Chapter 2

Innocence is overrated

The stampede of mankind tramples you all over.

It’s only the innocence in you that keeps you alive

Beware of whom you bare your soul to

There is always a wolf in sheep’s clothing…

December 2017

“Welcome trainees to the head office of HMBD ltd. Some of you were with us right after college and now we are proud to have you back along with your MBAs in progress…” the HR guy drawled on and I looked at my batchmates as we all clapped for each other.

It was a proud moment for me. I had been through a lot after Rasik had broken my heart. Fortunately for me I had Anshuman, the gem of a friend that he was, he had held me as I had cried and counselled me to get back to studies with a bang. I topped the college and was given a red-carpet welcome in the bank. Not just that, I cleared an entrance exam and got into a prestigious weekend MBA program specially designed for us who had day jobs. Only a year more and I would get my post-graduate degree in my hands. I got a huge scholarship, and my salary savings took care of the rest.

I was on the seventh heaven. My father kept calling me back and was at his wit’s end, threatening to sever ties. But I didn’t care anymore. I was no longer dependent on him, and my mom secretly supported me. And then there was Anshuman and a few of my college friends who helped me out at times.

Overall it was a great life, and I was living every moment of it to the fullest. But there was a void that needed to be filled. I felt I needed a soulmate… someone I could flaunt to my parents and prove how successful I was. Was I vain?

It was the Christmas party in the office, and we had a brief respite in the weekend classes. So I was all dolled up on Friday night and had decided to let my hair down late into the night. So I could sleep the whole day later!

As always, Anshuman, who worked in an MNC close by wasn’t in favor. He called me that evening.

“Vandu, don’t you think you are going overboard? You aren’t a party person and a poor drinker. You cant hold your alcohol beyond a little glass… what if…”

“…Relax, Ansh…” I interrupted him. I didn’t need another father in the city. “…I won’t be taking hard drinks at all and my colleagues will be there as well…even the class four employees… you know them right? Raju, Manjit, Shanta…”

Anshuman had his office in the same building as mine, and as he knew, most of the class four employees as offices often shared them. Moreover, outsourcing was the norm these days. Organizations wanted to cut costs and outsource than employ full-time lower-level employees.

“… wait Manjit… is he going to be there too?” Ansh asked me.

“Yeah… why?”

“That guy is strange, don’t you think, Vandu?”

There he went again. Anshuman never trusted men around me after the Rasik debacle. I know he had feelings for me beyond friendship, but I didn’t feel the same, and I didn’t want to ruin our friendship by talking about it. So I hoped someday when I found my soulmate, I would gradually break the news to Anshuman. But till then, I was happy in the friend zone.

“There is nothing strange anywhere Ansh… you should stop being so suspicious.”

“Vandu, stay away from that man. Alright? Something doesn’t sit right with him.”

“Non-sense Ansh and why on earth am I going to interact with the class four employees? I don’t know them well anyways…”

“Fine then… text me when you get home tonight.” Anshuman said firmly and I giggled.

So finally that evening, I walked into the club where the party was held and headed towards my friends from the office. I looked around and saw it was semi-dark… complete party mode. The music played the recent hits and some of the office guys were already on the dance floor. Drinks were being served, and I had made it a point not to ruin my evening just to indulge in hard drinks.

The class four employees were paid overtime to double up as servers at the party. There was some strike going on and the club was short-staffed. I was chatting with my friend and suddenly felt eyes on me. We girls have that radar rather sharp…  I turned around and tried to look but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Anshuman must have indeed got into my head.

I shook my head and as my friends drawled on about their guys, I was bored and took out my mobile phone. I was a relatively new entrant on social media and it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I had started posting pictures. I loved to dress well, and whenever I felt good, I posted the pics.

Unlike my friends, I posted pics where I was fully clad… like salwar kameez. But today evening I had indulged in this figure-hugging glittery gown with thin straps that showed off my ample cleavage. It cost me a bomb but the appreciative glances coming my way made up for everything. In fact the boutique owner clicked a picture of mine to show it to the designer… if my picture got selected, then I would win an assignment. That would be a massive boost to my income.

I chuckled, thinking of how Anshuman would throw a fit if he saw me like this.

Nonetheless, I had clicked a few good pictures as I entered the venue and had posted one on my page. I scrolled through the page and smiled, thrilled at the barrage of compliments coming my way. My picture had received record likes. Like the last post, I had forgotten to change the privacy setting of my photo to ‘friends’, and currently, it was public.

My last picture was a simple one in white salwar kameez, and there was one comment from someone called the mind-winner. The Profile picture of the person just showed a teddy bear.. I mean really? I wanted to delete his words but they were beautiful.

‘the white brings out your beauty absolute

You seem a lady with class and the right attitude…’

Who would want to delete the words? They weren’t obscene or anything. I let them be.

Today too, the person had commented.

It isn’t the gold that glitters

Your inner hues scream to exit…

Despite myself, I smiled, and then I felt that prickling sensation once again…

I turned around and almost collided with Manjit in a funny uniform, carrying a tray.

