This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 15 Jun 2013 and won INR 500 (US$ 10)
This short story is selected as Story of the Month May’2013 and won INR 1000 (US $20)
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
A sharp pain seared through my head, as if it just got stabbed a million times at one point on my skull. I couldn’t open my eyes, they burned. And I felt suffocated by the smell of my own blood, burnt clothes and flesh. The skin on my arms seemed to have disappeared, and moving them was excruciatingly painful. My ears still felt numb from the deafening sound of the blast.
I yelped when four hands picked me up and made me lie down somewhere, probably an ambulance. I still preferred to keep my eyes closed. I didn’t know if I was crying or if it was blood pouring out of my eyes. I heard the door shut and the thing moved. Sirens blared loudly all around. People talked, shouted and made frantic phone calls.
A few minutes later, the vehicle stopped and we got down somewhere. Hospital. I was wheeled around on a stretcher, a person shouting “Emergency! Out of the way!” People rushed about, as the person ordered them to fetch certain things that he would need. Then slowly it all faded away…
I woke up to the voice of my mother calling my name and her warm hand gently caressing my forehead. I felt no pain at that time, only I knew I was draped in bandages. My both eyes were heavily bandaged and I couldn’t open them.
“How do you feel now?” she asked. I couldn’t see her but sensed she was crying.
“I’m okay mom,” I said. And then my thoughts drifted to the incident of the previous day. “Where’s the kid?” I asked her.
Her hand stopped moving and she sighed. I knew the answer.
In my mind, I could still remember the face of that little girl in the car, eyes soaked with tears and wailing loudly. Nobody dared to go near it.
“It may explode any moment now,” they said. The mother lay unconscious in the front seat. Fire trucks hadn’t arrived. And people were running as far away from it as possible.
“Don’t go!” my friend had shouted when I ran towards the car. I had to save the girl……
“I’m proud of you, son,” my mother broke into my thoughts.
She shouldn’t be, I felt. I couldn’t save either of them.
The doctor visited me a number of times that day. He told my mother they would open the bandages on my eyes in the evening. “We’re very unsure,” I heard him saying. I didn’t really understand, but prepared myself for whatever was to come. I knew my mother was doing the same.
A team of nurses stood inside my cabin when the doctor arrived for opening my bandages. My mother clutched my hand tightly. It made me nervous.
“Very slowly, open your eyes,” the doctor said. “Slowly…”
I opened my eyes a little, just a little, and then shut them again quickly. It was dark. I exhaled deeply and tried again, with more concentration this time. It was still dark. I blinked. Complete blackness. My heartbeats were so loud I could almost hear them. My chest began to hurt.
“I can’t see,” I said to no one in particular. I heard my mom’s stifled cry. She left my hand and probably went out of the room. The doctors began asking me questions and uttered certain medical terms that I didn’t really understand. I didn’t want to talk to them. I tried so hard to concentrate. My eyes were open and yet it was dark for me. Too dark.
“Go away…” I told them. But they continued with their stupid work. Asking stupid questions and speaking words that made no sense to me. I was angry.
Night arrived. I could tell because my mother had set up alarms in my cell phone after every one hour so I knew the time. I knew which button to press to cancel the alarm. It was frustrating, initially, as I had the habit of throwing my cell phone anywhere on my bed. And groping under the blankets in the “dark” can be maddening. Once or twice I yelled out to the nurse to shut the damn alarm. I cried many times; not that I was weak. But when I spilled many things while trying to find one and I just couldn’t retrieve a thing once it was lost, it got annoying.
The door suddenly opened and somebody came in. Nurse?
“You were weeping last night. I heard you.” She spoke candidly. There was no greeting or introduction from her side.
“So what?” I spat at her.
“I thought you might need some company,” she offered. “It hurts to hear a man cry like that…”
“I need no one! I’m strong! I can take care of myself.”
“Of course you can,” she said nonchalantly.
“I’m a martial artist! A fighter!”
“Yes you were screaming that too last night.”
I hated the blunt way she spoke. What the hell did she think of herself?
“I’m strong… I’m strong…” I told her. Or maybe I told myself. “I don’t need anyone’s help to survive. I’m strong.”
“I know.” Her voice was cool.
I replied nothing. Who was she anyway? I wondered.
“You wanna talk about it? Venting out feels good.”
“GO!” I yelled out loud. I could imagine her horrified expression at that moment, or maybe she was still sitting there coolly.
I felt a whiff of air as she rose. Then I heard the door open and shut.
I woke up late the next morning. Everything felt like a puzzle to me. With the help of sound, smell and movement of air, I tried to deduce what’s happening around me. But I was never sure. And it was maddening to be not sure. I felt insecure and vulnerable. I didn’t like to feel that way.
“Hello my angel,” I heard a man’s voice from the adjacent cabin. No one responded.
“You look beautiful today, you know,” he continued. “I’ve brought roses. Stole them from the neighbour’s garden early in the morning.” He laughed alone at this.
