There is no need to remember who Jordan, Pooja and Chandni are...they're not important to the story. If I ever bring them up again, I'll remind you.
With Aditya's leadership abilities, Samira's CPR knowledge and a call to Hina's brother, Yusuf, they manage to keep Carissa out of danger until the paramedics arrive. Neelam informs Hina that she saw Todd Mitchell driving the truck, but it's Hina who claims to be the witness in front of the police. Deepali and Rehaan apologize to each other and quickly become friends. Aditya and Hina also decide to reconcile for the sake of the group.
Chapter 5: United by Compassion
Neelam awakened on Friday morning, drained from not sleeping enough. As she sat up and switched off the shrill alarm resounding from the clock on her nightstand, the thought that had worried her through most of the night invaded her mind yet again.
The previous evening, she had accidentally let it slip to Deepali that she had seen Todd Mitchell in the pickup truck window on Monday night. After a suspicious gaze from Deepali, Neelam had tried to cover it up by stating that she had only gotten a brief glimpse of him and Hina was the only one who had seen his face clearly enough to identify it. Unfortunately, she was a terrible liar, and by the expression on Deepali's face, it was clear that she had not bought the story. Neelam felt horrible about trying to deceive her sister, but Hina had specifically instructed that they should keep the truth between the two of them.
Staring at her weary reflection in the bathroom mirror, Neelam mulled over the situation once more. The reason behind Hina's plea for confidentiality was apparent. For Hina to take Neelam's place as the witness in front of the police and in court, it was essential for her to be credible. Anyone who knew that Hina had not actually seen Todd in the truck would be a liability. If someone unintentionally revealed their secret, it would cast doubt on the entire story and might lead to Todd's acquittal. What better way to prevent any mishaps than not telling anyone?
Neelam was certain that if she explained the circumstances to Deepali, she would never say a word to anyone else. Deepali was overly talkative and rash with her words at times, but there could be no better person to divulge a secret to. She was the type of person who would carry any and all secrets to her grave. Hina surely wouldn't mind if Neelam told her sister, as long no one else caught wind of the story, would she? Well, it's too late to worry about what Hina will say, Neelam thought to herself. Since she was having difficulty keeping it a secret and Deepali was already suspicious, Neelam couldn't think of a better course of action than disclosing the truth.
Throwing a white cardigan on over her black-and-white printed dress, she stepped out of her room and made her way down the hallway. The door to Deepali's room was open and Neelam could hear her humming softly. Approaching the door, she saw Deepali sitting at her dresser, running a brush through her wavy hair. She was dressed as flamboyantly as ever in an electric blue top and black skinny jeans. Catching a glimpse of Neelam in the mirror, Deepali spun around in her chair.
"Hey, good morning!" she said, cheerfully. "Andar aao na."
"You're speaking in Hindi, Deepali?" Neelam responded in surprise. "Koyi khaas vaja?" She entered the room and took a seat on Deepali's bed.
"Well, I was hoping that my Hindi class would help me eliminate my accent." Deepali set her hairbrush on the dresser joined Neelam on the bed. "But the Professor suggested that I practice speaking at home. To isi liye maine socha ke apni pyaari behen se thodi...what's the word again?...haan, gupshup karoon."
Neelam grinned. Deepali complained endlessly about how prominent her accent was when she spoke in Hindi, but Neelam never understood what all the fuss was about. The accent was very minor and it would undoubtedly go away with practice.
"Achcha khayaal hai," Neelam answered. "But first, I have something important that I need to talk to you about." Taking a deep breath, she launched into a detailed account about Monday night, describing how she had identified the driver of the pickup truck but was apprehensive about approaching the police. The last thing she had wanted was for Todd to be exonerated because she didn't have the nerve to properly state her case in front of a judge and jury. Thus she had sought help from Hina, who coincidentally happened to know Todd very well.
"You're telling me all this now?" Deepali questioned, appearing hurt. She had taken one of the hot pink cushions from her bed onto her lap and was pulling on the tassels with a little too much force. "Four days later?"
