1| A Chance Meeting
Damn Murphy's law. Vanya Rathod nearly growled to herself as she heard the sound of car tyre bursting.
To be honest, she had been expecting it. The stretch of road that she had just crossed at the Tarek-Nalpur highway had been terrible. The potholes in the road had bumped and shaken the car real bad and Vanya was trying her best to avoid the sharp stones littered on the road.
But evidently, her efforts were not enough.
The car had started wobbling immediately after the stretch and Vanya had decreased the speed of the car exponentially.
But the inevitable still happened.
Vanya sighed as she shut down the air-conditioner of the car and rolled down the window of her sleek and pricey car.
The hot afternoon air at the highway of the city of Tarek was sweltering, probably hinting of rains in the evening.
But then Vanya took in a deep breath and ignored all that. She was tired because she had been driving from the morning and all she wanted to do was reach Nalpur and hit the sack.
But that was not to happen right now.
She sighed as she pressed the button for opening the trunk of her car. Because Murphy's law apparently did not extent to tired girls driving from the morning. At least her car did not extend her the courtesy and Vanya's car just burst the tyre tube at the highway.
Ignoring everything, Vanya just opened the car and looked at the four tyres of the car and stopped at the front right wheel.
The tyre was in bad shape.
Vanya nearly gasped as she carefully pulled out a huge and sharp pebble from the tube of the tyre. Looking at it, she realized that this tyre had literally run its last mile.
Sighing she went to the trunk and pulled out the jack from there.
She was trying to place the jack under the car, when the first drop of water poured down her shoulder.
At first she did not believe it. It was swelteringly hot… there was no way that it was a rain drop.
Vanya did not even complete the thought when the rain abandoned all pretexts and the next drop came in a little faster.
The sun was there.… But then so was the rain.
"Traitor!" Vanya called the sky and looked at it angrily like as if she expected Nature to talk back to Vanya and justify Her actions.
Vanya hurriedly pulled out the jack from the car.
But then Nature was just not in a mood – She just started lashing out Her rain, irrespective of the sun.
Sighing Vanya gave up. She was about to get inside her car and looked unhappily at her dying cell phone which was when she heard it.
She was so glad as she heard the other car on the road.
The best part was the car seemed to slow down as it came near her.
Vanya was feeling happy as the vehicle stopped a few inches before her.
Aadav hated the rain.
The bullet wound in his knee always hurt him as he saw the rain.
Because that was what the rain reminded him of. He could remember with crystal clear clarity of the events three years back.
It had been pouring as he was sitting crouched inside the cold cave waiting for his back up to arrive and none of his soldiers were with him. Aadav and his team had been ambushed suddenly and he had stopped back making sure his people could get away from the place. Just as the last jawan had left the place, Aadav had been shot in the calf of his knee. He had ordered his jawan away because he realized that he was just slowing them down.
He had patched his own wound. He had even survived the next three hours as he was trying to keep a watchful eye on the enemy, making sure that they did not stop his people.
He had survived as his people had found him and taken him back to base camp.
But that had been the last mission for Aadav.
Aadav knew that he could no longer walk – not with that leg. That was a miserable day for him. Because this was what he had wanted – to join the army. He had done it too.
Only for it to brutally come to an end. A rainy day and a single bullet wound had stopped his career in the army.
But then Aadav had not been one to let his past mess up with his future. He was just not built that way. He had accepted the fact that the civilian life was what he had and had started his own company. He provided security details for events and security proofing for companies – look into the employees whom the company was going to give an offer letter to.... And frankly Aadav was good at his job. In two years, his company had become one of the most preferred one in the city of Tarek and Aadav should have been satisfied with the way his life had turned out.
But then during the rain, his bullet wound still hurt.
He was trying not to think all this as he was driving across to the city of Nalpur to attend a seminar on the latest techniques in improvements in security details, which was when Aadav saw a strange sight on the highway.
The girl was beautiful. She was tall and was slightly slender – not like the pencil thin models, but a little more on the healthier side.
Those things did not catch his attention.
The girl's car tyre burst and she was studying it calmly. From the trunk of the car she had pulled out the jack and was working on the car. That was something that Aadav had not seen for a long time. It was obvious that the girl was good with her hands as she was pulling the jack with a practised ease.
