Women On A Road

by Ana Abdullah - January 28, 2018

— Summary: Set apart by time, her former best friend felt estranged to her. Now, stuck on a desolated road, perhaps, she needed to dig deep within herself to change things between them. —

Jannah wondered again why that woman was her tour guide to their class reunion in rural Medan. Nothing had been smooth since they left the airport from Singapore. Their Honda rental, for example, had stalled for the fourth time now.

"Do you even know how to fix it?" Jannah asked.

"All good." A greasy thumb at her, back facing her and head still sunk into the engine for the past hour.

Jannah wiped off a drop of moisture from her forehead. The sides of her chiffon hijab were getting damp. Her silk blouse stuck to her back like a medicated plaster, worsening her backache. She folded her arms and exhaled loudly.

A wince from the self-professed mechanic.

Good, let her know she was upset.

"Hati-hati, mbak. Careful, it’s very old." Its Indonesian owner did warn them about that scrap metal of a car. There were, of course, better car choices which Jannah could undoubtedly afford. But no, the dear woman said she could handle it. Taxi driver of ten years so no worries, she knew cars.

With her sloppily pinned cotton hijab and mismatched of faded loose shirt and jeans, Fatin didn’t look like she knew a lot of things. And what’s with those pink sneakers? Was the woman still stuck in the nineties?

A sudden loud explosion startled Jannah from her annoyance. She coughed as dark pungent fumes gushed out from the bonnet filling up the dirt road. Meanwhile, Fatin had been pushed onto the ground. She stared up, stunned.

"We - we lost her." She announced the demise of their critical patient. Fatin did always like to play doctor when they were in kindergarten. Always hogging the damn stethoscope. They weren’t kids anymore.

"Oh well, looks like we have to walk."

And like a child too, her mourning was often brief.

"Come on, we’re going this way. It isn’t too far, I think."

Her confidence, however, worried Jannah. She frowned at the direction the woman was taking. Monstrous trees crowded the sides of the desolated road. Their branches grappled one another like desperate aunties at a crazy sale. She shivered. As much as she disliked her, Fatin was her only guide. She hastened to her side, irritated to find her humming.

"You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?"

"Most definitely! SubhanAllah, just smell that fresh cool air. Doesn’t it make you feel strong again? Oh, look, Jannah, a river. I’ve never seen one this close."

"I see the Singapore River everyday from my office."

"I’m sure we don’t have those huge trees back home."

"Gardens by the Bay imports plenty of exotic trees."

"Sarcasm won’t get you anywhere, dearest."

Nature was haphazard. How exactly was Jannah to understand it? She was born and bred in a HDB flat where noisy neighbours screamed at her for wetting the corridors everytime she watered her mother’s potted orchids. She didn’t see the need to appreciate Nature.

"Why couldn’t we have a class reunion at a restaurant or something? Why all the way to some village in the mountains?"

"Life should be filled with new adventures, girl. Besides, doesn’t this remind you of our school trips?"

"That was twenty years ago. I’m not one for sentimental crap - "

Jannah stopped. She didn’t like the soft squishy feel under her foot. A foul stink quickly diffused out when she stepped back. Her frustration returned bubbling up. She didn’t need to see what it was. Nor did she need the snorts of amusement beside her.

"Not funny, Fatin."

"Sorry, sorry."

Jannah wiped off the dung against the grass but her poor leather heels were ruined. These were her elegant ones that gave more shine to her confidence whenever she needed it. She had wanted to show them off during the reunion. But now -

She rested on a boulder, finding herself short of breath, not from their nature walk but from this infuriating woman. She had better solved their predicament before they were stranded until sunset. She reached into her long designer skirt.

And felt nothing within her pockets.

"What’s wrong?"

"My phone. I had it just now before the car died."

"Yeah, you dropped it inside."

"You didn’t bother to pick it up for me?"

"No worries. We’ll get someone to fetch it later."

Ok, fine, the phone was of little value. She could buy more of them, more expensive ones too.

"Don’t you have a phone, Fatin?"

"Nope, I’m going tech-free for this reunion. Even if I brought one, phones are practically useless at Uncle’s village. We could never get a signal."

This was outrageous. Her heart was thumping too fast. Her blood pressure was probably shooting off the roof again. Her young GP did advise her to take it easy at her age. Madam, he had called her with utmost respect, why not take a walk in Nature now and then?

Walking out in Nature shouldn’t have involved being bumped around for five hours in a musky rental and then walking a full hour into a horror movie scene, literally smelling like shit, drowning in perspiration, possibly left to die in a secluded forest, sure, no one would worry about her disappearance back home, no, she wasn’t hyperventilating, no, not at all.

"You’re panicking."

A concerned pat on her back.

"Stop it."

The patting stopped.

"This - this is why I don’t say yes to any of our class reunions. They’re always inconvenient, never organized properly, always problematic."

"Class reunions are supposed to be chaotic, silly. That’s what makes it fun."

Fun was what she had when her youthful energy was in full bloom. Not now when age was bombarding her body with odd aches and pain. She had about enough of the woman. All these years she had never liked her, never wanted to be her friend, never did like waiting for her whenever she was late.

