Don’t Smile….. Please
It was midnight when I left office.
I was the senior marketing executive at an IT solutions company. Our Head of Department had resigned a fortnight ago, leaving me to officiate and work sixteen hours a day.
But I was happy today. The new HOD would join tomorrow, meaning that I could return to more civilised timings.
I walked the long road to the bus stop, humming to myself. I would get the last bus.
The highrises gave way to wasteland and then a graveyard. The road was deserted, thanks to rumours that the burial ground was haunted. Not that it bothered me. I prided myself on being a rational man.
On the footpath bordering the graveyard sat three dirty young men. At this time, they would be huddled together, eyes closed, floating in the imaginary paradise the long pipes in their hands transported them to.
Today was no different, except that there was a fourth man with them. Under the dim street lights, I noticed that only his shaggy hair matched the other three. He wore crumpled, but clean clothes. His empty hands and alert eyes indicated that he was stone cold sober.
I didn’t realise I was staring at him till he looked up, straight at me. I was startled. I noticed that he had the strangest eyes I’ve ever seen. There was something inexplicable in them, like the Mona Lisa smile. But unlike the painting, this real life face made me uncomfortable.
As if the man had read my thoughts, he flashed a smile – wide enough to display his crooked canines. I froze.The smile reached his eyes and the face acquired a sinister look, that terrified me.
Thankfully, the screeching sound of a recklessly driven bus distracted me and I ran towards it.
I’d barely gotten into the bus when it sped off. I was thrown on the floor. As I pulled myself up, the bus gave a violent jerk. The driver braked hard and exploded in some colourful language. I noticed a Mercedes speeding away in the opposite direction like a bullet. Our driver had met his match.
Seconds later, a loud crash reverberated in the distance, followed by what sounded like screams. “Serves that car right,” hollered our driver. I sank into the nearest seat and held on for dear life, trying to steady the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I spent the night tossing and turning in bed, wondering about the accident. The morning news on my smartphone confirmed my fears. The car had crashed into the three junkies. None of them survived.
But there was no mention of the fourth man with the sinister smile.
My tensed up face didn’t escape the eyes of my better half.
“What happened, Pawan? Are you unhappy that your sixteen hour shifts have ended?” she joked.
“Um, er, no Shruti,” I fumbled for an excuse. “Just that I’ve missed Chinu all these days, returning home well past her bedtime. What if she forgets me?” I asked in mock dismay.
“Come home early today or she might,” teased Shruti and gave me a peck on the cheek.
I smiled. Shruti had a way of making me forget my worries. I stole a glance at the angelic face of my sleeping three-year-old and left for work.
My office was located on the fifteenth floor of a decades-old twenty one storey building in a large commercial complex. I arrived to find a loud handwritten banner outside my department – “WELCOME, MR. ARJUN SHARMA”
The new boss came in five minutes later. I sized him up – average build, grey safari suit and perfectly gelled jet-black hair, most probably dyed. His clean-shaven face was stern and his thin lips formed an unsmiling straight line.
Then I saw his eyes. And recognised them.
He looks so different. But the eyes are the same….
“And he’s Pawan..”
I straightened up at the mention of my name. Arjun was in front of me, his hand outstretched. I forced a smile. He remained serious.
I discovered later that he never smiled.
Arjun was a strict but benevolent boss and a good trainer. He berated us for our mistakes and appreciated our achievements.He travelled to meet new clients, usually accompanied by one of us and invariably charmed them into tying up with our company. But he never ever smiled.
I soon got used to him as a boss. But the doubts remained. Was Arjun the man I’d seen at the graveyard? Is my photographic memory for faces failing me here? Was Arjun’s presence linked to the accident? I was surprised at my irrational thoughts, but they refused to leave me.
A storm was brewing and I didn’t know it.
The weeks flew by. One evening, I left office late. I came out into the lobby to see Arjun squeezing himself into a jampacked lift.
I watched as the lift doors began to close. Suddenly, Arjun thrust his hand between them. They reopened. He stepped out.
I looked at him, puzzled.
“Forgot my cellphone,” he said, flashing a huge smile.
I recoiled.Those crooked teeth. The sinister eyes. It was him. Indeed it was him. H-I-M.
My chest tightened, fearing the unknown. Or maybe the known. I found myself worrying about the occupants of the lift car.
Arjun disappeared into our office. My mind switched to flight mode and I dashed towards the staircase. As I sped down the steps, two at a time, I heard a crash. My legs refused to move further. I stood still.
“The lift cable snapped.”
“What about the inbuilt safety features?”
“They failed. The lift was ill-maintained.”
“How many were there inside?”
“Twenty people. No survivors.”
These voices floated around my head from the lobby above, like multiple flies buzzing in my ears. I kept staring vacantly into empty space.
The sound of footsteps on the staircase prompted me to move.
But my body didn’t cooperate. I hobbled down to the ground floor like an arthritic old man and somehow managed to take a cab home.
