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 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, or Chapter 9, do check them out before reading Chapter 10. 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 10 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! Let me know! And thank you!

———-

CHAPTER 10 – 7 P.M.

BAHAR pries her eyes open, but her vision is too blurred. Colours swim in her eyes like water paints. She cannot put the pieces together, so instead of trying she rests and lets time help with her eyesight and the gaps in her memory.

She feels chilly with the paper-thin gown around her body, and her head is so heavy with exhaustion she can’t lift it off the bed. At the sound of a voice, she realizes she is not alone in the white room. A fuzzy black figure is sitting on a chair by her bed. Bahar tries to shift, but an IV drip sticking into her arm prevents her from moving without hurting herself. She is in a hospital room, that much she can glean.

“You’re awake,” says the figure.

Bahar’s mouth is dry. She tries to shift and get up again.

“No, don’t get up. Lie back down. I’ll ring for the doctor.”

The woman presses on a button on the wall which lights up red. By the time a nurse comes into the room to check her vitals, Bahar’s vision has improved considerably with better definition.

“You really scared us,” the woman in the burqa says. There is no veil drawn to cover her face, but Bahar knows that voice.

She blinks. “You’re from… the restaurant…” her speech is slow, tongue sluggish.

“Yes.”

“How did I…?”

“I accompanied you in the ambulance.”

“Where are we?”

“Saifee Hospital. I couldn’t leave your side after what you did for me.”

What I did for you, Bahar thinks. And she finally recalls. The rage that consumed her. The lightheadedness that caused her to black out. The face of that ignorant pig, the last thing she has a memory of.

“That man was despicable. You shouldn’t have had to hear those vile things,” Bahar says sourly.

“I’ve heard worse,” the woman says baldly. “But, I want to thank you. It wasn’t your fight, yet you involved yourself.”

“I couldn’t stand by and let it happen. And I’m not done with him. I’m going to put him out of business.”

“The review you mentioned?” she asks. “Please don’t.”

“After what he did?” Bahar gapes at her. “After what he said? He needs to pay-”

“Please, not on my account.”

“I was going to make that the main thrust of the review.”

“Then there wouldn’t be much difference between us and him, would there.”

Bahar planned on using her review to exact revenge on that manager, Vivian. But then her review will not exactly be legitimate. She did not try the food, nor did she dine at Pizza Paradise. She cannot write about the customer-relations aspect and that alone. It is also the last thing she wants to worry about at this time; she feels so out of sorts.

She notices the woman in the burqa waiting on her, and nods.

“Okay, if you don’t want me to, I won’t.”

“Thank you,” the woman says, tilting her head and smiling. “And may I know the name of my brave defender?”

Bahar can’t contain a giggle. “Bahar,” she introduces herself.

“It’s nice to meet you, Bahar. I’m Hafeeza. And let me tell you: we need more people like you in this world.”

Bahar flushes. She doesn’t know what to say, so she says nothing.

“We didn’t know whom to call,” Hafeeza informs her. “You didn’t have any I.D or a phone. Is there someone you want me contact?”

Neither Sahil nor Jashan need know about this, she thinks. “No, I should just be getting home.”

A doctor steps into the room just then, just as Bahar is dismounting the bed. She chides her patient. “You’re not going anywhere,” she says tightly. “Not in your condition.”

“I should get home,” Bahar insists. “I feel fine.”

“I know for a fact that that is a fib,” the doctor refutes. “Your blood sugar levels are too low. You need all the glucose you can get. When was the last time you ate anything?”

“How can I eat?” Bahar says dryly. She groans in the attempt to lay back down on the bed. Somehow her hips ache. It must have been the fall as I fainted, she thinks. “Food poisoning is my enemy number one right now.”

The doctor gives Bahar a funny look, cocking her head to the side. “Food poisoning?” she repeats. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“The…” Bahar is too ashamed to even mention it, ducking her head. “… internet.”

The doctor rolls her eyes at Hafeeza “It will be the absolute death of us, I’m telling you. With people diagnosing themselves, they’ll end up developing illnesses just by thinking about it.”

“I haven’t been able to keep anything down,” Bahar says by way of explanation. “I had this stale stuffed capsicum last night that–”

“That isn’t food poisoning,” the doctor hands out a report of medical tests to Bahar. “That’s morning sickness. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t really confine itself to the morning.”

Hafeeza beams. “Oh, that’s wonderful news!” she sings.

