Wretched

November 25, 2021
By Sudip Bhattacharya

Vinnay had been on patrol for only a week and four days, though his uniform had been lurking under his “civilian” clothes for far longer, when him and his partner, Logan, received a warrant for a 67-year old Sikh man. 

The man had been charged for assault for stabbing another man in the late ‘80s, outside a local bar and served time for doing so, but since then, apparently, his immigration status had “changed”, according to the report Vinnay had been reviewing inside their patrol car, line-per-line, uncovering the details he desperately needed. Those monitoring the man’s status were now convinced he needed to be brought in for further questioning and possible “next steps”. The man was to be regarded as a “threat”, to which Vinnay also began to comprehend, though a part of him also wondered if his family knew the man’s family at all or he’d bumped into at some time even if Vinnay oftentimes refused to shop in and around the Edison area and would rather drive an hour longer instead. 

“Vin.” Logan had returned from the Dunkin, its neon sign still glowing in the morning fog, handing Vinnay his coffee, while slipping behind the steering wheel, the cold air sneaking in as well. 

Vinnay flashed a smile before returning to the report, reading it, over and over and over again, even as Logan backed out of the strip mall parking lot, and made his way onto the freeway, passing other strip malls, the stench of gasoline spilling in. 

Threat. Of course had to be. Who else did this fuckface harm. Probably left behind a trail of people who have also been stabbed, beaten, their eyes swollen shut. Broken bones. Blood stains on table edges. Blood stains on. 

“You wanna do this or should I?” Logan mumbled, as he sipped his coffee, the steam spiraling into his flaring nostrils. 

Vinnay spotted the man, his gray white beard reaching down to his chest, back hunched, pushing shopping carts that had been left wandering in the parking lot overnight, parking them right in front of the Patel Cash & Carry instead. 

Eventually, the man, his eyes squinting, his neck wrapped in scarves, noticed their patrol car headlights, and gazed back at them. 

He stood there, unmoving. 

“So, do you wanna do this or…?”

Vinnay leapt out of the car and rushed toward the threat. Broken bones were healed. Blood stains were.

TITLE: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SEVERAL MEN RAISES ALARM ACROSS REGION

Radhika deleted the word REGION, replaced it with EDISON AREA. Then, stared at the screen, until an uneasiness and frustration started to take hold, until she deleted EDISON AREA and returned to REGION instead, emphasizing the fact that yes, this was a problem now affecting many people across several towns, even if the main concentration of the arrests and detainments of local immigrant Desi men had been in and around Edison. Still, she heard from others in the community, including from friends of friends of friends of some coworker she went to their Hindu temple with ages ago, people who would bump into her at the supermarket and quickly whisper to her that someone else had been missing now from some time from the congregation, people who travelled out from Edison, causing the rest of the temple goers to no longer hold major events and for them to avoid shopping in the neighborhood even. Some, of course, didn’t care at all and when they would spot Radhika in some aisle, squinting at labels, trying to sus out the difference between one brand of mango pickles from another (the sour the better), they’d march over and inform her that it was best she stopped reporting on such things, unless she would want to focus more attention on herself, or worse yet, on everyone else. 

“Besides,” they’d often say, “these people made their mistakes.”

Suffice to say, Radhika would flash a smile, and return to reading the ingredient labels instead, until said person, oftentimes an aunty type, someone who’d wear sunglasses indoors, surrounded by mounds of okra, would glare, look confused, glare once more, and drift away, back into the crowd bubbling. 

Last weekend, several men had been detained outside a local Indian restaurant where they worked. Since being arrested and transferred into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have not been heard from since. After multiple attempts to contact and receive any new information from the detention facility in Elizabeth where the men are supposedly held, a spokesperson for the facility responded with an email detailing how sanitary and safe conditions are all detainees. 

“I am scared and usually, after work, I just go straight home now,” a local resident expressed, who wanted to remain anonymous for safety concerns. 

She furrowed her brow at the screen, while bundled under several layers of blankets and random sweaters that she so far, only wore once (as far as she could tell with a quick sniff test). Her fingertips sizzled, and a thousand tabs remained opened in front of her, and daylight began to slip into the studio, when Willard, her editor, called. 

At first, she ignored him and kept typing, but as one would expect, Willard kept calling, and kept calling, and kept calling, until the sound of the telephone drowned out the growing din of traffic outside, as people’s feet pounded on the floors above her, doors being slammed shut, the buses wailing right outside her window. 

“Where the heck are you?” he immediately asked once she picked up. “Did you get the email I sent over?” 

“Yes? Wait, no? Is this about…”

“There was a man arrested just a couple hours ago.”

