Awful Shadow, ch. 3: Aadhya Verma

Monitoring: Aadhya Verma
Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

3:25 p.m. India Standard Time
Saturday, May 10th, 2014
9:55 Coordinated Universal Time
Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Fast forward–

There are two hundred and thirty-three shopping malls in Amedebad. Obviously, they were not all created equal, but even at two or three new malls a week, and return trips to the malls that she really likes, she hasn’t exhausted the good ones yet. Her favorite so far is AlphaOne, but she’s taking it slow, only visiting every other week, to make sure that she doesn’t become unwelcome here. The food court alone has some dishes that are to die for.

She feels a little wrong for sitting here, eating good food that costs too much, but it’s necessary. It’s a cover. Aadhya has to walk around, be seen spending her time and even buying stuff, like any ordinary mall patron, or she’s going to look out of place and even if nobody can actually pin anything on her, they might kick her out on suspicion alone. The fact that the bread bowls at this restaurant are so good is just delicious, slightly guilt-inducing icing on the cake.

After the final bit of bread is gone, folded over and swept over the rest of the garlic chutney and resting happily in her stomach, it’s time for work. There’s this clothing place that she’s visited before, just scouting it out in the process of providing cover for her previous business trips to the mall, and it feels like time to collect their donation to the Aadhya Verma Famine Relief Fund.

Aadhya takes her time, nearly floating from rack to rack as she brushes her fingers against fine silk and holds the most extravagant dresses in front of a mirror. She wishes that she could say that it’s fun, but she’s not nearly as interested in clothes as some of her friends are. It isn’t like she’s actually buying anything, but it would be suspicious if she just walked in and right back out again. Lately something has been nagging at her, like she’s missing an important detail. It’s making her nervous and doubly cautious.

After around half an hour, she’s finally worked her way to the dresses that she’s been aiming for this whole time. She’d already cased the place, so to speak, by looking at their online catalog and seeing what they had in stock. These are some fine-looking dresses, with beaded fringes that even Aadhya has to admit looks pretty nice, but what really matters is the price.

Jewelry, electronics, cosmetics, alcohol, and yes, clothing… When she started shoplifting earlier this year, she did so for the thrill of it. Having nice things for once was, well, nice, but she couldn’t use them in the open or people would question where she’d gotten it. But there was no danger in it, which killed the fun pretty quickly. She’s got a trick around all that.

There’s this little “no-space,” as Aadhya has taken to calling it, floating around her or attached to her body or something. She can slip objects into it. After shoplifting got boring, which happened pretty quickly, she went through the motions for a couple of weeks afterwards. At first she was unaware that she’d stopped having fun and then she was hoping that if she just kept it up then things would change, somehow. At last, though, she had to sit down in front of the mirror and be honest with herself. Trying to enjoy theft when she couldn’t be caught was as pointless as getting clothing that she couldn’t actually wear.

Aadhya thought, briefly, about selling drugs, but she didn’t care all that much about the money and, more to the point, she didn’t have the slightest clue about how to begin in a safe fashion, and there was a difference between the kind of risk that was exciting and the kind that was extremely liable to end with her dead body being dumped in an alley somewhere. As the days wore on her boredom turned to depression: everything that she had done so far was frivolous. In that mood, her next trip to the mall was cast under a different light, and she saw that everyone else was frivolous too. The mall reminded her of a filthy kitchen floor teeming with ants, moving every which way with meaningless hurry.

Aadhya stopped shoplifting. She stopped doing well in her classes, too. The counselor was patient enough to deal with the vagueness of her responses and got to bottom of her problem. If her actions were meaningless, then they needed to point to something. She needed to accomplish something with an immediate, visible benefit. The counselor suggested volunteering at a soup kitchen, but she got frustrated with the lack of funds and general inefficiency pretty quickly and got a better idea. She quit working at the soup kitchen after two weekends and took up shoplifting once again.

