The Cottage

The Cottage

“Lazy little Tom, 

Never listened to his mom;

He rolled over in the mud,

And fell down with a thud;

Scrub and clean your wound, she said;

Bruises heal in time, she bet.”

“Aren’t you a little old to recite such silly poems?” Rohan laughed curiously, passing the ball to Ryan. 

“Is there a right age to stop reciting poems?” Ryan smiled.

“That’s a valid point. But you are fourteen years old. Kids your age probably hang out with teenagers, playing football or chatting about girlfriends.”

“Girlfriends?” Ryan threw the ball at Rohan’s face (which he caught point blank), “I don’t know about others. But, you are my brother. I like the bond that we have. And I promise I will be there for you, always,” Ryan winked, and they chatted all through the evening about the latest events in school.

It was almost dark, with the earth swallowing the sun at the horizon. The warm breeze from the fields across the cottage made the swing at the backyard sway with a crackling sound. In few minutes, the chirping of birds stopped, the warmth no longer existed, and an eerie silence surfaced.

Meena called out to Rohan rubbing her palms, “Come, dinner is ready.”

“Mom, why is it so cold at night here?”  Rohan walked into the house, hugging his shoulders.

“Maybe because there are vast empty lands on either side of our home.”

Meena had recently divorced her husband of fifteen years. In the early days of her marriage, Meena and Manoj were the quintessential ideal couple. No one ever saw what a devil Manoj was at home. He was a stickler and a fanatic at that. From using cuss words to lately raising his hands, then and now on Meena, was becoming a norm. 

Meena gathered courage and broke loose from his shackles. She found a job in a distant calm town and joined immediately. 

At the dining table, Rohan was fidgety and restless. 

“Spinach for dinner? I won’t eat it.”

Meena was taken aback by Rohan’s sudden outburst. It was surprising because he never put up tantrums. 

“What is wrong with you? Tomorrow, I will make your favourite parathas,”  Meena brushed his hair with her fingers.

Saying so, she turned away from the table.

SMASH.

Meena turned around shocked, the plate that she had served Rohan was on the floor, shattered.

A sudden fit of rage rushed up her spine and she raised her hand.

“Sorry, mom. Don’t hit me,” Rohan bowed down. Meena immediately lowered her hand, “ Then eat curd rice.”

‘Perhaps, the new neighbourhood has made him cranky,’ she thought.

Meena cleaned up the place and served him curd rice on a fresh plate. She walked up to the kitchen to finish her daily chores.

Rohan turned to Ryan, “I like curd rice.”

In no time, Rohan shrieked from the dining table.

“Mom, I don’t want to sit here. Can I sit on the sofa?”

Meena peeped from the kitchen, “No, Rohan. You will spill food on it.”

“There is a foul smell here. It’s unbearable.”

“Rohan, eat quickly and go to bed. It’s already too late.”

Rohan smiled at Ryan, “You farty. What did you eat in the afternoon?”

And both burst out giggling.

“Farty, farty, farty…” he chuckled.

“Chee, Rohan. Stop it. Stop cracking such lame jokes,” she walked into the dining room.

“What’s that dirty smell?” Meena sniffed along like a puppy across the table. 

“It smells like rotten meat, doesn’t it?” Meena questioned.

The kids nodded their heads in unison. 

“It must be a dead rat outside the house. Leave it. Come, let’s go to bed.”

Meena had recently shifted to this new cottage. Though the town itself was quiet, she had to settle for a remote house. It was difficult for her to find a decent house within her budget. Also, she didn’t want her ex-husband to know her whereabouts.

This cottage was amidst serene landscapes, surrounded by open golden fields. The house was semi-furnished with a mini-garden in the backyard. It had a  broken swing and slide that had to be mended. And the immediate next neighbour was around half a kilometre away. She always wanted to lead a hustle-bustle free life. 

Around midnight, Meena woke up trembling. It was the same nightmare each day. Someone calling her -Mom and trying to strangulate her. She reached for the bedside table and gulped a bottle of water. 

‘Why do I have such weird dreams?’ She mumbled and lied down.