“Congratulations,” the doctor echoes.

Bahar knows for a fact the doctor is mistaken. “That’s not possible, doctor,” she says dimly.

“Actually it is,” the doctor refutes again, pointing to blood work in the report. “You’re six weeks along.”

For Bahar, time stops.

The whole world skids to a halt; the world where nothing made sense before today, the world that owed her, the world she will be leaving behind.

And then the world lurches forward again having regained lost momentum, fixed on the right track, having given her what she has always innately desired, having made her whole again.

She feels a stir inside her; a sweet, aching stir where her womb is located.

The report slips from her hands and falls to the floor.  The doctor and Hafeeza trade worried looks.

But Bahar is smiling, laughing, crying sweet tears of joy. Because this news is too incredible to be true. Because her dreams have come true. Because she was diagnosed as sterile by three different doctors years ago who have now been proved wrong.

She is going to give Sahil a child.

*

ASHNI wonders how all the people can be so blind that they don’t notice a massive Alsatian running loose. The watchman of her building too was not even at his post or else she would asked him for help. The people teeming around Kemps Corner are no help to her at all. Only a few agree to listen to her and answer her queries about a lost dog. Most are too busy, turn a deaf ear and blind eye to her, picking their way around her. The few initial blocks into Bomanji Petit Road don’t show signs of Bear, nor does the stretch of Kemps Corner up until the flyover.

The sky is diming, and the streetlights are coming to life one at a time.

Traffic is snarling, and Ashni deems it unwise to keep crossing the road alone any longer.

She hoofs further down the hill, until a panoramic view of the neighbourhood unfolds at the corner of St. Stephen’s Church. She is scared to shout out Bear’s name, scared that somebody will notice that a nine-year-old girl is in public all by herself, unaccompanied by her father.

The thought of him saddens Ashni. So does the Bear’s disappearance, yes, but she does not want to disappoint her father. After all the trouble he took, after changing his mind about getting her a pet, this is not any kind of way to repay him. She cannot picture herself breaking his heart, not after he showed how much he truly loves her.

That is whey she decides she is not going back home without Bear.

*

GAUTAM had a chance to reconnect with Shaan while his wife had left the house, so now when it’s her turn, he doesn’t want to intrude. She deserves her own private time to do the same.

He watches her from the doorway, as she drifts around their son’s room before sitting down on his bed. Bending over, she picks up a toy robot from among a pile of cars. Her fingers idly reposition its adjustable arms, up and down, and she sets it down on the bedside table once it has provided her with the comfort she seeks. Next, she pulls Shaan’s blanket across her lap, then throws it over her shoulders, wrapping herself tight in it. She pushes her nose into the cloth and inhales, filling her head with Shaan’s scent as Guatam had done earlier. A ghost of a smile appears on her lips.

Gautam wishes he was more subtle, because when she speaks, her question is meant for him. “It’s so quiet, isn’t it?”

Slowly he crosses the threshold into the room, and sits down beside her.

“The house is chaotic, I know. But without his laughter…”

“I know, Payal.”

Shaan would be running about the mansion at this hour of the evening, turning it upside down, half the servants chasing him down just to get him to take off his shoes, which would have gotten filthy after a round of football in the garden. Or to get him to change his clothes. Or to have a bath.

“He’d be asking for his Oreo cookies,” Payal says absently. “So that he can dunk it in the milk and lick out the cream. Always wanting to ruin his dinner. He got that habit from you, you know.”

It pleases Gautam to hear her talk this way, after she confined herself in the mandir downstairs for hours on end. “Guilty as charged,” he replies.

Payal snickers. “You’re not the only one.”

Gautam looks at her. “What do you mean?”

Payal is not forthcoming for some time. She inhales, exhales, inhales again, before going on. “Do you know what my last words to him were?”

Gautam thinks hard, but doesn’t know what she means.

“I told him ‘no’,” she says, her face contorting. “What if those were my last words to him, Gautam? What if we don’t see him again, and the last memory I have of him is denying him something as simple as ice cream that every child craves for?”

Gautam understands now, and knows she is making a mistake. She is choosing to define her relationship with her son in such a negative way. It is a choice he can’t let her make. “You can’t let that one moment define your relationship with him, Payal. Listen to me, you are his mother. That goes beyond–”

Payal carries on like she is absorbed in a world of her own, like she wasn’t listening to him. “Do you know what makes it worse, Gautam? That even if I had said yes and given him what he wanted, he would have still been taken. It wouldn’t have made a difference, so why can’t I forgive myself? It’s not making any sense to me. Was he taken because of me?”

