Tom Jacob let out a tired sigh as he stepped out of office on that Friday evening at 5:00 PM. In his forties now, he was slightly overweight and his thinning black hair and thick moustache had begun to show the first signs of graying. He was supervisor at one of the many factories of GSK Wood Industries. He replayed in his head the unwavering company description that he had heard off the lips of multiple executives of the company during various stages of his eighteen-year career- We are the number one manufactures of furniture-grade kiln seasoned rubber wood, seasoned wooden pallets, wooden vat and all type of wooden products. He smirked to himself at the bemusing thought that practically everyone else who formed a part of the industry would’ve had a catchier, or considerably more effective description of the dull job that they did; but he liked the simplicity that came with GSK and he was sure that that was one of the things that kept him glued to the place for a period that was now nearing two decades.
That, and the fact that he could be away from home five days every week. Tom was a married man, and had been so for the past fifteen years. His wife Sherly was pretty much the stereotypical village belle. Though fairly educated, had very few ambitions, ensured that her lifestyle matched her mannerisms in being as simplistic and as far from extravagant as possible, and she also loved her husband very much. They had had an arranged marriage, and while initially Tom had reciprocated her love, of late, he had begun to consider her a bit of a bore. He knew that deep down he still loved her, and still called home every night once he returned to the company lodge where he usually found accommodation during the weekdays. Lately though, he had begun to spend the majority of the call talking to his children Alex and Anna (aged thirteen and ten respectively) than to his wife.
Every Friday, like the one today, Tom walked the fifteen-minute distance from his office to the railway station, the Ernakulam North, from which he took the bus at 6:00 train Kollam, where his family was settled. He insisted on having time to spare, because he did not wish to miss the ‘sights’ on the way. Tom, like most men regardless of their age, spent a lot of time checking out women. He had never dared to even think of an affair, but, as he often told his friends, women were made by God to pleasure the eyes of man, and he was only complying with His wish. He was not a shy man, in fact his personality bordered on being plain shameless, and so he did not hesitate to look twice even at the cost of making it seem incredibly obvious and uncomfortable to the women.
This week, however, things were going to be a little different. Tomorrow was going to be Tom’s 45th birthday, and he decided to do something different. He had invented an excuse of a two day, business conference which he presented to his unsuspecting wife over the phone. Tom actually intended to book a suite at The Surya Hotel, a rather luxurious four star in the heart of the city. He had no guilt about spending his birthday away from home. His anniversary was coming up next weekend, and he could always celebrate that occasion with family. So as soon as Tom stepped out of office, he went to his lodge, packed up a few things and took an auto straight to the Hotel.
It was his first time at such a plush locale and as soon as he set foot inside, his breath was taken away. The shining floors and glimmering walls were made of marble and the ceilings were adorned with glass chandeliers. Tom stood in awe, taking in the sights, before making his way to the receptionist, a young, good-looking woman and collecting the keys to a suite room. He had decided to indulge himself.
He was led by a bellboy towards a glass elevator which took them up to the second floor. The doors opened into a thickly carpeted corridor with intricately embroidered walls. They continued walking to room 205 following which the bellboy opened the door, received a tip and went on his way. If the entrance to the hotel left Tom in awe, that was nothing compared to what he felt when he saw his room.
The door opened into a lavish living area, equipped with a wall-mounted forty inch television set. Beneath it was a cabinet that contained snacks and enclosed within it was the mini-bar. Opposite to the television were leather sofas, a three-seater and two arm chairs. Tom moved further along to see a glass dining table with six chairs as well as study table carved into the wall. On either side of the study were windows overlooking the city. At the end of the room, lay the bed. It was a magnificent king size, immaculately made with white linen sheets, several pillows and with a blanket neatly tucked in at the end of it. Tom took one look at it, before leaping on to it, and falling into a deep, undisturbed sleep.
