The door to your house/flat/apartment/abode has come unstuck in time. The next time you walk through it, you find yourself in the same place, but a different time entirely. Where are you, and what happens next? (Weekly Writing Challenge)
They say our house is cursed because a boy died in it. He killed himself, probably because of some cliched teenage angst like being dumped by his girlfriend or getting low marks in an exam, or being chastised by his father for a mistake he made. The house had languished without inhabitants for several years and its realtor was willing to pay us to take the house off his hands.
During the first couple of months in the new house, I would search for any sign of the suicide, whether it was a stain on the walls or dried blood on the floors. I would hide in my closet at night to catch a glimpse of the ghost of the dead boy as it roamed the house, like in the horror movies I had seen. And then we renovated it, so there was no point to search anymore.
The minute I opened the door to my house, I knew that something had changed. I didn’t know if it was the smell or the bare, morbid atmosphere that the walls reverberated from somewhere deep inside the house. All the white curtains were drawn to block the afternoon sun from seeping through, darkening the rooms with spurts golden light here and there. I closed the door behind me softly, as if slamming the door would attract some lurking danger that lay upstairs waiting for my unsuspecting, oblivious self. The plastic grocery bag that I held in my right hand rustled as I moved. I clutched it tightly with my other hand. I waited for a couple of seconds, trying to listen for some signs of my mother and sister as I had left them.
Instead I heard the faint sounds of classical music, music that had not graced my ears in a long time ever since I had stopped playing the piano and gravitated towards the electronic beats of Dubstep and Skrillex. The kind of music that evoked gurgling rivers winding through ethereal forests and rocks made golden by the twilight. The kind of light that accompanies massages at expensive parlors, fit for upper class snobs. These mellifluous sounds flowed from upstairs, and I went in search of them.
With every step I took in this new domain, I saw something strange. Where there was supposed to be the oil painting of Ganesha on the far side of the living room, there now was a collage of photographs of people I did not know. An extended family, much like my own: the growling patriarch in his late 40s with a thick mustache that could rival Nietzsche’s, the docile housewife in her dazzling sarees with an aura of sainthood emanating from every part of her body, the lanky young son with more pimples on his face than skin and the puny little daughter whose life presumably revolved around Tinkle comics and Barbie dolls and the different colored belts awarded by her karate school. Scattered here and there were photos of the elder members of this model family, the grandparents, regally garbed in clothes that forced reverence out of anyone who looked at them. These photographs had been taken with a vintage camera, or with Instagram. Had this family moved in while I had gone out?
The bookcase that stood in the hallway between the living room and the dining room was the same, but it seemed much more polished and sturdier than I remembered. Books and magazines were stacked from top to bottom, mostly Tamil with some English thrown in. None of the books that I flipped through were published beyond 1982. The first copy of National Geographic that lay at the top of the yellow magazine stack was dated 1980. Maybe this family cancelled their subscription way back then and carefully preserved all their back issues so that they could sell them as vintage copies fifty years from now. But that didn’t explain what they were doing in my house.
The tall metallic refrigerator was now a short white one. The 26 inch LCD TV on the ground floor was now a small box that flickered color moderately (I checked, with a remote the size of a brick). My mother’s carefully planned interior design – stained glass windows, silk curtains, colorful paintings and her own artwork – was gone and in its place were drab walls disrupted by framed paintings of gods and goddesses. The floors, the fans, the walls, the doors, the stairs, the windows, everything had changed! Where was my house, where was my family? And that music would not stop. I dropped the plastic bag and headed upstairs to get to the bottom of this (at the top of the house).
I tip toed on the last flight of stairs like a ninja, clinging to the walls, blending with the plaster. This had to be a prank orchestrated by my family and my friends, just like the time they hired the Bugs Bunny guy to follow me wherever I went. My father thinks he has a good sense of humor, and my mother humors that sense. But fifteen minutes isn’t really a lot of time to redecorate a whole house (unless you’re in Extreme Home Makeover or one of those shows), and this seemed a tad too elaborate even for them.
The music was coming from my parents’ bedroom (or at least it was supposed to be my parents’ bedroom, I didn’t know anymore). Someone had turned up the volume since my quiet entrance and the orchestra reverberated through the whole upper floor. If there was a person up there, he was hard of hearing. I reached the top of the stairs, angling towards the left where the source of the music lay. This floor was even darker than the one below it and I could see outlines of closets, suitcases, boxes, and beds in different places.
