by Vineetha Mokkil
Estrella bit into a dumpling. Cheesy and chickeny, soft but not squishy, the pale white flesh coated in soy sauce made her tongue tingle.
‘Stop eating junk. Quit smoking. Get some sleep.’ Her doctor’s voice swirled around her head—and inside the freezing editing suite. Dr Wong had a face like a wizened prune. He never cracked a smile. Serial killers roaming the streets of Manhattan had a better bedside manner than him.
‘Take my advice or die. You decide.’ Dr Wong had spat out the words and given her his sphinx-like stare. She walked out of the consulting room, cheeks burning, head bowed. His words only bogged her down for an evening though. Monday morning the fog lifted, and she was back at the studio, safe in her lair, editing the film which was coming together, the scenes falling into place just the way she had planned.
Cut, splice, mix. Cut, splice, mix all day. After sunset, she ordered a couple of margaritas and a box of dumplings. The night was still, windless. The oaks in Central Park turned to stone. Leaning against the door she blew smoke rings into the neon night. A truck thundered past the studio and the blinds shuddered like frail old men.
The dumplings were a thing of beauty: a dozen nestled in the heart of a bamboo basket like fluted buds. She lifted one up and held it to the light. It danced on the edge of the chopstick, perfectly poised.
When the paramedics trooped in, they found Estrella slumped behind her desk. She had eaten the dumplings, every last crumb gone. The basket, wide open and wiped clean, gaped at them from her desk like an open wound.
I don’t believe in god or ghosts. Who cares what the priests and the romantics say? There is no shadowy being hovering above us in the blue. No afterlife to agonize about. We get one chance, one life—hit or miss, that’s it. But when I say this to Rachel—the receptionist with a smile as gorgeous as a Florida sunset—she rolls her eyes and the sandy curls on her head mock my lack of faith.
The first sign of trouble was the smell in the editing suite. I don’t smoke. Cigarettes are not my poison. So it was odd to smell cigarette smoke when I showed up at work in the mornings. The smell lingered in the air all day nagging me like an annoying memory. It thickened in the evening and grew more foul. By midnight the room reeked like a chain smoker’s den and I had to run out to get some air. The cleaning crew couldn’t boot it out. No air freshener was powerful enough to exorcise it. Rachel wafted in with a pack of incense sticks: sandalwood, lavender, rose. That stuff didn’t work either.
And then there was the film. I’d make the cuts and leave at night, patting myself on the back for a job well done. The next morning, sequences I hadn’t sequenced flickered in front of me when the screen lit up. My cuts reversed, reordered. My rhythms rearranged by the light of the moon. The first time it happened I laughed it off. The second morning I blamed myself for not getting enough sleep and slipping up. But there were only so many excuses I could make. I had to face the question one day: had a ghostly presence hijacked my edits?
“Estrella.” Rachel said the last editor’s name was Estrella. Nobody knew anything about her except that she wore black to work. And ordered a whole lot of takeout when she was holed up in the editing suite.
How old was she? What place did she call home? Did she have any family or friends in town? My questions were met with blank stares. I was hungry for answers. I thought of Estrella all the time. Had the world treated her right? Had she left her heart’s business unfinished? Who did she love? Whose lips had touched hers? Whose secrets had she taken with her when her breath turned cold?
‘Burn some sage. Say a prayer,’ Rachel murmured, her cornflower blue eyes scanning the starry sky. She kept her voice low as if she was afraid of being overheard.
‘Estrella means star,’ she said, pointing at one.
I looked up and a bright star winked at me as if letting me in on a secret. The wind brushed against my cheek like a cool fingertip. The faint smell of cigarettes lingered in the air.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, A Happy Place and Other Stories (Harper Collins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction 2020, and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. She was a nominee for Best Small Fictions 2019. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers’ Project Journal, Barren, and in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab, Singapore).