“Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers and things are not what they seem.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
11:26am read the display on the bright red Spiderman digital watch. Its owner, Sakash, was eager for the boring history class to conclude. He smiled as he anxiously looked out of the window at the glossy piece of paper that had flown across the well groomed school lawns and lodged itself in the rose bushes, a short distance from his classroom window.
Sakash was a young lad of twelve and studied in Class 6A, at this age young boys often have an air of truancy and almost little or no concentration skills. Every day he made an earnest attempt to secure his seat near the window of the classroom so that his fickle mind could wander outside rather than concentrate on the blackboard or the lesson in progress.
The school bell sounded the alarm. It was 11:30 am and recess time.
“Class, complete the homework I’ve written down on the board and bring it along on Monday. No excuses will …” instructed Mrs. Shastri, the History teacher. Sakash, of course, couldn’t care less and by then had jumped out of his ground floor classroom window to capture the shining piece of paper that had captivated his curiosity over the past thirty minutes.
Sakash pulled the paper out of the thorny rose bushes and realized that it was a picture of a pretty young girl, somewhat around his age. He was intrigued by the strange look in her eyes, as if beckoning him to join her. She was smiling in the photograph, yet seemed lost and sad. The girl was wearing a bright red frock, Sakash’s favorite colour. Her right hand on her hips, her head tilted slightly sideways towards the right and her left hand was held up, two fingers making the victory sign.
“Wow!” exclaimed Sakash. He was approaching the awkward age of puberty, so a sudden rush of hormones accompanied by an unexplainable attraction to the young lady in red could be understood. He now just needed to find out who she was and befriend her.
Most of the students had entered the school lawn and playing ground by now. Some were under the trees, spreading out their lunch to share with friends, while others headed to the field to play a few quick overs of cricket or dabble around with their football.
Sakash of course, wasn’t looking at the boys, his eyes eagerly scanning every feminine face trying to identify the girl from the photograph. He looked everywhere, in the play areas, the empty classrooms, the canteen, the school nursery; he even stood outside the girls’ washroom in a desperate attempt to locate the mysterious damsel that had captivated his soul in an uncanny way. After the second half of the day was over at school, Sakash rushed out to the parking area, to closely examine each and every girl, as they boarded their respective buses home. But he just couldn’t spot her. None of the other students he enquired from were able to identify the girl in the picture either. He headed home, feeling defeated in his endeavors, yet determined to keep the search active the next day at school.
As night closed upon the Mehta’s home, and it was time for dinner, Sakash dragged himself to the dining table. For the first time the Mehta couple was pleasantly surprised to see Sakash at the dinner table – on time. After a hurried meal he headed up to his room. Holding the picture of the girl in red, he stared at her eyes, transfixed, as if in a stupor, until he gradually dozed off to sleep.
That night he slept deeply. At around 2:04 am his slumber was disturbed by a gentle tapping sound. He was groggy, but he could clearly make out a distinct tapping sound and a soft voice repetitively whispering something that he couldn’t quite make out. He was too tired to look and simply tossed his blanket over his head and turned the other way and dozed off once again.
The next day at school was pretty much the same. Sakash almost felt like a detective. Asking, observing, peeking, querying and what not, just to get one lead on the mysterious girl from the photograph. The entire exercise was futile and another day passed uneventfully.
That night, around the same time, just past 2am, he was once again awakened by a faint tapping sound and the same soft voice repetitively whispering something that he couldn’t quite comprehend the previous night as well. The lights were off so he couldn’t make out if there was anyone in his room or where exactly the sound was coming from. Suddenly he felt a draft of cold air, the window seemed to be slightly ajar, and the knocking seemed to be coming from the direction of the window. As he moved towards the window to close it, the tapping stopped, as if it had finally caught his attention.
He peeked out of the window. A cold blast of winter air hit his face, and then Sakash noticed the girl, standing outside in the garden giggling. The same mysterious girl in the red frock. The girl from the photograph. For a fleeting second he couldn’t decipher if he was dreaming or if what he was seeing was real. He sprung on to the window sill and leapt into the flower beds outside, as the girl looked back, giggled and ran across the garden into the opposite street, almost disappearing out of sight into the darkness.
Sakash was desperate to talk to her. This was his only chance. He ran behind her almost in a trance. He didn’t see it coming. There was a screech of brakes and then a loud crash. Sakash spun several feet into the air and fell with a heavy thud on the tarred road. Lifeless. Bleeding. Dead on the spot.
A man sprung out of the car in horror. He hadn’t seen Sakash coming nor did he expect any kid to be crazily running across the streets at this ungodly hour. Sakash lay sprawled on the road, his head bleeding profusely, and severe fractures to his body.
The man then noticed a piece of paper sticking out of the chest pocket of Sakash’s night suit. He pulled it out hoping it would help him identify the child.
It was a photograph of a pretty young girl, maybe aged around 12 years. She was wearing a bright red frock, her right hand on her hips, her head tilted slightly sideways towards the right and her left hand was held up, showing three fingers.
This short story is © 2020-21 S. B. Ryder.
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