by Bilal Latif
Youth is wasted on the young... (Quill award winner)
When he first entered Syed’s taxi, Mr Janus was older. If not for that gaunt face creased with wrinkles framing ice-blue eyes below brows the colour of storm clouds, Syed would never have allowed him to bring in the cat. No animals or non-paying passengers. Those were the rules.
Rules didn't seem to apply to Janus - they just slid off him in a stream of trusting forgiveness. Perhaps it had something to do with the way he carried himself, like a dapper, kindly grandfather. There was also the small fact that in the thirty minutes since they’d left Leicester he appeared to be five years younger.
“Is something the matter?” Janus smiled with his eyes, which gazed into Syed’s stare reflected in the rear-view.
Syed focused on the road. “Not at all.” The corner of his mouth turned upward as he risked another, friendlier, glance through the Plexiglas partition. “You’re just looking very… healthy.”
Janus laughed, tilting back his head. When he lowered it, silver strands in his sideburns had turned ever so slightly brown. “I never tire of hearing that.” He stroked the cat purring in his lap, his leather gloves folded under its fore paws. “Still can’t decide whether it’s condescension or envy.”
Syed shrugged. “Curiosity.”
“Well, we know what that did to the cat.” Janus chuckled and rubbed the animal’s neck, then looked out the window at the village through which they passed, shafts of late afternoon sunlight playing across his now less-wrinkled features. “You could live a thousand lives, answer every question, and never be sated.”
“So it’s better never to ask?”
Janus rested his fingers on the cat’s head. “Only if you’d dislike the answer.”
Syed glanced at the small picture of Nurmeen near the radio receiver. She would probably have terminated this conversation a few miles back rather than allowing the weirdness to escalate. She might even have kicked Janus out.
She definitely wouldn't imagine an elderly passenger growing younger by the minute.
Syed breathed deep, inhaling oxygen to exhale silent, painful memories into the air. Pain could wait. He smiled at Janus. “Whatever you do, don’t ask if we’re there yet.”
Janus cocked an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“You might dislike the answer.”
Janus grinned. Even his teeth looked younger. “Wittier than the average cabbie.”
“And smarter than the average bear.” Syed waited for a laugh that never came. “Anyway, we should reach the school in fifteen minutes.”
Janus nodded. “You weren't lying about that shortcut.” He passed his fingers between the cat’s whiskers. The animal mewed and closed its eyes. Janus said, “I hope my grandson will be ready.”
“I’m sure he will be.” Syed slowed the taxi for the sharp bend ahead. “And the best thing about country roads is there are plenty of animals for kids to look at.” He turned the wheel, felt his body shift in the opposite direction as the vehicle rounded the bend before straightening out. “He could even play with your pet.”
“It’s a stray.” Janus caressed the cat, whose head drooped until its body followed suit and splayed across his thighs. “I don’t usually bring them with me, but this one looked so lonely. It’s like they seek out a soft-touch.” His fingers parted the fur on the cat’s back. “But they have such energy.”
The words ignited memories floating in Syed’s mind. Nurmeen…
(She lacks the energy to respond to gentle coaxing or friendly touch. She doesn't open her eyes. She strokes the seat belt across her waist. Her voice is soft. “We did the wrong thing, Syed.”)
“Definitely,” Syed said and spoke no more, even when the cat stopped purring, and Janus passed a hand through his own unmistakably chestnut hair.
When they drew up in front of the school, Janus donned his gloves and stepped onto the pavement, cat held against his side. “Shan't be long,” he said and shut the door. He strolled toward the school gates, pausing to lay the cat atop a knee-high wall.
Syed thought the animal was a sound sleeper.
He didn't realise until Mr Janus returned that it wasn't moving.
(She doesn't need to move. She doesn't need to look at him. He can feel the pain on her face despite his focus on the street-lit road unrolling beneath them, and the van ahead with rattling copper pipes piled on its roof. He says, “We had no choice. You would have died.”)
Mr Janus ignored the dead cat as he passed it with the little boy, who laughed and opened the taxi door to roll onto the seat. The kid looked about six years old. He beamed at Syed through the partition. “Howdy,” the boy drawled, adjusting his bobble hat as if it were a Stetson.
“What’s your name?” Syed smiled, despite and because of the pain he knew Nurmeen would have felt were she able to see this child so full of energy and life.
(“We took a life.” She shakes her head. “Who’s to say mine is worth more than our baby’s?”)
Janus nudged the child across. “Make way, Tom.” Once the older man was seated he nodded at Syed, who steered the taxi away from the curb. Tom clapped and bounced until Janus leaned over to fasten the boy’s seat belt. The older man raised a playful finger. “Behave.” He passed his gloved hand over the kid’s head, as if Tom were that cat.
Syed swallowed his questions about the animal and the older man’s seemingly reverse aging. It wouldn't be right to upset the boy. Instead Syed asked, “So what did you learn in school today, Tom?”
Tom raised his left arm. “How to tell time!” He lifted his sleeve to reveal a paper band wrapped around his wrist and scribbled with green crayon. “And we made watches!”
Syed laughed. “And what time is it?”
