Chitra sat up on her bed as the twittering of birds and humming of bees harassed her sleep away. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs to the brim with the scent of fresh spring greenery coming from the window. Today was a brand new beginning for her, a day she’d been anxiously waiting for, a day every boy and girl in their teens wait for.
Today, she was 18 years old.
An uncontrollable giggle escaped her lips. Yes! she became an adult today. She put her palm on her chest. Her heart was racing, bubbling with glee and also… a tickle of anxiety. She had been trying it every morning for over a year, but all of them failed. Would she be able to succeed today?
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew the answer. But she denied it.
Today is special! Must be!
She set her jaws firm and pushed her legs off from the bed. The cold stone tiles stung against her bare feet. She balanced herself and bit by bit started to apply some pressure to her hips.
Blurry voices filled the darkness around her. Sounds of cars whooshing past, sounds of warnings… the memories came crashing, barraging the walls of her consciousness like water from a flood.
Chitra clenched her teeth. They aren’t real… they aren’t real…
Ignore! That’s not mom, they are just memories! Push! Put more effort into it! You must succeed today! Mom would want you to… DON'T CALL OUT TO HER, DUMBASS!
<“Wait there, I’m coming!”>
NO! DON’T COME, MOM, STOP!
STOP! STOP! STOP!
A terrible piercing pain shot through her lower back and made her emaciated legs tremble. A pain she knew wasn’t actually there. It was nothing more than an illusion of the pain. But that knowledge didn’t help. Her body gave in and she shrank back from it as if she touched fire.
A pair of warm hands wrapped around her. It drew her back to safety and the secure confines of her bed.
Chitra reached out and gripped her knee to stop the shaking. She had failed. She had wanted to stand up, to take some burden, some worry off of her father’s shoulders, but she still failed.
This turned out to be just another ordinary day. She thought as a deriding smile twisted around her lips, mocking her.
This isn’t fair!
She touched her shoulders. She could still feel the warmth of Akanksha’s last embrace covering her body, protecting her, and… preventing her.
“Don’t you want me to walk again, mom?” she muttered. “Because of me…”
Stop it! Chitra gave herself a harsh mental scolding. Her mom would never want that! She would want her daughter happy when she woke up someday.
And she will! I will make sure of that.
“Now that,” said Chitra as she moved her knight out of the way of her queen, “should be checkmate. And with that, all three of you lose.” She looked at where Rose was supposed to sit in front of her and gave the sweetest smile she could manage.
Rose glared at the chessboard. Her eyebrows drew closer and closer together as she searched for something, anything she could use to get out of this predicament. But the cage Chitra’s pieces made for her king was impregnable.
“THIS DOESN’T MAKE ANY GODDAMN SENSE!” Rose flipped the chessboard away and sent the remaining pieces flying through the room. “Why? You only had six pieces left, so how did I end up losing? I practised a whole week for this.”
“Oh, so that’s why!" Chitra nodded. "I wondered why you of all people would give me a chess set on my birthday. My condolences, you’ve suffered so much! Hope this doesn’t leave any lingering trauma.” She bowed her head at Rose.
“What’s that meant to mean?” Rose pouted, crossing her arms in front of her.
Rahul bent down and picked up the white king from the ground. He shook his head and said, “You should grow up, sis. Like, flipping games just cause you lost is so not mature.”
“Yeah? Well, neither is giving pranks for a birthday present.” Rose threw back testily.
“Hey! That was supposed to be a surprise for Chi!”
“Oh yeah? You sure about that? With your usual antics, you still think she doesn’t know that?” her round lips twitched with a secretive smile. “Besides, it’s not like she needs your surprise today.”
Arun, who was watching TV from the sofa, shot a warning glare at Rose, while Rahul simply grinned at her, his eyes full of mirth and hidden meaning.
Oops! Rose gave an awkward smile as she turned her eyes towards Chitra. Those opaque glasses were focused on her face.
Chitra tilted her head. “And what exactly do you mean by that? Hm?”
It was uncanny as if Chitra was actually watching her. Even though she knew it was her imagination, Rose shifted uncomfortably on the chair. “Uh... um...”
Arun stood up. “Look at all this mess!“ He said, looking at the chess pieces strewn all over the floor. “You should clean up or aunt Reshma would have a heart attack.”
“Eh,” Rahul frowned and waved his hands. “Like, not my mess, man. I’m gonna just watch TV.” he put a hand on the back of the sofa and leapt over it.
“Then I'll have to do it, I guess.” Arun bent down and started picking them up.
“No, wait!” Rose got up and ran away to Arun. "I’ll help you."
Left alone, Chitra leaned back on her wheelchair and tapped her chin.
So suspicious. And it wasn’t the first time either. They have been like this for a few days. Even when they went to the park this morning, they were trying to keep her from returning early.
They are hiding something.
