Saturday, 14 July 2018 19:37

Social by Anoop Anthony

 Social - image by Anoop Anthony

On the day Priya got the strange message that would change her life forever, she returned home from school at the usual time (around three o clock), climbed into bed, propped her tablet PC on her belly, and began watching streaming TV shows. She preferred the shows about zombies, where dead people chased after living ones and tried to eat them. She watched the shows until Amma got home from work, which was usually well after 8:00 PM. By then, Amma was too exhausted and irate to bother about anything. It was best to stay out of Amma's way when she got back. If Amma asked her questions about school or homework, she just told Amma that everything was going well.  

After Amma and Appa got divorced, their lives had become tough. Priya had been eight years old when it happened, and that whole period of her life was just one terrible memory after another — Appa and Amma fighting, court cases, strangers and relatives visiting.  

Soon after the divorce, Appa got a job somewhere in Saudi Arabia and left India for good. For a few months after that, he stayed in touch, but his calls grew less frequent over time. Now he no longer called. Amma told her that Appa had married another woman and was living with this lady in Saudi Arabia. He had a child, too, another daughter. Which was probably why he had stopped calling.  

Amma worked hard because there were bills to be paid — the rent, school fees, groceries, and so on.  They lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment on MG Road in Sri Nagar. (Priya's bedroom was a little larger than a closet). Amma drove an ancient, beat-up Maruti and said they had two hefty bank loans to pay off. Amma often complained that her job barely paid enough to sustain their lives. (Amma worked as the company secretary and receptionist at a real estate firm). Amma also hinted ominously that men did not behave well with divorced women, although she never went into details.

 

Amma had very little time to be a normal mother, the kind who spent endless time with their kids, took them shopping, paid attention to their problems, and cuddled them and told them how much they loved them. (Like the mothers of the girls in her class.) Amma's laborious life made her short-tempered and distracted; she snapped at Priya for the smallest mistakes. One time, Priya had forgotten to put left-overs back in the fridge after eating her lunch. Amma had screamed at her and burst into tears. "You inconsiderate girl! You stupid, thoughtless girl. I'll have to be up until 2:00 AM cooking again."

Amma woke up at 5:00 AM every morning to prepare breakfast and to pack Priya’s school tiffin boxes.  Amma barely had time to eat breakfast herself before she got into her car and drove through traffic-choked roads for over an hour to get to work. By the time she came home ten to twelve hours later, she was so exhausted that her words slurred.

Sometimes Priya wished her life was normal and that she had a regular family — with a father — like the other girls in her class.  When she overheard other kids talking about their families, her eyes filled with secret tears. 

In school, she didn't really have any friends. Maybe because she was ashamed of her life.  A friend would have to know everything about her, that she got home to an empty house and ate lunch by herself, that she did not see her mother most nights of the week because of how late her mother got home, and — the most terrible truth of all — that she did not have a father, that though her father was alive, he wanted nothing to do with her because he had found another wife and another daughter. To share these terrible truths would be tantamount to taking off her clothes in public.

Her loneliness was a black chasm, yawning and fathomless. Watching streaming shows helped her avoid these thoughts for a brief time. And that was what she was doing when the strange message arrived on her phone.

#

"Hi, I'd like to be your friend."

Her phone pinged and flashed the message on the screen.

She frowned, put aside her tablet, and picked up the phone. She tapped open the message and checked the sender's profile picture. It was that of a boy of about fourteen, her own age. He had a lean face and his rather sensuous lips curled in the start of a smile. His eyes were dark, his nose a little large on his face but in a way that made his face attractive. The hair atop his head sprang straight up, as if sculpted, the style that most of the hipster kids and pop stars seemed to sport today. The sides of his head were shorn so closely that his scalp shone through. He was dizzyingly good looking, like a kid who might be in a boy band.

"Hi," she wrote back, "Sorry, think you have the wrong number." It occasionally happened, of course, someone sending a message to the wrong person.

And then, he wrote something that made her freeze:  "Priya, rt?"

She stared at the screen, for a moment unable to think of a response. Then she wrote: “Yes?”

