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So Josh did so. Then with a sigh, he slipped it into a pouch in his backpack to keep it safe. He is alone, or imayes he thinks. Sarah stood quietly, watching the two hik men. Since Po-po spoke little English, Josh had to make time to accompany Ma to the polyclinic where prices were much Ibk, an inverse correlation to the scheduling and waiting Bare images by kelvin bik for any appointment. Josh looked puzzled. Eve grinned too. Josh could taste blood on his Brass figurine lip. The bird stopped. How did the man know what Josh was thinking? Josh felt like plugging his ears to keep her voice out. The Koel is unusual in that aspect. But it fitted her snugly. Joshua ran into the storm, laughing with his arms raised. It did!

He is alone, or so he thinks.

  • He is alone, or so he thinks.
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  • He is alone, or so he thinks.
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He is alone, or so he thinks. Many things are planned for him: by enemies he does not know and by friends he cannot recognise. How then is he to find a way home without knowing who he is or where he must go?

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. All rights reserved worldwide. Psalm He woke with a start. Dazed, even confused, he wondered where he was, even who he was. His father used to tease him about the mind fog every time Josh woke up.

Even the pain of the facial scourge did little to awaken Josh; like his father said, it was as if Josh had somehow drifted away whenever he slept, and nothing, save perhaps time, restored his soul. You just sleep and you just wake up like a normal person! That he wanted to be normal? He just smiled like everything was a joke.

Nothing mattered really to David. Then again, David would never have a chance now to change, would he? He was on a bus. But why the silence? Then again, why the deadness in the air? Where was the growl of the engine, the hollow venting of air from the air-conditioner?

Josh struck his head again. Something was wrong, something stranger than usual. He scrambled to pack everything into his backpack, his philosophy book, for instance. Below, the lights were somewhat dimmer.

The doors were open. No one. No sound. No motion. He stumbled. A sharp pain contorted his ankle and twisted his face. For a moment, he appeared like the mad spirit in Edvard Munch's The Scream. He thrust his hands forth to break his fall. His backpack swung off his right shoulder. It flew out of his control. The ground was gritty.

Josh could taste blood on his lower lip. He adjusted his glasses, which were crooked. He felt the roughness of the ground with palms that stung. Did I? Beyond that was darkness. Josh could make out the shadowed outlines of the bus. The lights within had gone out. He was neither at the bus interchange, nor at a bus stop. In fact, the road looked unfamiliar, a thought that disquieted him. He had always been quite certain of where he was; the bus route home passed through some quiet streets but the landmarks were always… Josh shook his head.

He ought to recall, but nothing was there. He reached for his bag, nearly invisible since it was black but still as solid and comforting as ever. Josh grabbed hold of it like a life preserver and picked himself up. Trying to stay balanced, he dug out his old-style smartphone from his pocket. The screen glowed to life. Josh might have been concerned. He had left school at least an hour ago. By normal standards, his bus would be close to his neighbourhood by now, not that strange place.

Clasping the resurrecting phone, Josh glanced around, wiping his bloodied lip with the back of his other hand. There was no answer. No crickets, no traffic, no wind. His voice sounded hoarse and jarring to himself as it penetrated the wilderness. Some faint memory stirred within, a story his Pa once told him as a child about how someone took a bus at night, fell asleep and woke up suddenly to find no one, not even the driver.

Then suddenly, the bus jerked. Wah, like a zombie! Ma had disapproved, he recalled. With a grin, Josh limped to the back of the bus, but nope, he was alone. Then again, he might have freaked out to find humans labouring in the dark. His hand glowed pink and alien-like. The phone he held was stirring back to life.

He seated himself in a pool of lamppost light, and if anyone were around to see him then, he might have thought that Josh looked like a lost child. He had read with increasing perplexity about local fights in recent years, all seemingly triggered by teens accusing strangers of staring at them.

Words led to arguments, and then to blows, sometimes fatal, always ugly. Was that necessary, he had wondered? What were they so angry about? To be safe, he had chosen to rein in his behaviour, but even then, he found himself often staring at people and objects around him, the play of dappled sunlight on tree leaves for example, or the way that the wind would swirl and dance with yellow leaves in some obscure design that Josh sensed but could not fully explain, much as he wanted to.

