The electric crackle of twigs snapping and leaves crunching beneath the careless footfalls of our capricious explorers alert the forest of their imminent trespass; like the sound of bones breaking and dry skin cracking, the forest hears – no, feels our heroes trudge through its delicate surface, already so tattered and abused by generations of irresponsible hikers, and it reels its roots in, tenses up, shrinks its welcome, and sits on edge, eyeing with pessimistic contempt the arrival of the two boys. No longer will the forest be open to the lecherousness of mankind, and it will do everything in its power to convey that message.
Forest critters provided the soundtrack to our heroes’ hike, but far from it being rousing and symphonic, this music was instead deliberate and eerie, almost in a mechanical kind of way, if you could imagine the manic, redundant chirping of insects as the systematic, informative beeping of a machine. And if music could ever sound watchful, this would be what it sounded like.
Now, our heroes, like many other humans, are largely ignorant of the threats their environment poses to them. This does not concern the forest. It is not its duty to educate children – that’s what parents are for. The forest has worse things to worry about, such as litterers or global warming. But the two boys had an unbridled uncouthness about their purpose, certainly appearing as if there was not much parenting imposed on them in the first place, marking them as yet another source of genuine concern for the already-burdened forest.
The taller of our two heroes was also the lesser-troubled of the two regarding the forest’s unwelcoming nature. He had entered it two weeks ago expecting the absolute worst, and the forest has not disappointed him. He too, does not intend to disappoint. He already looked the part of a misunderstood mastermind with his awkwardly long limbs, height as impressive as his charisma and budding facial hair he proudly refused to shave. But perhaps the most prominent thing about him was his black turban, stately perched on his head. With this boy, the forest was going to have to work extra hard to win his fear.
He turned to the shorter boy beside him, who despite his plumper frame, was struggling with a mound of baggage piled on his back.
“I hate nature,” the taller boy declared with finality, disdain spiking his words. He was deliberately immune to both the charms and threats of nature.
The shorter boy, who wasn’t only shorter, but smaller in every respect despite his chubbiness, grunted incomprehensibly under the weight of the baggage. His dirty blonde hair had a dull nature to it, like it was dried hay collected from the ditches of some abandoned farm and glued callously around his pasty face by a disenfranchised toymaker.
“What did you say?” the taller boy asked.
“I said,” the smaller boy panted. “Okay’. I only said ‘okay’.”
“All that effort for just one word? Duke, you need to plan the things you say. Make them worthwhile. We all know how hard it is for you to get them out.”
For such a grand name, Duke certainly did not look the part. He always thought it must have been some kind of cruel joke for his friends to give him a nickname he could never live up to, unless it was given to him in the same context people name their pets.
The duo continued to trudge on, navigating around and over precariously placed branches and insidious little dents in the ground. It was their third week in the forest, and Duke was beginning to think that they had covered all their ground. It can’t be possible that the forest was that big, could it? Or was it like the Universe, constantly expanding and steeped in engulfing darkness, and like the Universe, would eventually combust in a violent, beautiful end? The thought terrified Duke as much as it thrilled the other boy.
“Ajax, when do you think we can go home?” Duke huffed.
The taller boy scoffed. “Why, you miss mom and dad already?”
Duke didn’t want to admit it to Ajax, but he did. He missed the rattling of the newspaper in the morning when his father would shake it open, he missed the sound of bacon searing in his mother’s non-stick pan, and what more, the smell. But most of all, he missed what these things represented.
“No, I just wanna go home,” he lied.
Ajax stopped in his tracks. He was carrying significantly less luggage; in fact, all he was carrying was a sash across his back and a pack around his waist. He was almost graceful in his movement, like a gazelle pausing in the forest and looking back over its shoulder. Duke however, looked like he was clumsily whipped with inertia at the sudden halt.
The weight of the luggage pulled him down and Duke went crashing into the floor, crying out. Ajax couldn’t stifle his laughter, but he still reached out a helping hand, which is more than he is usually willing to do on a normal day.
“Thanks,” Duke muttered, struggling to adjust the luggage.
Without a word, Ajax grabbed the smallest pack from Duke’s back and flung it over his skinny shoulders.
“You know what I said about speaking up? Making your words count?” he said.
“That applies here. If you needed help, you should have asked,” he finished.
Duke didn’t want to bring up the fact that it was Ajax who piled the bags on him in the first place. So Duke nodded in agreement.
“Stand up for yourself, man,” Ajax continued. “When I was your age, my parents made me do all sorts of things I didn’t want to – like piano, tennis, Chinese calligraphy… you know the deal – one day, I had enough. I just told ‘em no. And nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to.”
Duke highly doubted that Ajax learned Chinese calligraphy. He had seen his penmanship, if you could call it that, and when he was writing in English it appeared Chinese, so maybe that was what he meant.
Just a few days ago they had been at the last campsite, which they aptly named Camp 3 for its symbolic ties with Mount Everest. Camp 3, traditionally, would be where people got together and discussed whether they still wanted to go all the way. It would be where dilemmas were ironed out and finalities confirmed, the inevitability of death and danger accepted and integrated into your every decision. That was what Camp 3 was for Duke and Ajax – the place where they said it’s do or die. Or rather, that was what Ajax said, and Duke agreed. He shuddered now in realisition that there was to be a Camp 4, 5, and 6. It was never expected that they would take so long.
On the bright side, it was supposed to be the raining season now, but there had been no rain for the past two weeks. Ajax saw it as the universe’s approval of their quest; Duke saw it as too good to be true, and almost like dark magic, a raindrop fell on Duke’s nose.
“Don’t be so negative. The more you say it, the more likely it is to happen. You’re harnessing negative energy and inviting negative energy, and that’s going to affect the environment. And because I’m here with you, it’s going to affect me. And that’s going to make me harness my own share of negative energy…”
Duke allowed Ajax to drone on, but his attention was elsewhere. His eyes were to the sky, visible through the leafy canopy of the forest, watching dark clouds swirl and rage. His ears were tuned to the low rumble of the weather, and his skin felt the pinching moisture in the air. Ajax was right. It wasn’t rain. It was a storm.
“We need to get to Camp 4 soon,” Duke suddenly said, cutting Ajax off.
Ajax gave him a peculiar look, taking a moment himself to survey the environment. He pulled the map out from his pocket, more yellow and crumpled than ever.
“We’re not going to make it on time,” he muttered.
Duke’s heart sank.
“Why are you looking like that? We came here expecting rain, did we not? That’s the only reason we’re here now – because it’s the raining season and no one else would be here,” Ajax said.
Ajax was always correct, but that didn’t mean he was always right.
“If we don’t get to the campsite before the downpour starts, we’re done for,” Duke said.
“That much I know,” Ajax replied. “Come on.”
He sped up, leading the way. He was light on his feet, limber, lithe, and quick. But Duke was weighed down, and he had always been clumsy and slow.
“Hurry up, fatso!” Ajax cried from far ahead. “We have half an hour at most!”
Duke remembered then when he first met Ajax. He had always been fascinated with the neighbours from across the street, with their colourful clothes and spicy food, and especially with their son, who was the only other child for the next few blocks. Duke’s family had been new to the neighbourhood, and after their second week moving in, his parents finally worked up the courage to visit their neighbours officially, though Duke and Ajay had already met before that. True enough, Mr and Mrs Singh were both as remarkable and imposing as their home. Duke’s parents had used such words as “accomplished” and “distinguished” to compliment them, but he didn’t care about the adults. He wanted to make a new friend, but the youngest Singh, then presented to him as Ajay, not Ajax, made it a point to bring up Duke’s weight during the introductions. Normally Duke would roll his eyes when kids at school made fun of him, but on that day, Ajax had told him: “You’re never going to eye-roll your weight away.” And so Duke had stopped responding in any way at all.
Ajax was now still far ahead of Duke. “Wait for me!” Duke meant to shout, but it came out as a whispered whimper. He was going to cry, he knew it. He could barely see Ajax anymore, and the rumbling was getting louder and louder, and the straps of the bags were cutting into his shoulder, and his feet hurt, and –
Ajax appeared out of nowhere and snatched away one of Duke’s bags, draping it over his own shoulder again.
