Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Fear Figure

Michael awaited the last bus to his house. It was 1 A.M. It had been raining the whole day and the night had turned dark as coal. He had had a couple of wines to stay warm but the cold wind made a mockery of it. Tho, wrapped in a thick rain jacket, he was shivering. He looked up at the street lights to gauge the force of the rain. Still strong. It faded the glow of the lamp. He shook his head and sighed.

A blue van was approaching. It’s wipers whooshed steadily. When it passed by, his eyes fell on a lone man standing opposite side of the road. It looked as if he had been standing there for a long time. He was hooded, and was looking straight at Michael. The rain didn’t seem to affect him at all. He had pale green eyes which bored into Michael. And Michael flinched. The man nodded and
began crossing the road without checking the traffic. Michael looked around to see if there was any life around, including his own. None. The man kept coming. Michael shivered, and now not because of the rain. He gritted his teeth, determined not to show his fear. The man was just two feet away. And michael saw his last bus, the last straw approaching. It’s tyres moving ever so slowly. Michael managed to mumble something in between nervous laughs. He again looked at the bus urging it to speed up. When he turned, the man was standing next to him. The bus was close and Michael started towards it. The man tried to hold Michael by his sleeves. Michael somehow managed to brush him off and run. The man smiled but didn’t try to pursue. The bus stopped and Michael got in. He bought a ticket and plunked down on a seat with relief. He looked out of the window. The man was looking at him - hands in his pockets, disapproval in eyes.

There were few passengers in the bus. A dozing late-night worker, a young couple and an old lady who was sitting at the far end. Michael fished out a paperback from his inner pocket and tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. The bus braked at the next stop jolting the worker awake and he got down. Michael tried to shake off the memory of the hooded man. Something was amiss. Two more stops and the couple got down. Michael looked out to check where he had reached. It was still raining. He flipped open his mobile to send a message home but there was no signal. Funny. He turned. The old lady was sitting right behind him now. Walking stick by her side. She smiled and Michael smiled back. She was frail but the twinkle in her eyes made her look young and mischievous. It was her son’s birthday and she had spent the whole day with him. Her son had told her to stay back and leave the next day. But she had insisted on returning home however late, and hence, was on the last bus. She owned a small apartment where she lived alone.

Michael’s mind was still occupied with the hooded man, But strangely, slowly, he began sharing his family history with the old lady and she listened with great interest which prompted him to open up. Michael looked out. It was still raining and he couldn’t make out where he had reached.
He thought they had been talking for a long time and he felt easy in her company. She was getting down at the next stop and invited him home. But he thanked her and politely declined. He
realized the bus hadn’t halted for some time now. He wasn’t wearing a watch so he flipped open his mobile to see the time. The battery had died. Odd. It was fully charged when he had left. When he looked up the old lady was looking at him intently. She smiled and once again invited him home, and once again Michael declined. She shrugged and got up as her stop was coming. She was trembling a bit.

The bus dinged to a stop. The old lady alighted. And before Michael had a chance to say goodbye, the bus started. He looked out but she was nowhere to be seen. He bit his lip. The rain had stopped. The surrounding looked familiar. Suddenly his mobile beeped. He was startled since his mobile had been dead. He fumbled and took it out. There was a text message - “ hope u r safe”.  Number unknown. The time on the screen flashed 1 A.M.- the time when he had boarded the bus. But he had been travelling for hours. He told the driver to halt. The driver stopped, nodded and smiled. Michael got down and stared at the driver. It was the old lady looking at him. Before Michael could utter anything- which he was anyway finding it difficult- the bus took off.

Michael stood perplexed, alone on the road. He had arrived at the same place from where he had boarded the bus. His phone beeped a message , “Welcome”. He looked up. The same blue van rolled by. When he passed he closed his eyes, dreading to see the hooded man opposite side of the road. With effort he opened them but the hooded man wasn’t there.

Now, the last bus approached. He got in. The later-night worker, the young couple but no old lady. Michael abruptly turned to look at the driver. He saw a young man with a long mustache.
He breathed easy and  shook the driver’s hands with relief. The driver was puzzled and looked at Michael. Too much to drink? But he smiled back and started the bus.

Soon, Michael’s stop arrived. His house was just a few minutes walk from there. He got down and removed his rain jacket. A black object fell from his pocket. He picked it up and examined. It was a sharp, shining  triangle. He flipped it around but found no engraving on it. It was made of some heavy ore. He wondered where it came from and how it landed in his pocket. He felt eyes on him and saw the hooded man staring at him from a distance. Michael looked at the object, looked at the man, and threw the triangle at him. It clanked on the sidewalk and landed at his feet. The man smiled, shook his head and picked up the object. It turned yellowish green and dissolved in his hands, and he walked away. Michael was agitated. He was fuming. He tried to run after the man but suddenly felt old and weak.  He saw a police car cruising along. The car stopped as it neared Michael. An officer got out and asked what Michael had been doing so late in the night and if there was anyway he could help. Michael told him about the strange looking hooded man and pointed him in his direction. To his dismay, the officer said he didn’t see anyone where Michael was pointing. Michael persisted. He could see the man walking away. The officer shook his head again. And then offered Michael a ride home. Michael refused, with a little irritation in his voice.

The officer said, “You seem a bit tired. It’s late night. Why don’t you go home and rest, old lady? And oh, by the way, here is your walking stick. Looks like you dropped it.”

Michael didn’t understand what the officer meant. He gave him a confused look. The officer smiled, offered him a ride again. When  Michael refused, he drove away. The hooded man had disappeared. Michael walked home, slowly, trembling - with a walking stick.

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