Another one's Coming!
I'D BLACKED OUT for sure. How else would I revive spread-eagled on my tummy, munching on gravel?
But I wasn’t lucid for long, I don’t think. For only when nightfall came could I creak upright and sneak into my house two lanes over.
The sneaking part, sadly, didn’t go to plan. Mother, as usual, had spent the day prepping her poison-tongued sermon for my benefit.
But for the lick of time I pried open my eyelids, I’m certain Chacha Kakakhel returned to the scene of violence. He sat on his haunches, inspecting the dud missile that’d defiled the road. Even in my punch-drunk state, his behavior struck me as most bizarre.
He tapped the egg-white missile shell and fidgeted with its tailed fins; his face pinched in concentration. His shades, I noted, hung from his waistcoat pocket. Never since have I seen such dexterity from a supposed blind man.
For a wasted second my thoughts strayed to Afi and his thugs, but I couldn’t focus beyond Chacha and that was enough to soothe my conscience. Why should I care a nit about them? I was keeping away from trouble until that lug used me for target practice.
Later, a battery of strobe lights stirred me from my swoon. A boxlike ambulance and a trio of cop bikes parked near the crater, and frenzied voices peaked over the crackle of wireless radio.
Chacha had disappeared and instead a weaselly man with a broadsword mustache stood in the center of the commotion. He patted his forehead and ironed his crisp tunic with hands atremble. The reigning councilor; Afi’s father.
I recognized him from the smiley election posters his people pasted across town walls months earlier. They were planets apart from his twitchy state that night.
My immediate thought was the lot should shack up in hell. What skin did I, a cheap candy salesman, have in this game? Nobody would inquire my opinion if Naya Chooran went to war, or the world ended. I needed only change my route until things settled.
On all-fours I stealthily padded beyond the radiant corona of the strobes and jogged the distance home. But in my daze, I forgot the basket on the shop steps. Stupid, stupid. For when I came back the next morning, my proverbial skin awaited me.
My first inkling of something amiss was the instant I reached the brushy junction sloping into the street. Inside, a sea of people ebbed and flowed as an aimless concerto, ringed by a smattering of cops in seaweed green togs.
And deeper still, a bullhorn squalled and crackled between passionate chants that’d turned the neighborhood into an echo chamber. I wisely decided whatever cause so excited them was none of my beeswax. My goal was the shop with the for-sale sign three rusty lampposts up the street.
I deftly snaked past a flock of gossiping aunties decked in gaudy prints, but then smacked into a wall of flesh and recoiled. The cop dwarfing me wore the fish-eyed look of a man who’d seen a djinn.
His sticky hair matted under his askew beret, and his overhanging belly spasmed as a hummingbird on crack. Even as he fixed on me, his gaze kept darting to the heavens like Chicken Little fretting a satellite would crash on its head.
“Watch where you’re going,” he gobbled.
A stone's throw away stood the lamppost with the maple-leafed scar. My lips formed a sheepish grin and my hands clasped in a praying pose.
“Sorry, sirkar. I’ll be more careful next time.” I slid sideways to goose-step past him when his hairy paw landed on my shoulder.
The tea bags under his eyes creased. “You’re suspicious. What’re you doing here, huh?”
“Nothing, sirkar,” I said, my gaze glued to the lamppost. “I sell candies and left my basket here yesterday.”
That wasn’t a clever confession given the circumstances. Dad always taught me to speak the truth, but he rarely practiced what he preached and for good reason.
The cop leaned into me and his badge read Bonga. “Yesterday, huh? What do you know about the incident?”
My gut knotted into a wrung dishcloth while I wriggled to free myself of his clutches. “Nothing, I just sell candy.”
Officer Bonga’s eyes grew manic. “You must be the bomber, yes? Here to gloat at our anguish. Admit it, goddamn you,” he said, shaking me as a rag doll.
The throng thickened round the lamppost while I ground my teeth to endure his intense BO. The bullhorn and chanting amplified to drill holes in my head.
Soon someone would find my candies and lift them. The locals never fussed over the ownership of food that wasn’t theirs.
I had but one way to lose this madman. For a beat my head tipped skyward, and then I wrinkled my face in terror. “Another one’s coming.”
He instantly shot backward and knocked into a circle of preppy rowdies who were busy battle-rapping in their own twisted corner of reality.
They whipped out their switchblades and cussed, and without delay I crawled through the crowd’s legs toward the lamppost. But when I emerged, breathless, the store steps littered with crumpled juice cartons but no basket.
The electric atmosphere swallowed my fist-shaking screams and wails. Mother would doubtless nail me to the neem tree outside our house.
An animated male voice spat through a bullhorn from behind the towering bank of turned backs. The councilor?
“Have no fear, we will bring down the enemy,” the voice said.
Desperation overcame by better instincts. I’d beg him to buy me a new wicker basket and two packs of cheap candies. Surely, he’d pity a fatherless urchin? Generosity, after all, was Naya Chooran’s only saving grace.
I writhed through the throng toward the voice, stamping on sandaled feet and muttering a thousand pardons. And though most forgave, I remember my face stung from a few slaps.
Then I sighted the councilor behind the cone-shaped shell that still poked out the asphalt. Two strapping cops and a faux-hawked midget with a pointy goatee flanked him. To my annoyance, Afi stood ramrod by his side; solemn and pompous as always.
