It was 7 am and I was fast asleep. Usually Ma or Papa did the job of waking me up at 6 in the morning to be ready in time for the school bus. Today it wasn't so. Both of them were not at home. Instead, our labrador, Simon woke me up with his wet licks. He wanted his morning biscuits. I saw a note on my table which confirmed my guess about my parents' whereabouts.
"Sorry Arjun. I had to leave in the middle of the night as Ma had started getting the pains. I will collect you from school and then you would be able to see the baby too, if all goes well. All the best for your last paper. Do well, and then we would enjoy the summer vacation.
Thankfully my schoolbag had been packed the previous night. I hastily made myself a sandwich and gobbled it as fast as I could. The bus was to arrive in 15 minutes, so I decided to skip the bath and just washed my face.
I was just in time for the bus. It was the last paper of my final exams and my favorite subject, Maths. Pretty happy with the way I had written it, I exited the exam hall with a smile on my face, much to the envy of my classmate most of whom had very grim expressions. Now that the exams were over, I felt very light as I waited at the school gate where Papa would come to pick me up. I waited for half an hour, but he didn't arrive. Papa was never usually late. What would I do if he didn't come? Or even worse, forgot to come? An 8 year old boy couldn't walk for 5 kms and I had already missed the bus to wait here. Was the baby so beautiful that he had forgotten me totally? My friend Suresh had told me the other day that once a younger child is born, the parents tend to ignore the older one. Was this the beginning of the end?
Just then, a black Qualis stopped right in front of me and a man wearing dark glasses emerged from it. He had a thick moustache and broad shoulders.
"You must be Arjun Naik, right?" he asked me.
I nodded meekly. Ma always said that I must never talk to strangers or eat anything that they give.
"Your father sent me to pick you up. Come on, get into the car. He is waiting for you."
He seemed to be a friendly person. He even took my bag and placed it in the car. I climbed on to the rear seat. The windows were tinted and closed. The man sat on the driver seat, closed his door and pressed a button which locked all the doors. He took out his mobile and made a call.
"Yeah, I've got him. See you soon." Through the rear-view mirror, I could see him smile. I noticed that his teeth were stained dark.
"You don't mind me putting on some music, do you?"
I shook my head. He started the car and soon we were wading through the city traffic. The windows of the vehicle were tinted dark. My mind wandered off, and I just realised that nobody could see the inside of the car from outside, and I didn't even know who this man or what his name was.
Never take a lift from a stranger or take anything to eat from them unless I or Ma is around. Papa had once told me. Had I committed a mistake by sitting in this car? But he said he knew Papa, right? I felt a chill inside me.
The man lit up a cigarette and began puffing smoke.
"You must be pretty hungry. I only have a bar of chocolate for you." He said.
My brain refused, but my rumbling stomach made my hand reach hout and take it from him. Here, I had broken another of Papa's rules. But how could I refuse chocolate? I ate in silence.
"You don't talk much." He said, puffing some more smoke. "It's a 1 hour drive and would be pretty boring in silence."
1 HOUR DRIVE!! But my house was hardly 5 kms away.
"Aren't we going home?" I asked him.
"Yes, we are." He chuckled, displaying those nicotine stained teeth. "We are going to my home, not yours."
"Who are you? I want to go to my home!" I was genuinely scared now.
"Now, now. We don't want to create a scene here, do we? You sit behind quietly there, and we can reach our destination peacefully." His tone was stern.
I looked around, trying to think of an escape. The windows were shut tight and they were tinted. The doors were locked.
C'mon, I urged myself. You've read almost the entire set of the Famous Five books. Act like Julian, be calm and think on your feet.
Very quietly, I reached out and unlocked my door. I pulled the lever that would open the door. Jumping out of a moving car would be preferable than being tortured in a dark room. I pulled the lever, but the door wouldn't open.
"Kid, you ever heard of something called child lock?" he laughed. I realised he had been watching all the time through the mirror.
Plan A unsuccessful.
"Don't you start thinking of an escape now. The repurcussions would be too hard for a child to bear. Sit quietly or I'll have to tie you up."
That left no scope for Plan B. O God! Why did Papa have to forget today, of all days?
After about fifteen minutes we turned into a narrow alley. There was garbage strewn on both sides of the road. At the end of it, there was a house. The man drove inside its compound and parked there. He opened my door and clasped my arm with his burly fingers and dragged me inside.
I wasn't going to give in easily. What would George, the bravest amongst the Five, have done? I bit his hand as hard as I could. He was taken by surprise and his grip loosened. I broke free and ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I didn't know where I would go, but I had to get away from him.
In my haste, I tripped over a wire lying on the ground and fell hard on the gravel. By the time I recovered, he was standing besides me.
"You are a tricky little prey. No more games now, I've had enough for today."
He held my collar and easily lifted me up in the air. I struggled with all my might, but all in vain. He took me dangling thus inside the house. It was dark, and darkness scared me. He opened a room. It was pitch black.
"You are going to stay here till my demands are met. You play any games, the result would be far worse than skinned elbows."
He dropped me hard on the floor and went out closing the door behind him. Animals and insects never scared me a bit, but when it came to dark rooms, the fear of the unseen gripped me. Sweat broke out on my forehead and my heart was racing fast.
HOW CAN I ESCAPE??
Suddenly, the room was flooded with bright light which blinded me and people screamed. I shielded my eyes with my hands and was shocked to see the scene unfolding before me.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Arjun, Happy birthday to you!!!!!"
Everybody was there. Ma, Papa, Kaka, everybody. I ran and hugged Papa, tears streaming from my eyes.
"Where were you? Why didn't you come? I thought I was kidnapped." I cried.
"My son cannot be kidnapped so easily." Papa said. "And I guess you must have met your Uncle Raghav, my cousin. He has a strange sense of humor, but he is alright. You'll like him once you know him better."
Raghav came inside the room carrying a cake.
"Sorry for the scare, little fella. Cut this cake and let's be friends." He smiled at me. Those stained teeth weren't so scary now.
Papa nudged me.
"Arjun, I want you to meet someone."
He took me to where Ma was sitting on a chair, apparently weak and holding a little bundle, he face radiating with a smile.
I went and had the first look at my little sister.
May be life won't be so bad after all, I thought as Ma held me tight. Maybe I would even love to share things with her, now that I had managed to share my birthday.
Moments later, I went ahead and cut the cake, the first of the many more I would cut together with my sist