This chapter contains mild sexual content.
48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Night
Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Ocean Road
Colored streaks and bursts filled the night sky with fleeting color.
Amid the sky several payloads blew apart with a sharp crack and a dazzling display.
Hurtling heavenswards from racks set up around the city, propelled by fizzing, crackling trails, the pyrotechnics munitions exploded into grand displays of fire and light that remained in the air for several seconds before dissipating into smoke and dust.
Patterns burst into being far above the crowds, and special rockets continued to pop again and again in colorful chains of sub-munitions. To the black and blue the whimsical blasts added bright blooming flowers of green, red and yellow, spiraling orange lines, and purple concentric detonations. This sustained barrage indicated the start of the festivities.
To the civilians it was a beautiful and captivating technical display.
For some onlookers however, it was eerily reminiscent of a coming death.
Beneath the flashing skies on Ocean Road, Parinita and Madiha clung together in fear, bowing their heads and closing their eyes as they felt the air and sky growing livid with lights and smoke and a deathly cacophony. They huddled near a lamp post then dashed into an alley for safety. Madiha’s mind hyperfocused on the sounds, the whistling, the crack of the shell as it burst. As if in a war zone, the pair took cover behind a phone booth.
In their minds those pyrotechnics were hurtling earthward to kill.
Madiha envisioned for a brief second the middle of the road going up in flames.
She averted her eyes from a bright orange flash.
Parinita, gasping for breath, looked out onto the road.
There was recognition in her eyes.
“Madiha, I think–”
Around them the cheerful crowds walking down the open road and across the dimly-lit streets started to clap and whistle and celebrate the fireworks displays.
Madiha raised her head. She met Parinita’s sympathetic eyes.
“I think it’s over,” Parinita whispered, “they’re…they’re just fireworks displays.”
She was unnerved too — Madiha could see it in her face and voice.
“My heart skipped a few beats there.” Parinita said.
“Mine almost stopped. I expected a real barrage.” Madiha replied.
Her skin continued to shiver with every blast she heard, but she tried to keep her reflexes under control. Despite this she and Parinita still winced whenever the sky flashed. It did not seem to bother the festival-goers marching down Ocean Road; on the contrary, it delighted them. They had never heard a comparable whistling and blasting. To them, it was exclusively associated with the joy and levity of an exciting fireworks display on a cool evening.
Madiha tried to get the roaring of artillery guns out of her head.
She had a long night ahead and did not want any of it spoiled.
Everything but the fireworks was splendid. Gracing the festival evening were clear skies, fresh, sweet-smelling air, and a vast, vivacious display of humanity before them.
Arm in arm with Parinita, Madiha traveled down Ocean Road, looking over the colorful storefronts, the grand floats and the street decor. All of the preparation had paid off, and Ocean Road was dressed in her best attire, same as everyone walking over it. Hand-sewn banners stretched over the streets, and a variety of signs and posters and drapes were fitted to trees and buildings and posts to draw the attention of the many passersby.
Civilian and business automotive traffic was temporarily halted for the festival. In the middle of the road there was instead a fleet of slowly moving vehicle floats, heavily decorated, that served as rolling stages for singers, dancers, firebreathers and magicians, or other acts. Some also carried religious displays for local, regional and common deities.
All of them were built on old M.A.W trucks, heavily modified to support their purpose. Firebreathers had racks for their rings, magicians had their curtains and mirrors and smoke, dancers and singers had audio equipment built-in. On the religious floats there hung vast bouquets of symbolic flowers, and canopies over the truck beds protected statues of the deities that looked on at worshipers following in their wake, signing and dancing.
Every vehicle was meticulously engineered, and the makeshift parade was stunning.
On either side of the road there were long lines of kiosks and open storefronts taking over the streets with goods and games and (approved, appropriate) forms of gambling, and all manner of food and drink. It was the latter that seemed to draw the most attention. Most curiously, exotic fruits and nuts and other produce from across the continent were on sale, or sometimes simply on offer by local farm unions as a way to attract potential new members to collective farms. While they tasted, the kiosk manager lectured.
For those who wanted a little less socialism in their food, there were traditional street foods on sale for a few shells each, items like pav, potato fritters, and valleyappam, fermented coconut and rice pancakes for dipping in a cup of soup. For the sweet tooth, halva, a semolina dessert, and kulfi, a type of ice cream, were available by the scoop or in big cups.
Other storefronts attracted crowds by hosting games. People watched professional chess and mankala games from known regional players, participated in skill tests like knife throwing and fish catching and shooting galleries, and competed in simple games for prizes. Most clubs and stores had some kind of attraction to catch the crowd’s eye.
Around all of these sites the streets were packed with people.
Some crowds grew so thick one had to navigate around them, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Wherever Madiha turned she saw cheer and levity, whether spying on lone attendants, big groups of friends or small intimate couples. Everyone who was not attired in a fresh uniform was dressed formally, in colorful drapes and robes and skirts, in sharp modern suits and tight form-fitting dresses or in dazzling traditional coats.
There was an infectious energy in the air. Even Madiha, who was prone to be gloomy, felt the life sparking all around her, and kept her lips turned up in a small smile as she escorted her date to the humble Ocean Theater for a special show for the festival night.
“Had I known it would be this amazing just outside, I would not have sprung for those tickets.” Parinita said, giggling at the spectacle unfolding all around her.
Madiha smiled. “It’s lovely, but I’m still keen for some quiet time together.”
Parinita covered her mouth to stifle a charmed little laugh, her face reddening.
Ocean Theater was like a regal elder, tall and broad, a rectangular building of bleached and pitted cement with a complicated facade, perhaps a leftover from the city’s earlier incarnations. There was a small plaza in front of it, that made it stand out more from the two stucco and masonry buildings between which it was wedged. There was a small crowd gathering at the foot of the steps into the theater. All of them were dressed for an event. Madiha and Parinita looked quite at home among the crisp attire of the trendy socialites.
For once, Madiha was very satisfied with her appearance. She thought she looked quite handsome, a tall, slick, modern woman, perhaps a bit roguish, in the way she recalled Daksha being like in the past. Daksha’s suit did not fit altogether perfectly, but the slightly short coat sleeves and the somewhat tight dress pants and shirt buttons seemed to lay over Madiha’s skin in a way Parinita found pleasing. She told Madiha that it had a casual, lived-in, natural sort of look that was very dashing. Madiha was unfamiliar with fashions, and so did everything to please her date. Atop her head lay Daksha’s old fedora, the only perfect fit. Apart from her shoulders, most of her slim, toned physique did not quite shine through the suit, but that was fine with her. She looked slender and sleek in form.
She had made many preparations for the date. She had showered twice, scrubbing every slender curve of her brown body, and combed her shoulder-length dark hair while wet. It would need a trim back to its usual neck-length bob soon, but for now, it looked just enough between orderly and messy and between long and short, to fit the rest of her look.
After all the trouble she went through, she wondered now how her date made comeliness seem so effortless. Parinita was absolutely gorgeous. Had she been projected on the screen all evening instead of a film, Madiha would have cherished every second of film.
Her hair was wavy and bouncy and long, and its off-orange, off-pink strawberry color was as attractive as ever. Over the bridge of her delicate nose there was a stripe of yellow pigment, while her eyes were painted a light flushing red and her lips a soft pink. She had a lovely shape. Though all of them had come out of Bada Aso a little bonier than before, Parinita managed to retain much of her pleasant figure, and any new slenderness was well worn.
