Chapter Excerpt

Chapter 1

There is a man wearing a turban ringing our doorbell. I walk slowly up the driveway and stop a safe, short distance from him as he rings again.

"Yes?" I ask, cautiously. Is this guy a salesman? Lost, asking for directions? Strange, weirdo lunatic? We're not expecting anyone, as far as I know, and all of Mom's clients use the separate entrance to her basement office.

The man jerks around. "Samar...?" he says, his eyes widening. He steps toward me.

Okay, strange, weirdo lunatic -- who knows my name! I shift the bag I'm holding, with my brand-new pedicure kit in it, to my other hand and take a quick step back in the process. Because of the pounding in my ears, my voice comes out as a shrill squeak. "Who wants to know?"

He stops and puts his hands in his pockets, his smile fading. "You don't recognize me," he says. He looks down as if he's lost something.

I grip my shopping bag tighter and squint at him. Recognize him? What is he talking about? Why would I recognize him? I know that I don't know any turban-wearing, dark-bearded, and mustached men. There aren't any on our street, that's for sure.

Is that it? Maybe this guy is lost. But then, how does he know my name?

"Samar," he says, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "I'm your Uncle Sandeep, your mother's younger brother. Do you remember me at all?"

My throat goes dry as I look into his face. The only uncle I have is in my mother's photo albums. An uncle I haven't seen since I was a baby -- and no, I don't remember him at all. But this guy looks a lot like that uncle.

I swallow hard and shake my head. My voice comes out as a hoarse whisper. "I don't remember you."

He reaches into his pocket and I jump. He holds up a hand. "It's okay," he says, pulling out a wallet. He flips through some cards and holds one up for me to see; an ID card for a gym membership. Under the photo is his name, Sandeep Ahluwahlia.

"No, I recognize you, from my mom's photos, but I don't remember you...from my childhood."

He clears his throat, color rising in his face. He steps forward with a hesitant smile and holds out his arms. When I don't make any move toward him, he drops one arm and extends the other. I falter, but then offer my hand, which he promptly engulfs with both of his and proceeds to pump enthusiastically.

"Samar, look how grown you are -- I can hardly believe my eyes! You were only a baby when I saw you last."

Why are you here? I want to say, but I stand there mutely while my arm is all but wrenched off my body.

He finally lets go of my hand and steps back. He looks like he's trying not to sweep me up in his arms, so I scoot around him, leaving plenty of room between us, and leap up the porch steps to the front door. "Wait here," I say. "I'll go get Mom."

Mom usually sees clients on weekdays, but since some of them work and can't make it in during the week, she sets aside a few hours on Saturday mornings for them. Almost all of her clients are women who have "issues stemming from childhood."

I let the door slam behind me, drop my bag, and run downstairs to Mom's basement office. I'm about to pound on her door, right underneath the gold plaque with SHARANJIT AHLUWAHLIA, MSW engraved on it, when she flings it open.

"Sammy! Is everything all right? I just heard the door slam and then you running down the stairs."

"Mom, there's a guy upstairs claiming to be your long-lost brother."

She stops short. "There's a what?"

"Uncle Sandeep, the guy from the pictures in your album -- at least that's who he says he is. He's standing upstairs. On our front steps. Right now."

"Impossible." Her face drains of its usual honey warmth. She turns slowly to walk up the stairs. I follow on her heels.

When we get to the door, we both peer through the small window in the kitchen. The man is still there, staring up at the faint traces of smoke left behind by a passing plane. Mom opens the door quickly and steps outside. I slip out just in time to miss having it smack me in the face.

"Yes?" she says, just a bit too loudly.

The man whirls around. "Sharan!" He takes a long stride toward her. His face is beaming and his eyes are shiny. Then he stops abruptly. I look at Mom's stricken face. If I had any doubts at all before, they disappear now: This guy is, without a doubt, her brother. She looks frozen solid. I move closer to her.

"Sharan...I'm sorry to come by out of the blue like this...." He plunges his hands into his pockets.

"What do you want?" Mom asks firmly, sounding and looking more like the mom I know.

"Just to talk, Sharan. Nothing more," he says softly. "We let far too much nonsense get in the way...."

"We?" Mom arches her eyebrows.

