I observed him carefully, as he walked to the door. I knew time was running out, but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” It didn’t help calm down my frazzled nerves. The footsteps faded and the door slammed shut. The room fell deathly quiet. My confounded brain, for the lack of a better alternative, went back to this morning; and to the dream that started this whole nightmare.
Everything about that man, that I had seen in my dream was unforgettable; his tattered clothes, grime layered body, repugnant stink. Yet the only thing that haunted me, even more than the caustic words he spoke, were his eyes. Calm. And resolute. Scaringly resolute. As if he meant every word of his threat. As if, despite his destitute appearance, he had the power to make good on that threat.
“Atone!… or you will die.” His words filled my room.
And then, when I had gotten up from the bed, inexplicably, I couldn’t move my left arm. I tried massaging it, cold compress, hot compress; everything that I could think of. Nothing worked. It just hung there, loosely hinged to my shoulder. There was no pain or tingling. No sensation at all. It was like… like… it was dead! That’s when the cold sweats started. That old man’s voice started swirling in the air.
It felt like the walls were closing in, suffocating me. I just had to get out of there. The only thing I could think of was to rush to Ashish; my partner in crime, quite literally. Alright, make that ‘crimes’. So many of them, that we had lost count. We had been conning and scheming our way through this world, since we ran away from our foster home when we were 16.
I ran to my car. Ignition. No response. Ignition again. No response. Fuel was OK. Engine trouble blinker on the dashboard wasn’t flickering either. I checked under the hood. All wires were going where they were supposed to. Nothing explained my car’s refusal to start. That’s when my neighbor Gupta, who stood nearby watching me struggle, walked over.
“What man? Car ‘dead’?
His friendly slap on my back and his words, both hit me at the same time. The latter stung more. I recoiled, and without saying a word, ran out of the parking lot.
The rest of it had been all a blur; running out to the street, hailing a cab, clambering all the way up to Ashish’s fifth floor apartment because I couldn’t wait for the elevator. The clearest thing I remember next, was Ashish’s hysterical laugh; amidst which, broken and barely audible came out his words “What nonsense! How much did you drink last night?”
“I didn’t Ashish. This is serious! I can feel it. I can feel… him. His eyes. Following me…” I had been pacing across his living room. Trying to breathe. Trying to convince him. Trying to convince myself that all this was indeed happening.
“Varun, stop being ridiculous. You had a nightmare. It scared the shit out of you and you rushed to me… I get it. Now pull yourself together, man!”
“Really? A nightmare?… Then how do you explain this?” I grabbed a pen from the table and jabbed my arm with it. My arm didn’t even flinch. The pen left a small gash, but no blood gushed out; just like no blood squirts out if you stab a dead body. On its end slung the Rolex I loved, the one I never took off; like a wreath on a corpse.
“Well… er… I am not a doctor, am I?” Varun struggled to understand it too. “But that is whom you need to see… for your arm… and for your head.”
“Damn you Ashish! Why don’t you believe me? We are losing time. He said if we don’t help three people in the next twelve hours… to atone for all our crimes… we will… we will…”
“Umm… Die?” His tone and one raised eyebrow, mocked me. I simply exhaled in resignation.
“You know what, Varun… at first it was amusing… but now it is just plain annoying. Clearly, last night you drank something… or snorted something, which you couldn’t handle… There is a reason that I allow myself to indulge in all kinds of vices… except drugs and alcohol. But you never listen to me, do you?” He walked up to the console next to the door and grabbed his car keys from it.
“Whatever it is that you took… just wait for it to wash out of your system. I‘m going to get us some breakfast and coffee. You need coffee. Lots of it.” With that, he walked out.
I sat there wondering if he could be right? Was this just a game played by my brain, fried with years of drugs and alcohol abuse? But then, what explained my arm? And that ghastly feeling crawling through my veins?
The door slammed open and Ashish back walked in, white as the walls behind him. “We need to go to the doctor. Now!”
