"Now it's all your's, Sanjana, " Ankush said as he handed over the keys of the bungalow to me. It was almost a week since I have stepped down from my flourishing career as a journalist with a leading daily based in Mumbai. It must sound crazy but there was no other option left after my break-up with Vivek who was my boyfriend since was I was twenty. Mumbai reminded me of him and was the abode of the haunting memories associated with our five year long relationship. With whatever savings I had, I bought this old bungalow in the suburbs of Shimla in order to seek peace of mind. Ankush who was my best friend and a real estate agent has arranged this deal for me.
"Thank you Ankush," I said as I took the keys from him,"and thanks for everything that you have done for me."
"Take care buddy and don't hesitate to call me if you need anything."
"That's so sweet of you," I said as I came to the doorstep to see him off.
After he was gone, I took a stroll around the house.The backyard was full of weeds and creepers. In almost center of it there was an old well. I took a few steps towards it but then someone called out to me from behind.
"You are Sanjana, right? Ankush's friend?"
I turned to see an old lady standing by the boundary wall of the adjoining house.
"My name is Saroj - your new neighbour. Ankush has told me about you." She said smiling sweetly. Her smile reminded me of my mother whom I missed very badly. I had lost both my parents in an accident when I was in the college.
"The garden is total mess," I said as I walked towards her.
"Yes, there was nobody to take care of the house and the garden after Shveta and Aniket got separated.She too loved gardening like me. And I guess it was our common interest that had brought us close to each other."
"Who is Shveta?"
"She used to live here and Aniket was her husband. Shveta had eloped with him snapping all bonds with her parents. They had bought this house after their marriage. All went well in the beginning. But after a while, Aniket became involved with some other woman and Shveta walked out on him." She fell silent for a moment as memories flooded her. Then she heaved a sigh and said,"why don't you join me for a cup of tea?"
"Some other time Aunty, I have lot of things to do today," I declined her offer as politely as I could.
I spent the whole day unpacking and arranging my things. By the evening I was completely exhausted. I was just out of the shower when I heard a ring at the door. I opened it to find Saroj Aunty and her maid who had brought a dozen of home - cooked delicacies for me. I felt overwhelmed by her warm and affectionate welcome. After having a hearty dinner, I slid down on my bed reading a book. The window of my bedroom opened into the backyard. Suddenly, I saw a flash of a person in the backyard. I flung the book at once and jumped to my feet. I moved towards the window with stealthy steps. I saw a girl clad in a white night-gown standing by the well. She seemed to be in her early twenties and was stunningly beautiful with huge earrings dangling from her delicate ears. A thousand questions popped up in my mind - 'Who is she? What was she doing at this hour of the night?'
I stood there perplexed for a moment and then as I found my voice I asked,"Hey, who are you? What are you doing here?"
"I live here," she said in an eerily sweet voice,"this is my house."
She added in a voice that became loud and hoarse and echoed in the garden. All of a sudden, her beautiful face contorted and assumed a monstrous appearance with blood dribbling from her eyes. A minute later, she got sucked up in the well. I let out a scream as I opened my eyes to see myself lying on the bed, still clutching the book placed on my chest.
"It was a dream!" I muttered after I gulped down a glass full of water to pacify my shaking nerves.
A week passed as I taught myself to get adjusted to the life in this small town. Saroj Aunty helped me a lot in all the possible ways. She showed me around and introduced me to all other neighbours. She showered me generously with maternal affection which aided in accelerating the process of mending of my broken heart and erasing the memories of an ill fated love story from my mind. She was a widow who used to live alone in her mansion with only a maid to take care of her.
Tonight was one of those notorious cold and foggy moonless nights. I wrapped myself in a couple of thick blankets and tried to get some sleep. A little later, I heard the noise of footsteps heading towards my room. I strained my ears as I feared that someone has broken into the house. The next moment, I heard the creaking noise of the door of my bedroom as someone pushed it open.
'How could that be?' I asked myself as I clearly remembered bolting it from inside. The footsteps became louder as they approached my bed and then halted near the bedside table for a second. I became numb and closed my eyes tightly. The very next second, I felt an immense pressure of two mighty hands on my throat and struggled to breath. With all my might, I pushed them away and sat upon the bed with a heavily thumping heart. I immediately switched on the bed-side table-lamp and saw my blankets lying on the floor that I myself had flung down during my struggle with those phantom hands. The door of my bedroom was still locked from inside.
"Oh God! what a nightmare it was!" I said as I shivered badly. I dressed myself up in some warm clothes, grabbed a torch and made my way towards Saroj Aunty's house in the dead of the night.
"I'm very sorry Aunty, to disturb you in the middle of the night," I said as we sipped coffee in her parlor. Her maid went to resume her sleep after preparing the coffee and lighting the fireplace.
"No problem dear. My sleep has been disturbed since my husband passed away and it worsened after Shveta's disappearance."
"Disappearance?" I was shocked, "what do you mean?"
"Well" she shrugged,"she had the phobia of the dark. She was afraid of even peeping out of her window after the sunset. I didn't find it reasonable when Aniket told me that she left him and moved out of the house in the middle of the night. Moreover, I had noticed her sandals in the shoe-rack and her clothes in the cupboard when I went to visit him the very next day. Who leaves one's house without one's shoes or clothes?"
"Didn't anyone inquired about her afterwards?"
"Her parents had snapped all ties with her as she had married Aniket against their wish.They still think that she is with Aniket. As for Aniket, he found it convenient to assume that she has returned to her parents. So..."
She shrugged as she sipped her coffee, lost in thoughts while I silently kept watching agony float in her soft brown eyes.