Category: Short Stories

I’m trying to explore my creative side. ‘The unusual friendship’ is my first attempt at writing a story. Would appreciate all the support and feedback. Do read through it and let me know..
Thanks in advance :-)

Dear dad

Dear dad,

It has been a while since we opened our hearts out to each other. To an outsider, we may be the perfect father-daughter duo. But that’s because that outsider only sees the smile feigned by our lips. If he looked deeper, he would see that the smile on our lips never reaches our eyes. While we still have dinner together every single day, exchanging stolen glances when we think the other is not looking, exchanging words beyond the polite courtesies has become a struggle. The television blaring in the background does little to reduce the awkwardness. Seventeen years together and we don’t have anything to say to each other. I can’t take it anymore. Every day I see my friends laughing and playing with their fathers and I try, I try hard, to jog my memory for the last time we did something like that together. It pains me deeply that I can’t remember.

I am in a bad place right now, dad. I need some time away from home where I can be myself. I’m tired of pretending to smile when I’m not happy. I’m tired of our polite exchanges which are mere formalities. I’m not even sure if this letter is going to come to you as a surprise. I don’t know if you are going to be relieved that you don’t have to pretend to care or smile. I don’t know what you want, dad. I don’t even know what I want. All I know is that I need to be by myself for a few days to figure things out. Please do not worry about me. I will be back home soon and we can go back to our ‘pretend perfect world’. I promise you I won’t make it any more awkward than it already is.

Love,

Abby

P S Happy Birthday, dad. I apologize for not giving you a fancy birthday present this time. However I’m opening my heart out a little bit, something we haven’t done in ages. I’m giving you honesty this time dad. I hope you accept it and forgive me.

***************************

The digital clock on her bedside table read 1:47 am when she finally finished writing. Abby read the letter two more times before folding it in half. As she ran her thumb and her index finger on the folded piece of paper in her hand, Abby looked out of her bedside window. The night sky was sprawled out above her in an endless fabric of black canvas sprayed with shining silver stars. It was the night of the New moon which meant the stars were shining with more intensity. The star studded sky looked like a flawless piece of art to Abby.

Abby knew she should have gone to sleep a long time ago, but sleep was the last thing on her mind. She had set an alarm on her phone for 5 am. Three hours from now. She looked down and realized she was still nervously running her fingers over the folded letter. She carefully placed the letter on the bedside table under her lamp and continued to gaze at the stars, waiting for the minutes to pass. The twinkling stars seemed to bring a weird sense of calm upon her.

Abby’s father was a man of habit. He would wake up every morning at 6 am and come down straight to the coffee pot.  With a mug of steaming hot coffee in hand, he would turn on the radio for the morning news and sit down at the table, sipping his black coffee. Abby’s plan was to leave the letter on the table before heading out with her bag pack and her phone.

The alarm went off at 5 am as set. Abby quickly turned it off. She did not want her father waking up before she left the house. She quietly got out of bed, washed her face and pulled on her jeans and a t-shirt. After counting the money in her wallet one last time, she zipped her bag shut. She had enough to be able to make it through the next 3-4 days. Hoisting the bag pack on her shoulders, she stuffed her phone and her earphones into the pocket of her jeans and took the letter from under the lamp. She was careful not to make any sound as she made her way down the stairs. After opening the letter and placing it on the table, she opened the fridge and gulped down some milk, picked the few remaining granola bars from the shelf and headed towards the door. She looked over her shoulder one last time and noticed that the time on the clock was 5:45 am before closing the door quietly and stepping out into the dawn.

****************************

The time now is 11:05. We have a little less than an hour before it’s time for me to say good night and good bye to all you lovely listeners out there. You’re listening to your favourite radio station, Radio Beats, with your favourite RJ, Amy. Dear listeners, it’s that time of the day when you keep your inhibitions aside and speak what’s in your mind. Is there something troubling you? Is there something you want to share? Pick up that phone and give me a call now.

Abby was lying on the bed of the small hotel room, listening to her favourite radio show on her favourite radio station. It had been two days since she had left home. The anger, hurt and resentment filled inside her were slowly melting away. Lying on bed, there was only one thought running through her head, that of her old man. What was he doing right now? Was he missing her? Had he seen the letter she had left for him? What was his reaction to it? Was it one of worry, anger, hurt or relief? Abby kicked her blanket and sat up on her bed by the window and looked outside, at the trees and the mountains glowing in the silvery light of the stars. She sat there taking in the ethereal beauty in front of her eyes, trying to replace the voices in her head with the sounds of the trickling brook, the howling wind and the screeching crickets.

Turning to nature had always been her fix to any problem. She believed that one could find answers to any given problem if one took the time out to stop and look around them. She learned to collaborate and work as a team from the bees and flowers. As the bees collected nectar from the flowers to make their honey, the flowers had their pollen being spread out by the bees.  She learned to adapt to different people, places and situations from the trees that adapted with ease to the changing seasons. They shed leaves in autumn and grew flowers in spring. She learned to be patient when nothing seemed to be going her way from the caterpillar which waited patiently in its cocoon before emerging into a beautiful butterfly. She learned that there is peace in chaos and she learned that life is without limits.

 

After leaving home, Abby had boarded a bus that had taken her up a small hill. From there, she had hitched a ride in a car with a kind family who offered to drop her to the hotel. The modestly built hotel was in the midst of lush green surrounding. After checking in at the hotel reception, Abby took the keys from the concierge and entered her room. As she opened the window in her room, she inhaled the earthy smell of wet soil, heard the distant sound of birds chirping and water trickling through a stream, saw rolling hills in the distance and moss growing on the trunks of tall green trees and felt the quietness and calmness that comes only with such intimacy with nature.

Abby spent majority of the next two days out in the open amongst the birds and bees, and flowers and trees. She bathed in the light of the sun and soaked in the cool breeze. She closed her eyes, spread her hands on both sides and let the sounds, smells and sensations sink in. She felt lighter and happier. She felt one with the birds and trees around her.

As she walked along the brook, dipping her toe in the water from time to time, she thought of the time when as a little girl, she had won the second prize in story writing. Feeling proud of herself, she had run home to her father to show the tiny cup that she had received. Sadly, the only reaction that she could get out of him was a grunt and a “Who won the first prize?” Disheartened by his response, Abby had never showed him the first prize she had won the following year.

As she lay on the sheet that she had spread on the green grass under the sun, she thought of the time when her father had lost his job and they had to sell the house. The fateful day when she had, with a heavy heart, helped him move out of the house. Once in the truck, her dad had turned to her and said, “Thank you for helping me. I don’t know what to tell you other than…well, things happen.” She had looked down at her phone and lost herself in the world of social media, lest she started shouting at him or worse, start crying. She would have been content if he had just shown some sort of emotion, shown that this was difficult for him too.

As she sat, leaning against the trunk of an old tree, breathing in the last of the long day, she thought about the time when she had told her dad that her date for the prom, Dave, was waiting for her at the school grounds. He had insisted on Dave showing up at their doorstep to pick her up. He had told her he wanted to meet ‘that boy’. “Trust me, a boy who would not take the trouble to pick you up on the first date won’t last long”, he had said, much to her anger. With tears in her eyes, she had banged the door on her way out. A few rocky weeks after the prom, Dave and Abby had broken up.

She saw the orange haze above the horizon light up the sky as if lit by fire. The sun, an orange fireball, was partially cloaked by the hanging clouds, which were blotches of random colorsof pink and red and blue and purple. She couldn’t believe two days had gone by since she had set foot in that magical place. Although she was happy that she had made the decision to get away from the busy world, even if it was only for two days, there was a small part of her that felt guilty about leaving without telling her dad and kept going back to him.As she ducked under the thick pine branches and walked down the grassy hill towards the hotel, a cool breeze blew, making her stop in the middle of the path. She let the wind tousle her hair. The wind had an almost human touch to it, reminding her of her father tousling her hair when she was a little girl. Her father loved doing that. He used to call her his ‘Little Rapunzil’. The sound of her father’s words echoed in her mind, jerking her out of her fleeting thoughts. By then, the sun had disappeared leaving the canopy of stars in the sea of dark, for it was their turn to shine.

 

As Abby sat on her bed by the window listening to RJ Amy give relationship advice to random strangers, she tried spotting the pretty red flowers she had seen through her window that morning. But all she could see was a dark shadow in the shape of a flower. The kaleidoscope of colors spread out in the morning had faded into shades of grey. And that’s when a thought occurred to her. The night deceived our eyes, made colors seem what they were not. The leaves that she saw now weren’t really grey, they just appeared grey in the dark. It was left to us to decide what was true and what was right. The darkness in her slowly settled and she began to see light. She realized that she only saw what she chose to see. Her father was not perfect, but nor was she. Instead of seeing him as protective, she had chosen to see him as uncaring. Instead of seeing him as strong, she had chosen to see him as emotionless. Instead of seeing the dreams and expectations in his eyes, she had chosen to see the disappointment. But now, instead of seeing all that he was not, she started to see everything that he was and everything that he had done for her. She felt a warm sensation on her right cheek and realized a silent tear had trickled down. She could hear RJ Amy in the background at the end of a song request.

