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Published: Thu Oct 15 2020
Eva LundsagerUnder Constant Still (detail), 2017–2021, oil on canvas
AGNI 92 Dystopia Parenthood Violence
Story about a Boy

Here we are, heading down Lahore Link Road, crossing over M-11 towards the Ladhokhair Landfill, when we see the commotion on the side of the road. Salam slows down and reaches for the CB tucked above his head. He clicks the button gently, a signal to head office that we are live. In the back, our son Adil is napping.

“An accident?” I ask. The curfews are all day now; no one is supposed to be on the streets.

“Doesn’t look like it,” he says, and moves over to the shoulder, crawling the distance between us and the fuss.

The bodies are scuffling inside a tight circle of dust. When we get closer, we see it’s not a crowd, just seven men. Perhaps a crowd during curfew.

A knock against the back window of the cabin. “Are we there yet?”

Salam clicks the CB again and brushes it against his chin. “Hold on, son,” he says softly. “Not yet.”

He has a soothing voice, deep and calm. Our customers often ask him to recite prayers in their ear. It was not something we thought of initially, but the demand was so high we ended up making it a part of our premium package. Basic: we administer the medicine, you do everything else. Silver: we write a note and arrange for notifications to be sent to next of kin. Premium: we bring flowers and incense and recite prayer or tell stories in your ear as your drift away on crisp cotton sheets. Sometimes, if they ask, I throw in a leg massage. Everyone’s last moments should be comfortable. That’s our business motto.

Adil knocks on the window again and I slide it open. He rubs his eyes.

“Why are we stopping?”

The fight is moving on and off the road, like a knot of rats bound together, wrestling for the same scrap.

“Looks like a fight.” Salam leans on the steering wheel. “Over a boy, maybe?” He believes in telling our son as much of the truth as possible.

Adil blinks. “Not over him, Abba,” he says.

The boy is young and can’t seem to do much but try to cover his head with his arms. One, then another man pulls at an elbow and slaps the boy’s face, his head, whatever part he can find. Someone lands a stick on his back.

“Probably some squabble between neighbors,” I say and lean in till our noses touch. “Did you have a good nap?”

Adil is only eleven, has never even seen us argue. I don’t want him learning fear.

Salam speaks quietly into the CB. “There is a disturbance on Ring Road, behind Camp PDT. Clearance to check.”

The CB crackles. Checking, please hold. PDT is one of our business partners; sometimes our customers change their minds last minute and choose to go to the camp instead, like our first customer today, whose health card said he was high-risk but he wasn’t ready to die yet. It serves us well to report on this neighborhood.

Adil pushes my face away. “Open the window. It’s so hot.” A whine like when he was little and wanted something from a toy-store shelf.

Salam is watching the gaggle on the road, eyes squinting. I feel safer when Adil stays in the back and out of sight, but the day is hot. I’m sweating already and I know what a stack of bodies can smell like after a few hours. A little relief won’t hurt. I roll down the window. The air is dead-still outside, so still that the shouts of the men on the road echo.

They are calling the boy every kind of fucker: mother, sister, ass, goat, child. None of them notice that they have an audience, or if they do, they are not concerned. The boy, though, sees us and tries to run our way. One of the men pulls at his leg and he falls.

“Hey, what’s the name of that game you play?” I face Adil again. He has a new videogame and has been trying to beat it for days.

“Legends.” Adil crumples his brows. “How long are we going to be here?”

Salam looks at the dashboard clock. We have to drop our load at the landfill before making the long trek back to head office.

“A few more minutes,” I say. “You’ll be home playing Legends in no time.”

The waiting makes me uneasy too. I pull at the door handle. “Maybe we should step outside.”

Salam grasps my arm. “No,” he says.

Husbands get to call the shots, so I let go. The instructions for curfew are clear. Until the country is released from quarantine, no one is to engage with citizens without authorization. We are allowed only the stops on our list. Everything is pre-planned: customers, addresses, the number of syringes. Even our sympathies are rehearsed.