“Of course not, Payal. Don’t think like this.”

“That’s why I had to go, Gautam. I had to go bring the ice cream. Now it’s here, at home, waiting for him.” Her voice cracks, her eyes glisten. She is intent on explaining she has done all in her power to correct the things she did wrong. Gautam doesn’t need her to do that. He doesn’t need anything from her except for her to be Shaan’s mother. And to be patient just a little while longer. “He just has to come back now. He just has to. The ice cream is waiting for him here.”

Gautam thinks of the great weight the secret letter in the pocket of his coat carries. “I promise you, Payal. I will bring him back. We are never losing him.”

“I didn’t mean to say those awful things to you, Gautam. I’m sorry I blamed you…” Her voice trails off as she turns into him.

He doesn’t let her apologize. She nuzzles her head agasint his shoulder and he drapes his arm around her, holding her close, tight, sharing all the strength and confidence that makes him believe that they will be a family once again.

Reunited, he thinks as his jaw clenches.

“Forget that,” he says, tailing his fingers through her hair. “What matters now is that he is going to come back, Payal. And I am not coming home without him.” He tips her face up by her chin and presses his lips to her forehead. Payal closes her eyes and relaxes agasint him like a deflating tire.

Gautam is going to bring his son home.

If it the last thing I do, he thinks.

*

ADIL has to keep a safe distance from his guardian, because Pakistan just lost the match to India. Ismaeel bhai is yelling wildly at the television, hurling curses, thoroughly outraged. History has the habit of repeating itself, and in this instance it is not to his liking.

Ismaeel bhai has already smashed a wooden chair against the wall; now its lays strewn across the floor of the basement in splinters as he stomps his way around like a furious giant.

Finally, after what seems to be an insufferable eternity, he seems to tire, his fit of violence dissipating like a calming storm, and he sinks into the settee, hissing one last expletive under his breath, in which he damns the country they were born in to hell.

Adil had underestimated the role that the match played. He gulps, hard.

Adil doesn’t want to approach his guardian even with a ten foot pole, but it is getting late. They were held back by the match, but now that it has concluded, they must get moving. The rendezvous for the exchange is approaching fast. He switches off the television.

“Ismaeel b-bhai,” he starts.

The man jars, seeming to remember he has company. “Adil,” he grunts, dashing away tears with the back of his hand. Adil hadn’t noticed them before, surprised to find his guardian can feel pain like he does, somehow humanizing him. “We’ll show them. We’ll show them today not to ever mess with us.” He stands and places a hand heavily on Adil’s shoulder. Adil fights not to flinch, but Ismaeel bhai continues in the same passion, fist clenched near his face. “We will do what they couldn’t.” He then throws his fist at the T.V, pointing. “We will always win from now on. It starts with tonight.”

“It does,” Adil nods in agreement, and it goes against the very fibre of his being.

“Get the boy,” Ismaeel bhai sneers. “We are going to teach them a lesson they will never forget.”

Adil sneers in return, and the moment he turns around, it slips from his face. He climbs the stairs to the small room down the paint-shedding hallway. He opens the battered door to find the boy dozing. He cradles the child in his arms and carries him to the basement, laying him down on the settee.

The voices are ecstatic, hooting and cheering in Adil’s head because of what is going to happen now. But Adil simply shoves three Crocin tablets down his throat. They seem confused, tell him that the days of depending on medication have gone. He is a new person now.

“I am not,” he mutters to himself. I have to have a clear head for this, he thinks. He has to have a clear head for this, and he needs Them to go away before he can execute his plan.

Plan?

The voices scream.

They scream at the top of their lungs.

Somewhere in his mind he has erected a defensive wall, to keep Them out from a section of his thoughts, block Them from the innermost recesses of his mind. They ask what he is keeping from Them. They pound in his head, hammer against his skull, scream resounding screams that makes his head feel like it will implode.

They demand to know what he is up to. But if Adil only waits a few minutes, the Crocin tablets will get to work, They will ebb, and he can do as he pleases in the short period of time that his mind will become his own again.

He watches as Ismaeel bhai crosses the basement with a bucket of ice-cold water and simply turns it over the sleeping boy’s face.

