Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!
Every few minutes, light flashed from the corner of the room.
“Ma’am, you can’t smile.”
“Please, just look into the camera and that’s it.”
“But you keep saying cheese.”
“And stop talking.”
“Ma’am, do you want to be here all day?”
“Again, refrain from speaking.”
“This is ridiculous…”
“One, two, three, cheese!”
Devika printed more forms, as Indrani continued snapping pictures, as the line finally grew smaller.
“One of them had spinach stuck between their teeth,” Indrani said during their lunch break.
“You didn’t tell them anything, did you?” Devika said, while they ate their salads and sandwiches at their front desks, with a clear view of the main road and the trees that surrounded them.
“Why should I? Their grown ass people, aren’t they? They can spend a second or two checking themselves in the mirror before they drag themselves in.”
“I still think you could’ve hinted. Like point to their teeth without letting others know what’s going on.”
“Maybe next time,” Indrani said, before reacting to her phone vibrating. She slipped it out of her pocket and narrowed her eyebrows after looking at the screen.
Devika slowly chewed. “Is it about the stabbing?” she asked, and Indrani explained it was her cousin texting her about what happened.
“Did you know he stabbed another woman wearing a hijab a week ago too? Apparently, he’s on the loose.”
“He’s always been. It was a year ago when they promised they’d find him.”
“Do you think it has to do with the elections?”
“It’s always been like this. At one point or another.”
“I can’t believe what I’ve seen on TV. Have you seen how big the rallies are? All they do is chant and yell.”
“I try not to think about it. It’s out of our hands.”
“Is Manmeet still with his relatives?”
“Yes. Fortunately, he has another week of spring break, so I’m sure by the time he returns, things will be less tense. By the way, are we still meeting up after next Friday?”
“Radhika won’t be working then and says we should meet her at the Dunkin.”
“That’s where we’ll be grabbing food…?”
Indrani laughed. “That would be super fancy, I know. Instead, we’ll probably meet there, wait for the others, and head over to this Halal meat place around the corner. It’s in this shady strip mall but the food there is amazing! I’m not sure though if enough people will show up…”
“Doesn’t matter. I can literally pick everyone up. We should get bubble tea also.”
“I don’t know any good places to go for that.”
“There’s some in New Brunswick. I can drive all of us there. I haven’t had bubble tea in forever.”
“Cool. I can’t stay out too long. I need to get my car looked at the next morning.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“The engine keeps making this whirring sound. Like water is trapped but I’ve checked.”
“You’ve been driving around like that…? And why couldn’t you get time before then?”
“No, I’ve been borrowing my sister’s car. And this place was the most affordable and that’s the only appointment they had available. It’s okay though. She takes the bus to Newark anyways.”
Devika suggested a website dedicated to cars and auto parts, which she described as “WebMD for mechanics,” for Indrani to check before going to the garage to avoid getting screwed over. After another hour, Devika let Indrani know she’d be leaving soon, and headed straight to the nearest South Asian supermarket, the sun still above the trees and strip malls.
. . .
At the supermarket, Devika grabbed fresh Okra, spinach, turmeric, garlic, lettuce, and carrots. She also found the best looking papaya she’d seen in weeks, according to what Harjeet taught her were the important clues. However, when she approached, another woman bumped into her.
“Excuse me? Could you watch where you’re going?”
“You were the one who ran into me.”
“If you move over, I’ll be out of your way.”
“You almost broke my foot.”
“Are you serious? I barely touched you.”
Other customers pushed their carts between them, causing Devika to drift apart. At Costco, she followed the crowd as they gathered for samples, trying cubes of cheese to cups of fruit punch.
“I don’t work in this section,” one of the workers said to Devika when she asked where she could find a specific brand of pears.
“Who else can I ask?” Devika said, and the man directed her to one of his co-workers stacking apples onto crates.
He too looked perplexed when she asked him about the pears, and called over to another person busy carrying boxes of mangoes.
Finally, Devika moved on and replaced the pears with more apples and peaches, and ate more cheese.
. . .
