that in the good people I see. But they just remind me that all I know about this cherished relationship is how little I know about it. So I did what every other fool would in the face of knowledge far beyond his comprehension. I kept my mouth shut.

Sensing the awkward silence, Manbreasts breathed new life into the topic of grandfathers. “Well, we can’t always get what we want. Did you get to see your grandpa for the last time?” “Yeah… there was a little glass panel on the casket. That was probably the fourth or fifth time I saw him in my lifetime. As much as I tried, I couldn’t even shed a tear.” I didn’t even feel sad. It was like attending a stranger’s funeral. “Shit… That’s a fucking tragedy. But you had your reasons. You probably shed your tears at some other place, for some other face.” Grandpa’s funeral: no tears. Grandma’s funeral: no tears. Honestly, I don’t think there has been any event in my life that actually made me cry. The only things that could make me cry are, believe it or not, picture shows. And the one scene that never fails to put a tear in my eye was that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey was crying on the bridge praying to the Man above. “It’s funny you should say that, because… I don’t actually ever recall feeling sad before. I mean, it’s either I’m a really blessed person, or I’m a downright heartless man.” I chuckled, but was somehow perturbed by an inkling of truth lingering in the latter. “Come on; don’t give me none of that.” And he knew I wasn’t kidding when I kept quiet. “What, for real? Damn, I should hire a hitman to take out one of your loved ones to make you feel the sting, you bastard. Or I could take the cheaper alternative and just get a girl to break your heart. You ain’t really a man until you’ve broken something inside; until you’ve lost a little piece of your heart.” Manbreasts sniggered. I always wanted that bit of sadness in my life. I always wanted to play the blues. “You know, I’ve never actually felt anything mattered to me that much before. And it’s weird. When I left school from abroad to come to college, I didn’t feel like I was leaving a place that I’ve been calling home for thirteen years. When I left college from across the straits to serve the army, I didn’t feel like I was leaving behind my friends; friends I could be having the same struggle with in university life. When I left the army and you guys, I didn’t feel like I was leaving behind brothers who carried each other all the way through hard times. I tried to muster that feeling; hell, I even tried faking it to make it. But nothing came.” A man who pledged no allegiance to any nation. That was me. “Wherever I was, I could never quite get rid of the feeling that I was a foreigner wherever I am. Even in this island I’m supposed to call home.” I completed my soliloquy with an afterthought that almost felt like a boy left behind by the school bus.

The orange glow made yet another little white segment disappear from the long slender body of his tobacco stick, leaving behind a grey crumpled body still trying to hang on for dear life to the perfect white. “It’s like you’re always ‘almost leaving’, eh?”

Chapter 14 Warrior Poets A timely moment of silence as the stall owner brought us our second round of drinks gave us a little interlude to all the talking. It got me thinking about what Manbreasts said. And how pretty darn accurate he was. Now, I’m not trying to blow it up into some fullfledged epic drama, but he did have a point. That everything was just temporary. That there was this lurking reminder that it won’t be too long till I start packing my bags again. That something was telling me that I won’t be staying here forever. “I could tell that you could never quite settle down anywhere. When your time’s up over here, you find another place to go to. All the homes you lived in are just places where you sleep at night. You never had the chance, nor can you afford the risk, to fully put your heart down at a single place.” He picked up where we left off. “Bummer.” Probably the most apt response for the moment. “But it’s not such a bad thing, you know. Maybe it’s not your time to stand still yet. In those 2 years that I’ve known you, it’s enough time to tell that your heart just can’t be confined within four walls.” “Aye. But sometimes… sometimes I get tired from all that running. I think it’ll be nice to find myself a nice little hole in the ground to call home. A place where I can finally stop.” Mind you, it’s not like I feel I don’t have a home or any of that usual emo crap. Just that I sometimes wonder what it would be like to find a place where I don’t have to keep telling myself “This is home. For now” and candidly declare “This is home.” “Well, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t stop running; you shouldn’t stop searching. You’ll find the energy to pull through somehow. We all do. In the mean time, don’t worry too much about something that will unfold in due time.” “Yeah, I guess. It’s pretty shitty that I don’t know what else to do with this sudden abundance of free time besides to think about stuff.” “Go and masturbate or something. It’ll take your mind off A LOT of things. I guarantee it.” He grinned. I was thinking of a comeback to that when we heard a bottle break and a person yelling in pain. As we turned to check out the commotion I saw something totally outrageous. Two guys were beating the shit out of a younger man. All this in broad daylight. But that wasn’t the outrageous part. It was the utter indifference of everyone else in the proximity. They just continued sipping their drinks with this look on their faces that read: ‘It’s none of my business. So I won’t do anything about it.’ Then again, everyone who happened to be in the vicinity were just a couple of fathers with their children and college boys with snot still hanging from their noses, so perhaps it was rather expected of them to be afraid

to stick their neck out for a total stranger. But it doesn’t make the fact that nobody gives a damn about anybody else anymore any less preposterous. “Shit, that guy’s gonna die if they keep this up. Come on.” Manbreasts got off his seat. Officers will be officers. As we both strode towards the scene to stop the atrocity having no idea what we might be in for, with only pacification on our tongues and advanced pacification on three numbers on our mobile phones, everyone around suddenly drew a little courage to join our cause. Well, better late than never. Needless to say, when the two hooligans saw this whole mob of people walking towards them with a look on their faces that read: ‘It’s everybody else’s business. So I’ll do something about it too’, they just upped and left. And thank goodness they did, because I highly doubt this frail little formation is going to hold if they decided to turn violent on us. After the attackers left, a few members of our little impromptu gang went to check up on the injured bloke; others dispersed and resumed their aloof disposition. “Whoa, they scurry off just as quickly as they gather their balls.” I was boggled by the quick transformation. “Lead the way and others will follow.” He said as we returned to our seats after we took a look at the bloke. No serious injuries, apparently. “A working class hero isn’t so hard to be.” He lit another cigarette to mark the end of our crime-fighting shift. “So can you hold a pencil with your chest now?” He just had to resume our coffee session with an absurd question. Yeah, that was Manbreasts. And that happens to be his immediate goal: to train his pectorals until it’s big enough to form a cleavage that can hold a pencil. Hence the name. “Nah, nope. And how’s your cleavage coming along? I see a one there but I doubt it can hold much of anything.” I replied. “Ah, not yet. And overtime in the office almost everyday has been messing up my whole training regime. My muscles feel like jelly now.” “Yeah, I’ve been slacking off lately too. I’ll probably have to push myself for a month or two to get back to where I was.” “Hey, at least my reason for slacking off my regime isn’t as stupid as yours. Why do you want to build yourself up anyway? I can’t picture you with a pencil suspended on your chest in this life time.”

“Nor is it my intention to do so either. I just want to be as strong as I can as soon as I can.” “The point being? You’ll need more than just brute strength in a fight.” “Point taken. But at least I know I’ll have it when I need it. That’ll be one less thing for me to worry about, so I can move on to work on something else. And that’s how I intend to build up my repertoire, you know: To equip myself with all the things I need when the circumstances call for them.” “You can never prepare yourself with everything you need. Even if you can, you’ll probably be biting the dust by the time you’re done. Life doesn’t favour the prepared. It favours the brave.” I’d have to say: that was pretty well said. “If life favours the brave… Then I’m dead on arrival.” I laughed a little laugh. I always believed that something was going to come to test my mettle; to see if I was worthy to take my rightful place on this planet. And I was not going to be beaten by it. So I never felt that it was a wild goose chase to spend my life preparing for this battle. Because I believed in it so fiercely that I didn’t mind the fact that it had no specified date or location, nor even a little “Coming Soon” sign. But preparing gradually became waiting. And waiting soon became doubting. Where is my Thermopylae? Where is my Sterling Bridge? Where is my Iwo Jima? “Why are you so obsessed with proving that you’re not weak? Relax, Crowley.” He took a long puff of his cigarette. “You’re stronger than you think you are. And don’t you try to sell yourself short.” Another long puff. “You see, the kind of strength you seek; it can’t be gained. No amount of muscle, knowledge or power can give you that. You’ve already got all the strength you need inside you. You just keep standing in your own way from using it by pursuing all these lesser forms of strength.” “Please, no riddles; have some mercy on my poor broken head, dude.” “That’s why I say: just keep moving around. Get yourself hurt a couple of times. And once you’ve gotten that little piece of your heart chipped off, you’ll see your strength, lounging around inside. Then all that’s left to do is just let it out to play.”

If I heard this at any other time, it would have sounded like lines taken off a bad translation of a Paulo Coelho book. But this time, somehow it worked. Because as cheesy as it sounded, with all due respect to Manbreasts, it did shed some light on my youthful folly. I was preparing for a battle I’m already fighting in. I was placed on the coliseum already equipped with the strongest weapon I can have to go straight into the fight. But it didn’t look like the conventional sword and axe that every bloodthirsty boy fancy, so I passed it off as junk just because it wasn’t instantly accessible. Just because I didn’t know how to use it. To be able to make it this far without winding up dead in a gutter, though, I think I did alright. The cups were empty, the cigarettes were put out. The lights were dimming and the shops were closing. “You’re a good kid, Crowley. You’ll do alright.” He said with a smile as he got up. But could I settle for ‘alright’? “I’ll do much more than just ‘alright’. I give you my word on it. Sir.” I winked as I stood up. Never. It always felt good talking to him. Because at the end of our conversations, I’d always feel that his experience and wisdom somehow rubbed off on me. I’d be somewhat slightly better for the wear; slightly savvier. And so we both rode out into different ends of the horizon, heading to wherever we got to go to do whatever we got to do. Bollocks. A pity I didn’t have a poncho and a horse with me then. But I was slowly losing sight of what I originally intended to do. This interlude, with all the talking and the writing, was long enough. I knew I had to set my priorities right or risk losing the chance to make up for all those years spent as a bad son. To set the record straight, you don’t have to be a cocaine-snorting, convenience store-robbing, moneywasting, stranger-bashing, gambling alcoholic to be a bad son. A son with no filial piety is all it takes to be a bad son.

Chapter 15 Limbo It was nightfall when Ally finally reached home after returning from her business trip, and aside from the couple of souvenirs she got us, I was glad to have her back. Never quite gotten the chance to have a decent chat with her ever since the incident. She was not altogether surprised to see my smooth recovery, and she was glad to see that the family hasn’t fallen into a state of discord or chaos. She’s the type who’s happy when everyone’s happy. And most of the time she takes it upon herself to make that happen. That was a trait that I took my hat off for. I gave up trying to please everyone a long time ago. Because you just can’t. In the family, she’s always been the more filial child among the two of us; basically the one that creates less trouble. Well, she definitely doesn’t go ramming her head to the wall on a trolley. So my folks left her to her own devices, because they trusted her to be sensible enough to take them in mind before doing anything drastic. I’ve always found it rather awkward to be affectionate towards my family; I’ve always been subtle and stoic at home, for some reason. But my mild form of love, always on the verge of tipping on either side of that fine line between ‘Some’ and ‘None’; I’ve had a nudging feeling that it’s gone over to ‘None’. So I wondered if I could dig up some tips from Ally that might help me make things better between me and Mama. Before I entered her room, though, the phone rang. It was Manbreasts calling me up to ask if I’d want to join him and some friends for a couple of beers at a nearby pub. I occasionally have a couple of drinks with my friends and all, though usually after some intensive convincing and negotiation with Mama. Manbreasts seemed to have gotten all the angles covered: a venue that was of close proximity to my place, transportation provided with a sober driver, and it wasn’t even going to be a late night thing. It was a perfectly safe, if not foolproof, plan. It wasn’t so for Mama, though. “Hey Ma, I’ll be meeting my friends later for coffee. Don’t worry; I’ll come home before too late.” I asked her as I put down the phone. It wouldn’t exactly be the wisest thing to tell her that alcohol would be involved, even if but a minute bit. “How late is ‘before too late’?” She’s particularly touchy about going out after the sun goes down. “Around eleven, I guess. I’ll be back before midnight.” It was a reasonable time to get back home. “Eleven? Why do you have to meet your friend till that late? Do you need hours and hours just to drink some coffee?” She always tries to mock the redundancy of the pointless things friends do.

“Well, drinking coffee isn’t all that we’ll be doing, Ma. We’ll be chilling out, having a good time; you know, the things that us young people do.” That is, after all, what friends do. “What, can’t you meet him to chill out and have a good time or whatever during the day? Coffee isn’t some strictly nocturnal activity like the night life. You’re not going drinking, are you?” Women can be frighteningly accurate mind-readers. “Don’t bother, Crowley; it’s just a waste of money. Don’t join your friends in that kind of place; we poor people can’t afford that form of entertainment. It’s a luxury only for those with some extra money to spare.” Well, it was pretty arguable just how rich or poor we were, but it was indeed a rather expensive activity. And I remembered just how we broke we were after all that we spent on a particular surgery for someone’s head not too long ago. Now I felt like a bloody fool even have the cheek to ask if I could go and enjoy myself. “And it’s at this hour that those hooligans go have their little coffee sessions too. What if someone doesn’t like your look and decides to smash a bottle onto your cracked head? I won’t be able to take that blow; you already took a couple of years off my life with that stunt of yours.” Ah. She should’ve just ended her reasoning with the previous statement. That sparked the ever stupendous rebellious streak in me. I itched for an argument. “Look, Ma, maybe this world isn’t as terrifying as you think it is. I mean, we are all usually more afraid of something than how scary it really is. If you’d just look beyond this neighbourhood of ours, what you see might actually prove you wrong. If only you’d just give it a chance.” “Don’t bring me into the equation here. You see, Crowley; not everyone is like you, who needs to be somewhere different all the time. I’m set with just staying at the same spot.” She wasn’t too fond of change. “It’s perfectly fine if you want to stay at the same spot. Just don’t expect to keep us here at this same spot for the rest of our lives.” “Oh, so that’s what you had in mind? You’re just going to fly away the moment you get your wings and leave this poor old woman alone, eh?” “That wasn’t what I meant, Ma. I…” But she’s already turned on the waterworks. Papa happened to enter the scene, and it didn’t exactly take a Sherlock to figure out what was happening. Once again he gave me his trademark head-shake.

I didn’t know how to handle crying women, so I went straight into Ally’s room; I had no intention of sticking around for all this drama. Aye, I can be a real bastard sometimes. I took a deep breath, cooled myself down and turned the knob. “The household jackass welcomes you home.” She was sprawled on her bed when I entered her room. “Hey Crowley. As glad as I am to see you in one piece, apparently it’s my turn to be falling apart. I’m dead beat.” The words lazed their way out of her mouth. “I’m not too surprised. You had a lot of shit put upon your shoulders lately. Especially by yours truly.” I grinned as I sat down on her creaky old computer chair. “Not funny. You got some nerve pulling that one on us. But I’m not going to lecture you or anything. You’re probably immune to it by now from all the verbal thrashing Mama must have given you.” She had a point; I think I’ve heard pretty much everything anyone can say about the incident. “Plus, I think I’ve got a rough idea as to why you did that stunt.” She continued. Now this was new. “Is that right? Enlighten me.” I was interested in what she knew about this that I didn’t. “It was actually by chance that I stumbled across this thought. The only reading materials at the place where I went were just some really old newspapers. And I happened to be reading about this kid who got kidnapped in the US some time back.” She said lethargically; almost reluctant to trouble herself with telling the story. “Oh, you tease. Get the hell on with it already.” This better be good. “There was a seven year old girl somewhere in the United States who got kidnapped, tied up, and held captive at a place not too far from her home. Which was mighty retarded on the kidnappers’ part. As retarded as they may be, though, no one could deny that they were indeed full-grown adults and were very much capable of doing her harm if they catch her doing anything funny. But in just forty five minutes, she was at home watching herself on the news for biting through the ropes they tied her up with, busting out of that place and getting her captors arrested.” “Brave kid.” “Now, the point at hand here isn’t how smart she was or how stupid her kidnappers were. It’s just that the way a kid processes thoughts is rather different than, say, a teenager or

even a young adult put in the same scenario. In a situation like that, a person with more years under her belt would be thinking about all the possible ways to break out and how all of them would be futile. Because she thinks too highly of her captors; that they’re more dangerous than they might actually be. But better safe than screwed, right? So she fears them. An older person would be too smart to be brave.” She paused to shift her head to a more comfortable position. “On the other hand, put a kid in the same situation, she’ll just have one thing on her mind: I need to get out of here. When seen in all other angles, it was indeed an incredibly dangerous and irrational thing to do what she did. But she just did the first logical thing that came onto her mind to achieve those ends. Even if it was to nibble through ropes and all. She hasn’t been stupefied by the extra years an older person would’ve gone through. She was, bluntly put, too stupid to be afraid.” “Spoken like a genius. Did you rehearse this or something? Alright, so what does this have to do with me?” “You, similarly, are too stupid to be afraid. But whereas she in her fearlessness got herself out of trouble, you used it to get into trouble.” She emphasized on the word ‘stupid’. I cracked up. It was a valid explanation to answer the golden question. It was sufficiently profound, sufficiently applicable, and with a tinge of humour. Alas, it still didn’t put it quite as perfectly. But it’ll do for now. “That was priceless. You made all that stuff you brought back for us look like cheap plastic souvenir now. Good to have you back, Ally.” “Good to be back. How have you been spending your days?” “Just scribbling some stuff, catching up with old friends; nothing out of the ordinary. I think everyone’s had enough excitement to last for some time. But for some reason, lately my brain cells have been feeling suicidal or something. Feels like I’ve been dumbed down quite a bit from the long duration of placidity.” “You don’t say. Yeah, it does things to your head, I tell you. You’re in some sort of a limbo right now. That’s how it always is when your life is abruptly and unapologetically put on hold by when something highly unexpected and equally highly improbable happens. Oh, and I think you know very well what that event is. Nevertheless, despite it being your own bloody fault, nobody likes something to be taken away from them without their permission.” “Word. I’m not too concerned about that now, though. I’m just kinda reevaluating myself as a son, you know. After all, my behaviour as of late has been very questionable.”

