The 7 Innocents

John 7:24
'Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.'



Isaiah 64:6
'But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags;'


It was when their problems seemed to wane that they escalated. The Australians all disappeared, and the seminary shut down. They were told to run for their lives. Told if they didn’t, their families would die. Told if they did, their families would still die.
They endeavoured to solve the mystery – one that threatened to destroy them and their families – but soon realised that to end it all, they must first find the Australians. But the closer they came to finding them, the more they began to see they should run and never come back.
The question, of course, is why they didn’t call the police.
The answer is simple.
You can’t avoid being condemned unless you’re innocent.
And these men are not.

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29. Chapter Twenty-Eight: The 7 Scatter

 

The sleepless nights were endless for Gopi, and they only grew worse as the mission drew closer to its conclusion. He knew how it would end, one way or another.

          Part of him hoped his plan worked, but another hoped he failed completely. He knew what it would mean for him, but he almost thought it would be sweet – a sweet, welcome relief.

          Gopi. My name is Gopi….

          He remembered the day IndAid had changed everything, turning a paperwork war into the real thing, with guns, death, and pain. He remembered how they’d come straight for him, the unofficial leader of INDependent.

          He remembered watching her die. He remembered how she had tried to save the children, failing miserably while wailing and begging for him to help. He remembered the tears, the desperate struggle – the impossibly firm grasp of a thousand hands (the number did not even seem like an over-exaggeration in his mind) holding him back. He remembered his desperate pleas for mercy, he remembered the pain.

          He remembered the powerlessness, the way he had promised to do anything. He wished they had of used him rather than let him suffer so.

          No, IndAid was an extremist group, that was certain. And it was true that he had probably reacted too quickly, while his vision was still clouded with agony and grief, but he almost did not regret it.

          His phone rung, so he answered distractedly. He was not surprised to find it was his boss.

          ‘Gopi,’ the man began abruptly, ‘there is one part of your plan that is unclear. You say we will not be crashing the plane, but how do you expect Arjun to do it? He won’t even get on the plane if he has his way!’

          There was a long pause.

          ‘Gopi?’

          He would hate himself forever if he said this. He would never forgive himself.

          He remembered the screaming of the children. He remembered his own screaming, struggling, the strong arms holding him back…

          He brushed away a tear and answered his superior.

          ‘I know where her children are.’

 

Even Arjun was completely confused.

                'How are we meant to find her?' He asked, as they all walked home.

                'By scattering.' Alyssa replied. 'Bikram goes home, Suneep, Josha and Chandan go home – Danny and Mehmet go home...'

                'We all go home.' Suneep teasingly summarized.

                'Yes! And if you see Balraj, ask him three simple questions.'

                'What three?' Josha asked.

                'Whatever three you like.'

                Arjun did not seem to think this was a good idea. 'Any three? Come on, how will that help?'

                'You'll see. Also, if you are ever followed, reverse the situation. Follow your follower. We'll see what we can learn.'

                'You are still not clear.' Arjun objected. 'Are you telling us to go home and keep trying till we work it out?'

                'No. I'm telling you to go home and we will work it out.'

                Arjun shook his head. 'I do not think this is a good idea.'

                'Got a better one?'

                Arjun frowned. 'No.'

                'Then why not? By the way, I'm putting a week deadline on it.'

                'Why?' Suneep asked.

                'For the purpose of Arjun's secret plan. I hear he has one.'

                Arjun nodded. 'It is far-fetched.'

                'It's probably brilliant. Will a week be enough?'

                'As much as ever.'

                'Good! So, what I want each of you to do is come up with a sort of plan in your mind – I don't really care what it is. But remember, you have a week.'

                Suneep nodded. 'Sounds good.'

                Arjun was slowly accepting the plan too. 'So when should we go?' He asked.

                'Now.' Alyssa replied bluntly.

                Mehmet smiled and began Googling things on his phone. 'Next train to Delhi is either 15 minutes or two hours.'

                Chandan nodded. 'Time for some speed-packing.'

                The group sped up, and rushed to leave Arjun's house.

 

As Bikram sat on the train to his house it brought back memories of Joy. Her father had never answered his question. Each year it was the same reply: 'ask next year'. Then he had had to flee to Australia, so had not been able to ask that year. He wondered if his answer would have been any different. Joy did not live far from his home – about half-an-hour by taxi. He wondered if it was worth seeing her.

