The first day usually takes the worst toll. I know that well.
My classmates called me ‘Dinesh- the Dummy’ and ‘Aqua Man’ and all such things. Aqua Man might sound great, but grandeur was only in the name itself. Once, I had tripped on the bathroom tiles, and flung myself into a cubicle in front of Aman and his cronies.
Their chuckles still ring in my ears, and the laughter of dudes I couldn’t even see. Enough clues to understand my…power. I think of it as an ‘unavoidable condition’. A bother.
Now, I became ‘weird boy’. This new name originated in the dark corners of our street. It had rained all day and was getting dark. I was jumping over puddles and humming the new SRK song. For some reason, Raj (the neighborhood bully) thought it a good idea to come from behind and shriek in my ears.
I remember praying for help.
What I heard next was a cluster of hoarse whispers and Raj screamed. His face was stark white, in terror. Although the street was empty, whispers were all around. Instead of scaring me, they were driving Raj crazy and I couldn’t help feeling elated for it.
In a couple of days, I turned sixteen. Sixteen in our world held deep significance. That day, you get an appointment which confirms your worst doubts. I, for my part, realized that the whispers weren’t hallucinations. I could hear sounds that weren’t made, talk to them. Make them obey. Not good.
Today, it was my daughter’s sixteenth birth day. While most parents treat their children this day, I was stuck here, waiting for the worst confrontation of my life.
It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back and hesitated.
Life had taught me lots, but ‘coaching-your-daughter-when-she-has-just-uncovered-her-darkest-secret-and-you-haven’t-really-helped’ wasn’t in that list.
Then, I heard familiar woofs. My heartbeat eased.
‘Of course, Bruno will help’, I thought.
With trembling hands, I slowly turned the doorknob. Bruno started jumping up and down, licking and wagging. His affection was the only respite of warmth under the icy gaze of my daughter. Suddenly, I felt small. They were her mother’s eyes.
“Aahana?” I asked, unsure.
She didn’t reply.
“Say something, Aahana.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her voice was cold.
“How could I?” I croaked, desperately. “How could I ruin you?”
“See where it got me.”
Bruno kept panting, looking from one to the other. Aahana kept calm. I was frantic. It started raining outside.
“I wanted to keep you away from this and…”
“Failed!” She completed. Now, I was angry.
“You think this is my fault?” I cried. “I tried hard to keep you away. But they pop up. Always do.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, Papa?” She sighed. “It would have made things easier.”
I didn’t reply. Aahana was only sixteen and had unearthed the worst truth of her life. I couldn’t blame her.
“I am a form changer.”
I was relieved. She hadn’t taken after me. She was on the safe side.
Her soul was like her mother’s. Not shadowy, like mine.
“Go to bed, Aahana. The day must have been hard.”
“A guy called Sanjay came to me. I was on the shore with Reah”.
“He told you?”
“You can talk to shadows.”
“And you raise the dead.”
I could feel the trickles of sweat on my brow.
“That can’t be good, Papa.”
“No, it’s awful.”
“Sanjay was a levitator. He told me to run away. From you. Said that people like you belong to the wrong side. They have camps to train us. The Defenders.”
I could almost hear my voice breaking. “And?”
Overwhelmed by emotions, I hugged her tightly while she wept silently. The desolate chocolate cake in the corner was eaten by Bruno.
All night, I kept tossing and turning in bed. ‘That devil, Sanjay’, I thought. ‘Keeps forgetting which side I fought on last time.’ Thoughts of last time made me want to curl up into a ball and scream.
Upstairs, Aahana didn’t seem to be coping any better. I heard smashing, breaking and infrequent grunts. Once, a shatter of glass made me start. There were muffled screams. However, I didn't disturb her. ‘Some privacy is what she needs’, I told myself.
Then abruptly, everything went still. ‘Sleep will come, baby’.
“Omelets?” I asked once Aahana was down. “Or pancakes?”
“Both”, she chirped. “I am hungry.”
My heart filled with joy. She didn’t look one bit like yesterday. Her hair was down and she had put on her favorite skirt. She looked almost…happy. As if last night had never happened! I couldn’t be more relieved. ‘Maybe she is doing this to comfort you’, the rational me screamed.
Bruno was in the courtyard. Hearing us, he came inside.
However, something strange happened. He started howling and baring his fangs. Before I could stop him, he started tugging at Aahana’s skirt. She pushed him away.
“Why so foul, Bruno? Go to the kennel”, I chided. “GO.” Sulkily, he left.
At the table, Aahana seemed zealous than ever. Having downed five pancakes in a breath, she said, “We have a task, Papa”.
I choked. Grabbing the lemonade, I asked her precariously, “What?”
“That’s my first assignment. As a Defender.”
“You are joking, aren’t you?” I asked, frantically. “Don’t go on that path. Take it from your father.”
“That’s my destiny, Papa. It’s somewhere in Mussoorie. Once I find it, I can join them! Besides, I am more powerful than you think!”
