I’ll Be There For You

I’ll Be There For You

Xanadu, 2200 A.D.

I’ll be there for you

When the rain starts to pour

I’ll be there for you

Like I’ve been there before

Every night, Mummy used to play Nana Phoebe’s guitar, rendering the lyrics in her mellifluous voice. This song was from hundreds of years ago, but its words? Timeless. Daddy, Ephraim, and I would listen enraptured. This was my family’s special routine. Until that fatal night.

That night, my thirteen-year-old brother was taken forcibly away by the Fort Guard. They wanted to make him one of theirs. It was hard to imagine sweet Ephraim transforming into a masked figure that spread terror. Mummy was devastated.

“He’s gone, Elly. My little boy is never coming back.”

She stopped singing after that. But then, it didn’t matter anymore. Music was banned by the Commander, the head of the Fort Guard, and the ruler of Xanadu.

Any form of art was considered frivolous, and a waste of time. To reinforce his point, the Commander executed artists, writers, and musicians. The message was loud and clear. Obey. Else risk being shot by the Fort Guard’s laser guns. 

Death by laser was instantaneous. The bodies were dragged away, with gaping holes in the places where their hearts should have been. Ironically, under the Commander’s tyranny, Xanadu was like that too. A vast realm with an empty heart. 

Ten years later

It hadn’t always been like this. Daddy told me all about it when I was older.

Once upon a time, Xanadu was ruled by a government, that was incapable, callous, and avaricious. When a deadly outbreak started claiming lives, pandemonium ensued. Citizens lost faith in the government.

The Commander and his troops landed in Xanadu from lands afar. Little was known of their origin. He promised a cure for the virus. People believed him. The disease was eradicated, and he became a messiah, overnight. Just as the celebrations began, we learned something the hard way. Nothing comes for free. Once saviour, now scourge.

The Commander executed government officials and established his sovereignty. He fortified his army. His men were trained in deadly futuristic warfare. They patrolled Xanadu and HQ, the Commander’s official residence. HQ was an iron fort; hence the name ‘Fort Guard’.

Borders were sealed, and we remained ignorant of the rest of the world. At school, all we learned was warfare and strategy, and how magnanimous the Commander was. We could worship no God, other than him.

Daddy would have none of this. He tutored me at night, by the light of the lantern. We couldn’t risk switching on brighter lights, lest it drew the Fort Guard to us, like iron filings to a magnet.

“Don’t fill her head with stories. I can’t lose my daughter too!” Mummy beseeched Daddy.

She believed my ignorance would protect me. Because knowledge is power, and power is dangerous.

***

Keep your head down and move.

The tracker on my leg beeped, reminding me to go home. One hour to curfew. There was a team at HQ that tracked coordinates. Once curfew started, if our coordinates differed from our home addresses, we would be shot dead. The masked Fort Guards cut a formidable sight in their dark black uniforms with numbers imprinted on their cloaks. Gunfire in the streets? Normal. Things had gotten progressively worse over the last ten years.

The deluded Commander advertised that he had given Xanadu the gift of equality and progress. He assigned tasks to everyone. We were allocated monthly rations. As long as we abided by the rules, we were safe. But the minutest of details of our lives was tracked and controlled. We were like machines operating mechanically. Anyone with an opinion was gunned down.

My thoughts took me to Ephraim. My big brother. He had golden hair and blue eyes, just like me. We had no news of his whereabouts, not since that night. If he were with us today, he would be twenty-three. But he was here. Somewhere. Behind those formidable masks.

The Fort Guard snatched young boys at random. They called it the induction program. It began with electric shock therapy to wipe out memories, conditioning them into killing machines for the Commander. Fortunately for me, girls were considered weak and spared. I’m seventeen and have been assigned to my internship as a seamstress. This profession was deemed womanly enough for me, despite not having the slightest inclination. 

Is being alive but damaged, better than being free but dead?

I reached home and glanced at the food on the table. Spinach and rice. Again. The ration for the month. I knew better than to complain. Even the walls had ears. When I was young, Mummy used to say, “Don’t make a fuss. Monsters will come.” Now? They actually came.

There was a commotion outside. We peeked through the window, and gasped. Aunt May, our neighbour was standing outside. She was clutching her toddler to her hip and pleading with one of the Guards, a macabre figure in a hideous cloak.

“It’s curfew time. What is she doing?” I whispered anxiously.

“Please. I need to see a doctor. My baby is running a fever,” she begged.

The Fort Guard shook his head. Aunt May sobbed. She made a mad dash for it. A bright flash of green. A shriek, a whimper. Two figures on the ground, lifeless. I wanted to scream, but Daddy cupped my mouth.

