Across the bridge

I’ve been really busy since October 2014, so I did not have time to think of any ideas for poems and short stories. However, since 1 Jan 2015 is a public holiday, I thought of writing a poem to start off the year. 🙂

The title of this poem is ‘Across the bridge’, because the December 2014 theme for The Writer’s Tower is BRIDGE. I decided to write a story poem for this theme.

So, here’s to a fruitful and creative year ahead. I wish all of you the very best in everything you do. 🙂

 

Bridge in Dungun, Terengganu
Bridge in Dungun, Terengganu

 

Across the Bridge

Across the bridge
Was where I first saw her
As I was coming down the ridge

Was she one of them? The thought did occur
In the wind, her wispy locks fluttered
Not that there was anyone to refer

As I walked quietly; not a word she uttered
But just as I passed; I caught her eye
A grudging greeting she muttered

‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’
Was the length and breathe of our conversation
For weeks, I wondered – who, where and why…

What would I say? I wondered in frustration
Now, there were only ‘them’ and ‘us’
Where did ‘we’ go? I thought in consternation

There was no longer any trust
What was I to say?
Be always on guard, we must

Across the bridge every day
Days turned into weeks, months and then a year
Over the divide, we did find our way

Was she one of them? I never did fear
Life was busy; so many other things to consider
I only cared that she was a companion and a peer

One day, it wasn’t the same. Was it the water?
Was it the clouds, the wind or the rain?
No, leaning on the beam, she faltered

Crimson streaked her shirt; she was in pain
To the doctor, I insisted
I tried to convince her in vain

Slumping down; weakly, she resisted
I held her steady, trying to sooth her frantically
Her downward spiral persisted

At last, she whispered in my ear softly
“My name is Karen, please remember me fondly.”

An original poem by
Khor Hui Min
1 Jan 2015

 

Fishing boats in Dungun, Terengganu
Fishing boats in Dungun, Terengganu

 

Poetic style

This poem was written in the style of a terza rima – an Italian form of poetry first used by Dante Alighieri.

A terza rima consists of stanzas of three lines (or tercets). It follows an interlocking rhyming scheme, or chain rhyme – the middle of each stanza rhymes with the first and last line of the following stanza. However, there is no set length to this form, as long as it follows the pattern as follows:

ABA
BCB
CDC
DED

The last stanza will be a couplet rhyming with the middle line of the previous stanza. In this case, EE.

So here is my poem again with the rhyming scheme shown:

 

Across the Bridge

(A) Across the bridge
(B) Was where I first saw her
(A) As I was coming down the ridge

(B) Was she one of them? The thought did occur
(C) In the wind, her wispy locks fluttered
(B) Not that there was anyone to refer

(C) As I walked quietly; not a word she uttered
(D) But just as I passed; I caught her eye
(C) A grudging greeting she muttered

(D) ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’
(E) Was the length and breathe of our conversation
(D) For weeks, I wondered – who, where and why…

(E) What would I say? I wondered in frustration
(F) Now, there were only ‘them’ and ‘us’
(E) Where did ‘we’ go? I thought in consternation

(F) There was no longer any trust
(G) What was I to say?
(F) Be always on guard, we must

(G) Across the bridge every day
(H) Days turned into weeks, months and then a year
(G) Over the divide, we did find our way

(H) Was she one of them? I never did fear
(I) Life was busy; so many other things to consider
(H) I only cared that she was a companion and a peer

(I) One day, it wasn’t the same. Was it the water?
(J) Was it the clouds, the wind or the rain?
(I) No, leaning on the beam, she faltered

(J) Crimson streaked her shirt; she was in pain
(K) To the doctor, I insisted
(J) I tried to convince her in vain

(K) Slumping down; weakly, she resisted
(L) I held her steady, trying to sooth her frantically
(K) Her downward spiral persisted

(L) At last, she whispered in my ear softly
(L) “My name is Karen, please remember me fondly.”

To read more about the terza rima poetic style, visit the Young Writers’ Website.

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Cerebral Palsy is the Scientific Term for Super Human

Good evening! I wrote another short story right after finishing ‘Summer Time’, but did not get a chance to upload it till now. This short story is also for the STORIES FROM… series by Taylor’s College. This is the 2nd book in the project, and it aims to raise awareness about people with special needs. The story is based on a real person, but it is a work of fiction. So, here it is…

CEREBRAL PALSY IS THE SCIENTIFIC TERM FOR SUPER HUMAN

I met him on his first day in the company. I joined a group of colleagues in the cafeteria for lunch, and he was sitting at the end of the long table. Since he was new, a few colleagues were asking him all kinds of questions to find out more about him.

