It was a foggy night. The rain pelted against the car and the wipers worked furiously to give some semblance of visibility. I was in my element, singing along with the car radio.
With no warning, a form emerged from the darkness and darted across the road. I jammed the brakes, two seconds too late. The car skidded and came to a halt with a dull thud. I crashed through the windscreen. Blood pooled, mixing with the rainwater and forming rivulets. A sharp ringing sounded.
I woke up with a start. My 6:00 AM alarm had saved me, breaking the chain of turbulent thoughts and morbid dreams. I was drenched in sweat and my pulse was racing. The same dream again. It continued to torture me.
I got up, trying to banish the unpleasantness to the distant crevices of my mind. I randomly stuffed clothes into my travel suitcase and headed off to work.
Friday, 8:00 AM
My heels click-clacked against the linoleum floor. I was impeccably dressed in crisp business wear, hair coifed immaculately into a bun, not a single strand out of place. Here, I couldn’t display my insecurities. My job was to allay fears, not propagate them
My receptionist welcomed me. “Good morning Doctor!”
“What is my schedule for today?”
“You have three patients in the morning. At noon, you will be traveling to your wellness camp.”
I strode into my suave office. The door had my name engraved in bold. Dr. Sharika Menon, Doctor of Clinical Psychology. My eyes fell on the certifications and accolades adorning my wall. My patients included the who’s who of Bollywood. And recently a famous cricketeer. I had worked hard for this. My second chance.
I sat on my chair, tapping at my notes with my pencil, nodding sympathetically, as my patients poured their hearts out to me. This is what I do. I help people.
At noon, I went through a file on my desk labelled ‘Take Two- Wellness program’. It was a pro bono workshop that I led, for patients currently undergoing therapy. Every six months, I would request applications. Anyone could apply, provided they had a referral letter from their current doctor.
I randomly picked out four or five applicants and spent a few days with them, teaching them customized cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. All free of cost. My gift to society. So far, I had completed five such programs and each one of them had been successful.
I looked at the four current participants. An ex-army man being treated for PTSD. A corporate executive recouping from burnout. A widow with anxiety. A mother trying to cope with the loss of her child.
The army case would look good on my resume. As I set off, I tried brushing away a feeling of doom that wouldn’t go away.
I usually conducted Take-Two at my mansion in Havapur. We had christened the mansion, ‘Cloud House’. It stood atop a hill. From the foot of the hill, the house would appear to float between the clouds. I used to come here with my parents for the holidays.
Cloud House was the ideal location for a program like this. Secluded and peaceful. And cheap, unlike my celebrity workshops that were conducted in five-star hotels.
My flight landed in the evening, two hours late. I rented a car to drive up to Havapur. I hoped that I could make it before it got dark. I didn’t fancy driving up the treacherous slopes. I drew slowly along the curving roads.
My caretaker Gireesh had messaged me that the patients had already arrived. I had hired him a few months ago when the previous caretaker left. He looked after Cloud House along with two helpers, whose names I couldn’t remember.
I could see the outline of the house from afar. The lights glowed brightly. The last leg of the drive was tricky. At one point the road split into two. Wasn’t I supposed to turn right? But there was an arrow that pointed left. I took the left. I drove on for five minutes. I’m not sure what made me stop. That feeling of unease, like a bitter taste, was peaking.
I stopped the car and got out. I screamed. Right in front of me was a gaping abyss. On the side, lay a discarded sign that read, ‘Danger, Road Closed’. If my gut hadn’t warned me, I would have crashed into the ravine.
I trembled. Must be a mistake. I reversed the car and headed right, but not before restoring the signs. It was almost ten when I reached Cloud House. Gireesh was waiting for me. He was a man in his early fifties, with an air of quiet efficiency about him.
Cloud house was a three-storeyed house. The staff lived on the ground floor. My room, the grand hall, the study, and the breakout rooms were on the first floor. My patients had their rooms on the second floor.
I was exhausted. Sleep overpowered me.
Saturday, 8:00 AM
“Good morning everyone! Welcome to the Take-Two program! I’m Dr. Sharika. This is ‘Take-Two’ because of two reasons. Firstly, this is about second chances. Secondly, we are in this together!” I announced chirpily.
Seated in front of me, were my four patients. Suyash, Naina, Mallika, and Rajat.
“This is a safe place. The objective of this program is not to replace but supplement your regular therapy. It is to energize and arm you with new coping techniques.”
“I want you to turn to the person next to you and congratulate them for making it here. Then introduce yourselves. One by one.”
“I’m Suyash. I served in the army and was deployed to a warzone. I was injured and honourably discharged. The images of war still torment me.”
Suyash was ruggedly handsome, with a face older than his years, attributable to the horrors he had been witness to.
“I’m Naina, an accountant. I lost my husband in an accident, a few years ago. Since then, I struggle with relationships.”
