Book: Journey Beneath the System
Story by Swapnil Saurav This time, it was Aarav who chuckled. “Did I say something funny?” Charvi asked innocently. “Faiyaz and Bhavin are right. You have grown a lot,” Aarav replied, turning off his lamp. Charvi thought for a second. “Hee… I guess I have. Good night,” she said, doing the same. And that’s how they ended their first day of their lives in Shyamavali. But they knew little about the difficulties of starting a new life in a city like Shyamavali, and they had no idea of the dangers that awaited to pose a threat in the path to fulfilling their dreams. However, the first warning would come soon. As they were closing their eyes, a deafening sound reached them through the windows and shook their hopes and hearts: the sound of a gunshot.

Chapter 1


            The sun was rising over the city of Shyamavali. The first train of the day noisily arrived at the station, scaring the birds who were sleeping on the nearby trees and sending them fluttering in all directions. The doors opened to make way for the first batch of the hundreds of people who came every day to work, run errands and visit this always-growing city.

            “Careful there!” a young, long-haired man said as the man next to him toppled over when getting off the train. It was nearly empty by now, and they were among the last disembarking. The second man stumbled and fell, almost bringing a third one down with him.

            “Hey, watch your step! Have you never got off a train before, Bhavin?” shouted the man after regaining his balance. Bhavin sprang up as if nothing had happened. “What are you talking about, Faiyaz?” he replied nonchalantly. A young woman who was standing a few meters ahead of them creased up with laughter.

            “What a great entrance to the big city!” she said between giggles. “You should have seen their faces, Aarav!” This time, she was talking to the long-haired man, who chuckled and stepped to the front with her. “I can imagine them. They’re always making messes and silly faces,” he replied.

“Excuse me?!” exclaimed Faiyaz. “I wasn’t the one who stepped out of the train with his MOUTH!” he finished in a mocking tone. Bhavin frowned. “Oh, don’t be so mean! And stop laughing, Charvi!” he yelled at the woman, and she stifled a laugh with her hand.

The chatter stopped when the group of friends reached the exit of the train station, and the city came into view. "Whoa…" one of them whispered. They were impressed by the size of the buildings and the change of ambience. Not only was it their first time in Shyamavali, but in a big city in general. It was a little… intimidating.

After a few seconds, Aarav broke the silence. “Well, here we are.” He began walking forward again. “It is just like our village, isn’t it?” said Faiyaz, moving on as well. The other two followed, admiring their surroundings. “This is it,” sentenced Bhavin boldly. “This is where we will become big. We’ll achieve our dreams here for sure.” Charvi smiled. Her eyes were gleaming with enthusiasm. "I hope so," she replied.

They walked together through an avenue until reaching a big square with some important-looking structures: a white, modern bank, a huge real estate agency, and a government office building, among others. It seemed like they were near the centre of the city, but none of those places was open to the public that early in the morning.

“So… What do we do now?” Aarav asked. Faiyaz looked at Bhavin. “Didn’t your uncle… The uncle of your neighbour… Someone’s uncle… rent a place for us?” he began. Bhavin glared at him. “My aunt’s neighbour’s best friend! How difficult is it to remember?” Faiyaz rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right. Super easy.” “And she booked a hotel room! So I had someplace to arrive when…" Bhavin left the sentence there and blinked as if he had lost the idea.

“By ‘I’, I suppose you meant ‘we’,” corrected Aarav. Bhavin didn’t pay attention to him. Instead, he began rummaging through his pockets. Some seconds later, he lifted his face with a frown. Faiyaz opened his mouth to ask: “What are you—” “Shh,” was the reply. Faiyaz was about to complain when Charvi intervened.

“I bet he’s looking for this,” she said, lifting a piece of paper to the front. Bhavin opened his eyes in surprise and pointed at it. “Ah! That’s it!” he yelled. “It’s the address of the hotel where we’re staying tonight, along with directions,” Charvi explained to the other two. “He gave it to me before we got on the train because he thought he might forget where it was.” She shrugged with a smile on her face.

Bhavin extended his arm to take the piece of paper, but Aarav grabbed it first. “Hey!” Bhavin complained. “It says here that the hotel is down that street,” Aarav said after taking a look at the paper and another one around the square. “She chose a place close to the train station to ensure he’d be able to make it.”