Her attire was exquisite too. A filmy, blaring red and gold drape fell over a form-fitting light purple dress that accentuated her body, with one bare shoulder and arm exposing soft, light bronze skin. She wore traditional cloth shoes and long, diaphanous leggings that peered through the slit on the right side of her long skirt. Around her slender neck there was a necklace of wooden beads, tied over itself again and again. Her look was a mix of traditional and modern that fit her stunningly well. Madiha was blessed to be with her.
Hand in hand, they were quite the eyecatching couple even among this crowd.
Standing behind the pack, the pair waited with the others for the theater to open, and then slowly ascended the stairs as the gate keepers beckoned the guests into the theater. Over a red carpet and into an archway door the couple calmly trod, pausing in front of a gold rope hung before the entryway to bar access. They were stopped by a gatekeeper in a traditional sherwani coat, purple with gold strips framing the buttons and tracing the length of the sleeves, who checked their ticket and smiled at them, tearing off half of it for them.
“Enjoy the picture. You’re in room two on the third floor.” He said.
Madiha and Parinita smiled and nodded their heads in response. Then the gatekeeper undid the golden rope and allowed them entry, setting it back in its place behind them.
From the door the couple entered a spacious and comforting lobby. Beyond a pair of red curtains on the far end of the room was the main theater space on the ground floor, reserved for plays, concerts and ballet. There was a bar-style counter behind which a cabinet of drinks was kept, and on the opposite end of the lobby there was also a counter serving snacks. Staircases and elevators were set into the walls on either side of the red curtain.
“Madiha, could you pick up some food before we go? I can get the drinks while you’re at it. It’s a ninety minute film, after all.” Parinita said, pulling gently on Madiha’s arm.
“Certainly.” Madiha said, bowing her head deferentially to her date.
For the first time that night, the women parted arms and went separate ways.
Madiha navigated the throngs of people. There were many small islands, little groups of film-goers discussing pictures near the posters on columns and walls, or clusters of four or five drama enthusiasts waiting for the main stage to be open to them, all dressed exquisitely for the night. Making her way through, Madiha arrived at the snack counter. There was a glass display case with baked goods, kept warm on electric racks, and a line of candy boxes, branded with the state company or candy factory that produced them. Behind the young man tending the counter, a deep-frying machine in the back bubbled with oil. A very large popping corn cart set into a corner continuously crackled and snapped.
Nobody around seemed very interested in the snacks, so Madiha was first and last in line when she arrived at the counter. She gave everything a quick glance, and then decided to bet on the staples she knew to be closely associated with the film experience.
“I’ll have popping corn, in the large bag, and two Jomba Sugar Company caramel boxes, and an ‘Inspiration’ chocolate bar.” Madiha said, raising her arm as if pledging an oath.
Behind the counter the young, sharply dressed attendant nodded in acknowledgment.
“That will be thirty shells, comrade.” He said.
Madiha blinked her eyes. She looked down at the candies, and back at him.
“Oh. Thirty shells? So it is not, um, free?” Madiha asked.
“No, sorry. None of these are essential foodstuffs, so they’re charged for.”
He scratched his head awkwardly as if put on the spot by her confusion.
“I can offer you a complimentary small bag of popping corn.” He then whispered.
Madiha shook her head, feeling embarrassed herself. “No, no! I’ll pay, it is fine.”
She fumbled in her coat pockets, and before the attendant’s eyes withdrew the massive wad of paper bills that constituted Daksha’s book royalties. She fumbled through the small fortune in her hands, quite unused to money. Every bill she had was either in the 100 shell denomination or the 500 shell denomination, and she could not for the life of her even conceive of what would happen if she gave such large bills to the man. Would she receive the difference back? Would the remainder disappear into oblivion?
While the attendant bagged her goods and set them on the counter, Madiha worked up the courage to drop a 500 shell paper on the counter, and push it hastily toward him.
“Ma’am, this is–”
“Just keep it! Thank you!”
Madiha quickly seized her popping corn and candies and fled the counter.
At the door to the elevator, she rejoined Parinita, who had in her hands a pair of bottles labeled ‘Dream’, common soft drinks with an apple-like taste. Parinita was in good cheer, and Madiha tried not to let any residual awkwardness show. She handed Parinita a box of caramels and the chocolate, which she graciously took. When the elevator came down, they stood to the side of the operator, a young woman in a bright coat, like the other workers.
“Third floor, please.” Parinita said.
Nodding, the elevator operator turned to a button panel and got the gears moving.
Shaking, the elevator box slowly rose to the top of the building.
In front of them the elevator doors opened.
Smiling, the operator extended a hand.
Madiha went for a hand-shake, but found herself interrupted.
“It is customary to tip the operator.” Parinita said, squeezing Madiha’s hand.
Madiha screamed internally.
Though they had not even sat down for the film yet, Parinita was already having an incredible time. Just walking beside Madiha, all dressed up, hand in hand and arm in arm, under the festival skies and across the festival streets, was so much more than she ever thought she would have. It was as if all of her impossible, childish little fantasies that she nursed over the thirty days she had known the Colonel were finally coming true.
There was still a pang of embarrassment, a nagging thought that everything was too unreal, too crazy. Parinita rarely ever acted on her impulses. She was supposed to be analytical, rational, reliable; but Madiha had tugged at her heart in a way she couldn’t explain rationally, in a way she couldn’t quite analyze. In the midst of an unreal situation, in the midst of unreal feelings and memories and sensations, Madiha kept her alive.
Not only physically, but in spirit, emotionally, in every way that mattered.
Seeing Madiha existing, casually, out in the world, seemed to confirm everything she had thought she was foolish for feeling. That gravity that drew her to the tall, gloomy, soft-hearted woman with the fiery, tormented eyes, became three times as strong that night. She felt silly thinking of love at first sight, but she could describe it no other way. Perhaps it was their shared destiny that forced them together, but Parinita wanted to think it was her own heart, her own desires and lusts, that had naturally grown this strong.
Her impulsive kiss the day before felt like the seal to a pact, but she wanted it to be a pact of her own creation, impulsive and mad as it was. She could only hope that it stuck.
But they were having so much fun, she thought, that they had to be meant to be.
Ocean Theater’s film rooms were much smaller than the main stage. Each film showroom sat thirty people in three rows lying a meter or two above a small stage, perhaps originally intended for lectures or speeches, over which the film canvas was stretched.
At the back of the room, a booth had been built for the film projector.
Parinita led Madiha to what she considered the best seats in the room, just below the projector and with nobody behind or around them. They took seat on stiff wooden frames with stuffed cushions and backrests. Madiha laid back and sighed audibly.
“I have so much money, and yet I’m in a tighter spot than ever.” She moaned.
“Well, you’re doing a good deed by spreading it around.” Parinita giggled.
Madiha mumbled a little, looking with disgust at her own coat pocket.
“I don’t think I’m doing the world much of a service here.”
“Don’t worry, somebody is bound to have change for 100 shell bills!”
At the elevator, Madiha quite literally threw money at the operator and then promptly ran away, unable to simply tell the person to keep the change, or to accompany her to the cash box to break the bills. Parinita had walked out laughing heartily until she caught back up to her date, and nobody else seemed keen to understand the situation.
“Maybe you can shrug it off, but I’ll be replaying that moment in my head for months to come.” Madiha said. Parinita gave her a sympathetic look and rubbed her shoulder. For someone who was so clever and tough for certain things, Madiha was surprisingly soft and vulnerable in so many others. She was rather naive in certain respects. It was cute.
“You can let me pay instead, I still have some money.” Parinita said.
“We shouldn’t have to pay anything.” Madiha grumbled.
“Someday, Madiha; but we’re not quite there yet I’m afraid.”
“I blame Nocht for this too.”
Parinita smiled and turned her gaze back to the film canvas.
