Monday, 2 January 2012

Unlived




“The moon can claim me now”, Joshua said as he let the gun fall down from his limp hand. Insanity smouldered in his eyes before it consumed his whole body.
     I felt scared to go near him, and just watched everything through his open window. The cops had a hard time to drag him through the front yard and across the road. I thought how fast my friend had become a stranger to me, as they struggled to get him inside the jeep. I never imagined Joshua contained so much wild energy within his thin frame and delicate features.
     I just wished Karim and David were here. It was the second time that I was forced to witness the dreadful transformation of Joshua, all by myself. They too would have been shocked to inaction by all this, but I thought it would have made a difference if I were not left alone to experience so much. 
*****
Was it just two weeks ago that we celebrated Joshua’s Birthday? He was so excited then, and so uncharacteristically boisterous. “Just three more years to be twenty one, and I’ll be free then!” he shouted many times, in between the wine and cakes.
     Our flat was so close to the university that we found it very convenient to either walk or cycle our way there. The town was just ten minutes away by bus. Joshua was the only one with a car. He was a law student, while the three of us were doing journalism.
     After the birthday hangover, Joshua seemed to get back to his gloomy self once again. We were all waiting for Friday to go to a party thrown by our common friends, but Joshua made an excuse early in the morning that he had an unforeseen appointment with an old friend. The way in which he said this didn’t leave any space for more questions, from any of us. Joshua was that way – he knew how to get in and out of conversations, on his own terms.
     When I came in that night I found Joshua’s door open, and the lights were on as well. I was dead tired, and didn’t feel like confronting him at this hour. As I walked noiselessly to my room, his cat meowed from the sofa in the hall. I stopped. Now, this was quite uncharacteristic. If Joshua was in his room, his cat should also be there. I retraced my steps towards his door, as the cat followed me silently. I knocked on the door and called out to him, but there was no response. As I looked in through the door, I noticed a trail of blood on the floor, starting from under his bed. My heart skipped a beat as I stood there, not knowing what to do next.  All the others were still at the party. If it wasn’t for my usual headache, I wouldn’t have come back earlier.       
     The wise thing I should have done was to call someone from my cell phone. But I was so confused and scared that I just went where my feet took me. What I realised next was that I was in his room. My blood curdled. A stranger was sitting on Joshua’s chair, leafing through one of the university texts on the table. He was a pale skinned, middle aged man, who was too trashy to be considered Joshua’s old friend, or the brother in town he talked about. The man smiled at me and put down the text on the table. Then he scratched his dark beard and waited for me to say something.
     I cleared my throat and tried to speak. “W...where is Joshua?”
     “He’s taking a shower. We just had an accident while coming back from town. He cut his leg and said he needed to wash.” He said this in a casual manner, ignoring the pool of blood near the bed. I noticed more of it on the bed, and the sheets were badly stained as well. The reddish footprints that led to the bathroom were like thick brushstrokes, as if the feet were dragged through the floor.
     “But, there is a lot of blood here. Was it a serious accident? He must be taken to the hospital.”
     “There’s no need for that.” He said, as he stood up. I noticed that he was a hefty man, probably a six-footer. I listened carefully for some noise from the bathroom, but it was so silent that I started doubting the stranger. He moved towards the door.
     “I’ve got to go now. You must clean the floor before that gets dried up. What a mess!” he said, and moved swiftly to the front door, opened it, and walked across the road to his car. I stood there like an idiot, unable to say something or stop him there.
     “Joshua”, I called out loudly as I moved towards the bathroom. When I tried to knock on the door, I noticed that it was not bolted. I opened it and looked inside, just to realise that it was not Joshua who lay on the floor, motionless and bleeding profusely.
     I hurried back to the hall, sat on the sofa, and tried calling David. His phone was switched off. When I started to dial Karim, Joshua’s cat started to rub his side on my shoes. I didn’t have the heart to kick it away, though I hated cats. The poor creature looked unsettled now. I didn’t even know what Joshua called it.
     “Hello...Hello John, have you reached home?” Karim shouted at the other end, through the noise in the party
     “Karim, come home immediately. Bring David too. Something has happened to Joshua.” I managed to say.
     “What? What happened to Joshua?”
     “I don’t know. He’s not here, but there is a lot of blood in his room...” I told him the rest of what I saw. “Come here fast. I can’t manage this.”
     “Call the police.”
     “Okay, I’ll do that.” I hung the phone and stood up. I felt so uneasy that I walked into Joshua’s room again. The sight of the blood made me sick this time. I wanted to have a closer look at the man in the shower, but I thought I would throw up if I went there. As I turned back, something on the table caught my attention. The book that the man placed back on the table had something under it. A gun.
     I remembered Joshua saying once that his brother possessed a house gun. When he said he too needed one we made fun of him. “So, you imagine someone is after your blood?” we joked then.
     All the blood on his bed, the floor, and the bathroom...a chill ran through me.
     As I was about to move towards the table, the doorbell rang. I felt as if my feet were frozen, or glued to the floor. It took me a while to force them into motion. The bell rang a few times before I reached the door and opened it.
     Joshua stood in front of me, his hair in disarray and his clothes soiled, as if he came straight out of a street fight. He pushed me to the side and ran into his room. I heard him open the bathroom door.
     “John, what the hell are you doing there? Come here. My brother is almost dead...come here you idiot.”
     I moved fast to his room and saw him dragging the person out of the bathroom. I regretted not noticing the resemblance in their facial features, though his brother, Edward, was much older and heavier, perhaps in his mid thirties. I went in and tried to help him. Joshua kept muttering curse words and scolding me when I didn’t act in accordance with his wish.
     We managed to carry Edward across the courtyard and the road to Joshua’s car. Our next door neighbour stood in his garden, his mouth agape. I saw from the car that we forgot to keep the cat inside before locking the door, and it stood on the doorstep, suddenly looking relieved at the unexpected freedom to breathe the outside air.


