The clock in the hall struck twelve midnight with a solemn gong, nearly startling Leslie Wong into dropping her book. Rubbing her eyes sleepily, Leslie gave an enormous yawn before she decided that she needed some caffeine to stay alert. As she made her way to the kitchen in the dark, Leslie kept her ears open for any suspicious activity that had plagued the household for the past few weeks.
There were none, so Leslie shrugged and entered the kitchen, flicking on the switch as she did so. Perhaps the stress of having an incredibly overbearing mother-in-law under the same roof had caused Winnie, her old friend of nearly twenty years, to imagine things. Then again, Leslie thought wryly to herself, having Mrs. Huang for a mother-in-law would drive even a saint up the wall. Ever since she had arrived for a ‘short’ stay a few weeks ago, Mrs. Huang made life a living hell for Winnie, who couldn’t seem to please her mother-in-law. Mrs. Huang loved embarrassing Winnie in front of the other neighbours by complaining incessantly about her daughter-in-law’s lack of wifely virtues.
Thankfully, Winnie’s neighbours were good folks who knew otherwise, but it added undue pressure to an already stressful life.
Benjamin, Winnie’s husband, tried to intervene on a few occasions but fought a losing battle against his mother’s masterful use of emotional blackmail. Every time Benjamin tried to reason with his mother, Mrs. Huang would inevitably turn on the weepy eyes and moan that he didn’t care for his old and useless mother anymore. There was little a man could do under such circumstances so there was no choice but to back off. With little resistance in her way, Mrs. Huang looked set to reign supreme until the ‘haunting’ begun.
It started with objects flying off shelves for no apparent reason. Then the light switches throughout the flat were flicked on and off even when there was no one in the room. The last incident even had Mrs. Huang moved from her warm bed behind locked doors to the living room in the middle of the night!
It would have been enough to make anyone leave but with the irritating stubbornness that characterised unwanted houseguests the world over, Mrs. Huang shook off the incident as a case of sleepwalking and insisted on staying. Though Leslie was no expert on ghostly encounters, she personally thought that Mrs. Huang must have irritated some unearthly being with her mere presence. When Benjamin was sent on an urgent business trip, Winnie had called Leslie and begged her to stay a few nights. While Winnie claimed that it was to have her detective friend find out the reason behind the disturbances, Leslie sensed that Winnie did not want to be alone with her mother-in-law while her husband was absent. Leslie could hardly blame Winnie since she would have taken drastic measures a long time ago. Winnie was simply too nice to deal with a woman who was an old hand at bullying. Besides, Leslie was curious to see if Winnie’s flat was really haunted.
“What are you doing?” A voice suddenly demanded unceremoniously from the kitchen’s entrance so Leslie turned and saw Mrs. Huang standing with arms akimbo as if her personal territory had been invaded.
“I’m going to make myself some coffee so I’ll feel less sleepy, Mrs. Huang,” Leslie answered with a pleasant smile. “Winnie told me to help myself if I need anything from the kitchen during the night.”
“Huh! This is not your flat, you know,” Mrs. Huang retorted rudely. “You can’t just help yourself to anything that doesn’t belong to you.”
Leslie raised an eyebrow but kept her temper under wraps. Mrs. Huang had an uncanny knack for starting quarrels and Leslie refused to be baited.
“I guess you’re right, Mrs. Huang,” She agreed amicably as she returned the coffee power to the cupboard where she had found it. “Maybe I should go and buy myself some coffee instead. I think there is a 24-hour coffee shop somewhere near here…”
Mrs. Huang paled.
“You…you can’t!” she protested. “It’s…it’s too late for a young lady like you to be out and about.”
“But I need to have some coffee or I’ll fall asleep before I can find out the reason behind the disturbances,” Leslie explained with exaggerated patience.
“Once that happens, nothing short of an earthquake will be able to wake me up.”
Panic materialised on Mrs. Huang’s face as Leslie moved past her towards the living room where she had left her wallet. “What if…what if the ghosts came while you’re gone?”
Leslie stopped and gave Winnie’s mother-in-law a look of surprise. “But I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts, Mrs. Huang.”
“Err…well…you shouldn’t be out this late at night anyway. Why don’t I make you a cup of coffee instead?”
Without waiting for Leslie’s answer, Mrs. Huang scurried to the kitchen.
“Oh but will it be too much trouble for you, Mrs. Huang?” Leslie called after her even as she hid a smile. “Maybe it’s better if I go buy the coffee instead…”
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” Mrs. Huang assured her from the kitchen. “I…err…don’t mind.”
