Theme : Horror.
I delight in what I fear.
- Shirley Jackson
I have never been a fan of horror stories, although I glean a lot more fun to write, rather than read horror. A good horror story can annoy, terrify or in some cases, haunt our dreams or nightmares. The challenge of horror stories is to enter the readers' psyche, enough to scare, disturb, or disgust them.
However, horror can be rather tricky to pen well. It is my personal belief that horror-writing requires above all, an active imagination.
This is my third attempt at writing a tale of horror. The first one, The perfect Lover was set within a haunted mansion, and the second one, The Ghost of Airawata panned out in a forest. I decided to use an outdoorsy backdrop for this one as well, with an element of water under a bridge. I must admit that I haven't had this much fun writing and editing any story in a long time.
Horror is indeed great food for the hyperactive imagination that constantly plagues me, which is why there is ample room in this story, as in most of my stories, for the readers' imagination to go haywire too.
The Bridge of Doom.
‘What the hell am I going to do now?’ I agonized. ‘How the fuck did I get into this mess?’
It was all Mohit’s fault. The asshole. I know he goaded me into this challenge, with the sole intention of showing me down. He’d be glad if I were to die. He’d be able to charm Roshni then, with me conveniently out of the way.
Oh God! What would Roshni say if she knew I’d gotten myself into this unholy mess? I won’t even tell her, I decided.
How had it all come to this? I wondered again for the umpteenth time.
All I did was join my so-called friends for a round of drinks over the weekend. I can’t recall how the topic of the damned bridge came up in the first place. And when it did, like always, we could never really stop going on and on about it…
All those fucking rumours…all those dead people…all the disappearances.
The Bridge of Doom, it is called. And for good reason. It isn’t a very large bridge, only around 7 metres wide. It’s not even too long actually, only one and quarter kilometer long, flanked by a tall tower on each end. It is a strong bridge too, made of solid concrete and steel, built against the backdrop of the Shola hills at the outskirts of the town. The railings are rather rusty and weathered, but still sturdy along the first few yards, while non-existent towards the other end.
So why is it doomed? Because, it is haunted. Or it is supposed to be. Well, it is one thing for people to scoff at the stories one hears, about the host of evil spirits that haunt the place. It is quite another for the same people to have the gumption to hazard a journey across it, after dark.
My phone began to buzz. It was Roshni. Damn, maybe she heard about the challenge and called me to dissuade my foolishness. Well, if she knows me well enough, I’d rather die than admit, even to her, that I was fucking scared, shitting bricks in my pants at the thought of what was to come...but, hey, ‘Cool Neel’ would never let on his true feelings even to the love of his life.
I ignored the call and opened my wardrobe. I gazed at the rows of outfits, trying to decide on the most suitable attire to be found dead in. I reckoned a pair of dark blue jeans and a black pullover over a grey tee, would suffice to bring on sufficient mystery and aura that would surround the circumstances of my death, if my body was ever found.
A total of 57 people have disappeared on the bridge, over the last three years alone. I have travelled over the structure quite a few times, during the safe period. People do risk travelling across the damned thing during the mornings between 9am to 4pm, 5 pm at most. It is after sunset that the place is supposed to get dangerous.
No one really knows what happens out there. There are no survivors to recount their experiences to us. Legend however has it, that the sinister happenings involve humans being turned into pseudo-animals, sometimes blessed with long talons and inverted claws to boot.
And I, Neel Vasudevan, despite being 32 years old, despite being a silver-medalist in the final year of engineering college, despite being a successful software engineer, was foolish enough to have accepted the dare that would probably be the end of me. I don’t even want to go into the details of how I was teased, tested, goaded and hooked into the sheer idiocy of it. But then, I have always prided myself over my courage, or atleast the mask of nonchalant courage that I always don, especially in the presence of my so-called buddies.
