It’s not the most uncommon thing to find yourself at the receiving end of a horror story in a public gathering. After all, everybody has their ghosts, don’t they? And it’s only natural for them to want to share what haunts them with anybody who might listen. Makes one feel like they’re not alone in this.
Everybody has a little experience they can’t explain, or a faint memory that just doesn’t make a lot of sense while still seeming very real. Most of the time we brush it off as a hallucination. Maybe you just heard it wrong, of course a man in white clothing wasn’t standing in the middle of the stairwell you just passed. And of course they are just bad dreams, nothing more. What else would they be? They certainly don’t explain the marks all across your legs but that’s okay. You find a way to rationalise that as well, every single time.
At the end of the day, we all have stories of the unexplained, weird mishaps that just can’t be understood, and we deem them just that, stories. But what if you find yourself living through one of those stories. You experience the horrors they promise first hand, dread slithers in your bones, and fear takes over you, yet you keep telling yourself this isn’t real, none of this is. Yet, if it isn’t real then what possible explanation do you hold for the terror you’re feeling?
Oh? What’s that you say? You haven’t faced fear like that? Ever? Well, allow me to change that for you. Come, don’t be shy. Take a walk with me. Let me paint you a picture. Try to live through it, okay?
Let’s start by imagining ourselves in a quiet Indian village. It’s not the shabbiest establishment, not by a far shot, but it’s not the most advanced living either. What little development this place sees is a mere echo of what it should’ve seen. Somewhere along the system, the money meant for your little village drained into the pockets of this figure of authority or that. But that doesn’t concern you, you still like it here, you’ve grown used to this place over time.
You want change, but change is scary, you recall. Do you want change? You think you do. But what would you even change about this place? The buildings? The education provided? Maybe some health facilities even? Or would you change the traditions? The way locals have lived here for hundreds of years, do you have what it takes to change that, and with it everything the village stands for?
You probably don’t, but who knows, maybe one day you might. That isn’t important, though, the important thing is that you’ve lived in this place for decades now, yet this little slice of rural India keeps surprising you every once in a while. You know every mapped inch of it. Heck, you even know the unmapped parts. The arcane bits, the parts that get lost in the dark, the ones that nobody dares put into words.
Although, someone does it, it’s human nature after all. If there’s a story, it needs to be recorded, it needs to be printed deep inside everyone’s memory to make sure it lives on through the ravages of time.
Your village has a few local legends that nobody likes to talk about, the legends of dark hidden places. These are the unmapped parts of your village. Over the years, it feels almost like talking about them has become a taboo.
This doesn’t stop the whispers from spreading. How could it? Whispers, much like water, flow through the smallest of cracks, and in the dark of the night these whispers make their way to those who lend their ears to it. The adults talk among themselves, half believing these legends purely because they grew up listening to them every day.
Later they would tell these stories to their kids, trying to keep their kids alive should any of these terrifying horrors be true, but on a deeper level, keeping the stories of the village alive for further generations to come as well.
You are no different than them, you, like everybody else, have heard these stories, and have subconsciously learned to co-exist with them. You take every suggested precaution, without even realising.
You keep living your life here, and it is all very normal, that is if you ignore the whispers, the damning relentless whispers. They always find you, maybe not immediately, but eventually. Even if it takes a few years, they will come for you, just like they come for everyone else.
Finally, one night your worst fears come to life. You have had nightmares about this, you have been conditioned for this, and under the covers your elders have rigorously taught you how to get out of this, if one unfortunate day, this actually happens. You know what to do here. At least, you believe you do.
You weren’t doing anything peculiar when it began. It was a fine winter evening, and you were on your bicycle, coming home from work. Night had fallen early, as it tended to do in these cold months. Work was slow, and you were bored out of your wits, but you managed to survive another day there and now you were free to go to the comfort of your house.
