Saturday, January 9, 2016

Hall of Mirrors


HALL OF MIRRORS

- Rejo John



"Did you guys hear about the tiger sighting last night?" said Neha. Her body turned away from Nikhil. She made sure she didn't meet his eyes.

Nikhil looked away and pretended he didn't hear her. He bent down and absentmindedly started fixing his little cousin's hair while the cousin made a irritated grimace and tried to bat away his hands.

Nikhil could hear the guys talking and laughing in the background. He was fuming inside, but made sure he showed no signs of it. He cant let 'her' win. He can't let 'her' have the satisfaction that she was getting to him. He hoped she would walk away for a moment so that he can get a hold of Mukesh and Vishal and give them an earful.
They betrayed him!

He had told them not to let Neha know about today, and they had readily agreed. And yet, here she was!

Presently, they were in line to get into the House of Mirrors attraction at the amusement park. It was Nikhil's aunt's idea. Her idea to cheer Sachin up, her son. Her husband was away on a business trip to Australia and wont be back for another 3 months. This was her idea of distracting Sachin from missing his dad.

Sachin, an 8-year-old, dressed in a loose red T-shirt and baggy jeans, stood holding onto Nikhil's hand. Nikhil didn't like the idea of the amusement park. Especially this rundown one. But he wanted to cheer up Sachin as well. Then he had the unfortunate idea of inviting the guys to tag along. He had mentioned to them specifically that Neha couldn't be a part of this. He thought they would understand how awkward it would be for him. But he was starting to feel that may be they don't.

"Ya. There was a footage of the tiger in the morning news today. The forest department guys are on high alert! But I think the traffic and all the noise must have scared it back to the reserve.” said Mukesh with a chuckle. He then turned to look at Nikhil as if expecting him to add something to it. Nikhil turned away. He was trying very hard to seem care-free.
After a few seconds of intense silence, Neha bend down and playfully pinched Sachin's cheek saying,
“How are you, buddy?”
Sachin blushed and said he was fine.

Nikhil felt the person behind him nudge him forward. Neha stood up and looked towards the front of the queue. An employee of the park was counting people into small groups and sending them in at few minutes intervals. Right then, the employee counted Mukesh, Vishal, and Neha into a group. He was about to count in Nikhil too, but when he saw Sachin, he paused, frowned as if he was performing complex calculations in his mind, then finally said, “Okay, you three go ahead now.”

The group looked at Nikhil as if expecting him to argue with the guy to let him join them. But Nikhil just stood there, confused. He was pissed off at them for having brought Neha along. He looked down at Sachin and said in a childish voice, but loud enough for 'them' to hear,
“Its okay buddy. Let them go ahead. We will go with the next group.” Sachin looked back up at Nikhil with a blank look on his face.

Mukesh and Vishal shrugged and walked towards the entrance door with Neha momentarily stopping to look back at Nikhil. Nikhil gave her a cold stare. She peeled her gaze away from him, expressionless, and followed the guys. Nikhil started to have a bad feeling about this, like he was going to regret not joining them.

“How old is he?” the counting guy said with an uninterested look on his face.
“I am 8!” cut in Sachin, excited.
“Okay. Just stay with your brother and keep moving ahead. You will eventually reach the exit.” said the guy who suddenly was frowning at something on the ground that looked like a chewed up chewing gum and started to stomp at it with a bored look on his face.
The counting guy was dressed in a casual dress. Nobody seemed to be professional in this park. The park itself was in a pretty bad shape. It was about 60 years old and in disarray. The last maintenance was probably decades ago. Most of the rides were out of order and have been so for many years. The few rides that still remained working were rarely on because there were never enough people queuing up for them. The stories about people dying in freakish accidents on the rides kept people away from them. Most of these stories started out as rumors, and nobody knows for sure if the stories are true or just rumors that went out of control. One of the victims of the rumors was their now rusty roller coaster. Thanks to the stories about people being thrown off it and plummeting to their death and specifically the one where a girl 'fell off and got decapitated,' people started avoiding it. Eventually, the park stopped manning the ticket counter. This further made the people think that they no longer ran the ride because the stories are true. Now it just stood there as an object of display. Bored teenagers would take selfies with the rusting roller coaster in the background, then later when they were headed home and could get a signal on their phone, they would upload the photo onto their social network sites with statuses similar to “Chilling out with the cursed roller coaster” or “-with The Ride of Death.”

