Saturday, May 20, 2017

Between the Lines


Source: freepik
Love O’ Love, 2008

As Ross waited for Jane on the park bench, thousands of possibilities swam into his mind. Will she say yes? Or he’ll even lose whatever they had together. He nervously shifted the bunch of roses from one hand to other, and rubbed his sweaty palms on top his neatly ironed jacket.

Where was she?



She had never been late at their… well, they just called them ‘dates’ but the time they spent together was much more than that. In fact, they had met only six-months ago, but he couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t together. Like a textbook cliché coming alive, they had grabbed the same book from the opposite sides of a shelf in the public library. With initial bit of awkward attempts to give the book to each other, they promised to share it. Such a fortuitous event it was for it gave them a convenient excuse to meet each other. And then there was no looking back.

While other twenty somethings their age were busy emulating their favorite baseball players by growing chin-length mustaches or argued about superiority of their favorite Beatles, she spent time loving Homer and Shakespeare and Hemmingway, just like him; and he loved to see her clenching her thumb under her teeth while reading. She had laughed when he told her this.

Sharing of books gave way to exchanging of lengthy hand written letters tucked between the pages. She found humor at unusual places and he was the only one who could understand the irony and semantics in her anecdotes. Her letters made him smile and his letters made her laugh. Eventually it became their secret game that only two of them understood. For the first time in his life, he felt truly happy. He lived in his own small bubble that he shared only with Jane.

Even with an immense vocabulary at his disposal, that he often unabashedly used in his letters to her pleasure, he had spent this whole afternoon reciting same four simple words over and over again till his knees hurt. Ross tapped his breast pocket to feel the diamond ring that was his surprise for her.

But where was she? She was never late.

He walked length and breadth of the park and checked under the trees where she might have been lost in some novel. But she wasn’t anywhere. Was it possible that she had spotted him from a distance and realized what he was upto? That seemed possible. If that were the case and she had turned her back on him, then his question was already answered. As the sun set, the roses in Ross’s hand didn’t look cheerful anymore.  What should he do?

###

Mission Nobody, 2010

Ross wondered how he had got here. He faintly remembered something about some roses and a park. But at the moment, the urgency of his assignment  occupied all of his faculties. He found himself jumping at every small sound in his state of heightened awareness. But no-one could blame him. For a secret agent, who had just triggered the dissolution of USSR had every reason to be jittery; at least till he was out of Mosco.  And then he’d be safe. That’s the most he expected for he was expendable and no medals would ever be awarded to him. In fact, only a few will ever know the role he played in it even at the White House. 

But he didn’t do it for the medals or accolades, he did it for his country. And now, the only thing mattered was to make it to the extraction point.

He wiped a cold chill from his balding forehead despite chilling weather and got to work – he pulled out the third button from his coat and flushed it in the toilet – in case he was checked at the border he wouldn’t want his miniature camera to be searched. Next came the cigar that was also a smoke bomb, a cigarette lighter that was also a small stick of TNT and his poison pills. He hesitated for a moment and reluctantly pocketed one pill before disposing off the rest. He shuffled through his multiple passports, kept one aside and burned the rest in the kitchen.
Finally, he locked the suitcase and wrapped a muffler around his neck. 

He looked around his apartment one last time. There was nothing to incriminate him. By the time anyone got whiff of this place, he’d be thousands of miles away. He soon realized that that’s where he miscalculated when suddenly, there was loud banging at the door. His mind raced at the possible outcomes. Including that last remaining poison pill.
###

Trapped, 2011

Ross jolted out of his stupor by a shrill horn from a bus behind him. He immediately shifted gears and turned his new BMW to Fulton Street towards his office. All those late nights were taking a toll on him. But this deal would be worth it. He had spent last 20 years of his life building his company and this was his moment in the sun. But among all his thoughts on EBITDA and share pricing, a curious unrelated thought sprang to his mind – that he was an American spy in Russia and he was proposing a girl in the park. He laughed at the absurdity of his imagination. He definitely needed some sleep after all this was over.

