“Couldn’t sleep?” a voice whispered from behind where she sat.
She jumped in her seat, startled at the sudden intrusion of humanity into her solitude. Blushing slightly at her own nerves, she slowly turned around.
He stood behind her in a loose shirt and shorts that just hung off his hips. She blushed again as she remembered that all she was wearing was a nightgown that ended higher from her knees than it needed to.
As she stood up from her crouched position on the floor, his eyes flicked to her exposed thigh and back to her face. His breath caught in his throat and he hoped that she hadn’t noticed.
“What are you doing here?” she asked softly.
“I could ask you the same question,” he replied, a smile playing on his lips.
She smiled shyly. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said, “I keep thinking about tomorrow.”
“Why? Don’t you like home?” his eyes looked puzzled and the thought that it might be too personal a question never entered his head.
“Oh! I- I do! It’s just…” the thought that it might be too personal an answer never entered her head either. “I like it so much more at school. My house gets so crowded at Christmas!” she continued, her voice getting stronger with each word, “There is no place at all for me. It’s like they’ve forgotten I exist while I’m away at school most of the year and now they have to force some space open for me, like add an extra chair at the dining table, make my sister clear all her stuff from my room and then, my cousins come, who are so close to everybody in the family, but me. So, they have all these games that they play or conversations that they have, that make absolutely no sense to me! I just- just feel so…alone,” her voice faded away. She sat down again and drew her knees up to her chin.
“She’s so tiny,” the thought entered unbidden into his head, as he settled himself beside her. He wasn’t sure what he should do. Maybe, he should put his arm around her; or should he pat her on her head? While his thoughts were still actively consuming him, she lifted her head again.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said all that,” she spoke in a small voice. “It’s just that once I start talking, it’s very difficult to get me to shut up. All my friends complain about it.”
He laughed. “No, it’s alright. I hear it’s good to share. Do you feel better now?” he asked, smiling.
She nodded happily. “So, what about you? What do you have to share?” she asked, looking at him in a way that was so honest, he felt bad about lying to her.
“I- I was just exploring. I found this place and thought I would just rest my legs,” he said flippantly, giving her a confident grin.
“Uh huh…” she continued to stare at him until a hint of red brushed his cheek and he looked down at the floor.
“You know,” she began conversationally, “what we are having here, accidentally it might be though, is beautiful. So, please don’t spoil it by lying,” she finished quietly.
He gaped at her. “I- I’m not-” he sighed. “My parents are getting a divorce,” he mumbled.
“Oh!” she scooted closer to him and put her arm around him as much as she could. “I’m so sorry!”
Now, he drew up his knees to his chest and nodded dully. “Christmas sucks!” he declared.
She didn’t say anything, but put her other arm around him in an awkward sideways hug and held him tight as he struggled to not let the tears fall.
The Rathivan Academy for Gifted Students stood in the lonely forests of Rathivan, but catered to students from all over the country who managed to gain an admission into its hallowed halls. An entrance exam rumoured to be one of the toughest known, stood in the path of all those who wished an entry.
But, once you are through that exam, opportunities of every possible academic pursuit opened their doors for you. It was for this very chance that Laila had strived for ever since she came across the existence of this institute. When she was 13, through sheer hard work, she had cracked the exam in her very first try and came through with dreams in her eyes and her family’s disapproval at her back.
They disapproved because it took their little daughter far away from them and they had no way to be sure what was going on in her life anymore; because Rathivan Academy was across the country for them and their daughter would be in its boarding facility. Furthermore, she was 13, just entering the dangerous years of adolescence with all of its pitfalls, and for the orthodox Muslim parents of Laila, sending their daughter to a co-ed school, never mind a co-ed boarding school, was never an option. As for Laila’s siblings, her desire to go to a school so far away from them and of which they nary had an idea, only meant that she thought they weren’t good enough for her. So, they turned up their noses at the dreamy-eyed girl and walked away in a huff.
Laila had an argument for each of her parents’ concern, but, she could find nothing in her kitty to win over her sisters. Finally, tired of all the arguing, her parents had given in and promptly set about arranging their lives without her in them.