*

SHAAN’s nerves are zapped into shock. His mind works in over-drive. At first he is drowning and his lungs scream for air. But a second later he splutters and he finds that he can breathe again. His face is wet and frozen, immobile, just like the rest of his body–his arms are tied behind his back, his legs bound under him.

He feels like someone shoved him out of a plane, mid-flight, while he was still sleeping.

     No!

Gasping as he steadies his breathing, he looks around. His unfocused eyes strain to register his surroundings, and when they do, they register the Bad Men. It feels strange to see them with plain, normal faces, with skin like his and eyes and teeth as ordinary as anyone’s. There is a reason they aren’t wearing those masks anymore. He thinks he nows what that reason is.

Adil glowers at the Bad Man he considered his friend. Adil has cold-blooded eyes that bore into him.

Shaan has not forgotten how Adil betrayed him.

The Big Bad Man sticks his face right into Shaan’s face. “You should be awake for this.” He grits his teeth. “After all, you’re going to die today.”

The chill of the water had blanched him, but Shaan can feel all the blood in his body go white.

“Stay here,” the Big Bad Man tells Adil. “When the exchange is done and the father has handed me the money, I will come back and we will kill him.” He shoots a frigid look at Shaan. “This one is loaded with real bullets.” He puts a revolver in Adil’s hand. “In case anything happens, and I am not able to come back here, don’t be afraid to use it. I will call you the first chance I get. It will be tricky to navigate the city if the doctor has made the foolish mistake of involving the police. But if everything goes right, by God’s grace, together, we can deliver the dead body right to his parents’ doorstep.”

Shaan shivers. He accepts that his life will soon come to an end. Since he learned that Adil, his fond friend, is against him, he knew there would be no hope for him. He will never get to see his mummy and papa again.

Automatically, or instinctvively, Shaan turns his thoughts to any and all loving moments he has ever shared with his parents, to take solace in those happy times: the birthdays, the holidays, the games and mischief. He reaches into the solid blocks of his memory that have always been reliable, but now they seem to crack and crumble. His parents’ happy faces don’t appear to him, no matter how hard to strains to remember them, now when he needs them the most, now when it really matters.

He want to cry, but somehow the tears don’t come to him.

It is like he has been robbed of his entire life leading up to this moment, and all that he can do is look forward to the short amount of time he has left to live.

This, he wonders, is what it must be like to be close to death.

“A well-deserved end, for you filthy sinners.” The Big Bad Man spits on his face.

 *

DIPAK races from room to room with a knot of worry in his gut. He tried his best to get back in time, but traffic was bent on conspiring against him today. Now, he is facing the consequences of his unwise decision to leave his daughter alone at home. It is his worst fear every time he does it.

The open door of his flat brought him unbidden visions that Ashni’a safety has been compromised. A break-in? A break-out? He doesn’t know what to think. After scouring everywhere, his daughter and the dog are nowhere to be found in the apartment. He told her not to open the door.

I told her. I told her.

Dipak races out of his flat and knocks furiously on Niloufer’s door. She emerges in a flash. He asks her, but she too has no clue of Ashni’s whereabouts. She saw the girl only half an hour ago.

Dread spreads through his veins like an instant fever. “She opened the door for you?!” he cries wildly.

Niloufer pales. “Yes, the dog you got her was barking and I–”

Oh my God!” Dipak runs his hand anxiously through his hair. “Ashni, where are you?” He repeats the question like a mantra, over and over again as he searches every room of his flat a second time, in the hopes that she may somehow return to him. He fears the worst, even though he doesn’t want to, cursing himself.

Niloufer hurries after him. “I’m dialing the police,” she says, and once she has them on the phone, she hands it over to Dipak.

*

ASHNI whispers to herself, “Come on, Bear, where are you?” Not only has she lost Bear but she feels hopelessly lost herself.

Against all odds, a level-headed calm then overcomes her. Nothing can be accomplished with haste. It’s self-destructive. Haste makes waste, she thinks. She learned that in school.

“Come on. Where would you go, Bear? Where-would-you-go?”

A dog free to roam the city is likely to end up anywhere and everywhere. She places herself in his shoes–if dogs can wear them. She would personally like to be a little poodle, preferably a pink one with a fluffy tail. All the same, she would need to have one destination in mind.

Bear does not need food. He knows there is plenty of it back at home. This also rules out his search for a home, because he has already found one when Ashni rescued him. Bear would only leave the house for something he doesn’t have back at home.

He would leave the house for something, she thinks.

