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The Strange Boy

Standing in the sweaty-humid and cramped public buses of the city during the sweltering heat of a summer noon was something Sajib had hardly ever experienced. At this time of the day, he would be half-asleep in the car, going home from school. Yet, today, he was standing in the middle of a public bus- which was being driven at a snail’s pace at the moment due to the traffic- in the middle of Dhaka.

The smell would be nauseating for him if the windows weren’t open, although that wasn’t to the credit of the people sitting at the window seats- the glasses of half the windows weren’t there in the first place. Some entirely gone, some broken in places by people during movements and public outrages not uncommon in Bangladesh. The government had a habit of angering the mass people every few months, no matter which party took over.

Sajib’s father needed to be taken to a hospital today for a check-up, so he had to make a decision before coming to school in the morning. Would their car need to pick him up from school and make multiple trips for his father or could he manage a ride? The decision took him only a moment. Because his father’s health came first, not because the possibility of an adventure of sorts excited him beyond belief. He was a responsible son and the one thing he told his family ended the conversation, “I’m 18 now. Of course, I can manage a ride!”

Could he manage a ride from school by himself? No. He lacked the experience. So, he asked a friend for help. They boarded the bus and to his surprise, the first step was almost above his knee in height. Another surprise to him was the rise in temperature as he boarded.

The bus braked rashly here and there and he struggled to keep his balance. He held on to the grab-handle for dear life, but standing on two feet was a struggle too! Inertia was not on his side.

People near him could see that he was new to this and some even gave him strange looks when their bodies hit due to the braking. He thought that everybody would rush in if any seat became vacant, but some actually told him to have the seat. Not that he would accept. This was his adventure and he was going to experience all the strange new things he could.

A skinny boy of nearly ten years in Sajib’s eyes shot him a smile from the nearest seat and said in a heavy accent, “Wanna sit here, Bhai?” He seemed to have understood his situation, but Sajib was more taken by the smile.

The innocence of it was something he did not expect. He took another moment to look at the boy. He had a dirty, half-torn sleeveless t-shirt and pocket-less cheap half-pants on. Such children in the country weren’t uncommon either; they usually lived under the poverty line, in slums, doing all sorts of dangerous labour to help their family make a living. An innocent, childish smile was something they didn’t have time for in the midst of the hunger and discrimination they faced.

“No, I’m fine,” Sajib said unconvincingly as he struggled to keep his footing.

When asked, his friend-who was standing right next to him- told him to stand on the outside corners of his shoes. According to them, it made balancing easier in such situations. It took him a while to get used to balancing like this, but it worked somehow and he could now look around. He saw some students in uniforms as he was, some men and women half-unconscious due to the heat, some wide awake and chatting away with their friends, some with earphones in their ears, ignoring everyone around them and some sharing snacks and cracking jokes with their friends around them.

He turned his attention to the boy again, who was now standing in front of him. He had a packet of chips in his hands. The opening of it was folded and the way he held on to it made Sajib think of how people not as fortunate as he lived- a thought he would often have, but rarely got a chance to act upon. He thought he would change that.

He tried remembering the amount of money he had in his wallet. It wouldn’t be less than needed, but he wanted to give the boy enough to buy some food for himself and his family- which would probably be of six or seven, maybe eight- if it was a typical slum-dwelling family in the city. “Maybe I’ll empty my wallet today,” he thought. “That should do it.”

The boy tried to move toward the exit of the bus, ever so effortlessly, by grabbing onto the people and the seats. Sajib held him by the shoulder. Shocked more than Sajib had expected, the boy tried to shake it off rather fiercely but he was determined. He called out to him and told him not to get off at the next stoppage, but with him a stoppage later. The boy agreed faster than expected as well. He didn’t need to tell him his reasons either.

The boy stood close to him. His seat from earlier had already been filled by another passenger. He held onto Sajib as the handles of the seats were taller than the boy. Sajib realized that the boy was skinnier than he had estimated, far skinnier. His friend had tried to tell him something as he called to the boy but his thoughts had already been taken over by thoughts of how the poor boy had to have struggled. The friend saw the shift of Sajib from ‘excited’ to ‘contemplative’ within a matter of minutes. They stopped themselves from prying further.

Sajib spent the remainder of his ‘adventure’ in his thoughts, not looking around or talking to his friend about the test that they nearly failed that day. The smell of sweat didn’t bother him and the pushing around of people didn’t feel like such.

“Maybe I can help him a bit more than just handing him the money,” he thought at one point but he soon remembered about his ailing father who he needed to check up on as soon as he got off at the stoppage.

The bus sped away as abruptly as it stopped. Sajib got off at his stoppage. He didn’t notice the change of temperature as he got off or that his shirt was as soaked as he thought the other people’s were. Neither did he exhale in relief that he was out of the cramped, sweaty bus ride.

The boy clung to him even now when they were in an open place. He held the folded packet of chips in his other hand. The packet bulged unlike Sajib remembered. “Eh, must be a trick of my eyes!” he thinks as he begins to speak to the boy.

“Please, let go of me. I’m going to give you some money. Take it with you. Buy some clothes and food for you and your family with it.”

The boy let go and said, “Bhai, you can give me the money a little later. Take a seat first. You’re bathing in sweat!” He smiled at Sajib. The innocence he had noticed in the smile was still there. It wasn’t his imagination. Relieved, he reached for his wallet to hand him the money.

“Thank you for wanting to help, Bhai. I won’t forget this. Ever!” the boy said, laughing, before running off.

“HEY! Wait! You didn’t even take the money!” Sajib reached out his hand but couldn’t get a hold of him. The boy disappeared into the crowd near an alleyway. Sajib didn’t have the time to run after him. His father was in the hospital!

A few minutes later, Sajib entered his father’s allotted room with a big grin on his face. The AC was on and everything was fine from the looks of the people there. His father told him to stand beside him and when Sajib arrived, he asked, “What’s with the grin?”

“I met a strange but poor boy today, baba. And I got to help him out.”

“Oh? That’s great news! What do you want as a reward?”

“I’m not a kid anymore! I don’t need a reward,” he said, laughing, “but I will need a new wallet.”

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Terminology used:

* Bhai: The word ‘brother’ as said in Bangla.

* Baba: A word used to refer to ‘father’.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

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