Ru was in the middle of a dream when she woke up with a jolt. She didn't remember what the dream was, she could only capture glimpses of it – an open space, a large crowd, and Ru looking for someone.
She kept lying still for a while, waiting for her heart to calm down which was beating at the speed of an express train. Then, she picked up her phone from the bedside table.
She sat bolt upright as she looked at the time. "It's already 8:30! How could it be so late?" Ru screamed.
She got up from the bed in one swift motion then sat back down the next second, experiencing an intense head rush.
"Stupid head rush," Ru muttered under her breath.
Then, without wasting any more time, she got up from the bed and went straight to the washroom.
"Ma, I will not have breakfast. I am already late," Ru shouted.
Within twenty minutes, Ru was dressed and rushing out of the house when her mother exclaimed from behind, "Oh my, am I really seeing what I am seeing?" Ru halted and turned around.
Her mother was sitting at the dining table with a cup of tea. Ru looked at her with an expression of confusion on her face.
Her mother continued, "Firstly, you are not leaving the house without breakfast, so come back. And secondly..." she lifted her finger and pointed towards Ru's clothes, "...are you actually wearing this top and going out?"
Ru knew she had no other option but to do what her mother said so she came to the dining table.
Ru replied as she sat down, "Did I have a choice? You know how Al would have reacted if I didn't wear it, especially today, right?"
The top that Ru was wearing was an atrocious piece of clothing. The front was filled with little squares of fluorescent greens and pinks and the upper half of the backside was fluorescent pink, the lower part, fluorescent green. Al had brought it for Ru, fully knowing that she would hate it, and made Ru promise that she would wear it.
Ru's mother laughed and said, "All hell would break loose! Anyway, with her gift of the gab, she could even convince a monkey to run for the presidency.” Then, she leaned a little towards Ru and said, "Dad and I will be at home today. If you want, we can go for dinner or a movie, once you are back.”
Ru nodded and got up. "I am done eating and leaving now. Bye," she said while walking towards the door and practically ran out.
The first thing that struck Ru after stepping out was the petrichor emanating from the grass on the lawn. It had rained through the night but by morning, the clouds had all but disappeared. Although Ru loved the smell, she was not a big fan of rain. She liked sunshine and was glad that the morning was bright and sunny, exactly like she wanted this morning to be. Ru noticed that there were little droplets on the main gate resembling rows of tiny pearls. She opened the gate carefully, trying not to disturb them, and felt a bout of ecstasy when she saw that not even a single drop fell to the ground.
To enjoy the warmth of the morning sun on her face and cherish every moment of it, Ru planned on walking to her destination. Today was a special day, after all. Today was the day Ru and Al had met twelve years ago. Al had moved to the city as a little girl with her family and had joined Ru's class. Ru remembered the first day Al had come to the class and immediately befriended her. They had been best friends and inseparable ever since.
Their families called them Siamese twins, always joined at the hip. Many times, Al would pester her parents to bring her to Ru's house in the middle of the night as she wanted to sleep in Ru's bed. Similarly, Ru would pester her parents to take her to Al's house whenever it fancied her or when she had found a shiny pebble and wanted to show it to Al.
They took the same classes, went to the same summer camps, and did practically everything together. Despite being thick as thieves, Ru and Al were like chalk and cheese. Ru had always been academically inclined, wanting to pursue mathematics. Al was passionate about becoming a ballerina. Ru loved painting; Al abhorred it. Al didn't care about clothes and wore whatever she felt comfortable in. Ru was a fashion frenetic - always dressing to impress and extremely particular about her clothing. Ru was adventurous and outdoorsy. Al loved to chill and lounge. Ru loved throwing random facts and riddles at Al and Al loved making Ru do outrageous and ridiculous things.
As Ru's mother pointed out, Al had the gift of the gab and she could make anyone do anything. There were numerous other facets of their distinct personalities but one thing that both of them absolutely loved was food. They loved to eat and had explored almost all the eating joints in the city, devouring everything that caught their eye.