He immediately began walking towards the street he had just mentioned, completely ignoring Bhavin’s efforts to recover his letter. “Haha, they really know him,” Faiyaz said, going after Aarav. “What do you mean by that?” Bhavin asked. Charvi patted his head. “Come on, Bhavin, everyone knows you’re rather… distracted,” she said.

The group soon reached the small hotel that did not look impressive at all in front of the other buildings, yet was still pretty nice compared to the average inn in their humble hometown. Bhavin’s -let’s call her ‘acquaintance’- had been kind enough to pay for three nights including the one before their arrival, knowing they would arrive before check-out time, and the last one to give them a little more time to find a place to rent.

Once in their room, Charvi handed some sandwiches around for breakfast, which were received with enthusiasm after setting their bags on the floor, and then they all sat down on the beds to rest. “Alright, people,” Bhavin said after a while, “let’s go.” “Where?” Faiyaz asked. “Time to make plans,” declared Aarav from his resting spot.

“Well,” Charvi said slowly, “we all have different places to go to. Aarav and Faiyaz should visit the Arts Institute since they're both artists… They surely can find connections there with both music and acting.” Aarav nodded in agreement. “I have to check out the football club ASAP! Oh, they’ll be so impressed with my natural talent,” stated Bhavin. “And you have to go somewhere to get information about castings too, right, Charvi?” asked Faiyaz.

Charvi nodded. “Yes. But I’m sure everyone agrees that we need to figure out where we’ll be staying first. Last week, I contacted a few people who are renting flats in different parts of Shyamavali, and there are two or three places we can see today. Who’s coming?” She stared at her three companions expectantly.

Bhavin made a dismissive gesture. “You can take care of that. I don’t mind as long as the place has enough beds for everyone,” he said. “I think we should all go. It’s an important decision,” replied Aarav. “I agree with you,” said Faiyaz. “We’re still getting to know the city, so it’s better that we stick together.”

They all directed their attention towards Bhavin until he grumbled, “Fine, fine. If you care so much, I’ll go. I know you can’t do anything without me.” His reply elicited a couple of snorts from Aarav and Faiyaz, but Charvi grinned and said, “Thank you!” happily. They changed clothes, got everything ready and left.

Even though the first place was far from the hotel, it was easy for them to reach it using public transport. They were still surprised by the size of the city, naturally, but they used the map on their phones to reach the bus station and take the right one. The owners of the flat, a young couple, received them warmly.

“Welcome to Shyamavali!” they greeted the group. “Thank you,” replied Aarav as they entered the flat. The couple showed them around the place: three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a big living room with dining area. They spent a while checking everything. “This place is beautiful!” exclaimed Charvi. “Yes,” replied the other woman. “We are renting it because we are moving to another flat that matches our lifestyle better,” her husband added. “We don’t really need three rooms right now.” “I see. And the price?” asked Faiyaz.

Back to the bus stop. “We should’ve asked that first,” said Bhavin. “Yeah,” said Aarav. A moment of silence. “So what now?” asked Faiyaz. “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry,” said Bhavin. “Well, let’s have lunch first. It took us a long time to get here. Then we can make plans for the afternoon,” said Charvi. Aarav pointed at a small restaurant that was on a nearby corner. “There.” It didn’t look expensive, so they went.

“Alright, so we’ve got two more places to visit. I already confirmed with the landlords,” said Charvi after they had eaten. “Why don’t we split? This ‘moving around the city’ thing doesn’t seem that hard,” said Faiyaz. "Bad idea," disagreed Aarav. "Bah, we've lost too much time today. Let us split too," said Bhavin, who was impatient to finish with that business so he could go play football somewhere.

Charvi sighed. “Okay then, you two go together to one place, and I’ll go with Aarav to the other one. Then we can discuss the options at the hotel,” she decided. “What?! Why do I have to stick with him?” Faiyaz complained. “Because you’re the ones in a hurry,” replied Aarav. “Let’s go.”

So Charvi sent the information to Bhavin’s phone, and they went on their way. For Charvi and Aarav, everything was perfect. They had to walk a little and take a different bus, but it was easy following the map. The flat they saw this time was smaller, but a lot more affordable, and the old woman who owned it kindly explained how to rearrange the place to fit all four of them comfortably.