Before Tom could answer, Janus laid a hand on his shoulder. “Time for something to eat.” The older man reached into his pocket and produced a wrapped sweet which he handed to the boy, who tore it open to pop into his own giggling mouth. Janus shook his head. “I do spoil him sometimes.”
Syed forced a polite smile and tried not to judge the boy’s parents. They might have had a perfectly valid reason to allow this freakishly youthful old man to collect their son from school and whisk him off to a different city. A grandfather is entitled to spend time with his grandson, after all. What’s a dead cat between responsible adults? Syed said, “They seem quite easy to spoil when they’re that age.”
Janus removed Tom’s hat to stroke his blond hair. “You speak from experience?”
Syed suppressed a wince. “Unfortunately, no.”
(“No, Nurmeen.” His vision doesn't waver from the van ahead, the pipes on its roof vibrating as their car draws closer. “We've had this discussion. We've decided.”)
Janus cocked his head thoughtfully. “Such things aren't for us to decide, really.” He cupped the boy’s chin in his gloved palm. “One of life’s great gifts for those fortunate enough to receive them.”
Syed glanced at Tom in the rear-view. “Yes.” The kid swallowed his sweet and pressed his face against the window. Nurmeen would have hugged the child at the sight of such a simple act, would have held him close until he fell asleep in her arms so she could set him down in the cradle they’d picked out--
No more pain over the past, over their decision. Over the accident. No more pain over the unchangeable. And certainly not while he was carrying passengers.
So he said nothing while he drove them back onto the country road. He said nothing when Tom drifted to sleep, or Janus removed his gloves and held the boy’s cheeks and all Syed could think of was the cat suffering slowly in his taxi to be ultimately abandoned in a strange place oblivious to its death.
When he saw the old man brush away another brown hair from his ever youthful face (was he in his forties now?), Syed did nothing. Doing something would imply that what he thought was happening was true, which would imply that he was not sane enough to drive.
(He drives faster, the van in front enlarging in their windscreen, the pipes on its roof looming like blunt daggers. She’s shaking her head. “It’s still a sin.”)
But he could not allow himself to sin by failing to act. He had to act when he saw one of the child’s blond locks turn the colour of storm clouds, and when a wrinkle creased from beneath that strand of hair across the pale skin of the boy’s forehead, like a crack in alabaster. He had to act when he glimpsed the older man’s two-year younger smile.
Syed yanked the radio receiver from the dash. He opened his mouth and something slammed into the partition.
Janus glowered, seat belt unbuckled, one hand against the Plexiglas and the other wrapped around Tom’s throat. “All I have to do is squeeze.”
Syed stared at him, saw the fear and panic and intent in his eyes, and lowered the receiver.
Janus nodded. “Keep driving.” Stroked Tom’s neck, chest, arms, and cupped both little hands in his own. The colour drained from Tom’s hair, crow’s feet spreading from his sleeping eyes.
Syed gritted his teeth. “You drugged him. Something in that sweet you gave him.”
“You are smarter than the average bear.” The sarcasm might have been generated by the voice of a man in his late thirties.
“What the hell are you, Janus?”
Each of the older man’s responding chuckles sounded progressively younger. “Don’t ask the question if you’ll dislike the answer.”
Syed stared at the road. “Humour me.”
“I am eternity.” The voice had lost its edge of aged gravel. “I am the sands of the hourglass and the ticking of the clock.” The voice drew closer. “But I can turn back my clock. What if you could, too?”
“And turn out like you? Some life-sucking predator?”
“God favours the spider, not the fly.” The voice laughed like that of a man in his mid-twenties. “And you are all obsolete little insects. Out with the old, in with the new.”
(“Out with the old, in with the new.” She faces him with tears in her eyes. He doesn't see the van in front slowing, or the pipes starting to shake. All he sees is her pain. All he hears is her loss. “We murdered our child before it was born so I could live. It’s twisted, Syed.”)
“You’re twisted, Janus.” Syed looked only at the road ahead.
“And you’re as naive as one of my many children from one of my many lives.” The voice’s tone betrayed a smirk. “Maybe I’ll pay you off like this boy’s parents. Everyone has a price. It’s blindingly obvious after your first adulthood.”
Syed didn't want to think about how many times this sick miscreant had reverse-aged himself back to boyhood simply to become a man again, nor did he wish to picture the dead children required to make such a perverse life possible. He didn't even want to look at the passenger’s face. All that mattered was the child. Maybe Syed could swerve to shake Janus loose.
(The pipes shake loose from the van’s roof and hit the road.)
Syed watched the road draw the village ahead closer and had a better idea. Tom was buckled in, but Janus wasn't. There were easier, faster and safer ways to loosen a scumbag’s grip on a child at sixty miles an hour.
So Syed slammed the brake.
(He slams the brake. One of the pipes clangs against the road and cartwheels across the bonnet to crack through the windscreen.)
Something cracked against the partition as the taxi lurched Syed forward. He turned his head, seat belt tight against his chest after the vehicle halted.
In the back Tom sat, strapped in and sleeping.
On the floor Janus sprawled, prone and unmoving.
