2. In trouble…as always.
When I got home, Tara and Royce were half asleep but waiting up for me. Tara’s make-up was smeared, the eye-glitter all around her smoky eyes giving it this crazy effect in the light of the dim incandescent bulb. Nishan was nowhere to be seen.
And Shia, I reminded myself. Shia was nowhere either.
I liked Shia. Shia was better than half the world’s people. Shia was better than anyone I had ever had the fortune to meet. After Tara (who I wouldn’t really call good, not technically) she probably was my best friend. And now stupid Jai was going to replace her?
‘Hey, Saaya’ said Royce, warily.
I clenched my fist. ‘Gonna be pep talk? I’m in a bad mood’
Tara coughed nervously. ‘What do you want to do then? To lighten up a little?’
I made a face at her. ‘Whatever I want to do will make you hide in a hole for the next ten years, saint’
She blanched a little, but then a little color came into her face and she retorted roughly ‘Don’t be a bitch, Saaya’
I sighed, and dropped my purse on the floor, feeling like I’d just crumple in on myself. ‘You guys have no idea’ I started, the songs and the screams and the dark alley playing through my head like a stuck reel of film. I choked on the next words, and sat down heavily on the battered couch, between Royce and Tara.
I saw them peering at each other over my head. Royce and Tara sometimes seemed like they knew mind communication. It was just plain irritating. Especially when mind communication followed hand communication and then sometimes lip communication. Ugh.
‘I don’t want that dirt bag Jai as our manager. I just can’t handle him’ I confessed in a loud whisper.
Royce put a hand on my knee, soothingly. ‘We’ll make sure he leaves you alone. Come on, girl. We need you to sing. Without you, Valhalla is done for’
I managed a watery smile.
Tara looped her arm around me. ‘Saint agrees with Royce’
‘You guys are so damn cheesy’
‘So what? You love us for it’ said Royce, cockily; smiling that dumb-boy grin of his that totally floored any profanities I ever wanted to throw at him.
I smiled, swiping an unopened Pepsi can off the black wooden table that looked like it had taken on most of the brunt of a hurricane, followed by a megaton landslide.
Sometimes, times like this with Tara and Royce almost made me forget about the other world.
What was the other world? A depraved, twisted place; that was for sure. A place where there were no rules, no authority, no barriers. Nihilism and anarchy…thrown in with a population of deranged, savage bestial things. Not even people.
They must have existed alongside us as long as humanity…who knew? They were mentioned in the Vedas, and in Upanishads, and god only knew where else.
I had known about them all my life I think. When I was still young enough that everything that happened then could be called “all my life” later on, I had stayed with one of them. For three days. Under the cover of foster-care.
I should have been dead by now.
I should have been one of them, or I should have been dead.
That was what would have happened if I had compromised. I didn’t; so I was still myself, with an ability to sense them, their presence. Their needs, their deeds…their hunger.
The rest of my life had been a crusade to find out as much as I could, so I could stay away from them. So I could be safe.
I had found out a lot. The other world’s people, I called them others, were shape-shifters. Blood-drinkers. Enchanters.
They could look any way they wanted (most often preferring beauty to lure in prey), they could control certain elements of nature, and they could drain the lives of people by possessing them and forcing them to do their job. They had no body themselves (they were all either dead spirits of women who died during childbirth or the festival of Lights, Diwali or born that way…like the Rakshass) so they usually took on other people’s bodies. Sometimes their children’s. Sometimes a random stranger’s.
It didn’t matter.
What mattered was that they existed to kill. Existed to destroy.
No one was supposed to know about them. The myths had disappeared long ago…only obsessed internet vampire-addicts or ancient books even mentioned about them anymore. The cemetery guarding masani, the hag-like woman-spirit that often attached herself to her child chureil and the magic rakshass. Things of myths, yet not. Things of tale, yet not.
They had killed a girl tonight, and I was sitting here drinking Pepsi.
The world was a ridiculous place.
An envelope in my name waited on the table, and I took it, a rush of guilt gushing into me when I saw the familiar writing. I knew who this was from. There was one every month- a note and a train ticket. Always the same writing in the front: Mukesh’s writing. I never took that train though. All those train tickets and all those little notes were tucked into a secret pouch on my bag.
