Sunidhi anxiously looked at her watch; already 10.30 pm. The local train was moving at a speed which could easily give a tough competition to a snail.
Outside, it was pitch dark except those occasional gleams from roadside small shops, which, in spite of their earnest endeavor, were failing to outcast the shadows of the night. Sunidhi cursed herself.
There was, to be honest, no need to catch up with Soham today. She could have postponed the rendezvous with her ex-husband. But, she wanted to settle the matter as quickly as possible before Soham could make any sniffy move turning the table to his favour. The property was sure to become a lucrative one in few years and, a man like Soham, who never had loved anything more in his life but money, could go any further to have his hold on it. And, Sunidhi was aware of that. So, she wanted to act quick. Though a tiring conversation between them and their respective lawyers; followed by a harangue, was the only outcome and was enough to further the acrimony between them.
“Damn it!” She gritted her teeth.
Well, she could not undo it now. What was gnawing her from within at this moment was the thought of the unavailability of conveyances at this hour. This simply meant she had to walk alone about two kilometers to reach home. The very thought gave her a chill down the spine.
The pace of the train slowed down, even more, indicating the arrival of her destination. Sunidhi arranged herself to get down. A few seconds and, the shrill whistle of the train broke the silence of the night. The serpentine body slowly disappeared leaving a gloomy, uncanny trail of light thickening the darkness.
As she had anticipated, there was no rickshaw out there. A few other late-night passengers had already started their journey towards home.
Even the magazine stall and the local shops outside the station were down with their shutters locked. The resident booze-hound of the station was languishing by the side of the exit gate. Three dogs were barking continuously at him and, a few flies were trying to gather their dinner as they settled themselves on his pesky face. Sunidhi had a loathing for drunkards and, that was one of the numerous reasons that her relation with Soham went awry. At the far end of the platform, she could see a faint beam of light as the local tea-shop was half-closed. Not a single soul was to be seen on the road leading to her home, outside the station.
Sunidhi felt the spring-knife in her handbag; she had bought it a month ago after the incident, which stormed this otherwise peaceful suburb.
“I have to reach home ….safe.” She mumbled as if to console herself and stepped outside the station shade.
The light emitting from the roadside lamp-posts was doing a fairly good job though was not strong enough to strengthen her shaken soul. Sunidhi just couldn’t help but think of the murder; it took place one month back and, became the headline of all the leading newspapers.
The dead body of a middle-aged man, unknown to the locals, was discovered on this very road one fine morning. The ruthlessness of the murder, the brutality with which the throat was slit open, gave a shudder to the onlookers. Even the seasoned police officials found it gruesome enough. Later investigation claimed it to be a political murder. The authorities declared, that, the peace and security of this small town were by no means at stake. But the palpable veil of horror still hovered over the town.
Sunidhi’s thought-waves got interrupted by the sound of a muffled cough. Startled, she instinctively looked behind to discover the silhouette of a man walking along at a steady pace as if to catch up with her own. Goosebumps! She shivered with her speed accelerating involuntarily.
“Is he following me? From the station? Why? Or maybe, I’m imagining things. He is just another poor soul, trying to reach his home at the earliest!”
She was striving to get a satisfactory explanation. But nothing seemed to work. She looked back only to receive sure signs of the man following her maintaining a definite distance. As he passed the last lamp-post, the dull light faintly revealed his face for a moment.
He was a stranger; she had never seen him before in this small town.
Beads of sweats popped up on Sunidhi’s forehead as fear was strengthening its grip on her.
Terror! That the feeling could be so intense and painful, Sunidhi had no idea. She was feeling helpless. The long, dense, shadows of the trees from either side of the road were making her claustrophobic…. as if they were holding out their dark trunks to clasp her, to stop her breathe. Any moment and, the cold touch of death would reach out for her.
“Oh no!” She whispered, “I don’t want to die….please God please”.
She looked back again. He was still there following her maintaining the same distance. Perhaps, he was savouring the terror he inflicted on her. He was in no hurry. He was just following her, slowly, but steadily.
“Who is the man? Perhaps, Soham has recruited someone to wipe me out, but then again, I know him for three years; he is shrewd, he lacks those basic qualities which make a good husband, but he is not a murderer.”
Suddenly, another thought struck her and, made her numb.”Is he following me with more sinister intention? To destroy my physical integrity?”
A thin layer of night fog was slowly moving across the road like a wolf stalking its prey. Sunidhi could feel the icy touch of the fog in her veins. Nothing could escape the fog’s relentless sidle, she knew.
“It will devour me, too”.
She became numb with fear, trying to breathe through her open mouth as she began to run. The footsteps behind her perturbed the silence of the night.The man was running along with her! She wanted to shout, but nothing came out except a stifled shriek. No one to seek help. The road ahead was absolutely desolate.
The barking of a stray dog jolted her back to senses. She had to think of something …..she couldn’t let herself be a victim so easily. With a throbbing head and a pounding heart, she was frantically searching for something that could be of any help. She remembered her knife … but would she be able to use it?
“I must, I have to overpower fear.”
Sunidhi increased her speed as she was approaching the point where the road took a sharp right turn. She knew very well, that, there stood an age-old banyan tree whose thick, woody, prop roots could provide her with the momentary shelter which she needed. The man was lagging quite a few yards behind her which meant she would be out of his sight for a few seconds as soon as she would take the turn.
With all the courage left inside her, she ran towards the tree and, hid behind it. Her hands trembled as she was fumbling in her bag for the knife.
“Yes, there it is” Holding the knife tightly in her hand, she waited, breathless.
The man reached there in no time and, stood right in front of the tree. He looked perplexed, the ups and downs of his chest indicated he was breathing heavily in short gasps. He stood there for a moment and, then nodded his head as if in despair. He turned his back to the tree and put his hand inside his bag to bring out something.
This is the moment, act now! Strike.
Sunidhi couldn’t think of any action but one. Coming out of her hiding place silently, with all her might, she shoved her elbow hard into the man’s side making him losing his balance. The man lurched forward and, as he caught sight of the knife, whose shiny serrated edge was reflecting the light of the street lamps, he gave out a wild, desperate, yell.
Sunidhi was now watching him; a middle-aged man, terror written all over his face. It seemed some pieces of the puzzle were not falling in their places. Sunidhi hesitated for a moment, then burst out.
“Why are you following me? Speak out …..come out with the truth ..”
The man grimaced.
“I wanted to reach this address and, asked about the direction (he took out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket as he said) to the chaiwallah at the station. He told me as it was quite late and, I’m new to this place, it would be better if I hire a rickshaw or something. I tried hard to get one, but there was none. Just then the train arrived and, we noticed you. The chaiwallah said he knew you and, the address would not be very far from your place. So, I would reach safely if I follow you ….. that’s all ma’am …I swear.”
He was almost on the verge of crying as he added, “I’m an old man you see, you have shoved me so hard, it’s painful ..really painful.”
Sunidhi stood there. Flabbergasted. Searching for appropriate words of apology.
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