For the rest of the week, Khit drove me to school and back home, marking my daily habits so closely that I felt like some lab rat. The only times I left my apartment were to attend class. Other than that, I locked myself in my room, with no human contact. I had two midterms—physiology on Wednesday, and endocrinology Thursday afternoon.
Whether or not I’d truly dedicated all that time to studying was hard to say. Truthfully, I’d tried, really tried. But by Wednesday morning, when I realized I’d written fifty pages of my new story and had a midterm in less than an hour, I knew I was in big trouble.
And then by Thursday afternoon, when I emerged from my Endocrinology class, I knew I was a goner. Both tests had been completely out of my league.
I shook my head, frantically trying to dislodge all thoughts of those dratted tests from my mind. There was nothing I could do about it now. I’d just have to do better on the finals.
“Let’s go out tonight,” Khit said, as he drove me home. “I haven’t seen you all week.” He shook his head, as I opened my mouth, knowing what I was about to say. “Sending you to school and back doesn’t count.”
“I’ll see you after work then,” I said.
As I got to the door of my apartment, it opened before I could even fish out my keys. The profile of a familiar-looking pretty boy stood across the threshold. Tyler’s eyes, the color of the summer sea, danced with laughter, as though he were laughing at some inside joke, and his sandy hair was tousled just enough to give the impression that he’d spent the day lazing around a pool, checking out chicks.
I gave him the most irritated glare I could muster.
“Hi there. You must be Caren, Liana’s best friend.” His voice was smooth and lyrical, more hypnotizing than anything I’d ever heard, and not in a long-winded teacher kind of way. Despite my preconceptions about him, I found myself staring dreamily into his eyes. Realizing this, I shook my head, trying to dislodge the attraction.
He smiled arrogantly, as though he knew he was irresistible to every girl he met. “We finally get to meet, although I was just leaving. Tragic loss for you. But I guess I could spare some time to introduce myself. I’m—“
“I know exactly who you are,” I said coldly, stepping inside and brushing past him. His attitude fueled my annoyance, but this time it was directed at myself. Even though he was giving off major jerk vibes, there was something so alluring about his voice. It was honey-coated and inviting like hot cocoa by the fire.
What was wrong with me? I had a fiancé, and Khit was two thousand times more attractive to me. Remembering this, I intensified my glower at Tyler. This time, when I looked at him, he wasn’t as much of a pretty boy as I’d thought. His laidback, surfer dude persona seemed more like some lazy bum that would never lift a finger to help anyone. And those laughing, blue eyes just seemed jaded and dull.
“What are you doing here?”
“Visiting my girlfriend,” he said.
Impossible. I thought Liana said she’d break up with him last weekend. “Where’s Liana?”
“In her room. She said she had homework to do.” He shrugged, wrinkling his nose. “Can’t stand homework. I’m running away before her studiousness passes onto me. Anyway, it was nice meeting you.”
“Can’t say the same of you,” I muttered under my breath before slamming the door shut. Liana had some explaining to do.
She was lounging on her bed, far from doing anything homework-related. Faun was lazily resting on Liana’s stomach, but one of her ears perked up at my entrance and drooped down again. At first, it looked like Liana was napping too, but as I got closer, I saw that her eyes were wide open, staring unblinking at the ceiling.
“You met him?”
I paused at that question, hearing only the confusion in her tone and not the words at first.
“Very briefly, but it was long enough to know his ego is about the size of Jupiter.” I sighed, perching myself on the side of Liana’s bed.
“I think he helped himself to the fridge,” Liana said, glancing at me nervously. I knew she was trying to prevent the oncoming conversation. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“As long as he doesn’t empty the fridge, I couldn’t care less. What I do care about is how he’s manipulating you. I thought you were going to end it.”
“I was…I thought I did like twelve hundred times this week.”
“Well, what’s the problem? Is he in denial?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly. It’s just that every time I try getting the words out, he manages to change the subject and says something so sweet that it catches me off balance. And twice I actually did get the words out, but he managed to convince me to change my mind. It was only after he left that I realized he’d manipulated me.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but Liana cut me off. “I know what you’re going to say. Don’t let the sweet talking cloud my decision. And I still plan on breaking up with him. He flirts with every girl we meet and still constantly asks personal questions about you. It’s just that every time I’m with him, my mind hazes up. Somehow, that voice of his can be so hypnotic. It’s almost as though he puts me in a trance while I’m with him, and then I wake up when he leaves.”
Honestly, I didn’t know how it could be so hard. I admitted that Tyler’s voice was a little spellbinding, but not enough to make a girl lose her head, especially when he was such a jerk. Liana was just making excuses for herself. Deep down, she probably still liked him. What was it with her attraction to bigheaded jerks?
It was time she broke the habit. “It’s over. Two simple words, Liana. That’s all you have to say. And after you say it, just walk away, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to argue.”
She sat up abruptly, making Faun whine in protest. “It’s not that simple. If it was, I’d already have done it. I told you, it’s—”
“It is that simple,” I insisted. “Liana, I can’t stand by and let you make excuses for yourself. You’re setting yourself up for heartbreak by being with this guy.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” By now, her voice had raised several octaves, as she glared at me. “I told you, I’ve tried.”