But, Rathivan Academy more than made up for its reputation in Laila’s opinion and the now 14-year old was very happy for most of the year. She had good friends who stood by her when she got detention at school or a particularly disinterested letter from home, she had good grades that put her in favourable light to all the teachers at school, she found a sport she was good at and a hobby she loved and just last night, she had an amazing conversation with a boy.
Yes, when she woke up on the morning of 21st of December, Laila was in a passably good mood despite the prospect of having to set for home later. Until that is, she walked down from the dormitory with her friends, and was accosted by the same boy that she had had a late night conversation with last night.
“Hi!” she smiled at him in recognition.
“Hey…Umm…can I talk to you for a bit?” he looked distinctly uncomfortable as he ran his hand through his hair.
“Sure,” she looked puzzled and walked away from her friends as they looked on in confusion.
“See, about last night,” he began as soon as they were far enough away, “about last night, it didn’t mean anything and I don’t want you to tell anyone about it.”
Laila felt a little piercing in her heart, but ignored it. “If you don’t want me to tell anyone about what you told me…”
“Oh my God!” he cut her off, “You’ve already and gone and told somebody then?” he glared at her.
Now, she gaped at him and felt the first stirrings of anger in her chest. “Of course not!” she snapped. “I was going to say that if you don’t want me to tell anyone, then I won’t and anyway, that was understood!” little spots of red stood out on her cheeks as her eyes lit up with the fire of anger.
The boy looked a little taken aback. Nobody had ever snapped at him so directly before (except for his mother, but she doesn’t count anyway).
“Fine then!” he snapped back, “Let me just add that just because we had a talk last night, doesn’t mean we are friends or something. You don’t have to sit with me during classes or at meals or call me for study sessions or anything.”
Laila stared at him and with every word he spoke, her eyes had narrowed until she was looking at him through slits for eyes. “You know what,” she finally spoke in a low voice that held anger in each exhalation, “I do not know why I ever came across you or thought that you were even a little nice, because right now, I see that you are such an arrogant, rude and self-obsessed jerk and I’m sorry I ever talked to you at all. You don’t have to worry about me thinking of you as a friend; I don’t ever want to be friends with such a tosspot as you. I hate you!”
Her face red and her eyes full of anger and hurt, Laila walked away from the boy who had made her laugh and cry, all within a day.
The day Jay got his acceptance letter for Rathivan Academy, his parents took him out and treated him to the most lavish day in his lifetime. They were proud of their only son and showed him that with all their worth (which was considerable).
6 months to date after that day, Jay got a letter from his mother announcing her intention to divorce his father.
That day, he skipped all his classes and hid away in the little cranny hidden behind an old unused staircase that he had discovered during his first week at school. When his friends questioned him later as to where he was, he feigned illness and went to bed. The next day he woke up and went about his usual way and nobody knew the war being waged with his emotions inside.
He didn’t want their pity, he told himself. He didn’t want their solicitousness; all those eyes following him and waiting for him to break down. So, he hid his news and his disbelief and for all the world, he was looking forward to going home for Christmas just as much as everyone else.
Until that night before, when he went in search of solitude and instead found comfort in his classmate’s arms.
The next morning when he woke up, panic and shame were battling inside his chest. Panic that she would tell people about his secret and shame for having broken down, just like he had feared, in front of another person and a girl too! He couldn’t rest until he found her, talked to her, warned her and put all of this shameful incident behind him. That, however, didn’t go exactly according to plan.
He had planned on having a polite conversation, where he would put his side of the argument forward, which she would agree with because he would put it so compellingly and then, they would part amicably and never talk to each other again. But, the moment he started, things got derailed. He lost his tongue…she lost her temper and now, he was sitting on the bus taking him to the airport and wondering what that weird tightness in his throat was.
But then, he was 14 and 14 year old boys are not used to sitting still and wondering. So, in all of his adolescent wisdom, he pushed her out of his mind and went back to discussing holiday plans with his friends.