Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Ghosts in the air.

I love winter. We don’t get snow in my part of California, but it still gets very cold. I own a snazzy collection of coats/fleece leggings and cashmere sweaters, so it is by far my favorite season. Plus, it is always fun to go four months without shaving your legs. 

This morning is colder than usual. My breath is misting, there’s a fine layer of frost on the bedroom window and my Spinal column takes an extra minute to unfreeze before I can finally sit up. And then, slowly, everything falls apart. My neck hurts horribly (hello late 30s!), the toaster dies after burning one slice, my son has his 345th cold of the season.
And I feel so, so blue. 

“Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Don’t you dare cry,” I whisper to myself. A quick glance at the phone app confirms I’m likely PMSing, but that doesn’t make the sadness go away. I snap at the kids who are bickering and pour out my 3rd cup of coffee. The kids resume their whining, and I look outside the window at the neighbor’s yard. Yup, their grass is literally greener than mine. Well, hell!

15 minutes later. Shoes on, pants on, underwear on (yes, we check that too and don’t ask me about that one awkward day last month). Jackets donned and hats placed on little heads. We go outside to the car, clenched jaws and gasping for breath. It is so white everywhere. A heavy fog has crept onto the valley overnight and the visibility is only 20 feet. “Oh, great!” I think, sourly. Now everybody will drive at a snail’s pace. Just great!

I belt the kids in and turn on the car heater. I’m peeking at the rearview mirror and that’s when I finally see it. Two rosy-cheeked children, looking around in awe. Unlike me, the fog is their friend. It promises them fantasy and wonder and magic. We drive slowly, the mist parting before the car and then zipping shut behind us. Reya mouths a big WOW. Nirav is tracing shapes in the condensation.

On a whim, I roll down my window. A little tongue of cold, cloudy air snakes in. My daughter giggles. My son tries to grab it. More giggles. 
I smile and take a deep breath. “I love you, honey,”, I tell the obsessive woman inside my head. She’s trying to draw my attention to a pimple on our chin. Oh, did I know that I looked rather blotchy this fine morning?

So, I repeat. Loudly.

“I love you honey, but today I need a break from you.” She doesn’t respond, so I turn the key and lock her inside the dusty corners of my head.

“I love you too, Mommy”, Reya responds, dreamily. Now I’m chuckling. 

We arrive at the elementary school and park. Nirav is still trying to grab clumps of fog. I sense little hands tugging at my sweater. 

“What is it, Reya?”

“Mommy, you know why there are clouds on the road?”

“Why don’t you tell me, love?”

“Ghosts, mommy,” she tells me with utmost seriousness.

“What?!!”

“Lots of ghosts, everywhere.”

“There are 100 ghosts in the air,” Nirav proclaims somberly, like some new age Baba.

I stare at them, curious, puzzled, confused. They stare back, self assured and unafraid of the “100 ghosts” floating around them. 

You know those moments where you feel weak legged with pride and love. Amazed and humbled that you created these perfect, beautiful little beings. Some people get like that when their child is born/wins a prize/finally goes to sleep. 

On that frosty sidewalk I stand, overwhelmed and teary because my kids said “Ghosts”. I think back to my childhood - the countless horror novels I read under covers, those tacky Ramsay brothers shows on Zee TV. My first Zombie comic, the last time I wrote a short story about Creatures in the dark. You see, it’s not so much about the supernatural, as it is about letting your imagination fly free. And “Fog = Ghosts”? That’s the first step! 

I bend down and hug my weird kids. Nirav protests, but gives in. Reya kisses me and laughs at the little puff of mist we conjure between our lips. 
“Baby ghost!” she mumbles, delighted.

I wave goodbye and smile all the way home. Pulling into the driveway, I glance at the neighbor’s yard. Green. Brazenly, Obscenely green. Nothing like what God or nature intended. 
 
“Fake grass,” I mutter and walk inside. The grouch deep within me sleeps. I give her an extra pillow, smooth her creased forehead. “Tomorrow, we can talk”, I promise her.

Grabbing a book, I settle into the loveseat by the big bay window. The white, magical world outside moves, ever so slightly. Murky shapes, ghostly forms. Anything could be out there. I sigh happily and dive into my horror novel. 

I freakin love winter!


Notes: 
1. No, I am not high on something (drug/plant/alcohol)
2.Give yourself permission to have off days. But also allow yourself to have awesome ones!
3. Embrace your kids and their own brand of weirdness. Chances are, they inherited it from you!




Monday, December 3, 2018

Stree

I watched the movie ‘Stree’ recently and loved every second. (For those who don’t know, Stree is a Bollywood movie about an evil spirit who abducts men after calling out their name seductively.) Horror and Comedy are my favorite genres, and as the credits rolled, a little idea popped into my head. You see, I fancy myself something of a prankster. So that same night, once the kids were asleep, I crouched under my bed and waited for my husband to retire for the day. And soon enough, he came, eyes glued to his little screen, watching some YouTube Video. A little later, I felt the familiar creak as he settled down on the bed. Patience is my forte, so I waited a minute more. Then I jangled a few bangles I’d kept ready for just this purpose (Much like Baden Powell, my motto is Be Prepared). 

