“Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to Addy,
Happy birthday to you!”
The room was abuzz with a fresh wave of whispers as Adeline pinched her eyes close with the intensity of her wish. When the flame of the candle extinguished, the wave crashed into applause.
I wish they won’t judge my count too harshly.
“It’s finally time for the big unveil!” Dana cheered, a smile sitting squarely across her face. The room silenced to smiles, an attentive anticipation.
Adeline tugged at her bracelet. It fit snugly. She had spent last year’s savings on the statement rose gold piece that was interlaced with traces of emerald green.
The truth was, she had never felt ready for this moment, even though her life had been counting down to it inevitably and it was now here. And this was after she had seen euphoric stimulant-driven unveils, an outburst of tears and two marriage proposals. The day did not wait for her to be ready.
She was as sober as she could be after a thoroughly sleepless night alternating between lightly tracing the dark numbers on her wrist with a fingertip and glancing at the reflection of moonlight off the lovely bracelet that would conceal her count, even if it was only temporary.
Our wrists are where these shackles go, she let the age-old saying kiss her lips. For a moment, she felt warm from the assurance that this was not meant to be easy, and her shoulders just barely loosened. She brandished a smile, steeped a weak brew of confidence, held her right hand up with her pulse to the crowd and fist almost clenched.
With her left index finger, she pressed the bracelet against the back of her right wrist decisively. The device found her fingerprint familiar, and began to retract its grip from her wrist, glowing in a ghastly shade of green as the mineral in the bracelet burnt up for the first and last time.
“Seventeen,” the whisper left Dana’s lips, sparking fresh murmurs. “But, you always seemed like you…have it all together.”
Her best friend’s voice rang in her ears. Adeline was deaf to everyone else now. The edge of Dana’s lips cocked, making an expression Adeline had never once seen on her face. Adeline’s eyes stared unblinkingly as Dana’s lips parted again.
“I guess not.”
As she watched Dana turn away, the weight of the moment became too much to bear. Adeline ran. She ignored the worry in her mother’s voice and distant sounds of absurd laughter. She only needed to get away from all of it. She needed to be somewhere where no one knew she was already twenty-one and her count was still, seventeen.
She pinched the bracelet between fingers and thumb and let it envelop her wrist perfectly. Glancing down as she pulled one foot ahead of the other, it was unfortunate that the bracelet had burned through its emerald tint. But it would faithfully hide her count.
Trails of moisture escaped the rims of her eyes. She wiped both cheeks and let the tears fall with the wind so she could pretend they were never there. Her calves burned. She needed to get somewhere she could lose herself in.
The night was bright here, littered with establishments promising eternal bliss in headlines, temporary amnesia in substance and persistent hangovers in fine print.
By that time, she should have been enjoying the sumptuous dinner spread with her party guests while soaking up their well-wishes. Instead, she was venturing in the city, alone and cold. Her breath was heavy and her feet hurt. Her peep toe wedges were meant for stealing glances at, not for running in.
Even among the myriad of options, a giant neon signboard blared at her, “UNVEIL ALL”. Her steps slowed as she approached her destination.
The bouncer, a thick man in black tee shirt and black leather jacket, met her eyes and worked his gaze slowly down the length of her dress to her toes. Adeline was determined to keep her discomfort to herself. Finally, his gaze returned to her eyes with a blink and he gestured her in.
Adeline almost stumbled before her eyes adjusted to the darkness. As she ventured, she met an onslaught of deafening music that wrapped her in a pressurised bubble like she could burst.
She averted her gaze from curious, calculative glances cast at her. She dodged writhing bodies wrapped hungrily around each other, working their way to the secret beneath each other’s bracelet. She made her way to the bar and settled into the middle of three empty stools as she flexed her tortured feet and toes, and contemplated her predicament while staring at her bracelet.
With a thud, a shot glass was set in front of her. Puzzled, Adeline began to explain that she had not ordered.
“On the house!” the bartender called out to Adeline, shrugging her off mid-sentence. A heavy man on another stool down the stretch cheered aloud as he raised his bottle of beer, seemingly out of a whim. The bartender barely glanced at the man, and no other customer paid him any heed.
After all that has happened that day, Adeline hardly felt the tug of hesitation. She took the glass and pulled her head back as the glass met her lips. In a single gulp, she flushed the liquid down. Then she cringed and struggled to keep it down. Her throat and nasal passages burned.
The bartender leaned in close. “I knew that would hit the spot. One more?”
Adeline had a hand cupped over her mouth. It was all she could do to wave her other palm to reject the overzealous bartender.