Al had one more specialty: she always had a penchant for the theatrics. One day, when they were ten years of age, Al declared that March 10, the day they met, would be celebrated as the “Ru & Al Day.” The celebrations would commence at 10 am and would go on until sundown.
For a couple of years, their party happened at their homes which made it easier for their parents to oversee. But once they were allowed to go out unchaperoned, they would hunt for new hang out places in the city and more often than not, the place they would zero down on would be a restaurant where they would eat food worth ten lifetimes. It was also decided that both of them would bring a gift for each other which could be anything under the sun and no matter how outrageous or weird the gift be, they had to use it.
As expected, Al won in the weird gift department. The top that Ru was wearing was Al's gift last year, the most horrible gift ever.
Ru was lost in all thought when she found herself in front of their favorite bakery, “The Baker's Den.” She slipped inside and was immediately met with the best aroma in the world; a heady mix of cinnamon, coffee, chocolate, and everything delicious. She took it all in for a few seconds then went to the counter and bought Al's favorite, a strawberry swiss roll. Although Ru's destination was only a five minute walk from the bakery, she sat down on one of the chairs inside.
A couple of minutes won't matter, she thought.
Ru adored the bakery. There was something endearing about it. The interiors were done in pastel pink and cream colours and cartoon slices of cake and milkshakes were drawn on the walls. Many times, Ru found herself salivating over them; she chuckled thinking about it. Overall, the bakery gave her a feeling of being inside a storybook.
A few moments later, content with her fill of the bakery, she got up and left. Ru looked at her watch.
"Just five more minutes," she murmured as she started walking.
Ru reached her destination exactly five minutes later. Ten feet in front of her was a tall black granite column. In the list of 72 names, Al's name was fifth from the top.
Above it, the following words were inscribed in golden letters, “In memory of all those who lost their precious lives in the Crown Arena bombing, you are loved. You will always be loved.”
Ru felt her legs turn to lead. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't blink, she couldn't take those few remaining steps.
Crown Arena was an amphitheater shaped open market that had opened up a year before. It had several shops ranging from boutiques to bookstores and a variety of eateries. It became extremely popular in a brief amount of time, especially with youngsters. Ru and Al wanted to explore the place and decided to celebrate their Ru & Al Day there.
Like every year, they were scheduled to meet at 10. Ru wore the hideous top and was about to step out when she heard the news. A massive explosion had taken place at Crown Arena and many were feared dead. It took a few minutes for Ru to process the news. Then, she immediately called Al. Her father picked up the phone.
It was at that moment Ru understood how it would feel if she were to stand on the ocean floor, thousands of feet below the surface. She couldn't hear anything and felt like her ears would explode. Al had already left and was at Crown Arena. Ru didn't really remember what happened that day or for many of the following days. She remembered hearing that 30 people had died instantaneously upon the bomb landing, Al being one of them. Apart from that, everything was a blur.
She went to Al's funeral but couldn't cope with her death. That evening, she came down with a fever and that was the moment her uncontrollable crying began. Ru would break into bouts of crying. Once the crying was over, she would go into a deep slumber for hours on end.
This continued for a month or so. She didn't even attend her classes. Her parents tried whatever they could to cheer her up but to no avail. Her friends also tried their own attempts, but nothing made a difference. Ru was feeling lost. She felt like someone had brutally chopped off a part of her body. She only wanted to cry and sleep, nothing could stir anything in her.
Finally, her parents decided to let Ru grieve however she wanted and let her take her time. However, they put their foot down for one thing - Ru had to start going to school. Although reluctant at first, Ru was glad to go to school as it gave her something to fill her time with.
As time passed, the initial shock subsided and was replaced by an unbearable ennui. Other than studies, Ru didn't have anything else to do. No matter how much she tried, she couldn't bring herself to indulge in anything. Ru had woven an invisible cocoon around herself and retreated inside of it. She couldn't even find the strength to visit Al's family. It felt like one day had melted into the other, making it one long dreadful day.
One night when Ru was lying down on her bed, she heard Al's voice whisper in her ears, "Where is my Ru?"