“It’s about Mama, eh?” What, is it common knowledge now? Then again, word gets around quickly in tight spaces. “Yeah. I’m just wondering why I can’t seem to bring myself to love her like I should. And why I should even be putting in an effort for something that’s supposed to be, well, effortless. It’s actually kinda freaking me out. It scares me that I’m not like any of those other kids out there who can get along so well with their folks and all.” I scratched an itch on my head. “Crowley, I understand it can rather difficult to… ‘appreciate’ her kind of love. It’s impossible to love her as much as she loves you; that’s how it is in every relationship between a parent and a child. There’ll always be someone who puts in more and someone who puts in less. If you can give in a little and put up with a lot, you can probably find a status quo that everyone can live with in harmony.” Ally said. That didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Maybe it was very much possible for the oppressive government and the resistance forces to peacefully coexist with each other; a truce. But as tempting as it was to get caught in the ideal picture she proposed, we both knew the matter at hand wasn’t so simple. It just didn’t quite sound like the solution that I was looking for. “Oh, I can put in that effort, make no mistake; I can sacrifice the time I could be out in the world learning how to be a human being to please her. It’s what I’ve been doing all these years anyway. But the question is: is she putting in an effort in making herself someone easier to get along with? This can’t work if only one side is doing all the giving in; it takes two to tango. I’m feeling bad as it is to be stupid enough to step into that trolley and I’m now willingly serving my sentence; I don’t need her to keep attacking it just to make me feel worse. And as much as I try to swallow up her abuse without saying one word, I can’t find it in me to willingly and unconditionally give in to her totalitarian ways.” There was a time that I suspected that I was adopted; yes, everyone has that phase. I think. Because me and Mama; we’re poles apart in our thoughts, and sometimes they lead to arguments and conflicts to almost an irreconcilable state. But the record was set straight with the undeniable evidence that I have definitely inherited her stubbornness. “I get your drift. Sometimes even I have to bend over backwards just to please her and her demands that are just plain ridiculous. But every now and then they go way overboard, and I just snap. You weren’t here when this happened, but me and Mama had a bloody war just because I came home late from having a couple of drinks with my colleagues one night. It’s not like I was getting myself hurt or anything. And it wasn’t even that late, truth be told. I mean, I’m a bloody working adult now. They’ve been telling me what to do and what not to do for as long as I can remember, and I think it’s

about time they stopped barking orders at my face.” I haven’t heard this side of her in awhile. “But that’s life for us under this roof. The only thing we can do now is to find some form of compromise that she can accept. Until then, we’ll just have to find some way to deal with the bad times so they don’t get in the way of our good times. Don’t let all this get to you, Crowley. You’re still a kid; you’ve only lived, what, a quarter of your life? You got plenty of time to sort everything out with Mama.” She finished her point. I’d be lucky to live up to next month. “So just be…” “Hey hey hey, hold it right there. Don’t you dare say ‘be yourself’. You know how I feel about that phrase.” I stopped her from completing the incantation. ‘Be yourself’ is probably one of the most useless things anyone who claims to know you can say to you. I mean, that’s equivalent to telling someone ‘remember to blink’. It’s what someone would say to you when he’s got nothing better to say to you. Whether he thinks you don’t need to change or that you do need to change but he’s just not bothered to figure out what, it’s entirely up to your speculation. It’s easy to just say that if you were some physics genius when ‘being yourself’ is basically you being your genius self. How asinine. Imagine a junkie on his way to a rehab centre when he sees a big billboard with that ambiguous phrase slapped on it. ‘Ok, I must continue to be a crackerhead’. Talk about a messed up motivational message. What about all the misfits and the outcasts? The obsessed stalkers and the closet necropsies? Being yourself can sometimes be a dangerous thing. “You know, after thinking about it for awhile, it is indeed a pretty retarded thing to say. What else can we say in place of that?” Hoho, at least now I know I’m not alone in this. “Anything but that. I don’t know; don’t talk so much, don’t talk so loud, eat your food quietly, don’t play with your doodoo; just anything but ‘be yourself’. Let’s get real here; there are hundreds and thousands of aspects in a single human being and we can’t even find one thing that we can possibly ask someone to improve? Inconceivable.” A little surge of life flowed into her as she burst into laughter. “I wasn’t going to say that anyway. Just be good to Mama. That’s what I wanted to say.” Guess there’s no other way around it after all. For every other thing in the world, there was always some way to make them work. Working your legs in a shallow pool to get them to walk again. Kicking the rusty machine to get it running again. Pounding someone’s chest to get the heart beating again. But not this. There was no therapy, no trick, no skill involved to make family bonds work. We just go through the motion to do what we can to make it work.

And pray that we emerge at the other end as better children.

Chapter 16 Postcards From Heaven As with how a lot of the chapters in this book begin, I woke up in the morning, except this time with an impulse to go outside. Felt as if the great outdoors was beckoning me. And the sun was unusually kind today; it was the kind of sun that cooks you to the right temperature: medium rare. My skin has paled to almost unhealthy levels now, after getting cooped up at home for months on end. So I decided take a walk to a park nearby to revitalize this vampire-like complexion, at the same time giving my feet a little workout. It seemed like any other ordinary day. But most ordinary days I’ve had never end the same way they start in. Nevertheless, I walked around the park, soaking up the ordinariness of things while they last. Fallen leaves were strewn about almost too perfectly in place to cover all the rubbish underneath. Aye, it was dirty, but it had that signature filth that you can’t find anywhere else. There was a great deal of activity around; short guys chasing and kicking a ball around, tall guys bouncing and throwing a ball around, and of course, the ladies just standing there looking pretty. Aye, I’ve seen a lot of girls before in skin-tight sports attire that, I can testify, is probably designed to cause more fatal accidents in a gym for males than faulty machines. But truth be told, I’ve never actually seen them do anything that resembles a bonafide physical activity. I resumed my stroll. Found myself a nice little bench with some nice shade that wasn’t painted with pigeon droppings, a kid’s snot or someone’s piss (you never know what weird fetishes them sickos have). As a matter of fact, it was too clean that it looked like it belonged to the park. But I sat down on it nonetheless; my feet were killing me, so I had to take a break. In amidst the clear blue sky, there came floating a solitary dark cloud like a schoolboy that feels out of place in his class. Slowly it came drifting in my direction. And it stopped right above my head. This is where I brace myself for some spectacular interstellar planetary crash-boom-bang. But only an old man came and sat beside me. Sheesh. What a letdown. He had a flimsy singlet on and wearing shorts so short it’s almost indecent. Wrinkled testicles aren’t exactly my idea of a sight to behold on my rare day out. He dumped a bag of chips of some sort in the middle of the bench and started helping himself with it. “Have some.” He said devoid of emotion. “It’s alright; help yourself with it.” Never accept candy from a stranger. Still applies when you’re a grown up. “Don’t worry, I don’t charge for it. After all, I’ve already gotten everything you have to offer.” I almost jumped out of my seat.

I took a good look at him, and somewhere under all the wrinkles and crow’s feet, I can roughly make out that he was who I thought he was. “What brings you here, Mr. Jeremy?” And I calmed myself down and pretended that I was just talking to some old homeless man. “Just taking a stroll around, checking if everyone’s happy and making sure they don’t tarnish their souls with something called redemption. Consider this a complementary service for the utmost customer satisfaction.” He munched away at his snacks. “How considerate of you. I was expecting you to be a much busier man to be sitting down and have an afternoon snack.” “Hey, how could I turn down looking at such a beautiful sight? Look; look at all these fools, laughing and smiling. You don’t see a lot of that where I come from. They ought to do it now. As much as they can. Because they’ll all be crying later when they’ve settled down below.” “Sounds like you’ve got quite a number of customers around here.” “Hell, yeah. I just finished checking up on this bloke who traded his soul to be the ultimate chick magnet just around the block. And it was a smart move on his part; he was shit ugly.” “You’re enjoying yourself, aren’t you? Doing your job and all.” “That’s plain for all to see, boy. Especially for them infant-fornicating priests. Seriously, if there were more job vacancies down there, everyone should do what I do. It’s a ball to seal the fates of these microcosmic beings.” It’s a common myth that them demons residing in their fiery home punish all sinners who end up down there just for the heck of it. After all, the next thing for all of them to look forward to is the end of days, so they might as well find something to do in the meantime, right? But I always wondered if there was more to it. If there was some form of a more intricate system implemented. Imagine that: demons with management skills. It’ll give angels a run for their harps. “I don’t mean to be rude, but how did you guys become this organized bunch of professional tormentors?” Gently suggesting is a subtle way of leading the other party to disclose some ear-opening things, I hope. “What, you thought them demons are just running around torturing whoever they want? Hell no; we’ll never get anything done that way. It started when I decided to introduce a little employment scheme to them. After all the departments have been established and every one of my boys is happily employed, all I got to do is just sit back and enjoy the screaming.” He said with a smile so wide I could swear I saw the sides of his lips rip.

“You must be feeling pretty good having a whole enterprise at your beck and call.” “Not exactly. Hey, me and my boys didn’t drop down from the clouds and spontaneously transform into these savvy, motivated personnel leading you guys to eternal damnation; we had our own daddy issues to come to terms with. But we stopped moping when we received a… memento from up there.” He scratched his balls fiercely. “He sent us postcards, knowing Him and His ever-plentiful grace, as a little something to relieve us from our pain a bit. But it served nothing more than a mockery of the state we’ve landed ourselves in. Pictures of home just made us more pissed than we already are.” And he put the same hand into the bag of snacks. “As pissed as the postcards made them, though, my boys just couldn’t get enough of them. So they started fighting with each other over them. But hey, it was my kingdom, and I wasn’t going to let a bunch of pretty pictures wreak havoc over my absolute rule. Hence, I made it into an economy.” And he put a handful of testicle-flavoured snacks into his mouth with such fulfillment. “You sound mighty proud of yourself.” I tried to hide my disgust that I probably looked constipated. “I did have to spend some time coming up with the quota for each department; you gotta give me credit for that. Once they’ve tortured enough souls to reset the counter, well, they’re rewarded with a postcard. That will keep them slackers focused on their job.” It sounded pretty darn retarded, truth be told. “I guess your boys just miss home, that’s all. I’m sure you do. Don’t you?” There was a very long period of silence. A solitary leaf flew by. “Perhaps you would do well to keep your mouth shut, boy.” That I did. There are just some lines that should never be crossed. “Boy, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know me once you arrive at my lovely base of operations. I’m sure my boys will take extra special care of you.” And he laughed a kind of laughter that sent chills up my spine.

The tension on his face eased a little. “I have to instill some fear in you every now and then so you’ll know where you stand. I just hate those young punks who think they can have an easier time down there by cozying up with me.” “Hey, I’m cool with staying as a stranger. Sir.” A timely courteous word might just be the thing to cool things down. “Then consider them the… necessary formalities.” And he returned to his ball-scratching and snack-eating antics. Yeah, I’d reckon they’d do that. With mankind becoming more and more capable of increasingly horrendous acts, I wouldn’t be surprised if them demons down below would feel like their terrible ways are being undermined. And I don’t think they can take the blow if the acts of man do actually manage to surpass them. It’ll just be too damn upsetting for them not being able to live up to their name. No wonder they’d take all that trouble just to show who’s boss. And this somehow led me to a random thought. The human mind functions in one of two ways: the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Any place worth going to either stems from a desire to reach a good place or to get away from a bad place. So maybe; just maybe, God made these demons as terrifying as possible so we people would want to get as far away from them as possible. And the only place to go that can keep them safe from these manifestations of evil is the place up there. Smart way of gathering the believers and the non-believers. God reads his psychology textbooks. “Don’t think I’m going to restart the conversation just because we’re cool now.” He said quietly under his munching. “I’m just checking out that chick stretching before I leave. And by the way, you just restarted it.” That chick was pretty attractive. Except that I have this creeping suspicion that she’s stretching herself in the most erotic way possible at the most visible spot in the park to deliberately cause nosebleeds in men. And women complain that men ogle at them. What is the world coming to, really? “Oh… right.” He cleared his throat. I think he just fell flat on his face. But I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt. “Well, you’ve only got a couple of weeks left to clean up the dog poo, young man. Then you know what I’ll be coming for.” He took the whole pack to his mouth and cleared the contents. “I can hardly wait.” A nice breeze blew by, leaving me feeling a little cooler. And I was alone again.

The Decay Part I On my way back home from that fateful encounter with Mr. Jeremy, yet another one of them pretty boys that was simply asking to get the shit beaten out of him came walking in my direction. He’s just got that really smug look on his face simply because he’s got an astoundingly long… fishing rod. And as he walked closer, I slipped back into the violent part of my mind and started having some fun. I wonder how it would feel like to force down into his throat a fried fish ball, with oil still dripping down from it like a sweaty testicle, stuffed with a cluster of fish hooks attached to some fresh shiny lines. And I’ll gather the masses to watch his whole digestive system get ripped out of his mouth as I pull the lines out. I like confetti. I reached home to find Mama sitting on the couch as usual with the cathode-ray-movingpicture-box still on. But she started getting hostile the moment I closed the door. “Why the hell do you need to take such a long walk?” She interrogated. “What are you talking about? I didn’t take any longer than half an hour.” I really wasn’t in the mood for this now. “How long does it take to walk around a bloody park? Ten minutes should have been more than enough!” “A walk does not necessarily comprise of walking only, Ma. See? I’m back and I haven’t done anything to break my head. So relax.” “Don’t test me, Crowley. One day I’ll break your legs so you can’t take any of your little walks.” Goddamn, I could use a break from all this crap. I just walked away and darted to the kitchen. She continued screaming from her seat, calling me to get back into the living room. Decided to have some nice mango juice. The bloody carton was a day expired. She screamed some more. But I took continued taking my time. Ah shit, it was just a day expired; I figured it should still be drinkable. It tasted like crap. And she screamed even more. I threw the carton away and washed my face for a long time. The ever familiar twitching of my right eye started again. The more I stalled, the more she screamed. The more she screamed, the more it twitched. And the more it twitched, the more I stalled on purpose. Rinse and repeat. The kitchen knife lying in the sink that was glistening with water droplets made my eye wince as murder was running through my veins. I was sick of all this. Not from the screaming and all. I was sick of being such a wayward little bastard. And all I’ve been able to do about this was just to get angry at myself for it. I went to the loo to take some of that piss out of me. But apparently, them demons really knew how to pick a nice spot for a little chat.

I closed the door to find myself in a dark, dank toilet with blood red lights and curtains, just for the ambience. The whole place looked a lot bigger than the last time I checked. And for some reason it looks like it hasn’t been used in quite awhile, since everything was covered in these thick plastic sheets. I drew two conclusions then. One, this wasn’t my toilet. Which was kind of a no-brainer, really. Two, demons don’t make much of an interior designer. Shit, they could’ve at least waited for me to relieve myself first. Then I saw something move under one of the plastic sheets by the wall. First a jerk, then a vigorous trembling. Now, what a person with some common sense would do at a time like this is just leave that thing alone and find a way out. Or a toilet bowl, at the very least. But apparently common sense wasn’t very fond of me since I found myself drawn towards finding out exactly what was behind that mysterious sheet. I slowly extended my hand and got myself a good grasp of the sheet. And with a quick yank, I finally found the toilet bowl. Except that sitting on it was a whole mass of muscle that formed something of a man, wearing nothing but white boxers with pink polka dots. By muscle, I mean someone strong enough to tear your limbs apart like working your way through your Original Recipe chicken drumstick. The bowl stood alone to bear his weight. There was no cistern behind it; only a redundantly placed full length mirror by the wall to which his hands were firmly chained to. The scars and bruises on his body, emphasized by his popping veins, highlighted his mindless struggle to break loose from his chains. Needless to say, any man caught in his questionable boxers chained to his toilet wall will definitely be one angry man. I actually felt safe to see him chained up. Because he really looked like someone who was capable of inflicting a great deal of pain to you; someone better off locked up. He was screaming and crudely saying some unintelligible things, like a person possessed. But as I took a closer look at his struggle to break loose from his chains, I realized that it wasn’t just any other mirror. When the man tried to pull his chains off the mirror, his reflected hand seemed to be pulled towards it. And whenever the man in the mirror tried to do the same thing, it was the man in front of me that seemed to be heaved backwards. This raised the weirdness up a notch, but I figured it wasn’t something I should be concerned about at the moment. What I should be concerned with is hightailing out of here. I didn’t bother trying to get through to this man; I don’t think he’s quite in the right mind for conversation. So I stepped back and reached for the door. It was locked. And suddenly there was silence. No more nonsensical gibberish reverberating through the air. The thrashing about abruptly halted. The awful gnawing sound the cuffs makes on the flesh stopped. I turned around and the man was staring right at me. This does not bode well. “Let me out.” He sounded like an Asian Barry White.

“Er, you got any idea where the keys are?” Shit, the hell am I gonna set you free. “Let. Me. Out.” He muttered the same words, this time putting more weight and less speed in them. “I was just leaving, so it’d really help if you could tell me where to find a pipe, hammer or something.” Then again, why would anyone keep a hammer in their toilet? “Let. Me. Out.” His voice was getting louder. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody about your little, er, awkward moment.” “LET. ME. OUT!!!” And he went back to his screaming and banging. I was frightened. No, make that fucking frightened. A cussword always helps to give it that extra oomph. Because, let’s look at it here, I was in the same room as a raving maniac that god knows what he might do to me if he does manage to get out of them chains holding him down. And he definitely doesn’t look like he’s joking. This was one of those times when you really start to get concerned about the preservation of your life. Without wasting any time, I tried to get the door to open. I turned the knob so vigorously in the hope that the intensity of my efforts would somehow increase the probability that the door might magically unlock itself. You’d probably be thinking, ‘That’s dumb.’ And you got a point. So I started frantically looking around for anything that could possibly help me break down the door, while the man continued struggling on the toilet bowl with his explosive diarrhea-ish convulsions. The only thing I found was a slick little razorblade that you only come across in old barbershops. Excellent. All I need to do now is to shave the door down. With each passing minute, the man’s shaking intensified. The mirror shuddered as the chains were coming off the wall, inch by inch. I tried sawing through the lock, praying that the jackass who installed it used plastic or, at the very least, wood instead. You don’t exactly think straight when you’re in a state of panic. And he finally broke free. The mirror shattered, the toilet bowl smashed, and murky water started flowing from the pipes. I clutched on to the meager razorblade, too petrified to even breathe. The sound of his blood dripping from his cuffs snapped me back to this sub-reality and reminded me to inhale. That was when I saw what was attached to his chains. Or who was attached to them. I thought my state of panic, added with my terrible urge to pee, has gone past the stage of sanity. But nay, it wasn’t a double image I was seeing. The hands that were locked up on

the other end of the chains were of an exact twin of the same man. The only way of telling them apart is that the angry dude whom I was first acquainted with had a tattoo of a smiley with his mouth ripped open and bloody on the side of his neck, while the man from the mirror had a tattoo of one with his mouth sewn shut. They were standing back to back, with a look so tense on their faces that you’d be expecting them to turn around anytime now, pull out a revolver from their polka dot boxers and shoot the living crap out of each other. Nay, it wasn’t a double image I was seeing. I was in enough trouble as it is, with one raging hulk staring at me with flaring nostrils; now I got to contend with two. He started walking towards me; his fists clenched, ready to take me apart. And all I had was this razorblade. “Get out of my way.” He said with a crazy look in his eyes, saliva drooling out of his mouth. Everyone seems to be having that crazy look these days. I got out of his way. No arguments about that. I scrambled for the furthest corner to get as far away from them as I could; still clutching on to my razorblade. Mr. Mute Smiley stumbled backwards awkwardly, following Mr. Mangled Smiley, albeit a little too close for comfort. Now the man was standing right in front of the only thing in the way between him and ‘out of here’. And like a piston, he readied himself for that one strike that could set him free. But no, the man behind him wouldn’t let him have his way. His fist was an inch short of the surface of the door when it got jerked backwards by his chains. Apparently Mr. Mute Smiley wasn’t so keen on the great outdoors. “What do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Mangled Smiley screamed to his twin. “What do you think you’re doing?” His twin replied, except without the screaming bit. A very productive conversation, I see. “Sick of porcelain furniture. Sick of the dead silence. Sick of these walls shutting me up. I need to get out of here. To where the noise is. And all hell can’t stop me now.” The angry man speaks. Yeah, I get his gist. And I don’t even need to be locked up to a toilet bowl to understand why it’s so frustrating. Sometimes I can walk down the most crowded of streets and mingle with the people and not hear a single word. You hear nothing more than the deafening hum of the regimental clap-clop of a monochrome army marching. And you try calling out to someone hoping he would make some sense out of all this, only to find out that you’re a deaf-mute, just like the rest of them. There’s only so much silence you can bear before you snap. And everyone snaps. So you keep searching for the noise. It’s at times when the noise is nowhere to be found and it takes a toll on you that you wished someone would just say something; anything to get a response out of these walking mannequins. That you wished you could rip open their mouths and pull the words out.

