This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
The mildew had got to the picture. The ends nibbled off by the silver fish, the gloss faded away, and the yellowness creeping into the picture as if time had finally broken into the barriers that the picture so staunchly tried to protect.
I squinted, willing my brain to remember the details as I gazed intently at the picture – Two girls – I tried harder, harder. Something that I could recall?
Anything at all?
Nothing. Blank. Void.
A sense of uneasiness clutched at my heart, and all this effort made me weary. I closed my eyes, rested my head on the pillow and let out a sigh. Who were those girls? The thought ricocheted back and forth in my mind and I knew that I wouldn’t be getting any sleep now. My mind was all worked up with this conundrum so I picked up the picture again.
The left hand corner had a date – 12/31/1998.
Fourteen years. Time would have caught up with those girls and they would be practically adults now. Fourteen years is a long time. Just thinking about this passage of time made me wonder how time had treated me in fourteen years.
I wasn’t sure. Had time left its marks on me just like it had done on the picture? Were my edges frayed off too? Had the yellowness started making a home in my being, the wrinkles spreading its roots from the eye to the corners of my mouth?
I didn’t know, and the fact that I didn’t know made me edgy – panicky – breathless. I scanned the room for a mirror. There was none. I opened the bedside stand’s drawers.
Top – No mirror.
Middle – No mirror.
Bottom – No mirror.
I looked around the room, the walls were bare – not even a single portrait or wall hanging. The ceiling had no fan either. The windows barred, with blue curtains that tried to hide the ugliness of it all. Everything was bare, white and cold. These walls seemed to scream out obscenely, pleading for scribbles that were made by a child or finger smudges along the wall, paint scrapped off by moving furniture; pleading for any evidence of life within the room just to justify its own existence. But there was none.
I covered my ears, my eyes closed on their own. I had to focus. I needed a mirror. And there had to be one in the bath. I lifted myself from the bed taking support of the headrest, my white gown unfurled like a flag from my knees to my ankles. The slippers lay arranged symmetrically by the side of the bed, mocking me by their display of control, so I ignored it and walked slowly towards the bathroom. I turned the doorknob and pushed the door open, walked in a step or two and glanced about the room. A shower and a toilet adjacent to it and in the opposite corner the ubiquitous white wash basin, but there was no mirror above it.
I blinked. I shuffled my way towards the basin, wondering if my eyes were deceiving me. I gazed above the basin, indeed there was no mirror. But there used to be one. On the white wall, the oval black outline caused by the previous occupant of that place stood out, protesting for justice at having been exposed and then ignored. I fingered the black circle, slowly with my fingers. Once. Twice. Moving my fingers gently around it. The fingers seemed pale, or was it the light that made it seem so? And the nails on these fingers appeared to be trimmed, but in what looked like a hurriedly done job. The edges were rough; the skin around them rough as well, like it had been chewed. And my arms! There hardly seemed any flesh on them, and what were those short white fading marks like sharp slashes on the wrists? I touched those lines tentatively and it seemed as if they were burning, as if a fire was raging underneath it. What had time done to me? Where was the mirror?
I hurried as fast as I could back into the bedroom and headed for the door. I turned the knob and tried pulling at the door. It didn’t open. I tried with all my strength but to the same result. Why was the door closed from outside? Panic was building up at delirious speed and my palms were getting greasy with the sudden sweat. I tried shaking the door, again and again. But except for making a rattling noise, success still eluded me. At some point I realized I had started screaming involuntarily, running away from the door and then back to it like one of those clockwork toys. I started banging at the door, speaking in broken sentences, incoherent words, going back and forth from the door to the bed, and back to the door again.
Where was the picture? I paused. I scanned the room – there it lay with its face turned up near the bathroom door. I approached it, hesitatingly. Something didn’t seem right.
Did one of the girls in the picture move? No, I was just hallucinating. No wait. The girl in the pink bathing suit moved again. She turned her head towards me; yes she is now looking at me.
I held my breath. The girl in the pink dress beckons me with her fingers. My breath quickens as I reach closer and closer. Is that a tear? Yes, the girl is crying now. Why is she crying? I can feel tears stinging my own eyes.
“Don’t cry” I whisper. “Everything will be fine…”
“I don’t want to die, mommy”, the girl in the pink bathing suit says.
I stop right in my tracks. My heart stops beating, the silence is getting louder and louder, my eardrums reverberate with all the quiet noise. The walls it seems are closing down on me.
The girl in the blue suit turns to look at me. She looks just like the pink one. Twins.
My hands start shaking uncontrollably, my legs are trembling and they longer can stand the weight of my body or perhaps of my soul. I fall down and begin crawling towards the picture.
“I don’t want to die, mommy” the girl in the blue bathing suit says, mimicking her sister.
I take the picture in my hand, “I will protect you…protect you” – The only words that keep coming out from my lips. I stroke the picture, the girls hair. Again and Again. Rocking back and forth, I sing a song. To help put the girls to sleep.
It soothes me as well. So I sing, smiling at the girls and they smile back. The moment feels special, sacred, yet fragile and that frightens me. I look around the room for any signs of danger. Yes, there is danger behind the door. I can hear footsteps, voices approaching the room.
I need to hide the girls. I crawl towards the bed and slide myself underneath it. The darkness seems comforting and I welcome it with open arms. I check on the girls, they are back to their original position just as the door to the room opens.
I can see three pairs of feet – one woman in black peep-toe with damaged heels and two men in black shoes. Coincidentally they all seem to be wearing white. I hold my breath and still myself to prevent disclosing my presence. But clearly these are clever people for they immediately look under the bed.
“Not again”, a male voice says.
“Come out Amy” the female voice says. “Don’t make it harder than it already is for you”
Her voice is soft, concerned and encouraging. My mind is in a dilemma on how to approach the situation, my physical strength dwindling with rapid speed. I oblige and I crawl out.
“You have the picture again” she said in a reprimanding voice.
I cast my eyes down, guilty as a child caught red handed in the midst of a prank.
After a silence spanning few seconds, I looked at her, slyly. An impish smile making its presence felt on my face. I inched closer to her, right next to her putting my mouth close to her ears.
“I knew that bastard would come home, drunk from his usual escapades. He would come home and beat me up, and then the girls – brutally with his belts, shoes, anything he found at hand. So I killed him this time. Bang. Bang. Bang.” I mimed with an imaginary gun in my hands.
She looked at me, right in my eyes without any reaction, like she had seen it and heard it all before. I stared back. Not blinking. Another smile broke onto my face.
“I will tell you a secret”, I winked at her. “I killed those girls too. My girls. I took them by the lake, we played; I took this picture. And then I drowned them. One by one. They both screamed, cried, but then they eventually fell silent.”
I laughed loudly, the statement seemed to tickle me, and I laughed till tears rolled down my eyes. And then the laughter out of nowhere merged into a wail, loud at first then just empty, no sound, no words.
I rubbed my arm near the elbow. It felt like a sharp object had pricked me, breaking me out of my reverie. Though I felt tired I was unwilling to go back to the bed, but had to as I was coerced gently by the two men. I looked at them suspiciously, contemplating who they were, but it was an effort to keep my eyes open. Sleep was closing in on me. One of them held a picture in his hand of two girls by a lake.
Who were those girls? I wondered…