She was screaming. And even in her dream, she knew she needed to stop.
But she had to reach him and they wouldn’t listen to her, he wouldn’t listen to her unless she screamed at the top of her lungs. Her heart was sinking in her chest as the boy became smaller and smaller at the end of the dark tunnel, the distance between them ever-growing. Her bloodcurdling screams drowned all other noise and she flailed around in her sleep.
Her chest was rapidly tightening with anxiety. Chills were running down her spine and she couldn’t breathe. Her wrist was being gripped sharply and try as she did, she couldn’t wrench it out of the grasp.
Suddenly, something hit her head hard and she jerked awake, her breathing noisy and irregular. She looked fearfully at the headboard, which was the culprit, as pain shot through her body. She rubbed the throbbing spot on her skull and wiped her sweaty brow as she got out of bed.
Khushi was used to this. Waking up in the middle of the night, having to bump through the darkness towards the kitchen to grab a glass of water for her sore throat, a consequence of all the screaming.
It was almost a routine now. Her day was divided into four phases – the daytime when she executed the functions of a normal human being, the initial part of the night when she drowned in restless nightmares, then the period of wakefulness when she tried different ways to calm herself as she reflected on the past and finally, the short nap she took out of plain exhaustion before waking up again just after dawn and did it all over again.
She didn’t even try to change this habit now. Never took any sleeping pills to knock herself out because she knew that that would do nothing but ensure her a long night of horrifying nightmares from which she would not be able to wake up and which would turn her into a zombie for the next 24 hours.
And besides, she deserved this life of suffering. It even made some of the guilt go away.
Standing in the balcony of her huge apartment and looking at the silver full moon, Khushi felt grateful of the sound-proof walls of her home for what must be the thousandth time. She remembered all the arguments she had had with her father about living alone on the other side of the city when she could have lived with him and his wife in their ancestral home. The redesigned, ancient haveli was as far away from her new workplace as this apartment was so she had not really had much of an excuse to begin with. But years of watching people pity her after hearing her tortured screams at night had made it absolutely necessary to fight for this. And she had been rewarded with quiet suffering in this isolated house, her own hell that she forced herself to return to at the end of every day, to let all the pain in.
It clawed at her even now as she gasped for air in the cool night. Shame washed over her and she struggled to keep her knees from buckling. Her shoulders sagged under the weight of her own guilt as she remembered everything. Countless nights of experiencing the same pain, recounting the same horrible mistake of her life had done nothing to reduce it. The stab that she had inflicted upon herself and on him still burned fresh.
She pressed a hand to the hollowness in her chest, trying to steady herself but hot tears streamed down her cheeks and she let out a soft broken cry.
If she could have traded a part of her soul to undo one event in her life, she would gladly choose the moment when she had given up and had let herself be dragged away from him. If she could unsee one thing in her life, it would have been that haunted look in his eyes the last time she had seen him, the pain written all over his features. If she could have been asked to choose one emotion that she’d never have to feel again, it would be guilt.
What would she not trade, to go back to that adorably naughty boy who had cared so deeply for her and who she had done so many wrongs to?
Everyday, she tried to focus on the good memories of him, on images of him laughing freely, winking at her in front of hundreds of people, his chocolate brown eyes dancing with mirth at her scandalised expression. But each memory of that carefree face paled as those haunted eyes swam in her head. She was incapable of thinking about him without turning breathless with shame.
How could she have left him when he needed her most?
How could she live so many years without moving hell and heaven to go back to him, search for him and wrap him up in her arms?
How could she survive without feeling his warm touch on her skin, his scorching lips on her own?
Ever since she had first spied at him from out of the corner of her eye, she had not stopped thinking about him. And she doubted she could ever forget that look of pure fascination on his face when she had first looked into his eyes…
His pounding footsteps jerked her out of her reverie as she sat waiting for both their mothers in the parlour. Her fingers froze in their inspection of the embroidered fabric as she heard him reaching the end of the corridor. She did not understand why her heart suddenly started beating faster.
And then, in the mirror in front of her, she watched, out of the periphery of her eye, as he halted just outside the entrance of the room and saw her for the first time.
A tall, lanky boy in a dark green T-shirt and brown shorts that barely reached his knees, he couldn’t be much older than her own thirteen years but the confidence with which he stood was that of a much older person. She wanted to get a better look at him but her cheeks were growing hot under his stare.
She knew his eyes were fixed on her, she could feel it. And it made her amused and embarrassed all at the same time. No guy had ever looked at her like that, attention completely captured. And she had never felt these butterflies in her stomach, making her abashed of performing such a simple action as that of lifting her gaze. In her nervousness, she smiled, feeling strangely exhilarated that this strange boy couldn’t tear his eyes away from her.
He wasn’t moving, maybe not even breathing and as the minutes passed, she grew concerned at this behaviour and finding no other option, gathered all her courage to look up so he would snap out of it.
Slowly did she give in and slowly was the breath knocked out of her.
His perfect mouth was slightly open in wonder. His open, expressive, brown eyes were wide with admiration. His jet black hair was messed up and looked strangely inviting to her as she imagined about how it would feel to clutch at them with both her hands. His tanned skin looked very appealing and his perfectly arched nose nearly gave her heart palpitations. But what really went straight to her heart was that soft look with which he was looking at her, as if nothing else existed in the world but her. That boyish expression of feeling something this magical for the first time. The look that crossed a guy’s face when he knew there was trouble in his world and didn’t want to do anything to stop it.
An unknown feeling welled up inside her. It made her want to dance with joy. Melt in his gaze. Look down in shyness. Giggle like a crazy person.
But she did none of those things.
Instead, she tilted her head, curiously looking into his eyes and smiled at him, a little hesitantly.
Her eyes were quick to note his catch of breath and that adorable widening of those chocolate-y orbs before he turned around, stumbling a little and ran away, leaving her surprised and blushing, laughing softly to herself as she hid her face from her own reflection in the mirror…
And as Khushi hid her face now, trying to stop her tears and her sobs, she wished wistfully that she herself hadn’t run away soon after that, the same way Arnav had, but in a much, much more twisted manner…