“You’re not going anywhere while you’re stuck to me. All hell can’t make me walk out that door. I’m sick of all the endless drivel out there. I’m sick of all the empty talking those people always fill their mouths with. And I’m already starting to get sick of you.” Despite the better sentence structuring and prettier words used, the calmer twin now didn’t seem as sound as I initially thought. Damn, this was like watching the Ricki Lake Show. But there is some truth in what he said, too. Sometimes you just get tired of everyone going on and on about stuff you don’t give a damn about. You see a sparkle in their eyes as they rave on about the other time they got high, or the chick they banged last week. And you’re simply stricken with awe by your incapacity of comprehending the dull delight of “fluff talk”. Because it all just seemed too far-fetched to you. Yes, this nonsense is an integral part of our society now. We all need it. To communicate and socialize. To survive and replicate. But as the quality of this nonsense gradually degrades, we find ourselves sliding lower and lower into plain idiocy. That’s when you first begin to wonder whether it was worth all those years in school trying to fit in. Then you stop caring when you realize that you don’t want to be a part of it anymore. Anything after that is just putting up with the gibberish with the standard “yes and nod” routine and the occasional giggle. And then there are times, like when you have an agonizing migraine, that you wished everyone would just shut up. That you wished you could sew their mouths shut. Oh, I knew who these guys were, alright.

The Decay Part II They started yanking each other monstrously to their own respective directions, one struggling to move forwards and the other backwards. The chains rattled and clinked under the strain but didn’t look like they’ll be giving way, not for a long time. These two buffoons were supposed to be the manifestation of a sin. And I must say they did a pretty darn good job. Because this is exactly how senseless Wrath is. There is no need for reason or rhyme to be angry. Simply anything that doesn’t go in your direction is a possible ignition to turn a decent conversation into an emotionally-charged brawl. And the whole struggle took them all over the toilet, taking down with them all those plastic sheets covering the basin they crashed into, the shower doors they smashed, and the countless panels of mirrors they shattered. That wasn’t all that the plastic sheets concealed. A wooden chest was sitting naked quietly at one of the corners that just seemed out of place from all the lavatory utilities around. Now that’s just asking to be opened. Seeing that I’m in relative safety from the two muscled goons engrossed with getting their backs off each other, the curious side got the better of me. I ran for that corner like I’ve never run before. And just seconds after I left my spot they rammed my corner at such an intensity to obliterate any living thing unfortunate enough to remain there. Unlike those typical wooden chests that perhaps contained some treasure of immense value usually locked by ridiculously big and dense metal padlocks, this wooden chest was humble in design; something that wouldn’t be too out of mind as a container to keep old toys. But it was sealed shut by some strange form of tape that I could swear had an uncanny resemblance to skin. The human skin. I tried to rip it open with my bare hands to no avail. And that’s when I realized I was still holding on to my trusty razorblade. It was finally its time to prove its worth. As the blade smoothly cut an opening in the tape, the skin-like seal now seemed so vulnerable and frail. And my hand followed the blade as it glided through the length of the tape, with a raw sense of primitive fulfillment running through my mind. Like that faint murderous thirst quenched under your innocent visage as you crush the little ants crawling in your backyard when you were still a kid. A feeling that somehow seemed all too familiar to me. I opened the chest. I couldn’t quite know what to make out of its contents. It contained all sorts of crude instruments, yet hidden around the chest I could spot a couple of odd items out. Like a bottle of chocolate syrup. At first I thought it contained dining cutlery, but the forks were just too rusty to be used. Then I saw a sterilized scalpel, wrapped in a sheet of bubble wrap. But it was highly unlikely to be a surgeon’s toolbox. Drilled rods. A container of gasoline. These were absolutely random items. If those things weren’t random enough, I then saw a fish ball, of all things to find in this condemned box. As I carefully retrieved

it, one of my fingers was suddenly pricked by something sharp and shiny. And I didn’t need to look at it anymore to know what it was. I knew then exactly what these objects were, and that they weren’t placed there by sheer chance. It was my arsenal of dysfunctional killing tools. A great shadow loomed overhead, and I rolled out of the way as the dynamic duo collapsed on the chest. But as terribly tough as it was for them get back up, with them chained up and all, they simply refused to give it a rest and went straight into the fight again. Their faces contorted like Spartans at war as the fight got fiercer and their heads got hotter. This would have been a commendable sight, but now it has just trespassed into the realm of foolish persistence. But it was this expression that I recognized I was making during all the absurd fights and thoughtless arguments that I get myself into as a selfish son, brother and friend. Like those times when I should’ve listened a little bit more but was too proud to. Or said those few words that mattered but didn’t know the language. Or acknowledge that not everyone may understand the workings of a peculiar mind. Alas, absolution will not come easy for a sin so deeply rooted in me. I can give up on the likelihood that this encounter was going to end like some children’s tale where I just tell the two goons to stop squabbling and lecture them with some words of wisdom. It’d be such a phony way to bring an end to this; it deserved something… grander. The situation at hand here, though, is that not even the necessary coexistence of these polar opposites could survive the destructive instability of rage. Something had to be done to these two guys away from each other. Then I heard a loud sickening crack. No, make that two. The two giants crashed onto the floor, and laid still. I thought it was over. I tread carefully towards the heap of muscle lying there to see what the whole lack of commotion was all about. The debris crackled under my rubber slippers. A bead of sweat rolled down my chin. I could feel my heart beating in my fingertips. And they so conveniently sprung back to life to scare the shit out of me as I was just a foot away from them. But it was somehow not as vigorous anymore, and a closer inspection brought the reason to light: both of their hands on one side were broken. Yet they continue battering their angry heads against each other; against this barrier of wretchedness that was impenetrable to reason, trying to see who’ll outlast the other, even as they’re in pain. If they could even feel it, that is. Inconceivable. Now this was really getting nowhere. This was like one of those silly arguments your kids have with each other that you find funny at first but slowly becomes a senseless war that you want to stop because it’s embarrassing you. Heck, I even took a quick look around the room to make sure nobody else was there to see the part of me that was on display now, beating the crap out of each other; it was that embarrassing. It was pride again that tamed this wrathful demon, even if it was just to spare myself from this humiliating satire of my own anger. And I was going to be surprised by just what I was capable of to get out of the light of mockery. The spoons and forks clattered.

I eyed their motionless hands. And I rummaged through the weapons scattered all over the filthy toilet floor to find those that were… suitable. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Because the moment I threw away the obsolete razorblade for a drilled rod and a butcher knife, I threw away all regards for the inhumanity of the task. With a swift blow to their heads, the rod knocked both of them out. I kneeled down beside Mr. Mute Smiley with my legs ready like a sprinter (just in case) and held down his left hand. And I just remained there looking at it for a very, very long time. The massive knife grew heavier in my right hand. When that blade made its entry into the skin, though, someone else took over. Someone who was comfortable sawing through flesh like he has done it a thousand times. I sit there surprised at how easy it was. It was when I got to the bone that it became a drag. But there was some strange beastly drive to follow through as the warm red began painting my hands. Sometimes we have to become a killer to kill the very thing that could kill us. I believe that everyone goes through a phase in their lives where it is determined whether they would go on to be a serial killer. Everybody has that potential in them. The moment we discover the ability to end lives, which isn’t so hard to do, by the way, we’ve been contemplating what we can do with that newfound power, because we haven’ really learnt about the taboo of taking another person’s life. I remember a time when as a kid I almost strangled Ally to death; I can’t exactly remember why, but I think what was going through my head was “I wonder what will happen if I keep strangling her until she stops moving.” That was, of course, before I realized that something like that just can’t be undone. There’s no Ctrl + Z for murder. And so what we are today is just how much of the killer in us that we’re hiding, or showing for that matter, after all by taught by the family, school and society that killing is wrong. But what happens when sometimes the only way to right a wrong is to kill? Mr. Mute Smiley’s left fist lay lifeless and bloodied on the floor, and went straight to work on my next butchering after taking the chain off his wrist. But halfway through working on the other twin’s right hand, Mr. Mangled Smiley’s stirred. Not good. He was still dizzy from the whack to his head, though. And somewhere under his groaning which I think was supposed to imply pain, he managed to say something that would actually bring hope of the possibility of redemption of this seemingly endless self-sustaining sin. “End it for us. Please.” He said with a resigned look under the face that was all wrinkled up from being angry far too long. “And be careful with that thing. I‘m only in my boxers.” He eyed the knife that was sawing through his limp hand. I would have cracked a grin right then if I wasn’t the one holding that knife. But it was his first statement that had me. And it occurred to me that maybe angry people weren’t as mindless as I thought they were. Maybe there was a little boy under the harsh

words and stupid actions that was crying out for help. And maybe the only way of getting out of this vicious cycle lies in that cold-blooded killer in you that you try so hard to hide. In the hope that the part of you that keeps you heartless and detached will be steady when you need to destroy the things that might destroy all that you love. And that you’ll be merciless enough to come marching into the place where you keep all your rage and anger and pain that you seem to hold so dearly with a butcher knife and amputate it. To cut the part off. To let it go. His severed hand dropped to the toilet floor with a thud, and the chains came off easy, with all the red lubricating the area. Right about then, they were sober enough to pick themselves up. There for the first time the twins stood facing each other. And each took a good look at the other; at the man he has been fighting against all this while, just to see the exact same face staring right back at him. “Oh.” That was the first word that came out of a Mr. Mangled Smiley with a newly discovered composure and a missing hand. Which doesn’t exactly say much. “This explains a lot.” Mr. Mute Smiley replied, looking a whole lot more stable without his left hand too. And they continued standing there, embarrassed and awkward. Like those times when you turned your whole room upside down to find your pencil eraser just to find it in your own hand. The dust settled, and the air was still. But I wasn’t going to stick around to see the twins run into each other’s arms and start crying over old times or anything. The knife in my hand still had some screen time. I walked towards the door and hacked down the lock. As I stood at the exit to this unpleasant place, I turned around to see if they still stood at their spots. That was when I saw something for the first time. They smiled. These are people who have never seen their own faces before. They’ve never seen anyone else express emotions through their faces. They were standing blind without any idea what an expression of joy would look like. That’s how I knew that smile that filled their faces was how a man would smile when he was truly happy. It was a smile that got through from somewhere far inside but didn’t lose even one bit of the joy along the way. The knife fell to the floor with a loud clang. I walked out the door. Sometimes you fall out with yourself when you feel that you simply can’t get along with the worse side of you. It’s that side of you that you no longer recognize as it gets distorted by all the things you keep telling yourself that makes you angry, weak and

small. You look in the mirror and all you see is some kind of monster, condemning you for giving it life. So you cover all your mirrors with thick plastic sheets and you think you can walk the world safely even with that monster inside you, just as long as you don’t see it. Like that Dorian fellow. But we all will grow weary of fighting our own wrath eventually; our hands will lose their grip on the valve holding it all back. And it will start manifesting itself; abrupt bursts of frenzy in its initial stages, and continues to degenerate into an uncontrollable state of berserk. And it’s so hard to fight its advances as it spreads deeper and deeper like a cancer. Because it’s never easy to stop something that you started yourself. But the moment you kill that monster is the moment you reconcile with it. That’s when all the beauty is restored to the face in the mirror. That’s when you find yourself again. Ok, my bladder really needs to get to a proper toilet bowl now.

Chapter 17 A Knock On The Forehead My mobile phone buzzed one sleepy afternoon. It was a message from The Girl. Our little text conversations have been pretty consistent lately. I enjoyed talking to her. Because I would always mess around with her head, picking on her and have a good laugh at her misery. And at the end of the day, we’d always laugh it off and have a good time. But no matter how far we went, it would always stay at a platonic level. Nothing more, nothing less. And we were comfortable keeping it that way. The message read that she was coming over from across the straits for a day’s visit and asked if we could to meet up. What a pleasant surprise. What wasn’t a pleasant surprise, though, was when I saw the date on my mobile phone screen. I had only a little more than two weeks left before the deadline. Time was running out and running out quickly. And I still haven’t gotten everything sorted out yet. That was the thought that caught my troubled head for the next couple of days and the next thing I knew I was out on the riverfront walking side by side with The Girl, her little fingers on my sweaty palms. It was a starless night with cold winds and blinking street lamps. Wasn’t exactly the ideal setting for the perfect date. She kept rubbing her arms to keep herself warm since she was wonderfully clever enough to be wearing a spaghetti strap on a freezing night, so I gave her my jacket. Not because I wanted to look like some supplicating nice guy, but so that she’d stop giving out those subtle hints for a cuddle. I kid, I kid. Now it was my turn to start freezing. But it brought my head back from some place millions of miles away to where I was now. We reached a more populated area and decided to give our legs a break and sat down on one of the stone benches looking out at the river. Bright lights were shining from the eating, drinking and partying places on the other side. And we just stared at it in total silence, with only the melody of David Gray’s piano as he crooned the words ‘This year’s love had better last’ in our ears. Ah, the wonders of technology. She was probably thinking “Oh, how pretty…” as the lights painted a messy picture on the cold water like an eternal empty canvas that splashed and wiped away the image just to be painted on again. But all that was in my head was “Damn. These benches are bloody hard.” “What’s on your mind?” She broke the silence first. I slightly shuddered. “Er, nothing much, really. Just enjoying the pretty lights.” For a minute I thought she was psychic. “Why don’t we go over there?” She asked with a glitter in her eyes.

“Give me a minute, babe. This sick old man could use a breather.” I winked at her. Even though my feet were pretty much fine by then, they still ached after some heavy walking. It didn’t hurt as much as my arse at the time, though. So we continued talking about nonsense that would lead to more nonsense for what felt like hours. Just like we always do. It’s funny how easy it was to come up with all sorts of crap when I talk to her. For that brief while I felt like I was back in those halcyon days. Back when my skull was still intact. When I didn’t have to think about them demons. When I didn’t have to worry about anyone coming to take my soul away. It was great to feel that kind of freedom. Even if only for that brief moment. As we immersed ourselves in the conversation, smiles quickly became giggles that promptly turned into laughter. She turned to look at me; that brisk movement flailing her hair wildly like a bundle of wild octopi tied up together, and laughed her geeky little laugh. And that’s when I knew I was finished. To fall for someone was the last thing on my mind at the time; I wasn’t exactly in the right mind for it. Even if I wasn’t constantly preoccupied by the impending payment date, I was never quite one for commitment either. Because I always believed that only I can have the power to give myself happiness. It was more of a selfish motive of being such an entertaining entity; that was just my way of entertaining myself. The moment you stopped caring whether you’re entertained or not and started caring whether she’s having a good time, though, you’ve pretty much placed your happiness in the hands of that person. And I’ve never been comfortable with handing over or even sharing that power with someone else. Don’t you just hate them times when you end up falling for someone who you shouldn’t? Plus, there was another reason why I didn’t pull the trigger. But I digress. But as I looked at her as the moonlight played on her face, I couldn’t help but picture how it would be like if we were like one of these couples walking past. And I could picture a time and place where we felt the kind of happiness that we only saw in them picture shows. It… wasn’t such a bad feeling. The alpha male in me, hardened by the macho belief that showing even the slightest hint of love or affection towards someone I care about is a sign of vulnerability, would not leave me open to any attack. Some other part of me, though, wanted to leak just a bit of this… feeling. “You know, you make me really happy, for some reason.” I said it as a casual remark. I hoped that she wouldn’t read too much into it, though. “What reason?” Oh shit. I didn’t see that response coming. And I could’ve sworn a saw a red flush on her cheeks. “No reason.” I said aloofly.

“But there’s always some reason when you say it like that.” I think she really is psychic. Now she’s dangerous. “It’s nothing important, babe. Nothing you should concern yourself with.” The alpha male in me firmly stood his ground. “Whether it’s important or not, that’s for me to decide. Come on, you know I hate this anticipating feeling. Just say it already.” “It’s better that you not hear it, really.” It remained infallible. “Is it so hard for you to just say it?” Believe it or not, it was pretty damn tough. Once she has sensed I’m hiding something from her, she’ll keep pestering me until I finally tell her or drown myself in the river. I’d prefer the former; I get to live. But this little thought won’t come out quite that easily; the alpha male in me was proving to be quite an effective defense mechanism. “You can hate me for this. You’ll come to understand it someday.” “I won’t hate you for something that you haven’t even told me. Now please, tell me.” She stared at me with those eyes that disarmed me from all my weapons of deception. “Fine. Since you want to hear it so badly.” And there was a really long pause as the macho side that was keeping me from such romantic behaviour was battling that part of me that really wanted her to know the truth, with all those emotions and feelings and them other things those people who call themselves lovers say and do. Because maybe underneath this shell, I was just simply afraid of ruining this picture I had of us if I do this. Courage has never been a family trait. And if it’s smudged, blotched or tarnished, nothing can put it back as it was; no matter how much I try to wipe away the stain. It just won’t be the same again. “Well, you’re a nice girl, and I like having you around me. And I could actually picture us working something out. But I guess I’m just too much of a coward to say all that. Because I didn’t want to lose what we’ve got now.” But I said it nonetheless. The alpha male inside smacked his forehead before slitting his own throat to bleed himself dry. There was another long pause and the only thing I could hear was a siren blaring out in my head saying how much of a wuss I was. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. So I focused on the soreness of my arse.

