The Day Before Today
Thunder rumbles in the dark skies, the rain lashes down, I jump out of my camper van—there’s sludge all over the ground. In the distance another truck rumbles over—a faint medical sign can be seen on the tarmac behind it. It stops near the barricade with the rusting tin board that reads ‘Quarantine Zone 1’. I pull my eyes away from the line of masked people with handcuffs being herded out of the truck towards the border that barricades ‘US’ from ‘THEM’. On the other side of the border, men in hazmat suits wait anxiously.
Borders. Their definitions have changed since this thing began. I rush to the officer in army fatigues standing with some medical staff at a distance. His name badge is covered with splotches of mud but I know him by name. ‘Colonel Saini?’ He turns, his eyes register recognition.
He doesn’t look happy. I don’t care. I rush to him, pulling out my cell phone, ‘Colonel, did you read it? Ridhi! My sister, she’s still in there, her family too. Please, I beg of you. Get them out. Pleeease.’ Tears of desperation roll down my face but he can’t see them, it’s raining too hard or maybe he chooses what he wants to see now. There’s countless like me coming here daily.
He glances at me, he’s a good man. I can see it in his eyes but even goodness has its borders. ‘Sirji— saare positive hain, recheck kar liya,’ calls the sentry from across the road, the colonel puts a tick next to the truck number on his clipboard. There’s a page filled with numbers on it. ‘Leh lo andar,’ he replies as he gestures for me to leave. I shake my head. It’s a routine we follow, weekly. The soundtrack begins. A strange muted wailing. I’m used to it now. Humans are strange, you know; they do similar things when faced by similar circumstances. This could be a science experiment. Except it’s not. Those are real people behind those masks, their mouths gagged, their hands cuffed. Certain that once they step across—there’s no coming back for ‘Them’. Not ever. If they survive, they’ll be kept to work at the health department on the other side. This is their last plea. The muted wailing. It’s always the same. Gulp. Focus.
His audio gets clearer, ‘Ma’am I can’t help, you know that already. This is a restricted area, civilians aren’t allowed. Please don’t make our job more difficult than it already is.’ He starts to walk away, his gumboots splash water on my shoes. My feet get wet. I’ll have to repair that hole again, once I get home. I hold his arm. Over-familiar. ‘Did you read it?’ I repeat. He pulls his arm away like he’s been burned. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he hisses, nervously looking over his shoulder and then in a normal voice, ‘Yes, I did, and they sound fine, ma’am. Happy, even. We’re taking care of everything and we will get the healthy out soon. Now, if you’ll excuse me.’ He walks away.
I’m unable to control myself. The dam bursts. I scream, with all my might. I scream at all the lies and pretense. I scream for my sister and her world. I scream for the people being taken across the border. I scream at the information clampdown and the futility of the burning rage I have boiling within me. But the screams are in my head. In my reality I walk. I walk for my sister’s tomorrow and for my parents who are waiting anxiously for me to return today. I walk away so I can fight tomorrow. I walk because I will find a way. I must.
In the distance the clouds rumble louder, I jump into my car. My eyes wander past the beaming smile of her profile picture and settle on her current status— ‘Bright sunny skies and the promise of a hot summer.’ Liar. I hope to goodness they’re okay. I drive away.
Excerpted with permission from The Day Before Today: Lockdown Stories by Gayatri Gill; Illustrations by Niyati Singh. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020, available online and at your nearest bookstore.