That night I couldn’t sleep thinking of what had happened to Aunt May. Behind the Guard’s mask, it could have been anyone. Even Ephraim.

Was my brother also a cold-blooded murderer? 

***

The town was plastered with fliers.

Citizens of Xanadu are invited to National Day celebrations! Our illustrious Commander will grace the occasion with his presence. Attendance is mandated.

I sighed. On National Day, the executions would be public, replete with last-minute wishes and fanfare. The Commander would be there, with specter in hand, donning his oversized mask, and his equally oversized ego.

I wish he dropped dead.

***

When I reached home, I found Ben, my best friend waiting for me. He pushed the wheels of his wheelchair towards me, as I squealed and hugged him. Ben was crippled from birth. But what the maker took away in terms of mobility, he compensated for, by bestowing him with an oversized brain. Ben was a computer whiz and a genius. He currently studied programming.

“Mummy, Ben and I are going to the basement to hang out, OK?”

“Watch the time.”

The basement was where we stored our old stuff. Ben and I liked this place because we could talk freely. It was soundproof and too dingy and dark for the Fort Guard to drop by. We felt safe there. Daddy fitted a ramp to the basement, and Ben’s wheelchair went through.

Like me, Ben is seventeen. This gave me nightmares. In a year, Ben would turn eighteen and be assessed by the Fort Guard. Any man unfit to fight was assessed incompetent and a waste of resources. Since he was differently-abled, he would most likely be executed. A lump formed in my throat. I would lose Ben, just like Ephraim. Why do the people I love, leave me? To comfort myself, I started humming.

Your mother warned you there’d be days like these

But she didn’t tell you when the world has brought

You down to your knees

I’ll be there for you

My eyes teared up.

“Earth to Ellster!”

I looked at Ben’s worried face.

“I’m OK. Just thinking about Ephraim.”

“Ellster, I want to tell you a secret. I’m trying to hack into HQ.”

“What? Ben, you could be executed for even suggesting that.”

“We are all going to be lasered down someday. Why not have some fun along the way?”

I shook my head in exasperation.

“I can search for the mapping database. That way, we can find out which one of those freaks is Ephraim.”

My eyes widened like saucers.

“Ben, it’s too dangerous.”

I heard steps from above. Had the Fort Guard heard us? The footsteps drew closer. I held my breath. A shadow fell on the floor.

“Elly, Ben. One hour to curfew. Hurry up.” It was Daddy. Phew!

Daddy left, and I turned back. In my relief, I didn’t see where I was going. I stumbled over a heavy box. Something that was wrapped in layers of protective clothing. I wasn’t supposed to go rummaging around; mummy forbade it. Today, I was feeling particularly rebellious, and unwrapped the box. Out of the layers emerged a guitar case, and a diary.

“Ben! This is Nana Phoebe’s guitar! She was my maternal ancestor, and a famous musician.”

Mummy had somehow preserved both the guitar and the diary all these years with special chemicals.

“The Diary has notes and drawings. Like how to position your fingers to play chords on the guitar. You curl your fingers like a bear claw, turkey leg, or old lady! Wow, Nana Phoebe must have been a genius!”

Ben watched my child-like enthusiasm with amusement.

“She also wrote lyrics. There is a song about a cat. And look, here is the ‘I’ll be there for you song’. I love this one. It reminds me, that I am not alone.”

“I’ll be there for you, Ellster,” Ben said quietly.

I pecked him on the cheek impulsively. He turned scarlet-red. I wrapped the guitar back again. Mummy would freak out if she discovered my mutiny. I would sneak into the basement and practice some other time.

When I sang, I felt complete.

***

HQ, Fort Guard Barracks, 1:00 AM

He woke up sweating. It was the third time in six months that he had that dream. Faces. Laughter. Deep blue eyes. A song that kept playing again and again. He shut his ears, hoping it went away. 

He couldn’t report this to his medical officer. They would assess him unfit and possibly execute him. Or pass high-intensity beams to recondition him. This was just a phase.

***

Ben and I were in the basement again. Mummy and Daddy had gone out. It was just us, in our little world. And Nana Phoebe’s guitar. I had mastered the song using her instructions.

No one could ever know me

No one could ever see me

Seems you’re the only one who knows

What it’s like to be me

I’ll be there for you

“Ellster, that’s beautiful. Now, I have a surprise for you.”

“You hacked into the impenetrable HQ?”

“Impenetrable no more!”

“But how?”

“Turns out that while these hooded hoodlums have their brains zapped out, their manly desires are very much intact. I sent them clickbait, and when they clicked, my tracker programs entered the HQ network, surreptitiously. My files multiplied until they reached what we were looking for. Once I got what I wanted, the programs self-destructed, leaving no trace.”

