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Al gulped. “Tell me you’re just messing with me, Spruce.”
“I wish I could, Al.” I spread my hands. “But that’s what they all said.”
“They could be lying,” he said hopefully.
“I hope for our sakes they were.”
“Isn’t there any way to, like, sever the connection?”
“Not that I know of.” I sighed. “I think our best course of action now would be to poison the Creator and get the hell out of here soon as we can. Maybe the midnight man will abandon us if we travel to a different world altogether.”
“Maybe? We can’t risk our asses on a ‘maybe’, Spruce.”
“I personally prefer ‘maybe we’ll live’ to ‘we will definitely die’.”
Al gave his trademark slight frown which indicated he agreed with me but didn’t want to say so.
“Right then. Let’s see where botox gets us.”
Al straightened an imaginary bow tie on my neck. “Ready for your date, Mr Marlow?”
“If poisoning a girl at a badminton game counts as a date, then yes, I’m ready.”
We made our way through the revolving iron gate inside Nehru Park, the little bottle of Botox concealed in the inside pocket of Al’s denim jacket. A few yards away, the Creator had already started playing with Pragya, who was also a regular player in our evening games. Unlike the first time I’d met her, this time, the Creator was facing towards me.
“Brad!” She deftly caught the shuttlecock and shouted as soon as she spotted me. “Here!”
I heard Al snort near my shoulder and we walked to where the two girls were standing.
“You’re late today,” the Creator said.
“Courtesy of my friend Alden, who was busy with his make-up,” I motioned towards Al.
The Creator and Pragya gave one of those polite smile-frowns you give when you don’t want to offend someone by laughing at their insult.
Al extended his hand. “Don’t mind him, miss. The doctor proclaimed him short of brains when he was born.”
The girls shook his hand one by one and I introduced them to Al. It felt weird to say the Creator’s name when I was introducing her, like naming your mother.
“Took you long with your shopping, Alden,” said Pragya.
I’d completely forgotten to tell Al that I’d told them that he’d gone shopping for souvenirs.
“Brad told us you were shopping for souvenirs,” the Creator added.
“Ah, well.” I could practically see the gears turning in Al’s head trying to come up with an excuse. “I’m a little more adventurous than Spru-Brad here. I got carried away exploring Delhi on my own.”
“I see. Good that you’re here now, though. Today one of us won’t have to stand idly by while the other two play,” said Pragya.
“But we only have Pragya’s pair,” the Creator said and frowned. “Tell you what, you guys play and I’ll run up to my house and get my pair as well, and we can play doubles today. Bralden versus Pragni,” she smoothly portmanteau-ed our names.
Pragya sighed loudly and rolled her eyes. “Don’t, Agni. Just don’t.”
The Creator grinned. She loved annoying her best friend.
I started to take the racquet from Pragya, but she held back. “What?” I asked, puzzled.
“Let’s see how your friend plays today, Brad. Alden?” she held out the racquet to Al.
Shit. Al had the botox. He was supposed to mix it in her water bottle while we played. I glanced at him. He looked back reassuringly.
“Challenge accepted, Pragya,” he took the racquet and made the smallest of beckoning gestures to me as he walked to take his place, his back turned to Pragya. I followed him and he smoothly handed me the botox, pretending to straighten his jacket. I slipped it into my pocket and walked to the bench where the girls had kept their water bottles.
Pragya served and their game started. Al sucked at it. The shuttlecock fell on his side at Pragya’s first serve and he sheepishly picked it up to serve it. It fell down again when he tried to serve. I tried not to laugh as he failed a second time and the shuttlecock fell right below him, sitting upright in the grass mockingly. I looked at Pragya. She was looking patiently at her opponent, trying not to facepalm. He finally managed to get it up in the air at his fourth try and Pragya hit it back gently, contrary to the powerful shots I was used to seeing from her.
Al was in Weapons Development, but that didn’t mean he was the one who tested those weapons. He was basically the engineer and the chemical consultant. He did know how to fight, of course, everybody did- but the Annihilicap, the badminton-inspired weapon and other similar weapons weren’t his forte. Plasma whips were his thing.
I looked at the two water bottles on the bench. One was red-and-blue, and the other was light green with one of those buttons that popped up the cap. I picked up the latter, which was the Creator’s, and unscrewed its top. Pragya glanced at me at that moment, so I pretended to drink from it for her benefit, and as soon as she was absorbed in the game again, took out the deadly little botox bottle and unscrewed its purple plastic cap. We’d already unsealed the metal cap at the motel and thrown it away. It wouldn’t have done to prepare weapons at the battlefield.
I tipped it towards the open mouth of the green water bottle and let a drop of it fall in, which Al had told me was more than the lethal dose. I was still unconvinced, though, and let another drop fall.
I was about to put the botox bottle back in my pocket when the pleading face of the Creator from my dream at the hospital materialised before me and muted out everything else. We laughed at your name, remember?
