A Story for the Swift!

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Pick-Up Truck

 

            “Kaarin, look!” He looked. A string of pearls lay on dark blue velvet, in the shop window. They had passed by the store many times. They never went inside. “Do you like it?” Lahiri asked, excited. Kaarin shrugged. He knew his sister got excited over all kinds of weird things. “Oh, you’re a boy! You’ll never understand!” she said, laughing.

            “Do you want the necklace?” he asked seriously.

            “Of course, I do! But we can’t afford it.”

            “If you really want it, I’ll buy it for you,” he said, seriously. She looked at him. He was serious. He was just five years old, but she had seen that expression in his eyes, many times. It made her uncomfortable. When he was that serious, there was no joking with him. She was just ten years old, herself, but she knew when to draw the line, with her little brother.

            “Kaarin, you know we don’t come to a big city like this all the time. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as that necklace. But I know I can’t have it. Forget it. Let’s get some ice-cream, OK?” she said, with a bright smile. But he knew. And she knew he knew. She wanted that necklace or something very much like it.

 

            Ravi owned over a hundred branches of an auto-repair franchise. He had built the franchise from the ground up. From simply playing with toy cars, as a little boy, he had quickly learned about real cars and how to fix them. By the time he was ready for college, cars were not simply his hobby but his passion. He attended M.I.T. and graduated at the top of his class in Mechanical Engineering, at both, the under-graduate and the graduate level. He refused all job offers, choosing, instead, to start his own shop. He had never planned to go beyond owning a single shop. But then a customer walked into his store and changed his life.

            She was young, pretty, well-dressed, and full of confidence. “That’s my car,” she said, pointing to a brand-new, extremely expensive, cherry-red sports car being unloaded off a tow-truck. “Check the battery, the starter, the alternator, the fuel injection, and the spark-plugs. I had another mechanic look at it and he said everything else checks out fine.”

            “So why didn’t you get it fixed at that shop?” asked the young man at the counter, his shirt proudly proclaiming that he was Johnny.

            “He was trying to cheat me. He told me it was the timing belt. But I looked at the timing belt and it is fine. I know enough about cars that people can’t trick me. But I don’t have the time to fix everything myself. I brought my car to this shop because I hear you guys are the best in the city. Charge me whatever you like. It doesn’t matter. But don’t treat me like a fool.” And she walked out of the store, driving off in her other car.

            An hour later, she was back. But there was no car this time. She was on foot. Apparently, she planned to drive back in her sports-car. But she saw her car sitting in exactly the spot at which she had left it, and at exactly the same angle. It had not moved an inch.

            “Why isn’t my car fixed?” she asked.

            The person at the counter was a slightly older man, this time. He had no name-tag on his shirt. He did not respond to her question. “I need your driver’s license and registration, please, for identification,” he said in a cool voice, barely looking at her, over his computer.

            She gave him both documents, with an icy glare. The name on both documents was Tulsi. “Well, why isn’t it fixed?” she asked again, after giving him a few moments to enter her information into the computer. And then he looked her straight in the eye, for a moment. And immediately he looked away, again. But she heard him snigger. “What are you sniggering at?”

            This time, he looked up and he held her gaze. “Me? Nothing, miss, nothing at all. Just some chewing-gum caught in my throat. Anyway, your car is ready, miss,” he said. “Please walk with me.” When they got to the car, he put the key in the ignition and the car started immediately.

            She had no choice but to be impressed. “Wow! You fixed it without moving it.” He said nothing. He simply got out of the car. “Wait. How much do I owe you?”

            He pretended to think. And she could see he was just pretending to think. Finally, he said, very dramatically, “One dollar.”

            “Don’t think I’ll agree to go out with you just because you fixed my car for free!” she said, angrily, knowing he was somehow making fun of her but not able to put a finger on anything specific he had said or done. “Now, how much do I really owe you?”

            This time, there was no doubt about it. There was a wide grin on his face. “Hey, Johnny!” he shouted.

            “Hang on a second, Ravi.”

            “Just drop everything and get here right now. And tell everyone else in the shop to come here too, right this minute.” Soon, six mechanics in dirty overalls were standing all around Ravi. Before he spoke to them, he turned to her and said, “Miss Tulsi, to determine how much I should charge you, I need to know what work these men have done, on your car. So please be patient.” But already he was giggling. “Johnny, did you check the fuel injection?” Johnny just smiled. “And Nikhil, did you check the spark plugs? Rajesh, you checked the bat, bat, bat….” And he could not hold it in any more. He started guffawing. His whole body shook with laughter and the sound of his deep, rich voice, rang out loud and clear. His was an infectious laugh. Pretty soon, all of his friends were laughing too. And seeing the perplexed look on her face only made everyone laugh even more.

            She was furious. “I want to talk to the manager.”

            Ravi stopped laughing long enough to say, “OK, Ramesh, you be the manager, today. Talk to her.” Ramesh fled, still laughing.

            “I’m going to complain to the owner!” said Tulsi.

            Johnny, the youngest of the group couldn’t resist it. He pointed to Ravi. “There’s the owner, rolling around on the floor, miss.”

            “Will someone just tell me what happened?” she asked, helplessly, at last.

            Ravi got up when the paroxysm of laughter finally passed. “Miss Tulsi, you have  a brand-new car. It isn’t even a month old, yet. And it’s one of the finest cars on the road today. It isn’t just a premium car, it is a prestige car. This is a manufacturer who considers BMW and Jaguar to be nothing more than mass-produced drones. Cars like this don’t start having problems in the first month of ownership.”

            “Well, this one obviously did,” said Tulsi petulantly.

            “No, miss. There is nothing wrong with your car. Somehow, I don’t know how, exactly, one of your electrical cables got shaken loose, slightly. As a result, your gas gauge did not operate. Everything in your car is computerized. When you are low on gas, the computer flashes a light. The loose cable did not allow the light to operate.”

            “But that could not have stopped my car.”

            “You never realized you were out of gas. That was the first thing I checked. I poured some gas into your tank. As a matter of fact, I filled up your tank. And, of course, I fixed your loose cable. And that’s all I needed to do.”

            “But a full tank of gas costs more than one dollar.”

            “Well, I had it washed and vacuumed too, if you’re counting.”

            “It didn’t need to be washed.”

            “Yes, it did. It smelled.” She started to speak. “I bet you clean it yourself,” he said with a grin.

            “Ooooh! How dare you say that? How dare you? How..”

            “…dare you?” he finished for her. And then he kissed her. And she started crying.

            Her car left tread marks on his drive as she sped away. As soon as she reached home, she said, “You tell him, Daddy! Just go and tell him. You’re the mayor of the whole city. You tell him. Just kill him!”

            The next morning, the mayor visited Ravi. “Fair warning. She asked me to kill you. That means she plans to marry you. I’m a good judge of men. And you’re a good man. You have my sympathy. But don’t say I never warned you.”