“Wait, are you being serious?”

“All I need for you is to.”

“This happened where?”

“Can you please just write something quick? A blurb about the arrest.”

“I can do that, yea. But I am already writing that piece I told you about.”

Willard resisted the natural response to express any sign of exasperation. Radhika was one of his top reporters. On any issue, she knew who to call, what questions to ask, how to string together words on the most mundane to elevate the piece, as writing workshop teachers would proclaim. But right now, all he needed was a quick update for them to share over social media, to let the public know what happened. Nothing more. At least not for now. 

“I interviewed one of the officers,” she exclaimed, causing him to lift his head out from his hands. 

“When? What for?”

“It was this South Asian American guy. He wasn’t saying much, but he wanted to talk. That’s what the front desk said when they called. He was kind of expecting me, I guess.”

There was a pause. “You have other pieces to also work on,” he finally said, as he looked through the open door of his office into the rest of the newsroom, with mostly empty desks, without computers, without staplers even or notepads. 

There was only Chris, for now, at the very back of the office, tweeting, Instagramming, doing whatever it took to gather a following. Chris, who looked like some movie stand-in for “reporter” when newspapers were trusted, who, even though he said was born and raised in the garden state, looked more and more like somebody who emerged like a ghostly spirit above the cornfields of Idaho. He was now engrossed in his work, hunched over, his face twitching as he typed on his phone, then on his laptop, then back to his phone. 

“This is a bigger thing going on,” Radhika told him.

A part of him knew that. He had grown up in the East Brunswick, New Brunswick, central New Jersey nexus, the land of shopping malls and shopping centers and houses with lush green lawns with families running into piles of debt to maintain it all.  

As one of the few African Americans growing up in an area that was increasingly Indian, Pakistani and Arab, he knew firsthand some of the issues they had been facing. But nothing like this. 

He repeated what he needed to say and hung up. He looked out at Chris in the back corner, balancing now his laptop on his knees and taking a video of himself working at his cubicle for some reason. Willard now sighed, and for a brief moment, felt relief after having held in what it was he was feeling, thinking for what felt like days on end now, or years even, for the most part. When he first started at the Edison Gazette, back in the aughts, it was a newsroom of people who didn’t know the area anymore, and he did his best to maneuver between their egos, to finally land here, as the editor-in-chief, at a time when readership, however, had been declining, when reporters have been trading in their time for more “stable” work, like being an accountant. 

He had let people go along the way, too, including those he had sat next to for over a decade, people he gained some insight from, but then again, with him at the helm, they had to be a lean, mean, well-oiled machine if they were going to compete not necessarily with blogs and such (that was never really a threat locally) but if they had any chance at staying relevant in peoples’ lives, as they’re overwhelmed with working, as people lose confidence in the institutions around them. Apathy, indifference, bitterness, were their main enemies. 

Chris now was taking a selfie at his desk, probably something related to his whole mission of showing the people a day in the life of a reporter. Willard did appreciate the effort and he did chuckle as he sat and watched, as the coffee running in his veins powered him through, but another email popped up the screen. It was also from the Edison Police Department, the boys in blue, the guardians of traffic lights. 

Khalil Gibran, read the name on top of the arrest description. Willard leaned in, his brain pulsing. Khalil Gibran, age 47, was picked up by law enforcement today and transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings. “Honey, you need to eat something.” Willard jerked his head up from his phone and on his plate were some asparagus and some salmon. “Can you please put the phone away?” Martha was across the table from him, arching an eyebrow at him. He flashed a smile, and slid his phone into his back pocket, it feeling now like a rock. 

“Sorry,” he said and cleared his throat, and did his best to stay in the moment, chewing slowly on the tips of the asparagus coated in butter.

His wife, however, stared at him, watching him, as she too nibbled. “What’s wrong? Did Radhika email you again?”

“How was your classes today? How were the students?” he asked instead. 

“The usual. Its full of STEM students who just want to pass their preliminary college writing course,” she replied, quickly repeating her question, “Is Radhika not listening to you again? You need to fire her or something. Or warn her.”

“I did. I’ve hinted very strongly that I would let her go. And believe me, it’s been on my mind for sure.”

“Then, what’s the problem?”

“I don’t really want to talk about it actually.”

“Listen, I don’t have time for this. I do have classes to prepare for. Have to figure out how to make Moby Dick sound interesting to a group of students who think thinking is a waste of time, that all they have to do is experiment in a lab all day.”

“That sounds like a dream to me. To be in a lab and not worry about anything else.”

“That wasn’t the point I was trying to make.”