He awoke nearly two hours later to hear the ring of his phone. It was his wife. He vaguely mumbled something about where he was and that he would call her later that night. He then lazily got up, and made his way to the bathroom for a refreshing shower. He changed into fresh clothes before making it down to the restaurant for the complimentary buffet dinner.
The lavishness of the spread matched the level of expectation that Tom had, and even though he didn’t find the food quite as tasty as he would have preferred, he still gorged on just about everything he could find. Chicken Vindaloo, Grilled Fish with Lemon sauce, Fusili Pasta in tomato sauce were just a few of the many items he repeatedly filled his plate with. The desserts didn’t disappoint either. There were two separate puddings, a chocolate mousse, ice cream and gulab jamun and some kind of payasam. When he felt he could eat no more, Tom returned to his room. He made a quick call back home to talk to his kids, before asking his wife not to call him until later on the next morning as the meeting was expected to start very early. Tom spent the remainder of the night plopped on his bed, surfing through the television until he fell asleep.
The next morning, he woke up late. It was a welcome change from his daily routine. Once again he freshened up and changed before venturing down for the next meal. As he was making his way to the restaurant, a woman, distracted as she was fumbling with her handbag, inadvertently bumped into him.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t quite see you.”
Tom stared at her for a few seconds. She was a middle aged woman, probably in her late thirties. She was fair and had round, brown eyes, which matched the shade of her thick hair which was left open. She was wearing a white cotton shirt and slacks and looked to Tom like she was slightly lost. Tom smiled at her before waving away her apology.
“That’s all right. You stay here?”
“No. I had to meet someone at a place nearby. By the time we finished, I felt famished. This was the only place around.”
“Oh, but I’m afraid this place serves breakfast only to guests who stay here.”
“Oh dear! Do you know if there is any other place nearby?”
“Why go to all the trouble? Why don’t you join me, at my table?”
“Are you sure? I mean, if it wouldn’t trouble you. I’m just so hungry”.
“Please, it would be my pleasure.”
“Thanks a lot. I’m Nithya”.
“Hi Nithya. I’m Tom.”
Tom led her to the restaurant. He secretly chastised himself for not having combed his hair, or worn cologne, or better clothes. They were admitted into the restaurant and over the course of the meal, got to talking. She seemed a pleasant conversationalist, even though Tom would probably not have cared even if she was mute. Tom continued to engage her by asking questions about anything he could think of.
Once they had eaten (Tom took care to not devour quite so much, and to be more of a gentleman with his eating habits), Tom invited her up to his room so that they could continue the conversation. She looked a little taken aback.
“Look, Tom we’ve just met. I mean, you seem like a nice person and all, but I’m not so sure about….”
“It’ll just be for a chat, don’t worry. Whenever you feel uncomfortable, you can leave.”
She still looked slightly hesitant before reluctantly agreeing. She took out her phone, a rather old Nokia model and pressed a few buttons before replacing it in her bag.
As she did so, for a flittering second, there was a different expression on her face. Tom would have missed it had he not been continuously staring at her face. He couldn’t tell whether it was excitement or fear. But it disappeared almost instantaneously and Tom decided not to probe. He couldn’t quite believe his luck. I’m going to get more than my money’s worth, Tom thought, grinning to himself.
He led her towards the elevator and through the second floor corridors before stopping in front of room 205. He took her bag from her before placing it on the coffee table and leading her to the sofa.
“Quite a heavy bag you’ve got here. What’s in it?” Tom asked
Tom made it a point to sit right next to her on the three-seater, despite there being plenty of room on the other sofas. He was about to say something else when his phone rang.
It was his kids calling to wish him for his birthday. He made a beeline for the bedroom as he didn’t want Nithya to know he was married. He tried to keep the conversation brief, but the kids went on and on. It seemed like it was ages before he finally hung up. He was secretly glad that his wife wasn’t on the phone, otherwise the conversation would have stretched on endlessly.
Nithya meanwhile, had opened the newspaper, on the coffee table and began to read. He noticed that she was reading one of the serialized novels that appeared on weekends.
