Walking After You | #AtoZChallenge

It may have been because I told you so much about myself in my drunken haze the other night that I was making extra effort not to get personal over the conversations we had afterwards. Even over the texts we exchanged on Friday nights. It had become a habit now – you’d text me on Fridays and we’d talk late into the night about things that didn’t matter.

Tonight, among all those inconsequential topics, you slipped in one of consequence. I didn’t press, I didn’t ask you to clarify if you meant what I thought you meant, but I understood.

Do you know the story about the boy who, as he waited for the bus one afternoon, found himself thinking about a girl he knew? She walked right into his thoughts, on nimble toes when he was not looking. As the days passed, he began to wonder what she would think about the things he liked, if she would approve of them. He wanted her opinion about little things, yet he never asked her. He held himself back. Then he found himself thinking about her at the quiet hour of 3 am. Even the lethargic hour of 3 pm.

I read that story a while ago, but it reminded me of our Friday nights, of how you first began that tradition. I pictured you as the boy and laughed it off. Where did that thought come from, I wondered then.

Now I knew.


It was around 8.30 in the evening and I blurted out the first thing I could think of. “Can we meet?”


Hi everyone! I’m working on a minimalist fiction project for this year’s #AtoZChallenge. The story will be shared in snippets, and the events occur non-sequentially. It is for the reader to interpret and form the “whole”. You can read all the posts here. Join me, and do share links to your AtoZ posts as well!



Mr. Heckles and I

H joined our team at work a couple of years ago and disliked me almost instantly. I say “almost” because at first (during the first week at least), she tried hard to force her way into our group. We were a tad cliquey back then, but polite nevertheless – after all, we all knew how intimidating it is to be the new team member (plus, we were adults – cliques do not exist in the kingdom of adulthood). But seeing just how hard she was trying made us suffer from secondhand embarrassment – she monopolized conversations, gave out too much personal information, invited herself to our little outings without being asked.

It became apparent that H had some kind of a problem with me specifically. I was assigned to train her; she was hierarchically above me, but I’d spent more time with the project. I suspect her dislike stemmed from her considering me “unqualified” to train her – despite my tenure with the team, I was still the youngest. She made her displeasure about it known quite vocally multiple times, in multiple crowds, in multiple terms. She also often put me down because I was married, and a mom, and according to her “unsuitable in the workforce due to these reasons”. Talk about unfeminist!

Her dislike grew because I was no less vocal than she once I started noticing her behavior, which had, by then, turned badly unprofessional. The others were quite diplomatic in the way they handled her; I’m not particularly adept in that department. Later on, the others too dropped their pretenses, except my friend B, who was by then the only one still polite to her. B is a good person that way.

Just a few months after being with us, H decided to quit. I was overcome with guilt, and began to wonder if I should have done something differently, tried harder to be nice in the face of her hostility (instead of paying her back in her own coin). I’m pretty sure there’s a list somewhere of people who hate me vehemently, and I’ve always found their hate amusing. So this was no inherent need in me to be liked by all. Why this uncharacteristic change of heart in her case then? Out of fear.

I found out that she liked Howard Roark, on whom I’d had a huge crush at one point (as huge as crushes on fictional characters go – in many a fantasy, I have wished I was Dominique Francon). I tried to use our mutual affection for Roark to extend an olive branch. She (obviously) did not reciprocate, at which point, I was filled with a cold dread that led to this conversation between B and me:

Me: Oh my God, she’s Mr. Heckles. She’s my Mr. Heckles. And I’m Chandler.

B: What rubbish! What makes you even think that? The two of you have nothing in common. 

Me: She likes Howard Roark. I don’t know anyone else who does. Except me.*

B: Big deal! She’s not Mr. Heckles. You’re not Chandler.

Me (borderline hysterical): The woman is always complaining about me. When I look at her, I see myself ten years down the line – bitter, miserable, bitching about people. What if I really turn into her? What if I die alone like Mr. Heckles?

B (pretty annoyed at this point): You’re not gonna die alone. Shut up now.

*There were other things which I mentioned – but let’s not elaborate.

This seems melodramatic to me now, but back then, I was convinced beyond all reason that a fate filled with jealousy and loneliness (and dying alone) awaited me. As you already know, in spite of knowing better, the influence of certain situations/people has often clouded the way I think and led me to believe strange things. I genuinely began to see her as a future version of me. Maybe that was my guilt talking. Maybe I was more affected by her hate that I needed to be.

