Cul-De-Sac

Abu was right about the body clock. He wasn’t always right about a lot of things, contrary to his own beliefs, but he was right about the body clock. Regardless of what time I sleep the night before, how many hours of rest I get, whether my worn-out cell phone’s muffled beeping goes off or not – I will always wake up at 3:45 a.m. without fail. 


I remain elevated on my tiptoes as I move around our one bedroom home, trying my best not to wake anyone. My younger brother lying on the kiln next to me is the least of my concerns – the boy sleeps like he’s dead. Every now and then he’ll groan but his eyelids will remain firmly closed for another few hours before he’s awoken for school. My mother sleeps on a narrow kiln next to my grandmother who inhabits the only mattress in our home. By the time I’m ready to leave, both the ladies will wake up to pray but for now, I spread my jaanemaaz under the bleak light pouring in from our stained window in the kitchen area, and rush through the memorized words and choreographed movements. As I shift into the bathroom clutching fresh clothes to change into, my grandmother mumbles an insult to my late grandfather in her sleep. Finally, just as I am grabbing my empty satchel and exiting out the door, my mother whispers from her bed: “Be safe.” 


Except there is nothing particularly unsafe about my job. In many ways my job is perhaps equally as insignificant as it is significant. Everybody awaits my arrival to start their day with a fresh newspaper and a cup of coffee, but the world will also not stop if I don’t show up. And while the news is important, stealing it from me won’t make it any more yours than it is mine right now. I’m a middleman, performing a mediocre duty that I take much pride in. 


After collecting my batch of the newspapers to deliver for the day, I mount my bicycle and tie the stack of rolled bundles expertly next to me. The sky is streaked with the sun’s lazy effort to break through, almost as if they too need an extra minute’s snooze before showing up to work. I begin pedaling along the quiet roads, the sticky morning Karachi air sliding against my cheeks and matting my hair as I pick up my pace. The azaan tears through the morning sky, the maulvi’s voice resting on the wispy clouds and carried by the dewy breeze. When I started this job almost a year ago, I was told I might be too young for the responsibility. 


“He’s only 17, he won’t ever show up on time.” 


“We don’t have time for tomfoolery and nonsense, we need someone reliable.” 


“Will the customers trust him?” 


But our neighbor Azeem bhai had put in a good word for me after our late father’s accident and stressed on how badly I needed this so there was no way I could screw it up. And sure, that was the initial sentiment when I first mounted this second-hand bicycle we bought after selling my father’s scooter for a little extra cash. But over the last few months, I have grown to enjoy the job thoroughly. My paper route was adjusted with the previous concerns in mind, which meant instead of nonchalantly chucking rolled up paper-grenades over wrought iron gates into peoples’ homes, I was given one entire apartment complex only. Here, in this haven of four buildings all surrounding a haphazardly-planned parking lot, I would personally deliver every newspaper to all six houses on each of the five floors in each building. Sometimes people open the door when I ring the bell, sometimes they shout at me to leave it outside, sometimes they ignore me entirely so I place it on their unwelcoming welcome mat and move on. But over the last year, everyone has gotten to know me as ‘Munna’. 


I park my bicycle at the entrance of Building A and grab the first stack of newspapers, shove them into my satchel, and enter the building. On the first floor, two of the apartments are empty so I drop the newspaper at the Mustafa’s doorstep as well as the Siddiqui’s, exchange polite greetings with Mr. Khan who has to settle an overdue payment, and enjoy playful banter with Mr. Nadeem. The second floor is a lot noisier but only one of the houses actually opens their door for me to retrieve the paper. On the third floor I get offered a cup of tea by Mr. Adam who lives alone and is taking the day off from work due to a flu I should stay away from. On the fourth floor I find out that the Hasan family is moving in a week and I quickly scribble down their new address to pass it on at work. Before running up the last flight of stairs, I lift my arms quickly to check for the inevitable pit stains, take a quick sniff, then pat down my sticky frail hair for good measure. 