“Had your unveil today, I presume?” he asked. When Adeline gave him a look, he continued, leaning away but raising his voice proportionately, “Our club is like honey to you young bees. And the way that you staggered in, those aren’t dancing shoes.”
Adeline had nothing to say. Right then, the throb of the music seemed distant.
The bartender leaned in again. “At least here, no one will ask you how your unveil went.”
“It’s all mine! All MINE!” the outburst came from the same man, who threw his arms up in mock surrender. Three customers promptly took their drinks and stepped away. That left Adeline alone at the bar with the bartender and the drunk.
“Damn it, he’s killing my business. I’ll need to get a couple of guys and lug him out. Or would you like him as your mistake tonight?”
Laughter burst out of Adeline, abrupt and utterly uncontrollable. She gave passing thought to what the bartender had made her drink. But in the midst of gasping pearls of laughter that bordered hysteria, there was an unlikely surge of relief, something she had almost forgotten.
In the midst of laughter, Adeline stole a glance at the drunken man, whose forehea was now affixed to the bartop and was breathing heavily into his own trail of spit. Next she turned to the bartender, whose eyebrows were cocked, lips pursed and head nodding in an exaggeration of an approving authoritarian. It refreshed her subsiding laughter.
When she finally regained herself, Adeline’s fingers found the cool metal of her bracelet again.
“I have to ask, what was in that glass?”
He put a finger to his lips like it was a secret. “It’s more ginger than anything, my weapon of choice against bees with empty pockets.”
“Final question, what’s your name? Otherwise, I’ll only remember you as ‘the bartender’.”
“That’s the way I want it.” He flashed her a grin. “Now, shoo. Get home safe, little bee.”
Adeline lingered just briefly, taking in the bar and the bartender who busied behind it. A rush of gratitude and a glimmer of hope filled her. Then she turned and threw herself back onto the dance floor. Sweeping waves of piercing white light tore through the through the red that dominated the air. The floor was hardly filled, but there were too many that were too young and intoxicated. She caught snatches of conversation offering wrists or bodies for a price. Not once did she turn her head or veer too far from the direct path out of Unveil All.
Finally, she stepped back out onto the street. Her ears remained stuffed and she hardly felt the weight of her steps against the ground. She did not stay for the drunk to join her by the pavement unceremoniously.
How wonderful, she thought to herself as she admired the stars, no one’s keeping count.
Our wrists are where these shackles go,
The counts go down as our times flow.
Romans conceived not a zero
As poetic as our destinies’ glow.
The night had awakened and the world was vivid. With each breath, she took in both the twinkles in the sky and the pain in the balls of her feet.
Adeline returned to her mother, whose flash of anger quickly gave way to relief and an uncharacteristic hug. When she asked, Adeline merely said that she had a drink and was famished now. Her mother sat with her as she ate. Both of them were wordless through most of the meal.
“The millionaire and the mother of two are each living their adventure, who’s to say who is ahead of the other?” her mother asked. “There are no two people who go through life the same way and likewise no two counts that go at the same pace. And that’s the cruelty and beauty of life, however you choose to see it.” And then in a softer tone, “I’m sorry, Addy.”
Her mother held out a wrist and tapped a finger against the back of the dignified silver ornament. It unclasped.
“You and dad –” Adeline could not finish the sentence.
“I was his soulmate, his destiny. But apparently, he wasn’t mine.”
“I had no idea. I mean, I just assumed you wore this to honour his memory,” Adeline said.
“My count gave us so much anguish back that. I’m sorry I didn’t open up to you sooner.” Her mother cupped the side of Adeline’s face with a hand, from her ear down along the side of her jaw. Adeline closed her eyes. When she reopened them, her eyes blinked from her mother’s smiling eyes, to the tender touch of the hand that she could get familiar to. It was now bare, soft and carried the clean stroke of her count.
“Mum!” Adeline grabbed her mother into an embrace.
Adeline did not yet know, but under the shield of rose gold, a secret now shackled her wrist anew.
About You Zhen
At the age of five or so, You Zhen completed his first book, a work of fiction titled “The Longest Rabbit”. It contained illustrations (doodles) and a happy ending.
For years since then, he flirted with writing before finally making the decision to take things to the next level (fortunately, no moving in or meeting of parents was involved).Now, he has committed to writing regularly and sometimes finds short stories coming out the other end. These are published weekly on https://fivenswrite.wordpress.com and curated graphics to his stories are on https://www.behance.net/gallery/55410477/Fivens. You can reach him directly by sending an email to email@example.com.