Ananya groaned and rolled over, her face crinkling in irritation as the shrill ringing of her cell phone broke through her sleep. She blinked blearily as she clicked the home button, the glaring light from the screen making her cringe.
Groaning, she hoisted herself up, tapping the screen with her thumb. “Mhm.” She grunted, cradling the phone against her shoulder as she stifled a yawn.
Raj’s voice jolted her out of her sleep, and she rubbed at her eyes. Confused, she took the phone off of her ear, glancing at the time. She hadn’t spoken to him since the concert, much less at this time of night.
“Ananya, are you there?” He asked urgently, his voice crackling through the air faintly. She shook herself, putting it back to her ear.
“Uh… yeah, yeah, I’m here. What… why…” She struggled to voice the question, muddling through the haze induced by sleep. She drew a deep breath and cleared her throat, her brain suddenly attuned to the tension that shook his voice.
“I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have-”
“What happened, Raj?” She interrupted gently. Her heart pounded against her chest as worry clawed at her, every silent second feeling like a minute.
“Papa is in the hospital. My mom just called, he’s….” Raj’s voice shook, and there was silence as he struggled to collect himself. “He went into diabetic shock, he missed dinner and…” Ananya’s stomach dropped down to her toes, and she immediately turned on the light, pulling her hair into a ponytail. He hiccupped, his breath coming unevenly as he spoke. “I’m sorry, I’m just… Anand is out of town, and Natasha is visiting him. I’m so sorry to ask you –”
“I’ll be at your apartment in 20 minutes.” She said firmly, pulling on a pair of yoga pants. She grabbed her purse and keys, tossing a couple more clothes into a duffle bag. “Just… don’t worry, okay? He’s at the hospital, he’s in good hands. He will be okay.” She reiterated, her voice a lot more confident than she felt herself.
“Thank you.” He said quietly, the phone clicking as he disconnected.
She checked her gas quickly before taking the steps by two, silently thankful that she had grabbed her dad’s car last night to drive out to Verona to meet a colleague. She drove the deserted streets to Raj’s house, rubbing at her forehead as the lack of sleep caught up with her.
She pulled up to the curb, the door opening almost immediately as his silhouette moved from the window. She could see the tension writ in his figure as he pulled the door shut, his face shadowed. His cheeks were scruffy, eyes bloodshot as he pulled open the door to her car.
“Hey. Do you want to put your stuff in the back?” She tilted her head towards the duffle bag in his hands, the zip nearly tearing with how messily clothing had been shoved into it. She scanned his face in worry, the uncharacteristic mess revealing his distress.
He merely nodded, tossing it in the back before he sat down. She glanced at him, her gaze drifting over his profile. His palms rested on his thighs, the crease between his brow deep as he exhaled unsteadily.
“He’ll be okay, Raj. Papa’s under good care.” She said softly. He glanced at her, regret and worry playing out across his face. He stared out the window as they drove away, watching the buildings go by.
His voice was muffled as he spoke, fogging up the window.
“I should have been there, Ananya. We were supposed to get together as a family this weekend, but I canceled because I had to finish a protein purification and it ran late and I didn’t feel like driving.”
“You being there wouldn’t have changed this.”
Raj’s jaw tensed, but he nodded, his face revealing the lack of confidence he had in her words. She regarded him for a moment more before sighing, deciding not to push it further. Raj started as they came to a stop at a light, pressing a hand to his forehead.
“I’m so sorry, I meant to ask – I can drive if you’d like, I have my car. I just didn’t want to go alone because I didn’t think I was in the right frame-”
“I can drive. Appa’s out of town, so Amma won’t need this car.” She said, gently cutting him off. “You should get some sleep.”
He scoffed. “How can I possibly sleep at a time like this?”
“You’ll be in a much better state if you’re well rested.” She said firmly, easing into a comfortable speed on the freeway.” He grunted, clearly not planning to sleep. “Trust me on this.” She added softly. He looked over at her, noticing the tension in her fingers as they gripped the steering wheel. She felt his gaze on her and gave him a brief smile, her eyes sad.