            A few minutes after her father left, Tulsi marched into the shop. “You’re good with cars. But you don’t know how to run a business. I have an MBA from Harvard. I’m going to show you how it’s done.”

            “What if I don’t want to hire you?”

            “Don’t push your luck.”

            In two years, she opened six new shops in the same city. In another two years, Ravi owned forty stores across three continents. But they were married by the end of the third year. And Paatri was born just a week before their first wedding anniversary. After Paatri’s birth, Ravi and Tulsi both decided to slow down, then, to spend time with their daughter, and with each other. But, much as they loved Paatri, they loved each other far more. And, of course, all three of them had a passion for cars.

            And so, Paatri was a little annoyed. She had passed her driver’s license test with flying colours. She had even waited a year after that. In that year, she had learned everything her father could teach her about cars – and that was a lot. She had really expected a car for her seventeenth birthday. It was a week later though, that her mother said, “Paatri, it is our wedding anniversary today. Daddy is going to take me on a long, romantic drive. We’ll be back in a week.” Paatri rolled her eyes. Her parents went on long romantic drives nearly every weekend. But this was a Monday. “And how am I supposed to get around until you return?”

            Before her mother could respond, Ravi said, “Paatri, would you help me get my bag into the car?” Her father still drove a twenty-year-old deep blue Pontiac Firebird, that had hardly any room for luggage. Paatri lugged his suitcase out of the living-room into the drive. But there was no blue Firebird, only a sleek black Mercedes with its top down.

            “Daddy! Someone’s car is in the drive.”

            Her father came over and gave her a hug and said, “Oh, yes. I nearly forgot. That’s your car. The keys are in the ignition.” Paatri was, of course, ecstatic.

            “Oh, Daddy! I’ll take care of this car. I promise I will. And I’ll drive safe and everything. Thanks, Daddy!”

            Her mother smiled. “I wanted to buy you a bigger, safer car. But then Daddy reminded me of what I was driving when he and I first met. Still, we’re going to take my car, this time. He drives that Firebird as if it were really on fire. Way too fast for an old man. I just bought an SUV that has every safety-feature you can think of and some that you can’t even imagine. It may not look great but it is supposedly the safest car in the world, at any price.”

            Paatri was the happiest girl in school, for a week. And it showed. Always considered very pretty, she now glowed with happiness, and that made her look gorgeous. But the week passed and her parents did not return. Nor was there any word from them. Generally, they called the day before they were to return. And she knew they would return Sunday night. But there was no phone call on Saturday or on Sunday. So, when there was a knock on the door, Monday morning, and she saw her grandfather standing there, with tears in his eyes, she knew what had happened before anyone said a word. Over the next year or so, her grandfather sold the business, as he did not understand it or find the time to take care of it. He put enough money in her bank account to last her ten years. There was more money, he told her – much more. And it would be hers, eventually. But, to get all of the money out of the company, she would need to hire attorneys. “And, even then, most likely, you will never see all of that money in one chunk. You will get a good bit of money, every year, the rest of your life. But it won’t be enough to live luxuriously, though you will never starve.”

            Paatri’s grandfather thought of Ravi more as his son than as his son-in-law. And the shock of losing both Tulsi and Ravi, overnight, was too much for him to bear. He survived just long enough to set Paatri’s affairs in order and to attend her high-school graduation. And then Paatri was all alone in the world.

            Paatri could not go to M.I.T. She was valedictorian at her high school but she knew that was not always good enough. And even though she may have been able to afford the tuition, she thought it would be a big drain on her money. She opted to go to another college, far away from her home-town and her memories.

            Lahiri attended the small, elite engineering college, not far from the little town in which she had lived her whole life. Even with the scholarships she earned, there was not always enough money to pay for everything, every semester. It took her five years to earn the degree, that she may have earned in four, but she had to take the summer off, each year, to earn money to pay her expenses. Still, she did very well, both academically and socially. She was, she knew, in the top one percent of students in the college, academically. But she was no match for her best friend, Paatri.

            Paatri puzzled Lahiri, at times. Clearly, Paatri was pretty. Yet she made no effort to look good. Paatri wore expensive clothes but sported a plain, professional look. And she wore the same clothes over and over again. She studied all the time. Other students joked about her. “If she isn’t in class, Paatri’s at the library,” they said. And, mostly, that was true. Paatri studied as though her life depended on it. She was not shy. She was friendly and outgoing. And yet, she had no real friends, aside from Lahiri. From the car she drove, the clothes she wore, the places she talked about, and even the dreams she had, indicated that she had been extremely wealthy, at some time, and, perhaps, was even quite wealthy now. But she never wore jewelry or ate at fancy restaurants or had her hair or nails done professionally. She lived a very frugal lifestyle. Paatri’s one indulgence was her home. She lived in a luxurious two-bedroom condominium. Lahiri, on the other hand, lived as cheaply as possible, at the dorms. Paatri started a year after Lahiri but, since Paatri did not need to work to pay her bills, she and Lahiri both knew they would graduate together. Other than that, though, it seemed they were very different from each other.

            Paatri was quiet, intense, and absorbed in her work. She was friendly enough when she was around others, but it was clear that her real passion was cars, not people. Lahiri, on the other hand, enjoyed learning, but she simply had to go out and meet people. She could not, as Paatri did, spend nearly her entire time studying. And, unlike Paatri, Lahiri enjoyed looking pretty and reveled in the compliments she got. In fact, Lahiri spent a good deal of money on cosmetics and on looking good, in general. But she was not simply vain. She enjoyed looking at pretty things, too, and was quick to compliment anyone who owned, or even glanced at something beautiful and meaningful. And so, Lahiri was a popular girl. Everyone invited her to their parties. And Lahiri was genuinely heart-broken when she had to miss even one party. But she did understand Paatri better than most people.

            “Paatri, why are you always so sad?”

            “I’m not sad, Lahiri. I’m just used to being alone.”

            “Really? Then how is it we always hang out together?”

            “You don’t want to talk to me any more, Lahiri?”

            “I never said that. I’m just saying that nobody likes being alone all the time.”

            And Paatri smiled her sad smile. There was nothing more to say. But they were both young. And, despite their differences, their friendship grew.

            One day, Paatri said, “Lahiri, do you like living in the dorms?”

            Lahiri knew what was coming but she simply shrugged. “It’s OK. The food could be better. But there’s always something happening.”

            “Oh,” said Paatri, knowing how much Lahiri liked to be around people.

            “Just say what’s on your mind, Paatri,” said Lahiri impatiently.

            “You remember how you said, about a year ago, that nobody likes to be alone all the time? Well, you’re right. I don’t like it either. Would you like to stay with me, at my apartment?”

            “You need someone to split the rent?” Lahiri knew that was not true but she wanted to know how Paatri would respond.

            “No. In fact, one of the conditions is that you would not pay rent or buy groceries or anything like that.” She hesitated. “Just keep all of your make-up in your own room.”