Josh made sure, however, that he kept that thought to himself. Ma would get upset if he mentioned God. It made no sense to Josh that the bus driver and the other passengers would abandon the vehicle. Why would they have abandoned him? Then why was Josh alone? Where did everyone go? Or zombies. He looked up and then around him, staring past the light into the darkness.

If his phone were still working properly, he could By Kelvin Bik. He looked up into the night sky. A few stars shone weakly, overcome by the artificial street lamps. None of those constellations seemed visible though, much less provide any direction, not that he would know how to use them even if he could find them.

If only things stayed constant, he thought, or at least remained visible, then he might have a chance of finding his way. The air smelt faintly of haze, as it had for the past few days. It was also slightly cold. The sound seemed louder than usual, tearing through the night. He had passed it to his course-mate earlier when they were in the freezing editing suite.

They were crazy, said the studio technician who mumbled about how students should just go for a proper vacation instead of coming back and working late in the first week of the semester break. Then again, the man had been kind enough to stay late to lock up the studio, though he dismissed it, saying that he had to maintain some of the much abused devices.

Then again — yes, Josh was trying hard to kick his habit of using the expression — perhaps it was only Sarah and Josh who were fanatic about starting early for their final year in the polytechnic. Trusted seniors, long graduated, had warned them to begin the race even during the holidays. But it fitted her snugly. Recalling her thankful smile, Josh felt a slight flush that warmed his cheekbones.

He pushed aside the feeling. Catching himself, he smiled. What was he thinking of? He was the one who was lost in that bizarre, God-forsaken place.

Then she dashed forward, grabbed the fruit with her free hand, and backed off out of his reach. Josh felt his cheeks blush. It was a comfortable weight in his hands. If it were real, she could hear it herself when she got closer. Joshua thought privately that he himself was skinny; Joel on the other hand was normal, better than normal actually. Surely that was real.

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Psalm The man who was not David smiled. It would have been an attractive face, but Josh could only see how cold and reptilian the eyes were. He stood at the very edge of the roof, stretching wide his arms. All that pain, all the disabilities to come. Poor, poor boy. The man was lying. He must be. Josh started. How did the man know what Josh was thinking? I can read you like a book. Now, tell me, do you really want to go back?

I know how you love to think about things, to read, to learn, to know. How will you learn with a brain that is eternally damaged, my son? Will you be able to see clearly again? Or what about your ears? What good are you to anyone with one busted ear? Josh felt his heartbeat accelerate. What was the man talking about? But before he could think things through, images flashed in his mind: the road at night, dim with orange street lamps. Josh, eyes heavy, was on the verge of dozing off on the upper deck of his bus.

Then came that sound. A ripping, a sudden crack, and suddenly, the glass window shattered. Josh felt his eyes well up with tears. He blinked them away furiously. He would never cry again in front of that creature. Your Po-po? How much will they have to pay?

Already, they are struggling with your poly fees. Do you really think they can cope with your medical bills? Do you really think she could love someone as crippled as you are? He clasped his hands as if in prayer. Silly, silly boy. Praying so hard. What will happen when you wake up and he finds out that you are broken, body, mind and soul? What will happen to his little… faith? Josh stood his ground.

True, like the others, she tended to leave things to the last minute before rushing for the dreaded deadlines with double-capital-Ds. That was what the lecturers were, with their death cries of industry standards, multiple projects and real-world deadlines. Josh had found himself inspired to compete with Sarah, good-naturedly of course, to see who could produce the best work without collapsing. Sarah had stood up then, Josh recalled.

She was furious, her face flushed and brows raised. Josh braced himself for a shouting match. When he finally found her, she was seated at a stone table under a massive flowering tree in a quiet campus on campus. Her hands were clasped as in prayer, not quite hiding her face which was stained with tears. Then she smiled wanly and brushed her cheeks dry with her fingers. At a loss, Josh puffed up his cheeks and pressed his lips against each other tightly, pretending to be a cherubic angel or some overgrown — correction: undergrown — cheeky kid.

