The screams. He couldn’t block them from his mind. He wished they would stop. But they didn’t. The licked at him menacingly. Refusing to abate. Refusing to die down.
He had hoped that not sleeping would allow him to stay away from those cries of anguish that were haunting his dreams. But the nightmares continued even when he was awake.
Six-year-old Abdul thoughtlessly took a little nibble from the cake in his left hand. He ate because his brain told him to. He did not feel the taste of the breadcrumbs sliding down his throat. He had not felt anything in a long time.
Abdul looked around blankly. He was in a tiny hospital room, sitting on the single bed there. He had no idea what time it was. The pale, orange light streaming in from the big window behind his bed told him that this must be afternoon. The room had been his dwelling-place for the past three weeks. Or was it three months? Abdul wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure of anything since that evening.
Despite himself, he couldn’t stop the memory of that evening from creeping up on him again. The screams. The fire. The blood. The horror. Everything was still so fresh.
It was a Friday evening like every other in little Abdul’s life in the small town of Dammam. He was playing catch with his favourite red ball – a present from his mother on his fifth birthday last year – in the little backyard of their house while waiting for his Abbu to freshen up and join him. He was excited as after finishing the catching game he would get the chance to devour the scrumptious kebabs being prepared by his Ammi inside in the kitchen.
Abdul was hitting the ball against the solitary tree stump in their backyard and trying to grab it on the rebound with both his palms, just as his father had taught him. His focus was broken when he heard a loud, crashing noise from inside. Abdul whipped around, and from the window in front of him, saw a group of five men marching into their drawing room. All of them wore black masks – only their eyes and lips were visible – and wielded large guns and shiny metals that Abdul had only seen in some films.
He watched in horror as one of the men pulled his father roughly from the armchair he was sitting on and struck him viciously on the head with the butt of his gun. He slumped to the ground like a rag doll. Abdul was shocked, confused. He didn’t know what was happening. He saw his Ammi rushing in from inside and being immediately grabbed by a couple of the men. He saw a flash of silver followed by a spray of blood spattering the window panes in front of him. He saw his Ammi slowly collapse on the floor as well.
Abdul was frozen. He couldn’t move. He wanted to call out, but his mind had gone blank. He was shaking feverishly and clutched the little red ball in his palm with all his might.
He saw the five men drag his Ammi to the center of the room, shove her on top his Abbu and bind them both with a chain. Then they sprayed some liquid on them. And a moment later there was fire all over. Abdul’s eyes widened as he heard the screams of agony of his Ammi and Abbu. Both of them writhed; engulfed in yellow flames, shrieking terribly.
Abdul could do nothing. He stood there outside the window helplessly, trying to say something. But the words just remained stuck in his throat.
He saw the men leaving the house. He heard his Ammi and Abbu’s screams die out little by little. He saw them finally stop struggling. He saw the flames leap across every corner of his house. He heard a great explosion inside and the glass panes in front of him shattering into a million pieces.
Abdul remained rooted as the shards of glass, still carrying the blood stains of his Ammi, flew up at him and pierced his face. He felt himself being hurled off the ground, still clutching his favourite red ball in his left palm.
The last thing he remembered, as he was still in flight, was him finally finding his voice and managing to whisper: “Ammiii”.
And then there was nothing.
Abdul remembered waking up in a hospital amidst a lot of commotion. There were unknown faces surrounding him and his entire right side was in excruciating pain. He kept drifting in and out of consciousness. And the screams of his mother kept piercing his dreams.
The right side of Abdul’s body had faced multiple burns – the hair, face, hands, and legs had all been parched.
A sea of people had swooped in on him with a barrage of questions during the initial few days. There were men with cameras and notepads and men wearing different colored uniforms wandering in and out of his hospital room frequently. But Abdul could not bring himself to speak to them. He did not have it in him.
He registered fragments of words like “ISIS”, “Revenge” and “Jihad” a few times from the people who would be speaking around him. But those words meant nothing to him. Nothing mattered to him any longer.
“Why haven’t you finished your cake?”
Abdul looked up to see a kind-looking plump woman dressed in all whites peering at him with concern. It was the nurse.
With time, the crowd in his little hospital room had trickled down to a minimum. Now, it was usually the gentle nurse who came in from time to check on him and give him food regularly.
