Britto

Brijesh’ daddy told him he wouldn’t buy him a smartphone.

“You are too young to have your own smartphone,” daddy said. “You wait till you turn fourteen. That’s when your sister got her first phone, and that’s when you will get yours.”

Brijesh’ father was a stern individual who put strict limits on the number of hours his kids could play with other children in the neighborhood on holidays and also on the number of hours they could watch the TV per week. (He made these rules based on the psychological studies he read about in the lifestyle magazine that he subscribed to).

Brijesh protested that fifteen is too long an age for him to wait- he was just 9 years now- and his father should reconsider the rule.

“Why?” said daddy, rubbing his beard thoughtfully. “For your school projects, you can use my laptop. And you have access to every smartphone in this house- mine, your mother’s and sister’s- for you to play games. And I don’t think many of your friends have a phone, so you wouldn’t be able to call them even if you have a phone!”

Brijesh explained that it’s not about using the phone to call anyone, but it’s the principle of the thing. (He said this in not so many words but that’s what he meant. )

Before his father could make a reply, Brijesh heard his mother call from the kitchen, “Dinner is ready, people!”

That was the end of the discussion. Brijesh’ father didn’t bring it up again and Brijesh assumed daddy was angry with him.

**

Brinda- Brijesh’ sister who turned sixteen last year- came to learn how daddy quashed Brijesh’ hope of owning a smartphone.

So, the next day, when she came home from tuition class after school, as she saw her brother sitting in the porch, making an imaginary call to someone, talking on a bent piece of twig as though it were a telephone, a smile spread on her face.

She couldn’t help but make a jab at him. The situation, she thought, demanded it. “You must grow up fast or you would spend a long time talking on a twig to imaginary people for a long, long time!” She playfully plucked on the hair on his head as she stepped onto the porch.

“Hush…Can’t you see that I am talking on the phone!” he said suddenly, eyeing her angrily, taking the twig/phone off his ear and covering one end with a hand as if to prevent the person on the other end from hearing.

“No need to be so angry,” Brinda muttered as she got into the house. And she meant what she said. She thought that the raging anger she saw in his red rimmed eyes was a tad too elaborate for what she did- which was just making a smart comment.

“And I am not talking to anyone imaginary here either!” She heard him call from the porch.

**

Over the next days, Brijesh’s family would hear him talking on the twig-phone at least once every day. Each conversation would last some fifteen minutes, and from what they could hear, he talked to a person called ‘Uncle Britto.’ The topic of conversation was almost always the things that happened at his school- a new teacher joining, a classmate falling down and hurting his knee during playtime and things like that.

Though these were the same details that Brijesh gave his parents too, the latter somehow felt that when Brijesh talked to them, there wasn’t much joy in his voice. But with Uncle Britto, he would giggle and laugh and talk in so enthusiastic a tone that they could hear him over the television in the living room, even when he talked in his bedroom behind closed door.

When one day, Brinda heard her parents talking about the difference in the quality of his narration of events when he talked to them as opposed to talking on the twig-phone, she said, “He is just trying to make you two feel bad about not buying him a smart phone.”

Her parents nodded, thinking that’s the plausible explanation. But they still looked uneasily at each other.

**

Brijesh’school bus dropped him right in front of his gate every evening at five. Ten past five at the most. But when ten past five turned to thirty past five, his mother-who just got home from work began to get worried- not seeing the smiling Brijesh standing at the porch to welcome her(and to accept the chocolate she brought him every day).

She called the school and it was learned that he was last seen by a teacher. “He told me that his uncle had come to pick him up. Uncle Britto.” The teacher has recently joined the school and didn’t know that it was unusual for Brijesh to be picked up by someone.(Both his parents reached home from work too late for that).

Brijesh’ mother felt the ground shaking beneath her. Her palm began to sweat and the smartphone slipped from her grip.

**

It took the police two days to find Brijesh.

The car- a white Maruti Swift-in which Brijesh was picked from school shad topped at a shop not far from the school where a burly, middle-aged man with a thick moustache and a pair of dark glasses got out of the car and brought the boy in the car a Coca Cola. The boy in the car was in school uniform and was playing a game on a smartphone.

Another student who was present at the shop at the time commented that the boy was Brijesh- who studied in his younger brother’s class. Before he could talk to Brijesh, though, the car was gone.

He wondered aloud why Brijesh hasn’t taken the school bus as usual.

The shop keeper- an elderly, world weary man, heard this. His eyesight was fading in his twilight years but with the help of kids who were at the shop, he took down the registration number of the Swift that was speeding away, feeling that something was amiss.

Even with this number the old shopkeeper gave them, it took the police two days to find Brijesh’ body.

Dismembered, his body parts were buried at different parts in the backyard of the house of the man who called himself Britto.

Brijesh’ body parts were mixed with those of at least ten other kids of around his age in the burial ground that was Britto’s backyard.

But from the relatively lesser extent of decay in the parts, they could tell that Brijesh was the latest victim of the serial murderer.

**

Though it was night- well past 10, in fact- and she was feeling tired with crying, Brinda couldn’t go to sleep.

She sat in the bed- in  the room which she used to share with Brijesh- shivering in the cold draft that came in through the open window.

In the shafts of moonlight that made it into the lightless room, she could see the twig her brother used to use as a phone during his last days. It was lying on the table- an innocent artifact filled with sad memories.

From the next room, she heard her mother crying, and then saying to her father in between sobs, “I…we..should..have..got him the phone!” She heard her father telling her not to talk silly, hushing her, saying how that has not got anything to do with what happened.

She could hear that her father’s voice- faint though it was. She could hear that it didn’t have the stern calmness it once had.

Sighing softly, getting off the bed and walking to the table, she took the twig and threw it out the window.

Brijesh’ daddy told him he wouldn’t buy him a smartphone.

“You are too young to have your own smartphone,” daddy said. “You wait till you turn fourteen. That’s when your sister got her first phone, and that’s when you will get yours.”

Brijesh’ father was a stern individual who put strict limits on the number of hours his kids could play with other children in the neighborhood on holidays and also on the number of hours they could watch the TV per week. (He made these rules based on the psychological studies he read about in the lifestyle magazine that he subscribed to).

Brijesh protested that fifteen is too long an age for him to wait- he was just 9 years now- and his father should reconsider the rule.

“Why?” said daddy, rubbing his beard thoughtfully. “For your school projects, you can use my laptop. And you have access to every smartphone in this house- mine, your mother’s and sister’s- for you to play games. And I don’t think many of your friends have a phone, so you wouldn’t be able to call them even if you have a phone!”

Brijesh explained that it’s not about using the phone to call anyone, but it’s the principle of the thing. (He said this in not so many words but that’s what he meant. )

Before his father could make a reply, Brijesh heard his mother call from the kitchen, “Dinner is ready, people!”

That was the end of the discussion. Brijesh’ father didn’t bring it up again and Brijesh assumed daddy was angry with him.

**

Brinda- Brijesh’ sister who turned sixteen last year- came to learn how daddy quashed Brijesh’ hope of owning a smartphone.

So, the next day, when she came home from tuition class after school, as she saw her brother sitting in the porch, making an imaginary call to someone, talking on a bent piece of twig as though it were a telephone, a smile spread on her face.

She couldn’t help but make a jab at him. The situation, she thought, demanded it. “You must grow up fast or you would spend a long time talking on a twig to imaginary people for a long, long time!” She playfully plucked on the hair on his head as she stepped onto the porch.

“Hush…Can’t you see that I am talking on the phone!” he said suddenly, eyeing her angrily, taking the twig/phone off his ear and covering one end with a hand as if to prevent the person on the other end from hearing.

“No need to be so angry,” Brinda muttered as she got into the house. And she meant what she said. She thought that the raging anger she saw in his red rimmed eyes was a tad too elaborate for what she did- which was just making a smart comment.

“And I am not talking to anyone imaginary here either!” She heard him call from the porch.

**

Over the next days, Brijesh’s family would hear him talking on the twig-phone at least once every day. Each conversation would last some fifteen minutes, and from what they could hear, he talked to a person called ‘Uncle Britto.’ The topic of conversation was almost always the things that happened at his school- a new teacher joining, a classmate falling down and hurting his knee during playtime and things like that.

Though these were the same details that Brijesh gave his parents too, the latter somehow felt that when Brijesh talked to them, there wasn’t much joy in his voice. But with Uncle Britto, he would giggle and laugh and talk in so enthusiastic a tone that they could hear him over the television in the living room, even when he talked in his bedroom behind closed door.

When one day, Brinda heard her parents talking about the difference in the quality of his narration of events when he talked to them as opposed to talking on the twig-phone, she said, “He is just trying to make you two feel bad about not buying him a smart phone.”

Her parents nodded, thinking that’s the plausible explanation. But they still looked uneasily at each other.

**

Brijesh’school bus dropped him right in front of his gate every evening at five. Ten past five at the most. But when ten past five turned to thirty past five, his mother-who just got home from work began to get worried- not seeing the smiling Brijesh standing at the porch to welcome her(and to accept the chocolate she brought him every day).

She called the school and it was learned that he was last seen by a teacher. “He told me that his uncle had come to pick him up. Uncle Britto.” The teacher has recently joined the school and didn’t know that it was unusual for Brijesh to be picked up by someone.(Both his parents reached home from work too late for that).

Brijesh’ mother felt the ground shaking beneath her. Her palm began to sweat and the smartphone slipped from her grip.

**

It took the police two days to find Brijesh.

The car- a white Maruti Swift-in which Brijesh was picked from school shad topped at a shop not far from the school where a burly, middle-aged man with a thick moustache and a pair of dark glasses got out of the car and brought the boy in the car a Coca Cola. The boy in the car was in school uniform and was playing a game on a smartphone.

Another student who was present at the shop at the time commented that the boy was Brijesh- who studied in his younger brother’s class. Before he could talk to Brijesh, though, the car was gone.

He wondered aloud why Brijesh hasn’t taken the school bus as usual.

The shop keeper- an elderly, world weary man, heard this. His eyesight was fading in his twilight years but with the help of kids who were at the shop, he took down the registration number of the Swift that was speeding away, feeling that something was amiss.

Even with this number the old shopkeeper gave them, it took the police two days to find Brijesh’ body.

Dismembered, his body parts were buried at different parts in the backyard of the house of the man who called himself Britto.

Brijesh’ body parts were mixed with those of at least ten other kids of around his age in the burial ground that was Britto’s backyard.

But from the relatively lesser extent of decay in the parts, they could tell that Brijesh was the latest victim of the serial murderer.

**

Though it was night- well past 10, in fact- and she was feeling tired with crying, Brinda couldn’t go to sleep.

She sat in the bed- in  the room which she used to share with Brijesh- shivering in the cold draft that came in through the open window.

In the shafts of moonlight that made it into the lightless room, she could see the twig her brother used to use as a phone during his last days. It was lying on the table- an innocent artifact filled with sad memories.