Bah, the blast should’ve flung him backward onto the steel stumps. He only escaped impalement because Allah doesn’t want scoundrels returning in a hurry.
“We’re peace loving folk,” the councilor continued. “But if war comes to our backyard, we will meet it with valor and vanquish our foes. Naya Chooran zindabad!”
The crowd’s first rows threw up their fists and sounded an ear-splitting huzzah. Then I heard it again, the cartoony laugh that crossed a whistling train with a honking seal.
Dhol beats and Punjabi hollers again rang through the street and stunned the audience. Chacha Kakakhel, his aviators back on his nose, breached the line and gaily waved at the councilor.
Then his boombox silenced. “Excuse me, sir, but who’s the enemy?” he asked timidly.
“Our easterly neighbor, who else?” the midget blurted. His companions nodded together; everyone but Afi’s father.
“Oh, the boss doesn’t agree?”
The midget bounced on his feet, frowning. “Councilor Ikhlaq can’t hear too well. I’m his assistant, Kubba. Now don’t interrupt, baba-ji. We’re talking national security.”
Chacha giggled and his shoulders shimmied. “So, the deaf leading the blind, eh?”
Murmurs swelled about me as a swarm of feeding horseflies. The councilor looked him over quizzically, but Afi’s face turned crimson.
“This man is an enemy agent, I just know it,” he yelled, jabbing his finger at Chacha. “He’s the one who brought down the bomb.”
Kubba toyed with his goatee, his face grim. “Now, why would the child accuse you?”
Chacha snorted. “You dimwits couldn’t win a jug of lassi, much less the war that’s coming. Hah, the easterly neighbor. What hogwash.”
I face-palmed and groaned. Shit, shit, shit. The geezer’s gone and stuck a wrench deep in their pride. And here I planned to invoke the councilor’s sense of duty to part with his cash. No choice, Kalia. You must panhandle for another basket.
The cops to Kubba’s sides reached for their pistol holsters and inched forward, but he held out an arm. Then with a curled finger he gestured the councilor to stoop and spoke in his ear.
His rapid chatter was in a tongue unknown to me, and so it seemed for the others nearby, but Ikhlaq’s lips pursed and he threw the old-timer a nasty look.
“Now listen here, baba-ji,” he said. “Shut up unless you want to get jailed. This is a very serious situation.”
Curiosity, as usual, got the better of me. I slipped beyond the first row and eyed Chacha. “Who’s the villain, then? Who lobbed the shell yesterday?”
His neck rolled toward me and he toothily smiled. “Why, the brothers Yajuj and Majuj.”
The crowd gasped in unison, and those about Chacha unwittingly backed away.
Kubba’s face darkened and he barked for order. “Now you’ve done it,” he hissed.
He fussily motioned to the cops, who pulled their belts up by their embossed buckles and stormed toward the geezer.
“Get this man out of here. Book him for public disorder without bail.”
Chacha casually reached inside his waistcoat, which made the cops pause and unclip their holsters.
He produced a curved horn the size of a small water bottle; stained porcelain bone with a silver mouthpiece; and raised it for all to see. “Know what this is?”
“A memento from your circus act?” Afi spat, now peeping from behind his father’s back.
Chacha chuckled and trained the horn in his direction. “No, son. This is what’ll save your sorry behinds, if you agree to my condition.”
Kubba marched to the stiff cop nearest him, whipped out his pistol, and promptly leveled it. “Screw this, I’ll shoot you myself. Traitors will not roam scot-free in Naya Chooran.”
Another collective whoop carried through the crowd. I cowered and glimpsed round for a quick exit. Kalia, you owl-spawn, why did you get yourself in this mess?
Chacha's arms raised in surrender as the street fell into a funereal silence. “You twerps act as if you own this place. This is God’s country.”
The midget sneered. “Oh, you’re here on Allah’s behalf, then?”
“No. Only to represent my comrades.”
“And what do those gentlemen want?”
Chacha snapped off his shades and though I couldn’t tell from my position, something about his face blanched Kubba and company.
The geezer glimpsed the sky and checked his perky turban. “Another one’s coming,” he said, replacing his specs. “A live one.”
A clicking sound as Kubba cocked the pistol. “W-what? What do you want?”
“You should’ve read the inscription on the fins. Soon, it’ll be too late.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” Ikhlaq howled.
“If you value your lives, make me your councilor right now.”
Afi and Ikhlaq leaped to one side, yelping, as Chacha moseyed past the stupefied midget and toward the shell. There, he yanked out a large trash sack from his vest and plucked the shell as one would a toy buried in mud.
Strength left my limbs and I slumped onto the road, though my eyes never left his figure. After plonking the shell in his sack that strangely made no contact sound, he again peered skyward.
“You’re the biggest band of idiots I know. Yet I cannot abandon you as my sons did me. No, I cannot.”
He effortlessly pitched the sack over his shoulder and eyeballed me. “When you chumps come to your senses, ask this kid to call me. His name, for now, is Kalia. Remember well.”
Sweat gushed over my body as a myriad of stares cored into my back. Why? Why’s he pulling me into his lunacy?
The whiny sound from yesterday returned, louder. The white spot grew bigger and bigger through the blanket of dried-milk-like dust.
A stampede broke out and I braced my skull and coiled into a fetal position. I swore if I survived that day, I’d sew the old man into a pincushion.
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