A Cry of Deliverance

Deploying tools of insensitivity, succumbing to the easier way out, the society today stands proof to the fact that not everyone is alike – some put the cart after the horse, some before.

“I am going to break your bones when I see you next,” a shrill voice pierced through the slum as a crone voiced her anger at me for drenching her in a water balloon.

“What does it matter to you,” I provoked her. “It is already raining, what harm can a water balloon do to you, aunty?” I resumed laughing and chortling, only to have it interrupted by a loud crackling sound of a threatening thunder from kilometres away. It was scary and I was sure that it was God’s punishment for my misbehavior. I felt proud to remember the lessons my father teaches me about the God.

The old lady ambling without an umbrella had vanished in between the narrow passages of the slums, when I had my eyes back on the courtyard, two floors under.

My thoughts circled back to the time. It was 10 PM already. At least that is what his beaten wristwatch displayed. I honestly could not yet tell apart minutes from hours. I wonder how adults do it. At times, I find it amusing to assume that they are simply making up words with numbers. Past fifteen, quarter, etc.

It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back and I sprang back to life. Mom and Dad got out of their rooms and hurried to the door. I played my classic act of keeping my eyes shut next to the window. So far, it has successfully fooled them into believing that I was fast asleep. However, the beans are spilled when I am not able to get up for school in the morning. And, tomorrow is the first day! Wonder who it is and I wonder why neither mom nor dad has thrown metaphorical rocks at me!

The knock on the tattered door was louder than the regular creaky knocks that our regular intruder – winds. It was only a few months ago since I began to tell apart from a breeze and a human knock. Saves me a lot of trouble now, believe me. 

This knock had inspired my parents very differently. An odd hour. They know I was awake and they were not surprised at a visitor this late. They must be expecting someone. As a matter of fact they looked happier; dad more than mom. Mom had a dull undertone of sadness that I could see through her false pretense of delight. A man in a dress as white as milk, a skull cap on par with his dress in colour and a voice thick as the swooshes of wind outside brought a glow to the house, which was subsumed by an even powerful glow of the tube lights. 

He was welcomed, greeted with water, and refused any offers of food and sweets. He kept looking at me with a friendly stare, but he received back none until my parents introduced him to me. 

“Ashraf, he is a very close friend of mine. He is the one who has helped your father through all the difficulties that your father was going through in the past few months.”

I pondered on it for a while and although too late, it wasn’t too little for it to dawn upon me that my parents seemed jollier than the usual quarrels that they used to have. 

“Does that mean that you will not hit my mom anymore?”

Embarrassed, my father did own up his sins and bravely confronted them. “Yes, beta. I will never hurt anybody ever again.” Tears welled up in his eyes, which made me feel little inside, a feeling that I could not describe so well. 

A part of me considered him an angel already. The boisterous days and querulous nights, the sounds of which travelled through half the slum attracted gossip and back-biting to a level which was hard for me to handle. While some kids in the slum made fun of me, elders cheered me up and sent undue pampers, which I could barely digest. Apart from my difficulties, my mother used to get beaten so much. My mother hid behind several excuses. Her most favourite one was that she slipped and fell in the kitchen. She thought of it as an excellent excuse, and I let her believe it.

If someone comes home saying that he resolved all of this, then he is angel to me. I dreamed of playing normally with the kids again, without being the centre of the bullying. 

And my dream was then interrupted by another pleasant surprise from a man, an angel whom I saw first only a few minutes ago. A gift. I quickly unwrapped the pink foil sheathing the gift underneath, while his thick voice spoke. 

“It’s for your first day in school, son.”

I jumped in joy as I saw a new school bag. I used the one that my brother used to for three years, which he had used for over many years – I can’t remember how old he is than me. This bag was a brand new, pure black bag with cartoons over it. I remember some cartoons from Sumi’s TV, but can’t recall others. It didn’t even matter. I’d be happy for this bag even if it had no cartoon on it. 

My mom I saw was in tears again, perhaps the tears of joy or perhaps the tears of seeing me joyful, I didn’t look deep enough for I allowed myself some moments of refined happiness. 

