Shreya watched the minutes tick by on the clock with dread. It was not easy to sit through an hour of extra class after school, especially when she knew Aarav would be getting impatient with every passing minute. The droning voice of her mathematics teacher felt like a bee buzzing in her ears and Shreya willed the clock to move forward at double the pace. Aarav had wanted her to be online by 5 PM and Shreya needed to get home, refresh and get dressed before that.
Today was a big day.
After nearly six months of online conversation and sharing their souls, Shreya was finally going to meet him and she was unable to concentrate on anything else. They had decided on the date a week ago and Shreya wanted to look her best for it.
Whatever I want to say cannot be said over text. I need to see you.
Shreya read that message again with her phone under the desk. What did he want to say that could not be said over text? A part of her was yearning to meet him, but another part of her was nervous. They had only spoken via texts, and occasionally via calls. Shreya knew she was smitten by him, and also that it was irrational to be smitten by someone she had only known online. But when she closed her eyes at night after texting him, all she could see were the rare pictures he’d uploaded.
They were all silhouettes, framing him majestically against the backdrop.
Of course Shreya had found it odd that she had never seen his face clearly before. But she also knew she’d recognise him even if he were framed darkly against a bright background. Which was another reason why she was so eager to see his face today. It was not a direct face to face meeting, but it was still something better than what they were usually doing. She ran a hand through her unruly hair, wondering if she’d have time to set it with gel before he saw her.
The shy Aarav had finally trusted her enough for a virtual meeting.
And Shreya wanted to make sure he did not regret it. She thought once again about how he’d recognise her, and rewound their journey to his first ever interaction with her. She had uploaded a selfie after a movie, and it had been her first ever actual profile picture. An image that was not of her in a group, a random quote she had found and liked, or a picture of a flower.
You look fantabulous.
Shreya had been totally surprised to notice that someone could comment on her picture without being in her friend’s list. Before she could work out the mechanics of it, the comment was quickly deleted. Shreya had taken a screenshot of that and had spent many days trying to work out who that random person was. The profile name had intrigued her. The name was clearly Aarav Sinha, but the first syllable was written in Hindi, making it more difficult to search for his profile name. She had wondered for so long about how he had managed that comment, and then it hit her.
Thanks, Sudesh Devan for prompting me to take this selfie!
Once she remembered the tag, it had been easy to track Aarav. She had first asked Sudesh, who had shrugged it off, saying he did not really know that person and it was a mutual friend who had given a request he had accepted. Shreya knew she should no longer pursue that line of thought, but Aarav had captured her attention with his choice of words. She had been called pretty, beautiful, cute, charming, and a lot of other things. But not fantabulous. When she found him, she had a question.
Why had he deleted his comment in lightning speed?
Was he just shy and confused? Had he removed it because he had felt that he had commented wrongly? It had taken her two days but she had finally found his profile and had messaged him directly. He saw it almost immediately, but did not reply for two more days. She went through his profile occasionally, being more attracted towards him with every comment and picture and status update he had posted.
He had shared the same interests as she had, and was vocal about them.
His social media profile had really interested her, and Shreya had finally sent the friend request, her curiosity getting the better of her. He had probably spent the whole time deliberating, as Shreya reflected later, but he had accepted her request after three days. Shreya waited a few more hours for him to message first, and he did so. She had been online at that hour, coincidentally, and it was a thrill to see the first message.
A hand wave had been the first emoji they had shared.
From there, she had gotten him to talk, and she was glad she did. Sudesh still maintained that he did not know Aarav personally, and had looked at her queerly when she smirked at that statement. In fifteen short days, she felt like she knew Aarav better than most of his other friends. He had been very reticent and taciturn, but he had really opened up with her. Aarav was just three years older, and she was not disappointed to note that he seemed to have very few other friends.
He posted random messages and quotes that she knew was for her.
She had set his profile to ‘see first’ and Shreya would get a notification every time he shared an update. It would almost be like Aarav had read her mind. Anything he shared seemed to resonate with her and she felt he knew her better than any of her other friends. They had shared conversations that had prolonged way past midnight. Aarav always held back, asking her to go to bed early. But she loved it when he commented on her owl-like tendencies. Clever, alert, wise, late-sleeper with elegance.
The first phone call had been a huge milestone.
It was Aarav who had taken that step first. He had told her it would seem distant and impersonal to keep talking via digital screens. Shreya had felt very thrilled that he wanted to know her better. He had been polite and courteous as usual, and Shreya found it so sexy (not that she’d use that word outside her head) that he had a deep and rich baritone of someone much older. His voice seemed to smile when he spoke.
Your voice is sweeter than I expected it would be.
