Salim almost waltzed into the room. He looked happy as he drew the curtains and revealed the beautiful vista of the beach and the sea beyond. Payal sat quietly in one corner, and watched him do his thing. His excitement was understandable, it was their first day on their honeymoon. If only she could feel the same, she couldn’t even remember the last time she felt like smiling now; around Salim she at least felt calm. Salim looked at her, and for a moment his smile faded but he forced it back on and walked towards her.
“What is it Payal?”, he asked looking straight into her eyes, cupping her chin in his right hand. She looked away, but Salim continued, “I know, you have been asked this before; and you know that you have never answered. Where is the chirpy, happy Payal that I fell in love with. I have stood by you for so long. I deserve to know”. He was right of course, Salim was the only one who had stood by her, since that horrid night in Shimla. Should she tell her, after all it was 5 years ago, and thousands of miles away. “You want to know?”, she said in her soft voice. “Yes I do. Tell me”, replied Salim. Payal stood up and slowly walked to the window, Salim took the chair behind her. She gazed out towards the yellow sun, and the blue sea, put her hands on the window frame as a cool breeze flew through her hair. Payal took a deep breath and started, “Can you keep a secret?”
“It was 5 years ago in Shimla. I was coming back from that CRY convention. Remember how I loved going there? On my way back, it had got pretty late. It was a frigid white night. The fog was dense, so I drove slow, very slow. About halfway through that treacherous path, my car gave up. There was no signal on my phone, and I had no idea what to do with the car. It was too cold outside anyways, and I decided to just wait the night out, until someone came by or I got my signal back on. An hour went by, and no one came, I was snug in my car, but the fog outside was like a black slab of dry ice. That’s when I heard a car speeding, screeching and then crashing horridly. I contemplated for a moment, if I should go out or not, and then decided for it. Maybe I selfishly thought they had a working cell phone” she paused to draw her breath, she looked back at Salim, who was listening to her with his hands clasped together. She returned her gaze outwards, and continued.
“It was about 50 feet in front of me, I could see the car’s tail lights flickering. As I approached the crash, I realized it was bang in the center of a downhill U-turn, the car was an expensive one but had turned over from the impact. I blamed the driver straight away, and presumed he was driving too fast for his own good. There were no cries of help, or even pain, and I walked slowly towards it. That’s when I saw her. A woman, dressed in bridal wear coming out from the woods along the curb. Her red dress glowed faintly in the fog like it had a light of it own. As she walked towards the car, you could hear her anklets making a rhythmic sound. She stretched her hand, decked in gold just like the rest of her; out into the broken window of the driver’s seat. Maybe it was my mind, but I could clearly see the Heena on her hands. She dragged someone out. A lone guy in whites probably the driver; covered in blood from head to toe, and unconscious. He was easily double her size and was dead weight, but she dragged him like a rag doll, and placed him on a vacant bench nearby. Then she turned and looked at me, it was freezing, but as she looked at me, I felt the cold touch my soul. I turned around, and started walking back to my car. Soon, I had broken into a run, I wanted to return to my car, to its warmth, to its safety.”, Payal paused again. What she was going to say next, was difficult, but she found the strength.
“I reached my car, an opened its door, when I felt someone’s hand on mine. I knew who it was, and was too scared to turn. I squeezed my eyes shut and started mumbling every God’s name I could remember. And then she spoke, in the most melodious voice, she spoke. “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you. Why would I hurt you?” I knew better, but that voice was enchanting and soothing. I relaxed, opened my eyes and looked at her face. She was fair with big brown eyes and black hair, just like her dress, her face glowed softly. She looked beautiful, but for a long crack that ran from her forehand to her right eye. It looked like an open wound, but it did not bleed, like a crack in the face of a beautiful doll it was hollow. “Never talk to anyone about this. Tell no one and keep it a secret. Go and live your life” She spoke again in that soothing voice of her, and let my hands go. I entered my car, started the engine, and gunned it down the road. I don’t know why the car started, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to run away. As I passed that cursed car again, I think I saw her tending to that driver.”
She turned an looked back at Salim, he had his head in his hands, hidden from her. She looked back outside and continued. “Ever since then I have always been afraid. I could hear her anklets on silent nights. I could see her broken face in empty mirrors. I hate weddings, and I hate people asking me what is wrong with me because I can’t tell them. But you have been there for me Salim, you have made me feel better, and I trust you that you will believe me” Payal stopped waiting for a response. She heard him chuckling, and instantly she felt an anger inside. She turned.
She saw, Salim was chuckling uncontrollably now. He had in fact bobbed his head back laughing. Then she noticed something in his hand. In his hand was something like a face made of clay. He dropped it, and she saw that the mask resembled Salim. She looked back him, and staring back at her, was beautiful fair glowing face of a girl, with a crack running down her forehead, like a broken doll.He spoke to her, in a voice that she had not forgotten.
“You couldn’t keep a secret, after all.”
A prequel to this: Haunting in Shimla Hills