            Lahiri laughed. “Fair enough. And what about your books?” Lahiri had visited Paatri’s apartment more times than she could possibly remember. And she knew that there were books everywhere – in the spare bedroom, in the closets, in the kitchen, and even in the bathrooms. The living room was lined with bookcases. Paatri slept on a king-sized bed. And the bed contained a drawer, the size of the bed, that contained nothing but books.

            Lahiri could see it was practically a stab to the heart, but Paatri simply bit her lip and said, “Well, I could remove that one bookshelf from the guest-room.”

            “I know which one you mean – the little one that contains two large dictionaries. Right? Is that the one you mean?”

            “Yes! Exactly!” said Paatri.

            “Two books, Paatri. You’re willing to relocate two books in that whole house full of books, just for me? How generous!” Paatri did not seem to notice the sarcasm. “And where will those two books go?” Lahiri knew well enough there was no place Paatri could possibly put any more books.

            “I’ll – I’ll sell them!” said Paatri, with a sigh.

            “Didn’t you get those dictionaries as a gift from your grandfather?” said Lahiri.

            Paatri nodded, too choked to speak.

            “And you’d sell them just to have me stay with you? Are you crazy? I was just teasing you. I know you love those books. I love my make-up and jewelry too, but I know it is all trash. It’s just stuff I buy and wear for some time. The only reason I don’t throw away most of the stuff is that I don’t remember where I put it last.”

            As they lived together, they got to know each other better and even started to become a little like each other. Paatri had to go to several parties just because Lahiri wanted to go. And Lahiri ended up bicycling for miles and miles almost every weekend. And sometimes, they would go trekking over hills or going white-water rafting, because Paatri loved the outdoors. Paatri went to ballet and karate classes with Lahiri and Lahiri went to rock-climbing and scuba-diving classes with Paatri.

            “Tell me something,” said Lahiri in exasperation, once. “What do you get out of being sweaty, insect-bitten, and hungry? Wouldn’t you much rather learn to dance gracefully or defend yourself, in a nice, air-conditioned classroom, where the worst you have to endure is to tape your earrings so they don’t hurt you?”

            “But I do learn ballet and karate with you, don’t I?” said Paatri very reasonably.

            “This is the whole problem with you. You’re always so reasonable!”

            “Exercise is good for your complexion, you know,” said Paatri, trying to get on Lahiri’s good side.

            “How can my complexion improve when I’ve been in the burning sun for six hours straight?”

            “But we’ve been scuba-diving all day, Lahiri. You’ve been twenty feet under the ocean, and far away from the heat of the sun.”

            “Well, water gets my skin all wrinkly,” said Lahiri grumpily, not knowing how to respond gracefully. But Paatri knew how to calm her down.

            “When you go home tonight, look at your face in the mirror. You look fairer and your skin looks clearer. It looks like you’re wearing rouge, even though you’re not.”

            “Really?” said Lahiri, a little suspicious, but still pleased.

            “No, of course not. You look dry and dark, like burnt toast,” laughed Paatri.

            “I’m going to kill you Paatri,” said Lahiri and ran after Paatri. But Paatri’s long legs and superb training left Lahiri in the dust.

            “You have to – let me – catch up – with you,” Lahiri panted, as she sat down on the sand, a few feet behind Paatri.

            “Here – hold my hand,” said Paatri, and nearly dragged Lahiri to the edge of the parking lot, not too far away. “Wait here while I get the car.”

            “I’m not a baby!” protested Lahiri and got up. And immediately, she sat down. “Well, anyone can be tired,” she said, more to herself than anyone else because Paatri’s long strides had already put several feet of distance between them.

            The parking lot was very large, and it was a few minutes before Paatri returned, in the car. Lahiri was fast asleep, on the pavement. But Lahiri was barely two inches over five feet tall. And she was slim. Paatri, on the other hand, was less than an inch under six feet in height. And although there was not a single ounce of fat on her, Paatri was wider in the chest than Lahiri and Paatri’s muscles were incredibly strong, compared to nearly anyone but a world-class boxing champion. As the car was a convertible, she did not even need to open the door. She simply picked up Lahiri and heaved her over the door into the seat. Then she made sure Lahiri’s seat-belt was buckled. They had rented a small villa near the beach, for a week, while they were on vacation and so, it was not hard for Paatri, when they got there, to unlock the front door,  carry Lahiri through it, dump her on the bed, and then switch on the air-conditioner in her room.

            When Lahiri awoke the next morning, Paatri was already showered and dressed. There was a fresh, hot breakfast on the table, too. “Thanks, Paatri!” said Lahiri. “I slept like a log, last night. I must have fallen asleep in the car.” Then she paused. “But I don’t remember getting in the car – or into the villa either.” Then it hit her. “You carried me! You put me into the car and into my bed! And I didn’t even know it. I’m sorry Paatri. You didn’t have to do that. You could have woken me, you know.”

            “It’s OK. You’re tiny, like a baby. No problem.”

            “I am not a baby! My younger brother says that to me all the time. And I’m the older one!”

            “He must be much taller than you.”

            “So? He’s taller than you too!” Then she paused again. “Paatri, I’m really sorry I’m so mean to you, sometimes. You did call me dry and black like burnt toast, though.” And they both smiled. “So, what are we going to do today?”

            Paatri gave her a sly grin. “Well, there’s this cute guy I met yesterday, on the beach. I told him we would have lunch with him today.”

            “A guy! Finally. Wow, Paatri! You’re all grown-up, now. Tell me all about him.” And so she did. “Won’t it seem odd to him that you’re taking me along?”

            “No. He’s OK with that.”

            “How do you know that?”

            “Same way I knew when you would be ready for breakfast. Magic! Come on. Let’s go.”

            “Go where? It’s barely ten in the morning. Lunchtime is at least two hours away.”

            “Exactly! We can swim for a while.”

            “Don’t you ever stop? Just for a second?”

            “You had your second, last night.”

            “You’re mean. You know that?”

            “Ruthless.”

            “Oh, my poor aching body. Every little bit of it hurts. I didn’t even know I had that many parts that could hurt. Everything is just going to fall apart, one piece at a time.”

            “Right. Now let’s go.”

            They swam and then had a very pleasant lunch with a charming young man. He was very courteous and paid them both many compliments. He also made them laugh. He had, however, the curious habit of injecting certain questions into the conversation that seemed harmless enough but which were, Paatri knew, designed to discover how much money they possessed. After her parents died, Paatri had come across many such people, both men and women, and she had learned to deal with them tactfully, but without giving out any real information. In the end, it was Lahiri who fell for the trick – mostly because she did not realize he was tricking her.

            “What’s your favourite kind of car?” he asked, casually.

            “Convertibles, of course!” said Lahiri.

            “Of course. You drive one yourself, don’t you?”