It wasn’t even that late, but the darkness had only strengthened the whispers, and the whispers had compelled even the sanest of the individuals to hide away in the safety of their homes, full of light, with their families that brought them joy. They preferred it this way and tried with every breath to be miles away from whatever they thought lurked in the dead of the night. Nobody could confirm whether the stories were true or not, and nobody dared be the one to fact check it.
You, sadly, didn’t have the liberty of being locked inside your own place before sundown. So there you were, in the dark, putting up a brave face for whoever could see while hoping nobody did. You had been cycling for a while now, and fatigue was slowly taking over. You figured you could just get off the bike and push it to home, it wasn’t that far away now.
So you start treading, humming a little to yourself, watching the path that laid ahead of you as the moonlight illuminated it, making your way across town. You reach a massive, old tree, and having already been on the road for the past hour, you decide it would be okay to sit down under it.
With your back against the tree, you closed your eyes when suddenly you heard a slight rustle of the leaves above you. Your eyes shot open as the words of the villagers came swarming back to your ears.
“Don’t sit under the trees at night, spirits reside in their branches. They will take you away, never to be seen again,” the voices say.
You try to shake it off, telling yourself it’s nothing more than a superstition. Somehow you still find yourself standing up, taking your bicycle and hightailing out of there towards home. You’re trying not to think of their words but they have obviously spooked you. You start muttering a prayer to Lord Hanuman. It’s said this prayer wards off the evil spirits and you are willing to take whatever aid you can get right now.
A little while later you come across an intersection, and in the middle of it stands a woman. A white saree drapes her entire body, and a veil covers every bit of her being except for her mouth.
The unforeseen appearance of this lady makes you jump and you breathe in deeply to bring yourself back to your senses. You look up trying to comprehend what is standing in front of you, and then all of a sudden, in one bright moment of flashbulb memory, you recall what your elders taught you. They warned you about a woman in white standing in the middle of the road at a time of the night when no soul with any sense would dare step out. She would seem harmless, and for most part, she is. She seems to be calling out to you but you barely understand what she is saying.
You were always instructed to not go out in the dark if you can help it. However, you were also taught not to run away should you meet this woman. Much like a lot of other things, running away is an invitation for her. You turn your back on her without greeting her and she will take that as a signal to pursue you. That is never supposed to end well.
Instead, if you are down on your luck so bad that you find this old lady, you go up to her and listen to her. Don’t talk, never talk. Just listen to what she has to say. More often than not, she will ask you to drop her off somewhere, maybe at the bus stop, or at the railway station. Wherever she wants to go, accept without a single word and don’t say anything. Engaging in conversation is an invitation too. Just gesture at her to follow. If you’re in a vehicle, she’ll sit behind you, otherwise she’ll just keep walking right by your side.
Against your better judgement, you do as you have been taught. You walk to her, and listen as she begs you to take her to the old railway station. You know it’s defunct now, and no one ever really visits there anymore, but you dare not point this out at that moment. So you just gesture at her, accepting her plea for help.
Happily, she sits behind you and you start walking when you remember one other detail. Fire. That was the key to surviving this encounter. You don’t smoke, but the seeds of fear sown by the rural legends in your childhood grew as plants of paranoia in you. This meant no matter where you went, you took a pocket lighter with you. Little did you know it would come in handy.
You pull the lighter out of your pocket and turn it on with a sharp click. Everything in your vicinity is submerged in an orange hue and you notice that you don’t have a lot of juice left in your lighter, a little less than half its capacity. That’s not good news. Fire keeps all these spirits at bay, it’s the final line of defence. As soon as the fire goes out, all hope for safety flutters away too.
You’re slightly confused as to where all the fluid went, because you don’t smoke and you barely use the lighter. So what could have happened to it? It wasn’t the time to debate about your imaginary usage of the lighter, so you shake your head and start moving.
You tell yourself it is okay. You don’t actually have to go to the old station, all you have to do is make it to your own home. Once you’re there, you can just let the woman stay outside and she’ll go away on her own. That’s how it’s always been. You just need to get home.
