“Come quick, the bus leaves in 2 minutes”, Tanya yelled. Karan stood beside her, grinning at their plight.
Ashish and Priya were struggling with their bags, their slender frames not able to keep up with the rest of them, and Meghna and Rajeev were trailing behind, lost in animated conversation. They managed to get on the bus alright, and their sudden unplanned trip was a huge success.
It was early February, and the six of them were in the most beautiful hill station of their state – Mandova.They had visited all the places the site had to offer – so many caves, waterfalls, lakes and clicked hundreds of photographs to be looked at and cherished later. It was all fun and games and leg-pulling until the third day when Meghna had deiced to act smart and explore the Nandan Caves on her own. Playfully Karan followed her, and together, they went on so deep inside that they lost sight of the others.
“It’s really amazing. I still can’t believe my parents allowed me to come on this trip all by myself. And to think right now we are in the second longest cave in the country – just the two of us! Oh it’s SO exciting! Just look at the rocks – they must be HUNDREDS of years old! It’s almost as if we are staring into the past, isn’t it?”, she gushed. She was jumping for joy, and he smiled at her childish excitement.
“Of course, but don’t you think we should turn back? It’s been an hour and we have no idea where the others are.”
“Yes you are probably right. Let’s turn back.”
And they did indeed turn just then, but try as they might, they could not find their way back. After hours of plodding on, Meghna collapsed on the floor, every muscle in her body screaming with pain.
“I am really scared, Karan. What has happened? Are we truly lost?”
He hated to admit it to her, but he feared the worst. He did not reply, just hugged her tight. He could feel her whole body shivering, and it made him feel guilty to have let her venture on so far ahead.
“Everything will be alright, just keep calm. Let’s just rest for a while and then we can move on. I am sure the others must have contacted the police by now. Even if we are lost, a rescue team will be on its way soon. Don’t worry.”
She nodded and turned away. He could see she was sobbing softly and it made him feel worse. He sat down beside her, hugged his knees and contemplated the possibilities. They were lost – there was no doubt about it, and the chances of them finding the exit on their own were extremely slim. So they had two options – either to sit and wait for the rescue team to find them (but that would mean risking bats, rats or whatever creepy crawlies this cave housed), or keep moving on towards East (he had a compass, and he recalled the entrance as shown on the map was on the eastern side). Walking ahead meant they might be moving in circles – and that would make it even more difficult for the rescue team to find them. But inaction meant idling, and he did not want Meghna to think depressing thoughts while inside.
An hour passed by, and it was almost midnight by his watch when he finally convinced her to keep moving. He helped her up and hand in hand, they walked on ahead – into the darkness of the unknown.
The cave floor was slippery where the water had cut through the rocks. And sudden outcrops made it extremely dangerous to move fast. Their torch batteries had run out long back, and even his cellphone was about to be discharged. He figured that if no help came within the hour, they would have no other option but to just sit down and wait.
He was losing hope, and her crying made it even worse. He was on the verge of giving up, when he felt a gust of wind sending icy tendrils winding through his hair. He looked up – if there was a draught, there must be an exit!
He pulled Meghna with him as he followed the gust of wind, and after a few hurried steps – they saw an opening in the rocks, just large enough for a man to squeeze through. She was scared that she might fall down and injure herself, so he had to carry her to the top, where she found a footing, and pulled herself out into the open night air. He followed suit, and once outside, they both heaved a sigh of relief.
The cold night air caressed her upturned face like a lover’s kisses, and after hours inside the cramped darkness of the cave, this sudden sense of freedom was exhilarating. Karan completely burst her bubble of happiness by remarking “Okay so we are out! But which place is this? The map is with Rajeev, and neither of our phones are working.”
“Oh Karan, at least we are out of that horrible damp place. I am sure we will find some place to stay the night. Once its morning, everything will be alright again!”, she smiled. Her enthusiasm made him feel somewhat hopeful. So when she held his hand and led him into the forest, he did not object, even though a storm was approaching. She was so happy they were out, that she did not consider any other possibilities of danger – and this optimism was infectious.
