November 2017

Swara Shukla

In the Shadows

It feels as if a percussion band is playing inside my head. I try to force my eyes open. I can make out a faint silhouette looming over me, but can’t do much more than squint. The light is too bright.

“That’s it. I’m never drinking again”.

“That’s what you said last time,” Maya says in an amused voice.

I try to sit up, but a fresh wave of nausea stops me. I groan and drop back into my pillow.

Maya chuckles softly. Her face is still blurred. I give up trying to focus and close my eyes.

“Right. Sleep some more. I need to get home. Make sure you take some aspirin when you wake up, ‘kay?” I feel her give a light peck on my forehead and hear my bedroom door shut.

“Mmph,” I respond belatedly, sleep tugging at my eyelids.

*  *  *

I wince as the extra-bitter coffee zaps my brain-cells awake. I think of going to Maya’s house, but something tugs painfully at the back of my mind at the thought. I press the heels of my palms into my eyes. Something flashes. The silhouette, Maya’s voice, Maya in my bedroom?

I sit up abruptly. Something happened last night, didn’t it? It’s not like me to drink like that, especially when I’m on my own.

I inhale sharply as I remember.

Maya and I had broken up.

I shiver as the previous day’s argument comes back to me.

“I can’t lie to them anymore Kavya, I’m scared…”

“I’m lying to MY parents, aren’t I?”

“But it’s easier for you, your parents aren’t around much, you don’t know what mine are like, always inquiring…”

“What is that supposed to mean!”

“Kavya…”

“Maya. Don’t. I refuse to be tossed aside like this. If you love me, you’ll either tell them or stop giving a rat’s ass about what they think.”

“C-Can’t we stay friends, I…”

“No. It’s this or nothing. Go home, sort this out and call me when and if you make up your mind.”

Right. That pretty much explained the drinking. I need anger management lessons or something. Of course, the call never came. Of course, I had driven Maya away with my unreasonable anger.

Wait.

I am not angry anymore, am I?

If only I can stop feeling so exhausted.

I hiss as a sharp pain splices my head again. Did we reconcile? Had Maya been in my bedroom this morning? I touch my temple. The kiss had felt so real.

I need to see her. I get up to dress, but my legs wobble and I plop back onto the sofa. I have never been good with hangovers. I decide to sleep it off.

A dream-less sleep seems much more alluring than I had thought possible.

*  *  *

I hesitate. My feet don’t seem to want to go in the direction of Maya’s house. I jab in her number again. Switched off. I don’t know what to make of that. Is she avoiding me? Why had she been in my room then?

I make my way towards the park, and proceed to sit on one of the benches. I am still so tired. That dull throb in my head returns as I sit. I sigh and close my eyes.

*  *  *

I feel a finger gently poke my shoulder and look up to find Maya gazing down at me. She looks oddly defiant. I don’t know why my throat constricts so suddenly. She looks beautiful as always, her dusky skin and deep, brown eyes presenting a pleasant contrast to the excessively-sunlit park. I pat the space beside me as an invitation to sit. She casually presses up against my side, like the fight never happened. If Maya was so nonchalant about it, what exactly was I fretting about?

We sit in silence for a while. For some reason, the moment feels fragile, precarious. I shake my head in amusement; despite my “this or nothing” speech, I realize I am willing to give in if she decides to stay just friends. I need her in my life, in whatever way possible.

“What’s up with your phone?” I ask finally.

She gives a non-committal shrug, her shoulders lightly brushing against mine. “Threw it at the wall yesterday. Must be somewhere under the dining-table I guess.”

“Well, pick it up when you get home. I tried to call you, was thinking of dropping by at your house. Needed to know if it was safe, you know, since your parents were getting inquisitive and all.”

She glances at me at that, her expression changing quickly to…pity?

“Give it two days,” she whispers. I frown, not sure what she means. She smiles and pats my thigh. We go back to watching the six-year-olds bickering over their game of house-house.