     I sat next to Joshua, watching him manoeuvre the car skilfully through the night traffic, his lips pressed to a thin line. I didn’t have the courage to speak. I wondered whether I should call the police, or Karim. Edward lay in the back seat, motionless – but breathing. His body was warm, a bit too warm, as we carried him outside. He looked very pale.
     Joshua had located the gunshot wounds on his brother’s body. They were on his left upper arm and thigh. Someone had been careful to just injure him and not to kill him, unless he was left bleeding to death. Oh no, that was what I was going to do, if Joshua hadn’t turned up. I envied Joshua for his quick reactions. He had dressed the wounds with bandages he had in the first aid box. The bleeding had almost stopped by now.
*****
When we reached the hospital, Joshua looked troubled. They asked a lot of questions in causality – like why didn’t we call the police, and why we chose to bring him here by ourselves instead of calling for an ambulance and medical help. I knew he was tired and angry, but he tried to keep his cool and answer the questions. They registered a medico-legal case.
     Then they turned their attention to me, since I came in first and saw Edward, and many other things. I didn’t know whether it was okay to tell them about the gun. If the gun belonged to him or his brother, I thought it might mean trouble to him. On the other hand, I was worried whether it may prove to be valuable evidence. Finally, I focused more on the other things that I saw in the house and gave a very good description of the stranger. Joshua seemed shaken and nervous as I talked, but he never made eye contact.
     The police were already on their way to our apartment. I wondered whether they would find David and Karim there. It was a total mess. I just tried to stop thinking.
     Joshua moved towards the ICU where Edward was admitted. I followed him, hoping that he would look at me and talk. We sat on the metal chairs outside. After a few minutes of silence, he looked at me, at last, and spoke.
     “He’s after us John. He will finish us.”
     “Who?”
     “The man you saw in my room. He’s Baxter, my Dad’s ex-employee.”
     “Joshua, I saw a gun...on the table.”
     “I know. I hid it in the car.”
     “But, what if they...”
     “Shhh...don’t talk about it now.”
The doctor in charge informed us that things had to be done on an emergency basis. Blood transfusion, a list of medicines and arrangements for the surgery on Edward. Joshua started moving fast as lightning. He didn’t even ask for any help from me, and did most of the things on his own. I felt useless, as always, sitting uncomfortably on the chair and staring into the blurry movements in front of me.
     “John, are you alright?”
     It was Joshua again, waking me up.
     “I’m sorry Joshua. I’m not feeling well. I have never seen so much blood in real life.”
     “I know. But I’ve seen lots of it.”
     He sat next to me.
     “John. I need to talk to you.” 
Joshua was trembling, as he sat next to me and started speaking in a whisper.
     “Baxter…he’s a criminal. He was fired when it was found out that he was cheating Dad. Then he started threatening our family. He tried to harm me once. That was when I was still at school.”
     “But, why all this?”
     “He’s just looking for some excuses. Trying to force some money out of my Dad.”
     “Joshua, tell me how Edward came to our apartment. And where were you all the time?”
     “John, all three of us were there for some time. Then I left to get some money which he demanded. It’s a long story…”
     “Tell me everything.”
     “Baxter had always been trying to harm the two of us, because he knew that our parents would be really hurt if something happened to us. He stabbed me here, when I was just twelve.”   
     He pulled his sleeve up to show a deep scar on his arm. I knew about that, but was never able to ask him how he got it.
     “Maybe because I was the youngest, Edward was left alone. But see what he’d done now.” His eyes glistened, and I thought he was about to cry, despite all the courage with which he managed things so far. But I saw a resilience return to his eyes, as he started telling me more.
     “It was the greatest mistake my father committed when he hired Baxter. He didn’t have a clue about this fellow’s criminal background. He’d been in prison a few times and had also been to the deaddiction centre once. I think it’s his craving for drugs and alcohol that makes him do this.”
     “Is he the one whom you said you were to meet today?”
     “Yes. My brother and I were pushed to our limits. My brother had a plan. We needed to scare him away with the house gun my brother had.”
     He fell silent for a moment. Then, he started speaking firmly.
     “John, it’s quite unsettling when your destiny is not in your hands. We were regular boys who loved outdoor games and were intelligent enough to score good grades in school. Everything was going perfect, and now this…”
     He raised his voice and I worried that this may draw attention to us. I touched him gently on his shoulders to give him a sign. There was more silence. He clenched his hands and then released them, slowly. Sitting next to him, I could feel how disturbed he was.
     “Joshua, I think it’s better if we move to the canteen over there and talk over a coffee.’
     “Okay”, he said, and stood up. I hoped this distraction would ease him out. As we walked to the canteen, he turned to the nurses’ counter and told them where we were going, just in case they needed something urgent in the ICU.
     “Even a coffee tastes strange, when we are in fear, right?” he asked me as we sat there in the canteen which was almost deserted. I knew what he meant. Fear was seeping into my senses too.
     My phone rang, and Karim’s frantic voice rambled on about what the cops were doing there. They are taking fingerprint samples. They are checking on the blood stains. They found some sleeping pills on Joshua’s table. They are looking for the gun. David is getting nervous. The cat stays outside…
     Joshua refused to talk to him. He kept rubbing his temples while sipping tea.

