A Cold November Afternoon

Something was wrong.

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Amelia shivered as a gust of wind swept across the deserted yard. She rubbed her hands up and down her bare arms in a vain attempt to trick her body into believing she was warm and comfortable. She stood on to her tiptoes and craned her neck in the direction of the tiny gate. Still no sign of Chris. No sign of anyone, actually. Not even the priest. You’d think at least the man of God officiating the wedding ceremony would show up at the venue on time. She found it absurd how quiet the place was, when in fact it should have been filled with the sound of music as Chris’ brother walked her down the aisle.

Admittedly, the chapel was far flung, to say the least. But everyone had been given precise directions. And Chris knew. Yet there she was: a young girl standing all alone at the doorsteps of a locked chapel in her wedding dress, waiting for her groom, guests and minister to arrive.

She took off her veil and wrapped the flimsy material around herself— once again, not a very helpful attempt at keeping the cold from raising gooseflesh down her arms. “They’ll be here any minute.” She whispered herself as her teeth chattered. “It’s not possible for everyone to forget, or lose their way and give up. And Chris will definitely come.”

Her legs began to ache. She considered sitting down but quashed the idea almost instantly— the steps she stood on were mysteriously dusty, as if nobody had bothered to sweep them for the wedding, and they would most certainly ruin her pristine white gown. So she slipped off her heels, held her gown above her ankles and walked about a little, glancing eagerly toward the gate every now and then.

‘What kind of wedding planner doesn’t get the venue decorated?’ She thought to herself angrily as she surveyed the untidy yard. Autumn leaves were strewn all over the place, and while they lent a lovely orange-red hue to the atmosphere, it simply wouldn’t do to have them flying in everyone’s faces once the ceremony began. And she saw no sign of the standard arrangements any sane person would expect at any simple gathering: no chairs or tables, no food or drinks … and certainly none of the beautiful flowers and drapes she had picked out to liven up her cold November “I do” afternoon. And then there were the steps. Those bothered her the most. Was she expected to get married to the love of her life with dust flying into both their eyes?

Suddenly, she felt the hair on the nape of her neck stand. A chill ran down her spine. Clearly, something was wrong. Everyone couldn’t have forgotten. No wedding planner would let a client get married in such a state of disrepair. No minister would fail to reach a wedding ceremony he was to officiate. And Chris would definitely never abandon her.

Confused and frightened as she was, she couldn’t shake off her strong feeling of déjà vu. She strode towards the gate she’d been eyeing all afternoon, pushed it open and walked down the overgrown lane. She wondered how such obvious absence of any signs of life hadn’t struck her as odd when she had arrived 4 hours ago. Suddenly, without knowing exactly why, she broke into a run. Somehow her heels and gown and veil getting dirty and torn seemed inconsequential. Something was wrong.

It was well past dusk when she reached the main road. And still, she found herself alone. In the dark. Fear gripped her like never before, and she let out a scream. Nobody came. Silence. And then suddenly, “Amelia?”

Amelia spun around, her heart pounding. She knew that voice. “Aaron?” She gasped and stumbled backwards. Clearly, she was hallucinating. Her younger brother had been dead for ten years. She had buried his mangled remains, with the rest of her mutilated family. Her statement had sent the drunk driver that killed them all to prison. She blinked multiple times, hoping for this vision to disappear. He got blurry, but that was probably because she was tearing up. When they spilled out from her eyes, hot against her cheeks, he still stood there, two feet away from her, as clear as day, and surprisingly unmarked and unscarred.

“Amelia …” Aaron approached her slowly. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Amelia blurted out, catching herself unawares.

Aaron raised one eyebrow.

“You’re dead.” Amelia said to him, though she was obviously trying to remind herself of the fact.

“Yes. That’s why you need to come with me.”

