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Synopsis

Set in the fictional land of Pegasus, the story is about Rose Haydon, a seventeen-year-old orphan, living a hard life with her Granny and her sister Crystal, who is mentally decrepit and an astral traveller as well. Besides attending school, Rose has a gruelling routine- part time job, chores at home, schoolwork, providing for the daily household expenses and saving the greater part of her income for Crystal’s brain surgery. Her only comfort zone is Robby, a millionaire’s heir, her best friend, who she met three years ago quite by chance when he first came to live in Pegasus with his aunt.

Robert Williams, Robby, the sapphire-eyed millionaire’s son with looks ‘befitting those of an artist’s canvas’ is definitely the hottest topic in Pegasus High School. An ambitious genius with exemplary soccer skills and an inscrutable magnetism, he is quite “the perfect PRINCE CHARMING that the immature little dolls dreamt about”. However, Robby is hugely oblivious to all that drool and prefers carrying a grave, ‘Mercurian image’ within the walls of the school. But, to the envy of all the ‘female inhabitants’ of PHS, there’s none so adorable, caring, hilarious and overprotective as he, when it comes to the aloof, detached and rather reticent, Rose Haydon, who, though an ‘alien’ to all, is quite the contrary in Robby’s presence.

The much-envied camaraderie between Rose, the narrator, a seventeen-year-old orphan and Robby, the rich, dazzling Apollo, takes an unusual turn when he tries to hold back a dark, impenetrable secret. Nothing that Rose can do, helps her get to the bottom of his unspoken agony and it wrecks her mental peace, leaving her restless and distraught. As time speeds past, Rose gets her ‘new beginning’ but her life shatters beyond repair soon after when she learns that he has to leave.

“Rose?” he called… finally.
I didn’t answer.
He simply put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me to his side. My heart yearned to hold him yet my eyes chose to avoid his gaze. He didn’t break the silence…
His body was exceptionally warm and tense. His muscles were stiff beneath the skin. The same fear crept back to me. A fear of losing him. How I hated myself! I was aiming to touch the stars with a broken wing…”

Robby leaves with a promise but little is she aware of the lurking inevitability waiting at hand, grinning a bone-chilling grin and smiting all the threads of her innocent dreams.

Recounted in the fictional land of Pegasus, the romantic thriller also explores a rare psychic ability in the character of ‘Crystal’, Rose’s little sister, that lends a surreal aura to the dark mystery that unfolds as the pages are turned.

Want to unravel the mysteries?…

“I’m Yours… Forever…” is just what you need to lose yourself in the world of fiction which redefines ‘Love’ and takes you on a thrilling roller-coaster ride…


Chapter 1

Nightmare...

Three months ago…

I was running… running too fast for my jaded limbs. A strange kind of fear cut jaggedly through my heart. Every nerve in my body felt like a live wire, every cell screamed with an unknown pain. Yet, I ran.

It was dark all around. The place was unfamiliar. I didn’t know where I was heading for. Yet, somehow I knew the way. My limbs raced involuntarily through the dark green labyrinth of moss and creepers. I was looking for light and somewhere in the distance I saw a faint glow.

As I paced straight towards its radiance, it became clearer. It looked somewhat like a large halo in the midst of the darkest forest. Its kernel was blinding. Its edges lashing out like tongues of white light as though an infinite galaxies were waiting to expand from that luminous circle of nothingness. As though it would swallow the entire world with just a little flicker. Blinded by its resplendence, I closed my eyes. That’s when I started hearing voices. Unknown… yet familiar voices. As if they were calling out to me, as if they knew where I belonged.

The halo was now just inches away and it seemed as if all those voices were infused in it. I couldn’t give those voices any faces but somehow they sounded familiar. Strangely and impossibly familiar. It all started seeming like a matter of life or death to me. Reach it and I live. Fail it, and I die.

Nearer and nearer I reached with every second that ticked past. Soon I was there. I was there! No second thoughts. I knew what I had to do. There would be no turning back. But just when I was about to take a plunge in the white blinding light, I stumbled on a thick wooden branch and fell on my face.

My sudden fall didn’t hurt me as much as it did to see what it led to- the halo flickered, eventually waning off…

And in an instant, it was gone! The voices were numbed…
And darkness engulfed me all over again.

I woke up with a start as a gust of wind escaped my lungs.
It took some time for my tired brain to realize the sudden turn of events. My overwrought heart, still palpitated, unable to keep pace with my brain and the heavy eyes doodled up various patterns that made absolutely no sense.

It was the same nightmare. The one that recurred over and over again. The strange voices, the blinding darkness, the glowing halo, the same quaint setting of moss, creepers and dense evergreen trees. I knew not where this place was. I had never been here before. Perhaps that’s how nightmares were supposed to be. Weird, irrelevant and meaningless. Yet, I always felt sort of connected with this particular one. It felt like flashes of a déjà-vu.

Brushing aside the thought for a moment, I checked out my cell phone – 17th September, 5:27am, that’s exactly what the clock said. Awesome! It was just what I had expected. For me, every day was the same- the seventeenth of September, the day the time stopped. Switching off the alarm, I set the correct date. Granny was asleep and my little sister, Crystal, lost in dreams. I looked at her innocent face fondly for a while. She looked so beautiful when she slept! Peaceful, calm and happy. I pulled the covers over her limbs lest she should catch a cold.

