8:00 AM, 1st March 2018
“Hurry up, Zara! The train will be here any minute!” Nadia admonished her eight-year-old.
“The train will be approaching platform A in two minutes,” the public announcement system sounded, as the platform teemed with commuters.
Nadia tried to catch Zara’s eye. Zara scowled and turned her head away. After the meltdown they had had earlier this morning, this behaviour wasn’t unexpected.
“Zara, we are late. Eat your breakfast.”
“I don’t like it, mummy. It tastes like sticky goo!”
“Stop making my life miserable! As it is, it’s bad enough!”
Zara’s eyes had welled, and she clammed up. Why do we hurt the ones we love? Nadia knew that she ought to have a conversation with her child, but there was no time. Perhaps in the evening? Unlikely. She was exhausted most of the days and could barely drag herself to bed.
Nadia felt the vibrations of the approaching train. Commuters assumed warrior-stance positions to board. Singapore’s public transport was efficient, but the mornings required a special brand of grit to secure a footing.
Nadia’s eyes fell on the signboard that said Bras Basah station. She had loved watching trains as a child. Papa would bring her to the station every day. It was their thing. He had named her after the Romanian Gymnast, Nadia Comăneci, who scored a perfect ten in the Olympics.
“Nadia baby, you are perfect!” Papa would beam with pride.
Over the years, the perfect girl became the perfect disappointment. She eloped with a man Papa did not approve of and he cut all ties with her. He died heartbroken, a few years later. Time had proven that his apprehensions about her husband, now ex, were not unfounded.
The doors of the train opened. Zara refused to hold Nadia’s hand as they pushed through the sea of humans. Suddenly, Nadia’s heel snapped. She bent down to fix it. It took a second longer than she anticipated. When she stood up, Zara was already on the train. Nadia was about to get in, when the automated glass doors shut firmly in her face, denying her entry.
Nadia froze as Zara watched her with big, frightened eyes, her face pressed against the glass. She tried banging on the glass, praying that by some magic the doors would open. The people inside were glued to their phones, oblivious to the hustle and bustle outside.
Her heart began to sink as the train picked pace and started moving out of the station.
Nadia ran alongside the train on the platform. Suddenly, her feet gave away, and the world went black.
Nadia opened her eyes. There was a woman in uniform, bending over her.
“Are you alright, Ma’am? You fainted.”
Zara’s face came to her mind.
“My daughter boarded the train. She is young and hasn’t travelled alone before. She doesn’t have a phone. She is wearing a blue pinafore with a white shirt. Please help!”
“I will contact the train captain. The train has just arrived at Dhoby Ghat station. Station staff will enter the train and search all compartments for your child. We will also call her name over the announcement system. While uncommon, this has happened before, and all children have been located. Please get on the next train and head over to Dhoby Ghat. Stay calm.”
Nadia nodded shakily.
How had this morning gone so bad so quickly? Why couldn’t the universe cut her some slack for a change?
“Madam, we have combed the length of the train. There was no unaccompanied child matching your description. We can’t hold the train; it will cause disruption during peak. We will keep transmitting announcements. We will also have staff search the train and adjacent stations. In the meantime, please file a police report.”
Nadia dissolved into a fresh pool of tears. Where was her little angel?
“We will retrieve CCTV footage from the station. Do you have a picture of Zara?”
Nadia’s hands shook as she unlocked her phone and looked for a photo. She found one of Zara, her brown eyes twinkling, looking like a miniature version of herself, from a lifetime ago. She handed it over to the staff.
Her eyes were hazy with tears, and she collided with an elderly man, sending his suitcase flying.
“I’m sorry. I’m searching for my missing daughter,” she sniffled.
“If you need any help, contact me.”
He handed her his card.
Dr. David Yak, Neuroscientist.
Nadia looked up at him, confused.
“Search within yourself for answers.”
Nadia rushed away as fast as she could. The old man must be batty. She called work to inform them that she wouldn’t be in today. They said they understood.
As if anyone could fathom the hellfire that burned within.
Nadia sat anxiously in the police station as Officer Lee explained things.
“We reviewed the CCTV footage from the station. We see a little girl matching your description getting off the train at Dhoby Ghat. She wasn’t being forcefully led by anyone. “
“Why would she run off on her own?” Nadia wondered aloud.
“The station is huge with different platforms and different levels. We are trying to find out which exit she took. We will also circulate missing person’s posters.”