“I was in New York when Appa had a heart attack. I couldn’t get a flight out until the next morning, and I didn’t sleep and spent the night near the check-in counter at the airport.” The words were out before she could stop them. She swallowed audibly, her voice cracking. “I wasn’t much help when I did finally arrive, because I was so exhausted and worried.”
“Is that why you moved back?” He asked, the words out of his mouth before he could stop them. She hesitated and then nodded, blinking back tears. She cursed internally, frustrated by how emotional she had gotten in front of him.
“Yeah. I couldn’t bear the idea of being away from them when they need me the most. Especially if he had-” She drew a shaky breath, determined to regain control of herself. “The point is; your father is in good hands. You staying awake won’t do anything to help.”
She gave him a watery smile. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “Don’t be.”
They stared at each other for a moment, his quiet words offering a comfort she didn’t know she had needed.
They drove in silence for a while longer, letting the quiet of the dead night settle over them. The roads were eerily lonely, except for the occasional trucker that passed by them. Ananya bit back a yawn, and Raj glanced at her warily.
“Don’t fall asleep on me, Iyer.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m just a little drowsy.” She reached for the water, tipping her head back as she sipped some. She smiled reassuringly, but he didn’t look convinced. He reached for the AUX cord, plugging his iPhone in.
“What are you up for?”
“Music now?” She asked, slightly apprehensive.
“I need a distraction.” He said simply. She nodded in understanding, pausing as she considered her options.
“Anything.” She said, her gaze focused on the road as she tried to keep herself awake. She missed the small smirk on Raj’s face as he picked a song, turning up the volume as he did so. She practically jumped out of her skin when the familiar drum started up, the singer roughly singing into the microphone. She heard him snicker and tossed him a glare.
“Let It Rock by Kevin Rudolph was the only song that you could find for a 2 a.m. drive?” She asked dryly, even as her other foot began tapping to the music.
“It’s a classic.” He said with a shrug, letting himself push away the worries as the chorus began. He glanced over, catching her mouthing the words and joined in, his voice nearly drowning out the vocals.
He saw her eyes widen in surprise but her voice tentatively slid in with his. He resisted the bubble of happiness that crept up as she sang louder, imitating the instrumental as the chorus faded out.
They waited with bated breath as the instrumental grew, their voices loud and unabashedly out of tune as they sang the chorus. He felt lighter than he had in years, the guilt and worry over his father temporarily shoved to the back of his mind.
He caught her gaze as the song faded. He immediately felt the loss of distraction, glancing at his phone automatically. He saw a text from Anju and his heart immediately stopped, worry paralyzing him as he scanned it quickly.
Di: We’re going in to see Papa right now. Doctor says he’ll be fine.
He exhaled slowly, leaning his head back against the chair. He wouldn’t feel better until he had a chance to see Papa in person, despite Di’s reassuring message. He quickly sent a text to their group chat, letting them know he was on his way. He glanced over at Ananya, hesitating.
Should he tell them that she was coming?
He pressed his lips together, typing the message out. His thumb hovered over the send, looking at her out of his peripheral vision. He let out a small sigh and shook his head, deleting the last portion of the text before sending it.
He scrolled absentmindedly through his playlist, growing antsy as the time passed with no comforting buzz from a text message. He reluctantly put his phone aside, picking a gentle acoustic playlist.
He glanced at Ananya, catching her gaze. She offered him a quiet smile. “He’ll be okay.” She repeated, taking a hand off the steering wheel to touch his shoulder.
He smiled tiredly, leaning his head against the window. His eyelids felt heavy, closing of their own accord. He barely registered the gentle crooning of Gabe Dixon, the guitar fading to the background.
Ananya pulled into the hospital parking lot, rubbing at her eyes as she stifled another yawn. She looked over at Raj, whose mouth hung open, his head lolling to the side. She smiled softly, fondness seeping through her. She unconsciously reached out to brush the lock of hair that fell onto his forehead, but she froze when his eyes flew open, making a noise of surprise.
“We’re here.” She said softly, turning off the car. His dark eyes skimmed her face, blinking slowly.
