Hello, everyone! How are you this Thursday? If you missed the Introduction to Disconnect: A Novel , the PrologueChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10, Chapter 11 , or Chapter 12, do check them out before reading Chapter 11. 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 13 of Disconnect, the final chapter before the epilogue (which will be out next week and officially conclude the book) of my second novel, begins right below! It’s almost the end! Let me know in the comments what you think! As always, Happy Reading! And thank you for staying with the book all this way from the start! You have no idea what this means to me! Love you all!

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CHAPTER 13 – 10 P.M.

ADIL takes the boy’s hand in his and gets up, shuffling down the aisle toward the exit. The bus jerks to a halt at the stop. Before climbing out, he looks back at the faces of the bored passengers. He was convinced that they were eyeing him and the boy ever since they got on the bus, afraid that Shaan was recognized, but now not a single person is looking anywhere near them. Half of them are asleep; the other half busy on their phones.  It must be just him, but he cannot shake off a nagging feeling of being watched.

He steps off with the boy, into the humid mid-summer night air. The road is dark and none of the dim streetlamps light a clear path for them. They begin to climb the inclined gully before them, once the bus resumes it way.

Adil is touched by how obediently the boy matches step for step with him. He is not a pace quicker nor slower. And the grip on Adil’s palm is firm, signifying a renewed trust in Adil. He never thought the boy would ever treat him the same again.

“Where will you go?” the boy asks. Neither spoke while on the bus, and now the boy has questions.

“I don’t know,” Adil says hollowly.

“Are you coming with me?”

“No.”

The boy stops when he notices they have reached their destination. He cranes his head to look up at Adil. Adil bends to his knee so the boy doesn’t have to.

“I’m sorry for what I did today,” he says, their faces on the same level. “I know you must have been scared. But I didn’t mean to do all those things.”

“It’s okay, now that we’re here.”

Adil suppresses a tug at the corner of his lips, killing a smile before he can make it. The boy is so innocent, so full of forgiveness for all of Adil’s sins. Adil doesn’t deserve it, which is why he will not allow himself to smile at those words. All he can do is stare back into the boy’s small, clear eyes. So innocent, he thinks. He wishes he was as lucky as Shaan when he was a child. Yes, Shaan was kidnapped, is traumatized, but in every other sense of the word he is luckier than Adil could ever be. Maybe things would be different if Adil’s childhood was not stripped from him. He will never know the kind of life that would have been. But he has made peace with that, accepted it, and moved on.

He pats the boy on his head. “Go,” he says, motioning down the end of the gully, encouraging him to make the rest of the walk by himself. “And don’t look back.”

“Come with me,” the boy says, his voice choked.

“I can’t, Shaan.”

“Will you come to play football with me again?”

Adil cannot suppress the chuckle that comes. It may probably be the last time something makes him feel this good. “Maybe,” he says. “Now go. Keep going. Don’t stop.”

As the boy begins to walk away, Adil cracks out two more Crocin tablets and swallows them, though they are not needed. Their predecessors are in full swing, but he needs to take precautions. The voices that bored holes into his skull are finally banished, but he still has to end this the right way, and he has to be himself to see it through. He has to make sure nobody can use him ever again.

*

SHAAN begins to create a distance between them. He wants nothing but to run, but for the sake of his friend who has whisked him to safety, he is taking tiny steps. He keeps walking, bearing in mind what his friend told him to do. If it was not for his fondness for Adil, he would be safely home by now. But all he wants to stop, and turn around, and look back. He was told not to. Adil told him not to.

But Shaan does so anyways.

Where did Adil go? he thinks.

He thought he would find Adil still standing there a few feet behind him. But all he sees now is pulsing darkness, so his heart sinks. He hopes he will see Adil again, and that this was not their last meeting. WAfter letting out a long sigh, he turns back and sprints the rest of the way.

