By: Padmini Krishnan
“Sammy, our new housemaid is a guy.”
I put my piano practice book down and looked at my 9-year old brother, Rex, trying to absorb what he said. “Are you kidding me? There are no male housemaids.”
“Maybe he is the first then. I hope he is not too bossy.” Rex fingered his curly hair. He was a little tall for his age and thin but looked a little girly, not that I was going to tell him that. He began bouncing his tennis ball on the creaky bedroom wall.
“Rex, can you stop that?” I raised my voice without meaning to. Rex looked at me, a hurt expression in his eyes, and quickly slapped his cheek.
I knew this routine and fear spread through me. “Stop it. I am sorry.” Rex dropped the ball and opened his drawing note without looking at me. Otherwise amicable, Rex slapped or tried to hurt himself whenever we objected to any of his doings. Mom and I were always scared and tried to pacify him, but dad was stricter and asked us to just let him be.
I sat in the bed and looked at the melting moon. I imagined it trickling down and tasting like white creamy chocolate. Loud voices broke into my dreams. My parents were arguing again. They had been struggling with the chores ever since our previous helper left. We ate out most of the time. But, the worst of it was taking care of my bedridden grandpa. They got into frequent fights, the intensity of which left me and Rex scared. Rex always cuddled close to me during those big fights, making me feel like a responsible older sister.
I slept soon afterward; I was getting used to sleeping amidst loud voices. “He is here,” my brother whispered, waking me up the next morning. I peeped to see a guy of medium height and a chalk-white face, chopping some carrots. He stopped his work at the sound of my footsteps, turned to me, and smiled, “Hi, I am Aiban. Here is some hot chocolate for you and your brother.”
“I haven’t brushed yet.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” he whispered. He just looked around 4 or 5 years older than me.
“Why is your face so pale?” Rex asked slurping his chocolate. I stomped his foot, angrily.
Aiban smiled again; I thought he looked a little sad. “I am anemic. I never had much to eat in my country.”
“Where are you from?”
“That is enough, Rex,” Mom called out.
Later, we learned that Aiban was from Carman Islands, a place near the Philippines. They were one of the poorest nations on earth, Aiban said. However, the only good thing about that country was that the education was free. “I have done my MBA in finance”, Aiban said. I saw dad looking open-mouthed at Aiban, his bedroom door, slightly ajar. Mom raised her eyebrows, impressed.
I have to admit that Aiban’s arrival made things more organized. Mom and dad were more relaxed and there was a change in Rex’s attitude too. One day, Rex had to write a book report for his English class.
“May I help? I got an ‘A’ last week for my English book review.” I reached a hand for his book.
Rex drew the book away, “I can do it myself.”
Within a few minutes, he had crumpled 10 sheets of paper, throwing it around the room.
“You are making a mess, Rex,” I said, looking up from my math homework. “Horrible.”
“Oh. Stop it. I will clean it up later.” He sang. Surprised, I looked at his face. He seemed cheerful instead of getting upset or beating himself. I told mom of his normal behavior and she seemed happy. “Ever since Aiban came to our house, everything is going right, isn’t it?”
“And the food is super tasty too.”
“I am sure it is.” said dad. Although he was happy at this turn of events, I somehow got the feeling that he did not like Aiban. “Imagine having an MBA and working as a helper in someone’s house.”
His words rang in my mind and I asked my friend, Sheridan, if he had heard of Carman Islands.
“No, but I know Carmen in our class and she is sooooo cool.” He sighed, loudly. Carmen turned back to stare at him.
“What is it, Sheridan?” asked Mr. Kaul, moving away from the topic of rainforests.
“Sir, it is Julia,” said Sheridan, hesitating. “She says there is a poor country called Carmen Islands near the Philippines.”
Mr. Kaul looked at me, “Do you mean Cayman Islands, Julia? It is not in Asia.”
“No, Mr. Kaul. I know someone who comes from Carmen Islands next to the Philippines.”
“Philippines does not share a border with any place named Carmen Islands. I thought you knew better.”
Before I could ponder on that, I realized that the period was over and I had forgotten my Math notebook for the next hour.
“What is up, Julia? You forgot your colors yesterday and now it is your math notebook.” Sheridan drawled in an irritating low voice.
I felt highly exhausted after reaching home and slumped down on my chair.
“Hey Julia,” Aiban called out in a cheerful voice. “Hot chocolate?”