            “Well, it’s her car,” said Lahiri honestly, “but she lets me drive it sometimes.”

            “Just as a good friend should do,” he said with a smile. “And can I hope to see you two good friends again for lunch, tomorrow?”

            Lahiri was about to speak again, but Paatri quickly spoke up instead, “Tonight’s the last day of our little vacation. We’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning. Thanks for a great meal. We really enjoyed it. Come on, Lahiri.”

            “What did you do that for?” asked Lahiri. “He was so nice!”

            “Something about him felt wrong,” said Paatri, knowing she would never be able to explain herself logically to Lahiri. “You do know that ours is the only convertible in town, right now?”

            “No, I didn’t realize that, actually. Why does it matter, anyway?”

            “If someone wanted to identify us, it would be really easy, wouldn’t it, if they knew we drove a convertible?”

            “You’re scaring me,” said Lahiri.

            “I’m sorry. Just don’t give out personal information like that to people you’ve never met before, OK? Now forget it.” But Paatri made sure they spent the rest of the day around large groups of people. They played volleyball with others, went to the only mall in town, and had dinner at a cheap but crowded restaurant.

            “We haven’t really done anything all day, today,” said Lahiri, after dinner. “Let’s go dancing. There’s supposed to be a really good nightclub here.” Paatri hesitated. “Come on! My treat. I haven’t paid for anything, really, except for the gas in the car, this whole trip. And you might just enjoy it.” But Paatri wasn’t worried about the money. And she knew that Lahiri enjoyed dancing. But she was afraid that their car would stand out, in the parking lot. It was relatively a small lot and there were no expensive cars around, except her own. But she had to let Lahiri have fun too.

            “OK. Let’s go,” she said with a laugh.

            It was 2:00 a.m. when they left the nightclub. Neither of them was drunk. Lahiri was so busy dancing, she hardly had any time to do anything else. And Paatri simply sat with her drink in front of her, mostly so that nobody would try to offer her a drink. She danced for a while, so she would not seem different from anyone else, but she was distracted. She was relieved when they finally left.

            Paatri had the habit of throwing her purse into the backseat of the car as she approached it rather than waiting until she got to the door. But the two boys who had been following her and Lahiri were surprised by this behavior. So, instead of waiting until both girls were in the car, they both lunged at Paatri. To Paatri, the karate training had always been a hobby, something that she did to spend time with her friend. But, to Lahiri, it was real. She was, after all, short and slim, and therefore, apparently an easy target for criminals. So, it was Lahiri who sensed rather than saw the two boys running at Paatri.

            “Paatri!” she yelled. And that was all she had time to do. She and Paatri were walking close together  and so she did not have much space to move as the boys attacked. But, in an instant, she shoved her elbow into the throat of the boy closest to her and then kicked as hard and high as she could, to reach the other boy. She hit him in the stomach, driving the wind out of him. And then, for good measure, she stomped on one boy’s ankle and the other boy’s knee, leaving them in agonizing pain, but with no bones broken. Both girls ran to the car, jumped in, and drove away as fast as they could.

            “Now you realize why you should not give out personal information?” scolded Paatri.

            “And do you realize that karate is not a joke but a real skill?” huffed Lahiri.

            “Fine!” They both said it together. And then, a moment later, they both grinned and high-fived each other.

 

 

            Despite both of them graduating with excellent grades, however, the slow economy made it very difficult for either girl to find a job.

            “Paatri, what should I do?” Lahiri asked her best friend.

            “There isn’t much more we can do here,” said her friend, looking a little worried. “Nobody is hiring, in a hundred-mile radius.” Paatri was very worried. The money she had gotten from her parents had helped her get the education she wanted. She had graduated at the top of her class, having broken every academic record in the thirty-year history of the college. But now, there was no job in sight, and the money would run out, in another year or two.

            “Do you want to go home with me?” Paatri looked doubtful. “Don’t worry. You’ll be welcome. We live in a small town, and everyone is friendly.”

            “Are you sure?” asked Paatri, relieved to have a place to stay and a good friend to help her but also unsure if she should be taking advantage of her friend.

            Lahiri knew her friend’s situation very well. “Listen, if you aren’t comfortable, you can always leave. But, you never know. We might be able to find some work there.” The truth was that Lahiri’s town was tiny and there was little chance of finding any paid work there. But she wanted to reassure her friend.

            “OK, then. What’re we waiting for? Let’s go!”

            They didn’t have much, between the two of them but they both had more than they thought they did. They managed to pack everything they truly valued into a suitcase each. Paatri owned her condominium outright, so her vast collection of books remained there. But even so, each girl’s suitcase was incredibly large and stuffed to the point of bursting. The girls looked at each other doubtfully.

            “Well,” said Paatri, “we just won’t open them until we get home.”

            “Right!” agreed Lahiri, and giggled.

            Luckily for them, their condominium was on the ground floor. But their parking spot was a good twenty feet away. Even with the wheels on the suitcases, one of them had to push and one had to pull each suitcase, all the way to the car. Paatri did all the pulling because she was nearly six feet tall and it was hard for her to bend down. Lahiri, on the other hand, was several inches shorter than Paatri, but she did not mind having her butt stick out while she pushed. Paatri liked looking elegant, even when she did physical work. Each girl was, however, deceptively strong. Lahiri looked a little chubbier than Paatri but years of working around the house and learning various types of martial arts had made Lahiri much stronger than she appeared. And, though Paatri appeared slim, delicate, and elegant, she had learned to swim, climb mountains, and ride a bicycle in any terrain, effortlessly, for miles. And still, despite their strength and training, by the time they had loaded both suitcases into the car, they were both sweating.

            “I didn’t know we had that much stuff!” said Lahiri.

            “I had no idea a few clothes could weigh that much!” puffed Paatri.

            “A few clothes? You’ve got enough books in there to start your own library! What are you going to do with all of those books? You’ve graduated already, you know.”

            “The same thing that you’re going to do with all the make-up and jewelry you’ve got, I guess. I’ve never seen you wear any of it,” Paatri said, very smugly.

            “Well, that’s different,” said Lahiri.

            “Right,” replied Paatri, as smug as ever. “Now get in the car.”

            One of the few things that Paatri had received from her parents that was still with her, was their car. It had been, at the time of their death, a brand-new Mercedes-Benz convertible. The car in which her parents had died had been a four-door SUV, supposedly manufactured with every safety-feature imaginable to man. The convertible had been their gift to her for getting her driver’s license. The convertible was now nearly six years old but still in very good shape. Paatri was not only an excellent engineer, but she loved her car. Every time she took the car to the Mercedes dealer, over a hundred miles away from her college, the mechanics always said the same thing.

            “Wow! Miss Paatri, you have done a better job of maintaining this car than we could have done ourselves!”