“I’m sorry,” Willard said, grinning, buying some time. “You know how slow I am.”

Martha smiled, and stabbed her fork through the asparagus. “Don’t I know it,” she said, and chuckled. 

Willard made sure to keep smiling, to keep eating again. Eventually, he told her about some other issue they’d been having, with local businesses, like diners contacting their paper, telling them their 50th or 75th anniversary was coming up and they wanted someone to “report”, which meant to ask some diners how much they loved the place, how the diner was like a “family” to them (“which if you think about it, sounds kind of depressing” he said). Part of him knew they needed to write such reports so they can entice local businesses to buy advertising space for the paper, but a part of him felt silly, demeaned, when having to send a reporter, most often an intern, to basically write PR. 

Martha agreed, and offered her own suggestions/ideas, saying they had to do to survive as a paper, if it meant putting on their front page a woman turning 101, surrounded by “loving” family and balloons. 

“You have to do what you need to do,” she said, “There’s no shame in that.”

At this point, Willard’s insides felt tight. His phone felt like it was dragging him down. All he could think about was the report from earlier. All he could think about was Khalil, behind the counter at the local sweetshop, always having something fresh ready for him, and how over the years, Khalil had become someone who would inform them about what was happening in the area, especially downtown where all the Indian, Afghan and Pakistani restaurants and saree shops were. 

Khalil had called him about a couple weeks ago, telling him that something was happening, people were going missing. 

“I do not know what is the deal,” Khalil said, in his familiar stilted voice. “But a friend of a friend is now gone. Another was gone, two days ago.”

Willard had the phone pressed to his ear. Idaho Man was in the office at the time, leading an informal “talk” on the importance of building a “personal brand” with the audience for a handful of reporters in the center of the newsroom. Radhika was also at her desk, typing away, glaring at the screen. 

“Can you do something about this?” Khalil pleaded. “Can you say something or do something soon?”

After a long pause, Willard told Khalil there was nothing to worry about. He, of course, didn’t tell Khalil he was worried about the backlash from readers if they raised the issue, or the fact that local businesses may pull what little advertising they had. He didn’t tell Khalil about how it would’ve been embarrassing to him, as the first African American to helm the ship, and to see it collapse. 

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he said instead, “We will keep an eye on it, okay?” 

“We all have to do what we need to do,” Martha said. “And you’re doing the best you can”, she added, before getting up and starting to clear the table. 

Willard kept cutting his now cold salmon, chewing pieces of it as best he could, remembering to flash a smile whenever Martha would glance at him from the sink, the water running, the sound of traffic always humming inside his skull like a chainsaw. 

++++

Arjun glanced at his phone. 10:36. After a while, he peeked again. 10:45. One more time. 10:50. Desi time, he shook his head. 

Still, Arjun knew better than to suddenly leave the Patel Cash & Carry parking lot, especially when he and others at the Immigration Rights Council had been running out of options anyway. Besides, being there, even with the wind whistling by, causing the car to rock, with mounds of muddied snow on either side of him, was better than say, being back at the office, plugging in numbers into data spreadsheets that he barely understood (his math skills he’s certain has gotten worse over the years), while being paid minimum wage as “consultant in-training”, a.k.a. intern. Sometimes, when he would return home, just around the time when his mom would be getting prepared for her second shift at another supermarket owned by some penny-pinching Guju (as a Gujarati himself, he felt obligated to shit on others in his “group”), warming up rice for herself by the kitchen of their one-bedroom apartment on the outer-edges of town, he would want to simply run past and avoid talking about his “day”. Sometimes, his Ma, during the one to two hours they had together on the weekends, between her shifts and errands, before he too would resume doing work for his classes, would ask him about how he liked his time at the council, and he’d not look up from his laptop, and try his best to look busy instead, even though his mind was still swimming from all the spreadsheets, or, more recently, been feeling submerged underwater, having read the reports of men in the community suddenly gone, missing from family dinner tables, missing from the local temples and mosques. 

“If you don’t like it,” she would sometimes say after he’d respond with a quicky, “It’s been good” and return reading the screen. “You can do something else. You can work with me.” 

At this point, there would always be a sharp pain in his chest. It wasn’t really real. Not like a heart attack. But it felt painful. He’d grimace. He’d curl his toes. He’d grit his teeth. His mom reeked of ammonia and parsley. His mom, whose hands were now like leather, would stagger into the apartment they’d been leaving in now for several years, after having left their dad, who was probably still lying face-first in a pool of his own bile, outside a bar somewhere. His mom, who listened when he explained why he was so excited to get the internship when the email came through, how he was going to help people like them. He wanted to be an advocate. He wanted to be a lawyer and this was his ticket. He needed to know people to get to where he had to be. 

