summer of 55

prufrock, under the impression that i could write, tagged me to write short stories of less than 55 words. clearly he hasn’t read my stories.

anyway, here’s my humble contribution. all five of them are exactly 55 words long.

smell
the heady scent of chicken tikka masala fills the air. all around are the resonant beats of bengali, mixed up with the odd accent of the native thrill-seekers who have come to sample “indian” cuisine.

this is not me, i tell myself, as i turn away from this pretend home. where then do i belong?

sight
the last thing he saw before he died was the gun drop from her elegant hands. the barrel, still smoking, lay inches away, the cold, wet fingers of his spreading blood rushing towards it.

she pried the winning lottery ticket from his tight grip, and walked away, pausing only to put her clothes back on.

taste
he could still taste her on his lips, could still feel her hungry mouth clamped over his. “i’m hungry,” she had said, “get me some food and i’ll make your dreams come true.”

with only thoughts of her in mind as he rushed across the street, he didn’t see the bus speeding in his direction.

sound
everything i am, i am because of you, sang the musician up on stage, nearly drowned out by the fans singing along.

he searched for her, finally spying her about twenty seats away. for a second, she turned to look at him, and from the look in her eyes, he knew she felt the same.

touch
fumbling along in the dark, her hand closed on something that felt cold and wet, something that did not belong.

“turn on the damn light,” she yelled, and when the initial sense of blindness went away, she saw she was holding her fiance’s severed hand, the ring still on the finger.

she started to scream.

*******************

well, i’m certain those sucked. that’s what you get for giving me a word limit, damn it.

i tag photoholic, poet and scribbles, the best young bangladeshi writer i have ever read.

the night it rained

(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)

the first dulcet strains of the muezzin’s azan reminded us of how late we were. the evening prayers had begun, and spending more time at our neighborhood dhaba meant that we would be caught goofing off by our fathers as they walked to the neighborhood mosque. g and q haggled with the shopkeeper, arguing about how many cups of tea we had consumed, and how many cigarettes we had smoked, while f and i silently came up with a set of excuses for the parents when they berated us for coming home late again. we picked up our bookbags from their convenient resting places on the dusty road at our feet and headed homewards, walking against the swelling tide of people, bedecked in their panjabis and topis as they headed to the mosque for the evening prayers.

(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)

about 200 yards down from the dhaba is the corner where the street f and i live on branches off from the main road. we bid our farewells to g and q at the corner, as they lived another block down, and took the dark, quiet alley that led to what had been our homes for our entire lives.

the road i live on curves slightly to the right at its very end, and on this curve, on opposite sides of the street, are f and my houses. we’d grown up opposite each other – one of my first memories is of standing on our second floor verandah aged two, looking across the street at f standing in his garden, looking at me. we had been considered too young to actually cross the street and play with each other. while our road is too narrow for cars, the brisk rickshaw traffic during the day can be dangerous to toddlers.

still, over the next two years, until we turned four and were allowed to visit each other by crossing the street with our hands grasped tightly by our mothers, we became best friends, despite the fact that we never met, never talked, and were always separated by a six-foot road jam-packed with rickshaws. there was some level of communication between us, even though not a word was spoken over those two years. when we finally did meet, at f’s fourth birthday party, f gave me a look, in response to my embarassed “happy birthday”, that seemed to say, “well, okay then.”

and that was an accurate portrayal of f, to tell the truth. he was generally the most collected person i had ever met, someone who seemed to be unfazed by the world and everything in it, someone who could be touched by tragedy yet seem like nothing had ever happened before. his maternal grandmother lived with them and passed away when he was six, and suddenly their house was flooded by a wave of grieving relatives who seemed so lost in their grief that they didn’t notice the fact that f, who had been his grandma’s favorite grandchild, seemed to stand out in their sea of tears, not smiling or laughing or crying or displaying any emotion whatsoever, but instead letting out a deep breath every once in a while, as if every breath was an exhalation of grief instead of air.

(ash-hadu allah ilaha illallah, ash-hadu allah ilaha illaha)

we walked past the gate of the local school, where, every morning, the throng of parents that had arrived to drop off their children was only matched by the multitude of beggars who had congregated there in search of alms. f, g, q and i had all been students of the school at the primary level, and when we graduated into our middle school years, the four of us applied for and got into the same secondary school. our friendship was born in elementary school and had weathered the tumult of adolescence, but we had still somehow remained friends.

f and i were a different matter altogether. the two of us were thick as thieves, to the point that our families had to take vacations together – to places that seemed exotic and far away back then: cox’s bazar, shillong, darjeeling – because the two of were so uncooperative that we refused to be apart. the parents joked that we were getting our revenge on them for keeping us separated for those two fragile years, and they had slowly and grudgingly come to terms with it. when we were eleven or twelve years old, i would often tag along to his family functions, as he would to mine.

our families might have been completely different, but we were almost the same. f’s father was the youngest son of a rich nawab who flagrantly spent his money on creature comforts, leaving his children with little except his name. f’s mother, however, was the daughter of a rich industrialist, who, even at a very old age, was still going strong. after many years spent flitting from job to job, f’s father finally buckled his pride down and accepted a job at his father-in-law’s organization, yet was not educated or skilled enough to move too far up the ladder. his meager income was barely enough to keep them alive, but at least he owned the house they lived in. my parents, on the other hand, were both descended from rich families who had conserved their wealth, and my father was now the proprietor of his father’s industry. we had never left our house in the alley, because father always said that he had grown up in that house, and the memories he held were too precious to let go. my cousins all lived in palatial mansions in the posh areas, yet we were happy enough in our little alley, never even considering moving out.

