The smell of fresh coffee wafted its way into Netra’s nostrils as she took her side by the window. The climate was scenic. Downpour had started early in the evening, and since then, it didn’t stop for a minute or two. She had made two ramen bowls—one each for her and her roommate, Esha. They had eaten till their stomachs felt full.
Esha had refused to drink coffee that night for fear of staying awake till late. However, Netra could still hear feeble typing sounds from Esha’s room, and tried not to laugh too loud at her roommate. She could bet her entire month’s salary on the amount of time it would take Esha to fall asleep.
As expected, within ten minutes, she could hear sounds of a mildly loud snore from her left. She couldn’t keep her laugh in, and as she was trying to recover from it, she heard three stiff knocks on the window to her right. This caused her to startle reflectively and she spilled some of the coffee on her clothes.
Instinctively, she had closed her eyes as soon as she heard the knocks. She opened her eyes one by one, praying that it was not a robber’s gang, or some one who was running away from their predator or maybe some one who was a predator!
When she opened both her eyes, she was shocked to see nobody outside the window. Was this a prank? She got angry at once. Who did a stupid prank like this during the dark? As she stepped near the window, she saw two short figures lying above each other on the ground. Upon seeing this scene in front of her instead of the ones she had imagined, her heart gave a sigh of relief.
She opened the window and looked down at them. They were trying to get up, if only one of them agreed to not hit the other.
“Both of you, stop it, now!” Netra shouted at them. The girls stood at ease on hearing a voice of authority.
“Good. Now do you mind telling me who you are?” she asked.
“Why should we tell her who we are, Nia?” the little one asked the big one.
“Because she can help us, idiot!” Nia whispered at her, “now shut up and follow my lead, okay?”
“If this is some prank on me, I swear I will kill that person as soon as I set my eyes upon them. Come out you coward!” Netra called out into the unknown.
Nia hit herself in the forehead and looked up at Netra. “Do you really think it’s a prank? Don’t your people have something else to do other than prank you?”
Netra regained control of herself. “Young lady, I asked you a question first. Who are you girls?”
“I am Nia and she is Lily, my younger sister. We want your help.”
Netra looked at both of them and wondered what kind of help these kids could possibly need. She was skeptical at first, but she didn’t want them to get wet in the rains too.
“Alright, come round the corner from your left. I’ll open the door,” Netra said, and went to the front door with two towels in her hand. The elder one took the towels from her hand and started drying her sister. Netra offered to dry Nia’s hair.
The girls settled themselves into the couch after drying their hair and body. Netra looked at them and asked if they were hungry. They nodded in yes to her, and she heated the ramen that was left from their dinner.
“I have only this ramen right now, can you girls eat it?” she asked.
“Yes!” it looked as if they were excited to eat noodles.
Nia gulped down the bowl quickly and Netra helped her to wash herself afterwards. Lily followed routine.
“Now, what do you want from me?” Netra asked.
Nia looked at Lily and ruffled her short hair. Netra saw that she was hesitating to tell the truth and probably was confused as to where to begin.
“Is it about someone from your family?” she asked, in hopes of helping her.
“Yes,” Nia replied.
“Whom is it about?”
“Um…I don’t know how to say this. We ran away from home before dinner, and we lost track of the road. Then we came to this area and saw you standing beside the window, so we thought you would help us,” Nia said.
“Okay…why did you run away from home? Won’t your parents be looking out for you?”
Nia laughed. “Well. They would be, if they took time from their quarreling.”
Netra understood what she was trying to say. Although a small part of her still did not want to believe the kid’s story, for you never knew what lurked behind the darkness of the night and how monsters made use of children for their own benefit. But the girls were nothing like that; she could sense that they were not making an act in front of Netra.
“Why did you have to run away? You could have slipped into your room and shut the door, right?” she said.
“It’s been months since we were doing that. Tonight, they were arguing about us,” Nia said.
Netra sensed that the little one was probably not to be involved in this. So she scooped her up and took her to the window.
