“Are you sure we are at the right place?” asked Reya looking out of the window.
“Map shows it. It is Area 153,” replied Tanay, still driving in the same direction.
“But why most of the houses are for sale or rent?” Reya had curiosity in voice.
“It’s good for us. We will get a wider choice of selection now.”
They parked the car in front of a modest sized house with a Neem tree in the front. They saw the signboard which read ‘For Rent’ and some people moving their luggage out of the house.
“Excuse me,” Reya approached one of the people. “Are you the landlord?”
“Yes,” replied a mid-aged lady with a faded smile as if she was trying to maintain the smile on her face. Rest of the people kept doing their work. This lady stood in front of Reya when Tanay reached these ladies.
“We are looking for a house to rent. May we take a look at your house?” said Reya. She was not sure about the lady’s reply as she seemed already busy. But to her surprise, the lady enthusiastically said, “Please. Welcome.”
As this newly-weds had expected, the house was ideal for the family of two; warm main hall, kitchen with a window over the platform and a cosy room on the ground floor. The first floor had two bedrooms; the master room and kids’ room. The house had enough windows to welcome the fresh air.
“I like this place, Tanay,” said Reya expectantly.
“Yeah, there is nothing wrong about this place. Plus it is quiet, like zero disturbance,” he replied.
“Ahem, may I show you the backyard?” the lady interrupted.
The couple finalized the house and shifted in no time. They also liked their easy-going landlord. Plus the rent was way more reasonable than they had expected.
“I can’t believe it, sweetheart. How can it be so perfect?” Reya exclaimed adjusting herself in Tanay’s arms with her coffee mug. They decided to celebrate their first evening in their new house with their favourite movie ‘The Holiday’.
“Let’s say that we are living our dream.” Tanay kissed Reya on her forehead and gripped her tightly.
The morning was beautiful for the couple. They enjoyed their breakfast under the beautiful Neem tree. But today was dedicated to unpacking the boxes and cartons. They had decided to eat out.
Reya was waiting for her order to get prepared in the queue while Tanay was busy finishing his phone calls. He was not going to go to work for the next couple of days, so he had brought his work home. In the adjacent queue, Reya heard a woman talking on a phone. She was explaining some house condition and the rent. But the name of the area alerted her. The woman was talking about the Area 153.
After that woman finished her call, Reya asked her, “Hey, are we neighbours?”
Obviously, that woman didn’t understand. Making herself clearer, Reya said, “You also live in Area 153?”
“Oh,” said the woman suspiciously. “We just shifted, but our house is still there, for rent.”
“We just rented a house there,” said Reya.
“You came to live there?” asked the woman with terror.
Reya looked at her, puzzled. That woman’s stare was difficult to understand. Before Reya could ask further, the attendant on the other side of the counter handed her the parcel and she left.
The heavy wind was blowing and messing with the tall trees and roofs welcoming the first rain. Before the dry clothes would get wet again, Reya left the un-packing aside and went to the backyard to gather the clothes off the wires. While doing that, she heard an alarming voice of some cry. She craned in the direction of the cry but found no human body. It sounded more like a baby’s cry. After listening to it more carefully, she could say that the sound was coming from one particular house which was visible from her backyard. She rushed in and looked for Tanay who was packing his laptop bag.
“Baby, I have to go to the office,” said Tanay as soon as he saw Reya. He took the keys.
“But it is still your day off,” she said.
“I know but my boss is freaking out; having some emergency in the product launch. We have only one week to go. So have to rush.” He planted a kiss on her cheek and left the house.
Reya went to the kitchen to put the lunch in the refrigerator. For a moment, she forgot about the sound until it reminded her soon after the wind slowed down and the cry took over the silence.
Reya was standing in front of the house from which the sound of cry was coming. She stood near the ‘For Rent’ signboard. To her surprise, the sound of cry was replaced by the barking. A couple of dogs came from behind the house, barking at the house. “How unusual,” thought Reya.
“Are you sure it was a cry?” Tanay was not sure about Reya’s information.
While sipping the soup, Reya said, “I am sure. In fact, I can say that it was a baby’s cry.”
“How can you say that?” said Tanay, taking another chapatti from the casserole.
“It was severe and sharp, like a cry of hunger.” She looked lost.
“Reya,” he said. “We are starting a new journey. Let nothing disturb it, sweetheart. Let’s just focus on making our house more beautiful.”