“I like this coward who’s saying something.” She finally said. “To be honest, I actually like you a lot too. But I can’t possibly let you like me.” She continued. To actually hear her say the first statement out loud slightly caught me off guard. I quickly regained my cool. Another long pause. “I’m already with someone else.” And a final pause to complete the trilogy. “I already know.” I’ve known it all along. Her eyes widened. I could tell she was genuinely surprised. Because otherwise it would just be plain bad acting. I kid, I kid. “That’s why I didn’t want to feel that way for you. I didn’t want something as expendable as romance get in the way of our friendship. You’ve already got something good going on with your guy and now this bastard wants to steal your heart.” I continued. Whether I could actually steal it or not, it didn’t matter; it just didn’t feel right. Not because I wanted to be a good sport who played by the rules and found it unethical to poach another man’s girl. It was more about the possibility of karma. That one fine day it might come biting me at the place where the sun don’t shine when I’m finally going steady with her. That someone else might do to me what I’d do to her current guy. It was pretty dumb of me to doubt my own worth once again, now that I look back. Nevertheless, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. “No, don’t call yourself that. I think what we’ve got now is great. It would be so much better if we left it this way, Crowley. Because we’re just having such a great time like this.” She beamed at me like a light bulb. The trumpets started blowing, the drums started beating, the people started dancing, and the fireworks started lighting up the sky. I was celebrating inside. Finally, someone who saw things the same way as I do when it came to this issue. “Yeah. That sounds nice.” I smiled right back. We soaked in the beauty of the silence. “Hey, check that out.” I pointed out to the distance.

“From here, you can almost see the sea.” We both looked on as the dark waves crashing in their tireless effort to carry forth the shine of the moon across to the horizon on their surface. A poignant struggle for a lost cause. At least it was, from where we were standing. Oh, but it was a sight to behold, I tell you. I stood up and offered her my hand. “Come on. Let’s go over to the other side.”

Chapter 18 This Year’s Love She took my hand, but just as soon as she got up, one of her heels broke and sprained her ankle. What, did she saw it off while I wasn’t looking? Either she’s got some plan to make a fool out of me or her luck was just plain rotten. After wobbling around unsteadily for a few seconds she sat back down, looking downtrodden. Apparently it’s just her luck. She rubbed her ankle and muttered some hushed words in a bashful tone as if a bad pet was embarrassing her. Just then the wind started blowing stronger and I figured it was time to move. Since I’ve already broken the vow of silence, I couldn’t be bothered to continue upholding the image of this alpha male. I squatted down in front of her and turned around so my back was facing her. “Get on.” I said, albeit with a tinge of reluctance. “What?” Slightly embarrassed and now obviously bewildered, she gave me that funny look, wondering what the hell I was up to, all the while with her broken shoe in her hands. “Hurry up before I change my mind.” I made a quick gesture with my thumb pointing towards my back. But I didn’t end up changing my mind throughout the whole five minutes where she was just convincing me that she’ll be alright after awhile and me convincing her that we didn’t have ‘awhile’. She leaned on my back and threw her arms around my neck. I carried her thighs firmly and worked my creaky knees to stand up. I piggybacked her through the whole stretch of the riverfront. The crowd was just at the right density so there was enough space for us to enjoy the pretty lights. We passed by some nice chillout bars and pubs, playing some nice chillout music. But our eyes and ears weren’t set on that. We knew exactly where we wanted to go. We arrived at the end of the boardwalk, leaving all the lights and songs behind us. We took in the salty air as we stared out to the sea, with her still clinging on my back. I heard a crack in my spine, but the sound of her breathing by my ear numbed the pain. She could probably cut down on the chocolates, but the smell of her scent from a timely gust of wind made me feel she was weightless. Everything just felt right. Then we heard a most unexpected song playing from one of them pubs. This Year’s Love. The soundtrack of our little attempt at a love story. We recognized it from the very first note. It was playing our song. Aye, we actually had a song to call our own. Even I had to break into a smile. Now everything was perfect. But they cut it short as they were closing for the night.

“A pity we couldn’t hear the whole song.” She sounded disappointed. With silent sigh and a roll of my eyes, I resumed the song where it last stopped. Won’t you kiss me on that midnight street Sweep me off my feet Singing ain’t this life so sweet. It was then that all the best lines in the best love songs came rushing into my head. And I realized at how utterly crippled they were in dividing something that simply can’t be divided into individual words and letters. But people did write them yesterday, still write them today, and will continue to write them tomorrow. Because one heart is simply too confined a place to contain something that required the room of two. I started walking, or more like labouring, my way towards the train station. The crack in my spine was starting to manifest itself in my nerves. “I’ve always wondered what your previous relationships were like.” She suddenly asked. “In all honesty, they were all trainwrecks.” And it was true. “Why?” “I don’t really know. Guess back then I just didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I needed to put in all of me to care for someone. Because I’ve seen some friends who went through all that and what it left them with. Just a big fat hole in their paper hearts and years of being a miserable little shit. I don’t intend on letting that happen to me.” Despite all my big talk about experiencing pain, I was petrified at the thought of getting my heart broken; I just don’t think I’m up for that. Guess I’m a coward in that sense too. And that’s why I always end up destroying everything I love. Because I don’t know what sort of mess I’ll make when I’m this scared. May it be bending myself backwards just to be a bastard, or doing nothing at all to salvage the situation, I push everything away to a distance. Which is further propelled by the male ego that takes over whenever it senses that I’ve flubbed something. Or perhaps it was the forces of karma hitting me hard for not returning the love given to me by my loved ones. “Then how do you expect to ever love anyone that way?” She asked. I was silent the whole way to the train station. “Your ankle alright?” I asked as I let her down when we arrived there. “Yeah, my ankle’s fine now.” But I could see it probably has been fine for quite some time now.

“Oh don’t bother asking about my back; it’s perfectly fine.” She giggled. “Hey, you’re the one who volunteered.” “Right, but showing some concern for the man who just carried you for a mile isn’t a crime, woman.” “Nah, I know you’re alright. You always are.” Her face glowed under the light. “Lame excuse to get away with the lack of sympathy. But I’ll let it slide this time.” I grinned. “You know, it’s great that we’re still the same as we were when we first met.” “Yeah. You’re still the brat with cheap shoes and no jackets, and I’m still the sexy boy next door.” And she burst into her trademark geeky laughter. We gazed into each other’s eyes as the trains arrived and left the station. A million thoughts were surging through my head. I shouldn’t do this. I didn’t want to lead myself to a broken heart. I didn’t want her to be torn apart. But I was already in too deep. I’ve put too much of my heart in her to get myself out. I took a step closer. My hand slithered around her waist and gently pulled her to me. I traced the space where her hair meets her face, starting with a feathery touch on the forehead and ending in a clasp behind her ears. Our faces were so close I could feel her breath on my skin. I heard her gasp a little. She arched her neck to look at me with those starry eyes. Our hearts were racing each other to the finish line. Our lips were throwing grappling hooks to pull themselves nearer. And I knocked my forehead softly on hers. Just like every other time we say goodbye. “Good night.” I left her standing there with a look in her eyes that could bring even the most coldhearted of men to his knees as I let her go. A part of me died there when I didn’t take that kiss. When she asked me how I would ever love anyone this way, the truth is, I didn’t know. It was simply something I haven’t been able to figure out. What I do know was that if I did kiss her, it would probably lead to something where I’ll end up hurting her. It was much better to just leave it as it was; at least nobody gets hurt along the way. Even if I had to live in the misery of being nailed to the line, sworn never to cross it. If I had to be miserable to be strong, then so be it. Her train arrived as we both stood motionless.

“You’ve got a train to catch.” I muttered. There was a long silence. Seems like this chapter has the highest number of silent moments in the book so far. “Now go.” I nudged her towards the train. She took a step towards the open train doors. Her second step echoed in the walls of the station. Her third step thundered in the walls of my head. I knew I couldn’t let her take another step. I called out her name as if redemption depended on it. She turned around like someone finally came to her rescue after years of waiting. I ran to her and held this pretty little thing in my arms. And I kissed her in a way Humphrey Bogart would’ve admired. It came like a CPR that revived the part of me that died. “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” I winked at her as I walked away. If only it ended like that. What really happened was, I gave her a knock on her forehead and let her go. We went our separate ways. And we lie on our beds that night wondering why we didn’t take that chance. Why we didn’t give it a shot. Why we didn’t embrace the moment and kiss as if the sky would fall. And we’ll be left with just a memory of this almost-romance that could have, should have, and would have blossomed into some kind of wonderful, but didn’t. That part of me remained dead. A great romance oftentimes brings the worst out of us, regardless of how much people put it up on a pedestal. The little fluttery feeling inside the stomach that everyone has been trying to find keeps eluding us all, and it has to stay that way. Because whenever we find something good and something in demand, we turn it into a commodity. We find ways to mass manufacture it, put in a package that’s instantly recognizable and consumable, and sell it for a profit; we want to make it available to all. Movies, music, literature, you name it. And it doesn’t help that we’re all suckers for a great romance. But this kind of love; like the kind of love I find myself feeling when I’m with a klutzy little wreck that keeps falling over herself but somehow always manages to make me laugh, doesn’t operate that way. It’s selfish; those who find it will only keep it for themselves. It’s unkind; it basks in arrogance for being one of a kind. Yet we trudge on relentlessly in pursuit of the very thing that turns us into these greedy creatures.

But is it something that should be condemned? I’d reckon not. For it is this greed that keeps us up and fighting even when we’re down and out; the greed that helps us hold on just that bit longer. Because we know that sometimes we have to be greedy to find happiness. And we know the things that are worth being greedy for in this world. So, yes, I’d like to be selfish and unkind. I am, after all, in love. So why didn’t I take that kiss, you ask? I saw in her eyes an inadequate son staring right back, asking me whether I deserved this. Despite strutting around like someone who was larger than life, the facts around me spoke louder than words: I just wasn’t as wholesome as I thought I was. It all boiled down back to the living room turmoil with my mother. No matter how convincing my method acting may be, the facade would eventually collapse. But it wasn’t about the impermanence of this pretense; being a good man was simply something I didn’t want to fake. This was the other reason why I didn’t pull the trigger. Oh, it’s not far fetched at all; pleasing my mother had everything to do with this romance I almost had with The Girl. A mother is the woman in a boy’s life. And if he can’t even make her happy, he’ll never make any other woman happy. So I didn’t dare to be greedy for the love of this beautiful girl I had in my arms until I could offer her the man that I am. I was too proud to offer her anything less than that.

Chapter 19 Paradise Lost Absolution is the act of seeking forgiveness by the absolute repentance of your sins to be liberated from the guilt of your deeds. It’s when you say sorry to God. Well, at least that’s what I make of its definition. But does it really hold solace for a faithless man? It was the demons from down under that kept stopping Faust from seeking mercy from God. But regardless of the countless death threats and demonstrations of terror, they were, irrefutably, still outsiders. There will always be a way to break out from the clutches of them that hold you prisoner. The demons inside, though, are the ones that I’m holding prisoner. I try to always be steady and upright to keep them from breaking out, even if it stretches me beyond my means. Because I can’t let them break out; I’ve seen what happens when I stop trying. I just slip into… something that makes me question my moral integrity. So will it ever be possible to ascend to His kingdom with this weight pulling me down? I don’t think so. But I pray for the life of me that angels are willing to take bribes. My hand found its way to my back to scratch that itch that’s been bugging me in my sleep. My back has been itching a whole lot less now, though it still has the occasional spells of irritation. Slumber that morning never felt better, though. But it just had to be ruined by the phone suddenly bursting into life as it received an incoming call. I searched my bedside table blindly for a vibrating device. My eyes pried open to the sight of grilled windows I’ve now come to call home as I answered the call. “Speak.” Courtesy was a trait I lack on early mornings. “Hey Crowley, it’s me. Just wondering if you’d be interested in coming to church today. Come on; it’ll be fun.” And he tried his best to sound perky, but couldn’t be bothered to maintain the tone as he went along. Yeah, I knew who he was. “You called at this ungodly hour just to ask if I wanna go to church? Are you out of your bloody mind?” A nerve twitched as it was assaulted by the absurdity of this act. “Well, I heard about your incident from a friend. Thought you might wanna come over for a prayer or two. And it’s 9am, for crying out loud.” News of imbecilic behaviour sure spread fast. “I appreciate the gesture, but you know that praying isn’t my thing.” I slurred the last few words. “You up for lunch then?” “Then let me go back to sleep now so I can wake up by then.”

“You sound tired, man. Sure you can wake up by then?” “Pray that I can.” And I hung and went back to sleep. The fellow I just spoke to was Butterfingers. He was a friend I met back when I went to church some years back. Stop laughing; yes, I have indeed been to church before. A man of few words and expressions, he was a nice guy, albeit scary at times since you never really know what’s going on in his mind under his default deadpan face. And for the life of me, he sure can make a piano sing. Hence the name. Though by no means as savvy as Hairyback, or as confident as Manbreasts, if there was one thing I respected about him, it was his unwavering faith in the Big Guy upstairs. He seemed to be driven by some invisible force to be a man who stood by his values and principles. Which were mostly from the Bible, really. Nevertheless, the amount of discipline and fortitude he possesses for this often underestimated gargantuan task in a world of vice and guilty pleasures was truly something admirable. I could never quite picture myself in such a light. There has always been a sort of flexibility in my morals. It was a handy tool to have; I could jump to either sides of the fence whenever the situation deems fit. But that was what I believed in; anyone who makes up their mind even before knowing the issue at hand is a fool. The bad thing about it, though, was that it makes me an accidental hypocrite at times. And that doesn’t go too well with the people these days who are so obsessed with forming clans united by some opinion or idea, just so that they’ve got a side to pick. I can live with that. It was noon and I was at a fast food chain munching down my turkey burger on one of those little tables with a parasol on top. Oddly enough, I felt like getting there early. Probably because I’m hungry. I saw Butterfingers coming from a distance, looking as blank as ever. Though with a hint of worry on his face. “Oh, don’t worry; you didn’t keep me waiting at all.” My mouth was still half-filled with turkey and mayonnaise. “You’re unusually early. What, is the world coming to an end?” He said with the most earnest look on his face. “They now put mayonnaise on turkey. Yes, the world is ending.” Strangely, though, it didn’t taste half as bad as I thought. He gave one of his rare chuckles. “Good to know the incident didn’t knock some things out of you. How have you been?” “What you see is what you get; everything’s still working properly. Well, at least the last time I checked. How was the sermon?”

“It was… good.” That was the first time I heard him say something with a tinge of doubt about anything church-related. “Cool. Get yourself something to eat, dude. Try some of this turkey burger while the world hasn’t ended yet.” I decided to let it slide; he’ll tell me about it when he wants to. “Nah, I’m not exactly hungry. Just wanted to meet you up for a talk or something.” “Yeah, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure you got some stuff swirling in your head. Go ahead; my ears are free.” That was sooner than I expected. “It’s nothing much really. Just been having a rough time.” Now what little life his deadpan face had slowly dissipated as it turned grimmer and grimmer. I waited for him to continue. And waited. And waited. “Well? Go on!” I almost spurt out my iced tea. “Ah, sorry. Well, a series of unfortunate events fell upon me. You don’t have to know the details. Yes, I know I should have faith that it’s all part of His plan and all, but sometimes I feel that God is really trying me this time around.” Faith. The only thing that keeps gods and demons alive. He paused once more for good measure. “I don’t know if I can pull through this, Crowley. I really don’t know if I can.” All was silent. Except for my mouth crunching on my burger. And the kid screaming for his mommy on the boardwalk. “Everything I prayed for to happen, didn’t, while everything I prayed for not to happen, did. It’s like he’s doing this on purpose or something. I can’t even find comfort in prayer now, for crying out loud. My life’s just… messed up now.” He leaned back on his chair with an air of tired resignation. And I said one of the few things that I’m certain of in this life. “Well, shit happens.” I paused to let that thought sink in. “Life post-trolley hasn’t been all that great either, despite the extended holiday. It made me realize how estranged my mother has been to me. Home to me in the past month has been what prayer has been to you.”

He just kept quiet. He was never quite the conversationalist, you see. Doubting he was actually going to offer me any words of comfort, I continued. “We could all use some help some time. But there are just some parts of this road where we must travel alone. And nobody; not even God, will help us walk on these glass shards. The only thing we’ve got is our feet. So we’ve got to push on through.” “No… He will come and walk with me the whole way. It’s just that… sometimes I really question His method of loving me. And everything that’s been happening is making it really hard for me to love Him.” A montage of the moments when I wasn’t filial and pious to my mother started playing in my head. I could feel my face slightly wince as it slowly backtracked to the all that I’ve done her wrong, and how I was torn to shreds by the shame and the guilt when I’m alone. But those weren’t the parts that made my face squirm. It was when it came to the part I convinced myself that I was right that put me in sheer disgust for myself. “Yeah, I know what you mean. You feel like some second-rate son when you can’t even bring yourself to do something as elementary and necessary as getting along with your mother.” I was oblivious to the words that came out of my mouth. “Come again?” He had that ‘huh?’ look on his face. “What? Oh, sorry, my mind was somewhere else.” “Well, get it back here then; I’m trying to say something here. This is the part where you’re supposed to tell me some words of wisdom or something.” Is he that deprived of attention and friends? “What can I tell you that you don’t already know? You’ve seen sunlight a few years more than me. If you insist, then perhaps your God has left you. Perhaps He was tired of hearing you whine on and on about your problems and went on a little vacation in Cuba.” Now I know how Ally felt when I was ranting about my shit. “Never. He won’t abandon me. I know it.” I’d expected that from him. “You know, my brethren have actually told me about this before; about not letting doubt get the better of me. But they never told me about how bloody hard it was going to be.” He continued. “Look here, you can doubt. You can be angry. You can even forget about Him for awhile. Then take all the ugly feelings you have inside and put it down on paper. I’m talking about things that you never want to even speak of. Take a good look at them. And only come back to your God after you’ve come to terms with all those things that you can and

can’t live with.” It’s funny that it wasn’t too long ago when everyone else was giving ME advice. He gazed out silently to the windowed concrete block as he chewed on my words. The danger of doubt is that it knows how to doll itself up. It looks, feels and tastes a whole lot better from the onset. At first glance, it seems like you lose less when you indulge in this habit. And mankind’s persistent nature to cut down losses makes people feel right at home in its safety. So you shut your eyes and smile in the conviction of your choice as the sweetness of this fruit keeps you disillusioned. Until the bitterness starts kicking in when you realized you’ve lost a lot more. With some words of caution from the elders and the wise, it sounded like a simple enough affair to stay clear out of doubt’s way. But no man is insusceptible to doubt. “There’s no shame in falling into a sea of errors, dude. Just don’t stay in there to drown.” “But can a man ever hope to swim to shore when he’s already disgraced by the errors surrounding him?” “Your God wouldn’t be ashamed of your failings because you surrendered. But He would be ashamed if you surrendered to your failure.” He did want to hear some words of wisdom. With that said, a slight hint of optimism washed across his face. The colour on Butterfingers’s face returned to its usual deadpan self. And I’ve seen what happens after that. “Alright, enough talk about this. When will you join us again, Crowley? It’d be great to have you back.” Oh boy. “Hoho, you won’t be getting me walking the plank anytime soon, brother. You know I got commitment issues.” But I found myself giving a second thought. “… Alright. But if you ever change your mind, you know that you’re always welcome.” It was a really extended second thought. This could be my last shot at redemption. A final overture for forgiveness from God. But if I ask Him to make it all go away now, that would be tantamount to giving up; even before reaching the end to see whether I could right my wrongs. Alas, forgiveness is something you have to sacrifice your pride for. And it is exactly there that lays my greatest nemesis. They say a man is capable of impossible feats in the face of imminent doom. Then perhaps there is still a chance for me to find a way to overcome even the most hubristic and resilient demon hiding inside my head. But failure will then no longer be acceptable. No more extra lives for me to continue the game, boys and girls. I won’t

be magically spawned at my last checkpoint like some Italian plumber who eats growthhormone-injected mushrooms and jumps on turtles. Just a long way down to hell. I never quite pictured myself as the church-going type anyway.

