After Life. Fiction by Swara Shukla

‘Gone.’

No. 

Splash more water. Feels tepid. Check if the tap is in the right direction. Yes. Cold. 

‘Dead.’ Keep your eyes shut this time. Maybe it’s better to ease your reflection into it. ‘She’s dead.’ 

Open your eyes a few inches, squint up at the mirror. You can’t see the face. Good. Keep it just like this. Blurred, out of focus. Should be easier without the eye contact.

‘She’s dead. Gone forever. She’s never coming back.’

Turn the tap a little bit to make the water drip louder. The silence is too pressuring, forcing the weight of all those words at once. Do it one by one. You are too frail still. Frayed. Fragile. Also fucked up and a fool, but we’ll deal with the other Fs later. 

‘She.’

Drip.

‘Is.’

Drip.

Drip.

Drip

Turn the tap off. 

‘Dead.’

***

Five missed calls. You know what they are going to ask. You know what they are going to expect to hear. It’s just how it is. Grief is constructed in a certain shape and form. Your world knows grief to be tangible, visible, a towering billboard of puffed eyes or a sliding tear that someone can wipe away. It’s not your world’s fault. Your world has been very busy tending to the many physical wounds that continue to bleed on it. And that is important too.

So, you don’t call back. They don’t know it, but your parents need that image of grief to be intact, a wound they can see and try to wipe clean. Your words won’t fit their lexicon right now and you don’t have any others to say. Leave your phone on the table and continue packing. Come to think of it, your parents might understand this analogy. Packing. Deciding what you need and leaving behind what you don’t. You can tell them that. That this is how you feel. You wish memories were like these clothes that you could segregate into useful and no-longer-useful. That you wish you could discard the memory of Tara’s lopsided smile reserved for Ayushmann Khurrana movies, or for when she blares – blared – the Avengers tune while flicking through some book. Like this shirt with the tear on it; why can’t you just throw away memories that have a Tara-shaped tear on them?

***

Obviously, sleep isn’t going to come easy. It’s dark, quiet, cues for your internal clock to start ticking. Yes, both of us know you don’t want it, but perhaps one dip will get it out of your system – better sooner than later anyway. 

It’s funny how defiant of external time it can be to sink inside yourself, right through the interstices in this lattice of threads interweaving tangibles and physicality and linear time. Tara used to hate these poetic rants. But she only exists in the interstices now, this one gaping gap that keeps widening so that it is incredibly easy to slip through it. It’s her fault this time.

You gasp and sit back up. 

‘No.’

You can’t slip. It makes your breath stop short and you are pretty sure if you sink, you won’t resurface. You won’t go that way. You refuse to chase her. She didn’t even have the decency to say goodbye. She left you with a stupid meme, of all things. You deserved more. Everyone thinks you have more. But you really know as much as anyone else.  

Slide off the bed to kneel and pull out your suitcase from underneath. Rummage inside to take out the unprescribed Xanax Tara had got you to stock from India. Of course, you hadn’t thought twice about it, the two of you had been using them for years to combat your insomnia. Trusted her too much, didn’t you?

Take out two 50 mg ones. Just enough to sleep. For a few hours. The memories are not good for you, not with the added weight of everything Tara never said to you. 

Gulp them down dry before you can think more on it.

***

Thud.

Thud thud thud thud.

THUD THUD THUD.

‘Alia WAKE THE FUCK UP!’

Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. 

THUD THUD THUD THUD. 

‘ALIA I SWEAR TO GOD I’M GONNA FUCKING BREAK YOUR DOOR DOWN.’

BZZZZ. BZZZZ. BZZZZ. 

Shit. 

And there it is. You are awake, and as anticipated, the first thing you register is the lurch. Something on your chest. Something in the pit of your stomach, or rather, the lack thereof. So much heaviness. You are not sure if you have breathed at all upto this moment and the only thing you can feel is crippling terror. 

The threat about the door registers now and you are on your feet. It is like living in fragments. One moment disjointed from the next, and yes you are full-on panicking about this terror that you are preemptively desperate to shake off or swerve; but we’ll deal with that later too, right now, just save your door. 

The entire flat has squeezed itself into the hallway outside your door. 

‘Wha-?’

‘WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?’ Max’s words are completely antithetical to the bone-crushing hug she has pulled you into. You can’t make out the expressions on the blurred faces behind her. It’s easier to close your eyes, and Max’s warmth feels nice. You hear ‘we thought –’ and ‘shh’ in quick succession but you can’t even tell Dan’s voice from Myra’s, which is a testament to how sluggish you are. 

‘Whazamatter?’ You cringe at your own garbled voice; your nose is clogged up and you still have the chest-weight – seriously, how are you breathing? Max is holding you by the shoulders at arm’s length, peering down into your eyes with near-medical intensity, which is odd – wasn’t Dan the medical student? 

‘Why weren’t you answering your door? Or your phone?’

