Fast Race, Slow Dread

Nothing that you bury stay buried.

Ram read the line over and over again.

It was written by one of his all time favourite racers. The man was almost 70 years old now and the book that Ram held in his hand was the guy’s memoir. The line that he just read- the one that got stuck in his head like an old LP player caught on a loop, written with evident bitterness, was in reference to the racer’s one-time drug habit. At the peak of his career, the man thought that he had left the dark past behind- the days filled with injecting substances into his veins in the shadow of an alleyway or in the hidden confines of a friend’s home.

But then, things that you bury rarely stay buried. And the man succumbed to the devil inside him once again, the devil which prompted him to take one more walk down that road the end of which was pleasure so mingled with pain that you couldn’t easily tell where one ended and the other began. And walked down that path he did, almost runining his career in the process. But the tough nut that he was, he recovered and came back to race, proving to the world with four more grand prix titles that though he was older than his peers at this point, when it came to winning, willpower could triumph age.

None of which really struck a chord with Ram. He wasn’t someone who has ever went through a drug phase- in fact, he has never even smoked cannabis in his life. The closest he has come to something like a drug was probably in his school when many of the chemicals in their chemistry lab, it was told, could induce a drug-like effect in you.

But there was one thing which he could relate in the racer’s narrative- the love for racing, the thrill of controlling a bike, maneuvering it with a precision and panache that was so demanding that it verged on the maniacal. “Isn’t that madness?” was one question which he frequently heard people ask, those who were not part of the scene. The answer,which he delivered with a gentle smile on his lips was always the same- You either get it or you don’t.

He couldn’t remember when was the last time he was asked the question.

Though it’s been some 15 years since he has given up racing for good, it felt much longer, as though an eternity has passed between the last rush of adrenaline- the final point at which he felt truly alive and the rest of his life.

**

The alarm clock chimed.

He had set it to ring at 8AM. He wasn’t what you would call an avid reader. Not nearly. But he did keep an eye out for new books about the art of racing, or relating to one of its exponents. Such books were indeed rare to come by, but between the release of books he always had the Race Territory app to keep his mind occupied, bringing him news and videos and opinions on the latest races, and the occasional interviews with the who is who in the scene.

But when a book did find its way into his hands, he couldn’t wait to start reading. Like this one he picked up last night from a book store on the way back from work. Though he was tired after work, after having dinner, he got on the bed and immediately started reading, reading to the background noise of his wife gently snoring beside him, going to sleep not until almost midnight.

While going to sleep, he thought that he would only wake late in the morning-that he would barely get enough time to get ready for the office if he were not to be late. Breakfast would be out of the question.

But to his surprise, not only did he wake up earlier than usual- 6 instead of 6:30, he woke up feeling completely awake, his brain throbbing with curiosity to find out what happens in the rest of the book- or rather the rest of his idol’s life.

**

Hitting the off button on the alarm, he put the book aside and got up to ready himself.

Stepping into the shower, he thought, Another day of work!

He couldn’t help but sigh.

He would have liked nothing better than to curl up in his bed with the book. Even better, he would have liked to go racing, or at least, to go and watch a race.

But Bangalore wasn’t exactly thriving with races. The races that were held happened every once in a bluemoon, like once every 4 months or so. It would be a gala event, bringing in racing enthusiasts from all around the city.

What Ram found surprising was that the frequency at which such events were held was pretty much the same as when he was an active part of the scene. It’s as though the city- moving ahead in many other ways, didn’t wish to catch up with a sport that has been enthralling millions in other parts of the world for decades.

With yet another weary sigh, Ram stepped out of the shower.

**

He always felt a little awkward going through the Race Territory website at work.

Not because he felt it unethical. As a system administrator for a company with just 26 employees and two LAN networks, his major chore was to ensure that the internet kept working, and if it went down for some reason, find a solution as soon as possible. This wasn’t exactly a huge task, and the job left him with enough free time every day to practice numerous variants of yawns.

So, checking out a website for pleasure rarely clashed with his job.

