The ghost who came late

He was alone and the house was quiet. He longed for noises—his son whimpering for yet another bed-time story, his wife doing the dishes. Nothing. Just the steady swishing of trees outside in the rain, punctuated by flashing thunder.

He lay on the bed staring at the lifeless bulb slowly swinging in the breeze that kept forcing its way in. The familiar rooms seemed suddenly strange. The all-encompassing darkness surrounding him oozed into his mind. He didn’t want to stir from the sanctuary of the flickering lantern.

A window suddenly flew open, letting in a shower. Startled, he hurriedly got up and closed the window. Hell! He was supposed to repair the latch weeks ago. He checked the door. The iron bar was in place. He was secure.

He watched the wick sucking out the last drop of fuel. The flame was fluttering. He looked longingly at the bulb. His grotesque shadow flowed to the bed. He reached beneath the pillow for the torch, his only companion, his only light. Just then the lantern died, and he immediately switched the torch on, in time to see the last bit of smoke curling up and away into the alien darkness that suddenly closed in on him.

The occasional lightning silhouetted the lurking features inside the room. His hand covered the dull shine of the torch. His mind wandered.

Come on, admit it! You are scared silly. Well over 30, father of a child and spending a single night alone in your own cosy house you are scared. Why did you close the windows? You sermonise your wife, don’t you, about well-ventilated bed-rooms. Where will the “fresh air” come from now? You are afraid something else will come in too, right? What? A ghost? Ha!

Forgot your brief stint in the army? Remember the two nights and two days you spent in a trench with a bullet-riddled corpse? You weren’t perturbed a bit by the mortar shells crashing around and the bullets whining overhead. Now, inside your house, you have let simple darkness frighten the wits out of you. Brave soldier!

It is cold. Better get the blanket. Where is it? In the wardrobe, must be. Two rooms away. Forget it! Not all that cold, anyway. Go to sleep. One . . . two . . . three . . . .

Smell something burning? They must be burning a body. In this rain? What a rotten locality! A crematorium for a neighbour! Must change this house. Go to town. More people and continuous electricity, at least.

Next time she goes to her parent’s house, I will ask her to leave Ramesh here. Otherwise I will go with her. No, I am not afraid, just bored.

If Sharma was alive, he would have kept me company. Poor fellow. Suicide. Had a witch for a wife. She didn’t even attend the funeral.

What had Grandma said? Those who commit suicide become ghosts. They wander around thirsting for revenge. Visiting friends and foes. And Sharma was my close friend. Will he come tonight? Oh, no!

Don’t think of Grandma’s yarn. You are not a child to still believe it.

He was in the crematorium. Wanting to run, but only walking. Skulls scattered all around. Gleaming in the dark. Suddenly something growled behind him. It was a dog, big and black, with red eyes. Ready to jump at him. Scratching at the ground noisily. He grabbed a stone. No, not a stone, a skull. He tried to throw it. It stuck fast to his hand. The cold bone grinned at him. He could hear the dog. Scratch, scratch ….

He sprang out of the dream. He was tightly holding the torch. Scratch . . .  scratch ….  His senses jumped to attention. The noise had come from the door. He directed the shaky beam of the torch. The doors were visibly straining against the iron bar. Something or someone was scratching and pushing at the door.

Who could it be? Sharma? He sat upright. He wanted to scream but no sound emerged. Suddenly, he was very thirsty. He kept the torch steadily on the door. On shaking legs, he proceeded towards it. The scratching and pushing continued.

His hands rested on the iron bar for seconds. Hesitantly he pushed it up. As soon as it cleared its brackets, the door swung open.

The light reflected on the pleading eyes of a wet dog standing on the threshold. The same dog which kept coming for left-overs.

Laughing to himself, he let the dog in. Wagging its tail gratefully, it shook the rain off vigorously. He arranged some rags right next to his bed for his new, welcome companion. Then he closed the door and replaced the bar properly.

Feeling light-hearted and still laughing, he went inside to get the blanket. It was not in the wardrobe. He searched the next room. Got it. And he was afraid of this cool darkness, silly!

Humming a tune, holding the blanket, he walked back to his bed and the dog. Before hitting the bed, he cursorily played the torch on the window and then on the door.

The circle of light froze on the door. The iron bar which he had securely replaced, was slowly rising by itself. The torch crashed to the floor. The blanket fell over it, plunging the whole room into darkness.

Above the roar of thunder, the dog started howling.

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