A Chapter In Your Life
"Is Shaad gonna be over for dinner again?" mom shouted.
"Isn't he always over on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays mom?" I said in an exasperated voice.
"Well one can always hope. Remind me again why we are doing this every week?" she asked with a smile playing on her lips as I entered the kitchen to help.
"Mom you know he is only eighteen, a year older to me and alone. He lost his parents only a year ago. Cut him some slack ma." I said in Shaad's defence.
"So this has nothing to do with your crush that you've had on him since the day he arrived in his uniform asking us to evacuate for our safety? Or the fact that he looks cute?" she said staring into my eyes for an answer.
"Mom he is on his duty. I don't even know how long he is stationed here. And I'm only trying to help him. He is very…alone." I said trying hard not to blush. But with zero degrees outside it was hard to ignore the pink cheeks turning red.
"Ya you help him Anaya. Just don't go too far alright."
"Eww mom! We are not even friends! We are…we are two strangers just helping each other along our life." I think mom is getting old.
"Ya ya. Anyways I think I'll go upstairs and get some rest. My feet are hurting me. Don't forget to do the dishes afterwards. And be sure he gets out of the house by ten. I'll come and check." Really old and senile.
"Has he ever stayed after nine-thirty? He is a man of pride and honour and-"
"Still a man Anaya. Don't think I haven't seen him stealing glances at you inappropriately when you're not looking. Ten. Ok?"
"Yes mom! Not like the glances are gonna lead to anything." I added the last under my breath but I think she heard me because she smiled.
Just as mom took the stairs the doorbell rang. I ran to open the door. And the color of my cheeks just deepened on seeing him. He was standing there with his dark brown eyes, wearing his uniform over tons of layers of clothes and with hair covered in snow. His eyes had permanently sunken in big dark holes. He looked terrible today. For the first time he stood with his shoulders hunched.
"Shaad be sure to help Anaya with the dishes." My mom shouted.
I looked around to give her a look but she had already started walking back upstairs.
"Come on in. I'm sorry about her. You don't have to do any dishes." I said letting him in.
"It will not be a problem. We are trained to be on our own. So I'm sure I can handle a bit of cleaning fairly well. Plus I'm here almost every other day. I should do my own dishes at the least." And then he went on and on because he hated being a bother. Frankly he is far from a bother.
"So what should I do in return? Since you protect us, this is the least we can do for you." And then he blushed against his dark skin. He was an awkward person. Never talked a lot. Always felt obligated. Found it difficult to ask for help. And he was really sad and closed. Sometimes I felt like just going over and hugging the life out of him. But then he was shy even with a handshake. A hug would just drive him to the farthest corner of the world. He slumped down on his the chair. Not his usual style. Maybe he is too tired.
"So anything new?" I asked him as I put heaps of food in his plate.
"That's enough, thank you. And umm no." he said removing his gloves and adjusting the rifle around his shoulder.
"Means yes." I had known his lying voice the first very time I met him. He was banging on our door in the middle of the night looking all young and tensed and worked up with his rifle ready in his hands. There was a bomb threat and they had to evacuate us. We are a prominent family or at least were until dad died. My mom had turned hysteric. We had lost dad not long ago in a bomb blast. And even though his nerves were on fire that day, he guided us to a safe spot and stayed guard until the threat had passed. That day I knew he was he brave man. And a bad liar too. He refused food no matter how much we offered. He only stood quietly all day long, guarding us. Only when he fainted the next morning had he admitted he hadn't had anything in two days. That's when I decided to ask him over for dinner whenever he could come to thank him. And just like that he came every other day for over a month now. After all any food is better than the half cooked or completely burnt meat made over firewood in the snow by a bunch of soldiers who have to be alert at all times.
"You know I'm not supposed to talk." He said looking anywhere but me.
"I need to go to the market tomorrow. That's why I was asking." I said lying.
"I'll get you whatever you need. Write me a list. Don't step out for a few days if you can."
"Of course, I trust you." I said and he blushed again.
"Aren't you and your mom gonna have dinner?" he asked looking at two empty plates.
"Mom is tired. So even I'll have it later with her." he nodded.
And then we sat in silence. He got up and took his dishes to the kitchen.
"Shaad, seriously leave. You look tired. You should catch some sleep or you'll fall sick." He really did look tired. I took the dishes from his hand and realized he was very hot. Not caring about his shyness issue I reached out and touched his forehead and neck. He instinctively flinched away on my cold touch. He was burning.
