" Happy deathday to you, Happy deathday to you. Happy deathday dear Arya, Happy deathday to you" the crowded In-betweeners wished her.
At the centre of the small crowd stood Arya, her mind getting irritated by the unexpected attention. But she tried to act nice. In front of her on the table was the birthday cake which looked like it was made up of something like... clouds? On top of it was a single lit candle. How did they light a candle in this world? I should ask Ms.Sara after this party, Arya made a mental note. She got a gentle nudge by Ms. Sara on her back which brought her back to her senses.
"Oh, sorry" she smiled awkwardly and blew out the candle. The inbetweeners clapped in unison.
Ms. Sara handed a knife to her and Arya cut out a portion of the cake. She took a piece of cake and brought it near to Ms. Sara's mouth. She should be the one who should get the first piece of her first deathday cake. Ms.Sara was the one who took care of Arya, like her own daughter after Arya's untimely death.
Sara took the cake in her mouth and kissed Arya warmly. "Thank you my dear baby doll"
Arya smiled back wiping the cloud cream from her face. Guests handled her gifts one by one and slowly left. The party was quite short-lived. She didn't bother to open the presents. She knew that most of the gifts will be the remnants of things which occasionally sweep into their world from the land of the living. Have you ever wondered why you couldn't find something you kept on your table, even after thoroughly searching the whole house? Things do sometimes unexpectedly slide into the world of the in-between.
She got permission from her guardian and she went out of her house. She looked around her world. Everything looked similar to the land of the living except that here everything is under a constant state of degeneration. Everyone ends up there after their death but most of them slowly pass on to the next world, the land of the eternals. Like her sometimes people get stuck here without moving on and no one has found an exact reason for it. All they could do is wait and hope that today would be the day.
She walked past buildings towards the nearby park. It was her favourite spot in the boring mundane world. She sat on a bench that's partially ruined. She thought about the meaninglessness of her existence. There was no purpose in that world. Her days passed in loneliness except for the company of Sara. But she wished to have someone of her own age as her friend. All she did daily was wander around the vast in-between world. There were no dangers here to bother her, or make her life less boring.
Arya was too immersed as she didn't notice what was happening in front of her, at first. Then from the corner of her eyes she saw something moving. When she looked,she saw something blurry, an image of a human. What's happening to it? Is it getting slid into the in-between world?
She looked around for anyone watching her. When she realised that she's alone she did something forbidden. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Then she opened her eyes. The whole surrounding has changed slightly. She was still in the park but everywhere lush green plants grew. People walked around her in leisure. Things are no more in a state of decay. She's no more in the land of the in-between but she's in the land of the living.
She looked at the direction of the blurry figure. The figure still looked blurry but clearer than what she saw in her world. She saw a girl about her age sitting with her head bowed. The girl looked emaciated and weak. A wind blew the head scarf she was wearing, a bit away from its position and revealed a hairless head. Is she sick?
What's she doing? Is she... crying? Arya watched her for a few more minutes. No, she's not crying. Apathy, her face was like a mask with no expressions.
It must have been the inborn ability of humans to detect someone's gaze that heralded her presence. The girl lifted her eyes and looked towards Arya.
Arya got spooked for the first time in her afterlife, after she accepted her own death. Why's she looking towards me? Can she see me? No way, she must be looking at someone behind. Arya turned back to look for any other person. There was none nearby. Arya felt her dead heart beating frantically. When she turned back to look at the girl,she was smiling at her. Oh my god! She really can see me.
The girl stood up and started walking towards her. What should I do? Should I slide back into the in-between? No,no,no then that girl will definitely freak out.
The girl reached near Arya and smiled once more. "Hi"
"Huh?... I mean...hi" Arya staggered with her voice.
"Are you okay? You look like you have seen a ghost" the girl said with a laugh.
"Can you... can you really...see me?"
"Why not? Are you a ghost or something? This time the girl was amused.
The girl continued to laugh,"so does that mean my hand could pass through you?" Without any warning the girl put her hand on Arya's shoulder,which passed through her.
The laugh from her face suddenly disappeared. Oh no! She's going to scream. Even though Arya was the ghost,she felt more alarmed than the living girl. But the girl didn't scream, instead her face became like a mask once again, devoid of any emotions. She sat next to Arya. "So it's true. I really am dying"
Arya's mind became silent abruptly by that dialogue. She was not expecting that reaction from the girl. So she is sick after all. "What do you mean by...dying?"
"Oh sorry to bother you. You know, I have a brain tumor, pretty advanced one." She shrugged. " Nowadays I have a feeling that I'm slipping away from this world, slowly. Maybe that's why I'm able to see you. Because I'm in-between life and death."
"Hey don't be sad. I'm pretty sure that you will be alright" Arya tried to cheer her up. After she said that she thought about what she just said. She felt like she had made a mistake. Is it justifiable to give a dying person false hope?
"Haha, you don't have to worry about those thoughts. I know those are just wishful thoughts and not reality." The girl said as if she had read Arya's mind.
Arya lowered her head in guilt.
"By the way, I'm Aparna." The girl held out her hand to shake hands and she stopped when she understood her mistake. Her pale face showed a mixture of embarrassment and guilty feeling. "I'm soooo sorry. I forgot that you are…."
"That's okay. I don't mind. Oh... I'm Arya."
