“I’m a one-woman kind of guy,” said John, a line he had heard on the seventh season of The Bachelor, eyes following a pretty girl in yellow sweatshirt across the corridor.
“Me too,” said Clarke, back against the locker.
A bundle of textbooks in hand, Jonah nodded, a tad confused, wondering if it would be more accurate to say that the three of them were more zero-women kind of guys.
“One woman? Ha! You mean your mom, right?” Frank Castellano, or “Big Frankie,” as he was popularly known in school, sniggered.
Startled, Jonah dropped his books. The boys had no clue when Frank sneaked up on them.
Frank’s cronies – Jack, Lucas, and Aaron – threw their heads back and laughed, reminding John of the hyena trio Banzai, Ed, and Shenzi from the Lion King, which he had ended up watching the night before while waiting for his favorite show, The Voice, to start.
“No,” murmured John in a meek voice after a pause, “Not my mom…”
“So whose mom, then?” Frank gazed at him while everyone in the corridor stalled to watch.
John stood still, could not come up with an appropriate repartee.
Suddenly, Frank lifted his right hand to the back of his ear, his movement making John jump.
“I was just touching my hair.” Frank laughed. “You’re such a wimp, Pee-jay!”
Frank walked away with his cronies, their laughter echoing through the corridor of the Brooklyn Millennium Memorial High School.
Pee-jay is a wimp!
The words spread like the plague in his mind as an intense heat spread through his cheeks. John felt everyone was pointing at him and laughing.
What will Samantha think of this? He looked to the girl in yellow sweatshirt and saw Frank grab her ample bottom from behind.
“What a loser!” Samantha curled her lips into scorn.
It broke his heart.
If there ever was a good time for a zombie apocalypse, it has to be now.
“You look prettier with a smile, babe!” said Frank and stuck his tongue in her mouth, which John considered sacred and every word that escaped a prayer.
“No! No!” he tried to scream, but his voice stayed firmly lodged somewhere in his stomach as his heart was snatched from his body and thrown into a shredder.
“Urgh!” John woke up with a start, sweat breaking into a dozen tributaries on his bare torso. He covered his face, trying to shake off the disgusting vision of the guy he hated most in school making out with the girl he secretly loved.
Once his breathing resumed a normal pace, which took a good couple of minutes, John peeled his hands away from his face and snatched an iPod off his nightstand. He pressed the power button on its top. In no time, “8:31, Monday April 6” appeared on its screen. John slid the unlock bar to the right and jammed in the earphones. A familiar tug of a guitar string wafted through.
“Hey Jude, don't make it bad...” John hummed with his eyes closed – the Beatles were his favorite. He loved their songs and knew everything about the band from his grandparents’ scrapbook of newspaper clippings and magazine articles, neatly put together.
“PJ, up yet?” Jane yelled from the kitchen.
“I am up, Ma!” John yelled back from his attic bedroom. He jolted himself off his bed. The wooden floor creaked beneath his feet. “Ah!” John exhaled audibly as he pushed the window open, letting the stale air within the room escape. He stood back a little and stretched his arms as far as they would, then smiled indulgently at the sight that greeted him – steep gable roofs in rust and greys toppled over each other until the East River cut through them; over it, the imposing steel structure of Brooklyn Bridge stood against the breath-taking Manhattan skyline.
He crossed his arms over his bare chest as his flesh broke into goosebumps. The cold air stung and he loved it. Since the time he turned nine and gained possession of the room, John had woken up to this view every day. The bridge had always been there, comforting John, calming him down, from the tiny back window in the attic of a Tudor-style townhouse.
The Palmieris’ eighty-plus-year-old townhouse was a tight little place. It shared two walls with the neighbors and barely had a lawn. It had two floors; three, if one counted the attic. On the first floor was the living room, a kitchen with a small breakfast table, and a formal dining room. On the second floor were two bedrooms, one of which was occupied by John’s parents and the other had been shared by John and Michael until the two outgrew the small second bedroom. Instead of looking for a bigger house, his parents finished the storage room in the attic and surprised John on a Sunday morning. Now, much older and wiser, John was still just as enchanted by the view as much as he was the first time he saw it seven years ago.
“You are going to be late, PJ!” his mother yelled once more.