Once he reaches the old rickety gate, he skids to a stop. Two policemen standing as sentry stare dumbly at him, and then at each other. Neither seem to believe they are seeing what they are seeing. Then one of them grabs Shaan’s hand while the other shoves open the gate. They fly across the stony path of the backyard, through the back door in the kitchen. It all flashes by in a blur, and Shaan barely has the chance to appreciate that he has really come home.

Mrs. Shah is being called for, being told to come quickly.

There is a haze of faces he does and does not recognize all over his house. There’s Shakuntala’s shocked face, and other servants, and uniformed policemen and other officers and people. He doesn’t know where all of them could have possibly come from.

Then Shaan hears her voice; her sweet, honey-toned voice calling his name, like music to his ears. His wrenches his head around to find her… here and there… this way and that… following the sound of her voice… and… he finally sees her…

…racing out of the small mandir room where the family prays every morning.

The moment she distinguishes him at the front of the crowd, being ushered toward her, her eyes lock into him, like everything else in the world has receded and he is the only thing that stands out, the only thing that matters–the only thing that there is.

“My baby!” she cries, scooping him up, to love, to hold on to, and to protect.

“Mummy!” The tears streaming down Shaan’s face reach his tongue. He can taste nothing but happiness. “Mummy, I was so scared.”

“I know, baby, I know.”

His mother doesn’t let go, and Shaan wants exactly that. He has a crushing hold on his mother’s dress, too, his knuckles turned white. His fingers are small and dainty, but now they are empowered to never let go. “Where’s papa?”

She draws back, confused and holding his face tenderly. “What do you mean? Didn’t you come home with papa?”

Shaan shakes his head. “No, mummy. I came with Adil.”

Adil?

“Yes, mummy. I know he’s my friend now. Please don’t let anything happen to him. Okay? Please. He got me back home.”

*

GAUTAM glares down at the needle that is sticking into his arm. His blood snakes effortlessly through the transparent tube and into the kidnapper’s body.

When the O+ blood bags ran out, he did not hesitate a moment to transfuse his own. It is the first time that being a universal donor has carried such importance for him.

Deliberately, his gaze slides over to the tray of scalpels and clamps and threaded needles. All of the tools are smeared with blood now.

“All we can do is wait,” says the resident doctor standing across the surgery slab from him.

Gautam assesses the work they have done, and he shakes his head in disageement. They indeed have all that they could, as doctors. But all he has been doing is waiting. He is done waiting. He vowed to kill the ones responsible, to exact revenge. And now here he is, having done everything in his power to save the kidnapper’s life.

“Leave,” he says, his voice coarse, as though from a lack of disuse. When no one makes a move, he shouts. “Get out!

The room erupts with the sound of rushes footsteps as everyone shuffles out. Once cleared, the pressurized door of the OT closes behind Gautam, sealing him and the kidnapper sealed inside. Mechanically, Gautam takes off his mask and surgical gloves, and discards them into the tray of utilized instruments. The only sound there is now, is that of the ambient beeping of the heart monitor in the room, ensuring Gautam of the kidnapper’s steady 77 heartbeats per minute, which is gradually rising.

As Guatam stares vacantly into space, he notices the utility table across the room. The kidnapper’s old blood-soaked white clothes have been dumped there. He starts toward it, and the needles in his arm pulls and stings. The pricked spot on his arm sustains a dull throb as he manoeuvers around the room, but he barely notices the pain. He rifles through the pile of torn and tattered clothes, searching each pocket. In the kurta, there are crumpled sheets of paper that are mostly invoices for electronic equipment and cables. In the pjamas is a wallet. He consults it.

He returns beside the surgery slab and looks, very deliberately, at the misguided Ismaeel Shaikh. Gautam cracks his knuckles. The day is about to close, a full twenty-four hours  since it happened, and the statistics of his little champ’s situation is coming dangerously close to being fulfilled. Before that can happen, Gautam decides, his promise to his wife will be.

