The moonlight streamed through the windows and fell on their sweat-soaked bodies. His lips with a hint of red gently touched her fluttering eyelids. She drew him closer. He ran his hand on her arched back. She grasped his hair and twisted her hand around it. The subtle fragrance of lavender didn’t let him feel satiated. Music played in the background. She ran her little finger over his chest in accord with the tunes of the guitar playing in the background. Their lips soaked in every ounce of passion that roared between them. She let out a tiny cry. Her full and cushiony lips pressed against his, one last time before she landed on the bed, tired and spent. He lay by her side with his hand wrapped around her. Gently stroking her hair, he lulled her to sleep. She curled her leg around him and cooed slightly. There she was, his girlfriend of five years and soon-to-be wife. His Madhulika. They had experienced such moments of fiery passion on many occasions before. But this one felt special.
“Will you be my wife?” He remembered the words he had uttered a few hours back.
She squealed, jumped, and hugged him. Her bright and loud ‘yes’, still echoed in the chambers of his heart and he smiled contently. Life suddenly felt better. He closed his eyes and rested his head on her shoulders. Sleep embraced him.
The sky turned a shade grey. Clouds bulged like a balloon filled with air. Tresses flew in the air. Hands swayed at a pace faster than lightning. Bangles jingled. But the sound was anything but melodious. A red dot in the center of her forehead twinkled. Her bloodshot eyes widened exuding fire.
Droplets of sweat landed on his shoulder. He woke up with a blood-curdling shriek. Blood streamed down his nose.
“Are you okay baby?” Madhulika wiped the blood off his nose.
She cupped his face and tried to calm him.
“It’s okay baby. It was just a bad dream,” she spoke quickly lest he recognized the fear in her voice.
He nodded, his face drawing a huge blank.
“Close your eyes and try to sleep,” she tilted the pillow and let him lay on his back.
His eyes twitched rapidly. His hands turned icy.
“It’s going to be okay. I’m here with you.” She lost count of the number of times she repeated those words before she fell asleep.
The morning rays fell on his eyes. His muscles ached. It felt like his body was wrung like wet clothes the previous night. He ran his hand on the other side of the bed. She wasn’t there. Through his half-opened eyes, he looked at the clock.
“It’s late,” he groaned and got off the bed.
He entered the bathroom and brownish hues smudged across the skin covering the philtrum stared at him. And, slowly, the nightmare that shook him, the previous night came back. He clutched the ceramic basin and bent forward. What was that? The angry Goddess. Howling wind. And, a weird sound. Those were the things of the past. His past deeds hampered the spirit of his present.
The beautiful evening had come to a rather unpleasant end. He felt tired and wanted to sleep. But he and Madhulika would soon be heading to his hometown for their marriage. It meant that he would not attend work for a while.
He let the droplets of water wash away his anxiety. Dressed in an unironed shirt and cargo pants, his hair still ruffled, he entered the dining room. Madhulika was waiting for him at the table.
“I made your favorite sandwiches,” she kissed him on the cheek.
He reciprocated with a gentle kiss on her forehead and shoved a chunk of the sandwich down his throat. One look at him and she knew something wasn’t right. He dressed immaculately all the time. His rugged face displayed a deep frown and she was worried.
“Are you okay, Ritwik? You can talk to me if you like,” she offered.
“I’m fine. It was just a bad dream. I’ll try to be home early. You have a good day,” he hugged her.
As he walked to the door, he heard her anklets jingle. He turned and saw the red stones embedded in a gold chain shine brightly. Everything that he had seen the previous night gushed like a waterfall.
“Remove those anklets. Get rid of them,” he yelled and slammed the door behind him.
Shocked, she sank into the chair. It was unlike Ritwik. He had never yelled at her before. He appeared troubled. She tried to take her mind off the turmoil. But ended up mindlessly scrolling her phone. A photograph that was clicked a few years back thrummed her memory strings.
Five years back
Ritwik had entered her life like a calming breeze. Back then, she was a member of a reading club. On a regular Sunday, she was swamped in the world of words and emotions. A soft tune was heard as his entrance disturbed the bell on the cafe door. There he was dressed in a denim shirt with his hair bouncing like a happy toddler. His trimmed beard made its mark. A “John Grisham” book in his hand cast its spell on her. Enticed, she continued to stare at him until she noticed her reflection in his sunglasses. He too was looking at her. That revelation startled her and she lowered her gaze. He walked to the counter, picked up a cup of coffee, and walked to her. She pretended not to notice.