                It was the first time he'd been home since confessing his failure of year 12. He hoped things wouldn't be much different.

                Suneep also had a lot of time to think on the train to his house. Yes, he was a fickle fool, he knew it. Against his will he began wondering whether or not he had actually loved Shaktiah. Of course he had! Not loving her was an impossibility. Perhaps it was an immature love, but it was real all the same. Suneep felt exhausted – he exhausted himself.

                He was worried too. Would he be able to keep his family happy for a whole week? Now that was an impossibility. 'If I can just control myself.' Suneep muttered. 'If I refuse to get moody everything will be fine.' But he knew that would be hard – especially since his father was moody. His sister was more like Brayna, emotional, not moody. She felt everything keenly, and cried easily, like his mother. 'Great.' He muttered. 'I have moody on one side and emotional on the other. No wonder I'm such a wreck.'

                Arjun had dropped Alyssa home and sat in his room staring out the window. He hoped this worked. He just wanted to go home and stay home. He was tired, worried, and paranoid. He was tired of constantly being analyzed by his family and friends, and hoped they would not embarrass him anymore. If anything he could certainly say they had an imagination.

                Mehmet was a little nervous about going home, but was certainly the calmest of the seven. His mother had forgiven him – he was not too worried.

                Danny worried for the entirety of the long trip back to Tamil Nadu. He wasn't about to go to the home, and instead stayed at a cheap, dumpy hotel.

                He jumped as a mouse ran across the floor, and then shuddered. 'As long as you stay on the floor I will be fine.'

                Josha trembled as he stepped into his house. He wondered if he would even be safe.

                'Josha!' His mother cried, sober this time. She ran towards him and held him close, followed shortly by his father.

                Josha was petrified, but knew he had to stay put. Slowly, he wrapped his arms around his parents. The feeling was foreign to him.

                Chandan was coming down with the flue, and slept feverishly on the train. As he did, the scene that haunted him played through his mind. He muttered strange things, and the person next to him wisely ignored him. He would not have liked to know what Chandan saw.

 

It was three months before summer holidays, and a year after the Australians' disappearance. The BSI was struggling financially, and trouble was not yet a total stranger. For the most part, however, trouble was subsiding and being forgotten.

            But Chandan was worried. Ever since he had run away from the home he had feared one thing: being found. The home was more like a criminal organisation than anything, and Chandan knew he carried sensitive information. He would never dare to breathe a word, but the home didn't know that. It was safer if he were dead.

            Chandan became keenly aware of one strangely familiar looking man on the street one day. He tried to ignore him, but as the days passed he began seeing him everywhere. One-night he saw him out the window. Chandan had been completely terrified from that moment onwards, and could not be persuaded to go anywhere by himself – especially not in the dark. They were coming for him. He knew it.

            Chandan had always been sickly, especially during winter. That was just one of the reasons he made the effort to work out for hours. The other reasons were his height – or lack thereof – and childish face. At any rate, he caught the flu every winter without fail, and would often hallucinate the night before the virus peaked.

            At least that's what everyone said. Going by what they told him though, Chandan figured he was actually having flash-backs, or dramatising his fears and worries. For example, the time he had worried about failing his exam he ended up screaming that Dr. Ashwin was coming to murder him. The students then amusedly recorded that he though everyone threw him out of the BSI.

            That night was no different. Chandan had the top bunk, and was curled up, staring at a non-existent man in terror.

            'He's coming!' He screamed. 'He's coming to kill me!'

            'Shut up!' Josha had shouted after a minute.

            Govind – Vijay's young uncle – sighed. 'Look, just go to sleep, Chandan.'

            'I can't! He knows where I sleep!'

            Govind had sighed, and switched beds with the man. Chandan had fallen asleep after that.

            His fever broke at midnight, and he awoke. Instantly his face had flooded with terror. There, in the shadows, stood the man – his stalker. Chandan had tried not to scream, as he saw the whole thing.

            Govind was murdered – they thought it was him. Of course, when he had screamed that, no-one had believed him. They all thought he was still sick. Only his closest friends believe him.

 

                It was this memory that haunted Chandan, the most recent trauma he had experienced. When his fever broke and he awoke on the train he only hoped he hadn't scared anyone.

