Chapter 5: Moth
The front door flung open as Zaka stomped inside, slamming it behind himself as he moved down the unlit hall towards the staircase. The overhanging chandelier burst the room into brightness as Aya appeared in the walkway, looked concernedly at her little boy, who only paused to acknowledge her presence and ascended upwards. The lady however, was persistent in her care and followed him upstairs, only to be met with a door to her face.
Aya waited a few patient minutes, listening to the boy rummaging through his closet and shifting on his chair and then his bed, until eventually knocking nonstop on his thick black door. The young man inside had his face buried in his pillow, using it to muffle the sound and will it away. But he couldn’t do that to Aya and got up to attend the door.
“What’s the matter” he inquired impatiently.
She noted the change in clothing and how the lights within the room were still closed, so she couldn’t make out his facial features, only the outline. She stood there quietly and conspicuously raised her hand to turn on the light switch at the end of the upper hall, on the wall next to the room. Her hand met Zaka’s, obstructing her from getting a closer look at his face. His head had dropped between his chest and he sighed as he spoke to her softly.
“I’m sorry, but please. I need some rest.”
Aya stood in the dark, almost tearing up at the unexpected secrecy from the boy. She pulled his hand back to himself and clenched her own as she spoke with noticeable grief.
“I don’t like seeing this in the house again,” she twirled her fingers amongst themselves and maintained her gaze towards the carpeted floor. “You know Mr. Zaka, it hurts me to see you like this. Please let me know if I can ever help you relieve your problems.”
Zaka gave a sincere nod, which comforted his housemaid and she nodded back in gratitude, retreating down the aisle towards the stairs and noisily descending.
The room’s door was closed once more as the young man took his seat to record his attack in to his research blog, highlighting the potential of Zarah having asked the favor or commanded her brother Kashif to carry out the assault.
“One of two things become apparent by this course of action taken by her, assuming her brother did not act on his own free will, which I sincerely doubt. In scenario one, Zarah is displaying signs of discomfort, perhaps even insecurities with me being in her vicinity, so used her brother as a warning, a threat to keep me at my place. I have my doubts on this, since she doesn’t strike me as being of a thuggish mentality. Then again, I don’t know enough about her to say such with certainty. In the second scenario, she is acting out of self-defense, getting to me before I get to her. This seems provocative to me, meaning I may have stubbed upon some toe that she holds dear and she believes I may exploit it. This could be relevant of how she changed her behavior a few weeks leading up to the assault. Perhaps I didn’t heed a warning.
Regardless, the solution to both these potential cases is clarity. There is one sure-fire way to be certain: I ask her.
Judging by her blaring signal to me to back off, not doing so is a clear indication of my persistence and may invoke a response that gives me further insight into her thinking. Another rash outcome means she’s a troubled individual with insecurity issues. Anything besides that is a good sign to establish communication…”
Saturday saw Zaka leaving his house as if though it were any other weekend, wrapped in several turns of a muffler and a thick coat. His father sipped his tea, reading the newspaper and eating egg and toast on the table outside the kitchen, remaining unperceived of his son’s whereabouts. Zaka walked past him into the kitchen, reached into the fridge and retracted a bottle of soda that he chugged down as he walked out and discarded in the waste-bin in the dinning room. His father remained fixated on the paper but called aloud, “Hey, how’s it going champ?”.
“Everything going great at your school?” his dad went on.
Zaka turned his head to his father, who finally figured out the horizontal nine-letter solution in the crossword. He scoffed in a low volume, “Peachy,” and exited into the main hall. Aya emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the sides of her old, weary shalwar and inquired where he was headed to and was surprised and joyous to know that he was attending a gathering at his university and bid him farewell as he drove off.
The drive to the university was always an hour long on weekdays, but avoiding the rush meant the destination arrived in under three-fourth’s that time. He parked in his usual spot besides the bus depot situated next to the main gate and walked down the dusty pathway towards the Business complex, where large logs and branches were being arranged in a pyramidal fashion and having several canisters of oil drained onto them.
The bonfire never had any special activity. There would be no food roasting, story telling or musical performances. People would just stand around it and recollect instances of the past semester to talk about before the winter breaks arrived after a month. Occasionally a small group of men would perform traditional dances, encircling the fire pit, twirling and some other groups would mimic them if they were good, or everyone would pitch in to ridicule if they were sub-par.
There’s no reason to expect her to be here. But, if she is, I can’t delay meeting her. It strengthens my message.