To cut a fucking long story short, I, Neel Vasudevan was due to cross the goddamned bridge, at midnight, that very day. And, three hours away from the event, I wondered for the umpteenth time if I was dropped on my head as a baby, or perhaps bonked over my skull sometime in childhood.
The deal was for the rascals to pick me up at 11.30 PM from Rakshit’s place. The five of us, Rakshit, Praveen, Ashok, Mohit and I, would travel to the bridge, where I’d be duly dropped off and 20 minutes later, I would meet the fucking hooligans at the other end.
They would wait for another 20 minutes or even half an hour before they decided that I was no more…the kind souls.
I looked out of the balcony to glimpse a bolt of lightning tear across the front yard of my building. The accompanying clap of thunder seemed to herald the call of my doom to the whole town…
For the first time in the five months that I had lived in the tiny 1 BHK apartment, I walked up to the dust-ridden shelf in the corner of my living room, the tiny space that Amma had set up for me to offer my prayers like the good Tamil boy I was brought up to be. I poured some oil into the lamp in the left had corner of the shelf and lit a match against the sooty wick. Particles of dust and a tiny dead cockroach floated atop the glistening oil. Poor bastard, I thought as I fished out the body and flicked it out of the balcony.
The digital clock on my wall showed quarter to eleven. It was time to leave, perhaps for the last time. I took one last look around the apartment, trying to summon up non-existent nerve and locked the main door, before making my way towards Rakshit’s house.
‘There’s still time, just say you won’t do it, man…’ Rakshit whispered. The unusual silence in the car seemed to amplify his whisper, although no one else appeared to have heard him.
I pretended not to hear him. I chose instead, to contemplate the dark shadows cast by our receding headlamps behind us, from my side of the window. I hoped my racing heartbeats wouldn’t make themselves heard over the roar of the old car’s motor and the din of the raging storm.
The Alto offered no resistance against the biting cold as it ferried its five solemn passengers, bounding over mounds of earth and sinking ruthlessly into potholes, before heaving itself over to our destination.
Another roar of thunder shattered the sky as I took a deep breath and stepped out into the rain.
My dear buddies never got out of the car. I could feel the heat of four pairs of eyes boring into my back as I headed to the bridge, my head held high, my breathing heavy, my heart in my mouth and the cold raindrops piercing my exposed face and forearms.
The sheets of rain made visibility zero, I could not see beyond four feet ahead of me.
Hope I don’t slip and fall over the low edges into the gory river, that would be a terrible way to die… I thought.
I could hear the roar of the Urmi River churning below the layer of concrete separating my feet from her whirling depths. It seemed to resonate the churning of my stomach, even as my heart made its presence known with irregular thuds that competed to be heard over the racket of the storm.
It’s okay, Neel, it’s okay. It’s just a bridge, a road, no ghosts here… I told myself constantly, as I hurried across the spooky bridge. My feet made no sound against the stones, although water sloshed against my shoes as I walked. The chill bit deep into my skin, threatening to engulf my very soul in its ruthless darkness.
I knew I was almost halfway across already, although I could see neither the end of the bridge nor the beginning where I came from, when I turned for a quick glance behind me, without slowing down my pace.
Ghosts do not exist, ghosts do not exist...
I repeated the mantra in my head. I’m gonna win this fucking challenge! I’ll show those assholes what Cool-Neel is made of. They’ll never dare to take me on ever again.
A breezy way to make ten grand in twenty minutes, I almost smiled as another clap of thunder tore the sky.
I thought I’d called my own name. Except that the voice was so unlike my own.
I felt an invisible ice cube make its way slowly down my already chilled spine.
My legs began to move faster, on their own accord, even as I willed myself not to run. That was not the deal, you see. I would reach the end long before 20 minutes if I ran across, my friends would have already reached the end. It only takes 13 minutes for the Alto to reach the rear end of the bridge, via the roundabout route to the other bank of the Urmi.
‘Neel, stop. It’s me!’
Don’t turn Neel, keep going! I told myself.
