Life is But a Stream — Part 2

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“Why aren’t you picking up my calls?” Buddy’s mom answered his call with an attitude.

“Just been busy with a case, amma.”

“What about the last three days?”

“Can’t you start a conversation with ‘How are you’ for once?”

“What did you eat for lunch?”

“Chicken and rice”, he lied.

“Good. Your Dad and I are getting ready for a dinner at Vibha Aunty’s house. Are you coming?

“Nope, Bala Uncle eats my head about MBA schools and tutoring his demon.”

“Venkat is a nice kid.”

“A shit kid.”

She sighed. “Where are you?”

“In Plano. I was serious about taking a case. Missing rich dog.”

“Buddy, I told you to stop that nonsense and get serious.” She fumed, and set his own emotions off as he slowed for a red light.

“A few cases like this a year and I’ll have no need to ‘get serious’. That’s obvious.”

“As if you’ll have any money left after you’re done paying for your therapy.” She tested his wiring and he short-circuited as expected, hanging up in anger.

As he stalled at the light, Buddy wished that instead of visions, he’d been gifted with the patience to combat guilt trips. On days in the past year, when his visions of the child terrified him, he wanted nothing else than to be 10 again, sitting on his Dad’s lap and being fed balls of spicy rice.

Buddy’s mom called back as she usually did when he hung up in anger. He rejected the call. He needed a clear mind.

The light turned green. Buddy thought of the changes in his parents since he received his powers. As much as they might’ve believed in the supernatural, once they were confronted by it, they didn’t know how to deal with its intrusion on their life. Family conversations held long gaps where they thought of questions not to ask, and at dinners, chewed loudly to fill the silence. Fearing this would happen with his friends too, he told them little about his powers and why he’d quit his corporate job. Things changed anyway. Unable to glean the reality of his work or the reason behind his therapy sessions, his friends settled with knowing half of who he was.

Much of this was worsened in the past year by the persistent vision of the child in the hallway. Each day he refused to take missing persons cases or address the problem and each night he asked himself why he didn’t have the basic courage to act, or at least speak to the police. But he was immobilized, unsure of what he owed the world for his visions and more unsure of what he owed himself. Shaira and her sessions were his only comfort, until today’s impulse towards a cure.

Around 4:30 PM, Buddy pulled up to a dilapidated laundromat in a barren strip mall on the border of the Plano and Colony suburbs. He expected it to remain empty: the laundromat was closed, the buffet next door was closed, and the only other store was a Radioshack. He parked his car toward the back of the building, across from a green door that read “Maintenance Only”.

Still in the driver’s seat, wrestling his thoughts away from his relationships and to the task at hand, Buddy stared at the green door until he felt a vision stirring. But from his own memories. He saw his own trip to Delhi and another green door. He felt the sights and sounds that he had remembered earlier in the day — lingering smells of street food and crowds in old, twisting alleys of old Delhi. He had been drinking, heavily, at a friend’s place and stumbled out overconfident of his abilities to find the nearest metro station. As he meandered through narrow stone streets, he passed by small shrines and bared the judgmental stares of their dormant gods with gritted teeth. The closed food carts, sleeping beggars, and the light of the moon seemed to guide and misguide his wanderings; the streets left an odd calm within. The rare eye in the storm that was India, the peace of the in-between moments, lulled him into a false sense of security that allowed him to wander a bit longer. He started muttering any words he could remember to the Hindi songs he heard that day, when he finally came upon a green door slightly ajar. He heard subtle kitchen sounds echoing from within and drew closer. It was so late that it could’ve been early for someone more inclined to mornings, so Buddy figured he could ask for directions or help. He drew closer and saw inside the door. The sight of colors dancing on the walls enticed him further, until he found himself angling through the door out of curiosity, without so much as a knock.

He was in more of a shack than a house, the cement floor covered by mismatched rugs and broken up only by two cement archways in the back of the room that led to a kitchen on one side and bathroom on the other. A dim tubelight illuminated shelves to his right, which held myriad 6-inch glass jars of colorful powders. The flickering light had made these colors dance and entice him from outside. The pot of tea teetering on the stove explained the kitchen sounds he heard. There was nothing out of the ordinary here.

He heard a loud slurp to his left and was startled by the sight of an old man in a shawl and grey beard, staring right at Buddy. He rocked back in surprise, losing his balance and hitting his head on one of the shelves. He turned back just in time to steady the shelf. No jars fell, and Buddy was starting to reach for a mesmerizing mix of red and blue powder when he heard a shout.

Careful! What do you want?!” the old man shouted in Hindi from his seat behind Buddy.

