Teens & Young Adult

Maya hadn’t shown up today.

It wouldn’t be the first time. The teacher, impatient and indignant in the beginning, had now resigned himself to a reluctant acceptance of Maya’s no-shows for the nature walks that formed an integral part of the ‘Citizen scientist: a bird’s-eye view into the whorls of science.’

Mr. Tate wasn’t old, reflected Rhea, but he certainly belonged to that category of adults who were disbelieving of young teens who, when privileged to come into contact with themselves, should ever dream of not availing themselves fully of the vast fountains of knowledge that could be bestowed on them by said wise adults.

Rhea immediately chastised herself. Mr. Tate wasn’t that bad; it was just annoying that he seemed to consider Rhea to be some kind of handler for Maya, and held her responsible for her frequent absences. Even now, Rhea was forced to pretend deep interest in the printed booklet that they’d be given in their first session, choosing not to notice the resentful looks Mr. Tate kept shooting in her direction.

She felt a certain dreaded dullness creep up on her, a sudden shift in her mood that seemed to reflect the impending threat of rain in the air. She tried to snap herself out of it, but it was no use.

She and her mother had only moved back into their hometown a couple of months back, and it was taking all their pretended effort to navigate the inevitable emptiness that followed a nasty fall-out. They tried to be there for each other, but what was the use, when they had nothing with which they could fill all that empty time?

Was it awful that they both still missed Dad, despite him running away?

Rhea was jerked back from her miserable vein of thought when the crowd of fellow students around her stirred, signalling that the attendance-call was done, and they were now on the move. There was a disgruntled air about them, their flagging interest- ‘for the riotous birds, the poetry in motion of the butterflies and other insects, their unbelievable patterns- had they ever seen anything like them?!’- was entirely due to the banal interjections of their instructor, who just didn’t have the gift of the gab. He certainly knew how to make fascinating things like tramping through a lush forest duller than the cloudy, lackluster skies above them, which, unfortunately, only seemed to buoy up Mr. Tate’s spirits.

Rhea couldn’t blame Maya for not turning up. With some envy, she wished that she herself could be less of a stickler for the rules. She decided to go see Maya when they were done here; in the meantime, she needed to force her attention back to the class. Boring as it was, it would take her mind away from its useless memories.

Rhea stared at the dripping wax in bewilderment.

‘It’s batik,’ Maya informed her happily, dragging a basin behind her that was filled with some liquid that made Rhea’s eyes water. She drew up her sweater to cover her nose, and spoke in a muffled voice, ‘What on earth is that, and when did you get all this stuff?’

‘It’s a bit strong, isn’t it?’ Maya said, pulling a cellophane over the basin, and carefully pushing it to the middle of the table. Rhea cautiously lowered her makeshift muffler, and slowly inhaled. The stench was still strong, but she could talk around it. ‘Seriously, where did you find all this?’ she asked, lowering herself gingerly on a wooden chair that was one of Maya’s proud achievements from her brief fling with carpentry. It was one of two effects that survived the passage of time. The other, an arm-chair, was Maya’s mother’s favourite chair back at the house.

Rhea loved Mrs. Jess, and wondered what she made of Maya’s new hobby. The clothes and the wax must be her offerings on the proverbial alter of Maya’s never-ending carousel of rapidly evolving hobbies. For that was the strangest thing about Maya’s hobbies: they kept spiralling back to some version of a previous foray into creation and design.

Maya didn’t reply, too intent on trying to evenly spread the wax onto the cloth with many huffs of frustration. Apparently, it was not as easy as it looked.

‘You know, Mr. Jacob is going to take the rest of the citizen science classes,’ Rhea informed Maya after a while, watching idly as the handkerchief smothered in cooling wax sagged dispiritedly onto a steel plate, which was presumably going to be lowered into the dye later.

Maya’s eyes lit up. ‘No, really? I should join the next class then!’

‘You’re the worst,’ Rhea dead-panned. Maya was now tidying up, carefully scraping at the wax blobs on the table, wary of the splinters. She merely grinned at Rhea, before she suddenly started as she remembered something.

‘Hold on, I almost forgot!’ Maya exclaimed, rushing to her gigantic yellow cabinet of random creations, where one might find pretty much anything from a lovely 3D-printed intricate little ship, to a hideous bobble-head, whose head was indistinguishable from an onion. The paint-job on that had sent Kona, Maya’s beloved dog, scarpering down the garden, yelping for all he was worth.

The sounds of Maya rooting through her cabinet very much resembled her pet’s frequent quests into ratting, and Rhea turned to watch in some amusement. She felt a lightening in her chest, and realized that she’d been more depressed than she knew.

She wondered what her mother was up to. That didn’t take much guesswork— she’d be hunting for remote jobs. Rhea knew that she should’ve headed straight home; but somehow, today, she just wanted to feel something other than the echo of her own sadness resounding off every wall in her home.

Maya came out of her cabinet, waving something that resembled a store-bought box.

‘What-?’ Rhea exclaimed, as Maya held the gift-wrapped box out to her. She looked at it, and up at Maya in blank enquiry. ‘What’s with the gift? What is today?’

