How is everyone doing today?! And who’s ready for this week’s instalment? We’re officially halfway through the book! If you missed the Introduction to Disconnect: A Novel , the PrologueChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, or Chapter 7, do check them out before reading Chapter 8. Disconnect is fiction, comprised of a prologue, an epilogue, and 13 chapters. Every week, on every Thursday, a chapter will be posted on the blog, non-stop, until the entire book is up. Chapter 8 of Disconnect, my second novel, begins right below! Sound off in the comments so that I can know how the story is going so far! Who’s your favourite? What are your theories? Let me know! And thank you!

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CHAPTER 8 – 5 P.M.

ASHNI has a new glow about her. She is beaming form ear to ear. And there is an extra spring in her step ever since her father came home with the good news.

With three tubs of her favourite ice creams.

After being let into the kennel room of the Pet Shop at Kemps Corner, she navigates the maze of cages switching her keen eyes from left to right, and again right to left. All around her birds squawk, cats purr, and dog’s pant. She walks among them, completely entranced. She is looking for a particular kind of animal, and the moment she will come across it she will know.

As she carries out her search, she wonders what made her father change his mind, for he seemed so against the idea that her resolve was beginning to fray whilst she waited for him to return. It must have been the silent treatment. That must have done the trick. He couldn’t bear to see me like that, she thinks. It was clear in the way he came home and rushed to gather her in his arms and told her how much he loved her. But she isn’t happy about playing with his emotions. She has never resorted to something so cunning, it was so unlike her. But I needed a dog, she thinks hopelessly. Ashni promises herself that it was and will only be a one-time strategy never to be repeated again.

Ashni hears a bark and stops. Right before her is a golden and black hound, resting in one of the cages. Lying lazily on its stomach, it sees Ashni too and gets up to waddle to the cage door. Ashni notes how its eyes have a dark ferocity in them. She bends down to inspect its legs, and is sure that this kind of dog has vicious nails that protrude from the paws. As it sticks out its tongue, she sees its jaw is long and strong, with teeth that can break bone.

When Ashni smiles at it, it barks at her in response.

Her search is over.

“This one, daddy,” she turns to her father.

Her father doesn’t look happy. In fact, he looks scared of what popped out of her mouth. “He’s too big, sweety. We should be getting a smaller one. We just passed a cute pug.” His voice wavers.

Ashni’s present predicament is monsters. Only a massive dog that can rip anything to shreds with its razor-sharp teeth and nails will suffice. A cute dog, as her father put it, will only be an appetizer for the monsters, and she would serve as the main course. That will not happen.

“No, daddy,” Ashni insists. “He is perfect. I want him and only him.”

Her father stands beside her, not taking her stubbornness well, and switches his gaze between her and the dog. “You will have to learn to care for him,” he says uncertainly. “A dog his size comes with big responsibilities and problems as well. Are you sure you can do it, sweety?”

She nods repeatedly. “He is the one daddy.” When her chosen one woofs, Ashni lets out a squeal of joy. He wags his tail vigorously, wanting to be let out of his cage, dribbling spit.

The neighbourhood animal shelter and pet store they have come to stocks all the items required to domesticate a dog. Ashni wants to play an active role in picking out the type and consistency of food to buy. She thinks jelly-based foods would be the most scrumptious, until the heavy-set shop owner tells her that it is a type meant for felines. So she lets the dog sniff out what speaks to his appetite the most and decides accordingly. Leashes, brushes, toys, doggy bowls and a sleeping basket are also selected.

When they move on to collars, her father advises on a thick one. “It must be sturdy,” he says. “He is a big dog and can easily fight the hold you have on him.” Her father proposes one that sports an embedded metallic badge in the front, making it resemble a gold medal. Ashni loves his suggestion and agrees on that one.

Her father is paying for all the items when Ashni realizes she doesn’t know the first thing about her new friend. “What kind of a dog is he?” she asks the shop owner, looking up at him over the counter.

“German Shephard,” the shop owner says. “Also known as Alsatians. The previous owners were moving to Nasik and couldn’t take him along. He’s been here six months now. They’re a very sporty breed. Hope you are as active as he is.”

Ashni grins. That is not a problem she has to worry about.

All set, father, daughter, and new dog leave the store, and the trio head toward home. Ashni finds herself being guided as she holds onto the leash. She wonders if dogs have intuition, or a sixth sense which tells them where their homes are, because her pet is leading her in the right direction without knowing it.

“Have you thought of a name?” her father says as they cross the road.

Ashni likes how the idea of a pet dog now seems to be growing on her father. “It has to be a strong name. When people hear it, they should be scared,” she says, thinking out loud.

“How about Bear?”

The corner of Ashni’s lips curl in delight. “Yes…” She loves the sound of that. “Bear. You hear that?” She skims the head of the newly named animal. “Your name’s Bear from today.”

