Steps By Riya Chawla

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Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, you walk across the narrow street, counting your steps back home. The sun is over your head and a thin shadow – thinner than you – walks beside you as your stomach growls and your mind thinks of the dishes your mother had promised you to cook for lunch this morning. You close your eyes while counting unconsciously and picture butter melting over bread and paneer dipped in red, scrumptious gravy. You begin thinking of fruits you’d have this evening: your mouth waters at the thought of sweet smelling mangoes and pink-red strawberries that your mom bought yesterday. Think you’d ask your mom to make you strawberry juice. So begin thinking about fresh strawberries, crushed and churned into red, pulpy, sugary juice and now is exactly when your ears hear some loud Huahahahas and Khekehehes and bring you back from your trance. Your temples wrinkle at the irritability of the noise separating you from your delicious juice, but then your legs stop mid-air and so does your breath as you distinctly recognize the laughter.  You know who they are and you know you are in trouble now. For a second you curse yourself for taking this route every day. But how could they be here today? Close your eyes and begin walking again –thirty-eight, thirty-nine – pretend you never heard them. But then they call out your name, making the sweat on your head and nose shine, reflecting the scorching sun – but don’t stop. Keep walking. They walk faster to match your steps and one of them jogs to stand in front of you, his chin in front of your eyes – you stop with a start and your heart beats aloud – it’s Tony. You look at his chin. You notice a few strands of hair poking out of his pale-skinned chin.

“So you are going home, we see,” Tony says.

The sweat on your nose is too slippery for your spectacles, they slip and with clumsy hands you glide them up. You keep still.

“And you’re going to come tomorrow again?” he asks, stepping closer to you.

You take a step back and stumble on something hard and bouncy fat. You turn around and find Mike up close your head. You move aside.

“And you are going to do your homework tomorrow again, so we get punished. Again.” Mike says, his eyes fixed at you, “Right?”

You look at all three of them staring at you, and you gather up courage to say, “I’m getting late… I have to go…” You move sideways and start walking again but they hold your backpack from your back and you feel stuck: you can’t move. Put all the strength you can harbor and push your torso forward, but soon as you do this, they let go of you – making your body accelerate of its own accord until you almost fall to the ground, but your knees back you up. The fine gravels stick up your knees and palms, and you begin hating your short school uniform. Your spectacles are at the tip of your nose now, so push them back, get yourself up and start dusting your bare knees and palms. You notice tiny red dots of blood peeping out of your palm in places where the big gravels had been and when you do this, Mike comes and takes your glasses off your nose. The air fills up with his malicious laughter as the world goes blur in front of your eyes. You try to stare at him, look for your glasses, but all you see is blurred blots of colors. You narrow your eyes and see six dark legs moving, stirring around you, but wait, you notice there’s a fourth pair, skinny, drifting away in a haste, so you look above the legs and find a familiar backpack on it recognizing the pink straps.

“Is it you, Bob?” You call out to him.

“Hey! Bob!” You say, “Help me Bob!”

But too bad, Bob walks away faster and you see his legs blurring until they fade with the grey, cloudy surrounding. You’re sure it’s Bob because he’s the only guy with a pink backpack – a school bag that once belonged to his sister. Yes, that’s Bob, the Bob, who always eats away your fries and licks away your sauce even without asking you for it and yes, it’s the same Bob, who knocks at your door every evening – since he’s too short to reach the doorbell – and asks you for a ride on your bicycle. Well, you know what to do with Bob now. Your nose flares at his betrayal. You resolute that the next time he tries to have even a single of your fries, you’d take away your tiffin-box and eat with Diddy, whose guts he hates. But there’s no time for you to think of all this because you feel a hard push on your back – you lose inertia and stumble upon your own feet – It’s only seconds after you find balance again when you turn to see who it was: the tallest of the three guys, Harry; but from the corner of your eyes you notice Tony sway his hand and something falls hard on the ground — you hear it’s clutt. You realize it’s your glasses and you awe at disbelief and angst, sincerely hoping and praying it didn’t break. You go near where you think Tony threw it and all you see is blurry, grey street staring back at you and you wish, oh god, how you wish for the rim of your glasses to be of a vibrant color. But they are black and that’s when you realize how difficult it will be to find them. So you bend down and gently try to pat your hand on the street, but you find nothing. Two legs walk near you, you don’t recognize them so you keep searching, but then you hear a crunch, crack, crunch, crush of something and your eyes rise – you see a leg smashing and rubbing it’s shoe against the ground. Your body statues, mouth shivers.

Someone kicks you from behind and you just about fall – your nose almost touching the ground – but your teeth grind as rage fills up your limbs and with both your palms, you push yourself erect, screaming, “Hey!” as you do so and you turn around to face three blurred boys of almost your — or perhaps slightly larger than your — size. But you can’t think of size and weight today, you tell yourself. Your upper lip curves itself upside down, touching your nose, and your nose shrinks into resentment. You narrow your eyes to look clearer. You let loose of the heavy straps around your shoulders and hear a thud of your bag falling hard on the rough street. You feel your ears redden with anger and a rush of blood across your legs. Feel your legs slowly stepping closer to the boy standing on your left and your right-hand lifts, fingers fold inside and you hit him right in the face. He lets out a loud cry as he retracts, covering his face with both his hands. You withdraw your hand and your fingers ache wildly – grip it with your other hand to numb the pain, but that’s when you see a second boy coming in closer to avenge you, you side yourself in an impulse and feel your weight on your left leg as your right leg aims and hits hard in the middle of his leg. He cries out louder than you thought he would and you wait there, for the third one, but you see him wavering his steps somewhere far so you won’t reach him. He mutters something. You smile to yourself as you hear the word, ‘sorry’ in the middle of his murmur, as you weren’t paying attention to him – you were bent down again, looking for your glasses. You sigh as your efforts go in vain.

You carry your backpack across your shoulders again, and then, slowly, holding the side wall of the narrow street, you count your steps back home in a blur, hot afternoon – forty-one, forty-two – Your legs shiver. You must count till one-twenty, then you’d be home, safe, you tell yourself. Your shoulders slouch. Forty-eight, forty-nine – you pray your mother won’t shout at you when she sees your dusty uniform and finds out about your glasses. Fifty-five, fifty-six – you secretly hope you’d still get to eat that paneer she had promised you. Sixty-one, sixty-two – or at least that strawberry juice.

 

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