All That is Left—Book Excerpt
“What is love?”
Shanaya’s question broke into Aaron’s reverie and he stared at her dumbly before collecting himself and trying to recall what they had been talking about that had led to her asking such a staggering question.
They had spent most of the morning at a cafe, discussing their college assignments before the conversation had turned one-sided when Shanaya had begun comparing her former college with her current one leaving Aaron to let his thoughts wander off. Shanaya had just transferred into Vilmonte College, just so that the two of them could be together and he had been helping her settle in. They had been together since high school and ever since graduation, it had been difficult trying to make their long distance relationship work since Shanaya had chosen to go abroad for her further studies.
Then one day, Shanaya had called him and told him that in order for their relationship to work, one of them would have to make the sacrifice. They were studying the same subjects, of course. Aaron had decided that their relationship couldn’t work and was going to tell her when Shanaya had surprised him by saying that she was going to attend his college.
“Well?” Shanaya persisted. “I asked you a question.”
Aaron picked up the phone near his coffee cup and saw that he still hadn’t received any calls. Setting it down carefully, he leaned back in his chair and considered her question, but not before slipping back into his thoughts again.
It was a pleasant morning. The summers had been harsh this year and when autumn arrived, it brought with it a gentle breeze. It was still a sunny morning, but the winds helped lower the temperature. Aaron usually sat inside the cafe but on Shanaya’s insistence, they had found a table outside, right near the sidewalk where they could watch the people walk by.
He had to admit that Shanaya looked pretty in her short sleeved white cotton blouse with a pink and yellow floral skirt and brown ankle boots. Her hair was straight and silky and fell to her shoulders. Her brown eyes were wide and glittering while her lips were a perfect bow shape.
Aaron had once believed he had loved her. She had been the most beautiful girl in his school and it had taken all his charm to finally work on her. Then something terrible had happened and his overwhelming guilt had made him never see Shanaya in the same way again.
He leaned forward, clasping his hands and trying to forget that awful memory and concentrate on her question. “Love? It’s a fantasy. Something women are always searching for but never find it because they have this long list of criteria that no man could ever fit into.”
“Oh, ha ha!” Shanaya said, rolling her eyes. She had been writing something in her small notebook and put down her pen to glare at him. “I’m asking you a serious question. Could you stop being so insufferable for one minute?”
Aaron crossed his arms and glanced at his phone again which hadn’t buzzed in almost an hour now. “Okay, love is supposed to be the strongest emotion our brain experiences. In my opinion, it stems from the fact that as humans we are always seeking to form relationships with other human beings. I mean, it’s in our genes to find a significant other to mate with and reproduce.” He checked his phone again, hoping that Shanaya wouldn’t notice his distraction. When he saw her looking at him and then the phone, he quickly returned to the conversation.
“The term love is coined to make it seem like it is this magical thing that can happen to anyone and we are all destined to find our soul mate.” He leaned forward and shook his head. “But the truth is, we are trying to find our idea of beauty in our partners so that we could eventually...”
“Procreate. Got it!” Shanaya said and let out a deep breath.
Aaron shrugged. “It’s our natural instinct.”
Shanaya picked up her pen and scribbled something in her notebook before slamming it shut. Pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, she appeared agitated as she put the book in her purse. “There is a reason I asked you that question,” she said, frowning. “Aaron...are you not happy that I am here?”
There it was. Shanaya had sensed his distraction and yes, he hadn’t been too thrilled when she had announced that she was going to attend his college and take all his classes. The truth was, it was getting incredibly difficult to overlook that mistake he had made in high school. It was his fault that such a horrific incident had come to pass.
“It’s not that,” he told her, not meeting her eye.
Shanaya took his hands in hers and squeezed. “Sweetie, what happened all those years ago, wasn’t your fault. It was no one’s fault. Such things just happen, you know.”
“Yes, but...” Just then the phone lit up and vibrated. Aaron picked it up and heard a strange man’s voice on the other side.
“Is this Aaron?” the man asked.
