2,000 words approx. | Trigger warning: violence
The end of summer was Sumaiya's favourite time of the year. When the long hot days dwindled into cool crisp evenings and the green leaves turned to warm oranges and deep reds.
Shanaz and Malik had come to stay for a week. They spent every single day running around the park rescuing Sumaiya's doll, Bindhi from sneaky snakes and evil crocodiles in far-flung jungles. But towards the end of the holiday, Malik tripped while escaping a crazy wildebeest and grazed his arm. Blood bloomed like a giant poppy just below his elbow. He wailed all the way home and once he was all patched up, they were told they weren't allowed to play outside anymore.
'Your abba will shout,' Sumaiya's mum said softly.
'But we're saving Bindhi from danger!' Sumaiya exclaimed. 'Abba told me to keep her safe!'
Sumaiya's mum sighed and turned around to continue washing up.
'Why don't you guys play indoors?' suggested Aunt Nasima with a kind smile.
So the adventure migrated inside the house. Sumaiya and Shanaz gathered all the chairs they could find and started building a fort in the bedroom. Malik, the injured comrade bandaged in toilet paper from head to toe, looked after Bindhi and watched as the girls wrapped iron-pressed bedsheets around the chairs, and carefully placed pillows along the sides.
'I'm hungry,' he whined after a while.
'I'll get some food.' Sumaiya jumped up and headed for the door.
'Let's have some milkshake,' suggested Shanaz.
'Okay!' Sumaiya sprinted down the stairs, her little footsteps swallowed by the thick carpet. She hurried through the corridor towards the kitchen, but her steps faltered to a stop at the open doorway. The mums were talking quietly at the table with mugs of tea in front of them, like they always did, but something didn't feel right.
Sumaiya hesitated, feeling like an intruder.
As if sensing her presence, Aunt Nasima looked up, dark eyebrows rising half a second later. 'Ah Sumaiya, what are you doing here?'
'Malik said he's hungry.'
Her aunt tutted as she got up, adjusting her thin cotton shawl. 'That boy! He's always hungry!' She opened the fridge and searched for suitable snacks.
Sumaiya looked at her mum. She was still, like a statue, with her head bowed and her hands wrapped around her cup. Her dark wavy hair hung loose and hid her face, revealing only the tip of a pink nose.
'Okay, you guys can have these.' Aunt Nasima walked over and handed her a plate filled with chopped carrots and a large dollop of hummus.
'Thank you khala.'
Her aunt planted the pads of her fingertips gently on to Sumaiya's chin and gave her a warm smile. 'You're welcome lovely, now off you go.'
Sumaiya walked up the stairs, careful not to let the contents of the plate slide and fall to the floor. The weird feeling from the kitchen lingered like a cobweb. She hastily brushed it off as she entered the bedroom.
'Carrots?' Shanaz's eyebrows arched like her mother's.
'I thought you were getting milkshake,' piped up Malik from the corner of the room. He had unwrapped the toilet paper from his head and it lay scattered around him.
'Oh, I forgot. This is what your mum gave me.'
The cousins left a couple of days later and the house became quiet once again. Sumaiya spent her time playing with Bindhi; redoing her dark plaits or adding multicoloured beads to her deep-red sari with safety pins; lying on the floor and colouring in her book while Bindhi watched with her beady brown eyes; giving Bindhi a bubble bath as she bathed herself.
Bindhi was her only constant companion, a precious gift from her father. He often disappeared without any warning, sometimes going away for weeks at a time. Sumaiya missed her father terribly when he wasn't home. His absence always made her feel uncertain or uncomfortable. On a couple of occasions, it made her so queasy she couldn't go to school. But Bindhi bought her some comfort. The doll was a reminder of her father and his love for her.
Sumaiya heard a car pull up at the front of the house. It must be abba, she thought. She ran down the stairs, her heart thudding in her chest, and reached the hallway just as the key turned in the lock. The door opened and there stood her father, larger than life in a crumpled scarlet t-shirt.
'Abba!' she cried and rushed to hug him with Bindhi in tow.
'Hey baby.' He wrapped his large hands under her arms and picked her up into a bear hug.
'Shanaz and Malik came to stay,' rattled Sumaiya as she breathed in his scent - stale perfume mingled with body odour. 'We played adventure games everyday until Malik fell over and hurt his arm.'
'Yes, and then amma said we couldn't go out anymore so we made a really big fort in the bedroom.'
'Where is your mother?'
'I think she's in the garden.'
Sumaiya's father kissed her on the cheek, scratching her with his stubbles, and then set her down.
'Look at Bindhi abba; I gave her a bath last night; she's so clean now.'
'That's great honey.' He slipped off his worn trainers and pulled off his dirty white socks. 'It's my turn to have a bath now; I'll see you in a bit.'
'Okay.' Sumaiya held Bindhi tight in her hands as she watched him disappear at the top of the stairs.
Tonight, she would ask him to read her and Bindhi a story. Maybe the one about the man-eating tiger that terrorised villagers in Bangladesh.
After his bath, Sumaiya's father locked himself in the bedroom. She knocked on the door quietly.
'Abba?' she asked softly.
She tried again and was met with more silence.
Disappointed, she returned to her bedroom to make some dinner for Bindhi.
'You can sit here baby,' she whispered as she set Bindhi down on a small wooden chair. 'I will cook you some sweetcorn, okay?'
Sumaiya placed a metal cooking pot on her little wooden cooker and added chunks of plastic corn.
'Sweetcorn are really good for you; they'll help you grow really big and strong. You'll be as big as me and as strong as abba.'
The sun had nearly set and the cool air coming in through the open window gave her goosebumps.
'Sumaiya,' called a melodic voice from somewhere in the house.
