“Is it raining outside?” Leela asked, her eyes moving around the mall cautiously.
“No, but it might start soon. By the way, don’t you notice something different about me?” Arun was beaming confidently, close to bursting with his secret.
Leela glanced evasively at him and smiled faintly, “Yeah, you look well-built. I am glad you have finally hit the gym.”
“Spot on! Actually, my mother forced me to do it finally. The change is unbelievable, right?” He looked at her face, trying to find the joy that matched his excitement, but her face was creased and distracted with worry. So, he inquired, “You look upset, is anything the matter?”
Leela had been staring absent-mindedly for a while at a shoe store, so Arun’s question startled her, “Umm… yeah, err…there isn’t, I mean, there is, but…could we move out to somewhere private?”
“Sure,” he took hold of her hand and could feel it tense up a little. He had to bring up the man’s name, “Are you still worried that Soham would find out about us? That he would do whatever he did to–”
Leela shushed and cut him off. Turning her head around to check if anybody was listening, she whispered, “Of course I am! Do you have any idea how difficult it is for me? Soham’s cover-up story for whatever he did to Shreya was so solid the police officer-in-charge interrogated him only once, and at the end of it, took him out for coffee and donuts! They could not even find the body. You don’t mess with that guy!”
Arun smiled feebly, “Listen, let’s not talk about being caught. We are finally meeting again after a month. Here, let me cheer you up with some surprises. This will definitely keep your mind away from Soham for some time. Maybe it will make it easier to live with him, too, since you clearly cannot divorce him for personal safety issues.”
“‘Personal safety issues’?” Leela air-quoted the words, “You are making it sound like he would punch me in the face, and that would be it. It’s a life risk! Honestly, why can’t you ever be serious? You have been like this since college. It’s cute sometimes but not…anyway, what’s the surprise?”
Arun let it out with pauses, suppressing another of his very bright smiles, “We–are–going–to–New York–for–two–whole–weeks!”
Her face brightened up for a while, and then the gloom crept up in her eyes, “Maybe Soham won’t allow me. You know how he gets every time I plan a trip with my friends. He treats me like a kid who would get lost or kidnapped! I don’t know, Arun. I really don’t know if I will be able to make it.”
“Don’t worry,” he wrapped his arm around her warmly, “I am sure we will figure something out.”
She eased up a little and looked up, staring into his eyes, her own shimmering with all that she was not saying, and then she whispered, “I missed you.”
They started moving towards his car as he whispered back, “I missed you too.”
Soham addressed her expectant face as he sipped his coffee, “I am afraid I can’t allow you. Ma will be arriving the very day you are planning on leaving.”
“Can’t you manage for just two weeks?” Leela pleaded, her heart thumping violently in anticipation.
Soham took her hand in his and rubbed it gently, “Ma will not like it if I have to do all the chores while you will be off on vacation with…what’s her name?”
Leela dropped her gaze from Soham’s face and bit her lip before pleading, “S-Sandra!”.
“Sandra? You have never told me about her! Did she come to our wedding?”
“No, she was in Columbus at that time for a business conference. We took a lot of courses together in college,” Leela’s heartbeat audibly at her throat, the fear of being caught choking her to nausea.
“So you planned a two-week trip with her, had your application for leave from work approved, and NOW you came to let me know? How thoughtful of you, Leela!”
“Well, I just thought of getting the more urgent things out of the way. I don’t need your permission to do things, Soham! And it’s only a two-week trip. It’s not like I am moving away or something.”
“SHUT UP!” Soham’s face had gone purple with rage, “I cannot let you go unaccompanied.”
“I am not a child, Soham!” Leela yelled out, the blood throbbing at her temples.
Soham ignored her as he lit a cigarette and went out on the porch to smoke in private.
“Ok, stop, stop. It’s getting late. I need to drop you home,” Arun tried to wriggle his neck free from Leela’s gliding tongue, attempting to look at his phone screen to check the time.
Leela let go of him, adjusted his shirt at his shoulders, and glanced at her watch, “Oh, yeah. Let’s get to your car.”
“Did you talk to Soham about the trip?” Arun asked, his eyes on the road as he drove at moderate speed.
“I did. He said he cannot let me go ‘unaccompanied.’ Whatever that means in his misogynistic dictionary.”
“So, what does he have to say now that he is seeing you pack and preparing to go on the trip anyway,” Arun snickered.
“I think he has started to see that he cannot exercise the same authority on me that he did on Shreya. The poor girl’s better off now, I guess.”
“I wouldn’t call being dead ‘better off,’ but if you say so, so be it. Anyway, if you ask me, I think he is having an affair too. I mean, when was the last time you two shared a bed?”
Leela rolled her eyes, “Oh, come on. I do sometimes overhear him talking and panting in the basement in the middle of the night, though, but that’s always been his thing, like since we got married last year. I just think he jerks off to Shreya’s memory, haha! But it’s true, we have never had sex.”
“That’s funny! Ok, here you are, back into the arms of your husband,” Arun teased, parking his car in front of Leela and Soham’s apartment.
“What’s the time, Arun? I am afraid it’s past his dinner-time. He is going to be really mad at me now!” Leela was going into that distracted state of tension again.
“It’s 10:30, ma’am. Please get down and run into your house before your husband comes out and butchers me,” he prodded her and chuckled before a slight screech of a door silenced both of them. The apartment hallway was not lit, so they could not see who was trying to step out.
