THE JUDGEMENT DAY
Nikhil froze in terror the minute he stepped in Mahesh’s apartment. Glass pieces were scattered on the floor, and blood had spilled like a careless child had sprayed red paint all over.
The sofa was torn and upturned, while a gaping crack ran diagonally across the TV screen. It looked as if an earthquake had hit the house.
He peered at the far end of the room. Shanthi lay in a pool of blood. Her husband, Mahesh sat haunched, staring at her tearfully. Nikhil retched at the gory sight and fetid stench of blood. Mahesh darted across the room and caught him by his collar like a maniac.
“Rascal! You killed her that night, didn’t you?” Mahesh spat.
“Who? What are you blabbering?” Nikhil grumbled.
“Aarohi! Does that ring a bell?”
Nikhil’s heart skipped a beat. How does he know?
“She’s back, Nikhil. To avenge her death,” Mahesh slumped on the floor, weeping.
“Are you crazy? Who’s back? Her ghost? Hah!” Nikhil scoffed.
The wind howled like a lusty pack of wolves. The glass window shook like someone was banging on it. An ear-splitting cry rent the air. Nikhil and Mahesh clamped their hands to their ears. Still, the voice shrilled into their ear drums that threatened to explode. Nikhil flew up in the air and was hurled on the opposite wall. He screamed in pain and terror.
“I’m here to revive your memory, you filthy pig,” Aarohi lolled her head to one side. Her face mottled in anger.
Nikhil gaped incredulously. “Y… you…are here?”
She hunched forward in her bloodied and battered sea green frock. Eyes blazing red with fury, her disheveled hair blew wild like her demeanor. Her chest rose up and down furiously with each deep breath that she took. A powerful, decaying stench filled his nostrils, as she bent closer to him.
“Confess… what happened that night. What you did to me,” she growled.
“I… I’m sorry, Aarohi,” Nikhil cowered in fear. “I didn’t mean to kill you.”
“Sorry will neither bring me back to life, nor heal the trauma my father underwent, will it?” She hollered. “Call my papa. He doesn’t even know I’m dead. He deserves to know the truth!”
“I have his number. I’ll call him now. Please don’t harm us.” Mahesh quickly dialed the number.
“Uncle, this is Mahesh, Aarohi’s friend. I’ll text you my address. Please consider this as an emergency and come here soon.”
Aarohi’s father arrived. He stood appalled upon seeing her ghastly appearance.
“Papa!” She cried.
Tears of blood dripped from her hollow eyes. Extending her long, cadaverous arms, she grabbed Nikhil’s neck and swiftly raised him against the wall. He coughed, feeling choked.
“Confess the truth. NOW!” She screeched.
“I…I am sorry…” Nikhil stuttered while gasping for breath. “That night, after Mahesh left, I tried to flirt with Aarohi. I was drunk, not in my good sense.” He paused to inhale. “But Aarohi wasn’t interested at all and rebuked me. I got mad and pushed her. Unfortunately, her head hit a rock and she fell unconscious. She was bleeding profusely. I… thought she was dead. And… raped her,” he coughed as the grip tightened. “I then took her to a nearby desolate area, that looked like an abandoned, under-construction building site. Dunking her in petrol, I lit her body. But she began to scream. Realizing that she was still alive, I panicked and ran away.”
Aarohi grunted and dug her fingers deep into his neck till his veins burst and sprayed crimson liquid on the walls. His eyes popped out of its sockets and the lifeless body slithered through the wall. Her lips contorted in disdain.
“This was the site where I was burned to death, papa. You and the whole world thought I eloped with someone? All I wanted was justice. But even those who I trusted didn’t speak the truth,” she turned towards Mahesh and spat on his face. “Now, watch your wife die, and grieve for the rest of your life, Mahesh!”
She grappled Shanthi around her throat, even as Mahesh cried for mercy. She grinned manically.
