Ruth stood in front of the art-room door, heart filled with apprehension.
Putting her fears aside, she pushed open the door quietly and surveyed the scene inside. Around five or six students were sitting on the floor on huge circular poufs of multiple colours. The ceiling was a forest of dream-catchers of all shapes, sizes and colours, from a sober white one to a more flamboyant rainbow-colored one.
A girl with a neon orange bandana in her raven-black hair was obsessively tearing scraps of paper into tiny bits. The boy sitting next to her was nervously chewing the tip of his pen, oblivious to the fact that it had leaked, and was now giving his teeth a bluish hue. His neighbor was a girl with a bored look in her startlingly green eyes, chewing gum with a monotonous motion. Next to her was George, an old friend of Ruth's, who was doodling on his notepad with a furious pace, one hand ruffling his curly brown hair. Adjacent to George was Anna, who was carefully watching the little stage that had been erected towards one end of the room, in the midst of a dozen mannequins wearing bits and pieces of clothing that identified them as Greek Gods - Zeus holding a thunderbolt, Hera with a peacock crown, Athena with an owl-shaped locket, and so on.
On the stage, a boy was posing in an extravagant gesture, one hand thrown up dramatically and the other one his hips, facing away from the audience. After a few seconds, he turned around and executed a formal bow, miming "Thank you!" with his lips.
Ruth gasped in shock when she saw his face.
When did Talmeer start modelling, she wondered.
As the applause came to a standstill, Talmeer looked up and saw Ruth.
"Hey Ruth! What is the Head Nerd doing in this neck of the woods?" he asked cheekily.
The others turned around and beheld Ruth with interest. Even the previously bored gum-chewing girl looked curious about the purpose of Ruth's visit.
Ruth wished that the floor would crack and swallow her as a whole. Anything was preferable to being gawked at by a dozen people.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, Ruth explained that Ms. Chaile had send her to be a member of the crew. A buzz of voices broke out immediately, criticizing Ms. Chaile irreverently, and questioning why she would impose an obviously uninterested Ruth on them to curb the flow of their creative juices.
Or at least, that was what Ruth expected would happen. Her ears started burning at the very prospect.
Instead of adding to her obvious embarrassment, the entire group welcomed her with open arms. The pen-chewing boy, who introduced himself as Pratik, pulled out a pouf for her. Anna stood up and welcomed her on behalf of the Greek Week committee.
"We meet during every break. By today, we'll hopefully wrap up the auditions and start taking measurements. We also have to start working on the details of the costumes, and we're staying back after school today to discuss that. If it's possible at such short notice, you can stay back. So that's that," Anna finished, slightly out of breath.
"Maybe you guys should all introduce yourselves, so that Ruth know your names at the very least," Talmeer suggested.
And that was exactly what they did. The room was soon flying with names, everyone speaking at once. They all laughed. For some reason, Ruth felt at ease with them, despite their obvious irreverence for what she termed the "cold truth."
Despite all the insults she had hurled at artists back in Ms. Chaile's office, she found herself settling in, shaking hands with Layla the paper tearer, Pratik the pen-sucker, and Aysha the gum-chewer. George high-fived her, and teased her about finally succumbing to what he described as "the magnetic pull of the arts."
As soon as they began discussing the Greek Week, Ruth realized that there was a major flaw in their organization. More like the lack of it, she thought to herself wryly.
All of them would start with the costume of Apollo, then someone would mention that they should use eco-friendly products only. Another person would argue that pollution was a fake conspiracy started by the KGB, which had apparently gone underground after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, to conquer the world. Someone else would disagree, saying that the false rumor of pollution had been started by aliens, led by the zombie Hitler. And they would rage against each other on and on, until the break bell rang and they would all return to their respective classes.
After surveying the scene for the first ten minutes, Ruth decided that it was time to take things into her own hands.
"Ahem," Ruth cleared a throat that was already uncluttered.
All the others looked at her expectantly.
"No offense, but you all need a little more focus. I love random debates, even if they're about theories as far-fetched as yours, but we have a job to do. I think we should restrict the topics of discussion to those concerning the Greek Week only," she suggested.
For one awful moment, Ruth thought that they were going to pooh-pooh her suggestion.
That was when Layla stood up, adjusted her bandana, and applauded her Ruth for her decisiveness.
"We all needed that," she said, momentarily abandoning her scraps of paper.
The others nodded in agreement, and for the second time, Ruth cringed inwardly at having misjudged their warm manner, even towards one who disagreed with all their principles.