“It’s quite an awesome room, isn’t it? Right in the middle of the hotel. Neither too high nor too low. Tom said, once again taking a seat as close to her as possible.
“Yes yes. You’re right of course. It’s the perfect location.”
What are you reading? Must be some sort of love story, isn’t it?” he quipped.
“A different type of love story” she replied with a faraway look in her eyes.
“For a woman like you? Let me guess. Following your passions and dreams, getting a job, recognition in society etc etc etc isn’t it?”
She ignored that and replaced the book back in her handbag. Once again she pulled out her cell-phone and this time Tom recognized it- it was an old Nokia 2700. He had the same model about a decade ago. He looked at the phone before playfully snatching it out of her hand.
“What good is this ancient piece? Belongs in an antique store. People, particularly those as attractive as you, should be using something more like this.”
Saying so, he whipped out his own Samsung touch screen phone from his pocket and began to boast of its superior features. He even clicked a picture of her on the pretext of showing off the clarity of the camera. She was taken aback, but she did not say anything other than to politely ask for her own phone back. She held it gingerly and the distant look in her eyes had returned.
“What’s so special about this phone?” he asked her.
“You seem to be such a curious man. Always asking questions. Let me ask you a question. What happens when you press the buttons on your phone?”
“Anything you want. You can place a call, send an sms, click a photo, disconnect a call, you know…” Tom described.
“But on this phone, something else happens. A different kind of disconnection.”
Suddenly, Tom’s phone rang. It was Sherly this time, wondering about his plans for the evening. He impassively answered the call and told his wife that he would call her later before quickly hanging up again.
“Your wife? You should’ve talked to her. You seem as though you’re avoiding her”.
“Nah, no need. She keeps doing this every time I travel. Calls for every little thing”.
“Oh, but you know, this time things are very different. Everything as you know it is soon about to change.
Her tone had become much more mystical and the pitch of her voice was so soft that she was almost whispering. Tom looked at her, curiosity gradually beginning to replace his façade of charm.
“Why, what’s so special about today?”
“Oh, nothing at all. It’s perfect. Just like this room. Only one entrance and exit. Right in the middle of the hotel. Most convenient. Most predictable. No one will ever suspect a thing.”
His curiosity was now almost completely replaced by a feeling of nervous tension. His forehead crinkled, and he automatically started inching back to the other end of the sofa, for the first time that morning.
“You make it sound as though you’ve got some kind of plan”.
“There’s always a plan, isn’t it? Everyone in this hotel today has a destiny. It is that destiny which binds them, you, and us together.
“Us, as in? Who are you?” he was now starting to feel a chill that had nothing to do with the air conditioning. The sun was shining brightly outside, but to him, it seemed to be enveloped by the darkness that she seemed to exude with her eerie words or demeanor.
“Me…I am the chosen one.”
“Chosen? Chosen by who?”
“By you. All of you. When you oppressed us. When you denied us our rights. When you played with our lives. All those times, you were choosing me. But enough now. Time to set things straight.”
There were no more words exchanged. She shifted so as to be able to look out the window while he was beginning to tremble with fear. He looked around to try and find some way out. His first thought was to find the phone, or fire alarm or something. But he couldn’t seem to find anything. His mind then raced with thoughts of trying to attack this lunatic and escaping.
“If you make a move, you will only hasten the inevitable” she said, twiddling her mobile phone in her hand and pointing to her handbag on the coffee table in front of them.
“Nnnnno..you wouldn’t dare..there are laws here. You can’t expect to get away with this”.
She had now begun to stare at him coldly. He was now desperate to avoid eye contact.
“Laws never protected us so far. So why should I care about breaking it?”
Tom tried to change his tone. He was now beginning to plead. “Look, I’m a normal, middle class man. I just came here to take a break and have a good time for a change. Most of the residents here are like me. And the staff. What about their families? Please don’t do this.”
