Tariq realized he was smiling again. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath trying to compose himself, but the smile tugging on the corners of his lips persisted. He remembered the embarrassing interaction he had on the train earlier that day and felt his ears go red. He had been deep in thought, giddily envisioning the exciting day ahead of him that he hadn’t realized he was smiling directly at the girl sitting opposite him. After shifting around in her seat uneasily, she told him she had a boyfriend, finally snapping Tariq out of his daydream. Tariq shook his head, as if trying to chase the mortifying recollection out of his head and laughed quietly to himself. Love really does make people silly sometimes.
Tariq walked towards the rock fortress, nervous excitement bubbling in his stomach. The late afternoon sun washed his surroundings in a light golden haze. He wondered if the trees really were that beautiful, or if they just looked that way because of his rose-tinted glasses. He walked past group after group of sweaty tourists returning from their climb and felt glad he came when the place wasn’t bustling with people. They’ll have more privacy this way, the late afternoons were always much calmer.
The sun caught in the glass separator of the single operating security booth. Tariq squinted his eyes to better see the man behind the counter. It was Mr. Perera, the dutiful older gentleman who manned the booth till the night shift. Mr. Perera looked up from his newspaper as Tariq slipped his ticket under the glass divider. Tariq then proceeded to fill out the visitor’s logbook that detailed the time of entry and exit of each visitor.
Mr. Perera raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the young man in front of him. He had started to notice Tariq. The boy had visited Sigiriya nearly every weekend for about two months now. During his time, Mr. Perera had dealt with his fair share of history buffs and fanatic tourists, but this pale boy with dark disheveled hair currently hunched over the logbook unsettled him. He hadn’t looked this sickly about a month ago.
“You come here often don’t you?” Mr. Perera inquired once Tariq had straightened up after filling in his details.
Tariq’s eyes darted to the ground and back at Mr. Perera.
“Can I ask why?”
For a brief second, Tariq stared at the older man blankly, but then flashed him an earnest smile. Mr. Perera was taken aback by how charming the smile was. The boy almost looked like a completely different person.
“I’m writing my dissertation on the art of Sigiriya. It’s always better if I get to see the real thing as often as possible. All the traveling is wearing me out though” he added with a personable laugh.
Mr. Perera felt the disconcertion ebb away. Genuine intrigue took its place.
“Fascinating. And what are you studying?”
“History of Art” Tariq grinned. He felt a sudden pang of guilt for lying to the elderly security guard. He could tell the man was showing sincere interest in his made-up dissertation.
Mr. Perera nodded, a smile on his face.
“What’s your name son?”
“Well Tariq, good luck with the thesis”
Tariq thanked the man. Then he began his climb.
As he made his way up the fortress, the conversation they shared last week started replaying in Tariq’s head.
“You didn’t come last week”
Tariq immediately noticed the hint of opprobrium in her voice. He smiled at her, hoping to ease any growing tensions between them.
“Did you miss me?” he asked with a smirk.
His teasing had no effect on her. He very well could’ve been flirting with a rock.
“I don’t like it when people waste my time” she replied coolly.
Tariq’s smile faltered. She was serious. He felt as if the air around them had grown noticeably colder.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve told you I wasn’t coming. I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. I just….you know I have a full-time job. It’s a two-hour trip to get here but I still try to make it just so I can see you on the weekends. I just couldn’t come last week because I was swamped with work and I’m sorry. But I’m trying my best I swear”
Tariq ended his nervous ramble and watched her anxiously, waiting for a reply. She said nothing.
“I really am sorry”
Silence. Tariq felt a mixture of frustration and desperation creeping up his chest, threatening to choke him.
“You know I love you”
At this, she finally looked at him, her beautiful cold eyes piercing deep into his soul. He knew she had heard those exact words before.
A few tourists were still lingering at their rendezvous point when Tariq got there. He was used to loitering around till the place emptied, the frescoes were a main reason why people visited after all.
At long last, after the final tourist left the area, Tariq emerged from the shadowy niche he was standing in. He glanced around quickly, making certain no one else was there. He took a deep breath and walked towards the frescoes, the smile he had been suppressing all day finally breaking free.
The deep silence was the only reply. Tariq continued.
“I know I upset you last week. That’s why I’m here, to make amends”
She didn’t reply but he knew she was listening.
“I’m here to prove it”
And he finally heard it. The sing-song voice that frequented his every waking, and sleeping, hour. The beauty sitting amidst the clouds surrounded by her coquettish friends had finally decided to show him courtesy.
She looked like she was keeping a secret. How badly Tariq wished to know what it was.
“What exactly is it that you want to prove?” She drawled, uninterested.
“That I am worthy of your love”
“And how will you do that?” Her voice was dripping with condescension and amusement.
“I’m not going to leave you again. Ever”
“Hmm…empty words are never impressive” She sang.
“I mean it”
He felt her eyes fall on him and felt pride flare in his chest for finally catching her attention. This was the moment he had been dreaming of. Hours of intense research, preparation, and waiting led up to this. He would show her, actually show her, how serious his feelings were, how deeply in love he was.
Tariq held his breath, reached into his bag, and pulled out a small glass vial, a cloudy mixture sloshed noisily inside.
Mr. Perera yawned loudly and checked his watch. 10.55 pm. He would end his shift in 5 minutes and hand over the booth to the night watchman. Mr. Perera got up with a sigh and started tidying up. After packing his things away, he reached out and pulled the logbook towards him from the other side of the glass separator. He gave it one last quick scan when his eyes fixed on a single point on the page.
A blank square.
One visitor had not signed out.
Mr. Perera’s eyes slowly traveled from the book to the dark ominous rock looming ahead of him when he realized the visitor was his newly befriended art historian.
Rtr. Shayari Jayasuriya
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