Since Mrs. Huang’s nature was far from helpful, Leslie controlled her mirth with much difficulty.
“Thanks a lot then, Mrs. Huang.”
* * *
Leslie had barely settled in with her coffee before Mrs. Huang came running out of her room screeching like a banshee.
“What the…” Leslie jumped up with wide eyes as she watched Mrs. Huang being chased around by what appeared to be pillows bent on a whacking spree.
“Mom? Leslie?” Winnie suddenly appeared with sleep-tousled hair. “What’s going on?”
Leslie pointed at the hysterical Mrs. Huang without a word, looking like she was about to break out in wild laughter. It was indeed a comical sight as Mrs. Huang tried to evade the pillows that seemed to be controlled by an unseen presence. Funnily enough, neither Leslie nor Winnie was targeted while the pillows pursued Mrs. Huang with an almost manic energy.
“Don’t just stand there and gawk! Come and help me!” Mrs. Huang shrieked as she ran past them with hands covering her head.
Winnie and Leslie exchanged indecipherable glances.
“I suppose we better. Benjamin would never forgive me if anything happens to his mother,” Winnie said with just the tiniest tinge of reluctance.
“It’s just pillows though,” Leslie mused out loud, “you want to wait till the heavy objects come out?”
“Okay, okay. I was just kidding.”
Winnie and Leslie ran after Mrs. Huang and grabbed a pillow each. It seemed to be effective for the remaining pillows dropped to the floor with a soft thump. Mrs. Huang collapsed onto the sofa with a huge sigh of relief and then turned to Winnie angrily.
“What took you so long to come rescue me? Did you want me to get beaten to death by the pillows?”
“Of course not Mom,” Winnie protested feebly as she sat down beside her mother-in-law. “I’ll never let anything happen to you.”
“Besides, I don’t think it’s possible to be beaten to death by pillows,” Leslie added brightly.
Mrs. Huang seethed with rage but before she could tell them loudly just what she really thought of their valiant efforts to save her, the lights in the living room suddenly went off and made her squeal instead.
“Wh…what was that?” Mrs. Huang clung to Winnie in fear while Leslie immediately dove for the torch in her bag on the sofa and switched it on.
“All right, come out whoever you are,” Leslie called as she shone the torch around the dark living room.
No one answered or appeared so Leslie navigated her way carefully to the light switch and flicked it on. The lights returned but revealed nothing save for a petrified woman hiding her head under the cushions on the sofa and refusing to come out no matter how Winnie coaxed her.
Leslie felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth but decided it was not the time to make light of the situation. The culprit had to be found, and soon, or Mrs. Huang would go into hysterics, which was really the last sight Leslie would like to see.
“I’ll go check the rest of the rooms so you two stay here,” Leslie instructed Winnie and Mrs. Huang as she turned her torch off.
Just then, the doorbell rang and sent Mrs. Huang into a high-pitched shriek, thankfully muffled by the cushions she had on her head.
“Can you please see who’s at the door?” Winnie asked Leslie. “I’ve got to calm Mom down.”
Leslie nodded as she went to answer the door and then stared at the sight that greeted her. Outside the gate, armed to the teeth with knives of all descriptions, stood Mr. and Mrs. Tan, Winnie’s next door neighbours, looking extremely determined.
“Is everyone all right?” Mr. Tan asked as he brandished his kitchen knife threateningly, “We’re here to deal with whatever made that hideous scream just now.”
For the first time in her life, Leslie had no idea how to react to the pair of gung-ho senior citizens in pyjamas. Mr. and Mrs. Tan’s gorgeous son, Fabian, was not armed but wore a pained expression that spoke volumes of what he really thought of his parents’ combat gear.
“Err…actually that was Mrs. Huang,” Leslie said slowly, wondering if she should give in and collapse in laughter.
“Mrs. Huang?” Mrs. Tan echoed with obvious dislike in her eyes but smiled with false sincerity. “Why? Has she been hurt?”
Leslie told the entire story to the Tans and Fabian offered to help check the flat with her.
“It’s better to have a man along, just in case,” he explained with a small but knee-weakening smile.
Leslie was hardly immune to his charms so she agreed readily and unlocked the gate to let the Tans in. Mr. and Mrs. Tan remained in the living room to give what comfort they could while Fabian and Leslie searched through the various rooms for any clue to what might have caused the disturbances.
Leslie even checked the pillows that had attacked Mrs. Huang for any device but turned up nothing, much to her mystification. If the disturbances were not human-induced, then what could have caused them? Leslie could only wonder.