It’s only ever a thirty-second to maybe a minute-long interaction but it’s worth it. The cook at Mr. Jamal’s is perhaps just a handful of years older than me but she’s the highlight of my day. I always save that apartment for the end, almost like a treat for myself that I can indulge in, and then carry that high with me through the rest of the paper route. I barely got to see her last month because Mr. Jamal had given her time off while he went to Islamabad to get married. But he was scheduled to return over the weekend, which meant today I finally got to see her again. I drop the bundles on three of the mats that I know refuse to open the door, say my salaam to Ms. John, hide from the Haider’s dog, and finally knock on her door. 


I mean, Mr. Jamal’s door. 


She opens it immediately. 


She’s wearing a bright blue outfit I’ve never seen on her before, her hair neatly and loyally tied in her signature braid that drapes over her left shoulder, peeking out from beneath the printed cotton dupatta that loops across her chest. Her lips curve into the half a smile she always does, her teeth biting down on her lips before they spread any wider. She blinks rapidly at me a couple of times before she says salaam. I smile back and repeat her greeting. 


“How are you?” I ask feebly. 


“All right. And you?” 


“Same. Here’s the paper.” 


“Thank you.” Without tearing her gaze away, she brings a thick arm forward and wraps her long fingers around the paper, both of us holding an end each. I let go. 


“Sahab is back?” 


“Yes he came back Saturday night. Him and begum sahiba. Nadia.” 


I nod at the name. “They must be happy.” 


It was a generic statement – a terrible chat up line, a weak but desperate attempt to keep the conversation going, a lame remark. But she flinches. Not noticeably, for her smile doesn’t waver, but a wave subtly washes over her eyes that she blinks away and says, “Yes, they must be.” 


“Okay. Well. See you tomorrow?” I mean to say, but end up asking instead. 


Her expression softens again as she goes back to gleaming. “See you. Khuda Hafiz Hamza.” 


“Khuda Hafiz Mehreen.” 


I watch her close the door then scurry back down the stairs, rushing to restock my satchel before heading into Building B. As I count the exact number of newspapers I need for the next round, Mrs. Hasan and her daughter emerge from the building behind me. 


“Munna, good thing I caught you! Did you know we’re moving?” she calls out as she wraps a firm hand around her daughter’s wrist who looks like she’s struggling under the weight of her school bag. 


“Jee Baaji,” I say as I turn around to face her completely. “I just met Sahab upstairs. He gave me the new address; I’ll be sure to pass on the message.” 


“Oh good! Yes, we’re very excited to move, aren’t we Rabia?” she playfully nudges her six-year-old who nods a sleepy yes before pushing a pigtail out of her ear. 


“Congratulations,” I smile at them, and mean it. “So many pieces of good news this morning.” 


“What do you mean?”


“Oh uh,” I fumble, unsure why I even said that. I am their newspaper boy; they only want to talk to me about their newspaper-related needs. I’ve been warned before not to even act like you’re getting too friendly or familiar with the clients. They don’t like that. Luckily, Mrs. Hasan’s driver has brought their car to the entrance of their building, signaling the mother-daughter duo that it’s time to leave for school. “No, I just meant... Actually, I just heard Mr. Jamal got married.” 


Mrs. Hasan raises her eyebrows before covering her eyes with stylish round sunglasses as they begin to shuffle towards the car. Rabia scooches in first, while Mrs. Hasan stands at the door just long enough to complete her statement. “Well, good for him. Good luck to her. Anyway, if we don’t see you before we move now, take care Munna.” 


With that, she ducks her head until it disappears into a gleaming car that pushes past me. I shake my head at her comment and feel relief flood my body that she didn’t find my intrusiveness weird. Time to just focus on the duty for the rest of the day. 



-----


It rained all night but thankfully it seems to have stopped just before I wake up. Still in the twilight hours of this morning, the world looks like a wet oil painting that mustn’t be touched yet or one might ruin it. Even now the still air is soaked in the acidic smell of warm rain which makes me sweat yet somehow also sends chills down my body as I briskly ride towards the apartment complex. 