Amelia felt a stab of pain as everything came rushing back to her— the week before her wedding … the final alteration of her wedding dress … the shop caving in … bricks upon bricks crushing her body, squeezing the air out of her lungs and agonizing pain through every fiber of her being …

Amelia’s knees gave way and she felt a thud as she sat on the road. Tears streaming down her face, she saw fire-fighters pull her lifeless body from the debris and Chris sob over her for half the night. She gave a start as she felt Aaron’s gentle touch on her forearm.

“Chris buried you today. Right next to me.”

“So … instead of a wedding … I had a funeral?”

Aaron nodded sadly as Amelia rocked back and forth, sobbing into her veil.

After what felt like eternity, she looked up. Aaron was sitting beside her cross-legged, waiting patiently as she came to terms with the tragedy.

“Now what?”

“Now,” said Aaron, getting to his feet and beckoning her to follow suit, “you come with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To Mom and Dad.”

“Heaven?”

Aaron smiled. “Well we don’t call it that … but yeah, sure.”

“But— I need to … I need Chris to know that … that I loved him till the very end.”

“But there is no end.” Aaron said simply. “Chris will join us when his time comes. And you will still love him. And he knows.”

***

“Amelia!”

Amelia rushed into his embrace. It had been years since she had felt his comforting arms hold her against his strong chest … since she’d breathed in the sweet scent of his body and felt his breath on her neck …

“Chris!”

“We have unfinished business.” He said to her with a grin.

“Yes we do!” Amelia nodded happily.

“I’m so glad you have everything ready, Amelia. I will not lose this chance again.”

Amelia smiled, intertwined her fingers in his and led him down the path to the chapel.

And so, on another cold November afternoon, many years down the line, in a chapel infinitely more special than the one whose gate they’d met at, Chris and Amelia finally had their “I do” moment in the company of their families in the tranquility of the afterlife, where there was no death to do them part …

Love at First Sight

I guess you could say it was love at first sight. Even though I didn’t see her entire face. Just her eyes – two kohl-lined jewels of perfection … two sparkling gemstones perhaps a shade somewhere between the richness of caramel and the elegance of rosewood, that drifted past all they saw with an impossible combination of innocence and sensuality.

They wandered constantly, with unreal grace, revealing a million dreams and concealing a million emotions … two flawless orbs of infinite depth and bottomless mystery, sometimes – momentarily – betraying the agony of shattered dreams and unspoken words with a glaze of glistening teardrops from heaven.

So entranced was I by those mesmerising eyes that I never got past them, and before I knew it, she was gone: her Goddess-like elusiveness replaced by the blackness of the insides of my eyelids … terminating my only encounter with the girl of my dreams.

Treasure Hunt

A fictional tale of love set in a true incident of terror. In memory of November 26, 2008. To remind us that despite all the bloodshed, horror and mindless violence, love will prevail.

“Smile!”

It was an unnecessary instruction. Treasure hunt was by far Samraat’s favourite game. The challenge of locating the clues scattered along the path and the rush to be the first one to figure it all out and grab the prize enthralled him. He especially loved how the best clues weren’t really all that hidden, but instead, placed quite openly, simply masquerading as innocent objects of the general environment. He had always thought it strange for his friends to be unable to see what, to him, was painfully obvious.

He clutched the gift-wrapped box close to his chest and grinned toothily at the blinding flash.

***

“You look terrible.”

“Thank you, Samraat; you always know just what to say.”

“Seriously, Nidhi. You need rest.”

“Just go. I have coffee to keep me alive. And this is the last overnight ObGyn emergency I’m attending; I swear!”

“And the last night on the town you’re missing too. Abhinav is gonna be so mad!”

“So clubbing is supposed to provide me with all this much-needed rest? Get him a beer from my side and he’ll forget all about it. He’s your brother after all!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Nidhi checked her watch, smiling slightly. “It’s 8. I have to go.”

***

“Again?”

“Sorry man. She’s a nerd.”

“Yeah I can see that, but this is getting insane!”

“You can’t tell me you’re not used to it.”

“I am … I dunno how you handle it!”

“What’s to handle?”

Abhinav sighed as he slipped into the driver’s seat. “Sometimes you’re so stupid that I can’t believe we share DNA.”

