Welcome back, everyone! Who’s ready for this week’s instalment? If you missed the Introduction to Disconnect: A Novel , the PrologueChapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, or Chapter 4, do check them out before reading Chapter 5. Disconnect is fiction, comprised of a prologue, an epilogue, and 13 chapters. Every week, on every Thursday, a chapter will be posted on the blog, non-stop, until the entire book is up. Chapter 5 of Disconnect, my second novel, begins right below! Sound off in the comments so that I can know how the story is going so far? Yay or nay? Let me know! Happy Reading!

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CHAPTER 5 – 2 P.M.

SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA watches the hands of his wrist-watch strike the hour mark, and then looks up from it, into the face of the troubled woman across the table. Incredibly, she doesn’t appear to be troubled any longer. She behaves as though she is at peace, reunited with her son. Only, that hasn’t happened yet. Silently, she raises the espresso to her lips and drains the cup.

Once she has sets the cup back down, Kapadia says, “Mrs. Sha– Payal, your husband asked me to look after you.”

“I know,” she replies, a bit of life working its way into her voice. The coffee seems to be working, Kapadia thinks. “I expected he would. But it wasn’t necessary, Inspector. Believe me.”

“With everything that’s happening….”

“I needed to get out. Everyone at the house has been saying the same things over and over again. About how unfortunate we are, how impossible it’s being to track them down. I felt like I couldn’t breathe in my own home.”

“I can understand that,” Kapadia says, sounding solemn.

Payal’s eyebrows draw up in interest. “Do you have children of your own, Inspector?”

Suddenly ill at ease, Kapadia realizes he has not thought of his wife the entire day. This is the first he is reminded of her, and he feels a tight pressure slowly build in his chest. Like someone is squeezing his rib-cage with his heart inside it.

“No,” he says, trying not to let his resentfulness creep into his voice. “My wife… she cannot conceive.”

Payal frowns. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she says mournfully.

Inspector Kapadia struggles to grasp what is happening to this woman. She is so at odds with herself, and it all fluctuates across her face. The kidnapping has rendered something off-kilter in her.

“If I were in your position, I’m sure I wouldn’t handle today any differently,”he says by way of compassion.

Kapadia wants to immediately bang his head against a wall. He doesn’t know what possessed him say that. He feels a twinge of guilt in his gut, for he truly is not sure how it would feel if his own child were taken. His wife of four years has failed to bear him a child, and their only option is to adopt. The news nearly broke his wife. It nearly broke them, but not once since the unfortunate diagnosis has he let her blame herself. It took time, as such things do, to accept her sterility, and once they made peace with it the topic never resurfaced even once. They have been putting off the decision to adopt for nearly a year now, each telling the other that they should concentrate on work for the time being until the time feels right, both knowing that it is just an excuse they hiding behind. For Kapadia, adoption means accelerated parenthood. He can go from being childless to the father of someone else’s child in a split second if he chooses to make that decision. Nothing has scared him more, which is why he suggested the postponement. For Kapadia’s wife… he cannot be sure what she thinks. She has buried away the pain of not being able to bring a child into this world so deep and so far ddown that it seems like her diagnosis and all the mentl turmoil that came with it might as well have happened to a different person entirely. The past year has been hell for their marriage, and he is irked by how she seems completely unaffected and oblivious to the strain, pretending like everything is all right between them and that they aren’t running away from their problems.

Right now, he can’t help but ask himself if he would indeed be as agonized for that adopted child as Payal is for her own blood.

“I know how hard you’ve been working through the night,” Payal’s silken voice pulls him from his thoughts. “You and everybody else haven’t had any rest. I deeply thank you for doing all that you can to find Shaan.” She reaches across the table to place her soft hand upon his.

Inspector Kapadia drowns under a second wave of guilt. If it wasn’t for such bad straits he would be out there employing all his acquired set of skills and doing all that he can to find her son. Any appreciation for him is undue, and he hates himself for it. Her touch only makes it hurt more.

His jaw clenches. If only that damn ACP wasn’t so unreasonable.

“Would you care for something?” Payal offers as she withdraws her hand. “To refresh you?”

“No, nothing, thank you,” says Kapadia, instantly bashful. He doesn’t now why. He can feel his face heat up.

“We should get you a sandwich and some tea.”

“I’m really fine, Mrs–Payal.”