Naina was a petite woman in her thirties, with a refined dignity about her.
“I’m Mallika, a hairdresser. My son died tragically many years ago. My husband and I divorced later. I’m trying to hold it together.”
She sniffed and smoothened her grey tresses, as the others looked on sympathetically.
“I’m Rajat. I couldn’t cope with work stress. I’m currently between jobs. I don’t have any sob story,” He laughed nervously, and his paunch jiggled. I frowned at his flippant humour.
The session commenced. I let them talk. Let the trust build up. There were pent-up emotions, simmering under the surface. They laid out their vulnerabilities and cried. Catharsis.
We broke for an early lunch. We were halfway through when I heard a muffled curse. It was Gireesh. I rushed to see what had transpired. He had slipped on the stairs. Someone had carelessly spilled water there. He seemed to be in a lot of pain. A twisted ankle.
I sent him to his room to rest, ignoring his protests. The poor man could barely stand upright. I gnashed my teeth. Simi and Simran, the two helpers, were simpletons. God only knew how Gireesh managed. I had to get through the next four days.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in breathing exercises and team building. The group was getting more comfortable with one another. I felt proud of them. I studied them from afar. Mallika kept emanating nervous energy. Suyash was clearly uncomfortable. Naina was the friendliest of the lot. Something was off about Rajat. I would need to go through his files again.
I bid goodnight to my guests and retired to my room. I looked out of the window. Howler Rock stood in front of me, in its full glory. The rock was named after the fierce gales that howled. I used to love watching the sunrise with my parents by the cliff. When the sun’s golden rays fell on it, the rock acquired a life of its own.
I heard muffled screams from the floor above. I fastened my night robe and climbed up, alarmed. It was from Suyash’s room. He was tossing and turning, having a nightmare. The door was ajar.
“Suyash! It’s OK. Wake up.”
Suyash’s eyes opened. And in the next second, his hands reached out and clasped my neck. I gasped as I tried to resist, and my vision grew blurry.
Sunday 9:00 AM
“I’m really sorry about last night. I haven’t had an episode in a long time,” confessed Suyash sheepishly.
My hand went to my neck, unconsciously. It was already sporting a blue bruise. Thank God, Naina and Mallika had rushed in then. Mallika had stood stunned, but Naina had pushed Suyash off. Suyash’s recollection of strangling an enemy soldier had resurfaced, triggering him.
I had a long discussion with Suyash and told him that I was here to help. I would also write a note to his current therapist.
The strain of the week was catching up with me. Gireesh was still out of action. The poor fellow could barely stand. He did a good job of issuing instructions to Simi-Simran, even in his handicapped state.
That day, I took my group on a trek. We watched the sunset from Howler rock. The sky was a palette of myriad hues of pink, orange, and red. Mallika walked up to me, as we stood on the edge of the cliff, soaking in the beauty. I rounded the group and returned to the house.
It started raining heavily that night. Unfortunately, I had planned outdoor exercises for the group the next day. We would have to do something different.
Indoor games, perhaps? I know I had an ivory chess set somewhere. I couldn’t find it. I didn’t want to bother Gireesh. I let it go.
Monday, 7:00 PM
Despite the rain playing spoilsport, it had been a fruitful day. I got my group to do yoga. I asked them to pen down their goals on paper. They talked about what support they needed to get there. I showed them motivational videos and took them through a VR simulation. At noon, we did one-on-one sessions.
After dinner, I headed to my study and went through my work emails. Tomorrow was the last day of the program, following which I was back to the grind. One of the helpers, Simi (or was it Simran?) appeared with a plate of coffee cake and an Espresso. I sipped on my Espresso and cleared more emails. In between, I had to call my assistant to alter my schedule. I stepped out of the study for better connectivity. I bumped into Mallika in the hall. Suyash and Naina were engaged in conversation, and Rajat wasn’t to be seen.
I went to sleep, close to 1:00 AM. I thought that I would sleep soundly, but that was not to be. The thoughts that haunt you in full consciousness are much worse than the dreams that trouble you when unconscious.
Twenty-year-old me. A glass or two at a party, not too much to get me drunk. A rainy night, just like this one. It wasn’t my fault. He shouldn’t have darted in front. I slammed the brakes as fast as I could. I lost my consciousness. When I woke up in the hospital, they told me he had died.
Papa made it go away. I was acquitted.
The realization that I had killed another human, even if by accident, sobered me. I cleaned up my party girl act. Studied hard to become a psychologist. I helped people. I cared.
Tuesday, 6:00 AM
It had stopped raining. The sun rose around 6:30 am at Howler Rock. I slipped out to watch the beautiful, calming sunrise. The rain had washed the earth and the petrichor was intoxicating.
Suddenly, I felt a presence behind me.
“Mallika, why are you up so early?”
She had a glint in her eye.
“We have a score to settle from many years ago. You killed my son.”