And the spokes of the web the passenger’s head had cracked into the partition were smeared with blood.
(Blood smears the bonnet, the windscreen, the dashboard. His face. Her body. She tries to speak. He knows the pipe piercing her abdomen won’t allow it. He knows shock has silenced him. He knows he won’t hear her voice before she dies.)
Syed climbed out of the taxi and hoped Janus was dead. He opened the rear passenger door on Tom’s side. The kid looked okay. Prematurely grey and wrinkled, but alive. He was stirring now, and blinked as he fumbled at the seat belt. Syed climbed into the cab and squeezed his shoulder. “It’s okay, Tom.” He reached for the buckle.
“It’s stuck.” Tom’s voice was old and feeble and broke Syed’s heart.
“It’s okay,” he repeated. Somehow he’d find the boy’s parents, think of some way to explain this insanity. He’d do right by the kid. It’s what Nurmeen would have wanted.
Syed shook his head, ridding it of memories and thoughts of the future. They were only distractions. He focused on unbuckling the belt. It had become twisted, that was all. Easy fix.
“It’s coming loose.” Tom’s voice sounded younger.
Syed looked at him. The kid was younger. Wrinkles faded from his skin. The grey of his hair gradually brightened and yellowed. And were Tom Syed’s own child he would have scooped him up in his arms and praised Allah for His mercy.
But Tom wasn't his child and would never be, so Syed settled for a muttered, “Thank God.”
He disentangled the boy from the seat belt and tousled his hair, even as Tom peered over Syed’s shoulder.
“What about granddad?”
Syed smiled. “Don’t worry about him.” And he lifted the boy off the seat and set him down on the road, and he watched Tom adjust his coat and his hat, and each one of the boy’s movements brought a memory of Nurmeen, and each memory brought a smile.
Syed took one step onto the tarmac before fingers like hooks of ice gripped the back of his neck.
“I’m bleeding,” Mr Janus said. “Not dying.”
The grip tightened and Syed couldn't even scream. He could only stare at Tom’s fearful little face, glance at the village half a mile away and rasp, “Run!”
And run the boy did.
Syed would breathe a sigh of relief if he could take a breath. He could only glance at the road, the fields, the darkening sky, then claw at the hand that gripped his neck to pry loose the life-leeching skin of its palm and sink to his knees.
Syed coughed and doubled over as Janus released him.
“Spill my blood.” The old man’s voice sounded as it had when he’d first entered Syed’s taxi. “Temporarily reverse the process.” Janus wiped crimson from his wrinkled face. “You’re either a genius or an idiot.” He kicked Syed’s chin, which snapped upward to crumple his body into the taxi door.
Syed scrambled to his feet only to receive a right hook to the jaw that spun his head into the passenger window. Blood trickled from his temple to salt his lips. His vision blurred. The fogging silhouette of Mr Janus crouched before him.
“Such a shame.” The old man became a shadow among concussed shadows. “I’d have given you my secret if only you’d asked.” The shadow touched Syed’s jaw. “It’s such a subtle art. The difference between seconds or decades of your life is simply a matter of pressure.” The shadow squeezed.
(The neck brace squeezes as he twists on the stretcher and tries to catch a glimpse of her, but all he sees is flashing blue lights, all he hears are people questioning the van driver, and he can’t see their car and he can’t see her and the shock must be wearing off because he knows that she’s dead and she’s not coming back and all he wants to do is join her.)
Syed didn’t resist. What was the point? The shadows gathered, deepened, beckoned. Who was he to deny them? You can’t turn back time. Better to embrace the inevitable.
“Tell me how much I should take,” the shadow goaded. “Tom’s missing me.”
And the shadows cleared and Syed could see. All he had to do was focus. Focus on the voice, on what it was saying, focus on the unnaturally youthful man to whom it belonged. Focus on what that man would do when Syed was gone.
Janus looked like a man in his prime – eyes bright, skin smooth, hair a thick brown mane. His grip on Syed’s jaw tightened. “How much of your life should I take?”
Syed could barely breathe. His limbs were heavy and brittle, like logs of glass. He didn't realise how wrinkled his hands were until he wrapped them around his passenger’s throat. The van gave him the strength to squeeze. The van was the start of the chain that had robbed him of Nurmeen when it should have taken his life, and the conscience that failed him when he’d driven her to the clinic. The van was their child’s revenge.
“Take everything,” Syed whispered and tightened his grip, until his grip was all he had, until Janus let go and grabbed at the hands that rejuvenated the neck from which they wrung life. The man’s darting eyes grew brighter, his clenching jaw more pronounced, his blanching skin smoother. A man in his twenties. Syed squeezed and melted five years from the passenger’s face. Tighter. Two more years. Harder. Three years more.
A man’s eyes squeezed shut.
A boy’s eyes rolled open.
Syed released Janus. He stooped over the youthful corpse. His breaths were flames in the furnace of his chest, his pulse a clot in the shaking pipes of his arteries. He welcomed the shadows gathering in the corners of his vision, even as he sank to the ground, the drum of his heart slowing to beat its final spurts of lifeblood into aged facial muscles. He smiled.
Out with the old, in with the new.