Arnav stared at the twin bodies in front of him, lying in a pool of blood that had already soaked through the old, oriental Persian rug, mingling with the scarlet of the designs and making the pictures of the birds that he had been so familiar with, look horribly grotesque.
One pair of lifeless, bloodshot eyes stared at him in terror, the eyelids stretched so wide that it made bile rise up his throat. The neck was twisted at a painfully stiff angle and the jaw was condemned to remain open in an eternal, silent scream. The hair was matted with blood that was slowly drying, caking the strands into stone.
The other body was spread-eagled beside the first one. And even though it’s eyes were closed, its features were set into a tortured expression, the mouth slightly open, the tongue lolling out.
Arnav couldn’t move. He couldn’t scream. He couldn’t feel his body. There was a distinct ringing in his ears, a sensation of his brain shutting down, giving up.
His sister’s hysterical screams and broken sobs only made him shake more.
A claw was ripping down his chest. His throat was on fire. Something pressing in on him from the sides, forcing him to decompress upon himself, leaving him dangerously close to non-existence.
That’s when he realized he was screaming too. And the pressure at his sides were his own hands pressing painfully, brutally against his own ears, trying to block out the world and his sister’s screams.
He was trying to scramble away from the corpses, but he was on his knees and he could barely move his legs. The inhuman eyes pierced into his, begging him for help. Help that was too late for him to give.
His body was numb with shock. Yet drumming with an inexplicable pain. His chest was on fire. His heart was crushed under a colossal weight. Every patch of skin seemed to burn with freshly wrought wounds. And even when his throat gave out with exhaustion, he continued to scream inside his head.
Arnav felt those same wounds. Those same burns. That same weight on his heart. Heard the same scream in his head as he stared at the woman in scarlet. Her saree was like a pool of blood that had solidified into a sheet, draped around her slender frame like a ruthless reminder of his past. It was almost translucent, this layer of blood, giving him a good view of her seductive curves. And she was almost translucent too, her pale skin glowing in the faint light from the window. Her features were altered beyond recognition. Lips plumper. Nose smoother. Cheekbones higher. Eyelashes longer. And her eyes. Wide open in shock. Hazel lightness that had always been uniquely hers. A half-expressed cry in them that convinced him that this was really her.
His chest had tightened beyond belief. He could no longer hear his heartbeat. All he saw was a hideous corpse. Surrounded by a hideous colour. The colour that reflected back at him from the whole of her.
She could still hear the echo of her own thundering feet in the corridor while she came to an abrupt halt before the scene in front of her.
The crowd had retreated into the corners of the huge, elegantly decorated hall, speechless while they stood at a safe distance from the two hysterical siblings.
Khushi’s gasp went unheard as their screams filled the silence.
The girl was clutching the dead man’s head in both of her hands, kneeling over him and shrieking at the top of her lungs. The red of her clothes formed a brutal combination with the red all around her, a ruthless irony.
The boy had doubled over on the floor, apparently trying to get as far away from all of them as he could. He was screaming too. But where Anjali’s shrieks were those of a heartbroken, terrified girl, his were barely human. They seemed like the cries of a dying beast, being wrenched from a part of his soul which even he seemed unaware of.
His hands clasped his ears harshly. His body was convulsing in pain, a tremble overtaking his body.
And Khushi almost broke down. Her legs couldn’t carry her fast enough into the hall. Her hands couldn’t reach to hold him in her arms tenderly enough. Her frantic cries for him to stop screaming weren’t loud enough.
And her will for her to actually do all of this was perhaps not strong enough.
Khushi stood motionless at the door to the disaster, tilted halfway inside, trying to find the strength to rush in and engulf that broken boy in a tight clasp and let him cry his pain on her shoulder. Her heart pounded against her chest. And she stood on the brink of insanity. Terrified. By his pain.
She couldn’t tear her gaze away from his face. He exuded pain. An indecipherable emotion seemed etched into his eyes. A kind of grief, a kind of hurt that she wasn’t familiar with.
His whole countenance seemed to be screaming in agony. Yet, his jaw remained tightly clenched. The corridor remained dead quiet.
Khushi could hear her erratic pulse in her ears. Every sharp intake of breath seemed strangely exaggerated as she looked at tortured, brown orbs dig into her eyes, making her crazy with the need to rush to them and take away all their pain.
Her regret mingled with her wonder at seeing him after so many years. Her fascination with how different he was now. Barely her Arnav, if she looked at his broad, steel-like shoulders. His hard, male figure looking stunningly handsome in the perfect tux. His sharp jaw. His slight stubble. His thin lips.