*Jangle Jangle Jangle* 

The tinny sound of the YouTube Video paused. Now I had his attention.

Then in my creepiest ‘Stree’  voice, I said:
“Raghav,”.
I heard him sit up. Silence. I rattled the bangles some more.
“Oh Haha Pavi. You got me! Come out. Where are you, anyway?”
Fighting hard to control my giggles, I counted down to 50. This was so much fun.
47…,48…,49…,50. Ok time! Stree mode on!
“Raghav…”
He looked under the bed. All he could likely see were some Amazon boxes (artfully placed there by me as a cover). I heard him walk around the room, opening and closing closet doors. Even the laundry hamper was checked (seriously, dude?!!). 
He’s a total Fattu about horror movies. He watches them to maintain that Macho image, but we both know the truth. Now, I’m sure he doesn’t really believe in vengeful spirits and all that. But when you hear a disembodied voice in the middle of the night, it’s hard to not let your mind go to those dark places. Or at least I hoped he would think along those lines. 
So I smiled to myself, put my head back and groaned.
“Ragh-”
For a second I couldn’t breathe. Two large black eyes looked at me from the edge of the bed. An upside down lock of hair waved in the gentle AC breeze as her little mouth opened wide and screeched.
“Mommy, what are you doing Mommy? Why are you under the bed, Mommy? Can I play, Mommy? Please, Mommy. I’m all done sleeping, Mommy,”.
(When you hear a disembodied voice in the middle of the night, it’s hard to not let your mind go to those dark places.) 
Heart hammering, I screamed. Which led to my daughter shrieking in wounded surprise. We both did a jaunty little howling Jugalbandi for a few seconds, with me hitting the low notes and her going high. 
The next 15 minutes were not pretty. I bounced around an inconsolable 4-year-old while Raghav sat on the bed, doubling up with laughter. My son walked in, confused at the noise and promptly climbed into our bed, asleep before his head hit the pillow. I threw death glares at Raghav as my daughter finally drifted off to dreamland. 
With a loud huff I turned around and shut my eyes, squished between the two warm kids. And tried hard to ignore stifled giggling sounds coming from my spouse.
It must have been 3 am when a little voice piped up.
“Mommy,”.
I lay still hoping it was a dream.
“Mommy”. Second time.
“Mommy!” 
No one can escape my little monster when she calls out your name three times. 
“Why did you hide under the bed Mommy? That was so scary, Mommy. Next time don’t do that Mommy!” 
So I sat up and apologized for the millionth time. We read books under the covers for a long (long) while before she dozed off again. 
And 2 feet away, Raghav slept like a content baby. 


Moral of the story: Pranking is Overrated






Friday, November 30, 2018

Rebel

Manju had always been a rebel. At 6 years of age, she’d loudly refused to stop wearing her brother’s pants, insisting they were more comfortable for climbing up trees. At age 8, she’d kicked and screamed, when Baba suggested pulling her out of school to learn “feminine” skills like cooking and housework. She was a good athlete and a better student. And a constant source of concern to her parents.
“One day Maa, you’ll see! I’ll get a big job. Then you can sit back and rest easy!”
It was often futile to argue with Manju. From the corner of the house, Baba sighed as Maa hung up his work boots to dry. A poor family, sometimes dreams were all they could afford. So they said nothing. Nodded and sighed and worried about school fees.
Manju worked evenings at the local market. She fetched endless cups of tea and cleaned up after the vendors. A paisa there, a rupee here. She kept adding them to her little tin box. One day, she found out they couldn’t afford school anymore. She was a rebel but also a realist. So she hugged Baba and set about working harder. That tin box grew heavier as weeks turned into years. Baba and Maa wished her well, but never aloud. Instead, they now sighed and worried about wedding costs.
“Marriage? What are you talking about, Maa?” she asked when their whispers became unbearable.
“Well”, Baba hesitated. We hoped you might settle down now. “You’re almost 20. Most girls your age are married with kids,”.
Manju chewed her lip. The realist inside her thought hard too.
“I want to work some more!” she announced. “Not just at the market. I’ve saved money and now I want to put that to good use,”.
“But, what about Marriage? You can work after, surely. If your husband agrees.”
Manju snorted and traipsed away, head filled with ideas of her own. Marriage and its woes were not at the top of her list.
So prospective grooms came and went. Her parents grew weary and a little less hopeful, each time Manju shook her head in refusal. But they said nothing. They sighed and worried about inflating costs as the calendar pages flew with a life of their own.
Winter of 1995 was drawing to a close. A weak sun shone on the busy railway station. No more than 2 feet away from a rather worried looking young girl, Manju and her fellow vegetable vendors sat down for a breather.
“I hope the next train is empty”, said Savita Didi, rubbing her neck. She looked curiously at the girl nearby who was now fidgeting with her dupatta. Probably waiting for a boy, she thought and smiled. The juice stall man whistled a leery tune as Didi turned to Manju.
“So, did another man come see you yesterday?”
Manju nodded as a loud honk announced the next train rushing in. She stood up and placed the basket of vegetables on her head. She remembered the rather skinny man who’d come home yesterday. Baba and Maa had exchanged dubious looks as they took in his faded shirt and scuffed pants. He had the kindest eyes and a rather toothy grin. (Oh! And the way he beamed as if he found her so refreshing).
But mostly she thought about his dreams and his vision. He’d spoken of swimming against the tide, with no trace of arrogance. A simple man, honest in all the ways it mattered. Maybe he even had a little tin box of his own.
She boarded the carriage, helping Savita Tai behind her. As the train puffed and left the station, she saw the young girl talking to a boy. Something about the flash of joy on the girl’s face resonated with Manju. That sense of belonging with someone who wanted the same things as you.
The train picked up speed as Manju grabbed a corner of the compartment. She planned to meet him again. And instead of marriage, she’d ask if he would be her business partner. Equals in every way, dreamers alike. Together, with their tin boxes, they could build something worth fighting for. Marriage and its woes could wait.
Summer of 1995. Big companies and bigger jobs everywhere. Everyone had somewhere to be.