Through the gaps between the dark blue curtains, a faint bluish-orange light filtered in. Morning had broken. Someone out there was humming to the tune of a song I had never heard before. Mrs. Bennet perhaps. She had always been an early bird. My thin night wear felt wet with perspiration, the drooping eyelids weighed almost tons. A tingling pain tore through my head and my left hand was almost paralyzed. I stretched painstakingly.

However, I was quite immune to such petty health issues and they’d never been the cynosure of my attention. With all that violence going on all across the globe, hundreds dying of hunger and misery, who gave a rat shit about how shrill my neck muscles cried? Hence, I kicked off the covers and stepped on the icy floor. My warm, inviting bed, failing miserably to lure me back under the covers, sank in despair. I had lots to do. Lots to chew slow and swallow with care. And this seemed to be the perfect time.

Fetching myself a cup of coffee from the kitchen, I retired to the bedroom and settled before my laptop which was the most expensive thing I ever possessed. Hmm… ‘expensive’ in terms of cost. To be more specific, the ‘price-value’. I double-clicked on the internet icon and there stood before my eyes the dull page that I was reading last night – “IRONY IN THE FAMOUS SHAKESPEAREAN PLAY, ‘ROMEO AND JULIET’”. We had to write an essay on it as a part of our English literature assignment, which I had completed long ago. But I never usually felt satisfied unless I had all the points on my fingertips. And lately, I was working on that. However, English was my strength and I never usually felt tired while I worked on it but somehow today, I felt restless. My nightmare was bugging me. I didn’t know why but it just simply did. And the very realization pissed me off.

My head seemed to be over saturated and the weather didn’t help. The nerves down my neck pounded with pain and my brains felt too full and too empty at the same time. A disgusting disappointment indeed, especially when I thought I’d be focusing real hard. I saved a few pages with a sinful desire of procrastinating the writing part for that night and this is what I told myself to perk up my determination, “No matter what happens, let the earth be attacked by the Martians, or worse, let it be frozen by an apocalyptic blizzard, I will be doing my work obliviously!” And before my conscience could prick me, I saddled it with a few circumspect questions:

What hand and brain went ever pair’d?
What heart alike conceived and dared?
What act proved all its thoughts had been?
What will but felt the fleshly screen?

Ah! Browning! Thou art a gem! Thou shalt I glorify evermore!

My heart sang to the rhythm of this beautiful rhyme and my fingers, now sanguine reached for the keypad exultantly and there I plunged into a different world. Clairvoyance, psychometry, aura reading and whoa! There wasn’t an end to them!

‘Psych’ was something that turned me on. I had an acute fascination for such abstruse, confounding psychic mysteries. But the disgusting line – “However, there is no scientific evidence for the contention…” raised doubts in my mind discouraging me.

“If science would have been able to explain it all, ‘singularity’ wouldn’t have been a point where the laws of physics break down”, I muttered to myself, “There definitely ‘are’ certain enigmas that science will never be able to explain!”

But how do I prove it to him? He would be biting my head off if I’d venture out to argue with him backed by nothing but my illogical explanations and half-baked rationale. He always had a ready supply of scientific theories to rebut my unearthly myths. I wasn’t a disciple of Science. I had sought peaceful refuge under the warm, not-so-complex shelter of Humanities years. Well, that doesn’t mean I had been weak in Science. Nah! It’s just that I could never develop ‘love’ for that subject. I didn’t have Mathematics either. Alleluia! So, I wish to reminisce less about this particularly hostile fiend. Hence, whenever he tried to explain to me why whatever I believed in made absolutely zero sense, with the help of colorful scientific words and mathematical calculations, I would simply look at him tongue-tied, unable to contradict his proven views while his words would literally fly ‘above my imbecile head’.

It was a quarter past seven when my granny’s voice jarred me from my reverie.

“Rose! You’ve been awake all this while? And look at you! Heavens! Child, you’ll catch a terrible cold!”

With her wrinkled eyes suffused with care and concern, she removed her overcoat and covered my cold limbs gently with it.

“It’s okay, Granny!” I said, overwhelmed, “You take it! I’ll soon be under the shower and wouldn’t need it anymore”.

Fetching her a cup of coffee as well, I prepared a hurried breakfast – boiled eggs and bread toast. The milk was almost over and I had to buy more bread. Having made a mental note of these, I got ready for a warm shower. Another thing I simply loved. Showers!

The first thing I did after stepping inside the washroom was… well, I gulped down a paracetamol tablet. My strange nightmare had definitely taken a toll on my health leaving me feeling kind of dazed and feverish. Hold on. I thought I was pretty immune to all these petty health issues. Anyway, I could no longer swear by the credulity of my mind. It was speaking quite a lot of rubbish lately. I decided to think less.

Instead, I scrutinized my face in the mirror. I looked pale… so pale that I could literally see the blue veins that ran berserk beneath my miserably translucent skin. My boring, waist length mahogany hair was tangled at innumerable places and there were hideous dark circles around my tired eyes giving me a ghoulish look. Anyway, there was nothing I could do about them. My cheeks were colorless. They looked livered and anemic. And the chapped lips were badly in need of moisture.

I knew I looked pathetic and somewhat pale and etiolated but I didn’t want to do anything to emphasize on looking less miserable. Looking miserable had become my signature style, kind of a trademark. However, a part of me wanted to perk up, that was the leftist domain I guess. But there was the other part, the rightists, who always kept saying – “THE CALL OF DUTY IS STRONGER! YOU’VE STILL GOT MILES TO GO BEFORE YOU SLEEP!” and I had to remind myself time and again that I didn’t have the time, neither the respite to think about how I looked.