But, now, whenever he’d hear his mom’s voice, how worn down, how weighed down by hours of scraping stains off counters, of arranging cereal boxes on the top shelves, while the manager watched. The words had slipped away now. 

“You can work with me” she said, which really meant, I need your help. We have actual paychecks here. To which, he’d always want to respond with, I don’t want to be working at the supermarket anymore. I don’t want to do that work for all my life. 

Instead, he’d sit at his desk, ashamed, until his Ma would tell him to make sure to eat something before she’d rise and groan and disappear around the corner. 

“Hello! Hello! Hello!” Radhika’s voice cut through the growing silence. There was barely any cars in the lot, except for cars that belonged to the owners of the businesses nearby, which included the supermarket, and also, some saloons and a Halal meat shop. At every Halal meat shop, it’s always the same guy cutting the meat, a relatively tall Muslim Desi man with a long flowing beard, like Gandalf. Right now, that man was smoking on a cigarette and turned toward them, once Radhika greeted Arjun, who in turn, hopped out of his car, beaming. 

Quickly, they discussed the “situation” in Radhika’s car, as she drove past the main businesses, and toward the Edison police station.

“Are we sure about this?” Arjun gripped the sides of his seat, his body pressed back by velocity. Something he faintly remembered from physics, another course he flunked, and subsequently, refused to understand. 

Radhika, however, was focused on the road ahead, as the car hopped over potholes, as it rattled and screamed. 

All that mattered. All that needed to matter was finding out the policeman involved in the arrests, and to find out who they were reporting to and why. More importantly, how many? How many men and possibly women had now been snatched away? How many have been taken from their families? From people they loved, like they never existed in the first place. 

“This is what always happens,” Saada said one afternoon, after another phone call with Willard when the disappearances began. 

Radhika remained at her desk by the window, typing and deleting the same line for eons now. The heating inside the building has also been stuttering, and with the cold air sneaking in between spaces on the windowsill, ice started to coat her brain. Layered under blankets was her saving grace, though for Saada, who had just returned from working another shift at the CVS, stacking shelves while customers would loom over her, rarely wearing masks, all she had was her uniform, her nametag, and a coat with its zipper caught in her sweater. 

“This is what happens, always, always, always.”

“You get obsessed.”

“People are going missing.”

“You get obsessed. You write.”

“It matters.

“You start missing other deadlines and.”

Someone started to yell upstairs. Footsteps echoed. 

“You start missing other deadlines and you get in trouble.”

“This matters…”

“What also matters is making sure you have a job. Making sure you have a place to be.”

“My mom could’ve been these people, you know.”

Saada stopped and leaned against the bed, her hands in her coat pockets. 

“My mom too. My dad. My brothers,” she said. 

Radhika glared at the screen, hunched over the keyboard, but with her own hands in her sweat pockets too. Her brain hurt. Her hands started to crack. 

Saada and her had grown up together, went to Rutgers together, though Saada had to drop out due to financial concerns and Radhika was more willing to saddle herself with an increasing mountain of debt, and over time, had realized how much they needed one another too. Radhika would oftentimes spend nights at Saada’s place she shared with what felt like a billion other people right outside campus, and yet, she’d still feel some level of contentment that she’d never feel anywhere else, just by sharing the same room with Saada, lying next to her, holding onto her, feeling Saada’s hands caressing her forehead, her hair, when her mind was plummeting, whirling like a spaceship dropping from the sky suddenly, losing altitude at every moment, spinning. 

“This is bigger than any of this pettiness,” Radhika announced. “This is bigger than all this bullshit.” 

“What I’m saying is not petty…” 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m just under a deadline now.”

Saada sighed. “ Would any of the people you’re writing about really do the same for you? For people like us?”

Radhika tried not to roll her eyes, and instead, started typing more, even if it were gibberish. She kept typing until there was only the sound of typing filling the room. 

Idaho man sprinted through the newsroom, banging his knee against a desk, causing him to hobble and yell, and for Willard, who had been slipping on his coat, to exhale and bite his tongue. 

“Sorry, did you, oh man,” Idaho man gasped for breath until he was able to recover and pointed to his phone. 

Willard squinted and after reading what appeared to be a tweet posted on the Edison Police Department twitter page, his eyes grew wide. 

“When was this?” 

“Uh, I just saw it this noon. I was.”

“Did anyone from the department call us?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so? Or you don’t know?”

Willard spotted the shame and fear rising, and hesitated. 