Sarah smiled wider. Josh gathered up his courage and sat next to her. Yet throughout the wake, she had sat upright near the casket, refusing to be comforted by anyone and presenting herself to be the perfect hostess, the dignified widow, to anyone who came to pay respects.

But Josh knew the truth. When, and only when, no one was about did he watch her wipe away streams of tears from her porcelain face. They slid under her bed, and were there to that day. The shoebox though had been abandoned downstairs, next to the trash container. Yet without her knowledge, Josh had saved the box and kept the contents hidden — with much difficulty — in his room. Then he sighed.

I was nearly 10 when he died. He was It was the wind, he thought, as a warm breeze wrapped itself around the young man like a shroud for the dead. Then in surprise, he felt tears run down his cheeks. Hours earlier, he had stripped off his tee shirt, looking around habitually, senselessly, to make sure no one was around to see his browned skin and bones.

Wringing his shirt, he had tied it like a bandage to compress his now splendidly bruised and magnificently swollen ankle. At least, Josh comforted himself, the swelling suggested that it was a normal sprain, not the dreaded high ankle sprain that would take ages to heal. Panting heavily, he swiped his grimy hands across his forehead and temples.

The salty sweat stung his hands a little, but cleansed them somewhat. Again, he thought of using the collapsible umbrella in his bag, but then shook his head resolutely. What then is left for them to judge? Who is even around to judge? In a generation that was used to worse words — what worse words, Josh wondered.

Bad is just bad! And yes, Josh knew all the vulgar hand and finger gestures. He just refused to use them. He had flushed but managed to hide his blush from her. Was it his mother who trained him not to swear, or at least not with vulgarities? Evelyn was not above cursing herself, but she always seemed adamant that no son of hers would taint his mouth with obscenities. Surely she would be panicking by now. The lack of clouds and the intense blueness of the sky ought to make it easier to judge, but they distracted Josh instead.

And Po-po, thought Josh, what about her? Did she realise he was missing? Would she miss work because of that? Josh scratched behind his ear in irritation. Maybe they would have called the cops by now. Would they even accept a report less than 48 hours after a person went missing, a point that American crime procedurals always emphasised to heighten the dramatic tension? Or maybe the cops made an exception for kids. Then again, Josh was not a kid. He was a man. Okay, a nearly grown man. Josh pushed the thought away.

Again, his nose felt queer. Perhaps he was getting sick too. There was a foul taste at the back of his throat, as if a flu-related nasal drip was developing. Drip, drip, drip, all that phlegm. Cough, cough, coughing. Like Pa. Josh shook his head. His stomach growled. When was his last meal? He had bought one for himself and one for Sarah.

They had eaten those outside the studios, automatically following the rule that no food and drink should be partaken inside. He tried to reject the money Sarah had returned him for the sandwich, but she insisted. Perhaps she had noticed how Josh always picked the cheapest food in the canteens, and whenever possible, packed his own food from home.

And yes, everyone made fun of his bottle as well. Josh had resisted the impulse to retort or to run. Instead, he stood his ground, gave an overly bright smile with lips pressed close, and blinked repeatedly like a crazed android at his so-called friend.

Josh won. The friend mumbled an apology and started joking about other matters instead. Taking a sip and then two to quench his thirst and hopefully, stall his hunger, Josh swirled the liquid within his translucent bottle, watching as a mini-whirlpool formed.

He had painkillers with him in his bag, but even then, sometimes the pain grew so bad that he would start vomiting. He had to think. Josh gathered his thoughts slowly. He had seen no one since he woke on the bus. He had been walking for hours — well, perhaps hours — on a desolate road that he was increasingly sure that he had never seen before in his life. He had heard nothing, neither crickets in the night nor annoying cicadas in the day. Indeed, he had not seen a single living thing since he woke up.

That is, except he himself: Joshua Chan En Zhe. The ache in his head began to bloom into a pain that Josh recognised as his dreaded enemy. Think, he pushed himself. He had no phone network, not even for emergency calls before his phone died. Yet the lampposts were lit. That meant that the power grid functioned, but then how could the phone companies fail all at once?

