The Pack

Set in an urban housing society during the pandemic induced lockdowns. A pack of dogs have taken over the empty streets. Asif is fighting to stay afloat, both personally and professionally. And then something strange happens.

Written by S.K. Chishti who is a a writer, screenwriter, filmmaker, film critic and photographer.

“The dogs are back again”

Alivira murmured from her side of the bed. 

Asif already knew.

There had been no electricity since the last hour and he was lying awake, drenched in sweat, listening to the dogs grouping below their building. Occasionally, one would howl and another one would responded. But mostly they were quiet, gearing up for their chorus. 

Asif was struck by how it all sounded like a machination. He was reminded of the early morning meetings at his office when his colleagues will start collecting in the conference room. Some would arrive silently and immediately open their laptops to avoid speaking with others in case they accidentally give away a brilliant idea for a ketchup campaign they came up with while moving mechanically on top of their spouses, some would peer at files and papers to show how busy they were and the chattier ones would form small groups to discuss the latest gossip, not bothered about the pressure of work. He liked observing everyone. Their rhythms, their insecure dance. 

This was seven-months ago, when the company existed, when he had a job.

Now all he had was rent he could not afford, an ailing wife, sleepless nights and rash on his leg that he couldn’t stop himself from scratching. He had broken his skin and could smell the blood if he focused. 

Asif’s thin cotton t-shirt was sticking to him like a second skin. The A.C. produced soft ticks as if trying to come back to life. Asif had experienced the pleasant coolness dissolve into this the hot, stifling mess that the room had become. Despite his soaked t-shirt he lay still, stubborn. Angry at the injustice of it all.

“Mr. Passive aggressive”. That is what Alvira used to call him back when they he had a sense of humor. He would raise a fist while smiling a fake, goofy smile. That used to crack her up. Now he was scared of raising that fist again. It would not be a joke.

“Have I lost it? My humor?”, he thought. He knew it was a part of him that would never go away. It had just weakened under the burden of responsibilities and time. 

And it will suffocate if he continues to live this life, he thought bitterly.

“Why did you switch off the fan?”, Alvira spoke again. This time she sounded more awake than before. He knew that she would lapse into sleep in a few minutes. The drugs she had been prescribed were powerful. 

The room had to be pitch dark for her to get a good night’s sleep. He had chosen the thickest drapes for the windows. It blocked sight and sound both. Two senses for the price of one. WIth Asif’s eyes closed, there is only one place in the room which burned with a confrontational glow. An impression of a photoframe on the wall, whiter than the entire room but darker than its darkest corner. It hung there for two years to leave a mark which seems permanent now. With his eyes closed, he could imagine it glowing in neon. A square at the center of the wall.

“Even if I paint the wall black, the mark will be there”, Asif thinks, “because it is not really on the wall. It is on our hearts”. 

There was a sudden silence from below. It broke Asif’s black train of thought. 

And then, as if privy to his thoughts, it began again. The intermittent whimpering, growling that the dogs broke only to howl.

They had appeared suddenly one night. It must have been 3 am when the residents of their building woke up to their eerie song. People had left whatever they were doing and gathered at their windows and balconies expecting something bizarre. It was a crack in the daily compendium of sounds that they had become so accustomed to. Once the novelty wore off, they saw it for what it was.

Just a few animals crying. 

Mr. Singh next door thought of it as a bad omen. “Something bad will happen, mark my words”.

Asif had given a sarcastic laugh at this. Mrs. Singh, a more sensitive soul, had immediately recognized her husband’s comment as a faux pas and had nudged her husband with her sharp elbow. The couple looked strange to Asif, the masks on their faces decorated with flowers. He was sure he looked strange to them too. His mask had the cartoon character ‘Nobita’.

The residents’ reactions to the dogs was varied, as could be expected. Men had tried everything from clapping to shouting and banging brass plates loudly. These methods resulted in short welcome lulls which were broken again by even harsher howls. 

Finally, a lady took a bucket of water and poured it down on them. 

The dogs dispersed at this. There were a few claps in the honor of the woman and a few whistles. She beamed under the sudden attention and kept standing at the balcony until everyone had left. Asif thought she was trying to squeeze the situation for more accolades. Her eyes met Asif’s who was chain smoking on his balcony across her building.

Asif held her gaze, unsmiling until she looked away embarrassed.

The next time the dogs arrived, water only discouraged them for a few seconds before they congregated again. This time the lady went a step further and poured hot water over them. This evoked a mixed response as some thought of her as heartless. The only thing it did was buy the residents a bigger break. Five minutes later they were back to resume delivering their message.

