She said he was socially inept. It was why she liked him. And because of that he didn’t care about most of the things he did. So he did what he wanted. He didn’t have to care about impressing his friends – he had none. He came to school early because he enjoyed the morning calm. His father was a CEO at some company in town, but he walked to school every day. He wore an ash jacket over is uniform every day to school. It may have been the same jacket, he may have had several ash jackets, and perhaps ash was his favourite colour. His name was Rose.
He was allowed to live in his own world. And he owned it.
The first time she noticed him. She was twelve, still developing and discovering emotions. It was around the time he had just been transferred to the school, during recess. He walked into the cafeteria as she stood at the counter, smiling as the serving lady coddled to her while she thought about what dish to pick..
“You should eat more meat. They say it's good for children.” The woman had said. “Don’t mind those adults with their vegan campaigns. When we go into the jungle, those wild animals don’t think twice before labelling us food, now do they?”
She has grinned and nodded but still she hated meat and went for the fish. No amount of convincing could change her mind. At least not that easily.
He came in after she went to her usual table. It was his first time in the cafeteria and so he looked a little bit lost at first. But when he sighted the service counter he directed an expressionless glare towards it and made a beeline for it.
When he got there, he waited in line until it was his turn to ask the lady for food. He mostly demanded for meat and salad. She couldn’t recall what types. Before he ordered, she stared at him for a long while as he stood there just looking at the food, holding up the line and ignoring insults. Almost like he didn’t understand them.
He hadn’t gone through puberty yet, and had the face of a silent angel. With his loose ash jacket casually resting on his back, he looked lost most of the time and the other times his face was blank.
When the time for him to pick a table came, he looked around. Almost every table was filled up. Although, there were a few half filled tables. So she wondered why he wasn’t making any moves to sit at one of them. Her table was within his sight. And she had been the only one there at the time waiting for her friends to come join her. It was the table they shared most of the time and she didn’t want to let it go. But she stood up, thinking he was shy and she called him over. “Rose!” She had yelled. A couple of faces turned to look at her mostly female. Including his, still blank. She cringed inwardly thinking he might have been offended that she called out his name like that, especially because he could be made fun of for it. But he walked forward, towards her and looked at the table and then at her, brows raised.
“Hi. I’m Jacqueline. We’re in the same class. You can sit here with me if you can't find anywhere else to stay.”
He did. However, he moved his tray to the furthest side of the table, away from her. She thought it was strange and couldn't understand why he had done that but she also hadn’t minded, didn’t think it was anything. The next day, he made sure to come early so he could reserve a table for himself. No one else sat with him. He would often be caught glaring whoever had dared to come to his table.
In class, he was quiet. So everyone initially assumed he was one of those spoiled kids who didn’t know much. But at the end of each term. He would come out with the best scores in all subjects.
He still didn’t say anything to anyone. After the first term, everyone wanted to be friends with him. a rich smart kid. They tried sticking to him, asking him to help them with school work, asking if he needed help with school work. But had all given up at some point when they realised that he didn’t need them and he made sure they knew it. They tried to get back at him, by making fun of his name and mannerisms. But he didn’t mind them. Although, the jeers never stopped, it seemed like it didn’t get to him. And soon the snarks stopped meaning anything to anyone and everyone wanted to be his friend.
Sometimes, when they had free periods, she would sit close and watch him while he read, napped or played with his fingers and she would wonder what he was thinking about. Everyone else had friends to talk to or study with, it seemed like he wasn’t bothered by the fact that he was the only one without friends in the class.
And she watched him until it became an obsession. Until she found herself blushing for hours when she saw him or heard his name. She tore down the wallpaper in her room and replaced it with roses. Roses in a field, a single blooming rose, red roses, yellow roses, pink, white, scattered all over.
The year she turned sixteen, she found out about his birth date. His parents had asked the teacher to announce it and have everyone wish him a happy birthday. She discovered that he was four months older than she was.
She had prepared a gift for him at the last minute. And after the closing bell had been rung she found him by his locker, stuffing books inside his bag. She figured since she was the only one left in the school that was willing to talk to him, he’d treat her gift with more attention.
She presented the small ash box to him with her arms stretched out.
“Happy birthday. I didn’t have time to prepare a better gift.” He stared at her, face blank, not saying a word. “I hope this is OK.” She added.
But, he didn’t reply. He walked around her and left.
She went home feeling dejected. The rest of that week she had gone through the five stages of grief.
Anger, she tore down a magnificent painting of a beautiful rose that she thought he didn’t deserve to share a name with, picturing his face on it as she did.