“Yeah, who is this?” Aaron looked at the number on the screen and saw that it was from his father’s house.
“It is Marcos, I work for your father,” he said. “The servants just let me into your father’s house but he’s not here. I’ve been trying to reach him for days. Do you know where he is?”
Aaron stiffened. “No...I was supposed to hear from him today.”
“Ah, about the teacher’s assistant job, I assume?” Marcos said. “I was here to collect some papers from your father and we were going to discuss your prospects with Vilmonte College, but it has been a week since I last heard from him.”
“I spoke to him a week back too,” Aaron said and his hands clasped tight around his coffee cup. He took a deep breath, trying not to panic. “You know what? He does this quite often. He just takes off for a couple of days to do some research or something and he always comes back.”
“I know,” Marcus said solemnly. “The thing is, he always takes my calls. I am his PA, after all.”
Aaron squeezed his eyes shut. His father would never take his calls. In fact his father had his own study in the house where no one was ever allowed to enter—even the servants. “I’m sure he’ll call soon.”
He heard Marcus sigh deeply on the other side. “If you hear from him, tell him that I was looking for him and the Dean wants to see him ASAP.”
Aaron assured him that he would tell his father and ended the call.
“Everything okay?” Shanaya asked.
Aaron put the phone in his pocket and pushed away the coffee cup. “Yeah, my father is off somewhere again. Without telling anyone. Again.”
“I’m sure he’ll call soon,” Shanaya said, reassuringly.
Aaron gave her a small smile. “He was supposed to call today.” He pulled out his phone again and went
through the contacts. “He was supposed to recommend me for the teacher’s assistant job.”
“Asking your father to pull strings for you, huh?” Shanaya said in a teasing tone.
Aaron frowned at her. “Hey, whatever it takes.” He tapped on his father’s name and called him. “I mean, he could do this one thing for me at least after years of neglecting me.”
“Maybe he already did talk to someone about it,” Shanaya said.
Aaron frowned when he received the switched off message. He put down the phone and tapped his feet against the table, restlessly. “One can hope.”
“Are you still mad at him?” Shanaya asked, taking his hand again.
Aaron looked at her soft hands and manicured nails and had the sudden urge to pull away from her. It had been seven years since the incident in their home town had occurred and he realized that a part of him believed that Shanaya was to blame as much as he was.
She had been Shanaya’s best friend after all.
“He was never there for me; obviously I’m mad at him,” Aaron replied. “When my mom left us, I was just fourteen, and I know I wasn’t a kid who needed his mommy...but he should have been there for me. Being abandoned by both your parents isn’t the greatest thing in the world.”
“That must have been so hard for you,” Shanaya said. She was being kind and sweet, but Aaron couldn’t help but be irritated. He hated when people did that; when they pretended they understood what he had gone through.
No one knew what it had felt like to be all alone in a large house with no one but the servants. His father was always working and then a year later, he had started making his odd trips. His father, a psychology professor at Vilmonte College, started to take absence from work and disappear for days.
When Aaron had followed him to his study one night and asked him where he would go, and warned him to never enter his study again.
“It was,” he replied, pulling away from her. He got up then and tried his father again. “I should go and try to look for him.”
“Why don’t you go to the police?” Shanaya asked, getting up. “If he really is missing for days then maybe...”
“No!” Aaron stopped her before she said something disconcerting. That was another thing about Shanaya—she always assumed the worst about everything, not realizing that in the process, she was making the other person anxious. “He’s done stuff like this before. I‘ll go and ask some of his close friends. Someone has to know where he is.”
“Want me to come with you?” Shanaya asked, taking his arm.
Aaron wriggled his arm out of her grasp. “Nah. You need to settle in your dorm, anyway.”
“You’ll let me know when you find your father?” she asked, looking disappointed.
“Sure,” Aaron said and started to walk the other direction when a thought occurred to him. He turned to see Shanaya still standing and watching him. “Why did you ask me that question?” When she frowned slightly, not understanding what he meant, he spoke again, “my opinion on what love is?”
Shanaya tried a weak smile and failed. “No reason.”