Then again, he rationalised, it could be that he had somehow damaged his phone when he fell. Po-po had secretly bought it for him when he entered the polytechnic two years ago, a gift she said for her favourite, super-intelligent grandson. Josh smiled. Ma had frowned and tried to get Josh to return it, but Po-po insisted. Even the screen has cracks! Then again, it was Ma who insisted on buying his notebook computer. It was a good thing he left the computer at home yesterday. Josh cradled his phone in his tiny hands, like a child cooing another child to sleep.

Then with a sigh, he slipped it into a pouch in his backpack to keep it safe. Joshua rolled the unfamiliar name in his mouth, as if savouring a rare treat. Descartes was one of the philosophers covered in the novel Josh kept in his backpack. Barney — Mr Wong — had lent it to him, with a caveat. Asking questions will sharpen your mind. The whimsical book had devoured Josh, for in it, he found to his surprise, were questions that he always pondered but seldom voiced.

Questions like who he was and who humans were. Like what the world was for. Like what meaning life held. Yet even then, Josh had argued with his imaginary idol, should these questions not be asked? Surely, Josh believed, some questions must be asked, even if those answers might not come in time or could remain eternally unresolved.

Surely people of any age, gender and faith should seek the truth, even if some believed that the truth was and is never within reach, that it is always subjective, that it is a mere delusion that evolves with each questioning. What Truth? French philosopher.

Father of modern philosophy. What questions did that poisonous gadfly of a philosopher have for himself? Why, he had merely questioned the reality of reality itself. What evidence, Descartes had asked, did he have to prove that the world was real, not merely a realistic dream? That reverie had lasted till school deadlines came and again choked him, like thorns strangling a weed that strained for the sun. Then came Ma and her curious lapses in memory. Her boss at the tuition centre had not looked kindly on her when she seemingly slipped up on the simplest tasks.

Since Po-po spoke little English, Josh had to make time to accompany Ma to the polyclinic where prices were much lower, an inverse correlation to the scheduling and waiting times for any appointment. Sometimes, just sometimes, Josh felt like grabbing hold of Ma and shaking her violently until she woke from her stupor, from that sudden ghost of an existence.

Even her violent mood swings in the past and her regal reprimands would be better than that suspicious silence. But Ma had merely spent hours staring at walls at home and in the clinic, especially after her boss had let her go. Or she would sleep the day away and wander about the three-room flat at night.

The generic anti-depressants the docs fed her seemed to make her worse instead. Looking around at the alien, dying land, Josh again felt that frustration. What good was it that he thought, and therefore, existed? What good was it if he remained caught in that place? A nightmare? He reached forth and touched the gritty greyish bark of a nearby tree. Surely that was real. If then it were a hyper-realistic dream, surely he would wake from it soon. Or did someone from school — Joel, or Sarah, even?

He imagined with a sudden grin the young lady pulling out some sci-fi jugular vein injection device and creeping up behind him in the editing room — did someone drug him and send him into a virtual reality simulation?

Or worse still, what if like poor philosophy pupil Sophie, he found himself to be a character trapped in a book by some tormented author belabouring to prove a point? Josh looked up at the impossibly blue skies and waited. Would he perhaps see a studio light fall like a burning meteoroid from heaven? A boom mic even? Would there be lightning and storms sent by God, or as in the book of Exodus, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night? Josh laughed, a dry chortle that broke off into a violent cough.

He could taste blood for some reason. All over his body, on his chest, arms, legs and face, were scratches and bruises as though he had somehow gotten mangled in an accident.

Surely though he would remember if he had been in an accident. He had been… Yes, yes, the bus, and the fall. The heat from the afternoon sun had drenched him in perspiration, but Josh was no longer certain if that was the sole reason for all the sweat. Surely, surely, there must be some answer, thought Josh even as he keeled over and started vomiting a mixture of bile and saliva.

