Stopover

Keywords: Bus stop

She is always there at 8. At the bus stop next to the florist. She sits there tapping her foot, watching the open sky change hues over the vacant lot across the road. Sipping the coffee she brought from home. In a thermos. Softly humming a song. The air around her alive and full of promise. She sits there, not once checking her watch. Only pushing off when the first of the daily commuters arrive, when it’s time for the 8.45.

I ask her why she comes here. There’s a perfectly beautiful park two blocks down. Is she here to meet someone? Could I interest her in a bunch of fresh peonies or a freshly brewed cuppa from down the street?

Nah, she says. Gives an easy smile. A strand of hair swaying across her youthful face. Though she’s no beauty, there’s a brightness about her that’s hard to miss.

You can sit here a while though, she says, patting the empty space next to her. If you’re not in a hurry.

She gives me a once over. My attaché, the crisp business suit and tie, shiny shoes polished to perfection, reflecting my scrubbed clean face, hers if I move in any closer, are not doing me any favors.

Sure, I say and sidle over. But only for a while.

The bus comes and goes.

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The Mist

Tanbark_ridge_tunnel_mist

Keyword: Mist

Two friends, backpacking across the Western Ghats, arrived by the early morning train at a small town station. It was a day like none other. As the train curved through another of the many moss-covered tunnels and emerged into the first rays of sunlight, they were embraced by a soft blanket of mist. It ran beside them, through the woods, and across the cabin, through the open window, like a mischievous ghost on wheels, making them laugh.

But when they disembarked, they were no longer laughing. No longer human. Much like the zombie-town that lay before them. In ruins under the mist.

The Fat Lady in the Sky – Part 3

By order of the mayor, the scaffold for a makeshift platform went up almost overnight in the Vashishts’ backyard, close to the pond. The Vashishts didn’t object. How could they? It was their boy after all who had caused this rupture.

“Mind you,” said Mrs. Vashisht to her husband when Mr. Kumar and his haggard, slovenly-in-comparison assistant, Mr. Luthra, left on foot to check on the other villagers’ well-being; the son having been sent up to his room to mull over his mistakes without the distraction of food or games. “Given time, even he’d have had a go at it.”

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Message Run

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.

The Returned

Keyword: Witching-hour

On the mound by the sea … under the shroud of darkness deeper than the black of a starless night … the grass a stubble of strange grey blackish in the darkness … and the air stifling with the sweet scent of decay … floral, thickly spread … like butter slathered on toast … like jasmines putrefying in a tub full of water … like spring days drained off all joy and color … I stand. Where many have stood before me, who knew of this place, and the legend. Making offerings … of flowers and blood, of bones and gems, of the salt of the earth, of tears … prayers sent up into the unknown on knees, with folded hands, sealed lips. Eyes open, or closed. Who knew grief could make believers out of men? Make them see hope in what was before just wind and air?

A tiny figure emerges from the waves. Dragging his feet across the wet sand. Snarling at the waves biting at his heels.

Could it be that this is my boy? Pulling himself free from the clutches of eternal darkness to reach me. Returned to me by the sea. All because I wished so … At some kind of magical, witching hour, zone that granted wishes, if felt strongly enough?

He has a gash across his lower lip now. A cut across his forehead. And a limp that wasn’t there before.

His smile doesn’t touch his hazel eyes. So warm and full of life before …

And his head is full of weed and worms.

But I am prepared to love him. Keep him safe from the world … this time.

“Mommy,” he says, his arms spread out before him. His tiny body covered in bruises and cuts.

I run to him, fall on my knees, and kiss his fingertips, shriveled from being under water for so long.

“Mommy,” he says as I hug him, drown him in kisses. But this time, I can see the sharp, pointy teeth instead of square, white rows. His claws dig into my skin. Pinpricks that draw blood on touch. His eyes dance with sinister delight. Not bright hazel, but a dark blood red. And he says, “you didn’t think I would forget, did you?”

I pull back from him in horror. “But …” I say. But the wind snatches the words out of my mouth and hurls them into the sea. Like worthless stones cast away for good. And where his head had rested moments ago, his teeth sink in and blood oozes. Like a warm, thick syrup.

And I find myself drifting, following him back into the sea.

Gladly.

Relieved.

I had hope for a chance to redo the past. To make things right. To rebuild what was broken. In our family. In me.

But then, this is what he wants now.

A life for a life.

The Jam

Keyword: Maybe

“So what’s the fuss about?” Joy asks, looking over my shoulder. All the honking and screeching and graphic language has gotten his attention, and he has abandoned his roost with a perfect view of the television set and is now finishing his breakfast by the window, spreading bread crumbs along the sill.

“Don’t know,” I say, leaning out, trying to avoid the shower of crumbs. “This has never happened before. Normally, there is hardly any traffic. And today, the whole road’s blocked off till the very end. Maybe there’s been some ghastly accident and the cops have cordoned it off.”

A few motorists try to wriggle around and backtrack, but get trapped in a zigzag pattern by the onslaught of incoming traffic. The other roads must be clogged as well.

“You think somebody got shot? Like a drive by?” he says.

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Muse

I thought I had her in my grasp. Then she swept through the desert of my broken imagination and left me scattered all over like sand.

Losing Dad

Keyword: Dad

Mom never forgets to call me each night. Mostly she talks and I listen. I like her voice, soft yet clear, a touch of melody in the way she emphasizes her verbs: what she cooked today, whom she met, what she discovered on the telly or in the attic where all my childhood memories now rest in packed boxes and trunks.