No, what actually made him nervous when he browsed through the web pages filled with so many images of victories and crashes and the winners popping champagne bottles and those in accidents being carried off in stretchers was the thought of someone popping up behind him and seeing his screen. He sat in a cubicle in an aisle which made it normal for other people to walk by, towards the coffee machine or the loo and back, offering them a chance to see the screen if they just turned their head.

And this kept him super-nervous whenever he was on a racing page.

For at such moments, he was acutely reminded of the fact that he was 39 years old.

Most of his collagues were young- most in their late twenties. In fact, the only other employee older than Ram was an accountant.

And 39 year olds rarely checked out the racing websites. At least, not in this part of the world. The year 2026 had seen Bangalore rising to become one of the super-cluttered, yet ultra-modern megapolises in the country. But as Ram has ruminated in the shower earlier, the city didn’t show much enthusiasm in making bike racing a part of its culture.

And those racing lovers whom Ram came across were all like his colleagues- pretty young.

He would see them seated at a table in a small group when he dropped in at a pub to watch a race, and he would see them looking at the racing news in their tablets  when he took the metro somewhere. Indeed, in the office , where he has been working for almost eight years now, he has come across precisely one person so far who was also a racing aficionado.

That dude was 26 years old and he quit the office some four years ago after a very short stint.

Though they built a rapport based on their mutual love for the art of biking, the rapport came apart pretty soon, like an aged piece of cloth would come apart at its seam- no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t overcome the bridge of age, as Ram found. The priorities and ideals of ages- even if it’s divided by just a decade were just too much to be rendered inconsequential by the shared love for something.

**

Nervously, he scrolled through the page. It detailed a story about the acquisition of a racer by a company- one of the biggest deals in the game’s history. He read the piece with interest- the racer in question was someone who was dissed by the company once but who proved his mettle by taking the Tokyo Grand Prix- one of the most significant in the world last year. And now, the corporate has changed their view. Obvious, given  how the sum that they threw at him.

Towards the end of the page was an invitation to click on a couple of more links-which led one to old stories about the racer. Ram had read those stories and didn’t feel the need to revisit them. But before he closed the page, his eyes strayed to the right hand bottom of the page- where a small square of an ad appeared loud in a yellow background. “Be the you you always wanted to be!” was the lead line.

It felt like a more attractive invite than links to old stories. Clicking on the ad took Ram to a website for “The world’s first complete virtual experience.”

There was an embedded video on the home page of the website, clicking on which brought on a white woman with a flawless skin speaking inflection-less English. As he listened to her, it occurred to Ram that he had read about this somewhere before- a virtual reality firm that helped you experience whatever you wish – whether it’s a holiday in Hawaii or the life as a Mogul. A lot like what they show in that movie, Total Recall.

Ram remembered getting excited about the technology the first time he read about it. According to the adverts, the experience would be so “flawless that it would give reality a run for its money.” The only problem was that you couldn’t experience it with the VR headset you owned. It was a “full sensory experience” which you could only enjoy at one of the special “Experience Centres” of “Fantastic VR” which was the name of the company.

Just out of curiosity, Ram checked for the nearest center. He found one not far from his workplace at JP Nagar. In fact, it was somewhere between his office and his home in Banashakari. He wondered how he could have missed it on his ride to and from the office.

**

That evening, he did find the centre- an unassuming two storied building tucked away inside a by-lane. The fact that it was not on the side of the highway was the reason why he missed it before.

**

Ram resisted the urge to go into the centre for about a week. But then, the idea of feeling himself as a racer again began to be too much of a sensation to resist.

At first, he felt a little shy about the whole process, especially when it was learned that most of the takers for the experience were young people- those in their early twenties for whom such things as a virtual experience held an especial fancy. This, Ram read in an early report about the Fantastic VR experience that was carried in a newspaper. Though the reason for the massive interest by “youngsters” was not mentioned in the story, Ram could well imagine it.