His warm smile comforted her. His energetic words always brought hopes to Reya. But suddenly she spoke, “And yes, the dogs were also barking; first at the house and then at me.”
He stopped eating his food, “At you?”
“I was curious to see-”
“See what?” he interrupted rapidly. “You went near that house? Reya, come on. You can’t do that.”
“What if someone had just fallen in the ground? What if it is a baby and no one notices it?” she argued.
“It is none of our business, Reya. That house is for rent. No one could be there. And you are also not supposed to go there,” he tried to convince her.
She nodded and they went back to their dinner.
Tanay got indulged into the product launch which meant no lunches at home and late dinners. They had thought that they would spend enough time in their new home but the scenario changed. The quiet became more noticeable. She started realizing that empty neighbourhood was not something peaceful; in fact, it was atypical. Every now and then, she would recall that lady’s terrified look in the restaurant; was she trying to make her aware of something? And to add more into her anxiety, the baby’s cry would not stop coming. Every afternoon, between 12 to 1 pm, that sound would come, around 1 pm, the dogs would bark and the sound would halt until 12 pm the next day.
This course started scaring Reya. She tried to talk to Tanay about this, but discouragement on the subject was all she got in the reply. “Do you think the house is haunted? Because I don’t believe in this stuff, you know that” he would say.
Last night, Tanay did not come home. He said that he would meet her directly for the next day’s dinner.
Reya took the bottle of beer out of the refrigerator in the kitchen when she heard the distant cry again. She looked at the wall clock above the refrigerator; yes, 12:15 it was. Closing the refrigerator’s door without taking the bottle out, she walked to the platform and looked out of the window. She rested her hands on the platform and paid attention to the sound. Yes, it was in the order; baby’s cry, dogs’ barking, and the silence. The chain of thoughts kept churning in her mind; even if it is a baby’s cry then why would it stop and to whom those dogs were barking? She took a deep breath and left the kitchen.
One more time, Reya was standing in front of the house; this time, near the gate. The gate was locked. She walked to the backyard of the house. An old wooden gate was locked from the inside. But what was that; fresh footmarks near the step in the wet soil. That indicated that whoever it was, it was upstairs. She observed the house from a distance. The windows were tightly closed but there was, too, something different about it. In one pair of the window, one glass of the pair was precisely removed; it was neither broken nor cracked. She could feel her heartbeats. Should she enter the house and finish the daily course of her curiosity or she should just listen to Tanay and leave the matter? But she could not live with the cry which had started haunting her.
She inhaled and climbed the gate. She landed near the footmarks; someone might have landed here a few minutes ago, she thought. Those dogs were back. They started barking at her. She could connect this act with every day’s sequence too. She already had goosebumps. “Please don’t prove it to be my biggest mistake,” she prayed silently. Her heart was throbbing with each step she took to upstairs. She stopped at the corner step from where another set of steps were yet to cross on the left. She wished she had taken some stick or any kind of tool with her. Now it scared her. She was weapon-less and helpless. She could not turn back as she feared an attack from the back and she could not take a step ahead as she was scared of facing some scary figure. What if those dogs had alerted whoever was in the house at this time? She felt a gulp in her throat.
Either way, she had to go; Reya chose to take a step ahead. Her wide eyes fell on the empty stairs ahead. What a great relief! She quickly crossed the stairs and reached a lobby. She looked around; oh no, she couldn’t even spot her own house from here. Suddenly she realized that she hadn’t taken her phone with her. What a stupid mistake!
Only one closed door was there at the end of the lobby. She walked to the door which was unlocked. She pushed the door and shifted herself opposite the door to get just a look from the far. A room of modest size was illuminated by the sunlight coming from the semi-opaque window glass and one big gap on the window. It didn’t look scary but the feeling of being alone with a cry and possibility of some other figure, looking at her from any corner almost killed her. She waited at the doorstep and tried to listen to something, anything that could send her off. But she got nothing. Was it a welcome sign or the silence before the attack?
She entered the room, definitely afraid of looking around. The room was messed up. For now, only some spider families had rented the room, it seemed.