At 8:30 AM, he chewed at his sumptuous breakfast at the famous Windows of the World restaurant overlooking at the beautiful Hudson river. It looked like a shimmering necklace in the panoramic background of the sprawling New York city.

“Beautiful view. Isn’t it?” said the man who seated himself on the opposite chair. He was immaculately dressed in an Armani business suit; a Rado watch peeked just enough from the sleeves to warrant some turning heads.

“Oh vey! Didn’t see you there Mr. Anderson.” Ross said, immediately regretting his reflexive choice of words. There was no saying what could turn-off this man. 

“Pleasure to meet you.” He said extending his hands for a handshake.

“Pleasure is all mine,” Anderson said taking his hand. Ross felt a little relieved.

“I believe you’ve read my proposal Mr. Anderson,” he said carefully avoiding any sign of desperation from his tone.

“I did Mr. Ross,” he said folding a red napkin onto his lap with royal cadence. “And I must say that I’m quite impressed with what you have done with this company.”

Ross’s heart leapt up at those words. “Great to hear that Mr. Anderson,” he said measuredly. “So you agree with the price I proposed?” he popped the big question.

“Well…” Mr. Anderson said pausing as the waiter brought in his breakfast. To Ross, that felt like the longest wait of his life. “I have a different proposal for you.”

“And that would be…?”

“I want to buy your entire company Mr. Ross. I’ll top the share price you asked by 20% but I want the entire company.”

Ross was puzzled. “But this was never on the table, Mr. Anderson.”

“It now is, Mr. Ross,” he said chewing on his smoked ham. “In fact, this is the only thing on the table right now.” Anderson waved his fork in the air. “Take it or leave it.”

Ross’s mind screamed at the treachery of the man. Anderson was playing him. He knew his hands were tied and was taking advantage out of it. His first thought was to kick the table on Anderson’s arrogant face but he stayed his anger. He had heard so much about the cut-throat New-Yorker Anderson was but he never thought that he would stab him in the back.

Anderson added, “You do know that if you don’t take up my offer, you’ll be bankrupt within 3 weeks. You are a smart guy Mr. Ross… make the right decision.”

Ross sub-consciously looked out to the skyline from full-length glass window as if searching for an answer. Shining Hudson didn’t look as exciting as earlier. Just above it an airplane was approaching the city. Perhaps bringing hundreds of people to the land of opportunity. Wait. There was something off. The plane was unusually low in the sky. He watched its motion for a few moments. It seemed it was getting bigger by the second. Was it? It was. 

The plane was unmistakably coming towards the World Trade Centre. His country instincts took over. He reached out, grabbed Anderson’s hand and ducked for cover.

A loud bang followed and the whole floor shuddered like an earthquake. The jerk threw him over to the window. As he opened his eyes, he found himself lying on the glass window. The only thing he could see was the ground hundreds of feet below. The building was tilting. His blood gushed out on the glass when he noted with horror – there was a crack in the glass… and it was growing bigger.


###

Look Into My Eyes, 2013

Ross woke up with a loud banging on his door. He had fallen asleep at his keyboard again, his right hand still holding the mouse. With half-opened eyes he looked at his computer clock; it was only 9:00 PM, thankfully. Still Friday night. It’d have been a bummer if he woke up on Saturday morning. 

Lazily, he dragged himself to the dorm door where Dominos’ delivery boy, not much older than him, held out a large extra pepperoni pizza and coke. He paid all in change and quickly closed the door before the boy could figure out his exact tip.

Back to his computer Ross perched his feet on the table and stuffed his mouth with a hot slice. It was pure bliss. At this thought, he opened his facebook and posted, “Exams done. Eating a double pepperoni pizza on a Friday night. Pure bliss.”

As he waited for likes and comments to come by, he leisurely looked at a post-it note he had prepared earlier in the evening.