From the next room, she heard her mother crying, and then saying to her father in between sobs, “I…we..should..have..got him the phone!” She heard her father telling her not to talk silly, hushing her, saying how that has not got anything to do with what happened.

She could hear that her father’s voice- faint though it was. She could hear that it didn’t have the stern calmness it once had.

Sighing softly, getting off the bed and walking to the table, she took the twig and threw it out the window.

Advertisements

Like Father, Like Son

At first, he thought that it was a decapitated head.

He peered at it closely, eyes widening, sucking in air. The object bobbed closer towards him, closer to the shore. The part of the beach where he was sitting was isolated from the rest of the beach, a row of upturned fishing boats neatly dividing this part from the rest.

This was a stretch of beach that had fishermen’s huts on the shore. Though there were no rules prohibiting anyone from coming over to this side of the beach, people who visited the beach rarely came down here- an unspoken consensus was that this was the fishermen’s terrain and you wouldn’t just barge into someone’s front yard now, would you?

Vijayan Srinivas sometimes broke this unspoken rule, whenever he felt too melancholy and wanted to be away from the crowd, to be away from everything and everyone, to share a few moments of silence with the ocean. Neither the fishermen nor their families made an issue if anyone came to this side of the beach though- indeed, a couple of times Vijayan has even attracted friendly smiles from old women and mothers who sat in front of their huts, chatting loudly with each other, or combing hair for each other.

But this evening, the silent peace that he sought was broken by the sight of the human head being carried by the waves to the shore. He looked behind him, towards the line of huts, to see if there was anyone there whom he could call.

Though the doors of many of the huts were open, the wooden doors trembling in the wind from the ocean as though with fear, he couldn’t see anyone outside.

The sun was setting. The atmosphere was more grey than dark, but it obfuscated many a figure walking in the distance- fishermen returning from the ocean, carrying nets over their shoulders. They appeared like silhouettes- ghostly figures traversing the twilight.

Vijayan felt a sudden chill pass through his chest which had nothing to do with the cold wind that kept blowing from the ocean.

He wanted to get up and away from there, to not look back at the ocean, not until he reached the road that was a good three hundred meters away, where he had parked his motorcycle.

He didn’t wish to see the decapitated head again.

But then, there is a morbid curiosity deep inside the human soul which never fails to surface in such moments.

And surface it did, like a mythical monster rising its neck from a river, making Vijayan- almost against his wish- to turn his face once again towards the ocean, towards the floating head.

Even in the dim light, swamped as it was by the ghostly whiteness of the waves, he now discerned the object for what it was. It wasn’t a human head as he had feared.

It was just a ball. A volleyball if he wasn’t mistaken.

A clump of black weeds has stuck to a part of the ball, giving it the appearance of a head with thick black curly hair. And the fact that there were a couple of smudges in the ball beneath the crown of weeds- roughly at the spots where eyes would have been on a face- gave the illusion further veracity.

But when a comparatively huge wave usurped the ball it rolled over, Vijayan recognized it for what it was.

And as the realization struck him, he laughed loudly. The wind carried his voice over a wide area on the beach, and whoever heard it couldn’t help but smile, thinking how merry and easy-going the sound was. The kind of laugh that was so hard to hear these days.

Indeed, hearing it, no one could have told that the person responsible for the sound was feeling melancholy just a few minutes ago.

**

Vijayan didn’t have any reason to carry the volleyball with him.

It’s just that the waves pushed the ball right up to his feet stretched out on the sand, as though the ocean was making an offering for him. Also, though wet and slimy, the ball looked to be in a decent condition.

So, Vijayan couldn’t help but think, if it were an offering, it was a wholesome offering.

Pushing the ball into the space beneath the seat, he pushed closed the seat of the scooter before getting on the vehicle. As he left the beach behind him and entered the traffic that led to the main road that connected Chinnakkada with Kottiyam, he couldn’t help but feel a little sad.

It felt to him as though he was leaving a good friend, a friend who made him feel better when he was down, by making him an offering.

“An offering of a ball!” he muttered to himself, and laughed out loud, turning heads of fellow-travelers on the road.

**

Soon as he reached home, Vijayan went straight to the backyard where he washed the ball under a pipe, rinsing it with washing soap.

His mother was just coming out of the bathroom(she preferred drawing the cold water from the well and bathing in it; if she were to use the bathroom inside the house, she would have to carry the bucket of water for quite a distance and that would have been hard for her.)

She saw Vijayan stooped over, standing under the naked bulb that illuminated the small pebble-strewn area between the well and the pipe. A frown of amusement appeared on her face when she saw the object he was washing.

“What are you doing with a volleyball, Vijaya?” she said good naturedly. “Since when did you start playing games?

Even growing up, Vijayan was one of the few kids who rarely participated in playing games outdoors with other kids in the neighborhood. He found his enjoyment mostly in video games, and also the occasional comic book that he read.

And once he grew up and went to college- though his college had one of the best hockey teams in not just all of Kollam, but the entire Kerala- he never bothered partaking in any extra-curricular activities. Not even though there were volleyball and basketball courts in the campus, aside from the sprawling hockey and football field.

He was content just to get through the days, studying what needed to be studied, attending the lessons that needed to be attended, and clearing the exams that had to be cleared, so that he could enter a job as soon as he passed out of college.

Which he did. In fact, he got selected by a company even before he was out of the college. In the final semester of his graduation course, a campus selection drive was held in which multiple companies partook.

Though Vijayan was a little skeptical if he would get selected- not least because he was an introvert and didn’t think he would fare well in a face to face interview- surprising himself, he managed to clear all the interview rounds, that too with of one of the best multinationals in the infrastructure arena(Vijayan Srinivas graduated in Civil Engineering).

He thought that once he became a professional-the world would become wildly exciting, as opposed to the comfortable yet largely lethargic existence he has led under the roof of his parents’ house.

However, that’s not quite how work turned out to be. Sure, there was the excitement of being able to afford things by himself. Also, there was the fun of going out with colleagues for a drink or two at the pub after a long, weary day at work.

But the work itself didn’t satisfy him.

It wasn’t that the work wasn’t challenging. On the contrary, it was an intricate job that demanded his full attention and application of skills.

In the process, he also got to work alongside smart and interesting people.

Also, the pay wasn’t bad.

But in the five years he has been working, the feeling that he was just another cog in the machine- immensely dispensable, just another element in the corporate mechanism that guided people’s lives has never left him.

At first, he thought that it might be because of the rigid hierarchy that the company he worked for followed, that made him feel this way.

But then, as he befriended others- both in his own company as well as other firms in the special economic zone where he worked- he realized that many people across the spectrum, regardless of which rung in the corporate ladder they stood- shared the same opinion.

They were sad about it, some even grumpy, and many of them complained about the situation- mostly over beers when they got together at a pub.

But they were better at keeping the thought at bay when the time demanded it, to not let it pull their mind down.

Unlike Vijayan who felt increasingly frustrated the more he worked and the higher he climbed in the ladder(Admittedly, he had quite a lot of rungs yet to climb in his career, but in the relatively short span he has worked so far, he has come up pretty well), the worse he felt- especially since the politics of a corporate job only got worse as you go up.

He has talked about this to his mother a couple of times. She would notice him in a pensive mood at times and ask him what bothered him.

And when he gave her the reason, she would say with a smile, “You are just like your father- an independent spirit.”

Vijayan would feel both elated and depressed at the mention of his father. Elated by the idea that he took after his father- who died when he was just ten- and depressed by the fact that he had committed suicide when the small business that he used to run failed disastrously.

But mother rarely asked about his pensive moods anymore, knowing fully well what his answer was going to be. In fact, as Vijayan began to draw more and more into himself, conversations between the mother and son were getting sparser- and most of them were functional.

So it was that when he heard his mother comment about the volleyball in his hand, he looked at her with a smile. Closing the tap, raising the ball in hand, he said, “This, is a gift from Mother Ocean!” He imitated the tone of fishermen as depicted in a famous old Malayalam film.

Smiling broadly, his mother said, “How come?”

Vijayan told her about how he found the volleyball at the beach, pushed to him by the ocean waves. He didn’t mention how the ball had looked at first like a decapitated human head though.

Like the decapitated head of his father.

**

Vijayan’s father had flung himself under a train.

Though Vijayan was young, he still remembered the cremation- at least parts of it. Not least because as his father’s only child, it was his task to lend the flame to the pier as part of the rituals.

He also remembered a detail that he overheard someone talking at the ceremony: “Srinivas’ head was detached from the rest of his body by the train’s wheels.” The mortician apparently had sewn the neck back on to the body, and his father’s dead body was wrapped in a white cloth for the cremation.

No one- not even Vijayan or his mother-saw how Srinivas looked in his death.

But in the years since, Vijayan has thought, or imagined a head severing from its body, rolling down the incline on which ran the rail track.

As the years passed his memories of a time when his father was still alive has faded. But as if to counter-act this, he imagined the severed head in all its unholy aspects- bulging eyes, blood gushing out of the neck, fragments of flesh falling on the glossy rail line,  more and more vividly.

He imagined the sequence of the head snapping off the body and the being flung into a distance, passing through the air before hitting the ground and coming to a stop after a few rolls.

With each imagining, he thought of it more vividly than before. As if determined to keep the memory of his father- even if it’s the memory of an imagining- alive no matter what.

**

Pushing the cleaned up volleyball under the table, he lied down on his bed and watched part of a movie on his smart phone. He could hear the sound of the television coming from the living room where his mother was watching a news program.

Vijayan always found news programs depressing- so he avoided them as much as he could, especially on holidays like this when he wanted to do nothing but laze around.

But at one point in the movie- a romantic flick- the heroine complained to the hero that he rarely spent time with her anymore, and Vijayan thought how he hasn’t been spending quality time with his mother of late. Either he would be at work while she was home, or if he were home, he would be too bushed from work to actually make merry with her.

Also, of late, his mother has begun to suggest that he ought to get married. She hinted at looking for a bride for him if he didn’t already have anyone on mind. He has avoided such discussions as much as possible. Somehow, he thought that at 28 years, he was not yet ready to marry. For what it’s worth, he enjoyed the freedom being a solo granted him.

Besides, at the back of his mind, he had this crazy idea to escape the rigmarole of life as an employee and start a business of his own. He hasn’t told of this to anyone- especially not his mother. For the story of how his father’s failure in business led to his death was an unspoken, but ever-present entity in both their minds. And he wasn’t sure how his mother might take to such an idea.

Shaking such thoughts from his mind, hoping that his mother wouldn’t bring up marriage, he left the smartphone on his bed and went to the living room, to join his mother, two watch the silly soap with her.

**

After dinner, Vijayan tried to watch the rest of the movie on his smart phone. The romantic flick lacked much of a romance- the stale performances of the leads didn’t help either. Before long his eyes began to come down on their own.

