The Fifth Horseman

Perceived Realities

It was too early in the morning, and against cold brick walls and hard cement, the rain poured mercilessly. I was relieved we eventually decided to move location. Coincidentally, there was a secluded petrol station somewhere along our course. I was compliant, and so I was finally being treated as a human being for once and allowed the light of day. Inspector Nurul wasn’t the devil I initially thought she was. We walked inside the empty kiosk, manned by a sickly and uninterested cashier and we sat around a tiny table, pinched to the corner against a equally cold window. She bought me a hot cup of coffee, the Detective. I was thankful. To my side, sat my confidant, my doctor, my shrink and perhaps my only friend who truly understood me at this point. Across from us, the Detective, smelling of burnt tobacco and ash, the residue still lingering about, oddly comforting her and to her side, her subordinate who drove us here, unintroduced, an Ethnic of mixed heritage from the East, I would guess, like me.

We just sat listening to the white noise from the rain, watching the van parked outside and the two other officers who hauled me down back in the hospital grounds, casually conversing while they filled up the Volksvagen’s tank. We were nowhere near home, across state borders in a derelict town of a forgotten district. Hours had passed since I had access to my phone, disconnected from the threads that controlled my life; my work, my family and my friends, prioritized in that order.

I felt a throbbing pain in my temple. I knew what that meant. Along walked in Sheila, grabbing a chair to join us. ‘GOD! WHY are you doing this?’

‘Why do you always make me feel uninvited?’

‘Do I?’

‘Then, what’s the problem? I want to have some coffee and enjoy the rains too. Reminds of Christmas mornings in the rainy season. After church, we would come home and have a hot Milo under the blanket covers. The television would play a variety show of something and the tree would take centre stage, lights flickering, emanating the whole house.’

‘Stop!’

‘Why?’

‘That’s not YOUR childhood memory, it’s MINE. It was when I was 10 and had chicken pox. I hated Christmas that year. All I wanted was for the itching to stop.’

‘That was not the reason you hated that year,’

‘No?’

‘No. You don’t remember? Grandmother came; the living one. She brought snacks, kuih-muih, and a baked cake. She gave us ang-pau. You were upset because it was just 17 dollars and change.’

I started to smile. I wasn’t sure if the others noticed. Sheila heckled.

‘I always wondered that. It was 17 dollars and 25 cents. Who packs small change into an ang-pau? Clearly, we were just afterthought.’

‘But she did change her attitude around you once you became THE DOCTOR!’

‘That she did!’ I had faint recollection of her, my grandmother. She was always loving and kind, but she used to drive my mother up the wall with menial day to day expectations. It’s like she was never satisfied with her. It’s amazing how little my mother projected that on to us growing up, internalizing everything, pretending that it was all… OK!’

‘Yeah!’ Sheila agreed pondering back into memories that wasn’t even hers.

The rain was pouring wild and heavy. The petrol station had not a dry patch on the flooring.

‘Sheila!’ I called out.

‘Yes?’

‘Do you think I’m doing the same thing?’

‘As what?’

‘As my ancestors. The stories I have heard about the old days, the wars, the deaths, the marriages, the second marriages, the murders and suicides. You think I’m just gonna…’

‘Gonna what? Be the same? Pass it on?’

‘Clearly it runs in the family. I mean, look at you. You’re as real as you can be. My mind is actively using energy to generate you and it’s almost dreamlike but surreal.’

‘I guess the more important question is “Why?”’

‘Because I can’t let you go, I guess,’

‘But you never had me. Remember?’

Sheila was right. I was infatuated with her, and for the longest time, until I told myself it was over, but was it ever really? I guess it must started from that first day by the river, back home after my accident. There was this warmth from her I never experienced before. I mean she was always warm, kind and loving. But there was something that night that just made me feel like grabbing you and kissing you. But I didn’t.’

‘I felt the same way,’

‘DON’T! Please don’t speak for her.’

Sheila started to cackle to herself again. ‘See, you’re not all the way crazy. You can still discern me from her! Now isn’t that progress? I guess the man next to you gobbling his noodles down like a hobo actually knows what he’s doing.’

‘He cares. I have never met a doctor who cares that much.’

‘What? You’re gonna fall for him next?’ she continued to laugh.

‘You know, I don’t recall Sheila ever being that funny.’

‘OH!’ she stopped. ‘Touche!’

‘I don’t know. You’re right, I guess. You and she are quite different.’