That was what I needed. I smiled despite my tiredness and reached for the chocolate, which seemed even more delicious if that was possible. Aiban smiled back, his face looked fresh and his skin, having lost his anemic pallor over the last month, was now light brown.
Just as I began to doze with exhaustion, I noticed Rex dragging himself out with his basketball. “Hey, stop.”
Rex rubbed his eyes and turned to me with a question on his face.
“Is there a new rule that you should not wear pants during basketball practice?”
Rex looked down, flushed, and ran inside. He came out in two minutes, surprise and annoyance in his face. “I don’t know how I forgot my pants.”
I woke up, feeling a little better. It was still dark. I was surprised that I had napped from 6 in the evening to 4 am. I hurriedly checked for homework, then put my math and geography notes in the bag. There was only English left to be done.
“Milo or cinnamon tea?” Aiban stood there.
“Wow. How did you wake so early?”
“I am always up by 4 am.” His smile was different now as if he was trying to permeate into my mind through my eyes.
I shook my head, “Cinnamon…”
“Milo.” My brother cried sleepily. He was asleep on the small sofa, still wearing his track pants from practice.
I completed my two pages of homework with a sense of urgency that I did not understand. I had three more hours to get ready and I was sure that I would not sleep. As soon as I put the math book inside and zipped my bag, Aiban returned with steaming cups. Thirst warring with hunger, I took the tea while Rex came alive to devour the milo. I woke at 8 am to my parents’ chatter.
“I had missed some important figures in office. It was right in front of my eyes.” My dad told mom, anxiety in his voice.
“I left my wallet at home yesterday when I went grocery shopping.”
I hurriedly showered and dressed for school. I stood outside the classroom during the history and French lessons, as I had forgotten the history report and French project.
“What happened, Julia? Why have you become so careless over the past two weeks?” Sheridan, asked, no longer drawling.
I went home, tired as was the case over the past two weeks. “Rex”, my dad called me. “Sorry, it is you, Julia,” he scratched his head. “Rex hasn’t returned from school. He should have come back an hour ago.”
Mom sat at her chair, her head on the work desk, dozing. I felt a chill in my stomach as nobody seemed to be in a hurry to search for Rex. I dialed his best friend John’s number. John’s mom informed me that her son had returned from school an hour ago. I heard John’s panicky voice saying that Rex too had started an hour ago. Why didn’t I feel the restlessness that my brother’s friend did? My parents were immobile as my fingers slowly searched his diary for his principal’s number. I did not know when I dozed but woke up to the sound of the calling bell. It was our neighbor, Mr. Mirza.
Aiban had already opened the door.
Rex was standing there with Mr. Mirza; he seemed disoriented.
Mr. Mirza looked at me, “I saw Rex wandering in the bus interchange.” His eyes darted around the rooms as if he was looking for my parents. “I got suspicious as he couldn’t answer me on where he wanted to go. So I brought him home.”
“You can leave him here,” Aiban said, authority in his voice. Despite my dazed state of mind, I noticed his majestic demeanor and the lack of defiance that he usually displayed.
Mr. Mirza hesitated, “May I know where Rex’s parents are?”
“They have gone out, sir, leaving me in charge of the kids for 2 hours.” Aiban lied with confidence. I opened my mouth to refute what he said and wanted to run to the living room to talk to Mr. Mirza, but I felt too exhausted to move. For a moment, I even wanted to believe Aiban and felt that he was telling the truth. But I had just seen my parents inside. Why wouldn’t dad come out and refute Aiban’s claims?
Mr. Mirza stared at me for a moment, hesitating. He looked from me to Rex, apparently concerned by our ‘state’. Then he slowly excused himself and walked away. I heard the door close and Aiban was standing in front of me, “Hot chocolate, Julia?”
My mouth salivated at the sound of these words and I nodded.
“Me too,” said Rex, slumping into the sofa.
“For everyone,” sang Aiban in a gross voice. I felt sick as he brought the beverage to us. Rex gulped the contents down and proceeded to sleep. I did not remember the last time he did his homework or visited a friend’s house. Ignoring my thirst, I looked for a place to throw away the beverage. The room I shared with Rex did not have an attached bathroom. Too scared to go to the master toilet, I poured the contents into the money plant in the corner of our room. I did not know when I fell asleep, but I woke up to the feeling of hunger gnawing my stomach. I turned to the window to see black leaves on a thin stem. With shock, I realized that it was our money plant. The thin stem stood on a pot that was empty of soil.
