Family16 mins 220 16 mins 220
The season couldn’t be ascertained. It could have been a warm day in winter or a cold day in spring. It was certainly a holiday, because his whole family – wife Sneha and children Sameer and Sonakshi - were in the drawing room watching TV.
But as he sat with them a sinister feeling drew toward Dia. Like a premonition of doom was sweeping up from the lake in front, and through the driveway right up to their doorsteps.
Dia looked around. The fish in the aquarium quivered and flitted. Their black Labrador Roger whimpered.
Usually children have better psychic ability, but Sameer and Sonakshi were busy into the flickering screen of latest Toy Story.
Dia had recurring nightmares himself. Mostly speech-filled. Some voice telling him to kill his wife, his children, break things around the house, or get possessed like a vampire or ghost or to drink his wife’s blood. He attributed these to late nights movie-watching. He loved horror, action, and ghost movies, and they were surely permeating into his psyche. He would wake up screaming into the night, slashing his arms like swords at that invisible voice until it stopped. Then things would turn normal. But just for a while.
Then again the voices would haunt him.
Now, Dia couldn’t remember anything from the night before. Yet he was pensive. Sneha too was sipping from her glass of water, if not cracking her fingers.
The trees swayed raucously outside their large windows.
Dia paced about with Roger close at heels, squinting at the porch, the driveway, the road, the steely glint of the lake.
“Switch on the news channel,” he said suddenly, “Maybe an earthquake’s hit some place… a bomb blast somewhere, a terrorist attack? Maybe Nana or Granddad has passed away, or one of our friends is in trouble? Some harm has come to someone,” he said.
“Yes… I have been feeling the same since five this morning,” said Sneha, nodding as her mop of curls danced around. “I had a frightening dream. It looked like I would be taken away… from…” She hesitated in saying you.
Dia sat down. “I heard these words again and again in my dream: Kill them. Kill them. Move on you lazy person. Did you also hear a voice in your dream, Sneha?”
Sneha went into a day-dream. She was always vague, and that’s what Dia hated. Her dreaminess made her vulnerable and sweet, but sometimes - when the occasion was urgent -- idiotic and empty-headed. Like now.
“I’m not sure,” said Sneha. “I heard a voice saying: blood, gore, horror, chain-saw massacre. I’ve no clue who was saying this. Was it inside my head? Was somebody whispering near me? I thought it was you,” she shrugged. “Should we call for help?”
Dia frowned, “Do we know anyone here?”
Sneha reached the end of the long sofa and fished out a directory. She skimmed through it. Then scratched her head, and said, “What is this place called?”
Dia blinked. He thought he knew it, but couldn’t remember now. How can we not know where we are? What’s happening?
He didn’t want to tell Sneha anything; she would panic, but Dia felt like they lived each day in a different city, a different country.
When he had woken up last Thursday and opened the main door for a morning walk, he found himself in the tropical heat of a noisy street. Vendors yelling, pushing tomato and vegetable carts, hailing buyers from apartment buildings. India?
The next morning as he set out, he was on a grey road with neat buildings on either side that reflected the sun in their tinting panes. A canal ran through the centre of this grey city. Was it Europe?
Now suddenly he felt this was America or London. The only way to sort it out was to go to the street and read its signs. “I’ll be back,” he said. Sneha kept aside the telephone directory. “What if something is waiting for us out there?” she said.
“Like what?” said Dia, a bit diffident now?
“… wild dogs, beast, bears, crocodiles, dinosaurs?”
“Get a hold of yourself Sneha. It can’t be that dangerous. Just because we don’t know where we are... Let’s restrict our imaginations for our own sake.”
Sneha nodded. “Should I come along?” she asked vehemently.
“No. Stay here and look after them,” Dia looked at the kids. He couldn’t remember their ages. Six and five? The dog - six months old?
He realized he remembered some things and didn’t a lot of other things. When he stepped out, cold breeze slapped him. This has to be Europe or America. I shall find out. Soon.
In long strides he walked down the road parallel to the lake. There were identical white bungalows alongside the road. His house was the only one of warm colours and a red-tiled roof, with red window and door frames.
Dia had to make an urgent choice. Press on memory to redeem his fears, or press on imagination and find a way out of this. Better the latter. Memory could wait. It held the past in its womb and was anyway static and immovable. The present seemed like an empty shell. Only the future held promise and should be concentrated upon, he thought.
