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MASK

‘Hey, beautiful! It’s Robert here’, a message flashed on my phone while I was waiting for the bus home on a Friday evening.

Three months ago, on the same day, waiting for the same bus, around the same time, I received a call from an unknown number. A call that made my life hell. 

Robert, as he introduced himself, told me that he had happened upon my lost ID card and if I wanted it back, I’d have to meet with him in person. I didn’t have a good feeling about this so I avoided him and applied for a new ID at my office. Even then, he was relentless and kept calling and texting me from unknown numbers. When my patience wore out, I threatened to register a complaint with the police, after which he finally stopped bothering me. I deleted all his threads and was finally able to breathe easy.

Today, yet again, that absurd message popped up on my phone. This time, I didn’t switch it off as I had done so many times before. Instead, gathering all the courage I could, I waited for his call so that I could record it and give it to the police. 

To my surprise, even after half an hour passing by, I did not receive a single call or text from his end. This soothed my mind a little – the thought that maybe he would not bother me unless I responded first. 

To my dismay, this peace was short-lived. The next day I rolled out of bed to the sound of another notification.

“Hey, it’s Robert again. You looked spectacular in white yesterday.”

That sent a shiver down my spine. This time, the situation wasn’t as trivial as it had been three months ago. He had been physically present around me, watching and following.  

“God knows how this is going to end now!”, I rolled back under the sheets and tossed my phone off the bed.

***

“Oh, Jesus! 102-degree temperature. What happened? You were just fine yesterday and look at you now,” my mother cried out as she fussed over me.

“It’s okay, Mom- it’s just a fever. A little tea and some cold medicine and I’ll be as good as new,” I said, trying desperately to calm her. 

But my mind was spinning in a whirlwind of bizarre thoughts. I was deeply frustrated and anxious about the fact that this stalker knew my whereabouts. I didn’t let my mother in on any of this; her nerves couldn’t possibly handle anymore. 

***

Waiting for my train from Union Station to Chicago, I couldn’t help but scour the crowd for men who may seem suspicious. As if one of them might just come up to me and go, “Hey! It’s Robert.” 

On reaching my destination, I immediately reported to my office for a meeting our boss had scheduled for the day. 

“Eliza, don’t worry. We’ll give his number to the cyber cell and they’ll track him down in no time”, said Riya. Her words eased the knot in my gut for a moment.

All of us were in the lecture hall, listening to a colleague’s presentation when suddenly my phone buzzed- “Hey, beautiful. Why aren’t you replying to my messages? Hoping to meet you soon. Take care. – Robert”

I felt my eyes starting to burn and I could see white spots. My vision was starting to go blurry. I took my phone and got up immediately.

“Excuse me, Sir. May I use your phone for five minutes, please? I need to make an urgent call… my Mom is hospitalized.”, I asked my boss as I stumbled across the blatant lie.

He gave me his phone and gestured me to leave the room. I ran to the restroom and locked the door behind me. Nobody would come in here, I figured, since everyone was occupied in the meeting. 

I hastily tried to think about what I could possibly say to this man, took a deep breath and dialed his number from my boss’ phone. The ring had just gone through twice when he picked up the call. 

 I could hear distinct voices in the background. I tried to focus on it but that was interrupted by him saying, “Yes, Sir?”

I was startled by the voice. It was not Robert but, it sounded familiar. Not only that, he also seemed to know my boss. I disconnected the call and deleted the call history.

On my way back, I realized that the voices on the call had an uncanny resemblance to the ambient sound of the meeting hall. Was it possible that the caller was from my office itself?

But who was it? It could be anyone from around here. Someone who knew about me well enough, someone from my batch maybe… immersed in these thoughts, I entered the hall and took a seat. “Hey, where did you go?” Riya asked. “Washroom,” I whispered back. She seemed satisfied. I looked around. All my colleagues were sitting together. Not one of them had a phone in their hands.

The meeting was dispersed.

We all buzzed around Phase II, the second-floor restaurant. I sat down with Riya around a ten-seater table. My desperation for finding this ‘Robert’ was numbed for a while, drowned out in the white noise. I diverted my mind and tried to converse with my friends. 

Suddenly I noticed John, a batch-mate and a very good friend of mine, taking out his phone and changing his SIM card under the table. His hands seemed to be trembling and his eyes kept shifting as if he was afraid he’d be seen.

Could it be him?

I could feel the blood rushing to my face. My head was pounding with rage when I started walking towards him, as if in a red daze; there was just one thing on my mind. I needed to know.

“Hey John, how’s it going?” I could barely keep my voice from cracking.

“Hey Eliza. Is that guy, what was his name again… aah… Robert still bothering you?” 

he asked. Classic overcompensation.

“Yeah, unfortunately. But you know what? I don’t think it’s going to last much longer.”

