Happiness and the Sky…


Ambar never had any friends, and he had been aware of this fact long before children even realized things like that. It wasn’t the fact that no one ever came calling to their single room apartment where he lived with his mother (except the doctor on sick visits) that brought him to this conclusion; it wasn’t the way his mother flinched imperceptibly and tightened her grip on his hand despite her brave façade when the other women deliberately ignored her whenever she took him out. It was the fact that Ambar could hear his mother cry into her pillow every night after she thought he had fallen asleep. With a child’s intuition, Ambar knew it was his fault. The dark glares he drew from the matrons, the condemning word ‘bastard’ following him everywhere only confirmed his belief.

“What did I do, Ma?” Ambar asked his mother after they returned home, trying to fight his tears. “Why does no one talk to you? What did I do?”

The bag of chocolates they had bought slipped from his mothers’ fingers as she froze. Then with a gasp she fell to her knees and hugged Ambar fiercely. “Never say that,” she whispered harshly. “Never think that. You are the best thing that happened to me. You have done nothing, darling.”

As Ambar hugged her back, failing to curb his sobs, he felt his mother tremble and then give in to tears.

Shalimar Nagar boasted of residents whose mental views were strictly orthodox at best, and as a single mother Ambar’s mother was a pariah. Ambar was something worse than a stray dog, though he yet didn’t know that fact. His life was lonely, his whole world centered on his mother. She worked as a clerk all day, and Ambar let loose his wings of fancy on little pamphlets. But that was before he had to finally leave the shield of his Ma. He had to go to school.

On the first day of kindergarten, even though he hadn’t yet experienced the cruelty even little brats could show, Ambar was miserable. Because he was surrounded by about fifteen other children who were wailing. The woman who stood in front of the classroom was patiently waiting out the little storm, but to Ambar she looked bewildered. At 4, he considered himself too old to cry, yet he was overwhelmed by the tears pouring out, from boys and girls alike. He could feel his eyes burn and sniffed manfully, trying to rein himself. He heard another sniffle near his ear and looked around.

A chubby girl stood next to his desk, her curly black ringlets gathered neatly in two little ponytails. She wasn’t crying yet, but she looked miserable too. “Why is everyone crying?” she whispered.

Ambar felt awkward, never having had anyone to talk to except his mother. So his reply was a hesitant –”I think they miss their mamas.”

The girl tilted her head to one side as she considered his answer and then promptly burst into tears, throwing him aback. “I miss her too!” she sobbed.

Panic overrode everything in Ambar’s mind, because he had made her cry. Jumping to his feet, he fumbled in his pockets and pulled out his plain, clean handkerchief. He started to extend it towards her, but stopped. The girl was wiping her face with her own napkin, a tiny but pretty one with flowers printed on it. Ambar fidgeted as the girl blew her nose into her little napkin with a decided finality and looked at him. “But my mother says if I want to become something in my life, I have to go to school.” She pulled herself to her full height (Ambar thought she was tiny) “I’m going to build a puppy farm. What about you?”

“Why do you want a puppy farm?” Ambar asked curiously.

The girl hesitated for a second and then leant closer and whispered, “Because cats make me sneeze.” Ambar nodded.

“Well, what are you going to do when you grow up?” The girl prodded.

Ambar shook his head. “I never thought about it.”

“Well, there must be something you want.” The girl insisted.

Ambar thought for a moment and then said, “I would like to build a chocolate factory for my mother.”

The girl considered this and then nodded approvingly. “That’s a very good aim, and if we keep that in mind we won’t be that miserable.”

Both of them nodded in agreement, and by the time the girl had returned to her seat, both of them had forgotten that the one who had comforted them had in the beginning gone to the other looking for comfort herself.

And then, in the lunch break Ambar entered the world of human ruthlessness.

As soon as the teacher – Sister Anne – left the room, three boys, each bigger than the last, surrounded Ambar’s seat.

“So.” said the boy who had introduced himself in front of the class as Nishit Garewal. “You’re Ambar Sinha. I’ve heard about you.”

“You’re the bastard, aren’t you?” smirked Sparsh Mehta. The whole kindergarten class was silent, with some primitive knowledge that a hierarchy was being established. Everyone was quiet as Ambar stood alone confronted by three bullies twice his size.

“You’re a quiet one, aren’t you?” Vishal Joshi grinned menacingly. “Didn’t your mama teach you how to speak? Or is it because you have no daddy?”

As kids they none of them knew exactly what was it about Ambar that made him different, but they were clever enough to pick up nuances from the adults. As Vishal taunted Ambar about his father, the whole room drew a breath as one, the atmosphere turning tensed.