Sorry! Sorry!” Buddy pleaded, drawing his hands away from the jar. Unable to remember much Hindi outside of movie songs, he started gesturing that his phone was out of battery: “Uhh, phone, no” he blurted out in English. “You, phone? Taxi, taxi!” he continued, pointing at the man desperately.

“Okay, okayyyy” the old man groaned, as if this wasn’t the first drunk tourist to end up in his jar shop/ tea shack/ home. The old man moved as if he was underwater; slow and heavy, he reached under his shawl for something. To Buddy’s surprise, the old man pulled out a smartphone. As he drew the phone up to his face, the backlit screen illuminated his face clearly, showing one eye attentively searching the screen and the other distant. Grey. Scratched. Staring right at Buddy’s face.

Just then, Buddy heard a squeaking sound and felt something soft brush against the back of his foot. Startled, he shuffled his feet and looked to his left, seeing a rat dart quickly towards the door. The sight of the vermin sitting there in the moonlight made him jump and scream, hitting his head against the jar shelf yet again, but much harder this time. He grabbed his head immediately to rub at the pain and got turned around, stepping this way and that. When he paused to look up, he saw the jar. The jar of red and blue powder started teetering on the edge, threatening to fall, and finally carried out that threat.

The powder flew everywhere, creating a haze of red, blue, purple in the dimly lit hall. The rat was long gone and Buddy could see nothing in the haze. He held his breath and covered his mouth, looked for a sight of the old man and reached out his hands, grasping desperately for something to hold while his head throbbed with pain. Suddenly he saw the old man — moving in air instead of water. He darted like lightning out of his seat and started gathering large chunks of the powder back into the jar just by waving his hands. Buddy stood mesmerized, wondering what he had drank that night, as the haze started to disappear and this supposed wizard had gathered half of the powder back into its jar. In the displacement, he saw a wave of powder get pushed his way in the air, and unwittingly, but inevitably, he had to finally breathe in.

Whoosh. He took a deep breath as the powder filled his nostrils. The old man turned to him with a look of horror and screamed “Don’t breathe!” in Hindi but it was of course too late. The powder was in him: red, blue, blood, oxygen, and suddenly all was black.

He saw nothing.

And then the old man’s home again. But back in time?

Daytime in the home — he hadn’t seen this before. He was looking at the old man, then looking at the jars. Back and forth, back and forth. Sounds were coming forth, clearer by the second. Voices of question and answer. The old man was telling him not to touch the jars, not to open the jars. Buddy wondered why he was being told this again, of course he wouldn’t touch them again. He looked down as he reached into his pocket.

Wait. Those aren’t my pants, Buddy thought. Not my shoes. What day is it? Those aren’t even my hands.

Stranger hands pulled cash out of stranger pocket and threw it at the feet of he half-blind homeowner. A clear voice spoke, right underneath the eyes that Buddy was inhabiting. “I’m not gonna ask again,” the voice said.

Buddy tried everything he could to move but he was stuck. What kind of nightmare was this? He wanted to scream, shout, anything, but he was helpless. Helpless to do anything but watch, living in the eyes of some man he’d never met, witnessing some sort of bribe.

The old man yelled “No, I said No!” in Hindi, but Buddy saw the stranger’s hand defiantly reach up for a glass jar of orange and yellow dust. Just as he had grabbed it off the shelf, the old man had rushed up to put his own hand on the jar.

“What the hell” said the stranger. He saw the stranger’s hands struggle to wrestle the jar from the old man’s hands for a few seconds as they engaged in a tug of war. All of a sudden, the stranger switched his grip to the top of the jar, turned it sideways, and twisted it open.

A haze again in Buddy’s vision: orange and yellow and porous, as the dusty powder spilled out of the jar. The stranger reached for a handful and brought it up to his nose to sniff while the old man was trying to collect the fallen powder. Buddy saw hands clench into a fist, with forearms and biceps in full view. Then he saw those same arms get instantly bigger, with an orange tinge in the veins. He heard a guttural scream coming from the stranger witnessing his transformation. Just then, he saw the old man’s hand come hard and fast towards the stranger’s nose.

He saw nothing again.

And then red. Red and blurry grey. He looked down and tried to shift his hand — it moved. Buddy was back in his own body at least. He was lying on his side on a hard floor. His nose had bled profusely. He looked a few inches away and saw a shadow — standing steady while the tubelight flickered and brought it in and out of view. Buddy followed the silhouette and started to look up when the tubelight finally gave up. There, in the dim moonlight, Buddy couldn’t make out any features of the old man standing above him. Save for one grey, scratched eye, staring.

“Maintenance Only.” Buddy was back in the present, staring at the door to Plano Best Laundry in front of him. It was 4:45 now and he had been stalling for long enough. He gathered up his courage one last time and exited his car.

