Arul Mani’s Prompt #2

“The aftermath of a small loss”

Abhi was 8. He’d only just started reading story books and was very fond of them. He would run away clutching the book to his chest if someone asked him to show the book. Also quite possessive about them.

Someone had once gifted him what he thought a “boring” English textbook of a different school. He never touched it for a while. He couldn’t resist any longer. He just had to read it. And he did. And he fell in love with it. For there were stories from around the world: Japanese folk tales, a short Mowgli story and so many such stories that were filled with adventure and excitement and emotions, even though he couldn’t understand emotions that very well. He would never leave it alone. He went to bed with it. Took it to school and was also caught reading it. Several times. Such a rebellious boy.

Since he took it everywhere, it only seemed right to take it to his grandparents’ house for the Summer, every Summer, though his grandmother had lots of books (only for older people. yuck.). He was allowed to read his book. Even if it was for the hundredth time and even if he knew all the stories word by word. He and his grandmother sat and filled up all the quizzes after each story. Fun times.

After returning home, a dead-beat Abhi did not remember his book at all. The next day, he searched frantically for it. But in vain. He even refused to go to school after that. He’d called his grandparents, crying and asking them to search the house for his book. They said they didn’t find it. He was devastated. Devastated that he lost his best friend, who understood him during all his emotional mix-ups. He would never find someone like that. Ever again.

*

Abhi is now 18. There isn’t a day that goes by without remembering his friend. He goes to every bookstore, every book fair and looks and looks and looks for that book. For now, he is a major. He is free. Like Mowgli was even before he was 10. He never searched for the book at his grandparents’ home again. He took their word for it.

He remembers the Japanese New Year folk tale in times of trouble and a happy Spring poem when he’s, well, happy. He remembers the book more than God but thanks Him for the book all the same.

His mind goes blank when he hears that his grandmother’s health is not keeping well. He doesn’t remember the book. But, there were memories of him and his grandmother with that book. By the time they reach their home, they already learn that she has passed on. He doesn’t want to see her. He peeks from behind a door, goes back to hiding and continues to cry and curse the Universe. The last time he saw her was two summers ago, when he became too old to spend his summers with his grandparents. Teenage complex. And of course he regrets it.

After all her funeral rituals, he goes back into their house. A cozy, warm house in the middle of the forest. He would never find peace anywhere like this in the city. His grandfather calls him and tells him to clear out the bookshelf. Also permits him to take some, if he was interested. Because definitely he was old enough to read them now.

As he was doing so, he learns that life is full of surprises. The books that he finds there are mostly poetry. English and Kannada. He picks a Kannada mystery novel and reads the synopsis. Hmm. Interesting. But he doesn’t want to take anything. He is, after all, a grandson who did not see his grandmother, did not stay by her side, before or after her death. It doesn’t seem right for him to take any of the books. After clearing them, his grandfather asks him why he didn’t take any. He says it doesn’t feel right. Then his grandfather gets a book out from under his grandmother’s pillow and hands it to him. It is his book. His friend. Best friend. And all this time, his grandparents had it. His grandfather explains how it helped her sometimes, and that she was glad she kept it for a while and had also asked him to return the book to Abhi. He breaks down, right there, at his grandfather’s feet. And he treasures all her books, and of course, his best friend.

A WISH FOR A SNOWFLAKE

Prakrit stared at his laptop screen. He was waiting for Sara to call. She was his best friend and their story of friendship is an unusual one.

Prakrit had read Sara’s blog a few months ago, when he had moved to Shimla with his father. Its content was very funny and at the same time, heartrending. He soon discovered that they had something in common— both were lonely.

Even though Sara was an extrovert, she didn’t trust people. Prakrit was the exact opposite of her. He was shy, didn’t talk to people much and hated making new friends. Sara’s blog had given him confidence to do so.

When he had complimented and thanked her in the ‘comments’ box, she’d immediately replied asking if he wanted to be friends with her. Prakrit, who usually hesitated, agreed. They exchanged e-mail ids first. Then they became friends on Skype, hoping to video chat. When they did, it was hard for either of them to let go.

It was arranged to video chat at 6:00 PM sharp on the 17th of June. When they did, both were at a loss for words the moment they saw each other. Sara had skin the color of chocolate, big brown eyes, hair as short as his, and was skinny as a scarecrow. And even though Sara had warned him about her being very talkative, he had no idea that one could talk so much. Prakrit’s skin was light. His eyes were small and he wore striking red glasses.

