For the previous chapters
The following week when I was well enough to move around my own, Lara asked me to follow her to a place. She was experiencing a form of writer's block, and needed to go there for some inspiration.
“Where is this place?” I asked. Since the accident, my motorcycle was crushed beyond repair, and we had been taking taxis or the subway to places.
“I used to volunteer there last year. I think it will be the place that will benefit the most from my scholarship fund. It is a place where people are abandoned,” she replied, as we got inside the taxi. I realised that we were approaching a familiar building. Lara continued, “This place used to be a school many years ago, but it is now converted into an orphanage. I hope that future writers from this orphanage can benefit from my fund. I don't want children to lose hope in themselves just because of their circumstances. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.”
We got out of the taxi and I could feel my hands turn clammy. I had to take deep breaths to calm myself down. Maybe, just like in the cemetery, if Lara was with me, I won't hear the voices, I thought to myself. We walked towards the orphanage. It was made up of two blocks, each block was four storeys high. The walls were painted a light blue, and there was children from a few months old to eighteen years old housed here. “Lara, is that you?” cried someone behind us. We turned to come face to face with a woman in her early fifties. She was stoutly built, had short grey hair and a kind face. “It has been some time since you came here, is this your friend? ” she said, looking at me.
Lara replied, “Yes, this is Bunny.”
The staff worker stared fixedly at my face. “Ethan?”
I replied, with a slight bow, “Good afternoon Madam Chong.” She hugged me tightly. Madam Chong was one of the social workers who took care of me during my stay at the orphanage. She was the one who took me to see various doctors and counselors regarding my “condition” then.
“Ethan, it is wonderful seeing you. You look good,” said Madam Chong.
“Thank you, you look good as well,” I replied. Lara just observed our exchange quietly. She asked, “Madam Chong, can we both just take a look around? It will only take a while.”
“Sure, I will be here if you need anything,” said Madam Chong.
It was now about 5pm. Most of the children were enjoying their break time before dinner. Some of them were playing soccer in the fields, some were sitting on the staircases, reading a book or listening to music. You don't see that look as much on the younger orphans, but the teenage orphans had a distinctive lost look to them. It was like they were confused about something or themselves.
“Bunny, you stayed here?” asked Lara.
“Yes, for about a year.”
“After your family passed away?”
“Yes.” I replied. Memories of the place started to flood in. Not too long ago, I had a father, a mother and a brother and suddenly I was left all alone. Any physical traces of their existence were wiped out, except for me. The world no longer felt real and I couldn't trust anything in it. Lara and I were walking around the fields, when sure enough I heard it. It was the same female voice, airy and light. It was my mother's voice. “Ethan...Ethan...why are you still alive? We are waiting for you at the real world...”
My face turned pale and I felt as if I couldn't breathe. I started gasping for air as I crouched down to the ground.
“Bunny? Bunny? What is wrong?” Lara cried. She wrapped her arm around my shoulder. I was starting to see white spaces around me. My surroundings were starting to lose their form and my head was feeling light. I could see the faint figure of Madam Chong coming to my side, and then everything around me turned pitch black.
By the time I regained consciousness, I could hear Lara talking to Madam Chong in the same room as me but I didn't have the strength to open my eyes.
“How long have you known him?” Madam Chong asked.
“About ten months?”
“I see. He has been through a lot at such a young age. He couldn't even speak after the trauma. I would never forget that time when he was missing from the orphanage. We looked around frantically for him and finally found him in the neighbouring apartments. He was sitting on the rooftop, with his legs dangling over the edge. I really thought I was going to die of a heart attack. It really felt like we would have lost him forever if we didn't find him then.”
“But he always smiles when he is with me,” said Lara. I could hear that her voice was full of worry. I finally gathered enough strength to wake up fully. “Lara...” I cried, looking at her. I was lying on one of orphans' bed and the whole room was empty, save for the three of us. I managed to sit up. My breathing was shallow and slow. I looked around the room. It was all too familiar. This was one of the bedrooms in the orphanage. Each room had ten beds, each bed had a small chest of drawers beside it, where the child can put their belongings and clothing.