She tried to say a few words, but speaking in such sheer silence seemed weird to her. But the silence itself was freaking her out. She took up the vase from the table near the door and kicked the table to create some noise. And it worked; she heard the cry. Yes, the cry came from somewhere around. It was coming from a cupboard on her right. A human was in the room and she felt good after all. She reached near the cupboard and opened it. A baby was lying on the floor in the shelf-less cupboard. She gasped a breath and picked the baby up. Yes, that severe cry she had been hearing for days. She tried to calm the baby down and cradled the baby in her arms.
“Why are you here?” Reya spoke very softly as if the baby was going to answer. “Are you hungry?”
The cry wouldn’t stop. It became sharper. She hugged the baby, “Who are you dear? Where is your mother? Are you alone here?” Her loving voice didn’t comfort the baby. At this moment, Reya could feel nothing but the warmth of that baby. She forgot about the fear she went through a few minutes ago.
“How can I help you, dear?” Reya said again.
“Can you help us?” A female voice came from her behind. She looked around, petrified. A woman of her age and height was standing in front of her. She had a messed up appearance with dull eyes and dry lips. A worn-out salwar-kameez and scratches on her hands and face showed that she had some rough days lately. But Reya was speechless. ‘How could any of this be real,’ she thought.
That woman spoke again, “Can you?”
“Why are you here?” Reya tried to talk.
That woman said nothing, just stared. It didn’t scare Reya anymore. Her fear was lost but a strange moment of uneasiness caught her.
“We live here; I and my daughter, Suni,” said the woman and offered her hands to take the baby from Reya. The baby stopped crying as soon as she went to her mother’s arms.
“This is not your house, is it?” Reya asked further.
“No. We just live here, in the room.”
“Why? What happened? Why do you live like a ghost?” said Reya.
The edging tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks.
“I live in the neighbourhood. This is not a place to live, especially with a baby. How can you even breathe here?” Reya looked at the spider webs across the room. “Let’s go.”
Reya gave the woman washed clothes and made a cup of tea for her. Suni slept on the sofa. The woman was sitting on the sofa near the baby while Reya sat facing them both. She gave her some time to gather herself. They might have gone through the worst, she could figure out.
Finding herself slightly comfortable, the woman spoke, “I am Tisha. It was around this time last year, I was raped.”
Reya’s hands got cold and ears felt burning.
“I am sick of describing the incident, so I would skip that part. Because even after screaming the truth, no one accepted me. I was declared impure and untouchable. I was literally thrown out of my home. No one was allowed to speak to me.” Tisha’s voice had agony but her face was expressionless like she had pain in her heart but her thick skin didn’t allow to show. She continued, “When they came to know that I was pregnant, they called me back and suggested me to go for an abortion. I went to the hospital and sat in the queue to meet the doctor. Many expecting mothers had come with their husbands or families. I was the only one who had nobody. Though my family had called me back, I had lost all the bonds with them; even after knowing that I was the victim of the dreadful incident, my family was the first to accuse me. That day, I had become an orphan. And aborting my child would make me alone all again. So I decided against the abortion for my own sake. I didn’t want to be alone for the rest of my life. Obviously, my family was not happy with my decision, but they somehow dealt with it. And when I gave birth to Suni, they tried to take her away and send her to an orphanage. I opposed them. They hit me and shut me up. So one day, I took Suni and ran away and reached this city where no one knew me.”
“And you came here to live in a locked house,” Reya spoke.
“Your family has no idea where you are?” Reya asked.
“They have no idea whether I am alive. I wish I could send a message to them saying that their daughter died,” Tisha said.
“You should not say that,” Reya notified,
“When I gave birth to Suni, I had won my world back, you know. And with her, I am living in my own little world. I know that the life is no good. She deserves more. But at least we have each other. And what if my family finds out about us and they would try to take Suni away again?” Tisha’s voice had energy and restlessness.
“But if no one knew you here, then why didn’t you start a fresh life, a decent one?” Reya felt concerned.
“I have to work every morning. By the noon, Suni gets hungry. I had to use the back stairs and when I come, the dogs bark at me a lot. I somehow manage to crawl into the room. But one day, one of the dogs followed me. I don’t remember why, but I was not around and that dog was sniffing Suni. That day, I killed the dog and threw it in the back of the house.”
“You killed the dog?” Reya exclaimed.
Tisha nodded. “And since then, people started having suspicions as they were relating baby’s cry, dogs’ barking and now, the dead dog.” She shook head and smiled. “I tried to live a normal life, but this world is no safe for a woman like me.”
