Kaira was sprawled across the bed. Faiz had been pushed to one corner, and his sister had somehow managed to turn a hundred-and-eighty degrees. Her feet smelled. He kicked her, softly at first and then a little harder.
“Kaira, wake up. Wake up. It’s Saturday.”
“Are you stupid? We have to go to the store, remember?”
“Don’t be dumb, Kaira. Get up, now.” Faiz pushed himself off the mattress and walked out of their home, toward the water pipe.
In a silent rebellion, hidden from her brother’s eyes, Kaira balled her hands into fists and punched his pillow, again and again. Faiz was only a few years older than her, but sometimes it was like he forgot. She knew she had to love Faiz (Amma had made that abundantly clear), but he could be so sullen.
Their home was small, but not the smallest in the bustee. Faiz, Kaira, and Amma lived in a one-room house with patchy, mint green walls and a cat that came and went. He hadn’t returned after his second visit, when he realized he was getting Kaira’s unwavering attention, but no food. Still, she hadn’t lost faith. Sometimes, she would peep out of their front door, look onto the street and call his name.
They had a small bedroom-cum-dining-room. Amma didn’t own much; she had a few utensils stacked in a corner and cooked outside, over an open fire that all the women in the bustee used. In the bedroom part of their home, a small mattress had been pushed to one side; in the dining room portion: straw mats to sit on when they ate. Faiz and Kaira had a few toys: a cricket bat, a plastic horse, miscellaneous pieces of things that had been broken and discarded, but never thrown away. The bathroom was outside—they shared it with the others, too.
Faiz bathed first; he sat on his haunches by the pipe and poured mugs of water onto himself. His curls soaked up the water, and he looked a little like a wet dog. His body was covered in goosebumps. Faiz hated bathing in the winter. Every few days he would try his luck and skip his bath, but Amma had a nose like a bloodhound’s; she smelled everything, especially sweat. Then she would force him to go back out and bathe. “You’re not sleeping here smelling like that,” Amma had said last time.
When he was done, he handed the towel, drenched now, to Kaira and said, “This is why you wake up first.” Kaira moaned. She wished she was in bed as she doused herself with freezing water. She wished she was in bed, alone, far away from Faiz and the cold and this cracked mug and damp towel. Inside the house, she took off the wet clothes she’d bathed in and changed into warmer ones. When she finished, she saw Faiz was also dressed and waiting.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Kaira stuck her tongue out at him, calling out to Ram as they left.
Normally, Kaira would never. But the pavements were overflowing with people and she was afraid. She grabbed Faiz’s hand and held onto it, avoiding his curious gaze when he looked first at his hand and then hers. She kept on walking as if nothing had happened, running her big, brown eyes across the sea of people that walked around her. Kaira had eyes that were slightly too large for the rest of her face; they overshadowed everything else. Faiz secretly envied the fleck of lighter brown that stood out from the rest of her darker eyes. She also had a nose shaped like a pear he thought, and a dimple in her cheek that revealed itself when she smiled. Faiz felt a surge of brotherly love, and maybe it had something to do with her holding his hand, but it didn’t matter. He squeezed it lightly.
“Okay, so we’re going to cross the maidan and head to that shop, the ‘Gobind and Sons’ one. Remember?”
“Yes, bhai. What’s the plan?”
“I’m going to distract him, you sneak in from the back. Okay?”
“Okay,” Kaira said, and then paused before saying, “What if he catches us?”
“Then we run. Are you scared?”
“No, no, I’m not. Of course not… Are you?”
They crossed the road, still holding hands and were about to set foot on the maidan when Kaira stopped abruptly, jerking Faiz backwards.
“Arrey, what are you doing?”
“Let’s walk around the maidan. I don’t want to walk on the grass.”
“I can’t tell whether walking on the grass kills it. I don’t want to kill the grass.”
Kaira did the same thing when Amma cooked chicken, but Faiz didn’t mind then, because Amma let him eat Kaira’s share too. Right now, though, Faiz was nothing but annoyed.
“Kaira, grow up!” he snapped, pulling his hand from hers. “Stop acting like a child all the time.”