Denial, maybe he wasn’t inconsiderate, maybe he thought it was a prank.
Grief, the love of her life had rejected her.
Depression, she couldn’t live with herself anymore.
Acceptance, it probably wasn’t meant to be.
Then she repeated the process that weekend when she realized she had ruined a good painting.
The next week she was back to her normal self, waiting for free periods so she could feast her eyes on him.
The next time she made contact with him was when he was they went on field trip to a mine field. There were crystals in the cave and it was a beautiful sight. She stuck close to him at the end of the line. In her mind they were all alone perhaps on an adventure. Would he like that? Was he the adventures sort of person?
They got to a clearing and their guide had told them they could go off and explore on the caves. It was like a labyrinth, but there were marks, maps and signs that would help them in case they got lost and the wrist bands they could use to find the students.
Rose wondered off alone. Silently, she followed undetected.
Rose wondered through several forked paths, like he knew where he was going. And was even curious enough to have found a hole through which he crawled and came upon another clearing. It was too open so she found a rock to hide behind once she crawled in after him.
There was a cliff there and flowing stream below. The cave glittered from all the crystals that were stuck in the wall. The crystals reflected the little light of the sun that peeked out from a small crack in the ceiling of the cave.
Rose stood at the edge of the cliff for a long time, watching the water flow. Probably. Then he walked closer to the edge and then she understood what he was trying to do.
“Don’t jump off!” she yelled. Her voice echoing in the cave, giving the scene an eerie feel.
He turned around shocked that someone had followed. “What are you doing here?”
His voice made her want to melt.
“How did you find this place? Did you follow me here?”
“What are you doing?”
Like hell. He was about to kill himself in a place where his body wasn’t going to be found and for reasons only God knew. But he couldn’t die without her permission. She hadn’t made up all those fantasies of them and waited for his attention for five years for him to just off himself. And this place was just too good to be tainted with death.
“No way. Not unless you’re coming with me.”
He was silent. His face blank. Growth spurt had done him good. The lines on his face were becoming more contoured. His angelic features were still there and she hoped he wouldn't grow out of them. He was taller, his shoulder broad. She would bet he had begun developing muscles under the loose and large jacket. Everything else on his body told of wealth, his watch, his shoes, his clothes, his hair, his skin… She would also be willing to bet that his jacket was not cheap either. It was a drool-worthy sight.
“Why... Why are you doing this?” She asked shakily, dragging her attention away from his body.
He stared at her silently before he sat on the edge of the cliff. She was scared of heights but it didn’t matter at this point, so she sat down next to him. Shaking as she let her legs down. He was definitely the adventurous type if he wasn’t scared sitting like that.
“It’s not your life. Why bother?”
There were so many answers to that. “I don’t want to watch somebody die. I can’t leave this place knowing someone’s going to die either. And I don’t think your family would like it if you died.”
“They wouldn’t like it. They wouldn’t care either.” He muttered.
“Is that why you’re doing this?”
Silence. There were no maps or anything else in this cave. The miners probably didn’t even know about this place. It would be hard to find a dead body here. He didn’t want to bother anyone with his death.
“So they’d just think you went missing? Why would you want to do that to them?” What if his family thought he was murdered or kidnapped? No one would know how he died. No one would know why he died. It was just how he lived his life. Free of interference from others.
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m trying to understand you.”
“Because you seem interesting.”
“Is that it? What do I get out of this?”
“Anything you want.”
His gaze turned sceptical.
“I mean it. I’ll give you anything you ask me for.” That would be her gain. Getting to do something for him.
“Mn.” He looked at the flowing stream. “I don’t live with my parents. They don’t want children. That’s why I’m the only one.”
He was lonely. “What about your relatives? Cousins, uncles, aunts?”
“I don’t know them.”
“It still doesn’t mean they don’t love you? They’re your parents even if they aren’t always around. They still take care of you, feed you.”
“It’s an obligation. They have to do it. If they don’t, they’ll have to be reported to the authorities. But I live for them. They ask me to go to school, I do it. Pass all my classes, I try my best. They lay out my life for me.” Sigh… “But it feels suffocating.”
Didn’t he understand compassion and sympathy? “They might have to work all the time. But it's for you. 'It doesn't count' is that what you think?”
“It’s the truth. If it does count not in my case. I don't ignore the reality of them having to work all the time. But all of that, isn't for me.”
“They asked the entire class to join you in celebrating you birthday last year, didnt they? That’s caring.”
“That was me asking for more than a birthday gift and a cake. So they made a phone call instead. I’m not even sure which one of my parents did.”
