Tinu. It had to be Tinu. He isn’t in bed by my side so I call for him. You bastard, Tinu!
The knocking Outside stops. Whoever it was, Chhoti maybe, maybe not, must have left. But Tinu, where in narak is Tinu?
I jump off the bed and rush to the Central Safety Room and there he is, one finger inside his nostril like always, one side of his cheek smiling, eyes on the television screen watching a visual from the Lost Time.
I pounce towards him. Tinu you little bastard I’ll kill you! I’ll throw you down into the shitpit with all the tatti, you bastard.
He jumps off his seat when he sees me, and I’m roaring because a good tamacha time is exactly what he needs. I punch his thin, sharp face, so bony that it even stings my knuckles a little. He screams “Ow! Auntie, help!” and I slap him across his other cheek. “I didn’t drink it! I didn’t drink your water, Montu!” One punch over his eye, it starts bleeding, and with my other hand, a good one under his chin.
The last one probably hurt the little tattiboy the most because he falls to the ground and starts crying. I shout over his cries. My water you stole my water you stole you thief!
“Montu! Tinu! Stop it!” Auntie comes to save him, otherwise I could kill him today and send him to the same narak that took Mummy and Chhoti. I stop and step away.
He drank my water Auntie, I say, I want water.
Auntie has to hold her red bathrobe tight over her chest; the knot around it can never close together. “Calm down,” she commands, and we obey, and she moves her heavy body towards us. “Tinu, don’t drink your brother’s sips. Montu, you’ll have to wait until after daysleep. It’ll be theekhai, don’t worry.”
But Auntie, I complain.
Tip Tip Thud Thudr Water Help Water.
The knocking begins again.
I only ever see Auntie and Daddy’s bedroom from the outside, through the thin gaps of the unclosed door. The inside, I’ve seen it before, that was before Mummy got the Dryness. But Auntie never keeps the door completely open now.
Auntie leaves us in the Central Safety Room, walks past the room that Tinu and I share, and into Daddy’s bedroom. On the bed is Daddy, I see him. Only a small glance. He’s asleep, of course, but he’s fine, he’ll be fine. From her bedside somewhere behind something I can’t see, she scoops out the key for our Nutri Safe and comes back outside. She closes the door behind her and Daddy stays asleep.
Looking all serious type, she opens the small door behind our dining table that leads down to our basement and the tunnels. She goes down the stairs thukthukthuk, I hear her turn the key, then I hear the screeching yawn of the metallic Nutri Safe open, a flurry of plasticy pills tinkling against glass, the screech of the Safe again, and then Auntie’s steps back up thukthukthuk.
“FirstMeal,” she says and hands Tinu and I our NutriPills. I get two because I’m older. I look at Tinu and smile and for a brief moment I forget that tattiboy robbed me of my morning sip.
“Sit,” Auntie announces, and Tinu and I follow her to the dining table. Auntie lights an incense stick and places it on the table between us. She bows down in front of it, closes her eyes, and murmurs to herself. I bow down after her to pray, too. Tinu, of course, keeps his rotten eyes open, one finger in his nose, ready to pounce on his NutriPill. She pulls her neck up and bilkul slow, she opens her eyes to finish.
I am patient with my pills. I place each one on the bilkul flat top of my index finger, peel off the plastic layer, and slowly, only slowly, put the little orange pills into my mouth. I chew on each one, tasting some of my saliva as I eat, which is much theekhai. Tinu swallows his pill quickly and then, because he looks like he’s asking for more tamachas, he brings out his own leather bottle of water for his morning sip.
I grunt under my breath. I want to jump on this table and push aside Auntie’s dusty pill-bowls and smack him. He has the liquid going down his mouth, down to his body, and he must instantly feel better.
He drinks the water and he’s happy.
Thudr Thudr Help! Just one sip of water please. Just one sip! Help!
Now, Tinu hears it too. “What is that? That sounds like…”
Chhoti, I finish for him.
“Yes! Just like Chhoti!”
It is unmistakable. I remember I used to laugh at Chhoti when she cried or complained, because she always sounded like she was crying or complaining. She wahwahwah when she was happy, when she read those picture-books, when she watched Lost Time visuals or when she wanted water or when Mummy died. Her voice came less from her throat and more from the nose. Her voice was the cabin’s alarm each morning. I remember Daddy used to say it was bilkul, high frequency, so the Well Soldiers could use it for sonar, he said.
This voice today sounds just like Chhoti.