Neelam bowed her head guiltily. "I'm really sorry."
"Neelam, we're twin sisters. Nothing good can come from us keeping secrets from each other."
"Tum mujhse bahut naraaz ho?" She gazed at Deepali with large, innocent eyes.
Instantly, Deepali's somber expression transformed into a warm smile and she dropped the cushion. "Main tumse naraaz kaise ho sakti hoon." She cupped her sister's chin affectionately. "You're the sweetest sister in the world. I just hope you didn't keep this from me because you thought I couldn't be trusted."
"Never, Deeps." Neelam shook her head fervently. "There's no one I trust more than you."
"Good. To phir hum is sab ko bhula dete hain, theek hai? I just hope Hina will be able to get justice for Carissa."
"If anyone can do it, it's Hina."
Their mother's voice called to them from the kitchen. "Deepali...Neelam...nashta nahin khaana hai kya?"
Neelam looked at her watch and stood up suddenly. "Baaton baaton main sab bhool gayi. I have to be at campus ten minutes early today. Jordan's meeting me at Hill Square to give me the new keys to the lab."
"Ooooh, I'm coming with you!" Deepali told her excitedly, getting to her feet as well.
Neelam gave her a disapproving glance. "Deepali, he's a grad student, and at least five years older than us."
"That doesn't make him any less cute. You know I live for eye-candy."
Neelam laughed at this honest assertion as she and Deepali headed downstairs toward the kitchen.
Zaid and Aditya were seated across from one another at a table outside one of the campus cafes. While Aditya was hard at work with a textbook in front of him, Zaid just leaned back in his chair, enjoying the pleasant campus scenery and gentle breeze.
Glancing up and detecting Zaid dreamy expression, Aditya smiled to himself and shook his head. "Khwabon mein khoye rahoge ya kuch kaam bhi karoge?" he asked. "Don't you have a problem set due this afternoon as well?"
"Actually, I finished it yesterday," Zaid answered with a pleased grin.
"Really?" Aditya questioned incredulously. "First you start showing up to class on time, and now you finish your homework early? Who are you, and what have you done with my best friend?"
Zaid laughed briefly, and then the faraway look returned to his eyes. "I met Hina in the engineering lounge yesterday. She was doing some school work, so I joined her."
"Achcha to yeh baat hai." Aditya watched Zaid silently for a moment before adding, "You really like her, don't you?"
"Sach kahoon?" After a nod from Aditya, he continued, "I think I might be falling in love."
Aditya smiled knowingly. "I figured you'd say that. So are you gonna tell her?"
"Are you kidding?" Zaid retorted. "This is the first time I've felt this way about a girl. I can't risk rejection so soon."
"You can ask one of the other girls to feel the situation out. You know, try to find out if she likes you too without saying anything directly. Mujhe lagta hai ke Chashmish aur Deepali ki us se kaafi dosti hai."
"Did you just call my sister Chashmish?" They turned to find Deepali standing near their table with a stern expression. Neelam was next to her, but her face displayed a coy smile as she absentmindedly played with the lab keys in her hands. Zaid's eyes grew wide as he wondered how much they had overheard.
"Uska mazaak to nahin uda rahe?" Deepali added, practicing her Hindi as she reprimanded Aditya.
"Kisi mein itni himmat kahaan jo woh Deepali ki behen ka mazaak udaye," Aditya replied with a clever grin. "Aur waise bhi, Neelam meri dost hai. It's just a friendly nickname. I'm sure she doesn't mind."
Neelam's smile grew broader to indicate that she didn't.
"Why are you girls standing?" Aditya asked. "There are two empty seats at the table." He gestured towards the chairs.
"I guess we can hang out for a bit," Neelam consented as she took a seat, "but we have class at ten."
Deepali dropped down into the other empty seat. "So, what are you guys up to?"
Zaid was relieved that Deepali had not asked why Aditya had been mentioning their names. Perhaps she had forgotten about it. "Well, since I already completed my homework, I'm just enjoying the beautiful weather," Zaid commented, grinning slyly, "and watching Adi slave away."