Closing the video player and putting his phone aside, , he went immediately to sleep.

Only to come awake in the middle of the night, feeling sweat beads rolling down his face, even though the room was reasonably cool. (It was the tail end of summer but nights could get chilly).

Even as he came awake, the images from the nightmare that woke him lingered in his mind.

In many ways, the nightmare was similar to his imaginings of his father’s death-  a lonely figure walking towards the rail line in the dusk, laying himself down in front of a fast approaching train, the head getting cut off, the throat mercilessly crushed by the train’s wheel, the head rolling down the incline before coming to a stop by a clump of bushes- all these were things that Vijayan had imagined before.

Only, this time, there was one crucial difference.

This time, the decapitated head has spoken to him.

With eyes wide open and the lips a crescent of a grin, his father’s face said, “Don’t worry too much…” he, his voice like the hiss of a serpent, so disturbing and yet so seductive. “My failure in business doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to fail too!”

Waking from the dream, sitting up in his bed, panting heavily, Srinivas’ eyes fell on the two glowing eyes that stared at him from under the table at the far end of the room.

Under the eyes was a crescent of a smile, and when the ball spoke, it was in the voice of a snake. “You are frustrated because you want to work for yourself and not for others. You think you can do better that way. A lot better!”

For a second the ball- visible by the moonlight that streamed in through the window- was transformed into his father’s face. The long forehead, the broad nose and thick lips, a soft dimple on his cheek as he smiled…For a second, Srinivas had a clear view of his father’s face, this time without the grotesqueness of death as he has often imagined it.

But that vision lasted just a moment before it was replaced by the glowing eyes and lips of the volleyball. And then, those features too faded.

Vijayan blinked hard. He clutched the side of the bed. Breathing heavily, he wondered where dreams ended and reality began.

He wondered whether his own dream of starting a business- he didn’t even know what kind of business it would be yet- would stretch to the realm of reality, or would it too fade into darkness like the face of his father did just now. Vijayan remained seated in the bed for a long while yet, unable to go back to sleep.

He wasn’t much for reading meaning into dreams- he was never really a spiritual person- but  he wondered if there was any symbolism in the waking dream he just saw.

Was his father’s words of encouragement his way of reaching out to him from beyond the grave? Was it not just a dream but an actual spiritual communication?Did the presence of the volleyball indicate that none of it- including his father’s words- should be taken seriously but only as a playful game?

At the last thought, as he sat in the bed in the darkness of his room, silent laughter began to shake his entire body.

Another entrepreneur wannabe, without a clear-cut view of the future, temporarily lost in the dark.

 

 

 

Blood Map

Surabhya was surprised to see her husband standing at the window, right by the s table with the blue vase on it.

He had his back to the door of the room, and framed as he was in the harsh sunlight that came in through the window, he looked more like a silhouette than a three dimensional figure.

What surprised Surabhya was the manner in which he stood- with his head titled a bit, looking at a piece of paper that he held aloft, peering into it with so much concentration that he might have been Superman drilling a hole through metal with laser from his eyes. It was the same posture in which Surabhya saw her the last time she came into the bedroom- about fifteen minutes ago.

Then, she had come in with a hand full of dried and folded clothes she wanted to keep inside the wardrobe. Then, she had seen Goutam standing at the window, but only out of the corner of her eye.

This time, she had come to call him to lunch. It was only on weekends and holidays like this that she could prepare food for him with her own hands. But seeing him standing at the window the same way that she saw him fifteen minutes ago, she moved towards him with a curious expression on her eyes.

Peering over his shoulder she saw that what he held in his hands was not just any piece of paper. It was actually a road map of Bangalore that they had brought last week.

The three of them- Surabhya, Goutham and the couple’s 8 year old son Nritesh had gone for a trip to Kodahalli forests last Friday. A one day trip though it was, they were all excited about it, since it’s been a long time since they have been to a trip.

At the Majestic bus station, while they were waiting for the bus, a young girl- not older than Nritesh by the look of her but infinitesimally frailer and dirtier-came up to them to sell pens and map. Seeing how pathetic the poor girl looked, Goutham brought two pens from her- even though the pens looked flimsy and cheaper than what even the 5 rupee price warranted. Seeing Goutam to be a push-over, the girl tried to push one of the road maps onto him.

Even though he said that he wouldn’t have any use for a road map because he didn’t own a vehicle, the girl wouldn’t hear anything of it. She kept insisting that it’s a great map- “Has all of Bangalore on it, sir!” She said it costs just Rs.10.

It came to a point when Goutam felt irritated and brought one map just to get rid of her. The girl thanked him with a smile before leaving.

But Surabhya felt there was something malicious about that smile. And she commented the same to Gautam. But then, their bus came to the platform and the three of them boarded it. All thoughts of the girl who sold them the map left their mind as the bus left behind the bustle of Bangalore  city behind.

**

As soon as she saw Gautam holding the map, the image of the girl rushed back to Surabhya’s  mind. Pale skin, dirty smudge marks all over her lface- like someone touched her repeatedly with charcoal smeared hands, and a weak gleam in the eyes.

More than anything, she remembered the vicious smile the girl gave before leaving them. It was the kind of smile that your enemy might give you when they knew something bad was going to happen to you.

The memory sent a shiver down Surabhya’s spine.

Outside, she heard Nriput’s scream. She looked up. He was playing with a friend in the front yard. The two boys were playing catch- a green tennis ball moved hands. It was when Nriput dropped a catch that that he screamed. It was just a scream of frustration, that’s all.

But the sound made Surabhya’s heart beat faster in her chest.

Swallowing hard she turned her attention back to her husband. “What are you looking at?” she said, trying to keep from showing the unnatural fear that has overcome her.

Gautam looked on at the map for another moment. Becoming curious, Surabhya too followed his gaze.

What she saw there made her eyes widen.

Red blotches- like spurts of blood- popped up, held for a moment and disappeared at different spots on the map.

The same thought passed through both the couple’s minds- these must be road accidents in the city. Bangalore was notorious for the high number of road accidents.

But how could a simple map printed on paper could indicate that?

Surabhya blinked hard, hoping that what she saw was just a hallucination. But it wasn’t. For there she saw another splotch -towards the top right corner of the map. The splotch formed around a black dot with the name Jayanagar on it.

Almost by instinct, her eyes strayed down towards the lower left corner of the map, past MG Road and Shivaji Nagar, past Richmond Circle and Banaswadi and Frazer town, further down towards a small residential area near Kalyan Nagar, where they lived.

She felt relieved to see that no splotches popped in their area- a territorial love kicking in.

But then, she heard a screech- the sound of their gate being pushed opened. And they both had a bad premonition.

The green tennis ball that their son’s friend threw went over the gate. Now their son was opening the gate and getting out into the road to retrieve it, unmindful of the jeep that was peeding down the road, coming fast from his right, crashing into him, wreaking  his right arm and the right half of his face on, making his eye pop out of their socket with the force of the hit. And as his little body fell on the road, the huge tires of the jeep went over it, crushing it even more, breaking his legs and pelvis area into more pieces than you may have thought possible, like his framework was made of glass.

By the time the jeep’s driver managed to bring the vehicle to a halt, the boy was dead.

His parents’ shrill scream resonated all along the neighborhood.

The map which fell to the floor from Goutam’s hands as he ran out of the house, showed the blotch of red, blinking, blinking and blinking a few more times before fading away.

**

Legend speaks of the God of death becoming playful sometimes, in his own dark ways. Legend speaks of the God of death taking different forms to harass mortals- so prideful of life, that they may even think life is worth celebrating, like by going on a trip.

Legend speaks of enchanted objects that the Lord of the underworld may spread in the world- to heighten the drama associated with death and also to send a chill of fear into mortal hearts.

Legend speaks of Death having its way all the time.

And some legends are truer than others.

 

 

 

Damn

Shine entered the audio shop, without the intention to buy anything.

In fact, he just had over fifty bucks on his person- and that wouldn’t be enough to buy even a single CD, not even a devotional album- a genre that costs the least. (Not that shine would want to buy an album from that particular genre).

But he was feeling bored and he didn’t know what else to do.

He has been waiting in the corridor of the first floor of the building on the second floor of which was ‘Ustad Music House.’

He has been waiting there, walking up and down the corridor like a mad man, for more than two hours, occasionally checking his phone for any Watsapp message from Lijin.

It was most unlike his friend to be late like this, and even if he were to be late, he would have either called or Watsapped. But in this case, he hasn’t done either.

Not only that, he didn’t pick the call when Shine attempted to call him. Twice.

Both the times, the call was cancelled after a few rings, which made it all the more baffling.

Like Shine, Lijin too travelled by bus(even though they were both eighteen, their parents were yet to buy them their first motorcycle).

So, there was no reason why Lijin shouldn’t take the call.

Shine imagined Lijin lying on the side of the road, his head split and brain spilled out like yolk from an egg, a victim of a gruesome road accident. He imagined a passerby, eyeing the phone that had spilled from LIjin’s pocket onto the ground, taking the phone and leaving the accident victim on the side of the road.

It must be that person who cancelled my call, thought Shine.

He got a modicum of satisfaction thinking of his friend lying helpless and in pain, deep excruciating pain, with none of the passersby showing any interest in him except to look at his sympathetically before shaking their head and going on their ways.

He got satisfaction out of this partly because Lijin has stood him up and he was pissed about that, but also because that’s how Shine’s mind worked sometimes.

**

He would have continued his beat in the first floor had not people who manned the shops on that floor began to notice the dark lanky kid who frustrated walked up and down like his head was a cloud of buzzing bees.

The first floor had the most number of working shops in the entire building.

The building, that stood near to the Private Bus station in Chinnakkada- the throbbing heart of Kollam town- was built more than three decades ago, with the hope that shop owners big and small would hire spaces in the building.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it turned out. For one thing, more sophisticated buildings had opened soon after, drawing retailers’ attention.

At no point in the building’s history has all the twenty two spaces available for commercial establishments were let at the same time.

Twelve was the highest number of spaces let simultaneously in the building’s history( it happened in August, 2004- and the building’s owner threw a special party to all his friends).

At present, just eight shops functioned in the entire building.

Most of these shops were small bakeries or refreshment stalls- basically glorified juice stalls that sold light snacks as well.

The exceptions were a photography studio- which was on the left corner of the ground floor, a chit company that functioned out of a two room shop on the second floor and a audio-video repair shop which was housed in a space on the third floor.

Shine was not all that interested in any of these shops- he was not a huge juice fan, and he didn’t think himself photogenic to merit a visit to the studio.

As for financial instruments like chits, he thought that eighteen was a little too young to be worrying about such things- especially when your father was a senior official at an oil firm in Dubai who sent home a good amount of money every month.

As for audio-video equipments, he rarely got them repaired anyway. (Whenever there was a problem with his ipod or television, he would just ask his father for a replacement. His old man rarely protested.)