Maya shook her head. ‘It’s just something that reminded me of you- and your Mum- and I wanted you- uh- both, to enjoy.’

Flustered, and realizing with horror that she was very near a sudden bout of tears, Rhea tried to thank her. But Maya, in her strangely perceptive way, merely shook her head and hugged her fiercely, before turning around and striding back to the cabinet, leaving Rhea to wipe at her eyes in embarrassed and thankful solitude.

It was with a lighter heart that she sank back down into her chair. She’d needed the catharsis that only an irrational burst of overwrought tears could provide.

Maybe she needed therapy.

It was just that it felt so good to sit across from one of the constants of her life. Maya’s friendships were as unlike as possible from her attachments to the many hobbies that she went through despairingly, trying to find one that would stick.

‘Remember when we used to be crazy about DIYs and Lego blocks?’ Maya asked, indicating with her hands that Rhea should cover up her face again. Rhea obligingly muffled her nose, watching interestedly as Maya uncovered the basin and gingerly lowered the plate, with the waxed handkerchief on it, into the dye. At least now, Rhea could blame the dye vapors for her watery eyes.

Rhea smiled. ‘We were insufferable, weren’t we? Thought we were so much better than other kids for having “unique hobbies”. Wasn’t it a shock when we realized, on Teacher’s day, that pretty much everyone had made a DIY for their teacher?’

Maya grimaced at the memory and Rhea laughed. They’d spent hours making things, building anything from spacecrafts to small cars, enthusiastically helped by Rhea’s mother, who had once been an architect herself, and encouraged the little girls’ interests with all her time.

‘Mom used to enjoy building things till recently,’ continued Rhea, sighing heavily. ‘She helps my cousin out all the time with his art proje— what are you doing now?’ she broke off, staring as Maya pulled up a chair and proceeded to pour what looked like flour into a bowl, following it up with what smelt like white glue. She then began to mix it up by hand, kneading vigorously.

‘It’s for artificial flowers- something to brighten up this place.’

Rhea bit back a smile. To this day, Maya hated any reference to her lack of gardening skills. It was some kind of impressive, really, that she’d somehow managed to destroy three patches of tomatoes, a row of cabbages, and another of pumpkins. Her mother had patiently pointed out that it was downright cruel, to all things living, to continue with this rampant experimentation into wholesale destruction. Maya had given in reluctantly, after being promised that she could help grow some flowers, “later in the year”. Surprisingly, it was the one hobby that she never completely gave up on. Rhea strongly suspected that it was the challenge that kept up Maya’s continued interest.

It was strange, she mused, how differently they functioned. Rhea clung to her childhood pursuits, and Maya tumbled in and out of them as fast as she could. She remembered her gift then, and wondered what Maya had bought for her- and her Mom. Lazily going back through their conversation, a sudden thought brought her up with a start. Maya hadn’t—?

‘Alrighty then, I’m done for now,’ Maya announced, pulling the glue-and-flour sticky mess off her fingers, clearly enjoying that odd sense of satisfaction that comes from peeling glue. Rhea was still dazed from a dawning realization of what was her gift, and she was conscious of a sudden burning desire to be back home and show her Mom, now. She looked up at the digital clock (made by Maya, who hadn’t had the patience to finish her work and reckoned that as long as the clock worked, it didn’t matter that the circuit board and the wires were just as much on display as the clock screen), and quickly got to her feet.

‘It’s lunch time- I should be getting home- I think- I’ll see you tomorrow?’ Rhea said distractedly, picking up her bag, and hefting the gift under her arm.

Maya looked mildly surprised at Rhea’s sudden energetic activity, and nodded. ‘Sure,’ she replied easily. ‘See you tomorrow.’

Rhea nodded, then paused. Maya was still picking off glue from her hands- her bobbed self-cut hair was in slight disarray from her foray into her cabinet, and there were some splotches of dye staining the backs of her hands- and Rhea was overcome with affection for everything that Maya was. She made a sudden dash at her, causing her to yelp when Rhea hugged her tightly, nearly knocking her over with the gift-box.

‘Maya- I – you’re the best. I just- thank you!’ Rhea said earnestly, backing away and smiling widely at her friend.

Maya blushed, and shrugged. ‘It’s alright. I’m glad- I hope you’ll like- I mean, enjoy the gift.’ Maya fumbled awkwardly.

Rhea’s smile widened, and she said, ‘Would you like to come around this evening? Mom’s usually free then; she’d love to have you over.’

Maya brightened. It was the first time that Rhea had invited her over to her home. ‘I’d like that,’ she said simply.

The sun was at its zenith as Rhea stepped out of Maya’s cabin. The clouds were chasing each other lazily in the sky, no longer laden with the weight of an impending storm. The day was suddenly full of possibilities, and the freedom of that thought left Rhea breathless. Musing over it, she decided that this must be exactly what Maya must feel on her cheerful quest for a pursuit that might stick. She hurried home, impatient to show her mother their gift. No longer did the day stretch interminably ahead.

And Rhea was glad for that timely reminder from Maya.

January 30, 2021 04:56

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