Bear barks his approval and wags his tail to no end. Ashni squeals again.

As they walk down the road, Ashni realizes what her father meant about needing a strong hold on him. Bear’s pace tugs at her ar, the one holding the leash, almost pulling it right out of its socket. But it is also a sign of his reckoning strength. The monsters don’t stand a chance.

Not in the least, she thinks mischieviously.

The ice creams her father beought home had been left on the kitchen counter in their rush to leave for the pet store. Ashni hopes they haven’t melted by now. They will need the ice creams to celebrate.

*

MAHINDER waltzes in from the back door of Pizza Paradise. Heads and eyes turn in his direction to notice his sunny satisfaction. He empties his pouch at the counter, submitting to the cashier all the monies his timely deliveries have generated. His shoulders have been vaguely shimmying for some time now, too, as he hums to himself.

“You’re chipper,” one of his delivery mates draws up to him. “Won the lottery, have you?”

“Feels like that,” he chirps.

“Well, good luck.”

That takes him aback. It is a strange thing to say, without any context. Before Mahinder can ask what he meant, the man has left his side, out the door. Mahinder’s bewilderment causes him to look around him. It is his turn to notice the expression that everybody else has for him. They either pity him or are annoyed with him. He cannot tell which, because every face he looks at has something different to say, though similar. And none of them seem like good things.

“What is it?” he asks no one in particular. “Why are you all looking at me like that? What’s wrong?” He is incensed. What is going on? “Will someone tell me what’s going on!”

The delivery boys and waiting staff immediately look away, appearing unconcerned now. A moment ago they were all judging him. He is so confused. Then a kind soul–another delivery boy–draws up to Mahinder’s shoulder and whispers to him like a mouse.

“You better get to the front. You screwed up big time.”

It is gibberish to him.

*

BAHAR listens intently to the growing chorus around her. Not a single dissatisfied customer is refraining from trying to get a word in edgewise.

“I ordered a large pepperoni pizza. And I get a seven-inch classic margarita!”

“That’s nothing, friend. I ordered for one of those make-your-own pizza pizzas. I told them I want all the toppings they are offering. And when I open the box, there’s just a bunch of rocket leaves and mushrooms!”

“Imagine my horror when I dug into my pizza! Cheese-free, gluten-free, I ordered. I almost got a heart attack when I saw a Chicago deep dish with enough cheese to feed a fat family. It was so tempting I almost ruined my diet. I think I put on five kilos just by looking at it.”

“International reputation, my ass. This place has the worst service I’ve ever encountered. And to top it all, they don’t even offer us replacements. It’s overpriced and incompetent. They expect us to put our lives on hold and come down here to sort out their problems?”

Bahar couldn’t agree more. Pizza Paradise is not inspiring a gushing review. She has been waiting here for nearly an hour and the manager too is taking his own sweet time to show his face.

She could now write about the ambience. She is aware how ridiculous it feels to have finally done what she was trying to avoid doing. She had no choice in the end. She called the restaurant to complain about her order and was simply asked to come down here. And now here she is.

In the restaurant, the tables and chairs are of glistening white surfaces, like marble picnic tables, the floor hardwood, and murals of rural Italia punctuate the wall panels between intervals of mosaic in earthy shades. Current-day hits are playing through speakers in the ceiling.

Classy, modern, minimalist, she thinks, and approves.

Bahar drifts to an empty space near the mosaic walls of the restaurant, away from most people, to better lean against them. Taking support of the walls is the only thing that seems to quell her sickness. She clutches the pizza box in her hands, against her will. After that long taxi ride that didn’t seem to have an end, she has untied the napkin around her face. Leaving her stuffy flat has actually done her some good, like she left her quaking stomach back home. She travelled light too, just in case, with only the stinky pizza box and some money for cab fare.

A gaggle of over thirty home-based customers continue to share their stories as more keep filing into the restaurant, making it packed, as others seated at tables enjoy a late lunch and speculate about this growing crowd.

Bahar rolls her eyes–whether voluntarily or involuntarily, it’s hard for her to tell. She can’t wait to get this over with.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Your attention, please!”

A fair-faced, almost-Caucasian man of average height appears behind the main counter of the restaurant, arms raised to grab everyone’s attention.

“My name is Vivian. I am the manager of this fine eatery.”

“Fine?” A man from the crowd shoots back, scoffing. “What’s fine about this entire debacle?”

“Sir, if I may please…”

“This isn’t the Pizza Paradise I know,” a rotund woman in her thirties in the crowd interjects. “When I visited the one in California it was a delight. What kind of service do you call this?”

Vivian’s tongue is tied, visibly offended, like he has taken a blow at his own personal repute. Things are gaining momentum, and Bahar is fired up to fight with them.