But there was one shop in the building about which Shine was interested, and that was the Ustad Audios, a small CD shop on the right end of the second floor, just a couple of (closed) doors away from the chit firm.

He liked it not just because they played loud music which could be heard even from the ground floor of the building. (Two massive speakers were placed on a table the corridor outside the shop, for this particular purpose.)

Presently, as Shine Lonijen entered the shop, the song that was being played was a devotional track- a song in praise of the Hindu God of Destruction, Lord Shiva.

**

Shine was surprised to see that the shop was unmanned.

All the four walls of the shop were stacked from top to bottom with audio CDs.

Shine, has been to this shop a few times, the last of which was before internet became ubiquitous and pirate sites and streaming services made buying CDs a luxury than a necessity, even for a music-head like Shine.

Though Shine was pleased by the fact that in an age when such businesses were going obsolete right and left, Ustad has managed to stay afloat, he was never really a huge fan of their collection.

Though Shine listened to a wide variety of music- from pop to hip-hop to black metal, the music he dug was  always invariably foreign. He rarely liked the film music which formed the crux of the regional music business.(This was something that attracted playful jabs from his best friend, Lijin- who almost exclusively listened to Malayalam and Tamil film songs).

He remembered from the last time he was here-years ago- that the limited number of English CDs they stocked was in the stack on the wall directly opposite to the front door.

He covered the distance in five wide steps. A smile appeared on his face when he saw that the arrangement hasn’t changed from how he remembered it- the English section was wedged between old Hindi song albums(Kishore Kumar, Mohameed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar) on the left and weirdly enough, a section for nursery rhymes on the right.

He found it amusing that in an age of constant change, the shop’s proprietor has kept the arrangement the same.

And as he gazed through the titles on display, he saw that it’s not just the arrangements, but the CDs themselves have remained largely unchanged- at least in the English section.

There were the obligatory Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith Greatest Hits that virtually all shops-even the small ones like Ustad Audios stocked. There were also old favorites like Madonna and Shakira gracing the stack, though Shine couldn’t think of anyone who would still be interested in listening to their music.

Among the newer albums(Radiohead’s ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ and an album by Coldplay)
, one CD that caught Shine’s attention was Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Damn.’

The cover image which showed the rapper looking like he has lost all hope in humanity, himself and the universe has always struck Shine as funny and disturbing at the same time.

Funny, because it was the kind of expression that people rarely showed in front of others, even if that’s how they felt inside. Disturbing, because the image revealed a reality that everyone hid pretty well throughout their lives.

Lamar was an artist whom Shine hugely admired. And even though he considered ‘Good Kid, Maad City’ to be his best album to date, he loved ‘Damn’ too, especially the tracks ‘Humble’ and ‘Loyalty.’

And it was while looking at Lamar’s sad face that Shine had the idea of stealing the CD.

**

Shine’s father sent him a monthly allowance of two thousand rupees- which was “very high for an eighteen year old, do you know drugs are very common in Kerala’s schools these days?” as his mother said to his father.

But Shine’s father, who trusted his son’s intellect for him not to fall in traps like drugs, always reminded his wife that Shine was the sole fruit of his loins and if he couldn’t spoil his only son, who else was he going to spoil?

Though his mother- to whom his father sent the money- would make some comment regarding the folly in giving so much money to so young a person, come every first of every month, she would hand Shine’s his allowance (with the tacit warning, “Don’t do drugs!”)

This meant that Shine was not someone who would have to steal a music album if he wanted it.

Lamar’s ‘Damn’ was priced at Rs.600 and if he could wait for another two days, it would be the first of the next month and allowance would come in. He could easily come back and buy the CD- or maybe even order it from Amazon.

He contemplated this idea for just a second before dismissing it with a shake of his head.

No, buying it wouldn’t be as fun as stealing it.

So far, the only items he had stolen has been money- mostly loose change that lied around in the house, so that he could sneak out and smoke cigarettes with his friends. But he has never stolen anything from outside his own home.

He has fantasized about it- plenty of times.

Once, when the Physical Training coach at the school asked Shine to bring the volleyball back to the stock room, handing the keys to him, and when he saw all the different sports goods stored inside a barrel in the stock room, his hand literally itched to snitch one of them- maybe a cricket ball or a pair of gloves or perhaps a hockey stick?

The only thing that prevented him from robbery that day was Lijin’s voice suddenly rising from the far end of the corridor, asking him to hurry or the school bus may leave without them.

That was four years ago.

And that was not the first time he has had such compulsions.

But so far, such compulsions had remained just that- impulses in his mind which were rarely acted upon. Partly because of the conditioning his parents- and society at large have instilled in him, but also because of lack of viable opportunities.

**

Though closed circuit cameras were ubiquitous these days, Shine was sure that he has never seen one inside Ustad Audios.

Perhaps the store owner didn’t think that his little music shop merited the presence of one- after all, who would bother stealing music discs of all things? Or maybe he has been planning to do it and just never got around to it.

Just to be sure, he looked around all the same, casting a glance at every nook and corner of the store, hoping against but half-expecting to see a camera eye peering down at him.

But there was no camera- the shop was clean.

Shine then cast his glance towards the glass door of the shop.

Since the shop was at the end of the corridor, right next to a flight of stairs(the building lacked an elevator), if someone came around the corner, it would be a sudden approach. And if that someone- maybe the shop’s proprietor who had stepped out for some reason- were to see him snitching the CD, he would be screwed.

Once again, Shine reconsidered.

Should he take the CD? What if he got caught? Then, they might ask of him more than six hundred rupees.What if they called the police? If his father comes to know of it, he would never get his monthly allowance again.

But such concerns disappeared like a puff of smoke from a car clearing from the air after a while.

For overriding these concerns were the thought: I may never get a chance like this ever again!

Without wasting another moment to thought, Shine took Lamar off the rack and got it beneath his T-shirt, inserting the CD beneath the waist band of his inner-wear.

He looked around once again, saw no one. The song on the speakers in front of the shop changed from the Shiva stotram to a Ram bhajan.

A strong gush of wind rushed into the store through the open front door. The sun was coming down. The evening was promising to be cool. Shine smiled as he looked forward to a nice evening at the beach. (It was to go to the beach that he had agreed to meet Lijin in the first place)

But even if the fucker were not to come now, I am going to the beach!, he thought.

But even as he walked towards the front door, he heard a screeching noise over the Ram Bhajan. Like a rusty old door opening on un-oiled hinges.

Probably something wrong with the speaker system. A noise against the signal.

Another gust of wind and there was that noise again.

But this time, Shine got the distinct impression that it had nothing to do with a speaker malfunction. Turning around, he saw that it was indeed the sound of a door being opened. A door at one corner of the wall from where he took the CD, pushed open by the strong wind.

Shine’s heart jumped into his throat as he began to palpitate.

‘They saw me! Whoever is inside that room saw me! I have been caught’

He stood panting, his chest heaving up and down, half his mind telling him to turn around and just run out of the shop- maybe even throw the CD down so they wouldn’t come after him, the other half telling him to just give up, that he has been caught already.

Amidst this confusion that raged within his heart, he kept peering into the now open door, expecting someone to come out any second.

Seconds passed. Shine imagined the tick-tick-tick sound of  a clock, getting louder with every passing moment.

And the seconds combined to form a minute, and the minute began to accumulate even more seconds as it transitioned int to the next minute.

But even still, no one came out of the door.

‘Run! Run away!’ a part of him kept whispering.

But instead of heeding the advice, he found himself walking towards the door, drawn by an odd curiosity. For just as he had earlier felt the compulsion to take the CD off the rack when he saw there was no one around , he now felt certain that something has happened inside that room.

Something bad.

Drawn by a morbid curiosity, he reached the open door.

**

The door opened into a small room, hardly hundred feet by hundred feet in dimensions. All thefour walls were painted red and there were a couple of cartons filled with what appeared to be old CDS. CDs that looked like dog eared books.

Near to the door, affixed to the wall was a small wash basin, beside which was a bench on which was an open tiffin box.

This must be where the shopkeeper took his lunch, thought Shine.

His  eyes strayed down and he saw, lying on the floor a dead body. A middle aged man in a shirt and a pair of pants, lying in a pool of his own blood, part of his head was caved in and brain matter had spilled out.

The similarity of the dead body with how earlier he had imagined Lijin’s body as lying on the side of the road was not lost on him. He recoiled as he saw the open eyes of the man on the floor, staring right at him.

A few morsels of brain matter got stuck in the man’s beard. It looked like grey puke wedged in black spaces. The sight revolted Shine, so much so that he gagged.

He remembered the previous times he has come to the shop. He had seen a middle aged man manning the shop on all the occasions. He has introduced himself as the shop’s proprietor.

Owing to the mangled appearance of the man’s face- and the passage of time since Shine’s last visit to the shop- he couldn’t be sure if the dead man was the proprietor.

Neither could he watch the body long enough to ascertain- a black fly came and sat on the brain matter on the floor; it began moving around in circles.

It was all he could do to keep from puking. Turning around, he rushed out of the shop.

**

Shine read about the murder the next day in the newspapers.

As he had assumed, it was indeed the shop’s proprietor.

Though the murder was dramatic- bashing the man’s head with a blunt object- the reason for the murder wasn’t all that dramatic, at least Shine didn’t think so.

The man was killed by an employee he had hired to man the shop. The employee was pissed because he hasn’t been paid the last two months.

He asked the proprietor for the money. The proprietor said he would pay him just a portion of it, which aggravated the employee even more.

Soon enough, murder happened.

Ustad Audios, said the newspaper report, was facing financial trouble of late due to lessening audio sales. The culprit was apprehended.

Lijin called Shine later that day.

After running away from Ustad Music, Shine hasn’t stopped to wait for his friend anymore. He had come straight home. And for some reason, he has kept the phone turned off till now.

In other words, he hasn’t talked to Lijin since the incident.

Seeing his friend’s name on the caller ID, he picked the call.

“Man, where are you?” Lijin said. “Why are you not in school?”

Hearing Lijin’s voice, Shine was overcome with anger. He didn’t bother telling him that he was down with a fever.

Instead, he yelled into the phone, “Mother fucker! Don’t ever be late again!”

Drift Not From Me

Helena was startled by the sound of the calling bell.

She wasn’t expecting anyone, and she couldn’t imagine who it could be.

Sandy- her boyfriend was not in Bangalore at the moment- having gone with his colleagues to Coorg on an office trip.

As for her own colleagues from work, they would all be at the office today. Helena had called in sick earlier in the morning.

“Shit!” she muttered when the calling bell sounded again. And again.

Whoever it was, was persistent.

She looked down at the dark blood in her hands. It would take some time to wash them off.

She looked further down at the dead body lying in the tub.

The small bathroom suddenly felt stifling to her, even though the exhaust fan was on and there was a slight chillness in the air that wasn’t all that unpleasant.