"I c u walking to the bus stop every day."

She stared at the phone, her eyes widening. "Who are you?"

"Jayesh," he wrote. “I'm in ur neighborhood. I go to JKS School. I live close to the bus stop where you wait."

She thought this through. "How did you get my number?"

"That's a secret ;) "

She stared at the screen. Then with trembling fingers, she typed, "Okay?"

What did he want? Why was this… boy writing to her?

He replied, "I like to watch u walk to the bus stop."

She realized she was holding her breath. What did he mean he liked to watch her walk to the stop? She hopped off the bed and stood before the tarnished, full-length mirror on her cupboard. She saw a short, dark-skinned girl wearing glasses, her face square-jawed, her nose much too large, her lips thinnish. Her hair was drawn back in a loose ponytail, and escaped straggles sprung messily about her head. She wasn't plump (thank God!) like some of the poor girls in her class, but she wasn’t slim like Anusha and Gurpreeth either. Priya studied herself, then returned to her bed, picked up the phone and wrote, "You do?"

"Yes, I do. u carry your bag close to your chest as if you are scared someone will snatch them from you haha. You walk quickly, always in a hurry, even though u r 10 mins early.'

She stared at the screen, unable to believe what she was reading. Why would this boy, this good-looking boy, be watching her?  

"I have to go," he wrote, "My dad’s back.”

And just like that, he was gone. Priya scrolled up the messages and read them again. And again. And again. She could not stop reading the words.  

An hour later, when Amma came home, Priya was curled up in bed, absorbed in thoughts about her brief, weird conversation with that boy. Who was he? What had he wanted?

#

Amma came home at a quarter past eight. Amma had a lot of gray hair now (compared to the pictures of her on the wall), and she looked exhausted all the time. She had also put on a lot of weight over the last two years.

All through dinner, Amma sat lost in thought, munching her food desultorily, her expression dour.  Something must have gone wrong at work, but Priya wasn't about to ask what — she did not want to risk making Amma’s mood worse. So she ate quietly. Priya's mind kept returning to the messages… and to Jayesh. After dinner, she hastily helped Amma tidy up the kitchen, said goodnight, and raced to her room.

She climbed into bed, lay down, and threw her blanket over her head. She held her phone close to her face and stared at its screen. Would he send her a message again?

She still could not get over the idea that a boy — a boy! — had reached out to her.

She had nearly dozed off when her phone buzzed. She sat up as if galvanized and saw that a new message from Jayesh had arrived. With a pounding heart, she opened it.

"You still awake?"

She replied breathlessly, "Yes."

He wrote, "me 2. Dad's downstairs, watching tv. drinking as usual."

Not sure how she was to respond, Priya wrote, "My mom's gone to bed. She is very tired." She hesitated, then added: "Who gave you this number?"

"haha was easy," he wrote. "Last week you walked into a mobile recharge store. I was also there, and I recognized you, bcos I c u. When the sales girl asked for ur number for the recharge, I wrote it down :) "

She stared at the screen, stunned. This boy had taken the trouble to follow her and find out her number. He had at some point been right beside her. A thrill shot through her.

But why? Why would he do all that?  Why take this trouble? Why would this good-looking boy want to be friends with her?

She bit her lip, then typed, "Why?"

There was a long pause. He wrote: "I wanted to know more about u. I c u walking to the bus stop every day. I think u r cute."

She let out an audible gasp.  She clambered off her bed and walked to the mirror, trembling. She studied herself again. Was the girl in the mirror cute? She thought not. The girl in the mirror, with her high forehead, her square jaw, her swarthy skin, her puffed face and a rather large chin, looked nothing like the pretty girls in her class. Girls like Maya Nihas and Shreya Cherian and Subha Thomas. The girl in the mirror was, truth be told, quite ugly. An ugly girl! Why would this boy, who was so good looking, want to get to know her?

Unless…

She began to cry, unable to help herself. She walked back to her bed, to her phone. She picked it up, hesitated, then wrote, "I think you got the wrong girl."

That was the only explanation; he must have mistaken her for someone else.