“I can’t wait on you forever, kid.”
This wasn’t fair. What was four years between them both, really? Duke wished now that he could be older. Older and taller and stronger, so that he could lift these bags with ease and his feet wouldn’t hurt and his breath wouldn’t catch and Ajax wouldn’t call him kid.
The tears were already welling in Duke’s eyes, and he knew Ajax saw them. If he could see himself now, he’d see a small, plump boy comically stacked with a mound of bags, his fatty, pink cheeks wobbling under the weight, his runny nose sending cascades of fluids down his lip, puffy eyes darting nervously around the vast forest.
This was what Ajax saw, and the older boy’s heart sank. Which surprised even him.
“Duke, can you make it?” he asked.
Duke nodded fervently, always eager to impress. “Like you said, Jax. I knew what I was getting into.”
But did he really? “Come here,” Ajax mumbled, grabbing onto Duke’s pasty, sweaty hand. He pulled him along, feeling like he was dragging a boulder, the younger boy trying desperately to keep up.
“Slow down, Jax!”
“No, you need to lose some weight, Duke. For a 10-year-old you pack too much jelly.”
“Mom already put me on a salad diet for one week.”
“One week’s not enough, my friend.”
“You try doing a salad diet for one week!”
Ajax smiled. “There we go. Talk back! Come on, do it again!”
“But I don’t have anything to say.”
“Well, maybe your triple chins are too heavy. Weighing your jaw down, y’know?”
A sharp kick to Ajax’s calf sent him lurching forward, face-first, onto the ground. Leaves cushioned his fall but their rough edges scratched against his skin, and the bags he was carrying slammed mercilessly into his back.
He quickly got up and turned to see Duke fuming behind him, brows furrowed, fists clenched. It was like a cloud had descended over him.
“Did you kick me?” Ajax asked, narrowing his eyes. Duke did not reply. “Can’t you speak? I said, did you kick me?”
Duke took two steps forward and shoved Ajax, and though Duke’s push was hesitant, as if someone was grabbing him from behind and controlling him, Ajax, being far skinnier, fell to the ground again.
“What the hell, dude?” Ajax shouted. Above them, the sky roared. Drizzle started to fall. “What was that for?”
“Don’t talk about my weight,” Duke said through gritted teeth.
“What else am I supposed to talk about?”
“I don’t know! What about the fact that we’ve been walking in circles for weeks? Maybe you can talk about how we’re never going to find this stupid chocolate factory!”
“What gives you that idea? We haven’t been walking in circles; we’ve been getting closer every day!”
“Oh yeah?” Duke shouted. “Because I’m pretty sure you don’t actually know where we’re going!” he reached into Ajax’s shirt pocket and pulled out the crumpled map. It was hand-drawn, the ink already faded in places, the directions cartoonishly vague. Any cynic, realist, or simple grown-up would have looked at this map and thought it a parody. “This isn’t even a real map!”
“My grandfather gave that to me!” Ajax yelled back.
“Your grandfather was just as crazy as you are, then!” Duke held the map up, and in three swift motions, ripped the map into shreds.
Ajax gaped at him. “Why would you do something like that?!”
“I’m going home, Jax. You can stay here and find your stupid factory.” Duke turned to leave.
“Yeah, well how are you going to get back without a map, smart ass?”
Duke froze. “I’ll retrace our steps.”
“It’s going to rain and it’s going to take you weeks to get back, with all that weight you’re carrying around, and I don’t mean the bags.”
Duke growled and turned back, running straight for Ajax, who was still on the ground. He reached out for Ajax’s throat but Ajax only had to stick his hand out and hold Duke’s head at arm’s length away from him. He pushed Duke aside and kicked him in the thigh, standing up.
“What the hell got into you?”
Duke lay moaning on the floor, holding his leg. He started to really cry now, face pressed into the leafy pillow of the forest floor.
“What is it? Stress?”
Duke shook his head, sobbing.
“You can’t cave on me every single time you miss your mommy and daddy, Duke! We’ve got bigger things at stake here! And now you’ve ripped up our only map!”
“It wasn’t even a real map!” Duke tried to justify through his tears.
“And how would you know that?” Ajax had never been violent, but he wished with all the boiling rage in his heart now that he could pick Duke up and toss him into the trees. “Gah!” he shouted, throwing his hands up in frustration.
The forest started to grow noisy from the drizzle’s assault, flecking down harder as each moment passed. The sky groaned and swirled, darkness descending over the forest. Ajax could feel the weather taunting him, laughing at him with every rumble and clap of thunder in the distance. Good luck with your quest, kid, said the sky sarcastically as its clouds continued to shift with obscene efficiency, mocking him with all the distasteful jest of a distant in-law pocketing the cutlery at a funeral reception.
This quest was everything Ajax had been working for. Leaving his parents, leaving school, leaving town, all of it would be for nothing now that their only map was gone. He was seething with the righteous rage of a self-appointed Messiah.
“Are you going to apologise?” Ajax demanded. Duke continued sniffling, and the sight of him crumpled and whimpering on the ground only infuriated Ajax further. “If you’re not going to apologise, at least come up with a solution. Right now.”
Children, thought Ajax spitefully, watching Duke slowly start to pull himself together. The boy got up, dusted the leaves off his clothes, and turned a pouty lip to Ajax. He held up the pieces of the torn map and pieced them together. Whatever it showed, it was no longer legible, for it had spent time on the forest floor soaking in the drizzle.
“My grandpa gave that to me,” Ajax repeated, softly this time.
“I’m sorry,” Duke finally managed in a shaky voice, after what seemed to be a quiver of the lip and the harnessing of a large quantity of breath.
“You’re sorry?” Ajax mockingly enquired.
Duke glared at him with steely eyes. “As sorry as you are,” he muttered.
Ajax sighed. He could feel his heart pounding against his chest, beating out like the drums of war rousing soldiers for a fierce battle. But Duke continued to look dejected and exhausted, gingerly rubbing his shoulders where the straps of the bags were cutting in. Ajax silenced the drums.
“Are you calm now?” he asked.
Duke nodded, his cheeks wobbling with the convincing simplicity of childish innocence.
“You do realise we cannot give up?” Ajax prompted him, testing his resolve. If Duke asks him to turn back now, Ajax will know for sure that their friendship cannot continue. It would be the worst form of betrayal.
Duke nodded again, but it was a more hesitant one, as if he needed to think about it. Which was always a bad sign to Ajax.
“Are you going to finish this? As you promised me way before this? As you indicated when we first became friends?”
“But we don’t have a map.”
Ajax sighed. He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out his smartphone.
“I took a picture,” he said. Duke’s eyes widened, whether because he was surprised or impressed Ajax couldn’t tell. “I knew I would have to expect something ridiculous from you.”
The boy continued to stare at the phone. So that’s why Ajax had made him lug around a whole bag of power-banks.
“So are you coming with me or not?” he asked.
Duke took a moment to think. He couldn’t turn back now, not when they’ve come so far. He looked into the sunken face of his friend, dark circles creeping up on his eyes, rain flecking on his olive skin, the turban he so treasured now askew and adorned with leaves, and he decided then that friends are supposed to keep promises. “I’ll follow you anywhere, Jax. I’m sorry. I acted out because I was tired.”
Here’s the thing about best friends. Sometimes, even when their ugly side is showing, you overlook it and focus on turning their lie into a truth. Sometimes, you just cannot lose the one person who makes you, you. And so Ajax looked past the deceitful eyes, the blank voice, the still-clenched fists, and the twitch of contempt that blazed across Duke’s face for a fraction of a second there, and he took the lie as a truth.
Another thing about best friends is that sometimes you feel like knocking the other person in the head and screaming down their ear, but instead you put on a smile and tell them a lie because even you can’t bear to hear your truth. And so Duke managed a small smile.