"Jitna hasna hai abhi haslo, because it'll never happen again" Aditya countered lightheartedly. Then he turned back to his work. "I'm stuck on the last question. 'Why was President Theodore Roosevelt called the Hero of San Juan Hill?' We're required to find the answers in our book and reference the pages. I looked through the entire chapter on Roosevelt's presidency and couldn't find a thing."
"I think that nickname has something to do with his role in the Spanish-American war," Neelam suggested. "You might want to look into the years preceding his presidency."
Aditya turned back a few pages, and within a minute, he found what he was looking for. "Hey, it's right here...Battle of Santiago de Cuba. Thanks Neelam. That's quite impressive. You're a Physics major, yet you know more than I do about my own subject."
Neelam shook her head, turning pink. "I don't know more than you. I just know some random facts."
"She reads all the time," Deepali informed them. "Ask her about any subject, and she'll be able to tell you something about it."
Aditya smiled appearing highly impressed. Now that he had the answer to his question, he quickly finished his problem set and put it away in his folder.
"So, today's the beginning of Labor Day weekend," Deepali said. "Any plans?" She turned to Zaid.
"Uh, not really," he answered. "The 76ers are playing the Celtics on Sunday night. I know I'll be watching that game."
"Nice. Neelam and I watch basketball with our dad sometimes. He gets so worked up over every single basket or referee call. It's quite entertaining." She turned to Aditya. "Adi, are you doing anything interesting?"
"Well, I'll be watching the game with Zaid, of course," Aditya replied. "But I'm also considering going hang gliding tomorrow."
Neelam stared at him, astounded. "You're not serious, are you?" she questioned.
"Actually, I am. I've always wanted to try it out, but I never had the chance. A friend of mine suggested a place to me a few days ago, so I'm planning on checking it out."
"That's so awesome!" Deepali commented. "You should definitely go. I've been thinking about going skydiving or hang gliding for at least two years now. What's the point of living if you don't do anything exciting?" The tempo of Deepali's speech increased as she became more and more excited. "I've been trying to convince Neelam, but she doesn't even want to talk about it."
"I'm with you, Neelam," Zaid divulged. "I can't imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to hang thousands of feet above the ground."
"Well, you two don't have to come," Aditya stated, "but I'm sure you'll regret it when Deepali and I have the time of our lives. Kya khayaal hai, Deepali?"
"Bilkul sahi kaha," Deepali replied merrily. "But Adi, how did you become interested in hang gliding?"
"My parents used to go all the time. It was their favorite pastime."
"They don't go anymore?" Deepali asked, ingenuously.
Aditya chewed on his bottom lip wondering how to respond to that. He finally realized there was no way around it. "Actually, they died about four years ago."
"Oh," Deepali reacted. "I'm so sorry."
"What happened?" Neelam questioned with concern.
"They went to Atlanta for a conference and never made it back," Aditya recounted. "Their plane went down in a field in Mississippi. It was some kind of engine malfunction."
"Wow," said Neelam faintly. "I can't even imagine how traumatic that must have been for you - losing so much so suddenly."
Staring at his hands, Aditya sighed softly. "I had trouble believing it for a while. Whenever I would sit by myself trying to cope with it all, I almost expected them to walk into the room and sit beside me...and for everything to return to how it was. It took me at least a year to finally find closure."
Glancing up, Aditya was stunned to witness tears brimming in Neelam's eyes as she gazed at him with nothing but the most genuine empathy. He recalled the image of her tear-streaked face from the night of Carissa's accident, and he was overcome with appreciation for her sincerity and sensitivity. He had never met another person who could feel the pain of others so deeply.
The chime of the campus clock tower broke through the silence, announcing that it was 10 AM.
"Oh, we're late for class," Deepali said, rising to a stand. "I'm sorry again, Adi. I would never have mentioned it if-"
"I know," Aditya interjected. "Don't worry about it."
Deepali nodded sympathetically, and then pulled her backpack on. "Chalo Neelam."
