May 15, 2022
Pitter-patter the raindrops fall, forming meandering patterns on the glass window of the bus. I hate the rain. Nothing good comes out of it. The bus screeches to a sudden halt, and I’m thrown forward, hitting my forehead on the seat ahead. I wince as I trace the small bump on my head with my fingers.
I see a man getting on the bus. He is wearing a raincoat that clings to his wiry frame. His face is stoic and sunken, and he has piercing eyes. He smiles at me. I greet him back. He sits in the empty seat next to mine.
Do I know this man? No.
He is just sitting there. Yet, I feel uneasy.
My heart pounds frantically within the walls of my chest, like a fluttering bird trapped in a cage. Dread pools in my stomach, as a sensation of déjà vu overwhelms me.
Run when you can!
I go with my gut and scramble to the exit, ignoring HIS eyes. The bus is already moving, but I frantically yell that I need to alight. The conductor hurls abuses at me for waiting till the last minute. I jump off the bus and walk. No, I run.
Only after a good distance, do I turn around to see if I’m being followed. I am not. I can’t explain why I’m this disturbed.
Drenched in the rain, the cold water mingling with my salty tears, I look like a bedraggled rat. I’m still shaking as I take out my phone to call the one person who is my sunshine, who brightens up the darkest of my days, my sister Misha.
“Meera Didi are you OK?”
Her voice is filled with concern. I decide not to tell her.
Even if I wanted to, what could I say? That I met a stranger on a bus who made my hackles rise, for no reason at all?
“I’m fine, Mishu. What time will you be home tonight?”
“I have project work. Will be back around nine.”
The final year of engineering is no joke. Misha has a lot on her plate. The last thing I want is to add to her worries.
I hang up and commence the long walk home, soaked to the skin. Imagine my relief when I finally reach my cosy little flat, our home of the past five years.
I change into dry, comfortable pyjamas. I put on some music and boil tea on the stove. I fiddle with the contents of the fridge. Misha seems to be eating very little nowadays. Tonight, I will make her favourite dish, potato fry.
The rain has stopped, and I open the windows to let the fresh air in. We live on the tenth floor and our windows overlook the road. I see a flicker of movement outside, directly below our flat. I glance at the clock. It’s a quarter past eight. Too early for it to be Misha. I crouch and sneak a surreptitious second glance at the silhouette. My heart skips a beat.
It’s him! The man from the bus.
What is he doing here? How does he know I live here? Is it just a coincidence? Panic chokes me in its vice-like grip.
I hastily draw the curtains and switch off the lights. I make sure the front door is locked. As I curl myself into a ball, trying to expose as little of my vulnerabilities to the world, I recall the advice from the YouTube videos.
Deep breaths. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Happy thoughts only. Papa. Mama. Misha. Flowers. After all, I’m a florist, aren’t I?
Begonia. Deep thoughts.
The comforting warmth of familiarity cocoons me. Slowly, my breaths even out, and my heart rate steadies. I muster the courage to open the curtains again and glance down the street.
He is gone. I must have imagined the whole thing. I set the table for dinner, relieved.
It is a busy day at Florentina’s, the flower shop I work at. It’s almost closing time and I’m readying the last order for the gentleman in front of me. I select pink roses, my pliers going snip- snip, bunching the stalks in wet cotton, and assembling them into a bouquet. I wonder who the flowers are for. Lucky person, whoever they are.
I feel a pang.
Would anyone ever gift me something like this someday?
I tell my customer that pink roses stand for appreciation, but he doesn’t seem to be interested. A rose by any name, perhaps?
As he hands over his card for payment, my eyes unwittingly dart to the display window. Up ahead is the man. THAT STRANGER. HIM. In his raincoat. He walks past my shop. My hands start to tremble.
“Are you alright?”
My customer follows my gaze, but the stranger has disappeared from the field of vision, and it’s as though I’m staring vacantly into space.
“Yes! Here is your bouquet, Sir.”
Once he leaves, I pull the shutter down and sit still. After a good thirty minutes, I hope that the coast is clear, and I emerge, like a tortoise out of a shell. I dart to the bus stop. On the bus, I heave a sigh of relief.
No sign of the stranger.