“What did you find out?” I asked fearfully.

“This and that. Some classified stuff on laser-gun design. And then the database. Ephraim is Captain now. Number 63.”

We found him! I was still processing this

Ben warned me in low tones.

“Elly, I’m not sure what to expect. Listen, National Day is just around the corner. Let’s see if we can get to 63. If you spot him, hover around. See if he recognizes you. If he doesn’t, walk away. Be careful. It is execution season.”

I couldn’t share this with my parents. There was no saying how they would react.

“I want Ephraim back, Ben.”

“Close your eyes and imagine all four of you, humming your song together.”

I did and felt stronger immediately.

“Ben, what do you dream of?”

“I want to get away to some place far and write code for rockets. I want to go to outer space and float weightlessly, without a wheelchair.”

I squeezed his hands.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

***

It was the morning of National Day. I woke up with trepidation. For the past few days, whenever I passed a Fort Guard, I tried to peek at their number. I never found 63. 

We dressed in formal clothes and got ready. Mummy’s face was ashen.

“We are a group of three, and I want us to return as three.”

As we set off, I noticed a jeep pass by. It was filled with petrified men and women, identified for public execution. In it, was a young girl, about four or five. She seemed excited, as though she were going on an adventure. She waved happily at us.

How blissful are these innocents, unaware of their fates?

We assumed our seats in the giant stadium that teemed with Fort Guards.

“I’m going to sit with Ben.”

“Elly, it isn’t safe.”

“Ben is going to turn eighteen this year. And then…..” I pouted.

My emotional blackmail worked.

“Alright, just be careful. Be back soon.”

I made my way down to the row where Ben was seated in his wheelchair.

“Ben, any luck?”

“No, I haven’t spotted 63 yet. But I will keep my eyes open.”

The stadium brimmed with people, anxious for the event to get over. The Fort Guards sounded their guns in the air. We rose. 

The Commander arrived, dressed in full regalia, wearing a silver mask, and extravagant black robes. In his hand rested his specter; on it was mounted a giant green stone that shone exuberantly. He always carried it with him. It symbolized his supremacy. He strode to the stage with authority, and seated himself on an iron throne, ready to commence his ceremonial address.

I missed most of it because I was busy scanning the stadium. The Commander went on and on about how Xanadu was paradise, and crime rates were low.

Low crime? What a joke!

There was thunderous applause when he concluded. Fear is a strong motivator.

“You aren’t supposed to be sitting here!”

A Fort Guard walked over to us.

“Sorry. She is going now.” Ben interjected.

“Did I upset wheelchair Romeo?” the Guard mocked.

Anger coursed through my veins. I got up to leave. But the Guard seemed to have other plans.

“You are quite a looker, aren’t you? Want to have some fun, baby?”

“I rather stick my head in a gutter,” I hissed back.

The Guard grabbed my arm. I resisted and pushed him.

“I arrest you for dissent. You will be publicly executed.”

“She is innocent!” Ben screamed.

“You as well. For collusion.”

“If I am going to be executed, take this!” I punched the Guard, hoping to break his nose. Within five seconds, Ben and I were surrounded. Game over. We were jostled to the stage to join the queue for execution. I dared not look behind. 

Had Mummy seen any of thisGosh, how had this day spiralled downward so quickly? Why couldn’t I just control my temper? I hadn’t located Ephraim, and poor Ben was trapped. And now, I was going to die.

I held my head high, but the tears fell, fast and furious.

Ben looked at me and mouthed, “I’ll be there for you.” 

I smiled through my tears. Suddenly, his facial expression changed. He yelled, “Ellster, on stage, look.”

“Quiet!”

One of the Fort Guards hit Ben in the ribs with the tip of his gun, causing him to double over in pain. I looked up. There, on stage, next to the Commander, with a laser gun in hand, stood, 63. I had found him! But did he want to be found?

“Ephraim!” I screamed. The man didn’t budge.

“Eph……”

“Execute her first. She is too noisy!” ordered the Commander.

I shot him a look of pure hatred, as we were dragged to the stage. I stood face-to-face with 63.

“Ephraim. Remember me? I’m your sister!” I pleaded, hoping for a faint flick of recognition.

No response.

“Any last wishes?” The Commander sneered.

“Yes. I want to sing a song.” I blurted.

 Someone retorted, “music is banned.”

“Yes, but they can’t execute me twice, right?” I snapped back.

I grabbed the microphone on the stage. 63 lifted his gun, but the commander held up his hand. 

“Feisty!” he chuckled. That ugly toad.

“Daddy, Mummy, Ben. I love you with all my heart. And Ephraim, deep down, I know you are in there. Come back and save me. Please.”

