Despite the jacket, it’s cold.
Sitting in front of the ground-level windows, legs crossed and arms folded, they try to vanish into the cracks of the dry cement wall that prop them up. They are a marionette made of chewed wires, anxiety gnawing like ants, and the queasiness that ebbs and flows like an aching tide.
Sunlight burns from above. They don’t feel any of it.
They count their pens and pencils. Led-smeared fingertips against the bruised dents, the crawl of bile in their throat and nostrils, the equations and words that rumble like an unsteady freight train through the creases of their skull. Every sense is an amplified mess of noise and static, colour, air and light. It is pain, clarity and agony, all at once.
Then they think—
What— What paper was it?
Pressure doubles within the cage of throbbing ribs. Their breath is the flame of a candle extinguished by heavy palms cupping down on either side, lowered in a soft, slow exhalation that may have been either the start of a sob or a gasp. The sides of their belly ache with stress, muscles stiff and fragile all at once, like the cooling wings of a baby bird long since fallen from its perch.
Never enough for anyone to ever notice— practice made perfect.
What is— inhale, exhale— the paper.
They know this, you know this–
Their notes are a lifeline. Their assigned seat number is scrawled in large, clear script at the top. The rest of the script is small and cramped— condensed and meticulous as the rest of them. Breath dry, throat swollen, they murmur each line under their breath. Speaking it to existence is the same as slashing a blunt sword through an enemy of mist— inflating within that sense of purpose, but useless in the end.
People move around them. They barely notice. Nothing exists outside of themselves and the desperation that pumps as surely as frantic blood within tangled veins. It is as hot as the burn of ice. Cold, cold, the most pitiful fear that paralyses every fibre of their being, with every passing beat of a heart that has long since forgotten its familiar rhythm.
They do know when the hall doors open, though.
Of that, they can’t afford to be ignorant.
Stepping into the exam hall is a plunge— a step into the deep end of the metaphorical pool, no holds barred, no hesitation, because the ceaseless thrum of time and the reality of the choice being taken out of their hands is truthfully the only thing that keeps the momentum going. There is no amount of begging or pleading or deliberating or procrastinating that can change what it is; in this way, they know there is no amount of time that they will ever be satiated with before they think they are truly ready.
To their seats they walk, and they wonder if this is how it felt to walk on water amongst the frightful storm. There is an unnatural lightness to every thought that worsens with each step. Their fingers spasm and twitch twice, thrice against the coarse fabric of their jackets, and the itch is almost welcoming against the static that crackles within their heads.
The pallor of their face feels almost sickly.
And when they sit at their assigned desk, when their battered fingers unthinkingly trace the pasted numbers of the paper slip, their eyes are fixed on the clock that hangs in the far front of the exam hall. Already they fear the incessant ticking – the metal, thick breath of an executioner – its plastic face scratched with miniscule numbers that blur iridescent in the harsh clinical lights.
The paper is set down before them. They can’t meet the examiner’s eyes.
Fear is kindling that sets alight.
At the very first page, they disconnect. Every scrap of emotion – distant as it were – is locked away in a box buried deep beneath the earth. It’s a pitiful means of protection, before the terror will come bubbling up, the fear that turns their breath to fog and rendered them as inconsequential as smoke drifting in the breeze.
Their head still ached.
But they can’t afford to stay in that state.
Clawing back is a momentous task. And so they drift, their senses still as empty as clouds right after a thunderstorm.
The click of a pen, the scratch of chalk, the crumple of a loose paper— flooding noises that added more excruciating strain to their senses in perception. The flick of a page; a singular page that cost their entire life. A page that determined their future.
A page that was the beginning of a never-ending number of sheets that followed.
What am I doing? What… what is any of this?
The questions piled in, one ebbed from their thought process, and the other— from the clipped pieces of paper. A miracle, it was that their hearts continued to beat. They continued to beat with sharp jolts and continuous jabbing. An incoming heartache was yet to prevail in the midst of the ticking clock. Strangled whispers echoed throughout the wide hall; a hushed chaos calling for a plea to break free from its nightmarish cage.
Their fingers curl around the pen, and so they write.
They write until their hands cramp. They forget themselves and the lines on the exam papers are filled with more scratched out words than letters. They write through the currents of agonised deliberation and doubt, second-guessing every action until the certainty that the time that remained uncaring for their progress forces them to move onto the next question. And then the next.
All they know is that they can’t stop.
The endless throbbing eventually ceased, the whispers dulling to a singular breath. The tension palpable in the sweeping sea of students. A silent promise that everyone will get through this final battle of knowledge.
It was a bittersweet promise of what could be that mocked them as they gripped the ends of their pens; fingers stained with an intoxicating hue similar to that of a bruise. An emotion and sight that would continue to latch on to their memories, gnawing at their senses for the rest of their life.
Was that really what they wanted? Was that really what they hoped for? After all the torturous hours of studying— hours they spent up at night wailing and praying for a better and honest future. Was it all worth it in the end?
Was all the effort worth their current state now?
A flicker— a shift in energy. With a shaky breath, they loosen their crushing grip on their gel-filled pens. All of their energy spent on a paper that determined their entire future— it was not worth the pain. There was more to life than this. There had to be.
With a silent nod of reassurance, they wrote once again with a softened flick of their wrist, as though an overwhelming weight had been lifted off their shoulders. The minutes ticked by, but they did not give up.
Not when their heart thumped with a newfound passion and determination to push through the pages that once taunted them. Each second mattered to them; each second proved to them that they were capable. Shifting in their seats, their eyes darted between the ticking clock and their filled exam paper— gradual smiles quirking up their lips as the countdown began. They were going to prove to themselves that all their hard work paid off in the end.
With one final scribble, time was finally up. Handing their papers over to the invigilator, a rush of exhaustion washed over them. Despite the probing fatigue, a mix of relief found its way in the big puddle of sensations they were trying to wrap their head around.
They strode through the big doors of the exam hall, their steps feeling lighter, freer, and filled with a certain joie de vivre. They knew as much that the results of their paper would not be released anytime soon, but that did not matter. Everything they did to get to this point could wait for a little longer. As long as they knew that they tried their best.
Walking through the student-filled corridors, a soft breath of relief escaped their lips, lifting the heavy air that had once permeated the atmosphere. Everything they felt now was of pure appreciation for the little things in life. The sunlight streaming through the tinted windows, the field outside filled with an orchard of bejewelled flora; even the way the leaves rustled in the honeyed tunes of the wind.
They were free. At least for now.
While their minds initially scrambled for words to describe the flurry of emotions they were feeling, a simple shake of their head dismissed this from their minds. This was something they didn’t need to bother themselves with for the time being. Gone was the bitter cold and then came sweet relief. Fixing their jackets, they now felt warmer. The sunlight that once might have burned them glistened against their skin with delicate warmth.
No more were they a marionette to their own anxieties, but rather the puppeteer of their future decisions.
Written by: Trishta & Lavanya