There were perhaps eight or nine other people in this particular show.
Their tickets did not say what the film was. They were generic papers generated by a machine that only had a room number and entry fee listed. When purchasing them, Parinita had picked the movie she wanted to view, and she let Madiha know in the morning that it was a special, secret picture. Her imagination could fill in the rest.
She grinned to herself, and relaxed on her seat, laying her hand over Madiha’s.
Madiha glanced at her, and held her gaze. She seemed puzzled.
Parinita could hardly wait to see Madiha’s cute face respond to her devious ruse.
“So, Madiha, ready to see how brave you are?” Parinita sweetly said.
“I picked a special film for us to see together. I wonder who will cling to whom?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Oh ho ho!”
Around them the lights in the room dimmed, and the door was shut.
It became almost pitch black in the room, until the projector came on.
Before the picture began, an animated short explained certain safety measures that the audience should take, and exhorted them to pick up snacks, to be careful walking down the aisles while the room was dark, and to keep quiet during the picture. After this, the room grew very still as a melancholy tune brought to their attention the fact that their projector was equipped for sound. The tune brought in the title screen for the picture.
“Rampage of the Opaque Man?” Madiha said to herself.
Parinita covered her mouth with the back of her hand, delicately stifling a laugh.
“What kind of film is this? I expected lighter fare.” Madiha asked.
“I refuse to spoil it! You’ll soon see.”
Parinita giggled internally. This would be so much fun!
Like most Ayvartan horror films, the picture was black and white, by choice more than technical limitations, and appeared rather gloomy. Madiha and Parinita watched, hand in hand, as the film began to tell the story of Doctor Sanjay Gujarat, an outgoing and kind man whom they followed as he slowly became consumed with an obsession to cure the ravages of death itself using newly-synthesized chemicals and terrible drugs.
Though he might have been mistaken for a hero at first, it was an illusion that soon wore off. After several uncomfortable scenes with his friends, his family and even a lady love, whom he neglected, screamed at, and behaved erratically toward, all because of their concern and skepticism, the doctor was marked to the audience as quite the villain himself.
His true motives were soon revealed: he wanted eternal life for himself!
“I can understand his motivation.” Madiha said, self-seriously.
Parinita raised a finger to her smiling lips, urging her to keep quiet.
On screen, the doctor deteriorated before their eyes. He ate less, and bathed not at all, and sores appeared on his face, and his hair fell, and it seemed as if months of slow rot were overcoming him before their eyes. It was quite a graphic, sickening display.
Feeling her date’s hand, Parinita could tell that Madiha was on edge. The film score was brooding and tense, and lingering shots, panning across unappealing rooms, vile surfaces, and even a cadaver, made one anxious for what was to come. She heard Madiha gulp down, and saw her crunching very deliberately on popcorn and candy to relieve her stress.
As Doctor Gujarat stabilized his mixture through the horrifying addition of human blood, the film score intensified, punctuating the moment with cutting strings that could be felt like a pinprick at the base of the spine. The Doctor raised the potion to his lips, and a long shot focused on his throat, grotesquely bulging with each gulp of the putrid drink.
At once, he vanished from the screen in a trick of light and a well-placed film cut.
Madiha blinked, and Parinita thought she saw the horror dawning on her face.
Doctor Gujarat had become invisible.
More susceptible than even Parinita had thought, Madiha seemed puzzled at first, but as objects in the lab began to shatter by themselves, as a disembodied, croaking laugh echoed across the darkened halls, and as men and women became victims of an unseen assailant, the horrible possibilities of the invisible man seemed to grip her heart with a cold fear. Unblinking, Madiha stared, frozen, neglecting her snacks. She bit the tip of her thumb.
As the film crept with evil intent toward its conclusion, Parinita readied for the climax of her own plot. Sarsala, Dr. Gujarat’s lady love, traced back the man’s rampage to the place where everything began. She snuck with a held breath into his ruined laboratory, floors glistening with glass shards and thick pools of chemicals, electric wall torches sparking from the violence inflicted by the doctor as he reached his monstrous apotheosis.
Behind them the projector’s sound speakers cut out. There were minutes of dead silence in the film, and in the theater as well. It felt as if the heavy breathing of the audience was amplified, and became the new score for the film. Miss Sarsala, an innocent in her sari and long, monochromatic dress, walked step by step toward the table where the doctor had imbibed his draught of hell. Her eyes teared up at the remnants of her lover’s work.
Parinita felt a quiver through Madiha’s hand with each of those steps.
Suddenly, a sweeping shot and an unexpected string!
Dr. Gujarat charges into the scene, and for once he is partially visible, rendered opaque in a flash of light and sparks, his fleeting form twisted and monstrous and inhuman.
Blood and violent death filled the theater screen, causing a profound shock.
Madiha jerked up, a scream caught in her throat.
She swung her arms around Parinita in a frightened reflex, and drew her face close.
Parinita beamed, her strategy bearing fruit, and she stroked Madiha’s hair.
Until the end of the film, they remained cheek to cheek in this fashion.
It had worked! Madiha really did have a cute side buried under that soldierly spirit.
After the picture, they walked back out of the theater, arm in arm. There was a weak quiver across Madiha’s skin, felt across their connection, even as they departed and headed back up Ocean Road. It was much darker out now than when they entered the Theater, and the throngs had spread out farther, so there were less people in any given place. There were less fireworks going off — but Madiha nearly jumped at each one.
“Madiha, are you ok?” Parinita asked, becoming less amused and more concerned.
“I’m fine,” Madiha said, unconvincingly, “the film just tapped into a childhood fear.”
“Of invisible men?”
“Things watching me.”
Parinita’s heart sank with guilt. “I see. I wish I had known before.”
“Be honest with me: are invisible men possible?”
“Of course not! They’re just fantasy.” Parinita replied, patting Madiha’s back.
“And yet, dragons are real. I even left one at home!” Madiha said.
Parinita smiled. “That is completely different from invisible men!”
Madiha seemed quite unsettled by the idea despite this ironclad argument.
“An invisible man has too many tactical advantages. I never even considered it.”
“I guess I should’ve bought different tickets.” Parinita said.
Madiha’s eyes drew momentarily wider, and then her usual gloomy expression settled back in. She shook her head, and rubbed her forehead and her temples with one hand.
“I apologize.” She said. Perhaps she realized her own vulnerability then.
Seeing her date prostrated in this way, Parinita felt alarmed. Had she ruined the night?
“No! Don’t! It’s my fault, I didn’t think it’d scare you this much.”
Parinita thought Madiha was being rather cute; but she was aware she had gone too far, if Madiha was this shaken up by a film. She only expected her to jump a few times, preferably into Parinita’s warm, welcoming arms. It was a crass scheme on her part, she realized.
Madiha raised her hands. “It’s alright. It’s not you at all. I should be more–”
“Stop that, it’s not your fault. Come on, let’s lighten up.” Parinita replied.
She pushed herself up to Madiha’s flank, pressing her face against her.
It was a desperate attempt to inject some levity, but it seemed to work.
“Next time, we should see a romantic movie.” Madiha said, sighing.
“Oh, it was perfectly romantic for me.” Parinita said, clinging more tightly to her.
Madiha sighed ever more deeply. “We should just stick together in a room then.”
Parinited winked at her. “Consider it a date.”
Just outside the gates to the 8th Division Garrison, Gulab waved a sympathetic goodbye to the grumbling guard stationed at the gatehouse for the first night shift. She walked a little ways down the road, toward a bench shaded during the day by a small tree. As the sky turned orange and purple, marking the sun’s descent, the street fell under a gloom. Beneath the bowing shadows of nearby buildings, Charvi sat on the bench, waiting.