“I’m sorry too. Come on, then.” Ajax beckoned to Duke. The boy stared at Ajax’s open palm and nodded, although Ajax recognised Duke’s smile as one he too used to give his parents when he was smaller, when they would tell him something seemingly comforting, and he would pretend to be comforted, just so that they could feel better.
“Smart move, taking a picture,” Duke said.
“I’m always smart.”
The two boys then picked up the pieces of their quest from the ground: the fallen bags, pots, pans, sacks, and although they could never quite get their things back the same way they were before they fell, they now shared the load.
It was a lovely day in Suburbia. The children were all at school, the husbands were all at work, and the white-washed homes with their white picket fences gleamed sublimely in the charming summer sun while gardeners tended to the rose bushes with all the devotion of Romantic poets penning sonnets to the saccharine temperance of the suburban outdoors. A bicycle bell tinkled in the distance as the paper boy made his rounds, and birds chirped their welcome to him. ‘How do you do, paper boy?’ they seemed to say. ‘How delightful – the daily news!’
All was well.
Jacob Ellington (just turned eight, not seven, thank you very much) sat on his couch pondering his new bout of flu, propped up by a very reluctant spine and a very sturdy belly. Tissue paper, twisted into rigid form, clogged his nostrils from its incessant leaking while his puffy red eyes continued to tear without respite. The television blared as it usually did, the colourful images swirling before his eyes like autumn leaves blowing in the wind. Jacob gave a little obligatory chuckle at the little obligatory scenes of comedy, and that was all in a day’s work for him.
“Moooooooooom,” he moaned, tugging out the tissue twigs from his nose.
A loud pattering of feet signalled his mother’s acknowledgment, and she came thundering down the stairs at full speed, launching herself straight onto the couch.
“My poor baby,” she cooed, cradling Jacob’s head in her bosom. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head sadly, pouting to the best of his ability.
“Can I have some ice cream?”
His mother’s face fell, her furrowed brow lapsing and her worried lip straightening into a stern line.
“Sweetheart, what did we say about ice cream just last night? No more sugar for you, remember?”
Jacob cried out violently.
“But that was last night! I’m sick today and I want ice cream!”
Jacob’s mother pinched a lump of fat from his belly. “You see this? Do you know what this is?”
He started to cry now, but not because it hurt.
“Let go! It hurts!”
“Oh no, my poor baby,” his mother sighed. She sat with him in her thin arms, her bony fingers trying their best to hold onto his meaty back.
“Fine,” she said dearly. “You can have one little cone. Just one. And this will be the last time you’re allowed to cheat.”
Jacob didn’t let his excitement get the better of him. Instead, he continued to lie miserably in his mother’s lap, biding his time.
“Okay,” he finally said, morosely. “Just one.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” his mother tried, the phony encouragement eating her up from inside as she scrutinised his wobbly chins.
“What are you waiting for?” he shot back.
“Sweetheart, you’re going to have to wait for the van to come around.”
“What? Why? Don’t we have any left in the freezer?”
His mother froze. “I threw them away.”
This was met with a silence so deliberate and fragile, that Mrs. Ellington feared to even breathe.
“Why did you do that?” her beloved son asked her in that shaky voice children use when they try to tear adults apart, tears slowly welling inside his large, dollish, blue eyes.
Mrs. Ellington’s heart welled up with regret, not because she was sorry, but because she knew what she had brought onto herself.
“I didn’t want you stealing from the freezer, sweetheart.”
Jacob burst into tears, sobbing in that way young children do when they scrunch up their eyes and redden their faces and widen their mouths and increase their volume.
“For goodness’ sake, Jacob. I did it for your own good! Because I love you.”
“You don’t love me!” he screamed back at her. “You don’t!”
“Now why would you say that?”
“If you really loved me, you would let me eat ice cream!”
Mr. Ellington would be home soon, and she really did not want him to see their son in a fit. She would have to give in, yet again. She closed her eyes, willing herself to see past Jacob’s belly peeking out tauntingly from above his shorts, and declared in a huff:
“Fine, you can go get three ice creams, okay?”
The crying ceased immediately and Jacob fixed his mother with a stern glare, as if daring her to own up to the consequences of her actions.
“I just want you to know that you hurt me very much,” he said softly.
Mrs Ellington didn’t understand why she had to be the one to face this every day. Jacob had always been perceptive and highly intelligent, but Mr Ellington’s insistence on preaching “frank, forward communication” to his son had worked out well for everyone so far except her. Children should not be seen or heard, she thought drearily.
“I’m sorry, my little duke,” she said through clenched teeth.
Jacob saw the reluctance in his mother’s eyes and thought it was about time to let her off the hook.
“I forgive you,” he said. He then launched into the brightest smile he could muster and fixed her with a bear hug. “I love you, mommy.”
She smiled warmly at him. For such a pain in the ass, you sure are a cute, little thing. Well, not that little. “Go get that ice cream, sweetheart.”
Duke leapt up and ran straight for the dresser next to the door, snatching up some money from the Emergency Jar. He bolted out the front door the way a puppy might at the arrival of its owner.
Standing by the street, he waited patiently for the song of the ice cream van. Across the street, the house that had been vacant for months seemed to have visitors. A minivan with boxes strapped to its roof waiting unassumingly in the street, and Jacob curiously squinted his eyes at the vehicle, trying to distinguish the faces obscured by the partially tinted windows. He didn’t have to wait long however, as a family got out of the car. Jacob was quite sure he had never seen people like them before.
It was a family of three, the two men having colourful turbans, burgundy on the father and bright blue on the teenaged son, that stood out against the background of the looming white house starkly. Jacob’s eyes were drawn to the colourful clothing of the mother, her long blouse reaching down to her knees, pulled over flowy pants Jacob was sure could hide a child in. Her clothes glinted in the sun with all its embroidery and sequins, matching the natural glow of her olive skin, a trait both her husband and son shared with her. Her thick black hair was pulled back into a taut bun, and though there was a regal beauty about her sharp features, Jacob didn’t think he would ever dare speak to her. The father too, had a moustache most formidable and brows that shaded dark and heavy over intense eyes. However, Jacob did think he might like to speak to the son. His bright blue turban bopped alongside his father’s severe burgundy one, and while his parents both donned traditional garb, the boy wore a Spiderman shirt and jeans.
I like Spiderman too, thought Jacob hopefully.
The family began unloading boxes and bags from the car, shifting the bulk into the house slowly. This was not a common sight in Jacob’s neighbourhood – the people here lived to stay, and the only people who ever moved out or in were the children. Jacob had never been able to spend much time with the kids in the neighbourhood, namely because there were none. Most of their neighbours were older couples whose children moved out after marriage or who were in college, and so Jacob commonly went seeking for the company of the critters that lurked in his backyard or his neighbour’s dog, a 12-year-old Golden Retriever called Liz.
Things got old with Liz after a while, and Jacob decided that the comfort of inanimate toys or imaginary beings was more exciting and mutual than that of a dying dog, desperate for cookies and sleep and nothing more.
Just then, the song of the ice cream van ringed down the road. Jacob knew he had to seize this opportunity quick, as the ice cream van only went through their neighbourhood en route to the next neighbourhood, never actually making a real stop. Pointless selling ice cream to retirees, see. Jacob ran out onto the street, sticking his arms out at the approaching van from down the road. The van pulled over by the side, and Jacob turned in time to see the boy with the blue turban running towards the van as well.
Jacob reached the van first and immediately ordered the Double Chocolate. He could hear the other boy run up behind him, breathing hard.
“And another here too!” he called out coarsely, panting in between words.
“That’ll be a dollar,” the ice cream man said to Jacob, holding the cone out to him.
Jacob started to slowly count the coins he brought with him, but the boy with the blue turban pushed past him and shoved his note into the man’s hand first, grabbing the cone from his other hand.
“Thanks!” he called out, running off again without a look back.
A sudden loud cry and the sound of a body hitting gravel pierced the peaceful suburban air and Jacob turned to see that the boy had fallen down. He was on his knees, one hand on the ground while the other held up his ice cream cone at his side.
Jacob rushed to the boy’s side.
“Are you alright?”
