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The Dare

by Sid Balachandran   

As he sipped on his coffee, Amit threw a glance at the table that was the source of all the raucous laughter. He smiled as he took in the scene. A group of youngsters, probably in their late teens, were huddled around one of the tables by the corner. Amit observed that, like him, they too had become frequent morning patrons of the cafe. From having observed them for a few weeks now, he knew that they were students at the nearby Rana Pratap Institute of Management. Though they were not dissimilar to other almost twenty-somethings, there was something about them as a group that had attracted him to them.

His pre-office ritual had not changed for almost three years now, ever since he’d discovered this quaint little corner cafe amongst the leafy suburbs of the town. He would promptly arrive at the cafe at 7am and order one of their classic breakfasts - soft boiled egg, a double egg-white omelette and wheat bread toast, accompanied by a frothy yet strong coffee served in an over-sized mug. And then he’d start to read the daily newspaper.

He had noticed this quintet gang, as he’d named them, a few weeks ago, when they’d first walked into the cafe. Though they’d initially seemed a bit lost, a few days later, they’d settled right in. They were a relatively happy and care-free bunch, with not too many concerns about the world and seemed only bothered about the present and having fun. Their easy-going nature soon gained them popularity with both the cafe owner as well as the staff. But Amit was yet to befriend them. After all, he was senior to them both in age and worldly experience.

As he took a bite of his omelette, he noticed that one of the girls in the group had untied her hair and the breeze from the open grilled windows was ruffling the curls lightly. One of the guys in the group leaned back on the chair and put his hands around the girl’s waist pulling her closer to him. Amit smiled as he thought, “Ah, the feeling of being young and in love.” Inadvertently he found his thoughts starting to wander back to his college days and Richa.

Imran, Lucky, Zoya, Richa and he were the five pillars who formed their notorious gang back in college. Hailing from middle-class families and with somewhat decent academic grades, they were really thick friends. Bound by a common love for movies, music and a fondness for getting into trouble, they were almost inseparable. And they were undeniably the most popular gang of students in college. Though they were all pretty close, Imran and himself had always had a special bond. Both of them were compulsive thrill-seekers, extremely competitive and always accepted a dare without even thinking of the consequences. They were automobile aficionados and formed the drummer-tabla couplet for the college band. Then there was Lucky, the geek of the group. A person of few words, he was often the mediator within the group and their official spokesperson. First cousins Zoya and Richa were both the brains and beauty of the gang and were often responsible for the dares that Imran and Amit blindly took on. Of course it had a bit to do with Amit and Richa's on - off relationship too.

Amit fell head over heels in love with Richa the moment he had laid his eyes on her. After a rather whirlwind dating period, the romance had literally fallen on its face when Richa requested that they move things a bit slowly and take a break. But as history (and the movies) have often proved, a guy and girl can only remain best friends for so long before they either break it off completely or find themselves back together. With Amit and Richa, fortunately it was the latter.

As he put away his cutlery, he was snapped out of his pleasant thread of memories by a squeal from one of the girls at the quintet table. “You should definitely do it! It sounds awesome. What’s life without a little thrill?” she asked. It was the girl with the wavy hair who’d spoken. “Be a man. Go for it. I’ll join in as well” said one of the scrawny looking guys addressing a rather well-built attractive young man. For a while, the young man seemed to contemplate what his friends had said. And then he spoke. “If you all say so, I’ll give it a shot!” he said with a beaming grin.

Amit smiled wryly. Sounded like the guy’s friends were setting him up with a dare. “For his sake, I hope it goes well!” mused Amit as he went back to his paper. Hard as he tried, Amit was unable to concentrate on his favourite Sudoku column. His thoughts kept going back to the dialogue that he had just overheard. Hearing those words again after so many years, brought back the memories. He still remembered the day vividly as if it had just happened yesterday.

They’d first heard of the secretive midnight motorcycle clash, when Ankur, one of their obnoxiously wealthy seniors had mentioned it to them. He had just bought one of the state of the art BMW super bikes imported all the way from the US and was bragging about its performance to anyone who’d listen. Being the bike-crazed young men that they were, Imran and Amit were both intrigued by the two wheeled beast. Further more, Ankur had even dared them to try and race him at the event. Though the details were sketchy, they both knew it was illegal, dangerous and influenced by the "Fast & the Furious” franchise which meant that they had more than enough reasons to take on the dare. After all, they lived for the thrill and the adrenaline kick that accompanied it.

The night of the dare had arrived quicker than they’d anticipated. The plan was for Amit to drive the first leg and Imran, the final one. They had zoomed through the first leg, taking third place, behind two other brilliant riders. Ankur and his friend had crashed out within a few minutes into the first leg. “…and that’s why you never ask an ape to operate heavy machinery!” they had mused. As Imran switched on the bike's ignition for the final round, he’d turned back and looked at Amit, who was riding pillion with him. “Hold on tight man. It’s going to be awesome!” he said as he throttled the powerful engine and took off in style.

As the strong wind tousled their hair, Amit held on tight to the back of the bike. Sitting on a slightly more elevated platform than Imran, he could see a bit further ahead and was Imran’s eyes for this leg of the race. As they zigzagged through the still heavy traffic on the highway at breakneck speed, Amit noticed that they had left their competitors far behind. The constant stream of tears running down his eyes from the breeze made it difficult to focus on what lay ahead. Eveything was turning into a blur of multi-coloured circles and light trails. But Amit knew he had to focus in order to ensure that they did not run into anything or over anyone. As he leaned forward to tell Imran that they were in the lead, he felt a strong force pushing himself to the right. "Imran must have taken a sharp left turn” he thought as he rubbed both his eyes on the sleeves of the cold leather jacket he was wearing. His eyes were struggling to cope up with the velocity of the air brushing against his face and he put his hand over them as if to shield his eyes from the wind. A loud air horn made Amit look up ahead again. An extremely bright and powerful light was careening towards them at rapid speed. As he leaned forward to warn Imran about the oncoming vehicle, he felt an abrupt lurch. All of a sudden, he was flying through the air and onto the path of the oncoming vehicle whose dazzling headlight completely blinded him. And then everything went dark.

“Dreaming, are we?” A husky feminine voice interrupted his thoughts bringing him back to the present. Shaking off the trancelike state he was in, he looked up at the lady and smiled. “Sorry, I was just thinking about something” he said. “So, are you ready to leave for work?” she asked, whilst tying up her brown coloured shoulder-length hair. “Sure. Let me just finish this” Amit said, as he drained the last bit of coffee from the mug. “Ok, let’s go” he continued as he shuffled about in his seat.

Having noticed that he was staring at the bunch of college kids on the adjacent table, she slowly walked around the table, stood behind him, leaned over and gave him a tight hug. “I know what you were thinking about. Let it go. You’re fine now” she said as she helped him put on his jacket. “I try..but sometimes it just keeps coming back” he replied as he pulled his gloves tightly over his hands. Amit knew that her words echoed the truth and it was time he’d made peace with what had transpired that fatal night.

As he slowly wheeled himself out of the cafe, following her to the car, Amit couldn’t help but smile. He was lucky to be alive and have Richa in his life.

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Copyright Sid Balachandran