They began their conversation. During their first chat, Sara didn’t talk much about herself. She asked him plenty of questions. She was a good listener. She found out that Prakrit moved from Mizoram to Shimla with his father in May, who was a wealthy scientist. When she heard that, she teased him for being such an introvert.  She explained to him how wonderful being in Kanyakumari was, with the ocean all around her, but somehow she seemed lost.

“Why? What’s wrong?”Prakrit asked her, once they’d become closer. She simply shook her head to his question and went back to talking. They’d planned on video chatting three to four times a month but they loved each other’s company so much that they spoke nearly every day.

On a chilly October evening, Prakrit waited and waited for her to come online. When she didn’t, he felt frustrated. Frustrated not because she didn’t show up, but because he missed telling her things and listening to her talk, however wacky it was. She could always make things easy for him. Once, he felt so lost in the new city that he poured all his grief to her. He compared his life to hers, saying hers was so easy to live in. She shook her head, showed him the beautiful blue ocean behind her and said, “The ocean is full of dangers and has its own problems. Do you see any of that?”

A week passed by. Prakrit didn’t come online. Sara kept waiting for him. She messaged him and emailed him from time to time. But he didn’t reply to any of them. Finally, he couldn’t tolerate it for much longer. He had to know the reason for her being forgetful.

When they both finally came online, Prakrit was shocked to see a different side of Sara. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she kept blowing her nose. He realized that she had been crying.

“Why are you crying?” asked Prakrit with a bewildered look.

“Do you have any idea how high the sea level rose in the past week? I don’t have enough tear glands to spare!” she replied. He had to smile.

“What happened?” he asked her gently.

“Why didn’t you reply to any of my messages?”

“Why didn’t you show up last week?”

This took her by surprise and she stared at him, unsure of how to answer. She took a deep breath and said, “I had my reasons.”

“Which were…?” She knew he wasn’t going to let this one slip away.

She thought and answered carefully. “I had to see someone who was far from home.”

“Who was it?”

She shook her head in absolute frustration and said, “I’ll come clean. I need to tell you something important.”

He narrowed his eyes, if it were even possible, and asked, “What is it?”

Prakrit heard someone call her in her house. She looked like a piece of glass that was about to shatter but she contained her anger and went to the door, yelled something and slammed the door shut.

“What was that?”

“My mother. She keeps telling me to do stuff I don’t like, which is why I cut her off. That reminds me, Prakrit, you’ve never told me about yours.”

“I lost her two years ago.”

Sara gasped. “What happened?”

“A fatal heart attack. She died very young. God took away the only person I looked up to.”

And he became teary eyed.

“Which is why it hurts to make friends, doesn’t it? One day you have complete faith in them and the next, it’s like you’re complete strangers. I know how it feels. I’m sorry.”  She consoled him. She would’ve let him cry on her shoulder if she was next to her.

“Anyways, forget about me,” Prakrit took a deep breath and forced a smile, “What was it that you needed to tell me?”

A moment ago, she wouldn’t have hesitated. But after listening to him losing his mother, she didn’t know how he would take this news. “You know how the scientists from all over the country are conducting experiments to know the root cause of all types of cancer and find drugs to cure it?”

“Yeah,” Prakrit said, unsure of why she brought this topic up as she loathed science. “It’s called ‘Cancer- Root and Cure’. I’ve heard about it. They’re making excellent progress. But, what about it?”

“They obviously needed volunteers for it and I became one.”

“But that’s for cancer patients only! Why would you…” he stopped short and the air suddenly became still. “Don’t tell me…” he couldn’t even finish.

“Yes, genius, I’m a cancer patient.” She said gently. Prakrit couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He buried his head in his hands and tried to control his grief. He didn’t look up for a while. But, when he did, the look on his face was somewhere between anxiety and fear. Sara was amazed to even hear him speak.

“When?” he asked shakily.

“Two years ago, I’d been diagnosed with leukemia. I’ve been getting treatment from everywhere, which explains the very short hair, but in vain. This is why I’ve volunteered for this research program. I’m using every opportunity I get.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” he asked. His voice had a slight edge of anger. She just shrugged. “The truth is that I didn’t want you to know at all.”

He looked up. She smiled and he realized how nice she looked when she smiled.

“I wanted you to be happy,” she continued, “I wanted to keep someone happy, besides myself. I prayed to God every day, and He answered. But don’t dwell on it too much. I’ll be fine. I volunteered for the research program because of you. For you.” When she smiled, Prakrit found himself smiling without meaning to.

