“Rhea?” a muffled voice called out to her. “Rhea! What happened?” The voice was louder this time. Almost with a jolt, Rhea snapped out of her trance. “What happened to you just now?” Sanjay asked. Rhea shook her head and shrugged. Sanjay peered at Rhea tentatively and asked, “Are you sure?” Rhea nodded emphatically.
They both looked down at the news article they had come across. “Daughter dead, father missing”, it read. “Depressing stuff!” Sanjay declared. Rhea nodded silently.
Sanjay Kapur and Rhea Mathur were best friends since either of them could remember. They had lived close to each other and studied in the same school, even in the same section. Theirs was an intimacy that could come only after many years of friendship. Right now they were flipping through a newspaper to while away time during their library period. From the corner of his eye, Sanjay looked at Rhea again, trying to be as subtle as he could. Rhea had grown into such a pretty young woman. Sanjay had always felt extremely protective of her, timid Rhea. She was always a little odd growing up, attracting the wrath of all kinds of troubles, bullies, accidents, injuries, you name it. Sanjay could not help but feel a sense of wonder about her making it to her 16th birthday.
Rhea, on the other hand, was busy scribbling on her notepad. Talking did not appeal to her. Drawing, on the other hand, was therapeutic, an outlet.
The bell rang and Rhea looked up from her scrap-book.
“Physics”, Sanjay said with a pained expression on his face. This made Rhea smile. Sanjay was at the top of his class in all subjects, all but Physics. Rhea suspected that it had a lot to do with the teacher rather than the subject. Sardana sir, the physics teacher, constantly undermined Sanjay in his class. It had been quite a mystery to Rhea, until the day she accidentally bumped into Sardana sir.
“Come on! I can’t give him more of a reason to hate me!” Sanjay urged. Rhea promptly shut her scrapbook and got up to follow Sanjay, her book clutched tightly to her chest.
As they walked back towards their classroom, Sanjay asked her, “Are you ever going to let me look at that scrapbook of yours?” Rhea just shrugged shyly and looked away. Truth was, she could never let anyone look at her scrapbook. Rhea had a secret, a terrifying one. One she was determined she would never let anyone find out.
Sardana sir’s class was exceptionally hard on everyone. 11th grade physics was definitely no picnic, add to the fact that their teacher had a terrifying presence, did not help the class. The only one who managed to please this teacher, Rahul, was Sardana sir’s protégé. “And just as creepy as his master”, Rhea thought to herself.
Rhea tried to breathe a lungful of air to try to steady herself. She had recently increased her meditation time, as her visions were getting more and more vivid. Waking hours are still manageable, Rhea thought to herself, but shuddered when she thought about going to sleep.
She reached into her bag and pulled out the talisman her aunt had given her. The only one who knew her secret. Manju masi knew, and helped Rhea since she was a little girl and started getting visions that she could not make any sense of. In the beginning they were not even visions, just sensations. Some of the visions were good, soothing, but most were absolutely terrifying. Rhea’s parents were doctors, and Rhea had no siblings. Manju masi, however, was always around. “Thank god”, Rhea thought, feeling grateful to have someone help her through this. She absentmindedly rubbed the talisman in her hands to help soothe the rising feeling of alarm in her belly. This was normal in Sardana sir’s class.
Rhea’s mind drifted to when she had bumped into him around 3 months ago. She had felt it, the loathing he felt for children. She remembered being shaken by the absolute abhorrence he felt for his pupils, Sanjay in particular. “Why Sanjay?” She wondered, looking in his direction. As she looked at him, she realized that her best friend was catching the glances of many females in the classroom. Rhea smiled to herself. Sanjay had almost overnight grown into the tallest boy in the class. He had chiseled features that Rhea loved to trace in her spare time. Rhea was suddenly reminded of her other drawings and felt a violent shudder cross her spine. She slowly pulled out of her coat, the newspaper article they were reading the library. “Daughter dead, father missing”, she re-read.
“RHEA!” She heard Sardana sir’s voice boom across the classroom. She looked up from the newspaper, to see the entire classroom turned towards her. “Yes sir?” She asked in a barely audible whisper. “This is not your drawing room, put that newspaper away and come solve this equation on the board.