To-Do List
Go to Caves of Nadir and obtain the Sword of Zenith (WoW)
Level up – Neverwinter (grinding?)
Practice Backflip (Rocket League)
Finish mining quota (Eve Online)
Buy new clothes (Second Life)
Wash clothes (Real life)

He tried to remember if he needed to add anything to the list. He could faintly recall having to do something after being stuck at the world trade centre on 9/11. Which game was it? He tried to think but couldn’t place it exactly. Maybe it was some unfinished TV series. But he didn’t have to linger on too much at his previous thought as a ping warranted his attention. His close friend Kr0kken had sent him a message asking him to check out a new hot reddit thread. 

He clicked on the link, and immediately realized that something exciting was up.

The whole subreddit was buzzing with activity. He scrolled up to check the original post’s time-stamp. It was posted barely an hour ago and had already collected 3k comments. He quickly checked the link at the top that took him to pictures hosted at imgur. It was a set of low-res black and white pictures of an empty room. He pressed CTRL-TAB to go back to the thread.

After the usual noob comments and Nazi analogies, he found out the description from OP (voted down 500 times). It said:


This is not a hoax!!!!1 For the first time ever. Ghosts caught on camera. Check out the pictures. And watch the feed from the haunted hospital LIVE!!!


F***ing pranksters. He promptly voted it down and questioned professional choices of their mothers and sisters.

He immediately received a long response from the OP. No doubt OP was copy-pasting the same reply to everyone on the thread, but still driven by the tiny bit of satisfaction juiced from having received an individual reply, he read the long reply. It claimed that they were a group of teenagers who have set-up a camera in a morgue of an abandoned Ukranian hospital. It said that they “saw” some creatures hovering around the room at midnight. The post also invited him to “see for yourself” by checking the live feed from the cameras.

Instinctively, Ross clicked on the link and picked up his last slice of pizza from the box. His screen lit up with an unchanging image. It was just a little bit grainy and greenish and admittedly spooky enough. The camera was planted at the top corner of a closed room that indeed looked like morgue. Even if it was a prank, it was executed well. There were several cabinets with drawers presumably used to store the dead and there was a single autopsy table in the middle of the room with blood stains on top. From one corner, a staircase could be seen going upward indicating that the room was in the basement.

The messages below the feed encouraged people to keep viewing for any unusual activity. But the “people” weren’t amused. When he logged in there were only 5 viewers watching the feed and soon he was the only one left.

He gulped down on the last of his coke and stood up to throw empty box and can in trash when he heard a knock at the door. What now? He cursed. He opened the door to the empty hallway. There was no one. But as soon as he closed the door he heard the knocking again. This time it had a slight glassy ring to it.  Slowly, as carefully listened to the source of knock, he came to a horrid realization.

The knock was coming from his screen. From inside.

###

In the Silence of Space, 2021

“New Houston, this is Captain Ross. I am ready for EVA. Over.”

A crackling voice responded almost immediately through the hyperwave, “Captain Ross, this is New Houston, stand-by for integrity checks on your suit.”

“Copy New Houston. Make it fast. Seems like moon-gravity is making you guys lethargic.”

“We can do your suit checks faster, Captain Ross. Afterall, who doesn’t love a well stretched Astronaut Spaghetti.”

Captain Ross smiled. Mission control’s was the only company he had 3000 light-years away from his home. “Ah, so your clever comeback refers to my possible spaghettification under the immense gravity of the black hole? You can do better than that mission control.”

There was a silence at the other end for a moment.

“Integrity checks complete. You are good to go Captain Ross.”

Captain Ross pulled the tether from hold and hooked it to his space suit. Then, he double checked his suit pressure and oxygen levels and took a deep breath. 

He was about to become the first man about to witness a blackhole from naked eyes. His heart pumped faster in the anticipation of the moment, betraying its extensive training. But that humane glitch was entirely justified as there existed no more exotic object in the Universe than blackholes. And Maya was a gigantic one at that. Million sun masses compressed into a tiny dot, Maya defied the very concept of time and space. Laws of physics broke down inside it and nothing escaped its immense gravity, not even the fastest thing in the Universe, light. 