"Shaad you've got a terribly high fever. You can't possibly stay at your camp tonight. You need a doctor. You sit down. I'll get you some medicine."
It must've taken me less than five minutes to go up and get the medicine from mom's room. But by then the dishes were already done and the house was empty of any soldier.
Is he mad? He is so sick. I decided to go look out for him, but he had somehow blocked the door from outside. That idiot!
The early next morning as I prepared some fire I heard a noise. It came from the door. I tried opening it. It unlocked and I found him throwing away the sticks with which he had closed the door.
"I'm sorry I had to do that. You would've followed me. You know it isn't safe." He said looking down.
"No you listen to me Lieutenant Shaad Malik! You better get into the house at this instant and let me call a doctor. And you better stay in here or else I'll be forced to tell your seniors you aren't well. And you know how well sick soldiers are treated at your camp!"
"Anaya-" Even in this anger, my name from his lips made my heart skip a beat.
"What's this noise about?" Mom came out looking scared.
"He's sick mom. Call the doctor." I said. Mom nodded. She looked relieved. She must've thought we were under an attack or something.
Without caring about his issues again I took his hands and dragged him in. The doctor came in a while and asked him to spend at least an entire day resting and out of snow.
"But I've got to tell the captain. They are already two men short. They need me. Just give me the medicines and let me go!" he yelled trying to fight off his fatigue and get up. But anyone could see he was too sick to be anywhere and do anything besides sleep in a soft, warm bed.
"What good will you be in this state? You can't go." I said pushing him back into the bed.
"I'm not asking for your permission or your opinion! Doctor give me the medicine!" He said looking all threatening at the doctor.
The poor old doctor just handed him over some tablets. He got up and helped himself to some water and walked out after taking the pills.
"You'll regret it." I shouted after him with all the hatred I could manage. I didn't want him to hurt himself tonight for his stupidity. What if someone attacked him? He wouldn't be in a state to even barely injure the attacker! He turned around and walked towards me again.
"You know what I would regret?" he asked holding me tightly by my elbows, "Not being able to protect you!" he said angrily and walked away.
It took everything in me to stop myself from crying and begging him to stay at least until he was well as I watched his figure disappear. My mom dragged me back into the house. I ran to my room. I removed my dad's photo from my closet and I prayed to him to look after Shaad tonight. He has been saving me every moment of his life with whatever he has in him. The least I can do for him in return is pray. I prayed and I prayed. Mom came in between for a couple of times trying to feed me. But no food could possibly go down my throat now that I knew why he would go to the border even in that state. Mom didn't force me a lot. She understood and left me alone.
Night fell and I waited for him to come back. I went down and prepared the dinner for him myself. But the bell never rang.
It was enough. I couldn't tolerate not knowing where and how he was. I waited for mom to sleep. When she went to her room I got dressed, packed the food, took out my dad's gun from the secret little drawer in the kitchen and hid it under layers of the sweaters I wore and left the house.
I dragged myself in knee deep snow in the silent dark night. After about an hour long walk I saw him with his rifle ready in his hand looking around for any sign of danger. The clattering of the vessels alerted him and he looked back.
"What are you doing here? Are you mad? You are not allowed here! How many times do I have to tell you it's not safe! Especially at this hour. Go back Anaya, right now!" he said looking at me with horror. He looked terrible. He is only eighteen and sick! He is just a boy, not someone who should be protecting the boundaries of a nation. He just lost his parents. He should not have to bear the burden of thousands of lives. Least of all mine.
I said nothing just held the food forward.
"What is she doing here?" Another lieutenant who came running towards us asked.
"She is leaving." Shaad said looking at me fiercely.
"Who is she?" he asked.
"Some stupid woman who brought us food." He said.
"Shaad apologise!" the other guy said. Shaad muttered somthing that sounded like sorry.
"Madam I'm sorry but I've got to ask you to leave. Where do you stay?" he asked
"The house by the river. The one where we had the bomb threat last month." Shaad answered before I could.
"If you know where she stays then you should drop her home. I'll be ok here. All groups are on high alert tonight. The others are all nearby. Go. And come quick." The other guy ordered him. Seemed to me he was at a higher position.
Shaad looked at me with disgust and anger. He gave the food to the other guy and took my hand and dragged me through the snow. Once out of the other guy's hearing range, he started.