The hot water retreat in my washroom was indeed a welcome release. It calmed my pulse, soothed my senses, unknotted the nerves on my aching back, relaxed my strained muscles and helped me to de-stress. I liked the way the warm water slithered down my skin, seeping through every pore in my body. I liked the way I felt when I stood below the shower allowing the warmth to overwhelm me. It felt like him. It felt like home. And for a moment everything was quiet except the trickle of the water rolling down my limbs. It served a pleasant music to my ears, rejuvenating me. I liked the fresh lemon fragrance of the soap bar. It brought to my mind beautiful images of the countryside. White horses, cowgirls chasing butterflies, shimmering leaves, wild currants and humming bees. It reminded me of summer. The smell of rich cocoa and cream buns in the air. It made me happy. It transported me to another time. Another me.

I shampooed my hair twice, blew it dry, dabbed some moisturizer on my limbs and stepped out of the shower suddenly remembering I was running late for school. The cold air outside raised goose bumps on my skin and I rushed into my room to put on something warm. His face flickered in my head all of a sudden making me laugh. He had nicknamed me ‘snow-maiden’ because I was almost perpetually cold and he, always ten degrees warmer than me.

Squinting through the mess in my wardrobe, I decided on an orange Polo t-shirt, a pair of blue worn out jeans and most importantly, my cozy Eskimo jacket with a thick inner lining of brown fur. I never quite felt myself without it, chiefly during winters.

It was the thirteenth day of September in real, a pre-winter period in Pegasus. Temperature conditions in this sparsely populated coastal town at this time of the year weren’t extreme. It was a pleasant kind of cold that lingered in the air giving a natural blush to the luxuriant cherry blossoms that lined the pavements. People of my beautiful town usually went for hiking and stuff whenever this pre-winter period set in but let’s just say I was kind of hypersensitive to chilly winds and therefore never liked the idea of even wasting a thought on this matter.

Pulling my hair up into a ponytail, I stepped inside my spiked boots, bagged my books and left for school, bidding granny ‘goodbye’ and kissing my sleeping-beauty sissy on her forehead. It was only on the way that my stomach growled and I realized that I had completely forgotten about breakfast. The rapid flurry of morning activities before I left for school was so repetitive that I did them almost mechanically every day. But somehow today, I was a bit absent-minded. I never usually skipped breakfast. I felt miserable when my stomach felt empty and growled at the wrong moments. So, I bought a packet of potato chips and munched them on my way to school. However, I felt happy at the thought that Crystal would have enough to eat that day. She loved eggs and would be overjoyed at my inadvertent sacrifice.

“Hey Rose!” waved Nancy, our neighbor, from across the street.

“Hey, good morning!” I waved back “Where’ve you been?”

“Ran out of milk and eggs,” she replied as she kick-started her bike “Gotta get them for mom before I leave for work.”

The reminder alarm rang inside my head immediately, ‘milk and bread’. I had to buy them. I had to buy them that day itself or we’d have nothing left for dinner.

Waving me a quick goodbye, she took a U-turn and disappeared beyond the bend noisily with a “Good day buddy!”

I waved back at the empty air.

Nancy had still not gotten over her tomboyish manners in spite of her mom’s tireless efforts to make her ladylike. Hats off to Mrs. Louise’s perseverance! I smiled as I walked on reminiscing how she had dressed up like a vampire in Halloween last year and got barked at by Rufus, Mrs. Bennet’s German Shepherd who mistook her for an undercover thief. And then the ruckus that followed in the neighborhood!

The clock tower heralded ‘8 hours’ with a loud dong jolting me back into the ‘present’ and I held my breath at the thought of spending the next few hours like an outlander. Who knew what the daylight hours had in store! I just hoped the odds were in my favor and it wouldn’t be like the same vapid ‘every day’. A bit of ‘change’ wouldn’t be a bad idea.

“Let’s see what happens,” I thought as I walked briskly towards the known unknown…

********************

School has never been anything but a purgatory for me- my own personal hell! Never did I feel so attached to it that it brought tears to my eyes when a stray thought of bidding it adieu managed to intrude my mind. I wasn’t the captain of the volleyball team, neither was I a ballerina. And I guess the klutzy nerds like me usually feel that way. However, I had to consider myself ‘lucky’ to have bagged a scholarship at the PHS Merit Exam when I was twelve. I wouldn’t have been able to shoulder the exorbitant fees otherwise.

Pegasus High School, in itself, was exceptionally beautiful, like the rest of the town. It was one huge U-shaped building with different blocks for different streams and a separate canteen. Trimmed bushes, pampered gardens, ornamental vines, polished doors and windows, spacious classrooms overlooking the yellow buttercups, pink pansies, white honeysuckles, and a myriad different colors of hybrid roses stretching all along the boundary of the entire campus exuded an aura of affluence. But I don’t think they really mattered to me, anyway. Except that they were something I could feast my eyes on when I felt blasé and dull…

Going out for late night parties, talking about relationships, sensational novels, break-ups, and who was ‘making out’ with whom had never been my cup of tea, never would. So, I always felt out of place whenever I chanced upon the topics of their ‘clishmaclavers’, as Mrs. Hilda would often say, and I wouldn’t really have to tell myself that I’d never be able to partake in their silly didoes. Well, that doesn’t mean I liked them any less. It’s just that they were hugely different. They were acting their age which was quite natural but it was I who always felt a queer belongingness to some other century, or maybe some other planet. My views were rudimentary, my choices old fashioned. Hence, I felt like an alien in my own school, ad-libbing all my replies and reactions, faking plastic smiles, feeling Byronic and believing:

There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore…
I love not man the less… but nature more…

There was only one person in there who made things a little easier for me. The only person who made me look forward to something, be it a stupid argument or a boring intellectual joke that I had already heard, maybe a thousand times before. Robby. My best friend and the ultimate solution to all my troubles.

