She knew it was him when the doorbell rang at midnight. Who else would appear at that hour when it was pouring outside with the winds reaching cyclonic speed? It rang again. Had it been a stranger seeking refuge for a night from the hostile weather, he would have been in by now near the fireplace. Weather department had issued the warning and the authorities had urged people to help others in drastic situation. Grudges and pasts creep in when the known come for help. Tina wished this man outside were indeed a stranger. The situation reminded her of the day when she had seen him the first time. Only the wind was calmer then and the rain gentle. She had opened the door with a smile which beamed even more when she saw her favorite daffodils in his hands. The memories vanished and she closed her eyes tight in sheer disappointment as a drop of tear ran down her cheek. She crawled out of the bed and realized it was warmer in the comfort of the duvet. Although the body was warm, she felt shivers inside. The thunderstorm inside her heart was growing ferociously as she climbed down the stairs to open the door. The doorbell rang again and the sound hit her like a lightning bolt. With shaky fingers she finally opened the door to find him drenched. He stood like a shovel stuck in earth. Unmoved. They gazed into each other’s eyes for a minute.
“Why are you here now?” she said bluntly.
“Tina, please don’t do this to me. I am still the same. Still your–”. She cut him short instantly, “You aren’t, Jack. You aren’t mine. You aren’t the same anymore. You are a changed man. I don’t give a damn about your face and I don’t care if it changed. It’s your heart and the man inside you that I had loved. And that has changed, Jack.”
“It hasn’t, Tina. And please don’t say you had loved me. You still love–”
She cut him again, this time raising her voice a little, “I don’t. Not anymore. I did once. But not today. And never now.”
Jack stilled. Something inside him said she will melt. It’s only a matter of time. She will understand. She must. Why should he bear the burden for a mistake he never committed all his life? All he could ask for now was this one night, to convince her. To win her back, again. “Tina,” he said, “let me in. Please.” And he walked inside without her approval. Tina closed the door behind and the wind hushed. The stormy night wasn’t going to rest anytime soon. She hoped the storm should subside until morning and Jack would be out. And Jack hoped it should last for at least three more days without losing any intensity. He really hoped for the forecast to turn right.
“I’ll get you a towel,” Tina said and went upstairs. Jack looked around the living. Everything was the same. At the same place where it had been four years back. He went closer to a photo frame on the shelf – Jack carrying Tina on his back with her arms swung around his neck with broad smiles on their faces. The frame’s glass cast his reflection back at Jack. Jack’s face in the photograph and the one in the reflection weren’t the same. He cursed himself. But Tina’s words came back to him – it’s not his face. It’s the man inside that had changed whom she hated.
Tina came back with the towel and stood behind Jack. He saw her reflection on the frame and turned. The floor where he walked was all wet. Tina handed him the towel and gazed at the photograph and then said, “Jack and I had taken this when we had gone to-“. Jack cut her short, “You and I, Tina, You and I. And ofcourse I know where we had taken this photograph. I am still the same Jack. Your Jack. I still love you.” He walked a few paces towards her as she paced backwards and said, “Jack, please dry yourself up. The storm should subside by dawn.” Jack watched her go upstairs and wondered, is she right? She is still the same – looking beautiful as always in this purple nightie. Incidentally the same one she had worn when they had made love for the first time. But me? I am not the same anymore. Not for her at least. And that’s what matters. I must go and talk to her.
The storm brewing inside the house seemed far more fatal than the one outside. Jack had to find a way to calm it down somehow. If he lost her again tonight, she would be gone forever. He wiped himself off with the towel and opened the closet near the fireplace. His white bathrobe was still neatly kept there. He wore it, lit up a cigarette and sat on the couch watching the fire. The flames drew him in and engulfed his thoughts back to the time when he had parted ways with Tina. It all came back. Still fresh as if it had all happened yesterday…
Jack was getting restless, checking time every few seconds that May afternoon in the bar. He was eager to meet her. He had only found her number last night following a confrontation with his father. Jack had had to blackmail his father to get her number. The beating he used to get from his father still scared him and he had not forgotten any of it. The mark on his forehead when Peter, Jack’s father had gashed with a broken beer glass when he was just four, was still visible. Jack could feel its depth even today brushing his fingers on it.
