The eastern sky was turning red in a midsize town in northern Colorado, marking a new beginning. Piya had just woke up, stretching out her hands and letting out a big yawn. Her eyes fell upon the family photo on her nightstand. It was a picture of a middle-aged couple with their teenage daughter in between. The man had gray hair and a handsome face. The woman was fair and graceful but her eyes had a tired look. Their daughter was slender and tall. She had an innocent smile that lit up like a sunny day.
Piyali Sengupta was an inquisitive girl, in her late teens. She was walking up to the aquarium to feed the fish. Her ears sensed grunting noises outside the window. It was as if an animal was exhaling deeply. Her black tresses came over her oval face and her dreamy eyes. Moving the long curls away and tucking them behind her alert ears, Piya peered through the blinds. To her surprise, a rainbow-colored hot air balloon had landed on the street next to her house. Without a second thought, she sprinted down the stairs to go and look at it more closely. Forgetting about her mom’s nightly ritual, she opened the front door and walked out onto the porch. Her sensitive nose caught a mixed smell of wet grass, roses and Russian sage. She admired the bright colors of the balloon that towered over the roofs of the two story houses in her neighborhood, conveniently ignoring a beeping sound that started as soon as she stepped out. In sixty seconds the meek sound morphed into a blaring alarm. This woke up her workaholic mom who came home late from her job at the hospital. The neighbors, watching the balloon got startled. Piya quickly sped across the living room and kitchen up to the back door. She punched in the code with trembling fingers. “Oh! What was I thinking?” she regretted.
When she got back to the porch, the balloon was deflating and the colored fabric envelope slumped on the dark pavement. She saw Maya’s dad, her neighbor across the street, standing in his yard. The elderly man waved to her. “Hi Piya! How’s it going?” “Doing good. Thanks!” she shouted with a forced smile. The question marred her natural optimism as she was reminded of her dad. Couple of months ago her father had left their house. She had not seen him since. Maya however got to spend equal time with her divorced parents.
A 10 year-old girl with her hair in pigtail, was getting out of the wicker basket with the help of her dad and the balloon pilot. A middle-aged lady was standing next to her, smiling proudly at her brave princess. It brought back a flurry of childhood memories of her happy family that is no more. She was lucky to get the support of both parents during her childhood. Her mother had helped her with her studies. It was her dad who made her stay in touch with the simple pleasures of life. Sometime in the past year, her luck changed. Her dad started having an affair with his colleague. He moved out shortly after this secret was discovered. Before this, her dad had been her friend and guide. “But now he is almost a stranger under the spell of his girlfriend,” she reflected bitterly.
For many summers, Piya had worked with her dad in that yard. He had taught her how to trim the bushes, mow the lawn and pull out the weeds. On a hot day, he would inflate the water slide and turn on the sprinklers. She and Maya would jump around all afternoon, getting wet and muddy. Two years back when she went skydiving, it was easy to jump off the aircraft simply because her dad was also jumping with her. Piya thought he will always be there for her. This stealthy surprise came from nowhere and robbed the innate trust on which she thrived. Her world of confidence dwindled down like the giant balloon reduced before her eyes.
The thick ropes that were used to hold up the balloon somehow got intertwined in the process. Piya saw that the little girl’s right leg was caught in the ropes. Her initial struggle to get it out made it worse and even her parents’ help could not free her. Piya confidently walked up to the basket. She knew she was good at undoing knots. Many times her mom asked for her assistance when her gold chains in the jewelry box got entangled. She focused on the knotty mess of ropes for several minutes. Pretty soon, the girl’s leg was free. The balloon pilot thanked Piya. He gave her a discount coupon for a balloon ride with their company. Meanwhile, Piya’s mom came by to remind her that it was getting late.
Piya barely made it to work on time, with a slight headache, probably from that sound of the alarm from the nether world. She had a part-time job as a server at a local coffee shop. She had been doing this every summer since she was fifteen. Her mom knew the owner of the coffee shop. She kindly let her work there once a week. On other days, she tutored at the Math and Science Learning Center.
Her first customer was a young girl who came with a little baby in an umbrella stroller. She had on a navy blue blouse with a plunging neckline that showed her cleavage and the flower tattoo on the upper part of her right breast. She wore dark eye makeup and her hair looked as if she had just got out of bed. Piya wondered if she had seen her in high school. As the girl approached the counter she was aware of a strong stench that reminded her of frat parties that she was occasionally invited to. It was the unmistakable smell of marijuana. Piya forced a smiled and addressed her. “Hello, what will you have today?” “Um.. a large size spiced latte.” The girl looked as if she was disconnected from everything around her.
