Just like in The Girl Who Paints Butterflies, this one was also sent to enter the same competition. This one also failed to get any award. Therefore, I am posting this here to seek some ideas on how to improve this. Please send me a comment once you've read it. Thank you.
Oh, another thing. DO NOT republish this anywhere else. You may save it if you like, but only for private offline reading. Do not post this anywhere else.
I sat in the garden, with a book as thick as a telephone directory in my lap, being bored out of my wits. Sipping on a cupful of tea, I watched as my little girl played with her little girl friends. I could almost remember a time so long ago when I used to do the same. Back then though, it was mostly dolls and tea parties. Nowadays they play the 'who can read the fastest' game, which was unthinkable in my time. If someone suggested that we play a reading game when I was a little girl, I probably would have laughed at her face, assuming I didn't whack her head with my Barbie doll for talking nonsense first.
Sometimes I wondered if we're putting too much pressure on these kids. When I was at the same age, I could barely identify roman letters, much alone read. With kids these days, they learn reading, writing and counting even at the age of four, some in two or three languages at the same time, and proceed with more advanced education the moment they entered primary school. I couldn't help but feel like we're pushing these kids to mature too soon. Whatever happened to kids being kids? The next thing we know, the government may end up having to lower the legal age because kids keep getting pregnant.
God, I sure hoped that it won't happen to my Chibi.
You'll watch over her too, won't you?
I looked up from my reading. "Yes, sweety?"
"I won again! Third time in a row, Mama Min," she shouted full of joy.
"That's wonderful, dear. Play nice!" I said as I returned to the bulky, boring book in my lap.
Now they're learning about peer competition early too. I just hope that they know when to stop.
There, finally done writing the review of the damn book. I can't believe that such a boring book was ever published. Don't get me wrong, I love books just as much as the next girl, but works like these made me feel like getting a flight ticket to whichever hole this author lives in and strangle him to an inch of his life. That would teach him not to prolong an obviously boring plot. I don't mind if it's important to the story, but ten pages just to talk about how much a dog likes roses, the same dog that got shot at for trespassing after a few chapters? That must've been the lamest excuse for thickening a book.
500 pages of pure nonsense. That must've been my new record.
Unfortunately, I had to write a favourable review, pointing out the strengths of the book, which I was hard-pressed to find among the plentiful flaws that defied description. I wondered how this could actually be a New York Times Bestseller. Showed how much very favourable reviews could sell a book that nobody would want after two chapters. Sometimes I hated my job, I didn't think I'd ever be that good.
Sent. That was the best I could do with such a lousy book. I wondered if the editor actually read the book that he assigned me to review. I love reading very much, but books like these made me question my own career choice. Regardless, it paid enough and I could read plenty of books for free, which was the first reason that I applied for the job.
"Mama Min, I'm going to school now," said the little girl with pigtails in a pinafore at the entrance of my workroom.
"Come give mama a kiss before you go, sweetheart," I said while opening my arms wide.
She came closer and kissed me on the cheek as I hugged her softly. "Do you have your lunch, sweetheart?"
"Yes, it's in my bag," she said as she pointed to her larger than life bag.
How can anyone be so cruel to ask these kids to carry such big bags? She was only seven for goodness sake. Good thing that at least someone had the brains to sell schoolbags with rollers attached. I didn't think my Chibi would be able to carry that bag with her small frame.
Remind me to petition for lockers in the next PTA meeting.
I escorted her out of the house to a waiting car nearby. Our neighbour, Mrs. Hasmah was standing next to it, fussing over her children's appearance. She had been ferrying our kids to school since the new semester started, since she also had a daughter in the same year as Chibi.
Another reason I chose this job was so that I could be close to my little girl at all times. Poor girl, lost her real mother at birth, lost her substitute mother when she was four and her father was rarely ever home.
"I'm home." came the voice of a little girl from the hallway.
I was cutting onions and my eyes were watery as I cried, "I'm in the kitchen, sweetheart".
Chibi came in as I was washing my hands.
"Welcome home, sweetheart. How's school" I asked as I dried my hands.
She said in a low voice, "We got a test today. I don't think I did very well".
I looked at her and I saw that she was really upset, so I hugged her softly and said, "It's OK, sweetheart. A person's worth is not based on how good they answer tests. You'll get another chance to get good marks and next time, I'm sure you'll do better than this one. So after lunch, you will finish your homework and start studying, won't you?"
She cringed, as she knew that it was an order, not a request. I found that persuasion with a cheery face and friendly tone worked much better than a scolding when it came to telling kids to do something. I still had to train her for a while to recognize that signal though.