That’s not the only reason why I never forgot her either (I had a moment a few months ago where I couldn’t recollect her name, but it came back to me eventually). Just a few months after H quit, I did too. Since then, I’ve been landing only in projects/organizations that do not have a team structure for my role (what a weird coincidence), and therefore I do not have any opportunities to mingle with people. I don’t do well when I don’t talk to others – I’m just programmed that way (unhealthy co-dependence and a need to yak with people whom I’m on similar wavelengths with) – and this explains my (joke of a) career graph in the past two years. When I think about that, the guilt resurfaces. Followed by the fear.

What do you think, Reader? Do you ever get accosted by fears like mine? 

Linking to #ChattyBlogs

Edit: Added #ChattyBlogs badge.

Do You Still Come Here?


This will not be a poem
I will tell you now
There are so many questions
You can answer; I need to know.

Do you still come here? Looking
For clues I still hide?
For whether you do or not,
They still here reside.

The other day, I
Saw your footprints outside my door
And I followed you home,
Only to realize, “home” was a dream long gone.

Do you still come here?
Tell me if you can
Why did you leave without a knock
When my arms are still open to welcome you back.




The New Friend

The five year old was shouting to be heard over the noisy whir of the blender. One hand held the lid of the jar in place, and with the back of the other, I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. I turned to the shouting, tiny human, tugging at the waistband of my jeans and looking up at me expectantly.

“I wanna go meet my friend!”

“It’s scorching outside,” I said calmly.

“No!” he wailed, “My friend is waiting for me in the park! I want to go meet him! Now, Ma, NOW!”

The tug on my waistband felt stronger, more determined, persistent. I sighed and opened the lid and looked at the half mashed bits of banana in the smoothie I was making.

“Fine. But you will finish this smoothie and only then we’ll go to the park. Your friend can wait.”

The boy was jumpy with impatience. He gulped the smoothie faster than I’d ever seen him gulp any food or drink. As he ran to get his pail and shovel for the sandbox, I asked him who this new friend was.

“I met him yesterday.”

“But what’s his name?”

“I didn’t ask.”

He bolted out the door just as I grabbed my keys from the bowl on the table close to the door. I saw him rush down the stairs and called out to slow down.

“You’ll fall down and hurt yourself! We could’ve taken the elevator.”

“It wasn’t working! I checked!” he replied without breaking his stride.

I smiled as I watched his enthusiasm. Barely three feet tall, and his whole being seemed so focused on meeting and building sand castles with his friend.

The sun was blazing down on the sandbox and the air was hot and humid. The playground was empty – predictably, given the heat. My son set down his little tools and got to work.

“Right, so where is this friend of yours?” I asked, a tad irritated.

“Right here,” he replied, without looking up from the sandbox.

“You dragged me down here to meet an imaginary friend?”

“I didn’t ask you to come. And he isn’t imaginary,” he replied, as coolly as before.

“You will not talk to me in that tone, young man! We’re going back home this instant. It is hot; this is no time to be out playing!”

He gave me a deaf ear. This infuriated me further. I forcefully picked up one of his moulds and began to walk away, announcing, “I am leaving. You can be here alone if you want.”

“No, Ma! Wait” he cried. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw him quickly pick up his sand toys. I walked back into the lobby, with him close at my heels. I stole a glance at him and noticed him smiling. That was odd.

The elevator was working now and I pushed the button. It was one of those old-fashioned elevators with cage-like doors that had to be manually opened. My son was still smiling. Once we stepped in, my son said, “Ma, turn off the light, I want to see my friend.”

“Enough with this friend!” I replied exasperated.

“Please, Ma!”

I gave in, because I was in no mood to argue. Heat gets to me like that. I flicked the light switch off and the elevator was plunged into darkness, being lit up briefly as we ascended the floors.

It was during one of those brief moments of light that I noticed – there were not two, but three shadows in the lift.

Of The Empaths – Final Part

Part 1 here

Part 2 here

I push through the crowd inside the tent and search for Q. I had dropped my Rod at the entrance – it has not yet been burned. I find her in conversation with V in a corner. She is laughing. This angers me even more. I march towards her. V has noticed me approaching and rises to greet me. Q beams as she sees me, but does not rise.