The boy nodded gingerly and held his ice cream up to Jacob.
“Take this,” he muttered.
Jacob held the cone while the boy struggled to his feet. Red scars adorned his knees and shins, and the boy examined his other palm to see a deep, raw gash across it.
“Mom’s gonna kill me,” he murmured, shooting Jacob a dark look.
“Uhh…” Jacob began, unsure how to contribute to the boy’s debacle. His eyes were dark and a cloud of foreboding descended over him, shrouding him in an air of gloom. “Umm… tell her it was an accident?”
“Punjabi mothers don’t believe in accidents. That sounds like a good thing for me, but it really isn’t,” he said in a monotone.
“Umm…” Jacob wasn’t sure what Punjabi was, but he thought it might be rude to ask. She might have been ill.
“Your mother… she uhh… she seems nice.”
“She really isn’t.”
“Oh. Well. Mine isn’t very nice too.”
“She doesn’t let me eat ice cream.”
The boy paused for a while.
“Yes, but that’s because you’re fat.”
Jacob had endured name-calling at home and at school, but he had never heard it from a stranger before.
“Well, my mom says your people blow up buildings and kill Christians,” he shot back, though he was unsure why she would say that.
“My mom’s a schoolteacher.”
“I guess your mom is not very nice. And schoolteacher, you say? How unfortunate.”
“What does your mom do?”
“She helps criminals stay out of jail.”
“That’s nice of her.”
“Tell that to moral justice. How old are you?”
“Eight!” Jacob said, beaming brightly.
“Explains a lot.”
“And how old are you?”
“Not old enough.”
“That’s not an age.”
“And I need to get my wounds disinfected.”
The boy snatched his ice cream back from Jacob.
“Where is your palace, young prince?” he said, with absolutely no charm.
Jacob pointed to his house. “My mom calls me her duke.”
The boy raised his eyebrows. “Alright, ‘Duke’, take me to the infirmary.”
Jacob didn’t know if he wanted to tell the older boy that ‘Duke’ was a pet name reserved only for his mother, because the other kids in school who call him by that name do so unkindly. He didn’t think the boy would care, but his father always told him that a “good leader and effective moneymaker takes the initiative to stand up for what’s right.”
“Only my mom gets to call me that,” he said softly.
“Does it piss you off when I say it?”
Jacob considered this. This boy hadn’t done anything to him that the kids in school would do. “No, not really.”
“Then you’re Duke to me. I’m bad with names.”
“Boy, I’m bleeding. Take me to your house.”
“Why can’t you go to your house?”
And so Jacob, though he guessed he must be Duke now, led the other boy back to his house. He was excited to be bringing a new friend home, though he didn’t dare show it.
“Moooom!” he called out, expecting his mother to be upstairs in her bedroom. “I’ve brought a friend back. His family just moved in across the street.”
It turns out, Mrs Ellington had been waiting on the couch.
“Oh, hello,” she quipped, her eyes doing a quick scan of the boy from his turban to his toes.
“Hi,” he said, gesturing to his wounds. “Can you wrap me up?”
She gave a delightful laugh, the one she practised over the years coiled under her husband’s arm at his dinner functions where his friends would tell her of her husband’s immutable character and she would laugh delightfully, because what else was she there for?
“Come here, child.” She gestured to the couch. “What is your name?”
“Yeah, I’m already 14, and the name’s Ajay.”
“What a beautiful name!”
“What’s your name?”
Mrs Ellington did a double take. Ajay walked over and plopped himself down on the couch next to her, admiring the living room.
“Sweetheart, can you get the first-aid-kit, please?” she said, smiling warmly at her son.
Duke bounded off and she turned her attention back to Ajay.
“So where is your own mother to do this for you?”
“Frowning at kitchen tiling.”
“What do your parents do for a living?”
“They work. Around somewhere. It’s painfully boring. You would know.”
“Actually, I’m a housewife.”
Ajay turned his head to her, wondering silently how any woman could ever say that with that bright or proud of a smile. And the mother in Mrs Ellington saw right through that.
“You’re judging, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, I will have you know that I find immense joy in this, and you shouldn’t pass judgment on the choices other people make.”
This boy is a funny one, Mrs Ellington thought. His parents must not spend an awful lot of time with him.
Duke came running back into the living room with the first aid kit in his hands. Mrs Ellington thanked her precocious little son, kissing him on the forehead. She tended to Ajay’s wounds in silence, apprehensive of conversing with the offhandish, curt boy. Maybe their people are just like that.
“Hey!” Duke suddenly exclaimed. “I forgot my ice cream!”
“Oh no. Which flavour was it?” Mrs Ellington asked.
“Double chocolate. My favourite.” He pouted, voice going into a pleading whine.
Mrs Ellington sighed. “Take some of the chocolate from the fridge then, sweetheart. The whole bar, in fact.”
Duke’s face lit up, but Ajay raised an eyebrow.
“I hope it’s got zero percent sugar,” he said.
Duke didn’t want to point out that it was Ajay who made him leave his ice cream behind in the first place, so he asked Ajay if he like chocolate as much as he did.
“I do. One of the only things I truly love.”
“What else do you love?” Mrs Ellington asked.
“Oh, my parents, and school, and this town, and everything,” Ajay said sarcastically.
“We will have none of that, young men. Now come on, tell us the truth!” Mrs Ellington insisted.
Ajay held back for a while, thinking. Finally, he said:
“That’s dumb,” Duke giggled.
“Oh, but it’s true. There are always mysteries lurking around everywhere, Duke. If you knew where to find them, you could soon find yourself become the Sherlock Holmes of your own life.”
“There are no mysteries here,” Duke said confidently.
“Oh, sweetheart. Back in my day there were plenty,” Mrs Ellington began wistfully. “There were plenty of suburban legends to keep us kids interested.”
“Like what?” Ajay enquired.
Mrs Ellington’s thin, red lips curled into a smile. “Well, I’ve forgotten some of them, there were just so many. But the one I remember that drove the kids wild was the mystery of the chocolate factory.”
Ajay sat upright, eyes widening.
“There’s a chocolate factory here?” he asked slowly.
“That’s the thing. No one ever found it. It is said that a wealthy businessman used to run a chocolate factory – the best of its time – in the 1900s. He used to put liquor in his chocolates, you see. That’s what made them so special. They’d be wrapped in the most beautiful, colourful papers. He was a highly secretive man and his recipe was considered the most valuable secret in the culinary industry. And for that reason, he built his factory deep inside the forest, in a secret location no one knew. And then, the Prohibition swung around. The government put out a ban on alcohol and it became difficult for the businessman to keep things going as they were. He was a stubborn one, and he refused to make his chocolates any other way. So he closed down during those years and lost a good bit of money, until the Prohibition ended for good. But by then, he had spent the last few years living in depression and despair for his closed factory, and by the time he raised enough money to start business again in the forties, everyone thought he was a senile, eccentric, old man, running a chocolate factory in the middle of nowhere. Nobody wanted to do business with him. Everyone had moved on to new brands, new recipes. He continued to try to make his factory work. You see, to keep his location a secret, he hired only the most secretive people. Some speculated he only hired immigrants who couldn’t speak English, others speculated he hired a former spy to be his assistant. Now, he had to support all these people with his business. So he kept trying and trying for 20 years, but nobody wanted his chocolates anymore. It is said that he eventually fell into sickness, but his people continued to run his factory out of loyalty and determination. And then one day, as he realised what had become of his life’s work, he died of a broken heart.”
Ajay’s eyes were as wide as orbs, his back straight as a stick. But Duke wasn’t so convinced.
“That’s a nice story, mommy. But what’s the mystery?”
“The mystery is to find the chocolate factory,” Ajay cut in softly. “The chocolatier’s people buried him in his factory, building a shrine for him in his office. There, they stocked the final batch of their produce with him. The finest liquor chocolates in America.”
“And how did you know that part of the story? It’s a tale told only to the children of my generation,” Mrs Ellington asked in pleasant surprise.
“My parents are around your age.”
“Oh? Did your parents used to live around here?”
