Rahul lay wide awake in the dark, dark night.
He looked up at the plain ceiling of his city room and tried to count sheep. But he was not used to it. When he was in the countryside, his bed used to face the window and every time he couldn’t fall asleep, he counted the stars outside, hanging like countless lanterns on a dark canvass. But here, all he could see was a faint gray sky with a definitely countable number of stars. When he counted that there were exactly 186 stars visible from his window and re-counted them, just to be sure, he still could not fall asleep.
He tried reading his half finished novel but he could not concentrate on the words. He sighed, and putting the book down stared at the walls of his room.
The reason for his insomnia was definitely the house. And it was not just because it was so different from his previous home. True, the walls were painted a bright green which was vastly different from the austere white of his previous home; the furniture was comparatively more and though everything was arranged neatly, he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong.
He did not believe in ghosts, not really. He did not believe in the supernatural, yet he felt haunted by something. The unease which had started as he neared the house, decreased drastically when Charan had first opened the door that evening. He did not know what he expected but the hall was normal. Mostly everything was as he remembered. Small objects were missing but the main furniture was as it was. The carpet under the tea-pai had vanished, which was definitely a relief for him as he remembered people looking at it with distaste due to its shocking bright red color but that was all.
He should have been comfortable back home, living once again in the familiar rooms, using the furniture he grew up with but there was a distinct nagging at the back of his brain which would not let him rest. With all these thoughts racing through his head, Rahul finally fell into a troubled sleep.
The next morning he was woken up by the noise of traffic driving past. He pulled himself out from his bed and after performing his ablutions, went out into the hall. The flat was a 2 bedroom residence with a balcony overlooking the small area in the apartment they had as a playing area for the children. The hall was in the shape of an ‘L’. The longer arm acted as dining area while the shorter arm acted as the hall. There was a sofa and 2 chairs arranged in the shape of a ‘U’ with a tea-pai in the hollow part. The open ended part of the ‘U’ arrangement faced the front door.
Charan was already at the table eating maggi out of a bowl. He gestured for him to come and sit down and placed another bowl in front of him.
“Slept well, son?” he asked, scooping the noodles from a utensil and into the bowl.
“Couldn’t catch a wink,” replied Rahul, grabbing for the fork. Rahul did not call Charan ‘Dad’ anymore. He left that habit somewhere on his teenage journey. Besides, looking at Charan no one would believe that he was the father of a 17-year old son. He looked barely past late twenties, definitely early thirties. But Rahul knew for a fact that his dad was 43 years old now. But still, calling him ‘Dad’ felt wrong to him somehow.
“I felt uncomfortable,” he continued.
“Bound to,” replied Charan, forking the noodles. “You came to the city after a year. Everything must feel different to you.”
“No, it wasn’t that. It was as if my brain was hyper-active. I keep on thinking about something.”
“Like what?” Charan said after a moment’s pause.
“I dunno. It’s like I forgot something. It’s definitely this house. It’s making me feel that way.”
Charan put down his now empty bowl and stood up.
“I bet it’s the change of environment. Well, you’ll adjust eventually. Don’t forget to put your bowl in the kitchen once you’re done.”
Saying this, Charan went into the kitchen. Rahul was not convinced but he ate the rest of his maggi in silence. Charan returned presently from the kitchen and plopped himself down in front of the TV. He surfed aimlessly through the channels.
There came a study thud-thud-thud sound from the balcony. Rahul recognized it as someone practicing catches with a cricket ball against a wall. He quickly finished up the noodles, deposited the bowl in the sink and rushed to the balcony to see if the boy throwing the ball was a friend of his.
Surely, there was Naveen. Naveen and he had grown up together for 6 years. Naveen had moved into the apartments an year after Rahul did. They had quickly become fast friends and as the years passed by, their friendship only grew stronger. Rahul did not remember if he had said goodbye to Naveen when he left an year ago, which was strange in itself, but Rahul pushed the thought aside. He was giddy now to meet his friend.
He quickly went into his room and came out wearing a cap, pulling it down to cover his face. It served two purposes. One, it was a sunny day and it protected his face from the heat. And two, it would serve to shock Naveen out of his wits. They had not kept in contact due to the unavailability of cell phone signals in the countryside and he could not call him up on the landline as he could not remember his number.
“I’m going to go out for a while,” he said to Charan and started to walk towards the door.
“STOP!” the sudden loud shout shocked Rahul. He turned to see Charan standing up with a sort of panicked look on his face which he thought he must have imagined as in the next second, he saw the same old contained look back.
“Where are you going?” Charan asked, with a tone which showed none of Rahul’s imagined panic.
“Down,” replied Rahul, a little piqued.
“You can’t. It’s too sunny outside!”
“Oh please! I can handle a little sun! And besides, look. I’m wearing a hat.”
“Have you put on the cream?”
“It’s just for a little while. It’s not like I’m going out of the building. It’s just down!”
“I said no. Besides, it’s the first day we’re in the city. Let’s spend some time together.”
Rahul rolled his eyes.
“What did I tell you about rolling your eyes?” Charan asked, now a little angry.
“And what did I tell you about back-talking?”
Rahul dropped it. When Charan got into his stubborn mode, there was no arguing with him. He took of his hat sulkily and started walking towards his room.
“Come let’s watch the TV together,” Charan said, reseating himself in front of the TV.
“Nah, I’d rather complete my novel,” Rahul said and went inside his room. He waited for Charan to ask again but Charan did not speak up again.
“So much for spending time together,” Rahul thought and was about to shut the door when the cell phone began to ring. Charan always kept a cell phone with him though why he did so escaped Rahul. He was the one who said there were no signals in the countryside and so did not purchase him one. And Rahul did not once hear the cell ring in the countryside.
Charan picked the phone and speaking lowly into it, raised himself from the chair and went into the kitchen. Rahul saw it as his chance and silently but quickly, opened his door, shut it soundlessly behind him and exited through the front door.
He ran down the stairs elated, both on the prospect of meeting his friend and at the fact that he fooled Charan and came out. He stopped at the bottom stair, caught his breath, pulled his hat down on his face and began walking slowly towards Naveen.
Naveen was still busy throwing his ball against the wall and did not see Rahul coming up behind him. Just as chance would have it, right when Rahul was beside Naveen the ball caught the wall at a bad angle and hit Rahul fairly on the shoulder.
“Oww,” he said, bending down and clutching his shoulder.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry,” Naveen’s voice trickled into his ear, a voice with a mild panic. “Are you okay?” he asked, helping Rahul to get up.
“I’m fine. Just a soft hit,” Rahul said, grinning. He saw the look of faint recognition dawning in Naveen’s eyes.
“Do I know you?” Naveen asked.
“Do you know me?” Rahul laughed and pulled off his hat. “I’m back,” he shouted.
And he saw the look he knew he would see when Naveen saw his face. Naveen and he had grown together for 6 years and they were practically brothers. They had so much fun together and he knew that Naveen would be overjoyed when he knew he was back, as he was now.
He was right. He laughed looking at the surprised expression on Naveen’s face. It was too comical. But he stopped laughing when he saw the surprised look turn to apprehension, then to fear and finally horror.
And out of the mouth which Rahul expected to get pleasant exclamations and warm welcomes, there arose a single horribly frightened cry.