And finally, so did Manju. She was a Rebel after all.




Monday, November 26, 2018

1995









1995. Winter drawing to a close.

“Chal jaldi! We’ll miss the train,”.

Palka looked back at the station. A hundred different faces, except the one she hoped to see. 

“Palka, yaar! The train is moving. Chalo bhi!” 

A few more people climbing down the stairs. She spotted a pair of jean-clad legs. Her heart beat faster. 

“Ok, I’m leaving! I don’t want to miss the exam. Tum baithe raho Romeo ke liye,”. 

Not him. Dammit. Dammit.

Palka didn’t notice her friend walk away in a huff. She paid no heed to the Juice Stall man eying her butt with open interest. She didn’t even see the vegetable vendors giving her curious looks as they settled down their laden baskets, hoping the next train would be empty. No, 16-year-old Palka stood half turned, in the middle of the crowd, focused on the broken steps of the busy station. Where could he be? 

The Juice Stall man whistled a catchy tune, breaking her out of a reverie. Glaring at him, she fidgeted with the edge of her dupatta. Two girls nearby were discussing the latest Yash Raj film. Palka rolled her eyes, oblivious that she herself was in the middle of a little love story. (He’s just a friend. Nothing more). And today, she needed to see him.

A long, mournful whistle announced the next train arriving. Around her, the crowd moved, ready to take on another day of soul crushing work. The juice stall man wiped down his counter, swatting away at the lazy morning flies. The vegetable vendors adjusted the little cushions on their heads before donning their baskets of colorful greens. And Palka waited in vain. 

A gusty wind blew across the station as the train slowed to a stop. A little fight broke out in the ladies compartment, as women going in different directions, jostled about madly. Two young men from the adjacent carriage catcalled before catching the eye of the stern female constable on the platform. Palka felt herself getting pushed into the compartment. Dejected and weary, she was almost inside the train, when someone tapped furiously on her shoulder. 

The train screeched its way along the platform as the last stragglers got on board. Then silence for a while before the other side of the platform came to life. 1995. Bigger companies and newer jobs were coming up. Everyone had somewhere to be.

Even the slender girl who stood there, smiling shyly at the tall young man next to her. He apologized for his tardiness. Mentioned something about a devious alarm clock and a broken water heater. But Palka heard none of that. All she wanted to do was stroke his lush, (slightly) long hair and stare into those green eyes. But she didn’t. He was only a friend. 

“Don’t you have an exam today?”

“Yes, in 30 minutes”, she answered dreamily. 

“Oh, you’ll be so late! You’ll miss the start!”

But Palka didn’t worry. Something told her, she would not only get to the exam on time but also ace it. Like she always did. Just as she knew she would one day marry this boy and live the rest of her life with him. The enormity of her emotions caught her by surprise. She wanted to blurt out her heart, shake him as if to say, “Don’t you see how madly I love you? Don’t you see?” 

But she said no such thing. Because it was 1995. And because for now, he was only a friend. A lifelong rule abider, Palka wasn’t yet ready to break the mold. And besides, there was something rather exciting about working up to the moment. 

“Mohit, listen…”.

He looked up, as the late morning sun bounced off her dark hair, before settling into her twinkling eyes. For a second, he felt breathless, as if something large and wonderful was blooming inside. Then he blinked and flew back to the dusty old station with its funny smells and grimy walls. 

“Hey Mohit, I know I’m late. Do you think..?”

