Stealing Stephanie by Mandira Pattnaik

The groom will puff circles of smoke above the heads of Imran and Madien, raising a cloud that’ll add to our fuggy minds as we, Jay’s friends from University, an all-boys group, will stare ahead into an imagined horizon. Jay’s bride-to-be will be missing, not even a shoe left behind, and a house full of wedding guests, next-door neighbors and cousins from Bangalore, would have to be answered to. In polite enquiring, they’d be drawing sadistic pleasure, raising vicious possibilities, including that she’d eloped with someone we knew! Of course, the group itself would be exonerated—having perfect alibis!  

When this tragedy will unravel, sometime tomorrow, Jay dressed in pastel yellow sherwani will mumble something to the effect Stephanie’s mine, my fiancé; we, several pintsdown, around Jay’s archaic Mahogany table, strewn with used paper cups, wrappers, glasses, keys, would feel trashy, like at the end of anapocalyptic world looking for a dinghy to tow us away. Soundless energy will throb in our heads, and it’d be disturbed by as little as one of us sighing. 

His parents would retreat to their bedroom on the first floor and we’d draw the curtains as if it’d keep the questions out, although it’d be bright and sunny outside, perfect for a lawn picnic. Madien, from a night deprived of sleep scouting for Stephanie in all probable places, would descend into hibernation. Imran, still drinking, his eyes crimson like the kurta he’d be sporting, increasingly agitated, would demand action. To what end or what measure, none would be quite sure. Bachvan will suggest the police. We’d ponder if it’s the only remedy to our collective conundrum. Then, scratching my scruffy unshaved chin, the audience expectant, I’d carefully spit out — No! That’s more embarrassment for Jay!  

Imran would interject, Adults don’t go missing. People don’t simply disappear, Jay! 

I had this intuition — call it clairvoyance if you will! Stephanie was going to give up on you Jay! Coney will say.  

We’d gasp, though we wouldn’t mean to question his psychic powers; then sit in silence, wringing fingers, for Jay to decide the next step. 

I’d volunteer to call Esther, Stephanie’s friend, put the call on speakerphone. Esther would say that Stephanie did mention a translator’s job in Tokyo.  

Jay wouldn’t be privy to this. He’d known Stephanie too little — this desirable girl in University everyone aspired to, gelled black hair tied in a bun at the nape, friendly when it suited her, like when she wanted to hitch a ride back home. The boys leaped to her rescue; she’d sit pillion, soft hand on shoulder, cloud-hued scarf adrift in the wind. But the moment she was home, she’d act all haughty, aware of the adoring pair of eyes, and forget to say thank you to her eager chauffer.

Until of course, Stephanie had paired up, of all boys, with Jay! This was News, surpassed only by them announcing wedding. 

Outside, we’d hear people chuckling; the audibility rising; ignominy transcending from the private to the societal. The bedlam would be like the one in our Middle School classroom where I hated the bookish pigtailed girl, who later was the pretty High School girl who rejected me, whom I hated again when we met at University, pigtail grown into a bun at the nape, because everyone else swooned over her. 

I’d thank Esther in my mind; she was innocent, though her complicity would be doubted.  I’d want to talk to Stephanie. Mindless idiosyncrasy! Coney and Jay would set off on the Tokyo trail, I’d slip out. Under leaden skies, with a spring in my step, a crime to cherish, it’d be like a victory march to the tiny cottage on whose front door I stand now. 

I ring the bell at the place I rented last week, after the weekend at Bachvan’s beach house where friends gathered for one last splash before the wedding, where Sana had hooked up with Imran and Bessie had given a surprise back massage to Coney. I was alone on the sandbank, facing the crimson sea, the waves condescending, the light velvety, thinking of that pigtailed girl, whose hair was now in a bun, getting married to Jay. Thinking if she was doing that to spite me? Stephanie had emerged from the brine at that moment, glistening drops clinging to her, eyes dripping fire — asking, wanting. 

Without words between us, we had disappeared until dinnertime and — adults don’t disappear! They had come searching with torch-lights; recovered Stephanie’s earring. Coney had, unknown to him, successfully deflected the attention of the group — by drafting in a story of alien kidnapping! 

The door is answered by a woman I no longer hate, hair in a bun, wearing nothing but a relieved smile. I bury my head in the sweet smell of her neck and treasure this steal.  

Sometimes I wish moments stretched like bubbles. Never burst.

Mandira Pattnaik’s work has been published or forthcoming in Watershed Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, Splonk and Citron Review among others. She is a finalist at NFFD NZ Microfiction Contest ’20, shortlisted at RetreatWest MicroContest and longlisted at AWC Fiction Contest. Find her @MandiraPattnaik.