The rain is relentless. I hear it thrumming on the metal roof and running down the broken pipe into the mud, and I moisten my cracked lips with my tongue. I wonder if they’ll bring me food and water. I wonder if they’re coming at all…
With this thought, I sink into unconsciousness again. In a semi-dream like state, I am back in my village. I was the only son in the family of four daughters, naturally a much-pampered one. I usually got what I wanted before asking for it. My sisters went about the household chores wordlessly while I got all the time I needed for my studies and leisure. I had everything at my beck and call. Mother cooked my favourite dishes and father always had a present for me when he returned from a work trip. Not to mention the fact that he had innumerable stories to share with me, while all my sisters got was a grunt.
Even with all this pampering, I was not a badly-behaved child. Mother and father had high hopes for me. And I fulfilled them by being among the top most students in the class, not only academically but also in sports. My sisters were proud of me too. They fawned over me even more than before. Somehow, I always saw women in the house being treated as second class citizens. It became ingrained in me before I realised it. Mother always cooked what father liked. She would dress as he pleased and she would go where he liked her to go. The life of my sisters was not very different. Soon, even though I was the youngest in the family, I could dictate what my sisters may or may not do. This just seemed normal, being the boy in the house. There was never a thought that they might have an opinion too. They were women, right? They were supposed to do as men said.
I passed my school with flying colours. I was soon selected into Department of Defence Institute, one of the most coveted institutions in the country. I was now the golden-eyed boy of the village. No one from my village had ever made it to the Institute and my parents could not be more proud. Somehow, the victory was getting into my head, but I did not see it at that point in time. I would mock my sisters and my friends. They would take the sarcasm jovially in the beginning, but soon starting staying away from me. But of course, my head was floating too high in the clouds to see this.
I left the village for the Institute. My life in village had been simple and tougher than most boys who came from big cities and this gave me an edge over them. I was stronger and more conditioned to withstand tougher physical conditions. I soon became a favourite among the trainers at the Institute as well. Passing the institute with flying colours, I soon became a Sergeant. The one thing I missed during all this education somehow was humility. But then, I was riding high on the horse of my successes. Nothing seemed to stop me.
The US-Iraq war broke out. All of us were waiting to be on the field. It was a matter of honour to be selected. I was soon stationed at Iraq. We arrived as young men passionate about defending our country. But to be honest, after two years, we left as men who just craved peace. The war changes us in more ways than one. More than we realise it. It makes us harder. It makes us stressed. It makes us insomniacs. It makes us wake up in the middle of night sweating hearing sounds of gunshots. We have seen our mates dying in front of our own eyes. We have seen more pain and suffering than one can handle in a lifetime. Once you have been to a war, you have seen grief like never before. And it changes you, forever.
On my return from Iraq, I was welcomed like a hero. My seniors were all praises and I won medal of honour from the Government for leading one of the most important missions. Susan, the Brigadier General’s daughter, attended my ceremony. As far as I could remember, she was the prettiest thing in that hall. We soon got married the next fall.
Our marriage seemed like a fairy tale in the beginning. It was all hearts and roses. But not for long. Unfortunately, my demons came back at night. The passionate love-making helped me sleep initially, but not for long. I would wake up sweating in the middle of the night having nightmares of bullet shots being fired everywhere. Or so I told her. Susan tried to calm me, but soon, she couldn’t handle it either.
She took me to a shrink who decided this was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I started taking medication for the same. But mostly also staying away from home and Susan, and drinking – a lot. There were things which I had seen, and done, in that field which I could never tell anyone. Anyone at all. Not even my shrink. And these were slowly consuming me from inside.
One evening, after getting stoned in the bar, I returned home. I passed out on the couch as Susan never liked me coming to bed drunk.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, the visions returned. That night… when we had been tipped about the terrorist hideout. Our battalion went on the mission. It was pitch dark in the village. We soon reached the house where the terrorists were supposed to be. The moments just before we broke into the house were excruciatingly tense. We surrounded the house and finally, we decided to break into the house from all the sides- front, back door as well as the terrace. Few of us climbed on the roof to make sure no one escaped. On the count of three, all of us broke into the house. We searched every single corner of that house, but there was no one to be found. Just when we were about to leave, I heard a sound in the kitchen. I quietly tiptoed to the sound… only to find a scared young woman hidden under the sink.
Her eyes… they were green in colour. Skin like porcelain. She looked like a doll, a vulnerable one at that. Somehow, in the dead of the tense night, a deep buried desire found its way. My colleagues rushed behind me, apparently they had heard the sound too. Before I could say anything, they hauled her out and starting questioning her. She was crying by now. It soon seemed pretty evident that she was innocent. Surrounded by a group of strange large men wasn’t helping. The message was sent to the headquarters that no one had been found.
Somehow I stayed behind. I don’t know what it was that night- the loneliness, the wretchedly harsh conditions, the sheer frustration of being in the field for months but an animal rose in me. And it mauled the girl till she cried. The more she begged, the more the animal in me was satisfied. It was sadistic. It was sick. But it was done.
After those few moments of sheer insanity, I realised what I had done. Desperate to hide the barbaric act, I buried the body in the dead of the night. By morning, there was no trace of the girl or her screams. They survived horrifically only in my memory.
