I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.
That rainy evening ten years ago was still fresh in my memory.
One of those days in life we wish we could skip but alas, they find their way and fit into our fate.
And fate also decided to remind me of that very day every now and then. This time I'd found her letter in one of my old sketch books.
I loved how she had written my name.
"Dear Sameer..." God! I could almost hear her call out my name every time I read it.
For a 12 year old girl, her letter looked better than a template we find online. Her handwriting, so neat, so beautiful.
The way she signed her name so impeccably, Maya.
I had met Maya in Bareilly when father decided to shift there.
Bareilly is a city located in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Father's work demanded us to move to Bareilly from Delhi when I was eight years old. I hadn't spoken to him for days because I did not like the idea of leaving my best friends behind.
Although my rebellion was a failed attempt.
Father was extremely delighted to shift to Bareilly.
Even if it was a small city where we did not necessarily have the same facilities and luxuries we did in Delhi but familiarity had a different place in the heart.
He was born and brought up in Bareilly and had to shift to Delhi for his studies.
We did visit grandmom every now and then.
She insisted on staying back here since it kept her closer to her roots and whatever memories she had left of Grandpa.
On our way to the new home, I saw an eerily beautiful bungalow which looked evidently unfrequented.
Something about it made it look lifeless.
Maybe like no one had lived there for decades.
The outhouse beside the bungalow looked like there had been attempts to deliberately demolish it. It was surrounded by debris.
The paint had chipped off of the walls that probably had seen quite a few seasons in this place.
Creepers surrounded it and consumed most of the barricades. I managed to only catch a glimpse of it.
I pointed it out to father and asked him who stayed there.
He simply dismissed my question and changed the topic.
It made me curious but then again how long does it take for an eight year old to get distracted?
The new home looked massive compared to the flat we lived in back in Delhi.
It was a two storey bungalow with a spacious lawn and backyard.
Father had already got swings and slides installed. While all our stuff was being moved in, I saw a few kids from the neighbourhood come around the house.
They seemed awestruck by the lawn and play things there.
I decided to invite them in.
Over time, all of us became the best of friends.
Me, Rohan, Sheena, Piyush and Maya
Coincidentally enough, we all went to the same school too.
And that was how I met Maya.
Something about Maya made her different from the rest of us. She was quiet most of the time and she would sit all by herself for hours together and yet not get bored.
She had dark curly hair and a stubborn strand always fell across the side of her chubby cheeks.
Beady eyes and a button nose.
Her complexion was wheatish. Flawless!
She was Rohan's younger sister.
Initially we wouldn't share much dialogue. We would only look at each other and smile.
Gradually the interaction grew to turn into a friendship that involved more affection than I ever thought it could.
A part of me felt responsible for Maya.
I felt protective about her.
Maya was 2 years junior to me at school.
I still remember the day when there was a friendship's day celebration at school and Maya asked me to wait after school at the usual spot under the mango tree that stood on our way back to our respective homes.
We usually met there and spoke through sunsets.
She gave me a handwritten letter.
"Open it only when you go home," she said and blushed.
We walked back home together hand in hand.
As soon as I got home I opened her letter without a second of delay.
Most of it was about how she felt when we spent time together and then there were those words I could never get out of my head.
"You're more than just a friend," she wrote.
I'm sure if any of my friends saw me right now I was a sight to remember. They'd tease me for years about how flushed my cheeks were in that moment.
I read and re-read those words over and over.
Time flew, years passed by and Rohan, Piyush and I had only recently given our respective board exams.
Me and Maya had grown fonder of one another.
Then arrived the big day.
The results were out and we had all passed with flying colours.
We all decided to stay over at Rohan's place that evening.
It was exciting for us since we did not get to spend many such evenings together, all five of us.
There was Rohan, Piyush, Maya, Sheena and Me.
Dinner was a feast that evening.
Rohan's mother was a fantastic cook.
We sat together for a cup of ginger chai later and had a round of fun conversations and come leg-pulling.