I kissed her forehead and said, "Now go upstairs and take a bath. Did you run a mile or something?"
"No, but we have Physical Education today. We played football," she said as she turned to leave.
I raised my eyebrow at her back. Football? If I played that when I was a child, my mother would've scolded me and called the headmaster in the middle of the night asking why the school asked her daughter to play a man's sport.
As we had our lunch, we chatted about many things. My day, her day, the neighbours, the neighbour's dog and other non-related things. I always found out a great deal about my little girl as well as the school she went to. Apparently, that same day, one of the teachers was given a leave for saying racist things. That was rare nowadays. Back in my day, teachers could say racist and politically-incorrect things any time they wanted, since students were too timid to report it. Nowadays if they did that, they might just as well prepare a coffin for their careers.
My husband rarely had lunch with us, even on weekends. He was always busy with work. I understood that his job demanded him to be away often and for long periods of time, but I hoped that he would have some time to spend with Chibi.
Oh, Lydia. How did you do it last time? How did you get him to take some breaks to spend time with his daughter? What should I say? What should I do?
It's wasn't out first fight, we've had many similar fights. Most often it started when I asked him to take some time off and spend more quality time with Chibi. Sometimes it was about household funds, sometimes it was Chibi's grades, sometimes it was about something so trivial such as what to have for dinner. Sometimes it was just an act to get us hot for ... some midnight activities.
This time though, it started when I told him of Chibi's most recent grades and suggested that he should spend more time with her. I guessed I never should've asked him to spend time with her while talking about her grades in the same minute, as he totally blew a gasket.
"You're at home, you're supposed to ensure that she's getting top grades. I don't care about your integrity and honesty crap. People only look at grades nowadays. You want to go to a good school, they look at your grades. You want to go to a good university, they look at your grades. You want to get a good job, they look at your grades. You want a promotion, they look at your grades!"
I kept silent. I was practicing a technique taught by a friend whose husband was a compulsive shouter to diffuse the situation. It was so hard though, to remain quiet. With every word he yelled at me, I felt my control started to slip.
I said in a barely controlled voice, "Do you want to push your own daughter to suicide? You want your daughter to suffer the same fate as that Indian girl?"
He glared at me, as I glared back. He then slapped my head hard that I almost fell, "Are you so stupid that you're using that in an argument"
He grabbed my hair and pulled my face close to his, and shouted right at my face, "Stop using lousy excuses, you're the one staying home all the time, you're responsible for her education. It is your job to ensure that she got good grades".
I kicked his femur, unsuccessfully trying to loosen his grip on my hair, "Chibi's just a child, she has the right to be a child, and she misses you greatly. If only you would spend some time with her, it would've been better".
"So now you're blaming it on me? And stop calling her Chibi, her name is Diana. Get that into your small head, it's Diana, it has always been Diana!" he said, while his hand attempted to pull my hair off my scalp, or my head off my neck.
"I've called her Chibi since she was four. Until she said otherwise, she's Chibi to me", I said while digging my fingernails into his arm.
He winced, and finally let go of my hair, "You don't have the right to call her that. With Lydia at least, Diana considered her as her mother".
"Lydia? Lydia? Why is it that whenever we had a quarrel, it's always Lydia, Lydia, Lydia! Would you please stop thinking of her as your late wife? She was your sister! YOUR sister!"
"Well, she was obviously a better wife than you in any case. Everything was fine when she was still around! Life with you is always filled with complaints. You're never satisfied."
"You're sickening. Stop thinking of her as your wife. She took care of the household because of the little girl that was and I hope still is, your daughter! I stepped closer to him, my index finger poking as his chest with every word spoken, "Because ... you ... were ... never ... around!"
"If I'm sickening, then you're disgusting! Don't think I didn't know about you and Lydia. Don't think I have forgotten the secret kisses you had when you thought nobody's looking. You didn't marry me because you loved me, you didn't even marry me because of Diana. You married me because you loved Lydia!"
I was about to push him to the wall when I heard a soft sobbing sound behind the door. I turned around, and saw a pair of eyes watching through the crack between the door and the doorframe. I didn't realize that the door was ajar!
The pair of eyes turned around and I let go of the collar of his shirt as I turned to chase after Chibi. By the time I reached the corridor, she had already entered her room and from the sounds I heard, already locked it. It didn't stop me from frantically testing the doorknob though.
"Baby, it's not true. I love you very much. I'm here for you, baby, not for mommy." I said, desperately turning the knob at the same time.
I could hear some muffled sobbing through the door. She must've been only inches from me.