“Where did you study, Justin?”Ai Li, the chatty admin executive, asked.

“I went to Taylor’s, then the UK. After I got my degree, I worked there for 2 years before I came back,” replied Justin.

The murmurs of a few impressed people were heard.

“Where do you live?” asked Chee Leong.

“I live in Selayang, with my parents,” answered Justin politely. There was no getting away from the customary questions and answers.

“Why is your hand shaking?” asked Lily, the young receptionist, who was fresh out of college.

Suddenly, there was an awkward silence.

“It’s called a tremor. I get them when I’m nervous. What to do? This is the first day of work and I’m meeting all of you for the first time,” Justin answered nonchalantly.

“Why do you have tremors?” continued Lily, ignoring the nudge from Aini.

“I have tremors because I have cerebral palsy. It affects my nerves, so sometimes I can’t control myself very well, especially when I’m nervous. Sometimes, I might do certain things a bit slower because of this. Other than that, everything’s fine.”

“Oh, really? I’ve never heard of it,” replied Lily, unaware that a few people were glaring at her.

“Yeah, don’t you know? Cerebral palsy is the scientific term for super human.”

Everybody laughed. The tension in the cafeteria dissipated as quickly as it had built up. The ladies started to talk about buying a wedding present for a colleague. Justin looked like he was used to handling questions like this all his life.

I took a good look at my new colleague. He was slim, but not scrawny. He was neat and tidy, dressed in what looked like a brand new short-sleeved white and blue checkered shirt and grey long pants. His hair was slicked back with some gel. He made the effort to look smart, pleasant to the eye. He wasn’t suave like Mike, or an incessant talker like Devina, but when he said something, he made sure he got his point across. He was serious about work. When he did something, he made sure he did it properly. I thought he was all right.

*****************************

A year ago, Justin had come back from the UK. He had a good job as a research assistant at Newcastle University, and a good life there, but his parents were not getting any younger. He decided that ultimately, family was more important than all the money in the world. So, he took a plane back to Malaysia and never looked back. Once in a while, he did miss the steak, salmon and lobsters though, which he could get for a good price for his dinner, because he knew where to look to get the best deals in the grocery shops and supermarkets.

            Justin was born with cerebral palsy. But instead of feeling sorry for himself like so many other children who were born different, he believed wholeheartedly that he could achieve anything, if only he put his mind to it. To him, nothing was impossible. With this mindset, he worked very hard throughout his school life, scoring A’s consistently, graduating top of his class in his final year of secondary school. He then enrolled in Taylor’s College and signed up for a twinning programme at the end of which he earned a degree in mass communication and business, majoring in economics. He finished off his final year in a prestigious UK university. He was very proud of the fact that he was the first in his family to go so far away to the UK to study for a world-class degree. For this, he was most thankful to his parents. He felt that their love, support and unwavering belief in his abilities helped make him what he is today. They knew the importance of a good education, and made sure he got it.

*****************************

            Justin was in marketing, I was in sales. Our paths crossed frequently. Over the next few months, I got to know him better. For a young man, he was quite matured and philosophical. We would hang out during lunchtime, at promotional events or after work to chill out and talk about anything and everything.

We both studied business. While I majored in IT, he majored in economics. He was into the latest technological advancements, gadgets, e-commerce and the like, and I found great satisfaction in discussing these topics with him. I was not very good in economics, but was impressed with his knowledge in this area.

“I believe that economics plays a very important role, not only in global markets and countries, but also in our daily lives,” he said, looking very earnest. We were hanging out at a café after a long day at an international trade fair at the Putra World Trade Centre.

“Oh, really?” I said with interest, sipping my hot latte.

“Definitely. Economics is a basic tool. With a good grasp of economics, we can develop better reasoning when doing stuff like buying things and doing our personal budgeting.” He ordered a glass of iced tea. He kept away from coffee because it did strange things to him. Sometimes it made him feel hyperactive, and at other times, it made him depressed.

“Oh, cool. I never thought about it in that way,” I said.

“Well, we should apply the knowledge we have picked up in our daily lives to make it work for us.” He smiled his megawatt smile.

“That’s so true. I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied.

“This is fun. We should do this more often,” he added.

“Yes, I totally agree.” We laughed.