On the way back, they stopped by a grocery store to get enough supplies for their remaining time at the hotel. “I’m sure those two don’t even know how to buy food,” Charvi said. “Are you sure they’ll be okay on their own?” asked Aarav. “Well, they have to learn at some point, don’t they?” replied Charvi. “After all, we’re all new at this.”

The two friends arrived at the hotel and started organising their things. “Let me give them a call to check on them,” said Charvi, and dialled Bhavin’s number on her cell phone. No response. “Hmm?” she wondered. “I think he ran out of battery… Faiyaz doesn't have a cell phone, so I guess we'll have to wait for them to arrive." And that was what they did.

For Bhavin and Faiyaz, things had not gone so smoothly. They got lost on the way and ended up hailing a cab to the address Charvi had given them, only to be received by a grumpy man with a run-down, messy flat that they couldn't understand how it was even being inhabited. By the time the hotel room door opened, it was almost evening, and Faiyaz stomped in tired, hungry and annoyed.

“Hey. What happened?” asked Aarav. “Where’s Bhavin?” inquired Charvi. “That fool? He said I could do whatever I wanted, but he was going somewhere and went off on his own,” Faiyaz replied. “Are you guys mad? We had a plan! It’s our first day here! What if he can’t make it back here?!” the worried girl scolded him. “Hey, he’s not a child anymore. I can’t force him to do stuff. He’s got to handle himself,” he grunted.

They decided to change the topic and talk about the flats since there was nothing else they could do regarding Bhavin’s situation. Considering both experiences, they all agreed to go with the option Charvi and Aarav had seen. Soon the sky fell dark, and they began to feel worried about their friend.

“I wonder if Bhavin’s alright…” whispered Charvi, looking out the window. “Uh, maybe I shouldn’t have let him wander off,” Faiyaz admitted. Aarav crossed his arms. “He’s fine,” he sentenced. “How do you know? You were the one who asked me if it was okay to let them go!” Charvi cried out. Aarav simply shrugged. “He’s very stubborn, so he’ll survive,” he said.

At that moment, they heard a knock on the door. Charvi made a little sound of surprise and ran to open it. “Hey there, fellas!” It was Bhavin. “Did you miss me?” Charvi’s response was a smack on the chest with her open hand. “Ow!” he yelped. “Don’t you ever think about others? We were worried!” she expressed angrily. “Eh, she was,” said Faiyaz pointing at her. “You were too,” said Aarav with a smirk.

"Oh, hey, I'm sorry!" replied Bhavin, raising his arms in a sign of peace. "But look, I found this awesome football league, and I was recruited right away! I mean, I still have to go to the selection tests, but I’m already into the team,” he declared firmly. “Mhm, I’m sure you are,” replied Faiyaz sarcastically.

“That’s all he cares about,” said Aarav, and searched the grocery bags for something to eat for dinner. Charvi gave up on her scolding, and they all ate together, sharing their thoughts on that day. “Whew, I’m exhausted,” said Faiyaz finally. “Time to sleep,” replied Aarav, getting comfortable on his bed. Everyone changed clothes and lay down as well.

“Oh, I still can’t believe we’re finally here!” squealed Charvi, excited. Faiyaz laughed. “You look so enthusiastic, Charvi. It's good to see you like this." "Yeah, you used to be so shy when you were a child," Bhavin added. "I thought you'd be nervous about coming, you know, being so far away from home and surrounded by new people and—"

He was silenced by a pillow thrown straight to his face. Aarav -the culprit- justified himself in his usual deep, calm voice. “Don’t ruin her mood.” Charvi smiled. “It’s okay. I’m a bit nervous too, but don’t we all feel like that? This is a huge change in our lives. We’re going to have challenges, of course. But we have to be brave to follow our dreams,” she said.

This time, it was Aarav who chuckled. “Did I say something funny?” Charvi asked innocently. “Faiyaz and Bhavin are right. You have grown a lot,” Aarav replied, turning off his lamp. Charvi thought for a second. “Hee… I guess I have. Good night,” she said, doing the same.

And that’s how they ended the first day of the rest of their lives. But they knew little about the difficulties of starting a new life in a city like Shyamavali, and they had no idea of the dangers that awaited to pose a threat in the path to fulfilling their dreams. However, the first warning would come soon. As they were closing their eyes, a deafening sound reached them through the windows and shook their hopes and hearts: the sound of a gunshot.

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