That tingling in his heart again. What was going on? Just another day with a childhood buddy. What had changed?

“Yes, Palka?”, he said trying hard to conceal the tremor in his voice.

“Do you think, we have time? For a glass of juice?”

Mohit laughed. The smells and sounds of the station faded as he put his arm around her shoulder and walked to the juice stall.  Not yet, a voice spoke inside him. Soon, but not yet. She was just a friend. Unbeknownst to himself, he hummed a love song from the newest Yash Raj movie. Palka looked up, her heart beating rapidly. Then she ever so slightly leaned into him and grinned a secret smile.

The Summer of 1995. What a time to be in love.






Sunday, November 18, 2018

I was entirely indifferent to the news of his death

I put down the eye liner and studied my reflection in the mirror. Too much mascara? Grandma always told me I had the prettiest eyes. Smiling, I pulled my hair into a loose braid. Where was my lucky pebble? Oh there. Now I was ready.

My parents were in the kitchen. I peeked at them, searching for the slightest trace of anger, that flicker of grief. But all I saw was two middle-aged people, with rather kind faces. Worried about their daughter, hoping she’ll be fine.

“Avery, honey,” my mom began, “I know this is scary, but we’re with you. Every step of the way.” 

“Yes, kiddo. Your mom and I will be in that waiting room the whole time. Dr. Matheson is the best. He’s even published a pape-”

“Brian, don’t stress her out. Not on the day of the procedure,”.

“Karen, I’m just giving her informatio-”

“Shush, now. Let her breathe for a second.”

Dad rolled his eyes, behind mom’s back. I smiled, terrified inside, but still thankful for the banter. 

“Did you take your pills, honey?” 

I’d been on those “pills” for 15 months now. They’d helped some but weren’t enough. Every morning in the wonky bathroom mirror, I’d stared at those lumps on my body, willing them away. When Dr. Matheson brought up the surgery 2 months ago, I’d looked at my parents, eyes blazing with fearful hope. Dad had a hundred questions. For once, mom hadn’t interrupted. 
Here we were 9 weeks later, in the kitchen, on a cold October morning, while Dad downed his second mug (Hospital coffee is the worst, Karen, everyone knows that!). Mom was looking fondly at a family picture above the fireplace. 

“Was this in 2009 Brian?”

“Huh? Oh, that? 2010, when we went upstate to see Grandma for Christmas.”

I walked up and stood next to mom. It was a nice photograph. Mom had that ridiculous Christmas Sweater on and Dad appeared a second away from bursting into laughter. And between them a little boy who looked so much like me. I reached out and traced his face. Those beautiful eyes, that square chin showing the earliest signs of stubble. 

“Will you miss him terribly, mom?” My throat felt tight.

“Of course! He was my firstborn. But I hope he’s happy now. It’s been a long time coming,”.

Dad looked away, blinking furiously as I hugged mom. We put on our jackets, (Brian,you need a new coat!) and I looked back one last time. The faded scuffs on the walls, the cozy breakfast nook. Grandma’s voice (You’ll be fine, Avery darling).

Nothing would be the same anymore. After the surgery today the boy in the picture would cease to live. For someone who’d existed as him for 19 years, I was entirely indifferent to the news of his death. 


Because I would finally be reborn as the woman I was always meant to be.