Of course Shreya knew that. She had always been complimented on the voice, but it had felt special when he said that. The gift exchange began then. He had sent one to her first, and even through the surprise, Shreya had wondered how he had found her address. But the joy of receiving the gift had overshadowed everything. He had been so thoughtful, even writing out a long letter to her, the old fashioned way, detailing how lucky he was that she chose to be his friend. She had finally asked him how he knew where she lived, knowing full well she had not told him that.
You checked into your own house with the caption ‘Home Sweet Home’.
And then she had laughed. It had seemed funny, even ridiculous to her that she had used a check-in feature for her own home. But it had been a joke, and she had been glad after a ten-day long vacation where she had missed home, her school friends, and Aarav, in increasing order. Her apartment was part of a special complex of houses that were a landmark in her area, and she even remembered tagging her flat number with an eye-roll emoji. It was a cool thing to do.
You shouldn’t be telling out personal information like this on social media.
Aarav had repeatedly cautioned her. Knowing he was right only made her like him more. He had always been the caring thoughtful person and Shreya had limited her online interaction after monitoring her own activities. Once she took notice, it amazed her to see how much information she had revealed online over the years. As per Aarav’s requests, she had logged out of all the gaming and personality quiz apps she had signed into, and those others that tracked her location just because she wanted to see which flavour of cookie best suited her book tastes some eight months ago.
But don’t leave this place! It is where I get to see you being yourself.
Feeling slightly unnerved at all the information she might have revealed to strangers, Shreya had confessed to Aarav that she wanted to leave for good. Every time a ‘memory’ threw up a photo of her, she noticed that she had posted too many selfies and photographs and done too many check-ins in the past one year since that significant first selfie. Her heart went out to the shy Aarav as she thought of how every new picture she had uploaded would have worried him. She suggested leaving social media altogether and deleting her account, while taking their conversation to a personal medium after exchanging numbers.
Don’t run away from this memorable place. This is where we ‘met’.
Aarav had repeatedly insisted that she should not leave, and Shreya finally conceded, going online only to chat with him. Her school friends had initially complained a lot but after being ignored repeatedly in all ways, they had drifted apart like only adolescents could. Shreya was past bothering about all that. Her only concern about leaving her friends was that Aarav seemed distressed that he was taking up most of her time these days. She had told him she didn’t care, but he had pouted for days. She wanted to leave for good but he had reminded that this was the place that brought them closer, where they had ‘met’. Shreya had laughingly pointed out that they had not actually ‘met’, and that had prompted his next message after a twelve hour gap.
So let’s meet! Why should distance separate us when video calls are there?
And that was exactly what she had wanted. She both dreaded and looked forward to finally seeing his face, bored of seeing only his dark silhouette. What color would his eyes be? Brown? Black? Golden to match hers? Would his teeth be even? Crooked? What made this sweet sounding man shy to face people? Was it his introverted nature that prevented him from showing his face even to her? Or did he genuinely like the aura of mystery that surrounded him?
I am not handsome by any means. I have driven away people by my nature.
He had confessed to her over one phone call. But thus far, Shreya had not seen anything in him that would drive her, or anyone else, away. He was shy, unassuming, charming, decent, and surely very caring. He remembered all the little details about her and made sure she felt safe when she walked back home from school. He noticed all the little things. He said he felt it in his bones when she was upset. But she knew he smelt it the moment she replied with a ‘hmm’.
I could name the next pet you bring home.
Aarav had always joked that she was predictable. And Shreya grudgingly agreed that she was, at least to him. When her pet dog Shasha had died, she had cried for fifteen days. Aarav had been there with her throughout, consoling her, helping her cry, saying just the words she wanted to hear, almost as if he knew. He probably did. He let her lament, listening to her when others told her to forget and move on. It was just a pet! But Aarav knew how much Shasha meant to Shreya and he did not demean her feelings.
Get it out of your system, Shreya. Don’t let this affect your routine.
And with him as her listening board, Shreya had gone on with her regular routine much to the surprise of her parents who had expected more tears for Shasha. But Shreya knew the moment she cried more, they would ask her to stop and move on. Aarav was not like that. He heard her out. He knew how she felt about pets, her friends, her family, the betrayal and the heartbreaks that adolescence brought her. He had outgrown it, he would say, but he still remembered the pain.
I have been where you are and I know it is not pretty.
And that was when she realised she loved him. His empathy as a fellow human being and the way he just seemed to understand her won her heart over. Shreya took a deep breath. Thinking of the flash-back had not made time move any faster. She still had fifteen minutes of special class left and she knew Aarav would feel bad. She only hoped that he understood she did not do it of her own accord and it was her special classes that held her back.
He knew about her failing grades and had told her she could do better soon.