Slowly pushing, you look at your source of light and realize that you should technically be safe. You hadn’t broken any rules so far and you definitely had more than enough fuel in your lighter to get you home. From your estimates, the lighter should run for at least twenty more minutes, and you were a bare ten-minute walk away from security and comfort.
You start feeling good about your chances of survival. You’ve prepared for this, after all. The woman, sitting behind you, keeps talking about one thing or the other. You try not to pay any attention to her words as you silently keep repeating the prayer of Lord Hanuman from earlier.
Although, something feels off. Maybe it’s the fact that you can feel her eyes on you from under the veil, or maybe it’s the fact that despite hearing a constant lively chatter from behind you, it still very much seems as if her mouth isn’t moving at all.
You’re scared. Confident, but scared. You want to turn around to see her once, just to make sure. You don’t know what you want to make sure, but you just do. Showing tremendous willpower, you manage not to turn around.
You’re not supposed to look back at the old lady, everyone is aware of that. You simply do not turn back. Turning back equals surrender, and you don’t want to surrender, so you keep going.
After five or maybe six minutes you reach another intersection. Your house is straight ahead, and the old railway station on your right. You keep going straight while the woman protests from behind you.
She’s still not hostile, and soon quiets down on her own, falling back to her old chittering about nothing in particular, and you keep moving on silently.
It’s been a long time since you left for home and a mixture of panic and fear is being reflected in the beads of sweat that sit heavy on your neck. On these little droplets, you keep feeling the woman’s breath from time to time. It’s icy and sends slight shivers down your body, but you have no choice here except putting on a brave face and continuing walking.
After an elapsed period of time, you notice a change in the atmosphere. It’s still dark, and the air is still chilly, but everything seems denser now. The air feels heavier, colder. It has gotten harder to tread through it, almost as if you’re facing a slight resistance.
But that’s not all, the darkness too differs now. For starters, the moonlight has disappeared. The Moon is still there, clear as day, but it isn’t illuminating your surroundings or your path anymore, as if it turned its back towards you and the darkness is overpowering everything now. Whatever the case may be, you’re unable to see anything around you, except for the tiny glow of your lighter.
But this doesn’t make sense, so you try to shake the feeling off, reminding yourself that your house isn’t far away.
The lighter is about to run out, and you begin to feel like you’re moving in a loop now. You, scarcely optimistic, pushing your bicycle by its handles, with a lighter in one hand and a strange woman in white sitting behind you on the carrier of your cycle, talking incessantly and breathing down your neck, sending chills down your spine. All of this is happening inside a small safe bubble of orange illumination and you are aware that outside this bubble is nothing but darkness that has come to life.
More time has passed and you’re still not home, even though you should have been. It scares you more than you already were but you know not to lose your cool.
“Don’t talk to her. Don’t turn back. Don’t stop praying” you keep reminding yourself, but that doesn’t help subdue the increasingly stronger waves of panic. You glance at your lighter, only to see that it’s out of fuel.
“What’s keeping the fire burning then?” you ask yourself, knowing you have no possible explanation for it. Perhaps just a pebble of luck thrown in an ocean of misfortune that you are drowning in. Nonetheless, you’re not complaining. In this hour, you’ll take whatever aid you can get, no questions asked.
Whatever is keeping you alive as you move towards your house with what appears to be a lady who isn’t acting hostile yet is bound to run out and as soon as that happens, you’ll learn if she is actually hostile or not. You murmur and pray that you don’t have to learn this tonight.
The fire is the only thing keeping you alive. There is no definite proof the thing behind you isn’t hostile, but then again, there’s no proof that it is. You know you don’t want to risk it so you keep going.
And finally, the darkness lifts and the moonlight returns, giving you a sight of where you are. As you look around, you see an old metal banner with something written on it. It’s almost illegible, having been beaten down to its current crumbling condition by years of wear and tear with no maintenance.