Shruti opened the door and stared at my shaking form.
“You look like a ghost. Have you seen one?”
I wished I had the answer.
She sat me down in the living room and splashed water on my face and head.
I found my tongue. “Shruti, the.. the office lift crashed. Twenty people.. gone..”
“Oh!” She stood pensive for a moment, then recovered. “Take the staircase from tomorrow. Now freshen up and have dinner.” I secretly marvelled at her inner strength.
She went inside and returned with a sleeping Chinu in her arms. She gently placed the child on my lap and returned to the kitchen. She knew this was exactly what I needed right now.
I reached office the next day, dreading the prospect of looking at Arjun’s face.
His cabin was empty. I had just reached my desk when I heard his voice from behind me.
“Pawan, you’re late.”
“Sorry Sir,” I replied without turning around.
“Late once more and you lose a day’s pay.”
He was now in front of me. It took all my willpower to look up at him.
There was no trace of a smile on his face. He was Arjun-The-Boss again. I suppressed my random thoughts and quietly got down to work.
But things weren’t the same anymore. I couldn’t concentrate. Every interaction with Arjun, every visit to his cabin made me cold with fear. I felt I was trapped inside an open cage, with a noose around my neck that could tighten any moment.
After I was ticked off for the third time over the next two hours for my mistakes, I was slouching at my table, face buried in my hands, when I felt a calming touch on my shoulder.
“Pawan, what’s the matter? Why is our best employee at his impossible worst today?”
It was Sanju, my colleague and good friend. Though he was a clumsy idiot with a rather large foot in his mouth, he was the only person in my life other than family, who had the ability to drive the blues away.
“Sanju, I need to talk.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were at the café down the street.
Sanju patiently listened to my rambling, like a concerned parent.
“So you feel that Arjun is a messenger of death?”
“I-I don’t know. D-doesn’t make sense, yet…”
To my astonishment, Sanju burst out laughing.
“Imagine Pawan, the rationalist, believing in the paranormal! One smile does not a disaster make, you know.”
“Stop laughing, Sanju!”
The firmness in my voice surprised both of us. Sanju’s forehead creased with worry, though his eyes still said that I’d gone nuts.
“I’m sorry, Pawan. But I feel you must take a few days off work.”
My cellphone buzzed. Arjun wanted us back. We returned to our desks without reaching any conclusive solution.
I looked up from my desk to see Arjun standing in front of me.
He smiled. My heart missed a beat as I remembered that everyone else had left for the day. I was the target this time!
I tried to stand up, but my body felt like stone. I sat there immobilised, as Arjun slowly encircled his long fingers around my neck.
Just before he could choke me, I woke up, drenched in sweat. My bedroom was dark. The nightbulb had conked off. Shruti was snoring away next to me, with Chinu cosily ensconced in her arms. I felt feverish. I took a paracetamol and lay down.
I woke up with high fever. At least I’ll be home now for a few days, I thought wryly.
But fate apparently did not want me to take a breather. Early in the evening, I was shocked when Sanju came visiting – with Arjun.
One look at my face was enough to din sense into Sanju. But it wasn’t much use. Shruti was giving her husband’s boss the royal treatment and I knew that no force on earth could stop her. Despite trying his best, Sanju couldn’t avoid the tea and snacks she forced on them.
As they got up to leave, Chinu bounded into the room. Oh God, no, NO! Arjun took her in his arms and indulged her in baby talk.
My heart pounded like a temple bell. God, let him not smile, let him not smile, I prayed fervently in my mind. What’s happening to me? Why am I thinking like this? Oh God, keep my baby safe.
Shruti was staring at me, horrified.
“Er, Sanju, it’s time to give Pawan his sleeping pills.” She flashed her best smile.
It worked. They left. Moments later, I heard a voice from my bedside window.“Pawan!!”
I sat up and looked out at the building compound, one floor below. It was a neighbour.
“Have you paid last month’s maintenance bill?”
My eyes fell on Sanju riding his bike on the road behind the compound wall. As usual, he had no helmet on. I noticed Arjun riding pillion.
At that precise moment, Arjun looked up. And smiled.
I freaked out. I opened my mouth to scream and alert Sanju, but no voice came. I remained there, eyes rolling, arms flailing, gasping for breath, till darkness enveloped me. I thought I heard a crash, far away in some other planet. I fell backwards into a pair of protective arms.
I woke up on a hospital bed, surrounded by Shruti and my parents.
I whispered, “Sanju?”
“The doctor has advised you complete rest. Now go to sleep,” admonished Shruti. I got my answer.
I stayed in hospital for a whole week, till the doctor thought I was stress-free. I watched Shruti take complete charge. There were no awkward questions from family members and absolutely no visitors.
A week after my discharge, my parents returned to our native village. I sat Shruti down.
“What happened to Sanju?”