Sixteen times I had refused to go back to them, and stigmatize their lives. Sixteen train tickets and little notes had been stuffed into that secret pouch along with other myriad treasures. Now seventeen.
They kept sending me the note and the ticket every month. Every month, one of the kids wrote the note…this time it was a toddler’s half-illegible scrawl. I smiled at the scrawl and the places where Mukesh’s wife Anita had scratched out the completely illegible part and written it in her own hasty scribble, a little easier to decipher.
We hope you’ll come this time. Why don’t you come? The kids are all for it. They miss you, and so do we. Whatever you’re doing there, Saaya, could it be more important than having a family?
She had no idea.
Perhaps it was my fault. Having been around the darkest alleys and the worst places possible, Mukesh and Anita’s small-town house and easy cheeriness upset me. I was comfortable with third-class hotels and run down apartments. I wasn’t scared of jaywalking or drunken fighting or even the mild thievery Nishan and Royce were sometimes into. I got the need to be in control, the need that drove Tara into multiple facial-piercings and to tattoo bars. I didn’t get the concept of family dinners and shows of affection and all that. The rest of it went into a dark place in my brain that I was familiar with, that I had learned to adjust with.
When I was with Mukesh and Anita Roy though, an alien part of my brain came into existence. A part that only existed for the little notes and train tickets. A part that sometimes scared the hell out of me…because once it became dominant I no longer knew who I am, or even if I was in control.
They kept sending the tickets. I was being cruel enough by refusing them each time, but they kept sending. I took the ticket out and saw the date. Tomorrow morning four. Around five hours from right now.
I could go. It would be a get away.
Yeah, and I’d just run right back. This was where I belonged. In this ill-lit, rubbish upholstered apartment that none of us could call his or her own.
‘Saaya’ whispered Royce. He sounded a little spooked; I had been staring intently into my Pepsi can.
‘Sorry, I-’ I muttered, before realizing it. He wasn’t talking about my zone-out.
I looked up, suddenly feeling cold.
‘Good evening, Jai’
He sniggered at me and smiled a cool smile. A silver key dangled from his fingers. ‘I let myself in since none of you invited me’
‘We could have been asleep’ muttered Royce, quietly.
‘Yes; so I brought Nishan for company’
Nishan shrugged at the rest of us as he appeared behind Jai. I ground my teeth together. The last time I’d met Jai, it had ended in a plate-throwing fight that had given me a moon-like scar above my left eyebrow. I hadn’t forgiven. He hadn’t forgotten.
The icicles brought on by those memories hung between us.
He grinned at Tara, handsome as always, and she smiled back reluctantly. I couldn’t really blame her. After Jai and me fought, they had all sort of debated over who was right.
Saaya, given to her random episodes of rage, or cool, collected Jai.
The votes weren’t really in my favor, but then I was the one who needed them, so they had stayed by me.
Guess they are regretting it now.
Jai sauntered in, his eyes never leaving my face.
‘You walked out tonight’
I nodded curtly. ‘I don’t regret it’
He smiled. ‘I don’t know…maybe you shouldn’t speak to your manager like that’
I bit my lip. ‘You’re the band manager. Not mine’
He grinned, raising one eyebrow. ‘It means the same thing, Saaya. I manage the band, I manage your reputations, and I manage the parties you go to, the clothes you were…even where you sleep’
I rolled the words around in my head a couple of times. Shut up. Shut the hell up. Shut your trap.
Tara squeezed my hand, the warmth of her fingers shocking against mine. I was cold. Cold like ice. Cold like my veins had frozen. Cold.
Jai leaned against a chair, shifting his weight around so he was comfortable. ‘Tell me it won’t happen again, Saaya. Tell me you’re sorry’
Royce stood up, gallantly. ‘Jai, give it a rest-’
Jai stared him down. ‘Stay out of this, Royce. Don’t remind me how much you need this band,’ he pulled a wad of notes out of his pocket. ‘, this money’
I could hear the cogs turning in all their heads. That much money…there had to have been at least around ten thousand in his hands. If that was the kind of money he got for doing gigs, then I didn’t really stand a chance of being the most popular person in the room.
‘Is that…advance… for a gig?’ asked Tara, wondrously, her eyes wide.
