The Weight of Our Sky(13)

The Djinn fills my veins with icy panic and, combined with the creeping heat, my entire body trembles uncontrollably.

“There must be another door,” she says, running into the back room. I follow, fighting the urge to curl up and let the flames take me.

There is a back door, and it’s locked. “Come and help me,” Auntie Bee says, and together we launch ourselves at it, trying to force it open with our combined weight. The door shudders but stays steadfastly closed. The Djinn laughs, running a clawed finger up my spine.

“Again,” Auntie Bee says, her jaw set. “Come on.”

Again and again, we throw our shoulders against the door. Behind us, I hear the crack of the flames consuming everything in their path. “Don’t look,” Auntie Bee says. “Concentrate.”

On the fifth try, the door finally flies open, and we spill out into the tiny back alley that stretches behind the row of shophouses. I suck in the cool night air greedily, filling my lungs until I think they may collapse. Beside me, Auntie Bee is bent over, heaving, her body wracked with dry retches that yield no vomit, but still look like they hurt like hell.

Eventually, we recover enough to straighten up and dust the grime from our clothes.

“Come on,” Auntie Bee says. “We have to get out of here.” As we stumble back toward the now-deserted main road, her arm over my shoulder as though to shore me up, a little gray Standard comes tearing up the road and comes to a dead stop right in front of us. Auntie Bee’s face relaxes into a smile. “Vincent! You came for me!”

The young man in the driver’s seat is tall and thin, with legs so long that his knees jam against the steering wheel in a way that looks decidedly uncomfortable. “Of course, Ma. Baba told me you were at the theater as usual, and when we heard about the troubles, I thought I’d better come get you. Are you all right? Are you hurt? I saw the fire. . . .” His eyes slide over to me, pale and crumpled beside his mother, and he stops abruptly. “Who’s this?”

She’s already dragging me to the car. “This is Melati. She’s coming with us.”

“But, Ma, why are we taking her with us? Where’s her family? Won’t they worry about her?” Vincent runs a hand through his dark hair, which flops into his eyes, and which Saf’s dad would probably harrumph at as being a shade too long to be a “proper man’s haircut,” adding a grumble about “those damned dandies” for good measure. His expression is half-angry, half-confused. “I really don’t think this is a good idea. No offense,” he adds, flicking his eyes in my direction.

“None taken,” I mumble back, too busy counting the pebbles on the ground so that I can ignore the sharp pang that pierced my stomach the moment Saf’s name wafted through my mind. I can’t blame him anyway. Who wants some strange girl in their car, especially one that looks as though she might throw up at any moment?

Auntie Bee waves her hand at him, as only a true auntie can. “Stop your nonsense, please, Vincent. She needs somewhere to go, and we’re taking her with us. End of story.” Having successfully deposited me, pliant and unprotesting, into the back seat, she slams the door shut and slides into the passenger seat beside her son. “What is this?” she asks, gesturing to the windshield, where a crack snakes from the right-hand side all the way to the left, blossoming from a hole almost perfectly centered over the driver’s seat.

“Nothing,” Vincent says, shrugging. “Just some jokers playing the fool on the way here.”

Auntie Bee regards him through narrowed eyes for a minute, then decides to let it go. “Did you eat?”

Vincent snorts. “We’re in the middle of a riot and you can still ask me if I ate?”

“Well? Did you?”

“Yes, Ma, I ate!” His head is turned away so I can’t see it, but I can feel the eye roll even from the back seat.

“Good, good.” She settles her black leather handbag on her lap and reaches up to smooth down a flyaway hair. “Good thing you came home from college today. Now let’s go home and ask your baba what all this is about.”

Vincent catches my eye in the rearview mirror, then quickly looks away. “Okay, Ma,” he says quietly. “Okay.”

As a child, I used to scrunch myself way down in my seat, so that all I could see was the sky, and pretend we were hurtling through the air. I do this now, sliding as low as I can to count every treetop that whizzes by in groups of three, tapping each one out on my knees and then with my feet, anything to keep from looking at the ground, which is littered with bodies—anything to keep from thinking about fire and knives, Saf and Mama, living and dying. Especially dying.

“Almost there,” Auntie Bee says to me from the front seat, and I wriggle my way back upright to look out the window. The metal shutters of each storefront are pulled tightly shut, and the streets are deserted save for a group of Chinese men sitting calmly on wooden stools, engaged in what looks like typical Tuesday-evening coffee shop conversation, except for the thick iron pipes and sticks sharpened to menacing points laid casually across their laps and at their feet. “Aiya,” Auntie Bee mutters under her breath when she sees them. “They’re expecting trouble, I see.”

“Who are they?” I ask.

“Let’s just call them the neighborhood watch,” Vincent says grimly, raising a hand in salute as he drives past.

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