Several regulars showed up at the shop that morning. Piya carried on small talk and the usual greetings in the process of preparing their orders. Suddenly, she saw a brawny mean-faced middle-aged man, approaching the counter. “A large white chocolate mocha for me,” he smiled showing his dirty uneven teeth. Piya got a little scared even though she managed to maintain her professional facade. She handed back a tall cup with a hesitant smile. The man sat down at a nearby table with his drink and shamelessly eyed her for some time.
Around lunch time, Maya’s father stopped by with his girlfriend. Maya Brown’s mom and dad got divorced when she was nine years old. Since then she has been spending three days with her dad and the rest of the week with her mom. Both of her parents have found new partners and seemed to be happy in their respective lives. Mr. Brown smiled at Piya and asked her about her studies. “What are you doing working on such a nice summer afternoon? Girl, go have some fun!” Piya was reminded of her own dad. He was adventurous, fun-loving and reckless. On the other hand, her mom was hardworking, organized and risk-averse. Piya used to love playing soccer with her father in the park near their house. She often felt very lonely without him. “Why did he not contact her ?” She remembered the scene that took place before he left. Piya had refused to talk to him about his affair. She was furious. “Don’t show us your face again,” she had screamed. Her mother sat in a corner sobbing away as if someone had died. “He hardly got a chance to explain himself,” Piya reflected. “Did he feel unwanted when mom worked for long hours on her research ? He may have longed for affection and intimacy.”
Piya kept up a friendly disposition but felt her headache getting worse. A group of four ladies in pretty summer dresses were waiting to be attended. She spilled a little coffee while preparing their orders. She found herself lacking energy and enthusiasm, just going through the motions of her job. When she was handing out the third cup, she suddenly fumbled and gave the cup a squeeze in an effort to recover. The cover of the cup came off and hot coffee poured over the beautiful dress of the customer who screamed out as the hot liquid trickled over her thighs. The four ladies were furious even though Piya tried to fix the situation by handing them a glass of ice. One lady tried to help the victim by putting ice on the burnt areas. Her other two friends went and complained to the store supervisor. They suspected deliberate negligence and inebriation.
The store supervisor Mrs Guzman was an irritable old lady who got agitated at the slightest problem. She pacified her customers by stroming out of her side office and yelling at Piya at the top of her voice. Piya was apologetic but tried to insist that it was not her fault. She explained her about her headache but it was words falling on deaf ears. In her impatience she retorted back “Please don’t make a scene here. Just leave.”
Piya plodded out of the store with a deep sigh. Even though she did her job sincerely, Ms Guzman judged her based on a single mistake. She seemed to be fighting her losing battles all alone in this unfriendly world. Tears trickled down her pale brown cheeks. She looked at the grey asphalt and saw little dark spots on it. When she looked up a few droplets landed on her face. It had started to rain. The gloomy evening was mirroring her frustrations. In a few minutes it was pouring heavily as Piya drove back home, crying.
Piya pecked on the dinner with little interest. Her thoughts were confused. “How can a person be good and bad at the same time?” Her mother saw her sad face and did not force her to eat more. “Don’t worry about it, shona. Things work out in the end. ” Piya asked her mother, “Ma, does Ms. Guzman hate me? But I did not mean to make her angry.” Her mom nodded. “I know that you didn’t. Most probably your dad did not mean to hurt us either.” Piya could not agree with her mom’s reasoning. “Ma, you never fight against the wrong. Why? Why don’t you file for divorce? You can find someone else to spend the rest of your life with.” “Piya, I don’t need to. Initially, I thought I lost everything. Then you came and hugged me. I realized I was not looking at the opportunities that life has already offered me. I have someone to live for. I have a job, friends and a comfortable place to live,” Dr. Sengupta smiled.
