Saturday

Asha stepped out of the shower and patted herself dry. Thick, wavy black hair clung to her neck and shoulders with an irritating coolness that dripped down her skin which she had only just dried. On the countertop was a hairdryer, waiting with its cord unplugged. Soon, the drone of an electric motor traveled down the hall.

Today was the day that Asha’s friend would visit. After years of silent correspondence, she finally gave permission for this dear friend to show up with baked goods and fruits, or whatever it was that people brought when they visited the grown-up versions of the kids down the street.

It was a Saturday, and the wife had returned for the weekend. As Asha dressed and pulled her hair tight in front of the mirror in the hallway, she stopped and glanced at the bedroom.

That door will not open for the rest of the day, she thought.

A gray truck with scrapes and dents on its rear roved sluggishly into town. Not many residents here bothered to drive, and the streets were instead congested with the ball games of children who had come to visit for the holidays. Some of these cityfolk pointed and laughed at the beat up truck, but their guardians still waved with embarrassment and scolded them once the truck turned the corner.

The cold morning turned rosy once the truck entered the town square.

Asha made a beeline for a certain cake stall at the open air market. She and the owner were a bit familiar with each other, and the owner would often send the little house on the hill recipes of unorthodox bundt cakes that they made on a whim and beg Asha to come down and try them. This was very well-received by Asha, whose brain shut down whenever she had to make a decision among more than five choices, much less than the twenty two flavors that the owner always had.

Today, upon seeing Asha, the stall owner exclaimed, “So it’s Asha! It’s good that you’ve come out today; I made something very interesting just now and was hoping you could try it.”

“Bryce.” Asha smiled, “I see that you have recovered from the flu.”

“It’s been two months since that cold – of course I would have recovered by now!” Bryce reached behind the stall and presented a white paper bag. “Ten dollars. It’s a little more than the usual, but you’ll see why in a minute.”

“I’ll find you if I don’t.” Asha laughed and handed over the money. “You’ve been sick, but I can imagine that you still have much you want to say.”

“Heh, that’s true. I have a subscription for Don’s newspaper by the way, have you seen last week’s article?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Don will be out to get you then, that paper’s his retirement plan.” Bryce shook his head with a sigh. “Ah, but something big happened here the other week! You know the Powells, right?”

“Yes?”

“Hm. People say that Mr. Powell ran off with a lover, but Don’s paper said that it was a case of human abduction! Police were interviewed and everything, you know. Now, I never cared much for those Powells, but imagine if he was really abducted at that time and nobody gave a damn. Terrible, terrible! I heard that Mrs. Powell’s still holed up in her house on the phone with the city’s police department ever since.”

Human trafficking? Asha appeared to be stunned and had her mouth hanging slightly open. Such a look further excited Bryce’s penchant for gossip as he continued with a glint in his eye: “On one hand, if someone’s out there to get revenge on Mrs. Powell, I wouldn’t blame them. Just wish they would say why and quit this nonsense. Now, on the other hand, if this was related to human trafficking, I’d have to chase the kids out right away. Those stinky kids, they don’t care how I’m doing so long as they can laze about in my house!”

He clicked his tongue. “Hey, Mr. Powell was all right for his age, but I’ve never been all right, so I shouldn’t be a target, right? Aye, you be on the lookout as well, Asha.”

“Was that a backwards compliment?” Ahsha recovered with a smile. “But, how do the police know that this is a kidnapping? Shouldn’t it be a serial killer?”

“You haven’t been here long, but you should know that we live in a good, plain area. I don’t know if it’s interesting enough for a serial killer to settle here.”

“So they don’t know.”

“I also wouldn’t know! They’re at the scene while I read the papers. That’s right, is there any reason why you decided to come down today?”

“Not really. I just wanted some of your cakes and thought it would be good today. There’s also a friend who’s coming, so it would be easier to meet up here.”

“Ah? Then when are they coming? What are you doing, letting me waste your time? Go on, go and find your friend. Friends are important, don’t just rely on your neighbors.” Bryce made a shooing motion with his hands, sending Asha away with the paper bag in her hands.

Asha smiled to herself and waved goodbye.

More and more people had arrived at the market, and several of them had recognized Asha, greeting her with a sense of novelty. Each person was treated graciously by Ahsha, leaving the other to be a little flattered as she left.

