She held, in her hands, a wooden box. It was old and its hinges were rusting. The lock on the box was new, however, and small in comparison to the large teak antique. She had the key. She’d had the key for twenty-one years.
Twenty one years ago
“Oi!” he called out to her across the small playground. She didn’t respond.
“Oi” he screamed again.”Are you deaf?”
“What?” she answered plainly. She was sitting on the swing with her tiny hands wrapped tightly around the chains on the sides. She didn’t want to talk to him.
“Look,” the boy said simply, holding out an unremarkable wooden box in his hands with a certain pride that filled his eyes and put a wide grin all across his face.
“So? It’s a box,” she said, impassively.
“My uncle gave it to me,” he said, trying to explain.
“So what should I do?” she was in a pitiless mood.
“Here’s the key,” he said, helping himself to the swing next to her and offering her a shiny golden key. He pushed his legs into the ground and swung backwards.
“I don’t want your stupid key,” she bellowed, almost disgustedly.
“No, you have to,” was the curt response.
“I don’t want to,” she said without a trace of giving in.
“But Mummy said I should learn how to keep things properly from you because I keep losing things and you never lose your things. Uncle said that I should keep everything special in this box and I don’t want to lose the key. But I know I will, so I’m giving one to you so you can keep it even if I lose mine. So take it.”
“Why should I?” she asked attackingly.
“Or else I won’t share the chocolates that my uncle got from Swit-zer-land for me.”
The girl looked at his face with an indecisive expression. She didn’t care much for the key but she did want the chocolates. She weighed the options in her head and decided it was better to have the chocolates.
“Fine,” she finally conceded and stretched her hand out for the key.
Riya stroked the box gently and held the lock in her hands. She was sitting on the bed in his room with a window behind her. The wind blew briskly through the window and across her back. The sky was overcast with dull grey clouds, and it was probably going to rain in a few minutes.
She took out the key from her drawer and pushed it into the lock which opened instantly with a click. She pushed the lid open with a certain scepticism. The first things her eyes caught were his glasses—the glasses he had only used once.
Twenty years ago
“You look funny with glasses,” she told him candidly, as they sat on his porch, making paper planes. They had made a dozen of them but none of them had seemed aerodynamically capable of flying into their neighbour’s, Mr. Mishra’s house.
“But it helps me see better,” he replied without any embarrassment. “My eyes were never that good.”
“There!” she screamed with joy raising her air-plane with excitement. “This one will work.”
“Try,” he said, unbothered. She took his condonation as a challenge. She winded up, took in a huge breath and threw the paper plane with all her might. It went up high at first because of the force but could not maintain its trajectory and swooped down the next instant, in banked left and lifted up again. Her eyes lit up, just as it seemed like it would make it through the small window into the dark house, but just when it seemed like it would complete the near-impossible task, it plunged and hit the low wall, crashing into the grass. He let out a little chuckle.
She turned to him and was going to give him a piece of her mind when his mother opened the door behind him. “Nikhil, get ready. We’re leaving now.”
“Okay,” he responded, getting up.
“When are you coming back?” she asked, forgetting her anger from just a while ago.
“We’ll be back on Friday, I think,” he said, unsurely. “Mummy said weddings take at least three days.”
“Oh,” she said, dejectedly. She didn’t have anyone else to play with.
“I’ll go now,” he stated. “Bye!”
That was the scariest day of her life, she recalled. They were only five then. What happened later that day would change their lives forever.
It was five past three when the landline rang. Her mother picked up the phone. “Hello?”
A strange expression ran across her mother’s face, one she had never seen before. It was an expression of terror, ghastly fear. Her eyes got wider and her lips got stiffer. Riya had never seen her mother like this and it began to scare her too.
“It… It’ll be… okay, Smitha… it’ll be okay,” her mother kept saying. Smitha was Nikhil’s mother and Riya understood at once that something had gone wrong with them.
“Just wait there. I’m coming as fast as I can,” her mother said, hurriedly and kept the phone.
“What happened?” Riya asked her mother.
She hesitated for a while in answering her daughter’s query, unsure of how to tell her. “Nothing, nothing. I’m just going out for a while. You stay and look after the house, okay?”
Riya nodded. “But what happened to Smitha aunty?”
Her mother paused. “Riya, they met with an accident on the highway. Nikhil is in the hospital.”
