F.R.I.E.N.D.S.

16 They had been together through high school and most of college too. The senior year brought Grad School applications, job applications, career contemplation, new directions...a new leaf turned over in the book of life. The graduation party was the last time they had actually been together. They did call and facebook each other but with the passing of weeks, the calls and mails got sparser until they were completely off each other's radars. Bffl...best friends for life; they had had t-shirts made with these words printed on them. It felt like a whole different era...

…........................................................................................................................................................

“Madam, we have landed. Your limousine is waiting outside. Ready when you are.” her chauffeur broke her reverie.

“Thank you, Steven. I will be out in a moment.” Rhein replied with a smile.

“Why is she here? She's supposed to be taking refuge in her private island.” Steven thought as he walked to the door.

Rhein Napolean was a diva. Her face graced the covers of Vogue, Elle, Maxime, Cosmo and such. Admitted, she had entered the music industry quite late for the conventional artist but her voice had caused an international sensation with her very first song. Five years down the line, she had won millions of fans, scores of accolades and considerable influence. That was not enough though. The top was a lonely place and Rhein was scared of being alone; she had learnt the hard way that happiness was ephemeral.

It had been too easy. She got the best private investigator money could buy. She gave her names, old pictures and whatever information she had. A month-and-a-half later, the investigator showed up with three folders and handed them to Rhein. Later that evening, Rhein perused the contents of the folders. Once done with that, she called up her agent and arranged everything.

“We are here, madam.” Steven's voice spoke through the limo intercom.

“Oh, already?” Rhein sounded nervous.

“Yes, madam...umm...are you sure you don't want to go to your hotel and rest? Maybe put off...things till tomorrow?” Steven offered.

“No, I am well-rested. I have to do this now.” And Rhein stepped out of her limo.

She looked up at the giant building, resplendant in the superfluous flow of electricity and its own magnificence. Beautiful ole Paree. Her heart thumping in her ears, she walked in, nodding absently at the doormen. As if in a trance, she navigated through the lobby to the elevator and pressed the button. Her breathing grew unsteady as the elevator climbed higher. By the time it stopped at the penthouse, her breath had stopped altogether. Taking slow, shaky steps, she approached the door, forced her lungs to take a deep breath and rang. The seconds ticked painfully slow and then finally a voice asked, “Qui est-ce?”

“Je...je suis...Yvvie?” Rhein stuttered.

The silence that followed was extremely tensed. The door opened slowly. Yvette Melas stared at Rhein, her eyes in danger of falling off their sockets. Rhein tried to smile but seemed to have forgotten how. They stood there gaping at each other.

“Are you okay there, love?” A deep English voice startled them both.

“Ye...yes. It's just an old friend.” Yvette tried to sound breezy and then added in an underbreath, “A very old friend.”

“Are you going to keep her standing out there then?” laughed the voice.

“Oh yes.” Yvette seemed to snap out of her shock. “Come in, Rhein.”

Rhein walked into the beautiful, elegant living room. Purple walls. Rhein smiled. Her eyes roved the mahogany upholstery, tasteful furniture, ornate crystal vases and the huge picture over the fireplace. Her heart winced as she saw Yvette and her husband in their wedding attire - holding each other and smiling, looking at complete peace with the entire cosmos. 

“Sorry I missed your wedding.” Rhein spoke. “Well, not really. I mean, it's hard to miss an event covered by major t.v. stations and papers.” She giggled nervously.

“Yeah.” Yvette said, sounding distant.

“So...how's life? How does it feel being the editor-in-chief of one of the best culinary magazines in the country?” Rhein was struggling to keep her voice normal.

“I have been blessed.” Yvette shrugged.

“I wish I had realized that in time.” Rhein could not meet her eyes.

“Hello, there.” A tall man with small eyes walked and stood next to Yvette, looking at her expectantly.

“Rhein, this is my husband, Conan. Conan, this is..”

“Ms. Rhein Napolean. Who doesn't know her?” Conan smiled. “It's a pleasure to meet you. Yvette never told me you were acquainted.”

“Oh yes. We went to the same school.” Rhein answered politely. Yvette raised her eyebrow.

“Well, then you must have a lot of catching up to do. I will leave you ladies to that. I have to get going. It was nice meeting you, Ms. Napolean. Do stay for supper. And Yvette, I hope you are not planning on keeping your friend standing the whole day.” With that, Conan left.

“He seems nice.” Rhein smiled sadly.

“Yeah. Part-British, part-Korean. Fabulous voice. What more can a girl want?” Yvette shrugged.

Suddenly, they were laughing. Hysterically. Rhein could not remember laughing like that in a long time.

“I've missed you so much, Riri.” Yvette expressed sadly.

“I'm sorry. I don't know what happened.” Rhein tried to explain.

“I think we once read in some sappy love novel that love means never having to say you are sorry.” Yvette smiled. 

“Mommy!” A beautiful little girl with curly pigtails and bangs ran in and jumped onto Yvette's lap.

“Ember! You are supposed to be taking a nap.” Yvette wagged her forefinger.

“But I am not sleepy, mommy.”

“All right. All right. Here, this is Mommy's friend. What do we say?”

“Nice to meet you.” Ember held out her tiny hand.

“Nice to meet you too, princess.” Rhein shook her warm hand gently. “Yvette, she's gorgeous. How old is she?”

“She turned six last week. How old are yours? I see them occasionally in magazines. Blake and Bianca, no?” Yvette asked.

“Yes. Bianca's thirteen. Blake's ten.” Rhein answered. “So, how's Paris suiting you, Yvvie?”

