Voices

She was panting. She paused to catch her breath. She had a good look around. She had come a long way over the past month and half.

All the effort, all the sleepless nights endured, all the sacrifices made. It cannot lead to this point.

She said inside her head. As she scratched her head trying to comprehend the scribbled little piece of paper she had just procured. She opened it one more time. It read:

Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway?

The words fluttered and flew in the wind. As the paper left her hand and took off into the strong winds, the words whispered in her ears again, that moment the realization hit her like a speeding train knocking her off her feet.

“Oh dear! This cannot be possible.” She uttered to herself. She looked up to the room at the top floor of the mansion, the one that overlooked the huge balcony.

I must find a way in.

* * *

3 months ago…

Richa was not like most teenage girls. She preferred staying discretely hidden in a corner in her school, invisible to the rest of the world. She had grown to become quite a dormant person and such an introvert; that aged 14, she had no friends. She had succeeded so well in her attempts to stay isolated, that most days her presence wouldn’t be even noticed in the classroom and she would be marked absent. It resulted in frequent complains getting registered back in her orphanage, leading the authorities to believe that she never attended school and loitered out to venture her own interests.

“Are you really interested in going to school?” Sister Alvita confronted her one day.

Richa looked up to the nun, who was the mother superior and head of their orphanage. Her face was expressionless. She wasn’t defending herself anymore.

“You must speak my child. Your education costs us money. We have 50 other kids to take care. And it’s also unlikely that you’ll be leaving us anytime soon. You must make up your mind.” Sister Alvita uttered out of sheer frustration half-realizing that she had bruised poor Richa into a scar that would perhaps never heal.

Richa had a bitter past. She was the lone survivor from a brutal car accident. At that time she was still in her mother’s womb as her family was on their way to the hospital with dreams of getting their little bundle of joy delivered. Unfortunately, destiny had dire plans as she lost her father, mother and elder brother even before she could put her first steps into the world.

Till date, it is an unexplainable miracle how she survived the crash. Perhaps, it was the protection of being in the womb and also the power of a mother’s wish to put her child before herself. But the truth remains, Richa would have been happier to trade this life for death any day. Life came at a price for Richa, which was not just limited to losing her entire family and being raised in an orphanage. Her biggest flaw was her physical and mental deformity. She had a deformity in her arms and legs which were crooked. She had a permanently cursed waddling gait. Her mental age was always busy playing catch up to her physical age and even at age 14, her brain had barely reached half-way.

But growing up in an orphanage her facial deformity was her biggest curse. She had sunken eyes, her temples were collapsed, nose pinched, forehead clammed and crusted lips giving her a ‘bird facies’ as they so beautifully put in the medically community. Her appearance was hideous and one that incited pity, laughter or disgust. This affected her a lot psychologically. But, despite her limitations she always managed to keep a straight face. She had just one friend, Neha who was deaf by birth, the one who always reminded her that one can always choose to be selectively deaf to the criticism and cruelties of the world.

Another pillar in Richa’s life was her mother like figure, sister Alvita. Whenever the going got tough, Richa used to open her little diary which she carried and read and re-read the lines which were told by sister Alvita from time to time. However, despite the help things weren’t easy. There was one such instance where poor Richa had tried to end her life with a knife. Alas! There’s only so much she knew. The attempt was uneventful for the knife that she had procured was a butter knife.

For some people, the journey of life in itself is the ultimate prize. So don’t expect others to understand your journey, for they’ve never walked your path.

Richa kept re-reading these, trying to memorize them.

“Richa, look at me now.” Neha said, holding her shoulder and standing toe-to-toe at an arm’s distance, “What happened now? Is it the school attendance thing again?” she asked in a sensual tone.

“She… she’s… a liar!”

“Who?” Neha asked reading her lips, “Radha madam at school? Or sister Nirmala?”

“Who’s Nirmala?” Richa asked cluelessly.

“Our next in line mother superior to be. After all sister Alvita is old now and her health isn’t keeping up either.” Neha replied instantly as she was a pro in lip reading and at Richa’s slow verbal pace it was a piece of cake for Neha.

“She can’t! She’s our mother, my mother. I don’t want her to leave.” Richa stomped her foot in frustration.

“Aree, it’s not like she’s going anywhere. She’ll be here with us always, only that…”

“No! Don’t wanna hear a word more. She just told nobody will ever take me, so she has to take care of me. She… she… promised!” Richa’s eyes were flooding again.

“She will, she always will. And I will too. You’ll always have us. But do you remember what she always told about responsibility?”

“What? What now?” Richa was clearly struggling to keep up.

“C’mon, how can you forget that? I bet you’ve written in your book, go look it up, I won’t help you this time!”

Seasons change, so does the wind, so does circumstances. Whose responsibility is it to adapt to it? You! You must ‘change’, for it is what nature demands… CHANGE – the only constant.

