Chapter 2

If an interviewer asked what Tej’s current routine looks like, here’s what he would say:

  1. Wake up by six
  2. Go for a brisk run
  3. Crack out two hours of writing
  4. Eat while reading
  5. Write again till late evening
  6. Head out to socialise 
  7. Hit the hay before midnight
  8. Repeat

Simple. Effective.

Of course, because this interview is unfolding in Tej’s imagination while he brushes his teeth to wake himself up six hours after sunrise, he’s taken some creative liberty with the specifics.

His real routine is closer to this:

  1. Wake up (ideally before noon)
  2. Pretend to write (ideally more than two pages)
  3. Eat something that passes for breakfast
  4. Nap till evening
  5. Pretend to write some more (this time with Netflix in the background)
  6. Crash (ideally before four am)

Tej is sure there are frat houses that have healthier lifestyles than his, but he’s also certain that said frat houses don’t have deadlines for a full-length novel tightening slowly around their necks, so they can shut up.

Technically, the ‘real’ routine is also only a half-truth – those are the rare Good Days: when he manages to pull himself out of bed and settle at his workstation and doesn’t end up deleting every sentence after staring at it for half an hour. 

On his bad days, his routine breaks down to waking, eating, and only moving his index finger on the mousepad to prevent his laptop from entering sleep mode.

When Tej is done swiping at his damp face with the towel, he breathes in tandem with the reflection in the mirror. “We need a Good Day,” he says to it, respectful, as though the mirror is secretly in charge of deciding whether today is the date he’ll finally churn out a fitting start to the book. 

It doesn’t sneak him any hints of encouragement, though, so Tej has to make do with a determined nod at his reflection and something that can vaguely be interpreted as a smile. Good Day, he repeats to himself.

“Good Day, Good Day, Good Day,” Tej chants, first when he hits his bathroom door on the way out, once more when he’s pouring the milk out for his cereal and it splashes all over the countertop, and then again when he tries to get started and his laptop informs him he’s all out of storage.

After the third failed attempt at sorting through the documents to see which ones he can delete, Tej’s mind numbs over with a steadily building blind rage and his fingers move without express directions from his brain.

When, after several minutes, all the furious tapping and dragging is over, Tej’s rage recedes like water circling down the drain so he can face the aftermath in peace.

It’s not very peaceful, to be honest. He’s erased everything. Wiped the whole thing clean.

In the very back of his mind, Tej can hear Arthur mildly niggling about checking to see if he’d saved a copy of all his documents to the cloud but for now, he sits at the table and glares the laptop into dimmed-screen submission. 

Good Day, his ass.

*

“It’s not anger issues. I’ve always been the calm type.”

“You called me up in the middle of the day to lie to my face?”

“Should I just tell Arthur I can’t write anymore?”

“Tej—”

“I can’t believe I deleted everything.”

Tej,” Tahira finally snaps, features twisting into a glare. “Can I get one word in between your meltdowns? God. You’re worse than El’s preschoolers.” 
Tej holds back his pleased grin. Any time her boyfriend’s students are brought up to insult Tej, he knows she’s only a little bit exasperated, despite the way her jaw is tensed. Besides, the bugging is slightly intentional; it’s intermittent but his sister riles up easier some days, and Tej is in the mood to roughen up someone else’s temper after the morning he’s had.

“How much of the new book did you delete?”

He hums. “All of it.”

“Dumbass. I thought you’d be more careful after the Goa incident.”

Tej grumbles at the reminder. Two years ago, a cousin back home was getting married and the Mehrotras had flown back to India for the month, losing themselves in the celebrations and revelry. Unfortunately for Tej, he had also ended up losing the second draft of the novel he was working on, consequently spending most of the wedding week miserably re-renovating the first draft.

“This is exactly why I should quit writing,” he insists, only to find Tahira pinching her nose bridge. She should still be in the studio at this time, but he can’t spot any artists around so presumably she’s stepped out to handle his crisis. Tej feels a very brief rush of affection. Super brief.

