by Ankit Prasad
He had been looking out of the window when the car started backing into the lane. It was a narrow lane, flanked by boundary walls on two sides. The car moved slower and slower, and came to a halt. The meditative whirr of the engine did not stop, however. It latched onto him, and soon he found himself breathing to its rhythm. It was quarter past midnight, the most vulnerable time of the day. The last lights had gone out at twelve. The house was asleep.
The lane in front of his window belonged to the neighbours’ bungalow. The building was white, newly painted. It emanated a glow, the kind that things gave out on full moon nights. There was no moon tonight. The car’s engine turned off with a sudden lurch. He broke out of his trance. He looked at the purple sheen of its surface. A new car. Its headlights softly dampened, and then, with a dull thud, it stopped vibrating. He felt its silence the way one feels heat radiating from a hot vessel. It grew and grew upon him, a creature in the dark, ominous, inviting. He felt his ears singing. To ward off the oppressiveness, he tried to focus on the sound of the crickets. They seemed to be in a far-off land. He was alone.
There must be someone inside the car, he found himself thinking. Every night, he heard it. Even when the windows were shut. He had to shut the windows to keep the mosquitoes away, especially on rainy nights. He would then have to get up and open the door, otherwise the air would turn musty and suffocating. Before she went to sleep, his mother would come into the room and put on the mosquito repellent. Good Night. She would find him lying down, turned sideways, straddling a side-pillow half his length. On some nights, she would come closer, run an ageing hand through his hair, perhaps let it rest on his cheek for a moment. It would be very difficult for him to feign sleep then. After she had gone away and the door to her room had closed, he would get up, unplug the repellent, draw back the curtains, and look out of the window. Tonight, she had not come. He had heard voices in the room, hers and his father’s. Angry voices. He had grown up listening to voices behind closed doors, strange, muffled sounds, as of people drowning. Sometimes, they were loud enough to penetrate wooden barriers. He preferred the muffled, drowning sounds.
There must be someone inside the car. It cannot have been driving itself. It was dark outside. He could barely make out its shape. The shiny surface helped. It wouldn’t be all that strange, he thought, if it was driving itself. Such things are not unheard of. It would make for a great story – a car that could drive itself and a boy who couldn’t. He could learn a thing or two, perhaps take notes.
Hello, Car, he would say, and put out a hand.
It would flash one headlight in response. A wink in car-speak.
Then he would run his hand over the glazy surface. It would be cold but friendly. Like the first drops while taking a shower on a summer night. He would bend and put the side of his face to it. He would put his hands over the side and hold it tight. Teach me, he would say.
The door would open. He would wipe the tears off his face and wear a determined look. He would make two fists and clench his teeth. And then, out of nowhere, yet inevitably, a glint in the darkness would distract him. The black cat, sitting atop the boundary wall, would be looking at him. Her eyes would shine and an evil smile spread on her face. You can’t do it, she would purr, scarredy-boy can’t do it. He would feel a shiver down his spine. His legs would start trembling.
I’ve seen you all those nights, she would say as he retreated backwards. You poor, poor boy. I’ve seen you alone with your fears. They hang about you like smoke. Once, there was a fire inside you, scarredy-boy, now it’s all smoke. How you would glow as a child! My mother would bring me and my little brothers and sisters to watch you. On moonless nights, we would sit under your window and bask in the warmth of your sleeping body. You would hear us in your dreams and smile. Now they are all dead, scarredy-boy, and you are so cold, cold and afraid.
His eyes would glaze over, and the car would swim in front of them. He would hear a thud – the door slamming shut. Then, a sense of urgency would take over him, and he would feel the boundary walls close in, time being shut like a genie in a bottle.
The cat would jump off the wall and move towards him. Slowly, stealthily, her paws would advance, one in front of the other. She would take up the space between him and the car. Her jaws would keep shut, but he would hear her voice coming from a place both near and far, from the land of the crickets. What scares you, scarredy-boy? Think of them. You know that’s the only way to deal with them. Think of the policeman, scarredy-boy. How did it feel to be arrested for kissing under the trees? Do you remember the crowd, scarredy-boy? Not bad for eight in the evening, eh? How does it feel, scarredy-boy, never to see her again?
He would feel something crumble inside him, something solid becoming soft and papery. He would flop down, on his knees, his whole body a violent tremor in itself. Silence, complete silence, but for the voice.
Did it matter, scarredy-boy, that two months later the policeman smiled at you while passing by on his bike? Could it be that he didn’t recognize you, or was the smile deliberate, devilish? Do you remember, scarredy-boy, how terrified you felt, how alone? Did you have anywhere to go, scarredy-boy, any retreat? Does it matter, scarredy-boy, that your parents don’t love each other?
The cat would prop herself up on her hind legs. Her bared claws would seem to loom over him. He would wish he could crouch lower, but the ground beneath him would feel solid, restricting.
What happened, scarredy-boy, when you tried to confront the muffled voices? All the shouting, scarredy-boy, do you remember all the shouting? Don’t leave out the self-harm. Hit yourself, boy, bang your head, it’s only the bathroom, no one can hear. No one cares, scarredy-boy. You’re on your own.
It would happen slowly. The headlights would come on. The engine would whirr ominously. The car would move forward swiftly, as if in a single motion. The cat’s eyes would light up and it would crouch on all fours. The car would move over her, never touching her. Simultaneously, he would feel the warmth return to his limbs, and without any effort on his part, he would find himself standing upright, inviting. The car would crash right into him, the blood spurting from his mouth and spattering the windshield. From that moment, he and the car would be one.
Good luck, scarredy-boy, good luuuuuuuu… Her voice would trail off, and he would drive into the dawn.
Oaoww, came the voice of the cat. Its green eyes caught his attention. It looked straight at him for a moment, then jumped into the darkness. The car stood there. Nothing exuded from it anymore, not even silence. It was the painting of a car, a picture. It was a mirage. The room felt lighter, his body felt lighter. There was nowhere to go. There were muffled sounds and loud sounds and Good Nights. There were curfew hours and ageing hands on cheeks. There was heaviness and there was lightness.
He drew the curtains and lay down on the bed. Despite the lightness in his body, his head felt heavy. An imbalance, simultaneously familiar and alienating. He closed his eyes. Something rushed onto him, and he gave himself up to it.
In the hopeful meadows of his teenage, Ankit Prasad used to write with abandon. Now, he fights the crippling self-consciousness writing thrusts upon him, writing only when he feels he has something — always personal — to say, something his bones would otherwise scream out with.
Illustration by Sawani Chaudhari