The seventh short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories click here
It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever. by Jaishree Misra (For more about the contest/rules click here).
The Christmas Present
Daddy wasn’t going to come home ever.
It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
Rhea closed her eyes, trying to shut out the present, the past, the pain. But no matter how hard Rhea tried, the memories came flooding back. Her hiding in the dark, pressing back against the shadows, stifling her scream, of her father’s low menacing growl, “Are you hiding in here Princess? I can hear you breathing.”
Rhea clapped a hand over her nose but it was too late. A hand reached out and plucked her out.
Rhea squealed and protested even as she threw her puny arms around him. “Not fair Daddy! If I hadn’t got a cold you would have never found me.”
“Well, that’s your fault isn’t it my little Princess?” Jason pulled her button nose as he strode off with her in his arms. “Remember what the doctor said? It’s because you don’t eat properly that you keep falling ill.”
“Oh but I do eat! Do you want me to eat like an elephant?”
Jason laughed. “But that doesn’t mean you eat like an ant!”
“Daddy do you know how strong ants are? They can carry load up to 50 times their weight.”
Jason put her down and got down on his haunches beside her. “Are you 6 years old or 60?”
Rhea sighed and put her hands on her hips. “How would I know Daddy? I was just a baby when I was born wasn’t I?”
Jason cracked up.
“Come on Daddy, it’s your turn to hide now,” Rhea pulled him.
Chuckling Jason got to his feet. “Later. First have dinner.”
“No! First you hide.”
“After dinner, I promise.”
“You are cheating!” Rhea walked off in a huff.
Jason caught up with her. “Cheating?”
She looked at him knowingly. “You are trying to trick me into eating aren’t you?”
Jason clapped his hands together and bowed. “Yes Granny!”
Please and flattered, Rhea condescended to nibble at her food. “Mummy, after dinner you also come and play. It’s my turn to be the den.”
Gia smiled and pinched her cheeks. “Maybe if you finish all the food on your plate.”
Rhea rolled her eyes. “Not you too!”
Gia looked at Jason, whose shoulders were shaking. “Beware Gia, that’s not your daughter. That’s my Granny – isn’t it?”
“Yes!” Rhea frowned and tapped him on the knuckles with her spoon. “Come on now, eat your food quickly. Wash your plate and don’t forget to brush your teeth.” She dropped her serious veneer and giggled into her hand.
Warm rich laughter erupted and broke over the clatter of cutlery.
It was her turn to find Daddy. She hunted for him high and low, upstairs and downstairs, outside and inside but he was nowhere.
“Daddy? Daddy! Daddy!!!” She woke screaming.
Gia held Rhea close as she blabbered. “”Where’s Daddy? Why doesn’t he come home? Is he angry with me Mummy? I promise I will eat up everything Mummy, just ask him to come home. Tell him that I lost the game Mummy. Please Mummy.”
“Shush my darling shush. It’s okay dear. He has just gone on a long flight, somewhere very far.” Gia wiped her face and consoled her. “You know he is a pilot right? It happens that sometimes he is gone for days on end? Well this time it is just taking longer than usual.” Her voice broke and she turned away to hide her emotions.
“But why are we staying at Granny’s house? When are we going back home? What if Daddy is home? What if he can’t find us?” Rhea was getting hysterical and Gia had no answers. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Rhea the truth – her beloved Daddy wasn’t coming home ever.
“Soon sweetheart, soon.” Gia mumbled as she rocked her to sleep.
“Daddy will come home for Christmas won’t he Mummy? Will you tell Santa I don’t want any gift for Christmas? Just that Daddy should come home.”
But days passed as did weeks and months but there was no sign of Daddy. Rhea stopped asking about him but she continued to wait for him, starting with every car that turned the corner, every knock on the door, every ring of the telephone.
And then one day, Gia stowed their bags in the car and said, “Come let’s go.”
“Where are we going Mummy? To Daddy?”
“Hush. It’s a secret!“
“Where’s Granny? Aren’t we going to say bye to her?”
“She…She’s busy.” Gia hurried her into the car.
“Oh!” Rhea squealed in delight as she spied the red blooms of their hibiscus, “We are home! Daddy, Daddy!” Rhea tumbled out of the car and stopped short.
A stranger stood at the door.
