This short story is selected as Story of the Month June’2015 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
A.N. : Flashback in bold
He had never really believed in the phrase ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Who is to decide what the word ‘kill’ actually means? Is it the simply the end of a physical being? Or does it include the death of a soul too? If such were the case, then he too had died that day. According to the medical reports, he was termed as ‘lucky.’ He couldn’t think of a more ironic term to describe his current state. He had lost the single purpose of his existence. Lucky would have been if his heart had stopped beating along with hers. Lucky would have been if they were together right now…in whatever after-life hell or heaven there was.
He stared at the pale, motionless beauty in front of him. She was the lucky one to him. They had labelled her as ‘dead’ a tag which he deserved as much, if not more than her. After all, she wasn’t the one who had to spend eternity alone. She was dead but he had to deal the with the only thing worse than death.
Watching someone you love die. His eyes shifted from her face to the glass coffin where he caught his own reflection. Her eyes were closed but his eyes were lifeless too. She was the one in white but he was the one who felt as blank as a canvas. She maybe the one with ghastly scars on the body but he was the one with the scarred soul. But the trouble with medical science is that they often consider the soul to be insignificant. Mental damage does not matter as long as the heart is beating. His was. As far as they were concerned, he was alive. As far as he was concerned, he was no longer living.
TEN YEARS AGO
He had nyctophobia. As soon as he heard the word during a Science lecture he knew that it had been designed for him. There was nothing he hated more than darkness. Darkness didn’t just include the lack of light. It symbolized a drunk father and a sobbing mother. It symbolized a torn mattress in the corner of the attic with a pillow to muffle the sound of screams. It symbolized the lack of love and warmth in his life.
“I have nyctophobia,” he told her, showing off his new vocabulary.
“Fear for darkness is common. I have arachnophobia. That’s much worse,” she replied.
That was the disadvantage of having a best friend who’s a know-it-all. The minute he threw a complicated word at her, she came up with one of her own.
“Aren’t you surprised to know about mine?” he asked, a little disappointed.
“I know you are scared of darkness. You always come to the school camps with two torches in your rucksack. You sleep with the lamp on. You don’t like to go to the basement alone.”
He stared at her in surprise. He hadn’t known that she had noticed that.
“We women are pretty observant about such things,” she answered his unspoken question.
He fought back a laugh. ‘We women’ was her current favorite phrase. He found it amusing, the way her voice turned all high-and-mighty when she called herself that.
She stared at his twinkling eyes suspiciously. “What’s so funny?”
He shook his head with his lips twitching. “Nothing.”
“Then why are you so happy?”
“I am always happy when I am with you.”
Her eyes softened. “I guess I’m doing my duty as a best friend well.” She reached out to interwine her fingers through his.
“When have you ever shirked away from your duties Miss Perfectionist?” He smiled at her and stood up to go.
He turned around expectantly. “Yes baby?”
She blushed like she always did when he used endearing terms for her. “I love you.”
He could feel his heart thumping loudly as if threatening to burst out in joy against the rib cage. “I love you too baby.”
“Do you believe in soulmates?”
“Huh?!” He looked up distractedly from his assignment. He peeped into her Trignometry book and then looked back at her face.
“Hmm…Trignometry….Word problems…soulmates. Yup I got the connection. Makes perfect sense,” he said with a grin. She smacked him playfully. “Shut up. I am serious.”
“I have never really thought about it.”
“Hmm.” He returned to his work, knowing there was more to come. This could take a while.
“Aren’t you gonna ask me why?”
He looked up with a sigh. “I have got a feeling you’re going to tell me anyway. So why don’t you just go ahead.”
She started speaking even before he had finished. “I believe that each person only contains half of his soul. The other half is missing. Since a soul is not considered as important as a vital organ, no one notices this. But then you meet your other half, your soulmate. And you realize that the person has filled that empty space in your heart which you didn’t even know existed. Suddenly you feel whole….you feel complete. Life becomes perfect in every possible way. But sometimes, you are not lucky enough. Your soulmate gets snatched away from you and you become half a soul again. The only difference is that this time, you can feel the emptiness, you can feel the pain, you feel incomplete. In reality, you were fine before you met your soulmate. But now that you know this person exists, being fine is not good enough for you. You want to be more than fine. You want to be happy.”
She paused for breath and looked at his expression.
“Am I rambling?” she asked with a grin. “Or do you get it?”
He was silent for a moment. “No.” His voice was almost inaudible. “I get it.”
“What is the one thing you can’t survive without?”
She looked up at him with a serious expression. He raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you seriously expecting my contribution to that dumb activity?”
She was taking a ‘Find Out About Your True Personality’ quiz from a magazine. According to him, there was no other activity as mindless at that. God knows why she had suddenly developed a liking for beauty magazines instead of those thick textbooks. And what did a dumb magazine know about her which he didn’t? He could predict her ‘true personality’ more accurately and that too without a set of waste-of-time questions.
“How about love?” she asked, chewing her thumbnail thoughtfully. He smacked away her hand like always and leaned over to read the options. He snorted immediately. “Are you serious? What happened to the normal options like food and water?”
She rolled her eyes. “Food and water have nothing to do with personality. This quiz is about getting to know your character. You guys can be so dense at times.”
“Yeah reading a beauty magazine is so deeply meaningful,” he replied, sarcastically.
“Can you cut the ‘magazines-are-beneath-my-dignity’ act and answer honestly?” she snapped.
He sighed. “Okay. My answer is light.”
