This story is by Samran Ramzan and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It wasn’t his breathing that kept Imran awake at night, it was the man’s cold fingers trailing up his thighs. Sunlight poked through the holes in the newspapers covering the only window in the room. Imran pulled the blanket over his head, convincing himself he was safe at home with his little brother.
Once the man left, Imran sprung out of bed. The chain clanked around his ankle as he shuffled to the concrete basin, raised an inch off the ground. He scrubbed his skin raw until it started bleeding. No matter how much he rubbed his arms or thighs, he still felt dirty.
He poked the embers in the makeshift clay oven, rubbed his hands together. Imran stared at the empty paint cans stacked by the door. For seven days, he’d tried to remember where he’d seen the man before. But whenever the key turned in the lock at sunset, all memory faded. The man marched in, wearing a smile devoid of reason.
Imran’s breath stuttered in his lungs. He plugged his ear against the wall, listening for the call to prayer. As if the words got lost travelling up the hill. It was the only way to keep track of time. Imran had counted three calls since the man had left. It was almost evening.
Soon, the man’s shadow danced under the door. But tonight, he wasn’t alone.
“Let me go!”
Imran stood up. The commotion suddenly muffled. Then a jingling of keys, a few scrapes on the door, and the man stood with his hairy hand over a young boy’s mouth.
The boy’s eyes had swallowed all the fear in the world, and Imran saw his own reflected with a strange understanding. Somehow, the boy reminded him of his own brother. He’d told Fahad not to look for him if he was late. But that was seven days ago.
“Shut the door.” The man’s voice, sharp and authoritative, forced Imran to obey. The man wrestled with the boy as he jabbed his elbow into the man’s gut.
“Let him go!” said Imran, tugging at the man’s arm.
The boy kicked his legs, bit down on the man’s palm. His scream was the kind that halted all thought. The man staggered back, knocking the stack of paint cans on the floor. The chain rattled like an iron snake, coiling around Imran’s ankle. The man slapped the boy hard across the cheek and rushed out the door, turning the key in the padlock.
Bracelets of daisies around a long wooden stick littered the floor. Just like the ones Fahad made for them to sell. Seeing the petals, trampled under the man’s heavy boots sent a cold shiver through Imran’s body. What if the man found Fahad? Would he bring him here?
“He’s safe at home,” Imran whispered to himself, squeezing his eyes tight, ignoring the horrific thoughts.
“It’s okay. Come out. I won’t hurt you,” said Imran, stretching his hand toward the boy who’d crawled under the cot. Huddled in the corner, he massaged his cheek. “We’ll get out of here. I promise. You have to trust me.”
The boy had banged on the door for a while, shouting for help. Imran knew nothing would happen because he’d done the same.
No one came up here. The houses nearby had missing rooves and broken walls. As if abandoned long before the village was born.
“It’s okay to be afraid. I have a brother just like you. He’s waiting for me to come home.”
The boy tried to control his whimpering. He wiped the snot and drool off his lips.
“What’s your name?” Imran squeezed the boy’s hand.
“Bi…Bilal.” He swallowed, repeatedly, gasping for air. “I want to go home. Help me. Please. I want to go.” Bilal’s whimpering got louder. He pulled at his hair.
“Shh…it’s okay.” Imran wanted to believe that everything would be alright. But the crippling feeling in his stomach fluttered like a pain he’d never felt before. Fahad was too young to protect himself.
The man returned with a bag of samosas. “Feed him.” The bag fell with a crunch on the floor. Imran held the man’s gaze, fighting the memories of his cold fingers on his bare chest, between his thighs. “And clean this up,” said the man, kicking the daisy bracelets, shrivelled like the paper boats that Fahad once sailed at Dara Lake.
“Don’t look,” whispered Imran as the man undressed. Bilal threw himself into Imran’s arms.