Auntie looks up at me first, and then at Tinu, and her eyes squint into ours, threatening tamacha.
“But what if it’s her?” Tinu complains.
“It’s not,” Auntie says. “Chhoti is gone.”
“But what if...?”
Auntie sits up from her seat and crosses over to Tinu. I see it now that he’s shivering, even sobbing, and I cannot decide if it’s my tamaches that have tattiboy freezing in his own sweat or if he’s wondering what narak is the voice outside. He should still be smiling I think, after all, he’s had two sips of water and I’m here drying up my bones.
Auntie stands behind Tinu and bilkul, gently, she brings his face into her stomach. He responds quickly, folds into her body and embraces his arms around her lower back. He sobs louder now.
It could be Chhoti, I say. We don’t know if she’s gone, bilkul, forever gone. I shift my chair back over the wooden floor, away from the table, and stand up. I need to check.
“Sit down!” Auntie commands, “Do not test the Outside, Montu. Outside is Lost Time. You remember what happened with Chhoti, don’t you?”
Just one sip!
I should check, I say. Even if it’s not Chhoti, I should just check. I tell Auntie that I will give the voice, the girl Outside the main door, Tinu’s night sip. He deserves it for being a tattiboy thief.
Auntie disengages from Tinu, reaches across the table, and grabs me by my shirt. “You sit down. Chhoti has been gone one year, two years. Do not expose yourself to the Lost Timers, Montu.”
I wiggle my shirt free and step back from her.
“Who will take care of us if something happens to you?” she asks now. “Who will go down to the Well for water? Your brother isn’t strong enough, Montu. Do you want us to just wait here, drying to our deaths? Don’t you want Daddy to get better?”
Her eyes are wet with desperate tears. I don’t answer her, because she’s Auntie, and she’s right. Yes, I think to myself, I want Daddy to get better. I remember Mummy, too. Two weeks ago, Auntie said that a stone the size of a NutriPill came out with Daddy’s peepee, almost bilkul same happened to Mummy. Mummy, too, was in bed a lot, bilkul, no movement. She couldn’t even recognize me! But Tinu, I remember, she smiled at Tinu.
Daddy needs his rest to get better, Auntie has said, to be alone. Last I saw him – when did I see him last? – his face had shrivelled, waves of deep lines underneath his eyes, more lines across his forehead like running tracks. More skin than face.
But what if it’s really Chhoti up there? What if she’s back? Two days ago was the four hundredth day since she went Outside, and if Auntie and me and even little Tinu have been alive for four hundred and two days, then why not Chhoti? There have been knocks from the Lost Timers on our door before. Knocks and thuds and screams and shouts. If they survived the Dryness, maybe she did, too?
“It’s 10 hours of the day now, Montu,” Auntie breaks me out of my trance. “Time for you to go.”
But the voice Outside?
“I’ll deal with the voice Outside. Get our WetBox, and later, you have to clean out the shitpit, too.”
Theekhai theekhai Auntie, I nod and Auntie smiles because she is now happy.
Tinu must think this is all a joke. That little tattiboy, he sits and reads Chhoti’s old books and watches the television and swallows his pills. He must think this is all a joke, like it’s easy for me to crawl down the tunnels to the Well and crawl back with the WetBox. I want to see him do it. I want to see him do it without a morning sip and with an itching thumping pain in his head. He won’t even make it all the way down. He won’t even be able to talk to the Well Soldiers. He must think this is all a joke. And I still have to keep him alive because we’re brothers and that’s what Daddy said brothers must do.
I’m taller now, much taller than my first trips to the Well, so I have to crouch lower, and maybe that’s the one thing tattiboy could be good for. At least he would have no problem fitting his little body inside the tunnels. I have to bend down and fold my knees when I crawl. My shoulders scrape against the black stones on both sides. After some time, my knees begin to burn even hotter than my throat does. Theekhai theekhai I repeat loudly to myself, only twenty more minutes, theekhai.
The tunnel is dark, bilkul, only black. But I can see. Theekhai, not fully see, but see bilkul because I’ve been down here now more than a hundred times and I know which part has the sharp rocks on the left side, where there will be bumps below my feet, where the tunnel changes directions, where it falls into the opening.
I can feel the opening now, because I see some yellow lights, and there are sounds of others tunnelling in and out to the Well. Then I hear those splashes! Water splashing into more water. Buckets dipping into water. Water dripping. Water falling. Water getting scooped up. I feel a buzzing in my head, a good type buzzing, and, Utanifark swear, it gets my whole body to feel a ring. Now, I’m not tired anymore.