*****************************

            After that, I did not see him again till three months later. It turned out that he had been busy helping out with a marketing campaign gearing towards an important product launch. He had to travel to different states to help promote the new product, and even give talks. I bumped into him in Sarawak, when we were doing a major promotional event at a tech fair.

“I like your T-shirt. It looks smashing on you,” he said by way of greeting.

“You don’t look too bad yourself, Justin,” I replied.

We laughed out loud. We were both sporting our brand new company T-shirts. The bored people at the other booths glanced at us, wondering what the joke was about.

“I heard you gave a talk yesterday to a bunch of industry professionals. Did you get nervous?” I asked.

“No, not really,” he said, looking smug. His confidence bordered on arrogance sometimes.

“How did you do that? Not get nervous, I mean,” I enquired.

“Well, I actually psyched myself up by thinking – what would Obama do? How would he do it? I would put myself in his shoes and ace it.”

“Wow, that’s quite something. Is Obama like your idol?”

“Yup. I really admire him because he’s the first black American president. He faced a lot of pressure, but he succeeded. I followed him in the news when he was campaigning – he had the best set of policies. Also, he’s the only president who is standing for change. In fact, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The Act makes sure that women have equal opportunity for work and pay. No other US president has done it.”

“You don’t look like a women’s rights activist,” I joked.

“Well, more and more women are now working and contributing to their families. They are educated and skilled, so they deserve equal treatment and equal opportunity. They are an emerging economic force all over the world.”

“I concur,” I said in agreement.

“I also think he did the right thing by focusing on improving medical care. He inspired me to think out of the box to solve problems.”

Just then, the VIPs came by, and we busied ourselves explaining about our new product. We only got the chance to talk again after 6pm.

*****************************

            “You know, this might sound totally random, but do you intend to remain a marketing exec for the rest of your life?” I said, looking busy by rearranging the products on display.

“Actually, I have an open approach to life. People usually have one big ambition, but I’d like to think – why stop at one? Why can’t we have more? So, the answer is – I’ll keep my options open and see where the opportunities take me.”

“I know. I also don’t intend to be a salesman all my life.”

He looked thoughtful. “You know, we should start something. A new start-up company.”

“Doing what?” I asked, with excitement.

“Well, we should do some brainstorming to find out,” he said slowly. “With my knowledge in marketing and economics, and your know-how in sales and IT, we could actually come up with something workable. Plus, don’t forget I’m super human, you know. Superman better watch out.”

At that, we both laughed to our heart’s content.

We got busy thinking of possible business ideas and what consumers were into these days. We met up once a week to brainstorm, but no idea was good enough for him. He kept throwing all of them out. His perfectionism was getting in the way, and it was getting on my nerves.

Finally, when I thought I had ran out of feasible ideas, we settled on an online tech business idea, which was totally paperless. Environmentally friendly was the way to go. We were going to offer a suite of products and services that complemented each other. But first of all, we were going to start by selling useful mobile apps. Then, we would progress to offer mobile games. We thought that was the way to go.

“Are you ready for the rest of your life?” he grinned from ear to ear.

“You bet!”

“The rest of your life starts now,” he announced theatrically, like a royal court herald.

“All right, partner!” I said, enthusiastically.

*****************************

            We spent all our extra time on our new business venture. We thought that starting something that had no connection to our present company’s business made it all right. Kak Yati operated a catering business with her sister, and it was all right. Pak Zam painted oil paintings for sale in his spare time, and his boss was okay with it. But to be sure, we discussed it with our bosses. They told us it was fine as long as it did not affect our performance at work.

We started off with a market study. Then we did a consumer survey. With all the information we collected, we tweaked our business proposal and came up with a five-year business plan. Being first-timers at this, we wanted to do everything right.

Then, I set up the web portal for our business. The first thing we developed was a budget-making app to help people plan their monthly budget or activity budget. Then we offered a calorie counter app, for people who were on a healthy eating plan. We progressed to offering how-to apps, where people could download little modules on how to start up a garden, how to troubleshoot car problems, how to play the piano and so on. Because we did not have a big budget, all our promotional activities were done online. We placed ads in Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and other well-known sites. To increase the hype, we did festive promotions, and special offers in conjunction with public holidays. To make sure our customers were happy, we set up dedicated chat and e-mail accounts just to answer questions and help troubleshoot problems.

After 12 months, we sat down during lunch to review our performance. How did we do? How did we think we did? Were we ready to start phase two, our mobile games section? I thought sports games and racing games were the first things we should look into. Just then, my boss came up to us.

