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When the bell rang, dismissing the fifth-graders all over the corridors, they talked and laughed and bullied. But one peculiar boy had to run. He sprinted, slicing through the crowds, jumping over rocks and puddles. His heart raced, but not faster than his legs. Only when Ramsis Square began to emerge did he slow down. He stopped round a corner beneath the bridge, catching his breath and looking around.

It looked like a zombie apocalypse had erupted, except there were no zombies; only vans and buses, their owners calling for passengers who lurked in the shade of the bridge, preying for vehicles. In the background of the chaos was a bizarre symphony composed of the hollering of drivers mingled with the chants of street vendors. The boy's ears had long adapted to the noise, and to his eyes, this particular scene was nothing out of the ordinary. With the midday sun tanning his skin, sweat matting his silky hair, and the weight of his schoolbag causing his back to tense, he stood there in wait.

"Sweet and cool!" One of the hucksters cried, licorice syrup swung inside his container as he wandered. The boy was tempted, but only for a moment; he was broke.

As minutes passed, dull and thick with anticipation, the boy started to get nervous. His feet had involuntarily stamped the pavement, almost in rage, when the familiar whistle hit his ears. A white van, streaked with blue, popped up in the crowd, its driver abusing the honks like everyone around was deaf.

"Ali!" called the driver.

"Tamer!" shouted the boy, rushing to the van.

"You son of aـ" started Tamer. "I've been looking for you on the other side!"

"Aren't we headed to Makram?" asked Ali.

"Not today. Hop in, and shout Helwan."

"But I told mom that Iـ"

"Wanna go home?" Tamer interrupted, lighting a cigarette.

"No." Ali sighed, getting on board. He tossed his bag on the front seat, rolled his sleeves and stood at the door calling.

"Helwan! Helwan! Helwan!"

Passengers started to embark, occupying one seat after another. They responded to his calls like a queue of rats trailing after The Pied Piper. He enjoyed being a co-driver. Tamer would lean against the van, smoking or chatting or studying the curves of every girl who walked past him; it all came with the job description.

"He's a donkey!" Tamer exclaimed. "taking the team to a pitfall, I'd bet my arms on it!"

"A woman can do better, I swear!" another driver added.

"I'd stop watching football if he continued to coach." a third one joined. Then all burst out laughing, Ali didn't catch the rest of their talk, but he knew it was nasty.

His tiny figure dangled, one hand holding onto the door and the other inviting people on board. Although his stature and undersized features made him almost invisible, Ali's ululating voice was hard to ignore. "A tiny cricket." his mother had called him.

"Helwan! Helwan!"

When the rows were complete, Tamer started the engine. Local music blared through the speakers. Ali smiled, it was time to collect the cash.

"The fare, gentlemen." he demanded.

Coins started to jingle as passengers rummaged through their wallets. Humming noises ensued while they passed the money to one another until they reached Ali, who checked and counted before handing them to Tamer.

Meaningless lyrics and upbeat melodies vibrated through the van along with people's chatter while Tamer pushed through the rush-hour jam, twisting and turning, and mostly swearing. "Stop here!" a passenger would occasionally command before getting off, then Ali would shout "Helwan" some more.

A golden palette had aurified the sky when they approached Ramsis for the third time. It was cooling down, but the traffic was always hectic. Ali's stomach started to growl.

"I need to eat something." he declared.

"Man up, buddy!" replied Tamer. "There's one more lap."

Tamer didn't understand that he was about to faint, and he needn't, because Ali never informed him of his blood sugar dilemma. Who would want to hire a sickly boy? For the first time he was thankful when his mother called Tamer's phone.

"It's your mother," he said, "but it's not evening yet!" Tamer argued.

"I'm going home."

Tamer halted near the bridge. He fished the day's spoils out of his pocket and handed Ali his twenty percent. They were neighbours, however, Tamer continued work until midnight. He did lots of things other than driving, Ali knew, smoking hashish was one. He never told his mother.

The small kiosk beneath the bridge was a life saver; he would always buy a bottle of Pepsi and a pack of biscuits before going home, one of the many things his mother didn't know.

The sugar.

***

Lodged between the lines of poor, wreck-like buildings lay Ali's house, the most luxurious in the neighbourhood. It was nothing short of a hut, just like the others, yet had the advantage of a concrete ceiling which his father had built before dying. Some neighbours dwelt under tinplate or straw ceilings, and others only had the sky.

Welcome to the slums.

Saif was wailing, again. Ever since he learnt walking, he started claiming the right to get all his wishes fulfilled.

"Make him stop!" shouted Ali. "I'm trying to sleep!"

"He's hungry." said his mother.

"So am I."

The wailing continued, but Ali tucked himself under the blanket at the far end of the room, and had eventually drifted off. He dreamt of a car and a massive mansion, where he had a bedroom and above all, could afford a dinner.

__________________________________________________________

Update: chapter 2 comes soon.

Author's note:

🚐 This is a first draft, please don't hesitate to point out any errors or suggest any modifications. Any sort of critique is welcome indeed. :)

🚐 Special thanks to (@soverrated) for cartoonizing this chapter's header.

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