In front of me are the Well Soldiers, and all around them are other tunnels like mine falling down onto the cave floor. When I land on the floor, I bounce up and let my limbs flay out, relieved to finally have room to stretch.
“Montu my boy,” one of the Soldiers says. “You’re looking dry.”
I don’t recognise him under the dark, red hood over his face at first. All of the Well Soldiers are under those hoods, and like the rest of them, he carries an electric-mankiller as he approaches me. But I’ve heard his voice before. He laughs and takes his hood down to reveal the short, grey spikes of hair growing on his head. Ah, I know him. His name is Aryun, or Ayalu, or something. I show him my WetBox slip.
Yes, today is dry, I say. No morning sip for me, Sir, on account of little brother being a tattiboy thief.
The soldier laughs, and his laughter makes me smile too. This is what a laugh should be like, like this soldier, his whole face and his neck and parts of his shoulders are laughing with him. Hahaha he is only happy.
Aryun or Ayalu asks me to wait and he goes down to the Well to prepare this week’s WetBox for me. A small bottle of water, Nutri Pills, and paper books of Utanifark prayers for Auntie. There are hundreds of WetBoxes like mine waiting by the splishingsplashing well for each tunneler down there. Two of the Well Soldiers with electric-mankillers pass a flask of water from one to another, and each one takes a big sip. No, a big gulp. And some of the water – I count four drops – even spills down to the ground. I lick my lips. But thank Utanifark it’s damp down here, much cooler, so much that I shiver. I even forget about missing the morning sip – just being near the Well can cure Dryness.
Aryun or Ayalu returns and shows me my WetBox, but he holds it back.
“How’s the Doctor, Montu?” he asks, “Still down with the Dryness?”
Yes, Daddy is still sick. But Auntie says he’s getting better.
“Your Auntie,” the soldier laughs again, but then his voice turns bilkul, serious. “We must keep your father alive, Montu,” He shows me his eyes now, brown, almost black. “You have to make sure the Doctor is getting his WetBox. His water. He must be kept alive. We need him back down here.”
Yes, Daddy must be kept alive, I agree. Yes, I think about this, I know how lucky we are that the Well Soldiers give us WetBoxes. You’ll be Outside with the other Lost Timers without your Daddy, they always say, it is only for Daddy. Theekhai, I know this. Only for his Agricultural bilkul Science of the Lost Time. Not everyone gets the WetBoxes, they always say.
I’m thirsty, but I don’t drink from the WetBox when I crawl back up the tunnel. My arms, bilkul feel not so strong anymore. I look ahead and even the darkness is blurry. There are squeaks somewhere, maybe mice or those monster superrats the Well Soldiers cook on Splash Day Festivals. I don’t know that my mouth is wide open until something starts to drip out and I cough and shout. I stop moving. There’s another loud sound now, really close, heavy air, like Daddy with his Dryness. That tattiboy thinks this is all a joke, stealing my morning sip. That sound again, I pay attention, and it’s only my own breathing. Water. I lick my lips with my tongue but it stings.
I keep crawling. That Well Soldier is right. Daddy must be kept alive. I must get this to Auntie. And maybe I’ll ask her again to give a sip to that thudthudthudr girl from the Outside. Not my sip, I’ll give her Tinu’s, yes, Tinu’s. I smile to myself. Maybe it’s little Chhoti up there. Why not?
Somebody is crying, it’s loud, with a throat screaming for help, wasting all those tears. The girl outside? Chhoti?
I climb up the tunnel door into our basement and pull the WetBox in with me. The crying and screaming gets louder and it’s not from the Outside, it’s from here. From inside our cabin.
I rush up the stairs and into the Central Safety Room after the sound, but nobody’s there. A crash in Daddy and Auntie’s room. The door is wide open.
I see Daddy, lying on his bed, still stiff from the Dryness. Eyes closed, no expression, his face gone paler, greyer, whiter. I see Tinu on the floor beside Daddy’s bed, down on all his limbs, crawling like I crawl down the tunnel. He faces me and he’s crying, and not just dry crying, crying with bilkul, liquid tears. I see Auntie behind Tinu, one hand holding on to the middle of her red bathrobe, holding it together over her chest, other hand falling with force over the back of Tinu’s head.