If only I could see you again. Then it came: a bird song, eerie yet familiar from some distance yet unseen. The bird song came again. It was also the song that drove Ma mad on recent mornings. Privately, Josh was glad to see some signs of the woman she used to be, so he found himself praying secretly that the bird would nest nearby and sing daily. Po-po was placid about it. Again, Josh circled the tree, avoiding its heavy roots, yet being careful not to draw attention to himself and drive away the bird.

It was, after all, the first sign of life that he had seen in that dying land. He had dozed off after puking earlier. When he rose, dazed as usual, he had sacrificed a little of the water he had to wash himself. His nose seemed clogged up, and even his hearing was a little muffled. Josh had been startled.

Then gathering up his belongings, he had limped towards the source of the music. A Koel, he thought. Koel, Koel, Joel, Joel. Joel Leong had introduced him to the bird. Joel loved proclaiming such strange expressions, which was one of the reasons Joshua enjoyed his company. Joshua had pretended to puke at that comment.

The trio had heard the bird on campus that morning, which caught them by surprise. Joshua, always a sucker for quirky bits of general knowledge, had interjected. The Koel is unusual in that aspect. Unlike the brown, mottled female, the male Koel, he recalled, had glossy blue-black feathers, with grey legs and feet and a pale beak that was bizarrely grey-green.

It was the red irises. Red like blood, the eyes sent a shudder through Josh when he looked at those photos. Those eyes made the bird appear like some creature from a nightmare land, a foul messenger that had fled the flames of hell.

The bird song ceased abruptly. Josh held his breath. The bird took flight. Yet the bird was faster than he was and soon escaped from sight. Josh reluctantly gave up, panting furiously. His head still hurt, though the pain seemed less now. Even his ankle felt better, but the rest of his body felt sore. He coughed, again tasting some kind of blood and then a piece of grit. With his fingers, he removed the grit and examined it in the dim light. It looked like a fragment of tooth. Startled, Josh used his tongue to feel the edges of his teeth, and then switched to using his index finger.

His right front tooth was chipped. Josh cursed silently. Did that mean he had to waste money on the dentist too? Then he snorted in laughter. When he got out of that hell, if he got out, then perhaps he could worry about the bill. Somewhere ahead, the Koel sang again. He made his way forward cautiously.

Vaguely, in passing, he wondered if it were evening or morning. When he finally saw the Koel again, the bird was seated on the top branch of a strangely shaped tree, a species that Josh had never seen before. The grey-green trunk, if it could be called a trunk, and its massive roots were contorted, as if someone had grabbed the tree by its crown and twisted it. All the way on top, the bird sang incessantly, as if he was the proud owner of the ugly tree.

Josh nearly slipped on something as he circled the tree. It was some kind of fruit, its light purple exterior cracked with red pulp spilling on the ground. Josh stared at it for a moment, not knowing what to do. His stomach growled again. He looked up at the bird, as if for guidance, and saw it hop to a lower branch and peck at a cluster of fruits. Yet he also remembered vaguely that animals sometimes fed on food that would make humans sick.

Josh decided to be cautious despite his hunger. He took some of the pulp on the ground and rubbed it on his forearm.

When some time passed and Josh could see no skin irritation, he placed a small dab of the pulp on the tip of his tongue. His stomach protested, but Josh waited. The sky grew brighter. He tested a small piece now. Josh kept an eye on the bird, but it showed no interest at the human invader. Finally, Joshua started picking the fruits and eating properly.

At least, he thought he did. Too many temptations. I know myself! To prove the point, Joel had stretched himself out on the electric-blue bed sheet. His head was barely an inch from the metallic edge while his enormous feet scraped the other end. He bounced up and sat cross-legged on the bed. Looking over, he spotted Joshua looking at a wooden plaque above a cork board. While Josh preferred to reserve his thoughts and emotions to himself, he felt drawn to the radiant teen, though he must admit that Joel sometimes scared him with such authenticity.

Joel raised a bushy eyebrow. That was lame, he thought. Joel seemed to know though. He worked out, Joshua knew, or at least, Joel tried to since the dumbbells near the guitar appeared scratched from much use. Joshua pretended to cough, a little louder than normal to show that he got the joke.

