Sunday, 21 August 2016


This story was originally written for the Deccan Herald Short Story Contest about a month ago. I had to work to trim it down to 3000 words for the contest, so I hope to release a 'director's cut' at some point in the future that'll be much longer.

Complete darkness surrounded him. You might think you know the dark, but you don’t. The darkness of the power cut is ephemeral; and you don’t fear it because it isn’t ever truly dark then. There’re always cues; the gentle murmur of air currents, and the silhouettes of your wardrobe and your chair that appear as your eyes adapt, reassure you that the reality you’ve always known has not been swallowed away in the dark. But that isn’t real darkness, because your eyes can see something.

His darkness was pure. There was no sound. Was he breathing? He didn’t know. If there was air, it was still as on a cold winter’s night. But it wasn’t cold, and it didn’t murmur things. He could feel nothing at all. As the mind strove to make sense of the nothingness, panic took over. His throat clenched as if to scream, and his limbs started to flail, as if seeking a way out. Just as soon as it started though, the feeling passed. He could move his hands, and tentatively, he touched his face, as if to convince himself that he was real. Greatly calmed by the fact that it wasn’t a coffin he was in, he took a couple of hesitant steps. That’s when he noticed that his footfalls made no sound at all. And he was falling. Falling endlessly.

‘You were lost there for a bit! Am I boring you?’ said a female voice, with self-­sure mock indignation. ‘Sorry, I was thinking.’

Music. One moment he had been falling into pure blackness, and then there was… Loud electronic music. He suddenly noticed that in one hand, he was nursing a cocktail of some sort. He didn’t drink, did he?

‘Yeah.’ said the same female voice. ‘If I had that cocktail, I would look at it that way too. I did warn you, didn’t I?’

For the first time, he turned to take in his surroundings. The speaker was a stunningly beautiful woman whose name he was convinced he ought to have known, but didn’t. He was at a bar of some sort, and there was a DJ little more than a foot away from his vantage point, bouncing to the latest tunes.

‘If it were anybody else that looked at me the way you did, I would be calling the cops.’ It was the female voice again. Why would someone like her be with someone like him?

‘I really do like the strong, silent types, but now it feels like you’re teasing me too much. Let’s do QnA then. What is your name?’

‘Er. Karthik. Karthik Mahesh.’

‘OK. I would love to say that’s a sexy name but it’s really not. Next up: what do you do for a living?’

‘I’m a librarian.’ At that statement, suddenly there was a sense of wrongness in the air. It reminded him of a forgotten nightmare, and it felt like the blackness was right there in the club with him, closing in. He spun to look around him ­ at the fake, miniature palm trees around his table that gave their table an air of seclusion; at the glitzy neon lights that flashed red, blue and green in turn. Young people whooping and hollering nearby. Everything was outsized, and completely normal. It seemed to reassure him, and the clammy hold on his chest loosened.

She really was beautiful. And she really was sitting there, apparently on a date with him. But he was fat and ugly, wasn’t he? He noticed that the woman was laughing. ‘You must be the first librarian I’ve seen that drives a sports car. What is it, a Lamborghini?’ It was obvious from her tone of voice that she thought he had been joking, and also that she found his jesting very attractive. She sidled closer to him.

‘Librarian eh? You must have misheard.’
‘Nope, I did not.’
‘You did.’
‘Did not.’

He laughed then, the easy, masculine laugh of a man fully aware of the magnetic hold he had on his audience.

‘Somehow, with all my charm, it’s the librarian bit that sweeps the ladies off their feet. I simply can’t explain it. You’re a psychologist, aren’t you? Analyse that.’

‘Well, I think we should discuss this in greater detail at your place. What say, Mr Sexy Librarian?’

‘I would never disagree with my favourite psychologist, would I?’

He was back there again. There was nothing he could see, or hear, that could justify this belief, but nevertheless, he knew it to be true, as sure he was real. How could he have thought he was falling? It must have been his brain playing tricks again. The ground beneath him felt solid enough, if completely featureless. Since all directions were the same to him, he picked one at random and started to walk. As he walked on for what felt like miles, he slowly began to realize that the place he was in was not completely free from stimuli. He could sense movement, seemingly on a plane once removed from ordinary sight. There were little things, tiny worms that appeared to be moving rapidly back and forth, twisting and turning, but never colliding with each other. But he could only sense them in his peripheral vision. If he tried to observe them directly, he could see nothing at all. Whichever way he tried to turn his head, there they were in his peripheral vision, swimming just out of sight.

Presently, Karthik sensed a change in his environment. There was sound. A faint, rhythmic tapping, that seemed to originate from all directions at once. He stepped towards it, but truth be told, any way he walked seemed to lead towards it. The tapping turned into knocking, and the knocking seemed to turn into the thump of an axe. Perhaps there was somebody out there who could explain to him what was happening.