“Leela, is that you?”
“Oh my fucking God, it’s Soham!” Leela almost dropped her bag in shock. She quickly tried to bring some cheerfulness into her tone, “Hey babe! Sorry I am late. What do you want for dinner?”
“I had dinner already. Daren from the office brought pizza for the whole team, and some of us packed leftovers for home. Do you want one?”
“Yes, thank you!” Leela glanced for a split second at Arun swerving the car out of the parkway. Soham was not watching the car, which meant he had not seen Leela get out of it.
“Of course! Don’t worry about the time, though. They have a match today, so I figured you would be late. I was in the basement, uhhhh….working, you know how I keep telling you the wifi is better there? I lost track of time too.”
Leela pretended to pay attention as she stood in front of the microwave, heating up the pizza slices. Something occurred to her as the word ‘basement’ made her think of her and Arun’s conversation in the car.
“Shreya’s death anniversary is next week. How are you going to make it to her family for the event in Michigan while your mother is here?”
Shreya’s name made Soham jump out of his monologue, and he stared unblinkingly at Leela like a deer caught unaware in a car’s headlights.
“I would have to ask Nancy from work to come and stay with Ma for those couple of days. You know how she adores Ma! She would eagerly grab this opportunity to impress her with her baking skills.”
“Oh yes. Funny how you are willing to do this for dead Shreya but not for living me! You would have made me feel guilty about going to New York instead of staying here to take care of your mother if you did not have to go to Michigan for her death anniversary.”
Soham snapped at her, quick to the jab in Leela’s voice, “Don’t be fucking ridiculous! I have to check out some stuff from the taxidermist’s godown and make some transactions for the office. I would not have made that trip just to go meet Shreya’s annoying family, who anyway think I murdered her.”
“Oh, that makes me feel so much better, Soham! Dead stuffed chimpanzees have more value for you than your wife.”
Soham glared at her as he shot back, “That’s what pays for everything, doesn’t it? Your pathetic K-12 teaching job would hardly cover one trip to HEB!”
Leela could see the sneer on Soham’s face, and she did not want to be at the receiving end anymore.
“You should have thought about it last year when you bribed Arun to break off my engagement with him so you could manipulate me into marrying you!”
“Manipulate you? You wanted to go for the more economically sustainable option, Leela Saha. And your stupid fiance needed that money to pay off his law school loans so he could avoid landing his defaulter ass in prison or deportation. So, do not put up that fake innocence crap in front of me!”
Leela stormed off to her bedroom as Soham started checking his phone, the sneer still lingering on his face.
“Come, come, step in quickly!” Arun hastened Leela into their hotel room, “My God! You are soaked to your bones!”
“The whole city is swimming! Here, hold your Chick-fil-A. It’s still hot, surprisingly. Can’t say the same about my chicken wings, I am afraid.”
“Let’s make up for the wet days with some additional dry days in this city at the end of next week. What do you think?” Arun asked with his characteristic bright smile, taking her wet jacket off her.
Leela collapsed into the bean bag and switched on the TV, “Please shut up and put my wings in the microwave. I am starving!”
Five minutes later, when the microwave started to beep, Arun got up and took the wings out while Leela sat in the bean bag watching MTV.
He extended the Buffalo Wild Wings bag towards Leela, “Grilled chicken wings for you, ma’am. Would you like it served on a plate or on the nubile flesh of this enslaved?” He was trying to keep a straight face as he said the lines and pointed at himself, but then they both burst out laughing.
“I am excited to see how you handled this project, Julia.” Soham smiled encouragingly at the taxidermist as he fingered the rim of his coffee cup.
Julia blushed, “I have been really anxious for the past year, Mr. Das. This was probably the first time something like this was being done. But I was also confident that if you trusted me with this, I surely could do it. I mean, your family has been one of the top guns in this business in America.”
Soham smiled, “Thank you for that compliment, Julia. Please let me know when I can take a look. I would like to check in private if you please.”
“Oh, sure! The piece is all yours. I must admit that I was rather creeped out at seeing you when you came here last year. The scandal about you murdering your late wife was on TV all the time. Thank God, they finally found evidence towards the contrary,” Julia exclaimed as she led Soham into a room reeking strongly of chemicals. Soham gestured to her to leave the room.
He went really close to the piece, moving his fingers delicately over the glowing skin. One year ago, he had told Julia to convince her to take his order that his wife had died in a car crash. He could not bear the thought of never seeing his wife again, so he had paid his lawyers to prove that the body could not be found. Shreya’s family still refused to believe their daughter was dead because nobody could show them her body.
How infuriating it was when she wanted to leave the house, Soham thought. That’s not why he married her! But she never listened. And then, that day, that glorious day when he finally carried out what he had been craving for months, the thought of which had made his nights feverish with euphoria. Soham still shuddered at the pleasure he got that day– it turned him on every time he went to masturbate in the basement– breaking that soft and fragile neck with his own hands. And now she would be locked in his basement, stuffed with gel instead of her pride and her audacity to ignore him every time he wanted her to be at home for himself. He had thought Leela could be a good replacement. But since the day Julia had sent her that email, saying his wife was ready, he could barely contain his excitement. He was not attracted to Leela. And he realized with a brutal joy that he did not need to be anymore. With shivering fingers, he slid slowly down his wife’s body, poking and thrusting here and there, laughing harder and harder each time he looked up and saw her glassy eyes and her frozen lips smile obligingly at him.