“Sure. Give up writing and say yes to the next sugar daddy in your inbox,” the elder taunts, mimicking his words from an earlier conversation. 

Tej folds his arms restlessly. It’s hardly easy being a sugar baby.

“How much of the new novel had you written?” Tahira asks after a few moments and Tej braces. She’s unusually good at accidentally stumbling onto his weak spots.

Time to hedge. “You know,” he shrugs vaguely. “Enough that I’m devastated at this loss.”

A suspicious pause and then—

“Tej. How many words did you have.”

He smiles winningly at her. It’s pointless. She’s like a bloodhound when it comes to his fuckups. “Almost eight hundred words,” he yields finally, looking away before her expression can turn incredulous. 

Predictably, it takes her a minute but Tahira regains enough coherence to give him an earful. Tej lets his attention wander till she’s finally winding down, distinctly more upset than earlier. “Next time you lie about having a ‘Code Red’ emergency, I’ll block your number,” she threatens.

Rolling his eyes, he sinks back into his recliner. His beloved armchair – fondly named Recliner for convenience – is the most prized possession he’s had in twenty six years of existence and even now, it holds him comfortingly. 

On the screen, Tahira eyes him with nothing but disdain. Not for the first time (and hardly the last), Tej wonders why he instinctively calls the elder when he needs support or sympathy. If she hasn’t managed to scrounge it up for his circumstances so far, he doubts she’ll start soon. “First order of business. Sell that damn chair.”

Tej scrambles to wrap his free hand around the arm rest protectively. 

Tahira’s eye roll is more scathing than his. “If you spend all your time in a recliner, you’re not going to get shit done, Tej.”

“This recliner is the only thing keeping me from a mental breakdown, thank you very much.”

“This is you staying away from a breakdown?” she asks, disbelieving. Tej wants to take offence at the tone but he notices almost immediately how the rest of his room is in view. All his clothes are strewn about, hurricane-struck, instead of sitting in the neat laundry hamper by his washroom. (A gift that, incidentally, Tahira had got him for his last birthday, all sharp eyes and smiling through gritted teeth, hoping the present would help him be ‘less of a pig’. It hadn’t, obviously, but Tej can toss balled-up socks with deadly accuracy now.)

Defensively, he changes the camera angle so it’s only his face on the call now. Tahira pretends to gag. 

“I’m just struggling with the new book,” Tej informs, ignoring the rude implication. It comes out a little more serious than he’d intended to and Tahira sobers up before his eyes. “No, don’t—I’m fine, it’s okay, you don’t have to look at me like that. I’m just…not used to flailing so much when it comes to writing, of all things.”

Tahira is silent for a long moment. 

“Uh-oh. She’s thinking.”

Her glare is half-hearted. “Someone has to, between the two of us. It’s not my fault I ended up with more brain cells.”

“You stole them,” Tej says bitterly. “You took all of Maa’s smart genes and by the time I came along, there wasn’t anything left except the good-looking ones.”

Tahira snorts. From behind her tall figure comes a loud bang and someone yells repeatedly for ‘help, please, Tahira darling’. “One minute, Gus!” she shouts back. Tej bemoans his poor ear drums. Twisting back to face the phone, Tahira hesitates, worrying at her lower lip. 

Tej doesn’t need to be curious about what she could possibly say. It’s already dawning on him but he hopes she won’t go there. Futile.

“Maybe you could take another look at the old draf—”

“I’m not doing that,” he says instantly. His voice is even despite the fact that this is a point she knows better than to approach and it feels like a cheap shot. Tej looks carefully at the curtains fluttering against his balcony windows till minutes have passed and the topic is left behind.

Gathering herself, Tahira nods. She knows when not to push. “Alright. But then call Lisa. Brainstorm with her. The words will come faster, trust me.”

Tej nods despondently even though he knows he isn’t going to be calling Lisa. His friend’s busy and even though she never outright said anything about the last book, Tej knows how she felt when it came out. He hadn’t even sent her the complete final draft before it was sent to the publisher. There’s no way he’s crawling back to her after embarrassing himself – and disappointing her – so thoroughly.