I blinked a few times. The Creator’s face disappeared, but her voice was still there. I know you’re not a bad person.
You killed my parents.
What we had was not all fake, you know.
You messed up my whole life. My whole world.
We laughed at your name, remember?
Rennie’s somewhere drooling and blubbering because of you.
I like you, Spruce. You don’t have to do this.
That’s not a line from the dream.
Well, I’m saying it now.
YOU’RE NOT REAL!
Neither are you.
I AM REAL! YOU’RE IN MY HEAD!
You’re a guy I made up. In my head.
“Brad? Brad!” Someone slapped me. Al, Pragya and the Creator were kneeling around me, looking at me worriedly. Pragya was holding her red-and-blue bottle and my face was dripping, wetting my t-shirt. I realised the slap I’d felt was actually a splash. There was a puddle of brown water at my feet and the light-green bottle was half empty, still clutched in my hand. A pair of blue racquets rested at Al and Pragya’s feet, and the black strap of another racquet case ran across the Creator’s torso. The botox bottle was nowhere to be seen, and neither was its purple plastic cap.
I shook my head and blinked. “Was I out?”
“Not really,” said Al. “Your eyes were open, but you weren’t responding. You’d kind of blanked out, the way people sometimes do in a boring conversation.”
“You seemed to be deep in thought,” Pragya added. “You were just sitting there with Agni’s bottle emptying at your feet.”
“What were you thinking about, Brad?” the Creator asked. “What was so intense that it made you blank out?”
“Spruce,” I said dumbly, not quite in control of the words coming out of my mouth.
“My name’s Spruce. Don’t drink the water.”
Al cleared his throat loudly. “Oh-kay, buddy.” He hauled me up, supporting me with his shoulder. “I think we need to get you home.”
The girls stepped out of the way. “We’ll go with you,” the Creator offered. “Whatever he was thinking, right now he’s-” she made a swirl in the air with her finger near her temple that she thought I didn’t see. “Dangerous to leave this guy alone with his thoughts.”
“Thank you, Agni, but I think we’ll be fine. I’ll make sure I don’t leave him alone with his thoughts,” Al replied.
“Are you sure? This has never happened to him before, and he’s alone plenty when it’s my and Pragya’s turn to play together.”
“He was reading… uh… Stephen Hawking today.” Al straightened me again. “Pretty sure that’s what he was thinking about, and that’s why this happened.”
“If you say so. My house is the third from the left in that street,” she turned and pointed to a street. “and Pragya’s is two buildings to the right in the next street. Call us if you need anything. I would give you our numbers, but I don’t have a pen on me right now.”
“That’s more than enough, Agni, thanks. We’ll get going now.”
A few minutes later…
“Dude, what the hell?” Al angrily slammed the door of the motel room.
“I’m sorry, Al.” I slumped down on my bed.
“Sorry? Sorry doesn’t even begin to cover it, Spruce.”
“I am really, really sorry.”
“I knew it.” He held his head. “You’ve gone sweet on the Creator.”
“Nothing like that,” I said, and it was true. The Creator was a kind of mother-figure to me, not a stupid crush. “I- I just couldn’t do it, Al.” I told him about my dream, and what had happened at the park.
“Look, man, you saw Rennie in your dream too, right? Think about what she said. Think about how our world is all kinds of crazy thanks to the Creator.”
“Our world also exists because of her,” I said in a small voice.
“She could’ve made it right, but she didn’t.”
“She doesn’t know it exists. She thinks it’s just a story.”
Al sighed. “Do you or don’t you want to kill her?”
“Can’t we somehow convince her to stop writing it?” Even before I said it, I knew it couldn’t be done.
“Spruce, can I convince you to throw away your DLRY? Can I convince you to never listen to 3 Doors Down again?”
I remained quiet.
“There you have your answer. You’ve only known her a few weeks. And you’ve known your world all your life. Your parents, and Rennie. You’re gonna let them down for the girl who killed them?
“You know what the teens here do? They go to school and paint and dance and stuff. We fight mutants. They learn stupid little rhymes and stroll around in prams here as kids. We learn combat and train to fight as kids.”
I didn’t say anything. What could I? I was torn. I was in a morally grey area, as the Creator would say.
But Al was right. It was either my whole world or the supervillain of my story.
“Where’s the botox?” Just like that, out of the blue. I don’t know why I said it.
“You’re worried about-”
“Just tell me.”
“You spilt it all away, Mr Protag.” Al took the empty bottle out of his jacket. “Thankfully, I picked it up before that Pragya girl could see it. Kudos to you for wasting our most powerful poison.”
“I did poison the water.”
“You spilt that too.”
“Not all of it.” The bottle had been half empty, I remembered.
“Do you think she’ll drink it? Especially after you so helpfully told her not to?”
“She thinks I was blabbing.”
“But do you want her to?”
I lowered my eyes and kept quiet.