The Ones Left Behind

Fiction Apr 13, 2020

The street lights at Marine Drive flickered at three in the morning, shining on the stormy souls dragging their feet. Among them were three friends in their mid-twenties. Dressed in all whites, with their heads low and their eyes zonked out, they found a place to sit on the concrete slab facing the sea. None of them said anything for a while and almost like an afterthought, released a collective sigh. “She loved coming here”, the shorter of the two men spoke. All three of them focused their eyes on the horizon they couldn’t see and recollected the countless sunsets they’d spent here eating, gossiping, feeling and just living. “I could
open a tiny library with the amount of books she read watching the sun set right here.” Akshita spoke with a slight smile on her face. “Don’t forget the raw mangoes she devoured. My mom always made a joke out of her cravings saying she was pregnant.” Rehan’s laugh made Akshita’s lips stretch wider. Varun remained silent. “I don’t know why the thought of her pregnant was always so...impossible. She was really good with babies.” Akshita deserted her chappals, crossed her legs and turned towards Rehan.

“Yeah, as long as they weren’t hers!” Rehan snorted and imitated how Aditi would always close her eyes, purse her lips and shake her head from side to side at the thought of her own children. It’s not like she hated the thought of having kids, it was always assumed - even by her - that she wouldn’t. “Her kids would’ve been a force,” He said, averting his eyes back to the sea, “just like she was.” Another round of heavy silence descended upon the three and Varun trembled under its weight.

“How is it so easy for you two?” His gaze focused on the floor and a frown cemented on his forehead, Varun spoke out in what sounded like half anger and half resignation. The others didn’t say a word and continued breathing against the sound of the waves. “Tell me.”

“Tell you what?” said Akshita sharply. She crossed her hands and put them on top of her legs and looked at Varun.

“How is it so easy for you to talk about her?” With an unwilling throat, Varun whispered. Akshita’s eyes softened as she uncrossed her arms. She took a deep breath and said, “It’s not.” She let loose a tear as the two boys looked on. Varun pulled his legs up to his chest and rested his forehead on his knees. A car sped by, honking at the air, startling the dog sleeping across from them. Not one of them seemed to notice.

“Did you eat something?” Akshita put her palm on Varun’s head and put a loose strand of hair back in its place. She repeated the question when she received no reply.

“He probably has no appetite. Leave him alone.” Rehan had finally given into his tick and had begun to play with the multi-purpose pocket knife that he always carried around with him.

“You haven’t had anything either, have you? All three of us need to eat something.” She took hold of Varun’s hand, grasped it tighter for a moment and then let it go. Nobody moved.

Rehan looked at his phone, it was four. The hours still felt longer than ever but the seconds weren’t as torturous anymore. His eyes didn’t hurt and he didn’t breathe fire anymore. The hiccups down his throat had calmed down some time ago and his thirst had returned with a vengeance. “I’ll go get us some water.” He put on his white sneakers that he had deserted alongside Akshita’s chappals, straightened his jabbha from the back, put the pocket knife back where it belonged and started walking.

“Where will you find water at this hour?” Rehan just shrugged and walked on. Dragging his feet he looked up at a streetlight, closed his eyes, put his hands in his pockets and touched the pocket knife again. Without realizing he walked towards a tiny chai and sutta shop right next to a now closed library. Uncalled for yet missed, a memory returned to him exhausted. About four years ago, she had bumped into him right here and his cheeks had never known a brighter shade of red. She had seen the cigarette between his fingers though he had been quick to crush it under his slippers and he was left holding a half empty cup of chai he didn’t intend on drinking. With a slight shake of her head, she had moved the bag of books to her left arm and downed the leftover chai. Noticing his gaze on the weight in her hand she had smiled, “I won’t tell if you won’t”. They had spent that evening talking and catching up about the months they’d been away from their homes. It turned out she loved her life in the UK and he had finally begun to understand the extent of loneliness one felt when away, the kind she never let out her lips. She had begun to look less and less like the wonder woman everyone thought her to be. He had told her about his university life and his plans after graduation, and she had laughed louder hearing him whine about wanting to come back home. She had texted him that night after they’d gone home saying she was proud to have finally found one flaw in him, but that she’d rather prefer him die of actual causes than the self-made. That was the last day he had ever held a smoking cigarette in his hand. Though that little shop became their meeting point whenever they’d come back home for holidays.

“Do you want something?” The owner’s nasal voice made him realize he had been staring at the shop for a minute too long. After some consideration, he bit his lip and asked for a packet of Marlboro. He borrowed a lighter from the old man next to him who gave him a disapproving look. He brought three bottles of water, put them in a plastic bag and took a long drag of his cigarette before his feet decided to move. But they didn’t go too far. He sat down against the shutter of the library and took another drag. He remained there until he finished two more cigarettes and a bottle of water. He couldn’t move. He thought maybe if he waited long enough, she’d come out from behind the shutter eventually. The hiccups returned and the aftertaste of the cigarette was gone, instead he tasted the sea. Holding his chest, he hit the back of his head on the shutter a few times and let himself break.