Rohan's mother asked us to get to bed a few times and eventually gave up looking at us all bubbling and playing card games. After all it was not an evening like every other. Trying her luck one last time, finally she decided to go to bed.
"let's play spin the bottle!" Cried Piyush excitedly.
He was always the one up for some mischief. We called him the prankster of the group.
"Come onnnn.. It's almost midnight Piyush bhaiya.. let's just go to bed," Sheena whined.
"That's the same as truth or dare right?" Asked Maya and jumped with some newly found joy.
Me, Rohan and Maya were keen enough to not acknowledge the whining little Sheena.
Maya produced a bottle that could be used for our game out of her school bag.
We all sat in a circle with the bottle lay horizontally in the center.
"Who goes first?" Rohan asked.
I had already spun it, the bottle.
After rotating a few times, the bottle stopped spinning and the point that indicated the player who asked the question pointed towards Rohan and the other side pointed at Sheena.
"Truth or dare?" He asked.
"Truth!" She quickly answered with an irritated expression since she was the only one who did not want to play the game.
"Was that story about the old lady you saw at that isolated little haunted house true or were you making it up?" Rohan asked.
"Of course it was true you idiot! I don't want to talk about this!" The cry-baby whined once again.
We all chuckled.
It was Piyush's turn to spin the bottle according to the direction of the clock's hands.
The bottle stopped with both ends pointing between me and Maya.
I was supposed to ask and Maya was to answer.
"Dare," she squeaked.
"Wow.. alright.. how about a dare for all of us?" I suggested.
Everyone looked at me curiously.
"Let is all sneak out and go to the haunted house!" I suggested carefully shifting my gaze from one face to another to see their reactions.
It was the same house I mentioned earlier.
The rumoured reputation of the house had was widely known.
Sheena immediately backed out.
"I'm in," Piyush said and Rohan and Maya joined right after in unison.
Sheena headed to the bedroom and we did not really stop her since we didn't want to spoil the fun and knew that she'd revolt like rain on the parade.
We all got up and decided to find all the necessary instruments we might need for this adventure of ours.
"Get the torches Piyush and you get the thick wooden stick in your backyard Maya," I said.
Rohan and I stuffed our pockets with candles and some coins.
We were all set and slowly sneaked out of the gate.
The house was nearly half a kilometre away from Rohan's home.
We started walking in its direction.
Finally we could see the house.
I felt a shiver run down my spine.
"Are you sure about this?" Maya asked, now a little worried.
"I think so," I said.
"We've already come this far now let's just go in and find that lady or bust Sheena's stupid story," said Piyush.
"But what if she's really in there.. what if there is a ghost and this place is really haunted.. maybe they aren't just rumours!"
Me and Maya looked at each other and I saw a drop of sweat running down her cheek.
" Rohan aren't you a scared little mouse," Piyush provoked Rohan.
"Let's just go," Maya said, slightly exasperated by all the drama.
We stood right outside the gate of the house.
I tried to push it open but it seemed to be jammed.
Rohan tried a little harder but was unsuccessful.
We all turned around and looked at each other wondering what to do next when we heard the gate creak open, startled we jumped in our places.
I looked behind to see an old man with his head covered in a monkey cap and a shawl around his shoulders.
"What do you want," he asked with the frown on his forehead.
'Phew. Sign of life!' I thought to myself.
I brought out 4 coins of 1 re each and handed them over to him.
"Only 10 minutes," he warned.
We nodded and headed in the direction of the house which was about 20 steps away from the gate.
"Doesn't anyone clean this place?" Rohan complained referring to the dried leaves and twigs lying in our way to the main door.
I decided to lead.
As I was about to open the door, a hairy ball of a rat scrambled through and I nearly tripped almost frightening the others behind me.
"You and Maya head to the first floor and Me and Rohan will explore the ground floor," Piyush instructed and the rest of us agreed.
As Maya and I headed towards the staircase I heard the loud thunder and the lightening that followed and threw shadows of the creepers that hung down from outside the windows on our way upstairs.
Slightly afraid but still determined, we made our way towards the floor gingerly but rapidly.