Wherever I go, he is there. He doesn’t follow me or talk to me. He shows no sign of recognition, yet he is ubiquitous. How does he know where to find me? Why does he bother me?
Tonight, I’m on a run to the provision store to pick up a few things. As I’m hunched over the milk aisle, trying to decide between fat-free and lactose-free, I see a shadow lurking nearby.
HIM. Wiry, with a pointed nose, and those accusing eyes. I freeze in my tracks, paralyzed by fear. He walks past me, as I try to merge into the background, into the aisle. He doesn’t turn around to look at me, not even once.
Is it because there are other people in here? Why is he here, at all?
I’m reminded of a documentary on National Geographic, about how big cats like to play with their prey before going in for the kill. A leopard silently follows a baby antelope. It jumps and captures it with ease. It licks it, without ending the tiny creature’s misery. The docile prey sits down in resignation. One final swat of the big cat’s paw, and it’s all over.
Am I the baby antelope here?
By now, the stranger seems to have disappeared. I pick up a newspaper from the stand.
Headlines: Woman Stabbed By Stalker.
Is this a sign? In a moment of desperation, I run home and confide in Misha. She is flabbergasted and demands that I go to the police.
“Didi, he could be dangerous. So, what if he hasn’t done anything so far? It isn’t normal for a person to turn up everywhere you go. “
I promise Misha that I will file a report. She offers to accompany me, but I hear none of it. She needs to focus on her studies. Exams are around the corner. I will go during my lunch break the next day to the Police Station.
The next morning, I get ready to head to work. My sister is still sleeping. Careful not to disturb her, I brush my hair and study my reflection in the mirror. Big eyes, with bigger circles underneath, stare back at me.
Misha is a much prettier version of me- she has an elfin appearance. No one would doubt that we are sisters; in reality, we are stepsisters. My mother died when I was very young. A few years later Papa married Mama, who treated me like her own. Then Misha was born, and I couldn’t be happier. It was love at first sight.
I try to hide the white strand that has made an ominous debut among my raven-black tresses. Must be the stress of the past few days.
Vasuki. That’s the Inspector’s name. She is taking notes.
“Meera Prakash, age 25.”
She writes down my address-both home, and work. I share the details of my family. I tell her that I live with my sister Misha, who is a student at a prestigious engineering college.
She asks me to describe the stranger.
“Middle-aged. Tall and thin. Sharp nose.”
“Has he approached you or attempted to harm you?”
“No. Not till now.”
Vasuki writes down a number on a piece of paper.
“Call us the next time you see him.”
I thank her and leave.
On my way out, I remember that I’ve forgotten to give them the address of the provision store. It might have had a CCTV camera. Surely, they could check that. I head back in.
I hear Vasuki’s voice. She is discussing a case with her colleague.
“Must be a boyfriend. It’s always a love affair gone sour,” the colleague dismisses.
“This man is much older to be a romantic partner.”
“Must be a sugar daddy. Girl gets bored and dumps him after extracting money. Man goes crazy. Happens.”
Disgust overwhelms me. I don’t know if it is my case they are talking about, but I storm out.
It has been five days since I last saw the stranger and I’m relieved. I have kept Inspector Vasuki abreast of the latest developments. Today, I need to fetch a few supplies from our warehouse for a bulk-order. I take the train.
I get down at the crowded station and make my way through the crisscrossing platforms. Somebody dashes against me, and I drop my handbag. I bend to retrieve it. From the corner of my eye, I see HIM. My heart lurches, and my stomach churns.
This time our eyes lock. He looks furious. He is marching towards me in agitation.
Run! My inner voice screams. Yet my feet stay firmly rooted to the ground. He is barely a metre away when my instincts kick in, and I turn. I feel him behind me in hot pursuit.
Should I confront him? Should I scream? Is he armed?
He is catching up with me. I know it. And then the blow lands. He pushes me. I lose my balance and topple onto the tracks. In the distance, a train is heading straight towards me. The last thing I see before losing consciousness is the stranger’s retreating form.
“This is serious. Are you sure that it was the same man that pushed you?” Vasuki inquires.
