Unlike yesterday morning today, Manpreet didn’t have the spring in his walk. He had his tight grip on Anshuman’s palms. Just like yesterday, Anshuman first took the boy to his condo and gave him a filling breakfast of oatmeal but there was no sparkle in the boy’s eyes. The boy should have been glad he was visiting his mother who wasn’t home for two nights in a row…. Then what was the matter…? Anshuman refrained from asking though. He had read about stuttering yesterday and it mentioned the symptoms aggravated when the child was stressed or anxious. He didn’t want to subject Manpreet to any more stress.
The hotel as Manpreet led him, was not very far. After about 20 minutes of walking, they reached an area little after the central market. The hotel was a three-storied building completely white in color and not very appealing at all from the exterior. Anshuman’s businessman eyes took it all in and he despised the exteriors immediately. There was a crumbling gate to a dilapidated compound wall that had lost the cement plastering. The name board was hanging precariously bent and on just 2 of the four screws which had seen better days. The name read P NA E. The middle alphabets had eroded off. The bushes around the building needed upkeep and the trees too needed trimming. He wondered who on earth would visit the hotel which looked more like a haunted house. He wanted to move ahead but Manpreet pulled him back… He saw the boy looked scared out of his wits.
He kneeled before Manpreet and held his sweating palms. “…Buddy… we are in this together, all right…? No one is going to tell you anything… do you trust me…?” Manpreet nodded bobbing his head in quick successions even as his eyes filled. Anshuman stood up and pulled him closer and slowly made his way through the clearing on the ground, inwardly cringing on the bad business acumen of the hotel owners. They reached the reception where a bespectacled woman was furiously typing away. Anshuman looked around and realized though the place was clean the interiors were in dire need of a facelift. The sofa covers in the reception were faded and even torn at the corners. The plaster on the walls had begun to peel off leaving a world map-like structure where ever the residual paint remained. There was just a single framed photo of the Goan physical map. The place looked more like a small-town bank waiting area than a hospitality entity.
Anshuman always believed, if an opportunity didn’t knock on your doors we have to build one…and here these guys seemed hell-bent on breaking the only door. He would have a word with the owner. He wondered if anyone ever visited here and how the owner-managed the running expenditure. Before the entrepreneur in him spread his fangs further, he decided to go ahead with the reason for his visit. He tapped on the reception counter and the bespectacled woman looked up with a scowl at being disturbed. “Hello, ma’am I am looking for a staff of yours… Uh…this little fellow’s mother…” He turned towards Manpreet. “…Buddy what’s her name…?” Manpreet waited a while even as the receptionist arched her eyebrows and sighed.
Manpreet had still held his hand and he spoke softly. “…Ssss…ssssim…rrrat… kkkkaur…Gggg…gil…”
Anshuman turned back to the woman who shook her head and picked up the intercom. “…yeah, it’s Julie… Simrat Kaur Gill is wanted at the reception… her son is here…”
There was a pause and then she nodded and placed the phone back on the receiver. “…Sorry but Simrat is running a major errand and won’t be back before afternoon… you can leave a message…”
“… It’s all right…” Anshuman interrupted. “…I think I will call her…”
“…Oh it’s of no use… Simrat never carries her phone…It must be lying in her locker…” saying the lady got back to hitting the keys dismissing them.
Anshuman looked at the little boy who was now staring at the broken edge of the Formica attached to the reception counter as if he was looking for some inspiration. Probably his life lay in tethers just like that. But not if Anshuman could help it. He wanted to meet the mother no matter what. But instead of waiting for 3 hours in this drab, he got an idea. He Googled the places around and decided to visit the Mall De Goa… which was in Pilerne and it was about an hour away from where they stood. There was some advertisement online about some kind of fair going on there and he decided to make the most out of it for Manpreet. He called the boy’s grandmother to inform her about his change of plans and as expected she wasn’t too happy to hear him. He disconnected before she started her tirade. He hired a cab and they went to the place. It was morning time so the crowd was limited and Manpreet’s face lit up after a long time. There was a flock of pigeons gathered to feed on the jowar strewn around without a care in the world and Manpreet rushed towards them, watching them with intense attention. Strangely it gave Anshuman a huge sense of satisfaction. An inner voice told him not to get attached to the little fellow but his heart wouldn’t have it any other way. He now loved the boy and had a strong urge to save him from all harm. Just like a father… now where did that come from…?
The mall was decorated with balloons and there was a central stage setting strategically placed given the Covid constraints. Currently, there was no DJ and Anshuman liked it like that. He took the escalator to the first level which had the kid’s area. He brought him a few clothes of his choice and the way Manpreet reveled in the selection process it was a given he didn’t have a choice in buying his clothes. His ill-fitting ones were an eyesore. Anshuman then took him to a play area where there were very few kids and Manpreet though initially hesitant, on Anshuman’s persuasion went for it. The boy had a blast and Anshuman couldn’t help but click pictures. After a while, they went to the food court and Manpreet ate junk food to his heart’s content. He spoke to Anshuman about how he missed his school and especially the art class. The boy had difficulty in reading and writing but could copy down everything with the most beautiful handwriting and his drawing was out of this world. Anshuman realized the boy needed help. He decided to speak to his mother about it and if any financial support was needed, he would provide it for him. God… how much he reminded him of Meera…. He had to get a hold of himself.
Soon it was time to leave the mall to face the reality that awaited them. Anshuman saw the crowd had swelled to twice the size when they had arrived. As the duo moved towards the descending escalator, there was some commotion on the floor and before they could react, everyone was running around. Anshuman saw a crowd rushing towards them to run away… what was going on…? He was sure there would be a stampede and Manpreet would be injured. He held the boy’s hand and rushed towards the nearest toy store. It was a huge one filled with toys and clothes for kids. He moved between the racks. The owner wasn’t seen, probably had gone out to check the commotion. He made Manpreet sit inside a doll house in the extreme corner and drew the curtains to shield him in case anyone looked that side. Manpreet looked terrified but did as told. Anshuman was overwhelmed by the boy’s trust and said. “…Just be here buddy and no matter what happens you aren’t moving unless it’s me who calls you out…Got it…?” Manpreet nodded and Anshuman rushed outside the store.
There was indeed a terrible commotion and before he could react he got pushed towards the other side. He barely escaped falling and moved towards the men’s washroom that was close by. He had to wait for this phase and when things would quieten he could emerge. Through the cracks between the hinges, he saw children ruthlessly falling and parents struggling to protect them. He entered a cubicle to relive himself and waited. After about 5 minutes he decided to come out… it was then he heard footsteps coming in and he stopped right where he was.
“…So what should we do now… the boy was not here…” a gruff voice spoke.
“… let’s call Boss and tell him…” there was some noise and the earlier guy spoke.
“…hello boss… the boy wasn’t here… we searched the entire place… our guys are still looking… but there is no one…the information must be… no…ok Sorry… I didn’t mean that…ok… Sorry boss…”
The guy paused and spoke to the others. “…Boss has said not to get noticed and just return … come on… calling the others… no police business…”
They shuffled out of the bathroom and it was then Anshuman released the breath he was holding… What on earth was going on…? Those looked like goons… who were they looking for…?
Just as he was to emerge out of his hiding, he heard a shout out. “…Faiz… there is someone in this toy shop… near the doll house… I think we got him….”
What the fuck…? Manpreet…? Anshuman didn’t bother to think anymore as he sprinted out of the washroom.
©priyagole. No part of the story can be copied or shared anywhere without the consent of the writer.