Chapter 20 Running On Faith Now though I may not show it, the approaching deadline has kept me perplexed in the past few days. I was no longer feeling regret over the utter foolishness of stepping into that trolley; now that regret has been passed over to the utter foolishness of accepting Mr. Jeremy’s bargain. So there was something I wanted to ask Butterfingers; not as a devout religious man, but as a fellow human being. Something that could possibly justify my actions that led to the possession of this right eye. “Hey, would you ever consider employing the man downstairs to help you get things right?” I asked, making it sound as casual as possible. “What? Of course not.” He looked repulsed at the mere suggestion of the idea. “Yeah, but what if your life was a mess that you can’t deal with by yourself?” “There’s no mess too big that God can’t help you handle.” “And if you don’t have God in your life?” “Then my life better be really fucked up to actually drive me down to that choice.” It’s always fun to hear a stanch servant of God swear every now and then. Personally, I’m thinking God is probably a diehard fan of the game Risk. He just loves every minute of rolling his dies and moving his troops. But it gets pretty darn boring playing against Himself all the time. Hence, Lucifer was born. He made the first angel so elaborately and painstakingly just for his little plan to have a worthy opponent to play with. That’s how we, the troops on the playing board, became as equally disposed to the word of the Gospel and to the word of everything else outside of it. But He is still, after all, God; He can’t possibly allow an underling undermine His greatness. Hence regardless of how strong He makes his timeless adversary, He makes him just strong enough to pose a challenge but weak enough to be instantly put down the moment He gets bored of the game. And that’s what Judgment Day really is all about: the day God says “Alright, that’s enough of Risk for now”. No matter what the odds, He knows He will still beat him. I guess it’s all just about saving His own face at the end of the day. Alas, despite being pawns in their little game, we’re not entirely under their control. For they are still subject to a special law of probability when those dies hit the board; a phenomenon that even they cannot rig. It’s called freewill. Was my life really all that bad? Was it beyond any hope of salvation with only powers humanly available? And was I so desperate to be saved that it felt like a sound idea to use

this freewill, with all the countless choices and alternatives on hand, to cut a deal with the man in the pinstripe suit? No. A buyer’s remorse. A tactician’s miscalculation. A king’s folly. I’m suddenly asking myself all the right questions. But timing has never been one of my better qualities. “Say you did seek the pitchfork-wielding dude’s council. But now you’re regretting it. What then?” I continued asking, even though there’s a looming feeling that things will probably not end happily. “What could be so irreparable that such a retarded choice would actually appear plausible?” “Just answer the bloody question.” “Well, I’m pretty much screwed as it is. This is, of course, provided that I’m not a believer. So with what little time I’ve got left, I’ll live out my own little piece of paradise. I’ve always wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago on my bike.” “Say what?” I wouldn’t have expected in a thousand years that underneath the curfewbound man was a biker at heart. Heck, I didn’t even know he had a license. “Yeah, that’s how I’d picture my Holy Grail to be, so to speak. Everybody has a different one. But not everyone can find it. I mean, there is no one single face of absolute happiness for everyone, right? The only thing you can do to even begin getting an idea of what your own earthly paradise would resemble is to know what you want to do in life before you die and make a list of it. Yes, your list may end up as thick as a medical dictionary, but you’ll see that list narrow down real quick when death is at your doorstep.” Now that’s going to produce some really weird results for me. Still, I can’t help but wonder… “My list was pretty short to begin with, so it was easy to single out the one to accomplish before my time is… Hey, are you with me?” But my mind was somewhere else again. It was climbing its way up the top of a mountain no one else has ever scaled before with a big ass flag written ‘I WAS HERE FIRST, SUCKER!!’ just to find a luscious woman standing at the peak, stark naked except for a loincloth, wielding a club and frying lizards on a stick. Disappointment or bliss? But the ‘What the fuck?’ alarm was ringing too loudly in my head to finish that debate. “What? Oh, sorry, spaced out. Again.” “What’s with the funny questions anyway?”

“Nothing. Just got a visit from Mephistopheles recently.” And I laughed it off. Albeit with a very sullen and reserved laugh. “Don’t speak of such things so indifferently. Especially when you haven’t accepted Him into your life. That’s why it doesn’t pay to be faithless, Crowley. It won’t hurt you just to believe in something.” “I never said I didn’t believe in anything. Everybody needs something to believe in.” “What do you believe in then?” There was a little pause as I gathered my thoughts into what would be my next soliloquy. Shakespeare, eat your heart out. “I believe that there’s something divine; something that keeps us good and innocent, in everyone. That keeps us children and binds us together even when we’re removed of all the beliefs and ideas that we label ourselves with. Something only those superheroes can see in us that makes this world worth saving. I’d like to think that it’s called love, or something universal like that. But there probably isn’t a name for it. I just know that it’s there, you know. And no matter how much the world tries to cover it up with a mushroom cloud of evil, phony and ugly things, it’ll never go away. I guess that’s a kind of divinity too. At least to me. Even when it’s getting harder to keep the faith that this thing even exists, with students going to class with submachine guns, people’s mindless fascination with justifying squalor, glorifying hedonism and mania for plastic bags, and all the other stuff I see around.” By the way, I’m a Buddhist, at least on paper. But if anyone asks, I’m a Crowley. “But every now and then someone comes along and proves me right. And just that brief peek at the meager prospect of this something in us is enough to remind me that ‘Yeah, this is a world I can probably convince myself to fight for.’ Because we all need to always be reminded that there is some meaning in what we’re doing.” And that is why I’ve never even once contemplated suicide. Plus, it’s just too messy and meticulous an affair to bother myself with. You’ve got to put in all that effort in planning the right day and time; getting all the right equipment for the job; thinking and confirming and re-thinking and re-confirming of whether you want to do it or not. And what do you get from all that? A tiny article in the newspaper, a not-so-tiny bill for a closed-casket funeral and a whopping amount of people who wished they could bring you back to life just to beat you to death all over again, for being weak; for throwing in the towel. Your one chance to make your own name; your own empire; your own legend is cut short, and people will eventually move on to forget about you. And you will become nothing more than a single digit in the annual death rate statistics. So even if I can’t die a hero, I wouldn’t want to be remembered dying a coward’s death.

“Yeah, but how often do these guys come along? Because if this something that you speak of does exist in people, they sure are pretty good in concealing it.” His zeal for God didn’t quite rub off in his impression of mankind. I guess even the most devout among us can be skeptical when it comes to talking about one of our own. I thought about that for awhile. “Guess I’m just running on faith now.” Whether I actually believed in the words that I just spoke is still open to speculation. If this faith of mine should apply to me as much as it applies to everyone else, then logically I should have the competence of doing the same amount of good everyone else is capable of. Now that’s a joke. I’m unfamiliar to the notion that I can do something out of pure goodwill and without any other motives. Could I do something as strenuous as bringing more love into the living room of my home? Maybe I should have more faith in my better nature. Or, at the very least, of its existence. “It was great talking to you again, dude. Peace be with you. Just remember that God’s love is never wrong.” I told him as I checked the cup for any iced tea left. “And a mother’s love is never wrong too.” We finally noticed that the screaming kid was already long gone. And we figured that it’s high time we stopped screaming too. To whisper words of gratitude, reverence and, above all, love to the ones that deserve them. Absolution is the act of seeking forgiveness by the absolute repentance of my sins to be liberated from the guilt of my deeds. It’s when I say sorry to my mother. I just hope I wasn’t too proud to say it.

Intermission 2 Matchstick People Time out; a little break would be appropriate now. The end of the tale is at hand. They say that when the finish line is in sight, just go all out for it. But that just sounds too clumsy for my taste; too wastefully hasty. Because we all lose sight of the plot somewhere along the way. We forget what we’re talking about from time to time. It’d be much called for to take a step back and count the sheep. There are still a few days to spare till D-day anyway. So what is the plot? About a jackass who started hallucinating about demons and the whatnots after breaking his head on a trolley ride? About some whiny bloke who’s got mommy issues? Or is it about a confused man who’s just trying to make sense of the things around him? The last one sounds too pretty. But it’s probably the only one that encompasses everything that I’ve written so far. Now I don’t intend to make this some exceedingly cerebral blog entry. But perhaps it would do me justice, if just for a bit, with the telling of a little back story. For as long as I can remember, I was the chronicler of my own kingdom. You see, I’m handicapped with the need to make sense of everything just to get an idea of who I am. Ever since those oddball questions I asked myself in the mirror not too long ago (See Chapter 1), I went through a phase where I actually believed there was nothing but clockwork and jelly beans under this skin. Something that took my form and walked the earth as it ticked time away while I was somewhere else in deep slumber. Kind of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Metropolis. That was the only explanation I could come up with at the time for all those segments of my life that I had absolutely no idea where they went. If there was anything I could remember in those episodes of void, I could only remember just wanting to wake up. Eventually this piece of machinery attained sentience and I finally woke up. And I found myself way past a time when I could be vindicated for being angry, or miserable, or feeling those beautiful allconsuming things those troubled teenagers pride themselves with. It was an age of no innocence and no nonsense. But the mind boots up as an empty canvas, and I find myself acting a child at all the wrong places at all the wrong times. I wouldn’t go on to blatantly say it was arrested development that I was under. It was just a severe case of retarded development, and the slamming feeling on my face was the repercussions of two whole decades suddenly catching up to me when everything started moving at normal speed. The norms of society. Conventional behaviour. Civilized conduct. I was just beginning to discover myself and already I’m being told what to do. My folks wanted me to conform; they wanted me to ‘play it safe’. Fine, I can do that. Yet what I got was: ‘You’re not supposed to do this’. ‘You’re not supposed to do that’. If they’re telling everything that I’m not supposed to be doing, then what the hell am I supposed to do? And so I spent a long time trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. With a superego that hasn’t been packed tight and traumatized with superstitions, inhibitive beliefs and restrictive modes of thought, I figured there was still hope in finding myself.

I started looking at myself as a mechanical chassis that needed to accessorize myself with the stories of the lives of stronger archetypes to empower myself. I was a collector. With the sensory onslaught of too many things coming in at once, though, I became a messy concoction of everything I saw and heard. I was a second-rate imitator. So I tried going one gear lower. It was a slow process, but I sifted through the things coming in, experimenting with each archetype, retaining those that served me well, and discarding those that didn’t. I was a mad scientist and his guinea pig. The most satisfactory way so far, but I felt like something was missing. I tried rewinding and took a look inside the garbage heap in my head, to see if there was anything in there that was still essentially me. But it was impossible to dig through the pile; there’s just too much information to rummage. There was a strange… empty feeling to be left with nothing of myself to call my own. I was a ghost. That’s why I never liked the phrase ‘be yourself’. Nonetheless, it was a whole lot easier to just be one of the herd and ‘play it safe’. I resigned to that fate for awhile. After all, I just wanted a foundation to stand on and I wanted it quick so I can begin to live out the twenty years of life that I missed out on. But that was the whole point of the twenty years: constructing that foundation. Constructing myself. It’s not something that you can patch up using just images and sounds from picture boxes and the mass-distributed ideas and thoughts the electric sea feeds you. You can watch the most faithful adaptation of a person’s life through a screen and know everything there is to know about it. But it’ll never be yours. And you can immerse yourself in the beauty of the world through an audiovisual projection. But nothing can ever replace taking in the fields of barley with your own eyes and the wind whispering in your ears. You simply can’t create memories. Watching other people live out their lives was all I got as a kid. No weekly game of football at the neighbourhood court. Too dangerous of a sport, my folks say. No family trip exploring the nice eating places of the big city. Too money-consuming, they say. No chance to establish a usual hang out spot with some friends. Too time-wasting, they say. Maybe an occasional trip to the mall for some groceries. That’s all I got: an occasional grocery shopping trip. Back then I thought this was what childhood was supposed to be: boring. But slowly I had a sneaking suspicion that these youthful years were meant for something more. Like to be a child. Looking back at those years now, I must be out of my bloody mind to actually let them take that away. The thrill of spontaneity. The change in the scenery by going on a road a little less traveled. The choices that should have been mine to make. I hung on, hoping that this daylight robbery would all be over some day. But it never does. It just gets crazier and more obnoxious as the demands of the world outside gradually became more out of tune with the old pair of glasses that Mama stopped cleaning the day she decided to stay grounded and has been wearing ever since. Nevertheless, I refused to let all that get to my head. They were, if nothing else, just a reminder that smeared my face with everything I lacked in my life. Even though there was disappointment, and some regret; there was no bitterness. Just an impetus to make

the best out of them picture boxes, the electric sea and the occasional worded papers to arm myself with some knowledge; that could probably get me a long way. Perhaps it would do as a decent compensation for my late start. Even though I knew there can never be a substitute for time. Alas, I couldn’t even bring myself to sit my ass down on a couch and stare at a box of moving pictures, or any of the mentioned things for that matter, for too long. I just felt too guilty about using my time like this for some reason. That was how this head worked: a loose cannon that shot down every possible channel of consolation I could come up with, and trust me; I came up with a lot that came real close to avoiding the long arm of guilt. I was becoming the young adult who got kidnapped, tied up and held captive in a room. But I was left with no choice; I had only this desperate effort to achieve as many things in the shortest time possible to rely on to make up for lost time. It was no good, though. I never quite stuck around anywhere long enough to see the whole picture; just picked up a few bits from here and there. What I ended up with was half-baked knowledge and over-baked bravado. With an alleged ability for self-sustenance, I reckoned it was due time that I show my folks that I was a grownup. Don’t get me wrong; my folks loved me plenty. But it was a selfish kind of love. They gave me all that I needed: a bed, a roof above my head, and a bowl of rice everyday. And then they gave some more. But they never gave me the one thing I wanted most above it all. A chance. That was probably their way of keeping me bounded with a rising insecurity that their role as parents were rapidly being jeopardized with the tremendous influx of information coming from beyond the four walls. That was what I kept persisting on: a chance; just a chance, to prove that I could handle whatever comes my way in the real world, and all they ever tell me is: ‘You can’t handle real life.’ Then along came the one chance I wanted when I went over the straits to study. This would make or break my shot at getting a life where I could have more control over; I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. I don’t think you could begin to understand how crippling this pressure was from being granted something as rare as a chance in this family. And to think I was actually doing so well for awhile. But after a prolonged exposure to the intoxicating power of this newfound liberty, everything just went over my head. Twenty years’ worth of spontaneity, impulsiveness and choices suddenly landed on my lap. Maybe that’s why I stepped into that trolley. When you’re a running kid with a pair of scissors, it can only result in one of two things. You either hurt yourself, or you hurt everyone else around you. What happened in my case was the latter. Then again, when everything else just doesn’t seem to make me feel what I wanted to feel, maybe why I stepped into that trolley was just for that sole desire to know what it’s like to feel alive. And people need death to be alive. It’s like visiting the crocodiles in the zoo. But different people fulfill their sick little needs in different ways. Some people need to just simply have a good look at it. To fear how easy it is for the crocs to rip their heads

clean off. Some people need to feed the crocs with some bloody meat. To admire their vicious instincts as they rush for the meat and sigh with relief at the same time that it’s not them that the crocs are tearing apart. And some people need to put their hands in their jaws. Just to see how close they can be to death. To say I’m in the first category would be too meek and undermining; I enjoy a good spectacle as it ought to be enjoyed: in its full glory, not at a distance. To say I’m in the second category would be too selfish to be true; I don’t enjoy being entertained at the expense of others. To say that I’m in the third category would be too predictably bold. I know what I’m looking for. I just have no means of knowing when I’ve attained it. Because I don’t know how it’s supposed to make me feel. Of all things to desire, I had to pick such a vague and undefined thing as “feeling alive”. Bollocks. So I sat myself down in between all those chapters, and thought about where it all went wrong. I preferred a bright open space to do all my thinking; it’s conducive for brain activity. But I could barely see any sign of light in my room, so I got rid of some old broken toys obstructing the lights. There still wasn’t enough light getting to my eyes. I took the layers of makeshift masks off my face that narrowed my vision. Better, but still blurry. I pried the layers of rosy-coloured glasses off my eyes. And everything was illuminated. We live in a world that will stop at nothing to make you believe that you are always not good enough. By measuring the degree of resemblance of their lives with a predefined story of success: that is how a person’s place in this world is determined. Each time you switch channels on a box or turn the pages of the daily paper, you feel more and more like Tarzan in the big city. May it be all that you know, all that you think you know, all that you wish you know, or just the clothes in your wardrobe, it’s just impossible for someone running at the speed of an amputee to catch up to a world traveling at the speed of light. And to add to that, I’ve got folks who are always telling me to know my place. That I am just a feeble entity in this big bad world. That I can’t change the world. Even when a voice inside was telling me that I’m just too big to be contained in the preordained life of a sheep. But all my life I have been so frightened from everyone telling me that it’s wrong to feel this way, that somewhere along the way, I actually started believing in it. The moment of clarity came as not so much a brand new point of view, but more of a return to form. I remembered what it was that lied deeply buried at the bottom of the heap of character scripts and silver screen roles. A fire inside. I’m trying my best to avoid sounding clichéd, but there ain’t any other word for it. Inextinguishable, even by sticks or stones or even words. Inexhaustible, even if I had to get six more titanium clips in my head. And endlessly transforming, even when everyone was trying to put me in one place. I was already where I wanted to be; I just haven’t realized it yet. I didn’t need anybody else’s stories just to make me feel happy about myself. I am a blazing flame in a world of matchstick people.