“Beta, please stop!” Aarohi’s father pleaded tearfully. “All these years, I survived thinking you must be living happily in some part of the world. Now, knowing that you are dead, I don’t know how I’m going to live. But if you kill that innocent woman, I’m sure I won’t be able to live even for a day!”
Aarohi stared in silence.
“Leave her, beta. Forgive them. You have avenged your killer. Don’t repeat Nikhil’s mistake,” her father kneeled down, breaking down in tears.
Aarohi bellowed. Her ear-splitting shrill shook the entire building. Neighbors darted into Mahesh’s house out of curiosity. The gory sight startled them beyond limit. An old woman fainted, while some sprinted back home to safety. The others stayed outside, peeking in incredulously. Shanthi woke up clasping her bleeding head. She gasped in terror when she saw her ravaged house and Nikhil’s distorted lifeless body lying in a corner. Mahesh hugged her, relieved.
“The truth is out, my child. Be at peace now,” her father placated.
Aarohi cradled his face in her hands one last time, and shut her eyes contented. And she vanished.
SPILL THE TRUTH
“How dare you lie to me, Mahesh?” Shanthi blustered. “You said you don’t know Aarohi, right? But that’s not what Preethi told me.”
Mahesh was silent.
“Where is she, Mahesh? Why is she haunting my dream?” She shook him.
“I really don’t know, Shanthi. She’s been missing,” he murmured ruefully.
“Tell me the truth, for God’s sake! All these days I’ve been living in hell. I’ve always trusted you, Mahesh. But now I feel you’ve sinned,” Shanthi cried.
Mahesh shut his eyes. Recollecting each moment, he spoke.
Aarohi was new to my department. She belonged to a small town, and was ambitious and hardworking. Her father wasn’t financially stable. She was a quick learner, even though this was her first job.
Nikhil was my best friend. A compulsive flirt, he was smitten with her from the moment he laid eyes on her. He tried to converse with her, but she never entertained him. This frustrated him and so he sought my help. Though initially I refused, his non-stop persuasion compelled me to pitch in.
I approached Aarohi as his messenger. She scoffed.
“Nikhil is a pain, Mahesh,” she retorted. “Have you followed his eyes when he talks? It’s like he’s lecherously scanning my entire body. I’m surprised you want to set us up.”
“He’s a good friend, Aarohi. But this time, I felt he’s serious about you. Don’t worry. I won’t raise this topic again,” I promised.
Three months later, it was our annual day celebration. During the party, Nikhil began pleading.
“Help me one last time. I promise I won’t pester you again. Arrange just one meeting with her. I really love her, dude.”
I fell for his words. Somehow, I convinced Aarohi to give him a chance. Perhaps she could see his genuine feelings, I fathomed.
After the party, around 11pm, I drove her to the highway where Nikhil was waiting for her. I asked him to drop her back home soon, and left.
The next morning, I discovered that Aarohi hadn’t reached home after the party. I immediately called Nikhil.
“We spoke for some time and then I dropped her home. In fact, she only insisted to get down few meters away from her building so that her father wouldn’t spot her with me. Did someone kidnap her after I left?” Nikhil gasped. “Dude, I’ll be the prime suspect if they come to know of this. Please don’t rat me out,” he pleaded frantically.
I never disclosed to anyone. I was innocent. Yet, I felt guilty. Had I dropped her home, she wouldn’t have gone missing. When the police couldn’t trace Aarohi, they framed stories. About an illicit affair. About her eloping with her secret lover. I saw her father on news channels crying for her. He ran from pillar to post, hoping to find justice. He said he wasn’t aware of her affair.
He met me one day and said Aarohi had high regards for me. He sought my help. What could I say? The truth would put me in the radar. He gave me his number and left weeping. That sight was too much for me to hold. I resigned the next day. And left the city for good.
“So that was the reason you were hell bent against coming back to this city!” Shanthi exclaimed.
He gently nodded.
“Did you ever try to find out if she was safe? Did you contact her father at least?” She asked in a calm tone.
“I tried. But I just didn’t know what to ask? The man was devastated.”
“Spineless moron,” she hissed.
