On her way back from work, she had stopped at a small curiosity shop nestled between the bustle of a chai wala's snack shop and an attar seller's dusty place. In the midst of the old and crumbly buildings of Chandni Chowk in this part of Delhi, that curiosity shop looked like a curiosity all by itself. It's rusty old signboard named it 'Dadabhoy's Wonderland'. The vintage-y font looked like it belonged to the 30's or early 40's and sure enough, at the right bottom corner of the signboard was the name of the painter - Amritraj, and the year signed next to it - 1937.
She loved everything vintagey and the shop looked like an oasis of quietude in this busy, noisy marketplace. She tried to peer into the shop through the grimy windows but the glass panes had been so marred by the accumulated dust of years that it rendered a mottled effect to them, reducing chances of visibility to almost none. Still, she could make out hazy figures of elephants carved from stone, some wooden blocks with the alphabet painted on them. An old kaleidoscope in brass with gold inlay work was propped atop a wooden stand. Age and disuse had dulled the glimmer of the brass, but it still looked beautiful. But what really caught her attention was the face of a chubby boy with rosy cheeks painted on a huge tin cube, with a wooden crank sticking out of its side. It was a Jack in the box and she knew she had to have it for her own little cherub waiting for her at home.
She went in and stayed for a solid hour before she emerged from that curiosity shop with that Jack in the box wrapped in sheets of old newspapers. The wiry owner had not wanted to part with it. It took a lot of persuasion to make him give it up. But just before she left, he said warily, "Make sure you keep it closed when you aren't around and don't leave a child alone with it."
She had only smiled, thinking he must be concerned since it was an old, rusty thing. She filed that information in the back of her mind and went back home where her son, who had been with his nanny so far, came running to the door to greet her. He was three and he had just learnt how to make full sentences. In his excitement and hurry to show his delight at his mother's return all that came from his rosebud of a mouth was, "Mommy, I happy you here."
She scooped him up in her arms, kissed his flushed cheek and said, "I am. And it's - Mommy, I am happy that you are here. Repeat after me."
He parroted it out like an obedient child. Then she presented to him the Jack in the box. He tore through the newspaper giddily, like only little children do when they see a present, but when he got to the box his excitement was replaced by confusion. He had never seen one and she laughed out heartily when he jumped when she turned the crank and out popped the face of the child, the same face that was painted on the outside of the box. Most Jack in the boxes had faces of clowns or funny faces painted on them. But this one had the actual face of a child in a lithographic print which is why it appealed to her sense of aesthetics. The box had a very retro feel to it and anyone who knew her knew that she was a collector of vintage items.
Once her three-year-old had gotten the hang of it, she left him to play so she could get dinner started. There was still an hour before her husband would return from work. Her practised fingers began to expertly wash, chop and cook, falling into a rhythm that is attained only from days of repetition.
After about half an hour, when the lentils were already simmering in the pot, her son came running into the kitchen and clasped his arms around her leg.
"What is it, baby?" He looked worried, so she crouched down to his level.
"Mumma, jack in the box." He said, his tone somewhere between excitement and worry.
"Yes, baby, its called a Jack in the box..."
"No, no, Mumma!" he shook his head vigorously and repeated, "Jack in the box!" His tiny hands tried to imitate how the bobbing head of the toy fit into the box.
She nodded her head and repeated, "Yes, that's how Jack goes into the box. That toy," she pointed a finger at the living room where her son was playing with the toy, "is called - A Jack in the box."
"No, no, noooooo!" Her little boy screamed and stamped his foot angrily on the floor. "JACK IN THE BOX! SITTING IN THE BOX!"
Now she was mildly irritated. Her boy was throwing a tantrum after all.
Maybe he wanted to say something about the toy but he wasn't able to. Well, she thought, it would have to wait. "Alright baby, Jack sitting in the box. Now you go play. I still have to make rotis." She rumpled his hair for a bit and then got back to her chores. But he kept standing there, looking up at her strangely. There was a crease between his innocent, sparse eyebrows.
"Honey, I'll be with you shortly. Don't just stand here, the stove is hot and you might get burnt. Go play!"
He shuffled out of the kitchen slowly, very slowly.
Wonder what's gotten into him. Maybe he wants me to play with him. She thought as she got busy kneading the dough. A few seconds later his urgency had already been erased from her memory.
Minutes passed. In the back of her head, she knew he was playing in the living room. She could hear his footsteps, or an occasional squeal or a cough. She carried on with her work in the kitchen for another half an hour when suddenly she looked up from the counter she had been scrupulously cleaning as if she had just remembered something that she wasn't supposed to forget in the first place.
Silence filled the house. There were no sounds coming from the living room. No pitter-patter of tiny feet, no laughs, no squeals.
I'm sure he's upto no good, she thought as she darted out of the kitchen and went into the living room. She feared he might have discovered the crayons she had hidden away and may have started scribbling on the walls. But the living room lay bare. The nanny had left soon after she had arrived so she knew there was no one at home save her and her boy. She called out to him as she searched one room after the other. There was no sign of him.
She was worried now. She checked the doors. They were still double locked. She checked all the windows. All locked too. The bathrooms, the cupboards, under the beds and the couch. She called up the area security to check if they had seen him running outside and they hadn't.
Oh god, where is he?!
She called out and called out to him and there was no sign of him.
Frantically, she rushed back into the living room and fished her cell phone out from her purse. Just when her fingers had started typing her husband's number she spotted it...
The Jack in the box had the face of her son painted on it.