The Storyline Project is an ongoing collaborative writing project by a community of writers.
He sat down on the worn-out leather chair, breathing heavily, and ran his fingers through his long, wet hair. It always felt peculiar, touching anything with freshly bitten nails.
A voice next to him asked, “Are you sure?”
He nodded, his mouth too dry to talk, and closed his eyes tight while he waited.
It took ten frighteningly long seconds before the cold blade touched the back of his neck.
One cut. Two cuts. Three cuts.
“Loosen up, it’ll grow back you know?” the barber reassured him with a smile.
No, it won’t, he thought, not this time, it won’t.
“Son, what started out as a symbol of respect for Gurudevji’s legacy, is now the very basis of our identity. Don’t ever forget your roots.” His dad’s words from what seemed like ages ago, reverberated in his mind.
When he looked up next, he couldn’t recognize the face that peered back at him from behind the mirror. The barber’s thick British accent jolted him back to reality, “And we are done, I’ll be at the counter if you need me.”
Just as the barber walked away, his phone, clutched tightly in his hand, vibrated. It was a message from the unknown number again – Good job. Stand by and wait for further instructions
As he paid the barber at the counter, his phone vibrated again. He pulled on his jacket and stepped out into the cold breeze. He paused at the trash bin, the chill in his heart making the cold metal touching his skin feel warmer than a glove. Struggling for minutes, he removed his other constant since the thirty years, and threw the kara.
He checked the message and dragged his feet through three blocks, until he reached a moss-covered garage. Eyes wide open, he wrenched open the rusted shutter and entered. Cold metal touched his skin again, but this time draining any warmth from his blood.
“Quick, we’re on a schedule. Get down.”
“Will the weather ever get better in this god forsaken city?!” she thought to herself as she exited the grocery. It was going to be soup for dinner. Again. Veer had shown no sign of wanting a new job ever since that fateful Friday three months ago. Thirty people laid off from the small factory in one day, doors shut the next. Her three temp jobs were barely enough to cover rent; food had become an unwelcome burden on their savings.
She walked up the porch and rang the bell. The living room light was on. Must be watching the match she thought. I hope he was decent enough to wash some dishes.
Ten minutes passed with no signs of movement. She fumbled around for her phone and rang him.
His number was busy.
She had never wanted to leave Amritsar, let alone move out of India. Where was the glory in this life abroad! What was the big fucking deal about living in a dirty desi neighborhood, with crumbling Victorian houses and a shabby kebab shop at each corner.
This post code served the sole purpose of igniting an aspiration to do better and move elsewhere. Or else, she shuddered to think, it exacted a silent resignation to one’s fate.
“No, this will not do! No.”
Some tough love awaited her husband, if only he’d open the damned door!
It had been a steady decline since the factory had rolled down the shutters. He had slipped from the initial bravado of “we’ll get over this soon, Diti” to a visibly fake “only a matter of time, Diti” to broad proclamations of duty and honor. “A man provides, Aditi.”
But this was a new low.
When she’d left in the morning, he’d been slumped over the couch, staring at the scuffed old CRT they’d nicked from a backalley. And he’d likely passed out there.
She began hammering at the door, now opting for the cathartic approach. Just as she’d begun to work out some of that rage, the door swung open.
The dusty Daihatsu sputtered and clattered, weaving its way through the busy evening market. The man in the back reached for his kerchief, as the stench of yesterday’s fish wafted through the half-rolled window. “Step on it”, he muffled, cranking the window up.
Veer looked out through the glass, but all he saw were hazy figures draped in cloth and color, conducting trivial exchanges of verbs, vowels and things he didn’t recognize.
They were stopped at the intersection when a sudden smack on the window jolted Veer to his senses. His eyes scanned the crowded pavement and fell upon a toddler. It was a young brown-skinned boy looking directly at him with frozen, unblinking eyes. Veer couldn’t move. Just as the signal turned green and the car sped away, Veer thought he saw the boy mouth one word.
Veer started to sweat profusely when a horrifying realization hit him – he had absolutely no memory after the celebratory champagne on British Airways. His last memory was the piercing guilt of leaving Ditti behind and the toast he raised to Tanaka-san, the man who saved him. Everything after – was dark, hazy and incoherent in the annals of his memory. His survival instincts kicked in when he couldn’t recognize his clothes, his fellow commuters or the roads. But he restrained his urge to do something drastic, knowing that he wasn’t in the hands of amateurs. Two heavily tattooed men sat in the front while he was accompanied by a stern-faced man, in an unapologetically expensive suit. He noticed that the driver’s little finger was severed amidst the sparkle of a hundred rings. Veer sneered, “This wasn’t in the agreement.”
The man in the suit turned to look at him. “It was a one time job, you guaranteed full payment on delivery. What happened to me after the flight? Where are you taking me now?” Veer asked exasperatedly. The man in the suit turned his gaze outside and said, “We’re taking you to the foundation for further tests.” He turned to look at him, and said with a hint of excitement, “In over 15000 volunteers, you were the only one to show absolutely no side effects or lasting damage in the procedure. You could be the one.” Veer reached for his phone, which was somehow still with him and said confidently, “I’m calling 911, you can’t just take me against my will.” No one in the car reacted to his threat and the man in the suit smiled and said, “I don’t think they’ll be of much help”. He reached in to his breast pocket and pulled out a badge. Veer froze. He was being kidnapped by the FBI.
Of course. Who else but the feds. You needed some serious resources to pull this off. The lines on his forehead grew darker, sweat still bursting through despite the car’s air conditioning. He tried to piece all of it together. It was futile trying to think of the last thing he remembered; to be sure, his memory was tampered with. As a sort of test, he tried to recall some very early memories. Walking to cricket coaching as a 12 year old. That was intact. Walking along the isolated road behind the college workshop, smoking Bensons. Still there.
As he started to sift through his early 20s, he was struck with a realization that he was starting to lose sense of exactly who he was. This was not your garden-variety pill they’d given him. It took him inordinately long to recall his first job. He knew he’d been to a South-East Asian country, without any idea which one. Hell, he knew there was someone called Aditi involved, but his memory of her face was blurry, like it would be with an aunt he hadn’t seen since adolescence.
He evaluated this Borgesian nightmare. His options were bleak, but he seemed to have his wits about him. The captors were his only hope for information.
…to be continued
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