Prize winning story by my daughter Kamakshi Sharma
I would like to have kids like them,” Sarah said.
“Exactly my thought too. Unusual aren’t they,” I said. We sat on our bench watching the bunch of kids playing with an old man with flowing beard. I noticed them despite being newly married because of the laughter and sounds of glee they uttered – the group had a contagious energy. They clapped, danced, and ran around tirelessly. In between they stopped to share the joy they felt, beaming a beautiful smile for us to see and enjoy.
“He loves them so much! God bless him.”
“Yes. He appears old but look at his incredible energy. He hasn’t stopped for one tiny second.”
“Why didn’t I notice it? Gosh, yes! His enthusiasm matches that of the kids,” Sarah said.“I would have tired by now.”
“And those kids, they are awesome. Never seen anyone as happy as them.” Soon, everyone stopped doing whatever they had been doing and were content watching them. I didn’t forget that group, the next day or even the next. And though eventually they faded from my immediate memory, they slipped into those deep and permanent memory labyrinths that came alive, the moment I entered any park after that day.
– – –
“Isn’t he cute?” Sarah said. She had a smile that I had never seen on her. She looked soft, tender and beautiful.
“Yes. Eyes just like you!” I picked and kissed our newborn child. He seemed so small. “Hope he grows into one of those children.”
“The one we saw in the park.”
“When we were recently married.” But try hard as I did, I couldn’t remind her of those kids that were still fresh in my mind as if it was yesterday. I couldn’t forget them, she couldn’t remember them.
– – –
My detective job took me away from Sarah, from Texas to Ohio and because Sarah had odd work times, I was left with the responsibility of bringing up our child.
– – –
On that warm February Sunday, I had taken my five-year-old to park when I saw them, again. The same group of children and the old man with the flowing beard. And they played with the same energy they did last time. And when one of the kids stopped right in front of me to pick his ball and gave me that infectious smile, my heart skipped a beat. That was something odd! Something didn’t feel right. What was it? As they played, I kept watching those kids trying to figure out what was amiss. Then I realized what was wrong. Yes, the kid was the same I had seen, five years ago, in that park in Texas! The same! No difference between now and the snapshot I had of him in my memory. He hadn’t aged a day in the five years that passed. I felt dizzy and trapped, as if caught in a time warp. I looked at the man closely and saw that just like the kids, he too hadn’t aged one bit. And how they played and played and played. Just like that day, five years ago!
“Father, look!” My son tried to grab my attention. But he was lost to me. I watched the group of those children and the man with the flowing beard.
“Pete,” I said.
“Yes?” “Can you take John back home today with you? I have some work to do,” I said.
“Thanks a ton.”
When my friend took my son back home, I sat on my bench, keeping eye on the group without looking suspicious. When the light faded, the group of children walked out of the park, followed by the man. I followed them from a distance and saw them walk to the parking lot. I gave an anguished cry when I saw them getting into a Hammer. The brute would be no match for me, if it came to a chase. As I followed them, the old man turned abruptly and our eyes met.
“God!” I muttered. The man went rigid, but continued to move as if he hadn’t noticed me. Of course he knew he was being followed by a man who looked every inch a cop. The group got into the car. And when the Hammer started without the lights, I knew the intent of the driver. He took off from the parking with a speed that was blazing. I tried to tail the car, but my old Ford was no match. I lost him within minutes. The lightless Hammer ensured I couldn’t even see the number. The ageless man and his ageless children melted in the road ahead of me and I could do nothing.
– – –
I didn’t sleep that night. What was it the man had to fear? Why didn’t those children age? Texas, Ohio and then? Where would the man go from here, with his children in tow? The next morning I initiated my contacts and tried to trace the Hammer from its description. A week later, I met a dead-end.
– – –
In a senseless misfortune that crossed my way for no reason, my wife died in a road accident. Three years down the cruel trail of time, my sonny was detected with an advanced stage of cancer. He crumpled like a flower and shrunk in size. I forgot what it was to smile or laugh. I unfortunately was left with many more years to live – without hope and joy. I still remember when my son breathed his last. The day was charcoal gray and it was drizzling. Two important lives so close to my heart lost in a span of 8 years. Both souls, once a part of my life and now a loss I would have to live with for I don’t know how long. I dragged on like a zombie. And if there was another memory that played in my mind, it was of the old man and his ageless children.
