Vikram looked around one last time before he got inside the tent and secured it from the inside. He knew the jungle tad too well to leave any chance for the night’s predators! Vikram was a handsome young forester who chose it by will. None of his friends could believe that such a soft-hearted boy they knew in school would wear the Khaki and roam the forests without a glimpse of fear. Well, we can leave alone the fear part for now! But yes, Vikram loved nature and adventures and being a forester let him explore both extensively at work.
Vikram saw a flicker through the tent’s transparent sheet window. It didn’t seem familiar. Not a cat, not even the big ones that came to patrol in the night! This seemed strange enough to invoke a drop of fear in the otherwise brave cop’s mind. Cop, as his friends called him proudly, made him also quite proud. He had a great group of friends and thanks to smartphones, he could keep in touch with them at least when posted in those fortunate places that had some range. The ranger always longed to be posted in forests that offered mobile range, at least at some locations!
The flicker seemed closer this time! Has anyone trespassed? That’s the first question that came to the ranger’s mind. But this seemed way too vague for humans! Through the window, he tried to focus on the direction from where the flicker came. Two glowing balls of fire stared at Vikram from the other side of the window he was looking through. Vikram was taken aback. Did he really see that? Or was he hallucinating? Or is this a nightmare?
Vikram could sense some movement around the tent. He caught hold of his torch, gun and the latti wondering what that thing could be! Those eyes were not angry or intense, rather inquisitive. He tried to get a glance through the same window, a little hesitant though before he decided to step out and check. His experience told him it was not an animal, though it could be someone trying to play a prank on him. There were at least 100 questions and images in front of him before he opened the tent cautiously and peeked out. Everything seemed calm around him. It was just the jungle and the insects exploring the dark.
He unzipped the tent fully and stepped out. He stretched himself in the dark though he remained alert. Did something move to his right? Not nearby, though, in the woods, as if it got alerted to sense a movement in the dark! He got double alert and pointed his rifle which he always kept loaded, just in case one of those big cats played a quick prank! It was pitch dark and unusually quiet. The silence scared Vikram a little more! He could imagine quite a lot – a predator, a hunter, a thug, or could it be something else? That final thought had his adrenaline shoot up!
Vikram was well-equipped to combat the rest of the threats. But what if it’s something else? Something he was not aware of; something supernatural as they say! His steps faltered a little at that thought. He stumbled upon something on the ground and lost balance, though not completely. That one moment of distraction brought back those two inquisitive fireballs up close to him. There they were, right in front of Vikram, shining bright, nothing short of raging fire contained in two circles.
Vikram felt numb. He couldn’t move. His fear had turned true! He couldn’t muster enough courage to look away from those fire balls. They seemed looking at him, longingly. He stole a moment to look around and beyond the eyes staring at him. His fears started running amok! He felt as if the ground was melting beneath his feet. And then he lost it!
Vikram woke up to the rain falling on his face. It was a wet day and he had no clue what time of the day it was! He sensed the latti and gun on his hands and that’s when he remembered the last night. He stood upright within a moment and looked around. There was no one as usual. He tried to recollect the night second by second. He started talking to himself. That’s one thing the jungle taught him. Talk to yourself to keep good company! Talking aloud kept most of the animals and birds safely away and the ones who managed to come near were friendly enough. Of course, he knew where to keep his mouth shut, in the jungle, at office and definitely at home!
Once the last night’s images flashed in front of his eyes again, especially, the fiery eyes with nothing else around, he composed himself and looked around. He cautiously walked into the tent, fearing someone, rather, something waiting inside for him! It was empty, just the way he had left it at night. He suddenly sensed a swift movement behind and turned swiftly. The startled chameleon stared at Vikram for a moment and ran for its life! Vikram heaved a breath of relief. It must have been a nightmare. Probably, the silence and darkness are playing a prank on his empty mind.
But something on the table caught his attention and he froze. “Catch you tonight!” – was scribbled on the table made of plastic! Could it be any colleague playing a prank? He called up the base to check if anyone else had been posted to aid him. Since the tent camps are known only to the base station, there was no other way a colleague could spot him. Trespassers won’t dare this act and no one was allowed in the seemingly dangerous forest which the ranger was protecting!
“Catch you tonight!” what did that mean? Is it going to literally catch me and eat alive? Or is it planning to enter my body, as the movies show, the ghosts possessing live people’s body? He once again tried to recall the previous night. He was now sure that this was not someone, rather something that’s trying to catch hold of him! The ranger couldn’t call or share his situation with anyone as his phone had indeed no range deep in that forest. He did think of returning to the base, but was not sure how he would explain it all to the officers there! He felt awfully stuck in that moment, deep inside the forest, where he wanted to explore nature and adventure.