            And once, when the manager realized that she would soon receive her Mechanical Engineering degree, he had told her, “Miss Paatri, before you go anywhere else, please see me. I would love to have you work for me.” But when she had, indeed, gone to see him, he looked downcast. “Miss, I would hire you in a heartbeat, if business were good. But we’re shutting down. Look around you.” She did. There were no cars in the lot, either for sale or for repair. The cars that were there belonged to the few mechanics who had not yet found jobs elsewhere.  It was depressing.

            But she was not depressed any more. She was going to spend the next few months with her best friend. And she would have a roof over her head and food to eat as long as she was there. She knew that Lahiri wasn’t rich. In fact, she had thought Lahiri somewhat poor. Paatri expected to see no more than a small, run-down shack in a small, dusty town, when they finally got to Lahiri’s house. So, she was somewhat surprised to see a rather large structure, polished and gleaming, with the front lawn carefully manicured, and flowers planted along the sides of the driveway. Other than the flowers, though, everything was plain and flat. The roof was slightly unusual. It seemed to be a giant flower made of twelve gently sloping white petals.

            “Yes, that’s the first thing everyone notices about the house,” said Lahiri, observing her friend’s gaze. “Daddy says my mother complained that the house was too flat and ordinary. So, just to tease her, he built this weird roof. Her favourite colour was pink and she loved flowers. So, Daddy turned the roof into a giant pink lotus. He claims that she never complained about anything again.” She grinned. “But he’s such a liar!’ She giggled.

            “Where’s your mom, now?” asked Paatri, expecting to hear that Lahiri’s parents had gotten divorced.

            “Oh. We – my brother and I – were very little, when my mother died. She had a sudden, massive heart-attack, and died on the spot. There was nothing anyone could do, to save her. The doctors said it happened that way, sometimes.” Both girls were quiet for a few seconds. But there was not much time to be serious. Lahiri had called and told Kaarin to expect them. She had barely opened the car door when Kaarin ran up to her and swept her up.

            “You’re back!” he said, happily, crushing her in his usual, exuberant hug. Paatri could actually see Kaarin crushing Lahiri, completely, while he swung her around, totally off the ground – and Lahiri’s response to that was a huge smile.

            Kaarin barely glanced at Paatri. She looked old to him. Her square glasses, practical clothes, and serious expression made him feel that she was twice his age, even though he knew Paatri and Lahiri were about the same age. Even her elegance scared him a little. Lahiri, to him, was always the prettiest girl in the world, so he never really thought about that at all. But Lahiri, though she wore clothes that were in style, and well-matched, was never elegant. When Lahiri wore an evening gown, she always looked as though someone had stuffed her into it against her will. Paatri, to Kaarin, seemed exactly the opposite. It seemed to Kaarin that even if Paatri truly were stuffed into a burlap sack, she would still, somehow, manage to look elegant. Still, he knew he should welcome her into his home and so he put down Lahiri – none too gently – and smiled his brightest smile at Paatri.

            Paatri looked at the two of them and felt a little twinge of sadness as well as jealousy. Nobody in her life had ever loved her like that – not even her parents. And her parents, as she remembered them, were a happy and loving couple. She realized how much she had missed, even though she could not complain of her parents’ treatment of her. But she was also surprised. Lahiri spoke of Kaarin all the time. And so Paatri knew that Kaarin was about eighteen. But his expression was so innocent that he could have easily passed for fifteen – a very well-built fifteen. Kaarin was a little over six feet tall, but broad in the chest, with lean, wiry muscles.

            “Here, let me get these for you,” he said, picking up a bag in each hand, as though each one were completely empty.

            “He’s the biggest, strongest, handsomest man in the world,” said Lahiri proudly, seeing Paatri’s astonished expression.

            “Don’t pay any attention to her; I don’t. She’s been saying that since I was three days old,” Kaarin said, with an exaggerated sigh.

            “Well, it’s been true since you were three days old. The first two days you looked like a little wrinkled monkey,” said Lahiri, laughing. Kaarin just shook his head, sadly.

            He put down the bags in Lahiri’s room and then said to Lahiri, “Guess what?”

            “New girlfriend?” said Lahiri, excited.

            Kaarin shook his head, at first. “Well, that too,” he said, blushing a little. “But that isn’t what I’m talking about. Let me show you!” He dragged her by the hand to the huge backyard. “Look!” He pointed to an old, battered, and dirty pick-up truck, with obvious pride.

            Lahiri saw what no other girl would have seen. Her little brother was turning into a man. He was going to fix this truck and sell it and become a businessman. It was a small project but it was his very first one. She was proud of him. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and hugged him. And immediately, brother and sister started to tinker with the car. A few minutes later, Paatri joined them and, without a word, started to help them. They had become a team.

            The truck was in just about the worst possible shape it could be. It had no tires, and no windshield, either in the front or in the back. The headlights were shattered. The hood was bent. The radiator was smashed, there was no battery, and the previous owner had allowed the engine oil to run out, causing the engine to seize up. The upholstery was full of holes and the ashtray was overflowing with cigarettes. It was impossible to tell the original colour of the truck. There were scratches everywhere.

            “I got it for free, sis!” he said with a grin. She grinned back. “They even threw in a new battery and a pair of matching headlights.”

            “Good. So now all you need is an engine, a radiator, some tires, and a bunch of other stuff to get this thing on the road,” said Paatri, wryly.

            In return for that caustic comment, Paatri received a laser-like glare from Lahiri that would have cut through steel at a thousand feet. “Don’t you worry, kid! We’ll have this thing running in no time,” said Lahiri kindly.

            For the next three months, the three of them spent every spare moment they had, on fixing the pick-up truck. People were good to them. They got free paint from a factory, close by, that was about to throw away a huge batch of old paint. It was mustard yellow, but it was free, so they took it.

            Sumat was Kaarin’s best friend. Sumat’s father owned a body-shop. Business, however, was slow. “When you’re ready to paint your car, let me know, and you can bake the paint in my shop, OK?” Sumat offered, generously. “No charge,” he said with an impish grin.

            “You charge me and I’ll kill you!” responded Kaarin with mock ferocity, pointing his finger like a gun at Sumat.

            “Hey! I give up already! Don’t shoot me!” said Sumat, slapping his friend on the back. Like everyone else in town, he wanted to see Kaarin succeed. And, like Sumat, each person helped in whatever way he or she could. But only Kaarin, Lahiri, and Paatri worked on the truck, continuously.

            Over time, between the three of them, the truck began to look respectable. They fixed as many broken parts as they could, and replaced the rest; they hammered out all of the dents, polished out all of the scratches, and repainted the truck to a gleaming, brilliant yellow finish. They were also able to find replacement windshields at auto junkyards, as well as a radiator. All that remained was the engine and the tires. Paatri had an idea.

            “It may not work,” she said, “but it can’t hurt to try.”

            She took them to the Mercedes dealer who was going out of business. On the way they noticed that nearly every business along the road, for several miles, had already shut down. The place looked like a ghost town.