After the routinely albeit lazy security search, I fill up my satchel and enter Building A. Skipping the two empty apartments, I deliver the paper to Mr. Nadeem, follow Mrs. Mustafa’s orders to leave her paper at the door, and catch Mrs. Siddiqui by chance already watering the kangipalm by her door. 


“Thank you Munna,” she says as I hand the paper to her. “I haven’t seen you in a while. Are you doing okay?” 


I feel her warmth seep into my chest as I see the sincerity behind the question resting in her crescent eyes. I nod enthusiastically and say, “Of course Baaji, thank you. And you?” 


She straightens the pale, yellow nighty she’s wearing and pouts subtly, shaking her head but still looking me in the eye. “I haven’t slept much, so now I’m out here early in the morning, trying to channel the lack of sleepiness into something productive.” We both look at her lonesome plant and share a small laugh. I furrow my eyebrows and continue looking at her, wondering if she wants to vent but careful not to offer that out loud. She doesn’t seem to catch on. 


She lets out a dramatic sigh and says, “Well, enough about me, people have real problems out there.” She looks at me again and for a second, I feel highly uncomfortable, as if I am sure she’s talking about me. There’s this look the ‘elite’ here wear whenever they look at one of us. One of two looks really. One of them is a disdainful, get-away-from-me, don’t-come-in-my-view kind. The other one is drowning in pity and superiority. I don’t know which is worse. 


But Mrs. Siddiqui almost seems to be looking past me. I spin around, half-expecting to see someone there but instead she keeps looking straight over, through the entrance of the building at the parking lot opposite this bottom floor. 


“Do you see something?” I ask, as I whip my head around again to follow her gaze. 


That seems to snap her somewhat out of it as the pitch of her voice picks up again but the look remains in her eyes. 


“Oh no no, not anymore... No, I think... Hmm.” She pauses and stares at me, wondering if she should tell me or not. It seems like this decision has nothing to do with me personally, but more if I look like the kind of harmless earpiece to whisper something into to merely get it off your chest, but know it won’t ever be able to repeat itself. Resolution finally wiping the indecisiveness off her face, she says, “Well, I think I saw something but not now. Last night. In the parking lot, in someone’s car. But I suppose it doesn’t concern us and I was being snoopy.” She shakes her head again, talking to herself more than me, then finally waves me away and goes back inside her house. 


I trudge up the stairs, completing my route through the building while fixating on her words. She saw someone or something in someone’s car last night. Something so significant, it kept her up all night? What does that even mean? Why stress so much about someone else’s problem? These rich people clearly lead very boring lives. 


Finally, I make it to my favorite floor. I drop the paper at the selected three doors that never open, meet Mrs. Haider’s brother who’s visiting from America and opened the door due to jet lag, and finally meet Ms. John who’s already sparking a joint while the rest of the building smells of breakfast. 


“Thanks, Munna,” she says, grabbing the paper and tossing it on the sofa behind her but remains leaning against her chipping door frame, her robe tied firmly around her waist. “Have you been over to your girlfriend yet?” 


My eyes widen and flinch as if I’ve been slapped. Suddenly the rib cage in my scrawny frame doesn’t feel strong enough to contain my panicking heart that’s beating so fast it might plop out in the narrow space between us. She clearly reads my not-at-all-masked panic and laughs through her puff, exploding into a coughing fit instead. 


“Relax,” she finally musters out after recovering. “I’ve seen you guys talking. I was just teasing but I guess I'm onto something, huh?” 


I smile uneasily and start to back away, hoping she’ll shut the door now. If not, maybe today I’ll just have to leave Mr. Jamal’s paper by the door without saying hello. I can explain myself tomorrow. 


She seems to get the hint because she straightens her posture before stepping inside as well. “Anyway, good luck with the flirting today. Things felt a little tense last night.” 


Tense? 