“Just don’t tweet anything at them,” he said, as he rushed past, a rush of blood to the head. In a blink, he was on the road, dialing Radhika through his bluetooth, again, and again, and again. The other cars honked and swerved. Soon, as the sun dipped behind the shopping malls ahead, the McDonald arches that cluttered his line of vision, the roads began to flood with exhaust and people fuming, their hot breath sticking to one another. He honked and swerved. 

In a blink, he was in the middle of downtown Iselin, surrounded by Indian stores selling sarees and bootleg DVRs, and Afghan meat markets, and Pakistani sweet shops/restaurants that presented themselves as Indo-Pakistani, especially since 9/11. 

In a blink, with his collar feeling matted down against his skin, feeling like it was shrinking, choking him, he was at the restaurant where he usually picked up his sweets, asking if he could speak to the owner when it was his time in front of the line, trying his best to ignore everyone else behind him, although everyone was either just staring at him the moment he entered the shop, glancing his way as he stood in his blazer, his bald shiny head, notepad in his hands. 

Growing up, he’d sometimes been used to the stares people tossed his way, especially when he’d be the only one who wasn’t South Asian and the only black kid hanging with everyone else, always trailing after in his bike or when racing to the park, trying to do his best to blend, laughing too even if the jokes didn’t always make sense and he was certain some of them were at his expense, like people repeatedly saying how “surprised” they were at his lack of athleticism. Apparently, there was a particular “type” he needed to be. But he didn’t want to be any type, or person that would draw more attention than he needed. He just wanted a life in which he could write, tell stories, and be. 

“Is the owner here? I’m the editor of the Edison Gazette,” he said, and watched as the confusion and fear washed over the employee behind the rows of sweets and kababs.  

“I need to talk to him or to Khalil,” he said.

This time, the employee, a much older woman, quickly nodded, and repeated, “I will be back”, and disappeared behind the curtain that separated one room from another. Around him the TV sets blared with bits of Hindi news, the same images of floods, cricket, and Bollywood celebrities smiling on red carpets somewhere in Sweden for some reason. The other employees, as they kept frying the dough, and arranging the sweets inside tiny boxes that one could gift, would peer at him and some of the older women glared, and he understood how all this could be seen, as him taking up their time, for someone he never cared for, or at least, as much as he should’ve needed. 

Eventually, a very tall man pulled back the curtains. He was clean shaven, however, and his hair was in a comb over. Immediately, Willard could surmise he wasn’t the manager, based on how he didn’t really feel like a total jerk, but still, he was someone important. Possibly also family with management. 

Regardless, Willard re-introduced himself as the editor of the gazette, and paused, and the man nodded, and kept chewing on something, and waited and finally asked if Willard wanted extra sweets. 

“Has Khalil been around?” Willard asked. 

The man stopped chewing. 

“Has he been around?”

“I don’t know.”

“I got a report from the police that says.”

“I don’t know. Talk to my uncle.”

“You don’t know what? What happened to Khalil?”

“He doesn’t work here.”

“What? Yes, he did.”

“Please, we’re just doing our business.”

“He literally would hand me the sweets every week.”

“Next.”

“He was here. Last week. He was here.”

“Please, let the other customers come.”

“Is Khalil here? How long has he been missing?”

“Next!”

“Where is Khalil? Did you call the police on him?” 

The man stepped to the side now, as the next customer, a man the same age as Willard, with some grays in his beard, with a briefcase in one hand, hesitantly approached the counter, side-eyeing Willard, who could sense now everyone staring at him. 

“Did you call the police on him?” he repeated, until his head spun, and suddenly, his voice filled the room. 

In a blink, he was at his car, parked behind a church, the train screeching behind him, as it flung people back and forth between the city and their towns clustered around a Dollar Tree, or maybe a Whole Foods now. 

Sweat stung Willard’s eyes, as he dragged in air until his chest would cave in, like a sinkhole. 

“Your paper can’t afford reporters like her.”

His body shook. He gripped the wheel until his knuckles turned red. A cyclone was whirling over him. If he let go, it would snatch him up and spit him out, thousands of miles away. 

“A reporter like her, who only sees her as the enemy can’t be good for the community. You know that. I know you know that.”

“We’re not the enemy here. We keep the community safe. And you know me. I was here the day you started. We always have had a good relationship, right?”

“I wanted to call to let you know some people I know at another restaurant are being made to come to work even when they don’t have enough masks. That’s illegal, right? Is that illegal?”

“You have to let her go.”

“So, nothing will happen to me?”

“Chris,” he said, the phone nearly slipping out his hands like a bar of soap. “Publish it.”

“Uh, are you sure? Do you want to talk to someone else? Maybe Cathy?”

