It is a bright summer morning, and the clock is striking seven. Arohi walks into the bedroom and removes the blinds from the window. The sunlight falls on the bed embracing Sara’s face, who groans in irritation and hides her face with the blanket.
Arohi pulls the blanket apart and Sara glares at her trying to take the blanket back.
“If you don’t get up now you will be late,” Arohi warns her. Sara sits up on the bed sleepily and stares at the blanket on her lap aimlessly nodding at everything that Arohi says.
Arohi walks out to prepare the breakfast and Sara gets down from the bed a minute after and looks around the room yawning a few times in the middle. She sighs seeing the two big suitcases kept at the side of the room needed to be unpacked soon.
Taking out her clothes from the bag, she walks to the bathroom and washes her face with cold water for a few times. She stares at the mirror and finds the familiar brown eyes staring back at her for 18 years now. Wiping her face with a napkin, she caresses her messy long black hair and ties it into a bun.
After a long relaxing shower, she walks out of the bathroom dressed in a long skirt and top. Applying a thin stroke of kajal and a single layer of lip gloss. She leaves the room for the kitchen.
“Do you need any help?” Sara asks Arohi who was busy boiling water for tea.
“Can you pass me the sugar? It’s in the cabinet,” Arohi asked her turning to her a little.
Sara tries to reach for the cabinet but curses her 5’2 height when she was unable to. She glances at Arohi and feels a bit envious of her 5’6 height.
“Sara?” Arohi calls out for her in need of sugar and turns to see a pout on her face instead.
She walks near Sara and effortlessly picks the sugar container, giving her a small teasing smile in return. Her short brown hair jumping on her shoulders in the process.
Sara narrows her eyes at her and arranges the plates for breakfast. Arohi brings the toast and omelette to the table and sits down in front of her and starts eating.
“So, it’s your first day at college. Excited?” Arohi asks her taking a bite of her toast.
Sara hummed in response busy in finishing her breakfast. They continued eating silently.
“I have to leave for my work early, at the cafe. Take care of yourself and be safe. Enjoy your day and make new friends,” Arohi advised finishing her juice.
“You too,” Sara replies and Arohi smiled.
“Take a taxi or you will be late for college,” Arohi warns and walks out with her bag for work after giving a small hug to Sara. Sara smiles at her concern and finishes her food looking around the place.
The furniture is spread randomly in the living room. The paint is peeling off the walls. There are cobwebs in the corner and a few boxes at the side.
“It’s been three days and we still have a lot of things to unpack and clean. Shifting can be really hard,” Sara wonders out loud.
She locks the house after breakfast and takes a taxi to college. Looking outside, she observes the busy streets with lots of pollution and couldn’t help herself by comparing it with the peaceful surrounding and clean air of the village, she stayed in before.
The taxi stops at a signal and Sara feels a tap on her window. She turns and sees a child wearing dirty and torn clothes asking for money.
She rolls down her window and gives a small smile to the child and hands over her lunch to him.
His eyes shine with happiness and he gives a toothy grin to her in return and goes away. Sara stares at his retreating back with a sullen face.
It’s been 11 years to the day, when a man found Sara in streets, lost wearing a torn frock, with a doll in her hands. He left her in the orphanage run by Vikrant Meher, a rich industrialist, at the outskirts of Bhopal. Sara walked inside lost in the new place she would be staying from now. She felt a push and fell down on her knees. The place erupted with the laughter of children. Sara looked up and saw them laughing at her. She stood up slowly and looked down with tears in her eyes. Her right knee bled from the fall before.
A girl came forward and snatched the doll from Sara. She tried taking it back but was pushed down by the girl. They left the place mocking at Sara and she burst into tears with the pain and agony she felt.
A series of horns breaks her trance and she runs a hand through her neatly braided hair and taps her fingers in the seat due to nervousness. The taxi stops in front of her college, she gets down and pays the driver.
She stands in front of the gate and looks at the building.
“Delhi University” She reads out loud and walks inside with a smile. With each step, she takes inside the college, butterflies evolve in her stomach.
Sara turns left to go to her class but was stopped by a group of people standing opposite to her. A girl giggles eyeing her attire. A boy comes forward to say something but stops seeing a professor coming in their way.