My best friend was quite the perfect Prince Charming that the immature little dolls dreamt about. It wouldn’t be really incorrect if I said that most of the hostile glares and shots of cold indifference that almost every female inhabitant of this institution lavished on me was mainly because he was always there by my side. But their indifference never bothered me much. I was in a way, kind of immune to such typical teenage syndromes. Moreover, there was nothing I could possibly do to help any of them. Rob wasn’t interested in ‘dolls’.

As I entered through the banal blue gates of the institution, my gait stiffened out of habit. I hardened my chin and looked straight ahead. Oh God! Another day!

But then my eyes caught something warm and a secret smile crossed my lips. There across the bright green manicured compound, leaning against the old brown railings fencing the library corridor, stood Robby with his hands in his pockets. He was wearing my favorite crisp white shirt, the one that I had gifted to him on his seventeenth birthday. But there was something unusual about him that day. He didn’t wave at me. He didn’t even smile. Instead, he looked at me from the distance, his gaze careful and controlled. His snow white complexion had a slight touch of red in it, his unruly, dark bronze hair wasn’t gelled up in their usual spikes, they were combed backwards, giving him a stunning gentlemanly look. I couldn’t fathom what led to this sudden change but there wasn’t any doubt about how he looked. The insinuation lingered in the ambience.

He looked down as I approached and I knew something was wrong.

“What’s up buddy?” I elbowed him playfully on his arm.

I didn’t have to look around to get a first-hand glimpse of whatever was happening around me because I could easily perceive the burning glances smoldering my back and hear the hushed whispers and envious smirks- all directed towards ME, of course- but like I just said, I had kind of gotten used to them by now.

He gave me one intent look and replied, “Hmm… it’s nothing. Just a bit tensed about the Maths papers. Professor Thomas said he’s done with them already.”

“Is that all?” I asked skeptically, discarding his excuse, examining his eyes.

Robby usually didn’t behave so, at least not when it was anything related to soccer or Maths. He was the best in his class and Maths was the last thing that he’d be worried about.

“It’s nothing Rose, I…”, he hadn’t even begun when Miss Nagger, Robby’s ‘biggest fan’, Gwendolyn, skipped in and broke off our conversation.

“Hi Robert!” she smiled nervously, her braces sticking out, “You l… look… Amazin’ t… today!” She tucked her hair behind her left ear and grinned a tensed, blushy smile, not knowing how to continue.

Robby just merely gave a half-smile and trying hard to sound polite, said, “Thank you Gwen… and by the way, I think I umm… just heard someone calling you, like… a few minutes ago.”

“Someone was calling ‘ME’?” asked Gwen genuinely surprised, her eyes popping out from behind her thick round goggles.

“Yeah!” replied Robby “And the… er… voice of whoever was calling you was umm… coming from there,” he pointed towards the canteen, exactly opposite to where we were standing.

Gwen looked at Robby, then at his toned white arm which still pointed towards the canteen, and finally at the canteen itself and fidgeted indecisively.

“And I think it was something really important,” Robby muttered to Gwendoline impatiently when she showed no signs of retreat “he sounded really anxious.”

And in a moment we witnessed Gwen’s rigorous right-about turn which sent her flowing pale yellow crepe skirt whirling in the air as she followed Robby’s direction and bumbled towards the canteen corridor almost knocking Michael down on the way, in a manner as if she’d turn the entire area inside out if she didn’t find the ‘he’ Robby had just mentioned. A roar of booming laughter followed but Gwen seemed oblivious to it all.

“Who was calling her?” I asked out of curiosity.

“Nobody”, replied Robby without his mischievous half smile.

I gazed a bit sympathetically at Gwendolyn’s retreating figure. At times I really pitied this girl. She was the kind that kept coming back even when she’d been straightly rejected and ignored many a time before. Perhaps she had a glitch in her brain. No, she definitely had a glitch in her brain. The way she dressed, talked and behaved, weren’t normal. They only invoked laughter, jeers and snide remarks. And the funniest part of it was that she was quite aware of it. However, she never tried to mend her manners. I would’ve loved to help her, and once I even tried but she declared quite straightforwardly that she hated me. I wished her ‘Good day’ and never ventured out to help her again.

Robby stood silent with his eyes lowered. I studied him up and down to find a clue. I found none.

“What’s wrong Robby?” I enquired anxiously.

“Nothing” he replied.

I looked around. The heads that had turned in our direction were slowing turning away. I looked back at him once again. Glum and silent. So unlike the one I had always known. The corners of his brilliant blue eyes were red and an obscure screen of pain hung over his face.

“No it’s definitely something,” I pressed “You don’t look well. What’s the matter?”

No response.
What was wrong with him?

“I… I’ve got something to tell you” he finally said after a while.

“What is it?” I asked concerned.

“Not now, Rose…”

“But why?”

He simply shrugged, his expression a mixture of helplessness and reluctance.

