There was an uneasiness in the air, I just couldn’t breathe in that lobby. I ran down the giant wooden staircase of Sobha Garrisson International and through the dining area even as my eyes rolled towards the guests seated at the tables. As I headed towards the corridor leading to the main door of the restaurant, hoping no one would observe my unusual presence in the city – a city I was returning to after almost a decade; my subconscious mind had already processed the faces of two of the three ladies sitting at the first table placed next to the grand wooden staircase. I was sure I knew those faces and that they had something to do with the uneasiness. An uneasiness caused by a certain rumour whose truthness I had set out to unearth, wanting somewhere deep in my heart and in my subconscious mind that the rumour would turn false.

I knew if I had to discover the truth then this was the moment. Two of those three ladies would know the truth about her – about Adithi. They were her closest friends, after all. The trio – Adithi, Namitha and Raksha – had spent their school as well as college lives together.

The restaurant was full of life like it usually is on any other weekend. ‘The crowd will cover me up” I thought even as I stopped walking, took a step back and turned a half circle on my right foot. My eyes caught Raksha’s, who had probably noticed me rushing down the stairs.

The events of yesterday flashed in front of my eyes. It was only yesterday that I had come to Mangalore, back to the old rented duplex on the first floor that we used to live in fifteen years ago. My brother Vishal and my sister-in-law Manasi were unpacking one of the boxes when they found a large but empty 12×18 photo frame made out of wood. I picked an old book, whose pages were interlaced with photos, from the same box. Most photos in that album featured candid shots of my niece Anu when she was a small child. Manasi pulled out a beautiful photo of Anu from the book and asked me to put it in the wooden frame she was holding in her left hand. I snatched the frame and shouted “This frame is not meant for your daughter, however special she may be to me. This is meant for someone else, someone very special to me, someone…” I had stopped there because my eyes were now filled with tears which didn’t like to roll down, my lips were shaking even as I uttered those words. I ran up the duplex’s staircase and locked myself up in the dark room on the second floor. Only I knew how much I loved her.

So when Raksha stood up from her seat and started walking towards me, slowly, one small indecisive step at a time, her eyes fixated on me, I tried to steal my eyes off hers and turned around to rush towards the main door. “Talking to her would be the last thing I want now” I said to myself knowing that Raksha and her friend Namitha always hated my presence in Adithi’s life.

“He’s not a nice guy, Adithi!”, “He’s a flirt”, “I have seen him smoking at that Xerox shop. He has changed now, he isn’t the same guy you met in school.” they’d try convincing Adithi, advising her to stay away from me, but Adithi wasn’t the person who’d listen to others in matters such as these. She’d stick to me, just like she always had. She took my side even when I was wrong only to put me back on the right track. She’d never question my decisions knowing that I’ll eventually learn things myself. Yet, she did wonder how I’ll lead my life as a bachelor.

On one evening, after driving around Bangalore in my car, we had parked a couple blocks away from her house. Throughout the day, I had shared with her what I had been through all these years – how and why I left one girl for another who eventually ditched me. “I’d want to stay like this, alone, forever!” I had told her. She had expressed her concerns while trying to hide a few tears within her eyelashes. I knew she was disappointed with my ways to dealing with people. She was hiding that disappointment in the tears that she held back while telling me how worried she was about me and how she’d always support me and wish for my happiness. I wanted to hug her that day, but didn’t. As far as my memory goes, I realized, I never hugged her ever in the 20 odd years I had known her. And now I felt I shouldn’t have resisted that day. That was the moment to thank her for standing by me in all those hard times. I’ll never be able to hug her, ever!

A hand touched my shoulder and I turned back, this time a full circle, to find Raksha standing behind me. I expected a slap on my face or at least an unwelcome word from her mouth, but she didn’t seem to have any hatred left towards me anymore, at least not at that moment. There was remorse, sadness in the air around her. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she uttered only a few words in a low, strained and pained voice “Why did all this happen?”

I knew at that moment that my faith in the falsity of the rumour had failed. I knew Adithi was no more. An ache in my heart broke the barriers of my eyelids which had contained those tears for over a day now. I didn’t want to cry. Adithi’d never want to see me like that. I couldn’t help though. Tears wouldn’t listen to me. My throat went dry and I couldn’t utter a single complete syllable in return. I wanted to tell Raksha how sorry I felt, but the look in her eyes revealed that she knew how much I loved Adithi.

My tears hadn’t found a way to reach the dry grass beneath my feet that I saw two other faces popping from Raksha’s cover. Namitha was looking at me with a strange disbelief. It was evident in her face, that had turned red, that she didn’t like the sight of me. The third lady, whose name I don’t know, started bad mouthing me even before I could regain my senses that I had lost because of the pain. She pushed me by my shoulder and shouted “You ba$tard! You didn’t deserve Adithi’s friendship. She was such a fool to have trus…” I slapped her before she could finish. “Shut your filthy mouth, you bitch!” I said. “Don’t utter a single word, not against me and especially nothing on Adithi. She meant the world to me. What if we were opposites? I may not be the perfect man, but she didn’t expect me to be that. I regret to this day I didn’t give her a single hug. I didn’t hug my sister. She was my mother, my sister. She was like my baby.”

I collapsed on the ground crying wishing Adithi was alive. The crying was making the air around me even more suffocating. I was going out of breath and felt a great deal of pain in my arms and legs. 

“Adithi can’t be dead. She’s there somewhere, alive.” said a voice in my head. “This can’t be real, wake up, There’s something wrong here. That girl, the girl who just abused you, she is younger by five years, and she works in your company. How can she know about Adithi and you? And this place is unreal. It’s way too big a hotel. Moreover, Sobha Garrisson is an apartment complex in Bangalore and not a hotel. This is a dream. Wake up. WAKE UP NOW!!!!”

It was 7.45 am on my wristwatch. The windows were closed the whole night and the room had become stuffy. I realized why I felt suffocated in my dream. The pain though, felt real. It just didn’t die, my heart ached. I had to know if Adithi’s doing fine, so I texted her.

“I and doing good. How are you?” She replied.