“Don’t you talk that way about my mother.” Ambar said quietly.

“Why won’t we talk about her? Are you ashamed of her? Or is she ashamed of you?” Nishit cracked his knuckles in anticipation. Ambar could hear the blood thundering in his ears and his hands fisted. He had no idea what he was doing, except that hitting Nishit’s face with that stupid missing tooth seemed like a great idea and –

“Oh my god!”

The high pitched exclamation took everyone off course and Ambar turned around to see the girl in the desk right behind his – the girl who had been talking with him earlier – was jumping in excitement.

“Oh my god, can you believe it?” she squealed to the girl in the seat next to hers. “Mama told me she’s packed a surprise for me, and look! These are imported chocolates! My uncle must have sent them from France!”

The whole class’s attention was seized and everyone rushed to gather around her seat to have a look. Ambar could see little golden balls nestled in her Barbie Princess tiffin box.

“Get out of our way!” Sparsh snarled, pushing away others, and then the three bullies towered over the girl.

“Hand it over.” Nishit displayed his threatening missing-toothed smile. The little girl’s smile wobbled and faded. “Can’t we share?” she asked timidly.

Vishal snatched away the box as Nishit and Sparsh just laughed, and the three of them pushed their way out, moving to their back corner of the classroom. The others made a few sympathetic noises and returned to their seats to finish their lunch. Ambar watched as the three bullies guffawed in their corner, gobbling the chocolates and tensed.

“Don’t even think about it.” The little girl declared and Ambar frowned at her.

“They stole your tiffin.” Ambar said angrily.

The girl shrugged. “I wanted them to take it.” She noticed his confusion and added exasperatedly, “They are bullies who were picking on a fight. You’d have been beaten up badly. Papa always says bullies are idiots – and greedy. So I just distracted them.”

“I could have thrashed them,” Ambar declared stoutly, though privately he knew he couldn’t have. The girl just rolled her eyes.

“I have tons of cousins, and I know these sorts of things. You don’t need to thank me.”

Ambar flushed. His mother had always told him that good boys were humble and polite and never hesitated to thank people. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

The girl smiled brilliantly at him. “Now, that wasn’t difficult, was it? I’m Khushi Mathur.” She held out her hand. Ambar grinned and shook her hand. He glanced at her empty table and leaned down to rummage in his carefully packed bag and drew out his own tiffin box.

“You lost your lunch because of me.” Ambar said hesitantly, holding it out. “I don’t have imported chocolates, but if you want we could share.”

Khushi smiled happily and opened the box. “I love sandwich!” she declared, and held out one of the two sandwiches to him.

After classes ended that afternoon, during the journey from the pre-school building to the gate, Khushi informed him that she was an only child (“Only till now; from whispers going around in my house I suspect a baby is going to arrive.”), her mother was a journalist (“She knows about everything.”) and her father was the Police Superintendent (“It’s just like being Batman” she explained ). By the time they reached the gates Ambar was feeling a bit light-headed. Then Khushi suddenly ran and hugged a woman.

“Mama!” she turned and grinned at Ambar. “Meet my mama, Ambar.” She looked up at her mother. “Mama, this is Ambar. He consoled me when I cried in classroom because I missed you, and then shared his tiffin with me when some bullies snatched mine.”

Ambar flushed guiltily at Khushi’s re-telling of the events and glanced shyly at Mrs. Mathur. She was a pretty woman who smiled at him. “It’s nice to meet to you, Ambar.”

“Nice to meet you, ma’am.” He said shyly and looked around, searching for his mother. When he found her coming towards him, he ran and hugged her. “I missed you ma!”

His mother looked at his happy face and smiled back. “I missed you too. How was your day?” she said just as Ambar heard Khushi’s voice, “Is she your mama, Ambar?”

Both mother and son turned to look at the tiny Khushi dragging her mother towards them. Mrs. Mathur gave Ambar’s mother a fond smile mingled with exasperation as Khushi declared, “Nice to meet you, Aunty. I’m Khushi, Ambar’s friend.”

“She saved me from bullies,” Ambar told his mother. Mrs. Mathur grinned at Mrs. Sinha. “My daughter takes some time getting used to, but I see your son managed.”

So on the first day of school, though Ambar did get his first taste as a victim of cruelty, he managed to get a friend both for himself as well as for his mother. And in my opinion, can’t be many more possible auspicious beginnings for the journey to chocolate factories and puppy farms.

N.B.: Ambar means ‘the sky’ and Khushi means ‘happiness’.

Bitterness


I sat alone in the dark basketball court. I knew I was going to get hell for missing another algebra class, but I couldn’t get myself to worry about that right now. I had to escape from all the hypocrisy and fake sympathy that threatened to smother me. I took a deep breath and took out the slim cigarette I had picked up from Tasha’s room. All these days it had been with me, a talisman and a grim reminder.