“Look around you,” another disgruntled voice in the crowd snaps. “You have a roomful of grievances. If I’m not mistaken, this is only your second day after opening, isn’t it? Tell me how a place of this caliber, with renowned and critically acclaimed food, makes such awful mistakes? Not just two or three mistakes, but fifty!”

Vivian smiles nervously, finding his voice and clearing his throat. “On behalf of everyone here at Pizza Paradise, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you all. I agree that this is not what is expected of us and we understand that. The last thing we want is for our customers to be dissatisfied. We accept full and complete responsibility for today, and we will be issuing a complete refund of your order value. I will personally–”

“Because that’s what we care for, don’t we?” A gentleman, his face red with anger, pipes up from way back in the crowd. He seems to be the most affected by this debacle. “So long as we get our money back, everything should be fine and dandy. Let me tell you something, Vivian. My son here…” – the man brings forward a boy of ten – “is allergic to nuts. If I hadn’t been there with him, he would have gone on to have a deathly reaction to the pine nuts in our delivery. But something as trivial as money should compensate that, right?”

Vivian is stumped again, giving others the chance to chime in.

“What about me? I ordered pepperoni and get a plain cheese instead!”

“I’m Muslim.” Bahar shifts her head to find the woman whom the voice belongs to. It happens to be one veiled in a burqa on the other end of the crowd, a hurt look in her exposed eyes. She gestures to a pizza box she has placed far away from her on a vacant table. “The flesh of swine is haram in my faith. My house has been untainted till this day. And what’s worse is you expect me to bring the abhorrent thing back here, forcing me to taint my own hands as well?”

Bahar agrees, taking her cue. “And I’m vegan…”

*

MAHINDER removes his foot from the crook of the swinging door, letting it close shut. He grabs at his hair, pulling hard. All those people milling around the front of the restaurant have been sharing stories that ring so many bells that he thinks he is on to something. He makes for the distribution counter where the delivery boys are each allotted their quota, and asks the person in charge to go over his quota with him. His tablet in his hands, he scrolls down the list of orders and addresses.

As the names of people and pizzas is repeated back to him, he sees, between the flickering of the cracked tablet screen, exactly the same names and pizzas being displayed, but with one slight difference. The accident he was involved in caused a kind of damage to his tablet that he couldn’t see. But now he does. When it’s too late, he thinks mournfully. He was stupid enough to believe things can ever go in his favour.

A waiter comes in from the front of the restaurant and says to him, “Vivian wants you out there.”

Mahinder wants to run in the opposite direction, but nothing good ever comes from running away from his problems. He plucks up and heads where he is needed. It is time to pay for his mistakes. He is going to be fired, and there’s nothing he can do this time to avoid that.

Mahinder steels himself and shoves the swinging door open. As he passes the threshold into the front of the restaurant, a hundred eyes lock on to him, begin to sear into him, including his boss’s. Mahinder recognizes almost all of the people in the crowd–he visited each of their houses today–and his sweeping gaze stops on the sick woman who closed the door on his face after asking him specific details of his job.

“That’s him!” she exclaims, pointing.

*

BAHAR hears everyone voice their agreement, correctly recognizing the delivery boy who visited them today.

“That’s him, all right.”

“He’s the one.”

“What kind of an idiot is he? Is it a policy to hire daft people?”

“Please, ladies and gentlemen,” Vivian says, hands up to request silence. “I have called Mahinder here to explain himself.” Bahar can see Vivians’s hands twitching to grab Mahinder. Probably for a thrashing, she thinks. He is not even trying to hide the impulse.

“I’m sorry, everybody,” Mahinder begins sincerely. “Earlier today, while I was making a delivery, I had an accident. This tablet here got damaged as a result. It has been acting up ever since, but since it functioned normally for the most part, I thought it was still fit for use. The problem, I only just discovered, is that it mixes up wireless entries made into it. Which is why,” – he looks down in shame – “all your orders got mixed up.”

“And you did not think it necessary to bring this to my attention?” Vivian says bitterly.

Vivian is trying his hardest to use Mahinder as the scapegoat. While it is mostly the delivery boy’s fault, Vivian and Pizza Paradise must also share the blame. Bahar has seen it happen too often, as a reviewer, to not recognize this blatant attack by a manager happening right now. Vivian scans the crowd, looking confident, like he’s taking its temperature.

Mahinder is still too ashamed to look up. “No.”

“There you have it,” Vivian addresses them boldly. “This imbecile is the reason you are all here today. I will admit I had my doubts when I put him on the job. But this settles it.” He throws a dirty look at the delivery boy and says with authority, “Mahinder, you’re fired!”

Mahinder looks up at that, a grimace on his face that doesn’t suit him, as Bahar remembers him to be a jovial person. Usually, someone in his position would make an appeal, but this delivery boy is quietly accepting his fate.

