Hey, what’s up? Charu stepped out of the living room into the balcony to take Sam’s call. Alex walked back to the kitchen to leave her alone.

“Hey, what happened? Is everything okay with you?" Sam sounded paranoid. “I kept calling and messaging you."

I am not your girlfriend and even if I was, you have no right to speak like this to me. I can be doing anything or nothing at all, I will decide whose call to answer or not.

“No I was busy," Charu was curt and controlled her irritation.

“Okay," he paused for a second.

“But, you did not even have a minute to speak? You could have messaged?" he continued.

Charu remained silent.

“I was worried, you know?"

“I really missed you today."

“Sam don’t irritate me," Charu was angry, “And stop saying that you missed me. You really don’t know me to miss me and if I don’t pick up your call it does not mean I am being raped by someone. Even if I was, I would not be calling you."

“What is going on Charu? Why are you speaking so callously? Is anything upsetting you? I care for you sweetie," Sam yearned for her love.

“Sam stop all this, why did you call me?" she was direct.

“What the heck, why are behaving so distant as if there is nothing between us. Do you realize that we have made out twice? Does that count?" Sam raised his voice.

“Don’t give me attitude just because I am speaking softly, what are you doing so busy now? You are not even studying engineering, what can be so pressing in humanities?"

Charu remained silent but her face had turned red in anger.

“Who the fuck do you think you are? What do you mean when you say I am not studying engineering? Have I told you that you are a jerk?"

“Yes I like the times we spent together, but don’t take liberties or try to own me. I am not your girlfriend and even if I was, you have no right to speak like this to me. I can be doing anything or nothing at all, I will decide whose call to answer or not," Charu was livid.

“So you deliberately avoided my call. You lied that you were busy, no?" he continued to taunt her.

“Oh my god! I don’t believe this!" she punched her hand on the side wall. “Alright, I am with Alex sir at his house. Enough?"

“Have you been with him all night? It is 11 pm now? Are you still with him? What the fuck? If I find that bastard I will make minced meat out of him"

“Yeah right, try doing that, he will kick your ass," she replied with contempt.

“Now you are taking his side? I always wondered why you hang around with him always."

“Does he have the hots for you?"

“Shut the fuck up Sam," Charu was angry.

“Oh I get it, did you also give him a blow job?"

Charu disconnected the call and threw the phone which landed on the sofa.

***

Mani was in a bouncy mood that night. He wore the t shirt that Hari had bought for him a couple of weeks earlier. He had not seen Hari the entire day and his phone remained switched off.

“Maybe he had gone off photographing birds or turtles, he loves animals more than humans," he smiled, “But he would let me know if he ventured out of the campus."

The night was chill and Mani found it hard to pedal his cycle against the winds. “Why did he not even come to the cafeteria for dinner?"

As soon as he passed through a patch of bamboo trees; he was submerged by the sound waves of chirping crickets. He loved their chatter as it reminded him of his days as a boy when he would sneak out of the brick kiln with a friend and roam carelessly near the bamboo forest. The thrill of escape appealed more than the fear of getting caught. Both would sing aloud and aimlessly run around while the crickets joined the chorus in celebrating their freedom.

The escape usually ended with climbing the tamarind tree near the pond and gleefully devouring the ripe fruits. The canopy of the night also provided a secret space to discover the forbidden. Mani’s friend was an older boy and worked in a cattle farm nearby. One day he sneaked in some yellow magazines and encouraged Mani to browse. They usually sat near the small Devi shrine near the neem tree. Mani was curious and excited looking at the pictures of naked men and women. Though he had seen sexually explicit images before, the magazines that his friend brought that night looked glossy, expensive and perhaps foreign.

“They are so sexy," and his friend laughed out loud, even though Mani found his expression exaggerated, he laughed along.

Both of them giggled at the turn of every new page. Mani was embarrassed and excited at the same time.

“Maybe I should go, mother might panic if she got up," Mani was worried.

“Shut up and sit," his friend was stern, “The best is yet to come."

The giggling continued briefly but Mani’s friend suddenly removed his shorts and began to masturbate. Mani’s eyes opened wide and he kept staring at his friend. He was aroused. Mani was consumed by a feeling that was new and pleasurable. Soon pleasure turned to become guilt and fear.

Even HE has never hit me ever. In that shock I pissed and it fell on his shoes. His face turned so red that he slapped me again. I froze motionless.

Abruptly, as if he was stung by a bee, he sprang and ran towards home.

“Mani watch it," the security guard to Hari’s hostel yelled at Mani, “Don’t dream when you ride a cycle. You could have dashed into me."

“I am sorry anna, sorry," Mani clutched the brakes hard and stood silently in the same spot for a couple of minutes.

Mani noticed that the windows to Hari’s room were wide open but the lights were switched off.

“Maybe he is not inside, but I don’t see any sign of Sam too" he wondered.

