Tuesday 10 August 2021

Viplove Sharma, ShortStory 2021 Longlist


YET another crumpled piece of paper missed the trash can. By now, there were more paper balls on the floor than in the can. On the desk, was a notepad, left with its last two pages of life. By its side, lied a pen, half on the notepad and half on the desk, with its nib about to crack open. The shadow that had been hovering over them for quite a while froze for a moment. And then without giving any sign, two heavy hands banged the desk with all the might that they could gather, breaking the deathly silence that had otherwise captured the room. The dust that arose from the quaking wood had not even settled when a long, painful cry was heard. It was a cry that could bring tears in the toughest of eyes. But there were no ears to hear the cry. There were no hands to wipe the tears that had been rolling down on the notepad for nobody knows how long.

The cry quietened down to a weak groan, and then the groan died down to a gloomy calm. The man of the shadow sighed, and then rose from his chair. He pulled out a drawer and grabbed a pack of cigarettes. He opened the pack and stared at the last cigarette in it. He tapped his finger on the pack a couple of times, and then made the decision. The room was almost dark except the corner where a table lamp stood creating the shadow. The man walked through the darkness out of the room to the only other lit-up area in his house. There wasn’t any lamp there though.

He stood at the balcony, leaning against the boundary wall, beyond which were his trusted neighbors – the crooked streets, the half-working streetlights, and the clutter of big and small houses – and above them all, was the almost-perfect crescent moon in the starry sky. The landscape was full of glitter, but none of it caught his eyes. An unlit cigarette hung from between his lips, and he just looked on, but not to any particular place in sight. His eyes were wide open, but he saw nothing.

A long howl by a stray dog broke the trance of the man of no thoughts. He reached for the left pocket of his pajamas and took out a shiny lighter. The night wasn’t too windy, but it took four sparks for the cigarette to light up. The lighter was not at fault. It was as new as its shine. It had done its best, but the hands had trembled. While deep puffs produced tall smoke rising from the balcony, the hands were still trembling. The night was a bit chilly, but it was not the cold. It was something else.

It was something that had been eating up the man from inside for he did not remember how long. It was not a disease that he suffered from but something worse than the worst disease he could imagine. His world had turned upside down in all possible ways, pushing away his people, his memories and his dreams. Finally, his world had ended up empty. The emptiness was so deafening that his mind had given up on seeking any revival. It’s hard to say who was in charge, him or his mind, but they both had agreed that there was only one thing left to seek. Exit.

Arriving at the decision to exit was quite quick. Deciding on the way out was not so. A couple of weeks ago, he had consulted his only acquaintance left, the internet, to find the best possible way to put an end to his misery. At first, he was glad to find many ways to die, thinking he could pick any one of them. But later, he realized that it made his decision tougher. And what criteria makes a way better than the other, he thought. He listed them down.

Quicker, because he didn’t want to bear the agony for long. Quieter, because he didn’t want others to interrupt his mission. Foolproof, because he didn’t want to not die and live a worse life as a result. After browsing non-stop for days, he realized what the top criterion should be. Painless. What could be better than a painless suicide? With that thought in mind, he set upon his quest.

“Cutting the nerve… nah, takes a lot of time and someone might get to me before my job is done!”

“Hanging from the fan… extreme pain! No way.”

“Poisoning… but where do I get the poison from? People will suspect. No!”

“Jumping from the bridge… but what if I swim up to the shore?”

“Immolating… very, very painful. Not at all!”

“Shoot yourself on the head… quickest, guaranteed… but where do I get a gun from?”

Not a single method checked all the boxes for him. But he did not give up. In the two weeks that followed, he read more than what he read in his entire life. Everything possible about suicides. Statistics on each of the methods – their history, their popularity, their success rates. Stories of the people ending their lives around the world over the years. Beliefs of life after death, of heaven and hell, of unsatisfied spirits.