Re-checking the message on his phone resting his elbows on the table, Jack was reassuring himself he was at the right place at the right time. Karen should be here by now he thought. And as he looked up, there she was. Looking all grown up and cute, she walked towards Jack, smiled at him and said, “Hi, Jack.” Jack could not find words at first. He stood up and emotions had taken him over. A moment later, he smiled back at Karen and said, “Long time, Karen. Very long. How’ve you been?” Anybody around could tell they had met after ages. Before she could realize, Karen’s eyes welled up as they sat. Jack put his hands on Karen’s and gently caressed them a bit and said, “Please don’t cry, Karen. I am glad we at least met. I thought you were dead.” “I was surprised he gave you my number”, said Karen. “I blackmailed him. I finally found evidence against him. Now he knows that I know what he did to you and mom.”
Karen could not hold back her tears as Jack uttered those words. But she composed herself quickly, wiped her tears and said, “Let’s not talk about it, Jack. I’ve decided not to bring back any memories. I don’t want to be hurt anymore.” Jack obviously agreed. He changed the mood, “So, boyfriend?” Karen grinned before replying, “Yes,” and added, “We are not living together yet though. Let’s see. I’ll take life as it comes. No long term plans.” Jack appreciated that. He nodded in agreement and ordered something to eat. They were lost in conversations as there was so much to catch up. After all, they’d met after two decades. Jack’s phone rang a few times but he completely ignored the calls. It was Tina.
They did not realize how hours had passed. “It was wonderful seeing you again, Jack. Next weekend again?” “Yes, I missed you a lot, Karen. It’s still hard to believe I got to see you again. Thanks for coming.” “I love you, Jack,” Karen got up, picked up her purse, kissed Jack on his cheek and hugged him tight.
Jack checked his phone after Karen left. Twenty one missed calls. Tina was obviously worried and angry when Jack returned her call. He thought his lie, that he was stuck in an elevator in a building would work. It would have, had Jack’s father, Peter not been outside the bar secretly clicking Jack and Karen’s pictures to revenge Jack’s blackmail on him.
The next morning, Tina was still upset and the fear that Jack had lied to her crept in her mind as she knew Jack never lied. Never, ever. Just as she was about to convince herself that it must have been indeed an elevator Jack was stuck in, the bomb exploded on her that confirmed her worst fears. Peter had printed Jack and Karen’s pictures and sent them in a sealed envelope that landed on Tina’s desk in her office. The shock had not even sunk in when her phone rang. It took her gigantic efforts to pick it up and say hello. Her body was numb and her mind quiet. “Jack is having an affair.” The voice on the other end of the line said, “Come to central park cafe tonight at seven to see for yourself.” And the line went dead. Tina collapsed on the chair. She was sure this stranger on the phone was damn right. He already had a proof that was lying on her table staring in her face. A blunt lie.
Tina and Jack had a huge fight that night. Jack knew instantly those pictures were sent by his father. Who else would have done something so cheap? There were reasons that kept him from telling all the truth to Tina. She kicked him out and slammed the door. Jack kept knocking but Tina wouldn’t budge. Why would she? She deserved at least an explanation which Jack never gave. His silence ascertained his guilt. Tina peeped out the window to find Jack waiting outside. Just then, his mobile rang. It was Karen. He stared at it for a few seconds, thinking he must tell everything to Tina. That was the only way. Now that his past had flashed back in front him, there was no place he could hide. He saw Tina peeping from the window; she had tears in her eyes and was terribly upset. It was obvious to her that Jack’s mobile was ringing for Karen was calling. Jack leaned closer to the window and said, “Tina, I love you. Everything will be alright. Tomorrow.” He had decided to bring Karen over to Tina’s place and tell her everything. Everything he hid from her, until now.
When Jack answered Karen’s call, she was crying for help, “Jack! He is hurting me Jack, please come, Jack please…” and her voice faded into a loud scream. Jack rushed into his car and drove straight to Karen’s place. He knew who was hurting her. Karen would be slapped all over her face and perhaps even have cigarette burns over her cheeks, he feared as he drove with F1 speed to reach her place. Jack reached her house and banged the door. “Open the damn door, dad. Open the door you horrible maggot.” Peter opened the door and Jack stormed in pushing him back looking for Karen. “Where is she?” He yelled. Peter did not respond. He narrowly cast his eyes over the pistol lying on the couch. Jack went ahead, picked up the pistol and thrust his elbow on Jack’s throat and yelled in his face again, “WHERE IS SHE?” Karen heard him and slowly walked out of the kitchen with trembling feet. Jack was relieved she did not have any burn marks on her face, but she had been beaten badly. She collapsed into Jack’s arms. Jack dropped the pistol and took Karen outside and sat her in the car. Peter was watching everything from the door quietly.