Akshita had been silent for a while now and Varun’s eyes began closing against his will,
though his mind rejected peace. Against the blackness of his eyelids, he conjured her up. It was a memory of them meeting for the first time, her looking up at him with wide eyes and instant dislike. She had whispered to Akshita back then about who this gangster looking boy was. Varun had turned his back on her then, not thinking much of the comment or the person. He remembered the next time they’d met and he had found out about her interest in literature. He had wondered how someone could read so much and despite the world being so hostile to the concept, called herself a staunch Feminist. He had made up his mind that day that she was unusual and that he’d keep away from her. Varun laughed and thanked god that he hadn’t lived up to that promise. Aditi had changed his life in more ways than he could remember. He thought of the day they had her going-away party. She had beaten him up – quite literally – as he stole the biggest piece of the cake and asked him to keep in touch and threatened to bury him if he didn’t. He had paid more attention to the cake than her and so she had punched him in the gut and whacked him on the head and he had apologized and promised her his life. They had all instantly fallen on the floor, laughing until their stomachs couldn’t stretch inward anymore. His closed eyes couldn’t barricade his emotions. He thought of three years ago when on his birthday, she’d come with the others to surprise him near his hostel with a bigger cake in her hand and with everyone else had witnessed his very public and humiliating break-up with his girlfriend. After the fiasco, everyone had kind of given up on celebrating and left for home, except she’d come back with two iced coffees in her hands and listened to him cry. For the next few weeks she had been his constant support and companion for quirky little trips in and out of town whenever he felt like he couldn’t breathe. And then she’d left for London again. In the night when he’d call her-right when she would start her day-to see how she was doing, she’d always say she was fine, but then he’d heard about her suicide attempt and the news was just as unbelievable back then as the tragedy was in his present day. She always had a smile plastered on her face wherever she went. Though she didn’t laugh out loud a lot with the others, she had always seemed quite happy in the moment. He couldn’t understand for the life of him what went wrong. “Wasn’t she happy?”

“She was sometimes...” Akshita sniffled, “and other times she wasn’t.”

“How did you know when she wasn't?” Varun looked up and wiped his eyes with the back of his hands. “At first, I had no idea.” Akshita began playing with the loose threads of her kurti. “She wouldn’t let a soul know how she truly felt...ever. Then eventually I figured out she wasn’t always the face she put on for people you know. She was sick; sick of people. She couldn’t bare anyone around her for more than a particular amount of time, be it us or even her parents. She told me that just being around people exhausted her. She didn’t hate people. It’s just that she didn’t always want to keep up the pretence. I remember when we were fifteen, it was the first time she’d opened up to me about how she really felt being herself. I didn’t really understand what she had said back then but eventually growing up with her put things in perspective for me. She’d said something like, ‘I am in constant conflict with myself. There’s another darker, sadder me within me. On my best days, she doesn’t stand a chance, but on my worse...It is an impossible fight Aksh, I just hope I can make it last longer than I expect it’s going to last’.

“If you knew, didn’t you try and help her? Didn’t anybody?” Varun couldn’t believe what Akshita was saying. Her words meant Aditi had always been this way. He hated himself for not seeing it before and not doing something...anything to help her out. Maybe he could’ve prevented this week from happening if he had.

“Don’t blame yourself.” Akshita gauged his expression with a startling accuracy. “I tried. Believe me, I did. Some people just cannot be helped.” Varun pressed his temples with his palms and closed his eyes once again.

Rehan walked towards the two with two bottles in his hand, the plastic bag abandoned somewhere on the road with an almost full cigarette packet inside. Akshita gave him a strange look when he sat down next to them but said nothing. He offered them the bottles and Akshita drank half of it in one go. Varun didn’t even open his. It was almost five now. The three of them sat in each other’s company without further interactions. A milkman and his bicycle passed by them with the large can clanking at his side. Akshita watched its tyres as Rehan watched the sea suddenly reveal a few fishermen’s boats. Varun gazed at the starless sky while lying on his back. His mind, much to his relief, spluttered random thoughts at a descending speed and he began to doze off.