But he got your number while you were recharging your phone. He was there. He saw you.

He wrote back instantly, "No. It's u. Priya."

And then he sent an image that both thrilled and horrified her. It was a picture of her walking down the road. The backdrop of red earthen walls suggested that the picture had been taken two streets away, at the biscuit factory near the bus-stop.

“Unless this isn’t you ;)” he wrote.

Her fingers were trembling so much that she was barely able to type. “Yes,” she wrote, “that is me."

"Priya," he wrote. "I know u r thinking y is this boy messaging me. I c u walking and I see something nobody else does. I c  the pain in u. I know because I have pain too."

She let out a shuddery breath. "What do u mean?"

"I hav to go," he wrote, "my dad is calling. When he is drunk, he beats me. He is a bastard. Bye."

And he was gone again, leaving her breathless, full of wonder, and filled with an emotion she'd not felt for as long as she could remember: exhilaration, even joy.

#

The next morning, she checked her phone but there were no messages. She reread his words before putting her phone aside. She showered and put on her school uniform. She hated the uniform; it was a drab shade of blue, and the kameez made her legs look thick.

She then did something she had never done before:  she stood before the mirror and brushed her hair carefully until it fell on either side of her head in almost-straight waves. She sneaked into Amma's room and dabbed on a little lipstick. Not too much though because the kids in the bus might notice and ask her about it. She took a bit of talcum powder and dusted her cheeks with them as she had seen some of her Aunts do. But this made her look garish, like a cadaver, and she hastily rubbed it off. She studied herself in the mirror and was dismayed to see that she didn’t look any better. She glanced at the clock; she could not delay leaving the house any longer; she would miss the bus.

She left for the bus stop. As she walked along the roads, she kept her eyes peeled for any sign of Jayesh.  He had told her that he lived somewhere nearby. Maybe he lived in one of the ramshackle tiled-roof houses in C.L lane, the little street she walked through every morning. Or maybe he was in one of the tall overcrowded apartment buildings overlooking the road. He had taken that secret photo from the opposite side of the biscuit factory, but there was nothing there except for a few run-down stores. Since most schools started the day at about the same time, he probably left for school when she did.

It was a bright mid-June day, and the rains from the night before had washed the roads clean. The world smelled of wet earth and green things. Near the biscuit factory, little kids ran and played near the puddles, the sound of their laughter like the tinkle of crystals in a dream. A cow watched her mournfully from a shed by the lane.  

Wave after wave of a kind of delirious current shot through her. At one point, she alarmed herself by giggling out loud. She swiftly clamped her lips shut. Jayesh might be watching her. In the theater of her mind, scenes from the sitcoms she watched played out, teenage girls being wooed by impossibly attractive boys and getting swept of their feet. Maybe he had seen through her mousy, unglamorous exterior to the person within — a girl who was sharp-witted and funny and smart. And lonely.

As she walked, she eyed the windows of the squat concrete houses that lined the road. She studied the faces of the schoolboys who sat in a group at the Juice bar on the street corner. She glanced at the teenagers roaring by on motorcycles. She arrived at the bus stop and looked about anxiously. There was no sign of him.

A few minutes later, the bus arrived, and she climbed aboard. She walked to the back of the bus and sat by the window. She snuck out her phone and typed in, "I looked for you."

Almost immediately, his reply arrived, "Yes, I saw u :)"

#

At school, she snuck her phone out of her bag several times during the day to take a peek. She had to be careful because the school had a strict policy against students carrying mobile phones. If Amma had had a choice, she would not have allowed Priya a phone at all, but Amma wanted Priya to be able to stay in touch at all times and to be able to call her in case of an emergency. She gave Priya the phone a year after Appa left, when Priya was nine. Every day, Priya was to text Amma as soon as she arrived home after school. The phone had become an indispensable part of their lives. In a way, she communicated more with her mother on the phone than she did in actual conversation.

Amma had expressly forbidden Priya from taking the phone to school. If they caught her, they would confiscate the phone and also call Amma. But today Priya had been unable to leave it behind. The idea of sitting through a whole day of classes and possibly missing any messages Jayesh might send had been unthinkable.