            When they finally reached the dealership, Paatri was afraid that the dealership might have already closed down. Fortunately, however, it was still open, but just barely.  There were a few cars on the lot, but no employees and no customers. When they drove into the office, the owner was sitting there, as glum as could be, but he recognized Paatri immediately and gave her a big smile as soon as he saw her.

            “I’m shutting down in two weeks,” he said, “but we can still sit together and have a cup of coffee,” he said.

            “We need a favour,” she said to him, seriously. “Remember, you said you would offer me a job if business were good? Well, I already have a job – kind of. We’re rebuilding a truck. Everything’s done. We just need an engine.”

            “Is that all?” he grinned. “And you’re here because you think I sell engines?”

            “No,” said Paatri. “But you do have cars, right? Cars that came to you for repairs and that nobody can afford to repair, now?”

            “That’s true,” he said, hesitantly. “But I can’t just give you a car.”

            “How many employees do you have left?” Paatri asked.

            “None. We shut down in two weeks.”

            “And I bet you have insurance on all of the cars that are sitting on your lot, right?”

            “I’m not going to let you steal a car, miss, if that’s what you are thinking.”

            “We aren’t going to steal anything. All we want is the engine. And we’ll pay you back for it once we sell our truck.”

            He just laughed. “There’s no way you are going to make enough off the sale of an old pick-up truck to pay me back for the engine. But, here’s what I can do. As you said, I am the only person on the lot. Tomorrow’s a Saturday, and I don’t work on weekends any more. Now, if someone were to take the engine out of one the cars sitting on my lot, and replace it with the engine from an old pick-up truck, I wouldn’t know, if the person left everything neat and clean afterwards.”

            “So you’re saying…” started Paatri, but he would not let her finish.

            “I’m saying I am not going to be on the lot tomorrow or the day after that. I have no way of knowing what happens in a closed body shop, on the lot, while I am away.”

            And so, they got the engine. It was not easy. They had to borrow a tow-truck from Sumat. They carried the engine of the pick-up truck all the way to the Mercedes dealership. And then they towed the engine of one of the Mercedes SUVs on the lot, back home, to install in the truck. It took them the whole of a day and a good part of the next, just to swap one engine for another. Even with the three of them working feverishly, it was hard to install the engine of the pick-up truck into the Mercedes and then leave the lot and the car still looking clean. But, somehow, they did it.

            Over the next few weeks, they had to make sure that everything worked perfectly – the stereo, the air-conditioning, the power-windows, the brakes, and just about every other component of the truck. While they worked on it, Kaarin’s new girlfriend, Taylor, came by to look at what he was doing. She was just sixteen, and had only recently gotten her permanent driver’s license. Her parents were wealthy and had bought her a brand-new car of her own. But neither her parents nor anyone else allowed her to drive their car. That upset her because she thought she was a very responsible and careful driver.

            “Kaarin, sweetheart! That truck looks wonderful, now! You’ve really done wonders with it! When can I drive it?”

            He looked at her. She was serious. He really liked her. But it took him only an instant to say, “Never.”

            “It’s just an old pick-up truck.”

            “That’s right. And you have a brand-new white Ferrari. So why do you want to drive my old pick-up truck, anyway?”

            “Nobody lets me drive their car. But you’re my boyfriend. So it’s different, right?”

            “Taylor, you ever wonder why nobody wants to let you drive their car?”

            “I’m a perfectly safe driver! I’ve never had an accident. Nobody’s ever given me a speeding ticket. I’m good. Really, I am. I promise to take care of your truck.”

            “No, Taylor. I don’t think so. You got more dings and scratches on your new car, in one month, than I’ve seen on cars ten years old.”

            “But Daddy got them all fixed! Look! The car looks perfect.”

            “No way you’re driving my truck, sweetheart.”

            “Fine! I’m not going to talk to you then.”

            “I really like you, Taylor. You’re funny and smart and I love spending time with you. And I know you like being around me too. Don’t you?”

            “Why don’t you let me drive your stupid old pick-up truck then?” she pouted.

            He hesitated. “That’s – different. I love you, Taylor. But I just can’t let you drive this truck. Please. Try to understand.”

            The sincerity in his voice impressed her. She really did not want to break up with him over an old pick-up truck. But it bothered her that he would not allow her to drive it. After all, she was, without doubt, the prettiest girl around, not just in town, but probably in any town less than a hundred miles away. And she was wealthy. And she really, really liked him!

            “I’ll never understand what it is with you and cars!” she said in a huff and marched off, but not without giving him a little kiss, first.

            Over the next few weeks, as work progressed on the truck, Taylor and Kaarin came closer together. Soon, it was obvious that they were a couple. They went out together in the evenings, when he was too tired to keep working on the truck. He knew she liked the truck, so he let her sit in it, and he showed her all of the special features of the truck – the customized paint job, the powerful, silent engine, the booming stereo, and everything else in which he took pride. He even took her out for an occasional ride in the truck, during the day, even though it meant he had to stop working on it for a while. Lahiri and Paatri simply shrugged their shoulders and said nothing to him. After all, he was just eighteen, and Taylor was special.

            One day, though, Paatri got fed up. Kaarin, Paatri, and Lahiri had all been working on the truck all day. The new engine made the truck drivable but it still needed a good deal of work. And every time Kaarin took it out for a drive, they had to wash the entire truck just to make sure that the dust did not hide something they needed to fix. Lahiri had just begun to attach a set of wipers, when Taylor zoomed up the driveway as usual and came bouncing into the backyard to meet Kaarin. And Kaarin, of course, stopped working on the wiring that would make the wipers run, to give Taylor a hug and a kiss. And then Taylor started talking to Kaarin in her excitable way, with the words pouring out of her in an unstoppable flood.

            While they were talking, Paatri decided to talk to Lahiri. She knew it would be difficult for Lahiri to hear anything against her own brother but Paatri was completely fed up. “Look, Lahiri…”, she began.

            But Lahiri cut her off. “Yes, I know. They’re behaving like a pair of lovesick teenagers. But what do you want me to tell him? Not to look at pretty girls?”

            “Lahiri, it isn’t that! But we need to work on this truck and get it done quickly if we want to make any money on it. And every time Taylor swings by, he just drops everything and takes the truck too! We can’t get any work done that way.”

            Lahiri knew Paatri was right. But she did not have the heart to scold her younger brother. After all, Kaarin worked just as hard as anyone, all the time – until Taylor visited. “Well, there’s nothing I can do,” she said helplessly.

            “Yes, there is,” said Paatri firmly. “Go to your room.”

            “You’re not my mother!” said Lahiri annoyed, now.

            “You’re always on his side. So go away until I deal with this.”

            “OK. But don’t be too hard on him. He’s just a little kid. OK?” pleaded Lahiri. She knew Paatri was right. And someone had to say something to Kaarin. But, still, there were tears in her eyes as she left.

