Innocent intruders? A short story

I was going to be with my husband Rajan after 4 months. I was so happy and excited. Chatting over skype is a good substitute, which we often did. But, it’s only a poor substitute!

Five months back, the very day my daughter was born, Rajan got a new opportunity in his organization. He had been eying it for months and was thrilled to get it despite several contenders. Rajan called his daughter the lady luck of his life; who smiled on him and got him the role. Location was the only hitch; the new role was in different city, a place where we knew no one. What with a new-born, I decided to stay back with my parents for few months. While Rajan moved over to the new city to join work.

It took me few months to adjust being a mother; the sleepless nights, endless nappy changing, vaccine shots along with toothless smiles and heart-warming gurgles. At last I was ready to join Rajan. My parents accompanied me to help settle in the new city. There was a happy reunion at the airport. Rajan couldn’t believe that his lovely daughter Sherry had already grown so much; she could hold her neck, smiled often and looked into his eyes.  While the daughter cooed in her father’s arms, the driver who came to pick us up, loaded our piles of luggage into the car.  And we headed towards the service apartment which Rajan’s organization had given us for 15 days.

The service apartment was in Aditya Park, a newly constructed gated community in the outskirts of the city. Rajan knew my dislike for crowded places. So he decided to take a quiet place, away from hustle bustle of the city. We walked into the duplex apartment which was on first floor. It had a fresh look, later I got to know that we were its first occupants. The main door of the apartment opened into a spacious living room. I could see the dining and kitchen to the right. A staircase at the other end of living room led to two bedrooms in second floor. I first walked into the bedroom to put Sherry into bed as she had fallen asleep. The bedroom was large and well-furnished. As I looked out of the window, I caught a breath-taking view of a blue lake with rocky hillocks beyond it. It was middle of August, the monsoon season. The surroundings were lush green; further enhancing the beauty of lake. Few storks were busy catching fish in the lake. I started warming up to the new city. Determined not to get lost in the beauty and get some unpacking done while Sherry still slept, I pulled myself away from the window and stepped out of the room.  

As I walked down the staircase, I caught a glimpse of the balcony beyond the living room. Keen to explore, I opened the door leading to balcony.  I found a rocking chair rocking, as if someone sitting in it just got up. I looked around, no one was there. I called out to my mother to check if she sat on the rocking chair in balcony. She gave an irritated reply, “As if I have the luxury to sit. Your father is dying to have tea. Thank god Rajan is a responsible son, he stocked up the kitchen well.” I could hear Rajan and my father’s voices from the bedroom upstairs. Strange, who was sitting on the rocking chair? The balcony was on first floor; its only exit was the living room door, through which I had just walked in. I looked at the chair again, it rocked for few more seconds and stopped. May be it’s the wind, I told myself and walked back into the living room.

My mother had laid out tea. As we sipped tea, Rajan discussed his plans for coming few days – especially about finding an apartment. However, I found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. I kept looking back at the rocking chair; I could not get it out of my thoughts.

Rest of the morning passed peacefully, as we went about unpacking our luggage. We ordered lunch from a nearby restaurant.  And took a short nap in the afternoon. Around 4 pm, Rajan and my parents went out to pick up some knick-knack. I did not want to overtire Sherry and stayed back.

Locking the apartment door, I sat down to read a magazine. It was all very quiet, what with Sherry also sleeping in the couch next to me. I could hear the soft sounds that usually get drowned: drops of water falling softly in one of the bathrooms above, a koel calling in its sweet voice, someone pedaling a cycle in the lane, a car whizzing by. Suddenly I felt very lonely. Was I really alone with Sherry? I could feel someone else sitting in the sofa opposite to me. Whoever it was, though I could not see, was staring at me. And did not want me in the room. I tried to ignore and read the magazine, but the piercing invisible eyes would not let me.