“Shh…You’re okay.” Imran brushed his fingers through Bilal’s greasy hair. The smell of sweat and paint filled the room. Imran gripped the chain in his hand, waiting for it to happen. But the man crawled under the blanket not paying any attention to them. Soon, his ragged breathing filled the quiet inside and outside.
“Take it.” Imran broke a samosa in half, handing a piece to Bilal. “You need to eat.”
The next morning, Imran scrubbed the paint off the floor, swept the daisy petals, but held on to the wooden stick.
“Come here,” said Imran.
Bilal shuffled toward the window. “It’s too high.”
“Just climb up.” Imran balanced Bilal on his shoulders. “Tell me what you see?” Shreds of newspaper fell to the floor.
“Help! Help us!”
“What is it?” Imran tightened his grip around Bilal’s ankles.
“Nothing, okay. Just hills and stupid flowers.” Bilal sobbed as he spoke.
“We’ll try again later.”
“Wait…he’s coming back. Why’s he coming now?” said Bilal. Imran tried to catch him, but they both fell to the ground, as the door opened.
“Don’t hurt him!” Imran pleaded as the man forced a pinch of chilli powder into Bilal’s mouth. “It was my idea!”
Bilal crawled in a corner, clawing at his tongue that hung out like a dog’s. Eyes red, he spat out repeatedly. The man grabbed Bilal by the hair.
Imran closed his eyes. Hands over his ears, he tried to block out the screaming. But with every scream, all he heard was his little brother.
Out of breath, the man stood like a street lamp, eyes wide open, but all the warmth in them had extinguished a long time ago. Imran remembered. In the bazaar, he once saw the villagers teasing the man, calling him a harami, a bastard. They threw rocks at him. One hit him so hard that his forehead was cut open like a persimmon.
When the door closed, Bilal whimpered like a dying animal.
“You have to wash it out,” said Imran. He dragged Bilal to the basin and splashed water in his mouth. His saliva bubbled down the drain. Bilal’s face was swollen. Imran hugged him tight, but Bilal recoiled.
“Your eyes are red.” Imran splashed more water on Bilal’s face.
“I’m fine.” His speech was inaudible. The strength quivered in his body to form words.
“Your flower bracelets are beautiful,” said Imran, hoping to distract him. “My brother makes them just like yours.” He dabbed a wet rag on Bilal’s swollen cheeks. “He’s got small fingers, so he can tie several knots.”
Bilal said nothing. He held the wet rag on his tongue, blankly staring at the door.
“When Fahad and I discovered the daisy field, our money lasted for weeks. The man came up to us, said he’d pay us double if we delivered some bracelets to his house. And here I am.”
“Your brother?” said Bilal, spitting on the floor.
“He ran. I made sure of that.” Imran wrung the rag and soaked it in water. “But he knows not to open the door until I knock.”
“How would he know it’s you?” A string of saliva dangled from Bilal’s lip like a spiderweb.
“I knock three times like a sparrow striking a branch then twice like this.” Imran tapped the basin, showing Bilal exactly what he meant.
The third call to prayer echoed in the distance.
“I won’t let him touch you again,” said Imran. They waited for the key to turn, but nothing happened.
Was it a trick? Any minute, they’d hear the man shuffling to the door, but he was late.
“What’s wrong?” said Bilal.
“Get up. Quick.” Imran hoisted Bilal up to the window. “Make sure you hit it hard the first time.” Bilal grabbed the wooden stick and smashed the glass. “Run and don’t look back.”
Bilal balanced himself on his elbows. “Come with me. The gap’s big enough.”
“Go!” said Imran.
“I’ll come back.” As Bilal jumped out, the faint stars, burning in the square window of the night sky, stared back at Imran.
As the final call to prayer intruded the silence in the room, the key turned in the lock. Imran gripped the chain around his ankle, bowed his head, but then let the chain fall to the ground.
As the man got closer, there was a knock at the door. And then again, and again. Like a sparrow pecking a mulberry branch, knuckles hammered on the door. Imran dropped to his knees, waiting for the door to fall.