“Coming!” she called out when the calling bell sounded again, unsure if her voice would carry from the bathroom down the corridor and past the main hall and to the front door.

She washed her hands at the wash basin, rinsing them thoroughly with soap.

She kept throwing glances at the dead body, muttering how it was her bad luck that someone would turn up at the house just as she was in the process of disposing of it. In fact, she has just begun to cut the body into little pieces with a handsaw she kept around in the house for just this purpose.

Rubbing her wet hands on the back of her jeans, throwing a towel over the dead body, covering it completely except for its toes, she walked out of the bathroom , shutting the door behind her.

**

At the front door, she peered through the peep hole, a white dot of light falling squarely on her pupil. She saw standing in the crisp light of day one of her neighbors.

Helena didn’t keep close relations with any of her neighbors.

In fact, in the residential area where she lived in Kormangala, she hardly knew more than three or four people by name. And one of them was standing outside her door now.

Gemini Krishna was her name.

She had her hair cut at her shoulders and even as Helena watched through the peep hole, she saw her rubbing down her hair. Helena couldn’t be sure, but it felt like she has had her hair straightened recently.

Gemini was a dark skinned beauty with a dimple on her cheek and thick luscious lips. She was what the poets of old might have called ‘doe-eyed’ and her breasts were what contemporary pulp writers might refer to as ‘ample.’ Her hips were ‘hour glassed’ as per the fashion parlance, and her legs long- according to anyone’s estimate.

Helena reckoned that if she were a man, she would have liked to bed Gemini. (Helena herself lived with an image crisis, considering her long forehead and pimply cheeks and her almost complete lack of breasts an antithesis to what helps attracts males. And she never knew what Sandy saw in her- but whatever it was he did see in her, for that she was grateful.)

The fact that Gemini- who, like her was in her mid twenties-was supremely attractive and turned men’s eyes wherever she went(one reason why Helena rarely went out with her), made Helena equally admiring and jealous of her.

But what she absolutely couldn’t stand about Gemini was the fact that she was talkative – to put it lightly.

She knew that if she were to let Gemini in, she wouldn’t leave any time soon- not on her own volition- and would keep on talking as though there were no tomorrow.

There were times when such distractions might have been okay, maybe even welcome.

But when there was a dead body in the bathroom that needed to be disposed was not one of those times.

Sighing softly, Helena wondered if her neighbor would leave if she didn’t open the door.

But she must have seen my scooter parked in the lawn, she thought.

Besides, Helena didn’t wish to leave any room for suspicion in the event of an investigation.

When Gemini rang the calling bell again, Helena opened the door, hoping that whatever was to come would be over soon.

**

Soon as she saw her, Gemini commented that she looked a little pale.

“Are you not well? Are you running a fever?”

She placed the back of her hand against her forehead, to gauge the temperature. Without being invited, she stepped into the house.

“I saw your scooter outside and thought you were in!” She  grinned when she realized that Helena wasn’t running a fever. “I myself didn’t go to work today. There was a plumbing issue in my toilet. I told you about it, didn’t I? Oh, I didn’t? Well, the plumbing has been acting weird in the toilet these last couple of days and I have been trying to get a hold of a plumber like anything!” She rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. “There are a bazillion apps through which you could book a plumber, but you know what, they could never come to fix your problem at a time of your convenience,” she added conspiratorially.

“In my case, I could never get a time slot in the evening, after work. So, today, I thought I would take the day off from work just so that a plumber could come to my home and fix the issue! Ten in the morning was the slot that I got! And even though the issue had seemed serious to me- I mean, it simply wouldn’t flush, no matter what I did, can you believe how gross that is!- the plumber was able to solve the issue in just half an hour. After he left I realized that I have a whole day ahead of me without anything to do. Whole hours of boredom looking right at my face!”

Helena thought how in an age of streaming television and internet chock-filled with services designed specifically to keep you from feeling bored, Gemini could have just logged online to fight her boredom blues.

But she kept that thought to herself.

She didn’t wish this conversation(which has been a monologue so far) to be any longer than it needed to be.

Gesticulating wildly, Gemini continued, “So, I thought I would go to the supermarket, get myself some comfort food, come home and fix myself a coffee, and munch on some biscuits or something. It was while I was on my way to the supermarket that I saw the scooter in front of your house! So, I thought you must be home. I thought I might come in and say hi!”

You have said more than hi already, thought Helena.

“So, your mother is not home? She could have seen to the plumber while you were away at work,” Helena said, not because she was particularly curious but because she didn’t know what else to say, and she felt that if she were to let Gemini speak on and on without her getting a word in, it might be awkward- well, more awkward than it already was.

Besides, the fact was that she was beginning to feel  nervous.

She imagined the corpse in the bathroom coming out to the living room and seeing it, Gemini screaming. Yes, a most illogical scenario, but then again, having n corpse in your bathroom is not exactly your average everyday situation, either.

She thought that talking might keep her mind from throwing unwarranted imaginings at her.

“Oh, mother has gone to her sister’s place in Mysore for a couple of weeks. Her sister has come down with some disease or something!” Gemini said this off-handedly, but at the same time crinkling her nose ruefully as though coming down with a disease was the most revolting thing anyone could do next to taking a shit bath.

Her response elicited a short laugh from Helena.

Whether Gemini understood why her neighbor was laughing or not, she too joined in the laughter- because that’s the sort of person she was.

However, halfway through laughing, she suddenly clutched the side of her tummy.

Helena’s eyes widened with concern.

**

“What happened?” she said.

“Oh, nothing. I think I just need to pee,” said Gemini. “The thing is, even though the plumber has fixed the problem, he has used some putty or something, so he has asked me not to use the toilet for another hour or so, to give the putty the time to set. I was hoping that I wouldn’t need to pee so soon!” she grinned sheepishly.

And as was her nature, without even asking, she began to proceed towards the sole bathroom in the whole house.

In fact, she moved so abruptly that it took Helena a couple of moments to realize what was going on. And once she did, she moved into position.

And ‘position’ in this instance meant right in front of Gemini, blocking her path.

Gemini frowned.

“Don’t you want to know why I called in sick at work today?” said Helena.

Gemini frowned some more, wondering what that has got to do with her relieving her bladder.

“It’s because I have diarrhea, and …and the bathroom- it’s kind of a mess right now.”

At the mention of diarrhea, Gemini crinkled her nose again. She nodded even though she still clutched the side of her hip like she was bleeding.

“I understand,” she said. “I am sorry I couldn’t stay for long. But I need to go home and-“

That’s when she realized that she couldn’t go home to take a leak. At least, not yet.

So, turning to face Helena again, she said, “The putty wouldn’t be set yet.”

Biting her lip, thinking for a second, she said, “Shit. I think I would excuse your diarrhea, after all girl! Anyway, I can flush it down before taking a leak, can’t I?”

She forced a laugh though she still looked a little haggard at the prospect of facing another person’s diarrhea.

**

She began walking towards the bathroom once again.

Helena thought fast, trying to come up with something to say to prevent Gemini from using the bathroom.

‘My toilet is also broken!’ was the only thing that she could think of. But somehow she didn’t think that would be a plausible lie.

And as for ‘Don’t go in there because there’s the dead body of my boyfriend there!’ that would be counter-productive.

Besides, it was only when she had that thought that she acknowledged what she has actually done.

Not that she has murdered- that she has already come to terms with. But that she has murdered her boyfriend.

Sandy was not in Coorg with his colleagues on an office trip. Sandy was lying dead in her bathtub- his naked body lying face down, his throat slit wide and his belly torn open with a kitchen knife.

She was surprised to see how absolutely ordinary the human entrails looked like- not too different from the parts of mutton or beef that you brought home from the supermarket.

She had always assumed that humans were special children of God- as a Catholic that was what she was brought up to believe in.

But seeing the intestine coiled up on the floor of the bath-tub, seeing blood painting the tub crimson, seeing Sandy’s eyes widening in terror and then rolling in their sockets as though trying desperately to settle on a point of focus even as his throat was being slit and hot blood gushed out of the wound, she realized how utterly ordinary human beings were.

Instead of Sandy- her lover with whom she has made love and kissed and gone out on trips and had fights and had fun innumerable times in the three years they have been together- had she killed a sheep or a goat, the effect would have been much the same.

There would have been the same red blood, similar terror in the eyes and similar types of entrails spilling from the gut.

But then again, had she had killed an animal instead of Sandy, she wouldn’t have got her revenge, would she?

Acknowledging to herself that it was Sandy whom she has murdered- the weight of the thought petrified her, in a most literal way.

So much so that she stood rooted to the spot in the living room, even as Gemini walked into the bathroom.

She expected for a scream to rise from the bathroom any moment.

She expected Gemini’s eyes to fall on the blood tinged handsaw lying on the floor by the bath-tub and freak out.

The corpse was covered with a towel, but you didn’t have to be a forensic investigator to see from the outline that it was a human body. And from the stillness of it, and the blood which must surely have soaked parts of the towel, Gemini would know that it was not just someone lying asleep in a tub(for some reason).

So yes, she expected Gemini to freak out any moment.

A smile spread across her face at the thought of it.

She realized that, despite herself, she felt a giddy happiness at the idea of freaking Gemini out.

Because Gemini, unlike her, was beautiful.

And she hated her for that.

**

“Helena, don’t you have any handwash liquid? All I can see is soap!”

Helena blinked. Instead of the scream she was expecting, she heard a most reasonable sounding question from the bathroom.

Walking slowly towards the bathroom, she heard the soft sound of water running in the wash basin. Peering in the open door, she saw Gemini standing at the wash basin, running her hands together, holding them under the water.

Seeing Helena’s face, she grinned sheepishly. “I am sorry. I came in and I touched the washbasin as I was entering the place. My fingers touched some blood that was on the side of the basin.”

Looking down, Helena realized that while she was washing the blood off her hands before opening the front door for Gemini, her hand must have grazed the side of the wash basin, smearing the material with blood.

“Is it your time, darling? It must be,” said Gemini. “That’s only natural but one thing I can’t stand is the touch of blood on my skin- even my own! It’s cold and wet and slimy and…”

As her eyes roamed around the bathroom in search of handwash,  they fell on the dead body, and the handsaw that was propped against the side of the tub, so carefully, so meticulously, like a handyman had left it there in between chores.

Her words trailed into silence.

She was about to ask once again if there was a handwash, but she swallowed her words.

In fact, she was having trouble breathing. She saw the toes of the corpse jutting out from under the towel. She saw the tilted angle of an ankle and realized from all the blood that the handsaw was applied to detach the foot from the rest of the body.

With horror, she realized that Helena was trying to cut the body in to pieces when she came into the house, just as people did in some of the horrendous newspaper reports of murders that she has read.

Feeling a sensation like cold fingers seeping up her back, she looked at Helena again.

And realized that the cold sensation had a real basis- for Helena had put her hand on the back of her neck.