Lara sat next to me on the bed and asked, “How are you feeling? Is this an after effect of the accident? The doctor did say that you would encounter some breathing difficulties due to your ribs.”
I shook my head and said, “I'm fine. Can we go home?” I really need to get out of here, I thought. Lara nodded and holding my arm, we bid farewell to Madam Chong and left the orphanage.
Once we got inside the taxi, I felt much better. “That place makes you uncomfortable, right?” said Lara. She furrowed her brows and looked exasperated. “I wished you could have told me earlier. I hate to see you suffer like that.”
“But going there was important to you,” I said feebly.
“But Bunny, you are more important than anything or anyone else in this world. I wish you would realise that!” she cried.
It was the first time I've seen her angry. I was startled by her outburst yet I felt saddened. I had become too important to her. That means it was time for me to leave soon.
One afternoon, when Lara was in a deep sleep, I went out of the house and walked to the nearby playground. I sat on the same swing Lara sat, and looked up at the clear blue sky. Not a single cloud was seen. My mind was clouded with a million and one thoughts though. I was tired. Tired of these nightmares, tired of living, tired of everything. There is nothing for me here. Well, except for one thing. But then, the longer I stay here, the more I see Lara, the harder it becomes for me to leave her.
I wondered if I should just forget about the million dollars and just leave this place. Leave everything behind and meet my family. Although I am sure my mother would be disappointed in me. She was never happy with me being alive but what if her debt was stopping her from moving on in death. I had no idea how the underworld worked but maybe that is why she keeps calling me, because her spirit has not rested in peace. Whatever the case, it felt right for me to pay her debt.
I remembered that day I ran away from the orphanage. I was sitting on the rooftop, thinking whether I should jump or not. There was a force, pulling me forward. All I had to do was let go of the ledge. If Madam Chong had not called my name then, I would have jumped.
I kicked the ground in frustration. I was getting too attached to the people around me. I reminded myself that I was not supposed to be alive in the first place. I thought about Lara. Maybe it would be better if someone else takes care of her. And it will be good if that someone understands her. “I know,” I thought aloud. “I should make something like an instruction manual about Lara and I will hand it to someone who can take care of her.”
I got off the swing and looked at my watch. It was 3pm. I should hurry if I want to meet Annabelle. I took a taxi to her art gallery. I needed to see her and ask her why was she getting someone to stalk me. More importantly, I needed to know if it would affect Lara's chances at the writing competition.
I stood outside the art gallery for a long time. I was reluctantly to push the door open. Suddenly I felt my body stiffen with the memories I shared with Annabelle. The first time I drew a picture of her, I was standing at a distance when she found it at the door of the gallery. Even then, she looked lovely. I sighed and wondered why I was becoming so soft. I pushed the door open and stepped inside.
“May I help you?” asked someone. I turned to see a man in his late twenties standing in front of me. I didn't know why, but he looked familiar. He was tanned, slim and wore black-rimmed glasses.
“Is Annabelle around?” I asked, looking around the gallery. There seems to be no one else around.
“Annabelle has been away on a business trip with her husband since last month. She is checking out the auctions and art festivals in Europe and then she will be going to Tokyo.”
“I see.” No wonder she hasn't been receiving my phone calls. I guess I won't be able to see her for some time then.
The male staff looked at my curiously, “You painted that rabbit picture, didn't you?”
“How did you know?” I asked, startled.
“You may not remember, but I was the one who carried the painting from the hotel room to the art gallery.” He hurriedly added, “Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. My name is Keith, by the way.” He held out his hand to me.
“Thanks Keith, I appreciate that.” I said, shaking his hand. He held on to my hand longer than necessary. Was he being a little too friendly? “ Would you know where is the painting?” I asked, when he finally let my hand go.
