The Puppet Master

We are ecstatic to post a brand new short story written by Asma Al Jailani. This is the piece she sent in for the ADIBF & The National Short story competition. We hope you enjoy it

Whenever Shaden walked into a room, not much made sense.

No one could pinpoint why she had that affect. Brain activity becomes minimal, thought-waves are disrupted.

Something about her presence makes the air crackle, pulse into life and people just glaze over with the rush of her energy.

It was an unnatural pull, and like any pleasant buzz, when it dies, things came into perspective and you wish you swam against the Shaden-current when you had the chance.

After my first collision with the Shaden phenomena back in third grade, I made it my mission to swim as far as I can from the pulsating whirlpool (that and getting good grades). I thought I was safely going to graduate and end up in a college so far away, Shaden would be a nightmare long forgotten.

But before that, it couldn’t get any further than a job at the pet store.

———

“Hungry, Christopher?” I cooed, gently placing the seed cup at the edge of the African grey parrot’s cage. Its beautiful feathers ruffled slightly. It shifted, suspiciously eying my hand. Clearly, I was crossing an invisible border, a familair territory. Despite the breech, I was graced with 15 seconds of escape before he decided what to do to me—most like steal a bone. The one three assistants ago wasn’t so lucky.

I smiled as he edged closer to the cup and started nibbling. “You better take notes, Jassem,” I said. “He’ll need someone that understands him.”

At the back of the store, one of the empty cages moved. “It’s just a stupid bird,” he grumbled.

“Stupid!” squawked Christopher, his beady eyes shrewdly fixated towards Jassem.

The empty cage swiped aside, revealing a young tanned face, scowling.

“Stop it,” growled Jassem.

“Stupid!” growled the bird.

Animal and human glared at each other.

“Oh-kay, why don’t we focus on the next task,” I said nervously. “Come on, Jassem. Put that cage down. I think its fish tank duty.”

His appreciation of fish tank duty was summed up in one act: a long, suffering groan. He followed anyway. We moved to the other end of the store, where the huge tanks were. The odor became intense, a fusion of seawater and an overwhelming smell of sea creatures.

Jassem choked.

I rolled my eyes at him. “C’mon. You’re fourteen, practically a man in some cultures. You can take this.”

“Fourteen year-olds,” he mumbled, “should be out playing football all summer.” After a few moments, he adjusted to breathing through his mouth.

I smiled, and picked up the sponge and bucket. “Why are you here if you hate it that much?”

Jassem did the same, winced as he spotted a mysterious green patch on his sponge, and flailed it about. “My dad. Something about responsibility.”

“Smart dad.”

Jassem snorted in response, then he asked. “So…how did you decide?”

“Hm?”

“Becoming a vet,” he explained. “How did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?”

I took a moment to think it over, trying to pinpoint where in my life did it click for me. I settled for a short answer. “Childhood full of animals,” I said with a shrug.

“That’s surprising,” he replied dryly.

As soon as we opened the tank lid, the door rattled open. Voices drifted in, hushed at first. The hush was punctuated with sudden laughter.

Jassem and I exchanged looks.

“I thought you put the sign,” I said, realizing a second later that it wasn’t the right tone. Men or not, fourteen year olds are as jumpy as teenage girls.

“I did!” he said defensively.

“Okay,” I said calmly. “Maybe they didn’t read it.” I glanced regretfully at the algae filled tank. “I’ll shoo them out. Maybe you can start without me?”

“Fat chance.”

I put down my bucket and made my way to the door. Laughter was now reduced to giggling. People wandering in wasn’t an unusual occurrence during lunch hour. Still, you’d hope they would actually read signs on the glass pane once in a while.

Before rounding the pile of empty cages, I called out, “Excuse me! The shop is on a lunch break until—“

Words failed me when I recognized who they were. Plenty of high school graduates were roaming free this summer before hunkering down on the years that counted the most. It wasn’t their listless, bored expressions sucked all words out of my mouth.

Well, it kind of was.

With all my efforts to stay clear of her until I left for vet school next week, someone up there must have thought to send me a farewell gift. Because I was now staring at the listless and bored expression of Shaden.

And, I swear at that moment, the lights flickered for a second. The three around her, two guys and a girl, had that familiar dazed look. I’ve seen enough of those to recognize it at first glance. Shaden herself wasn’t glazed— she never was. She had the sharpest hazel eyes I’ve ever seen. She was pretty, with a aquiline nose, and lush lips. That might have added a couple of wattage to her charm. She certainly eclipsed the presence of her lackeys—er, friends.

My instinct, as soon as I processed this, was to run. But responsibility took over. I couldn’t leave the store unattended. Or rather, I couldn’t leave Jassem unattended in the store. I opted for the second best option. I strode to where the litter sacks were. This defense will have to do.