Payal clicks her tongue in disapproval. “You won’t be able to find my son if you are running on fumes, will you? I think I need another coffee, too. Besides, Shakuntala had arranged for some food, Pizza I think, for everyone working so hard back at home and I’m afraid I took you away from it.”

Payal places the order with a waitress. Sitting in a coffee shop with the fresh smell of baked goods and coffee wafting around him, Kapadia’s stomach growls. He suddenly cannot wait to eat something since that morning, when he was served tea and breakfast at the Shah residence. Working at full capacity for twelve hours doesn’t leave the body unscathed. He was told to report in the morning, but the reported kidnapping had him out of his bed a mere hour after the ACP phoned him about his promotion. This is the first few minutes since then that he has set himself on pause.

“We should get back soon,” he informs the woman in the white dress, his voice business-like again. They have been gone far too long. Besides, this is not the break in the case he anticipated. There’s no clue or mystery to solve here. He is just being a glorified babysitter right now.

“We will,” Payal replies. “But there’s one stop I have to make before I can go back home. It won’t take long.”

“If it is important…”

“I cannot express just how important it is, Inspector.”

*

NAZNIN and GoodGuy187 know more about each other than they did an hour ago.

She has learnt that he is fluent in computer-speak, is a seasoned gamer, an overall tech wiz, and likes long walks on the beach when the weather is particularly raging.

He has learnt that she loathes Indian serial dramas and romantic comedies, that she can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than two minutes, and has a soft spot for fluffy kittens.

They openly share personal details now, save for who they are and where they live.

Anonimity is everything, as Naznin keeps reminding herself.

Presently, they are sipping Darjeeling tea–a common guilty pleasure they share–at Café Mondegar. She was taken by surprise when he brought her here. There’s a world of difference between this café and Eleventh Heaven. It only muddied her opinion of him. He walks and talks like he has got life figured out, but he doesn’t have the kind of assuming attitude one would expect. Nothing about him says plastic or pretense, or that he’s just another spoilt brat out to make others feel worse than they already do. Across the range of topics that have come up, whether it is the Syrian crisis or the ridiculous ban on beef, the atmosphere of growing intolerance in the country or the permanent demise of plastic bags, all of his opinions are absolutely unbiased and insightful. GoodGuy187 resonates more with her now than any of her friends ever have. She can’t remember the last time she encountered a genuine person like him. She can’t recall the last time a sixteen-year-old boy felt more like a teacher than a peer.

Looking back from where they were, she is stunned. She wasn’t expecting things to go this way, after he pulled that move on her at lunch. Some time in the past hour all her apprehensions and nerves melted away, and they now look like old friends having an animated discussion. It must have happened when we left the restaurant and got back on his bike to get here, Naznin thinks. She wonders how they must have looked together on the motorcycle, driving through the streets, sitting so closely, their bodies hugged front to back. Like a young couple.

The thought makes her visibly blush.

GoodGuy187 notices. “Did I say something funny?”

“Oh no, I was just thinking…”

“About me?” He grins.

“Not everyone is thinking about you.” She is beginning to like that mock narcissism. It’s part of the charisma, without being obnoxious. She looks around the café, which is half-full of patrons. “The city is quiet for a Saturday, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I’m sure everybody has planted their butts in front of a T.V. for the match.”

“Oh. There’s a match going on?” Naznin inquires.

GoodGuy187 rolls his eyes. “Yeah, India and Pakistan: highly anticipated and overly hyped.”

She laughs. “I’m sorry,” she says, shaking her head. “Let’s backtrack. You were saying something about the paintings before I so rudely began daydreaming?”

“Yeah, don’t you think there’s something to them?” he pipes up again, gesturing to the walls around them.

Every wall of the café is professionally painted with caricatures, with no borders separating one from the rest, so it all forms one grand piece. Naznin can see what he means. One depicts a beaming waiter, his thirty-two teeth on full display, carrying foaming beer jugs. Another depicts two droopy-eyed lovers sipping the same milkshake with their own straws. There is a black cat suspiciously eyeing a large orange fish. A big-breasted lady is invading her date’s dinner plate while he isn’t looking. A moustached man is tipping his top-hat to nobody in particular. A black and white striped horse is tugging a carriage piled with beer barrels. And so much more. It doesn’t end, Naznin thinks. She notes how alcohol is a very prominent theme–not just on the walls, but also with the pints people are sipping at other tables. She will never touch alcohol so long as she lives, but that doesn’t stop her from appreciating the beauty of it all. She tries to figure out if all the caricatures put together tell one single story, but she doesn’t know what sort of story it would be.

