How do you explain losing your words to someone? When it’s the words that are gone, what would you even use? If she could, she would have told them it was like trying to cook without ingredients, paint without color, laugh without air. But there was nothing to tell them with.
They’d given her paper and a pen. As though it was her voice that was lost and not her words. They’d given her other things…
A ruler on her knuckles. Talk.
Hours in the punishment room. Talk.
Pills that made her sleep all day. Talk.
Baba’s tears. Please, beta, why won’t you talk?
If she could’ve done it, if she could have touched with her tongue all the things the monster had broken inside her when it broke her bones, if she could’ve spoken them without screaming so loud they burst Baba’s eardrums, his tears would have done it. But the thing that took your words in the first place could hardly be what brought them back.
In the end what brought her words back was not being asked.
The day he arrived at the foreign house, he had grabbed her hand and dragged her off the couch where she wept, unable to stop. Out the door and into the sunshine, he pulled her along as they ran and ran, hand in hand.
“It’s a magic tree,” he shouted, the way people shouted when they ran as fast as they could. “It’s like a castle, with bridges and towers and a moat.”
She sped up, racing him as though she ran across grass in her bare feet every day.
It wasn’t a castle at all. Just the biggest, tallest tree she’d ever seen.
“I’ll race you to the top,” he said, his hand still in hers.
She snatched it away and flew. Up on the bridge. Branch to branch to branch, rough bark scraping her soles, smooth leaves slapping her cheeks, higher and higher. Her feet clasping, her hands grasping until there was nowhere higher to go. Until sunshine and wind kissed her face and she was all the way at the top of the world where there was no one else but her, and a boy she’d never seen before today on the branch below.
“Wow! Can you teach me to climb like that?” he said, beaming at her with eyes exactly like the kaleidoscope Baba had given her back before her words went. Blue and silver, stars and sparkles. Remnants of bangles and beads, opening and closing and pulling her in. But it was the wonder in his eyes that changed everything.
No one had ever looked at Ria that way— no tentativeness, no pity, no fear. None of the things she sought out in eyes. Nothing that jumped out and demanded words and stole them. Nothing but a spotless invitation letting her in, and it let her out.
Standing up there on the frailest branch at the top of the tree, looking down at the face that would change her life, Ria’s tears stopped. After a week of leaking down her cheeks incessantly, they dried up just like that. For the first time since Baba had thrust her at the flight attendant and broken into a run without turning around to wave good-bye, her tears were gone.
“Who are you?” The words slipped out, her first after a year of silence.
“Vikram.” He said his name like it was a badge of honor. “Vikram Jathar. You want to be friends?”
Did ice princesses battle beaded fabric? And lose?
Ria tugged at the dress pulled halfway over her head and struggled to free herself. But the stubborn thing grabbed her breasts in a vicious grip and tied her up in a knot of hair, arms, and pure frustration. Somewhere to her left her phone continued its relentless ringing.
Folding over with the skill of a contortionist, she squeezed down her breasts—a photographer had called them “magnificent” today–maybe the blasted things had swelled with pride. She put all her strength into the next tug. The dress flew off, throwing Ria back on her substantially less magnificent behind. Thank God for the rug that pooled beneath her. Standing up, she used her foot to straighten the flaming orange silk that jarred against the white minimalism of her bedroom, mimicking her mood perfectly, and grabbed her cell phone off the nightstand.
“Yes, DJ?” she said in a voice so cool no one would ever know that she’d just been sparring with her clothes. If only acting in front of the camera were as easy as acting in real life.
“Isn’t that your sleaze ball agent?” Her cousin’s beloved all-American drawl instantly melted Ria’s irritation. Her tensed-up muscles relaxed. Then just as suddenly they went into a panicked spasm.
“Nikhil? It’s two in the morning! What’s wrong?”
