“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Aaaarrrgh!!”
Chirag wakes up perspiring profusely. Rivulets of sweat fall across his forehead and temples soaking his brows and sideburns. He hurriedly wipes them dry as though they may expose his weaknesses. He rubs his palms and feels the warmth of it on his cheeks.
As his eyes adjust to the room’s darkness, his gaze falls on a pink beam of light on the wall, forming an elongated rectangle widened at the top. Its unnaturally sharp edges glow with a shade of reddish yellow, like in fiery anguish. The source is a nightlight attached to the wall just beside the bedside table.
Didn’t I fix a blue one yesterday?
He furrows his brows thinking, and fumbles for his glasses.
Precisely at that moment, the digital clock on his bedside table beeps. He puts his spectacles on and peers at it.
Fresh beads of sweat appear on his forehead when at the same time, a spell of chillness overcomes him. He shivers and reaches for his water bottle beside the clock, glancing dubiously at the pink light. The gurgling sound of water is the only noise for the next few seconds in the otherwise silent room.
As soon he corks the bottle with its lid, a slow creak of a door is heard in a corner. He turns at once, causing his neck muscles to contract and a shooting pain radiates through his shoulders. He spills water all over his T-shirt and drops the bottle to the floor.
The soft thud of the bottle camouflages an odd silky hiss of clothes rubbing against each other. As the door of his cupboard swings open with an anomalous force, with the hinges almost giving way as it bangs on the frame, out slides a brilliant pink dress, with cute frills adorning the front side and tiny butterflies embroidered so scrupulously onto each of the frills. The satin torso of the gown glitters in the darkness.
The dress looks straight out of an angel’s wardrobe, although at an unnatural time and place. The gown gently flows onto the floor and lies still for a minute only with its ostentatious frills flapping tenderly.
In a blink of an eye, he jumps out of the bed and sprints towards the door, only to disappear into the living room and slam the door shut. Once inside the living room, he switches all the lights on and plonks himself on the couch. The unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach refuses to budge even one bit. He feels bile rising in his throat as the image of the pink frock kept popping in and out of his mind. He swallows hard to not puke.
“Am I hallucinating? And, the dream?” he mumbles once he finds his voice. He shakes his head vigorously as if to clear his mind off some murky and disturbing images of the past. “Wish I had got a train ticket to go home,” he continues talking to himself and drifts off into an uneasy sleep, tossing and turning on the couch.
The apartment that Chirag and two of his friends had moved in, a couple of months ago, lie situated in one of the busiest thoroughfares of the city. After months of painstaking search, they had been happy to find a fully furnished apartment inside a gated community, which had been rented out at a reasonable charge, very close to their workplace. With their work schedules keeping them on their toes, they were quite unable to find time to socialize with other families in their block, let alone the entire complex. Their only acquaintances around the place are the security guards who diligently clock their shifts and the children whom they often find playing in the lawn, play-area, or near the swimming pool as and when they leave for or come back from work.
With his friends on a short holiday to their hometowns, Chirag has been the only resident of the apartment for the past five days. He was also supposed to accompany his friends, but he cancelled his plans at the last minute and decided to stay back, stating an important meeting at work with his department’s Head.
As he bade a somber goodbye to his parting friends, visibly grieving over his inability to travel home, he made a mental note of the exact reason stated to his friends. He was worried if his forgetfulness might put him under suspicion. He smiled to himself as he shut the door to his friends and welcomed his much-awaited loneliness in the apartment.
He did have plans to go home but not before wanting to put his hard-earned leaves to the best use. He had something else in mind.
As the golden rays of the morning Sun slither in through the corners of the curtained window at his apartment on the third floor, Chirag jolts awake screaming. The same nightmare pays him a visit yet again. He checks the time. 11 am. He rushes inside his room, only to halt in his tracks the next second, as the memories of the previous night gush in. But, the room appears just the same. Everything looks untouched.
The nightlight is switched off. The water bottle remains intact in its place. The floor appears dry. The bed is neatly made. The cupboard remains closed and the keys hang loosely from the keyhole. He feels an unearthly chill run down his spine.
Was I dreaming?
He clicks his tongue nervously.