as f and i grew up, people said we would slowly drift apart as we discovered our own separate interests. we did discover things we didn’t have in common – f started playing the guitar, and joined a short-lived rock band, while i discovered photography. in the beginning, we hardly saw each other in the afternoons. f was off jamming with his band, whereas i was holed up in the dark room that my father had had constructed especially for me, developing the pictures i had taken during the day. but in the evenings, f and i always made it a point to meet each other, and recount in glorious detail every single event that had happened during the day. f listened while i droned on about the rickshaw-puller that i had photographed sleeping soundly under the hood of his rickshaw in the searing heat, and made it a point to look at every single picture i had taken and tell me what he thought. meanwhile, i hung on every single word that he uttered about his jamming sessions, cursing the notes that he had messed up, or playing me the new song that they had composed. g and q, who had discovered drugs and girls respectively, hardly ever joined us for these evening chats.

in time, f’s rock band split up, and he began to spend more time with me, following me around as i took pictures of our world around us, and giving me a helping hand in the dark room. after we passed our matriculation exams in class 10, we started hanging out at the dhaba, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and chatting about everything and anything we could think of. as we headed slowly towards our intermediate exams, g and q, who had shown up infrequently, joined us at the tea-vendor’s stall as well, as it was a convenient point for us to meet between our private tuition sessions.

(ash-hadu anna muhammadur rasul allah, ash-hadu anna muhammadur rasul allah)

tonight, f and i walked slowly down the alley, we were surrounded on all sides by brick and concrete structures that had not changed since we were children, except for a fresh coat of paint here and there, and that had survived the rapid modernization of the city, since nobody wanted to build an apartment in an alley that cars couldn’t traverse. i noticed that f had been unusually quiet all day long. usually, f, being the witty one among the four of us, dished out the insults and the jokes at the expense of g, q and i, but all of today, he had been on the receiving end. he hadn’t laughed at all at any of our jokes, and had not contributed to the chatter much, instead letting g blabber on about the ganja he had bought that had blown his mind, and letting q mourn his latest relationship that had failed. i had known something was bothering him, but i didn’t want to bring it up in front of g and q, figuring that he might want to share it with me alone.

dosto,” i asked finally, unable to bear the silence that had borne down upon us, “what’s wrong with you? you’ve been down all evening,” i ventured.

he stopped suddenly and looked at me, giving me a searching glance. “i don’t think i can tell you,” he said, before he started walking again.

that, alone, was enough to shock me. we hadn’t hidden anything from each other, ever. when an uncle of mine was found butchered in his home, and the maid was hauled off to jail to serve a life sentence, i told only f the real story – that he had been cheating on my aunt with the maid, and my aunt had gone crazy one evening and stabbed him to death, framing the maid. when f lost his virginity to a star-struck girl he didn’t really like, he told only me about it. the fact that he was not willing to share whatever was on his mind with me was something i had not even considered.

(haiya alas swala, haiya alas swala)

“come on, bhai, you know you can trust me. whatever it is, if it’s really bothering you, as your best friend i have a right to know.”

f stopped and gave me another of those long searching looks. in the dim light that emanated from the houses we stood in front of, i could see a mixture of emotions in his eyes (love, hate, anger, sadness, betrayal), and i noticed for the first time that he seemed haunted by some distant fear. i realized that he was afraid not of what he knew, but of telling me. i was even more intrigued. i saw a flicker in his eyes – the same flicker i had seen right before he had been worn down by my pestering and told me about the girl. i decided to go in for the kill.

“come on, man, tell me,” i insisted.

i could see his resistance to the idea crumbling. “your father was at our house last night. with abbu. they were arguing loudly.” he began

(haiya alal fala, haiya alal fala)

that was news to me. our fathers had no reason to fight – they had always been amiable towards each other, two men who had been forced to converse because their children were best friends. “what about?” i wondered.

f took a deep breath and let it out. “you won’t like this,” he warned, “i didn’t. i overheard, and i hated both of them.” another deep breath, before the words started flowing out.

“when we went to cox’s bazar seven years ago,” he began, “your mother…” he caught the warning flicker in my eyes as he mentioned my mother. “your mother…” he continued, “seduced my father and they had an affair.”

(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)

“what?” i nearly yelled. “that’s crazy, man. why would my mother do that?”

f looked me straight in the eye as he spoke. “it was your abba’s plan. he made her do it so he could blackmail my dad for the rest of his life. abbu’s been paying off your dad for the past seven years, so that he won’t tell ammu.”

“that’s crazy,” i reiterated. f’s eyes had me locked in their grip, and i was having a hard time breaking out of it. there was no way this could be true. my father definitely didn’t need the money, so why would he do something like that? and yet, the look in f’s eyes told me that he wasn’t making any of it up.

the conflicting emotions nearly bowled me over. love for my parents and revulsion if this were true; my love for f and the hate i felt for him if he were making it up; the shock of hearing about the sins of the man i worshipped and confusion about why f would invent this sort of far-fetched idea. “why?” i managed to croak.

