WRITTEN BY IMAN HAMID
A plump woman walked into the lift. She wore an ugly red saree that blistered over her stomach like an open wound. From the corner of my eye, I watched her open a box of mithai, shove a piece of ladoo in her mouth, and eat the whole thing in one bite.
I decided to call her Auntie Ladoo.
Auntie Ladoo immediately started grumbling about the heat. I tried to pay attention (“Yes, ma’am, the hotel should invest in a better AC”), but I couldn’t focus. I’d spent eleven hours in the lift, pushing buttons until my fingers ached and my legs gnawed with rust. The pain was making me dizzy. One more hour, I told myself. Just one more–
“Lift Boy!” Ladoo snapped. “Are you listening to me? I said, ‘lobby.’”
I gritted my teeth and pressed the button so hard it almost broke. “There.”
Ladoo went quiet. I realized I shouldn’t have lashed out at her. Boss told me not to speak to the hotel guests. They hated kids like me–they’d spit on me if I got too close. He said the best thing I could do was keep my head down, bite my tongue, and make myself invisible. Boy, had I done a spectacular job of that. I could feel Auntie Ladoo’s eyes on the back of my neck, pricking me with a sharp spurn. “Lift Boy?” she whispered. Look at me.”
Now I was sweating, too. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I just–”
“Look at me.”
I did. Ladoo slowly raised her hand. For a second, I thought she was going to slap me across the face, but then she did something even more surprising: she took her dupatta and wiped the dirt off my forehead. “Are you from Calcutta, Lift Boy?”
“Uh–Just outside, ma’am.” I tried to wriggle away–this was definitely against every rule in Boss’s handbook–but Auntie Ladoo wasn’t letting up. She brushed her dupatta over my eyebrow, veiling me in a thread of red gossamer.
“You’re from the slums, then?”
“Yeah. You could call it that.”
“Hm.” She pulled her dupatta away. “Do you go to school?”
“Good. I hope I never have to see you in this lift again.”
She turned around, flipped her dupatta over her shoulder like an embellished peacock feather, and went back to eating her mithai. I could feel myself start to smile. “Me neither, ma’am.”
The lift moved. My skin burned with sweat. The last time we had a heatwave this bad was nearly three years ago. I remember that summer, our pipes dried up, our generator burst, and the lights in our village sparked out for a week. But the worst part?
My little sister’s Barbie doll melted straight into the floor.
One day, I came home from school to find Barbie in one big plastic puddle, blonde hair sticking out of the wood planks like loose nails. Nini was heartbroken. She only had a couple of toys, but Barbie was her favorite. Her eyes brimmed with tears. I put my bag down, kneeled next to her, and draped my arm around her shoulder.
“See, Nini?” I whispered. “This is what happens when you spend too long sunbathing in Malibu.”
Nini laughed. She didn’t ask for a new doll because she knew our father couldn’t afford one. She was too forgiving about these kinds of things; I couldn’t stand it. That night, I made her a new doll out of pipe cleaners and bottle caps. I spent hours threading wire through metal, creating life out of scraps. It was ugly, but Nini loved it. This one won’t melt, bhai? No, I promise.
Nini played with it all night. When I checked on her, she was asleep, hugging it close to her chest. To my relief, the doll was alive. “Take that, Barbie,” I whispered. I tucked Nini in and smiled to myself.
I made a pretty solid engineer.
The lift paused. Two more guests filed in, an old man and a girl wearing red silk. Ladoo turned to the man. “Is this your daughter? Ah, congratulations. May Allah bless you.” She passed them mithai, and the lift started up again.
I instinctively counted the seconds between floors. One, two, first, two, three, mezzanine. This was the machine’s heartbeat. I watched the buttons spark with the fury of the Khajjar sun, heard the lever sigh and the metal bolts scream. This was the machine’s breath.