“Annabelle told me to ship it to Tokyo. I am not too sure about the reason though.”
“That is strange,” I said.
“I will tell her you stopped by when she returns,” he said, suddenly putting his hand on my shoulder.
“No, it's okay, you don't have to,” I said.
“No no, I insist. Can I have your mobile number?” he asked, tightening his grip on my shoulder. I had no idea what was he on about. But I gave him my number anyways. It may have been the only way that he would let me go.
I left the art gallery with mixed feelings. In the end, I wasn't able to see Annabelle. Did I really want to see her that badly. Maybe no matter how bad things ended up, she was still a part of my past and we did have some good times together. I realised saying goodbye is never easy.
I wandered over to a stationary shop and started buying sheets of coloured paper and markers. Ten more days and it will be Lara's birthday. I wanted to complete the instruction manual by the time I decide to leave this world. I didn't think it would cushion the pain for her much, but at least I know she would be in good hands.
I returned to the playground near Lara's flat and sat down on one of the wooden benches. It was already evening by now, and there were a few kids playing on the swings and slides. I took out the papers and markers I bought from the shop. Although I was uncertain about some of the pages in the instruction manual, there was one section I was sure about. I picked out a sheet of paper and wrote the title “Recipes” on the top.
I jotted down my personal recipe for carbonara luinguine. I made sure to add in some extra notes, such as how Lara prefers luinguine to any other types of pasta, and she loves chicken sausauges. I wasn't really sure why, but my heart felt heavy as I started writing more and more. This is probably my own version of a farewell letter.
"I finished my manuscript!" Lara exclaimed, as soon as I entered her flat. She ran towards me and her eyes were shining while a beautiful smile flashed across her face. I almost wanted to lift her up and kiss her then. But of course, I didn't. If I could help it, I rather not be involved any deeper.
"That's great," I said.
She passed me a stack of A4 sized papers and said, "I've printed out my entire manuscript. Please read it and give me your opinion." She looked extremely pleased with herself. She stretched herself and added, "I think it's time for a nap." She then made her way to the bedroom and closed the bedroom door. I looked down at the sheet of papers and placed them on the sofa beside me. Before reading through it, I took out a piece of coloured paper and wrote a new headline on the top, titled "Quirks". I numbered the first one and wrote, 1. Lara needs to sleep between 10-20 hours a day. Do not be alarmed if she does not wake up for days. She hates to be woken up but if she asks you to, you can wake her up with the smell of food.
I kept the coloured paper in my bag and started reading the manuscript. The title was "Snowy". There was something more sincere in this story compared to her previous one. Maybe it's because this tale was written so simply yet you can feel the sadness of the main character, a rabbit named Snowball. Snowball was a ten year old rabbit who adored his human owner, a girl, with his whole heart. However, she grew up and he was left at the animal shelter. Snowball made friends with a white maltese, Snowflake and together they escaped the animal shelter to fulfil the rabbit's final wish, to see snow. The story was set in Singapore, where it is summer all year round, but the two animals did not know that.
After I finished reading the manuscript, I sensed that Lara really wanted to see snow for herself. Silly girl, I thought. If only she wasn't going to give her money away to some dumb fund, she could use the money to go to some snowy country.
I took out my sketchbook and pencil and started drawing out the remaining scenes from the story. At the end, the rabbit dies. He had been sick for some time already but he found out that his mistress never meant to abandon him. She loved him dearly till the end. I had to admit, I envied Snowball. At least he did not die alone. How many people have the priviledge of not dying alone? I was sure my death was going to be a lonely one. And Lara will hate me till the end.
I reread the story again. It was good, I think it was good enough to win the first prize. I really should bring Lara somewhere to celebrate her birthday, before I tell her that I was stricken with an incurable disease. Before I make her cry, I should try to make her smile.