She takes another drag and mumbles to herself before shutting the door, so incoherent gibberish merely snuck out into the hallway behind her. 


I knock on the door and Mehreen whips it open, still dressed in the blue outfit from yesterday although today its subtly more creased. Still, it hugs her body beautifully as she shifts her dupatta into place and smiles her hello at me. 


“Here you go,” I say, waiting for the moment where we both touch two different ends of the same roll together. She grabs it and I wait an extra second before letting go. “How are you?”


“I’m all right. And you?” 


“Fine.” I shift nervously from one foot to the other. “And everything here... Everything’s all right?” 


Her soft skin melts into a subtle frown on her small forehead, slightly suspicious but also slightly curious. She pauses, then asks, “Yes, why?” 


“Mmmm, no reason,” I say, widening my smile in the hopes of distracting her. It doesn’t work. “I just...” I lower my voice into a whisper thrown at her carefully. “Ms. John said something about some tension...” 


Mehreen looks disappointed. Visibly disappointed. I just can’t tell if it's in me or Ms. John. Either way, she does not lower her voice to match mine. “No tension. Just a newly married couple. I wish people wouldn’t talk about things that aren’t their business. It’s beneath them.” 


There’s a deliberate edge to her voice that makes me back off immediately. 


“Anyway, see you tomorrow. Khuda Hafiz Hamza.”


Her name was still making its way out of my lips when she shut the door. Carrying my weighted heart I began trudging down the stairs, replaying that horrific interaction over and over again in my head. She was right, of course. I was indulging in gossip. Gossip is horrible and punishable and should be beneath all of us. Why would I stoop to such a level? No wonder the building isn’t fond of Ms. John. 


-----


The next two days it rains heavily, which means I can’t do the paper route on my bicycle. Not going to work doesn’t have the same thrill as skipping school, since it means we also lose two days’ worth of money as well. On the first day Ammi made it to her cleaning duty at people’s houses in Clifton as usual, but by night time all the roads were flooded so she stayed at one of those houses’ overnight, finally making it home late at night the next day. I warm up some leftover vegetable curry and roti for her as soon as she walks into the door while Masud has a hot cup of tea cooking in the kitchen. She hugs both of us tightly despite her soaked clothes and dripping hair, drenching all three of us. We pull apart, laughing at each other’s state in the dim glow of the lantern in the middle of the room. There has been no electricity for the past two days; Karachi’s faithful promise that accompanies every monsoon. 


My grandmother scoffs at the sight of us, folding another paan into her mouth as she says, “Yeah go ahead and laugh. No food, no electricity, no dry clothes, no man of the house, no money – no nothing! But you three stand there and laugh.”


And we do. And then we spend another two hours chatting even after the lantern gives out and my grandmother’s snores begin drowning out our whispers. At least it’s stopped raining. Which means things have to be looking up. 


-----


The next morning, I speed through the newly washed city, excited to be back at work. Sure, it’s a Friday which means that just one more morning to get it right with Mehreen before it’s the weekend again and I don’t see her for another two days. But today is a new day. Today will be a good day. 


I decide to keep my conversations as impersonal and short as possible today. I don’t need to carry anyone else’s problems into my time with Mehreen. And on the first three floors, I succeeded with flying colours. The trouble begins when on the fourth floor, Mr. Murad’s oldest daughter steps out at the same time that I’m leaving the newspaper on their mat. 


“Oh, sorry Munna, I didn’t see you there!” she exclaims, her foot hovering inches over my hand on the newspaper that I’ve just placed on their mat. “I’m just in such a rush!”


“That’s okay,” I say, standing up straight now. “You missed me.” 


“Ugh, I’m missing my brain today I swear!” she retorts, rolling her eyes. “I slept through my fucking – sorry – alarm because someone won’t stop shouting upstairs all night!” She suggestively looks at the ceiling as her mouth spits out the word ‘someone’, almost as if she is suggesting that the upstairs neighbors kept her up all night. 


Mr. Jamal? 