I hope you guys enjoyed the song. Let’s move on to the next amazing caller on line. Hello, who do we have here?

“Umm..hello..”, came an unsure voice.

Abby could recognize that gruff, lifeless voice anywhere. It was her dad! But what was he doing on the show. She didn’t even know he listened to it.

“Hello, this is Bruce. Am I speaking to Amy?”

Well, hello Bruce. You got me. This is RJ Amy on your favourite radio station, Radio Beats. How are you today?

“Hi Amy. Not so good, I’m afraid. My only daughter left me two days back.”  He was struggling for words.

That’s terrible. What happened?

“I have not been a good father to her. That’s what happened. I tried. I know I did. But it was not enough. She deserved better.”

Awww..I’m sorry. Is there something you want us to tell her, or better yet, tell her yourself. May be she’s listening to you right now.

“To be honest, I don’t really listen to your show. But my daughter, Abby, she never misses your show. She tunes in every single night to listen to you. This is my best chance of reaching out to her. And that’s the reason I have called you.”

Go on then. Fire away. Tell Abby how much she means to you. And Abby, if you are listening to us right now, please come back. Your father misses you.

Abby sat frozen, clutching her fingers tightly, sure that this had to be a dream.

“Thank you Amy. Uhh..after trying the number for the radio station for two days, I finally get through. And I realize I don’t know what to say. I’m not a very expressive man, you know. My daughter would vouch for that.”

He gave a dry chuckle.

“My dear Abigail.” Her father had never called her by her full name. She had always been Abby to him.

“Did you know that the name, Abigail, had been picked out for you by me? I have never asked you if you actually like the name. Hmm..do you know what it means? It means ‘A father’s joy’. And you, dear Abby, have been just that. I remember the first time I held you in my arms, like it was yesterday. I had never seen anything as beautiful. It was in that moment that I made a promise to myself. I promised to protect you, no matter what. I kept up my word, mind you. I tried to protect you from failure. I tried to protect you from young boys. I tried to protect you from falling or even seeing me fall. And I failed. I failed to understand that, in doing so, I was not letting you experience life events for yourself. I was trying to hold you back from trying something you might fail at. All this, only because I couldn’t see you upset, Abby. When I look back at it now, I realize that it was not one of my better decisions. Your mother used to tell me I should, instead, have decided to love you unconditionally. But you know what, loving you was never a choice. The minute I saw you, I felt a huge wave of emotion inside me. I felt a sense of overpowering love. And I knew then, that I could never stop loving you.”

“Well, what I want to say is that I still love you as much as I did seventeen years back. I know I messed it up. But I want a fresh start. Please come back, Rapunzil. I promise we’ll start over and make up for all the lost time. Daddy loves you, Abby. And he misses you. Please come back.”

“Oh, and yes, I missed you on my birthday. But you made me think. And I decided to give you honesty in return for your honesty. I hope you see it and come back.”

By now, Abby had surpassed the sniffing stage and was sobbing uncontrollably. Her eyes were puffy and red and her face was stained with a seemingly endless flow of tears, when she heard Amy talk.

We know an honest message when we hear one. And Abby, your father 0really loves you. Mr Bruce, if your daughter heard what you just said, I’m sure she’ll be packing her bags to come home right now. You have to promise to call back once your daughter is home, though.

“Thank you Amy. I hope you are right.”

So which song can we play for you today? Is there a song you would like to dedicate to your daughter?

“Oh..a song. I didn’t know I got to pick the song. Well, could you play Paul Simon’s Father and daughter? That was our song when Abby was a little girl. I don’t know if she remembers it.”

Sure we can. Thank you for calling us. Our last caller for the day, dear listeners, Mr Bruce. Its almost midnight. Time for me to wish you good night. I’ll  be back again tomorrow on your favourite radio show. This is me, RJ Amy, wishing you all, good night. Coming right up, Paul Simons with father and daughter.

And the song started playing.

If you leap awake in the mirror of a bad dream

And for a fraction of a second you can’t remember where you are

Just open your window and follow your memory upstream

To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star.

 

I believe a light that shines on you will shine on you forever

And though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed

I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a Golden Retriever

And never leave till I leave you with a sweet dream in your head.

 

I’m gonna watch you shine

Gonna watch you grow

Gonna paint a sign

So you’ll always know

As long as one and one is two

There could never be a father

Who loved his daughter more than I love you.

 

Trust your intuition

It’s just like going fishing

You cast your line and hope you get a bite

But you don’t need to waste your time

Worrying about the market place

Try to help the human race

Struggling to survive its harshest night.

 

I’m gonna watch you shine

Gonna watch you grow

Gonna paint a sign

So you’ll always know

As long as one and one is two

There could never be a father

Who loved his daughter more than I love you.

 

With tears in her eyes, Abby picked up her phone and dialled her father’s number. “Daddy, this is Abby. I love you daddy. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left you. I’m coming home to you tomorrow. I love you.”

“And daddy, happy birthday. We are going to make this our best ever year together. I promise.”

****************************

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The Outsider

Once upon a time in India, before natural habitats had been invaded by man for his own selfish needs, there were dense forests with lush green foliage stretching into endless carpets and canopies aplenty. These studded forests were shelter to diverse flora and fauna, many of which are unheard of in the present day. It was the time when man and animals, they each had their marked territory and neither stepped into the territory of the other. The jungle had rarely been intruded by human presence. To the men who were tenacious and had plucked courage enough to tread into the forbidden jungle, the shades of green interspersed with blotches of color had been a sight more beautiful than anything they had laid their eyes upon. It had been a feast to their eyes. Sadly, they could not relish it for long as they soon became feast to the wild beasts of the jungle. In their final moments however, they had witnessed heaven on earth before proceeding to the literal heaven.

Our story unfolds in one such forest in India. Like in any other forest, there was an alpha lion called Alparslan who was the king of the jungle. With the help of his lioness, Leandra, and his pride of lions, Alparslan ruled the forest. Alparslan was massive and menacing to look at but had a heart of gold. His eyes oozed out warmth and his words and actions, kindness. He was a loyal friend to his fellow lions and valued their opinions. He was a role-model to the smaller animals and gave them sound advice when they needed it. Above all, he loved his wife more than anything in the world. All the animals from the rabbit to the elephant agreed that Alparslan and Leandra were the noblest rulers of the jungle yet.

While everything appeared perfect on the outside, there was one thing that worried Alparslan. Although he loved Leandra dearly, he had not been able to give her a cub and the forest an heir. He knew he had to do something about it before it was too late. He called his best friend, Kefir to his cave. Kefir was the smartest lion and his most trusted friend. Kefir had always guided him rightly in times of conflict.

“You called me, Alparslan?”, Kefir asked in his deep throaty voice from the entrance of the cave.

“Kefir, my dear friend. Come in, please”, he smiled.

The smile on Alparslan’s face however did not hide the creases of worry on his forehead making him look older.

“What is it that troubles the King?”, Kefir asked as he made his way towards his friend.

“You are a good friend, Kefir. You know me well. There is something that I have been losing my sleep on. I do not wish to pass my worries on to Leandra. The only person I can talk to about it is you, my dear friend. You are the smartest lion I know and if anyone can help me, it would be you.”

“I am wise only because I have been foolish”, Kefir replied modestly. “Go ahead; share the cause for your concern. I’ll do everything in my capacity to ease your pain.”

“Kefir, it worries me that I have not been able to give this forest an heir to continue after I’m gone. I’m getting old. I can feel it. It’s time for someone to take over. But who? Help me, dear friend.”

Kefir listened to his King patiently and replied, “I understand your concern. You could anoint one of the younger lions of our pride as your heir to the throne. However it may lead to fall outs within the pride. In my opinion, the best solution to your problem would be for you to adopt. It would make the adopted cub your legal son and our future king.”

“It does seem like a good idea”, Alparslan mumbled, contemplating what he had just heard. “Very well. Leandra and I will consider your valuable advice, Kefir. Thank you.”

As Kefir bowed and left the cave, he noticed his King engrossed in deep thought.

*******************************

“What is it, dear? Why have you brought me here?”, Leandra asked as she treaded cautiously in an unknown territory.

On one hand, it looked beautiful. She was met with emerald green leaves thickly covering the branches of tall trees. Flowers of every color smiled back at her. The forest felt like a great reservoir of silence as the only sound that touched her ears were their own footsteps against the grass. An earthy smell fused with the fragrance of flowers filled the air. On the other hand, it was a part of the forest that was alien to her. Her senses had instinctively become sharper. She had to be cautious.