“Come Rhea, come in and meet your new Daddy.”
Rhea stared at the tall man. He wasn’t at all like her Daddy. She didn’t want a new Daddy. She wanted her old Daddy.
“Didn’t I tell you that Santa always listens to good girls?” Gia’s voice was shrill.
“Who is that?”
“That?” Gia’s laugh was forced. “That is your new brother Ron. Say hello to him dear.”
Rhea looked at the scruffy grumpy boy standing a little off. He ignored them and stared determinedly at the PSP in his hand.
Rhea’s eyes swung back to her mother. “Am I going to get a new Mummy too?”
“No!” Her mother’s voice broke on her laugh. “Why would you need a new Mummy? I am here aren’t I?” She paused. “But I am Ron’s new Mummy. Hello dear,” she held out her arms.
“I am 9 years old and I don’t need a new Mummy.” Ron stomped out of the room.
“Hello, I am Jake.” The tall stranger bent down.
Rhea stared at him unblinkingly. “I am 6 years old and I also don’t want a new Daddy.”
“Fair enough. Maybe you would like a new friend?”
“I don’t make friends easily.” She warned.
“Great! I do. So let’s play a game shall we?”
“A game to see who wins – you at not making friends or me at making friends.” Jake held up his hand.
Intrigued and almost reflexively, Rhea gave him a high five. “Game on!” She grinned at him confident of winning.
“Aha!” Jake pointed a finger at her, his eyes twinkling. “Be careful, you are smiling; you could lose the game.”
Rhea hurriedly straightened her expression but it slipped. She pressed her lips and turned away. “I am going to my room Mummy.” She cast Jake a sidelong glance.
Jake grinned. “I am going to win just you wait.”
Rhea stalked off with her nose in the air. She spoilt it by turning back to check if Jake was looking at her. He winked. She giggled and ran off.
Rhea was in a fix – she liked Jake but she didn’t want a new Daddy. Neither did she want a new brother.
But where was he?
Rhea peeked into the guest room. Ah, there he was, glued to his PSP.
She pushed the door open. He ignored her. Encouraged, she entered. “You are staying in this room?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“That means you are just a guest.” Rhea’s voice dripped with satisfaction.
Ron sent her a withering glance.
Unfazed Rhea carried on. “Where’s your Mummy? Is she also a pilot?”
Ron glared. “My Mummy is dead do you understand? Like your father is dead.”
“My father is not dead. His airplane got lost and he can’t find his way back. When I grow up I am going to be a pilot. I will find him and bring him back.”
“Don’t be a fool. Your father is dead. He can never come back.”
“When I become a pilot, I will hunt for your Mummy too.”
“Get out of my room leave me alone.” He slammed the door on her face.
Rhea knocked on the door until he opened the door. “What?” he snarled.
“My Daddy isn’t dead. He is playing hide and seek with me. He is doing this to make me to eat. I try very hard but I still can’t eat. No matter how hard I try, it all comes out. That’s why Daddy is still hiding from me. But he can’t hide forever can he? Did your Mummy play hide and seek with you?”
Ron’s throat worked. “No. She used to tell me stories. After I finished my homework.”
“Did you do your homework?”
“Oh but then that will only make her angrier. Maybe if you did your homework…”
“Stop talking nonsense will you?”
“Mummy also tells stories. Shall I ask her to tell you…?”
“No! I don’t want your Mummy to tell me a story. Go away and leave me alone.”
“I also know many stories. Shall I tell you a story?”
“Of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty? No thanks.” He turned his back to her. But then he turned around again and burst out. “Just becoming a pilot won’t help. When people die they become stars. And pilots can’t reach the stars. But what would you know?” He scoffed.
She stood there beaten, but only for a moment. “Astronauts can reach the stars. I will become a pilot and you become an astronaut. Together we will find them.” She clapped her hands. “This is better than hide and seek.”
“Get out.” Ron pushed her out and closed the door.
She looked up to find Jake staring at her.
“Give him time.” Jake said. “Like you he also takes time to make friends.” He grinned. “Not like me.”
Rhea turned away but he called out. “I was just going to eat mangoes and then plant the seeds.”
“Would you like to help me?”
“Great! Let me call Ron as well.”
Gia peeped in to see all three of them, elbow deep in mango, peels on one side, and seeds on the other.