This time, I make no effort to break the silence.

*  *  *

Her house looks eerie. Haunted. I have never been fond of the place. That now-familiar ache comes back as I halt a good few feet away from the door. I don’t feel like entering the place, it disgusts me.

“It's okay if you don’t want to come in,” Maya says softly. “Just give it two days and we’ll be fine.”

“You’ll tell them in two days? Why not right now?”

“My uncle and aunt are coming in from Bangalore in two days, that’s why. Their kids too, I’m pretty close to them all.”

“So, you’ll tell them all together?”

“No, we will.” Her eyes twinkle. I blink.

“What?”

“We will tell everyone. Your family and mine. Let's turn this into a grand affair.”

“Okay, you’re officially talking nonsense now. Yesterday you were acting like a scared puppy, what happened to you?”

“Let's just say we both had an epiphany. Pity you were too drunk to remember yours.”

I start to laugh but stop as her eyes bore into me. My breath hitches suddenly. Her gaze is intense, willing me to understand, to remember… something.

Her right-hand flies to the back of her head at the same moment a sudden onslaught of muddled emotions hits me. I stumble backwards, my eyes widening as I look at her rubbing tiny circles in her scalp. She stands there, unblinking.

No.

I drank last night to forget, didn’t I?

It wasn’t the hangover. I was exhausted because I was fighting back memories.

No, please, I am not ready.

I look back at her, pleading.

“You are,” she whispers.

*  *  *

The father hits her again. He’s savage, his staunch orthodoxy threatened by what his daughter just told him. It's against God, against nature; she is destroying the laws of procreation, the sanctity of marriage, the sacred relationship between a man and woman, a relationship the world stems from. He won’t have his own daughter refuting everything he has stood for. He tries to beat some sense in her, tries to correct the wrong in her. The mother stands shuddering in the corner, making feeble attempts to stop him. The two younger ones stand at the doorway as mute spectators. She straightens herself and opens her mouth to speak. But the father doesn’t want to listen. He slaps her, the weight of his burly hand too much for her stick-thin figure to take. She staggers sideways, trips over her mobile that had shattered on the floor, and crashes into the dining table behind her. The back of her head collides with the corner of the table, and a moment later the father is staring down horrified at the motionless figure on the ground, blood oozing from the point of contact. There is a gut-wrenching howl from the corner where the mother is standing. None of them notices the eye peeking in through the gap in the window-curtains.

*  *  *

I keep staring at her, too afraid to blink. There’s a faint bruise on her left jaw. I don’t like this house, why are we still in front of the house?

That dull throb in my head has become a full-blown headache, but I welcome it now. It’s reprieving.

She smiles again. “Remember what I told you when we began this?” She waves a hand between us. “That it would be nothing short of a battle. And people die in battles all the time.”

“You decided to tell them the truth. Why? I never told my parents.”

She scowls. “You called me weak. I am not weak.” Her expression softens. “You can go, you don’t have to come here before you are ready. Two days should do it.”

I force myself to look away and turn to leave. Two days. Maya’s relatives are flying in for her cremation ceremony in two days. I’ll be ready by then. I don’t look back, but I know Maya will be there with me. To look on as I finally confront everyone. With the truth.

It is getting dark; I slept for more than half of the day. I am still exhausted but I keep walking. Two days should be enough. Enough time to get myself together before I look Maya’s father in the eye at his daughter’s funeral.


Swara Shukla was born and raised in Noida, India. In September 2016, she flew in to Glasgwegian lands to pursue the MLitt in Creative Writing at University of Glasgow. She sees fiction as a potent medium for initiating discourse on socio-political issues dominating the Indian landscape, and aims to achieve this as a short-story writer and novelist. She has been published in DU Love by Vigilante Publications, her college-based journal Jabberwock, and Qmunicate.  She is co-creator of Hold My Purse Project, a quarterly web-based publication seeking to explore and challenge the female bond.

 

Emily Corwin