They let Sara go and she walks back to her class. She sighs in relief sitting at her desk. The day goes surprisingly well and she steps out of the college. Instead of taking a taxi, she decides to walk back home.
She shifts her bag on the other shoulder and walks on the footpath looking around. Her eyes meet with a man leaning on the wall at the end of the street, staring at her. He is tall and has a well-built body. His Long hair falling on his deep black eyes staring straight at Sara. The wrinkles on his face and near his eyes gives an idea that he is in his thirties. He blows out a sickly smelling puff of smoke and put the cigarette back in between his lips. He is dressed in a black shirt and blue faded jeans and has a blank expression on his face.
Sara feels a shiver run down her spine at his intense stare. She slowly walks in that direction trying to avoid his stare. She glances at him after a while and sees him still staring at her. He runs a hand through his hair and pushes it back.
Sara freezes for a second seeing his face clearly. A big knife scar runs from his forehead to his cheekbones passing through his left eye. The skin around the scar is puffed up and has stitch marks.
Sara’s eyes were fixed on him and he stares down at her as she walks by him. She turns back for the final time and sees him throwing his cigarette on the road and crushing it with his shoes. His eyes locked with hers.
Sara reaches home thinking about this man. She sees Arohi unpacking and joins her forgetting about this little incident.
Next morning, the same routine continues. She walks to college and attends her classes. Once the classes are over, she walks out of the building. Walking towards her home, she thinks about her lessons.
While crossing the street, her mind drifts towards the man she saw yesterday. Feeling a stare on her, she turns and finds the man from yesterday glowering at her.
She takes a step back, terrified. Taking a deep breath, she composes herself and walks fast to her home.
Sara locks the door and sits on the sofa lost in thoughts. Arohi observes her for a minute.
“What’s wrong?” she asks Sara.
Sara shares everything with her and Arohi’s eyes widen in worry and surprise.
“Did he do something?” Arohi asks her looking out for any injury.
“No he didn’t but there’s something about him that scares me like hell,” Sara confessed feeling goosebumps in her arms. Arohi rubs the back of her hand to calm her down.
“Why don’t you take a taxi or bus on the way back? If you want I can walk to your college after work and we can come home together,” Arohi suggested.
“That’s a nice idea but I can’t afford to take a taxi every day back home. Half of my savings are spent on house rent and on my books. Also, I really appreciate you walking back but I don’t want to trouble you. Your workplace is very far from my college,” Sara said, with a grateful smile.
Arohi furrows her brows and deep lines form on her forehead.
“Should I file a complaint in the police station?” Arohi asks her.
“I thought about it too but he still hasn’t done any harm to me in any way. On what grounds should I complain?” Sara asked and Arohi nodded seeing her point.
“Let’s wait for a few days if these continues I will complain,” Sara stated and Arohi nodded.
“Be safe,” she advised and hugged Sara.
Next day she finds him there again. The day after that too. She feels anxious and starts being paranoid about everything.
That night, after dinner Arohi goes to bed while Sara lays awake on her bed and stares at the ceiling aimlessly, her eyes drooping for sleep.
She opened her eyes and found herself tied to a chair. Sara tried pulling her hands and opening the knots at the back but failed every time. A bright light appeared suddenly and she closed her eyes in irritation. A person walked towards her and she opened her eyes, trying to adjust it to the light. She gets surprised by seeing the person’s face.
“Uncle,” she whispered in disbelief seeing her orphanage owner in front of her.
“Surprise,” Vikrant mocked and she stared at him with disgust in her eyes.
He put his hand on her shoulder and gently caressed it. Sara tried moving away but he held her arms in a tight grip.
“You are so beautiful, who would say you are just 14. The long black hair and those innocent eyes are enough to make someone like you. Do you have any idea how popular you are? People are giving me double the amount for you and you are trying to run away. Tsk Tsk, not a chance. You need to learn manners. But don’t worry I am there, I will teach you,” Vikrant praised her beauty running his hands on her arms and hair with a smile plastered on his face.
Sara nodded in no and tries moving away from him but felt a painful sting on her right cheek. Her head tilted right from the effect of the force applied to her cheeks by his hand. Tears formed in her eyes but she knew from past experience of bullying that she shouldn’t give others the satisfaction of watching her cry in pain. Vikrant grabbed her chin tightly and pull her hair with his other hand. She held back a painful scream and bit her lip hard.