And now, applying force, she brought Gemini’s head right down to the edge of the wash basin.

**

A short scream escaped Gemini’s mouth as she fell to the floor, a gaping wound on her forehead and dizziness making her head reel. She tried to get up but couldn’t- she was unable to tell the ceiling of the bathroom from the floor.

Her head was spinning and it hurt like a bitch.

She wanted very much to get off the floor, to get out of this damn house, especially when she saw Helena getting the handsaw from beside her and bring it down, down towards her throat.

But she couldn’t move. Not even her lips. Not even to scream.

She felt paralyzed with fear.

**

After killing Gemini, she looked at the two corpses.

One was her lover whom she killed because she felt that he was drifting away from her.

Sure, he still came to her place and they still hung out. But of late, more often than not, she would catch him with a far off look in his eyes, as though he had more on his mind than thoughts of her.

And a couple of times, while he was at her place, he had preferred watching a cricket match on the television to being with her.

When she asked him about it, he has said it was nothing. That the idea of him drifting from her was just her imagination.

Maybe he was right.

Only, she didn’t think so.

So, she killed him. Like she killed the boyfriend before him when she felt he was beginning to drift from her. And the one before that.

Maybe the authorities would trace this back to the fact that she never really got over the reality that her father- who was supposed to look after her as a child- left her and mother when she was just eight.

Maybe they would figure out that she could never stand the idea of anyone she loved drifting away from her. Not even a little bit.

But they won’t figure that out.

Because they wouldn’t know that she has committed the crime.

Just as they hadn’t tied her to the previous two kills. She was smart like that.

As for the second- unexpected- corpse in her bathroom, it was the body of a beautiful bitch.

And though Helena didn’t exactly plan to kill Gemini when she woke up this morning, she was nonetheless glad that the beautiful bitch was dead.

It was one less person in the world she needs to be jealous of.

With a grin on her face, she proceeded to cut the bodies into tiny pieces so she could dispose of them easily.

She thought she would begin with her lover.

The Ride

More than the apparent stillness, what disturbed Sujesh about his fare was the silence.

Almost half an hour has passed since the lean, tall man has got into his cab, but so far he hasn’t heard the man speak aside from making the functional talk required with the driver- giving him the destination.

Even though the man spoke to Sujesh in Hindi, his accent made it clear that he was a Malayali. “Are you

a Malayali?” he has asked the man in Malayalam, looking at the impassive face in the mirror. The latter has simply nodded.

As to Sujesh’ later question of where in Kerala the man hailed from, the latter just sat cloaked in a stony silence. When Sujesh looked at him in the mirror again- this time- with a friendly smile, the man averted his gaze, looking out at the passing traffic.

Realizing that the man was probably not the chattiest person in the whole of Bangalore, Sujesh turned the volume up in the car stereo.

He has been tuned into a station that played old Hindi songs- Sujesh was a huge Kishore Kumar fan, having run taxi in Mumbai for more than a decade before coming to Bangalore two years ago.

But he found another station- a Malayalam station that played contemporary film songs- hoping that his fare would be perked up by the songs. And when a new song that has gone viral recently, which was a funny song about a husband stealing his wife’s golden earring and the wife stealing his brandy bottle, Sujesh eyed the man in the mirror with a broad smile as though saying, “Now, isn’t this funny?”

But the man, who caught his eyes in the rearview mirror, apparently didn’t think so.

For he simply turned his head away once again, looking out of the window.

After that, Sujesh gave up trying to engage in conversation with the man.

**

Sujesh had picked up his fare from near Brigade Road.

Even as he had bought the car to a stop- a white Tata Indica with some paint scratched off the side which was a remnant of a minor accident that he never got around to fixing- he had felt sometime peculiar about the man in the white shirt and the grey coat and grey pants who waved at him.

His longish face, the thin lips, the slightly graying hair on his head or the somewhat stilted manner in which he walked to the cab- as though his legs contained equal parts wood pieces and bones- none of it was too alarming taken in separation.

But put together, there was a quality about the man which seemed somewhat…off…to the cab driver.

A sort of the sum-of-parts-is-greater-than-the-whole scenario.

He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was that struck him as odd about the man though.

Even though the man, while booking the cab using the cab hailing app had given his destination as Vivek Nagar- which was hardly four kilometers away, halfway through the ride, he said, “Can you do one thing? Can you just drive around?”

Sujesh, who was partly glad that the fare had finally broken the silence that was becoming rather ominous inside the car- notwithstanding the radio – nonetheless frowned at this request.

“How do you mean, sir?”

“I mean, just drive around,” the man said, without bothering to hide the irritation he felt from his voice. “We don’t have to go to Vivek Nagar. Or rather, if we do, you don’t have to stop anywhere. You can just drive around, to anywhere, until I say stop.”

“Anywhere?”

Sujesh wondered how that would work out. What if he just rode in a straight line( as much as it was possible to drive in a straight line in Bangalore, where you rarely came across a straight road for more than short stretches.)

What if he just kept driving and ended up at the outskirts of the city?

Would his fare then just get out there?

Though these questions occurred to him, he didn’t ask them, for there was sternness to the tall man’s voice which didn’t invite any questions.

**

The car hit a bump and the man’s head hit the roof of the car.

He had to sit with his shoulders slightly hunched to begin with, so there was hardly any gap between the top of his head and the ceiling of the car.

Sujesh apologized though there was nothing he could have done to prevent the car from passing over the hump on the road- not unless he could make his car fly.

But he was old fashioned that way.

He knew quite a lot of young drivers who were almost always downright rude with their fare, turning them down if they- the drivers- didn’t like the destination the fare wished to reach, or driving at rash speeds on roads filled with gutters and bumps even when the fare was in the cab.

They got some sort of kick out of such antics- though what these kicks could be, Sujesh had no idea.

But he was not like that. He believed in being courteous with his fare- even with such cold individuals as the one who presently sat in the backseat .

But he did explain to his fare that simply driving around without a destination may not be practical.

He has hired the cab using the cab hailing app- and as per the app’s guidelines, it’s the driver’s responsibility to drop off the fare at the destination he or she has entered in the app during the time of hailing the cab. If the GPS tracking mechanism in the app notes that it’s not to the intended destination that the cab was moving, that would earn him black mark in the app’s driver’s listing.

Meaning, the next time someone hails a cab in the app, the priority his cab would get would be lesser.

“But what if the fare wishes to change his destination midway through the ride?” said the man. He just sounded casually curious- almost as though he was bored.

It was as though part of his mind was drifting somewhere else while the rest stayed in the present.

“In that case, you would have to give me another destination, and we would actually have to go there.”

The man nodded, as though it was completely acceptable.

However, he said, “Then, just go all the way to Vivek Nagar. You can then mark this ride as over in your app,” he indicated to Sujesh’ phone fit to a phone stand which was clamped on the car’s dashboard.

“From there, we can just drive around.”

Though there was nothing amiss about the man’s request- except for the obvious question of why someone would want to drive around in the evening traffic in a city with one of the worst traffic conditions in India- Sujesh felt uncomfortable about the whole thing.

Part of him wanted to say that he wouldn’t like to do that, that he would drop the man off at Vivek Nagar and just be off since he has another ride coming(which he didn’t).

But the problem was, he wasn’t sure when he was going to get his next ride.

There were more number of cabs and auto rickshaws in this city than was actually needed. Way more.

Also, these days, the affordability factor of cars and two wheelers was high in India, so it was hard to come by people who didn’t have a vehicle of their own.

All this have made the lives of cab drivers like Sujesh hard, to say the least.

This problem was harsher in Mumbai which was why he shifted with his family to Bangalore. And when he enrolled with the cab hailing app, he had hoped that it would bring some relief.

Which it did- to some extent.

But he could only take up to ten rides per day using the app- this policy was meant to give all the drivers enrolled with the app, and those who haven’t, a level playing field.

The lanky man in his backseat who made Sujesh uncomfortable for reasons he couldn’t yet discern was the tenth ride of the day he has procured using the app.

The man was offering a ride that could potentially go on for at least another hour after Vivek Nagar, possibly more.

It wasn’t the kind of fare that came easily.

He had house rent to pay and a daughter in school. Money- no matter how it came- was always welcome.

As though reading his thoughts, the lanky man pulled from his wallet a two thousand rupee note which he promptly extended to Sujesh.

The car was halted at a traffic island, waiting for the light to change.

Sujesh saw the two thousand rupee note out of the corner of his eye. The man was waving it beside his face.

“What is this, sir?” he said.

“Just an advance,” said the man in his customary toneless voice.

It was the best imitation of a robot, without sounding like a robot, though Sujesh. “I think we have a long ride ahead of us,” the man added.

Nodding, Sujesh accepted the note. As he did so, his finger grazed on the side of the palm of his hand.

The man’s skin felt cold to the touch. Like he just had shower in ice cold water.

**

As the lanky man has promised, the ride was turning out to be long.

It’s been more than an hour since they had passed Vivek Nagar- and when they did, the man paid him in cash for the ride up until that point- and still, he hasn’t given any indication that he would wish to stop anytime soon.

Presently, they were passing through Kalyan Nagar, which was on the southern end of the city, quite far from the city centre from where Sujesh had picked the fare.

But the silence that issued from the man like a physical force continued.

Also, he remained still-extremely still, so much so that by now Sujesh knew exactly where in the mirror he needed to look to see those unblinking, emotionless eyes.

No, not emotionless- for deep within those eyes, he could discern sadness, a sadness which felt like it could turn into anger, an uncontrollable rage, at any moment.

**

The sun was setting over the city and the streetlights were up outside.

Since they have left the city behind- or rather, the crux of it, the traffic was not so bad anymore. Also, the number of vehicles and people whom Sujesh could see out of the windshield were significantly lesser now.

Lesser, but not non-existent.

However, he couldn’t help but feel like he has entered an isolated stretch of road that ran through desolate woods, possibly a haunted forest.

He realized that this sense of isolation was because of the man in the backseat.

He suddenly had the feeling that the man was going to do something bad to him- like wrap his arm around his throat and chock him to death.

He threw a sudden glance towards the mirror- only to see those deep set, dark eyes staring right at him. He felt a cold shiver passing through his body.

To make himself feel better, he was about to turn the station back to the one that played old Hindi songs- if anyone who could make you feel less haunted and saner, it’s Kishore Kumar- when his fare broke the silence that covered him.

**

“I can see that you are disturbed, Sujesh,” said the man.

For a moment, Sujesh was in a panic wondering how the man could possibly know his name.

But then he remembered that he could have got that information while hailing the cab. (Conversely, the fare’s name would be on the app in Sujesh’ phone, but he didn’t feel like taking his eyes off the mirror at the moment- not any more than was absolutely needed for the purpose of keeping the car on the road).

“There is no need to panic,” said the man, his voice calm, and emotionless as before.

Calm, emotionless and cold.

