Chapter 23

“All set?”

Ashi was standing at the front door with a grin on her face, beaming at her parents. Both of them immediately fixed their sight on Ashi.

“Yes, looks like we are. All set.” Her Dad answered smiling, waving his hands to all the packed stuff. Ashi pared the distance and stood next to her Dad.

“Are you both permanently moving to Delhi?”

Ashi mocked pulling a horrid face viewing the trolley bags.

Her Dad chuckled a little before he said, “Yes, even I asked her the same question. Only this bag”, he pointed at one of the bags out of the four that rested on the carpet, “belongs to me. Rest all are – ”

“Rest all are mine.” Ashi’s mom smirked and continued, “I’ve taken some things Sheela asked me to get and we don’t know if we’ll have to stay there longer. In that case, I don’t want to panic. So you both stop it. And Ashi please, have dinner before you sleep. Of late, you’re skipping meals a tad more than usual. Don’t do that. Also take care of the house and yourself. And what about your meals from tomorrow onwards? You want me to arrange someone or will you manage?”

“Jeesh. Keep your hair on, Mumma. Firstly , I’ll eat on time and won’t skip my meals. Secondly, I’ll take care of everything including myself and thirdly, I’ll manage my meals, that is, lunch and dinner.”

Ashi dramatically let out a sigh and rested her palm on her chest.

“Good. I really hope you do because I don’t want to have a patient back here in Mumbai when I’m taking care of one in Delhi.”

Her mom answered sarcastically. Ashi smirked at her mom.

“What time is the flight?”

“We will leave in 20 minutes. Flight is at ten.” Ashi’s dad answered.

“Cool. I’ll go and change then. See you in 20 minutes.”

Having said that, Ashi moseyed in her room.

***

Fifteen minutes later Ashi was standing at the window waving at her parents who were loading their bag packs in the back seat of a Skoda.

“Finally!”

Ashi heaved a sigh and whispered to self, “I’ll have the entire Armageddon to myself.”

“We’ll call you once we reach.”

Ashi’s mom called out loud before climbing into the passenger seat of the Skoda.

“Yep, Mum. See you soon.”

Ashi beamed and yelled back smiling at her mom even though her figure was partially viewed in the dark. The Navy Blue Skoda roared and pulled off the driveway. Ashi pulled the curtains of her bedroom window and hopped in her bed with the good read she’d left behind because of her Double-Negative Friend, Ruchi.

Riffling the pages to start with the reading and dive herself into it, her iPhone had some other plans for her, this night. It rang proving its omnipresence and Ashi rolled her eyes as she reached over the side table and grabbed it before it knocked down and hit the floor.

“Jeesh!” – escaped from her lips before she saw the same alphabets clumped in the same arrangement flashing on the screen. However, it didn’t scare her wits off this time. Anything bad, whatever it might be, no matter how dreadful it might be, has no effect after we become accustomed to it in long run. This was what had happened to her. She’d become used to it. Her brains already knew the upcoming effects and things the caller had to say. So, without much hesitation, Ashi picked up the call in one swift.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Beautiful.”

A female voice screeched across the line.

“Who’s this, this time?” Ashi sat in her bed as she sensed something was up and it’s not “just” a threat anymore.

“Well Wisher. Name isn’t important. My companion had called you, twice, to warn you”, the voice sighed and continued, “but it seems like you’re too stubborn or are too head over heels with Rihaan Malhotra or both. You need to be taught a lesson before you start taking us for granted. With you being technically alone in your entire apartment building – having 3 apartments, you cannot necessarily be safe. And unfortunately, your screams for help won’t reach anywhere in your neighbourhood. All the best, Darling.”

The line went dead.

Ashi stared at her iPhone dreadful and shocked at the idea of what had just happened. This call definitely scared her wits off. She got out of her bed, pulled the curtains and peered outside for any signs of suspicion. With her left hand crossed across her chest, she kept twiddling with her iPhone biting her lower lip all this time and after prolonged additions and subtractions, with many (+1s) and (-1s) in her hyperactive brains, decided to dial Rihaan and feed him with what had just happened. Ashi tapped the iPhone’s screen and waited for a second or two staring at Rihaan’s name on her iPhone, but dialed him anyways. Just a few seconds before the call was connected, she thought about Saturday, weekend and Rihaan together and the word “partying” popped in her mind but it’s too late to disconnect the call. Even if she’d disconnected the call, Rihaan would still see her name anyways; so she let it rang and waited for him to answer although she’s feeling all guilty for being a killjoy and spoiling his weekend.