“Sorry! I couldn’t find my dress uniform! I had to get a new one issued!” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded her head and waved at her. “I’m not in a hurry.” She said.
She rose from the bench, and ambled over to Gulab without expression.
Standing on the edge of the empty street for a long minute, the pair looked past each other and fidgeted in place. Their respective uniforms shared dark green garrison caps and jackets, but Charvi had a skirt uniform, heeled shoes, and a different set of pins and honors befitting her higher rank. Gulab had long, light brown pants and dress shoes.
“Say, why’d you get the skirt?” Gulab asked.
“I don’t know. My uniform was just like this.” Charvi replied.
“Ah. I specifically asked for pants. I’m not that comfortable in a skirt.”
Charvi’s eyes wandered away, and her shoulders tensed.
“You look very–” She paused for a second. “Professional.”
“You look very professional. Upstanding. Capable.”
Not the adjectives that Gulab really wanted to hear.
After all, one could be professional and be a bony, horse-headed girl.
Nonetheless, she smiled and took it in stride. “Well, thanks.”
Charvi clapped her hands in distress. Gulab realized she looked quite lovely.
Her lips and eyes glistened with a touch of pigments under the faint, vanishing light of the sun. Her brown cheeks were touched with a hint of red, and her pale hair was shiny and smooth. Gulab had washed and redone her signature braided tail, and used some talcum powder on her face to make it soft and to counteract the ruddy slickness that developed lately when she trained. Her face was always fairly soft and sleek, at the very least.
Compared to Charvi’s radiant makeover, however, she was just plain ol’ Gulab in a nicer military suit. She supposed even if Charvi had a way with words, she would have found it hard to compliment her. Gulab was just boring old Gulab who looked like Gulab.
“Well, then,” Gulab awkwardly began, “let’s get moving.”
“Wait.” Charvi said.
“You look winsome, Gulab. Comely. Arresting. Fetching.”
Charvi raised her hands and held them within a few centimeters of each other to clap.
Gulab smiled and clapped her own hands instead to preempt her.
“Of course I’m fetching. Anyway, let’s go.”
She took Charvi by the hand and led her down the street and toward Ocean Road.
There was a much greater spring in her step now that she received proper adjectives.
For them, the festivities would have to wait. Gulab had made a promise the day before, and so she led Charvi past Ocean Road and into Silver Road, on the adjacent blocks. There were parade floats making their rounds through the road here, but compared to Ocean Road the scene was much less lively. They made their way up the street to a little plaza with a flag of Ayvarta flying from a pole, and a dismal little building, beige and orange, stucco and masonry, with small windows. On the front was an envelope symbol.
Charvi stared at the depressing structure with a contemplative gaze.
In lieu of a smile, perhaps, her mouth hung slightly open.
Without warning she hurried inside, and Gulab took off after her.
Though the doors into the post office were open, there was nobody inside.
Long rows of personal boxes and drop-off boxes lined the walls. There was a sliding glass pane that had been shut, alongside the locked door into the back office where the postal workers spent their days. Charvi seemed to quiver inexpressively with muted despair, until they found, tucked in a corner behind a potted plant, a large brown box.
It was an old stamp vendor box, with a slot for coins, and several different stamp books to choose from. Charvi searched through her pockets feverishly, pulling up shell paper bills but struggling to come up with a single coin. She looked between the machine and her jacket and pants with increasing frequency, as if it would cause coins to magically appear.
Sighing audibly, Gulab handed her some coins out of her own pockets.
“You’re lucky I had canteen duty this morning.” Gulab said.
In reality she had gone out of her way to get some change, just in case.
Charvi did not need to know the whole story.
She seemed elated enough just thinking the coins were a happy accident.
“Thank you.” She said.
Her voice was just a touch more affected than her usual monotone.
That was enough to know she was over the moon about this.
Coins in hand, she approached the machine, leaned into it and deposited several in the slots. At the turn of a crank, the machine pushed a stamp book out of a little slide with a satisfying ka-chunk! noise. Charvi picked up the stamp books, and admired each of them, turning their little pages with alert eyes and a hanging jaw. She was so drawn into her treasures that Gulab had to look over her shoulder to get a peek at them.
There was one book with several monuments-themed stamps, such as the Shining Port, and the 8th Division Base, Ocean Road, Ocean Theater, and the governor’s building. Another book contained stamps with little landscape images like the hills and woods outside Rangda and the waters of the harbor. There was a memorial stamp for Old Rangda, and several stamps with important people from Rangda and Tambwe.
It was a real treasure trove of stamps.
Charvi turned them over in her fingers while Gulab stared over their shoulders outside.
“Take your time putting them in your book.” Gulab said. Time was not being especially generous to them, but she did not want to hurry Charvi, even if she did want to see the festival proper. This was her little moment, and nobody would spoil it for her.
Surprisingly, Charvi had other ideas. She put the stamp books in her jacket.
“No, I can do it later. I want to see the festival with you.” Charvi said.
She clapped her hands softly together.
Gulab felt a little flushed, hearing her say with you. It changed that whole statement.
“Let’s go get something to eat, then we’ll play around.” Gulab suggested.
Charvi nodded her head stiffly, and the duo retraced their steps through Silver Road and back out to Ocean Road. They sped across the street, running in front of a parade float, and rejoined the crowd, ambling casually through the festival and looking through its offerings.
Gulab was particularly keen on finding something fatty and fried, and preferably savory, but Charvi seemed to show more interest in the sweets. She paused to stare at the gulab jamun, little syrup-coated balls of milk solids that whimsically shared a name with her companion, but did not purchase any. She seemed drawn by the halva and yogurt too.
At the sight of a cart with a large ice box, however, Charvi became more decisive.
“Gulab, let’s have kulfi. I want the mango flavor.” She said.
“Sure. You’ll have to buy though, all I had was those coins.” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded stiffly in response and approached the vendor, paying for a pair of cone-shaped kulfi ice cream sticks. She bought herself the bright yellow mango flavor, while Gulab received a bright pink rose flavored kulfi, studded with pistachios. Gulab licked the tip of her popsicle and found the flavor very appealing, sweet and rich. Kulfi was dense and creamy, and she felt that her tongue was not even making a dent on the stick as she sucked on it. It was nothing like the syrup-flavored snow she had as a kid up in the mountains.
“I’ve never had this before! It’s so good!” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded her head, her lips closing around the ice cream stick.
“I ate them regularly as a small child.” She said.
Gulab sloppily lapped up the ice cream. It brought her an innocent joy.
Standing on the edge of the street, eating her ice cream and watching the big flashy floats go by under the vibrant fireworks, accompanied by a fetching comrade who thought that she was fetching too, Gulab felt more alive and free than she ever had before.
This was the promise of leaving the mountain, of leaving behind the restrictions of her birth. It was the fruit of self-determination. She was no longer trapped, hunting and fighting and hardening her heart to the cold and hiding the pain her face showed for fear of a man seeing it. She was free. Being her own person, the person she wanted to become.
Nobody here could tell her to work like a man or to be more masculine or to act her birth. Nobody could tell her not to cry or not to laugh or not to dream and dance and dress and look the way she wanted. She decided everything for herself now. Wearing a woman’s hair, cleaning herself like a woman, dressing like a woman, laughing, eating, loving, being flighty; being a woman. Having a woman’s face; no– the face she had always had finally being seen as her face. She was always here, she was her, under the open Ayvartan sky.
There was more to do, perhaps. But at least one person at her side saw her as she wanted to be seen, and for now that was enough. She was the girl that she chose to be.
That was something none of the men of her family could take from her.