I look at the clipboard tucked in next to the gearbox. Thirty stops this morning, different neighborhoods all over the city. Most were old, living in houses falling apart worse than their bodies, and should have been waiting out their lives with their families. Being sick is no reason to die, but Salam and I say this only to each other. If we gave people advice, we would have no business. Our only rule is no one below twenty-five.

The woman at Shadab was our youngest yet. Thirty-one, kids and husband. I saw pictures but no people. It’s not my job to judge, but she wasn’t sick, not even high-risk. Too much of her life was left. I asked her twice if she was sure. She insisted. The street felt silent afterward, the sound of our truck beeping loudly as we backed away from her house. Sometimes this job is not worth the gratitude on our customer’s faces.

Headquarters is taking a while and the boy is resisting less and less. His torso jerks when a kick lands. Someone punches his head. I hear Adil take a sharp breath.

“Come on,” Salam mutters. “Come on, come on.” He clicks the CB like Morse code. His other hand is on the door handle.

“He’s got the same T-shirt as that other boy,” Adil says. His hands are on the sill, his knuckles masking his nose and mouth. I can see only his eyes. “The one from Mint Colony.”

The kid had hung around the truck outside the house, talking videogames with Adil. His grandmother was a basic. It had been costing her family a lot to keep her alive: ventilators, doctors, medicine, and adding a whole new room to the ground floor of their house. She just wanted to be gone. But when we showed up and she realized it was time, she changed her mind. Told her family she wanted premium. Wanted her grandson’s picture in her hand while we injected her. The family refused to pay. We never tell Adil details like these.

“You’re right, son,” I say. “Good eye.”

The men are starting to tire and the boy isn’t moving anymore so they stop and wipe sweat off their faces. One of them points to us and the others look our way too. They have a conversation between themselves, and then a short man, a crater in his chin and a gash between his eyes that I will never forget, comes over and says, “Asslamoalikum.”

“Walaikumaslam,” Salam says, and lets the CB rest on his lap. There is a gun just under his seat. I shift and rest my hand near the clipboard.

“Are you government?” he asks, almost as a statement, like he already knows. He is flipping a knife back into itself. I rest my other arm on the sill where Adil’s face is, push his head backwards with my elbow.

Salam nods. Something like that. We are government approved, not official government, but not not-government, either.

“We found him like this,” the man says, and wipes his mouth with a thick thumb. He is breathing heavily. His eyes are steady on Salam’s. “He is from our village. Lost both parents to the sickness yesterday.”

“That’s too bad.” Salam says. “The boy is sick?”

The man shrugs. “Some kind of sickness. He keeps saying he hates Allah. Called him a dog. Wouldn’t let us bury the bodies.”

“Being on the streets is against the law right now,” Salam says carefully.

“Exactly,” says the man. “We tried telling him. He didn’t listen to any of us.”

He looks at me, then Adil, then back at me.

“Some people don’t like rules being broken,” he says.

The dust is settling, some in my lungs, and I can’t speak, so I nod.

“Okay,” he says, and waves at the other men, who follow past our truck and disappear off the embankment into the field below.

Clear to check. The CB crackles. Salam and I look at each other. I open the door and slide to the ground.

“Mask,” Adil says, and points to the box on our seat. He may not understand everything, but even he has learned the protocol. I pull out a mask and hang it over my ears.

Salam gets out of the truck too, and we walk over to the boy. He is unmoving. His knees are bent, but I can tell he’s taller than our son. Above his lip, there is a fine layer of hair. I kneel next to him. A bone spears the skin of his shin. His right arm hangs in front of his ribs, twisting away from the shoulder. Across his face, a deep cut has opened a stream of blood.

“He’s alive.” I look up at Salam.

Salam kneels beside me and touches the boy’s head. He picks a spot where the skin is unbroken and rubs his thumb against it.

“You’re all right,” he says in the deep, steady voice he saves for our customers. “You’re alive.”