“Coming!” John stumbled and mumbled through his morning chores, still tormented by flashes of the dream he saw that morning. He hated Frank, who never ran out of ways to defile him, “Poopy John!” “Pussy John!” Most importantly, Frank had everything he did not – a luxurious single-family house with a big yard, an iPhone, and by the looks Samantha gave Frank, her too. Never before had John hated his lower-middle-class upbringing as he did that day when he heard rumors about those two who had made it to second base. If he owned the things that Frank did, Samantha would be with him instead of Frank.
John pulled out a T-shirt unceremoniously dumped onto a pile of clothes on the chair next to his bed and took a good look at it, holding it at arm’s length. It had an image of the Brooklyn Bridge on the chest. His new boss at the Noah’s Brooklyn Bridge Tour Company gave it to him two weeks ago when he was officially inducted. He slid the T-shirt over his full-sleeve grey underwear. The nip in the air wouldn’t seem as pleasant once he was riding his bike.
“PJ! Move your lazy butt!” yelled Jane.
“I am coming down, Ma!” He never liked that nickname – PJ, which made him an easy target for Frank. He had no idea how his parents came up with it. Maybe it was his initials in reverse. Maybe they couldn’t think of a better combination of letters.
Dashing down the stairs, his backpack nudged a photo frame on the wall, its cheap plastic frame still cracked from an incident involving his brother Michael and a baseball. It held a picture of his grandparents Chuck and Molly in their early twenties, clad in dressy clothing that barely clung to their skinny frames, and being their happiest selves at the Beatles’ first concert in the USA. With his curly mop of dark brown hair, small nose, and slightly dark skin, John looked exactly like the younger version of his grandfather in the photograph, much to his disappointment.
“PJ, you are going to be late!”
“I know!” John broke into a sprint through the living room, right past his mother.
“PJ, aren’t you going to have breakfast?” she yelled after him.
“No time!” he yelled back as he snatched his light blue Roadmaster cruiser bike from the claws of the hedge on their lawn, only a little bigger than their kitchen, and threw his backpack into the front basket.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” He blindly rode his bike through the street, straight until the turn at the corner on the left, then a right turn towards the crosswalk.
“Oh, come on!” John groaned as the signal in front of him turned red. He waited until it turned green, then rode like a madman through two more right turns, a left turn, and almost stopped at the sight of a girl who looked like Samantha from behind.
Ratt! Ratt-a-tut-tut! his old bike groaned. John could see the old, familiar building of his school now beyond yet another crosswalk, sitting on the side of the road like a stubborn old fool.
There she is. Across the street, Samantha stood next to Crystal, curling a strand of hair around her fingers. She looked particularly spectacular that day in a pair of black tights and an oversized yellow sweatshirt with Snoopy on it, John thought. With a silly grin on his face, he pedaled on.
The traffic light turned yellow, but John did not care. Determined to catch up with Samantha, he continued to pedal while standing up, his curls a sweaty mess by now, the wire of his earphones hanging between his ears and pants pockets, slapping against his chest.
Suddenly, his gaze hovered over an older woman who seemed to be talking to Samantha. She had long, dark hair, her body wrapped around by a pinkish fabric.
Who is this lady? John wondered.
She is now looking at me.
John turned to his left. A bus was rapidly filling his view. He powered on, trying to get across, but it was too late.
Something hit him from his left and threw his body into an absolute darkness.
Eyes shut tight and limbs frozen, he could sense his body was drifting through a strange, suffocating space. He tried to force his eyes open and move his seemingly dead limbs, but he could not.
Suddenly, the darkness around him spun. Faster and faster.
The wind whistled. Loud and shrill.
“Raj Babu! Raj Babu!”
“Help me!” John flailed his arms around like a newborn.
I must be dead, he thought, perhaps on my way to Hell.
“Raj Babu! O’pun eyes!”
His eyes still closed, he felt the touch of a cold liquid all over his face.
“Argh! What is happening? Please stop!” John covered his face with his hands to shield himself from whatever was being sprinkled onto his face. If he was in Hell, which to him seemed like the only reasonable explanation, it could potentially be a fluid meant to burn his face. Yes indeed, it had to be Hell. Why else was the ground beneath him burning? And why was his skin on fire?
“Dimaag kharaab ho gaya hai Raj Babu ka to!”
