It started with a text.
“You up?” the message read.
Khalil was in bed, but once he realized who the text was from, he immediately sat up.
“Nm,” he typed back.
After a few minutes of hearing himself breathe, a reply filled the screen. Soon, a conversation bloomed, like nothing had changed.
“Lol. Same. Are u back for Thxgiving?”
“Yep. U? How’s UCLA?”
“I’m gaining the freshman gut. Lol.”
“Haha. I’m sure u look amazing.”
“Aww. How’s your freshman year?”
Khalil hesitated. The stack of books he brought with him from Maryland, most of them for his political science courses, loomed while in the corner of the room. His chest felt heavy.
“Nathuram,” Khalil finally texted, “r u okay?”
There was a pause.
Khalil stared at the screen.
Suddenly, Nathuram responded.
“Been thinking of u.”
Khali felt his body getting warmer. He resisted the urge of saying too much and simply waited as Nathuram continued.
“I touched myself to pics of us.”
“Creeper,” he wrote.
Nathuram answered with a smiley emoji, and the question, “Are u still a virgin?”
But Nathuram added, “Come over tmr night. Parents are out…;)”
Khalil didn’t immediately know what to do. But, as he thought of Nathuram holding him, his body felt lighter. He smiled.
. . .
On Thanksgiving, Khalil prayed at the mosque, ate turkey with his parents, and kept reading for his classes, from works by Plato to Foucault, men whose faces he couldn’t imagine.
He read until the sky was pitch black, and he collapsed onto his sheets.
When Friday arrived, Khalil and his friend, Amartya, went straight to the East Brunswick shopping mall while it was still dark out. Crowds were already gathered at the main entrance.
“My fingers are going to fall off,” Khalil muttered, as he rubbed his gloves.
“Just focus on what we need,” Amartya said, and scanned over the list.
Mrs. Chen, a teacher they once had, spotted them.
“What are you boys doing here?” she asked.
Amartya explained that their parents needed them to look for sales.
“They’re working extra shifts,” Amartya said.
Mrs. Chen, who was also bundled in layers, asked them how things were going at their respective colleges.
“Are you getting used to living away from home?” she asked.
Amartya, who was commuting to Rutgers, said he was enjoying his classes so far.
“I wanted to thank you for all the stuff you made us do in English class,” he told Mrs. Chen. “I’m already way ahead.”
Mrs. Chen was glad and asked Khalil the same question.
Khalil smiled as wide as possible, and asked Mrs. Chen how things were at their high-school.
“The school is still in one piece,” she said.
“Is everything alright?” Amartya asked.
Mrs. Chen paused. Khalil noticed lines under her eyes. She looked older than just a few months ago.
Before she could answer, however, the doors of the shopping mall were thrown open and everyone surged ahead.
People yelled and ran through the department stores, grabbing everything and anything within grasp, including hangars and belts.
Amartya stuck to the list, leading Khalil to electronics, where they fit a large TV into their shopping cart. Next, they found brand-name shirts and jeans half-off, surrounded by advertisements of men and women their age but whose skin glowed, whose lips were bright red, and with the words LOOK GOOD/ FEEL GOOD right below them.
“Do you want tight or loose?” Amartya asked Khalil as they were next to a bin full of boxers.
Amartya asked again but heard no response and soon realized that Khalil was texting on his phone.
Amartya arched an eyebrow, and crept closer. He peeked at the screen.
“What the fuck?” Amartya exclaimed.
Khalil, as if waking up, saw the expression on Amartya’s face and put his phone away.
“What?” Khalil said. “Just get whatever. It’s not like life or death.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re with Nathuram again,” Amartya said. “Don’t you remember what happened?”
“That was before. I’m meeting him later. He invited me.”
“If you were looking for a relationship, I could’ve hooked you up with Ahmed.”
“What are you even planning to do anyways?”
Amartya rolled his eyes, and turned back to the boxers.
Khalil repeated the fact that Nathuram had invited him.
“Whatever,” Amartya sighed, as he ticked off items on the list, and avoided making eye contact.
. . .
Every cash register was open. The lines snaked all the way to the back of the store.
Kanu picked at his nails.
Amartya was counting the money he had in his wallet.
“It’s the billionth time,” Khalil finally said. “It’s not like they’ll just hop away.”
“Doesn’t hurt to make sure.”
“Why are you even walking around with that much?”
“My folks don’t want us using the credit card anymore.”
“Why not? Did something happen?”
“I really don’t feel comfortable talking about this here.”
“Wait, is everything alright?” Khalil asked.
Amartya looked at him.
Khalil repeated the question, but Amartya just stared.
At first, Khalil was feeling angry. He was feeling heavy again.
Yet, he heard voices yelling. So he turned to a group of people pushing each other in front of a stack of TVs.
The arguing got worse and the store’s employees tried to break it up. But, the TVs tipped over, crashing onto the floor.
A loud boom echoed.
Everyone stopped where they were.
Another boom occurred, louder than before.
“He’s got a gun!” a woman yelled, and immediately, everyone dropped what they had and ran.