His journey of enlightenment did have some roadblocks in between. Every now and then he came across words asking him to reconsider his decision. But his brain was flooded with unshakable thoughts that insisted otherwise. He had not eaten for days, and he had not slept for more than a week. Nobody and nothing could stop him anymore. He himself could not do so either. Because he was not himself anymore. There was one thing that he was fully conscious of, which was the only thing he wanted to do in the rest of his life. It was to die.

The day had arrived. But without accomplishing the mission, the day had slipped by. The day had arrived again, but just like before, it could not be ‘the day’. The day to die. It was not that the intent to die was shaken, not by any means, but it was just that an important part of the suicide was not yet ready. The suicide note. If one could put together the crumbled pieces of paper lying by and in the trash can, they would not have read the last thoughts of a man, but many of them. Some men talked about their own weaknesses while some cribbed about the misdeeds of others. There were some who apologized to almost everyone they knew of while some called the whole world a place full of cheats. Thoughts of many of them meandered like a mountain river and there were many who did not know what to say. There isn’t a suicide without a good suicide note, he thought. But what a good suicide note is, he couldn’t tell.

The last puff of the cigarette was the deepest. He was in no mood to stop inhaling but he had hit the butt. He stared at the still-lit butt, and then he let it fall. He didn’t throw it like he always did. He let it fall. He watched the butt fall from the tenth-floor balcony as he exhaled the last clouds of smoke. He noticed the tiny sparks it produced till halfway down, after which the wind overpowered it and extinguished it. And then the butt vanished in dark air. It was gone.

The last act of the last cigarette had the man thinking. Before the smoke could leave the balcony, he had left it. He was back at the desk. And this time, he had a new spark in his eyes. Not the fresh and enthusiastic spark, but the over-tired and psychotic spark. His right hand tremored like never before, but the fingers had a death grip on the pen. He hit the nib of the pen on the table a few times and then he started writing. Not the writing where ink meets paper to tell stories, but the writing where a sword tears into flesh to splash blood. There wasn’t a single pause or a scribble. It ended up being a flawless note of four lines, but it took the lives of both the pages of the notepad.

He read the words in his mind and then nodded to himself. He tore off the page carefully, but not so neatly. He folded it twice and placed it in the front pocket of his shirt. The last remaining page of the notepad, that had borne the brunt of the battle, lied dead with the same words pierced on its body as the ones that now lied next to the man’s pounding heart. By its side, lied the pen that had somehow survived but now lived in guilt.

A deep sigh was followed by a loud noise made by the dragging chair. The man was up on his legs, and this time, with a determination like never before. He knew that the day had finally arrived. By now, he had realized that there wasn’t any painless way to commit suicide. So be it, he told himself. What could be more painful than what he was going through, he thought. He had finally made up his mind. There was only one way for him to exit. And he was ready to walk it out. The puzzle that he had been struggling to solve for weeks looked all solved now with the last piece in his pocket.

He grabbed a bunch of keys from the keyholder on the wall behind the desk and started to walk towards the main door. The keychain, a red heart with two silver dolphins flying around it, shook back and forth like a startled pendulum. As he stepped beyond the last rays from the lamp, he stopped. It was not a sudden stop, but more of a slowdown that is caused when someone gently pulls you back. After a few heartbeats, the keys traveled from the right hand to the left hand and then they finally landed inside the left pocket of his pajamas, making a clink as they hit the lighter.

He turned around. It was not a quick turn, but rather a slow and painful one. The pain was not physical, but rather an emotional one. He looked around the room. There was not much to see but a lot to feel. There was a golden photo frame on the wall from which his ever-so-worried mother, his strict-but-proud dad and his cute little sister smiled at him. Little did they know what the mischievous boy in the frame was up to. Then there was the just-about-surviving coffee mug at the desk that had animated faces of his school friends imprinted on it. The faces were so faded that only he could identify them, but he had chosen to forget them. At the top of the workstation, stood an army of Avengers ready to battle in the desert of dust and spider webs that had accumulated in the realm of darkness. They all encouraged him to fight no matter what, but they were just figurines after all.