Tahira, rather inconveniently, has been working on her psychic skills. She tsks impatiently at his expression. “Don’t be stupid. Just call her. How are you going to write a novel about friends teaming up to defeat the Big Bad if you don’t even have friends?”

“I do have friends—”

“Ones that you talk to. Nowadays.”

Tej opens his mouth.

“Arthur doesn’t count,” Tahira shoots down preemptively, glowering as she begins her walk back to the recording studio. “I’m talking about friends. Not your agent.”

“Agents can be friends.”

“Agents can be friendly.”

“What about Mehr?”

“Arthur was already taking over as your agent when she quit, Tej. And that’s not the point,  you little shit, stop changing the topic.”

He laughs a little under his breath. “How your coworkers think you’re a serene angel is beyond me.”

Coming to a stop before the door to the studio, Tahira takes a breath and smiles wide, teeth flashing at him. Instincts polished from childhood, Tej automatically freezes, even though they’re older now and she’s too far away to harm a hair on his head. “It’s called friendship,” she answers sweetly and the tone is saccharine enough to make him scowl. “Try it sometime.”

“Don’t smile at me, you’ll give my sleep paralysis demon ideas.”

“Lovely words. Put them in a book, maybe,” Tahira encourages condescendingly before there’s a rushed ‘love you bye’ and the call disconnects. He’d enjoy his sister’s reluctant scrap of affection more if it hadn’t come packaged with an insult, but Tej takes what he can get.

The rest of the afternoon is spent staring at Lisa’s contact number, drafting a resignation + sorry email to Arthur and trying not to let Tahira’s words crowd his mind.

How are you going to write a novel about friends teaming up to defeat the Big Bad if you don’t even have friends?

Backspacing till the resignation email wipes clean, Tej sighs. How, indeed.

*

As though someone’s been eavesdropping on his thoughts, his phone chimes with a text right as Tej is about to pull his hair straight out from the scalp.

mhnbkn: hey friendo just saw your message

mhnbkn: had to wrestle someone for twenty bucks at work

mhnbkn: i kinda need to go back for round two so you’ll have to be quick

Tej rubs at his temples. 

It’s been about two days since Mohini sent the first text. Tej hadn’t really expected they’d still be talking, but maybe that’s on him for not stopping himself from messaging to ask if she was feeling more settled in the next morning. 

She’d been a little short, the reply brief and to the point although not unkind, and it had felt more like senior year, texting to coordinate free hours for the project only to receive careful, measured answers. For all her reputation of being sharp and unpredictable, there had been no bite when they spoke.

It helped that during their first meeting for the project, she’d warmed up instantly but despite that, it was still one of the strangest friendships Tej had in high school. 

In a way, it still is. He doesn’t know why he hasn’t stopped texting her. 

mtej: You said you work at an amusement park

mhnbkn: yeah 

mhnbkn: you’d be surprised at how many wrestle-able people i meet in my job at the amusement park tej

mhnbkn: anyway go ON you wanted to ask me something

mtej: Nothing it’s fine

mtej: Don’t forget your warm up 

mtej: Unless you want to pull a muscle on your first day as a wrestler

mhnbkn: ooh do you want to join the betting pool

mhnbkn: three of my coworkers are betting against two others 

mhnbkn: even it out for us

In spite of himself, Tej’s lips quirk up. 

mtej: Risky investments make me nervous

mhnbkn: come ON

mhnbkn: FOR OLD TIMES SAKE 

mtej: Oh I don’t know about that

mhnbkn: EXCUSE ME????

mhnbkn: do you feel nothing for our shared history 

That’s a fun question to spring. As far as he remembers, he hadn’t been the one to break things off.

mtej: Our shared history ended with you dumping me before AP Chem 

mhnbkn: but after lunch break!

mhnbkn: at least i let you enjoy break!

Tej isn’t surprised that this is the sort of the thing she would take into consideration before a breakup. 

mtej: And in return, you have all my well wishes for the match

mhnbkn: you’re the most boring friend i’ve made <333 

He sends her an emoji that looks appropriately and annoyingly bubbly before locking his phone and tossing it back to his overflowing bed. Their exchange sticks with him, though, and not too long after, he’s back on Recliner, thinking carefully.

