A new channel started to play just as the living room door opened with a click.
Vikash walked inside and turned on the light. He was a tall man of 6 feet 7 inches. Nearly a foot taller than Chitra would be if she could stand. His features were sharp and angular, with observant hazel eyes and a few days old stubbles growing on his cheeks.
Chitra turned her face around, squeezing out a smile. “Hey father, when did you arrive?” she winced at the raw, grating sound of her voice.
Vikash frowned. his eyes lingering on her pale face. Did something happen?
“You didn’t notice?” he asked.
Heat climbed to Chitra’s face. Usually, she would be able to hear him open the lock of the door when he arrived. But she was too distracted.
“Of- of course, I did,” she said.
“Oh really?” he came close to the sofa and leaned on its back, his eyes gravitating towards the TV. “So when was it?”
“Um… a minute ago?”
Vikash laughed as he shook his head. “I arrived at least five minutes ago. Since when have you been so occupied with soaps? Forget that, I had no idea you even listened to them. Did aunt Reshma infect you?”
“Aunt Reshma has nothing to do with it,” Chitra said with slight disgruntlement as she remembered the squeaky-voiced woman. She was one of the two caretakers Vikash had hired to look after her. Other than the annoying habit of watching soaps and making teary-eyed tales about them all day long, she was quite a nice person.
Vikash wiped away a droplet of a tear shimmering on Chitra’s cheek. She hadn’t noticed it there. “Seriously though, you look quite upset. Did something happen?”
Chitra gulped the lump in her throat, returning her voice to normal. “Nothing happened,” she said dismissively as she turned off the TV. She put on her glasses and reached out towards her wheelchair.
“Let me help you.” Vikash came around the sofa towards her.
Chitra shook her head. “Don’t worry, I got this.” she held the armrests of the wheelchair and dragged herself over to it, settling on it firmly.
Vikash shrugged helplessly as he put his hands down.
His daughter used to be such a sweet little girl, but now she always had a wall around her. A wall even he hadn’t been able to breach for nearly three years.
“Now let’s go, we still have to make dinner,” Chitra prompted Vikash.
“You don’t have to worry about that. I bought some biryani for dinner.” Vikash arrived behind her wheelchair, gently pushing it towards the door.
“Why did you do that?” Chitra said with mild displeasure. “Making it ourselves would’ve been much cheaper. And also much healthier.”
“Oh, come on! Do you have any idea how long it takes to make biryani? You’re becoming worse…” Vikash paused. He strangled the phrase “than your mother” inside his head and continued. “It’s raining outside so I really wanted to eat some biryani, ok?”
“What’s rain got to do with biryani? Why don’t you say you just didn’t want to bother with cooking?”
“Ok, ok. You caught me. I just hate working on rainy days. It’s so cold outside!”
“Well, it’s the middle of January. What did you expect, warm sunny nights?”
“Ugh!” Vikash’s lips twisted. “That joke doesn't work at all.”
Vikash settled Chitra down on her bed and took the chair beside it. He gently caressed her head while humming a tune as he did every other night. She’d have trouble sleeping otherwise.
“Father,” Chitra called in a quiet, muted voice. “I have to talk to you about something.”
“What is it? Tell me anything you want,” he said with a kind smile on his face as his finger drew circles on her forehead.
Chitra put her hand over her fathers as she considered for a while. She couldn’t shake off the thought of the game, not after what she had heard. She took a deep breath and blurted out, “I want a job.“
She gave a brief nod. “Yes, to earn some money.” It was her dream. No matter how long it took, she couldn’t rely on others to accomplish it, not even her father.
Vikash cocked an eyebrow, half in surprise and half bewilderment. She had talked about getting a job before, but her goal had always been to wait until she finished her studies. This was the first time he saw such intense desire on her face.
Did this have something to do with her expression in the living room earlier? Something to do with what she had seen on TV? Vikash was curious.
“Father?” Chitra nudged at his hand.