“back then, abba had just joined dada’s firm,” f said, his eyes now holding me stronger, locking me in place, so that i could not run away from him. “your father thought that he would make it to the upper ranks of the organization, and would eventually sign the company over to your father, in exchange for his silence. that way your father could unite the two largest companies in the sector under himself. but abba never made it, and he’s got no money left to pay him off, so that’s why your father was screaming at him. he threatened…” f gulped and took a deep breath. “he threatened to tell amma so she would leave him, which would mean that dadu would fire abba, and he would be ruined completely.”

i saw a tear run down f’s cheek, glinting in the semi-darkness that lingered outside our gates. i knew then that he wasn’t lying about any of it. i had never seen f cry before, not once. “i didn’t want to tell you, dosto, i really didn’t. i’m sorry.” he looked down at the road, trying to hide the tears that were now flowing down freely.

freed from the spell that his eyes had cast upon me, i was no longer rooted to the spot. i ran into my house as fast as my legs could carry me, not stopping to answer my parents’ questions about where i was and what was wrong, not knowing if i could ever face them again, now that i knew what i knew about them. i didn’t stop running until i reached my room.

(la ilaha illallah)

it never rains in our street during the night. i know that for a fact, because i’ve stayed up many nights waiting for it to rain so that i can take the perfect picture of the glowing streetlight in the rain. but that night, it poured.

and i stood on my second floor verandah, staring at the spot in the garden across the street where, fifteen years ago, i had first seen the person who would become the best friend i had ever had. this time there was nobody standing there looking up at me.

**********************

dear readers,

before i get bombed to hell and back for putting the azan in a story so rife with sin, i just want to say that the azan is in that story for two fundamental reasons:
a. to serve as an indicator of the passage of time. this is actually a story that happens in a really short duration, but it doesn’t seem that way because of the initial flashbacks, and
b. because the sound of the azan is one of the most beautiful sounds on the planet, and i wanted to include it in at least one of my stories.

this particular story is the culmination and combination of five completely different story ideas that i had running around in my skull. the first notable difference between this story and all the others i’ve written is that this one takes place in bangladesh, which is a first for me, and that, for the first time, i didn’t bother to come up with names, instead using random different initials. but if you want to know the names, f is farhad, q is quamrul, and g is gourav. make of that what you will.

i’d really like to hear some feedback on this story. as you might know, this is the first short story i’ve written in almost six months, so i would really like to know what you thought. so comment away.

and finally, two quick but extremely important things:

  • a: thanks for believing that i could write, and inspiring me to actually do it.
  • this story is not based on any fact or memory of mine. like much of the stuff on this site, it is complete fiction.

-eb

beyond atlantis

when you are seven years old, your world is defined by the distance you can travel on your bike, and your life is influenced by those who travel that distance with you. my world was the small lakeside town of st. anselm’s, and my life was influenced by rick and sophie.

rick was born richard anatoli krushkin, and, under the influence of other kids calling him “anna”, had referred to himself as rick for as long as i’d known him. not ricky, not rich, not richie, and definitely not richard. rick had an annoying habit of not responding to anyone who referred to him as anything other than rick, even if the person was talking directly to him.

rick had a bad reputation in st anselm’s – his father was an alcoholic who used beat him, his mother and his elder sister – and the older folks who sat around the town square on warm afternoons often told each other that he was going to grow up to be “bad news”. this declaration seemed to have no effect whatsoever on rick. he seemed not to care at all, and seemed content to enjoy whatever pleasures remained in his life, mostly outside the home.

sophie, on the other hand, was the definition of pure. her family had lived in st. anselm’s for five generations, and her grandfather, in fact, was the leader of the gang of old men who had passed such a hard verdict on rick. sophie had long blonde hair, and often dressed in a simple white one-piece frock. with a smile permanently plastered to her face, it often seemed like she glowed with some strange and seemingly holy radiance.

rick, sophie and i had been friends since the first day of kindergarten at st. anselm’s elementary. it wasn’t much of a coincidence. the desks at st. anselm’s elementary sat three students each, and by some twist of fate, the three of us had chosen the same desk to sit at. it was a trend that continued through to first and second grades, and we had slowly grown inseparable.

riding our bikes was one activity all three of us enjoyed. sophie had inherited her bike from her elder sister, who had outgrown it, i had been given one as a gift for my sixth birthday, and rick had bought his with his earnings from mowing lawns. we might not have been the richest kids in st. anselm’s – in fact, we weren’t; all the rich kids went to st. anselm’s preparatory, a private school – but the bikes made us feel like we were the only kids on the world. st. anselm’s was separated from the lake by a heavily wooded area, and one of our favorite daily activities that summer was to ride our bikes down to the lake, where’d we laze around all day long, swimming, fishing and lazing around.

“hey, have you guys bought fireworks yet?” asked rick as we pedalled along. he was slightly out of breath – we had calculated early on our bike trips that the lake was about three miles away from our homes. fireworks were our fascination that summer – the fourth of july was coming up, and we were thrilled about the fireworks display that was slated to take place over the lake – the first time ever in st. anselm’s long history. rick was more excited, however, about buying fireworks for his own personal show on july third, and somehow had convinced us to buy our own and join him for our own small celebration.

“no,” i said. “dad doesn’t think he’ll last at the plant, and he doesn’t want to waste our savings on fireworks.” dad’s paranoia about being fired had been enhanced over the past few months, when rumors started floating around that the plant might close down. dad had cut down all unnecessary expenditure until further notice.