“There is something I want to talk to you about.” He hesitated. Just as he was wondering how to tell Leandra, he heard a noise in the bushes. Instantly his ears perked up and he jumped protectively in front of Leandra, facing the bushes. They heard the noise again, this time louder and closer. Just as he was ready to pounce, he saw where the noise was coming from. It was a young cub. The cub looked lost. While Alparslan’s first reaction was to take a step back, Leandra took a step forward. The cub looked like nothing they had seen before. It had the color and face of a lion cub but it didn’t completely resemble a lion cub. It had a hint of stripes on its body, like a tiger. Though it had the face of a baby, it was bigger and heavier than an average lion cub. The cub took one look at the big cats, purred and ran to Leandra. It rubbed its head against her and made playful growling noises. The instinctive ‘mother hen’ in Leandra came to the forefront and she began licking the cub. They seemed to have formed an instant connection. Leandra and the cub continued fondling and playing as Alparslan looked on with an amused expression on his face.

“Darling, can we take him back with us. I can’t leave him behind. I promise to raise him like my own son”, she looked at her husband with pleading eyes.

“But Leandra, he’s…different. While he has our face, he also looks like a tiger. You know how the other lions would feel about having a tiger in our midst. They’ll never accept him.”

“I’ll talk to the other lions. They love us. They love you. They’ll understand. Besides, he’s not a tiger. He only has their stripes. Please Alparslan, this is my chance of becoming a mother. And I know I’ll make a good mother”.

The cub peeked up at Alparslan from behind Leandra and purred.

“Alright”, he said after some thought. Adopting had definitely been on his mind. Wasn’t that why he had brought Leandra there? To talk to her about adoption. Finding a cub there just seemed like a sign from the universe. “Let’s take our son home”, he said with more conviction.

Leandra rubbed her face on Alparslan’s neck with affection. She loved him.

*******************************

“Raion”, Leandra called out to her son. “Where are you off to?”

“Uhh..I was going for a swim, mom. Can you please not tell dad?”, Raion requested his mother as he disappeared around the corner. He knew he could trust his mother.

“He’s growing up fast, Leandra thought as she saw her son leaping away. In two years, he had already reached her height and weighed more than her. He had started showing signs of a growing mane, but his stripes had become more prominent too.

Her thoughts drifted back to the day when they had brought Raion home. The news of the arrival of the new prince had spread like wild fire. Everyone wanted to get a peek at him. However when Alparslan had introduced Raion to the jungle, Leandra had felt the mood suddenly change. Everyone seemed to observe that Raion looked different. She had felt an unspoken tension filling the air around her which Alparslan seemed not to feel. He was careful with his words, though. He had made it clear to the other animals that Raion was their new prince and the heir to the forest. The animals said nothing and bowed in front of their King and their new prince to show their respect. They loved Alparslan too much to say anything. However, Alparslan had still been careful with Raion. Raion was a softie and loved to swim and play. Alparslan made sure Raion didn’t go to the river to swim. He did not want to give the other animals something to talk about. Afterall, lions did not swim in water. So Raion sometimes sneaked to the river without telling his father.

“Hon, there are some men in the forest. I need to go now. Stay here and take care of Raion. I’ll be back”, Alparslan interrupted her thoughts as he took a minute to tell her before sprinting away.

The lines on his face and the restlessness in his movements told Leandra that the situation was grave. In the split second that she saw him, she noticed how old and weak he had become. He had a limp in his walk and his reflexes weren’t as good as they used to be. She couldn’t let her husband go alone. She had to go with him.

“Wait for me”, she shouted as she sprinted after him.

**********************************

Raion was as big as most fully grown lions by now but he was still a cub at heart. He was splashing happily in the river when he heard the sound of scampering feet. He instinctively stopped splashing and ducked low, careful not to make any sound. He saw a pack of jackals talking all at once in hushed tones. They looked horrified and smug and restless and excited all at once. Raion did not know what to make of it but he didn’t dare to come out of hiding.  After a nervous discussion, the jackals parted ways and went in different directions. Raion decided to wait for a few more minutes before coming out of the water. Just as he was stepping out, he heard a voice behind him.

“Look who we have here. Prince Raion. Pardon me, I mean King Raion”, came a jackal’s drawling voice from behind Raion.

He quickly turned around to face the jackal. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“I am Anubis. Your father knew me well. He was a good king. But forget that. What are you doing here? Everyone is looking for you. Haven’t you heard?”

“I was just…Heard what?”

“There were humans in the forest. Your father and mother tried to scare them away and save us all. But those humans had something like a stick in their hand. The next thing we heard was a deafening noise and then there was blood everywhere. And then, they just went away. It was horrifying. Raion, your father and mother are dead. The King is no more.”

Raion felt a searing pain in his chest when he heard the news. The words spoken by Anubis felt like thorns piercing his heart. He felt a giant lump forming in his throat which was growing bigger and bigger until it started hurting. He felt the forest go dark and felt trapped in the darkness. The trees around him appeared taller and he started to feel small and lost. He saw his dad’s face, the face that had never shown a hint of fear. Raion had always known that nothing bad could happen to him when his father was around him. He had always felt protected under his father’s shadow. Only his father could make him feel like a safe little cub and a strong brave lion at the same time. Who would he look up to and admire? He saw his mother’s face, the face that was an embodiment of kindness. He had always been a momma’s boy right from the first time he had set eyes on his parents. She had been his friend and his secret keeper. She loved him more than anyone else in the forest. He did not remember much from his days before he met his foster mother and father. He had tried jogging his memory more than a few times and had seen flashes of another lion, a lion whose eyes did not have the kindness of his father, and a striped animal he didn’t recognize. ‘Why did he have stripes on his tail like the strange animal?’, he had wondered. He had seen flashes of running and hiding from hyenas. He remembered feeling lost and lonely. The next thing he remembered was seeing the love on his mother’s face and running to her. The lost feeling had vanished in seconds. After all the years, he felt lost again. The feeling of loneliness seemed to engulf him.

“Raion, Raion are you even listening to me? This is important.” He heard Anubis’ voice coming from a distance. “Listen to me, Raion. Your father, the king is no more. You are no longer a carefree cub. You are the king now. This jungle is now your responsibility.”

“What?”, Raion was instantly brought back to reality. “But..but I’m so young. How can I rule this forest? Can’t Kefir be the king?”

“It doesn’t work like that. You are the heir to the throne and the king of this forest now. No one can change that”, Anubis explained. “But that is not it. Pay close attention. The jackals have been scheming against you. They want you dethroned.”

“But you just said that was not possible.”

“Yes, but they are spreading word that you are, well, different. They are telling the other beasts that there had been a mistake and that could not you be accepted as king.”

Raion looked at himself. He was bulkier than most lions. He did not have a mane as majestic as his father. He had dark stripes on his body that he had not seen on any other lion. Maybe he was different. Maybe it was a mistake. He just wanted to curl up in his cave against his mother’s thick coat of fur. Instead, he asked, “Why are you telling me this, Arubis?”

“Beacause I respect King Alparslan more than anyone and have faith in his decision to choose you king. He could not have made a mistake. You are the chosen one. You can’t let them get to you. Now hurry back to the cave.”

While Raion’s legs walked in the direction of the cave, his mind was elsewhere. As he approached the cave, he saw and heard more animals, birds and insects. He felt all eyes upon him as he made his way to the cave.

He was relieved to see Kefir waiting at the entrance of the cave. He had a million questions running in his head. He needed answers. If he could trust someone to help him, it was Kefir.

“Kefir, what’s happening? What is this I’m hearing? Where are my mother and father? What happened to them?”

“Raion, your father and mother are the greatest people I have ever known. But their time on this earth is over.  It’s time now for you, their son, to take their place”. Kefir consoled Raion. “Meet Kimama. She’s the queen butterfly. She saw what happened to your parents.”

He turned to Kimama. She was a beautiful little butterfly with a medley of colors and shapes on her tiny little wings. “Kimama, would you please be kind enough to tell Raion what you saw those humans do?”

Kimama nodded to Kefir and bowed down to Raion. “I was fluttering around the wild flowers in the jungle outskirts when I saw two humans. They had big rods in their hands. I immediately flew back to Alparslan and reported what I had seen. The next minute, he informed Leandra and ran to the spot. I don’t know what came over Leandra, but she ran behind her husband. I followed them. Alparslan stood in the way of the humans and roared. The humans however went for Leandra. They pointed the rod at her. But the fearless Alparslan jumped in between the rod and Leandra. The next thing I heard was a deafening noise and I saw blood everywhere. Then, a second shot and both Alparslan and Leandra lay there, next to each other, still as a rock.”

As he heard Kimama’s story, Raion felt grief-stricken. The pain in his chest was unbearable. He thought of the courage his parents had shown and found himself thinking if he could ever be brave like them. He thought of the love his parents shared for each other and found himself wishing to find love.

