He was so tangible, so real, it was almost as though I could reach out and touch him through the yellow tinged pages of the book. Everything about him was achingly familiar; the strong curve of his jaw with a subtle hint of stubble, the sharp angles of his chiseled face, and the way his mouth quirked up at the corner when he smiled. Most of all, it was those deep brown eyes I loved, eyes the color of melted chocolate, eyes that could see right into my very soul. I reached forward instinctively, running my hands over the page.
How could someone who was made up of mere words and ink feel more real than actual people with heartbeats and bodies?
Before I could get further lost in the book, in him, the loud ring of the school bell jerked me back to reality. I shut the novel and slipped it into my bag, my head spinning. It was ridiculous how much just reading about him affected me, like he was a part of my body that I desperately needed in order to feel complete again.
Vaguely, I realized I was never going to find an actual boyfriend at this rate. Who’d want to date a girl when their potential competition was a guy who didn’t even exist?
Nobody. That was the sad truth. I sighed, running my hands through my curly hair; it never seemed to stay in place, which was infuriating, especially since all my other friends had perfect, iron-straight locks.
Anya, my best friend since the second grade, watched me with amusement glinting in her soft brown eyes.
“Akira, I have never seen you that engrossed in a book before,” She remarked.
I plastered a wide smile on my face, mostly so that I didn’t have to answer her. She might have been my best friend, but how could I explain to her, to anyone really, why I felt such a strong connection to one particular male character in it? I didn’t even fully understand what was going on myself.
" I’ve liked books before,” I said airily, but I was lying. Of course, lying to your best friend doesn’t really get you anywhere. We’d known each other for eight years, and in all that time Anya never saw me pick up a book voluntarily even once. I’d avoided them like the plague.
However, being the complete sweetheart that she was, she didn’t call me out on this lie.
" What is this book called?” She asked, sounding curious.
I told her, and she snorted loudly, coiling her hair into a tight knot at the top of her head. Wispy tendrils escaped from the bun and danced around her face. I knew it sounded incredibly shallow, but sometimes I wished I was as pretty as her.
" You know what’s strange? I’ve never heard of it,” She said,” It probably isn’t very famous.”
I hadn’t known about it before, either. My younger sister, who was a total bookworm and the exact opposite of me in every other aspect as well, had recommended it to me. I’d been so bored one afternoon that I’d picked it up and flipped through the first few pages just to have something to pass the time. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. I wished I could have tracked down the author, but there was no trace of his/her name anywhere in it. That was a pity. I had a few crucial questions to ask, especially when it came to a certain someone with whiskey brown eyes.
" Well, since today is our first day of the 11th grade, lets stop thinking about a stupid book and start looking for some hot new boys,” Anya announced excitedly, wiggling her perfect eyebrows at me. I had no idea how she did them every week. It must hurt like hell.
I also had no idea how she was talking happily about meeting new boys when she had a perfectly nice one of her own, who was probably waiting faithfully for her in the canteen right then. Well, if anyone was a huge flirt, it was my best friend.
Anya smacked me on the arm when I said so.
" I am not a flirt,” She protested, but her wide grin gave her away,” I’m just being extra nice to extra good-looking people. No big deal. Now, let’s go find the hot guys.”
Hot guys. Ha. In our school, about ninety-nine percent of the male population looked like overgrown hedgehogs. They’d got it into their whacked brains that bad haircuts and patchy facial hair were sexy.
They really weren’t.
As Anya and I headed towards the canteen, I smoothed my hand through my unruly curls again, willing them to stay in place. Word spread like wildfire throughout our school, and I didn’t need everyone talking about how my hair resembled Simba’s mane.
We lived in a small city, some considered it a town, right in the heart of South India, so it was blisteringly hot all year round. Siwan wasn’t an average Asian settlement, though. It was home for the uppermost class of society; elite businessmen, rich widows, and privileged, spoiled adolescents. If you weren’t part of the elite, you were a nobody. There was no middle ground here.
As part of the elite, since my parents ran the very school I studied in, I had to learn early on how to carry and present myself at parties, how to pick friends only among the uppermost class of society, but most importantly how to deal with all the rumors running through town about my family.
To say there were quite a few would be an understatement.We were relatively new to Siwan, moving here five years ago from Chennai because my parents didn’t enjoy big city life. Some thought we were exotic and strange, but others almost always eyed us with distrust, especially the old women we met during social galas. I didn’t really care what they thought. Haggard and shrunken, I suspected their only job was gossiping.
I gave up on my hair just as Anya whirled around suddenly, her eyes flashing with excitement.
" There is a hot guy here after all!” She exclaimed, like she didn’t actually believe it. Neither did I. All the mothers in our city fed and pampered their precious little boys into having hideous clothes and flabby hips, so none of them looked like they were going to win America’s Next Top Model any time soon.
" No way,” I replied,” There’s only one okay-looking guy here, and you’re dating him.”
She smacked me again.
" Ow!” I said,” That’s twice you’ve hit me!′
" Stop being smart-ass then.”
" Fine,” I grumbled,” But just so you know, you hit like a girl.”
" You’re a girl too!”
I grinned; Anya was used to my bizarre comments by now. Although I had to be polite and proper in front of the adults, there were no such social norms between the two of us.
Anya lifted her hand and pointed to someone who was emerging from a group of boisterous seniors. The second my eyes fell on his gorgeous frame, I began to really wish I’d run a comb through my hair. Seriously, would it have killed me to do so? What was I thinking today morning?
Ah,yes, that there would be nobody at school to impress anyway. I wanted to smack my morning-self.