“Ready to plant some seeds?”
“Yay, let’s go!” Rhea scrambled up from her chair and ran out into the garden. The others followed sedately.
It was hot, sunny, and messy but a lot of fun. There were five seeds and each planted one.
“Let’s plant the last one together,” suggested Jake. So, with great enthusiasm (Rhea) and a show of reluctance (Ron), the last seed was planted rather ceremoniously.
“Well well! Just look at all of us!” Jake laughed. Rhea looked down at herself. There was no denying it she was the muddiest of the lot. “Oh! It will take ages to clean up. And Mummy will scold me for dirtying the bathroom.” She pouted.
“Hmm.” Jake tapped his cheek thoughtfully. “Let me see. How about this?” He picked up the hose and swung it towards her bare mud-caked legs. Rhea squealed and jumped. He leaned towards her. “Come on now it’s Ron’s turn.”
Rhea’s eyes widened. She grabbed the hosepipe and together they sprayed Ron top to toe. He gave a yell and jumped into fray and soon it was a free for all session, even Gia wasn’t spared. Shrieks, screams and laughter cascaded over them in healing waves.
Rhea was sporting enough to accept defeat and accept Jake as her friend if not her Daddy. Ron remained aloof and insisted on maintaining his distance. But that didn’t stop Rhea from pestering him. She would wait impatiently for him to return from school and then sit with him while he had his lunch. She would weave exotic and far-fetched plans to bring back her Daddy and his Mummy quite oblivious of his silence and rejection.
Until one day she didn’t come to sit with him.
Restless, Ron sought her out. He found her curled up in her chair, clutching her Daddy’s picture.
“What happened?” His voice was gruff.
“You were right. My Daddy and your Mummy are dead. They have gone away to a place where no pilot can go.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“How do you know?”
“My teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told her I wanted to be a pilot so that I could bring back my Daddy. She…she laughed at me.” She sobbed. “The…the whole c…class laughed at me. Nobody can bring back my Daddy or your Mummy.” Rhea was quite inconsolable.
Ron stood there feeling the familiar helpless rage creep up on him. “Of course you can’t. Didn’t I tell you that long ago? But don’t worry when I grow up I will become an astronaut. I will bring back my Mummy and your Daddy.”
Rhea’s tears dried miraculously. “Really? Promise?”
Ron looked at her with foreboding. “Only if you don’t nag me. And you can’t tell anyone about this. It has to be our secret.”
Rhea nodded. “Cross my heart and hope to die. And I promise I wont even come and sit with you when you have lunch.”
Ron coughed. “You can sit if you like. I don’t mind.”
Rhea threw her arms around Ron. He let her hug him before pushing her away with a ferocious frown. She dimpled at him. She had another friend! He would bring her Daddy back. She skipped away to her Mummy.
“Why are you packing Mummy? Are we going somewhere?”
“Yes we are soon going away from here Rhea.”
“Where? To Daddy?”
“No, to a new house.”
“But why Mummy? What about our mango tree? The one we all planted?”
Gia shrugged. “We are now shifting to Bangalore where my new job is.”
“All of us?”
“No just us. You didn’t want a new Daddy or a new brother…”
“That was before Mummy. Santa was right. I…I like my new Daddy. Ron too.”
“It’s too late now. They are also leaving.”
And today Ron was gone. Jake too. They would never return, just like her Daddy. Ron would grow up and forget his promise. He would find his Mummy but not her Daddy. She clutched her pillow to crush out the pain in her chest. Ron was just a little boy but how could Jake do this to her? Hadn’t he said they were friends forever?
A paper fluttered. She picked it up. A smiley stared up at her holding a placard –Friends forever. And underneath it was a phone number.
Rhea’s heart gave a leap. Jake hadn’t really gone away. She could phone him anytime!
But…but why hadn’t Daddy left his phone number? Daddy was mean. So was Mummy.
“Mummy, you are mean too. You let Daddy go. And now you let my new Daddy and new brother go too. This time for Christmas I am going to ask Santa for a new Mummy.”
Yup, this one didn’t make the list either – how about you telling me what you think – the good, the bad and the ugly…
But on a positive note – my blogger friend Ramya won the first prize for this prompt 🙂 My heartiest congratulations to her! If you like, you can hop over to her blog for some awesome stories.
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