The bus traveled through the lush greenery of the mountainside and came to a halt in a clearing. Vishal, the tour organizer jumped out, a whistle hanging by a chain in his neck.
“Welcome to base camp, guys”, he said, as Smriti and the girls got down from the bus. “It’s 7.30 am. A beautiful morning. We’ll have a light breakfast, and then start the trek at 8 am sharp. We will break for lunch near the lake. We have to reach our destination by 4 in the afternoon. Then we will return by bus.”
Smriti, Karen, and Shaina were looking at Vishal.
“Do you think he’s hot?” Karen whispered in Smriti’s ears.
“Maybe. Whatever” said Smriti. “Come, let’s take a selfie.”
Karen took out her phone and held it high up in her hand, while Shaina made a ‘V’ with her fingers and Smriti enlarged her eyes like an owl.
“Girls!” said Vishal, clapping his hands for attention. “Girls at the back there. We will get plenty of time for selfies. I would request you to pay attention to the safety instructions I am giving.”
“He may be hot, but he’s definitely not cool” muttered Karen, as she put down her phone.
Smriti giggled all through the safety instructions.
“Also,” continued Vishal. “We have one more group of trekkers joining us. They were not able to make the early morning bus, and they are coming straight to base camp. Oh, here comes their bus.”
Smriti looked on as people got down from the bus. As she saw a girl with a pair of geeky glasses and baggy jeans get down from the bus, her jaw dropped. She turned around quickly and hid behind Shaina.
“What are you doing?” asked Shaina.
“Oh God. Shit,” said Smriti.
“What’s wrong? Is your ex on that bus?” asked Karen.
“No. It’s my sister” muttered Smriti, trying to hide her face.
“Really? Which one?”
“The one with the geeky glasses.”
“Oh, that one?” said Shaina, pointing to the girl.
The girl chose the exact moment to look at Shaina. She stared at Shaina with her brows furrowed and then started walking towards her.
“She’s coming, she’s coming,” she whispered.
“Smriti?” asked the girl.
Smriti looked up from behind Shaina’s back, with a sheepish smile.
“Girls,” said Smriti, addressing Karen and Shaina. “This is my sister, Akriti. She is in 12th standard.”
“Hey Akriti,” said Shaina. Karen waved at her.
Akriti ignored both of them.
“What are you doing here?” she asked Smriti.
“What am I doing here?” Smriti asked. “What are you doing here?”
“I am on a trek,” said Akriti, waving her hands at the surroundings.
“Yeah, good,” said Smriti. “Go back home, else I am going to tell mom you bunked your classes.”
“Sure. Then she’ll ask you where you are. Good luck answering that one.”
“Shh, girls. Come on, we need to go” said Shaina, pointing to the rest of the group which had already started moving.
Karen and Smriti started walking with Shaina. As Akriti followed, Smriti turned around, and said, “Don’t follow me.”
“Not interested,” said Akriti, as she walked past the three girls with quick steps.
Smriti smirked at her friends, and they started their trek. Vishal was giving everyone a running commentary on everything they saw.
“That waterfall you see there,” he said pointing to a far-off place. “That is actually pretty big. Once the rainy season starts, there is going to be so much water, you won’t be able to stand where you are standing right now.”
Karen and Smriti raised their eyebrows at each other. Smriti took a water bottle from her backpack, and was about to drink when she heard a voice, “Does mom know you are not at your friend’s house?”
“That is none of your business,” said Smriti, gulping down her water.
Akriti made a face and turned to go. “Have you come alone?” Smriti asked her.
“Yes,” Akriti said, without turning back.
“Why? None of your nerdy friends would come with you?”
Akriti stopped in her tracks. She turned around, came near Smriti, gave her a small smile, and gave a harsh tap to the bottle in Smriti’s hand. The water sloshed onto Smriti’s face, and she yelled in surprise.
“You just wait” she screamed. “I am definitely going to tell mom now.”
Akriti walked back calmly, ignoring Smriti completely.
Huffing and puffing, they continued the trek. Smriti always had one eye on her sister climbing ahead of her. She noticed that Akriti’s shoelaces were loose.
“Akku,” she called out to her. “Tie your shoelaces.”
Akriti looked back, her face contorted with anger. “Don’t call me Akku” she yelled back.
“Ok, have a nice fall then” muttered Smriti, as Akriti continued her trek alone, without looking back.
“Why do you hate her?” asked Karen.
“I don’t hate her. She is my little sister,” said Akriti. “It’s just that we are total opposites of each other.”
“Have you always been eating each other’s heads off like this?”
“No,” said Smriti, looking away. “She used to be this cute little girl who used to come running to me for every little thing. Then she grew up, became smart, was always the class topper, always mom and dad’s favorite. Somewhere along the way she realized that I am not as smart as she is and that she doesn’t need me anymore.”
“Um hmm,” said Shaina, listening intently.
“She has all those studious friends, you know,” Smriti continued. “They come home and ask me what I do. When I tell them I go for painting classes, they have those stupid sympathetic smiles on their faces.”
“So it’s her friends you hate, and not her” offered Karen.
“Maybe,” said Smriti, giving a shrug. “But she irritates me just the same.”
At that precise moment, the group turned a corner and they got a breath-taking view of a lake nestled in the midst of mountains.
“Oh wow,” said Shaina. “That is so amazing.”
Smriti saw Akriti looking at her. As soon as Smriti looked, she looked away.
“Everyone,” said Vishal, blowing his whistle for everyone to gather. “We will break here for lunch. The rest of the trek will continue post lunch.”
Smriti, Shaina, and Karen found a large tree with a cooling shade. They sat on the high outstretched roots and opened their bags. Smriti looked around for Akriti. She saw her sitting alone by the lake, munching on some biscuits. She went to her and stood beside her.