Perhaps…. some… thing.

Some… thing….

     Some… one!

Bear is a dog. And all dogs want friends. He wants the company of others like him. Ashni can only think of one popular dog-park that will be swarming with doggies at this time. His previous owners may have frequented that place, and so it makes sense that Bear would go there. But it is along walk to the park, and Ashni would have to hoof it.

Not like I have a choice, she resolves, and starts down the south road.

The sun, a blazing ornage ball, begins to set gradually. She watches it sink, in the sky, between the buildings to her right.

*

GAUTAM has been allowed to wear the black jacket and red cap the police has procured for him, even though two hours are left till the exchange is to take place.

At least, according to them, Gautan thinks.

All he had to tell Inspector Kapadia was that he wanted to get habituated to wearing the prescribed clothes before the time comes. The Inspector did not see any harm in it, for they are after all meant for no one but Gautam.

The shade of the cap juts over Gautam’s face once he wears it. Inspector Kapadia turns it around. “We need to be able to have a visual on your face,” he informs. “Wear is backwards. It will be dark as it is.”

“Right.” Gautam wishes his voice did not quiver. His hand shoots out for the duffle bag of money next, and the Inspector raises an eyebrow in question when Gautam says, “It is my money, Inspector. I just want to be sure about how I’ll be playing my part.”

“You’re ready for it,” Kapadia shrugs, clearly having some qualms. “But the GPS tracker still needs to be stitched into the lining of the bag. All you have to do is look like that and wait at the duck pond. You will be given an earpiece too so that you’re part of the comms. When the kidnappers and your son approach you, our men will close in. There’ll be no escape for them. But you must remember to keep your distance from them. Anyone not a Friendly is a threat to your person. Do not engage in physical contact with them.”

Gautam nods, testing the weight of the duffle bag in his hands, but none of these tactics concern him. If only the study were not the most heavily crowded place in the house, he would have a better chance of slipping out with it undetected. Inspector Kapadia too eyes him with suspicion, unwilling to leave his side. When an analyst nearby calls him, Kapadia finally turns his back on Guatam to look at something on the screens.

Gautam’s heartrte climbs. He needs to make a move. He doesn’t have much time till the secret rendezvous with the kidnappers. He wants to be there earlier than eight o’clock. He cannot waste another moment here and miss the chance of recsuing Shaan.

Tis motivate him. Gautam begins to edge away, making small, imperceptible steps towards the door, inch by inch, limb by limb. His movements are agonizingly slow.

“ACP! Inspector!”

His sweaty grip on the bag almost falters when he hears the shouts. Someone has noticed him, caught him red-handed calling him out to the police. Sweat starts dripping down his back.

No, no, I need to get out of here, he begs silently.

But then he realizes the woman analyst who yelled is across the study, busy at a workstation. She could no way have spotted what he is trying to do.

“ACP! Inspector!” she calls out again.

From wherever and whatever it was that was keeping him occupied, ACP Omkar comes racing into the study. Inspector Kapadia dashes to join him at the other extremity of the room where all the phone-lines are set up. So does every other officer and analyst, once they drop their posts and hustle past Gautam like he isn’t there. In seconds, every soul in the room is facing away from Gautam, and he stares at the back of each of their heads.

This is his brief window of opportunity.

*

SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA asks wildly, “What do we have?”

“We’ve just got reports that another child has been taken,” the woman analyst who summoned them replies, a telephone receiver held to her ear. “The Department thinks it could have something to do with our case. This is the second missing child reported today.”

“Taken, or missing?” The ACP demands. “Which is it?”

The woman looks frightened. All she knows is that it is a young girl of nine.

“Within the age range,” Inspector Kapadia comments. “This may not be an anomalous incident after all.”

The ACP rubs his chin. “Get me the address.”

“Are we going to the parents?”

But the Inspector may as well have been invisible. ACP Omkar has brushed past him like he wasn’t asked a question, like usual. “I will get in touch once I have the details. Be ready with the case file. We have to find consistencies between these children. If we don’t, we have two unconnected cases on our hands.”

The analyst turns around from her phone-call. “It’s just a few blocks away, ACP. At Kemps Corner.”

“Send the address to my phone.” The man rattles off more orders to a few petty officers, and then marches out of the room, some officers and analysts holding their laptops in tow.

The Inspector should have known he would be ordered to remain here. After all, the ACP had already informed him that he will have no part to play in the nine o’clock exchange at Tata Garden. He is stationed in this mansion indefinitely.