“Hey, J and J,” he said. I was sure he was trying to be funny.

“You mean Johnson and Johnson?” Justin cracked a joke immediately in response. “I thought their warehouse sale ended yesterday.”

That wiped the smile off my boss’s face in a flash. “There’s a management meeting at 3pm, Justin and Jason. We would like to see the both of you. Don’t be late.”

“Okay… sure,” I gulped. Why did I feel something bad was going to happen?

*****************************

            Three o’clock arrived in no time. Justin was pacing up and down the corridor outside the meeting room, while the top management deliberated on important things, like staff performance and operational issues. When were they going to call us in? My insides felt all twisted up in tension.

Finally, the CEO’s personal assistant came out to get us. We went in and sat down in front of all the big bosses. Sweat was beading on my forehead, as if I was in a sauna. Justin wore a poker face. The only indication of tension was the slight tremor in his left hand, which he hid under the table. Justin’s boss was the first to speak.

“Over the past year, we have observed your ‘activities’ with interest,” he said.

My thoughts were a mess. What did he mean? What was he getting at? If they had found out I was using the company printer to print stuff after work…

Next, the CEO spoke. “It’s not every day that we see two enterprising young men working very hard at something else, right under our noses.”

Oh no, is it about us using the company laptops to work on the portal?

“We want to make you an offer. We want to buy over your business and turn it into one of our subsidiaries,” the CEO continued.

What the…

“We think your business idea has great potential and fits in very well with the current trends,” Justin’s boss added.

“If you agree, we will make your company our subsidiary, and you will stay on to run the business, like what you are doing now.”

Justin spoke up. “This is a very important decision. We need some time to discuss it. Is that okay?”

“We understand that. We would like you to consider our offer carefully and come back to us in a week’s time,” the CEO said.

I walked out of the meeting room in a daze. The scene kept replaying itself in my mind over and over again. I was in a state of disbelief.

“But they are going to buy our company. After that, we won’t be the owners anymore,” I protested.

“Then we’ll start up another company,” Justin said simply. “And if somebody wants to buy it, we’ll sell it too…”

“Oooooh… We’ll be like super entrepreneurs,” I beamed. “I like it!”

Justin turned to look at me.

“Are you ready for the rest of your life?” He gave me his megawatt smile.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“The rest of your life starts now!” he announced, with a flourish.

We both laughed out loud…

Suddenly, Justin put on his serious face. “You know, ‘Managing Director’ seems to suit me very well.”

We laughed again. The corridor echoed with our loud antics. We did not care. We were on top of the world.

An original short story by
Khor Hui Min
21 September 2014

Summer Time

Good morning! It’s Monday, but I’m not having the Monday blues because I was part of the Kordel’s Walk for Healthy Joints 2014 yesterday. All that energy probably carried forward to the next day. 🙂 The distance we walked was 7km, which is the longest distance I know for a walkathon in Malaysia. It had rained the night before. The ground was soaked and puddles were everywhere at Padang Merbok, Kuala Lumpur. But thankfully, we had good weather and a nice breeze during the walk. Imagine having to walk 7km in the rain. Bummer.

To top off my Sunday morning buzz, my name was called as one of the lucky draw winners as I was walking to the car to drive home. I had to run all the way to the stage, which was quite a distance to run after walking for 7km non-stop. They gave me a pretty peach-coloured passport holder and 2 boxes of herbal supplements (60 tablets each). I don’t quite know what to make of the supplements, but I like the passport holder. Somebody up there must want me to travel. 😀  2014 is the 4th year I’ve joined this walkathon, but the first time I won something from the lucky draw. 😀

On the day before the walkathon, I wrote a short story for a charity book project. I started it on Friday night and finished it on Saturday afternoon. The book is a project by Taylor’s College and the series is called STORIES FROM… This is the 2nd book in the project, and it aims to raise awareness about people with special needs. The story is based on a real person, but it is a work of fiction.

To kill two birds with one stone, I also wrote the same story to be submitted for The Writer’s Tower FB Group September theme, which is SUMMER. If one were to include the bonus words ‘ice bucket’ or ‘chewing gum’ in the submission, that would qualify the piece for a Writer’s Tower Medal.

