There was something odd about it, despite its plain and inconsequential appearance. Vinita gazed at the mystery envelope for a long moment, weighed it in the palm of her hand. Her instincts were prickling. It went beyond mere feminine intuition. She didn’t receive any letters from her family in India anymore. Cheap long-distance telephone rates and e-mail had put an end to that somewhat antiquated form of communication.
The smudged postal seal on the envelope read Mumbai --- one of India’s largest and most populous cities --- a place Vinita was very familiar with. The envelope had that typical “India” look --- multiple postage stamps in various colors and sizes; thin brown paper; and the sealing flap placed over the vertical edge, unlike the American-style horizontal edge. But it didn’t look like the occasional wedding invitation or the quarterly statements from the bank where she and her husband maintained a small account in rupees.
There was no return address, but it was sent to her attention --- neatly hand printed. She slit it open with her finger and eased out the contents --- a single sheet of white, ruled paper. Her hands shook a little. She wasn’t sure if it was anticipation or anxiety. Or both. The message was brief --- a few lines penned in blue ink. She scanned it quickly, trying to ignore the tingle crawling up her spine like the cautious progress of a venomous spider. The subject matter was bizarre. The writer’s name was missing. The trembling in her hands edged up a notch.
Only minutes ago, it had looked like any ordinary Saturday morning --- a day to recoup after five hectic days of poring over spreadsheets, memos, and databases till her eyeballs ached and her back turned stiff as cardboard.
This morning, lying in bed, through drowsy eyes she’d watched the first shimmering rays of sunlight poke their fingers through the window blinds. The sound of the wind whistling through the pale green spring foliage was a sign of a brisk but sunny April day.
May, her favorite month, was right around the corner. The dogwoods and azaleas in the neighborhood, weighed down by fat, succulent buds, attested to that. Spring was always such a buoyant season, so full of promise. It had brought a contented smile to her lips. Reminding herself that it was time to emerge from the warm cocoon of the down comforter, she’d sat up in bed, stretched like a slothful kitten, and leaned back against the headboard. She’d managed to grab more than two extra hours of sleep. Her reward for waking early on weekdays.
Her husband was on a business trip to Detroit, and wasn’t due to return until the following week, so she had the weekend to herself. She’d planned to indulge herself by brewing a cup of scalding masala chai-strong tea delicately laced with her own blend of five spices --- instead of the usual coffee --- on-the-run she drank on weekdays at the office. Then she was going to eat lunch at the taco place and do some shopping at the mall.
Working late the previous evening had prevented her from looking at the mail right away. Exhausted, she’d tossed the stack of correspondence on the nightstand, eaten a quick meal of leftovers, and gone straight to bed.
Now, as she sat on the bed in her aqua print pajamas and checked the mail before getting dressed, she wondered if the weekend of self --- indulgence she’d been looking forward to was already beginning to wilt and curl at the edges. The tacos and the shopping spree no longer appealed.
Who could have sent her the odd message? An old friend? An acquaintance? She blew her disheveled bangs out of her eyes to read it again, more carefully this time. Perhaps there were clues she had missed the first time.
My dear Mrs. Patil,
I am writing to tell you about your son. He is suffering from myeloid leukemia. Many years ago, I made a promise that I would never reveal anything about him, but this is a serious matter. A bone marrow transplant is his last hope. My conscience will not allow me to let a young man die without having a chance to try every possible treatment. Your brother may be able to give you all the details.
I leave the matter in your hands.
Best Regards & Blessings,
Setting the letter aside for a moment, Vinita rose from the bed. The cool air in the room seeped right through the soft flannel of her pajamas, giving her goose bumps. Her bare toes curled the moment they touched the cold wood floor. Shivering, she padded over to the window and threw open the blinds. Crossing her arms, she tucked her freezing hands under her armpits.
The daffodils growing in the front yard were a blaze of heartwarming yellow. The blue and white hyacinths provided a lovely contrast to them. Her bulb plantings from last fall had been worth the effort.