“Hello Ashi, what happened?” Rihaan answered on the third ring.

The thumping music and bass made it difficult for Ashi to understand what Rihaan said after that. Rihaan’s voice was hardly audible but it gave her a sense of realization that someone was still there on whom she could rely and rest her anxiety and fears. His voice brought her solace in this knife-edge situation.

“I’m not able to hear you.” Ashi squeaked her voice laced with terror.

“Wait, don’t talk anymore. I’ll get out of this place. Hold on.”

Rihaan’s voice sounded thick and heavy. Ashi deduced that he might have spoken directly in the mouthpiece.

Ashi waited in silence gnawing her lower lip. The music thudded in her ear the maximum before turning faint and finally ceased after a heavy creaking noise that she deduced was of the doors of the club.

“Yes, start with your talking now.” Rihaan sighed. Ashi imagined him ruffling and pacing while he talked.

“Rihaan”, Ashi’s voice was almost a squeaked whisper by now.

“What’s wrong, Ashi?”

No answer.

“Ashi, speak. Please.” Rihaan’s voice was etched with concern and fear.

“I got a call.” Ashi closed her eyes and started speaking as if she needed to relive the moments to recollect the fragments, lying in her subconscious, like she’s putting them back together in shape, framing a jig-saw puzzle.

“A lady called this time. She mentioned of her companion and his duress. They both are together. They know I’m alone home. Rather alone in this building of 3 apartment. Rihaan, I’m scared to the point I’m afraid of my own shadow. Can you talk to me for some time?”

“Where is Steven? Call him.”

“I don’t have his number, Rihaan.” Ashi took a calculated risk of sending this message across loud and clear and even heard Rihaan’s sharp intake of breath.

“Are you fucking nuts, Ashi!” Rihaan screamed in the phone sounding all the more furious, maddened and scared.

“Rihaan, please stop screaming at me. I’m scared to the point I might wet my pants and your talking isn’t helping me a tad.” Ashi’s voice was almost teary and pleading.

“I’m sorry”, Rihaan closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, “Where are you now?”

“I’m in my bedroom, standing near the window.”

“What are you doing near the window?” Rihaan frowned as if Ashi could see him.

“I-was-just-c-checking for any signs of suspicion.”

“Stop being a detective and get in! Don’t make things easier for them. Ashi, for God’s sake!”

“But there’s no-o….”, Ashi stopped talking and squinted in the dark at a silhouette that was pacing on the side street wearing a hoodie.

“Ashi, are you there?” Rihaan questioned as Ashi stopped talking in between for that hardly happened.

“I can see something, Rihaan. There’s a man outside pacing to and fro on the side street.” Ashi whispered in the mouthpiece.

“Ashi stop gawking at the silhouette and fucking get in!”

“B-B-But Rihaan”, Ashi stammered her voice shaky coated with fear.

“No but-s. Get in. I’ll call Steven and check his whereabouts. Don’t panic. Just make sure you lock all the doors and windows.” Rihaan’s voice was itself panicky and far from composing.

“Rihaan, aren’t you coming?”

“Of course I am, Ashi. But till I reach there, I’m ensuring your safety by calling Steven. I’m in the car parking already. Don’t worry. Okay?”

Ashi was almost sobbing and Rihaan could hear her light sob-filled hiccups from across the line.

“How long will you take?” Ashi’s voice was weak and fragile.

“15 minutes. Max.”

“Okay. Drive safely.”

“See you, Ashi. You will be fine.” Rihaan assured her that sounded more like he’s assuring himself.

Ashi saw the call getting disconnected as her mobile screen switched from the ongoing call with the name “Rihaan Malhotra” on the top to the home screen – a pale blue.

***

“Ashi, where are you?”