He forced his thoughts back to the present. “So I guess I am the king now. But what’s all the noise I hear?”

“There is one small problem”, Kefir explained. “The animals all believe that you are not the rightful heir to the throne. I will calm the animals and set the stage for you, but beyond that, it will be your show. You are the son of the great Alparslan. You need to show them that you are powerful, brave, kind and just. Prove them wrong. Prove it to them that you are the rightful heir. Do you hear me? Do this for your father, will you?”

Raion saw a fire in Kefir’s eyes and took some courage from it but he still didn’t feel very confident.

Kefir went up to the entrance of the cave and faced the animals.

“Listen all. Listen carefully. Alparslan is dead. The rightful heir and your new king is Prince Raion. Henceforth, we shall all refer to him as king Raion.”

At this point, there was an uproar. The animals stomped their feet and shook their heads in disagreement.

“Silence”, Kefir thundered.

No one had seen Kefir get angry. They immediately stopped displaying their disagreement and turned their attention to Kefir.

“I’m going to say this only once so listen carefully. Alparslan was the greatest king I have known. He lived his life for this forest and he sacrificed his life for this forest. He sacrificed his life for us. So when he chose Raion as your next king, I believe he knew what he was doing. He believed in Raion and I think we should too. It is the least we can do to pay our last respect to the greatest king this jungle has seen.”

The entire forest was silent. The only sound that could be heard was the blowing of a gentle breeze. The breeze seemed to be mourning the death of Alparslan as well. All the animals had their eyes glued to Kefir.

“And now I present to you for the first time, King Raion.” Kefir announced and bowed as King Raion made his way to face the rows of animals standing below. The animals followed Kefir’s lead and bowed to King Raion.

********************************

“What do you think about the new ‘king’?”, Ofra the deer asked her friend Niabi.

Niabi’s nickname among the deer community was ‘gossip queen’. No one knew how she found the details but she always knew the latest gossip about everyone. She had her contacts everywhere. Ofra was a young deer who liked to stick around Niabi. She followed Niabi everywhere and did what was told to her. Niabi enjoyed the attention and let Ofra in on some of the juicy gossip when she felt like.

“Well, honestly I feel he’s not a bad lion”, Niabi started in her high-pitched know-it-all voice. “But it’s like he’s trying too hard to get accepted. Unfortunately for him, no one sees him as a good fit to be King. While trying to project courage and confidence, he actually emits fear and incompetence. The animals only follow his orders out of respect for Alparslan. They have no respect for him. I have no respect for him.”

“Poor baby”, Niabi continued in her shrill mocking tone.

Ofra joined Niabi and they had a good laugh.

**********************************

Two years had passed since Raion had been crowned king. Although on the surface, everything seemed calm and peaceful, there were undercurrents of distrust and doubt in everyone’s minds. They bowed to Raion and followed his orders but spoke low of him behind his back. They always treated him like an outsider, he was different after all. It had not been an easy journey for Raion. He had not received the support and respect his father had. However, he was not one to give up easily. He had considered the barriers on his way as learning lessons and had grown lightyears as a lion in these two years. The shy, frightened cub in him had died somewhere along the way. He had learned to block out the negativities surrounding him and fulfill his responsibilities the best that he could. He was now a fully grown lion, almost double the size of other lions.

He had provided the animals with food and water. He had resolved the age-old quarrel between the hare and the tortoise. To everyone’s surprise he had swam adeptly in the deep river and saved the baby giraffe from drowning. He had always shown respect to each of the beasts, birds and insects. ‘To gain respect, you need to give respect’, his dad had told him. In his difficult times, Kefir had always been there to guide him in making decisions just as he had seen Kefir help his father.

“He has grown into a fine lion, like his father. Alparslan would have been proud of him”, Kefir thought one day as he left the cave after talking to Raion. “I hope the animals open their blindfolds and see him for who he really is.”

******************************

“Raion, Raion, forest, humans, help”, Aquilina the eagle was flapping her wings vigorously, sounding out of breath.

“Aquilina, my friend, take a breath first and then tell me what you saw.”

Aquilina perched herself on a branch, took a deep breath and blurted. “Humans! Raion, there are humans in the forest. They are the same men who killed your parents. I saw them two years back and I saw them today.”

That’s all that Raion needed to hear. The anger bottled inside him for two years floated to the surface. He roared like thunder and darted like the wind into the forest. The eagle, Aquilina led the way for him, flying as fast as she could.

“I know you are seething with anger right now but mindless anger can blind you. Do not lose your mind, Raion. You need to act wisely.”

But Raion heard nothing. He kept running as fast as he could until he saw the men who had killed his mother.

The men had their guns pointed at a deer. Raion immediately recognized the deer to be Niabi. Her slender body was shaking with fear. She stood as if paralyzed. Her entire body was trembling but her legs won’t move. Just as the man pointing his gun at Niabi pulled the trigger, he saw a huge figure jump in between him and the deer and heard a roar filled with pain.

The next thing he knew, the deer had sprinted into the forest and a lion lay in front of him, blood gushing out of its leg. The man, a little mad at losing the deer, pointed his gun a second time at the lion. This time however, he was stopped by his partner standing behind him.

“Wait”, the second man said placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Look at his stripes. He’s not a lion.”

The first man looked at the animal and saw it for the first time. On observing carefully, he noticed that his friend was right. It wasn’t a lion. It had the black stripes of a tiger on its body. Yet it also had the thick mane of a lion. He looked bigger and heavier than any lion he had ever seen.

“Wait. Do not shoot him. We would be heavily rewarded if we take this weirdo to the city zoo. He would make us rich.”

They loaded the sedated and injured lion in their truck and took him away.

*****************************

The only news that was floating around the forest for the next few days was of Raion’s bravery. Niabi took it upon her single-handedly to spread the news of how Raion saved her life.

“I was standing there, trembling all over, sure that I was counting my last few breaths. The man was pointing the metal rod at me. I couldn’t move if I wanted to. Just when the rod was about to make the horrifying noise that kills us, Raion fearlessly jumped between me and the rod and shouted to me, “Run!” That was when I came back to my senses and ran. I ran for my life. When I looked back one last time, I thought I saw King Alparslan. I saw kindness in those eyes and courage in his act. But it was King Raion lying on the ground, blood oozing out of his leg. He saved my life. If it wasn’t for him, I would not be standing here.”

Ofra followed the lead from her mentor and friend, Niabi, and told everyone she could of the greatness of King Raion. Word spread quickly and soon everyone was comparing Raion with his father. Raion, like his parents, had sacrificed his life for the forest. They recalled all the good deeds done and all the kind words spoken by Raion. They regretted the disrespect and distrust they had shown him. ‘Why did it matter that he looked different? Did outward appearance matter more than the heart?’, they contemplated. They had shown him hate and he had shown him love. They had found a new respect for him.

******************************

Meanwhile in the city zoo in India, the latest attraction that lured people from all over the world was a rare creature that had been spotted in the jungle for the first time.

The sign board outside the cage read “LIGER”.

“Mom, I want this animal. What is it?”, Raion heard a six year old girl asked her mother from outside the cage.

“It’s a liger, darling”, her mother explained. Look how big it is. Look how it has stripes like a tiger and a mane like a lion. That’s because its mother is a tiger and its father is a lion.”

That’s what everyone these days was saying when they looked at him. But in his heart, Raion knew something that none of these humans would ever know. He knew that his mother and father were both lions, the greatest lions he had ever seen.

******************************

2 Diaries and A Date

“Stop laughing, it’s not that funny”, came a husky masculine voice.

“It would be if you step in my shoes”, replied a velvety sweet voice in between attempts to stifle a laugh.

Dear Reader. Did you know that when you go into deep sleep and enter a world of dreams and fantasy, there is something fantasy-like that is happening around you? Are you someone who buries everything from your dull daily experiences to your deep dark secrets in a diary? If you think the embarrassing truths written in there are safe, you definitely haven’t heard George Oswell’s words – ‘If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.’

Every time you pour your heart out into your diary, a small fragment of your heart goes into it. As you keep writing, the tiny bits of your heart start fitting into each other like a jigsaw puzzle and it’s only a matter of months before you give life to your diary. It becomes a reflection of you.

I am Ralph’s diary. Friends call me Ralphie. The two voices that you heard above were Ashley’s diary, Ash, and I talking. It is a known fact that heart-to-heart communication is the most powerful. So it is no surprise that when two people spill their hearts out in their diaries, their diaries ‘magically’ find each other. When you are asleep, we share everything that you write with each other, following which we either have a good laugh about it or sympathize with you.

I met Ash a few hours ago after Ralph and Ashley had fallen into deep slumber. I had been increasingly hearing about Ashley during the last week but I hadn’t bother until today when Ralph poured more of his heart into me than he usually did. That’s when I went on my search for Ashley’s diary and not surprisingly, ran into her as she was looking for me too.

