“You can stop crying now.” He said looking over at me. “Its over. You’re safe.”
I ignored him and continued to look out through the window, my tears silently washing down my cheeks.
He rolled his eyes and said –“Come now, Mia. Its not that big a deal.”
“Perhaps for you”. I said softly, speaking aloud for the first time since I had gotten into his car. “The things they did. The things they said.” I closed my eyes tightly but the tears ran faster now than ever at the memory of it all.
“You’re overreacting.” Michael said condescendingly.
“Some would say you’re under-reacting.”
“You should learn to take it as a compliment.” He shrugged. “I mean, they were so attracted to you that they couldn’t keep their hands off.”
I stared at him open mouthed wondering if he’d just said what I thought he had.
“You did not just tell me to take it as a compliment!! To take a molestation act –” my voice rose, “ –as a compliment!”
“It can hardly be called molestation.”
“Can’t it” I shot back, outraged.
“Yes –I mean no! Whatever, its not like they actually did something.”
As I turned away from him once more, he added as an unsure afterthought, “Did they?”
I didn’t even bother acknowledging his question after that ’take it as a compliment’ comment.
“For God’s sake, Mia!” He grabbing the crook of my elbow. “Answer my question!” There was a definite panicky edge to his voice and the look he shot me was not as calm as before. And neither as impassive.
I looked at his hand holding my elbow and then pointedly at him but he neither released nor loosened the grip. He wasn’t even looking at me anymore. His eyes were on the road and God only knows how he was managing the steering wheel and the gears with one hand only.
“No.” I gave a small sigh, thinking it was best to cooperate with Michael till I reached home. For his peace and mine. “Nothing irreparable.”
The relief was clear on his face although he tried to hide it. His fingers loosened around my elbow and then finally dropped to the gear.
“But they did enough to leave a mark.” I couldn’t help but add, lightly brushing my fingers over the fresh cuts on my wrist and knee.
He looked at me, a question in his eyes and then followed my line of sight to the cuts which still appeared bright due to the blood still oozing out.
He cursed loudly.
Loud enough to startle me and make me wonder what had happened to the stoic Michael, I knew. Loud enough for the driver of the adjacent car to glance over and throw us a puzzled look.
“How did that happen?” He bit off through clenched teeth.
“How do you think?” When he didn’t show any response, I explained quietly –“During the struggle.”
I saw his knuckles becoming whiter and whiter over the steering wheel and his face becoming redder.
“Are you going to tell me to take this –“I gestured towards the wounds, “—as a compliment too?”
He shot me a a very unamused look.
I simply shrugged and looked out at the passing trees and houses. Another 20 minutes and we’ll be at my house, I thought with relief.
“I can’t believe you’re friends with them.” I murmured breaking the silence.
“I’m not.” He snapped.
I shot him a look which was meant to say you’re-a-horrible-liar and gave a disbelieving laugh.
“Atleast not anymore.” He amended.
“Please! Everybody in high school knows that Sam, Paul, Jack and Michael,” I took his name mimicking a squeaky voice, “are this,” I joined my hands tightly to demonstrate my meaning.
“Yeah?” He said sarcastically . “Well everybody in school –except you, I’m assuming— also knows that I haven’t been speaking to them for a while now. You know it would do you good to not bury your nose in the books all the time and keep your ears and eyes open to whats happening around you.”
Brushing off his insult –for I far too taken aback by his epiphany— I said “What?”
“Yeah, you heard me.”
“We had a fight.”
“When?” my flabbergasted tone kept growing.
“Around the day of the Talent Hunt.”
“But…but that was…a fortnight after I started tutoring you.” I said quietly mostly to myself .
He didn’t say anything in return, just looked staright at the road.
“You’ve already asked that one.” He said giving me a mischievous smile.
I had to blink twice to recover from a smile that bright. Man! It was hard to keep up with his mood swings. Impassive, Furious and now Playful. I’m sure there would be more to the list by the time the night ends.
“I mean why did you guys fight?” I said, slightly embarrassed that I was stuttering.