With a torch in each of our hands, we decided to go in separate directions once we got upstairs.
Maya pointed at two rooms which were positioned diametrically across us.
Even as we moved in the direction opposite to each other, I turned around to check on Maya. I didn't seem to see her even as searched with the beam of light that shone from my torch.
I called out to her and she replied affirmatively.
Reassured, I moved on further.
As Maya walked on, the light of her torch begun to flicker unsteadily.
Her heart was thudding inside her chest but nothing could stop her.
She felt a mysterious gravitation towards to room as she inched further, 'zuk..zook.. zuk.. zook..' though she couldn't see clearly, she could identify that it sounded like a swing moving back and forth.
'Zuk...zook' the sound went on.
With trembling hands, she tried to reach out for the candle that she had hastily stuffed in her right hip pocket just before leaving home, but in vain.
Drawn by that same pull she felt earlier, she found herself in the room and sure enough there it was, the swing!
And yes, it was moving back and forth- with the silhouette of a lady moving it so.
Maya almost froze in her place.
She searched for her voice and mustered some strength and tried to call out to Sameer but her lips only formed a hollow 'O' and her voice her voice too seemed frozen to her dismay.
Had she lost her voice? Or her mind?
Somehow she stepped backwards and as she was turning around to run away she stumbled on herself and fell down. As she managed to get up, she heard a familiar voice.
"Mayaaaaa.." it said.
'Wait. Wasn't that grandmom? But how can this be? What would she be doing here?
But that is definitely her voice. That's nani-maaaa!' She thought to herself with some respite. 'Ahhh.. it's just Nani-ma'.
Curious but happy, she got up and she walked towards the swing.
: : : : : :
'What was that? What fell down? Was it Maya? I hope not!'
I thought to myself as I ran out of the room towards the steps.
I could see Maya clearly. There she stood.
She waved out to me. I approached her exclaiming, " thank god you are alright! Did you hear that strange loud thudding sound as if somebody had fallen down?"
Maya looked cluelessly at me and shook her head.
"Let's leave," she said.
As we descended together down the steps, we saw Rohan and Piyush approaching the foot of the staircase.
"I think we are done exploring this place and let's just leave now... and it's raining heavily.. before mother wakes up and finds us missing.. let us head home," Rohan said.
As all of us left the front the door and started for the main gate of the house,
I heard Maya scream loudly from a distance, "Sameeeeeeeeeeer helpppppp"
Confused I looked for Maya who was behind us just a while back but there was nobody.
They heard another scream.
As we all looked at one another, I ran in the direction of the voice as Rohan and Piyush followed on my heels.
And as we all looked up with utter shock towards a window on the first floor, we felt a chill in our bones.
There was Maya and who was that hoary lady that stood holding her and seemed as if she was on the verge of pushing her out.
We watched helplessly when within the blink of the eye she actually threw Maya out.
We ran towards the place where she could have fallen.
Beads of perspiration on our faces, as our jaws dropped, for we seemed to be staring at a place where there was- No one!
There was no trace of Maya!
We looked up at the window and the lady had disappeared.
We scurried around inside the house calling out to her but she seemed to have poofed in thin air!
As I came back to the present moment from the nostalgic lane, I found my eyes to be misting and my heart ached for Maya.
Her memories seemed to surround me when I broke down crying loudly.
As I sobbed, with her letter in my hand, i sat on the edge of my bed back in Delhi where we had moved ever since that incident had occurred.
I lived alone here.
I held the letter to my chest as I rested my back on the bed.
I did not realise that I had drifted off to sleep with her memories storming through my mind.
As the clock chimed and struck two in the night, I felt an itch in my throat and my throat was parched.
My eyes fluttered open and my pillow was moist with tears.
As I grabbed the glass of water from the side table, I realised that the letter still lay open on the bed next to me.
When my eyes were grabbed by the letter while I was about put it back in the sketch book where I had found it, the glass that was in my hand slipped and cracked against the floor as I saw a newly emerged sentence at the end of the letter.
' For you, with you, forever... Maya'
I moved my finger across it,
The ink smudged.