“It is our first date”, Ash chimed in fluttering her pages seductively and giving Ralphie a smug look.

“It may well be our last date”, Ralphie replied looking slightly disappointed.

Do not tell Ashley and Ralph what Ash and I are about to tell you, dear reader. It is supposed to be a ‘secret’. Grab your popcorn, for you are about to hear what may sound like the script of an average but entertaining movie. If you think it’s a ‘Boy meets Girl’ kind of story, you’re right. But who doesn’t enjoy gossip, right? I’ll start with Ralph’s version of the story and Ash will tell you Ashley’s version. Here goes.

*************************

“I had a great time today”, Ralph smiled as he opened the car door for Ashley. She hesitated for a moment before smiling back at him, revealing a subtle dimple on the right cheek. Thanking him, she got into her car. “I’ll call you”, he called out just as she drove away.

He stood there watching the car disappear at the end of the road. Heaving a deep sigh, he took his car keys out of his pocket. His thoughts hovered over the evening as he buckled his seat belt and drove home. He had been a perfect gentleman, holding the door open, pulling the chair and refusing to share the check. He couldn’t wait to fill his journal about the evening. It had been a good first date.

Ralph is a handsome man with bold features that made him attractive to women. His well-defined jaw line, broad shoulders and robust calf muscles are accompanied by soft brown eyes. He is an old-fashioned man who believes in chivalry and gentlemanly behavior. It had always worked for him with women. His combination of good looks and polite etiquette made him irresistible to women. He is aware of his effect on most women and it secretly made him happy. He is a smooth talker and instantly made the opposite sex feel comfortable. The only person who knows everything about him is me, his diary. I have been his best friend ever since he was ten. This was because I never left his side whether he was celebrating his success or brooding over his misery, whether it was six in the morning or eleven in the night. I never made fun of him (to his face) and always listened to him patiently. More than anything, he found that he could finally trust someone.

He reached home, pulled on his boxers and a t-shirt, brushed his teeth and looked around his room once. He liked things to be perfect. After clearing a wrinkle on his bed cover once more, he sat down at his table and opened his journal and began writing.

‘It was a perfect date. At first, I was apprehensive about going on a blind date but it turned out to be a good thing. You never know when life is going to throw glazed donuts at you instead of sour lemons. I have to thank Joanne tomorrow for setting us up.’

Meanwhile Ashley tired of wearing a smile on her face for two long hours, unlocked the door of her apartment and flopped on her unkempt bed with her shoes still on. Ashley is a confident woman who had her priorities set in her head. Her wide set eyes and small mouth gave her a baby-like appearance. Her soft tiny features called forth feelings of protection towards her. She, on the other hand, is a strong headed woman who knows how to take care of herself. She is the youngest of four siblings, the other three being boys. Being around her brothers all the time had rubbed off on her. She is not the typical girl. She didn’t gossip and she didn’t care too much about the way she looked which in fact added to her sexual appeal. She had left home when she was nineteen and since then she has been living life on her own terms. She had started keeping a diary since the day she had started living on her own in the hope of recording all her experiences and creating memories. Today was definitely going into her diary.

After checking her phone for messages, she took her shoes off, rubbed her heels and got out of bed. She quickly washed her face and got into her favorite tank top and shorts. With a bowl of ice-cream by the bedside table and her tattered diary (that’s me) in hand, she went back on her bed.

‘I may have been out of the dating world for sometime but I think I would have known if it was right. He was handsome, very handsome. But I still didn’t feel my heart skip a beat, didn’t feel the knots in my stomach and didn’t have the warm feeling spreading all over me. In fact I was tired of smiling and couldn’t wait to get back home. I can’t believe I agreed to a blind date. I’m going to kill Joanne tomorrow.’

This is how the evening started for Ralph. He knew that a blind date was all about first impressions. He picked out a designer suit to wear and a classy fine dining restaurant to spend the evening. He was obviously excited about his date. Joanne had insisted that Ashley didn’t want to be picked up and would see him directly at the restaurant. He reached the spot ten minutes early, like he always did. He valued punctuality and discipline among other things and had a record of never being late to any meeting. The receptionist greeted him with an infectious smile and took him to his table where he waited for his date to arrive.

 This is how the evening started for Ashley. Cursing the traffic, she unlocked the door as she returned home after her dentist appointment. She checked the time and panicked. She had just within an hour to make it to the restaurant on time. She quickly pulled out her favorite short red skirt and matched it with a black top. She kept checking the time as she brushed her dark brown hair to give it some volume.  She grabbed her purse and phone on her way out as she tried to walk fast in her heels. As she entered the restaurant, she was pleased to note that she had made it on time. The receptionist gave her the same rehearsed smile and led her to her table.

 As Ashley approached the table, she saw a tall handsome man at the table. Suddenly she felt under dressed and wished she had carried her make-up kit with her. In her defense, he was over dressed. Who wore designer suits on a first date? As she smiled at him she realized that her jaw still hurt from the dentist appointment earlier that day. The effect of the pain killer was subsiding.

 She was right on time. The first thing Ralph noticed about Ashley as she walked to him was her smile. He spotted a faint dimple on the right cheek when she smiled. He stood up as she came, thanked the receptionist and smiled at his date. He pulled the chair for her to sit. She gave him a quizzical look before sitting down. ‘Yes, I pulled the chair for you.  I know it’s not a scene you get to see often these days’, he thought to himself with a sense of pride.

 He made polite conversation. He filled the awkward silences and kept the conversation flowing. He had been told that he was a smooth talker. He was proud of it. ‘She’s a good listener. We’ll make a great team’, he thought to himself. The waitress who came to take their order came straight to him in a tiny skirt and smiled at him with a small notepad in hand. She told him her name was Lily. Ashley had excused herself to the ladies room. He took a look at the menu card and ordered for both of them. While he was waiting for Ashley, he noticed the waitress who had come to take the order sneaking glances at him from a distance. When Ashley returned, he again got up from his chair and insisted on pulling the chair for her as she sat. She finally gave in and smiled back at him.

 Ashley was always treated like a baby, first by her brothers, then by her friends and now her dates. She was tired of it. Ashley liked to believe that she was a strong, independent woman. She liked to do things for herself and did not approve of others doing them for her. ‘Why did he have to pull the chair for me? I could have easily done it myself’, she found herself thinking. She didn’t want to judge him without giving him a fair chance. ‘Strike one. Now that’s fair chance’, she smiled to herself. ‘Damn this aching jaw.’

 At first, she thought maybe she judged him too soon. He seemed to be an interesting man. He told her about himself, his likes and dislikes and other stories. She noticed that he spoke of many women and had been on a reasonable number of dates, unlike her. But after a while she realized that he wasn’t about to stop talking any time soon. Every time she opened her mouth to say something, he overrode her with a new story and a new woman. He liked to talk about himself. She sat there looking at him. Her lips were smiling but her thoughts were elsewhere.

 ‘We haven’t even ordered food. I can’t keep at this any longer. My jaw hurts from all the smiling and my ear hurts from all the listening.’ That’s when she excused herself to the ladies room. She took her own sweet time checking herself in the mirror and checking her phone for messages. When she finally went back, he again insisted on pulling the chair back for her to sit. She gave in. Within the next few minutes, food began to arrive. She was surprised. She didn’t remember ordering food. To top it, the dishes on the table were an assortment of chicken and meat and she was a vegetarian.

 ‘Vegetarian!’ This wasn’t something he had expected. He quickly covered the awkward moment by apologizing and asking her what she would like to eat. He also asked her if she was alright if he ate the chicken. She ordered a garden salad. When it was time for dessert, she politely refused. They skipped dessert and he realized the date was coming to an end. He asked Lily the waitress for the check. When Lily brought the check to him, he observed that the top button of her blouse which was closed the first time was now open. He tried not to stare and was distracted by Ashley who was taking her card out. Obviously his manhood was hurt by this act. He declared that it was their first date and that it was on him. He told her that he owed her for a great evening.

Ashley wasn’t like any of his other dates. She wasn’t one of the best dressed people. Nor was she the most beautiful. But there was carelessness in her beauty. It was like she neither cared nor knew that she was beautiful. There was an aura of confidence and independence that made her personality a strong one. Her doll-like features and the hint of a dimple were added distractions. The date had been a good one.

‘How did he think he knew what I wanted to eat? How could he order for me? And he ordered chicken!’ She quickly finished her salad in the hope of getting away soon. When he asked for dessert, she chose the easiest route to get out. ‘I’m watching my weight, sorry’, she had politely refused. Truth be told, she was a dessert person and her aching jaw was crying out for ice-cream. She decided she’ll pick up a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey on her way home. When it was time for the check, she had wanted to split it two ways. Why would he pay for her? She protested in vain and finally surrendered, happy that the evening was over.