 

Chandan found Kharan and Ashima living in the exact same place as they always had – under a building in Delhi. The two had been frightened when the entrance to their refuge had opened, but were thrilled when they saw their friend.

                'Chandan!' Ashima cried.

                Chandan's face lit up. 'Hello, Pyarraa.' He greeted the girl, using her Hindi pet-name.

                She was still beautiful, though she looked tried and sad. Her eyes never seemed to shine with happiness, except (at least according to Kharan) for when she saw Chandan.

                Kharan smiled. 'Still? How are you, Chota?'

                Kharan had grown a lot since Chandan had last seen him. He was tall and strong now – but he also scared Chandan in a way. There was aggression and anger in his eyes. Chandan had used to look that way too.

                Chandan frowned. 'Good, but I hate that nick-name, Nai.'

                'And mine is a mockery. But I'm glad you are good.'

                The three had given each other Hindi nicknames when they were eleven, to unit them. Chandan had named Ashima Pyarraa, or lovely, and Kharan had named Chandan Chota – small. Kharan had come to be known as Nai, or barber, because how terrible he was at cutting hair.

                'How is your life, Chota?' Ashima asked, pulling he shawl a little tighter round her.

                'Good, Pyarraa. Don't worry; I will still marry you one day, as promised.'

                Kharan groaned. 'You were ten! And besides, she is 2 years older than you!' Chandan only smiled sweetly. 'What have you come here for?' Kharan asked, doubting Chandan was just visiting.

                The man only continued smiling. 'I'm just staying for a while. Do not worry.'

                It was then that his friends started to panic.

 

Arjun passed his days in his room, though no-one was sure what he was doing. He seemed solemn and depressed, but would not go out. He tried to read, but that only put him to sleep. So he mainly sat on his bed, staring out the window.

                This was never going to work. As long as he stayed inside he would never find Ardi, and as long as he looked the same it would never be safe to try.

                Arjun jumped up. 'That's it!' He cried.

                In an instant he ran to the bin, where he found the various items Suneep had thrown out. Fishing certain objects out, he ran into the bathroom, where he stayed for an hour. When he stepped out, he was virtually unrecognisable.

                His family was having lunch, and their reactions were interesting. Sara's mouth hung open, as did everyone’s and Brayna dropped her food. Akash nearly choked on his water, and Arjun's parents completely froze.

                'Arjun...'  Mehtar finally spoke. '…. are you all right?'

                'Yes.' Arjun replied. 'I am just going out in disguise. If I do not come back today, don't worry. I'm fine.' Having said this, he stepped out of the house.

                Arjun had gone all out and spike his hair completely. He wore Suneep's dark eye make-up and a pair of dark sunglasses. This in itself made him barely recognisable. He had managed to find one pair of jeans he owned that were too big for him and did not wear a belt. He felt very brave walking around with loose pants, and was not used to treading on his cuffs, but he knew it had to be done. He wore the coolest pair of shoes he owned – worn Converse boots – and a black T-shirt. He already had a black leather jacket, but combined with his non-typical features, even it looked new. He'd painted his nails black, and felt disturbed every time he looked at them. He figured that would help him not to smile.

                Carefully, Arjun walked to the market. He wanted to find his follower, but he hoped his follower hadn't already seen him. If he had, his game was up.

                He walked around for fifteen minutes before he saw him. The man he always saw. Now all he had to do was keep track of him. Arjun watched the man for hours, and began to worry he was wasting his time. Then his family came into view, and he panicked.

                The man eyed Akash keenly, and Arjun realised he though Akash was him. His younger brother glanced at the man distractedly and he was satisfied. He had been seen – now he could leave.

                The man weaved his way easily through the crowd, and Arjun tried hard not to lose him. Fortunately, the man did not realise he was being followed, so he did not walk quickly.

                He walked towards the train station, and Arjun began to see he was going to have to sneak aboard, unless he could some-how buy a ticket. He watched carefully to see which train and carriage the man boarded and noted it was headed to India.

                'Excuse me, sir.' Arjun interrupted the man selling tickets. 'I need to board that train now. Could I have that carriage? A friend is there.'

                The man nodded lazily. 'In luck. It's pretty empty today.'

                Arjun paid hastily for his ticket and boarded the correct carriage. The man was still in sight, which was good. Even better was that he was at the front end of the carriage, so Arjun was behind him.

