by Fariel Shafee
Loretta was a true radical in her heart. She believed in causes and morality, and in the righteousness of issues. She dreamt of a new
world, and that world was an ideal one. Her choice had not befallen on her one solemn evening while she was gazing at the stars and
an angel had whispered her destiny. Rather, for days, she had pondered, struggled and debated with herself. In the end, she had
devoted her life to the paradigm, and the vows she made were stringent ones - stating very clearly that nothing but death could part
her soul from her mission.
When I first met Loretta, she did not appear extra-ordinary, though her pair of blue eyes was dazzling. She was small and unassuming,
almost trying hard to blend in with the background. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail and her clothing style was rather
outdated. I would have ignored her completely and moved away to another corner when she sat next to me in the coffee shop and
tried to initiate a conversation. But she spoke with such earnestness! It was as if a psychic was transfixed into a crystal ball and could
forecast the impending disaster that would sweep away all humanity.
Loretta had told me about her dreams, and with time also about her past. It could indeed have been a stolen Bollywood film plot if
one compared the melodrama. She was born rich in a poor country. Before she moved to America, her marriage to a commoner was
out of a torrid love affair, and after her parents had forsaken the young girl because of her inane decision, she had joined the radical
As she sat opposite to me with a fuming cup of latte, almost pensive, I came to know about her past acts of activism. She believed in
sweeping changes, and she was willing to explore all possibilities that would bring about that reform. "Look at the French revolution,"
she murmured, "And look at how all the change was made in Russia. You need movements; you need force. You need to break and
ransack and hit the establishment hard. Nothing moves unless you unclog the whole system, and sometimes the acid needed to melt
away old clog hurts. The destruction, however, is necessary if you would like a machine to revive. "
There was a point in Loretta's realization, I admitted. Many abrupt changes were brought about by tides that pulverized the pebbles
into sand and silt before fostering the growth of new life. However, little was my expertise in the details of world history. I simply
listened and nodded once in a while when she solemnly narrated the sufferings of her friends. It was the people she was working for; it
was the goodness of mankind she had devoted her life to.
Loretta had elaborated to me how, when she was in her native country, she used to be a nurse in a very conservative district primary
school. The principal had concerns about her political affiliation and had tried to make her leave, and then she had the "voice of the
people" supporting her against the unfairness that prevails in this world. Her friends from the coal mines had made a barricade
around the principal's private home in the middle of the night, and the back-dated, prejudiced old man was not allowed to leave his
house until he made a phone call to the authorities to secure the position of his friend Loretta. She was indeed bringing him closer to
the people's hearts and also the causes of injustice every day, he had admitted.
Loretta would come to that coffee shop quite often. It right next block for me. She was a curious character, and although the allure
of politics rarely excited me, her tales were rather fascinating, and I must have traveled to that store, convincing myself that I needed
coffee but hoping subconsciously that I would meet the fiery radical to hear about her thrilling life more often than I would have
expected. I wished I had stories of my own, but I didn't. I was a rather boring academic and not quite a risk taker. Give me a steady
job with a fixed income and tell me what to do, then there is a set of constraints and imperfections I am willing to take for granted
within the deal. I analyzed pages of data and I sat in a lab washing bottles and copying recipes, and then added two new ingredients
with a very calculated risk threatening only to burn some time and make a hole in a grant package if the predictions went wrong. I
then came out with products and goods that the market bought and paid me. It was the market that controlled my work and risks,
and not the vice versa.
Most probably it was partly my risk free existence, to some extent my tendency to nod frequently and also my naiveté that made me
Loretta's ear. As days went by, the life story of the only animated character in my life grew more complex as she climbed into fame
and fortune. Within a year, she had declared that she was now American. The process was not quite simple, but followed a long
episode of heart grueling abuse from her husband, after which a new life was commenced with a new man because she refused to give
Her new diploma in engineering soon allowed her to join a venerated company. One day, she came to the coffee house during lunch
break, and announced that she had to leave early because otherwise she would miss work. Afterwards, for a few weeks, she was not
available. She had probably given up sipping coffee and ruminating about the past, and was fully immersed into a new career, I had
thought when one day I was able to locate Loretta at the other corner of the coffee shop. Amazingly, she pretended that she had not
seen me wave at her. Recuperating from the shock, I suddenly noticed the small group of people sitting around Loretta. They were
talking very seriously. My friend seemed to be the leader, who was often dismissing one after another suggestion made by her cohorts.