“Share it online immediately.” He hung up, his body sinking into itself like a black hole. 

In a blink, there he was, perched on a molting bed, inside a motel, one of many lining the street, across from a million gas stations and golden arches. Trucks rumbled outside, airplanes torched the sky, black like tar. Someone was cheering on his team above and below. 

In a blink, Willard pressed his phone against his cheek, shoulders sagging, the words having been snatched away by the cyclone, as Martha tried not to cry on the other line. 

+++

“Vin, you gotta let shit like that slide.”

Large homes degenerated into rows of smaller houses with brown grass and some lawn gnomes. Some people still had their Christmas lights up, as Logan drove them into the heart of Iselin/Edison/Piscataway/corners of Highland Park. Towns circled each other, surrounded one another, and their gas stations and Dollar Stores and Walmarts melded into one garish loop. 

Vinnay had been staring out the car window, watching the world wash into one big whirl, like clothes thrown into a laundry machine. 

“That dumb bitch is gonna get hers, trust me,” Logan persisted, his voice rising. “I already told Jim to keep a look out for her, to maybe even roll by her place sometimes. Dumb bitch.”

Logan’s voice kept growing louder, and Vinnay could still feel his face steaming.

Suddenly, all he could see were eyelids swollen. All he could see was a man barking, his fists pulled back. 

“Don’t worry, we will find a way to get that cunt,” Logan said, turning on his lights as they cut across a major intersection. 

She had been lying face down on the carpet when he’d found her. Of course, at his age, it was natural to cry and shake her until she was awake. But that was before the barking man returned, slamming doors until cracks formed on the ceiling and walls. 

“When we find her, we can definitely mess with her stupid brain!”

The sirens were wailing as they zoomed over another intersection, their heads nearly slamming on the car ceiling. 

Vinnay balled his hands into fists. “Logan, can you just shut the fuck up.”

Eyelids were swollen. A pool of blood formed under her head, as she lay groaning. 

“Hey man, I was just.”

“Just shut up. Seriously. Who gives a shit what you say?”

Logan immediately turned silent and took in a deep breath, as Vinnay glanced at him and pressed his fingers into his forehead, trying to massage the scenes from his mind. Trying to keep himself intertwined with the here and now rather than the whirling churning mess gradually engulfing him. The mess that he wanted to be freed from long, long ago. The mess he’d hoped he could loom over whenever he’d wear his uniform, instead of the other way around. 

The churning of traffic filled the void between them, as they headed toward the Patel Cash & Carry they had been the day go, where now Radhika and Arjun had just pulled into, between mounds of dirty snow, and also in deep silence, with Radhika texting Saada and Arjun refreshing his Instagram page to see what his friends had been upto, which was mainly take pictures of themselves posing still in their uniform but in their car, or someplace with good lighting, maybe with a cigarette hanging, or wearing sunglasses while inside, followed by #FridayNightLights or something similarly innocuous. 

Arjun peeked over at Radhika now quickly typing something on her phone. He tried to not be upset at her. He tried staving off the panic that was causing his stomach to grumble and gurgle, digging his nails now into his knee. What if they were now patrolling his home? What if they were following his mom back from the supermarket she worked in? The fear started to give way to panic which started to give way to anger, which he promptly swallowed, in the form of bile that was traveling up his chest like lava.

R u free tmr? 

The three dots appeared. Her spine stiffened. 

I’m not.

Sunday? 

This time, the response was quicker. 

No. 

Radhika took in a deep breath. Spinning through the air. The ground getting closer, and closer, for some reason, it was always fields of corn beneath her, like in towns further north, bordering upstate, where there are cows chewing for hours, and where people smile to hide the anger and lust lingering inside, the same anger and greed that drove them to loot the land, to poison themselves and others. 

Monday? she typed. 

No. 

And that was it, a million pieces strewn across barley and corn and bales of hay. Her body melted into blood and guts and the coffee that’s been running through her veins and random pieces of gum she would trick herself to believing were meals. 

Her chest clenched. The spinning slowly returned. 

“Wow, look at this,” Arjun exclaimed, tilting his phone toward her. 

Her eyes felt sticky but she forced them open. It was the gazette’s twitter. It was a message directly from Mr. Robinson. 

“Woah…” was all she could muster at that moment. 

Arjun too was at a loss. 

“Do you know any of the families?” Radhika suddenly asked. 

“Sorta.”

“We don’t have any other options here. We need to develop some kind of narrative that could maybe get more people to care about this.”