I can make them shine with the brightest light or I can make them burn a fiery death. And it is this power that scares me. This raging fire was still missing one last key ingredient that would allow me to wield this power. I needed to find some alleviation. Some sort of ballast. And I’ve got a strange feeling that the last bit I missed out on my last conversation with Papa had something to do with it. A hazy thing, memories are.

Chapter 21 Desperado Two weeks to the deadline. The right eye has been twitching like a pirated DVD in the mornings ever since. I didn’t need to mark the calendars, or write reminders on my mobile phone; the date imprinted at the back of my eyelids was enough. This is the part where I start shooting down the likelihood of this unreal state actually being real. That’s how the mind responds to events that it simply cannot process: by refusing to believe in it. Maybe Mr. Jeremy wasn’t who I thought he was. Heck, maybe he doesn’t even exist. Perhaps it was all just a really long bad dream. Because all this was simply impossible. But nothing is ever impossible. Just highly improbable. And I’m not sit by and give myself the benefit of a doubt that this was all just some byproduct of a terribly bored mind. I realigned my priorities and rolled up my sleeves. I knew it would come to this someday anyway. I see Mama everyday, with a touch of delicate beauty when she’s asleep, but a slab of tyranny when she’s awake. Just how far and how long did I think I could actually stay away from this issue? This was my mess; the mess of how I looked at my upbringing. The mess of choosing to feel this way about her all along. The mess of being a servant of hate instead of its counterpart. And I always clean up my own mess. Make no mistake; when I say that I am going to do something; I’m not going to ‘try’ to do it. I hate that word. It’s so… safe. Because you can put in a half-baked effort and get away with it. The moment you say ‘try’, you’re already implying a 50-50 chance of success or failure. That’s like saying, ‘It’ll probably fail, but keep your eyes peeled for a possible surprise.’ When I say I’m going to clean it up, I’m going to DO it. And that is an all-or-nothing shot at glory, or a 3-course meal in eternal fire and brimstone. But now I didn’t know whether I was doing this out of the pure intent of making things right with Mama, or whether I was doing it out of the selfish drive to find salvation. Will it make a difference? Does it even matter? These answers never come easy. And if I asked myself anymore of these questions, I probably won’t have any time left to do anything about them. Besides, how hard can it possibly be to work this out? Logically speaking, if someone wanted to reduce his distance from another, it seemed like a sensible thing to engage in some of the activities that the other person does. Alright, so I decided to help her with the only thing I haven’t helped her out with before: cooking. The skill might actually come in handy some day. But the point here is just to get me started on what would probably be the two hardest things of my life: Dealing with the strongest demon in my head, and saying those few words that mattered the most to a mother. And it was their juxtaposition that made them harder than they were supposed to be. Especially with the four horsemen of Mama.

It was like boot camp all over again; the officer you have to bow down to, the orders that you have to follow no matter how absurd they are and the parade square that you simply can’t cross. The teaching aids are fear, punishment and humiliation. Day after day your sanity is dunked underwater where the only solace is the brief glimpse at the sun where you can finally gasp for air, just to be dunked underwater all over again. And the abuse will go on until you’re brainwashed or you’re broken. Because anything; and I mean anything, will get to you eventually in a place alienated from the rest of the world. Ok, so I may have exaggerated certain things, but you get my gist. So I stepped into the kitchen and strolled over to Mama preparing the stuff for dinner. “Hey Ma, what you cooking today?” I casually asked as I was drinking some fresh mango juice with an expiry date that wasn’t any time soon. “Just some tofu with pork and some chili ladyfingers; nothing special. Why ask?” She was in a good mood today. “Simple dish, eh? Er, maybe you can, er, teach me how to cook it or something.” I, Crowley, bold enough to ride a trolley into a wall, was feeling uncomfortable just making this request. And to add to that, I had to struggle getting my point across with my poor Mandarin. “You wanna learn how to cook? What for? It’s not like you’re going to use it anytime soon. What, you’re too bored, got nothing to do? Go read your books then; don’t forget you missed out on a whole semester because of your stunt.” There’s got to be some easier way to find salvation. I knew both she and my pride wouldn’t go down without a fight. But neither would I. With a sleight of mouth and the most boyish smile I could muster, I managed to convince her to teach me a thing or two in the kitchen. Though I may have had some knowledge in cooking, I was far from being a decent cook. The wrists were still stiff, the skin still unhardened from the heat of the stove, and the eyes still new to the calibration of the spices to add. Naturally, I fumbled about here and there, though nothing too great that required an extinguisher. Nonetheless, I still managed to cook the dishes. Aye, it wasn’t perfect, but it was alright. Not for her it wasn’t. She tasted a bit of it and dumped the dish into the rubbish bin. It was just a little bland. “Do you always have to make things more difficult for me?” She said with such discontent.

Mama has the habit of going solo in everything she does because she always felt she didn’t need nor want our help. She felt Ally and I were more an obstructing hand than a helping one when we tried to do our part from way back. She’d only want things done her way and her way only, even if we managed to achieve the same ends in some way or another. This was the first horseman. I don’t know why; she just finds it an eyesore to see something done in a way that she would’ve done differently. A minute slower, or a movement too many, she’ll come barking at our incompetence. As kids, we caught on pretty quickly: helping Mama meant pissing her off. If we haven’t understood that equation after getting screamed at nine hundred times, our learning capacity would indeed be of much concern. And once she sees that her theory has been proven right; that we would just add to the mess, she’ll sustain its validity by continuing to forbid us from getting a hand in doing them and leaving us never the wiser. Until, gradually, we just stop trying. And she was actually content being left to do her things by herself, as if to feel some sort of gratification of her own self-worth. But I do not yield. “I’ll do better tomorrow, Ma.” And I smiled. Day one wasn’t such a great kick start for my mission. Time to reevaluate the approach. That’s when I realized that I did not have on my clock the luxury of reevaluation. The only way from here on out is just plain perseverance. The next morning I woke up to a black-faced Mama. It was one of ‘those’ days. I decided not to attempt anything funny today, like helping out with the kitchen works or anything, and just blended in with the wallpaper. While waiting for a dish to be thoroughly cooked, she walked into the living room to find me staring at the laptop screen, which I think I’ve spent hours sitting there, just coming up with a single line. She had this dangerously explosive look that she tried real hard to suppress as she sat down on the couch, but her efforts were foiled as my mobile phone beeped with an incoming message. “Who is it this time?” She suddenly erupted. “It’s just another friend, Ma.” I still had the thought that she was pissed at something else. “This friend; that friend; why do you need so many friends anyway?” “What, is it wrong to make friends now?” This was the first time I’ve ever heard any mother stop her son from making friends. “You don’t need so many of them, Crowley. They’re nothing but a waste of your time and money with all that SMS or MSN or whatever you call it. Just have one or two friends you can trust and focus on your studies, boy.” I couldn’t believe what was coming out of her lips.

I closed my eyes and locked my jaw. I was trying my best to comprehend the workings of her mind. But my adolescent mind just combusted at the task. “Why do you do that, Ma? Why can’t you just let your son have a good time growing up?” Was she doing all this to deprive her son of his springtime of youth just because she didn’t have it? I could’ve added more, but I knew there was a zone that I shouldn’t mess with. “And what makes you think I’m doing that? It’s not like I’m not asking you to not have friends at all. Look at how much time you’re spending typing away on your phone. You could’ve used all that time for something more useful.” Technology. Boon or bane? “Alright, if it makes you feel any better, I was just asking my friend for some literary advice on this short story I’m writing. The phone isn’t only for fluff talk, Ma.” I’m not sure if asking for the correct spelling of a word constitutes ‘literary advice’, though. “So that’s what you’ve been doing on your laptop all this while?” She cooled down a bit. I nodded in reply. And for a second I thought she actually felt… proud. “Then get it over and done with already. It can’t be too hard to just write some words down, join them together, and make a story.” “Ma, if writing was so easy, everyone would be publishing a book by now. I just can’t put an end to it that simply. Because, to me, it’s kinda like… taking a dump. You simply can’t force it out if it ain’t there.” Crude analogy, but it got the message across. “Oh, so you think you’re all great now that you can write a story? Think you’re so smart, thinking really deep thoughts? Well what’s so great about really deep thoughts?” I thought I’ve heard that line from a song somewhere. “All you do is sit in front of your laptop all day, send all those stupid phone messages, sleep and waste money. You didn’t even try to help me out even once. You all just look at me like I’m some old maid, doing the things she’s supposed to do. You don’t appreciate all the things I’ve done for you and the family.” “What are you talking about Ma? I’ve offered you a hand time and time again and you declined them all.” Now she just wasn’t making any sense. “You just don’t understand! Why can’t you try to make things less difficult for me?” Her voice was cracking up. Hell hath no fury like a woman waking up on the wrong side of her bed. The funny thing about women is that they always send mixed signals. Always. I’ve already got my hands full deciphering all the encrypted signals from them women out there, so it’s not exactly too much to ask for to find a sanctuary from all that reading-

between-the-lines in my humble abode. But here I am sitting in my supposed sanctuary, trying to figure out how to handle someone trapped in a closed contradictory loop between the part of her that wants recognition for her efforts in our house and the part that wants to be the only one allowed in this house to put in that effort. Strangely enough, underneath this routine rambling of two frustrated souls, I actually understood her. She tries her best to help everyone; make things a little easier for us all, even though sometimes we just don’t need to be helped. Don’t get me started on how many times I’ve said “you don’t have to” to her. Like everyone else who thinks they’re not doing it well enough, she pushes herself harder, faster, stronger; totally unaware she’s on the wrong page of the book. Every kid falls down when they’re learning to walk. And when she keeps stopping me from taking the fall that I need to take on my own, it slowly gets programmed into my head to make a conscious effort to escape her protective clutches. And that’s when she feels the injustice done unto her painstaking efforts. Then it comes down to a boiling point where she’ll come barking at our ingratitude. There were no specific patterns or regularity in the occurrences of these ‘special’ days that we could make sense of. Nobody knew when she would blow up; all we could do was just up our vigilance. Because it could be coming again any day now. Anyway, this has become commonplace now. But it’s when she would bring this up in totally unrelated arguments to stab us with the knife of guilt that was unbecoming of this second horseman of hers. Then it just becomes an unbeatable weapon to make us feel bad about ourselves. But I will not yield. “I won’t let you down, Ma.” And I smiled. Day two wasn’t any better, and things seemed to only be progressing backwards. Nevertheless, she was right about one thing. I needed to get this story done soon. Whether I could possibly write a forecast of the things to come, I doubt it; it was beyond my power, and my right, to soil this story with some words strung up together that don’t ring true to the tuning fork somewhere at the back of my head. But there was something else bothering me. My eye was been twitching all along, but there was no sign of any confrontation with the proud beast. Come the morning after and an old almost-condition just had to act up again, of all days. I went to take a leak when Mama asked me to do something. “Crowley, I just finished boiling some water on the stove. Can you put the top back on the kettle after you come out of the toilet?” “No problem.” I said reassuringly. Now, it was a simple; almost automatic, thing to do. It’s a task that nobody can possibly have any sort of difficulty in; I had none. Except remembering it. I took a piss and

flushed it down along with the memory of the conversation. And I still had the cheek to walk back to the living room like some pagan king. “Didn’t I tell you to put the top on the kettle?” Hey, I would be pissed at me if I was her, too. “Oh yea, I forgot about that.” I went back to finish the task. “You still can say you forgot? Who are trying to kid? It was just a minute ago you even said ‘No problem’! What, do you get a kick out of rebelling against me?” Her audio amplification spun out of control. “No, seriously Ma, I forgot about it; it was an honest mistake on my part.” I couldn’t tell her about my strange condition. I don’t even know if it’s even considered a condition. Like another classic textbook example of ‘Cry Wolf’, she wouldn’t believe me even if I told her. I was a bloody chronic liar. I pretty much started lying the minute I could start talking. Not that I can actually remember anything from that time. I had to lie one time about the raw bruises and scratches on my knees and hands from a soccer game and say that I accidentally tripped and rolled down a road. I had to lie at another that my friend’s relative just passed away just to stay on the phone for more than 10 minutes. And slowly the lies grew bigger and more intricate until I was living two different lives inside and outside the house. But I digress. Anyway, to have her believe me might actually be a bigger problem. “Crowley… Is there anything else you’re good at besides lying?” It would’ve just rolled off like water on my fingertips if I just heard the words as they were. But not this time; not when she says it in the way she did. The things she says to the family; even to Papa, every time we make an honest mistake do serve their purpose as cause for reflection and introspection. But she says it with such disdain and scorn that you can’t quite get rid of the stinging ricochet left on your ears even long after the echoes of her words can no longer be heard. I don’t give a rat’s ass about what people say or think of me; there are much tougher things in life to worry about than that. There are bound to be people who will try to poke, batter, trample and even crush my self-esteem, and they will all fail miserably. But nothing could hurt me more than to hear it coming from my own mother. The third horseman swings its fiery blade. But I refuse to yield. “I won’t let you down next time, Ma.” And I smiled. By some wicked twist of fate, I seemed to be encountering the horsemen in ascending malice. Day three was no longer a walk in the park and there was yet any improvement in

our family ties. But a jackal with its back to a wall only has his determination to fight his way out to live again. And that was enough. The next day started off pretty peacefully. It was a beautiful day; the sun was up in its glorious self and the air smelled much greener. I thought of taking a walk; a simple, casual walk, to soak up the sun and coming home in time to help Mama prepare lunch; I was actually enjoying myself in the wok and ladle. My shoes were on and I was already halfway out the door when she walked out of toilet with enquiring eyes. “Where do you think you’re going?” “I’m taking a short walk, Ma. I’ll be back to help you with lunch. Don’t worry; I’ll be extra careful out there, alright?” I winked an assuring wink. If there was such a thing. “You’re not going anywhere, boy. Look at the blazing sun out there; the weather is insane! Only those crazy people who want to get a tan would go out on a day like this.” In all honesty, it wasn’t that hot. “What does that have anything to do with just a walk in the park? I’m just trying to get some fresh air for awhile.” Aside from that, I indeed could use some time under the sun. Everyone’s vain to an extent; especially me with my revolting ego. “What, is the air here not fresh enough for you? Is it choking you? And don’t even think about getting under the sun for a tan. You’re not some model or an athlete or a superstar; you don’t need to do any of those fancy things. Stop retaliating, boy! Just don’t do it!” What the fuck? That pretty much summarized everything that was in my head. If she had said it caused skin cancer, or accelerated the growth of some vicious toxic fungi on my nipples, or even mentioned something about my head, I would’ve still taken it. But this was just plain silly. “Alright, at least give me an explanation so I can make sense out of this.” I’ve already lost the mood for the walk. “I just don’t like it, ok? And I’m telling you not to do it, so you’re not going to take your little walk, understand?” This was her final solution. She’d enforce her sovereignty as the woman of the house and impose her laws and taxes with not even a chance to appeal; not even a chance to just take a peek at what would happen if we just gave it shot. Armed with the beliefs founded on overtly conservative guesses and assumptions of the world based on the evil she sees on the box, she criticizes and even condemns things she couldn’t comprehend. The ridiculous multitude of the things she wouldn’t approve of was further made titanic by her magnificently polite delivery. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard her give us a proper reason for the things she says and doesn’t say. It was this fourth horseman that was

making us grow out white hairs way beyond our years trying to get along with someone who can be terribly unreasonable, much less live with her. But I must not yield. “As you wish, Ma.” And I smiled. It was a social and cultural norm that mother’s words were always right, and we must always listen to mother’s words. But I was always trying to figure out what I was doing wrong before I understood this. So I turned to the only people who could offer me some words of advice: our friends. Like a bad stereotype comedy night, though, they all came from either really broken families or really wonderful families. Now, we weren’t a broken family; at least I didn’t want to look at it that way, but we were far from wonderful too. We were just an in-between. People from broken families were not exactly the ideal demographic group to ask; murderous angry kids who wants to kill everyone or a whiny depressed kid who thinks mommy and daddy don’t love him enough are not likely able to produce any great advice. So I sought out the nice kids. But they were too happy it almost scared me. Day four ended with me still holding on. Everyday was a struggle to fend off her words from putting me down. I was tired of fighting all the time, yet I couldn’t let my guard down. And it’s sad that I was looking at all this like some emotional battle going on. Because everyday I look to the blue, blue sky and wonder why I couldn’t be just like every other good son out there who get along with their folks and go for picnics on a nice breezy hill and all. But now ain’t the time to sit and mope. Come on, old man; show ’em you still got some fight left in you.

The Release Part I The weekend arrived with a cold and frosty morning and an unexpected and very unwelcome pain attacked my feet. I ain’t planning on getting rheumatism at this age. Mama yelled out for me to get my ass up and have breakfast. Papa went out to take a walk at a nearby neighbourhood and Ally was out with some of her friends. With less people around, I figured I could avoid letting this novel agony from being detected by Mama. All I got to do was just get myself to the couch and prop myself there until the pain subsides; yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I limped my way from my bed to the door and put up my most convincing there-is-absolutely-nothing-wrong-with-my-feet walk as I opened the door. But Mama seemed to be bothered about something as I emerged from my chamber. She was rubbing her right eye profusely, like how you would if a bug happened to lodge itself onto your cornea. Hope this wasn’t some sick joke by Mr. Jeremy. “What’s wrong with your eye, Ma?” “I don’t know. I just woke up this morning and I… I… I started seeing green flashes… and black dust balls floating around everywhere. Can you come take a look if there’s something in my eye?” She tried to keep her cool, but I caught a hint of apprehension in her tone. After what felt like a bare-footed marathon on rusty nails, though it only lasted a few agonizing seconds, I was standing beside her to examine her right eye. And I found this sticky-looking clump of gel just a little to the side of her pupil. No wonder she was mighty concerned about this; I would be if it was on mine. “Looks like some sort of a wrinkle on your eyeball, Ma. Don’t keep rubbing it; you’ll just be soaking up all the moisture in your eye. Have you tried eye drops?” Hey, don’t look at me like that; it did quite literally look like a wrinkle. “I’ve tried everything: water, eye drops, eye wash lotions. Nothing worked. Rubbing my eye is by far the only thing that can lessen the flashes and the dust balls I’m seeing. I’ll just keep at it until your Papa comes back to take me to the doctor.” Seemed like her eye was distracting her enough to not notice anything funny with my walk. “Well, you don’t have to wait for him; I can take you to the neighbourhood doctor too.” An ingenious thing to say when your feet are in excruciating pain. Very clever, Crowley. “No, it’s ok; I’ll just wait for Papa.” “Why, can’t you even trust your own son to just take you there?” I couldn’t understand what part of this offer she doubted.