Once you are past a certain age, or rather once you’re married, you have to project to the world a certain image: of someone who is more than capable of making all his family’s wishes come true. Visiting the Experience Centre would automatically mean that you are seeking a substitute experience for something that you lacked the resources to experience in the real world. So, yes, Ram could certainly see why married, older people weren’t too keen on the virtual experience.

At one point, he thought of taking his two little kids there- he had a boy of 10 and a girl of 8. That way, at least, he would have a socially acceptable excuse for visiting the centre- because kids find such things fanciful, don’t they? And now that you are here with your kids, won’t you try something for yourself, sir? He hoped the person manning the centre would ask him.

But then, he thought better.

I am not going to do anything criminal, for God’s sake!, he thought. And he hated himself for getting apprehensive about little things like this-which he frequently got these days, and he felt the older he got, the more frequent such things became. This was a far cry from how he was during his younger years- when the thrill of a ride would have him practicing like mad, to the exclusion of everything else- including his studies.

But contrary to what his parents feared, he did well in his education. And when it came time for him to choose his graduation, he chose computer engineering instead of mechanical, just because it was the stream which would help him get a job in Bangalore the fastest- and going by the way finances in his home were going down, what with his father’s health taking a beating in the previous few years, it was only too clear for Ram Soran that he didn’t have any other option but to take on the burden of running the family, and the biker’s dream began to fade as consequence.

Even after he entered his professional life, he went biking for a while.

But then the demands of a working life inevitably clashed with his passion, and after getting married and having children, the clash took what in his mind was an almost violent turn. For it was a contest between such things as going to his son’s school for PTA meeting and attending an auto show. Even before the contest began, he would know which would win.

So, now he scratched his riding itch by reading memoirs of legendary riders. And instead of a racing model, what he actually owned was a Hero Honda two wheeler-one that was functional in the Bangalore road conditions and which came with a mileage of more than  50 kilometers. Perfect for a family man.

But that didn’t mean I should act like a wimp!

The thought was still ringing in his mind when he booked a slot for the “experience of a lifetime” on Fantastic VR’s website.

**

Though the technology was a relative novelty- or at least, the idea of “holistic VR experience” that Fantastic VR was selling was- a whole load of people were interested in trying it out. This, Ram found out when upon checking for a slot, he found that even if he were to book now, he would have to wait almost a month until a slot became free over the weekend. “Unless, you wish to visit the Whitefield centre, in which case there’s  a slot available in another two weeks time,” the virtual assistant reported cheerfully.

He wasn’t interested in going all the way to Whitefield, which was on the other end of the city. Partly because he didn’t wish to suffer the terrible Bangalore traffic, also because he hasn’t told his wife about his plan to have the experience- he didn’t want to be away for long hours, having to make up some excuse.

The neighborhood experience center would suffice.

**

The day he got the slot was a Saturday.

The time allotted was between 5 and 5:30 in the evening. He had planned to take the kids out for a movie later in the evening. “I’m not interested in watching a Shahid Kapoor flick. You know how I hate him!” his wife, immersed in a television singing reality show said without taking her eyes off the screen when he proposed the movie. “Why don’t you take the kids?” she added, still without looking up from the screen.

“I just need to drop in at the office. Something urgent came up, I would be back soon. You two get ready while I’m gone!” he told his kids before leaving for the centre.

**

Though he has seen the building a few times by now, this was the first time that he saw it up close.

What surprised him the most was the sheer whiteness of the building-which, given the dust that incessantly roiled in the atmosphere of Bangalore was a rarity. Usually, a white building would remain white for the first couple of months before starting to change shades-subtly, but a change all the same.

They have probably used one of those dust-resistant paints which they always show in the commercials, thought Ram as he entered the building’s lobby that was pure white except for the blue and grey diagonal lines that ran across the floor like a huge X, mimicking the company’s logo with stresses the eXperience factor.

Two attendants were at the counter- one male and one female, both in their late twenties by the look of them though what with the highly advanced state of cosmetics, it’s harder these days to tell anyone’s age by just looking at them. More often than not, you need to see someone’ ID to know their true age- not a possibility in this case.

