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Sitting in his seat as the plane took off into the air, he couldn't help the smile that spread across his face. He'd been away from home for seven months. For seven months he dodged bullets and bombs. For seven months he slept in trenches and ate food that tasted like card board. For seven months adrenaline pumped through his veins just as much as blood did. For seven months, he put his life on the line day in and day out – never knowing when a bullet might catch him off guard and end everything instantly. And for seven months, he missed her.
That's why for seven months he made sure he was faster and smarter than any bullet or bomb. For seven months he slept with one eye open and ate what he needed to keep going. For seven months he lived on his adrenaline high that made him quicker. For seven months he'd made sure to stay alive so that he could go back to her.
That day had finally arrived – he was going home. He was going home to her.
Everyone was at the airport while she was to stay home, hidden from everyone's eyes. They had left with great excitement, great joy and great expectations. She was to stay home and not bother anyone. She was to stay home and be by herself like she'd been these past few months. She was to stay home and be invisible. She had never been one to disobey her parents orders, but this time she had.
She couldn't stay home knowing that he was coming back today. She couldn't stay home while everyone else went to receive him. She's spent every moment of every day these past few months praying for his safety. She'd spent every moment of every day praying for his life. She'd spend every moment of every day simply praying for it to be alright.
When the call had come announcing his return, she breathed a sigh of relieve. She knew that he'd be coming back to her house later but she couldn't wait – she had to be there.
So here she was, dressed in baggy clothing and a large coat, hat on her head and sunglasses shielding her eyes. She waited in the same terminal as everyone else, only she hid behind a pillar, afraid that someone might see her. A voice came on over the loud speaker system announcing the arrival of flight 768 from Afghanistan via London – it was almost time.
Twenty minutes later the first passengers were seen coming out of the terminal. Each passenger was dressed in their uniform, with a duffel bag tossed behind their shoulder. Each passenger wore a smile on their face as they were greeted by happy family and friends.
Finally, the face she'd been searching for came in front of her eyes. She finally let go of a breath she hadn't know she was holding as tears filled her eyes. These tears were happy tears because after so many months, he was back. He as back alive, safe and sound. She knew that he was just fine but her eyes had to see it for themselves so that she could put her mind, heart and soul to rest.
She watched from a distance as he dropped his duffel bag as he was greeted by his family and hers. She watched as everyone took turns hugging him and kissing him, happy that he was finally home. She watched quietly as she took in his presence.
He turned to pick up his bag and then they headed off to baggage claim. This was her opportunity to leave. She had to make sure she got home before any one else did. She had to make sure that it seemed like she'd been home the entire time. No one could ever know that she'd been there waiting for just one glimpse of him. No one could know that she had not heeded to the order set by her father. No one could know that people in society had seen her. No one could know – no one.
Taking one last look as he walked away, she smiled. He was home. He was home safe and sound. He was home.
He walked across the street with his parents, Savita and Gurinder Khurana flanking each side of him – mom on the left and dad on the right. They were headed for a "surprise" welcome home party that was no longer a surprise. He'd been away for seven months and he knew they missed him. He knew they worried about him every day that he was gone. He never was one for parties, but for the ones he loved he'd do anything. He had already heard the music and cheers as he was in his room getting ready. Now as they approached the house of their best friends and neighbors, the house was eerily silent. It was going to be a quiet family dinner, his parents had said. Yeah, right.
His dad rang the door bell and waited for it to be answered. Seconds later, his uncle Brij answered the door and welcomed them in. Just a split second later, the lights went on through out the house as people jumped up yelling "Surprise!"
He plastered a smile on his face, thanking everyone for their warm wishes.
"Welcome home Maan," a voice called.
Turning his head he saw Naintara, the eldest daughter of Brij and Pammi Handa, approach him. She came and hugged him placing a kiss on his cheek.
"Hey NT, long time on see," he teased as he returned the kiss.
"And whose fault is that?" Pammi said as she came out of the kitchen. Coming to him she kissed his forehead. "Welcome home beta."
"Thank you Aunty," he said as he hugged her.
"Will you women stop smothering my son! Our hero is home after a long journey, he deserves to relax and enjoy tonight. Not to be smothered to death with hugs and kisses," Brij uncle said as he took Maan by the arm and dragged him to the living room.
"Can I get you a scotch on the rocks," Maan's father Gurinder asked.
"You know I don't drink Papa," Maan said.
"Ya, I know. I thought maybe you'd changed or something," Gurinder asked.
"Nope, I'm still the same man that left seven months ago," Maan said as he sat in an arm chair by the fire place.
"That's right, the same boring person who'd rather read a book than enjoy a good party!" Naintara said as she handed him a glass of cranberry juice – his favorite.
