Sunday, December 21, 2014

Getting (Meta)Physical

July 2006

The man unlocked the front door of a modest Mountain View home after a demanding morning of work, looking forward to a quiet lunch and the rest of the day off. “Honey, I am home.” (He still could not believe he was saying that.)

A light clattering of dishes was the man’s only response. The man moved through the living room towards the small kitchen-and-dining area, and was welcomed by a strong smell of honeysuckle. The man recognized the scent, but he usually did not notice it to be this strong.

The man reached the kitchen doorway and saw the woman, who was arranging plates and cutlery on the counter. Her long dark hair was clasped into a makeshift bun behind her head. She wore a simple white summer dress that flowed from her shoulders to her ankles, with a thin white belt to provide a hint of the wondrous figure the man knew to be underneath.

The man saw his best friend, lover, and most recently, his fiancée. The man had taken her and her infant son into his heart, and they have taken him into their lives and their home. It was just about a week ago when the man had let the lease on his Daly City apartment expire, but he had already been practically living in this home for over a month. Since they became engaged, the couple had begun consolidating their lifestyles in preparation of the married life that would officially start in a few short weeks. The two had agreed that they were already living as husband and wife; the only difference after the wedding would be that they would both have a few additional legal rights.

The woman, who happened to have the entire workday off, turned toward the man and greeted him with a warm smile. “Hi, Hon,” she said slowly. “How was your morning?”

The light that had been in the man’s face at the first sight of his beloved faded quickly as he felt a twinge of…uncertainty… niggling at the edge of his consciousness. Something about the woman’s voice, as well as her motion and posture, seemed… off.

The man dismissed his reservations, especially since he could not explain the basis for them. “It was okay. Work as usual,” he said flatly, trying not to sound bothered.  “Is Isamu sleeping?”

“Maybe. He’s actually at the day care today.” The woman’s voice sounded uncharacteristically hollow. Then, with a little cheek: “I figured we could have the afternoon alone.”

The man studied the woman’s naughty expression carefully. The harrying uncertainty had returned and felt much stronger now. Her eyebrows seemed to arch a little too much. The curl of her playful smile was a tad too high. And why was she wearing lipstick? She usually does not wear makeup at home — just as she would not use so much of her favorite honeysuckle perfume.

And now that the man had heard more of the woman’s voice, he noticed that — while it sounded like his fiancée — the tone and inflection did not seem right. And was there an underlying hint of… an accent?

The woman started to sweep forward across the floor toward the man, who was still in the kitchen doorway. “Why don’t I make lunch while you change out of that suit,” she said, “but first… how about a ‘hello kiss’?”

And as the woman spoke, she stepped under the kitchen skylight, her white dress catching the sun and making her even more radiant than she already was. God, she was lovely.

And horrifying.

The man quickly turned away and moved into the wide space of the living room. He was actually struggling for breath as he felt a chill of fear grip his heart and he knew — he knew — that this was not his fiancée. The man also knew that his was not the first time he had encountered… something… pretending to be someone he loved.

Bukit Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1998

The man stepped through the third floor entrance of the glass lift of the nearly-completed new headquarters of the Malayan Securities and Exchange Commission. He had just finished a tour of the finished areas by his old college friend, who by this time had been a long-time employee of the Commission, as well as the friend's immediate supervisor. Both of them were proud to show off the new offices into which they will be migrating in a few months.

Now, all the two Commission men could think about was lunch, and each proceeded to convince each other that the three of them should partake at their respective favorite eateries in Taman Tun. The man had no preference and decided to abstain from the debate, instead taking in the view through the glass walls. The lift overlooked a wide atrium, with a partially laid indoor courtyard below. It was mildly adorned with a few bagged trees off to one side near the main entrance, as well as various potted perennial plants scattered across the incomplete flooring. While he waited, the man amused himself by landscaping the unfinished areas of the courtyard in his mind. He was nearly completed when he realized they should have been on the ground floor by now. In fact, the man just noticed that the three of them had not moved at all.

“Hai-yah! I thought they’d fixed this problem the other week,” moaned the man’s friend. They all had ridden this lift up to the third level, where it remained throughout their brief tour of the in-the-process-of-modeling offices. But now the elevator stood unresponsive to the panel controls.