“man, you’ve gotta get a job!” exclaimed rick, the entrepreneur of his own lawn-mowing business. it always amused us how the same old folks who called him “bad news” had no problems with forking over cash to rick for mowing their lawns. “how long are you gonna depend on your pops for money?” asked rick.

“i’ve been thinking about getting a paper route,” i confided.

“heck, that’s not gonna pay shit!” exclaimed rick. “shit” was one of the curses we had just learned that summer, and we had no qualms about using the word in any context imaginable. “the only local paper is the st. anselm’s record, and that’s only published every week. you should join me in mowing lawns.

this wasn’t the first time the proposal had been discussed. even my parents kept harping on the same topic, constantly reminding me how enterprising rick was for earning his own pocket money. but even at the tender age of seven, i had become quite a rebel, and joining rick’s business seemed to me like knuckling down to the wishes of my parents, something i wasn’t eager to do. “we’ll see,” was my gruff reply.

sophie came to my rescue by changing the topic. “you boys shouldn’t play with fireworks. mommy says they are dangerous.”

that set off rick and i. we called sophie “momma’s girl”, and she replied with her own insults, until we were all laughing too hard to pedal properly.

******************************

when we reached our spot on the beach, we found old man higgins sitting nearby. he didn’t smile when we rode up – in fact, there was no change in his countenance, but we knew that he had acknowledged our presence, and approved of it.

old man higgins was one of the few mysteries st. anselm’s held. no one knew where he lived, but every morning, higgins showed up at the beach and sat there till sunset, when he would trudge back to wherever he had come from. some of the high school kids had tried to follow him once, to figure out where he lived, but had gotten hopelessly lost in the woods, and a search party had to set out to find them. this was nearly four years ago, and since then, no one had tried to follow him ever again.

when we began coming to the beach every day that summer, old man higgins had been sitting quite far away, nearly a speck on the opposite shore. he seemed angry at the beginning, and we guessed that it was because we were robbing him of his solitude and privacy with our whooping and yelling and screaming. but as the summer wore on, he seemed to become more comfortable with our presence. he never smiled or spoke to us or even looked at us, but he began to sit closer and closer to our usual spot. and, in turn, we tried not to be too loud or to disturb him.

rick, being the hero among the three of us, was the first to attempt to build bridges with higgins. we brought sandwiches with us every morning, to serve as our lunch, and one day, rick decided to give him one of his sandwiches. we were all concerned, in fact, because he never seemed to eat during the day. rick set one of his sandwiches down in front of him, but he seemed not to notice. we watched him for over an hour, but he didn’t move a muscle. finally, we got bored and went swimming, and when we returned, the sandwich was gone. since then, each of us had packed an extra sandwich for him every day, and, while he never ate them in front of us, or even thanked us for them, we would come back from swimming to find them gone.

that day, the twenty-fourth of june, was no different. we spread out our blanket, unpacked the sandwiches we had brought for old man higgins, set them out in front of him, and went for our swim. the first swim of the day was usually our longest, with plenty of time spent just fooling around in the water. by the time we got back to our blanket, the sandwiches in front of higgins had disappeared.

we spent a leisurely half an hour eating our lunch, and lay on the blanket side by side to spend the requisite one hour before swimming again. conversation turned to the subject of the lake. the lake was known as lake oberon on most maps, but the locals called it hopper’s lake. ever since we had been coming out to the lake, we had wondered by it had such a strange local name, but no one we knew could ever give us an answer.

“you know what i heard?” asked rick. “mom told me they called this place hopper’s lake because there used to be a beer factory on the edge of the lake, and they poured all their used hops into the lake.”

“what’s hops?” asked sophie. rick didn’t have an answer, and neither did i.

“well,” i ventured, “my dad told me that it was named after the state senator a long time ago to commemorate his fifth term in the senate.”

“you’re both wrong,” said sophie. “my grandma said that the town used to be called hoppersville, and the lake was called hopper’s lake.”

a strange sound, somewhere between a snort and a gurgle, interrupted our debate. we had grown so used to the solitude of old man higgins’ company that we had forgotten that he was capable of making noises. we turned quickly to see him sitting there, staring straight at us. we were quite nervous and scared, because that was the first time that had happened.

“dumb kids,” he said in a gruff and angry deep voice, and that was the first time any one in town had ever heard him speak. this was turning out to be a day of firsts for us. “this here lake,” he began – and as we were too shocked to understand the significance of this great event, we just gawked – “was named after carl hopper, a great historian and researcher. carl’s area of specialization was atlantis, the mythical city beneath the sea. surely you’ve heard of it?” he asked.

none of us had a response, so he continued with a grunt. “hopper spent his life looking for the location of atlantis, and suddenly, late in his career, he realized that atlantis lay below this very lake, the one everyone calls oberon. so hopper came out here, bought a wetsuit, and hired a boat to take him out to the middle of the lake to see if he could find atlantis under the water. he told the fellow who was piloting the boat that if he found anything, he would give two tugs on the rope that connected him to the boat, and the captain was to pull him up immediately. otherwise, he would spend an hour looking for it, and come up himself if he found nothing. and then he went into the water.

“fifteen minutes later,” he continued, “the captain felt two tugs on the rope, so he began pulling up hopper. however, when he got to the very end of the rope, there was no hopper there. he threw the rope back in to the water, in case it had torn, but hopper was never seen again.”