            Taylor was sitting in the pick-up truck already, waiting for Kaarin to give her a ride in it. But Paatri always held the keys. Normally, she just tossed the keys to Kaarin or to Lahiri. But this time, she gave Kaarin another set of keys.

            “These are the keys to your car,” he said, puzzled.

            “Yes. Lahiri and I need to continue working on the truck, right now,” she said firmly but kindly.

            Kaarin knew very well what would happen if Taylor did not get a ride in the truck. And he knew why Paatri refused to give him the keys to the truck. In his heart, he knew Paatri was doing the right thing. So he did not argue. “OK,” he said, simply.

            But Taylor was furious when he asked her to get out of the truck. “This is your truck!” she said, loud enough for Paatri to hear. “What’s she got to do with it?”

            “No, Taylor, no!” Kaarin was embarrassed. “It’s our truck. All the three of us work on it all the time.” He knew that wouldn’t be enough. “Besides, she needs to work on the brakes. It isn’t safe, right now.”

            “You would’ve never let me sit in the truck if that were true,” snapped Taylor.

            By this time, Kaarin could see a dangerous glint in Paatri’s eye. And Paatri had slowly started to walk toward Taylor. Kaarin had no idea what Paatri would do. But he wasn’t sure that whether Paatri would drag Taylor out of the truck. So, hurriedly, he said, “Look, it’s a great car! You always did like convertibles.” It was true. Taylor did like convertibles. But she wasn’t about to admit it.

            “What! You’re going to take me out in that ancient wreck of hers? The car’s a frikkin’ antique!”

            Kaarin knew how much Paatri loved her car. And he knew that she had heard what Taylor had just said. Now, he was really afraid that Paatri would slap Taylor if he allowed the two of them to get close enough. And the worst part of it was that he knew he couldn’t blame Paatri if she did. He was in a state of panic. Taylor realized that she had gone too far, also. And so she quickly hid behind Kaarin. But, in his state of panic, he did not notice that. And just then, Lahiri walked up to both of them.

            “Taylor, how good to see you!” Lahiri said. “You look so pretty today. No wonder my brother is crazy about you. Still, he is the handsomest, strongest man you’ve ever seen, isn’t he? You two have a great time, OK?” And she kissed each of them on the cheek, as they drove off in Paatri’s car. But, as they were about to drive off, Paatri deliberately got into the truck, started the engine, and backed up the car a few feet. It was completely unnecessary. She only did it because she knew Taylor was watching.

            “That girl needs someone to slap her!” said Paatri angrily, to Lahiri.

            “Yes, and you would have done it too if I had not stepped in, wouldn’t you?” Paatri did not respond. “Look, you aren’t the first woman to have that thought pass through her mind. But you can’t do that. Taylor’s irritating but she is good at heart.  She never cheats on anyone and she’s always willing to help.”

            “What is she good at doing?” asked Paatri curiously.

            “Other than looking pretty, not much,” responded Lahiri, honestly. “But if she could help, she would, you know. She does sing beautifully, though.”

            The truck was, eventually, completely off-limits to Taylor. And Paatri made a point of seeing to it that Taylor saw Paatri driving the truck every time Taylor visited Kaarin. As a result, Taylor got into the habit of simply picking up Kaarin and driving off with him in her own car. But she grew to hate Paatri. As a result of the truck being left at home, however, the work on the truck began to proceed at a much faster pace than had ever been possible.

            It still took a few months, but, eventually, the truck was completely ready. It was time to find a buyer. But it was hard. This was not a working-man’s truck. It was a work of art. Although the town was a small one, it was not really poor. There were many who could have bought Kaarin’s truck. But, as Kaarin knew, none of them really needed a truck. If anyone in his town had tried to buy it from him, he would have realized instantly that he had failed, that someone was buying his truck to be polite. And so, nobody offered to buy his truck. He advertised it on the Internet. He drove the truck to other towns, with a “For Sale” sign in large letters displayed prominently on every side of the truck. But there were no takers. Few people had money to spend on what was, in essence, an expensive toy. Kaarin had not meant for the truck to look that way, but it did. Even he could not deny that. The idea of carrying dirt or sand in the back of that truck was just plain silly. And so, several months went by, with no sale.

            “Taylor, want to go for a ride?” became an almost daily question, during that time. And the answer was always an enthusiastic, “Yes!” But, still, he never let Taylor drive the truck. He knew it bothered her. But there was simply too much riding on the truck to let her drive it. And, anyway, it did not seem to bother her any more. She seemed to have accepted, with grace, the idea that he would never let her drive the truck.

 

            One day, there was a knock on the door. A tall, skinny, elderly man, in an expensive, well-tailored suit, stood at the door. “May I speak to Miss Paatri?” he inquired politely of Lahiri, who had answered the door.

            “Of course,” said Lahiri, somewhat puzzled, but put at ease by the man’s courtesy and by the way he looked. “Please sit down,” she said, taking him to the living room. When she went to tell Paatri that someone was asking for her, and described the man, Paatri too, was puzzled. She could not imagine who was asking for her.

            “Good morning,” she said with a smile, when she saw him. “I am Paatri. How can I help you, sir?”

            “Miss Paatri, my name is Donald Weaver. Most likely, you have never heard of me. However, you have probably heard the name of the company I represent.” When he mentioned the name of the company, Paatri recognized it instantly. It was a name known only to those within the automobile industry, not to the general public. The company was famous for manufacturing unique cars – just one per customer, per year. In all, the company probably made no more than a thousand cars each year. But each one was, at the same time, a grand feat of engineering as well as a work of art.

            “Yes, sir. Of course I have heard of your company. But I have not applied there. Frankly, I never thought I would get a job there – not as a fresh graduate, anyway.”

            “You’re right. But then you did not have this truck when you graduated, did you?”

            “You mean the truck in the driveway?” she asked.

            “Yes,” he nodded seriously. “I am here to make you an offer on the truck. I heard the story behind it, from a number of my friends in the area. But first, tell me, how much do you think it is worth? Start with your top price.”

            Paatri was a little puzzled by his manner. “Look, sir. It isn’t really my truck…” she started.

            “Yes, I know that already. You made it with the help of your friend and her brother. Still, it’s only your résumé I have seen. But honesty is always refreshing,” he said with a chuckle. “And, now, the price?”

            Paatri did not know what to say. The truck was old. It consisted of parts taken from different places. The hours of labor that she and her friends had put into the re-construction had no real market-value. She did a little quick math in her head, just adding up the money they would have spent if they had not received most of the parts for free. And then she added in a little money for their hard work. “Ten thousand dollars?” she said, hesitantly.

            “No, miss,” he said quite firmly. “That would be cheating! That is not an acceptable figure at all.”

            Paatri had not really expected that he would pay as much as ten thousand dollars for an old, re-constructed truck. She would have been happy to get even half of the price she had stated. But what he said next shocked her. “Miss Paatri, I am here to offer you the nice, round sum, of exactly one hundred thousand dollars for your truck.”

