The 19th Sin


For a place that had been around since the beginning of time, the Hell King’s office was surprisingly modern. Filing cabinets, air-conditioning, a monitor. There were no windows, but what would one even see this deep underground? 

Lim Ah Soon sat in a plastic folding chair facing the Hell King, wondering what was taking the god so long to decide on his sin. 

There were only 18 sins he could be tortured for before his soul could be cleansed. He would then be free to move on to Heaven, where his family was waiting for him. Now that his life was finally over, he couldn’t wait for his punishment to be done with too. 

Finally, the Hell King, appearing as a middle-aged man in a suit, pulled away from his screen. 

“Your sin is apathy, Mr Lim. But unfortunately, that’s not punishable in Hell, so let’s make a deal. Your neighbour Ms Lilly Chan’s relationship with her fiance is deteriorating. Your job, or punishment, however you take it, is to resolve the situation in the best possible way. You have 3 days.” 

Ah Soon wished he could just get sawed in half like the punishment for the 18th sin. It was much less work. “And if I don’t do it?” 

“You want to join your family in Heaven, don’t you? Well, if you can’t complete your task, you will spend an eternity here managing my office. No Heaven for you.” 

What choice did he have? Sighing, Ah Soon shook the Hell King’s hand. 

“My constables will escort your soul back to Earth. You’re on your own from there. While you might be able to possess people, please don’t mess with anyone who isn’t related to the case. But even if you fail, at least you would just need to manage an office, which is way better than getting sliced in half, yeah?” 

Ah Soon didn’t bother to respond.

Ah Soon found himself back at the void deck of Block 10, where his funeral was being conducted. His neighbours were walking away, some throwing disdainful glances at his coffin. 

“All the bad karma is gathered at our block, like that very good meh?”

“Serves him right. Did he even have a life instead of just staying in his house all day doing goodness knows what?”

“Eh, if one old guy died, then wouldn’t the others follow too?”

Ah Soon glanced at the picture mounted above his coffin. It showed a drawn old man with dead eyes and saggy white hair. Was that really how he looked in real life?  

Ah Soon shook himself. He didn’t have time to dwell on this, even if he wanted to. He needed to finish this as soon as possible, since he hadn’t seen his family in 60 years. He wondered how his sister looked like now. She would be an old woman, compared to the young girl he remembered. 

Time to leave this meaningless life for good. 

It was easy to possess people. All Ah Soon had to do was to slip into their bodies and he could control the person. And in this case, it was Lilly’s fiance, George. 

It didn’t matter that he bossed Lilly around all the time to make sure things went his way. It didn’t matter that all he wanted to talk about was how he was making a name for himself. Ah Soon changed all of that. 

Lilly was shocked when George’s tone softened from his usual “I don’t care what you do with your life” to “Would you like to tell me about your day?” 

Lilly blinked. “Uh… George, you sure you’re okay?” 

Ah Soon/George nodded. “Sure.”

And for the rest of the day, “George” was great. He volunteered to wash up and joked with Lilly, even watching her favourite sitcom with her, the one he usually hated. 

Lilly was happy, but where were the two constables? Weren’t they supposed to collect him when he finished his task?

Ah Soon waited, and waited, until a day had passed. Still nothing. Perhaps he had done something wrong. Perhaps Lilly and George still weren’t happy and his task was not yet complete. Damn it, he was wasting time. 

Then Ah Soon noticed the absence of an engagement ring on Lilly’s finger. 

Ah Soon combed through every inch of the flat and the surrounding area to find the lost ring. He had to return it to Lilly. She couldn’t be happy when she had lost George’s family heirloom and had to keep this huge secret from him. 

Then he noticed some aunties gathered near the staircase in front of Lilly’s house. One of them, Madam Leong, a known gossip, was talking so loudly that it was obvious she wanted to be noticed. 

It seemed that when his neighbours did speak to each other, it was to gossip and brag about how much better their own lives were. 

To his horror, he realised that the gold and jade ring on Madam Leong’s finger was the one he was looking for. There was no doubt about it; it had George’s family crest. 