So here it is. Hope you like it. 🙂

SUMMER TIME

The sun was rising at the beach. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the warm feeling of the sun’s rays on her skin and listened silently to the waves as they crashed and foamed on the sand. She loved the sun, the sea and the beach. It was ‘Summer Time’, as we liked to call it – Summer’s time or Summer’s moment. We were enjoying quality time with her at our friend’s family’s beachfront home after our SPM exams.

Her name was Mei Li (which means ‘beautiful’ in Chinese), but we coined her Western name ‘Summer’ because she was such a warm and loving person. Summer was a bright and warm season in the West, and her friends thought the name fit her perfectly. She was petite and pretty, sporting a trendy short hairdo. I loved her eyes, which were eloquent and emphatic. Most of the time, she was an affectionate friend who was always concerned about the people around her.

However, she was in pain because of her C-shaped spine, the result of her condition. She has suffered from muscular dystrophy since childhood, which is a genetic disorder which can also occur spontaneously in a mother’s egg or developing embryo. Her condition was classified as the latter, because nobody in her family or extended family suffered from the disease.

However, as Summer liked to say, ‘Life goes on, come what may’. Life was full of opportunities and possibilities. We just have to go out and find them. That was how she viewed life. She hoped that brilliant doctors will one day find a cure or design effective treatments for the disease. In the meantime, she just lives one day at a time. She believed that everything happened for a reason, and has accepted her situation. She had a lot of faith in the larger scheme of life, and it has helped her immensely.

Summer felt she was blessed to be surrounded by loving and understand family and friends. She felt their unyielding support helped her get through the rough patches, like on days when the pain was exceptionally bad. I would help to carry her school bag, while Danny would push her wheelchair. If she had to take MC, we would lend her our notes, and bring homework assignments to her house, so that her studies and homework would always be on track. She went to a normal school, because that was the only available option in our little town. Nobody was going to douse her resolve and enthusiasm like an ice bucket. She would make sure of that.

She was advised to quit school and stay at home, and her doctor advised her to undergo a risky operation to insert a metal rod into her spine to keep it straight, but she vehemently opposed both. So, she went from primary school to secondary school, and soldiered on. Sometimes, she wondered if her life would begin and end in this sleepy town. Was there more out there for Summer?

***********************

SPM came and went. She geared her life towards getting passes in all her subjects… and succeeded. We threw her a surprise party to celebrate her achievement. But after years of thinking only of passing her SPM, she found that her life had abruptly screeched to a halt. What now? What next? The future seemed ominous and elusive.

One by one, our classmates set off to pursue their dreams. Sheela went to Kuala Lumpur to study at Taylor’s College. Suraya took up an accountancy course in Penang. Wing Hock flew off to Taiwan, where he had an uncle. Devi decided to go to Form 6. Summer was at a loss. Her family could not afford to send her to a private college, and the nearest school that offered Form 6 was very far away.

But Summer was not one to be idle, so she decided to take up a short public speaking course at the community centre in town. She was not a shy person, and the prospect of talking with people and sharing her thoughts and opinions was exciting for her. She enjoyed herself very much, and spoke eloquently during her presentations. Even the trainer was impressed by her positive outlook, humour and general knowledge.

She called me up one day soon after that, all bubbly and excited. I was waiting to go to college too. In the meantime, I was my mother’s little elf.

“Slow down! Tell me what happened from the very beginning,” I said, the cordless phone sandwiched between my left shoulder and left ear while I helped my mum to cook dinner.

“Do you remember the public speaking course I attended last month?” she asked.

“Yes, I do. You enjoyed yourself very much. You said the trainer complemented you on your final speech,” I said, in between stirring the soup and checking the rice cooker.

“Well, the trainer, Mr. Thiam, called me just now. He asked me to be the MC for the mooncake festival event at the multipurpose hall next weekend,” she said excitedly. “The organisers will pay me for it. He said they wanted somebody who was young and spontaneous. Someone who can connect with the younger generation.”

I almost dropped the phone. “Wow, your first paid job! We should celebrate!”

“Not so fast! I have to be a good MC and live to tell the tale.”

I laughed out loud. “Do you think Mr. Thiam will eat you if you don’t live up to his expectations?”

“Shhhhhh…! Don’t jinx it! Promise you’ll come to the event?”

“Of course I will. I’ll bring my whole family too. See you next week.”

I e-mailed all our former classmates who were still in town and we all planned to meet up at the event to show our support.

***********************

The mooncake festival was one of my favourite cultural events from childhood, and I always adored the colourful lanterns and seasonal mooncakes. Summer and I had good times together playing with candles and lanterns when we were in primary school, and I always cherished those memories. Back then, she was not in a wheelchair yet.

