Ria woke up next morning in her bed. She had vague recollections of the previous night. Her bed was empty. She sat up and looked at the clock. It was half past eight. She brushed her teeth and went into the living room where her father and her daughter were watching TV and her father was reading the newspaper. Her mother looked up at her and smiled.
“You ok?”, she asked.
“What happened?”, asked Ria.
“Nothing. You just blacked out, perhaps you were stressed out with Mishti’s health and all that. Coffee?”
“Yeah”, said Ria following her mother into the kitchen.
“Ma, what happened?”, she asked again.
“You tell me what happened.”, said her mother in a fierce whisper.
“What do you mean?”, she asked. Her head was throbbing.
“I ask you to close the window and you black out and you start talking and blabbering about … well, I had to put Mishti in our bedroom lest you disturb her. And then I came back to check on you and you were still talking .. to someone”
“To whom?”, asked Ria
“You tell me. You sounded like you were answering questions and asking questions and you kept saying you didn’t want to go.” Ria looked at her mother puzzled. “Ria do you want to talk to me about something?”, her mother asked her. Ria burst into tears. Her mother hugged her.
“Shush shush. Come lets go out to the porch and you can tell me everything”, said her mother taking her hand. Ria wiped her tears. She didn’t want her child to know she was crying. She was too inquisitive about everything. She was in that age where she asked questions about everything – even if Ria sneezed she’d ask why.
She and her mother sat on the porch and Ria told her everything that happened right from that afternoon in her office till the previous night.
“But why?”, her mother asked.
“Ma, back when I was with Sanjay I once remember he told me that if he died he’d come back for me. I thought he was being a romantic fool back then. I never knew he was serious about it. I am scared ma”, said Ria breaking into tears again. Her mother hugged her.
“Ok calm down”, said her mother though she was herself shaking from head to foot. “Listen, there is a temple a little distance away and the priest there is known to be an exorcist and a witch doctor and all that. Maybe we can go there and he’ll find a solution to it.” “Daddy would never allow that ma”, she said still crying. “We’ll find a way to go without your father don’t worry about that. I can tell him that I am taking you to … my friend’s house for a kitty party. He’ll never suspect a thing. We’ll leave soon after breakfast.” Ria nodded.
“Wipe your tears, Adila’s watching”, her mother said. Ria looked up and Adila was indeed watching, and so was her mother. Adila gestured asking if she could come over. Ria nodded in approval. Both Adila and her mother came over. “Everything alright?”, asked her mother. “She’s been … you know those happenings, she’s been affected by them”, whispered her mother. Adila’s mother clutched at a talisman on her neck. “Ya Allah! “, she said.
Adila sat down beside Ria and held her close. “You want to talk about it?”, she asked. Ria repeated the entire story to them. Adila’s mother kept clutching at the talisman and repeating “Ya Allah!” the entire time.
Ria’s mother got more coffee for all of them. “What are you women folk talking about?”, her father asked from inside. “There’s a kitty party in Mrs. Mehra’s house today. So we were planning for that”, her mother lied. “Oh not interested”, said her father turning back to the TV. “Listen will you take care of Mishti until we are back?”, she asked.
“I was going to tell you that myself, to leave her with me. Don’t contaminate that little brain of hers with your kitty parties and other lady stuff.”, he chuckled.
Ria’s mother sighed with relief. She went out and told them that the plan had succeeded. Adila and her mother offered to come with them too so that they could be with Ria and so that her father didn’t suspect anything.
They had their breakfast and Ria and her mother left along with Adila and her mother. They had barely left the township when Ria’s father called on her mobile saying Mishti had fainted and that she was to return immediately. They had to turn back and rush home.
Mishti had indeed lost consciousness. Her father had summoned the doctor but the doctor could not find out what had happened. He asked Ria if Mishti had been unwell and she said that she had had a bout of food poisoning. He prescribed a scan immediately and asked them to admit Mishti to the hospital.
“Aha!”, said the doctor looking at the scan report. “I thought as much. She has ring worms”, he said.
“But we gave her a deworming a week ago”, said Ria.
The doctor took Mishti’s temperature. “Well, let me see what I can do”, he said and left the ward.
The nurse came in to set up the IV. “Too many people here. Please leave. Only the mother and one other person can stay”, she said in a heavy Malayalam accent.
“I’ll be out if you need me”, her father said and left the room. Adila and her mother were waiting outside.
Ria broke into tears again. “Ma I feel he is doing this on purpose”, she sobbed.
“Shush.. you’ll wake Mishti up. Don’t worry, I’ll be right back”, she said and went out of the ward.
She called Adila’s mother to a side and asked her if she could get a talisman or something to keep Ria safe for the time being. Naisha took off the talisman she was wearing and gave it to Ria’s mother and asked her to tie it around Ria’s neck.
“I’ll go home now and get you all some lunch”, said Naisha.
“So sorry for the trouble”, said Ria’s mother.
“Come on, no trouble at all. What are neighbors for?”, she said and turned to go. Adila went in to say bye to Ria when she heard a scream. They ran out to find Naisha lying at the bottom of the stairs her neck twisted in an awkward position. She had slipped down the stairs and broken her neck. She died instantly. Adila was too shocked to even move.
Ria’s mother immediately tried to tie the talisman around her neck. Adila fainted. Ria pushed her mother aside and ran towards Adila. The talisman fell out of the window and was lost.