I walked to the kitchen, thankful that I did not drink my hot chocolate. I would check for something to eat and get out. Perhaps I could go to my friend, Nancy’s house or Mr. Mirza’s place and let them know of the strange happenings here. However, with the fatigue I felt, I wondered if I could make it all the way. As I went closer to the kitchen, I could hear dad whispering something in his room. Aiban cocked his head to one side, listening intently. He smiled, his teeth were well-aligned but strangely cruel. He reminded me of some animal. I saw a colorless powder near sugar. Aiban mixed it in the boiling kettle.
I slowly walked out of the front door and stood in the streets, wondering about the way to Nancy’s house when I saw Aiban walking out of the door. He crossed the street to reach the subway. I dropped my idea of seeking help and followed him in the dark corridors of the subway. Curiosity overcame my exhaustion as I saw Aiban descending the steps. Did the subway lead to another underground? I found myself walking in circles as tiredness slipped away from me like a worn-out shirt. We came to a brightly lit area that smelled of earth.
I felt something heavy on my shoulders as I walked. It was my school bag. I wondered why I had brought it along. Shrugging, I found myself following Aiban into what looked like a tunnel.
“Dr. Flailey, here you are,” a tall man called out to Aiban. I stood hidden, trying to get around the fact that Aiban was a doctor. Their conversation sounded like voices from a well.
“What is the condition of the subjects, Dr. Flailey?”
“Forgetful and confused.”
“Still no improvement?” The tall man raised his voice, “When will they reach the last stage of the process?”
“It seems to take more time than expected.” Aiban’s voice was curt. “This is the first time we are testing Cholofa. You should remember that this family is an experiment.”
“And did you forget that the higher command wanted us to be done with this family by the end of the month and start community spread by the next month?” The tall man almost shouted.
“Do you think I am not trying my best? Cholofa in hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and every beverage you can think of. I am trying to infect them in every way possible. I agreed to test myself for a month before setting out to this country. Do you suspect my integrity, officer?”
The ‘officer’ looked regretful. “I am sorry, Dr. Flailey. The high command has been pressurizing us. The time allotted for this state is three months before we spread it to the rest of the country.”
Aiban looked a little pacified. “The boy is responding as expected and the parents are on their way to the final stage. I am confused with the girl though. She is exhausted for sure but shows unexpected signs of intelligence. Sometimes, I worry if she is catching on to me.”
“How old is she?”
My heart thudded in my ears. “Around 13 or 14,” Aiban replied.
“Wait till she gets her share of Cholodol.” Both men looked at each other and smiled.
What was this Cholodol? I reached my hand to hold the nearest wall, more out of fear than weakness.
“How is the progress of Cholodol?”
The officer and Aiban walked forward and I followed in the shadows, fearful of my footsteps. I need not have feared, for there was a deafening noise as machines operated, churning out some brown powder. For the first time, I felt nauseated at the strong smell of chocolate. Some men stood in the corner, collecting the chocolate powder in small packs. Then they proceeded to add some white powder to it. Aiban took a pack and smelled it. With the white and the black powders mixed, a delicious odor spread through the area and I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to grab the mixture and devour its contents. The officer took some powder and raised it to this mouth. Aiban slapped his hand and the contents fell to the floor. The two of them and I, from my hidden place, watched in fascination as the contents slowly scattered on the floor, changing the color of the dark ground into delicious, poisonous brown. A man quickly came and mopped the floor, but the brown color remained intact. He poured a detergent with a strong odor to mop with force, but the color did not fade. I did not listen to Aiban’s conversation with the officer as I stared at the floor. My body shook as the full impact of Cholodol and its predecessor Cholofa stuck me. I turned back and saw two armed men walking around. I felt giddy as I sat down. I was not sure if I could escape this tunnel without being killed. Even I managed to escape, what was the guarantee that I would remember everything? I opened my bag, took my English notebook and wrote down whatever I had seen. I wondered if the impact of Cholofa on people lessened if they did not consume it for days. Aiban had confessed to taking it and he seemed normal now. Or did it have an antidote? I held my notebook close to my heart and prayed. And then I heard them. Familiar, light footsteps creeping closer and closer…My heart started beating in a strange rhythm as I dropped my notebook.
Padmini Krishnan writes free verse poetry, haiku, and short stories. Her works have appeared in Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Stonecrop Review, Cafe Lit. Journal and Potato Soup Journal among others.