A week had passed after I had seen my story-bird engrossed with her comrades, shrugging me off not too politely. My own life had
become as mundane as before. There were three rats in my laboratory. I needed to dissect their brains to understand how they
responded to bright light. Five more rats had to be ordered and I had opened up my mailbox when the news of the day popped up
and a spark almost ignited a fireball down my spines.
Loretta's company had undergone several reorganization. The CEO was found to be prejudiced. Over the week, negotiations had
taken place between the union and the administration, and in order to get the organization back in working shape, the CEO had
resigned. A new leader had emerged. The astonishing career of this new face, which had an amazing journey from a small town in a
foreign country to a top company in the USA was printed in bold. Loretta's face was beaming with pride next to her story of suffering
and how she had worked day and night against all odds to attain her success. She was an inspiration to all fellow workers and aspiring
As I had guessed, Loretta was not seen in the coffee house for quite some time. Her picture could be found in the newspaper quite
often. She had transformed drastically. Her hair was shampooed well and her wardrobe was definitely compiled by a stylist, to
accentuate her physique nicely. Brand names like Dior, Prada and Armani permutated in her pictures. Soon she was also on TV,
inspiring the worst off from the very top. The most hopeless people could also be at the same place as she just if they worked hard.
Someone from the pinnacle of the social hierarchy now bothered about the lowest because she was once one of them, and she cared.
Loretta's company was being built as a model institute now. The employment process was changed to admit especially the underdogs.
Loretta was soon seen inaugurating a new auditorium for these special candidates. I could recognize the face of the person standing
next to her, wearing a Gucci black suit and with gelled hair. I had seen him at the coffee shop that day, making notes next to Loretta.
The new organization brought in new funds for the company, as the news columns cited, and a brave new world was closer than the
pessimists had once predicted.
As I sat in my lab, talking to my five new rats, I told them the tale of Loretta, and how she had placed common people and the
underdogs in the most closed places. The talents that were untapped and wasted because of barriers of prejudice now shone under
her guidance. She was a brilliant engineer, I never knew that. But I was happy for her fortune and it was nice to see her dream come
true, especially since she had struggled for so long. Her will power and determination had at last broken down the domain walls of
After feeding my rats, I went into the lounge to grab a sandwich and then call it a day. As I inserted the coins in the vending
machine, the light bulb on the ceiling started to flicker. The vending machine ate my coins but refused to give me my meal. I
slammed it very hard a few times but with no use. Irritated, and tired, I resigned and drove off home.
The news next morning sounded a bit odd. Loretta's company had apparently gone bankrupt. There were talks behind closed doors
for the last few weeks. All efforts to save a century-old corporation had failed. One of the small chips produced by the company was
faulty. No one had any clue how that design ever got approved. Loretta had blamed it on conspiracy against the people and had
vowed to whip out against the sabotage. Loretta cursed the insider spy who was implanted to prove that the people's company would
not survive. She had argued, debated and rationalized. But after a massive power outage occurred across the city, and a million
angry customers claimed their money back, the shareholders agreed to shut down the company and sell it out in parts.
Sad. She had dreams and she had the strength. This world was a vile planet, especially for someone like Loretta, who would fight for
all she believed and pawned her life for the sake of righteousness. Most spent little about the goodness; they wanted money. Give
them a million dollars and they will walk into a company to steal a perfect blueprint and implant an unworkable scheme, showing little
insight about how this act of selfishness would affect millions who would buy the product.
I did not hear about Loretta again for some time, though I was sure she would be back. She had enough spirit in her soul to recover
from this setback and make her mark again.
She once gave me a picture of her taken long ago, right in front of that school. I kept it very carefully in my notebook to remember
the extraordinary character that had appeared in my life once and went back to my work.
Meanwhile, a new batch of rats had arrived at my office. I was training them for the next experiment. Three of the rats were white
and five were spotted. The small spotted one could jump very high.
It was when I was recording the height of the sixtieth jump of that rodent that the phone rang.
"Is this Robert?" a husky voice inquired.
"Yes, who is this?"
"I have your notebook. The blue one with phone numbers and your research details from April. You had left it on the bus."
All of a sudden I realized that my notebook was not sitting on top of the shelf, as it usually did, and a second check confirmed that it
was also not in the bag. I needed that journal. It had vital information about my work. I could not afford to lose it.