                Many hours passed, and as night began to fall, Arjun knew he would have to stay awake all night if he didn't find out where the man was going. Discreetly, he called an energetic boy over.

                'Hey,' he whispered, smiling kindly, 'would you like to earn 10 rupees?' The boy nodded eagerly. 'Okay. Then I want you to ask many people where they are going – you can tell them where you are going if you like – but only pay attention to that man.' He pointed. 'Then tell me, okay? Do you understand?'

                The boy nodded, and skipped off to do his work.

                'Excuse me sir,' he asked an older man, 'where are you going?' The man replied gruffly. 'Ah, so am I!' The boy cried excitedly. Then he turned to an older woman. 'Where are you going?'

                'Delhi.' The woman groaned, half asleep.

                The boy turned to the man – Arjun's man – and asked the same question.

                'Delhi.' The man replied sternly. 'I'll give you ten rupees if you shut up and go away.'

                The boy happily accepted the ten rupees, and then skipped over to Arjun to collect ten more.

                'Thank you.' Arjun said as he paid the boy.

                The question was, of course, whether or not the man was telling the truth. But as the hours passed, Arjun could hardly keep his eyes open. As soon as the man fell asleep, he did too.

 

Mehmet was bored by the end of the first day. He just wanted to find the Australians and get on with his life. He began tossing ideas around in his mind. If he were a kidnapper, where would he hide an Australian? It would have to be some-where where there were several Westerners – a tourist destination – or they'd stand out like a sore thumb. But it couldn't be too obvious a place, or everyone would instantly guess. So then, it couldn't be Agra, Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, or any place to do with the Ganges. Mussoorie? Very few Westerners had heard of the place before coming to India, but it was a tourist destination. It was up in the mountains too, so it would not be easy to escape.

                Mussoorie was only an hour away from where Mehmet lived, so he figured he may as well try it. He found his scooter, warned his mother that he would be gone for a while, and left.

 

Danny lay on his bed, scared to move. He knew if he opened his eyes he would see cockroaches on the roof and rodents on the floor, and he couldn't stand the sight of any of them. He was afraid to leave his apartment, though. He didn't want to run into anyone he knew.

Why did he come here? He should have just gone to Chennai – at least that wasn't right next door to his terrorists. He didn’t even have a plan. Everyone else was probably doing something so useful; meanwhile, he didn’t even know what to do.

                There was a knock on the door, and Danny jumped. His heart rate sped up, and he froze in complete terror.

                'Hello?' A deep voice called. Then, in Tamil, 'Danny, are you here? It is Kannan's brother, Arman.'

                Danny stopped panicking and rushed to the door, his face alight. 'Arman!' He cried, opening the half-broken door. 'How are you, friend?'

                The door finally opened, and there stood Arman. The young man was the spitting image of Kannan, and really only differed in one way: he was much better looking than his brother had been – much better looking. Kannan had always been jealous of his brother's good looks, but had made up for his lack with confidence. Arman was not as confident as his brother had been, but was still lively and captivating.

                'Danny!' The tall man cried – Danny wasn't even up to his shoulder. 'How are you?'

                'Good thank you! How are you?'

                'Yes, very good. Look who has come with me.' The man smiled his winning smile and pulled a young woman into view.

                'Parvati!' Danny cried excitedly. 'How are you?'

                'Good thank you, brother.' The girl replied.

                Parvati was Kannan's youngest sibling, and the shortest of the three. When he head first met the girl, Danny had though he was shorter than her, but upon closer examination it was discovered that they were exactly the same height.

                Kannan had been a tall, lanky man, with an angular nose, crooked grin, and amazingly white teeth.                 Sometimes he had had a moustache, other times he did not. He had had a long face, and dark skin – though not as dark as Danny's. His brown eyes were in no way spectacular, and completed his average face. In this regard, Arman was entirely different.

                Kannan's younger brother – younger by a year – was tall, but not lanky. He was not incredibly muscular either, just either, just average. The man had a wide smile, and several dimples, and teeth that were every bit as perfect as Kannan's had been. He was always clean shaven, and his face was a little shorter than Kannan's. His brown eyes had flecks of dark green and black, and were amazing to look at. His nose was exactly like his brother's, which is probably what made them look so incredibly alike.

