Sunlight poured into the living room. Bhagat’s mother, uncle and aunt stood in silence.
“I don’t know when they came,” Bhagat’s father said over the phone. He was seated on a chair, his turban tightly wound, and his back bent, as if an invisible hand was pushing down.
“We woke up, and there was graffiti all over our doors and…” he paused.
Bhagat watched from the hallway.
“I understand, but they also left a note,” his father added, and proceeded to read it. “This was only a taste of what we can do. If you don’t leave, expect the worst on September 11, the day you Ragheads attacked America.”
Bhagat’s mother winced, as his uncle and aunt kept their heads lowered. After Bhagat’s father hung up, Bhagat’s uncle asked what happened.
“So, what did they say?”
“The police said they can do a patrol that evening.”
“That’s good then.”
“No. These types of people will come back soon. We must remain alert. Have you not heard what they did to that man in Chicago? Beat him to a pulp.”
Again, everyone was silent. Bhagat went out the back door and hopped on his bike. He rode over to Dalip’s house, which just was a few minutes away, deeper in the heart of Edison.
. . .
When Bhagat arrived, there was already a crowd of people on Dalip’s driveway, most of whom Bhagat recognized from either school or temple.
Dalip and the other boys were filling their super soakers with water, while the girls sipped on root beers.
“Hey man, what took you so long?” Dalip said, as Bhagat jumped and let his bike clatter on the pavement.
Bhagat picked up a super soaker from the mud, and started filling it up with a hose. Dalip introduced him to the others, and Bhagat flashed smiles, and once everyone was ready, they chased one another, laughing and yelling at the top of their lungs.
Once Bhagat and Dalip were soaked, they sat on the brown grass.
“You excited for high-school?” Dalip asked, smiling wide.
Bhagat grinned. “What you so happy about?”
“I think this year will be awesome.”
“I just have a feeling.”
“Hmm. Good for you then. Cause I don’t feel anything.”
“Jeez. So melodramatic. Are you still thinking about Radha?”
Bhagat picked at the blades of grass, tying them up into tiny knots.
Dalip told him to cheer up. “Besides,” he said, “there’s this new girl who you should meet.”
Bhagat raised an eyebrow. Dalip placed a hand on his shoulder and directed his attention to the group of girls still standing on the driveway.
“Do you see her?”
“All I see are girls giggling while guys spray them with water…”
“Not them. That one over there, wearing the blue hijab.”
Finally, Bhagat spotted her, taking another can of root beer from the crate lying on the asphalt, and popping it open.
Bhagat was instantly transfixed by her big eyes.
“Her name is Zainab,” Dalip continued. “Her family just moved here last week. She will be in our freshman class. You should talk to her.”
“I dunno. Just start with ‘Hi.’”
Before Bhagat could say another word, Dalip lifted him up and pushed him ahead. Bhagat wanted to sit back down but the girl turned and smiled at him. He had no choice but to smile back.
Bhagat grabbed another can as well, and after clearing his throat, casually asked the girl if she liked root beer a lot.
“It’s the only thing here,” she said. “So I drink what’s around. Sometimes.”
He chuckled too.
She asked him how he knew Dalip.
He told her they grew up together.
“We’ve done pretty much everything together,” Bhagat explained. “We even started a band once, but we were terrible.”
Her eyes got wider. He felt like peering into them forever.
“What instruments do you play?” she asked.
“I play drums!”
“Yep! Been playing since I realized I like to annoy my parents.”
They chuckled at the same time.
He asked her what kind of music she liked, and she listed TV on the Radio as her favorite.
“Do you listen to Blood Orange?”
“Time Will Tell is one of my favorite songs!”
Bhagat couldn’t believe it. Zainab told Bhagat they should play sometime. Bhagat agreed, and they talked more about the music they liked, as others were leaving and day was replaced by night.
. . .
Bhagat’s head was filled with visions: of him and Zainab, playing together, laughing together, just being close.
He thought of Radha too.
Suddenly, just as he was turning the corner, he felt someone push him off his bike.
Bhagat fell onto grass and managed to jump up.
There were five boys who surrounded him.
The tallest one loomed over Bhagat.
“What were you talking about with the new girl?” he demanded from Bhagat.
“We were just talking about stuff…”
“What kind of stuff?”
There was a pause, and Bhagat felt like looking up, but resisted the urge, as he felt everyone glaring.
“She’s mine. Okay? So don’t talk to her, or even look at her. Or we will fuck you up. Understood?”
Bhagat nodded, and kept himself staring at the ground.
. . .
The next day, Bhagat went back to Dalip’s, where they spent the afternoon playing video games and writing lyrics.
“Hey, what happened with Zainab? It looked like you guys had a lot to talk about,” Dalip said as they relaxed on the couch, watching TV with the sound off.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to see her.”
“What? Why not? Did something happen?”
“Manmeet and his friends jumped me yesterday.”