I hugged the new man who’d come in our house and thanked him hard. I was then asked to go inside the bedroom and that my mom and dad would come soon. Having handed over the remote control of my happiness in their hands, I agreed to go to bed immediately and thus began my presence game. 

“Is this the only way, Bhai? Is there no other way to find peace and heaven?” I heard my dad speaking softly with the visitor. The rain had stopped and winds gave way for words to flow from our living room to the bedroom. 

“If not this, there is no other way. God is forgiving, and it asks for very little. You’re doomed to this fate for it is what He wants from you. My sermons never fail to stress on the fact that God gives ten in return for one. With your jewel so precious, you’ll be soon rid of debts, will have a house of your own and also a car. You’ll have more kids.”

At this point I got bored of their talks. I wished they would rather discuss about more gifts for me. 

Early morning, I woke up with a surprising zest and energy that my dad had not seen before he said. 

“Will I please take the new bag today?” I begged. I was told that I look cute when I say please. So, I said it until he gave up his shield and agreed for it. 

“Of course you can, beta. It’s for you only. And it’s all packed with your books and tiffin. Go, get fresh.”

Like an obedient one, I hurriedly got dressed, mom combed my hair flat on my little skull and I put on the bag. Had we had some money, which I think this angel will give us someday, we’ll buy a camera to take my picture with this new bag. 

“How do I look mom? I think I look very good. See, I assure you that all the kids in the school are going to be so awed.”

My mom knelt down and hugged me for quite long, tears again in her eyes. “You’re the blessed one, Ashraf. May God look after you.”

“You too, mom.” I said in a kind of a hurry that one would have who wants to eagerly show off his new school bag to the world. 

Dad dropped at school. While I had forgotten, he reminded me of his promise. “Beta, remember my promise? Believe me, it will come true today itself.”

I simply had a very hard time trying to contain the rush of happiness within me. I got a bag yesterday and will get to see my brother too after so long. “I will return his old used bag to Shasha today. But I’ll never give this new one to him.”

My father laughed a little on my childishness and that is the last I saw him for the moment. School bell rang and all kids fresh with memories from summer vacations found it hard to focus on the studies. 

When I pulled up my bag to take out the books, I saw that the bag didn’t have any books at all. It had a strange box. Curiously, I pulled it out gently and I fell asleep. I do remember harsh cries and heat radiating through my head and body, but I remember it faintly. I tried to check if my new bag was okay, but what he saw barely looked like his school anymore. Where his classroom walls were white, now there was a dancing fusion of yellow and orange. Where I remembered my friends seated in excitement and new school clothes, I then saw undisciplined order of enflamed wood and broken furniture. 

I was feeling an odd sort of a pain, and especially since my bag wasn’t in sight, I cried. I remember falling in a deep slumber before I was done crying. 

When I woke up a few hours after, I ran and I ran very fast to my mom because I could not wait to tell her about what happened with me. As strange as it was, I was free of pain and my mom needs to know or else she will cry again. Probably she was already crying. And she was!

I approached her. “Mom, look I am here. My bag, my clothes, it’s all here. I am all fine.”

Dad tried to calm her down too, but she kept crying harder and harder. I spoke louder. My voice passed through her. I was confused. I touched her cheek because I knew that was always calmed her down. But my hand went through her body. I could not touch her. I could not be heard. I started to sob and I sobbed hard and heavy. 

Dad spoke to her. “The sacrifice was necessary!” He shouted. “It was necessary. We will now be free from all our miseries. This is God’s will and he is now going to be so happy with his brother, playing together once again in His paradise, His heaven.”

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A Fortune Cookie

Envy followed her like a shadow, in every façade of the sky-rocketing career that she built around herself like the defense walls of a monumental fort – high and impregnable. Living a life filled with success and ceaseless inflow of wealth, she barely found time for her social life. However, she never wanted to get away from a chance to meet her childhood friend, a soul sister and among the few real people that she had in her socially empty life – Susan.