“You have some visitors today, boy,” she said with a benign smile.
As she moved aside, Abdul saw two people standing at the door – a tall and lean woman draped in an elegant, black Abaya and a little girl with short hair in a red frock, holding the woman’s hand. He recognized them immediately. They were his neighbours from across the street – Aunt Daaniya and her five-year-old daughter, Mehrin.
Aunt Daaniya’s family were great friends with Abdul’s parents and little Mehrin had been his best friend since as long he could remember. Every afternoon after school, they would spend hours together – doing school work, playing games, watching cartoons and reading comic books. Although she was a year younger to Abdul, the two had great camaraderie and were inseparable friends.
Abdul recalled Mehrin mentioning to him that she would be out vacationing somewhere this month with her family. He couldn’t remember the name of the place. It seemed to him like that conversation had taken place a lifetime ago.
The two of them walked tentatively towards Abdul. Mehrin, holding her mother’s hand, looked at him with a confused, almost scared look. It was an expression Abdul wasn’t accustomed to seeing on her usually cheerful and happy face.
Mehrin let go of her mother’s hand and inched closer to Abdul, not taking her eyes off him for a second. As she stood in front of him, her lips trembled. It was as if she was seeing her best friend in a completely different light today. She stood there. Gaping at him. Her breathing becoming heavy.
The little girl’s eyes blinked furiously for a few seconds and then a solitary teardrop glided down her soft cheek.
“Ab…Ab…,” she tried to say. But her voice seemed to be caught.
“Ab…Abb…Abb…,” she spluttered. Her voice came in little gasps. Her face streamed with tears.
Abdul could feel something stirring inside him. He didn’t know what it was.
He moved both his hands and held his little friend’s face with his palms.
Mehrin shuddered at his touch. The pink color of her face had gone red.
“Ab…Abb…Abdulll…!” she finally managed to whisper even as the tears kept flowing down her face.
An odd sensation coursed through Abdul. As he sat there, cupping his friend’s face in his palms, watching her innocent eyes glistening with tears, he felt as if something heavy and dark was being siphoned off from inside him.
With every teardrop that glided down Mehrin’s face, Abdul felt lighter than he had done in a long time. He wanted to cry, too. But he had lost the ability to produce tears. For now, it was his best friend who was doing the crying for him.
They stayed there like that for what felt like an eternity, before Abdul finally noticed Aunt Daaniya’s voice saying something. She had bent down in front of him.
“Abul, my dear boy! You will stay with us from now on, okay?” she said kindly. Her voice was heavy and, Abdul noticed, her eyes were puffy and red.
Abdul looked at her and then at Mehrin again. He gently wiped her tears with his hands and then slowly nodded at Aunt Daaniya.
“I pro…I promise you will be all right, son! I promise.” she said softly with a sniff and then proceeded to kiss Abdul on the forehead.
“You will be all right.”
Two hours later, the three of them were walking along the hospital corridor: Aunt Daaniya ambling ahead with Abdul and Mehrin behind her.
“You will stay in Reiaf bhai’s room, Abdul. He doesn’t live here any longer. So you will have the whole room to yourself,” Mehrin chirped while holding Abdul’s right hand, the one that had been burnt.
“And you don’t worry, Abdul,” she said while bouncing up and down on her feet and literally dragging him ahead with all the force her tiny body could muster, “We will play so many games. And watch cartoons. And read comics….”
A slight smile appeared on Abdul’s face as he watched his little friend hop and drag him forward.
He didn’t know what lay ahead for him. He didn’t know if the screams in his nightmares would stop. He didn’t know if he would be able to sleep again.
But he knew that it was after a long time that he was feeling something. A narrow crevice of light had opened up inside him. And Abul wanted to hold on to it with every bit of him.
“…And I will also play catch with you, Abdul. I will not complain. I promise,” Mehrin’s chirpy voice floated up to him.
Abdul just smiled and walked on with her, clutching her little fingers tightly with his right hand. He had a feeling that with Mehrin by his side that crevice inside him would open up further every day.
And then there was the little red ball he gripped firmly in his left hand which would help a bit too, perhaps.
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The intention of this story is not to preach. This is a plot that I had in mind for months, but was apprehensive on attempting it because of how disturbing the premise was. I obviously had no reference points to take. But I still wanted to do it. I will tell you why.