‘Maybe I’m just the parts you want to remember. Like these black clothes. Come on, put me in something else. I’m tired of always wearing the same thing.’

‘I don’t’ think I have control over that.’

‘Yes, you do. You can dress me up anyway you want.’

Sheila excused herself for a moment and just disappeared. I felt the clench release in my temple, just before it gripped tighter again.

‘How about this?’ She then reappeared now clad in a low-cut pink Indian Punjabi-suit top with green leggings. She was absolutely stunning to look at.

‘You wore that for… I’m having a hard time remembering.’

‘Annual Dinner, Medical.’

‘Yup, you guys had a whole dance choreographed.’

‘And the choreographer was not the Indian one, mind you. He was just extremely into female Bollywood dancing,’

‘Nice. That was a good routine. You guys looked…good. Well, you looked good.’

‘Ok this is fun. How about this?’

‘Playfully, she started sifting through a kind of mental wardrobe, just switching things up, and like finger snap later would change into different outfits.’

‘Oh! That was from the first day we all met you, Sheila. Remember? You arrived late for orientation. Still, you were the first one in the Assistant Director’s Office. You just cut in line.’

‘I was? I don’t remember it that way.’

Those were some good memories. Each time it brought a smile or an awkward laugh, I would hide my lower face behind the coffee cup brought close to my lips and pretend to sip.

The rains roared and the winds howled louder, forcing our attention outside. The glass started to tremble ominously. Suddenly, we were surprised by a bright flash and the power went out. In the dark, we watched the staff scurry around to find the switch panels. Somehow the lack of power made the storm even more intimidating, vigorously trying to break our shelter.

‘How bout this?’ She snapped again, unperturbed by the light shortage. I turned.

Horror-stricken, I looked away for a second before bracing myself to look back. Even in that dark you could see, because I conjured it. Naked, expressionless, her hair wet like the night she came out of the shower. Her face had a shine to it and a few strands of her black locks drooped forward on her shoulders, putting in her head and neck into frame, and continued to flow all the way down, resting on her supple mounds barely hiding its small dark circular peaks. I swallowed.

‘Please don’t move,’ I begged but she didn’t listen and generously bobbed her head. Everything moved accordingly. I looked away.

‘Why?’ she asked, with an innocent lilt in her voice.

‘It isn’t right.’

‘You’re getting aroused.’ She cornered her smile.

‘Change into something else, please.’

‘Everything you imagine me in is something you have seen me in before. You have seen this too, so how’s it different from the rest?’

‘Are you kidding me? I can’t look at you. Just please change.’

‘NO!’ she resisted.

‘Then leave. Please, I beg you.’

‘NO! What does this remind you of? Stop closing it off. Stop closing me off. You can’t just bury all the memories down with me in my grave. You get to have them, to keep them. That’s your curse.’

I stared back at her, into the glow of her eyes, the suppleness of her shiny wet skin, and every curve of hers perfectly rendered in my mind, picture perfect and flawless as I made her to be. I had to readjust the way I sat because she was right. I was aroused but muddled in with guilt and shame altogether in one horrid cocktail of emotions.

‘You can’t do this, Sheila. I don’t deserve this. We spoke about it, and that was that. Right?’

‘So, you do remember.’

‘Please don’t,’

‘Why are you so afraid?’

‘I can’t lose it. Not now.’

‘You have already lost so much, Tzen. Look back, find what you’re looking for.’

‘I TOLD YOU I LIKED YOU, REMEMBER?’ I shouted, at least it felt like I did.

‘We were in your family’s house. Your mother was there.’ She persisted in treading the past.

‘You said you didn’t like me at all that way. It was just the drinks and the moment. End of story. Right?’ I couldn’t hold in the waterworks. Dr Satya was patting my back as I cried into my empty cup.

‘Yes. Your mother was there. She had been sponsoring my airline tickets just so I could visit every now and then. She saw a second daughter in me and took me in as family. My parents didn’t even know of her existence, but here she, this lady across the South China Sea, the only person that truly understood me as well I as did her.’

‘You could have trusted me. You could have told me something, just anything that made sense.’

‘We spoke for a long time that morning, your mother and I. You have no idea about what, but you never asked her and I can never tell you. But something changed that morning. I was clear. I knew what to do.’

‘Instead you just looked away from me and told me to forget about it. Like it was some mistake. Like I was some mistake.’

‘She made me realise who I was.’

