“No”, said the boy who was wearing corduroy trousers that didn’t fit him. The beedi that he was smoking made him look a lot younger.
“I am confident”, said the boy in rags.
“How do you say that?”, spoke Corduroy.
“I know for a fact that that spot there shall have a star when I die”, Rags mumbled as he pointed his index figure up at the sky.
“And that…and that stars govern our fate”
“And that star next to my empty spot is my mother”
“The brighter one, there, is father and the one right next to it, glowing dimly is my brother”.
There was a small pause which seemed like a light year as smoke meandered through Corduroy’s mouth up into the seamless sky.
“You do remember seeing your family go up in smoke don’t you? At the factory furnace?”
Another pause. Some more beedi smoke in the air. The sky looked hazily white for a moment until the smoke cleared.
“Yes, and that is why those stars can be seen now. Those stars were not there before the furnace blast”, Rags let a tear roll down and perch upon his artificial smile. A smile that he had learnt to deploy against his inner urge to scream out in sorrow.
“Tough luck pal, it could have been anyone”.
“No, it had to be my parents. My brother. It had to be them”.
A hesitant moment passed by as the siren of the factory rang out its shrill shreik in the background. The 12:00 o’ clock train chugged by and the rails seemed to have livened up temporarily.
“Why? Why do you say it had to be them?”, Corduroy repeated, lighting another beedi.
“I had sinned”, said Rags as the last carriage of the train crossed the visible horizon.
“What did you do dammit?”
“I know it was because of my sin that they died.”
“Care telling me what you did instead of going on like this?”, Corduroy flicked the ash onto the wild grass below. A single blade withered and ended its existence.
“I smoked a beedi for the first time that day”, Rags admitted, with a rouge of shame on his face.
Suddenly there seemed a deafening silence. The rambling of the train could be heard yet again even though it had travelled a few miles by now.
Corduroy tore open the muteness with a raucous laughter.
“Your parents had to die because you smoked your first beedi?”, he blurted amidst seemingly endless chuckles.
“That is how it is. You commit a sin, your near and dear ones pay for it. Someday, sometime. But they pay for it”.
The laughter died down gradually and the smoke hovered around for a moment in anticipation of further conversation.
“You telling me that this fourth beedi that I have smoked is a sin and my family will pay for it?”
“No ofcourse. You forget that I don’t have a family. No parents, no siblings. Nothing. Everyone dead before I came here”.
“Then maybe your close friends will pay for it. Who is your close friend?”
“You”, Corduroy spoke and burst into laughter yet again.
“Then I have to pay for it. I am glad to know. I want to get back to mom, dad and brother soon. I am grateful to you”, Rags smiled his first genuine smile since a long time.
“Listen, enough of this nonsense”.
“This is not nonsense. Someone has to pay for every sin. Otherwise there will become more of evil than good. That will not be good.”
Corduroy looked at Rags with a little suspicion.
“It will not be good. The world can’t have more evil than good”, Rags continued talking to himself.
“Alright, alright. Hey, listen. Okay, fine, someone will pay for me smoking my beedis. Now, let’s go home”.
“You remember the furnace don’t you? The smoke?”, Rags stared into the distance and spoke.
“You know, I don’t remember that. I remember only the screams.”
“Listen, please lets go home. Its too late”
“Yes its been late enough. I still hear the screams. In my dreams, or should they be nightmares? No, they are not nightmares. Because in nightmares I don’t get to see my parents and brother. I see them only in a dream right? A dream where they all scream and die.”
Corduroy went up to Rags and held his hand.
Rags brushed it aside and continued looking into the distance. The screams were getting louder. He looked up and the stars seemed to be flickering with more gusto than before.
Corduroy was sweating by now and wasn’t able to get Rags out of his trance-like stance.
“Evil cannot be allowed to be more than good”, Rags chanted on.
“Shut up will you?”, Corduroy slapped Rags across his chicken-pox scarred cheeks.
Rags looked at Corduroy and smiled. The 1 o’ clock train was approaching and the rails were busy once again.
“I will pay for your sins brother. And don’t forget to look at that empty spot. I shall be there soon”, Rags whispered and threw himself onto the rails. The train was just in time.
Corduroy screamed in horror. The beedi fell from his fingers. The train too joined in the mourning with its clangorous bellowing.
After a full 30 seconds, Corduroy looked at the remains of his close friend. A close friend who had to pay.
He looked up at the sky at the empty spot. Nothing. He looked harder.
A faint glow appeared. A star flickered at that very spot. The ones around it suddenly seemed to be glowing brighter. Corduroy fell on his knees and wept.
He wept as the millions of stars in the sky above looked down at him.