FICTION: What Are Friends For by Ajay Patri

‘I’m scared,’ David whispered.

We were in the elevator as it hurtled towards the ground and the small crowd of children that we knew were waiting for us outside the apartment. His eyes refused to look me at as they remained fixated on the orange numbers that blinked on the cracked display. I could tell he was terrified. His lips always dried up when he was, cracking and bleeding if he so much as whimpered a little. I saw spots of red near the corners of his mouth as his tongue darted out to caress them.

‘I’m scared,’ He said again, a little louder this time.

I gripped his arm, just below his fleshy elbow, and told him we had nothing to be scared of, that we would get through this together. We were friends and this is what friends were for. As his eyes swivelled around in their sockets to look at me, I could feel the blood pulsing underneath his skin.

‘Really?’

He looked at me with what looked like hope, holding the arm that I was using to clutch him with a hand of his own so that we were suddenly intertwined in a tangle of limbs. I nodded. I wanted to repeat my words but I didn’t. I was scared too and saying any words of reassurance again would have felt like lying.

‘Okay,’ He said, giving me a weak smile that made me feel guilty.

*

The gang stood in a huddle a little distance away, staring at us as though they had never seen a couple of nine year olds before. It was the middle of summer but the night air felt like the quick burst of cold that hits one’s face on opening the freezer door.

‘I see you babies decided to come after all.’

Everyone’s necks snapped around to behold Tallie. Legend had it that he lived by himself on the streets, having killed his parents as a small boy and escaped from the scene of the crime so that the police wouldn’t brand him a juvenile delinquent and lock him up till he turned eighteen. We were all scared of him.

In the light thrown by the solitary streetlamp in front of our apartment block, Tallie looked tall and old, old enough to have a smattering of pimples on his face. His hair had enough gel in it to defy gravity, sucking in all the light as it reached for the stars. As we watched him, he produced a slender stick seemingly out of thin air and twirled it in his hand like a baton. He started walking towards us, tap-tap-tapping the ground with the stick, his face a twisted mask of malice, deep shadows below his shiny gray eyes.

‘So these two want to be a part of the gang. Can you guys believe it? I thought they still slept in diapers.’

There were sniggers from the gang. They huddled even closer, smiles from one face bleeding into the next, elbows and shoulders juxtaposed over neighbouring bodies like ill-fitting LEGO blocks.

‘So what do you guys think? Are they good enough to join our gang?’

The gang, a ragtag group of prepubescent children and the odd teenager or two, sniggered again like a pack of hyenas. The question was rhetorical. Tallie’s voice was the only one that mattered.

‘I think they should show us that they aren’t babies anymore.’

Tallie bent down so that his eyes were level with ours. He reeked of Brylcreem and cigarettes, an overpowering aroma that made my eyes water.

‘Are you sure you little shits are up for this? Once you’re in, there’s no going back. And if you go crying to your ma, I will make sure I fucking kill the both of ya.’

I risked a glance at David’s face to see how he took this threat. He was all set to quit, to tuck his tail between his legs and go back to the apartment, never to venture out again. I said that we were ready, in a cocksure voice that made Tallie raise his dark eyebrows.

‘You are, eh? I hope for your sake that you are.’

He straightened up and threw his head back to look at the stars. His nostrils flared as he took a deep breath.

‘Do you smell that?’

I couldn’t smell anything but the stench emanating from him. Everyone else started sniffing like they had contracted a collective cold.

‘I smell fear, boys. ‘

He cackled. The others, forgetting that they had just been duped into sniffing the air for nothing, laughed with him.

‘We’ll keep it simple. You will perform the same task over the next three nights. And it’s a simple task too. Want to know what it is?’

I was holding my breath by then. David was as still as a rock and I wondered if he had fainted while still on his feet.

‘Both of you will, on your own, walk around the apartment block.’

Gasps escaped the others and David shuddered back to life.

‘Around the building?’