“Its nothing!” He said reluctantly.
“If its nothing, you would still be talking to them.”
“Mia.” His tone was tired and just a teensy bit threatening.
“Michael.” I returned in absolutely the same tone.
He gave a tired sigh. “You really want to know?”
“Fine. You asked for it.”
The signal on the road ahead turned red, so stopping the car and turning off the engine, Michael turned to me and said –“You.”
“You.” He said again emphatically.
“Yes. Me what?”
“Mia.” He made an exasperated sound. “You. We fought over YOU!”
“Oh” I said, because after all how else could I possibly respond? But I have to say I’m not really surprised. I mean its not like I hadn’t expected this. I was not blind you know. I HAD seen how distant Michael had become with his former friends, right after I had started tutoring him and I had seen how his friends had reacted to us –I mean to me and him.
And I had asked Michael a few times if I was hindering their friendship but he had simply said no and asked me not to worry.
“In fact tonight.” He went on, “When I looked around and saw you missing, I didn’t think much of it until I saw that they” He spoke the word as if it were some contagious disease, “Were not in the room either. I knew then, that something was up. So I went to look for you in the corridor when I heard their laughter and your voice—”
He broke off seeing me shut my tear filled eyes tightly trying to block out the thoughts that had drifted in at his words.
“Sorry.” He said quietly.
I nodded in acceptance of his apology. “I just,” I said as the signal turned green and he started the engine, “can’t stop thinking about the whats-ifs.” I paused. “What if you hadn’t come ? What if you were too late? What if you hadn’t defended me?”
“Heyy!” He said defensively.
I simply shrugged. “For all I knew you guys were still friends.”
“Mia, I would never –”
“I know that.” I cut off his defense. “Now. At that time, my brain was thinking the worst case scenarios, you know.” I smiled sheepishly.
I didn’t bother to add that I was practically praying to God to let Michael make the most heroics of entries and come save me.
For who else could I ask for my savior other than Michael. For who else was my friend.
Friends. Its strange how I could say that Michael Rinaldo was my friend. We were more apart than ebony and ivory. I, being ivory of course. But the funny thing was, I realized as I stole a glance at him, that we WERE.
It had started with dislike. Moved on to tutor and student. Then friendly acquaintances and now…FRIENDS.
“Hmm?” I started wondering how long he had been calling out to me.
“I was just saying,” He said giving me an amused glance, “that we’ll talk about revenge some other time.”
“But I don’t want to –”
“Mia, just shut up and let me handle this will you?” He smiled pleasantly. “This is my area of expertise.”
“Okay fine” I said grudgingly. “I won’t stop you from having your fun. But if THEY –” I said wagging a finger playfully at him, “try to avenge us back and something like this happens ever again then YOU’RE going to be responsible.”
“I take full responsibility of protecting you from further molestation acts in the future.” He said placing a hand over his chest and making a cross sign.
“I exaggerated a bit, didn’t I?” I asked sheepishly.
“A little.” He said smiling disarmingly at me. “But you had every right to.”
“Fine then. I won’t let this prick my conscience.” I smiled back.
Silence followed my words.
Not knowing where to look, I first stared at the passing scenery and then at my hands, then my feet and then into the blank screen of the dead phone. As I casually looked to my right (after I had finished looking to my front, back and left already), I noticed Michael’s gaze on me. I immediately jerked my head away, but knew that he was still staring. After a dozen or so seconds more, of nervous fidgeting on my part, I finally blurted out –“We’re going to have an accident, if you continue to stare at me and not on the road ahead.”
“You know what you need?” He said turning to the road ahead but otherwise ignoring my comment.
“Me?” I said incredulously, placing a hand on my chest.
“No.” He snapped sarcastically. “That guy on the bike.” He said randomnly waving his hand .
I looked in that direction and saw a man in a black leather jacket riding, what looked like the latest Honda model.
My eyes narrowed as I took in his incomplete form. “Well HE” I said emphatically, “needs a helmet.”
At my words Michael closely inspected the person in mention and chuckled although there was nothing funny in what I had just said.