Bahar begins to hear everyone grumble. Then, suddenly, there is a tickle inside her mind. Her dizziness spells are paying another visit. Her head swims. She finds better breathing space when half of the aggrieved customers trickle out of the restaurant, apparently indifferent to the matter any longer.

The man with the allergic son moves to the front, toward Vivian. “What good will firing that chap do us?” he asks tersely.

“We will still refund your–”

Vivian is cut off by a stick-figure of a woman. “Haven’t you been listening? We don’t want your monetary compensation. For God’s sake, I almost binge ate an entire non-fat-free cheesey pizza. Do you have any idea what that would have done?”

Bahar can’t seem to hold up her head. Perhaps because of that the issue has lost any and all relevance for Bahar. In light of the extenuating circumstances, it was an honest mistake, and they all, including her, should be willing to accept the refund with an apology. What happens to the delivery boy is not a matter for her to be concerned about. Besides, there is a slew of fresh pizzas coming straight out of the wood-fire oven for seated patrons. They would be more than capable of whetting an appetite, but it only makes her experience a sensory overload. The smells are overwhelming. Her stomach is threatening to tumble already.

Oh no you don’t, she thinks.

Bahar starts to leave, threading through the crowd, making for the exit. She can tell Reshma to impose whatever penalty she likes.

“Well, I think I speak for all of us when I say you could use it.”

Gasps ripple through the crowd. Bahar’s gut clenches, and it has nothing to do with her sickness. Incredulous, she stops in her tracks and turns to look at Vivian, who spoke.

“You could live to gain a few kilos, you anorexic bi–” He ctaches himself, hands akimbo. “What do you want, eh? What do all of you really want?” He peruses them with squinty eyes. “We’ve offered an apology, a refund, and brought you the responsible, or, rather, the irresponsible idiot.” Mahinder flinches. Vivian points at a hefty woman next to Bahar. “You. You’re the one who got the gluten-free pizza, right? Well, take it back home and eat it. It will do you some good.”

More sharp, disbelieving gasps ripple through the crowd. Seated patrons, too, stop eating and turn their attention to the manager and his tirade, their jaws dropping.

“And you, be thankful you were there to save your son, rather than crib about stupid little nuts.”

Bahar does not know if it is her condition that is making her hallucinate or whether this man is actually saying all these things without realizing it. Everyone was being a bit persistent. They were drawing out a problem, sure. A few issues were unsolvable anyways, but that cannot warrant this.

She finds that she is the next target.

“And you, you’re vegan. Well have you ever tried seafood? It’s pretty good.” Vivian is on a roll, unstoppable. He looks around searchingly. “And where is that Muslim dame… there she is! You got a little pork pizza, huh? Well, boo-hoo. You know, you shouldn’t believe everything that book of yours tells you. You never know, you may like it. It won’t kill you to try.”

The crowd roars at once, a tangle of screaming voices hurled at Vivian. Home-based customer or not, nobody likes what was just said. Bahar is amazed to find that hers is one of them, louder and more enraged than anyone else’s. She does not know where she is harnessing the energy to do this from, and it silences the rest. She cuts through the gaggle and people move aside to allow her through to the front counter.

“How can you stand there and insult this woman like that?” she snaps at Vivian, for she does not care for the unjustified remark aimed at her. The woman in the burqa stands in quiet dignity, not showing that she is affected by Vivian’s comments, but underneath her veil she is probably too loath to speak. “You owe her an apology, right now!”

“I don’t owe anyone an apology,” Vivian says in a haughty defiance. Bahar glances at Mahinder, who also cannot believe what is happening.

“You cannot attack someone’s belief in that way,” Bahar wheezes through tight lips. “She has a right to live her own life the way she chooses. You cannot speak to her like that! Apologize! That is no way to speak to your customer!”

Vivian scoffs. “Customer? We can’t even see her face! How do I even know she’s the one who ordered from my restaurant? It could be any crazed wench draped in her curtains trying to pass herself off as one of you.”

Bahar is at her wits end, feeling nearly drained. She is about to speak once again when the woman in the question speaks for herself.

“It is okay, my sister. It is only a pity that such are the times we still live in. Leave him to say what he wants.”

Bahar is taken by surprise. But Vivian is still seething. “You got that right, sister,” he imitates her. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even serve you or your kind in my fine eatery.”

“Sir!” Mahinder now voices himself.

“You sad ignorant man.” Bahar throws caution to the wind, after which she will vomit, hyperventilate, or hack up a lung coughing for a full minute. Each is as probable as the rest, and likely as painful. She inches forward, leaning across the counter almost into Vivian’s face. “Let me tell you something. Before you opened that dirty, evil mouth of yours, I was willing to overlook this mess. But now, you can count on the most damaging review this city has ever seen. I am a critic for the Sunday Herald and I promise you, Vivian, you will never work in another fine eatery for as long as you live.”