I was speaking about ten decibels louder too. “Not hard enough. It’s not a good enough excuse to say that his voice weaves some sort of magic spell on you. It sounds so cliché.”
Liana threw herself off her bed and headed for the door. “I don’t need this right now. I expected that as my best friend, you’d be a bit more sympathetic.”
“I am being sympathetic,” I called after her. “That’s why I’m telling you to break it off with him now. I don’t want your heart to be—”
She slammed the front door shut.
“—broken again,” I finished lamely. Sighing, I picked up Faun, and sunk down on the couch. Maybe I should have been a little less straightforward. Then again, why should I feel guilty? I was only trying to protect my best friend.
I wondered how long Liana would stay mad at me this time.
As I had expected, Liana managed to avoid me for two days. Not once did she even come home. I had no idea how she could stay away for that long, considering she hadn’t brought along a change of clothes. My guess was that she’d just bought a new outfit and panties at the mall. I wasn’t exactly worried about her disappearance. Stacy and Nia told me that Liana had called to tell them she was staying at a friend’s house.
I told them what had happened.
“Good for you,” Nia had patted my back. “I would have said the same thing.” Eagerly, Stacy had also agreed.
But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered at Liana’s excuse.
It’s almost as though he puts me in a trance, she’d said. When she’d first said it, I’d thought she’d meant it figuratively. But now, I remembered that when I’d met Tyler, it did seem as though his voice had some sort of hypnotic, supernatural aura.
And I, of all people, should know that the paranormal did exist.
“Do any of the yaojing have siren-like powers?” I asked Khit. It was Saturday evening, and we were cooking dinner together at my apartment.
“You mean the power to scream louder than an ambulance?”
“I mean the original sirens,” I said, sprinkling salt over the pork chops. “The seductive kind that live in oceans and lure sailors with their voices.”
Khit looked up from his task of chopping onions. “None of the currently living yaojing. That power might have been applicable to some of the ocean yaojing, but they were all killed off when the seven animals of today’s ruling circle took over.” He sent me a questioning look. “Why do you ask?”
I told him about Tyler’s mesmerizing voice and how all the girls seemed to naturally be lured by it.
“Including you?” Khit asked with a grin.
But I was being serious. Nodding gravely, I added, “Until I thought of you. Then he just turned into a creep.”
Khit’s smile only widened. “I don’t think you have to worry about him. There’s no way he’s a yaojing.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I just realized that kid’s in my class,” Khit replied, settling a pan on the stove and turning on the heat. “He didn’t start coming until last week, the lecture right before the midterm. Even then, he sat in the front row and slept the entire time. His brother’s in the class too. Not as good looking, but a lot more studious. Glares at the kid when he comes in late and interrupts. Anyway, I would know if either of them had yaojing energy.” His expression turned serious. “Of course, they might be shi’an. In that case, I wouldn’t be able to read their energy, since the shi’an can block it from us.”
I looked at him, horrified. But when he chuckled, I knew he was only joking. “Not everyone you meet belongs to the supernatural world, Caren.”
“But his voice—”
“Some guys are just natural charmers.” Khit shrugged, returning to the chopping board. He minced the onions finely, then added them to the hot pan. “Girls crowd around plenty of guys like Tyler every day. It’s normal. And besides—” He smiled smugly, giving off vibes more arrogant than anything Tyler had to offer. “If he did have supernatural siren powers, you would be attracted to Tyler even with me around. But obviously, you’re not.”
“But Liana is,” I protested. “She said it’s like she’s in a trance whenever she’s around him and it’s only when he leaves that she remembers she was supposed to break up with him.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s a male siren. Just means he’s an expert at sweet talking.” Khit cast a reassuring smile in my direction. “Just leave Liana alone for awhile. You’ve already done your part by talking to her. Now she’s got to resolve her own issues.”
I sighed, adding the pork chops to the grill pan. “I guess you’re right. Hand me the apple juice, will you? It’s on the top shelf of the fridge.” My plan was to combine the apple juice with lemon juice and oil to make a marinade.
As he reached for the refrigerator door, something caught his attention. He bent down, picking up some little blue pellets on the ground. They looked like tiny stones or pet food.
“What’s that?” I asked. He didn’t answer, continuing to stare at the pellets in the palm of his hand.
When he finally lifted his head, he asked, “What is this?”
“That’s what I just asked you,” I joked, but broke off as I noticed he’d turned positively pale. “What’s wrong?”
“Have you seen a rat?” His voice had gone sick with dread, and he looked like he was about to pass out.
“A rat—” I gasped, feeling chills sweep down my spine. Immediately, I stopped what I was doing, ran to the couch, and dived on top, screaming, “Catch it, catch it!”
But Khit remained where he was. “I didn’t mean I saw a rat. I want to know if you saw one.”
Slightly appeased, I swallowed a gulp of air in relief. “You really didn’t see a rat just now?”
“No,” he replied, but the fact that his face was still whiter than his bleached hair wasn’t very comforting. “Come down from there and answer my question. Did you or did you not see a rat recently?”