"Yes, we: me, and Ma and Papa."

Mom's shoulders inch down slowly from where they were, hunched up near her ears, as my pulse starts racing. My uncle is standing here. Live and in the flesh. A member of Mom's estranged and mysterious family.

"Why now?" she asks. "All these years you could have visited, called...something, anything." Her voice cracks on the last word.

"You're right," he says, his voice husky. "But we're living in different times now, Sharan, and I want to be close to the ones I love. The world is in turmoil -- war is raging. Anything could happen at any moment. So many people lost loved ones on what they thought was just another ordinary day...." He trails off before looking up at her again. "Yes, it has been many years, and I know it may take just as many to make it right. But Sharan, let's just talk, at least? Then, if you want, you can kick me out and call me names and tell me never to come back. It'll be just like when we were kids." He gives her an uncertain grin.

That seems to crack through some of Mom's shield. She swallows, and the muscles around her mouth relax a bit more. "You never would get lost, even then."

This time he grins for real. Mom hesitates, then steps aside. But instead of walking past her to the door, he folds her in his arms in an embrace that is awkward and tender and warm all at once. I see Mom slowly untense until her arms go around his shoulders as well.

Since my dad left when I was about two, I don't think I've ever seen her hug a grown man. She tried dating a few times, but that never amounted to anything. Now she says she's got her work, her friends, and me -- what else does she need? I could think of at least one or two other things, but I usually keep them to myself.

My heart races with possibility. This is a member of Mom's family! My family. The family that I've asked about a million times and never gotten any clear, direct answers, except that they were "miserable, critical, and controlling people."

When they part, there's a damp stain on Uncle Sandeep's shirt in the place that Mom's face was buried. He dabs at the inside corners of his eyes. Mom takes my hand as we walk up the steps.

Inside, she ushers her brother into a seat next to her at the kitchen table. "Would you like some tea?" I ask him. All of a sudden, I feel inexplicably shy. And a bit jittery, like I just drank several shots of espresso or something.

"Just water, please."

"Mom?" I ask, holding up a glass. She nods and bends down to scratch her ankle. The outline of her yin-yang tattoo peeks out on the back of her neck, half covered by her lime green sweater.

"Nice tattoo," Uncle Sandeep says.

She absently fingers the outline on the back of her neck. "I got it a few months after what's-his-name left." She still won't say my biological father's name out loud. All she will say is that he decided marriage with her was not what he wanted. And, since he was a son in an Indian family, his parents made it all her fault. Said she was too argumentative and out of control.

Which could very easily be true, though it would be hard to tell, given that Mom's parents were super-religious Sikhs when she was growing up -- not letting her cut her hair, shave her legs, go out with her friends, and expecting her to marry someone they picked. She says that's the reason she bolted. Super-religious parents + major restrictions = unhappy Mom walking out the door forever.

Except now Uncle Sandeep just walked back in said door. All of a sudden, an unsettling thought flits across my mind: Does he think he's going to come back around and be some kind of "male authority figure" in my life? If so, he's got another think coming. I walk around to Mom's other side and sit down next to her with conviction.

He, in contrast, gets up, turns his chair backward, and sits with his knees on either side of the backrest, resting his chin on the top of it. "I like your place." He looks at me with a warm smile. "In some ways," he says, turning to Mom, "it feels like only a few days since I last saw you. You look exactly the same, Sharan, except for the gray hair." His eyes glint with mischief.

"And your paunch," Mom shoots back, winking at me.

Good one, Mom. I grin and relax a bit, wondering why Mom has been so uptight about her family. He seems okay, this guy...Uncle Sandeep.

He laughs. "Sharan, I've missed you."

"Your dialing finger doesn't look broken," Mom says, eyeing his hands.

He smirks. "Touché. When you got married, I was young and dumb, Sharan. I thought Ma and Papa were right, and that you were only making trouble to annoy them. I blamed you for ruining everything. Then I got married, and that started changing my perspective a little."

"I got the invitation to your wedding. I just couldn't attend, Sandeep." There's a hint of remorse in her voice. She sighs and runs a finger along the rim of her glass. "It was right after the whole thing with what's-his-name, and the entire family was there. I just couldn't face the stares, and the whispers and questions. I went through enough of that when I was a teenager."