Thursday, November 15, 2018

Beanpole






Grandpa (or Thatha as I called him) was a very huge presence in my life. He was this skinny, beanpole of a man, full of wit and laughter. Self made, he came from poverty and settled down in Bombay with Paati (grandma), back when The Union Jack flew proudly over most buildings. He worked for a large National company and together; they raised 2 beautiful daughters with grace and humor.
My childhood is peppered with memories of him cooking for us with grandma yelling out directions, regaling us with bedtime stories in that intense voice (he condensed the entire Ramayana in 10 minutes, without missing a single important point!), playing lazy afternoon games of chase. He was one of my first friends, evolving from play partner to the person who taught me all about grammar and the Oxford Comma.
I lost my Paati at that tender age when childhood is slipping away and my brain was at the mercy of puberty. I was sad, shocked and mostly furious because she had baked me my favorite sweets, just the night before. Was that to be my last memory of her? Wiping her face as she worked at the stove? I grieved for days, hugging her old sari, her entire life now reduced to tears spilling from my eyes.
The rest of the family was busy with the funeral, so I moped by my lonesome and embraced some of that newfound teenage angst. My first experience with death- predictably unpleasant and traumatic. But what would haunt me for a lot longer, were the nightmares, where other family members died in an orderly, rotating schedule and I woke up, sweaty and breathless with grief.
Throughout my teen years, I kept a close watch on Thatha. Every cold he had, every time he complained about his knees, I worried. Was he at death’s door? Would the Diabetes kill him first or the Ingrown toenail? At 18, I got into Med School where I learned newer and fancier ways of dying. And when he had his first stroke at 81, I blamed myself for not diagnosing him sooner. At the hospital, under the cold gleam of the fluorescent lights, Thatha assured me he intended to live for a lot longer than 81. I nodded and squeezed his hand, grateful for the promise he had no real control over.
The 2000s passed in a blur. I graduated, got married, moved countries, had a baby. Thatha had his own milestones. His third angioplasty, his first bypass surgery, endless doctor visits and insurance claims. His grandkids now spread across the globe in their own pockets of success. Pride in his chest, encapsulated by a thin layer of heartache. We called him dutifully and visited when we could. Life was now a time lapse video, as he grew a little older, a little thinner every day. We worried about his failing health with every hospital visit. But he always came back home.
It was a cold winter afternoon. My mom texted earlier that day, letting me know Thatha was fading fast. When “the call” came in a few hours later, I put down the phone and breathed out. For someone who was so obsessed with his mortality, I was entirely indifferent to his death. Possibly because it was a gentle event. He’d prepared us with little rehearsals all year. An overnight stay at the hospital. Sometimes two days, sometimes a week. And finally, when we were strong enough, he died. Honoring that promise, he’d made me 17 years ago.
A whole year has passed since and I still miss him terribly. The cheeky humor, the clever jokes. The warmth in his voice when I called him every Sunday morning. I see glimpses of him in my children. My son’s nose, his lazy half smile. The way my daughter has bony knees. The first wrinkles appearing on the edges of my eyes as I smile.
My daughter found thatha’s old eyeglass case, yesterday. She played with it for hours, marveling at the faded writing on the leather, the little magnetic clasp at the top. Suddenly, it was a car. Ooh! Ooh! Now it is a little bed for her doll. An ordinary thing, made extraordinary because she could see the magic in it. Much like my thatha.
An average, skinny beanpole of a man, who would pluck stars out of the sky for his little family.

Disclaimer : This isn't meant to make anyone sad. I wrote this piece to celebrate the wonderful life my thatha lived. If you have a grandparent around, go give them a hug. And an extra one from me  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Trick or Treat



Trick or treat was almost over. Even the stragglers and the teenagers had done their
rounds. 
And we were late. SO LATE!

I was worried. I had been looking forward to tonight for a long time. The colorful costumes, the shiny faces as kids went door to door. 

I’d missed all that. Because we were late. As we walked on the dark, empty street towards the first house, I glanced at my sister. She looked furious. I laid a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. A few yards away, our parents followed, with the practiced ease of someone who’s done this a million times before.

Ah Good. The first house. Climbing up the stairs, we pounded on the door. 
I flung my head back and yelled. “Trick or Treat!”

I saw movement behind the front windows. There was someone inside. But no one came to the door. We knocked and yelled again but the door stayed shut. My sister stomped her feet and cried out. Mom beckoned us from the bottom of the steps. No worries, we’ll try again at the next house. 

But the same strange thing happened at the house next door. And the house beyond that one. I even did a bunch of different voices. (I had a talent for that). I hissed like a vampire and moaned like a zombie. Even scooched down on all fours and howled like a hairy werewolf. But no luck. We could hear whispers from inside the houses, even the occasional scream. But every single one of those doors stayed shut. 

My sister was working herself up into a proper rage. She looked ready to kick down that door when dad intervened. His face flashed with anger as he reminded her it was unacceptable to force yourself into someone’s house. And dangerous too! So would she grow up and stop making trouble?

Sullen and disappointed, we walked the last few yards of the street. This year had been a complete failure. Where was the thrill of Halloween night? The sense of adventure. A bunch of sissies, I thought darkly.

And that’s when we spotted the lights. Long and low, the cottage stood tucked away in a side street. Twinkling, little pumpkins adorned the front yard. My sister and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. This house hadn’t been there last year. A slow smile crept on my face. Maybe there was still hope. 

Her eyes flashed as she picked up her pace, with me right behind. 

Knock Knock Knock. 
“Trick or Treat” I called out in a soft voice. “Anybody home?”

There was silence. Nothing behind the curtains, or in the upstairs windows. Mom and Dad stirred behind us. And just when we thought Halloween was over, the door opened.

A young woman stood there, hair tousled with sleep. 

“I’m sorry, guys,” she yawned. “I moved here 2 days ago, so my body clock is all off.”

She rubbed her eyes and stared at us. In awe.

“Oh goodness, your costumes are amazing! Wow!”

“Trick or treat?”, I repeated. My sister hopped from one foot to the other, positively trembling with excitement.

“Oh. Ok? How about a trick then?”

My sister turned around towards our parents. A question on her face. Mom nodded. It’s ok, 
 go ahead. 

She opened her mouth and screeched. Then abandoning her human skin, she pounced on the woman and tore her throat. The rest of us staggered forward, our sharp teeth and grey skin, glistening in the moonlight.
Halloween night. 
If something knocks on your door, don’t rush to answer.
Look through the peephole, peek through the curtains.
And if you see us with our white eyes and ragged mouths? Why, then lock your doors and double bolt them.
We’re shapeshifters, from the darkest corners of hell.