“My dear, you’re back! What took you so long?” she says pleasantly

“Why! Why did you do it?” I scream without preamble.

“What are you talking about,” she asks, a frown forming on her forehead.

“You know what I’m -”

“No, she doesn’t,” V cut in.

For a moment, I am confused. But the smug expression on V’s face turns my anger into a boiling rage.

“‘Why?’ Of course you want to know why. With your little journal and the tiny scribbles,” he says with a high pitched mocking voice, gesturing with his hands.

I feel close to tears, the rage mounting each second. I say nothing.

“You’re wasting away your talents!” V bellows, “Pining over an ordinary human. Do you not know who you are!”

“V, quiet. We don’t want the family to be upset.” Q whispers to him under her breath.

“They’re drunk out of their skulls!” V dismisses them with a wave. “This one! This one was supposed to be the best. But look at her. Crying! Crying over ‘love’! There is no place for love here, my dear. Only family. And duty. And murder of the ones that didn’t die when they were supposed to.” V spits the words at me.


Spv senses my dilemma.

“Oh. I see.” he says quietly. Distraught, I turn my eyes at him, just as he stands up and begins to walk.

“No!” I call out. He does not turn. His gait is steady, and I see he has already been caught in their line of sight – the rabid, sickly green eyes turn towards him, sensing him rather than seeing him. They pounce, their many fangs tearing into him. Blood gushes out, as one tears his calf off, while other bites a chunk out of his shoulder.

Time seems to be moving slowly, as I rise to my feet and cry out as my Rod hits the first one right between its left hind leg and abdomen. The Rod goes through, like passing through air, and air is what is left where a moment below a killer lurked. With a swift motion, I get the other two.

I stand exhausted, paralyzed almost from that sudden rush of adrenaline. It seems far away and unreal – Spv’s strangled cry. He’s still alive. I’ve lost him once, I can’t lose him again. This thought brings me back to reality and I finally look at him.

I fall to my knees – his shoulder looks terrible, what is left of it is mashed to a pulp. His leg looks worse, with the calf torn off. I rush back to our earlier hiding spot where I had left my bag. There are some bandages in it.

When I return, Spv’s eyes are closed. I slap his face a few times and call out his name. I lift him and cradle his head in my lap.

“Wake up, they’re gone. The spirits are gone,” I cry, “Wake up, Spv! They can’t hurt you anymore. Wake up, wake up, wake up…”

He does not.


V’s sneer is the last thing I see before turning my heel and walking away. Celebrations are on in full swing in the tent. Which means weapons have been stowed away. I reach the entrance, pick up my Rod and enter the tent again.

I release the undead dogs on to my family.



Of The Empaths – Part 2

Read Part 1 here

I have never had to train a recruit before. I have been with the group for close to a year. But training someone was never one of my duties. It dawned on me suddenly that I did not have any duties. I was being trained for – I am not sure any more. I am skilled, of this I am sure. I have taken on spirits single-handedly. But apart from this assigned role, I know nothing else. All I know is, I am being trained. For something. In all of this, it is impossible that they would expect me to train Spv.

This was neither the time nor the place to teach him how to use weapons. I can only hope that his instincts will take over – he is an Empath after all. There was only one thing I could tell him, “No matter what, don’t fall into their line of vision. I’ll handle the rest.” I hear a conviction in my voice that I don’t quite feel. But I can’t let him see that. I start forming a strategy, I am on my own now.

“OK. So, it’s possible that we can see them without them seeing us?” he asks.

“Yes.” I don’t have the time to explain it is not exactly that.

“I have one more question.”

I wait.

“What are they? Do you know? Will they take a shape or something?”

“Yes, Spv. The house we’re heading to now, I know exactly what’s waiting for us there.” I am aghast that Spv has not even been informed of this. My voice is surprisingly composed.


“Undead dogs, Spv. And they’re not a friendly breed.”

We continue walking as before, stepping over broken branches and dead leaves. We finally reach a clearing. I peep out – in front of me is a large house that seemed to be falling to shambles even as I stood watching. Dilapidated pillars, that would once have been majestic, flank its entrance. The roof near the entrance has fallen in.

To the left are three large dogs.

Large, unkempt, and black as night. Their wide jaws seem to drip with blood – there is a village nearby that they had been attacking and feeding off for a while; surely there was no shortage of blood. It is a cloudy afternoon and they look more sinister in the lighting.