“They have emptied almost the entire area, you know that,” Reya said.
“But you came when everyone was leaving. Weren’t you afraid?” Tisha asked.
“We had no idea what was happening. And yes, I was afraid when I was coming to see where the sound of the cry was coming from,” Reya replied.
“But still you came and held the baby. What if it was abandoned?” Tisha’s voice got more sincere.
Their conversation broke when the door opened. Reya saw Tanay at the door. “You came early?” She got up and walked to him. Tanay welcomed the guest and the sleeping one too.
Reya began to explain, “Tanay, this is the baby.”
Tanay didn’t understand at first. She said further, “The baby who had been crying?”
The lines on Tanay’s forehead got deeper. Reya briefed him, totally unaware of his reaction. And he shouted at Tisha, “Are you insane, lady?”
“Tanay,” Reya put her hand on his shoulder. He realized soon and got up to leave the room. Reya followed him telling Tisha to not go anywhere.
“Tanay,” she spoke as soon as they entered another room. He turned towards her and blasted, “What’s going on? And why is she here?”
“I brought here…”
“You what?” he said breaking her sentence.
“You hadn’t come home and the cry was not letting me think of anything else. So I had to… please don’t get mad,” she tried to explain.
“You actually went into that house? God, Reya. What if something went wrong?” He still couldn’t believe her.
“What if I didn’t go there? What if nobody went there for months? That woman would have kept living in even worse condition and whenever she would be found out, she would be called some witch or harpy or God knows what. Nothing happened to me; in fact, something good happened to a little family. Just look at the bright side. That baby can have a good life,” she said.
“Where will they go now?” he came to the point.
“Well, she can get a better job, work more or take help of some NGO now. All she needs is the confidence to face people. She has to believe that everyone is not the same. There are people who she can trust. Just look at her; she is so young and a single mother. She chose to live like a ghost instead of going to social service and ask for help. She is traumatized,” Reya put all her effort into planning a good life for Tisha.
“And the baby?” he asked.
Reya didn’t answer in words but he listened. “No Reya,” he exhaled.
“She will be safe with us,” she spoke slowly.
“We have dreams. I am doing overtime; you’ll be joining your office soon. We work hard so that we’ll be able to live the future of our dream. Please don’t forget that. We planned so much before coming here,” he said earnestly.
“Plans change. And this change will be temporary. We are keeping one family safe here. As soon as Tisha finds a better job and a house, they will move there,” she spoke holding his hands.
“Okay. Let’s do this,” he said.
Reya smiled widely. He spoke again, “Hey, I love you.” She kissed on his forehead and went out of the room to break the good news to Tisha. But all she saw was an empty room with an empty sofa. Reya called, “Tisha, Tisha.”
Tanay followed her. Reya went upstairs to check if she had gone there. Tisha and Suni were not there. Reya searched the entire house, but no, she didn’t find them. Tanay looked in the backyard, but he didn’t find there them.
Reya went out of the house and ran towards the locked house where Tisha had been staying. She kept screaming her name. Tanay followed her there too. They climbed the gate and went upstairs. The room was empty. Reya looked into the cupboard where she had spotted Suni earlier. But they got disappointed when they found nobody.
“Tisha,” Reya shouted. She was angry more than worried. She had thought about giving the family a new life but they left without any notification. She felt hurt, betrayed as if something which she was attached to was lost.
Tanay tightly held Reya’s shoulders from the back and rubbed them calming her down. He whispered in her ears, “You are okay. They are gone. Let them go. If she trusts you, they will come back.”
“Why wouldn’t she trust me? She was living here, in this mess. She needed a fresh start, a better life,” she said in a broken voice.
“People like Tisha find it hard to trust other people. You can’t put yourself in her shoes. You can never understand what they have gone through or what they are experiencing. You have to let it go.” Tanay took Reya home.
Reya looked at the clock. It was 12 in the noon and she heard no cry. She missed that cry. She went out in the backyard and craned to look at the locked house. But saw nothing. She came back in the house and found Tanay opening two bottles of beers.
“You came home?” she exclaimed. “Is the product launch done?”
“No,” he replied.
“Then why are you here?” She didn’t understand his sudden show-up.
“It can be launched without me. But you want to have this beer with me. I know that.” He handed her the bottle and went to the main room. The TV was on and it showed the title, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’. It was time for their another favourite movie.