Devika paced in the parking lot, with her phone pressed against her ear.
“No,” she repeated, “I can’t do an extra shift next Friday.”
“It’ll be for a few hours, I promise.”
“I can’t. I told you what my schedule is like for the rest of the month at my other job.”
“Fine. I still have to cut hours though.”
“That’s the nature of the business. Fewer customers mean less funds. It’s simple math.”
“But we need new cash registers. And even new mops.”
“Let me handle that. Now, this is your last chance. I’m letting you know that opportunities like this will be scarce.”
Devika stuck to her answer and went to a nearby gas station, where she filled up her car and bought some string cheese from inside their store. While driving on the main road, she felt dizzy, and her skin cold. At the red light, she vomited. She wiped off whatever she could from with napkins and made it to a Target, where she rushed in and bought the first nice shirt she saw. She changed in the car, and sprayed the seats with air freshener. But the stench was strong and she remained nauseous.
She closed her eyes and stayed absolutely still. In her head, all she wanted was a few minutes of rest. Cars honked, and a man was yelling somewhere in the near distance. Sunlight begun to fade.
. . .
Perched on a hill, their temple overlooked the main intersection and the Wawa across the street.
Devika carried the groceries into the main kitchen, her head aching and her lips dry. Auntie Kaur, who was one of the oldest members and in charge of the weekend’s langar, told Devika she needed help in also cooking.
Devika sighed, and followed the steps in preparing the rice, bread, and vegetable dishes, while Auntie Kaur made the curry and sweets, ladling them in cauldrons.
Noise from the cars outside sometimes seeped into the walls, but Auntie Kaur stayed hunched over her pots, and Devika tried to do the same, although she continued to mutter under her breath.
The sun hid behind the clouds, and the lampposts in the parking lot were on. Another woman, who Auntie Kaur introduced as someone who had just moved into the area, joined them.
As they shook hands, Devika realized it was the same woman from the supermarket. The woman arched an eyebrow as well, even as Auntie Kaur directed her to the next table and showed her where all the knives and pans were. Devika cut the lettuce while the new member peeled the beans.
. . .
Devika wasn’t a fan of nature, despite being a suburbanite all her life. She was reminded of this as trees loomed on either side of the road. Attracted to tall buildings and architecture, she planned to live somewhere like Queens or Jersey City after Manmeet graduated college and found a job, and when Harjeet was ready too. Devika believed they would be so long as she explained how important it all was, to think more clearly about what makes them happy.
After a quick shower and a snack, Devika still smelled something pungent. This time, it was from the garbage in their kitchen. Fish skin and broken egg shells swelled to the top. Devika groaned and tied it up and went to the front door, where she paused. She could see the silhouette of the garbage can at the end of their driveway. Images of what occurred emerged. Devika thought of keeping the bag and throwing it out in the morning. But, the stench was too strong, and Devika kept her phone in her other hand as she raced and dropped the bag inside, and by slamming the door behind her.
Devika saw shadows of what she knew were of more trees and cars flow across the bedroom walls. The images sunk in. But she also remembered she’d meet her friends next Friday and knew it was best to settle down and focus on the moonlight shining through the window.
Harjeet arrived when Devika was already in bed. He too changed and slid next to her, and whispered, “Are you awake?”
“Yep. How was work?”
“We lost another contract. But don’t worry, we’ll get more.”
“Did you ask for your bonus?”
“Now’s not the time.”
“It’s been more than a year.”
“Have you called Naima and Subhash?”
“I left them another message.”
“Are they still not talking to one another?”
“I don’t know. Last time I spoke with her, I told her she shouldn’t be doing anything too dangerous.”
“By the way, we need to see my brother next week.”
“When? In the morning?”
“But it’s a four hour drive.”
“That’s why we need to head out Friday evening.”
“We need to see him. Otherwise, he’ll feel even more excluded.”
“No. I told you already. And that’s it.”
“You’re being unreasonable.”
Devika crossed her eyes and turned onto her side, facing the blinds. She focused on the slivers of moonlight peering between.