He reached the end of the street, past the identical bungalows. At the cul-de-sac beyond the last house, he suddenly stopped short. A grey patch was growing in front of him as if the earth was tearing into unfathomable darkness. His legs began to shake. It seemed like this gaping hole was yawning out and would take him into an uncontrollable abyss. This wasn’t the division of night, or a day-night terminator line, or a dent in the street. The road hadn’t caved in, a cloud hadn’t fallen off the sky. So what was this large grey immeasurable widening patch?
It felt like the end of the world. As if this was… a film set.
Maybe this was a film set? Look at those clone houses, Dia thought as he turned and walked back. He watched the lake. It too was still. Too still. Its waters hardly stirring. There was no boat on it. Was there life under it?
The houses would be the best thing to explore, thought Dia. Neighbours were strangers in good times and friends in bad times. Maybe they were going through similar experiences.
He reached a house, climbed its stairs and on the patio, surveyed its bland garden ferns. When he pressed a leaf, it did not snap. It was made of plastic. He rang the doorbell. On the third bell, an old lady answered. She was hunched over a walker and had woolly hair in a strange pattern on her head.
She must be 70. “May I come in?” said Dia.
She moved over and let him inside. Her house was empty. There was nothing in it from wall to wall.
A carpet of gooseflesh swept over his skin now. But just as fear returned, so did his voice. “Where are we? Who are we?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.” She stumbled on her walker. “Something’s messy in my head. I feel constipated.” She pointed to her head. “I have to remember a lot, but the time has not yet come. I have to wait.”
“How long have you been here?” Dia pressed on, “why is your house empty?”
“I don’t know. I’ve no idea.” She looked into his eyes, searching for something. Her eyes were the most unnatural blue, as if her retinas had been busted through a kiln or glass factory.
Dia moved away. He ran out of the old woman’s house and was back on the road. The road grew longer and longer. He broke into a run. He ran faster as the road beneath him expanded. This was a nightmare. He would wake up now. Didn’t nightmares break at their most vulnerable points?
By the time Dia neared his house, he was out of breath. He heard Sneha’s screams. He tried opening the main door. He searched his pockets for a phone, a gun, a car key. Nothing. Her screams were growing louder.
He ran to the garden and tried entering through the windows. But all of them were jammed.
Finally at Sneha’s loudest shriek, a window pane in the kitchen gave way and Dia got inside. He dashed into the drawing room. Sneha was being flung around by an invisible force so strongly that she hurtled past the walls. Her head slammed and blood oozed from her forehead. Dia leapt, he scrambled over and pulled her into a protective embrace. With a dust cloth he clamped her bleeding head. Then the walls stopped shuddering and the house grew still. Objects descended into their gravity.
Sneha hugged Dia.
“Where are the children?”
“In the bedroom. I’d taken them there before all this. Is this an earthquake? A demonic possession?” she asked.
Dia held her and they rushed to the children’s room. Dia found them huddled in a corner. They ran into their parents’ arms.
“We’re not giving up on this,” said Dia, “we will fight it with all our strength.” Sonakshi and Sameer looked at him. They nodded amidst their tears. “Right Pa,” said Sonakshi.
“Let’s get the house in order first,” said Dia, clenching his jaws.
All four of them straightened chairs, lifted objects and books off the floor, adjusted cupboards and paintings, and made up the beds. Roger followed them around wagging his tail.
The TV had broken.
Dia would have to take it to a repair shop or buy a replacement. He apprised other damages: a shattered vase, a cracked lamp shade, a chipped painting, the dining table had a cracked edge. The coffee table glass had smashed into smithereens.
Sneha was in pain. She held her hip and sat on the sofa. Dia dialed for an ambulance, a doctor, a TV repair shop. The calls went unanswered. Then, the phone lost its dial tone.
This ordeal had made them very hungry. They moved to the kitchen to fix food as Dia bent over the counter and cried softly. “I give up. I give up,” he murmured. “What the hell is this? How do we come out of this if we don’t even know what it is? Our memory’s stolen, our life’s stolen. Who has put us here?”
Leaving Sneha in the kitchen, he excused himself saying, “I’m going to the nearby mart to get some things. I’ll be back soon.” He wiped away his tears.
“Alright,” said Sneha, “I’m making some vegetable salad and pasta.”