When we arrived at the event, Summer was already in action. She was a sight to behold, decked out in a lovely pink cheongsam decorated with magnificent peonies in full bloom. Her light and bubbly voice was pleasant to the ear, and the guests were enjoying her witty banter and funny jokes. The fact that she was sitting in a wheelchair did not seem to hinder her performance.

Summer went through the evening effortlessly, just like a pro. She ticked off the items on the programme, one by one. At last, the event finished without a hitch and we all gave her a standing ovation. Mr. Thiam came out on stage to surprise her with a bouquet of roses.

As I was leaving the venue, I heard her calling my name and I turned around.

“I have good news and bad news. Which one do you want to hear first?”

“Errr… The good news,” I said, mildly worried.

“I’m going to DJ school!”

“Say what?” I was in disbelief.

She smiled from ear to ear. “I’m not joking. Mr. Thiam’s friend is a producer for a radio show. He was at the event just now. He said he runs a DJ course and offered me a place in it.”

“What’s the bad news?”

“He’s based in Penang. That’s where the DJ course is. And that’s where you are going to study. So I’m going to hunt you down there. You’ll never be free from me. Muahahaha…”

“That’s the bad news?” I said, overjoyed. “It’s wonderful. Flipping fantastic. I’m so happy for you!”

***********************

So, Summer and I went to Penang together two months later, in her old family van. We managed to rent a modest three-room flat, on the ground floor. Suraya occupied the master bedroom, I took the middle room, while Summer took the back room. While Suraya and I drowned in our books, Summer immersed herself in the world of music, talk shows and events. She was really enjoying her DJ course, and she paid for her rent by working as an MC at various events, ranging from cultural shows to company CSR events, to product launches.

Eventually, she finished her six-month DJ course, and became a full-time MC. Slowly but surely, she gained popularity and built up a fan base in Penang. Sometimes, I would moonlight as a waitress at the events where she was the MC to make some extra money. It was great to see her shine, as she was in her element.

One day, as I was coming back from college on Bus No. 337, the bus driver, who was busy chewing gum, turned up the volume on the radio. He mumbled something about a new radio programme. Just then, a familiar chirpy voice drifted through the airwaves…

Hi, everybody! This is my first day on the show… It’s Summer Time!

By golly, Summer made into the mainstream media! I always knew she had it in her. She is an inspiration to us all. I rummaged through my backpack to find my phone to tell all our friends…

An original short story by
Khor Hui Min
20 September 2014

The namer

Here’s a bit of fun with ficton and fantasy. I’ll write the ending soon. 🙂

This short story was written for The Writer’s Tower FB Group, according to August’s theme of NAME. If one were to include the bonus words ‘asylum’ or ‘mustard’ in the submission, that would qualify the piece for a Writer’s Tower Medal! 🙂

The Namer

The start of a new semester was normally a painful ritual, one that Eddy was more than familiar with. He was the one who wanted to go to college, so he had to grit his teeth and go through the motions. Three more semesters to go, then it will be all over, he kept reminding himself over and over again.

Every college had its own private code, and the seniors called the shots. The lecturers and administrators tried their best to maintain law and order to ensure the students got a decent education, but they were not the real bosses.

The seniors who called the shots in his college were aggressive and cocky. They gave kids like him a hard time because he was awkward and geeky. Who cared that he had been scoring A’s consistently? He was not fashionable, dressed in his fading baggy pants and mustard-yellow shirt that had seen better days. His somewhat crooked glasses perched precariously on his diminutive nose. He walked around with a shuffle, his tall frame stooping ever slightly so as to not draw too much attention to himself. He did not say the right things at the right time, and was snubbed by the popular guys in his year. They were athletic, suave and always preened to perfection. He shuddered to think how many hours of preening were required every day in order for them to emulate their favourite Korean pop stars.

Today was particularly bad. He arrived in college to see Leona, the most beautiful vision he had ever laid eyes on. The sight of her took his breath away, and he stood rooted to the ground, gazing admiringly at her as she joked and laughed with her friends.

The blow to his head took him completely by surprise. Brian had waylaid him from behind. He lost balance and tumbled to the floor. As he fell, Brian’s helpful friends shouted, “Timber!”

