I could feel his hot eyes burning my skin – my neck, my back, my hips and every other part of my body all through the summer, but every time I turned my head, his eyes – those hot, hot eyes – slid away from me and settled elsewhere – on the door, the wall, the ceiling … and he would give that sly, spooky smile of his. The same horrid smile I had been seeing for the past six months, ever since he came to stay in the little room adjoining our house in Bethora, as a tenant.
The thing that puzzled me was: how is it that Mama and Dada couldn’t see what I saw? Okay, Dada is in the clouds half the time, but what about Mama? Whenever I tried to talk to her about him and the way he looked at me, she would laugh and say, “You’re imagining things, baby. Ever since Sister Marcia gave your class that talk on sex education last year, you’ve become a little paranoid about men. Why, you even complained about your uncle, Francis, the other day and got that haunted look on your face.”
“Well, I don’t like the way he looks at me either,” I replied “Or the way he puts his arm around me and squeezes me. I’m not six years old anymore, I’m sixteen! And he’s got a scary face and has a haunted look!’
“Dear, dear!” Mama sighed, “He’s just being affectionate my child, can’t you see that? You’re just imagining things.”
But I’m not. I know what I know, especially where our tenant, Naresh Sawant is concerned. Creepy, horrible guy, slinking around like a ghost! I can’t stand him and that wide, unblinking stare of his or that sly, ingratiating smile, or the way he calls me “baby” and tries to rub against me whenever he has to walk past. I hate his smooth, sallow, clean-shaven face and slicked-back oily hair. And the long-sleeved white shirt tucked neatly into black-belted trousers and his shiny, pointed shoes. I find him an absolute horror.
“Decent”, Mama calls him, “A thorough gentleman.” Huh! That’s because he doesn’t look at her the way he looks at me! Or try to talk to her when there’s no one else around, or pat her cheek, or squeeze her shoulder.
I spoke to my friend, Neethi, about him and asked her if she thought I was imagining things. She’s been here quite a number of times and has observed him minutely, and she says no, I’m not, he’s really a creepy, slimy lech! He tried to talk to her as well when he returned from work at the Bethora industrial estate and found her sitting in the verandah of our house. Mama had called me inside for a minute and Neethi was sitting in the rocking chair, rocking herself back and forth and humming a tune.
“Hello darling!” he goes and puts his hand on her cheek. She got such a start she nearly fell off the chair, and then he squeezes her arm.
”I hope I didn’t startle you, my angel”, he says and smiles that creepy smile of his.
Mama finds him good-looking. I don’t, he’s much too smooth and oily for my taste and a little too ‘decent’ and good to be true with his, “Yes, Madam, no, Madam, of course, Madam”, when Mama is around. Quite frankly, I’m afraid of him. He’s fairly young, twenty-eight or so, and slim but wiry. It’s his eyes that scare me. Hot, restless eyes, roaming all over my body and eating me up alive.
Deepti was scared of him too. Deepti, my best friend and neighbour, who mothered me right from K.G.1, and disappeared suddenly without warning exactly a month ago. Just like that. We were classmates and best friends and she had confided in me once that Naresh – Mr. Creepy, we called him – had asked her to accompany him to the movies at Jai Mahalsa one evening and not tell her parents. Deepti is slim and fair and pretty, like me. She’s been my closest friend since K.G.1. How could she just have disappeared like that?
Her parents are beside themselves with grief and worry. The cops haven’t a clue as to her whereabouts, and have come up with this incredible theory that she must have eloped with a boyfriend. They even questioned me about that, but I told them straight out that she didn’t have a boyfriend and that she would’ve told me if she had. And Deepti was dead serious about her studies – wanted to be a chartered accountant and wasn’t the kind to let anyone or anything get in the way of her goal. I told them that, and so did her parents, but I could see they didn’t believe me.