“Oh someone’s here,” she said when she caught sight of me. Her voice, as always, had that ‘must be heard’ quality. Her cronies snapped to attention, and as one, glanced my way.

I swallowed. “Hi Shaden,” I said, willing my voice not to waver. I’m immune, I told myself. I can do this. “The shop owner is on a break, so we’re not open right now. You can come by in 30 minutes.” I thought I delivered it pretty well. Unfortunately, whatever I said didn’t seem to sit well with her.

She made a show of deliberating, eyeing the ceiling, the other cages, before settling her eyes on me. “We weren’t going to stay long. Maybe just a tour?” She smiled, her lips quirked in a way that promised that whatever she had in mind, it’ll be more than a tour. It’ll may be a riot.

That’s the look that sucks everyone in. Just with that look, something in the air twisted between us, and for a second, I almost relented.

Almost.

“Nope,” I said hastily. “Sorry.  Can’t do that.”

She frowned. Clearly it’s not often that someone denies Shaden what she wants. “Just a fast walk around,” she said slowly, enunciating her words.

A chill ran up my arms. If I said no a second time, there would be no predicting what she’ll do next. It took me a couple of seconds to calculate which were the lesser of two evils before I opened my mouth to say no. My answer was interrupted by a disgruntled voice.

“What’s taking so long?”

Jassem.

I hadn’t exactly forgotten about him, but I hoped he’d forgotten about me and played with the puppies or something. It was the only thing he tolerated around here.

But no. He was coming up the cage aisle now.

“Are they gone ye—” He stopped when he saw them. Shaden and her group spotted him too. She glanced between him and me, and I could almost see the cogs in her head whirring.

“Hey there,” she smiled at him. And waved.

Jassem’s eyes widened. “Um…hi.”

A sense of panic overtook me. There was no way Jassem could resist her charms. I faltered a few seconds before blurting, “Jassem, they were just leaving. Go back to the fish tank.”

It was like my words fell on deaf ears. Jassem was still rooted where he was. Shaden’s cronies were still staring at the location Shaden was staring. And Shaden (pointedly ignoring me) had her predatory eyes set on Jassem.

She smiled innocently at him. “We just wanted a tour of the place.”

A small expression cracked Jassem’s stupefied face. “There isn’t much to see here.”

Good boy, I thought. There’s still hope.

With a small half shrug, she made a move to turn. A move to leave. The air around her shifted, slowly turning her friends with her. They moved as one.

I held my breath.

She posed to push open the door.

“Wait!”

I turned to look at Jassem in horror, and groaned at the signature glazed look on his face.

“We have a new snake. In a snake tank. Pretty big one.”

Shaden turned to him again, this time her smile huge. “Show me.”

“Jassem,” I hissed warningly.

He gave her a shy smile, and pointed at the general direction of the backroom. The room where only staff can enter. Not even interns can enter.

As we all pooled into the room, one of Shaden’s friend’s switched on the lights. It was a typical office—paper-piled desk, a couple of pictures, no stuffed animals, mercifully.

Just a tank with a dark, coiled snake in it. We all walked closer. It didn’t seem to be moving, but the sight of it was terrifying—the luminescent scales under the light, the thick muscles ready to squeeze the life out of its prey. I shuddered.

Shaden leaned in, her own eyes glimmering with excitement. “It is huge,” she breathed.

“I told you,” gloated Jassem. I glared at him.

“I think everyone should leave now,” I said, and to punctuate the command, I grabbed the nearest Shaden-follower—the girl—and with a force I wasn’t aware of, swept her out the door. I only caught her shocked expression, her glossed lips forming an ‘O’ at the unexpected move. It was the first expression I’ve seen anywhere near Shaden. The whole thing took a few seconds, and I turned to grab the next minion. That’s when I saw Jassem reaching for the tank lid.

“Jassem!”

His head whipped at my direction, a guilty look on his face. “She…she wants to touch it.”

“No.” And because I wasn’t sure the first time was enough, I snapped loudly, “No!”

“Come on, Jassem,” a sweet voice said. Shaden tilted her head, eyes narrowed, but seeming to devour him. “Just a touch.”

You can call me delusional, maybe even crazy. But I could see the strings pull and ease around Jassem.

Like just Ghada in third grade—Ghada who was so sweet and kind, her small hands dipping into the teacher’s desk drawer for the answer booklet but grabbing a lighter instead, which was far more interesting for Shaden. All the while senselessly smiling at Shaden.

Just like Jassem was now.

His hand went on to rest on the lid. To give him some credit, there was some hesitation. But only some. Then he opened the lid.

Shaden’s hazel eyes gleamed.

Stupid boy.

Author: Asma Al Jailani

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