Well, he was tall, and he did make a loud thud when he landed on the floor, but that was not a nice thing to do. He found it strikingly weird that he saw the whole thing in slow-mo as he fell, as if he were an observer. The pain he felt was due to the embarrassment of falling flat in front of Leona rather than the impact from hitting the floor.

“Never look at my girl like that, stick man,” sneered Brian, baring his pearly white teeth. In his painful embarrassment, Eddy found time to be amused with the Korean pop get-up. What was Brian’s favourite group again? Was it Big Bang or Super Junior?

At the moment when all eyes were on him, Eddy felt like a refugee that needed asylum. It was a consolation though that Leona noticed his awkward position on the floor in the middle of the corridor and pulled Brian aside to stop him from beating Eddy up. It was enough of a diversion for Eddy to make his getaway. He was not the most graceful ‘stick man’, but he could be lightning fast when necessity dictates it.

*************************

Eddy shuffled out of the college compound, his ears still red from embarrassment. Of all the things that could happen… darn it! The few classes today had been a muted blur. He took down notes as he usually did at lectures, but he could not focus. The incident played in his mind over and over again. He thought about how he could have evaded the blow, how he should be more careful, but at the end, he still fell to the floor in front of Leona.

He took the bus home. Once he got down at his stop, he made a detour before going home. He was going to his favourite thinking spot. It was not much to most people. A small stream surrounded by groves of old trees. The place had seen better days. He did try to do his part by picking up rubbish and putting them in plastic bags he brought and disposing them at the dumpster located about 500m away from the place every week or so, but still, it was not enough.

He walked carefully along the stream, listening to the soothing sounds of running water and rustling leaves. Eventually, he arrived at a big boulder under a large shady rain tree. That was his spot, but he was dismayed to find that somebody had had a barbeque there recently and neglected to clean up before they left. He cursed under his breath as his picked up a small piece of rusting wire mesh with bits of charred dinner still stuck to it, empty beer cans and plastic bottles and bags. He put the rubbish into a black rubbish bag he had brought along in his backpack. After that, he washed his face and grubby hands in the cool water and lay on his back on his favourite rock. Still replaying the unfortunate incident in his mind, he threw pebbles absent-mindedly into the branches of the trees across the stream.

“Ouch!” A girl’s voice wailed, her form hidden by the obscuring dense foliage. Eddy snapped out of his misery momentarily in surprise. Had he injured someone with his pebbles?

A young girl not much older than Eddy stomped out from behind the trees, shouting insults at the top of her high-pitched voice. The sound was remarkably unpleasant to Eddy. Her slim, petite figure was all hard and angular in her fit of rage. Raven curls framed her fair face. Her brown eyes were daggers aimed at him. Eddy thought that if they had met under different circumstances, she might even have appeared pretty. Now, she just looked like a wailing witch itching to dig his eyes out.

“I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean to hit you with the pebbles.” That was all the awkward Eddy could think of at that point in time.

“I’m sorry!” The girl aped him, his posture, his facial expression, his tone of voice. “You aren’t sorry enough!”

“How can I make it up to you? Are you hurt? Can I bring you to a clinic?” He thought his second try at an apology was somewhat better.

“You clean up my stream and my forest, but that doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.” She was still angry, not willing to quit the fight yet.

“What? Are you stalking me? Is that how you know what I do here?” Now it was Eddy’s turn to get angry. “Don’t you dare do anything to me. I’ll call the police!”

“How dare you come into my home, hurt me and insult me!” The girl shouted. “You’re going to be really sorry.”

Eddy was surprised that she lowered her voice suddenly and muttered something at him over and over again in a language he did not understand. What was that? Was it some aboriginal dialect?

A strong gust of wind blew past. He looked up to see the leaves and branches swaying and whispering. When he looked back at the spot where she was standing with her hands on her narrow hips, she was gone. He searched behind the trees and along the river, but she was nowhere to be found. He felt a pang of guilt for causing her pain and hoped she was all right.

By that time, the sun was already low on the horizon. He picked up his bag of rubbish and delivered it to the dumpster, then walked home.

As he shuffled home, he mulled over the day’s events. One sorry incident after another. Could it get any worse? He felt oddly unsettled. There was a tingling sensation all over, which he attributed to nerves.

Right before he reached his house, he came to a deserted road. Seeing that there was not a car in sight, he crossed the road on the zebra crossing. Just then, a sports car turned a tight corner and screeched to a halt just inches away from him.

“Hey, toad! Can’t you see where you are going?” A 50-something Chinese man with fake-looking blonde hair shouted out from his open car window angrily.

