Chapter 4

4. A Little Bit of Gallivanting Never Hurts

Two days later (two thankfully Pavan-less days), Anita and Mukesh sprang the news that almost made me grab my bags and run, again.

‘Saaya, you’re going back to school’

School. I did not want to go to school.

I tried everything. Threw a tantrum, threw things, and nearly even threw poor Joy. Nothing seemed to work, and they were determined, Anita was already in discussions with the principal about my remedial classes.

I didn’t want to go to class, let alone remedial ones.

‘But why? What’s going to come out of it? I’ll just fail everything’

‘You won’t. You’re good at Math, and at English. Science we’ll manage somehow-’

‘You have to be kidding me!’

But they weren’t. Kidding me, I mean. They were deadly serious, and took up the same stance with an even more enraged Pavan, who promptly decided that everything was my fault.

Probably, he had decided that if a leaf fell in Transylvania, it would be my fault.

At least his universe was revolving around the faults I made.

‘Twelfth standard pass certificates can buy you the world’ insisted Mukesh, at dinner. He was waving his spoon in the air in agitation.

Pavan dissected his chapattis into minute pieces and then began to mutilate them. I poked restlessly at mine, and then began to push the brown disc-shaped chapattis around the plate. Nila grabbed a packet of ketchup and started drawing a smiley face on my chapatti.

‘I don’t want the world. I just want to be left alone’ said Pavan, in a voice that seemed to be bordering on breaking into a rough scratch.

For once I agree boyo; I thought as Pavan’s eyes scanned the living room.

His flaming eyes passed right through me, and he looked disturbed. Mighty disturbed, one could say.

‘It’s final, guys’ Mukesh said, sternly.

Bad mistake.

Pavan jumped up, his chair crashing to the floor with a thud that shook the wooden staircase and rattled my brain against my skull. ‘Then why don’t you just let me leave, damn you! Just let me go and do what I want with my life!’

I frowned at the smiley face, wincing at his hard tone. Nila was looking up, her eyes scared, her fingers curling around my wrist…I had to admit that Pavan looked a little frightening in all his glorious height and well-built frame. His eyes slanted down to stare at me, revealing a scathing hatred I didn’t know what I had done to receive.

What the hell?

‘You won’t understand, none of you will. None of you can understand even the beginning of my problems.’ He shouted, emphatically. His face was starting to crumple into desperate worry lines, but his eyes remained scorching, filled with some raw emotion I couldn’t begin to understand.

I sighed, trying to alleviate the situation to an extent. ‘All they said was that you should go to school’

‘Yeah, that just proves how much you don’t know about anything.’ he said, nonsensically, his eyes going out of focus and showing up that weird vexation again. ‘, How would you know, anyway…you’re just…who cares about you. I won’t go to school. Not again’

Not again.

Something had happened at his last school then.

Mukesh shook his head as Pavan bounded up the stairs and disappeared.

‘Who wants to go after him and calm him down?’

I didn’t volunteer. Nobody volunteered. Thirteen year old Malini whispered ‘No one wants to be murdered tonight; it’s too nice a night for that’

I seconded her and then turned back to my chapattis, while Anita looked up the stairs half-heartedly, and then dumped any idea she had of going after him, instead joining the rest of us at the tables. The rest of the dinner was uneventful except for Nila dropping soup onto my clothes. When that happened, I excused myself and escaped up the stairs.

I opened my bedroom door to find headcase-Pavan at my window, trying to position what looked suspiciously like a video camera.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked conversationally, feeling a sort of black anger beginning to claw at my chest. If he was planning to film me or something…

He jumped at my voice, nearly dropped the camera and cussed wholesomely.

Saaya!’

I frowned. ‘It happens to be my room’

Pavan grimaced, his lower lip jutting out in a pout. ‘It’s not what it looks like’

I raised an eyebrow, and folded my arms across my chest. ‘Then what is it?’

He turned away from my gaze and murmured incoherently, blood rushing to his face and setting his eyes aflame. I kept watching him, my eyes never leaving his face. Let’s see what explanation he comes up with.

‘Listen…I just…’

I walked to the window, pushing him roughly out of the way with a well-maneuvered prod to the ribs. There was only darkness outside…through the LCD screen of the camera though; I could see everything in night-vision clarity. Branches of the peepal tree outside shone with a sliver of moonlight that was falling onto it, lighting it a shadowy grey. I looked through the branches, through patches of moonlight and thick foliage, squinting to see the white form that was slowly coming into focus. Commonplace and white. Blue wisteria.

Dayan’s house. He was trying to film Dayan’s house?