“Please…” he wailed as the splashes grew harder. “Please don’t!”
His hands were snatched away from his face and his right cheek slapped hard. John opened his eyes to the sight of a dark face surrounded by a halo so bright that it made his eyes squint. Behind the figure stood another dark figure wearing what looked like a cloak, bearing a scythe on his back. John shut his eyes, horrified, body shivering.
“Aur paani do!”
It would seem odd to John if Satan had not resorted to corporal punishment.
“Ek do aur maaro! Slap him harder this time!”
“Fur’give me, Raj Babu! I no want to slap you!”
Nauseous and weak, John kept his eyes shut, waiting for his fate to unfold.
“Chaon me le jaate hain Raj Babu ko.” He heard another incomprehensible spell.
The next moment, John felt his legs and arms being lifted off the ground. He could not help opening his eyes once more. The Grim Reaper, with his scythe wedged between his shoulder and head, was heaving him by the legs. He could only imagine who was at his head. He kept closing and opening his eyes, the light so bright that he feared it would blind him. It was too much to take for his disoriented senses. His ears were still ringing. His body still felt alien. He narrowed his eyes and continued to look nevertheless, horrified but curious.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked while bubbling molten lava parched his throat.
“Huh? You talk funny. No undersand Raj Babu, what you say?”
John tried to shake himself of their grip, but it only served to give his nausea a renewed vigor and he threw up violently.
Moments later, he was sitting on the dusty ground, his back propped up against the bark of a massive tree with its roots streaming from several of its branches to the ground.
“Drink waa’ter, Raj Babu!” said the tall, gaunt man with the large forehead and wrinkles running across his face. The other man, who stood beside John and was probably just a few years older than him, offered him a small copper pot, flashing his abundant crooked teeth with generosity. He raised his lower garment, which resembled a skirt, to reveal his hirsute legs and started fanning John’s face with great vigor. John laughed at his own stupidity – how could these two be Satan and the Grim Reaper?
“Drink the waa’ter. Then makes feel good Raj Babu. I take to Mahal after,” said Satan.
“Kamal kaka theek bol rahe hain.”
So Satan is Kamal, John concluded. Why does he look familiar? he wondered and the words that escaped both men’s mouths were clearly not making any sense to him.
After some hesitation, he took a sip from the copper pot, then immediately choked on the water as he noticed his own clothes for the first time. He was dressed in cream-colored silk pajamas.
The man John now identified as Kamal stroked his back while he coughed.
“How? What?” John asked the moment the cough subsided. “Did you change me…where is my iPod?” He frantically ran his hands over himself, checking every pocket.
“Ashok, tujhe kuch samajh raha kya ki kya bol rahe, Raj Babu?”
“Nahi, Kamal kaka.”
“What the fuck is going on!” John cursed.
Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!
A short distance away from where he was sitting, a man stood behind what looked like a lemonade stand, ringing a copper bell attached to its frame – “Badhiya thanda gola le lo!”
Behind the stand was a massive market. Every shop was held up by no more than a few bamboo sticks and bright plastic sheets in blue and yellow that acted as shields from the sun. Among the shops, hundreds of people scampered about like a massive colony of ants trampled upon, hustling and yelling and shouting and spitting.
Where am I? He looked around in utter horror. These were not the streets he knew. There were no cattle-pulled carts back home. This was not how anything looked back in Brooklyn.
“You fillings good, Raj Babu? I take you to Mahal?” asked Kamal.
“Listen!” said John, making eye-contact with Kamal. “Listen to me carefully…where did you find me?”
“Huh?” Kamal was used to hearing Raj speaking English, as English was the common language among the members of the royal family and other elites. But never had Raj sounded so preposterous to him.
“Where-did-you-find-me?” John repeated his question slowly.
Kamal raised his finger and pointed at the spot, twenty yards away. “There!”
“And-how-did-I-get-there?” asked John.
Kamal shrugged and said, “I take you to Mahal. No one should know you here.”
John ignored Kamal’s words and instead walked over to the spot.
Kamal and Ashok looked at each other and then at John.
“You-found-me-here?” John addressed Ashok.
Ashok shook his head.