Which was when the rains poured in.
It was her eyes which surprised him. Her eyes were a mad colour of brown and she looked very annoyed at the rain. Somehow to Aadav, the rain and her anger blended perfectly. Almost as if they were the same.
He stopped the vehicle more from reflex than any other reason, and up close, he found her brown eyes almost forceful.
"Do you need a lift, ma'am?" He asked her slowly.
Of course, he could have started the conversation with the stupid "What seems to be the problem here?"
And then the conversation would have gone as the girl would have possibly explained that her tyre was punctured or something stupidly obvious.
But somehow Aadav was just not in a mood.
But the girl still surprised Aadav.
"Ma'am?" She looked horrified at herself and then she looked at Aadav. "Do I look like a ma'am to you?"
Aadav sighed. She was getting wet in the rain. She had a broken down vehicle and with all that, she was still bothered about this.
Aadav finally realized something that he should have known a long time ago – the world was really not a place for being a nice guy or even a polite one. He was in half a mood to drive away, which was when the girl surprised him some more.
"Anyway, it really does not matter." She continued as she was looking annoyed at her car. "I have to reach Nalpur by tomorrow and I can't repair my car tyre puncture in this rain. My cell phone is almost running out of battery and I cannot call anyone. So yes, I need a lift." She spoke fast as every word almost slipped on top of the other. She still did not wait for Aadav to say anything else, as she walked up to the front of her car.
Her faded jeans and her white shirt accentuated her slender figure as she pulled out a jacket from the front of her car.
She locked her car and got inside the front of his car.
"Hi! I am Vanya Rathod." She told him with a bright smile as she was dripping slightly in the rain. "Who are you?"
"Someone who does not talk so much." Aadav muttered in a small voice as he started the vehicle, wondering exactly what he was getting into.
2| The Dr....i......ve on the Highway
"I have been driving from the morning. You see, it is a matter of great importance that I get to Nalpur as soon as possible. I need to meet Mr. Khare tomorrow morning and that was the reason I started from Tarek today itself. I have never had a driver. So I have to drive the car myself. It would take at least six hours for me to get to Nalpur – that was the reason I started today itself. Still, I had a flat tyre...."
Aadav took a deep breath. He needed it. He really needed it. He had been driving for the past five hours and frankly the first four and half hours had gone so fast that Aadav had not even known it.
The past half an hour, since the rains had started had been different. Horrifyingly different.
Aadav was by default a man who talked very less. He understood a lot in his life and he just did not talk much. That was something which had practically been drummed into his head his entire life. Aadav unfortunately thought that all people were like that. In his past twenty eight years he had generally met people like that.
And today he had not.
"You have not told me about yourself." Vanya told Aadav finally looking at him as her eyes were looking thrilled.
Aadav was completely not sure whether her sudden interest in him was because she just had nothing to talk anymore or because she had run out of breath. In the girl's case both were completely probable scenarios as far as Aadav was concerned.
"I have not told you anything about myself." Aadav said truthfully. That had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Aadav was a quiet man or anything normal like that. Because even if Aadav had been in a mood, he could not have told the girl anything about himself. She just would not let him.
"What is wrong with you man?" She demanded in a completely aghast tone at his silence.
This was the limit for Aadav. The limit.
"You are sitting inside my car on a deserted highway and we are driving! What do you expect to be wrong with me?" He demanded trying his best not to get exasperated. That was a wasted effort because he was not exasperated. He was beyond all that.
Vanya looked at him and a few seconds later she looked at him with slight fear. Very slight fear.
"You are a psycho? Or something like that?" She asked him and for once she spoke in a slight whisper.
Aadav opened his mouth and words did not come out. It just would not.
He could not even remember his bullet wound anymore. His head was hurting him a lot more. Almost painfully more.
"You are supposed to say no!" She told him after a few seconds of silence in the car.
"If I say no, will you keep your mouth shut?" Aadav asked after a few seconds. That was honestly the best answer that he could think up of – even after the 'prompting' from Vanya.
For the first time in half an hour, Vanya blinked as she stared at Aadav. "How is my keeping quiet and you not being a psycho connected?"
Aadav took another deep breath. This was so not going to work out. He was going to die of a headache. And he knew that for a certainty. He had not even been thinking of his death when he was looking down the eye of his enemy.