“Hello madam, Hara bhara kabab?” He smiled. He looked so innocent I almost chuckled, thinking about Anshuman’s warning. Manjit was plump and tall but he had his face covered by the heavy beard and we always referred to him  as ‘teddy bear’

I chuckled and nodded and took a couple of pieces. I was blessed with a heavenly metabolism that let me indulge in delicacies without bothering to pile on the pounds!

Manjit disappeared without giving me a second glance and I got back to my photo gallery to check through the pics that the boutique owner had clicked. She had made me try a couple of other dresses, but they were too expensive. She said, if I won the contest by the designer, I would get to keep the dresses as well… who in their right mind would refuse to participate?

The music changed, and my friends called me to shake a leg. I wasn’t fond of dancing, and the gown was a bit too tight.  Right then, my phone pinged with an incoming notification.

‘you have received a new friend request from mind-winner’

I stared at it for a while and as I contemplated whether to accept it or not, the person’s profile picture changed and OMG… my eyed bulged out of their sockets. It was a hot shirtless guy flaunting his perfect pack of abs I almost drooled over them. But then I knew of many instances where the pictures posted was often fake… but his profile information read, his name was still Mind-winner and he was a model. Wow… there were no other pictures, and I was still skeptical about accepting his friend request.

Right then, my messenger pinged, and it was a new one from Anand. I don’t know what got over me; I accepted the message. But not before I changed my photo privacy settings.

‘Hey beautiful, care to be friends?’

I wasn’t sure but typed on.

‘I am sorry, but I don’t know you. I don’t become friends with strangers.’

‘Oh come on. When strangers get to know each other, they become friends, don’t they?’

I am not sure yet. My mother taught me to beware of strangers’

I knew I was playing around, but something about the guy was interesting.

‘I have known the ones closer do more damage.’  Now that was philosophical.

‘well… I know nothing about you… nothing at all. Not even a name…’ Now that was true and I was curious to know this person.

‘Whats in a name. This life is a stage and we are all born to play characters, aren’t we?’ that was a funny retort.

‘cut the chase and just tell me your name. it isn’t fare that you know mine and I don’t know yours.’ I don’t know why and when exactly, but I found myself smiling. The entire environment around me had faded into oblivion.

‘I promise to reveal my name very soon… I love drama and my entry has to be dramatic too’

I laughed aloud and looked around embarrassed but I didn’t have to bother. Everyone was busy in their own world.

I accepted the friend request. Little did I know that this innocent banter was anything but that.

The next few days we chatted on messenger and he was his usual dramatic self. His compliments on my photos and quotes on social media were different from the rest and everyday I realized I looked forward to share my day with him.

I was usually a private person especially with strangers but this guy had the skill to make me reveal everything about myself. In the next fortnight or baring my band account number, phone number and home and work address, he knew everything about me. Right from my favourite food, outfits, hobbies, ambition…just about everything. Finally we shared our contact numbers.

Our chats continued on whatsapp. Where my DP was my day’s click at work, his was, well…. Lucifer. The caricature of the Devil. When I asked him he diverted the topic.

Meanwhile I kept getting that strange sensation of being watched in office  but found nothing amiss or out of place. A couple of times I felt someone follow me when I went out for groceries in the departmental store. I was scared for a bit and even contemplated telling Anshuman about it. But he had gone to the US for work and I didn’t want to disturb him. Knowing the guy he would catch the next available flight back home and put me under house arrest.

I should have… informed Anshuman.

A month later I realized I was crazy about mind-winner and wanted to meet him. I realized I knew nothing accept that he was thirty-years-old and a model. I still didn’t know his name. The man hadn’t even called and when I did he disconnected or didn’t answer. He said he was always working. I had distanced myself from all my old friends and Anshuman too. Everyone thought I was busy with my studies and workload… but honestly I didn’t want to talk to them anymore. Mind-winner occupied most of my wakeful thoughts.

These should have been the red flags for me but I had my dimwit blinders on…

One fine day after a week of texting on phone he called me. I only stared at his name flashing on the screen, excitement surging through my body.

I coyly answered. “Hello?”

“Hey…” The deep baritone sent shivers and my heart began to pound at marathon speed. “…So we finally get to talk, beautiful.”

I was spellbound by his voice that I didn’t realise I was on silent mode.

“hello…? Are you there, beautiful?” his voice shook me out of my slumber.

“Yeah… yeah… I ….i am here…” I stuttered like an idiot.

“OK… so shall we meet tomorrow? After you get off work?” Wow that was quick.

“Yes of course… sure. Let me know the time and place. I shall be there.” I spoke in a single breath.

“Fine then I’ll text you… good night, beautiful…. Dream about me…like I do about you…” He drawled on before disconnecting.

I stared at the phone till eternity. Then dropping it on the bed I squealed and jumped around in my pyjamas. I was half in love with a stranger and was all set to meet him… finally.

I wish someone had told me to stop it all here…

Right here.

©priyagole

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