Lena sat at a plastic table in the nearby hawker centre where her grandmother had taken her upon arriving in Singapore for the first time. She looked around and understood at once she was dreaming. First, the usually bustling hawker was empty of patrons, and only one stall was trading. Second, only Lena’s favourite Bak Kut Teh stall was open. The old Chinese lady who ran it, however, was nowhere to be seen.
She frowned as she scanned the rest of the stalls. A sense of unease at the lack of activity bristled against her senses. The hawker was one place in Singapore where people from all walks of life congregated no matter the time. It was disturbing to be the only person occupying one of the fastened orange plastic chairs. Lena braced to stand and leave, not wanting to be a part of this dream any longer. Especially if it was a premonition. If the hawker stall she frequented as a child was about to close, a piece of Lena’s childhood would be lost forever.
Lena was prone to dreams like that. An event likely to occur played out in her dream, and Lena would realise that it was about to happen upon waking. Some might think it was a blessing, but Lena understood it was a feature of her family curse. Ever since her year four teacher had left on maternity leave, Lena understood she would never see her teacher again and found the joyous celebrations around her departure jarring and unnatural. One tried to cheer Lena up by pointing out that she would be back next year.
Except her teacher hadn’t come back.
Lena looked down to brace a hand on the table’s smooth surface to slide out from the chair and stopped. A hot bowl of Bak Kut Teh, served in a traditional clay pot with a lettuce leaf poking out the side in the Malaysian fashion, waited for her. Her mouth watered, and Lena sat back down, unable to deny the pork broth soup’s draw and the memories of comfort it carried in the light fragrance.
Not caring this was a dream, Lena picked up the chopsticks and ceramic spoon laid out neatly next to the bowl.
“Lena, I have an important message for you.” The sound of a man’s voice ripped Lena’s attention away from the soup with a start. She stared at the newcomer sitting opposite her at the round table. Although she had never met him before, Lena recognised him at once. Her brain had absorbed many bits and pieces of information over the years living with her grandmother; this man was not a stranger.
Lena half stood with her body pinned between the table and the fixed seat, doing her best to bow to the man in front of her.
“Your grandmother taught you well,” the man complimented. Lena sat back down, doing her best to keep her gaze from the Bak Kut Teh and on the man’s face. She eyed him warily. The duke demanded her respect, but Lena worried over the reasons for the duke of Zhou’s presence in her dream.
“She does her best, but I am not an obedient pupil,” Lena felt forced to admit, even though the duke would well know her shortcomings.
“There is not much time for you to learn, but you must.” The duke of Zhou’s stare pinned Lena to her chair for a moment, his face becoming granite like he was about to command his forward troops into battle, and the outcome would be their deaths.
“I am almost finished with my University studies,” Lena told him, her voice weak as she tried to swallow. What she really needed was a glass of water to remove the lump in her throat. She coughed, hoping that might help. She shook her head. This was her dream. Lena had control over what happened here.
“You understand that your attempts at normalising into a modern life are not what I mean.” The duke stared at her under bushy brows, his moustache twitching as his frown increased.
“That is the path I have chosen.” Lena stood up to the deity with little grace.
“I am here to tell you it is not your fate.” The duke of Zhou gave her little opportunity to respond. “And as you are already well aware of your fate. You are wasting my time by coming here to remind you,” his tone deepened. Lena’s hindbrain screamed in warning of the danger, and it took all her effort not to jump up from the table and run. This was her
dream, dammit. She understood the ground rules of a meeting with the duke. You received your message and were grateful for his coming. To her knowledge, no one had ever thrown the message back in the great duke of dream’s face.
Not until now, however.
“The choices we make in this life govern us for eternity. Therefore, my destiny is my own.” Lena hid her hands under the table and clenched them together, her nails biting into her flesh as she did her best to remain calm. The hard expression on the duke’s face did not change as he stood up from the plastic seat, his robes rustling around his large frame, the long open sleeves hiding his clasped hands in front of his belly.
“You are not of this world or heaven. The judgement of your past lives has no comparison to that of your peers, Lena. destiny awaits you whether you have prepared. Beware of the dangers in ignorance. Only knowledge can give you safe guidance.” Lena watched as the duke faded into nothing in front of her, his last words ringing out in the empty hawker centre.
She looked down in front of her to see the clay pot of Bak Kut Teh had disappeared. Lena’s stomach growled, and she wondered if the duke would hear her cursing him. This was all a dream, and Lena would act accordingly, as she did with all requests and warnings when using her family curse as a gift. She would ignore it.