Here he comes now – Naresh, I mean – looking as dapper and decent as ever, white shirt tucked into black trousers, oily hair slicked back, and only his eyes – those hot dark, restless eyes – giving him away. I know what I know, never mind what Mama says.
She’ll be coming home late – Mama, I mean. Uncle Francis met with an accident this evening while riding his new Bajaj Pulsar. It’s July, and the streets are all slippery, so he skidded off the road and fell off his bike. Fortunately he was wearing a helmet, but he hit his head badly and fractured his hip, so he’s in the I.C.U. Dada’ll be staying overnight at the Goa Medical College, but Mama should be back around 9.00 pm. They hired Umesh’s taxi for the journey. I have my tests coming up soon, so I didn’t go. There’s food in the fridge, so I’m okay. I just have to warm it up.
Actually, I could’ve stayed at the neighbour’s until Mama comes, but she had a massive fight with them over some silly thing two days ago, so I’m on my own. It’s okay, I’m nearly sixteen and can take care of myself. Besides, Bethora is a village, so its pretty safe, not like in the big cities. We’ve been here for donkey’s years, and everyone knows everyone else.
My, it’s really dark outside and pouring cats and dogs. Thunder and lighting too! I’ve never seen a storm like this before in all my sixteen years! Rather scary, actually, but I’ve put on all the lights in the house and the T.V’s on while I’m studying, so it feels like I’ve got company.
Is that a knock on the door? It’s only 8.30, don’t tell me Mama’s back already! As usual she’s forgotten her keys and her mobile at home, so there’s no way to keep in touch. Dada lost his cell phone two days ago, and our land line has stopped working – it always does that during a heavy downpour. Anyway, thank God Mama’s come, I was beginning to feel lonely.
The door latch needs oiling – it’s a little rusty. You have to exert quite a bit of force to get it to open. Ah, there it comes!
No, it’s not Mama, its Naresh. And he’s already inside the house and has latched the door behind him. His eyes are all bloodshot – I think he’s been drinking. What’s that in his hand – looks like a knife! And his eyes are hot and heavy on me … so hot and so heavy.
I can’t say a word … I can’t even scream.
“If you scream, I’ll kill you.” He says it only once, but he says it in such a way - low and menacing and matter-of-fact - that I know he means it.
He pushes me further inside the room, the knife pointing at my throat. It’s the longest, sharpest and shiniest knife I’ve ever seen – like in the movies. His eyes never leave me for a second. He pushes me back … back … back, his hand heavy on my shoulder, right into the kitchen and up to the back door.
He unlatches the door with his free hand, pushes me outside and follows me, closing the door behind him. Drags me into the dense thicket of trees adjoining the back of the house … deeper and deeper into the trees and brush, the rain beating down hard on our faces and soaking our clothes, the thunder rumbling louder than I’ve ever heard it before, jagged flashes of lighting searing the sky and lighting up the way before us.
On and on and on, deeper and deeper into the trees, until we reach the old, abandoned broken-down cottage that had belonged to my grandfather, and is now falling to pieces.
He pushes the door open and drags me inside. Latches the door and gives me a violent shove that knocks me to the floor. He stands there, panting, soaked to the skin, his hair plastered to his head, a tangle of it hanging down his forehead and in front of his eyes. Those horrible, horrible eyes, hot and heavy on me, so hot and so heavy, like a weight almost.
He rips his shirt open, the buttons scattering everywhere, exposing a smooth, sallow, hairless chest. I try to get up, but he shoves me down again. I open my mouth to scream, but he holds the knife in front of my eyes.
“Do you want to die?” he asks. His voice is low and matter-of-fact, but I can hear him above the thunder and the rain. Above the crashing, the loud, loud crashing of the thunder and the rain. Lightning flashes through the broken sky-light on the roof, sparking up the room, and I see a heap of rubble in the corner where the ground has recently been disturbed.
He unbuckles his belt one-handed, and I struggle up again. He shoves me down with his foot and points the knife at my throat. The longest, sharpest, shiniest knife I’ve ever seen. Like in the movies.