“why not? what happened to hopper?” asked rick.

“it’s said that hopper found atlantis after all. nobody knows. nobody’s been down there since, and his body never floated on to the banks. but the few of us who know about carl hopper believe that he found atlantis, but he didn’t like what he found beyond atlantis.”

“what?” asked sophie. “what’s that supposed to mean?”

“you’ll figure it out someday,” said higgins. and then he got up and left. and, just like carl hopper, no one ever saw him again.

of course we didn’t know that at the time. we just assumed he’d be back the next day. we spent about five minutes trying to decipher what higgins had said, but quickly gave up and talked about other things. we spent the rest of the day swimming in the lake, and headed home late in the afternoon, when the sun was already beginning to hang low in the sky.

*********************************

the first time we realized that we might never see higgins ever again was eight days later, on the first of july. rick was already very excited about his little personal celebration, and refused to talk about anything else on the ride up to the beach, although he did spare some time to tell sophie and i what fools we were for missing a chance like this. but he knew that both our families, though not always viewing our friendship with rick in a positive light, drew the line at our playing with fireworks with him.

as we rode up to the beach, we noticed the empty spot that, even two weeks before, had been occupied by a solitary man, watching the lake all day. it didn’t feel the same to me, coming to the beach and not seeing higgins sitting there. but though we cast glances towards the spot, none of us said a word. we had yet to stop bringing our extra sandwiches for him, so i guess we did feel a little surge of hope that he might be there. but he never was. we didn’t stop bringing those extra sandwiches until the end of summer.

but on the second of july, sandwiches were the farthest thing from our minds. the entire town seemed electrified by the prospect of the fireworks, and already we could see people working on a barge on the far side of the lake, which was where the fireworks display would originate. everyone in st. anselm’s was eager to express their own excitement at the prospect of the fireworks, and we had been hearing rumors about people from other towns coming in as well for the show. mike at the grocery store was counting on it, and had already set up a table with small american flags for sale to all the thousands of visitors he expected to be coming in to town. aunt rachel, a lady who wasn’t really anybody’s aunt, but was still called aunt rachel by children and adults alike, had set up a table next to mike’s to sell her famous fourth of july apple pies, and was extremely busy baking them by the boatload. the mayor had decided that the town needed to be decorated for the influx of visitors, so the streets were lined with american flags and balloons, and a small parade was being planned in the early afternoon of the fourth.

the three of us were glad to get out of the town that day. all the positive energy flowing from absolutely everyone was getting to us, and we had to escape. we took our regular morning swim, then relaxed with lunch, and then sat around on the beach, watching a solitary gull forage in the waters for its own lunch. we were mostly quiet, as if we were sick of everyone’s non-stop talking, and just needed a break from words for a while.

“i love this lake,” sophie ventured, breaking the silence. rick and i said nothing. sophie had expressed her love for the lake every day, since the first day we had come up here.

“i’m serious,” she continued. “in fact, i’ve been thinking about it, and i want my first kiss to be right here on the banks of this lake. i know that the person i kiss first will be the love of my life,” she said with a small smile. rick and i groaned. sophie’s elder sister had recently become addicted to soap operas and the love stories of imaginary people featured prominently in romance novels, and sophie, in her attempts to emulate her elder sister as much as possible, had become engrossed in the concepts of love and the ever-important first kiss. while rick and i had at first teased her about it as much as possible, we had given up when we realized our teasing had no effect on her obsession. instead, in reply, rick picked up a handful of sand, and saying, “well, kiss this,” poured it all over sophie. she chased him into the lake and i quickly followed.

rick and i dropped off sophie at home, and then sat on my front porch, eating ice creams. i had noticed the newest bruise on rick’s back, and although macho men like us didn’t mention things like this, i couldn’t help but ask him about it.

“it’s the latest gift from dad,” he replied matter-of-factly. “i got it for forgetting to turn off the light in the kitchen after i was done getting a drink of water.” rick refused to hide his wounds. once, after he had broken a rib and gotten a black eye at the hands of his father, he showed off his wounds with pride, telling everyone who would listen that they were for trying to intervene when his mother was getting beaten up by his father.

we sat on the porch silently for a while, concentrating on our ice creams, even though there was lots that we could have said. “look, man,” he said finally, “i don’t know how long i can take this anymore. it’s gotten to the point where either i leave or he does. but every time i tell this to mom, she tells me not to be dumb and sends me to my room. but i’m sick and tired of seeing this happen, of getting beaten up and shit, and taking it without a word, just because my dad earns the money in the family.”

“what are you gonna do?” i asked, not sure how to react to something like this. in fact, i’m sure not many seven year olds know how to deal with a situation like this.

“i don’t know, man. i might have to run. i want to go down to the city and get a job. live my own life.”

and then he got up and left. i had no clue what he meant, and i didn’t want to ask.