At last, you’re able to read the words with some effort and reading them sends you in a shock. It’s the old railway station. You can’t figure out how you got here, the only place you shouldn’t have gotten to, it makes no sense but then again nothing has been making sense ever since you got this lovely passenger on your back.
Trembling slightly, you keep going, intending to stop only at the gate of the station now. A light breeze starts up, and you don’t even feel it, the tingling fear in your bones numbing everything else.
You eventually take a note of it, only to see the lighter’s flame is getting restless.
Dread starts setting in your very soul as you start to realise your luck has run out. And just then, the lighter goes off.
You stop moving immediately. Click. Nothing happens. You try again, more desperate. Click click. Still nothing. The lighter remains unlit. You look around in a panic, unsure what to do. Click click. A few sparks. Not enough for a fire, but they do give you some hope.
Click click click. More sparks, more hope. Yet the hope is as long-lived as the sparks. It appears and it flickers away. Not enough. Deep in your bones you know that nothing is going to help you now. You grow increasingly desperate, your lighter clicks becoming more and more frantic.
And then you hear it. A low growl, coming from right behind you, accompanied by laboured breathing. There’s something about this growl you just heard. You know this growl isn’t solitary. There is a toothy grin that you can feel without even turning back.
Yet, you’re sure the old lady is baring her teeth, and every strand of your existence screams at you to just run away from there, but your body is frozen in place. You know this is the end of the line for you.
In your last moments, you make a decision. If you die right here, right now, you want to see what kills you. You want to be able to look your death in the eyes before succumbing to it. You start to turn around to face whatever sits on your carrier as the voices of everyone you have ever met in your village come to you.
All of them are saying the same thing. Every single one of them tells you to not do it. Turning around goes against everything you’ve been taught. Years and years of teaching has imprinted on your brain the fact that no matter what, you are not supposed to turn around.
However, you realise this is the end, and at this point turning around or not is the only thing left under your control. In a split second you make the call and turn around, lighter in your hand, only to see the same innocent looking old woman in a white sari with a veil covering her entire body but her mouth.
The next moment you hear a slash, as if a blade tearing through something. You look down to find a deep cut running through your body. The next moment you hear the sound of a bicycle falling. Following that is the fainter sound of your precious lighter crashing on the dirt. Finally, you hear the heavy thud of an adult body hitting the ground.
You look at the body laying at your feet and it’s you. But you are standing still, unable to understand what’s happening. Looking up, you see the woman fading, her mouth turned in a smile that’s difficult for you to place. It isn’t a happy smile, but it’s also not a sad one. It’s haunting, the smile. It’s a smile that you know will keep coming back in your dreams.
Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, but she will smile at you again and you know it.
Your body is crumpled up on the ground, it’s probably living the last dream of its existence. Then, as if nothing happened, your body rises up, the wound on its chest healed, even the clothes are spotless. It picks up the bicycle, and then the lighter.
It looks at you, and it smiles. It’s the same smile as that of the woman. With that, the body is gone. It walks away with the bicycle and you’re left there, not feeling much of anything anymore. No pain, no fear, just an emptiness.
You stand there for an endless amount of time, waiting for something to happen. You keep waiting, but when nothing happens, you resolve to go away from this place. You walk up to the tree where you first sat down on this unfortunate night and you sit there once again.
As the sun rises, you start to fade, and as soon as the light of the sun leaves, there you are again, in the darkness. However, soon something happens and it’s not something you could have guessed in any possible manner.
The legends of your village changed, the old lady from the intersection has faded from everybody’s memory. Everybody’s but yours, you remember her bright as the day, you remember her taking your body, and leaving you alone on the abandoned railway station on a cold raven black night.
The tales of the old lady are now replaced by those of a lone man. Nobody tells you about it, nobody knows you’re dead. How could they? Your body is still out there while you’re here, spending countless days and nights hoping someone is unlucky enough to have no choice but to stumble out at night. You don’t want to hurt them, not at all, you’re gentle, you just want the directions to the old railway station.
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