“Hey Lily, would you like to play with some clay? I have lots of colours, do you want some?” she said softly.
“Yes!” Lily was excited.
As her younger sister busied herself in clay, Nia sat relieved on the couch. “Thanks for dinner,” she said.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Netra said, and put a hand over Nia. She had to trudge softly, “would you want to talk about it?”
“Dad said that we were not planned. We both were born accidentally,” Nia said and began crying. Netra consoled her and hugged her tightly.
“They were saying how we were girls and that's why it was a huge financial b-b-bird…”
“Burden,” Netra halfheartedly finished the word for her.
“Yes. Burden,” she cried some more, “I looked it up on the Internet, and it means something bad, right? I did not understand it. But it is bad, right?” Nia asked.
Netra was shocked from the inside to hear such words from a kid of Nia’s age. She didn’t know how to react to what Nia said, but to console her, she hugged her tightly.
Nia slipped back from her grip. “Tell me, it is bad right?”
“It’s…it’s not…” Netra didn’t know what to say. But Nia would not let the topic go, so she had to say the truth. She sat down on the floor and patted the space next to her. Nia followed suit.
“It’s not exactly bad, Nia,” she said, and sighed. Her heart thumped heavily as she realised she was half-lying to a little kid.
“Well, it is bad, truth be told.”
“Why did he say that?” Nia asked her.
“Because he doesn’t know how beautiful, smart and kind you are. He thinks you will only bring more expenditure to his already deficit budget.”
“What will I bring?” Nia asked, totally confused upon hearing Netra’s words.
Netra laughed, “I mean to say, Nia, that your father does not think highly of you. Does that… make any sense?”
“Um… yes. Is it like how I don’t think much about homework?” Nia asked.
“Mm, something like that. But it is a lot bigger than your homework.”
Both the girls sat in silence for some time, until the eldest of the room felt that the silence was too deafening. She asked Nia about her school, her residence, her friends and everything and anything that she could answer without interrogating her. Netra knew that it wasn’t right to act in such a way when she had only spent less than two hours with the girls, but she didn’t want to take any chances. By the time Netra was done with her information gathering so that she could help her in some way the next day, Nia felt at ease at the stranger’s house.
As the clock struck nine, Netra felt it was time for the girls to leave. Their parents might be looking for her, even if they were busy with their petty fights. She called Lily and Nia together.
“As much as I loved having two cute little angels at my house today, I think your parents might actually be looking for you girls,” she said.
“But I don’t want to hear their screaming and their shouting!” Nia said.
Netra sighed. The most difficult part was yet to come.
“I know, Nia. But you can’t go around every night like you did today, right? What if you had knocked some on some monster’s window instead of mine?”
“Are there monsters in real life?” Lily’s innocent question elicited a small smile on the other two girls’ faces.
“No, Lily honey. Not in your real life, and there never will be,” Netra said to her and planted a big kiss on both her cheeks.
Before she grabbed her coat to drop the girls off at their house, Netra took Nia aside from Lily, who was busy with a figure made out of clay. Some things were to be cleared out before they left her house.
“Now you listen to me young lady,” Netra said in a firm voice. “You do not have to keep hiding from your parents like this. It is not you fault and neither your sister’s fault that you were born into this family, that too to a father like yours. He will say things that may make you feel like crawling out of reality and enter a space where there are no monsters like him, and I know the feeling. But you will stay right where you are. Because you have the strength to face him, and tell him that it is not okay to say the things that he says, and do the things that he does. It’s not your fault. It never was.
“Remember, you are your strongest self when you face the deadliest storm. And I promise I’ll never leave you, ever.”
Netra gasped for air as she woke up in her bed, hair all disheveled and sweat all over her body. Her stomach felt tight as she remembered the dream that she had been having since she had left her house around seven years ago. She never regretted the decision to get away from her parents as soon as she had graduated, first class, in psychological therapy, but she wished that she had stayed back only to show them that she was not a burden in any way.
She just wished she had knocked on a Netra’s window to hear these exact same words when she had left her house that night.