Mahesh was startled. Shanthi sounded different. He looked at her. Her eyeballs began spinning till they diminished and disappeared into the white sclerae of her eyes. Thick red veins throbbed on her face. Her lips cracked and bled as she bit them hard and cackled.
“I trusted you, Mahesh. And you left me to die…” she croaked.
“Sh… Shanthi…what happened to you?” Mahesh panicked.
“I’m Aarohi, you filthy animal,” she screeched. Her hair fell loose on her face as she pulled it hard. A thick bunch of hair scraped off from her scalp that she blew onto his face.
Mahesh gasped. “Aa… Aarohi…you?”
The apartment echoed with her raucous cackle.
“I like your wife’s body. It’s so warm inside,” she embraced herself. “Now watch her die…”
She propelled from the sofa and smashed her head on the ceiling. The chandelier came crashing down, breaking into smithereens. Her head bled like a leaking pipe.
“Noooo…” Mahesh cried. “I swear, Aarohi. I didn’t know you were dead. Please don’t punish Shanthi. She’s innocent.”
“Even I was innocent, wasn’t I? Still you trusted Nikhil? You hid the fact from the world that I was with him that night. You protected that killer.” She was incandescent with rage.
“Nikhil… killed you?” Mahesh gulped hard. “He lied to me?”
“Five years…I was confined here, unable to leave this wretched place. Now I know why,” she grinned. “You were destined to meet your end here, in my hands.”
Tearing apart the leather sofa with her needle-like nails, she upturned it with one kick.
“Why are you punishing us for Nikhil’s crime?” Mahesh blurted out.
“Call him here…right now!” Her shriek shattered the mirror and cracked the TV screen.
Mahesh dialed Nikhil’s number.
THE NEVER-ENDING NIGHTMARE
Shanthi woke up perspiring, breathing heavily. The nightmare shook her to the core this time. She felt an excruciating pain in her right hand. Switching on the bed lamp, she checked her hand. The skin had scalded. She screamed in horror.
Mahesh woke up with a jolt. “What happened?”
“My hand… look…”
He examined carefully. “I can’t see anything.”
She pulled her hand back and checked again. It looked normal.
“Shanthi, I guess you had another nightmare. It’s 3AM. Please go back to sleep.” Mahesh yawned and soon began snoring.
Shanthi couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. The girl in her nightmare, Aarohi came closer to her each night. This time she was screaming and burning in fire. And had held Shanthi’s hand.
The next morning, as soon as Mahesh left for work, Shanthi called Preethi, who was a common friend and knew Mahesh for many years.
“Preethi, I want to meet you urgently. Today itself. Please.”
“Sure. I have a meeting at 10. Reach my office by 12,” Preethi replied.
Shanthi reached on time.
“What’s so urgent, Shanthi? All ok?” Preethi quizzed. “You look pale and exhausted with those dark circles.”
“Something’s been troubling me of late, Preethi. You need to help me. You and Mahesh worked in this office, right?”
“Yes, Shanthi. We worked together for ten years. Five years ago, he quit this job and relocated to Pune. I’m glad you guys are back now.”
“You know him and his friends too. Do you know anyone by the name Aarohi?” Shanthi inquired.
“Aarohi… hmm…” Preethi thought aloud. “Yes, she worked here five years ago.”
Shanthi was astounded. “Does Mahesh know her?”
“Yes, she worked in his department. Poor girl worked for few months before she went missing mysteriously,” Preethi tutted.
“Missing? Can you please tell me more?”
“Even I don’t know much. She went missing the night of our annual day event. Police searched everywhere. But couldn’t find her. God knows where she vanished! Mahesh is aware. Did you ask him?”
“Well, I didn’t,” Shanthi lied.
Back home, she was furious. Why did Mahesh lie to her? Did he know about her whereabouts? Was he behind her disappearance? Her apprehension escalated.
THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS
Shanthi yawned as she applied butter on the toast.
“Didn’t sleep well last night?” Mahesh asked, while scrolling through WhatsApp messages on his mobile.
