by Sahana Illenchezhian
Art by Sophie Lin
Issue: Ataraxia (Spring 2018)
“Boy, why did you run away?” A woman asked her son.
“To look for a beautiful place with grand buffets and fancy cars, ” the boy said with a spur of enthusiasm.
“What is wrong with where we live? You get food to eat and a place to sleep.” The woman questioned the boy, her hands tipped towards the grey, gloomy ceiling.
“Ma, everyone is hungry, tired and sad. I hate it. Even the little babies don’t smile.” The boy pointed to the streets in an effort to make his mother understand the misery that crowded every corner of their neighborhood.
“Well, child, that is life. Don’t fight it.” The woman stated angrily.
“I will fight it!” The boy yelled rebelliously, stomping his feet on the ashen cement floor. “I will fight it and fight it, until it changes.”
“I will not tolerate yelling in my house, young man. I have had enough of your misbehaviour today and you better go sleep before I decide to punish you for your misdemeanors.” The woman raised her voice, making herself echo through the barren shack.“I will have no more running away business from you. If you want to fight life, be prepared to starve for a few days. God knows, we could do with some extra food around here!”
The boy dragged his feet into the only other room the house had and grumpily snatched at his sister’s blanket, failing to hear his mother mutter bitterly: “Fighting life only makes it that much harder, boy. I know.”
He watched the flames lick the corpse of his dead mother. Even though the woman had bickered with him till her last breath, he had loved her. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to shed a single tear. His neighbors and extended family offered their condolences. He knew none of them would give him a drop of water even if he lay dying at the very door of their houses. Not that he blamed them. It was a cruel world out here with “Kill or be killed” as the motto for daily survival.
He wished it wasn’t like this. God knowing, he had cursed every waking moment in this neighborhood, trying to escape the wretched misery that choked it like a poisonous fog that became more potent the more you tried to clear it. He would know. He had tried to escape the pallid streets on numerous occasions. Politicians in the billboards made speeches on how education could uplift even the poorest of men. That could be reality if only employers did not look at your address at the beginning of every interview. Oh, and of course, there were always those “social workers” who said they were “helping” when, in truth, they were plotting to fill their ballots with more votes in the following elections. But, what happens for the four years when there are no elections? Are the poor just supposed to watch as unidentifiable viruses carry their children into mortuaries? Are they just supposed to spend their lives working for a future they will never achieve? Are they supposed to sit, reveling in the knowledge that nothing they do can reverse the misery that is their fate? Or can they change the writing in the stars?
As he walked back to the pile of tin sheets he called home, he tried to remember the last time he had tried to leave this junkyard. It had been right after he had lost his sister to brain fever. “Contaminated water,” the doctors had said. Not that anything could have been done about that. Everyone lived in this water and now, they died in it too. Seeing them shroud his sister’s bony frame, he realized that he or his distraught mother would become death’s next companion. A few days after the funeral, he decisively approached his mother on this matter. The woman looked up at him with the emptiest eyes he had ever seen and he shrunk away not daring to tear her away from her grief. And that was it, two years had passed and he still hadn’t taken a single step away from this disease infested rathole.
He wondered if his mother had ever felt trapped by the monstrous walls that threatened to swallow them as he entered his home. Sometimes, he had seen his mother sit in the middle of the room and stare at the four walls. When he was little, he would speculate about what she thought. He still did, for that matter. At a particularly young age, he had noticed her melancholic smile and wondered if she would just leave them. She didn’t. But, he wished she did. Maybe, then, she could have found happiness away the strain of starving children and shattered dreams.
As he searched the old, weary cupboards for bread, he realized that he had never heard of a single entity which had managed to leave the slums. Even the abused and infested canines managed to find their way back to the harshness of their owners. He paused, suddenly, in his search for a toasting pan, struggling to the remember stories of a man by the railroad, a man who managed to escape poverty. Without much to do in the long days of summer in his childhood, he along with all the other children would run to the rusted train tracks along which a middle-aged man with a pot belly and tobacco-stained teeth told stories. Every summer, the man recited stories about everything ranging from unholy Gods to unkingly kings. One sweltering afternoon, the man told stories of a poor man who attained great wealth and walked away from poverty with a smug smile. A week later, the man by the train was missing. Rumors in the slums circulated. They spoke of tall tales that the man stole from a local gangster who had accumulated wealth by illegal organ trafficking. He hadn’t believed them and had waited for the man by the train tracks day after day until another distraction took his attention. A few years later, his friends told him that they saw the very same man leave a shiny car and shop in the malls with a wallet filled in cash. He still didn’t believe it for the matter. He had shunned those rumors as he did the previous ones, with disbelief.
Now, with the maturity of another six years, he wondered aloud to the empty house: it simply couldn’t have been possible, could it? Was money the key all along?
The questions echoed and echoed, louder with every beat of his heart as he fell asleep on the hard, unforgiving ground in his little grey shack.
He calmly tried to insert the key into the worn lock as his palms accumulated sweat. He couldn’t give up, not now. He heard a patter of footsteps approaching. He froze, listening intently for any sound to signal his time here was up. A silence elapsed, and slowly the footsteps faded. The solemn picture of his grey hovel flashed before his eyes. With renewed will to escape, he tried again. The lock clicked and the door creaked as if to welcome him to take the first steps towards a new horizon.
He made his way across the room towards a metallic safe that glittered in the moonlight, his footsteps lighter than they had ever been. With trembling hands, he raised a crowbar and smashed it into the elegant safe like a madman. Again. And again, till he had broken it open. He picked up a wad of bills, and another, all the way his mind filled with ecstatic fantasies of palaces and lavishing meals.
He started to close the safe and just as he did, memories flashed before his eyes: the fire charring his mother’s corpse, the toxic water poisoning his sister’s mind, the smog of despair overwhelming the lives of the hundreds with whom he shared his home. They all blurred together, too fast to make any sense. He grabbed another handful of money. And another. With each bill, he felt further and further away from the place he called home.
So immersed in his thoughts, he didn’t notice the sound of approaching footsteps or the creaking door. Only at the click of a gun did he turn, realizing escape was impossible.