I began singing,

I’ll be there for you

When the rain starts to pour

I’ll be there for you

Like I’ve been there before

I’ll be there for you

The crowd listened, transfixed. Some had forgotten what music was. They swayed to the sound of my voice.

“Enough!” The Commander yelled.

I stole one last glance at 63. He hadn’t changed his stance. My efforts had been futile. This was it. The end. I was going to die at the hands of the brother I tried to save. I thought of my poor parents. One child of theirs a murderer, the other, the murdered. Which was more painful to watch?

63 lifted his gun. I closed my eyes. Two shots were fired, and a body crumpled. I opened my eyes in panic. If this was death, why did I feel so alive?

The Commander’s body lay on the floor, lifeless. The shots had killed him, not me. He had a gaping hole where his head should have been. No one would ever know how he looked.

63 took off his mask. Hair longer, face hardened. But the bright blue eyes that I loved so much? Still the same.

“Elly?”

Ephraim remembered! Overcome with emotion, I ran towards him and hugged him. My song had brought him back from the dark abyss he was submerged in. Take that, stupid conditioning!

“Are you OK, Elly?”

“I am now, Ephraim.”

But, what of the crowd? Mesmerized by my song, they continued humming, defiantly. As if they didn’t care anymore. ‘I’ll be there for you’, reverberated throughout the stadium. 

Meanwhile, chaos erupted. The Fort Guard had lost their leader. The Guards raised their guns to fire. Ephraim held me protectively. Was this how our story ended?

Ben wheeled up to the headless body of the commander. He grabbed the specter-staff, which had fallen to the ground. With all his force, he smashed the specter, against the metal of the throne. The stone shattered into smithereens.

“Ben, why?”

The sound of frantic clicking could be heard. The laser guns weren’t firing.

“Ellster, the laser guns have crystals in them. They can be activated only by the central crystal in the Commander’s specter. He kept it as a safety provision in case his army turned on him. But Ephraim caught him unawares and blew out his brains without any preamble.”

“How did you know?”

“I hacked the database, remember? I found the gun design, but I wasn’t sure where the central control was. A lucky guess, maybe?”

Lucky guess indeed. It saved us from being massacred.

The citizens realized that the Fort Guard was powerless. The angry mob started thrashing them. 

“Ephraim, Ben! We have to leave, now!”

After hours of rioting, things came to a standstill. People were tired of violence. They wanted to build a new future. 

***

An interim government was formed by the Citizens of Xanadu. They promised not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. The Fort Guard expressed the desire to integrate back into society. Despite their conditioning, they were tired of the reign of terror and eager to start new lives. A tribunal was set up to assess their fates.

Ephraim was brought to trial. He had done terrible things. But can you blame someone who was radicalized at the tender age of thirteen? The tribunal decided to let him live. However, he was exiled to an island off the coast.

Our family relocated to join him. We didn’t care if we stayed in Xanadu or Timbuktu. As long as we were together, it didn’t matter. My parents looked relaxed, after a long time.

Two months later

I’m taking a gap year. I need to help Ephraim heal. He was subjected to unspeakable horrors. He wrestles with grief and guilt and has frequent nightmares. We have to build him back, brick by brick.

“Elly, when is your boyfriend coming to say goodbye?” Daddy teased. I blushed.

“Ben is coming tomorrow to visit, before he flies off to California, for his internship with SpaceX.”

“She doesn’t deny it. Ah, young love…”

That earned a chuckle from Ephraim. It was good to see him smile. 

Daddy lit a campfire for us. Ephraim and I lay on our backsides on the grass, admiring the starlit sky, and tracing contours of different constellations with our fingers. Mummy had her guitar with her. She sang.

So no one told you life was gonna be this way

When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month

Or even your year, but…

I’ll be there for you

Like I’ve been there before

I’ll be there for you.

We hummed along, feeling content, and loved, as the stars twinkled above.
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Author’s Note:

  1. “I’ll be there for you’ is a song by American pop rock duo, the Rembrandts. This was used as the theme song for the sitcom Friends. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-9kPks0IfE
  2. Here is Phoebe’s Guitar tutorial for music enthusiasts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFmiz3cvCcY

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One thought on “I’ll Be There For You

  1. Very engaging story. Emotions of all kinds were stirred up. The story had all the elements of a good story: suspense, romance, love and care.

    Two things got me pondering though:-

    1) Under such a tight security Elly could show and act such a big defiance. She could have stopped right at the beginning.
    2) I felt like Ben and Elly didn’t get a proper closure.

    At the end I felt like I read something I can say I really loved it. You have done a great job Lalitha.

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