Pumping up the slab, Gautam brings Shaikh’s body up to a recline, taking off the oxygen mask and turning the man’s unconscious face toward him. For a second Gautam, he feels disoriented, swaying on the spot. He spares a moment to breath as evenly as he can. The dizziness brought on by his weak blood flow is making it hard to concentrate. As he grows weaker, the kidnapper goes stronger, and he needs the process to hasten. Once his head feels better and reoriented, Gautam gets started.

He puts a finger on the treated gunshot wound and applies pressure, making Shaikh wince. With added pressure, Gautam is able to force a moan from him, nudging him toward semi-consciousness. Shaikh’s eyelids start to flutter. Gautam works the wound harder, pushing and probing his finger as much he can without tearing the stitching he performed, and finally Shaikh can’t bear it anymore. His eyes shoot open and glare at Gautam in alarm.

Gautam bares his teeth.

“Where is my son?”

Shaikh’s head rolls, like a child come into an unfamiliar world trying to figure it out, his face contorted. Gautam uses his other hand to apply pressure on the fresh stitches on the abdomen. The flesh is sore and purple, but after what Gautam does it turns a sickly black and almost tears off when Gautam removes his hand. Shaik’s face puckers, turning red.

Gautam continues to torture his body. Shaikh jerks and writhes, trying to escape Gautam’s hands. His legs kick and thrash. His arms, too strain, against the buckled restraints. The green veins in his arms pop out of his skin, threatening to burst. He gurgles in protest, unable to use his voice, but Gautam’s humanity is lost to vengeance.

He only eases, and only for a moment, when he becomes conscious of sudden noise. Shaikh is beyond tachycardic. The heart monitor that was pinging a consistent beep is now firing away at 126 beats per minute.

Shaikh’s eyes bulge out of his skull. As Gautam looms over him, he stares into them. They look like evil black holes. And yet, there is a strange light in them, some kind of peace and calm. It boggles Gautam. He cannot begin to understand what kind of a man he is looking at, who is showing no signs of being human, yet possessing all of them.

“Where is my son?!” Gautam repeats.

However, all Shaikh does is cry.

Gautam becomes conscious of a new noise: people are banging on the OT door from the outside. They are asking him to let them in, asking why the patient’s heart monitor is blasting off, until through the glass pane of the door they see what he has resorted to. But Gautam does not acknowledge them. His is bent on torturing the information he needs out of this monster.

Gautam targets Shaikh’s arm next, where the skin was peeled off and the flesh now dressed and covered. He torques the bandages, heartlessly twisting it between his fingers as Shaikh throws his head back and the tendons in his neck pull taut. Gautam savours it, because has been stripped of every shred of humanity. He swore an oath to do no harm as a doctor, but he isn’t dealing with a human. Shaikh’s body flails uselessly, his face turning purple as though he hasn’t breathed in ages, his jaw closing and clenching, eyes rolling back into his head. Gautam drags in a full, long breath to quell his building lightheadedness, and then repeats the question that he will not stop asking till he gets the answer he wants.

WHERE IS MY SON?!

*

SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA did not expect his first day as a Senior Inspector to demand so much from him, least of all parts of his soul. When he applied, he thought himself prepared for a higher post, with increased authority, responsibilities, and an overall sense of being better equipped to help people. Running away from his and his wife’s decision to adopt a child pushed him into it, too, he will admit that. But his singular wish right now is to erase the past year of his life completely from history.

Now, as he teeters down a series of white sterile corridors that all look the same, he finds himself lost in a maze–a real version of the metaphorical one he has been stuck in all day. He lurches up to the nurses station and asks them the location of OT3.  Memories of the day tumble across his mind’s eye endlessly, but he vaguely hears the nurses telling him to keep going straight down the corridor he is on. And so, lurching with every step, Kapadia carries on.