"Where should I be dropping you?" He asked her weakly.
"At Nalpur!" She said looking at Aadav like he was stupid.
Aadav nearly choked. Nearly. Which was exactly why there was a five second delay in his response.
"Where at Nalpur?" He demanded after he was reasonably certain that his head was not going to burst – either from anger or some other reason which was probably mundane and simple.
"Oh that!" She told him nodding after a few seconds. "You see I cannot stay at Mr. Khare's home. I am after all going to negotiate with him. So I made reservations elsewhere. The place needs to be very near Mr. Khare's place too. So I tried to book a hotel which was very close to his house. There was only one hotel I could find like that. So, though the hotel is far away from the city, I tried to make reservations there. Do you know the Rivera Towers?"
Aadav breathed again. He wondered whether smoke was coming out of his ears or his head. Both was not only probable, but something completely possible right now.
"Yes." He said safely. He just could not talk anymore. He needed some silence.
"Well, I thought of getting reservations at Rivera Towers. But I did not get it. The hotel is full." She started again. "So I had to get reservations at some other hotel. My agent said he would call me as soon as I reach Nalpur and let me know which hotel to go to."
Until half an hour back, Aadav was just a tired and lonely guy.
Now, he was a guy who was genuinely hoping to be lonely. He was already tired. Far too much. Because three seconds back, Aadav promised himself that he was never helping girls again. Any girls. But then he had been glad that all this was over with Rivera Towers. But now, even going to the Rivera Towers was not going to give him any solace.... Now, Aadav knew exactly how a death convict with an unspecified death sentence felt like.
"The rains just don't seem to be stopping today." Aadav muttered to himself as his car wiper was fighting a losing battle with the rains.
And that was when the girl surprised him. "See, I knew you were not a psycho." She told him a little proudly.
Aadav blinked. He almost turned back to see whether the girl was talking to someone else in the car and then stopped himself. He was so not doing that. It was his car and he had given a lift to only one girl…
And besides Aadav was genuinely worried about opening his mouth. He was worried that if he asked any questions about how Vanya managed to reach that conclusion or if he even showed a hint that he was actually listening to anything that Ms. Vanya Rathod was saying, she may launch into another paragraph and tell him something else which may probably cook his ears.
But then Aadav had made a rank bad judgment. Unasked questions never bothered Vanya and she could just ferret them out of anywhere.
"If you were a psycho or someone else like that, you would not have been such a nice guy." She told him with a cute smile.
Aadav's shoulder's sagged. He wondered whether he had just been complimented. He really was not sure. Besides he was not sure, he wanted to talk at all. He needed some silence.
"You know back at my college, when I was still studying, we had a problem like this there. There was a guy and he was so weird..." Vanya somehow felt the need to explain to Aadav about some unnamed guy in her college who had probably seen a hell lot of movies or was probably a genuinely sick guy or Vanya was really exaggerating about the guy's activities.... And what Aadav really remembered was that he was almost praying for Vanya to get to the end of the paragraph.
His ears were really hurting him.
Three minutes later, his wish was granted as she finished her sentence with a, "That is why I am so sure you are not a psycho!"
"I am not so sure of it at all." Aadav muttered as he turned left and wondered when he was going to reach Nalpur.
3| ‘Watching’ moments
Damn Murphy's law.
Till date, Aadav did not think much about Murphy's law. Actually, he had been pretty much a staunch believer that whatever had to go wrong would go wrong and he always planned accordingly.
But looking at the "Take Diversion" board on the highway and a girl who had been yammering for the past ten minutes about something having to do with "college" and "friends" – two of the only words from her conversation which Aadav could pay attention to, as he was driving through the highway – Aadav was becoming a serious believer in Murphy's law.
The girl did not know the meaning of keeping quiet and Aadav was being thrown in circumstances which was just prolonging her stay in his car.
"Have you driven through this stretch of the Tarek-Nalpur highway?" She asked him as she stopped to take a breath to study the road and the signs on it. "Because this is the first time I have traveled on this highway. I did not know that the highway stretch was so bad or that it would have so many diversions." She said launching into another paragraph.
Aadav sighed. "This is my first time to Nalpur." He spoke fast because he wanted to finish talking before Vanya could start talking again.