Lee cleared his throat uncomfortably.” Is there anyone who would kidnap her?’”
“No! My ex didn’t even fight for custody. He just took off and left Singapore years ago. It’s always been just me and her. Who would want to kidnap her?”
Human traffickers. Criminals. Perverts. That’s who. Officer Lee worried silently.
“Madam, I suggest you try looking for Zara at her favourite hangout spots. Always keep your phone with you in case she tries to call you through someone else. The next seventy-two hours are critical. I promise you that I will do everything in my capacity to find her.”
Nadia was distraught with grief. The soles of her shoes had given away, and her throat was parched. She had spent six hours, in and around the station calling out Zara’s name. The neighbours said she hadn’t returned home, either. There was no news yet from the police.
Nadia did something that she hadn’t done in a long time. She chanted the words of a prayer long forgotten. Her tired feet dragged her to the lane adjacent to the station; a residential area dotted with houses.
Her head felt giddy. She couldn’t remember when she had last eaten. The world went black, again.
Nadia woke up on a sofa. Standing in front of her was the elderly man she had bumped into earlier. Dr. Yak.
His wrinkled face and bushy eyebrows displayed concern. On the wall behind him hung shiny glossy certificates proclaiming his accolades.
“Did you follow me?” she accused.
“On the contrary, you collapsed in front of my gate. You look dehydrated. Here! Drink this.”
He thrust a juice-box into her hand. She gulped it down.
“Did you hear from your daughter yet? Did they check the train?”
“She ran out of the station. It’s my fault. I made her feel unloved and unwanted.”
A fresh wave of sobs engulfed her.
“All who wander are not lost,” Dr. Yak muttered cryptically.
Nadia glanced at her phone; it was at four percent charge.
“May I borrow a charger? I don’t want to miss any calls.”
“Sure. Charging will take time though. In the meantime, will you hear me out?”
Nadia weighed her options. She was stuck here for the next hour till her phone charged. The man didn’t seem to be a predator and looked like he genuinely wanted to help her. Why not give him a chance?
“I’m a neuroscientist and I have dedicated my life to studying brain waves. I have invented an Augmented Reality System that can feed information into the brain causing it to simulate scenarios. It’s still in the trial stage and is called Augmented Reality Outcome Simulator or AROS.
The human brain is complex. Miniscule, subtle details are embedded into the realms of subconsciousness. AROS magnifies these details in the virtual world you experience. The simulation could be from any point in life- past, present, future- but that is decided entirely by how your brain processes my input triggers. We cannot predict what outcome you will see, but the information you gather may help you find your daughter. Perhaps something your child told you earlier. Perhaps a tiny detail in the station that you aren’t recalling now. Perhaps a stranger hovering too close in that compartment.
Imagine losing your key, and then embarking on a treasure hunt to find that key, with clues being provided by your brain.”
Strangely, parts of what he said made sense to Nadia.
“How long does a simulation take?”
“Simulations are not recommended for more than thirty minutes; else the lines start to blur. Time follows a different dimension within the simulation. You could be in a virtual world for months, but in the real world, only thirty minutes would have elapsed.”
“How do I know you aren’t trying something funny?”
“You have my word.”
“I’m messaging Officer Lee your address. If he doesn’t hear from me after an hour, he will come down and isn’t going to buy your hocus-pocus.”
Dr. Yak didn’t seem concerned. He led her into an adjacent room and asked her to sit on a reclining chair. He attached electrodes to her head.
“I’m going to ask you to close your eyes. Focus on the point in time when you lost your daughter. To exit the simulation, you need to find me in the virtual world, OK?”
She closed her eyes. Would this work?
Nadia stood at Bras Basah station. The train had just arrived. She glanced at her reflection in the glass and gasped. A woman with a gaunt look and greying hair stared back at her. How had she aged a decade?
She asked a nearby commuter,
“Sir, what is the date today?”
He looked at her, curiously.
Her simulation had taken her into the future!
The train doors opened, and Nadia boarded the crowded compartment. The reserved seat was occupied by a young man pretending to be asleep. Some things never changed.
The train was about to shut its doors when someone managed to squeeze through in the nick of time. She looked twenty-ish, sporting red-coloured hair, tattoos, and piercings.
“Excuse me! You are in the reserved space,” red-head snarled at the man who monopolized the seat. He opened his eyes and yelled obscenities at her. Red-head returned the slurs with such viciousness, that the man left in haste.