That was when he felt it. The Presence. As with everything else about that place, ordinary descriptive words, that were beyond sufficient to communicate the experiences of everyday life, felt woefully inadequate there. It felt wrong to say he was seeing something, when his eyes obdurately insisted that it was all dark. In fact, it felt more than wrong to attempt to map these sensations to familiar words of the mundane everyday, simply because that only lessened their strangeness, and in their strangeness lay their power. The Presence it was.

The Presence, like the dancing worms, always seemed to lurk just out of sight, like a perfectly black cloud in the perfect darkness. Unlike the dancing worms, he felt he could make sense of it. The worms swum this way and that, with no apparent purpose. Were they alive? But the Presence throbbed with comprehension. Karthik felt that it was saying something to him, and he felt that the meaning lay just beyond his understanding, like a familiar song, forgotten, but hovering on the tip of one’s tongue.

In his desire to communicate with the presence, Karthik started to run. He stumbled over his own feet in his hurry, and zig­zagged this way and that numerous times to get closer, but to no avail. The Presence seemed to be practically screaming at him, but he could not understand it, and he could get no closer to it.


Frustrated with his attempts to communicate with the Presence, he resumed his journey towards the ‘sound’. And suddenly the Presence was there right in front of him. And then it was inside him, filling him like a viscous fluid, covering all orifices, and oozing over everything. If the blackness was clammy, this was much, much worse. He didn’t know where he began, and where the Presence ended. They were one. Overwhelming fear turned his invisible limbs to stone, and even that cursory scream failed to escape his lips. There was a searing pain in his neck, and then it was gone.

The worms were there, within touching distance, and he felt ashamed. How could he ever have defiled such beauty with so base a name? They were heavenly. Instantly, he realized that their motion was not random at all. At the same time, he also realized that he could understand what the Presence had been saying. It was just one word, if it could be called that. It was…

In a jarring change of scene, he found himself stretched out in a luxurious bed, cocooned in a soft and warm blanket, and all alone. Where was Niveditha? Yes, that had been the name of that beautiful girl he had come home with last night. Her exquisite visage flashed in front of his mind’s eye before it was roughly wiped away.

A panoply of pains and aches ushered him into wakefulness, as he stumbled off his bed and into his daily routine. A hundred push­ups, then a hundred crunches, then a hundred sit­ups, all without pause, followed. Before the mandatory swim, he drew in the curtains to usher in the morning light, but instead found only the feeble, dim illumination of a cloudy day greeting him. It was like even the weather was mocking him.

The view made up for the weather’s vagaries though. The smallness of everything never ceased to amaze, and delight, as he gazed up at the still sleepy city from the thirty second floor.

Sculpted arms knifed through the water as he lapped his private swimming pool over and over again, until his muscles screamed in agony, and only then did he stop. The rest of the morning routine was executed with practised calm, with the only stop­over at the mirror to admire a body the Greek Gods would be proud of. Finally donning a hand­woven business suit, he made his way to the car park, pleasantly contemplating the thought of what would be another perfectly normal day at work.

Where was the Nissan?
The image of a glorious sports car, in all its silver­glinted glory, floated up in his mind. He could recall it with intimate precision; the way the leather of the wheel felt when he gripped it, the way the sun shone off the tail lights, and the look in the car park watchman’s eyes when he revved up the car too loud on his way out. The watchman! He would know.

Still, there was no anxiety in his unhurried gait as he spotted the watchman snoozing in a corner and made his way towards him.

‘You. Wake up! Have you seen my car?’

The watchman looked at him suspiciously, as if trying to spot any hidden subtext that threatened his livelihood. He concluded that the handsome master had already taken the car out when he was asleep and this whole charade was to make him see how poor he was at his job. He immediately went on the defensive.

‘I had only just closed my eyes, I swear.’ Suddenly noticing something, ‘there it is! Your Civic. I had my eye on it always. I swear. I had only shaded my eyes against the sun, to only fool them silly thieves into thinking that they had a free ride to steal what they want. And then they would get caught. Ha!’

‘Stop. That’s not my Civic. Where is my Nissan? Surely you would remember it. It is a sports car, and no one else here has one.’ The watchman affected a laugh because he seemed to think that was what was expected. ‘I’m happy to see you’re not upset, sir. Ha ha. That was funny. I didn’t know you had your eyes on Mohit Sir’s Nissan. Ha ha.’

Karthik was about to berate the little old man when he felt a familiar clammy sensation begin to take hold. It was almost like a gentle caress, almost a lover’s embrace in the exquisite slowness with which it began to tighten its vice­like grip. Memories began to flood into his mind ­ the time when he bought that Civic, the pompous moustache of the car salesman, the licence number, the many, many, many times he had taken trips in that Civic to office and back.