It could be called a strike against the whole capitalist system or playing at being Phoolan Devi and waging a one-girl war against the rich, albeit with considerably less gang warfare and (hopefully) assassination attempts. Or maybe it’s just another way of keeping herself busy. Aadhya is forthright enough to admit to herself that she doesn’t exactly have a full ideology worked out here. Just, there are people who need food, these clothes can be resold at a decent price, and with that money she can buy food for the people who need it. She can make an ideology later.

Rolling and folding the dresses proceeds like an automatic process. Reach, roll, fold, vanish, and repeat. Her no-space isn’t that big, just eight liters of volume, so room is at a premium and she has to pack it in as tightly as possible. All the while, as she does this, she scans around to make sure that she isn’t attracting attention. There’s nothing that could be done to actually prove that she’s stealing anything, as demonstrated by the times that she’s been all but literally strip searched, but once that happens she isn’t likely to be welcome at that mall again.

These actions are all like second nature to her now, so that she’s genuinely surprised to reach out for another dress and find that the first one is still in her hands. Aadhya freezes, then forces herself to keep moving and all in all act as normally as possible as she tries to figure out who she overlooked. Aadhya can’t access the no-space when someone, anyone, is watching, and repeated failed attempts to send her headband to the no-space are evidence that whoever was looking at her before, still is. This wasn’t an ill-timed glance that passed over her, but something longer.

It takes a moment, but out of the corner of her eye she spots a boy, a teenager like herself, eyeing her from behind a coat rack. Hands trembling a little, she sets back the clothing that she was looking at and makes a beeline for the door. It doesn’t matter whether it’ll set off alarm bells in another guard’s mind. Aadhya’s already been made by one store detective, and at this point the headband trick is useless because there are a dozen other people who can see her but she still feels like she’s being watched, all the same.

Maybe she’s overreacting, but it isn’t until the bus drops her off that she feels truly at ease. Even so, she heads inside quickly, where she can empty the loot into her closet, where it’ll stay for a couple of months before she puts it on eBay. The obvious thing to do is sell it right away, so Aadhya hopes that by holding onto anything that she’s stolen, she can stay under the radar. She doesn’t know if there’s a store out there with a program that checks eBay and secondhand stores against unexpectedly missing merchandise, and she doesn’t want to find out the hard way. With the dresses hidden, she moves to food preparation.

Someone knocks at the door. Aadhya isn’t expecting company, but maybe one of the neighbors needs something. She looks through the peephole and opens the door for…nobody at all. Not a soul.

Aadhya suddenly feels like she’s missing something again.

The house phone rings. She ignores it. There’s no sound to signal a voicemail.

Stealing food in bulk might have been an option if Aadhya could fit more into her no-space, but because it isn’t she has to go for the less efficient process of stealing things so that she can sell them for money to buy the food with. One good thing about the limitation is that she had to think about being effective with her gains, and that got her thinking about cost-effective foods. Aadhya had some other ideas at first but knew enough to see if anyone had better ones.

Another call. Her parents would leave a voicemail, and her caller doesn’t, so it can’t be anyone important.

What she’s working on now is an oat porridge that somebody came up with late last year. Besides the oat flour, she adds maltodextrin, whey protein, and olive pomace oil, all of which she buys in bulk. It isn’t gourmet, but she’s trying to fill bellies and the important thing is that the porridge is cheap and nutritious.

For the third time, the phone rings, and Aadhya can’t help but wonder at it. Telemarketers don’t do that, she’s pretty sure. As the phone continues to ring off the hook, one call followed by another, her confusion gives way to fear. What if it’s the store, or the police?

They can’t prove anything. Aadhya’s pretty sure of that. But what if–

“Will you please pick up the phone?”

Aadhya startles, and the bottle of olive oil slips from her hands. Slowly, she turns around. There’s another girl there, standing at the edge of the kitchen. The phone is still ringing.

“H-How’d you get in here?”

“You let me in, and then you forgot about me. I’d demonstrate for you, but for all you know, I’ve done that a hundred times already.” She smiles. “Just pick up the phone, please? I could explain, but Ananya really enjoys making her ‘For the people of India’ pitch.”

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