People are Strange
“RUN, FOOLS,” KUBBA yelled, right before the earth shook. Afi bawled or did Councilor Ikhlaq? Hysteria sounds so similar, ya know?
Chacha Kakakhel’s scratchy voice cut through the cacophony. Twice he shouted “remember, Kalia” and then his voice faded. I remember fearing for my life. The geezer may as well have broadcast my alleged involvement on national radio, and they weren’t kind to traitors round these parts.
It was a live one alright, but not in the way anyone expected. With supernatural accuracy, the missile crashed into the rift whence Chacha had uprooted its forebear. But it didn’t go kaboom and flatten the street into a blood-and-guts chapati. Instead, it sizzled for some minutes as a firecracker whiffing rings of smoke and then went cold. For me, those minutes slowed to the mother-of-all-crawls that would drive a snail to suicide.
Flat on my back and peeking through my fingers, every morsel of my being benumbed. Even if I binge-watched horror movies for a year, my frights wouldn’t approach a fraction of the terror gripping me as the missile arced down into the asphalt. In that sliver of time, neither my basket, nor my mother, nor my future concerned me.
Wild, wild anarchy. Legions of feet scurrying for safety soon turned the sandy lane into a biblical dust storm. Visibility dropped to the ends of my toes, which in hindsight was a blessing. I didn’t need more gruesome images to add to my memory. The thing about life as a street urchin is you effortlessly amass a catalog of miserable experiences.
After the missile fizzed out, I concluded the enemy was a complete moron. Or perhaps toying with us as a sadistic cat does a trapped cockroach? I thanked Allah profusely for leaving me whole, but the gratitude didn’t last long.
Disembodied hands reached through the powdery dust and yanked me upright. Resistance in my state was futile. I couldn’t see straight with my waterlogged eyes or coax my parched throat to croak, much less holler for help. And so I reeled along, a limp puppet, as the men who’d blindfolded and gagged me shoved me into a van.
An hour passed before I understood they’d tossed me into a dank cell that reeked of mothballs and sour milk. Another hour before I stopped shrieking and rattling the iron bars. Police station? Where was everyone? Before me, a chalked blackboard nailed to a flaking wall above a cluster of empty office desks. And beside the cheeping and hustling of shadowy rats, the place was a graveyard. A dusky graveyard that resounded as a cavern.
I slumped onto the cold, coarse floor, tucked my knees and hung my head. Even if she knew, I doubted mother would undertake the trip to free me. Given her stable of street sellers, would you blame her? I’d always been the unreliable, whimsical one. She was probably glad someone else would feed me for a few days. Or months. There’d surely be more sleeping space for the useful brood. But that was okay. I was a man.
And that’s when he mumbled and scared the daymares out of me; a puny kid, about my age, huddled up as an empty mailbag in the far corner. I’d slipped off my cracked scissor slipper and held it as a sword before I met his dewy gaze.
Though he too wore a ratty salwar kameez, his clear-skinned, cheery-faced demeanor somehow belied his plight. Well, they’d jailed me without fault too. God bless Naya Chooran.
He sat up, busily dabbed down his mussy hair, and grinned at me; that sweet, eyes-set-to-slits grin you see in cartoons.
I suspired and lowered myself to the floor. His company wasn’t so bad given my predicament. “What’re you doing here?”
He merely nodded and let loose a flurry of hand signs that startled me. Not because he was mute; hell, a street urchin’s seen enough mangled limbs to fill a medical encyclopedia. What struck me was the fluid artistry of his movements; a hobo Bruce Lee.
I shook my head. “Can’t understand your signs. What’s your name? Can you trace it on the floor?”
Good thing I’d gone to school long enough to learn the alphabet. Had a real facility for language too, my teachers said. Pity it didn’t help me sell more candy.
Twice his finger drew letters over the concrete.
He nodded and gestured for mine.
“They call me Kalia,” I said, slouching against the cell wall. “That’s more an insult, but I got no clue about my birth name.”
His unceasing stare creeped me and I looked away. How to escape and locate the geezer? He landed me in this mess and only he could clear my name. And tell me what it was, he’d hinted as much. I wearied of introducing myself as Kalia. It wasn’t a man’s name.
The cell bars clanged as a thunderclap, and I flinched.
Officer Bonga scowled at me, a thick baton clutched to his side. He’d traded his police togs for a smart khaki uniform, and on his dark armband stitched a vivid crest unknown to me.
He kept rapping the steel as a snare drum. “I knew you were trouble the moment I saw you.” His gaze wandered to Muji and he frowned. “Who’s that boy?”
I shot to my feet; my fists balled. “Why did you jail me, officer?”
He threw me the look of death. “Captain Bonga, pip-squeak. The new Naya Chooran paramilitaries.”
“Huh? The army’s not here yet?”
His face flushed for a flicker. “We don’t need no army,” he said, thumping his chest. “Our brave men will defend this land.”
I curbed a grunt. “Splendid. Now free me.”
He banged the bars again. “Who’re you and what’s the old fogy scheming?”
Both excellent questions to which I had no answers. I doubled over and clutched my knees. “I swear on the Koran, I don’t know.”
“Think you’re tough, huh? I’ll have you singing nursery rhymes in no time.”