“My mother did.”
Mrs Ellington paused for a while, straining to think. She used to live a few streets away, and she wouldn’t be so bold as to think that she knew everyone in the community, yet it seemed strange she never noticed.
“Do you believe in the legend, Ajay?” she asked.
He nodded. “I believe in all legends. But especially this one.”
“Why is that?” Duke asked.
“I’m not sure I can tell you.”
“Aww… please! Please, please, please!” Duke begged. “I’ll let you have half of the chocolate bar.”
Ajay seemed to consider this for a while.
“That’s all very well, but I need to know this will not simply be empty information for you.”
Mrs Ellington smiled, sensing the friendly tension. She did the last of her cleaning on Ajay’s shin and packed away the first aid kit, slipping silently into the kitchen to let the two boys talk. Duke never had many friends, but she could tell Ajay didn’t either. And they were the only two kids for miles, so they will have to work with what they have.
“It won’t be empty, I swear! I pinky promise.”
Ajay ignored Duke’s finger.
“I don’t think you understand. In the few minutes since your mother told us the story… I’ve been working out a plan.”
“I agree. But what needs to happen now is that you need to be as invested in this plan as I am.”
Duke didn’t know what that meant, but he nodded enthusiastically anyway.
“This is important to me, and I need a partner to help with my plan.”
Duke nodded again.
“Are you a trustworthy fellow?”
Duke thought for a while. “Well, I did bring you back to my house in one piece. I’m not a serial killer.” He grinned.
“I suppose that’s the most I can ask of people these days.”
“So can I know the secret plan, please?”
Ajay squinted, breathed deeply, cracked his knuckles, and finally said,
“I have a map.”
The two boys spent the next few weeks of their burgeoning friendship planning their grand scheme according to Ajay’s map. The big reveal of the sacred artefact had been dramatic. The first day they met, Ajay had sped home to bring the map over, arriving with it held out flat on his outstretched palms.
“Behold,” Ajay had whispered.
Duke was surprised to see that it was just a yellowed sheet of paper with markings and landmarks drawn on by an unsteady hand, with notes scribbled frantically in the margins. Ajay had told him that his grandfather gave the map to him.
“How did your grandfather get the map?” Duke had asked in awe.
“My grandfather worked in William Wisenbaum’s factory. He was just an immigrant from India then, barely spoke a word of English. The workers all lived in the factory and only went out during the weekends for some air. But they were all dedicated to Wisenbaum, most of all my grandfather. He was his butler of sorts,” Ajay said proudly.
“Wisebum spoke Indian?”
“He most certainly did. And French and German and Italian and Chinese and Japanese and Arabic. Wisenbaum was a genius, a very educated man. But most of all, he was kind to his workers. They were happy to stay in the factory. My grandfather was there when Wisenbaum died. He buried him. He built the shrine. He moved the chocolates. Thousands of them, Duke. Heaps. Chocolate that never melted or spoiled, kept fresh and good thanks to self-regulating the freezer, kept alive and working thanks to ever-burning furnaces and a generator of nuclear capacity. And then he hid the key in the factory.
“I only knew my grandfather for a few years before he died. He left me this map. He wanted me to find the factory, Duke. I don’t know why – he never got the chance to tell me. But this is very important to me.”
“How do the furnaces keep burning all these years?” Duke asked.
“That’s one of the things I want to find out.”
Duke always thought it was strange that Ajay didn’t just ask his parents to take him to the factory, but Ajay never spoke about his parents. In fact, Duke had only been to Ajay’s house four times, and three of those times, Ajay’s parents weren’t home. Tonight was the night Duke’s entire family was going to go over to Ajay’s for an official, neighbourly visit.
Ajay’s house was a cultural burst of colour and scent, and the Ellingtons were absolutely delighted with everything. They had never seen such decorations before or tasted such rich food, and Mrs Elllingston was quick to comment on how special she felt. Which did not garner the same return of appreciation from the Singhs she hoped her statement would get.
The Singhs were a peculiar family, speaking very little with one another. It was up to the Ellingtons to make most of the conversation, and even then, it was misguided at best. Mr Ellington spent the night talking to Mr Singh about business and finance, though Mr Singh was an engineer and barely listened.
“The hedge funds are all quite insidious too, if you think about it. It’s a big scam, a roundabout trap to reel people in. You know, I always tell my people – take risks and go crazy with the money – it’s not yours. But when the money belongs to the company, sell, sell, sell,” Mr Ellington rambled, urged on by the wine.
“Have some chutney, my friend,” Mr Singh said gruffly, shooting his wife a dark look. She returned it, herself having to listen to Mrs Ellington talk about nail polish colours, her lips pressed tightly together in disapproval.
“You know, one day that varnish is going to corrode your nails,” she said.
Mrs Ellington laughed delightedly.
“Oh, you’re so funny, Gurpreet!” I can tell where Ajay gets his humour from, she thought scornfully. What a dreadful household for a boy to grow up in.
She looked over at her own son, Duke, and felt relieved for his sake that he had grown up in such a good home. She would never admit it, but she felt proud of herself then.
Mrs Singh sat sourly, scooping the dishes for her guests. She had always disliked hosting. But then again, she disliked visiting as well. She watched Mrs Ellington coo over Duke, scooping large heaps of food into his already stuffed mouth.
“You still spoonfeed your son? Is he not already eight years old?”
Mrs Ellington did not know how to respond, and so she gave a slight smile that answered nothing.
“Mommy says I shouldn’t eat so much,” Duke chimed in.
“The way I see it, your mother is the one who should be controlling herself.”
Mrs Ellington laid Duke’s spoon down and sat quietly.
Ajay and Duke were mostly quiet throughout the night, itching to get away from the table and go upstairs to look over the map again.
This was the day they were going to decide how to find the factory.
“Sheer determination, skill, and wit,” Ajay said upstairs in his room later when dinner had been had and the adults were drinking. He quickly told Duke his entire plan, making Duke make notes in his little book as he feverishly paced his room and gestured wildly, adrenaline fuelling his passion.
Duke didn’t know if he agreed with the details of the plan, particularly with the beginning. But Ajay was his only friend, and when they weren’t talking about the chocolate factory, they were talking about cartoons, science, mysteries, and space. But sometimes, Ajay talked about his parents and how much he disliked him, how unhappy he was. Duke said the same, though he wasn’t sure if he was only saying it to connect with Ajay, or if he was truly unhappy and only now realising. Duke did not like talking about that, so he tried to talk about other things and the chocolate factory as much as possible.
That night after the visit, the Ellingtons went home with full tummies but uneasy dispositions.
“You know, they always unsettled me,” Mrs Ellington said as she changed into her nightclothes in her bedroom.
Her husband had turned to her, grinning foolishly from the wine.
“It’s the turbans, isn’t it?”
She had rolled her eyes, sighed dejectedly. Mr Ellington’s incapability to take anything seriously save his investors and bank accounts always drove her crazy, but the one thing that she could never tolerate was his disinterest in his son.
“Duke’s been hanging out with their son a lot,” she pointed out, but she turned to find her husband already asleep on the bed.
In his room, Duke lay awake on his bed, gazing up at the ceiling with trepidation hurrying his heart along.
Tomorrow was the big day.
There are a few things in life that are both glamorous and tragic. Suicide, for instance, made one quite the celebrity. Drug addiction was edgy and complex. Depression? Worth a million ballads. The glamorization of tragedy was a human trend that had continued throughout the ages. Maybe it was done to desalinate the validity and reality of human suffering. Maybe it was done to make artistic torment accessible to the commons. Maybe death needed to be marketable.
It was always Ajay’s goal to go out with glory. His grandfather had died of old age, wheezing away in his tissue paper bed, and he remembered as a child watching the old man wither before his eyes. His heart had welled up with love, but his mind had welled up with pity.
His grandfather was the only person he ever truly loved, but Ajay wanted to die glamorous. His grandfather had wasted away. But Ajay didn’t blame him. It was his parents, above all, who were responsible for the miserable situation.