As darkness started to strike the forest, everything soon turned pitch dark! Darkness reminded Vikram of the devil. The devils always wore black, dark and pitch black. It must be the devil, looking out to catch me tonight. Vikram confirmed it in his mind and got ready for an encounter that could even be his last. He thought about his friends, family, neighbours, colleagues and others he knew. He even remembered the small neighbourhood kid who bids bye to him every time he leaves for duty. He wondered how they would even know he was no more! He wondered how he would tell them about the devil that caught him in the dark! He was prepared, for the encounter.
The wait seemed endless and he dozed off! A swift movement and some warmth near his face woke Vikram from his restless sleep. He woke up startled to find those inquisitive fiery eye balls near his face. He was scared to death! But he still felt that the eyes were not angry or hungry, rather they were asking him questions! One blink and he saw a black long form in front that contained those eyes, as if the devil realized Vikram’s dilemma.
It looked like a black version of Casper (the friendly ghost) to Vikram. His fear turned into a question as the black Casper started looking at Vikram from a short distance. Now, looking from a distance, there was two pairs of eyes looking inquisitively at each other, wondering what the other was up to!
Vikram gained confidence and asked the other
“Who or what are you? And what are you doing here? Don’t you know it is a protected range and you are not permitted inside the forest?”
To this, the black Casper seemed not interested at all. It was still gazing around the tent as if trying to find something lost. But what happened the next moment startled Vikram. The thing started talking, in English!!! “I am not black Casper as you are thinking! I am not here to eat you too or possess your body. So keep those fears away. I don’t need anyone’s permission to check on someone who has trespassed into my region!” Vikram could hear his heartbeat louder than ever! He was not only startled by the thing talking, that too in English, but also shocked to hear that he, the ranger, who had all the rights and duties to look after the forest protected by their government, was a trespasser.
Vikram was determined not to be tricked. So he repeated his question. “You better stop playing the prank and surrender now! Or else, I will shoot you now, at this moment.” His fear was all gone and he was in the questioning mode now. Vikram continued, “Whom do you think you are trying to fool? I am the ranger appointed by the government and I have full rights to be here where I am. YOU are the trespasser and not me.”
The black thing just disappeared and the next moment, the tent was on fire, as if to show Vikram its strength! It happened so swiftly that by the time Vikram realized what just happened, the tent was just an outline of ash. But nothing happened to anything else around him which got Vikram precipitate with fear! He realized his mistake; the thing was not friendly as he thought. It was a devil, indeed!
Vikram tried to hide his fear, but his face had already gone pale and the devil’s fiery eyes were staring his. He decided to surrender and knelt down. He started saying his prayers, preparing for the end. But the devil had some other things in mind. It showed up in black again and got near Vikram. It ordered Vikram to get up on his feet and patted his back. “Vikram, I am not here to punish or eat you. I already told you that! I was wondering what makes you feel that my property needs protection. I belong to this place which I am proud to call my home. I was startled to see you come and set up your tent without taking my permission.”
Vikram interrupted, “But who are you? This is the government’s property and we don’t need anyone’s permission. We are here to make sure no one else comes in and damages the nature.” But little did Vikram know what was to unveil and it would change his life altogether!
“Vikram, don’t you remember me? Remember the good old days in school; your best friend, the one who used to bring you gooseberries and mangoes. And then, she left the school without telling you.” Vikram was startled at this revelation. His mind took him back to the school days, to Shikha. She was his neighbor and also his best friend in school. Even when the boys and girls teased them both for their close friendship, they never bothered. But one fine day, while they were in the 9th standard, Shikha disappeared from the school and the neighborhood. Strangely, no one knew much about them as they came and settled down only a few years back.
“Shikha? How could that be? I lost her when I was in school and never heard about her afterward.” Words spilled out from Vikram’s mouth without his knowledge or permission. He was overwhelmed by the memories itself. But then he thought, ‘Is she dead?’
The fiery eyes lost the fury and seemed sad at once. “Yes Vikram, it’s me Shikha! We had some problems due to which we had to leave the city overnight. I was so sad that I couldn’t even tell you I was leaving! I was heart-broken, in fact.”
Vikram was all questions at once. “But what happened to you?” that’s all he could muster to ask, without breaking down. He was overwhelmed to hear from his childhood bestie after many decades. But this was definitely something he wished for. Shikha is dead! I will never be able to see her again! This thought moistened his eyes. One look at those eyes this time brought the tears out.
Shikha’s eyes seemed overwhelmed too. It seemed as if she has been waiting all these years to find him. “My father got involved in a money laundering racket by mistake and when he realized that, he quickly decided to escape with us. That’s why we left the house overnight without informing even the landlord. My father later settled the landlord’s money and returned the keys through a trusted friend.” Shikha sounded sad.