A loud exploding sound from the TV drew Chitra’s attention. She straightened herself and asked, “What are you watching?”
“Uberman 3," Rahul said. "He’s like, flying around, heat gazing fighter jets and stuff. Kinda cool action scene, though I like Arachno man more.”
“Oh, Uberman!” Rose got up and skipped towards the sofa, her big dark eyes staring at the screen.
“Weren’t you gonna, like, help Arun clean up your mess, sis?” Rahul asked sarcastically.
“Shut!” Rose said, striking her thumb and fingers together. “Of course, I’m gonna clean it. But I can’t miss this scene. It’s so cool!”
“So... a superhero movie.” Chitra shrugged. I thought it was Finitum.
Since that night three months ago, she had been unwittingly paying more and more attention to the game, though most of the time the TV channels talked about things like classes, bosses, or showed off cool in-game scenes, most of which she had no interest in. But whenever the topic of that night’s interview came up, she had found herself pouring over every word like she was starving.
And starving she was; though she had no way to fill that hunger.
Arun noticed her fallen mood and walked towards her. “Are you ok, Chi?” he asked, putting his hand on her back.
“Hm? Oh yeah, fine.” Chitra nodded, a reassuring smile on her face.
She had met Arun a year before she met Rose and Rahul. He had been her first friend, the one who had brought her out of the cage of Self blame and grief she had imprisoned herself in.
“Up for another game?” Chitra asked him.
“Sure, let me get all the pieces then. I haven’t finished cleaning up.”
Chitra held his wrist and stopped him from leaving. “No need.” she pointed in front of her where the chair Rose had occupied should be. “Sit. I wanna talk to you.”
“Um, ok…” Arun said, slightly apprehensive as he sat down. Chitra being like this… shouldn’t be a good thing.
He glanced at the Twins watching TV. They were in a hot debate about which superpower was superior among flying and heat gaze. A debate that was devolving into a quarrel with each passing word.
“I can’t believe they would be Seventeen soon,” he commented, trying to shift the tide of a conversation that hadn’t yet begun.
“Do you have any right to judge them? You’re just a few months ahead.”
“Ah, no, I wasn’t judging them.” Arun quickly shook his head. “Just, they shouldn’t act like children anymore.”
“I’m currently the only adult amongst us,” Chitra said, puffing her chest out. “All of you are Children before me.”
“O- ok.” Awkwardness tinged Arun’s voice as he turned his eyes away from Chitra.
Chitra reached out, running her fingers on his face to get a good look at him. His face was slightly hot. “So Arun, as your elder, you should respect me and answer my question truthfully.”
She drew her face closer to his. “What are you all hiding?”
“Nothing at all. Why would we hide something?” The slight twitch of Arun’s face didn’t escape Chitra’s fingers, even though his answer seemed perfect.
Too perfect to be natural, Chitra mused as she asked, “Really?”
“Of course! Have we ever hidden something from you?’
“No.” The slight smile of relief Arun gave at her answer didn’t escape Chitra’s touch. She chuckled and said, “That’s why it’s so easy to tell.” Arun’s face immediately soured.
“Hey Chi,” Rose suddenly ran up to her and hugged Chitra from behind. “Tell me what’s cooler, heat gaze or flying?”
Impeccable timing. Chitra dropped her hand from Arun’s face and started rubbing Rose’s forearm wrapped around her. “It’s heat vision. Obviously, it isn’t cool. And flight? What’s the need when there are planes?”
“you’re no fun.” Rose let go of her and put her fists on her hips. “It’s not about need, flying is a man’s romance!” She declared, staring at the ceiling.
“Huh?” His face an image of confusion, Rahul slowly walked over scratching his head. “But aren’t you a woman, sis?”
Rose clenched her fist and Ran after Rahul who ran away shouting, “Violence alert!”
“Children, the food is- WHAT IS ALL THIS!” A loud gasp from the door stopped the twins in their tracks. A short woman in her mid-thirties stood there staring at the rest of the scattered chess pieces in shock. “Who did this?” she asked, her thick eyebrows nearly touching in a frown as she accurately looked at Rose and Rahul.
“It was sis!” Rahul sprang towards the door. “Is dinner ready? I’m so hungry!”
“Aunt Reshma, Stop him,” Chitra said coolly and the middle-aged woman shifted her body, blocking the door.
Rahul tried to slip from a gap for a few fruitless seconds, then he turned around. “Like, what’s the deal, Chi? It was sis who flipped the board. Why are you stopping me?” He looked at Reshma and whined., “Let me go, aunt Reshma. I swear it was sis.”
Reshma simply smiled at him.
“Of course, it wasn’t you,” Chitra spoke up. “But you’re such a good brother. I know you wouldn’t miss the chance to help you sister out, would you?”
Rose took the cue and ran up to him.
“Of course, dear brother, let’s quickly clean up.” She dragged him away from the door by his wrist. “The quicker you are, the quicker you get to eat.”
