A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.
- Walter Winchell
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Ankit made his lone way across the cemetery. The time was 1:30 am. It was the dead of the night. No living soul was there nearby. An owl hooted in the overhead tree. Ankit shuddered. A sudden cold wind arose, rustling up the leaves of the graveyard. The name of the nearby tombstone shone. Ankit caught his breath. The man had died only recently. Something cold suddenly brushed across his face. Ankit tried not to howl. He gave a sigh of relief seeing that it was a large bat flying across. But Hark! Was that a footstep that he heard there? Was there some rustling of leaves other than the terrible wind? Was it those guys of the ‘Red Shark Force’ who had come to check on him that he had completed this gruesome task of his? Ankit pulled his coat tighter and reached for his mobile. He gave a sad grimace and put up his cut hand for a victory sign, clearing flashing the ‘Red Shark Force’ sign of a shark with a serpent entwined over it; which he had etched in his flesh. The hand still ached badly. Ankit was worried if it was becoming infectious. He clicked the selfie with his good hand and uploaded it onto the ‘Red Shark Force’ site.
He could still sense something else was moving in the distance. Without much ado, and Task Number 2 completed, he rode off to his home in his cycle. He entered his house through the duplicate key which he had taken from his uncle’s chest of drawers. He kept the key in its place and crept to his bed praying that his uncle and aunt would not wake up. Though Ankit wasn’t a believer of God, yet somehow at this hour of grave confusion, he reached out to the Almighty. Ankit badly wanted to quit the game which he had accidently stumbled upon as the seniors in his school dared him to try it. Ankit was a very silent kid. He lived with his father’s brother and his wife. His mother had died while giving him birth and his father died when he was about 5 years old. His uncle and aunt rarely talked to him. They used to treat him like some filth that they were burdened to take care of. They had a son who was of his age who would tease and torture him like anything; even while in front his own parents. He hid his sorrows deep within himself but somehow that wave of pain threatened to kill him as he started regretting his life and slowly sunk into depression.
He started losing concentration in his studies due to the onset of depression while his teacher Praisy started becoming stricter with him and kept him back for extra classes. Everyone dreaded her and she was nicknamed as ‘Porcupine’ as she bristled with anger and her hair stood on ends whenever someone did something out of the line. It was during his school lunch break that the seniors poked fun at him and said he was a girl who would burst out crying; they challenged him that he would not even be bold enough to register for the ‘Red Shark Force’. He felt his mettle had been questioned; little did he know that he had fallen in a bottomless pit where there was no daylight out.
His first task to prove himself was to etch the ‘Red Shark Force’ symbol on his arm and upload the photograph of it at the site. He tried his best to quit the game but he was threatened with dire consequences of his information being released to the internet and was even intimidated of being kidnapped if he refused to do the task or quit the game. He was forced to read horror material that was sent to him by the controller. Ankit recollected all this as he lay in his bed. He tried to make a plan of informing someone trustworthy like the Pragati’s parents; their next door neighbours who were a bit more approachable, but the game had completely overpowered him with its satanic grip. He dozed off and in no time he had to rush to school, skipping his breakfast as he didn’t want to face his uncle, aunt or his cousin.
At school, the first hour was of Ms Praisy class. Ankit was a bit late. She let him in with a stern look through her horn- rimmed glasses.
‘Ok Class’ began Praisy in her shrill voice. ‘Turn to Chapter 3, “Eclipses and their occurrences”’
‘There goes our dear Porcupine’, muttered Sagar to his friend, ‘Poking the sun and the moon with her spines.’
‘What are you both muttering there?’ scolded Ms Praisy. ‘Leave the class immediately. If anyone else feels like joining them, they are free to leave now.’
The class was in a hushed silence. Ankit and his friend left the class. Ms Praisy carried on with the lecture in her shrill monotonous voice.
Suddenly, Ankit felt like he was being sucked out of the class by an invisible force. The classroom and the benches had dissolved; the students and Ms Praisy vanished. He was back in the graveyard of yesterday night and he was running for his dear life; while there was high pitched laughter from one of the graves and a headless, blood stained corpse was chasing him. He could feel the evil spirit drawing power from his body; weakening him and pulling him closer towards him...
‘Ankit.. Wake up,’ screamed Ms Praisy. ‘You came to class to doze off? Go wash your face and come.’
Ankit walked up to the washroom, shivering, and feeling like his legs would give off. He splashed water over his face and went back to class.
