Read an Excerpt
The Forlorn Adventure
By Amir Falique
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 Amir Falique
All rights reserved.
The sun rose and lit up the neighborhood; the morning fog began to lift. Rays of light slowly heated up the cold of night. The houses still had their nighttime lights turned on, and everybody was asleep—except one person.
Any minute now.
A'jon sat in his living room peering out the window and waiting for someone to arrive. The roads were empty. One by one the streetlights' intensity diminished. There were no sounds apart from the birds' melodic chirping in the trees. The sky turned bluer with each passing second.
The only companion A'jon had was his white long-haired cat, which he had rescued long ago when she was a kitten. Today, A'jon had changed her litter box; her food and water bowls were both full. In a few minutes, A'jon wouldn't be seeing his pet again for five months.
As A'jon played with his cat, a roaring car engine drew closer. A'jon anxiously gripped the handle of his trolley bag.
A'jon recognized the sound of Tia's car before it was visible. A silver sedan appeared from around the corner and slowly decelerated to a stop. The driver let out a few honks.
After strapping on his backpack and pulling his luggage, A'jon walked toward the front door. He turned around and took one final, long look at his residence.
Be back in five months.
A'jon flicked off the final electrical switch of the house, putting everything in total darkness except for the blinking of the smoke detector and the security alarm. He could feel the feline rub against his legs, purring. Good-bye. A'jon gave the cat a gentle scratch on her head before walking out the door.
"Good morning," said Tia as she lowered her window.
"Good morning," replied A'jon. "Right on time." Wow, she looks beautiful without makeup!
"Eye bags?" asked Tia, glimpsing a fresh area of dark skin and a slight swell below A'jon's eyes. "Did you sleep?"
"Nope," A'jon replied with a smile while walking toward the rear of Tia's car.
Tia got out after popping the car's trunk. "Nervous?"
Lights from the neighboring houses were turning off. The sun's brightness was a morning alarm to some people; within the hour the roads would be congested with people going to work and sending their children off to school.
A'jon looked at the time on his cell phone. Still early.
"Have you packed everything?" asked Tia.
"Yeah, I did it last night."
"You mean several hours ago?"
"More like half an hour before you came."
Tia lifted the trunk lid; she had cleared it out earlier for more space to load. It was surprising to her that A'jon appeared to be a light traveler. "Any more luggage?"
"Just one," A'jon repeated. He could sense dissatisfaction in Tia's tone. He knew that the contents of his luggage were too small for someone who would be away for five months. He knew he should have brought along some local foods, because he used to hear Tia nag about it while she was studying abroad. He didn't even bring any formal wear.
"Are you sure you've packed enough?" asked Tia.
"It's enough." A'jon sounded confident about his poorly packed luggage.
"So, are you sure you want to do this? It's an awful big burden and responsibility, to go up into outer space. You can always reject it if you have second thoughts."
"I've thought about it and decided to go for it. I don't want anyone else claiming the honor of being the first Bruneian to go to the moon," he said, expressing his gratitude.
"I'm glad you took it."
A'jon pointed out, "But I'm not gonna see you for five months."
Tia closed the trunk. "It's okay. We can always call each other, and I'll be here when you get back."
"I'm gonna miss my family, my friends, Zou, foods. I'm really gonna be homesick."
"Zou?" said Tia sharply.
"My cat," answered A'jon coolly. "Why? You think I'm dating another girl?"
Tia made a wide smile but did not answer.
By now, the neighborhood's residents had begun to cook their breakfasts. In less than ten minutes, cars would leave their garages, right after the passengers filled their stomachs with a small dose of daily nutrition.
"I wish I could come, but we're not legal just yet," said Tia.
"I understand; you're doing the right thing. At least you're going on a business trip next week." A'jon tried to keep the two-way conversation going. "That'll occupy your mind while I'm gone. Hope your negotiation with the art museum in Japan goes well. How long will you be there?"
"Four weeks. I guess I could learn a bit of Japanese."
"Maybe some Japanese recipes as well," joked A'jon. He knew Tia had not been successful in cooking. There hadn't been a time when she'd left the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg unbroken.
Tia let out a tiny laugh. "I think we should get going—you don't want to miss the flight. You know these roads: they fill up quickly with unpredictable drivers who needed to be elsewhere five minutes ago."
They got in the car and strapped on their seat belts. Tia played Japanese music on her stereo and put the car in gear. She stomped on the gas pedal as if the airport would run out of parking space.
A'jon was insecure with Tia's driving, and he held on tight to the assist grip, worried whether he would die before ever boarding an airplane.CHAPTER 2
Brunei International Airport was packed with people; there was barely enough room to move. A'jon and Tia had to squeeze their way through the crowd until a gigantic departure board came into view.
