In a dark corner of Jubilee Market, a young man in his late twenties fumbles with his keys, trying to unlock the door to an abandoned shop. The fact that the lock is rusting into oblivion isn’t helping either. The yowl of a stray cat echoes faintly in the nearly empty street.
“How much longer, Saad?”
His face contorts at the sound of her voice. He puts on his best happy face before turning around to face a visibly perturbed Ayesha. Her burqa is dusty from the long walk and her hands are fidgeting, either from fear or excitement, he didn’t really know—or care. The full moon is the only source of light in the narrow Saddar lane, bathing in the darkness of the late night load-shedding hours.
He moves close to her, leaving the keys dangling in the hole.
“It’s gonna be okay Jaan, don’t you trust me?” He says, tenderly touching her cheek. His tone reflecting impatience more than comfort.
“You are so close to freedom, don’t let fear stop you now” he tries his best to feign solace. He was good at that, after all, this wasn’t his first time. She isn’t convinced, but a forced smile proves to be enough of an assurance. He finishes the act with a nod and gets back to the lock.
A knot starts forming in Ayesha’s stomach. Most of the initial adrenaline rush had died out not more than half an hour after she had eloped with Saad. The excitement was being gradually replaced by panic ever since.
Her eyes fly towards her suitcase and her grip on the handle tightens. She can see through its fraying exterior, all that she had packed. She can see her sequined dresses folded delicately in one corner. The seven velvet-covered boxes are stacked in the other corner, bearing most of her jahez gold. Her mother had collected as much as her unfortunate family could manage for her shaadi. They had had such high hopes from a girl who would eventually lead to become a disgrace to the family name. The leather purse is sitting hidden in one of her kurtas, carrying ninety-eight thousand and five hundred rupees in cash. Saad had told her to bring all that she could manage—after all you can’t start a family without enough money.
Her knuckles stick out from holding the handle too tight. Tiny beads of perspiration start forming on her forehead. Suddenly a life of freedom doesn’t seem as attractive as she had imagined. She wanted to go crawling back into her safe bed. All her father’s strict curfews and her brothers’ beatings seemed better than standing in the middle of nowhere. But it’s too late now, she thought.
The creaking of the door snaps her out of her thoughts. She looks up to see Saad, one hand beckoning her to come inside, the other reaching for her suitcase. She hurries into the shop and an awful stench of rotting flesh and stale blood greets her.
While she’s busy keeping down her last meal, outside the premises of this reeking hell, Saad stands running his greedy hands over the suitcase, lust drips from his eyes. Oh what lengths he goes through every time to feed the monster inside of him—to keep it content and satisfied. If only this one also goes smoothly, and he may quiet the monster for the next few months. Until he finds another girl. He remembers the girl–she can’t find out. Not now. He spins around, only to his relief, to find her gagging in a corner. She still doesn’t see, stupid bitch. A chuckle, inaudible to Ayesha, leaves his mouth.
He carefully lifts the suitcase and drags it into the shop, cautiously locking the door behind him, making the least possible noise. Its pitch black inside, but he has been here too many times to know where everything sits. His hand slides across the wall and finds the rechargeable bulb. He turns it on and the shop is filled with a blinding white light.
The “furniture” is distinguishable now. A small plastic table sits in the center, surrounded with three chairs. A metal shelf with three levels stands on one corner. A dirty white cloth, with stains which look like paan spits, is carelessly draped over it. Next to the shelf is a ripped black leather chair— like the ones you would see in barber shops. A small door in the opposite corner is ajar revealing a plastic bucket placed below a dis-balanced basin.
Ayesha turns slowly, giving an uncertain look to him. Her hand is covering half of her face with the edge of her dupatta, in an attempt to block the putrid smell.
“I know it isn’t much–” he cuts in, moving closer “–but now you are here jaan. You can turn this place into paradise.” He leans in, leaving a few inches between his body and hers. His hand slides to her waist and snakes up her back where her bra would clasp. She stiffens and wriggles out of his grip. He had never touched her like this before. Saad is taken aback. She can’t refuse him. He owns her now.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you love me?”
“I want to wait till the nikkah” She says in the bravest voice she could manage, which comes out as a whimper.
“What?” His lips turn into an ugly smirk. “You want to wait till nikkah? I see.” This could have ended in less pain if she would have just played along. The monster inside him stirred. How dare she refuse. She had annoyed him.
He runs a hand along his beard and in a sudden calculated movement, slaps her across the face as hard as his masculine ego could allow.
She let’s out a wail, toppling face down on the floor. Tears start welling up in her petrified eyes. Blood starts dripping down her nose. She finds herself unable to move– paralyzed by the happenings of the moment. Paralyzed by fear of what she had been warned against.
He straightens his shirt, walks up to the shelf and lifts the cloth just a little producing a greasy dented plastic cold drink bottle and a cheap chipped cup.
Ayesha finally finds the strength to get up. She turns and watches him in disbelief, her sobs making it very hard to stay still. This is the man she has decided to spend her entire life with. No. This is the man she had decided to run away with. Regret starts setting in. Her eyes dart to the suitcase in the corner. What had she done.
“You must be thirsty” he says in his usual soothing voice, only this time she can actually sense deceit.
He advances on her while unscrewing the bottle and pouring into the cup. That menacing, evil smile was starting to emerge from under that cloak of charm he would always wear.
“Here. Drink up.” he thrusts the cup at her. She knew that tone. That’s how her brothers would sound whenever she would tell them she wanted to go to the park alone. Scarred from previous abuse, she knows better to quietly obey.
She looks down at it and a chill runs down her spine. It isn’t water. The surface of the liquid dances from the ripples created by her trembling hand. Her head flings up at Saad, then at the suitcase in the corner, and then at the locked door. He had left no way out.
She jumps at this change of tone, the cup flies to her lips and empties into her mouth, before she has the chance to react. A lump forms in her throat as she gulps down the drug. The warnings of her brothers start ringing in her ears. Oh how she had cursed at them for not believing in love. Love. She wanted to spit in the name of love. He had sounded so charming when he was promising her a life of freedom and independence and relief. All those fantasies of marrying and having kids with Saad are playing in the back of her mind, mocking at her. They had always seemed so beautiful.
She finds her eyelids getting heavy. Her head is spinning but everything feels lighter. All panic is slowly dissolving. Maybe this can be her paradise. Maybe she can be free here. Free with Saad and his love. Nobody can come in their way. She looks at him. He can free her, just like he had promised. The cup drops from her limping hand.
A smile of greedy satisfaction is perched on Saad’s face, as he unzips his jeans. A smile of promised relief is perched on Ayesha’s face, as she drifts into sweet unconsciousness.