She would’ve been convinced that this wasn’t him if it hadn’t been for his eyes.
Eyes that called out to her today as well. Like they had all those years ago.
He tore her apart with his stare. With the beginnings of a breakdown clear on his face.
And as he visibly struggled to breathe, she found her concern mounting. A helplessness descended on her.
All she wanted to do was close the small distance between them, throw her arms around him and cry with him. But that monster of a guilt. It sneaked up on her. Turned her immobile. Again on her toes, on the brink of running away.
She recalled, with a sharp pang, her hesitation to comfort him when he needed her most. Hesitation because she wasn’t sure if he even wanted her there at a time like that. Hesitation because she didn’t think she was important enough. Hesitation because she had grown so used to feeling like an intruder at that place.
And hesitation, now, because she wasn’t sure if he still felt for her what he had felt before. If he still wanted her. Or if she was still entitled to a second chance after what she had done. After everything that had happened that night.
But a little boy peeked out at her from the eyes of the man in front of her. The boy blinked once, a silent plea in his gaze, one fisted hand rising very slightly in her direction. He blinked again. The boy vanished. The plea was gone. The hand back at his side. Liquid chocolate solidifying into something much the opposite of what it had expressed a moment ago.
The small peak, however, was all that she needed. Oblivious to the sudden change in his countenance, she took a step forward. A broken whisper filled the silence around them, “Arnav…”
His scream was a hoarse whisper now. It hurt his throat excruciatingly. But he couldn’t think clearly enough to be able to stop himself from making the strange sound.
The eyes still pierced into him and his sister still cried. No one dared to approach them.
A small voice in his head clamoured to be heard above all the confusion. He needed to find Khushi. He knew. He knew that as soon as he looked at her, everything would be all right. These lifeless faces that strongly resembled those of people he had known all his life would vanish. His sister’s screams would stop. This wound in his heart would stop burning. She was the good. If he could find Khushi, the bad would go away. And he could go back to sadly anticipating the moment his sister would leave their house for her husband’s.
He seemed to choke on his own desperation. His vision turned hazy with unshed tears.
No. He wouldn’t cry. There was no need to. All he needed to do was find Khushi. Everything was going to be okay.
He loosened his grip on his ears, fisting his hands and bracing them against the carpet, about to stand up and flee. To wherever she was.
But before he could move an inch, a shaking figure appeared before him. A woman in a yellow saree. She leaned down beside the female corpse, clutched her own stomach, whether from emotion or from nausea, he couldn’t tell.
Slowly, she raised a hand towards the face and with a sob, forced the horrified eyes shut forever.
And that’s when he stopped screaming. That’s when he was plunged into consciousness. A sob escaped his chest. And as he finally broke down, a single name appeared on his trembling lips, “Maa…”
The name echoed in his ears and he took a step back. Waves of an ancient anger crashed onto him. The disappointment, the feeling of betrayal, the irrational need that he had suffered through for so many years came hurtling back at him. His mind plagued him with all the memories that he had fought so hard to forget. The rage that he had tried so hard to bury.
Grief quickly turned to anger as she continued to advance towards him, making him stand taller, look at her from beneath eyebrows furrowed with indignation.
He ran his hooded, accusing eyes over her face.
Fake sympathy. False love. Meaningless promises.
Her eyes were riddled with lies.
He gritted his teeth together as he stopped her with a hostile look.
“You weren’t there,” he spat at her silently, his eyes doing all the talking. “I needed you. And you weren’t there.”
He threw daggers in her direction. Onto the red that adorned her. His mother’s blood.
His sob jerked her out of her hesitation. A part of her soul tore apart as he cried.
All else vanished as she broke into a run, tears instantly streaming down her cheeks when she heard him utter his mother’s name.
She would wade through the pool of blood that separated him from her if she had to. But she wouldn’t leave him to his pain in this way.
She had barely taken two strides before the hand gripped her wrist, breaking her run violently, making her stumble sideways as she stepped on the edge of her lehenga. She was gasping as she struggled to free herself from the hold, her attention fixed on Arnav.
The clasp around her wrist tightened as she was dragged backwards, back towards the door she had come. The fingers were soft yet brutal. Khushi recalled the tender stroking of those fingers against her hair the night before. But the touch seemed unrecognizable now.
Khushi pulled, scratched and hit the hand but she couldn’t release herself.