Jai grinned. ‘Yes, dearie’
‘And more. I already took my share. This is all yours. Divide twelve thousand by three, honey. Do the math. That is 3K for each of you…excluding Saaya of course …and this is only the advance. 3K after the gig, too. So a total of? Catch up with me people’
But they were all gaping at him. As if that kinda money had never been shoved beneath their noses.
That kind of money hadn’t been shoved beneath their noses ever before.
I hated him right then. Hated the sly smile on his face, the star-struck look on the others’ faces, and the money in his fingers.
‘Six thousand?’ Royce sounded spooked. ‘, That’s just – ’
‘Guess where the gig is’ continued Jai, smoothly.
‘Where?’ asked Tara, in a soft voice that oozed amazement.
‘The Maurya’ snickered Jai, his eyes still on me.
I felt my stomach sink to the floor. The Maurya. We hadn’t gotten past third-class hotels with Shia. Whosever strings Jai was pulling, he was doing it right.
‘Excluding Saaya?’ murmured Royce, his eyes narrowing.
Jai’s lips curled in a sneer. ‘Yes. If Saaya agrees to stay, then she shares from my share. If not…then she can do what she wants. Elsewhere’
I gritted my teeth, my fist clenching on my lap.
Share with him. If Jai had a decent bone in his six foot body, then that would have been fine. I didn’t mind, honestly.
But that wasn’t it. He wanted to own me. He wanted me to beg, to belong to him. He wanted me to be wholly dependant on him.
He wanted me to compromise.
I stood up, my hand shaking, clenching on the envelope I still held.
‘I’m out. I have to go’
I all but fled into my room, pulling out my worn foster-care issued fake Reebok bag from under the bed and starting to push all of my belongings into it.
‘Saaya…’ Tara said from behind me. She had followed me in and stood leaning against the door, her face pale and made even paler by the darkness in her eyes.
She bit her lip ring, rolling it into her mouth in her anxiousness.
‘I have to go, Tara. He wants me to go’
‘He doesn’t’, she said, naively, rubbing at her glitter ensconced eyes. ‘, You heard him, he’s willing to share’
I was shaking so bad now that I had trouble pushing the clothes into my bag. Royce strode in, and wordlessly handed me my things.
‘Share what?’ I asked Tara, my voice trembling. ‘Share the money? Or more?’
She paled as she grasped my meaning and then whispered ‘But where will you go?’
Where will I go? Isn’t that the million dollar question?
I bit my lip, trying to force myself to think. My eyes went to the envelope.
Five hours from now. I could be out of here, and with people who care for me.
But I couldn’t. After refusing them so many times…after fleeing from them just because I couldn’t get comfortable with their perfect family practices…after not ever calling them to even let them know I was eating and making some money on my own…
I couldn’t just walk into their house and go “Surprise!”
But I needed somewhere to go. Somewhere safe, where I didn’t have to worry about anyone, and someone would worry about me.
‘Saaya, stay. We’ll work something out’
Royce shook his head at Tara. ‘Jai is not going to change his mind. Go to Damet, Saaya. Those people who write to you every month. If anywhere is safe for you, that place is the somewhere’
My fist clenched tighter over the envelope.
Royce’s eyes were muted when they fixed on mine. ‘I know it’s hard’
‘I’ll call you guys’ I whispered, wanting to get away from them before I murdered Jai for making me have to leave.
Tara sniffled behind me. ‘We’ll tell him to scoot. We’ll bring Shia back’
I shook my head, forcing a smile onto my lips, and hugging her.
‘You need the money. You need to save up for college, remember? You want to go be a graphic designer right?’
She shrugged. ‘That’s okay, I’ll manage…’
‘And then Nishan will drink your blood’ I said grimly.
She pouted. ‘We’ll chuck him out too’
‘Before he chucks both of you out? Remember, Nishan owns the band’ I reminded her, poking the tip of her nose with my finger. ‘, I’ll be fine. I’m going to Damet. Of course I’ll be fine’
Tara nodded, hugging me tighter for a minute. ‘Call’
I grabbed the bag and my guitar, and fled the apartment, not looking at Jai or Nishan as I passed them. Out of the apartment, out of Mumbai, and out of Valhalla.
The envelope was all I had now.