“Yes, perhaps many are good, innocent people. But there are some who lie and don’t even like their wife calling them.”
He gave a start. He was now nearly on the verge of tears.
“No, it’s not like that. She’s my wife. I do love her. We have two young kids. Aren’t you a woman? Don’t you have a family too? No woman should be thinking such thoughts.”
She now turned to face him and the sunlight reflected through the window and shone off the back of her head giving it an even scarier contour to go with her expression of serene, taciturn, malevolence.
“Death never distinguishes based on gender. And neither do we.”
“Pppleasee. I bought you breakfast. I tried to help you. Can’t you spare me for helping you out?”
She laughed. It was a sound which shook Tom to the very core.
“Both of us know why you did that don’t we? I’m glad though. I needed a way into the hotel. And you bumped into me. It was meant to be.”
“Whhhoo are you? Al Qaeda? ISIS? Naxals?”
“Even if you don’t us recognize now, tomorrow, the whole world will.”
He was now finding it difficult to swallow. He was starting to sweat, but tried hard to put up a brave front.
“Nnno, I won’t believe this. If this were the truth, you wouldn’t have told me about it.”
She maintained a stoic silence and had now started to smile unnervingly. She turned and began to look out the window again.
“Bbbut if this happens,won’t you die as well?”
“Yes, of course. Liberation is our ultimate aim”
He was now frightened as he had never been before. He looked around desperately, afraid to make any move due to her threat. He secretly wished he had woken up a few minutes earlier or later and gone to the restaurant at a different time. He wished he had never met her or invited her up to his place. He wished that he had never come to this wretched hotel in the first place. He glanced up and saw the plain, harmless-looking handbag. Once again, fear was the feeling that took precedence- the fear of what would happen next. What could he do?
Tom was gripped by a mounting, intense feeling of dread. He thought about the other people that he had seen over the past few hours at the hotel. The pretty, young receptionist. A young couple he had seen in the corridor, probably lovers, or newlyweds, along with their friends. A woman with a small child that had begun to cry, much to his annoyance, during last night’s dinner. So many lives that would be affected by one incident. The sense of helplessness and terror was almost overwhelming but Tom kept telling himself to stay firm and to not lose control of his mind. He had never felt so sad.
“My wife, Sherly, she’s a poor, innocent woman. Full of kindness, no arrogance or defiance; she’s lived like a slave since the first day of our marriage, but I never appreciated her. If something happens to me, she wouldn’t be able to bear it. And my children. They’re so young. If they were to be orphaned…” the first teardrop rolled silently down Tom’s cheek as he looked imploringly at the young woman seated beside him. She looked back at him, eyes full of nothing but malice. Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
“Don’t be wise. Thirty seconds to send them off” Nithya warned him.
Tom could barely stand. With his body trembling all over, he slowly made his way to the door before opening. He blinked again and again for he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“What happened Tom? Why’s your voice shaking? Is everything all right?”
“Get out of here! Save yourself.” Tom whispered urgently.
Nithya had slowly crept behind them, unnoticed by Tom.
“I asked you to surprise him. Not turn him into an incoherent, nervous wreck!” Sherly said.
Tom was standing still, hearing her voice but unable to respond or process it. Nithya reached over, smiling widely, and gave Sherly a hug. Tom still couldn’t quite process what was happening.
“Tom, Nithya is a friend from college. She arrived recently from the US. When I called your office yesterday to try and reach you, they told me there was no conference that you were supposed to engage in. Then last night you told me where you were. Since Nithya was in town, I told her to come and surprise you until I could reach. You look like a ghost. What kind of web has she been spinning?” Sherly asked, unable to suppress a grin.
The two women were now smiling and talking to each other like the long-lost friends they were.
“Hey Tom, no hard feelings I hope? Acting is one of my hobbies so this wasn’t too hard to pull off. I was making it up as I went along. Not bad, right? Anyway, wish you a very happy birthday. Hope you had a blast!”