The wizened graying man looked at Rishi with a calculating expression, running his index finger of his bottom lip as the boy before him squirmed in his seat. Reflexively, the man pushed his gunmetal gray spectacles back up his nose in a curious manner, only using his middle finger.
Rishi squirmed uneasily in his seat, resolutely staring at the ground for fear of looking upwards. Why he was so uncomfortable, he didn't know. It might have had to do with the fact that he was seventeen years old and meeting with a reputable psychiatrist. That might have had something to do with it, but he couldn't be sure.
After sighing deeply, the psychiatrist leaned forward in his black leather oxford chair and clasped his hands in front of him, gazing intently at the fidgety Indian boy before him.
"Mr. Malhotra, your parents are paying me a rather large sum of money so that I can help you, but I can't if you won't talk to me," the man said, his deep chocolatey voice attempting to coax Rishi out of his taciturn stance.
The boy's amber eyes flickered upwards for a fraction of a second to the doctor's face before flitting away. His hands clenched and unclenched as he stared about the luxurious room like a caged animal. The burgundy walls and cherry wood furniture in conjunction with the Persian carpets and Oxford leather furniture displayed fine living and obvious wealth in an open manner.
Doctor Brian could see the intelligence behind his smoldering amber eyes flickering like a bright candle flame. His index finger once again found his bottom lip to rub it in an absent minded gesture, a mannerism, but a calculated one at that.
Without warning, the boy, Rishi, began to speak. "Well, Doctor, what do you want to know?" he offered, his tone simultaneously condescending and resigned.
The psychiatrist jotted down a few notes about his tone, but talked as though he hadn't detected it. "Well, why don't you start from the beginning?" he supplied.
Rishi stopped fidgeting and locked eyes with him, his amber eyes boring into the doctors with impunity, his face blank. "The beginning?" Rishi repeated, his tone once again tinged with condescension.
"The beginning," Dr. Brian echoed.
After drumming his fingers against his jeans for a while, Rishi sighed in frustration and resignation and sank back into his chair. He closed his eyes and appeared to be counting to ten mentally in his head, and when he opened them a strange fire burned within them.
"I suppose I should start from the day that started it all," he said, and Dr. Brain nodded, gesticulating with his hand for the boy to continue talking.
Rishi sat forward in his chair, a wistful, bitter glint in his eyes as he said, "Let's wind the clock back a year, to the start of my junior year..."
One year previously...
"Man, I swear to god, if you don't come to the party this weekend, our friendship is officially over!" Naveen said, his voice laden with melodrama.
Rishi rolled his eyes as he shut his locker and turned to his friend with an apologetic smile. "Can't man, I promised Steph that I would come over to her place to help her babysit her sister," he said, not entirely sorry that he wouldn't be going; he hated parties.
Naveen shook his head in disbelief. "Dude, you are so whipped."
"Am not!" Rishi protested, but Naveen chuckled humorlessly.
"Are too! Stephanie has got you wrapped around her finger," he said, disapproval oozing through his tone.
Feeling angry, Rishi settled on a low blow and snapped, "At least I have a girlfriend."
Naveen shot him a cold glare and said, "Dude, low blow, alright? I still think that Stephanie is no good. Break up with her now and come out on top."
"Are you crazy? No way! Dude, you and I both know that guys like me don't land girls like Steph. I'm not going to throw away something like this when it's being presented to me on a silver platter," Rishi hissed venomously, his voice dropping to a whisper, but Naveen pressed further, not one to drop an argument.
"Exactly my point! She's using you! Why can't you see that?" Naveen said in exasperation, running his hand through his curly black hair.
To Rishi, Naveen looked like an Indian Santa's elf, with his quirky mischievous grin, curly hair, and vibrant personality. Naveen was his best friend; they had known each other since the second grade, and they were virtually inseparable. However, ever since last year, when he had begun to go out with Stephanie Lansing, the captain of cross country and one of the most popular girls in school, Naveen had been incessantly telling him that there was something strange about it. After all, Stephanie was the one that had asked him out in the first place causing him to nearly pass out. In all rights, he wasn't bad looking, but Stephanie was like super model good looking, so in his head, their relationship didn't seem to compute.