He realizes that even the windows are open when a cool breeze caresses his sweaty face. He shudders. He is drawn in the direction of the gentle wafts. He bends over the sill to look through the window.
Only to be scared out of his wits witnessing the pandemonium on the ground floor near his block.
He rubs his damp palms anxiously. He adjusts his glasses to get a better view, to prevent it slip from his nose.
People from the media seem to have thronged their swanky residential complex. They accompany a bunch of uniformed men which appears to be a police dog unit. A group of police officers makes their way into the crowd of residents swarming the main gate. The sea of faces through which the officers swim past appear puzzled and curious to understand the reason behind their infamous visit.
A middle-aged man runs to one of the police officers crying. His hair looks unkempt and his face looks swollen and blotchy. The police officer nods and follows him inside the block.
Chirag cannot take it anymore. He turns away from the window and drags himself onto the bed. He fidgets for a while in his pockets and locates his phone.
“Tickets, please. Tickets. Why am I not able to get even a single ticket home?” he murmurs, as his fingers tap and slide across the phone drawing clammy lines all over its screen.
Meanwhile, a floor above, in the same block, the team of police officers gets to work observing, noting down, and tracing every inch of the apartment 4F where an 8-year-old girl has been reported missing for the past two days. As the grieving parents lead the team to every nook and corner of the house, to aid them in gathering any shreds of evidence that may help bring back their little girl, one of the officers voices out a weird observation.
“Your daughter likes pink?”
“Yes, she loves pink,” her mother answers and loses herself in a fit of sobs, looking at the pink curtains, a pink Barbie doll on her desk, the pink table lamp, and even a wall art of a flower bunch painted in indescribable shades of pink.
Her father continues to explain.
“She was in fact wearing a pink frock on the day she went missing. She came back from school, got dressed up in her favourite pink dress, and had gone to meet her friends. She was mentioning attending a friend’s birthday party in the lawn area.”
“Do you remember the time she left the house?” A police officer enquires.
“Should be around 5 pm. My wife says so,” her father mentions. “I usually come back from work by 7:30.”
“Did she use the lift or the stairs?”
“She usually takes the stairs. She must have, even that day.”
“Did she meet her friends that evening? Did you speak to them?” A barrage of questions is posed by the officers as part of the investigation.
“Apparently, she didn’t. She comes back home usually by 7, after playing with her friends. Or sometimes, even before that, if she has exams. When she didn’t return even after 8 o’clock, it got us worried. We went in search of her, spoke to her friends, their parents, and even the security guards if in case she was seen outside the complex. No news about her. In fact, a guard told us that he didn’t see her anywhere outside the block that evening,” her father details out the events of the dreadful day.
Her mother lets out a wail holding the ends of her sari. Her whole body twitches uncontrollably. She appears as if she may faint any moment. Her husband grips her shoulders and helps her sit down on a chair.
“My daughter Naina…please find her. Where are you, Naina?” Her mother’s cries echo through the room, so tastefully decorated in pink; every inch of it gleaming with her smiles and reminding them of their little girl who has vanished without a trace.
The officers record the conversations and discuss among themselves for a while.
“Hope this gated community is equipped with CCTV?” One of the officers remarks.
“Yes, it is.”
“Great. Can we have the footages of that evening, from 4:30 pm to say, midnight?”
“Let me talk to the Owners’ Association and get back to you as soon as possible, Sir.”
“Thank you. In the meantime, we would like to talk to the security guards, Naina’s close friends, and their parents, please.”
“Sure, let me get them here.”
Thus begins the interrogation to uncover the mystery behind the case of the missing girl and get the whereabouts of Naina.
As much as her parents pray to see their daughter soon, a lone guy at an apartment exactly below theirs prays to escape from the tension building inside the community as quickly as possible.
With no tickets available for his commutation home, he starts thinking of alternate ways to reach his hometown before midnight. 250kms to travel. Less than 24 hours to remove himself from the scene inside the complex. His mind works furiously as he buries his face within his cupped palms and contemplates his options. His stomach grumbles. He pays no heed to it.
The digital clock on the table beeps announcing that it is 1 pm. An hour past noon. The tiny letters on the clock’s screen, just above the digital display, reads as THU.
