Chapter 1: The Displeasure of death

Do you know what it is like for a student to experience summer? It’s probably the best thing in the world for them, regardless of the country or continent. At the very least, in a place with a functioning government. At a variant of the King’s College in India, students locked onto the clock that hung a few inches above the blackboard.

Mr. Peterson stood beneath it, a teacher wizened by years of hard work and study. He adjusted his glasses by the rim, understanding in a heartbeat that his words would fail to fall on reasonable ears. His students trembled with excitement as the clock hinged towards the strike of noon; and it was no different for even the most academic of those present.

Among them, sat a student with a dusky complexion, purposely untidied brown hair, and features uncommon to the sub-continent. Some may have called him handsome even, but much of his attractiveness stemmed from a rather free and open outlook to life.

Who was he? It was a question many had asked when he stepped into class a couple of months ago only to be introduced by his teacher. Gale. Gale Storm. He was Indian, very much so. But merely on his mother’s side; Neha, a beautifully charismatic person.

You see, Gale was born from a reluctantly agreed upon marriage between Neha and Robert Storm, a British writer who’d toured India for research at the time. It was love forged against the hardships of a conventionally rigid family to which Neha belonged. For Gale, it was a story that had matured him well beyond his age.

The clock was now merely a minute from twelve, the seconds echoing within the classroom. Mr. Peterson curled his lips into a smile, having noticed that his students were already all packed. He aligned the books he had carried with a firm tap against his desk, unsettling a layer of chalk.

“Class dismissed,” he said with a firm nod.

A healthy number of students rushed toward Gale, bursting with energy and anticipation. Despite all his wit and charm, Gale preferred spending much of his time alone. It was easier to spot him with a book, or perhaps even a litter of puppies, than with a group of friends. And at the same time, it wasn’t as if he had no friends.

“We had this day planned months in advance,” one of them said. “Don’t think you can weasel yourself out of this one with an excuse like you usually do.”

Gale loved the people around him. But what bewildered him was their love for him despite his best effort at solitude. He had to admit defeat.

“You got me,” he said, sighing aloud. “What’s the plan for tonight?”

“Well, there is this club that opened not more than a week ago?”

“Was that a question or a suggestion?” asked Gale, stifling a laugh.

“It’s called Punch Bunnies,” a girl said. “We should go. They have a party celebrating its first week alive and successful.”

At home, Gale stood idly in front of a mirror with a puzzled look on his face. He casually eyed his black shirt, untucked and in combination with a pair of brown trousers. He scratched his head, boiling into mild frustration at the choices he had laid out in front of him. Dark shades of green, blue, and red.

“Do I even need a tie?” he whispered to himself. “This is such a pain.”

“How handsome you’ve become,” a gentle voice said.

Gale turned to find his mom at the door, wiping her hands on a towel. Neha had a hard time seeing her son grow into an adult, especially when he stood at the cusp of becoming twenty-one. She viewed the cabinet pressed against the wall beside the mirror, remembering every instance recorded — from their time at the beach to Gale placing fourth in gymnastics. She was a proud mother.

“How did you manage to turn twenty-one this quickly?” Neha said with a smile. “It’s pretty unfair.”

“That’s a good question,” Gale said. “But perhaps it’s easier for both of us if you simply judged my attire?”

Neha examined her son from a variety of angles, circling Gale as a judge would a participant. She relaxed upon spotting the three ties her son had laid out for himself and nodded in approval.

“You’re perfect,” she said. “But I’d skip out on wearing the tie.”

“Thanks, ma,” said Gale, giving his mother a kiss. “You’re the best.”

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“Best friend or best mom?”

“Both.”

Gale rushed downstairs and strode towards the door, grabbing the keys to his car. He turned the knob when memory of another promise caught up to him. His eyes searched the hall, settling on a comfortably seated man. Robert put down his manuscript and approvingly grinned at his son.

“Taking the car out without permission, are we?” he said.

“Not just yet,” Gale said. “I stopped short of exiting.”

“You better not drink if you’re taking the car out,” said Robert. “Also, do make sure you get back in time to rest up for tomorrow.”

