Z for Zero-sum (Part I)

Freida Dantas stepped out of the queue to look around. The machine wasn’t that far from here–only a few hundred more. She looked behind. The queue went on for as long as she could see. She too had started from the end of the queue many hours ago. The machine took only a second to judge, so the queue had kept moving continuously. But she worried if there were more hopefuls in the queue than seconds in a day. She had been queueing up religiously for her pronouncement every day since she had died.

She’d learned of the system the day she had arrived at the purgatory. Learned is probably not the best word to describe the process. She had woken up in the purgatory a week ago knowing about it instinctively, with no recollection of her prior life. She knew exactly when and where to queue up for the machine. The machine would tell her if it was her time to ascend to the heaven yet. She’d witnessed thousands of ascensions on her first day. The ascendants one after the other had stood under the

Lights Out: Conversations Aboard the Last Train

    It was past midnight, but the warm humid air felt suffocating and uneasy. Pranjal adjusted a bit, but the sweltering seat still did not offer any comfort. The stale air of the stationary train reeked of rusting iron and rotting fish.
    The train was not very crowded; it was the last train of an underused route on an off-season day. There was just a single person in the compartment besides him. The man, in his mid-twenties and a specimen of perfect human health, was dressed in baggy jeans and a short worn-out green t-shirt that showed off his muscular arms. The man noticed Pranjal looking at him, and jerked his head back in a typical Indian 'hey-dude-what's-up' way.
    "Where to?" he asked.
    "The last station. You?" replied Pranjal.
    "Same here. Alok"
    "Pranjal"
    The train whistled one last time and started to trudge like a giant beast awoken from a deep slumber. A cool fresh breeze flowed into the compartment and it didn't feel so uncomfortable anymore.
    "Stop! Stop! Stop the train!" They heard someone shout. A girl was running parallel to the speeding train, trying to board. Before Pranjal could get up, Alok reached the door, picked her up and neatly placed her on the train. She looked incredulously at him, and finished, still out of breath, "Or you could do just that. Thanks."
    She sat down in the compartment with the two of them and started to rummage through her purse. She looked extremely pretty in her red cardigan and black top. Her skin was soft and smooth. Her cheeks were like strawberries on snow. Her full red lips and black wavy hair adorned her classically beautiful face. She glowed like an angel.
    She looked expectantly at Alok. "Thanks again", she said. "I don't know what I was thinking running so close to a speeding train."
    Pranjal felt a pang of jealousy.
    "The pleasure was all mine." Alok smiled at her. "I'm Alok, by the way."
    "I'm Naina"
    "Hi. I'm Pranjal", he interjected.
    "Naina"
    The train had picked up quite a bit of speed now. The three of them were still awake, but lost in their own thoughts. All the other compartments were dark — their passengers asleep. The train was silent if not for the constant ho-hum of the spinning wheels on the metal tracks. The train pierced through the languid darkness of the night, thrusting ahead, shoving the air left and right, through tunnels and barren lands. The wind, gushing through the windows, slowly carressed Naina's face as Pranjal watched.
    "So where are you going, Naina?" he asked.
    "I'm going home. I'm running back home, I guess." she chuckled.
    "Bored of the city?"
    "Scared of the city!"
    "Scared?" Alok joined in.
    "Well... I almost died once today. And that's not even counting the time you saved me from getting under the train." She smiled coyly at him. Alok smiled back, pleased.
    "So? What happened?" Pranjal interrupted.
    "I was working late last night. I do get late some days, but yesterday I was a bit too late; I was the last one on my floor. All the cabs had already left, so I was a bit edgy, but I had to finish the work in any case, so I stayed back. I finished work by midnight, I think.
    "I filed my work in a hurry and ran for the lift, but the moment I reached for the button, the lights went off. Everything! There wasn't even a single ray of light. And there I was... like a blind penguin." She let out a laugh and made the best penguin impression she could. Pranjal noticed Alok suddenly turn away, heartbroken.
    "And so I'm moving around in utter darkness. I took my mobile out and walked towards the stairs with the screen on, trying to see ahead, but my leg sli-" She stared outside in terror. "The TC! Shit!"
    Pranjal turned around and saw the ticket checker board the train. "Just stay cool. I'll talk," he said, "My uncle works in the railway."
    The TC only verified Pranjal's ticket and moved on to the next compartment. Naina heaved a sigh of relief.
    "Lucky! I thought I was busted for sure," she said. "So... Where was I? Yes. The lights were out, and I was walking around like a zombie, trying to find the stairs and I slipped over some dirt. I literally tumbled down the stairs. I fell really hard and hit my head. I saw my entire life flash before my eyes. I was so sure that I was about to die! I was knocked out for a minute or two, I think, because the lights were on when I got up. I ran out of the office as soon as I could walk. My whole body ached like it had never before, but I could still walk.
    "When I fell, all I could think of was my mother. I wanted to see her, if only one last time. She's everything to me. I haven't seen her in so long. We talk on the phone almost every day, but I am too lazy to travel. I guess it took a near-death experience to get me off my ass." She chuckled again.
    "I came running to the railway station directly. It's God's miracle that I didn't die." She looked up, and mouthed a prayer.
    "I think you're giving him more credit than he deserves," Alok said dryly.
    "God saved me today. See? Not a scratch!" She showed them the back of her hands like a magician, as if to say that she didn't have any tricks up her sleeve.
    "Anyway. I might have an explanation on how the lights went off. Do you work on the MG road?"
    "Yes! How did you guess?"
    "I guess you'll have to listen to one more story, so pardon me," Alok said. Naina and Pranjal looked curiously at him.
    "Yesterday night I was out partying with my friends. My brother tagged along. I didn't want to leave him alone at home, or I wouldn't have let him. After the party I was too tired so I let him drive. I think we left around midnight.
    "He started to drive really fast. I told him to slow down, but he kept speeding. He took a sharp left turn to avoid a drunk, and we crashed into an electric pole. There was a big explosion and the pole fell straight on our car. He was safe, but a stray metal rod went straight through me. I did not survive it."
    There was utter silence. Naina and Pranjal stared at Alok in horror.
    "This was on M.G. road. I guess that explains the lights, and your scratches. I'm so sorry to have to be the one to tell, Naina, but you didn't survive the fall either."


This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.
Every weekend, we give out creative writing themes to rekindle the love of writing in all you creative writers.

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