|Word count: 2027.
Manu and his buddies decided to spend the week long vacation that coincided with New Year in the nearby hill station. Manu’s dad owned a flat in an apartment building in Lonawala, a small town nestling in the lap of the mountains, close to Mumbai, in western India. This facility gave them a chance to be by themselves and make the best of their holiday.
The three bachelor boys in their late twenties rented a sports car, and took off to the accompaniment of blaring raucous music, early on Friday afternoon. It was just a three-hour enjoyable drive from Mumbai. All three of them worked for a foreign bank in the busy industrial capital of India. They had no responsibilities and the pay was good. They shared a three-room flat besides a taste for fast cars, booze, blaring music and good time girls. Youth and money combined with unfettered freedom make a heady brew that goes right to the brain shooting at sense and sensibility point blank.
Of average height, lean and smart, Manu’s best feature was his set of blue eyes. His engaging manner, and the lover-boy image worked magic with girls making them gyrate around him like there was no salvation other than attracting his attention.
The Sun was just a fading red ball when they reached the small town that overlooked a deep green valley on the one hand, and the tall mountains dotted with tiny wild flowers of every hue, on the other. The sky was a riot of colors making the evening look like a bride glittering in sparkling jewelry. The valley wore a dark green sheen, and the breeze was cool and welcoming.
A few children were playing cricket in the empty parking lot of the apartment. Spotting their car, Hari, the watchman of the building, hastened to help them with unloading baggage from the boot.
Manu nodded to him in acknowledgement, and pointed to the bags to be taken up to his flat. As they approached the lift, a couple of teenagers were coming out.
“Hello Manu! Great to see you again,” said a brown-eyed boy while tossing a basketball between his hands.
“Hiya boys, we’ll have a game in a couple of hours. Okay?”
“We will be around, just give us a shout when you’re ready.”
After a couple hours in the playfield nearby, the exhausted trio returned to the flat. Amit called a nearby hotel that door delivered food, and ordered fried chicken, vegetable kofta and lots of chapaties with several side dishes. Drinks were on Ramesh who carried them anyway.
With a warm meal tucked in, and the night still young with a yellow moon rising behind tall pines, the young men were game for a casual chat over a drink or two.
“How about saying hello to the young couple living across boys?” asked a restless Manu.
“Why don’t you go first? We’ll join you if you get invited inside,” said Amit smiling.
“Ok, let me test the waters,” rejoined Manu walking out.
To his good luck, Manu found a tall guy who was just about to enter his flat. He quickly walked up to him, and said with a half smile,
“Hi, I am Manu. A couple of friends and I just came in from Mumbai for a holiday.”
The young man turned to him and said, “Hi, I am Ajay. Why don’t you come in? We just moved in too. We do not know anyone around yet.”
Manu went in with Ajay who looked about a couple of years his senior. A decent man obviously.
Manu recoiled as he stepped into the flat. There was something unwelcoming about the place, he felt. A sudden cold draught blew in through the tall window, fluttering the silk curtain with vertical crimson lines. They looked as if blood flowed from above in straight lines. The atmosphere felt unfriendly, and almost hostile with shadows lurking in the corners. Manu shivered. He fought against an urge to leave.
A young woman came from inside sensing their presence. Fair, and of well-defined features, she said “Hello,” to both, a smile playing on her face, her teeth flashing white between cherry red lips. Long black hair hung along her straight back. A pale green top and a cream-colored skirt encased her fetching figure.
“My wife Rita. Sweetie, this is Manu; he and his friends just came in for holidays. They stay in the flat opposite,” Ajay introduced them.
“Do have some tea with us please,” invited Rita. Manu was more than willing to stay and talk to them, his earlier feeling of disquiet disappearing instantly.
They were talking about their jobs, when they heard a ‘thud’ and a ‘crash’ from within. Ajay rushed in with Manu at his elbow. They saw Rita sprawled on the kitchen floor with a glazed look in her unseeing eyes. Shards of glass were strewn about.
Both tried to help her get up. She twisted her head right around and looked at Manu and said, “Don’t you dare touch me, you scoundrel,” she seethed in a low growling voice.
“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” said a shocked Manu. Rita’s manner reminded him of someone he thought he had long forgotten.
Suddenly, like a panther about to pounce, Rita stood up and caught Manu’s throat in a vice-like grip with her hands.
“I have been waiting for you for so long. Now I won’t leave till you join me. Remember that night Manu? The night you spoke of a sweet future for both of us but gave me something else,” the hiss and the low menace in Rita’s voice terrified the listeners.
“Ritu darling, what happened to you?” cried a dismayed Ajay. He shook her hard holding her shoulders. Rita wilted and fainted. Ajay carried her into the bedroom and put her on the bed.
“Oh God my head aches, Ajay get me some pain balm please,” moaned Rita as soon as cool water was sprinkled on her face. Both Ajay and Manu were gaping at her in awe.