He pushed his cycle slowly towards the entrance of the hostel. The violets had bloomed along the verandah and Mani squatted close to admire the flowers. An earth worm tried to find its way from the concrete towards the plants. Mani’s wide eyes stayed focused on its path and when it reached the end of the concrete slab, he held his finger so that it could curl up and gently placed it on a leaf.

“Hari would be proud of me," he said.

Mani could hear the constant humming of the ceiling fans, inside Hari’s room. ‘The bed sheets looked ruffled but he is not on the bed.’

“Hari, are you there?" Mani called for him.

The door was not closed from behind and Mani entered the room with caution. He could hear someone faintly moaning from the corner of the room. “It sounds like a cat," he mused with fear and traversed the room. The moaning definitely was human and was coming from the toilet.

“Hari, what happened to you?" Mani pushed the door to the toilet hard to find Hari curled up like a foetus, shaking and crying profusely. Hari was in his briefs and he starred at the ceiling lost in a cyclone of thoughts.

“Hari, why are you like this?" Mani shook him. Mani was anxious and worried.

The shaking helped and Hari regained consciousness. He hugged Mani tight and cried louder. But he still remained in a state of shock and paranoia.

“It’s okay, it’s okay," Mani consoled him, “Let us get out of the bath," he gently led him to the bed and helped him settle down. Hari still was uncontrollable.

“My head is spinning," Hari was delirious and incoherent. He continued rambling without looking at Mani.

“The doorbell rang and I knew it was HIM. I normally hide inside the toilet, but amma always thought it was a bad habit. That’s not the way to treat guests, she would advise. She was no way going to believe what her brother was doing to me," Mani looked clueless and confused listening to Hari’s ramblings, but continued to remain silent.

“Hari needs some mentoring and guidance, HE would tell my parents and they would gleefully lead HIM to my room, while I stood trembling. HE had a duplicate key to our house because my dad was always travelling and my mom was in her own world," Hari was still crying.

Mani reached out to a towel and wiped the moisture from Hari’s back and chest. He reduced the speed of the ceiling fan and switched on the light bulb above. Mani wasn’t sure if Hari was saying the truth or just hallucinating, but was terribly worried.

“I stood nervously behind the toilet doors while I could hear HIM talking to another man. Another? Who is he? I could hear two distinct footsteps, one a clumsy forceful step which I recognised but the other was fainter but distinguished. I heard HIM knock. HE always called me ‘Raju’. I could hear their footsteps louder. My body was trembling. I didn’t know why. I had kind of gotten use to HIM inside me. But then I just didn’t know what to expect. Who was he?" Hari had stopped crying, his words became more coherent but continued to look far away into the open window.

Mani was getting worried but he was now convinced that Hari was reliving a past experience, something very traumatic.

“There was silence for a brief while and I could not hear any voices. Have they left? Why? I ventured out of the toilet and took small steps into a narrow way that led to my room.

“HE and another man were sitting on the bed. They had been waiting for me to show up. HE was as usual touching himself. The other man was dressed in a shirt, trousers, shoes and tie. He was very immaculate and wore large black glasses. He got up and walked towards me. I was afraid but something consumed me and left me motionless. I kept staring at him. He came very close and leaned forward to kiss me. I pushed him using my full force and tried to run. But he was so strong and quick, that he caught hold of my hands and dragged me to his side. And out of the blue he just slapped me," Hari started trembling and shivering again. Mani rubbed his hands at Hari’s chest and tried to comfort him.

“It felt like as if an electric current had passed through me," tears flowed down Hari’s cheeks, “Even HE has never hit me ever. In that shock I pissed and it fell on his shoes. His face turned so red that he slapped me again. I froze motionless. He slapped me again and I just don’t remember anything after." Mani could feel Hari’s body temperature increasing. Mani could not control his tears and a sense of helplessness crept over him.

Mani rubbed his back and chest vigorously.

“You know Mani, when I tried telling mom about this, she dismissed me saying that I was day dreaming. That’s it. Not even a whimper. I was devastated." and Hari cried out loud. Mani allowed him to weep, but he got emotional too.

Hari hugged him tight.

“Mani do you believe me?"

“Of course I do. I believe you."

As soon as he heard Mani’s affirmative reply; Hari kissed him hard on his lips. Mani was taken up by surprise but did not push him away. Hari hugged him tighter.

Mani could hear Hari’s racing heartbeats very distinctly.

“What is happening?" he wondered anxiously, “But I don’t feel bad about this."

The hallway looked empty through the window.

“Actually I like his body around me. Am I in love with him? Is it normal?" his mind screen flickered with conflicting thoughts.

Hari was not talking, he continued to sniffle. He was just wearing a brief while his arms and legs were wrapped around Mani.

Mani took Hari’s face in both his hands, looked at his sullen eyes, “I missed you today; I think I am in love with you. I don’t know if this is right, but whatever happens I will be there for you. You have gone through hell as a child and you can always count on me," and kissed him on his lips.