Vivian snarls at her, refusing to be daunted, as though he believes she is bluffing. But the hard look of determination on her face must have convinced him that he has crashed and burned, because in the next moment his smug look fades and he starts to look contrite.

What he would have said or done next, Bahar would never know, because that is when her eyes begin to flutter and she begins to lose focus.

You pushed herself too far, she think weakly.

Bahar wheels aroundas though in search of something. She cannot make out much, can only see the faces and mosaic around her in a smeared haze. She clutches her chest, her breath gone from her. She struggles to inhale, in vain.

Before her eyes close, she crumples. The last thing she feels is her back hitting the floor.

*

MAHINDER is quick on his feet and makes a vault over the counter to rush to the woman’s aid. Thankfully, she collapsed lightly, and her head did not strike the floor. He opens her eyelids and comes to the conclusion she has passed out. Vivian looks over his shoulder, suddenly praying for her good health.

“Her breath is short,” Mahinder informs him.

The woman in the burqa is already on her cell-phone. “Hello, we need an ambulance at…” She moves away from everyone who is gathering to peer down at Mahinder and his patient.

“You shouldn’t have said those things,” he says over his shoulder to Vivian, tartly. “It was inappropriate and uncalled for.”

Now that he is fired, he can speak how he wishes. But he decides to hold his tongue, lest he should speak things he will later regret. His boss flees the front and exits to the back of the restaurant, probably to hide in his office.

Mahinder never expected to be witness to something so unjust in today’s day and age. He himself has been a victim of discrimination all too often, but it was not until he got a boss like Vivian that he remembered what those times were like. The things Vivian said and the way he behaved, no one must ever behave that way.

Mahinder then demands that the crowd step back and clear the area to give the poor unconscious woman enough space to breathe.

*

RAHUL is driving by when he notices an outlet of his favourite pizza place. In the whole of London, Pizza Paradise is his and Thatcher’s go-to place for comfort food. It reminds him of their early dates as a couple, which were full of self-conscious gestures and awkward pauses, and how far they’ve come. In fact, their first date was at a Pizza Paradise outlet. He wants to stop by the restaurant and take a picture of himself there, so that he can send it to Thatcher.

But he sees a wild commotion going on inside, so it puts him off and he just keeps driving on.

When he gets to the familiar residential complex close to HR College where he was once a student, forgotten memories start to resurface. One of them is of his girlfriend Rita. The thought of her brings mixed emotions as he parks his car in the lot. He wonders if she still lives here. In the lobby, he studies the list of occupants of the building and spots Rita’s surname.

It is not long before he climbs four storeys and is knocking on the flat door. He thinks reassuring thoughts to convince himself that this will work out well and not backfire.

An elderly woman with silver hair answers the door. She doesn’t seem to place Rahul even when he introduces himself, but he has quickly recognized her as Rita’s mother. She returns back into the flat to fetch her daughter.

Rahul waits in the small terrace where there is a cast-iron swing. As soon as he sits, his right leg begins to bounce in a manic frenzy. This new panic attack is bound to spread to the rest of his body and induce a heart attack if he doesn’t control it. He squeezes his leg tightly between both hands, willing it to steady, until the problem reduces to slight tremors. He breathes in and out, in and out. He is never going to get used to these kinds of allergic reactions of his body.

“Rahul?”

When he sees emerge from the flat, he is shocked to see her in a maternity dress. Her protruding belly promises a strong, healthy baby. One hand rests on her bump, while her other hand hangs limp at her side like a dead weight. She doesn’t move for a second, but then finds it in herself to approach him. He stands.

“You’ve changed,” she says, sounding like she is seeing a ghost. “Your hair is so short.”

An unexpected smile starts to inch across Rahul face. “Hi, Rita,” he says dimly.

His accent stuns her. He lets her seat herself on the swing before he sits back down. “How long has it been?”

“Almost ten years,” Rahul says.

“It doesn’t feel that long.”

“It feels longer to me.”

“Well,” she says distantly. “I suppose since not much has happened all this while, it feels like that to me. How have you been, Rahul?”

“I’ve…” He does not have an answer. Somehow, his well-being doesn’t seem like the topic that is meant to be discussed. “Do want to ask me anything, Rita?”

“I’ve stopped asking questions long ago,” she says plainly. “I’d come over to your house everyday after you went missing, troubling your father every time for some news of you. All he’d tell me is that you were dead.” She looks at her maternity dress and straightens out the folds, her face placid. “Of course, I knew it wasn’t true. I figured you had taken that scholarship you’d been granted and left for England without a word.”

The truth in his eyes makes her nod, confirming her conclusions.

“I’m sorry that I–”

“Don’t be,” she says, not unkinly. “I’ve forgotten about it. So should you.”

“Even so, Rita. You have to know how bad it felt to leave and not say goodbye. I felt like I betrayed you.”