‘WHAT? A SLUT? SHEILA? You were NOT a SLUT!’

‘And what if I was? Would that be so wrong?’

‘My mother. She said you were wrong for me. All the while, she loved you so much and suddenly she tells me that my life would be worse with you in it. Why?’

‘Because she found out from all the noise that we had slept together under her roof, or at least that’s what you presume.’

‘I didn’t think it was a mistake. What’s just so wrong about me? About you?’

‘The stories that came with me.’

Sheila was referring to the gossip that surrounded her. There was this thing with Mr Jamal, just a little rumour going around as hospital rumours go, nothing factual.

‘How do you know?’ Sheila glared at me, the glint in the black of her eyes piercing intensely in that dark. Lightning struck and in that flash I was forced see the rest of her unapologetic nude self, sitting, legs crossed in front of me, her skin still perpetually glistening with water and just too add insult to injury, she even conjured a white wet towel, on the floor encircling her feet. It was from THAT night. I helped make the bed for her in the guest room. She walked out of the bathroom, steam following her, with that exact towel all the way under her shoulders. I didn’t think she would come out of the shower so fast. I tried to feign casualness, but it was all too awkward. My heart was racing and it wasn’t just pure awkward instinct. I’m a doctor, Sheila; the casual nude is nothing to me. I could have sworn you were feeling what I was feeling when you decided to walk toward me, break the barrier of personal space and embrace me, I knew you had been crying, but your body was warm, and then I was warm, and soon the towel got loose and fell to the parquet and we started kissing and then….’

‘And then what?’

‘It was beautiful. I wanted to profess that I had a genuine attraction toward you. I wanted to see you the next morning to tell how I felt. If we could see each other again and call it for what it was.’

‘And you did see me,’

‘Yes, but after many hours of waiting. You and Mom didn’t join us for breakfast, but we weren’t worried. Maybe my mother was having one of her mood swings. The rest of the family figured you being the good little doctor you always were, was just in her room helping her get out of bed, just as you always knew how.’

‘Lovely woman, your mom,’

‘But I didn’t think it could have been the other way around, -that she might have been the one consoling you. But why? Did you not experience the same thing I did? Did I misinterpret the night we had together?’

Sheila started to smile again, impressed with our progress down memory lane.

I continued to ruminate on the matter. ‘You were ashamed, weren’t you? Not of me. But of yourself. The walls are quite thin, and mom heard us from the night before and asked you directly. Then suddenly all that love and admiration she had for you just died. She detested you, filled with hate and rage. That was the last the both of you met. I know now. It wasn’t because of her condition. No, it was because you broke her heart. You didn’t want me, and you must have told her that. So, who did you want? Were the rumours true? Were you in love with Mr Jamal?’

‘Bravo!’ Sheila started clapping her hands, cheering, applauding to herself in a carefree bounce. I tried to keep my focus above her neck, resisting the inevitable glimpse. Still, here Sheila was, happy, excited for her friends, expressing herself while nobody paid any attention to her. Come to think of it, how was it any different while she was alive? Was that what the rumours were for? So that people would finally see you? I SAW you Sheila. Why didn’t you just give me a chance?’

The backup generators came online, and the whole place was lit again, accompanied by exaggerated sighs from the crowd of at least 10 new people and growing, all just waiting for the rains to die down.  My headache was gone and so was Sheila.

Inspector Nurul tapped her fingers on the table.

‘So, these rumours?’ the detective asked. Clearly she was paying attention, and clearly my conversation with my ghost weren’t just all in my mind.

‘Just a post on social media. You won’t find it now, but there was this selfie. She was at home, without any make-up or specific look going for her, just her plain old self looking into her bathroom mirror. I distinctively remember the post. “This is me. If you don’t want me, then you don’t know what you’re missing.” I forgot the hashtags.’

‘Sounds empowering enough. Why did she take it down?’

‘It was reactionary. Something obviously happened and when the moment past I guess she was embarrassed. There were many theories, but the most reasonable one was about the list.

‘What list?’

‘The Medical Officers and Surgeons sort of made a list. Just a word in passing, nothing on paper but you know it was still childish and a little gross. They ranked the women in their department, in order of – shames me to say it- “attractiveness”. There was an equally harmless list by the female surgeons for the men as well, so I guess it was alright. The problem was, Sheila found out that she was at the bottom of the men’s list. She wasn’t feeling too good about it. Her friends were aware about her and her body issues.’

‘So, she confronted you?’