‘Ankit’, said Ms Praisy. ‘You will stay back for one hour after school to serve detention and ensure that you don’t neglect your sleep next day.’
One hour detention meant he had to study the chapter and answer Ms Praisy’s questions. He cycled back home; though it was the last place on earth that he wanted to be. His aunt was furious.
‘Late as always,’ boomed Aunt Sheila. ‘And whom do I make the breakfast, lunch and dinner for? And then throw it away later? Sit down and have your food else I shall stop making anything for you, remember that!’
Ankit crumpled down in a corner while his cousin Sourabh burst out laughing and made faces at him. Ankit turned remorsefully to his plate of kichdi while his uncle purposefully ignored him. He gobbled down the food and left the table.
Not wishing to log onto his mobile as it was like his remote to slow death, yet fearing the uncertain; he found the ‘Red Shark Force’s notification, telling him that tonight he has to play Ouija board and his partner for the session would be Steve whom he would have to meet at 12 pm at Hicksvilla, a haunted house at the village. He would have to call the spirits of his dead parents. If he fails in doing this, he would have to go to Criss Top Hill near the Hickvilla and take a selfie at the cliff’s edge. He would have to do either of these tasks else Pragati would be killed, they threatened. As far as Ankit knew, Criss Top Hill was very dangerous and the rocks were too loose and there were high chances that he might slip down to death. He knew he had to make a decision fast.
Though the vision of contacting his parents was a tempting one, yet Ankit knew it was laden with difficulties; as he knew the Hickvilla wasn’t a good place to conduct an Ouija session plus he wasn’t sure about the supposedly partner Steve. Were the Red Shark Force agents sending him to keep a tab on his activities? Or knowingly make him do something horribly wrong with the Ouija board? He voted on the second option of taking a selfie at the peak of Criss Top Hill. It seemed to him that that choice would be better. He would then scoot off in his cycle. However, he really didn’t know how to put a stop to the endless dangerous negative tasks that the Red Shark Force was assigning him.
It was 11:30 pm. Ankit repeated the same steps and let himself out from the house. But Hark! Was that the sound of a hasty footstep there? Was Steve or any the Red Shark Force people following him? Were they planning to kill him or Pragati? As he rode along to Criss Top Hill, the images of his parents as he had seen in their old photograph kept on coming to him. It was as though they were chiding him from doing such things.
‘Live your life in your own terms’, Ankit’s mother’s image which appeared as an apparition was saying.
‘Don’t let others take control of your life’, his father’s image was saying. ‘We have given you life to make us proud. Don’t do something to cost your life! ’
Ankit assured them that he would do his best to rise above all such things.
12pm at Criss Top Hill. Ankit made his way laboriously to the peak of the Hill. The same hushed pit- patter of footsteps could be heard at times. Ankit didn’t pause to think whether they were human or not. Or were they the footsteps of Steve or the people of the task force?
Ankit reached the peak of the Hill, from where the Hicksvilla appeared to be seen at distance as an eerie place. He was glad that he wasn’t there at the moment. He took the selfie with his phone. As he was posting on the Red Shark Force site, a few rocks crumbled away and a furious storm rose. There was a rumble of lightning across the sky. Suddenly, Ankit lost his balance and the mobile shot out of his hands...
He was falling down. Huge droplets of rain water trickled onto him.
‘Ankit, No!’ It was the Porcupine. Drenched in the rain, her arms outstretched, trying to reach the mountain peak to catch hold of Ankit from falling down. At the same time, another man also ran across to her. Two plain- clothed policemen also ran out from behind the rocks. They quickly lashed out a rope and securely anchored it to the old mahogany tree near the peak. It was in the few precious seconds in which Ankit was rescued from the jaws of death. His phone lay smashed to pieces at the bottom of the hill.
Ankit was safely ensconced in Ms Praisy’s house. It took some time for him to recover from the shock. He was given dry clothes and hot chocolate to sip. Ms Praisy no longer looked like the Porcupine without her horn- rimmed glasses. She looked like Mother Mary who had descended from the Heavens at the right moment to rescue him.
‘Ms Praisy, th.. thank y..you very much’, said Ankit with a slight tremor to his voice. ‘And you too Sir’, Ankit said to Ms Praisy’s husband, who had also come to his rescue at that time. ‘I can’t thank the police men as they are not here. I know I was being very silly playing with my precious life.’