“It did feel like that.” She is soft and gentle, her eyes warm, and he cannot understand why. “For a long, long time it made me want to give up on life. But I eventually got over it.” She glances at her belly, skimming it thoughtfully. “I fell in love. I got married. I’m going to have a child now.”

“Yes, that’s great. I’m so happy for you. Do I know the father?”

“No, you didn’t know him.”

It feels like being hit by a freight train. He attributes Rita’s fatherless child, and her being a widow, to his selfish act. If Rahul had stayed in the country, he would be Rita’s husband now, having a child with her. But I am not, he thinks. He had dealt these cards for Rita, long ago. If this is Rita’s life, he wonders what his selfish decision to leave must have done to his father.

“He served in the military,” she continues wanly. “He was a brave man.” A tear slides down the side of her face, and she doesn’t swipe it away.

Rahul nods. “I am sure he was.”

A long moment of silence ensues, which Rahul finds insufferable. Even the swing has stopped swinging for some time.

“What brings you back?” she says finally, mopping her face with her hand.

Rahul’s legs go cold. “I… wanted to explain myself. You deserve the truth. But now I don’t know if you want it, being nine years overdue.”

“No, go on. Tell me, Rahul, why did you leave all those years ago. What do you want me to know?”

He gulps. “We were together f-for two years…” he says, the words having trouble coming to him. “And all that while… I-I was lying to you…”

His voice drifts off. His heart pounds. His throat closes up.

Rita slips her hand over his, and keeps it there. His eyes widen with surprise.

“Just tell me,” she whispers, nodding.

Warmth flushes through Rahul. With that single encouragement, he gets all the strength in the world. Enough that he starts to tell her his story with renewed confidence.

After he has told her everything, they lapse into silence again.

Then, Rita moves. Turning to him, she lifts her hands and frames his face in them. His cheeks stop shivering–he didn’t realize they were until they stopped. Rita looks into his eyes and nods understandingly, and it irks Rahul for the fraction of an instant.

He finds this acceptance unnerving because he has only every dreamt of it. He never expected it to become a reality one day. But now it has. And just like that, the oppressive weight holding him down let’s go, like all the years of guilt and shame that has been piling on his shoulders is shedding off. After all these years, the unsaid and undone and unfelt are slowly retiring. As Rahul and Rita sit there, he feels lighter, steadier, more alive.

His heart soars.

His catharsis is beginning, and it starts with Rita.

*

NAZNIN is having so much fun, almost too much, that she can’t say what she wants to say as she laughs incessantly. GoodGuy187 also can’t control himself. With her at the wheel, they look like a pair of lunatics burning rubber with no intention of easing up on the throttle. Her stomach is giddy with nervous energy. Naznin loves the thrill of it so she won’t slow down; as long as can keep things under control, that is. But then to dodge a pothole she swerves to the right, almost encroaching on the opposite side of the road. He finds it in himself to say, “Watch out!”

Naznin does and guides the steering handle aright, but it is not long before the motorcycle is swerving onto the footpath.

“I thought you said you can ride on of these!” he cries out between laughs.

She giggles. “I said I could handle a scooty just fine. These manual ones are a whole new thing!”

A hairpin turn almost throws them both off their seats. Up ahead, a fruit hawker is rolling is cart across the road. GoodGuy187 begs her to stop before they make a fruit smoothie out of it by flying headlong into it. But she ensures him she can go for a while longer and that he can take over once they reach their destination.

This is crazy! she thinks excitedly. This is so crazy!

The ice-gola vendor screams at the top of his lungs when he sees them hurtling toward him at a hundred miles an hour. For Naznin, it is hilariously difficult to make her feet touch the ground, so GoodGuy187 does it for her while she pulls on the brakes. The motorcycle skids to a stop, narrowly sparing the ice-gola vendor from building a new kiosk from scratch. He thanks God for His intervention.

“What are you scared for?” GoodGuy187 reprimands him. “This woman is a world-class biker. Treat the lady with some respect.”

The vendor spills with apologies, and they launch into a fit of laughter.

“One kala-khatta,” Naznin says.

“And one rose,” GoodGuy187 says.

The ice-gola vendor gets to work.

“Hey, help me with this,” she says. “I can’t get this stand out.”

GoodGuy187 props the bike up so she can kick its stand outward. After five efforts, it still will not budge. “This happens sometimes,” he says apologetically. “The bike it quite old; the stand gets stuck in place.”

“Here, why don’t you give it a try?” she says.

They switch duties, but she soon realizes holding up the bike is not a task for a skinny girl like her. GoodGuy187 tries kicking out the stand as hard as he can without hurting himself but accomplishes nothing. He stoops to use his hand next, which gets stained with grease, but doesn’t get the job done.

He stands up and eyes her, in a bizarre, knowing way. “Okay, don’t get scared, alright? I’m going to try something,” he says.