“Not much,” she replied. “I had a strange dream. I couldn’t see any face, but could hear incoherent voices in my head. As if someone was calling my name.”
“Stop watching horror movies, darling. Haven’t I told you before?”
“I didn’t watch any movie last night. Perhaps just worn out after the shifting.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help you settling in because of my work. But I promise to help on Sunday.” Mahesh kissed her forehead and left.
Shanthi got busy with her household chores. She unpacked the boxes and arranged the cutlery neatly in the kitchen cabinet. The showpieces adorned the glass shelf.
At night, wearily she placed her head on Mahesh’s shoulder while he ran his fingers over her long tresses.
“Mahesh, you were born and brought up here in Mumbai. After relocating to Pune, why were you reluctant to move back here?” Shanthi asked.
Mahesh was silent for a moment before he spoke, “This city makes me uncomfortable. Last year, after our marriage, I felt complete. I wanted us to settle in Pune. But you were adamant to shift here.”
“Mumbai is a big city, Mahesh,” Shanthi sat upright. “Once we have kids, they can go to good schools. We can have a luxurious life.”
“As if Pune didn’t have good schools…”
“It’s not that. I have seen enough of that place. I wanted to live in a big city.”
“That’s the reason I relented,” Mahesh smiled and kissed her cheeks. “It’s late now. Let’s sleep.”
At 3AM, Shanthi heard some voices. How much ever she tried opening her eyes, she just couldn’t. Rolling her head from one side to another, she moaned.
A girl stood at a distance. She beckoned Shanthi. With heavy steps, Shanthi followed her. She had pretty eyes and looked resplendent in a sea green frock. Suddenly, fragments of her dress began to rip off. She cried.
Shanthi woke up with a start.
She didn’t mention about it to Mahesh. He wouldn’t comprehend, she was sure. But the nightmare visited her every night. Each second, she felt the presence of a malevolent entity in the house following her everywhere.
Shrouded in darkness, she beckoned her with stretched hands. Shanthi followed her obediently as always and asked, ‘Who are you?’ She just smiled. Shanthi felt an inexplicable pull towards her. They were out in the building premises. Suddenly the girl’s frock started ripping away. Her face got scratch marks and she yelled in pain.
‘Who are you?’ Shanthi asked again.
Her scream jolted Shanthi to reality.
“The girl’s name is Aarohi,” Shanthi told Mahesh the next day during breakfast.
Mahesh choked on the food and began to cough. “What?”
“Aarohi,” Shanthi offered him water. “The girl who haunts my dream. Do you know her?” She raised an eyebrow suspiciously.
“What… how will I know her? I don’t know anyone by that name.” Annoyed, he looked at his watch. “I’m getting late. Bye.”
“But finish your breakfast…”
Mahesh had slammed the door shut.
Why did he panic? Shanthi felt something was wrong.
WHEN SHE SPOTTED HIM
The car halted outside the twenty storey building. Shanthi alighted and looked around in awe.
“Such a huge building !” She exclaimed looking up, squinting her eyes. And what a beautiful surrounding.”
She walked around the building. There was a swimming pool on one side. A joggers’ park and a play area with swings and see-saws on the opposite end amused her. It was difficult to find a patch of greenery in Mumbai, she had heard. But this place was paradise!
“Mahesh!” She called her husband who was happily dozing in the air conditioned car. When he didn’t respond, she pulled him out. “Come out, you lazybones. Look around.”
“Oh, what’s there to see?” He rubbed his eyes.
She locked her hands into his and walked around.
“Isn’t it beautiful, Mahesh?” She rested her head on his shoulder.
‘Mahesh!!!’ The mud on the ground stirred as a silhouette emerged from behind where they stood. A gust of wind blew, spraying dust all over.
“Ooh, it’s so chilly,” she rubbed her palms together.
“Madam, it’s 35 degree celsius. And you’re feeling cold?” Mahesh laughed as they both entered their new apartment.
‘Welcome back!’ She grinned.
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