“Ria, sweetie, everything’s okay. Calm down. Jeez.” Nikhil’s bratty smirk—the one he had perfected on her growing up—flashed in Ria’s mind. “Shit, is it really two in Mumbai? Sorry, I’m not used to Malawi time yet.” Nikhil and his girlfriend had just moved to Lilongwe for a medical mission. “You sound wide-awake. Are you at a shoot? Or did someone finally drag you to a party?”
Ria rolled her eyes and pulled her slip back in place. “Yeah. I decided it was time to come out of my shell.” Nikhil knew better than anyone else how dearly she valued said shell. She carried the dress into her closet and hung it in its color-appropriate spot and grabbed her oldest pair of shorts off a meticulous stack, adjusting it so its meticulousness stayed undisturbed.
“Good, because there’s somewhere you need to be.” Excitement simmered in Nikhil’s voice like the soda cans he liked to shake before he popped them open. Ria’s heartbeat sped up. “Jen and I picked a date,” he said, and the tiniest shadow of tentativeness crept into his voice.
Ria squeezed the phone between her ear and her shoulder and pulled on the shorts, her hands suddenly clammy.
“They’re giving us time off next month. After that we won’t be able to get away for another year. So we’re getting married in two weeks. And there’s no way we’re doing it without you.”
She grabbed the phone off her shoulder and clutched it to her racing heart for a second before bringing it back to her ear.
Nikhil cleared his throat. “Ria?”
She had to say something. But her breath was still trapped in her lungs. There was no way she could go back to Chicago. It had been ten years since she’d been home. Ten years since she’d pushed it away to where not even her dreams could touch it.
Nikhil sighed. “Listen, sweetie, will you at least think about it?”
She needed air. She crossed the room, the marble floor cold beneath her bare feet, and pushed past the French doors onto the balcony. The sweltering Mumbai night slammed into her as she left the air-conditioning. She sucked in a huge humid lungful and let it out. “Nikhil, I’m in the middle of a shooting schedule.” A lie. She’d sworn never to lie to him again.
He let out another sigh, heavy with disappointment. “It’s okay, Ria. I understand.”
Of course he understood. Every decision she’d ever made he’d stood by her like a rock, no questions asked. And here she was ready to miss his wedding. His wedding!
Wrapping an arm across her belly, she leaned into the railing. The rough-hewn sandstone scraped her elbows. Fourteen floors below, silver moonlight danced over the bay, the restless waves all turbulence under the steady rhythm. “Actually, you know what? I might be able to throw one of those diva tantrums and move things around. Give me a day to figure it out?”
“Oh, thank God!” he said with such relief that shame flooded through Ria. “You have no idea how badly I need you there. Jen’s going nuts with the traditional Indian wedding thing. She wants the vows around the fire, the henna ceremony, all sorts of dances and dinners. I swear she’s making some of those rituals up. She’s even talking about me arriving at the wedding on a damn horse!” His voice squeaked on the word and Ria couldn’t help but smile.
Jen was fire to Nikhil’s earth. Despite his whining, love colored his voice.
“You poor baby. Deep breaths.” Ria attempted one herself.
“And Aie’s not helping at all. She’s doing everything she can to encourage Jen.”
Of course Nikhil’s mother would support Jen explicitly. Ria knew only too well how fiercely her aunt loved. Uma Atya was the only mother Ria had ever known. All she wanted to do right now was crawl into one of her jasmine-scented hugs and block everything else out the way she had done as a child. “A horse isn’t that bad, Nikhil. In my last film, the groom used an elephant –it’s the latest craze.”
“Yikes!” Nikhil said. “Have Aie or Jen watched that one yet?”
“It isn’t out yet. But if you give them a hard time, I’m sending them a DVD.”
“Traitor,” he mumbled, laughing. Then he got serious again. “Ria, Just come home. Everything will be all right. Trust me.”
And with that impossible promise he was gone, leaving Ria leaning over the railing, suspended over the world, memories squeezing out of her heart with the force of seedlings breaking through concrete at the first sign of a crack. And idiot that she was, instead of pushing them back, she clutched at them the way a starving street urchin snatches at food.