No. Stop it. 


I nod politely as she pushes past, and then I rush upstairs. Today I don’t ring Ms. John’s bell on purpose, and just leave her paper on the mat. I don’t need her input today. I don’t think she’ll mind anyway. 


Mehreen opens the door today wearing bright yellow and an even brighter smile. She looks like the sun hiding out in this dim hallway. We both say salaam at the same time over one another, then laugh awkwardly at our own cheesiness. 


“How are you?” 


“I need to apologise for last time,” she says, looking at me earnestly in the eyes. “I was cold, and you didn’t do anything for me to be that way.” 


“Oh, no don’t apologise, really,” I say, feeling embarrassed. “It was stupid of me, I crossed a line by asking something I shouldn’t have.”


“You didn’t ask a stupid question,” she replies, no longer really meeting my eye. I don’t want to waste more of our precious time having this uncomfortable conversation. 


“How are you?” I ask again. 


She shares a shy, half-a-smile and says, “I’m all right. And you?”


“Me too. Better now.” 


“Mehreen!” a thunderous voice bellows from behind. 


I look over her shoulder into the hallway as Mehreen jumps at the sound of her own name. Behind her at the end of the hallway stands Mr. Jamal. A six-foot large man with a thick head of hair, crisp jaw, broad shoulders, and always clenched fists. I had met him a few times in the past but it wasn’t a regular thing. Thankfully. 


“Jee, I’m coming,” she squeaks back, stretching her arm out for the newspaper hurriedly. I drop it into her open palm, forgoing the precious moment we both get to hold it together, and continue to stare at this man walking towards us. As he approaches the door, he waves her away without taking the newspaper from her, and towers over me. I can see he needs to trim his nose hairs. 


“How are you Munna?” he asks, his voice dipping into sweetness. 


“I’m good Sahab, and how are you?” I control the quiver in my voice and try again. “Congratulations, I heard you got married!” 


This is meant to distract him from his servant flirting with the younger newspaper boy and uplift his mood entirely, but instead his face shuts down. His jaws clench as he breathes deeply, contemplating an answer. 


“Who told you I got married?” he asks slowly, almost as if there is a right and wrong answer to the question. 


“Oh uh,” I stumble. I can’t say Mehreen, because I need to throw him off that scent entirely. I can’t say neighbors because I don’t want him to think people are talking about him. I honestly don’t even understand what they’re saying. Then I remember the most obvious, honest answer. 


“Sahab, you did a couple of months ago in advance remember? That’s why I knew not to come here all of last month because you said you would be in Islamabad.” 


His face softens immediately. It even breaks into a small smile of his own, letting a dimple escape that helps him look younger. “Right, how stupid of me. Anyway, see you later Munna. Get home safe.” He begins to close the door but not before I catch a glimpse of bright yellow Mehreen dashing through behind him, holding an ice pack. 


---- 


By the next week, the Hasans have moved out which means that I have one less family to tend to or worry about making small talk that could delay my time with Mehreen. I thought this meant I would save time, but it seems as though more and more neighbors were being disturbed by the couple upstairs. Hence more of them were irritably grumbling around the complex, either to each other or to me the next day in passing; the harmless newspaper boy. 


It’s never an offloading of information either, so I never know what to do with what’s being hurled my way. One day as I am restocking my satchel in between rounds, I hear Mr. Haider cursing out Mr. Jamal as he finds his car parked haphazardly, blocking Mr. Haider’s jeep: “Motherfucker has made my life hell. First the neverending commotion, then blocks my car so it’s impossible for me to get out!” 


Another time Eman, the Haider’s daughter, is seen walking their dog early in the morning when it’s usually their houseboy’s job: “I figured I might as well make this my routine since it’s clear I’m going to be up all night.” 


Mr. and Mrs. Mustafa are seen way more often now, taking turns every other morning to walk their screaming infant around the parking lot as they pat him to sleep while practically falling asleep themselves. “I swear, there must be someone we can complain to so they just shut up already. The second Amna falls asleep, the chaos begins again.”