With a final grunt of disgust, the man’s friend stepped out of the lift to lead the trio to the staircase across the raised gallery which rimmed the atrium.

They were more than halfway to the stairs when the man heard a soft yet hearty laugh — a familiar laugh he had not heard in almost two decades. He turned back toward the lifts behind him, and his eyes widened with disbelief.

Down the gallery, near the back corner a few metres past the defunct elevator bank, the man saw the sparkling sea-green eyes… that cheeky and mildly seductive smile…

It was Danielle — his first true friend in the U.K., and the first (and at that time, the only) girl he had ever loved. But it could not be her. She looked just as she did on that rainslicked train platform that cold March evening over 18 years ago, two nights before she… died. Instead of wearing the man’s old school-age sweater and sweatpants, Danielle was clad in a flowing white dress that gleamed with reflected midday sunlight that shined through the glass roof above.

The light radiating off her seemed to smell of honey.  It was all so… intoxicating.

The man blinked, mystified. Was she… an angel? he began to ponder as he felt his heart become lodged in his chest. His perception began to literally fray at the edges. The surrounding Commission building blurred into obscurity as his vision tunneled, locking into a narrow corridor leading to the distant face of his lost love. A face that was now turned from him as the teenaged figure in the white dress started to slowly step away, down the gallery toward some unfinished offices. Then she looked back over her shoulder, and the man dazedly saw that the 16-year-old Danielle he remembered suddenly looked older — as if she had lived to be his age — and her beauty somehow increased twentyfold.

And he heard her laughter again — deeper… huskier. It seemed to be all the man could hear as he felt… something… clutch his steadfast heart and somehow pull his entire being forward — as if he were suddenly lighter than air — forward to follow the shapely figure in white that he wanted so very much to…

A sudden weight on his shoulder snapped the man out of his reverie. The weight was the size of his friend’s hand. “Xum? Where are you going? The stairs are this way.”

The man was stunned as his full hearing and vision suddenly returned. He gazed at his friend for a moment, unable to find the words, then he turned back down the gallery toward…


The alluring woman in white had vanished.

The man finally found his voice. “Over there… did you see…?”

His friend’s perplexed expression told the man that he was the only one who saw and heard the vision in white. To his companions, the man was merely wandering off in the wrong direction.

The man blinked, disoriented. Did he imagine this? This was not the first time he had encountered Danielle after her death, and even then he was not sure if that experience, beautiful as it was, was all in his mind. Reason started to push at the numbness clouding the man’s thoughts. This all made no sense. If that was really Danielle, why would she appear to him here? And why now? Unless… did she have some sort of message for him? Or did she need to… show him something?

All he had known for sure was that he had just lost his first love for the third time in his life. The man drew a hand across his eyes. He was painfully reminded of how bleak his world had become when that one particular light in his life had gone out.

The disorientation quickly moved to nausea. The man could swear that the honey that was tickling his nose moments before was replaced by burning sulphur mixed with rotten onions.

“Mister Xum doesn’t look so good,” the supervisor said to the friend as they both helped the man to his feet. The man wasn’t even aware that he had fallen. The awful odor still lingered in the air, and the man realized that he seemed to be the only one who noticed it. Despite the man’s reassurances that he was all right, the friend insisted on taking him home. There would be no lunch in Taman Tun that day.

It would be weeks later, when the man met his friend to finally have that lunch, when he heard what the friend had found out after a bomoh (a Malay shaman) was hired by the Commission to “spiritually cleanse” their new headquarters. It seems that part of the building was unknowingly constructed over an unmarked plantation graveyard, and the spirits that were disturbed by that transgression attracted other, more wicked spirits to the site.

The man listened intently. While rational thought would casually dismiss this explanation as superstition, many of the locals in this country, the man’s friend included, truly believed in magic — black magic in particular. Bomohs were recognized as a legitimate profession. The man had also read local news reports about events that can be considered supernatural phenomena, as well as the passing of legislation forbidding particular mystical practices. Further, the man had a few of his own experiences that defied rational explanation, and even though they evoked some partial doubt they also enabled him to keep an open mind.