Sometimes I complain about work, or a friend, or a guy I thought I liked, and she hums, and I can hear her nod over the line. Like she understands why writing a “delightful” jingle for a horrible-tasting protein bar — that too for kids — is no easy work. Or why a friend who dubs you “Ugly Betty” behind your back is no friend at all. Or why the fellow in the art department, who you thought was cute, finds that said nickname funny, and chuckles every time you walk into a room. She may not understand, but she listens. And hums.

And sometimes, we just say goodnight and I hang up. Because I am too tired, or busy, or just not in the mood to explain my epic failed choices for that day — yet again.

We don’t talk about dad, but he is always there … at the back of our minds. But no matter what, she always calls.

But today she hasn’t. It’s well past 9:30, her standard calling time. And I find myself staring at the clock.

10:30. 10:31. 10:32.

I call her up on her cell. Once. Twice.

I try the landline.

The phone rings. Its trill deafening in the quiet. But she doesn’t pick up.

I try the neighbors, but either they are out or hard of hearing, because no one answers the phone.

I call the cops. I call the ambulance service. But they’re all 45 minutes out.

So I grab the keys and head over to her home, our home, expecting the worst.

The night’s clear but chilly, the stars are out, and the road’s near empty. Thirty minutes is plenty of time to imagine all the worst case scenarios.

Maybe she fell in the bathroom. Maybe she fell from the stairs. Maybe she tripped and hit her head on something flat, or something sharp. In all the scenarios, she is out cold, completely helpless, and cannot call for help. She’s all alone in that big, old, windy house and I need to get to her fast.

I make a hard turn into the driveway, and come to a bumpy stop, knocking down a planter or two. There’s a knot in my chest, and tears at the corner of my eyes.

I rush up the steps and knock at the door. Panic stricken.

All the lights are on in the house. Which never happens. Mom seldom uses all rooms at once.

The swing creaks to my right and I jump, startled. And then sigh with relief.

There she is. On the porch swing. Happy, smiling, in a new black dress, I think. She gets up, comes closer, and touches my face, concerned. She can’t believe I drove all the way home in the middle of a workweek. Is that makeup around her eyes?

I am just about to ask her what she’s doing out here in the cold, when a man with salt and pepper hair steps out from behind her. He’s dressed casually, in a khaki shirt and cargo pants. He has drinks in both hands. And a pleasant glow that matches mom’s. And I realize that she has company.

She’s on a date with an old guy who looks nothing like dad.

Reboot

The world’s falling apart. My world, the world around me; going up in ravenous flames like the Californian woods, with the roar of Greenland’s glaciers crashing into widening oceans, with the rage of tornadoes ripping through the Midwest like angry gods settling their differences with crazy arm sweeps.

Towns are dying. Worlds unknown, cultures unheard of are fast turning into dust. Like Atlantis and Avalon and others before them — great giants brought to their knees by temperamental gods.

The earth’s cracking up, like my heart, releasing the spirits long trapped in its bosom. The rivers are no longer flowing, but are mere stagnant, withering pools.

The bogs are burning, the woods are burning, the air, the seas, our homes are burning. It’s only a matter of time when we will all go up flames. And the wars we rage within and with each other, over land, oil, food, water, over love even, would cease to matter. Or matter more, more intensely than before … For what else would be there but now?

The seasons have already lost their color. One long, dry spell of white hot blaze. Blades brown and crisp like crackling crunch under trees naked with shame. Time, it seems, has given up on healing us as well.

Our atmosphere is a paradox. Thinning and bloating up at the same time, with foreign molecules worse that CFC fattening up on heat and the sun shredding away the ozone layer.

The preacher says there’s nothing like global warming. That climate change is God’s realm. Like life, like death. The scientists and leading thinkers disagree: how can you be so blind when it’s staring right in your face?

And I wonder if God has a kill switch, a restart button to reboot the whole damn world, my heart, and let them start all over again.

On Laughter and Men

Keyword: Laugh

It is said that a man’s disposition can be ascertained by his quickness to laugh. Laugh too soon and you’re a frivolous, eager to please; laugh too long, or too loud, and you’ve got no self-restrain.

Too late a laugh, often a scoff or a grunt, warranties that you are given to brooding, and are altogether too self-absorbed, only re-entering the conversation when a snippet breaks through your musings, or furthers them, with quips that have more than often no bearing on the actual conversation at hand.

No laugh and/or a frown, and you’re either a bore or a fool, too slow-witted to follow the clever retorts, or a snob, who’d rather be in the company of other, more interesting people than this.

But a laugh, full and hearty, that graces magnanimously all who fall in its path, that eases the crinkles in agitated spirits, and that lights the amber within one and all, now that’s different. Its timber, its rise and fall the very symphony of life itself. Its infectious presence a reminder that life’s a merry carnival and we are all here to rejoice.

The bearer of this laugh — sitting upright on a high-back armchair, shoulders thrown back in easy debate over the future of literature and the written word, lit delightfully by a Moroccan lamp stand in the corner, and surrounded by eager ears — could be called charming, good-natured, well-groomed, a lady’s man.

But whether he is a gentleman or a cad, to be taken seriously or dismissed as the season’s new flavor, I cannot tell. Only time could resolve this debate; although good sense, as documented in the novels of which he is such a fan, at once warns us to the folly of trusting such a man. For many lies have slipped past such a welcoming mouth. Many an endearment casually offered without a second thought.

He smiles warmly at me, like I am the only one in the room, and for now, in the absence of better prospects and good company, it is enough to bask in the brightness of this merry man.