Upon reaching the collection of foldable chairs and tables at the market’s center, Ahsha spotted a man with wireframe glasses and luxurious dark skin. Seeing that he was busy writing something in his notebook, she quickly bought three cups of lemonade before heading over.

“Mark.”

“Ahsha.” Mark’s eyes brightened. “It’s been too long. You’re getting better at responding to messages, but it’s still nice to see you in person now and then. Nashida still thinks that you’re on a business trip, actually.”

“Well, at this point, it’s Nashida’s fault for not realizing it.” Ahsha placed the three cups on the table and nodded at Mark’s quiet thanks.

“Did you have breakfast?”

“Not yet. I’ll eat right now, so don’t start.”

Ahsha unfurled the white paper bag and took out a brown cake that was wrapped with wax paper. The wetness of the cake’s condensation gave Ahsha the impression that the paper was sticky.

Take a bite and hope that Bryce didn’t choose poison this time.

Savory.

“What kind of cake is that?”

Ahsha shrugged and took another bite. Both sides were quiet. The atmosphere around the two seemed too polite to be two friends having a meeting, and more like a boss and her subordinate discussing unspeakable details.

Mark started, “How is it between you and Lottie? Obviously you two made up. You’re still living with her, after all.”

“You’re so obsessed with my wife, it’ll make me jealous, after all.” Ahsha clicked her tongue with a disapproving look. “Lottie is good. She kicked me out of the bedroom last night, though. I had to sleep on the couch.”

“Eh, yeah, I can see that happening.”

“Ah? No way.”

“Because I’m your friend, I won’t spell it out for you directly. I’ll just send you a cryptic message one day and let you figure it out.” Mark laughed. “No, but really, what did you do? You guys are so tight, and I don’t think I’ve even ever seen Lottie curse. You’re a messed up little devil, aren’t you.”

“Hey, hey, where’s this coming from?” Ahsha pretended to wipe tears from her eyes, but forgot about the grease left on her fingers and frowned in disgust seconds later.

“Silly. Use a tissue.” A small tissue packet was handed over. “Don’t joke, tell me what’s up.”

“Nothing’s up. We’re just not as close as we used to be.”

Wasn’t it a miracle that they had a marriage ceremony at all? Love to loved; it is not uncommon for partners to drift apart within days.

“I don’t believe that.”

No one’s asking you to.

“But then, you… are you two working it out? I know that Lottie is hard to get to, but I’ve never seen you happier than when you were together. You gotta make up soon, alright? Don’t be afraid to be the bigger person.”

“Sure. You sound like I’m a menace by myself, but okay.”

“I didn’t say that, but if that’s what you think~”

Asha huffed and sipped her lemonade noisily. Mark brought his cup to his lips and drank with his eyes down. The third cup stood unaccompanied, with condensation sweating down the plastic.

The market was loud.

“You do want to make up with her, right?”

Ahsha didn’t reply.

“…Well, I have time on my hands. I’ll visit you guys again in a month or something, maybe with Jīn next time. I can’t say that I’m unhappy that Jīn finally left the military, but who would have thought that the police academy was next? I mean, I knew, but still.”

“That’s right! You got engaged, didn’t you! Wha- do you have a picture of the ring? Show me!” In an instant, Ahsha was back to her usual self and leapt up with a wide grin.

With a hint of smugness in his eyes, Mark lifted his left hand and showed off a simple band of silvery gold. “We were both planning on surprising each other, and the styles happened to match. Jīn’s got a darker ring, you should see it. Or, you’ll definitely be able to see it next time, why don’t we plan a day out, the four of us? I know that you and Lottie won’t come to the wedding, so is it alright if we intrude for an afternoon and catch up?”

“Uh-huh, yep. Yes, it should be fine, I’ll make sure that Lottie knows…”

“Ahsha.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Don’t make this a surprise visit for Lottie, okay? Go tell her properly, or I’ll call her firm directly instead.”

“Hm.”

Mark shook his head helplessly. “Honestly, sometimes I think that the only thing you two are missing is a good talk.”

“We can talk about this on the phone later. Just tell me how it happened, I know you want to.”

Seeing that Ahsha’s face began to cloud over, Mark jumped topics and chatted about the proposal.

The years in between meeting each other for the first time and today swam and blended together like flying fish in an oil painting. All sorts of expressions they made, the triumphs and falls they faced, that Mark faced, couldn’t be counted. Many times, Ahsha expected Mark to realize that she was plain and unproductive to his own life, but those days never came close enough to predict.