"Listen to me, baby. Mama loves you very much. Even when mommy was still around, mama loves you like you're my own family. Mama didn't marry your father because of mommy Lydia, he's just babbling. People do that when they're mad, baby," I knocked softly at the door, "Open this door, sweetheart. We're just having a bit of a quarrel, it happen sometimes, would you please open this door, baby"
"Mommy never shouted with daddy when she was still alive," I heard her say through the wooden door.
"That's because mommy was better at hiding it from you, baby. Mama is sorry that mama can't be mommy Lydia, but mama's trying her best. Mama is not mommy Lydia, and mama can't become mommy Lydia no matter how much mama tried. Mama promised you before that mama will take care of you as good as mama can, remember? Has mama ever broken a promise before?"
I heard a sound coming from the master bedroom; I turned my head and saw my husband standing on the doorway looking at me. He shrugged and went back into the room, closing the door as he went.
Men. Figured he'd want to avoid troublesome situations.
Another sound made my heart leap. It was the sound of the knob being turned, and of the door being unlocked.
Chibi peeked through the small crack.
"Come here, my dear little Chibi. Mama meant everything mama said," I said, gesturing her to open the door wider.
She opened the door wider and almost leaped into my arms. I held her tight, reasssuring her that I really do love this little doll that Lydia once nicknamed Chibi. I carried her to bed and sat next to it until she went to sleep. Then I turned off the lights and left her sleeping peacefully.
I ended the night by kicking my husband off the bed and telling him to sleep in the living room. Surprisingly, he didn't complain as he took his pillow and limped out of the room.
A few days later, I met an old friend at the supermarket. He was one of my classmates back when we were in college. We weren't the best of friends, but we did get along just fine. He told me once that he liked me, but I was too afraid to take it further as at that time I was put off by all men in general. We decided to have a cup of coffee while catching up on things.
We sat at one of the tables in my favourite cakehouse. After ordering a cup of black coffee and a slice of blueberry cheesecake, I asked him, "So what are you doing here?"
He raised an eyebrow, "I was buying some veggies and meat for dinner?"
I giggled, "Oh stop, that naïve tone was cute when we were in college, now it just makes you sound like a sarcastic old man".
He grinned, "I don't look like an old man to you, I hope".
"Nope, you look as good as ever."
"So do you, you look even more elegant than the last time I saw you. How long has it been, I wonder"
"5 years, I believe. We haven't seen each other since we graduated from college," I replied, while taking a bite from the oh so delicious cake.
"It's been that long? Wow, how time passes by when you're not looking," he said, his eyes locked on me.
I noticed his looks and said, "What? Contrary to popular belief, eating a slice of cake doesn't make you fat, unless you eat it everyday. I am sure this is the first time I ate a slice of cake since my daughter entered primary school".
He looked incredulous. "Seriously?" to which I nodded, "You have a daughter? Wait, hold on a second ... you have a daughter who's in primary school?"
He kept on blubbering, which is kind of cute in my opinion. "But, but, that would mean you gave birth when you were 18, or younger. I didn't know you were a mother back then".
I started laughing. A really hard laugh, the ones that sometimes led some people to fall off their chairs.
He looked confused for a while, then he started looking annoyed.
"Oh, funny, funny, funny. You got me."
I took a deep breath, and said, "I wasn't a mother back then, but I am a mother of a 7 years old girl now".
He looked even more confused. His facial expression made me feel like laughing again. Then recognition dawned on his face.
"Oh, you adopted an orphan? That's very nice of you, they needed all the love they can get. This reminds me; Lydia once said that she wanted to adopt a child too. What happened to her anyway? Hasn't heard from her for a long time."
I went silent, memories of a murderous blue Toyota coming fast at us from her side of the car played in my mind. I felt a tear started to form, "Lydia's dead".
He looked alarmed, "What? How did that happen?"
I told him the summarized version of the story. I didn't think I would be able to tell everything, especially since my tears had already started to flow.
He got up from his chair, and sat at the one right next to mine, he put his hands around me. "I'm sorry that you had to experience that firsthand. I know how much she means to you. You were pretty much inseparable back in college, despite the fact that both of you were taking different courses".
He pulled me closer, "I just want you to know that if you ever need a shoulder to cry on, I'll be there".
I put my head on his chest, and proceeded to cry my heart out. When I felt that my tears had reduced to a trickle, I pulled myself up from his broad chest and said, "I'm sorry for ruining your shirt".
"Huh? What? Oh fu ... nah, it's okay. I'm sure it won't be too hard to clean," he said, looking dryly at his bleached white shirt that looked as if someone had spilled ink on it.