“Hm? Oh yeah, a job right?” he held her hand in both of his. “There’s no need to hurry so much, is there? Now you should focus on studying and enjoying yourself.”
“No.” Chitra shook her head. “I… don’t want to wait that long.” she hesitated. What could she tell him? What excuse could she use? In the end, she sighed.
“I just want to be self-sufficient sooner.”
“This isn’t about moving out again, right?” Vikash said with a tinge of apprehension in his voice. His mouth twisted with bitterness. “Please don't be so unreasonable, Chitra. As you wanted, I’ve already stopped wasting money. Do you know what my friends call me these days? Mr Stingy.”
Her father’s panicky voice brought a little smile on Chitra’s face. Akanksha leaving him had always been a traumatic experience for Vikash. So whenever he did something that stank of recklessness, Chitra too would take advantage of that weakness, exploit it by threatening to leave him, even if that meant living on the streets.
Of course, she could never actually do that to him. She could never do such irresponsible things ever again. Not to another one of her parents. But she didn’t have to. Just the threat of it gave her enough control over him.
“No father, it’s not about that,” she said in a reassuring voice. “I just think it’s time for me to get a grip of my life. Even if I rely on you now, I can’t do that my whole life.” she gave a light chuckle. “And you don’t have to care about what those friends of yours call you. For me, you’re the best father in the world.”
Vikash gave an embarrassed smile and glanced at her legs, “If you really want to get a grip of your life, you should work on getting better.”
It didn’t take much effort for Chitra to understand what he meant through the nuances of his voice. She touched her hip with her free hand.
It was just shock. The doctor had said so. Just… shock!
“I’m trying!” she said in a bitter, astringent voice.
Vikash gritted his teeth. Idiot! There was no need to remind her of that...
He fumbled for words to comfort her. But unable to think of anything, he sighed, breaking the awkward silence that hung between them.
“Well, I’ll try to see if I can find something,” he said, firming his grip on Chitra’s hand ever so slightly in an expression of comfort. She tried to say something too but yawned instead. “You should go to sleep now. You look awfully tired.” Vikash lowered her hand and got up.
Vikash was right. Chitra’s whole body was heavy with fatigue. The emotional rollercoaster she went through today had left her drained, but she still called out once again.
“Wait,” she said, her voice tinged with guilt. “You don’t have to look for a job. I- I don’t need it.”
“Hm?” Vikash raised his eyebrows, making a crease on his forehead. That was strange. Why did she change her mind again?
Chitra took a deep breath. She didn’t really think too much, did she? How could she be so silly and forget her reason just because of a game?
She had already determined her goal. It was to be a medical researcher and to research coma. That was more important to her.
Mom is more important than seeing the world.
Vikash made sure Chitra was deep in sleep and closed the door to her relatively soundproof room. Only after he was completely sure she wouldn't be disturbed at all, he came to the living room with a can of beer in his hand.
He had to make sure she never found out about it. She absolutely loathed alcohol in the house.
Officially, he had long given up drinking after Chitra arrived. He was never much of a drinker anyway. But tonight...
It was just one of those nights.
He hadn't drunk after work; After all, she was too perceptive for that. But a long night was ahead of him and that should be enough time to remove any smell.
Vikash smiled. Chitra was even worse than Akanksha in some regards. His wife hadn’t been so hard on him about every little thing. She would even join him for a drink or two, though she had never been much of an alcohol person herself
Akanksha used to be a terrible drunk though, turning wild every time she drank. she would climb on his back, throw tantrums, talk gibberish, and when he would show her the recordings of her deed in the morning, her hungover face would become red like an apple.
Those memories brought a nostalgic smile on Vikash’s lips, but it was gone the next second.
“Akanksha…” he whispered wistfully. Those short, sweet two years had been the best time of his life. A time that would never come back.
He looked at his empty hands. Chitra had grown up, Those who met her often called her ‘strong-willed’.
But she isn’t!
That horrible day was still fresh in her mind. She still wasn’t strong enough to know the truth.
