Chapter 4

Anshuman had a fairly good amount of sleep which translated into fewer nightmares. He woke up early morning and as he set out for his run, he took the direction towards the same stretch as yesterday. He didn’t know why but his curiosity about the boy had piqued up. The speech impediment the boy faced as well as the raw innocence reminded him of Meera at that age. She spoke late and his parents had been worried sick. Also, she was very weak in her studies and clumsy in school. He had once found out she was being regularly bullied but she had never complained about it at home. Even after he told his parents and his father had visited the school to give the teachers a piece of his mind, Meera had forgiven all of them and had pleaded with the teacher not to punish anyone. Anshuman had thought she was scared of backlash but he was wrong… within a month those tyrants were all her friends. Her goodness had won them over. That was his sister Meera… she was a kind soul. It was beyond him why someone would want to kill her….

Anshuman rubbed his face and began his run towards the clove as he called the place where Manpreet lived. After about ten minutes of slow running, he reached the stretch but there was no sign of anyone. Disappointed he crossed the place and moved towards the rock. But as he neared it he heard sobbing and he didn’t have to look inside the cave to see who it was. The sunrays were yet to get stronger and he had to squint to peep inside. Manpreet sat on the cold hard floor hunched and holding his knees together as he sobbed.  Anshuman rushed inside. He bent over but refrained from touching the boy. “…Manpreet… buddy… what is it…?”

Manpreet startled and looked up, his tear-streaked face causing a strange kind of emotion through Anshuman’s body. He kneeled next to him and raised a tentative hand to touch the boy and the very next moment Manpreet rushed into his arms catching him unawares. He held the little boy close to him and rocked him as he cried. Anshuman blinked back tears wondering what had caused such turmoil to the little being in his arms who wouldn’t stop weeping. After a couple of minutes, the crying ceased but Manpreet didn’t let go of him.

“Manpreet… dear… what happened to you…? Will you tell me…?” Anshuman asked softly.

Manpreet hiccuped and nodded wiping his eyes as he moved a little away. Anshuman held his tiny hands and nodded to cue him to speak.

“…Ma… ma… ddddddint ccccome home…ag…ag…again…”

“…Your mom didn’t come home from work last night…?” Anshuman clarified. From the looks of it, it seemed like a frequent occurrence. The boy nodded even as fresh tears crowded his eyes. Anshuman asken him again. “…Did she call? Did your Nani say something…?”

Manpreet shook his head. “…Nnnnnani nnnooot ww… well… sssshe haaas ffffever… ssssleeping…”

Anshuman’d heart broke. “…Since when is your Nani unwell dear…?” he ran a hand on his head not letting go of the boy’s hand.

“….Ye…. ye…. Yesterday… eee… evening… ssshe haaas bbbeen ssss…. Ssssleeping since…”

“…She is sleeping since last evening… and your mom isn’t home… did you eat anything… buddy…?”

Manpreet shook his head. “…aaaa….aaaa… I dddon’t like mmmmmilk ffff…fffrom cccartton… Nnnani dddrank and ssss… sslept…”

Anshuman again ran a hand over the boy’s head. “…Was this today morning…? Did your nani drink milk and sleep…?”

Manpreet nodded in the affirmative and Anshuman asked again. “…OK then let’s eat something, alright…? I will drop you back at your house…? Is that OK with you…? Or if you can give me your mother’s number…I can speak with her…”

Manpreet flinched this time as if he had been slapped. “….nnnnno……nnnnooo… Dddont cc…cccal her… Sh…sh….she gets aaangry…”

Anshuman held his cold little hands and spoke. “…Ok …Ok…Don’t worry buddy I won’t tell your mother… come… let’s go and fill our tummies… alright…?” He wondered what kind of mother was she who didn’t like her child calling even during emergencies as this.

Nonetheless, they walked hand in hand to his condo. During the walk, Manpreet pointed to different points at a distance and told him about the places and their specialties. Surprisingly, he stuttered bare minimum when he did and Anshuman was eager to know more about this fascinating kiddo who was wimpish and a coward. But whose eyes sparkled as he struggled his way to show Anshuman around. The kid was smart. Anshuman got to know he was in the 3rd grade but due to the pandemic, the schools were online. However, the internet in his house was bad so he couldn’t attend most of the days. Anshuman decided to have a word with his absentee mother. How could she not know all this…? The boy was missing out on education along with a lot of other issues.