“Aunty, you can sit there.” She pointed at the vacated seat.
“Thank you. What is your name?” Nadia inquired politely.
Nadia stared at her in wonder. The same brown eyes. The dimple on the left cheek. Her baby, a grown woman! Zara noticed Nadia staring.
“My daughter’s name is Zara too,” Nadia offered in way of explanation.
Zara turned around, pulled out a pair of earphones, and began listening to music, ignoring Nadia. After thirty minutes, she alighted at a station near the seedy Geylang neighbourhood.
Nadia followed her from a distance, taking care not to be spotted by her.
It was getting dark, and the alleys were deserted. The streetlights cast long shadows on the ground. Nadia rubbed her eyes. Two seconds ago, Zara was ahead of her. But now, she seemed to have vanished. Again!
She continued her search and bumped directly into her object of pursuit. Zara confronted her angrily.
“What’s your game? You have been following me for a while. I’m stronger than you and I will punch you if you pull a fast one.”
“You remind me of my daughter.”
“A stalker? Stay away!”
“Do you remember your mother?”
“My mother abandoned me at a train station when I was eight. She is dead to me!”
Nadia grimaced. Was that the version in this world? She watched Zara’s retreating form with a sinking heart.
She seemed to be losing her daughter in every version.
“What do we have here?”
A bare-chested, stocky man with tattoos had appeared. He had a sneer on his face. The by-lanes of Geylang were notorious for gang crimes.
Nadia screamed. Undeterred, the man came closer.
“Hand over your money.”
She closed her eyes. If she died here, would she return to the present?
She never got the answer to that question, because there was a loud thud, and the man sat on the ground, holding his head, wincing in pain. Zara stood with a rod clutched to her hand.
Nadia didn’t need to be told twice. They ran away as fast as they could. When they were at a safe distance and had caught their breath, Zara asked, “do you have a place to stay?”
Nadia shook her head.
“You can crash with me tonight but leave in the morning. I’m taking a risk with a stranger.”
“I would never hurt you.”
“Said every serial killer.”
Nadia grinned. “Why did you come back for me?” she pressed gently.
“I hate abandoning people. Déjà vu, you know.”
Zara led them to a rundown apartment that had seen better days. She fished out her keys and unlocked it. Dirty clothes, unwashed pots, paper wrappers, and tattered bedsheets greeted them. Nadia squirmed.
“I have some left-over noodles that you can eat. Sleep on the couch in the corner. I head to work at eight.”
Zara reached the store where she worked as a cashier, the next morning. She narrated the incidents of the previous night to her friend Michelle.
“I woke up today and thought I had been kidnapped! The apartment was sparkling clean. All my clothes folded. And guess what? She even made breakfast for me.”
“My thoughts, exactly. She wants to stay with me till she finds her daughter, who ran away from home. My landlord doesn’t need to know. I could use someone who can cook and clean for free.”
“Wait, does that lady have grey-brown hair?”
“She is here.”
Nadia walked into the store to make some purchases. Thankfully, she had withdrawn cash the day before. The day before, twelve years ago, to be precise.
“I thought I could restock some food and detergent.”
Michelle looked at Zara.
“Can I adopt Aunty?”
The same nightmare. A little girl, left behind at the train station.
“Zara! Honey, wake up!”
Zara stirred. It was Nadia.
“You were having a nightmare. Here, have some water.”
Zara took small sips.
“My mother…she used to give me water,” she sobbed as Nadia rubbed circles on her back.
“Why did she leave me?”
“Perhaps she was fighting her demons. Perhaps she wasn’t strong enough. Perhaps she didn’t realize you would be affected.”
“They told me she died afterward. For years, I bounced about foster homes. At one place, foster-daddy wanted to feel me up. At another, foster-mummy starved me and beat me up.”
Nadia held Zara close to her, tears flowing down her cheeks.
“I’m sure your mother loved you very much. Forgive her if you can.”
Zara drifted back into an uneasy sleep. Nadia didn’t.
“What do you remember of your mother?”
Nadia asked quietly, as she applied oil onto Zara’s hair.
“Not much. My father took off before I was born, and it shattered her. She worked hard to keep things going but was always angry and tired.”
There was a loud knocking on the door. It was the landlord, a middle-aged man with an unpleasant face.
“Why are two people staying here?” he demanded.
“That’s my mother. She is visiting,” lied Zara.
“Well, I need extra from you. In cash or kind.” He looked at her leeringly.
