“You can’t say that civilizations don’t advance, however; for in every war, they kill you in a new way.”
Slowly at first, and picking up pace eventually, Mira Hallow texted someone on her Blackberry, her whereabouts as she walked towards St. Xavier’s college. She didn’t have to walk. She could just take a cab, but walking to college meant passing the small cigarette shops that lined the opposite road. She didn’t smoke. She just wanted to see Samuel. He smoked a lot. So there was a fat chance that he would be standing under one of the trees that shaded the uncemented, stone sidewalk – smoking his tenth cigarette of the hour. He was a senior. So his classes started earlier and 10:00 a.m. was a good time for a smoke.
To an untrained eye, Mira looked like an average college student with an apple in one hand and her phone in another, the earphones of her iPod in her ears, and a college identity card hanging down her neck. But as soon as she entered the lane leading up to the college, she changed – not visibly, but it had something to do with her aura. It reflected such authority and confidence that it tended to reel people into her personality. She didn’t even try. The one person she couldn’t reel in, though, was Samuel. Oh, he knew who she was. A lot of people did, but Samuel knew that he was the guy Mira Hallow had set her eyes on. She didn’t even know who he was. She just wanted him.
She walked by him with a lopsided smirk on her face and an air of superiority, while she broke into wide smiles at other boys and girls – seniors, juniors and batch mates taking a smoke– who knew her and waved at this 17 year old junior collegian.
As soon as she entered the college gates, past the security guards who had taken to checking everyone’s bags after yesterday’s incident with Neal, Mira was lost in a cloud of loud, rowdy and breathtakingly stupid girls.
They were talking to her – greeting her, hugging her and leading her out to the first quadrangle.
“My driver got sick over the weekend! Can you believe his nerve? He knew I had to go shopping!” One of them said, in Mira’s general direction.
“Did you take a CAB?” another one was asking.
Once in the first quadrangle, familiar faces drew closer to her than they ever had and engulfed her whole being in hugs and words of encouragement, saying she must be brave.
“So news has got around, huh?” Mira thought once she could hear her own thoughts again.
She walked over to the girls’ washroom so she could adjust her hair that had been tousled by the pseudo-sympathetic hugs she had received.
“Miraaaaaa!” two voices calling Mira’s name floated out from the direction of the foyer. It was her friends – her posse, as some people called it. She had no choice. She walked over to the two excited girls. She searched their eyes for something in a moment, but what she found was only the hunger for details of the occurrence. Their blankly drawn, almost bored eyes searched Mira’s face. They were unreadable to one another.
“Umm, Mira, about yesterday….” Naya – the dusky one – had begun. And as if afraid that Naya was not going to complete, Pari quickly added “They all say you found the body! Did you? How was it? Was it too gory? Did he look hot, still?” and then, with some thought and a scrunched up face, she asked, “I mean is it anything you want to talk about?”
It may have sounded like a concerned statement, but the tone, which was unwittingly sarcastic on the edges, and crisply sweet in the front, was not lost on Mira. Pari’s hand flew to grab Mira’s shoulders as she nearly crippled under the weight of the irrelevance of the questions.
Slowly, Mira trudged towards the foyer with her arms carefully interlinked with Naya’s on one side, and Pari’s on the other. “Let’s not talk about yesterday, kay?” Mira let the words slip out of her mouth. Her mind was already working up its own narration:
Dragging me out to the foyer where there are hundreds of searching eyes is probably not the best thing to do. But do they care? I saw the body of a boy from my class as it lay lifeless against the concrete flooring of the Multimedia room. I don’t know what’s happening around me. Neal is dead. Neal, the boy that sat behind me in class everyday is dead.
He is dead. He is dead. He is dead.
It doesn’t matter how many times I say it. Believing is the difficult part.
“While we’re still talking about yesterday; mind telling us why you were hanging out with that small chick from the ‘A’ division? You know the one with the discolored, malnourished hair.” Pari is questioning me like her life depends on it, and Naya, is letting her. I can’t say I’m surprised. They’d been getting closer to each other over the summer.