It was a Chinese restaurant that Lucy frequented very often, usually with her colleagues and clients. With the number of small businesses that she had her wealth spread out, she took it to herself to acquire as much information that she could about the businesses as well as those who made the business run. She chose to eat at the Chinese restaurant as a measure of being healthy. Exercising in a routine that demanded her focus on every hour of the clock was hardly something that she preferred to do. Least that she did for herself was to choose healthier diet.

“It has been a long time, Lucy!” Susan spoke with an unmistakable look of joy in her eyes. “How I miss you, busybee!” Susan hugged Lucy before they settled at their table.

Over the pleasant conversation that covered the topics of their personal lives, the businesses that Lucy is tapping on, and Susan’s nagging over her wish for Lucy to get hitched, they ended the meal with a laugh. At the end, they received one fortune cookie each, which Lucy rarely opened, but she did this time on Susan’s insistence. It read, “Life is shorter than you think. Live it while it lasts.”

Lucy felt a little discomfort in her gut upon reading this ominous note. It felt like that message was specifically for her. She frowned, and looked for the waitress that left the fortune cookie on her table, but she did not see her anywhere. Eventually, she let it slip away from her mind and focussed on the million other things that she had to for the rest of the day.

After a usual hard day, she retired in her huge apartment post-midnight—something that she rarely did. On harder nights than this, she rested in a room that she built for herself in her office, where she’d have her privacy for sleep. Envy followed her here as well, as it was miraculous how deep she slept every night, despite the stress that she handles every day for her livelihood. As much as she enjoyed sleeping, her routine permitted her nothing more than a five-hour window to sleep, and she slept every minute of it, unlike this one night.

Few moments after she hit the bed, she was woken up by a loud piercing sound of glass breaking on to the marble flooring that covered the floor of her downstairs rooms. She woke up, alert and vigilant. Someone had broken into her house, she was certain. The moonlight projected shafts of light filtered by the scarce leaves from the tree outside the window. She pulled out her pistol from the bedside table and got out of the bed, befriending stealth.

She got a peek of the intruders. Not one, but three of them. She suddenly felt weak in her knees, overpowered by the force of three against one, but she maintained her resolve. She sent a message to Susan, because that was the only way to communicate without having to make a sound. As she anticipated, Susan did not answer her message. Panicked, Lucy sneaked a peek from the open door of her bedroom and got aware of the movements that happened in the rooms downstairs. The masked intruders were searching for something, but Lucy did not know what. She was hoping that they would find what they need, and left.

She heard the noise of falling furniture, breaking glasses; sign that the intruders are either foolish, or clueless that Lucy was in the house that night. Lucy stood with her back against the wall along her bedroom door. The breeze swayed the leaves outside, making their shadows dance on the floor in front of her. There was no noise for some moments and then what she heard shook her off her feet. She heard them taking the staircase, the footsteps heard distinctly in the otherwise empty night. She knelt and walked to the corner of the room, with the pistol raised to her shoulder level, ready to be fired.

The intruders barged in the open door, all three of them. Laced with anxiety, Lucy lost her focus and aim and missed her first shot. The repercussions of that misfire invited a shower of bullets piercing her flesh preceded by muffled shots. She screamed in fear first, and then pain and woke up from the nightmare that made her peace run off into the woods. Drenched in sweat, she breathed heavier than ever and took a walk outside in her house, finding every inch of it intact. She could not remember the last time she had a nightmare this haunting that it took away her sleep for the night.

She was shaken and disturbed by the literally unreal events from the last night, and it showed on her face and behaviour. No amount of caffeine worked its charm.

She was alone at lunch, and she decided to go to the same Chinese restaurant again. Anxiously waiting for her take-out, she was immersed in thoughts, clearly worried and anxious.

“Ma’am!” A voice came screaming into her left ear, as if the waiter was calling her for many times. She shook herself up, bringing herself out of the realistic and yet an unreal nightmare, collected her meal and thanked the waiter. She dug into the fortune cookie first and what she read left her lips trembling, her head spinning, her hands shaking and her voice stopped midway in her mouth, as is she choked on her own voice. She felt down on her knees, dropping the cookie on the ground that had a note, which read, “Some dreams will come true.”