***

Now was the time. It had been one whole day without any messages from Robert’s end. I needed to spin a web and hunt him down. 

“Hello, John. Busy?”

“Hey Eliza, what’s up? “

“Oh nothing, I just called to ask about the certified exams that we are supposed to take this week. You had a discussion about it with our boss, right? Would you mind lending me the study material, please?”

“Yes, of course. But I’ve left it at my desk. Remind me tomorrow and I will hand them to you there itself.”

“Okay, thanks.” With that, I hung up the phone.

All the jigsaw pieces were finally falling into place; I recognized the voice with absolute certainty this time. He could play his little games all he wanted, but I knew now who ‘Robert’ was, who he had been all along.

‘Hi, Robert. Sorry for not replying. Was a little busy. Of course, we can meet. Tomorrow, 6 pm at Bistro Café? See you there.’  My finger hovered over the screen for a minute before finally hitting ‘send’.

***

The next day, I was beaming at the thought of having this ordeal finally end.

“Guys! I am going to meet that creep, and the police will catch him in the act red-handed. The plan is set. I have already forwarded all his messages and contact numbers to them. They’ve also tapped his phone!” I exclaimed to my friends.

“Good for you, Eliza. It’s about time you went through with this,” Riya looked excited.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. How can you think about going to meet your stalker alone? It seems dangerous. And what if he doesn’t come to meet you at all? ” John’s rambling was beginning to sound almost pathetic.

“It won’t be a problem. The cyber cell has tracked down his number this time. They’ve assured me that they can catch him no matter what, even if he’s using a duplicate ID.” I said calmly, savoring his nervous palpitations.

This was it.

“John, could I borrow your phone for a minute? My battery’s drained and I need to call the police to see if they have any updates for me,” I said.

“My phone? Why my phone? I… I don’t…” He stammered.

“What’s the big deal? I just need to make a call. It’s alright if you’re not okay with that,” I said. I had him in the palm of my hand now, and ‘Robert’ was beginning to come undone.

Riya passed her phone to me. I took it and dialed a number, rolling out the theatrics for my audience.

“Hello? Good morning, Sir. This is Eliza Davis. What? You already got him? That’s wonderful! In this office? Oh, alright. Thank you very much.” I hung up and took a look around. Everyone was holding their breath as if watching a play.

“Guys, they’ve got him! He’s in our office and they’re already on their way. Mr. Robert, you are going down!” I laughed.

“No… No… You’ve got it all wrong…there’s no Robert, I was just messing with you. Dear God, what have I done!” John sat down, babbling incomprehensibly with his head in his hands.

Jackpot.

Chaos broke out in the cafeteria. This was not the climax anyone had been expecting.

“Alright then, ‘Robert’. I need some answers here. Why did you start all this? “

“Sorry, Eliza…I didn’t mean to upset you. This was just a prank; it started out as a joke. You have to take your complaint back or the police might actually charge me.”

“As they should. This is your idea of a joke? Well, here’s something funny for you- the ‘police complaint’ bit was a little prank of my own and you just exposed this sick hoax of yours all by 

yourself.”

“You- what? But-“

“It’s not so much fun now, is it? I’ve spent the last three months looking over my shoulder, feeling like I’m someone’s prey, walking faster whenever I heard footsteps behind me- even in crowded hallways. You made me feel like I was losing my mind when all along, it’s you who’s been out of it.”

“I don’t know what to say, Eliza. I admit that I took it too far and for that, I’m truly sorry.”

I looked around, it felt like I was moving through molasses. Everything was hanging on a razor’s edge; everyone was waiting. Waiting for me.

I nodded as briefly as possible. 

I had envisioned this moment in my head over and over again for the last twenty-four hours, but now that it was here, it didn’t feel like a victory at all.

Later that day, my boss called me in to say that he was really impressed with the way I’d maneuvered the situation, and that he hoped I wouldn’t let this ‘incident’ get in the way of office decorum. I sat through the conversation like a zombie, nodding along to everything he said.  

A prank.

An incident. 

Girls, can’t even take a joke.

Three months of living a nightmare, and all anyone could care about was work decorum and me nodding my head in forgiveness. 

I got off the train two stations early and decided to walk the rest of the way. Maybe the evening breeze would hush the voices in my head. Voices that kept saying-

If my life’s a joke to you, I’m sorry that I can’t laugh along.

He’ll go on to have a laugh about this over drinks with his friends someday, meanwhile I’ll have to get used to the sound of my phone buzzing without my head starting to throb. It’s funny, almost. We can sit at the same table, make our own choices, and yet we’ll end up miles apart with the consequences. It’s not fair.

Not fair at all.

I hit the keypad on my phone and listened to the leaves rustle in the autumn wind as my call went through.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“Hello, my name is Eliza Davis and I’d like to report a stalker.”

Written By:- Disha Kar

4.6/5 (11 Reviews)
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