Alisha gave Neil a sideways glance. He was sitting in the desk next to her, his eyes lit with questions he desperately wanted to ask. She tapped her pencil on an open notebook, glancing at Mr Dowzer who was peacefully dozing off even though he was supposed to keep a watch over all detention students.
Today it was only her, Neil and Gary. Gary was always in detention and had reserved a seat right at the back next to the window. He was busy stretching rubber bands between his fingers.
Alisha pushed her long, straight dark hair back and turned around to see Gary chewing gum, watching her with a predatory gleam. She brought her hair to the side and plaited it while looking at Neil who had turned sideways and waiting for her to ask him what was up.
She rolled her eyes and caved. “What?”
Neil glanced at Mr Dowzer before pulling his chair closer to her. “How long do we know each other?”
Alisha turned sideways too, knowing the supervising teacher wasn’t going to wake up for another fifteen minutes. “Ten years.”
“And in all this time, we’ve both never been in relationships.”
She nodded. “Yeah, so?”
“So…” he circled his hand in the air as if she was supposed to get it. Alisha did but was deliberately being obtuse. When she didn’t say anything he sighed. “I was wondering if you wanted to try dating.”
Alisha rolled her eyes again and turned ahead to stare at the blackboard, shaking her head slowly.
“Why not?” He whined.
Alisha turned around to see Gary scratching something on the desk with a compass. He was taller and heavier than Neil and was known to get into fights every day. She wondered who he had an altercation with today. Thankfully, he always took a seat at the back in every class and she could avoid all interaction with him. Even though this was her last year in school, she had no inclination of getting to know Scary Gary as he was nicknamed by the other students in the school.
She turned back to Neil. “Because we are friends. Just that. You’re being overly emotional because this is our last year and we might be going to different colleges and I’m not going to be your neighbour anymore.”
“You’re already not my neighbour anymore. Did you have to move?” He looked like a crying Havanese dog with brown eyes and shoulder-length light brown hair.
“My parents felt they needed a bigger house with the new baby coming and all.” Alisha shrugged. To be honest, she didn’t care much for moving too. She loved her home, it was where she had spent her childhood in. She wouldn’t admit it but she was going to miss having Neil as her neighbour too. And now, she and her family were moving further away.
“I live ten minutes away,” she told him. “You can walk ten minutes.”
“It was more convenient when we could climb into each others bedroom window whenever we wanted to talk.” Neil curled the edge of his notebook page.
“Our parents hated that.” She grinned. “And they’re right you know. They said we don’t concentrate on our studies and look where we are. This is our second detention this week. And all because we were busy playing video games when we were supposed to be working on our essays.”
Neil’s lips tugged into a smile but he didn’t show it when he turned to her. “That was a fun night. I kicked your ass in Fighter’s Arena.”
“You cheated.” Alisha sneered and stilled when she heard Mr Dowzer let out a snore.
“I won fair and square.”
“By using one move.” Alisha sighed. “And now we can’t have a round two because we are grounded.”
“You were the one who started screaming at me, alerting my parents.”
“You were the one who wouldn’t accept he cheated.”
Neil smiled sadly. “I’m going to miss you.”
“Yeah, you will. Because I’m going off to live on another planet. Relax, will you? We’ll be fine. I’m in the same street.”
Neil’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah, and living in a murderer’s house.”
“Oh, please. Not you too. There were no murders. The Rainkars moved away to another city for their personal reasons.”
“Nobody saw the wife.” Neil raised an eyebrow. “Or the children.”
Alisha groaned. “You know I don’t care much for dumb gossip. It doesn’t matter where they went. My family got the house at a good price. And it is a lovely home. My room is huge.”
“Hope you checked the basements.” He snickered.
“Stop, will you? You need to seriously stop watching horror movies.”
“No way. Although, now that you’ve moved into the Rainkars’ home, I can watch the horror come alive.”
Alisha made a face at him. “Whatever. Come on over when we’re all set up and see for yourself. It is an ordinary home. There were no murders there, okay?”
“Okay. Keep telling yourself. Hope you’re right.” Neil smiled but she could see the worry in his eyes.
“Whatever,” she said and got up when Mr Dowzer announced they could go home. “See you tomorrow.”
“Hopefully, I will,” Neil said.
“You’re just in time.” The second the door opened, her mother handed her a box of cutlery.
“Can I come in at least?” Alisha raised one eyebrow. Her mother stepped to the side but her pregnant belly made it difficult for Alisha to get past. She was about to place the cardboard box on the table next to a vase of roses when her mother made a disapproving sound.
“Kitchen first, room later.”