“Why, what happened? Why are you looking at me like I am a ghost?” asked Rita, her brow creased in confusion.
“Nothing to worry. You just fainted for a bit; could be due to the strain,” said Ajay still off color at what preceded.
Manu left a little later, moving like a somnambulist.
His mind switched on to his college years, and those wild times when the world was his oyster. Innumerable number of girls moved in and out of his life. But Shalini was altogether a different kettle of fish. When she bombed him with the news of her pregnancy, and the need for them to marry, Manu looked at her as if she lost her mind. To him, life was too short to be tied down to a single girl.
Shalini was over the stars when Manu suggested a short stay at his dad’s flat in Lonawala.
After a couple of days, she said,
“Manu darling, you know my sister lives here. I want to visit her today.”
“Sure my love. I’ll keep the dinner warm,” Manu said cheerfully.
Shalini returned late at night. She wrapped herself around Manu in a fond embrace. He loosened her arms from around him, and said a bit impatiently,
“Why don’t you freshen up? After dinner we can go for a drive.”
“I love to drive on a moonlit road,” gushed Shalini.
They gazed down the silent valley covered in moonlight. As she looked at the silver clouds dreamily, she never visualized the diabolic intent glinting in her lover’s eyes. Her scream echoed through the valley fading quickly into the depths below.
Manu woke up from a restless night of burning memories. They were like resurrected ghosts wreaking vengeance on him.
Amit and Ramesh seemed to have gone on that jog they were talking about.
He heard a knock and got up to answer the door. He slid the door half open, Rita swept in carrying something.
“Hi Manu! I made some breakfast for you guys,” said a smiling Rita.
“Oh hello, come in please.”
As she stepped in, the door got shut. She turned to Manu and looking askance, said in a changed voice, “Manu I love you too too much.”
She ran across to a terrified Manu and pushed him to the bed.
“Go away. I will kill you,” he said trapped in fear. She pulled him up with ease and slammed him against the wall. He heard her gnashing teeth and saw her fixed stare, empty and snake-like. A thin trickle of blood started flowing from his temple.
“Please go away. What do you want?” Manu started whimpering.
“How do you think I felt falling into the darkness?” she asked.
Manu felt himself whirling round and round and then thrown to the hard floor face down. He could feel blood pouring down his face, and then he heard his arm crack, crunching under his weight. Terror and pain tore through him. He gazed up at Rita. He went cold with shock. She looked about ten feet tall as she bent down to turn the heavy cot on him. He sank into blackness.
“How did you get all those injuries buddy? You were sleeping like a log when we went out,” said Amit. They found Manu bleeding and unconscious when they returned from their jog; rang for an ambulance and admitted him to a nearby hospital.
“ Oh, yes. I slipped in the damned bath and never knew what happened later,” answered Manu whose world went topsy-turvy in minutes.
He was discharged from the hospital after a day. His arm was in a sling, and luckily, his other injuries were not serious. He feared the night, the dark dreams and the ghostly presence. He sat in the balcony to escape the agony of torturous loneliness. The night was silent. It was another full moon night, the mountains were like sleeping monsters, dark outlines against the cold silver moonlight. His eyelids started drooping.
He felt cold hands shaking him. When he looked up, he saw a pair of glittering snake’s eyes, with white eyelashes. Manu shrieked but his voice came out in a feeble hiccup. A vague white shape led him to the door, which creaked open.
“Hi Manu! How about a drive in the cool night?” Ajay and Rita were about to go out. Manu remained silent, still lost in the hard glitter of the “eyes”. Ajay helped him get into the lift and then into the car.
“You and your friends will leave tomorrow I guess,” said Ajay.
“Yes, we are due for reporting back to work,” Manu’s word came out in a tired whisper.
“ We’ll miss you guys, Manu.”
The cool breeze and the soft seat lulled Manu to sleep.
They drove into a park. Ajay stopped the car and went around to help Manu out.
“Oh, he fell asleep, sweetheart, watch him while I go get some hot snacks and drinks. He might wake up by then. Poor guy never thought his holidays would turn into such a nightmare,” said Ajay to Rita.
Rita nodded, “Ok, love.”
Manu felt as if he was floating in the clouds. His eyes snapped open and he saw Rita dressed in a white sari was walking on the embankment with him.
“ Wasn’t that a beautiful night Manu, the night you brought me here?” Shalini’s sweet voice rang in his ears.
“Go away, you devil. I’ll kill you again.” Manu felt the sting of a slap cracking his jaw. Pain and tears blurred his vision.
“Why did you do it Manu? Why did you ruin my beautiful dream?” she kept walking towards him, as he edged to the valley's bank.
“Come with me Manu, where you belong,” she shook with outrageous laughter echoing in the surrounding emptiness. Manu felt buffeted in the suddenly raging wind. The moon eclipsed under the dark clouds. The white shape chased him. He stepped over the ledge trying to run away. He heard himself screaming just like Shalini on a distant fateful night, as he plunged into the abysmal depths of darkness.