This story is by Rashed Nabi and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I did not know of him. My wife, Sara, said she had spoken with him on the phone and he would be visiting us this weekend.
“Your cousin – you don’t remember?” said Sara.
“My cousin?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied tersely. Then our small living room returned to the silence of the evening.
I was not prepared to receive a visitor. Sara had been in grief for three months since her brother’s death. Her only brother, two years younger than her, died in a car crash on his way from Toronto to visit us in Ottawa. Sara blamed herself for the death and withdrew from everything.
I meant to call my cousin to postpone the visit but forgot. When the doorbell rang, I thought it was some salesman. Sara came behind me and asked, “Who is it?” The visitor looked away from me to Sara and said: “I’m Yaman. Do you recognize me?” At once I recalled all about the visit and cursed myself for not calling Yaman to postpone it.
Sara replied with a restrained smile. “Yes, I do. Come in.” She pushed me aside and led Yaman to the living room. Yaman’s visit did not seem to bother her. She was now speaking in a cheerful voice that she gave up for long. She had been cheery like this when her brother used to visit us. I wondered if Yaman bore any resemblance to her deceased brother.
“You’ve grown so big,” said Sara. “When I saw you in Bangladesh two years ago, you were still like a little boy. And you didn’t have this shaggy hairstyle.”
Yaman laughed, and Sara, too. Our small living room was filled with warm sunlight of late spring. The sun, filtered through the ash tree in the backyard, fell on Sara’s face. She looked happy. I turned my eyes to Yaman. He had a very handsome and innocent face. With his graceful smile he could easily overpower his adversaries. Did I see him two years ago? Two years ago – that was what Sara said; that was when we travelled to Bangladesh after our marriage. As an insurance broker, I was good at remembering faces and names. About Yaman, I remembered neither.
We sat on the patio for supper. Yaman cleaned up the patio and helped Sara with cooking. The speed with which they built the bonds amazed me. Now that I had time to settle back, I recalled my family relationships in distant Bangladesh. My mother died when I was four years old and my father married a second time. Since then I had barely any contacts with my mother’s family. I knew Yaman’s father was a prosperous cardiac surgeon. I might have seen Yaman when he was little but that was so long ago!
I avoided any references to our past. I asked Yaman what he had been doing in Toronto.
Sara jumped in to reply. “Oh, he is doing MBA at Rotman. Smart boy!” She enunciated the word “boy” as if he was really a little boy. Yaman cut her short. “Right! Smart, because my father has money to spend on me.”
I took a furtive look at him to see if he was bragging. He seemed unmindful of what he had just said. He took a long sip of his tea and said this patio was the best place he had ever spent his evenings since coming to Toronto last year. Looking up the clear sky, he said: “You could glimpse of as many stars here as the sky can hold.” With an expansive mood, he jumped from topic to topic and gleefully disputed Sara on everything. That is exactly what Sara’s brother used to do.
In a couple of days, Yaman became part of us. He occupied the small room in the basement that had been the den of Sara’s brother. When I was gone to work, he and Sara explored Asian grocery stores and experimented with cooking, just as Sara and her brother used to do.
We were happy to forget he came just for the weekend. I felt I should know more about his family so that I could really treat him as a cousin. I emailed a friend in Bangladesh who was a relation of Yaman. But what I learned from the friend dealt me an unexpected blow instead of boosting my closeness to Yaman.
I learned that Yaman was a fugitive – charged with a killing in Bangladesh. My friend wrote based on what he heard; he did not have much contact with Yaman’s family. There was a fair bit of discrepancy in his email. At one place, he mentioned the killing happened one year ago. At another, he said Yaman was sent off to Australia two years ago. Then he conjectured that the charges against Yaman were a plot by extortionists to blackmail his wealthy father. I called the friend several times to get clear information but had no success.
I told myself I must not overreact. Yaman was a visitor and would leave soon. The information in the email was inconsistent and could be wrong. Even if it was correct, how could I bring it up to him? His kindness to Sara pulled her out of sadness. The news could devastate her again. I must be careful with whatever might come.
But when I got home I lost my demeanor. Yaman bombarded me with questions: Shall I make you tea? You look very grumpy. Why…?”
“I’m tired. I’ll take a shower.” I left the living room without looking at him.
