Chapter 8: Evanescence
The bitterness of the January winds had begun to showcase themselves during the onset of the semester finals. Students of all academic caliber tested their mettle against the unrelenting barrage of swift examinations that their faculty flung at them mercilessly. One after another a student would exit the hall early and shove their palm into their eyes to console the tears that follow, knowing that the best they had to offer would not suffice amongst the heated competition. When the institute is high in repute and short on temper, it leaves no room for the failures and the careless, both of which are sieved out by the end of a semester. Hence, by comparison, those that survive breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to embracing the short Winter break that was soon to follow, to refresh before resubmitting themselves to the daily grind of academic excellence.
The tests took majority of the day and spanned the course of 2-3 whole lecture schedules, due to which only a few preceding classes were arranged and all following the exam-of-the-day were subsequently cancelled. The Principal considered it the least amount of slack that they could afford to cut for the students without forsaking the purpose. As it happened, Zaka’s exams concluded at 1p.m and Zarah’s at 2p.m and the young man found himself covering behind the old rust machines that the management called the transport vehicles, to avoid meeting the winds directly. He stood there for over an hour, rubbing his gloves upon his arms to consolidate as much heat as he could manage. It was unnormal weather for the city of Rawalpindi. There had always been chilly seasons, but the air was relatively stagnant throughout the year, albeit there were exceptions around the monsoon season.
It took her a fair while to arrive into the depot, clenching a small handbag in place of the larger sling backpack that she normally lugged around. She surveyed the area, reading through the small baords at the front of each bus designating the general area to which they transported. The sum of which was neither elaborate nor efficient. It didn’t please her, and she looked behind her and around her again, hoping to catch sight of a familiar vehicle number. Zaka had been monitoring the action from behind two parked inter-university coasters and made note of the change in behavior. He knew her to wait at the depot until her driver arrived, but she had never appeared to be agitated when doing so. Taking his options into account and verifying within himself that his actions won’t compromise the destination of his endeavors, he appeared to her from behind the rust and greeted her.
To his surprise she greeted back rather quickly.
He could have touched upon the topic of the overhanging exams and the pandemonium it strikes into the routine of the student body, but that would have been too slippery. He never engaged in small-talk with her and doing so now would display an incoherence in the apparent sincerity with which he was presenting himself. So, he followed up bluntly, “What are you looking for?”
He joined her in looking at the buses from which she never withdrew her sight as she responded, “A bus.”
He shot her an unimpressed expression and paused immediately after, realizing he didn’t want to offend her again and clarified his inquiry. “Why? Don’t you have a ride?”
She stopped looking at the rust and gained a sudden interest in the sand between their feet.
“He isn’t available this time of day.”
This answered a question which Zaka had been considering for a while now. The driver only arrived within this semester, so he was a new hire and now his apparent availability at designated times only meant he was probably a work or business attachment for her family.
This could work.
If he was unavailable and Zarah was flustered about which bus to take, this could be a perfect opportunity to mark an advancement in understanding her full behavior. A chance to see her home and eventually the family she lived with. Surely she lived with someone, she carries the etiquettes that demonstrate an understanding of social behavior, a grooming by a family. Some family is actively engaged in her life since her parents died, whenever that was. There remained only one variable.
“And your brother?”
She paused for a moment, as she usually does and looked behind at the opening into the depot, as flocks of students, having concluded their allotted time in the tests, were beginning to appear. Staying in that position she responded, “He isn’t coming.”
It was a revealing answer for several reasons. It indicated that he may have finally ridded himself of the effort of attaining education and normalizing as he once was, but also a deeper significance. The emotionless statement indicated resolve that was betrayed by her body language. She wanted Kashif to be there, whether to pick her up or in general. She’s defended him and had him to things for her, so in her own way she still requires him. His absence left an opening that Zaka could fill.
“I drive,” he spoke in observed restraint, joyous on the inside at the unfolding of events. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly, every nook and cranny of the universe seemed to be aligning into circumstances to allow him to succeed in his goal. The angels may even be singing praises of his efforts. Nature was setting up this arrangement to allow him the insight he required. It all seemed nothing but destiny.
“I could drop you off if you want.”
She continued to scan the depot, looking for the familiar bus that she used to ride before but to no avail. Her neck stopped as it rotated in his direction and she spoke softly and lightly, as if though hesitant, “Thanks.”
They didn’t exchange any words after as he led her to his small car in which she sat in the back, thankful that the slithering fog would discourage any wandering eye from a distance outside as to the identity of the vehicle’s occupants. She knew Zaka always drove alone because she’d asked her brother to make sure he didn’t linger around the bus stop to spy on her. It was a mandatory modesty that she prescribed to herself, a self-proclaimed hermit amongst a crowd. None can approach her, yet she kept tabs on those that tried to intrude on her privacy. Then there came this guy, thick headed and resilient as herself to the point of annoyance and caused a sense of compromise of her security. Yet, he maintained that persona, not for laughs nor drama but because it was a sincere nature of his. Someone she ordered her brother to threaten away was now driving straight to him. It seemed poetic irony in some ways. Of course, that was not nearly the case.
She gave him directions at the end of each road and at the point of each turn, not a moment earlier and he never inquired her for the exact address to begin with. Out of mutual understanding she didn’t declare it either. They drove into the center of the city and then took deviations through unmetalled passageways and narrow streets sandwiched between mudbricks and flooded with murky water, until the car finally toiled its way to a petrol-station where she asked him to stop and exited. There was no building nearby, only small dusty roads going in several directions, towards one of which she started walking. Zaka wasn’t completely surprised that she wouldn’t lead them to her actual home, but this was more theatrical than he would have preferred. The station was dead and the passages so narrow that the thickness of the fog engulfed all that travelled a fair distance in and blurred them into obscurity.
He gave her a ride at the end of every exam for the remainder of the 2 weeks of the semester and every time she would exit at a different location, though around a certain area. Zaka never made a complaint of this but decided to have his phone track the paths he had been taking and drew them out on a printed map at home. He was almost certain as to where her house was now, amongst a patch of a handful of isolated old buildings near a small church. At the end of the last exam she lead him to the petrol station again and then had him make several deviations down a crammed pass and through several brick roads until having him back onto a main road again and then turn several meters down towards a hilly dead end with a few homes encircling a rocky elevation between them.
She exited the car and waited at the end of the hood and looked back at him when he remained unresponsive. He shrugged, not understanding exactly what she wanted him to do and lowered his window to hear her as the wind broke sharply against the rocky mass.
“I’ve been a real jerk to you these two weeks.”
He seemed rather taken aback by this and refuted in a gentleman-like fashion. “I like to help when I can.”
She smirked and it was the first time he recalled her doing so, signaling a sarcastic humor pertaining to the politeness both had been showing to one another.
“I meant by the way I had you drop me off. In circles and tangents.”
Zaka rested his head back on his seat and managed a smile that seemed reminiscent of exhaustion. “Oh yeah that,” and then leaned forward to finish the sentence, “yeah that part was not nice.”
The two shared a mutual chuckle after which she started walking towards a house veiled by the Earth and turned at him, motioned him to follow and said, “I’m certain I owe you a cup of tea.”
He didn’t protest and followed her as prescribed, both unwary of the watchful eyes that tracked them from a hidden point of vantage.