He looked at Vanya as she was studying the scenery around them and the slight darkening skies.
The sun had long since bowed away to the rains and it was steadily getting darker. Aadav glanced at his watch and looked shocked – because at eleven in the morning, the weather looked close to six in the evening and what Aadav really could not believe was that just 45 minutes back the sun had been blazing through.
"That is a strange watch that you are wearing."
Aadav suddenly looked at his watch and saw her study it with open curiosity and felt a little self-conscious about it. It was a gift – from his men back at the army. Aadav had always worn it. It reminded him of who he had been and what he could do – if he really set his mind to it.
"Is it a gift?" She asked him as she studied his watch some more.
Aadav said nothing as he pulled the cuff of the shirt to cover his watch.
He studied the brown eyes which were looking at him with open curiosity – that was when Aadav realized – the girl saw everything. She observed and she also talked. There was an openness in her – she trusted people. She carried her heart on her sleeve because she still had a heart which was not broken. She loved life.... and loved people too.
And suddenly Aadav's heart was aching. In his world there was no place for that degree of.... innocence. In his world, people were cutthroats and survived by burying others – they did not have time to actually look at another person or even look at them for what they were.
"Yes, it is a gift." Aadav said as she was still looking at his wrist.
"It is beautiful." She told him with a smile. "Why did they gift a watch to you? She asked immediately.
Suddenly Aadav smiled. A minute back the girl seemed impertinent. She was always talking and she poked her nose into things which were completely not her business. She had to comment about everything that she saw. But now Aadav realized that that was what the girl was. She loved people too much. She cared about people and showed her care by talking to them and sometimes listening to them. She was not impertinent. She was just too curious.
"It is something from my past." Aadav said grudgingly. Talking about himself was not one of his chief hobbies. Hell, talking itself was not something that he was good at. Besides the girl seemed to do a lot of it. It seemed reasonable that he at least keep his mouth shut. Having two talkative people in one car, seemed honestly more than what the car could take.
But now, she was expecting an answer from him.
"Of course, it is from your past. I know that." She said with an annoyed pout. "You are not going to wear anything from someone else's past, are you?" She demanded still looking annoyed at him.
Aadav would have snorted at her. Just that he could not stop chuckling. Her words were just having that effect on him.
And she still continued to astound him. "You are from the army, aren't you? That gift is from your people at the army, isn't it?" She asked him with another cute smile.
He looked blankly at her and then looked at himself, wondering what gave it away.
Well, he was not from the army. Not anymore. But at least, he did not expect someone else to know of his connection with the army. Especially not this girl.
She chuckled as she looked at him. "You look really weird." She told him with a serious expression though she was giggling.
"How did you know?" He asked her finally.
"A stiff back which never touches the seat of the car, a crew cut hairstyle; eyes which look serious enough to drown me," She said rolling her eyes at the last sentence. "And 'ma'am'?" She said shaking her head. "You can as well stick a board on your forehead which says 'I work in the army'." She stopped talking and frowned as she stared at him.
For a brief second, Aadav genuinely felt that she was trying to imagine him with a board like that, struck on his forehead.
Aadav was right.
"Though you would look very odd if you have a board like that!" She added grudgingly.
Aadav was tempted to laugh like a hyena. Just that he was very stunned which was what was interfering with his normal reactions.
"I am not in the army anymore." He told her suddenly. He had no idea why he was telling her this piece of information. He had never told anyone else that before. But then the girl seemed to have that effect on him.
She still continued to astound him because she was silent at his words – suddenly silent – a silence which was louder than all her talking before it.
"It is ok, Major." She finally told him. "You can only take a man out of the army. Not the army out of a man. Especially, out of a man like you."
He was silent. And for once he really wanted to hear those words... It seemed... soothing.
The car was silent for the whole of the next three minutes.
Naturally she broke it. "Well Major, who gave you the watch?" She asked him again.
"I am not a Major." He told her and he was unable to stop chuckling.
"You are a major. You are above eighteen aren’t you?" She said as she started giggling. "And that still does not answer my question."
Aadav could not stop laughing as he joined her.
4| Another Stop
Officially, the tar roads had ended about a kilometer back – that was when they had stepped out of the highway. The road to which they had been 'diverted' seemed to be a heavily rocky terrain and the place hardly looked motorable.