                Parvati was younger than Kannan by two years, and was extremely beautiful. Like her brothers she had a long face, and an angular nose, as well as perfect teeth. Her smile was wide, as were her brothers', and her skin was especially dark. But her eyes were different. Instead of simply being round they were almond shaped, just like in traditional paintings of beautiful Indian women. Her eyelashes were long and dark, and her dead straight, jet black hair was always neatly braided to her waist. She had dimples like Arman, and when Danny looked at her, one thing became very clear: Kannan had missed out on the good looks.

                Parvati's relationship with her brothers had always been and amusing one, as they seemed entirely un-protective of her, until some-one was serious. Then they had become vicious and threatening, and all merriment was gone. Any man could joke about Parvati, but the minute they became serious they were on the brothers' death list.

                'How did you know I was here?' Danny asked, looking back and forth between the two.

                'Parvati saw you in the streets before, and we followed you here.'

                'I told you I stalk you.' The girl put in. She stood with her arms crossed, and leant on the wall confidently. She was wearing an aqua Punjabi dress with sandy-coloured pants and a matching sash, completed with matching earrings and a nose ring, which suited her incredibly well. As always she wore many bracelets, which tinkled sweetly every time she moved. The sound was fascinating, and added to the girl's mysterious attraction.

                Danny smiled. 'Yes, but now I believe you. Look, I would invite you in, but there are rodents and cockroaches everywhere.'

                'Come to our house!' Arman and Parvati pleaded in perfect unison. 'We will feed you and look after you for free.'

                'Unless you are eating mice,' Parvati teased, 'in which case you are already eating for free.'

                'Won't your parents mind?' Danny asked.

                Arman burst out laughing, as did Parvati. 'Danny,' she said, 'I think we have had every man in India in that house!'

                'All for Parvati.' Arman explained. 'Singing silly songs about her 'almond eyes' and the way her bracelets sound when she moves. Honestly, if I wore bracelets I would have the same effect.'

                Danny laughed now. 'I do not think so, brother.' Arman's eyes instantly flashed, and Danny tried not to react. 'Arman, I am joking. Of course they would sound as sweet on you as they do on your sister.'

                Arman slowly loosened up, and re-issued the invitation.

                'Will you come?' He asked.

                Danny nodded eagerly. 'Yes, thank you very much!'

                'Just do not be surprised if you have to share a room with a stranger or two.' Parvati put in.

                Danny frowned. 'It is always that busy at your house?'

                Arman nodded. 'Danny, there are millions of men in India. We have not even seen a thousand yet.'

                Danny was impressed. 'It sounds like things have gotten worse since I last saw you.'

                Arman rolled his eyes and nodded again.

                'And we have visitors all day.' Parvati continued. 'Sweet young girls who come to 'give food', but really look out for Arman and smile shyly at him.'

                Arman laughed, and Danny remembered why it was Kannan had had such a big hang-up about not even having a girlfriend.

                'Just remember.' Danny began, as he gathered his belongings. 'You only need one.'

                'Yes.' Arman acknowledged. 'But for now we get free food.'

                Danny laughed, and shut the door to his room.

 

                As the three walked through the streets, Danny was pleased to find his friends every bit as popular as he had remembered. People smiled and waved at them, cried out to them and high-five them, and Danny wondered that they were never exhausted.

                'Do you want to play cricket?' Arman very suddenly asked Danny.

                Danny nodded eagerly. 'Sure!'

                'Then we will play after we drop your things off.'

                The three soon reached home, and Danny was led to a large bedroom.

                'Looks like there are two other men.' Arman notice. 'Don't worry, they'll probably be gone by tomorrow. I don't know how papa gets rid of them so quickly.'

                Danny chuckled and his belongings under his bed, just in case. Then he followed his friend out to an empty field. He didn't bother wondering who was going to play with them – the people came in swarms.

                'Same teams as always!' Arman shouted, and half the group stripped down to their singlets. 'Danny, shirts of singlets?'

                Danny was not sure. The weather was cold, but he knew he'd be warm after playing for a while. 'Which do you prefer?' He finally asked.

                'Shirts.' Arman answered. 'Otherwise the girls watch.'

                Danny laughed, and took off his shirt. Then he stood shivering in the cold for half-an-hour, fielding. 'Left, left.' He muttered, as the ball blew to his left. 'The ball always goes left.'