We love our tricks. But we won’t leave without our treats.






Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Rattle

The bunker door stayed open all morning and afternoon. They had a lot of stuff to carry in - food, clothing, medicines. And those were the basics. Their little community had expanded since last year which meant they had more help with the move. But it also meant more mouths to feed.
All these thoughts ran through Kavi’s mind as she ran a finger down her checklist. As the leader of their community, she had a million little things to do. Oh, had someone remembered the Vitamin D lamps? They would not last the winter underground without some form of sunlight. And what about the movie reels? The books?
Nothing in and Nothing out. That was their motto. Once locked inside, they had no way of coming out for 3 whole months. Not that they would want to.
A million little things left to do. Sighing, she got up and walked to the door. Outside, the a weak sun shone, as more people walked towards the bunker, carrying odds and ends. After 7 glorious years of normalcy, they’d all gotten complacent. Smiles had become wider and easier. Hope had blossomed and babies had been born and raised without the ugly shadow of the “Fiends” looming over them.
But last week, the farmers had reported that their crops were dying. The next day, some kids had stumbled upon an entire flock of birds lying there, in the middle of the road. With broken beaks and cold, dead bodies.
The community elders held an urgent meeting. They’d learned to read the signs of an oncoming attack. Kavi agreed with them. It was time to go back into the bunker. They were approaching Winter, and that’s when the Fiends woke up.
“Hurry, guys, we have barely 2 hours left,”
Now where was her daughter?
“It’s not fair! I don’t want to live in a stupid bunker.”
A little boy, barely 5 stood there, clutching a bag of toys and looking upset. “The anger of the innocents”, thought Kavi as she kneeled in front of him.
“Hey kiddo, I know your parents have told you all you need to know. Now, I will not lie and say this will be fun. But we’re all doing this to be safe. To stay alive. You understand that right?”
The boy nodded at her, tears in his eyes. He knew all about the Fiends. He’d listened the horror stories. About their long, bony bodies and scaly skin. And the sound they made when they were ready to attack. What word had his mom used? Rattle. That was it! Rattling like a snake about to strike.
A group of girls ran by, clutching books.
“Hey, has anybody seen Shilpa?”
“No ma’am. Last we saw, she was in the store, getting some eggs.”
Kavi frowned. What was the delay?
“Answer your phone, goddamnit!” she muttered, as more people entered the bunker.
An hour flew by as final trips were made. Almost everyone inside already. Except Shilpa.
“I’m going to go look for her!” Kavi announced. “If I don’t come back within an hour, close the bunker.”
“But ma’am, we ca-”
“End of discussion! We are almost out of time, and I will not have my people exposed!”
She grabbed her gun and ran out to the main street. Maybe Shilpa was at the house. Worth checking.
And that’s when she heard the first rumble. She looked east at the fields. At the sun setting over them, melting into the horizon.
And then every so slightly, the sagging rows of wheat trembled.
A telltale odor of rotting flesh hit her nose. Oh shit! They were here!
Behind her, panic hit the bunker. There was a mad scramble as people rushed through the narrow doorway.
The rows of wheat shook again. Then something very large and quick parted through them, hidden under the upper stalks.
Someone screamed. Children cried, like they do, when they sense something bad about to happen.
GODDAMNIT where is she?
“SHILPAAAA”, yelled Kavi. She ran up main street, hollering her daughter’s name.
“SHILPAAAA!!”
The rumbling got louder. Sounded like at least a dozen of them were charging this way.
“Mom!”
Kavi whipped around. A young girl, barely 11 came running towards her. From the fields.
“Mom, I’m so sorry! But you hav-!”
“Shilpa there’s no time! Into the Bunker now!”
“But Mom, listen, I found the eggs!”
Kavi half dragged her daughter back up the road.
Less than 50 feet away, something dark and reptilian stood up, towering over the crops. Scaly skin, mottled and green. Eyes she’d seen in her darkest nightmares.
“Don’t look at it, just go!”
Mother and daughter raced up the street when the first rattle broke the air. Like a snake about to strike.
Something larger than the first one leaped and landed 10 feet away. Another loud rattle.
“Runrunrurnrunrun!” screamed Kavi. “RunnnnnnnShilpaaaaa!”
The bunker doors. Almost about to close.
“Mommmm!”, sobbed Shilpa. She’s inside. OhthankGod she’s inside
Five more steps. Four. Three. tw-
Kavi tripped and fell on her face.
The smell of burning flesh hit her nose.
(THIS IS HOW I DIE! THIS IS HOW I DIE! THIS IS HOW I DIE!)
Strong arms pulled her inside. The doors closed with a loud clang as the first attack came on the other side. Something monstrous struck the door then retreated. Loud, angry rattles tore through the night. Shilpa shrieked as Kavi scrambled up and punched in the code. The alarms went into place as a giant timer lit up above the door. 92 days, 14 hours and 35 minutes.
They were safe. Nothing in and Nothing out. THEY WERE SAFE!
The door shook again occasionally for the rest of the night. Uneasy silence reigned inside the bunker as Kavi limped around. Assuring everyone they were secure. They’d built those doors to last nuclear attacks; she repeated endlessly.
In the wee hours of the morning, Kavi found Shilpa in her little cabin. Staring at the ceiling with red, puffy eyes.
“Oh honey, what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
Shilpa shook her head.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come looking for you before. I should have been more watchful.”
“Mom?”
“Yes, darling.”
“Eggs mom.”
“You hungry? I can make you an omelet, real quick.”
Her daughter looked at her strangely. Then turned away and huddled deeper into her little cot.
Kavi blinked. What was going on?