She didn’t have to live forced into a contorted shape by their ideas any longer.
In a rush of emotion, she took Charvi’s free hand, drawing her attention.
“I’m so happy to be here, Charvi. Thank you.” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded her head. “Yes. This is fine.”
“Only fine?” Gulab laughed.
“I am okay with the events unfolding.”
Gulab cracked up a little, while Charvi remained perfectly serious as usual.
She looked down at her ice cream stick, which had not even begun to melt.
“You know, the best way to eat kulfi is to stuff it whole in one’s mouth.” Charvi said.
“Oh, well then. Sounds fun. Let’s try it together.” Gulab said.
At once, the pair mindlessly stuffed their kulfi sticks whole in their mouth and waited.
Within seconds Gulab felt an intense chill digging into the roof of her mouth, down the roots of her teeth, and going straight into the brain. Judging by her somewhat more strained expression, Charvi felt it too. Both of them shut their eyes, removed the kulfi from atop their tortured tongues, and grabbed hold of their heads in pain. It was as if the ice cream stick had become lodged into her skull. Not a pleasant sensation.
“Why did you do this to me?” Gulab moaned, her head throbbing fiercely.
“It was a joke. I joked you.” Charvi replied, inexpressively rubbing on her own head.
“It’s called a prank, and it’s not clever if you get caught in it too!” Gulab shouted.
“I will take that into consideration next time.” Charvi tonelessly replied.
Though technically a holiday for the armed forces in Rangda, bases and critical assets could not be left completely alone, and several lax guard shifts were established, often manned by younger officers and privates. As the night wore on, the guard shifts at the gates and barracks changed with merciful regularity, releasing more and more of the troops stationed at the 8th Division Barracks to allow them to experience the festival. Returning troops who exhausted the fun of the festival then took their place, and bid them a fond night in town.
It was one such shift that led to Corporal Rahani taking the place of Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe at their barracks, just an hour or two after the sun had fallen from over the base.
Their comely Corporal looked to be in good spirits despite this. He smiled his delicate smile, his lovely face lightly pigmented, with a little gloss on his lips and powders on his cheeks and around his eyes. Over his dress uniform, consisting of long pants and a spiffy jacket that was almost identical to the type worn by Adesh, Eshe and Nnenia, he wore a matching dark green woman’s sari as a personal touch. An orchid decorated his smooth dark hair.
“Did you have fun, Corporal?” Eshe asked.
Rahani beamed at the group, his steps all aflutter. “It was quite lovely!”
“Did you have a date?” Nnenia asked.
“Ah, no! I’m not in the market.” Rahani said. His voice took a coquettish tone.
Adesh wondered whether he was already sold or merely off the shelves.
Everyone around the base seemed excited to go out on romantic dates during the festival. There was some kind of urban legend about holding hands under the moon or somesuch — Adesh only barely interacted with these fantasies through osmosis, and he wondered how anyone had time for them with all the drills and lectures they were having.
He himself didn’t have a date. Nnenia and Eshe were apparently on the same boat.
Whether they failed to secure a date, or never even tried, Adesh did not know.
So they all decided to go together.
Corporal Rahani waved them off, and the trio walked down to Ocean Road themselves, taking in the spectacle of their surroundings. Upon turning the corner from the connecting street to Ocean Road, Adesh’s eye was immediately drawn by firebreathers on a moving float that was circling Ocean Road and the adjacent Silver Road. Men and women in diaphanous tops and loincloths, soaked in sweat, danced and breathed long tongues of fire that lit up the gravel and soared over the heads of astonished gawkers.
“Hot!” Nnenia said, pointing curiously to the float.
“You mean the fire or the dancers?” Adesh asked.
“Both.” Nnenia said, a little grin on her face.
Eshe winced, drawing back a step when he thought the fire would shoot near.
Perhaps his experiences with a flamethrower in Bada Aso were getting to him.
Adesh patted him on the back for support.
“Let’s get going, I’ve seen enough sweaty legs for tonight.” Adesh said.
“Pity.” Nnenia replied, staring wistfully at the sparsely-clad dancers.
Every float traveled Ocean Road and Silver Road through a particular path, to spread the crowd. Adesh did not follow any of the floats, but instead took to the roads and the nearby alleys and small adjoining squares, where static attractions and storefronts offered the night’s entertainment. There was still a sizable crowd on the streets, and the path became particularly thick with bodies wherever a storefront was hosting an event.
Ahead of them, a crowd formed so thick around an electronics union club that people began to push and shove to get through or make way past or toward the front. On a wooden podium, a group of men and women hauled out an enormous wooden box with various knobs and a seemingly rounded glass on the front. There was some commotion as the members put down the object and played with its instruments. Adesh saw little of the object when it was set down, because the crowd had gathered densely. He only saw a hint of light coming from inside the ring of people staring at the storefront, and heard only a little bit of music coming from the object as the crowd got excited and cheered.
It was a lot more vim and vigor than Adesh had seen even back at the firebreathers.
“I think it’s a television.” Eshe said. “They’re supposed to be uncommon outside of very big cities. In Bada Aso some of the tenements had a communal television to catch special broadcasts from the government. I saw a few broken ones during the fight.”
“Big crowd-pleaser.” Nnenia said. She stared furtively at the gathering.
Silently, Adesh felt a little offput by the noise and the density of bodies.
It reminded him a little too keenly of the ugly huddle in the Penance Cathedral.
He saw the crowd behind rows of benches, in cramped rooms, packed on the beds of rompo trucks headed behind the lines, or under the medical tarps in piles and columns.
They had no choice back then; but here, he did not want to feel trapped in place.
His feet brimmed with an urge to take him far from this place.
Looking at his side, searching for a way out of the street, he found that the road had also become congested, as a float truck with carnival performers and a lazy-looking tame drake made its way through. There were seemingly hundreds of people following, tossing food up for the drake to eat, and tossing flowers at the performers in gratitude.
Adesh felt a shudder and stared back into the thrashing crowd.
“I’m not keen on staying here, let’s keep moving.” He quickly mumbled.
Adesh reached out and grabbed his companions by the hand to keep everyone close.
Nnenia on the left and Eshe on the right, fingers intertwined.
He drew them closer, and started into the crowd before they could protest.
Closing his eyes, he felt himself bump into several people.
Elbows and hands and arms rolled over his head and shoulders with a few protests.
He squeezed his friend’s hands and pushed on to the other side.
Past the electronics club storefront the streets thinned out again, and Adesh calmed.
But both his friends walked a little stiffer after that experience, and remained quiet.
And he could feel a tremble in their grasp.
He wondered if he had done wrong to them — he had been desperate to leave.
Stopping, he turned to them, and let go of their hands.
“I’m sorry, I lost my cool back there.” He said.
Nnenia and Eshe laid hands he released behind their backs.
“It’s not your fault.” Nnenia said.
“You did nothing wrong.” Eshe said.
Both had spoken at once, and looked embarrassed for having done so.
Adesh crooked an eyebrow. They didn’t seem angry, but he couldn’t read them.
When they resumed walking, he felt his friends each take one of his hands again.
He glanced furtively at each of them. Eshe’s hair was turning slightly curly, he noticed, as it began to grow, while Nnenia’s was tied up in a bun. Adesh had combed his own, which was starting to pass his neck in length. Both wore their garrison caps. They had cleaned up for the festival night, but neither wore any pigments or accessories.
Adesh felt a comforting warmth from their hands.
He loved his friends so dearly. After he ran away from his home and entered the army, he had always clung to them, though they knew little about each other before the things they confided during their lunches at that fated border between Adjar and Cissea.