It was nearing midnight and Ajay was almost done packing his bags. He walked over to his window and looked across to Duke’s house, where a small light shone brightly out of a small window.
Ajay had spent many years thinking about his death. Ever since his grandfather died, the main question of his existence was his eventual nonexistence.
But it had to be glamorous.
Tonight was the first step towards his big ending. Artists, they say, are only truly known to the world by their one masterpiece. Da Vinci had the Mona Lisa, Beethoven had Ode to Joy, Mozart had Fur Elise, and Ajay would have his death. It would be his magnum opus, his handiwork, his craft, and it would be beautiful.
But every ending needs a beginning to match, and Ajay’s beginning was going to be his escape. He was running away from home.
He got the last of his things into his rucksack and went over to his window, placing a flashlight on the sill. The light in Duke’s window went out, and Ajay promptly grabbed the flashlight and pulled his window open. Carefully, he stuck his legs out and began making his way down the scaffolding, then down the pillar, and then he jumped off to land on his feet. He unchained the two bicycles parked unassumingly next to his father’s minivan and along with them, scampered across the street to the sidewalk at Duke’s house, where he could see the small boy slowly making his way down a pillar. Duke landed clumsily, too loudly for Ajay’s liking, and then came hurrying over.
Ajay had told Duke to call him Ajax a few weeks ago, like the Greek hero of the Trojan War. War too, was glamorous.
They got on the bicycles, Duke only after a few minutes of struggling with his bag, and began making their way down the street to the playground.
At a spot underneath one of the apple trees was a small mound under which Ajay had buried some supplies a few days ago. He left the shovel by the tree, knowing no one would take it. The boys got to work, and barely 20 minutes passed before they were off on their bikes again, Ajay carrying the weight of the new bags. It was going to be a 30-minute ride to the forest, and Ajay was thankful that Duke was not speaking. He wondered if it was because the boy was crying, but decided that it was better not to know.
Ajay had always thought his neighbourhood was beautiful, even if it was in a rather dubious way. The wealth was almost indecent, overflowing into its perfectly paved roads and scenic surroundings, roving hills and lakes spread across the billion-dollar landscape. The forest that edged on the outskirts of the exclusive neighbourhood had been there when the developers first started poaching deeper lands for new projects, and Ajay thought that the only redeeming quality of this neighbourhood was its historic value.
Ajay’s parents had inherited the house now live in from their grandfather. But for years, they had lived in a completely different town, in a home that Mr Singh bought himself after his company made its first million. The more interesting story though, is how Grandfather Mahdev, an illiterate immigrant from India, came into possession of a three-million dollar home in an upscale, suburban, white neighbourhood. He never told his daughter, Ajay’s mother, how he got the home. And for years, it was one of the reasons why she refused to speak to him, at least until Ajay was born and it was simply unbecoming of her to deny her father his right to see his grandson. Ajay always seemed to like her father more than he liked his own parents, and though she never admitted it, it made her resent Mahdev even more. The man who was never present during her childhood was now stealing her time with her own child. When Ajay was 13, Mahdev passed away, in his will bequeathing the house to Gurpreet. The act filled her with venom, as if her father’s efforts to reconcile after his death was simply proof of how much he had wronged her when he was still alive. She never wanted to come live here. But when Ajay’s father’s company ran into trouble and they lost their car and their home, she had no choice.
Ajay and Duke were finally on the main motorway, hills on their right and the forest edge on their left, held back by wired fencing. A few kilometres down, the road branched out on the left to a wooden arch that welcomed visitors to the scenic adventures the local government could offer. Ajay whipped out his grandfather’s map and directed Duke further down, where the map indicated an alternate entrance would be for the park’s employees. True enough, there was a smaller, more inconspicuous opening shrouded by overgrown leafs, and Ajay led Duke inside, the torchlight on his helmet shining on the path.
They rode on for a short while before the main office of the Adahy State Forest Reserve came into view, its dark, wooden façade imposing in the moonlight. The office was much like a house, except large enough to accommodate a reception, a souvenir shop, and a small museum. No light shone through the windows but there a four cars and a Harley Davidson parked outside. Ajay assumed they were tourists or campers as well, certainly not hunters as it wasn’t the season, and perhaps even one or two park rangers who lived on site.
He instructed Duke to park his bike next to the Harley. The little boy clambered off his bike noisily, and Ajay immediately unloaded the extra bags and supplies he was carrying and dropped them in Duke’s outstretched arms.
“What now?” Duke asked.
“The point of me asking you to take notes is so you wouldn’t ask me ‘what now.’ Just follow me.”
Ajay led Duke to one of the smaller hiker’s trails.
“We start here.” He turned to Duke. “This is where it all begins.”
“I need you to understand the significance of this. Once we go in here, there is no turning back. We don’t know how long we’ll take to find the factory. It could be days. Weeks. We have brought enough to last us that long, but I need you to promise me we won’t get to a point where we are in need of more. Because that implies we were working fast enough. We should not have to hit a snag. We will find it on our first try.”
“I promise, Ajay.”
“And friends keep promises.”
“Does that make me your friend?”
“Depends on whether you keep your promise.”
The Journal of Ajayx Singh – November 19, 2005
Spent the night going through the trail slowly. Got to a small clearing, slept for four hours. Duke threw a fit when I woke him at 6a.m. Warned not to do that again.
Took my time studying the map. The forest is filled with signs and directions, makes things easier. Grandpa’s map is as precise as we could hope it to be. The remarks he made and landmarks he drew were designed for a child to read. There is a rock here referred to as “Grey bear-foot shaped rock”, though an adult would never see that at first sight. I wonder if this map was always meant for me. I wonder how grandpa learned to write English. Wisenbaum must have taught him.
I know exactly where to go next. Looks like we’ll be going through one-third of the map in no time. Duke will be home by the end of the week.
Spent two-and-a-half hours trekking till we reached “Eagle Beak Rock”. The surroundings are described perfectly in the map. A view of Bear’s Foot to the southwest, 70 degrees down from the top, Eagle Beak pointing at a growth of violets along a covered mound, and a patchy canopy through which warm beams of sunshine shone through and formed thick strands of golden light that hit the floor in the shape of a crescent moon. Duke insisted on more food, and I had to remind him that the ice cream truck does not come through these parts.
There was a small stream running through – “Worm Water”, according to the map. I let Duke swim in it for an hour. We had a small picnic after, and then he pushed me in the water. It was fun, but I had to remind him not to push me in when I was still wearing my turban. We swam for another hour, and we discovered fish. I wondered if I could catch some and use it for a special meal, but the map indicates there are more streams to come anyway. I can’t wait to find a waterfall.
Night falls. I think we have covered a good many miles. We set up tent at a small clearing. Duke seems happy so far. He is having fun. I hope this continues until we find the factory.
A short, light rain had just passed over the forest, almost like dew collected from the top of the canopy consciously thundering down with brutal force to wash the leaves in a routine shower. Two girls ran, laughing and careless, through the forest. Their voices ticked the musky air, both light and full of youth and joy, and their feet ran rhythms across the crunchy forest bed. It was music unlike the forest had ever heard, and the sun shone brightly now to reflect its approval. The rain, despite its short duration, had probably helped throw their pursuers off, and the girls were rejoicing for the blessing.
Pauline grabbed Aleeya’s hand, stifling laughter as she pulled her along the trail, slowing to a walk.
“You think we lost them?” she gasped after a while, turning to Aleeya.
Aleeya shook her head, clutching her waist as she bent over, laughing.
“Douchebags,” Pauline muttered, smiling at Aleeya’s fit, looking over her to see if the men were still in pursuit of them.
“You psycho,” Aleeya finally said, when her fit blew over.
Pauline grabbed Aleeya’s arms. “Hey ma’am, wanna come inside and keep my tent warm? Both my tents, I mean,” she said in an exaggerated deep voice, mocking the men whose campsite they had stumbled across earlier and escaped from through sheer will of wit.
“Freakin’ rednecks,” Aleeya muttered, after another bout of laughter.
“You’re lucky I’m such a hero,” Pauling said, pinching Aleeya’s chin.