Neelam stood up, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her sweater. Before joining her sister, she touched Aditya's shoulder lightly and gave him another supportive glance.
"See you guys in a little bit," she said as she followed Deepali toward the quad.
"And don't forget about tonight!" Zaid called after them.
"We'll be there," Deepali replied.
As the girls turned a corner and disappeared, Zaid turned to Aditya. "You know Adi," he began after a slight hesitation. "I know that you prefer to look to the future instead of wondering what could have been. But I'm sure there are times when this isn't as easy as you expect it to be. I hope you know if you ever need anyone to talk to or any kind of help, I'm always here."
Aditya raised an eyebrow at him. "So if I ever need your help and I give you a call..." He leaned forward and whispered, "...can you guarantee that your phone will be with you instead of lying forgotten in your car?" He now had a wide grin on his face.
Zaid rolled his eyes. "Main yahaan serious baat raha hoon, aur tum..."
"I heard you Zaid," Aditya replied. His smile had faded and was replaced with a meaningful expression. "And I'll take you up on that if I ever need to. But as for now, main bilkul theek hoon."
"Hey Rehaan, wait up."
Turning in the hallway to look behind him, Rehaan saw a dusky desi girl he didn't know walking towards him. Her face seemed familiar, but he couldn't place it. He stopped as she caught up with him.
"Hi, I'm Pooja," she said. Rehaan had the distinct feeling that she was checking him out as she glanced from his slightly faded jeans up to his pale green polo shirt. "You don't know me, but I'm on the South Asia Society board. Secretary to be precise. I was there for your audition yesterday."
"Oh." Rehaan frowned slightly as he lowered his eyes. The South Asia Society was the last thing he wanted to think about at the moment.
"You have every right to be unhappy with the club," Pooja told him. "Your choreography was better than anything I've seen here in the last three years. You really should have been chosen to direct the HFD...Oh, I'm sorry. I mean the Hindi Film Dance."
"Then why wasn't I?" The words were out before Rehaan could stop himself.
"Chandni has been doing it for two years, and she has a lot of friends on the board. Besides, this is her last year at Penn. I know this doesn't justify anything, but think of it this way. She'll be gone in the spring, and you'll still have three more years to be a part of this show."
"I'm not quite sure that I'll want to," Rehaan turned to walk away.
"Hold on," Pooja stopped him. "I know you only applied for the Hindi Film Dance, but the board decided to give you the Fusion Dance if you want it. It involves fewer dancers and isn't usually as eagerly awaited as the HFD, but I'm sure you can turn all that around."
"But why should I?" he asked bitterly.
"Because this is your chance to prove to the board that they made a mistake," she urged. "I have no doubt that by the end of the show, you'll receive a formal apology from the Cultural Programming Chair. And I'm sure you'll be selected to choreograph HFD in the spring show, which is a much bigger show than this one."
Rehaan pondered this for a moment. "Thanks for letting me know, Pooja. Can I think about it and give you an answer later tonight?"
"Sure. My email address and phone number are on the South Asia Society website. I really hope you take up the opportunity."
When Pooja left, Rehaan continued down the hall, trying to make a decision on the matter. He knew he would enjoy being a part of the show, but he couldn't get over the unfairness of the board's decision.
Leaving the building, he headed toward a nearby cafe where Aditya and Zaid were waiting for him.
"Hey Rehaan," Aditya greeted him. "You made it. Ready to go?"
"Is it just the three of us?" Rehaan asked.
"The girls have class until 11," Zaid clarified. "They'll come afterwards."
They began walking toward the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Aditya and Zaid debated the pros and cons of pursuing hang gliding as a hobby while Rehaan remained reflectively silent.
"So Rehaan," Aditya said, bringing him back to reality. "What are your views on hang gliding?"
"I didn't know it was a controversial topic," Rehaan joked. "Actually, I love it. My best friend and I used to go all the time during high school." He smiled nostalgically as he recollected a particularly enjoyable day on which he and Vincent had spent several hours soaring through the clouds.
Zaid and Aditya exchanged stunned glances.