She understood 2 days later when the screaming started in the middle of the night. Awakened from a deep sleep, the smell of burning flesh hit her nose. (Eggs). And then she heard the rattle.
EGGS!
The timer ticked away, 90 days, 1 hour and 42 minutes. Nothing in and Nothing out. That was their motto after all.


Monday, October 29, 2018

My Mother always said - 2 days to Halloween.

I crouched under the car and held my breath. Shit. Shit. Shit. Had they seen me? 

I sniffed, testing the air for their odor, but couldn’t pick up anything above the aroma of rotting waste. My machete waited beside me, an old and trusted friend. Breathe slower, I warned myself. You cannot afford to get dehydrated again.

Close to 5 minutes passed before I heard them. Soft, shuffling footsteps. I placed the machete carefully on the floor and peeked under the car. I spotted the first one a few rows away. And then a second. And a third! 

I sat up and cursed. It seemed to be one man, one woman. And a child. Shit. SHIT! I hated killing kids. 
But like my mom used to say, “If it is you vs. them, Always choose yourself!”

I grabbed my weapon and waited. Didn’t matter anymore if I could smell them. They would find me soon enough. And they would come.

Just like I expected, the footsteps got closer. I’d killed close to a 100, but it still got me every time. Something about taking a human life, or whatever. My mom would know the right words. She’d been a scientist. 

They were almost here. On the other side of my car. That was quick. Wait, something wasn’t right. I sniffed again. Nothing. What was going on? 

I was about to stand up and check when I saw them finally. 3 humans. One man, one woman. And one little boy.  

I gaped. God help me, I dropped my machete, and gaped like an idiot. I had never seen such a wonderful sight, since, well….. since the world ended and all that. 

The man broke the silence first. 

“Are you, umm…. sick?”

“Huh?” I croaked. I hadn’t heard my voice in months now.

“I mean, are you a… you know? One of them?”

I was confused. But mostly euphoric. Humans! Actual, live humans! 

The little boy piped up. “He means to ask if you’re one of the Undead. A Zombie? A Biter? A Deadie?”

I stared at his little face, marveling that he existed. 

“No. Umm. No, I am definitely not one of them. Very much alive. And thrilled to see you all.”

“Do you have any weapons?” This was the woman (mom?)

“No. Just my machete. Say, how long have you guys been here? You’re the first survivors I’ve seen in 10 months now,”.

The man looked at the woman, a question in his eyes. Then they both turned to the little boy. Who nodded slightly.

The woman said, “We have a house nearby. You can come with us if you want. Food, water, some sleep.” 

All of those things sounded heavenly. 

“Yes! Yes, thank you! I would love that.”

We set forth; the adults walking ahead while the boy and I trailed behind. We fell into easy conversation and I learned that he was an orphan. He asked me about the large medallion on my neck. It was my mother’s; I explained. She’d died pretty early on. He looked away. 

“So, those, your aunt and uncle?”

He shook his head. “No, I met them early on, after the world fell. We were a rather large group. Now, just us three.” A faraway look came into his eyes. 

I said nothing. I had a million of my own memories. Horrors I’d seen. ‘People’, I’d put down. 

After almost an hour on the country road, we reached a tiny village of sorts. I hugged my backpack and shivered. Empty broken houses lined the sole street. The occasional undead corpse, stowed away neatly. All of them had broken skulls. I grimaced. Of all the zombie lore we’d read and seen, this was a rare true one. Aim for their brains, and they dropped right down. 

The trio stopped before a house. Obviously theirs. The woman beckoned me inside. After months of sleeping under trees and in old barns, the concept of an actual house weirded me out. Strange how the human brain works right? (Again, my mother would know the reason for this. She was the clever one.)

“Can I walk around for a bit? Just to get my bearings.”

The woman opened her mouth to speak, but the man shushed her. 

Of course. Just come inside before it’s too dark,” he mumbled. “And don’t go too far to the west of the village. There’s a large horde of the undead there, behind the fence.”