When he came up to the green door, he saw a simple combination lock and bent down to look for signs of wear or finger oils on the right buttons. Instead, he was treated to a vision. He was looking at a hand that was stretching out to the keypad: 4, 5, then 1 and 2 at the same time. When the doorknob was turned, Buddy was kicked back out of the vision. Well, that was convenient, he thought, a flashback to his earlier detective days when he had used his power with purpose. He put in the combination and turned the doorknob slow as he could.

On the other side, he stepped in and let his eyes adjust to the dark. There was a door across from him with a window to the storefront, providing the only light, and clothes hung on machines all around him. And that was it. Had his vision been wrong?

He walked around the small room, looking for anything suspicious, but all he felt and saw were racks of clothing. He leaned against one of the racks with his hand, when suddenly one line of clothes started moving. He jumped, nervous about the loud noise and movement alerting anyone, and noticed that his hand had pressed a button. He immediately shut it off and stood there in silence, waiting for something to happen. When nothing happened after a minute, he put his hand gently back on the button and felt around its periphery. On the back of the panel, he felt more buttons, similar to the ones outside, and tried the same combination: 4, 5, then 1 and 2 at the same time.

Buddy was sweating. A portion of the brick wall behind the clothing racks slid away to reveal a dim-lit hallway. He moved silently to the opening and stood by, waiting again for any stirring. When nothing happened, he took a step into the hallway and looked around. It was familiar. And terrifying. The one from his visions. He felt his heart beating up into his throat. He pushed forward, step by step.

Four doors lining the hallway were all closed. The dim lightbulb of the hallway illuminated signs on each of the doors: Plumbing, Kitchen, Storage, and something else that Buddy couldn’t read. Buddy tried the first three one by one, but they were all locked. He drew close to the last door and looked up at the unintelligible sign. It was partly English, he could recognize an S, T, R, and E. Another Storage door, Buddy thought. But the missing alphabets had been replaced by letters from another language: the characters looked a bit like Mandarin to Buddy but not quite.

He felt his heart jumping out of his chest again, and his hand was shaking as he pulled out his phone to take a picture of the door sign. This was it, Buddy thought, there must be children behind this door. Or any of these other doors. He touched his ear to the door and listened closely for any indication of shuffling, any sign of life. But it was too quiet. The captors could’ve been in the room with the children, and he would be risking their lives in addition to his own if he barged in. He decided to gather more evidence for now. He wheeled around to look for anything else he recognized from his visions, and saw a large bin at the end of the hallway, with rods poking out of it.

Buddy inched up to the bin and drew out one of the rods. Despite the dim light, he could make out that the end had a circular shape. He flipped the rod and brought it closer to his eyes to see what he was dreading. A boar, with bloody tusks. It was a brand, meant for human skin.

Buddy felt his vision blur and go dark: the hallway started to shake and he lost his balance. He wanted to welcome the impending fall and crash, to just give up to darkness and let himself be found there by this gang of traffickers. At least then he would be locked up with the children he never tried to save, like he deserved. He felt his phone slip, his body slip, his mind slip. But just before he fell into the unknown, his hands grasped around the rod and drove it hard into the ground. The sound of metal hitting tile shook Buddy out of his stupor: his hands had wedged the rod against the wall to keep him upright.

Buddy took a picture of the brand’s terrifying insignia. How many children had lost their childhood to its grotesque mark? He flipped the rod over again and slowly placed it back in the bin as he found it. Letting go of it made his conscience fifty pounds lighter. As he did so, he realized he had no idea what to do. He was hoping a vision would hit him at just the right moment, tell him how to unlock the door, or show him something else he could bring to the police.

But how could he even go to the police? He would have to explain his powers and hope no one laughed. Plus, they might not take kindly to all the breaking and entering. It would help if he had some backup at least, someone to corroborate his story and powers. His only real option was Shaira: the voice of a professional might make his story believable enough to warrant police attention, even if they still doubted his sanity. He walked out of the hallway and turned around at the entrance to get another look.

The hallway that had haunted him, caused his dark visions, his reluctance, his doubt. It stared back at him with ominous promise. Buddy swore right then that he would come back for the children captive here, even if he had to come alone.

He pressed the combination again and waited for the secret hallway door to close. He opened the green door to the outside and checked his watch. 5:03. Hopefully Shaira was still home.

***

It took Buddy about 15 minutes to reach Shaira’s house. He parked his car and walked up to her door, before hesitating. He had come many times before for therapy sessions, but he was nervous to knock on her door today. What if she didn’t believe him? What if she had a client over? What if she stopped seeing him? He had to try. Reluctantly, he raised his hand up and knocked sharply on the door. The door opened, and Shaira was standing there panting and sweating, wearing boxing gloves and workout gear.