The faces of the doctors, nurses, and ward boys he passes on the way get replaced by faces of the people in his life. He sees Payal, who is crying one moment and elated the next. There is the boy, Shaan, the most important person of today, who miraculously returned home. He sees the reason why he has come to Breach Candy Hospital, Gautam Shah, who considers his life destined for doom. There is Kapadia’s wife, whom he loves and needs and wants to hold right now. He sees Ravana elude him on every bend of a corner. Finally, the face of ACP Omkar is stalking toward him: a man he cannot fathom, understand, or claim to know in any way.

Kapadia won’t forget how the man staggered to the body bag and unzipped it. Fell to his knees. Burst into tears. Threw himself at the body of his deceased son.

“Help,” ACP Omkar cries, his mouth twisting open.

Inspector Kapadia recoils as the man seizes his shoulders. Kapadia does not know how to begin with a mystery like him. Did the ACP project his private issues onto the Inspector? Did the ACP really prioritize his own personal turmoil over a time-sensitive, high-priority investigation? Is this the reason the ACP wanted absolute control of Kapadia? Did Kapadia really have to look identical to th ACP’s son?

“Help!” ACP Omkar cries again. Kapdia shrinks away, then blinks, and that faces disappears. Another takes it’s place.

It is a white-coated doctor who has latched onto the Inspector, begging for help. He drags Kapadia to a massive sealed door. In the room on the other side, through the glass pane of the door, he sees Dr. Shah leaning heavily over the operating table. And on that table: the kidnapper, spasming and convulsing as the doctor ruthlessly strangles him.

Inspector Kapadia breaks out of his daze. Other men and he push against the glass door, try the handle, bang on the glass. Nothing works. The room is hermitically sealed. Stepping back, he reaches to his side and draws his firearm.

“Everybody move!”

He fires at the glass pane. The bullet shatters the glass; fine glass particles rain down. A doctor reaches into the room for the inside door handle and unlocks it.

The kidnapper is not choking for long. Inspector Kapadia is the first to rush into the OT, yanking the doctor by the shoulder, but Gautam shakes him off. Other doctors try to restrain him, but Gautam get a few hits in, smashing his knuckles and elbows into their faces. It takes a team effort to get the job done. The Inspector and three more doctors overpower Dr. Shah by lunging at him all at once, peeling him of the kidnapper one finger at a time. They drag him against his will and shove him against the wall, two men twisting his hands behind his back in the arrest position to keep him from attacking anybody.

The doctor is in a heightened state of hysteria, straining bodily toward the kidnapper, cursing and yelling, telling the kidnapper that he will not get away with it, pleading him to give him what he wants.

He has my son! The bastard has my son!

The doctor’s voice splits, his mouth continuing to move but nothing coming from it, his face twisted, every muscle coiled tightly.

Kapadia grabs the doctor’s shoulder and look him intently in the eye. “We have Shaan!” he says loudly, as if to pierce the madness that has clouded Gautam’s judgment. “He’s home, Dr. Shah. Shaan has come back home!”

And just like that, the doctor goes still. Like somewhere inside him a switch was turned off. When his whole body relaxes, everyone let’s go of him. It is clear he is no longer a threat to anybody. Limply, Gautam brings his face into his quaking hands, hands that are wet with red, and sobs, crumpling to the floor.

The Inspector notices the blood transfusion needle that has been ripped out in the struggle and brings the doctor some cloth to wrap around the puncture in his arm. His blood is spilling out unnecessarily. For good measure, and because he knows Gautam will want the reassurance, Kapadia squats to repeat the news he came to deliver to the doctor, over and over: the doctor’s son is safe at home, with his mother, waiting to see his father.

When the doctor looks like he is going to be fine, the Inspector rises and wipes the sweat off his brow, walks over to the operating table to take a good look at the kidnapper. The bearded man is now calm and sleeping, nothing to indicate he was ever being attacked, his heart monitor beeping reassuringly. It is hard to reconcile that plain face with the demonic voice that came through the phones.

It occurs to Kapadia that the accomplices are still at large. But Shaan is back, he thinks. Though for now it is all that matters, he knows the case is far from closed. He cannot even return to the ACP for a follow-up or further directives. It is the last thing he wants to do. He wants to do something else.

