I awake to see everywhere in the room bright and beautiful and as I glance at the digital clock hanging firmly on the wall across, it reads 10:15am. Doubting it, I grab my wrist watch and it confirms it.
“What! I can’t believe I’ve been sleeping for the past 12 hours." I can’t tell how it happened but it did. Maybe they were right after all. I feel much better. I sit on the bed for a while trying to figure out my first task in this new home, and suddenly the thoughts of the events of the last four months start pouring like torrents of a November rain into my subconscious mind.
Annie and I have been living our quiet lives for about six months, back in Atlanta before that ugly incident happened. She, a Home Decorator and I, a private Computer Analyst. We weren’t married yet but plans were underway. It’s not that we had the best of relationship but we took a decision to be together for life. Two reasons I love Annie: firstly, she’s the only one who perfectly understands me and may have read me like an interesting novel. Secondly, she has been the only woman I ever wooed all by myself. The previous two were done by Max, my friend.
On that fateful Thursday, the 16th of January, 2020, I had called Annie earlier to let her know I would be home late because of the workload in the office. She was home already trying to make dinner. It was about 4:35pm.
The feeling that greeted me when I approached our apartment wasn’t just right and I could sense it. I felt some sort of emptiness and fear that was inexplicable. I unconsciously ran to the door and opened it with force and...
“Sweetie, I'm back,” I yelled rather than just calling. There wasn’t any response.
“Sweetie, where are you? I said I’m back.” No response still. My knees started growing weak and numb as I crawled from one point to another. My hands trembled as I fumbled with my phone to call who? 911, my parents, siblings, Max?
Joe, calm down so you can think straight, my heart told me.
I took a deep breath still sitting on the floor and I called Max. He's the only one I can count on in a moment like this because he knows how to perfectly give a helping hand and clean messes.
Max and I have been friends from childhood but unfortunately, we've been friends in need rather than indeed. Yes. It’s a mutual thing from both sides. Betrayal and covetousness on his part, envy and jealousy on mine. Even though most times we pretend all is well as it’s common with humans.
It was so bad at a point that I became really discomfited and had to visit a surgeon to get rid of the cancerous element eating me dry. I was booked to return in a week for the operation.
Two nurses in green vestments and masks wheeled me into the theater after the necessary cleanup.
“Doc, are you sure I’ll be okay after this surgery?”
“I guess so.”
“Or…emm…I hope so. There is a 30% possibility of a regrowth, that’s if the post surgery care isn’t taken seriously.”
“30% is much.”
“Yes, you can choose not to be a part of that.”
“Y..yes of.. course.”
I didn’t feel any outright pain but I could feel the movement of his gloved hands and the pressure. He pulled out a huge wrinkled heart-shape lump the size of a baseball. He held it up in a bit to examine it better and I quickly recognized it as my envy and jealousy for Max for being smarter and more confident that me; the very reason for the operation. I thought the doctor would have been done by now but I was wrong.
I blinked slowly and I saw some slimy masses all covered in grime from the enormously dirty surroundings – that I knew was my resentment against my sisters and their nosy friends who nicknamed me Sissy and made me felt less a man. Next came a cluster of worm-like lumps twisted into a spongy amoebic substance – my hatred for my classmates who had turned me into an object of ridicule and bully. Everything was supposedly pulled out and I was believed to be perfectly fine.
I think I lost it in the post surgery Dos and Don’ts. The big lump grew back – the envy and jealousy came back. I couldn’t conquer it. I couldn’t tell why.
As expected, Max came as fast as he could. That’s one thing you can’t take from him, always there in time of need. An excellent staff for 911, I suppose.
“Joe, I didn’t get what you were saying on the phone,” he said, panting more than I have been.
“Max, I’m afraid Annie may be in danger. She’s missing,” I said with uncontrollable tears.
“Sshhh! Don’t you ever spit out such gibberish. Do you know what you're insinuating?”
“Maybe I don’t but she has never left the house like this and her phone is switched off.”
Max snatched the phone aggressively from my hand in a manner that made it looyk like I was the culprit. He dialed her number again and the response was still the same …the number you dial is switched off…. He kept dialing and kept ignoring the response as if he could change it in the next try. Together we called, family, friends and places she could or couldn’t go, all to no avail. Max suggested we involved the police right away and he paid for the initial investigation.
Three and a half months had passed yet no sign of Annie. My life was practically reduced to a mere shadow, losing grip of my very existence each passing day. I started seeing and hearing things. As the cacophony of my life grew, my family suggested a change of environment.