With that, he remembers the Shahs. They need to be informed about this new lead, and if not that, then another possible facet of their case.

Kapadia goes in search of the doctor, pushing through the sea of analysts and officers. But Dr. Shah is not standing where the Inspector left him. The dark jacket, red cap, and duffle bag of money, too, are missing from the table where they were being kept. The last person to be seen with all three items was the doctor.

Kapadia feels the life leave his legs.

Nothing but the doctor’s tweed coat remains, tossed over the table. He grabs it. This is the coat he took off to put on the prescribed black jacket and red cap and… and… and what…?

What what what?

Kapadia grabs at his hair. The doctor couldn’t have absconded. Not a damn thing makes sense when Inspector Kapadia has scoured the entire house in vain. Payal has returned to the mandir, offering prayer after prayer to the Goddess Durga. But her husband is nowhere. In hindsight, something was indeed unusual about the doctor’s behaviour when they were speaking. He seemed off, wanting to wear the jacket and cap and hold the duffle bag of money an hour before the police was meant to take him to the garden.

Kapadia needs to bring this to the ACP’s notice. If Dr. Shah has planned to go to Tata Garden ahead of time, he is doing it the wrong way. It jeopardizes everything. Why would he risk

Kapadia stops shot, realizing that he has been holding on to the doctor’s tweed coat all this while. This might tell him something. He digs into each pocket, turning them inside out, and all but one refuse answer the Inspector’s questions…

… the doctor has gone to the Malabar Hill post office, in response to a covertly handled message, and he will likely be unarmed and outnumbered.

Kapadia commits the note to memory and them crumples it.

The Inspector bursts out the front door of the mansion, heading for the driveway. He commandeers the first empty police jeep he can find. Many junior officers notice and crowd around him, ask what he is thinking of doing. They remind him he needs to be present at the Shah residence now that the ACP is absent. All the Inspector does is switch on the ignition and whip his head around to the back seat; te jeep is loaded with a bevy of weapons that can be of use.

Good.

He guns the engine and zips out the gates. The flurry of the media reporters is still gathered outside. When he honks and crawls forward to drive through them, they respond with cusses. He has no patience for this. He revs and makes the jeep lurch forward a foot, making a threat. The gaggle scatters in fear, giving him a ide berth.

Kapadia finally floors the gas pedal and sets course for Malabar Hill.

The ACP will finally see his true worth now.

*

YASHWANT’s quiet passenger only looks dully past the window. The colours of the fast-approaching night reflect his mood and clothes, apart from his red cap.

Yashwant knows better than to open his mouth.

*

RAHUL touches the door and lets his hand drag down its surface. He can feel every minute furrow of the withered wood beneath the grooves of his fingers. The last time he was atthis spot, he had never expected to see this door again. But now here he is, right back to the spot where his journey began.

It is clear that his father is not home. No lights appear to be switched on and there is no sound of movement or life from within. So far he has seen three signs that were meant to make him give this a second thought: his lost luggage and those two unbelievable taxi rides. Disregarding this fourth sign, he rings the doorbell and also knocks. He waits in a heavy silence, and when the door doesn’t open, he rests his forehead into it, sighing.

What happened with Rita gave him the push he needed to complete his journey. That’s why he came here today instead of coming tomorrow as he planned. The incredible feeling that washed over him when Rita accepted him for who he is still lives inside him, warm and delicious in his veins. He wants more of it, for there is a sneaking fear that it will die out, and then he may never know or experience it again for as long as he may live. Now, with no other alternative than to wait another day, he can already feel his shot at true happiness slipping away. But he realizes he has one more route to try. He selects DAD on his phone and puts it to his ear.

The call doesn’t even connect when his privacy is lost.

He presses the End-Call option prematurely and turns around to see an elderly man step out of the flat opposite. As he bolts his door, he eyes Rahul with suspicion, eyes this stranger lurking the hallways of his building.

“Waiting for someone?” he asks Rahul.

Rahul cups the back of his neck. “I… was just hoping to meet someone who lives here.”

“Do you know him?” the old man asks.

“Yes,” Rahul says softly, looking nack at this father’s door. He does not know why. “I’m a distant relative.”

“A long way from home, aren’t you?”

“Yes…” Rahul says. “Um, do you by any chance know when he will be home?”