“Remember Prateek? I’m his mother. The one you drove over and murdered. You destroyed my family.”
Prateek? After all these years I got to know his name.
“Mallika, listen to me.”
“Now I will avenge him. For everything you took away from me. The son I lost, the husband who left me, the happiness you robbed me of!”
She pounced on me. We wrestled. She was unusually strong. One push and I would go hurtling down the cliff. I closed my eyes. This was the end. Suddenly, her weight lifted off me. It was Suyash.
He had been watching the sunrise from his window and witnessed us tumbling together. Luckily, he had been able to reach there and save me.
He assumed that Mallika was having a psychotic episode of some kind. I didn’t correct him. I was still reeling under the weight of her revelation. We pulled a screaming Mallika back to the house. We had to physically restrain her. We tied her to a chair.
I had barely caught my breath, when Naina barged in, looking distressed. “It’s Rajat! His alarm kept ringing, so I checked on him. He won’t wake up.”
I instructed Suyash to keep an eye over Mallika, as I raced over to Rajat. His pulse was fine, yet he slumbered on. He seemed to be in some drug-induced haze. My eyes fell to his bedside. Crumbs of coffee cake. I knew that the coffee cake wasn’t served to the guests. Did Rajat take my cake slice? I had forgotten to eat it. After I returned from my call, it had vanished. I had assumed that the helpers had cleared it.
Was the cake poisoned? Was it meant for me instead? I looked around Rajat’s room. There were more treasures- the missing ivory chess set, Suyash’s scarf, and Naina’s hairband. Kleptomania. His urge to steal objects had inadvertently saved my life.
After several attempts, Rajat seemed to come to. Naina and I walked him down the stairs, one hand on each of our shoulders. We sat him down.
“We should call the police! Mallika tried to kill you,” cried Suyash.
“No. She wasn’t doing this on purpose. I need to speak to her,” I claimed. Some part of me felt responsible for the unravelling of her mind.
“The police can’t come now. A large tree fell due to the rain and is obstructing the way up the hill. We should wait till evening,” announced Gireesh, making an entry with his cane. He hobbled while placing a tray of coffee mugs on the table. He offered me one.
A groggy Rajat tried to stand up. He was unsteady, and his hand almost knocked down a vase. Thankfully, Gireesh deftly caught it.
I analysed the scene in front of me. Things started to fall in place. What we had seen with Mallika was only take one. She was too weak to have attempted something like this alone. There was a take two as well. I sniffed my coffee. And then it struck me. It had been in front of my eyes all along.
“Gireesh! You poisoned my coffee, didn’t you?” I screamed.
Everyone stared at me bewildered.
“You have a twisted ankle. You hobbled just now. Yet with no support, you dived and caught that vase. How?”
Gireesh’s calm demeanour changed. He snarled and grabbed a fruit knife. He lunged at me and held it over my throat.
Naina and Suyash watched, helpless.
Mallika, still bound, cackled dementedly.
“Why?” I croaked. If I was going to die, I had to know.
“Mallika is my sister. Years ago, I lost my nephew to you. At the time of the accident, we couldn’t touch you. You were influential and there was no evidence. While we suffered for years, you blossomed. It wasn’t fair. Prateek needed justice. When you started the Take-Two program, we realized this would grant us access.
We plotted this for months. We waited until Mallika got into your program. I got rid of your previous caretaker and filled in their place. Our plans were coming to fruition.
I drugged your cake slice yesterday. We wanted to push you off the cliff at night. I even forged a suicide note. If the Police were to come, they wouldn’t suspect me; I was supposed to be resting from my fall. But that stupid oaf thew a spanner in the works by eating the cake meant for you. We had to give up our plan yesterday because it was too risky.
Mallika, you should have been patient, and not attempted to attack her this morning. We would have gotten her anyway. Now, there will be more casualties.”
“Sorry, Bhaiyya. She just wouldn’t die. She should have driven off the road when we removed the signs. Stupid woman! Now, you have to kill them all!”
I was paralyzed with fear. And then suddenly something happened. A large vase came crashing down Gireesh’s head. Behind him, stood Simi (or was it Simran?). Gireesh collapsed.
“That man, no good,” nodded the girl solemnly. I couldn’t agree more with her.
The police came by later. The fallen tree was a lie to buy more time. They took Gireesh away. Mallika was committed to a facility.
Rajat recovered from the sleeping pill overdose. He, Naina, and Suyash left after thanking me, and assured me that they would continue with their counselling.
Having survived multiple murder attempts, I felt like a cat with nine lives. I still wanted to help Mallika. I imagined the conversation I would have with her.
“It was an accident. Do you think I have been living a carefree life? I live every moment haunted by the past. We are not that different- you and I. Give me a second chance to help you. That will be my atonement and your salvation.”
I drove away, leaving Cloud House behind, lost in my thoughts.
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