Naznin is intrigued, wondering what is up his sleeve. When he rams his left leg agasint the stand, she realizes she should be wondering what is up his pant leg, because when he does it, his leg makes a deep thump sound on impact, like his flesh is not made of flesh but something unnatural.

The stand swings out. It is just in time, too, because a scared Naznin has let go of the hold she had on the motorcycle. It leans to its side and comes to rests on the stand with a shudder.

She takes a step back. “What is that?!

GoodGuy187 looks nonchalant. “Nothing,” he shrugs. “Just, you know…” He lifts the left leg of his trouser, and above the line of his sock, Naznin sees a surface of wood.

A million and one questions race through her, and she is irate when the ice-gola vendor announces their ready treats, taking him away from her. GoodGuy187 goes to collect them and returns. She studies his gait, and there is nothing unusual about it. He walks like just about anybody else. He hands over her gola and she takes it.

She can’t stop staring down at his leg. “How did it…”

“Years ago,” he says, sucking at his gola. “Remember when I told you about my parents? I was actually with them in the accident. I survived. Well, minus a leg of course.”

The ice freezes in Naznin’s hands, sticking to them. She suddenly has no appetite for her gola. GoodGuy187 is waiting for her to say something. He seems almost indifferent to being an amputee, like it is just a regular fact of life. He isn’t the least bit uncomfortable. But she is. She considers dropping the topic, lest she pry too much. After all, everybody he encounters must be fascinated by someone like him, and she doesn’t want to be another one of those rude people.

Almost like he can read her mind, GoodgGuy187 says, “It’s okay. You can ask what you want to.”

She waits a beat before saying, “Does it hurt?”

“Not in the least. Initially it would, you know, phantom leg syndrome and all.”

“Is it the entire…”

“No, just above the knee. I’ve had many variations over the years, since I keep growing. This is my fourth leg so far.” He knocks on his left leg. “Solid wood.”

“Oh…”

Naznin decides she is done with her questions. GoodGuy187 begins commenting on the perfect sweetness of his gola and how the best one he remembers having is sold by a feriwala somewhere in Lonavala.

Since they’ve moved on from that bleak topic, she feels encouraged to eat her own gola. But the thing is, she is fighting to ease back into the same relaxed vibe they were speaking in before he made that big revelation. Only, it’s not big, judging by how he treated the topic. Still, she cannot relax somehow, because what just happened changed the dynamics between them. At least, on her side.

GoodGuy187 is now laughing at some joke that he passed, but she is barely listening; her mind is on one thing and one thing only, and that thing is very distracting.

“Tell me something,” he says, angling his head at her. “And be honest… Am I what you expected?

It takes her a second to realize he asked her something. “What do you mean?”

“Well, when I came to Fountain, and I’m being totally honest here, I was expecting to find someone just like you.”

She is having trouble concentrating. She looks him up and down. “Um… yeah…” she says, chewing on the inside of her cheek. “I mean… no… I… I…”

Something shivers in her, and her the ice-gola falls from her hands and breaks at her feet. Something else in her mind clicks. Without a word, Naznin wheels around, her chest heaving, and starts walking away. Something other than he brain is controlling he legs, but they are on the right track.

She needs to get away as soon as possible.

“Hey, where are you going?”

“I don’t know… I shouldn’t have done this,” she rambles, marching down the road. I knew… I should have gone back, before it went any further… I just knew it…”

GoodGuy187 pursues her. When she refuses to stop, he stands in her way.

“Get out of my way,” she demands.

“But tell me why? What’s changed suddenly?”

She clutches her head. “You were right, okay? I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. You could have been a murderer, a rapist. I was so, so stupid to have asked you to meet me.” She needs to get away as soon a possible. “Move!” she shouts.

“Hold on, listen to me.” But she doesn’t want to listen. When she begins to beat his chest, he takes the assault without complaint. “Listen, TeenGirl1242. Yes, you were stupid.”

Naznin’s stops everything, her eyes blazing. GoodGuy187 stares back in fear.

She slaps him hard.

“Ow!” He massages the red handprint on his face. “That hurt.”

“Good! It was supposed to!”

“But it doesn’t change the fact that you were stupid!” Her hand shoots out for his face a second time, but he reaches out and grabs her wrist, doesn’t let go. “Stupid. You were stupid!”

She tries to wrench her hand away, but he’s too strong. I hate boys, she thinks. “Stop saying that! Let me go!”

“Why? You said so yourself. I’m just stating a fact now. You were stupid to have proposed that we meet. You were stupid to have blindly trusted me to be who I said I was. You were stupid to have gotten on my bike. I knew it the moment I met you that you were vulnerable. You looked lost, couldn’t even look me in the eye.”