You frown at Max to express your confusion at the breathlessness in her voice. ‘I was sleeping,’ you say, pointing with your thumb to the bed in the room behind you which you hope is suitably crumpled to prove your point. You also register that your phone is still buzzing from somewhere. 

To your surprise, this only makes Max’s face – and the others’, but you are trying not to look at them because too many faces – more concerned. 

‘Honey.’ You are not mindful enough to not cringe this time; Tara would scoff at these terms of endearment she thought were just desperately showy and the difference between your two best friends is particularly jarring right now. Max doesn’t seem to notice and moves closer, and you have the sense to not push her away. ‘Today was your flight to India, hun, remember? Your parents have been trying to reach you. I didn’t know it was today otherwise I would have woken you up sooner. Your mother called the student reception.’

Fuck. 

‘Was?’

‘Well, it leaves in an hour, you won’t make it.’

Fuck. A slight scraping in your throat tells you you said it aloud this time. 

‘I was asleep.’ That is reason enough. And now that they know it, you can retreat into the room and shut the door in their faces. 

***

‘If I ever publish a book – which I will, mind you – I will release them in airports. Come to think of it, I will do a book launch in an airport! Wonder why no one has thought of that yet!’

Tara had turned to give you a very deadpan look. ‘Because people here are scuttling about in fear of missing their flight and no one wants to waste a 25000-rupee-ticket on attending a book-launch?’

You had waved a hand dismissively, closing your eyes to the daydream. Eh, I’m sure we’ll figure out a way. It is much easier for a book to get picked up in the general stores here than in a bookstore in Delhi. I have got to tap into the target market.’

You hadn’t seen it, but you had been sure the chuckle she had let out from beside you had been fond and affectionate. It had made you warm all over. You had loved these moments with Tara, where you could go goofy and make her smile. It had felt really nice, to have someone who appreciated you for inane things like your daydreams.

The two of you had been squatting in the lounge chairs in front of a huge glass window in Dubai International Airport, looking out at the sprawling Arab city. It had been a stop-gate en route to Edinburgh; your flight from Delhi had got delayed, making you miss your connecting flight from Dubai. The Airport people had been nice enough to transfer your luggage and give you free meal passes to while away the six hours before the next flight. 

Tara had been very frustrated about the delay, and you had been sure she was just pretending. You had opened your eyes and turned sideways to look at her as she had sat looking at the city behind the glass-pane, noticing that she hadn’t been picking at her skin or biting down on her lower lip. You wonder now if she had known you were pretending too. 

***

Such a stupid meme. Also, Tara seemed to have forgotten that she had already sent you the same meme before – although alluding to a different movie. 

Or maybe she hadn’t?

‘Alia beta?’

‘Yeah? Yeah – I’m here.’

‘So? Don’t worry about the money, beta, just book your tickets again and you can be here for the thirteenth –’

‘No, Ma, I am not coming.’ 

A dull buzz in your ear informs you of more condolence messages coming in for you to ignore. 

‘But beta, she was –’ 

‘Yeah, yeah I know she was my fucking best friend, and that fact is also not contingent on me being in a certain country to bawl my eyes out on the thirteenth day of her death.’

Beta –’ 

‘Ma, I need to go. And stop worrying, I am not going to go and off myself just because she did. You lot are being ridiculous.’

You hang up and throw the phone on the bed before falling face-first into your pillow. A meme. An unanswered meme. She knew you, you were always lazy with your messages. There were so many other unanswered messages in her inbox, why was this one special? Or was it not? Was there always going to be a last straw?

You had thought you would respond to it the next day. Actually, who are you kidding – you didn’t really think the message needed a response, did you? Did Tara see that you had seen it? Did she want a response? Did she glance at her phone after each pill? Did it hurt her, like a punch to the stomach every time the screen remained black? Did she take each pill to stop the waiting? Did she die waiting for you? Could you have timed a ‘lol!’ correctly for once in your life and saved her?

***

‘I can’t believe it. Ugh – stop the movie I am too excited to sit still!’

Tara had shaken her head fondly and hit the spacebar to pause the movie playing on her laptop. You hadn’t understood why she hadn’t been matching your excitement. You had moved closer to her on the bed. She had been a bit too focused on the pizza slice she had just picked up. 

‘C’mon! Aren’t you excited we are going to be in the same university?’

‘’Course I am.’ She had smiled thinly, but had neither taken a bite of the slice nor her eyes off it.

‘Yeah I can feel the excitement dripping from your voice.’

She had finally looked at you then, her eyes apologetic. ‘I’m sorry, I am really really happy, guess just drained out. Felt like those applications would never end.’

‘Yeah, true, I am pretty tired too. I’ll look quite hypocritical once the adrenaline crash hits.’

She had chuckled again and finally taken a small, tentative bite. You had leaned back against the pillows, feeling uncomfortably full, and stolen a glance at Tara’s profile. Her exhaustion had been palpable – again. Her manic energy during the rounds of university and funding applications had been deceptive enough for you to forget Tara’s chronic fatigue. 

