Anirudh leaned back and looked at the ceiling; his back pressed firmly against the rocking chair. Cold sweat had drenched his entire body. He had his eyes transfixed on the fan rotating above. Slowly, he stood up, fumbled for the switch in the pitch darkness and switched it off. His hands began trembling as he clutched at a rope that was lying down in a corner. Bringing it forward, he measured it in his mind. The darkness was disturbing him to the core. The ghoulish voice from the end of the living room kept on chanting “Twenty three minutes”.
It was driving him to do something which he had never imagined. He pulled up a painter stool and climbed on it carefully, holding the rope in his right hand. “Twenty three minutes,” the voice roared from the corner. The range of urgency in that voice made him throw the rope around the ceiling fan and form a noose. “Twenty three minutes”. Once again the voice roared. He entered his neck inside the noose. With teary eyes, he muttered a final prayer to God and kicked away the stool. His legs wriggled for a few seconds and then, he was gone. Forever. The voice from the corner finally showed up its face. Dark green eyes were looking at him with a sense of triumph. Enormous amounts of loose flesh hung around ‘her’ face. Those eyes stared hard at him for a few seconds.
Anirudh stirred, swung the bedsheet off him and woke up startled. The nightmare had repeated itself for the sixth consecutive night. Not a single night he had turned off the bedside lamp for the fear of facing the identity of the voice. His trembling hands went ahead to turn off the lamp. But the next second he decided not to. When he had turned it off the previous days, it had mysteriously turned on by itself. Not only the bedside lamp. It had happened with all the lights in his house. They would turn on by themselves even if he had turned them off. The recurring nightmares and the lights in his home clearly indicated the presence of a spirit. But he was a non-believer of ghosts. Not even the nightmares or the mysterious lights could bring in a faint hope in his mind that there might be a spirit loitering in his house. He dismissed the lights as faulty ones and he had even decided to buy new light bulbs that evening. He looked at the wall clock. It was 8 AM. It was time for him to go to office.
After a lukewarm shower, Anirudh set about his day. He had bread omelette and a tasteless coffee for breakfast, all the while remembering how wonderful Shivani’s morning meal would have been. Even though they had many misunderstandings between them, when it came to food, Shivani’s cooking skills were unbeatable. He would regularly wake up to a mouth-watering scrumptious meal which she would have prepared for him, mostly it would be a plate of delicious poha with a tall glass of nimbu paani. He would savor in the taste of the dish until he kissed her a goodbye to office. This is all the past, he reminded himself bitterly.
As a CEO of a popular apparel company in Mumbai, Anirudh was subjected to casual flirting with young and old female colleagues alike. He flirted with them apparently for two reasons: a pregnant wife and an unbearable urge to flirt with other women. A month ago, his flirtatious nature had taken a worse turn though. He began an affair with a stunning young colleague named Natasha. She didn’t possess a supermodel body or a face that could be recommended for the magazine front covers. But she did have the potential in her to seduce Anirudh. The nights that he spent with her were fantastic. What started as a mere one-night stand turned into endless encounters, sometimes daringly inside his office too. Natasha quenched his urges which his wife Shivani could not as soon as her pregnancy reached the third trimester.
Two weeks later, his infidelity was exposed. His illegal affair with Natasha was uncloaked to Shivani. He never knew whether it was a jealous colleague’s phone call who had spotted the two together around office or whether it was the perfume which smelled on him. That night after a wild frolic with Natasha, he reached home to find a fuming Shivani. With that one look from her eyes, he confirmed that everything was out in the open. It was useless to lie as she had too much information about his escapades.
So, Anirudh confessed. The consequence was a series of abuses which he had never heard from Shivani before. She threatened to leave him forever and also vowed that he would never play a role in raising their unborn child. Though his rational mind knew that he can play some tricks and make her stay with him, a mischievous grin on her face proved everything wrong. She had other plans in her mind. Anirudh had expected her to leave the house, completely extricated of her belongings. That’s what he had watched in the movies after a husband cheats on his wife. The wife packs her things and leaves the house with a pregnant stomach, filing for a divorce soon.