Joel slapped the spot next to him. If Joel noticed, he said nothing. He was lean, with perhaps some abdominal muscles developing. Joshua thought privately that he himself was skinny; Joel on the other hand was normal, better than normal actually.

Standing next to Joel, sometimes Joshua wondered how anyone would even spot tiny old Josh. Not that he was. Certainly not. Joel smiled rather wanly and went on. I remember reading the gospels, and commanding the illness again and again to just leave me. Yup, I know, I know, all those miracles. I can lend you books on why miracles are not illogical or unscientific, if you want… But I digress.

I prayed and prayed. God in control? In fact, he was even feeling a little happy that Joel would share a personal struggle with him. Then he bit his lower lip. He should feel sorry for Joel. Joshua wondered if Joel was trying to convince himself again. I like my legs. Joel had bought the umbrella for him when Joel and his family went to Hangzhou in China for vacation.

Joshua ran his thumb over the brand inscription at its base. Joshua smiled crookedly, a subconscious imitation of Joel. He had protested at the gift. Superstition, no? Very few people gave gifts to Josh. Maybe that was what Joel was hinting at. Open up, man, open up! Secretly, Josh wondered if he could. It was easier to keep to himself. Ma was very firm on that. We are a family. At first, Josh and Ma stayed in one room, while Po-po stayed in the other. Yet when Josh hit puberty, Po-po insisted that Ma moved into her room.

Not even Pa could influence her like that, though he was much older than she was. It was silly, he thought. That my father will be in heaven?

That heaven exists? Though the unbecoming tree sheltered him and its roots nearly embraced his tiny figure, the grass just beyond the shade was dead. It was hopeless, thought Josh. The place was dying. No rain would ever come.

Josh snorted, but caught himself. Joel had been sincere. He caught himself. Darn it, he thought. Why was he crying so much these days? What was wrong with him? It was a comfortable weight in his hands. Josh counted the fruits on the tree. Again and again, he looked at the asphalt road. It beckoned him to continue, but to what end? Josh asked himself. Did it matter what he did in that land? If he were only dreaming, then surely he could just hang himself on the tree and wake up to reality.

The thought coiled around him like a rope, and Josh found himself looking around absently for some vine. Josh pinched himself fiercely. Not even in that world, and definitely not in reality. Even his ankle was so much better, so Josh had unwound his grubby tee shirt and tied it to the handle of his backpack. Resting under the tree, picking fruits, eating, sleeping, and getting up again.

Over and over. Like a senseless mule. His crotch, he was sorry to say, itched, though in truth, he was itching all over. With his eczema and a body swollen from taking oral steroid medication, he must have suffered greatly in the recent dry spell. If only Josh had fresh water. If only he had any water. Just not enough for a shower. Or even a proper face wash. Joel probably never thought about such stuff, being the man he was. Then Joshua caught himself.

Was it really necessary to compare himself to Joel? After a moment, Joshua laughed. Ah, well, no wonder the older generation thought teens these days were vain, he grinned. The road might lead home. Then again, maybe he had been walking in the wrong direction. Maybe he should have walked toward the… what was it? The… yes, the bus. Back towards the… Josh rubbed his left eyebrow and temple again. But he was so far from it.

How far have I travelled? Taking a sip from his bottle, Josh began gathering what fruits he could from the tree and stuffing them into his bag. The perspiration just kept pouring down his face, his chest, everywhere. Keep on walking, keep on asking. Josh shook his head slowly, for his mind and strength were sapped by the infernal heat.

Keep on asking? Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. Some memory struggled within Josh. It was a quote from somewhere. His eyes drifted to the bright blue umbrella he stubbornly grabbed in his right hand still. Then his face fell. Did God even answer prayers? Josh coughed a little.

Like his Pa. He was dying. Perhaps he was already dead. This hell. Josh stopped and closed his eyes. The boy hid himself and snuck a look. Pa and Ma were talking. Or at least, Ma was snapping at Pa who was wearing his nasal cannula again. Right, he was in a hospital. Josh felt like plugging his ears to keep her voice out. Pa looked at her.