“Damn sister! Damn her wisdom! Damn my book! Damn my marker! And… and…”

“Hey, hey, hey, hey! Who’s beaten me at cursing these days?” Neha asked trying to lighten the mood.

“Let me finish! Damn… my writing! For its bloody hard to read as it is, and…and…my writing makes it impossible!”

“Hahaha! That I will agree with you on.” Neha winked as Richa attempted to jump on her nearly tripping herself over.

“Careful! Come let’s grab some dinner at the mess. I’m starving!”

* * *

A month later…

“Richa! Where have you been?” Neha came running towards her, “I saw you sitting in the corner of the classroom as usual. But, then a period before recess you disappeared.

“I… I… saw this in the lobby,” she held out a piece of paper, “Playing with the wind, circling on the floor.”

Neha read it:

Who is the closest to you…will be taken away!

“What am I to riddle that?”

“No silly! It’s a paper from my book, and… and… it’s my hand-writing!”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course, nobody can write this bad! Not even by trying deliberately.”

“So, what’s the deal?”

“I did not write it! And now I’m scared.”

“Hmmm.” replied Neha, “Relax, nothing bad will happen. I’m there with you.”

* * *

2 weeks later…

Who is responsible for all this? Do you feel cheated?

This was the fifth little note Richa had procured over the last two weeks. Each written on a page from her own book and definitely it was her own hand-writing. She was losing her sanity a bit with each message. Although nothing in her little world had changed. She was still considered a punctual absentee at school. Sister Alvita was still cold with her, and barely took time-out to meet talk or talk to her. And Neha still pretended as none of these messages meant anything. And then it happened one fine morning.

It was all leading up to this. I knew something was wrong. This is a bigger conspiracy than it appears on the surface.

* * *

2 weeks later…

It had been two weeks since Neha very casually informed her that sister Alvita had left her post and gone back to her native permanently because of unmentioned sudden family crisis. Richa, to whom, she was her mother, her father, her everything…was shattered. She hadn’t slept peacefully. Her sleep time was being trimmed down more and more each day as she would spend more time sitting by the window pane just staring out into the night sky.

She decided to confront Neha on the matter and express her fears that something terrible had happened to sister Alvita, something the other nuns knew, but were keeping away from them. She smelled bad. She feared the worst.

“You have lost your mind, dear. Last thread in your resume, I guess. Now, a lunatic…” Neha zipped her mouth releasing she had said a little too much.

“I see. You think that way too. I’m a burden. Ain’t I?” Richa was heart-broken as she started walking away.

“Aree, listen, Sorry! I didn’t mean that.”

“Leave me alone.” She wobbled away as fast as her deformed gait could carry her. She just wanted to be alone. She realized all the more, she was alone after all.

The next morning, she found a note stuck on the wall overlooking her bed. She put on her spectacles, heart pounding louder each second, she could hear it like a time-bomb. And it was about to explode soon. A chill ran through her spine, her face turned pale. Hands trembling, she took a stool, put few books on top of that and tethered and jumped to grab the paper which was stuck at least 10 feet from the floor.

Who are you to decide who stays with you and who doesn’t? You will lose it all…one by one.

She spent the whole day in desperate search of Neha, but she was nowhere to be found. By the end of the day she was told by sister Nirmala that Neha had been missing since 24 hours, but there was nothing to worry and they would find her soon.

It was the final nail in the coffin. Her suspicions had just been confirmed.

* * *

2 weeks later…

Richa had kept a very low profile. She had completely stopped going to school, had stopped even the minimal interaction she had from the people around. Neha was still missing. There was no news of sister Alvita since she left. She had received about 5 more notes which were all the more absurd and threatening. The last one which she had got 2 days prior read:

Where are you escaping each day? You really think you can decode this on your own? You… of all the people.

This one though had succeeded in igniting fear and anger in her veins simultaneously. She showed them to nobody for she trusted nobody. She felt she was being tracked. Day by day she swallowed all the fear and replaced it with determination. Richa was hell bent now. She was gonna decode it. No matter what it took!

* * *

Their school was located on the outskirts of the city, far from any source of human society. There was an enormous cemetery in the vicinity on one side and a national animal reserve on the other. She was positively sure that sister Alvita had been abducted or even taken care of permanently for she suspected sister Nirmala, the new mother superior, to be the one who did it. She also was sure that Neha had to been taken care of for maybe she knew about it too, after all it was Richa who kept feeding her with the conspiracy theories. There was a chance she saw some truth in her arguments and tried finding more to it, which might have landed her in trouble.

Richa had spent the last weeks going to places she thought she never would and now she stood panting, trying to catch her breath looking at this colossal mansion, which she knew she had seen before, but  could not remember.