"The coffee shop at the intersection of Boylston Street and Arlington? Tomorrow at 7?"
"Sure," I answered enthusiastically and hung up.
The next day I left work early to collect my precious notebook. I ordered a mocha and sat for about fifteen minutes before a
disheveled man walked in. He wore a camel trench coat and spoke with a foreign accent.
"Yes, you have the notebook? I owe you a favor."
"How do you know her?"
"Was she your girl friend?"
"Who? Who was my girlfriend?" I looked at him blankly. For months I have not had a girl friend. I had been spending my time in
the lab with my acrobatic rat experiments.
The man opposite to me handed over the photo of young Loretta.
She was a personal friend, I admitted, exaggerating our relationship a bit only to display that I really wasn't only around rats most of
"So where is the money?"
"Money? what money?"
"Come on, let's not play games. Someone has the money. And it isn't me. I did all the dirty jobs, and I did not get to wear Prada. I
would like my share now."
I made it very clear I had no idea what he was talking about. Loretta was a dear friend of mine who wanted to make the world
better. I admired her quite a lot. She had a very painful life and had made her way to the top before she was victimized.
Random people from other tables of the coffee shop were staring at us now. The store-owner looked a bit worried. I was sure he
would kick us out if this bizarre conversation went on.
"Give me the notebook." I said calmly.
"There are people staring at us. You sound crazy. I might have to call the police."
The man slammed the notebook on the table and left, looking rather agitated.
"He is mad," I thought, "Like the person who had shot John Lennon or Gandhi."
I was not a great man. I also had nothing against great men. I was obsessed more about my rats. So I stopped thinking about this
eccentric person agitated by my Loretta and went back to my lab.
A week had passed by and my work was rather complex now. The comparison between the two rat activities could actually produce a
brilliant result. I was up until about 3 and when the pizza I had ordered turned into a sorry crumb at the corner of the box and my
immunity to coffee rose all at once, I prepared to walk back home.
The streets were rather quiet at this time and the streetlights cast those long shadows that vacillate between romanticism and tales
from the land of apparitions. I wanted to caress those dark reflections that whispered so softly in the depth of night and bathe in the
rays of moon all naked. Was it at nights like this that muses appeared for the greatest works of art?
My reverie was a bit shattered by a car's sharp break right next to me. The lights almost blinded me.
"Hey, watch out there. Be careful what you do!" I screamed.
"I know what I am doing," a voice retorted calmly from inside the dark glasses. "Hop into the car."
"What? Who are you?"
"I am your friend," said the voice, "Just get into the car."
"My friend? What? Move out and I will scream."
A strong pull on my coat made me lose my balance and I found myself inside a limousine reeking of cigar and brandy.
"What on earth? I want to go home. It is 4 am." I muttered dumfounded.
"You need to make compromises in life buddy," the voice said again.
"Stop calling me buddy! I have no idea who you are."
"Come on there. We are friends. Let's move, Joe. Usual place. And please give the eyes of my friend Robert some rest. Our
headlight was too much for him. Where's the blindfold I gave you?"
After an hour of bumpy drive and nonsensical verbal exchange between two rather unattractive voices, I was pushed out of the car
and let in through a door. As a pair of strong hands took off my blindfold, I saw a rather inconspicuous room around me, with a
table and two chairs laid out on an uncarpeted old floor.
"The boss will be here. Sit," a voice said and locked the door behind me as my companions left.
Fifteen minutes later, there was another unattractive man with a huskier voice filled with irrational impatience seated opposite to me.
"So where's the design, buddy?"
"Look, stop wasting my time. I want the original before Loretta copied it. I knew she was too stupid even to copy a design right. But
I was told I should be more liberal. I have had it right at this point. I know the original is somewhere. It is not in Sara's room. We
have been there. Definitely you guys have the original and not just the copy."
Design? What design? My mind raced and landed on the newspaper article about the faulty chip. So they made a mistake when they
copied it off from the original? These things happen.
"Why don't you just ask Sara?" I said.
"I am sure she can fix it."