Luckily for me, a brave passerby had jumped and pulled me off the track. A minute late, and I wouldn’t be sitting here. It had taken me an hour and all the flowers from A-Z, Asphodel to Zenobia, to get any semblance of normalcy back.
I’m still shaking.
Vasuki promises that this time she will take stringent action. She asks me to work with the police artist to sketch the man’s face. It’s harder than I think to put sight into words. The artist does a good job- the resultant portrait bears a good resemblance to the stranger.
Vasuki asks me if any eyewitnesses could identify the culprit. I tell her that some commuters saw me fall, but no one saw who pushed me.
“We will extract the CCTV footage and circulate the drawing among our leads.”
The word CCTV jogs something in my memory.
“Oh! The provision store probably has some footage too.”
“We will check it out. Don’t worry. I will not let some deranged man hurt you!” she vows with fierce intensity, and I feel relieved.
I’m at Florentina’s selecting flowers for a funeral wreath. The customer is in his black mourning clothes, as he inspects the white lilies.
“They were her favourite,” he rues.
As I wrap up the order, I ponder over the irony. The person whom the wreath is meant for isn’t going to see it. Or could she?
My phone rings. It’s the Inspector.
“We have nabbed a potential suspect. Come to the station to identify him.”
She doesn’t reveal anything else.
“It’s not him!” I state assertively.
Bhasker, aged 53, salesman. Matches my description to a tee, and there is a resemblance to the sketch. On top of it, there are some instances when his alibi coincided with mine.
I shake my head. Bhasker looks relieved. Vasuki keeps asking me if I’m sure. Disappointment is writ large on her face.
It’s not him. I’m sure of it. I would know that stranger’s face anywhere.
One of Vasuki’s team members comes charging in. He seems to be excited.
“We have the CCTV footage, Ma’am.”
We head to a room on a side, to view the videos. The first one is grainy. Me in the provision store, looking petrified. There are other people there- an elderly man, two teenagers, a woman, and the cashier, but no one matching HIS description for the entire period I’m there.
That doesn’t seem right.
Vasuki frowns. She plays the second video at the railway station. I come into focus, tottering dangerously close to the platform. She zooms in on the footage. An elderly woman bumps into me. I lose balance and fall to the tracks.
There is no stranger, no stalker.
“How is this possible? This video is doctored!” I scream.
Vasuki looks agitated. For some reason best known to her, she wants to call my sister.
“Misha is at college. She isn’t allowed to use her mobile.”
The inspector calls the college’s general office number. She is informed that there is no student by the name of Misha Prakash.
I’m disoriented. The world seems to be spinning around me.
Vasuki’s face is ashen. She asks me to wait and leaves the room for an instant. She is muttering something about this case being a waste of time. I seize the opportunity to bolt out of the station and run for dear life.
The police mustn’t find me. HE mustn’t find me.
I need to talk to Misha. Why isn’t she going to college anymore?
White Rose. Purity.
Crimson Rose. Mourning.
I can’t remember.
I’m home. Misha will be back soon. We will sort this out.
I look at the mirror with my tear-stained eyes. Dishevelled and defeated; I hate this version of me. My reflection slowly transforms before my eyes. The features blur temporarily and then become sharper, and I see Misha staring back at me.
“Didi, are you OK?”
“No, Mishu. What is happening to me?”
“Don’t you remember?”
I shake my head, unprepared for what is going to hit me next.
“Didi, that night when you were driving, you called me a killjoy. KILLJOY. And in the end …you killed me!”
I recoil as though I have been struck.
Misha’s features change. The skin becomes sunken and sallow, the eyes terrified.
I’m staring at HIM, the stranger, the person who has made haunting my life his vocation.
“Who are you?” I demand.
He smirks at me.
“Who are you?” I plead.
Deep down, I know already, don’t I?
This man is my guilty conscience. One that haunts me and will continue to, for the rest of my life. Someone that I tried to bury in the deep crevices of my mind, but has awakened with a vengeance, ready to consume every fibre of my being and destroy my soul from within.
“Remember me, from that night?” he taunts.
How can I forget? That fateful night from five years ago, when I accidentally killed not one, but two people-one a stranger, and the other, the person I love the most.