Suddenly, Naznin can’t concentrate too well. A rowdy group of men on the table behind her decide to light a few cigarettes. The air turns smoky and she has to constantly fan the air around her face in order to breathe. It is one of the reasons she has never visited this place. With dense clouds of smoke billowing out the windows at any given time, this place gives the impression that it is perpetually on fire.

“This is the first time I’m seeing them,” she says, coughing a little. “And I see what you mean.”

“Isn’t it all just… something else?” His eyes are wide open with excitement. The artist incorporated humour and boredom into one piece.”

“Or, he too was drunk and had no idea what he was painting.”

With a bow of his head, GoodGuy187 agrees that could be a possibility.

“It looks like you have an eye for this,” she comments. “Like, you should get into the arts or something.”

“Oh, that’s the plan,” he says, sipping his tea. “Photography. I’ve been compiling a… portfolio. I guess you could call it that. I have a vintage polaroid I use to take my pictures.”

Naznin’s jaw drifts open. “Wow, that’s amazing. I bet your parents aren’t happy about that. Most guys I know are pressured into being engineers and doctors starting from now.”

He bites into the corner of his mouth. “I… um,” he stutters. “My parents passed away when I was ten.”

Naznin’s heart stops. She doesn’t feel it pick up again. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know,” she splutters. She’s quite possibly the most horrible girl in the world.

“How could you, I never mentioned it?” He shrugs. “It’s alright. The accident happened a long time ago.”

And she told him about her love for her parents and how life would be unlivable without them. So stupid. Naznin begins to hate herself so much that she once again considers fleeing to hide her disgraceful face. GoodGuy187, however, looks like he’s already forgotten she even mentioned his family. It encourages her to keep the conversation going.

Her voice is still a little small. “You potfolio…”

“Ah yes,” he says, resting his elbows on the table. “So it’s really just a compilation of every photo I’m proud of. A few years ago, I made the decision to get a head start with my career. When I thirteen. And before you say anything, I know how it sounds–like it promotes this idea that we, the younger generation, are so in the dark and we live under the delusion that we are the light. But I just don’t want to be one of those people who wake up at forty resentful for having wasted their lives at a job because they were pressured into a career at an age when they were as clueless about the world as they were about themselves. I mean, like you said. This isn’t the time in our lives for us to make quick definitive decisions. Where’s the fun in that? It’s the time to make mistakes, learn, explore, dabble, be stupid and dumb, fall down and get hurt, and get back up again. Not commit to something for the rest of our lives!”

A veritable rant, Naznin thinks, bemused. GoodGuy187 pulls in a hard breath, clearly having worked himself up with that. But Naznin was listening with nothing less than rapt attention. She couldn’t have put it better herself. It was the universal injustice that defied logic.

Children are indeed the future. It’s a cliché, but things are clichés because they couldn’t be truer.

“Sorry, I don’t usually get carried away like that,” he says, scratching his head.

“No, don’t be. I second that” Naznin says whole-heartedly. “So… what exactly is it that you photograph?”

“Anything that catches my eye, really. People, places, good old Mother nature.”

She smiles. “I would have really liked to see your work.”

He hesitates. “You would? Well, I… um… I actually have some on me–”

Naznin almost launches out of her chair. “I’d love to see them!” she blurts out. “I mean, you don’t mind, do you? I know artists are really shy and self-conscious when it comes to showing others their work.”

“Hmm.” His mouth purses. “Well, I guess that curse has yet to befall me.”

GoodGuy187 brings out his wallet and from it he removes photographs the likes of which Naznin has never seen. Verve. That’s the first word that comes to her mind, and rightly so. Though each photo evokes a new reaction, Verve is the constant element across them all. With a capital V, Naznin thinks. She particularly admires the ones with people in them, opposed to the ones of nature and still life. But those are no less sublime. The models of GoodGuy187’s stills are ordinary people, mostly teens and probably his friends, who aren’t posing for a shot or look like they know a camera is even there. What makes them even more gergeous is that every last one of his pictures is black and white, forcing the viewer to become colourblind and let the subject speak for itself, unaided and unblemished by colour. They are unmanufactured, entirely candid images, and Naznin finds herself completely obsessed.

Whether with the aesthetics or the photographer, she does not know if there is a difference.

“You like them?” GoodGuy187 says uncertainly. He cannot read her face. “You don’t like them?”