Mrs. Faysal hasn’t even invited Mrs. Jamal into the neighborhood committee with all the aunties: “These young girls don’t relate to us aunties anyway. And even if she did, she’s always looking so sullen, her face ducked and running straight to her apartment! If she won’t make the effort with us, why should we with her?”  


A couple of weeks pass and all I gather is broken tidbits of information from mouths known for gossiping and complaining and playing the blame game anyway, so I stop paying too much attention to them. Couples fight - big deal. I saw where the gossip had already gotten me once before, and I am not planning on reliving that look in Mehreen’s eyes. 


For I still see her every day. Some days she smiles brightly at me and all the nonsense chatter that I hear on my way over seems to melt away. Some days she looks nervous or tired, but never says anything more. Our interactions are still just as short but there are so many times that I watch her flinch at a sound behind her, and I contemplate reaching out with a bare hand rather than one that holds a newspaper. Perhaps she’ll grab on and we can both skip down the stairs, out the building, away from the noise for good. 


At the same time, there is an edge to everyone’s voice that is deliberately smothered by blatant disdain and judgment for the new couple. An edge that speaks volumes, and volumes of honesty, but it seems as though the complaints’ focus is elsewhere on purpose. As if it helps everyone involved to maintain a cloud of delusion. 


I find myself playing with these thoughts once more as I knock on Mehreen’s door today. Except she doesn’t open it. I knock again, and then ring the bell. I know I can leave the paper on the mat, but I also know I can’t. I have to know if she’s okay. 


A minute after the echo of the second bell dissolves into the apartment, there’s a shuffle of footsteps by the door. I feel as though someone is watching me through the peephole. A couple of moments later, the door hesitantly opens. 


I don’t recognize the face at all. Then I realize it’s because I haven’t seen her before. 


The woman opposite me is tall and lanky unlike Mehreen. Her hair is wild and open, unbrushed and poking in all directions yet somehow, it doesn’t look disheveled as it makes its way down her back. She’s wearing a baggy tshirt that flows down to her thighs, embroidered with HARVARD in bold letters. Her pajamas are stained with tea or some kind of liquid, but it doesn’t seem new. And her face is swollen. 


She looks at me deep in my eyes with full awareness. Almost as if giving me permission. Or maybe daring me. Sure, go ahead, stare at me. I know what you see. Yes, I know my right cheekbone is a lot more swollen than the left. Yes, my lip is torn from the center. Yes, it seems as though the skin near my left temple and hairline split open recently. And yes, that is the stereotypical black eye to match, except mine is more in the middle – like he meant to hit my eye but missed and got most of my nose. 


She allows me a moment in my trance before finally clearing her throat. 


“Yeah?” Her voice is a lot harsher than I’d imagined. 


“S-sorry,” I finally speak, handing her the paper. “I’m Munna, I don’t think we’ve met. I usually just see Mehreen.” 


Her face twitches at the sound of Mehreen’s name, but she just nods silently and reaches for the paper. “Thank you.”


She’s about to close the door and end our interaction, but I can’t help myself. “Baaji!” 


She pauses but doesn’t widen the door’s opening again. Her eyes are piercing and I can’t look at her directly in them. 


“Baaji, where is Mehreen today?” 


She frowns. “Why?” 


“N-no, um, ju-just like that,” I say, abandoning this mission. 


She stares at me for a few more seconds then says, “She doesn’t work here anymore,” Then she shuts the door. 


My heart drops into my empty stomach. Why doesn’t she work here? What happened to her? Is she okay? Did he do something to her? 


The door behind me opens and Ms. John saunters out to collect her paper. She flicks ash from her cigarette into the plant next to her and leans against the doorframe watching me. 


“You saw her today, didn’t you?” 


I turn around, startled at the sound of her voice. I blink at this woman a few times, unsure of what to say. So I just nod. 