Thursday. And, the girl…Monday. Just two days and the case is all over the place. To hell with this media. Tch!!
He recalls the incidents of the fateful evening.
Monday dawned with its usual blues, as his day began earlier than a weekend does and as he went about making his breakfast. Until the time his phone buzzed with a call from one of his friends and flatmates. The sudden call made him aware of his leaves for that fortnight and that he had a reason to stay back alone. He put his feet up and ensured to have fun the whole day. Fun, in every sense.
The day passed by uneventfully, with him emptying the refrigerator and hogging on any snack that he could get hold of, and keeping himself occupied with a collection of movies back to back. In the evening, as he settled comfortably on the couch sipping on his mug of black coffee and watching a movie, he heard footsteps just outside the front door, as if someone hopped down the stairs playfully. He opened the door in a reflex to see Naina in a stunning pink dress about to descend the next flight of steps. The little bubbly girl was humming a tune to herself.
The strange irresistible attraction, that usually overpowered him whenever he came face-to-face with her, began to envelop him, tipping his eagerness to reach out to her and touch her, to a point beyond control. He felt completely and unusually aroused. He called her name.
“Hey, Naina. Hi!”
She turned beaming at him and he felt himself massaging his lips in anticipation. The pinkness of the gown seemed to go beyond the fabric and reflected on her face. She looked like a cherubic angel in pink. But, his eyes looked through the layers of pink, at what he longed for. He assumed the form of a predator on a mission to pounce on his prey, all the while wondering how and when did he turn into one.
“Hello, Chirag uncle.”
“No uncle, please. Call me Chirag. Would you like to come in? I have got some goodies here,” he invited her in, his heart drumming against his ribs.
“Ummm…my friends are waiting for me. Have to go.” She pouted her lips in reply.
“Oh, you may as well take away some for your friends. Coming?” He tried pushing his luck.
“You’re right. But…ummm…okay. They would like that,” she nodded reluctantly.
The naïve little girl fell for his sugar-coated words and walked into the den, utterly unaware of the disaster that was going to befall her and destroy her innocence.
The next couple of hours elapsed in a haze of pink, as if on fast-forward; the delicate frills and the smooth satin obnoxiously torn and strewn all over the bed and the room. Blood marks stained the floor and the bed.
Chirag finds himself splashing gallons of water onto his face as though trying to erase a bad memory off his brain. But, it remains etched into him, every cell in his body ready to accuse his demeanor right until his grave.
What got into me? I didn’t mean to, little girl. That pink dress…
He shivers as he steps out of the bathroom and robes himself.
In a fit of despair, he runs to his cupboard, loads his backpack with a few clothes, picks his motorcycle key on the way out, and disappears through the main door, locking it securely as if that can distance him from what was conspired inside the apartment. He decides to take an easier and unrecognisable way out of the city, to escape the prying eyes and the knitted brows. They seem to follow him at every step until the main gate of the complex, making him wonder if it is for real or if he is imagining their expressions. Guilt washes him top to toe.
As he kicks his vehicle to life and rides out of the gate, a smile of accomplishment crosses his face, with the first taste of inexplicable freedom appeasing his wrecked nerves.
If only he knows what the journey holds!
He rides through the bylanes and alleys trying to evade the busy traffic of the main roads. The orangish yellow hues of the setting Sun shine bright and full of life, before yielding into the obsidian darkness that swallows it whole in no time.
The breezy ride seems rejuvenating to his agitated mind and he capitalises on it by taking wild swerves off and on. At one point when he veers off into an unfrequented and uninhabited alley lined with overgrown trees, his vehicle jerks to a sudden halt. His efforts to restart the ignition turn futile. A sense of urgency suddenly assails his nonchalant attitude as his eyes absorb the scene around him.
The dark alleyway gives the impression of uncanny familiarity. A queer putrid odour hits his nostrils and he scrunches his nose in disgust, scanning the place.