“I literally just stepped in.” Alisha put down her bag and frowned.
“Don’t care. There’s a lot of work to do. You need to sort the cutlery and stack the kitchen cupboards. Go now.”
“Can’t it wait? I’m tired.” Alisha chewed on her lip thoughtfully before saying, “And I have homework.”
“What were you doing in detention?”
“Keeping quiet.” Alisha grinned. When her mother gave her a stern look, she immediately dropped her smile. “Fine. But I already served my punishment you know.”
“Setting up the house isn’t punishment.”
Alisha took the box to the kitchen and set it down. The place was a mess, she thought. There were boxes everywhere, some unopened, some still sealed. She groaned when she saw how many boxes there were.
“Why isn’t Meena helping?” she turned to her mother who was opening the fridge to get a drink of water. “She came home before me.”
“She’s setting up her room.”
“And which room did she take? I told her I’m the eldest and I would get to choose.”
Her mother shrugged as she drank cold water from the bottle, then put it down and shrugged. “First come, first serve.”
“Yeah, I came into this world before her.” Alisha walked out of the kitchen and took the stairs two at a time. She walked to the second room on the right and threw open the door. “I knew it!”
Meena was on the bed, fluffing her pillows. When she saw Alisha, she gave a mischievous grin. “Oh, you’re home?”
“This was going to be my room. The eldest gets the biggest room.” Alisha walked to her sister’s pink suitcase. “Out, now!”
“Mom!” Meena screamed and jumped out of bed. She held the other end of her suitcase and pulled. “Mom and Dad said I could have any room I wanted.”
“They said that to make you happy because you’re going to be the middle child and feel neglected when the baby comes along.” Alisha was stronger than her thirteen-year-old sister. She made it to the door when their Dad entered the room, sweat dripping from his forehead.
“Can you girls keep it down?” He wiped his face with the sleeve of his rolled up checked shirt. “It’s hot, the air-conditioning isn’t working and the fridge just went out.”
“I was just downstairs and mom was using the fridge. It was working just fine then.” Alisha pointed at her sister. “Why is she in my room?”
“She wanted a room next to ours.” Her father looked at both of them and Alisha could see the frustration in his eyes. “Meena said you wouldn’t care which room you got and you wanted some privacy anyway.”
“So you gave me a room right at the end of the corridor. It’s a creepy room. Small too.” Alisha walked out of the room and looked down at the door that was twenty feet away from the rest of the rooms and the bathrooms. The door was a darker reddish-brown shade than the rest of the doors in the house and to top it all, the lights at the end of the corridor didn’t work.
“Your sister already set up all her stuff here.” Her father sighed.
Alisha made a loud frustrated sound and stomped out of the room. “I hate this house. I hate everything.” She walked to the end of the corridor and flung the door open. Inside, it was pitch dark and she could smell a faint musty odour. Wrinkling her nose, she walked in, found the switch next to the door frame and turned on the lights.
Then she slammed the door shut and sat down on the mattress. She had to put on the sheets and pillowcases, put her clothes in the built-in wardrobes, place her books on the shelves and dust and vacuum the whole room.
Laying her head on the mattress she cursed Neil. If only he hadn’t convinced her to skip their biology class, the basketball coach wouldn’t have found them playing in the court and taking the air out of the balls. A silly prank that hadn’t even succeeded because they were caught beforehand.
She rolled on the side, sniffed the mattress and immediately got up. There was a sour smell that she couldn’t quite identify. She got up and opened the windows, then stood back when she saw the bars. Her hand enclosed around the thick bars and pulled.
“Well, obviously they weren’t going to budge. Ugh, is this a house or prison?” She tried to look out, but couldn’t see much except for a tree branch. Turning around, she saw Meena standing outside her room. Her sister waved at her and twirled.
“My room is so beautiful,” she said. “I can see the pool and the garden. What kind of view do you have, Alisha?”
Alisha felt a flash of anger and strode toward the door. She pushed it hard so it would make a slamming sound. Instead, the door closed softly and made a muffled thump. “What the hell?” She pulled open the door and saw her sister giggling, then twirling on her toes like a ballerina, went into her room and closed the door.
Alisha examined the door and ran her fingers down the edge. There were tiny cracks and chips on the wood and the locking system itself looked like it wasn’t fit in very well. The latch was stuck inside and the strike plate was shifted from its position.
“Are you kidding me? I can’t lock the door?” Alisha grunted and closed the door again. Stomping back to her mattress, she picked up her pillow and threw it against the wall. Sitting down on the bed, she fumed and hoped that at least her attached bathroom would be free from problems.