“How can I help you, sir?” It was the woman who spoke as Ram walked up to the rectangular counter which reminded him more of a tabernacle the kind of which they show in the church in the movies. Ram thought that it might be the company policy to have the female talk to a male customer and vice versa- surely, such small things would contribute to a higher sales turnover?

“Yes, I have got an appointment,” Ram said, beaming at her. He let his eyes stray over the flawless skin of her face for a couple of seconds. Cosmetically engineered it might be, but the woman sure looked pretty.

**

After ascertaining his appointment, the woman led him up to the first floor via the only elevator in the building. The elevator was small- enough to accommodate only two people at a time- three at the most. Standing so close to the woman, Ram could smell her. And she smelled like all the women these days- like nothing. ‘All natural. All human.’ That was the trend in women’s fragrances these days. The idea was to neutralize any sort of scent- positive or otherwise that might emanate from the body.

Ram knew of these things because his wife was an ardent fan of such fragrances, and whenever they went shopping, she picks one bottle- each time from a different brand, “So that I could see which one’s the best!” she would say.

Ram couldn’t see the whole point- as far as he could see, every brand did the same thing- made you smell like nothing. But he didn’t voice his view- he knew only too well how saying something as simple as that could lead to a huge crisis between him and his wife. That was the sort of phase that they were going through- a phase which has turned out to be pretty persistent, like a dog hell-bent on staying with its master, even though the master consistently tried to shoo him away.

Wishing not to dwell on thoughts about his wife, Ram shook his head as if to dislodge such thoughts from his mind. The elevator door opened and he stepped out into a wide room- at least 25 feet by 25 feet in which was absolutely nothing- except for one odd looking reclining chair and an even odder looking apparatus which projected from the roof right above the chair.

Their footsteps echoed in the wide expanse. Even as he walked, led towards the chair by the pretty woman in an old fashioned executive shirt and skirt (which hugged her figure perfectly, he couldn’t help but note) the thought occurred to him as to how they kept the floor so neat. Like the walls and the roof, the floor too was pure white, with no tile division in view, which Ram felt rather disconcerting. As he walked, he kept looking behind to see if his shoes left any trace behind.

He knew there was enough dirt under the sole of his shoes to leave dirt marks on the floor, especially one as neat and clean as this.

However, he could find no such trail left in his wake. He thought about how the exterior of the building also retained its pristine whiteness, notwithstanding the dust. Maybe they have used some such material to absorb dirt on the floor as well, he thought.

He couldn’t help but smile at the mundanity of his thought- here he was, ready to experience arguably the most cutting edge of technological experiences of his life and he was thinking about such silly things as paint absorbing dirt.

A few feet away from the chair, the woman abruptly turned around. Taking his smile to be an expression of his excitement, she too smiled. She said, “The experience that you seek is a biker’s. A dirt biker’s to be more precise. You have requested for a stadium scenario in which you would be riding the bike, racing with others and the audience would be cheering. Isn’t that right?”

Ram nodded.

“Your request has been programmed into the system. Before taking the seat, would you be kind enough to sign this, please?” The woman extended a tab which she has carried with her.

Seeing his enquiring look, she added, “It’s a mere formality. It essentially says that the experience that you seek has been explained to you by the attendant and you find the explanation to your satisfaction. You see, there has been certain incidents in which a few of our clients claimed that the experience they had was not exactly what they sought. But in all such cases, we have programmed the system precisely according to their wishes. It’s supposed that sometimes people have high expectations from their experiences- that they would feel great doing something, but then when they actually do it, it’s not as great as what they expected. A common enough scenario in real life. And the virtual reality that we provide is as good as the real thing. So, whatever drawbacks there are in the real world could be present in the virtual world too.” The woman smiled faintly, as though she made an erudite joke.

Which she probably did, only Ram wouldn’t know. In fact, the more the woman talked, the muddier it got for him- about the correlation between reality and virtual reality. Not wishing to think further(and also thinking about the kids who would be at home, ready to go to the movies)he quickly signed the form on the tab.