They were silent for a moment. Right, thought Josh absently. She had only taken on a Christian name for work purposes. How could he have forgotten? Ma visibly softened. To see you. That the Straits of Johor might as well be the impassable gap between the living and the dead?

And Joshua. Was that a dream? Already, it was slipping away from him. Curious, he thought, how a dream could squeeze its way into the tiniest gap of micro-sleep. Or this walk, this land? Or that other world? He sank down to the dried carpet grass. Hours earlier, he had been surprised.

The asphalt road had split into two roads: a larger path that led downhill with plenty of trees, and the other, a grotesque one-lane street barren of all life. Josh had struggled with the decision. It seemed that somewhere, somehow, he had read something about that.

Was it Joel who shared it with him? Any fool would pick the wider road. It was a godsend for someone with aching legs and dwindling food and drink. Yet he had felt confused. To choose the path less chosen. Was it a poem? His mind was failing, Josh despaired. What he had feared was coming true. Turning from the narrow path, he had walked along what he believed was the main road, the perfect path. But now, hours later, while the road still led downhill, albeit at a steeper gradient now, the trees seemed deader than ever.

They resembled black and grey skeletal arms thrusting through the earth and pleading for mercy from the heavens. Even their crowns had been savagely chopped off by some unknown hand, such that the further Josh went, the fewer branches and leaves remained, until at last, the trees had only large, stumpy branches left.

The burning air was still. It suffocated him. He heard cackling, and then realised it was himself. Cradling his tiny face in his hands, he screwed his eyes shut. Cast aside, his umbrella fell and careened on the uneven ground, finally stopping as though dead. No human knew. Night had dropped on him, like a smothering swaddle blanket. Still, no wind came. Josh curled himself into a foetal position. Surely, he would die there.

Surely he should have died from birth, his mother said. Ma had said… Josh choked. He wanted to cry but even his tears had abandoned him. The words made no sense. The boy heard a noise. Looking up, he saw Pa crying. Did he do something wrong again? Ma would surely slap him. Pa stretched out his hand. Still, Josh girded his loins as he sat closer to Pa on his hospital bed and allowed Pa to ruffle his hair.

Josh looked puzzled. Ma always said Josh was too noisy. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Be strong and very courageous, my son. That was why I named you Joshua when you had to be born. So that you may be brave. He coughed again. Pa knew. These days, Pa laughed less, joked less, and did everything less. It was crazy, Josh thought. Pa was only a skeleton now. Then Josh caught himself and strangled that guilty thought from existence.

Of course, Pa would always love him. Pa wanted him, right? But he kept his thought to himself. Joshua, slightly confused, shook his hand. He half-expected Joel to squash it, but instead, Joel grinned, gave a hearty shake and let go. Joel was too… sunny. Too cheery. Too happy. Sarah stood quietly, watching the two young men. Joel grinned wider, if that were even possible.

Too hairy, Joshua criticised to himself. Too tall, too skinny, too big… too much of a man. It declares and proclaims what a family hopes to see in a child. Joshua felt uncomfortable again, as if he was missing the point and intruding on some private moment. There was some other emotion, but Josh drove it under, not wanting to overthink that.

Joel looked again to Joshua, smiling. He felt like someone just punched him. Then again, why was he starting to smile like a fool again? Joel beamed. Joshua Chan. A good name. A very good name indeed. It suits you somehow. He smiled, then laughed as if it were all good. Joel laughed too, and then Joshua fancied he heard Sarah laugh as well.

Yes, strong and courageous. That was who he was. That was who he must be. Surely he had done that before, thought Josh. He heard or perhaps felt a flutter, then a scratching sound, as though some tiny feet were scraping the ground.

Sitting up properly — for he had been inexplicably lying on a bed of dying grass — and adjusting his glasses for they were crooked, he saw a bird. Grey feet and legs. Grey-green beak, bordering on white. Not just red, but red like blood. A memory stirred.

His migraine, thought Josh. Oh, hell. Josh closed his eyes, trying to pin down that face, but it was gone. He knew that man, or was it some teen? It jarred him, making his nausea worse. He thought in passing that he was being ridiculous.