******************************

the next day, we made our usual trip to the beach, and rick seemed completely normal, as if our conversation the previous night had never happened. he was very excited about the fireworks he had bought for the next evening, and was only sad that the two of us would not be able to join him.

we returned to the town in the evening, and realized that we wouldn’t be able to make it to the beach the next day. our families had caught the patriotic fever that had swept the town, and there was simply too much for the three of us to do to make it feasible to make a trip to the beach. we said our goodbyes, and promised to meet early on the afternoon of the fourth so we could get a good spot from where we could watch the fireworks.

my parents kept me on the run the next day, with frequent trips to the store to get stuff for the party they were planning on the lawn of our house for friends and neighbors. i didn’t mind. it felt much better to wander around town than to be cooped up in the house all day long. i ran into both sophie and rick, but she was shopping with her mom, and he was running around, trying to find some more last-minute fireworks. so we didn’t get to talk much. after dinner that night, i was too tired from the full day of errands and chores to do much else, so i went to bed.

on the morning of the fourth, i was sent back to the store to buy some milk. my mom had used all the milk i had bought the previous day in her cookies, and we needed some for breakfast. i returned to the house to find a police car parked outside, and my parents standing anxiously on the porch with a police officer. when i walked up to the porch, the police officer was the first to speak. “son, we need to talk,” he said, and the four of us trooped into the living room, where my parents sat me in between them on the couch, and the cop pulled up a chair. i was very confused. why would the police want to talk to me? i hadn’t done anything wrong. and then it hit me. maybe something had happened to old man higgins, and he had mentioned my name!

“son, last night, richard anatoli krushkin…” those three words sent a chill down my spine. “…ran away from home. we think that it happened shortly after a…umm…disagreement with his father. did he ever say anything to you about wanting to run away?”

i was too shocked to answer. rick? ran away? so was that what he meant two nights ago? i stumbled around for words to say. a tear fell down my cheek. rick can’t be gone, can he? “he…he said something a few nights ago about wanting to run, but i didn’t think he meant it,” i stuttered.

“son, i’m sure this is very difficult for you. but we have to be sure that he ran away, and that nothing else happened to him.” the cop let the ominous meaning of his words hang in the air. he took out a piece of paper. “does this mean anything to you?” he said, as gently as possible.

i stared at the piece of paper. it was a simple message. just five words, but five words that held so much meaning, so much pain, so much anger, that it was difficult for my seven year old brain to fully comprehend.

ben,
told you so.
rick

and that was all it said. i started to cry then. i don’t know why i chose that specific moment, but maybe it was because the whole thing struck me right then with its full impact. i couldn’t get any more words out, and the cop sat there for a long time, waiting for me to say something. when the tears finally stopped and i had sufficiently recovered myself, i said, “i guess he wanted to tell me that he had done what he said he would – that he said he would run.”

“did he ever say where he was planning to go?”

“no,” i lied. i don’t know why i lied, but i felt that it was the thing to do. “no, he never did.”

****************************

the rest of the day passed in a blur. the cop had some more questions, none of which i was able to answer completely, and then he left. i went up to my room, and my parents, unsure of what to do, prepared for their lawn party that afternoon. i smelled the charcoal as my dad fired up the grille, and i heard my mom bustling around downstairs, but mostly i lay in bed, just staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out why rick would do something like that.

my parents made me come downstairs to the lawn when the guests started arriving, and i moped around for about three hours. when, near dusk, i asked if i could for a ride on my bike, my parents were more than happy to let me go, because my long face was throwing a damper on their party.

i rode down the path towards the beach, thinking about rick all the way. i convinced myself that i had lied to the police about rick’s intended destination because i didn’t want them to find him in the city and bring him back to live with the same family that he had tried his best to escape. somehow it didn’t seem fair to rick, or to our friendship.

as i approached the beach, i was surprised to see a familiar bike resting on the fence at the end of the path. i arrived on the beach to find sophie sitting there, all alone. she sat there, staring out at the lake, watching the dying sun burn out its last few rays on its slow descent beyond the horizon. she didn’t look up at me as i sat down beside her. we sat there quietly for a long time, watching the stars slowly spring up hungrily in the sky, swallowing up the darkness left in the wake of the sun. the moon was large and silver, and the night was completely clear – not a cloud in the sky.

sophie was the first to break the silence. “is this what he wanted?” she asked.

“yes,” i replied truthfully. “this is what he wanted more than anything. just so he could be happy.”

we were silent for a long time as well. i saw people hustling around on the barge, and realized that the fireworks would start soon.

after another long silence, she turned to look at me. “will we make it without him?”

“yeah, i think so.”

as the first fireworks began exploding in the sky, turning the night blue, red, green and purple, sophie and i shared our first kiss.

*****************************

that was the end of the last innocent summer of our lives. for some reason, sophie and i weren’t too comfortable around each other anymore. we had kissed, sure, but that didn’t mean that we were boyfriend and girlfriend, a concept that i thoroughly detested. i started avoiding her, and instead fell in love with books. i spent more time in the library that summer than at home, which concerned my parents to no end. but, as i said, i fell in love with books, and spent an awfully long time trying to write my own stories, but to no avail.

sophie hunted me down in the library after a while, and we had an uncomfortable talk, when we realized that things weren’t going to be the same between us. school started soon, and, on the first day, sophie sat at a different table, and i realized that by not fulfilling her dreams about her first kiss being the love of her life, i had also condemned our friendship. as time passed, we grew more and more distant, until high school, when she got drunk, slept with some random guy, and ended up getting married to him when she found out she was pregnant with his child. i wasn’t surprised to see that i wasn’t invited to the wedding.