“She’s a friend. I mean, and acquaintance, at least. She was found near the body too.” I say matter-of-factly. And then with added resolve and a hint of malice, stop, face Pari, and venomously tell her, “Last I heard, I was allowed to hang out with anyone I pleased without asking for anyone’s permission.”
Pari looks surprised. Good, I think.
I can spot a couple of people that I recognize from where I stand in the foyer. A few heads I know, and a few I want to know. People are relying on me to be strong and unaffected. Why not act like it? Kat and Jennifer are running towards me. I find myself asking my mind if they are high this early in the morning and immediately know the answer to that. They scream and shout my name and its easily turning heads.
“Hey! Mira! How was it with Mario yesterday?” that’s Kat. She’s adorably short and thin as a model.
“Zeke is saah boring! He won’t even give us any details!” Jennifer is heavier than Kat, but every bit as lithe and elegant. Especially when there are boys around. I’m almost answering their questions, when something catches my eye. It’s a boy. It’s Zeke. I don’t want to face him just yet, but it’ll be weird to not acknowledge him.
I slowly turn my head around to greet Zeke when someone passes me by. He’s wearing a blue t-shirt that I recognize from the hours of online stalking I have done of him. Samuel glances towards me and quickly glances back at his friend Justin. Justin is nudging the other guys in their group. This day is not turning out to be a very good day for me. The odds are clearly not in my favor today. As Samuel almost smiles at me, I am having difficulty breathing. Let me explain how this feels: imagine your diaphragm falling to the very bottom of your abdomen and tingles spreading across your skin, while your heart feels like it’s being squeezed like a lemon, and your throat catches. I feel this. And all my bodily movements have ceased. I’m scarcely aware of my surroundings anymore. Well, this doesn’t happen all the time. He just caught me off guard.
“Lately he’s been catching you off guard more than often.” Comes a reply from somewhere in my brain.
Samuel’s hand goes up in what I assume is a wave. I can’t get myself to respond.
I force myself to tear my eyes away from Samuel’s descending figure to Zeke’s contoured one. Zeke looks good. I don’t feel for him like a crush or anything; he’s more like an annoying little brother. His distressed blue jeans are fitted just at the right places and shows off his compact crotch and butt. The white t-shirt is also a tightly fitted v-neck that he pulls off with finesse. Zeke is a quite a sight. He’s constantly surrounded by a couple of first year girls.
“In a corner?”
“Lonelier, the better.”
Zeke wants to talk to me. Alone. This is not a good sign. Once we’ve walked half way out of the foyer towards the science labs in silence, Zeke asks me the one thing I do not want to hear:
“What had happened and how did you find…..him?”
“Look Zeke, I understand that you and Neal were best friends but you and I both know we don’t want to discuss what happened to Neal. You know how I feel-” I correct myself with a girly fluttering of eyelashes “felt about him.”
Just then someone shouts across the corridor – “Matthews! Matthews and Hallow! Wait for me!” It’s Jai’s voice. I could recognize it in my sleep. Jai is the most lovable jock in senior class. He’s really buff and muscular, and with that perpetual gorgeous golden tan, he resembles some sort of a Greek God. Then you hear him speak. His normal tone of speaking is this childish warble with exclamations in a cute falsetto and questions in a soft inquisitive slur. His smile is wide and shows off his perfect 32. And today it’s wider than it should be.
Before I know what I’m doing, I find myself walking in the opposite direction from Zeke and Jai. I don’t want to face them, and Zeke will bring Neal up again. Why doesn’t he understand that I don’t want to talk about it? Stupid boy. I’ll have to kill him if he doesn’t shut up soon.