Anything and everything that fell beyond the God’s ultimate boundary called the Event Horizon, was claimed for eternity by the blackhole. Any ray of light or electromagnetic wave emitted by any Sun or a Radio coming close enough, was sentenced to the black prison forever. Ross shuddered to think that the gargantuan object beyond the safety of his air-lock, contained millions of years of information from all over the universe.

Taking another breath, he pulled down the lever to open the airlock. It depressurized with a swoosh sound of air gushing out. He pressed a few buttons on his jetpack and moved out to open space. Though he had seen it several times on the screen, the sheer beauty of nature’s greatest creation was spellbinding. A huge accretion disk rolled serenely around a huge black sphere. Just around the blackness, the revolving matter got heated up before entering the event horizon. The lensing effect that Einstein predicted centuries ago metamorphized into a painter’s magnum opus around the black hole Maya.

“We repeat. Confirm your position Captain Ross.”

Mission control’s voice pulled him back to his mission, else he would have immersed himself in the view till his oxygen died down.

“I’m outside the airlock, Mission Control. Moving onto Panel-B. Over.”

Ross hovered around the Warpship reorienting himself by short spurts of jet ignitions. He always felt an instinctive feeling of falling down during his EVAs, even though his brain knew that there was no “up” or “down” in space. Even if he were to exhaust his jetpack, he can safely pull himself to the airlock by tugging on the tether. If the tether failed, he would float alongside the ship till mission control remotely moved the ship closer to him. NASA always liked their risks triple mitigated.

Gently, he maneuvered himself to Panel B. It lay on the far side from Maya, so Ross was covered in Ship’s freezing shadow when he reached. He checked the stuck arm on the panel. It seemed like one of the screws had come out of its place hindering the movement of the arm. He pulled out some equipment and got to work.

It was trickier than he expected. Well, everything in space was trickier than expected. Any force he put in rotating the screw ended up him rotating in the opposite direction. Hence it took him good twenty minutes to finish a simple job. 

He was re-packing his tools in his space-suit compartments when an urgent voice filled his helmet.

“MISSION ABORT. MISSION ABORT. CAPTAIN ROSS. Do you copy?”

“Copy Mission Control. On my way back to the air-lock. What is the emergency?” said Ross as he briskly pressed his jet control and followed the tether. As he came out the shadow, Maya came back into his view and he knew something was wrong even before mission control replied.

“Ship’s detectors show sudden gamma activity around the Event Horizon. Violent gamma bursts detected. Immediately move back inside the ship and warp to a safe distance.”

Maya was angry.

He felt fear for the first time in his life. Like a rat running away from a colossal monster on a rampage, Ross scampered towards the air-lock.

He didn’t know what hit him. But the glass on the helmet in front of his eyes grew a crack. He felt the heat of rays filtering through the glass falling onto his face. In the next moment, the glass cracked and millions of photons carrying feverish energy scalded his face. His screams got muffled in the silence of space. He turned around to look away as his oxygen escaped from the hole to become part of Maya.

As his blood began to boil and his eyes bulged outward, the death looked inevitable. He was doomed to die thousands of light-years away from anyone. Alone.

But death was not the only thing gamma rays carried. They carried secrets Maya hid within it for a long time. It wasn’t something that was understood by the science but it contained within all the possible knowledge of all the possible worlds. And all the possible Universes.

As his body gradually perished, his mind crossed the dimensions of reality and fiction. Another level of consciousness and awareness woke-up his brain.

He was Ross. A nervous lover.
He was Ross. An American spy.
He was Ross. A trapped businessman.
He was Ross. A scared teenager.
He was Ross. A dying astronaut.

And…

He was Ross. His author’s favorite character.

A smile stretched on his disconfigured face. He knew who he was. A figment of imagination who was loved by millions. 

He closed his eyes knowing that afterall, he was not dying alone. In his last moments, he had a reader with him. You.


###

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Jack and Jill Went Up The...



This flash story was written just for fun in response to a writing prompt.  I hope you'll like it.

JACK AND JILL WENT UP THE...

“The bomb will explode in 60 seconds,” Jack said wiping the beads of sweat from his forehead. The digital counter counted down.