– – –
I shifted to Washington, to forget my painful past and immersed myself in my work. I did come across women who were more than interested in me, but fearing an emotional entanglement with them, I steered clear of any involvement. I didn’t have any more emotional resources to face more misfortunes.
– – –
That morning I did 10 quick laps, amazed that I still had the stamina to go on. In jogging I had found a panacea for my sorrows. It was as if I could run away from my painful past for the briefest of the time. And I could detach myself from my state and see life from a higher perspective. Jogging gave me a high after a long time and I fell in love with it. Today’s was a new threshold I had reached. Exhilarated, I kept going. Exploding with a new-found source of energy, I surged on. Just to explore, I took a new path, turning left of my jogway, breaking free of my routine path to add new run miles. The jogway opened into a clearing and right in the middle of it was the same group of children and the man with an overflowing beard. I stopped right there, on my tacks and watched them. The same children, the same man and the same age. 13 years had passed and none of them had aged. My hair had grayed and there were wrinkles on my face. But the man played with the children with the same abundant energy that I had noticed when I saw them first. This time I was careful and hid myself behind the shadows. And I waited patiently for them to wind up and my breath to become normal. For two hours they played. Chased balls, threw Frisbees and played hide and seek until the light began to fade.
“Let’s go!” I heard the clear and authoritarian voice of the old man.
“No! Please! It’s so much of fun,” one of the children said.
“We will come here again, tomorrow. Can’t play in the dark…” Reluctantly the children followed him. This time they got into a Jaguar and I was careful not to get caught like the last time. To my delight, the old man drove the Jaguar at an easy pace I found no difficulty in keeping up with. An hour later, I followed him to his home – a huge mansion. They got inside without the slightest clue that they had been followed.
– – –
The next day I mounted a watch on the house. And as expected, they had moved in just six months ago. Not willing to lose the guy this time, I too joined the watch team. Without fail, and every day, the group went to different parks. The kids were boisterous and happy. No sign they were under duress or pain. They were happy with the old man with the flowing beard. So why did he run away from me, the last time we met? And why did he go to different parks every day and not the same park, even when it meant driving more than 30 miles? This, when the nearest park was just a trot away and much better than some of the parks they visited. And how come they looked like unchanged photographs, even after 13 years? The old man hadn’t lost his energy one bit.
– – –
In the morning, as I shaved off my 3-day old stubble thoughtfully, I was startled to see how old I had grown, compared to the old man. Who was he? Who were the children? What was the mystery behind their eternal youth? And why was the old man running away – changing homes, changing parks and his cars? What had he to fear? As a detective I could guess no answer, saw no motive and spotted nothing outwardly suspicious. Yet something looked wrong and I had to get to the bottom of it. It was still too premature to investigate his past. After all what was the basis? I only had a hunch something was wrong.
– – –
I flipped open my gun and looked at the cartridges. The chamber was full. I slid the gun in my pocket and went out of my home. “We are going in.” I told my team. “You have your guns?” They nodded.
– – –
The Jaguar was parked outside as we closed in – from the front, from the top and the rear of the mansion, covering the windows as we approached. There was no way anyone could escape. I knocked at the door. The old man opened it.
“Don’t move!” I said. I raised my gun at him.
“So you found me at last,” he said. His expressionless face made me tense. I watched his every move carefully.
“Don’t do anything stupid, or I’ll pull the trigger,” I said. “Just raise your hands.”
“I won’t. And go ahead kill me if you want. I’m not a criminal.”
“You won’t decide that. Kids who don’t grow and you running away from whom? The law? Don’t tell me you are not a criminal.”
He sat on the bed, his shoulders slumped.
“So tell me who you are and what this circus is about.”
“I was a doctor and now a gene researcher -”
“I don’t think so.”
He took out his ID and flashed it at me.
“No reason I should lie.”
“So what do you research on? How to create these freaks?”
“No. just how to stop the ageing process.”
“And you chose these children as your guinea pigs?”
“They aren’t guinea pigs. They were all terminally ill patients. Some of them have Thalassaemia, some of them Leukaemia, AIDS and Cancer.”