Talmeer started a round of applause, not claps, but snaps. Almost as if it was a poetry reading.
With Ruth's level-headed common-sense and slightly brisk manner, they decided on the rough draft of the costumes of the twelve Olympians, including Hestia, Hades and Persephone as well.
Talmeer was disappointed when they excluded Hercules, but Anna gently cajoled him into accepting Apollo.
The auditions were also taken care of with unanimous agreement, except for Aphrodite, who was proving to be as fickle as her godly portfolio, Love. Layla, George and Anna wanted to have Mila, a slender, doe-eyed beauty with thick, straight honey-brown hair cascading all the way down to her waist, while Anna, Aysha and Pratik supported Rebecca, a short, fair girl with a smattering of freckles and huge brown eyes and wild curls that stopped at her shoulders. Ruth refrained from offering an opinion, remarking only on the curious fact that both the short-listees didn't have an extra pound on their frame. Finally, Anna's faction gave in, and allowed Layla and crew to have their way.
Just then, the warning bell sounded, indicating that the break would be over within five minutes. They all raised their coffee mugs and screamed "Slainte!", scaring the wits out of Ruth and Talmeer, who had never participated in an Art Team project before. After draining their mugs, they all stood up, exchanged hugs, and left the room in twos and threes.
Ruth was about to descend down the staircase, when she heard a boy's voice scream "Ruth, wait up!"
She turned around to see a panting George, his yellow-t shirt soaked in sweat.
"Long time, no see, huh? How've you been?" he asked, as he attempted to regain a normal breathing rate.
"I'm good Georgie. What about you?" Ruth replied with a smile, recalling the first time they had met, as kindergarteners.
Just then, Talmeer joined them, and with mock gallantry, offered George a handkerchief.
"I hope that my humble towel may be of service to you, Lady Georgie," he said bowing deeply.
George threw a playful punch directed at Talmeer shoulder, but the gallant knight was also extremely agile and quickly ducked, avoiding the blow.
"Penny for your thoughts, my lady?" Talmeer asked, turning to Ruth, who was regarding the duo with an amused expression.
"I just remembered the first time I met Georgie," she said.
George blushed self-consciously, one hand automatically pinching his ear, as he was wont to do when he felt embarrassed.
Talmeer laughed out loud, saying "You know Georgie, you've really changed since back then, when you were this chubby little boy who ruthlessly pushed me into a sandbox. Ah, the pain!"
George was obviously about to interrupt with profuse apologies, but Talmeer didn't give him a chance, as he continued, "I'll always be grateful to you Ruth, for lifting me up when I fell down, without even waiting to laugh. I always regretted not thanking you, but then again, that was mostly because you yourself pushed me down by the time I got out 'Than'."
It was now Ruth's turn to blush. Her ears turned bright pink, a shade almost identical to that of Aysha's gum. She rubbed her nose with her index finger, as she was wont to when she felt embarrassed.
"I'll say this for you Georgie, you've changed a lot. I think you've become nicer, and less of a push-me-into-sand kinda guy," Talmeer said.
"And I'll say this for you Tal, you've become less of the kind of the guy I'd wanna push into the sand, although that side of you does show up occasionally, like say, right now," Ruth said, without a pocker-face, although hints of a laugh betrayed themselves in her cheery eyes and in the twitching corners of her mouth.
"Well, Tal, I'm honored that you think of me like that. I guess I owe two great friends to your forgiving nature, and to my mother's forethought in packing extra chocolate milk," George said.
The three of them laughed at the memory of a repentant four-year-old Georgie, who on apologizing to Talmeer after the sand-box incident had found the latter extremely forgiving. It was only after the two boys and Ruth had sworn to be friends that Ruth extracted the pound of flesh from George.
"To seal our friendship, we must share a drink. I think you have extra chocolate milk George. If we all share it, our friendship will never break," Ruth had solemnly advocated.
Eager to please his new friends, George had done exactly that, carefully handing the extra juice cartons to Ruth and Talmeer.
"To friendship!" they had toasted, before downing their respective drinks and acquiring thick chocolatey moustaches.
"You were a regular little Portia even then, Ruth!" George exclaimed, grinning at the memory,
"What say we all descend down these stairs, my fellow musketeers? That is, only if you guys wish to make it in time for the next class," Talmeer said, glancing at his watch.
And so they climbed downstairs, reminiscing and laughing.
The three parted ways two fleets of stairs and a truckload of childhood memories later, Ruth and Talmeer to their Biology class, and George to his Math class.