Nandini felt like she was going to be sick. What could possibly be the reason for this? Why would Arnav want to frame Madhav? They were best of friends!
The world spun. She didn’t know anything anymore. She felt betrayed, confused, and angry, all at the same time.
She needed to find Arnav. She had to confront him.
She rose slowly, staggering. She turned around, her head pounding, the world spinning. She looked at the field to find Arnav standing, frozen, his eyes shooting between Nandini and the clothes.
Arnav’s mouth was open. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but nothing was coming out.
Nandini picked up Arnav’s shirt and stormed towards him. “Why, Arnav?” she said.
Arnav didn’t say anything. He stared at the shirt, and then at Nandini.
“Arnav!” Nandini yelled, sickened, the tears finally escaping her eyes. “Talk to me, goddammit!”
Arnav spoke softly and gently. His hands reached up. “Nandini, please,” he said. “Calm down.”
“Arnav, don’t mess around. These are your clothes.” She jerked the shirt forward. “That’s Madhav’s room.” She pointed up at the window. “I know what you did. Tell me why!”
“Nandini, you don’t know what happened—”
“Really?!” she yelled. “Want me to spell it out for you? O.K., here: you got up in the middle of the night. You snuck into Madhav’s room. You opened his cupboard with his key. You know where he kept his key, because you’re his best friend. You took his razor, which was easy enough to find. You went to Laxman’s bed and slit his throat. THAT’S what happened. Don’t tell me it’s not. Don’t insult my intelligence. Do me that courtesy at least, because I know what happened. I want to know why. Why did you kill Laxman? Why did you frame Madhav?! You were best friends!”
“O.K.,” said Arnav, his face going from one of despair and terror, to one of unmitigated rage. “You wanna know why I killed Dhule? You wanna know why I put your precious Madhav in jail? It’s because your boyfriend was a manipulative jock bastard!”
That took Nandini by surprise. “What?”
“That’s right. The guy you love so much was an asshole. He was the scum of the earth, and I hated him, and everything he stood for. He made me sick. I’d have spit in his face, but he’d probably have liked that. So, I did something worse.”
Nandini’s rage turned into confusion. “What?!”
“Didn’t you hear? Every day? ‘Oh, look, it’s Madhav and his pet!’ ‘Oh, look, it’s that hottie, Madhav, and his pet!’ That’s what I’d become. His pet. But I was so much more. I was his torture dummy.” He paused, “and in front of the teachers, and during exams, I was him.
“In fact, every word he ever wrote – ever – was mine! You thought he was smart? You thought he was sweet? NOPE! The sweetness was an act, and the smartness was me. He wrote my name in his exam paper, and made me write his on mine. If I didn’t, he’d beat me within an inch of my life. If I deliberately wrote bad answers, he’d beat me within an inch of my life.”
Nandini couldn’t believe it. That was not her Madhav. That was not the Madhav she’d eaten sandwiches with in the corner of the football field. That wasn’t the Madhav she’d loved.
“And the last straw? You.”
That hit Nandini like a bus. “Me?”
“From the day you came, to this day, I’ve liked you. Whenever I went to bed, the one face that came to my mind was yours. You’re pretty. You’re funny.” He chuckled. “And, as you’ve proved today, you’re smart as hell. Way too smart for me.” He looked into her eyes. “I like you, Nandini. I may even go as far as saying I love you.”
She’d never known. To her, Arnav had always just been Madhav’s best friend. That’s it.
“One night, when it became time to have the shit kicked out of me, Madhav asked me who I liked. I didn’t tell him. He hit me, punched me, kicked me until I told him I liked you. After that, he began talking to you more and more and more. He deliberately made it look like he spent most of his time with you or trying to impress you. Everyone started teasing you two together. He knew it. He loved it. Then, he asked you out, and you guys became a thing. Every time you guys were together, he looked back at me, and winked. He thought you couldn’t see him. He thought you were stupid. The only reason he even talked to you was because I told him I liked you.”
The winks. The winks she’d loved so much.
This was too much for her brain. That can’t have been the only reason Madhav had talked to her.
“I have proof. You can talk to Jayesh. He was in on it. He always was. If Madhav ever had a best friend, it wasn’t me. Never. It was Jayesh. Who do you think started the ‘pet’ thing?
“If you asked him, he’d tell you in a heartbeat. He’ll tell you how every night at eight thirty, they’d pull me to Jayesh’s room and beat the shit out of me, regardless of whether or not I did anything to deserve it. Then he’d laugh, remembering. If you don’t believe him…”
He pulled up the shirt he was wearing. “You can believe this.”
His body was covered with bruises. Some of them were fresh, as if they had been done last night. Nandini’s knees wobbled, threatening to give in. “No.” she said. “It can’t be. He wasn’t like that! Madhav wasn’t like that.”
“Not in front of you, no. He was an angel in front of girls and teachers. As soon as he got into the boys’ dorm, he was the worst bully you’ve ever seen.”
Then, Nandini realized something. “But if you hated Madhav so much, why did you kill Dhule?”
“Dhule was a creep. He had it coming. But in the big picture, he was collateral damage. See, if I killed Madhav, the blame would immediately fall on me, because Jayesh would blame me. Once he got involved, Santosh Sinha would get involved. I needed to destroy Madhav, without putting me in the crosshairs.
“See, I’m smart, unlike the image he’s been trying to make of me. I proved it to him. No one found out. No one was even close.” He paused to regard Nandini with the coldest stare. It tore through her soul, freezing it from the inside out.
His lips twisted into a smile.
Nandini was terrified. The fear gushed through her veins. The colour was slowly draining from her face. She saw Arnav’s hands reach into his pocket. She knew he was holding something in there. Instinctively, hers went to her pockets. She found her pen and notepad. Her fingers closed around the pen, and removed the cap, all in the pocket.
“I’d always known you were smart.” Arnav said. “If we were together, at least I’d know what I had. Madhav never did.”
“I love you, Nandini. Nothing crushed me more than those days when Madhav gloated about how he’d stolen you from me, like you were a bag of cash. He never knew what he really had. I would have, if he’d given me the chance. I’d be so much better than him. But I’m sorry, Nandini. The police are here. I can’t have any loose ends.”
He pulled a pen out of his pocket and pounced. Nandini pulled the pen out of her pocket and met the charge head on. She saw his pen before it came down on her. She caught Arnav’s arm, and brought her own pen down in a deadly arc. With a sickening crunch, the pen sank into Arnav’s forearm. He screamed, and his pen fell out of his hand. Nandini took a step back and pushed him away from her, grabbing her pen in the process. He fell to the ground, another scream escaping his mouth. She looked at her pen. A mixture of blood and ink dripped down its cylindrical body and fell to the ground. She threw it in disgust and ran.
She didn’t know where she was running. Her legs had minds of their own. She was in a daze.
After a while, her legs stopped running, and she realized that she had begun to talk. Her mouth formed sentences all on its own. By the time her mind caught up with her body, the principal, a policeman, Ashok and Ganesh were following her. She still didn’t know what she was doing. Somehow, she knew that a policeman would be here. She led them to the site of her fight with Arnav. Arnav was gone.
Unable to speak, she pointed to a small pool of blood that had been made in the dirt there, and at the pens lying next to it. The pool continued in a trail. Next to the trail were some footsteps.
Their voices were muffled, and Nandini didn’t have the energy to comprehend them. She saw the others run to follow the trail and footsteps. The policeman had his gun out.
She didn’t follow. She didn’t even realize what was happening. She slowly sank to the ground and fell. And fell.