Rhea gingerly stashed away the newspaper and stood up, clutching her desk for support. Her legs felt like rubber and her palms were spouting showers of sweat. She kept wiping her hands on her skirt, as she felt her heart beat out of her now crimson red face. She cautiously took the chalk from Sardana sir’s hand and froze.
“What is going on, will you please tell me?” Sanjay asked Rhea as she lay bundled up on her bed, beneath multiple layers of sheets, trying to shut the world out. This was not new to Sanjay, but there was something very wrong this time. Growing up, Rhea had had such moments innumerable times. Where her eyes would become glazed, her lower lip would start trembling and her body would become stiff, as if out of some instant terror. Sanjay had learned to live these incidents here and there, but never had it happened twice in a day, and definitely never in front of an entire classroom full of students.
“I saw the look on your face, Rhea.” Sanjay urged, “It was not that equation that had you so terrified, something else is going on. So will you please just tell me?”
Just then, Sanjay’s phone buzzed. “It’s your mom.” Sanjay told Rhea. Rhea suddenly sat bolt upright in her bed, “You told her?” She asked, accusingly. “Rhea, you fainted in front of the entire class. I’m sure she got the news from many other sources.” Sanjay answered the phone, “Hi Aunty!.... Yeah she’s ok” Sanjay took the call outside Rhea’s room.
“It was him” Rhea thought, “He killed the girl in the article.” She had witnessed violent visions of Sardana sir ensnaring the poor girl in a dark room and then a flash of Sanjay’s terrified face. It was the same girl in the article, she thought to herself. Rhea wondered if she should tell someone. But who would believe me? She wondered in dismay. No one ever believes me. And then that subsequent image of a terrified Sanjay? What could that mean? Her only hope was talking to her aunt. Maybe she would be able to help her out? Just then, Sanjay came back into the room “Dude your mom is pissed that you haven’t been eating properly. She says it’s your hypogla-something” “Hypoglycemia” Rhea said. “Yeah, that” Sanjay said.
Rhea put her head between her knees and sucked in a huge gulp of air. She felt Sanjay’s hand soothingly caress her back.
“Listen, it is your birthday. And I know you don’t like to celebrate but it is your 16th! 16th birthday is supposed to be important for any girl.” Sanjay said, continuing trying to comfort his friend. “She didn’t make it to her 16th.” Rhea said looking up teary eyed. “Who?” Sanjay asked, confused. “That girl, whose father left her to get killed” Rhea turned to Sanjay and said, “I spoke to her once, you know?” “You did?” Sanjay asked, incredulous. Rhea nodded, wiping a fresh tear off her check. “She used to catch her school bus from my bus stop.” Sanjay stared away from Rhea, seemingly confused. “You have hardly been taking the school bus ever since you got your car.” Rhea reminded, as if reading his thoughts. Can I read thoughts through physical proximity too? Rhea quietly wondered.
“Come, let’s get some fresh air in the balcony.” Sanjay said, trying to comfort his friend. Rhea shook her head frantically. “But you love the view from your balcony, “heaven on 16th floor”, remember?” Sanjay asked, a bit teasingly. Timid Rhea, he thought.
Rhea shifted closer to Sanjay and gave him a tight hug. Sanjay always soothed Rhea’s demons, she was grateful to have him in her life.
As Rhea woke up the next morning, she knew one thing for sure: Sardana sir was responsible for all the missing or killed children in her school. What further worried her was the uncanny feeling that he had it out for Sanjay next. Rhea quietly snuck out of the house leaving a note on her bed making up a story about her whereabouts. Rhea’s parents had not been on speaking terms with Manju masi since as long as Rhea could remember. But Manju masi had always been there for Rhea, helping her with this curse she had to live with.
Manju masi lived far away from Rhea. She lived alone in a 2-story house. On many visits, Rhea wondered if her aunt was agoraphobic. She never ever stepped out of her house. For as long as Rhea could remember, she had visited her aunt’s house alone and had never seen a single living soul near her aunt. Must get real boring, Rhea thought.