But then, I am me. The dumbass, the moron, the retard. So of course, I stopped. And turned.
There he was. The man. I couldn’t see his face at first, it was a mere blurry impression of a human being about 5 feet tall.
I was about to bolt, when the fuzzy vision came forward and I recognized Rana Singh! Rana, who had disappeared over this very place two and a half years ago!
‘Neel beta, how are you?’ He smiled.
‘Er uncleji, I’m alright…’ I stuttered like a parrot that’d just begun to use its vocal cords.
‘Chalo beta, let me walk with you to the other end, so that u can be safe…’ he smiled more, raindrops glistening on his shining smooth skin of his whitish face.
And I had no choice but to let the long-since-missing Rana to fall in step beside me.
Twelve minutes later, I turned to give one last wave to the smiling old man and walked haughtily towards the Alto that waited for me a few yards away from the end of the bridge of doom.
I expected the assholes to at least greet me with a high-five or at least a grudging smile. But they had none of that waiting for me. They looked at me with almost glazed expressions in their eyes. I took my place next to Mohit, in the backseat and with a start of glee, I realized that they were sitting motionless, with stiff gaits.
‘Hey guys! I’m okay! Look I’m back and I’m still in one piece! See…’
I held up my hands to show them that I was indeed back in single piece, vaguely aware that my hands felt heavier than they normally did.
‘Hey Mohit, gimme a high-five man!’ I urged my ruddy-faced companion of two years.
He turned his head towards me. I saw tiny silver glints in the corners of his eyes in the semi-darkness, as he lifted his hand obediently to pat his palms against mine with a resounding clap, except that it sounded more like a thud than a clap.
I began to laugh in exultation, when the sound froze against my throat in a gasp. Mohit had not let go of my hand after the high-five. The long talons held on in an iron grip, but that was not what terrified me more than the whole muted terror I’d experienced on the journey of twenty minutes. Rather, the hair on my nape stood at right angles to my back, when in the dim yellow haze of the interiors, I saw the dark brown talons of my own hand, holding on to the cold pink ones that belonged to Mohit.
I shook off his hand with all the strength I could muster and swung my head around to the other guys. None of them moved a muscle.They sat staring ahead of them, with eyes that gleamed like those of zombies intent on an invisible prey. I glimpsed another pair of brown talons, that belonged to Ashok, who'd driven the car, gripping the steering wheel of the car.
Sheer panic seized my senses, as I threw the door open, to bound out of the vehicle. One shoe caught against the edge of the seat and bounced against the half-open door before falling into the slush with an audible plop. I was vaguely aware that my shoes seemed grotesquely torn, in gaping cracks around it edges, as if my feet had grown too big for them all of a sudden.
I put my foot out of the door, on the ground in my hurry to get away from the monster-car and felt the cool earth envelop my foot.
A short flash of lightning illuminated the ground and in those two seconds, I felt my eyes widen further, when instead of my toes, I saw a large hairy heel where my toes should have been. In that instant before the radiance disappeared, I saw the long coal-black claws protruding out of five grisly sockets, where my heels used to be.
I froze in that position, one inverted claw-foot out the door, one talon-paw on the handle, until the smashing thunder faded into a deep rumble and stopped altogether. The steady beat of rain over my exposed face, slowly cleared my head.
My phone began to buzz. I knew it was Roshni, frantically trying to reach me, agonizing if I had come out of the nightmare, alive.
I took a deep breath. I smelt the earth, the water, the fragrance of crushed grass across the meadows, and even the dripping juices of rain-ravaged foliage amidst the trees. I sensed an enticing scent of live flesh, of small creatures scurrying about under the ground, across the forest and hidden in invisible nests in the trees. Yes, I was alive, indeed.
I pulled my shoe-less paw back into the car and shut the door. The roaring storm played a sinister symphony to the bridge of doom, as our car pulled away from the concrete structure, looming in a mock salute, a gigantic tomb in the stormy night.
*****Bridge Paintings : Claude Monet