“Then how did you know where to find me?” John sounded triumphant as he walked back towards both men. “I know what is going on here! Ha! No wonder you looked familiar!” John looked Kamal in the eye. “Are you Frank’s uncle or something? Frank put you up to this, didn’t he, Mr. Castellano?” He had just realized that this man did look like an emaciated version of Frank.
The men looked at each other, utterly confused.
“Raj Babu, you gone whole night, you needing rest…”
“Ha! Ha! Very funny! You got me! This has to be the most elaborate prank anyone has ever played on me,” John declared. “Come out, Frank! What do you want from me?”
People walking by stopped and looked at him.
“Raj Babu, everyone looks…shh…I take you to Mahal.”
John exhaled loudly and pressed his palms to his forehead. He was feeling dizzy again. “Dammit, Frank, you drugged me, you sonofa…” He lost consciousness before he could finish the sentence.
“Ma!” John gasped as he woke up abruptly to a view so extravagant that it was hard to believe he was not dreaming. The ceiling above him was entirely covered in hand-painted murals with overtones of blue – scenes depicting a man with blue skin surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women with eyes shaped like almonds, dressed in bright blouses – reds and yellows and pinks – that fit snugly on their ample bosoms and exposed their slender waists.
John found himself lying in a huge four-poster bed covered with drapes and a canopy in rich velvet burgundy. He ran his hands over the bed-sheet, its silk sensuous to the touch. He threw the covers off himself and admired his white silk pajamas with gold trimmings for only as long as he realized that they had changed him again.
He slid off the bed. The moment he put his feet on the floor, they almost sank. He bent low to touch it, to check if it was indeed just a carpet. Then he started walking around this massive room. Ornate vases in porcelain, some nearly the same height as John, massive paintings with gold frames, three sofa-sets with the most luxurious tapestry sat in the room, adding to its majesty. Everything shone – the silver jug on the bed-stand, the crystal glass beside it, the four crystal chandeliers on the ceiling.
“Raj Babu! Raj Babu!” Kamal walked back into the room. “How you feeling now?”
“Stop your act, Mr. Castellano, This is not funny anymore!”
“No undersand. Why talking like this?”
“Shut up! Just shut up! Look, I am going to call my parents now, and if I do that, you are going to be in some serious shit!”
John looked around the room, searching for a phone.
“What you wanting for brak’fest, Raj Babu?”
John ran back to him and grabbed his hands. “Can you please stop all this now? Please?” Somewhere in his gut, John was starting to realize that this was probably not a prank.
“Raj Babu! You eat brak’fest first.”
“Whatever!” John finally gave up. He flopped onto the bed as Kamal left the room, looking at the ceiling – the blue man played a flute next to a river, mesmerized. He suddenly remembered where he had seen this painting before.
“Alright class,” Mrs. Abbott had said, “is everyone ready with their posters?”
“Yes, Mrs. Abbott!” all twenty students in the classroom said in unison.
“Great! We will start with Chanda…”
Chanda stood next to a poster in front of the classroom.
“…our culture is very rich and diverse. We pray to a lot of different gods…”
In the center of the poster showed a man with blue skin.
“Your god is blue?” Natasha had blurted aloud.
“One of them is…this is Lord Krishna and his skin is blue because…”
John could not believe it. No way could he have ended up in a place so far away. He was sweating like about to have a heart attack.
Okay, Okay, PJ. You ended up somewhere in India for no reason. But this is not too bad. John tried to calm himself down. All you need is an address and a phone call to your parents. They will somehow get the government involved and get you back home to Brooklyn.
“Raj Babu! Brak’fest is here!” Kamal opened the door.
He walked towards Kamal with shaky steps and asked, “What is this place?”
“You at Mahal, Raj Babu,” replied Kamal as he set down the tray on a table in front of the light brown sofa.
“What is the name of this place?”
“Raj Babu, you again feel funny?”
“Is that today’s newspaper?” asked John, then swooped down on the tray and grabbed it before Kamal could answer.
John sat on the sofa with the newspaper in his hand, eyes wide. “This is not possible…” he muttered under his breath before he threw his head back and closed his eyes. “This can’t be…no…no! I am dreaming. This is all a dream…”
“I must call doctor…” Kamal hurried out of the room.
John opened his eyes again and looked at the newspaper. The black print was all jumbled up, except for one part, the part that read – “May 10, 1958.”