A Close Encounter.

As soon as I stepped inside the mall, I felt it. I could sense it deep inside my bones. Something was wrong. I looked around only to find the usual mall visitors wandering around.

“Are you hungry?” asked Dad, while digging into his wallet. That was unusual. He has never done that before. He always carried sufficient cash or the required cards. I looked at him. He gave me a faint smile. That was unusual too. Dad hasn’t smiled like that since the last time I made him proud. A sudden wave of nervousness crept in.

“Let’s do Subway.” I suggested.

“Where is Subway here?” he asked. Finally! That’s more like my Dad.

Well. Where is the Subway here? I’ve never been good at remembering places. Maybe it’s next to the Cinema? Oh wait, that’s at the other mall.

“Third floor.” I replied, glancing at a suspended sign with directions to the Food Court. The sign was conveniently placed at the entrance to a row of elevators.

Dad and I walked towards the sign and just as we took a right to the elevators, the sign dropped behind us, scaring a twelve-year-old who yelped and clung to his Mother liked he’d never see her again. I looked at the boy and saw the fear in his eyes. I looked up at the hooks from where the sign fell. It was weird. It was as if someone was telling me that something was going to go wrong today.

“C’mon. Hurry!” Dad called out to me, pointing at the parting doors of an elevator. I stood still for a moment, looking at the man who pretended to be my Dad. This is, by far, the most unusual behavior of his. I think my infamous habit of overthinking was getting the best of me. I quickly calmed myself and rushed to the elevator.

“Third floor,” I told the security guard once I was inside. He pressed the corresponding button and looked at me. There were seven of us in the elevator, I observed. I looked back at the guard and decided to stare at a blank space between the door and the lady next to him. After a couple awkward seconds, I noticed he was still looking at me. It soon got uncomfortable and I tried to understand what he was looking at – maybe he was lost in thoughts? He smiled at me, a rather creepy smile, making me cringe to myself. He then very subtly shook his head, making me question whether I imagined him do it.

I don’t know. I just, don’t know, man! This is all so creepy. What’s going on here? With a ding from the elevator, the doors opened and I rushed outside. Dad followed.

“I think it’s right next to the uh…yes! There it is!” I pointed to the Subway store, amidst the buzz of the Food Court. Dad and I reached the counter, waiting for our turn.

“We’d have a…” I began to give my order but was abruptly interrupted.

“I’m sorry sir. There’s been an issue and we can’t serve your order.”

“But I haven’t even ordered yet!” I replied incredulously.

“Yes, sir. There’s been a problem and we can’t serve you. Subway is closed for today.”

“Closed? What?” The crowd behind me echoed my words. The cashier turned to his coworkers and had an animated discussion. One of the employees flipped the ‘Open’ sign to ‘Closed’.

“Let’s just go get a thali.” said Dad, and I unwillingly agreed. Today is so weird that I don’t even know if I’m awake right now.

We finally got ourselves a meal and decided to sit down at one of the tables in the Food Court. I have to admit though, no matter what fancy food I eat, the food Mom cooks at home is always the best. I gobbled up the Chapathi, and decided to eat my rice like I had all the time in the world. Which was true, in my head at least.

I could hear a commotion nearby. Sounded like people shouting. Dad lifted his head to see where it was coming from and I did the same. A guy ran past me, hitting my shoulders and almost spilling all the rice from my plate on my clean, white shirt. Why do I wear white anyway? He looked back and apologized. Wait a minute. I knew this guy. His name was Parth. He smiled in shock as he recognized me and asked me how I was. As a reflex, I said I was doing okay. I looked at Dad who was giving him the oh-how-good-of-you-to-drop-by look.

What was he doing here? I found it funny, how hard he was trying to do the formality of greeting an old friend. He ran off as soon as we’d finished our small talk. He was followed by three other guys – Shroff, Nadeem and the last guy being Bharat who was trying his best to match the pace of the others. How do I know all of them you ask? We studied in the same school. It’s been four years since I’ve been out of that place. Maybe they were having a reunion of some kind, that I wasn’t invited to – as usual.

I looked around and saw a couple more of my schoolmates in the distance. I continued eating. When I was done, I told Dad I’ll be back in a while. I went over to the group to check out what they were doing. Were they playing something? They must be. Parth was running like he didn’t want to get caught. It has to do with a game. And trust me, they played amazing games. I wanted to join them and its been a while. But I was scared of approaching them. I had always been scared. I guess, I just wasn’t their type. I don’t know, honestly. I decided to give myself a chance.

“Hey!” I caught hold of Rishabh’s hand as he ran past me. He stopped and looked surprised to see me alive. Wow. Was I that forgotten? Anyway, I then walked over to the bunch and asked them if I could join in and they said yes. To my surprise, (well, not really) they were playing lock and key. Parth announced my participation and with that, I threw myself around in an attempt to bond with my schoolmates over a silly game.

After a couple minutes of running around, I realized this wasn’t worth my time and slowly disappeared into the open space outside the mall along with some of my schoolmates. A girl tapped my shoulder. I turned around to see who it was.

“Hey Akash!” she joyfully exclaimed. ”She’s cute.” I thought to myself.

“Hey, Alisha!” I waved at her, wondering how I remembered her name. The human brain could do wonders, I can tell you that.

“How have you been? Long time!” she screamed and hugged me. I gave her an awkward hug and decided to walk back to the mall. She followed.

“I’ve been doing good. You came here with Parth and the others?” I asked.

“Yes! Actually, no! I came to meet Fatima! Coincidence, I guess.” she replied, giggling.

I saw two burka-clad women walk past me, one of whom turned towards me for a split second and continued walking. I felt the same old creepiness. I wonder what is happening today. To think I would have gotten used to it by now. I watched as they stopped in front of Parth while removing something from under their burkas. I can bet my life on what I just saw. It was a gun. What the actual fudge?! IT WAS A GUN!

Alisha and I slowly walked towards them and I noticed how she hadn’t realized that the women had a gun, while I had. Guess my observation skills finally happened to help me somewhere. I could see them interrogate my schoolmates at gunpoint. Why wasn’t anyone screaming? Why are we still walking towards them?

My heartbeat was racing. I was scared. I didn’t know what was happening. I should’ve listened to the warnings I’ve had all day! I should have! Ugh. My little finger touched her palm. She looked at me and blushed. I didn’t do it for the reasons she thinks I did it for. I had a plan. I was just executing it.

I smiled at her, and slowly held her hand. I asked her to remain extremely calm. Alisha noticed the gun as we walked past them and she held my hand tighter. I gestured her to remain calm and follow my lead. We walked to the traffic signal by the main road.

“Take that bus, it’ll take you home.” I told her, not bothering to question how I even knew that. She nodded. I rung up Dad and asked him to pick me up.

I saw her board the bus. Ten minutes later, Dad came over. While we crossed the road, I looked back to where the burka-clad women stood. I found nobody there.

Sometimes, I question if I imagine these things. The ceiling fan in my room answers my questions almost all the time.

 

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