"I'm so glad to meet you Arya. You know my surgery is scheduled for tomorrow. It's a pretty risky surgery. I don't know whether I would wake up from it. But seeing you is giving me hope. A life after death is kind of pleasant."
Arya thought about it. No, it's not pleasant. Being purposeless, lonely and lost in a world is not pleasant. There would be no end to that monotonous life. Just after completing a year in that wretched land was making her depressed beyond anything. She wished that her life should have ended when she died. She doesn't want to linger forever. She has even tried to end her life the second time, but it won't work in her world. The only permanent way out of the in-between world is to fade away and get into the land of eternals. And no one knows whether that land is any better than the in-between. But she decided not to pluck away the hopes of a dying person.
"Why are you thinking about death now? Surgery hasn't even taken place yet. So be optimistic."
Aparna sighed." No, I wish I could die soon. Only then will my parent's life become normal. Ever since I got detected their lives had gone astray. They don't enjoy life like before. I'm just a burden for them that needs to be put down. Even though they never mentioned it, I always see that feeling in their eyes."
"Is that why you are alone in this park?"
Aparna nodded," See that hospital over there. I am admitted there. Even the doctors are not having much hope in the surgery. So they granted me my wish, which probably could be my last wish, to spend some time alone in this garden. Now the time is almost over, they might come at any time to pick me up."
" Oh, that means I'm a disturbance to your solitude." Arya jocked.
" No,no. You are definitely not." Aparna laughed. A lady walked past her, staring at her for laughing alone. But, Aparna continued to laugh without heeding it. As someone who knew her time in this world is nearing, she doesn't care about what others think about her anymore.
"I haven't felt this happy in a long time. I don't have any friends anymore. They consider walking with a girl with a hairless head is not cool."
Arya felt like she could understand every emotion passing through Aparna's head. She gently touched Aparna's scarf covered head. She knew her hand could pass through Aparna's body but she held her hand in place. "You are cool enough for me."
Aparna looked at Arya for a long moment without taking her eyes off her new friend. Arya saw tears filling in her eyes.
"I wish I could see you everyday." Aparna whispered.
"Why not? I will come visit you daily... If that's okay with you."
"That's not what I meant. I'm able to see you because I'm sick. What if tomorrow's operation cures me?"
Arya's got startled. She never thought about that. Am I going to lose my only friend soon? But she didn't show her whelming anxiety outside.
"That would be great. You will be cured. You will get back into your old life. That would be really wonderful."
"I doubt it. Even if I get cured my life won't be the same. Now I know who are the ones who actually cared about me. So even if I live with my parents, we would be constantly acting. They would be hiding their guilt and I would be trying to forgive them. I don't think that's the life I wanted."
Arya doesn't know how to respond.
"Tell me more about your world." Aparna asked, trying to change the topic. Arya told in detail about it and how she slips to the land of the living without anyone's knowledge.
"I like your world. No parents to control or bother you. No sickness,no hunger, nothing. It would be heaven. Only thing that is missing is friendship. I wish I could live with you in your world."
Arya smiled. "Haha don't get too close. We only met today."
"Yet I feel like I know you completely. I don't know how. I feel extremely comfortable while I'm with you."
Arya scratched her head, shyly. Then she noticed that her hands are getting fader.
"Apar… Can I call you as Appu instead of Aparna?" Arya asked. Aparna looked at her in wonder and then she nodded.
"Listen Appu, I can't stay here much longer."
" Please don't go, I don't want to spend my last day alone."
"I'm sorry Appu. There's a time limit for staying in your world. I have to get back to my world. I won't be able to return today. Moreover today won't be your last day."
Arya's body began fading faster.
"Promise me you will come see me tomorrow in hospital. I won't be able to come to this park."
"I promise." Arya replied.
Appu tried to touch the disappearing body of her new friend. "I wish I could touch you at least once."
Where Arya sat, now there was only emptiness.
Beneath a sleeping almond tree she sat gazing at the dim moonlight. Her mind was filled with thoughts about her new friend. Will she be able to survive the surgery? If she survives, will she be able to see me again?
Arya couldn't deny the fact that somewhere in her mind she is wishing for the surgery to fail. She tried to shoo away that thought which she considers as evil and selfish. But she felt that Appu also wished for the same. She understands that Appu was fed up with her life and family. She wants to live the rest of her life with Appu. Then both their lives would be complete.
Appu didn't mention the time of her surgery. So Arya decided to slide back into the land of the living, the first thing in the morning. Then she tried to sleep even though she knew she wouldn't be able to, because far away in another world her best friend would be sleepless, and counting the time remaining in her life.
It took her several hours of trying to slide into the land of the living. From the park she ran towards the hospital Appu showed her yesterday. She literally passed through several doors and medical staff as she hurried to find the operation theatre. Then she found the big board in front of the operation theatre complex.
A familiar figure waved at her when she approached. Appu was smiling warmly at her.
" Sorry, I got late. When will the operation start?" Arya asked.
"Come let's go." Appu told.
"Go where?" Arya exclaimed. Is she inviting me to her surgery? She doesn't want to get inside the operation theatre. She's too afraid of blood.
Arya noticed that Appu's face doesn't show the slightest of despair or apprehension which she witnessed yesterday. Appu looked calm and free of all worries. "To your world." Appu smiled and took Arya's hand in her's.
Inside the operation theatre nurses were covering a dead body in a white sheet.