Halloween Fiction: ‘An Incomprehensible Thursday’ is a short fiction by Malaysian writer, Russell Ting. Only read if you dare.
Time uncertain, presumably just after daybreak.
My eyes adjust to the darkness. I know that here, now, I am me. Undoubtedly. But it is pitch black. Why and how are of no consequence. Foreign concepts that exist outside the current equilibrium of things. In this void, there is a shape that is a shade darker than its surroundings. As soon as I realize this, as if prompted, the shape begins to shift into focus. Slowly, the shadows on its surface are peeled away, revealing what is hidden beneath.
It is the naked torso of a woman.
Lithe and sleek, with breasts, bellybutton and crotch in full view. It is a vision of anatomic perfection – the body of a woman in the prime of her life. My eyes are automatically drawn to the sleek, defined line running down the middle of the abdomen. The linea alba. It is all at once indecently erotic yet fundamentally beautiful.
But there’s something wrong here. The body has no limbs attached. It is also missing half a head. The face –if you could call it that – was cut off right above the lips, leaving an empty space where the nose, eyes and everything else should be. The darkness persisted.
My point of view fades in and out of focus. The next moment, the body is positioned at an angle right above my head, and I am staring right at its midsection, my eyes tracing its details. It is so real. So real that it feels that if I reach out, I can touch its surely firm, supple skin. What a joy that would be. The feeling soon disappears. The mouth moves in towards my own. Its lips are red. Crimson red, like it was carved right out of the skin and the blood left to dry. It opens, and its saliva pours forth into my gaping mouth. An unending stream of spit.
I start to suffocate. Drowning in this foul liquid. I choke and sputter as it spills all over me, into my nose, my eyes, penetrating the very pores on my face. My mind reels as I try to get away, to close my mouth, to push off this insanity, but nothing happens. It is as if I am nailed in place, my lips permanently stitched open. Death is only moments away.
My consciousness fades in like a movie reel being spliced haphazardly together by an inexperienced technician. I catch familiar glimpses of my bedroom. My mouth feels like it’s filled with wool. The afterimages of the dream lingers on as I close my eyes, and I can still feel the slimy liquid on my tongue. Unbearable. I jump out of bed and rinse my mouth thoroughly in the bathroom.
What a nightmare that was.
Having showered and changed, I’m in the middle of fixing breakfast for myself when my cellphone rings. It’s a familiar number, from an acquaintance from high school. Not exactly someone I’ve kept in touch with regularly since. I hesitate. It’s actually my policy to never take any calls before lunch. Calls at this hour are rarely good news. It’s either someone asking me for something for free, or wants to sell me something. Neither of which are an idea I particularly welcome. It’s never oh, you know, my extremely attractive friend who’s really into casual sex from out of town is lonely and needs someone to show them around, are you free? Or hello, this is the Inland Revenue Board, and it seems we made an error, so here’s a ton of cash deposited back into your bank account.
No, it’s never anything like that.
I let it ring until the other side gives up. I shift my attention back to my eggs, which are getting a little runny on the pan.
The ringing starts again. Persistent, this one.
I contemplate answering. It could be something particularly urgent. Each ring fills the already sparse kitchen space with a throbbing insistence. Fine, fine. Turning off the stove, I bring the phone up to my ear.
“Hey man, how’s it going? Been awhile,” the voice on the other end says. He sure sounds chirpy.
“Yeah, I’m alright. Yourself?” I say almost robotically. Just like reading from a script.
“I’m ok. Sorry, did I catch you in the middle of something?”
“Just making breakfast. It’s no big deal.”
“Right. Ok. Listen, there’s something I need to ask you. It’s kinda a big favor, actually.”
I fucking knew it.
“What’s up?” I try to sound as cordial as possible.
He hems and haws.
“The thing is, I’m, uh, I… I need to borrow some money.”
“…Are you serious? How much?”
“Three thousand ringgit.”
I let the number sink in. “That’s three, followed by another three zeroes, right?”
“Yes. Look man, I’m desperate. I’m in a lot of debt, but with three thousand I can buy some more time. Please. You’ll be doing me a big favor. I’ll repay you. With interest! You know I’m good for it,” he pleaded.
I never should have picked up the call. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have that kind of money to borrow. Try calling Lewis, or maybe Boon?”
“They both said the same thing. I wouldn’t be bothering you if it wasn’t so urgent, but I really, really need your help.”
“If you’re in trouble, you should tell the police. They’ve got laws for this sort of thing.” Sounded like loan shark trouble to me.