But Shivani was different. After an hour of her departure, she was back in the house. He saw her sitting in the living room, with her hands tapping on her big stomach. Is she going to deliver the baby? he thought. Leaving her alone in the room, he ascended to what was ‘their’ bedroom and slipped quietly into the bed.
Anirudh heard it right. The sound echoed through the entire house. He checked the time on the wall clock. It showed 4 AM. The sound he heard had come from the living room. He dashed through the corridor, climbed down the stairs and flung the living room door open. The horrendous sight answered all his questions. The sound was that of the painter stool falling to the ground with an enormous thud. He stared at his wife’s wriggling legs, her pregnant body suspended in the air. And then it was over.
Anirudh’s first reaction was to rush to the telephone and place a call to 108. It wasn’t because he wanted to save his wife but he wanted to save the living being inside her. Within a few minutes, the ambulance’s siren pierced through the silent street. As Shivani’s body was carried to the stretcher, Anirudh could hear whispers among his neighbors who had probably woken up by the siren. They were accusing him for her suicide. Nevertheless, he ignored the accusation and hopped into the ambulance along with the paramedics. He engaged in a deep prayer. He did not take notice of the police vehicles that were following the ambulance. I am not behind this. She did it for herself. His mind wanted to scream. But no words came out of his mouth. The police had no evidence against his infidelity which had abetted his wife’s suicide.
Shivani was taken inside the intensive care unit. Anirudh watched from outside as the surgeon slit her lower abdomen open. The baby was removed from the womb minutes later. It was a girl. She was alive but she was fading fast. The surgeons placed her in the incubator. Anirudh’s heart wrenched to see his daughter dying. He was to name her, an agreement which he had put along with Shivani. If it was a girl, he would name her. But at that moment, he was in no mood to give her a name. The police asked him a few questions and then concluded that Shivani had died at her own hand and he hadn’t seen any signs of suicide. After ten minutes, the news came. His daughter had died. Shivani’s death was recorded at 4.18 AM while his daughter’s was 4.41 AM. Anirudh banged his fist against the wall and for the first time, hot tears welled up in his eyes.
That was two weeks ago. Today, Anirudh had a tasteless breakfast and left for his office. The nightmare had been haunting him for the past six nights. On his way to the office, he bought new set of light bulbs for his home. Work kept him busy for the next eight hours until he realized that it was dusk and everyone had left the building. He glanced at his watch to count the amount of paperwork left. It was at that time he noticed a woman’s silhouette along his office’s open doorway. He could not recollect how long the woman had been standing there in the darkness of the hallway but he was convinced that he was being watched a few minutes prior. He mustered up the courage to speak, “Who is there?”
“Sir, haven’t you completed your work yet?” The voice was shaky and it appeared that the woman’s nose had been filled with phlegm.
Anirudh had a feeling that it might be some sales woman on her way to sell lame products. “Who are you?” he questioned again. He could not see clearly. Though he tried adjusting his eyes to the darkness of the hallway, he received only a blurred vision of the woman.
“You must not work till late night sir. Your family will be missing you.” The voice almost gargled out the words.
Anirudh felt a chill pass down his spine as soon as he heard the word ‘family’.
“They are missing you for sure.”
And that’s when Anirudh turned around and noticed dark green eyes overlooking him from the darkness. He froze. The woman’s face had inappropriate flesh and her teeth were missing. But she looked young. She was dressed completely in black and stared at him intently. What was so disturbing for him were her eyes. They were so familiar to him. He had seen those eyes somewhere. Dark green they were. And the next moment, the woman disappeared. Vanished into thin air. Anirudh felt his body stiffen with fear. He wasn’t a believer of the supernatural. But the incident that occurred moments ago made him believe in all sorts of paranormal activity. He was sure that she was the strange woman from his nightmares. He had more real life ghosts to deal with- his work pressure, his pending paperwork and his project which he had to complete within the deadline. Stress is making me see things, he thought to himself. He stood abruptly and left his cabin. While waiting for the elevator, he threw furtive glances around his shoulder to make sure that the ghost-woman wasn’t following him.