He nods. "I didn't expect you to be there. Ma and Papa were hoping you'd show up anyway, for appearances' sake."

"Typical. That's all they ever cared about," Mom says. "I'm sorry it didn't work out with Baljit. I heard from Jasleen Dhatt that you were getting divorced."

"The marriage had been deteriorating for some time, but neither of us wanted to admit it," he says, looking up at the ceiling. "We separated about two years ago, and the divorce was finalized six months ago. That's when I got the slightest taste of what you must've gone through with Ma and Papa during that whole mess -- "

Mom glances at me. "And then you realized you missed your big sister," she concludes quickly.

"And then I realized how lonely it can be without family around." He pauses to give her a meaningful look as his eyes flit briefly over me. "I had it out many times with Ma and Papa over the last few years about my marriage, and I missed you terribly. I wanted so much to pick up the phone and talk to you, but I remembered how final you were -- how angry -- about everything when you cut us off."

He drops his chin to his chest for a moment before looking back up. "Ma and Papa are a pain, yes. No arguments there. But they're still Ma and Papa. And you're a bossy know-it-all, but only you know what life was like growing up with them. I miss conspiring against them with you, even though you made all the plans and I got caught implementing them."

Mom yields to a small smile. "Not my fault you were slow and clumsy, always rushing ahead without getting all the facts."

Steadily, the interaction between Mom and Uncle Sandeep becomes easy and fluid, as if only a few months have passed since they last saw each other, not fifteen years.

And when I really think about it, I can recall her talking to her friends about how much, above all else, she missed her brother. And the times she seemed most nostalgic were the rare moments when she shared a happy memory from her childhood that included Uncle Sandeep. At those times, the look on her face reminded me of the times I went for sleepovers at my best friend Molly's house and felt homesick.

"Samar." He turns his whole body to look at me. "Do you remember the little yellow Winnie the Pooh stars and moon blanket I gave you when you turned two?" It takes a moment to register exactly what he's saying, but when I do, my jaw drops.

That Winnie the Pooh blanket was the only thing that helped me fall asleep after my father left. I have faint, wispy memories of crying for my "yum-yum" and desperately searching for it. By the time I stopped using it, I was six and the thing was tattered, gray, and almost see-through. And it's still upstairs in my trunk.

"You gave me that?"

"Gosh, I'd forgotten all about that," Mom says, shaking her head slowly.

Up until this very moment, I had seen this man as a sort of fascinating but familiar stranger; a brief glimpse into Mom's -- and my -- mysterious past. Not someone who knew me before my yum-yum.

As Uncle Sandeep gets up to leave, I see the faint outlines of what once must have been a strong bond between Mom and Uncle Sandeep. It zings, sort of like an invisible current of shared pain, secrets, and loyalty. There's a kind of elation that I've never seen before in Mom's eyes. Something like hope.

Uncle Sandeep turns to me. "The real reason I wanted to come back into your lives," he says conspiratorially, "is so that I can bring Samar here up to speed on the details you have undoubtedly left out about your sordid past." He throws his head back and laughs an evil-villain, mwa-ha-ha laugh.

I perk up. "What details?"

"There are no details," Mom says quickly. "I keep no...very little...secret."

He winks at me and leans in close. "Did she ever tell you about her boyfriend Moose?"

"Moose, Mom?" I widen my eyes.

Mom glares at him. "I get the feeling I'm going to regret ever letting you back in the door, Sandeep." She gets up and walks him to the door.

Before Uncle Sandeep walked back into my life, I'd never cared that I was a Sikh. It really didn't have much impact on my life, especially since Mom is a hard-core atheist. But that was before 9/11.

The Saturday morning that Uncle Sandeep rang our doorbell had one of those endless, frozen blue skies hanging above it; the same kind of frozen blue sky that, just four days earlier, had borne silent witness to a burning Pentagon and two crumbling mighty towers in New York City. And the cause of all those lost lives was linked to another bearded, turbaned man halfway around the world. And my regular, sort of popular, happily assimilated Indian-American butt got rammed real hard into the cold seat of reality. Copyright © 2009 by Neesha Dosanjh Meminger



Excerpted from Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
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