‘Did you think I’d take you out on a fucking picnic?’ Tallie asked, his brow furrowed in annoyance, pimples dancing on his face. When David shook his head, meek and silent again, he took a step closer to us, his stick still tapping away on the ground.

‘Just one round each night. You guys up for it?’

‘Tallie?’

It was one of the other boys, buck-toothed and looking terrified at hearing words come out of his own mouth. Tallie turned to face him, his eyebrows raised.

‘What if something happens to them?’

‘Like what?’

‘If they get lost or get attacked or…’

‘What’s your fucking point?’

The boy got flustered. He buried his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shuffled his feet around in the dirt.

‘What if their parents…’

‘I don’t care about what their parents think. Do I look like I give a shit about them? It’s for the boys to decide if they want to do it. Unless of course, you want to do it for them.’

‘Oh no, Tallie, I don’t…’

‘Then shut the fuck up!’

Chastened, the boy slunk a step away. I took advantage of the distraction to look at David, who had gone back to doing his best impersonation of a rock. I shook him a little.

‘I can’t do this,’ He whispered in the same lifeless tone from back in the elevator.

Uhuh, I told him. We have to do this. He would have pleaded with me if given half the chance but there was no time. Tallie had already turned back to us.

‘So what do you say? All up for a stroll in the dark?’

I said that we were, not looking at David, knowing that he would not forgive me for making this decision for both of us.

*

I volunteered to go first because it was the least I could do. I thought, with a sense of undeserved martyrdom, that David wouldn’t have to go through with it if I didn’t make it back. David said nothing when I raised a hand like I was in school and said I would go first. Tallie pursed his lips, irked by what must have appeared to be my eagerness, but as he bent down again to look at me, the irritation was replaced by curiosity.

‘So you’re the brave one, huh?’

I didn’t look at David as I set off, the cheers of the gang egging me on. It was plain sailing until I reached the first corner of the wall that wrapped itself around the apartment block. When I turned, it was like stepping into a room and having the lights turned off and the door shut behind you. The darkness was complete at first, pressing against my wide open eyes no matter which way I looked. Then ghostly figures popped up in my vision, tall, thin and unmoving. A scream formed in my throat but the darkness muffled my voice when I opened my mouth. I wanted to close my eyes, not see the spirits as they came over and swallowed me. Just as I was about to crouch down and turn myself into a human ball, a breeze passed through the woods and the place was drowned in a cacophony of sighing and rustling.

They were tress! Eucalyptus trees with their white bark and sweet scent. I started sobbing in relief. I could survive this, I told myself. An owl hooted overhead, sympathetic to my plight. I kept walking, my hand on the puckered surface of the wall beside me. Every five steps, I brought my wrist up and pressed the little button on my watch, Mickey Mouse’s smiling face telling me the time as the backlight flashed for two seconds. Midnight was fast approaching.

When I turned the next corner, I knew I was behind the apartment block, as far from safety as it was possible to be. As I took a step further, I heard a low whistling that couldn’t have been the wind or the trees. I stopped, turning my blind head this way and that. Ma had always warned me against wandering off like this but I had never asked her why. The gang steered clear of the woods behind the apartment block because they said it contained creatures that could rip young boys to shreds. Large wolves with red eyes and slobbering fangs, a desecrated graveyard from where the undead crawled out to grab at gullible passersby, marshy ground that could swallow you whole in the blink of an eye. I told myself these were merely tales meant to scare children. I was old enough to know better. But with the suffocating darkness all around me, I thought it couldn’t hurt if I ran the rest of the way. If anything insidious happened to be lurking around, it would have a harder time catching me if I barrelled past it.