“No sis, I’m not a good brother at all! Like, let me gooo!”
Chitra picked up the black queen from her lap and tossed it in the air. it flew in an arc, accurately landing on the grey carpet in front of the two siblings. She pointed her thumb at her wheelchair. “Arun, help me get to the dining room.”
Arun pinched his forehead as he arrived behind Chitra. This is gonna be another interrogation session, isn’t it?
As they passed the door, Reshma smiled at Chitra. “Now you don’t worry about those two, Chitra. I’ll make sure they clean up properly.”
Chitra grinned. "I'm sure you will, aunty."
“I know what you want to ask, Chi. But please wait till tomorrow.” Arun spoke up before Chitra could ask anything. “I promise to tell you all about it tomorrow.”
“Hmm…” Chitra leaned back on her moving seat and took a deep breath. So the secret or whatever it was, would be revealed tonight, would it? From all the signs she was getting, it was most likely a surprise birthday present. Was it from her father?
Well, as long as it isn’t too expensive...
Besides, even if it was somewhat expensive, she’d probably forgive him today. Today wasn’t an ordinary birthday after all.
“Well Chitra, we are leaving now. Congratulations once again for reaching adulthood, and stay safe.” uncle Suman and Rabindra bade Chitra farewell
“Goodbye, Chi. See you later,” said Arun, a smirk curving his lips.
“Yea, see you later, Chi.” the other two followed.
“Later?” Chitra waved from the door. What a weird way of saying that word.
The three teens waved back as they hurried to their cars with their parents. If everything went according to plan, they would ‘see her later’ in a couple of hours; Though it won’t be in this world.
As the cars drove away, Vikash began pushing the wheelchair to Chitra’s room. “Let’s get you to bed,” he said.
“Right now? Isn’t it too early to sleep? It should only be, what? 8 or 9 PM?” Chitra said, frowning. Also, wasn’t there supposed to be a surprise for her tonight?
“Yes, it’s a bit early, but today’s been pretty hectic, so sleeping a bit early won’t hurt you. Besides, I bought a new comfy bed for you today. I really want your opinions about it.”
“A… bed,” Chitra repeated, feeling trapped between cry and laughter. Of all the things she imagined he would gift her today, a bed had never really been in the picture. She felt conflicted, and somewhat… disappointed.
I’d have preferred a book, I think.
“Let me lay you down today.”. Vikash held her thin body and picked her up like a princess, he smiled at the frown on her face. “You’re not sleeping very well, are you? That’s why I bought it for you. I guarantee it’s very comfortable.”
“Father…,” Chitra muttered.
So he was worried about her! And here she was stuck whining how the gift wasn’t special enough. Shame on her.
Her nights… yeah, they were restless. Always had been after the accident. In her dreams, her nightmares were screams and putrid stenches. They were being submerged in a pool of needles and the taste of inexplicable repulsion.
She was a ragdoll there. Struck, being thrown around, and falling to a depthless abyss as she flailed her limbs, losing all manner of control over everything around her. It didn’t only frighten her, she hated it.
As she had started hating the darkness she lived in.
And all of that, Vikash had noticed. Of course, he would. He was her father after all.
Chitra smiled gently. “Don’t worry, father. I love any gift you give me.”
Yes, to her, they were all special. They all contained his love and care.
Vikash took a deep breath. “Well, don’t judge it yet,” he said with a hint of mystery.
Chitra fidgeted in her father’s arms as Vikash carried her to where he had set up the bed he bought. It was the reason he had forbidden her from entering her room for the whole day. His heart raced with anxiety as he gently lowered her on the indigo surface of the object.
He took off her glasses and gently knuckled her forehead. “Comfortable?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Chitra whispered, enjoying the soft, marshmallowy feeling that spread beneath her. It definitely was comfortable. Surprisingly so. And for someone like her, that’s saying a lot. She nodded.
“Yeah, it’s comfortable.”
Vikash bent down and planted a kiss on her forehead. “Sweet dreams, Chitra,” he said, smiling as he closed the glossy black lid of the capsule.
Chitra’s brows creased in confusion and bewilderment. The everpresent noise of outside buzzing around her ears had vanished. All the connections she had with the world around her, cut off abruptly.
She bit her lips. Soundproof places weren’t her thing. They made her feel claustrophobic.
A faint mechanical sound came from somewhere below her. A sound too thin for any ear other than hers.
Air conditioning? Probably so. The air around her was almost pitch-perfect to her skin. No sign of the mid-spring heat outside. The softness of the bed, the perfect temperature of the soundless air, It was all too comfortable to actually be comfortable.
It’d take some getting used to, I guess.
She pushed those thoughts in the back of her mind and concentrated on the cosy feeling all around her. Since her father went through so much trouble for her, she should just enjoy it.
“I love you, father,” she whispered, knowing he wouldn’t hear her. “And goodnight.”