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There was a soft quietness in his head now, as if the world was at a remove. His voice sounded muffled in the fog. “Sure I did. That’s why I drew.” He sat on the cold stone bench, and put his messenger bag down by his feet. “I never felt the need for anything else.”

Dimple sat beside him, her arms and legs stiff, as if she were afraid of encroaching on his personal space, of touching him. He knew how she felt. Before, scraping elbows together or grabbing her hand had seemed benign, just exciting enough without being serious or scary. But here in this private little alcove in the dark, things felt more. Bigger. And Rishi wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to go down that path. Mainly because he wasn’t certain she did.

“Hmm.”

When Dimple didn’t say anything else, he tipped his head back, drank in the air. The fog coated the sky and filtered through the trees around them so it felt like they were encased in a tiny gray bubble. Just him and Dimple. His heart beat faster at the thought of that, but he felt fine about the unknown of it all. He felt fine about everything, he thought, with a small smile. She had that effect on him.

“Show me your sketch pad.”

The fine feeling disappeared. Rishi looked at her, big eyes shining in the dark behind those glasses. Some of her wild hair, curly again thanks to the humidity in the air, was brushing his shoulder in spite of her careful posture, as if it had a life of its own. “Huh?”

“You must have some sketches in there, right? You lied to Leo Tilden.”

Leo Tilden felt like forever ago. Thinking back to that moment made something unpleasant and bitter squirm in his stomach. “Yeah. But . . . I don’t know. It’s just, they’re not that great.”

“Don’t do that.” Dimple turned toward him completely, her face eager in the dim light. “Don’t downplay your talent. If you don’t want to show me, just say so. But I saw what you’re capable of in there”—she gestured toward the house—“and it was remarkable. Aditya, what I’ve seen of him, is amazing. So it’s clear you have talent; lots of it. I don’t know why you don’t want to show people, though. If it were me, I’d be diving into it whole hog.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

Dimple nodded, her face small and vulnerable. “Trying to. And it’s crazy scary, but you know, what’s the alternative? Just forget about it? I can’t.” She leaned forward. “You shouldn’t either, Rishi. Just because it’s scary—”

“It’s not because it’s scary.” He sat back, taking a deep breath. It still wasn’t easy to talk about this, even with Dimple’s presence turning everything pink and soft around the edges. But looking at Dimple’s open face, hearing her earnest questions, his usual inhibitions turned to puffs of cloud, insubstantial, floating away as he tried to grasp them. Rishi found himself being honest. “I would love to do what you’re doing. To immerse myself in the work, to think, breathe, eat, and sleep art. But that’s how it’d have to be. See? There’s no in between for me. I can’t be an engineer and a part-time comic book artist. It can’t be a hobby. I love it too much; it means too much to me. It’s like, like having a child, I guess. How I imagine that would be—all consuming.”

“Well, then, that’s easy, isn’t it?” Dimple sounded genuinely confused. “Do it. Do what you love, what you’re passionate about. So what if it’s not the most practical thing? You’re eighteen, you don’t have to be practical for a long, long time—maybe not ever, if you choose not to be. There are people who live very frugally, who just keep plugging away for years because they can’t think of doing it any other way.”

“That’s not going to be me.” Rishi shifted, uncomfortable, suddenly done talking about it.

“Why not?”

“I told you. My parents, I made them a promise. I’m their oldest son. It’s just not going to happen. I have duties, obligations.”

Dimple sighed, soft and slow.

Rishi looked at her for a second, touched at how much she seemed to care. Then, without giving himself too much time to think about it, he reached down and unsnapped his messenger bag top. Sliding his sketch pad out, Rishi held it out to her.

CHAPTER 27

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