‘You should thank your teacher’, said Ms Praisy’s husband, Mr George. ‘She kept on following your whereabouts day and night, much more than a teacher is expected to do. I had scolded her saying she doesn’t need to interfere with the personal matters of her students and leave it to the parents or guardians.’
‘I knew there was something weird with the way you acted, Ankit’, said Ms Praisy. ‘I am sorry for the times I may have unknowingly shouted at you. The mark that you etched on your hand, the withdrawal and the absent mindedness... All were symptoms that something was seriously wrong with you. Previously, I had observed that you were a very reserved student, who didn’t mingle with others. But you were happy with yourself and you did well in studies. It was only few days back that I noticed that you were withdrawing to a shell. With the appearance of that mark in your hand, I felt that we as a School have a moral responsibility towards our students. We founded a special cell for students’ counselling and other needs called ‘Roshni’ in association with our Indian Government. I was heading Mission Roshni. Initially, my husband said to limit my activities to the school itself, but I knew I had to reach out to your life.
I was given police protection by the Principal of our School. They kept constant watch at your house, especially during night. At times, I would also be there with them even though George would scold me later on.’
‘Oh so those were the footsteps I heard,’ said Ankit.
‘We watched you at the graveyard,’ said Ms Praisy. ‘I had personally felt like rushing up and blasting you and smashing your mobile to pieces. But we watched and waited for the right moment. We are also investigating whether there are other students involved in the process and who is the mastermind behind the Red Shark operations at India. We are trying to trace their local agents at Delhi. We believe it is an organisation that tries to kidnap children and make them into mafia soldiers for attaining their organisation’s selfish needs, which in their eyes is justified. Children fall into their trap believing it’s a macho game, a game of courage; but they end up jeopardising their lives. They trap children who are depressed and make them do scary tasks and force them to watch and read spooky content. It’s their way of ‘firming’ up the kids’ minds. The weaklings end up committing suicide.
Anyway, so much for now, let’s take rest. It’s already 3 am now. I feel Ankit shouldn’t go to school tomorrow; it’s too much for a night’s adventure. George will take care of you tomorrow.’
‘But Ms Praisy’, said Ankit puzzled. ‘Shouldn’t I be going home? And I haven’t returned the keys that I borrowed from Uncle,’ said Ankit reddening a bit.
‘Borrow is it?’ screamed Ms Praisy, now appearing like the Porcupine. ‘You know, I seriously believe you kids shouldn’t be allowed so much freedom.’
‘Anyway,’ said Ms Praisy calming down a bit. ‘You don’t need to go back to your uncle and aunt’s place. We shall be adopting you as our son. I know George isn’t yet fully prepared for that responsibility. Even you would find it hard to adjust, considering that you have to live with the “Porcupine”’, said Ms Praisy shedding a tear.
‘No one knows how difficult it is for a woman without kids’, continued Ms Praisy. ‘People believe we are rude with kids. But we scold and chide them for their own good. It is misinterpreted as cruel behaviour. All said, Ankit, from now on, you shall have a proper home. Don’t worry, we shall return back the keys to your uncle. I know there will be legal tussles, but that is no matter; in the end God is there with us. But Ankit remember, no skipping your studies and don’t ever let yourself down ‘coz no one can ever be like you. No one can ever have your talents. Be happy and stay strong!’
‘Enough for now,’ said George. ‘Let us all go and sleep. Prasiy you have to go to school tomorrow. Ankit you can take this room’, he said showing Ankit a cosy bedroom. ‘Sleep tight. And remember, no more funny business and no more mobile phones. You can share anything you want with us. Alright then, Goodnight!’
Ankit’s class was shocked about the new revelation about him and how Ms Praisy had adopted him as her son. Some people made fun of him, but Ankit didn’t take it to his heart and took to returning it back to them by poking fun at them. Slowly, there was improvement in his attitude. He helped Ms Praisy in her efforts of nailing down other students who were equally afflicted in their school with the Red Shark Force game. The masterminds and agents of the game were still at large.
Ankit’s uncle and aunt were too happy to let him go. They felt very relieved of their responsibility. Ms Praisy and her husband after a few legal formalities were the proud parents of Ankit.
But the biggest moment of pride for Ankit was when his foster mother, Praisy was specially recognised by the President for her bravery for rescuing the life of a child and guiding 3 others away from the Red Shark game. Ankit could see both his parents smiling across the stadium and applauding him for his new life.