“I love them, are you kidding? You’re so young and you already have all this sorted out. I mean, I’m no connoisseur, but you know you’re going places right? I can see it in these pictures.” She really can. He keeps getting better and better, this boy stranger. How much better can it get?

“Now you’re just pulling my leg,” he waves her off, scoffing. “They aren’t that good. I mean, sometimes my hands shake quite a bit when I have to take a really good shot so the image blurs and then there’s the problem of angles. I can never figure out which angle is the best, I keep going back and forth and by the time I can decide my friends just get bored and leave. These ones here, I’m still not entirely happy with. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing.”

It is just like a young artist to be a perfectionist and second-guess himself. Naznin knows each person is his own worst critic. She did not expect it, but it makes him more vulnerable, in a good way. The best way.

She holds his gaze syeadily, tilting her head at him. “Believe me, you’ve really got something going on here. Chase this dream. Never let it go. Promise me that.”

He seems to cave in slowly, smiling. “Thanks, I will.” It is his turn to blush. His cheeks gain a bit of colour. She stares at them Pink. “Now, you. Got any talents, TeenGirl1242?” He returns all the pictures to his wallet and stuffs it in his back pocket.

“I wish I had even a single,” she sighs, shoulders sagging like she is deflating. “But even if I did, it wouldn’t make a difference. I’ll be betrothed by the time I’m twenty. You know, becoming a stranger’s housewife and all.”

GoodGuy187 snorts. “You know, I’ve always questioned these arranged marriages. How can we be expected to spend the rest of our lives with a perfect stranger whom we know little to nil about? It baffles me.”

“It baffles me, too!”

They shake hands on it, initiating themselves as the first members and co-founders of the Anti Arranged-Marriage Association. Naznin will be a traitor to the cause in a few years, but he promises not to hold it against her. They are having a killer time hooting with laughter when Naznin feels like she is going to choke to death. She forgot to clear the smoky air around her face. Coughing, she fans her hands rapidly. She swears she could kill those rowdy guys behind her.

GoodGuy187 calls for the cheque once their drinks are done. Despite her protests, he ends up footing it and refuses to hear a word about it. He won’t take a paisa from her. Returning her purse to her backpack, she thinks she has finally found one thing that she dislikes about GoodGuy187.

They get up to leave together, and Naznin walks in front, the first to the exit the café. At the threshold, when she turns to face GoodGuy187, she is confused to see that he hasn’t followed he outside but is still back inside the café, talking to the very men who polluted her breathing space. She goes walks back inside, wondering what he’s doing.

One of the burly men, with a tattoo of a snake on his arm, is sneering at GoodGuy187. “Aren’t you a little too young for a smoke?”

“I’m eighteen. I just look young,” GoodGuy187 says impatiently, springing his knees. “Come one, man. I’m jonesing for it. I need just one drag.”

Naznin’s heart breaks into a million tiny pieces. He’s a smoker.

Naznin could cry. She has just found one more thing to hate about him. And it is the worst thing that possibly could be. She watches in sheer disappointment as the burly man hands over a lit cigarette and GoodGuy187 excitedly takes it. She feels the uncontrollable urge to whack him senseless with her anvil of a backpack, but then what GoodGuy187 does next astounds her.

“Thanks,” GoodGuy187 says, and holing the cigarette between both hands, he slowly twists and rips it apart, a henious grin on his mouth. Then he flicks the two halves onto the table. “I take it you never learned how to read,” he tells the men with a voice of authority. “So let me spell out for you what it says on the box there. It say, ‘Smoking kills’.”

“You flipping punk!” The tattooed man, who watched his cigarette die, shouts, leaping to his feet, ready to pulverize GoodGuy187 with mucscle-bound arms that can turn anyone into minced meat. “What was that, smart-ass? Really eager to meet the Big Guy upstairs?”

Naznin’s heart, which had stopped moments earlier, picks up again. She recognizes the need to step between them and nip a trip to the Emergency Room in the bud. “I’m sorry! My friend is not right in the head! He doesn’t know what he’s doing!”

Everyone in the café gasps, expecting to see a fight break out. Both hands on his chest, Naznin tries to shove GoodGuy187 away and out of there because all the rowdy men at the table aren’t too happy about what he did. All of them jump up and crack their knuckles, one particular man climbing across the table to reach GoodGuy187, spewing expletives. Spurred on, GoodGuy187 accepts the challenge to take them on all at once and tells them to come at him, raising his balled fists to match his words.