Arjuna shifted in his seat, and stared at his phone. He had a few texts from his mom, asking him he could get some eggs on his way back. Apparently, she’d forgotten and was feeling too tired to go back. There was another group of texts from someone he’d matched over at Tinder. The person seemed interesting but had texted they were in the midst of moving further away so they could live with their parents and save, a.k.a. the millennial plan of surviving. Working a low-wage job. Streaming shows on Netflix between shifts. Buying snacks from the 7-11 even though whatever you get, even if it’s just M&M’s, it’s going to make your intestines explode. 

Arjun looked up some information lost in his heap of emails, plucking out an address or two. He still texted Deepa, his superior, letting her know what he was doing. At first, she hesitated, texting some questions concerning the reasoning. He explained that they could use Radhika as a means of generating interest that they desperately needed, especially now with a Democrat administration professing to care, throwing people off the scent. The lawn sign constituency enraptured with words about “inclusivity” and “we’re all immigrants”. 

The neighborhood one of the families of the disappeared was a few miles from where all the major businesses were, on the periphery. It was a cluster of subdivided homes, with families renting parts of it, with a gas station serving as the nearest supermarket. The front doors, however, were adorned with decorative lights, and within each window one could spot the couches covered in plastic, the walls strewn with family photos. When Radhika and her mom fled from Radhika’s father, her mom immediately started decorating their new home, buying lights for inside, buying up “art” from the flea market, including porcelain frogs and other animals wearing pants and drinking tea for some reason. Every morning, her mom would wake up while it was still pitch black, the lampposts still flickering, to iron out all the creases from her store uniform, to straighten her hair, to have enough time to brush her teeth a second or third time after having some much-needed coffee. Often, her mother would implore Radhika to do the same, sometimes waking her up also hours before school, arguing with her to not look so “dirty” and ragged. To straighten her hair and make sure her clothes didn’t have a single piece of lint somehow clinging.

“Hi, we’re with the Immigrant Rights Justice Project,” said Radhika in broken bits of Hindi that she learned from a friend’s parent ages ago and from her mom, who had migrated from West Bengal into Bihar, then Uttar Pradesh before taking the final leap into the U.S., the place where the only language that mattered was money, where she’d work until her skin was leather, and her mind saturated, submerged, where she’d spend most of her days trying to decipher who exactly Radhika was every morning, and Radhika in turn, would do her best to dress her, and to remind her by playing some old Bengali songs that always sounded exactly the same, with someone crooning about a long-lost friend or somehow focusing too long on a single leaf falling from a tree and what that conveyed about human existence. There was always some sort of never-ending suffering that people had to endure for some poetic meaning. 

Radhika knocked again, and repeated what she said between the slits of the door, spotting a light down the hallway. The moment they exited their car, the lights in the living room went off, and the curtains were kept drawn. 

“Please, we just want to get your husband’s word out,” she said, and kept knocking, as Arjun stood a few steps below, and kept monitoring the street. There was no one outside, except for an elderly Desi man at the gas station down the avenue, but even he was staying mainly inside the tiny office between the gas pumps, shivering while draped in blankets and watching shows on his phone when they had passed him by initially. But mostly everyone was hidden inside, curtains drawn, not making a sound. 

A shadow flitted across the hallway. “Please,” Radhika repeated, “we’re trying to help.” 

Arjun scrolled on his Facebook feed, his insta. He even went through some YouTube videos that he’d saved from the car ride, videos about people trying “exotic” food from New Zealand, videos about people in relationships playing pranks on each other, like pretending not to be able to hear what the other is saying, which didn’t really sound that particularly funny but all the same, it was entertaining, at least then. 

Once back in the car, Arjun played the videos at a low volume, as Radhika collected her thoughts, and after a while, peered over, and watched some of the videos as well, feeling as if they were recorded on some alternate timeline, where people weren’t missing, where families were open in sharing their grief. But in some sense, there were people able to exist in different timelines almost, to go about their errands, to go to work, expect to come back safely, watch shows, eat and fall asleep on the couch and the couch not being something they grabbed at a massive discount at some retailer always advertising they were about to shut down for over a year and were having a perpetual clearance sale. To fall asleep inside an apartment with a separate bedroom that they shared with someone who loved them, with someone who would be there when they’d return home from work. She swallowed, and chuckled at the prank, while Arjun arched an eyebrow at her. 

“I’m going to call the mayor’s office,” Martha told him, as daylight crept in. 

Willard had been watching TV all night, his eyelids puffy. Still wearing his tie and dress shirt as he lay in bed, on top of the sheets which he spotted some stains on them. There was complimentary breakfast at the front desk of the motel, which amounted to some bagels that were basically bricks, and some Folger’s coffee. He still drank the coffee at least, but after a while, he let it sit on his nightstand, the steam fading. 