The other thing about the park was that the place where it was built had no phone signal. Its almost like the phone companies forgot about extending their towers beyond the nearest town enough to cover the amusement park. But again, the park literally was in the middle of nowhere. The 2 nearest towns were an hour's drive away. Nikhil sometimes felt that parents brought their kids here as a way to get them away from their phones and from the 'damn Internet!' The parents felt the young generation was getting addicted to their phones. This was their way to get them to enjoy the 'outside world.'

Even though its been only half an hour since they had gotten there, Nikhil absentmindedly checked his phone for about the tenth time to see if there were any new Whatsapp messages, and like all the previous times, he put it away frustrated.

Nikhil and Sachin stood there watching the counting guy looking at the ground, lost in thought. Nikhil wondered whether the guy had gone to sleep standing up and may be he should try to wake him up. They heard faint screams followed by laughter emanating from somewhere deep inside the House of Mirrors. One of the screams seemed to jolt the counting guy out of his sleep. He stood up straight and proceeded to count Nikhil and Sachin and a young couple behind them as a group. Then he motioned the four of them to go ahead and the guy behind them to wait for his turn. But the next guy just ignored him and walked ahead and joined the group. The counting guy stared at the him for a second, then ignored him and promptly went back to probing something on the ground with the tip of his worn out shoe.
"Are you ready?" whispered Nikhil to Sachin as they approached the door. Sachin nodded his head excitedly. A man standing next to the door opened the door for them. Nikhil and Sachin peered inside and all they could see was darkness except a few feet of the path in front of them. The rest of it dissolved into darkness. A chill went up Nikhil's spine. It looked nothing like the last time he had gone into the House of Mirrors. But it had been about 4 years. May be things have changed, he thought.

Nikhil gingerly stepped in with Sachin right behind him holding onto his hand. Once inside, Nikhil looked up and realized that there were tiny lights at the edges where the walls met the roof. He turned to look ahead and all he could see was floating bright images. He realized it would take a few minutes for his eyes to get used to the darkness from the blazing afternoon sun outside. The dim lights on the edges of the roof weren't helping much.

Nikhil felt the wall to his left with his hand. The surface of the wall was covered with some kind of rough paper, and the paper was black in color, possibly to make the paths as dark as possible. The young couple and the guy walked in behind them, and they sounded excited and were talking in hushed tones. It seemed as though the guy and the couple were close friends. The door closed behind them with darkness wrapping them except for the dim lights from the roof which still weren't helping. They waited for a few seconds expecting their eyes to get used to the darkness. The darkness echoed with far-away cries of excitement and screams.
Nikhil almost jumped out of his skin when something pushed him. He held himself up from falling and heard one of the guys apologizing. Nikhil let them walk ahead of him. Nikhil felt relieved that, thanks to the darkness, Sachin won't be able to see how scared he was. Sachin held onto his hand, but he was squeezing his hand a bit too tightly.

Nikhil followed the voices of the couple and the man. Nikhil started feeling better when after a few minutes his eyes had gotten used to the darkness and he could see better.
At the end of the path was a door. The door lead them into a tiny circular room. The room had 4 doors well spaced out with mirrors covering the parts where there weren't any doors. They realized they had to make a choice.
There's no knob on this side!” exclaimed the girl looking back at the door they had just walked in from.
“May be to prevent us from accidentally going back the way we came from.” said one of the guys.

The other 4 doors had knobs on them. Nobody made a move, as if waiting for someone else to take the decision. One of the guys went ahead and randomly opened a door, and just as he opened it, something jumped out screaming at them. They all screamed in horror.

It was a freaking werewolf!

Nikhil felt Sachin's nails digging into his arm. The werewolf then stood quiet on its hind legs, and then turned around and walked back into the door. It was a guy in a werewolf costume. They all burst out laughing. Nikhil laughed along even though he could feel the arm Sachin was holding onto now trembling. Adrenaline, he thought. Or may be fright. He tried to stiffen his arm. He didn't want Sachin to think that he was scared.

Dammit! This was supposed to be a fun thing! Nikhil told himself that he was going to grab a hold of that counting guy and give him an earful. He knew the counting guy was just an employee, but still.

Its almost as if the park changed the entire setup and forgot to rename the thing. He felt may be they should have named it the Halls of Scary Stuff, or something like that.

