It all started a few years ago. A pandemic had hit the world, followed by an economic recession. People started dying, some because of the deadly disease and some due to hunger. The ghastly chaos weakened many emerging nations. The time was unpleasant and repulsive. The opportunists, however, grabbed the situation. The separatists gained more power. Small battles to occupy coveted regions raised sporadic heads in various corners of the earth.
Soon these battles turned into wars, with powerful countries pitching in, supporting one or the other encroacher. It was a golden age for the capitalists, with human life turning valueless. Even the religious extremists tried to encash the turn of events in their favour and civil wars ensued in different regions. And all this mayhem increased the work of Death manifold.
The business of Death shot up in the years following the outbreak of the epidemic, and as the situation on earth worsened, his business showed exponential growth. But with great trade came a greater challenge. Death and his team were unable to manage the incoming traffic even after working overtime. There was a dire need for an increase in his workforce. Though reluctant at first, looking at the grave situation, Death agreed.
The recruitment process was initiated, and soon many convicted souls from hell were inducted in the labour pool. There wasn’t much time for elaborate preparation. The interns were placed in teams on an immediate basis with the instruction of on the job training.
I was one such fresher in the team of Death. Everyone called me DBC132040- my employee code, which was my identity here. Before dying, obviously, I went by a different name. But in the Death company, that name was lost in oblivion.
My department dealt with soul-delivery. We had to collect the departing souls from the earth and submit them to the inspection department. There they were segregated as per their deeds and dispatched to hell or paradise. The rotten ones like me were thrown into the inferno, and the fortunate ones enjoyed the breezy and luxurious life of heaven.
Of late, however, the population of the idyll has seen a steep fall, and there were rumours that to compensate, a new promotion scheme might be rolled out. It was heard that the management might elevate exceptional performers from hell to paradise. We, the interns, were thus much motivated to execute our duties to perfection.
Today was an important day at my job. I was about to start my first assignment. I had to collect a few souls who had lost their lives in a riot at the heart of a busy city. Equipped with a job card and a palmtop to locate the correct coordinates of the casualty, I swooped into the locomotive device with much seriousness. Simple voice command and I was on my way to fulfil the task.
After spending years of captivity in the abyss, I was enjoying this newfound freedom and looked forward to the journey. However, the supersonic speed of the locomotive device did not give me much time to enjoy the tour. With a small thud, I landed in the pre-fed destination. But the location looked different from what I had anticipated.
An eerie silence prevailed everywhere. A soft breeze stirred a leaf that had fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street was tidy and well-maintained, just like the quiet houses arranged in neat rows along its sides or the vacant shop fronts along the quaint Main Street nearby or the vacant playground. Where was everyone?
I started scanning the streets for my targets. But, nothing worked. The palmtop was behaving in a weird manner. It was designed to track souls stuck within a few kilometers. But there was no sign of any kind of souls in the vicinity of my whereabouts- living or departing. I even tried to restart the device, but still, nothing happened. It was when I revised the job card that the error was detected. Wrong coordinates had been input into the gadget. I struggled hard to recall what was taught in the short training session about handling such a crisis, but could not remember any such mention.
The locomotive device was built in such a way that it took one back to the base only when some departing human souls were on board. The gadget recognised nothing but the human spirit. And until then, the user was restricted within a predefined perimeter around the inputted coordinates. I pushed the buttons on the machine in vain. High and dry in the middle of nowhere, unable to figure out any escape, it was evident that I was in a big soup.
Never in my life or death had I faced such a trial. All that was needed was a dead human spirit to activate the device. But where could I find one in the ghost town? Dejected, I started strolling across the streets. The town seemed to have been abandoned recently. The skyscrapers kissed the grey sky above. The roads were perfect rivers of tarmac but untouched by any vehicle tyres. Traffic lights blinked to control the non-existent cars, and the air was as clean as the era before the turmoil began.
It was like those sleeping hamlets from the pages of a fairy tale. To kill time, I wandered in and out of the abandoned houses. Even that became boring after a while. So I climbed to the terrace, and that was where I saw them.
Two kids were playing on the roof of a neighbouring house. Intrigued, I closed in. On approaching, some dogs started barking, shattering the long built silence. A boy, not more than twelve or thirteen, immediately came out of the house.
“Bosco, Roby, what happened? Is there some danger around?” He asked with concern, all the while looking around for the impending threat. He couldn’t see me, but the dogs sensed my presence. He looked around. Unable to locate the problem, he went inside.
“Sana, Riyanshi, come down at once.”
The two little girls I saw on the terrace came down running.
“Papa called?” The little one asked with enthusiasm. The face of the boy turned dark, but he recovered in a moment and reprimanded the two girls.
“No, he has not. But what were you doing on the roof? Are you practising like I told you?”
The children looked at each other and then nodded their heads sideways.
“This is for your safety, now go and start practising.”
“But the water is dirty,” quipped the older sister.
“The dirt may just save us all, Sana.”
Unable to protest anymore, they started moving.
Interested, I also followed them.
The kids took off their clothes and entered a swamp behind the house. The older boy, who seemed to be their guardian at the moment, also came.
“Now try to hold your breath for as long as you can.” He instructed in a stern voice.
At first, the youngest one, Riyanshi, was unable to hold her breath for more than a few seconds, but with time the duration increased. The instructor looked happy with the progress. After practicing for quite a while, the kids moved inside.
I followed. Something told me that these children were also stuck here for some unfortunate reason.
“Bhaiya*, why are we doing this?” Riyanshi asked.
“When the soldiers arrive, we must hide in the swamp lest they find us.”
Their conversation filled the rooms. After hours of eerie silence, their chatter seemed like the most precious entity on earth.