With a sigh, Rishi said, "Whatever, dude. I have to get to Multivariable Calc, so I'll see you at lunch alright?"
Naveen locked eyes with him for a second before grinning. "Go on, get out of here. No one needs you," he joked. Rishi shook his head and walked away with a chuckle, heading for the stairs leading to the Mathematics department.
"Alice, I swear to god, if you don't sit still, I'll throw you in the oven with the Macaroni and Cheese!" Stephanie hissed.
With a yelp, Alice ran away from her older sister and clung to Rishi's legs. He grinned and looked up at Stephanie, still washing some dishes in his hands. As always, he felt his breath catch in his throat everytime he looked at her, even when she was wearing lazy clothes. Her dirty blond hair shot out in wispy tendrils out of the bun it was currently in, and her sweatshirt and yoga pants made her look like she hadn't gotten out of bed the entire day. Rishi still thought she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen, maybe even more so in moments like those.
"Wishee, save me!" Alice cried out, clinging tighter to his jeans. Alice was Stephanie's five year old sister, and she and Rishi had always doted upon one another. She couldn't pronounce his name right for some reason, but he found that quality adorably endearing.
Drying his hands on a towel hanging from the handle of the oven, Rishi picked little Alice up and she scrambled onto his back, clinging tightly. "Aww, Steph, you wouldn't ever want to hurt poor little Alice, would you?" he asked coyly.
"Don't patronize me, Rishi," Stephanie said wearily.
Rishi looked at her with wide, innocent eyes. "Who? Me? Why I wouldn't dream of it!" he said, and Alice giggled from behind his shoulder.
Stephanie eyed the pair suspiciously and left the kitchen grumbling under her breath, whipping out her cell phone as she sank into the living room sofa. Rishi let Alice climb off his shoulders and shared a secret smile with her.
"Cookies?" he asked mischievously.
Alice's emerald eyes grew wide with excitement. "Yeah!" she said loudly.
Rishi made a shushing motion with his hand. "Shh, you don't want mean old Steph to hear, do you?" he asked. Alice shook her head no furiously. With a warm chuckle, Rishi hoisted Alice up into the air so that she could pick out a cookie from the cookie jar hidden atop the refrigerator.
Once he set her back down, Alice waved her hand down and he crouched down so she could whisper into his ear. That was Alice's gesture for sharing a secret. "Will you be my big brother?" she whispered. Rishi felt a strong emotion swimming in his heart. Being an only child, he doted on younger children, but Alice was always special to him.
"Of course I will," Rishi said seriously, trying not to let his voice crack.
"Promise?" Alice pushed, and Rishi nodded sagaciously. Alice darted in quickly and pressed a kiss to his cheek before scampering away. With a soft smile, Rishi stood up and saw his girlfriend sprawled haphazardly on the sofa, texting someone. He noticed how her nose scrunched up adorably whenever she read something. It was those little things that Rishi loved the most about her; things that others might overlook, he noticed.
He walked over to her and threw his arms around her neck, giving her cheek a quick kiss. Stephanie looked away from her phone to him with a slight smile.
"I see you tamed the monster," she joked.
"Alice isn't that bad," Rishi confessed with a smile.
"Easy for you to say, she adores you," Stephanie scoffed.
"Nah, she just loves the fact that I can get her cookies," Rishi joked, but Stephanie shot him a serious, strangely melancholy look.
"No, Rishi, she seriously adores you. You're like the brother she never had," she said softly.
Rishi shrugged, trying not to read to much into her expressions like he always did. "She asked me to be her brother just now," he confided.
Stephanie looked away and let out a little, "Oh."
He frowned. "What's wrong?" he asked.
After a few seconds of silence, Stephanie turned back with a strained smile. "It's nothing."
Rishi opened his mouth to apologize for whatever error he had committed when the oven beeped, informing him that the macaroni was finished.
"You should go get that," Stephanie whispered.