She stopped stirring the sweetcorn and listened.
'Sumaiya, dinner's ready.'
Sumaiya picked up Bindhi and raced downstairs. The kitchen was warm and bright, and the delicious smell of minced lamb pies and chips wrapped itself around her.
'Let's wash up and then we can eat,' said Sumaiya's mum. She helped Sumaiya on the stool by the sink and supervised as she washed her hands with soap.
A light shuffle from behind made Sumaiya look over her shoulder. Her father stood in the doorway, looking a little too big for the frame.
'Abba! Were you sleeping?' she asked as her mother dried her hands with a tea towel.
'Yes, I took a little nap.' He ran a hand through his dishevelled hair. It didn't look any neater.
The three of them sat around the table and started eating. It was a quiet affair bar the occasional sound of cutlery on plates. Sumaiya swung her legs back and forth leisurely as she stabbed a chip with a fork and dipped it in ketchup. Her father had been gone for a while but he was here now.
'Abba, will you read me and Bindhi a bedtime story?' Sumaiya's voice punctuated the silence.
'I want to hear the story about the tiger who eats all the villagers.'
'I don't think that's the best story for bedtime,' said Sumaiya's mum quietly to her left.
'Why not?' asked Sumaiya.
'It's not very nice.'
'But it's cool.'
'People being eaten by a tiger is not cool.'
Sumaiya's eyes widened. 'But the people killed the tiger's family and stole its home.'
'You can pick another story.'
'But I want the tiger story; I love it; it's my favourite.'
Her mother kept her eyes on her plate as she cut into her pie silently.
Sumaiya looked to her right. 'Abba, will you tell me the tiger story, please?'
'We'll choose something else Sumaiya.' He shoved a large portion of minced meat into his mouth.
'Well, I want to hear the tiger story,' she grumbled quietly to herself.
Rain had started to fall and the rest of the meal was spent listening to the drizzle quickly turn into a downpour.
After dinner, Sumaiya brushed her teeth carefully, moisturised her face and changed into her pyjamas. Then she climbed into bed with Bindhi and waited for her father to come and read her a story, hopefully the tiger one, but she would settle for the one about the lost baby bear. She wanted him to at least see what a big girl she was, that she was able to get herself ready for bed without any help.
The minutes ticked by and no one came. Should she go and look for him? Ask him to read her a story, or if he didn’t feel like it, just lie next to her while she fell asleep? He used to do that a lot before, when he had lost his job. She would wiggle her body back so she was flush against his tummy and chest, pull one heavy arm over her side like a blanket, intertwine her delicate fingers in his thick ones and fall asleep hearing him breathe into her hair. Sumaiya's eyes drooped.
After a moment, or perhaps an hour, her eyes flew open. The rain continued to pour outside and a sudden flash of light lit up the room, creating spindly shadows along the walls. She jumped out of bed and ran to her parents room, keen to reach them before the crash of thunder came.
It was empty. And the thunder - a low rolling growl - encapsulated the entire house.
Sumaiya hastened down the stairs, her footsteps lost to the thick carpet and the torrential rain. The door to the kitchen was shut but a glow of light escaped through the gap at the bottom. She was about to fling the door open and run to her parents - they were probably having a cup of tea around the table, maybe her dad was reading the newspaper - but something made her stop. It was that feeling again. The weird one she had felt when she had come to get snacks for Shanaz and Malik.
Sumaiya stepped closer to the door and heard her father's deep voice. What was he saying? She reached forward, pushed the handle down gently and opened the door - just a fraction. She didn't want to interrupt grown up time.
It took a couple of seconds for her to discern the odd sight that lay before her. She had never seen her mother sleep on the floor before, and without a pillow or a blanket. Her body looked a crumpled mess as it rose and fell with every breath.
The tap was running; it sounded like her father was washing his hands. Didn't he know her mother was on the floor? Why wasn’t he helping her up?
Her mother opened her eyes slowly and looked at Sumaiya, causing her to start. But there was something unusual about them; they seemed to look right through her. A fine trickle of scarlet liquid wove its way down from her ear to her cheek and jawline, clinging to the point of her chin, threatening to splash on to the cold white tile below.
Discomfort, mingled with something dark and horrid rose in Sumaiya's tummy, like a snake uncoiling and rearing its wicked head. She should leave before her father turned around and noticed the door was ajar, but her body did not respond.
Her mother closed her eyes just as slowly as she had opened them. Sumaiya's heart thundered in her chest as she waited for them to open again, but they remained shut.
Her legs finally regained the strength to move. She backed away slowly, quietly, her mouth dry and her breath fast and shallow. She turned and walked up the stairs to her bedroom, closed the door and lay on her bed. She stared at the ceiling, illuminated by the dim garden light entering through the window. She had forgotten to shut the curtains.
Bindhi was a lump next to her side under the duvet. She held the doll to her chest, wanting some kind of comfort but nothing came. Sumaiya's insides felt hollow. Like all her organs had been scooped out with a spoon. She held Bindhi at an arm's length above her and looked at her impassively - the doll she loved and cherished; her only friend in this big, lonely house. Then, like a sleepwalker, Sumaiya got out of bed with Bindhi in tow, padded over to the window and pushed it open. Icy rain immediately soaked her face, hair and pyjama top but she didn't seem to notice nor care.
'Ugh!' she cried as she threw the doll into the night with all her strength.
Bindhi somersaulted into the darkness, her red and gold sari fluttering in the frigid wind. Sumaiya stood and stared, breathing hard as her upper body became more and more drenched with each passing moment.
Eventually, she closed the window and made her way back to bed. She lay there, staring at the ceiling once again as the rainwater soaked into the pillow and mattress. Eventually, slumber came and caressed her forlorn self into a deep and dreamless sleep.