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I’m not a bad person.
At least that’s what I tell myself over and over as I wend my way through the marketplace, past the vendors selling spiced meats and bright fabric, incense and rare birds. Not a bad person. Not a bad person. It’s a mantra I’m hoping will loosen the knot of dread that has been twisting in my stomach all afternoon.
It’s not working.
I lift my hair off the back of my neck and yearn for a breeze that fails to materialize. It’s hot today; far too hot for my waist-length mane, but Gopal took one look at my hair this morning coiled in a tight knot at the back of my skull and groaned. “No, Marinda,” he said. “The boy will favor the hair down.” His sudden concern about the preferences of any boy--especially this boy--struck me as laughably ironic, but I didn’t argue. I just took out the pins and let my hair tumble around my shoulders. “Better, rajakumari,” he said. “Much better.”
The meeting is supposed to happen near the fruit vendor on the other side of the market. The streets are thick with people--women balancing baskets of laundry atop their heads, men pulling heavy carts loaded with bags of rice and tea, children chasing each other between vendors.
I feel a tug on my skirt and whirl around. A fortune-teller sits on a bright blue carpet surrounded by cards. Her hair is braided in intricate coils, and gold hoops dangle from her ears. She shows me her teeth--it’s meant to be a smile, but it looks more like a challenge. “Let me read your future,” she says, her fingers still clasped around a fistful of my sari.
“No, thank you,” I tell her, and I have to take a step back before she lets go. Gita says that most fortune-tellers are frauds and a waste of good money. Even if she’s wrong, it doesn’t matter. I have no interest in knowing anything about my future.
I continue pressing through the crowd and I start to think about the boy I’ll find waiting for me at the fruit stand. It’s a bad habit, one I’m trying to break. I hope I don’t like him. It will make it so much easier to walk away without feeling guilty. And I’m always the one to do both--the walking away and the feeling guilty. I wonder what he’s been told about our meeting today. What does he expect from me? What does he know?
A quick glance at the sky tells me I’m early. I’ve been walking faster than I realized. I slow in front of the spice merchant to admire the neat rows of pails overflowing with the rich colors of the earth--spices in hues of deep brown, clay red and golden yellow. A woman with lime-green fingernails scoops the spices into brown paper bags and balances them against a small stone on a copper scale. It reminds me of the ancients who believed we get ten tries at life and then, after our final death, our hearts are measured to determine our worthiness--weighed on a giant scale, balanced against a feather. If the heart is as light as a feather, the person can enter the afterlife. If not, the heart is fed to a wild beast.
My heart will sink quickly even against a brick.
I move to the next vendor to reach for a colorful scarf and I notice my hands are trembling. I need to stop thinking. If I’m nervous, I will ruin everything. I clasp my hands behind my back and teach them to be still while I study the tapestry hanging at the back of the booth. It depicts the Raksaka--the kingdom of Sundari’s four guardians--bird, tiger, crocodile and snake. The giant bird, Garuda, hovers in the sky above the others, her jewel-toned wings spread across the entire length of the tapestry. The tiger and the crocodile face off in the center, each of them looking ready for battle. The snake is coiled at the bottom, and no matter which way I tilt my head, his beady eyes seem to follow me. A shiver prickles at the base of my neck, but my hands are steady now and so I release them back to my sides and move on.
I arrive across the street from the fruit vendor with a few minutes to spare, so I duck into the shade of the stone archway and watch for the boy. Gopal said I would find him near the mangoes, but I don’t know how I’ll ever spot him in the throng. The fruit stand is crowded--boys, girls, men, women, children, dogs. But I shouldn’t have worried. He turns up, and he sticks out like a fly in a bowl of soup. He is dressed too formally for a market day, and he shifts his weight from foot to foot without moving anywhere. He is lingering near the mangoes, picking them up, sniffing them, putting them down. All the while his gaze darts from side to side.
He’s looking for me.
I walk casually toward the fruit stand and stop a pace or two from him. I pick up a green mango with a hint of blush on its cheek and hold it under my nose. The sweet fragrance stands in sharp relief against the smell of meat, incense and sweat that permeates the rest of the market. I press my thumb against the fruit and it yields slightly. That’s how you know something is ready to be devoured, when it gives just a little under pressure. It’s the same with people.
I can feel the boy staring at me, but I keep my face toward the fruit bin and watch him from the corner of my eye. I have to be sure. Finally I glance up and our eyes lock.
“Do you have something for me?” he asks.
I open my mouth to answer, when a small girl presses against his leg. Her clothes are little more than rags and her face is pinched with hunger. She holds out her grime-covered hands cupped in front of her. “Please?” she says in a scratchy voice. He looks down at her like she’s something he’s just scraped from the bottom of his shoe.
“Go away,” he says. The knot in my stomach loosens and I am flooded with relief. I don’t have to feel guilty for walking away. I turn my attention to the little girl, who has backed off, her expression a mixture of fear and disappointment.
“Come, janu,” I tell her. She takes a step toward me, and I drop three fat coins into her palm along with a mango I have plucked from the top of the heap. Her face lights up in a smile.
I turn back toward the boy, his lip still curled in disgust. “I do have something for you,” I tell him. And then I do what I came for.
I kiss him.
He tenses up at first--they always do--but then he relaxes into me, his lips soft and welcoming. Ripe. And that’s when I put my hands on his shoulders and push him away. It was a brief kiss, but a fatal one. His eyes are wide and he puts two fingers to his mouth as if he’s not sure what just happened.
“Did you have something for me?” he asks again.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t.”
His face twists in confusion and his gaze sweeps across the market. “Oh,” he says. “I guess you’re not who I thought you were.”