“You’re not supposed to talk to me like that. Amma told you not to,” she grumbled under her breath, but Faiz wasn’t listening. He didn’t enjoying being mean to Kaira, but no one else was there to take charge. If he let Kaira decide what to do, there’d be a new problem every second. If it isn’t walking on the grass, it would have been a long debate about why the stripes on road crossings were called zebra crossings, when she had never seen a zebra cross the street. Faiz couldn’t care less.
They trudged across the field, breaking into a slight run where the ground sloped downward. Faiz slowed down when he passed cricket matches, whispering “What a ball!” or “Good shot” to himself, as if he was memorizing all of these different playing styles to impress the boys at school. Kaira lagged behind, dragging her feet. She wasn’t happy about being forced to sacrifice her Saturday. As she walked, the grass crunched beneath her flimsy rubber flip-flops. When they reached the edge of the maidan, Faiz pointed to a store on the footpath across the street. The owner, Gobind, or one of his sons, sat up front, by the counter. The shop spilled over from the street to occupy the curve of a corner, and Kaira looked really hard to see the little back entrance that Faiz was pointing to.
They crossed the road further down the street and walked up toward the shop. Kaira’s heart was beating fast. She could feel it vibrate through her body. Faiz breathed in and out, deeply, trying to calm his stomach. They stopped a few feet away from the shop, and Faiz whispered some last-minute instructions into his sister’s ears. She nodded, biting her nails as she waited. Then he stood up straight and walked up to the store.
The man at the counter looked too old to be Gobind’s son, so Faiz assumed this was Gobind himself. He was the kind of old man who wore a permanent scowl; bespectacled and reading the newspaper, Gobind had on a checked shirt with a vest that peeked through his two open top buttons. The only hair he had left was gray and thin, but still oiled. Gobind is in denial about his baldness, Faiz thought. The shop jutted out awkwardly; all its contents sat behind Gobind, so if you wanted something, you had to ask and he would fetch it for you. Strings of chips packets hung from a little hook nailed into the wall, and big, clear plastic boxes held an assortment of candy. Faiz never got to eat any of those things, except when someone at school was nice enough to share. They rarely were. At the back, Faiz could see all sorts of other things: packets of biscuits, noodles, over-the-counter medicines, toys even. Through the corner of his eyes, he could see Kaira slinking her way through a small group of people gathering to cross the street.
Faiz reached the counter and stood on his tiptoes to call, “Uncle?”
“Yes? What do you want?”
First, Faiz had decided he would ask the prices of the things that lay on the counter, but nothing that could cause Gobind to turn back. “How much for the chips?”
Kaira was standing by the back of the shop, inching closer to the three steps that led into the store. She looked around nervously. In her mind, everyone who walked by her was watching her carefully; the man pulling on a limp cigarette tucked between his lips, for example, was walking suspiciously slowly, she thought.
“And what about that kind?” Faiz asked, pointed to a different packet.
She had climbed the steps and was on the threshold now.
“How much for this?” Faiz tapped at a candy bar.
Kaira had left her flip-flops outside. She was on her knees, crawling through the shop to a pile on the side. The dust stuck to her knees.
As soon as he ran out of things to ask the price of, Faiz asked for directions to a famous temple, even though he knew it was on the other end of town. “But Uncle, at least tell me what bus I can take there?”
“The 116 will come in some time. Go wait over there. Now, do you want to buy anything or not?”
Kaira had taken what they came for, and now she was crawling back toward the steps. They were so close now, she almost screamed with excitement. A few feet from the exit, she looked to her side and saw a packet of chips, lying between a fragile arrangement of cartons of cigarettes. She stopped. Turned to look at Faiz, and turned back toward the chips.
Faiz saw her get up to run before Gobind turned. She wasn’t quick enough to escape unnoticed. He sprinted down the street, bursting through crowds of pedestrians and snaking his way between the shops that occupied the pavement. He could hear Kaira behind him, the clapping of her flip flops against the asphalt. Faiz turned for a split second, and saw the fear in her eyes as she struggled to keep up. Behind her, he saw Gobind: a big, fat man, with a belly hanging over his trousers, running behind them, shouting “Thieves! Thieves!” He wasn’t running particularly fast, but neither was Kaira.