As I’m entering the foyer, I see Yohaan taking a seat with some of his friends. I smile unconsciously. And I see another girl smiling. Is she smiling at Yohaan? Is she smiling at me? Who is this girl? I can faintly remember her face – oval in shape with full eyebrows and a fringe of bottle-brown color and the most genuine tooth-gap smile I’ve seen in a long time. Then it hits me. Amelia is her name. She saw me with the body yesterday. She’s the scared girl from Father Mario’s office! But I’ve stared at her for too long. And when I stare at people for too long my expressions become darker with the deepened thought, and enable me to easily pass as a vampire of sorts, zoning in on a kill. The bags under my eyes and dark circles from last night probably aren’t helping matters because the girl looks alarmed. She can see my face softening from the thoughts I’m having and raises her hand like she is about to wave at me. In response, my mouth is hooking at the edges and my version of a smile is building up.
Then, out of nowhere, comes a set of hands that covers my eyes. The voice that probably belongs to the person covering my eyes asks me, “Who am I? Tell me, and you shall be allowed to see again.”
“Denise, you’ve got to work on voice modulation if you intend to fool me.” I know it’s Denise. She’s my oldest friend at this college. We’ve known each other since before 11th grade. She knows me from my ugly days. I shudder at the thought of how much she must have contemplated being friends with me at the time.
She removes her cold fingers from my eyes and all I catch is a glimpse of Amelia hastily putting her arm down. From the looks of it, she waved and I didn’t see. Her crestfallen expression is disturbing. It’s probably not the first time this is happening to her in the day. Regret clouds my mind and almost as soon as that happens, I’m shaken out of it by Denise’s best friend Izzy. She’s jumping in front of me to get my attention which is still fixed on Amelia’s hunched up form sitting on the bench right behind Yohaan, staring at the book open on her lap.
All five feet of Izzy is jumping in front of me and is becoming a little difficult to ignore. There isn’t anything to be done anymore, so I turn towards the girls.
“Mira the bell has rung. Let’s go to class.” Denise says this while she drags me to the staircase and pulls me into the crowd. For once, I don’t feel the need to shake the girls’ arms off me. It feels normal and routine for these girls to drag me up. Three floors and a second later, Izzy unhooks herself from me to greet the girl considered the prettiest in our batch. Nadia is tall, athletic, has no postural dysfunction and owns one hell of a wardrobe.
Walking into my homeroom class, I wave goodbyes to Denise and walk over to the corner bench where Naya, Pari and Alisha have saved me a seat. Alisha commands Jai’s attention and flips her hair on his face when she turns to look at me.
Scratch that. The whole class has turned to look at me.
It becomes almost painfully silent as they all look at me – some with sympathetic expressions, some with mock exasperation and others with shock and disbelief. Indifferently, I speak up. “What? You’ve never seen me enter class before this?” My mind knows the reason for all their stares, but my body doesn’t reflect any effects of the realization. Mira Hallow, the popular, daring, devil-may-care girl is now also the girl who found the body of her classmate.
The lectures are a blur. After the second lecture, the vice principal actually came to the class to announce the sad demise of our classmate and begged everyone to be supportive of those who suffered trauma because of the mishap– meaning Zeke and Mira. Around break time, the stares were softening too. The day was coming back to normal. Or so I thought.
The 4:20 p.m. bell had only just rung and Alisha, Naya, Pari and I walked down the steps and into the foyer. None of us looked up from our phones even for a second. Maybe we should have.
Maybe I should have looked. My head bangs into someone’s chest and I curse myself, not for the first time, for being this engrossed in my phone.
I look up, only to regret it because once I’ve looked at him; I can’t tear my eyes away. Samuel, the ultimate football jock, stands a couple of inches taller than me, but it’s enough for him to have to look down to me. I mutter something that vaguely sounds like a mixture of hi and sorry, and continue staring, not even considering the fact that social norm dictates looking away.
What I see next, is a disgustingly sweet smile passed between Pari and Samuel. But before I can ponder on it, Samuel grabs my shoulder, our faces inches apart, and shoves me to the side so he can use the staircase. I can’t even move on my own accord. My friends are giggling incessantly and poking me, making my moment even more troublesome and embarrassing. If Samuel didn’t know until now that I like him, he’s been informed.