Aaron narrowed his gaze. Had she guessed that his feelings for her had changed? “Okay, then.”
“Aaron?” she said when he turned.
“I’m your father will be okay,” she said sincerely. Aaron gave her a smile and then walked away.
She was finally here. It had taken her three months to set this all up, but she was finally at Vilmonte College, attending her first day.
Rhea could feel a flutter of excitement in her stomach that she fought hard to quell. It was important that she remained in perfect control of her emotions. Her plans depended on her ability to stay inconspicuous and resilient.
It was a difficult mission, but one she knew she had to undertake or she would never find peace. Despite what her parents said about letting the past go and starting anew, Rhea knew in her heart that she would never be able to sleep well until she had seen her mission through.
Vilmonte College was a thousand miles away from her home. This place was going to be her new start; after she had gotten what she had come for, of course. Her parents had been against her decision to part from them. They had lost so much and were unwilling to let her go too.
Rhea hadn’t given them much of a choice. After they had confessed their fears, she had pretended to agree with them about moving to another state and starting her new life. But that very night, she had crept out of the house with a duffel bag filled with a few basic necessities and cash.
Her new life didn’t require her old clothes, so she brought only an extra pair of undergarments, two t-shirts, a pair of jeans and sneakers. Once she got to Bluefeld City, where Vilmonte College was situated, she had quickly moved ahead with her plan.
Now, with her papers in hand and a bag containing her notebook and pens, Rhea looked up at the vast building before her. The cream colored walls and red tiled roofs gave a touch of class to the prestigious college. She craned her neck and saw the arched windows. One of the classrooms in the building was where she would find him.
Rhea entered the front door and found herself in a long corridor with noticeboards on both sides. She went over to the boards to look for her classroom and then put her finger on her first class of the week, psychology.
She smiled. The sooner she found him, the sooner she could complete her mission and get away from here. Earning a degree in psychology was not one of her goals to come to Vilmonte College. She started to walk, when something caught her eye.
Turning back, she realized that alongside the classroom number, was the professor’s name. She frowned when she saw the name Dr. Harman written alongside it. She moved on to the sheets put up beside it and looked for the other psychology professors. When she didn’t find the name she was looking for, she started to panic.
He was supposed to be here!
“Hey!” she heard someone call behind her.
She turned to find a young man with thin dark hair
and glasses, looking at her. He had papers in his hands that he was having trouble holding onto.
“Are you new here?” he asked. “I’m Ronit. I would be pleased to show you around. Now if I can just have your name....?”
Rhea turned back to the notice board and tried to control her anger. The last thing she needed was to scream at a total stranger just because she had faced her first setback.
“That’s alright,” she said, trying to sound sweet. “I know my way around. Thanks anyway.” She pulled on the strap of her bag and walked to the end of the corridor.
“Take the stairs and on your first right you’ll find the classrooms,” Ronit called out.
Rhea blew a breath and quickly climbed the stairs. Her heart raced at the thought of failing completely. All her hard work had gone down the drain. He was supposed to be here and after she had done what she had come for, she was going to be free; free from the nightmares that were always following her.
It was when she had reached the passageway where there were classrooms on both sides that she realized that she hadn’t seen the other students on her way up. That meant that either most of them were outside in the small garden she had seen on her way over, or classes had begun and she was late.
Rhea looked down at her paper and saw the number of her classroom. She pushed open the doors and found herself in a small classroom with brown walls and cut glass windows on both sides. There were five rows of desks and almost all of them were filled by students.
Right up in front was a medium sized desk where the professor was standing near the white board. Beside him, on a smaller desk was another man sitting whom she assumed to be the teacher’s assistant.
The professor frowned at her as she entered and Rhea quickly made her way to the desk near the window and sat down. Removing her notebook and pen, she glanced up to see the professor still looking miffed at her, but continuing with his lecture. He gestured to one of the students and a girl sitting in front of her, turned to give her a sheet.