She wondered, was it kindness or foolishness?

Of course, he was there when Lottie met Ahsha, and Ahsha met Lottie. It was ugly and surreal, but Mark was there to assure her that she was normal. What the world offers is never what life reveals. Take this money and go where you feel safe. All paths will leave regrets, so don’t hesitate anymore.

He told her that she did not have to be a good person. Rather, she could not become a good person.

Who you are does not intercede with what people see.

How ironic was it to hear this from Mark, who was exactly as he seemed.

Smiling to herself, Ahsha silently finished her drink. Dear friend, be happy. We are neither young nor old, so be happy.

As expected, Mark had plenty of stories that he had suppressed himself from saying over text for the past few years. Of course, there was also the story of Jīn that Ahsha had missed out on, one that was still growing by the day. It troubled Mark the most that Jīn preferred active jobs with guns and danger abound, nevermind how well Jīn could perform in them. What fiance would be fine with sending off their lover to a world of war and murder? Mark, the mother bird, would never.

The sun drifted from its throne in the sky, and the two got up and slowly made their way around the market. A Dutch baker’s stall had a rare reprise, and Ahsha badgered Mark to buy something. Fresh berries were gathered in bags, vegetables that looked too large to look correct were side-eyed, and a healthy pile of goods ended up in the back of Ahsha’s truck. Mark didn’t buy as much and only helped her load before waving goodbye as the market began to clean up and close.

Packages, fruit peelings, and popcorn were littered around trash cans that overflowed with waste. One stall had wrapped their greens with newspapers and caused a mountain of paper to sit crumpled in some of the cans, which would have surely put a hole in Old Don’s heart.

Ahsha talked about her neighbors and their sensibleness. As usual, her descriptions were strange and skewed in Mark’s ears, but such trivialities never seemed to bother him. After dropping him off at the bus stop due in five minutes, Ahsha idled the truck and waited for Mark to finish his mothering.

“Make sure you don’t let the dishes pile up; hire a housekeeper if work really takes up too much time. You’ve got to get that shower head fixed as well! I’ve been hearing about it since last year. Warm showers are good every now and then – and don’t stare in the mirror every time you come out! At least blow-dry your hair first, you’ll seriously get a cold otherwise!” 

“Oh, I think I left the stove on.” Ahsha place a hand on her cheek.

“…I know that you are messing with me, but you need to replace that ancient thing as well. I’ll roll my sleeves up to do it myself if I have to.” Mark rubbed the spot between his eyebrows. “Whatever, just go. See if I care.”

“Ah, wait.” Ahsha fumbled around her jacket’s pockets before pulling out a tissue packet. “Do you want this back?”

“Keep it. I challenge you to use all of them today. Well, say hi to Lottie for me.” Mark nodded with a shallow smile.

Ahsha waved. She rolled up her window and drove away.

The drive home felt longer than ever before. Though the sun had yet to set, the sky was lit with a reddish glow that was only oppressed by the sun itself. Seeing a dark cloud float up in the distance, Ahsha realized that there was probably a fire somewhere.

A good fire.

The windchimes on the porch welcomed her back with a half-hearted note. The planks of the porch were warped and needed to be replaced soon. Music played in her head, a noiseless tune that disappeared as soon as the door shut close behind her, and she removed her shoes.

The door to the master bedroom is open.

“Ahsha, come here.”

Ahsha looked at the bags of produce and the cup of lemonade in her hands and shrugged, leaving them to stand upright on the floor. When the wife calls, one must answer, yes?

Lottie appeared at the doorway of the master bedroom. Ahsha blinked, then asked tentatively, “Am I in trouble?”

Lottie shook her head, no. Today’s ridiculous lawyer’s outfit was a smart black blazer with slim dress pants. It was a little strange to see her in these formal clothes without shoes, but Ahsha felt amused, nevertheless.

“You didn’t tell me you were going out.”

There was a clear tone of conviction in Lottie’s voice.

Ahsha sighed, “Lovat, I leave you messages everywhere. It’s not my fault that you’ve been hogging the bedroom, is it? Why can’t we share like before?”

“You were being disgusting.” Lottie scrunched her nose. “I told you the rules, you always ‘forget’.”