“Not the time, Mia.” He drawled, shaking his head.
“Not the time?” I echoed. “So when will it be the right time, Michael? When he hits his foolish head against the engine –“
“He couldn’t possibly hit his head against the ENGINE!” He said, although I’m surprised how he even managed that. Seeing as how he was trying very hard to not choke on laughter.
“Michael. That’s besides the point. The point IS –”
“What? A man’s life is in dang –”
“You need to calm down. Relax a bit.”
“Michael!” I nearly yelled. “That man has no respect for The Rules on Road and you’re telling me to –”
“I’m not talking about THAT!”
“Wha –” I said completely lost.
“I’m talking about what you need.”
“Oh for Heavens’ sake! Here we go again!!” He looked wearily towards the sky and shook his head. “Mia.” He drawled on every syllable. “Calm. Down.”
“Hmph!” I said turning my back to him.
“So…” He said trying to fill the silence. “How’re you parents –I mean you’re mom?” He amended quickly wincing slightly as he realized he’d put a foot in his mouth.
I stiffened a little at his words and my reaction was not missed by him.
“My mother,” I said laying emphasis on the word, “is great! She has night duty tonight so I’ll be all alone at home.”
“Alone? What about your brother?”
“He’s at his friend’s house for a sleepover.” I paused. “As for my mother’s husband,” I saw him wince more openly now, “he’s not that good.”
At his wary questioning look, I added, “Hell has a way of doing that to sinful souls who cheat on their wives and neglect their children.”
He was silent. Not that I actually expected him to respond to my reference to my dead father’s sinful way and means of living.
I closed my eyes, somewhat relishing the silence. Leaning back into the car seat, I moaned quietly. Mmmm…this was comfortable.
I’d had a long day with not a moment of rest in between. All I wanted now was to snuggle deep into my bed and sleep peacefully even though it was hardly even ten and I’d never been an early sleeper.
“Sleep if you want to.” His soft voice stirred me. “There is some time before we reach.”
I couldn’t even muster the energy to smile gratefully at him or even simply nod. The last thing I remember was that my head rolled to my right and the passing streetlights suddenly became a blur and eventually faded.
The sound of a blaring horn and a curse forced me to open my eyes. It took some time before I could even register if my appendages were attached to my axial skeleton (I’m a Science student, what do you expect?)
Well I don’t know where I was and wheresoever my head was resting, but I’ve got to say, it was reeeally comfortable. A little bony perhaps, but comfortable nonetheless. Uhh, I sighed, I couldn’t be like this forever, now could I?
After waiting for a few seconds for the Heavens above to answer my question –no wait, let me rephrase that. After fruitlessly waiting for a few seconds for the Heavens above to answer my question, I lifted my head…
And it hit something extremely bony.
And that something spoke.
That something spoke??? What the –?
“Oww!!” Michael said massaging his chin.
In reflex my own hand touched the spot on my forehead that had hit against his chin.
Wait a moment. If my forehead and his chin had made contact (could I please just say that the ‘contact’ was more towards the likeliness of a collision) that could only mean…
I can’t even make myself say it.
My head was resting on his shoulder??
That ‘strikingly comfortable’ object was the head of his humorus bone? (like I said, science student)
This. Cannot. Be. Good.
“Are you –are you okay? Feeling better?” He asked completely unaware of my embarrassment.
“Mmm-hmmm” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“Did you –sleep well?”
“Mmm-hmmm.” I said trying to avoid his scrutiny. I looked out of the window—more out of the compelling urge to escape than anything.—and noticed that we were parked in my driveway.
“When did we reach?” I asked still not looking at him.
“Not long ago.”
“Uhhh…I …ummm…I hesitate to ask but how long have I been sleeping ?”
“You mean, for how long have you been sleeping on my shoulder ?”
My eyes jerked up to meet his playful smile. And I could feel the heat rise to my cheeks. Thank God it was dark enough that he could not see my blush. Or…maybe he could. Michael, after all, had an exceptionally good eyesight.
“Uhhh…” I said completely at a loss.