He expected the woman to accompany him to the chair, but she merely pointed him towards it from a few feet apart where she stood.

The cushion of the chair made it feel like he sank into it rather than sit. The orb like object above the chair looked too far above now. But only for a moment. For just a few seconds passed after ram took the seat than the orb opened above him, like a flower blooming and the entire apparatus was lowered.

The “petals” clamped around his temple, and the touch felt soothing- almost sensual.

“Relax,” said the woman who stood watching him with neutral eyes. The orb covered his vision. It felt like he was plunged into a sudden oblivion, but the oblivion lasted only for a moment.

Colours spluttered and coalesced to make forms. At first he thought that what he was going to get for his money- Rs. 3000 for 5 minutes worth of experience, was just an animated version of what he wished to see. But then the quality of the images changed, and the petals pressed down on his temple with a little more force.

No more was he just seeing something.

With a mixture of delight and thrill, Ram realized that the device was taking over all of his senses. “This is it,” he thought. “This is what I came here to experience.”

As the rumble of the crowd’s roar began- first feebly before gaining in sound, he felt his heart beating faster.

Before he was enveloped completely by the roar of the crowd and the smell of the dust and the sounds of the racers on their bikes, himself among them, getting ready for the impending race, he heard the attendant’s voice, as if from another dimension- like he were on earth and the sound proceeded from an unseen source somewhere in heaven.

“There’s a small round button on the right armrest,” the woman said in a voice that felt as soft as the clouds in a blue sky. “If at all you feel any discomfort, or in the event there’s a device malfunction, just press on it. Enjoy your experience.”

With these words, the woman walked away, the fading echoes of her footsteps barely registering in Ram’s mind.

He was by now completely lost to the world of his own wishes, that was of technological making.

**

Ram couldn’t concentrate on the movie.

Usually, the reason for such a thing is that the movie is too kiddish- designed specifically for children like his own- who, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence to the contrary would still believe that there are goblins and fairies who would come and hang out with them.

This one too had fantastical elements- a fiery red giant with flames for body running through a forest, burning down the ecosystem in the process was the least of it. However, there were enough action sequences in the movie set to hook Ram’s interest.

However, his mind kept going back to the experience he had at the virtual reality centre. Unlike what the attendant said happened to some of their other customers, Ram didn’t feel the experience underwhelming. It was every bit as thrilling and exciting as he had hoped.

In fact, it was even better- a testimony to the fact that the company devoted a lot of attention to the art of creating an alternative reality.

Indeed, Ram told the attendant woman how much he enjoyed the experience, complementing the company for its efforts. The woman merely smiled courteously. Ram guessed she heard such things every day. He could now understand why it’s so hard to get a slot on the machine. Who wouldn’t like to experience such things- more wholesome than the most engaging of real-life experiences.

**

However, almost a month passed before Ram thought of having the experience one more time.

At first he thought that his yearning for the experience would cool down with the passing of days. But what happened was the exact opposite.

As the days went by and it became progressively harder for him to recall the experience from that first time, he felt himself growing frustrated.

It didn’t take long after that for him to place an order.

This time too, the artificial assistant told him that if he opted for the centre in Whitefield, he could get an earlier slot. This time he heeded the assistant’s words.

**

The third time he had the experience was, once again at the centre nearer to his home.

He felt somewhat disappointed by the fact that the female attendant was different. This one was significantly less pretty but extended the same, almost impersonal professionalism of the previous one.

But the greater difference was with the virtual experience itself. Unlike the previous time, it felt more vivid to him.

And it was the first time he had to press on the small round button on the right armrest of the seat.

What prompted him to do that was not the vividness- though the information download his brain experienced this time did feel a tad overwhelming. What in fact made him press the button while gasping with fear was the thing that was on his bike. He was pretty sure that there was no one on the bike apart from him when the race started.

In fact, the passenger seat behind him was a design flaw. No professional races used such bikes anymore. The bikes were always custom made to suit the driving style of one particular rider, and there will always be seat for the rider alone. This was something which he had thought of pointing out a couple of times before, but he kept forgetting about it.