Rishi studied her for a second before walking away in carefully masked frustration. After getting the food out, he called Alice back from her room. Stephanie took a plate of macaroni and vanished into her room, bidding Rishi good night. She missed the confusion and pain that gleamed in his eyes for a fraction of a second before returning to a forced eqilibrium. Unbeknownst to the both of them, Alice had noticed, but she waited for her sister to leave before saying anything. Even Alice, at her young age, was intelligent enough to know that there was something wrong in the relationship between Rishi and her sister.
With a bright smile, Alice chirped, "Do you want to see my drawing from art class, Wishee?"
Rishi forced himself to focus on her and smiled slightly, "Of course, Allybug."
Beaming, Alice scampered away and carefully retrieved something from her backpack as Rishi sat in the kitchen trying to process Stephanie's behavior. His brain started turning against him like it always did when it came to dealing with Stephanie. He blamed his over-analytical thought process which had only been a blessing for him in all other aspects of his life. When it came to relationships, however, he read into everything. He struggled to process all the expressions, the body language, the conversations, always trying to read for a deeper meaning that he might have been missing.
Not for the first time since he started dating Stephanie, Rishi felt a little used. After all, he thought he was being a good boyfriend by helping his girlfriend babysit her sibling instead of doing it alone, but so far, Stephanie had just been aloof and let Rishi do all the work. It's not that Rishi minded the work, but he minded Stephanie's lack of involvement. It hurt him deeply, and he could practically hear Naveen's words echoing in his ears: She's using you! Why can't you see that?
Alice skipped back to the dinner table, beside Rishi. She crawled on top of his lap and put the drawing down. Rishi smiled softly and studied it while Alice watched him closely. It was a crudely drawn picture of Rishi, Stephanie, and Alice each depicted as stick figures with different heights or hair colors. In the picture, Rishi and Alice were holding hands, but Stephanie was off by herself holding hands with someone else; a boy with brown hair. Only Rishi didn't have a smile on his face; he had a frowny face instead. Alice watched as Rishi's breath caught in his throat, his eyes growing watery before they forcefully shut.
"That boy picks Stephie up sometimes," Alice confided in a whisper.
Rishi gave himself a second to ensure his voice didn't crack. "D-d you know who he is?" he asked slowly, still catching on certain words.
Alice shook her head no. "I don't like him. He's not very nice to me," Alice stated matter-of-factly.
Rishi choked out a laugh and pressed a kiss to Alice's hair. "He must be a real jerk then. I can't imagine anyone that wouldn't like you, Allybug," he said softly.
Alice gave Rishi a hug. "Does this mean you'll still be my big brother, Wishee?"
Rishi frowned. "Of course. Why would you ask again, Allybug? I already promised, didn't I?"
She remained silent for a while. "I thought you were going to get angry about my drawing. I thought you wouldn't like Stephie anymore and then you wouldn't be my big brother anymore."
Steering Alice so that she could see his face, Rishi looked at her seriously. "I'll always be your big brother, Allybug, no matter what happens to Steph and I, okay? I promise."
Nodding, Alice let out a little, "Okay."
With a tender smile, Rishi carried her bridal style as Alice squealed gleefully. "Time for bed, Allybug. It's way past your bed time."
"But I'm not tired!" Alice pouted, squirming in his arms.
"I'll read you a story. How 'bout that?" Rishi offered, and Alice considered.
"I get milk and cookies too?" she pressed.
Rishi chuckled warmly. "Yes, yes, milk and cookies too."
"Has anyone told you you can be quite persuasive, Allybug?"
"All the time, Wishee."
"'I'm sorry boy,' said the Tree. 'I have nothing more to give you; my apples are gone,'" Rishi read, his gaze flickering up from the book to rest on a sleeping Alice. He put the book down on her bedside table and slipped quietly out of her room, shutting the door behind him and resting against it with his eyes closed.
Down the hall, he could hear blaring music coming from Stephanie's room. For a second, he entertained the fantasy of storming in there and telling her exactly he crappy she made him feel, telling her that he wasn't going to stand for this anymore, that they were over. But he's a coward; he can't bear the idea of breaking up with the only girl that has ever shown an iota of interest in him, so he'll endure it even though he knows that he's being treated poorly because we accept the love that we think we deserve, and this is what Rishi felt that he deserved.