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“Don’t worry, dad,” assured Gale. “You haven’t beaten me in a marathon in five years. I doubt tomorrow’s going to be any different.”

“I have a feeling you won’t be able to pull off another victory tomorrow.”

“Consider the challenge accepted.”

About fifteen minutes past, Gale casually eased into the parking lot with Punch Bunnies not more than a couple hundred meters away. He stood in line for what seemed like an eternity and came up against a tall, brawny man. Despite his best effort, the gatekeeper to Punch Bunnies denied him entry — citing a couple only policy. Just as he gave up however, his classmates hopped on out from the outside, confirming his entry as part of a large group.

His first time at a club, Gale took a while getting used to the loud music. The lights flickered deliberately, enough to render his friends into slow motion. And after a while of dancing forced upon him by his more enthusiastic friends, Gale retreated to the bar. He asked the mixologist present for the most non-alcoholic beverage on the menu.

A glass of water slid into his palm.

Gale turned his seat around and waved at his friends on the dance floor. He sipped from his glass in an attempt to hide a smile. After all, despite the uncomfortableness of the environment, he was thoroughly enjoying himself.

“Never thought I’d feel what I’m feeling right now,” he said.

He knew it was time to call it a night when his friends grew unsteady on their knees, some stuck in restrooms nursing nausea and others stumbling into strangers unwelcome. As the only person responsibly sober within the group, he dialled in enough cabs to have them sent home in smaller groups. He noted down their plates and resigned for the hour, thanking the staff for having his car brought to him.

On his way home, Gale detoured to a park a little away from his neighbourhood. He’d often escaped to the place to lose himself in a world of words — be it fantasy or crime — by the side of a small man-made lake.

“I wonder if I got this from dad,” thought Gale. “My obsession with books and literature.”

He took in a deep breath, enjoying every moment of a gentle breeze that had set the leaves to rustle. It was nature at its finest, painted with the snores of huddled puppies and hooting owls. With a hop, he strode back in the general direction of his car when a sound forced his motion to a halt. He strained his ears, taking a couple of steps toward the source.

“A phone?”

As the words escaped his mouth, the ringing improved upon its volume, almost as if it rang from inside his head. An unsteady light sparked to life, revealing a payphone not too far from where Gale stood. The booth paused into nervous silence for but a moment, whirring back to life ever louder once more.

In a moment of raw magnetism, Gale found himself inching towards the phone. One step at a time. His feet pressed against the grass, unusually moist, and with an urgency unknown. He felt a drop of sweat at the tip of his nose, unable to wake him from the illusion cast. He ushered himself in, the temperature — prickly and cold for a summer night.

Gale rested a trembling arm against the receiver, feeling the vibration of every ring that came with it. Time froze as the winds outside hastened into a howl, warning as the shadows rippled to life. It crawled through the blades of grass unbeknownst to the boy inside the booth. Gale remained still, his every breath visible, as the shadows — invisible to his eye — manifested to life.

First a mangled face, and then the limbs. It lengthened what was left of the blackness into shape, long and into a curve towards its end. The being slid the blade of its scythe into position, inches from Gale’s neck. He gulped on instinct.

“If I didn’t know any better,” Gale said with a nervous laugh, unable to finish his sentence.

He peeled the receiver off the phone’s body, holding it against his ear. It was at the hello when the scythe fiercely pulled upwards. Blood splattered upon the transparency of the glass panes within the booth as the body slumped into the floor lifeless. The receiver hung with no more than static on the other end. As Gale’s head parted from his neck, the light dimmed, eventually shrouding the booth into obscurity.

No more than a couple of kilometres from the incident, Neha felt an unusual amount of fear grasp at her heart. She eased her mind, smiling at Robert, who sat upon the bed beside her. He returned the favour. As they prepared for bed, Neha remembered their tenth anniversary. It was one of their finest, an unforgettable part of their history. She reached for the frame on her bedside table, frowning the very next instant.

“Robert,” she said. “Why are we standing far apart here, and weirdly at that?”

Her husband leaned in to view the photo, falling into confusion himself.

Strange,” he remarked. “Almost as if there was someone else in between us.”

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