"Do you have any idea how dangerous this area is? Do you want to blow yourself up? I didn't realize you were this stupid Anaya! What were you thinking?" Suddenly the boy with few words had turned into a man with many words.
"I…I had to see if you were alright." I said hugging him and letting the tears flow.
"I have fever Anaya. I'm not dying." He said softly this time. Soon his hand was rubbing on my back consoling me.
"I know what I'm doing Anaya. I knew it the first time I had decided to join the army. I knew it since the time my parents died in an attack by the enemies. Even in sickness I know enough ways to at least badly injure if not kill a couple of enemies."
"Anaya you give me a reason to go on the border every day." He said pulling my chin up so that we looked each other in the eye. "Since the time I have come here only your safety it is that has been pushing me to overcome my fears and do whatever I can to save as many lives as I can. Every day I know I can save others' lives because I know you're safe. So just don't…don't give me a reason to be weak. This sickness is not my weakness. You are. So keeping you safe is my main aim. Don't make this any more difficult than it already is." His dark brown eyes staring intently at me.
"I'm…I'm sorry Shaad but I had to see-"
"I know. I know." He said. And then on impulse we both moved forward and our lips caught each other's in a desperate kiss. It was so raw and somehow filled with pain, as if this was the last one we would ever have. I wanted it to never end. But too soon it was over. He held me at a distance and we walked home in silence.
"Stay in there until I come for you. Call for help if you see anything suspicious around. And arm yourself. Stay alert. And be safe." He instructed me as we reached the house. I nodded but held on to his hand. I didn't want to let go. I couldn't let go.
"Promise to come back to me." I said letting the tears flow again. I wanted to desperately beg him to stay here with me. But I knew he had duty to fulfil. A duty to the country.
"Always." He said. He kissed me once more on my lips and forehead and let go of me.
He came back home two days later. Those were the two most difficult days of my life. They felt as bad as the days after dad's death. It seemed as if I had no life left in me. No reason to move around, do anything. No reason to breathe. But when he came, every cell in my body was suddenly filled with life. I didn't care that mom was watching. I threw myself in his arms pressing him against me to see if he was really here. To see if it wasn't a dream. I guess we remained in that position for quite long because mom shouted on him later for being a disrespectful man and touching an unmarried girl like that.
And he came every night from then on fulfilling his promise of coming back to me. Mom didn't like the fact that we were really open with our display of affection. It was so difficult to get out from under her gaze to even hug him. One night he sneaked into my room.
"What are you doing here? What if mom wakes up!" I shrieked in my tiniest voice.
"Shh…let's get married." He said with this huge grin on his face.
"What?!" I said a little loudly then I intended to.
"Ok my house is small and dirty since no one has lived there in months. My only living relatives are my dad's two sisters and their families. Apparently I heard that there is some auspicious day next week, something about stars and astronomy and stuff. So it's a good day to get married. I don't get paid much but I swear to keep you happy." He said looking at me with the same huge smile.
"I…I…yes! Yes! Ok let's get married!" I said after realizing that this was really happening.
Mom couldn't have been happier. "At least now I'll be rid of watching you two play games to hold each other!" But then as an afterthought she added, "Anaya, he is a soldier. He battles with his life. I don't know if you've thought this through or not. But now you can only pray that he comes home every night." I nodded. I had thought this through. Soldier or not Shaad was the only person I could ever love. My man in uniform. How many girls are lucky enough to say that my husband fights with his life so that your husband is safe!
We got married in the blink of an eye. My mom gave everything she owned to me and Shaad.
"Just take this old woman's blessings and keep visiting her from time to time." She said kissing our foreheads.
Time flew by. Though it wasn't like a fairy-tale. Some nights he didn't return home. Sometimes he came home in covered in blood and guts. Sometimes his own, sometimes his friends, and sometimes his enemies. And sometimes he came as less of a human to me. Those were the nights I held him and let him cry.
"How many lives Anaya before it ends? I don't take pleasure in taking lives. I repulse it now. Every day I wake up with a hope that today it would be over. Today no more lives will be lost on either side of the line. But it never ends. It continues. You know I can still remember the faces of all the people I've killed. They too must be had a family, kids maybe. What am I doing Anaya? What am I doing?"
"You are doing what is necessary. A battle that has been fought for years now cannot end in a few days. But maybe your efforts to end it will end it someday in future."