What was it about death that suddenly made a person angelic? All of a sudden Tasha was a super-hero cum model student cum movie star. All her good points had been blown out of proportions, and everyone conveniently forgot about all those drunken episodes and secret stays in hospitals.

I grit my teeth and closed my eyes. I hated this, all this bitterness, this anger. They said it’d vanish eventually; it was already two months since the accident – how long would this last? I loved Tasha so much – I was the adoring kid to her pied piper. Then why couldn’t I remember her with any fondness? Why was it that when anyone gave me that infuriating sympathetic smile and consoled me on my loss, I felt like reminding them about all the times Tasha had led them or their children to destruction? And why didn’t it make me feel any better that, no matter how drunk she was, no matter how much I tried, she refused to take me along? All her ‘friends’, the ‘in’-crowd, the one I had wanted to join, were still there, glorifying their dead queen. The dead queen who had left me behind all alone.

I stared at the cigarette for I don’t know how long, but ultimately let it drop. A hand appeared and picked it up. I turned around. I wasn’t alone in the gallery anymore.

I hardly knew Varun, star basketball player of the team. The only time we’d talked was when I’d interviewed him for the school newspaper. I always thought he secretly liked Tasha; he always used to snag the seat across the aisle from us in the bus, and sometimes I caught him staring at her. Right now, I didn’t want him to bring her up. I waited, but he didn’t speak. Minutes ticked by, and the silence began to feel oppressive. Why was he cutting class and here? Suddenly I found my mouth trying to justify what I was doing here.

“I was going to smoke.” I said. Varun nodded, but didn’t speak, didn’t even look at me, kept staring at the empty basketball court.

“I really was,” I insisted, yet he didn’t say anything.

“I have smoked earlier, don’t think I haven’t.” He just rolled the cigarette in his fingers and shrugged.

I felt my temper rise. Who did he think he was – just because he happened to be a star player didn’t mean he could intrude on my privacy like that.

“Aren’t you gonna speak? Why are you even here?”

Varun finally answered.

“Do you want me to leave?”

“That’s not what I said, damn it!” Something inside me snapped. I stood up and glared at him. “Aren’t you gonna ask me why I was here?”

“It’s fairly obvious,” Varun replied calmly, still not looking at me. “You were here not smoking.”

“I was going to.” I said defiantly.

Varun shrugged again. “I guess you were.”

“Aren’t you going to tell me not to smoke?”

“Do you want to smoke?” he asked aggravatingly.

“Of course I do.” I bit out.

“Would you want me to stop you?”

“Stop this!” I ran a shaking hand through my hair. “I’m talking about smoking. Stop psycho-analyzing me!”

Varun twirled the cigarette around his fingers one last time and then threw it towards the dustbin at the end of the row. The aim was perfect. Of course.

“Then you can find another day or time to start smoking. Or not.” He said calmly.

I stared at the dustbin, blinking rapidly as my eyes started to prickle. I really didn’t want to follow Tasha’s footsteps – she hadn’t wanted me to either. But the thrown cigarette reminded me of thrown possibilities, lost future, and grief over Tasha’s loss took over. I looked away, shaking helplessly. I hadn’t cried over her death, even at the funeral – something that everyone had whispered over – and I definitely didn’t want to lose control in front of Varun. A soft something brushed my right hand. I didn’t want to look down – didn’t want him to see my wet eyes, so I lifted my hand and opened it. A slightly crumpled, but clean white handkerchief lay there.

“It’s sometimes okay to cry, you know.”

When I turned around, I saw that Varun was looking at me, his eyes full of empathy and understanding. I collapsed next to him and buried my face in my hands. And for the first time in ten years, I cried. Noisily, helplessly, while a guy I barely knew looked on.

Bittersweet : The Last Scene


I found her that way – perched on the roof of her car, her knees drawn up with her hands around them, her hair unbound blowing in the wind, looking up at the sky. For a second, I couldn’t move. With the moon behind her, she was a silhouette, ephemeral. As if she would vanish in a blink. So I did what came to me instinctually; I raised the camera slung from my neck, disabled the flash and snapped her picture.