“Rob, what’s the harm in telling me now? We’ve still got some time, isn’t it?”

And the first bell chimed across the entire compound. Perfect!

“You tell me about it anyway!” I said hastily. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with the suspense.

“No, not now.”

“Damn!” I sighed, frustrated.

“Give me a clue at least! C’mon!”

“Circumstances don’t permit…” said Robby under his breath.

Saying so, he turned around abruptly and walked off towards his classroom- first floor, Science Block, leaving me bewildered. The painful expression on his face, the undecided words, the silence in his constitution and his inability to look into my eyes were just not clicking in! What did he have to say? What could be so serious that it made Robert Williams vulnerable to his emotions? I couldn’t find answers to these. All I knew then was, something was terribly wrong. And that ‘something’ needed my intervention!

*********************

The History class was driving me crazy. I didn’t know why it seemed to be dragging longer than usual. While Mrs. Hilda, a plump, short brunette of about forty explained Mussolini’s foreign policies with vigor and enthusiasm, emphasizing each and every word with unnecessary zeal, I looked straight in her eyes and nodded rigorously whenever she stopped and looked around for a response.

WHEN CONCENTRATION IS NIL, EYE CONTACT HELPS- written in black bold letters across my mind were these invaluable words. I had come across this line in many of my favorite non-fictions. So, by now I had mastered ‘the art of daydreaming’ behind the deceptive screen of intense eye-contact that made me look more attentive than anybody else in the classroom. And whenever a question was shot out at someone who had been goofing off with his head on the clouds, I’d look at the person’s faltering lips, doubtful gaze and outright not-so-confident body language and give out a sigh as if to say, “Man, you really don’t know this simple answer?”

When the person would finally surrender, I would smile to myself looking at the teacher with intelligent eyes, a little ‘I-know-it-all’ look and straighten my posture as if ready to answer the lame question and even enlighten the class with facts beyond whatever the book comprised. In this way, the questions never really came my way. They would pass on from one in-experienced daydreamer to another, until somebody prompted the answers out but they never came my way.

Today, however, I found it difficult to keep up with my expertise. Although I kept a superb eye-contact on, I felt I wouldn’t be able to keep my eyes open anymore. I was feeling dead tired and sleepy. And to add more to my misery, Robby’s unusual demeanor disturbed me. I desperately longed for recess so that I’d get to see him and know whatever it was that troubled him so much. I wasn’t used to a gloomy Robert Williams. It was quite contradictory to his nature. The minutes ticked past at a snail’s pace and suddenly, rather quite unexpectedly, I heard my name being called out.

“Rose Haydon, will you please stand up?” Mrs. Hilda’s voice was stern. God! I was done for.

“Yes ma’am”, I muttered and stood up straight, waiting with bated breath for my cheeks to turn hot and red, and my self-esteem to suffer gross humiliation before a class of thirty.

“Will you please let us know when exactly the Lateran Agreements were made?” she asked cuttingly.

What? Was that what she was really asking? Holy luck! My insides felt jubilant!

“The agreements were made in 1929” I answered confidently “between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See. Mussolini signing for King Victor Emmanuel III, and Pietro Gasparri, the Cardinal Secretary of State, for Pope Pius XI.”

“Well, enlighten us more,” she demanded “What were the results of the agreements?”

“The results were umm…” I looked up at the ceiling, biting on my lower lip, shifting from one foot to the other, playing in my head the lines that I had successfully crammed up two nights ago “Italy recognized the Vatican City as a sovereign state, compensated the Pope for all his losses… and… accepted the Catholic faith as the official state religion. It also made religious instruction compulsory in all…”

“Enough!” she smiled “Thank you Rose! It’s good to know that somebody has at least taken the trouble to go through the chapter. Very good! Sit down.”

Phew! I was saved!

Miami, one of my few friends in P.H.S besides Robby, one true benevolent soul, turned back to look at me through her brown-rimmed nerd glasses and did a thumbs-up in the air. It instantly brightened me up for a while. I was extremely fond of this one particular girl and there were enough reasons explaining why.

Miami was different. She was reserved, unlike the others and extremely studious. History being her favorite subject, there was almost nothing about the past that she didn’t know about. Many a time she had helped me with notes and assignments. In fact, it was she who had given me the notes on Mussolini since I had been absent from school for a couple of days last week. A storehouse of knowledge she was and she believed in sharing it with those who needed it. Her motives were noble, her heart genuine and she was one such rare example of a female whose thoughts and actions coincided, quite unlike the others of her kind. Well, most of the others of her kind. She was soft-spoken but straightforward and preferred staying out of gossips and commotions. And I liked her genuinely. Birds of the same feather flock together as they say. I returned her smile with a little wink and settled down, still beaming.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the bell rang and freed me from the bondage of Mussolini and his ‘Blackshirts’!

Economics followed History. I gave out a helpless sigh as I walked inside the classroom preparing myself for another forty-five minutes of scattered concentration and tiring eye-contact. But no sooner had I settled down than like a perfect stroke of luck, the school prefect came to break the news that our teacher was on a leave and we were to continue with the unfinished assignments ‘in perfect silence’.

I was overjoyed at how well indeed my luck was favoring me that morning. I had completed the assignment ages ago. So, now I would be able to relax in my moments of ‘perfect silence’ which was in itself a myth, because I believed silence could never be perfect. ‘The earth has music for those who listen…’ However, I was elated because it would give me an opportunity to think out solutions to the cornered problems and help me de-clutter my overburdened mind.