She was going home.
No, just Vikram. Not Viky. Not anymore. Only she had ever called him that. He’d been her Viky since she was eight years old. Been as much her home as the redbrick Georgian that had changed her life once. He would never let anyone call him that again, not after what she had done to him.
The bay gleamed onyx in the moonlight. In a few hours the sun would paint the waves the palest gray-blue —an entire ocean the exact color of his eyes.
Great, now she was acting like one of those lovesick drama queens she played in her films. Next she’d be grudging them their absurd hope and their contrived happy endings.
No, she couldn’t go back.
But how could she not? Nikhil wasn’t just her cousin, he was her brother in every way that mattered. Maybe Vikram would choose not to come. But that was just as ridiculous. Vikram couldn’t miss Nikhil’s wedding any more than she could. Nikhil and his parents, Uma and Vijay—Ria’s aunt and uncle—were as much Vikram’s family as they were hers. Not to mention the fact that Vikram had never backed away from anything in his life. Except her.
She, on the other hand, had backing away down to an art.
The phone buzzed in her hand. A text from her agent. Trust DJ to be up at two in the morning texting her. Usually she had no trouble indulging his compulsive excitement about a new script, but right now she couldn’t think about work, not before she slipped back into Ice Princess mode. The press couldn’t have come up with a better nickname for her. It was perfect. Hard and cold and unbreachable. And she needed it now more than ever.
Instead of reading the text she reached behind her, gathered the heavy curtain of hair that hung down to her waist, and slung it over one shoulder in a loose twist. The movement hurt. But the familiar soreness in her muscles anchored her in the present, which is where she needed to be. This was her life. Two hours at the gym before a twelve-hour shooting schedule. Focusing on her body was the only way to keep the mess that was her mind buried deep, the numbing exhaustion the only way to put her to bed every night. Except tonight, there would be no sleep.
She leaned into the railing and stretched her back, arching up, then down like a cat. Rickshaws whirred in the distance, cars honked. Even at this hour, there was no silence in the city, no peace. Billboards and streetlights threw a twilight glow over the tightly clustered buildings and sparkled off the water like stars shooting out of an inverted sky. An intense urge to flip it the right side up overwhelmed her. She thrust her body over the railing and twisted around, letting her hair spill into the night.
The cell phone slipped from her hand and landed on something hard with a crack. She straightened up, frowning, and glanced around to find it. But it was gone.
Bloody hell. Her entire world, all her contacts, it was all in that phone. For a split second she considered not searching for it at all. It had disappeared and maybe she could disappear too. Go back home as though the past ten years had never happened.
But then the fluorescent screen flashed at her from the outer ledge of the swirling balusters and nipped her flight of fancy in the bud. There was no escape. She had to retrieve it. In one easy movement she pulled herself onto the railing and swung herself over it.
Her legs were too long for her body. They had always made her feel awkward and gangly. But now they made her lithe, almost graceful, as she landed on the wide cantilevered overhang. She picked up the phone and shoved it into her pocket. Her low-slung shorts slid even lower down her hips. A gust of wind caught her hair and lifted it into a flapping cape behind her. She faced the ocean. The old heady freedom of being so far away from the earth wrapped itself around her. She threw out her arms and let the unrestrained beauty of the sparkling night sink into every pore.
Suddenly a spark shone too strong, too bright, and broke through her trance. Then another. Then another. Blinking, Ria followed the flashes to the rooftop terrace of the neighboring building.
A hooded figure shrouded in black leaned over the concrete wall and reached into the meager space separating the two buildings. A giant bazooka-like contraption projected from his hands and he had it aimed straight at her.
The realization slammed into Ria, the force of it turning every cell in her body to lead and locking her in place, as the rapid flashes went off incessantly.
Suddenly they stopped. He moved the camera aside, looked directly at her, and made a bouncing, diving action with one hand.
He was signaling her to jump.