“But we are going at half the speed of light, doesn’t this mean that 60 seconds are more than five years for us,” Jill bellowed grabbing a small vial from the nightstand.

“First of all, stop putting mascara and focus on the bomb,” Jack screamed trying to zip his pants. Unsuccessfully. “Second of all, the bomb is also traveling with us. So that time dilation shit doesn’t apply.”

“C’mon Jack. You are a scientist. Do something,” she said looking at her vanity mirror.

 “Erm...actually I’m not. I am just a janitor on this ship.”

“What?” Jill exclaimed and turned towards him. Her unhooked bra fell on her lap. “I thought you said you were a Chief Excretermination Officer.”

“Yeah. That’s what NASA calls a janitor.”

“Fuck you, Jack.”

“Yeah, you just did. But what should we do about the bomb?” Jack gave a puzzled look at the counter that ticked at 30...29...

“Let’s wake up the scientists.”

“And get fired? No way Jill. Ok...I’ve got an idea,” Jack said looking around the small space pod that served them in their escapades. “Why don’t we detach the pod and escape  from the ship? We can be together for a long time.”

“That IS a good idea. Press that button Jack. The pod will detach.”

Jack quickly pressed a big red button near the door. With a whoosh, the ellipsoidal pod detached from the ship. Jack wrapped his hands around Jill’s waist as they watched the ship going away rapidly.

“Woohoo...fuck you, scientists. You pushed me around long enough.”

“Jack...”

“...and now there is no more cleaning your mess anymore...I am a free bird--“

“JACK.”

“What baby?”


“The bomb is still in our pod,” Jill said.

Friday, January 13, 2017

My First Friend

“And these are my pictures from long ago. I was a lot younger...and my mustache was just beginning to come up,” he said as if he knew me for years. 

He didn’t. In fact, he had just met me an hour ago in a roadside dhaba that I had discovered on my first day in the new city. We were sitting on the opposite sides of the same rickety table nipping raw onions from the same plate. Truck drivers smelled of booze after a long hard day of highways. Occasionally, a speeding truck passing-by too close would tow a stuffy gush of wind. But that didn’t deter me from relishing my fish and him from eating his chicken. That maddening smell of fish and the juicy meat that oozed out along with the spices was almost a transcendental experience for me. 

Perhaps that was the connection between us. I never knew. We started talking, and now, barely an hour later, he was sitting in my one-room apartment showing his teenage picture on his wallet.

Not that I wanted him to come there, but he kinda invited himself. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags. His face was dense and even when he smiled it felt as if a wild black cat was trying to untangle herself from the overgrown wilderness of the jungle. He had a peculiar laugh too. I tried to distract myself from his face and forced my attention to his photograph. It was less intimidating. He did have a soft mustache in the picture and little less evil smile.

“So what are you doing in this town?” he asked.

“Trying to begin a new life,” I said. He waited for more. My sparse room echoed my voice for long. The following silence hovered for longer. I hesitated to break it. “I am sorry I am not much of a social person and I don’t like to talk much.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry, I am the exact opposite.”

“And I’ll help you.” He leaned closer and whispered in my ear, “after all I am your first friend in this new town.”

The words poured in my ears like a molten lava. I looked at his picture again. It was the same teenage boy with a thin mustache. But something was off.

“Not want to be rude or anything...but weren’t you a lot taller in your old picture?”

“Do you think so...hmmmm...I never thought about it that way. I guess puberty does things to us.” Wink. Wink.

I had only heard of people going taller as they aged. This was exactly the kind of detail that my doctor had warned me to watch for.

“Can you give me that photograph for a moment...I...I just need to check for something.”

“Sure, friend.”

I rushed to my laptop and scanned his picture. I needed to know if I was still under it. There were not too many things that could be done.

I opened a new mail and typed with shaking hands.

Hi Anish,
I think it’s happening again. I don’t know who to trust right now except you. Check the photo attached with this mail. Do you also see a tall teenage boy with a thin mustache in the pic? I am scared. Say hi to Aarti from me. Please reply soon.
Thakur”

His reply came almost immediately.

