“I can see them, they are everywhere!”
Shunya would always say this, whenever he wanted to assert himself in-front of others. Was it effective? I highly doubt it. But it was because of such out-of-place anecdotes that the other students would not take him seriously. It would be a perfect conversation going in-between and suddenly, he would pop something in the lines of –
“Look there, she stares. She wants to kiss you."
We would all turn our heads only to see him pointing towards the cafeteria lady, or any passerby woman, man, sometimes it would be the strays that populated our Uni campus. One may assume that he is doing this just to create distances, maybe he is someone who feel attacked with any form of social interaction, maybe due to some past trauma he is scared to feel the warmth that people may give once you talk to them.
“I see them Sai, you guys don’t. So, I have to protect you from them.”
“Yeah, sure you are. Protecting us from yokai and asuras and what-not.” I replied as politely as I can without disrespecting his opinions. Did he realize the sarcastic tone there? I highly doubt it.
He wasn’t always like this. I feel as I opened more to him as a friend, he gradually thought he could spread his wings of weirdness, thinking he has found someone he can be himself with. The initial days of Uni were very much as golden as they can be, discovering new stuff in the campus, thinking seniors will help you in every corner of this 4-year journey only to realize no fucks were given by them. And then my roommate had to change his rooms which is how I met Shunya. His roommate and my roommate were school friends, so they had to come together here too, which is why they moved beds across hall.
Our university is located far off from the city air, and it would take an hour to travel there if we wished to. One would assume that gives us the almost perfect surrounding - clean from pollution, ideal to study and sports. The state where the Uni is situated, is present above the equator line on the map and thus the winters were foggy as hell and in the summers, you would feel cold sweat running down the neck instantly if you stepped outside. And it was also covered with farmlands on all sides. As such when the farmers who burn their residual crops to get that sweet ash for the next phase of crops line-up, for 2 days the sky would turn brown, the sun nowhere to be seen, it almost felt like we are in some dystopian future akin to Blade Runner. These beautiful, bizarre days always invite the candid photographers to take their skills in natural light photography and Instagram would be flooded with the Uni tagged in every one of them.
Today was just as dry as the one before it.
“Its smog isn’t it, that’s why the sky is like that today. The farmers are burning their crops, you can smell the ash in the air.”
“Yes Shunya, it is smog, but you have to agree to the aesthetics it gives out. How many days has it been since you uploaded some pictures of yours? Here pose for me now, be candid.”
“Is this, okay?”
“you’ve gotta be shitting me? Look who’s going for the kiss!”
“Reem and Abdul! Aren’t they right under the building CCTV cam?”
“Yeah. Yeah, they are.
“My arms are going numb Sai. Click fast or they will be sore for the next class.”
“I asked you to be candid. We are literally in a balcony overlooking steps and sky in the back. And all you come up with is that dumb ‘you are correct’ pose from those quiz shows you watch.”
“It isn’t stupid if you like them. Now click fast, my arms are sore now.”
“Yeah, one is enough I guess, you can get your arms down now.”
“This is cool, I’m going to post it right away.”, Shunya said sounding ecstatic.
Rest of the day nothing of interest happened. I did my classes, paced from one floor to another to reach the classes in time and when the clock struck 5, walked back to the hostel. Hostel mess food wasn’t great but at days when money would be a barren commodity it helped.
I had gotten my monthly allowance today, so I decided to treat myself to some calorie heaps of pasta, thick shake, pulav with shahi paneer. Ah! The heartburn I will feel on my veins. Delightful. I waited for the night to fall.
As evening faded out, I got into my jumpers ready to go out. Of course, I brought Shunya with me out. If not for me dragging him out from time to time, he wouldn’t leave the room ever. Always held up in front of the laptop screen, watching content endlessly.
“So, it’s time for my evening walk.”
“Yes, and I’m not carrying your food back. You buy your own and bring it yourself.”
“Don’t be such a nag Sai, no girl likes naggy boyfriend.”
“Asking you to bring your own food is not a nag. You need to get out of the room more and walking to classes don’t count.”
“Yeah, alright uncle, I’ll go with you.”
“Really, you say I’m naggy while you whip that tone on me. I thought I raised you better son.”
“Yeah, you stop with that dad tone Sai, see I’m getting in my shorts. Start walking now.”
The food court wasn’t far from the hostel. A short walk filled with clean air around, it couldn’t get any better. Meanwhile Shunya is deep ingrained in his phone.
“You know a study says that if you have that hunched posture for long, it’ll affect your spine. Maybe a permanent one even.” I said trying to break him away from his screen time addiction.
Shunya just nodded, a little smile around the corner of his cheek, “There are already many things that take over my attention day to day. Apart from classes, ---(pause) the things I see, only when I am uber focused on something I can ignore them long enough to feel a sense of normalcy. A constant in the sea of weirdness. I don’t know if they are djinns, or asuras, or yokai or some spirits of nature, all I know is that I’ve lived long enough fearing these things, affecting my day-to-day life. Its just – AH! Sai you wouldn’t understand. You don’t see things like I do. My lens is very much different to other people, and I have just learned to live with it.”