“What?”

“You’ve lost your talent.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That.” Abhinav shook his head in disappointment, pointing vaguely in Samraat’s direction.

Samraat felt enormously exasperated. Abhinav could be such a girl sometimes: talking in riddles, expecting everyone to understand and then getting outraged when nobody did.

Samraat gave a start as his brother honked loudly to jerk him out of his reverie. “Get in the car before it’s my next birthday!”

***

Ramya laughed. “You are so funny!” Samraat was well aware that he actually wasn’t, but she was still smiling. Which could mean only one thing: he was so in!

He decided to try his luck. “Wanna dance?”

Ramya looked thrilled. “A doctor who can dance? Are you for real?”

He flashed his dimples at her. Things were going to get interesting!

There was a sudden explosion of loud music from the bar they were resting on. Samraat looked down to find his phone ringing. Talk about rotten timing!

“Hi Preeti.” Samraat answered, his tone making it amply clear to his sister that he wasn’t at all happy with the interruption.

“Are you guys okay?” She was screaming hysterically despite the sore throat that had prevented her from coming out that night.

“Of course! Why?”

“Listen; get out of there right now! But be careful!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You guys are at Prive, right?”

“No. We chose Velvet Lounge instead.” He heard a sigh of relief. “Preeti, what’s happening?”

“There are terrorists all over South Bombay!”

“WHAT?” Samraat thundered disbelievingly. Ramya looked scared.

“There was firing at Leopold’s, and now there are 2 armed guys shooting around at VT! Please get home!” Preeti was clearly almost in tears. “I know you guys are far away but who knows where the rest of these crackos are? Mum and Dad aren’t in town and I can’t be alone. Please!”

“Yeah, we’re leaving right now. Don’t worry.”

“ABHINAV!” Samraat roared as he flung cash on the counter.

“What’s going on?” Ramya asked him, fearfully.

“Terror attack.” Samraat answered shortly, as he scanned the drunken crowd for their madly-in-love siblings.

“What? Where?”

“Colaba and VT. We’re dropping you girls off and heading home right away.” He shoved his way towards Abhinav and Tanvi, pulling Ramya behind him. It seemed an inappropriate time for him to notice that she had wonderfully soft hands.

***

Abhinav, Preeti and Samraat huddled in front of the television. A news channel had a grainy CCTV video clip of a young terrorist brandishing an AK-47 at VT playing on loop, as the newsreader stated that he had confirmed news that they had finally left the premises, but regrettably, very much alive, and still armed.

An approximate death toll of 27 flashed under a banner of ‘BREAKING NEWS.’ It seemed an optimistic estimate though; VT was always teeming with people.

“Wait … I’m getting a new input!” The newsreader announced as he adjusted his earpiece and listened intently. “There’s been firing at Cama Hospital!”

There was a crash as the glass in Samraat’s hand fell to the floor. Cama Hospital. Nidhi. It took him less than a second to connect the 3 words. How could he have forgotten? How had it not struck him when Preeti had mentioned VT? The 2 buildings are within walking distance of each other. Was he really such a selfish jerk that he didn’t care about his best friend just because he was flirting with some stupid bimbo?

“Nidhi.” Samraat whispered in shock. Abhinav was already watching him apprehensively. Samraat swallowed once, stood up and grabbed the car keys off the table.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Preeti demanded to know.

“Nidhi.” He replied stupidly.

“What?”

“You’re staying here.” Abhinav informed him, reaching for the keys.

“Nidhi!” Samraat insisted urgently.

“Sam, there’s … nothing you can do.”

“But—”

“Maybe she left early.” Abhinav said, rather too optimistically. Even he knew Nidhi too well for that.

“No, she—”

“Even if she didn’t, she’ll be fine.” Abhinav was clearly increasingly beginning to lose faith in his own words.

“You don’t know that! I have to go there!”

“The area is sealed, Sam.”

“But I should be there! With her!” Samraat could only repeat the single thought in his mind.