‘She mentioned about it in the group text. We sent her some kind words back. I thought that was it. But then there was this thing where she went out with Mr Jamal.’

‘So, Mr Jamal was apologizing for the list?

‘That I’m not too sure, but they did go out. All of us did when invited by our superiors, without question. It’s usually just coffee and lunch, a little mentorship kind of thing you know. I’m sure the police do it too. But this was different, because after they had their little dinner, she posted, well, “THAT”. So, one had to assume something happened.’

Nurul brought her elbows closer on the table, curious. ‘So, for her it was DINNER, not just lunch.’ She exchanged glances with her colleague.

‘You don’t just talk shit about your boss that way, you know.’ I was reluctant to continue, afraid that Mr Jamal or his suck-up cronies might just pop out from beneath the counter or something. I had to convince myself that I was being paranoid and I have had practice.

‘She accused him of being inappropriate, didn’t she?’

‘Yes, but she also said nothing happened.’

‘SO? Must something ALWAYS happen, for something to happen? Didn’t you learn that from your relationship with her?’

‘I’m confused.’

‘No, you’re not. You know exactly what I mean. What you feel happened and what really happened might not necessarily be the same thing. It’s a conflict of our own perceived realities, the root cause of most misunderstandings.’

‘Wow, Ms Inspector.’ Dr Satya pouted his lips, impressed.

‘I do read from time to time.’ She replied, coy. ‘Looks like that little list wasn’t so harmless after all.’

I guess the Detective was right. You were with me that night, but you weren’t present, something like how you are right now. You were just feeling vulnerable and I happened to be there. Maybe you had feelings for me like I wished you had, but then again maybe you just didn’t. I was angry I didn’t have my way. Still, I never wanted to hurt you and lose you the way we did. You made that choice for yourself, and now you haunt me.

‘You’re haunting yourself, Alvin.’ Sheila’s voice alone echoed.

‘Hmrrph!’ Dr Satya cleared his throat. ‘So, this information is going to help us how? Are we any clearer now than we were about an hour ago boxed in as your hostages in a van?’

The detective rolled her eyes at the psychiatrist. ‘Any idea where that dinner might have taken place?’

‘Yes. Plaza L’Oriental. KL.’

The police passed glances at each other again. ‘On it,’ the man said and started twiddling with his phone.

‘Detective!’

‘Yes, Doctor,’

‘Have you spoken to Daniel?’ I asked.

‘Yes, and Dr Ram, Dr Jenny as well as Dr Nurul. There are bits and pieces everywhere. All your stories have little holes in them, some even contradictory but that’s alright because the whole point of the process is piecing together the truth and weeding out the confabulations. Dr Daniel statement is especially unreliable since he was all too close to the tragedy. I doubt his memory will ever reveal the truth. After allowing time, people’s emotions and beliefs tend to twist things around just to maintain sanity. You see how that can complicate things for us? However, the more the stories match, the clearer the picture, and by the looks of things, one person’s face is getting really high-def.’

‘Mr Jamal,’ I mumbled.

I turned to Dr Satya, his upper forehead strained, a million creases equating a million worries. I turned back to the Detective. I was clearly mistaken about her. ‘Miss Inspector, I have to say, I’m sorry. I understand I was…difficult,’

‘It’s alright Dr,’

‘May I ask why the heavy concern over this one case? I mean you’ve risked so much,’

‘Don’t be so condescending doctor,’ she smiled back, ‘I’m sure your patients don’t expect you to NOT go all-out for them. You just do what you can to get them home, even if it sometimes contradict principles.’

‘I guess, sometimes it is up to judgement. Rulebooks don’t necessarily have all the answers,’

The detective replied, ‘Exactly.’

The bill arrived on a plate and everyone looked outside. The weather had given us a small window of calm. Nurul threw over some change and stood up, signalling to boys at the van and then barged out. I guess we were all meant to follow.

‘Dr Satya, I believe you can take Dr Tzen back home.’

‘Yes,’ he replied while his car chirped in the distance from his keys.

‘Dr Tzen,’ the inspector nodded while she bid us goodbye. ‘Have a good rest.’

‘No, I have a shift now.’ I replied, smiling.

‘Oh, so do I,’ she pretended to sound shocked. ‘Well then, Happy Working!… and one more thing.’

‘What?’ I stopped.

‘Don’t’ worry too much. It’s not always the guys fault. We’re just better at making you think it is.’ She ended.

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