United States ... United States. A'jon scanned the board alongside Tia.
"There," Tia pointed. The flight information read,
Houston—Counter: B—08:00 am
A'jon had a feeling that he would have to stand in a long line to check in at the counter. Wow! A lot of people are leaving this country today. A young woman with nerdy spectacles turned her head and looked him straight in his eyes. A'jon naturally responded with a decent smile.
The bespectacled woman's bushy eyebrows rose as high as they could go. She ran toward A'jon and placed her hands inside her oversized handbag.
A'jon's smile disappeared. I don't know her. Is she reaching for a gun? He did not know how to react and was consumed with the idea of being hunted by a teenage female assassin. Get away from me! The woman kept getting closer and closer.
"How does it feel to be the first Bruneian in outer space?" asked the woman, holding a portable voice recorder instead of a pistol.
Idiot! She's a journalist.
The airport now echoed with voices of people spreading the news of A'jon's presence. "He's here!" Footsteps stampeded toward A'jon. There were photographers armed with standard compact cameras or heavily equipped SLRs that flashed white light all over the place. Journalists held out recording devices, typically smartphones. The local news reporters held out wireless microphones and were accompanied by cameramen operating heavy-duty broadcasting cameras on their shoulders. Fanatic supporters were screaming and unfolding their homemade banners. Passing spectators had no idea what was going on, but they stopped, attracted to the abrupt commotion.
Are all these people here for me? A'jon was silent; his lips could barely move. Only the government knew about my assignment.
Tia went into defensive mode, using A'jon as a shield. The crowd of people swarmed in every direction, barely giving her room to breathe.
Be professional. A'jon assessed the bunch of people shoving their microphones and flashing their cameras at him. He wasn't able to concentrate with the journalists and the reporters asking questions all at once. Their voices overlapped one another, and none of them were valid to his ears. A'jon tried to focus on one person, but the group was too disturbingly noisy. He tried his luck on another person yet failed again. Then his eyes locked onto the reporter with the nerdy spectacles, and he recalled her unanswered question. "Well—"
She moved her voice recorder closer. Everything went silent except for the shutter release of the cameras.
"I've never been on an airplane before, and I'm already sweating. And I can't imagine how much my anxiety will be amplified when I step into the spaceship."
"You've never been on an airplane before?" she said.
"That's interesting," said a messy-haired reporter who had just fought his way through the crowd. "I hear you just got engaged a week ago. Is this true?"
"Yeah, it's true."
"Do you feel bad about leaving your fiancée behind for five months?"
"Of course I do. If it weren't for the training, I'd be back in a fortnight."
"You should bring her along," said another voice in the crowd.
"I appreciate the suggestion, but the thing is that we're only engaged; we're not married ... yet. I'm a Muslim, and I respect the laws set by my religion. It would look ill to certain people."
Tia's cheeks flushed.
The crowd started to blare again, each person speaking in loud tones to capture A'jon's attention. A man holding a pocket-sized notepad and a pencil stood out from the rest. "It also happens to be your first experience off domestic soil. How does that feel?"
"I can't describe it; I've never been abroad before, so I can't really say. I've never even been to Miri, the neighboring country just outside our doorstep. And yesterday I got my first passport."
The crowd kept piling up, constantly flowing with more curious people; some individuals were being squashed like grapes. Police and government officials in coats appeared to resolve the situation, and they kindly asked people to move aside as they made their way toward A'jon.
Help has arrived.
"You're pretty productive for someone who has never left the nest," said a news reporter. "You got any good comments or advice for the viewers?"
All broadcasting cameras, SLRs, and digicams were focused on A'jon, awaiting his response.
Advice? A'jon did not know what to say. All that floated in his mind were of Pythonesque quotes. He needed to say something unique, something that people didn't normally hear. But a joke he heard two nights ago from a rock 'n' roll concert video still lingered in his head. Say it. "Never eat an ice cream in a sauna."
A government official followed by two police officers emerged from the crowd. The two officers formed a barricade, severing the crowd's connection from A'jon and triggering a mass rave. One of the officers reached for the radio and said, "Send more enforcements ASAP!"
"Mr. A'jon," said the government official. "My name is Zulkipli, and I'm from the ministry of foreign affairs." He flashed his work ID long enough for the couple to acknowledge his trust.
The human barricade grew weaker by the enraged crowd. An officer arrived just in time to help his two colleagues, reducing the heavy burden they had to carry; moments later two more officers showed up to join the action. The noise started to calm down, and everyone understood that they were no match against the strength of the police force. Within seconds the situation became under control with the presence of twenty officers.