“Is that why they all look so healthy? You can’t fool me because I know what it is to have cancer. I lost a son to that disease.”
“And I my daughter,” the old man said. His eyes were moist. I swallowed a lump but then got hold of my bearings. This was no time to get lost emotionally. I was on a job.
“Your tricks won’t work on me.”
“I’m not working on you. I work on these children. There is no way these diseases can be cured. So I had another idea. Why not stop the ageing process. Freeze their condition.”
“Yes. Status quo. If their ageing stopped altogether, then the ageing of those diseased cells would stop too.”
“And so you stopped their ageing process. How?”
“There is a gene deficiency that causes ageing. I found the gene material of eyebrow hair as different from other hair of the body. They keep their black look, long after every body hair turn gray or white. And the eye. If for some reason a man died and donated his eye to someone else, the other person would be able to see for as long he or she lives. The eye can ‘live’ for many years, much beyond the life of a person. I studied the cells in both and researched on their genes. After years I could pinpoint their difference with others and corrected their distortions. The results are there for you to see.”
“But don’t you see the cruelty? Robbing these children of their natural growth? Making bonsais of human beings!”
“I told you they had terminal illness…”
“And you expect me to believe you?”
“Why should I lie?”
“Why shouldn’t you lie, now that you have been caught red-handed?” I took out my cell phone and called the police. In less than 10 minutes, the neighbourhood was swarming with police cars and news channels. They took him away and rescued the children from their rooms. They were sleeping and woke up with difficulty. And seeing him taken away by the police, they began to cry.
“Don’t go away. Don’t take away our father.” The press called their emotional outburst as a victim’s syndrome, or something. But try as hard we did, the children were aggrieved. They slept when they were tired of sobbing. The children were restored to their parents. And the old man with the flowing beard sent to prison.
– – –
It was again a black rainy day when I headed to prison. The rain beat mercilessly on my windscreen and reminded me of my son, my wife and all those children. I felt sick. Though I had tried to avoid it, I failed to quell my need to meet the old man with the flowing beard. A year had passed since his arrest and there were 6 more years for him in prison. I was led to his cell. And when I saw him, I was aghast. He had grown old. His cheeks had sagged and his eyes were drooping.
“Uh, uh…” I coughed to draw his attention. His back was facing me. He turned and peered at me with a vision that was surely failing.
“Go away, go away!” He started screaming he said when he recognized me.
“I came to see you…I’m sorry-“
“Sorry? Why are you sorry? What happened to my children? Are they all right?” He came running to the bars where I stood, his hands clenching the bars. He thrust his face against them as he searched my face for tell-tale signs, his eyes betraying his anxiety. The cheery persona was gone and in it lurked despair and hopelessness.
“They-” I choked on the words.
“They are all dead? Is that what you want to say?” He said in a surprisingly calm voice that was also cold and without emotion.
“You were right, but I didn’t believe you.”
“All my 15 children gone?” He brought the back of his hand to his trembling lips.
I looked away, unable to face him.
“Oh my God! What have you done! What have you done!” And he began to sob.
“But why none of the parents came to your defense? Why did they let you be punished when you were innocent?” I asked him through my tears.
“Because I told them not to. Because the world would have heaped even more grief on them than fate had brought upon them. What would you have done? Labeled them cruel for making their children guinea pigs, isn’t it? You called them human Bonsais, didn’t you? And your courts would have charged them too. No, better one person than so many. Better me, than all of them.”
An uncomfortable silence lingered between us.
“Did they die peacefully?” He asked.
“I don’t know. Except they are all dead.”
– – –
When I got into my car, I felt every inch a murderer.
“It’s my mistake, don’t take it too hard on yourself,” his words echoed in my ears. “You did your duty. I couldn’t do mine. I should have been more careful.”
The rain got worse and visibility fell to a near zero. But I saw the old man playing with the kids in the park, his beard flowing and the children clapping as clearly as if it was day. And then that day when I had trapped the old man and handed him to the authorities. And I thought of all the children who had… When the truck approached me head on, I saw it in good time but made no effort to either turn my steering wheel or slam my brakes. I let the car move on, thinking of the old man playing with his children.
“Oh God! What did I do!” I heard the bang when it came. And then, mercifully I plunged into darkness…