It was afternoon by the time Rhea reached her masi’s house. After ringing the bell several times, Rhea impatiently knocked at the front door and called out, “MASI?” Another 10 minutes went by and there was no response. Finally Rhea could hear some movement inside the house. The front door opened to reveal a bony hand and half a face peering out from the shadows.
“Rhea?” The face asked, terrified. “Yes masi, it’s me.” Rhea answered. “Quick, get inside.” Her masi grabbed Rhea by the shoulder and pulled her into a dark hall. Rhea stood in the dark room, shivering slightly. “Masi, why are all the lights off?” She asked.
“Why have you come here?” Manju masi replied with an icy coldness. This made Rhea shiver harder. “What do you mean masi? I have come to meet you.” Rhea replied.
“Listen to me girl, you have forgotten again. I have telephoned them, they are on their way to get you.” Rhea’s masi replied.
Thoroughly confused, Rhea asked, “Who is on their way to get me? What have I forgotten?” She tried to peer into the darkness and make sense of her surroundings, but to no avail. Fear ebbing in her throat, Rhea found it hard to say anything at all. Mustering all her courage, she took a step forward, and asked, “Masi, where are you? Why are all the lights off?”
Rhea heard in a gritted mutter near her ear, “You bitch!” Rhea spun around on her heels and saw her masi, only it was not the masi she recognized at all. It was a scary, demented lady with gaunt eyes and sunken cheeks staring at her. Her hair in absolute disarray and her face lined like she had aged a hundred years since Rhea last saw her. “You bitch, I will kill you!” She yelled. Before Rhea could turn around and run for it, she felt a sharp blow to the side of her head and lost consciousness.
She woke up in a tiny cell, in pitch darkness. Her head throbbing, she frantically tried to sit up. But it felt like she was tied to the bed. Writhing, she screamed into the darkness. “Where am I?” She screamed as loud as her lungs would allow. But there was no answer. Her desperation and fear mounted to a frenzy and she found herself calling to her parents. Anyone who could rescue her from this nightmare. But she was still in this pitch darkness, with not a single sound but her own, nothing but a hopeless abyss of pain. Tired and hoarse from screaming, she slept.
Rhea woke with a start. Panting and sweating, she looked around the tiny grey room. Her arms were tied to the rods of a steel bed. She tugged at them instinctively, knowing that it won’t help. Then her eyes darted to the foot of her bed where a somber man sat with a solemn expression. “Y-You?” Rhea sputtered. He nodded and picked up his chair to sit next to her bedside.
Rhea stared at Sardana sir’s face and realized with terror that she was his next target, not Sanjay. Or had he killed Sanjay already?
“Where is Sanjay?” She barked at Sardana sir.
“There is no Sanjay.” He replied. “W-what do you mean?” Rhea said, her head still throbbing.
“Rhea, you killed Sanjay and I am Dr. Sardana, not Sardana sir.” The man responded. Too shocked to say anything, Rhea just stared at him.
The man sighed and said, “Rhea, you accidentally killed your cousin Sanjay on your 16th birthday. You jokingly nudged him while you were sitting on your balcony and he fell 16 stories and died. This was 4 years ago. You two were very close. Following this, you suffered severe psychosis and started having hallucinations wherein Sanjay was still alive and you had some sort of super power that told you a teacher of yours, “Sardana sir” is out to get him.” The man took a break from what he was saying and took a long sip of water. He furnished from his lab coat the newspaper article she had been looking at yesterday. “Read the date.” He said. Confused, Rhea read the date and let out a gasp of horror. It read 2016. “You kept this news article after Sanjay’s death and somehow convinced yourself that someone else is responsible.” Dr. Sardana said. Her world spinning around her, Rhea clutched the mattress to try to steady herself. “We thought you are doing better, that is why we let you go from our psychiatric ward 3 months ago. When your aunt phoned me today, I feared that you had another episode, it happened several times after Sanjay’s death.” He drew in a deep breath and said, “Your aunt Manju herself has a lose hold on reality since Sanjay died after only a couple of months from her husband’s death” Dr. Sardana heaved a heavy sigh. “Your parents will be here soon, we will discuss future steps then.” He gently caressed her forehead and left the room, closing the door behind him.