Amartya grabbed Khalil and they rushed outside, pushing through. Khalil looked to his left and his right, and saw others, mostly older people, falling to the ground. He also saw someone who looked like Mrs. Chen tumbling under, as if caught in a wave.
. . .
The mall was sealed off.
“Shit…” Amartya murmured, as he and Khalil watched as cops took down names and info from those who made it outside.
Khalil glanced at his phone.
“Are you hard yet? ;)”
Khalil took a breath and told Amartya not to worry.
“You’re right,” Amartya said. “We just need to stick to the plan.”
They got back in Amartya’s car and drove to the shopping malls in Woodbridge and Menlo, and even as far south as Freehold. At each one, the shelves were bare. They had no choice but to drive to Bridgewater, which was emblematic of what outsiders think of New Jersey, just someplace with empty corporate officers, a random factory, and a shopping center with untaxed goods.
There were crowds at the shopping mall. Khalil and Amartya finished up as soon as possible, ending up on the line for the register in less than an hour.
Amartya was smiling at the woman cashier who swiped their laptops and packs of boxers through the machine.
When the final number popped up, Amartya put his hand in his pocket, as Khalil was busy packing up the items.
Khalil slowed his pace when he noticed Amartya sticking his hands into every pant and jacket pocket.
“What’s wrong?” Khalil said.
Amartya stared at him, with wide eyes.
“I lost my wallet…” he replied.
They apologized to the cashier and ran to their car.
Khalil took the keys this time as Amartya cursed and punched the dashboard.
They went through every aisle of every store they’d been in at Woodbridge, Menlo, and Freehold.
They eventually parked their car in the parking lot of the EB mall, where the police tape was still up.
“It’s in there,” Amartya said, as they stood and watched.
“Just cancel the cards,” Khalil told him.
“Like I said, I don’t have any.”
“Well, that’s better then.”
Amartya sighed, and drifted away.
Khalil rolled his eyes.
The sun was descending.
He received another wink on his phone.
He tried to smile. He imagined wrapping his legs around Nathuram’s. But all he could do was lean against the hood and watch Amartya in the emerging darkness.
It was just them and a few cars left. The lampposts in the lot switched on and Khalil recognized Mrs. Chen.
She was seated in her car, the door open, and her legs sticking out. Her shoulders were slumped.
Khalil went to Amartya and tugged on his sleeve. Amartya glared but quickly saw what Khalil was motioning to.
“Mrs. Chen, what are you doing here?” Khalil asked once they were in front of her.
She smiled. But tears were running down her face.
She was also cradling her arm.
“Mrs. Chen, do you need help?”
Khalil and Amartya exchanged glances. They helped Mrs. Chen to her feet and drove her to the nearest hospital.
The nurses did tests and put Mrs. Chen in a room.
Amartya and Khalil sat on either side of her bed.
She rested her head against the pillow, and looked over at Amartya.
“You’re such a gifted writer,” she said.
Amartya told her it was because of her class.
She smiled, and thanked them for helping her.
“I don’t even know how I’m going to pay for all this but I’m glad you were there,” she said.
“Don’t you have health insurance as a teacher?” Khalil asked.
She placed a hand on Khalil’s.
“Be strong,” she said. “Nothing is permanent. But you have to be strong, okay?”
Khalil didn’t know what to say, so he nodded.
Mrs. Chen told them her daughters were coming to get her, and so, they left. They walked through the parking lot in silence.
Once they were in the car, Amartya said he’d drop Khalil off at Nathuram’s.
Khalil murmured, “Cool,” and they wore their seat belts and drove off.
. . .
The lights at Nathuram’s were turned off. Khalil texted.
Amartya and Khalil waited.
“HEY! SORRY! L Am in NYC!” the message appeared.
Khalil took in a deep breath and stared through the windshield, at the other houses along the road, their windows devoid of any light.
Amartya asked if he was okay.
Khalil cleared his throat, shrugged.
They sat in silence again.
After sometime though, as the heaviness in his chest grew, Khalil couldn’t help but open his mouth and talk.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “Coming back, I was looking forward to…I don’t even know. I mean…Mrs. Chen…all those people… some of them are dead and…and – – -”
Amartya pressed his lips against Khalil’s.
When Amartya eventually pulled away, Khalil stared.
Khalil asked him what he was doing.
“What do you think?” Amartya responded.
Khalil grinned as well.
They went to the backseat and undressed.
They helped each other put on their condoms.
“I don’t know how this works…” Khalil admitted.
“Neither do I,” Amartya replied. “I’ll just lie on my stomach.”
“Do you need a pillow?”
“You have one?”
“Then hold me then.”
Khalil followed instructions, and as Amartya lay down, Khalil slid inside.
Joy and excitement, dread and doubt, surged. Khalil bit his lip and tried to control himself. He thrusted, picking up speed.
They went back and forth, back and forth, and traded positions, until they had to catch their breath.
“You good?” Amartya said as they were side by side.
Khalil smiled. “I think so,” he replied. “My body is hot.”