“Not long.” He said, taking pity on me and his smile grew from playful to pleasant.
“Oh.” I said looking away once again.
Silence followed. Finally I said –
“I should go.” The reluctance in my voice surprised even me.
He said nothing.
“I should go.” I murmured once more and then when he didn’t respond, a third time: “I should go.”
I looked up and found him staring intently at me. In the dark, his violet eyes seemed absolutely black and try as I may, I couldn’t look away.
“Are you trying”—he came closer—“to convince me or yourself ?”
His words pricked my ego but I didn’t let that show. I didn’t jerk back, neither did I flinch. I didn’t so much as break the eye contact. I simply reached behind me and placed my free hand on the car hanldle in readiness.
My face came threateningly close to his as I leaned forwards, and even in the lack of light, I saw his eyes widen. At the same time my hand on the handle pushed open the door and in one swift motion I was standing outside.
“Thank you.” I said haughtily.
He could only blink.
I slammed the car door shut, at the same time as a gust of cold wind blew, making me shiver, and the scarf around my neck flew away with it.
I gave a little yelp of surprise and ran after it. Thankfully, a second later the wind died and my scarf fell to the ground not six feet away.
As I bent down to retrieve it, I heard the roar of an engine and the screech of the tyres against the frosty ground.
I straightened after having caught the runaway scarf, looked around and could do nothing but blink. For the silver Sedan that was, not even a minute ago, parked in my driveway had disappeared.
I don’t know for how long I stood there, staring at the place the car previously was, or what I expected to happen but eventually –or maybe it was because of my freezing legs— I shrugged, although no one could see me, and headed to the front door.
I extracted my keys from the back pocket of my jeans and unlocked the door, shivering slightly when another gust of wind blew through my hair. Once inside I locked the door firmly and proceeded to check if the various other doors and windows were locked firmly. Satisfied, I threw the keys on to the key tray and headed upstairs to my room.
My room was slightly warmer than the rest of the house for I had, as usual, forgotten to open the windows before I had left for school. The warmth was comfortable…but boring. And I don’t know why but tonight I wanted something more exciting
Like the chill.
I opened all the four windows to my room, to the extent that they would go, and switching on the fans too, went to get dressed for bed.
After splashing some water on my face and still not feeling content, I decided to take a quick shower. The water sent chills down my spine and somehow, that made me feel reckless…and good.
Wrapping myself in a towel I headed back into my room and switched off the fans. The temperature was perfect!
I got into my pyjamas and a loose oversized T-shirt and then brushed my hair to untangle it.
After placing the wet towel in the dryer and making a cup of coffee for myself, I returned back upstairs but didn’t yet go to bed.
Instead, I opened the doors to the adjacent balcony and stepped out, the cold wind once again blowing through my hair.
But this time, I didn’t shiver.
I sat on one of the comfortable chairs on the verandah and took a sip of my coffee.
Barely a minute later I placed the empty coffee mug on the table next to me.
I sighed, for the first time in the past hour, finally allowing myself to think.
Speculate and wonder what could be and what was. Reflect, ponder, deliberate over the past day.
And then, while I was amidst those deep and grave thoughts…from somewhere, I have no clue where, but from some place they call ‘blue’, his words from our earlier conversation came to my mind.
“Take it as a compliment.”
I smiled at the memory, at the expression that adorned his face, at my own reaction to the statement and at the pure friendship of the moment.
That smile grew into a grin, the grin into a chuckle, the chuckle into a giggle, until finally I was holding my stomach and laughing at the top of my lungs, my laughter rocking my entire body to and fro.
“Take it as a compliment! Oh he said that!” I kept saying aloud over and over again, choking on laughter and trying hard not to fall off the chair.
And for the first time in years, in many more years than one could imagine … I forgot to remember my father, or lack thereof, my friends, or lack thereof, my busy mother, my snobbish brother, my pressing assignments, my upcoming exams, my valedictorian speech, my college applications and all the other problems that plagued my life.
For the first time in years, I forget to remember every other sorrow that had troubled me once upon a time and truly felt…happy.
