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I was stunned into immobility for a few moments, my sweaty hands clutching the papers, my eyes fixed on the shelf before me. My whole face pulsing with my racing heart, I turned around to find a balding man in a blue shirt and sepia pants frowning at me. Either the lab assistant or the peon.
I gulped. “Yes- yes sir?”
“I said what are you doing here so early in the morning without a teacher?”
“I was sent here by… by ma’am to check if some- uh- chemicals are available. She’s gonna demonstrate a- an experiment in class today,” I said, blurting out the first excuse that came to my mind.
The peon/lab assistant eyed me suspiciously. “Which ma’am?”
Oh shit. “The chemistry teacher?” I tried unhelpfully.
The peon/lab assistant looked annoyed. “I mean what is her name?”
“Um… I- I’m a new student here, sir.” Yes, that’s it. “I don’t know the names of any teachers yet.”
The peon/lab assistant wasn’t convinced. “Do you have written permission from ma’am?”
Oh shit, shit, shit. What was this guy, a peon (/lab assistant) or a detective? I pretended to clear my throat to buy myself some time to think of an excuse. “Ma’am was in a hurry, sir,” I threw a quick glance around for the potassium chloride. “Said she had to go for some important meeting. So she forgot to give me permission. I also forgot to ask her for it.”
“But she gave you the list.”
“Yes, sir.” It was a good thing Al had forced me to not print random things on the papers but names of chemicals lest I should get in a situation like this.
“Give it to me. I’ll check them and give her the list back by the first period. Which class does she teach?”
I shook my head. He was definitely the lab assistant if he knew where different chemicals were kept.
The lab assistant sighed, exasperated. “Don’t know that either, do you? Wait outside- I’ll give the list back to you.”
“Sure, sir.” I made a show of putting my pen back into my backpack. While I was zipping my pencil case closed, the lab assistant turned his back. I surveyed the marble slab in front of me again. Ah, there it was- a small white plastic canister labelled:
‘Potassium Chloride KCl (Anhydrous) 99% 50 grams’
It was, fortunately, on the far left. As I went towards the door, I slipped it into my pocket. As soon as I was out of the lab door, I considered making a run for it, but then I stopped myself. If I ran, the already suspicious lab assistant would definitely bust me and take me to the principal or something, where my identity as a non-student would be revealed. So, I waited for the list I did not need.
Fifteen minutes later, the lab assistant came out, holding the list out. “Tell ma’am everything is available except strontium nitrate and potassium ferrocyanide. They’ll be arranged by Friday. I’ve circled them in the list too, in case you forget.”
“Thank you so much, sir,” I said, taking the list and quickly turning to go when the lab assistant stopped me again. “Kid?” Holy hellfire, what now?
“Yes sir?” I turned around.
“What’s your name?”
“Darpan Kapoor,” I said, remembering the name on a textbook peeking out of a kid’s bag I’d seen on my way here.
“Jeez, I thought you were a foreigner, from the way you looked and talked.”
“I’m actually Indian-American, sir,” the Creator had designated my country as America, and so it’d remain, it seemed. “Okay, I should really get going. I’m already late.” I started walking away, jostling my way through the crowd of children milling into their classes at the last minute. I had barely got to the corridor’s end where I had entered from when my unlucky stars compelled the idiot man to shout for me again. “Darpan Kapoor!” Now what?
I turned around and saw that the lab assistant was a few paces away from me with a tall girl with a curly black ponytail standing beside him, looking at me expectantly.
“Tell me, Darpan, you’re good in Chemistry, right? That’s why ma’am sent you to check on the chemicals?”
“I- I guess so.” What did fate have in store for me now?
“Well, Divya here is going for an inter-school Chemistry Quiz at DAV Sreshtha Vihar, and her teammate betrayed her at the last second by being absent today. Poor kid will get disqualified without a second team member, so I suggested your name to her. Will you go with her?”
No way, I thought. All I need to do now is to get out of this school. I almost said no, but then shut up. How was I to get out of this school? There were guards on every gate, as I’d already seen, and I had no way of contacting Al for help. It struck me that I had no escape plan. The two of us had thought of printing names of chemicals on a sheet of paper but hadn’t thought of how I’d get out. The things one ignores when one’s excited.
This inter-school competition might be my only chance of getting out, I realised. So I said yes.
“Oh, thank you, thank you so much,” the tall girl said, shaking my hand furiously. “I was on the verge of disqualification.” So was I, I thought.
“But kid, wait,” the interfering lab assistant spoke again. “Who will get your attendance marked? And who will give that list to the Chemistry teacher?” He looked around. “Do you see any of your classmates?”
I looked around for the benefit of the assistant. “No, sir, it doesn’t seem so. I’ll do one thing. I’ll run up to my class and tell someone to tell the teacher I’m present and to pass on the list to ma’am. Can you wait for two minutes?” I said, turning to the girl. The human mind sometimes works amazingly well in crises.
“Okay. But be quick.”
I ran out of sight of the two up a flight of stairs and waited in a corner for some time, crumpling up the list and stowing it away in my bag and basically wasting two-three minutes. Then I came back down, running and made a show of being out of breath when I got to the girl (the lab assistant had gone away by that time). She led me to the front gate, briefing me on the rules of the quiz which I ignored as I formulated an escape plan in my mind.
After the escort teacher was informed of the replacement, I climbed into a white– bus, they called it- with around fifteen other children of different age groups, with the tall girl sitting beside me and doing last-minute revisions from a fat Chemistry book. When she saw me, her new teammate, doing nothing to prepare, she said- “Aren’t you gonna study anything? You’re participating on such short notice, and I’m really thankful for that, but I also want us to win.”
“Nah, I’m good.” When she gave me weird looks at that, I added- “Actually, last minute studying stresses me out and then I forget everything I do know at the time of the test.”
That seemed to convince her. Nodding knowingly, she went back to her book. I sat and started devising an escape plan. We were going to another school, so surely I had to get away before we got inside that school. I considered getting the bus stopped for a bathroom break. “How far is the school?” I asked my teammate.
“Oh, not very far away,” she said. “We’ll get there in maximum fifteen minutes.”
No chance for a bathroom break, then. I’d have to somehow run away after getting off the bus and before getting into the school. I thought and thought, but no light bulb went off in my mind. I hadn’t even conceived of a strategy when we arrived. Even the traffic was against me today, it seemed.
We got off the bus and the escort teacher did a head count. I could see no school around me. “Where’s the school?” I asked my new friend.
“DAV is located in a residential colony,” she said in a condescending tone of voice. “So we’ll have to walk a little as there’s no parking space for buses near it.”
We started walking, an assorted procession of children ranging from ages ten to sixteen, towards a school around a quarter kilometre away. It was then that my escape plan revealed itself. I went up to the escort teacher.
“Yus?” she looked up at me, a medium-sized bespectacled woman with perfectly straight hair and an artificial smile.
“Ma’am, I forgot my important medication inside the bus. I feel faint and nauseated if I don’t take it every two hours or so. May I go and get it?”
“Take someone with you. Divya?”
“Yes ma’am?” my teammate called out from the back of the queue.
“No ma’am,” I stopped her hastily. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be back in just a minute.”
The teacher frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Perfectly. I’ll meet you at the school gate itself. It’s straight ahead, isn’t it?”
“Thank you, ma’am! I’ll be back in a moment!” And before the bewildered teacher could say anything else, I was off, running towards the bus which was parked around a corner. As soon as I turned that corner, making sure to keep out of sight of the bus driver (who was smoking across the street anyway) I ran towards the main road, far away from DAV school.