The friend continued. Most of these “evil” spirits were mischievous… imps, for lack of a better word (and the friend suspected they were the reason the lift and other functions of the building were not working properly), but the bomoh had a difficult time driving away one particular spirit — a spirit that was… nastier. This spirit made the man’s friend so unnerved that he actually looked around the eatery to be sure no one else could overhear before he whispered the name of it:

A pontianak.       

The friend was very disappointed that the man did not know what that was, and thus had to provide an explanation he did not want to give. The friend revealed that a pontianak was a vampiric succubus that preys on (read: kills) men. They tend to take the appearance of their victim’s ideal woman, or a female loved one, to lure them into their grasp.

The friend was about to explain what he had heard a pontianak does to its victims, when he noted the stricken look on the man’s face. “Xum,” he said with shock, “you saw it, didn’t you?”

The man did not give him a reply to this question. He did not need to. Both men no longer felt like eating.

The man did not even consider how preposterous his suspicions were about the woman in his fiancée’s  home. But if he was dealing was another pontianak (or maybe the same one?), turning away seemed to make it disappear before.

“Xum, what’s the matter?”

“Uh… nothing.  Just…” the man started to respond without turning around. He felt panic edge into his voice. She (It?) was still behind him.

It was then that the man realized that he wasn’t feeling the same… disorientation he felt during his encounter in Malaysia. Perhaps the dress and the honey-like smell were triggering some post-traumatic stress… and his suspicions were unfounded.

None of this was really coherent thought, of course — just a rising sense of doubt that made the man unaware of the woman-in-white’s approach until she had playfully jumped onto his back. Her giggly squeal erupted into a loud shriek as the man’s instincts and aikido training took over. The woman instantly found herself flat on her back across the couch, breathless.

The man, tipped forward from his throw, was crouching just a few inches over the woman’s surprised, upside-down face. It was the spitting image of his beloved, but he still felt in his heart that this was not truly her.  And yet he felt her weight… her warmth… neither of which he expected from what little he had known of a pontianak. This was definitely no spirit.

The man attempted to stand, but was held back by the woman’s hands that quickly snapped upward to encircle his neck.

“Mmmm… kinky,” the woman below him purred. Her chocolate eyes locked onto his as she smiled seductively. “C’mere…”

In that brief moment the woman almost sounded like his fiancée. Despite what his eyes and ears were telling him, the man somehow knew that he shouldn’t accept this woman’s inverted kiss. Instead he slipped his head beside her right ear, as his right hand brushed the edge of the white dress collar, as well as the underlying silvery laced bra strap, off her right shoulder. With that one fluid motion, any lingering doubt in the man’s mind quickly evaporated.

This may not be a pontianak, but this woman was definitely not his fiancée.

 “Who are you?” the man said, resetting the woman’s clothing. His sharp voice seemed to stun her into loosening her grip, which allowed the man to break free and get to his feet. He stepped away from the woman, who remained sprawled on the couch, his eyes never leaving her face. Her mouth was held in a mock-pout, as if to jokingly admit to her deception.

The man was about to ask his question again, with greater intensity this time, but was preempted by another female voice.

“Xummy, stop.”

The man turned from the woman who looked like his fiancée to face… another woman that looked like his fiancée. This one stood framed in the hallway which led to the bedrooms, wearing a slinky black negligée and a look of concern.

The man scanned the new arrival carefully. While the negligée left little to the imagination, its lacy pattern did obscure this woman’s stomach and her collarbone. How convenient, he thought drily. At the very least, this woman’s posture appeared to be correct, but still…

The man pretended to shake his head in disbelief, but he was actually checking the coffee table and mentally selecting items to serve as potential weapons in case he was facing another imposter. (The heavy television remote became the top candidate.) He then looked up at her.

“You” the man slowly rumbled, unsure how to address the woman in black. “What was the first alcoholic drink I ever had?”

The woman in black arched an eyebrow… at just the right extent. “Bunnahabhain whisky. But it wasn’t so much of a drink as a sip. You said it was the best turpentine you ever tasted.” She smiled slightly, reflecting the man’s smile of relief. “Can you let my sister up now?”

“Your…?” The man blinked in shock… and embarrassment. “This is Yumiko?”

The man had known very little about his beloved’s only sibling, because his fiancée told very little about her. But he was looking forward to meeting Yumiko when he heard she would be arriving in a few weeks to attend the wedding. Apparently, she decided on an earlier visit.

