The ambers of fire melt the door frame. You are struggling against the arms holding you. Your throat is dry and your voice hoarse.
“Let me go! My family is in there! Leave me!”
Your appeals don’t melt their hearts.
A loud boom reverberates into the night sky and the roof collapses.
You stand there shaking. Your entire family was in there. Your dad, your daughter, your baby boy and your wife. All gone in milliseconds.
You wake up drenched in sweat. You live through the same nightmare every single night. The clock on the desk shows 5 am. Dragging a hand down your face you walk to the bathroom. Splashing water on your face only washes the tears but the sorrow in your heart burns.
Stepping out you pull on your clothes and hit the street. The local milk vendor is just opening his shop. The terracotta faced lady is dragging her dog down the footpath. The first bus roars to life. The world is still waking up.
You run to the thumping rhythm of your steps and like clockwork your eyes float up to the bungalow on the next turn. It’s an old roman building. Maybe from the colonial era. The pillars are large, rotund and in the twilight, they look like formidable soldiers guarding the house. The whole house is grandiloquent, a little out of place in the skyscrapers surrounding it.
You pause before it for a few moments, ‘to catch a breath’, you tell yourself. But you know why you stand there every single day. On the first-floor balcony everyday a little girl wakes up and hugs her father. You can see their silhouettes. They dance together and move in maybe to the bathroom. She reminds you of your little girl.
You pound the path again and the cold wind dries the tears that roll over your cheeks. You head home.
Fresh out of bath you drive to work. On the way you pick a caramel macchiato from Starbucks. You sip it and make a face. You don’t really like it, but you still buy it. Your wife used to tease you about it.
The parking is full, and you wait in line to get a space. A car backs out from nowhere and grazes your car. You get down to check the damage. It’s a scrape, the car’s blue pasted over your tomato red. You sigh. The owner of the other car apologizes, and you throw a careless ‘never mind’ at them.
That’s when you notice the little girl in the front seat. You still.
“Is she alright?”
Your questions throws the other driver off track.
“Huh? Yeah, she’s fine.”
“You should really put her in the back seat.”
You mumble and get into the car. The driver is still standing there staring after you as you drive off.
The meeting drones on and you get lost in the fluffy clouds passing by the 35th story of your office. One looks like an engine, other like an elephant, the third one is like a baby in the cradle. Your name being called out brings you back in the conference room.
“So, what do you think?”
You panic. You haven’t really heard most of the presentation.
“I think it’s great?”
The entire round table is staring at you and the sympathy flowing from them chills you. It’s a reminder of the tragedy your life is. You excuse yourself and walk up to the terrace for a fag. The smell of tobacco burns out the knot in your chest. You finally breathe. The view from up there is even more fascinating. You climb up on the ledge. The whole city is at your feet. You stick your foot out and it blocks a skyscraper. You feel triumphant that you can trample it. You look down at the pavement. People running around like ants, trying to do the next thing, oblivious to you watching them.
Where must they be going? Do they have a family to go back to? Do they care enough?
The shrill ring of your mobile interrupts your thoughts. It’s your secretary.
“Sir, they need you in the conference room.”
You jump back into the terrace and the world view is gone. You stamp out your light and walk back.
That evening there is a party. Apparently in your cloud stupor you cracked a jackpot deal. It’s a drink and dance event. The nightclub is bustling with people. Suits to skimpy clothes. A round of drinks is called upon and cheers sound around. One round follows another and gradually everything numbs. You find yourself being led to the dance floor and the crowd pushes you around. Next thing you know you are gyrating your hips with a girl half your age.
Veins thrumming with alcohol you have thrown caution to the wind and are living life. Your colleagues cheer you on. Maybe they feel you deserve this slice of happiness.
Next day isn’t a happy day though. You have a mother of all hangovers and have emptied your bowels twice. Mouth is dry and head is full of cotton. You leave the curtains drawn cursing yourself for drinking so much. You call your mom, and she recites a sure shot remedy to drunk headaches. You try it and it tastes like piss. You curse again. Your wife would have never let you drink so much.
It’s a weekend so you sleep in. That evening you decide to jog. The streets are different compared to your morning lone trailing. The footpaths have people jostling by. The street vendors are calling out to customers. Hotdogs! Ice creams!
There are many more people walking their pets and children running amok.
You are interrupted several times and you can’t catch pace. You are dodging more than jogging. Finally, you collapse on a garden bench.