One of them lifts its nose. “Hide!” I hiss. They can smell us. I know they can smell us. My heart beats loudly, like blood falling in waves in my ears. One of them turns. I see its eyes – a strange, sick shade of green. Like illness. Like plague. Like death. No, I correct myself, not eyes. I don’t know how to stop the beating of my heart, but I know as long as we crouch low, we are safe. Safe being an overstatement.

I mark a trail with my eyes. If I manage to get into the house and out the back door (which I can see through the wreckage of the roof) I will be at a safe spot to capture them with my Empath Rod – a harpoon-like weapon that sucked in the spirit like a syringe. Once far away from where the spirit resided, the rod is burnt. The spirit is tortured; the rod remains intact. In this case, I know I can insert the rod into only one at a time, while risking being attacked by the other two. Besides, I don’t know if there are others waiting inside. I can only hope not.

There is one thing I can do.

I am startled as I realize what it is. I realize why Spv has been sent here with me, without warning, without explanation, without training. I look at him, even as he stares hard in the direction of the spirits, a frown on his face. The face of the man I’d loved for so long, the freckles I had kissed on so many lazy summer afternoons. I could feel my heart fall with a crestfallen thud. I look down at my hands, blistered by the stick I used to walk through the forest.

“Spv,” I began, hoping to keep the tremor out of my voice,”are you really an Empath?”

He let out a breath. “I don’t know. I could never see anything, or talk to a… a… spirit. But I kept hearing thoughts in my head that weren’t mine. It got so noisy. Requests, demands, asking to be connected to others. I couldn’t figure any of it out.”

Q. It had to be. Queen Empaths can project their thoughts and make others – normal human beings – hear thoughts that are not there. I looked at Spv, wondering why Q had done it to him, why she had brought him here. He was no Empath – they had not even bothered to tattoo his assigned name on him before sending him with me.

I sighed deeply. The dogs rested, with their wide, torn jaws and sharp fangs dripping blood, like drool. Could I do it? Could I throw Spv to them like a piece of meat?

End of Part 2

Of The Empaths – Part 1

This time our group is lucky. Right in the middle of the forest was a large clearing. Surprisingly large. The tent had already been pitched. It is dusk, and time for our revelries. Our leader, Q, has deemed this a safe spot – safe for music. My brother, V, he’s told me there’s going to be a surprise for me. It’s not my birthday or anything. I can’t guess what it might be.

Some of the men and women are quite tipsy this evening. And who can blame them, we have had some pretty rough days. I pull out my journal and sit in the corner, and smile at my group – my family. Q approaches me and shuts the journal with a snap.

“No, no! Nope,” she says with finality, “None of that tonight. I want you to go and join the dances.”

“No, Q, I am just not in the-”

“This isn’t open for discussion.” She holds up a hand. But her expression is kind and a hint of a smile hovers around the corners of her mouth.

I give her a brief smile, the haughty and obedient, borderline indulgent smile of a favourite child to her parent and take a few steps towards the group engaged in frenzied dancing. Clap, tap, beat, hop, and turn! Someone’s hand comes flying at me, and I duck. Shyly, I turn with the rest of the group, and start clapping along with the rest of them.

And then I see him.

I cannot believe it at first. I think maybe it is someone who looks like him – hair falling into his eyes, the freckled jaw, the wide grin. But… it cannot be. It’s not possible, he’s not –

When the group moved in a ring behind me is when I realize I’ve stopped dancing. His part of the group moves closer to me. He sees me and waves. So it is him. But how? Then I remember V’s words. But I still find it hard to believe.

We are not allowed to call anyone by our real names, by the names we were known by before we entered this world, this life. I don’t know yet what his assigned name is. For an instant, I have forgotten how to smile, and my eyebrows are still high, going higher. I finally return his wave, and he steps out of the ring towards me.

“Hi,” I say, my voice low, scared that it might all be an illusion easily shattered by the sound of my voice.

“Hi!” he responds; my heart sings, this is real, this is real!

“How are you here? You’re not… I mean, you have never…” I don’t know how to continue without sounding rude.

He shrugs, “I am.” We begin walking away from the crowd.

“No! You can’t be!” I say with more force than I intended, “I mean, I’ve seen the Empath Diaries. If your name was in there, I would’ve seen it. Besides, aren’t you married? You eloped or something?” It still hurts me to say it, to think about it.