the krushkin family, meanwhile, had its own share of problems. the whole town suspected that rick had not run away, but instead had been killed by his father, who buried his body in the yard. the rumors had their effect on rick’s mom, who, almost four months after rick’s absence, suddenly packed up and left with his elder sister. no one ever heard from her again. rick’s father, unable to deal with the suddenly empty house and the increasing suspicion that he had killed his whole family and buried them in the backyard, silently hung himself one night shortly after.

now to me. i quickly grew sick and tired of my parents’ attitude towards me. they had never made much of a secret of the fact that they had always wanted a daughter, but due to complications during my birth, were unable to conceive again. so instead of smothering their only child with affection, they did the complete opposite: they smothered me with indifference. by the time i got to high school and started applying to colleges, i was so eager to leave home that i intentionally chose colleges as far away as possible.

i got on the train to go to college alone, swearing i would never return to st. anselm’s.

i got decent grades in school – nothing to write home about, which is something i seldom did. somehow i got enough credits to graduate, and somehow i got into grad school, which i graduated with a doctorate in english. my old college was glad to offer me a tenured professorship, which i took gratefully, because it would give me time to work on my novel. my first novel was published two years later. i didn’t even mention my parents in the acknowledgements, although i thanked rick and sophie, wherever they were. i don’t think i even sent them a copy, even though they must have known about it, since it hit the top of the bestseller list.

four years and two more novels later, i got a letter in the mail one day, with a postmark from st. anselm’s. not certain what it would be, and suspecting that it was fan mail, i opened it eagerly – fan mail is always such a boost for the ego. it was a short letter, less than a page.

dear ben,

i don’t know if you remember me, but i lived next door to your parents for years. i hate
to be the one to have to tell you this, but i think you should come home soon. your mother
has not been well – not since your father’s death two years ago. we all think that you
should see her one last time. please try to come.

yours lovingly,
angelique scott

i took the next plane home to st. anselm’s.

***********************************

she certainly was not well. the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her, but since my father’s death – which i had not known about – she had been getting worse by the day. i arrived on friday afternoon, but she was dead by saturday morning.

the funeral was short and filled with emotion. i did not feel able to deliver the eulogy, but the responsibility was taken up by a host of teary-eyed townspeople, all gushing with stories about how wonderful she had been. i felt slightly guilty that i did not have such stories of my own, especially since she was my mother. she was buried next to my father in the graveyard adjoining the st. anselm’s church.

as the sole heir, i had a lot of work to do, packing up all the belongings and determining the exact value of the estate. i arranged for the house to be sold, along with most of the stuff, and kept only some of my own stuff from my youth to take back with me. i spent a week longer in st. anselm’s than i had originally planned.

the day before i was supposed to leave, i suddenly thought about the beach. i hadn’t been there in more than twenty-five years, and i was curious to see what it looked like now. i drove up the path in my car, and parked near the fence where we had always left our bikes, i walked out on to the beach.

i got the biggest shock of my life.

at first, i was certain that the man sitting on the beach was old man higgins. in fact, he was sitting in the exact same spot that higgins had sat at the last time i saw him, 25 years ago. but then i did a quick mental calculation – higgins had to be over 100 years old then, and that wasn’t possible. then the person looked at me, and a distant memory fired up in my brain. “heard you were back in town. oh, thanks for the acknowledgement in your first book,” he said, and that’s when i knew: it was rick.

we had a very awkward moment, when i tried to figure out how to greet him, and whether a hug would be appropriate, but that question was answered by the fact that he didn’t move an inch. not sure what to do, i sat down beside him. in my search for words to say, all i could come up with was, “how have you been?”

rick laughed loudly. “that the best you can do?”

i relaxed. “where were you?” i asked.

“lost,” he answered.

twenty-five years ago he had said something i had not understood, and i had spent the last twenty-five years hating myself for not asking him to explain what he had meant. i wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. “what do you mean?”

“i took a train from here to the city. lived on the streets because i had no other place to live. couldn’t find a single job. out of desperation, i started doing heroin. nearly overdosed three times, but were saved by paramedics. then, six years ago, after my last near-death experience, i realized that where i should be is right here. and so i came back. sorry to hear about your mom.”

“thanks,” i mumbled. i hadn’t yet figured out what to say when people told me they were sorry about my mom’s death. “i’m glad i got here in time, though.”

“yeah, i heard on the grapevine that you hadn’t come back in years. was that intentional?”

“i guess. i was just so eager to get away from them, and when i did, i did my best not to come back. i realize now how much more it would have hurt if i had missed the funeral. did you know that i didn’t even know that my dad had died?”

“yeah, but from what i hear, it was a conscious decision on your mom’s part. your writing career was going so well – your second novel was on top of the bestseller list, and you were working on your third – and she didn’t want to have to ruin it by having you come back. she gave me these.” he pulled a thick sheaf of sealed letters from his pocket, and handed it to me. “after you left for college, they realized how lucky they were to have you as their son, and how unfair they had been to you by treating you like you didn’t exist. they wrote you a letter every week, but never mailed them. here they are”

i took the proffered letters with a shaking hand. of all the wonderful things i had learnt that week from the townspeople, this hurt the most. maybe i should have come home more often, i thought. maybe i should have spent some more time with them. maybe i should have been more understanding. maybe i shouldn’t have been so damn selfish.

we sat in silence for a while. “so did you hear about sophie?” he asked, finally.

“no, what happened? last i heard, she married some guy from high school and had two kids.”