                The man next to him struck up a conversation, seeing as the ball wasn't anywhere near them.

                Danny's team lost that game – probably because they were so cold – and the men instantly disappeared.

                'Dinner time.' Arman explained. 'And it's getting dark.'

                Dinner was a colourful event at Arman's house, and there were many men at the table.

                'They are not staying,' Arman whispered to Danny, 'but they come regularly. Papa has not managed to scare them off just yet.'

                'The meal is wonderful!' One of the men said, speaking truthfully. 'Did you cook it, Parvati?'

                Parvati smiled smugly and glanced at Arman. 'No. Sarita Horani did.'

                The men were confused. 'Who?' One asked.

                'A friend.' Arman said quickly. 'She kindly brought us a meal.'

                Another of the men frowned. 'You always have meals from different girls. Why is that?'

                Parvati smiled. 'We are very blessed, that's all.'

                On the side, Arman whispered to Danny, 'we save all their meals for the men. Parvati cooks when no-one is around, usually at lunch time.'

                Danny smiled. 'Is she good?'

                Arman shrugged. 'Not if you are serious.' Danny laughed and the man smiled too. 'No, she is very good. That is why we do not let her cook.'

                For the most part, Parvati did not even talk to the men that had come to see her.  'I do not know half their names.' She confessed to Danny. 'It's disturbing.'

                Danny avoided going to bed for a long time, and even ended up talking to Arman's mother, after her children had gone to bed. When she eventually left too, Danny began chatting to Arman's father.

                'So what brings you here?' The man asked.

                'I was invited.' Danny replied.

                'Yes, as they all are. I know what brings you here, so you may as well be honest. What is your name again?'

                'Dandin.'

                'Dandin...?'

                'Kinton. Dandin Kinton. Kannan's friend.'

                'Yes, there were five of 'Kannan's friends' at dinner tonight. But I'll hand one thing to you: I have never had a boy wait to speak to me before. They usually avoid it.'

                'Sir, I think you are confused...'

                'Well I don't think I am. What do you do, Dandin?'

                'Sir, I have not come to see Parvati!'

                'No, you've come to see me, I know. Your occupation?'

                Danny sighed. 'I work in Australia, teaching Tamil.'

                'Australia?'

                'Yes. I also have other jobs, like working in an Indian restaurant. I need them all to pay the bills.'

                'So you live comfortably then?'

                'W-well... I suppose so. But like I said, I'm not interested in Parvati.' His voice caught, and he realised he couldn't even begin to fool himself. '

                The man smiled – he looked remarkably like Kannan, and was plain too. 'Are you smart? How did you do in class 12?'

                'Well.'

                'Then why are you not a doctor?'

                'Because I wanted to be a minister.'

                'Then why aren't you a minister?'

                'Because the BSI shut down.'

                The man's face fell, and Danny could tell he finally remembered who he was. 'Danny.' He mumbled, the memories coming back to him. 'The one Kannan never stopped talking about.'

                'Yes!' Danny cried eagerly. 'See?! I'm not...'

                'Don't go back there. So, could you have been a doctor?'

                Danny sighed. 'Yes.' He replied. 'I am good at biology, chemistry, physics, and maths. I am awful at humanities, so my grades were never high at the BSI.'

                The man smiled, and Danny wished he had of just gone to bed. Finally, the former asked a question, a very serious question. 'Danny, you understand Parvati has a very serious nervous condition?'

                Danny's face fell. 'What?'

                'In a few years’ time she will either be completely disabled or dead.'

                Danny was astounded. 'Is this when everyone leaves?' He asked.

                'No. It is after this that they leave: because of this, Parvati can never have children.'

                Danny didn't know what to say. 'Do you make this up to scare them?'

                'No. It is why she wears the bracelets. Her arms are numb, and sometimes she cannot feel them. She feels safer if she can at least hear her arms.'

                'Is their treatment?' Danny asked, distressed.

                The man shook his head sadly. 'There was – but we couldn't afford it. Now it looks like it will be too late. Parvati is doomed to live a hopeless life, just like Kannan did. The worst part is that she will be mentally stable – just physically unable to do anything.  Slowly she will go blind and deaf... she may even lose her sense of touch completely.'

                Danny tried not to cry despite himself. He figured he was doing a bad job of lying to Parvati's father anyway. 'That's horrible!' He cried. 'She'll be cut off from the world!'

