Wednesday, August 15, 2018

“Constant Companion” by Renuka Raja



“It waits in the shadows, circling in silence,” his sister whispers.

They are sitting on the floor of his room, in the dark. Chandru knows she is lying to him. She must be.

“It waits patiently for years once it has found suitable prey, keeping its one bloody eye affixed on the target’s back at all times.  Following you, hoping – praying – for that day.” His sister’s voice goes even lower. He knows she is trying to be dramatic. He still gulps, struggling to find his voice.

“For what day?” he mumbles, because though he suspects she’s trying to scare him, he is still morbidly curious.

“The day you die,” she replies a matter-of-factly.

His stomach drops.

“It waits for the moment that last breath leaves your body so it can feast on your soul.”

This sounds ridiculous.

She shrugs. “I’m just telling you what I heard. You know Rita’s uncle? He told her that he saw the creature when their grandfather died. And then he died, a few months later.”

“How come Rita didn’t see it then?”

“Because,” his sister gets up from the floor, “you only see a chatthan if you’ve been chosen as its prey.”

Convenient. He frowns as his sister retreats to her own room. “Good night, squirt.” she mumbles, pulling the squeaky door of his room closed.

He flinches as the sounds cuts through the silence of room. He climbs onto his bed and under the covers, eyes darting across the room and lingering on the shadows.

He knows she is lying to him. But he can’t help the way his heart races and how he searches in the dark for a white figure with one eye, relieved when he does not see anything.

# # #

Chandru’s stomach drops when he sees the large, red ‘F’ on the top of his test. This is far worse than his sister’s ghost.

“Oh crap,” Ananya whispers when she spots his mark over his shoulder. He throws a glance at her paper – a D – not much better but at least a passing grade.

“It was good knowing you,” he sighs, cramming the pages into his backpack. “By tomorrow, my mother will have snuffed out my existence. You can have my prized soccer trophy.”

“Who wants that garbage? I want your skateboard.” She’s smiling, pushing her glasses into place. But the smile slides away as she looks down at her own test. “I mean, I’m unlikely to survive the night too, you know.”

“Probably true.” He aims his forced grin at her, bumping their shoulders together as they walk out of the classroom. His palms are sweaty and the lead in his stomach becomes heavier with each step he takes. He knows his mother will find out eventually. Might as well be brave and face his fears and all that.

It goes abysmally.

“I should have never bought you that skateboard!” and “It’s all because you waste so much time in the park instead of studying,” with some “Your siblings were never like this,” and with a dose of “Those kids you hang out with are such a bad influence.”

She does not scream. She just moans for the entire night. It is much worse this way, in his opinion (which obviously, no one asks for).

His gaze is resolutely fixed on the ground. He cannot meet her eyes. No matter how many times he hears it, her anger and her disappointment terrify him.

# # #
 

Chandru hides in his parents’ walk-in closet, his fear today more physical. Footsteps approach. His brother makes no effort to hide his rage, stomping into the room in search of him.

Why is it that when his brother is doing disappointing things his mother is never around?

“I told you not to touch my stuff, Chandru!” His brothers words are partly muffled by the their his father’s long coats which share the closet with Chandru.

He rubs his clammy palms on his shorts, trying to control his breathing as best as possible. He twitches his nose at the musty smell of the fur on the jacket he’s pressed against. He prays his urge to sneeze will subside.

And all this for a lousy cricket ball.

He waits for the inevitable moment his brother throws open the closet door.

But nothing happens. 

Miraculously, he hears the sounds of his brother receding. An errant yell sounds – an inquiry made to the other occupants of the house about the youngest troublemaker.

Chandru swallows. It’s time he made his escape.

He extracts himself from between the coats, cracks the door open to peek outside. The coast is clear.

He swings the door wide open and bolts out. Only to run straight into his brother – his brother, who is the picture of anger incarnate.

Chandru skids on the hardwood floor, his feet screeching from the friction. He twists out of his brother’s flailing reach and takes off towards the living room at full speed.

“Come back, you little brat!” His brother yells from behind him. But Chandru already knows he’s won – what he lacks in strength, he makes up with speed. His brother does not stand a chance.