“Hey, pretty lady,” Neil grinned and presented her with two white roses.
Alisha made a face and looked down at him standing on her doorstep. “Since when are you giving me flowers?”
Neil walked in without an invitation. “Relax, I’m not proposing you. It’s like a house-warming gift.”
“Gee, thanks.” Alisha placed the roses on the decorative table in the foyer and gestured at the stairs. “My room is upstairs. Do you want something to eat?”
“What, no tour? I wanted to see the murder house?”
“Sorry to disappoint. Even if there was a murderer living here before, he isn’t now. Get over your fascination with death and morbidity.”
“I’m not. I’m just curious.”
“You don’t have time to be curious. We have to work on our physics project. Have you thought about a topic yet?”
Alisha sighed. “You know what, just go upstairs. My room is right at the end of the corridor. The one where the ceiling lights end. I’ll grab us some snacks.”
“Will do.” He took two stairs at a time and she watched him disappear as the stairs turned.
Alisha let out a breath and walked to the kitchen where Meena was making a peanut butter sandwich for herself.
“Your boyfriend is here?” She asked, squeezing honey from a bottle over her sandwiches.
“He’s a friend.” Alisha opened the fridge to remove two small bottles of sparkling water.
“I think he loves you. I saw him give you roses.” Meena bit into her sandwich and the peanut butter squished out and dropped on her white shirt. She flicked a finger over it and licked the blob of peanut butter. “Are you going to marry him?”
“Are you always going to be this annoying?” Alisha took out a bag of tortilla chips from the cupboard and looked for the readymade salsa jar.
“Can I plan your wedding?”
“Can you just shut up?”
“Ugh, fine spoilsport.” Meena picked up her plate and pushed past her. “In all seriousness,” she said by the door, “you can do better. He’s a little weird looking. And the way he looks at you is creepy. He has beady eyes.”
“Neil isn’t creepy. The way he dresses is just his style.” Alisha rolled her eyes.
Meena shrugged and walked into the living room to watch an animated show. “Mom and Dad will be home late,” she called out. “I phoned them.”
Alisha paused by the staircase. “Oh no, dinner,” she mumbled to herself, then raised her voice, “We’ll order takeout. I’ll be down in an hour. Decide what you want to eat.”
“I’m already having dinner,” Meena called out.
“Peanut butter sandwich is not dinner,” Alisha replied.
“Yes, it is.”
Alisha stomped upstairs, realizing she would have to make the decision regarding dinner herself.
“Ready, partner?” Neil asked when she opened the door. He was laying on his stomach on her bed, a pillow beneath his arm. In front of him was a textbook and he kept flipping pages.
Alisha started to close the door, then left it open, wondering why she felt it so weird that Neil was relaxing on her bed. She looked at her study desk and thought about moving there. Then she realized she was letting Meena’s teasing get to her and eased. Dropping the snacks on her bed, she picked up her other pillow and sat down.
“Well, did you come up with anything?”
“Nah.” He turned the textbook around. “You take a look.” He opened up the bag of chips and put one near her mouth.
Alisha took it from him and chewed thoughtfully while scanning through the experiments listed in the book.
“This is your bed. Why are you sitting right at the edge?” He shifted in the bed but Alisha stayed in her spot.
“I’m fine.” She picked up a bottle of sparkling water and opened it. “I can’t decide. I want to go for something easier but I think that is what the Ms Corna will be expecting from us. We need to get a good grade in this.” She looked up to see Neil staring at her legs.
“Yeah, you’re absolutely right,” he said and looked up at her. Sitting up, he smiled at her. “Smart and pretty.”
“What?” Alisha took a sip of sparkling water.
“You’re what they call beauty with brains.”
“I can’t say that. I haven’t been doing exactly well in class. My grades are slipping. I need to buckle up if I want to graduate and get into a decent college.”
“You’ll be fine,” Neil said, patting her leg. He reached up and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.
When his hand grazed against her cheek, she flinched, reminding herself he was her friend and his intentions were innocent. It was her annoying, bratty little sister who had gotten into her head.
“Let’s hope so. Now can we decide on our experiment? Times-a-wasting.” She pointed at the clock.
He rubbed her arm. “Relax. We have time. Your parents won’t be back until late and I’m in no hurry to go home.”
Alisha turned the pages distractedly and stopped. “Want to build a telescope?”
Neil leaned over, pushed up his glasses and shook his head. “It would take too long and require too many materials.”
She sighed. “Want to do something with pulleys or something?”
He leaned back against a pillow. “Nah.”
“Then what exactly are we going to do for our project?”