“You like books,” he spoke calmly.
“Ah, yes,” she chuckled and pointed at the board that read ‘The Book Lovers Club’.
A surge of red spread across his cheeks. Just like that, they bonded. Books, coffee, and wit, they had a lot in common. What started as a friendship, blossomed into a beautiful feeling. Love. Like a blooming garden, their relationship thrived under the canopy of love. Two years later, they moved in together. Convincing their parents was tough.
“Get married and do whatever you want.” Both their parents had shared the same opinion.
Ritwik took charge and explained how they felt. His patience was commendable. In their relationship, she was the angry bird while he was the saint. His love was like a ray of hope that shone through the darkest of nights.
A smile that dawdled on her lips, vanished as he entered the house.
Her heart thundered. But the sight of lilies pierced her heart like sunshine and she felt relieved.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you,” he held her hands and kissed her.
His alluring lips worked like a charm. The kiss felt the same. Soft, tender, full of affection, and intoxicating at the same time. Everything felt okay. Maybe, it was the alcohol that was to be blamed for the incoherent morning. She pressed her lips against his cheeks and stood still for a long time. Images from his dream disturbed him. She wrapped him in a hug. Like the disappearing dew drops, he felt those tormenting visions dissipate.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asked as he lifted her in his arms.
“I’ll be working remotely for the next two months,” she held onto him tightly.
“Oh, that would be great,” he played with her nose.
“Maybe, we can make tonight a celebration,” he removed the clutch, and her long hair cascaded on the pillow.
“What do we celebrate?” She slowly unbuttoned his shirt.
“You,” he whispered.
She closed her eyes and felt his warm and comforting grasp. He was trying to make amends. She liked it and wanted more. The rest of the evening passed peacefully.
That night, the visions from the previous night troubled him again. The visions were accompanied by an eerie noise.
“Ritwik,” he heard a menacing voice.
A weird stench lingered around him. It reminded him of something rotten. He woke up and sat with his face buried in his hands. Blood oozed out of his nose. Night after night, that dream tortured him on a loop.
Madhulika stroked his hair. He placed his head on her lap and she lulled him to sleep. On and off arguments became a routine. He felt guilty and immediately made up for his deeds. But the frequent fights left an indelible mark on their relationship. While he fought with the invisible demons, she tried to untangle the knotted fabric of their togetherness.
Two weeks passed.
“Preponing our trip to your hometown might be a good idea,” she suggested, careful not to hurt him.
He nodded reluctantly. The ornate tower of the temple welcomed them. The colossal bells swayed fiercely and melodious chimes filled the air. Vendors displayed their products. Devotees entered the temple. Madhulika hoped that the divine aura would fill Ritwik with positive vibes.
“I grew up playing outside this temple. It’s believed that the Goddess protects this town. She comes to the rescue of her devotees and it’s said that no one can escape her wrath.” A feeling hit him hard and he stopped.
“We used to collect pebbles and then go to the nearby lake. We swam for hours and then watched the pebbles plop against the water. Those simple yet beautiful days.” His words disrupted the uncanny silence.
A wave of nostalgia enveloped him. His upward-turned lips almost reached his brightened eyes. The wind ruffled his hair. Placing his chin on the window frame, he soaked in the surroundings. He was home. He was happy. Madhulika felt at ease. An earthy odor tingled their senses.
“We are nearing the lake,” he gleefully mentioned.
She moved closer to him and wrapped her hands around his neck. He turned and stealthily landed a kiss on her lips.
“Can we stop at the lake for a few minutes?” she asked.
“Sure. But don’t complain about the dynasty of mosquitoes,” he grinned.
Holding her hand, he walked to the lake. Cows swam in the calm waters that reflected the orange shade of the setting sun. Birds returned to their nests. Mosquitoes stung her and feasted on her blood. He folded his pants and dipped his feet in the water. The cold water relieved him of the anxiety. She sat by his side with her head on his shoulder while creating ripples with her hand.
“Ritwik,” he heard a hoarse voice.