Puzzled by his brusque tone, I climbed down the sofa and shook my head. “Why?”
“Did any of your roommates see one?” he continued to interrogate, ignoring my question.
“They would have told me if they had,” I said. “Believe me on that one. There would have been lots of screaming involved.”
He breathed out a gush of air that had been accumulating in his lungs, and a bit of color returned to his face.
“Now can you explain why you went all psycho?” I demanded.
He held up the pellets in his hand. “This looks like rat poison. I thought you girls might have tried to kill a rat, and I was a little worried.”
“It doesn’t look familiar,” I said, coming closer to examine it. “It looks like dog food, but the food I have for Faun isn’t blue.” Shrugging, I added, “Maybe one of the girls bought it. Thanks for worrying about us.”
“Maybe,” he said slowly, still looking unconvinced, but he threw the pellets into the garbage and went to wash his hands. “I wasn’t worried about you though. I was worried for the rat.”
“What?” I cried in outrage. “You’re more worried about a non-existent pest than your own fiancée?”
“The poor little guy never did anything to you,” he said coolly.
About to make a bitter reply, I caught a whiff of smoke in the air and suddenly remembered. “The pork chops!” I ran to the stove and groaned. The meat had been completely charred and was now stuck to the bottom of the pan for life.
Khit peered over my shoulder. “Hmm…I guess we aren’t having that for dinner anymore.”
I whipped my head to glare at him. “This is your fault, you know. You distracted me. I’ve never burned meat in my entire life.”
“We’ll just eat out,” he said. “You can choose.”
When I ignored him to scrape the meat into the trash and soak the pan, he shadowed me. “Come on, don’t be mad. Can I tempt you with Thai food? Curry…mmm…silky and creamy with coconut milk…”
My stomach grumbled at the thought. I had eaten a late breakfast, so I hadn’t been hungry for lunch. Now I was famished. “Can we order spring rolls?” I asked cautiously, giving in.
He grinned, knowing he’d won. “Anything your beautiful heart desires.”
“Flatterer,” I retorted, but smiled back. I never could stay mad at him.
After dinner, we rented a couple of movies and headed back to my apartment. Stacy and Nia were home as well, and they were heating up some leftovers for dinner.
“Want to watch with us?” I asked them. “We rented The Lone Ninja.”
“I’m in,” Stacy said. “I’ve been dying to see that.”
Nia flounced on the couch. “Me too.” She grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. “By the way, Liana’s home, just to warn you.”
“She’s still in a bad mood,” Stacy added with a worried frown.
“Nothing we can do about that,” I said, eyeing the closed door to my bedroom. Feigning indifference, I shrugged, watching as Khit popped the movie into the DVD player. The movie started to play, and the intricate plotline drew in everyone’s attention. Everyone, except me. I couldn’t concentrate when my best friend refused to speak to me. I wondered if I should go and apologize. But I still didn’t feel that I’d done anything wrong. All I’d done was speak the truth, and I couldn’t help it if Liana hadn’t liked the truth.
Then again, I could have said it less bluntly, been a little more sympathetic.
As the plot of the movie thickened, I couldn’t help but turn my thoughts away from Liana and onto the screen in front of me. The story line was actually very interesting. Soon, the sound of clashing swords roared through the speakers to occupy the room.
I was so involved that when I felt a light nudge on my arm, I almost screamed. Clutching my heart, I turned towards the culprit who’d almost sent me to an early death. Khit said something that I couldn’t hear over the sound of metal against metal.
I sent him a confused look, and he reached for the remote to turn down the volume and pause the movie. “Sorry for the interruption,” he apologized to Nia and Stacy, “but I think the noise is making the mutt agitated.” He nodded over to my closed bedroom door.
Straining my ears to listen, sure enough, I could hear Faun’s troubled barking behind the door. Frowning, I wondered why Liana wasn’t trying to calm her down. “Go ahead and continue the movie without me,” I said. “Just reduce the volume a bit.”
“It’s all right,” Stacy said. “We’ll wait for you.”
Cautiously, I opened the door just enough to slip inside, without giving Faun the opportunity to run out and pounce on Khit. The last thing we needed was for my fiancé to grow a tail in front of my roommates.
At the sight of me, Faun’s barking only increased. She nudged her head at my heel, almost making me stumble.
I looked around, wondering where Liana was. It wasn’t possible that she’d slipped out unseen when all of us were out in the living room. But the faint sound of falling water coming from our bathroom told me she was in the shower.
Kneeling down, I tried to pet Faun soothingly. “What’s wrong, baby?” But she wouldn’t let me touch her, only butted her nose against my hand. Then she dashed towards the bathroom, barking as though her tail had been set on fire.
And then, I just knew. Panic rose to my gut instantly. Pounding on the bathroom door, I called Liana’s name. “Open the door, Liana! Are you all right?”
I tried the doorknob and found it unlocked. Bursting through the door, my eyes widened, and my mouth opened in a silent scream. There was blood all over the toilet and floor. Hands shaking, I pulled back the shower curtain, revealing my best friend, lying unconscious on the tiled floor, as water from the showerhead pelted down on her.