“Do you want to get shot?” Preeti look terrified just at the thought.

“I don’t care, I just—”

Abhinav sympathetically pulled him into a comforting hug. In a flash, the hug seemed familiar— the emotion was just like it had been the only time Samraat had lost a game of treasure hunt at a birthday party— and Abhinav’s girly riddle from earlier that evening suddenly made perfect sense. He was right. Samraat had lost his talent of seeing what everyone else couldn’t … in fact, now he couldn’t even see what everyone else could. He was losing his treasure hunt. Worst case scenario: he’d already lost it.

He blinked a few times to clear his suddenly-blurred-vision, only to feel 2 warm streaks making their way down his cheeks.

***

Loud guitaring jerked Samraat awake. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep in the middle of such a nightmarish situation. He jack-knifed up and grabbed his phone, desperately praying for it to be Nidhi responding to the service text she should have received alerting her about the 100-odd missed calls he had left her. An unknown number flashed on the screen.

“Hello?” He bellowed into it.

“Hey, Samraat!” A happy female voice chirped, as if the horror his best friend was going through was just in his imagination.

“Who’s this?” He snapped angrily.

“Ramya!”

Samraat made a disgusted click with his tongue and hung up. Gone were all the illusions of her cuteness. Who wanted a spineless suck-up for a girlfriend? And what real use were soft hands, exactly, if they were attached to someone that brain dead?

“What’s happening?” He asked his siblings as he redialled Nidhi’s number for the nth time.

“There’s been one death at Cama.” Abhinav said solemnly.

Samraat froze. There was a short pause, during which he heard the same recorded message he’d heard countless number of times within the past 2 hours: ‘The number you are trying to reach is out of coverage area.’

“It’s not Nidhi.” Preeti grinned.

A wave of relief swept over him. He laughed before he could stop himself.

Abhinav gave him a thump on the back, grinning widely.

Samraat jumped to his feet and turned to Preeti. “Now can I go?”

“Are you really that stupid? You’re staying here until this is all over.” Elder sisters can be so bossy!

“But—”

“Look, she’s a hard-working intern in a hospital that just got attacked by terrorists. She’ll be busy.” Abhinav had never been so sensible.

***

It had been 3 days and Nidhi was still there. Samraat should have known she’d stay back and help to the point of exhaustion, even though she’d just gone through the same nightmare as them. He watched her from outside the Labour Ward. Her hair was a mess. Her eyes were red and swollen from lack of sleep. Her apron was spattered with blood. And she still looked beautiful.

For a moment, he contemplated barging into the room and dragging her away from the delivery he couldn’t believe she had energy left to be assisting. Then he thought of how overworked she must be, and decided she didn’t need more drama from him. He’d waited 3 agonising days … what were a few more minutes?

1 placenta later, he saw Nidhi pull off her gloves and head to the basin to wash up. Another 2 minutes and she was out, looking ready to collapse.

Before her tired brain could register his presence, he had enveloped her in his arms— blood and all. In no time, she was sobbing into his shirt, mumbling things about showers of bullets, evil bastards and a dead ward-boy. He kept his face buried in her hair as he stroked it lightly, muttering, “Its okay … its okay …”, until her breathing evened a little.

Then:

“I … am a huge idiot.” He pulled himself free and gently cupped her tear-stained face in his hands.

“Colossal.” She corrected him, her mouth twitching. She clearly already knew exactly what he wanted to say.

Impossibly, standing in the very building that had witnessed gunfire 2 nights ago, they laughed. And shamelessly, in front of an entire corridor of expectant fathers, he kissed her.

“So … I love you.” Samraat whispered goofily.

Nidhi almost glowed. “I know!”

As he pulled her into an embrace again, he caught sight of their reflection in the bullet-hold-ridden elevator doors. This was it. His most important treasure hunt was over. And he’d won. Barely, but still. He’d won! There they were … the way it was always supposed to be … true perfection … Samraat and Nidhi: the king and his treasure.