There’s silence on the other end. A long, drawn out, painful silence. I brace for what I expected to come next.
“…You’re all the same,” he hisses. “All of you. And it’s not like you don’t have the money… you just…” he trails off. “I’m sorry I called. Go back to your breakfast. Goodbye.”
The line cuts off.
I stare blankly at my phone for the next few seconds, unsure of what to do next. I felt horrible. Did I do the right thing? What if he really was in serious trouble? Life-threatening sort of trouble? I shook my head. No use dwelling on it. There really was nothing I could do. I had told the truth. I needed that money to make rent, pay the bills, buy groceries. If he was smart, he’d go to the cops.
I shouldn’t have answered the damn phone.
10.06am, Ban Hock Road
After eating my botched breakfast of eggs while agonizing over my friend’s situation, I’m on my way into town to meet my dad. He called me up the other day saying he wanted to meet me, with some urgent news of some sort.
To be honest, we don’t really get along all that well. For him to call me up like this is pretty rare.
His trading business is on the second floor of a corner shoplot downtown. It’s a rundown old building leftover from a time when these sort of developments were cheap to build. They sprouted up all over the place, like mushrooms after the rain. Now, they were rotting and in disrepair after years of neglect and lack of maintenance. I bump into a couple of suits on my way up the stairs. Typical white-collar guys you see everywhere in the city. It looked like they had just left my eventual destination.
“You wanted to see me?” I said as I entered his office.
It’s got a permanently dank and gloomy atmosphere, what with the blinds always drawn and carpets that haven’t been cleaned in decades. And that smell. I wrinkled my nose. It was the smell of mold accumulating in the air-conditioners, gathering on the ceiling and every other corner of the place. The smell of something that should’ve ceased to exist a long time ago, only to persist through sheer stubbornness.
In the middle of all this gloom was my father, seated with his hands folded on his desk.
“Have a seat,” he beckoned.
I pull up a chair, raising the dust settled on the carpet.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” he begins, “but I’m selling off the business.”
I stared at him. I couldn’t help think sometimes about how we both looked nothing alike. He had high cheekbones and a thin face, with slanting eyes and a forever worn-out expression with those furrowed brows of his. I also noticed that the third button from the top of his unimaginative white dress shirt was unbuttoned for some reason.
Noting my silence, he continued. “The truth is, I’m bankrupt. Drowning in debt. This was the only option.”
I hardly heard him. Why couldn’t he just fix that one offending button?
“You probably saw men leaving the office on your way up. They were the buyers’ lawyers. We just finalized the whole thing. I just thought you should know,” he said without a hint of hesitation.
“The business wasn’t sustainable. At least, not in this economy. Plus, the upkeep and overhead have been keeping us in the red. Been this way for a couple a’ years now. But I was lucky to find a buyer.”
I don’t see how. What upkeep? The place hadn’t changed since it was built in the 70s. And overhead? This was a trading company; what sort of overhead could it possibly have to keep it in the red? Knowing him, he probably blew all the profit on shady deals and bad investments. He probably couldn’t see the reason for the business failing even if it was right under his nose. Just like that damn button.
“It can’t be helped then,” I said.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” he continued.
At this point I was considering walking right up to him and helping him to fix the button myself.
“Huh?” I said blankly.
“It means you’re on your own now. I can’t leave you this business. And I’ve nothing for you either; being up to my eyes in debt. It’s hard to admit this, but its better that you know now rather than expect something down the road.”
“Right. Ok,” I replied. I honestly didn’t know what else to say. He called me here to tell me this?
“Do you have anything you want to ask me?” There wasn’t a shred of emotion in his voice. This was something he had decided himself a long time ago, it seemed.
“Not really.” I guess this was my cue to leave. “I’ll be going now. And you know, it’s not like I ever expected anything much in the first place. I’ve got my own thing going now, so I’ll be fine on my own. Been that way for a good while. Good luck with that debt though.”
I made my way towards the door.
“Oh, and your –” I motioned to his shirt. “It’s unbuttoned.”
I shut the door behind me without looking back.
10.42am, Ong Tiang Swee Road
I drive back home in a daze, subconsciously tapping along to the beat of Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ over the car stereo. Must be some sort of 80s music segment. What was with today and all this nonsense about debt and money? Unbelievable. Above all, the dream still bothered me. What a day this was shaping out to be.
And it wasn’t even noon yet.
My introspection is cut short when I hear a yelp, and the car undulates like a cheap theme park ride. Shit, I think to myself.
I just ran something over.