Faiz ran across the street, and for a second, the honking of cars drowned out the sound of the flip-flops and he had no idea where Kaira was. Running across the maidan now, he turned again. Just as he looked behind his shoulder, Kaira’s left slipper snapped. She fell. Gobind hadn’t crossed the street yet, but he was only a few seconds behind. Faiz stopped and ran back, grabbing the chips packet and a metallic packet from the grass before he lifted Kaira off. He pulled her by the hand and they ran again, together this time.
She was barefoot now. Every now and then, a small rock or bottle-cap lodged itself in the skin of her sole, but the fear numbed the pain. Faiz’s hand was sweaty and soon, Kaira’s palm had slipped out of his. She ran as fast as she could, but her shorter legs couldn’t keep up with Faiz. She fought the urge to cry.
Gobind had crossed the street and was halfway across the maidan now. The children were several feet ahead of him. His chest hurt with every breath he took. It had been years since he had run this much—at all, in fact. But he did not stop. He watched as Kaira’s bare feet began to falter, and her knees buckle.
Faiz didn’t know how long he should keep running. He made his way across the last stretch of trees on the edge of the maidan and crossed another street before turning to see if they were still being followed. At first, he only turned his head to have a quick look. Then he realized that he didn’t see Gobind behind him, or Kaira. His sprint became a slow jog, and then he switched directions and began cautiously walking back toward the field. He stopped before the zebra crossing.
Beside a lumpy cricket pitch, Gobind held Kaira by the neck of her t-shirt. He pulled her up off the ground and for a second, her thin frame hung in the air, lit by the glare of a winter sun. He grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her away, back toward the store. She was probably crying, Faiz thought. Why did she have to get that packet of chips? Stupid Kaira, he cursed under his breath. Faiz couldn’t go back to the shop; they wouldn’t turn her into the police, he thought. She’s just a girl. But Faiz? They might hand him over; he was a boy, he was twelve. What if they beat him in prison? Amma wouldn’t be able to afford his bail either.
Amma. What would he tell Amma?
His heart sank. His breathing grew deeper and faster, and he began to cry. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt, paused, and then turned to walk home. He shivered, slightly. Gobind would let Kaira go… he had to.
Last night, Faiz had wondered if he’d been this annoying at nine, too. He had great memory, and as far as he could remember, he hadn’t caused much trouble. Just to make sure, he’d pursed his lips and made himself recall what he’d eaten for dinner two nights ago. A banana and two pieces of toast, he thought proudly.
“But, Amma, it doesn’t make sense!” Kaira whined.
Faiz huffed impatiently, tapping his foot against the concrete floor of their home. “Kaira, just shut up,” he snapped.
“Tch, Faiz. She’s your younger sister. You can’t talk to her like that,” Amma said, a faint look of disappointment furrowed in her eyebrows. She didn’t look angry, but even this slight inconvenience—the temporary sort, like the pinprick of a needle—troubled Faiz. He didn’t want to bother her at all. “Sorry, Amma,” Faiz mumbled, pushing his gaze down toward his feet.
Thirty-three years into her life, Amma had grown attuned to the slight shifts in people’s expressions. The older one got, the more measured their faces became; but Faiz was only twelve, and when he felt remorse, his face crumpled. It stretched lines around his brown eyes and flushed red to fill his ears. She softened her expression and smiled, but only slightly. Enough to barely curl her chapped lips. Faiz felt the guilt in his chest settle. He loved when Amma smiled at him. It was such a quiet gesture, like she was whispering it into his ears. Amma turned away from him and looked at Kaira.
“Now, tell me, what’s so confusing about this?”
“Amma sit, please—sit here, come,” Kaira said, tugging at her mother’s papery mustard-colored salwar. Amma groaned softly as she bent down, and set her back against the wall’s peeling plaster. Faiz shot Kaira a scathing look, but she didn’t notice. “Amma, why don’t you take the chair?” Faiz said, but she just waved him off and nodded in Kaira’s direction, and that was the little girl’s cue to resume talking.
“When does it end, Amma?”
Amma sighed and placed an arm around Kaira, who needed no invitation to curl up into her mother’s side.
“When it starts being dark outside. That’s when the afternoon ends and the evening begins.”
“No, Amma! What about that time? Remember, when it was raining? It was so dark in the morning, before bhai and I left for school.”