“Lazy little Tom

Never listened to…”

Meena sat up, sweating. She sharpened her ears and realised that the sound was coming from the next room. Rohan insisted that he was no longer a kid, so slept in the next room. She tip-toed down the corridor.

Meena picked a hockey stick that was left aloof outside her kid’s room and opened the door.

“Lazy little…” Rohan mumbled in his dreams. Meena walked closer to have a better look and realised that he was indeed sleep-talking. She turned around to leave the room and Whoosh! A spurt of heavy breeze washed her face. Before she could compose herself, she felt cold fingers entwining hers. 

“Mom,” an unknown spooky voice called out to her.

Meena jumped in the air in horror. 

“Mom, What happened?” Rohan was standing by the bedside.

“Nothing. You were singing some song-lazy little…”

“Oh! Brother taught me. I sang it all day, so maybe it just got stuck in my brain,” he smiled.

Meena shook her head and walked back to her room murmuring, ‘silly kids’.

Early in the morning, Rohan came running to Meena,  “Mom, wake up. It’s urgent. Come with me to the backyard.”

Meena managed to open her eyes as Rohan pulled the blanket on her aside and dragged her into the backyard.

A gory sight awaited them. It was a massacre. 

“Go. Stay inside with your brother. Don’t discuss this with him,” she ordered.

The golden-brown land was smothered with red. Meena walked closer to investigate. Body parts were pulled apart and strewn across. 

She swallowed a gulp down her throat, as her lips went dry. She immediately walked into the house and called the police.

The police marched in late in the morning.

“Where is the crime scene, madam?”

“In the backyard,” she escorted them.

The police constables inspected the area for some time.

“This is nothing, Madam. It just looks like some dogs were fighting.”

Meena glared at them, “What? Can’t you see there are at least half a dozen animal remains in my backyard? Yet you believe it was just a fight?”

“Yes, madam. See, this is a very remote area. They must be wandering for food. You just remain safe inside. We will leave now and send someone to help you clean the mess. Don’t worry.”

Meena stood surprised at their utter inefficiency to discern such a horrific thing.

“Mom, it was such a scary scene. I guess the foul smell also was from there. How…”

“Leave it, Rohan. Think of it as a nightmare and never talk about it in front of your brother.”

The eerie silence of the neighbourhood in itself was haunting. Meena did not want to add any more fuel to the fire.

A few days passed, and she felt they were getting back to normal. 

One Sunday afternoon, the kids were on the front porch relaxing, and Meena was busy folding clothes. Rohan ran into the house, “Mom, look.”

At a distance of about more than 200 metres, she saw a man. He stood there, staring at their house. 

“He must have lost his way. Come inside. Let’s have lunch,” she looked once again at the guy. It was like a mirage of a man standing. But, deep down, she felt she knew this person. The frame seemed quite familiar.

After a while, she peeped outside the window. To her horror, the man was still there. And then he started walking towards the house. Meena closed all the doors and windows shut. She picked up her mobile and frantically dialled the numbers to call the cops. But, in vain. There was no network connection. She sent out an SOS message to the constable who had visited earlier. 

BANG

He banged on the front door. 

TRING. 

He thrust his fingers on the doorbell.

“Open the door, dammit,” he roared. 

Meena immediately recognised the voice. She ran to the glass window next to the front door and pulled aside the curtain.

The monster of her life was back.

“What do you want?” Meena yelled from inside.

“Meena, I am a changed man now. I promise to take care of our boys.”

“No, Manoj. Please, go away.”

“I have been watching you for the past few days. You are alone, just surrounded by stray dogs.”

“I knew it. I had a premonition, that you would be behind all this.”

“Behind what?”

“Oh, don’t act. We both know, it was you who killed the dogs. Don’t you have any shame?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

At a distance, sirens were wailing. Meena glanced at her cell, the network was back, and her message had already been received.

Manoj hurled cuss words at Meena, as he was handcuffed and steered into the police van.

Meena hugged her kids and walked them into the house.

“Mom, Will he be back?”

“No, he won’t be back. We three are a family, and this is our home. I will not let anyone ruin it”

But, she was worried the stress from the ordeal won’t end soon.

