Seventy-two-year-old Mrs. Sharma, or Sharma Aunty as the neighbourhood kids called her, smeared a dollop of chickpea paste over the Colocasia leaves—Elephants Ears or Arbi leaves in common parlance—that she had plucked this morning from her vegetable garden. She then placed five leaves of similar size one on top of the other, each generously smeared with spiced chickpea paste, and began to tightly roll them lengthwise. Once fully rolled, she secured them with toothpicks and cut the roll into thin slices, which she began frying in mustard oil until each slice turned golden brown and crisp on both sides.
If only Jay were here today, he would’ve devoured the crispy delicacy. He enjoyed it almost as much as their favourite dish, the one they both loved but didn’t speak about. But Jay was long gone, almost a year now, and Maya Sharma had to learn to live alone. For one year, she hadn’t dared to do what they both loved doing, but today, after nearly a month of planning, she was ready to take the risk. It had worked in the past when both of them did it together, hadn’t it? If she stuck to their carefully devised ironclad plan that they had perfected over decades, there was no reason it wouldn’t work now.
As Mrs. Sharma sliced the 200 grams blob of cottage cheese into small square pieces for the other dish she was preparing for dinner today, peas and cottage cheese in a spicy onion and tomato-based gravy, her mind wandered toward her dinner guest. Kabir was a lanky fifteen-year-old orphan, who lived in the dilapidated orphanage located near the public school. These past two months, he had helped Mrs. Sharma tend to her overgrown garden in exchange for fair compensation and occasional free meals. Today was Sunday, a free meal day. While Kabir wasn’t exactly what Mrs. Sharma had hoped for, he would have to do. She would’ve loved to get her hands on Mr. and Mrs. Bhalla’s son, a rotund, fair-complexioned boy of sixteen with an almost baby-like skin, but the boy had parents who would raise hell if he disappeared. It was the only rule Maya and Jay had followed all their lives, one that had kept them safe and well. Never ever take a boy or a girl who isn’t homeless or an orphan.
Humming a tune from a TV commercial for home appliances that was stuck in her head, Mrs. Sharma added water to the two cups of rice in the pressure cooker, closed it and put it aside, ready to be kept on the stove thirty minutes before dinner time. She wiped her hands on the towel, pleased with the preparations for tonight. Her eyes glazed over as her mind wandered once again to the firm, juicy flesh of the young boy toiling in her vegetable and herb garden day after day, the scent of his sweat as he passed by each evening with a breezy goodbye bringing water to her mouth. If things went well today, she’d be enjoying her favourite meal, kept fresh by the human-sized freezer in her basement, for several days, at least a week. If she wasn’t too greedy, she could make it last ten days, she thought dreamily.
With abrupt sharpness, Mrs. Sharma snapped back to the present. She ambled over to the cupboard over the sink for the final step in the plan. For without it being in its place, her plan would fail. The wooden cupboard opened creakily on its hinges to reveal the two small glass bottles—the poison and the antidote. Both were adequately filled, she observed satisfactorily. The poor boy had no idea what he’d helped her harvest from the herb garden the week before, no idea at all.
Heaving a sigh of contentment, the old woman hobbled out of the kitchen and towards her bedroom for her afternoon nap.
The bell rang at 6 o’clock sharp. Mrs. Sharma’s cane made a clickety-clackety sound on the linoleum floor as she advanced towards the front door to open it.
The fresh-faced boy stood at the door with an innocent smile on his delicate lips, a bunch of pink roses clutched in his outstretched hand.
“Oh, how lovely, my dear boy!” cried Mrs. Sharma.
“How is the pain in your legs today, Aunty?” he asked innocently, referring to her arthritis.
“It’s okay today, my dear. Not too bad,” she said. “Come in! Come in!”
The boy entered the house gingerly, lifting his nose to smell the delicious scents coming from the kitchen.
“Yes, the food’s almost ready. Won’t you help me set the table, my dear?”