The soft ‘click’ of the camera shutters was like a cannon-boom in the silence, and her head turned.
“Will?”
I stepped out from among the trees, wondering what it was in her voice that sounded different.
“Hey, Wild Girl. What are you up to now?”
She held out her hand. “Come on up.”
I eyed the car roof.
“No way. You’re fine up there, but add my body weight and your little car will have a collapsed top.”
She laughed – a tinkling, bubbling laugh, with no hidden hurt. I froze.
“You’re probably right.” She sighed. “My job’s done here.” She slid down to her car’s hood and grinned at me – an honest smile, no fake grimace.
The moonlight fell on her face, and she was so breathtaking, I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to click her picture, and keep it with me forever; I didn’t want to click her picture – I didn’t want a photo, I wanted the real thing. The real thing that was smiling at me in the moonlight, her eyes a deep pool of mystery, her lips, soft, enticing. And she was oblivious.
All these months I had loved this girl, I hadn’t even realized what I had been missing. All the while I had ached to help her, I had no idea it was just her shadow I was dealing with. And now that I saw she had gotten herself back, I hurt more even as I loved her more. Being the best friend sucked, since it guaranteed that I could never be anything more.
She patted the space beside her and I climbed up the hood. I stared at the moon for a few moments before I turned to look at her, the girl even more radiant than the moon.
“Tamanna… Tell me.” I told her.
And she did.

The Sentients




They were back.
The hair on my neck rose, and I focussed on my notebook, forcing myself to keep my writing steady as I tried to ignore the feeling of eyes on my back. Like every other time, I tried to convince myself that I was just being paranoid, but instinct overwhelmed me, and I knew they were watching again.
Who were they? No matter how much I tried, I could never get a glimpse, except for occasional movements caught in the corner of my eye. I needed proof that I wasn’t hallucinating, that I wasn’t going crazy. But with a speed almost superhuman, they vanished whenever I tried to look for them, leaving no trace behind.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a movement. Against the bright moonlight, I saw a shadow detach from the trees and move stealthily towards my open window. I grit my teeth and forced my fingers to relax from the way they had convulsed around my pen, my heart beating wildly. They had never been so bold before. Was I finally going to get a glimpse after three weeks of fragmented nerves? And at what cost? I took a deep breath and trained my eyes on my notebook as the shadow soundlessly approached my window. I almost started when I spied another shadow reveal itself from between the trees, though it didn’t follow the first one. So my instinct had been correct – there were more than one, though I’d never caught more than one shadow in my peripheral vision.
Though my eye never moved from the sheet in front of me, I followed the movement of the first shadow as it inched forward. This stalking from afar was unnerving me, with all the lack of evidence and motive. This was going to have to change, I told myself, as the shadow moved closer. Then I took a deep breath and whipped my head around to look at it directly, expecting it to vanish as usual. And then I froze. ‘Cause the shadow had not moved.
I stared at the shadow for a few moments, overwhelmed that I hadn’t been hallucinating after all, before registering its shape. And then my blood ran cold. The shadow didn’t resemble that of a human. It wasn’t a person who stood outside my window. With the shadow, the thing, standing just beyond the reach of light from my window with the moon shining at its back, I could register only its shape. And then it stepped forward and light from my bedroom spilled on it.
I jumped out of my chair and opened my mouth to scream, but no sound escaped. I was right. It wasn’t human. It wasn’t superhuman… it was inhuman. It had a cylindrical torso that gave a dull metallic glean, and it stood on a circular plate that hovered above the ground. No wonder they didn’t leave footprints, I thought incoherently. But what seized my attention was the tentacle like projection from the place where our neck, on whose other end was an orb… an eye, I suppose you would call it. And that was what brought the word inhuman to my mind.
Its eye was focussed on me, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. But I didn’t feel that this was just another ‘animal’, just another ‘creature’. Its ‘gaze’ was sharp, clear, cold. It was sentient. The intelligence behind that gaze was infinitely more, it’s thinking coldly methodical. And I could feel that this sentient being was up to no good. When an inhumanly cold creature lurked out in the fringes, it couldn’t mean anything good. I felt all these instinctively, and I knew I was right. My instinct had never been wrong yet, especially when it came to these shadows. And whether that evil was focussed on me in particular or all humanity in general, I was too scared to contemplate.

I don’t know how long I stood like that, eyes locked with the Sentient. Then when it moved closer still and suddenly dull grey things burst out from its cylindrical body to grip the edge of my window, sound finally escaped my lungs as I screamed. The last thing I remembered before I fainted was the spine, tentacle holding the ‘eye’ leaned forward to get a closer look at me.

The Waiting House


Image Copyright : http://www.freakingnews.com/

We had to go and check out a certain part of the dense forest that envelopes the southern part of Seven Hills. The routine thing: charting the area, feeling the loss of the trees which would have to be slaughtered, and finally deciding whether or not the woods have an area where the clearing would be worth it. The routine job, my routine job. Yeah, I know. So of course I went.

