Highly Commended Story - Senior Category
“At The Wedding” by Aniruddha Aloke, Home-schooling, India, is the Highly Commended story in the senior category of the second biannual Short Story Contest 2018.
Aniruddha Aloke is an avid reader of history and political theories. He sometimes writes stories and articles on a variety of issues. Science fiction and fantasy books are his favourites. 'Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality', by Yudkowsky especially caught his attention. Recently he began reading economics. Aniruddha dreams of becoming a non-fiction writer like some of his role models.
At The Wedding
“The name of the place is not known to me,” he said. I was still staring at him, noticing how weak and drooping he seemed. An English hat curiously hid his face but he must be somewhere in early-thirties. For such a young man, almost my age, walking with a stick was just pitiable. “But” he went on, “I will ask you to drop me when we reach.”
It was one late night on the highway. I was travelling with my wife in my eight-seater Toyota, when a weird man stopped me to ask for a lift. Although, initially, I wasn’t inclined to oblige but for some reason, decided to get him in. The moment he got inside the car, I tried to see his face but failed. Then to my utter amazement, he didn’t even answer my questions. Eventually I gave up. I was also afraid of waking up my wife.
A few minutes later the temperature in the car suddenly dropped a few degrees. My jacket was lying in the middle seat where the man was sitting. I looked back but... I was shocked. He was nowhere. In my shock, I turned to my wife Monika sleeping in the passenger seat next to me. Should I wake her up? Tell her that...? But in the end, I told her nothing and rapidly increased the speed of the car.
Early in the morning, we reached Naraganj. We were welcomed by the whole army of uncles, aunts and cousins. We also met my cousin sister Gita, who was getting married. And we came here to attend her marriage ceremony. In the meanwhile, I put the thoughts of the weird man to rest.
The day passed by in meetings and greetings. No sooner the dusk arrived ladies’ sangeet ceremony started. This is the ceremony where women sing songs and dance before the wedding night. The small veranda was full of guests with ladies sitting on the other side. I was enjoying the gathering a lot with sweets and coffee. At that time my phone rang. Due to the noise I wasn’t able to answer the call and went back to a rather isolated place behind the house. After the call ended, all at once I saw someone in the distance. A familiar chill began to spread through my spine. I gasped. He was the same man whom I give a lift. His appearance and clothing confirmed it.
The man suddenly turned his face towards me and as before, it was hidden. He raised his walking stick in my direction. Just then, someone called me from inside. I turned my head. But as I looked back, the man had disappeared again... When I returned to the veranda, I was sweating all over even on that cool December night. Since then, I couldn’t enjoy anything. I just wanted to return to the safety of my place but couldn’t do so with the fear of spoiling Gita’s marriage. Besides that, I couldn’t afford to fortify Monika’s belief that I am mad.
Late at night, I lay in bed thinking about what I had seen. That man was surely following me. I slept badly and had a nightmare with a weird face calling me. I woke with a start, feeling sure that he looked like the same person, even though I hadn’t seen his face completely. It was going just like my suspense thriller ‘He shot the Dead.’
“Are you attending Haldi Hath ceremony?” wife asked In Haldi Hath ceremony turmeric paste with oil is massaged on the body of the bride and the groom. “Listen Monica,” I laughed, “What is there in it for me?’
“No. You go. Leave me” I said. She didn’t know that I had a total of two hours sleep last night. So, I kept lying but disturbing thoughts didn’t leave me. I felt so uneasy that after Monika left I got up and decided to work on my novel. I started my laptop planning to give my story a touch of suspense. I had to be quick because my publisher had started pestering me. After an hour, I was more-or-less pleased with my work. Having shoved the thought of the mysterious man out of my mind, it seemed possible to sleep for a while. So I played some music on my laptop and lay down.
Everything was fine for some time. Suddenly, the music stopped. When I looked up, a photo with a weird symbol was there. It was there for a moment before fading away totally. The mystery was unraveling. It was an occult symbol. I had seen it. No, perhaps I had made it. It was the symbol of the exorcist in my novel The Gypsy Camp. He used to abduct children of the devout, enslave them and sell them to the devil.
Someone hummed to me, “Die... please die. So that I can live.”
“No!” I said aloud and quickly tossed out of the bed. He was here. And he wasn’t here. The room began to suffocate me. My hands were trembling. What was happening to me? Suddenly I made a plan, got out of my bed and set out quietly, searching the village on foot. I needed to find the man. After hours of searching the village however, the entire mission had failed. I started back. On the way, I began to feel ashamed of my own stupidity. It seemed that the surprises were over. The man might have gone away. Soon I would be back to Mumbai and all will be back to square one. But on returning home, I realized I was wrong.
The marriage house was in total chaos. Obviously, the exorcist had attacked. A mounting excitement gripped me. I thought I should have been here all that while when I was fooling around. I looked around and saw Monika. Approaching her from the back, I called, “What is this chaos? Who caused it?”
Monika turned around in surprise. “You! When did you return? You don’t know how worried we were! The men are going to the police.”
I replied, “Sorry. Was there an attack?”
“Attack? What Attack?”
I was silenced. How could I have said such rubbish?
Well after that, everyone crowded around me. I was embarrassed for a few moments, trying to give different narratives to explain my disappearance. I was frustrated by the time they left me and went back to their respective works. But after that, something odd happened to me. I kept staring around the place. Semi-consciously waiting to see the man again. People eyed me with suspicion. All the day I kept telling myself that the marriage ceremony would be finished tonight. Then I could return home peacefully.
The night came too fast. The marriage ceremony had begun. I was feeling sick of the light, the ever-increasing crowd and the noise. Both familiar and unfamiliar people kept bumping into me. At last, unable to bear anymore, I crept out of the place and started wandering around the bushes. Here it was cooler and darker. Somewhere cuckoos were calling and further away, there were hills swallowed by darkness. I stared up at the full moon and shivered. Then stopped. Someone was walking closer to me, from behind. Stealthy footsteps on the grass. In slow motion, I turned and my blood froze. I saw the same man. For the first time, I could make out his face and was chilled to the bones. He was identical to me in every way. “I told you to die,” he told.
He was not limping anymore. His eyes flashed red. Before I could defend myself, he held up an iron rod and hit me. I was thrown back. I tried to rise up but my hand was hit by the rod. And he laughed gleefully. I was in extreme pain. I was hit on the legs. A scream left my lips. The man kicked me and I collapsed on the ground among the thorny bushes. Then, I saw Monika coming. By then the man had dematerialized into thin air. Where did the man who beaten me go?” I asked.
“What man!” She exclaimed, “There was no one. Why did you scream? And why were you dancing like that?”
“What!” I was shocked. “What are you saying? A man was just beating me with an iron rod. I am injured!”
“Injured? Where?” She asked in surprise. I raised my arms but there weren’t any injuries, only the cuts made by the bushes. Monika was still staring at me when I got up. “No! I say there was someone.” I said, “Come, come here.” I searched in the darkness. But there was still no one in sight. On the other hand, the loud beating of drums and fireworks had started.
Helplessly, I began asking people if they had seen anyone with a cap, wrapped in a shawl and carrying a stick or a rod. They said they hadn’t. My story was losing credibility with every passing moment. Monika’s expression changed from shock to anger. “Enough is enough,” she screamed. “Just come back. It was a hallucination. You have gone mad, Aniket. I should have never married you!”
I got rooted to the spot, staring at her. Suddenly I realized that no one had seen a man except me. I went back in memory over the whole affair, from beginning to end and saw it in a new light. Who was the man? Or was there a man at all?