     “Imagine how you feel when you are followed everywhere. Edward and I don’t even know the full story behind all this. Why does he target us?  What good is it to keep guessing?”
     I didn’t have answers for these questions either. And I doubted in my ability to pacify people. I just decided to listen to Joshua. He told me in detail how he was cornered by Baxter outside his school, and how scared he was when the glistening knife was pointed towards his throat first.
     “He must be a psycho. His eyes glistened when he stabbed me on my arm. The pain was too much that I almost passed out. And then there were people around me, and he fled in a flash. There was Edward, who was crying and holding me tight…”
     I let Joshua talk as much as he could. I felt we misjudged him a lot. He was always the odd one out, a man of moods, and we thought he kept a distance because he was richer than us. But he didn’t have any other friends. We should have tried to understand him more, I felt.
     He said Edward was unable to manage his studies well because of these constant threats. But he made it a point that Joshua was not disturbed too much. He tried to negotiate with Baxter a few times. He even paid him money to keep him away from us. But he kept coming back without fail, in the interval of a couple of months. Edward got a job soon after he finished his graduation. He settled down for things that were not really meant for him. And he was working too hard. He was thinking of getting married. But he wanted to get rid of Baxter first.
     “We asked Baxter to meet us in my room. Edward thought of talking to him one last time and scare him away with the gun. I didn’t know whether he planned to use the gun if necessary.”
     Joshua paused, and ordered another coffee.
     “Baxter was sarcastic, as usual. I kept losing my temper many times, but Edward pacified me. When Baxter demanded more money, Edward gave me his card and asked me to get the amount he asked for. I didn’t think of it a good idea. But Edward was trying hard to talk sense to Baxter.”
     “Did you have a fight with him?”
      “Yes, I did. I refused to go out and get the money and tried to take the gun out from Edward’s bag. Baxter jumped up on me before I could get the gun and we had a fight. Edward intervened, but Baxter got the gun before us. He asked me to go and get the money fast, pointing the gun to Edward’s head. I had to go.”
     “Then, how did Edward get shot?”
     “I have no idea. I was shocked to see you when I came back. He might have forgotten to take the gun as he left in a hurry. He’s an animal. He could have harmed you.”
     A chill ran through my spine. I felt my nervousness saved me from a confrontation with Baxter. If I tried to stop him or got into the bathroom before he left, things would have been different.
     As we walked out of the canteen to the lobby, a nurse ran towards us. She told us that Edward had some complications during the surgery. I knew from the way she avoided Joshua’s eyes and tried frantically to communicate with me through signs that Edward was no more.
*****
The two days we spent travelling to Joshua’s home to attend Edward’s funeral, and coming back, took away all our energy. While David and Karim were astounded by the wealth and friendship circle of Joshua’s parents, I was able to see things in a different light. There were those two old people who were, despite all their wealth and influence, unable to save their son from a criminal. I wondered what made Joshua’s father hire Baxter - the same question Joshua kept asking earlier. How a moment’s decision changes one’s life forever!
