I have to run faster, faster than I have ever run before, but my legs are tiring. The straps of my backpack are cutting into my skin. And the worn-out slippers, which I bought off a kid by the road, lack the grip of the running shoes now lying in a ditch somewhere, sole split the whole way through.
Twigs snap under my feet dangerously.
I’m cloaked in sweat. It drips down my face, blinds me momentarily as I falter through the undergrowth.
A slithery thing drops from a branch before me, and I almost scream out loud. It’s a snake, a thin, green one and it quickly slithers away into the dense foliage.
Easy boy, easy, I mutter to myself. It’s gone. But you’ve got to stay calm, move noiselessly through the woods, or they’d pick up your trail.
They are nearby. I can hear them hacking away at the dense undergrowth, cursing in a language that sounds a lot like my mother tongue, but is not quite.
I can hear myself panting. My lungs are screaming for air.
I’ve got to run faster, put in more miles between us.
I don’t want to be caught.
A gunshot, then another echoes through the woods. It sends a chill down my spine. I stop dead in my tracks.
It’s over. I have to destroy the message. Before it falls into the enemy’s hands. The fate of our entire nation rests on it.
The message’s aflame when a voice shouts first in pashto and then in hindi: “haat khade kar.”
I turn around slowly, hands up in the air, but the soldiers are nowhere in sight.
Heavy footfalls hurry past in the opposite direction. A gun goes off again, and someone falls with a scream.
But my relief is momentary.
The woods trick me. They trip me on a protruding root; send me hurtling down a steep slope, through overgrown grass, wild, scentless flowers, and soggy earth, into the backyard of a large country house.
Freshly washed laundry flaps in the wind, on rows upon rows of clothes’ lines.
It’s almost dusk. The sky turns azure. The fragrance of a dum biryani wafts through from the inside of the huge house, two-storey high. Its red-brick walls purplish at dusk.
A figure lingers outside the back door. She seems old, frail, lost in her own thoughts, the wide, open sky enough to engage her imagination.
As she spots me, she smiles widely. Her toothless grin makes me feel safe again. I have made it. Across the border. I am home. I just need to find a phone and call it in. When I spot the enemy flag across her yard. And I see her eyes squeeze and then grow wide in alarm as she points at me … past me … and shrieks … get down. But it’s too late. The bullets can’t tell us apart.