Piya wished she too could find happiness around her.”Here is riddle for you, my little one. It is the thing you need most. The funny part is you have to give it in order to feel it all around you. What is it?” Piya needed to clear her mind. After dinner she slipped on a light jacket and went outside for a walk. Staring into the vast emptiness above, she wondered if the answer was “love”. She still had one question. “Why do I end up hating people I was meant to love? “
The night was clear after the shower and the air was fresh and crisp. The northern Colorado sky was teeming with tiny sparkles of bluish white, pale yellow and light pink. They spread out in intricate patterns over the great expanse. Piya sat down on a bench in the open park area near her house. Looking at the stars for some time, she discovered shapes that were familiar. Gazing on carelessly, she found the patterns dissolve and melt into something else. It made her wonder if the nature was living and breathing, springing surprises in unexpected ways. “Is that a little bunny hiding behind a bush?”
She was suddenly aware of some scratchy noise behind her. Piya turned her head sideways and saw a dark form of a tall well-built man approaching the park. There was something rectangular sticking out of his pocket. A cold sweat ran down her spine. ” Was that a revolver in his pocket? Could it be that sly-looking man from the coffee shop,” her mind raced. She felt uncomfortable remembering how he had ogled her earlier. “I hope he does not see me in the dark,” she feared. She glanced back again and saw the man coming closer towards her bench. In a quick reflex, Piya got up from the bench and started to run as fast as she could. The shadow form stopped abruptly and waited for a few seconds near the bench, as if startled. Piya was running away from the park towards the opposite sidewalk. The street lamps provided a dim lighting, enough to reveal the slim attractive figure of the young girl. The shadow form turned its head in her direction and reacted immediately. The stranger started to run after her with big strides.
Piya took a turn into a narrow dingy side-road, thinking she would lose him. Unfortunately, the person was fast enough to notice her before she disappeared round the corner. He kept on behind her even though it was pitch dark. The tall man was gaining on her with the long strides. Piya surged forward with a heaving chest and a growing awareness that it was but a lost race. He finally grabbed her jacket collar and turned her around to face him. Piya struggled to free herself but the man gripped her by the shoulders and pinned her against his body. His hold was very strong and she gave in. Exhausted, she rested her head on his chest, she was aware of a strangely familiar perfume. “Is this the perfume I once bought Dad for his birthday? But it couldn’t be,” she thought. It was strong and provocative. The masculine body made her desirous for a split second. In the next moment she was horrified by her own thoughts. “What is happening to me? This rascal could rape me and technically it won’t be a rape,” she shivered with revulsion.
The strange man picked her up in his muscular arms and started to head back towards the park. A few seconds went by in silence when she imagined the iron grip becoming loose. He finally released her on the ground. At that terrifying moment, she closed her eyes and her mind went totally numb. Maybe he would to kill her with that gun in his pocket after he was done using her. Piya’s heart stopped in anticipation of the danger that was imminent.
She was shaken out of her stupor by a familiar voice nearby, calling her name. “Piya !!! What’s the matter with you? Look at me,” it commanded her. She opened her eyes slowly. In the dim light of the street lamps, she perceived a pair of dark intense eyes looking at her. The man had a fair complexion, short dark hair and was in his early twenties He had a partly confused but expectant look on his handsome face. Piya sprung to her feet. “Dan? What are you doing here? ” Piya asked. “You had scared the life out of me!! I am surely glad that you are not the crook from the coffee shop.”
Dan Miller and Piya were studying in the same college. Dan was in his senior year as a graduate student in the Physics department. Piya was a sophomore in the undergraduate Geophysics program. They first met at a Material Science class last fall. Piya came in late that day and in a hurry to sit down, slipped and fell on the ground. The whole class roared with laughter. Piya’s cheeks grew ruddy with embarrassment. She was about to cry when she noticed a kind face smiling at her reassuringly. Later on, he spotted her in the library poring over a journal. Sitting down at the same table, he made a funny remark about how he once slipped in the mud while playing soccer. Piya burst out, giggling. Dan started to notice her from that day onward. For the sophomore, a lot of the theory was brand new. Dan was amused and intrigued by the questions Piya asked Professor Duncan, in class. In a short time, Dan found himself attracted to Piya.
They talked more often and began share general information about each other. Piya found out that his mother worked at the same place as her dad. Dan’s father had passed away two years ago. They also talked about the class. Dan suggested, “The best way to learn a subject is to do research work on it. Why don’t you write a resume’ and apply for a Research Assistantship position in the department?” Piya took this advice seriously. She wrote up her resume’ and later showed it to him for feedback. They started to meet regularly at the library to work on their class assignments. Sometimes when it got late, they would go have dinner together before he dropped her home. On one such night, Dan saw Piya’s father, Mr. Sengupta.
