By Mannat Sidhu
It had been an average night. Chicken for dinner, bland and overcooked, as usual. Shriya had watched television with her husband, then they’d gone to sleep. The kids had probably gone to sleep around the same time, or so she assumed. They weren’t really the kind of family who said goodnight to each other. The only thing that had been out of the ordinary was how hot it was. It was sultry and humid, highly unusual for late October in the sleepy little town they called home. She had left the windows open that night, in hope that a cool breeze would enter. But that had been a mistake. Maybe, if she had closed the windows, the wind wouldn’t have caused the fire to spread. There were a lot of “what ifs” but the reality was that on that very night, at 11 p.m., a fire spread across the house. Shriya woke up with the smell of smoke in the air and bright flames dancing before her. She and her husband rose to check on their kids, but they never made it out of the room.
What would you save if your house was burning down?
It was the kind of thing no one really thought about, a question that people made sure never to ask the kid who had literally lost everything in a fire, who’d barely managed to make it out alive. But then again, there were many people who thought that Anwar had started the fire that killed his parents. The reports had shown that the fire was caused by arson and the detectives considered it to be an inside job. Both Anwar and his twin brother Shaurya were under scrutiny, and there was to be a hearing in the court to decide who was guilty. But for everyone who knew the twins, the case was already closed. After all, Anwar was the twin who had been playing with matchsticks for as long as anyone could remember, and Shaurya was the one who was responsible for putting out his fires.
It was a bitingly cold day, and Anwar could see his breath swirling around as mist as he walked towards the court. All the major events in his life seemed to occur on days with extreme weather conditions. His mother had told him how scorchingly hot it had been on the day the twins were born. He imagined it was as hot as it had been on the day she died. So it seemed fitting for the weather to be frosty and cold on the day that his future would be decided. However, he already knew the verdict as he walked up the stairs to seal his fate.
“And how does the defendant plead?” Anwar been expecting the question, but he hadn’t realised that he would be questioned by the judge himself. “Guilty, your honour.”
All around him, he heard murmurs arising through the courtroom. He swallowed the lump in his throat as his eyes met his brother’s. Shaurya’s face showed nothing but worry as he turned to talk to their aunt. Anwar had no idea what happened during the rest of the hearing. He didn’t even register how long his sentence was. For the first time since the night of the fire, his mind was empty.
It was his last night at their aunt’s house, where the twins had been staying ever since the fire. Anwar knew that if it was up to her, he would already be at the juvenile detention centre this night, instead of leaving in the morning. She hadn’t uttered a single word to him after the hearing, but he knew that she could barely stand the sight of him. Shaurya avoided both of them. With nothing else to do, Anwar went straight to the guest bedroom and prayed that after countless sleepless nights, sleep would finally come to him.
The first things he noticed when he woke up were the heat and the light. He hadn’t forgotten how cold it had been during the day. A sharp contrast to the waves of heat he felt emitting all across the room. He noticed that according to the clock placed on the bedside table, it was close to 3 am. However, the darkness that should have been there was replaced by an eerie glow. And suddenly he understood what was happening. After all, he had woken up in the same situation just a little while ago. Only this time, something made him realise he might not be so lucky as to make it out alive.
The door swung open and Shaurya entered. Behind him, Anwar could see the flames spreading. “I did what you told me to do”, he said, hating how shrill his voice sounded. “I took the blame for what you did and you promised me you wouldn’t kill me”. “So I take it that twin telepathy doesn’t exist. If it did, you would know that I’m no good at keeping promises.”
Detective Sharma was not fond of investigating fires. Especially when the cause was arson. This was his second case of the month and he was not happy about it. He glowered at his witness, even though he knew that he should be sympathetic because while he only had to investigate two fires, this kid had survived them both. “So son, tell me exactly what happened”, he said, in an effort to be more polite. “My brother said that he’d rather die than go to jail. So he lit another fire and didn’t try to escape. My aunt tried, but I couldn’t save her.” As he spoke, a tear rolled down his face. The detective, who hated tears, ushered him out of the room. As soon as the door closed, Shaurya smiled. He thought about his dead brother, who used to play with matchsticks. And Shaurya had only recently discovered that he liked starting fires a whole lot more than putting them out.