“Hello?!”, asked I, ready to run in the opposite direction. There was no answer, but the music had muffled the frightened greeting. This was a horror movie situation, I imagined tense and suspenseful music over my perplexed expression of confusion, fear and anticipation. Generally, the words employed by characters in similar situations were:
Is somebody there?
I know there’s somebody there!
I’m going to call the cops! (even though the character has no idea of who is in the house)
I used all these sentences, but received no responses. I remembered that these characters also had makeshift weapons like knives and guns to back them up. I ran back downstairs. I flung open the kitchen drawers where my mother usually keeps the knives. Instead I found forks and spoons. The next set of drawers revealed shining metal knives. I grabbed two and ascended the staircase again. I moved slowly to the slightly ajar door and nudged it open.
On a wooden table across the room, placed in front of a grilled window, sat a stereo with a tape recorder and in it was the tape that played the booming cascades of Beethoven. I scanned the bedroom: there were many movie posters on the walls – Star Wars, E.T. and Raiders Of The Lost Ark – and the bed was disheveled by its last occupant. There were stickers on the closet opposite the bed, of Spiderman, Superman and He-Man. I moved inside, expecting someone to pounce on me to end the prank.
And then I saw a figure, huddled against the wall in the bathroom, adjacent to the closet. The figure was shivering, but I didn’t feel cold. I pushed open the bathroom door slightly and saw the ugly adolescent in the photos downstairs. Drenched in sweat, he was curled in a compact position, knees to his chest, arms over his knees. In one hand he held a knife. I knew what this was: I had interrupted the boy from slitting his wrists and staining the immaculate white tiled bathroom floor. The maid would thank me for that. The boy and I stared at each other, each waiting for the other’s next move. I decided since I was the one who had ruined his poetic classical suicide, I had to say something.
“Hi there, sorry for ruining your poetic classical suicide, but this is my house.”
“What?!”, asked the boy, as if he couldn’t understand what I was saying anymore and could already see floating angels as they glided down to lift him up into the clouds.
I stepped on the bed, crossed the room and turned the music off. I came back to the bathroom
“Was that Beethoven?” I asked, wanting to sound authoritative on classical music.
“No, it’s Rachmaniov. Who are you?” Like I said, I played the piano a long time ago.
“Did my mom and dad put you up to this? You’re an actor, right? Doing plays that no one really sees…”
The boy sighed.
“Fucking Murphy’s Law,” he said, quite irritated with my intrusion. “Can’t even kill myself properly.”
“You know I recommend that you fill your bathtub with water and then throw in your toaster while it’s connected to a socket. Less messy and less waiting, if that’s what you want. Think about the mess your maid would have to clean up if you slit your wrists.”
The boy glared at me, put the knife down and opened the taps to run a final electrifying bath. I decided I would only get my answers the hard way. I sneaked behind him and grabbed him around his neck.
“Who are you really? What the hell is going on? This was my house half an hour ago.”
The boy squirmed under my grip, trying to pry my forearm away from his Adam’s apple. I pressed the tip of one of the knives I had into his back. That expunged his resistance.
“This house has always been in the family. For the last twenty years, I swear, since 1962! Who the hell are you?”
I dropped my knife and let go of him and lost the feeling in my legs. I supported myself by the bathroom wall. The water was still running, mixing with itself as it prepared to make a deathly potion for the boy.
“What year is it?” I asked, knowing fully well the answer to that question. Now all the shit in the house made sense, in a time travel sort of way. Especially the movie posters. Although I would have stuck the same era of posters on my walls if I could just find them in this culture dead city.
“It’s 1982. Do I need to call somebody to take you home?”
The boy and I stood upon our balcony, sharing a cigarette. I thought by opening the balcony door, we would be back in 2013, but nothing happened. The street outside my house was much wider, and there were fewer houses and fewer stray dogs and fewer cars and motorcycles. The whole area was quieter. I saw my neighbor, Captain Singh, now in his late 30s, maintaining his garden, as he would for the next thirty years until he hired me to do it for him. I pointed at his crouching figure.
“Do you know that man? Captain Singh?”
