“Riya, honey, let’s hurry. You don’t want to be late for school, do you?”
Riya’s mother warned her fourteen-year-old daughter and hurried to retrieve her school bag and water bottle from the dining table.
Riya gobbled the last bit of toast and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Coming, mom”
She hurried after her mother, admiring their garden while walking out the gate. From a young age, she could admire and appreciate the beauty of the small and everyday things that most people would simply overlook.
Her mother grabbed her palm and pulled her toward herself. Though Riya was fourteen, she still needed the occasional help from her mother. Riya was born with a handicap that made her physically weaker than children her age. However, her mother would often brush it off as her daughter’s clumsiness.
Riya got into the school bus and sat by the window, anticipating the arrival of her best friend, Arnav. Arnav was her classmate and was more into sports than studies. This meant that the duo spent hours together after school to complete their homework.
The bus tires screeched to a halt and, out of the corner of her eye, Riya saw a head bobbing up and down. A smile broke out on her face as she called him excitedly, “Arnav, hurry!”
Arnav managed to grab the bus door and jumped up the stairs. He grinned at her and settled beside her, “I wanted to sleep today, but I remembered we had a drawing lesson. So… here I am.”
Riya giggled as the bus went down its usual route, picking up students as the two friends talked like they had not met in forever.
Riya kept glancing at her watch, anxious for the drawing period to start. When, after lunchtime, it was finally time for the drawing class, she dashed down the corridors to get the first seat in the classroom.
Arnav jumped the stairs two steps at a time. “Hey, wait up!”
He reached the class panting and saw her seated on the first bench. “First seat, again?”
Arnav made a face. Contrary to Riya, he hated drawing. He could barely draw stick figures. Unsurprisingly, their teacher would often ask him to learn from Riya, who would then giggle and tease him the whole day.
Arnav grumbled, “Just wait till I finish school and college. I’ll fly straight to Harvard, just like my cousin.”
Riya grimaced, “I may not be good at studies, but promise me that you’ll call me every day.”
Arnav fist-bumped her, “Promise.”
The teacher glared at him for talking during the class. Arnav buried his head in his drawing book.
He did not mind it, though. He made a big fuss about drawing, but secretly, he liked to see the joy on his best friend’s face whenever she painted.
Riya had always been fond of colors. Just the prospect of a drawing class would make her want to go to school. She would even pack her little school bag with crayons and watercolors a day in advance.
Her drawing teacher was also pleased with her progress and dedication. More often than not, Arnav would have to drag Riya out of class so they could eat lunch together. She would lose herself in colors and lose track of time while practicing her swirls and strokes.
However, fate was cruel and she was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that affected her vision. Her parents tried visiting every possible eye specialist and ophthalmologist to ensure that Riya did not lose her complete eyesight by the time she reached her early twenties. However, nothing worked.
By the time she turned twenty, she would be left with only 10% of her eyesight.
When Riya discovered that she only had six months or so, she had willed herself to not cry.
She sat by the window of her room, which was decorated with all the paintings she had crafted since her childhood.
Arnav’s voice echoed through her house. He searched for her in the other rooms before finding her seated near the window, all by herself.
His heart sank when he saw Riya in such a dejected state. He knew what colors and painting meant to her.
Arnav plastered a fake smile on his face, “Oh, so you’re here? Making me run around the house looking for you, I see.”
Riya wiped her eyes and greeted him with a smile. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
Arnav reached for the window and got down on his knees, “Yes, ’cause you just drifted off to dreamland.”
Riya played with her hands nervously. Arnav took her hands in his and put his chin on them.
“You know you look ugly when you cry, right?”
Riya gave a snort as Arnav gently wiped her cheek. “Your mother told me why you haven’t been replying to my calls or messages since morning.”
Fresh tears welled up in her eyes.
Arnav had an earnest look on his face. He was struggling to find the right words. His eyebrows furrowed at the sheer effort it took to keep the desperation out of his voice.
“You know, we can get a donor and…”
A teardrop rolled down her eye. Her voice felt choked, “Not with my condition, Arnav. You know that the gene mutation affecting me renders the nerves ineffective to match with any other donor’s eyes.”
Arnav looked her in the eye. He then scanned her face, the only face he had cared to look at since the age of fourteen. Time had flown by like a breeze, and they had matured from being school kids to youngsters.
Over time, Arnav’s friendship had blossomed into something more beautiful. Riya was oblivious to this change. She had, after all, been too busy fighting her own battle.
“I… I can be your eyes, Riya. You don’t need anyone else.”
Riya flashed a wistful smile at him. She knew her best friend would say the nicest things to make her feel better about herself. However, she was well aware of his dreams and ambitions.
She punched him in the shoulder playfully, “Oh, really? What about your Harvard plans, then?”
Arnav waved his hand, “Harvard isn’t more important than you. It never was.”
Riya looked away. She could not bring herself to meet his gaze, “Arnav, do you even realize what you’re saying?”
Arnav’s eyes shone with tears, “Something I should’ve said long back. Look, I don’t want to leave, Riya. Harvard doesn’t seem exciting. Not anymore”.
Riya reprimanded him, “Arnav, don’t pity me. I can’t stand that.”
A gentle breeze swept in through the open window and a loose strand of her hair tickled her cheek.
Arnav took the strand and tugged it behind her ear, “I know. I don’t pity you, Riya. It’s just that all I want is to see you, just you…”
He left the sentence incomplete. He was not sure if it was the perfect moment to let it all out.
Arnav gently leaned over and kissed her hands. When he looked up, his eyes conveyed the words that his tongue had not been able to. The tears in her eyes shone in his and she could see her reflection in those glittery eyes.
And that was the moment it dawned on her why they said that beauty lay in the eyes of the beholder.
…now that you’re here
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