On the patio, the sun of late May was still bright. I longed for darkness to hide my dejection. Every word Yaman spoke sounded deceitful today. I told myself: Pull yourself together! You are an insurance broker – tackling dispositions between deception and truth is your daily job!
Yaman and Sara were sharing their displeasure about some stinky Bangladeshi grocery that they had visited. The next minute, they were discussing the Bangladeshi immigrants in Ottawa. Now Yaman was talking about his visit to Jakarta when his father had worked in a hospital there. Instantly Australia came to my mind – that was where Yaman had sought refuge; that was what my friend said. I abruptly broke in: “Did you travel to Australia?” He squinted at me. “Why Australia? It’s a country of penal colonies. Am I a convict?” He laughed, forcing me to awkwardly look away from him to Sara, whose placid face was glowing in the dusk. I stammered: “No, just… it’s… uh… it’s not far from Jakarta!”
Yaman was somewhat taciturn after that. So, was my suspicion about his Australia visit correct? His sharp reaction was perhaps a cover-up. Or, maybe I was imagining things. I must use the tact of the insurance broker – show empathy in all situations. But what if it was tantamount to sheltering a criminal – a murderer?
That question kept me awake the whole night. During breakfast next morning, I asked Sara when Yaman would leave.
“Your cousin – you ask him,” Sara gave a terse reply. “Anything wrong?” she inquired.
I could have said, yes. I could have divulged it to her. Instead, in a weary voice, I said, “I didn’t sleep well.”
Sara stood up to take the plates to the sink. “I know,” she said. “You look drained. Go and get some sleep.”
When I woke up at around noon time, the house was quiet. Sara and Yaman must have gone out. I went down to the basement and entered the room that Yaman was occupying. On the desk, I saw Yaman’s cell phone. I picked it up, but my conscience resisted my urge to browse it. With hesitations, I pressed the power button. It did not turn on – the battery was dead.
A small duffle bag lay in the corner. Again, my temptation to search through it defeated my conscience. I unzipped it. There was nothing suspicious in it. I sat down on the bed. Sara’s brother used to sleep in this bed. Now a murderer occupied it.
“Have you found proof?” I thought someone yelled it in my ears. I jumped to my feet and realized it was the sound of the doorbell. Sara and Yaman must have returned. I ran up to open the door.
The next week I started off badly. On Monday, I lost three prospective clients. The next day I received the news that I failed a certification exam. I was growing cranky and becoming unreasonable with clients.
All this time, Yaman was on my mind. I was hiding his true identity not only from Sara but also from the law. I was constantly nagged by conscience: He is a fugitive… a murderer!
I read my friend’s email several times to tell myself it was flimsy. Perhaps Sara was right that she had seen Yaman in Bangladesh two years ago. My friend must have mixed up someone with Yaman. Even if it happened, it happened in a country where violence and killings were commonplace.
Maybe! But would it offer me any defence for sheltering a murderer in my house?
At night, I woke up from a dream. A little boy was trying to take off his shirt. He resembled Yaman. The shirt kept shrinking and got stuck on the boy’s head. As he wrestled with it, it choked me. I woke up gasping for air.
Sara was asleep beside me. Out the window, through the ash tree in the backyard, I could see the last quarter moon in the clear sky. My thoughts rumbled from the little boy in the dream to his shrinking shirt to Yaman. I am hiding a murderer in my house. What should I do about him? I closed my eyes and heard the rumble of a deep voice: What would you do if Yaman was your own brother?
“I don’t know?” I murmured.
“What?” I thought I heard Sara speak but she was still asleep.
The next afternoon I came home with a plan to announce a trip for Sara and I this weekend. That would be an indirect way to tell Yaman to leave. I was walking toward the patio, when Sara said, “We’ll eat inside. Yaman is gone.”
I was frozen with fear. In a flash, I imagined cops had swarmed around the house to round up Yaman.
“Where…?” The word choked on me.
Sara calmly explained that Yaman had received a phone call from Toronto about his summer course. The course would tomorrow so he had to leave today.
“Yaman said next year he would take us to Bangladesh,” Sara told me with a smile. I sheepishly smiled back. Perhaps then he was not what I was thinking about him!
The house felt empty to me. After nearly two weeks we ate supper inside again.