I took a deep breath and bolted. I stumbled more than once, falling down and scratching my knee but continuing to run, never looking back. I didn’t see the next corner coming and I overshot it, running past the bend in the wall so that my hand closed around thin air. I stopped, panting and knowing that I was stranded, directionless and with who knows what creeping towards me in the dark. Turning around and extending both my hands forward, I told myself I hadn’t run too far and that the wall was just inches away from my fingers. I took tentative steps forward, my mind working against me, imagining dark creatures lurking in front of me, waiting to lunge forward and bite my fingers off, leaving bloody stumps that would hurt and make me howl in pain while they circled around me, chomping on my digits and toying with me before they moved in for the kill. But my fingers touched something that didn’t attack me, something that was solid and unmovable. The wall! Grateful for it, and realising I was sobbing again, I pressed my nose into its concrete skin. It smelt of nothing.

*

When I made it back, Tallie had a wry smile on his face, the stick looped behind his neck as his hands balanced it on either side of his head. The gang gawped at me.

‘What happened to your knee?’

I looked down and saw that my knees were smeared with dried blood and mud. I brushed it off and looked up, about to say I tripped and fell down when I saw that they were looking at me in a way they had never done before. So I gave the most casual shrug I could feign, letting my eyes roll and letting them reach their own conclusions.

Then I noticed David. He was standing right where I had left him, hands behind his back, his t-shirt clinging to his body because he was sweating so much. I tried to catch his eye, to give him a smile that would say it was all okay, but his eyes remained on the ground near his feet. Tallie brought the stick down and tapped it on David’s shoulder like in the pictures I had seen of monarchs dubbing the knights of old.

‘It’s your turn now.’

As time stretched on and David remained standing there with his head bent like a child being reprimanded, I told myself he would give up. He would start crying and refuse to do what was asked. I wanted to run up to him, grab him by the shoulders and tell him it was not as scary as we had imagined it to be. But I stood where I was, separated from him, part of my mind worrying whether my foothold in the gang was at risk if David backed out. Tallie tapped him again and David looked up.

‘Okay,’ He said.

I felt relieved, like I had found the wall again.

*

When we were back in the elevator, I gave David a light punch on the shoulder. I told you we would make it, I cried, jumping up and down to make the elevator shudder like a contraption about to fall apart.

He didn’t react, his eyes back on the numbers in the display. I wondered if he was feeling jealous. The reception he had received from the gang after completing his round was not as raucous as it had been for me, as if having seen one person make it, their night would have been made more interesting if David had not returned in one piece. But that wasn’t my fault and David standing there with a glum look on his face made me feel like I was being overindulgent with my celebrations. Keeping my voice even to not let my irritation slip through, I asked him if he was feeling alright.

That’s when he looked at me. David had always been a pale boy but that night, under the dull yellow bulb that lit the elevator, he looked transparent, like someone had reached under his skin and scooped out all the blood.

‘I’m okay,’ He mumbled.

*

When I went to the kitchen for breakfast the next day, Ma was standing with her hands on her hips, her face a cauldron of dark fury. David was sitting on a chair, a glass of milk in front of him, looking just as pale as he had the night before.

‘Where were you last night?’

Ma barked those words out, the tip of her nose quivering the way it always did when she was mad. I couldn’t lie because she knew I hadn’t been in the house but I couldn’t tell her the truth either. She would have blanched at the thought of her only son walking around in the woods behind the apartment block on his own at night. So, with as straight a face as I could maintain, I told her that I was at David’s apartment. She turned to look at him, her eyebrows going up.

David was puzzled for a moment, the glass of milk at his lips. I was banking on him to lie for me and he did, nodding and mumbling that I had been at his place. Ma was mollified.

‘Tell me the next time you’re going over. You gave me a bit of a fright there.’

I gave her the most cherubic smile I could muster and said I would. She patted me on the cheek and went out. I grinned at David. He took a sip of milk, most of it dribbling down his front as his lips missed the rim of the glass.

*

When we were safely ensconced in my room, sitting on the old carpet on the floor while surrounded by action figures with crooked arms and frozen grimaces, David told me he didn’t want to do it anymore.

‘Do what?’

He looked at me like I was making fun of him, picking up a G. I. Joe and trying to twist its limbs.

‘You don’t want to be a part of the gang?’

‘The gang is lame.’

‘So you just want to keep getting bullied, huh?’