Now, Amma pulled her daughter closer into the folds of her salwar. She ran her fingers through Kaira’s shoulder-length locks and frowned at her persistence. Every few days, Amma would have to muster up some new attempt at resolving Kaira’s afternoon dilemma. She knew she didn’t have long; the little rascal had started using the lack of an answer to her advantage. Two days ago, Amma came home from work to find Faiz doing his homework, but no sign of Kaira. When she strolled in at a quarter-to-eight, Amma scolded her. Kaira looked up at her and said, “But Amma, it’s still afternoon.”
“Listen. I want you home by five-thirty at the latest. It doesn’t matter whether it’s afternoon or not,” Amma said now.
Faiz grinned. Kaira rolled her eyes and began to protest.
“Kaira, I don’t want to hear it,” Amma said, annoyed. “I’m going to fetch some water. Do your homework now, both of you!”
As soon as Amma had left, Faiz kicked Kaira’s leg and scowled at her. “Why do you have to annoy her like that?”
“But I didn’t even do anything,” Kaira said. He shook his head at her in disapproval. She could never do anything right, not in Faiz’s eyes. She fetched her homework and sat against the wall, clutching her knees to her chest. Kaira wrestled with a desire to please her bigger brother. A small part of her really wanted him to stop being so angry at her, but the other part just wanted to smack him across the face.
“Wanna play catch?” Kaira asked. Faiz smiled a toothy smile. He never turned down an opportunity to practice cricket.
Faiz stood on one side of the room, facing Kaira who jumped from side to side opposite him. She held the neon yellow cricket ball in her hand, grinning at Faiz. She pretended to throw it to her right and then quickly swung her hand around to release it to the left. Faiz wasn’t fooled, though. Kaira was too slow to pull that on him. He caught it easily and threw it back, with a little more force than Kaira was expecting. She threw it back, harder too. Faiz furrowed his eyebrows in concentration and threw it back, hard enough that it hit Kaira in the shoulder.
“Bhai!” Kaira threw it back, with all the strength her anger could muster. The ball travelled across the room, several feet to the left from where Faiz was standing and crashed into a pile of things in the corner. A square mirror, cased in a cheap pink plastic, lay broken on the floor. Faiz looked at Kaira, his mouth open.
When Amma came back, there was blood all over her floor. A small pool of red had collected in one corner, amidst small specks of silver glass, and a trail of droplets led into the kitchen, where Kaira was sitting beside Faiz. He had his palm wrapped in a t-shirt.
“What happened?!” Amma shouted, the worry taking over the softness of her usual voice. Faiz had been crying; she could tell from the pout in his lips and redness of his eyes. Amma walked over to her children and carefully unwrapped the t-shirt from Faiz’s palm; a thin gash stretched across the lines on his hand. The bleeding had almost stopped. Kaira looked at her and spilled, telling Amma exactly what had happened and how it was her and not Faiz’ fault.
“I don’t care whose fault it is! Haven’t I told you both not to play in the house? Why don’t you listen?” Amma shouted. Her words carried the frustration of the day’s work; Amma cleaned the homes of the families that lived down the street from them, where the tin-roofed bustees melted into towering apartment complexes. She glared at her children before standing up to leave, her bottom lip trembling in anger.
“Amma… where are you going?” Faiz asked cautiously.
“I’m getting bandages from Sheila Mausi,” Amma said, not turning back.
Faiz looked at Kaira and then at the door again, and stood up and crept out behind his mother. “Bhai, don’t!” She whispered. But Faiz had already left. He stood barefoot on the footpath, the concrete cool under his feet. Sheila Mausi was their neighbor and lived in the pink home a little way down the road. She also cleaned homes, but she worked for more families than Amma did. She worked for twelve families. Amma used to clean for ten, but recently, she’d had to cut back a little.
He walked past the makeshift stores, selling bread and bubble gum and chips, and past the growing mountain of garbage that was collecting across the road. He hated the way it smelled, and always switched to breathing through his mouth when he was nearby. On his right, an old man was frying chicken. Children down the street played football with a deflated, weathered ball. Everywhere, there was noise: the sizzle of boiling oil, the sputtering of engines, the sharp tone of a cheap phone. Someone had attached a speaker to a telephone pole and was blasting music; it hung above a small mandir, walls tiled with white slabs of marble. Faiz was careful to walk at a distance from the edge of the footpath; he didn’t want his foot to fall into the brown sludge that ran in the shallow, open gutter beside it. He navigated the thin space between chaiwallas and cots with old men and women and the gutter with a skill that only comes with practice.