“It’s not that. It’s just that you won’t be able to make any decisions for me if there was a need for any surgery or anything. You don’t understand these things.” Such encouraging words. “Ma, I’m not that unreliable. I still have a sound mind, you know. I can listen to what the doctor has to say.” “Nevermind. I’ll just go to the clinic on my own. I’m still kind of familiar with the neighbourhood to know my way around.” She was starting to get a little irritated. In her eyes, I was apparently still such an inept being that she would rather go to the extent of even dropping the veil of wickedness that she sees the world through momentarily to traverse into the great unknown than to let me take her there. But I couldn’t possibly let her go alone. “Come on, let me just walk you there, Ma. You might need someone to help you if that eye starts getting funny or anything along the way.” I refused to concede. “How do you expect to help me if your own feet are hurting?” Shit. I got to work on that walk. “What are you talking about? It’s perfectly fine. See?” I gave my feet a little wiggle. It’ll be far too agonizing for a walking demonstration. Even at this point, I was bent on putting up a strong front. I just didn’t want all the news coverage and the widespread panic and the conference room anxiety that I’ll induce in her if word of this gets out. “If your feet hurt, just say it; don’t try to act all tough. That’s what you always do. What good will it do for anyone, anyway? You won’t be getting anything good out of this, and we’re the ones who’re going to end up with a harder time if one day this pain grows to become something bigger. I’ve told you this once, and I’ve told you many more times ever since. Still, you don’t listen.” She had a good point. “Is it still not enough to trouble us with your stunt, huh? Now you got make us worry again with whatever’s wrong with your feet, is that your gig? Do you get yourself off with that?” Now she’s dragging the trolley ride into this. But I knew she would bring this up eventually. “Yeah, I know that whatever my children do, I have to forgive them. But what I can’t take; what I can’t accept is why you would do something so stupid. Please, explain it to me; make me understand.” She continued. “I just take my eyes off you for a minute and you go messing around with your life with that dark-skinned friend of yours. From his appearance I already knew he wasn’t up to any good. Don’t hang out with that guy anymore, understand? And don’t you make

anymore of those dark-skinned friends, you hear me? You should make more Chinese friends; you’ll be working in a largely Chinese-populated country after you graduate.” I couldn’t believe my ears. How the hell did it get to this? That was the most racist thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And it was coming from Mama. I’m not shitting you; I wouldn’t possibly make this up even if I could. “And what’s with all those girls trying to get comfortable with you back in your ward? Don’t even think about getting yourself too close with a girl, you hear me? They’re nothing but a waste of time and money. You’re just twenty; you still got plenty of time to find one in the future.” Ok, I have officially entered the Twilight Zone. “Now you should just focus on your studies; don’t think about anything else. That means no music gigs for you, understand?” She crossed the line with that one. She’s had her way for far too long; now enough is enough. I could never agree to this. Because nobody; and I mean nobody, can ever take my music away from me. “Never. Tell me. What. I can’t. Do.” I locked my jaw the moment I finished spurting out each word. Because I was afraid of what else might leak out if I wasn’t this careful. Them forks and knives rattled yet again. “Then how else am I supposed to rest assured that you can take care of yourself? As a matter of fact, how am I even supposed to trust you after all that’s happened?” Apparently hers was too. I took a deep breath. I had to; otherwise all my efforts for taming the twins would have gone to naught. “If I told you I learnt my lesson, would you believe me? If I told you I was wrong to do that stupid thing, would you believe me? If I told you I’ll be alright on my own, would you believe me? The fact is that I can’t prove any of this to you while I’m stuck here. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point is you just can’t drop the weight. It’s a stupid thing that happened; yes I know, but what can we do about that now? Where do we go from here? Do we go around in circles, worrying about all the ‘what ifs’ and mull over the ‘if onlys’? Do we walk back and forth, living out the rest of our lives in fear, with your hands tightly clutched at my neck to keep me afraid? No matter what I do or where I go, you’ll never feel assured. You’ll always have to worry; it’s your bread and rice. Coz you’re giving your entire chance at happiness on your children. And I don’t want that. I don’t want all that power; that responsibility to make you happy. The weight of that is crushing me. Yeah, maybe it all boils down to me being irresponsible. Maybe I’m just this spoiled little bastard after all. But it’s all because of you. You’ve taken away my childhood, and I’m not going to let you take away my adulthood. Sometimes I don’t even want to be your son; I don’t think I’m up to the task. But I am your son. And I’m using up every ounce of strength I can find in me to be a good one. This shouldn’t be the way it

works; it’s not supposed to be this goddamn tough. I know I’m supposed to put in a little more effort to make things work. But I can’t. I don’t know why; I just can’t.” I finally vented out everything I’ve wanted to say for all these years. There was a strange lightness at my chest after letting it out, like a great massive burp. Even the pain at my feet has subsided after I’ve said all that I needed to say. I stormed back into my room and crashed on my bed. Despite getting this eye; despite dealing with all my alleged demons; despite believing in myself as someone sensible enough to know right from wrong by now, turned out I still haven’t learnt anything at all. It was ripping me apart why most of our conversations always had to morph into some cosmic battle between grey and grey. Yeah, all them selfhelp books wrote about loving yourself, about knowing just how much you’re worth, about believing that you’re better than you think you are. But looking at my own reflection at a murky drain; it was just too monstrous a task to love a foul wretch like myself. But I didn’t want to sink into a tragic pathos of self-loath and disgust; I was arrogant enough to consider myself way above that. So I put on this so-called cloak of pride, in the delusion that it would somehow grant me invulnerability. Yet my chronic lying just wouldn’t let me enjoy this blissful error as it came seeping into the rest of my life: this was just another façade that granted me with nothing more than some budget artificial strength to conceal the ugliness and the rotting goodness in me that I earnestly prayed wasn’t decaying at such a frightening rate. All my talk about taking it as my fault was all part of a play too. At the end, I just wanted to put the blame on her. Because after all that’s said and done, it was always easier to just have someone to blame for the horrible mess I’ve become. This was why I was so eager to find strength: that was what it took to live with Mama. And it only pissed me off even more to find myself intellectualizing about this shit. These thoughts can have all the style and guile they want in these pretty words, but there was no point in these ghostly wisps of emptiness. Thought, like talk, is cheap. The endless lament of these vacant whispers was driving me insane. I writhed and howled and kicked and did everything I could think of to tire myself out. Dreamless slumber was the only thing I could count on to rest in peace. I curled my body close and shut my eyes and ears and surrendered to the sandman. And thank the heavens he took me quick. I dozed off. But it was no dreamless sleep.

The Release Part II A large tent. Almost reminiscent of a circus, except that it was all draped in satin white. There were people in white robes with their heads hung low, holding flowers. For some reason, I couldn’t quite make out their faces; they were all wearing a teary-eyed mask. Everyone walked up to the stage to embrace an older man and a younger woman with an inhuman kind of warmth not commonly found in the customary human cold of our zombie nation. The two of them were grieving by a casket laid down on the middle of a stage. I was at a funeral. But whose? I approached them and recognized the wailing voices of Papa and Ally emerging from behind the masks of the two figures, looking down into the glass panel of the casket. I called out to them but found myself a mute; no amount of screaming could get any bit of my voice out of my mouth. But I didn’t have to crack my head at figuring this out. The absence from the only other member from this unit could only mean one thing. I made my way through to look at her. All I could see inside was one half of the Janus masks that you see in them theatre plays. And it wasn’t the happy half. What the… My head was spinning in cluttered circles. I didn’t know what to think anymore. The dry ice hidden somewhere that was fogging the area with that surreal smoke signature to dreams didn’t help matters either. “And here is Crowley, here to speak a few words.” A deep voice suddenly boomed out of nowhere. I looked up and found everybody seated in neat rows of metal foldable chairs, multiple eyes staring straight at me, as if expecting me to touch their hearts and move them with some heart-wrenching words. “What the...” My voice returned. Papa and Ally were at the side, motioning me to a little dais by the side of the stage. Now everyone was waiting for what this ‘good son’ had to say. I stared back at everyone, and spoke the first words that entered my head as I went along. “Please don’t look at me like that.” I had no intention of carrying the demeanor people expected of me. Hushed words were exchanged amongst them like a bewildered council. I was still looking around trying to make sense of everything that was happening, but the audience was listening, so I took a deep breath and just spoke whatever came to my mind. After all, it was, if nothing else, just a dream.

“You know, it’s pretty funny. My mother has gone somewhere very far away. And I can’t even shed a single tear. My mother is not here with me anymore. And I can’t even shed a single tear. I wanted to be a good son. But I’ll tell you right now that I was far from being one. Yeah, now I can say all the things I should’ve said to her when she was still around. But what good will that do?” I walked towards the casket. “I… I don’t think I’ve ever told her how much I love her. It was always somewhat restrained, or insincere, or simply lacking a certain human touch. She’s probably standing in front of God right now, awaiting her judgment. He says to her: Tell me, my dear, have you any love? And she would probably reply: Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. One for the son, One for the daughter, And one spare bag for both of them later…” I collapsed to my knees. My face felt warm. The pouring rain in my dry eyes slowly welled up. The dams under my swelling eyelids were trying their best to hold the surging water. But it couldn’t stop a pearl of deliverance from leaving a trace of the prospect of having the capacity for sorrow. I still kept myself from audibly weeping, though; because boys don’t cry. And I stared at the ground while I leaked regret faster than I was leaking tears. Because I knew what God would be asking her next. Tell me, my dear, were you ever loved? But it wasn’t the question that I dreaded. It was the answer that made me bury my face in my hands. I felt the peering eyes of someone unseen but present in the place on me, but I never thought much of it. Because I was down on my knees, my entire being occupied with begging for some form of appeasement for this shame. I never got around getting a grasp on the whole concept of love, you see. I never quite understood what it meant to give. All I knew was take and take everything everyone could offer me. And then I took some more. The same baritone voice that introduced me suddenly rung out in my head. You can’t stay selfish forever, Crowley.

“What? Wh, who is this talking?” My red eyes scanned the area for the origin of the voice. The whole tent was now stripped of everything but me and the casket. You already know you’re just going to end up hurting yourself and everyone around you. So why must you keep fighting, son? “You can’t mess with my head, Jeremy; not anymore.” I shouted in retaliation. Seems like you just won’t know what you got till it’s gone, eh? Then let me help you remember. Someone snapped his fingers. And I started to remember. A tranquil afternoon spent with Mama talking about pointless things, and me laughing a hearty laugh in the pacifying calm that spending time with your family didn’t require something as trivial as having a point. A simple lunch of our bland home-fried noodles, but they tasted like the best thing that we’ve ever laid our tongues on because the richness always multiplies when they’re shared and the warmth lingers a little longer when they’re eaten together. A living room drenched with the smell of medicated oil as I massaged her bad shoulder, while she smiled at ease that her son wasn’t entirely without a heart. Oh, I remember. That there was a time when everything was good, honest and innocent. That there was a time that I have loved before. I was a fool to ever forget this. This funeral wasn’t for your mother. Like some sort of divine intervention, I finally recalled the last bit of Papa’s incomplete phrase. You are the crying mask. ‘… start putting some love back into your heart.’ My forehead rested on the side of casket and I just started… crying. “I wanna love again. Please, God; let me love again.” A whispered prayer to whoever was listening. My last bullet in the chamber. Air entered my lungs again and I woke up. I’ve only been asleep for ten minutes. My right eye wasn’t twitching as much anymore and instead felt warmer than usual. But it wasn’t a forecast of some demonic encounter. I just found a tear there as I wiped my face. I sat on my bed, piecing my dream together and what it meant. But the meaning was clear and simple. I knew what had to be done.

I walked out of my room to find Mama crying on the couch, the picture box turned off for once. I sat down beside her and put my hand on hers. And then came what was probably the longest period of silence to conquer all the other periods of silence in this book. Then I said it. “… I’m sorry, Ma. I’m sorry for everything.” She took a good look at me with those teary eyes before they slowly squinted from a smile. “Mama is sorry too, Crowley.” And the days that came to pass after that, even if there were just a couple of them, probably ranked as some of the most wonderful times I had with her. This foolish act of riding a trolley into a wall was ironically turning out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to my bond with Mama. We were talking without finding a need to raise our voices. She was smiling a whole lot more in the house, and I was slowly reminded of how lovely her company actually was.

The Release Part III The day arrived for me to head across the straits back to my rented space. So I was sitting on the bus, staring out the window like in one of those drawn-out contemplative scenes in those drawn-out contemplative picture shows. There was just endless green for miles on end. Whilst enjoying the strange therapeutic effect it had on me, I caught a glimpse of my own face reflected on the window pane; it’s been some time since I last saw it. And it looked a whole lot less haggard now. Like a newfound youth just cleansed the dirt off my skin. It felt good to have almost all of those heavy thoughts out of my mind. All but one was still bothering me. There was still no sign of the final demon I needed to tackle. The keys went into the keyhole with only the late afternoon sun illuminating the hallway. The lock clicked open and the door opened to reveal… quite a mess. Apparently my housemate was rather slack in maintaining the look of the place. But no amount of mess could hide it: I knew I was, quite undeniably, back to my sweet old rundown apartment. My housemate was out, as usual, so we just settled down for the evening. The rest of the night was us celebrating in the only way we know how: we had a good feast. It was sort of our way to send off all the bad luck and misfortune that has happened in the past few months. Even though our standard family feast was really just a humble assortment of food packed in Styrofoam boxes on the dinner table, it was a Valhalla-worthy banquet to us. And we dined and laughed the whole night like never before that I’d forgotten all about the little beast in my head. It was a Saturday that they left. I was seeing them off at the lobby, and everyone was smiling as radiantly as the sunbeams seaming through the glass doors. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was coming to an end. Besides the book, that is. “Take good care of the family, Pa. And take care of your own health. You wouldn’t want anything growing out at places where the sun don’t shine, no?” I grinned as I gave Papa a quick hug. “Yeah. You take care of yourself too, son. Don’t go messing around with any heads now.” He said in his usual stoic fashion as he gave me a quick pat on the back. “Don’t worry about me, Pa; breaking my head once is enough for me.” “I was referring to our heads.” And he grinned a grin that seemed all too familiar. We never usually exchanged much warm words or expressed much parent-child emotions. But we both knew it was there. It just didn’t have to be spoken out loud or substantially signified. It was Ally’s turn now.

“Don’t do nothing too crazy now, Crowley. If you pull a fast one on us again, I’m not gonna be there to save your ass.” “If I actually do land myself in shit again, well, then my ass ain’t worth saving.” “Good.” “Have a good talk with Mama, Ally. You might actually be the one from this generation of our family to convince her to break out from her shell and start living a little more for herself.” “I will, Crowley; you don’t have to worry about that. Just stop being a boy and start being a man now, alright?” “Yea yea, you’re nagging already. I’ll miss you, sis.” “Same here. Won’t have anyone around the house to make me laugh as much.” And I gave her a warm hug. Now I was facing Mama. I just looked at her and remained quiet for a long time. But as I leaned in to embrace her, I caught a glimpse of something moving behind the glass door me and Mama were standing in front of. No, there wasn’t anyone behind it. There was just me, Mama, and some bizarre metallic contraption emerging out of my body. Wait, that ain’t right. I slightly recoiled in reflex. “What is it, Crowley?” She wanted to look behind. “Nothing, Ma.” I tightened my arms around her. I didn’t want her to turn around and risk the possibility that she might be able to see what I was seeing. The armour-like ornament surfaced out of my skin and wrapped my body like airtight cellophane. All my body felt was just a strange tingling sensation. This was my finest hour. No turning back now; only salvation ahead or doom below. So I closed my eyes and I whispered. “Every day, I try, Ma. I try to love you as much as you love me. I won’t lie to you: it’s not easy. And it’ll take a long while till this loving doesn’t need any trying anymore. But until then, every day; I try.” I try. Yes, I’ve expressed exactly how I felt about that word. But I can only try. And God knows I’ve tried.

It was then that I was transported to another place; some place far far away. And I found myself standing at a place where there was no hurt, no pain, no misery, and no hate. A place that none of those things, no matter how malignant they may be, can ever reach, or even come close to it. I finally found what I was looking for. Like a newborn, my eyes opened for the first time. With a hushed clank and a puff of invisible steam, the seamless armour covering my body detached into separate parts. And slowly they each retracted like sliding mercury until they broke away from my body, revealing colossal steely claws buried under my flesh, pulling themselves out like them pipes and tubes back where it all began. The armour removed its last fragment from my shoulder blades and floated next to me. It didn’t have a face, but somehow it was watching me; almost glaring at me. And it disintegrated into a pile of pretty little dining cutlery and crashed onto the floor with a clang that explained all those noises reverberating in my head for the past few months. That glare lingered in my head even as Pride lay lifeless in that heap of shine. But the reassuring embrace that Mama returned me was all I needed to feel that everything was going to be ok. I finally found what I was looking for. Forgiveness.

Epilogue And The Devil Winked At Me The afternoon came to a close as my family, and all the demons that I had unfinished business with, left. From the looks of it, I’ve kept my end of the bargain; now let’s see whether Mr. Jeremy will keep his. So I was on my way back to my apartment, speculating what the salesman had in store for me on the big day tomorrow, when I got a call from Bigfoot. “Hey man!! Welcome back man!!” My phone projected that usual lazy raspy voice from his nicotine-coated throat. Yeah, that was my partner in crime alright. “Hey, how’ve you been? It’s been donkey months since last I heard from you.” “You know me man; been busy getting stoned and wasted. I mean, what is life without getting high, man? Hehe… Anyway, you doing anything now man?” “Nothing much; just sent off my family. Why, what do you have in mind?” “Come on over to my place, man. We got a nice little surprise for you, man.” He laughed the same laugh I heard just before he pushed the trolley. And that is never a good thing. “Shit, I ain’t riding on any trolley, bicycle, trishaw or whatever you got prepared for me.” “Don’t worry, man; it’s not going to break your head or anything. What am I saying? It’s nothing dangerous, alright man? So just get your ass over here, man.” Heading over to his place started getting me all nostalgic and sentimental, oddly enough. It got me thinking about all the things I lost and gained in the months that led up to this little stroll down memory lane. Nobody likes to have anything taken away from them without their permission. But while there are certain things that can never be taken away, certain things just have to be given up for the better good. Suddenly it didn’t seem too much to surrender your ability to choose after seeing just how anarchic freedom can be. You begin to understand the need for the daunting sacrifice of your pride for keeping your demons in check. And sometimes, only by giving up your own life can measure just how much it’s worth to learn how to love again. Because it’s priceless. Bigfoot’s gate was open and the door wasn’t closed shut when I arrived there. I could hear some good times rolling beyond the door. The music was pounding. People were laughing. Just the kind of thing I could use after a tiring three months. After all, boys just want to have fun. And deep thoughts simply have no place in my mind when I’m having fun. I slipped out of my slippers and finally rendezvoused with the parade that has eluded me for far too long.