We started early that morning, a bright Saturday morning. I’m not a morning person and conversation ticks me off, so the only consolation was that the other two persons with me, Peter and Jack, were mono-syllable speakers. I remained alone in my surly cocoon, missing my morning newspaper and the other simple joys of a simple bachelor condo in the town.

We drove into the woods and the first sight of the canopy of leaves shining golden in the morning sun both lifted and depressed my mood. The beauty of the old gnarled trees never fails to touch me; it always seems like the trees are trying to confide me with the stories and tales of all they have seen through the decades, stories hidden in the rings in their trunks. But they also remind me that I’m the murderer – the one who’ll ensure their death, silence their stories and prevent their witnessing things anymore. It pays well to be a company’s pet architect, but hurts a lot too.

We got out of the SUV and did a bit of poking around. Peter and Jack were warming up to the task, their conversation lengthening into multiple words. They left me alone for multiple reasons – the fact that I was their senior, that I’ve got an impressive career history, and my reputation that my surliness vanishes faster if left alone. With an exchange of very few words, we determined which directions to cover and then split up.

I lumbered towards the west, taking in the woods. This was a very preliminary check; in fact we were kind of sizing up the area and were going to come again formally with the team consisting of the rest of the engineers and architects, the usual. So I was half immersed in my duties, with the other half of my brain noting the occasional ape or the tell-tale flapping of a bird’s wings. Trees, woods, wilderness, they always drew me like a snake is drawn by the charmer’s flute. It has always been this way; every picnic, every outing when there would be any wilderness nearby, I would get mesmerised. I was the famous dazed-by-the-woods David.

The soft yet clear sound of water hitting pebbles drew me and soon I reached a small clearing with a stream flowing merrily. The water was so clear that you could see the smooth, round pebbles at the bottom. The dazed-by-the-woods part of my brain admired the morning sun getting reflected in the stream, making it look like a stream of molten gold; the trained engineer noted that the water problem for the industry could be easily solved. This location was good. I took out my map and pin-pointed the place I was standing on. I decided to check both sides of the stream to decide which place would be perfect.

I trekked upstream and the woods got thicker and the terrain rougher. Constructing anything over here would mean cutting down more trees, and more levelling of the ground. Roads would be impossible; more trees, more levelling, more expenditure. I cared more about the trees part, but the communication and expenditure part was going to figure in my report. I followed the little spring downstream. It was getting hotter now; the sun was now more or less overhead. The trees provided enough shade, but summers are never too comfortable in Seven Hills. I crouched and splashed my face with cool stream water before taking a few gulps. Of course I had bottles in my backpack, but then what are pretty fresh water streams in forests for?

Trekking upstream was totally the opposite of what I’d seen downstream. The more I went ahead, the land progressively got smoother. The trees were further spaced apart. I reminded myself to regularly take down some notes as I got lost in the wild scene. And then I hit the clearing.

It was totally sudden; one moment I was walking slowly among the huge trees, the next moment I had stepped into a meadow.

Calling the meadow huge would be an understatement. It was enormous. The whole area was covered be tall wild bushes and shrubs reaching up to my waist – and I’m a tall man, mind you. The stream was on the left; the bubbling sound clear in this open area. I jotted down in my notebook: Probably found the perfect place. Very few trees would have to be sacrificed; the whole compound could be snugly fitted in the clearing while trees would have to be cut only for the necessary roads. The stream was totally close. The place was perfect.

I would have missed the house if I hadn’t taken a total survey of the clearing. From where I’d entered the meadow it was completely hidden by a natural piling of rocks and boulders. As I ambled in the meadow, a very unexpected something caught my eye – a shingled roof, partially visible from where I stood then. I hurried along to investigate.

It was a house – single storeyed – nestled among the rocks. The boulders formed a natural fence behind the house since the house faced away from, not towards, the meadow. The little house was surrounded on the remaining three sides by a little picket fence, maybe once painted white, but now falling apart in places and totally discoloured. I stepped over the collapsed gate and walked through what must once have been a garden. The rose bushes had grown wild and obtrusive, the grasses out of control. The house was enveloped by vines – completely and absolutely, looking so natural and perfect in the wild that it looked as if it had grown right along with the rest. It was the perfect place for Sleeping Beauty to lie waiting. I shook my head at the ridiculous thought.

The door was stiff under my hand, dust sliding off the knob, but ultimately it opened with a creak. It opened into what appeared to be the sitting room. The floor, the furniture, everything was covered by inches of dust. The fireplace was a tiny crude one in one corner of the room, with two frames standing on the mantelpiece covered by years of dust. I walked in, my shoes leaving clear prints wherever I stepped, and blew over the glass of the frames to have a clear look. They were pictures. One showed a woman with haunting blue eyes and an enigmatic smile. The other was of the woman holding a baby, leaning onto a man, both smiling at the camera.