"I'm not god Anaya. I have no right to take lives."
"It's either their life or yours. And I would rather it be anyone else's life than yours."
"No promise me that you'll fight and do whatever it takes to keep your life. Because your end would mean my end. So I don't care what we have to face in our after life for all the sins we are committing here. As long as I have this moment with you, I want you to fight to keep this moment going. Please Shaad." And he nodded.
A few months later I was pregnant. We both decided it would be better if I moved in with mom. I was six months along when the call came.
"Four months duty in another state." And just like that I had to be prepared to let him go within a day from his call.
"Shaad, please please come back to me. Do whatever it takes but come back to me."
"I will. Always." He said promising me like always.
The very next month I received a letter. It was written in his tiny awful handwriting. And just behind the man who got the letter was an entire group of uniform clad soldiers that carried a body draped in the national flag.
They lowered the body down. I hadn't even seen the face but already the worst feeling had hit me knocking the air out of me. I was unable to even take in air. My limbs barely moved. I caught sight of his tiny nose, his perfect lips and his sleep shut eyes. That's it! He was asleep. Not dead. He said he'd come back to me always. Always doesn't end so soon! He is alive. This is all some sort of big, cruel joke. Shaad has to wake up. He has to give our kid piggyback rides. He has to teach our kid about courage and love and pride and honour. He can't die. He isn't dead!
But he was. When they finally set fire to his body did I wake up from my trance and fought my way to reach him. But too many hands caught me and held me at my place as I watched him turn to ashes.
Little by little people started disappearing. Few days later only mom, me and Shaad's last gift, our unborn kid was left. I knew I had to live because this kid deserved a future that Shaad had given his life up for. I had to give this kid everything Shaad ever would've wanted to. On this courage I opened up his letter,
If you're reading this then probably the worst has happened. I'm sorry I couldn't fulfil my promise of forever. I swear I seriously meant it. I always want to come back to you. But maybe fates wanted this to happen.
After I lost my parents I was filled with thoughts of revenge and I joined the army. I had no experience, not much training. I was scared. But I knew what I had signed up for. If I died then I was only responsible to me. But since the time I first saved you that day of the bomb threat you kept coming every night in my dreams. You were so scared but you pretended to be strong for your mom. I knew you were someone I wanted to protect. I had to protect. For some reason you were the first person I really wanted to live for so that I could protect you always.
But I guess I didn't do a great job, did I? Otherwise there would've been no letter. When I realized you loved me too, I knew I wanted nothing more in this world than to keep you safe.
But I didn't do it, right? So now I want you to take care of yourself. I don't know if we have kids or not. But I know that right now as I'm writing this letter to you, we are trying for kids. So if we do have then I don't know how but you have to swear to fight and do whatever it takes to keep yourself and the kids safe. You are my life and he/she/they too are. You will take care of my life right? You will keep yourself and the kids' safe, right? You have to swear to me!
And one last thing you have to swear to me no matter what. You have to swear to move on. You have to swear to find someone who will love you and protect you and do a better job at taking care of you than I did. You will find someone who will love our kids as much as I would've, that is if we have any. You have to live! That's my last wish, my last prayer. I was just a chapter in your life Anaya. If I have died it just means that there is still a huge part of your book of life that is empty and waiting to be filled by someone else. Let that someone else into your life. Let him love you. And love him back. Don't hold back because of me. I'm a chapter to be forgotten. There are a lot of pages left in your book Anaya. Make them worth reading. Make them happy. Be happy. I'll beg to god for your happiness when I meet him. I'll try my best from here for your safety and happiness. And you try your best there. Alright?
Take care Anaya. Be safe and please be happy. I love you. Always.
I read that letter again and again and again. I kept reading it every day. Even after Shaad Jr. had grown up and followed his dad's footsteps.
Maybe Shaad was only a chapter in my life. But he was the chapter for whom my entire life was written for. I guess he never realized what he meant to me. I kept his promise. I kept myself and Shaad Jr safe. I found happiness in bringing him up. I taught him the best I could. I told him everything about the great man his father was. And even though I didn't want him to join the army I knew the same blood ran in his veins as his father's.
Now I pray every day for his safety. Shaad was the only chapter in my life that was worth reading. So I will find love again. I will fulfil my promise to him. I will find love again when I find him again on the other side of this life. After all, always means forever. Maybe it be life or death.
Word Count: 4,234