“But what happened to you?” Vikram repeated, looking at her eyes which he was no more afraid of. It was bright and burning like a fire even now, but they now seemed filled with desire and love, rather than anger.
Shikha continued. “Though we shifted to an interior village in Karnataka, the police found my father and arrested him. He was sent to life imprisonment as the group he was involved with made him seem to be the main accused in many cases he was not even aware of, including, raping a minor! My mother could not accept it and committed suicide leaving me and my younger brother all alone. We were managing somehow with the help of the neighbors. But all hell broke loose when my brother had a fight with a boy in school when he teased him about our father. Sharan got so agitated that he beat up that poor fellow very badly. The principal called me to the school.”
Then there was silence for a while. The eyes went missing. Shikha seemed to have left again, leaving Vikram in complete despair. He couldn’t miss her again. He wanted to know what happened to his best friend. He wanted to know how she found him again. He started calling her frantically in the middle of the night. He didn’t want to lose her again.
The eyes appeared again, they were dull this time. As if Shikha was crying! “Vikram, I am here only. I can’t leave you again now. I have been waiting to find you and tell you what happened, all these years. And when I saw you through that window, I was so happy. But then when you fainted, I realized that you got scared. Of course, who wouldn’t if they saw such fiery eyes in the middle of the forest, that too in the pitch dark! But I wanted to see you again and talk to you and that’s why I left the message.”
Vikram was happy to have Shikha back. “Please tell me what happened to you. I have missed you for so long.” Vikram couldn’t hold back his feelings or words.
“I went to see the principal after my school. He was quite angry initially. But then when he saw me crying, he came closer and consoled me. He asked me about my parents and I narrated the whole story seeking some console. But what happened next startled me. As I was narrating my ill-fated story, I felt two hands caressing my body. I initially didn’t feel anything wrong. I thought the almost 60-year old principal is trying to comfort me. But then, it broke the barriers. It was getting dark and there was no one around in the office. I never realized the trap until all hell broke loose. He tore me apart Vikram!” And Shikha broke down crying.
Vikram was crying too and he didn’t know how to console her. He couldn’t even hold her hands or give her a warm hug and tell her it was ok.
Shikha continued. “That spiteful bastard didn’t even care that I was hardly his grandchild’s age! He was ruthless. I felt being gnawed by the wolves (yes he had company too) till I lost my consciousness. Probably they thought I was dead or never bothered once they were done with. They buried me alive here, in this forest.”
Vikram felt furious. “Tell me who were they, I will kill those bastards. What about your brother then?”
Shikha was more composed by now, as she had finally managed to tell her story to Vikram. “My brother committed suicide as he couldn’t handle life anymore. Later, when my father came to know about our ill-fated ends, he also ended his life in the prison. His one mistake cost the entire family our beautiful lives!”
“Shikha, so were you waiting here thinking I will come one day? Why couldn’t you come out of the forest and find me at my home?” Vikram enquired.
“I am a ghost, ok. But it’s not like what you see in the movies or read the books. We have limitations and territories. I am able to roam around this forest area because I was buried alive here. If I were dead before I was buried, I wouldn’t have this opportunity to roam around too!”
Vikram felt foolish to have asked that question. Of course, he had never met a ghost before in his life. So all his knowledge was limited to the movies he saw and books he read. And since he had to stay alone in the pitch dark forests most of the time, he never bothered to explore much in this matter. Though he was a brave cop, he was a human after all!
There was silence for a while. Vikram was trying to digest the entire incident that just unfolded before him. He wondered how he could help Shikha now. He felt furious at the gang-rape and murder and tried to remember some news that he could have come across. But he brushed that aside as he realized the remoteness of possibility. This incident happened in some remote village in Karnataka that too, decades before. So there was no way, he could have known it.
Vikram suddenly woke from his thoughts. He looked around, but couldn’t find Shikha’s eyes anymore. He could sense that the crack of dawn was approaching fast with the insects and birds slowly waking up. He hysterically searched for Shikha and called out her name as loud as he could. He broke down when he received no response. Shikha was gone!
As the sun showered its rays through the giant trees, Vikram saw something scribbled on the ground. It said “Vikram, you are the only one I have ever loved. I won’t see you again, but will wait for you in my world.” He couldn’t hold himself together anymore. He was totally grief-struck. He couldn’t understand whether it was because of what Shikha had to go through at such a young age or because he wouldn’t see her ever again.
Vikram packed his tent and sent a message to his base that he was coming back. He went on a leave for a while. He returned to the forest again, hoping to see Shikha. But she never came!
Vikram lived the rest of his life there, in that forest. He was grief-struck and managed to meet Shikha soon, in her world, in their world! And they lived happily ever after!