Thakur Sahib,
I was wondering where have you gone. Don’t worry. I see him too. He is real. Just keep taking your medications and everything will be fine.
Anish

Calmed washed over my anxiety as if a huge wildfire suddenly doused by a tsunami. I went back to my new friend.

“I am really sorry about that. I have some medical problems and I just can’t trust everyone.”

“It’s alright. People are different. Is everything okay now?”

“Yes, everything is fine,” I said handing back the photograph to him. He pocketed it with uncharacteristic calmness.

“Who was he?” he asked with an alarming suddenness.

I gulped. But there was no harm in talking to him. He was real.

“He is my old friend. Recently married. I went to his wedding...it was a grand affair. I first met him on my first day at the job.”

“Would you say he was your first friend in the city?” he asked. The wildfire roared again. Mightier than ever. Unearthing the secrets that were hidden for long. A memory danced through the fire just for me.

***

“This is the tastiest fish I’ve ever eaten,” I said to the pleasure of the waiter. A piping hot juicy fish, on a mildly cold night, in a lush green garden as light music played in the background - it was a pleasure to relish slowly.

“Please have more sir. It’s your friend’s wedding afterall.”

I grinned. My teeth must’ve shown the greasy spices stuck to them. I didn’t care. That was most euphoric I had felt in a long time. There was a gentle music, colorful lights inundating the garden with a cheerful brightness, crowd chatted around drinks, children attempted to tear marigold decorations. My friends Anish and Aarti sat on a faraway stage.

But it was over as it had begun – abruptly. Bright lights gave way to blinding darkness, music became a dreadful sound of the wind playing with dry leaves. My nostrils filled with repulsive smells. In distance, I saw a small torch-light that seemed to search for something. Or someone. Me?

“What are you doing here?” asked the policeman.

“I came to this wedd...”

He snapped before I could gather myself.

“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT...”

“F...Fish...I am eating fish.”

I looked down at my hands. They were bloodied. Fish was a rotten rat. Its half-eaten innards were spilling out of its hairy skin.

“Were you eating from the garbage?” policeman questioned. There were no answers.

***

“Would you say that Anish was your first friend in the city?” he repeated his question. But it was asked without an expectation of an answer. He was grinning. I squirmed in horror.

It was happening again. It had followed me here.

I ran away from the apartment. I didn’t see where I was going. But I wanted to run away from him. There was only one place I could go. Only one place that could give me some of my sanity back. My old home and my ex-wife.

Even on the cold night, my feet burned from hours of running. Or was it that wildfire that I was unable to control.

“What are you doing here? And what has happened to you?” she asked from the other side of the outer door. She looked same as ever. But tired. It was probably midnight and I had definitely woken her up. But there was absolute no one I could trust in this state. She will have to take me back. Just for the night. This nightmare would get over by the morning.

 “I don’t know where to go. Please let me in. Just for the night. It will go away in the morning. And I will too,” I pleaded. Then looked about. No one else was in sight.

She looked tense. I knew that expression. She was trying to make a decision.

“Do you have your medicines with you?”

That was her qualifying question. My answer was not on the right side of the fence.

“I...I couldn’t. He was there,” I cried. “B...But please. Just a few hours. This is the last time. I promise.”

Her posture relaxed a little bit. Decision jumped the fence.

“Okay. Alright.”

She opened the second door. I jumped inside like a rabbit who goes into his hole at the sound of a gun.

“Lock them. Lock them.”

She locked both the doors.

“Don’t worry,” she looked at my misery with pity reserved only for the dying. 

She patted my back and gave me warm water. She was my oasis. The wildfire calmed. I held her tightly and began to sob. The fire melted away and moistened her shawl.

“I don’t know how to thank you enough,” I uttered. “I would’ve been dead today were it not for you.”

I held her tightly crying like an infant; my head on her lap.

“Shhhh...don’t say anything okay. Nothing will happen to you,” she said stroking my head gently. “Afterall, I was not just your wife, remember?” She said. “I was your first girlfriend too.”


Wildfire erupted.