The final tour of his room halted as he noticed something that he had not picked up for ages. Behind the Avengers, the top shelf was full of books from left to right. He walked towards the workstation and put his finger on top of the leftmost book and looked down to read the title. The finger slowly moved to the right, book by book, and so did his eyes. A small cloud of dust followed them. Somewhere in the middle of the row, the finger stopped. He took the book out in his hands, slapped it a few times and blew air on it to remove the thick layer of dust that had settled on it.

The cover was clean enough, and it read ‘P.S. I Love You by Cecelia Ahern’. He flipped a few pages and then stopped. There was a photograph. It was a girl. A beautiful girl. Long wavy hair, big brown eyes, curly eyelashes, a sharp nose, a wide smile, dimples on both cheeks. The photograph itself was enough to bowl anyone over. But the man shut the book so hard that every remaining bit of dust was knocked off the book and the walls echoed in his screams of agony that followed.

He threw the book at the desk and dashed to the door. He didn’t bother to lock the door as he sprinted towards the elevator. One of the elevators was already at the tenth floor which had never happened with him before. “Today’s the day,” he thought to himself. At that hour, he wasn’t expecting to meet anyone on the way. But as he stepped out of the elevator, he was greeted by the community dog. The security guards had adopted the dog, but all residents loved him, including the man he now stood in front of. He was one happy dog. Like always, the dog wagged his tail and followed the man, who chose to ignore him this time. As the man was about to get into his car, he looked at the dog and spoke aloud – “Sorry buddy, but I don’t have anything for you today. And you can forget me now. Forever!” The dog barked back. The man shut the door hard, nearly taking a part of the dog’s head with it.

The man started the car. The noisy radio started too. He slammed the power button so hard that it was a surprise it did not break. He hit the accelerator and the car was out of the community before anyone could notice. The dog chased the car until he could keep up with it. Even the dog could not stop the man on his mission. It did seem to be ‘the day’.

The car whizzed through the empty streets without a hint of slowing down. In a matter of five minutes, it was out of the town and was on the narrow road that went up to the remote villages on the mountains that oversaw the town. If one had been awake at that time, they could have seen a small light crawling up the mountains. But the sleepy town was probably living up to its reputation. After doing a few laps, the light stopped.

The car slowed down, and the engine silenced a foot away from the curvy edge of the road. The man got out of the car and looked up at the sky. It would have been a beautiful, starry night any other time. But that was not any other time. The keys were left hanging in the car, and the door was left ajar, as he walked towards a half-broken parapet which was still the brightest object around, thanks to whatever amount of white paint left on it. The strides began to shorten as the feet approached the parapet, and then as if in two minds, the man sat on it as if someone had forced him down.

The place was absolutely quiet. A steady wind blew from the northwest, but it was not strong enough to make the deodar trees whisper. And even if they had managed to talk, the man would not have heard them. At that moment, all he could hear was his thumping heart. From where he sat, one could see the lights of the town twinkling like stars on earth, but his blank eyes were lost in the dark of the night.

It was a cold night, even colder for the man in his half-sleeved shirt. Goosebumps were all over his body, some because of the cold and the rest in anticipation of what was planned to happen. His breathing was getting heavier with every passing moment. He had his sweaty palms pressed hard on the parapet, as if trying to crush the concrete with the power of his overflowing emotions. After staying frozen for some time, he pushed down so hard that his whole body shivered. He ended the battle by letting out a loud grunt through his grinded teeth and he sprang back to his feet.