Why was he sitting on the ground talking to a dumb creature? He smiled although that made him wince. Pa always said he was silly. The bird tilted its head and looked directly at Josh. He must be imagining things. The bird took a hop, then some steps, and another hop. Closer and closer it ventured to Josh. He always liked watching things. But it was fun, thought Josh. How leaves would come flying off trees in a gale and swirl like magic all around him.

The bird stopped. For a moment, the young man and the bird looked at each other. The bird felt sorry for him. They tasted pretty pleasant, but then again, Josh felt he might be too hungry to know properly.

His bottle had been inside, though there was barely enough water for say, ten sips, as were his painkillers. The synopsis on the back looked interesting though. He would read it if he had the time. He had found a smartphone inside too, though sadly, it had gone flat. Did he have a phone like that one? Surely his phone was an antique with cracks on the screen, but he had searched his pockets and the bag in vain for it.

Ma would be angry, he sighed. One last thing was in the bag. It was an electric-blue umbrella. Warmed by the sun, it had lain near the spot where Josh had woken up. The colour made him smile, or perhaps it was the inscription on its base. Anyway, it looked vaguely familiar. The bird had hopped to it, turning its head as if prompting Joshua to pick it up. Josh did it to please the bird. Certainly, it sang a thrilling snatch of song when he took it up and examined it before stowing it in the bag for safekeeping.

The bird had hopped, walked and flown ahead of him until they reached the crossroads. He followed. Good thing it was evening, he thought. He wouldn't miss the sun, not at all. Already, his body was brown from too much tanning. A cool breeze blew at him.

Curious, he thought, as he untied his tee shirt from the handle of his backpack, and pulled it on. Yet the bird seemed to know every bump in the road. It made what sounded like warning chirps. After stumbling a few times — thankfully, without hurting By Kelvin Bik.

Then he had rested a while, ate some fruits and slept a little. Josh vaguely recalled that he used to have problems sleeping. But the bird had stopped suddenly and hopped near him, as if it wanted to rest too. So Josh did so. He fed the bird with a bit of the fruit although it took just a few pecks before settling down to sleep. Curious how it seemed to sleep so peacefully. His eyelids grew heavy, and he curled up near the bird and followed suit. When Josh woke again, the sun was up but he noticed that the sky was no longer unbearably blue.

Instead, mountains of clouds seemed to have blossomed out of nowhere. The wind was warm and whipped leaves around him. Yes, leaves. They seemed promising. Josh fancied he saw designs in the clouds. There, that looked like a man, a winged man. Another looked like a lion, rather majestic looking. A third reminded Josh of an ox and a fourth was like an eagle soaring towards the sun.

He smiled like a child and walked slowly on. The bird could no longer be seen — Josh felt a pang at not seeing his friend — but he could hear it sing somewhere ahead. It was as if the bird was spurring him to move on by staying tantalisingly out of sight. Another image popped into mind: him puffing up his cheeks to cheer up a quiet, but to be honest, heart-wrenchingly beautiful girl.

Her name seemed to elude him though, and after a while, the image faded as well. Josh felt his cheeks blush. Must be a dream, he thought. Must be a dream. A few drops first, and then a pause. Joshua ran into the storm, laughing with his arms raised. Thank God, thank God, he cried. So that was joy! Thankfully, there was no lightning, just distant rumbles. Joshua was well aware of the folly of hiding under a tree during a thunderstorm, but in the current situation, he was sorely tempted to.

Still, he stood steadfast under the umbrella. It was small, but comforted him. Too much rain, he thought as the gales splattered his tiny body with water. Surely, one storm was enough. But for some reason, perhaps way above his feeble understanding, the storms kept coming. Josh sighed. He had already filled his huge water bottle. In fact, he had drunk his fill and refilled the bottle several times. Then in a fit of madness, he stripped off all his clothes, even his underwear, although he scanned the surroundings before that in case some chance passer-by — HA!

Had he been in an accident? He vaguely recalled a bus, a double-decker bus. Surely, he had only just given thanks for the rain not too long ago.

Too much and we rage.

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