She gave him her famous ‘oh-you-dumb-kid’ expression. “I thought I said nothing scientific. This is about your personality.”
“It’s not scientific.” It was his turn to snap at her. “It’s not possible to exist in a world without light. A world where there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to wish for, nothing to pray or hope for. A person can live for a few days without food, few minutes without air but not a single second without light, without hope. When the light is gone, there is no more reason for anything.”
No reason to live. He was surrounded by the familiar darkness once again. The rest of the day passed in a state of daze. People said something with sympathetic expressions. Some looked horrified when they saw his eyes. He could see his own reflection in their eyes. A lifeless soul. A dead man. It was as if they were attending two funerals at the same time. He could see his five year old daughter peeping at him frequently from his mother-in-law’s arms. His heart ached for her. She would have to spend the rest of her life without even knowing her mother. His angel would become just a story. A horrifying accident. A newspaper article which made people shake their heads in pity muttering,” Poor girl.” He felt someone place a hand on his shoulder. “Nik?”
He turned around to face his neighbour. “Should I take care of Ann tonight?” He may have nodded. He wasn’t sure. His body seemed to be detached from him. He walked home late at night, dragging his feet against the concrete. He opened the door with trembling hands and the first thing he saw was the empty house. That’s when it hit him. She wasn’t coming back. She was really gone. He sank on the ground, his body racked with sobs.
Weeks passed. Or maybe just a few days. It was hard for him to keep track of time. And even harder to really care. Every morning he pasted a smile on his face for his daughter. He tried to continue a normal life for her sake. He attended all her school functions, sports days, gatherings without fail. He read her bedtime stories. He came up with a bunch of cheery stories of how ‘Mommy is an angel now’ even though it killed him to say her name aloud.
He kept his smile intact until he had tucked her in bed and then broke down all over again. He felt like he was living a fake life. He was cheating her, he was cheating his daughter and he was cheating himself. He had lost his soulmate. He had lost his light. His life was like a time-bomb, waiting to explode at any moment now. Yet he continued to wake up every single day, go to work, smile without meaning it, laugh humorlessly and come home to his daughter, pretending life was going on. At night he dreamt of her. Every single night he allowed himself to feel the pain. He wallowed in the pain like a masochist. He didn’t mind it as long as she was a part of it. Out of all the dreams he had, one of the most recurring memories was the day his daughter was born.
“She has your eyes,” she whispered weakly.
“I know baby. Go to sleep now,” he told her, caressing his forehead lightly.
“She is so beautiful, Nik. Thank you for giving her to me.”
Of course she would never do what he told her to. He ought to have got used to it by now. He looked at their little bundle of joy and felt his heart explode with happiness. He looked at his other love and thanked God for giving him everything. He would never want anything else.
“What do we name her?”
He sighed as she interrupted his thoughts. Her voice was hoarse and she looked as if she would collapse at any moment now. Yet she refused to shut up.
“Can we do this later? You need rest right now.”
“How about Anora? Ann for short.”
He looked at her pale face with eyes shining in excitement. He chose his words carefully. “That’s a rather unusual name sweetheart.”
She smiled that smile of hers. The one which meant she had something up her sleeve.
“If only you knew what it means.”
“No time for riddles now baby. Go to sleep.” He pecked her lips and turned to go out.
Her hoarse whisper made him turn around in exasperation. He managed to soften his tone.
“I love you.”
He couldn’t help smiling. “I love you too baby.”
This was the memory which kept flashing in front of his eyes repeatedly. Even now when he was putting his daughter to bed.
“And then they live happily ever after.” He shut the storybook and bent down to kiss his daughter.
“Do all stories end happily Daddy?”
“What about real stories Daddy? Do they end happily?”
He barely had time to ponder over his little girl’s wisdom. He longed to tell that life was nothing like fairy tales. Happily ever afters didn’t exist in real life. Reality was nothing like the dream world. The pain which dreams give last only till you wake up but the pain which life gives lasts until you finally fall asleep.
“I hope so baby.”
He bent down to kiss her good-night and then reached over to turn off the light. As the familiar darkness engulfed him, he hurried to get out of the room. The journey from her bed to the corridor light always seemed unending. In the darkness, the memories came back. The nightmare flashed before his eyes again.
“You can leave the lamp on if you want Daddy.”
He turned midway, feeling sure that he had misheard.
“What did you say?”
“I know you don’t like the dark Daddy.”
His shock must have reflected on his face. He opened his mouth to question her but she got to it first. A sudden smile spread across her face. “Miss Gupta asked us the meaning of our names today.”
He raised his eyebrows at the sudden change of topic.
“I told her mine.”
His voice broke to a whisper. “How did you know?” That’s why that dream refused to leave him. Unanswered questions. That was one such question which had left with her.
“Mommy told me, when I met her at the hospital. It means light.”
He could feel his knees about to give way. He had to get out. Now.
He took a deep breath and turned around again.
“I love you.”
He could feel his lips turn up into something which finally felt real. He stared at his daughter and for the first time in several weeks, he smiled. Everything suddenly seemed to fit. The dream. Her name. Its meaning. His angel had not left him without hope after all. This was what she had been trying to tell him all along. This was what had kept him going. This was his reason for existence. He had finally found a way out of the darkness. He had finally found his light.
He made his way to her in the darkness. He was not scared, nor in a hurry to get out of the room. He had lost his love in a horrifying accident only to find it again on a seemingly dull Tuesday night in the middle of a room filled with darkness. He reached his daughter and bent down to kiss her forehead lightly.
“I love you too, baby.”