Rhea glanced at the syllabus and placed it over her notebook. She was late and a part of her wished she hadn’t attended her class. What was the point anyway? She hadn’t come here to study after all.
As the lecture went on, Rhea looked out the window and saw a large tree. On one of the top branches she spotted a small nest on which a brown bird with black spots on the body and wings sat. The nest looked like a ball of twigs and leaves, not tightly built and Rhea wondered if the bird was in the process of laying eggs or had she already laid her eggs.
“Am I disturbing you?” the professor said in a sharp tone.
Rhea turned back to see the professor glaring at her. He looked to be in his forties with thinning black hair and a thin mustache. He had a medium-built and was dressed in grey shirt and beige pants.
Ordinarily, Rhea wouldn’t have found him intimidating at all, but the grimace on his face made him look frightening and worst of all, he had turned everyone’s attention in class towards her.
She took a deep breath and cleared her mind. She said nothing as the professor waited for an answer. His frown deepened and he walked back to his desk to pick up a sheet of paper.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Rhea looked at the other students in the class who were all turning towards her. Leaning back in her chair, she ignored their curious looks and turned to the professor. “Rhea. Rhea Darkin.”
“You were late coming into my class and you haven’t paid attention to a single thing I’ve said, have you?” he questioned.
Rhea took another deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she replied in an earnest tone while keeping her face impassive. The professor seemed surprised at her apology, as if
he had expected her to behave like a spoiled, unruly child. “See that it doesn’t happen again.” He finished, dropping his stern gaze. “My class is important and it will benefit us both if you pay attention.”
Then he went on about how the class was going to help her understand important concepts, but Rhea had blanked her mind. She didn’t care about what she was going to learn in this class, because she wasn’t interested in her studies, not yet anyway. Her focus had to be on her mission.
She shifted in her chair and looked away from the professor as he turned to write on the white board. Her gaze fell to the teacher’s assistant and she felt her heart stop.
He looked to be about her age and had short wavy black hair. He was dressed in a blue and white checked shirt that complemented his tanned skin well. He was an ordinary looking man, except that wasn’t what had made her heart turn cold in her chest.
He was staring right at her and although her first impulse was that he too was annoyed with her for disrupting the lecture, her second glance of him revealed much more. He seemed familiar and the way he was looking at her proved that he thought he knew her too.
Rhea blinked away and concentrated on what the professor was saying, though not actually hearing anything. She had been recognized. Her plan depended on her
not being found out by anyone. But here she was, in the same room as the one person from her past she had never wanted to see again.
Aaron’s first day as a teacher’s assistant was supposed to be joyous. His father was supposed to pat his back and wish him good luck while his girlfriend was supposed to be by his side, encouraging him.
But so far the day had started on a dismal note. His alarm hadn’t gone off and he barely had time to dress up. He had to skip breakfast to arrive on time to receive his instructions. When he had checked his phone, he expected to receive another one of his father’s apathetic messages or hopefully, one that wasn’t.
A week ago, when he had been looking for his father, his anxiety had lessened only after he had received a text from his father telling him not to disturb him or look for him. He didn’t explain his absence; only that he was in for the teacher’s assistant job. Aaron called him immediately, but his call had been cut.
It was just like his father to do exactly that—so Aaron knew not to worry about him anymore. Still, a part of him had hoped that one day his father would realize that his son was more important than his work. Today should have been that day.
Nevertheless, as he walked to the classroom, he was optimistic about his new start. Sure, he had used his father’s influence to get in, but it would be his hard work and tenacity that would help him keep his job.
That was when he had checked his phone to look for Shanaya’s messages and found none. He knew he had been rude to her last week and had been seriously considering breaking up with her, but all that had drastically changed when he had been waiting all alone in his apartment for his father to call and say he was okay. That was when he realized that he never wanted to feel so lonely again.
Aaron leaned against the wall of the corridor and dialed her number. The call kept going on and finally after a few seconds, it cut off. Shanaya didn’t have voicemail, so he waited for a few minutes and tried again. When she still didn’t pick up, he texted her, asking her to call him soon and asking if she was alright.