And even though, Michael had left before I got the chance to say goodbye, I somehow knew that he won’t be leaving my thoughts anytime soon.
He saw her stand still, perfectly poised and blink. He saw her delicate shrug as she headed inside. He saw her take out the keys from her back pocket. He saw her slam the door shut.
He felt himself worry when, even after five minutes, her bedroom remained dark. He felt himself think that another minute and he would barge inside.
He heard himself sigh with relief as he saw the windows light up. He felt himself duck as she reached out to open the windows.
He felt foolish for ducking because after all he was in his car. And his car was parked in the lane facing her room. A darkened lane that obscured him from her searching eyes but gave him a perfect view of her.
He didn’t see her for the next half an hour, so he thought she must have fallen asleep, too tired to switch off the lights.
Laden with relief that she finally fell aleep, he too, backed into his seat and shifted slightly to make himself more comfortable.
As comfortable as one could feel on a car seat.
Things around him turned blurry and his eyes were just about to close when a slight movement in his line of sight, made him jerk open his eyes.
He rubbed his eyes and leaned closer to get a better view. And then he rubbed his eyes again for it was hard to believe what he saw.
Far from having fallen asleep, far from even looking tired, he saw her, in her night clothes now, with a mug in her hand and her hair swaying wilding in the wind, come out to the balcony and seat herself on one of the chairs.
“What the –” He cursed raking a hand through his hair. “She’s not going to sleep and neither is she going to let me!” He thought.
Nevertheless he returned to his initial position, but this time kept his eyes open firmly and on the foolish girl who was –
He rubbed his eyes again.
He heard himself chuckle and then felt himself grin.
As much as he doubted her knack for making the right decisions –sitting with wet hair in the cold night air?—he was absurdly happy to see that for once, she had done the absolutely right thing. The thing that he knew she needed the most.
A good heavy dose of laughter.
Heaven knows she worried enough. about her mother, her brother, her deceased father, school, assignments, exams and maybe even—
No. He stopped the thought before it even crept into his mind.
He shook his head.
He didn’t want to let himself hope that she actually worried about him. I mean, she must worry about him, for he was her student. But there could be no other possible reason.
And he really didn’t want to tread down dangerous paths here.
He rested his head against the cushioned seat and felt a strange sense of contentment wash over him as he sat there staring at Mia.
That was his last coherent thought before he drifted off.
And that were his thoughts even after he drifted off.
The sound of a blaring horn forced him to open his eyes.
“What the —!” He mumbled sitting upright all of a sudden. The sudden movement shot a spasm of pain down his neck and massaging his nape he looked this way and that, trying to figure out what was happening.
For a start, it was morning. Probably not later than eight, but morning nonetheless. And his back was stiff, as if he’d just slept on a piece of iron. He couldn’t seem to stop blinking against the surging sunlight and to top it all off, the horn that had woken him up, he realized belatedly, was still blaring.
With another one of his curses, he stepped out of the car.
And straight into the telephone wire pole.
“Ugh!” He groaned as paralyzing pain surged through him, holding his forehead with both hands.
He heard a car door open and then slam shut and then he heard the sound of growing footsteps. He would have looked up to see who it was, but he was sure, if he so much as moved a muscle, he would find himself fallen on the ground and how embarrassing would that be?
“Hit your head hard, young man?” He heard a man say. “Someone as smart as you should know how to use this thing called an ‘eye’. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but its very useful, you know. Comes in handy in not walking into a pole. Or parking your car in the middle of the street and blocking every other resident’s car.” His voice ended with contemptuous tint.
By then the throbs had lessened. If not in number, then atleast in effect. And Michael was able to muster the energy to open his eyes and meet his oh-so-sympathetic spectator.
“What do you want?” He said to the man. His voice not sounding like it usually did. It was all croaky and it broke on the last syllable. Maybe the collision with the pole did more harm than he had guessed.
“Move the car!” The man barked and saying this, turned around and started walking back to his own car parked behind.