Not that the extra seat took away anything from the experience.

The inimitable pleasure of being completely airborne while going off a dirt mound, the sheer exhilaration of feeling the bike coming to touch with the ground again-these were sensations that weren’t marred in the least by the presence of the extra seat.

But this time around, the race had but progressed  two minutes when Ram felt a sudden jerking. At first, he assumed it was an engine failure but then he realized the cause almost instinctively- it was brought on by the addition of extra-weight on the bike.

Which made absolutely no sense since the race was already in progress.

Though the assumption that it was some technical glitch was somewhere in the back of his mind, the reality of the virtual experience swept him away and he simply had to turn his head and look back.

Which turned out to be the wrong thing to do.

Not because this made him slow down, giving a couple of other riders the leeway to leave him behind in the race-which did happen. But because of the thing he saw sat behind him on the bike.

It was doing nothing, simply staring at him with an easy grin, it’s hands raised in the air- which in itself could be construed as ‘eerie’- no one in their right mind would think of pulling off such a stunt sitting astride a fast moving dirt bike.

But what sent shafts of horror down Ram’s heart was the being itself- it looked to be around his own height. He assumed it’s a man though it’s impossible to tell for sure. For the skin on its naked body looked boiled over, melted. Fragments of skin joined in grotesque ways leading to sagging cheeks and an almost non-existent neck- the chin was glued to the throat. There was a perennial grin on its face thanks to  sizeable chunk of flesh missing from around its mouth, exposing its teeth most of which were charred black.

Indeed, a charred stench rose from its entire body even as Ram began to scream.

**

“What’s the matter, sir? Was there any technical glitch?”

Both the male and the female attendants came running. He had pressed the small white button just a couple of minutes ago. Once he entered the virtual realm, there appeared the button on his sleeve. He just have to hit it to replicate the action in the real world- or vice versa, he wasn’t sure how exactly it worked.

But he sure as hell was pleased that it did work. For he didn’t think that he could have taken the sight of that grotesque being one second longer. Such abominations belonged to the realm of nightmares and not in a space where technology- the first child of science was supposed to rule high.

Warding off the attendants’ questions by saying he was just not feeling well, he exited the building as fast he could. Indeed, by the time he walked out of the front entrance, he was trotting rather than walking, as though afraid the nightmare would follow him out.

**

The next time he saw the being was in daylight, in the real world.

He was coming out of a restaurant after having lunch one day, ready to go back to his office, when his eyes fell on the being. It stood on the opposite side of the road, but even though the traffic was heavy, no one else seemed to notice it.

Looking like an extremely well made up prop in a horror film, the being was a traffic stopper if ever there was one.

The sense of unreality of seeing the being in broad daylight was so much that Ram’s first reaction was to laugh. He worried that he might not be able to control the laughter. But that’s when the being raised one of its hands and waved. The fresh bout of laughter that rose in his throat was cut off by this gesture. Instead, an expression of fear escaped his mouth.

The fingers of the paw of the being’s hand, Ram saw were glued together by burnt skin. All except for the thumb, which the being presently raised, giving Ram the thumb up sign.

The sign was universal, used by people around the world for decades, if not centuries. In fact, it’s one of the most commonplace of all human signs.

However, for Ram, the sign did have a special significance- for it was the sign that his engineering team- basically a mechanic and his assistant- used to give him prior to a race: an indication that the bike was in order and he could hop on, and shoot it towards the end point of the race.

The being now grinned- broadening the permanent grin, which in fact gave the impression that it was grimacing.

Ram forced himself to blink. He blinked rapidly, hoping with every blink that it would blot out the absurd figure from his field of vision. But it remained there, on the other side of the road, now as much a part of the scenery as the traffic signal.

Someone said “excuse me” as they passed him by on their way to the restaurant, but Ram barely noticed. His eyes were fixed on the strange being. He told himself it’s just a relapse of the “episode” he had in the VR machine. “This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real,” he kept muttering under his breath.