The group waited for sometime for the laughter to die down. After a few seconds of speculation, the other guy gingerly turned the knob of another door and slowly opened it. This time, it was another dark path. They sighed a breath of relief that nothing jumped at them and one by one walked in.

The couple and the guy kept talking something about a birthday party they had when they were kids and were laughing their heads off about it. Nikhil was starting to feel irritated by this. May be he should have gone with Neha and the guys. He wanted to ask Sachin if he was fine, but he wasn't sure his voice would sound fine. It seemed as though he had a lump in his throat.
The path lead them to another tiny round room with 4 doors. One of the guys again chose a random door. Another dark path.

Sachin hadn't said a word since they had gotten in. Even though Nikhil was scared, he was happy that they were not alone. And that's when he walked into one of them. One of the guys had stopped abruptly because he 'felt' something on the wall, and now he was feeling his hand on the wall trying to figure out what it was.
“Guys, there's definitely something here!” he exclaimed. The other guy started to help him and a minute later they were prying open a freaking hidden door!
“Wow!” the girl said amused.
“May be an old part of the maze. Let us check it out!” said the guy pulling it open wider. Nikhil moved behind them to get a better view of what was inside, and all he saw was pitch dark blackness. The guy murmured something that Nikhil couldn't make out, took out his phone and turned on its flashlight function. Then, as Nikhil watched in horror, the girl and the other guy took out their phones too and one by one walked into the darkness.

Nikhil swallowed hard. He didn't feel this was right. All he wanted was to just find the exit and get out of here. He wondered if he should just wait for them to come back from their little 'adventure.' But what if they didn't? What if it lead them to some other path or may be even the exit? If he just stood there, will somebody come looking for him and Sachin? Will Neha and the others realize they was still inside or will they just assume that may be they already got out and was somewhere else in the park 'avoiding' them?

Nikhil remembered what the counting guy had said. “Keep going ahead and you will find the exit.” Nikhil grabbed Sachin's arm and started walking ahead. He stopped abruptly when he heard more screams echoing from far deep in the darkness that stretched before them. He stopped and suddenly realized that he wasn't brave enough to go on. And neither was Sachin. With a sigh, he turned around, took his phone out, and walked into the dark door which the couple and the guy had entered a few seconds ago.


All he could hear were faint noises of them talking. He turned his phone's flashlight on and shone it ahead and caught the back of one of the guys about 20 feet away. Nikhil shone it around and realized that this was a corridor with many rooms attached to it. He tried to catch up with the group walking by many more rooms. The rooms had no doors, just am empty cutout where a door should be. He could point his flashlight in and see that the rooms were empty except for 1 or 2 chairs and sometimes a thin metal table. They were covered in dust and cobwebs. He instantly felt something crawl all over his body. He knew it was just his imagination, but he couldn't help but scratch at his arm.Nikhil guessed that may be this was like a place for the employees. May be this was where they rested during their breaks. But they obviously weren't used in a very long time. May be its forgotten. May be once the park's popularity had gone down, they cut down employees, and these were no longer used.Nikhil saw some light switches on the wall, and tried one of them, but the rooms stayed dark. Nikhil shone ahead and realized the rest of the group were about 2 rooms away. Just then, Nikhil noticed something. On the other end of the room he was looking into, there was a door. It was shut, but it had a knob on it.

Since the time he had gone into the little circular room with the 4 doors, he had started noticing if the doors he came across had knobs on them.

Right then, looking at the door on the other side of this room, he had the curiosity to walk in and try to open it and see where it led to, but noticed that the guys were about 3 rooms away now. He forgot about the door and hurried after them, pulling Sachin along. The next room didn't have a door, he noticed, but the room after that did. Nikhil wondered if they led to different parts of the paths. And that's when he heard it. An ear-piercing scream. It was the girl who was now 3 rooms away. Nikhil
stopped in his tracks, Sachin grabbing onto him in fear. One of the guys had dropped his phone in fright. He picked it up gingerly while the other guy and the girl had their flashlights pointed into the room.“Oh my God!! Is it real??” the girl whispered, scared. A moment later, they laughed nervously, but it was laughter mixed with fear.

“It looks so real,” said one of the guys slowly walking into the room while the other two slowly followed him, curious, and they disappeared into the room and out of Nikhil's sight.