Far away in the distance, Rehan saw a tall man with a coat on his one arm and a suitcase on the other running towards them. In seconds he was within hearing distance and his features shadowed his face under the shadows of dawn. He looked like he hadn’t slept a wink. He gave a sad smile when Akshita got up and took him in her embrace. Varun got up and rubbed his eyes and after a second hugged the man tight. Rehan acknowledged him with a nod as he sat down beside him. They looked at each other’s faces for a minute and then he reached into his coat pocket and took out a letter and gave it to Akshita. She stared at the letter, not really wanting to accept it. She snatched it out of his hand regardless and tore at the envelope. The paper inside was once a part of Aditi’s diary which she’d refused to show anyone. It was the diary they’d all gifted her when she turned eighteen. She thought of the awfully done sketches on the first few pages of it, showing a comic-like, rather poor imitation of the animated faces she was prone to making while she excitedly explained her point, whatever it be. She wanted to see those once more to burn them into memory because god knew she’d never be able to see the actual thing again. She choked down her tears and began reading.

Dear Akshita,
I won’t begin by apologizing. Instead, I want to tell you how much I love you. You know I do. More than you can imagine. It feels almost as if, if I could live one more day, I’d do it for no one but you. But you know I can’t. I tried. Please don’t hate me, I really did. I was happy you know. I had you, Ashish, Rehan and surprisingly even Varun in my life and I will never forget
those moments with all of you.

This time Akshita could not keep it together and she had to stop reading because the words kept getting lost somewhere inside of her and her eyes couldn’t make out their shapes on paper anyway. Rehan took the letter and with a straight face began reading it out loud.

I know this came out of nowhere and I hope you’re not being too hard on yourself. It may be the end for me but it’s only the beginning for you. I hope you live with twice the passion now, some for you and some for me. Aksh, you know I love you right? I could’ve never made it this far without you, you know that right? Tell everyone to take a week off if they need to but then when the week is over; forget I did this to you. I know my selfishness seems unparalleled right now and maybe it is. I won’t ask for more than a little understanding. The reason I sent this letter through Ashish is because of two reasons, one was because I couldn’t have you read it alone. I know how you like to pretend you’re stronger than everyone else and that nothing affects you. Let him help you just this once and do me a favour, help him too. God knows he’s going to need all of you to make it through. Make him laugh as often as you can and tell him he’s the most beautiful when he does. Love him for me. The second reason is the better one out of the two, don’t worry. I’d sent him a package with this letter. Tell him to give it to you.

Ashish handed her the package. Rehan took out his pocket knife and wrecked the packaging apart. The inside revealed a children’s book except the animated characters on the cover were Akshita and her fiancé. It was story of how they’d met - narrated by Aditi- for Akshita’s baby. Akshita held the book to her chest and whimpered. It wasn’t long before her whimpers turned to sobs and then wails. She had never known such physical pain. Her heart broke for herself, ached for Aditi’s family, burned for the four of them but most of all, it bled for Aditi. With a sullen voice Rehan read, ‘Congratulations Aksh!’

Akshita put her hand on her belly and looked at the book again. She thought of how just a few weeks ago they’d talked on the phone. Aditi had sounded like she’d gotten a severe case of cold and Akshita had yelled at her to take better care of herself before breaking the news to her. Akshita had revealed to her the terror she felt being pregnant before marriage and Aditi had chased the fear away and had practically yelled through the phone, “Oh my god! I’m going to become an aunt!” Akshita had heard her jumping around the house and hugging Ashish who hadn’t yet been informed of the new development in her life. Ashish had called Akshita later in the night to congratulate her and revealed how Aditi had cried in his arms for almost an hour after they’d done talking. He hadn’t confessed he’d cried with her too but Akshita knew. Varun hugged Akshita as she cried on his shoulder and Rehan read the rest of the letter.

Aksh, love that kid twice as much for me please. Tell him or her, whatever it is, of who I was. Don’t leave out the mischievous bits. I know it’s cruel but I’d like the kid to know there was someone who would’ve loved him or her just as much as their mom will. You and Darshan are perfect for each other and everyone knows it. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for your wedding Aksh. I’m sorry for everything. I will always love you from wherever I am.

Yours until forgotten,
Aditi.

Rehan folded the letter and gave it back to Ashish who hadn’t stopped shedding tears of his own since he’d arrived. Ashish put it back in the envelope, took the book from Akshita and put it between its pages. “Did she leave anything for you?” Akshita asked when her sobs turned into hiccups. Ashish nodded and looked at the sea, yet disclosed no further knowledge. Varun offered Akshita his bottle of water. She took a sip and put it away.

Aditi’s laughter rang in their ears, her smile materialized against the sun and they could, somehow, almost feel her next to them. They were glad the night was over but they didn’t look forward to the day. Despite the sadness they felt, the hunger in their stomachs returned. With the first light of the day, the people of the city began pooling out onto the streets. The street vendor of raw mangoes met his first clients on the concrete slab. With a satisfying amount of masala, he sold five servings in a go. The sky painted itself pink and then orange and then red and the party of four sat there eating raw mangoes, reading the book Akshita
received out loud while looking at the sun make the world its own canvas.

-Aneri Shah

Writing Competition 2020

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