He touches the boy’s palm, careful to avoid the twisted wrist. “What’s your name?”

The boy’s chest shudders and a gurgling, drowning sort of noise comes out of his mouth.

“Ah,” Salam says. “That’s a great name.” His voice trembles.

I am surprised. In our twenty years I have seen him break only once, when men in dark uniforms came for Adil.

He has been selected for the Future Leaders of Pakistan program, they said.

No one hears word of their children once they leave in those vans. Salam was a quick thinker, told them Adil was already sick, already dying.

It’s not right to lie, he said to me later. It’s no example to set for Adil. But I was comfortable; his lying had saved our son.

The boy tries to open his eyes but can’t. The skin around them is swollen. The way his breath catches I can tell his ribs are broken.

“They got him good,” I say. “He’s torn up.”

It will take him a long time to heal, if he lives.

It doesn’t feel right leaving him here.

“He’s a child,” Salam pleads.

“Amma?” Adil yells. I look back. He is standing next to the truck, looking scared and small and young.

The boy moans, disturbed by the noise maybe. Salam’s back is to me. His hand is unsteady on the boy’s forehead.

“Should we take him with us?” I ask. “Maybe they can do something for him at the camp.” There is a makeshift clinic at the PDT. They have basic equipment: iodine, needles, scalpels—everything needed to harvest organs. “We could pay them.”

Salam says nothing. He remains as he is, rubbing the boy’s head.

I understand his silence. The boy has no home, no family. His body is too broken to be of any use to PDT. He will end up at the landfill. The top of my head burns the same as the road under my legs. I look around and see only dust and brambles and a quiver of heat just above the asphalt.

“We have one injection left,” I say, my eyes watering. If this were my son, I would want someone to help him.

“The human race is filthy,” Salam says, and keeps rubbing the boy’s head. “We are animals.”

I walk back and pull the medicine case from under the seat. The CB is demanding an answer. Report on disturbance, over. Update, over.

“I want Abba,” Adil says. “Can we go?”

He has never been in the room when Salam and I have performed the procedure. His face is pale, whiter than the dust at the side of the road. He seems to understand, but if I can distract him from the truth, I will.

“Abba is talking to the boy. Like he talks to you when you get sad.”

“I don’t want to break the rules,” Adil says. He’s clutching a mask tightly. His knuckles are drained of blood. “We’re not supposed to be here.”

It’s true, we’re not. We’re supposed to be good citizens. We’re supposed to follow orders and silence our minds. We’re not supposed to save lives; we are not those people.

I rub my hand over Adil’s cheek. He’s looking at me. His cheeks are flushed. His hair sticks to his forehead. Tears are hanging at the edge of his eye. I can see it in his face: he is afraid, maybe of me, maybe of what I am about to do.

I consider telling him to breathe, to close his eyes and imagine being in his room, playing his game. But every lie has an end, and sometimes, you have to hurt a thing to save it. I bring my face to his.

“He is already dying,” I say. “We are going to help him.”

Adil cries.

“Do you see that bush?” I ask. “Look at that and count to a hundred.”

I want to wait with him, explain what needs explaining, but the CB is insistent. We will have to account for this time.

I walk back to Salam and pull a plastic pack out of my medical bag. Blood maps the boy’s T-shirt, darkening the pixelated image of a crab. Game over, it says underneath. I nudge Salam and he moves aside, lifting the boy’s hand so the veins on his wrist are visible to me.

My pulse is wild, but my hands remain steady. Someday our son will forget. Perhaps he will forgive us. For now, we do our job.

“Let me tell you a story,” Salam says in the boy’s ear, and I pull the blue plastic off the syringe. “It is a story about a boy.”

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Hananah Zaheer’s writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Southwest Review, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A flash chapbook, Lovebirds, is forthcoming from Bull City Press. Born in Pakistan, she calls North Carolina home and currently lives in Manila, Philippines. (updated 10/2020)

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