He shook his head, lips pursed. When he opened his mouth to speak, I cut across before he could say anything.

‘You know what is lame? This whole rite of passage thing. It’s lame because the woods aren’t scary at all!’

‘Why should we listen to Tallie? He’s just a kid himself!’

‘He’s not a kid. Have you heard his voice? He sounds like an old man.’

‘You know he will bully us anyway, even if we are a part of the gang?’

‘It’s better than being bullied while not being a part of the gang.’

We scowled at each other, the impasse making it too uncomfortable to continue playing but neither of us willing to be the first to break the silence.

‘You can just go by yourself,’ He said at last, keeping the G. I. Joe back on the carpet. ‘I don’t like the dark.’

‘But then you won’t be a part of the gang.’

He shrugged, scratching his hand near his wrist, leaving little white lines in his skin that seemed to glow for a second before fading away. I peeled off my watch.

‘Take this.’

‘Your Mickey Mouse watch?’

‘Yes. You can use the glow in the dark backlight tonight. It won’t feel so dark anymore.’

He took the watch, cradling it like it was made of glass. It looked too big in his hands, too heavy. His eyes could not believe he was actually holding it. I knew he would return that night for the second round.

*

The second night was uneventful. The darkness no longer felt heavy with the unknown, no creatures reached out to grab me and the wall remained a resolute companion beside me. When I returned and David set out for his round, I told myself that this would be over soon.

*

‘What’s wrong, David?’

He shook his head, eyes closed, hands buried deep in the pockets of his corduroys. I reached out an arm to pat him on the shoulder and my fingers went through his body and out like he was an illusion. I screamed, jumped backwards and banged my head against the closed door of the elevator. That got his attention, his colourless eyes opening up to look at me.

‘What happened to you?’

He shrugged and in that slight movement of his torso, his body looked like it was made of a million tiny pieces arranging and rearranging themselves. A red glow emanated from his chest, just like E.T., before I realised I had seen the fire extinguisher mounted on the elevator’s wall behind him. I had seen through him. I can’t keep doing this, he told me in a voice so weak it felt like I was hearing it from a long way off.

The elevator door dinged open behind me and I ran.

*

I sought out David the next day and found him on the stairwell beside the elevator. He was sitting on the topmost step, staring at the ventilator over his head, nose twitching like a rodent’s. I sat down beside him and tried to give him a playful shove. My hand went through him and hit the banister on the other side. What do you want? He asked me. He did not sound angry or hurt. He sounded tired.

‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have run away like that yesterday.’

‘It’s okay.’

I leaned towards him, shaking my head and resisting the urge to touch him again.

‘I shouldn’t have done that. That’s not how friends act.’

He nodded, his head bending down like it weighed a ton. He was paler and more transparent than ever before.

‘What happened out there?’

He turned to look at me, his eyes pleading. It was difficult to focus on them when they were barely there. He told me he couldn’t do it again.

‘It’s just one more night. Just one more. The darkness is just a trick. You need to keep your hand on the wall and keep walking. That’s it. It’s as simple as that!’

My words rang hollow and I stopped talking. David said something, and I had to lean even closer to him to listen. He asked me if I wanted him to be there that night.

I wanted to say no. No, we didn’t have to go again. We didn’t have anything to prove. We had gone around the building twice and that should be more than sufficient to bolster our credentials for being a part of the gang. The whole rite of passage thing was bullshit anyway, cooked up by Tallie because he was bored, the other children playing along because they didn’t have anything better to do.

‘We have to go. Tallie will kill us otherwise.’

David accepted this without protest and held out something in his hand, my Mickey Mouse watch.

‘You keep this for tonight. I’ll take it tomorrow once we’re done with this.’

He shook his head and told me he couldn’t press the button to make the backlight come on. It was too hard, he said, and the watch too heavy. Then he looked back up at the ventilator like our conversation was over. I got to my feet, mesmerised by the way the light from the ventilator pierced through his body like he was made of thin paper.