“Mom, not again. Once again the room smells of rotten meat.”

Rohan and Meena checked the backyard for any foul play, but there was nothing fishy.

As she was preparing dinner, she heard the same poem again, ‘Lazy little’. But, the voice wasn’t Rohan’s, it was coarser and deep. 

‘Oh no, he is back,’ and she rushed to the living room.

The sight in front of her shocked her to the core and sent chills across her spine. 

Her kids were coming down the stairs. But they weren’t walking. They were levitating in the air. It seemed as if someone was carrying them on their shoulders.

Both were giggling and having a merry time. Meena froze at her feet.

“Please, brother. Take us to the dining table,” Rohan demanded.

They went up to the dining table and sat on their respective seats.

“Mom, what happened? You look shocked. Come, we are very hungry,” Rohan smiled.

Meena walked up to the table and sat next to Rohan. She had to ask him, but would he be able to answer? Where should she start?

“Rohan, who taught you this song?”

“Brother taught us, Mom. I told you the other day.”

“Yes, but your brother is just five. I don’t think this poem is there in his syllabus. I checked his book the other day.”

“Not Rohit, Mom. Ryan brother taught us.”

Meena’s face went pale, “ Who? Ryan?”

“See, he is sitting next to you,” Rohan gestured to the next seat.

“Don’t joke. I can’t see anyone.”

“Ryan is there with us all the time. He said he used to stay here earlier and was so happy to have us here.”

“What are you blabbering? This can’t be true.”

“In fact, we have a secret too. He is the one who killed the dogs the other day. He said they were barking and disturbing my sleep.”

Meena freaked out and picked a kitchen knife. She swayed it in the air and started yelling frantically. 

“Who is it? Come in front of me.”

“I am right here, Mom,” Ryan replied.

“Mom? I am not your mom. Who are you?”

“This is my home. Where will I go? I stayed here with my mother and younger brother. I don’t know if my mother loved me. But, I showered my younger brother with all the love in my heart.

My mother would walk into the house and sniff some white powder all day. She never really cared. I knew she had suffered a lot at the hands of my father. I felt for her. I pitied her. She will always abuse and beat us, saying the house was unclean. We were untidy. At bedtime, she made us sing the song. But, one day she turned even crueller. She fed me and my brother poison-laced food and fled. Since then I am staying in the house, waiting for my brother. I never walk out of the gate, too. Maybe I am cursed to stay inside. But, finally, Rohan arrived. I will not let you ruin his life,” Ryan roared.

Little Rohit came running to his mother and tucked under her arms. 

“I am sorry for your loss, Ryan. But you need to leave. I am capable of taking care of my kids. I love them dearly,” Meena slowly picked up Rohit in one hand and walked towards Rohan. She had to make a move immediately. Probably, just outside the gate, where Ryan may not come. It was just a chance, she had to take.

She held Rohan’s hand and whispered in her ears, “Let’s run away.”

She made a dramatic quick run but couldn’t move faster. Alas! She had to make a halt. Meena held Rohan’s right hand, but his other hand was clutched by Ryan.

Meena let go of Rohit, “Go, run. Stay outside the gate.”

Little Rohit ran out of fear. Meena held on to Rohan with both her hands and dragged him along. Defying a superhuman force was difficult, but her motherly instincts had gathered all the courage.

Rohan cried aloud in pain. His arms were being pulled apart. Meena somehow dragged him unto the gate.

“Please, let go of my son. I love him. I am not like your mother, I will take care of him.”

“You are tricking me into all this. You all are the same.”

At that instant, Rohan fainted. Meena patted his cheeks desperately, calling out his name. 

Ryan too looked worried, and let go of the hand.

Rohan opened his eyes and winked at his mother. That was her chance, and she pulled Rohan outside the gate. Ryan came gushing but in vain.

He howled and roared, “Rohan, come back to me. You betrayer. You chose your mother on me.”

He banged the gates but couldn’t walk out.

He let out a growl that reverberated in the night sky. 

He looked at the house, “I will destroy it. You will never have it again.”

He ran into the house as the cottage caught fire. It came crumbling down piece by piece into ashes.

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