“When I was going home, they found me, and Manmeet said that Zainab was with him, and that I shouldn’t bother or you know…”
“I’m confused. Manmeet and Zainab are together now? When did this happen?”
“I don’t know. But Manmeet was dead serious, and you know how he is nowadays.”
Dalip sighed. On the TV screen was President Obama speaking before a group of journalists at The White House.
“Remember when Manmeet was weird?” Dalip said.
“He still is.”
“I know. But he’s just angry now.”
“Yea. Everyone used to call him ‘Man meat.’”
“He started working out last year I think,” Bhagat said.
“And now, he’s jacked like some dude on steroids,” Dalip added.
Bhagat didn’t say anything else, as they watched the screen, as images of a woman named Sandra Bland and a man named Freddie Gray were shown.
After leaving Dalip’s, Bhagat remembered to pick up a bag of lentils from the Patel Cash and Carry downtown. He squeezed through the crowds and managed to find what his mother and aunt needed. The sun was still bright when he stepped back outside. As he walked over to his bike, he heard a voice call out.
“Bhagat! Hey Bhagat!”
He looked across the street. Zainab was heading toward him.
He quickly took off the lock on his bike but Zainab was already standing in front of him.
“Hey! What’s up?” she greeted.
Manmeet’s words echoed.
“Nothing much,” he said, “just grabbing a few things…”
“Are you still interested in playing some music together?” she asked.
“Sure…I mean…my schedule is kinda packed so…”
“Are you free in an hour?”
Zainab kept smiling.
Bhagat smiled too.
. . .
Zainab’s drum set was in her family’s garage.
She was trying out new beats, as Bhagat plugged in his guitar and tuned.
“You ready?” she asked him after a few minutes of reverb.
“What do you want to play?”
“How about you play a riff and I come in?”
Bhagat stepped back, and thought of something he was working on. He started strumming.
“Sounds like Prince,” Zainab said above the din.
Bhagat smiled, and kept playing.
Zainab soon joined in, matching his tempo. She banged against the snare drum, louder and louder, causing Bhagat to pick up the pace.
They played until their hands ached, and they couldn’t stop laughing.
Bhagat was still smiling even as he crept through the back door, into the family kitchen, where he saw his mother standing in the hallway, her back turned to him. He realized she was watching his father, who was seated by the phone, staring through the living room windows, with a baseball bat on his lap.
Bhagat went to his room, got changed, and laid in bed, but couldn’t stop smiling or close his eyes.
When it was finally sunlight, Bhagat bounded out of bed, and ate his breakfast as fast he could before heading over to Zainab’s.
. . .
They played all throughout the morning and afternoon, until they had to catch their breath.
Zainab handed him a root beer as they sat down on the living room couch.
“I thought you didn’t like root beer?” Bhagat said.
“Wait…but I thought it was your favorite…”
They looked at each other and started laughing.
Once they calmed down, they sipped and collected their thoughts.
Finally, Zainab asked Bhagat if he always lived in Edison.
“Yep, born and raised,” he said.
“Are your parents also from New Jersey?”
“Nah. They’re from India. But this was like the second place they settled in. But my dad and uncle have always worked in the supermarkets around here.”
“That must be nice, to have grown up in a place where you know everyone.”
Bhagat chuckled. “I mean, I don’t know every single person but I get what you mean,” he said.
He took a sip and looked over.
Zainab was quiet.
“Are you okay…?” he asked.
Zainab took in a deep breath.
“No, I’m fine,” she said. “Just that I sorta miss my friends, that’s all…”
Zainab sipped without saying a word.
Dalip had advised Bhagat to make his move after Bhagat told him about Wednesday.
But Bhagat could sense the growing silence.
He told Zainab that she now knew him and Dalip.
“It is nice to at least know someone who likes the same stuff,” she said.
Bhagat nodded, and took another sip.
. . .
It was dark, except for the lampposts scattered on every block, flickering.
Bhagat pedaled as fast as he could. He saw his house at the end of the street. He felt the warm air whizzing past.
He was pushed off his bike, landing on his sides.
This time, he wasn’t allowed to get up, as others kicked and punched him.
He covered his head. His legs and arms though started to burn.
A hand grabbed him by his collar, lifting him off the ground.
“What did I tell you?”
Bhagat stammered, as he stared into Manmeet’s eyes.
“What did I tell you?” Manmeet repeated, and took out a knife, which he placed at Bhagat’s throat.
Bhagat felt something warm running down his leg. Manmeet’s friends laughed.
But Manmeet kept the knife at Bhagat’s throat and through a tight whisper, said next time he’d kill Bhagat.
He let Bhagat crumble to the ground.
Manmeet’s group walked past, spitting on Bhagat, leaving him in a pool of sweat and urine.
. . .
Bhagat stayed in bed on Thursday, only getting up to use the bathroom.
Zainab kept calling him, so he eventually hid his phone in a desk drawer.
At night, Bhagat went to the kitchen for more water, and saw his father in the same spot by the phone.
Bhagat watched as his father’s head drooped, the baseball bat somehow balanced on his knees.