Tonight, I’d collect my last paycheck and leave the hotel. I’d catch a taxi to New Delhi, escape the incessant heat, the slums, the lift. I’d finally be free.
Three, four. The floors shifted. I slipped off my gloves, listening to Ladoo compliment the bride. Fair skin, rouge-red cheeks, doe eyes. She pinched the girl’s chin. “So beautiful, sir.” Four, five. Maybe, if I had a bit of money left over tonight, I’d buy Nini a real doll. Abbu never gave her one, anyway.
Five, six. My mind kept drifting back to my father. I could hear him screaming at me to keep my pace, don’t stray too far ahead. “How the hell are you going to get into university?” Lift boys don’t leave, he said. They live and die in the incinerator box before they can figure out how it moves. Six, seven.
The letter came in the mail two months ago. I’d slammed it on the table, watching him mutter English words he could barely pronounce. “Congratulations…Your son…IIT…incredibly bright…” My eyes raked over his face. I’d hoped he felt ashamed. I’d hoped he’d grab his pistol, run outside, and shoot at the sky, like we did when sons were born. Go, wake the village, Abbu, and crack the surface of the moon–I dare you.
He folded the letter and rubbed his nose. “Beta,” he sighed. “How are you going to pay for a taxi to New Delhi?”
The buttons dimmed like the dying of the sun. I was going to leave tonight. I had to buy Nini the doll. She’d still cry, because her heart is only so big, but at least she’d have the doll. Eight, nine. Ladoo dabbed the sweat from her eyes, frantic. The heat must be killing her. Nine, ten. The red silk shifted next to me, and I felt the smallest tug on my sleeve. Her father was distracted. I don’t know why, but I looked. Ten, eleven. She was covered by a veil, but I swear I’d seen her before–sitting on my school bus, shoe laces untied, reading Ramona Quimby. A year below me? No, two years. Two. My eyes found her. I couldn’t breathe.
Kajal smudged her cheeks like it was her first time playing with makeup. Her nose was red; her chin was small. It could fit in the cusp of my palm. Ladoo had lied–she wasn’t beautiful. Twelve, thirteen. I wished she would let me go. I didn’t want to remember anymore. Thirteen, fourteen. He yawned. “Don’t smile too much today.” Fourteen, fifteen. He muttered something about the bedsheets. She squeezed my wrist. She didn’t want to go. Please, she whispered, please–
Fifteen, sixteen. Her big eyes found me, swallowed me, made me achingly visible. I tried to remember how to breathe–was it the bolts or the lever? Sixteen, seventeen. My throat strangled with questions I should have asked her. Do you still read Ramona Quimby? Do you still keep your laces untied?
Seventeen, eighteen. With a jolt, I realized she was crying, and nobody was wiping her tears. Eighteen, nineteen. The doors opened, and her touch slipped away, the bolts screaming when she could not. I looked down. I let him take her away.
Three years. She was three years below me.
The doors shut. Ladoo stood there, holding the mithai, her dupatta dragging on the floor. She looked at me like I was the sharpshooter aiming at the moon, but I wasn’t. I was just a boy. “Lobby,” she croaked. “Please.”
My shift ended. I collected my paycheck: a hundred rupees left over. I bought Nini the doll. She hugged me and cried. Can I come with you, bhai? No, Nini. But why–? Because. I can’t do anything about it. You’re being mean. You’re being a baby. I don’t want you to leave. I’m sorry, Nini, but the taxi is here, and I have to go now. I have to go.
Then, bhai–why are you just standing there?
Iman Hamid is a twenty-year-old college student in Chicago. She won two regional 2021 Scholastic Gold Medal Awards for Short Fiction and has been featured in multiple young adult literary magazines. Her journalism has also been pushed in Best of SNO for Young Adult Journalism and Editorial Writing. She writes about the experiences of South Asian communities and raises awareness of issues she has seen in her native country, Pakistan. She hopes her writing will elevate the voices of those who cannot speak out.