“Damned if I know a single thing about that cranky bastard.” The old man says it like he’s spitting his words. “I hardly see him. Since his son left he’s buried himself in his work.”

He turns to face Rahul, keeping his house-keys in his trouser pocket, and Rahul sees his face clearly now. A memory of this person returns to Rahul. He was Rahul’s neighbor when Rahul used to live here. And the fact is true till this day. It feels silly not to have taken the effects of time into account. The man has not aged gracefully.

“You know about his son?” Rahul hazards the question.

The old man raises a hand. “Oh everybody does, my man. His son died, at least that is what he went about telling everyone at first, but we know that’s not the truth. Disappeared ages ago. Since then, this neighbor of my mine has not been particularly neighbourly. I’ve stopped greeting him for years. Never replies and always pissed about someone or something or the other. It’s popular suspicion that he has his son chained up in there. Now that would be one hell of a thing if it were true, wouldn’t it.” When he laughs, Rahul can only laugh along, in jest.

Rahul thanks the old man and allows him to be on his way.

After lingering for a while in that dark corridor, he finally navigates his way out of the building, having no other choice. Hyderabad Estate has depreciated over the years, desperately in need of a paint job and refurbishments. Florescent tube-lights flicker overhead everywhere and the elevator delivers him to the ground floor after numerous jerks and jolts.

Walking back to his rented car in the lot, he notices the gradual gradation of darkness in the sky, with the barest hints of an orange glow in the west. His eyes on the sky, he alters his course and keeps walking past his car and out of the building premises.

Two minutes later he is strolling through Priyadarshani Park, admiring its sprawling landscape and tennis courts. It is the haunt of picnic-goers, track runners, and football players and yoga enthusiasts as they all make the most of this clement weather. Of all the places he has been to thus far, it is this park that makes him feel like he has truly returned home.

The home has not improved much, since littering is still being practiced. If it were him doing it in London, he would be arrested.

Without thinking, aimlessly, he wanders to the promenade overlooking the sea. Nothing but the sparkling, twinkling Arabian sea spreads out before him, going as far as the eye can see. The final morsel of the setting star dips under the horizon, departing this part of the world, with streaming ribbons of pink and orange lights in tow. The moon glows bight and white high above his head, bringing in the night. His clothes snap in the wind, the strong breeze blowing madly at him. The vista is obviously breathtaking. It is hard to look away or at anything else.

There is something about this place, he muses warmly.

The cast-iron benches sheltered under groves of coconut trees jogs his memory. This is where, nice years ago, he decided to tell his father, after sitting down to pen his emotions wrung from the depths of his soul. He did it to see what it would feel like to write down those words down, let them out once and for all before having to say them for the first time to another person. The process was liberating. It occurs to him he could do it again if he wanted some help. And, it occurs to him, he does need help.

All the help I can get, he thinks.

Unable to control himself, he tosses his head back and laughs, drawing dubious looks from every person around him. He realizes his life has come full circle. He takes out his moleskin pocketbook, in which he has accounted for the expenses of his journey thus far, and sits down on a vacant bench. He turns to fresh pages and jots down what comes to his mind, what he should say to his father this time around. And how he should say it. And why he should say it.

And for whom he should say it.

The occasion calls for it.

*

NAZNIN’s bag of sandwiches is almost empty. Only ten remain, but she can see that GoodGuy187 has fared much better; his bag has just two in them. Of course. With his irresistible charm, who wouldn’t come flocking to him?

She needs to buck up.

“Here, let me help.” When he runs out of sandwiches, he takes a few out of her bag and gives them to the people who are waiting in line along the pavement. “Thank God, there was enough,” he says with a half- smile. “It would have been a shame if we fell short.”

The last two sandwiches are given to a homeless mother of three, who hobbles up with an underfed infant held against her spare chest. She blesses them, hopes that God will reward them for this, running her fingers across her face and chest in a cross.

In the beginning they were uncertain and clueless, since neither of them had ever undertaken a feat so grand. They were in possession of one hundred sandwiches, and their goal was to find those many people to feed. They started out at Colaba Causeway, since the place is known for the homeless and needy; they mostly congregate there. Slowly but surely, they discovered smaller groups who made their slums in the darker gullys. Every person they handed a sandwich to had someone else in mind who could use a lift-me-up.