After that, neither Prakrit nor Sara ever mentioned cancer, or health, but she did have to travel to Bangalore and Delhi often. Whenever she went to Delhi, she used to say, “I was this close to meeting you in person,” almost touching her forefinger to her thumb without actually touching them.

On Christmas Eve, Sara was teaching Prakrit to bake brownies and chocolate chip cookies. While his cookies were baking away, he decided to take a break. He sat down, huffing and puffing, his forehead beaded with sweat, even though the temperature had dropped down to somewhere below zero.

“Who knew cooking was so tiring?” he complained.

“It isn’t, really, if you have the passion,” she replied, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something, if you don’t mind.”

“Yes. Go ahead.”

“Tell me more about your mother.”

He thought for a while and said, “My mother was the best person in the world. As a kid, I was very shy and scared of small things. She used to console me, always.” He focused on the kitchen window across him and had a faraway look in his eyes. “She was probably the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. I miss her very much, Sara.”

“I’m sure she’s very proud of what you are now,” she said.

Then all of a sudden, he got up and looked out the window.

“It’s snowing,” he whispered.

“Prakrit?! Where did you go?” she called.

“Sara!” he said excitedly.  “It’s snowing!” he picked up his laptop and showed her. Sure enough, they saw millions of light, fluffy flakes of snow falling from the grey sky, even though it was quite faint.

“Wow” they said in unison.

“I’ve always wanted to see a snowflake. With my own eyes, I mean,” Sara said.

“Now you tell me,” Prakrit looked a bit flustered.

“Hey, at least you get to see snow. I only asked for a snow flake. The pictures on the internet are rubbish, you know? Besides…” She stopped short as someone in her house called her. She shot Prakrit a queer look and disappeared. When she came back, she held a box, one foot in length and breadth and half a foot in height and set it before her.

Prakrit smiled. “Merry Christmas!”

“So, I suppose,” she crossed her arms and looked annoyed, “I shouldn’t open it today?”

Prakrit shook his head. “Open the brown wrappings only. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”

“Yes. And I’ll do it later.”

“Now,” Prakrit took a deep breath. “Let’s get back to cooking, shall we?”

The day after Christmas, Sara told Prakrit that she would be given new drugs and treatment. Specifically, radiotherapy. He had been scared for her, and it was on the 2nd of January, which happened to be his birth date. But they both knew that Sara was braver.

After Christmas Eve, it hadn’t snowed till the weekend. When it did, he collected a few small pieces of snow on some slides. He asked his father for the use of his laboratory for a while and he set off to work. He wanted Sara’s wish to come true. He wanted her to see a snowflake, before anything happened. He scolded himself for thinking that way. She will get better, he thought. She should and she will. Prakrit’s father owned a science lab a little further away from his house. There were plenty of microscopes.  He took the help of his dad’s colleagues and prepared a slide of a single, silvery blue snowflake. It was surreal. He even took a picture of what he saw in the electron microscope.

It was very late in the night when he got home. He packed everything in a box: the slide, the picture, and even a note and was ready to send it through mail.

Finally, the 2nd of January in the New Year was here. Sara had informed that after the radiotherapy, she would come online and chat with him. And should anything happen to her, somebody else would inform him. Although Sara assured him that nothing bad would happen to her.

So, there he was. Waiting and staring nervously at his laptop screen, waiting for her to come online. Instead, a girl of around fourteen, who introduced herself as Sara’s cousin, burst into tears and said that Sara hadn’t made it through the radiotherapy. This hit him like a bucket of cold water. Two of his favorite people in the world, his mother and Sara, had left him with a heart full of memories too painful to reminisce. He asked her a few questions on where she was going to be kept and about the rituals. Her funeral rites. She said Sara didn’t agree to any. Sara’s body had to be given to the scientists, as a part of an agreement. He wanted to see her. He had never made that decision on an impulse when she was alive, and he was ashamed of it. At least now he should go and see her. He knew her house. He knew the address. He thanked her and almost immediately began packing up and leaving for the airport. He had enough money to catch a flight by himself. He left a note informing his dad about his whereabouts. He’ll be fine, he thought. He’ll understand.

It was well past eleven in the night by the time he reached the airport. The last flight to Kanyakumari had already left, but the next one was at seven o’clock the next morning. Finally, he got into the flight. As he was nearing her, he couldn’t control his grief any more. He buried his face in his hands all through the journey. After getting off the flight, he asked a taxi driver to take him to her address. The driver stared at him for a moment, unsurely, and then took him to her house. At first, he didn’t understand why he looked at him that way, but on reaching her house, he understood why. She lived in a mansion, a huge mansion overlooking the beach. All this time they were friends, he never knew that she was very rich.