“…No, you’ve got me there.” Ahsha glanced at Lottie’s expression from the corner of her eye. “Can I go in now?”

Lottie’s mouth formed a firm line, but she still took a step to the side. Ahsha grinned with curved eyes and kissed her cheek. “Heh, you can’t be mad at me.”

While obnoxiously pulling on cloth gloves to show that she knew the rules, Ahsha tightened her ponytail even further and crept inside.

As expected of a master bedroom, there was a long stainless steel table in the center. A mass that did not move, but instead pulsed, was firmly strapped to it. Lottie, being the sensible one, had laid out tarps and blankets across the floor in preparation, upon which a brownish rust dried to crumbs.

“Shoes.” Lottie restrained Ahsha with a hand, turning her around to face the cupboard in the corner. Flustered, Ahsha took out a pair of slippers and slid on a surgical face mask, as Lottie did the same.

“What are you doing this time?”

“The witness said that the victim appeared to be bloodless with minimal lesions that did not match the recovered body. Official report says that there were additional lesions made after the estimated time of death. I tried to recreate the scene, but, well.” Lottie nodded discouragingly at the pile of flesh on the table. Ahsha could see the moment when Lottie got irritated in the long intestinal tract that wormed around several holes in the skin of the once-human’s abdomen. Several rips in both skin and muscle looked to be done by hand.

Only the bones remained white and untouched, like glowing silver amongst rubble.

“Prosecution wants to make a deal with the defendant. Settlement with civil terms. Would you call this civil?”

Ahsha looked dazed and blinked rapidly at Lottie’s unchanging expression. “You’re so pretty.”

“…” Lottie pounded a fist into the flesh mound, releasing a sluggish squelch.

“Not civil, not civil.” Ahsha quickly placated her with a smirk. “But this body is clearly done, you better hand it to me now. I’ll get you another one. In fact, I heard that Mr. Powell was in the news recently, so don’t think that you can do better than me, who has never seen a headline to date.

Lottie said nothing, only looked down in silent acquiescence.

“I was meeting with Mark.” Ahsha spoke as she separated the fatty flesh from the organs that drooped in her hands like bags of silt. Luckily, there was no sign of that black grime that spilled from the innards, which meant that Lottie was still careful enough to not puncture them. “He and Jīn are engaged, so I guess I owe you ten bucks. I don’t understand how you get it right all the time.”

“You don’t understand romance.” Lottie spoke simply. She stood obediently to the side with a cardboard box in her arms, inside was a trash bag open and waiting to be fed.

Ahsha made a noncommittal sound.

“Right, let’s divorce.”

The indifference in Lottie’s face was instantly swept away. Affected by the sudden change in the air, Ahsha stopped her movements and looked up.

“No.”

“I’m making us a juicy timeline. You’ve got to play along – it’s fun, isn’t it?”

“We’re in love. I love you.”

“What does that have to do with marriage?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

In every sense of the statement, Ahsha silently added.

“…I’ll cry?” Lottie frowned and blinked hard in vain.

“You’re dehydrated. I don’t think you can.” Ahsha smirked. “But fine, no divorce. I still want a falling out though!”

“…Stop having friends.” Lottie muttered in a voice that she thought was low enough to avoid Ahsha’s ears.

Since the body was already divided into sizable chunks, the clean-up process was short and simple. Watching Lottie duct tape the boxes for travel, Ahsha’s thoughts drifted back to the flavorful croquettes that Bryce sold to her.

“How easy do you think it’d be to pass this stuff off as pork?”

Lottie paused as she thought.

Then, “I don’t know.”

“Hmph.”

Boxes lined up and down the hall. The last package was sealed and stacked, as Lottie turned and spotted Ahsha, who idly watched the whole ordeal.

Lottie pinned her to the wall by the neck.

“Get your head straight. Follow the rules, now and forever.”

“Write them down then, counselor.” Ahsha mocked, uncaring of the increasing pressure on her throat. “No, hey, don’t move.”

Ahsha’s tone dropped with seriousness. She reached behind her back, still staring straight ahead.

A packet of tissues emerged. One was separated from the bunch as she reached towards Lottie’s face.

“How did that mush get all the way over here? No, really, don’t move. This stuff is already dried. Did you use some sort of chemical?”

“I did not.”

“Oh. Good.” Ahsha grabbed the back of Lottie’s head and softly printed her lips onto hers. “Let’s have dinner.”

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