winner-open-road-review-short-story-prize-2016-in-partnership-with-nhp-centre'Listen! Tell me a story where no one dies. Make me read something where the first word is 'life' and the end is surely a 'happily ever after'. Drag it as long as you can but please, don't put your characters into misery. Make them smile, and laugh, and dance all along. Make their lives beautiful. Write a story where a smile, a chuckle, a giggle, a chortle, a grin, and a laughter are expressed by a million words, but a sorrow, it just passes in a split second. Make me read and believe that the world is beautiful, that it holds promises, so I can forget the battle going on in my head, so I can live, maybe just a little.'

'But how can I extract life from a dead world?'

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Life is in a hustle. It always has been. She's not the only one on the street that day. But yes, she was for sure the only one running barefooted in the merciless heat three days ago. You saw her. Sitting in your air-conditioned, blue Honda Civic with the 'applied for registration' sign still glowing in the back and front, you saw her yelling but ignored. You took her for just another maniac then. The streets are so full of stinking beggars and fucking retards these days. Some of those even kick your car and bang on the windows at times. If anyone had messed with your car then, you were to burst his head open for sure; it was a fucking new car.

The road was full of the smell of garbage, even half of the street itself was covered with trash. This is the condition these days, but we're on a special road: the  one that leads to development so it'll change, you just sit tight. The traffic was jammed - not a new thing either. You've grown used to this by now. The speakers of your brand new car were blaring out the old folk song sung with new instruments from the coke studio. Yes, the one with that new hot singer, that one. You were waiting in that long trail of cars, moving at a snail's pace, when you'd heard those screams. That was when you'd spotted a woman, in her late forties, running wildly on the road, looking for help. But can you find help in a city of busy yet dead people? Let's play nice by not answering this question.

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'Pick up your pen and write a poem for me. A poem which does not contain a tinge of gloom, where hope is spread all around. For when I start sinking in the river of your words, I don't find myself suffocating in despair. And in that poem of yours, don't make the birds wander in the wild, not being able to find the way back home. Instead, make them sit in their nests. Let the food itself drop into their mouths. Let them sing and spread the sweetness all around. Don't make 'nature' a cruel stepmother in it. Write a poem and make me feel that hope can still be found.'

'But my heart is so devoid of hope.'

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You're here for her today. Had you listened to her rants three days ago, you wouldn't have to be here. But then, you're not an oracle who could see what's coming his way. Even oracles need a few more signs, while all you were given were a few minutes - or was it an hour of her screams? Maybe the heat has slowed your brain down.

The sun is setting in the background, marking the end of yet another day, while you're here searching for a beginning. You set your eyes upon her. She's sitting in the exact same spot, the one where you'd seen her faint that day. A small region between two huge piles of trash is now filled with her presence. Someone has been generous enough to bring her a torn piece of cloth to sit on. Unaware of the flies kissing her arms, the crows finding something to eat from the trash, the filthy smell reaching her nostrils, being a part of her forever, she just sits there staring blankly at the ground. Her hair covering half of her face, her face blackened by the heat, her clothes bearing the warning sign to reveal her naked self soon, she sits in utter silence, as if that is her new home, as if muteness is the utmost peace. She picks up three pebbles, places them one onto the other, and just when the structure is about to gain balance she slaps the tiny tower, making the stones clatter in complaint. A smirk appears on her face. Just then she picks up three new stones

You watch her while standing in that stinking street. You're here not out of sympathy. That woman, that screaming retarded being from three days ago, is now important for you. Today, she holds a story in herself.

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'Sing me a song. A song not for the broken hearts and the lonely beings. A song which is full of life, and love. For when you sing it sitting beside me, I may not be able to stop myself from picking up the lyrics off of your lips and storing them deep in my heart. That I cannot hold myself from singing along with you. As you sing, all the love of the world would hug me tight and promise to never let go. Make me feel loved. Make me hear the song, so I can get rid of my wounds just by listening to your words.'

'But how can my maimed words heal you?'

_________________

She was touching the bonnets of all the vehicles, tears streaming down her face, asking for something which was inaudible to you yet. It appeared from her face that the situation was pressing, that she was desperately in need of some help. You laughed a little at her acting. : 'The beggars these days.'

Moving from one car to the next, as she crossed yours you made only two words out of her screams, before increasing the volume of the music. The next verse, it was so touching, so beautiful that you could not afford it to be interrupted by the rants of an old woman, yelling 'boy' and 'dying'.

As if her screams weren't too much of a torture, the next moment she was holding a child in her arms. The child was half-lifeless, with bruises on his skin, and blotched blood on his white clothes. She was now literally carting the child from one car to the next, while you were still unsure what exactly was she asking for, maybe all the others were going through the same perplexing situation.

It is definitely annoying when you have the love of your wife and the giggle of your kids waiting for you, the comfort of home filling up your mind already, but the cars are honking continuously, the afternoon heat is being something beyond unbearable, and the cries of an old woman are filling up the atmosphere. You do get pissed. Who wouldn't?

As the traffic started showing some signs of motion, you glances at your right. Between the two piles of trash, the woman now stood with the child wrapped up in her arms. The kid, with all the effort he'd left, opened an eye and looked at the person holding him. He shivered a little, and the next moment, his body became lifeless, forever. A scream left the woman's lips. She could not bear the weight of the body anymore. The child slipped from her arms, as she went down on her knees. As her body was about to hit the ground, you were finally able to accelerate the car out of the street.

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'Draw me a painting, a portrait, a sculpture, or something like that. A piece of art, which is mute yet speaks a billion words. But beware! Don't spread darkness in there. Don't make pools to form out of tears from an eye. Don't you think of making the world appear more miserable. Give it a good thought. For when I stare at your piece of art, the whispers I hear should be the songs of merriment, the colours I see should be bright as a rainbow, the impression I get... please make it closer to life and away from death. That through that picture of yours, I might be able to bring some peace to my tired brain and weary heart.'

'I cannot see light but darkness all around.'

_________________

'Busy traffic kills a kid' is what you read on the third page of a local newspaper. A single paragraph and the child was forgotten. So now you're here. It is neither the sympathy nor the feeling to clear your conscience that has brought you here today. You're here so you can get a better story, a complete story. One that you can use to turn this ordinary event into something extraordinary, if not for her then at least for your own self. You need something, we all do, don't we?

As the sun declares to give no more than half an hour of light, you inch closer to her. She doesn't look up. The three stones she's just slapped away, you bring those closer to her with your foot. She doesn't touch those. Picking up three new stones she resumes her ritual as if you are not even here. After three more rounds, when you're growing uneasy, two fingers lift up in the air and command you to move closer. You take two more steps. This is the closest you've ever been to trash. The smell is intolerable now.

The fingers motion for you to bend. You're not in a position to argue. The next gesture tells you to bring your ear closer. The smell emanating her body fills up your nostrils as you hold back the urge to vomit. It is then that she finally breaks up with her silence. She whispers, vague at first, but then it all starts making sense. Your brain finds it hard to comprehend the entire storm of words she'd been holding on to for you don't know how long. So she speaks and you listen. The story is marvelous.

'Listen! Tell me a story...' She says. You go on listening  to her, filtering out the noise of the traffic, desperately waiting for a 'happily ever after’.

*

A fresh Electrical Engineer from Pakistan with an interest in reading and writing. Khawar Latif Khan started writing stories in his first year of Undergraduate studies. Regarded as the Best English Writer at the Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Islamabad, Pakistan, he was a part of the LUMS Young Writers Workshop 2016, where his influences included Bilal Tanweer and Musharraf Ali Farooqi.