“This is what happens when you try to get away. Don’t try to run away from me, I will catch you anyhow,” Vikrant whispered in her ears. Sara’s body shook with fear and pain.
Vikrant walked out and a tear rolled out of Sara’s eyes followed by many more. After few hours, he came back and brought a thin stick with him.
Sara’s eyes bulge out seeing it. She screamed in no and he laughed at her helplessness and beat her. Traitorous tears soaked her face and her nails dug hard into the chair. Her body sagged from fatigue. Her arms filled with red straight marks.
“Tomorrow the client would come to see you. I want you to be on your best behaviour. Do you get it?” Vikrant asked her eyeing her carefully.
Sara kept looking down.
He threw water on her face and made her look up holding her chin. She bit blood from her lips avoiding any screams from escaping.
“I don’t like repeating myself,” Vikrant warns and Sara blinked her eyes and whispered a small yes.
“Good,” Vikrant said with a victory smile and untied her and she fell flat on her face.
He kicked her stomach. A couple of growls erupted as she closed her eyes against the pain, bit her tongue and held her breath.
He stomped on her hands and she cried out unable to control it anymore.
“Stop please stop…stop it. I can’t,” she cried out in pain.
“Sara get up,” Arohi screams shaking her sweaty body.
“Stop it please,” Sara bawls, tears streaming out from her eyes as she grips the blanket tightly in her fist.
“Open your eyes, Sara. There’s nothing. Everything is fine,” Arohi yelled taking her in a hug.
“He will come back for me. He won’t leave me alone,” Sara sobs with hiccups, holding onto Arohi tightly.
“Shhh, you are safe now. It was in the past,” Arohi consoles patting her back slowly saying sweet things in her ear.
Sara nods after some time and wipes her tears composing herself.
“Do you remember how police caught him in the morning when he was taking you to the client? He is now rotting in the jail. He won’t be out for years. You are completely safe,” Arohi reminds her and Sara nods with a smile.
“Thank you. It’s all because of you that I got over the trauma. When the police transferred me to another orphanage, I met you there. Before you, I had no friends. You made me strong and helped me a lot. Thank you,” Sara confessed genuinely thankful to her.
“What are friends for? Now go back to sleep. We will talk in the morning,” Arohi suggested and both got into the bed to sleep again.
Next morning after the classes, she leaves for the library to work on a project. While coming out of the college building. Sara decides to take a taxi as it was already evening but then building up the courage, she decides to walk back.
She sees him standing in his usual place with a cigarette in his mouth. He gives a dirty look to Sara and she gets petrified.
She avoids his stare and looks down taking small steps. She takes a sigh of relief after crossing him but her eyes bug out hearing footsteps beside her. She sneaks a look and sees him following her.
A lot of thoughts appear in her mind as she walks fast to reach home. She is confused on whether to face him or run away from him.
It was a sweltering summer night in late June. The black-clad figure ran lightly, streaking through the darkness, feet barely making a sound on the narrow dirt path, ducking and twisting gracefully to avoid contact with the dense surrounding trees and bushes. It was as if a shadow were sweeping silently over the leaves.
The night sky was just a thin strip between the trees high above; the light pollution from the city cast the undergrowth in dusky shades. The small, shadow-like figure reached a gap in the undergrowth on the right and stopped abruptly: poised, breathless, heart racing.
The shadow moved off again at speed, gliding soundlessly as the path curved slightly away from the tracks. The trees began to thin out to the left, exposing a row of terraced houses. Snapshots of back gardens slid past: neat dark strips with patio furniture, tool sheds and a swing set – all still in the thick night air.
Sara senses danger and making her pace faster she runs from that man’s shadow that’s been following her. Keeping up the pace as she walks ahead she sees a strobe of blue-white lighting up the surroundings, extending its metal arms to the electrified lines above. The shadow ducked down as empty buses and cars rumbled past. There were two more flashes of the traffic signal and the man was gone, plunging the narrow strip of undergrowth back into darkness.
She runs to the nearby bus stand and jerks back an unconscious physical denial of the horribly real image that had just flashed in her mind. “No,” she moaned softly to herself. She could hear her own breathing, sharp and gasping. And she somehow makes her way up to the bus and takes her seat.
