By Alex Austin
For thirty minutes the footsteps followed mine, never getting louder, never getting softer.
It was the third day of my journey and I was on Karakoram Highway, which connects Pakistan with China and runs southeast to Islamabad. Behind me to the north were snow-covered peaks and on either side rocky hills, glistening streams and stands of forest. God had given me these beautiful creations as company since three days ago when I turned into a boy.
My transformation happened in a cornfield only a few miles from my husband’s house. Sitting beneath the growing stalks, I cut off my hair and exchanged my salwar kameez for a boy’s pants and shirt. I used my hijab to flatten my breasts, and with a good tight knot, they hardly remained. I buried my hair and clothes in the earth beneath the corn and piled on rocks for good measure.
A cap on my head and I was one of a million Pakistani boys, aged thirteen.
On the previous three nights, I slept in the wood, shivering when the winds shook the branches and showered me with pine needles, but grateful then, for the fallen needles accumulating over the years that provided me with a comfortable bed. If I found a berry bush, I’d pick it clean, but only to save money. Along the many roads I’d walked were markets where I bought my fruits and vegetables without saying a word or getting close to anyone. I feared that my girl’s voice would give me away or that my body would accidently brush another’s, and that person would detect my shape.
No more than five minutes ago, I passed a general store and gas station, and though I’d have liked to buy bread, I didn’t stop. I hoped that the person following would leave the highway to purchase something similar and reveal that my fear was unjustified.
Now I approached an intersection, where the sign indicated that the road to the right led to a nearby town. I’d avoided every municipality that I could. A few times it was impossible not to pass through these dangers, but I tried to go at midday in the heat, when people were not so alert. Men looked at me, but no more than to determine they didn’t know me, and then they looked elsewhere, for I as a boy was unimportant.
So I had to make a decision: Stay on the main road or go into the town?
If I continued on the highway, the person behind might well follow me, but I wouldn’t know if it was intentional or not. Perhaps he had a phone and had called someone who would arrive soon in a car. If I went into the town, it would be easy to see if he was really tracking me.
Or I could simply turn and look.
Mr. Snowe, who taught English and history in my school, once told us a story about a Greek named Orpheus who stopped and looked back when he shouldn’t have. For that man it did not turn out well.
A paneled truck drove by. Two men in military uniform stood with their backs against the cab. One of the soldiers stared at me, and after traveling another hundred yards, the truck pulled to the side of the road and stopped.
I didn’t want to walk forward, but I wanted to turn back less.
As I approached the parked truck, I saw that one of the two soldiers was gone. The soldier who had stared at me while driving by now stared all the harder as I walked toward the truck. I could no longer hear footsteps behind me.
“You want a ride, boy?” asked the soldier as I walked past the rear of the truck. I shook my head.
“It’s very nice up here,” said the soldier. “Come see.”
I kept my head straight forward. The bushes at the side of the road shook violently. My heart stopped. The second soldier stumbled out of the bush, buttoning his fly. He could have reached out and touched me as I skirted by him.
I heard the soldier climb up into the truck behind me.
The trucks engine revved and then fired. The truck’s black exhaust enveloped me.
“Last chance,” cried the soldier whose interest I had caught. “Come, lie down, rest.”
The truck slipped onto the highway, slowed and then picked up speed. The soldier was soon no larger than a child’s toy, and then a speck, and then nothing.
Finally breathing, I stopped and leaned against the railing at the roadside.
My marriage had arrived like a sudden storm. I was in my bedroom reading my science textbook when my father told me I was to be the wife of Sameer, a wealthy businessman whom my father sometimes worked for.
“It’s not something I intended, Sinela, but …”
I looked at a page with some helpful illustrations of a machine intact and then exploded. A car’s engine in one picture and in the next all the parts of the engine flying outward and labeled. I was now Sinela exploded. My head, my limbs, my torso, my bowels and heart were pinned to the walls of my sunlit room.
I heard another truck and looked up fearfully only to see a civilian vehicle painted in every color of the rainbow, ornamented and sculpted like some fantastic Hindu god, the depictions of which my religion forbids us to look at, but in encyclopedias many forbidden things can be seen. The truck was so strangely beautiful that I laughed and in that instant of recovery, I again heard the steps.
