What really happened, he says. I don’t understand. As I continue to look at him with a blank expression, he knows. He smiles the same smile without hesitation. And I know, he will explain.
“Let’s show you.”
Aniya had once asked why always the same restaurant for all celebrations? Dad had the answer ready.
“It’s one of the best in the city, and it’s a friend’s.”
For the rest of us that was answer enough. But not for Aniya. She was the one with the questions. With unquenchable curiosity. And she was far from satisfied with the answer.
“So what?” she asked. “If we go enough times to any other place they’d be friends too. That’s what you tell us about school.”
Dad was stumped, but the rest of us burst out laughing. She was right. That was exactly what he said about school. Why then wouldn’t the same apply for them? And restaurants? Dad wasn’t one to give in so easily either.
“Because they won’t be as ready to give discount, and have us our reserved table. Join in our celebrations.”
It was his victory because that was an answer even Aniya couldn’t argue with. She did love the dinners at dad’s favourite restaurant.
It was a conversation that recurred frequently, almost every time we were at the restaurant. And it recurred tonight too. My sixteenth birthday, and we were at the same restaurant, the same table. Dad had called early, passed along the order for dinner that mom and Aniya had already decided on. All left to do was for us to sit and enjoy.
The drinks came first. They were also the last, before we had to leave. Apple cider for the grown ups, fizzy apple juice for us, the children. For starters. The wine and the beer and ale came later. Just a couple more years before we could have cider too, a couple of years that Aniya and I could wait. Getting up to leave, everyone from the restaurant, the waiters, the barkeeper, the chefs, all walked up to wish me again. Wish me a great year, and I thanked them all. I loved the place as much as dad. His friend wasn’t in the city, if he was he would be with us at the table, enjoying dinner with us. He was as much family, a part of all our celebrations. Vikram. He couldn’t get out of the urgent work that had taken him away from the city. He was missed.
Walking back to the car, we were three couples. I laughed at the idea, catching the looks I earned from the sudden laughter. Shaking my head, I told them it was nothing, and they were tired enough to let it go. The drive back home was long, even if the empty night streets shortened it considerably.
I liked calling our car a station wagon, because it was the same big. Dad and uncle preferred calling it an SUV, even if it was a little bigger. An SUV is more manly they argued, although I never could be convinced with the argument. Aniya was torn between me and what the other women called the car. They called it by its name, an Innova. The back was Aniya and mine, the grown ups shared the front and the middle. All four could drive, and all four liked driving. Tonight though, dad and uncle were driving. Mom and aunt were in the middle.
Aniya was already sleeping, leaning onto me for balance. She hadn’t let go of my hand since we started walking back. She got in first, and I followed. As soon as we were seated, she fell over. Her head resting on my shoulder, mine on hers. Her arm around mine. A satisfied smile on her face, as she drifted easily. I knew the others were looking at the two of us, happy. If I was wiser, I would call it perfect happiness. I wasn’t, so I just called us family.
The road back home wasn’t exactly the same as always. All four had their eyes on us, Aniya and me. Aniya was sleeping and couldn’t notice. But I was awake. And I returned the stares. The road was like butter, I mused, a smile lighting up my face. It was one of dad’s lines. When we were on a stretch of road that was perfect he would call it a butter like road. One of the many things dad said that had mom affectionately ask him to grow up in reply. And the rest of us would be entertained.
Aniya murmured through her sleep, soft so only I could catch it. She did that sometimes, when she was very tired. I had a feeling I was the only one who knew. Because almost all of such nights ended with us sharing the bed.
“Shhh Aniya, I’m right here. Sleep,” I whispered. Hearing me through her sleep, she tightened her arm around me, shifting slightly on my shoulder, continuing with the silence of sleep returned. As I closed my eyes ensured of Aniya’s sleep, I burst back.
“What?” I ask.
It takes a second to gather myself. Recover from the disorientation. Mr D stands by patiently though, waiting. When I am ready, he answers.
“I hope you understand now. Not everything, but at least how it works.”
He looks at me as if reading from my face if I did really understand. Whatever he sees pleases him sufficiently, he continues.
“You are in a state where you can be wherever you would like to be whenever you would like to. It is as simple as thinking yourself to the place and time. You are limited by what you remember, and what you see in your head. This I offer you. As I believe you will need it to do what you have to. What else you need is pointing along the right direction. That too I shall do for you. As painful as it might be, as it is, you have to remain. You have to see what really happened.”
I am not sure what he means, and it surprises me how I actually understand. Unconsciously, I nod in reply. In agreement with him. He remains still in reply. I am not sure if I am supposed to close my eyes, or if there is something else I have to do. I am not sure of anything, but as I look at him, I know.
It was beauty at its best. Our warmth filling the inside of the car, fighting away the cold of the night. And the darkness too.
Then, it all blew up. We were lifted off the road, as if a sudden bump on the road had sent us flying. The dark night was lit up, a splash of colour with sparks flying all over, accompanied by the screeching noise of the car scraping the road. It was almost like the party hadn’t ended. As if someone had lit up a thousand crackers, flower pots and garlands. It would have been painfully beautiful, if it wasn’t so painfully frightening. The world was spinning uncontrollably, a roller coaster going too fast. So fast it was thrown of the rails, hurtling through space that looked on unaffected at whatever fate was readying to embrace us. Sickening. So sudden, our mind couldn't process anything. Not even the pain. As if we were numbed magically. It was all no longer than a couple of seconds, but it felt eternally longer.
There was no darkness this time, at the end. I was in the car, collapsed in a heap. Crumpled beside me was Aniya. I hadn’t let go of her. As the smile crept up to my face looking at her, so did the tears. The smile was from the memory of how she was. The tears from how she looked now. Broken indescribably. Then came the pain, that threw me into the darkness.
“She was,” I say, unable to continue. Not just because I can find no words, but also because it is unbearably painful. Watching her. The sight of her in the car, crumpled beside me is burnt into my head. The blood drenching her like she had just walked in from under a shower of red rain. Cuts across her face and hands from the broken glass like the painting of an artist losing his mind.
She is much better now, with the doctors having cleaned away the blood, and sewing the cuts. I can see there is a lot more wrong with her, a lot more broken. Which is what has the doctors working so hard to fix. She is still far from her normal beautiful self, the girl she should be. I remain looking at Aniya, through the invisible glass standing between us. Oblivious of Mr D by me. He doesn’t mind.
For what seems an eternity, he remains waiting. Only as I blink, clearing his throat and calling my attention.
“So you have the hang of it now. That’s good,” he says. “The answer that you have to find is hidden somewhere in there,” he adds, pointing to my head. “And you have to find it.”
I wait for the words to sink in, for my head to process what is said. And then, I look at him, my face the same as his. Blank. And I ask.
“Who are you?”