But what?

Payal is consoled. Dr. Shah is consoled. They are a complete family again. Whole and together and happy. Kapadia needs the same. He wants the same.

He wants to be a father.

He wants to feel that hear-crunching low of misery, feel crippling fear for the live of his child, to be pushed to his breaking point until he knows he can’t go on living another minute, when his every movement, every thought, every action scrapes like sandpaper against his soul. Because now he knows, now he believes, that the world that throws him down, that same world will be there to pick him up again, and it will be that child he loves who will be worth fighting for, worth living for, worth breathing for.

He understands now. The reason he could not understand what kept him up last night was because that thing did not exist, like a hole, an empty space that cried to be filled. Now he has spent an entire day with the Shahs, experienced their pain vicariously. He needs to make the next step in his life. Move forward. It is time.

I am ready.

Kapadia exits the OT, leaving the doctor–who still hasn’t found it in himself to get up from the ground–and hunts for the any open space he can find, the anesthetic scent in the air driving him crazy. He finds a small open-air terrace on the same floor, heavy with summer air, and it does nothing to put his mind at ease. Nothing can, until he makes the phone-call.

He whips out his cell-phone and pushes his hand through his hair multiple times, pacing the terrace. He dials the number, and the call he placed could not be answered sooner. He is trying hard to fight back tears.

“Hello?”

His throat threatens to close at the sound of her voice. “I love you,” he manages to wheeze.

His wife says, “What’s wrong?”

“I love you so much,” he repeats, his jaw wobbling.

She returns the sentiment, but says she is worried about him. He assures her he is fine, and that he only wanted to hear her voice, tell her he loves her, and how happy he is to have her in his life. He is sorry that he hadn’t called her all day to speak to her.

“I was thinking,” he says, biting back his swelling emotions. “We should make a family. I know, things will be getting busy, with my job I may not have as much free time as before, but we can do it. I know it. I want this for us. I want us to adopt.”

A soft sob, and then his wife replies, “Sahil, we don’t have to…”

*

NAZNIN is surfing through English movie channels when the doorbell rings through the house. She gets up to answer it, setting her dinner-plate, which is loaded with scrambled eggs, down on the coffee table. She peeps into the eyehole, opens the door, and doesn’t wait a heartbeat before interrogating her mother.

“Where were you?”

“Walaikum-assalam to you,” her mother huffs, squeezing her way in through the half-open door.

“Assalam-alaikum,” Naznin says under her breath. Once the woman has taken off her shoes and plumped down on the sofa, Naznin mutes the T.V and resumes. “What happened today?”

“I’m too tired to go over it,” her mother says breathlessly. “I’ll tell you in a little while. Bring me some water, would you please?”

Naznin returns from the kitchen with the glass and hands it over. “So no pizza?”

Her mother snorts. “Oh, no pizza. No, no.”

“Well, there’s nothing for dinner. I made eggs for myself. I can make you something…”

“Thank you, baby. I’ll just have some leftovers.”

Naznin slumps back into the sofa. The comedy T.V show on the screen is one that she has been following, but he mother certainly has a better story to tell. “So tell me, Ammi. Where’d you disappear to? Have you been out since you called me in the evening?”

Her mother shakes her head. “What time did you get home?”

Naznin does not like how she changing is the topic. Where has her mother been and why won’t she say anything about it? “Over an hour ago,” Naznin says. He mother cocks her head at her. “What?” she says anxiously.

“You’re so different,” she says, staring at her like one would admire a piece of art. “What did your friends say about it?”

Oh. That. Naznin does not have to think. “They loved it.”

“And do you…?”

“I do,” she says, because it is the truth. “I can’t wait for Abba to see me. That’s why I’m still wearing it.” She runs her hands down the length of the burqa wistfully. She is getting so used to it all evening, she almost forgot she had it on.