The constant drip, drip, drip from the heavens was making it worse.
The vehicle rolled and wheezed and grunted and the girl winced as she looked at the road.
It was so bad that she had even stopped talking for a few minutes. Which was by far the best thing which had happened since Aadav had stepped out of the highway.
But then looking at the road, the girl winced and started talking again – which told Aadav that the girl talked when she was nervous.... Ok, that sentence was wrong. The girl also talked when she was nervous. A lot.
Enough to make others nervous.
And she was completely responsible for his slight worry right now.
As a rule, Aadav did not get nervous. Ever. He had learnt that life was too unpredictable for him to get nervous about. But right now, Aadav was worried.
Because he was back in inhospitable conditions and was looking for another fight with Nature. That did not worry him. He was with a girl this time and she was not going to be much help... Which was probably an understatement.
"The 'Take Diversion' board was probably wrong." She told him as her eyes suddenly looked worried. "I mean probably the board was meant to point at some other place and it was changed. Probably, it was changed so that people would get lost. Probably...."
"Probably you would let me concentrate here. I am trying to control the vehicle and make sure we don't die – or something simple like that." Aadav said gritting his teeth interrupting Vanya and he winced as the car ran through another bad stretch of land.
"For such a smart guy, you really are an idiot."
Aadav blinked as he turned his attention from the road to her. Just for a brief second. But the brief second was enough to tell him that she was angry. And Aadav for his part blinked. Really blinked.
"I am trying to drive safely and that makes me an idiot?" He was really gritting his teeth and he looked back at the road.
He winced as the car ran over another rocky stretch and the vehicle wobbled worse.
"No! That does not make you an idiot."
Now, she seemed magnificently unperturbed about the general conditions of the road or anything else. She just seemed keen on pointing out the fact that he was an idiot.
Aadav actually agreed with her. He was driving through a rain lashed surroundings and he was not too sure whether his car was going to make it out and his only 'help' right now was a girl who besides making uncannily accurate descriptions about people had a superpower of being unable to stop talking – and there was not a single thing he could do about the former or the latter – oh yeah, he was definitely an idiot.
"You cannot control the road or the vehicle on such a road. The fact that you think you can do either, is what makes you an idiot!" She told him in a serious tone.
"Philosophy!" Aadav nearly broke his tooth because he had bitten it off and he was struggling not to yell obscenities. "That's exactly how I pictured I was going to die – the rain lashing outside, a girl who is incapable of keeping quiet and with me praying that my car did not conk out." He was panting real hard by the end of the sentence.
There was a shocked silence in the car. In fact the silence was so loud that Aadav could actually hear the continuous drumming of the raindrops on the roof of the car.
"Really?" She asked him after five full seconds. "You look twenty eight or something around that age. Even if you were in the army, why the hell are you dreaming of your death? That is very bad." She told him in an even more serious tone.
This time Aadav really bit off his tongue trying not to yell.
There was no point in it. Whether she actually understood or not, she would just not stop talking. About anything. And that was that. There was an incongruous part of him, wondering whether he should have told her that he was a psycho and made those weird faces that he had seen those villains in movies make – then there was a chance that she would keep her mouth shut and he could die in peace.
Aadav could not understand it. He was usually very clear about people – he could identify people easily – he either got along with them or he did not. Until now, there was no middle ground for him in that regard.
But the girl fell in the middle ground. Effortlessly.
In the 45 minutes that he had known her, she could completely floor him by her talk – she could make him smile and also drive him to exasperation. All at the same time. He just did not know how a single girl could have that effect on him.
After a very long time, he felt like he was looking at a girl who had multiple layers and all of them were transparent and no matter how many layers he removed from her, she still seemed to be someone different.
She sighed shaking her head. "If you want I can drive the car. I am good...."
"STAY AWAY FROM THIS CAR, LADY!" Aadav was half threatening and half whimpering. He was not too sure about how well the girl could drive. But he was definitely not doing it – that somehow seemed to be a one-way recipe to something very dangerous.
"You want me out of the car?" She asked him with hurt eyes.
"Do be quiet!" He snapped and Aadav just stopped himself from cussing. Just about.
He swerved sharply and made a merciful discovery that the rocky terrain patch was over. It was back to the tar road. And his vehicle looked fairly good. At least it had made it through.