“Shunya, you should know that I’m always beside you, quite literally if we go with our room situation. And if you feel something is weighing you down, I am ready to listen to whatever you want to throw at me.”
“That means a lot coming from you, Sai. Also, there’s that queue for the pasta shop, so forget getting your calorie cake today.”
“College has taught me that patience is a virtue if not anything else, so either I’m stuffing myself to neck today or, well we can always get fried rice bowls.”
I marched towards the pasta shop to get my calorie splurge as I motioned Shunya to wait nearby. I know food is essential but so is the limit to how much you want it from one store only. There are now people reaching out for the food while sitting on the shoulders of another. A literal mess. If one even dawdles, the plates, covered only by an aluminum sheet, it will fall over multiple standbys. Food over people, one might wonder if anyone will try to eat some of it which has graced their bodies, to pass out the waiting time for their turn to get the food. What if the food is hot and the heat and sweat makes it even worse, a literal burning sensation on the head perhaps? I chucked as I proceeded to haggle my way in.
It took me 20 mins to get the food in my hands. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of Shunya snugging his eyes in his phone while I was tip-toeing my arm out just to get my order fast over others beneath me. As soon as I got the food in my hands I moved as fast as I can out of the insane queue from hell. Even my shorts were soaking with sweat. It was not a pleasant feeling.
I walked near to where I have seen Shunya previously, but he was not there. Was I surprised? Not in the slightest. Shunya is a fickle being who can’t anchor himself to one place at a time. He would walk and walk while glued to his phone screen and only realize that he has reached the exit gates of the university when the guard would shake him out of his trance. So, I do what any rational being would do. I called him. He did not pick up. More specifically he rejected my calls. No this is something new from him. I tried again and he rejected the call. I tried again and he did the same. He does the same the same thing as many times I am trying to call him, at least 20 times now. Worried I went to people nearby, to ask if they have seen him.
“Hey, did you see any student around 5’10 who was standing here 5 mins ago, glued to his phone screen. He is wearing a white shirt that says, ‘AL – I – ENS who? My alliance is with humans’.”
“Oh yeah I did see him, he just out of nowhere exclaimed, ‘why here?’ and went to the back of the shops.”
That explains. Must be another of his “spirit fingers” tingling, his personal spider sense as he calls it.
I walk around the back of the shops, and he still is nowhere to be seen. All I see are very sweaty people trying to cook some good meals while ventilating the hot air around with a small fan attached to wall of shops near them. The back part does connect to the tennis court, so I thought he might’ve wandered over there. The tennis court is an interesting place in the Uni. People hardly come to play tennis here, but at nighttime it becomes a veritable haven for couples around. Imagining him going there is equally plausible and impossible at the same time. So, I marched towards the tennis court, both arms full, carrying 5 bags of food, just avoiding enough people so I don’t jerk the food more by hitting it over someone’s legs, or even mine.
My wrists were slowly starting to cramp up.
I see Shunya standing at one corner, seemingly talking with someone but I couldn’t make out anything as the lights were turned off at the court, for obvious reasons. I chart my way out towards him and tapped on his shoulder.
The light is turned on now.
I look around to see no one, not a single soul except us three here, the lights falling with this bluish hue, like a spot.
Despite the light falling, the person standing was still unclear. He is in a trench coat and a hat to top it off, in the middle of July. Why was he not sweating? A cold chill ran down my back, goosebumps pumping up as soon as I this thought crossed me.
He smiled while he looked at me. Did he know what I was thinking and somehow was able to switch this weather up. What is this place? A different dimension? Pocket dimension? Parallel world where everyone has vanished from the Uni but us and we have unrestricted access to every block, every hostel, every food stall at the campus? The questions were not leaving me and him being here puzzled me more.
“?yhW .ereh dnats uoy tey dna ereh ecalp on sah reveileb-non A .uoy ot nepo t’nod noivilbo ot setag eht uoy os meht ees t’nod uoY.iaS ereh eb ot desoppus ton era uoY”, Shunya said, sounding inquisitive.
“Well first you don’t sound intelligible, and this is bonkers wherever the hell we are at. Secondly, my arms are numbing now so mind easing the pain on me now. Third, who are you mister and where have up dragged me to?”
“.ereh sdne klat ruo, kcab og dna tep noffub ruoy ekat, aynuhS kcab oG . tsael eht yas ot nemiceps gnitseretni na, su raen sruoy fo eugnot taht niater llits uoy oS”
Shunya grabbed my hand and motioned with his thumb to walk out with him. The man walked back to rear of the light pole, slowly fading in the back. His smile still dominant over his face as if he knew everything I was thinking. Shunya pulled me back and as I turned, everything felt still. A moment drawn longer than it should be.
The spot faded to blackout.
I could hear the murmur of daily lives of Uni couples as I opened my eyes. I was back to where I was moments ago. Shunya grabbed a couple of food bags from me, and we both started walking back to our hostel.