“The draft of cool air that hit me from the open door was nothing short of heaven, and my resolve to listen to Mama’s warning kept slipping further and further.”
We remained panting and sweating after a sprint from one end of 22nd Main Street, to another. Our throats parched and rivulets of sweat streamed down our necks and back. I held my stomach that had cramped by the onslaught of an unforeseen run, especially in thin slippers. Divya pointed her pudgy fingers at me and laughed. “Loser…loser…you are a doozer!” she jumped around and danced like an imp.
In blue cotton shorts and a white tank top that was at least two sizes too small for her chubby, seven years old, body, her baby paunch jiggled in mirth as she rubbed my defeat in my face. My lips pursed in annoyance. Divya never wins. I was the fastest sprinter amongst all our friends and the only reason she won was because she wore running shoes and I wore bathroom slippers.
I hated Mama for leaving me every single day of our summer vacations with Divya. I checked my Barbie doll watch. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, another two hours for Mama to get back from work.
Everyday, after summer school, I would spend hours at Divya’s home. I hated Divya. She always competed with me and always had an excuse to hit me, pull my hair and sometimes, even tear at my clothes. Aunty, Divya’s mother would laugh it off.
It was a routine that from three to five in late afternoons, we were to play on the street until Mama would come and pick me up. Lately, the heat had been unbearable. With no rains and an unforgiving sun bearing down upon our heads, it was no wonder we were parched.
My dry throat reminded me of how badly I needed to drink water.
“Divya, give me some water.” I asked, trying to snatch the bright pink sipper that carried water with ice cubes.
“No!” She screamed and emptied the contents of the bottle in her mouth.
“Arghhh!” I thought. I could have killed her for not leaving any water for me. I attacked that girl and we tumbled to the ground, rolling in dirt and sweat when we heard a high-pitched giggle from somewhere far behind us.
“What are you fighting for, girls?” Spoke the high-pitched voice again.
We turned around to see plumber uncle stand there and laugh at us. Grinning wide at the two girls stumbling on the street.
Plumber uncle, a short puny man with stained teeth and a forever smiling face, a smile that somehow always made me terribly uncomfortable.
He was not alone; there was another man with him. A silent man, who did not laugh or even smile, his eyes were covered in black sunglasses and his face had a thick beard.
They were in a car, plumber uncle standing outside, leaning against the passenger door, and the stranger sitting in the passenger seat, with his window rolled down.
Both of them seemed to have been taking in the scene. Divya and I, fallen on the ground, our legs twined into one another and my short white dress pulled all the way up to reveal a hello kitty underwear.
Suddenly conscious of my appearance, I stood up and pulled my dress down. Divya stood too, punched me in my stomach and spoke to plumber uncle, “She was snatching my sippy, uncle.”
“She was not giving me water!” I shouted louder than Divya and pushed her aside.
“Poor girls, playing outside in this heat, sweating and rolling over each other like pigs.” His high-pitched voice jarred my senses again and my stomach twisted in a knot at the slur as he ended his sentence.
“Why don’t you come in the car? We have a lot of cold water here and AC too.” He spoke; his wide grin, stretching almost from one ear to another.
Divya took one step forward, her face bright, and smiling. She was still thirsty and the promise of cold water in this heat was too tempting to resist. Instinctively I held her hand.
“Mama said not to talk to strangers.” I whispered, loud.
“But that’s plumber uncle, he is not a stranger.” Divya said. Her hand getting stiff by the second, as if preparing to physically wrestle me to break free.
“Yes Anu beta, I am plumber uncle, I am not a stranger,” he repeated.
If anything, the knots in my stomach got thicker and larger. I looked around desperately to find another familiar face, any aunty or uncle, any adult who would tell us what to do.
It was awfully quiet in the street. Come six ‘o clock, 22nd main street would be a circus of children playing cricket, cycling, aunties and uncles taking walks. But not now, now it was silent like a graveyard at midnight.
Only the rustle of leaves from dying spurts of wind made any sound apart from Divya’s whimpers as she tried to escape my death grip.
My eyes went past plumber uncle, the stranger and his car. Towards Divya’s house which was on the other end of the street.
“Come on, come on now, girls, I can’t stay here forever. Come inside the car, we will buy you ice creams.” Plumber uncle spoke, his wide smile frozen in place. His hands outstretched towards Divya, beckoning her to the shelter of his car.
Maybe I should go too. I thought.
My parched throat a stark reminder of how badly I needed to quench my thirst.
I lightened my grip on Divya’s hand and instantly she snatched it free.
“What ice cream do you have?” I asked, loudly, my voice horse, trying to cover the few feet of distance between us.
“Chocolate, it’s your favorite. Isn’t it, Anu gudiya?” He spoke again. The stranger in his car slowly turned towards us and stared us down without a smile.
“We can give you vanilla too, if you want.” This was the first time the stranger had spoken. His voice was almost a raspy whisper, one that Divya and I had to strain to hear.
“Come inside the car,” he spoke again, “we will give you whatever you want.” his raspy voice getting more and more audible in the deafening silence of 22nd Main Street.
“I have to ask Mama.” I said.
“But your Mama won’t be here until 5:30, Anu beta.” Plumber uncle reminded me. Divya now held my hand in hers and tried dragging me towards the car with the surety of someone who knew they had been right all along.
Plumber uncle moved towards the backseat and opened the door. I reluctantly allowed my friend to drag me in the direction of the black sedan with tinted glasses. It would be a relief to drink cold water and eat ice cream, I told myself as my stomach grumbled and sweat poured down my body.
The draft of cool air that hit me from the open door was nothing short of heaven, and my resolve to listen to Mama’s warning kept slipping further and further.
Divya entered the car first as my head banged against the door, because I forgot to bend down. A jarring pain wrecked my head like a gong; like a warning, a desolate scream for help. Something was not right, my instincts shouted, begging me not to enter the car.
“I really need to ask mama first.” I begged plumber uncle as he pushed me towards the car seat, tightly squeezing my buttocks.
Tears streamed down my cheeks and I made up my mind. I took a deep breath and put all my weight into pushing plumber uncle back by one step, and I ran. I ran towards Divya’s home terrified to look back.
I turned once… only once. And I saw Divya banging on the window screaming, probably asking me to come back, and plumber uncle quickly driving the car out of 22nd Main Street.
It has been 20 years to that day; I am yet to see Divya again.
Published here earlier.
Image source: pixabay
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