He grabbed his car keys and rushed to the parking lot. He was three feet away from his car when he heard the bloodcurdling scream from his office. He couldn’t make out whose voice it was. But certainly it wasn’t the ghost-woman’s. Someone else was in the office a few minutes before. His instinct told him to leave the place. Climbing onto his car, he sped away to his home. Upon his arrival, he knew that something was wrong with his house. The latch on his door was broken and the lights were off. He remembered that he hadn’t switched off any lights. But they were off. What was even more surprising was each and every switch had been broken. Making his way through the disturbing darkness, he lunged forward to the living room. Suddenly, there was a chuckle from one of the corners. Sweat beads formed on his head as he frantically tried to see through the darkness.
“Your family will definitely miss you sir.” It was the same gargling voice. It cackled for a long time after that. And slowly it made its appearance in front of him. The woman’s eye sockets were small. There were no teeth and loose flesh hung around her face. The dark green eyes pierced through his vision.
“You don’t know who I am. You are wondering why I am stalking you in your dreams as well as in reality. You are struggling for answers. And so, I am here to answer you now. You know, minutes ago, I murdered Natasha in the office. Poor girl! She had come to apologize for whatever had occurred. But I killed her. A single gunshot was all that I needed. That was the scream which you heard. I killed your whore. Right from the moment when you began your affair with her, your life was under your control. It wasn’t mere happenings. You were controlling it. Your conscience knew that it was wrong. But you continued. I had no other way now. So, I murdered.”
The woman’s voice was unflinching. It was cold and curt. Anirudh’s vision clouded as he asked, “But why?”
“Ha ha ha…you can ask only why. For some reason, you are refraining to ask who I am. Well, I will answer your question. Why did you distance yourself from your wife who loved you truly? What made you to sleep with that whore? And you are asking me why. I must answer who I am, to tell you why I murdered your whore.”
“Are you..de..death?” asked Anirudh in a quivering voice.
Another shrill of laughter echoed through the room.
“No, you are wrong. The time which I lived on this Earth, I was pleading you to provide me with a name. This is the body which I might have had if I had survived and grown into a woman. And these eyes, you know them very well. You saw me only for a brief moment. But I died without a name, which should have been provided by you.”
Anirudh felt a icy chill wash over him as realization dawned upon him. The woman continued, “Yes, mom has asked me to bring you along with me. As you are my dad, she told me to be soft upon you. That’s why I am still speaking with you.”
Anirudh stared hard into his dead daughter’s eyes who had no regrets in haunting her father. His conscience hurt. He felt ashamed of his very existence. He knew there was no other way but to join his loving wife and his daughter.
The ghost-woman tottered close to him and asked, “Do you know how long I lasted inside the incubator?”
“Twenty three minutes,” Anirudh whispered back as he could feel his body turning numb with cold.
His daughter laughed uproariously and repeated, “Twenty three minutes.” And then she vanished.
Anirudh leaned back and looked at the ceiling; his back pressed firmly against the rocking chair. Cold sweat had drenched his entire body. He had his eyes transfixed on the fan rotating above. When did the fan start rotating? Slowly, he stood up, fumbled for the switch in the pitch darkness and switched it off. His hands began trembling as he clutched at a rope that was lying down in a corner. Bringing it forward, he measured it in his mind. The darkness was disturbing him to the core. The ghoulish voice of his daughter kept on chanting “Twenty three minutes”. It was driving him to do something which he had never imagined. He pulled up the painter stool and climbed on it carefully, holding the rope in his right hand. “Twenty three minutes,” her voice roared from the corner. The range of urgency in her voice made him throw the rope around the ceiling fan and form a noose. “Twenty three minutes”. Once again she roared. He entered his neck inside the noose. With teary eyes, he muttered a final prayer to God and kicked away the stool. His legs wriggled for a few seconds and then, he was gone. Forever.