But Naznin is still between them, struggling to do her best. She feels like she is trying to keep a military tank from going to war. GoodGuy187 barely budges. Why is he so strong? she cries silently. But, a moment later, GoodGuy187 looks down and into her eyes, seeming to notice how they scream with fear. So he finally relents. For her sake, he backs down, though not before making an ‘I’m watching you’ gesture at the men. They return it with vulgar ones, flashing their fingers. Naznin grabs the boy’s hand and races out of the café at the speed of light.

When the two of them reach the end of the pavement, where is bike is parked, Naznin complains, “You didn’t have to do that for me!”

GoodGuy187 dusts his shirt. It is not even dirty. She almost laughs. Almost.

“When I’m on a date I prefer to be in a cancer-less environment,” he says baldly.

“Right. Café Mondegar is the ideal place for that,” she says sarcastically. “And secondly, who said this is a date?”

He lifts a shoulder. “What would you call it then?”

He gazes at her, with his devastatingly gorgeous gray eyes. She can’t come up with an answer with him looking at her like that. Like he sees her. Immobilized, she almost shuts down, can’t think, but when she realizes she doesn’t want any person to have that kind of power over her, she finally quips back.

“You’re a real Casanova, aren’t you?”

*

ADIL can hear nothing but Them.

When They resurfaced in his mind, he knew he couldn’t take one more Crocin tablet without overdosing. And Their yammering, shrieking voices are going to drive him to the brink. But he will not give in to Their demands. He cannot stand aside and watch that little boy be victimized without cause. That’s where he draws the line. He knows he should have thought twice before agreeing to help Ismaeel bhai, even if he owes the man a great deal. He should have run away or foiled their plan before they could even take the boy from his parents. Things could have been different then. They would have tried with all Their might to make certain that one way or another he had a part to play, but he would have thought of something and handled Them somehow.

He fists his hands in his hair and he pulls hard.

“Stop talking!”

He can’t ever escape Them. They always get what They want. They never shut up.

“Stop it! Stop it! Shut up!”

But he has to at least try. He was despairing before, but the time to act has come.

And I have a plan.

The T.V. is echoing in the basement with commentators describing the opening ceremonies of today’s game. Ismaeel bhai lounges on the settee with his lunch of chicken tandoori and naan, entirely absorbed by the show.

“Ismaeel bh-bhai.” Adil can barely hear himself over the T.V. He retries harder, with more conviction. It feels unnatural to do it. “Is-ismaeel bh-bhai!

His guardian finally notices him out of the corner of his eye, and beckons him to take a seat beside him. “Adil, join me! The game is about to begin. I have a gut feeling its Pakistan’s time this year. Can you imagine what it would mean if they win today? On the same day as our mission? It’s going to bode well for us, you watch. I know it will.

Adil couldn’t care less about a stupid cricket match. He’s come here on a mission of his own. “I w-was wondering if I sh-hould report for work.”

Ismaeel bhai’s mouth stops chewing. The man studies him.  Then he turns his attention back to the T.V like he’s lost interest. “For what? Why would you want to go back there?”

“If I don’t i-it might s-seem suspicious.”

“It doesn’t matter. You are done with them.”

“B-ut what if I could j-just g-get a feel of the situation there. I could come back w-with in-inside information.” He is having trouble keeping still and strong, quaking without meaning to.

“It doesn’t matter, Adil, you are not listening to me. They can’t find us. Forget about them.”

Adil might be pushing it too far. He wonders if he should stop before Ismaeel bhai gets suspicious. No. You can’t, he thinks. He made a personal vow to try his best.

“B-but if I c-could–”

“You really want to go?” Ismaeel bhai interjects, eyes closing slowly. Then, without warning, he launches from the sette, making Adil flinch back. Ismaeel bhai sucks on his red-stained oily thumb, glaring at him. “You really want to go there, my son?” Adil wants to nod, but something tells him he is not meant to. The way that question was phrased, it doesn’t seem right. Adil remains still and silent, or ties to, while his guardian silently peruses him, as though tying to look right through him. Something must be giving him away. Something in his eyes, or is words, his unstoppable shaking. “And what will you do exactly once you go there? Go water the plants so you can be a good gardner? And what? You will secretly see what the parents and police are doing?”