As he bursts through the wide-open front door, he cannot help but embrace, with a loud whoop, the mixture of fear and euphoria coursing through him.

# # #

Fear is a strange thing, Chandru thinks as he stares down the dark path ahead of him.

Is it his mother he fears most, for staying out later than his curfew? Or is it that he fear his sister’s ghost may haunt the broken-down house in front of him? No, it’s definitely his brother’s rage if her can’t find his prized cricket ball.  

Chandru presses between the wooden boards as silently as he can, coming to a full stop at the sight of the overgrown backyard.

How in the world is he supposed to find the stupid ball in this jungle? The only light comes from the distant street lamp. The stars glimmer in the distance, the absence of the moon starkly noticeable.

Cursing at himself and his brother (because what is the point of his brother even having a ball if no one can play with it), Chandru makes his way in, flinching at the crunch of grass underneath his sneakers. He sifts between the tall green stalks, keeping one eye on the back door of the old house.

He is so sure the ball landed in this corner of the yard. He chances another look at the door. He freezes.

The door is open. A second ago it was closed.

He sinks to ground – the grass hides him well enough. He waits, the blood pounding in his ears. The doorway remains empty.

Inch-by-inch he rises.

Still no one. Interesting.

Maybe – maybe the door was always open and he didn’t notice? He wonders if someone found the ball. Maybe he should knock.

Taking a deep breath, he straightens up and moves towards the entrance.

Every step he takes feels wrong. A rising horror fills his chest as he approaches.

He almost turns back. Only, he has made it this far. How can he return empty-handed to his brother?

Damn his sister and her silly stories. As for his mother, he’ll figure out an excuse for breaking curfew on the way home. If he lives that long.

He steels himself by taking a deep breath, increasing the length of his stride for the last two steps. Finally, at the door, he raises a shaking fist to knock.

No answer.

Weird.

There is a faint light in the window, he now notices. Someone must be home.

He knocks harder.

Still nothing.

Maybe he’ll just peek in.

To his utmost horror, the door opens with screeching hinges. He stands at the doorway, frozen in terror.

No one approaches.

Puzzled, he crosses the threshold. He knows the inhabitants are an older couple and maybe they’re hard of hearing – some of his friends helped to mow their lawn, last summer.

Somewhere in the corner of his mind, it occurs to him that the backyard looks like it’s been untouched for years.

A few more steps and he can make out a kitchen – mostly clean, a few pots in the sink. His nose crinkles as he catches a whiff of something that’s most definitely going bad. Probably the pot on the stove.

He should to leave. He’ll just come back tomorrow morning and knock on the front door.

But his feet take him further inside, his accursed curiosity getting the better of him, as it always has. Something feels strange. He wants to know what. He ignores his clammy skin and rising heart rate and keeps going.

There’s light coming from the next room. He’ll just peek in, then make a mad dash to the door. Bracing himself against the wall, he slowly moves his gaze into the room.

His mouth falls open.

In the dim candle light, he can see a small study. A figure sits on a couch. Unmoving. And behind it, a white face, floating. He catches sight of a single eye trained on the still body.

Chandru’s eyes meet a single blood red iris.

# # #
 

Fear is a weird thing, Chandru thinks, over the din of his mother’s ranting and his brother’s yelling. He cannot understand how either of them could have inspired that feeling in him before.

He made it home that night, though he does not remember the journey back. He did not find the ball.

His mother’s ire is now focused on his brother, their raised voices still not really reaching his ears. His sister frowns at him, silent but obviously concerned. Her grip on his hands is  probably painful but he feels numb. The irony of her concern almost makes him laugh.

His sister’s tales made him nervous as a child. But it was an abstract feeling that he pushed to the recesses of his mind, not something that took root and festered into palpable horror.

Until this day, fear – real fear – was a mere idea, a concept. But this terror, he knows, he will carry inside him for the rest of his life.

He glances back and sees his faceless, invisible companion, floating next to him. Ever patient and ever hungry.

Whatever is left of his life.

Renuka Raja is an aspiring writer that was born in Chennai, India. She moved to Canada in her youth, growing up in the GTA. She has a passion for music and visual and musical arts. She graduated from the University of Waterloo. Renuka spends her spare time volunteering around the community and playing with her cat, Louise.


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