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Rhein was convinced there were butterflies in her stomach as she walked up to the stately Swiss cottage. Taking a deep breath, she rang. The door was shortly opened by a dark blonde boy with kind, brown eyes. 

“Yes?” His eyes gave away the surprise his voice concealed so well.

“I am here to see Adele Paten. I am an old friend.” Rhein said politely.

“Of course. Come in. She's right here.” the boy held the door open.

“Who is it, Zack?” Adele started getting up. Her face froze as she saw Rhein. Dr. Adele Paten had witnessed quite a few tragedies in the hospital but none had left a mark as deep as this is her heart. “Zack, you may leave for your basketball practice.”

He picked his sports bag off the floor and smiled at Rhein, “Nice to meet you.” As he left,the door shut behind him, leaving an ugly silence in his wake.

“Your son is very sweet. You seem to have done well by him.” Rhein spoke awkwardly.

Adele stared at her.

“You have a lovely house.” Rhein strained to speak.“How's work going? I hope you are doing well Addie...”

“How did you find me?” Adele asked coldly.

“I hired a private investigator.” Rhein felt her insides freeze.

“What do you want?” Adele asked.

“I...just wanted...to see you.” Rhein choked. “I missed you, Addie...”

“Don't lie!” Adele raised her voice. “Miss me? Was this before or after your much-hyped divorce last year?”

“Please...I'm sorry.” Rhein staggered, her heart weighing down her entire frame.

“Oh, you're sorry, are you?” Adele spat. “Sorry for what? For not being there at my wedding? For not being there to see me achieve my dreams? For forgetting the whole best friend deal and deserting me?”

“I did not desert you.” Rhein fought back. “I...got sidetracked. But I always loved you all. Sisters, remember?”

“What would you know about that?” Adele smirked. “You had to get a private investigator just to find me.”

“Well, you knew where I was. Why couldn't you come see me?” Rhein was annoyed.

“Sure Ms. Bigtime Diva. I was supposed to have barged into your Malibu dreamhouse when I wasn't even sure if you wanted to know me anymore, wasn't I?” 

“What do you mean you weren't sure if I wanted to know you?” Rhein felt like she had been slapped.

“Oh you are shocked, are you?” Adele snorted. “You go off with that boy and disappear off the face of this planet and you feel offended at the notion that I wasn't sure if we were still friends?”

“I'm sorry, Adele.” Rhein broke into tears. “I was stupid. I made a huge mistake. I don't deserve friends like you.”

“What do you want?” Adele sighed.

Rhein looked at her face, perplexed and anxious. “I just want my soul sister back.”

Adele closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath. Then she held out her arms.

…..................................................................................................................................................................

Rhein couldn't remember how she had already gotten to the porch of the neat, little, Santa Fe house. She raised her hand to ring the bell, when a scream broke out from within.

“PAUL REGIS!” Even after all these years, Rhein could tell the enraged scream belonged to Shaniqua Regis.

“YOU STOP TEACHING MY KIDS TO BE NO-GOOD HOOLIGANS! GROW UP AND ACT LIKE A PROPER UNCLE OR I'LL SKIN YOU ALIVE!!” Shaniqua sounded livid.

Rhein smiled. At least some things always remained the same. Even after a multiple career changes, divorce with her rapper husband and four kids, Shaniqua still sounded like she could outscare Satan himself. The door flung open, almost knocking Rhein over. A hassled Hispanic man almost ran over her.

“Oh my god! I am so sorry. I didn't see you there. Are you all right?” The man helped her up.

“I'm fine. It's my fault for loitering around your front door.” Rhein was flustered.

The man gaped at her. “Wait, aren't you that famous singer? What's her name...uh...oh yeah, Rhein?” 

“Yes, I am. I am also an old friend of Shaniqua. I'm here to see her.” Rhein smiled. He seemed to be an affable man.

“Are you now?” the man arched his eyebrows. “Shanna never told me. I'm her husband, Darian. You might not wanna go in there right now. She's about to pop a vein in her head. I tell you, every time her brother comes visit, it's like they're kids again. Bickering and fighting and all. How she keeps that temper of hers at bay when she's working, I'll never know.”

Shaniqua was a high school teacher. She also designed clothes for a popular boutique in town.

Just then, a bunch of kids and a man rushed out of the house. The man glanced at Rhein as he ran out. He did a doubletake and shouted behind him “Hey Ri, nice seeing you again. Gotta keep running if I wanna see you or anyone again!”

A tiny woman ran after them screaming, “Come back here, you lot! Tristan! Nahora! Audrina! Sumner! No supper for ya'll! Paul, get back in this house and you won't live to tell the tale!”

“Shannie!” Rhein yelled, not wanting to wait for her friend to run around town and return god-knows-when.

Shaniqua stopped dead in her tracks. She would know that voice anywhere, even though it had been fifteen years since she had last heard it. She turned around. There was a woman on her porch, standing next to a smiling Darian. She was dressed in salmon Gucci pants, a cream YSL silk shirt and a black Chanel scarf. She was wearing black Prada heels, size 9. Shaniqua walked up to her. Darian quietly slipped into the house. He always knew when to give Shaniqua alone time.

Rhein was nervous. Shaniqua was getting closer by the step. She did not know what to anticipate. Shaniqua climbed the few steps, walked up to Rhein and looked her up and down for a good two minutes. 

“And where the heck have you been hiding all these years?” Shaniqua put her hands on her hips. “Get yourself in the house this moment.”

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Words Sabina Rai

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