This time Dia turned to the left and ran along the unmoving lake in search of a deli or pharmacy. There were no houses on this side, rather a building that looked like an institution or museum, auditorium, school or art gallery. It faced the road. On its left was a garden with a fountain.
Dia was in two minds. Enter these large gates or hurry along? Again the road in front of him stretched underfoot. He stopped. He knew this by now. He would run. The road would expand taking him far and far beyond to nowhere. He would get too far away from his house. There would be nothing at the end of that road, in most probability. It would take all the more time to get back. He would be exhausted and when he got home something terrible would have happened to Sneha, Sonakshi and Sameer.
But he could never give up on hope. He looked heavenward and yelled, “Take us out of this! This hell! This shit hole! This is not our life, you see! You piece of shit. If you have the nerve, the steel, the balls, get us out of here! Give us our lives back, even if I don’t remember what it was. We want to live, not die, you piece of shit. Not like this!” He shouted. He screamed into the distance at the garden with the fountain, at the peaceful sky with not a cloud in it. He stood in front of the large building, but knew it was dead, uninhabited.
He was better home.
When he reached home, the house was quiet. An avalanche of dread hit Dia. He waded through that quiet. In the kitchen, the salad bowl was smashed, and in the centre of the counter bits of green vegetable floated in recently-whipped cream. There was no one around.
“Sneha! Sonakshi! Sameer!,” he called, checking each room: store room, basement with the swimming pool, garage. He ascended the stairwell. Roger who had crouched in fright, sprang up and ran toward him. The dog’s eyes were wet.
“Where are they?” asked Dia.
The dog whimpered. It followed Dia through the children’s room, extra bedroom, and bathroom.
Nothing. Nobody. Nowhere.
Dia was paralyzed in fear. He then panicked, but was helpless. What was happening? Where were they? There were no traces of struggle. Not one thing out of place, yet three people had vanished.
Soon, he was sure, he or the dog would be gone. Dia slumped onto the floor and the dog sank beside him. It rested its head in his lap. I hate this. I give up.
Then a thought struck.
Maybe this was reality TV and people were watching him and entertaining themselves with popcorn and fries right now. Dia couldn’t remember signing on to anything, but maybe they put him on a memory loss program?
Or he was unwell? Suffering from something? Could this be a life in limbo?
Dia looked at the ceilings, walls, curtains for hidden cameras.
“I give up!” he announced, “I’m defeated. Take me out of here. I’m done with this. I resign. I’m done. I give up.” He threw his hands into the air.
When nothing changed or moved, he asphyxiated into the hopelessness of it all.
* * *
When he woke up, he knew time had passed. A lot of it. He had trouble remembering his name or that there was a dog. But he remembered the view outside the window.
It was bleak winter the last time. Now, trees were shedding their leaves. The lane was a thick carpet of dry orange. No one would sweep this lane, he knew. There was no one.
Dia felt the beard over his face, the wrinkled skin of his hands. He looked into the mirror. How long was he asleep? How long?
He didn’t seem old, but at least a year or two had passed. He now remembered his wife and children but not their names. Just the feeling of love, of them being there, of their hopes and dreams for a good, cherished, fulfilling life.
Dia sat on the bed, staring at the ceiling. At some point, he heard noises from the floor below: some movement and some shuffling. He didn’t care any longer, even if death was waiting for him.
He stood up and dragged himself instead to the bathroom. With a rusted razor he shaved. With a wilted brush, he cleaned his teeth. He showered and changed into the only set of limp clothes hanging on a peg. He felt anew. He moved out of his room and descended into the lower part of the house. The lights had gone dead.
Dia could trace a human shape in the semi-darkness. This person was sitting, as if waiting for him. The only working side-lamp’s dim light rained over his back, but kept his face in darkness.
Dia should have been petrified by now, but he was beyond all that. Let the devil eat me, he thought. If it’s a beast, let it get me. I no longer wish to fight. Who is there to live for? There used to be a dog. I don’t remember his name. But he too isn’t around…
Dia took a few steps in the darkness. He slunk into the sofa facing the figure, sitting as still as it, watching and waiting.
Suddenly the figure grew a voice, “Dia, are you there?”
“Yes…? Who are you?” Dia was startled. He was surprized hearing his own heavy voice.
“Vatsal P. Parekh.”
“I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long while now,” said Vatsal. “I’m happy you’ve finally decided to meet me.”