He looks at the heap of rubble and back at me, those hot, hot eyes searing my skin.
“You fight me and I’ll kill you”, he says, in that same calm, matter-of-fact tone. Only his eyes give him away, the hottest, scariest eyes I’ve ever seen, blood-red and animal-like.
“Like I killed her.”
It takes me a moment to catch on. He sees my eyes widen in shock and nods his head.
“Yes, her. Deepti. She was your friend, wasn’t she? She fought, and bit, and scratched, see?” He pulls back his sleeve and shows me the scratches on his wrists, “So I had to kill her. She screamed, so I cut her throat. That’s where she lies”, and he points at the uneven ground next to the mound of rubble.
Terror engulfs me, such as I’ve never known before, a black, sweeping tide of terror.
“Mama,” I want to scream, “This is all your fault! I told you, but you wouldn’t listen!”
A sob wells up in my throat and comes out in a whimper. I know he will kill me, he can’t afford not to, after he … finishes with me. He knows I’ll tell.
The rain hammers down on the roof harder then ever, dripping onto the floor wherever the tiles have been broken or dislodged. Thunder rumbles so loud that every other sound is blotted out, and flashes of lightening burst through the skylight and light up the room for a second or two.
He kneels on the floor, puts one hand on my neck and rips the blouse from top to bottom. I can feel the stink of alcohol on his breath.
And then he pauses. Like he’s heard a sound. But who can hear anything above the thunder and rain? Even if I were to scream my lungs out, and even if he allowed me to, no one would hear. No one.
But he pauses. And slowly turns his head. As through he can hear something. Or feel someone’s eyes on him.
And then I feel it too. Clutching the torn blouse to my chest, I feel it too. Someone’s eyes. Clear and distinct. There’s someone in the room. It’s unmistakable.
I see his body turn rigid, the chords in his neck standing out. The knife drops from his hand. I can actually see the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.
A strangled scream bursts from his throat, and he stands up and backs away.
“No!” he cries out.” No! It can’t be! You’re dead!”
I gaze at him, fascinated, as flashes of lightning illuminate the room. I can see nothing and nobody except Naresh, backing away, backing away, abject terror on his face, his hands held up as if to ward off an unseen foe.
And then … and then … I see his feet rising off the ground, rising above the ground, as though something or someone – some invisible force, is actually lifting him up!
His face and body convulse violently, and he scrabbles frantically with both his hands at the area around his throat. His face is mottled with blood. He gasps for breath, his torso thrashing about violently, his feet inches off the ground.
The storm rages outside, the thunder so loud and so violent that I can hear no other sound. Apart from the crashing of the storm, it’s like a scene from a silent movie being played out in slow motion. A silent horror movie. Flashes of lightning burst through the sky-light, so that every detail before my eyes is captured and magnified.
For a long, slow, endless moment he remains like that, suspended in mid-air, hands scrabbling frantically at his throat, body thrashing about violently, his face turning purple, his head arched at an impossible angle.
Then he drops down limply like a rag doll, in a lifeless, uncoordinated tangle of arms and legs, like a puppet dropped by a child, and lies there on the floor, his eyes staring sightlessly up at the broken-down roof and rafters.
The storm ceases as suddenly as it had begun, the only audible noise being the sound of the rain-water dripping from the roof and from the leaves of the trees outside.
And all this time I can feel those eyes. Not hot and angry like Naresh’s, but kind and gentle.
I can almost see them. Almost touch them. Kind, loving eyes. Kind, protective eyes. Deepti was like that. Kind and loving, and very protective. Right from K.G.1.
They found her skeleton later, when they dug up the floor.
I talk to her sometimes, especially when I need advice or am in some kind of trouble. Just as I used to before. And feel her eyes on me and around me. Gentle, kind and protective. Not hot and heavy like Naresh’s.
And I feel safe.