the tenement's tube well. Sometimes when he came home, she would still be sitting on her bedding with a vacant look on her face, and he knew she hadn't moved from there since morning. But he never had the heart to scold her.
He passed the cigarette shop, surprised to see that it, too, was closed. Before today, no matter how late he had been in coming back from work, it had always been open, its shiny radio blaring hits from the latest Hindi movies. There was always a crowd of young men around it, joking and jostling around, smoking beedis or chewing on betel leaves and spitting out the red juice wherever they pleased. But today, with its shutters pulled down and locked, the shop looked abandoned and eerie, and Anand walked past it as quickly as he could.
Right around then he became aware that someone was following him. He wasn't sure how he knew it. There were no soundsnot that he would have heard footsteps in all this wind. Nor was there anyone behind him when he forced himself to whirl around and look. The street was empty and darka streetlight had burned outand Anand realized that he was at the same crossing where Meera had been when the accident that had turned her strange and silent had occurred. He pushed the thought away from him with a shiver and quickened his steps. There's no one behind me, no one, he said to himself over and over, and, under that, Mustn't fall, mustn't fall. Because then, whatever was behind him would catch up.
There's no one behind me. Mustn't fall.
He was running now. There was a fog all around him, obscuring the shapes of the shacks and turning the alleys into unfamiliar, yawning tunnels. His foot caught on something, and he went sprawling. The mango fell from his hand and rolled into the darkness. Oh no! Not the mango he'd spent two whole hard-earned rupees on! He scrabbled desperately for it, but felt nothing but asphalt and dirt. He wanted to search more, but something told him it wasn't safe to delay any longer. Where had the fog come from, anyway? How could it be windy and foggy at the same time? Was this his street? Where was his house, then? He looked around wildly, not recognizing anything. Help me! He called inside his head, not knowing to whom he called. Help! He was ashamed to be acting this way, like a child. The fog in front of him thinned for a moment. Ah! There was his shack with its warped tin door! He had never been so happy to see it. He knocked frantically on the door, calling to Meera to open up, hurry, hurry. He heard her unsteady steps, then the bolt sliding across. He threw himself inside, slammed the door behind him, and bolted it again. He leaned his back against the door, his heart pounding. Meera stared at him, a startled look on her face.
He forced himself to smile because he didn't want to scare her. "Don't worry, Meera," he said, though his throat was so dry he could barely speak. "Everything's all right."
Then he heard the knocking. Tap, tap, tong. Someone was hitting the door with . . . a stick? a piece of metal? He could feel the vibration against his shoulder blades. He jumped away from the door and looked around for a weapon, something with which to defend himself and his sister. In the flickering light of the small oil lamp, he could see nothing except an old bonti, its blade dulled from years of cutting vegetables. Somehow he didn't think it would stop whoever was outside.
Then he heard the voice, deep and rusty, as if it had been at the bottom of a river for a long time.
"Anand," it said. "Let me in."
Anand didnt know how long he stood in the middle of the room, eyes squinched shut, heart pounding madly. But the knocking didnt stop, as he had hoped. There it was again. Tap, tap, tong.
"Go away," he whispered through dry lips.
"Let me in, Anand," the voice said. "I wont hurt you."
From The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Copyright © 2003 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Millbrook Press.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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