Back to his condo, he made Manpreet freshen up while he cooked him a breakfast of eggs and toast. He was surprised to see a skinny Manpreet gorge on it voraciously. Anshuman’s heart went out to the boy… he probably hadn’t eaten since last evening. Manpreet then washed down the breakfast with a glass of warm milk. Manpreet pushed back the chair and stood. “…Tha…Thank you…um…” he looked questioningly at Anshuman probably confused about what to call him.

Anshuman wondered if the boy who stuttered on practically every word would be able to pronounce his name at a go. “…You can call me Anshuman buddy…” he smiled as he said.

Manpreet smiled brightly and something churned inside his heart. What was it about this boy that fiercely tugged at his heartstrings…? Why did he have that urge to protect the boy…? Was it because he was vulnerable to get bullied just like Meera was in childhood…? Was he displacing his emotions towards his sister towards this little boy…?

He wound up in the kitchen while switching on the TV for Manpreet in the living room. By the time he came out he saw Manpreet had arranged few show pieces on the side rack, all were a gift from his friends Amandeep, Keshav, and Nirvi…. neatly and in a manner that put life into that dull corner. He was scribbling something on a paper. As he went close, he was stunned to see the boy sketch out the wooden elephant piece down to the t, including the intricate jewelry pattern on it.

“…wow… that’s amazing buddy… you are too good… you are so talented…” Anshuman could help the tears that sprang up into his eyes. His Meera was just like that… she loved sketching. Even during playtimes whenever the cousins would gather and play, she would prefer to go to a corner and sketch to her heart’s content. She always told everyone to gift her the needed stationary for her birthday and not to bother with clothes and toys. Anshuman couldn’t contain his curiosity. “…Do you sketch often buddy…?”

Manpreet’s smile fell and he shook his head. “…nnnno…mmmmy bbbook… ggggot oo…over…” The boy’s mom needed to be spoken to. The kid was such a mess, his speech issues, low self-esteem, and now exceptional talent going down the drain.

“…OK buddy let’s go to the market… know any place nearby…? We can buy you some books and other stationery…” Manpreet looked away sadly and Anshuman’s heart broke again. “…hey what’s it, buddy…? Afraid of your mom…? Don’t worry I will convince her…”

This time Manpreet grinned happily and there was a bounce in his steps as he directed Anshuman to the nearest market. The place was slowly opening, and very few shops were up and running. Fortunately, the stationary shop was open and Manpreet scrouged through the booty eagerly. Finally, after about half an hour Anshuman’s hands were fully loaded with proceeds and Manpreet barely walked. He was jumping and running and stopping to tell Anshuman what he intended to draw, and now he didn’t stutter at all. What was the transformation Anshuman couldn’t tell… But it thrilled him to see the little boy act normal for a change.

They walked along the waves and finally reached the clove hiding his house. Manpreet unlatched the gate and they walked inside stamping on the overgrown shrubs lining the thin pathway leading to the house. They knocked at the door and waited for a while before his grandmother opened the door. The woman looked worn-out and tired as if she had aged much in a day. She was surprised to see Manpreet outside and if she was annoyed, she didn’t show. She hurriedly ushered the boy inside. Manpreet carried his gifts happily and walked in. Anshuman asked her if she needed anything but she refused and said she was OK. Her demeanor was a far cry from yesterday. What had changed suddenly…? He tried to take a glimpse of the dark interior behind as he informed her about the stationary but before he could complete his talk, she nodded and saying a thank you, shut the door.

Anshuman stood irked with his arms on his hips as he took in the exteriors. The entire single-storied house was surrounded by climbers growing along the walls and creating a thick blanket of green camouflage. There was a wild growth of thick bushes surrounding the house on the sides that he could see and many had thorns to keep away strays or any children. He walked a bit to the sidewall and was repulsed by the odor of rotting foliage. Why couldn’t they un weed the place…? It wasn’t healthy for them either.

The entire place reeked of secrecy and as he left, he wondered what had caused a single mother to move to this atrociously secluded corner with a child that young who craved human contact. From his decade-old experience in looking for his sister, he could only conclude, the woman was in hiding…

©priyagole. No part of the story can be copied or shared anywhere without the consent of the writer.

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