“We’ll have a beautiful rose garden in our house after we’re married, okay?” he said. “All kinds of roses for my angel.
Every colour you’d like to have in there… I’ll plant it myself. You’ll marry me, won’t you?”
I found the conversation odd, maybe because it wasn’t really a conversation. He was speaking alone, and with full gusto.
“And by the way,” he continued enthusiastically, “We performed beautifully last night. The audience went crazy for us! I got it recorded. Let me play it for you.”
A few seconds later, I heard Westlife’s “I Wanna Grow Old With You” playing beautifully.
“It’s for you, love. You like this song, don’t you?”
There was never a response.
I lay awake in my bed at night. I badly needed to go to the bathroom, but didn’t want to ask for help. I tried to remember the exact position of it. Outside my cabin, if I walked ten steps at an angle on thirty degrees, I should be there. But the ladies and gents washrooms were located next to each other. What if I entered the wrong one?
Against all rational logic, I got up from bed and headed for the door of my ‘dark’ cabin. I found it, opened it and stepped outside; only to trip over a doormat and fall down! A moan escaped my lips; I remembered not to scream out lest someone should know.
But I realised I wasn’t too successful when a woman’s hand helped me get up on my feet. “I’m fine,” I told the nurse. I was grateful, but didn’t say so. It would make me look weak. She said nothing but walked me up to the bathroom. When I came out, she was still waiting to take me back to my cabin.
“Good night,” she said when I reached my room, and I recognised the voice immediately. “It’s you!” I cried out.
“I heard you fall,” she said coolly.
“I was fine!” I had to control hard to not scream at her. “Go away!”
I spent the night tossing and turning on my bed. I would close my eyes for some time and then open them again. It made no difference. Darkness. Now and again I would scream out of frustration. “I’m a fighter, I’m strong,” I would tell myself. “I’ll never fight anymore,” a voice from inside would retort.
And I wept myself to sleep. The next morning went the same. The same man talked aimlessly to no one in particular in the next room. Doctors came, checked on me and left wordlessly. A male nurse helped me walk up to the bathroom whenever I needed. My mom kept trying to cheer me up and get me talking, but in vain. Exasperated, she left by noon.
“You were screaming again after I left last night,” I heard her voice. It was past 2a.m. and I was lying awake in bed. Somehow, her company in these lonely nights was annoyingly comforting.
“Do you eavesdrop?” I asked.
“No, not really. I was woken up by your sobs.”
I squinted at the word “sobs”.
“I must have awoken the other room’s patient too,” I said, remembering the man’s voice from the morning before.
Strangely enough, she laughed when I said this.
“What’s so funny now?” I asked.
“Well they would be very happy if you could do that, you know… wake her up…” she said. “The poor girl has been in coma for sixteen months now.”
“Girl? I heard a man’s voice last night. He seemed crazy.”
“He’s her fiancé,” she replied. “He has been coming here every day for sixteen months. They say there never was a single day that he didn’t come… he just doesn’t give up, that man.”
I chuckled softly. “Things don’t work out that way. She won’t come to life just because he believed she would. Those things happened in movies. It’s useless sh*t.”
“It’s love! It’s always worth your time… A flower with a missing petal is still a flower.”
“It’s incomplete… a handicap. That missing petal will never come back…”
“It won’t. You’ll just have to learn to love it for the petals that are present.”
I took a moment to digest the concept. “Are you a nurse?” I asked.
She laughed. I didn’t understand her irritating habit of laughing at anything and everything. “No,” she said. “I’m just another patient.”
For me, it was hard to believe that she was sick or injured in any way. “What happened to you?”
“Nothing much. I’ll be off this place in a couple of days.”
“You’re lucky. Go move on. Lead a normal life… I’m just stuck with this!”
She was silent for a few seconds, maybe thoughtful. “It’s challenging,” she said.
“I’m a martial artist,” I told her. “But I’ll never fight anymore…”
“Hmm… you got an even bigger battle to fight now,” she said.
“You think it’s that simple?” I barked at her.
“Of course not. But I know you’re tough. You’re strong, aren’t you?”
I gulped, not knowing what to say. “I don’t like to take help from people,” I said. “It… it makes me feel weak. Dependent. I don’t like that to happen. I don’t like to be pitied.”
“There’s nothing wrong in that,” she said. “I heard what you were trying to do when the accident happened. You’re a brave man. Feel proud.”
She’s kind, I thought. “I know… but I’ve always been… the strong guy, you know. The Champion. Girls went crazy for me…”
She laughed again when I said this. I felt angry. Who was she to come over and lecture me anyway?
“You find it very funny, don’t you?” I blurted out. “Poor blind guy, so desperately trying to prove that he’s alright… hopeless…”
“I didn’t say that,” she defended.