Suddenly I heard a baby cry. Instinctively I turned towards Sherry, only to find her fast asleep. At that very moment, I heard soft footsteps hurrying from the living room towards the kitchen. There was no mistake, someone had hurried past me into the kitchen. I and Sherry were truly alone in the room. Whoever was sitting and staring at me, had left the room. I sat frozen with fear. I wish I had gone out with others. It took me few minutes to compose myself. I drank water, thank god, there was a bottle right next to me on the tea table. I picked up the magazine again.

I would have read peacefully for 15 odd minutes; once again a baby started crying. I was so startled that it took me few seconds to realize that Sherry has woken up and is crying. I realized it was her feed time. I quickly went to the kitchen, took out the feeding bottle from refrigerator, and warmed it in the microwave. As I stepped out of the kitchen, someone purposely brushed past me. I heard the rustle of fine linen, undoubtedly a woman’s dress.

I hurriedly picked up Sherry and ran all the way up the stairs, to the safety of my bedroom. Everything seemed normal there. I pulled back the window curtains and sat down with Sherry in my lap. Thank God she was not a fussy baby. As she hungrily sucked on the bottle, I could see the Sun hidden behind light clouds. I saw couple of men fishing in the lake. Everything seemed so peaceful here. I started playing with Sherry when the doorbell rang. I sat frozen, unwilling to go down. Only when the doorbell rang for the third time, I braced myself to go down. As I walked down the staircase, I heard my father’s worried voice, “What’s taking her so long.” I opened the door and said apologetically, “Sorry, I was in the bathroom, so it took me a while.”

Unwilling to sit in the living room, even in presence of others, I suggested we all relax in bedrooms upstairs. Which fortunately everyone agreed to. Around 7 pm, my mother went down to prepare dinner. I offered to help, but she asked me to relax. She was an independent person, rarely seeking help, that too in kitchen. Kitchen was her kingdom and she refused to share it anyone. I sat in the bedroom catching up with Rajan. Twenty minutes would have passed, my mother called me from kitchen, “Can you please come and help me in the kitchen.”

Surprised by her request, I went down to help. As I walked into the kitchen, I again had the same feeling. Someone was standing outside the kitchen, though no one was visible. My mother said, “This place is so new, I can hardly find anything. Let’s cook together, it will give me an opportunity to spend some more time with you. God knows, when we will meet again.” My mother did not say anything more, so I refrained from talking about the malignant eyes that seem to be following me whenever I entered kitchen. We quickly finished cooking and set the table.

Dinner time at our home is usually a fun affair. My father loves to talk. He practically monopolizes the conversation at dinner table, sharing amazing stories. Surprisingly he was very quiet during dinner that night. When Rajan enquired, he simply said, “Am feeling tired.”

I cleared up things along with my mother; as my father and Rajan sat chatting in the living room. Within 15 minutes, we all agreed to turn in, which was again rare. As a family, we spent time together after dinner. My father strongly advocated against people going to bed straight after dinner.

It was a long day, fortunately Sherry was also quiet and I fell asleep in no time. I woke up from deep sleep to the sound of a baby crying. I turned on the bedside lamp to check on Sherry. She was sleeping, but I could still hear a baby crying, somewhere in the house. Within few minutes, Rajan woke up, looked at Sherry and said, “I thought she was crying.” He looked little puzzled. I thought he wanted to say something, but decided against it and went back to sleep.

I kept hearing a baby cry for some more time. Sleep eluded me for a long time. I would have just slept, when Sherry woke up for her feed. Rajan offered to warm up the milk in kitchen. Within few minutes, I heard him running up the stairs. He was breathless, handing over the bottle to me, he said, “I ran up the stairs, thought Sherry must be really hungry.” As I sat feeding Sherry, Rajan sat quietly. A couple of times, I thought he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. Rest of the night was uneventful.

Next day, immediately after breakfast we all went out to look for an apartment. We shortlisted one and returned after lunch. Refusing to sit in the living room, I straight went to the bedroom. My father loves watching TV. The only TV in the flat was in living room. But he also went to his room, mentioning something about reading a book.