Uncle Brij and Maan's father both walked away laughing to themselves about what Naintara said.
As she sat next to him, Maan's eyes grazed over the crowd that was gathered at the Handa residence.
Leaning in close to Naintara he asked, "Where is Chutki?"
Instantly the smile from Naintara's face was gone. She looked mad for some reason, but she quickly recovered. Smiling again she said, "Oh, you know how much she loves Darji. He's been sick lately so we sent her to be with him in New York."
"Really?" Maan said surprised. "She left college to watch after Darji? Doesn't sound like Chutki."
"She'll be back soon enough. What's one semester?" Naintara asked. "Forget her, lets talk about your tour."
It was like she'd opened a can of worms because questions began flying his way instantly.
"So what's it like," someone asked.
"Is it really as bad as they say it is?" another person asked.
"Do they really have road side bombs?" someone asked from behind.
And so the rest of the night was spent with him answering questions that were similar to those.
While everyone was gathered around him by the fire place, she stood in the shadows watching him silently. He was telling stories about his time away from home and everyone was listening intently. The men were amazed at all the gore and action, while the girls couldn't take their eyes off of him.
Of course, she couldn't blame them. As a simple man, Maan Singh Khurana was a specimen in his own right. He had the long, lean physique, he had the chiseled features, he had a beautiful smile and a huge heart. Add to that the fact that he was one of the up and coming cardio-thoracic surgeons in the US and it was a home run. On top of all that, he was a man in uniform – lets be honest, what woman could refuse a man in uniform?
She watched him from the secluded back hall, making sure to stay within the shadows so that no one saw her. She watched him tell his stories with passion. She watched him laugh and smile. She simply watched him be himself and it melted her heart – just like it always did.
A smile spread across her lips and tears gathered in her eyes as she reveled in the fact that he was home. He was home once again.
"Alright guys, enough," Naintara said. "Leave my Maan alone already! Besides, dinner is served and if you don't eat til you burst my mother will kill you."
At the mention of food the room cleared out rather quickly. Not because the guests were truly afraid of Pammi Aunty killing them for not eating but because if they didn't move fast enough the good food would be gone. Everyone knew that Pammi Aunty was, hands down, the best cook in town.
"That means you too tough guy," Naintara said as she took his hand into hers and pulled him up. "Maa has cooked all of your favorite dishes because she knew you needed some home cooking."
"That I do need," Maan said as he rubbed his stomach in hunger.
"Maa and Savita Aunty have been talking nonstop about how 'dubla patla' you've become," Naintara said.
"Well, eating processed food will do that to a man," he said pretending to be so weak he couldn't walk.
"Oh please! Don't be such a drama queen. Besides if you ask me, I'd say you look a hell of a lot hotter now than you did when you left," she said as she squeezed his biceps.
"I could have been killed out there!" Maan said his shock.
"Yeah, well, you weren't," Naintara said rolling her eyes. "At least this tour did you some good. Your muscles are more toned and tight."
"Of course it did good! I saved the lives of innocent men, women and children. Doesn't that count?" Maan asked.
"Sure it does. But the muscles are so much hotter," Naintara said as she winked at him.
Maan looked at her in disbelief and then fell into a fit of laughter.
Putting his left arm around her shoulder and pulling her close he said, "God I've missed you NT."
"Of course you did," she said as they entered the dining room.
Dinner passed with more talk about his tour, more jokes and more laughs. It felt good to finally be back with his family. While he was on tour he really missed them. What they said was true, you don't know what you have until it's gone.
Dinner had wrapped up, dessert was out and Pammi Aunty was serving coffee when Maan asked, "Uncle, how is Darji?"
"He's good Beta," Brij answered. "Harassing the women in his community…as usual."
Everyone at the table chuckled because Darji was know for being the Casanova at his retirement community. Everyone except Maan. He was looking at Naintara with questions in his eyes. She'd told him Chutki was away taking care of Darji because he was sick. Naintara looked at him and immediately tore her gaze away. Something didn't add up.
Later, after the guests had left, the men were out on the porch smoking cigars and Naintara had gone up to change, Maan helped his mother and Pammi Aunty clean up the mess of the party. Pammi Aunty was loading the dishwasher, while his mother cleared the table.
"Maa, where is Chutki?" Maan asked casually.
His mother suddenly stopped what she was doing and a sadness fell across her face. She quickly brought a smile to her face as she said, "Oh, she's doing a semester abroad in Italy."
"Oh," Maan said. "I hadn't heard anything about that before I left."
"It was a sudden decision," his mother said as she headed off to the kitchen.