A little girl is playing close by. She looks up and her eyes widen. She turns around in circles and her lower lip pouts. Sob after sob she cries. You are unsure if it is wise to approach her. Strangers around children aren’t appreciated.
She is now kneeling on the grass and big drops of tears are falling onto her pretty little dress. You step closer and wave.
“Hello. What’s the matter? Are you lost?”
She swipes at her cheeks and looks up, blinking her blue eyes. Your heart aches.
“I can’t find my daddy.”
You squat beside her.
“If you don’t mind, I can wait with you till daddy returns. Would that make you feel better?”
She nods and returns to her toys. Within minutes the game expands to you. There is tea party and dressing up dolls.
She hears her name and bounces off to her dad. You feel silly sitting there with a pink teacup. You hop onto your legs and explain.
“She was sobbing. I got worried.”
The father smiles and stretches out a hand.
“Thanks man. She pushed the ball into the bushes, took me a while.”
He kisses her forehead and smiles again.
“Sorry sweetheart. Did you play with uncle while I was away?”
“Uhuh. He helped me with the tea party daddy.”
He looks at her fondly and you feel jealous. You want to have that look on your face. They wave and walk away.
The hole in your heart has renewed and you start beating the pavement again.
Running by the garden in the evening and stopping by that bench becomes a new routine. Saying hi and having an occasional cup of fake tea with Annie another routine. It fills a void you don’t know what to do with. Annie’s dad also doesn’t mind having a little respite from her kiddy games. He doesn’t know you could sell your soul for it.
That day Annie insists you come for an ice cream and her father obliges. The relationship strikes one as odd, but as at her birthday party you are the only 40-year-old friend she has invited.
What stuns you though is that they are the same father daughter you have stared at in the roman bungalow all these months. Could it amount to stalking?
Sadly, stalking Annie has become a fervent need. You are trying to wriggle a place in the little girl’s heart.
Many parents present at the party marvel at how the little girl tugs you around to meet her pals. They ask if you had a daughter Annie’s age and swallowing the fruit punch gets harder.
Annie too now looks out for you at the garden. You fall into a routine playing with her. Her father is okay with this. He probably was told about your loss, but you don’t want to confirm it for fear of sympathy in his eyes. The dolls, the teacups and little hands and feet keep you on your toes every evening. You look forward to nothing more than the time at the garden. The sound of Annie’s laughter when you twirl her around. The peanut jam sandwiches that you snack on together and the sunset that sends you apart only in anticipation of the next evening together. Who knew one could love like this.
This sweet thing continues for a few weeks till Annie’s dad has to move away for work. He breaks the news to you, and you stare at him agape.
“No! I mean you can’t!”
He is patient.
“I understand Annie is gonna miss you, but she has to move with us. You can come visit.”
But no matter what he says the pain of losing that girl is gripping your heart in a choke hold. You walk away without a word.
For countless days you stay at home. The dishes pile. The fresh laundry runs out. The food is catching fungus and the milk is spoilt. But nothing phases you from your comatose state of agony.
Life feels lackluster. Your colleagues are worried that you are again slipping down the rabbit hole. They try to take your mind off it. You are smoking relentlessly and are like a rabid animal around coworkers. Your mom complains of your long absences from family get – togethers, but you don’t give a flying f**k about it.
Every morning you wake up and stare at the mirror. Red eyes, baggy pockets under them, unshaved face, long hair, pale skin and bones jutting out. Is it possible to push yourself to die? Who knows. You are definitely trying to live through it all.
Your mom however puts her foot down. A fine Monday morning she is at your door. She berates you for the mess your house is in and has a near meltdown at your state. She lambasts the caretaker for listening to you and staying away.
“How long do you plan to lament for them. They are gone you aren’t. You are here and you need to live. You need to let go son. This grief is eating away at your soul, don’t you see?”
She looks away.
“I also lost your father that day. I have been lonely since. You withdrew and …” she stutters, “and I have not had anyone to lean on.”
The road below the window is bustling with people. The vehicles honking incessantly to make way in the morning rush. Every being has a purpose. Just you are lost you think. Your mom’s statement has gotten you thinking.
You are here they are not. Let go.
Is it really that easy, you wonder.
“I am not as strong as you.”
You sound like you are whining. Mom holds onto your shoulder.
“Give it time. It’s the best way to deal with trauma.”
With that she gets about setting things right. She gets rid of all the empty alcohol bottles. She dumps the fungus infested food and by evening the house looks normal. A hot meal is simmering on the stove and after a long time you relish your food.
You sleep well that night.
