Prompt: Forbidden Places l Word Count: 1800 words exactly l Genre: Fiction
The shrill ring of the phone jolted Neha out of her reverie. A calm voice asked, “Is this Mrs. Arora?”
“Yes, I’m Neha Arora. Who’s calling, please?”
“I’m the receptionist from the Sanjeevani Medical Centre. One of your older medical reports is missing from our file, Mrs. Arora. You know how particular we are about our records. So, Dr. Devi wanted to know if you’ve carried it away with you after your consultation with her yesterday.”
“Oh, I see. I’m rushing somewhere right now. Can I check and call you back later?”
“Ok. Please be quick, Mrs. Arora. You know it’s against the hospital rules to have patients take away their medical records.”
“Oh, I’ll get right back to you, don’t worry.”
“Thank you, and have a good day, Mrs. Arora.”
“Sir, Mr. Ranjit Arora wants to see you right now.”
“Ok, I’ll go in right away.”
Atul slipped the file he had been studying into the drawer, locked it, and walked into his boss’s cabin. He stared at the bloodshot eyes of Ranjit Arora and wondered what had come over the man and why he looked so distraught.
“Ah, come in Atul. I know you’re rushing to get the paperwork done for the Tehri project, but this just couldn’t wait.”
“What’s wrong, Mr. Arora? Tell me what help you need, and I’ll get it done at once.”
“It’s about Neha,” said Arora, watching Atul with a searching look, rubbing his jaw in angst. Atul’s eyes narrowed and yet, with a steady voice, he asked, “What of Mrs. Arora, sir?”
“She has cancer. Of the uterus. And I don’t know what to do,” said Arora, his voice quivering, as he turned away towards the window, looking out into the distance, at the picturesque hills that dotted the horizon.
Atul straightened, a tiny sigh escaping his lips. “Oh, that’s so sad. I don’t really know what to say, sir. It must be hell for you. But, are you sure? Do you want me to book you an appointment with another doctor for a second opinion?”
“No, Atul. There’s no doubt of it. I saw the pathologist report myself. ‘Uterine Cancer,’ it declared. The doctor gives her 6 months at the most. All I want to do now is ensure she spends the rest of her days in peace. I want to fulfill every single wish she has. Oh, why did this have to happen to us? We’ve just been married for a little over a year, now, you know. Oh, how much I love Neha, why did God have to take her away from me?”
“I’m sorry. It’s very unfortunate, indeed. I can’t even imagine how you must be feeling, sir”
“Ok, what’s the use of all this lamenting? Let me come straight to the point, Atul. You don’t need to hide it from me anymore. I know you both loved each other long ago. “The Perfect Couple” I was told. I’ve seen the way you look at her. And my dear wife, I’ve seen her grow brighter whenever you’re around. I’m no fool, Atul, and I had a few enquiries made, so don’t bother denying it.”
Atul blanched, and was overcome by a coughing fit, and reached out for the glass of water on the table at which Arora sat. How did the guy learn of this? Foolish Neha had messed up big time with this slip. Arora watched Atul, smiling behind his hand.
“I’m not angry anymore, Atul. I was, when I first learned of it, but the news of Neha’s health…well, it kind of took away the pain. When she herself won’t be alive, what’s the point of being angry for something that happened in the past, I wonder.”
“Sir, I…I really…”
“Now here’s what you can do to really make her happy, Atul. Take her to Rishikesh. She loves the mountains, and the doctor says some rest there will do her good.”
“But, why me, sir? You – her husband, should take her. What would people say? Why add controversy to the pain, sir?”
“I’m not proud of this, Atul, but I saw her diary lying open, and peeked into it. You can’t blame me, really, I just want to hold on to everything I can of her in these few months. She has a bucket list in her diary. And on that, there’s one thing that jumped at me. ‘Visit Rishikesh with Atul’ are the exact words.”
Atul was flabbergasted. He didn’t know of that wish. She’d never told him that. Oh, how it had tortured him when he first arrived at his new job, to find her as Mrs. Arora. Fresh from his training as an intelligence sleuth, he’d been planted at M/s Arora and Associates, a firm suspected to be involved in espionage. Of course, he didn’t meet her often, except on social occasions. He’d always kept a polite distance, watching her with a detached look that he wasn’t sure concealed the anguish he felt. Neha – his Neha – within reach, but out of bounds!