I looked around the room, but there were no other pictures. Everything was in order in the room; firewood in the fireplace, the couches and the armchairs placed invitingly around it. It looked ready for use – once you got rid of all the dust. I poked around in the house. There was a bedroom with a comfortable bed and multiple cupboard and dressers, showing good taste. I peered through one of the broken window panes and gasped; the view was better than what I had expected, showing the trees and the boulders from a beautiful vantage point. There weren’t any pictures on the shelves or on the wall, and I didn’t feel like invading those cupboards, so I stepped into the next room.

It was clearly a child’s, the baby in the picture. There was a crib in the corner, and the room was strewn with toys. It looked as if someone had just left the room. As if the room was just waiting for the baby to come back. In fact I would have totally believed that the baby had just stopped playing with these toys and was hiding around somewhere, had not the floor, the toys, the crib, everything been covered by layers of dust. I looked around and saw a single frame hanging on the wall; I wiped the dust off and saw that it was of a newborn baby in the crib. I looked around the room again. It looked so sad, so lonely, almost as if waiting for the baby to come back, that I shivered and got out. I knew I was poking around over here because of the dazed-by-the-woods part of my brain and my practical side was shouting over the delay. I checked my watch and finding that it was about time that we all met, I picked my way out of the house.

There was no cellular reception in the area so we had agreed to meet near the SUV at noon, so I was already panting by the time I reached there as I dashed through the trees to make it in time. Peter and Jack could professionally decide my mood wasn’t foul anymore and soon we launched into a detailed exchange about the different parts of the woods we had investigated over lunch. Both of them agreed my meadow was more fitting for the industry and thus after finishing eating they followed me as I led the way to show off my discovery.

Both Peter and Jack nodded in approval at the clearing.

“No need to clear much.” Peter observed.

“The ground is almost clear,” I said, “So we’d have to do weeding more than cutting. We have water source right on the spot. Everything is almost ready.” Both nodded in agreement.

“Except…” In brief I explained to them about the deserted house.

“We’ll have to bring it down if we are going to construct over here. We’ll have to see who owns it and stuff.”

“We can check it out.” Jack muttered.

I led both of them round the boulders to the little house. Peter walked right into the house followed by Jack, all business. I brought the rear. In a matter of minutes the dressers had been searched thoroughly and the papers rifled and the case solved. The house belonged to a Gilbert Zachrias and had been abandoned about twenty five years ago. There weren’t many papers there, just enough for us to determine the owner’s name, and a few bills and receipts, the latest dated 20th August 1985, enabling us to estimate when they left the place. We sat on the dusty floor and bunched the papers together. Then we noted down all we had noticed and observed and decided that we’d done all we could do. As we walked out of the bedroom I happened to look into the playroom beside it and froze.

“Yo David, you comin’?” Peter asked from the main door.

“I’ll be right behind you. Go on.”

Peter shrugged and Jack followed him out of the house as I slowly entered into the child’s room. The last time I’d been here, the room had been messy and the toys were strewn all around. Now they all were arranged perfectly on the shelves, as if someone had just tidied them up. Except that there were no extra foot prints save mine from the last visit, and the toys were still covered by thick, undisturbed dust.

I felt cold and tried to shrug my disquiet away. I decided I had been imagining it the last time, that the room had been organised and I had made up the mess in my mind. I cast a last glance around the room and quickly walked out. In this process I registered another door right in front of me, one I hadn’t noticed before. I gently pushed the door open and took a double take when I saw what I saw. While the rest of the house was layered with inches of dust, this room, the kitchen, was spotless. It was so clean that the floors and walls were almost gleaming. The cupboards and shelves were lined with empty jars, all clean. Even the deepest corner of the cupboard was free of cobwebs. I stared in wonder – was this a magical house? I was a skeptic, but every cynical skeptic has moments of doubts. But I chastised myself for indulging in such silly thoughts again and entered into the kitchen.

The counter was spotless and gleaming, and empty except for a very simple, old stove. Even the iron stove was rust-free and shining. Maybe it was because it was the only thing on the counter, or maybe I was being over-inquisitive and curious, I peered under the stove, lifting it up. Underneath was a small notebook, with a dirty, faded leather cover. I picked it up and then glanced at my watch; I was going to be late. So I shoved the notebook into my backpack before heading out of the house.

We drove to the office to drop off our reports. We were going to have to detail our discoveries to Boss on Monday, so I left Peter looking up the Zachriases and readying the data while I decided to call it a day. Being the senior in the team had its own perks.