Exactly. I will go there and be a spy for you. “Y-ye-”

“And then what?” the man says, nicely. Almost too nicely, and Adil closes his eyes in defeat. He isn’t fooling anybody. His true motives are out. His guardian knows it, can read it across every inch of his embarrased face. Ismaeel bhai comes to the conclusion Adil has been dreading, screaming. “AND THEN YOU WILL TELL THEM ABOUT US AND BRING THE POLICE BACK HERE?!

The insinuation sounds more like a fact than a question.

Adil doesn’t know where to begin. He can’t talk his way out of this one. “No, no, Is-s-s-”

DON’T LIE TO ME!” Ismaeel bhai kicks his lunch plate angrily. Red onions and chicken meat rolls across the floor. Mint leaves and oily masala stick to the walls. Ismaeel bahi marches toward Adil, feet poundingheavily, hands balled into itchy fists. Adil backs up into the wall till he is cornered, whimpering involuntarily. “What have I been trying to teaching you all this time? That they are our friends? That we should do everything we can to make them feel happy? No! Look at me! Look-at-me!” Adil has no choice but to look his guardian right in the eyes, their faces inches apart, the man’s eyes ablaze with righteous anger. “We don’t have anything to do with those sinners anymore. They are only good for the money and after that they are history. You think just because that family gave you a gardening job that you owe them something? You don’t owe them anything, Adil. They owe us.”

“S-s-orry, Is-ismaeel bhai. I p-promise I won’t–”

“You won’t what? You care about them so much that you want to go over there and give them a shoulder to cry on? If that’s the case, I don’t think what I said this morning was clear enough. I tried to leave it to Allah, but I will have to take this into my own hands. This will teach you a lesson once and for all. Come!

Ismaeel bhai seizes his wrist, rough fingers digging into his flesh, and Adil finds himself being dragged upstairs. He fails to get his legs to work. Fear has almost paralyzed him and he struggles to keep from slipping over his own feet. He doesn’t know what’s happening, what is going to happen, but he will surely pay for it with pain. They stop at the end of the paint-shedding hallway. The Ravana mask is forced down over his face, and Ismaeel bhai dons his own as well.

Then the battered door is unlatched and pulled open. Revealed on the other side is the little boy. The little boy who is cowering on the floor, blinking in the sudden downpour of light that has blinded him. Ismaeel bhai reaches behind his belt and pulls out a black, heavy gun. It is tossed into Adil’s hand. Adil doesn’t know where to look: at the boy’s eyes which have popped out of his skull, or at the image of a firearm sitting in his hands.

“Shoot him. Show me that you understand what these people are. If they aren’t one of us, they are not on our side. Put an end to this.”

Adil swallows. “N-no n-n-o, I can’t. You s-said we can’t hurt h-him. W-we need him alive.”

His guardian barks. “KILL HIM! Put a bullet in his head and finish this now!”

Adil can’t begin to understand how he managed to exacerbate the situation. He was supposed to change the boy’s fate for the better, not the worse. He had a good plan in mind. A solid plan.

A hare-brained plan. Because of his stupid stupidness.

The boy has started to cry now, lying prostrate with his forehead pressed agasint the floor, arms around his head to protect himself from getting shot with a bullet. He looks like a hapless animal cornered as prey that knows there’s no escaping this. Adil has a fleeting thought of turning the gun on his guardian, but he doesn’t like the idea of shooting anyone. He has never had his finger on a weapon, let alone a loaded one. He feels like he is not supposed to be holding it. And now, They are at it again. Shoot the boy, They tell him. His head sets off in a boom boom boom frenzy. His own thoughts and conscience are spliced together with every other thing. The gun is shaking so violently in his sweaty palm that he half believes he is likely to miss, in spite of two feet from the boy, and his life may well be spared. He hopes he will be that lucky, however unlikely that outcome sounds.

“Three,” Ismaeel bhai says, starting a counting down.

Adil finds that his arm is raising itself to aim at the boy of it’s own volition, forefinger slipping over the trigger.

“Two.”

Hearing the countdown, the boy lifts his head and screams, his final cry for mercy exploding through the empty paint-shedding hallway, but Adil cannot hear the full force of it. He hears only a muffled version under his headache and Their thunderous voices screaming at him to pull the trigger and end the boy’s life.

Adil hears “One.”

His forefinger bends reflexively, and he doesn’t remember making that decision.

When the bullet fires with a blast, the force throws Adil off his feet.

