Non Player Character is a work-in-progress but I wanted to share it while I work on the first draft. Please bear in mind that this is an unedited work, but hopefully you will still enjoy it!
Chapter Nine: Late Notice
The next afternoon, as I headed to the kitchen to make up some lunch, I found Saanvi pacing by the front door. Her hair was unusually frazzled, and she was dressed for work in a rumpled worksuit. ‘I know it’s late notice,’ she said into her phone. ‘But I really … no … no, I understand. Of course.’
She hung up and stared at her phone, shoulders slumping. She looked so … defeated. It was wrong — like we’d somehow fallen into an alternate universe. Because of course Saanvi must have bad days, but I’d never seen one. She was a single mother AND a tech manager, and every day she walked out the door in an ironed suit with a briefcase tucked under her arm.
But now she looked scruffy and frustrated and probably in need of help.
She hadn’t seen me yet. I could probably sneak back into my room and she’d have no idea that I had been there. Even if she did see me, it would hardly weigh on her. That was how this had worked for a couple years now — I contained myself to my room. We rarely crossed paths, and didn’t chat when we did. Maybe that was strange, but to me, it had always been a comfort. It was hard coming home after a day of customer service, even customer service on a script. Knowing that Saanvi wouldn’t ask for small talk from me made this house a refuge I didn’t think I’d get as a lodger anywhere else. And I got the feeling Saanvi was okay with the arrangement as well.
But though I swayed back on the stairs, ready to make my escape, I couldn’t quite bring myself to run. Saanvi had been good to me. And yeah, I mean, I paid for this quiet space in her house, but … you can’t live in someone’s house and not know them at least a little, no matter how hard you try.
And it’s hard not to care about the people you know.
‘Any –’ I cleared my throat as I came down the stairs. ‘Uh, anything I can help with?’
‘I’m fine,’ said Saanvi, but the creases in her suit said otherwise. For me, it would be nothing, but for Saanvi it was tantamount to a sign on her forehead that read ‘CRISIS’ in all caps.
Saanvi sighed. ‘Well — mostly fine. Well … ahh.’ She wrung her hands nervously — like actually wrung her hands, as if she was afraid of me.
Me. The girl who got a fight-or-flight response everytime I rang I doorbell.
I assumed an expression I hoped projected calmness. ‘What is it?’
Saanvi ran a hand through her hair. ‘I … I need to ask a favour. And you can say no! I can’t believe I’m even asking this …’
I raised my hands. ‘Saanvi. It’s fine. I’m not going to get offended. I asked to help, right?’ Somehow, Saanvi’s nerves were making me feel calmer. I knew how to deal with anxious people. I knew how un-intimidating we were.
Saanvi was still talking, ‘… it’s not even appropriate, you’re already paying to live here, I can’t just expect you to drop everything and help me, you’re my lodger not an au pair …’
Saanvi took a deep breath. ‘Something’s come up at work. Something urgent. And I hate to ask, but I don’t know who else — ahh.’ She pinched her brow between her fingers. ‘Would you be able to watch Riya for me for a few hours?’
A beat passed where all I could do was blink stupidly at her, as if she’d just flicked me on the nose or something. ‘That’s it? Yeah, I’ll watch Riya.’
Saanvi straightened. ‘You will? She can be difficult.’ She looked at me with concern, like she thought she was tricking me.
‘We get on okay, I think,’ I said, having no idea whether that was true. ‘And, I mean, I live here, Saanvi. I barely leave the house. I don’t mind if you want me to babysit sometimes. It’s not so far out of my way.’
‘I won’t ask again –’
‘It’s fine,’ I said.
Saanvi’s eyes filled with gratitude and she rushed into the lounge. ‘Riya! Tar’s gonna look after you for a few hours, okay?’
I could just hear Riya’s small voice reply with a very discouraging, ‘Who?’ before Saanvi was saying her goodbyes. She rushed out the door with a laptop case on her shoulder and a briefcase in her hand, calling ‘Thank you!’ as the door slammed shut behind her.
I walked into the lounge. Riya sat with her back against the sofa and a jigsaw splayed out before her. She had a piece in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.
‘Are you allowed to use scissors?’ I asked. That was a thing, right? That small kids shouldn’t have scissors? I had no idea at what age that became a thing.
Riya gazed at her solemnly. ‘Are you?’
I really had no answer to that. I walked toward the kitchen. ‘What do you want for lunch?’
‘Salad!’ Riya said decisively, snipping the edge off of one of her pieces.
‘You can have anything,’ I said, a little desperately.
Riya narrowed her eyes. ‘Salad.’
‘Okay.’ I nodded, then nodded again. ‘Right. Okay.’ I walked into the kitchen, then walked back out again. ‘Riya?’
‘What do you usually put in salad?’
Riya put aside her scissors with a sigh and walked past me into the kitchen. ‘Salad.’
Later, we sat in front of the TV watching Pippa Parrot, a surprisingly sarcastic show for kids. We each had a large salad bowl in our lap of mostly grapes with some loose bits of rocket, cucumber and carrot. ‘This salad is actually pretty good,’ I said, spearing a grape with my fork.
Riya nodded solemnly, her eyes never leaving the TV.
‘Do you have any video games, or …?’
Riya raised her eyebrows and I swear, I had no idea children as young as five (was she five?) could look so withering.
‘Sorry. You’re watching.’
After a few minutes, I asked, ‘So do they fall down laughing at the end of every episode, or were these just weird episodes?’
‘They always laugh. Sometimes they don’t fall over.’
When Saanvi came back, Riya was asleep on the sofa while I hate-shopped for jeans on my phone.
‘It went well?’
I looked at Riya, whose face was squished awkwardly on the arm of the sofa. ‘Yeah,’ I said, surprised by the truth of the words. ‘I’m happy to do it again sometime.’