"Now stop this joke buddy. She is sharing her ideas with the fishes now. If Loretta has tried being a monk by not mentioning that
part, that's just too bad. We did offer Sara a job in Canada. We sent one of her friends with that offer after she kept refusing that
job about picketing. She was just too difficult. It was a trouble dealing with her. We all tried to help her"
At this point, I was feeling a little nauseous. This was probably not a joke. There are murders involved here. And my dear friend
Loretta somehow got mingled.
As the face of Loretta flashed in the background of my thoughts, I could not resist thinking about Sara. Why did she have the
original? They gave her a generous job, but she would not give it back? Why was she so irrational? Some people are just too greedy,
and their greed leads to sorry outcomes when they start fighting their own cohorts.
My attempts of rationalizing the situation came to a stop as the loud, blunt voice shattered the silence once again.
"So, what's the story? Quick, buddy. Loretta told us she had left the original with her school lover. He snatched the blueprint from
her and asked for one million bucks. We don't believe her. She wants the money herself. She is blackmailing us. But she should have
known by now that we are not her small town politicians. This is a big town and she is a big girl. And you are a big boy. So what do
you say we stop wasting time and finish the business. We can shoot you both down."
I raised my eyes and saw the barrel of an ugly black gun pointed straight at me. I wanted to die.
"Honestly, I don't know. I barely know Loretta," I murmured.
"I thought you just told us how close the two of you are. You were headed for demanding the money. We just show you the gun and
you forget your own girl friend. Come on, buddy, this doesn’t suit even a five year old. Get up! Be a man."
Two men suddenly dragged me upward and got me standing. I suddenly felt a sharp pain on my right shoulder. I thought my arm
"I really don't know," I cried out aloud.
"She just gave me the picture. I met her at a cafe and that's all."
Another bolt of pain propagated through my left thigh. I fell right on the floor.
"I don't know. I don't know. I don't know," I screamed.
"How does it help us to let you live, then?" the man pronounced clearly and coldly.
"You have exactly half an hour to come up with a reason why we should keep you alive. Half an hour. That's it. Look at the clock
there. The time starts now."
The man now looked at his companions and got up from the chair. I heard the door slam behind me as I sat on the cold floor, numb
in mind and body.
I closed my eyes and tried to think of a reason why these people would want me to live. I had seen their faces. I knew what they
tried. Well, not that if I went out and told the police the story they would believe me. They might as well think I am crazy. But why
should they take the risk? I tried hard to come up with a reason, any reason, but I couldn't. I could only think of the days when I was
young and innocent, and when the class bully was the most obnoxious person I could conjure. I hoped my parents would come rescue
me as they did each time I got beaten up at school. I wished there would be an angel flying through the ventilator. I closed my eyes
and thought of nothing. Then I thought of death. I tried to see good things about death. I saw a supernova and the creation of the
universe and then the destruction of the universe, and then there was a big bang.. a very loud noise.
This must be the end of the universe. I was prepared for death. It was nothing. It was like falling asleep. The world was just a
dream. I did not know. I knew nothing. I just sat.
"Sir, are you okay?" the voice came from behind.
I saw a man in a uniform, and a dog. Then I saw a slice of light through the half opened door and a man in cuffs.
"The other one escaped," another man in uniform was saying through his wireless.
I was not sure if this was part of my series of dreams or if it was real. I still felt rather numb. Suddenly a breeze came in and I could
see things more clearly. I was going to be alive.
The newspaper the next day sounded rather usual. There was a war going on in the remote part of the world. Two tribes were
fighting over water and land. A plane had crashed, killing fifty passengers. A picture of one of the relatives crying was on the top
page. There was enough news available. The world was a cruel place. Loretta's name was nowhere though. There was a small picture
of the man in the trench-coat on page five. He had pleaded guilty for manslaughter and negligence. He had, by accident, killed his
former girlfriend. They were at the same office and had a bad row. It was all an accident. Her body was found inside a closed room
of her apartment overlooking the rivers. One of the neighbors had filed a complaint for strong odor, and that's when the police got
This is the story I was told too, when I was sitting at the police station, drinking the cup of coffee they had offered. I had been
shivering. I was told by the police man sitting in front of me that these people who held me belonged to a crime circle. Sara was part
of it, as was the man in the trench coat. No one talked about Loretta. They talked on the phone a lot, and received many calls. I
heard them say, "Yes, sir," and "Yes, Mr. Secretary," quite a few times. But the name Loretta was never uttered.
I did not believe their story. There were too many holes. But I did not dare to challenge. I was happy I was alive.