Perilously close to entering their twenties, the gang of four was determined to make their last 'free' years count. They had a kind of bucket list ready, which was to be achieved before 20 and responsibility took over their lives. Engineering was beginning to seem like a drag and all four were sure they wanted nothing to do with it in real life. Getting into engineering college was almost a coming-of-age ritual in Kerala. Even if they didn't realise what they wanted, most kids decided early on in their course that engineering was most definitely what they didn't want. Then, the other cliche took over: goofing off, spending money on ludicrous and numerous 'affairs', failed subjects, the mounting pile of supplementary exams, building new hostel legacies, experimenting with interesting vices, and the ilk.
For a lucky few, the cliche became an epiphany when clarity arrived: when they realised their life's purpose; then, the engineering course became endurable because then it was one of the means that would help them attain what they wanted to do. Or, at the very least, it would become a bargaining chip in the domestic sphere... the 'See, dad, I finished the course for your sake. Now let me do what I want to do' kind.
Tojy, Prajith, Sebastian and Manu had had no such self-discovery. With happy-go-lucky as their middle name, the four firmly believed in coasting along until Life caught them and buckled them into the no-escape routines of careers and normalcy. Sebastian, or Seban as he was referred to, thought he could do a Vineeth Sreenivasan and bring in a whole new perspective to Malayalam cinema. But he wasn't really sure, and the only steps he had taken so far were to daydream about meeting all his favourite stars when he would be a hotshot moviemaker. And yes, phases of compulsive recording of his roomies at the most inconvenient times. Like when Tojy had the mother of all hangovers and Seban decided to do a little experiment on exactly how much light Tojy's alcohol-fogged brain could tolerate; Seban's iPhone 6s almost got wrecked that day and since then, he had been sticking to relatively less volatile subjects.
Tonight, Seban was fidgety. He had thought he would make a crazy video after the others were sufficiently high; he had had plans for an elaborate Truth or Dare session. But nothing was working out. He lay back on the grass and looked up at the sky. The stars were offering brief glimmers when the heavy clouds allowed them to peek through. They were in Prajith's hometown, a classic Kerala town poised perfectly in that no-man's land on the rural-urban divide. Just a few kilometres away from Prajith's house, there was a bustling town centre; but here, in this clearing--surrounded by rubber plantations and various other trees that the Gulf-born Seban couldn't even begin to recognise--it seemed like they were far away from civilisation. On all four sides, the trees crowded around in brooding melancholy, making 9 pm seem like midnight. Their phones were eerie glowworms in the middle of nowhere.
Tojy's buddy had promised them some Idukki Gold, and they had pooled in a ridiculous amount of money for the 'stuff'. What finally appeared, was rolled and smoked up didn't seem to have ever been within a 50-mile radius of Idukki district. Expectations. They always fuck you up, thought Seban, as he looked over at the other three, who were now peering into the empty Honey Bee bottle to see if there was any brandy left. The normally sober Manu seemed to be totally off his rockers tonight. He was now shaking the empty bottle straight into his open mouth. Seban gave an involuntary giggle; Manu was the most sensible of the lot, unless they got him sufficiently drunk. The stuff seemed to have worked well for him, it seemed. He was now dancing to an invisible tune around the dying bonfire, alternately balancing the bottle on his forehead and on one upturned palm.
Maybe it hadn't worked only for him, thought Seban. Tojy and Prajith too seemed pretty loose-limbed now and they were joining Manu in his crazy dance. Maybe it was time, thought Seban, looking at his phone. He sat up. But didn't. He was still lying on the grass, he realised. He could see the stars fading away, and strange dark shapes moving in, gobbling them up. Clouds, he reminded himself, they were clouds. Just clouds. He glanced at his phone and picked it up. It seemed to take ages for him to bring the screen up to his face. Was the gravity here stronger? 'Weird town,' he thought. 'Weirdass town. I must tell Prajith. That. I. Won't. Come. Back. Here. Hate. It. Weird. People. They. Just. Stare. And. Stare. And. Ask. Toomanykoschnsh. Kwes. Ques. Fuck! Fucking thing is just making me slur. In my head. Hahahahahahahaa.... Slurring. In my head.'
"EDAAAAAAA," he yelled. He was sure he heard himself. But the others were still dancing and made no sign that they had heard him. He realised he was staring at them on the phone's screen. He had somehow managed to start recording and not even realised it.
"Fuck. Fuck. M@*^#. Idukki Gold, my ass!" he said. Or thought he said. Those three were still merrily dancing. There was someone else with them now! Where had this guy come from? Was it a guy? Was it? He peered at the screen, rubbing his eyes in the hope of clearing them up. Looked distinctly female, he thought. Female. But in this town? Where everyone went to bed at 9? Was it possible? 'Yes,' he thought. 'YES! Love Prajith! This place! I am so coming back!' He turned his attention back to the screen. What were these guys doing? Were they dancing with her? Why is it so blurred? Zoom. Zoom, he thought, as he tried to pinch the screen. Fuck! It just wasn't happening!
Suddenly, her face filled his screen, her hair falling over her face, partially covering her wildly beautiful eyes and those red red lips... What was that dripping out of her mouth? It looked like blood... gross! And yet, she was radiant.
And cold. Her hands were icy. He felt them on his face. The silence was deafening. Where were the guys? He turned his head. Why were they lying down? Were they lying down? She was turning his head toward her now, licking her lips, lowering her mouth towards him. He was terrified now.
"Get off me!" He tried pushing her away but she seemed to be incredibly strong. Or maybe he was just too drunk. "Go away! No!" he yelled as her icy breath hit his face. Blood. It smelled of blood. He gagged.
"Noooooooo," he screamed, and put all his strength into pushing her off of him.
He sat up, panting. Sunlight was streaming in through the gap in the curtains. His head hurt like hell. He looked over at the others. Manu and Prajith lay coiled in a tight hug on the other bed. Tojy was fast asleep on the floor, curled up, his lungi doubling up as a quilt.
'Dream,' thought Seban, as he slowly got up, with slow and steady movements that wouldn't annoy his throbbing head any further. He moved up to the window, and pulled the curtains closed. Wincing, he smiled at Tojy's sleeping form.
'Weird dream,' he thought as he sat back on the bed. Almost on their own, his hands searched out the phone from under his pillow. 'What a dream!' He would have liked to shake his head in emphasis but it was way too painful. He checked his Videos. And there was a new video in there. The screenshot showed the grassy clearing, the bonfire and what must be Tojy and Prajith. 'So we had gone there after all,' he thought. 'Not everything was in my imagination.'
He played the video. The night seemed less darker than he had felt it was yesterday. The fire, Prajith and Tojy dancing, then a lot of blur, Tojy and Prajith again, and... he paused the video... was that a person or a shadow? But it was night and there was just the dying fire... would that throw a shadow? He played the video again, his heart racing. Blurred images again. There was just 30 seconds more to go... He peered intently into the screen. Suddenly her eerily mesmerising eyes and bloodstained lips filled the screen. The phone clattered to the floor, and Seban felt his world growing dark.