“Anya?” His voice was rough with sleep, the achingly familiar nickname easily rolling off of his tongue. Awareness crept in as they stared at each other, her gaze unconsciously dropping to his lips. She heard his sharp intake of breath and drew back as if she had been burned, tucking her hair behind her ears as he pushed himself up on his arms, shaking his head to clear the drowsiness.
She cleared her throat. “Did you ask Di what room Papa is in?”
“It’s probably somewhere in our group chat.” He said curtly, running a hand through his hair in a gesture she recognized as discomfort. He glanced at his phone, skimming through the messages. “He’s in room 1133.” He stated, shooting a quick text off to Di to let her know he had arrived.
They walked into the hospital with a careful distance between them. She hung behind as he stepped up to the receptionist, absentmindedly playing on her phone. She looked up as he walked back, his face lined with worry.
“Is everything okay?” She asked gently, scanning his face. He started, clearing his throat.
“Uh… yeah, I’m just worried. Everything is fine. Di told me that he was stable and okay.” He paused. “But it doesn’t really set in until you see them, you know?” He added quietly. She nodded in understanding, falling into step with him as they began to walk towards the elevator.
“Excuse me, miss?” They turned as the receptionist called out to them, her admonishing gaze focused on Ananya. “You need to check in at the desk. The receptionist said sharply, glancing between the two of them as a furrow appeared between her brow. She shot a quick look at Ananya’s hand, before looking back up. “It’s family only.”
“Oh, uh… I’m-” Ananya hesitated. She turned to Raj, switching to Hindi. “I can stay back if-”
“She’s family.” He said firmly. The receptionist looked unconvinced, looking between the two of them for a lengthy moment before she nodded reluctantly.
They walked silently up to the room, the quiet ding of the elevator the only noise in the hospital. Raj strode forward as they reached the floor, his gaze focused on his phone as Ananya lingered behind. Anjali stepped out from inside a room and he broke into a jog, wrapping his sister in a hug.
Ananya looked away, feeling distinctly intrusive. The pair of siblings walked into the room, and she could hear them speaking softly as she approached the area. She waited awkwardly in a corner for a while, pulling out her phone. She read through the last chapter she had just written, considering edits even as her brain protested.
Glancing around, she made her way to a plastic chair just outside the room, placing her head against the wall.
“Did you drive alone, Raju? I told you not to drive alone. What if something had happened to you?” She heard Uma Malhotra’s voice, the rebuke laden with affection for her son. She didn’t miss the tremor in her voice as she struggled to retain normality.
She couldn’t help but smile, recalling the warm relationship Raj had shared with his mother. Her smile faded as doubts crept into her mind. She and his mother had always gotten along well but…
What would she think of her now?
“Ma! How many times have I told you not to call me Raju?”
“How many times have I told you that you will always be my Raju?”
“Give up now, Raj, she’s never going to let that nickname go.” Navin interrupted tiredly. “But she’s right, you know. You didn’t have to drive down tonight, you could have waited until tomorrow. It’s dangerous to drive this late, especially when you’re exhausted.”
She heard Raj hesitate for a moment and flushed, realizing he was considering whether or not to tell them that she had driven him. She pulled out her phone, ready to text him that she would leave and just wait for him outside when he spoke.
“Ananya drove me.” He said quietly. There was an immediate shift in the atmosphere, a heavy silence sitting for a long moment.
“Could no one else drive you?” Uma asked in Hindi. Ananya flinched at the sharpness in her voice, her heart constricting. She desperately wished she had her headphones, hating the feeling of eavesdropping.
“Uma, she drove Raj here at 2:30 a.m.” Navin interrupted gently.
“She also hasn’t spoken to Raj in three years.” She snapped, anger bubbling through her voice.
“Ma, let Raj handle it.” Anjali stepped in, her voice soothing.
“He still hasn’t told us why. What else am I supposed to think?”
“He probably has a good reason for it.”