 Ralph was a handsome man. He was a ladies man. He believed in old school chivalry. His good looks and gentlemanly manners probably made him popular with women. But he was also narcissistic and self-centered. He was not a bad guy. He just was not right for her. The date had been a disaster.

**********************

And that dear reader is the story of Ralph and Ashley’s first and may be last date.

“Stop laughing, it’s not that funny”, Ralphie told Ash.

“It would be if you step in my shoes”, Ash smilingly retorted.

“The story is not over. The date was not a complete disaster”, Ralphie’e voice suddenly had an edge of mischief to it.

“You mean it could have been worse?”, Ash joked. Seeing Ralphie’s smug expression, Ash stopped laughing. “What is it? I’m curious.”

“Do you remember Lily the waitress? She slipped her number to Ralph along with the check”, it was Ralphie’s turn to smile.

“You mean to say Ralph picked up another woman while on a date with Ashley?”, Ash clearly didn’t look very happy.

“And by the look of it, I would soon be meeting Lily’s diary”, Ralphie was practically beaming now, having wiped the smug smile on Ash’s face.

Ash shot daggers at Ralphie with one dirty look, turned and walked away without looking back while Ralphie was still laughing.

*****************************************

Love and other Drugs

As the bus came to yet another halt, he fell forward and was once again jerked awake. Groggily, he rubbed his eyes and fidgeted in his bag for his glasses. His vision was not what it used to be during his younger days. After a few seconds of searching around, he found them. Putting them on, he checked his watch for the time. It was two past midnight. The bus continued to trudge through the dark night on the so-called road.

He gazed at the clear cloudless sky and saw the stars winking at him. His thoughts, unwillingly, travelled back to exactly a month ago. He would trade anything to erase the memory of that night. Ironically, he remembered every single detail. She had taken him to the sea, where they had first met. He had noticed that she looked particularly radiant that day, under the moonless starry night. They were waist-deep in water when she had taken his hand in hers, looked into his eyes and told him that he was going to have a beautiful daughter. Time had stopped and it felt to him that only the two of them existed in that moment. Funnily enough, it struck him that not two, but three of them existed in that moment. He could have sworn that if he had to pick the single greatest moment in his life, it was that moment. He felt more love for her than he thought he was capable of feeling. He could already feel unconditional love for his little unborn angel. It had seemed like a surreal dream, all too good to be true. But before he could let the joy and love wash over him, fate struck and tore his family apart. He lost the woman he loved more than anyone and the baby girl whose beautiful face he hadn’t seen to the merciless waves of the ocean.

He forced his thoughts back to the present. He tore his gaze away from the stars and it fell on the bottle of alcohol in his bag. He had been an alcoholic since he was 20. He had been in and out of rehab frequently. But since the time they had decided to try for a baby, he had refrained from alcohol. That had been a year ago. It had been his decision to give up the booze. It had not been easy. But he had done it. The last one month after the fateful night had been different, though. He had returned to his addiction with full gusto.

At 55, a bumpy overnight bus journey was not very good for his back. He was relieved when it finally ended. He had arrived at the small town of Oakdale, the town where Ana had lived for most of her life. The visit had been an impulsive decision. Two days earlier, he had been sitting at the window with a bottle of wine in one hand and a picture of the two of them, Frank and Ana, in the other when a strong gust of wind had blown the picture away. It had been their only picture together. Ana had always been camera-shy and he had never clicked photos to capture any of their moments together. In that instant, when he saw the only photo of Ana disappear in front of him, he panicked and decided he had to go to Oakdale, to feel Ana’s presence around him. When he had told his therapist about it, he agreed with Frank that it was a good idea. The change of place should do you good and help you get closure, he had told. He had been worried for Frank.

As Frank walked the streets of Oakdale, he spotted a small bar. After the long tiresome journey, he needed a drink before he proceeded. However once inside, he emptied glass after glass and by the time he left the place, his vision had gone fuzzy even with his glasses on and he was staggering to walk straight.

With alcohol in his blood stream, he felt less depressed and a sense of peace as he stumbled onto the streets looking for a hotel to check-in. He noticed the gravel pavement, the huge parks, the conservatively dressed women and the happy children. People appeared to be in no hurry. They were enjoying the little pleasures that we often overlook and were meandering slowly smiling and greeting everyone along their way. It looked like a small town where everyone knew everyone else. He finally found a meager hotel to spend the night. Just as he was stepping in, his eyes fell on a woman playing with a group of kids. He couldn’t believe what his eyes saw. The woman was Ana. His Ana!

Frank froze on the spot staring at the woman and the children playing in the park. A hundred emotions coursed through his veins. He felt disbelief, love, relief, surprise, anger, hatred and fear all at once. He wanted to walk to her but his legs wouldn’t move. He saw her waving to the children and walking away but still couldn’t move. When he regained his senses after she had left the scene, he realized he had been holding his breath and inhaled deeply. He felt the blood flow back to his legs and that he could finally walk. In a trance, he paid and took the keys to his hotel room and checked-in. Still trembling, he sat on the bed, which creaked under his weight.

Anabelle had been 25 when they had first met, five years ago. She was a lumpsome twenty-five years younger than him. While their friends thought they were the two most unlikely people to fall in love with each other, unseen sparks seemed to fly between from the instant they shook hands. The chemistry between them soon became obvious. They were attracted to each other like two opposite poles of a magnet. She made him feel young at heart with her bursting energy and he made her feel anchored and grounded with his practical approach. The only thing that Frank loved more than Ana was his scotch. They soon took their relationship to the next level by deciding to move in together. Like any other couple, they had their share of quarrels along the way.

“Stop drinking if you want me to stay here”, she would say.

“Stop nagging me if you want to stay here”, he would slur.

Despite all the bickering, they always managed to patch things up and stay together. He knew in his heart that he would never let her go. Though they came from small traditional towns, they were unconventional in their thinking. They cared about neither the society nor the people. They didn’t think they needed to get married to live happily together. After spending four years together, they decided it was time for a child. He had always wanted a baby. He had wanted a baby girl. And when his dream was finally about to come true, it had all slipped away just like that.

Now as he sat there, still not over the shock of what he had seen, too many thoughts seemed to crowd his mind.

“How’s she alive?”

“What is she doing here?”

“Why did she not tell me?”

“How could she look so happy?”

“What happened to our child, my child?”

As these thoughts became clearer in his head, relief and love were replaced by anger and hatred.

“How could she do this to me?”

By now, the sun had started setting and the sky was changing its color and darkness started to creep in. He went to the window to get some fresh air. As Frank looked outside, he again caught a glimpse of Ana, crossing the street and walking. This time he was prepared. He slung his bag across his shoulder and quickly went down. He saw her turning around the street corner just as he got out of the hotel. He followed her, keeping safe distance, to see where she was headed. He saw her smile and wave at a man and felt the demons of anger inside him rising. As she reached a lonely alley, he decided to confront her. By now, he was seething with rage. He called out to her, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Ana”.

She turned around. The final expression that he saw on her face was that of surprise and fear before he smashed the bottle of alcohol which was in his bag on her head. She gasped and fell down, twitched once, not moving again. He stood there looking at her, breathing heavily. His trance was broken by a distant noise which made him realized the gravity of what he had done. He threw the bottle, wiped his forehead and made his way back to the hotel. The guilt made him feel like everyone on the street was looking at him. He heard whispers. They were talking about him. They knew what had happened. As he quickly paced back, he tripped and fell. Pulling himself back on his feet, Frank began limping as quickly as he could. As he approached the hotel, he heard the police siren. The sound kept getting louder and he could feel his heart beat getting louder with it. He finally reached his room. Just as he reached for the key in his pocket, he felt someone tackle him to the ground from behind. The decibel level of the siren had reached deafening levels. He tried to wriggle out of the firm clasp that held him to the ground but the more he struggled, the more his body ached all over. He finally gave in and went limp.

******************************

The siren stopped ringing. The paramedics and the support crew quickly got off the ambulance and ran into the bar with a stretcher and first aid. The bartender was found to be holding the man down who slowly stopped struggling and flailing and gave in. He was helped on the stretcher and taken to the hospital. The bartender accompanied them.

Frank was rushed into the hospital. After initial examination, the doctor came out to talk to the bartender. “He has been sedated and has calmed down. Can you please tell me what happened?”

“He came into my bar a little before noon and ordered for a drink. He told me he had to leave soon and had stopped by for a quick drink before he left. He downed the first four drinks in a jiffy. At first, I didn’t care and was happy I was making money. But he seemed to be getting drunk quickly. I reminded him that he had to leave and asked him how he was going to go. He said he was in no hurry. He asked me if I knew a girl named Ana before he asked for a few more drinks. When I next saw him, after a few hours, he didn’t look alright. He seemed to be having a panic attack. I went to him and tapped him on the shoulder from behind. That’s when he lost it and started flailing and screaming. I immediately called the hospital and tried to pin him down.”

