a short story
Akshara savored the chunk of cheese in her mouth. Firm, yet delicate. Hearty, yet light. Zesty due to the other ingredients, yet ultimately mellow. So, so mellow. It gradually melted and dissolved while she closed her eyes for just a second. Palak paneer: that was her mac and cheese, her comfort food while away from home. And who would've thought she'd find it her first night in, five boxes in fact, all on clearance in the freezer section of the local supermarket? Some people just didn't know what they were missing, she thought. With five boxes she could have one every other night until her last day there.
That day was today. Her mother passed away last year, and it didn't take her father long to follow. Her parents healthcare costs had cleaned out what little savings they had, and selling the house and car was just enough to take care of the rest. Indian immigrants, Mumma and Papa had done everything they knew how to provide her a higher quality of life, working hard to pay for her education. Some of her former school friends trashed the opportunity, partying and not even attempting to study, but not her. She wouldn't squander their efforts.
The next morning she was off to the land of her ancestors. She had been there before a few times as part of her training, but this time she bought a one-way ticket when her mother's cousin had offered her a job at his college to assist with archeological projects. Leaving the airport on foot was her only option, as phone calls to the college went unanswered. The streets were crowded and chaotic as Akshara squeezed into the flow and did her best to ride the wave in approximately the right direction, all while clinging to the one bag that contained all she owned. Until she realized she no longer had it. Now a boy was weaving nimbly through the masses with her satchel in hand.
Following him through an alleyway, she entered into a small cove and stumbled into the shocked stares of a group of children halfway through devouring her lunch. The boys, after freezing for a second ran off with the food in their hands, leaving a little girl holding an apple. The skinny child looked at Akshara for a moment before holding up the apple to give it back. Akshara smiled and shook her head.
"That's okay. Enjoy."
The girl kept looking at her.
"Hello Kyra, I'm Akshara."
She bent down to pick up what was left of her belongings and put them back in the bag.
"Where are you going? Can I come with you?"
Akshara was at a loss for words. She looked at Kyra and knew it couldn't be easy being a street child, and a girl on top of that. But at least she was alive, she could've been aborted if they knew her gender ahead of time. Instead she was probably abandoned or sold. But was it even worth being alive in such a situation? Akshara couldn't stop to ponder it. She now had even less then she arrived with, and could barely care for herself. Everything depended on her new job prospect. This wasn't her time to save the world.
Arriving at the building's gates she was struck by the lack of people, save for a handful of men carrying boxes out the large front doors. Navigating the corridors she eventually located the dean's office which was also almost empty except for a desk and office chair.
"What is it?" the older man sitting there said, swiveling in her direction.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for Sahil, the man in charge?"
"I'm his brother Rohan, I'm in charge now. What is it you need?"
"I'm Akshara Patel, your cousin's daughter. I came here because . . ."
"Oh yes", he interrupted. "My brother mentioned you. I was going to send you a letter, I didn't think you'd actually come for the job. I'll get to the point. Sahil died a week and a half ago. You and I are his only living relatives. He left me the buildings and most of his possessions, and he left you his antiquities collection. Not much, but it's the sentimental value."
"I'm so sorry", Akshara said. "What about the school?"
Rohan looked down and to the side.
"Business hasn't been good. Enrollment was down steadily over the past decade and . . . it's just not worth it anymore. I'm sorry. What he left for you is in his home nearby."
Akshara was worried for sure, but still held out hope that her inheritance was significant enough to enable her to start a new life. She had heard stories that Sahil would display some of his best artifacts inside the school itself, but it appeared to be barren when she was there. Maybe everything had been moved to his home after he died. Arriving at the address, she used the key Rohan lent her to enter the front door, noticing that a nearby window was open. The noise of the lock and hinges prompted scuffling noises as several children scrambled out the back.
"Who's there?" Akshara called.
Standing in the kitchen was little Kyra.
"Is this your house?" she asked with a hint of trepidation.
"No. I'm just here to get some things. Don't worry, you're not in trouble."
Akshara kept the conversation going as they walked down the hall.
"So where do you come from?"
"I don't remember. I think I remember mother but . . . I can't remember."
Akshara looked at Kyra's dress. It was dingy from use and she was starting to outgrow it. Still it was apparent that back in the day it was on the flashy side, a little too much for a typical child to be wearing. She couldn't help but wonder if Kyra had been at someone's financial disposal at some point before escaping to the area she was living in now. In any case she didn't want to bring it up.
Going into the display room, it was clear at first glance that the place was meant to display a far grander collection. All that remained was a handful of token antiques that were essentially trinkets, items that her trained eye knew were on the ancient side, but were plentiful and therefore of very little value. She looked at Kyra.
"Is this the first time you've been here?"
"Were any adults here?"
"Yes, some days ago."
"What did they do?"
"Took things. In boxes."
Akshara was resigned. Rohan took what he wanted, and there was nothing she could do about it. He knew that. Whatever was lifted last week was almost assuredly laundered by now, and she could never hope to get justice in a country's legal system she knew nothing about, that she wasn't a citizen of, and without a penny to her name.
After stuffing what was left of her inheritance into her bag, she and Kyra walked out of the house. Neither of them had a soul in the world that knew or cared about them. Kyra looked up at Akshara with what seemed to be the first glimmer of life in her big eyes.
Akshara looked down and couldn't help but bemoan that some people didn't appreciate what they have, even to the point of discarding people, literally or figuratively. Even in the most developed of societies no strata was exempt, from the divorced wife of the western world, to the street child of the east. She reached into her bag to look at the handful of Roman coins that might bring in just half a thousand rupees, until she noticed the paper they were wrapped in. An ancient page of the Torah, handwritten, and likely worth more than Rohan thought.
"Now," Akshara said with a smile, "you can come with me" as they walked down the street together.
"Did you ever hear what they say about one person's trash?"