* * *

Present day…

It all came crashing down to her, like a bulb lite in a dark room after a long never ending phase of darkness. This room, this balcony which she saw was where sister Alvita stayed. It was the quarters where the mother superior and other nuns’ stayed. That specific room belonged to the mother superior; to sister Alvita once, and that meant now to sister Nirmala. She realized as she ran through all the notes she had received till date, that some were her own handwriting while others weren’t! She saw the differences now! The last message which blew away with the strong breeze were clearly not her writing. She ran through the most recent ones. Clearly none of them were her hand-writing.

All this while she believed she was a step ahead in deciphering the mystery, but now she realized she had been tricked to come here the whole time.

Come what may… There is no turning back now. Even if I’m to be taken care of, so be it. I must go in.

She mustered courage and reached the front door. The door wasn’t locked. There was no security. As she headed towards the top corner room, the one with the balcony, she found no people along the way and every door knob she turned open instantly. She could feel her heartbeat pound up again, ‘tick’ ‘tick’. She reached the room. The door was ajar. She grabbed the door knob and flung it open.

This cannot be. Oh my God! I have got it all wrong. Have I? Have I not?

“Sit down, dear.” said sister Nirmala in her gentle, comforting tone, “You must be exhausted. Have some water.”

“Sister… I don’t… I mean… How? When? What is wrong with me?”

“Relax! Let me explain.” Sister Nirmala said, “You are a child with problems many children cannot even handle in a nightmare. You are really strong, really special, my child. We know how close you were to sister Alvita. As you see the framed pictures on the wall, you were there on her funeral. She wasn’t keeping well for a long time. Remember? Try to remember… She had cancer. When we learned from the doctors that she had no time, they decided to make me the successor to her post. I still remember when we broke the news to you, you didn’t take it well. That was the first crack.”

“I remember.”

“Sorry?”

“The funeral! I remember now.” A tear ran down Richa’s cheek.

“Then about 3 months back, your best buddy Neha was picked by a family to be their child. Obviously it didn’t go well with you at all. You even refused to bid her goodbye. You were furious, distraught. That was the second crack. I think that’s where it actually started.”

“What?”

“Your hallucinations, your mood swings, your condition…”

“I remember… Yes, Yes!”

“Neha left. Her parents to be, were really nice, they had even offered you chocolates and gifts…”

Streams of tears rolled down Richa’s face.

“And you threw it out of the window.” sister Nirmala smiled, “But that’s ok, you are remembering now, our plan worked. I figured out the change in your behavior early. Then came your absence from school.”

“But, I was attending, sitting in a corner quietly. Neha knows… but… oh, goodness!”

“Like I said, she left 3 months back. Richa, my love, you had been going to school and sitting, but not in your classroom. Every day you walk up to the top floor, which is still under construction and still in the corner of the deserted hall. You, my dear, have been hallucinating all of it. Neha and sister Alvita around you are nothing but the voices of your mind telling you stuff, adding more fire to your bizarre conspiracy theories”

“Am I mad?”

“No dear, come here to me,” as all the sisters approached her, “To put it medically, you have bipolar syndrome and possibly dissociative identity disorder. I know, I know, as if you didn’t have enough on your list already. We tried explaining it to you many times but you just wouldn’t listen. You had shut us out. Then, one day we found your little diary. You had been penning down your fears, your thoughts in them, I saw a way. We consulted with the doctors. The plan was risky, you could turn completely paranoid! But we had to take a chance, so we did. First we fed you with your own hand-written messages. Then slowly, we started slipping in our own. Over the last week, you got only our messages, which lead you in here. You really liked this place, this room, it belonged to her; sister Alvita, we thought we had some chance if we got you here. Well…” said sister Nirmala, tears of joy flooding her eyes now, “It clearly worked, calls for a celebration!”

“I guess it did!” Richa smiled giving her a tight hug.

“So, sisters, get something, cake, food etc. Let’s celebrate, our experiment worked. We have our child back. As all the sisters left the room, Richa said, “Can I get one more hug sister? After all, you are my new mother now…”

“Of course, my love, how many ever you want.” She took her in a warm embrace, “You know, sister Alvita in her will… ehh… will…” she felt a sharp piercing sound in her sides as a blinding pain ran through her body.

“Whose story is it now? And who is telling… rather controlling it now? You really think you can fool me?” whispered a sinister low voice in her ears, “I have avenged my mother’s murder now.” As Richa buried the butter knife deeper into her sides. “It may not be effective in cutting, but is damn good in stabbing.” Richa pulled it out and stabbed her a few more times. Then she took out her dairy, scribbled a new message,

Mother, I have done you justice.

She left it on sister Nirmala’s lifeless body and then hoped and jumped her way out, the way she came.

One loss avenged, one more to go.

She told herself and walked away into the woods.