The camera was zooming in, set on auto-focus. I glanced over my shoulder once at Pavan, at the frustrated expression on his face.  He was twisting his fingers together, again and again, sizing me up with his eyes. An almost sly grin was beginning to twist his lips.

Even as I watched through the LCD, Dayan himself appeared, talking on his cell phone and accidentally spattering his black T-shirt with grey colored paint from a paintbrush he was waving animatedly in the air. He was smiling, his eyes visibly laughing even from all the distance. I felt a stupid kind of need to stay at the window and watch him.

‘What are you trying to do?’ I asked instead, turning away from the window to face a distraught but calculative Pavan.

He crossed the distance between us in two long strides, his imposing height making me swallow. His eyes flashed once, and then went subdued, and he said roughly ‘Give it back’

I stared at him. From the way I was leaning against the open window, all I could see was the Goth tattoo just below his neck. There was silver in it, I noticed, in a sudden rush of bewilderment.

‘Give it back before I hurt you!’ he snarled, trying to swipe it out of my hand. I leaned back farther to see his face, to let him know that I had no intention of giving anything back without knowing what his purpose had been in placing it there.

‘Saaya, damn you! Just give it back!’

His voice was rising above the mocking low tone, going almost shrill with exasperation. I narrowed my eyes. What did he want to know about the Romanos? His hand grabbed my wrist, twisting my arm.

‘You jerk! Let go!’ I shouted out, trying to wriggle out of his hold, and not succeeding.

His eyes were crazed now. Psychotic.

‘Pavan, you’re hurting me, let go!’

Pain shot down my arm and up my spine, tingling at the base of my neck uncomfortably. He was pressed painfully against me, too big for me to wrestle, too difficult for me to squirm out from beneath.

Pavan!’

He made another grab for the camera, his nails raking into my arm painfully. I moved my arm, jamming the metallic thing into his ribs. I wasn’t going to compromise that easily.

He fell back, letting out a shocked, hoarse cry of pain and giving me enough time to roll away from my window and onto my bed, where I grabbed the table lamp.

‘I’ll hit you, and I won’t regret it!’

He watched me, standing in a crouching position, lips pulled back in an almost feral snarl. Was he going to jump? I backed away a little, still holding the lamp defensively.

He straightened, and then leaped forward, his body curving easily to fall harmlessly onto my bed (which was way too short for him anyway), and his hands grabbing my legs and bringing me down with a thud that nearly knocked the wind out of me. I felt the breath leave my lungs in a huge rush of a gasp, and felt the camera slip out of my fingers.

Pavan crawled up, closer to me, his champagne colored eyes now shadowed, now an almost gleeful sneer beginning to take shape on his lips. I wanted to punch him, and hard.

‘Sweet’ he hissed in my ear, his breath scorching a circle of skin in its wake.

He raised his hand lightly, almost as if to slap me, and I shut my eyes…only to hear him laugh lightly and pull himself upright, having taken the lamp out of my grip while my eyes had been closed.

‘Don’t mess with me, Saaya’

I couldn’t retort. He threw the camera in the air in a tantalizing movement, then caught it and almost waltzed out my door.

Idiot. Dishonorable sadistic idiot.

He was no masochist. I’d never met a worst sadist than him.

Well, him and Jai.

I snarled in frustration, grabbing the lamp Pavan had left lying on the bed and throwing it into the open cupboard, just as Malini entered.

Saaya!’

I growled wordlessly at her. She was a small girl, thin and blessed with too much curly hair than she had any practical use for. Her fingers tugged at loose strands of her hair wildly, and her eyes were wide with fear.

‘Couldn’t have come sooner, could you? Couldn’t have come soon enough to knock that ass out somehow!’

Malini shrugged frail shoulders, her throat moving convulsively, as though afraid I was going to strangle her.

‘I’m going out!’

She jumped nearly half a meter in the air and nodded violently, her curls bobbing up and down. I grabbed the first sweater I could find in my bag, pulled it upside down over my head and stalked out, down the stairs and out of the front door, leaving Mukesh and Anita staring after me with all four eyes reflecting equal worry.

I don’t care right now. I just want to run.

Running helped. Running was the only thing that ever really helped. Running was my way of being in control, my way of calming me down. It was my thing, a personal thing that I didn’t share with anyone. Running alone, and at night. Nothing helped more.

I ran through the concrete sidewalk, raw athlete’s power rippling through my knees, up my thighs. Wind whooshed by, cold and warm alternating, cooling the sweat on my forehead.

Pavan.

Hateful, snarky, mocking Pavan, with his annoyingly huge head and stupid height.

Either I’d kill him or (more likely) he’d kill me.

