It is strange how the mind makes connections through the millions of memories. Connecting distant memories in a narrative so convincing, it leaves us wondering why it hadn’t already occurred to us. I find myself in such a daze.
I saw him. Standing in the distant night. Unmoving as the night around him. Watching. I could see his eyes. Unblinking. Unflinching. Unaffected. Colder than the night that he bore out of. Everything froze for the eternity that I was hooked on him. And then came the memories.
As far back as I could remember, Aniya always with me. As were mom and aunt. Dad and uncle had to work, but not the moms. They were always with us. Right by us as we woke, cooing us back to sleep if we awoke early. Washing us. Feeding us. Playing with us. Laughing with us. Showing us things. Teaching us. Telling us stories so we could fall asleep. The four of us had always been together. Until now.
I couldn’t understand why it was so important. Going to school. But everyone else made a big deal of it. Even Aniya. But then, they had always been smarter than me. I could only hope that the first day would show me what it was all about. I wasn’t very welcoming to the idea of being away from home, from mom. But at least Aniya was with me. I couldn’t let go of her hand as we waved goodbye, everyone had come t drop us off on our first day of school. Dad had even brought the camera, recording our first steps through the gate, into school. In a few months, or a few years, we would all be sprawled in front of the tv, laughing as dad put the video on. But today, I couldn’t find the laugh in me. Not even the smile.
At the door to the building, where the lady with the pretty face and a prettier smile was welcoming us children in, I turned to find all four of them waving. Complicated expressions on their faces that I couldn’t make sense of. Smiling, I waved at them with my free hand. Aniya did the same. Neither letting go of the other.
I couldn’t believe Aniya. She had gotten me into this. Here was I, the eternal non-participant. The eternal fleer from attention. Indescribably capable of sufficing with one word where were required ten. And here was I, awaiting my turn at the mike. The final participant of the inter-school annual elocution competition.
When Mr Prasad, our class teacher, announced the changed rule for this year’s annual fest, there was an uproar. There were the few for whom it didn’t make much difference. And then there were the rest, especially the us, for whom it made a lot of difference. Everyone had to participate in at least two competitions. Considering the number of the competitions, it wasn’t very difficult. But for those of us who preferred the joy of being the audience much more, it was time to fight. A fight we lost.
I found competitions that were easy. Painting. And quiz, whose first round was the written test. Considering that other schools would also be sending their students to participate, it was easy to get myself eliminated. I could then put all of myself into supporting Aniya who was undoubtedly going to make it to the final round of her competitions, singing and debate. Knowing my choices even before I did, she stopped my pen as I was writing down the competitions I was in for.
“I want you to take part in elocution,” she declared.
“That’s madness,” I answered, shaking free. But she wouldn’t let go.
“For me,” she said, looking straight into my eyes. With the expression that got her whatever she wanted. There was no resisting when she pulled in that expression.
“That’s fucked up,” I said resignedly, listing elocution and quiz.
That was three weeks ago. I was certain I would be eliminated in the early rounds, before we had to speak in front of an actual audience. How wrong I was. The first round I spoke for a minute of the allotted three minutes on drugs. I spoke of the rockstar life, defined by their music and girls and drugs. I was astonished to find my name in the list of those who made it to the next round. The second round was with the teams from the other schools too, once again in a room with only the judges and other participants as audience. Once again, I was surprised to find my name in the list of ten finalists. I wanted to cry foul and walk away, but there was little I could do. Only brace myself.
And so, here I was, awaiting my turn. The last of the elocutioners, speaking on the stage of the auditorium. How sure I was that I would make a joke of myself. How could my efforts at failing have failed? I spoke what I was sure the judges wouldn’t approve, and I spoke for less than half the given time. Why then had they still sent me onward?
“Because that is how good you are, when you don’t try,” Aniya said, grinning.
Of course she would be grinning. She had been on the very stage an hour ago, singing. From the applause she got, she was most certainly among the top three. Definite to win. Every year, I had to help her carry the trophies home. And I was happy with that.
“This year, I want to carry your trophy home,” she said, reading my mind. “I should enjoy the joy too.”
“Not gonna happen,” I said.
“If only you were right,” she answered.
The second to last walked onto the stage, a girl from the school we had the biggest rivalry with. And the one who was among the best in the previous round. As if it needed to get worse.
“You’ll do great,” Aniya said, readying to leave. Hugging me, in front of the many students back stage who all gave me looks, she whispered into my ear. “For me. Just for me.” Smiling, she rushed back to the audience. She wanted to be in front of the stage, screaming in my support as I walked up.
Breathing deep, and slow. The first time I was standing in front of an audience so large, my first time on stage. Deaf to the applause and the screaming cheers of our school. I could see Aniya clapping hard with the rest of our class. I could see mom and dad on their feet, cheering along with uncle and aunt. I could see mom nodding to me, giving me her signature thumbs-up.
Letting out all the air in me, I started.
I felt silly, to be shaking so hard. It wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t like I needed any more practice. I had written her name a million times. But before today, I hadn't written her name with cream on a cake. It shouldn’t be that difficult. I shouldn’t be shaking so hard.
“It’s ok Ani,” mom whispered, resting her hand on mine. “We’ll do it together.”
I could see why the scene would warrant a few laughs. Not the smile aunt was giving me though. Difficult to read. Luckily there was something more pressing, something demanding all my attention.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, accepting mom’s help.
“It’s just five letters, a name you’ve written more than a million times. But let’s write it today as I would, shall we?” she asked, winking.
“That would be fun, would be fun having her guessing who wrote it.”
It was my idea that we bake the cake at home. I was certain mom and aunt knew how. Even if it wasn’t as simple as baking a cake by themselves, they agreed. I wanted them to show me how, help me bake the cake. A creamy chocolate cake too. All day, we were in the kitchen. Finally, nearing evening, the cake was ready. The only thing left was to write her name on it.
“Happy birthday Aniya.”
We were pleased with our work. Allowing ourselves a leap of joy, and a round of high fives, we shelved the cake in the refrigerator before heading off to change. It was a Sunday. We had charged dad and uncle with keeping Aniya entertained and keeping her from the kitchen where we were readying the cake. It had gone to perfection, until now. I was sure the rest of the day would only get better.
And there I was. In the back of the car. The frozen eternity ended. Giving in to the darkness overtaking me.
I couldn't see him. Couldn’t make out more than a distant blur. But he felt strange. Was that him in the shadows of the trees? Behind mom and dad, as they waved us bye to our first day of school? Was that him in the back of the auditorium, standing morose among the cheering audience? Was that why he felt strange?