The Environment Engine

environment engine

Keerthi took a staggered breath as she rang the bell to Tarun’s flat. She watched a few holographic butterflies flutter in his garden as she could feel the ones fluttering in her stomach. “After all this time…” she sighed to herself. She didn’t have to look around to notice the old rusty wind chime that chimed squeakily in the artificial wind. She didn’t have to look up to remember the teal blue of the sky above his house. She had stood at this threshold a hundred times in her dreams and had never really crossed it. She opened her eyes just as Tarun opened the door.

He looked the same as he had in college. She scanned his tousled brown hair for any whites, his wide forehead for any lines, or his taut t-shirt for signs of a beer belly, nothing. He was exactly the same as he was in her dream where at this point he would gather her into him for a kiss.

“ Hey Keru, come on in…” he barely looked at her and walked back into the house.

She stepped into the house and back into all the summers of her college days. There was the same dimly lit room, the same half deflated bean bag furniture and the smell of Tarun’s musk that an ocean-scented room freshener was trying hard to mask. Nothing had changed except for the second bedroom of the house that had obviously been converted into an experience engine.

Tarun walked back with a bowl of chips and two beers and handed her a beer along with his lopsided grin. Keerthi suppressed the butterflies in her stomach. This was why it was so difficult with Tarun, he hadn’t changed at all and she knew he never would.

“So what is this about Tarun?” She took a sip of her beer.

Tarun drank his beer and stared at the wall behind her. In her head, it was a look of realization, when Tarun finally saw that his soulmate stood right beside him, always had and always would. She shook herself, hard.

“I needed her your help with something,” Tarun said, he walked to the experience engine and opened its door.

“If this is about defeating another boss in that stupid game of yours, forget it. I have better things to do.” Keerthi said.

“Please Keru, don’t pretend you have a life, it’s just me. We will get to the next level in my stupid game. But, this is about something else.” Tarun walked into the room.

Keerthi tried to resent his mock condescension and his confidence that he knew her life down to the dot, and for the thousandth time, she failed. She chugged the last of her beer and entered the room.

A warm sea breeze lifted her hair and her bare feet sank into the white sand. The door closed behind her, she turned to find a pristine row of coconut trees swaying in the breeze. A dreamy sun was setting into a lulled ocean, like a tired bather entering a hot tub. The waves crashed into the white beach a little too rhythmically. Tarun stood at the edge of the water wearing only swim shorts and a smile.

Keerthi smiled at the beach for the serene cruelty of this unfulfilled dream. She wondered if she had gotten addicted to this, dreaming new dreams with Tarun in them and having them thwarted in new ways. Well, what was one more dream anyway? She walked to the edge of the water. She had magically changed into a long floral evening dress that trailed in the breeze behind her.

She reached the edge of the water, reluctant to enter it as if it would wet Tarun but not her. She could smell him in the wind, could see the sand and sea salt glisten on his bare chest. There are parts of our reality that are always a mirage, like this beach, like Tarun was to her if only she could accept that.

“So is this a new game? Is a ship going to dump a horde of aliens her any moment? You have forgotten to arm us.” She looked around for weapons.

“Not a bad idea..” Tarun rubbed the scruff on his chin, “but this is not a game. I was thinking of proposing to Seema here. Just wanted to know what you thought.”

Tarun’s face glowed warm and orange in the light of the perpetually setting sun. She could see their imagined future in his eyes.  She wondered if anyone has been so oblivious to life before. She looked down at the water and saw her own reflection shaking its head at the irony.

“I didn’t know an experience engine could be used this way…” Keerthi murmured, “ it’s a good idea, you should make a use case for the company.”

“Will you stop avoiding the issue. Do you think it is a good idea to propose to Seema here? Is this a romantic enough setting?” Tarun looked around his pristine beach, a few seagulls cawed in the distance, some dolphins gamboled in the clear waters. Tarun looked like a lost puppy, a hopelessly romantic lost puppy.