She kept the phone tucked in the outer pocket of her school bag with its ringer off.  She excused herself to the bathroom thrice during the day, hiding the phone inside her dupata.  

But there were no messages.

In the bathroom, locked safely in a cubicle, she opened up his profile picture and studied it carefully.  She must have looked at that picture more than a thousand times already. She felt as if she knew his face intimately, every curve, every bump. He had a small scar on his forehead. His chin had a single pixelated blemish. She ran a finger over the picture.

Who are you Jayesh, she thought, and a delicious shiver ran through her. 

As the day dragged on — a series of classes in which she was unable to pay attention — a fearful thought grew in her. What if he vanished? What if he never wrote to her again, disappearing from her life just as abruptly as he'd appeared?

By the time she got home, she was wracked with anxiety. She checked her phone obsessively. While she ate lunch she placed the phone face up on the dining table beside her plate. She barely felt hungry — her appetite was all but gone — but she forced herself to eat because Amma would notice if she didn’t.  The tablet she used to watch her internet shows lay forgotten in her room.

She returned to her room and crawled into bed, curling up under her bedsheets. She held her phone close to her chest. The window was open a crack, and she heard the distant roar of passing vehicles.

Where was he? she wondered. A memory came to her, like a portent. In it, she was lying in this very bed, nine years old, listening to Amma and Appa going at each other in the other room. They were attacking each other with terrible, hurtful words. They delivered blow after verbal blow. She listened, wincing and whimpering, as they attempted to destroy each other. Then after the divorce, after Appa had disappeared, she would lie in this very bed, hoping and waiting for him to call.

When Jayesh messaged her at ten past four in the evening, she burst into tears.

"Hi," he wrote, "how r u?"

"Where were you?" she typed. How little those words conveyed the depth of her anguish and her relief.

“At school."

"I was waiting to hear from you."

"I was waiting 2 talk to you too," he wrote.“but can’t take the phone to school.”

Her relief was immense, and for a time she could only lie there unmoving, holding the phone to her hammering heart.

"What would you like to talk about?" she wrote finally.

"About u. tell me all about u."

About me? Where do I start?

At first, she told him the superficial stuff: the shows she loved, the classes she hated. He told her that he didn't watch many shows and that he hated school altogether. He told her that when he finished school, he would start a business, something to do with motorcycles. He loved motorbikes.

Then he wrote, "I have to go soon. dad will come home. i hate him. he hit me thrice yesterday."

"why!!!?" She was filled with outrage and indignation.

"because he was drunk. and because he's a bastard. it's why my mother left. he used to hit her too."

"Your mother left?"

"yeah."

"where is she?"

"i dunno. she just left one morning. that's what he says. maybe he killd her."

"OMG."

"yeah. i don know. how is your father with you?"

She hesitated for a moment, then she wrote, "My father left me, too. When I was 8."

"i'm sorry," he wrote, "i know what that's like.”

She felt the tears beginning to flow. Not once in all these years since Appa's departure had anyone told her they knew how she felt.

They chatted for an hour longer, and she told him everything: how she came home to an empty home, how she spent hours alone, how Amma had little time for her.

Finally, he wrote, "dad's home. i have to go. listen."

"What?"

"Don't tell your mom about me. don’t tell anyone."

"I won't," she responded immediately.

“Promise?"

"Yes."

"I'll get into trouble if dad finds out. he'll kill me.”

She nodded and typed, "I guess i'll get into trouble too. "

"Talk soon," he wrote and then he was gone. She read through all his messages again, her heart singing.

She popped open his profile photograph and touched his face gently with her index finger.

Jayesh. My Jayesh.

#

At dinner, she did not realize that Amma was watching her closely. She was lost in thought, and when Amma asked her a question she did not hear Amma speak at all.

“Priya!” Amma snapped.

"Huh?" Priya said, looking up from her plate.

"I said, what happened to you?" Amma said.

Priya shook her head, "Nothing happened. Why?" She realized then that she was grinning and forced herself to stop. Had she been smiling all through dinner?

