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That was the year of prayer meetings. They met in people’s basements and prayed in front of different gods while Anandhi picked at the carpet or traced the lines on her palm. When they started holding prayer meetings for Arul, she would sit very still and say “beebeebeebee" under her breath so it looked like she was praying. Sometimes she would close her eyes and say “muythai" over and over again in quiet desperation. After each prayer meeting, someone passed around a plate of cookies and Anandhi wandered around the house, peering into closets and pocketing spare change she found on the dressers. That was the year Anandhi realized you could steal money after a prayer meeting, even when the gods were in the basement, and nothing would happen to you.

******

When Arul was 8 and Anandhi was 7, they would skip Tamil classes at the Hindu community centre and sit at the bus stop, eating lint-covered cinnamon hearts and lying to each other about their lives. Now Arul was 13 and in a coma because he had tried to hang himself with his belt. The last time Anandhi had seen him was at a prayer meeting for someone’s grandmother. He had sat beside her, picking at the dry skin around his fingernails. Afterwards, they ate cookies together over the kitchen sink.

“Remember when I told you I went dirt biking every summer?" said Arul. “I lied. I never go anywhere in the summer."

“I’m going to Malibu in the summer," said Anandhi. “Me and my friends are going to be models."

Eyes wide shut, praying underground

“I went last summer, that’s where this modelling agent saw me. I’m modelling for him. Me and my friends."

Arul nodded but didn’t say anything. Then he said he was going to the bathroom and didn’t come back. Anandhi wandered around the living room, pocketing a tiny wooden elephant, then hiding it in a potted plant.

That was the year it snowed in March. It was the year Arul left the prayer meeting early without saying goodbye, but when he saw Anandhi at the window he waved at her and she waved back.

******

That was also the year they had the most crowded prayer meeting. People stood on the stairs, rubbing their faces like something bad had already happened. While everyone sang a song about falling at the feet of God, a boy called Kumar slipped a piece of gum into Anandhi’s hand.

“You can have two if you want," he whispered. “I got more."

Anandhi felt his cool, soft fingers against her palm as he pressed another stick into her hand.

“This is a prayer meeting," said Anandhi.

“So?"

“The guy’s in the hospital, asshole," she said, shoving the gum back at him. “He could die."

“Sorry, bitch," said Kumar.

Afterwards, Anandhi wandered into the master bedroom and found a thick wad of dollar bills on the dresser. She counted them slowly—when Kumar appeared at the door and stood watching her, she counted them again and put them in her pocket.

“Hey come on," said Kumar. “Aunty works at Zellers, for Chrissake.’

“Like I give a fuck."

“They shop at Fedco, man. Come on."

She took two notes, then one. Kumar would not take any. Finally she left the money on the dresser, told Kumar he was an asshole, and left.

******

That was the year Arul died and everyone said it was due to complications because no one wanted to say it was suicide. At the funeral, Anandhi noticed that the gods from the basement were propped up on chairs in the first row. They seemed small and bright, unaware of the boy stretched out in front of them, the bruises on his neck buried under flowers placed by people who were anxious to go back home. Some uncles talked about how well Arul did in school, how religious he was, but Anandhi had no idea who they were talking about.

That was the year they decided to hold future prayer meetings at the community centre. Arul was cremated, Anandhi turned 12, and the gods went back to the basement.

To submit a prompt (a word, phrase, quote or brief idea), mail Kuzhali at kuzhali.stories@gmail.com or tweet it using the hashtag #kuzhalistories.

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