Maan stood trying to figure out why there were two very different answers to a seemingly simple question. He was brought out of his revere when his father came and dragged him out to the porch.
"Join the men," Gurinder said. "Have a smoke with us."
"You know I don't smoke Bauji," Maan said.
"Oh come on son," his father started. "…enjoy life now and then."
"I'd rather enjoy it by not ruining my lungs," Maan said.
"Why must you always bring medicine into everything?" his father asked.
"Come on Gurinder," Brij said, "Your son is a doctor. What else is he supposed to do?"
Maan shared a smile with Brij Uncle. It was because of him that Maan was a doctor and not a business man like his father. It was Brij Uncles passion for medicine that made Maan want to become a doctor, and it was his desire to help those less fortunate that made Maan enlist in the Army Reserve.
"Brij Uncle," Maan began as he leaned against the white banister, "I saw everyone tonight but Chutki. Where is she?"
There was eerie silence that followed, unsettling almost.
Brij Uncle cleared his throat before he spoke.
"You know her and her extracurricular activities. She's off at a summer camp for underprivileged children," he said.
"Oh really? That's great. When will she be back?" Maan asked.
"Oh, a few weeks maybe…not really sure," Brij said.
"Hey Brij," Gurinder cut in, "…lets go see if we can catch the last broadcast of the local news."
That being said, both men walked inside. Maan watched as his father patted Brij Uncles back as if comforting him.
Something was up. Something was wrong. Both families were hiding something from him but he didn't know what and he didn't know why.
Three different answers for the same question. Clearly they were all lies. Now the question was…why were they lying?
Sleep eluded her as she lay in her bed staring at the ceiling. How was she supposed to sleep? She had pure joy blowing though her veins. She still couldn't believe that he was home safe and sound. Tonight wasn't the first night that she hadn't slept. She'd suffered many sleepless nights because fear kept her awake. Fear that something would happen to him, fear that she'd never see him again. Every time the phone rang her heart stopped, afraid of what news it brought. However, tonight she was sleepless because after seven months her heart was finally still and calm, because he was home and nothing could harm him now.
She pulled the covers back and quietly tip toed to the window over looking her neighborhood. All the houses sat dark, cars parked in the drive way, bikes left carelessly on the lawn. It was a quiet and peaceful night. She stared up at the moon and the stars as she sent up a silent thank you to the greater powers above that had listened to her prayers.
She was so engrossed in the beauty of it all that she hadn't heard the door to her room creak open, she hadn't heard the familiar foot steps approach her. However, she couldn't miss when he called out to her.
Maan had tried to get away from the family but they just wouldn't leave him alone. He knew he was coming home after seven months and that they'd missed him, but other thoughts and worries plagues his mind. Why were they all lying about her? Why?
Naintara had said she was with Darji, Maa had said she was doing a semester abroad and Brij Uncle had said she was away at camp – all lies. Maan didn't have to see her physically to know that she had gone nowhere. He didn't have to see her physically to know that she was right there in this very house. He felt her presence like he always did. He'd felt her presence at the airport and had looked for her but couldn't spot her.
Pammi Aunty may have made the dinner that they enjoyed but he knew that she made the dessert that he had loved. Only she could make the pistachio kulfi that he called his guilty pleasure. He didn't have to see her to know that she was still here.
He had ended up leaving with his parents only two hours ago but he couldn't sleep. How could he? He had come home with the hope to see her first, he had come home with the desire to envelop her into his arms and never let her go. Yet here he was, home after so long and still he hadn't seen her – he was suffocating.
He had to see her and he had to find out why they were lying to him.
It was past 3am as he headed back to the Handa residence dressed in track pants and a t-shirt. He knew that the window by the hall on the second floor wasn't set to the alarm. Maan climbed up the tree with ease and entered the house silently like a criminal. He noiselessly entered her room only to find it empty. Her clothes were still there, her shoes, her pictures – everything was just like he'd last seen it. He searched each room but found no trace of her.
Maan ran a hand through his hair as frustration kicked in. Then suddenly, a light bulb went off as he remembered the attic. It had been her not-so-secret escape ever since he could remember. Like a ghost he climbed the narrow stairs to the attic only to find the door closed. Taking a chance, he turned the knob. The door creaked as it opened.
The attic was darker than the hall or the other rooms so it took a minute for his eyes to adjust. But then when it finally did, a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders and he felt like he could breathe again.
There she stood, the moon light hitting her beautiful face. Her arms were wrapped around her small body as she was staring at the night sky. As he approached her, she still didn't turn.
"Geet," he called out softly.
She turned to face him, the shock obvious in her eyes.
She turned to face him and reality, as Maan knew it, came crashing down.
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