I drove to my tiny condo, my bubble of comfort and dashed into the shower. I came out fresh and rejuvenated, now comfortable with the fact that I had been forced to leave my bed earlier than usual. I started the coffee machine and grabbed a mug of steaming coffee before crashing into the couch and switching on the TV. I flipped through the channels, frowning over the programs. The sports channels had somehow disappeared, the other channels advertising slimming machines and beauty products. The single movie channel offered by my crappy service provider was showing a badly dubbed Japanese martial arts movie with Chinese subtitles. I turned it off and flung the remote control away. I browsed through my limited collection of books, but I had already read them all multiple times and didn’t feel like re-perusing them one once again. I rummaged through my backpack and stopped when I saw the old leather notebook and thought, why not?

It was a diary, maintained Mariah Stone Zachrias.


3rd January 1985, Thursday
John is growing up so quickly, it’s so difficult to believe! Today, just when I was going to leave after feeding him, I heard him articulate his first sentence, the faint “Momma, whel ith Daddy?” I wish Gilbert was here so that we could share this moment together. He’s gone for the week, and Sunday seems so far away.
5th January 1985, Saturday
The garden is coming up beautifully. The winter flowers have already filled every corner. I spent an hour weeding the rose beds, and discovered a sparrows’ nest in the apple tree. Must remember to keep Tilby away from it. John hasn’t delivered any new complete sentences, but the Mommas are enough to make my day! One more day and Gilbert will be back.
6th January 1985, Sunday
Gilbert is home! I spent all day making his favorite pie, and he’s brought home more flowers for me and a whole bagful of toys for John. The poor boy doesn’t even seem to have any idea what to do with so many playthings! Even Tilby has got a new bell around her neck. I’m in the kitchen, crouching by the door and from here I can see Gilbert tickling John, and I feel so happy.

I read on. The entries in the diary were not regular; sometimes there were entries from continuous days, and some were spaced weeks apart. But it was clear to deduce from the diary that Mariah Zachrias, the woman with the eerily haunting eyes in the picture, was sick and advised by the doctor to stay in a clear, isolated space. She doted on her child and loved and was loved by her husband. Gilbert worked in a workshop in the town, while Mariah left behind in the woods, took care of her son, her cat and her flowers with lavish affection.

24th June 1985, Monday
It’s John’s first birthday! I woke up before dawn and made him a chocolate cake and his favourite pineapple juice. Gilbert had surprise plans for us; He packed the snacks and took us to a beautiful garden right on the outskirts of the town to have a great picnic. It has been so long since I’d last been to the city, but I don’t feel unhappy at all. I have Gilbert and John with me and that’s all that matters to me. But all around in the park I saw little kids playing together and saw John watching them. And then I thought, was John feeling lonely? Did he need playmates now?

After the last entry Mariah began to worry that her son was soon going to need company, would have to go to school. Her diary entries now mentioned arguments with her husband about moving into the town and Gilbert didn’t agree because of her fragile health. I noticed that the writings were not smooth anymore, they expressed her anxiety and worries. Mariah Zachrias obsessed over her son.

16th July 1985, Tuesday
John is gone. I can’t find him anywhere. Gilbert hasn’t returned home yet and I don’t know what to do. It’s all my fault. I didn’t lock the door. And now John is gone. I’ve been looking for him for hours now, even though I know John is gone.
17th July 1985, Wednesday
Gilbert wants to file a report, but I won’t let him. I won’t give up our picture with John to some stranger. And what do we fight against? The forest, its beasts? My John is gone. He’s gone.
20th July 1985, Saturday
I had told Gilbert we should have moved out. This is a jungle, after all. Even if we’ve never met any beasts, who said they’ll never come? And there’s the stream which could have washed John aw– no it isn’t Gilbert’s fault; it’s all my fault. We live here because of me. Now my son is gone.
22nd July 1985, Thursday
My John is gone
25th July 1985, Friday
I woke up today morning to make John’s favourite pie and brought it to his room. And then I saw his empty crib and remembered he’s gone.
29th July 1985, Monday
I haven’t tidied up John’s room yet, and now I’ve decided I won’t change anything in the room. I know now my John will come back, and I want that he’ll find his room just as he left it.
5th August 1985, Friday
Gilbert is getting worried about me. I’m worried about him since I know he’s suffering because of me. But I’m waiting for my John. I know now he’s not dead. I know my John will return home.
14th August 1985, Wednesday
Gilbert is insisting we should leave The House. He’s getting worried about me now that I’m not able to get up from the bed. He thinks I should be in town where a doctor can see me. But if I leave who will wait for John for when he’ll return?
18th August 1985, Sunday
Gilbert is getting stubborn about abandoning The House and I know he’ll get his way sooner or later. Most probably this is going to be my last entry; it’s getting difficult for me to hold my pen and write over here. I might have to leave, but The House will keep waiting for my John, just like I will. He’ll come back and find his room just the way he left it; the room won’t tidy up till he comes back. I’ll leave this diary for John to find it, something to tell him how much I love him when I won’t be around to tell him so. ‘Cause I know my John will come home.