“No,” she thinks again, though she already knew the protest was useless. Her hands were clenched, white-knuckled, and even that wasn’t enough to stop the trembling that started at her feet and went all the way up her spine. She dimly watched her hands shaking as the spasms intensified.
It was happening again. It was coming back. She thought she was free but she wasn’t. Things like these don’t leave you no matter how much you try to run from them. The knowing was coming closer, growing, looming, and she knew from experience that soon it would overwhelm her and swallow her into its darkness.
Clumsily, her coordination already deteriorating, she tries to the exit to the right, so she wouldn’t block the exit ramp. A car horn blared as she wavered close to the exit, but the noise was distant, muted. Her vision was fading. The bus braked to a stop and shoved the gear lever into park and she got down, hoping that she had managed to get completely out of traffic, then the nightmare image was back, hitting her full strength like a beacon that had brushed her in search before completely homing in.
She reached home and opened the front door with her spare key, the house was completely dark which meant Arohi was not back yet, she must be working late again.
She makes it to her room and her hands limply fall to her side. She falls to the floor and tears start flowing, staring straight ahead and her eyes unblinking, unseeing, everything focused inward.
Her breathing became harsher. Rough sounds began to form in her throat, but she didn’t hear them. Her right hand lifted slowly from her lap and formed itself into a fist as if she was gripping something. The fist twitched violently, three times, in a rigidly restrained stabbing motion. She was quiet again, her face as still and blank as a statue’s, her gaze fixed and empty.
She felt utterly hopeless maybe that was her punishment for dreaming to have a better life, a life far away from that monster who took away her modesty, virtue and soul. Her eyes get tired and heavy, she doesn’t realise when she is engulfed by deep slumber.
She woke up mortified, she had a horrible dream again with that man in it, her shoulders slamming against the curb with enough force to cover her back in bruises and scabs for the next several weeks.
The burning of her skin as her shirt lifted up and the small of her back scraped against the bed stand, tearing off two layers of skin and blood oozing right through it. And the peculiar way he touched her, it made her cringe even, how she lived past that, she doesn’t even know how will she be able to face him again if it comes back.
As Arohi and Sara sat on the breakfast table she casually brought up the topic as she didn’t want her to panic and told her about the man, the chase and the nightmare that she had. Her eyes widened and dilated as Sara spoke when she finished Arohi spoke with a low but firm voice, “We need to do something about it, this not something to be brushed off.
They discussed each and everything deeply but didn’t get even a single idea what they should do and couldn’t figure out Sara was having those dreams either. They decided to get back to the orphanage and see if they can find a clue to the missing piece of the puzzle that links the man and the dreams together. So they decided to visit the orphanage this weekend, till then they decided to gather some information about that man. So they thought of asking people around. They got to know that the man had been a mystery. He had been a question of everyone’s mind. He never talked to a lot of people, although it was them who never approached him in the first place. He was always confined in the recesses of his room and the company of solitude was all he ever wanted to enjoy. His tongue seldom moved to speak, yet his eyes were in constant motion, perceiving all the activity around him. He was always possessive about his belongings, but there was something he was most concerned about and that was his cell phone. That was all they could get to know about him from that place. It was already dark and Arohi had already returned back and Sara too decided to go back. While heading back to their place she saw that man again, she stood frozen, not knowing how to walk – it was as if she was a toddler once again. She couldn’t move forward. Her legs and hands were frozen. She turned back and he was gone by then. She was so afraid that ran straight to home where she told Arohi about it. The next day gossips were all in the air. She came to know of some and they were all about her. People were talking about her and that mysterious man. The weekend came and they left for the orphanage. The man was still a mystery and the dreams too. She couldn’t wait any longer to discover the secret hidden behind what all was happening. The next day they reached the orphanage and all of them were really happy to see them again. They had no idea what and whom to ask and find about that man and those dreams and then the warden came. She invited them to her cabin and while talking to her, Sara told her about all this and all that they found about him and after listening to all that she said in a low tone and in a hesitating manner, “I already knew one day all this was going to happen and you would ask about it but didn’t expect it to happen so soon.” And she started telling everything from the beginning.
To be continued……
– Priya Kishore
– Aanchal Agrawal
– Ojas Pandey
– Pranathi Bhogaraju