The surroundings turned grim. Clouds filled the sky. Raindrops landed on the lake producing an ear-shattering noise. A hand appeared at a distance. He felt a head peep out of the water. Muffled sounds emerged out of the lake.
“Don’t leave me,” he heard a cry.
Lifeless eyes imprisoned in a socket flashed before him. Wind roared. A gut-stirring cry emerged out of nowhere and he pressed his hands against his ears. The hand displayed a red stone. Fingers formed a grip around it.
“Don’t Ritwik. It’s not right,” unpleasant whispers shattered his soul.
A series of dots formed before him. Lightning painted the sky. The same face he had seen two weeks back, formed before him. Behind the fierce Goddess, lurked another face. Tender eyes floated in the air. Eyes filled with mercy.
“Nishanth,” he muttered.
“You killed me,” a ghoulish laughter boomed in darkness.
“No…no… I,” Ritwik couldn’t talk.
He failed to comprehend the situation. Nishanth’s hand engulfed his neck. The bruised, bad-smelling hand with decaying skin giving out putrescent vibes engulfed his neck. Nails penetrated his flesh. Blood dribbled out of his body. He felt breath after breath leave him. His skin turned pale.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm. I was just playful,” he gasped.
“Ritwik, what happened?” Madhulika shook him.
He looked around. There was no sign of the Goddess or Nishanth. There were no clouds. The surroundings were pleasant. Was he imagining things again? Was Nishanth haunting him? Was it the guilt wrecking his mind? He felt like someone ripped his brain apart.
“Madhu,” he hugged her tightly and tears coursed down his cheeks.
The tiny droplets landed on her outfit making it cling to her skin. Her trembling fingers caressed his heaving shoulders.
“It’s going to be fine,” she repeatedly said until his breathing returned to normalcy.
She guided him to the car, gave him water, and clung to him like a mother stuck to her scared child. He didn’t look out of the window anymore. Throwing his head back, he closed his eyes. His eyeballs moved rapidly only to stay still after a few seconds. His parents welcomed them.
“We are glad you came,” his mother placed her hand on Madhulika’s head.
Ritwik hugged his parents and retreated to his room.
Weary of all the travel, she fell asleep earlier than usual. He got off the bed and walked to the cabinet. An album hidden in a corner caught his attention. A faded photograph torn at the corners fell onto his hands. He ran his fingers over it. It was a picture of Nishanth and he clicked at a local fair. Aeons had passed but he remembered the day vividly. He was camera shy. But Nishanth had pestered him to go for it.
Placing his arm on Ritwik’s shoulder, he had said, “Smile.”
Despite the dark spots camouflaging the printed memory, their wide smiles didn’t go unnoticed. The memories of the times they had spent together played in his mind. Nishanth was one of the closest friends he ever had.
Suddenly, the photograph caught fire and fear replaced his faint smile. Nishanth’s eyes burned for a long time until the only memory he had of him was reduced to ashes. Clasping his head, he sat on the edge of the bed. It felt like an unseen force pushed him into the past.
On a summer morning, he and Nishanth were collecting pebbles. Burying their hands deep into the mud, they searched for those tiny treasures.
“I’ll collect more than you,” he had bragged.
“I’m sure you will,” assured Nishanth.
Nishanth was the calm, righteous kind while he was the competitive type. Oblivious to the ball of fury pounding relentlessly, he frantically looked for pebbles.
“Ritwik, look what I found,” Nishanth jumped.
Curiosity made him stop and turn. A small red-colored stone lined by a metal that resembled gold shone resplendently.
“Wow, this is beautiful,” his eyes widened.
He felt a warm feeling rush through him.
“This must be expensive,” he looked at the stone closely.
“It’s invaluable,” Nishanth swallowed a huge chunk of saliva obstructing his throat.
“It belongs to the Goddess,” Nishanth pointed at the temple.
A robbery incident had rocked the town a few days back. Jewels and other valuables were reported to be stolen. The offenders might have dropped the little jewel.
“We found it. It belongs to us now.” A hint of greed swept over him.
“It belongs to the goddess. To the temple. We must return it,” Nishanth had insisted.
“I don’t care what you think. The stone is mine now.” He snatched it and ran away.