He waited a few minutes with his phone in his hand, watching the students enter the classroom and talking amongst themselves. There was going to be a party held to welcome the new batch of students and Aaron wondered if he should invite his girlfriend. Or would she still be too mad? Perhaps she might be the one who wanted to break up with her reclusive boyfriend.
When fifteen minutes later, he had still not heard from Shanaya nor seen her, he entered the classroom. Dr. Harman introduced him to the students and Aaron took his place at his desk. As the professor began his lecture and started to pass the sheet with the syllabus listed on it, he checked his phone again and then placed it under a textbook.
Ten minutes later, the classroom door opened again and a girl walked in. His first thought was that it was Shanaya and she had finally made it to class to see him, but when he saw a girl with medium-length reddish hair, enter, he sighed inwardly. It wasn’t his girlfriend. She didn’t have auburn hair nor did she wear dark jeans. Shanaya preferred floral prints in skirts and pants and always wore heels.
The girl found a seat near the window and sat down. She was dressed in a brown leather jacket, black full sleeves t-shirt that showed through the jacket’s cuffs and dark blue jeans with brown ankle boots.
Aaron went back to glancing at his phone and then found his gaze returning to the girl who had just entered.
She stared ahead and he noticed that even from afar, he could see that she had emerald green eyes and long dark lashes.
He turned to the professor as he explained the course and how the assignments would work and how much marks they would carry. Dr. Harman moved towards the board and Aaron found himself looking at the right side of the classroom again where the girl was sitting. She was now staring out the window and he groaned. From his brief talk with the professor before class, he knew that Dr. Harman hated when people weren’t paying attention to him.
The professor turned around and caught her.
“Am I disturbing you?” he said curtly.
The girl seemed unmoved at being called out in
front of the whole class. When he asked for her name, she replied in an expressionless tone. “Rhea. Rhea Darkin.”
That voice! Aaron knew he had heard it before. The girl didn’t appear familiar, but there was still a strange familiarity about her; as if he had seen her before...or knew her...
The professor berated her about something that was completely lost on Aaron. He knew it was inappropriate to stare at a student like this, but he couldn’t help it. Then when she looked in his direction and their eyes met, he felt that sense of familiarity again.
He knew her, but he couldn’t place her face or her name. He didn’t know anyone named Rhea from school or his college where he had received his bachelor’s degree. She looked away from him and Aaron collected himself and looked down at the open textbook to gather his thoughts.
He had to be careful about what he was doing. If any of the students had caught him intently staring at their classmate, they would assume he was being licentious and knowing that an illicit affair with a student could cause irreparable damage to his career as a teacher’s assistant, an accusation would be the last thing he would want. When class was over, he heaved a sigh of relief and got up.
Rhea walked out of the classroom quickly and he caught himself looking in her direction again.
“Aaron?” Dr. Harman called. “A word?”
Aaron swallowed and quickly looked away from Rhea who was walking down the corridor as fast as she could, probably embarrassed after being scolded by the professor. “Yes?”
Once the students had left, Dr. Harman turned to him.
“You do know that the only reason you’re here is because of your father,” he said, crossing his arms.
“And?” Aaron asked, getting irritated. From what he had heard, Dr. Harman didn’t like Aaron’s father at all and he assumed it was because his father had been offered the role of dean and he wasn’t.
“I expect you to adhere to the rules,” Dr. Harman said. “I want you to come to class before I do. For the next class, I expect you to get to know your students and help them understand how the course will work. They will be needing assistance through the duration of this course and I need to know that you won’t shirk from your responsibilities.”
Aaron clenched his jaw. He was obviously referring to the way his father had left suddenly without telling anyone. He wanted to snap at the smug looking professor and tell him that the only reason he was teaching this class was because his father wasn’t here, but Aaron held himself back at the last second. It was his first day and he didn’t want to screw it up.
“I will try not to disappoint you,” he said.
“Good,” Dr. Harman said and turned to pick up his briefcase from the desk. “I expect to see improvements in the next class.”