                The girl's father was close to tears as well. 'I am scared for her – she is very brave. Because, of course, eventually, she will die. It may take years – or it may take months. And, as the bracelets seem to suggest, it seems to be happening quickly.'

                Danny quickly wiped the tears off his face, hoping her father would not notice. 'So this is why everyone leaves.' He mutters. 'The wretches! Does Arman know about this?'

                'Parvati did not want him to know, but he found out. He never breathes a word though, and I suppose he assumes I do the same. He would not imagine that I scare off man after man with this diagnosis.'

                Danny sat still in perfect shock. He had spent so much time with Kannan and his family, and never known! How could he not have known? He had thought he knew them all so well.

                'She was diagnosed only last year.' The man explained, as if reading Danny's mind. 'When she told us about the bracelets and her arms we panicked and took her straight to the doctor. She only told us because it got worse. We have been to doctor after doctor, but it is always the same. It is Botulism, we cannot afford the treatment, and it is too late. Incurable. I never want to take her to another doctor again!'

                Danny nodded slowly. 'Well, sir.' He said after a while. 'I suppose I should be honest with you. I did not come here to see Parvati, but I was very happy to see her. However...'

                Danny stopped for a minute, and the father waited knowingly for what was about to come.

                Danny took a deep breath and continued. 'I miss Kannan very much, and have missed all of you too. I feel like I know you all very well, especially now. Parvati is sweet and kind and I will admit that I am not as.... disinterested as I said I was. But...'

                Danny looked away, and the man braced himself for the same old reply. It was hard for him to always hear those words. Danny opened his mouth again, and the man tensed.

                'Nothing has changed.' Danny finished, amazed at the enormity of such a statement. 

                Parvati's father jumped up in shock. 'What?!' He cried. 'Are you insane? She could live in that disabled state for years – you could not just marry another! You would be married to an imbecile!'

                'No, I would be married to Parvati.' Danny objected.  Then he looked away, in awe of himself. 'What am I doing?' He muttered. 'I did not come here to get engaged!'

                Parvati's father caught this, and shook his head. 'No, no, no, I think you feel sorry for her. This has happened before – leave it for a month, and you'll come to your senses.'

                'It can't have happened before. Otherwise you would not be so shocked.'

                The man froze, as Danny pinned him correctly. 'It's just that... you gave it great thought. And while I told you your opinion did not seem to waver for a moment – not really. It is true that no-one has ever seemed so sure of themself while so keenly understanding what they are committing to.'

                'Like I said, sir, marriage was the last thing on my mind when I came here.' The man eyed him sternly, and Danny sighed. 'Okay, fine! It came to mind as soon as I saw Arman! Fine, I am here, I am asking for your daughter's hand in marriage, just like every other man in India – only I am still asking.'

                Parvati's father smiled proudly at the determined young man in front of him. 'You are noble, Danny. But don't act on an impulse. You can back out. Unlike the others, I will not think any less of you.'

                Danny laughed shyly. 'I can't say I haven't thought about Parvati at all. I just did not want to get married or engaged so soon. I came down here on business. But this – this is not completely random.'

                The man's spirits lifted by the minute. 'Then you have my permission!' He cried. 'When may I speak with your father?'

                Danny looked away. 'I have none.'

                'Oh. Well, in that case you may ask Parvati to marry you whenever you like. She will be crazy to deny you.'

                Danny smiled a little. 'I do not want her to think of her illness when she answers me. I want her to answer me like she is a perfectly healthy young woman who will have to put up with me for fifty years or so.'

                Her father laughed, relieved. 'Dandin Kinton, you are a true man – the best I've ever met. All the others are fickle, foolish little boys. I would be proud to have you as my son-in-law.'

                Danny's smile widened. 'Thank you, sir.'

                The man made his way to bed, and Danny sneaked awkwardly into his over-crowded room. At least he had a bed.

                Lying on his bed, he relayed the day's events through his mind and wondered if he was crazy. He had promised himself when this started that he would not be distracted by Parvati, and had deliberately not searched her out. He probably should have felt more somber, but he didn't. He felt completely happy, light-headed from joy and excitement. Yes, it would be hard. He knew that. But he knew he loved Parvati – and that would make it easier.

 

 

 

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