He wasn’t the same man who walked out five minutes ago. With his ashen face, petrified eyes and trembling body, he was now a mirror image of me!
“My cccar… won’t ssstart…” He stuttered. I had not seen him stutter since we ran away from the orphanage. I could sense there was something more. Something which he was finding hard to say to me, and even harder to believe himself.
“What is it?”
His eyes glazed over as he pulled out his handkerchief from his pocket. On that crisp white, neatly squared piece of cloth was a big red splotch.
“What the hell is…” I bent forward to look closer, but stepped back in horror, as soon as I realized what it was. Blood!
His arm, holding the handkerchief, was quivering; as was his voice. “I had… a bout of cough and… this!”
None of us spoke a word, all the way to the hospital. This whole thing was way too surreal for words. My eyes, in defiance of my mind, dashed to the watch. 11 a.m. I woke up at 8. Three hours, out of the twelve, gone already! Suddenly, wasting time at the hospital didn’t seem like such a terrific idea to me. But was there any other?
Ashish was the one to speak, first. We had been sitting in the waiting lounge or over 45 minutes. Wasting time, which we did not have; to see a doctor, who I was sure, wouldn’t be able to help us anyway.
“I don’t understand… I know that what we do isn’t strictly speaking… legal… and that makes it wrong. But we only swindle the filthy rich. The ones who could afford to lose that money… it’s like, a drop from their ocean… and it’s not like they have earned it all legally, themselves…” He turned to me, his face creased with honest puzzlement. “How could doing that, get us a punishment… like… like…” He couldn’t bring himself to say the word, death.
“The old man said…” Just thinking of him again, made a chill run down my spine. “… He said we never know how far the ripples of our actions go. Of the lives we destroy… as a consequence of what we do.”
“Bullshit!” He bellowed, but the very next moment, realizing where he was, leaned closer to me and spoke in a hushed tone. “People do worse things than that… It’s not like we killed anybody?”
“What can I say? I am just telling you what he told me…”
“Dammit! Varun! I think you are overreacting… to a silly nightmare… and now your stupidity has rubbed off on me, too…” His rising voice had that unmistakable scent of fear. He had rushed to the hospital with me, in a fit of panic, on coughing up blood. But now, after a moment to consider it all, he couldn’t bring himself to accept what was happening. In dire situations, with even more dire possible outcomes, like in this case, a man’s choice ultimately comes down to ‘fight or flight’. From Ashish’s panicked denial of our circumstances and his sudden dash towards the exit door, it was clear which option he chose.
I ran right behind him. He needed to do this with me, because according to the old man, Ashish’s life was on the line too.
Just then, the scene playing out at the reception, caught our attention. An old woman was crying and pleading with the staff manning the cash-counter. In their usual professionally unsympathetic tone, they were giving her the standard ‘our hands are tied’ excuse. We could gather that the lady’s husband was being treated at this hospital. The bill had outrun her available finances, and the hospital was threatening to evict the patient unless, the due amount was settled. She was pleading for some more time.
“Atone… ATONE…” The old man’s voice resounded like an epiphany and triggered me into action. Before I knew it, I found myself walking up to reception and slapping my credit card on the counter.
“Here!… Put her charges on this.” The staff looked at me flabbergasted, for a moment; but then quickly snapped into action, not wanting to lose the opportunity to recover their lost revenue.
The old lady walked up to me, too shocked to utter the customary ‘who’ or ‘why’. Her eyes, however, were brimming with gratitude. I just put a hand on her shoulder and smiled.
“Varun!” Ashish’s voice pierced in, from near the exit. His raised and trembling finger was pointing at me. It took me a few seconds to realize that he was signalling at my left arm, which was now on the old woman’s shoulder. The arm, which had been dead, since this morning!
“So all this is really happening…” Ashish was still shaking like a leaf, trying to grasp everything.
“Yes… and it is almost 2 p.m. We have to find two more people to help… Think! Think!”
