Stories

In the line of fire: The really long day

She opened her eyes slowly. A ray of light drove through her eyelids raking up panic and pain. She found herself lying on the floor. Her fingers trembled. The room seemed to be locked from outside. The place had signs of a grim abandonment about it. To her right, on the floor was a plate with some sabzi, kadhi and two rotis. The plate was a reminder that she was in captivity and depended on the kindness of those vicious animals for her survival. She didn’t like her chances. To her left, was some damaged furniture. The whole room had scrap items. Things that were abandoned and were left on the mercy of fate.
She shook herself up into wakefulness. She didn’t remember getting there but it was obvious that she had been abducted. Before the room of junk could swallow her whole, she needed to put up a fight. She looked around and spotted one window. It had no doors. This window had brought in the light which had woken her up. Perhaps a bulb hung outside on a post. The room had no lights. The street light seeping through the creeks and slits in the room was allowing her to walk around and see. The window was covered with a metallic meshwork fixed with nails. She tugged at those nails and found it to be pretty steady. A corner in the meshwork had some opening though. She went back to the scrap and scrambled for something she could use. She found hopelessness slowly blanketing her, shushing her into defeat. It was then that she found herself a small screwdriver. She put her ear to the door and heard cacophony of drunken men, perhaps planning their next conquest. She felt a shiver ride up her spine as she remembered the past few hours in glimpses. The injection, the drup, the sleep, the slaps, the water, the touch. She felt a putrid hatred build up inside her as she stood a door apart from the world of evil. She wanted to know what they wanted to do with her—Sell her? Ask for ransom? Kill her for sport?
She took those pointed questions and locked them somewhere deep inside her. She began tugging at the wire mesh with the screwdriver. In panic, her wrist was strangely steady and she had forgotten to cry or moan. Her wounds felt like minor scratches she could shake off.
Slowly, one nail at a time, the window folded up. Her gaze followed a flickering light in the distance. She smiled for the first time during her stay in that godforesaken place. She surrendered herself to the distant light and took her tiny frame outside the window. She tried to roll out by subimitting herself to the effects of gravity. Her tired eyes did not care to see what lied beneath the window for all she knew, the ground felt near.
As she fell, she had to stifle a yelp.
“Owww! Ahhh… crap!” She had landed in way that something had pierced through her skin and penetrated her thigh. She bled but tried not to make a noise . She stumbled and tried to walk but the pain made her wobble. In her stupor, she somehow spotted that a ladder was placed on the ground and a rogue nail sticking out from it had pierced through her flesh. She pulled the nail out and walked with some difficulty. She tried to run and then she ran! She followed a light. Hungry, broken, beaten; she walked through hellfire and brimstone. She wanted to be home before it got too late. After walking for an hour or so, which seemed like eternity, she found herself by the side of the Grand Trunk Road. Vehicles passed by her, blowing the night breeze in her hair. It was a chilly night. No one seemed to have time for a child standing by the side of the road. Eventually a truck stopped and a middle-aged man came out. He wore a grey kurta with folded cuffs and a white pyjama with black leather punjabi slippers. For all she knew, she had seen an angel.
He gently asked her in chaste Punjabi, “What happened, kid?”
She could only say that she wanted to go home. He asked her where her home was. She replied, “Mukeriyan jaana.”

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He dock-lifted her and mounted her on the seat next to him and closed the door like a gentleman. He then sat on the driving seat and said, “Waheguru, bless her.” She looked straight ahead on the road. He started his truck and the journey began. The truck noises, the blaring horns, the traffic gave her a bit of a headache but they all remained a faint blur in her memory. For all she knew, she was going home finally. She could not bring herself to make small talk with him. She hid her wound by pressing a cloth-piece tightly against it. The bleeding had stopped. After half an hour or so, he stopped the truck and asked her if she wanted to drink some water. She drank some water and asked for a roti. He unwrapped his food from many layers of cloth, plastic and steel and gave her a roti to eat. It seemed like the man was on a long journey, he again packed his food neatly and then as if remembering something, asked her if she needed more food. She shook her head. The wound had caught his eye and he asked her, “You are very badly injured, what has happened? Why wouldn’t you tell me?”
She brought herself to say, “Something wrong has happened. I just want to go home now.”
He understood her and sat back on his seat. He began driving again. After an hour of driving, a green board with reflective white letters welcomed them. The board said- “Mukeriyan”
He asked her to get up and she opened her eyes. She wasn’t sleeping anyway.
“Your Mukeriyan has come,” he said.
She thanked him. But as she was about to alight, she found out that her sleepy hometown had gone to sleep. The shutters of all the shops were down. Only the lit street lamps kept alive the idea that the place housed people. She asked if he could help her with this one last thing and drop her home. The streets of Mukeriayan weren’t very truck-friendly so, he got down from his beast of a vehicle and asked a rickshaw-wala if he knew the little girl’s house. It turned out that she was from a well-respected family of the town and everyone knew them. The rickshaw-wala offered to take her in his rickshaw alone but the truck-driver refused the offer. Trust was both a rare and a precious commodity that night.
They then silently rode through the streets of Mukerian in the night, under those street lights. Soon, her street came. The rickshaw-wala asked her if she remembered her street and she nodded in affirmative. Sensing that his job was done, the truck-driver alighted from the rickshaw before the street began. He seemed to be in a hurry. The little girl thanked him. They smiled. The truck-driver waved goodbye as she turned her head to catch a final glimpse of the tunnel she had escaped.
In her house, her mother, father and brothers were sitting worried along with relatives and friends. The atmosphere was of grief and panic. She walked in and everyone got up. Her mother ran up to her and took her to her room.
Her elder brother went out to pay the rickshaw-wala. She slowly walked in and sat on her head. The day was over.

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