It was a spring afternoon. Dan and Piya were walking together to the cafeteria. The cherry and crab apple trees looked pretty with the burgeoning branches of white and pink. The sky was clear and blue with wisps of white clouds. The bright golden sunshine made everything happy. But Dan had something unpleasant to share. He cleared his throat and chose the words carefully. “When I got home, last night, I saw your father coming out of my mom’s bedroom.” Mr. Sengupta and Mrs Miller, tired of their lonely lives, had chosen to get intimate with each other.
Piya was shocked. She thought Dan was lying. Was this an extremely mean joke he had conjured up? She ran off and called her mother. But by then, her dad had already broken the news to her mom. This painful development abruptly ended their young friendship.
“Remember, you gave me your resume few months ago? I showed it to Professor Duncan after he came back from his semester long sabbatical.” “What did he think?” Piya hesitated to ask. “Oh, he is really interested! He wants to meet you at 10:00 AM tomorrow.” Dan had been trying to reach her for the past two hours without success. Finally, he decided to come to her house and give her the good news. “Have you lost your phone or changed the number?” Piya had left her phone in the car when she got home. She was so dejected that it never occurred to her that she did not have the phone on her. “How did you know to come here?” she wondered aloud. “Your mom asked me to look around the neighborhood park,” he replied. However, Piya could not let her guard down.
She could not fathom why Dan was carrying a handgun in his pocket. May be Dan’s mother had sent him to kill her after all. Then her dad will never be able to come back to Piya. The job offer was probably just a bait to distract her. “Um…Sorry, if you got scared but I really wanted you to get the message. I actually have to run back now. I have a submission tomorrow,” Dan said scratching his head and turning to go. Piya waited with bated breath as he lowered his right hand to his pocket and felt for the square article. Her body trembled for a moment when the last shred of strength seemed to leave her. But what happened afterward did not match her expectations at all.
“Oh wait! Here’s something to celebrate.” Dan pulled out a chocolate bar from his pocket and handed it to her. Piya scrutinized the white cardboard package in her shaking hands. It had a picture of a brown square piece of Swiss chocolate. It looked nothing like a firearm from any angle. The light and shadow had played tricks with her mind. She was silently laughing at her own folly.
By then, Dan had his back towards her and was slowly disappearing into the dimness of the night. “Dan, please don’t go,” she cried. The urgency of the parting moment brought home the fact that Piya longed for Dan’s company. His feelings were not too different either. He was looking for an excuse to stay and her request was reason enough. He retraced his steps back to the street-lamp, much to her relief and joy. Piya opened her arms wide and gave her friend a big bear hug. “You are the best!” A broad smile brightened his face as he finally got the reaction he had always longed for. Finding her so close, he kissed her lightly on her forehead. Together, they sat down on the bench, happily munching on the treat.
Dan told her that Mr. Sengupta was really nice to him. They had gone hunting and fly-fishing together, a few times. “But he often seems sad and lost. Then he gets into these long arguments with mom over little things that make no sense.” Dan thought her dad wanted to reconcile with Piya. “He really misses you,” he added, before heading back. Piya ran home to tell her mother that all hope was not lost. Her mom hugged her and agreed. She had good news for her too. She was working on a cure for depression and had discovered the perfect medicine. Her work received official recognition that evening in the national news.
That night Piya went to bed still thinking about the riddle. She found herself high up in the sky in a colorful balloon. She was wearing a sun hat and a flowery dress. It was calm all around. She looked at the tiny houses and roads below. It reminded her of those childhood toys. She wondered if it was her world of imagination built by LEGO pieces. A sudden gust of wind blew away her hat. In an effort to hold on to it, Piya reached the edge of the wicker basket and was about to lose her balance. Fortunately, a hand came at the right moment and grabbed her. This helped her stabilize. Piya turned back and saw her dad right next to her. “Daddy, I thought I had lost you forever. I am so glad you are back. It felt horrible to be angry with you,” she smiled at her father. Piya put her head on his shoulder and wrapped her arm around him. “I love you,” she said. Her father put his palm on her head and ran his fingers through her hair.”I will always be by your side” he promised. “So why did you leave me earlier?” Piya asked. The old man had a twinkle in his eye. “I hid myself. How else could I know that you truly love me?” he remarked. Piya’s lips trembled and tears of joy poured from her eyes.