“I had thought that a long ride would help me calm down, help soothe my nerves.”

The lanky man let out a long sigh before continuing, but even his sigh had a robotic quality to it, as though it was measured out- to the last ounce of air exhaled. “But I see that it hasn’t. In fact, I feel not any different than when I entered this cab..No, I am not in any way implying that you or your cab is responsible for my discomfort. No, it’s just that..just that I feel the same now as I did immediately after killing the man.”

Sujesh thought he heard the man incorrectly.

His palms began to sweat and it was all he could do to keep his hands from slipping off the steering wheel.

He thought about bringing the windows up and turning on the air conditioner, for he has begun to sweat from his brows as well, even though it was cool outside.

But the idea of being with his fare in a completely enclosed car wasn’t particularly welcoming a thought.

Completely disregarding the look of shock that has come over the Sujesh’ face, the man continued, “Yes, I killed a man. A jewellery shop owner. He…well, let’s not get into too much details. Suffice to say that that man was instrumental in bringing about my financial ruin. And I had never wronged him either! Anyway, I saw nothing to do but kill the man.

“ His shop was closed today because today is a Sunday. But I knew he would be in his office above the shop. Sundays are the days when he goes through the balance books, you know. So, I went there. He let me in, not knowing my intentions. The pathetic shit actually thought that I was there to borrow money from him! To beg him! That pathetic shit!”

As if to make up for all the emotionless cold of the previous hour or so, there was an exuberance of emotion in the man’s voice now.

So much so that it felt like a bomb exploding.

“But I was not there to beg him for money. I was there to take his life. And to see him beg for mercy! And I accomplished just that! I had thought that a warm feeling would envelope me as I plunged the knife into his throat. That I would finally feel the peace that I have been seeking for years . Yes, it took literally years for me to build up enough courage to do this!”

The man laughed- a sad cackle that felt to Sujesh’ ears like the car’s wheels going over a field of pebbles. “Two years, it took two years, and still, when I did it, I didn’t feel peace. I didn’t feel anything. Except cold.”

Cold.

Sujesh shivered at the mention of the word that has been in his mind a lot ever since this strange man- who now proclaims himself to be a killer-has got into the car.

“I probably could get away with the murder, you know,” said the man. “But I wanted to give myself up. In fact, I was planning to go straight to a police station after exiting the building. But out at the sidewalk, as I watched the people- men, women and kids walking by Brigade Road, enjoying their Sunday, women in colorful dresses and children enjoying chocolate and ice cream, men being happy with their families, I…I realized that once I go into the police station, it would be a long time before I would be free again, I thought-“

“You thought going for a ride, to get out of the city, from all the hustle and bustle, would help you enjoy freedom for some more time..” Not until Sujesh said the words did he realize that he believed the lanky man’s story.

And now that his fare has told him what he has done, he realized what exactly has made him disturbed about the man since he first laid his eyes on him.

It was the air of guilt that clung to him like a layer of clothing that he just couldn’t lose.

And in those eyes, he has seen sadness.

A sadness that was brought about by the conflict of guilt and the feeling of having done the imperative- for the lanky man evidently thought that killing his nemesis was something that needed to be done.

Sujesh swallowed hard. “Okay, so now you have told me your story. But why?”

His eyes were wide as he looked at the man in the mirror.

The lanky man simply shrugged. “I don’t know. I just felt like saying it…”

Sujesh waited for more, but the man didn’t say anything else. At least, not immediately.

And when he spoke, it was once again in an emotionless tone- stripped of feelings, filled with fatigue. The voice of a man who has just climbed the biggest mountain in the world.

“Don’t worry, I am not going to do anything to you. And I am still going to surrender myself. Probably,” he added as an afterthought, with a far away look in his eyes.  “You could let me out here.”

Sujesh could hear the unspoken words that came after, “Or else…” There was a barely restrained tension in the man’s voice.

He wasn’t sure where exactly they were.

They were at a stretch of road completely deserted except for a small bus stop up ahead on the left and a restaurant very close to it.

Sujesh brought the car to a stop and let the man out. The man pulled out of his wallet two more two thousand rupee notes. “That’s all I got,” he said.

Without waiting for the driver to accept it, he threw the money on the passenger seat and walked away.

It was only after the man walked away from the car and disappeared from his view did Sujesh breathe again. Only then did he realize that he has been holding his breath.

For how long? He wasn’t sure.

All he wanted to do now was go back home, cuddle up with his daughter and wife in a warm bed, protected by four walls and family.

But as he was about to shift the gear, his eyes fell on the green screen of the app on his mobile phone.

He realized that he could check the name- and even the phone number of the lanky man from the passenger history feature in the app.

Shaking his head, he decided that he didn’t want to know.

He wasn’t going to go to the police with any details about the man.

Life was hard enough without doing anything like that. Also, at the back of his mind, he was afraid, afraid that the lanky man might come after him if he were to go to the police.

After all, his last fare did have his- Sujesh’ name, phone number and vehicle registration number in his app.

“No, I don’t want to know anything,” Sujesh muttered to himself.

Pulling up the app on the phone, careful not to even accidentally see the details of his last fare, he deleted the passenger history for the entire day.

As he took a U turn and directed the car homewards, a haunting feeling once again chased after him. He felt like he was entering a haunted forest.

 

The Enemy

Crouching in the corner of the room, biting his lip as a shoot of pain traversed up from the bottom of his damaged right foot, Sreedhar couldn’t help but think about the absurdity of the whole situation.

The entire village was overtaken by these abominable creatures, and in this house, he was the last man standing.

A broken ex-soldier whose most recent battles were with depression- a demon that lived his own soul- than with any enemy in the outside world.

‘But this is no time to dwell on such things’, he thought as he gripped harder on the knife’s handle. Thinking of the foe that lurked outside the door, waiting for him to give any sign- even the slightest of signs- as to where he was, the knife felt awfully inadequate a weapon.

Sure, it was sharp, its edge gleaming in the light that came in through the window.

But at the same time, it was just an ordinary kitchen knife.

Purvika- his wife had left it on the table in the bedroom after using it to slice an apple for him. She had gone into the bathroom when the creature broke into the house.

Now, he wasn’t even sure if she was alive or not.

Sreedhar shook his head, trying to dislodge thoughts about Purvika from his mind

. ‘I must not think of her now. I must think of the task at hand.’

He knew that if he waited for long before making a move, the pain in his body which was already formidable- like a red hot globule of fire passing through his bones, would overwhelm him, and as on many occasions before, he would faint away from the pain.

Taking a couple of long, deep breaths he thought of the creature outside the door as less an alien monster and more an enemy- the kind he might have encountered in a battle field.

There was a certain impersonality about the enemy in a battle field.

Even if the rational part of your mind knew that they were humans like yourself, that’s not the part of the mind which came most active when every sense of yours is alert for movements of the enemy.

The guiding part of your mind at such moments is one that considers the enemy as just a three dimensional smudge in the atmosphere- something that has to be wiped off the face of the earth. With a bullet, a hand grenade or even with your bare hands if that’s what it takes.

‘It’s not a hand grenade or a gun I have in my hand now,’ he thought. ‘It’s a kitchen knife. But I guess that would have to do.’

With a mighty roar, Sreedhar pulled himself up from his crouching position, ignoring the explosion of pain in his leg and pushing open the bedroom door, rushed at the eight foot monster that stood right outside the door.

**

The bullet screeched through the air like an accelerated song. A dark song the vibrations of which wouldn’t soothe the soul but kill the body.

And Sreedhar saw it moving towards him, or imagined it coming at him like ripples of sound, like an animated representation of sonic waves pumping from a giant speaker, as depicted in a television commercial.

The bullet struck him squarely on his chest.

The militant sniper knew his job.

It was the kind of shot which if it were in a film would have resulted in his death almost immediately.(Maybe he would have had enough time to say a couple of patriotic lines before dying, but that’s it.)

But this was no movie. This was a mountain near the Siachin border that divided two nations that were not exactly best buddies- Pakistan and India.

And the Indian soldiers were under an unexpected attack from a militant group that was trying to infiltrate from Pakistan into India.

The bullet, which pierced his chest and exited through the back of his body did take Sreedhar down, making him lose the grip on the gun in his hand and his eyes roll upwards in their sockets.

And even as his body was dropping towards the snow covered earth, another bullet hit him, this one on his right ankle, shattering bones and fast turning the snow covered area around the foot crimson.

For the first few seconds the adrenaline kept the pain at bay.

Adrenaline that has been pumping through his body like dam water after the shutter was opened some fifteen minutes ago when the first unexpected shots from the militants broke the silence in the mountain.

But then, this was the kind of pain which he has never experienced before.

As part of the special operatives manning one of the most sensitive border areas between the two countries, Sreedhar has had occasions to fight before- even taking down enemy numbers.

He was no alien to injuries on his self either.

But this was a potentially fatal injury, and even though this was the kind of pain that every soldier expects at every minute of their professional existence, he still felt overwhelmed by it.

Just the fact that the human body could hurt this much- like a million venomous snake bites were being driven at the same square inch on his body, like the energy of the sun boiling his blood, wreaking havoc in his tendons and breaking apart his bones- came across like a shocking news.

So much so that the adrenaline could no more hold the pain in check, and like an escaped prisoner enjoying his newfound freedom, the pain began to run around in his body, starting from the chest and the ankle where the bullets hit and enveloping him from top to bottom like the talons of a thousand crazy vultures.

The fighting lasted for some fifteen minutes more- fifteen minutes in which Sreedhar Pillai kept drifting in and out of consciousness.

And every time he came awake, to breathe in the thin mountain air, to hear the sounds of fighting and the cries of rage and anguish and triumph(sometimes, all three at the same time), he thought about Purvika.

They were married for three years at that time. And back home, she was pregnant with their first child.

As he felt spasms of shudders, beyond his control, passing through his body, invading the privacy of his self, and reminding him over and over  of the mortality of man, he felt sure that he was never going to see her again. That he was going to die without a glimpse his yet-to-be-born child’s face.

But that was not to be. Even as the final shots in the stand-off were being delivered, some of his fellow soldiers managed to reach him.

They pulled him to safety, kept telling him that he was going to be alright, though Sridhar didn’t believe it.

**

Sreedhar rushed at the monster, trying to capitalize on the element of surprise.

But the monster- bulky was it was, proved to be much swifter than he had anticipated.

For even as he slashed the knife in a wide arc, the monster, which stood with its side to the bedroom door, turned around.

The only damage Sreedhar was able to inflict on the monster was a graze on the side of its body. Scratching its thick skin, the knife opened a thin gash out of which oozed thick viscous black liquid.

Sreedhar was glad to see that the monster had blood- or the equivalent of it. For that brought down the alien-element and made him more confident about taking it down.