     I wanted to communicate with David and Karim about what Joshua told me, but felt a sudden distance with them because of their shallowness. They were overreacting about the troubles regarding the semester exams at one time, and then moving swiftly to taking a voyeuristic pleasure in the unexpected difficulties Joshua and his family underwent. And I always thought of them as my close friends!
     Joshua was totally shattered. I knew how much Edward meant to him. He was not even in a position to console his parents. He let me stay close to him during the funeral, despite my clumsiness. I thought about my own brother, and my sister; it made me really sad. I felt like seeing them, and my parents.
*****
David and Karim got busy with their studies as soon as we got back. I was too disturbed to focus on my studies. They accused me of being irresponsible.
     “We can’t afford to repeat a semester. Remember John, your parents don’t have a bungalow like the one we saw yesterday”, David said.
     “Shut up. You know what, you guys are so insensitive. Just think about what Joshua is going through.”
     “Come on John”, Karim tried to intervene. “We can only do so much. And Joshua never opens up, anyway. Even if you want to help him, he is inaccessible. Just think of the hell you’ll have to go through if you were to repeat a semester.”
     I found it extremely difficult to focus. I decided to skip the exams, at last. When the exams started, I stayed back home, looking after Joshua’s cat.
*****
When Joshua came back, there was a remarkable change in him. David and Karim stayed away from him, as usual. I tried to talk to him, and though he wasn’t totally unkind to me, there was a lot of difference in his behavior. He didn’t let the cat in his room any more. The poor creature was bewildered, but it sensed the difference very fast. It stuck to me, and I started to like it a bit too.
     Joshua stayed indoors most of the time. Once I saw him sitting on his bed holding the gun. That was when I tried to approach him for a conversation. He stayed aloof. I felt too bad, when he closed his world suddenly to me, after opening it a bit.
     And it happened in the morning. The others were already gone for the exams. I woke from my late morning sleep, hearing the gunshots. There were a succession of them, and shouts from Joshua. His door was closed. I kept knocking on it, trembling all the time. He opened the door at last. 
     “I killed the scoundrel”, he said. I looked inside and saw a total mess. There lay on the floor his cat, its body shredded and blood spreading on the floor in a dark circle.
     “That’s the end of it. No one can harm us now Edward.” He said, hugging me. I saw blood sprinkled on the walls, and gunshots on furniture, floor, walls…The cat…I thought it had an instinct to stay away from trouble. It just lay there like a rag doll, pulled into an impossible position. Poor creature…
     And Joshua - I didn’t know what to think of him. He went back to his room and sat on the bed, crouched up, shivering. His eyes didn’t stay focused. The gun was held tightly in his hands, and I knew I had to call the police.  
*****

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this, you are very good at writing. Bravo! We lived in India (New Delhi for 5 years) in the 1990s and loved the people and the food. My daughter always asks me to make Indian food in fact. We miss India a lot. Greetings from Rome!

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  2. Thanks a lot Francesca. This is just the first draft of the story, and I hope to work further on it.
    I am really glad to know that you love/d India. Please do come back when you can, and let me know when that happens!

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