They had walked into a pine forest where their surroundings looked really pristine. He was covered in bruises, and in so much pain that he wanted to lie down. The cold night air was starting to make him shiver. But there was no place, and once the storm was on them, they would be drenched to the bones within the minute. So their best hope was to either build a makeshift shelter, or find some place with a proper roof. But Karan had never been a good camper.
“Oh look! A house!” Meghna’s excited shriek broke his reverie and brought him back to reality. It was difficult to see properly in the darkness, but it did indeed appear to be an abandoned house. They couldn’t have asked for anything better!
She almost ran to the door and dragged him with her. It looked like a temporary shelter – the kind wood-cutters would build for themselves to escape the chill of the night. The door was locked, and with what little strength he had left in him, he broke the lock and they let themselves in. It was a one-room cabin with a skylight in the ceiling. There was no furniture, and it was pitch dark – except the sudden lightning flashes that could be seen through the skylight.
They sat down on the floor and made themselves comfortable. All he had in his backpack was a rug, so he offered to share it with her. She, being a girl brought out an assortment of stuff from her bag – a candle and a lighter, chocolates, some walnuts, a water bottle and a scarf.
They lay down on the cold hard floor and nibbled on the chocolates she had brought. She had her head on his chest, and could feel his heart beating against her cheek. His dimpled smile when she fed him a piece of her chocolate made her own heart flutter. She knew it was totally uncalled for, but she suddenly felt a strong wave of emotion towards him. Their adventure was nowhere near over, but they had shared in something so big together, that suddenly his presence next to her was too much to ignore! She felt inexplicably drawn to him – and a powerful desire to cup his cheek and kiss him full on the lips engulfed her!
He, on the other hand knew he would have been totally lost without her by his side. He would have panicked, and given up hope a long while ago, had it not been for an overwhelming sense of responsibility to protect her from all harm and keep her safe always. Karan had had a crush on Meghna for a long time, and presently in a log cabin so far away from all the people they knew, he suddenly felt bolder than he had ever felt in his life. The scent of her hair and the warmth of her body was adding to his discomfort. When she suddenly looked up and asked “Want another bite?”, he was so overcome with emotion, that he could only shrug. She chuckled and mocked him by placing the chocolate just out of reach of his lips. And in doing so, her face was so close to him, that for an instant, his whole world was made up of the scent of her breath.
But she pulled away, and the moment was over. He was disheartened, but she felt all the more encouraged. In that split second she had teased him, and the look of confusion and disappointment on his face when it was over was enough to know that nothing in the world mattered more to him at that instant than her!
Karan had been a very good friend of her for almost two years, and suddenly she was seeing him in a whole new light. And loving every bit of it! She lifted herself up and looked him in the eye. Those deep brown pools were barely visible in the darkness, but the glint in them was unmistakable. Emboldened, she grabbed his hair and brought her face close to his. And just as the storm raged on outside, he kissed her.
* * *
When the rescue team finally found them the next morning, they were asleep on the wooden floor, their bodies intertwined – too tired to even whisper a word of thanks to their saviors.
A day in the medical clinic restored them to health. Their friends were overjoyed and angry in equal measure. Both of them were chided for being so irresponsible. The others could not figure out the reason for Meghna and Karan’s inexplicable happiness, and they kept mum, enjoying their confusion.
When they finally made the return trip to their college, Meghna and Karan held hands as they sat next to each other on the bus. Everything was just the same – Rajeev cracked jokes at each and every thing they encountered, Ashish tried to keep track of things, but was lost in thought more often than not, Tanya pretended to be embarrassed at being made fun of so often and Priya was doing her best not to be the brunt of Rajeev’s jokes – only the two of them could not stop smiling. It seemed as if a whole new dimension had been added to their lives.
Maybe there were indeed some things you could not share without ending up liking each other – and getting lost in a cave, and spending the night in an abandoned log cabin munching on chocolates was definitely one of them!