Over the past hour, Naznin and GoodGuy187 have fed starving families, barefoot orphans and invalids, being ushered from ghetto to ghetto, corner to corner, leaving nothing but happiness and full stomachs in their wake. To her, it seemed like each blessing they received for their generosity was unnecessary. Strangely, she feels some heartache now, because the last of those was just given, and there won’t be more to come. There are no more sandwiches to hand out.

“Why so sad?” GoodGuy187 says.

“We can’t help more people,” she says.

“Well, there aren’t any,” he gestures around, bringing her attention to their accomplishment. They have fed every last peson who came to them with hope. “You did some good today, TeenGirl1242.”

Her chest warms. It would not have been possible without you, she thinks.

As they walk down the road, side by side, things between them revert to how it was in the morning. They only burgle shy glances at each other, make self-conscious gestures. Soon, too soon, they reach his motorcycle, which is parked in front of a McDonald’s outlet. She was easing her pace, not wanting the day to end.

But time always flies when you’re having fun, she thinks regrettably.

GoodGuy187 slides a hand into his pocket and looks down, staring at his shoes, while she shifts her weight between her feet, anxious and tired of her heavy backpack. She can’t understand why this awkwardness has returned to plague them again. Their eyes fail to meet more than a few times and Naznin gives him ample opportunities to speak first. But maybe he is doing the same for her and that’s why no one is saying anything.

So annoying, Naznin thinks. Frustrated, and in a sudden burst, she breaks the ice.

“Will you wait for me here?” she splutters.

GoodGuy187 arcs an eyebrow, nodding with a half-smile. She leaves him, racing into the McDonald’s outlet.

In the washroom, she empties out her backpack. And she fumbles so clumsily that when she tries to dress herself she ends up wearing her outfit backwards. She has to retry twice before she gets it right. She is aware that she is being too silly. Confidence is key. The recalls the lecture GoodGuy187 gave her and decides to apply his philosophy right now.

At what point in the past two hours she decided to do this, she does not know. But she is going to do this. She is doing this before anything else.

GoodGuy187 is whistling as he paces the pavement, his eyes on the entrance of the fast-food restaurant, looking for her, looking past her. Naznin’s prepared smile wavers as she lifts her veil.

He stops and stares.

“What do you think?” she says tentatively. She can’t seem to still her fingers; they pull at the sides of her burqa to adjust it, to make her look her best.

TeenGi-” he starts, hushed, his awe-struck eyes surveying her head to toe. “The Truth and Only The Truth?” he says after a brief pause.

“Yes.”

“No, it’s too corny,” he says sheepishly, moistening his lips.

“Just say it,” she begs.

He grins, and she almost melts into a puddle.

“This is how you should always look.” He walks up to her and takes her fidgeting hands into his, holding them. His eyes are clear and open, beckoning. “You just became even more beautiful.”

That does it for her.

Oh God, she thinks.

Like a starved animal, Naznin pounces, unable to maintain the distance she has been keeping for so long. Everything has had to be a tightrope-walk with him, but not anymore. As she throws her arms around him, he does the same to her, his confident arms enveloping her.

She wishes she could pause this moment, because she wants to remember it exactly how it is. She wants this moment impressed on her mind: They are holding each other. She is liable to cry, her breathing erratic, her mind exploding. He is strong, his heartbeat constant and defiant. She can hear it as she rests her head against his chest.

Thump-thumpthump-thump-thumpthump.

One thing is for sure: they are both nervous, and they’re trying not to show it.

When she does not let go for a full minute, he says, “It’s things like this that make me think this isn’t your first time meeting a stranger off the internet.”

She sniffs, though she isn’t crying. “You really don’t think I look like Batwoman or something?”

He lifts his left pant leg and swings his wooden limb out. “You really don’t think I look like Pinocchio or something?” She gets his point. “Besides, Batwoman has got nothing on you.”

The comment makes her squeeze him tighter. The entire day, he has been telling her everything she needs to hear. How in the world was she lucky enough to meet this boy on the right day?

And what is she going to do without him?

“You know,” he says casually. “A wise friend of mine once said: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.’”

This boy, he is full of wisdom.

Naznin pulls back to give him a look. “Oh, yeah?” she says sarcastically. He nods in mock innocence. She nuzzles her head back against his chest, smiling.

And they stand entwined, as if melded together, frozen in time and space.

*

END OF CHAPTER 10

© Amaan Khan, September 6, 2018.

———-

Glossary:

  1. mandir: a temple
  2. bhai: a term of respect or endearment for a gentleman, meaning ‘brother’