Faiz was about to turn right, into a narrow gully that ran between several tin-roofed concrete blocks, when he stopped. Amma was standing a few feet down, at Sheila Mausi’s door.
“I don’t know what to do, Sheila,” Amma said, holding a thin roll of crepe bandage in her hand.
“Is it your back again?” Sheila asked, her forehead gleaming under a dim streetlight’s straying glare.
“No,” Amma paused. “Yes and no, it’s not about only me…you understand, it’s the children too.”
“Listen, I can’t offer much, but I will do whatever I can to help. Just ask?”
“I’m used to the pain now, it’s… it’s them I’m worried for. You know how they are, always… on, always young, I don’t want that to change.”
“Okay, I better head back now. Thank you for the bandage. I’ll pay you back,” Amma said, touching Sheila Mausi’s hand as she turned to leave. Faiz ran, and almost crashed into Kaira, who was standing at the door, waiting for him to return. He’d made panicked gestures and pushed her inside, mouthing the word ‘Amma’ desperately. They ran to the mattress and sat down, Kaira with her textbook, and Faiz with his bloodied t-shirt.
Today, Amma came home at six. She was tired from work, and the bags under her eyes hung heavy with beads of sweat. When she returned, she didn’t notice Kaira wasn’t home. Faiz didn’t say anything. He was hunched over a sheet of math problems and barely looked up when Amma came in and said hi to him. Amma was so tired, she went straight to the mattress and laid down. All her life, she had told Faiz and Kaira never to nap. Every time, she would have a new reason; sometimes, it would be something sensible like “You won’t be able to sleep at night,” but at others, it would be ridiculous, like “You only have nightmares if you sleep during the day.” Kaira loved the second kind. As a rule, Faiz always assumed that Kaira would pick the sillier of two options.
Faiz crawled onto the mattress and curled into his Amma, where Kaira usually slept. He drew circles on her grimy skin as she lay drifting in and out of sleep. He was where he usually felt safest in the world, and yet, today, it felt wrong. Every time Faiz shut his eyes, he saw Kaira, holding her broken flip flops in her hands. He lay there, looking up at the ceiling, until he remembered the metal in his pocket. He stood up and walked to the other end of the room.
Faiz looked at the metallic sheet in his palm, and for a moment, felt an intense excitement drown out the guilt that weighed heavy on his chest. He couldn’t wait to give it to Amma; she needed it. Every day, he waited to see Amma smile her faint, whispered smile, but Faiz was worried. He worried that one day she may be too tired to smile at him. He stood up and poured a glass of water from a plastic jug.
“Amma, take these. It’s for the pain, like the ones you had,” he said, tugging at her sari to wake her.
“But these finished…I didn’t buy more?” Amma asked, rubbing her eyes.
“I know…I got them,” Faiz said, hesitant but proud.
She was sitting up now. “Faiz, how did you get these?” A seriousness had crept her into her voice.
“Faiz, answer me now. Fa—Faiz, look at me.”
“I’m sorry, Amma, I stole them. I just… I just wanted to help.”
There was a short silence. Amma glared at Faiz, her eyes wide.
“Faiz, don’t you ever, and I mean ever, steal again.” Amma was furious. She had risen off the mattress and suddenly, even at five feet and four inches, was towering over Faiz. Amma was holding him by the shoulders, shaking him as she shouted. He was her only son, and the thought of losing her made her feel an odd mixture of fear and anger. “Do you know what they do to thieves? You could go to jail Faiz, jail.” Now, Faiz couldn’t help but cry. “There’s no point in doing that, Faiz. I don’t feel sorry for you.” Amma usually broke when one of her children cried; she couldn’t bear to look at their puffy, red eyes and know that she had caused it. But, with something like stealing, she had to stay strong.
“Amma, I did it for you.” She would never buy them, and so if Faiz hadn’t stolen the pills, Amma would have had to live through the pain. Faiz’ voice broke under the strain of his sobs. “Don’t talk back to me Faiz,” Amma said.