“I’m not sure that changes anything,” he said, trying not to provide any false hope, although he hated the cruelty of the situation they were now mired in for the past few days. The calls kept pouring in, with people denouncing him as some anarchist antifa liberal Islamic socialist fascist, and others going so far as to say he needed to be stopped. Willard had gone straight to the motel after the first voicemail he received, and instructed Martha to pack up what she needed and to stay at a friends’ house, which was a few miles away from him. 

“What are you going to say?” he said. 

“What about the FBI? I can call them. They handle situations like this.”

“But it’s the FBI…”

“This isn’t fair.”

“Do you think this is fair?”

“This is not fair. To you. To me.”

There were people heading to work now, their store uniforms without a single crease, their makeup all done. The hoods of their cars dangling with tape. 

“Should I bring you some food or anything?” she asked after some time. 

“No, please. I’m ok. There’s a Wawa across the street.”

“Don’t get anything in cream in it, please.”

He chuckled. “Trust me, my gameplan isn’t to have explosive diarrhea while on the run,” he said. “Last thing I need.”

She chuckled too. “Sometimes, you act like such a kid and buy up all the candy you can see.”

“Wait a minute. I haven’t touch a candy bar in years now.”

“You literally bought a bag of chocolate covered pomegranate seeds from Costco.”

“That’s different.”

“How is that different?”

“It’s healthy,” he said. 

She laughed. “Are you saying that because it has fruit in it?” she asked and before he could respond, she laughed again, and although it had only been over a day, maybe less, he wanted to reach through the phone and hold her. He wanted so badly to lie with her in their bed, on the couch, on the fucking dining room floor. It didn’t matter. When they met at Howard, all they did were read and lie in bed until they’d fall asleep. Neither of them liked to go out much, unless their minds were slowly turning to soup and the routine of waking up, drinking coffee together at the quad, while Willard’s roommates were staggering back to bed themselves, laughing, their breath reeking, had started to make them feel tense, like pianos would suddenly drop from the sky and crush them. They shared in their anxieties and roamed D.C. They shared in their deepest fears, of ending up in piles of debt like their parents, like everyone else they knew in the suburbs, everyone willing to put up a front, lush green lawns, two cars, a shed, so they all could feel they made “it”, whatever “it” really meant. 

“Are you going to call the FBI?”

“I will think on it.”

“That’s a no then.”

“I will see what I can do. You should get to your class.”

“How long are we going to be like this?”

The questions looped until Martha was running late and with a muffled “I love you” in return, disappeared from another part of the universe. Down below, the parking lot was nearly empty now. Cigarette butts rolled across the white lines. There was one car however, and one man looking up at the motel room. He wore tinted sunglasses. Willard squinted and pulled away, and dumped the rest of the coffee into the sink, and called Radhika again. And again. 

++++

“Where the hell have you been?” he asked, pressing the phone against his face, until his cheek was hot. 

At the other end, there was a deep sigh, followed by a yawn, followed by the sound of a train screeching. 

“Where are you?” he repeated. 

“Jersey City,” she said. 

He had some coffee in his hand, and wanted to take a sip, to feel its effect on his throat, on his chest, in his toes that kept getting wet in the snow, as he kept rushing across the street each morning now. 

He had told Chris to post updates, which he’d receive from Radhika as often as he can. 

“Why?”

“We think we may have found a relative. An aunt.”

“For Khalil?”

“Probably. We don’t know.”

He sucked in some cold air. “Did you get some rest?” he asked. 

She chuckled. 

He chuckled, not knowing what else to say. 

It was still dark out, and the clouds were thick. Starts were still twinkling over him. All he could think of was Martha. All he could think of was maybe going back to their home, pack up a few more things. All he could think of was Khalil, somewhere alone, somewhere miles away from everything that mattered to him. 

“Do you need anything?” she asked, “We could bring over some water. Some Hot Cheetos?”

“Jesus, no. I’m ok.”

“Fine, just the Hot Cheetos.”

“I’m still your boss.”

“My boss who works out of a motel.”

He heard some laughter in the background, and then, another train, screeching. 

++++

The car went flying, skipping over potholes, with the siren screaming. 

Vinnay gripped the steering wheel, until his skin started to rip. Until his gums bled. 

Just him muttering to himself, as the target was acquired. As the threat was accessed, him alone, them on their own, wandering. The threat looked so much like him. Promptly, he pressed on the pedal. 

Sudip Bhattacharya has been published at Current Affairs, Reappropriate, The Aerogram, and local newspapers across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. He is also an organizer with the Central Jersey DSA, and is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University.

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