“Didn’t you bring any lunch?” she asked.
Akriti looked up, her glasses glinting in the sun. “No,” she said.
“Come. We have sandwiches and juice.”
“No, it’s ok.”
“Come”, said Smriti, dragging her by her arm.
She dragged her to where Shaina and Karen were sitting, and made her sit next to herself.
“Here,” she said, handing her a sandwich. “It’s corn and spinach. I know you don’t like it – ”
“It’s ok,” said Akriti, taking the sandwich from her.
“So Akriti,” said Karen. “How come you are on this trek alone?”
“I have my exams in a week, and the pressure became too much,” said Akriti, munching her sandwich. “So I got up in the morning and just took off.”
“Are you dumb?” said Smriti. “Mom is going to be so worried about you.”
“I told her I had extra classes and stuff. She bought it.”
“Smriti,” said Shaina, shaking her head. “She is totally your sister.”
Smriti gave small smile.
“Hey, why don’t you join us for the rest of the trek?” asked Karen.
Akriti fell silent. She looked at Smriti. “Would that be okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” said Smriti. “Instead of roaming on your own, stay with us.”
Their conversation was broken by the shrill sound of the whistle.
“There he goes again,” muttered Karen.
“Everybody,” said Vishal. “I hope you have finished your lunch. Let’s get going.”
As they continued the trek, Akriti was with them. She and Karen were continuously chatting about something or the other. Smriti had one ear open to their conversation. She was surprised that Akriti was mixing up with her friends.
They reached an open plain with a wall of stone in front of them. As Smriti’s eyes scanned the length of the wall, she saw that the top disappeared behind the clouds.
“Whoa,” she said. “That looks awesome.”
“Guys,” said Vishal. “This is the last and most difficult part of the trek. We will be climbing up this wall with the help of a rope ladder.”
A collective “ooh” resounded in the group.
“It’s a voluntary part,” he continued. “If somebody doesn’t want to go, they can wait here. We will be back within an hour.”
Vishal started preparing his equipment. The girls kept their backpacks on the ground and stood to chat.
When Karen and Shaina were busy talking to each other, Smriti went to Akriti and said, “I always thought you didn’t like my friends.”
“Because we are not academic scholars like you.”
“Seriously?” asked Akriti. “I always thought you guys didn’t like me because I was not cool and fashionable.”
“What?” asked Smriti. “That is so silly.”
“No, it’s not,” said Akriti. “You always go out with your friends, and you never let me come with you. So I thought – ”
“That is because you always have some test or assignment or something that keeps you busy. You never have time.”
Their chat was broken again by Vishal’s whistle. He called out to everyone, “We are ready for the climb.” Some of the boys in the group volunteered to go.
“Come on,” said Smriti to the girls, picking up her backpack. “Let’s go.”
“Me?” asked Shaina. “I am not going. I am too tired.”
“I am not going either,” said Karen. “It’s too scary.”
“Dude, I won’t go up there alone,” said Smriti. “And I really want to go.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Akriti, meekly. “If you want.”
“You will? Really?” asked Smriti.
“Ok then. Come on.”
A few minutes later, Smriti and Akriti were hanging by the rope in the middle of nowhere, one below the other.
“Oh my God, this is tough,” said Smriti.
“Yeah, my arms are aching” replied Akriti.
“Be careful. Hold on tightly” Smriti told her sister.
Slowly, steadily, the group climbed the rope ladder up the stone wall, with Vishal in the lead. When he reached the top, he gave another whistle.
“Come on guys,” he yelled, clapping his hands. “You can do it.”
Smriti climbed up to the flat top and turned around to help Akriti. She held her hand and pulled her up with herself. Akriti bent down to gain her balance. When she looked up, her mouth fell open in astonishment. The view from the top was breath-taking. They were on the highest peak in all of the surrounding mountains. They could see clouds floating at their eye level. There was a waterfall rushing out from the opposite mountain. Multi-colored flowers which they had never seen before adorned the edge of the cliff they were standing on.
“Deeda, this is so beautiful,” said Akriti.
Smriti looked at her in surprise. Akriti had not called her ‘Deeda’ in many many years. She smiled. “Yes, kiddo,” she said. “This is super beautiful.”
“I am so glad we came up here.”
“I know, right?”
They heard Vishal’s whistle again, and they burst into peals of laughter.
“It is said,” said Vishal “that when you look down from a mountaintop, many things that you constantly bicker about in life seem insignificant. When you look down from a mountaintop together, you become best friends.” He clapped his hands together and gave another whistle. “Time to start the descent,” he said.
Akriti smiled and hugged her sister. “We are best friends, right, Deeda?”
“You bet we are.”
The group started their climb down the rope ladder and came to where the rest of the group was waiting.
“So,” asked Shaina. “How was it up there?”
“It was amazing,” said Smriti. “You should have come, you know.”
“Yeah,” said Karen, giving a shrug. “Whatever.”
Vishal’s whistle sounded again.
“Guys,” he yelled. “Gather around. Here is tea for everyone.”
“Oooh,” said Shaina, clapping her hands. “I love this.”
The entire group gathered in a circle and enjoyed their tea. They chatted about their trek, about the beauty of the mountains and made fun of each other. When everybody had finished their tea, Vishal stood up with his whistle again.
“Ok guys,” he said. “I hope you all had a great trek. I had a great time with you all, too. It is now time to start our return journey. Buses are waiting for us near the lake.”
Everybody in the group started getting up and gathering their belongings.
“Come on, kiddo,” said Smriti. “Let’s go home.”
She put her arm around Akriti’s shoulder, and they walked down the mountain.