“Order dinner!” Meena piped in. She stood by the door and twisted her lips. “I’m hungry.”
“What about your peanut butter sandwich?” Alisha asked, getting up from the bed.
“You said it yourself, it’s not dinner.”
Alisha turned to Neil who was staring at her sister with a frown on his face. “What do you want?” she asked him.
He turned to her with a smile that immediately softened his face. “Anything’s fine. If you want, I can cook you something.”
“You can cook?” Alisha raised an eyebrow.
“Of course.” He got up and rubbed his hands together. “Lead me to your kitchen.”
“Um, no.” Alisha shook her head and unplugged the charger from her phone. “I’m ordering. This is our chance to eat whatever we want instead of the boring meals we are subjected to every day.”
“Make sure there is no broccoli in those noodles,” Meena said as she peeked in her mobile.
Alisha swiped through the menus on her food ordering app and customized her meal from a Chinese restaurant. “You okay with noodles, Neil?”
“Sure.” He had one hand in his pocket and sulked. She noticed him occasionally looking at Meena with a peeved expression. She knew Meena could be annoying and got under everyone’s skin but she didn’t think she was comfortable with Neil thinking that about her sister.
After their takeout arrived, they had their meals in front of the TV where Meena purposely put on an animated movie that Alisha found annoying. When the songs came on, and her sister sang loudly, she ran out of patience and jumped to her feet. “I’m going to my room to work on my project.”
Neil stuffed the remaining food into his mouth and got up. “I’m done too,” he managed to say through a mouthful.
“I’m still eating. Manners?” Meena slowly twirled a noodle around her fork and chewed even more slowly.
“You can eat in my room.”
Neil immediately gave her a sharp look which Alisha chose to ignore.
“I’m watching the movie.” Meena turned away. “Fine. You can go to your room with your boyfriend. I won’t disturb you anymore.”
Alisha wanted to argue that Neil was just a friend but knew her sister was being deliberately annoying. She went upstairs, followed by Neil who seemed eager to be alone with her.
“Sisters, huh?” Neil said, gently closing the door behind him.
She looked at the door shutting and knew it wasn’t locked because of the stuck latch. “You’re lucky you don’t have siblings.” She picked up her textbook and laid it open on her desk.
“You have another on the way.” He sat on the desk, leaning over the textbook.
“Yay, me.” She flipped through the pages and slammed the textbook on the table. “I give up. These experiments are either too tough or way too simple. I really want to get a good grade for once.” She put her hands on her face. “I hate Physics!”
“Hey,” Neil jumped down and took her in his arms. His hands stroked her back gently. “We will find something. I promise. Together we will find a solution to all our problems.” His hands shifted and caressed the curve of her waist and down her thigh. When his hand came up and started toward her rear, she pushed him away roughly.
Neil fell down, hitting his arm on the chair. “What the hell?”
Alisha stepped back, unable to conceive what had caused her to act this way. “I didn’t mean to.”
He got to his feet, rubbing his arm, then pulling up his sleeve to reveal a deep cut on his wrist.
Alisha stared at the blood and felt her stomach churn. “I am so sorry.”
He looked around and grabbed a few tissues from her desk, pressing them on the cut. She finally pulled herself together and rushed to the bathroom. She looked into the mirror, saw how pale her face had turned, and remembered how her father had told her that this was actually a bathroom cabinet.
She opened it and found a few bandages and ointment. In the corner, she found a large box of bandages that was half-empty and grabbed it. She took a breath to calm her nerves and closed the cabinet. Her feet moved to the door and suddenly stopped. Peering into the mirror, she saw the bathroom tiles reflected back. On one of them, was a ceramic towel hook.
Alisha turned and took a slow step toward the cream coloured tiles. She should have seen it before, she realized. Her hand reached out to touch the long crack that spanned diagonally on two tiles. Her finger grazed on another small one jutting out from the large one. She turned to see the ceramic towel hook that was chipped.
Her mouth went dry as an odd feeling came over her. Following another crack that stemmed from the towel hook, she peered into the bathtub and saw light yellow streaks on the white surface. Her breath left her mouth.
Her mind told her it was only dirt and the cleaners had used cheap cleaning liquids to clean the house. Still, she wondered about the cracks and how they formed a line to the where the yellow streaks on the tub were.
“What are you doing in there?” Neil called out.
The box fell on the floor, spilling the bandages. “I’m coming,” she answered and gathered up all the bandages. On the box, she saw it was supposed to contain a hundred bandages. A rough count showed her there were less than thirty.
Whoever used to live here got hurt a lot, she thought. She took a deep breath, stuffed the bandages into the box and walked out.