“No. Your destiny is here, with me and Bruno! With Reah. You hear?” I hadn’t realized I was shaking and my fists were curled. How could Aahana be so foolish? Walking into the same doom I have been protecting her from!
“I believe in your strength, baby! But this is not your place. This is not even about strength. Trust me.”
“I want to find the orb. And avenge Mummy. Don’t you want that?”
“Talk, he did”, she said, with a wry smile. “He didn’t give me half truths about car accidents and stuff.”
I gasped. This is the exact sixteen year old I was scared of.
“It’s no use arguing, Papa. I’m going. If you want, you can come along.”
“This is dangerous, Aahana.”
“And I’m sixteen.”
Years had taught me that Aahana’s final word was law. So, I started packing the bare necessities and filling the dog bowl. Once I went to her room, with a last hope to turn her mind, but, it was empty. She was in the bathroom. However, I was shocked to see the state of her bed. Things were scattered everywhere- her guitar, with strings coming loose, a broken candle holder and to my surprise, our favorite porcelain vase, in pieces. An heirloom which had belonged to her mother. Something she would never even have scratched, in her right mind. Then, I heard the loud pop music blaring from the bathroom.
Pop? Aahana was really freaking out! ‘Poor child’, I thought.
The next day, we said our goodbyes to Bruno (who was still in a bad mood) and boarded the train to Haridwar. Aahana had already bought the tickets, I learnt. She was really not keeping it together. Impulsive decisions bring consequences, and she was not willing to see it.
Till now, she had not talked except in monosyllables. Now, she suddenly found her strange sixteen year old vigor. “It’ll be fun, Papa. I will find the orb and then, we can go the Defenders together. They might do a favor by taking you in.”
I didn’t reply.
We spent the first few evenings on the Ghat. “Let’s rummage through the stores. We’ll see if we can something warm. And kheer?”
These days, I had receded to silent treatment- a last desperate arrow in my quiver. An attempt which had failed again to make Aahana even look at me, much less ask. Now I started blaming myself. Maybe, it had been my lack of sincerity in making her believe me. I could have tried harder. I should have tried harder. So, the inner battle raged:
‘You should have scolded her.’
‘She wouldn’t listen.’
‘Why didn’t you ground her then?’
‘She knows kung fu. She can climb out of the window. Besides, she has realized her super power. As if there wasn’t already.’
‘Do anything, then. ANYTHING! Don’t let her die like Mili.’
‘Send her home. Do the job yourself, you dummy!’
Back in the motel, Aahana started packing for the next day’s adventure. The trip to doom, basically. I gathered my determination.
“I want to talk about something.”
“Aahana. LOOK AT ME!”
She did, though I didn’t recognize the expression on her face. She looked indifferent. Bored.
“Go on. I’m listening.”
‘You can’t stop now. Tell her.” I told myself.
“Aahana. I was born in a family of Doom Raisers. Both my parents could shadow talk. My mother had this uncommon talent for persuasion too. She used to be one of the best. Best of the worst. Both were proud to learn that I had inherited their power. They took me to their favorite hangout- the grave, to test my degree of perfection.”
I gulped. “The moment they started doing it, I knew how wrong this was. There were others too. Other Doom Raisers, who enjoyed decorating their houses with innocent bones, as trophies. I ran. My parents were most displeased to have a coward son. They beat me.”
“Then, I ran away. To Tamil Nadu. Where they couldn’t find me. Bet I was wrong. They tracked me down. Again, I ran. Meanwhile, I had learnt to use shadow talk to my advantage. I used it to shield myself against the Doom Raisers. The shadows diverted them.
“I worked hard for a living in the local restaurant. Then, I met your mother. We fell in love. She lived with her brother Govind. A most charming person- I didn’t know his secret then. He was a Defender.” A pause.
“I confided in him my dark secret. About shadow talking. At first, he was furious, when he heard about my family. Later, I learnt why. Their mother had been a Defender too. My parents were the ones to murder her during the first orb war. Their father also died under mysterious circumstances. Mili knew about all this, but she never judged me for it. She was a kind soul. Govind thought it most unfortunate that his sister should fall for the son of her mother’s murderer. But, he liked me. He trusted me.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Your mother was innocent. She wasn’t even their enemy. They used her as a bait. The Doom Raisers wanted me by their side. I could summon the strongest of the shadows, after all. When I refused to join them, they killed her. My own cousin killed her. Just to settle a vendetta, they shattered my life. You were only a year old. They thought fear would force me to join them. But, they were wrong. I joined forces with the Defenders.”
“And now your daughter must pay.” Aahana sighed.
“I don’t want to lose you too, baby. Please don’t do this. Go home. I’ll complete their job”, I said. “Go. There is where your destiny lies. In college.”
“It’s too late.”
“You chose your destiny. I choose mine.”
The great green mountains stood like giants, as the afternoon sun painted the sky a bloody red. Up in the skies, the stars were having their own war. A war of identity. Aahana was aloof as ever. ‘Lost in the thirst of power. I’ve seen people going crazy with it’, I thought. As our taxi went round and round up the hill towards Mussoorie, I wondered when I had lost.