She really needs to get away right now. “Shut up and let me–”

“But that was a different TeenGirl1242. The one I know now is the one that concerns me. Do you have any idea how many people dwell on the past and regret their lives? Yes, I could have been a rapist. Yes, I could have been a fifty-something pedophile. You know what else I could have been? I could have been a leg-less wheel-chair bound parentless kid who gave up on life and decided to languish. And you know what that would have meant? It would have meant I wouldn’t be standing here with you, having a stupid argument. But I’m not that person. I am not that handicapped kid.” He lowers is tone when he people on the street begin to stare. “Forget your past. Believe me when I say there’s nothing worth wasting your time with regret. Here and now. That’s all that matters. Every day is a new day. Every moment is a new moment. The past will only haunt us if we let it haunt us. It is not a determinant of who you are, or who you can be. Look me in the eye and tell me that you really regret having met me.”

Naznin stews. What he had to say is resonating with her, but she doesn’t want it to. She looks sideways: she cannot deny the answer. “No.”

“I’m here,” he scolds.

She wrenches her head at him, still infuriated. “I don’t, okay? I don’t!”

“Good!”

He releases her hand. Naznin wonders why his strong hold has not left any pain. The stifling dread she felt hanging over her head gradually drifts away. She doesn’t know what came over her, why she gave in finally to the need to flee. Was it because she wasn’t expecting him to be what she thought? Or because he turned out to be what she couldn’t even fathom?

Or the fact that he is her age and he can teach her so much?

Am I scared to learn? From him?

Naznin’s heavy backpack is slowly sliding down her shoulders. She hikes it up higher.

GoodGuy187 puts a thumb under her chin, nudging her face. “Chin up,” he says, winking. “Always.”

*

SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA charges into the small mandir of the mansion. He had no intention of being disrespectful, so when he sees Payal on her knees at the altar, offering what must be her umpteenth prayer to the Goddess Durga, he slides to stop.

Dr. Shah is standing a few feet behind her. He isn’t praying, but seems to be watching his wife as she does. There is an air of reverence in this holy room, the only place that hasn’t been turned upside down in this house.

Inspector Kapadia steps up to the doctor and whispers to preserve the peace, “It’s here.”

The doctor nods. “It’s best not to disturb her,” he says, without taking his eyes off his wife. “It’s the only thing giving her a sense of purpose.”

Kapadia agrees. She should stay here while he takes the doctor outside. He can confirm the find himself, and she should be here for as long as she needs.

Soon, the Inspector is directing the doctor into the kitchen and out the back door. The tow-truck jerks to a halt in the backyard, having dragged in the white vehicle, which it dwarfs.

Dr. Shah stops in his tracks when he sees the van. “That’s it,” he says hoarsely. He doesn’t approach the van, but merely eyes it from a distance.

Kapadia wonders if he is even breathing. “Are you sure?”

“Yes… the break lights are smashed… and… you can… check the floor… for…”

Kapadia can see the doctor does not want to get any closer than he has to, so he makes the find himself. He slides open the back door, inspecting all surfaces, and sees a congealed black mass on the floor of the van.

Dried blood, he thinks grimly. Kapadia has no idea how or why the kidnappers let go if this van, which is a vital piece of evidence.

It’s a new lead, a break in the case. Though it may be hours before it bears any fruit.

Dr. Shah calls weakly from behind. “Is there…”

“Yes, doctor.” Inspector Kapadia says, shutting the door and obstructing any view the doctor may have had of the interior, turning to face him. Now that the confirmation has been made, many forensic analysts who have been waiting rush the van. “The whole thing will be dusted for fingerprints and DNA samples like hair, fluids, and the like. With this, we’re one step closer.”

But they are just words to the doctor, with no meaning. He looks numb and distant, ashen. His hope is visibly dim as he nods absently and returns back into the house, presumably to his wife in the mandir.

The parents were shaken when the kidnappers sent across the video of the empty room where their son was being held. It took the ACP and the Inspector ten minutes to convince the parents that the kidnappers still had Shaan alive and that they had not done something to him, though Kapadia does not know if he believes that himself. He cannot find another possible reason why the kidnappers would not show Shaan for a second time, just like they did the first. But Kapadia knows he must operate under the assumption that the boy is yet alive and capable of being saved.

The Inspector has no power to promise Shaan’s safe rescue, otherwise he would make that promise to the doctor and Payal and put their hearts at ease. He has done it in the past, to other families, and it tore his soul apart to have failed. For many in law enforcement, it is the gruesome crime scene, of murder, robbery, or rape, which drives their need for justice. But in Kapadia’s case, it is always the pain and suffering of the secondary victims that invariably fuels it.

*

END OF CHAPTER 8

© Amaan Khan, August 23, 2018.

To continue reading Disconnect, head on over to Chapter 9.

———-

Glossary

  1. ice-gola: an ice treat sweetened with sugar syrups of different flavours, like rose, mango, kalat khatta (sour black), etc
  2. feriwala: a street vendor of snacks
  3. mandir: temple

 

 

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