They are at dinner at the hotel when they hear the first sound of gunfire. It sounds like firecrackers far away. They continue eating.
The mother looks at her nine-year-old son and asks, ‘Should I cut the meat for you?’
‘Let him do it himself,’ the father snaps.
The mother doesn’t say anything. She straightens her napkin, takes a long sip of the cold water and goes back to eating her fish curry.
The boy points at the other table and says, ‘I want what they’re eating.’
The father scolds him, ‘It’s rude to point at others. Don’t do that again. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ the boy says, sincerely.
The sound is back.
‘What is that?’ the boy asks, glad for a distraction.
‘Someone’s drilling the road outside,’ the mother says.
They continue eating.
‘This bracelet suits you,’ the father says to the mother.
‘Thanks,’ she murmurs and purses her lips. She wonders why he has gifted her something so tacky: a string of gems hanging from a platinum wristband. They clink every time she moves her right hand, making her feel like a Swiss cow with a bell on its neck.
This time the sound is close to them.
Sounds like a sheet of steel is being hammered in the lobby, the father says.
Odd time to have construction work, the mother says.
Suddenly they hear a scream, garbled like a gargle.
The mother shrieks, swearing she’s seen a woman with blood streaming down her dress run past the restaurant.
The restaurant becomes quiet. It’s a cold silence.
The mother lets out a low embarrassed laugh.
This time the sound is loud and clear, coming from right outside the restaurant.
A young man with a gun enters the restaurant. He lifts his gun and shoots blindly around the room.
The father ducks below the table. The mother clutches the boy and pushes them to the floor.
There are screams and definite thuds of bodies hitting a floor or a table. Then there’s silence.
A trail of blood flows towards the boy. His mouth opens as if he’s going to scream. The mother lifts her hand to his mouth. The bracelet on her hand chimes. It’s as loud as thunder.
They hear footsteps coming towards their table.
They try not to breathe as if that will make them invisible.
A pair of boots stops next to the father’s face. On it are drops of thick black liquid.
They don’t have to be told to stand up. They do it.
The man is no more than twenty. Wearing a black shirt rolled up to his elbows and beige cargo pants, he looks like he’s going for a hike. His eyes are red, as if he’s shot himself in them. He sniffles as if he has a cold. He is breathing hard.
‘Hello,’ he says politely, as if meeting them at a cocktail party. His voice is gruff and hollow.
The father steps in front of the mother and the boy. The man lifts his gun and points it at the father. Cold black metal hits the father’s flushed forehead. He flinches. He smells sulphur, sawdust and oil. He steps aside.
‘You thought you could escape, huh?’ the man asks them. He smiles dryly. Suddenly, he looks like someone the boy may grow up to look like.
He looks at the mother. Tears run down her cheeks. He yawns, turns to the boy and asks, ‘Who you love more? Mum-ma or Pup-pa?’ He smacks his lips as if relishing the two words – Mum-ma and Pup-pa.
The boy swallows. He looks from the mother to the father.
‘Let me ask clearly so you understand. Which one you want me to kill?’
‘No one,’ the boy replies, surprised to find a voice in his dry throat.
The man laughs. His laugh is as hard as his smile.
He says, ‘Wrong answer. Now I have to kill two of you instead of one. Pick who two.’
The boy looks down at the floor.
The man laughs mirthlessly, ‘Who two, I said? Who two! Hoo-too. Hoo-too.’ He brings his free left hand up to his mouth and makes it stand vertically, as if he is a hooting train.
In a flash, the man turns his gun to the mother.
‘Mum-ma, your son too slow. You pick hoo-too you want me to kill. Fast or I’ll kill all of you,’ he shouts.
‘Me,’ the mother says, as if she’s been preparing all her life to answer this question.
‘Him,’ she says quickly, pointing to the father. She ignores the hurt look that passes across the father’s face.
The man points his gun to the father’s heart, ‘Pup-pa, now you say hoo-too?’
The father looks at the mother for a long time and then says, ‘Me.’
The man cocks his left eyebrow mockingly, ‘We’ve heard that before. Surprise me.’
The father realizes no one is going to save them. In the lobby, there is silence. The road outside is quiet. They are alone. There is no one to hear him.
‘And —’ he gulps ‘— him.’ He nods toward the boy.
The mother lets out a yell of disapproval, which stops when the man puts the gun straight into her mouth.
The man gazes amusedly at the boy, lifts his free hand to his chin and scratches it playfully.
‘So, the score is one for Mum-ma, two for Pup-pa, one for you. Final decision is yours, boy. Vote for Mum-ma and Pup-pa. Then they die and you live. If you vote for Mum-ma and yourself, or Pup-pa and yourself, then I will decide hoo-too to kill. Now decide.’
The boy lets out a sob. The father and the mother are standing close together, directly in front of him. The boy lifts both his hands and points straight.
(Originally published in Every Day Fiction:
A financial journalist by day and a writer by night, Meghna Pant is the editor of a business magazine. She has formerly worked as a TV anchor for Times Now, NDTV Profit and Bloomberg-UTV. Her short stories have been published in over a dozen literary magazines, across four countries.
An avid traveller, Meghna Pant has lived in various cities around the world, from Mumbai and Singapore to Zurich and New York. She is currently based in Dubai.
You can follow her on twitter @MeghnaPant