“- found it downstairs. So pretty, right?” 

“Eh, should we get Lilly? She says she got engaged but none of us have seen the ring. We should compare,” one aunty said, and the rest murmured in agreement.  

“Aiyah, her ring where got as nice as mine! That George might be rich, but he so cheapskate confirm give her not nice ring.” Madam Leong preened, waggling her fingers so that the ring winked in the light. 

How was he going to take it? Madam Leong was wearing some sort of ghost-repelling amulet that prevented him from going near her. 

Then George was climbing up the stairs. He shouldn’t see the ring on Madam Leong’s finger, or else he might never forgive Lilly and break up with her. 

So Ah Soon quickly possessed George and steered him away.  

But Madam Leong kept hanging around Lilly’s house. Ah Soon had wanted to make Lilly confront her but Lilly happened to be out. 

It was now evening, and most of the residents were returning home from work. From his position at Lilly’s corner apartment, Ah Soon could see down the communal corridor. He watched as Madam Leong finally let herself into her house and immediately closed the heavy wooden door that prevented anyone from seeing inside it. 

The Indian Herb Lady (Ah Soon didn’t know her real name) was unlocking her front door when another neighbour passed. The two exchanged a quick smile but the minute the neighbour turned, the Indian Herb Lady quickly entered her house. Ah Soon noticed that she too shut her door, just like Madam Leong. Were there really no words to spare for neighbours?   

From 9 levels up, Ah Soon could see young people leaving the flat, dressed up to go to meet their friends. Some of them quickened their pace and lowered their heads to avoid the other residents. 

Ah Soon understood that unlike him, all of them led busy lives. But from what he could see, they didn’t at all want to interact with their fellow residents, preferring to wonder about them behind their closed doors. 

Had he really been part of this cold culture for so long? Back when he was alive, he hadn’t cared much about other people, been inside another’s house, stopped to smell their flowers and herbs in the corridor or even wondered what went on behind that locked gate. 

He had wanted to lead an independent life, so caught up in living in his own bubble that he hadn’t thought much about expanding it to include others too. But now, after observing from a distance, Ah Soon felt sympathy for his neighbours, for their loneliness and isolation. No one was making an effort to change this. 

He wasn’t supposed to feel anything for leaving this life which had never given him anything back in return. He shouldn’t start getting sentimental and attached. His family was waiting for him. 

But yet, Ah Soon still regretted not doing anything. He hadn’t felt this ever since his family died.  

Lim Ah Soon had a loving family. His parents were patient with him and brought him wherever he wanted. His sister shared her things, keeping him company whenever he felt left out.

It so happened that one day on their way home from dinner at Ah Soon’s favourite restaurant, the car in front of them suddenly broke down and stopped. Their family car was travelling so fast Ah Soon’s father didn’t have time to apply the emergency brakes and quickly swerved to avoid the car. However, since they were driving at the outermost lane, the car travelled onto the pavement and slammed into a huge tree. 

His parents and sister died on impact, except for Ah Soon, who somehow survived. Within a few minutes, all the people who loved him the most had left this world, so you could imagine the impact it had on a 10 year old. 

He was never the same again. 

Fate failed Ah Soon, this time on the very last day. George caught sight of the ring on Madam Leong’s finger when he passed before Ah Soon could stop him. 

George grabbed Madam Leong’s hand. “Where did you get this ring?” Lilly, who was outside watering her plants, gasped. George’s eyes immediately leaped to hers, then fell to her hands, which were in rubber gloves. 

“I found it in the grass patch downstairs. Why?” Madam Leong looked taken aback and tried to tug her hand out of his grip, but George held fast. He turned to Lilly, and asked in a tone so cold Ah Soon was surprised Lilly wasn’t an ice sculpture yet. 

“Show me your hands.” Realising that she had no choice, Lilly slowly pulled off her gloves to expose her ringless hands. 

“Why was that ring there, Lilly? Would you care to explain why my grandfather’s priceless engagement ring was lying in a grass patch?” 