No, I’m not. I’m not who he thought I was at all.
I turn and walk away, and though it takes all the self-restraint I have, I don’t look back.
It won’t happen right away. The poison will take some time to absorb into his skin where my lips brushed against his, to find its way into his bloodstream. To destroy him.
In one hour, his skin will heat. I can picture him taking off his black jacket, tugging at his yellow shirt, fanning himself with a newspaper. In two hours his nose will begin to run and his stomach will roil. In three hours his chest will tighten, his pupils will constrict, he will feel like he is being squeezed in the jaws of a giant snake. He won’t be entirely wrong. In four hours he will have lost control of most of his bodily functions. He will drool. He will soil himself. He will lose his dignity. In five hours he will stop breathing.
I hope whatever he did to deserve this fate was truly horrible. Because in six hours my guilt will be almost too much to bear.
When I return to the flat, I knock on the door--three sharp raps, which means I am safe and alone. Two knocks means I might have been followed. Four tells Gita she should open the door with a weapon in her hand.
The door swings wide and Gita’s face is drawn, worried.
“Marinda,” she says with a catch in her voice, “you’re late.” She’s holding a dish towel that her hands have shaped into a rope. The gray at her temples seems more pronounced tonight, as if she has aged in the waiting.
“Am I?” I ask, though I know it’s true. The walk back always feels heavy, like a chore.
I move past her and step inside. Our flat is small, just one room with beds on one side and something that passes for a kitchen on the other. A tiny bathroom is tucked in the corner with only a faded yellow curtain for a door. It isn’t grand, but at least I don’t have to live at the home with Gopal and the other girls.
Mani is curled up on one of the beds, already asleep, though the sun isn’t fully set. His small body is curved around Smudge, who lifts her head to look at me, licks a paw and then presses her face against Mani’s chest.
“How long has he been out?” I sit on the side of the bed and smooth the hair from Mani’s forehead. His face is warm and the bitter-smelling vapors of his breathing treatments cling to his clothing.
“Not long,” Gita says. She stops tormenting the dish towel, uncurls it and smooths it with her palms. “He had more energy today.” I can hear the effort in her voice and I know she’s stretching the truth. He is less exhausted some days than others, but he never has energy.
She yanks on a chair, its legs scraping loudly against the wood floor as she drags it toward me. She plunks it down beside the bed and sits. Mani doesn’t stir.
I lean down and kiss the crown of Mani’s head--far away from his eyes or mouth and separated from my lips by a dark mop of messy curls. It’s the most I dare, and for a moment I am angry that I am deprived of even this small privilege, to be able to kiss my tiny brother on his sticky forehead. Gita must see the flash of emotion on my face, because she clears her throat.
“I gave him his medicine earlier this evening,” she says. “So he should be all set for a few days.” It didn’t need to be said--the acrid smell clings to the inside of my nostrils. I can practically taste it. So I take the statement for the reminder it is: Mani’s medicine for my work today. One life for another.
I pull the blanket up around his chin. “Thank you,” I say, though the words cut like glass as they leave my throat.
“So how did it go?” Gita asks, and the question makes me hate her a little. I know it is part of her job to find out, to report back to Gopal, to keep the operation running smoothly. But sometimes she stays for dinner before she reminds me that I’m just a task on her list.
And really, how does she think it went? I just killed someone based on nothing more than the fact that Gopal told me to. But it isn’t her burden to bear and so she never feels its weight. “It went fine,” I tell her. “No problems.”
“Good,” she says, nodding. “Good. And was he alone?”
My mind flashes to the boy shifting nervously on the balls of his feet, and my stomach clenches. “Yes,” I say, “he was all alone.” I want to ask her more, want her to tell me why he had to die, but I don’t say anything. Questions are against tradecraft. But I know I won’t sleep tonight, that I will see that boy over and over and wonder what he did, wonder what I did, and wonder which is worse.
Gita leaves then, promising to check in on me tomorrow. When she closes the door behind her, Smudge leaps over Mani and bumps my hand with her head. A not-so-subtle demand and I obey without thinking. She purrs softly as I rub the spot between her ears and worry that my only talent is compliance. But will I be talented enough to save Mani?
The next morning I wake to Mani perched on the edge of my bed, giggling. I rub my eyes with the heel of my hand. “What’s so funny?”
He grins at me and points to my middle. “Your tummy sounds like a creaky door.” I look down as if there were something to see. It’s true, though. My stomach is making horrendous noises, and I realize I haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday. I learned a long time ago never to eat on the day of a kill. I can’t keep anything down anyway, and so my body runs on adrenaline and guilt instead of food.
Besides, I work better when I’m hollow inside.
I sit up and rumple Mani’s hair. “Maybe we need to stop for pastries before we go to the bookshop today.”
His eyes light up and he bounces a little. “I forgot it was a bookshop day,” he says, and the excitement in his voice touches something raw inside me. He is so easily pleased. Life never gives him a full meal, but he is always so grateful for the table scraps. I wish I could be like that.
I help Mani get dressed and then I sit on the floor to braid my hair while he plays with Smudge. He waves a piece of yarn just out of her reach, and she flies through the air like a furry gymnast, sending Mani into a fit of giggles. They play until Smudge grows bored and saunters away.
Mani moves to the edge of the bed and begins swinging his legs, kicking the bed frame. The sound is grating; it thumps in time with the pounding in my head, but I don’t tell him to stop. I spent most of last night staring at the ceiling, and I didn’t fall asleep until pink light had already started seeping through the curtains, so I couldn’t have slept long. I feel that weird detached feeling that comes from too little sleep and not enough food. Or maybe from killing a man.