He took a step forward. And then another one. After a pause, there were two more half-steps. He was now standing right at the farthest possible spot on the edge of the road. His dusty flip-flops were a couple of pebbles and a handful of loose soil away from the point where land took a sudden, ninety-degrees downturn and met the top of a steep cliff that was more of a giant rock with hardly any trees on it. Nobody could tell how deep the cliff was, but it was deep enough for its bottom to be not seen even in daylight. Anything falling off the edge was guaranteed to be not seen ever again. The car stopping at that particular curve was not a happenstance. The stage was all set. So was the door to the exit, the one that had no way back.

While his lost eyes were still wandering around the unseen parts of the valley, his terrified toes were certain how close they were to the possibility of them getting smashed to jelly. The message from the toes seemed to have been passed upwards as the legs started to tremble first, then the arms, and then the heart and the lungs started working overtime, as the man started huffing and puffing so hard that he had to step back. His determination was not shaken yet though. His brain was still strong enough to ignore his body, or that’s what he thought.

He looked up at the sky, said something with his wide-open eyes but without words, and tried his best to bring his breathing and heartbeat back to normal. He barely succeeded but he did not care. He looked down at his toes and the bit of land ahead of them. After three deep breaths, he nudged his right foot forward. It wasn’t a firm landing, but it was firm enough to make a couple of tiny pebbles roll down off the edge. His eyes followed the pebbles involuntarily and met the sight of death for the first time. The pebbles were instantly out of sight, but the foot that had pushed them to nothingness was jolted by some sort of a lightning that ran through every single nerve of the man and threw him back. There was just enough light for him to realize the depth of the vertical cliff, and there was just enough dark to make him imagine the impact of hitting the bottom that he could not see.

He lied flat on his back on the road, next to the parapet, with his chest going up and down. His mouth trying hard to swallow all the air around, while his limbs seemed paralyzed with fear. He was now completely drenched in sweat from head to toe. He wanted to scream but he could not, as he could barely breathe. He wanted to run away but he could not, as he could not gather the strength to get up. He wanted to stop thinking anymore but he could not, as he could not control anything anymore. The weeks of research and planning had hit an unexpected hurdle. The reality. The true, horrifying face of death. After all, he was not brave enough to live on, nor he was brave enough to die.

While the rest of his body had still not recovered from the shock, his mind had now entered an elevated state of turmoil. The man could no longer understand what he was thinking. His mind was beyond the choices of living and dying. It was hard for him to comprehend his own thoughts as there was not one voice or two in his head. It was as if he was standing on a ` to perform but every member of the audience was shouting at him and telling him what to do. To make it worse, every single member of the audience looked and sounded like the monstrous version of himself. The man on the stage turned his head in every possible direction trying to catch the words, while the man on the road mirrored the moves violently but with half-closed eyes. The freak act went on till the audience were no longer heard and the eyes were fully closed.

The fatigue of the sleepless nights had finally taken over the anxiety of the torturous months. The man dozed off. He slept on the gravel as if he were lying on a bed of feathers. The only thing that could be seen moving on him was his warm breath creating misty clouds. He was breathing like a normal man now. Everything around him was still as before. Everything remained still for the next couple of hours or whatever time it took for everything to start brightening up.

The moon had begun to fade away just above the horizon that had now acquired a faint whitish border on the east. The brighter stars now looked dimmer and the dimmer stars could not be seen anymore. It was about time for the night to bid another goodbye, and the animal kingdom was ready to welcome another day. The chirps of the early birds could be heard across the valley, but not a bird could be seen yet. Nothing much had changed in the part of the landscape where the lights of the still-sleeping town still flickered. And miles away from the collage of cozy homes, one of their men slept out in the open like there was no waking up again.

The chatter around the mountains had just started to pick up when a pack of wolves announced themselves from the neighboring forest. The howls were not that loud, but they made the man move. They didn’t really wake him up, but they shook him up enough. His body started to turn from left to right and back as if he were in the middle of a nightmare. The drool that was so far hanging off his cheeks was now all over his neck and shirt. His movements soon became violent and were now accompanied with suppressed groans. His feet started to kick up dust merely a foot away from the cliff of death. The groans got louder and louder until the loudest one turned into a scream and the man sat right up.