And indeed, as though his continual muttering had the effect of a magic chant, the being disappeared, replaced by nothing but thin air.

But the fear it left behind persisted in Ram throughout the day.

**

That very same evening, on his way back from work, Ram dropped in at the Experience Centre. He wanted to enquire if anomalies like this happened with other customers too.

“I don’t want to press charges or anything,” he spoke to the attendant in the calmest of tones. “I just wanted to know if such things are common, whether they happen with other customers too.”

The attendant assured him that such things didn’t happen frequently. In fact, he was the first one who reported such a glitch. She cocked her head to one side as she said this, insinuating slight suspicion. “And this..figure you said you saw,” she said, “Is it someone you know in real life?”

Ram had told her simply that he had seen a figure in the VR simulation- someone whom they couldn’t have programmed in. He hasn’t told them that the figure looked like a burn victim, probably from the fires of hell.

He looked at the woman’s eyes for a moment, contemplating whether he should tell her about it. But when she reminded him that he did sign a waiver before the experience, which absolved the company of any ‘unforeseen’ side-effects that the experience may have ‘on sensitive people’, he decided it better not to.

Instead, he just thanked her and left the centre. The thought of going back home made him feel suddenly exhausted. He stopped at a tea shop to have a cup of hot tea and a cigarette even though he didn’t feel like having it.

Smoking cigarettes were always moments for reflection for him.

And this time around, though he would have wished to think about anything but, his mind strayed towards thoughts of his marriage- like a runaway car over which he no longer had any control. As had become a recurring mental exercise over the past few months, he kept thinking back to the single point in time when things finally came to a head- the point when their conversations trickled down to the functional, both of them only too aware of the fact that any wrong turn in a conversation and it would spell another fight, another set of hours filled with anguish.

The smoke felt hot inside his throat, like the fumes of hell roasting his innards. That was the only sensation that his brain could process as the gray matter in his head, for all practical purposes remained inert as far as sorting out the issue with his wife was concerned. There was no single point in time which his mind could focus on, no decisive origin for the problems which he faced at home.

All he knew was that the only reason both of them continued in the relationship was because of the children. And he wasn’t even sure how long they could keep that up. The walls of their relationship have long begun to crumble, and sometimes he felt that it was only a matter of time before everything tumbled down for good, leaving on the floor nothing but corroded debris which no one would like to look, let alone touch.

His fingers burnt as the cigarette came to an end, making him drop the butt exclaiming in pain. The slightly acrid stench of the smoke put in his mind the image of the being that followed him out of the VR room.

**

The first thing that he noticed as he walked into the house was the stench of burn.

He was rubbing his nose and for a second he thought that it might be the after-stench of the cigarette. But no, this smell was fiercer, and as he proceeded further into the house, it got worse,even more acrid.

He began to get alarmed when upon calling their names neither of his kids responded. He looked at the wall clock and saw that it was already well past 5:30 PM- surely, time for them to have come back from school? He thought that maybe this was a day when they had to go to the tuition home after school. But no, that was on Wednesday and Friday. Today was Thursday.

Proceeding to the bedroom, he saw the space empty. He called out his wife’s name but no response came.

Once he moved towards the kitchen, the stench got so awful that he felt like gagging. His heart began to beat faster as thoughts of a gas explosion shook his mind. The gas cylinder which they used to cook..it must have malfunctioned!

But then, if that was that case, there must surely have been fire. And notwithstanding the severe stench of smoke, there was no fire to be seen anywhere in the house.

Besides, if a kitchen accident of the kind which he envisioned indeed happened, the sound and the fire would surely have brought the neighbors running. They lived in a housing colony where houses were separated by a distance of zero centimeter. There’s no way such an accident could go unknown.

Calling him wife’s name again- this time with evident panic, he entered the kitchen.

The sight which greeted him was more ghastly than the stench.

There, on the kitchen floor lied his wife and two children- all their heads exploded as if from within, parts of brain and skull and bone fragments lying on the floor, splattered on the wall. Even as he watched, one tiny sharpnel of blood soaked bone- what looked to be a piece of skull, slid down the fridge door, leaving a red trail like a tear drop from a demon’s eye.