Keerthi swallowed and felt the salt on her tongue. Was she so pathetic in her hopeless romance too?

“It is a beautiful beach” she sighed, will Tarun ever realize that Seema was a true businesswoman? She didn’t have a single romantic bone in her carefully invested portfolio. “but given the fact that she has actually traveled to Earth and visited an actual beach, this might not do much for Seema.”

“Thought as much..” Tarun said his hair blowing in the ever-present wind, “let’s try something else.”

Tarun made a few gestures with his hands and the beach disappeared in a swirl of misty bright pixels.

The bright pixels settled around them and revealed a volcano in the background.

Keerthi jumped despite herself as the ground rumbled and the volcano erupted in an angry roar. Keerthi could feel the aftershocks of the eruption in the air as it caressed her skin. She understood the volcano, it was cathartic watching it erupt, all those passions suppressed for years on end finding release in one final destructive confession. If the volcano couldn’t have the sky she could at least throw her fury at it.

She turned around to find Tarun in a dark three-piece suit, she was wearing a matching evening dress. He was standing on an island of cooling lava, with a large table set on it, the table had champagne and chocolates and strawberries. Keerthi swooned and cringed. The volcano rumbled again in agony of its impossible love. The lava pulsed with heat and the table caught fire. Keerthi stared at it.

“It’s ok, that is supposed to happen. A symbol of our passionate love.” He pointed to all the fire, “ too dramatic?” He adjusted his tie around his quivering Adams Apple, “ Actually I can do this too…” he stepped into the lava, the fire slowly crept up his legs and caught his hair. He glowed an incubus of all her passions. She didn’t realize it for herself, but she could see it clearly in his eyes, this destructive oblivious passion, ready to devour everything with it. “Doesn’t it hurt?” She said

“Not a bit.” Tarun said as the last of his face caught on fire, “so what do you think about this one.”

Watching him burn she decided she had done it long enough, “I have been offered a new job. It’s in a different city.”

“Congrats, Keru! Is it a good city?” He smiled a lighted smile.

She had known him since kindergarten, they had never lived apart. The volcano rumbled in the background. She wondered how she couldn’t have noticed it till now.

She stepped into the lava, it began to creep up her legs, it flared on her dress, “you are right. It doesn’t hurt at all.” She was thankful for the fire that covered the tears on her face. “ I am sure it will be a good city, far away from here. But, honestly, this is a little too lit for my liking.”

“Ok, let’s try something else..” Tarun gestured again.

The volcano outside disappeared in a swirl of mist.

It was replaced by a curtain of northern lights that cascaded gently on the horizon, around a luminous full moon. They stood on the edge of a frozen lake, with fishes flitting in its frozen shadows and the northern lights reflecting on its surface. They stood in a grove of evergreen trees covered with a soft snow that drifted down at them in large snowflakes, like unspoken thoughts. Tarun wore a white suit, he looked like a single pure desire personified. A simulacrum of a dream that was never to be hers. The realization gathered on her like the snow on the shoulders of her white dress.

It had taken a simulation of her dreams for the realization to arrive, but now that it was here she couldn’t shake it.

Keerthi stared at the small fire burning in the hollow of a tree. A small table had been laid before it with the champagne and chocolates and strawberries. Keerthi felt nothing. The butterflies in her stomach were frozen. She sighed, “I think this is perfect Tarun. Seema would really love this.” She turned to face the northern lights, she had hoped she could be around when Seema finally left Tarun, she had hoped to pick up the pieces and put them together cause she had solved that puzzle so many times. Also because she couldn’t solve any other puzzle. She noticed the shadows of fishes flitting in the frozen lake. Maybe there was hope for more life. But if it was, it wasn’t here.

“All the best Tarun, and congratulations.” Keerthi sighed.

She walked to where she estimated the door would be. She turned back on last time, to watch Tarun.

Some dreams are best left behind closed eyes.

She closed her eyes and the door behind her.

[Image courtesy:]


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