Kenshin rushed down the corridor, making his way towards his cell, exchanging respectful nods as he passed the heavily armed men dressed from head to toe in army green uniforms. His heavy boots clash against the dirt path in steady rhythm, controlling his expression and poise to not give away a sense of urgency.
As he closed the door of his cell behind him, he released a sigh of relief. Relief was quickly replaced by a surge of guilt once he realised how late he was. Two hours late, to be precise. He was stopped by his superior after a raid in a village 50 miles down south, pulling him away from his troop. Anxiety rippled through him like a wave, he could clearly hear the beat of his heart against his eardrum. The prospect of finding his secret got out worried him terribly. His mind was put at ease upon finding out his General simply wanted a progress report. However, he could not stop thinking of the menacing glee that creeped on the General’s face as he asked about the death count of the villagers.
Returning to his grey-washed cell granted him a certain serenity, knowing well that behind these walls, no blood would spill and taint these hands. His conscious would be put on ease, before having to return to the brutality of one’s reality he had to face. It was also mainly due to the fact he had a friend to keep him company.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are”, he said in a hushed whisper. His words hung in the air as he awaited a response. “I’m really sorry, I know I’m late”. Finally, a soft creak breaks the silence. Between the crack of the wardrobe, lay a pair of peering dark orbs, unapproaching. Kenshin stretched his arm out, calling the creature hiding in the shadows to come towards him, but to no avail.
“Fine then, I guess I’ll have to eat this all on my own,” he flashed a teasing grin. He then proceeded to unfold a fragrant banana leaf, exposing the treasure that laid within the wrap, a harmony of shredded chicken, roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes. Beyond the closet doors, the soft growl of a hungry stomach was heard. Kenshin waited a few seconds, but she continued to hold her ground. Scooping up a spoonful of mashed potatoes, he directed it an inch away from his lips, knowing very well it was her favourite food.
“No…” a soft voice called out. The door creaked open wider, revealing the Malay toddler that was concealed within it. Her lips remained pout, but she could not resist the temptation. She got up and with arms outstretched, slowly stumbled towards Kenshin. A sense of pride surged throughout him as he watched the young girl’s stride.
“How did you learn how to walk so fast? You’re so smart” he praised, flashing a proud grin. At this point, the edge of the girl’s lips tugged slightly upwards. She wasn’t one to give in very easily though. Her stubbornness was made obvious, a clear indicator that she has yet to forgive him for his tardiness. She took a seat at the farthest edge of the banana leaf from Kenshin. She made sure that she didn’t make eye contact with him as she took her first bite of the day.
“Come on, Salma…” he pleaded. She was named after the name on the letters in the house where he found her, crying under the bed, wrapped in a batik print fabric. “You and I both know I’d much rather spend all my time with you”.
She still didn’t budge. So he initiated Plan B. He got up and walked towards his backpack. Slipping his hands in, he rummaged through the pockets for the one item that was guaranteed to appeal to any child her age. A small candy bar he found during one of the raids a few days. He felt a pang of guilt as he remembered how he pried it out of a young boy’s hands as his team members gunned his entire family down. As far as he knows, the boy is still alive and serving the army as a slave.
After double checking the pockets, he finally felt the sheen plastic material against his fingertips. He fished it out, only to find that it was already emptied. He raised his head and looked at Salma. Her lips remained pout but this time her eyebrows curved upwards instead of furrowed. He could see the guilt that was evident on the young girl’s face.
“It’s okay. Come here,” he called out. His arms stretched out once again, inviting her in. But this time she accepts and starts crying onto his chest. Having her in his arms reminded him of his own. His daughter was about her age when he got drafted into the army. He couldn’t think of anything more he wanted to do than have her in his arms again. He wonders how big she’s gotten ever since he left her.
He wondered if Salma’s real parents feel the same way every day, thought Kenshin. “I promise,” he whispered to the weeping toddler, “one day you will safely reunite with your family. Even if it means I have to hide you away in my closet until I find them”.