“Oh yes, my hero! Save me!” Aleeya pretended to swoon.
“Who do think I’d be? Steven Segal, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis –”
“Bruce Lee, definitely. Hot and deadly.”
Pauline reached for Aleeya’s hand again and led her along the trail, both girls smiling to themselves. Smiles that stopped short at the site before them now.
“What are you boys doing here?” Pauline called out.
The small, plump, blonde boy dropped his water bottle at her voice and stumbled backward a few paces. The other boy, tall, thin, probably Punjabi, simply stared back wordlessly. Judging from his puffy eyes and running nose, the smaller boy had been crying.
“Are you out here alone?” Aleeya asked.
It took a while, but eventually the older boy spoke up.
“Our parents know we’re here.”
“Yeah, right,” Pauline said, narrowing her eyes at the pair of them. They looked like they had brought a good amount of supplies with them to potentially last three weeks. “You never see anyone this deep in the forest.”
“Well, I see you,” the older boy replied.
“We’re 24. You’re what – 13? This other one’s 7?” Pauline retorted, and Aleeya giggled. Pauline squeezed her hand.
“I’m 14. But it doesn’t matter. We’re on an expedition for a school project and our parents have given their consent.”
“Then you should have no problem calling these parents of yours in front us now,” Aleeya said.
“If there’s reception.”
“There is, for the most part. We can wait,” Pauline said.
“It’s 11a.m. in the morning. Our parents are working.”
Pauline turned her attention to the younger boy, who was trying his best to hide fresh tears that were forming in his big, blue eyes. She approached him slowly and said tenderly,
“What’s wrong, sweetheart? What’s going on here?”
He shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, in the pleasantest, most adorable voice Pauline had ever heard. Her heart melted. She looked back at the older boy.
“You’re going to tell me exactly what you’re doing here right now. Either I call the park ranger and have him take your ass home, or you tell me the truth, and I figure out whether I want to call the park ranger. Now speak up.”
Aleeya approached from behind and held out a palm to Pauline’s shoulder.
“We don’t have all day. Speak up!” Pauline continued to insist.
The older boy continued to stare back blankly at her.
“Look,” Aleeya whispered in her ear, jerking her chin at the younger boy, who was clenching a few torn papers in his fist.
Pauline stooped down and asked his name.
“Duke,” he said. “And that’s Ajax.”
She held out her palm. “Please, may I have a look?”
He turned to look at Ajax, who quickly looked away. Reluctantly, he opened his fist over Pauline’s palm and the papers fell out. She picked through the pieces with Aleeya, and they looked to all have initially been part of a larger paper that must have been a map. With a sudden motion, Aleeya picked up a piece of paper and held it out in front of Pauline’s eyes.
“Wisenbaum’s…” Pauline read. A wheel clicked in her brain.
“You crazy kids…” she muttered, turning around. “You’re trying to find Wisenbaum’s old choclate factory!”
Ajax’s eyes lit up. “You know of it?”
The girls were silent for a few seconds, before Aleeya burst out laughing.
“Oh god, this shit never ends,” she laughed.
“What do you mean?” Ajax asked calmly.
“We’ve been coming here since forever, kid. Almost every single time we come here, there’s a bunch of kids, or losers, or weirdos, or lonely hobos, trying to look for the magical chocolate factory. It’s ridiculous.”
Ajax’s eyes seemed to lose their depth, as in some part of his spirit sank all the way down to his toes.
“Did anyone ever find it?” he asked.
“Of course not.”
“You honestly believe it’s real?”
“I know it’s real.”
“You, kid, have a lot of faith.”
“What else am I supposed to have?”
“Pragmatism. You two could die out here,” Aleeya interjected.
“We came prepared. We fully understood what we were getting into.”
“Really? So why is he crying?” Pauline pointed at Duke.
“We had a small argument. But everyone has been sorted out. We were going to continue with our journey.”
Duke nodded in agreement.
“I’m not crying, I was crying.”
“This is absolutely ridiculous,” Pauline said.
“Admit it – you said so yourself – no one’s ever come as far as we have,” Ajax said.
“That’s fantastic. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are two kids in the middle of a forest searching for a magical chocolate factory,” Pauline snapped.
“I never said it had to be magical.”
“Doesn’t the story say that it has ever-burning furnaces?”
For the first time, Ajay showed emotion. He glared at Pauline as darkly as he could, but she merely grinned back.
“Kids,” she said, turning to exchange a smirk with Aleeya.
“Why don’t you tell us what you’re doing here?” Ajay demanded, almost shouting. Pauline’s eyes widened in surprise, taken aback by how seriously he appeared to be taking this.
“We’re not the ones who are under-aged and –”
“You either tell us or you leave us alone!”
Pauline’s self-satisfied smile seemed to stretch even wider.
“We’re looking for the chocolate factory,” she said, eyes twinkling.
Ajay’s head shot up, one eyebrow raised.
“Are you mocking us?”
She shook her head and approached him smugly.
“We’ve already found it.” Pauline reached inside the pocket of her leather jacket and pulled out a map, waving it in Ajay’s face.
It felt like a trapped bird was frantically beating its wings against Ajay’s ribcage, trying to burst out and break free.
“How?” he asked softly.
“Been trying for years. Found it the last time we came here a week ago. We didn’t have time to explore because of the rain, so we’re back.”
“Show me,” Ajay whispered. The trapped bird was more frantic now than ever, its desperation leaking through into Ajax’s eyes. He was a wounded animal, one surviving on instinct and adrenaline.
Pauline considered the boy. He had a wildness in his eyes now, like his life depended on seeing the factory. But she knew better than to give kids what they wanted. At the same time however, she couldn’t consider Ajax a child. Something told her it would be for the worse if she kept it from him.
She turned her attention to Duke – sweet, innocent Duke who must not have any idea what kind of situation he was in.
“Alright,” she finally said. “I will show it to you. Briefly. And then when you are done with the place, you have to let me take the both of you home immediately.”
“That’s a good deal!” Duke replied instantly.
Ajax squinted at Pauline. “How do I know you are telling the truth?”
She reached into her jacket pocket again and pulled out a wrapper. A chocolate bar wrapper. She handed it to Ajax, who received it hungrily in his palms. It was yellow with gold linings and font. Wisenbaum’s Special. The best in America.
“A lone wrapper, stuck on the spike of the fence outside the factory,” Pauline said.
Ajax hadn’t realised he was shaking.
“How did you find it? You had a map before.”
“I did. But Aleeya and I wrote that map over the years. It took us three years to find the place, and extensive research. We found groups for people who were took an active interest in locating the factory. Most of them were cuckoo, but they still knew things we didn’t. We searched public records, but there wasn’t much to see because Wisenbaum’s factory was considered private property and somehow, there was just no specific address listed in any of the records that we found. And then of course, we asked local historians, and they all had some rough ideas, which helped. Sheer determination, wit, and skill,” she said.
“Fine. You have a deal.”
“And you have yours. But you will have to keep your promise.”
Duke smiled brightly. “Ajax is a friend. He keeps promises.”
The Journal of Ajayx Singh – November 27, 2005
Grandpa must be watching over me. Pauline and Aleeya know the route like the back of their palms, and really, I don’t think Duke and I would have found the factory otherwise. We take only a few breaks, this being one of the few, because the girls are going slowly, stopping to look at flowers and birds and take pictures, and they insist that it is not going to rain. They better hope it doesn’t rain. Duke looks less tired now. He seems happy to have them here. He is taking pictures with them.
We passed Broken Palm Rock and Duke is swimming with the girls now. I thought about finding Pauline’s jacket and taking the map. Go off now while they’re distracted. The girls could take Duke home. Knowing all of them, they’d come after me instead, but I still might have time to get done what I planned. I’m still considering it.
Everyone’s eating. I don’t think I’ll steal the map anymore. I should have never brought Duke along. If he wasn’t here, I’d take the map. But now I have to reconsider my whole game plan. I can’t possibly do what I need to do with him there. But that’s fine. All I need to do is figure out where the factory is, and come back next time.