Nishanth followed him to his house. He was afraid Nishanth would report the incident to either of their parents. But nothing of that sort happened. He lay cooped up in his room for two days.
“Ritwik, Nishanth is here,” his mother announced.
Not wanting to create any suspicion, he met Nishanth and they walked to the lake.
“Listen to me. It’s wrong to keep something that’s not yours. Give it to me. I’ll return it to the temple authorities,” spoke Nishanth.
“But we found it. Let’s keep it. No one needs to know,” he persisted.
“Just look at it once,” he placed the treasure in Nishanth’s hand hoping to change his mind.
“The priest is my father’s friend. I’ll give it to him and tell everyone about your intentions.” Nishanth had begun to run.
“Don’t do that,” he followed Nishanth.
A scuffle ensued. Nishanth pushed him. He landed on the ground. Immediately, he stood up and landed a blow on Nishanth. What happened next, shook him. Nishanth fell into the lake.
“Help,” shrieked Nishanth.
Throwing his left hand into the air, he managed to stay afloat. He wanted to save his best friend but was afraid that his secret would be out in the open. Fearing his father’s uncontrollable anger, he stood still and watched Nishanth drown bit by bit. His hand disappeared followed by his head. He appeared like a speck for a few minutes only to be completely submerged in the water.
“Nishanth,” he yelled.
The residents and villagers assembled around the lake. Three men jumped into the water and retrieved Nishanth’s lifeless form. His parents fell to the ground and wept their lungs out. In his closed palm rested the red-colored stone.
“The nose pin,” one of the women gasped.
“Where did you find it?” asked his father.
“Outside the temple. We found it while collecting pebbles. I wanted to return it. I mean, we wanted to return it. But Nishanth slipped and..” Tears left his eyes.
He hugged Nishanth’s body and wept.
“I’m sorry, Nishanth. I never wanted you to die. I was just protecting myself,” he mumbled.
Months passed. He had locked himself in a self-created shell. His parents assumed that his friend’s untimely death took a toll on him.
“I think we must send him to the city for further studies,” he heard his mother suggest.
He felt a sort of relief overpower him. His father enrolled him in a junior college away from home. A change of place had given him respite. Thoughts about Nishanth troubled him for a few months. But with time he had forgotten about him. He worked on himself. He took an interest in books, worked hard, and carved a future for himself. At a young age, he built a home and found the woman he wished to spend the rest of his life with. Life was perfect until that dreadful night.
“Come to bed,” Madhulika’s voice brought him back to the present.
He lay by her side, his arms wrapped around her waist. She would soon be his wife. She deserved to know the truth. But would she forgive him? He had assumed that spending time in his native home would offer him comfort. But the exact opposite happened. Nishanth haunted him. Or it was his guilt.
On one night, as though driven by an obscure power, he freed himself of Madhulika’s grasp, left his house, and walked to the lake. Under the moonlight, he sat for a long time. Images, sounds, and thoughts drove him crazy. He closed his eyes, shut his eyes but in vain. Slowly, his eyelids drooped, and he slipped and fell into the lake. Gasping for breath, he tried to swim to the shore. But he felt a strong pair of arms around his neck. With every passing second, the grasp around his neck tightened.
“Leave me,” he winced.
“Confess and I’ll disappear.” It was Nishanth.
He turned and saw a gruff and devilish form float before him. He was unrecognizable. Almost like a stranger. It was very much unlike Nishanth. He used to be empathetic and caring.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he pleaded with folded hands.
“I had begged you to save me. But you stood like a stone. You are selfish.” A blow landed on Ritwik.
Specks of blood formed on his head.
“Let me go,” he pleaded again.
“Tell everyone the truth. Ask everyone in the town to assemble at the lake and confess. You snatched away my parent’s peace and happiness. They deserved to know the truth. My parents don’t exist anymore. But the truth does. Bring it out into the open,” snarled Nishanth.
Fumes left his mouth and burnt Ritwik’s soul.
Ritwik promised to confess and fell unconscious.
Not finding him at home, left Madhulika and his parents worried. They around the town in search of him.
“Ritwik is at the lake. He has asked all of us to join him,” informed an elderly man.
“He has not been himself for the past few weeks. He has nightmares. His nose bleeds and he is frustrated all the time,” Madhulika shared her concern.