Once in the foyer, the girls seem to be in a hurry to leave. Pari is the only one who lingers on, giving me smiles, up front, and rolling her eyes at her watch when she doesn’t think I’m looking. Hunger and the sheer boredom of home keep me at college till late. So when Pari decides to finally leave, I’m almost relieved. I don’t get this kind of pleasant solitude often. The foyer, for one is never empty and nor is my mind. Quietly, I sit on the benches placed at the back of the sitting area and take out my iPod and book. I flip through the pages of my book so greedily, that I’m afraid they might tear. Considering the kind of day I had, it’s justified.
She’s so small and insignificantly dressed, that I may not have seen her if I didn’t know who she was. But I do know her. And so I do see Amelia Stine. Thinking I won’t let this opportunity get away, I wave out to her. Amelia sees me waving but looks lost. Then she points to her chest and mouths, “Me?” I nod in agreement and Amelia Stine makes her way to my bench.
For a couple of minutes we just smile at each other.
“I saw you today. You were sitting behind Yohaan.” I break the ice.
“I was! I saw you too. I was going to wave but….well, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know who Yohaan was until now!”
Excitedly, Amelia opened up to me with every word she said.
“Thanks to me, then, you have met the love of your life.” Then in an exaggerated accent, I say “You’re welcome!” and we burst into laughter which only quiets down when I notice Sam walking back into the foyer.
“He’s really something.” Amelia says the words so quietly now, as if she’s afraid of breaking my concentration.
“He’s mine!” I snap at her rather rudely. Then slowly turn around to look at her and realize she meant no harm, and add “He’s my Prince Charming!”
Amelia, if she was a little taken aback, didn’t show it. “I wish I could help you get to him, but I don’t know him at all.”
“I love him. He’s perfect. The smoking doesn’t bother me, but the girls he hangs out with are going to have to take a hike. I mean, look at those arms! He could carry me, you know. He really could…..” and I dreamily continued to think of what would happen if he did happen to pick me up in his arms.
What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that Samuel was glancing at us and speaking animatedly to his friends, who nodded in solemn agreement. Amelia was going off about something regarding Yohaan’s hair and eyes.
About a quarter of an hour later, Amelia decided to go home, because the janitors were getting quite annoyed by our constant laughter and loud chatter, and we begun to walk back to the first quad.
My mind was still engrossed in what Amelia was saying to me when I noticed a movement behind us. Someone was jogging towards us. In an instant, the jogger calls out to Amelia, who was as stunned as me. Samuel was holding Amelia by her shoulder and smiling at her. He ignored me completely.
“Hey, you! I’ve been waiting to see you for a while now, but I can’t seem to get you alone. Come for my match at the Bombay Gym tomorrow morning at 8, kay? I’m looking forward to seeing you there, Amelia.” He says the last bit while pointing his index finger flirtatiously at Amelia. Like he’s known her forever.
No wonder Amelia thought he was so hot. It’s because she’s one of the girls who need to take a hike! She knows Samuel and she just told me that she didn’t! Thinking, what a lying little snitch, my disbelieving eyes watch as Samuel finally glances my way, smiles incoherently and heads out of the college, towards the cigarette shops, from what I know of him.
I’m still reeling from the shock of what I just witnessed, that I almost don’t hear it when Amelia Stine tells me “What just happened?”
“Oh, I don’t know – you lied about not knowing a boy who just happens to be the one I’m in love with, and that little lying game unraveled in front of you. Not to mention the fact that I told you all about my life and trusted you enough, only to see that you were lying all along!”
“Umm…I…I…” she began.
“I don’t want to hear it Amelia Stine. I don’t want any more lies. I don’t care what your excuse is for lying to me, but I don’t want to hear it. So, save it. You’re just destined to be a nobody – forever.”
My eyes were stinging with tears. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I told a girl that I barely knew things I had never said or told anyone. I walked out of the gate of the college without looking back and paused only to catch my breath.
And thank God I did, for if I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have seen what I did end up seeing. Pari stood at the entrance of Samuel’s favorite cigarette shop. She was holding a lighter.
She was lighting Samuel’s cigarette.
Shock. Disbelief. Disgust.
I ran towards the taxi stand and called myself a cab. It was all I could do to avoid crying in the middle of the road.