CHAPTER THREE: JOURNEY FORWARD
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Morning sunlight, smell of fresh tea, clinking of teaspoon in porcelain cup. The harbingers of a bright new day.

They awakened me from my dreamless slumber. To my surprise, I discovered that I was lying on my back on the floor where I sat last night. There was a soft cushion under my head which I could swear was not there when I had fallen asleep on the rug.

Must be Bill who put it there!

The smell and sound floating from the kitchen told me that he was preparing breakfast there. I flipped and lay on my stomach.

All around the hall the windows were thrown open, allowing the early rays of the sun to hop inside. They filtered through the  plants crowding the window sills and wore a greenish hue. The kitchen at the other end of the dining hall was open before my eyes. Bill went around it, putting bread into the toaster, staining tea, stirring sugar in it…

I couldn't help but stare at him. He was wearing only his blue denim shorts. Muscles rippled beneath his sun kissed skin as he went about his work. For a few seconds I couldn't take my eyes off him.

Then he put two tea cups on a small tray and walked towards the place where I lay.

I sat up immediately. Inside, I felt a small pang of guilt. I had always been a late riser and Bill had been the exact opposite of me. Most of the days he would be already gone for work when I woke up and I would prepare and eat my breakfast alone.

But today he seemed to know that I would be waking up early.

Perhaps it was my sleeping awkwardly on the floor that prompted him to think so.

He came near me and set the tray on the floor. Then he sat down by it.

I felt his keen gaze upon me.

"How are you now?"

"I'm fine, thank you."

I stifled a yawn and took a cup.

"Thank you, Bill! It smells nice."

The tea I made never smelt that good.

Bill smiled.

"And thank you for this, too."

With my free hand I dragged the cushion into my lap and pressed my elbows on it while sipping the tea.

"Go sleep in your room if you're still drowsy," he said.

"Umm...maybe later. Tell me, was Inna angry with me for sneaking out last night?"

"A little bit, at first. Then I told her that you felt unwell."

I stole a glance at Bill. I rarely saw him in such a casual mood and dress. He looked strong and carefree and yet, innocent.

Looking at him I tried to remember the first time I ever saw him. Inna's parents had been separated shortly after her birth. While she lived with their mother, her elder brother stayed with their father and hardly ever came to see his mother and sister. I vaguely remembered seeing him only once while I was spending vacation at Inna's place.

A young boy with a dazzling look but rather sharp and intimidating gaze. I didn't remember if I had ever spoken to him.

Silent and aloof. Those were the best words to describe him.

"When did you become close with your brother?" I had asked Inna when she arranged for me to stay at Bill's place.

"Somehow after our parents passed away, we came closer," she had said. "But mostly it was during the time I had met with the accident that he came forward to look after me. He's quite the responsible big bro." She had said, smiling.

Yes, I could easily imagine him as the responsible head of the family.

We finished the tea silently and I flopped down on the couch. I still felt groggy with sleep.

The morning was well past 9 o'clock when I woke up again. The curtains were drawn and the room felt cool in their shade. Bill had probably left long ago.

'You need to call Inna first.' I reminded myself.

But before I could call her, she called me herself.

"Nell! How are you now?"

There was genuine concern in her voice which made me feel relieved.

"I'm fine, don't worry. I'll be coming to meet you and have lunch together. Where are you now?"

"Just where I'm, usually."

Of course, she would be at her club, playing golf or chilling in the swimming pool.

"Right! I'll be there by one o'clock."

**************************

When I reached there, I was surprised to find Inna not in the pool, but sitting by its side, with a glass in her hand.

I drew a chair and sat in front of her.

"Since when are you boozing before lunch?"

She only laughed.

I looked at her closely. Her porcelain skin looked dull. The dark circles beneath her eyes pronounced how tired she was.

I felt worried. After my mother was gone, she was the only person left who cared deeply about me. We had been friends since childhood and had always trusted each other. Even the few years when we had no contact with each other, couldn't affect our mutual trust.

"Did anything happen?"

She looked straight into my eyes.

"You saw Elle. Tell me, how did she look to you?

I felt guarded and uneasy. I didn't know much about Elle. I had only met her a couple of times before yesterday.

Inna had been living together with her for the last two years. My friend was always into girls and she never tried to hide this fact. No, she had never shown any interest in me outside simple friendship. In that long buried past when she and Nelly used to spend vacations together she would always say that Nelly gave her too much of a sisterly vibe. Looking back, that was exactly the feeling I cherished about her, too.

"She looked quite happy and cheerful. Why?"

Inna lowered her eyes and played with the glass in her hand.

"She is carrying. It's been four months already."

I remembered Elle's plump figure and glowing face. So this was the reason behind that! But I refrained from saying anything.

Better to let Inna finish what she wanted to say.

"You know, we had been happy together all this time. Then she wanted a child. Not an adopted one. Her own flesh and blood. But I could never give her one."

She was silent for a moment, then began again:

"She went for artificial insemination and it was successful. She is so happy now!"

Inna stopped and stared vacantly. I felt a chill creeping inside me.

So, that's why she was so depressed!

"She's your partner and it's your child, too. Cheer up, mate!"

Inna laughed bitterly.

"Nell, don't think that I'm jealous. She talked to me and took my consent before going for it. If she is happy, I'm happy, too."

She paused and then heaved a sigh.

"But I can't deny the fact that I'm sad. Sad, 'cuz she couldn't be happy with just the two of us."

I leaned towards her and put both my hands on her shoulders.