Kabir followed Mrs. Sharma to the kitchen and helped carry the dishes and the plates to the dining table in the hallway.
“Do you like the roses?” he asked, setting the table for two.
“Of course. They’re almost as good as the ones from my garden,” she said with a chuckle.
“Oh, I would never pluck your flowers without your permission. I got them from the school garden, the one next to my orphanage. The principal is a good man.”
“Yes, Father Anthony. Jay knew him quite well. Shall we eat?”
Kabir pulled the chair back, taking a seat at the small square table. “Aunty, I really appreciate your kind gesture. Nobody has invited me to dinner, ever.”
Mrs. Sharma served rice on his plate. “You’ve transformed my garden. It’s the least I could do.” She paused. “I hope you’ve remembered what we talked about.”
“Of course. I told the warden I’m going to watch a movie. Even bought a ticket, see.” He smiled a boyish smile, returning the ticket to his pocket.
Mrs. Sharma served a large helping of the peas and cottage cheese dish to his plate, ladling the thick flavourful curry by the spoonful. “You know how people are—they would misconstrue my motives. An old woman inviting a young boy for dinner. There must be something fishy,” she says, wagging a finger in his face. “If Jay and I had been able to have children, we’d have a grandson your age by now.”
“This is delicious,” he said, smacking his lips.
“Oh, you must try this,” she said, serving crispy slices of the Arbi leaves. “Jay used to love them.”
Kabir paused chomping and wiped his mouth on the napkin. “Aunty, may I say something?”
“Of course, my dear.”
“It was probably for the best that you and Jay uncle could not have any children. Hear me out, please,” he added quickly.
“I’m listening, my dear,” said Mrs. Sharma, smiling.
“Do you know how many children have disappeared from this town over the past fifty years?”
Mrs. Sharma smiled inwardly. She knew exactly how many. “I’m afraid I don’t know, my dear. Of course, I’ve heard the horrible news of children going missing over the years, but as to the exact count, I have no idea,” she said, sipping her coffee.
“Twenty-seven. Teenagers, all of them. Homeless or orphans—like me—or both.”
Mrs. Sharma thought she saw a strange glint in his eyes. Her gaze drifted to his plate where the remainder of his meal lay. Very little was remaining on his plate, she thought satisfactorily.
Any moment now, the symptoms would start appearing. Dilated pupils were usually the first sign. He’d then start complaining of blurred vision and sensitivity to light. Taking her hand, he’d stagger towards the kitchen where she’d offer him a glass of water for his severely dry mouth and throat. His speech would slur as he’d complain of a debilitating headache. She’d position him carefully near the basement door so that when he finally collapsed on the floor convulsing, she would simply open the basement door and shove his body down the stairs. By then, he’d be extremely confused and begin hallucinating. A smack on the back of the head with the shovel she kept in the basement would silence him into a sleep from which he’d never wake up. The next part of the plan was the hardest for her, an old woman with arthritis, but somehow, she’d manage to lift his lanky body and deposit it in the human-sized freezer in the basement. Thereupon, it was easy.
“Horrible business, all of it,” she cried. “Those poor kids. God knows what happened to them.” She took another sip of her coffee.
For a while, the only sound heard was the ticking of the wall clock and the clinking of cutlery.
“Why do you drink coffee so late, Aunty? Doesn’t it interfere with your sleep?” asked Kabir, finishing his glass of water and refilling it from the jug.
“It’s an old habit, my dear,” said Mrs. Sharma, emptying the dregs of coffee into her mouth.
“You know,” said Kabir, his face turning serious, “there was a girl in my orphanage. Her name was Leela. She disappeared two years ago.”
Leela, forty kilos of delicious deep-fried meals seasoned with basil and oregano that lasted them a week. Leela, the girl her husband had picked up in his truck as she was returning from school late one evening. Leela, the feisty orphan who had kicked and fought and nearly bit Mrs. Sharma’s finger off as the old woman was trying to get her to drink the concoction prepared from Atropa Belladona, a poisonous herbaceous plant from their garden, commonly known as deadly nightshade. The only known antidote was physostigmine, which she’d just drunk in her coffee.