What could she say to that? She couldn’t argue with him anymore. Why were his parents like that anyway? His entire family was confusing. “Do you know me?”
He looked at her, his eyebrows puckered as he studied her face intensely. Confusion slid in after a while. “Should I?”
Was he being serious? “I was the first one to talk to you when you first transferred. I tried to give you a birthday gift last year on your birthday. I’m Jacqueline. Does it ring a bell?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have a good memory. I don’t remember.”
“Why don’t you try to make friends?”
“And have another set of people who want to govern my life. No.”
“There are advantages. You won’t feel alone around them.”
“Hm. Like you’re supposed to feel around family?” He kept speaking in low tones. Although he sounded like a lost child, it felt ethereal.
She ignored his sarcasm. “They also help you out.”
“They are unstable and you never understand them. They can give you up in a second to get something much better-”
Where was all this coming from? “Who hurt you?!”
He was startled by her reaction at first. Then he laughed. It sounded refreshing, calming and needed. She felt as though she hadn’t done enough to earn his laugh but still got to have it. Like the extra hours one gets to sleep in on a Saturday morning, or having the last piece of cake on the tray at the dinner table. A genuine smile appeared on his face as he laughed, she was glad to have witnessed it. Brief as it was.
“You think you’ll do the same thing to them if you were in their shoes.” She had recently learnt and realised that people were a reflection of what they thought about. And the things that people had to think about came from the events they witnessed and the situations they passed through.
“Mn.” It came out soft and smooth. She felt woozy. She stared at the water splashing against the rocks that would crush bones, if a body fell on in while stopping herself from thinking of falling down and not being able to come back up, being lost here forever. Why would he want that?
But really, he was an only child and he probably had a rough history. She felt so lucky. All her bad boy fantasies about him were coming true.
But it wasn’t the time for that. “I feel that way too sometimes. I think everyone does. But I still try to be a good person.”
“I don’t know how to make friends.” She almost didn’t catch that. He had whispered and the confession nearly disappeared.
It was her turn to laugh. “I always thought you were socially inept. I was right.”
“Really, I am?” He chuckled.
They were silent again as time flew by and the atmosphere grew lighter.
“I want to make a confession.” Feeling more comfortable sitting on the edge of the cliff, she said, turning to face him.
“I always thought you had the best life. You lived by your own principles and didn’t let anything weigh you down. It was admirable.” Likeable, loveable. Liked, loved. “I really liked it.” Sigh… “Guess you can’t really make an assumption about anything without knowing everything. Or else you’ll end up with disappointments.”
In what universe would that be possible? “No.”
“Why do you always were an ash jacket? It’s starting to look boring." Not that she minded.
He looked at his jacket. “It’s comfortable. So, I asked for a dozen of it to be made.”
More silence. For at least half an hour they sat watching and listening to the water flow past.
“Can we leave now?” She asked feeling like they had been gone for too long.
“I didn’t say I changed my mind.”
“Well, I can’t get out of here alone if you die in front of me. I’ll be too scared to do anything and then you’ll be responsible for my death.”
“When I die, I won’t have any cares, worries or responsibilities. I don’t have anything to live for anyway.” So her death wouldn't matter?
She sighed helplessly. “You are smart and you have a bright future. Isn’t that something?”
“By your logic, I’ll just have to work hard to get a good future then work even harder to keep it and then when I finally retire, die of old age and natural causes.” He looked at her. “No, thank you. The process seems too long and tiring.”
He seemed too determined to die. But she wasn't having it. “Then live for me." She sounded exasperated.
“If you live for me you won’t have to worry about anything else. Just me.”
“It sounds stressful.” He drawled.
“It isn’t. I’m the easiest person in the world. You’ll love it.” She had that grin on again.
He was silent again. He looked confused. Like he was trying to understand the world she presented. Like he knew nothing of it.
“OK. I’ll try.” He whispered. And she caught it this time too. The grin plastered across her face grew wider. “You promised you’d do something for me.”
“Mn. What do you want?”
“Live for me too.” The grin was still there. Didn’t she already? What would he think if he saw her room? She should probably add a few hydrangeas. “And don’t betray me.” This was too much. What great deed had she done in her past life to deserve this?
“Deal! And don’t forget it.” She laughed.
She stood up and dragged him with her to the entrance of the hole.
“Wait.” He pulled her back just as they were about to pass through the small entrance, pressing her body against his body. “I want to try something else.”
He cupped her face and slowly leaned down to kiss her. It was a soft and unsure gesture, and it felt surreal. While she tried to calm the alarms that we're going off in her head, she wondered what else this social enigma was curious about.