Two days later, we got news of the actual hideout and were a part of the successful mission. We returned to our motherland, proud soldiers, but those haunting eyes, they never left me after that night.
I couldn’t sleep. In the day, I was the hero. But a dark part of me inside knew what I had done that night. And it did not forgive me.
Susan got sick of my drinking till she could take no more. She gave me an ultimatum that I needed to check into a rehab or else she would leave me. I beseeched her not to go. That was one part of my life which I needed to hold on to normal. My behaviour was getting more and more violent in the day. I started getting angry at the smallest of things. Finally, she had had it. One fine day, when I returned home from my usual jaunt at the bar, her bags were gone. And so was the last thread holding me to sanity.
My family finally insisted that I checked into rehab. I resisted initially, but then, with my life falling apart, it just seemed to be the right thing to do.
The treatments started, but the progress was slow. Then one day, I met Vafia. She was my nurse. The one who helped with the injections and kept my schedule of drugs. She was kind with a benevolent smile always on her face. With her around, my condition started improving. She would stop by after her rounds, and talk to me about the war days. Soon it seemed as if I could discuss anything with her. Just about anything.
Things had improved, I no longer craved for a drink. But it was replaced with another craving. One to see Vafia’s smile every morning. Soon it was time for me to check out of rehab. Just the day before my last day, I proposed to Vafia. She did not seem surprised and reciprocated my feelings. I asked if we could go away for a weekend. She readily agreed but said she would pick the place. I was more than happy as I realised she knew a lot about me whereas I had almost no clue about her likes and dislikes. I was determined to change that this weekend.
Weekend arrived. Vafia had picked a faraway cottage in the woods. I was slightly surprised. Looking at her puny built, I had never guessed she was the outdoorsy kinda girl. She just got more ideal each day. We reached the cottage a little after dusk. It was far away from all the bustle of the city. Seemed to be an ideal weekend getaway for us lovebirds.
Vafia had packed enough food and drinks for us for the evening. I set the fire and we sat around hugging. ‘So tell me more about the Iraq days. Is there something which bothers you?’ she asked.
I was slightly shaken by the question, but I decided this time I had to be honest with my would-be bride. I could not let my second relationship fail. I decided to tell her all about that horrific night. That night which never let me sleep. That night which haunted me forever.
By the end of the story, I was bawling like a baby. Vafia comforted me. ‘It was a long time ago. It’s ok. You made a mistake. The important part is that you repent it. Why don’t you go for a swim while I get the soup going?’ she said more gently than ever.
I was too exhausted, but decided I did need some cool water to calm my frazzled nerves down. By the time I got back from the swim, the soup was ready. Having warm soup and sleeping in the arms of the woman I had recently fallen in love with. Life finally seemed to have come around, and I slept like a baby after years.
In the morning, when I woke up, my body seemed oddly cramped. On opening my eyes, I realised I was in a box! What was this? What had happened? Where was Vafia? Was she ok?
I screamed, ‘Vafia!!!! Where are you? Are you ok?’
‘I am fine Sergeant’ replied an unusually cold voice.
‘Vafia? Is that you? What is happening?’
‘Oh, not much. You remember the night? When you saw those green pair of eyes? The one whose misery you failed to see? The ones who begged you to stop but you didn’t? That was my sister. I too was under that sink that fateful night. But I was too tiny for you to notice. But I, an eight year old child, I noticed everything. Every single thing. You could have saved my sister. Let her go. But you didn’t, did you? You were supposed to protect us, not perpetrate terror on us!! For this you will pay. With your life! Just the way she did!’
‘Vafia! Listen to me! I regret every moment of that night! I told you!’ I begged.
‘Oh yes, I finally have the confession I was waiting for all these days at the rehab. This will help me if the cops ever find your dead body. Which will be very difficult.’
‘So kill me! End my misery! If that would make you believe how sorry I am for that day!’ I was now crying.
‘Oh no, not so soon. She cried too. She begged. She beseeched. But you didn’t seem to listen. You will stay in this box. And rot slowly.’
‘Noooooooo!!!! Vafia! You cannot do this! I love you!’ I let out a scream.
All I heard in return was a maniacal laugh and footsteps walking away.
Every single day after this was hell. She left me to die in the box. I punched. I kicked. I tried hard to get out. But was not able to. She would ensure that I don’t die. I was given water, just a tiny amount, through the crevice in the box. I did drink it, hoping that someone would find me. My family, my friends, my colleagues – someone would come looking for me, and this misery would end.
That night, the rain was relentless. I heard it thrumming through the roof. I was thirsty. Hunger had left my body already. It is funny the way human mind works. The things we think are essential for living, the things our body cannot survive without. Like food. If one goes without food for days, first the brain sends a signal to the body that it is hungry. Then it starts craving and your stomach hurts. Finally, it gets to a point where the hurting stops. The brain makes peace with the fact that there is no food. Your body still survives.
Finally one rainy day, I heard voices. Footsteps of people near the cottage. I wonder if they will find me. I moisten my cracked lips with my tongue. I try to scream, but no sound comes out. I try to push the box but there is not one trace of strength left in my body. In my last breaths, I remember floating back to the same night. Those green pair of eyes looking at me. I look back at them kindly, I ask her name. And then, I turn back and go, leaving her alone.
*Times Write India 3 Winner for Clare Mackintosh