It would be cliched to say that he would never forget the sight in front of his young eyes. It needs to be said, however. For it was so sudden, so unprecedented, that it warranted a rightful place among the frightful memories he would need to carry to his grave.
It was a man sitting on a chair smoking a cigarette. Blue smoke billowing out of his partly gaping mouth and the roll of tobacco balanced in a frighteningly fashionable manner between his index and middle. The head slightly tilted to the side, adding a new and surreal dimension to the otherwise simple scene. He could not make out the eyes in the dim light but could very well feel them penetrating him, raking out every secret he hid inside, including the most recent. It was the tilt, however that disturbed him the most.
The vision stayed clear for only a few seconds. It then inexplicably attained amoebic proportions and its contours started dancing about in front of our hero’s eyes, adding visual incomprehension to his existing misery. He blinked innocently to clear the vision and looked. When he was done with it, his vision bettered but something unexpected followed. His lashes were wet. Devastated, he immediately understood that he had inadvertently started to weep. He should have seen it coming. Of all the people! It was Enemy in front of him.
Tongue and muscle tied as he was, he did not know how to proceed. He tried to skim through the mental instructions handed to him from Friend for any mention of the action expected to undertake in the case of human intervention, Enemy included. The search returned zero results.
After letting the cigarette drop to the floor in a maddeningly slow and dramatic manner, Enemy used his left foot to kill it, using force, restrained, but every bit purposeful. An action, chilling to the eye. His index finger, then, made its way to roughly the center of his lips. A sign that its recipient understood well, for his own behavior had often in the past attracted the same bodily gesture from other distinguished index fingers. Though unrelenting to most earlier requests, this time he was happy to oblige. He stood unmoving without making a sound. Enemy next motioned him to come over. This time around, he did not obey immediately. Our hero stood his ground. He realized the step could spell doom. The requested action reminded him of the game of chess he had of late started to dominate at home. The Pawn. That piece, which operated with only measured steps and in only one direction. With no turning back, however, sticky the situation. He could draw the parallel easily. It still had to be done! Running away from what he had gotten into was a little too late now. He walked over to where Enemy sat and stood before him, bravely fighting back his tears but feeling tiny and utterly powerless.
Enemy looked at him. His head was still tilted to the side. Anger and disappointment showed. Even in that unearthly light. Without saying a word, he asked him to attend to his teary eyes. Our hero, though momentarily disgraced at himself for having let someone watch him cry, decided it was not the time to indulge in personal liquid reflections and proceeded to remove all traces of water on and around his eyes. He followed it up with the tiniest of snorts he could manage given the situation and its need for silence.
Feeling a lot less wet, he waited for the next instruction. None came. Enemy looked at him for a few seconds. After an elongated duel of staring, one in which our hero obviously lost, Enemy broke the tense air between them by jutting out his outstretched arm toward his younger opponent.
A personal best ensued. It was the quickest reaction our hero had ever clocked. His hand was in and out of his pocket in dimensions of time so small they may not have been recorded yet. In, it went, wet with sweat, out, it came, cold with iron.
The brand-new key was immediately whisked away by Enemy and put in his own pocket. It could not have been a few grams in weight. But having let go of it, our hero felt less heroic and supremely light. He breathed an almost hushed sigh of relief. There was still Enemy to reckon with, however. But having received the key, Enemy paid no more attention to our hero. He strode past him and approached the washroom that was our hero’s first foray into adulthood. Left alone now, with only traces of tobacco and tension hanging in the air, our hero didn’t exactly know what to do.
Should he run for it? True, he had been caught, but Enemy had not made any move to retain him on the crime scene. He did not doubt for a minute that the trio on the ledge would be caught. It was apparent by now that Enemy had been waiting for them. And even if they did try to escape, he suspected people would be waiting for them downstairs. And if he himself tried to escape now, there was every chance those people would stop him as well. Weighing these limited options on his young head, he decided however that he should first try to get beyond the school walls to entertain any chance of living a peaceful life henceforth.
From the room, down the stairs and onto the ground approaching the gate. He ran in a daze. He had a hunch that the gate would be open, and anyway was not all that interested in walls anymore nor in his capacity to climb them. His eyes stayed straight and so did his intent. Huffing, wishing to be back home, puffing, hoping to slither into his mother’s embrace, he ran like the wind. Luckily enough, the gate that he heard close about an hour back was open now and he ran out of the Convent land and onto the Government road. As he turned left and continued running, he could see that there was a deserted police van parked alongside the school. One which was missing when he first came by the school.
The marathon continued and ended only after he had reached the foot of his stairs. His unwelcome appearance and the noise he brought with him was not received in an appreciative manner by the mother cat who had just coddled her kittens to sleep. Thanks to him, they were all agitated again and would require more coaxing. Our hero couldn’t care less. He was home again, unscathed for the time being. He slowly ascended the steps and reached home. He hardly heard his mother chastise him on aspects of his appearance, moss and all. She demanded a few answers but got none. Ordering him to go and bathe, she retired to the kitchen to apply the finishing touches to the meal for three.
To cleanse himself of all external memoirs of the fateful day, our hero spent the better part of an hour rinsing himself clean of all the dirt. He wished he could have a cigarette while in the bath, especially on that day, but his mother would have none of it. Once done with the scrubbing and after some much needed quiet, he came out and dressed himself trying hard to look as normal as possible. But it did not escape his mind that the real test was ahead. He sat through the meal, not speaking at all, not lifting his head, only concentrating on the rice on his plate trying to think of nicer things than the ones he had had to face that evening. He was surprised to hear his father make a particularly critical comment on the contents of the meal that night and concluded that he seemed to be in a bad mood as well.
His mother disposed of the plates and they washed their hands. He followed her into her room pleading for a cigarette. She was pleasantly surprised, maybe even shocked to see him display characteristics expected of his age, something that he never did before. She went to her purse and brought out two cigarettes and gave them to her loving son. He followed her still, holding onto her dress as they made their way to the Hall. He sat beside her and across him.
Meanwhile, three fifteen-year-old student’s lives were forever tarnished after being caught trying to steal the Board Exam’s question papers. A weeping wife watched as her clerk husband was whisked away by the police on charges of assisting the students.
He put one of the Phantom cigarettes in his pocket and started to suck on the other. Across the hall, he watched as his father started to puff away at one of his own “real” cigarettes.
A nine-year-old had a mighty revelation. Of life and what little he knew of it. Of friends and enemies. He looked across the Hall at him. Our hero’s eyes started to water for the second time that night, a plea for forgiveness this time. His father, mysterious as always, just sat smoking, the tiny lethal cylinder poised fashionably between his index and middle in an all too familiar manner. And the unmistakable tilt of the head of course.
Short story written in August 2011.