He expected someone to stop him and question him. He plucked all his courage to face it. But, apparently, no such thing happened. When he entered the mansion, he wished he had more courage.

Sara was there. She lay in an open coffin, wearing a knit sweater and skirt, and his heart skipped a beat. It was the sweater and skirt Prakrit had sent her for Christmas. She was there, in front of him, all flesh and no spirit. Prakrit remembered all the times she used to say she wanted to punch him. And yet, there they were, together, and she couldn’t move. There weren’t many people, but nobody looked at him. No one asked him who he was. He moved closer to her and saw how pale she really was. She had bruises all over her body. In the photo behind her coffin, she looked like a completely different person. She had longer hair and her beautiful smile.

He took out the box in which the slide and the photo were kept. He carefully placed it in her hand. He blinked back tears from his eyes and noticed the girl who had told him the news. A tear fell down her cheek. He knew how much everybody loved her. He now understood the meaning behind her example of the ocean that she related her life to. He turned around and walked towards the door. Then he broke into a run. He ran past the people, the door, the gates and the guards.

And he didn’t look back.

(Thanks so much for reading this! There will be improved versions of this shortly! I wrote this two years ago for my college magazine and it got published! It’s the first one so far! Yay!)

An Unlikely Meal

Aru gets up from his comfortable chair in the middle of a suspense thriller flick to pick up a call. No sooner has he spoken to his phone than a voice begins bossing about.

“We need to talk,” the voice says.

It is his senior from work, Priya. He sighs in exasperation and feeling irritated for the nth time in half a year, he asks her, “What did I do now?”

“Not yet,” she replies. “You’re going to buy me lunch and do something for me . Do you have a place in mind?”

Aru’s mind is reeling. What is it that I need to do for her? he thinks. And why am I supposed to buy HER lunch? “Park Lane,” he says, “Tomorrow afternoon, 1:30. Is that okay?”

“Fine,” she huffs. And hangs up.

He plays this twenty-seconds-long conversation over and over again in his head, trying to figure out why she was asking for help. She never does that. Even if she wanted help, she would boss about and say that it was the for good of everybody and never admit that it was for herself. He tries remembering if there was any change in her voice, but quickly dismisses the idea. If there’s anything she hates more than asking for help, it’s looking weak. As much as he despised and feared Priya, he always pitied her.

The next afternoon, he sits waiting for Priya at Park Lane. He picked this restaurant because it calms him. The restaurant has plants all over the place and the furniture is all wood and picnic themed. It’s an organic restaurant, actually, but it serves some of the best quality food in the city. There are flower baskets hanging from the roof top and his hair just brushes the bottom of the pots. It gives him a feeling of forestry in the heart of the city.

It’s 1:30. And he’s expecting a grand entrance by Priya. But it doesn’t come. Instead, a red eyed Priya enters. Except for that, she looks the same: a five feet tall woman with two feet high heels and always overdressed for the occasion. She’s probably running out of ideas to torture me, Aru thinks. Or, maybe she’s quitting.

They decide order their food before their “talk”. Aru orders a North Indian Thali and Priya — no surprise there—asks for a vegetable salad, a glass of orange juice and bottled water.

“So.” He says as he pours water into the glasses.

“No one must know about this meeting,” She crosses her arms and looks out. “Ever.”

Aru doesn’t speak.

“I’m leaving,” She says.

His head jerks up. “What?!”

“You heard me.”

For he reasons he still doesn’t know, he starts laughing, holding his stomach and his eyes watering. He doesn’t stop for a while. She doesn’t say anything. Instead, she has a soft longing look in her eyes and a tiny smile of defeat. Aru sees this and stops.

“Why?” he asks softly.

If this was any other girl, she would’ve burst out crying.

But she is Priya. Priya doesn’t cry. At least, he has never seen or heard her breaking down.

She seems guarded. She has the same hard look on her face as she had when she lost her mother, which was when Aru had started working for her. He sees her as a human now. He leans back and says, “Talk to me.”

She raises her eyebrow in that unnerving way that suddenly becomes endearing. And for the first time ever, she obeys him.

(This is a reply to a prompt given by WritersWrite.co.za Thanks very much for reading! Help me improve this! Your feedback is valuable.)