Lilly cowered, her body trembling. “I… I  laid it on the windowsill while I was washing my hands. It must have fallen off…”

Madam Leong looked ecstatic hearing this fresh piece of gossip. She really needed to get her priorities straight. Meanwhile, George looked like he was about to explode. Ah Soon really wished they could retreat back to Lilly’s house. Their fights could break a few ear drums. 

 “You WHAT?” Lilly winced. “Are you kidding me? I gave you a priceless ring, and you go and misplace it? How could you be so irresponsible? Don’t you know how much that ring is worth?” 

Ah Soon knew he could have possessed Lilly to say something, anything at all to turn the conversation around. But why didn’t he move? 

“Hey, if you two are going to fight, at least let me go,” Madam Leong whined. George glared at her and yanked the ring off her finger. 

“Go, then!” 

The instant her door slammed, George continued his assault. “Do you know how hard it was to put up with your mess? Are you that ungrateful that you purposely lost that ring?” 

Lilly shook her head frantically. “You can’t mean that, George. You said you loved me, isn’t that why you asked me to marry you?”

George snorted. “No. I just asked you to marry me because my parents were nagging me about settling down, and I couldn’t say that I was planning on dumping you.” 

Ah Soon’s fists clenched. If he was corporeal, he would have punched George. Didn’t he see how hard Lilly tried to make their relationship work? George might not be spoiled unlike many who were born into privilege, but he had no idea how to love, when to step down and occasionally let someone else win. And Lilly tried too hard to make him happy that she ignored and tolerated his abusive and abrasive side.  It was so obvious the two of them weren’t compatible. 

Ah Soon was torn. He wanted to see his family again, but to do that he had to let Lilly get hurt by George. 

If he was to help them make up, Lilly would be miserable for the rest of her life if they got married.  And Ah Soon would be the one who let this happen. 

But on the other hand, he hadn’t seen his family in so long. He had done all this just for this chance. Was he really going to let them go like that? 

What was he supposed to do? The right thing for Lilly, or to see his family again? 

But in the 27 years he had known her, Lilly hadn’t let him down. She always had a smile and a kind word for him, no matter how he treated her. Shouldn’t he also return the favour now, when she needed to realise that George wasn’t the man for her?

He admitted it now, he cared for Lilly and didn’t want to see her hurt. It was more about doing the right thing, even if he was going to have to be stuck in Hell for eternity. It was painful, but it had to be done. 

His mother would have been proud. She always wanted her children to be the best people they could be, to always do what was right. And now Ah Soon would. 

So he did nothing, just watching the argument intensify with George leaving and Lilly letting him. George would never come back here again. Lilly knew this and sank to the ground sobbing, but Ah Soon knew that she would be alright after some time had passed. 

Just like how she would eventually realise that she was sitting on an extremely dirty and unhygienic floor. 

He heard someone clear their throat, and he turned to see the two Hell constables. 

“Mr Lim, you need to come with us.”

Ah Soon mentally prepared himself for piles of paperwork, but he found himself before a set of golden gates. Was this some part of the Hell King’s office? 

Ah Soon sighed and addressed the Hell King. “I’m ready. Just show me what I need to do in your office.” 

But the Hell King just laughed. “Is that what you think? That you failed?”

“George broke up with Lilly, didn’t he?”

The Hell King snorted. “My dear man, I told you to resolve the conflict in the best way possible, not to keep Lilly and George together. Because you proved that you can care for someone other than your family, your soul has been cleansed.” 

“So… I’m free to move on now?”

“Unless you want to stay and help me in the office, which is also welcome.” 

The gates of Heaven swung open at Ah Soon’s touch. He couldn’t see it before, but he was in a gazebo with lush green grass. 

“Ah Soon!” He hadn’t heard that voice in 50 years. 

His sister waved and Ah Soon’s face broke into a smile. He had found his family at last.

Sandra Pong Wen Ying (Class of 2023) is an avid reader who considers herself to be grounded in reality. Her mind, however, occasionally amuses itself by churning out stories about sentient kitchen towels and girls turning into robots, on a good day.