Her teachers had been increasingly worried, and Shreya knew she could only blame Shasha’s death for so long when her falling grades were questioned. The cursed bell finally rang and Shreya got up and rushed out of the class with amazing speed. She almost made it to the parking lot when her English teacher called her. Internally groaning about another lecture, Shreya stopped and prayed she would end it quickly.
If you don’t come at 5, I will understand that you had second thoughts.
“Shreya… Glad I got you on time. I have something important to tell you. Here, hold my bag.”
Grinning through gritted teeth, Shreya waited for her teacher to fish out a pamphlet announcing the haiku competition. She had been asking Shreya to participate in it, but all creativity had just seemed to have vanished from her. Once the best student in English class, Shreya could hardly manage grammatical correctness anymore, forget her characteristic creative flow. But she agreed to all the requests her English teacher made just to get out of it soon and rushed home in a frenzy.
She could always get out of it later with an excuse but Aarav shouldn’t wait, or worse, get the wrong message that she wasn’t interested. It was exactly 5:10 PM when she logged in, and Aarav called fifteen seconds later.
There was a soft thud from somewhere in the dark house, and Shreya jumped. She uncurled herself from the foetal position she had gotten into and wiped her tears from her swollen cheeks. She listened at her door to check if her mother had really gone out, knowing she had only a few minutes before her father came in once again, trying to pacify her, to get her to come out of the room and tell them why she was crying. And to have food.
Shuddering, Shreya looked out into the deserted and dark corridor, debating for the hundredth time that evening about going out and telling her parents everything that had happened. But even then, she knew deep down it would all be useless. They would be powerless with the lack of information and she knew practically nothing about the monster that had invaded her privacy. Aarav’s words from the call that evening were still ringing in her ears.
Finally! I get to meet the sexy siren! Damn, you do look even more wonderful up front than I imagined. It is a pity I wouldn’t get to actually touch you any time soon. But you can always send me more images that would race my hormones, can’t you? I do get bored of having to take them all clandestinely. Or if you are so horrified at this, I can always use the app that I have remotely installed on your phone to see you as you sleep, turning on your side, with your hands tucked on your chest, cuddling that red teddy bear.
Trying to close her ears to shut the voice out, Shreya looked around her room. Everything inside seemed to mock at her. Her roving eyes finally fell on the music dock / charging station for her phone.
Oh you’re going to love this video. I took this one sixty days ago, after I first installed the camera software in your phone. You were the one who gave me the idea by saying you always used the charging dock to play songs while charging your phone all day. Pity it only had the partial view of your bathroom door. It never did capture the complete images like I wanted. Care to do a strip-tease for me now?
It had not taken Shreya much time to realise the enormity of what she had gotten into. What had shocked her the most was his callous smile Aarav had on his face as he detailed how he had installed apps in her phone by making her click on the links to the songs he sent.
‘Oh you’ll love this one, trust me. This touches our soul.’
She had downloaded many such songs, sent some of them to her friends, parents, and other unsuspecting people who were now compromised by an app that had recorded their conversations, activities, and other sensitive events in detail, as videos. Aarav had shown her only a few of the choicest videos, but they were plenty. Her conscience pricked, and Shreya felt the darkness in the room closing in on her. Guilt ate her alive every time she thought of her parents and friends, and the kind face of her English teacher who had wanted her to regain her grades.
All of it meaningless, all of it pointless. Her life was a disgrace.
Shreya shuddered as she remembered the color of his eyes, a brilliant chocolate brown that had glinted with a carnal intensity as his lips sneered. Hot tears fell on the table as she sat at her desk. Some fell on the pamphlet announcing the haiku contest. Fingers shaking, Shreya debated with herself. She could not get hold of him in any way. He had left her no leads. And if he knew she was trying, he would release the videos. He had not made his intent clear yet. Was he after ransom?
If he could not get hold of her? Who will he threaten?
Finally deciding, Shreya walked out of her room into her parents’ room. They were downstairs, talking in hushed voices. She found what she was looking for in her mother’s closet and walked back quickly to her room. Taking out her pen, she wrote a letter. That is what the protagonists of her books did. That is what the sacrificing women of those tele-serials did. They gave their life so others would not suffer. Shreya knew this was a good way out.
The only way out.
Aarav was powerless without her. She ignored the pricking conscience that told her he still had the material that compromised others who were still unaware. She wanted to forget the fact that he knew her address and as well as those of others in her list. Death was the easy way out. At least she would not be around to answer the questions everyone would throw at her. Her eyes fell on the pamphlet. She finished her confession letter with the haiku that her teacher had wanted.
The worst predators wear
The best camouflage –
Shreya swiped the 14 capsules of her mother’s insomnia medicine off the table – one for each syllable in her haiku – and downed them all with one glass of water. The last thought before she blacked out was that her parents never even used the charging dock for their phones.