"Just when I was about to write you off as a quiet and dull guy, you spring this on me," Aditya commented with a laugh.
For the rest of the walk, Rehaan narrated the details of his hang gliding experience to his fascinated audience.
Entering Carissa's room at the hospital, they were unsurprised to find Gavin sitting next to her with her hand in his. They had visited Carissa every day since the accident, and Gavin had never failed to be present.
"Hey, you're here," Carissa greeted them, beaming with enthusiasm. She appeared a lot healthier than she had the prior day. In fact, the only visible indications that anything had happened were the cast on her left leg and the bandages around her right arm. They were also aware that she had fifteen stitches in her side, but those were concealed by her hospital gown.
"Wow, you look great, Carissa," Zaid commented as they all approached her bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Just about perfect," she replied. "Ready to get out of here."
"Her CT and MRI are completely normal," Gavin updated them. "A doctor came in yesterday and tested her cognitive function, and he seemed pleased as well."
"Must have been a neuropsychologist," Rehaan said. "Anyway, that's great news. Seems like the concussion was very minor."
"You'll be back on your skateboard in no time," Aditya remarked with a smile.
Carissa grinned back. "I can't wait, but the doctors say I should take it easy for at least a month. I'll be discharged this Sunday though, so that's exciting."
"I really can't thank you guys enough," Gavin said gratefully.
Aditya gave him a stern look. "Let's not get started on that again, Gavin."
"Carissa, didn't your parents arrive last night?" Rehaan changed the subject to avoid the advent of a somber atmosphere.
"Yes, they did. They were here until about an hour ago, but they looked like they hadn't slept in three days, so I-" She was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Who could that be?" she wondered aloud. "Come in."
The door opened and a young man wearing a sky blue t-shirt over another ivory colored one walked in hesitantly with a small bouquet of red and white tulips.
"Karan?" Carissa stared in astonishment.
At ten minutes after 11, Neelam arrived at the University Square and found Samira seated at a bench, adding color-coded tabs to her Biology notes. She was dressed in a white top and a long, lavender skirt that was perfectly suited for her delicate figure.
"Hi Samira," Neelam greeted her, taking a seat next to her. "Happy Birthday."
Samira smiled. "Thanks, but how did you...oh, I bet Bhaiyya has been advertising it."
"You could say that," Neelam responded. "His gift looks great on you."
"Oh, thank you." Samira lightly touched the S-shaped diamond pendant around her neck.
"I ran into him yesterday," explained Neelam. "He was so excited about it that he had to pull it out and show me."
As Samira laughed, Hina and Deepali joined them. "Are you guys talking about Zaid?" Hina asked. "He's been excited about Samira's birthday for days now." She grinned at Samira. "You must be a great sister."
Samira shrugged as she and Neelam rose from the bench. "My family's big on birthdays. My dad wanted to buy me a car, but I convinced him that I don't need one right now."
Deepali was thunderstruck. "Why would you refuse a new car?"
"Just because we can afford it doesn't mean we should spend lavishly. One car between me and Bhaiyya is more than enough. Another one would just be a waste of money."
"All right, Miss Practical," Hina snickered, "but don't let Zaid hear you mentioning 'waste of money.' He'll think you didn't like his gift, and he'll be heartbroken."
"Shall we go?" Neelam spoke up, reminding them of their destination.
"Oh yeah," Deepali said. "Carissa must be waiting for us." The four of them finally headed in the direction of the hospital.
Before they had even reached the end of the block, Neelam abruptly stopped in her tracks. Her eyes widened with anxiety. Her face became sheet white and goosebumps arose on her skin. She stood still, her heart pounding in her chest as she stared in front of her.
Todd Mitchell was leaning against a telephone pole at the end of the street, glowering at them.
To be continued...
1. Do you think Neelam and Hina's good intentions justifies them lying to to the police (and in court)?
2. If you were Rehaan, would you take part in the show despite the injustice?
3. How do you like my siggy?
Of course, I'd love any and all comments/feedback, so please don't let these questions restrict you.