"Inna, my friend, this is quite normal. Didn't you say that you'd do everything for Elle's happiness? Let the child arrive and you'll see how much fun it is to raise a kid together."

She smiled but the smile didn't touch her eyes.

"Alright! Enough of my blabbering. Let's find something to eat."

So we ate our lunch together and talked about the party last night. Inna made me laugh by imitating the drunken voices of our friends and the afternoon passed peacefully.

Still, I was worried about Inna. Was she actually feeling insecure about Elle's love? That was probably the case. I didn't see anything wrong with Elle's desire to raise a family with her. That seemed to reveal her love and commitment more.

Probably, Inna would have no problem if it was an adopted child. But Elle's decision to have her own child made her feel rather insecure.

Inna was perhaps, afraid of losing her importance in Elle's life.

I didn't have any show today. So I went about riding aimlessly through the back streets. Deep inside my heart I had a faint desire to go and find the girl from yesterday and talk to her. At first I discarded the idea, but as the evening progressed into night I got more and more restless.

Should I really go and try to find her? What, if she felt offended? What, if she behaved coldly or friendzoned me? All these questions swirled inside my head and made me more and more restless.

I decided to go and try to see her, at least for one more time.

It was already past 9 pm when I arrived at the bus stop where I had met her yesterday. The little shop was open today. A few people waited at the bus stop. But she was not among them. I stopped at the shop and, as I sipped the sweet liquid I kept an eye on the people coming to the bus stop. More than twenty minutes passed. Still, she didn't come.

'Perhaps she has taken a day off?'

I started the bike and rode slowly. My mind was in a turmoil and I couldn't concentrate on the road before me.

What, if she never came again?

I didn't want to think about it, but it took every bit of my strength to steer my mind away from the bleak sadness that slowly crept upon it.

The road took a turn towards the left. There was the shade of a bus stop at this turn and she was standing there. The wind rustled through her hair and blew into my face. It smelled of incoming storm.

I stopped in front of her and took my helmet off. She looked into my eyes and I held her gaze.

In those long moments every feature of her face slowly etched into my soul. My heart writhed under its impact, but I couldn't feel any pain. I was numbed.

An eon passed. Then she stretched her hand. Mechanically, I unlocked the spare helmet and gave it to her. She clamped it on her head and climbed behind me. I felt her left hand going round my waist while her right hand came over my shoulder and her palm rested against my chest. She had secured me in her embrace and,even through the layers of our clothes her warmth sipped into my bare flesh.

I put my helmet on and started the bike. The engine revved and became one with my throbbing heart. She leaned on my back and melted into me. In that moment I felt as if a hole inside my chest had at last filled up.

I put aside all thoughts and concentrated on the road in front of me.

It didn't take me long to reach the mouth of the lane where I had dropped her last night. After I made the motorbike stand, she got down swiftly and took off the helmet. I got down, too and took off my own helmet. I couldn't just let her say goodbye from here.

"Hello, I'm Nell D'Souza. If you don't mind, may I know your name, please?"

I knew I sounded rather stiff and awkward, but that was all I could manage to say.

The girl laughed.

"My friends call me Misha. You can do the same."

So she didn't want to disclose her identity! But then, I couldn't blame her for that. I was a total stranger for her.

Wait! She didn't mind riding with me today when there was apparently no threat? Did that mean that she had started liking me in some way?

She looked mischievous.

"Please don't take it otherwise. I usually refer to myself by my name only, and it's not that I don't know you. You come to that confectionery shop regularly, isn't it? A friend had long ago recognised you."

Now it was my turn to be taken aback.

"Recognized me? How?"

"Well, didn't you happen to have helped in rescuing a group of tourists in the North-East last year?"

How could I have forgotten that incident! It was a group of seven tourists who got trapped on the mountainous road after a sudden landfall. They were separated from their group and could not communicate with anyone. I was there on an adventure trip with two other bikers. We were prepared to hold off until the road was cleared and help arrived, but it would have been impossible for those tourists to sustain themselves. So I took the risk of going down to the army camp through an off-road route and inform the rescuers about their location. The army sent sleeping  bags and provision in a helicopter and that kept them alive for the next four days till the road was cleared.

Now that Misha mentioned about it I was quite surprised.

"How did your friend know about it?"

"Her uncle was in that group. So they had enough reason to be grateful to you." She chuckled. "My friend even showed your blog and pointed out your photographs there. So you can see, I know you already."

She paused and added mischievously, "Though I must say that you didn't look much cute in them!"

I wanted to hide my face in my helmet. I was sure that I blushed instantly and I didn't want to hear another teasing comment from her. So, this was the reason why she trusted me so easily!

"Thank you for all the compliments!"

She smiled and looked downward.

"I'm not taking bus from that stop anymore. I waited at the next stop to tell you that."

I felt a sudden rush of blood to my temples as I heard her words.

"Did you know that I'll be coming to look for you?"

She didn't look up, but nodded in approval.

I felt a huge grin stretching across my face. Quite embarrassing! But for once, I seemed to have no control over my facial muscles.

"Can I have your number please?" I asked, trying hard to erase the idiotic grin from my face.

She blurted out the ten-digit number and I saved it in my cell phone. Then she turned abruptly and walked away hurriedly.

"I'll call you!" I shouted from behind.

She didn't look back and disappeared inside the narrow lane.

For a few seconds I stood there, looking at the now empty space where she had stood, then I started my motorbike and swung it around.

All I had to do now was to hold her tight, no matter what.

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