The next thing Nikhil heard made the hairs on the back on his neck stand up straight.
A loud roar. Followed by screams. Nikhil stood stunned trying to make sense of what was happening. It must be another guy in a costume, he thought. He gingerly moved closer to the room and saw the girl lying down on the floor. Nikhil could see her face. It looked as though she was staring blankly at the roof. Then, all of a sudden, one of the guys appeared near the door. His clothes ripped and bloody. He tried to run out, but something huge pounced on him dropping him to the floor with a thud. In the harsh reflected light of the flashlight on the floor, Nikhil saw what it was. A tiger. It bit into the guy's back. Nikhil heard what he thought was the noise of his bones being crushed. Nikhil felt his heart jump up to his throat. For a moment, he felt he couldn't move his body. He felt Sachin squeezing his arm harder. The tiger pulled the limp body of the guy into the room and out of their sight.

Nikhil quickly and quietly turned
around and ran back the way he had come in, literally dragging Sachin along with him who seemed to have suddenly lost the function of his legs. Nikhil could hear what he felt were screams coming from back there. Then, complete silence. As he ran, he wondered if the tiger saw them. Was it chasing them. Does a tiger make any noise when its hunting down its prey?

Every second seemed like forever, and the door at the end seemed far away. Nikhil thought to himself that if they kept running straight ahead, the tiger could just see them with a glance outside the room with whatever night vision these freaking cats had and kill them. Nikhil quickly remembered the doors he saw in the rooms. He shone his flashlight into the room that he was passing by, saw it had a door, and ran inside the room. Rushing to the door, he turned the knob and frantically pushed his body against it to open it, but it didn't budge. When he rebounded thinking he would give it another frantic push, the door opened inside towards him. He quickly opened it wider and, with a backward glance into the utter darkness for any sign of the tiger, jumped out of the door without looking where he was headed. When he turned to look, it was too late. He realized something was headed straight at him at full speed, and before he could even think about making an effort to stop himself, he made contact with something hard and then everything went dark.

***

When he regained consciousness, Nikhil found himself lying on the floor on his back. He felt groggy and saw spots of color in front of his eyes. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands and tried to sit up. As he did so, he felt something slid off his T-shirt and fall to the ground. Frowning at them, he realized they were broken pieces of a mirror. He looked up and saw a shattered mirror on the wall. It looked as if someone punched it. He realized it was he who did it. From what he can remember he had run into it. He then realized that the thing that he saw running at him was his own reflection.

Gently sitting up, he felt his right shoulder hurt. He had turned at the last moment on instinct before he hit the mirror. He gingerly stood up and looked around the path he was in now. It was very narrow, but the lights were much more brighter in here. Or may be his eyes had gotten used to the darkness. He wasn't sure. The walls were covered in mirrors as far as he can see. Looking at them, he realized they were all slightly curved in different ways. He walked around looking at them. They distorted his reflection. One of them made him look short, one of them long, one made him look like he had a huge head on a tiny body. Nikhil wasn't amused. He was hurt and confused. He felt a slight headache coming on. Then he noticed the part of the wall that didn't have a mirror on it. It was the door and it was still open. Growing curious, he moved towards it and saw darkness inside. Then it all came to him. A tsunami of memories.

“Sachin! Where is Sachin?!!” Nikhil panicked. He looked around both ways of the hallway and he didn't see anybody else other than him and his reflections in the mirrors.

Did Sachin go back in? Nikhil gingerly once again peered inside the door, but he could not make out anything. He tried to get his phone out, but his hand was met with an empty pocket. He felt his other pockets with no success. He looked around on the floor and there was no sign of it.
“Sachin?” he whispered and listened holding his breath, but all he heard was his heart pounding in his chest. Then he heard it: A roar somewhere far away in the darkness and some kind of a snapping noise. Nikhil stepped away from the door in fear.No! Sachin wouldn't go back in there. That would be stupid, Nikhil thought. Besides, Sachin probably took his phone and went to get some help.Feeling uncomfortable leaving the door open with a hungry tiger somewhere inside, Nikhil pulled the door close by its edges as he couldn't find a knob on his side. He heard the lock clicking into place of the old thin wooden door and felt a bit relieved.Nikhil gambled in his mind for a moment as to which direction he should go. He decided to walk to his left and try his luck. Calling out for Sachin in a soft whisper, he started to jog. A distant faint scream followed by laughter momentarily stunned Nikhil. He quickly recovered and resumed jogging.