Aaron nodded and then picked up his own briefcase. He waited until Dr. Harman was gone before checking his phone again. There were still no messages from Shanaya or his father. Taking a deep breath, he slung the strap of his leather briefcase over his shoulder and walked out of the classroom.
He was walking towards the gardens while texting Shanaya again when he looked up to see her standing by the flag pole. Aaron smiled at her as he walked toward her, but Shanaya didn’t smile back.
“Hey!” he said, taking her arm and kissing her cheek. “I’ve been calling you. Where’ve you been?”
Shanaya was wearing a short and thin white floral dress and he wondered if she even felt the cold. The breeze swept her ponytail back and she touched the back of her ear, one of her nervous habits.
“We need to talk,” she said after some hesitation.
Aaron frowned. He should have seen this coming. It was completely his fault of course. “Shanaya, about last week...I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. My dad was AWOL and I was worried about him.”
“Did you find him?” she asked.
“He sent me a text.” Aaron waved his phone in front of him before slipping it into his jeans pocket. He took both her hands in his. “I’ve just been distracted...”
“Aaron?” she cut in. “Something has changed between us.” She looked away and blinked rapidly. “We were fine after graduating from school. And then when we went to different colleges, we still made this long distance relationship work. You wanted to take a break after you received your degree and even though I was in another city, we still made it through despite how busy we were.”
Aaron looked away from her, knowing he would now have to tell her the bitter truth.
“What I don’t understand is...” Shanaya licked her lips. “I came all the way over here for you. And now, it’s just not working. I don’t understand what happened in the past few months that has made you so distant. Don’t you love me anymore?”
“Shanaya.” Aaron sighed. “I can’t get over what happened in high school. I can’t understand how you were able to. That incident refuses to leave my thoughts.”
Shanaya narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?” she asked incredulously. “Of course I think about it every day, but I also know that it wasn’t my fault. I had nothing to do with what happened to her.”
“It was our fault,” Aaron told her and dropped her hands. “If Misha hadn’t seen us together, she wouldn’t have walked away from the school. She would have waited for her father to pick her up, but she was so brokenhearted that she...she was kidnapped because of what we did to her.”
Shanaya shook her head. “No, Aaron. You have to stop blaming yourself and me for that. We couldn’t have predicted that she would be taken.”
“She was your best friend. Don’t you feel any remorse?” Aaron asked.
Shanaya crossed her arms. “I did. But I didn’t have the foresight to see what was going to happen next. Neither did you, Aaron. I refuse to live in guilt over something we have no control over. What happened to Misha was terrible, but it’s not like we had her kidnapped.” Then she stared at him and blinked. “I don’t understand why you’re bringing this up now. It happened years ago, Aaron. You never brought it up before. Why now?”
Aaron squeezed his eyes shut and took out his cell phone. He brought up the browser and typed Misha’s name. “Because of this,” he said, holding up the phone so that she could read the news article.
Shanaya read the headlines and her mouth dropped again. “Oh.”
Aaron turned the screen back to him. “She’s been declared dead. The officials say that since she hasn’t been found in all these years, then there’s little chance that she survived her kidnapping. The statistics of kidnapped victims surviving is disheartening. This article came out a few weeks ago. Ever since I read it, I just can’t get Misha out of my mind.”
“Oh my god.” Shanaya turned pale. “I can’t believe this.”
Aaron put a hand on her shoulder and felt how cold her skin was. “I didn’t know how to tell you this.”
“What of her parents?” Shanaya said. “They must be devastated.”
“I’ve been running as far as possible from our home town,” Aaron said. “And now all I feel is guilt. She was my girlfriend and when she was kidnapped, I wasn’t even there for her parents.”
“I was best friends with her,” Shanaya said tearfully. “I knew her parents since I was a kid. And I never bothered to call them and ask them if they were doing okay.”
Aaron opened his briefcase and took out a bottle of water. “Here.”
Shanaya shook her head and pushed the bottle away. “Are we terrible people?”
“No,” Aaron said and let out a breath. “Just guilty.”