I wandered around and poked inside a few houses. Saw and heard the moans of the undead, from the fence at the end of the village. Did my little rituals, indulged in some eccentricities. Kissed my medallion for luck. 

When it got dark, I went back to the house. We had a small dinner of stale mushrooms and soup. It was the best thing I’d ever had. I offered to wash the dishes, and soon we fell into a calming routine. I dried the plates while the trio packed their bags and put on their shoes. I understood. After the world fell, it was best to be ready, even at bedtime. You never knew when you had to leave at a moment’s notice. (Always plan ahead - another of my mother’s favorites)

The man came up to me with a glass of wine. 
“Today’s a special day for us. We found you. That’s cause for celebration, right?” 
A happy smile on his face. I nodded shyly and took a sip. The wine was delicious. Or maybe it was shitty, but I didn’t care. My mother never let me drink, so this was a welcome treat. 

Sleep came easy that night. I dreamt of flowers and beer. My mom telling me to be careful. That the zombies were getting closer. 

I woke up suddenly, with a headache. Must be the wine, I thought before the pain hit me everywhere. Somebody was pulling my arm, painfully. ZOMBIES was my first thought, and I stood up. Only to fall on my face because I had no legs.
My brain screamed, disbelieving. “Help! Wh-what’s going on?” I cried out, in the dark. 

The dark figure pulling at my hand stopped. The man held up a bloody axe (he sawed off your arm! Holy shit, Mona, he sawed off your arm!) and looked at me sadly.  

Wha-why are you doing this? Oh my God, what is going on?”

He bent back and swung the axe down. I fainted before it touched my arm. 

When I woke up again, I realized 2 things. We were outside the house now. And I didn’t have any limbs left. 
The trio were whispering, by the front door. The woman kept peering in my direction and the man gesticulated wildly. Only the boy stayed calm. Perhaps, he was in shock?

I wasn’t in too much pain. And somehow still alive. I spotted crude bandages at the end of my arm/leg stumps. That explained why I hadn’t bled out.  

The woman walked up. Bent down to my mangled half body and whispered. “We’re leaving soon. Are you in much pain? I gave you a giant dose of anesthetic in the wine. It should have kicked in by now.”

I stared at her through hot tears. 

“I’m sorry it had to be this way. If it matters, I voted against this plan. But Raul wouldn’t listen. I’m so sorry.”

“Plan?” 

“Well…. there’s been talk of this Survivor Camp up north. Just 70 miles from here. But we’re stuck. Can’t move north, unless the horde outside the west fence is disposed of. And we don’t have weapons. Not enough anyway.”

“So why hurt me? How do I feature in your pl-”

“We needed a distraction”, came a soft voice. I looked up to see Raul. Not the man. The little boy. He stood there, looking at me with his cold, cruel eyes. 
“The undead are picky. We tried dead animals as decoys, but they…. prefer human flesh. So we’re using you as bait. Well, different parts of you, scattered across this street. And once they’re busy, we’ll move past them. There’s a river on the other side of the fence. Across that river is the only road north. To the survivor camp. So you see why it has to be this way?”

I understood finally. Their eagerness to welcome me without asking too many questions. I was their way out of his hellhole.

Raul bent low and whispered. “We’ll unwrap the bandages now. Let the blood flow freely. That’ll get them worked up.”

“The medallion!” I gasped. “Let me have my medallion. Put it in my mouth. It was my mother’s last gift. Please, Please let me have it!” 
He looked at me with distaste and almost walked away. But some speck of humanity made him turn back. He grabbed the medallion from my neck. I opened my mouth, and he placed it there. 

“Oh, I almost forgot!”  He whipped out a small switchblade and sliced my chest open. 

Blood poured out as I trembled with agony. But I didn’t cry out. The zombies clamored against the fence, restless and hungry. Sensing a meal.

As my vision blurred, I saw the trio walk to the fence. My mother’s voice sang in my head. “Always plan ahead. Always Plan ahead”.

Raul unlocked the fence door. Then in practiced formation, the trio ran back. Sought cover above an abandoned car. With any luck and my limbs dispersed everywhere, the horde would walk right past them.
(My mom’s voice - Always Plan ahead. My nightly rituals. My little eccentricities.)

The door creaked open as the first of the zombies staggered in. Eyes sunken, it looked around, snapping its yellow teeth. A dozen more moved right behind -moaning, seeking. Stumbling towards me. The trio waited above the car, ready to escape. 

I probed with my tongue and found the little button on the medallion. Then I bit down hard on it. As the first zombie touched my chest, a dozen homemade bombs exploded in series. The fence tore. 4 houses collapsed. The abandoned car erupted in a ball of fire, scattering the bodies of the three Living and countless Undead in every direction. 

Always plan ahead, I thought as I gave in to the Zombie. It was their world now. And the last thing I heard was my mother’s rather pleased voice.

“Mona, you always had perfect timing dear!”