Her neighbor, Doris, was pushing a wheelbarrow filled with seedlings from the garage to the area beneath her bow window. Vinita couldn’t help smiling at the sight of her neighbor’s industrious little body hobbling as fast as it could to keep up with her agile mind. At seventy-two, Doris was a bundle of energy, despite her arthritis. She put women half her age to shame. Her neat clusters of flowers and rows of lush vegetables were a delight. Looking on the sun-drenched landscape and Doris’s short, gray curls lifting in the chilly wind as she parked her wheelbarrow and pulled on her gardening gloves, Vinita stood in silent contemplation.
Who was this nameless letter writer? And why had he or she chosen to remain anonymous? Something about the message was disturbing.
How could someone spring something like this on a total stranger? Whose son were they talking about, anyway? Was it possible the letter was mailed to her erroneously? But what if it wasn’t a mistake and she was indeed the intended recipient?
Was this someone’s idea of a sick joke? But then, why would they spend over forty rupees to mail something all the way to the U.S. as a mere prank? Everything about the letter spelled serious intent. This was no hoax. And yet it made no sense.
The author appeared to be educated. The writing was clear and precise. And the old-fashioned salutation and blessings at the end meant the person was older than Vinita. The writer couldn’t be a practical joker.
Of course this was a gaffe, she reflected. It had to be. She had no son. Her only child was Arya --- her bright and impetuous twenty-three-year-old daughter.
Turning away from the window, Vinita picked up the perplexing letter once again and tapped it against her palm. Should she trash it and let it go? Or perhaps she should wait until her husband returned home and discuss it with him?
On second thought, that would be a terrible idea. She couldn’t afford to bring up anything that even remotely involved her past. Not now. Not ever.
Maybe she could talk it over with Arya? Bad idea again. Her daughter would be the last person to understand any of this, especially Vinita’s past.
The past! Something dark and vague flickered in her brain. Could it be...? Don’t let your imagination run away from you, she reprimanded herself. And waited for her heartbeat to settle into its natural rhythm.
Whom could she turn to for help in solving this puzzle? She began pacing the length of the room, hugging herself to stave off the mild shivers racing up and down her body. But it helped very little.
This was ridiculous. Ordinarily she wasn’t an excitable sort. But here she was, turning into a nervous puddle over a simple letter.
She pulled her husband’s plaid robe from where it hung over the bedpost and slipped into it. It smelled like him --- soap and his brand of deodorant --- the comforting scent she loved and breathed in each day. She could have used a calming hug from him right about now, feel his hand smooth her hair.
Twenty-five years of marriage and she still missed him dreadfully when he was away from home. Had he remembered to take his blood pressure medication? Had he remembered to pack enough underwear to last him the entire trip?
Pulling the robe tighter around herself, she stopped and read the letter a third time. It did mention her older brother, Vishal --- her only sibling. And that was another mystery. How and why did the writer assume her brother knew anything? Besides, the letter was mailed from Mumbai, while Vishal lived in Palgaum, a town in southwestern India, where she and Vishal were born and raised.
Was it possible her brother knew something about this? Maybe he could shed some light on the mysterious message and its equally enigmatic writer, the well-wisher.
She glanced at the bedside clock. It would be early evening in Palgaum. Picking up the phone, she took a couple of deep breaths and dialed her brother’s number.
Two sharp rings and he answered, sounding pleasantly surprised to hear her voice. “Vini! How come you’re calling on a Saturday?” She usually called on weeknights because weekends were too unpredictable, packed with social commitments and household chores.
“Because what I have to say couldn’t wait,” she replied, sounding curt even to her own ears.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, wariness making his voice sound like a low rumble.
“I don’t know yet.”
As he started to respond, Vinita cut him off. “I just got this really strange letter from someone in India.”
“It mentions something about a son…my son ---”
“--- and that he has leukemia…” She trailed off. She didn’t know how to explain it all. The whole thing sounded preposterous. There was a long silence before her brother spoke again.
“Good God!” Vishal’s voice was a stunned whisper.
Excerpted from The Unexpected Son © Copyright 2012 by Shobhan Bantwal. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.
The Unexpected Son
- paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Kensington
- ISBN-10: 0758232039
- ISBN-13: 9780758232038