Their visits were spaced out for a week or on one or two occasions, two and lasted five to ten minutes as a time.

“They can sense our disquiet” Alvira had said in one of her lucid moments. “They don’t see us on the roads anymore”.

That was one explanation.

Are there other people in the building waiting for the racket to begin? Dreading it? Asif thought why most people do not mind the dogs too much is because their sleep is not getting disturbed. They are not sleeping much, anyway. Their nightly hours devoted to either streaming channels, or feeding their social media addiction searching for  validation by strangers they will never meet.

Today, each sound was amplified because there is no din of machines. As if to illustrate this, there was a loud crash from below. The large metal dustbin had been toppled. He could hear, or he imagined it so clearly that he thought he could, Mr. Singh next door grumbling. 

Asif turned over to lie on his back. There was the dressing table right in front of the bed on the other side and he could see the window in it.

Is it closed? His mind came up with the question suddenly as if to challenge him.

Alvira sometimes opened the window for air and forgot to close it. If it is open, the mind suggested, compounding the problem, then the sound of the dogs will be too loud. She might get disturbed. Without thinking, he took off his t-shirt and got out of bed. The ruffling of the sheets at his feet and the creak of the bed sounded as alarming as someone clearing their throat in the dark.

He looked over but Alvira had gone back to sleep, her thin nightie that he once found sexy bunched around her waist. She slept with her mouth open. Someone once told him that it is a sign of a weak body. At that moment he felt a tenderness for her that he had not since years. She almost looked like a small child. 

So much like Aaliya. 

As if to brush aside this name from memory, he suddenly got up from the bed and made his way to the window.

The room was small and the floor warm with the weather. His feet expected to step on some toy, but he knew that wouldn’t happen anymore. He kept this thought strictly away as he limped to the window. 

But the reinforced bars outside were another reminder of what he was trying not to think about. “Perfect for child safety”, the contractor had said. 

Safety from heights, from falling three floors on the hard ground below, maybe. But not from a pandemic. He thought bitterly his hands clenched tight.

The dogs look are of all sizes. Some have their teeth bared and produce a guttural growling. Some stand gently observing – staring appealingly towards the building.

Aliya would have been happy staying up with him looking at the dog while Alvira slept. But then, probably Alvira had not been sleeping if Aliya was still with them.

If the dogs had not started howling at that moment, Asif would have again slipped into a despair, the kind it took him days to come back from. In a twisted way his wife’s illness had helped him – and her too, because of the strong medication it required – to keep the wolves of grief at bay. 

Alvira stirred in her bed.

“Asif, do something. The baby will wake up”

Asif’s wound itched and hurt at the same time.

“Yes, Ali. I will. Let me go down”, Asif said. 

Alvira was in a dream where her daughter was breathing hard and Asif was not listening to her. The choking sounds from the baby turned into a wail from the dog. Before her terror could overcome her sleep, the fan started whirring, the A.C. kicked into life and the refrigirator resumed its hum. The sounds had the effect that a lullaby has on a child. 

The last thing Alvira heard before she let sleep pull her deep again was the sound of teh door to her flat closing.

——–

Raghu, the homeless man around the corner was trying his best to sleep. There was no wind, not even a warm one which would help him sleep. His mind was blank, yet he was thinking of everything. He had closed his eyes just for a minute or two when he sensed something and opened them again.

There on the road was the pack of dogs again.

He had been seeing their eerie parade since a month now. The pack’s strength increased in number each time he saw them. Today there was a new one with them. 

Raghu had lowered the dirty cloth he was using as a mask and when the new dog suddenly turned its head back, he felt a chill. He instinctively drew the makeshift mask back up over his face. Raghu was not specially scared of dogs. He had been attacked by a few on his life but he remembered more instances of him kicking them then they trying to bite him.

This dog had some blood on its snout. 

Raghu’s body tensed as the dog seemed to look straight at him. The homeless man recognised something in its eyes. Something that he won’t be able to name. Raghu was scared because the dog had some blood on its snout. It suddenly whipped its head towards its left hind leg and bit itself. Raghu then realised that the dog had been limping and it was bleeding from its leg . It had been injured but there was still a happy determination in it.

As if he had found home. 

Then, as if, the dog had never turned around, turned back and resumed his journey.

In the morning when Raghu told this to everyone, they laughed at him. His friends insisted that he must have seen a dream. Raghu argued with them initially but as his worries shifted to where his next meal would come from, he forgot about them.

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