If it was my husband Sameer or one of his men, I would walk in front of the next passing truck.
I really would, just as I poured Drano on my face to deprive Sameer of a wife of whom he could boast. But I couldn’t contain my scream of pain at the lye’s heat, which brought my mother and father and then the milk that neutralized the acid.
After that, I was not left alone.
The steps continued.
My stomach tightened as if a doctor had sutured a big wound and was now pulling the thread tight. Look back, Sinela.
I stopped and turned around. It was a boy about my age, and dressed similarly to me. The boy took one more step and stopped. He stared at me, his head moving mockingly from side to side.
“Hello, girl,” he said.
I thought of what a boy would say. “Don’t call me a girl.”
“I have been following you for almost a day. I know you are a girl.”
“Why have you been following me?”
He took another step toward me.
“Stay away,” I said.
The boy laughed. “Are you going to beat me up, girl?” I wanted to tell him how I had not long ago bashed in the head of a very fearsome man when he looked away from his victory, but then the boy moved his hips. I looked at his glittering eyes, a snake that had just spied a mouse. He moved his hips again. They not only went from side to side, but rose and fell.
“Yes?” he asked of my silence.
“You are not a boy,” I said.
“And you are a girl,” he said. “I knew from a quarter mile that little ass was not a boy’s.” He or she walked towards me.
“Stay away.” I said.
“Two boys together are better than one.” She came within a few yards of me. “My name is Niya.”
“Why are you dressed as a boy?” I demanded.
“How old are you?” this strange person named Niya asked.
“None of your business. Now go away before I hit you.”
“I am fifteen,” said Niya. “You are, oh, fourteen?”
“I won’t be fourteen until September” I said, and regretted immediately that I’d told her anything.
“Have you ever run away before?” she asked.
“Who says I am running away?”
I looked around and she laughed. This was a clever girl. I’d have to be careful.
“This is the third time I have run away. Few girls get a second chance. But you see, I can help you. I know the ropes.”
Another military truck zoomed by. This one too had soldiers in the bed. This time each soldier seemed to gaze at me or Niya. Overhead, something beat rhythmically. I looked up to see a helicopter passing.
“Are you peeing your pants?” asked my pursurer.
“How do I know you are really a girl?” I asked. “You may be trying to trick me.”
She gripped her hat and started to lift.
“No,” I said and glanced down the road both ways.
“Well, come on then,” she said, walking to edge of the road and starting down an incline. I waited a moment and then followed her. Fifty yards distant, a fast-moving stream flowed by a few acres of forest. She led me towards the trees.
When we were hidden by the thicket, she stopped and studied me.
“Well then?” I asked. “Show me your hair.”
The girl lifted her tunic with one hand and with the other pulled down her pants and underwear. I stared at her sex and said not a word as I duplicated her action. So there we were, a couple of Pakistani girls a hundred yards from the highway, exposing our private parts like passports.
“Ok, we are girls,” I said pulling things back into place. “My name is Sinela.”
“Where are you going to?” asked the girl, refitting her clothes.
“That is where I am going.”
“To be free.”
“Is that possible?”
“In a big city anything is possible. Where are you coming from?”
My stomach clenched. “No. That I won’t tell you.”
“Do you have any money?” she asked.
“A little. Not much. And don’t think of stealing it from me. I am as big as you and very strong.”
Niya reached into the pocket of her tunic and pulled out an apple. She dug her fingers into the apple, groaned with effort and split it in two. She gave me half of the apple and said that we should be on our way.
We continued on the Karakoram Highway, eating our apple bit by tiny bit. From time to time, Niya would slap me on the ass to warn me I was walking like a girl. By the time we got to Islamabad, I would be a perfect boy.
Alex Austin’s stories have appeared in Black Clock, carte-blanche, This Literary Magazine, River and South, The Dying Goose, Heavy Feather, Apeiron and Beyond Baroque. His novel “Nakamura Reality” is published by The Permanent Press and will be released Feb. 28, 2016.