"Look, Jannah, mangoes! MashaAllah, they’re huge! Aren’t they your favourite?"

Jannah followed her gaze up a tall tree. Amidst its thick leaves, there were green fruit hanging precariously on the branches.

Mangoes, she knew too well, had filled up her life when she was retrenched years back. Lonely with shame, she had stopped going to reunions, wanting her former classmates to forget her. She had binged on mangoes then. But Fatin had persistently called and messaged her, refusing to let her be.

"You still remember."

"I can’t forget. We bought you a mango cake for winning best speaker. You ate it all while everyone else was playing party games. Good times."

Those times were when Fatin was in braids and she was in braces. Somehow amidst slurring her words, she had won the school’s public speaking contest for their class. She was never popular but Fatin had brought the cake with everyone else. She grimaced at the juvenile memory.

"I didn’t eat it all by myself."

"Yes, you did."

This was ridiculous. She refused to argue like they were teens again.

"Did not."

"Did to."

Jannah watched her, swapping at a hanging mango with a broken branch.

"What are you doing? You're going to hurt yourself swinging around like that."

"Do you know about those creepy things in the trees?"

How odd that Fatin was backing away now from the tree.

"What are you talking about?"

"A passenger once told me that one night, he had seen a mango tree by a Chinese temple. It was heavy with fruit, just like this one. Seeing no one around, he climbed really high because the best ones were up there, you see."

Jannah glanced up their own mango tree as if seeing the man now.

"He was happily picking some when something tapped his shoulder. He thought it was just a branch. That is, until a voice whispered, ‘Hey, whatcha doing in my tree?’ "

This was her other reason for disliking Nature. There were always unknown things lurking around in trees, making her feel colder for no logical reason. She shuddered, not wanting to hear the story’s ending. She didn’t like the look of their tree too.

"Can - can we just go now? "

"Wait, did you see that? Something moved in the leaves just now - oh no, run, Jannah, run!"

Fatin dashed off.

What the - did she see the creepy thing? Was it in the tree just now? She couldn’t move as fast as Fatin. Her ruined heels weren’t meant for sprints. Her body was already heavy with exhaustion. How cruel of that old girl to run faster than her. Where did Fatin go?

Jannah shrieked when she was grabbed from behind. The thing, the terrifying creature, the - wait, that familiar snorts of laughter. She pushed the monster off.

"Not funny, Fatin, not funny at all!"

"Sorry, sorry, couldn’t help myself."

"You left me! What if - what if that thing got me?"

"That’s just a story, silly. The only creepy things in the trees are bugs and caterpillars. Ugh, I saw a huge hairy one just now. That’s why I ran."

Another round of snorts.

And then, a gentle embrace.

"Alhamdulilah, I’m so glad you haven’t changed, Jannah. You still love to complain. You’re still such a scaredy-cat. It’s been a while since we’ve met and your calls were always so short. I didn’t know what to do if you were different."

"I wasn’t ready."

"Ready for what?"

"I lost my job, Fatin. I had to change careers, restart from below. It was demeaning and what worst is I’m still single. I didn’t want to see everyone else so happy with their children, their loving spouses, their wonderful careers."

"You know I'm just a taxi driver, right? Oh, and divorced. Yeah, I couldn’t give him kids."

Jannah broke the embrace. For the first time, she actually saw the women before her. Around that familiar cheeky gaze, Jannah noticed the hard lines around her eyes. Her forehead too were lined, creased deep even as she smiled fondly at her. When had her best friend withered with age?

"I’m sorry, Fatin, I didn’t know. I wasn’t there for you. I - I didn’t know."

Guilt poured out from her.

"Hey, hey, it’s OK. Look, I’m really fine. It was a while back. I’m just so happy now that you’re here with me. So, dearest Jannah, let’s look forward to our future together because, at the end of this dirt road of life are lots of juicy mangoes."

Then Fatin leaned closer, a familiar gesture whenever they shared a secret in class a long time ago.

"Mahmud will be there too."

Jannah was quiet. Her cheeks were hot suddenly. Seriously, that was just a silly teen crush, left to be buried in a time capsule. She really didn’t want to know anything about him now.

"Still fit and single?"

"Oh, yeah. Still has hair too. I gave him your number."

Fatin giggled.

Jannah too.

And then the trees were startled by their boisterous cackling.

"Thank you for waiting for me, Fatin."


But friends again as they were, Jannah was still anxious. How far were they from the village? They had no phone. How was anyone going to find them? She didn’t want to spend the night, worrying about creepy things in the trees.

"Relax lah, Jannah. InSha’Allah, everything will be fine."

Right, Fatin who was always the optimistic one, the confident one, the one who was fishing out from her faded jeans a slim black gadget that was exactly like her lost smartphone.

It rang mockingly at her.

"Here, I think this is for you. Oh, don’t forget to tell him to pick us up."

"I don’t like you."
Ana Says
A first short story, I discovered, is difficult to write. It took me a Udemy course followed by a few weeks of doubt before this story could be published here now. I've written short stories before in my twenties but then stopped due to life. So now, doing this, it feels awkward. So forgive my stiff language. Nonetheless, did you enjoy this story?

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