"What are you dreaming about?" Amma said sharply.

"Nothing," Priya said again, and she averted her gaze, looking down at her plate.

She could feel Amma's gaze piercing her.  

Don't tell your mother, Jayesh had said. But even if he hadn't told her not to, she would still not have told Amma.  Amma would forbid her from talking to him again. And that was unthinkable. In two days, he had gone from being a stranger to her closest friend.

"Nothing?" Amma said, "Look at me when I'm talking to you. You've been sitting there giggling and blushing all evening. Who are you trying to fool?”

Priya glanced up. Suddenly, under the harsh light of the fluorescent tubes in the room, Amma looked haggard and hateful. Like a witch. An oddly alien thought rose in Priya's mind: Why does she care suddenly? She doesn't give a shit about anything else in my life. Now when something good is finally happening, she wants to destroy it.

Jayesh understood her more than Amma ever had. Just thinking of him made her happy in a way she had never felt before. Why did Amma want to take it away?

Her eyes filled with tears. She glared at Amma and said, "It's nothing, ok? Nothing. Nothing." She stood up, turned, ran to her room, and shut the door behind her. Had there been a lock, she would have bolted it. But Amma allowed no locks.

She sat on her bed, grabbed her phone and furiously typed Jayesh a message, "Why are our parents so mean to us?"

Now she understood why he had told her in their first conversation that he knew her pain and that he had the same pain. They both lived miserable lives. In this way, too, they were similar.

She heard the door creak open. She looked up and saw Amma. Amma's shoulders were slumped. Her anger was all gone; she looked terribly weary. When Amma spoke, her voice was hoarse, "Don't do anything foolish, Priya. If it's a boy, be very careful. You don't know what the world is like."

And with that, Amma turned and left. A minute later, Priya heard Amma's bedroom door shut.

#

"They don't give a fuk," Jayesh wrote, "they are selfish."

His use of that forbidden word sent another thrill through her. He seemed unafraid of anything. She shut her eyes and let out a shaky sigh. The effect he had on her was crazy. Hot and cold waves seemed to run through her at the same time.

"I want to call you," she wrote, “hear your voice."

After a long moment, he wrote back: "i have a better idea.”

"What?"  

"u wanna meet?"

"Meet?" she wrote. The thought of meeting him, the idea that she might come face to face with this boy, filled her with both  terror and such an electric thrill that she thought she might burst.  

"Where?"

"Tomorrow after school," he wrote, "i will send the gps location to your phone. It's a quiet place. we can talk."

An image sprang up, forbidden and delicious:  She would meet him, they would talk, and she would watch him, enthralled by his face, his eyes, his lips. She would stare at him in wonder, stunned that this boy, this gorgeous boy, wanted to be with plain old Priya, wanted to talk to her and hear what she had to say. Then he would hold her hands, and they would embrace. And then...  

The warmth in her became a roaring fire. It was all she could do not to moan. "Yes, ok,” she wrote.

"one more thing. "

“What?"

"don't tell anyone, ok? my dad will kill me if he finds out. he's a bastard."

"I won't. My mother would not understand either."

They texted each other for a while longer, and then he said he had to go. Priya felt that familiar aching pang when he said goodbye. How could she live without him? He was what she had always needed but had never known. He took away her emptiness; he filled her heart; he had become her world!

How could she sleep tonight?

When she finally drifted off more than an hour later, her dreams were of the two of them together. And in her dreams, they did embrace… and the embrace became a passionate kiss that caused her to cry out in her sleep.

#

Priya got off at her bus stop as she always did. But instead of walking home, she lingered for a while until the transport bus that would take her to Mayuk, another stop about ten kilometers away, arrived. She climbed into it and sat by the window. She felt the wind rushing through her hair and dappled sunlight touching her face. She realized that she was unable to stop smiling. She had woken up early this morning and spent nearly an hour brushing her hair. She had sneaked into Amma's room and grabbed one of Amma's lipsticks and tucked it into the outer pocket of her bag along with her phone.  

