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1.21 My Neighbour

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copyright 2015

My Neighbour

a story by

Michelle D’costa

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We moved into the new building last year. We had to move because travelling was getting hectic for Aishu, our four year old. The school she attends now is just a walk away from our new house.
Anyway, our old home wasn’t that great, or maybe I already had my closure. A day before we moved, when our place was bare of all furniture, I moved my hand across the peeling wall paint like one would on a historic site. I retraced all the tiles with my eyes and said to myself, ‘It is time.’
I have never been a social person. Dhruv, my husband, chided me for not being friendly with the tenants in our new building. He would say, ‘Go, Shruthi, make friends. You won’t achieve anything just locking yourself in. Do you even know who lives next door? We need a friend or two here at least, right?’
I shrugged. ‘Well they are not very friendly either. The man next door seems to be very reserved.’
Seems to be, right? Why don’t you get to know him. I have seen him twice throwing trash out at night. He seems quite old.’
‘Why don’t you talk to him? Why me?’ I said as I flung the ball in his court.
And Dhruv did talk to the old man. After that, he raved about Krish. ‘Shruthi, that man has wisdom, I tell you. Even his silence does. We as youngsters blabber so much nonsense.’ He paused and then said, ‘Maybe our Aishu would have the grandfather she never had.’
When I raised my eyebrows at his last sentence, Dhruv shrugged and said, ‘Just saying. You may never know.’
And that’s when I started sending Aishu over to Krish’s house to play—a house bare of any photographs.
 
Aishu was playing on her rocking horse (the one that we moved temporarily into Krish’s room) when I asked him, ‘Why don’t you have any photographs?’
He smiled and said, ‘I’m not a narcissist.’
 
Krish always preferred to play with Aishu when I was around.
‘It’s okay. You can be with her for a little while longer. She likes it here. She just got her toys here to play. You won’t send her back so soon, right? I’ll just make a call and be back.’ I said once, wanting to get rid of Aishu if only for a few minutes.
Um… she would miss you. You can take her with you.’
I told this to Dhruv. He tutted. ‘Poor fellow. He knows how skeptical the world is now. But he should also know that we trust him. Aishu is like a granddaughter to him. Anyway, if he isn’t comfortable, let it be.’
I started talking to Ms. Kurana. She lived right below us, and always said, ‘Thank goodness you don’t have a boy! The noise they make!’ She had a brown Dalmatian that she loved to take on walks in the nearby park in the afternoons. I had made an effort to be her friend, so I felt that I should also make an effort to sustain it, right? I took a deep breath, tightened the lace on my running shoes before I could change my mind, and stuffed the aglet ends into my ankle socks to prevent them from sticking out. Then I stood up and smoothed out my track pants so that just a little of the lace’s bows were visible from below the hem of my pants.
In the park I was alone with Ms Kurana and Spotty her dog. I felt relieved to be away from Aishu for at least a little while. Dhruv had taken her shopping. I told Ms Kurana that I would run for about 15 minutes and then chat with her.
I loved the way the breeze zoomed past my ears, blowing stray hairs towards my face. But it tickled my cheeks, so I readjusted my hair band. My mind drifted. Aishu is growing up. Is it really okay to let her play with Krish? Of course it is! She is like his granddaughter! But then why is he so shifty when I think of leaving her alone with him for even a few seconds? I tried to concentrate on the circle that I had to make to reach Ms. Kurana. I spotted an old couple on a bench, the woman solving a crossword, her forehead crinkling in thought and her husband reading the paper with glasses almost slipping off his nose. How would Dhruv and I be in our old age? I tried to concentrate on the circle I had to make. This run turned out to be more depressing than relaxing. I reached Ms. Kurana. She had found something in the grass and was scrutinizing it with her arthritic fingers. Spotty sniffed something under the bark of a Gulmohar tree. ‘Can I ask you something?’ I was slightly panting.
‘Sure, dear.’ Ms. Kurana looked up from the thing in her hand. It looked like the tab of a soft drink can. I remembered that when I was a child I used to collect them and make bracelets out of them. Why was Ms. Kurana interested in it? Anyway, I asked her what was on my mind before I had got too distracted by the tab.
‘Do you know my neighbor Krish? Nice chap, isn’t he?’ I sat down beside her. I sat a little too close unintentionally and then readjusted myself so that a little space existed between us.
‘He doesn’t talk to anyone, does he? But I guess he is a harmless fellow,’ she replied, a little distracted because of the tab.
‘He seems really nice, but also a little awkward at times. He is really close with Aishu. Is he a bachelor?”
‘I guess so. No one knows much about him. But I heard that he had a daughter. I don’t know if it’s true, though.’ Ms. Kurana flung the tab away.
‘Oh,’ I replied, my eyes following the descent of the tab. It got lost in the grass.
‘See, you could ask him about his past. Maybe he will tell you. But be careful. If I were you, I wouldn’t ruin what I already have with him. He doesn’t talk to any kid for more than three seconds. So maybe he considers Aishu special.’ Ms. Kurana got up to walk Spotty.
On my way home her words repeated in my mind. If I were you, I wouldn’t ruin what I already have with him. I just had to ask Krish about his past. But I didn’t have to. He told me himself. That evening I found him in his favorite chair, crying.
‘I might die anytime, dear. I need to relieve this off my chest. I know I will lose Aishu, but I have to tell you. I have to tell someone.’
I caressed his hand. My fingers ran over his swollen veins like a car over bumps in the road.
‘I didn’t mean to do it. I really didn’t, I just had to. I don’t know what came over me. I and my daughter were vacationing in Shimla. We had so much fun. She always wanted to make a snowman on her own, and she did. We did. That was our last happy memory together. The day we were about to leave for home, a blizzard stranded us in a small abandoned house. We were left like that for days. No one came to help us. We were stranded. She died. And I didn’t know what to do. I was starving. I was losing my mind. No one else was near us. It was just me and her… and she was dead.’ He gulped.
My fingers stopped caressing Krish. I withdrew from him, dreading what was about to come.
‘When I did it, I was numb. It was all so surreal. And after it was done, I felt like a monster! I thought of killing myself. But then my act would have gone in vain. I had, after all, done it to survive, right? A man can do anything to survive. Even eat his own daughter? Only I didn’t know that this man could be me. Before that day, I had thought she was the only reason I was alive in this cruel world. And, that turned out to be true, right? I am here now because of her.’
I got up and quickly ran out of his apartment. ‘Aishu! Aishu!’
I ran into our flat and locked the door hoping that would lock the horrific revelation out.
I found Aishu on our bed, playing with her doll. I sighed in relief.
 
I didn’t tell anyone about it.
I didn’t want it to ruin what we already had with Krish.
I found him dead in his chair the next day.
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Michelle D’costa is published in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Bactrian Room, Hackwriters International Magazine, Big River Poetry Review, eFiction India, and The Bombay Review among many others. She is currently a prose reader at The Stardust Gazette. A huge fan of R.L. Stine, as a kid she never thought she would also be known as a dark-lit writer.
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