With a wistful smile, he made his way into the living room and checked the time. It was almost ten thirty. He fished in his pockets for cell phone, but then remembered that he had biked here. It was a long ride back, but he knew calling his parents was not an option. They had made it quite clear that dating was a prohibited activity and that there would be dire consequences if they found out, so he had to resort to lying to them, telling them he had school projects or tutoring or something of the sort. It would kill him whenever his father would look at him with pride whenever he said such things, as though he had taken an academic initiative to go the extra mile.
Rishi ran his hands through his hair in a gesture of frustration before seating himself at the dinner table and pulling out his math homework. It would look suspicious to his parents if he had to work on his homework after supposedly studying in the library for three hours. For the next thirty minutes, he worked diligently and finished his work quickly. Math always came easy to him. Well, school came easy to him. Unfortunately, confidence and good looks didn't.
The front door opened just as Rishi zipped up his backpack, and Mr. and Mrs. Lansing walked in wearily. Rishi offered them a polite smile when they looked his way. Mrs. Lansing was almost a carbon copy of her daughter and astoundingly beautiful even in her late thirties. She shot him a look of confusion as she slipped off her shoes.
"Rishi, what are you doing out here alone?" she asked kindly.
"Oh, I was just over tonight helping Stephanie with Alice," he responded.
"That's awfully nice of you, Rishi," Mr. Lansing said, his gruff voice colored with approval.
Rishi sheepishly scuffled his feet against the wooden flooring of the kitchen. "Oh, it's my pleasure."
"Where's Stephanie?" Mrs. Lansing demanded, her eyes narrowing.
"She's up in her room, doing her homework I think," Rishi offered, feeling slightly uncomfortable.
"What's she doing up there when you're down here?" she pressed.
"I just came down after reading Alice to sleep. I think she was washing dishes down here while I was up there," Rishi lied, trying to defend Stephanie to the best of his ability.
Mrs. Lansing snorted and turned to her husband. "You hear that Jim? Steph knows how to wash dishes!"
Mr. Lansing chuckled at his wife's tone and turned to Rishi. "Son, you don't have to lie to us. We know that you're always the one that washes the dishes every time you come over."
"I'm sorry," Rishi said quietly, feeling his face heat up in embarrassment.
"I'm going to ground that girl half way to hell," Mrs. Lansing fumed.
Rishi looked up in alarm. "No, don't! Look, I swear Stephanie helped. She just had a long day and needed sometime to herself. It was no trouble on me at all. You both know how much I like Alice, who was an absolute angel tonight by the way and definitely deserves more cookies-" Rishi began rambling before Mrs. Lansing cut him off.
"Honey, you're a godsend. You always manage to tidy up the house everytime you come here despite my telling you not to, but you and I both know that Stephanie never helps you. Now, I'm disappointed that my daughter made her gem of a boyfriend do all her dirty work while she enjoyed herself, and I'm particularly disappointed that she isn't down here with you right now. Does that sound unfair?"
"It's all my fault. We got into a fight today over something stupid that I started-"
"Don't take the fall for her, son. She needs to learn to think about others instead of being selfish," Mr. Lansing interjected. Rishi looked away chastened before staring directly at the both of them seriously.
"I'm begging you, please don't say anything to Steph about all this, if only for my sake," he said softly. Mrs. Lansing opened her mouth before shutting it firmly and looking to her husband helplessly. Mr. Lansing stared back at Rishi equally as forcefully.
When he spoke, his voice was controlled. "I don't know what my daughter did to deserve a boy like you, but I thank my stars everyday that she chose you."
Rishi blinked several times to keep his tears at bay. He politely nodded to them both before making to leave. "Do you need a ride? It's late," Mrs. Lansing offered.
"I brought my bike, I'll be fine. Thanks for offering anyways," he said before closing the door behind him.
The last thing he heard was Mrs. Lansing asking, "What the hell are we going to do, Jim?"
A/N: Hello everyone! This isn't going to be a fast moving story; its focus will be on layering tension and emotion. I hope that the first chapter was good enough to keep you all interested. Thanks for reading, and please: Follow, Favorite, and Review.