“Where is she, Raj?” Ananya stiffened as she heard Navin’s question, fighting the urge to run. She heard Raj’s footsteps approaching, his head peeking around the door.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that.” He said, quietly enough so it was out of earshot of the people in the room. She shook her head, swallowing hard as she determinedly held back the sting in her eyes.
“I understand where she’s coming from. Should I leave?”
“No, no, it’s… it’s fine.” He said tightly. He tilted his head towards the room. “You should come in.”
“I really don’t think I- “
“Just come, Ananya.”
She bit her lip and followed him into the room, distinctly aware of his mother’s piercing gaze. Anjali stepped forward, wrapping her in a hug. “Thank you for driving him down.”
Ananya shook her head. “He would have done the same for me.” She said, avoiding Raj’s gaze. Ananya turned to Navin, walking over to him. “I’m glad you’re okay, Papa.” She took his hand and squeezed gently.
Navin regarded her quietly for a moment, his eyes guarded. He smiled tiredly, reaching out one arm. “Come here, beta. I haven’t seen you in so long.” He finally said, wrapping an arm around her. She leaned into his hug, before raising her eyes to look at Uma, who gave her a tight smile.
“Thank you for driving Raj, Ananya.” She stated formally, assessing Ananya. Ananya felt the sharp pinch of guilt at the distance from a woman who she had once regarded as a second mother. She pasted a smile on her face, disregarding the tightness that had taken its place in her chest.
“I hope Radha and Vishwa are doing well?” She inquired politely.
“They are, Amma.” Uma Malhotra’s gaze sharpened at the word, a brief flicker of regret flashing across her face. She pressed her lips together, her eyes drifting to her son.
“Radha mentioned that Vishwa had a heart attack. Is he doing well now? We haven’t seen them in a while.”
“He is. He has to watch his diet and Amma’s been harping on him about his exercise.” Ananya responded, fondness for her parents evident. Uma smiled slightly, falling silent. An uncomfortable pause settled over them, begging to be filled. Raj had grown steadily quieter, standing in a corner with his gaze directed out of the window.
“When do they think you will be out, Papa?” Ananya asked, turning to Navin.
“I’ll be on his case about not eating enough.” Uma grumbled, shooting a glare at her husband. He looked back at her sheepishly, squeezing her hand.
“I’m fine, Uma.” He said, soft reassurance in his voice. Ananya recognized the look that flashed across Uma’s face, a combination of a fear stemming from a loss that came far too close to occurring.
“I know.” She replied, speaking more to herself, reminding herself that he was still there.
She suddenly looked up at Ananya, seeming to realize that she was still in the room. She self-consciously cleared her throat in a way reminiscent of Raj, giving Ananya a stiff smile.
“Where are you staying tonight?” Navin asked, breaking the awkward silence.
“Uh… I’ll probably just grab a hotel, or drive out to our family friend’s house in Grayslake.”
“That’s nearly an hour away. Stay at our place.” He offered. “You haven’t been with us in so long, Anu.” He added quietly, the barely masked hurt in his voice a sharp reminder of the state of their relationship.
Ananya stiffened, glancing around the room. Anjali was already nodding, but Uma wore an unreadable expression and Raj stared at the ground.
“Yes, Ananya, you can’t drive to Grayslake right now. Stay with us. We have an extra room.”
“But Di, I really-“
“You’ll stay with us, Anu.” Navin said, his voice leaving no room for argument. Ananya shot a glance at Raj. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. He looked quickly between his parents for a moment before looking away, guilt fleeting across his face.
“Stay with us. For tonight.” He said quietly, the modifier enough to remind her just how tenuous their friendship was, despite the recent familiarity.
Reluctantly, she acquiesced, wondering what she had gotten herself into.
Song: What Sarah Said
Artist: Death Cab for Cutie
Note: Death Cab for Cutie sounds like an emo band, but it’s the least emo music I’ve heard. That being said, this song is one of my all time favorites — I adore the piano chord progression. I’m curious to see what you guys think of this song. I thought the lyrics were fitting for this chapter, if a little too melancholy.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter — as always, follow buttons are on the right hand side, and please leave me with your thoughts.