“In your dreams!” she replied coolly.
“How dare you proposition my daughter like this! Have you no shame?” Nadia spluttered indignantly.
Her high-pitched voice was already attracting curious neighbours. The man went red in the face. He scurried away after warning them to pay up soon.
Would Zara be upset about the extra cost?
Nadia turned around fearfully.
“No one has ever stood up for me like this. Thank you!” Zara whispered, so softly that she almost missed it.
“I’m sorry ….”
“I can handle him. Let’s go and eat ice cream to alter the mood!”
“There is a quaint place near Boat Quay that sells the best flavours. I used to go there with my daughter. I haven’t been there for a long time.”
An hour later, they stood at Boat Quay, licking ice-creams by the underpass.
“The sign at the shop is inspiring!” Zara exclaimed as she pointed it out.
Sometimes the wrong train leads you to the right station.
“Why are we here again?” Zara asked, as they turned into the lane by Dhoby Ghat station.
“To see Dr. Yak. He knows how to find my daughter.”
Zara’s face fell.
“You have been with me for over a month now, and for the first time, I felt like I had a mother. It was as though a part of me was learning to heal and forgive my real mother. I hope you won’t forget me when you find your Zara.”
“You and her, aren’t that different, you know.”
“Ladies, there you are! We have limited time. Come soon!” A voice boomed.
Dr. Yak looked even older and more gnarled than before. But he remembered.
“What’s going on?”
Zara demanded, as Dr. Yak strapped Nadia to the chair and attached electrodes.
“A simulation. This will help Nadia return to her present.”
Zara looked perplexed. Nadia held her hand.
“I messed up, but I will find you, Zara, always. Every path and prayer of mine leads to you, darling. My strong, beautiful girl. This is not your life. You will have a good life. I will make sure it happens.”
She closed her eyes.
Nadia woke up with a start, to see Dr. Yak hovering around her. To her relief, the calendar confirmed that it was March 2018.
“Welcome back! The simulation lasted for twenty-nine minutes and thirty seconds. “
“I found Zara. Where is she?” Nadia looked around frantically.
“That’s not how it works. This isn’t a time machine.”
“I went into the future.”
“I learned for the first time, how much Zara was hurting, deep down. She felt that I didn’t love her at all. My misery had blinded me. I can’t let that version of childhood be her reality. I have to find her and right my wrongs!”
She anxiously checked her phone. No updates from Officer Lee.
“The simulation didn’t help me find her, Dr. Yak!”
“You found yourself, though. Sometimes the wrong train can lead to the right station!”
“Instead of speaking in enigmatic sentences…..wait, Oh!” Something struck Nadia.
“Dr. Yak, do you drive?”
A little while later, they were at Boat Quay, by the underpass. Nadia walked around nervously. The ice cream shop was still in the corner, its paint looking much newer than its simulated version.
“Mummy?” a feeble cry.
There she was! Her darling angel crouched in a corner.
“I’m sorry. I was so angry with you this morning. I walked out of the station, got lost, and ended up walking all the way here. I was scared you would be angry and didn’t want to approach a stranger to call you.”
“It’s OK baby, I got you.”
She hugged her child.
“I’m sorry, darling. After your father left, I wallowed in self-pity. I couldn’t believe that after all I gave up to be with him, he would just walk out. I didn’t realize how damaging my behaviour was to you, or how I vented my frustrations out on you. I have to do better. For you. For us. I will do whatever it takes. “
Nadia rubbed soothing circles on Zara’s back and lifted her teary eyes to the sky in gratitude.
Dr. Yak felt his heart melting. Such a touching scene! But one had to get back to business.
“May I ask you to fill feedback forms for AROS, please?”
Nadia wanted to go home, so she politely refused. She thanked him and left, holding Zara’s hand tightly. She would never lose her little girl again.
Dr. Yak typed away.
Case number 76 concluded positively; mother and child reunited.
He was a few cases short of hitting his target of hundred, after which he would patent AROS. He shifted his attention to his newest prospect.
Case number 77 is an aspiring writer, subject-name ‘L’. Of late, ‘L’ is affected by the challenges of the literary world and is losing faith. Simulation desired to revive confidence.
Dr. Yak chewed on the tip of his pencil. Writers were dangerous people, their minds very complex. But then again, AROS had to be stress-tested to demonstrate robustness.
He would take up this case.
This was first published on www.penmancy.com. The link is here.