Are they friends? Did she just say it for the sake of the insult? Is it worse to be the most boring friend of a person who doesn’t even think of you as a real friend? Should he have joined the betting pool after all?

That last one he gets the answer to, later in the evening, when Mohini discloses the park’s dinosaur mascot kicked her ass in the second and third rounds. 

mhnbkn: fucker’s knees were just bones

mhnbkn: SHOULDN’T HAVE EVEN FELT THEM THROUGH THAT STUPID COSTUME

She’s already said that a few times but Tej is running low on entertainment so he lets her keep at it. Arguably, he’s a worse drama queen during his low swings but watching someone else lose it over something trivial is funnier. 

When a good ten minutes have passed and he’s finished a careful series of questions, the truth is finally out: like most people who are used to winning every game they try, Mohini Balakrishnan is a sore loser.

mhnbkn: i’m NOT

mhnbkn: i won first round 

mhnbkn: OBVIOUSLY i’m going to be suspicious of how she flattened me in the second

mtej: Maybe she was hustling?

mtej: You could’ve just underestimated her in the beginning and she took advantage of it

mhnbkn: …

mhnbkn: oh

mtej: It’s fine! It’s only one match 

mtej: Just tell her you’re out of her favourite ice cream flavour if she swings by during your shift 

mhnbkn: no, actually

mhnbkn: i’m going to murder her

Tej sits up, concerned. Mohini is the type to joke around, of course, but he doesn’t exactly know how light-hearted this is. If the police find these texts later, he doesn’t want to be joining her in the prison van. 

mtej: You know what

mtej: Why don’t we consider all our options first?

mhnbkn: i’ll ttyl

mhnbkn: gotta go get some things ready 

The alarm bells are going wild in his head. Tej clutches at the phone, typing faster.

mtej: Hahahaha

mtej: Good one, you got me 😃

mhnbkn: tej

mtej: Oh my god

mtej: There is no way you’re thinking of committing a felony barely a WEEK after moving cities

mtej: NO way

mhnbkn: well it’s not my fault Westwood fucken Garden City has teenage con artists is it????

mhnbkn: i’m headed back to santa clarita after i’m done tomorrow

mhnbkn: fuck the lease

Tej freezes. 

mtej: WGC?

mtej: You’ve moved here?

Read. 

The message has been read but Mohini doesn’t respond for a good two minutes. Which is fair considering a near-stranger is asking if she’s in the same city as him.

Maybe she’s just shocked. Hell, Tej feels pretty stunned himself because what are the odds, really? His whole reasoning behind moving here was that not many people knew about the city. It’s a small, quiet place. For instance, Tej has been here four months and he’s befriended only five people in total. That is if they’re counting Mrs. Park. Otherwise, he’s still at a lowly four.

After another few minutes, Tej is preparing to apologise and retract his question when her reply comes.

mhnbkn: tej

mhnbkn: are you ALSO living in the city of teenage con artists

mhnbkn: has fate really aligned us so

He can’t help his small laugh at that. There’s a slow anxious turn in his stomach, whispering about how this isn’t good, it’s awful that he moved out to get away from friends and acquaintances only to run into someone he knows, but for once Tej ignores it. His Good Day has gone to shit and if finding out an old friend is in the same city salvages it, he won’t complain.

Not to mention, it’s pretty perfect that it’s someone he isn’t too close to. It’ll give him enough space so they don’t have to constantly hang out, but also so he doesn’t fall into complete isolation like he has the past few months.

mtej: Truly flattered that you’re stalking me

mhnbkn: oh shut up

mhnbkn: if i’d known you were here, i’d have asked about potential fraudsters before moving

mtej: Fraudsters and I have a complicated relationship

mhnbkn: can’t be more complicated than what’s about to happen to the Westwood Garden City Park’s dinosaur mascot

Tej groans at the reminder. 