“Another unlucky incident to add to my long list today,” Eddy thought to himself. He apologised profusely and quickly made his way back home.

The house was deserted as usual. Dad was away on a week-long business trip, while mum had to work late at an event. He read a little note on the fridge door – Dinner’s in the fridge. Please heat up in the microwave. I’ll be home late today. Love, mum.

Evening at home with me, myself and I, as usual, thought Eddy to himself. At least there was a low possibility of another unfortunately incident occurring?

*************************

The next day, he woke up feeling like he had a hangover, except he did not consume any alcohol the night before. Groggy, he shuffled to the bathroom to brush his teeth and freshen up before another challenging day at college. It was then that he looked at the mirror… and screamed!

In disbelief, he touched his face. Then he looked at his hands, body and legs. This could not be!

For starters, he was green. That was totally the wrong colour for a human. Secondly, he had webbing between his fingers and toes. Thirdly, he had warts all over. Fourthly, he had a very long sticky tongue. This was turning out to be a major nightmare! How could he leave the house like this? Is there such a disease that turned people into humanoid frogs overnight? Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles look better than him now, except they were fictitious characters and he was not!

He paced round and round his room. How could this be? What to do? He could not even bring himself to wake his mother up and ask her for help.

Suddenly, it dawned on him… that man in the sports car yesterday called him a toad. However, he looked just like a regular angry Chinese man with a short fuse. He did not look the type to cause hocus-pocus mayhem, even though Eddy looked like a toad now.

Maybe that strange girl who shouted at me yesterday, Eddy thought. She was behaving weirdly before she disappeared. Could the girl have this much power? Well, he has to check all possibilities now, because he did not want to be a toad for the rest of his natural life.

His mind made up, he quickly put on a long-sleeved shirt, his faded long baggy pants, a jacket, socks, sneakers, sunglasses and a cowboy hat. He pulled up the collar of the jacket high to cover his green neck and looked in the mirror. Almost covered all the major green parts, he thought depressingly. He tip-toed out of the house and hurried towards his thinking spot at the stream, his frustration and desperation echoed in his awkward gait.

*************************

Alas, the petite girl with the curly raven locks was nowhere to be found. He walked up and down the side of the stream. Crossed it and look behind the trees. Nothing. Nobody was there. He called out to her, not knowing her name, but trying to sound sincere through the madness of his predicament.

At last, he sat down under a tree, tired out. He was broiling in his thick clothing in the hot and humid weather. Not daring to take anything off, he closed his eyes and dozed off.

“You have quite a predicament there,” a feminine voice said.

He jumped up in surprise. Since he was a toad now, the jump was pretty impressive.

“Who are you? How do you know what’s my problem?” He said guardedly.

“Everybody here knows. You pissed off a Class 1 Nymph. That was major news,” the bright-eyed girl said nonchalantly. “Nobody has pissed off a Class 1 Nymph in over five hundred years.”

Why did she not speak in a language that he understood?

At last, he managed to open his mouth and the words tumbled out, “What’s a Class 1 Nymph?”

“The one you hit with your pebbles yesterday.” The girl looked so young and innocent.

“Did she do this to me?” Eddy said numbly, waiting for the worse possible answer.

“Well, you really pissed Ira off, so she cast a spell on you.” The innocent look was getting under his skin for some reason.

“What spell is that?”

“She’s a namer, so she cast a special namer spell on you.”

“And what is a namer spell?” This was turning out to be some kind of scene from the Twilight Zone, the Twilight Saga and the Lord of the Rings combined.

“A namer spell makes you a shapeshifter. But you can’t control what you turn into. Others who name you will hold that power over you. That is the curse.”

“So the man in the sports car called me a toad and so I turned into one. Swell. Can the spell be reversed?” Eddy was not a natural comedian, but his situation seemed to have sparked some hidden talent for dry humour.

“Yes, it can be reversed. But there will be conditions for you to fulfil before Ira will be willing to undo the curse. That is the way of the nymphs.”

“Can’t you reverse the spell?” Eddy said hopefully.

“No, I’m afraid I can’t. Only Ira is a namer in this place. The rest of us here in this tiny forest are not.”

“Do I have a choice? Tell me what I have to do to not look like a toad or turn into something else tomorrow,” Eddy pleaded.

The nymph took pity on the young man. “Be here at the same time early tomorrow morning. I will consult Ira and let you know what she says.”

“All right, I’ll be here.”

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