Riya held back tears remembering how those words had shocked her and made her cry. She remembered waiting for her mother to come home and tell her everything was fine. She had waited all evening because she was scared. In the end, when her mother did come home, she was still awake, way past her bedtime. Her father hadn’t been able to get her to sleep. Her mother told her that Nikhil was getting better.
“Will he be okay tomorrow?”
“Not tomorrow, Riya, after a while,” her mother said, uneasily. “Now go to bed.”
Riya obeyed but she didn’t go all the way. She sat on the staircase behind the wall and listened to her parents talk.
“How are they doing?” her father asked.
“Smitha is fine. She was the least affected since she was at the back. Jay is healing. He hasn’t woken up yet, though. But Nikhil…”
“What happened to Nikhil?”
It was evident that it was difficult for her to find the words. “Nikhil lost his eyes.”
All those years ago, and that memory still haunted her. She could never comprehend how it would feel to lose her own eyes. She kept the glasses away. There were scores of little things in the box—from stickers, to magnets, to sea shells. In the midst of it all, she found a picture of the two of them, sitting on the same swings as teenagers.
It had taken Nikhil months just to talk to her again. the trauma, the blindness, the pain, it had all left him scarred and he didn’t want to play anymore, he didn’t want to come out of his house, he couldn’t. He could hardly find his way to the toilet without help weeks after he had come home from the hospital. But his mother knew it was killing him. He was just a child.
“Nikhil, look who’s come to meet you,” his mother said to him as she ushered Riya into the room.
“I don’t want to meet anyone,” he said. He was lying on his bed with his G.I.Joe figure in his hands. He was staring at the wall, blankly, until Riya realised, he wasn’t staring at all.
“Hi, Nikhil,” she said, timidly.
He recognized her voice immediately. “Go away, Riya.”
She almost cried but his mother held her by the arm and sat her next to him.
“Nikhil, don’t treat your guest like that,” she scolded. Nikhil frowned.
“Look,” said Riya, “I got you jelly. Your favourite, mango flavoured.”
“I don’t want it,” Nikhil snapped.
“Fine,” Riya replied obstinately. “I’ll eat it myself then. And I won’t give you any cheese sandwiches either.”
“Cheese sandwiches?” Nikhil said, tempted.
“Yes, Ma made them for me and I thought I would share, but you don’t want them so okay, I won’t share.”
“No! I want them, I do!” he nearly screamed.
“No, you were mean,” she told him. “Say sorry first.”
“Sorry,” he said and reached out for the sandwich in all directions. That was the first time Riya truly realised his handicap. She caught his hand and gave him the sandwich, which he gobbled hungrily.
“Give me the jelly too,” he said with his mouth stuffed.
They grew up together like two peas in a pod, inseparable. They had both gotten accustomed to his handicap and there came a point when it didn’t affect them. They still did all the things that they loved doing. Of course, stairs were always a problem but Riya never found it a burden to help him up and down. In many ways, she had become his keeper. Nikhil even rode his bike sometimes but only in a stretch of about seventy metres in front of his house. He knew the path by heart. His mother would never let him go further.
Riya kept the photo aside, and then the box. She didn’t know if she could go through it all. She looked at the piano on the other side of the room. He had always been such a magical musician.
Eleven years ago
He sat at the piano; his fingers moved deftly across, striking each note with such a wonderful touch. She sat beside him and she knew she could spend her whole life listening to him play. He had never really seen the keys on the piano but he knew exactly where each key was. He played and played, like a man possessed and the notes strung together beautifully until he reached a fever pitch and he finished with a flourish.
“How was it?” he asked.
She smiled. She just didn’t think she could give a description worthy of what she had just heard.
“Stop smiling,” he said, with a smirk. “You know I can’t see it anyway.”
“But you always seem to know when I am,” she said, playfully.
“That’s because the only time you’re not talking is when you’re smiling,” he laughed.
She stopped for a second and looked into his sightless brown eyes. She leaned in and kissed him, gently and warmly. “It was beautiful.”
Riya cried. She was at the same piano now, playing the only key she knew, the only key he had taught her—a D major. She had loved him more than anything in the world, and she didn’t know how to deal with it. She had always prided herself with being strong and independent, but the truth is, we are all a little fragile, because we can’t be made of stone. It only proves that we are human.
She walked across to the bed again. She emptied the entire box this time, unthinkingly. Of the many things that fell out of it, there was an off-white envelope that landed on the bed, with her name on it. A tear-drop fell on the envelope as she held it with trembling fingers.