Now her phone beeped. She drew it out, her heart racing.  

But it was Amma. "Priya, are you home? Why have you not messaged me?”

She wrote back: “Yes, got home.”

She was about to put the phone back into her school bag when it buzzed again.  

"u on the way?"  

"Yes," she typed, her fingers trembling.  

From the Mayuk stop, she walked for about a kilometer, following the directions of the phone’s map towards the GPS point he'd sent. The walk, which took her up a gradual incline over a winding path, was pleasant; a dense growth of trees flanked the crude pathway.  The land seemed to be old estate area; the surrounding flatlands were lush with greenery, and there was not a soul in sight. In the distance, towering coconut trees swayed in the pre-monsoon wind, and paddy fields spread out like green carpets. Birds sang. Her heart was beating hard.  

Jayesh. I will see you soon.  

Eventually, the dirt road brought her to the place he'd pinned on the map. She pushed open a gate that had once been black but was now browned with rust. It creaked loudly. She stood in an overgrown patch of land bordered by stone walls that had mostly crumbled.  A single two-story building stood ahead, its concrete walls pitted, its paint long flaked away, the glass in its windows shattered. The ground was strewn with rubble — blocks of concrete, twisted, corroded metal rods, and shards of glass. The building seemed to be an abandoned factory of some sort.  

For the first time, doubt crept into her heart. This was such a dismal place.  Her mother's words came to her, her voice full of weariness: You don't know what the world is like. Be careful, Priya.  

Then her thoughts turned to what Jayesh had said — about his father beating him, his mother leaving him, the pain he lived with every day, the same pain she lived with herself — and she felt ashamed. How would he feel if he ever knew that she had doubted his intentions? Her eyes teared up. Jayesh would feel hurt, even betrayed. He was the only good thing she had, and here she was, standing a few feet from him, having terrible thoughts behind his back.

She drew a breath and walked towards the building. Other than the low moan of the wind there was no sound from within.   

"Jayesh?" she called. Her voice came out high and squeaky, startling her in the silence.

There was no response.  

She walked through a splintered and peeling doorway. Her heart was beating hard, her lips dry. Within, the naked concrete floor was strewn with refuse — discarded plastic bags, rusted steel girders, great chunks of shattered concrete blocks.  

"Jayesh?"  

A figure stepped out of the shadows of a crumbling stairwell.

#

Yesterday, he had sent the message asking her to come and meet him.  

After he got her reply, he had grinned and put his phone away and stretched his arms in the dark. He sat cross-legged on the floor just under the barred windows of the room. The horn of a passing train on the tracks below — it had to be the Bokaro - Steel City  Express — sounded out in the night, long and mournful, like a wounded beast fleeing.  

He had rented the room two weeks earlier. The building was filthy and rapidly going to ruin, one of the many dilapidated structures in the southern tenements bordering the railway line. The room was terrible, its walls cracked and grimy. It was far below his station. The other tenants were laborers — waiters and store assistants. He would move again real soon.  

Once he finished with the girl.

The ceiling fan swooshed ineffectively above, its white noise settling over him like a cloud.  

The dull excitement was back; it crept through his body like a slow fire. The flames had been lit and were now picking up;  there would be no going back now. Once, he might have tried to stop himself, but now he knew better. You had to let the demons out. If you kept them in, they would destroy you from within.  

When he shut his eyes, he could hear them. They swirled about, poked at him,  taunted him, yammered into his ears. He had been fighting them for a long time now. But he never won.  To the world, he was an unremarkable man: a teller in a local bank,  thirty-eight years old, unmarried, living alone, moving from one rented room to another in the city, sometimes even changing cities. He moved in the shadows, and the world could not see the things that groaned and howled in his head.  

Sometimes, when an inkling of remorse touched him, when the faces of the other girls swam up in his mind like the faces of drowned children, he wondered why he did the things he did. There had been an incident when he was a boy  — the incident with the stranger, the terrible deviancy of it, the violation and the torment.  Surely that had to do with who he was. Maybe the internet, and the terrible images he looked at from time to time, contributed to his sickness. Or maybe it was just about pleasure, that ancient achilles heel of all men. The human mind was a deep and complex thing; how could one find out where or when exactly the rot had taken hold?