I pull over immediately and turn off the engine. Sure enough, in the rearview mirror, something is twitching in the middle of the road. Something small and furry.
My heart racing, I run over to where it lies. I didn’t remember seeing anything while I was driving. Where the heck did it come from?
A brown puppy with half of its skull smashed in and blood spraying everywhere jumps up and down like a fish out of water from the pain. It sprays urine in all directions as it does.
I stand there with my mouth agape, not knowing what to do. All I want is to end its misery. No way was it going to live. I contemplate grabbing hold of it and finding a vet, but it would probably be too late. I’d be covered in blood and puppy gray matter with nothing to show for it.
I glance around for passing cars, for someone to call for help, but the streets are empty. It’s a public holiday. What could anyone possibly do, anyhow?
The dying puppy continues to flounder about spewing blood and urine from every orifice all over the road, leaking bits of its skull and brain here and there. I can feel my stomach turn from the gruesome sight. For what seems like an eternity, it does this until only its legs remain twitching. It takes a good three minutes or so to finally die. And I just stood there, watching, unable to lift a finger to save it. Save it from what I had done myself.
Wrapped in the day’s newspaper, I carry the body of the dead puppy out back as soon as I reach home. The blood oozed through in dark globs. The headlines were starting to become illegible. Something about a black senator running for president in America, an airplane hijacking in Libya and the ongoing war in Russia. Blood was beginning to blacken a picture of soldiers fleeing a building on fire. Poetic.
I rush to find a shovel. Did I even have a shovel? A quick search turned up nothing. There was, however, a hoe. Why did I even have a hoe in the first place? I suppose it would have to do.
The ground in my backyard was a lot harder than I had imagined. Using a hoe to dig a sufficiently big and deep enough hole was also exhausting work. The skin on my palms was beginning to tear. Why the hell did I bring the damned dead puppy back? Some sense of responsibility? More like guilt. Should’ve left it there. Let the elements and the birds and ants and maggots do their job. But here I was, digging a grave for the dead puppy I had run over, hands bleeding all over the stinking hoe.
1.02pm, living room
I was still sweating like crazy after a quick shower. Images of the puppy reduced to nothing but a lump of dead meat lying buried under a scant two feet of soil in the backyard kept playing in my mind. I couldn’t calm down, so I tried to stretch out on my couch, to relax somehow.
To make matters worse, my cell had been buzzing nonstop since I got back. I tossed it aside. He must be really out of options now to be this persistent. I wasn’t in the right state of mind to be answering any phone calls, urgent or no. Adrenaline still pumped through my veins from all the digging, and my palms ached something terrible.
This must have been how Henry Hill must have felt when they were burying Billy Batts’ body in Goodfellas. All worn out and panicky, worried that someone would come looking for Billy. That damn Tommy. If only he hadn’t jumped the gun like that. None of this would’ve happened.
I close my eyes and recall the scene. It’s the middle of the night, and Jimmy, Henry and Tommy are driving in the darkness to the middle of nowhere, the not-quite-dead Billy banging away in the trunk. They had wrapped him up in sheets and were heading out to bury him where no one would find him. Only he wasn’t quite dead, so they open up the trunk and stab and shoot him a couple of times before doing the deed.
Come to think of it, wasn’t there a similar burial scene as well in another Joe Pesci movie? I think it was Casino. Yeah. Casino. They’re always burying people in these old Martin Scorsese gangster movies. Only thing is, I couldn’t remember if Joe was the one doing the burying, or was he the one getting buried? Ah, what did it matter. The bodies in the film switch places with that of the mangled puppy in my mind’s eye. Soaked with blood. Racked with guilt, I’m digging and digging and hoping to god that this wasn’t anyone’s puppy. Joe Pesci is begging me no, no, he’s still alive, he’s still breathing but I keep on digging but I’m not making any progress with this stupid baseball bat. Wait, that’s not right, it was a hoe, wasn’t it? I ask Joe for the hoe but he’s still sobbing and telling me that the puppy’s alive, he’s still breathing but I don’t care and keep on digging.
3.33pm, living room
I wake up to the incessant ringing of my cellphone. Must have dozed off from exhaustion and slipped into another dream. Joe’s signature nasal Italian drawl is still ringing in my ear. I rummage around for my cell and find it underneath the sofa cushion.
It’s my girlfriend. I pick up with the most apologetic hello I can muster.
“Hi, sorry, I must have dozed off.”
Well, at least I tried.
“Where were you? I’ve been trying to call you for the last hour,” she says impatiently.