“No. I don’t want to leave here until Annie returns,” I said amidst tears.
“We understand, buddy but we all think that would do you a lot of good,” Max responded, patting me softly on my shoulder. The rest of the family members nodded in affirmation.
“You don’t have to worry, we'll handle all of that, okay,” Sarah, the eldest of my sisters added.
A week later, she came and handed me some cash and a pass she got from her police friend without which I couldn’t travel. That day, I relocated to Augusta.
A siren from down the street brings me back to the present, to reality. I dash out to the nearest mall to get some groceries. In the mall, as I turn a corner to pick the last item on my list, I bump into a weird looking man, a ragamuffin of some sort, judging by his dressing of crazily torn jeans. He looks at me sternly as if we had met before and I had offended him then.
“I'm sorry sir.”
No response from him.
I turn to steal another look when we walk pass and he also turns. What a coincidence!
At the counter, I look from the corners of my eyes to see what he’s buying and to my amazement, it’s an old newspaper that was brought from the archives. What! He hurries out as soon as he pays double for it while he gives me another stern look. I delay a bit, intentionally going round the shelves again checking for things I won’t buy just to be sure I don’t go right after him. I step out of the mall, looking right, left and around like an FBI spy. I look at my watch, pretending I’m late for an appointment or something so I can run to my car unsuspiciously. That’s what we do sometimes. I succeeded. My heart pounds profusely either by reason of the unwarranted exercise or the fear of the stranger or both. I fumbled around my pockets guessing where my car key is. I move to open the door and I'm startled by someone clearing his throat behind me. I turn to see it’s the man from the mall. I don’t know the emotions to exhibit, whether anger or fear. Fear has an upper hand. I stand there not sure if I’m still breathing.
“Can you help me out? I forgot to put out my lights and my battery is drained,” he says in a muffled husky voice that makes me discombobulated.
“Oh! So sorry, sir, my car is batteryless.” The words force themselves out after some seconds. I lied but I'm glad I did. He looks at me like a professional mind reader as if to say you’re lying. I zoom off as fast as I can.
In the cool of the evening the following Saturday, I decide to stroll to the park down the street. The few people I meet there are strictly observing social distance, staying two to three benches apart. I follow suit and sit at the extreme end eastwards. I sit there juggling imaginations, fears, anxiety, insecurity and their likes and the strange man is in all of them. At a point, I miss it as an armature and I allow everything to crash in front of me. I’m happy at least that I can cool off my head for once. I look unbothered at the stuff and intending to not pick up any. But my gaze is cut short by a familiar sound, when I turn, it’s that man again. I can’t believe he’s stalking me but don’t have the courage to ask him why. Maybe everybody was right about me not being man enough. I feel deeply sorry for myself as I hurriedly leave the park.
I haven’t walked two meters yet when I start hearing footsteps right behind me, too close for comfort.
“Excuse me, Mr.” the husky voice echoes behind me.
I stood there like a statue of bondage, completely lost for words.
“I’m talking to you, Mr.”
“Y...yes, Sir.” I stammer as life returns to me. As I turn to face him, I can feel warm droplets of urine flow down my thighs.
“Take a look at this,” he hands me an old newspaper that I suppose it’s the same one he got from the mall last week. He gives me a meter distance.
“Whaaat! I scream as I look again at the picture displayed on the page.
“It’s Annie and I, and Annie has been missing for four months,” I say, breaking down in tears.
“Please, Sir help me if you have any clues…”
“Enough. Follow me.”
I can’t tell whether it's a good idea to follow him but I don’t care because for Annie, I’m ready to do anything. I follow behind and we get to an apartment. He waves me to a seat in the balcony, maybe not wanting to risk his family in this era of pandemic. He pulls out a small bottle of sanitizer from his left pocket, after doing the needful he enters into the house. In less than a minute, he comes out with another paper. This time, it’s a photocopied photograph of two people. I strain my eyes to identify them and…
“Oh my God! This is Annie here, and Max.”
“Who’s Max? And try not to scream again.”
“Okay. Okay. Max is my friend, my best friend so to say. He's…”
“Where’s he now?”
“Well, I'm afraid he has your missing friend.”
“No. No. No, sir, that can’t possibly be. No…”
“When you're convinced, we'll talk…tomorrow…at the park,” he muffles in his usual manner and enters his house, shutting the door quickly behind him.