“Faiz, when I say don’t talk back to me, I mean it. You did something wrong. Do you understand?”
Faiz nodded, gritting his teeth behind his lips. Faiz set the blister pack down on the mattress and turned away to return to his sheet of math problems. Amma didn’t stop him. She looked at the tablets and saw that he had stolen the wrong kind, but she said nothing. No words of comfort, nor of love. He needed to learn.
His heart dropped to his gut. “She must be out playing or something,” he mumbled, sniffling.
Amma looked at the clock: it was quarter to seven. “I told her to be back before five-thirty,” Amma muttered, half to herself.
Faiz kept his gaze fixed on the numbers before him, biting the insides of his cheeks. Amma would be even angrier if she knew. She would never speak to him again. Never. Faiz would have no one and nothing. A sour iron taste spread through his mouth; it tasted like his hands after he held onto a pole on the bus. Amma sat on the mattress, her eyes travelling beyond the door and far into the city. His mind wandered, the only anchor to his thoughts, Kaira. She just wouldn’t leave him alone.
Last night, after Amma had bandaged Faiz’s hand without a word, the three of them had sat together for a while. At first, both children maintained a small distance from their mother, but as time passed, Kaira slinked toward Amma. She twirled her mother’s long hair in her pudgy little fingers, engaged in some sort of deep thought. She noticed how Amma’s hair had begun to thin—strands of it were even falling onto Kaira’s palm, little souvenirs for her to keep. Faiz looked at his mother cautiously, sometimes openly, but mostly in stolen glances. Her eyes were shut and her head rested against the wall. But Kaira? Kaira was brave. She warmed people, eroded their anger.
Most evenings, Amma would cook for dinner: rotis, daal, sometimes even chicken when they could afford it, which wasn’t often. On others, they would fill up on fruit and bread. Amma had this way of making every meal fun; they would sit on the floor, and take turns to talk while they ate. Amma usually told stories from when she was young, and Faiz and Kaira spoke about school and their friends and the world that they inhabited away from their mother. Yesterday, Amma had been too tired to cook.
“Come on, dinner time,” Amma had said, shaking a half-asleep Kaira from her lap as she stood up. Kaira stretched, opening her mouth wide in a loud yawn.
“Amma, I’ll get the plates.”
“Thank you,” she said, ruffling his curly black hair. The affection had seeped back into her behavior. Faiz was grateful. He knew it was Kaira’s doing, and he was grateful but jealous.
“What’s for dinner?” Kaira had asked.
“Daal and rice from last night, and there’s a few bananas.”
They’d sat down; Kaira and Faiz on the floor, Amma on the chair. Faiz had insisted. They shovelled balls of rice, sticky with lukewarm daal, into their mouths, licking their fingers every now and then. Kaira was the first to speak. Sonia, Kaira’s best friend, had broken her pencil in half. She wasn’t upset, she said, because Sonia had apologized immediately after, but she wondered if she should also break one of Sonia’s pencils in return. Then everything would be fair again, Kaira said. Amma chuckled and quickly feigned disapproval, shaking her head. Faiz had already finished his rice and was peeling back a banana when Amma asked him how school was.
“Abdul didn’t let me bat today. He said I was a better fielder and I should focus on that. But he’s wrong. I don’t like fielding. It’s boring.”
“I would tell you to drop a few catches next time, but I don’t think you’re going to be playing anytime soon,” Amma said, nodding sternly at his bandaged hand.
Faiz grinned sheepishly. Amma always knew what to say. Sometimes, they weren’t even words; sometimes, she spoke with her half-smiles and hugs.
“It’s because you can’t bat, bhai,” Kaira said.
Faiz glared at his sister. She was always talking. Kaira spoke with an innocence that Faiz didn’t know, anymore; everything she said was true. She talked openly, like children did. Amma found it amusing, laughing at her with knowing affection. But Faiz was already at the age where he knew what not to say, even if, sometimes, he still said the things he should not. It made Amma sad. He was still so young. He shouldn’t have to think before he spoke, not just yet. She wished he was as careless as Kaira, that he didn’t have to grow up as quickly as he did. She wished he would argue about afternoons and evenings, too.
“How was work, Amma?” Faiz said.
“It was fine, tiring. Nothing new.”