It was important to keep shuffling their modus operandi. Routine is what would get them caught, Jay always said and he was right. It was why they had never used the same method twice to pick up the children.
Mrs. Sharma clicked her tongue in sympathy. “Very sad business, the whole thing,” she said.
“Yes. I wonder what happened to her. Not even her body was found. Authorities believe it’s the same person behind all the disappearances. They’d have to be at least seventy today,” said Kabir, pouring some more water into his glass and gulping it down.
Mrs. Sharma’s gaze flitted to the clock. Why wasn’t the poison working? The numbers on the clock began to blur and suddenly, the whole room was a blur. She rubbed her eyes, her heart racing. What was happening?
“Leela was my best friend,” Kabir was saying. “I’d once made a friendship band for her, woven with multicoloured threads. She always wore it on her wrist. Always.”
The light from the overhead bulb was starting to hurt her eyes. Her throat was parched. She reached for the jug of water, but Kabir abruptly jerked it away, out of her reach.
“Water,” she mumbled.
“There’s water in the kitchen. Let me help you,” he said, lifting her frail body by her arms.
Something was terribly wrong. Mrs. Sharma could hardly put one foot in front of the other. Supported by Kabir, she wobbled into the kitchen and thrust her hands under the tap. The mouthfuls of water she drank did nothing to soothe her dry and itchy throat.
“Call... call a doctor,” she slurred.
“Not so fast. I haven’t yet finished my story,” he said. “So I was telling you about Leela. Do you know what I found in your garden the other day?”
A blinding headache was flashing through her head like lightning, leaving her cold and breathless. She was now leaning completely on the boy for support. Why was he still okay? And what was wrong with her?
“I found her friendship band. She was wearing it the day she disappeared,” the boy was saying quietly.
“What... did you... do?” she stammered, clutching her throat.
“What did you do with her? What did you do with Leela?” he screamed, his voice running through her ears like a jagged knife.
Mrs. Sharma all but collapsed into oblivion.
He let her fall on the floor, where she lay now, her body convulsing.
“I recognize nightshade. I know what you were planning, so I sneaked into your kitchen today afternoon while you were napping and stole the antidote, and replaced it with water. What you added to your coffee was water. I have the antidote here. I added to the jug of water. I know how little water you drink, so there was no chance of you drinking it.”
Through her blurred vision, she saw the boy standing over her with a small glass bottle in his hand, a maniacal glint in his eyes.
"Father Anthony has always suspected you and your husband. When he and I talked about Leela's disappearance, he told me he suspected you guys were behind all the disappearances."
On hearing this, Mrs. Sharma began to cackle, a high-pitched scream forming on her lips.
He was instantly upon her, clasping her mouth shut with his nimble and powerful hands.
“It was you, you and your husband, who made those kids disappear, wasn’t it?” He breathed the words onto her face. “Are they buried in the garden? Tell me, why did you do it? Why?”
The TV commercial for home appliances began playing in her ears and she was in the middle of a meadow approaching a man with an outstretched hand. It was Jay, looking young and wonderful. She took his hand—surprisingly her hand was not old and wrinkly—and together they walked through the meadow towards the sunshine.
And then suddenly, the lush meadows disappeared and Jay and Maya were standing over the edge of what looks like an inverted pyramid with various levels funnelling down to a narrow spot in the middle. As they were perched over the edge of the precipice gazing down at the wretched underground landscape of monsters, fire and sewage, somebody pushed them from behind and they fell right into the second level. Along this level, people were lying face down in a vile slush of sewage, their mouths filled with the product of their excess. While Jay froze in horror, Maya turned around to clamber out of this pit of hell, but there was nothing to latch onto. All the while, as they were getting sucked closer and closer to the slush of sewage, there was a voice ringing in the distance, becoming fainter each second: Why did you do it? Why did you do it?