“His nose is bleeding again.” His mother stopped in her tracks.
“What happened, Maa?” asked Madhulika.
Ritwik’s mother gave an account of the past. Madhulika felt dizzy. She didn’t want to move an inch. But Ritwik wanted to say something. Why did he ask everyone to assemble by the lake? Why was it important? Intrigued to get the complete picture, she dragged herself to the water body. The water sparkled under the morning sun like a row of diamonds. Ritwik sat on a stone with marks of blood on his forehead. His shirt was partially wet.
“Are you okay?” Madhulika ran to him.
She hugged him and covered the wound with her scarf.
“What is going on?” his father asked.
Ritwik was silent. Thoughts about evading the truth crossed his mind and he felt Nishanth strangle him one more time. He decided to do the inevitable.
“Years back, Nishanth and I had gotten into a fight. I pushed him and he fell into the lake. He pleaded with me to save him. But I was scared. I was afraid of the consequences. Fear got the better of him. I didn’t want to face my father’s wrath. So, I just let him die. I’m sorry,” he cried.
Everyone looked at him, shocked. His mother collapsed. His father’s hand left an imprint on his cheek. A print that would be ingrained for the rest of his life in his mind.
“Get out of our lives. Don’t ever visit us or try to contact us,” his father bawled.
Nishanth’s dad was his best friend and he treated Nishanth like his son. He felt that though unknowingly, he was a part of Ritwik’s misdeeds.
“Dad, I’m sorry. Please believe me. I’m sorry,” Ritwik held his father’s feet.
Freeing himself of the grip, his father walked to his wife, helped her regain consciousness, and carried her home.
“Madhu, it was an accident. I didn’t want him to die. I should have told you the truth. But years had passed. I didn’t think it was relevant.” He tried to hug her.
But she walked away. A year passed. He continued to seek forgiveness from his parents and Madhulika. His father’s stance remained the same. But Madhulika forgave him. They got married. He didn’t have nightmares. Peace found a way into his life. Ritwik and Madhulika lived happily ever after.
Vinay closed the book. It was his story. It was an account of his wrongdoings. He had killed his friend Anand. The truth was finally out. In fine print for the entire world to read. The publisher informed him that his book would become a best seller. A smirk played on Vinay’s lips. He would soon become a best-selling author. So what if in reality, the woman he truly loved Kavya refused to forgive him? So what if she moved on in life? His parents disowned him. He was alone. He had no one to call his own. But he had money. It would buy him everything. He walked to the cabinet and poured a glass of wine. The bubbles warmed his throat and he closed his eyes.
An hour later, in an inebriated state, he walked to the terrace holding a laptop in his hands. He crashed on a chair and hazily stared at the stars when he felt someone stand before him. Sharp nails dug into his neck.
“Please, let me go. I did what you said. I confessed. Not just to the residents of our town but to the entire world. Trust me Anand,” Vinay’s skin turned pale.
Every bit of blood found its way out of his body. Tiny dots formed before him. Everything around him was dark. He couldn’t breathe.
“You didn’t tell the whole truth. You didn’t tell the world about the nose pin. Your greed and your evil nature still lay hidden in your heart. You mentioned that the characters in your book are fictional. How do you call it a confession? I know you are going to earn a lot of money. But the money would do you no good,” Anand’s voice pierced the darkness.
Vinay fought for his life. Despite fear ripping his soul apart, he tried to free himself. The harder he tried, the more difficult it was.
“The world will now know the truth,” a sinister smile formed on Anand’s lips.
Words appeared on the laptop.
“The characters in my book are not fictional. The book “The Final Scuffle” is an account of my life. It was an anecdote of my greed and evil deeds. There is one more truth I have hidden from everyone. Decades back, my friend Anand had found the nose pin. He wanted to give it to the temple officials. But desire overpowered me. We got into a fight. I pushed him. I watched him drown and die. I had every chance to save him. But I didn’t. I regret my actions. As an act of redemption, I chose to end my life.
The always unfaithful,
As the last sentence appeared on the screen, Vinay’s skin turned blue. He struggled to breathe one last time before experiencing a horrid flight and landing on the floor. He was gone. Forever. But stories of his sins would continue to live on. It would be told and retold for generations to come. Anand finally avenged his death and found peace.
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