He was finally done for the day, his eyes hurt from all the proof-reading that he had been made to do and he could hardly straighten his back. As an intern his life was all about running errands and lifting equipment and working and trying to impress his seniors, he sank into his chair and the rusty old thing let out a sharp creak. He leaned back a little in order to hear that creak again, it reminded him of something. Suddenly, his head was filled with a quiet and musical voice, “She just can’t resist your innocent face, that’s all”, Piya sounded miffed. Nandu instantly expressed his whole-hearted agreement saying, “Yes, she always falls for those grey eyes and that blank face.”

Asad bent down trying to blow the sand and dust from the slightly tilted seat of the swing, he sat down and started swinging, counting the rhythmic creaks in his head. He stared at the stained plate in his sweaty palms and at the double helping of Halwa on it, trying to decide whether he should tell them. He decided against it and continued swinging quietly, letting Piya’s voice wash over him. All the other kids in the orphanage bullied him for being the matron’s favourite, Piya and Nandu were different; they were the only ones he spoke to. Every night as they lay huddled on one hard damp mattress, he spoke his heart out and they always listened. Some nights the matron took him to sleep with her, in her quarters where she lived with her husband. Those nights were his secret; he never shared anything about them with anybody, not even Piya.

It had started a year back when he turned eleven; the matron told him that as special treat on his birthday he could sleep with her for the night. He remembered being slightly taken aback and reluctant to take up her offer, he didn’t like her much and she scared him. She took him with her and put him to bed next to her sleeping husband, then asked him to go to sleep while she went to check up on the other kids. He lay there in the dark staring at the thin sliver of light coming in from the barely open window when suddenly he felt a cold hand creep up his shirt. He scrambled off the bed in fright, but the man was too big and he was too little. That night he learnt what pain was as he lay still, hours after the ordeal was over, involuntary and silent tears slipping down his cheekbones and pooling in his ears. Next morning the matron served him an extra chappati and a meaningful look during breakfast. A couple of days later, one evening a slightly older kid, accidentally pushed him to the ground, while another evening one accidentally tore his shirt. A few such accidents later he started maintaining his distance from them. The abandoned swing set was his favourite spot, it was close to the outer walls and more often than not sounds of life outside the orphanage could be heard. He sat there for hours, spinning stories in his head about the people who lived beyond that wall.

His visits to the matron’s house settled into a regular pattern, two nights a week he would lie quietly in the dark while a pair of cold clammy hands ran all over him, he always received the extra helpings at breakfast the next day. He was constantly bullied for being the matron’s favourite, he wished he wasn’t. One rainy day they were all woken up earlier than usual and asked to get dressed, make themselves proper. They knew what was coming; by the end of the day, if they were lucky, one of them would be leaving this place, to go live a different life. It was one of those rare occasions when some couple wanted to adopt a relatively older kid and they had to take a proper bath and put on clean clothes. The rest of the day still remains a blur for him, except for the five minutes when the matron had threatened him with dire consequences like returning to the orphanage if he ever spoke up. He still remembers those five minutes of horror pretty clearly. The other thing he could never forget was that he hadn’t been able to say goodbye to Piya or Nandu, he hadn’t been able to go to meet them by the broken swing set like he had promised. He remembers the alien feeling the next morning of waking up in a soft bed, in a room that was completely his. He had loved his new parents solely for rescuing him from the hell-hole; trust however had come much later.

Now, sitting on a creaky chair in a deserted office, he wondered what had happened to Piya and Nandu. He sat there thinking about going back, finding out more about them when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Ananya the other intern who had joined the office a couple of days ago, she wanted to know if he could drop her home as it was pretty late. Piya’s soothing voice and his aching back forgotten, Asad rushed to open the office door before Ananya could get to it.

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