“Look. You’ll be out of here in a few days. So will I. Only my suffering won’t stop after I leave. I’ll be stuck with this. Blind. Darkness all around me. Do you know how it feels? Try groping your way out of the room with your eyes completely shut. And then imagine doing that forever!”
“I understand…” her voice was steady. “But you can’t just be angry with everyone around you for that.”
“Go away!” I yelled. “You’ve no idea what I’m going through.”
She was silent. The movement of air told me that she got up. I heard the door open.
“You’re not the only person in the world who has problems,” she said.
I heard the door shut.
“Happy birthday angel,” an enthusiastic voice from the adjacent room woke me up the next morning. I opened my eyes, and instantly felt angry at the darkness around. Someone had placed flowers in my room and they smelled beautiful. I guessed my mother had come in early that day with fresh smelling flowers.
“Guess what,” he said excitedly. “My mom sent this lovely book for you. It’s a collection of short romantic stories. She said you should like it. I was so happy, you know. It’s for the first time since ages that she actually supported me being with you.” There was a pause, as if waiting for a reply.
“Good days are coming…” he said: his tone softer. “I hope these months of separation haven’t made you forget me. You’ll marry me, won’t you?” he asked the question he always did and laughed softly to himself. “And you know what; I met your brother the other day in a mall and…”
He stopped talking suddenly. I wondered what went wrong. Was he crying? Or did he just forget what to say?
Pin drop silence… Seconds ticked by. I waited.
Suddenly he gave a cry of joy. “O God! I can’t believe this!”
“I knew you would be here when I wake up,” I heard a girl’s struggled voice. I strained my ears to listen, my heart racing.
“Thank you, for never giving up on me. And yes, I’ll marry you.”
The man exclaimed joyfully. Then he began to cry. And then he exclaimed joyfully again. Doctors came in. Phone calls were made to the girl’s family members. “Good days are coming,” I remembered his words.
I was moved.
As the couple rejoiced in the adjacent room, a sudden howl caught my attention. It was a woman wailing loudly from outside.
“What went wrong?” I asked the male nurse who had just entered my room.
“It’s her mother,” he said. “She behaves like this whenever she sees her daughter. She’s never really over the shock of it.”
“That girl in coma?” I asked.
“No…” he replied. “The other girl.”
“Why? What happened to her?” I asked immediately.
“It’s… it’s horrible,” he said. “I thought you knew…”
“Tell me,” I persisted.
I heard him sigh. “Her boss poured acid on her face a year ago…” he said. “She had refused to consent to his repeated sexual advances. He got angry and burned her face… she was a mess when she had come in. Her face was reduced to nothing but bones and blood. Her relatives fainted when they saw her. She lost the sight of one eye then itself. And in the course of operations over the year, she lost the sight of the other eye too…”
I felt numb. I couldn’t speak a word when he finished. I realised I was sweating and trembling at the same time. So that’s why she was out only after dark…
“It’s her twenty second operation today,” he said. “She would need a hundred more. Her face is still hard to look at… Children scream out at the sight of her. She doesn’t have eyes, or a visible nose or ears… It’s horrible…”
It seemed as if the earth had given way below my feet. I thought of all the horrible things I had told her and how they must have hurt her. “You’re not the only person in the world who has problems,” she had told me. Of course, she was way stronger than I ever was.
“After she’s done with the operation,” I said. “Would you please take me to her? I want to talk to her…”
“Ya sure. She’s a very friendly lady,” he said. “She’ll be done by afternoon. You can meet her tonight if she consents to it.”
I didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the day. My mother came once, checked on me and gave me some fruits and juices. She asked me about the “weird looking” flowers on the table. “Each has some missing petals,” she said, sounding baffled. “Who gave you these?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter… They still smell great with the missing petals,” I told my mother.
I realised I missed her. Her cool tone, her laughter… I tried to imagine what she might look like, but couldn’t. And it didn’t matter.
Finally at night, sometime after dinner, the nurse told me that she wanted to see me. He walked me to her bed and I sat down on a chair that he offered. I then heard the door open and shut as he went out leaving us alone in her cabin.
“How did it go?” I asked. “The operation?”
“Well… must’ve been painful,” she said. “But thanks to anaesthesia I had a nice long nap out there.”
“You never told me…” I complained, frowning; only to realise the next moment that she couldn’t see my frown.
She giggled. “I’m strong. I don’t like to be pitied. I can take care of myself,” she said, trying to imitate my tone. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“So… missing a petal, huh?”
“Most petals, actually.” Her voice had the same enthusiasm as before. I was moved.
“Can I tell you something?” I asked.
“Well I’m not flirting but… you seriously are the most beautiful women I have ever met in my life.”
She laughed softly. “Well I wouldn’t know that, but thank you.”
I smiled. I wondered if she did too.
“I like you,” I blurted out. “You made me smile.”
“I like you too,” she said. “You didn’t faint on seeing me.”
I smiled again. And this time, I knew she did too.