The Weight of Our Sky(2)

It seems difficult now to believe that there was ever a time when the only djinns I believed in came from fairy tales, benevolent creatures that poured like smoke from humble old oil lamps and antique rings, granted you your heart’s desire, then disappeared when the transaction was complete. I might even have daydreamed of finding one someday. And later, they took a different shape, one informed by religious teachers and Quran recitation classes: creatures of smoke and fire, who had their own realm on Earth and kept to themselves, for the most part.

I didn’t realize they could be sharp, cruel, insidious little things that crept and wormed their way into your thoughts and made your brain hot and itchy.

The clanging of the final bell echoes through the school corridors. “Te-ri-ma-ka-sih-cik-gu.” The class singsongs their thank-yous in unison as Mrs. Lim nods and strides briskly out the door in her severe, high-necked navy-blue dress, the blackboard covered in complicated mathematical formulas, the floor before it covered in chalk dust. I stuff my books hurriedly into my bag, smiling halfheartedly and waving as other girls pass—“Bye, Mel!” “See you tomorrow!”—and I concentrate on the task at hand. Biggest to smallest, pencil case in the right-hand pocket, tap each item three times before closing the bag, one, two, three. Something feels off. My hands are frozen, suspended above my belongings. Did I do that right? Did I tap three times or four? I break out into a light sweat. Again, the Djinn whispers, again. Think how much better you’ll feel when you finally get it.

No, I tell him firmly, trying to ignore the way my fingers twitch, the wave of panic rising from my stomach.

Yes, he says.

One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two . . .


I look up, startled. My best friend, Safiyah, is standing by my desk, rocking back and forth eagerly on her heels, quivering with high excitement from the tips of her toes to the tip of her perfectly perky ponytail, tied back with a length of white ribbon. “Perfectly perky” is actually a great description of Saf in general, whom my mother often jokes only ever has two modes: “happy” and “asleep.” She bounces away through her days, dispensing ready smiles, compliments, and high fives to all and sundry, while I trail along in her wake, awkward, vaguely melancholy, and in a constant state of semi-embarrassment.

I’m pretty sure Saf is the reason I have friends at all.

“Well, what?”

Saf’s face falls. “Don’t tell me you forgot! You, me, Paul? Remember?”

“Oh, that.” My heart sinks. The last thing I want to do right now is be trapped in the dark, stuffy recesses of the neighborhood cinema as everyone else watches one movie and the Djinn forces me to watch another.

“Do we really have to, Saf?” I sling my bag over my shoulder and make for the door. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. There is a very specific pattern to adhere to, a rhythm that’s smooth and soothing, like the waltzes Mama likes to listen to on the radio on Sunday afternoons. A method to the madness.

Not that this is madness. It’s the Djinn.

“Of course we do!” Saf scurries along beside me, taking two steps for every one of my strides. “You promised! And anyway, I always back you up when it’s something to do with your Paul. . . .”

“You leave Paul McCartney out of this.” Right foot first out the door—good. “Or any of the Beatles, for that matter,” I add as an afterthought. I mean, I’m a little iffy about Ringo, but even he’s better than Paul Newman.

One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.

“Come on, Mel, please. . . .” Her tone is wheedling now. “You know it has to be today. My dad’s at some kind of meeting until late. He’ll never let me go otherwise. You know how he feels about movies.” She screws up her face and lowers her voice in a dead-on imitation of her father. “?‘Movies? Movies DULL the mind, Safiyah. They are the refuge of the UNCULTURED and the UNEDUCATED. They erode your MORALS.’?”

I snort with laughter in spite of myself. “Fine,” I say grudgingly. “It’s not like Mama expects me at home anyway; she’s on shift at the hospital until tonight. But can’t we go to Cathay or Pavilion? At least they aren’t so far. We could just walk.”

Saf shakes her head firmly. “The Rex,” she says. “We have to go to the Rex.”

I shoot her a glance. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Jason’s father’s sugarcane stall happens to be right across the street from there, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Saf says innocently, playing with the frayed end of her hair ribbon and doing her best not to look at me, a blush spreading like wildfire across her dimpled cheeks. “I just . . . really happen to prefer watching movies at the Rex.” I can’t help but grin. Saf can fool a lot of people with those good-girl looks and that demure smile. But then again most people haven’t been friends with her since the age of seven, when she marched right up to me on the first day of primary school, while everyone else stood around looking nervous and unsure, and declared cheerfully, “I like you! Let’s be best friends.” On the surface, we’re polar opposites: She is bright where I am dim, cheery smiles where I am worried frowns, pleasing plumpness where I am sharp, uncomfortable angles. But maybe that’s why we fit together so perfectly.

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