Bhagat stood in the hallway, and even though his own eyelids felt heavy, he still thought of what happened. He also thought of Radha, when her parents told them to stay apart, and how soon after, the phone calls between them stopped.
Words were gathering in his throat, and yet, they felt stuck.
. . .
Friday was September 11.
Bhagat’s father took the day off, and so did Bhagat’s uncle.
“Why did you call off work?” Bhagat’s mother asked, as his father and uncle sat in the living room, in what became the usual spot.
His father simply kept staring ahead.
“How many days will you spend staying up like this,” she added, and again, he didn’t respond.
Bhagat’s mother clenched her fists and fled the room.
Bhagat went back to his own, where he tried to write lyrics, but still couldn’t control the thoughts left wandering through his head.
The entire day, no one made any loud sounds. Only the pipes when someone would flush occasionally reverberated.
Eventually, it was only Bhagat’s father who stayed up, as everyone else returned to their rooms, including Bhagat’s uncle who dozed off several times.
Bhagat finally was also able to fall asleep.
When he awoke, he was still feeling tired and pulled the covers over his head to block the sunlight coming in from the window.
But he heard voices echo down the hall.
“What happened?” Bhagat’s uncle asked his father, as they stood in the living room.
“They covered us with graffiti again and broke our mailbox,” Bhagat’s father answered, massaging his forehead.
“I thought the police were going to help us…”
“They probably did a patrol early evening.”
“So what now?”
“I don’t know.”
“I do,” Bhagat’s mother said.
They all turned toward her.
“We all go to the temple, like we do every weekend,” she said. “And then later, we get some food at a nice restaurant.”
Bhagat’s aunt was smiling.
Bhagat’s father was hesitant, asking who would clean the mess.
“Never mind that,” Bhagat’s mother said, grabbing Bhagat’s father’s arm and pulling him along. “Let’s just get ready.”
They walked past Bhagat in the hallway and asked if he wanted to come.
Bhagat told them he had to meet someone.
His parents smiled and went to their room.
Bhagat immediately ran outside to get his bike and rode straight to Zainab’s. When he reached her home, he rushed over to her front door, and knocked.
No one answered.
He knocked again.
Still, no response.
He called Zainab’s number but it went straight to voicemail.
There was no one else outside. He decided to sit and wait.
The hours plodded on.
After a while, as the moon returned to the sky, he saw a group of figures heading toward him.
He took in a deep breath and stood up.
“You’re an idiot, you know that,” Manmeet said once they were standing just a few steps away from each other.
Bhagat clenched his fists.
“Oh wow, look who grew a spine overnight,” Manmeet said, grinning.
The others laughed.
“What’s wrong Man-meat?” Bhagat replied. “Can’t face me without your groupies?”
Manmeet stopped smiling. His friends stepped back.
Manmeet charged ahead.
Bhagat tried to dodge, but Manmeet grabbed him by the collar and pulled him down.
Bhagat managed to free himself.
Manmeet punched him in the chest.
Manmeet punched him in the sides, and Bhagat staggered.
Manmeet punched and punched.
Bhagat covered his head and somehow kept his balance, until Manmeet grabbed him by the neck.
Manmeet flipped out his knife.
Bhagat tried to push Manmeet’s arm away, but the knife was slowly edging closer and closer to Bhagat’s face.
Manmeet began to laugh.
Bhagat felt the sweat stinging his eyes.
His knees were starting to shake.
He could see the knife getting closer and closer…
“What the heck?”
Suddenly, everyone looked up.
Zainab was on her bike on the sidewalk.
“What the heck is going on?” she said.
Everyone was frozen where they were.
Zainab looked over at Bhagat, who was covered in sweat, and then lifted her gaze to meet Manmeet’s.
Without hesitation, Manmeet let go of Bhagat and along with his group, rushed down the opposite end of the street.
. . .
The moon was bright, as Bhagat sat on the steps and looked up.
Zainab walked over to him, handing him a bag of frozen peas.
“Place this to your head, where it hurts the most,” she said.
“Thanks…” Bhagat murmured and did as told.
Zainab sat next to him.
“Is everyone crazy around here?” she said.
Bhagat tried to smile, even though his face was swollen.
“Probably,” he said.
They gazed up at the sky.
Zainab told him she knew about what happened to his parent’s house.
“It sucks,” she said. “My folks have experienced it too. It was one of the reasons why we moved here, to a place like this…”
Bhagat glanced at her.
“I’m sorry for ignoring your calls,” he said.
She was still looking up at the sky.
“Thanks,” she said, “but I do think you’re crazy too now.”
Bhagat paused, but didn’t say anything.
Instead, he returned his gaze to the night sky.
He sat there, waiting for the peas to work.
His face was sore. Every part of his body throbbed.
Bhagat prepared himself to get up.
Soon, however, he felt a light pressure.
He realized it was Zainab resting her head on his shoulder.
He smiled. His jaw ached.
He smiled wider.