The city centre was just the way it always had been.
People were jostling amongst each other as they marched together toward the nearby station. Horns animated the dull grey monotony. People may think this is beautiful, but it never attracted me one bit.
I looked across the street and watched the sudden eruption of a heated argument. I quickly turned back and walked on. Reflecting on how empty this side of pavement was. I was going exactly opposite the others’ direction, and given the time of day, I probably should have expected this.
I looked down again at the card Samarth had given me. Number 33A… 33A… 33A?
“Oi!” cried a voice. “Look where you’re going!”
I started back to my surroundings. A car had just stopped a few yards away, the driver looked almost livid. I had started crossing the road, at a terrible time. But I quickly hopped to the other side and went back to searching.
This was number 32, so number 33 should be –
“–Right over here,” said a voice from behind me. “Hello Jasmin, I didn’t expect to see you this early.”
Of course it had to be him. I cursed myself, for not expecting something like this. I turned and as I nodded my head hello, I swung my palm straight across his cheek. Boy did that feel good.
“What was that for?” demanded Samarth.
“You — surprised me,” I replied finally, after contemplating whether I should tell Samarth what I had heard from Arpit.
Are you dead? Aren’t you supposed to be dead? The questions that came immediately to mind sounded too silly to ask with a straight face. I’d just have to ask him later.
I suddenly remembered the note he left me on the card; only happy not to make a fool of myself while asking for ‘Dray’.
“You’re quite early,” commented Samarth. “I only got here a few minutes ago, myself.”
“So you were going to wait here until I came?” I asked incredulously. “What about today’s lectures?”
“Lectures?” questioned Samarth, looking at me strangely. “What lectures?”
“T-Today’s?” I retorted uneasily. It looked like he earnestly believed what he said was true. But obviously it wasn’t. “At the university?”
“Are you trying to make fun of me, woman?” demanded Samarth, eyebrows knit together. “I only start my semester once I move into my new neighborhood.”
Okay, I didn’t know if he meant it as a joke, but he said it as though he believed it.
Thoroughly discombobulated, I redirected the conversation to finding a cafe, trying not to make him angrier, or worse, suspicious. We did find a place, rather empty, when I picked up the topic once again.
“New neighborhood? ” I asked Samarth. “Where are you going?”
“There’s this place about fifteen miles off New Chesham,” I sat up straight at the name: New Chesham, that was where I lived when I was nine. “A place called Phoenix Town.”
Phoenix Town? I hadn’t heard this name at all, and I lived in New Chesham. But I didn’t want to make Samarth angry, so I kept quiet.
“It’s a town around a research facility,” continued Samarth. “A pretty famous one if you ask me –”
“– Haven’t heard of it,” I blurted out bluntly.
”It’s only found if you search for it,” said Samarth pointedly. “Like a pearl hidden in plain sight.”
I couldn’t dispute this further, not when he spoke of this place with reverent pride. We split our bill and were on our way back, when I realized there was one question that remained unasked.
“When are you moving out?” I asked.
Samarth took something out of his pocket, opened it and waved a ticket in front of my face. “I leave Wednesday,” he said finally.
We went our own ways, leaving me all but curious. Phoenix Town. Remember the name, Jasmin. It’s time to do some digging.
Why was I doing all this?
I looked it up everywhere: Phoenix Town. Research facility. The Internet had, quite surprisingly, failed me.
Nothing. I mean, what was actually going on here?
Heck, I even considered calling Samarth and ask him again. But naturally, I thought against it. So slowly, I lost my enthusiasm for finding this weird locality.
But I was quickly pulled back into the hunt. I was rummaging through my suitcase of belongings and found myself pulling out a neatly folded map. I was first confused at why I had a map in my case, but quickly found out the answer.
It belonged to my mother. One of the things I’d picked up from my aunt, after — what happened.
I spread the old map on my bed, feeling the crinkly texture as I ran my fingers on coarse paper. My eyes were blurry from a sudden wave of tears.
As I wiped off a tear that fell on the map, I peered closely at the smudged text beneath. I was looking at a map of the countryside, and noticed a label, New Chesham, slightly off the blot on the map I had made. I sat up straight, with the slightest of hope and got back into my search.
And then, I noticed an old mark, made with a marker. A few miles South-East off New Chesham, and — yes, I guessed right. I’d found it at last. After losing hope on the Internet, finally resorting to an ancient map.
Okay, maybe not so ancient, the map was dated 2014, not too long ago, if you look at it one way.
I relaxed slightly, laughed at my own folly. My God, Jasmin, nothing to get so worked up for. Why did you do all this?
Because there wasn’t an answer when I searched everywhere. I only found the place because someone had marked the place on a map – this map.
I rolled the idea many times in my head and finally fell asleep to that idea, on top of the map, pointing at the dot which represented Phoenix Town.
“Going somewhere for Christmas?” inquired Lisa ,as she popped suddenly into view.
“Visiting my aunt,” I retorted quickly.
“You’re too nervous to be visiting your aunt,” she said quietly.
I turned and faced my friend. That was quite like her, in fact, nosing into other people’s business; she may have been the year’s Sherlock Holmes, but I wasn’t in a mood for this.
“I’m not nervous,” I lied through my teeth. But she saw through it immediately, as I anticipated.
“Aah, nope, lying right there,” said Lisa, smiling proudly. “You do know how I can read people’s expressions, right?”
I did; and was occasionally envious about her skills of observation, but I responded drily, “How fascinating.”
“So, it’s pretty obvious that you aren’t visiting your aunt, but most definitely going somewhere… the question is where?”
“None of your business,” I snapped, hoping it would stop her from a further barrage of questions. And she did stay quiet, though it may have been a frustrated silence.
We walked out together through the front door, joining the large crowd exiting the compound, probably desperate to get home.
I felt slightly sympathetic to Lisa, and as we stopped to start our own ways back, I told her: “I’m going to New Chesham for a few days.”
I didn’t want to tell her everything, not until I got back. We bade each other goodbye and headed our own ways. And I quickly returned to thinking as I walked alone on the street.
Phoenix Town, as the map had shown was surrounded on all sides by hills; the range started about fifteen miles off New Chesham, this part was mainly road, I could take a bus or so from the station. Then it was another five miles on a trekking route to my destination; twenty miles in fact, contrary to what he told me before.
Five miles trek. Should take a bit more than an hour, I thought to myself, as I unlocked my door. A few weeks had passed since I found the map, and none of those days did I not think of this secret town.
Finally I decided that I might just check the place out, for what it’s worth. Didn’t hurt much, if I didn’t find anything I could return on the next train back from New Chesham, or maybe even visit my aunt, after what Lisa had put me through.
There was a rucksack on my bed. Sure enough, I did plan to leave as soon as I could, and here I had my chance at last. I had packed already; I planned to take the train the same day. This way, I’d reach New Chesham early next morning.
I slung the heavy pack over my shoulders and looked askance at a picture that lay on my desk. I returned my glance to the figure in the image. This is what I saw.
A young woman; her black hair went down until her jaw – all straight and clean. Her brown eyes looked back at me and she was smiling slightly. It might’ve just been someone else, if I didn’t already know that I was looking at my mirror.
Now the reflection moved its arms to fix her collar – and then rolled up her sleeves. At this point I turned away and started walking towards my door.
Heck, I thought to myself, the house now looks brand new – as if I never lived here before.
And so I opened my door and walked out into the evening’s sun, as it sank into the distant skyscrapers. I had not a care in the world. The door slammed shut, not to be opened for a few days.
This was the first mistake, though I had no idea then. I was just looking for a bus to Central Station.