*

When I finished my third and final round, the whole journey having passed me by in what seemed like mere seconds, Tallie held out a hand and we shook hands like gentlemen.

‘Welcome to the gang, you little shit.’

The others congregated around us, thumping me on the back and congratulating me. By the time I managed to extricate myself from the huddle, I saw that David was already on his way, a small figure getting smaller with every step he took.

‘David!’

He slowed down and I thought he would turn around but he kept walking until the darkness swallowed him.

‘There he goes,’ Tallie said. ‘I wonder if that’s the last we will see of him.’

*

David did not return. I paced around and checked my watch over and over, ignoring the others. Tallie stood with the stick in his hand, his face dark and brooding. After David had been gone for almost an hour, Tallie looked up like he had just woken up from a deep slumber.

‘Well, that’s it then. We’re done here for the night.’

‘But what about David?’

‘It’s too late. He can’t be a part of the gang. Maybe he can try next year.’

He chuckled and tapped me on the head with his stick.

‘Can we go around the block once to see if we can find him? He doesn’t have to be a part of the gang but we can’t leave him out there alone. He could be lost.’

The others looked uncomfortable at this suggestion, breaking off into ones and twos and walking away like no one would notice. I ignored them and looked Tallie in the eye.

‘Come with me. Please.’

‘You want me to come with you?’

Of course, I wanted to say before the words got caught in my throat at seeing the expression on his face. He was not just uncomfortable with the idea. He was terrified by it.

‘Are you afraid?’ I asked him, not quite believing that I was asking this question.

With a massive effort that seemed to take everything he had, he shook his head and frowned at me, his pretence of haughtiness thin and failing to deceive.

‘I’m not scared. But I’m not going to waste my time looking for him.’

And he was gone too, leaving me alone under the light falling down from the streetlamp.

*

I knocked on the door and waited, sweat pouring down my face, my knees trembling. I had gone around the building twice, shouting for David, my hands slipping on the face of the wall. He was gone and now here I was, close to midnight, trying my best to not start crying.

The door opened in front of me. She was wrapped in a fluffy nightgown, the one that David had always hated seeing her in. She looks like a pink duck when she wears it, he had always told me, face twisted in disgust.

‘Yes? Should you be out this late?’

I didn’t know how I could tell her that her son was lost. Her eyes, bleary with sleep, became a little sharper when she saw the mess that I was.

‘Aren’t you the boy who lives down the corridor? Is everything okay at home?’

‘David,’ I spluttered, before the tears made their way past my eyes.

‘Who’s David?’

She looked puzzled and concerned. When she reached out a comforting hand, I took a step back. I shook my head, like I was telling her I had stumbled onto the wrong house.

‘Why don’t you come in, dear? We can go find your parents. Are they home?’

When she took a step outside her apartment, I turned around and ran back to my own home.

*

‘And where were you last night?’

Ma was sitting on the couch, her eyes on the television but her voice as sharp as ever. I stood near the door to the living room, using my toes to tease out the loose strands of yarn from the carpet. The truth loomed over me, mocking me, daring me to utter it.

‘I was with David.’

Ma looked at me, her face incredulous.

‘What was that?’

‘I was with David. But he went missing so I was searching for him. I didn’t find him.’

‘What are you saying, son?’

I repeated what I had said, a stubborn rind to my words, like I believed in it no matter what she would think. Her face was stern by the time I finished talking.

‘You are to go to your room right now. And don’t you dare come out until I tell you to. You can’t go around lying like this!’

I barricaded myself in my room, a part of me wondering why I had not tried to lie with a little more conviction when I knew that the truth was no longer viable. I sat down on my bed and looked at the action figures scattered on the carpet from our last game. It occurred to me that David must have felt the same sense of inevitability about what he was doing as he embarked on that last round. And he would have been just as helpless to stop himself from doing it.

ajay-patri

Ajay Patri is a lawyer and writer from Bangalore, India. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Eunoia Review, Every Day Fiction, Star 82 Review, Spelk, among others. He is currently working on his first book.
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