Lena woke with a start, staring blankly around the room until her gaze focused on the light shining between the shutters of the French- style windows of her room. Blinking a few times to awake fully, Lena sat up abruptly and leaned over to grab her phone from the bedside table. She tried the home button, but the smartphone was dead.
“Damn it, Lăolao! Every time!” she shouted at the closed door to her room, knowing her grandmother was probably three stories down by now in the traditional Chinese medicine shop she owned and operated. Lena swung her legs out of bed, doing her best to untangle them from the light blankets wrapped around her feet as she stood up. Lena crossed the room, plugged her phone into a cord beside her worn laptop on her messy desk, and strode from the room.
“I don’t know how you do it, but when I catch you!” Lena yelled down the central staircase at her grandmother, knowing it was a useless
threat. She would never hurt her grandmother on purpose, and as far as Lena knew, the only thing that bothered the old woman was Lena attending university. Since she already did that, there was little else Lena could say or do in retaliation.
Lena brushed her teeth in the small but clean bathroom before returning to her room to change quickly. How her grandmother sucked all the battery from her phone was a mystery. She would find out all her secrets one day. With a twist, Lena pulled her hair into a ponytail and then stuffed her laptop, books, and partially charged phone into her bag and hurried from the room. She descended the stairs and rushed into the kitchen. Lena was wrong about her grandmother. The old woman was waiting in the small kitchen, sitting at the table neatly laid for two.
“What time is this? You need to get downstairs and help me open the shop! Sometimes I don’t know where your head is at!” Mary Lăolao scolded as Lena opened a top cupboard and pulled out a box of sugary cereal. “You are so lazy sometimes.” Lena made sure her grandmother was staring at her before she purposely rolled her eyes. “You need to drop these university courses! They are taking up too much of your time,” she grumbled. Lena closed her eyes and breathed a few times deeply before jamming her hand into the cereal box and lifting a handful of cereal to her mouth. She opened them again to see her grandmother’s face twist in disapproval.
“I know you did something to my phone, Lăolao,” Lena accused and watched as her Lăolao’s face transformed into a mask of innocence. Her finely honed grandma senses from living most of her life under the same roof went crazy.
“How could I do something to your phone?” Mary Lăolao banged her cane against the tiled floor a few times for emphasis. “I can barely get between the bottom floor and this one,” her mouth turned down, and Lena realised she was in for a show. Lena grabbed another handful of cereal. “Look, I’m a cripple. Why do you eat that? Come, I have congee. It’s better for your guts. What goes in needs to come out, right? How does that stuff come out?”
Lena only smiled as she chewed on the multi coloured pellets. “One day, I am going to figure out how you drain all the battery from my phone, Lăolao.” She finished her unsatisfying breakfast and folded the
lid back in place before returning it to the cupboard. No need for any geckos to get the wrong idea. Or worse, ants.
“I’m a Wūpó. Remember, mayhap I put a curse on your phone.” Lăolao waved the fingers of her free hand at Lena and grinned.
“You might have scared the neighbourhood with your stories of being a witch Lăolao, but I know better.” Lena leaned down to grab her bag and throw it over her shoulder. She glanced at the clock and swore in her head.
“You don’t need to go to university when you have the gift, Lena! You can genuinely help people with what you have at your fingertips! Not studying some silly books on economics.” A buzzer cut off Lena’s reply, and relief flooded her system. She couldn’t be late for her business class again. Professor Sayid already had it out for her. But she couldn’t leave Lăolao to run the shop on her own. She did the main consulting, but she needed help with the day-to-day administration, putting medicines together. Things she wanted Lena to do, but as she had told dream duke of Zhou. She had her own path! She shouted in her head and hoped the duke was listening. Lena was far braver now than she was in the land of the unconscious.
The buzzer rang again. “I’m coming!” Lena shouted, slightly out of breath as she grabbed onto the banister to stop herself from sliding down the stairs. She found her footing on the last step and sprinted towards the front of the traditional shop house she shared with her grandmother. Without a second glance, Lena skipped past the sky well in the middle of the room behind the storefront, an oasis filled with koi and lily ponds.
Lena rushed around the gleaming counter and into a room filled with shelves stacked with jars full of medicine, dried goods, and boxes. She came to a halt just before she bounced off the wooden front door. The buzzer rang again.
“Yes, yes. I’m here!” Lena unfastened the series of locks and wrenched the door open to find a neatly dressed man waiting impatiently about to press the door buzzer again. He adjusted his glasses while he stared at Lena. He looked to be not much older than her but sensed his disapproval at her appearance.
“Good morning, the placement board at the college sent me over to help Madame Mary Tan this morning,” his tone was formal, almost bored. He gazed over Lena’s shoulder into the still darkened traditional Chinese medicine shop.