He looked around. With both his hands on the road, his head drooped below his shoulders as he gasped for air. As the breathing slowed down, he raised his hands. He stared at his dusty palms, and then let his head fall on them. He stayed in that posture for a while. Everything around him was quiet again. The wind, the breathing, the heartbeat. It was hard to guess what went on in his mind but the muddy tears that flowed down his arms gave the secret away. Soon, his shoulders started to shake, and he broke into sobs. He cried like a child. He was the child who was sorry for all his wrongdoings and now sought refuge in his mother’s lap. Far away from his unaware mother, he cried to himself.

He had never been so lonely before, but with the loss of every tear that was stuck deep inside him for years, he started feeling better. To his left, the about to rise sun had turned the sky orange, but his eyes were too wet to notice it. And then the sun was high enough to peek from above the horizon. The first sun rays of the day pierced through the gaps between his fingers and made his eyes blink, kicking out a few tears off his eyelids. He wiped off the remaining from his cheeks and looked at the rising sun with squinted eyes. He couldn’t remember when the last time was when he had witnessed a sunrise. He had forgotten how beautiful it could be. A sunrise. Was that a sign, he thought? The night of dark had passed by and it was time to begin a new day of light. It was time to begin a new life.

He rubbed his eyes hard and then blinked a few times. In front of him, was the stunning valley that was painted with the first strokes of the sun. He thought of getting up but then decided to sit there for some more time. The scene was too captivating for him to leave. He noticed birds in the blue sky flying towards the town that had started to bustle now. As his eyes followed them, he spotted his own apartment or rather guessed it. His mind now diverted from nature to his new life. What will he do next? What all he can do? His mind was running again. The voice in his head started getting louder. He was back on the stage with the same audience, but only this time he was the one shouting and the audience listened. None of his older worries worried him anymore. He looked forward to his future, the bright future. He strongly felt that this small episode has been pivotal in him taking the leaps that he could never have otherwise. He needed this jolt to shed his baggage and embrace the opportunities that lied in front of him. He announced to his audience that he had been blessed with a second life, and he was going to make the most of it. Nobody and nothing can stop him from achieving what he will. His audience clapped and cheered. All the spotlights from around the stage focused on him. He raised his arms wide like a true champion.

A motorbike passing by brought the man back to reality. He couldn’t tell why but he was breathing heavily again. Instead of his grand speech, he was now hearing his heart knocking hard on his chest. He suddenly started feeling uneasy. He realized for the first time that his mouth had completely dried out. With a hope of finding a water bottle in the car, he tried standing up. In his first attempt, he could not. He then planted his right hand on the ground and pressed it down hard to push his body up. He was finally on his feet. But his head didn’t seem to be on his shoulders as it swayed in all directions. His head was the stage again, but this time everything around the stage was spinning. The rows of seats, where the audience sat, this time with worried faces, seemed to spiral into a whirlpool with no visible bottom. Before the man on the stage could react to what he saw, the whirlpool swallowed the stage down. And the man along with it.

It was a clean fall. There were no jitters whatsoever. There were no obstructions either. It can’t be said whether it was the heart or the brain that had turned off, but the man was completely unconscious when he had collapsed. And the head went for the cliff first. It was a long fall. His free-falling body might have turned more than ten times in the air before it was lost into nothingness. And it was a quiet fall. There was not a single scream, and the thud of the body hitting the bottom of the cliff couldn’t be heard by any soul. Nobody felt a thing. The man didn’t feel a thing. He had finally achieved what he had wished for. A painless suicide.

Back in his apartment, sunlight had made its way through the window next to his workstation. On the desk, the remaining, battered page of the notepad read:

How much more can I burn?

No fire left in me, after all

Am a useless piece of nothing

I guess, it’s my time to fall

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