A scream was building up in her throat as the distance between her and Arnav grew.
The pull was relentless.
Khushi stopped breathing as she detected his animosity. She came to a halt in front of him, her eyes widening.
His eyes no longer expressed pain. Accusation reflected from them. A warning for her to keep away.
Khushi started trembling, gulping with terror at this stranger. Ropes of uncertainty coiled around her, glueing her to her position.
His hate seemed to form an invisible barrier in between them. And she had no way of breaking through it.
He heard her screams almost as soon as he squeezed his eyes shut. They vaguely registered in his head as he drowned in sorrow.
He felt her desperation. But he stayed where he was.
He no longer had strength. No longer had any hope.
Even she couldn’t change anything now.
His mother was gone. Her eyes were shut.
Khushi couldn’t change anything. She was too late.
He waited for her arms to wrap around him helplessly as he shook with sobs.
The air around him remained heavy with disaster.
Her arms never reached his.
She remained at a safe distance from him, crying silently but not daring to approach him. Arnav bit back his snarl, gulped down his fury and mustering all his resolve, turned around on his heels and headed back down the corridor.
Terror gripped her now. She needed to reach him. She kicked around as the scream escaped her chest.
She waited for him to look up, see her trying to get to him. All she wanted was to reassure him that in a matter of minutes, she would break free of this grasp and run to him.
But Arnav did not look up or even open his eyes.
She was almost at the door now. With a hard shove, she freed herself and began running again.
His cold fury disarmed her. Made her breathless. Flooded her with the guilt that she had been trying to suppress for so many years.
Her eyes followed his retreating figure down the corridor but remorse held the rest of her back. She tried to find courage to run towards him, stop him. She waged a war against the guilt. Her nails dug into her palms as she struggled, agonised moans dying in her throat.
She placed a hesitant foot forward.
And then broke into a run.
Her screams were the only sound in the room now. Yet no one heard them.
Everyone was either drowning in their own emotions or staring pityingly at the figures around the corpses.
The bloodcurdling shrieks continued to echo in the hall.
Each step he took made his pain grow. Each breath he took made him want to go back.
He sauntered on, tears blocking his vision.
This time, he promised to leave them unshed.
A hand gripped his shoulder, forcing him to stop.
He froze. His heart skipped a beat. An irresistible need to turn around and sweep her up in his arms made his knees weak. How would it feel to finally be able to cry years of accumulated grief into her hair?
He whipped around, glaring at her.
“Arnav, please…” she pleaded through her sobs.
He violently pushed her hand away, the brief contact sending a small electric shock through him.
He tried to turn around again but she clutched at his jacket, her red painted fingernails catching his eyes even in his fury.
“Arnav, I didn’t mean to-”
He growled at her, white hot rage blinding him. He grabbed her shoulders roughly, her gasp barely reaching his awareness.
“STOP THE LYING, WOMAN! I DON’T EVEN WANT TO SEE YOUR FACE, YOU-”
He caught himself mid sentence and pushed her back, at a loss for a bad enough word. “Get lost,” he whispered dangerously.
And he turned around at last and walked away.
She was losing sight of him. Her throat was burning. Her chest was being ripped apart with the need to get back to him. The hand had gripped her arm once again.
The invisible force was dragging her across the floor.
Blood adorned her other wrist as her bangles broke on impact with the floor.
She scratched on the floor, trying to resist. Her nails hurting as they too broke. Her fingers trying to find something to grip, desperately sweeping the cold floor.
She left a trail of red on the floor as she looked at him for the last time. His frame doubled over in pain. His haunted eyes looking at the bodies.
Khushi stood in the middle of the corridor, shock and pain making her knees buckle. She fell to the floor in a heap as a knife seemed to plunge into her heart.
Agonising guilt overwhelmed her. Painful memories tumbled around in her head, torturing her. A scream built up inside her and she fought to keep it in.
She clutched at her hair, trying to hold on to her sanity, trying to breathe. Her heart pounded in her chest.
Her fingernails scratched at her head, digging into the skin ruthlessly in a bid to substitute the emotional pain burning in her chest with another more bearable, material, physical pain. Pain she could cope with. She struggled to steady herself as her breath came in short gasps. The world seemed to spin around her.
When she forced her hands down to clutch at her tearing diaphragm, all she saw was red.
The red that had spread from her nails to her fingers, dripping down onto her palm, where the drops seeped into the lines of her palm, the narrow streams tracing her fate.
A fate of torment.