Seven years ago
They sat on the swings, swinging gently. The rains were coming.
“Nikhil,” she said, nervously, “There’s something I have to tell you.”
He looked at her, or at least tried to. “I know you do. It’s been on your mind since we left home.”
“I…” she lost her way.
“Say it,” he encouraged her, but he knew he didn’t want to hear it.”It’ll be okay.”
“I… I think I’m leaving for Mumbai this August… I didn’t want to but Papa is forcing me. He said I’m wasting away my life here and that I have to… to… I’m sorry… I just didn’t know how to tell you and I… I… just…” she sighed and trailed off. She had played this part over and over in her head, hoping to tell him in a way that wouldn’t hurt him, but at that moment all her composure came undone.
“It’s okay,” Nikhil said, sensing her discomfiture. “He’s right. This place is holding you back, I’m holding you back. You’re not my personal caretaker, Riya. You have to go.”
“But you… I can’t leave you, not now, not ever,” she said with desperation ringing right through her voice.
Nikhil reached for her hand and she took his in hers.
“I’ll be fine,” he lied.
There was a silence that filled the swings. The clouds were rolling down the hills behind them and the grass around them turned into a deep emerald blades. She looked at him and her lips quivered. The fog had begun hiding everything around them, and soon the only thing she could see was him.
“Can we at least take a picture that we can both keep?” she asked, without conviction.
“What’s the use of that?” he laughed. “I’m never going to see it.”
“Oh… let’s just take one,” she said. “I want one.”
She ran across to the nearby park bench and placed her camera on it and put it on the self timer and then ran back. “Pictures aren’t about seeing, they’re about having, and they’re about remembering. I just hope you remember me.”
The camera flashed.
The letter in her hand felt too heavy to open and she didn’t know if she wanted to. But she knew she couldn’t help herself. She tore the seal open and took out four pages of Braille and a dozen different pictures of them. Although Nikhil had known simple cursive, he preferred writing in Braille. Riya had learnt it with him. She ran her fingers across the pages, reading.
I knew you would find this. I knew you would come here.
I’ve missed you all these years. Even the times you’d come home for the holidays seemed too short for me. I didn’t know how to tell you not to go, every time you left. But I always wanted only the best for you and I know that that’s not here, not with me. But I’ve missed you.
I don’t know how you look now or how you’ve looked after the day I lost my sight, but to me you’re always that little girl with those dimples and that smile. And to me, you will always be beautiful because even though I haven’t seen your face for sixteen years, I’ve seen your soul every day. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had; my only friend, and I fell in love with everything about you. From your sudden bursts of song to your constant chatter, from your laughter to your touch, everything about you makes me smile.
I was diagnosed with leukemia last summer and was told it wasn’t curable even with therapy, but you’d know that by now. I would have called, and believe me, I’ve stopped myself way too many times. But it would have only worried you, brought you here unnecessarily. Honestly, I believe that that day, in the accident, I could have died and I believe God gave me a gift that not many people get. Every day after that has been a gift, a gift that I have loved sharing with you. But we can’t choose our gifts and this is where mine runs out. I know you’ll be hurt, I know you’ll want to change things, I feel like that too, but you can’t, we can’t. Be thankful for all the memories we’ve had and keep those pictures close, until you’re ready to throw them away. And once you are, please don’t look back.
Where ever I am, however I am, my heart’s always with you.
I Love You,
Now and forever,
Ten years later
Riya stood on the bridge over a small river. It was a scenic little spot where she came on her own sometimes. It was usually a lonely place in the mornings and it was the perfect place for her to reflect. She held the box in her hands. She had held on to it all these years and today, on the anniversary of his death, she felt like it had lost its weight. She knew it had to be let go of. She stretched her arms out and in a sudden instant, she dropped the box which flew open and out flew all the things that meant so much to her, the letter, the pictures, the glasses; it all fell into the river and she never saw them again. The only thing she had left was his paper plane that she had kept herself from the day of his accident.
After he had left when his mother had called, she ran to get her paper plane that had come so close to making it in. She picked it up from the grass and wiped it clean and ran back to the porch. She realised that he had left his plane there, unfinished. She finished it and threw it towards the window. It was nowhere close to success. She ran to get it, but when she got there, the plane had opened up completely. She bent down to get it. On the paper were their hand-prints, the both of them, hers blue and his green.