You had cleared your throat, attempting to cheer her up. ‘So – excited about Scotland? I have been there once, but I was too young to remember it. I cannot wait to do touristy stuff with you! What are you most excited about?’

She had shifted to look at you with an expression that told you you had asked a stupid question. ‘The course, obviously. We are going there to study after all.’

‘Yeah but we also have a life to live. Don’t be such a spoilsport.’

‘I am not a spoilsport.’

‘Then tell me, no? Join me in my excitement.’

‘My reason will just sound pathetic.’

‘Uh, hello? It’s me! I have practically known you my entire life. You can never be pathetic to me, silly.’

She had looked at you again, her face completely changed. She had given you a lopsided smile, so frail and tenuous. You wonder now if she had known that you’d registered the gravity of it. 

‘I don’t know, I just think – I mean I am afraid to hope but I think,’ her voice had dropped to a mumble at this point, something that would have been incoherent to anyone else. ‘There would be people from all over the world and everyone would be. . . different. In some way or the other. That would be interesting, you know?’

You had known. You cannot remember if you had nodded your head. You should have said it aloud.

***

It is admirable, really, how well you are restraining yourself from throwing the laptop on the ground and stomping on it. 

Rest in Peace. RIP. May God rest her soul.

You have counted seventy-two of these on Facebook itself. Someone has ‘memorialized’ Tara’s account – because keeping a dead person around in the virtual world when you never cared or probably knew about her existence in the real world was a noble thing to do in the modern age. 

You hear a scrape outside your door, and you look up from the laptop. You can see the distorted silhouette of feet in the space between your door and the floor. It’s probably Max. Again. You are grateful that they don’t knock anymore. 

Give her what she’s there to hear. Move the laptop off your lap to put it beside you on the bed, and get off with an audible thump. Pace around the room a little bit, deliberately dragging your feet. Open and close your closet door. Give out a fake cough before returning to your bed. 

You hear more shuffling, then fading footsteps, and eventually the very faint creak of the apartment door opening and shutting. 

Tears slide down your cheeks without your permission. It makes you angry that Tara’s flatmates weren’t like Max, that she was able to lie still and motionless, counting every last breath that left her body, for an entire day in a flat full of people. 

‘But you are all the way across the city!’

‘Yeah, but our campuses are miles apart, no? Tara, relax – we won’t stop being friends just because we can’t share a flat! This will be good for both of us, trust me.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Sorry. Good for us.’

***

[16:41, 05/08/2019] Tara: Making pulao today, every1s away for the weekend. Think Denise’s boyfriend is visiting, so theyre not getting out the room lol. Come over? I want to do a horror movie nght!

[16:42, 05/08/2019] Tara: how was class today? X

[19:43, 05/08/2019] Alia: Hey x sorry was out at a reading party, read my poem at the open mic. Drank some liquid courage and went for it! Howd the pulao turn out? X Not sure abt tonight hun, let me think abt tmrw instead? Have lots of reading to catch up on, kinda laggin behind in class ☹ 

[20:15, 05/08/2019] Tara: Yay, so proud. Which one did you read? Pls tell me it was that bear one lol. Its funny…jk. Pulao was fine, no prob abt tomorrow xx

[12:49, 06/08/2019] Tara: Morning, hope your not too hungover! What plans? x

[14:03, 06/08/2019] Alia: Heh u know me too well, my heads kiilin me its a nightmare x Still need to study, hun, don think am up for today, how abt u come over? Ill prob just be fretting abt my readings but Im always a treat to watch 😛

[14:51, 06/08/2019] Tara: Lol u keep telling yourself that 😛 Don’t worry abt it, u focus on your studies, I should do the same lol. Itll also gimme some time to process ur ‘hun’! Bitten by western slang, going sweet on me now? 😛

[15:52, 10/08/2019] Tara: *image attached*

[15:53, 10/08/2019] Tara: *image attached*

[15:53, 10/08/2019] Tara: *image attached*

[00:53, 11/08/2019] Alia: Lol!

[17:57, 11/08/2019] Tara: *image attached*

[17:57, 11/08/2019] Tara: My face when you use ‘hun’ 😛

[17:19, 15/08/2019] Tara: *image attached*

[17:38, 15/08/2019] Tara: *image attached*

[17:57, 15/08/2019] Tara: Reviewer: ‘Going to Mars is about as much of a challenge as chomping on a Mars chocolate bar — at least, that’s the impression this movie gives you.’

Man, I want to become a reviewer just so I can write sassy lines like these 😛

[23:23, 16/08/2019] Tara: *image attached*

***

About the contributor

Swara Shukla is a Creative Writing graduate from University of Glasgow. She has worked on developing a youth-to-youth publishing start-up called MageQuill based in the Scottish Highlands. Her work has been published in Scotland-based magazine Gutter, and is forthcoming in anthologies by Federation of Writers (Scotland) and Nottingham-based publisher Escaped Ink Press. She is currently part of the digital team at Penguin Random House India.

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