Next day morning mom takes leave but not before a word of advice. She cups your cheek and says,
“Move on. Live.”
You nod and shut the door. With new purpose in life your fire a mail to your office. You need a month-long leave. They will be upset with your absence, but you don’t care. You start surfing through trip packages, maybe a soulful trip to the Himalayas?
After about an hour you have booked a trip to Rishikesh, you have always wanted to see the Ganga, maybe the holy river would wash away your sorrows.
You step out and take a shopping list. The whole day flies by and you head back to your empty home. The darkness creeps in again. The vacancy brings the need to see Annie. Have they left already you wonder?
So, you lace up and hit the street again, slowing before Annie’s bungalow. What you see sends a shiver down your spine.
Several fire brigades and police vans are hovering around the compound. The pristine bungalow is engulfed in flames. Your heart stutters.
“No. No. NOOO!”
Your denial is lost in the cacophony. Weaving your way through the chaos, you catch hold of a fire official.
“The little girl, her family, in there.”
You can barely make sense.
The officer sighs irritated at the interruption.
“The whole house has wood paneling. The fire spread like a snake. They did rescue someone on the east side.”
Before his sentence is finished you take off running. The east side the fire has been put out. The once majestic pillars now resemble a black ruin. The paramedics are wheeling someone in. You trip over people as you struggle to reach the ambulance.
Its Annie wrapped in a blanket.
“Is she. Is she alright?”
The paramedic is annoyed.
“Sir please move we need to rush her to the hospital.”
You step forward.
“Let me come along.”
She holds out a hand.
“Are you family?”
They push past you.
“Then you can’t accompany her. Now if you will excuse us.”
The siren comes to life, and you run behind the ambulance. You run like you never have. By the time you arrive at the hospital she has been wheeled into surgery. Your lungs are burning, and you gasp for breath leaning against the reception.
A nurse subjects you to a questioning once over.
“That. Little. Surgery.”
“Oh. You a relative sir?”
This time you are smart.
Her smile is sympathetic. You don’t like it.
“Please follow me.”
She takes you to a waiting room and hands you some forms. One of them is a consent for surgery.
You are stunned. You may have lied to get entry, but you couldn’t be the one to decide whether Annie goes under the knife or not. You leave the form on a chair and bail.
A month passes by, but you haven’t dared to go find out about Annie. You don’t want to face any fact regarding her for now.
A knock on the door breaks your reverie and you peep through the eye hole. Its an officer with the police. You open the door.
“May I help you officer?”
The officer looks down at a pad in his hand and back at your face.
“Are you John Mascarenas?”
“Sir we need you at the police station.”
You gulp. What now?
You pick your keys and head out.
The police station isn’t far, and the building is bustling with people, probably potential criminals and cops. You enter the station and the officer gestures for you to wait. You are then guided to a cabin where on a huge wooden chair is sitting a frail Annie.
Her head is in bandages and her face looks pale. She is hugging a half burnt unicorn and her eyes bear a haunted look.
Your heart breaks. Where is that priceless smile?
You kneel down and wait as instructed by the officer. Her eyes finally settle on you. Moisture gathers in them and tears flow. She limps over. The minutes she takes to reach you are excruciating, but the officer has insisted that she needs to recognize you.
She stands before you her eyes questioning your odd behavior.
Her voice cracks.
You hug her immediately. And she clings to you as if her life depends on it. You hold her till her sobs subside. You settle onto a chair with her in your lap. The senior officer presiding over this scene finally speaks.
“Annie Mendonca, daughter of Aden Mendonca and Lily Mendonca.”
“In the past month Annie has been in childcare and we tried our best to locate any living relatives. However, what we discovered was that her father was an orphan and her mother had lost her parents. In the month no other living relative has come forward to claim responsibility. Lily here however gave us your name and it took us a week to track you down.”
He pauses on a small smile. Annie’s grip on your sleeve tightens.
“She says she wants to go to your house. However, she is a child and we weren’t sure of your role in her family. You aren’t a relative I suppose.”
I shake my head.
“I am a friend of her father’s. Annie plays with me daily.”
The officer’s brow creases.
“Any way, would you take responsibility for this child. If so, childcare will complete the further formalities.”
You look down at the little girl curled in your lap. Are you ready for this? You take a minute too long to answer. But you know there is only one answer.
You carry Annie home that day along with a lady officer who would watch over her till she is formally handed over to you. You don’t give a flying f**k. You have a second chance at life and you aren’t going to jeopardize it.
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