She got up with a suddenness that surprised her. A lump formed in her throat and a realization dawned upon her. Al was not happy. Al was not happy because Ru had given up on life. This was not how Ru coped with tough situations, she never gave up. She stood strong and faced challenges.
She got up from the bed and stood in front of the mirror. What looked back shocked her. It looked like her, but it wasn't. It was merely a shadow with hollow blank eyes. Immediately, she knew what she had to do.
She went to bed, turned off the lights, and told herself, "Tomorrow will be a new day.”
The first thing Ru did the next day was meet with Al's family. She felt a little ashamed of herself, but for the most part was inspired when she saw how bravely Al's family was coping with her demise. In that moment, Ru was filled with a strength that she had lost over those past few months. She made conscious efforts to get her life back on track. She started spending more time with her parents, started going on occasional outings with her friends and other little things to get her life back to normalcy.
But as Ru & Al Day started approaching, a cloud of dread descended over Ru. She would break into cold sweats or lose her appetite or be jittery throughout the day. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise when Ru woke this morning and realized that she was completely at ease and the cloud of dread was no longer looming above her head. She was at ease until there were just a few steps left between her and Al.
After a few moments which felt like hours, Ru was able to finally move. The scene around her was bone-chilling. The place which used to teem with fun, frolic, and laughter was now engulfed in an eerie silence. The structures that used to be there were all gone and replaced by rows of flower beds; the only thing standing was the black column. Ru sat down near the column and ran a finger across Al's name.
In a raspy voice she said, "Hey Al, I am sorry it took me so long to reach you."
Ru had been trying her best to make peace with the tragedy, but couldn't get herself to visit the place where Al took her last breaths. Her eyes welled up. She had so much to say, but very few words. Tears were streaming from Ru's eyes now.
With those tears, everything she had bottled up inside poured out of her. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "I miss you so much. All this while, I kept wondering why. Why did it happen? Why did you leave me? And I am so angry and so sad and so sorry that I wasn't there."
Ru had been so disoriented the past year to understand what she had been feeling. But now, she didn’t have to make any effort to give words to her feelings. It was completely organic.
"There have been countless sleepless nights where I lay wondering. Wondering what you felt in those final moments. Wondering how scared you must have been being all alone there. Wondering how you must have longed to be with your family, one last time. Wondering if you had wished for just one more second, one more breath, one more life. Wondering what would have hurt you more, shards of broken glass in your body or shards of broken dreams in your eyes."
Ru broke down. Shoulders heaving, she wrapped her arms around herself. She wanted to let go. She needed catharsis. A few other people were there near the column, some sitting silently, some crying. Ru looked at them through blurry eyes. She couldn't help but think about how these strangers had all been joined together by an invisible thread.
Finally, the crying stopped. Ru remembered Al called her 'Dolphy', short for Rudolph, Santa’s red-nosed reindeer, whenever she cried. Ru gave a dry chuckle knowing that her nose must have turned into a tomato.
After a few seconds, she continued, "I know I will never get an answer to these questions. But I hope that you felt no pain and flew away to the skies, doing your swan song. You were a star, Al, and you still are, the brightest one up there. You are with me and every night I look up to the heavens, you are there, shining and sparkling. So, my Al, till we meet again, don't rest. Just dance and dance and dance away with the stars."
At last, Ru felt at peace. The butterfly was finally ready to come out of her cocoon and spread her wings. She took the swiss roll out from its bag and took a bite. All of a sudden, she wanted to be with her parents. She felt relieved and looked forward to spending the day with them. It would be the first movie Ru would watch in over a year.
She placed the swiss roll back in the bag, slid her finger over Al's name once more, got up, and started walking back.
She then halted, turned around and said out loud, "Hey Al, don't be jealous, but the popcorn's all mine!" and winked.
Gargie Sharma is a content specialist with considerable experience ranging from working in varied industries, from media to the learning industry. At present, she works as an independent consultant. Being a book lover, she loves to read, tries to write and when not doing either, thinks about dogs and the next beach vacation.
Read: This Week's Publication