The voice startled him out of his reverie and he toppled out of the swing.
“Oh! Oh dear! I didn’t mean to startle you! I didn’t know anybody else was here. I just wanted to be alone for a bit. You know, solitude and all tha…You!” She closed her mouth with a snap.
He rolled his eyes at her instant reaction as he dusted himself off.
“What are you doing here, Loopy?” he asked warily.
“I didn’t know you were here,” she snapped in reply.
“Yes, you’ve said that once already,” he said wryly, “But, how about, hypothetically…Just hear me out,” he cut across her as she opened her mouth, “Hypothetically, I’m not me and you’re…well, you.” he shrugged characteristically, “So, just continue with your rant- solitude and all…?” he stopped with a question mark.
She pursed her lips and went through every reason in her head that made him a detestable human being. All of them came up short in front of her desire to talk to somebody who understands. Or at least, who, once, had understood.
“I stayed back with a friend for Christmas,” she began dully.
“So, I can see…”
“Don’t. Interrupt.” She bit out boring her eyes into his. She took a deep breath and continued, “My sister’s getting married in 2 weeks and they…they told me to stay away because I’d be in the way,” her voice cracked and tears pooled in her eyes, “I..” she swallowed, “I wanted to go home; go shopping with them all; take part in all those wedding activities and be excited! I mean, my sister is getting married! Married! And yet, I’m here because I’d be in the way! What kind of a logic is that?” her tears were falling thickly now and she brushed them off her face with an impatient flick of her wrist that somehow touched him more than all of her words did.
Impulsively, he caught hold of that wrist and pulled her into his arms. As his arms went around him and he questioned his own sanity, she clutched at him tight and sobbed on his shoulder. He remembered the last time when he had thought that she was tiny. Apparently, in the one intervening year, she had grown. Now she was almost as tall as him and her head was just right for the crook of his shoulder.
He held her for as long as it took for her tears to dry up. When finally she disengaged herself from his arms, she looked up with a blotchy face and red rimmed eyes, and asked,
“So, what’s wrong with you?”
He opened his mouth to reply…
“And don’t lie this time!” she cut across his emerging voice sharply.
He rolled his eyes again and gave her a look of exasperation that was kept reserved especially for her.
“If I may be allowed to speak?” he asked, sarcasm coating his words liberally. At her curt nod, he continued, “My parents couldn’t decide whose house I would get to spend Christmas at. So, I put them out of their misery and opted to stay here with Nikhil.”
She placed her hand on his arm in a show of sympathy, “I’m so sorry, Jay,” she whispered.
He jerked his head up in surprise.
“That sounds so weird coming from you!” he exclaimed
“What sounds so weird coming from me?” she questioned warily.
“My name! Have you ever called me Jay before? I do believe this is the first time you’re actually using my given name!”
“I…Of course not! I’m sure I’ve used it before!” she spluttered.
“Name once!” he challenged.
“I..no! This is silly. And I’ve got to get back,” she turned away in a huff and waved a dismissive hand at her classmate, “Bye Jerk!”
“See! There you go…calling me Jerk again!” he laughed.
She didn’t deign to reply. She also didn’t deny the smile that had crept upon her face.
“Merry Christmas, Loopy!” Jay screamed from across the street.
15 year old Laila blushed bright red and turned towards the offending voice with every intention of throwing something at it.
“Laila, you ready?” came a voice from behind her.
Laila turned back to face Mary, at whose place she had stayed until she could leave for her sister’s wedding.
“Yes, Mother Mary,” she bent down and gave the shorter girl a tight hug, “Thank you so much for letting me stay, Mary.”
“Don’t be silly, Laila. Mom would probably miss you more than me. Come back anytime and she’ll only be too pleased to fatten you up.”
Laila laughed lightly and tried to forget the frown line that had edged itself into her forehead at the thought of going home.
“I hope your house is all fresh and renovated by the time you get back,” her friend laughingly added and at that precise moment, Jay appeared at her elbow and stared at Mary in surprise. Masking his expression quickly, he turned to Laila,
“Can I speak to you for a second?”
“Why?” Laila raised an eyebrow, “You could just shout at me from across the street. I thought that was your preferred form of conversation.”
Instead of replying, he grabbed her elbow and pulled her off to the side.
“Let go of me, jerk!” Laila pulled her arm out of his grasp
“You didn’t tell her?” he demanded before she could open her mouth again.
Laila’s eyes narrowed and glared at the boy that she spent a better part of the school year fighting with.
“No!” she snapped finally, “And don’t you dare go blabbing it about, either!”
“Blab? I?” Jay let out a bark of laughter, “I don’t blab, my dear, I talk. And if it was a secret, you should have mentioned it…”
“So you’ve already gone and blabbed then? How dare you…” his hand was over her mouth, the tip of his index finger tickling the soft flesh of her upper lip.
“Are you also getting a feeling of déjà vu?” he questioned with a mischievous smile on his face.
She didn’t reply. Her eyes were still on his fingers covering her mouth and her chest rose and fell with every breath that she was acutely aware of breathing.
“I didn’t tell anyone, Loopy Laila,” he smiled now, genuinely and she looked at the twinkle in his eyes and wondered how she had never noticed it before.
“And I won’t tell anyone, either. Ever,” he promised her.
And she believed him.