In the end, did it matter? It was too late; the demons had him, and he must obey their restless voices. Then they would go silent again for months.  

He had brought the girl far enough along. She had been pretty easy. He had expected her to resist a little. He had known instantly she would be the one when he'd first spotted her. He had a sixth sense about such things; you could tell from the way they walked, from their body language. You made a few discreet inquiries at the neighborhood grocery stores while pretending you were a teacher or an acquaintance. The locals got talking, and you learned the rest — mother divorced, away all day, father gone.  

After that, it was easy. You made up a fictitious persona, created a broken life story that was, admittedly, full of cliches — an alcoholic father, the absence of a mother. You wrote in that awful brain-dead teen-speak. But mostly you just told her what she wanted to hear and played her like a fucking instrument.  

And now, here she was. She had come obediently to where he’d told her, walked right in, in fact. He would do what he had to, and then he would disappear again, the demons once again silenced... for a time. He would change his number, his phone, his job, his residence, his very persona. He would sink back into the shadows.

#

It was not Jayesh, but a man, who had stepped into the dull light. A middle-aged man, wearing black track pants, a black T-shirt with the words 'EET FUK' emblazoned on them, and black leather gloves on his hands. The man's face was narrow, his eyes small and beady, his thin lips drawn back in a feral grin.  

She took a step back. "I'm here to meet my friend," she said querulously. "He'll be here soon. He is on his way.”

"Priya, my dear Priya," the man said in a low growl.

And suddenly, as if a spell had been broken, she understood everything. She had been tricked; she had walked right into a trap.  

He charged at her.  

She backed away, clutching her school bag to her chest, screaming. She stumbled over something and fell backward, her breath getting knocked out of her as she hit the ground.  

He was upon her in an instant. He grabbed her bag, tossed it aside, and then pinned her down by her shoulders. His breath came in rasps, hitting her face. "Shhh.. darling Priya. Hold still. Hold still.”

He was strong; she kicked her feet as she tried to scramble out from under him but could not get away.  

"Shh, shh," he said, “It’s ok.”

His face loomed over her own. His lips were flecked with spittle. His breath smelt of cigarette smoke. "Priya," he moaned, mouthing her name as if it were an obscenity. Then his right hand shot down, and she felt it tugging at the band of her kameez, loosening it. The weight of his body settled over her, crushing her against the uneven ground. Sharp stones dug into her back.  

She felt the kameez slip off. Her legs were bare. He was now tugging at her underwear. The face hovering over her was no longer the face of a man but that of a demon. A leering, famished beast with mean, glittering eyes and a brittle grin. The demon's eyes were glazed, looking past her, into the distance.  

Her body jerked as he tore her underwear away.

She realized she was crying. His weight was crushing her, the rubble digging into the flesh of her back. As he lowered his face, she turned away and shut her eyes. She felt the slick wetness of his tongue running up her cheek.  

As he heaved over her, she felt something hard thrust against her down there, at the center of her.  Rape. He is going to rape me.  

She felt that awful hardness begin to force its way into her; a monstrous, biting pain tore into her.  

Without conscious thought, she flung her arms outward and groped along the ground for something, anything.  He was panting, his face crimson, his eyes like glass beads. He looked like he was out of his mind. Her right hand closed around an object and she brought it into view:  a corrugated metal rod, about half the length of her forearm, its end tapered to a deadly point.  

With a grunt, with all the force she could muster, she swung the metal rod at him. A dull thock sounded, and when she looked up at him, she saw the rod sticking grotesquely out of the side of his neck.

It looks like a branch sticking out of a tree, she thought wildly.

His eyes widened, and he let out a squeak and opened his mouth as if to say something.  But instead of words, blood began to spill out, splattering her face. He drew back, still making that horrible squealing sound.  

"Priya," he rasped, “Priya."