Even as the creature opened its mouth- the mouth parted halves like sliding doors- exposing a circular arrangement of thin but extremely sharp looking teeth, Shreedhar brought up his good leg and delivered a mighty kick at the monster’s lower jaw.

He felt his feet going into the bulbous cushion of its flesh before bouncing back.

It felt like kicking on a hardened bean bag.

And Sreedhar wasn’t sure how much damage he has inflicted with the kick.

But from the way the monster growled and fixed him with an angry stare from the sole eye on the middle of its forehead- a forehead that bulged from its pointy black head like an exaggerated bump in the head- he judged that the creature was aggravated by his action.

And he felt good about that.

In fact, he couldn’t remember when was the last time he felt this good- this ‘in the moment’. Certainly not since he has ceased to be a soldier almost an year ago, after the injury cut short his career.

**

Cutting his newfound happiness short, a gill-like opening on one side of the creature’s face opened and out came a whip-like tendril with ridges divided by a few centimeters of blank space.

Well, not exactly blank spaces.

The ridges were connected to each other by a line of silvery thread which was so thin that unless the bright mid-afternoon sun that came in through the open front door hadn’t caused it to gleam, Sreedhar wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

The whip-like tendril resembled in structure the human spine, if the spine were flexible and could be waved around like a toy that Chitra- his two year old daughter- would play with.

Even as Sreedhar was wondering what use the tendril might have, the creature lashed it out at him, aiming for his leg.

Sreedhar raised his foot just in time to escape it.

Without losing momentum, he rushed towards the creature with the knife raised in his hand.

The creature took a couple of steps back on its four legs.

Sreedhar grinned, thinking it was a reaction to his progress.

Only, he was mistaken.

For the creature used the extra couple of feet it had now put between itself and the human to make another semi circular lash of the tendril before bringing it down on Sreedhar’s leg- his bad leg.

This time, the movement caught Sreedhar by surprise, and he didn’t have time to react. Not any more than to give a surprised yelp.

The tendril wrapped around his ankle like a grip of vice.

While the ridges in the tendril helped keep it wrapped in place, it was the fine silvery thread that inflicted the most pain.

Sreedhar felt the material cutting into his flesh, like red hot barbed wire.

Though he felt like screaming, he didn’t, wishing not to come across as weak in front of the enemy- though he wasn’t sure if the enemy in question thought in such human terms at all.

He heard a screeching sound- like someone was dragging a huge piece of furniture along a polished floor.

Looking up, he realized that it was the creature that made the sound.

A laughter of triumph? A mean, derogatory snort? A calling sound for other fiends?

So far, he has seen just this one creature in the house. But he knew that there were others out there.

Even as he hoped that not any more of the fiends would come into the house, compounding his problem, the creature pulled harder on the lash and he lost his footing.

He fell on the linoleum floor, the back of his head hitting the ground with a loud thud.

**

For a second, he was blinded as the combined heat and pain of the lash around his ankle and his head felt too much for him.

This was the kind of pain that he wouldn’t even have noticed in a previous life- in the life of a soldier.

But now, an year of largely bed-ridden existence has mellowed him.

The creature didn’t seem interested in giving him any time for reflection though.

It pulled him further towards it, tightening its tendril grip on his leg, drawing blood from the ever widening gash around his ankle.

Though wincing with pain, Sreedhar never let go of the knife in his hand. If anything, his grip only tightened on it.

So far, the weapon hasn’t proved to be all that effective, but then again, it wasn’t like he had an assortment of assault weapons to choose from.

He lashed out at the tendril with the knife, harder than the previous time each time, on the ridges and then the silvery thread, but nothing gave.

If kicking at the creature’s chin was like kicking on a bean bag, this was trying to sculpt from a boulder with just a kitchen knife.

The same screeching sound as before issued from the creature once again.

And this time, Sreedhar felt sure that it was the sound of the monster laughing.

He snarled at the monster. ‘My body may not be what it was,’ he thought. ‘But my spirit remains that of a soldier’s.’

To the monster’s surprise, Sreedhar stopped resisting the creature from pulling him towards it.

Instead, he now did the opposite.

Rolling on to his side and dragging himself forward with his hands, Sreedhar slid towards the monster, and went even one step further- he moved himself underneath the creature’s body.

Without losing time, he turned over so he was lying with his face up, and then, sitting up, he raised the knife and plunged it deep into the creature’s underbelly- assuming it was the underbelly that he just plunged the knife into. (In a creature the physiognomy of which had so little to correspond to that of a human- except for that eye in the forehead which looks surprisingly a lot like a human’s-such things were hard to tell.)

Thankfully, even though he was sitting literally beneath the creature- he wasn’t afforded a view of anything potentially revolting, like genitals or anus, as would have been the case with terrestrial creatures.

But when he pulled the knife out of its body, the gooey black liquid that spilled out of its wound, which  drenched him, sticking to his body like wet plastic, felt revolting to him all the same.

Aside from the stickiness, there was a coldness to the liquid which made him feel like puking.

The combined effect of the cold and the stickiness made him feel like he was covered in mucus.

Black mucus.

With the wound opening underneath its body, the creature began to scream- the sound an elevated version of the screeching/laughing noise that it had made before.

Only, to Sreedhar, the high pitched quality of the sound felt like an arrow piercing into his ears.

But he was laughing all the same. “Now, where is your laugh, huh?” he bellowed in a voice filled with pride.

He laughed some more, as overcome with pain, the creature pulled its tendril back in, releasing its vice- like grip from his ankle.

But then, the monster began to move around in circles, having seemingly become irrational with pain and rage.  There was no mechanism with which it could see beneath its body, no limbs with which it could retrieve the human from underneath it.

So, it hopped around, on all fours, whirling round and round and round.

In the process, its legs hit on Sreedhar’s body a couple of times, once a firm footstep landed on his already wounded ankle and there was a .light crunching sound.

He felt sure that a bone was broken.

But he didn’t have the time to check on it- he was busy trying get out of the way of the monster’s legs, before further injuries would be inflicted.

He came out from underneath the monster’s legs, behind the creature.

He raised the knife once again, ready to bring it down on its body, but then the creature promptly turned around.

In the process, its short tail hit his wrist and the knife was knocked off his hand.

The creature raged towards him.

**

Sreedhar, having no weapon in hand, was ready to pounce on it and fight with it with his bare arms- though the monster weighed at least a hundred kilos more than him.

But then, just an inch from him, the monster stopped.

It hesitated.

It moved back again a couple of steps before coming towards him once more, its single eye brimming with rage.

But it hesitated again, coming to a halt an inch away from Sreedhar’s face.

This dance of indecision continued for a while.

And Sreedhar, seeing the fumbled expression in its eye and the ragged movements of its body, realized- or rather surmised the reason for its confusion.

The thick gooey liquid that covered his body! That’s what was confusing the creature.

‘These monsters don’t rely on their eyesight alone to discern an enemy from their own!’ thought Sreedhar.

He realized that this was his chance to take down the creature.

But for a second, he too hesitated, seeing how confused, and helpless it looked.

Even in war, you tried not to kill the helpless if you could help it, wasn’t that so?

But the thought of finding Purvika snapped him out of this thought.

The monster may leave him alone, but it it’s left alive, it may not extend the same ‘courtesy’ towards his wife.

Bending down, Sreedhar took the knife that was lying on the floor beside him.

He looked for any obvious spot in the creature’s body that might indicate the presence of a heart- the most significant instrument in a body.

But of course, he couldn’t find any spot like that.

“Shit!” he muttered in English.

It was one of his favorite swear words. (“So organic, and so tasteless” as he joked to Purvika once).

He thought how if another species might look for the heart in as human body  based solely on outward  appearance, the chest may not look like the probable space to house the heart, any more than any other spot on the body.

The creature snorted with what sounded like a mix of anger and disgust. It looked like it was clearly disgusted with its own inability to kill him.

But Sridhar wasn’t sure how long this would last. Maybe after a while the whiff of the black liquid on his body would die off and then the creature would attack him?

Deciding that it’s the head of the creature he could go for- assuming the brain was housed there, if it had a brain in the conventional sense- he gripped the knife harder.

But then, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to plunge the knife into its head which looked harder- much harder than its underbelly.

And the kitchen knife, sharp as it was , was no weapon that elicited confidence in him.

‘The eye! I should go for the eye!’ he thought. ‘If nothing else, taking out that eye would keep it from going after anyone- including Purvika!’

Raising his bad leg off the ground, Sreedhar put as much pressure as possible on his right leg before leveraging on it, he hopped forward.

Raising the knife, screaming with fury, he brought the weapon down on the still confused looking monster’s eye.

**

He found Purvika lying in the corridor by the bathroom. She was unconscious but otherwise she looked okay.

Carrying her to the bed, he sprinkled some water on her face.

She woke up, looked disoriented for a moment, and then screamed.

Sreedhar had to tell her repeatedly that it was alright- that the monster was dead- before she would calm down.

She told him how she came out of the bathroom hearing the monster’s sound. Seeing it, she tried to run further into the house, towards the kitchen.

But then, she tripped on something, caught her head on the edge of a table.

That was the last thing she remembered.

Once again, she began to shake with panick. “Where is that thing?” she said. “Is it gone?”

Sreedhar told him how taking its lone eye out seemed to have kill the monster.

“The eye is its heart!” he said with a grin.

She looked confused but she rested her head against his chest, content to hear that the creature was dead.

“But will there be more?!” she asked suddenly.

Sreedhar shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Why did it come here?” she said.

Sreedhar shook his head again.

Reports of the vile monsters have been in the news this last fortnight.

No one knows where they came from, or why they were here.

Some theorized that they were aliens, while others thought they came out of some jungle, some even went on to say that they were sent by God himself for all the bad things that people have done on the Earth.

All that was known for certain was that so far, these creatures seemed to have come to this village alone- prompting some to theorize that they came up from the ground beneath the village.

And they killed humans randomly.

When they would appear  next and where they would strike were never things that could be told inconclusively.

Indeed, the ambiguity surrounding it all was so much that some even didn’t believe in the existence of these monsters- saying the killings were the doings of a madman.

“I don’t know why it came here,” Sreedhar said. “I don’t know why the creatures are in our village!”

But they are the enemy and we must fight them, he thought but didn’t say the words aloud.

**

He turned on the television to see if there was news of similar attacks anywhere else in the village.

Purvika was tying a tourniquet around his damaged foot, saying how sending Chitra to stay with her grandparents in town for a few days was a good idea.

“Though it broke my heart to part with her at first, now I see it was a good idea! I was of the opinion-”

He words were broken off mid-sentence when she heard the name of the town in the television news.

The town of her parents, with whom Chitra now stayed!

She imagined that the news reader hid behind his neutral expression the same emotions that now welled up in her heart as she listened to his words- the emotions of fear and panic.

They were there! The killings had begun in that town as well!

Tying the rest of the tourniquet fast, Sreedhar got off the bed.

‘It’s time to kill more enemies!’ he thought.