“oh, that was ages ago. she’s had two more marriages since then, and the latest one is falling apart. she comes back to town quite often to visit family, and she told me this last time she was here. she doesn’t blame the husbands, though. she says she blames her first kiss for not turning out to be the love of her life.”

“oh,” i said. i wasn’t sure catching up with rick was turning out to be such a good idea – every thing he said seemed to hurt more and more. i wondered if rick knew who that first kiss was, the culprit behind sophie’s three failed marriages. he didn’t seem to know, or even if he did, he was pretending not to care. we sat in silence for some more time.

just as i was about to get up and leave, rick said, “you know, i finally understand what old man higgins meant.”

this i had to hear, so i stayed put. “i haven’t thought about that in years,” i lied. in fact, i had done a lot of research on atlantis in general and carl hopper in particular, but had been unable to find anything about him. i had been considering using higgins’ line in a book, but hadn’t yet figured out what context to use it in. “so what do you think he meant?” i asked, curious.

“see, i don’t think there really was a carl hopper. i think that was a figment of higgins’ imagination. instead, he wanted to teach us a valuable lesson.”

“which was?”

“atlantis isn’t what matters, it’s what’s beyond atlantis that matters more. only atlantis was a metaphor, for something you want really badly. for me, atlantis was running away to the city, for sophie it was kissing the love of her life on these banks, and for you, it was leaving home and your parents. but none of that provided more than a small amount of satisfaction. the three of us found our own private atlantis, but beyond it was a world of infinite pain and grief and sadness that crept in while we were enjoying the finite satisfaction of getting what we really wanted.”

“ha,” i laughed. “your theory is compelling, my friend, but it’s crap. utter crap. i did some research, and the carl hopper story is well-documented,” i lied. “besides, we later found out higgins had escaped from a mental asylum, so he was nuts. therefore, you can come up with all the philosophy you want, but the truth is that higgins probably had no idea what he was saying.” i saw anger flash across rick’s face. i didn’t want to be nearby if he got angry. i got up quickly. “i’ll see you soon, my friend. i’ll be back in a couple of months.” and then i left.

as i drove back to the house, i kept telling myself that rick was wrong. but i knew he was right. i knew deep down inside that what he had said was the truth, and that, having found the relative shelter of my own atlantis for fifteen years, i was now dwelling in the pain beyond, and, from what rick had said, the same was true for both him and sophie. but it was a frightening admission, one i didn’t want to make. i didn’t want to admit that the pain i felt – the grief of losing both parents simultaneously, the anguish of knowing they really did love me, and that i had been harboring an unfair hatred of them ever since – was all the result of my own desire to get as far away as possible. instead, it was easier to blame it on something else.

i left st. anselm’s the following morning. i have never gone back since.

THE END

******************************

dear reader,

if you made it this far, congratulations. it turned out much longer than i thought it would.

okay, i have several confessions to make.

first of all, i began this story as a screenplay, but after writing about the equivalent of the first paragraph, i got tired of typing FADE IN and ZOOM OUT and all that fun crap. so i just made a story out of it. it turned out a bit long, and for that i apologize.

second, in a previous post, i lied when i said that i begin all my stories with the first line and see where it goes from there. after about half an hour of writing this story, i sat down and thought about what the title could mean and imply, and then, within fifteen minutes, i had the entire story in my head. unfortunately, i then went and played pool for two hours, which resulted in the story losing a lot of the elements and flavor i had originally conceived.

third, i realize this story may be quite bland, and lacking in atmosphere. i’ll try and make some edits along the way. right now, it’s 2 am and i’m exhausted and have tennis at dawn, so i will go to bed.

fourth, i would really like some critical feedback and comments on this story, so please post your thoughts, and ask any bored friends you have to read the story and do the same.

fifth, i must admit that all the creativity required to write the story did not come from me alone. i would like to acknowledge the other people who contributed to this story.
a. for the concept of two young boys and a young girl who are best friends, i would like to thank mr. stephen king for his book “hearts in atlantis”. although the titles may sound similar, the story isn’t, except for the coming back to the town part. but it’s still a great story anyway. i highly recommend you read the book as soon as possible. or at least watch the movie.
b. for the title, i would like to thank a obscure game publisher who came up with an adventure game of the same name. but if they want to sue me for copyright infringement, they can go right ahead – i’m just an amateur writer who posts stories infrequently on his xanga. however, if you work for a major publication or a major movie studio and would like to pay me millions to publish this story or make a movie out of it, let me know and i’ll change the name to something more generic, like “ben’s journey” or something.
c. for the name of the town, i would like to thank p.d. james’ book “death in holy orders”. this is the book i am currently reading, and i must admit, it is the longest book i have ever read, simply because it is so boring. i have been reading it for almost a month now, and it does NOT seem to end. i hope none of you felt the same way about this story though.

sixth, as i said at the beginning, this story is in no way autobiographical. none of this crap ever happened to me in my life (except maybe the three marriages part. i’m kidding, of course). thank god. anyway, if you know me well enough, feel free to engage in some discussion on how this story might possibly reflect my inner psyche. i tremendously enjoy such discussions.

seventh, thanks to all of you for reading all these stories that i post and giving me some sort of feedback. i appreciate it sincerely. it helps me refine my writing style.

finally, i promise to try and keep the stories short from now on, especially when i call them short stories.

thanks again. oh, and once again, congratulations for making it through all the way.

till later.