            She thought she had heard him incorrectly. “What?” she said, blinking. “I mean, what the fuck?” Then she realized what she had said. “Oh shit!” she said, contritely. And then she realized she had done it again. “Oh fuck!” She was now dying of embarrassment. “Look, please, sir, just wait here. I’m sorry. I’ll be right back.” And she ran from the room, to get Lahiri. Quickly, she told Lahiri what had just happened. Lahiri could not stop giggling for a few minutes.

            “Stop giggling, Lahiri. This is serious!”

            “OK, OK,” said Lahiri and started to giggle again. They both stopped talking as they suddenly heard Kaarin’s voice in the living room.

            “Yes, sir. I’d be happy to accept your offer. I just need one little favor, if you don’t mind.” And he whispered something to the man. The man smiled, and put an envelope into Kaarin’s hands.

            “And be sure to tell the girls when you see them. I’m sure they’ll be happy too,” said the man as he left. And they saw Kaarin shaking hands with the older man and ushering him out the door. As Kaarin shut the door and turned around, they saw he had a piece of paper in his hands. They did not see the envelope because had put it in his pocket.

            “I’m afraid you girls have no business sense – or any sense at all, for that matter,” he said, drily. “You just ruined everything!”

            “Why? What happened?” Both girls spoke together in their anxiety.

            “He came here offering a hundred thousand dollars for the truck. And all Miss Paatri here could do was to curse and all you could do was to giggle, big sister!” he said, angrily. They did not know how to respond. What he said was perfectly true. They had just dashed his hopes – for no real reason at all.

            But Kaarin was a good-hearted boy. He could not make them suffer long. His stern expression broke into a grin and then he started laughing until the tears ran down his face. “What’s wrong with you?” asked Lahiri, now angry with him. She punched him.

            “Stop laughing! What do you have in your hands?” He handed it to her. She read it. Her jaw dropped. And Paatri, who’d been reading it over her shoulder, was also in a state of shock!

            “It’s a contract. They’re going to buy the truck for a hundred thousand dollars and display it, to show how much people can achieve just with sheer will-power and hard work. And we’re all going to be working for them, building custom trucks every year! And look how much they’re going to pay us! We’re rich! But you know the best part? Since you two were too goofy to do this yourselves, guess what?”

            They looked at him, questioningly. “I’m the boss! You two are going to be my assistants. I am the team leader, and you two are my team.”

            “Don’t be silly!” said Paatri immediately. “You need more than three people to build a car.”

            “Really?” said Kaarin, opening his eyes as wide as possible. “I thought the three of us together just built a car – well, a truck, if you want to be technical about it.” There was really nothing they could say to that. “I’m just kidding. It’s true. He has made me team leader. But I know I could never do anything without the two of you.”

            “Shut up!” said Lahiri, throwing a shoe at him.

            “For once, I agree with your sister,” said Paatri, throwing another shoe.

            “Wait here,” he said, to both of them. “I’ll be back, soon.” And without another word, he was gone!

 

            He got into his truck and drove it straight to the shop where Lahiri had seen the pearl necklace, all those years ago. The shop was still there. It seemed the necklace was still there, too. But, of course, it must have been a different one. For the first time in his life, he did not simply walk past the shop. “I want that necklace in the window,” he said, pointing to the one he wanted. “And, there’s one more thing. I want a solid-gold keychain, with a name engraved on it. Can you do that for me right now?

            “Of course, sir,” said the clerk politely. Within a few minutes, the necklace was beautifully gift-wrapped. And the keys to the car were on the key-chain. He paid for both gifts with the money that was burning a hole in an envelope in his pocket. When he got home, he found both girls waiting for him.

            “Let’s go out for a drive!” he said, jubilantly.

            “In a hundred-thousand-dollar truck?” both girls said, doubtfully.

            “Well, it’s still our truck, you know.”

            And so, they all went out to the truck. Before doing anything else, he gave Lahiri her gift. She was so over-whelmed, when she saw it, she started to cry. But Lahiri couldn’t cry very long. They were all very happy. And so, for once, he swept up Paatri in one of the huge hugs he reserved for his sister. But he did not squeeze Paatri nearly as hard as he did his sister.

            “You think I’m made of paper?” Paatri said. “I’m just as tough as she is – probably tougher. Give me a proper hug, you little weakling!’

            And so he did. He not only hugged her but kissed her several times on both cheeks. It had always been Kaarin who had taken the truck out on test drives. But he knew, truly, in his heart, that without Paatri’s help in finding the engine and her hard work, in reconstructing the truck, they would have never gotten the truck to look and work as beautifully as it did. So, he gave her the keychain. The jeweler had beautifully engraved the name, Paatri, on it.

             “This is for you,” he said shyly, as he got into the truck and told her to drive him, first, to Taylor’s home, so that he could give her the good news. But there wasn’t time enough for that. Kaarin saw Taylor’s white Ferrari zooming up the road toward his driveway. And he was happy to see her. But Taylor was not happy at all. Taylor had driven up just in time to see the hugs and kisses Kaarin had given Paatri and she watched as Paatri got into the driver’s seat.

            “Taylor!” Kaarin exclaimed, as soon as she got out of the car. “I’ve got some news for you!”

            “Mister, I’ve got some news for you!” said Taylor. “You never let me drive that stupid old pick-up truck of yours! And now, she’s driving it! And I saw you kissing her! I’m not talking to you, Kaarin. It’s over!” And Taylor stormed off toward her car.

            “Wait. Taylor. It isn’t like that. That’s Paatri. She’s my sister’s friend.”

            “Looks like she’s more your friend than your sister’s friend, Kaarin. And it looks like you two are really close!”

            “Taylor. It isn’t like that. We were about to go to your place.”

            “Sure! And you expect me to believe that. How stupid do you think I am? I’m going to tell my Daddy what you did and he’ll beat you up if you ever come to my see me again. Understand?”

            Kaarin rolled his eyes. It was a bad move. But he knew there was no reasoning with Taylor when she was in a bad mood. “Fine. Believe what you like. But at least hear my news.” And he told her.

            “Well, mister, you aren’t the only big star around here. I just got a record contract. And pretty soon, I’ll have my own CD on the market.”

            “Really? Wow! That’s amazing!” Kaarin was really happy for her.

            “Yes, amazing. And there’ll be a song about you on it, damn you!”

            “A good one, I hope,” said Kaarin, trying to bring her back into a good mood.

            She took out, from her purse, a picture of the two of them together. And then, with the cigarette lighter in her car, she set the picture on fire. “Yes. It’s going to be a great song! It’s going to be all about how you cheated on me and what a bad liar you are and how you let someone else drive your pick-up truck when you would never let me drive it! You burn me up, Kaarin. But that’s OK. All you are, now, is just another picture to burn.”


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