After a few more pain-killers and anti-depressants, Frank calmed down and gained consciousness. More tests were performed. More questions were asked. Frank was too weak by now and suddenly felt old. A counselor was called. Frank narrated his story about Ana. His therapist back at home was contacted for his history. He said and did whatever was told to him. After an extended examination, the doctor came out and filled a form.

DIAGNOSIS : Hallucination

CAUSES : Depression and alcohol

The Story of a Cop

The town of Pitampur is a small, conservative town, one that strongly believes in its old-fashioned values and traditions. The folk of this town wake up at sunrise, follow their daily routine and go to bed at sunset. They are simple people who are content with their simple lives. They do not like change and excitement, and it is my duty to keep things that way. I am Ashok Kulkarni, chief of police for the town of Pitampur and this is my story. Before I begin, you have to make a deal with me, a deal that I don’t judge you and you don’t judge me. So here goes.

I had grown up watching a lot of Hindi movies where the lead actor was a cop who fought crime and locked thieves and wrong-doers in the prison. I had always wanted to become a policeman since then and do the same for my town. Dreaming of joining the squad, I had worked hard and aced every test. The day I got selected was the day I thought my dreams were about to come true. And then, I was posted to the town of Pitampur.

I want you to close your eyes and visualize. Visualize vast stretches of farmland with cattle ploughing on it, small brick houses with red tiled roofs, children playing on paved gravel road, men and women folk doing their daily routine chores. Well this was Pitampur, a peaceful, conventional town.

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To you, it may sound like an idyllic place to spend the rest of your life. But to me, it felt suffocating. I felt like an outcast in this town. The peace and quiet in the town made me want to pull my hair out. I am a policeman and it is my duty to keep this place safe. But safe from what? I had lived in this Godforsaken place for more than twenty years and nothing exciting had ever happened..

Let me tell you, I am a brave man. I have never feared death. When the time comes, I will welcome death with open arms and a smile on my face. But I wanted to accomplish something big before that day came. I wanted my life to have meaning. I always felt this need to be the protector, the need to feel needed. Sadly, I couldn’t feel any of this in Pitampur. It felt like if I were to die that day, I would be lost in the pages of history. The thought of living an unfulfilled life, now that I feared. And then, something happened which changed everything !

It may sound dramatic but the day was Friday, the 13th. The month was April and the year, 2012. The strong aroma of spices in the Indian masala chai filled the air as the ‘chai wala’ brought tea for us. There is nothing as invigorating to the senses as steaming hot chai. I was sitting at the station, sipping tea and reading the daily newspaper when I heard the commotion outside. Reluctantly, taking one last look at my tea, I ran outside. I could already see a crowd forming at the street corner. After making my way through the crowd, I saw Suraj, the milkman, talking animatedly to anyone who would listen. Although panic-stricken, he also seemed to be enjoying the attention that he was receiving. After finally tearing him away from the crowd for questioning, he narrated the story to me, which I guessed he was repeating for the millionth time.

“I was out delivering milk to the town folk and my wife was out washing clothes at the river side. When I got back home and opened the door, the scene before my eyes left me shocked and frightened beyond measure.” His eyes widened as he gave a dramatic pause, waiting for me to prod him further.

I obliged.

“Someone had broken into the house. Things had been dropped and pushed around and strewn everywhere. Everything was out of place”, he continued. “To my surprise, the door was intact, just the way I had left it.”

“Take me to your place. I want to look around for clues”, I ordered.

I could feel excitement coursing through my veins as we walked to Suraj’s modest home. “God, please let it be something big”, I thought to myself before pushing the thoughts away out of guilt.

As we reached the place, I examined the door first, looking for signs that the thief might have left. It looked untouched, just as Suraj had explained. As we opened the door, I saw what Suraj had spelled out to me. Things were lying around everywhere, strewn and torn apart. The house had been turned upside down.

“Did you find anything missing? Anything valuable?”

“No sirji. That is the weirdest part. Everything is out of its place but nothing valuable is missing. That was the first thing I checked. In fact the vase in which I kept a hidden stash of money was broken but the money was kept safely on the shelf.”

Once again, I went around the house examining every inch. I told Suraj not to worry and that the thief would be caught soon.

He looked relieved.

I spent the next few days pondering about the break-in and thinking of a possible motive behind it. I believed that the key to solving a crime is finding the motive behind it which would in turn lead to the culprit. In this case, however, I was finding it difficult to find the motive as nothing had been stolen. I spent the day puzzling over it and the night tossing around my bed, unable to sleep, still trying to solve the riddle.

Within the next two weeks, two more break-ins had taken place, both similar to the first one. Two intact doors, two ransacked houses, and two houses with no valuables stolen presented themselves to me. It appeared as though the thief (if one could call him/ her that, since nothing had been stolen yet) only wished to scare people. However, he (or she) seemed to be taking greater risks and getting reckless with each crime. The last break-in was into the house of Rampalji. Rampal, who was fondly called Masterji was a 40 year old school teacher who taught at a school situated just outside the town. He was a bachelor and lived alone. When asked, he would tell people that he was married to his profession. Masterji had left home in need of some books that he had left at school. He had been away for an hour before he returned to his shack. To his horror, the house had been ransacked.

This thief had turned me into an insomniac. I felt fatigued and exhausted all the time and yet was unable to sleep. I closed my eyes waiting for sleep to take over, but in vain. I took my thoughts back to the three cases. While I was examining the last house, I could almost feel the thief mocking me. It had been getting frustrating. I had some leads but nothing substantial. I desperately needed a breakthrough. Finally giving up on sleep, I got out of bed and decided to go for a walk.

I stepped out into the starry night in my pyjamas.  The breath of fresh air cleared my mind and helped me think better. I was walking around the area in circles lost in thoughts when I passed by my house. As I walked past, I heard faint noises coming from inside. Suddenly I felt alert and awake. Moving stealthily, I sneaked a peek inside through a window and couldn’t believe what I saw. I saw a young boy, hardly 20, quietly messing up my place. He didn’t seem interested in anything in particular. He just went about breaking and disturbing my stuff. I was seething with anger and excitement.

I’m a humble man and don’t wish to brag about my brawny body and the expert technique used by me to tackle the skinny waif to the ground. I do work out and keep myself fit, you see. After a few minutes of intense struggle of age versus experience, experience won ! I took the boy in handcuffs to the station and locked him behind bars. I felt like one of the ‘Bollywood’ cops at the end of the movie basking in the victory of good against evil.

The clock on the wall read 2.05 am. With the baton in my hand, I walked along the bars of the prison, on the outside of course, with my eyes on the boy.

“You look like a teenager. How old are you?”

“I’m 17.”

“And what is your name?”

“Chotu.”

“You have nerve, Chotu, breaking into a policeman’s house in the middle of the night. What were you thinking?”

“Nothing,”

“Speak up, boy. You either talk to me now or to the whole town in the morning. The town folk aren’t as patient as I am and they are a very angry lot.”

“You wouldn’t believe me.” He hesitated.

“Try me. I’m your only hope.”

“I was bored. I did it for the thrill.”

I was stumped.

“Didn’t you notice, I never took anything from any of those people? If I meant harm, I would have taken all their valuable possessions. They are stupid people, leaving their riches carelessly around. I couldn’t stand the boredom and quiet of this town. I couldn’t take it any longer. I wanted to break the monotony and bring some life to this town, bring some color into my life.”

I didn’t reply.

“I knew it wouldn’t make sense to you.”

What he didn’t know was that it made complete sense to me.

I went to my table and sat with my head in my hands. I sat there trying to resolve the conflict going on in my head. It felt surreal.

One part of me said, “Don’t you realize, he is a reflection of you. Chotu is a younger you.”

The other part argued, “That doesn’t give him the right to break the law. You are a policeman. It is your duty to fight crime and bring justice. Shashi Kapoor killed his own brother in the movie Deewar to pursue justice, have you forgotten?”

“But he is only 17. He didn’t steal or hurt anyone. He did no crime.”

“He disturbed the peace and quiet of the town.”

“You’re right. He disturbed the peace and quiet of the town!”

The conflict had been resolved. The voices in my head had been subsided.

You ! Yes you, reading my story. Remember your promise. No judging. I’m not very proud of what I did next. You may think of me as a selfish man. But that was the only way. The last few weeks had given my life meaning and purpose. It had brought excitement back into my life. I felt needed by the people. I felt like their protector. With that, I had made my decision. The harmless crimes would continue and I would continue to protect my people.

The clock on the wall read 4.20 am. Ironic. I went to the prison cell and looked at the boy. I smiled. He smiled back as he heard the door unlock. Just before leaving the station, he turned back and winked at me. We had a deal.