Adesh wanted to hold their hands and be with them forever.
He didn’t want tonight to be gloomy.
He wanted to have some levity with them for a change.
“Hey, let’s try a game!” Adesh said, turning his head to Eshe and then Nnenia. “What do you say? I see a lot of opportunities. Look, there’s a shooting gallery up ahead.”
Releasing their hands he pointed up the street, where a small woman from a local hunting and sporting club had set up targets and a little range in the alleyway between her store and the adjacent building. She stood on a podium next to it, and watched shooters try to plink at her targets with a small hunting rifle with a 6-shot clip of cut-down cartridges. It resembled the bundu battle rifle, but the ammunition was much smaller.
On a shelf near the range there were a variety of prizes for the shooters. There were clay flowers, boxes of candy, colorful photobooks of Ayvartan animals and biomes, plush toys of various sizes, culminating in a very large plush drake, stuffed with beans, pleasantly green in color and with a big, stitched smile and button eyes.
“It’s so cute!” Adesh said. “Come on, let’s try to win it.”
Eshe and Nnenia’s eyes were drawn to the prizes.
“I’ll win it for you!” Nnenia said aloud, looking at Adesh with fire in her eyes.
Adesh blinked, surprised by her vehemence.
“I’m a better shot, I’ll get you the plush Adesh!” Eshe butted in, determined.
Adesh tipped his head in confusion. He wondered if he had made a mistake again.
Both of them ran ahead to the shooting gallery. Eshe got slightly ahead of Nnenia and stood before the podium. Dressed in a shawl that resembled a coat of moss, the woman at the podium smiled and handed Eshe a rifle, as well as one 6-round clip to load into it.
“First game is free to play, but after that it’s 5 shells per bullet.” She said.
Eshe took the rifle, stood at the opposite end of the range, and took aim. Nnenia grumbled as he settled on the shooter’s platform and loaded his weapon to start.
There were several round targets arranged at the end of the gloomy alleyway.
Once Eshe had gotten ready, the woman at the podium pushed a button, giggling.
A series of dim lights lit up the end of the alleyway, and the targets began to move on a track previously hidden by the darkness in the alley. Plates moved from left to right in predictable intervals, transitioning seamlessly and without stopping from rightward movement to one end of the alley and then leftward movement to another by some mechanical trick. There were also several more rows of targets than previously visible, three ranks deep, with the larger ones at the front obscuring the ones at the back.
“Fire when ready!” shouted the vendor, amused by the sudden confusion on Eshe’s face. “Targets in the last row are worth more points! Try to score 100 for the big plushie!”
Nnenia joined her in snickering. Adesh stood off to the side, still a touch perplexed.
Eshe put the gun down on the platform frame, and bent down to operate it somewhat like a sniper. He pulled the bolt, closed one eye, and took a deep breath.
In quick succession he fired his shots, working his bolt between each and barely moving his rifle from its position. He adjusted the barrel only a few millimeters with each shot.
He must have been trying to get the targets to come to him, Adesh thought.
But it did not bear fruit. All six rounds flew right past the moving plates.
“Hey, you missed pal!” shouted the vendor in a mocking voice.
He stood up from the platform, looked down the alley, and shook the gun in his hands.
“It’s rigged! You rigged the game!” Eshe shouted, pointing at the vendor.
“What? How dare you!” she replied, puffing up her cheeks in childish anger.
“Sore loser.” Nnenia said tersely, moving up and snatching the rifle from Eshe’s hands.
“Tell you what, if you pay for six more rounds, I’ll stop the targets.” the vendor added.
Eshe promptly turned his back and walked back to Adesh’s side, gritting his teeth.
Adesh was beginning to realize what a terrible idea this had been.
All he had done was just stoke Eshe and Nnenia’s natural antagonism again!
At the shooter’s platform, Nnenia took the gun up to her shoulder and readied to fire from a standing position, rather than leaning in with a stationary weapon like a sniper.
“Same offer to you. Pay up front and I’ll stop the targets.” said the vendor.
Nnenia loaded her clip, pulled the bolt, and held the weapon with a hand up front, one around the trigger, and the stock to her shoulder. She moved from the waist up, tracking the targets as they moved across the width of the alleyway. Adesh thought she was probably trying to predict their patterns and fire ahead of them. She spent almost a minute just looking down the alleyway. People started to form up behind them — perhaps they were the first soldiers, dressed as such, to try their hands at the game tonight.
Given the attraction, the vendor looked delighted, and did not hurry Nnenia along.
Finally, after over a minute, Nnenia took her first shot.
Her rifle cried out with a sharp pop!
At the other end of the alleyway a plate broke on the front row.
“Five points!” said the vendor, clapping.
Nnenia turned to the vendor with fire in her eyes.
“Well, you hit a big, easy target! Those in the back are worth thirty.”
Smiling mischievously, the vendor finally revealed the true nature of the game.
Angrily, Nnenia focused her attention on the targets once more, but her fortunes quickly turned. She fired several more times to no avail, the large plates in the front shielding the smaller plates in the back. To achieve the big, luxuriant drake plushie, it was necessary to score three shots at least on the smaller plates. Nnenia found it impossible.
Again Adesh watched one of his friends dejectedly leave the platform in defeat.
Though the little crowd around the store cheered, Nnenia frowned, demoralized.
“Hey, you got fifteen points at least. Here’s a clay flower for ya.”
From the shelves, the vendor plucked a fake flower.
Nnenia snatched it out of her hands as she walked by the podium.
“Here. Like Rahani.”
She approached Adesh and put the clay flower in his hair.
She then walked past with her head head down.
Adesh felt like trying his hand at the range too; but he also wanted to keep moving. His plan to lighten up the evening had clearly failed, and Nnenia and Eshe stood three meters from each other, staring at neither the shooting range nor each other, with their arms crossed and their faces flushed an angry, perhaps ashamed, red color.
He should’ve guessed that they would have turned it into a fight; but why?
As he prepared to grab both of them and go, he heard a familiar voice in the crowd.
“Ah, kids, oh kids, so young and inexperienced!”
From behind the well-dressed gawkers arrived Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura. They too wore their dress uniforms to the festival, but Adesh thought they looked a damn sight better than the private’s uniform. Corporal Kajari looked impressive, sleek and polished to a fine honey-bronze, her characteristic braided ponytail looking silky and shiny, and her pretty, soft-featured, smooth face decorated with an ear-to-ear smile as she laid eyes on her juniors.
During Bada Aso, Corporal Kajari had been a positive influence on them.
She had even saved their lives once with her bravado and quick thinking.
Adesh lit up with a smile as he saw her coming through.
Nnenia and Eshe, hearing the voice, turned around too. Eshe looked ambivalent, but Nnenia was beaming with youthful glee just the same as Adesh. They approached the Corporal, and Adesh wondered if he should go in for a hug. It almost felt natural. Instead Corporal Kajari saluted them with a little grin, and the three privates saluted back to her.
“You three looked defeated back there! Allow me to show you how it’s done.” She said.
Corporal Kajari turned about-face, and took the rifle from the vendor’s podium.
“Well, well! More soldiers lining up! It’s almost unfair to me.” the vendor said.
“You set yourself up for this fall!” Corporal Kajari said.
Behind her, Sergeant Chadgura nodded to the younger privates and stood aside, waiting silently and without expression for Corporal Kajari to be done with her little show.
Standing at the shooter’s platform, Corporal Kajari did not exhibit any signs of having a concrete plan. She did not lean down to aim more deliberately, and she did not spend much time plotting the trajectory of the plates. Instead, once the vendor had replaced the front plates destroyed by Nnenia and got the targets moving again, Corporal Kajari loaded, and with her eyes off the iron sights, she fired the rifle haphazardly, holding it to her hip with one hand, slamming the bolt down with the palm of her other hand.