She saw that he had no pants on. The dark, thick exclamation mark of his penis, incredibly still erect, sprung out of his crotch. She watched, panting, as he toppled backward and lay in the dirt, twitching, his blood pooling around him in a crimson halo.

She burst into tears and scrambled backward, her bare legs scraping against the rubble.  

As she watched, his breath grew labored… and then stopped completely.  

#

The police arrived twenty-five minutes later.  There were three of them in the jeep: an inspector, and a male and a woman constable. The woman constable asked her a few questions as the men studied the dead body of her assailant. Priya tried to stop crying, and presently, the woman constable put an arm around her. Amma arrived ten minutes later. She ran to Priya, embraced her, and burst into tears.  "Did he hurt you? Did he hurt you?" she kept repeating.  

After that, the day went by in a blur. The police took them to the station where they asked Priya more questions. They took her phone away to study the messages. Finally, the Inspector called Amma and Priya into his room. He was an impressive man, with broad shoulders and a thick mustache. He sat behind his vast, cluttered desk, leaning back in his chair. He studied Priya, who was sniffling and shaking. Amma sat beside her, holding her hand.  

"You are very lucky," the inspector said in Malayalam, "but others girls were not so lucky.”

He told them that they had identified the man as T.M Sreesanth. Sreesanth, the inspector said, had done this several times before, befriending vulnerable young girls using a false persona and then luring them to remote places where he raped and then murdered them.

Amma gasped. Murdered?

The inspector continued to speak in a deliberate tone. He said that they had found a bag belonging to Sreesanth in the building. That was how they had identified him. Among its contents were a large knife, a rope, and industrial chemicals, as well as several heavy-duty garbage bags. Priya had been lucky, he said again. The iron rod she’d used had cut through his jugular vein, causing him to bleed to death.  

Amma began to cry.  

"We will be keeping your phone. The investigation team will need it." He leaned forward, "Why do you need a mobile phone? Today, social media and  Facebook and all of it are causing so many problems for young girls." He looked at Amma, "Why did you give her a mobile phone? When you were in school, there was no internet, no cellphones. Why do children need it now?”

Amma lowered her gaze.  

He looked at Priya and told her that she might have to come back to the station a couple more times and that she might have to appear in court to testify as a witness as they moved to close the investigation.  

His tone grew gentle, and he said: "You must be careful. Never trust anyone so easily.”

 Priya nodded earnestly. She thought of that terrible sensation when the man had begun pushing himself into her.  As they left the police station, she clung to Amma and wept inconsolably.

#

EPILOGUE

They sat together at the dining table. Priya picked at her food. It had been three months since the horror of that incident, a month since she'd begun to go to school again. There had been articles about her in the newspaper in which they had painted her as something of a hero, a girl who had fought back and killed the man who had tried to rape her. A local politician had lauded her bravery. The girls in her class looked at her with new found respect, even awe.  

But she did not feel like a hero or very brave.  For a while, she had been unable to leave the house. When she tried, she was gripped by uncontrollable panic, and she would break down crying.  On many nights, she awoke screaming from terrible nightmares in which a man with a demon’s face crouched over her and ravaged her as she lay helpless. Then Amma would come to her and stroke her head until she fell asleep again.  

But she was slowly healing. Amma spent a lot more time with her, which helped. Amma had changed her job to one that paid a little less but was also less demanding; she got home from work earlier. Although they lived in a smaller place now, and one that was farther away from the city, the change seemed to have done Amma some good. She looked less harried, and she even made the odd joke now and then. They talked a lot more, too, and Amma seemed to pay more attention to her.

"You're not hungry?" Amma asked.  

"No," she said. She looked up and spoke out loud the thoughts that had been troubling her: "I only wanted to be happy Amma. Was that wrong? I didn't want anything else. Just to be happy for once.”

Amma came to her and sat beside her, "I know.”

Amma looked away for a moment, and her eyes seemed ancient, wracked with a lifetime of pain. She turned to Priya and put an arm around her and drew her close and said, “But we have each other, and we can make each other happy, can't we?"

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Anoop Anthony is a writer from India. He is also a technology entrepreneur, a digital product designer, and a video game developer.

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