“If you wanted to talk, you never told me that. I received no mail, letter, or news,” said Dia.
“Alright, that’s my mistake. But can we talk now, at least?” said Vatsal.
“Sure,” said Dia.
“Are you angry with me?”
Dia guffawed. “First tell me who you are? Where’s my family? Are you the one who put us through this?” Dia was feeling murderous.
Vatsal switched on another lamp and Dia was taken aback; he had given up on ever seeing another person in his life. But the man in front was young, around 17. Scrawny, dressed in a loose, faded t-shirt. He had the same beard that Dia had just shaved off from his face.
“I’m a writer. I’m trying to write a horror story… a novel.”
“I’ve been trying to write you into a horror novel, but…”
“You just don’t let me.”
“What do you mean? Am I an actor? Have we signed a contract? How did you come to know of me?”
“I created you. I wrote your biography down. You are… an inspiration from my dad, an uncle and a neighbor - all mixed up. I’m trying to write a story with you and your family…”
“Yes, Sneha… Sonakshi… Sameer? Dia, you turned out too good, with too much depth for a simple, brutal horror story. I missed my deadline. I lost out on a publication contract.”
“Because of me?”
“Well, I can’t say that. But yes, if you had cooperated I would have written a decent novel. I had all things in place. The chapter outline. The beginning, middle, end. But all that I did, you undid. You behaved mysteriously. I had no choice but to shut down this project. I wrote other stories with Sneha… Sonakshi… Sameer. Now I’m pretty happy with my oeuvre. I have come back to check on you… one last time, to see if I could work you into another story. Is it ever going to be possible to write a horror story with you? Can we try working things out together one last time?”
“Sneha, Sonakshi and Sameer are with you?” Dia asked, shocked, stunned, surprized.
“Yes. And they have a new man/husband/father. They are doing great. We created a successful novel. It’s called…”
“I don’t care. I hate horror stories in any case,” said Dia. “The cheap shrills, thrills, yells, and gore. I would never want to be part of something like that.”
“Then you should have told me.”
“You should have asked.”
Vatsal stared at him. “What are you interested in?”
“A family story of… love, forgiveness, friendship, nostalgia…”
“You mean drama?”
“Whatever you call it,” said Dia.
“Look… I’m not into writing such stories, so I have decided to close down this project… It’s not taking me anywhere,” said Vatsal.
Dia stiffened. “So because of this you are going to destroy me?”
“I have no choice. I have to move on, clear disk space. But it was fun knowing you, Dia. I wish I could work with you some day, but you are a difficult person - hardly a people’s person. I didn’t impose a script on you. I wrote one for you with your consultation. But you grew into your own. Too individualistic, too independent. A character needs to be understanding, malleable. It needs to bow to the needs of the script, to the whims of the writer. You can’t be your own person with free-will and whim. What did you think this was? Heaven? This is life. You won’t suit any of my stories. You don’t have to worry. It will be painless,” said Vatsal after some time.
“Give me back my family!!!” In one angry sweep Dia leapt and grabbed Vatsal’s throat and throttled it. Vatsal choked, coughed and got out of breath. “I need them. I am worried about them!” said Dia, gritting his teeth. “It hurts – do you understand? It hurts. You have tortured me so much! I want my Sneha, Sonakshi and Sameer right now!”
He loosened the grip over Vatsal’s throat. Just then Vatsal punched him hard. His nose cracked and he fell onto the sofa.
“Could I be given another chance?” blabbered Dia amidst the blood and tears from his face, “another story? I still don’t like horror, but maybe another writer can do me… justice?” Dia joined his hands, not sure if he should fight for his life that was so barren and lifeless, or for his family. But if he lived, he could have his family back too. There was hope, suddenly, out of nowhere.
“We don’t transfer our creations,” said Vatsal off handedly. “We don’t have the time, patience, energy. Besides, you are treacherous. I can understand your demand, but cannot live with it. In no time, in no time, you will overtake your destiny…and god alone knows do what!”
Vatsal stood up and was gone in a flash. Dia watched him through an ebbing headache. Yeah he did read a lot. Dia remembered all the books of his spare time when he was at the intervals of working, at the flanks of the stage of a page. Those books had informed him, made him a person far more than what anyone would have imagined. There was a gift – a strength that came from books.
Then Dia heard the click, as if a light had been switched off. His house plunged in darkness.
Then another click like from a keyboard… and…The Family