“Buddy! What are you doing here? You don’t have a session today, right?”

“No, uhh not today”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost! Are you okay?!”

“Yea, well, no, not exactly actually,” he mumbled, adding a nervous laugh and shifting his eyes. He was seeing Shaira in workout clothes for the first time and was trying hard not to stare, but she had noticed.

“Alright, well, I don’t have a client right now, so you could come in if you like? I was just finishing a kickboxing workout, so good timing.” She stepped aside and invited him to come in with a wave of her arm.

“Thank you so much,” he said as he went inside and headed for his familiar chair in the living room. “I just really needed to tell you about something I saw today, something not in a vis — ”

“Hold that thought, Buddy,” she interjected from behind him. “Let me towel off real quick and I’ll be in the living room in a few minutes.”

“Okay.” He sank into his usual chair. The evening sun beamed proudly into Shaira’s living room, putting an orange glow on the white upholstery. To his right was a large couch that had always tempted Buddy with its plush seats. Shaira always refused his requests to lie down, claiming they weren’t in a movie about therapy. Still, the entire room was amenable to confessions. Adding to the fake fireplace, the excessive number of candles and golden couch pillows were enough to elicit a few Freudian slips.

Across from his chair was Shaira’s. It was odd for Buddy to see it empty. Usually the chair, the room, and Buddy’s thoughts were occupied by Shaira when he came for sessions. Outwardly, her composure was immaculate. Perfect posture, eyes locked on Buddy, not so much as a grimace for the darkest thoughts that stumbled out of his mouth. But he suspected she felt it inside. He saw it happen every time Buddy spoke of the child in his vision; her eyes would stop their dancing and sink into a place he couldn’t see. He imagined a stream of tears bubbling behind her composed demeanor then. It was clear she cared deeply. She cared enough that it was easiest on this day for Buddy to talk to a stranger about what he saw.

As he continued to wait and stare at the empty chair, Buddy noticed something sticking out of the cushion. Something metallic and matte, sort of dark. His curiosity was piqued enough to lift him out of his chair, but just then Shaira finally came into the room.

“Hey! Take a seat, what are you standing around for?” she ordered. She walked up to her chair, towel draped around her shoulders, and paused to take a long look at Buddy. He couldn’t hold eye contact for long and glanced away. Her body was fair and angular, with sharp lines like a kite, unlike his own. Her eyes were greenish-grey miracles. She was wearing a tank top in lieu of her usual business casual she donned for therapy. Her hair hung loose around her collar bone, just grazing her chest, which heaved up and down from the workout. She was mesmerizing, every bit of her.

“You doing alright? Can I get you some tea?” she asked eagerly.

“Ya, that would be nice actually,” he mumbled to the ground.

“Sure!”

He looked up again, and found that her towel was laid over the spot in her chair where the shiny metal had been. She came back with chai to hand to Buddy and turned to the window to adjust the blinds, casting the orange glow from the couch to the floor. He looked up at her and was about to say a gratitude prayer for yoga pants when he noticed something odd on her back, where the skin was exposed by her tank top. Between her right shoulder blade and neck was a tattoo he recognized all too well. The bloody tusks of the boar were unmistakable. The children were branded, the gang was tattooed. She was one of them.

He heard Shaira speaking after that, looked at her sit back down. A bubble of suspicion and dismay separated him from her and left him shellshocked. He felt terrified and angry and confused and sad within 10 seconds. Every instinct told him to leave but his body wouldn’t budge. Finally, a faint sound burst through the bubble. It repeated and swelled until finally he heard a resounding scream:

“BUDDY! CAN YOU HEAR ME?!”

He shook his head and focused his eyes on Shaira, as he had never seen before. She was standing now, hovering near his chai and breathing heavily. It looked like she was ready to slap him, but her eyes betrayed her sadness and worry.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. Look I’m… I just have to go.” He rose out of his chair and met Shaira face-to-face.

“Are you kidding me?!”

Buddy sighed. “I’m really sorry. I’ll come back later.”

“Bud- wait!”
He started heading out of the room before she could finish. She reached out a hand and caught his shoulder but he shook himself free and walked away even faster, practically running to his car. For the second time that day, he set the navigation for Plano Best Laundry.

“You will arrive at 5:49 PM” the navigation said. Buddy was going to do this alone.

Written by

Writer in Atlanta. Fiction in Glimmer Train, Chicago Tribune, Jaggery Lit. Working on short story collection & debut novel. More at Abhijithr.com

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