 And suddenly, the grip was gone. Karthik drove his Civic to work, and parked in his usual spot. Getting out, he ran into Mohit as he parked his Nissan in his usual spot, and amiably chatting, they walked in together into the elevator, and then on to their fifty fifth floor office because they were colleagues. He noticed with mild consternation that Mohit seemed to have been working out. His arms, which he had often mocked for their droopiness, seemed to bulge out of the fine cloth, and his grip was iron as they shook hands and went on their way. The general sense of anxiety only worsened when he saw the dreaded pink envelope on his cabin door. The boss wanted to speak to him.

‘Yes, sir.’
‘You have been a great employee for us.’
‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.’
‘I’ve lost track of the number of brave and brilliant deals you’ve done for us. There’s hardly been another employee like you, and I don’t think there will be.’
‘Yes, sir. What merits this sudden praise, sir?’

The voice on the telephone acquired a grim aspect.

‘Karthik, I’m sorry. Your last deal went south, and that’s an understatement. They are looking for a scapegoat, and you’re it.’ ‘But sir, it was you who proposed that deal.’

The voice paused, as if to gather itself. ‘Karthik. Let’s not get into this blame game. You know the nature of this business. You know how cut­throat this world is. You know what the cost for failure is.’
‘I’m sorry again. But you’re fired. You aren’t getting a golden parachute either, because we don’t want that making the papers.’

Karthik was flabbergasted by this turn of events, but the shock didn’t immediately sink in. As if in a daze, he cleared out his desk, oblivious to his colleagues’ solicitousness and drove back home in his Civic. But not before he saw something so remarkable, that it cut through even his dull­headed state. It was the sight of Mohit sweating in fear, and looking around as if chased by an invisible enemy. Even this strange spectacle only occupied his thoughts for a minute and in a little while he was in his luxurious bed, painfully aware that he would lose it all very soon.

A thought struck him. Niveditha. Rummaging through the contacts list on his phone, he found a number and called it. An irate voice filtered through. ‘I thought I’d asked you not to call me anymore. I don’t want to go out with you. I’m already with Mohit!’

That night in the club? It felt hazy and surreal. Another memory seemed to overlay it, a memory of him sitting in his luxurious bed watching TV. Alone. Yet another memory hovered just out of sight tantalizingly. He reached for it like a hungry man, but it eluded him. This reminded him of something; something dark and terrifying. The thought of sleep scared him, but eventually, the strain of his emotional state won over, and he drifted into unconsciousness.


Karthik trudged wearily towards the sound. Something had gone wrong the last time he was here, but he could not recall what it was. He sensed a sullen aspect to the Presence, a defeated tone that somehow soaked into him and multiplied his melancholy. There was nothing else to do but go on, and it seemed fitting, given his hopeless situation, that he embarked on what seemed a pointless quest.


The faint outline of a man hovered into view. He seemed to be on his knees facing away from Karthik. His arms swung up slowly and with a furious acceleration brought down an axe. It made a fleshy sound as it struck something. There was a pause, and a gurgling sound reached Karthik’s ears, and the axeman raised his arms and swung again.


The Presence watched neutrally as the axeman seemed to become aware of him. He briefly turned his head around, and a sudden thrill of recognition coursed through Karthik. He knew him! How? As he made his way closer to the axeman, he realized that he could see more of him. But everywhere else the blackness lay as powerfully opaque as ever. This gave the creature an otherworldly, two­dimensional aspect that was distinctly unsettling. Karthik saw that the axeman was portly and balding, with thin arms, and wore a business suit, all of which only made the scene more incongruent.


Karthik had finally reached a point where he could see what the axeman had been striking. To his utter horror, he saw that it was another man! As he watched, the man, rooted as if paralyzed, was decapitated by a powerful swing of the axe, and the lifeless head rolled away, as the stump gurgled blood which seemed to vanish into nothingness. The axe arced into the air and as it came down, he saw that the man was there, with his head intact! Giddy with fear, Karthik watched helplessly as he was decapitated once more. Blood gurgled away into blackness. The axe was hefted up again.

This time, Karthik caught a glimpse of the unfortunate man’s face before his head was cut off, and it was THE SAME as the axeman’s! He seemed to be saying something but no sound came out. Karthik screamed, but he could make no sound either. Fear drove him mad, and he rushed headlong at the axeman. The Presence dashed away and disappeared. And the lights, the worms, the little angels, they seemed to surround him all at once. In the light, he could see it all. It was him. The axeman. The balding, portly axeman, it was him. He could see him clearly, and he felt conviction. He had been ugly, poor, and in a loveless relationship. But he had lived.

What had he done? Just what had he done to live the high life? Had it been the Devil himself that he'd struck a deal with? 

In that one moment of crystal clarity, he understood everything. The Presence had been him too; at least he sensed something like his own consciousness in it. It had been warning him! (‘GO’). The lights, they showed others like him. Others who were promised the best deal of their lives and in their vanity, had sold their souls.

He could see Mohit, a tiny Mohit made of glowing light, embedded deep within the angel’s undulating form. Resignation flooded him like a drug, and his fear ebbed away. And in the next instant, he was on the ground looking up at the axeman. He screamed one word. ‘HELP.’ 

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