As he approached us, we got an eyeful of curly black hair, startling silver eyes, and a smile which had probably broken a lot of hearts.
" He’s not Indian,” Whispered Anya, as if that wasn’t obvious, and then comprehension dawned on her face,” Akira, he must be an exchange student!”
That made sense; we usually got one every year, though none of them had been as attractive as him. Anya straightened beside me, flipping her long hair over one shoulder and pinning a winning smile on her face.
" Hey,” She said, drawing out the word and jutting her hip out.
Right, being extra nice.
I grinned to myself. Watching Anya flirt was extremely entertaining, especially when the guys she was turning the charm on for grew flustered and stupid under her intense gaze. I didn’t dare flirt within the school campus, because there was a high chance of some teacher spotting me and reporting my behavior to my parents. It wouldn’t be a pretty scene if they found out I was fraternizing with boys right under their noses.
Yeah, right. People were doing much worse stuff than flirting, but of course they always got away. I, on the other hand, had the distinct impression I was always being watched. It was felt as though I was constantly strolling around with an invisible sign taped to my forehead which said,” School Owner’s Daughter. Keep An Eye On Me.”
Meanwhile, Anya seemed to have made no progress with the new guy, since he was neither flustered nor being stupid. That was astonishing. Maybe he didn’t go for girls?
Before I could ponder over his strange behavior further, he turned around and smiled at me. I couldn’t help but notice the way it transformed him, from an object of fascination to someone I wished I knew. Warmth flooded through me as I grinned back, suddenly not so overly conscious about my messy hair.
As if guessing my thoughts, he winked at me enigmatically.
" Nice hair.”
Famous first two words. Heart rushed into my cheeks as I glared back at him for pointing that out, even if it was in a ridiculously attractive Irish accent.
" I forgot to comb it,” I shot back defiantly.
" I never said it looked bad. In fact, I think the word I used was ‘nice.’”
" Please. You were being sarcastic.”
He pulled a face,” Now you’ve gone and hurt my feelings.”
Was he being serious? His lip curled into a sly smirk, and I could tell he was enjoying our little exchange. Now that he was closer, I could make out the exact colour of his eyes: grey, but not the kind that was easy to describe. It was almost like they were lead and silver at the same time, with blue creeping in around the edges.
Right now, he might have been arguing with me like a five year old would, but I caught a gleam of sharp intelligence peeking through those alluring eyes.
" Your hair is curly too,” I said,” Don’t you think it becomes problematic sometimes?”
He smiled,” A problem is only a problem if you think it is one. Others often see you the way you see yourself.” With those words, he left me behind with my mouth hanging open.
How on Earth had he gone from teasing me to giving me advice I actually needed? I tried to shake off the feeling that he’d figured me out in seconds, when I felt I’d barely scratched the surface with him. I hardly listened to Anya’s chatter as we crossed the canteen and sat down to eat.
I hadn’t even bothered to ask for his name, and he hadn’t seemed eager to find out mine either. Maybe he didn’t find me as charming as I believed myself to be. The bright sunshine outside seemed to dull slightly at that thought.
Anya dumped a plate full of food in front of me, and narrowed her eyes dangerously when I refused to eat anything.
" Look,” She began hotly, and I groaned inwardly. I’d heard this lecture only about a million times before. ” I don’t care if you say you aren’t hungry. I know you are. Stop starving yourself just to maintain that figure of yours!”
" Yeah,” Agreed Rishi, Anya’s boyfriend, sliding into the seat beside her,” You gotta eat, man. If you go on starving yourself like this, you’ll disappear.”
I threw a dirty look in his direction. Tall and gangly, with tousled brown hair and smiling eyes, Rishi was about the only reasonably cute guy in our school. Well, strange Irish guys aside, of course.
Anya threaded her fingers through her boyfriend’s, and I was shocked at how carelessly they were behaving in public. Relationships were strictly forbidden on campus. Everyone knew that.
“You still haven’t touched your food,” Anya scolded, lifting her fingers from Rishi’s to glance over at me. I had no idea why she got all motherly around me and food, but I despised it when she did.
" I’m not hungry!” I protested, but my stomach gave me away with a loud rumble.
Of course, Anya was right. If it meant having an amazing body, skipping a couple meals seemed like a reasonably good exchange. Apparently, none of the people around me shared the same views.
" Eat,” Came a gentle but firm voice from behind me, the Irish accent unmistakable.
I turned around and met that silvery gaze head on. He didn’t look judgmental or teasing right then, but there was an understanding glint in his eyes.
“Eating some rice won’t harm you at all,” He said,smiling,” You’ll still look really pretty.”
I blinked in surprise. He thought I was really pretty? What about twenty minutes ago, when he’d made fun of my hair? Something told me he was the sort of person who liked to be contradictory on purpose.
His gaze held mine and, before I was fully aware of what I was doing, I’d forked some food and shoved it into my mouth. I kept eating as he sat down at our table and introduced himself to everyone as Aidan; he was as charming as I’d pictured him to be, complimenting Anya outrageously and joking around with Rishi.
" Hey! Earth to Akira!” Anya snapped two fingers in front of my face, ” Are you still dreaming about that book of yours?”
That got my full attention. I laughed and shook my head, but I was lying again. It was always there at the back of my mind. He was always there.
I sighed to myself. Sixteen years old and in love with a fictitious character? What was wrong with me?
But every time I opened the book, every time I read his name, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that a memory was trying to resurface in my mind. Almost as if I’d forgotten something-or rather, someone-vital in my life.
I glanced towards the laughing silver-eyed boy sitting next to me, and thought about the brown-eyed man in my mind.
Oh, man. How had my life come to this?