Though by this point, his mind was dulled with shock, Ram nonetheless realized the source of the stench: Whatever was left of the three dead bodies’ heads seethed, as though burning with acid. And the resultant smoke, even though faint was discernible enough, and acrid enough to make his eyes sting, making his tear ducts shed red hot waters.

“You are free now!”

Ram was beyond shock now, so he didn’t feel afraid when he heard the words being spoken by someone. Not even when he looked up and saw the ugly burnt man- practically a skin clad effigy, standing not more than a few feet from where he stood. The being’s eternal grin was still in place, and it was moving around its hands with webbed fingers as it spoke.

“They are all gone now,” it said, it’s voice crackling like timber on fire. “You are free now. Free to pursue your dream. Yes, you are not young anymore. At least, not as young as you would like. But you needn’t be chained to this..this abhorrent being anymore. The one that made your life so much of a misery.”

From the way it pointed a skinless finger towards the dead body, Ram realized that it was talking about his wife.

The sentiment that it expressed was one Ram himself had thought on many a night when the tragedy of familial existence weighed particularly heavily on him. But to hear someone- something else express those sentiments made him angry.

As though reading his mind, the being said, “You needn’t think of me as the other. For I’m your own self- the one that got burnt, the one that was all but burnt to ashes once your dreams of being a career racer came to an end.” After a brief pause, it added, “Now, I am back. You experienced the relish, the thrill, more than anything else, the feeling of being completely alive which you only ever experienced on a bike, feeling the rumble of the machine coursing through your body, anticipating the thrill of reaching the finishing point first, overcoming obstacles on the way in a manner that sent shivers of joy into your brain …Yes, I am back, Ram. You are back!”

The being didn’t laugh, but Ram felt a distinct tremor of joy in its words. In fact, the confidence with which it spoke about his relationship to racing was uncanny. He couldn’t have put it any better.

But what surprised him the most was the change in emotions that came over him on hearing the words.

The mute terror which had clamped around his heart like an iron fist slackened, and in its place was the ever-increasing glow of joy- joy that was just communicated so eloquently by the atrocious being which stood in his kitchen, pointing an angry finger at his wife’s carcass.

If it wasn’t for her nightie- the one with the peacock print on it, the one which she brought the last time they went shopping together, he wouldn’t even have recognized the body as belonging to his wife.

But that didn’t make him any sad. Or angry. Not anymore. Indeed, he felt the tremor of joy shaking his body as he followed the being out of the house. Outside, the light of day was fading and the being showed him what to do, by getting on his bike.

Ram followed its silent order.

As he coursed the bike through the roads of Bangalore, he felt the stench of the burnt flesh behind him. But soon, the being began to transform- no more the remains of a burnt dream, but one that has been resurrected, and being made whole again.

His first stop was a used vehicle outlet. It just took fifteen minutes to sell his bike. He would have liked to get more money for the deal. But he was in no mood to bargain.

As he proceeded to his next stop on foot, the being who walked beside him laughed merrily. And this time, it sounded more human than ever before. Indeed, Ram realized that it sounded just like him.

Looking at it, it felt to him as though he was looking at a mirror image, as though someone held a mirror by his side even as he walked, keeping in stride. For it was himself that he saw.

The KTM showroom was not far from where he sold his old bike. The cash he got for the old bike wouldn’t even cover a quarter of the price for the race bike he wanted to buy. The rest he paid from his bank account.

**

Once he left behind the city limits and entered the highway, Ram got the leeway he wanted to really take his newly acquired bike for a speedy ride. As he looked at the digital needle coursing past one mark of speed after another, steadily, like an ascent that couldn’t be stopped, he heard the being laughing beside him.

A moment later, he realized that it wasn’t the being that was laughing after all. The sound of laughter arose from his own throat. For the being was himself and he was the being.

And he was the manifestation of unbridled joy.

He whooped as the bike accelerated, leaving a long trail of dust in its wake.

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