One October, shy and quiet Maya embarked on a journey to Penang, as part of group of five classmates, all architecture students from Kuala Lumpur. Their teacher had grouped the six of them together on an assignment that tasked them to explore and analyse Penang’s historic architectural marvels.
Maya she found herself in the midst of a slightly ‘rowdy’ bunch. This prospect made her apprehensive, as she was naturally introverted and had reservations about her companions’ willingness to work together and commit to their roles. Compounding her discomfort, two of them were romantically involved, and the PDA they usually exhibited were something she dreaded witnessing.
As the day of the trip arrived, Maya found herself seated directly behind the couple in the bus. Surprisingly, their affectionate and considerate gestures towards each other seemed to elicit a sense of envy within her. The boy’s attentive actions, such as adjusting the air conditioning when his girlfriend felt cold and consistently checking in on her hunger or need for breaks at rest stops, only reminded Maya of her own solitude. She recognised how she had isolated herself, immersing her mind in books and thus foregoing the warmth of genuine human connections.
Nevertheless, Maya masked her discontent with a smile and continued with the rest of the trip. The group arrived in Penang shortly before 3 p.m. and checked into a hotel in proximity to the colonial buildings. They shared a leisurely late lunch of chicken rice before embarking on their exploration of the historic structures. Despite her initial discomfort, Maya engaged herself in observing the captivating interactions between the couple, attempting to divert her thoughts of loneliness by interacting with the other members of the group – but it was easier said than done.
Fortunately, her companions proved amiable and welcoming, taking turns capturing photographs of the buildings and meticulously recording notes during their visits to designated research sites.
Later that evening, they also extended an invitation for dinner, but Maya declined, citing fatigue as her reason, even though it was far from the truth. Instead of retiring to her room, Maya roamed the hotel lobby aimlessly for a while, lost in thought, before venturing outside. Eventually, she stumbled upon a cluster of food stalls, which she hoped would provide her a momentary distraction from her internal turmoil.
As she walked back to the hotel with her char kuey teow bungkus, Maya’s hunger persisted. Along the way, she noticed a long, expansive wall by the roadside and decided to sit down, her back against the wall, to enjoy her meal. In that moment, a spontaneous idea struck her – why not do something about how she felt? She impulsively downloaded a dating app, reasoning that she deserved a pleasant distraction after the day’s challenges. After all, she had the entire night ahead of her and, at this point, a fun cendol date seemed more than well-deserved.
Maya didn’t need to swipe for long before she found a match, and it wasn’t just any match – he stood out in a remarkable way. His name was Max Wong, and his interests resonated deeply with hers, from his affinity for old-fashioned music to his passion for design. He aspired to become a civil engineer, a dream that intrigued Maya. What caught her attention even more was his prompt response to her messages. Yet, if Maya were honest with herself, she was not only drawn to his responsiveness but also deeply, physically attracted to him. Based on his photos, Max possessed a sun-kissed complexion, a muscular body, and strikingly handsome features, his doe-like eyes providing a rare contrast to the rest of his strong and prominent facial features.
Maya boldly asked Max if he was available to meet that very night, to which he enthusiastically agreed. Bursting with excitement, she hurried back to her hotel room, where she quickly showered and meticulously got dressed, managing all of it within an hour. Max had informed her that he would be waiting at a specific location: Macalister Cafe, which sounded pretty fancy to Maya, so she carefully selected the most elegant outfit from her limited travel wardrobe. Prior to leaving, she informed her group about her plans and booked a Grab car. She also messaged Max, letting him know she was en route.
During the short ride, the driver reconfirmed the destination not once, but twice, which left Maya questioning if her choice of attire was overly extravagant. To add to her growing unease, Max hadn’t responded to her messages. Determined to remain patient, she tried to dismiss her nerves. However, her sense of anxiety intensified when the driver pulled up in front of a dark, eerie-looking cafe with its shutters tightly closed.
“Tutup ke hari ni?” she asked.
“Dah lama tutup, Kak. Tu yang I tanya betul tak drop off dekat sini,” the driver explained.
Confused and apprehensive, Maya paid the driver, acknowledging his effort, and stepped out of the car. Attempting to call Max, she discovered that the phone number he had given her was not in service, leaving her standing in front of the closed cafe.
Feeling deeply betrayed, Maya’s worst suspicions were confirmed when she opened the app and discovered that their earlier conversation had vanished along with the match. Regret washed over her, and she couldn’t help but facepalm, berating herself for not seeing through him. A man like that had to be a catfish. What made matters worse was the surrounding area – dimly lit, eerily empty, and unsettlingly creepy.
Disheartened, Maya moved away from the desolate area, drawn toward distant streetlights. As she approached, the surroundings began to regain a sense of familiarity, revealing that she was near the now-shut char kuey teow stall from earlier. Frustration gnawed at her, leading her to summon another Grab ride back to the hotel and call it a day. In a surge of anger and disappointment, she deleted the app, vowing to put the incident behind her.
Upon her return to the hotel, Maya found herself alone in her room, still nursing the sting of being ghosted. When the rest of the group arrived, they were surprised to see her already back. Opening up to them about her experience, their sympathetic response was heartening, and in an effort to lift her spirits, they asked her to join them on the hotel rooftop for drinks by the pool. Grateful for their support, Maya accepted the gesture, finding solace in the camaraderie of newfound friends.
On the rooftop, Maya engaged in a profound conversation with two of the girls from the group, leaning against the balcony. They offered her comforting advice, encouraging her to forget about Max, or “whatever his real name is.” After a while, Maya even managed a chuckle or two.
As Maya leaned against the rooftop ledge, her eyes tracing the familiar paths below, an unsettling realisation washed over her. From her vantage point, the intricate details of the roads she had recently walked became vividly clear, including the abandoned cafe where her dream date was supposed to have taken place. Her gaze shifted across the street, landing on the char kuey teow stall and the wall where a security guard now stood watch. Her eyes widened in shock and horror as she suddenly comprehended the truth: the wall where she had sat enjoying her meal was none other than the boundary of an old cemetery. Had she ventured a few steps further along the road, she would have unmistakably recognised the ominous surroundings, avoiding the encounter altogether.
Driven by an overwhelming sense of curiosity and an unshakable feeling that something was amiss, Maya implored one of the girls to accompany her back to the cemetery. Both of them embarked on a quiet, apprehensive journey back to the location. The security guard permitted their entry, informing them they had 30 minutes before the visiting hours ended. He followed closely behind, illuminating their path with the beam of his torchlight.
The girls ventured deeper into the cemetery, and sure enough, to their astonishment and horror, they stumbled upon a grave bearing the inscription, “Maxwell Damien Wong: Beloved son of Marissa Wong & John Macalister. 1924 to 1948.” Maya gasped, her hand instinctively covering her mouth, her mind struggling to comprehend the surreal situation she found herself in.
The security guard, sensing Maya’s profound unease, gestured toward the surrounding tombstones.
“These were the boys who died young, while constructing the roads winding up the hill with nothing more than their bare hands and fragile tools. Such a pity.
“Maxwell was one of the good ones; we hear he was against his father’s ways. That’s how the poor boy ended up being another labourer. Explains the maiden name too,” he said solemnly, as a tear rolled down Maya’s cheek.
* Malaysian Mystery Memoirs is a series of fictional horror tales by JUICE, for entertainment purposes only. Any similarities to actual persons or situations are purely coincidental.
Cover image AI-illustrated via Dall-e