They continued eating. Amma looked up from her plate and outside the door. It was winter, and Kaira insisted on keeping it open when the weather was so cool. People milled past their home, and the world kept driving by as they sat, eating daal and rice.
“Did I ever tell you about my Abba’s Abba?”
The children shook their heads. “Tell us, Amma,” they said in unison.
“He was a very small man. Barely taller than you, Faiz. Even at sixty, can you imagine? But, even though he was short, he had a very scary voice. He spoke like this,” Amma said, dropping her voice till it was so deep and funny that the children could not stop giggling.
“Don’t lie Amma,” Kaira said.
“I’m not! He was a security guard for a family. They lived in a big bungalow with a big garden, filled with lots and lots of flowers. And one night, when he was walking around, he heard some thieves outside, trying to climb the wall.”
“What did he do?” Faiz said, concern in his voice. Kaira leaned forward too, her eyes wide.
“He hid in some bushes and spoke very loudly. He said, ‘Aye! Who goes there? I can hear you! Run, run before I come outside and chase you away!’ And his voice was so scary, the thieves fled!”
Faiz was impressed. He wished his voice was scary like that. Maybe then he could scare Abdul into letting him bat. He was much shorter than the other boys, and he looked younger too. His cheeks were fuller and he didn’t have muscles like some of the others.
“Should I start speaking like this?” Faiz growled, smiling as he puffed his chest out. Amma and Kaira giggled. They each took turns to mimic their scary voices before getting ready for bed. Faiz washed the dishes outside and Amma got Kaira changed.
The three of them always slept together. Kaira slept in the middle, with Faiz on one side and Amma on the other. Since she had to leave for work early every morning, Amma didn’t like to sleep in the middle. At first, Kaira and Faiz would take turns to sleep in the middle, near Amma, but now Faiz had become too old to ask Kaira for his turn. If the boys at school found out, they would make fun of him. But, sometimes, Kaira would offer and Faiz would say yes, beaming with happiness under his mask of cool nonchalance. Normally, though, Kaira would curl into her mother, and they would sleep as one body. Faiz would lie on one side, sleeping on his back. Once, Amma and Kaira waited for him to fall asleep, and then placed a banana on his chest. When Amma woke up the next morning, she swore the banana hadn’t moved an inch.
“Goodnight, Amma,” Faiz said. Kaira had buried her head into her mother’s chest and was already asleep. Amma stroked Faiz’s cheek and said, “Sleep tight beta.”
Faiz stared up at the ceiling for a long time after everyone else had fallen asleep. Outside, he heard the rush of cars dim as the night progressed. The dogs came in to fill the silence that the cars left behind, howling and barking at each other. Every now and then, he heard the shuffle of feet walk past his home, watching the shadow cross through the thin sliver beneath the door and the ground. Outside, just beyond their thin peeling walls, a whole world of terrifying possibilities existed. They kept Faiz up at night, and he only ever fell asleep unwittingly.
Tonight, as he waited for Kaira, he felt hopelessly trapped, like, at any moment, the world was going to break his door down and storm into his life.
There was a knock on the door. One knock, the sound of knuckle on wood. Faiz looked up from his homework when the second knock came. What if it was Gobind? What if it was the police? His lip trembled, and his gut burned with the churning of acid. Faiz hoped, for the first time in his life, that it was Ram. A cat would be a nice distraction.
“Get the door, Faiz,” Amma said.
He nodded, pushing himself off the floor where he had been staring at the same numbers for minutes now. He walked across the cold concrete and turned the door knob.
Kaira stood before him.
Her clothes were grimy and torn in some places. A rip in the sleeve of her t-shirt and another on the thigh of her shorts. Her feet were bare. Faiz thought he saw dark red along the temple of her forehead before she walked past him and inside. She went straight to the kitchen and poured water from a jug onto a cloth. She wiped her face and turned to face her brother. Her eyes were steely and her face vacant.
“Where were you?” Amma asked, an anger rising with her voice.
“I’m sorry, Amma. I was out playing.” Her voice betrayed no emotion.
Now Amma had risen from the bed and walked over to her. She saw the cuts on her knee and the scratches on her arm. Her tone softened. “Kaira, what happened to you?”
“I fell,” Kaira said, looking at Faiz.