Just as Jack lay his hands on the steering and revved the engine, Peter did something Karen and Jack had always feared from their childhood – he calmly drew handkerchief from his pocket, picked up the pistol Jack had dropped and placed it on his temple. Jack and Karen zoomed out of the car to reach him, “Dad! Dad, no–!!” By the time they reached Peter, he was lying in a pool of blood. Karen collapsed on her knees. A stark realization shuddered Jack and he said, “Oh my god! No, no. No–ooo. The pistol has my fingerprints on it.” A perfect crime by a mentally ill person. Karen was abused; Peter lay in a pool of blood, Jack’s fingerprints on the gun. No escape.
Hearing the gunshot, neighbors started peeping out of their windows. Karen knew someone would have called the police by now. She made a quick plan. She rushed inside the house, grabbed her mobile and called someone, “Maddy, you remember you said you’d pay back one day? The time has come. Help my bro Jack. He’ll call you.” She shoved her mobile in Jack’s hand and said, “Call Maddy and tell him the truth. And trust him. Go! Go, go, NOW!” Jack left as fast as he could.
Maddy was a fit biker with beard and tattooed bulky arms. They met near an old dilapidated abandoned building site. Maddy heard Jack’s story and there was no question of not trusting him. He took Jack home and figured a plan. He made a few phone calls as Jack stood near the window contemplating and visualizing the future. Even if he managed to convince the court of law that he never killed Peter, it could take months to prove his innocence. And there was no guarantee. Maddy’s suggestion was mind boggling but a life saver. What he said would change Jack’s life forever. Maddy had finished making all his phone calls and he said, “Look, Mr. Innocent, you’ve been framed by a mentally challenged person. Your mom never took the effort to register your father into any of the rehabs ever. There is no proof he was mentally ill, first place. There is no reason why he would have killed himself. Trust me, if taken to court, you will face trial and land in jail. I have a plan. All arrangements are done. You just have to follow, lad.” “What must I do?” asked Jack. Maddy replied, “You go to Mexico. And there you kill the man who could be jailed for your father’s death.” “What the hell do you mean?” asked a perplexed Jack. “You kill yourself, sonny,” said Maddy. “What? Are you crazy?” “Easy, ladyboy. You kill the face that the police could find. Not the man. Plastic surgery my man. Best doctors. Tried and tested. Success guaranteed.” Jack looked completely awe struck. All his dreams and future shattered to pieces. Maddy continued, “Anything else on your mind, don’t even think about it. This is your only way out. And I can’t let you rot in jail for a crime you never committed. I am doing this for Karen, not for you.”
There was no choice. It all happened as planned. For four years Jack lived away from his past, even Tina. But he had been seeing Karen all these years. Karen always wanted him to tell everything to Tina, but Jack never agreed. He wasn’t the same Jack Tina had loved.
When Jack learnt Tina still loved him and had never actually moved on, after much persuasion from Karen, he decided to get back into Tina’s life.
One morning, a visitor stopped by Tina’s office. He met her and in the midst of the conversation said something that threw Tina off the hook. He said, “Tina, I am Jack.” And showed her the ring she had gifted him. Tina was stunned. The next moment she realized, yes, this visitor’s voice is exactly like Jack’s. And the ring, that was the ultimate proof. Her head spun with amazement that Jack had come back. But who? Which Jack? This man? Who looked a total stranger? This man who betrayed her and to ditch her even changed his face? This man? She stormed out of her office as Jack followed her. It was tonight that the storm was about to come and Jack turned up at Tina’s house at midnight in the midst of the storm.
It was dawn. The storm outside seemed to have gone quieter. Jack was still awake staring the fireplace. Tina walked downstairs and said, “Jack, the storm has subsided.” Jack knew it meant he should leave. The time had come for Tina to know the entire past. The doorbell rang. Tina opened it to find the person she had hated and never wanted to see standing outside. It was Karen. Tina did not know how to react. Why had she come over?
Karen entered and Jack stood up. Tina looked at Jack, then at Karen and before she could say a word, Karen spoke, “Tina, Jack loves only you. I am Karen. Jack’s sister.”