“Hey look who’s here.” Everyone quiet down as Bigfoot roared above the noise. With the biggest grin he could produce on his hairy face, he proclaimed as if welcoming a comrade back from war. “The man of the hour has arrived.” And I was greeted by an ocean of smiles. It’s good to be king. A truckload of people have somehow managed to fit themselves into Bigfoot’s apartment, helping themselves to a stupefying supply of booze, joints, and, amidst all the contraband delicacies, fried chicken. But I’ll say it bluntly; I didn’t recognize half the people in there. It didn’t matter though; after an eternity of isolation with just me and my head, just mingling around with other people who breathe the same body-odour laden air is a pleasant start for a new episode of this only-recently-eventful life of mine. I was making my way across to help myself with something to drink, with unfamiliar faces greeting me by name along the way with pieces of chicken half-stuffed in their mouths, and people I don’t know offering kind words that didn’t exactly sound too genuine when they’re saying it with a slur. By the time I reach the drinks the nonalcoholic beverage has run out, not that there were much of that to begin with; it wasn’t too surprising to see that they’re all but Chivas, Jack Daniels, Henessys and some cheap tequila bottles. Then from out of nowhere, a Buddha’s palm came crashing on my back. “DUDE!! How have you been, man?” But that hand belonged to no Buddha. “Besides having a little adventure of my own back there, nothing much; just this little scar I got over here that’s healing pretty well.” “Yeah man; I can barely see it now dude. Shit, it’s good to see you, looking all healthy and chubby now man. I felt really bad the whole time for actually jumping into the craziness, man. I mean, a good, intact dude, landing up in that state; I’m really sorry man.” It was one of the few rare times I actually saw him looking somber, aside from the occasional grim phases at those times when he was high. Wait a minute; did he just say chubby? “Bah, don’t be. There was probably something funny in the chicken we ate right before takeoff. So if anything, just blame the chicken.” A reassuring grin was timely then. And yeah, he did say I was chubby. That bloody bastard. “Well, the chicken did taste a little funny that day, actually. But yeah, it definitely is much easier to put the blame on something that can’t defend itself, man.” He sniggered. And it was apt; he did make a good point.

“Shit, I gotta get some fresh air; the smoke’s choking me. I’ll head on out to the balcony for some air dude.” And I was already on my way out of this smoking chamber. The balcony was surprisingly unpopulated, just a lone couple staring out at the amusement park just opposite. Aye, my apartment is right next to an amusement park. Makes for some bloody noisy mornings. I went to occupy a corner of the balcony, feeling good about air filling my lungs that weren’t all saturated with tobacco or other more hazardous ingredients, when I happen to glance upon the couple and realize it was The Girl and her boyfriend. And we caught each other’s eyes. The Girl then whispered something to her boyfriend and he promptly left the balcony. He looked at me and smiled with a little nod. I returned the gesture. “So how does it feel to be back here, Mr. Trolley Man?” She slowly walked to my corner. “Feels nothing short of great, I must say. Though I can tell you I barely know half the people in there celebrating my return.” I mentioned with a grin while looking at a bunch of kids getting on the Viking ship. “Well, Bigfoot organized the whole thing for you, you know. Not that I totally agree with the company he keeps.” And she joined my observation of kids getting flipped upside down by a mechanical ship. “I just came here to show my face and greet my old friend; never quite grew the liking for this kind of party. And I was about to leave if it wasn’t for an unforeseen… distraction.” I turned to look at her. “And since when did I get promoted to a ‘distraction’, Crowley?” She was already smiling in my direction. I stared into her eyes for the longest time, trying to spot any terrible images in there reflecting back at me. But there was nothing there but me. And I succumbed to my imagination once again. Lying in the middle of the road and running the hell out of the way when the cars come driving through. Serenading to her in a swimming pool with our clothes still on. Watching the fireworks from our balcony with a six-pack. All these pretty pictures came rushing into my head. And if it was any other time, I would have been bought over. Because I used to think if it was possible to paint a perfect picture of it, it would be a perfect romance. But I figured it would take more than just ‘love’ and happily-ever-after dreams to keep the both of us going. It would take commitment. Responsibility. Sacrifice. Faith. All these things that I’m just starting to get acquainted with. And I’d reckon I’ll have a hard enough time not messing up this life of mine, what more messing up another person’s. Not to say I don’t care about her enough, or I fear the impending entry of doubt into my affection. It’s exactly because I care about this girl enough to know that we don’t have to be together just because we like each other.

Because I just don’t trust myself with loving her. “That your boyfriend?” I broke the silence with a question that would pretty much destroy any chance of winning her over. And I guess it was better this way. A look of mixed disappointment and confusion came over her face. “Yeah. He wanted to accompany me here today.” “Well, shouldn’t you be with him now? He might get the wrong idea if the two of us are here for too long.” I said with a little smirk as I resumed my observation of screaming kids. She stood there silent for a long time; long enough to actually make me feel the soreness building up in my feet, trying to figure out what was going on in my head. I decided to give here a little help with that. “Come on; don’t look at me like that. It’s not like we’re not gonna see each other again.” I gave a two-finger salute to bid her farewell as I looked at her before I turned to leave, but accidentally touched my scar with it, making it imply something darker than what it really is. She smiled; nay, more like twitched her lips at me as I exited the balcony. I went to look for Bigfoot as I was leaving, but he was rocking back and forth on his bed gripping his penis-shaped ashtray. He was a goner. So I waded through the crowd that was probably mostly drunk by now. I spotted someone right in front of me who still managed to walk in a straight line; it was The Girl’s boyfriend. “Hey dude, I’m leaving right now, so I kinda left your girl over at the balcony. You should hurry and take care of her.” He knew I was talking to him; there weren’t much people around who were sober enough for conversation. “Leaving already? I thought you just came.” He offered me a drink. Looked like a decent chap. Didn’t have that typical Chinese face that you feel like punching in. Guess he was alright. “Nah, it’s alright man. I got another appointment elsewhere. Hey dude, let me tell you something.” It was pretty hard to be heard over the blaring music. “You’ve got a really great girl. And I can tell you that there will always be people who will try to take away what’s yours. So don’t ever let your guard down; don’t ever give these guys a chance. So you gotta keep fighting to keep what’s yours. Remember that.” And with that, I walked out of the place, away from Bigfoot, away from The Girl, away from everybody.

The sun has set by the time I reached home, and the sky now hung a fresh coat of black with glitter sprinkled generously. It’s not often that you see them stars at night around here. Then again, the day that lies ahead when this dark curtain is raised before too long is not just any other day. So perhaps this starry night forebodes a good day. And I shouldn’t even be worried in the first place, really; I kept my end of the bargain. But it is, after all, the incarnation of evil that I’m dealing with here, so I’ve got every reason to fear whatever tricks he has up his sleeve. I pulled the couch over facing the balcony, left the sliding doors wide open and sat down there with the light from the stars on my face, wondering how things would have been like if the Reaper actually caught up to me on that slope. If these six titanium clips never found their way into my head, leaving it in bits and pieces. If I wasn’t given another chance to really understand that life, for better or for worse, is indeed the greatest adventure, even greater than riding a trolley into a wall or making deals with forces of evil, than a man could ever need. And I finally wondered, before I dozed off, if I could really lay down in peace without ever making up to my past as a loveless creature. “Rise and shine, Mr. Crowley. Your 90-day trial is up.” My wake up call came from a very familiar voice. I jolted back to life to find a tall lean figure in a suave brown leather jacket, a printed shirt and tattered jeans standing by the railings on the balcony, sipping something from my cup. I would’ve guessed he’d make such a dramatic entrance. “What you doing with my cup?” Hey, I liked that cup a lot. “Just helping myself to some guava juice. I got you some too.” And he shifted his gaze to the floor to the right of my couch. Shit. And to think I was saving up the juice for my friends. I reached over the side of the couch and held in my hand a cup I’ve never seen before. Certainly didn’t belong to me. I could’ve sworn it was less of a cup, more of broken pieces of ceramic patched up together. And after closer inspection, I saw that the only thing holding the pieces together were six little shiny plates. “Hardy har har.” I gave him the dead-fish stare. “Glad you liked it. Hey, who says you can’t satirize death and grim subjects of the sort? I’ve always enjoyed them campy B-grade horror movies. It helps to have a laugh about these things to make them less scary than they really are. And trust me, they are REALLY terrible things.” He gestured me to come out to the balcony. I stepped outside. I’m guessing the sun would’ve been radiant if it wasn’t for a great grey cloud covering its rays. But for the first time I woke up not really wanting the sun shining on my face; didn’t have half the mind for that. I just wanted Jeremy to keep his word.

“So…” Guess I ought to start it… gently. “Ah yes, congratulations on your great feat, sonny. You’ve grown from an annoying young boy into an annoying young man throughout the course of twenty-odd chapters. Not everybody can do that; they usually need hardback covers to hold up all those papers filled with so many words and all that. Your story, however, would make for some light reading. Just the way I like it. You know, like them coffee table books?” Whoa. He actually knows I’m writing all this. What am I talking about; he’s the bloody fallen angel. Almost as omnipresent as God Himself, I suppose. “Found that something, didn’t you? I knew I could count on you for an entertaining spectacle. I do enjoy happy endings too, you know. So as I promised, since I do still have my honour to keep as the epitome of evil, I’ll put back your old right eye where it belongs. Wanna say goodbye to the current one? I’m sure you must’ve shared some interesting moments together.” I don’t see anything in his pockets; wonder how he intends to actually do that. “No no, please, just take your bloody eye away. Just make sure I can still see with my old one.” I just wanted this right eye to stay the hell away from me. Well, quite literally, now that I think about it. “Not even a wave or a little rub? Gee, you’re as heartless as when I left you. Don’t worry about your old eye; it was left in the state it was in when I gave you your new eye. Alright, now don’t move.” And he took a sip from his cup. My cup. So I was just waiting for him to take something out of his pockets or something when he just rammed his palm into my right eye and I felt a large blunt object ripping right into my eye socket. Not a pleasant experience. Not a pleasant experience at all. “OWWW YOU SON OF A BITCH!! Why didn’t you warn me what you were gonna do??” Aye, this was no way to speak to a very scary character, but your tongue tends to be pretty slack on manners when the rest of your nerves are cussing. It felt as if my eye still wasn’t really positioned properly so I put my hand there as a reflex to keep it from dropping out. Something warm was oozing out of my eyelids. “Well, I did tell you not to move. I never said it won’t be painless. Come on, you’re a man; sure you can take a little pain.” And he continued drinking from his cup. My cup. I took my hand off and I saw blood on my hands. Funny enough, though, I was looking at the red in my hands with both my eyes. Painful as it was, at least I wasn’t blind. So I took a look around and caught him staring at me. “What?” I didn’t like the look on his face. “Oh shit.” And I didn’t like how that sounded either.

I ran straight into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. And I ran straight out and confronted him after discovering he gave me an eye with a pink pupil. “Jeremy, you better have a very good explanation for this.” I could visibly see him looking for the right words. “Ah, well… ok I got you the wrong eye. But what’s wrong with a pink eye? Pink is a good colour. It symbolizes many beautiful things; especially of one that you need more of in your life.” He smiled a sheepish smile. I wasn’t too sure about what he meant, but I still wasn’t gonna take too kindly about this freaky and, if nothing else, embarrassing eye colour. I continued eyeing him furiously. Don’t know how furious I’d look, though, with a pink eye. “Sorry, that glare simply just doesn’t work. But I must remind you, my dear Crowley, that you still haven’t gotten away scot free from this deal.” Now this came as a surprise. Surprising enough to make me forget about my eye issue for the mean time, at least. “The deal consisted of you finding that ‘something’ and dealing with your little friends, was it not?” And he conjured up a sheet of paper with four numbers I recognized. “Yeah, and that’s what I did, no? I found forgiveness, and I contended with all of them demons in my head.” There was no way he was going to twist the truth into getting my soul this time; the facts are at hand. “Yes, you did find forgiveness from your dear Mama. Alas, you did not quite finish settling issues with one of your lovely demons.” He continued. “Don’t go playing these games with me, Jeremy; they don’t work no more.” I had enough of whatever it was he was trying to do. But a part of me started doubting myself. I did resolve my issues with Gluttony, Envy, Wrath and Pride; I saw it go down with my own eyes. You read about them too. Right? “Let me finish, young man. You dealt with your insatiable appetite, the green-eyed monster in you, and the little pot of lava in you, though I’m starting to even doubt that, what with you reacting the way you are. But one thing’s for sure, though: you sure haven’t dealt with your narcissistic ways.” “What the hell are you talking about?” He lost me there. “You still don’t realize it, do you? It’s written all over these pages that I’m sure you’ll be writing about not before long. Let me break it down to you in a way your human mind can comprehend.” I’m getting a little less lost now, but I just needed to hear it, as much as it would sting, to confirm it.

“The very fact that you’re recording all this down into an anthology to call your own is the highest, if not the most shameless, form of vanity. You can’t run away from your own pomposity, Crowley; it’s your destiny to always crave for the love and admiration of others. And thinking you could achieve that with a self-signifying pretentious little work, you would go on to publish this piece of literature perhaps for other like-minded pretentious maggots to read, relate and, consciously or not, inspire them to come up with their own arrogant tale. Think of it as a service to me, sonny; you’ll be feeding all my little demons of pride in all these helpless souls, oblivious to the forces playing around them.” Shit. Started the sin for a story to pride. Ended the story with a sin of pride. “Did I put it to you clearly enough?” He asked sweetly. I stood there stunned. Couldn’t exactly find any other response in the light of this… shameful confession. “Does this mean my…?” But I already knew it was a pointless question. “Yes. I’m afraid so.” The answer I feared. But unwittingly brought it upon myself. “No chance of…?” Despite it being an unfair request when I’ve already given my word in blood, you tend to forget about honour and all that jazz when your soul’s at stake. I just had to ask. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “That’s the thing about you humans, always trying to exploit others. And they call me the bad guy. Faust wouldn’t have gotten himself into all that shit if he wasn’t so greedy for power and all. Jabez Stone wouldn’t have to go through all that courtroom drama if he just moved his ass elsewhere where things could actually grow on. Even had the cheek to bargain for 3 more fertile years, that man did. All these fools come knocking on MY door; yes you didn’t hear me wrong; THEY’RE the ones who came to ME, asking my MY help. And what do I get in return? WHAT DO I GET IN RETURN??” He was screaming so loud by the last line that I could feel a slight tremor under my feet. “They all gave me a bitch slap to the face under the safety of redemption from the Big Man himself. Or a mighty good lawyer, at that. What, don’t people honour the deals they make anymore? How do you all live with yourselves? How can you even sleep soundly at night? Is it so much to ask to keep your end of the bargain?” Whoa. Never expected that to be coming out of his mouth. “Yeah, they always put me in the role of the guy everybody hates, and they’ll continue to do so. I’d reckon the Big Man wouldn’t make life easy on me. But you, kid; your case is unquestionable. There ain’t no way you can talk yourself out of this now. So just take it

like a man, Crowley. At least do that much.” I actually found myself somehow sympathizing with this guy. I gotta say: he’s had a rough time. So I got to thinking about it all. About the shoes he’s in, and the shoes I’m in. And he made a lot of sense. A lot of the guys who have actually sold their souls to Mr. Scratch just to regret their purchase are nothing more but hypocritical creatures that didn’t learn anything at all throughout the entire journey. I wonder why God would even want these bastards in his kingdom. And I asked myself “Was I really someone who wouldn’t honour a deal he made, with the full knowledge of the terrible consequences to come?” I’m a hungry, jealous, angry and snobby son of a gun, but I knew that I was someone who would stand by the words I actually had the balls to say. Foolish, perhaps. But if everyone were to sell their souls and actually managed to get them back all the time, then everybody deserves to go under. As I have already committed a sin of pride by this very act of chronicling my days under a contract with Jeremy, I might as well go through the rest of my days with my pride until the rendezvous with the man himself. Because somebody’s got to do it; somebody’s got to show that there is still some hope in mankind, they are still capable of a simple of act of keeping their word. And paying up when the lease is due. Even if I were to go down, at least let me go down with some form of nobility. And I could’ve sworn I heard a slight jingling of metal at the back of my head. “Fine. You get to keep it. Doubt my tongue is as glib as it used to be after the operation.” Despite how peeved it made me, some assuring sense of acceptance kind of took over, some voice that said ‘It’s alright. This is your fate now.’ And with that he suddenly burst into couplet mode: Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the breath of a damned man, Written in blood, he gave to me A soul to savour with my bread and tea. “Trust me boy, you were never really that glib anyway. But you’re being a pretty good sport; I like that in my customers. Keeps the salesman happy, keeps the people happy. Well, I’m not too sure how you’d feel about condemning your soul to damnation, but I’m sure you’ll be up and about in a day or two’s time.” He said with a gentle smile, but I knew the exact words in his mind when I saw that look on his face. ‘Yes, another deal closed.’ In the past 5 minutes, I knew that it would be ignorant of me to say that Jeremy was totally uninvolved in making me think the things I thought about. Yeah, I pretty much guessed he would manipulate my sins to get the better of me. And I let him. No, not as in it was intentional to make him feel good about himself or anything; it was just simply

beyond my control. Nothing I can say could ever justify a wavering in my fortitude, because it just wasn’t about all that. It just hit upon me in these most recent trains of thoughts that pride was far too deeply ingrained in my character to ever let me do anything about it. I can keep in check, sure. But probably not when I’m in the presence of the first one guilty of the sin himself. I stood there looking stupid with a pink eye and an assortment of ceramic pieces holding some guava juice in my hand, with everything that has happened to me in the past 90 days coming back to me like flipbook in motion. And I asked myself whether it was all worth it. Whether it was as priceless as I made those sentences sound. And I thought to myself. No regrets now. Too late for that nonsense now. Just tell yourself that you’ll be alright. At least while you live. And if you really want to make it worth it, don’t mess it up. Don’t mess it up. If you were expecting some form of redemption to come right now, in the form of angels with them harps shining down on me just in time to give this book a happy ending, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint. Every once in awhile you need a story with a not-so-happy ending too. A story to show you the world as it is. That not everything, with hard work and a stroke of luck, ends well. So you can go back to your fairy tale stories and decide once and for all whether they’re exactly the best things to be teaching your kids. For some reason, I couldn’t even cry for the fate of my soul. I was feeling a bit of an irritated man, going ‘I told you so’, and a bit of a man who’s just had it with my ways, going ‘You know what? Fuck you.’ Ah well. I can’t always get along with myself anyway. But as the man in the brown jacket turned to walk away, I just had to ask: “Hey Jeremy.” “Yes, young man?” “Save a good spot for me down there.” And the devil winked at me.

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