“A speeding truck crashed into his bike. It was fatal for him. Arjun escaped with minor bruises. What happened to you?”
That was it. I poured out my weird story. She listened like an attentive student. I felt as if a huge mountain was being lifted off my heart. I ended up sobbing uncontrollably in her arms.
At long last, she spoke.
“Ask him who he is.”
My face paled.
“Okay, then change your department.”
“We all sit in one huge hall. I cannot avoid him.”
“Then change jobs.”
“The bond period in my work contract lasts another six months. Leaving now means I have to pay twenty lakh rupees. How do we manage that?”
“Take medical leave for six months.”
“Without pay? Cannot afford. Chinu starts school next month.”
“I’ll look for a job.”
“Chinu clings to you. Can she manage in your absence?”
Hours of deliberation later, we arrived at a decision. I would pull on for another six months, while simultaneously looking for another job.
Ten days later, I was back in office, propped up by counselling sessions and a generous dose of anti-depressants. The drugs elevated my mood to an unhealthy level, but I had no choice.
I missed Sanju terribly. Arjun the boss was going strong as ever. I often thought of confronting him, but once again, the fear of the unknown stopped me.
I’d been avoiding field visits with Arjun, till one fateful day two months later.
Arjun called me into his cabin.
“There’s this potential client in Murbad we are meeting today. You know the route well. Get the company car ready.”
“Sir, it’s been raining incessantly for the past three days. Murbad is a small town in the interior and would take two hours by road even in good weather. It’s already 2:30 pm…”
“Just get ready.”
We reached Murbad at 5:30 pm. Arjun sealed the deal quickly and we were back on the highway at 6:00 pm.
It was getting dark. The road was well maintained, but there were no street lights. Thanks to the continuous downpour, traffic was sparse.
My feel-good medicines had not numbed my instinct. I sensed danger. I drove silently, casting an occasional glance at Arjun. He was sitting at the back, eyes closed.
Some fifteen kilometres later, we reached a bridge. The water level in the river below had risen considerably in the rains and was just a couple of feet away from the bottom of the narrow bridge.
Halfway through the bridge, the car stalled. Arjun stepped out. “I’ll push.You try to restart.” It was no use.
I was frustrated. I rolled down the window and let the rain water hit my face.
“I’m still pushing!” The stentorian voice made me return to the steering wheel.
The engine roared to life, even as I caught Arjun’s sinister smile on my rear-view mirror. It sent a fresh chill down my spine. I asked in the hoarse whisper that I could manage, “Who are you?” He continued smiling.
The next instant, disaster struck. The car skidded to the right, smashed the railing and plunged into the cold, turbulent waters below.
In that one moment, my entire life flashed before my eyes.
As the car landed on the water, I was thrown out of my seat and hit my head on the roof. I realised I had forgotten to fasten my seat belt. My head and neck throbbed with pain from the impact and I felt dizzy and nauseous. Involuntarily, I held on to the steering wheel with all my strength.
Water gushed in through the window. The car was sinking fast. I panicked. I couldn’t think. I tried desperately to open the car door, but it wouldn’t budge.
The water level kept rising till it almost reached my neck. Then I saw the open window.
It was a herculean effort to move my hands from the steering wheel to the window. The water level had reached my chin, when I finally managed to get my head out. Encouraged, I pushed with all my might. After what seemed an eternity, I was out of the car, just as it disappeared into the water.
I remembered something about taking deep breaths to stay afloat and put that into action. It worked. My head stayed above the water long enough for me to notice that I was under the bridge, with a broken beam dangling over my head like a saviour. I caught it immediately.
The beam fortunately held, as I used it to scramble up the bridge. My legs were stiff. I was shivering. My head was throbbing hard and bleeding. My vision was blurred. I had a dozen bruises. But I was alive.
To my amazement, I saw Arjun standing on the other side, where the car had broken the railings and fallen, staring into the water. Was he checking to ensure that I did not survive?
I looked around. The place was deserted. Arjun had his back to me.
It was now or never.
I moved up behind Arjun, step by excruciatingly painful step, driven by sheer willpower. The rains and gushing waters muffled my heavy, laboured breathing.
Gathering every ounce of my strength, I pushed Arjun, throwing my weight on him. He was taken by surprise. He flailed his arms, but there was no railing to hold on to. I watched him plummet into the swirling waters and disappear. Exhausted, I crumpled to the ground.
I woke up in the same hospital where I was last admitted. This time, I was surrounded by my colleagues, along with my wife.
I whispered, “Arjun?”
“He… drowned in the river.”
I felt a wave of relief surge through me.
My colleague added, “It was strange. When they found his body, there was a big smile on his face. His eyes were also open. He looked, sort of, sinister…..”
I looked at Shruti through my tears. My strongwoman smiled. Her husband was normal again.
Team: The Crazy Girls
Authors: Archie Iyer and Shyl Poojary
Photo courtesy: Ilbusca / Getty Images / iStock