There wasn’t any more writing in the diary. I checked, believe me. But I was already breathing harshly by the time I reached the end. The coincidence was too much. I called Father Alberto for confirmation even after checking the records. The pineapple juice. I stopped thinking, shut the diary close and went to bed.

I woke up early the next morning, an unprecedented event on a Sunday, and the restlessness from the previous night gripped me again. I tried to stop until I lost and gave up, finally driving to the woods. It took me a while to find the meadow. For a while I was sure I had made the whole thing up. But that wouldn’t explain the diary in my backpack. Finally I stepped into the clearing and my misgivings gave away to relief. I made my way round the boulders to the forlorn little house.

Everything was just the way we had left it. I walked up to the mantelpiece and stared at the woman with the eerie blue eyes and realised this time why they were so disquieting; the shade of blue was highly unusual – and identical to mine. I picked up the other picture and stared at the baby. I couldn’t make out much; it was a tiny thing and it’s features indistinct. But I examined the man in the picture and realised that his hair was just as brown as the baby’s – and mine. I suppressed the sharp pang of pain that shot through me and walked into the kitchen, and stood staring. On the gleaming counter right beside the stove, stood a bottle of my favourite pineapple juice. I glanced around, but nothing else seemed different. I settled down on the floor beside the counter and took a swig from the bottle, thinking, remembering.

I had been brought up in a missionary orphanage. Father Alberto had found me floating in the river in July 1985 and had rushed me to the hospital. I had barely survived from the hypothermia, according to the reports. From then I had been brought up in the orphanage, encouraged in whatever I wanted, provided scholarships when I did well; in short, supporting me till I got my job. Father Alberto was still my mentor. I wasn’t unhappy in the orphanage, but which child doesn’t wish to know his parents, his birthday, or even his name? Because I had been rechristened since I had been found without any identification. But now I knew when my birthday was. I am David Artbuthnot, but I knew now I was John Zachrias once.

I don’t know when I fell asleep; all I know is suddenly I opened my eyes and realised that I was sitting in a dark kitchen holding an empty juice bottle. I stumbled out of the room and out of the house, hurrying to find my car before some beast found me in the dark forest. Before I vanished into the forest, I looked back towards the house for a parting glance. The moon hung low in the sky, right behind the house, making it a shadow against the moon’s pallor. And on the porch of the little house, thrown into stark relief against the moon, was the silhouette of a woman. But when I blinked to look again, it was gone.

Peter had dug up all information regarding the Zachriases when I entered into the office the next day. Gilbert Zachrias was a workman in Starkman Welding. Family: Wife, Mariah died in November 1985 and child, John in July 1985. Gilbert himself died in 1988. No traceable relative or family. The path was clear, no obstructions to demolish the house. I gobbled up the data, and debated internally whether or not to argue on the ‘no family’ part, but held my tongue. Boss grunted and nodded at our reports, and our team set off for the formal investigation. I was back into my surly mode; I didn’t want to lose my history right after I found it. I didn’t want the house where I’d spent the first months of my life with my parents to be transformed into rubble.

But ultimately it didn’t matter. When we reached the meadow and the whole team expressed its approval, Peter, Jack and I led the way to show them the house. But when we reached there, the house wasn’t standing anymore. There was nothing but a heap of rubble in the wild garden.

“Bloody hell, was there any earthquake we didn’t know about?” Peter muttered under his breath.

“Didn’t you say the house was standing?” One of the architects asked.

“Yeah, it was when we’d checked it out earlier.” Peter replied and Jack nodded. “Wonder what happened.”

I stepped into the garden and over the rubble and looked at what had been kept over there.

“Maybe its wait was over.” I said.

Over the rubble a few things were assembled neatly. A bottle of my favourite pineapple juice, three pictures which I recognised as the ones from the mantelpiece and the wall in the baby’s room. And a tattered leather clad notebook, the one which I had recovered from under the stove, the one which I could have sworn had been in my backpack last night. I flipped through it and saw an entry at the end. I would have said I hadn’t noticed it before, but I knew it hadn’t been there before. Besides, the date settled the matter. And it was in the same loopy handwriting which had filled the rest of the diary.

7th May 2010, Friday
I knew you would come home, John.