mtej: Don’t get arrested so soon after arriving

mhnbkn: you just don’t want to come bail me out 

mtej: You’re a mind reader

mhnbkn: wouldn’t ask you anyway 😒

mhnbkn: i have an angel of a landlady

mhnbkn: literally let me move in the day i came to check out the apartment

mtej: Wait really?

mtej: Did you just get the first place you saw???

mhnbkn: mmhm

mhnbkn: didn’t exactly have the luxury of time

mhnbkn: and it was the cheapest i could get in downtown Westwood 

The whispers grow louder and now Tej is uneasy, even though he’s packed perfectly into Recliner. Downtown Westwood is cutting it close but there’s no chance it gets closer than that.

Right?

He soldiers on.

mtej: Re: dinosaur mascot

mtej: Wait a couple more weeks 

mtej: Let the city grow on you before you attempt that trip to prison

mhnbkn: you’re right

mhnbkn: i have too many things on my to-watch list still

mtej: I knew you were in there somewhere

mhnbkn: please

mhnbkn: it’s less your reasoning and more my neighbour’s free wifi that’s keeping me going

mhnbkn: but A for effort tej

For some reason, that’s the last straw.

The whispering has turned to outright clanging in his head and Tej gets to his feet. All of it has been close enough coincidence to dismiss so far but the detail about the wifi is too uncanny to ignore. 

He locks his phone and proceeds to spend the next ten minutes pacing his apartment, eyes glued to the floor so he can cover every tile while walking. 

The facts are hard to overlook. 

  1. Mohini moved cities about a week ago. The clanging in Tej’s neighbouring apartment started a day after.
  1. Mohini has an angel for a landlady. Mrs. Park, for all her shortcomings, is universally adored. And Tej knows she owns multiple units in this building.
  1. Mohini is mooching off her neighbour’s Wi-Fi. Tej is still struggling to get his to work at normal speed.

Obviously, all of this could just be uncomfortably near misses but there’s no chance Tej will catch a wink of sleep tonight if he doesn’t know for sure.

It’s not as though he can just start demanding Mohini reveal where she lives two days after they reconnected, but there has to be another way. A simpler, less stalker-y way.

The best option, Tej decides after another fifteen minutes of careful deliberation, is to go straight to the source. Mrs. Park lives on the first floor. He’ll complain about the Wi-Fi issue, ask that she accompany him to go talk to the neighbour and verify for himself whether he’s just overreacting or Mohini’s really moved in next door.

Sure it’s not exactly above board, all this, but he’d rather have his chest free of the weight perched on it than suffer politely. 

And if Mohini calls him a cheapskate for the Wi-Fi, he’ll just ask Mrs. Park to lend her that dongle. 

*

The one thing Tej fails to account for, in this grand foolproof plan, is his incredible streak of bad luck.

No sooner has he stepped foot outside the threshold of his apartment than the sound of another door swinging open reaches him.

See, he doesn’t normally startle easy. He doesn’t, but today has been Not A Good Day and every event from the past half hour has been making him jumpy. So, really, it’s little surprise that when he finds himself staring at an equally-struck Mohini Balakrishnan from the door beside his, Tej’s stroke of bad luck chooses to manifest with pomp, swinging his apartment shut with a strong gust of wind.

So much for coincidences, something in his brain is snickering. At least now he knows.

“Oh my god,” Mohini whispers, wide-eyed. In the numbness that this moment brings on, Tej absently documents that she’s dressed to go out; loose-fitting jeans, some chic sweater tucked in and a black coat to battle the windy weather tonight. 

It slowly dawns on him, what’s happening. They’ve both been home the entire time and somehow, he’s managed to catch her right as she was stepping out. 

“Oh my god,” Mohini repeats but this time, her eyes are lighting up with a spark of delight as it flicks between his face, his pajamas and the apartment he’s just gotten locked out of.

Tej imagines this is what eggs feel like when they’re being handmixed by a viciously determined amateur. 

“I’m going to report you for stealing my Wi-Fi,” he says weakly because his throat refuses to push normal greetings out. 

In response, Mohini clutches her stomach and laughs.

*

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