I giggled, "Hehe, sorry. Thanks for the shoulder. I must've embarrassed you, didn't I?"
He made a dismissive gesture, "It's not everyday a beautiful girl cry on my chest. If anything, it actually stroked my ego".
I laughed as he grinned like a cheshire cat. "Well, don't start hoping for more. I'm a married woman."
He looked much too shocked for such simple declaration, "The heck? When? Someone I know?"
"Two years ago. Lydia's brother."
He looked almost disappointed. "Well, he's a lucky man. I wish you're happy with him."
"Oh, I am happy," mostly happy at least, "and his daughter, now my daughter too, is an absolute angel".
"Now I get it, the daughter you said is in primary school, is his daughter" he said, finally getting the full picture.
"Yup, and I absolutely adore her."
"Well, cheers to your happy family life," he said, raising his cup of coffee.
"Are you insane? People don't click cups filled with hot steaming coffee," I said, as he gave me a sheepish grin.
I arrived home rather late. I had forgotten how horrendous traffic could be during peak hours. Adding insults to injury, many cars went out of the road to cut traffic, further slowing the traffic for poor us who followed the rules. I was really pissed off and I had half a mind to ram each one of the cars that passed me. Can't these idiots just wait like any decent driver, instead of taking shortcuts where no shortcuts were possible? Other people wanted to hurry home too, but it didn't mean that they have to cut traffic like a roadrunner every time. It wasn't like each one of them had a life or death situation at home.
They're the kind of people who killed you, Lydia. And sometimes I feel like giving them death, slowly.
Anyway, Chibi must've been starving since I usually finished cooking by seven. Now that I arrived home late, we might just order a take out. Dinner normally took almost a full hour for me, even when there were only two of us in the house.
Meeting Azri at the supermarket was a refreshing change. It had been so long since I met any of my college friends. Ever since Lydia died, I didn't go out with them anymore, because I was afraid of hearing Lydia's name being mentioned and I kept being reminded of all the things that we used to do together. After a while, they stopped asking me out, I guessed it was because they were afraid that I still couldn't get over her death.
Pile of bullcrap, it happened so long ago. I can't possibly be mourning her death still.
As I drove into my parking space, I was surprised to see my husband's car. It was weird since it was a Wednesday, and he rarely came home in the middle of the week. Even if he managed to get a break, he would've told us beforehand. He was not the kind of people who would pull a surprise or anything. He's very rigid, and although he's loving and charming when he tries, he's as strict and stiff as the steel he walks on everyday.
As I opened the door, I noticed that there was not a single sound in the house. Weird. Normally Chibi would be watching cartoons in the living room at this hour.
Has she not come home yet? I started to get a little bit worried by the thought. I pulled out my handphone and almost dialled Mrs. Hasmah's number when I saw a figure on the couch in the living room.
I looked around me, trying to find something that I could use as a weapon, in case it was a thief. I hoped Chibi was okay. I grabbed one of my husband's golf clubs and slowly walked towards the living room. As I crept around the sofa, I raised the club and was ready to swing it in case it really was a thief.
Good thing that it was not. I was relieved to see my husband sitting there. He was looking at me in a strange way, a blank look on his face. It looked as if he was possessed or something.
"Oh hon, you scared me. What are you doing at home today? Why didn't you call?" I said as I put the club on the nearby table.
"Is this not my home?"
"Yes, of course this is your home, what's with the weird question?"
"Am I not allowed to come back to my home?" he said as he rose from the couch.
"Ben, you're acting weird. What's wrong?"
I had moved away from the table where I put the golf club earlier, now I was inching back closer to it.
"How many men have you brought home when I wasn't here" he asked, his voice rising unsteadily.
"Ben, you're getting seriously paranoid. I didn't bring any men home when you're away. There were only me and Chibi in the house most of the time," I said, as my fingers touched the golf club.
"DON'T LIE TO ME!" he shouted so suddenly that I accidentally pushed the golf club away, with it falling on the floor away from me.
"If I didn't see it for myself, I would never have believed it".
I was confused, having no idea of what he was talking about, I asked, "See what?"
He gripped my both my upper arms roughly. "You and another man. Him putting his arm around you. Do I need to give a blow by blow account?"
It was hard to register anything he said when he was shaking my body so roughly, but eventually I understood what he meant.
"We weren't doing anything. We were just..."
"Just smooching" he said as he shook my body like a rag doll.
"We weren't smooching!" I said as I pushed him away. I felt dizzy from all the shaking and had to grab the nearest thing I could reach.
Just my luck. It was an expensive vase and my aimless hand ended up pushing it to fall with a loud crash on the floor.