Chapter 1

It begins like this:

Tej has unread message requests crowding his Instagram inbox. This implies one of three things—

  1. An enthusiastic sugar daddy is infatuated with Tej’s blank bio and wants to treat him right;
  2. Some ‘entrepreneur’ is reaching out to invite him into what is assuredly not a pyramid scheme; or 
  3. Yet another upset fan has found his private profile and he’s about to read his ninth death threat of the day.

A fourth possibility exists where it’s just Arthur testing to see if Tej is keeping away from Instagram like he was explicitly instructed to, but his agent has been busy lately – trying to salvage what he can of Tej’s reputation – so that’s not very likely.

Plopping down on the lone stool in his kitchen, Tej considers the options carefully. 

Number three is practically an hourly occurrence and no longer brings the nervous jump in his heartbeat he’d first encountered back in December, opening Twitter to find furious fans split evenly in two camps; one half tagging him incessantly, demanding an explanation and the second debating which level of hell he was headed for (general consensus had been the very lowest rung).

Over time, his heartrate spikes and the threats had both mellowed. 

Tej isn’t sure if he should feel positively about the latter or be concerned that he appears to be fading from public memory but reminding himself of a Twitter user’s threat about bending his spine like a glowstick usually sorts out that dilemma.

The pyramid scheme seducer is boring, in comparison. He’s tried – unsuccessfully – to infiltrate Tej’s trust and bank accounts on multiple occasions and each time, Tej hopes he’ll retry with a more entertaining bluff. Unfortunately, disappointment is a loyal leech. The con artist doesn’t find Tej interesting or valuable enough to expend more than a copy-pasted text’s worth of effort on him.

Tej tries not to take that too personally.

Naturally, this leaves only one hope. 

“This one better actually be a sugar daddy,” he mutters to the toaster currently holding his bread hostage. Thursdays happen to be his favourite day of the week and he’d hate to kickstart the morning by indulging another charming fraudster. 

Or maybe it’ll be the funny guy who almost successfully pitched that cult to him. That wouldn’t be so bad.

His toaster, cooperative for once, surrenders the slices. Carefully spreading lettuce, sauce and some cold cuts on his bread, Tej uses the knuckle of his greasy pinky to tap open the messages. He’s optimistic – rising early after wasting multiple consecutive days on Netflix has that effect – and the day is young. All that jazz. An unexpected message is really the most excitement he experiences these days.

Looking back, Tej feels like he should’ve known better, all things considered.

mhnbkn: [sent you an image]

mhnbkn: it’s 2011 hell all over again buddy

That doesn’t sound like a sugar daddy, he decides. Not even a fake. Unless they’ve really done a one-eighty with their pick up lines, which is an interesting choice, to say the least.

Peering closer to the screen – now smudged despite his best efforts – Tej squints at the message, rereading. 

The username isn’t one he recognises and looking at the rather simple one liner, he doubts it’s a spambot. The image they’ve sent doesn’t reveal much, either; a generic outfit-of-the-day post featuring an attractive black man in early-twenties, dressed in formals with almost squarish glasses perched on his nose. It’s definitely a more retro-look, befitting the current trend of reviving old fads, but even that doesn’t offer an explanation for why he’s been sent the influencer’s post. 

Maybe he’s still half-asleep in his bed right now and this is all an elaborate, senseless dream. 

The idea of having to wash up and make breakfast all over again is quite depressing so Tej pinches his arm, relieved when he feels the sting. 

Rubbing the spot where his skin is sulking, he reaches the only other obvious conclusion: his mystery texter has reached the wrong number. The person must’ve confused his username for someone else’s thus reaching possibly the worst person to discuss fashion trends with.

Abruptly, Tej finds himself disappointed. His life of isolation comes with only a few breaks in the monotony and entertaining spam messages comprise about forty percent of all such intervals.

Tahira had looked at him with a mix of pity and muted concern when he’d mentioned as much so he’s kept his mouth shut about that ever since.

In the end, the wrong recipient issue doesn’t deter him from clicking open the stranger’s profile. His curiosity streak stretches a mile wide and the idea of switching on his laptop to stare at the same blank Word doc till lunchtime is unappealing. Nothing like early morning procrastination.

Tej’s screen buffers in a waiting room of black. 

He sighs, freshly reminded of his ongoing plague. The Wi-Fi has been acting up for the past couple of days but Mrs. Park insists his new neighbour isn’t causing it. Tej had tried explaining that sometimes two nearby routers can get on the same channel and cause interference; the landlady just needed to go talk to her new tenant, but it had led nowhere. 

He’s been told to wait for a few more days and if the situation still isn’t sorted out, then Mrs. Park would step up. In the meantime, she could lend him a connectivity dongle if he was really so hard up.