Zaka maneuvered his way through the crowd, scanning their heads for the thin black-haired head of Zarah. A senior standing besides the pit gave a shout to get everyone’s attention.
“Alright, HERE WE GO!”, and tossed a burning torch into the heap of wood which immediately ignited, sending flames that caressed the morning sky.
The complete congregation moved towards the fire like moths and awed at the initial intensity of the blaze. Zaka moved to the outer perimeter of this encirclement and spotted her, as expected, the one person trying to avoid an accumulation.
Zarah Baloch sat cross-legged under a tree, without a book, peeping at the spectacle over her folded arms. “How basic are people’s lives that such trivial things entertain them? Or perhaps, that is the attribute to be cherished, simplicity. Yet, it borderline’s uselessness,” she thought to herself.
Her eye caught a strangler from the crowd, walking steadily towards her, his head tilted towards the rocky ground. She knew who it was, his brown hair was an easy give away. That’s how she always spotted him amongst the line of pedestrians. The young man turned and sat a few feet next to the lady and rubbed his hands for warmth, then adjusted the muffler on his nose.
Neither spoke for a while and as the intensity of the bonfire settled to a moderate blaze, the gatherers started to slowly disperse and intermingle. The duo then turned to look at one another and readjusted their gaze to the floating ashes.
“You know,” Zaka went on, looking down at the hay-brown grass. “I finally figured out why you always drew your hair when I walked by.”
“Modesty?”, she spoke. This was the first time Zarah had spoken without pause and it excited an inner feeling in Zaka.
She may actually be sincere here now.
“Covertness,” he replied boldly, slipping his muffler down to reveal the bruise on the tip of his nose and neck.
Zarah gave it a momentary glance then resumed her viewing of the scorching wood.
“Well, you ought to have lowered your gaze then,” she mocked.
“You thought I was intruding. I wasn’t. I have no idea why you got so rough,” Zaka refuted.
Zarah sat up straight and turned her torso towards Zaka as she spoke in a heavy tone to establish her seriousness.
“You have some gall to still come here after he told you not to.”
Zaka rolled his eyes, not looking at her direction as he corrected her, “That’s sort of why I came. It made no sense. I never came to talk to you, you always ignored me and even moved away to keep me from coming. Yet still, you had your brother beat me up. Only because I walked by your building?”
Zarah adjusted herself back into her spot. “There’s a name for people like you.”
Zaka gave off a jeering chuckle. “The more you avoid the point, the certain I become. I’m telling you, I didn’t mean to intrude. You calling your brother was a strange move, it hinted desperation. From such a black sheep of a sibling, I would imagine it was desperate.”
She plucked some grass and left it to drift in the wind, raising her head as she pushed back.
“You’re one to talk about strange family.”
“Excuse me?” Zaka seemed jolted by the statement.
Zarah turned her head to him again and in attention, he did the same.
“You get beat up, get marks, but next day you walk into school obviously hiding it, but have done nothing to treat it. It still looks like a fresh bruise.”
What is she trying to get out of this?
“No ointment? Cream? Some family you have, who wouldn’t notice. You did something to upset your mother that she didn’t wanna look at you?” Zarah remained on the offensive and took her stalker back by surprise.
This time, it was Zaka who remained in transitory silence and turned his face away from her, as if in shame and remined in that position. Her hostility seemed to have hit a soft spot and she stopped fondling the grass, tilting her head onto her shoulder. Zarah took notice of this sudden retreat and rotated her neck to view the bonfire.
“Look,” she started. “I’m sorry if…”
“My mother has passed.”
Both sat in silence, staring at the logs disintegrating into ash and smoke in a fury of a raging amber-inferno and augmented crackle. The grass that Zarah had plucked flew side-by-side with the rising ash from the fallen lumber, dissipating into the rusty sky.
“I’m sorry to hear…”
“No, you’re not,” Zaka responded venomously in defense.
I don’t need your pity. Stick to the topic.
She responded with authoritative assurance and the fluency of placidity.
“I lost both my parents to an accident two years ago.”
A horde of clarity rushed into Zaka’s cranium as he heard her finish that sentence.
An orphan? Isolated, fears losing control? She makes sense now.
All her actions suddenly seemed to stem from an understandable event. Her motivation of actions could be traced back to an uncertainty of the future and desperation to maintain what she has left. Hence the seclusion and the dramatic behavior.
“Who told you about my parents, stalker?”