“I am hungry.”
“Soup and bread are ready.”
“Again soup.” Riyanshi made a face.
“We will have other food when Papa comes back. Right, Aarav?” Sana consoled her little sister.
So the boy was called Aarav.
The kids reminded me of my family from another lifetime. My folks, who were perhaps still waiting for me. The loved ones whom I never had a chance to bid a proper farewell because I decided to follow a blind path of violence to seek paradise. One bomb blast and the pretense were exposed. Alas, it was too late.
But what might be the reason for these young siblings to remain stranded in an empty town? I decided to linger around for a while to find out.
Two days had passed since I arrived in this godforsaken town. I was still unable to contact the headquarter, and they seemed to have conveniently forgotten this fallen employee. To be frank, I had started enjoying the stay with these kids. Their queer antics kept me entertained the whole day. Their games, the innocuous conversations, and the squabbles filled the house with life. Like, presently, the two young sisters were fighting over the control of the remote. The funny thing was, the television was showing only one channel. That too some news they couldn’t apprehend. Yet, the ownership mattered.
They fought until Aarav intervened and turned the television set off. That sparked another fight, but now the two sisters were united against the common enemy. Soon all three of them were rolling over the carpet, giggling. The innocence in their laughter was all that one needed to forget the problems that got them stranded here.
From the bits and pieces of conversations, I could gather that these kids had already lost their mother. The father had gone outstation for some work when the news broke that the troops of the resistance army were approaching this town. Soon there would be bomb attacks. Some nearby towns and villages were already ravaged by the merciless troop. So the townsmen started shifting at once.
As per the last contact with their father, he asked the kids to wait as he was coming to fetch them. The kids were following his order since their last phone call five days ago. The town was vacated meanwhile, but the kids stayed back. They knew their father would return. He never broke a promise.
Two more days passed. By now, I was well accustomed to the life of the three kids and almost felt like a part of their little family. Their emotion transpired within me in a natural way. As time lapsed, I could feel the anxiety in the house growing. Riyanshi and Sana were impatient. They were too naive to understand the complexity of the situation and kept asking about their father.
The worst affected was Aarav. He was checking the food stock and the mobile phone every hour. The phone showed no signal, and he knew the ration wouldn’t last for long.
It broke my heart to see him skip lunch to save food. He kept insisting his sisters to practice hiding. But the children, especially Riyanshi, started throwing tantrums. I could perceive their tension, their anguish, but my hands were tied. I could do nothing to help them. Their struggle made me forget my problem. Even I started looking forward to the return of their father. But I had a feeling, something more sinister was coming.
It was the fourth night of my stay when the action began. The news on the TV was announcing an attack in the neighbouring town. There had been massacres, rapes, arson, and people driven out of their homes. Some had even eaten the livers of the dead. Aarav turned it off with a sombre face and started distributing bread for dinner in complete silence. The quantity wasn’t sufficient for three, but he tried.
“What is rape?” Riyanshi asked Sana, breaking the silence.
Clueless, Sana looked up to his brother.
He also didn’t know what to explain, so he brushed it off saying, “It is something the bad people do. Now eat your dinner.”
They were halfway through their dinner when the dogs started barking rabid. By now, they were accustomed to my presence. So it must be something else. I hurried outside to see and found the opposition military force was entering the border of the town, torching the houses on their way. They seemed disappointed to see the town already deserted.
I rushed inside and wanted to warn the children to hide somewhere safe. Helpless, I screamed, “Put off the light and hide in the swamp.” But alas, my obscurity, which was my shield till now, was now my greatest inconvenience.
The barking and the sound of marching alarmed the kids too. They rushed to the swamp to hide. The men with guns in the meantime spotted the chained dogs. Without getting a favourable target they started firing on the canines. Bosco and Roby succumbed to bullet wounds after a painful shriek.
Riyanshi, terrified of the sound of bullets and the dark water, started crying. At first, her cries got drowned amidst the noise of the bullets and the barking. The soldiers started moving away. But the lights in their building within the unlit town got their attention.
They smashed inside, breaking the door. The loud bang again startled the kids, and this time their sobs reached the cautious ears. Alerted, the soldiers followed the source of the sound, like a pack of hyenas tracking the smell of its wounded prey, and discovered the shivering children.
What happened next was beyond my worst nightmare. The zealots got excited to find new prey. Understanding that their cover was up, Aarav asked his sisters to run as he faced the soldiers himself. The young braveheart tried to resist the gunmen as long as he could. But his defiance was short-lived. Bullets tore without any effort through the soft human tissue, allowing the arteries to split and coated the ground in a slick, thick liquid. Blood.
Meanwhile, the little feet of the girls could not carry them far. Before long, some assassins captured them. They grabbed the two kids and dragged them inside a caravan. The children yelled and screamed in pain. There was no one to help them. I loathed my incapability as I watched the carnage like a mute spectator, unable to intervene. Their pain pierced through my non-existent heart, and I felt myself bleeding.
All of a sudden, my device came to life. Duty beckoned as the palmtop detected the departing soul, who needed to be guided out of this earth. In a way, I was relieved I could escape the trauma of watching the girls getting butchered. I knew war treated all women in the same way, irrespective of the age. Still, I prayed for the two young girls and wished not for their safety but an easy death.
The situation was worse than hell, and I had experienced both. I was thankful to leave this cursed place, the closest thing mankind would ever come to see Satan himself striding over the Earth. As I pulled away Aarav’s pious soul to unite with his mother in heaven, I kept dreaming that soon, this family would reunite in a better world, beyond this cruel abode.
Bhaiya- Big brother
Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Pixabay
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