“Yeah, I was really tired. Crashed on the couch; didn’t hear my phone ring ‘till just now.”
“Tired? Tired doing what? It’s a holiday. I thought you had to meet your dad?” she continues to inquire.
“I did. It’s a long story. I’ll tell you about it next time. What did you want to talk about?”
This must have been the wrong thing to say because she clams up immediately.
“Hello?” I say stupidly into the phone.
“Do you know what day it is?” she says softly.
Not another one of these inane back and forth sessions.
“Baby, it’s been a long day, can’t you just tell me straight? I just woke up, my head is spinning, and I really can’t remember what day it’s supposed to be,” I say pointedly. No point in beating around the bush.
“Really? Not even a single phone call or message. I’ve been sitting around all day doing nothing and hoping you’d at least remember.”
Uh oh. Not good.
“But you don’t! And you’ve got the gall to act all high and mighty and ask me to answer my own question?” She sounds furious. I don’t blame her.
“I’m sorry,” I apologize. I really do mean it too. How could I be such an idiot?
“A lot of things happened, and it must have just slipped my mind. I’m so sorry. I’ll make it up to you. How about dinner? We’ll go out, have some drinks, listen to some music, and talk things out. I’ll make it up to you. Really, I will. I’m sorry.” I sound like a broken record player.
Nothing but white noise on the other end.
“I didn’t mean to forget,” I try again.
“I’ll see you at 7,” she says before hanging up on me.
I still don’t remember what day it’s supposed to be.
All I can think about is Joe Pesci telling me not to bury the dead puppy, my dad’s dress shirt with one button hanging open, my friend running from loan sharks and naked disembodied torsos.
7.21pm, Restaurant Kopper, Tabuan Road
She didn’t say a word on the drive here. I talked about my day a little, tried to explain all the things that happened in between, cracked some jokes, but she didn’t utter a peep. As soon as we arrive in front of the restaurant, she walks out the car, slams the door behind her and walks right in. I’m left staring after her like a dog trying to figure out what it did wrong to its master after pooping on the living room carpet.
Restaurant Kopper. Old world décor, dim lights, liquor shelf as long as the place itself. It was Thursday too, and I know a jazz band plays here on Thursdays. She likes that sort of thing.
A fancy handwritten sign by the entrance reads ‘The Rhythm Junkies featuring Faustine tonight!’ The muffled sound of piano keys and drums can be heard even from the outside. Looks like they’ve already started.
When I enter, she’s already seated at a table right in the middle of the restaurant. It’s packed with couples. The band is playing on an elevated part of the floor on the other end, directly in front of us. Pianist, drummer, double bassist, saxophonist; all in suits. A regular jazz quartet. The singer was an attractive young lady in a floral patterned evening gown, shawl and all. Her midriff is tantalizingly exposed in a tasteful diamond shaped cut. She croons Melody Gardot’s ‘Baby I’m a Fool’. Slow, deliberate and haunting.
I let my eyes adjust to the dusk-like atmosphere of the place. I can’t help but stare at the singer all the while.
She’s drop dead gorgeous.
Her hair was dyed a deep champagne blonde, and she wore it in a long bob with a half-crown braid curling stylishly behind her ears. She had a pixie-like face, small and sharp, with features that looked as if they were cut from the smoothest marble with the sharpest chisel. Real movie star material.
“Are you listening to me?” she snaps. All of a sudden I’m jolted back to reality. I was well and truly lost for a moment.
“Of course,” I lie.
We order our food: her, a tenderloin steak, well done, and a plate of penne carbonara for me.
“Do you remember yet?” she asks again.
I decide to be honest.
“I know you’re upset. But I’ve had the most incomprehensible day. You understand right? Forgive me but you’ll just have to tell me straight. I’m sorry, but I just can’t remember.”
Faustine up on-stage begins a Julie London number. It starts with a heady saxophone line and a finger-snapping beat. ‘Why Don’t You Do It Right’. God, she’s beautiful. There was this air about her, enveloping every inch of her body, exuding pure, unadulterated elegance that wasn’t pretentious in the least. It was unnervingly comforting, looking at her up there, as contradictory as it sounds. Swaying about like that, her lips quivering ever so slightly as she sang. The pianist tickles the ebony and ivory keys lazily, almost as if stroking a cat. The cat purrs and stretches every now and then, enjoying all the attention. Intoxicating. That’s what this was. The music, the lights, the gentle clink of cutlery on tableware, the murmur of the other diners, Faustine, everything.
