The BB Man was taking aim at that pesky monkey again. That’s what ten-year-old Namesh calls the weathered geezer, because of the air pistol that flies from his waistband at the first sign of annoyance, whether the trespasser is animal or man. No morsel of food would be poached on his watch.
Infrequent meals aside, the shack holds nothing of value, anyway, nor does its curtain offer much sanctuary from the elements: natural or criminal. So poverty-stricken is the railroad town, “even Buddhists are driven to larceny,” the man slurred through his toothless Hindi and dementia. These days, passing trains ferry only human cargo who dare not risk a sympathetic glance, bound for anywhere but here. Its forsaken depot has long since been stripped for lumber.
As the gun raised, Namesh’s irises dilated and he felt the ritard coming on again. Guitar chords droned in his mind’s ear along with a goatskin hand-drum rhythm like the decelerated ticking of a clock. Spittle expelled in slow motion from the man’s lips, which flapped with curses octaves below his natural pitch. The background dimmed, sharpening focus onto the weapon and the exaggerated tremor of The BB Man’s hand.
A blast of compressed air from the barrel.
Trails of light streaked across the room as Namesh swished his head over to the monkey in the doorway. A dirt cloud puffed at its feet with the ricochet, and then it scampered off at hyperspeed as the musical hallucination ramped back up to pitch like a turntable released from a deejay’s fingers. Images whizzed past the boy’s eyes as he blinked out of his daze to find BB in mid-sentence, chewing, naan pinched between his fingers and the gun already tucked away.
“—ever see him again.”
More blinking. “Huh?”
“And they call me crazy.” The man shook his head, sopping up more curry. “Where do you go, Namesh?”
Namesh is not his real name, of course, having merely been dubbed by BB—during a spell of lucidity—to tease him about his transient visits. The boy liked to attribute such a capricious existence to his mother’s frequent moves when he was younger, grinning as he would add, “but I usually found her.” Until he didn’t one grey morning three years ago.
Dozens of other gamins call these streets home, abandoned by wretched or destitute parents. Girls, mostly, their future dowries and earning potential too burdensome to support. None share his temporal affliction, however: this involuntary slowing and speeding of moments. Like some mad goddess directing the movie version of his life, dragging out the crises and rapture to interminable lengths, then fast-forwarding through the commercials.
Time must be compensated for, elastic though it may be.
It’s not just a fight-or-flight adrenaline response, rather, triggered by heightened emotion or anxiety. And not always his own. Witnessing a fellow guttersnipe coveting a pair of sandals for theft off a vendor’s rug. Or a near-miss between an enfeebled mutt and an approaching train. After coaxing Namesh out of his few scrimped rupees, a Sikh fortune teller had once called him an empath, though the boy didn’t understand that term.
He chased after the spooked monkey, deserting BB as foretold. Across the rails, through humid, garbage-strewn alleys, and over untamed grass. When landmarks no longer looked familiar, Namesh feared the pursuit had covered too much ground and he might not remember his way back. They hurdled a hedgerow, and he found himself in a mango grove, where the monkey scaled a leg draped in purple silk and then perched itself upon someone’s shoulder. A girl, not much older than himself, standing expectantly with arms crossed. In her formal gown with gold embroidery, shiny hair, and easy smile, she possessed both an address and a future.
“What’s this you’ve brought me?” she asked, her voice light and melodic.
Namesh wiped the sweat from his brow and shrugged. “I caught him stealing food.”
“I was talking to Pathik, here.” She held up a wedge of fruit that the monkey snatched and nibbled greedily. “Another lost boy? Hm?”
All afternoon, they lounged in the pervasive shade of her favorite tree, performing their childish repertoires and giggling at her pet’s mocking pantomimes until the sun neared its horizon through the branches. Namesh knew better than to navigate his neighborhood streets after dark, and segued clumsily into his retreat.
The girl leaned forward as if to whisper in confidence, and then it happened again: that drowsy djembe beat, those droning chords. Namesh held his breath and surrendered to the intervention. Would it be a kidnapper pouncing from the shadows? The monkey clawing for his accursed eyes? Some unspeakable secret? His heart galloped in contrast to the suspended environment around him.
Wisps of raven-black hair at her temples flitting in the halcyon breeze and its golden backlight.
The citrusy air of coriander. But also a sandalwood musk that had last enveloped him in his mother’s rare embrace.
A smile that would surely betray him, its lips pursing on their approach.
Namesh prayed to Lakshmi to let him keep this moment—just this one, please—preserved forever.
About the author:
Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications/anthologies as Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, Warmed and Bound, In Search of a City, and Solarcide, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night. Visit him at http://gordonhighland.com