*

SHAAN has soiled himself. Aside from his pants, his t-shirt is stained with his tears as well. I want to be with mummy and papa. He wants them with him, right here, at this very moment. He doesn’t want the Bad Men to shoot him. A scream tears from his throat until he loses his voice. No, no, no. Please, please, please.

     Nooooooooooooooo-

His heart jumps into his mouth when the gun goes off, and his voice suddenly returns with a howl he didn’t know he was capable of. It is a cry that is louder than any other one from his life. He squeezes his eyes shut to block out everything and make all of this not real and just a bad dream.

But nothing is as he expected. He opens his eyes just in time to see the gun fall, clattering  just a few feet in front of him. Then his shooter, the small Bad Man, falls down as well, next to the gun, curling up into a ball on the floor. “What did you do!… What did you do!…” He repeats the question to himself, beating his head with his hands, harder and harder every time.

“MashaAllah.” The Big Bad Man puts a hand on Shaan’s shooter. “I had to be sure you understood.” Shaan’s shooter recoils from the man’s touch, shivering. “Remember who the guilty ones are. Make no mistake. They are the enemy.” Shaan looks at the finger pointing the accusation at him. The Big Bad Man stalks toward him. “Get back in, you filthy animal!”

He delivers a mean kick to Shaan’s stomach. Then, darkness envelops him all over again as he stumbles back and the door bangs shut

Shaken to his little core, he crawls into an empty cardboard box and stays there to sob. He can’t help it. He feels like taking his thumb into his mouth like he used to when he was smaller. The cruel green faces of the Bad Men swim around in his head.

Shaan realizes his shooter is still outside. Shaan can hear him cry and scold himself and talk to somebody still, but Shaan does not hear anybody say anything back. The small Bad Man says to leave him alone, to stop yelling and screaming because they have gotten what they wanted. His every word haunts Shaan, spooking him more and more in the darkness of his confines.

He can’t understand any of this. A twinge of phantom pain creeps up Shaan’s body, and he runs his hands all over it; his arms, his legs, his stomach, his head. But there is no wound. It’s like a miracle. He thinks that’s what it’s called. The bullet must have missed him. It had to have.

Shaan’s shooter is still raving like a madman, talking to himself, and Shaan can’t take it anymore. All he wants is the man to shut up himself. Keep quiet, he begs. He seals off his ears, pressing both hands hard against them. In a little while, as he opens up to listen, he listens to his shooter pick himself up and slink away from the door. Then, all that Shaan can hear are his weak, dragging footsteps echoing down the hallway, leaving him alone.

Several minutes later his tears stop flowing, and his sobs have reduced to soft sniffles. A ringing silence makes him feel calm and safe again in the room, a sound he never knew silence had. He lets the peace work its way through him.

But his peace is short-lived.

The grunting that Shaan heard before returns.

Once he mustered enough courage to do it and the grunting had stopped for some time, he used his fingers to investigate the source off it. And what he learned is, it is a ventilation duct in the wall, a grate thorugh which air flows in. There are many at his home like these, but none of them make any noise. Here, in this one, there has to be some kind of creature living inside it. And now, it is back, and it sounds like it is hungry. For a seven-year-old boy.

Oh no.

When he realizes he chose to crawl into a cardboard box which i closest to the duct opening, he scurries out of it. This is too close for comfort. He scrambles to his feet and backs up, faced toward the duct so that no creature can come at him, even though he can hardly see a thing. There is just blackness all around him. He stops, trusting the closed battered door to be there behind him so he can lean agasint it, like before–before, when his parents’ voices seemed to fill the darkness of this room with light and his heart with the hope of a rescue. That seemed like a lifetime ago now.

But now, when he leans back against the door, it gives way.

After falling hard on his bottom, he scrambles up again, confused. He squints in the light, looking around the paint-shedding hallway. Wonderingly, he then steps back into the dark prison room and closes the door. But Shaan is stumped. The problem still seems to persist: the door just won’t lock in place.

What?

*

END OF CHAPTER 5

© Amaan Khan, August 2, 2018.

To continue reading Disconnect, head on over to Chapter 6.

———-

Glossary

  1. paisa: an Indian currency denomination (like cent is for dollar, paisa is for rupee)
  2. naan: a flat-bread (can be googled for images)
  3. Crocin: a painkiller like Aspirin, for headaches
  4. chicken tandoori: chicken slow-cooked on a tandoor (can be googled for images)
  5. bhai: a term of endearment or respect for a gentleman, meaning ‘brother’

 

 

 

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