But… DANG!!! My peaceful moment of silence got encroached upon when Ariana, my so-called ‘buddy’, an indefatigable talker came and occupied the vacant seat next to mine.

“Hey Rose!” she chirped with a broad lip-gloss smile
“Whachadoin’ buddy?”

Getting disturbed by your intrusion, I guess.

“Hmm… just like that, killing time,” I managed a little smile.

“Haaahhh! Don’t tell me you’ve completed your assignment!” she spoke with a diaphanous blink which was supposed to express surprise and wonder but triggered in me nothing but an urge to be brief and curt.

“Yeah!” I replied honestly “Long back!”

“Okeeey! That’s superb!” she cried, indubitably pleased “Would you mind givin’ me company?”

Why me out of all the people? Do I look that charitable kind?

“Actually my boyfriend, Jackson is absent today… and I was kinda feelin’ lonely,” she stressed on the words my ‘boyfriend’ in a way that made me flinch. Oh, how I hated that term! Couldn’t she express her love in a better way? How could she downgrade such a beautifully noble sentiment with such a frivolous term? Anyway, there was nothing much I could do but spend the rest of the minutes listening to a doleful monologue.

“Yeah sure!” I replied as merrily as possible “Does that require asking? Of course, I’ll give you company!”

Damn! Damn! Damn! Why the hell don’t people mind their own business and let the others live in peace? Why the hell do I have to be so generous all the time? Yeah, if she wanted to talk about books, music, literature, space, dreams, life and death I’d definitely be willing to let her go on for as many minutes and hours as she liked but this was ridiculous!

She sat there heartily contented and clasped her hands before her sparkling eyes just like she always did before launching into a spicy conversation. It was one of those disgusting moments when my sarcasm was so polished that it invited more trouble, quite unlike what I had expected. At times I hated myself. Not because my polished sarcasm glided above people’s heads but because of the fact that my words and thoughts didn’t traverse a parallel plane like Miami’s. I hated pretending. I hated it like anything. It lowered me in my own eyes. It made me feel like a hypocrite but ‘at times’ I couldn’t help.

“Actually last night,” she began, a slight touch of anxiety deepening her emerald eyes, “I received a call from Jackson. It was way past midnight when he informed that he’s down with measles.”

Exactly what I had guessed. NOW ALL THE BEST TO ME! Hope I don’t hit my head hard on the desk in a couple of minutes.

“You know I was so damn upset that I… I cried my eyes off the entire night!” she continued, her forehead creasing in agony at last night’s reminiscence “And mom was so worried! I mean Jackson and I, we aren’t used to being apart. Now he’ll be in for a quarantine and I don’t know how I’ll spend my days without him. It makes me so anxious to be away from him. Oh my poor Jackson! How I miss you!”

I felt my lower jaw about to drop as I looked at the tears welling up in her eyes. I wanted to say,
Chill man! It’s just measles. He’s not a kid!

But I only said, “He’ll be okay Ariana! Please don’t cry. And nowadays, measles isn’t a big deal at all! I’m sure he’ll be fine and get back to you by next Thursday!”
He’s not dead for God’s sake.

“You’re sure, right?” she half-sobbed, holding the end of her hanky at the corner of her right eye so that the teardrop wouldn’t interfere with her carefully applied mascara.

“Yeah! Absolutely!” I replied, trying to sound confident and then took her hands in mine and gave them a squeeze.

“Thanks!” she smiled, her golden brown curls bouncing against her ears.

Then quickly running her fingers through her hair, she launched into a whole new topic again.

“Tell me!” she asked excitedly, the sparkle in her eyes back “How’s Robby?”

The change in topic was so abrupt and unheralded that it blew me completely off-guard. For a moment I looked at her knowing not what to say. I had never spoken to her about Robby before. I had never spoken to anyone about Robby before. Not in PHS. And definitely not when it came to Ariana. I had never really spoken to her about anything in fact. Where would I get the chance? I would only nod and sigh, ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ while she’d go on and on blabbering about her boyfriends, her social life, the couple of stones that she had recently put on, her latest tattoos, bellybuttons and piercings, the day she had used cornflower instead of baking powder and the cake reeked, the night she stayed out with some DJ guy after having successfully convinced her mom that she was going for a girl’s night out with Lara and company. But never about Robby. Or maybe twice. However, they were insignificant, in-the-passing snippets. Nothing important. Nothing worth thinking about twice.

“Great, I suppose!” I replied, confused.

However, she was determined to continue.
“But he wasn’t looking his usual self this morning. He looked somehow unmindful, you know. He wasn’t speakin’ to any of the boys either. You know what? I almost thought you broke up with him!”

She bit her lip immediately, perhaps realizing that she had crossed her borders. And as for me, I was shocked! Shocked beyond belief. Bewildered. Confounded. Scandalized! What the hell was she speaking? Break-up? Where did that come from? I went perfectly blank for a moment…

“What are you saying Ariana?” I muttered a moment later, slowly but seriously “Break-up? He’s just my best friend.”

“I’m sorry Rose” she apologized “It was a mistake. I just… sort of repeated what everybody was sayin’. Please don’t misunderstand me.”

Her apology upset me even more. Everybody was saying? Did people around me really think that way? That I was in love with my best friend? That we were in a relationship? I was flabbergasted! Closing my eyes and counting to ten didn’t help. I shuddered at the thought of what Robby would have done if he’d get to know about it. But as for me, well, I would be grateful if given a chance to officially announce the unvarnished truth in the general microphone outside the head’s office.