Rihaan started yelling at the top of his voice as he stepped on the porch, chanting it all the time till he entered the apartment through the front door. The already ajar front door made him uneasy and what followed made his chanting cease completely. The living room was a live mess. Everything was scattered all over the place. The cushions rested on the folds of the disheveled carpet as if they were hurled at someone or something as a target. He cautiously moved in the direction of Ashi’s bedroom. Broken pieces of glass were dissipated in the corridor area giving Rihaan a similar feeling – like they were hurled at someone or something. Rihaan gingerly passed through the corridor studying every nook and cranny of the entire place for any signs of the only woman he loved, yet denied. He dreaded every passing moment. His eyes desperately searched for her, restlessly wandering around the place to get a glimpse of her. But Ashi was nowhere to be seen.

However, a part of him didn’t want to see her for he feared the condition she might be in; the memories from his past came gushing in and he shuddered at the very thought of it. He immediately dismissed the thought and stood in front of her bedroom door. With a sharp intake of breath imagining what he might witness, he turned the handle of the lock and found the bedroom door open. Contrary to his expectations, the bedroom was undisturbed. It was neat and spot on. Rihaan’s eyes wandered around the room and rested on the curtains drawn over the French windows. It reminded him of their previous conversation where Ashi had mentioned her standing near the windows and Rihaan fuming at her stupidity. Rihaan moved his hand through his thick hair pulling at the ends slightly and exhaled in a defeated tone, his shoulders dropped, “Where the hell are you, Ashi? Please tell me you are safe.” He paused for a brief moment before balling his fists to his sides and storming out of her bedroom with a resolute determination. It seemed like something had dawned on him and had infuriated him to the extent his eyes carried an apparent display of wrath. He quickly strode to the master bedroom, scanned the entire area just by standing at the door and headed towards the kitchen.

The kitchen was messier than the living room. Rihaan’s striding came to a standstill as he saw the kitchen floor. Almost everything that is usually seated on the kitchen platform was on the floor. Rihaan quickly scanned the area. His veering eyes halted and fixed completely on a dainty, fragile figure lying in the corner to his left.

“Ashi!” Rihaan exclaimed under his breath as he let out a sigh of relief. The wrath in his eyes seemed to have vanished, disappeared; as if it’s never there in first place. It’s replaced by something warm, composing, full of love, care and concern, concern for the woman sitting in front of him, helpless, fighting with what, she didn’t know.

***

Ashi was sitting in one corner of the kitchen floor, knees pulled up to her chest, hands wrapped around, hugging them. Her shoulders were hunched, neck cowered down, hair a visible mess with strands uniformly splayed all over her pale, terrified face, covering it. Her teary, terror-filled eyes were fixed on the opposite wall, lips quavering as if she’s mumbling something continuously. Tears – that’d already stained her cheeks held in her big, swollen eyes threatened to fall anew.

Rihaan intently saw the only woman he’d possibly loved enough to care for as he walked towards her gingerly. But Ashi seemed to have been trapped somewhere in the other world, her eyes still fixed on the wall, opposite.

It was only when Rihaan came close enough, did he notice that she’s shivering and had possibly hugged herself to abstain or stop that shivering to some extent. Light sobs escaped from her quavering lips every now and then. It seemed like the teary crying had ceased a long time back but the hiccup-sobs were still active. She looked aghast. It’s the first time since they’d met that she didn’t look at him like the way she always did. Rihaan’s eyebrows creased and furrowed as he pared the distance and knelt down right in front of her. It pained and agonized him to look at her in this condition. He steadied his gaze to meet hers and slowly held her gaze that was fixed on the wall; she looked at him. And in that moment he knew, he hadn’t lost her. He didn’t know what had happened. Moreover, he didn’t care. All he knew was – she’s safe, she’d recognized him and was still breathing.

A new wave of relief flushed through him and he reached out his hands to brush her hair off her face and tuck them behind her ears. Ashi leaped in his arms hugging him tight, tugging at his T-shirt, clasping it in her balled fists. Gentle sobs soon grew fatal and breathless as tears started flowing anew and she wept endlessly into his neck. Rihaan stayed there, still, holding her tighter, hugging her with all the warmth, love, care and passion he held for her. He didn’t stop himself. He didn’t remember he had to.

Next….

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