On an impulse, he parks his bike, dismounts his backpack, and walks to the other end of the alley. The scene that unfolds in front of him brings back unforgettable memories of a recent past. His senses go numb and he stands rooted to the spot. He becomes too startled to take notice of the eerie susurration of the wind, which appears to whisper a word of caution. A small piece of pink satin floats out of nowhere and settles near his feet. His eyes widen with shock looking at it. His world seems to turn upside down that very moment as an unnatural calm fills the area comprising a barren land unceremoniously teeming with filth.
“Didn’t I burn her whole along with the bag I carried her body in? Frills…dress….how could this be possible?”
He slaps his mouth in a reflex. He looks around to check if he has any company.
Words hitherto unspoken and unheard of get spewed out harshly. Once he reassures himself that he is alone, he jogs through the area trying to locate the spot he set the girl’s dead and mutilated body to flames. Instead, what he sees are unmissable traces of the girl’s gown so carelessly scattered everywhere. His nightmare of the past two days waits to turn into a reality.
“Hello, Chirag uncle.” A chirpy girl’s voice is suddenly heard from behind, punctuated by a sweet chuckle. A gentle wind whistles past him causing goosebumps.
“I have goodies with me,” continues the disembodied voice, dancing with enthusiasm.
He freezes, unable to even blink. His eyes search the source of the voice frantically.
“You love my pink frock, don’t you? I love it too.” The voice questions him and the gown falls on his head and slides to the ground.
He tries to scream but his vocal cord fails him. He stands there drenched in his own sweat and urine, when his clothes start tearing themselves into pieces until he stands half-naked.
“I didn’t mean to kill you…” His voice breaks out in a hoarse whisper. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” he stops speaking as if muted unwillingly.
The next thing he feels is a burning sensation that seems to steadily grow in intensity, right from his belly button to his thighs.
He shrieks in pain as a bout of flames begins to lick and singe his skin raw, waist beneath. He tries to run but his legs deny the luxury. A strong force out of the blue shoves him to the ground. Scratch marks appear all over him as sharp invisible nails dig deep into his body. Blood starts trickling down in all directions.
He bellows in unbearable pain, when a pair of hands tightens around his throat. His cries get stifled, the next instant.
The last act of justice is served next, when flashy daggers fall on his face gouging his eyes out of their sockets. His face lies soaked in a pool of blood.
Chirag yelps and howls in pain maniacally until every ounce of energy in his body is spent. He stays pinned to the ground, with his limbs beating the ground in rhythmic thuds. The girlish chuckle resounds through the open land for one last time. The winds stop blowing as if on cue, his ragged breathing being the only sound as he sinks into an abysmal darkness. He breathes his last, moments later.
The predator is preyed upon.
Forty-eight hours later, as the early morning rays make their first appearance, a small tea stall, few kilometers away from the barren land, buzzes with activity. As the visitors relish their hot beverages, the newspapers rustle noisily in the wind, drawing all of their attention to a photo of a little girl printed on it.
A bearded old man squeezes his eyes to read the piece of news associated with it.
“Read it aloud, Sir,” remarks a visitor. He smiles and nods at him.
‘The case of the missing girl from the Mayflower residential complex comes to a closure. Her parents are shattered at the revelations that their 8-year-old daughter has been sexually assaulted and brutally abused by one of the residents of the same block the family belongs to. The officer in charge of the case mentions that the CCTV footages helped them identify the culprit. In an interesting and unexplainable turn of events, when the police dog unit discovers the charred remains of the girl’s body in a ditch, about eight kilometers away from the complex, another disfigured cadaver has also been found. On further examinations, it has been identified to be the youngster, who abused the girl. The perpetrator of this horrific crime is a 26-year-old IT professional.’
A heavy silence ensues, with the sound of running water from a tap being the only intrusion.
“Justice served.” The old man mutters to himself in contentment, and looks up at the vast blue sky above him.
Child abuse is a term that collectively indicates both sexual abuse and emotional abuse. CSA, Child Sexual Abuse, is more prevalent in the country, with its rates alarmingly increasing year on year. Studies reveal that gender doesn’t play a role in sexual abuse cases and go on to mention that an equal percentage of both girls and boys have reported facing abuse. Even further disturbing is the fact that 50% abuses are caused by persons known to the child or those in a position of trust and responsibility. It is essential that every home and school teaches the children on safety and protection measures.
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