Bullets hit the walls and the floor and sent a pair of huddling rats panicking away.
At the far end of the range, a single small plate was grazed and pushed off its track.
It shattered on the floor as it fell.
“That’s uh, thirty points, I guess.” said the vendor, glaring at Corporal Kajari.
Behind them the crowd was silent with confusion.
Adesh had expected a show of skill.
He did not know what to think of what had actually transpired.
However neither the crowd’s reaction, nor the vendor’s, nor the privates’, seemed to bother Corporal Kajari. Casually, she put the gun down on the platform and stepped off.
Corporal Kajari then turned to her youthful subordinates and shrugged.
“It’s obviously rigged, so who cares?” She said happily.
Behind her the vendor’s face developed an angry twitch.
“THAT’s the lesson you wanted to show us?” Eshe said, throwing his hands up in the air.
“Yeah. Lighten up and don’t be so intense.” Corporal Kajari said.
Exasperated, Eshe turned to Sergeant Chadgura, who did not even acknowledge him.
He then turned his back on the shooting gallery in a huff once more.
“Oh boy, that was something. Any more challengers?” shouted the vendor.
Once more the crowd parted to allow someone to the front.
This time it was a vibrantly dressed couple. One was a woman with lightly bronzed skin and luxuriant strawberry hair in an exquisite dress and sari drape, and she partnered with a sharply-dressed, rather tall, slender lady in a suit and a fedora. They almost looked like actors out of some exquisite drama film. It took some doing for Adesh to recognize them, but he realized this was Colonel Nakar and her aide, Chief Warrant Officer Maharani.
“Do you want the big plush toy?” asked Colonel Nakar.
Chief Maharani clapped her hands with delight. “I’d cherish it forever!”
“Consider it yours.”
Colonel Nakar stepped up, with Chief Maharani cheering for her in front of the crowd.
Grinning, the vendor warmly welcomed her. “My, my, confident, are we?”
Without indulging in her sense of humor, Colonel Nakar took a gun from the vendor.
Wordlessly, she loaded the gun en route to the shooter’s platform.
She held it out with one hand, as if it was a handgun and not a rifle.
“Ha ha, we’ll see how that works out for you.” shouted the vendor.
From the podium she started the targets moving once more.
Colonel Nakar barely waited a second before she started firing.
Adesh thought it would be a repeat of Corporal Kajari’s stunt, but Colonel Nakar had incredible precision and technique. She had the gun in one hand, but she controlled the barrel with the other, and she paused for a second to work the bolt between shots, rather than hammering it recklessly like Corporal Kajari had been doing. She shot, turned the bolt, quickly snapped the barrel a few centimeters to the side, and shot again.
Untouched, the two closest rows of plates continued moving.
“Hey, you missed pal– what?”
Behind them, the back row had been completely depopulated of its tiny, quick targets.
At the podium, the vendor stared down the alley with her jaw hanging, speechless.
A long silence reigned after the last gunshot.
Adesh and friends were stunned. Even Corporal Kajari was mouth agape.
Not a single shot missed, and every single shot hit a 30-point target.
“That’s one hundred and eighty points, I believe.” said Colonel Nakar.
She ambled down from the shooter’s platform and grabbed hold of the big drake plush.
“Yay! Go, Madiha! You’re invincible!” Chief Maharani cheered.
Once it had dawned upon them that the Colonel had won the game, improbable as it seemed, the crowd around the shooting gallery roared with delight, clapping their hands, throwing flowers. Colonel Nakar presented the plush to Chief Maharani, who boldly gave her a kiss on the cheek in public. This only seemed to fire up the crowd even more.
Everyone seemed to expect some words out of Colonel Nakar as she prepared to leave.
Awkwardly, she scanned the crowd and rubbed her shooting arm, staring downward.
“Practice with many cartridges.” She said hastily.
Chief Maharani put her arm around the Colonel, and the pair disappeared up the street.
Behind Adesh and friends, the hunting club vendor began to close up shop in anger.
Once the excitement died down, the crowd started to wander away.
Nnenia and Eshe stood around for a minute and seemed to forget their competition.
“I’m hungry.” Nnenia said, out of the blue. She rubbed her stomach.
“We should go eat then. You can pick what you like.” Eshe said.
“Okay. Kulfi?” Nnenia replied.
“Oh, that would hit the spot! Let’s get some.” Eshe said, smiling.
“Did someone say Kulfi? We found a nice cart for ’em!” interjected Corporal Kajari.
Adesh stared at them and exhaled, letting out the tension caught in his chest.
He felt relieved and decided to put his worries out of his mind.
They might be at each other’s throats again soon, but at least they could get over it.
At Parinita’s wicked suggestion, Madiha spent much of the night rampaging across the skill games set up across Ocean Road. She had defeated two tests of strength, solved a cube puzzle, shot up three shooting galleries, and scooped up a few fish. Parinita kept a giant drake plush from one of the stands, but the rest of the prizes she gave away to children.
Holding hands, they forgot to fear the bursting of fireworks in the sky or the potential presence of invisible men, too enthralled by the music and the laughter and the din of the crowd as thousands of people spoke among themselves. Parinita, however, lamented that they had to spend the night exclusively out on the street after the film.
“I wish we could have a nice dinner. But I couldn’t really swing a co-op seat reservation on the festival night. They have so little space, so it’s too expensive.” She said.
“I can pick up more kulfi or some puri for us if you want.” Madiha said.
“No, it’s not really about eating, but being in a place, together, you know?”
“We could go back to our building and eat them in one of our rooms.” Madiha said.
Parinita looked her over, feeling a mixture of delight and confusion. Had she barreled over this suggestion, not knowing how bold it was to ask? Or had she suggested because she had lusty motives in mind? Knowing Madiha it was obviously the former, but she liked to indulge the latter fantasy. She put on a coquettish smile for her partner, and acted flighty.
Clinging to her arm, she pulled on Madiha, urging her back.
“That sounds lovely. We can skip the food; let’s just go back home.” Parinita said.
Madiha blinked and stared, rubbing her lips with a fidgeting hand.
The hour was close to midnight. Around Ocean Road the floats began their journeys back to the workshops that designed them, and the storefronts began to clean up. One last round of fireworks, more concentrated and bright than ever before, briefly lit the sky. Aside from the real night owls in the bars and dance halls, the people celebrating the festival began to vanish under the moon that they had come out to revere that night. Crowds dispersed, and the noise died down, leaving only the silence and empty space of a cool evening.
Parinita and Madiha walked to their temporary home under growing shadows.
Through the building door they walked, holding hands and rubbing shoulders.
Madiha fumbled with her keys. When she opened her door, they found an aggravated little face waiting for them on the bed. Kali raised its head, blowing out a little smoke.
“We brought you a friend!” Parinita cheered.
She thrust the drake plush forward. Kali stared skeptically at the object.
The drake leaped down from the bed, approached, turned its rear on Parinita and slapped the plush to the floor with its tail. Kali proceeded to ignore the toy and stare at Madiha and her companion with no particular expression discernible on its reptilian face.
“Is it mad because you left it behind?” Parinita asked.
“It’s always mad at something or other.” Madiha said.
Kali turned its head from Parinita to Madiha and back, her eyes traveling up and down their clothing, across their faces, and settling on their hands, holding one another.
She huffed smoke into the air and bolted past them down the hallway, grumbling loudly.
Both women stared out the door for a moment, contemplating the little beast.
“I always wonder whether it’s antisocial or jealous.” Parinita said, watching it go.