She can’t understand why she didn’t take to it sooner. The benefits seem endless; pockets so deep there is no need to carry around a purse, the daily sweeping I taken care of by the extra fabric that trails behind her–but a simple alteration will take care of that–and she could probably take flight with the extra material serving as wings, not that she will ever try that. And once you get used to it, it is actually pretty cozy, like a baby’s onesie, she muses. However, she has indeed come to see things differently.

     More clearly, to be precise.

She has always been the girl who prays namaz five times daily and keeps fasts and does all that she is meant to do. Now, it is time for the next phase. The next chapter, as her mother so aptly put it. The burqa is not about covering herself up. It’s the exact opposite. It is her declaration to the world that she is a devout Muslim who strongly and proudly chooses to believe. Yes, it is a sudden change that will take time to get used to, but change is never easy, nor is it a bad thing. It is the only constant, and there’s no need to run away from it. As she sits wearing her burqa, she can feel it: the change. She is changing as a person. She is changing into a woman.

She is growing.

Suddenly, Naznin’s phone vibrates in her pocket, causing her to jump in her seat, and starling her mother when she does.

“What?! What’s happened, baby?!”

Naznin fishes out her phone and inspects the screen. An Instant Message. The one she’s been waiting for.

“Nothing,” she says distractedly, racing across the hall into her room. “I’ll just be back.” She closes the door behind her.

Naznin could kill her phone for not downloading the entire page quick enough. But when it does, she wishes it had taken its own sweet time. That would have postponed what she feels now.

A deep sense of loss.

GoodGuy187: r v doin this…?

A part of her wants to say no. But she knows what must be done. Outside, the landline has begun to ring. She calls absently over her shoulder, “Ammi, can you get that?”

“Of course,” her mother answers back from the hall. “You’ve just come home, you must be so tied. Rest, rest. I’ll get up to answer it.”

“Thanks,” Naznin mumbles, too soft to be heard by her mother. Her eyes are glued to her phone greedily.

TeenGirl1242: v hav 2

     GoodGuy187: ladies first…

     Naznin doesn’t like it.

TeenGirl1242: of all the times to be chivalrous, this isn’t one of them…

The reply comes too soon. Too, very soon. They deserved more time together, but they both know putting it off would just make it harder.

GoodGuy187: truth and only the truth?… i’m goin 2 miss this…

     TeenGirl1242: think of it as an au revoir… until the forces pull us 2gether again…

     GoodGuy187: if we’d ever be that lucky…

     GoodGuy187: so I suppose… if it’s the last time… TeenGirl1242.

     GoodGuy187 has left the chatroom.

Naznin crashes on the foot of her bed, unable to stay standing.

The deed is only halfway done. Dimly, she goes into her profile of indianteencommunity.in and tries to permanently delete it. But before she can, an invisible force stops her. Her finger hovers over the option. She pinches her lips together. Jump-cuts of the day spent with a random, awesome, too-good-to-be-true boy flash across her mind, the images screaming at her not to do it. She is strong enough to make the right decision. She doesn’t know how she manages it, but she does.

With a single tap, she is signed out for good.

TeenGirl1242 is off on her way. To be assigned to another girl who will log on. Somewhere on the virtual platform of randomized chatroom pairing. She feels heavy, like she has just lost someone; like she is now missing a part of herself. She isn’t quite whole anymore.

She trusts GoodGuy187 to have done his part as well; deleting his account permanently. She knows he has.

Sighing, she sets her phone on her bed, beginning to come to terms with how she feels about this decision. But her train of thought gets interrupted, when her mother pushes into her room, her face streaked in tears. Naznin jolts upright.

“Ammi, are you okay? What is it?”©

“It’s Abba…” her mother says between sobs. “He’s… he’s been arrested…”

*

END OF CHAPTER 13

© Amaan Khan, September 27, 2018.

To continue reading Disconnect, head on over to the Epilogue.

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Glossary:

  1. kurta: a white, ethnic long-sleeved garment worn by men
  2. ammi: menaing ‘mother’
  3. abba: meaning ‘father’
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