She takes a long drag and slowly nods as well, the curly mane on top of her head bobbing with her. “Yeah, he’s a fucking bastard.” 


We stare at each other for a few minutes until I work up the courage to ask, “Where’s Mehreen?” 


Ms. John exhales a muffled, humorless laugh, blowing smoke through her nose like a dragon. It takes her a minute to sift through the curse words in her head before she finally answers me. “They fired her three days ago. Friday night.” She takes another long drag and then stubs the cigarette out on the terracotta planter by her feet, dropping the shriveled bud into the mud. “He came home raging about God knows what on Friday from work. As fucking usual, it’s always something with him. He said something about how he doesn’t want her to be friendly with guys at the office but then again, I only could make out some of it.” She lifts her hands up as if to mimic surrendering to the facts. “Anyway, I guess he started bashing her pretty hard and eventually Mehreen called the police on him. Long story short, his family came to bail him out, then both the families spent all weekend coming over to ‘talk’, and that little girl lost her job trying to do what we all should have fucking done.” 


I stare at Ms. John dumbfounded. Against my better judgment, I ask, “What do you mean? That’s it? We won’t do anything more?” 


She tilts her head as if she’s seeing me for the first time. Or perhaps my innocence. “Munna, they already went to the authorities, didn’t they? Shit doesn’t work like it does in television dramas unfortunately. I wish it fucking did.” She shakes her head pityingly and backs into her own apartment again. “Anyway. Thanks for the paper, see you tomorrow. Stay safe.” 


Perhaps things don’t work out that way, but life sure is beginning to feel like a fictional reality. Every morning that I knock on that door, it feels like sitting down to watch the newest episode of the most horrific show I’ve ever seen and yet cannot tear my eyes away from. Every day I knock on that door, wondering who might open it today, and how they will be. The neighbors are still scattering their whispered horror stories like lame fanfiction theories birthed from every fandom that’s overly invested, and I find myself hungrily picking them up, hoping to piece together enough clues to – to do what? I’m not sure. But I can’t turn away either. 


In the following days, Mrs. Jamal opens the door for a brief five seconds just to grab the paper and return my salaam. Every day I scan her face for clues but she’s too quick for me. The hushed gossip ensues. The cursing against them increases. Life seems to go on.


One Monday, Mr. Jamal opens the door. She’s nowhere to be seen in the back, but his knuckles look scarred. Freshly scarred. The theories continue. 


The rest of the week, no one opens the door, so I leave the paper outside. But someone is still coming home to collect it before I return the next day. The neighbors seem grateful for the silence. 


The next week, a young boy about my age opens the door. 


“Oh,” I’m surprised to see a new, fresh face at the door. “Sorry, I haven’t met you yet. My name is Munna, the newspaper boy.” I extend a hand. He shakes it and smiles. 


“I’m Asad, Mr. Jamal’s cook,” he says, his lisp playfully coming through. “I guess we’ll be seeing each other around, huh Munna?” 


I feign a smile at the joyfulness that stands out starkly against the ominous house we’re standing in. 


“I guess so. Is Sahaab still here?” I ask, looking over his shoulder. 


“No no, he left for work already. Just a few minutes ago. Why?” 


“Oh, so it’s just Baaji at home?” I press him, hoping to inadvertently find out if she’s doing okay. There isn’t anything I can do to help her but seeing her every day, even bruised and battered, means I get an update on how she is. 


But Asad makes a comically confused face, scrunching it into a paper ball. “Baaji? Oh bhai, our Sahaab is a bachelor! Money, good looks, typical kind of bachelor! He doesn’t have some Baaji!” Asad laughs at my stupidness as he says bye and shuts the door, completely oblivious to what he has just locked himself into. 


And I step away from the door, deflated. True to form like the horrific television show it has turned into, the universe just dropped the entire plotline, a major character, and all the hushed gossip around it, into oblivion while the rest of us stayed watching, as she’s erased from existence and the main character goes back to living his own life, untainted, while the rest of us just accept whatever is written next.