The Unusual Friendship

She was 10. She saw him sitting alone on the sea shore staring at nothing in particular, seeming lost. She could see sadness in his brown eyes and worry on his forehead creases. This was the third time this week that she saw him and the look of despair and worry on his face only seemed to be increasing. “It made him look older”, she thought.

He was 28. He gazed at the distant horizon. He always came back to the sea when he was feeling lonely or sad. He sat there for what felt like hours listening to the sound of water splashing on the rocks.  The sound of the water helped block the voices in his head. But the voices seemed to be getting steadily louder. When he couldn’t ignore them any longer, he gave in. His thoughts drifted back to Sabia. Sabia, it means beautiful. She had told him with a smile when they first met. They had come a long way since that day. He had come to depend upon her. She made him happy. But now she had left him. It had been three months since she had to go. ‘I have to go to USA to get my Masters degree’, she had told him. She was the only friend he had. “How could you leave me, Sabia?”, he thought.

Her parents were construction workers and went to the site nearby every morning to work, leaving her on the beach to play on the sand. It would be another hour or two before they came to fetch her. They had warned her not to talk to strangers. But everyone around her was a stranger. She did not have any friends. But the more she looked at him, the more she wanted to talk to him. Finally, mustering all the courage a 10 year old could, she walked up to him, not knowing what she was going to say.

All his efforts of trying to block the thoughts that once were comforting to him were useless. He could feel himself losing control and succumbing to his emotions and feelings. He had always been an introvert, shy and reserved. After a while, even his own family learned to leave him alone. Until Sabia had come into his life. Sabia, with her cheerful demeanor and zest for life. He got drawn to her like a moth to a flame. With her, he was different. He laughed until he cried. He talked until the phone died. He began to live life. He was happy.

Deep in thoughts, he did not notice the little girl walk up to him. He felt a tug on his left sleeve when he lost his train of thoughts and looked at her in the dim light of the setting sun. She stood there, dressed in a dirty short dress that hardly covered her bruised knee, looking at him with her deep dark eyes. The expressions on her olive skin ranged from innocence to compassion to fear. Before he could say anything she spoke, ”I’m Sana. Can I sing for you?” And her face lit up with a shy smile. He hesitated for a second but couldn’t resist smiling back at the bright charming face looking at him with big hopeful eyes. “Sure, go ahead”, he said which made the eyes grow bigger, if that was even possible.

She sang for the next five minutes, not taking her eyes off him. Her voice had a ring of honesty and innocence to it that he had never heard before. It soothed him from inside. On finishing, she asked, ”Are you feeling better?”

He gave her a confused look.

“Father says he always feels better when I sing. I thought you looked sad”, she explained.

He smiled at her and said, “Your father is right. You do have a beautiful voice.”

Her face again lit up with a smile, this time showing her perfectly aligned teeth.

“Will you come back tomorrow?” She was jumping now.

“I don’t know.”

“Oh please do! I’ll sing you another song”, she pleaded.

How could he refuse those big expressive eyes that went from happy to sad in a fleeting moment?

“Ok, I’ll see you tomorrow evening. But you should promise to sing another song for me”, He slowly stood up to leave.

“I promise.”

And then she said something that would bring the two closer than ever in the next few days, a 10 year old girl and a 28 year old man.

“I have never had any friends. You are my first friend. May I know your name?”

He felt sad for her and yet he could relate to her in a way he couldn’t explain. “My name is Samar. Nice to meet you, Sana”, he said and extended his hand.

She shook his hand without hesitation and beamed. “Nice to meet you”.

Over the next few weeks, their friendship blossomed as they met in the evenings on the beach under the fading sun and the orange sky. Every time they met, they followed a ritual. She would sing him a song that she practiced the whole day and he would give her a yellow rose that he picked up at the florist on his way to see her. Then they would sit on the sand and she would tell him everything about her day, her family and her life and he would smile and listen.

Just sitting with her on the shore watching the waves approach and recede at a steady pace and listening to her refreshingly innocent stories brought a sense of calm in him. She never failed to surprise him. It sometimes saddened him to hear her talk about her life, her lonely friendless life. But what amazed him was that while her stories seemed to be melting his heart, she seemed completely oblivious to it. She had an aura of carefree innocence and positivity around her that only a child can have. He realized that the two of them had two completely different ways of looking at life. While he had always felt distressed and desolated by his loneliness, she seemed content with her own self.

He learned that her parents were construction workers and so they had to keep moving from place to place, that she loved seeing different places, that this was her favorite so far and that she did not want to move to a new place. He learned that she had no siblings, that she was once going to have a little brother but God said he was too special and wanted to keep him with Himself. He learned that when she couldn’t sleep, she would sometimes hear her parents talk about ‘school’ and teaching her to read and write. He learned that she loved to draw and made beautiful pictures for her mother on sheets of newspaper, which her mother treasured and kept safely. His heart went out to her.

And then, he found himself telling her things that he hadn’t told anyone else. He spoke about his lonely childhood, his disconnection with his family and about Sabia. She listened without saying a word and let him talk with a look that said she understood. As he opened up to her, he felt a heavy weight lift off his chest. He started sleeping again at night.

“Close your eyes. I have something for you”, he said with a smile as he gave her the yellow rose one day.

Her eyes widened for a moment before she shut them obediently with outstretched hands.

When she opened her eyes, her smile faded. “A book? But I cannot read.”

“That’s what I’m here for”, he said proudly. “It is an alphabet book and I’m going to teach you how to read and write.”

He felt her arms wrap tightly around his waist and when she slowly broke apart, he could see tears in her eyes. He went down on his knees so he could look straight at her. He wiped her eyes and smiled at her. She smiled back.

She was a fast learner. She was determined to make him proud of her and practiced all day long, scribbling on sand and newspaper. They spent the next few days learning the letters of the English alphabet.

It was the 5th of April, his birthday. To him, it was like any other day. He did his usual chores, went to work and was on his way to the beach in the evening. They had already reached the letter ‘S’ and it had only been a week since they had started, he thought as he paid for the yellow rose. She never failed to impress him. As he walked, lost in thoughts, a doll in a small shop caught his eye. The doll had dark big eyes and wore a short white dress. He paid the shopkeeper and bought the doll. He could already see the excitement on her face when he would give her the doll. He smiled to himself and walked to their usual spot.

He looked at his watch as the sun slowly set behind the ocean. She was never late, he thought as he waited for her. Ten minutes turned to thirty. He was getting restless. As he got up to leave, a man who appeared to be a balloon seller, came up to him and asked, ”Are you Samar? A little girl wanted to give this to you. She was in a hurry and couldn’t wait.”

Samar thanked him and took the paper and the plastic bag from his hand. He sat down on the sand and opened the bag. It was filled with yellow roses, most of them dry and withered. He sat there speechless. As he took the roses out of the bag, he counted 65 of them, the number of the days that they had spent together. The number of yellow roses that he had given her. She had kept them safely. He then opened the sheet of paper and saw a hand-drawn picture of a man and a girl, holding hands. Next to it was written, in a scrawny scribble, Samar and Sana.

He didn’t know what to think. The only explanation that he could come up with was that her parents had to move. He was grief-stricken. He slowly put all the roses back inside the bag and added the fresh yellow rose that he had bought that day to it. He saw the doll he had bought for her and had a lump in his throat. With the paper and doll in one hand and the plastic bag in another, he forced himself to get up and ploughed his way home.

As he walked back, he thought of her and their unique friendship. Although he was filled with sorrow, there were also other emotions that he could feel. He felt pride when he saw the card that she had written for him, how fast she had learned. He felt a sense of joy and tranquil when he thought of Sana and their last two months together. He felt like he had learned more from a 10 year old girl than he had all his life. He smiled to himself sadly as he entered home.

He checked his phone for messages. His mother had left a birthday wish on his voice mail in the morning like she did every year. He had never replied back to her all these years. But this year was different. He called her back. She sobbed on the phone and told her son that she loved him and missed him. He promised his mother he would stop by to see her very soon. They had not had a conversation like this in years. He came to realize that it was he who had shut his family out and not the other way around. “I love you mother”, he said and kept the phone.

Next, he checked his email and found a handful of birthday wishes from long lost friends, work colleagues and Sabia. He clicked on her name and the mail opened. He read through it twice. To his surprise, he didn’t feel the anger that he had until a couple of months back. He understood. He replied to the mails as he thought, ‘Expressing his feelings and saying things that he felt made him feel free’. Strong relationships cannot be broken easily, he realized. It’s not distance that breaks a relationship; it’s taking the other for granted and not expressing that does.

He thought of Sana and their friendship and knew, it’s not distance that breaks relationships. He got up and placed the doll and the card beside his family photo on the table. He put the bag of yellow roses next to it and thought of Sana, the little girl with dark big eyes.

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