For the time being, I took a deep breath and said, “Look Ariana! I don’t know what people around think about Robby and me,” I paused. I was running out of breath already “but let me tell you, there’s nothing like that between us, okay? We’re just best friends, that’s all! I can never even dream of seeing Robby in any other light and I’m more than sure he feels the same way too.” I stopped abruptly.

Ariana nodded solemnly as she replied, “I can understand, Rose. It happens you know. But…”

“But what?”

“Hmm… Are you sure that Robby doesn’t feel for you? I mean, you know, otherwise…”

“ABSOLUTELY NOT!” I interrupted somewhat loudly. Some of my ‘mere classmates’ turned around to look at me. I blushed as I immediately lowered my gaze and began playing with my fingers to distract myself.

A mute silence followed. Unbelievable! Ariana didn’t speak another word but my head throbbed with the words she had just said. They were so loud and echoed so many times that it seemed as if she was still speaking. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard and I was perfectly clueless about how to feel. I definitely didn’t feel great. Neither awful. It was a ridiculous feeling. Somewhere in the middle of awful and great. Perhaps there was a mistake. Perhaps I had heard her wrong. But of
course, I knew I didn’t.

After a moment I dared, “What makes you think so?”

“What makes me think what?”

“That… that he feels for me,” I stammered.

“I hope you won’t mind if I said that?”

“Not the least!” I hated suspense.

“Okay,” she began uneasily, scratching her temples “The way he looks at you… you know… it’s… it’s different. I think he really likes you. And… umm… the way he always tries to protect you, like, as if you are his…”

“Do you even know what you’re saying?” I interrupted defensively.

“I’m just stating my opinion, Rose. It’s you who asked for it.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry but let me tell you something. Robby looks at everybody that way, Ariana! As if he’s examining you under a microscope. But that doesn’t mean he’s in love with everyone, does it? It’s just that he’s freaking observant. He takes in every little detail.”

“No Rose, no!” now she was the one to interrupt “Robby doesn’t look at anybody that way. He hardly cares for anyone but you. I’d rather say he’s always gone overboard in that, consistently ignoring the ones who try to seek his attention, pissing them off. The girls especially. It teases them out of their minds. But when it comes to you we hardly know who he is. It seems as if he’s completely another person. You’ve never noticed it because that’s how it has always been for you.”

“What do you… what do you mean?” my heart palpitated.

“He’s totally a different kinda person when he’s with you,” she replied “Usually he never talks to any of the girls except when there’s an absolute necessity, and even when he does, it’s in a way too formal. He’s always so damn serious and aloof that people often mistake it all for pride and arrogance…”

“He’s not,” I interrupted, defending him once again “He’s not proud and arrogant.”

“I know,” said Ariana holding my hand “I know that. It’s quite natural for you to feel that way because he’s never gone on like that with you. He’s an entirely different guy with you around. I’ve often noticed it, the way he smiles, looks at you, speaks to you, holds your hand, it seems as if you both live in… in a totally different world. A world of your own. A world away from friends, parties, hangouts. Away from almost everythin’, cocooned to each other. And it drives them crazy,” she paused “Are you gettin’ my point?”

“Who’re them?”

“The other girls, I mean,” Ariana rolled her eyes.

I merely nodded for the sake of responding, she continued, “And don’t you see? He’s so protective about you. Poor Ron had a pretty hard time when Robby came to know that he was plannin’ to ask you on a date…”

“WHAT?” I exclaimed, bewildered “Ron, you mean Ron Shinoda? The ice-cream parlor guy? Erica’s boyfriend?”

“No!” her eyes dilated “Ronnie Newton! Captain of the cricket team. Robby’s classmate. Oh c’mon! The entire school knows him.”

Whoa! It was really news! I never knew anything about it. Ronnie Newton? Wanted to ask me on a date? Why on earth? Why me out of all the other people? Unbelievable!

“Robby never told me a word about it,” I muttered, stunned.

“Rose, believe me!” she said earnestly “This is true! Everybody knows about it. They had a hard row in the Science Block last week on the day you were absent. But I thought you knew about it. I mean, someone should have told you, isn’t it? How come you know nothin’?”

“Trust me Ariana, I have no idea what are you talking about. And why the hell would Ronnie Newton want to ask me out?”

“To mess with Robby perhaps,” she shrugged “They’ve always been at loggerheads anyway, especially after the soccer tournament and Robby’s spectacular victory.”

“But what’s Newton got to do anything with soccer?” I asked “He was not even in the team. He doesn’t play soccer, does he?”

“It’s just rivalry Rose,” she replied “Newton has never been buddies with Robby, as you already know. He’s always tried to mess with him. And the fact that Rob never gives a damn, drives him crazy. Both are freakin’ popular but there’s one huge difference between them which Ronnie’s well aware of. Maybe he’s the rich, hot, daddy’s spoilt brat, but he’s not as sought after as Robby is. Ron’s nothing but a Casanova with fine airs and a dirty mind. Whereas Robby is someone who people look up to. He’s got a purpose in life, a goal to reach, quite unlike the other guys around. He’s really rare, Rose. The juniors literally take him as their role model. Yup, a few may call him proud and arrogant but it’s only because they know they’ll never be able to cross their borders with him. He’s not a jerk like Newton, he is focused and he knows what he’s got to do. He’s got better things to do in life than hang around with a new chick every day. It’s kind of an insecurity for Newton for he knows he can never become like him.”