“It ended,” is all he says.

“I am sorry.” I am not sure I mean it.

“It ended because I am – what do you call it? – I am an ‘Empath’. I just never compulsively made notes like you guys did or you know, I never -” he looks at me shamefaced, “I never believed it was real. I thought I was going mad.” His voice quivers a little. “Then she left.”

The quiver in his voice hits me like a dagger. But what right do I have to be sad? He had been married after all. I remain quiet.

“Hey, why do you call yourselves ‘Empaths’?” he asks suddenly, looking intently at me.

“Cos ‘medium’ is too mainstream?” I laugh at my own little joke. He smiles.

“So, you… I mean, did my eloping have anything to do with you… being here?” he asked hesitantly.

We’ve walked to the corner of the tent where Q and V are standing. Are they observing us?  I can’t say. But something about the way they look at us forces me to lower my eyes. The question remains unanswered.

“Av, can I take a minute?” V asks me.

“Sure,” I reply. I still haven’t asked what his assigned name is.

V leads me away; from the corner of my eye, I see Q and him sit down on the ground.

“So…” V begins.

“Please don’t do that thing where you read me like a book. Please?” I blurt.

V guffaws and says, “No, I was just gonna say you won’t have time for your little journal anymore.”

“Hey! I document our findings in it! It’s not a-”

“Sure,” it was V’s turn to cut me off, “Go fool someone else with that drivel.”

I am peeved, but I cannot stay mad for too long at V. After a few moments of silence, I ask him about the new recruit’s assigned name and how they discovered him.

“We’re gonna call him Spv. Not yet been tattooed on him. He’s still a little dazed. He doesn’t know what’s happening or what we do or whether it’s real. His marriage ended because of this – his… ability.” V gives me the briefest of looks, to gauge my response. I maintain a stoic expression. Or think I do. “Would you like to take him with you for your next assignment?”

My eyes light up and I smile broadly at V.

“Now, now, don’t get too excited. I know what happened the last time,” V warns but I am no longer listening.


We are a group of ‘Empaths.’ We hunt ghosts. Yes, they exist. Q maintains logs, called the ‘Empath Diaries’ where we note down names of mediums and hunters the world over. Almost all mediums maintain journals and document their sessions and seances. These journals help us track them, and if needed, recruit them. So far, there are 53 of us, 54 with the addition of Spv. There are several others out there. Sometimes, the spirits refuse to leave the medium they visit, and we have to take care of them. By that, of course I mean get rid of them. It’s dirty work, but it’s worth it. I’ve seen ghost towns, and even perfectly normal looking houses where spirits reside. We sell our findings to travel networks on TV, they pretend to do what we’ve already done and then take credit for it. We don’t mind – the pay’s enough for all of us to lead our nomadic life. The only thing we are not allowed to have is music. That is, unless, Q tells us it’s ok, like she did tonight. Music lulls our senses and invites the spirits. We are useless in that state.

As for Spv, yes, we had a history. Empaths aren’t allowed to get married or have a family (we think of ourselves as a big family. I call V my brother, but we aren’t related by blood). I ended things abruptly with Spv years ago when I realized what I was. I knew they could recruit me any time they wanted. I was devastated, even more so when a few years later, Spv eloped with a girl. That was when I wrote to Q asking to be recruited.


“Does this not scare you?” Spv asks, as we trek through the forest, sticks in hand, shoving away fallen branches.

I listen to the rustle of dried leaves as they are crumpled beneath my feet. Insects chirp to remind me of the silence. I finally say, “Not the ghosts, no.”

“So something else scares you?”

“Hmm,” I nod,”Spiders.”

He laughs, assuming I am joking. “But I meant, aren’t you afraid of something you cannot see?”

“You can’t see spiders,” I reply matter-of-factly,”You run into a web and you know they’re all over you. Or you feel them all over you. Everywhere. But you can’t see them.”

We were quiet for a bit. He picks it up again, “So what are we going to take care of this time.”

I come to a halt. “You mean, you don’t know? You weren’t briefed?” I ask, shocked that we were almost at our destination and I was travelling with someone who had no clue what his role was.


I think there must have been a mistake. V should have briefed him. We don’t have much time; I don’t know how much I could tell him before we reached the spot. I force myself to remain calm, even as anger against V bubbles to the surface.

End of Part 1

Part 2 here