“…Which is why I think we should take a break for now,” she concludes.
What? “What?” I say, snapping back to reality once again. Too late, it seems.
“You heard me. This isn’t working out. You’re just so… detached all the time. I don’t know what’s going through that head of yours sometimes. You don’t call me, you don’t text me, you don’t even seem to care. And the entire time we’ve been here, you’ve been staring at that girl on stage. What is wrong with you?” she says all of this without even taking a breath in between sentences.
“Don’t bother. We need time apart. Even after all this, you still don’t remember what day it is.”
She makes to leave.
“Wait, where are you going?” I say helplessly.
“I’m meeting some friends at a bar nearby. They’ll give me a ride home. Goodbye,” she storms out the entrance.
The dishes arrive. I stare blankly at the huge serving of steak. I’ve lost my appetite completely.
Something inside me tells me to go after her, but my legs don’t budge. It feels like they’re sinking into the epoxy floor. Another slow, mesmerizing jazz number fills the air. My legs sink a little deeper.
9.25pm, same place
The jazz band takes a break, and I’m still sitting in the exact same spot, food untouched. It felt like hardly any time had passed at all.
Strangely enough, I’m not too upset about my girlfriend wanting to break up with me. It felt almost natural, somewhat. Maybe I was becoming desensitized to these things. Maybe she was right. Maybe I was detached. Maybe I didn’t care. That was probably why all of this felt like it wasn’t happening to me, but to someone else which inhabited this body, who shared my name. I can’t explain it too well, but that’s exactly how it is.
Perhaps this was my way of dealing with such things. Somewhere deep inside of me, a nameless, formless being armed with a shovel digs up a hole and buries such feelings without saying a word.
Faustine sits with the pianist in the corner with a bottle of red wine between them. The other band members retreat outside for smokes and drinks. The pair are having a fairly intimate conversation. Must be lovers, I conclude. The guy looks a lot older than she is. He had a dark complexion, with a forehead that stuck out and cast a shadow over his eyes. Could be in his late thirties. She, on the other hand, looked no older than nineteen.
I spend my time fiddling with my fork and casting furtive glances in their direction. What were they talking about, I wonder?
Their conversation starts to get rather heated. Some kind of argument. They’re quite a distance away from me, so I can’t really eavesdrop. She wears an annoyed expression. Even when she’s mad she looks cute. I wonder if all pretty girls looked that way when they were angry. All of a sudden, the guy ups and leaves in a huff. She coolly sips her red wine.
The exact opposite of what happened to me.
The restaurant manager comes by her table and they start another lively conversation. She shakes her head and says a few short words. The manager sighs and returns to his place behind the bar. I guess that was that. The overhead speakers come to life with Celine Dion’s rendition of ‘All by Myself’.
I half-consider joining her, but quickly rubbished the thought. What would I say? What did I even hope to accomplish, anyway? What is wrong with you? my now ex-girlfriend’s voice echoes in my mind. Seriously.
What was wrong with me?
While my internal monologue wallows in self-pity, she gets up and leaves. Right out the door she sashays, drawing the attention of every male in the room. I close my eyes and I can see her afterimage burned into the darkness.
I pay the bill for the wasted dishes, now reduced to a petrified painting of still life juxtaposed over an evening of disappointment and regrets.
I’ll call it ‘A Cut of Contrition’.
I try to go over the events of the day again in my head, but everything stays fuzzy and fragmented – a disjointed puzzle with missing pieces. Without them, I can’t see the whole picture. The warm water from the showerhead beats down on me like a waterfall. I try to go over the key characters. My friend; he stopped calling. I wonder if he’s okay. My dad? Who cares. The puppy… it was an accident. My girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend I suppose… she’ll change her mind. Just one bad day, another argument that’ll be forgotten soon enough.
What the hell day was it? Why couldn’t I remember?
Faustine. Glossy lips and perfect looks, sensual voice that hit all the right notes. That teasing floral dress that revealed her toned midriff.
A nightmare half forgotten.
I raised my face to the showerhead and opened my mouth wide. The water cascaded into my nostrils, filling my mouth in an instant. But still I let it overflow. How long would it take to die this way? Would I starve or go crazy first? Would my skin and hair melt away, washed off by the incessant downpour?
Somewhere inside of me, the being with the shovel dusts down his gloves, grabs the handle and starts all over again. Shoveling and shoveling, burying another misplaced piece.
Cover image by BLAUBLUT EDITION/ Pexels. The copyright of ‘An Incomprehensible Thursday’ belongs to Russell Ting.