The boy nodded. “Oh, I know Mr. Singh. He’s not a captain though, just a private in the army.” He handed over the cigarette. I took a drag and blew out the smoke in carefully composed rings, each successive one blending with its predecessors to form, in my mind, the Olympics logo.
“So what traumatic event brought you to this moment?”
The boy looked down, hunching his shoulders as if to communicate through his body that this was a sensitive topic for him. I didn’t care, there must have been some reason that I traveled through time. Maybe I had to talk this guy out of killing himself.
“It’s pretty simple. I’m a fatalist. My life has no purpose. What’s the point of living for sixty years, knowing that there’s always going to be an end, no matter what you do? You can’t postpone it, plan for it, get used to it. Get a job and do the same thing for forty years, fucking forget it! And don’t give me all that shit about living life, being in love, starting a family. At the end of the day, we are all old geezers filled with regrets, sorrow and nostalgia for the past. That’s reason enough to end it on my own terms.”
This guy actually had his own philosophical reasons to end it all. I was impressed. “So why don’t you kill yourself in twenty years? Love someone, pop your cherry, do a bucket list or something, and then fill another bathtub with some other toaster.”
“Did you even hear yourself? It’s become so mechanical, to love someone, tell them your deepest secrets, begrudgingly share each other’s company when you want to be alone. Take them out somewhere when they don’t feel like it.” He sighed. “No, it’s not worth it, just a pain in the ass.”
I really had no other cards in my deck. Each boy is entitled to their own opinion, and it was this boy’s contention that he should die instead of live a life that wasn’t particularly enriching. If God needed to gift someone with superpowers to renew their sense of purpose in life, now was the time.
“Well, you don’t know what movies you’re missing out on in the next thirty years, my friend. You should count yourself lucky to be able to see these legendary flicks in the theatre. Like The Terminator, or Back To The Future, or The Matrix or even the other Indiana Jones movies.” I said this in an offhand sort of way because I knew he wouldn’t bite. He just grunted in agreement.
“What’s it like to live in the future?” he asked me. And I told him. Of iPods, 3D, YouTube, satellite TV, cellphones and the Internet. Of the outcome of the Cold War, the rise of China, the Arab uprising, Indira Gandhi’s impending assassination and the silence of Manmohan Singh. Of how he should bet on India winning the 1983 World Cup and of the Twenty20 craze that had caught the country by storm. I told him how today’s people were glued to digital screens, where books lived in microchips and libraries were made extinct by Google. I told him these things and many more, each new thing springing into my mind after I had explained the last one, like a bottle of juice you think is empty but the drops keep coming. The boy listened with great interest, but I know that he didn’t believe half the things I was talking about. I didn’t care, this was an opportunity that I would never get again.
After I was done, the boy got up and went back to his room. I followed him in, the time had come. We both stared into the water. It didn’t look like it had been charged with electrons, there was no mystic glow. Maybe that’s what made it so lethal, the fact that it didn’t look like it could kill someone.
“I can’t do it,” said the boy. “It doesn’t feel like the time anymore.”
So I had done it, I had pulled a lost soul back from the edge of the cliff the hung over the Land of the Dead and into the Land of the Living. “But what about your reasons?” I asked.
“If they’re still valid, they’ll bring me to this moment once again,” he shrugged. He looked at me and grinned. And then I died.
That was weird, wasn’t it? Skipping to the end with no foreshadowing or hints at all. Does it even matter how it happened? Okay, maybe if you’ve read this story all the way here, I might as well spell it out for you. The boy’s sister had entered the house as we were chatting with each other in the bathroom. She saw me holding two knives next to her brother and saw it as her sole duty to protect him from harm. A perfectly placed karate kick that she had recently learned connected with my spine and sent me flying across the bathroom, where I hit the wall in front of me and landed right inside the electric bathtub. In moments like these, characters speed through the important moments of their lives and the people they shared them with, all in slow motion. I didn’t even have the chance to scream. Serves me right for saving that boy’s life.
They said our house was cursed because a boy died in it. After such a traumatic experience, the last owners sold their house and moved as far away as they could to Europe and became rich after betting on Apple, Google and a small idea from Lalit Modi called the IPL. All because I, like Billy Pilgrim, became unstuck in time and opened the wrong door. Well, it was the right door, but it was wrong for me to…whatever, let me just rest in peace.