I hear the smack when she gives a good tamacha on the back of his neck. Another cry from him. I hear him shuffle on all fours further forward till a thud follows, a kick from Auntie to push him down flat.
I smell something rotting, like the smell of Lost Timers Outside, or the smell from the other tunnels near the Well, but more ferocious than all that, something that knocks me dull, like the smell of dead superrat at Splash Day.
“Montu!” Auntie says between gasps, “Montu, your brother tried to steal my Nutri Safe key. To steal your Daddy’s water.”
Tinu screams and Auntie kicks him down again.
“He’s a little thief, your brother,” her voice quivers, she spits liquid somewhere in front of her. “He stole from you, Montu. Now, he’s stealing from your Daddy.”
He stole from me. He took my sip, and now I bring more water for him and Daddy and Auntie and little tattiboy just couldn’t wait, could he? I race up to him, now ignore Daddy lying there next to us, and I land a kick on Tinu’s face. The shoe sole, all metal, meets him somewhere below his eye and there’s a satisfying small crunch and Tinu cries some more.
I kick him again, a good one on his forehead. He lifts his upper body up in reflex and my third kick is splat on the middle of his chest. “Owww” he whelps.
“Kill that little thief,” Auntie says, she shouts. She jumps a little, angrier than I’ve ever seen her before except that one time before Mummy’s death. She’s holds her bathrobe but it opens up below her neck and her babas bounce up together so I stare back down and kick Tinu again.
“Montu!” it’s Tinu. “Montu, I came to see Daddy. Daddy doesn’t move anymore, Montu. Daddy doesn’t move!”
From behind, Auntie steps forward and now aims another kick under him, her metal sole clobbers his chest.
“Montu!” Tinu, again.
Now, I stomp him to silence. Now he’s as noiseless as Daddy on the bed.
“Get him out,” Auntie screams close to my face, “Get him out of this house Montu. Leave him Outside with the Lost Timers.”
He is light, surprisingly, much lighter than I could have imagined when I lift him off the floor. There is a bruise under his left eye, turning his light-brown skin pink and red. The rest of his body is limp, and I cradle him in both arms and walk out of Daddy and Auntie’s room, through the Central Safety Room, and out the corridor to the main door. I will need to turn three separate knobs to unlock the door to the Outside and I haven’t done it for four hundred days plus two more.
I move Tinu and place him over one shoulder, with his head hanging over behind me and the rest of his body sagging down in front. I turn the first knob.
Tinu feels heavier. I lift him higher up my shoulder, beside my head, to balance him evenly on my front and my back. I turn the second knob.
I stagger back under his dead weight. Tattiboy. I shrug him off my shoulder so his body falls with a thump on the floor by my feet. Third knob.
And then I push, and my arms go weaker, as if the door is pushing back into me. The thirst returns. I have no thoughts but pushpushpush get Tinu Outside like Auntie said. Get him out, get the thief out. I have to close my eyes because my eyelids feel heavier and it’s all blurry. Push.
The door pops open and I open my eyes, too.
Bright. So bright. Why is it so bright? Time, oh it’s daytime of the Lost Time. Sun Skylight is still turned on, bright, it screams into my eyes. White and yellow. I close my eyes again.
Hot. Like Auntie’s kitchen fire but hotter and closer and the fire splashes over all of me like a wave.
I don’t want to see him lying there, bilkul, lifeless, so with my eyes still closed, I feel for his arms, pick up his body, and using all my power, fling my little brother outside the door. I hear a thud when he lands and before turning back inside, I open my eyes very careful way, just squinting to see where he landed, and there he is, a few feet on the dusty ground on the Outside and right next to him is the small girl body about the same size as him and her face looks, bilkul, like Chhoti, but by Utanifark, it isn’t her, it’s not her.
I close the door and lock all the knobs.
Incense wafts through the air, inside all the rooms: the dining room, the shitpit, Auntie and Daddy’s room, mine and Tinu’s room which now is only my room. Auntie is away, next to Daddy, her door half-open, and I can hear her murmuring to herself. She hears my footsteps and steps outside, bathrobe fastened tightly over her body, and I get one more glance at Daddy before she closes the door behind her.
“More water for the two of us now, Montu,” she says. Her voice is back to normal, bilkul, soft.
And what about Daddy, I ask.
“Yes, him too. Your Daddy is fine. He will be fine.”
That evening, Auntie lets me have two sips because I am extra thirsty from missing the morning sip and the visit to the well and Tinu stomping and cleaning the shitpit. I gulp it all down.