Tej’s sentiments for his landlady are a seesaw of contradictions, really. 

He jiggles his foot impatiently now, waiting, and finally, by the time he’s munching on the last of his sandwich, the profile has loaded fully. 

Tej should’ve looked at the name first but his eyes slide straight down to the feed, where the very top of someone’s head is visible in a bright photo. He thumbs down and the picture scrolls into full view steadily. 

It doesn’t happen as slowly as they show in the movies; there’s no low pulse of familiarity, no squinting before recognition zaps through him, electric. He doesn’t gasp or knock over a glass.

No. Tej only takes one look at the picture and locks his phone instantly.

Belatedly, he retracts his earlier complaints about elaborate dreams. If this is a dream, he’ll go for a rare victory run when he wakes. Sign up for that marathon his sister has been bugging him about. Anything.

His mind is still speeding ahead, trying to digest what he saw when Tej reaches for the phone again, unlocking it to peer at the image and groan.

Maybe if he’d paid more attention earlier, he would have noticed the username and how familiar it sounded, but for a writer Tej can be astoundingly unobservant sometimes. And, to be fair, the username resembles a keysmash more than someone’s initials.

This time when he reopens Instagram, Tej scrolls carefully back to the top of the profile. 

Mohini, it reads. There’s no last name but he hardly needs it. Right above is a display picture in a tiny circle. It’s fairly generic, a woman holding some flowers in front of her face; nothing Tej could’ve concretely identified if the realisation hadn’t already knocked him flat.

Carefully, he reopens the chat, wary of the awful green dot that could pop up next to the ‘mhnbkn’ any moment. The only thing worse than having to deal with this situation at this early hour would be to have Mohini online and available for it, waiting and amused as Tej struggles to compose even a hello.

The memory of similar enough incidents burns warm in his guts and Tej’s fingers drum restlessly against the kitchen counter as though it’ll magically transfer the embarrassment from his body to the granite. 

When a good three minutes go by and no progress has been made in the direction of an adequate reply, he gives up. Her picturesque feed is more interesting, anyway. He spends careful minutes analysing the first picture and then the second and soon, all of Mohini’s posts have been thoroughly memorised. Tej hopes this isn’t nearing stalker territory.

She hasn’t changed much since high school, he notes. The first picture he’d scrolled down to is just her sitting on a wooden floor with her usual dimpled smile, squeezed in between a forest of plants. The foliage crowds around her and she looks perfectly at home, relaxed and happy between her green friends. The only major difference is her hair; shorter now, curling sweetly around her shoulder while she aims her brightest grin at the camera, almost swallowed by her plants.

my new landlady thought i was trying to turn her apartment into a nursery when i was moving in, her caption reads but Tej is already too busy examining the next photo to take that information in.

He spends an embarrassingly long time skimming through all the posts again, still trying to place why the first picture looks so familiar when two notifications slide down in rapid succession, obscuring the top two inches of the screen. Tej tries to swipe them away and is, obviously, instead redirected straight to the chat. 

mhnbkn: you know 

mhnbkn: if the plan is to seenzone me so i backpedal and mistakenly assume i texted the wrong guy, you shouldn’t have liked a seven month old post :/

Tej’s heart crawls to his mouth. 

He didn’t. 

God, no, please.

He’s already tapping back to see which picture it was that prompted this act of stupidity– maybe the one where Mohini’s eating fries at some McD like a businessman settled at a Michelin star establishment? – but minutes pass and his frantic search comes up empty. There’s no red filling the hearts under any of the posts. They’re untouched.

When realisation floods him, Tej has to squeeze the sauce bottle very tight to keep from trying to crush his phone. He’s tried before and the ache is not worth the tiny release of his frustration. The phone is always mockingly intact when he’s done and if the conversation with Mohini is going to continue, he suspects his dignity will suffer anyway.

mtej: Really, Mohini? 

The response is instant. It makes him wonder why the other’s even up so early.

mhnbkn: LMFAO

mhnbkn: i knew you’d buy it

mhnbkn: too easy 

Tej rubs at his eyes. Definitely too early for this.

mhnbkn: hi tej <333 

mhnbkn: did you see the post?

mhnbkn: the glasses reminded me of you <333

He ignores the obnoxious number of hearts squeezed into the text bubbles. It’s not entirely new, coming from her.

mtej: And you felt zero hesitation before sending it to me?

mtej: A high school ex???

mhnbkn: studies say high school exes can actually get very close later in life

mhnbkn: all that history, i think

mtej: We dated for a total of THREE periods, Mohini

mtej: That’s not ‘history’

mhnbkn: it’s true love?

mhnbkn: <333 

Tej stares at the screen. Somehow, the fact that she hasn’t changed is simultaneously comforting and maddening. It feels like he’s back in 2013, talking to a particularly sentient wall.

mhnbkn: what’s with the private account btw

mhnbkn: locked and you won’t even accept my follow request 🤨

mtej: Yeah uh

mtej: I’ve been getting some online spam lately

mtej: Just being careful for the time being

mtej: How did you even find this account? 