Both of us couldn’t exist in the same universe. We weren’t yin and yang; no…we were both dark yins I guessed. Two yins would kill each other, no doubt, I thought sarcastically.

The sidewalk ended at the verge of the forest trail that led to the lake Mukesh had once taken me to. I stood there indecisively for a minute, contemplating on whether to follow the trail all the way to the lake or not. It wasn’t a dangerous trail in any way- a well-worn one with ropes railing it on both sides to make sure no one sauntered right off it and into the deodar forest. I thought about going back to the house with that looming second yin inside it…no way, not now.

The forest air was different from the rest of the town. It felt aromatic and luscious, the nodding tips of the deodars blowing the night wind in my direction as I ran. Eerie shadows played everywhere, dappled moonlight patches shining on the thickly downy forest floor.

If I could know what Pavan was up to…?

What did he intend anyway, trying to film the Romanos? Was he planning on robbing them and then making off with their stuff? Somehow, you’d think robbers would be more charismatic and amiable, socializing well and getting invited into the target house and then taking off with all your stuff before you could say ‘Police’

Charismatic, not. Amiable, not. Sociable? Don’t make me laugh.

Snarky, arrogant sadomasochist.

I rushed out of the forest and into the clearing, the lake visible through the hanging moss and branches, shining silver, mottled with moonshine.

Dim, smoky wisps of cooling air hung over the surface and a huge tree trunk slid into it, roots poking in the air. The cold air bit at my exposed face, but I was glad I’d come anyway. Edged by the trees shining with the darkest moonlight, the lake looked the picture of serenity.

Someplace nymphs may come to. Or completely baffled idiots like me, seeking comfort.

The vines of the nearby banyan tree had grown long enough that they dipped into the lake. I could swing on them, over the lake.

I buried that thought the moment it appeared. No way. Heck, no way was I going to do anything that silly.

‘Going to stand there for the rest of the night?’

The darkly magical voice made me jump and look around.

‘Dayan, hey. Um…where are you?’

I found him, sitting up on the tree-trunk that had slid into the lake, a notepad in his hand and a curious smile on his lips. His dark eyes looked even darker in the dim light, but spots of light glistened in them, and lent an animated quality that suggested happiness.

Some people are just so happy always. The others get nuisances in their lives. Six-feet-three-and-then-some-more nuisances.

‘What are you doing here?’

He smiled a softly mesmerizing smile. ‘Come and see’

I swallowed. He had changed out of his black and paint-smeared T-shirt. Now he wore white. A white, clingy sweater that had all but fused into him, grayish white jeans and white low-top sneakers that I was pretty sure didn’t make even the slightest crunch.

Everything about him, from his striking hairstyle to the sneakers screamed rich, sophisticated, tranquil.

Everything about me screamed psycho, entirely messed up, stay away, danger.

He held a piece of charcoal in his fingers, and I saw more charcoal prints on his shirt. Wow, he was careless. Strike one.

That was all the strikes I could make against him though. And anyway it wasn’t really a strike because he could completely afford new clothes every day. Feeling slightly resentful, I climbed toward him, feet slipping on the mossy bank. He stood up, and reached out with his hand, pulling me up and beside him. A shiver of sudden dizziness ran through me, as I tried to find my balance on the suddenly precarious-seeming tree trunk.

‘I’ve got you. You won’t fall’

I couldn’t reply; could only stare at the dark water below us, lit eerily by the moon with the darkest grey light. There were fishes in it- silver ones, and tiny pearly rocks that seemed to shine.

A moon-splashed world. That was what existed in this clearing.

‘I know. It’s pretty, right?’ asked Dayan, his voice subdued. I sat down beside him on the tree trunk, strangely secure with his arm over my knee. He was long enough that his toes skimmed the water; mine dangled nearly half a foot above and looked comical.

‘You were drawing?’

He nodded, smiling, his dark eyes lighting up. So, drawing obviously meant a lot to him.

‘Can I see?’

He pushed the notepad towards me with the back of his hand and tilted his face to the sky. I looked down at the notepad, at a perfect replica of the lake and the pearly rocks and the trees surrounding it, at the dappled shadows I knew represented patches of moonlight and dark. In the centre of the sketch, though, where there should be nothing but an oddly-shaped rock, there was a girl. A girl, her arm dangling over the side of the rock languidly, the water lapping gently against her long slim fingers.

I looked up, at the rock, devoid of any girl.  The cracks on the rock, the strange hump on it…everything was there in his sketch. Just no girl.

And it showed how good he was, imagining something out of the blue and having the skill to blend it into existing scenery.

I looked up from the picture covertly, using the excuse of looking at it to look at him.