Which just went on to show that Aadav had sighed in relief too fast.
At the first step in the tar road, the car wobbled. Almost exactly the way Aadav had seen Vanya's car, a few kilometers back.
Even before Aadav could articulate it as he saw a small "Welcome to Irragon" sign board at the side of the road, the car wobbled hard and suddenly unceremoniously, the vehicle stopped.
Right in the middle of the rain, the car just stopped.
Vanya did not understand the man's silence. He seemed brooding. It was obvious that some event in his past had hurt him. But Vanya could not figure out what it was.
He seemed to get annoyed at everything and not particularly at her. Though, she could see that right now, her talking was getting on his nerves a lot. That Vanya just did not understand. All her friends loved her for her talk. All her friends came to her with their problems and she solved them – she had always been like that. Right from school. She just did not understand why this man was different.
She was thinking all this which was when the blessed vehicle stopped. Just stopped.
The rough path. Vanya sighed as she realized that either there was a problem with the tyre or with the exhaust pipe. Both Vanya had seen happen a lot. In the rains, generally when water entered the exhaust pipe, it was dangerous for the vehicle.
"I will check it out." She said pulling out the hoodie from her jacket to cover her face.
There was a silence in the car for a few minutes as she looked sharply at the man. Agreed, the man was silent. But this seemed like a different kind of silence from him – the one that she had been seeing till now – the 'I-am-shocked-at-what-you-are-saying' kind of silence.
"YOU WHAT?" He asked her.
"Hey, I can repair vehicles." She told him rolling her eyes. "My dad repaired most of his vehicles himself and he taught a lot to me." She sighed shaking her head. "Just because you are all army and being completely macho and an idiot, it does not mean I cannot handle stuff like this."
Her sentence was met with another round of blinking which honestly had become slightly endearing and very idiotic.
"I am not being macho!" He said after three full seconds.
"Fine!" She told him zipping her jacket. "You are not being an idiot." She got out of the vehicle without another word.
Aadav was well and truly shocked. He just did not know what to think anymore and his thoughts were in complete disarray. At that minute, he just knew that he could keep staring at this girl for the rest of his life and still he could never know anything about her.
The ease with which she stepped into the rain and was looking at the bonnet of the car had stunned him. He had imagined her as a.... He did not know what he had imagined her as – but he had thought that the girl was a party animal – the one who stayed at wild parties all night long and kept talking to people and bored them and in the end was a shoulder for her friends to cry on. She seemed that type – if that was a type. But then now, he realized that she was a girl who knew her mind and she knew stuff – a lot of stuff.
Aadav would have been shot rather than admit it, but he knew zilch about machines. Worse than that. He just had never bothered learning about it. It had not been important for him to know it and he was just not interested.
But the ease with which she was studying the engine out in the rain left him stunned.
"Try starting the vehicle!" She called him from the front, after a few minutes.
Aadav complied more from her tone, than the fact that she actually was the only person here who knew what she was doing.
The vehicle started. Albeit, it hankered and shook, but still it started.
He could hear her sigh in relief as she came to his window. "I think there is some moisture in the fuel tank – rain does that sometimes. You have now started the vehicle. Do not shut it down. We can drive as much as we can. But there is always a chance that the vehicle could stop anywhere."
Aadav nodded because she looked very sure of herself. He could sense that he knew exactly what she was talking about. Agreed that her words were not saying anything good about the vehicle. But then she seemed like she could handle it... And her hands were filled with grease.
"Do you have any old newspapers?" She asked him looking annoyed at her hands.
He vaguely pointed at the trunk of his vehicle as she nodded.
He opened the car trunk and the car wheezed slowly. He could hear her pull out some papers from the back as she removed her jacket and covered her seat with the paper. She sat on the paper and nodded at him.
"The engine did not stop. So the vehicle could continue running. It is your choice. We can take a break at any hotel in this place or we could try to make it to Nalpur. It is your call."
She looked at him and her brown eyes were looking at him with complete innocence and... something else. An undefinable expression – one that Aadav just could not identify. But suddenly Aadav just wanted to know about it.
"I think we can go to a hotel here and have some food." He told her finally. "We can book a ticket in the evening in some bus and I can get to Nalpur by night and so can you."