I felt a sudden surge of pride within me. I never knew Ariana could talk so much sense. I wanted to give her a hug and definitely wished to hear more on the topic.

“And there is somethin’ else too,” she informed, excited “You know Stella, right? Stella Grace?”

“Yeah!” I replied, nodding. Who didn’t know Stella? She was the most popular girl in our school with the looks straight out of a fashion magazine, a ballet-babe, who, when danced, captivated even the most fastidious eyes with hundreds following her around like pups, much to the envy of every other female inhabitant in Pegasus. I wasn’t very sure if I could include myself in the category. There were only two possibilities. Either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. No middle paths. If I said ‘yes’, I wouldn’t be any different from the other self-obsessed dolls. And I didn’t have to tell myself time and again that I was way different from them. If I said ‘no’, I’d be termed either ‘jealous’ or ‘blind’. Because not being jealous of someone like her was right next to ‘improbable’ if not ‘impossible’. Precisely, Stella was a Diva. I didn’t know how I felt about her but about one thing I was sure, I really didn’t want to fritter away time talking about her and letting the previous and more-important topic fade into oblivion.

“Why? Is something wrong with her?” I asked anyway.

“Well,” said Ariana, rolling her eyes “She proposed to Robby.”

My heart stormed coming to a pause. WHAT? Stella Grace proposed to Robby? When? And he didn’t even deem it necessary to divulge! Not even vaguely! What the hell was he up to?

“When did this happen?” I enquired, trying hard to keep the shock off my voice.

“Two weeks ago. A few days after the tournament.”

Two weeks. That was fourteen days. Three hundred and thirty-six hours! And he never mentioned a word about it to me! Wow! Superb! Awesome! But somehow that wasn’t what bothered me. I was more worried about Robby’s reactions to the alleged proposal. Did he accept or…? Of course he didn’t. He wouldn’t. I knew him better than he knew himself! Why he didn’t tell me? Or… wait! Maybe that’s what he wanted to tell me in the morning. Maybe that’s why he appeared so hesitant, so reluctant, so guilty, so unlike him. My head throbbed. My ears were starting to burn. And it seemed as if my heart was about to jump off a cliff. Uh-oh! What was all this happening to me? Why should I be bothered about it? What Robby did was his business, not mine!

Yet, I couldn’t help asking, “So, what was his… reaction? Did he accept?”

“He rejected right on her face!” Ariana declared, somewhat wickedly glad.

My heart palpitated as I heaved a sigh of relief after having unconsciously held my breath for so long.

“But I have to say I’m really surprised you didn’t have a clue about this either!”

“But why?” I changed the subject, feeling awkwardly relieved and happy, but not willing to show “On what grounds did he reject Stella?”

“He said he had homework to do,” she replied with a laugh “Just imagine! Poor Stella! She couldn’t show up for days after that incident. Quite natural, isn’t it, for someone who’s so used to all that fuss and importance and adoration? But that’s not the point.”

She paused. Evened out her breath. And then continued, “I hope you aren’t unaware of the fact that Newton’s been after Stella for years.”

“What? Really?”

“Yes,” she replied “However, Stella had never let him have his way. She’s always turned him down. So, when the news flew around that Stella Grace was planning to propose to Robby, Ronnie couldn’t keep his pants on anymore. He had to do something to provoke him. Anything at all. Just to get on the wrong side of him. Just to draw his attention, create a spark and make him react in an unfavorable way to bring him down in Stella’s eyes. And I guess, involving your name was his plan.”

I nodded, understanding.

“Because he knew nothing else could be a more effective bait where Robby’s concerned.”

I flinched. Why the hell did people think that way?

“But wait,” she stopped suddenly “He really didn’t tell you any of it?”

“No!” I replied “Trust me, not a word. You are the first one to enlighten me.”

“Strange,” she said, looking out of the window, lost “Why should he hide such things from you?”

Defense mode on. “Maybe because he thought these were unimportant,” I said promptly “He doesn’t really bother much about these typical high-school stuff. He’s got greater things to do in life, like you said.”

“Maybe,” Ariana muttered, unconvinced “Anyway, just forget about it!”

“Yeah” I said, anxious to bring this weird conversation to an end.
And thankfully my luck favored me again as the recess bell rang!
Time for polite courtesies!

“However, thank you Ariana! I wouldn’t have known what people think about our… umm… friendship… hadn’t you told me,” I ended hastily.

I wanted no more of it! I’d had enough. Enough for a day.

“Don’t care what people say buddy! There’s nothing that they love more than rumors, and hate more than actually seeing someone happy,” she said with a casual wink “And please don’t let their insignificant remarks affect you in any way. Do you understand what I mean?”

“Perfectly!” I replied getting up “It was great talking to you Ariana!”
This time I was honest.

“Aww! Same here! Same here!” she smiled, kissing me softly on my cheek “Anytime you wanna talk, don’t hesitate, alright?”

“Sure,” I said with a pang of guilt. Perhaps I had been mistaken about her. She wasn’t that bad after all.

And then, without wasting a single second, I headed towards the canteen. He was waiting for me. There were lots of answers I deserved to know, loads of questions I couldn’t wait to ask! However, I was desperately in need of a clearer mind to execute my plans.

And I hoped he would cooperate…

**********************

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Samragngi Roy

Kolkata, india

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