From where I was, I could see the sharp curve of his face, the unbroken line of a straight nose, which looked almost patrician. His ash and black and blue eyes were turned to the sky, and looked smokier rather than sharp now. I felt a little more uncomfortable. A guy this good-looking probably knew it himself. This made him all the more unsafe to be around. Did that have anything to do with Pavan and his unexplained camera? Maybe he had a bad reputation or something…

I was dying to get to an internet café and google hotshot artist Dayan Romano.

I looked back at the picture as he turned towards me. ‘Like it?’

‘Yeah, it’s nice’

His lips quirked in a half-smile and eyebrows disappeared again into his hair. ‘Not artistic?’

I shook my head. ‘Strictly banned from anything related to art for mankind’s survival. Can’t tell pastels from poster colors’

He made a face of mock-horror. ‘Now, that’s crime’

I laughed, then stopped myself, and adopted a lour expression. Scowling suited me better any day than laughing.

He looked amused, but didn’t comment. I watched him smudge a charcoal line with the side of his finger, into a soft grey splodge that looked like a slice of a tree shadow. After fifteen minutes with the only sounds being the hoot of night owls and the scratch of charcoal on paper, I realized a life-shattering something: with Dayan, for some reason, there was nothing called uncomfortable silence. He felt no need to fill the air with talk, he was content to sit there in silence and draw.

This wasn’t really fine with me. Him being silent made me uncomfortable. I called this “awkward silence”. He probably called it just…peace.

‘You don’t know my name. Do you?’

He didn’t look up, but a flicker of interest lit his eyes, making the ash in them more prominent.

‘No. I’m sorry; I forgot to ask…it never crossed my mind, really’

With him, it was just plausible. He seemed to live in a world where names weren’t required to know people well enough that he’d sit with them at night on top of a tree above a lake.

‘It’s Saaya’

‘Shade…Saaya is a nice name. You know, Japanese use the name too? Only in Japan it means “sheath”. I like the Indian meaning. Protection, shade…it’s a nice thing’

‘I didn’t know what it meant’

His expression was strictly neutral again. ‘Know what my name means?’

I laughed, my voice echoing loudly and reflecting from the tree barks. ‘What are you, major in etymology?’

‘Nah…just a hobby. Dayan means judge. Judge. As in, be the judge of. Judge someone…believe me, I take pride in being non-judgmental’

I smiled. ‘How so?’

He shrugged lightly, brushing a hand through his dark hair. ‘Well, for one…I’m going to ask you to try taking art classes, knowing you’re bad at art. I’m not going to judge your portfolio or anything. And for another, I don’t mind religion or caste or any divisions of society or people or sexes. I believe in brotherhood. I don’t restrict myself to any form of art, or any kind of artists. I don’t restrict myself to listening to only certain kinds of music or reading certain kinds of books.’

I smiled, looking down at my shoes. ‘Must be nice to know yourself so well’

I didn’t know myself any better than he knew me. I didn’t know my limits or boundaries. I went along with the flow, a boat with no rudder, nothing to steer me except crashing waves that could either drown or throw me safely ashore.

He was back to drawing, his fingers moving deftly over the white paper, transforming it.

‘I should go’

He looked up. ‘Hm?’ he asked, a catch to his voice, as though he’d been waiting all this while for me to start up an engaging conversation. As though he’d been hoping I would just start talking.

‘I should go. I ran out with no explanation. Everyone’s probably looking for me’

‘I’ll catch up with you. Go on’

I slipped off the trunk, splashing water everywhere and grimacing. He didn’t speak, so I guessed I hadn’t completely ruined his picture.

I began to walk towards the trail, starting to run when he called, softly.

‘Yeah?’

‘If you want to talk about…anything…I’m always game, okay?’

I turned to him, questioning him with my eyes.

He jumped lightly off the tree trunk and stood leaning against it, arms folded, the notepad held gently between his thumb and forefinger.

‘I just thought that you might want someone to talk to. About your life. Music. Problems, whatever. You looked like you could use some looking after’

I clenched my fist. ‘I’m fine, looking after myself. This…this trip is just a temporary thing, until I figure out what to do with my life…’ I stuttered, feeling the insecurity beginning to gnaw again. He was pushing boundaries, trying to know about my life.

‘How long will you keep yourself locked in your own mind?’ he asked simply, his expression not deviating from its neutral façade. I knew it was a façade now. Inside, he was curious, like every other boy who’d met me and listened to my cynical take on things. Like every other boy who wanted nothing good out of a friendship.

I turned, starting to walk away.

When you’re me, Dayan, yourself is the only thing you can trust.

I felt his eyes, his ash and obsidian eyes, on my back the whole time.

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