“It would be just my luck to have a jilted lover for a pet.” Madiha groaned.
She shut the door behind them. Parinita went to sit by the side of the bed, while Madiha undid her tie, put her fedora on the hat rack, and wandered into the bathroom, looking at her face in the mirror. Parinita watched her. She was brimming with excitement, like electric discharges just under the skin, and it was hard to keep herself from standing up and throwing herself in the woman’s arms. She smothered her lusts with a growing curiosity as to what Madiha would decide to do now that they were both here together.
When Madiha returned from the bathroom, her face wore a bashful, gentle expression.
“Parinita, I think we ought to share what we both know.” She said.
Just like her to open with such a clumsy line. Parinita smiled.
“I was planning to tell you everything I know about yourself, and me, and all of this mystical mess tomorrow. Right now, I think we’re both too tired for all of that.”
Madiha nodded her head. “Tomorrow is fine then.”
“I owe you the truth.” Parinita said. “I want to tell you the truth. I long for it.”
Madiha averted her eyes a little, perhaps embarrassed by Parinita’s impassioned tone.
“I must confess, I’ve not much more to say.” She mumbled under her breath.
Just like her to get choked up in this situation. No matter.
Parinita was quite ready to be the bold one.
She stood, and she walked step by step until she stood face to face with Madiha.
“I love you.” She said. “Madiha, I want to be honest with you. I want my truth out. I’m tired of holding things back, and I am tired of feeling like I am crazy for the ways I have felt about you. I want this, even if it sounds foolish, even if it’s reckless!”
Without a word more she thrust toward Madiha and laid her lips on the taller woman’s own. Almost immediately and without additional prompting Madiha reciprocated the embrace, spreading her own lips and actively taking Parinita’s kiss into her own. Tongues threaded together, lips pressed and sucked lustily, as if fighting for control of the kiss; when they separated, a thin string of spittle connected their mouths.
“Do you love me?” Parinita asked, severing the thread.
She felt her heart pump faster as the words rolled off her tongue.
She felt a mix of adrenaline and fear as she made her feelings blunt.
Everything was rising to the surface. She wanted it to. She wanted out of the shadows.
Madiha seemed shaken by the demand.
“Parinita, I just, I–”
That was not what she wanted, but she was ready to accept it too.
“I– I want to.” Madiha stammered.
Parinita felt a cold fear creeping down her chest and into her gut. She fought it.
“What does that mean?” She asked gently.
Madiha averted her eyes. “I haven’t received affection in years.”
Those words hung painfully in the air.
“I don’t know whether my feelings are genuine or impulsive.” Madiha said.
Now Parinita felt something snap, and the desperation rising to her throat.
“What is genuine to you? We spent this whole night– I’m so confused!”
“I’m confused too– that’s the problem. I need to sort myself out.” Madiha said.
“I can wait. I just want you to know. I want you to be aware of me.”
“You deserve better.” Madiha finally said.
Her hands were trembling. She stared at the floor. Everything else had perhaps been vacillation. This felt closer to the truth. A real reason for Madiha’s stammering and avoidance.
Parinita almost couldn’t believe it. “Was it the movie? Listen, I’m sorry–”
Madiha pressed her. “No! Parinita, I’m not, I’m not normal. I’m afraid I might–”
“Are my kisses that repulsive?” Parinita said, averting her own eyes momentarily.
Her interjections were growing much less controlled and much more impassioned.
She hated the words she was saying but her heart was tearing in a dozen directions.
Madiha blinked hard and gasped. “Of course not! Parinita I adore–”
Parinita suddenly pulled her again into a kiss, hoping, praying, that it would draw her out.
Again they separated, breaking the translucent thread between their tongues.
She took Madiha’s hands into her own and felt her warmth, her pulse.
“You’re being so stupid! Who cares what I deserve? I want you, Madiha!” She said.
Madiha raised a hand to her forehead, pressing over her eyes.
“I am being stupid. I’m sorry. It’s just–I’m so afraid I’ll ruin everything again. Tonight was so incredible. I felt so happy; you were happy too. But I don’t know– I don’t know!”
Parinita knew that Madiha was haunted by so many things. She had seen it before, she had experienced it. But each time she had tackled it not by abandoning Madiha or giving up by pressing on. Despite the helplessness she felt, she pressed on. Her words started to sound accusatory, and it was the last thing that she wanted to sound like.
But she could not let this go. Her heart was flooding out of her mouth for better or worse.
“I thought you said you were better after Bada Aso, but here you go again Madiha, throwing everything onto yourself. It’s unfair! Let me share some of that burden for once! Let me hurt too! Let me take the world off those shoulders already! Let me feel like I mean something to you! No matter what form those feelings take, I’ll accept them. I don’t want to be alone, in the way that I know I’ll be alone if we part ways here! So please, Madiha, if you’re afraid, then be afraid with me, instead of fearing alone!”
Parinita’s voice rose to a shout, just a drawing of breath away from Madiha’s lips.
Those breaths rose and fell between them, belabored, silent, painfully so.
Madiha raised her eyes from the floor to meet Parinita’s again.
“Parinita, the reason I’m afraid is– it’s because–”
Those sad eyes that Parinita had been so stricken by, before she knew anything concrete about Madiha, before she knew the self-sacrificing kindness, the anxious, almost self-loathing vacillation that tormented her mind, perhaps every moment of her existence. Before she fell in love with anything she knew she had fallen in love with those eyes, those eyes that knew pain and that silently promised to try to spare the world any more pain.
Eyes that would give anything for a kindred soul; Parinita wanted to drown in them.
She was stricken again by those tragic eyes, drawn into Madiha’s voice by her gaze.
“Deep down in my heart, I know want to mean something to you too, Parinita. No matter how anxious I get, no matter how confused. I can stifle those feelings, I can try to hide them, I can fear them. But they are real. A very real part of me wants you so much, Parinita. And this is not something I’ve ever experienced before. It’s just– so new.”
Madiha’s voice was trembling. Parinita thought she would weep from the sentiment.
Warmth again washed over the cold in her breast. She felt a great, purifying relief.
“You spend so much effort to say such simple things! Here: I love you, Madiha!”
“I’m sorry.” Madiha said. “I’m sorry. I love you. I know I do. I can’t deny it.”
Parinita smiled. She ran a mischievous finger down Madiha’s lip, quieting her.
“Please. One more time, with my name, and without the cruft.”
She lifted her finger.
Madiha slowly smiled back, her face reddening. “Parinita, I love you.”
Their hands entwined, fingers interlocking, squeezing. Their gazes locked together.
As if drawn in by gravity, they hovered slowly closer.
Gently, Madiha dipped her head forward, leaning into a kiss.
Parinita drove forward, kissing Madiha with such force that she pushed her to the wall.
Madiha’s hands traveled down to Parinita’s hips. Her own caught on Madiha’s belt.
They separated briefly enough to exchange heavy, breathy words.
“Are you scared?” Parinita asked.
“I am scared for us, but I can overcome it.” Madiha replied.
“Don’t be scared for me. I– I want to hold you, Madiha. Do you want me to?”
Madiha struggled for breath amid the passion of the moment. “I want to.”
“Don’t be scared for me.” Parinita said again. “I’m stronger than you think.”
Without response, Madiha eased into another kiss, her eyes closed, her hands seeking.
Parinita reciprocated the attention immediately and naturally, as if an instinct.
Fingers flicked opened buttons, zippers, clasps; cloth slid off shoulders and backs.
Hands sought warmth, moisture, softness; between legs, over buttocks, across breasts.
Smothering their fear with shared heat, Madiha and Parinita fell together into bed.