It’s locked from the public, a casual account he made in college, before his writing had taken off and his first agent had created a public Instagram for followers and readers to reach him on. 

That one’s deserted for now because Arthur believes it’s best for him to lie low, so he’s secretly camping in his original profile, texting a few friends here and there, wasting away the hours watching Reels. He hadn’t expected anyone would reach him here apart from the select few who already knew about this account.

mhnbkn: it wasn’t on purpose 

mhnbkn: you’ve been popping up on my recommended for a few weeks now

mhnbkn: im guessing it’s all the mutual friends from high school 

That makes sense. 

mhnbkn: besides

mhnbkn: i saw the post with the ugly glasses and i just had to show you LMFAO

mhnbkn: seem familiar?

Tej narrows his eyes.

mtej: My spectacles were not ugly

mhnbkn: right OK

mhnbkn: just ‘ahead of their time’ 😭😭

He doesn’t want to start bickering at this hour, but a familiar exasperation ticks behind his eyes. Now that he’s paying attention, he remembers exactly how fast a large majority of their conversations used to devolve. 

Deep-buried memories from high school float to the surface as Tej sends back a glaring emoji. 

Mohini Balakrishnan had been in the same year as him at school, both of them brought together through the shared experience of being the only two brown kids in their predominantly white class. They hadn’t been particularly close when Mohini joined West Hills High in sophomore year, but months before graduation, a shared project had Tej and Mohini spending most evenings together. 

The dating went about as well as you can expect a three-hour relationship to go. 

Shaking his head as though to release the memories, Tej straightens up with a glance at the clock. It’s almost pushing eight and he needs to get started on work before the new neighbour wakes up. Tej has spent the past few days struggling to write in the brief crevices of the neighbour’s rowdy moving-in routine. Between the wall hook drilling and loud furniture shifting, he hasn’t exactly had a lot of time to coax his brain to produce words that aren’t profanities meant for the next-door resident.

mtej: I’d love to let you insult my high school fashion all morning

mhnbkn: thank god i’ve been holding back about those suspenders 

Tej snorts despite himself, ears heating at the reminder. 

mtej: Hold back some more

mtej: I need to get to work

mtej: Hopefully you can find a different friend’s shoes to roast for the day

Her typing bubble pops up and down for a bit. Tej waits. Technically he could just exit the app and get to work already but he’s curious. Can’t really take so long to type out ‘sure bye was nice catching up’.

When the next text comes, the mystery is solved.

mhnbkn: lol maybe. sorry for texting out of the blue, btw. i just moved cities and i’m a little out of it 

Tej blinks before he remembers the caption for that first post he spotted. 

Moving cities is disorienting, he knows firsthand. Back when Tej had shifted from his New York apartment to his current place, he’d nearly spent every night on call with Tahira or their parents. His family had taken it easily, reassuring him, but he knows they were relieved when Tej finally settled down enough to start sleeping before two am.

It feels strange to see Mohini offer this up so easily. She’d never been very open back in school.

Tej decides to allow himself another couple of texts before rising to get his laptop.

mtej: You’re fine, don’t worry

mtej: I should’ve known you were out of it when you tried to compare my cool glasses to those ugly ones, really

mhnbkn: god

mhnbkn: give it up tej 

mhnbkn: better to learn late than keep looking silly in unattractive frames

mtej: You know 

mtej: [sent a link]

mtej: It’s time you consider spectacles yourself 

Because she hasn’t matured in the past eight years, apparently, Mohini sends him multiple gifs of characters holding up their middle fingers at him. Tej threatens to block and report her account but after a few more minutes of tossing half-insults, they swap farewells. 

It’s not till Tej is unlocking his phone again later to text someone that he notices the red dot in the corner of his still-open Instagram app. He rolls his eyes. 

Then, before he can second-guess himself, Tej clicks it open and accepts the follow request. It feels stupid and he doesn’t want to imagine whether she’ll laugh when she sees he’s followed her back, but it’s done and he can put the phone out of sight and focus now.

He doesn’t manage to produce more than a page’s worth of pitiful paragraphs overall, but at least the usual resentment doesn’t feel as heavy in his chest. 

*

<Index> <Next Chapter>

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