A few lengthy apologies and a glass of water later, the man found himself sitting between the two identical women on the living room couch as they told him their plan behind the deceit. How the sister was to briefly pretend to be the fiancée in the kitchen, so the man would be surprised when he went into the master bedroom to change, and find his actual fiancée in bed waiting for him. The sister would then leave the couple for an “afternoon alone” and meet up with them for formal introductions at dinner that evening.

Given that his fiancée had not once mentioned to the man that her sister was her identical twin — which the man believed should be the second thing to mention about your sister after stating that you have one — the man surmised that she had planned to pull this prank on him since the day they first got together.

However, the fiancée did not plan on the sister going “off-script.”

“It used to be something we’d do when we were going to different colleges,” the twin eventually explained. “Testing each other’s boyfriends to see if they truly knew us.”

“Actually, it was just you ‘testing’ my boyfriends, Yumi,” the fiancée said icily. Her dark eyes were serious… and sorrowful.

The twin ignored the stare. “Well, this one certainly passed,” Yumiko sighed, casually grasping the man’s knee. “I don’t think he was fooled for a minute. Too bad. I wanted to see if he really—” She quickly bit her lip when she noticed the fiancée’s eyes narrowed. “Er… what I mean to say,” she stammered, removing her hand, “is I don’t think I need to worry about you with this one, Nami.” She paused. “Or… do I?” Her index fingers made a  twirling motion around each other to illustrate her earlier heels-over-head incident.

“Oh, no. No,” the fiancée immediately reassured her twin. “He never… I mean, the only time I saw him this intense was when...” she stopped when the realization struck her. “Oh my god, Xum. Did you think I was in trouble?  Kidnapped and replaced by some weird evil-clone psycho hose beast?”

The man cleared his throat. Hearing that situation described out loud, even in his fiancée’s serious tone, made the pontianak scenario in his mind seem all the more ridiculous. “I honestly did not know what to think,” he lied. “Though I am glad to know you do not have an evil twin.”

“Oh, she can be downright evil,” the fiancée laughed, tossing her sister an all-knowing look.

After a few more moments of chatting, a final apology from the man, and a reassuring joke about being swept off of one’s feet, the twin sister departed with a promise to meet up for dinner that evening.

Upon the closing of the front door, the man ran a hand across his forehead and returned to the couch. The fiancée silently snuggled up next to him, and felt that he was trembling slightly.

“Hey,” she said softly. “For a moment… back there… you looked positively spooked.” Her fingers caressed his face. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

The man was incapable of answering at first.  “I… I am fine,” he finally whispered. “I am just relieved that it was not…” He paused. He did not want to continue this line of conversation. Not now.

“Xum, what is it?”

“I was… just a little surprised is all,” he smiled, albeit faintly. “After all, how often do I see someone be in two places at once?”

She gazed seriously at him. The man’s carefully light tone was not fooling her in the least.

The man was all too aware. “I will tell you,” he asserted, taking her hand. “But later. Okay?”

The fiancée nodded. She knew the man well enough that she could let the subject drop until he was ready to pick it up again.

The man smiled ruefully. “I am also sorry to spoil your carefully planned… um… sex game.”

The woman smirked. “Oh, she spoiled it — not you. Though I must admit I didn’t expect you to get frisky in the living room…”

The man blushed a little, even though he knew she was joking. “Sorry about that,” he shrugged. "She jumped me. I responded by instinct.”

“Serves her right, throwing herself at you like that. Old habits die hard…” the woman’s voice trailed off wistfully, which made the man wonder how much hurt her sister’s “boyfriend tests” had caused. He was about to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but she suddenly giggled a bit. “I wish I had a tape recording of that scream,” she sighed. Her eyes flickered naughtily. “I guess I forgot to warn her that you’re into kung-fu fighting…”

“That was not— wait a minute…” The man was astonished at the sudden realization. “Was all that really a prank on me… or on her?”

The fiancée said nothing. With a playful smile she gently pushed her husband-to-be down on the couch.  As she straddled over him, the man reached up and gently tugged at the right strap of the negligée, fully expecting to see the small scar on the woman’s right clavicle which her twin sister did not share. He was not disappointed.

Did not expect to get frisky in the living room indeed, the man grinned as he continued to tug.