“Why don’t you have your mother-in-law come spend the night at our flat while Leslie investigates?” Mr. Tan suggested to Winnie kindly. “I’m sure she’ll be able to sleep better there.”
Mrs. Tan didn’t look happy in the least but agreed grudgingly with her husband’s offer. “Yes, we have an extra room where Mrs. Huang can sleep quite comfortably.”
“That’s a great idea, Mom,” Winnie told Mrs. Huang happily. “What do you think of it?”
Mrs. Huang regarded Winnie with raised eyebrows.
“Why do you look so happy when they made the suggestion?” she asked accusingly, “Oh I know. You just want an excuse to drive me away, right?
Wait till Benjamin comes back! I’ll tell him how you’ve been mistreating me!”
Winnie tried to explain but Mrs. Huang wouldn’t hear of it. Instead she assumed a martyred expression and moaned about how unlucky she was to get a daughter-in-law like Winnie. Everyone else narrowed their eyes dangerously but Mrs. Huang seemed totally oblivious.
“Well, I suppose you could stay here,” Leslie cut into Mrs. Huang’s lamentations smoothly. “Only don’t blame us if you get walloped by pillows again.”
Mrs. Huang stopped and turned ashen when she recalled how she had been targeted mercilessly by the pillows earlier that night.
“Oh, all right,” She conceded resentfully, “But don’t expect me to forget what you did tonight!” Mrs. Huang threw an imperious glance at Winnie.
“She’s acting as if everyone owes her a favour or something,” Mrs. Tan muttered angrily to Leslie as they followed Mrs. Huang to the door.
“I know, Mrs. Tan,” Leslie answered softly. “I can’t stand her either.”
They grinned at each other like they were kindred spirits before the Tans headed back to their flat with Mrs. Huang. For a moment, it seemed as if Winnie and Leslie could get some peace but their hopes were dashed when they heard Mrs. Huang’s scream from the Tans’flat.
“What now?” Leslie groaned as she ran after a panic-stricken Winnie.
Before they could reach the Tans’flat, however, Mrs. Huang scrambled out desperately trying to protect her head as pink fluffy pillows followed her with a vengeance.
“Get the pillows!” Leslie quickly instructed the Tans who appeared at their doorway with wide eyes.
They managed to subdue the pillows but Mrs. Huang had had enough.
“That’s it! I’m leaving this dreadful place!” she declared shrilly, causing other sleepy but irritated neighbours to emerge from their flats.
“Then what are you waiting for?” one of them said crossly. “Some of us have to wake up early for work or school, you know.”
Mrs. Huang’s face changed a bright red before she turned to march back into Winnie’s flat. Winnie ran after her mother-in-law to try to calm her down, but to no avail, for Mrs. Huang appeared minutes later with her luggage.
“I’ll remember this!” Mrs. Huang promised Winnie darkly before she stormed down the corridor to the lift lobby.
It was the best sight that anyone had ever seen.
* * *
When Benjamin returned home after his trip, he was stunned to find that his mother had already left.
“What happened while I’m gone?” he asked his wife and Leslie in disbelief.
Leslie explained as Winnie fixed his favourite snacks and tea in the kitchen.
“It’s not your wife’s fault though,” Leslie added. “I hate to say this but your mother was really too hard on Winnie. Anyway, you don’t have to worry too much about her. I went to check with your mom’s neighbours and they assured me that she is doing fine.”
“But you better go see your mom and make sure she’s all right,” Winnie suggested to her husband as she set down a tray on the coffee table. “I’d have gone myself but you know how your mother feels about me…”
Benjamin took his wife into his arms and gave her a comforting hug. “I know.
I’m just glad that nobody was hurt during the disturbances. Was there a reoccurrence after my mom left?”
Leslie stirred her tea thoughtfully. “You know, now that you mention it.
There wasn’t even the slightest squeak since that night. Isn’t that the strangest thing?”
Benjamin couldn’t help but agree. It had been entirely too bizarre an event to be happening in sunny Singapore, but since it had stopped, perhaps it was better to just forget about it.
Winnie stood up with a smile. “Well, now that everything has returned to normal, shall we have some fruit to celebrate the occasion?”
“Sure,” Benjamin said distractedly while Leslie nodded cheerfully as she turned to the delicious snacks on the tray.
Both of them didn’t notice the mysterious smile on Winnie’s lips as a stray piece of paper on the floor floated to her outstretched hand.
This story was also published in Issue Twelve (October 2009) of Expanded Horizons.