“I don’t know… Maybe some poor people?… There is a bunch of homeless beggars, near my building… We can…” He stopped mid-sentence, struck by a damning thought. “Varun… tell me again… what did that old man, look like?”
I rattled off his description once again. The more Ashish heard, the wider his eyes got.
“Oh my god, Varun. I think I have seen him!… He is one of the beggars who live across the road. I am quite certain. We need to go find him.”
On the way back, I was overwhelmed with the idea that perhaps Ashish had been right all along. I, too, must have seen that man there, sometime. And all this might just be that memory, superimposed on a drug induced hallucination.
When we reached that group of vagrants, that man was nowhere to be found.
“Ramsharan, Babuji? I think that is the one you are looking for.” One of them stepped up for our help. “Poor chap. Died last night.”
“Died?!” We both cried out, in unison.
“Yes… good man… very sad story, Babuji.”
“What story?” Ashish managed to utter.
“Had a son and a wife. A happy life. But the son was charged with stealing money from the man he used to work for as a driver… the son pleaded that he was innocent. But no one believed him… after all, that briefcase, full of money, was taken from his car while the driver was in it. The son was sent to jail. Wife died of a heart attack… landlord evicted him for not paying rent. Poor man spent his last few months with us.” He continued, pointing at Ashish’s building. “He just sat here… watched that building all day. Never even begged. Ate whatever little we gave him.”
Fear, does not even begin to describe, what gripped us at the moment. Our minds zapped back to that one incident, seven months ago. That evening, we made a real big hit. We had been tailing that businessman for a few weeks, when the opportunity presented itself. Ashish had distracted his driver by asking him for directions and I had swiped the bag from the back seat of the car.
Just like that, the whole enigma of the old man and his threat, came unraveled. And now, it was more believable than ever.
“… He said we never know how far the ripples of our actions go. Of the lives we destroy… as a consequence of what we do.”
The next few minutes happened too quickly to register anything. We were standing on the footpath, numbed by this new understanding of our guilt; of the lives we destroyed without even realizing. A loud smash caught our attention. A car driver, eager to skip the red light had rammed into a bike coming to halt, at the signal. The bike rider, was thrown high up in the air before crashing near the footpath. We rushed to the victim. Luckily he was still breathing, but wouldn’t be for long, if he wasn’t rushed to the hospital. I looked at Ashish. Could this be really happening? The second person, whom we could help and pay our debts, literally landed at our feet? Could fate really be cutting us some slack, after all?
Within the next hour, we found ourselves back at the hospital with the bike rider. After paying for his expenses we decided to wait in the lounge till his family arrived.
“This… feels unreal.” Ashish muttered to himself. “Varun… If we somehow make through this day… I want you to know… my conman days are over.”
I sighed. “Mine too.”
Between our parents who abandoned us, and the sadistic foster care warden who we ran away from, and the cruel world which couldn’t care less about two orphan boys; no one ever taught us ‘right or wrong’ as clearly as that old man did. I looked at my watch. 5:45 p.m. The last few hours flew fast. We were barely three hours away from the deadline. We had ruined three lives; and with just a few hours remaining, we had helped only two people. The odds weren’t in our favor.
Ashish spoke again; surprisingly, sans the fear in his voice. “How much time do you think it will take… to find a lawyer, confess to our crimes and get than poor man’s son out of jail?”
I exhaled with relief. “Let’s find out!”
Whether we would be able to do it in the remaining time was immaterial. What mattered most, was that for the first time since morning, we saw some hope for absolution.
As we stepped out of the hospital, a strikingly colorful butterfly glided past. I couldn’t help but wonder, that the wings that poor innocent creature flapped so nonchalantly, could cause a hurricane in a world it doesn’t even know of.
PS – This story was written as a part of the TOI Write India Contest, based on Ashwin Sanghi’s prompt. Incidentally also, my first attempt at writing a thriller.