Rajan’s friend Anish had invited us for dinner. He came to pick us up around 5 pm. He had to take Sheeba, his Alsatian dog to the vet for a shot. Our apartment was on the way. So, he came to pick us up along with her. Sheeba started barking loudly as he started walking towards our apartment. I was getting ready in my bedroom, and I could hear her bark.

Sheeba refused to climb the stairs leading to our duplex apartment. Anish had to practically drag her up. All the way up, Sheeba kept howling. Rajan opened the door to welcome Anish. But, Sheeba kept squealing and refused to enter.  She was clearly afraid of something, Anish tried to pet her and bring her in. But, he failed. Anish was apologetic for Sheeba’s behavior, but he was equally surprised. She was a well-behaved and friendly dog. Why was she behaving so strangely? At last, he was forced to wait for us in his car.

We had a good time at Anish’s home and returned quite late.  Again, events of previous night repeated. Middle of the night, I heard a baby cry; it wasn’t Sherry. When Sherry woke up for her feed, Rajan went to kitchen to get her milk. Just like previous night, he came running up the stairs. His face was white as he walked into the bedroom with the feeding bottle in hand. I wanted to ask him, but decided against it; he was clearly trying to hide his feelings.

Next morning, surprisingly, rather not surprisingly, my mother asked me to help her in kitchen. We made a simple breakfast of omelet and bread. Rajan had to go to work that day. After breakfast, he checked if should finalize the flat close to Anish’s home, one that we had shortlisted. It was ready to move in; thus had an added advantage. I readily agreed, though little surprised by his decisiveness. It was definitely not his strength. He finds it hard even to choose ice-cream between 2-3 flavors and here he was deciding on an apartment in a day.  My mother suggested that we should move in the very next day.

My parents had initially planned to go out for sight-seeing that day. But after Rajan left for work, my mother decided against going out. We all spent rest of the day, mostly in our bedrooms. And finally moved out of the serviced apartment the next day. As I was leaving the living room for the last time, I peeped into the balcony through the glass window. I found the rocking chair gently rocking. I could not attribute it to wind, not a leaf was stirring anywhere.

The next one week passed in a whirlwind, setting up our new home. The new flat was comforting, full of positive energy; we settled in nicely. My parents also enjoyed their stay, visiting few interesting places. The night before my parents were to return, we went out for dinner. We were enjoying a pleasant meal when my father suddenly looked at me and said, “This is after all a nice city. I am sure you two will enjoy living here. The first few days in that service apartment, I was really uncomfortable.” Hearing this, my mother burst out, “For the first in my life, I hated entering the kitchen. While in kitchen, I always felt as if someone was watching me with hatred. And top it with a baby crying every night in the house.” At that moment I was convinced that I wasn’t the only experiencing strange things in that house. I mustered courage and shared my experience. Finally, Rajan added that he hated going into the kitchen, “Every night when I went into the kitchen, someone would brush past me. And practically push me out of the kitchen. It was clear that someone did not want us in that house.” Thank God we had quickly moved out.

With passing months, my memories in that apartment faded. We met more people, made several friends. Once I went to meet my friend Sheetal at her home. She had gone out and I started chatting with her mother. She had moved into that city as a young bride 40 years ago, and had lived there ever since. She started remising about the old times, when the place was small. And how it has grown, just like her own children, in last 30 years. She said, “The city ended at Rupar junction, beyond that it was all wild; nothing but rocks, shrubs and lakes. And look at the place now, so many apartments, shopping malls, schools, restaurants have come up. In fact, there used to be a small cemetery somewhere close to Aditya Park Gated Community. The cemetery was very old, probably from British era. Even in those days it was not used. Sheetal told me that you stayed in a service apartment in Aditya Park for first few days. I have never seen the place from inside, it looks gorgeous from outside. Did you like it?”

I decided against sharing my experience with her. But, now I can guess the reason for our hair-raising experience in that apartment. Wonder whose grave that apartment was built on? And which resting soul we unknowingly disturbed?

 

*Inspiration for this story is the real life experience of my cousin in an apartment.

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