"Please, follow me," said Zulkipli.
Tia and A'jon followed Zulkipli's lead. Ten of the officers escorted them as they made their way through the crowd. It was a rough journey, and everybody seemed to push their luck to meet with the future astronaut.
A'jon and Tia couldn't see where they were going; their view had been obstructed by desperate people in every direction.
They safely arrived in a luxurious room away from the crowd. Outside, police officers were on heavy guard to ensure nobody entered through the thick doors.
"I've not checked in!" A'jon remembered.
Tia stared into A'jon's eyes; she had forgotten all about it too. It would be ignorant of her to let A'jon dive back into the crowd. It was impossible for A'jon to reach the counter without being detected.
"It's okay," said Zulkipli. "Let me do it for you. May I please have your passport, sir?" He held out his hand.
The room looked clearer as the tension lifted. Thank God I don't have to go on a suicide mission. A'jon reached for his passport inside his backpack and handed it over to the official.
"How many items of luggage?" asked Zulkipli.
"Only this one." A'jon passed the trolley bag into Zulkipli's possession.
Zulkipli went out with the assistance of a police officer. The doors swung to a close and muffled the sounds from the unexpected gathering.
It was an awkward privacy. A'jon and Tia had been left in an unfamiliar place that looked more like a renaissance hotel room. Tia sat down on a sofa, and her shaking hands slowly relaxed. A'jon walked around the room and observed its contents. There was a flat-screen TV on the wall that had been muted, the room had a pleasant musky aroma, and even with his footwear on he could feel the softness of the carpet.
This is not a priority waiting room for first—and business-class passengers, thought A'jon. It's an annex for members of the royal family! He sensed the monarchy aura generated by its interior design. Maybe even kings, presidents, emperors, and pharaohs.
A watercolor painting of scones with a meadow field background caught Tia's eyes, pulling her toward it like a fish on a hook. Monet! Tia had visited art galleries across Europe to collect data for her academic thesis. Museums paid ridiculous amounts of money to acquire Monet's work. Despite his popularity, there were paintings he had never exposed to the public.
There weren't many art experts in Brunei, and since this wasn't Europe, Claude Monet wasn't a popular topic. Sadly, even most Bruneian fine art graduates would struggle to talk about the French painter for a minute, but for Tia, she could go on for thirty minutes without pause. This frame of mind made her wonder about local artworks.
Situated at the nation's capital, on the face of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Library, was an enormous mural made by thousands of colored mosaic tiles that were shaped like more than one hundred figures, portraying an amalgamated image of Brunei's lifestyle in the sixties. Pengiran Asmalee had made this twenty-by-one-hundred-foot masterpiece. Although his mural may not be as ancient as Gnosis's Stag Hunt, it was without question Brunei's oldest work of mosaic.
However, several poorly placed condenser units had spoiled the mural's presentation; one of them, at the bottom right corner, had completely blocked off the artist's signature. But despite this immature positioning, tourists still took photographs and admired its dazzling beauty.
Sometimes Tia felt that she was more than qualified to work as a docent at the Louvre in Paris or as a tour guide in Greece—places where artworks were beyond five centuries old. The oldest painting Tia had seen in Brunei was a stunning portrait of Winston Churchill by Basuni Jaafar.
Remarkable, thought Tia as she examined the style, brushstrokes, and every detail of the painting at the airport annex. It's undoubtedly a Monet! She did not expect to find an unseen work of a celebrated French painter in a private waiting room of an Asian airport. A watercolor Monet is extremely rare; all of his most famous works are in oil. This should be kept behind glass and in conditions that guarantee its protection from decay.
A'jon stood next to Tia, who has been staring at the same painting for over five minutes. "My grandma can paint better than that."
Tia's emotions were maimed. "The true value of that—"
The outside noise burst suddenly, interrupting Tia's speech. Zulkipli had returned. "Here's your passport, sir," said Zulkipli. "I've checked you in." He handed A'jon his passport with the flight ticket between its pages.
Once again the noise was muffled by the thick doors.
"Thanks," said A'jon. "I'm surprised to see a lot of people supporting me, and it's just a regular flight to the United States, not the actual flight to the moon. How did these people know I'm on a space mission? I thought this was supposed to be confidential."
"This is Brunei," answered Zulkipli. "If there is information only the government should know, then everybody knows. We're all very proud to have you representing us. And I've put you down for a window seat, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind at all."
"First class, eh?" said Tia. She had glimpsed the typing on the flight ticket partly exposed by A'jon's passport.
Excerpted from The Forlorn Adventure by Amir Falique. Copyright © 2014 Amir Falique. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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