I was so engrossed that I didn’t even notice the car screeching to a halt. “Come on, Papa!”
I followed her hesitantly. ‘It still isn’t too late to turn’, I told myself.
“Baby! I still don’t get it. You are new in this. Why did the defenders choose you to bring the orb, when they could have done it themselves easily?”
“Firstly, you underestimate my abilities. Secondly, all the Defenders are being followed and tracked by Doom Raisers. You have been lying low and you use shadows. That’s why you aren’t tracked. And no one recognizes me. Yet.”
“Is the orb here?”
“How do you…”
“I just do.”
We kept walking uphill. The lush grass was studded with dandelions. The sun was scarlet. Under other circumstances, I would have enjoyed this.
Aahana piped, “I can feel a terrific surge of energy.”
“Are you a tracker?”
“Hmm. This way!”
We came towards a great mound of earth. Then, to my surprise, Aahana vanished. In her place, was a rabbit. Then, it started burrowing. I was taken aback. I had really lost.
In no time, stood before us a wooden box. There were carvings all over it- of stars and men. Aahana transferred back to Aahana. “Go ahead, Papa! Open it.”
“We can still leave.”
“No, we can’t.” Her eyes shone with hunger. No. Lust.
“Why not do it yourself?”
With shaking hands, I undid the cover. A bright pink glow radiated from within. The sheer genius of this box hit me then. The orb was protected by a power of identity. A power that enabled only a Defender to retrieve it. A powerful play. Nobody else could impregnate the shield. That’s how the orb was safe.
“That’s why you brought me”. I couldn’t keep the hurt out of my voice. I felt used. By my own daughter.
“Of course!” Her eyes were devoid of empathy. In fact, they looked devoid of sanity. What was wrong?
“Take it, Papa.”
And I did. To prove to her that the orb would change nothing. My hands felt a surge of energy as they wrapped around the tiny structure. I took it out carefully and looked at it.
It felt like liquid metal conforming under the weight of my fingers. I read the inscription on it:
‘Only the impure at heart can miss,
This energy in its safe noose!
Beware, for if the gurgling water I kiss,
All beloved powers, you lose.’
“Give it.” Aahana screamed.
“You know I can’t.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
Then, the air around us started thickening with dark smoke. I felt a familiar pull of the dead. Of shadows. But, I hadn’t summoned them.
As the smoke cleared, I squinted.
My eyes were about to fall off by what I saw.
Paras. Those dark eyes. The last eyes Mili had seen before light left her own.
Those eyes that burn with insanity. But the look wasn’t his. He looked desperate.
Before I could react, Aahana tried to grab the orb from my hands. The shield made her stagger backwards. She couldn’t take it unless I gave it to her.
My attention focused back on Paras. He was crying. So unlike the tears of joy he had shed at Mili’s death.
Aahana screamed, “Kill him. He killed Mum.”
Paras croaked again, “It’s me, Papa. Don’t you recognize?”
In a jolt, everything started falling into place. I reeled with the truth. How could I miss it?
The fake Aahana chuckled. “So, Dinesh? Lost again.”
“Not so soon, Paras.”
His shadows were surrounding my daughter, trapped in another body. I concentrated and summoned my own shadows. Those coarse whispers I hated would save us now. I won’t let Paras harm my daughter!
“If you don’t give the orb, I’ll kill myself.”
“Why would I care…Oh no? You won’t!” I was shaking now. Paras knew exactly how to bait. Killing himself meant taking along Aahana’s body. I couldn’t lose her.
“Don’t give him, Papa!” The Paras screamed.
“Shut up! You disgrace my body.”
“You mine, filth.”
Then, a fourth voice spoke up. “Enough, Paras. Now, it’s reshuffling.”
“Govind!” I cried.
“Leave, Paras. I read minds. You don’t intend to share the orb with your friends. No?”
“I’ll kill myself.”
“You are a Narcissist.”
Govind was the best Defender tracker. No wonder, he had felt the shift in energy and come here.
“There will be war!” Aahana screamed. “I’ll have the orb.”
An idea hit me. The only way to stop another war.
No orb. No war.
While Govind talked to Paras, I looked at the metal again. Beside us, the Ganga flowed with an air of vitality. I made up my mind.
“NO!!” screamed Aahana, as I threw it into the gurgling waters. As said, the river of plenty carries everything along. Today, it took our world.
A pink glow illuminated the darkness and drove away the shadows. Aahana came along and hugged me. She was back. I was overjoyed.
Paras wasn’t. He came running towards us, breathing murder. Aahana tackled him with her newest kung fu steps.
“Take that. That’s for kidnapping me. That’s for taking my form and messing. That’s for breaking Mum’s vase!”
Govind added the last. “That for killing her and trying to take my niece.”
Paras looked pitiful, in pain and dejection.
“You are SuperDad!” Aaahana whispered into my shoulders.
“What now?” I asked uncertainly.
Govind added, “First, we need to lie low sometime. There are people waking up from their nap and realizing that they can’t turn into coffee-machines. They’ll be pissed!”