Pauline and Aleeya say this is our last break before the factory. They say it is very near now, barely 30 minutes away. Duke was sweating like he has a rain cloud on his head. I took a picture of him with Pauline’s phone. He is smiling in the picture. Goofball. I might miss him in the end. But really, what are the little things in the grand scheme of it all?
We are at the factory.
Duke had a wild imagination. His teachers at school told him he was creative, and they always made it sound like that made him special. But really, there’s no point to a wild imagination, because in the end, reality disappoints. Duke wasn’t sure what he expected from the factory, but he was sure it wasn’t what he saw now.
It looked like a brown, square slab of concrete smack dab in the middle of a clearing that was now probably not as clear as it was intended to be, whereas Duke had expected a colourful, wildly shaped structure with different building materials ranging from plastic to wood to metal with a waterfall running in the background. An iron gate hung lamely by its hinges, overgrown vines encroaching on its bars and spires. Above the gate were the words “Wisenbaum’s Chocolate Factory”.
“It is rather straightforward,” Pauline said, sensing the boys’ disappointment.
Duke turned to see Ajax’s reaction, but he was already passing through the gates and making straight for the factory. Pauline and Aleeya rushed after him, with Duke in tow.
The entrance to the factory was decorative at best. Ajax pushed it in with a finger, and the thick wooden door inched open.
“Both hands,” Pauline commanded, and Ajax followed suit.
The doors swung inwards and a gust of cold wind rushed out. Dust circled around in the sunlight and the scent of oldness leaked out.
Ajax didn’t wait. He stepped in confidently, flicked his torchlight on, and demanded of the two girls:
“Where’s the freezer?”
“Where they buried Wisenbaum.”
The girls exchanged uneasy glances.
“I’m not sure,” Pauline said.
“Me neither,” Aleeya said.
“My grandfather said it would have been on the ground floor, to the right, past the portrait of Wisenbaum…” Ajax muttered to himself, following his own instructions. He froze at the portrait of Wisenbaum.
“What’s up, Jax?” Duke called out. He ran forward and stood next to Ajax, who was transfixed with the portrait. He shook his head, as if trying to shake out a thought.
“It should be down this way,” he said, leading the way down an empty hall lined with paintings.
As true as his grandfather’s words had always been, there was a door at the end of the hallway. A paper was stuck to the door. In a messy scrawl, the words read: G’s Birthday.
Ajax examined the lock, which was in no way a traditional key-to-lock device. It was a combination of four numbers bolted into the door where the doorknob would have been.
“Who is G?” Aleeya asked from behind.
With all certainty and confidence, Ajax said: “My mother.”
He bent down and rolled the numbers to Gurpreet Singh’s birthday. The lock clicked, and the door swung open. The room inside was pitch black, save for a small beam of light from Ajax’s torch shining onto what seemed to be a desk.
He walked in, felt at the walls on the other sides of the door, and flicked a switch. Nothing.
“Can I have more light, please?” he asked, and his three companions obliged. The desk was not illuminated.
This is no freezer.
He approached the desk and found it dusty and empty, save for a small envelop in the middle of the desk and a bar of chocolate next to it. He went for the chocolate bar first. It looked new, and it only felt mildly squishy. He passed it to Pauline, who took out her own piece of stray wrapper and started comparing.
“Ajax,” she suddenly said. “Look at this. The manufacturing date. January of last year. Expiry: exactly a year, so a month from today.”
“A month from today?”
“That’s my mother’s birthday.”
“This chocolate bar was made and will be expire on your mother’s birthday?” she asked.
“How do you spell your name, Jax?” Duke asked, holding the envelope. “Is it A-J-A-Y S-I-N—”
Ajax had snatched the envelope from Duke. His name was scrawle neatly on the back of the envelope. He ripped it open and read the letter, his heart pounding.
I always knew you could do it. Even the elusive Mr Wisenbaum was no match for you, but dare I say it was not exactly fair game. My dear boy, you have come so far. But now, I must ask you to do one more thing.
When I was 13, my family shipped me off to America. You know this story. I came here penniless, speaking only Hindi, certain I was going to end up someone’s slave. I had no skills, I didn’t know how to do anything, but I did know one thing. How to appreciate good food. You have tasted enough of your mother’s food to know what she learned from me.
I went to find work in a French restaurant, and it was there that I first tasted chocolate. I cannot describe the experience to you, Ajay. I had never had anything like it before. Eventually, my taste for it became so finely tuned, that two Jewish businessmen, regulars at the restaurant whom I served often, by the names of Werner and Weitzmann, offered me a job at their chocolate factory. I took it gladly.
Werner soon left for Brazil, and Weitzmann was left to run the place himself. I became his butler, and he trusted me most ardently. He taught me all the English I know and everything I needed to know about making chocolate. But the poor man had a cancer most malignant, and soon, he passed away. A week after, word reached us that smallpox had claimed the life of Werner in South America, leaving the factory without a head after only a year of business. I could not let this happen. The factory was my livelihood, as it was for thousands of other people like me. Immigrants, looking only for a better life. And so I did what I must.
I assumed the identity of a businessman called William Wisenbaum, just returned from France. Former associate of Werner and Wietzmann. I had the look; I could easily pass off as it. The workers at the factory pooled our money together, and I became their representative. It was up to me to be the face of the business, though I always kept it hidden. I devised a new recipe, and though we started very very small, that’s how Wisenbaum’s Special became a hit. We catered exclusively to custom orders and our popularity spread through word of mouth, and this was how we got our first profits to help the business grow.
I was fairly middle-aged when I met your grandmother. It was unexpected. We married quickly and before we knew it, she was with child. I decided I could not let my family know. The business would be in grave danger if anyone knew I was an impostor. You see, your mother ended up hating me for all those days I spent away from home. She never knew why that was, and I used to come home smelling of the alcohol I put in the chocolates. Both my wife and my daughter did not believe my lies. Your mother never forgave me for driving her mother away, and more still, for forgetting all her birthdays.
My boy, I need you to give her the chocolate bar. Show her what it was that I was working for all those years – not the business, not the recipe, but so she can have a full life in this country – one I never had, until I pretended to be someone else. I just know that when she tastes it, she will know that my work was not for nothing. That it has created something beautiful, something loved by the masses, the stuff of legends, and she was the reason.
It needs to be you. I could never have given her this chocolate bar myself. Your mother never had me, but now she needs you.
With all my love,
Ajax’s mother clutched at her son’s back, sobbing quietly into his shirt.
“That stupid, stupid man,” she whispered. “Why does he break my heart?”
His mother was broken. Ajax held her, unsure of when the last time was that they were so close.
“Enough with the crying, mama. Eat the chocolate.”
Hands trembling, she struggled to unwrap the bar, so Ajax reached over and took it from her. He peeled out the paper wrapping first, and then the gold foil inside.
Ajay’s mother gasped.
“That smell. I used to think…”
“Have a bite.”
He held it up to her and she took a small bite, apprehensive. She chewed slowly. In an instant, tears filled her eyes.
“I never thought chocolate would make me cry,” she said softly.
“How is it?”
Later that night, Ajax went to his room thinking of his grandfather. He sent him on a grand journey, gave him the adventure he wanted, but Ajax wasn’t sure what the ending was. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he wanted an ending yet. He went over to his window and looked out across the street. A light was on in Duke’s bedroom. Mrs Ellington must be reading him stories.
Tomorrow, he decided, he would go over and meet with Duke. Perhaps take the boy out to the playground. And then after that he would go to the store and buy some chocolates, and give some to the Ellingtons and bring some back for his parents. And then they would have a meal together, and maybe watch the news. But just for a bit, and then he would make them watch Discovery Channel. You see, Ajax understood it now. He had pondered so often on the big questions on life, his discontent with his parents, his anger at the world. But really, none of that could hold up against a good bar of chocolate. Because in the end, what is the grand scheme of it all in the face of the little things? Ajax took a bite of whatever was left of chocolate bar his grandfather left for his mother, and decided then that the main question of his existence, was love.