He noticed the remote lying beside him and picked it up. He was in the mood for some late-night sports.
The first thing he noticed when the TV opened was the sound. It wasn’t too loud for him, but for Chitra’s ears? Suffice to say she would be more than annoyed.
She had been listening to soaps with a sound like that? Unlikely.
He looked to his other side where the book Chitra was reading lay. She had forgotten to close it.
Vikash picked it up and traced the letters. She rarely showed such carelessness.
He shouldn’t pry too much into it. It would be an invasion of her privacy otherwise. He shouldn’t, but… She had such a terrible look on her face. Should he really let her deal with it alone? Hadn’t she suffered enough?
Vikash fidgeted, shifting on his seat. His jaws tightened. She was his daughter. He had a responsibility to know and ease her pain.
He pressed the options button. As the options menu appeared on the screen, he took a deep, shaky breath and chose the history tab.
It should be ok as long as I don’t try to watch it. He thought, focusing on the lists and numbers on the screen.
“Bleak TV, 6 minutes. First view 20:56, last view 0:13 ” he muttered as he took one last gulp of the beer and Glanced at the lower right corner of the TV. It was 0:14 now, and if he considered the time he had been sitting with the TV on, it must have been five minutes already.
She wasn’t listening to soaps, was she?
He started going through the watch-list, but most other channels with long watch time were either the usual music channels she listened to, or news, sports or movie channels that he watched. All of those views were either from daytime or from yesterday. The only other channel that had a relatively long watch time from 20:32 to 20:56, was GNN.
She was probably listening to it, concluded Vikash as he scratched his chin lazily. He had also arrived around that time, and probably that had been when she changed it.
But wasn’t GNN a videogame news channel? Since when had she been interested in video games?
He had never been too interested in video games himself, but he knew more than enough about them, though mostly because of his friends. Suman and Rabindra had been video game addicts in their youth, and their kids were no different.
Had she been influenced by those children?
He took another swig from the can, the bitterness of the liquid sliding down his throat mixed with the rising sourness inside him.
She would never be able to play them, unlike Arun and them.
A sigh escaped from the depths of his heart as he took a look at what was airing at that time. It was a program called ‘Finitum, The Full Dive Experience’.
Finitum. That word rang a bell.
Wasn’t it the super expensive game his friends talked about? About how much they wished to buy it for their kids, but the price was astronomical compared to others, he had never seen them stress about any other game like this before. Even today at work they had been discussing it, like how they were still planning to buy it regardless of the price.
What was in this show that caused Chitra to make such a pained face?
His finger hovered over the select button, about to choose the program, but a sense of nausea washed over him. He felt disgusted with himself.
I’m really doing this, aren’t I?
Suman Mitra just picked up his phone, when it started to buzz. He smiled as he took the call. “Hey Vikash, you’re gonna live for a long time.”
“Huh?” Vikash sounded confused.
“I was just about to call you. I saw something amazing just now.”
“Amazing?” Vikash asked. There was a certain dryness to his voice. As if all the words Suman spoke were passing over him without touching him.
“Hey, are you ok? Wake up! This is really important.” Suman stressed his words. “This could change Chitra’s life for the better. I still couldn’t believe when Arun showed it to me just now.” he was bursting with excitement to tell Vikash about his discovery.
“A video about Finitum on GNN?” Vikash’s question halted him on his tracks.
“You watched it too?” he asked.
Vikash stood in front of the sofa staring blankly at the now dark screen. His dazed face twitched slightly at the question. “Yeah,” he breathed out. “Yeah, I have,”
“Did Chitra show it to you?”
“No.” Vikash shook his head bitterly. “She doesn’t know.“
“Hmm.” Suman considered for a while, then asked, “So what do you think?”
Vikash Looked towards his daughter’s room. The memory of her colourless face, the tears on her cheek was still clear to him! It must have been so painful to endure, but she didn't say anything to him. Why?
Have I failed as a father?
He opened his mouth. “We need to discuss some things.”