Now, this news, and Arora’s request. Should he give in? Why not? It was the only every chance he would get. But there was something that jarred in what Arora said…what was it? Well, it would come to him gradually.
“So, will you go, Atul?” Arora’s words broke into his thoughts. “I’ve made the booking at a resort in Rishikesh already. It’s in the name of Mrs. And Mr. Arora. You’re just about my height, and if you wear a cap like me, and arrive in the late evening, you’ll pass for me, I guess.”
“I don’t feel good about this, sir.”
“Do it for Neha, Atul. I have your back. Don’t worry, no one will know a word of this.”
Neha rushed to pack her clothes for the sudden visit to Rishikesh that Ranjit sprung on her. He’d booked the resort already, and they were to leave in an hour. She wondered what had come over him – just the other week, he’d been really busy at office, and was attending calls even at home, and now, this sudden rushing on a holiday. As she finally shut the suitcase, the phone rang.
“Neha, Ranjit here. I’m held up at office. There’s an emergency and I’m needed here for a few hours. I’ve told the driver to take you to Rishikesh, and by the time you’re settled in, I’ll be there too.”
“But…why the hurry? We can go together later, dear. I don’t feel good about going alone.”
“No, no, you don’t understand, Neha. There’s a huge waiting list for that resort, and if one of us doesn’t reach there by 5 pm today, they’ll give our rooms to someone else. Why waste the opportunity? You go on, I’ll get there at the earliest.”
The car drew up shortly, and Neha got in with her luggage. Tired by the activities of the past few days, she dozed for the two hours it took to get to Rishikesh. On reaching the resort, she reported to the reception counter, and was shown up to their room. Unpacking her clothes, she hummed a little tune and occasionally gazed out the window, admiring the view of the mountains.
There was a light tap at the door, and a familiar figure stood there when Neha opened it.
“There’s been a little problem, but don’t worry. You’re safe, Neha,” said a familiar voice that still sent a thrill down her spine.
“Your husband has been arrested by the intelligence department for espionage. There were some incriminating documents found when in his office and home, and he was caught as he was en route to somewhere in the mountains.”
“Ah, he must have been coming here. But of all the people, how and why are you here, Atul?”
“He sent me here. I was supposed to impersonate him, but I guessed it was a trap he set up.”
“How did you know? Was he that bad? They told me he was one of the best in the game!”
“He told me you had cancer. Of the uterus.”
A knowing look dawned on Neha’s face as she smiled in answer to Atul’s grin.
“Right. I just fudged the date of the medical report and left it lying around in plain view for him to see.”
“Of course he didn’t know we were course mates at the Academy, and that I knew the cancer had been treated successfully 5 years ago.”
“No, he didn’t. He only knew we were in love when in college. I ‘arranged’ for someone to tell him that.”
Atul laughed out loud. “But tell me, Neha, weren’t you surprised when he planned this trip all of a sudden?”
“Haha! I’d be surprised if he hadn’t planned this trip, actually.”
“Yes, he thought he was snooping on my diary, and ‘discovered’ the bucket list mentioning you. Ha – I intentionally put that in, and left it lying open on my table for him to read.”
Atul stared at her. What all was this woman capable of?
“Don’t leave you mouth open for too long. The mosquitoes will get inside,” she laughed.
“I never imagined this turn of events, Neha. When you dropped out of the Academy following your surgery, you just cut off contact with all of us. No one knew where you had gone, and what happened to you.”
“Is it so easy for people to disappear, Atul? Shouldn’t that have given you a clue?”
“Clue to what?”
“When I disappeared like that, and then suddenly reappeared where you least expected to find me?” Neha asked, drawing alluringly close to Atul. Now he could no longer hold back, the hunger of the past many years would be suppressed no more. Here was Neha, his love, within reach, and no longer out of bounds, with a husband conveniently out of the way? Well, there would be time enough to discover what the future held for them, but for now, all he wanted to do was get carried away in those arms, like he had so many years ago.
Atul stepped closer to Neha, and drew her into a hug. She batted her lashes at him, and found her favourite position, nestling against him, turning him to stand between her and the window, stroking the back of his head gently, as she hugged him tight, and mouthed, “I’m sorry, Atul, but this just has to end.”
The next moment, Neha whirled away, and there was a soft pinging sound. Atul fell face down, and a dark red stain made its way across the left side of the white shirt on his back. Ranjit Arora stepped into the room from the open window, calmly took Neha by the hand, and the couple walked away into the night.
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