May 15th, 2017
I am ecstatic. I graduated with honours and also received my driver’s license. To celebrate, I take Misha to a party. She feels sleepy, and I promise to escort her back.
It is nearly 2:00 am; not the best time to be up and about. It’s raining heavily. The roads are slippery. I’ve had only a sip of wine; hardly anything. I have full control of the wheel.
“Didi, go slow!”
“Mishu, enjoy life, you killjoy.”
I don’t know from where that man darted forward. He shouldn’t have tried to cross the road there, but at 2:00 am he mustn’t have expected any traffic. I slam my foot on the brake, a second too late. A second that would later torment me. Could I have saved two lives if I hadn’t had that sip? Was that one sip the difference between life and death?
I see his face; his terror-filled eyes. They are seared into my brain. I lose control of the wheel as I swerve trying to avoid the collision. The car hits the man, and he gets flung violently.
We scream as the car veers off the road and hits a tree. I see Misha flying through the windshield, crashing through the glass. Why didn’t the airbags activate? My Misha. The baby I had promised to take care of. Now a mangled heap.
The man dies on the spot. Misha is admitted to Papa’s hospital. She dies two days later of a brain bleed.
Papa has lost one daughter; he isn’t going to lose another. He wields his influence and makes it all go away. Mama is another matter altogether. She refuses to meet my eye.
“I wish you had died that night, not her,” she hisses. The word STEP-daughter goes unsaid but rings loud.
I can’t deal with it. I can’t face the grief of my parents. Grief that I’ve inevitably caused. So, I escape. Take refuge in a different city. Cut all communication with my parents. Forget my engineering studies and become a florist.
I am a murderer, and nothing more, no matter what I choose to believe. But my mind? It sucks me into a fairy tale. My subconscious reconstructs Misha, and it is as though she never left. Until I wake up, naked and bare. And alone.
Death is not bad. It means I will meet Misha again. Ask for her forgiveness. No, beg for it. I head to the kitchen. I grab my knife, the one with the sharp glinting edge.
A crisscross of red interconnections. I open the sink. Water flows. Like the rain. Like tears. The sink is a deep shade of red. I feel lighter. I am happy. I am at peace. My life ebbs away slowly.
I can hear a banging somewhere. And then a crash. I see a shadowy form. I don’t care anymore. The darkness closes in on me.
I wake up on a bed. My hand is heavily bandaged, and I’m hooked to different devices. This isn’t heaven or hell. It’s a hospital.
“She is awake!”
Is that Mama? And next to her is Papa! They have aged quite a bit. How I’ve missed them!
“Meera, are you alright?”
It’s been so long since I’ve heard the sound of my name!
“I’m sorry……. for Misha…for everything.”
“Hush….it was an accident.”
Mama wraps me in a warm embrace, telling me she is sorry too. She reminds me that Misha would want us to be happy.
Perhaps I’ve died, and this is heaven.
I later get to know that it was Inspector Vasuki that brought me in. She had come looking for me.
A doctor hovers around. He is from the psychology department. He has a name for my ailment.
PTSD. Depression. Hallucinations.
I live in a make-believe world. My mind is a labyrinth in which I’m hopelessly trapped. That rainy day on May 15th has awakened memories.
The doctor recommends counselling, medication, and a change of scene. Papa squeezes my hand and asks me to move on. My parents insist that they will take me to the house I grew up in, to happier times.
Epilogue: May 15th, 2023
It’s been a year now, and I’m doing better. The medicines work their magic. I accept that Misha is gone. It hurts. But it is what it is. Also, I haven’t spotted the stranger so far.
Which is why I go looking for him. Stephen.
The grave is in a cemetery by a church. A desolate plot of land, as unloved and forlorn as the people buried there. I locate the tombstone that reads Stephen Pereira, April 5th, 1970- May 15th, 2017.
I have my pruning pliers with me, and I use them to deftly snip off the weeds and the overgrowth. On the grave, I lay my wreath of carnations.
This man has no one to grieve for him. No family, no friends. But now he has me. I, his harbinger of death, am now his angel of remembrance. A small step towards making amends for the unforgivable sin I’ve committed.
I lay a small sprig of Asphodel on the grave. Spikes of white with pointed petals, carrying a profound message.
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