I eyed him wearily, but said nothing. His kind could make me disappear without a trace, but so what? Poverty had always kept me invisible.
“Goddammit, who’s that kid?” he repeated.
Muji, his legs crossed, followed our exchange with great interest; his fingers tapping the floor like a telegraph operator. Bonga pulled out a slim notepad and flipped through its pages.
I glared at him. “You don’t know? Then why’s he here?”
The ex-cop clawed at his chest; his lips parted in puzzlement. Muji shot up his hand and bounced on his rump. Then he mumbled anew and released another volley of hand-signals.
“He can’t speak,” I grumbled.
Bonga didn’t hear me. “You wish to help?” he asked Muji. “How?”
“What? You get him?”
The boy kept at his kung-fu and Bonga gasped. “Locate the next missile? No kidding.”
He faced me with a grimace. “You and your buddy better not be playing me. I can at once declare you enemy agents and arrange a firing squad.”
“He’s not my buddy,” I protested.
“Hah. Locked up together, aren’t you? My report distinctly states he’s your accomplice.”
Then he puckered his lips and whistled. Two uniformed men arrived shortly and saluted him while he keyed the cell door. “Time’s a wasting. Let’s get you traitors to work.”
His deputies grabbed me and I kicked and thrashed for dear life. “I got nothing to do with this. Let me go.”
Muji tapped my shoulder and gently nodded. Then he strolled out the cell, limbering from side to side as a boy scout ready to peg tents. Right there a chill swept through my body, though at the time my brain couldn’t compute why.
That we were underground only hit me when we boarded an old-school elevator with cage-like gates. It ascended through a tube lit with frizzing lamps and swayed enough to make me seasick.
There was no point reasoning with Bonga or his superiors, I fretted. Anyone who'd promote the screwball to captain was as insane. Shit.
The elevator thudded to a stop. His henchmen drew back the gates and then a creaky shutter with rounded slats. I winced at first and shaded my eyes, but soon my jaw fell halfway to my chest.
We were back in the street. That street; now deathly quiet but for the whispering of a sooty breeze. And down the steps stood the lamppost with the maple-leafed scar. How?
Muji clapped with glee and toddled toward the road. Kubba, his expression grim, beckoned us from the blast site round twenty feet away. It seemed Chacha was the only one who could extract those shells.
Bonga and his lackeys saluted Kubba, then pushed me and Muji toward him.
The midget paid us no mind. “Any word from the army?”
“They’re not taking this seriously, sir. They have no report of an attack, nothing on their radars.”
Kubba motioned toward the missile, growling. “Does this appear a joke to them?” Then his head dipped and he pinched his squat nose.
“Go drum up recruits. I’ll deal with these two.” He patted the bulge over his coat shaped as a firearm.
I gulped and decided I’d flee at first chance. In this haze, I ought to outrun him easily and jump a wall. Stay low till night came, and should he fire, I’d zig and zag like the Hollywood movies. Yes.
Meanwhile, Muji glanced about the lane as if he were a weekend tourist. Or someone who’d emerged from the underworld after a long repose. I suppose he was both.
The midget squinted skyward and heaved a sigh. “How can you chumps help me? Don’t take all day.”
I palmed my face, groaning. “I can’t help you; I already told the gorilla.”
“How can we nab the old man?”
“I don’t even know who the hell he is.”
Kubba’s face twisted from fury. “Quit lying, twerp. Okay, where’s the next hit?”
“If I had such foresight, you think I’d sell cheap candy round town?”
Muji’s mumbling caught his attention. The boy began spouting a strange cocktail of speech loaded with clicks, and clucks, and drawled syllables.
I shot him a surprised look. He sounded like a cranky rooster arguing with a wowing cassette player, though oddly familiar.
Kubba stepped toward him, thunderstruck. “You have a map? Who are you?”
Muji beamed and continued chattering in the alien tongue.
The midget ran a hand through his faux-hawk. “I see. The councilor needs to know ASAP,” he said shakily.
The kid raised two fingers and then pointed skyward in different directions.
Kubba cussed in response and twirled his chunky jeweled rings. “We need help.”
Muji lightly flapped his palm in dissent. Then he produced a tooth-cleaning miswak stick from his pocket, which he flourished as a wand.
Kubba stood entranced while the boy gibbered. “True, sacrifices are necessary to bring down the brute.”
Together they fixed on me, their features stonier.
Sharp pain needled my chest. I’d assumed this meeting would end the second I convinced Kubba of my innocence, but now I found myself drawn into the twilight zone.
The midget neared me. “You want to help us win the war, correct?”
I just wanted my life back, yet that sounded unmanly. Call it brainwashing or what you will, but patriotism and manhood were synonymous in Naya Chooran.
I puffed out my chest on instinct. “Zindabad.”
“Good, then we’ll need you to stay underground for now.”
“What? You’re imprisoning me again?”
“The kid, I’m sorry, the director thinks it's best that way.”
Muji eyed me blankly. Then he wandered up the road, swishing his miswak stick as if counting ghosty sheep.
Again, a chill racked my body; a sense of drowning in icy water. Where was Chacha Kakakhel? Why’d he forsaken me?
As Kubba led me up the shop steps, his pistol digging into my spine, I prayed the old-timer was alive so I could bury him personally.
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