Michael groaned, shifting slightly to his left. He was just about to get into his car too when all of a sudden, he noticed a car parked in the driveway of the opposite house.
Her name brought back every little memory of the past day and night. The very reason he was there and the reason his back was stiff and his neck aching and his head throbbing.
Ok, maybe the last one was his fault. But at that moment, it seemed simpler to blame it all on Mia.
“Excuse me!” He said walking over to that man who had already seated himself in his car. “Do you know who’s car that is?” He said pointing to the car in Mia’s driveway.
The man snorted and then looked in that direction, squinting his eyes. “Why that’s…”
“Dr. Logan’s car.”
Dr. Logan. Mia’s mother.
“Oh thank you!”
“You’re not a stalker, are you?” The man said narrowing his eyes at Michael.
“No, sir.” He chuckled softly. “I most definitely am not.
The man didn’t seem to believe him, but caring in the least, Michael walked back nonchalantly and got into his car. He turned the key in the ignition, started the engine and drove straight…
Till he reached Mia’s house.
Then with one last glance at the empty mug, still on the balcony table, and the beige-coloured Nano parked in the driveway, he turned the steering wheel left, making a sharp turn, and made his way unhindered to his own house.
“Where were you?” His mother demanded, as soon as he shut the front door behind him.
“Not now, mom.” He said wearily.
“And don’t bother making breakfast. I’m not going to school today.”
“Michael Rinaldo –” His mom started once again.
“Mom, I’ll explain everything later ok? IN DETAIL! Just spare me now. PLEASE!” He pleaded, joining his hands mockingly.
For a moment there was silence and then…
A smile broke through his mother’s resolute face.
“Go.” She said, love for her elder son, clear in her eyes.
“Thank you. And good night.” He said, leaning down to give a dutiful peck on her cheek.
And as he shut and locked the door to his room firmly, his mother shook her head and said aloud: “Something with that Logan girl, I’m sure.”
Michael didn’t even bother changing before he jumped into his bed, face first.
He turned his head to the right, adjusted his pillows and just as he was about to drift into slumber…
His phone beeped.
He almost roared with fury. “Let my sleep!!!!” He cried even as he reached into the pocket of his denims and extracted his phone.
‘One new message’, it read.
“Who the hell is messaging me now?” He snapped and opened the message.
The amount of time it took for the phone to display the message, was much more than the time Michael would have taken to kill any soul that crossed his path just then.
With a small click, the message came on screen and Michael read aloud:
“You didn’t have to wait outside my house, all night, you know. It was hardly necessary. Nevertheless, I thank you for caring. And I promise you, that I shall not hold you as a stalker. Your show of heroism, rather, I shall seem befit, to take as a compliment.”
Even as he read, another beep sounded from his phone. As soon as he finished with the first message, he opened the next. It simply said:
And that was when Michael stuffed his head into the pillows and let the laughter flow.
He didn’t know how long he laughed like that but another beep hindered him.
He swiftly opened the message and read:
“Oh and don’t dare to think that I’ll let you bunk school today just because of what you did for me last night. Be on time!”
He pressed ‘Reply’ and quickly typed back:
“You’re mad if you think I’m coming to school today. At most, I’ll be there by 5th Period English. But don’t bet on it :P ”
He sent it and after a few minutes, in which his stomach churned weirdly, his phone beeped.
Never had he heard a sound so sweet.
She said: “4th Period Chemistry. We’re starting Organic. If you miss the first lesson, you fail, even if you have the most geniuses of tutors. Which, I would like to remind you, that you do.”
He typed: “I’ll try my best :P Goodnight!”
“Goodnight! :)” came the reply, a minute later.
Michael threw his phone beside him, stuffed his head in his pillow, laughed out of pure unadulterated joy one last time and then rose.
Opening the door to his room, he called out to his mother, his tiredness and sleepiness thrown out of the window:
“Ma? Make me some breakfast, please. It seems like I’m going to school after all.”
And the he shut the door, even before he could hear his mother say, a smile in her voice and shaking her head:
“That Logan girl, no doubt.”