Then he heard it. A faint cry. A familiar voice. The cry kept getting louder. Nikhil quickened his pace. Sachin was probably right after that turn in front of him. He ran,
but soon the cry fainted, and then he couldn't hear it anymore. Nikhil shouted for Sachin, but was met with complete silence. Sachin was somewhere on the other side of the wall to his left thought Nikhil. He was probably lost, alone, and scared. Nikhil shouted Sachin's name once again and waited in silence for a response, but, once again, he heard nothing.Feeling panicky, Nikhil began to run. May be he can get out and let the people running the park know about the tiger and about Sachin. May be they will send some kind of rescue team. He came across a divide, and he stuck to the path on the left as he had heard Sachin's voice coming from somewhere to his left. The walls were no longer covered in mirrors and the lights seemed to be dimmer. The tiny lights were of a reddish hue now. Probably to add to the scary feel of the place, thought Nikhil. Another divide, but this time he heard some hushed voices from the path to his right. He squinted and could make out shadows of a group of people, slowing moving away, huddled together. May be they could help him. He ran towards them and before he could say anything, they turned around and then let out a loud scream. There were 2 teenage girls in the back who literally caught hold of each other as they screamed. There were 2 guys behind them who looked at Nikhil with their eyes wide in fear and their mouths gaping open.Nikhil had forgotten about the fact that the Hall of Mirrors had become the Hall of Scares without the park guys realizing that may be they should change the name. Nikhil mouthed a quickly sorry while he caught his breath and the teenagers relaxed a bit and started grinning at each other and starting arguing about who looked the most scared.“Did you guys happen to see a kid?” cut in Nikhil.
Dude, good work! You really scared us!” replied one of the guys ignoring what Nikhil had asked. Nikhil frowned at them. They probably thought he was one of the park employee hired to scare them.
“What kid?” said one of the girls. Nikhil explained that he lost his cousin, and when they told him they hadn't seen him, he walked past them, then
remembering, told them,
“Just get out of here quickly! There is a tiger in here!”
The teenagers
went dead silent for a second, then burst out laughing. They still thought this was all part of a ploy to scare them. Nikhil heard echoes of cries from somewhere deep within the dark path ahead. The thought that Sachin was alone somewhere in there hit him again, and Nikhil ignored the teenagers and started jogging ahead.

Nikhil suddenly had a thought that may be he was nearing the end, and may be
Sachin had gotten outside and was now probably waiting with his aunt for him to come out. Then, all went to hell when something from the wall jumped at Nikhil with a loud roar. Nikhil jerked back and lost his footing and fell on his back. He was sure he saw 2 glowing eyes. He lay on the ground with his eyes shut tight waiting for the sharp teeth to bite into his flesh and kill him. He knew he was too close to even try to get himself up and make a run for it. A few seconds passed, and nothing happened. He finally opened his eyes and looked up. Nothing above him. Sitting up, he saw a dull shade of yellow light on the floor that was rapidly shrinking into a thin rectangle. Nikhil looked to the source of the light and saw a door closing on the wall. He realized that it was nothing but a guy in a costume. An employee! Nikhil lunged at the door, but it closed flush to the wall before he could grab at it.“Hello! I need your help!” Nikhil exclaimed banging on the door. There was no reply. He continued to do so a few more times. The guy finally opened the door and peaked his head out. He had a mask of a dragon pulled up on his head.
If you want to complain, you can go talk with the guys outside. Honestly, it wasn't my idea to make you fall down. I didn't even touch you!” The guy sounded scared. He looked like he was in his early 20s. Probably a college kid doing this as a holiday gig.
“No, thats fine! I lost my little cousin in here.
Can you help me find him?”
“Oh man! Didn't those guys tell you to stay
with your group?? How old was your cousin by the way?”
“About 8.”
The guy sighed and said,
“They
really shouldn't be letting young kids in. And you guys should stay with your groups. You know what dude? He's probably found another group and must be alright.”
Nikhil felt it made sense.
“Alright. Now you do the same. Just find a group and find your way out.” with that, the guy started to close the door. Nikhil stopped him saying,
Oh wait! There's a tiger!! There's a tiger in here!!”
“What
?
“I saw a tiger. I think the one that escaped
from the reserve... its in here!”
The
guy sighed and said calmly,
“Listen dude. I dont know what you are trying to do, but if you are trying to get back at me for scaring you, you need to understand that this is
just my fucking job, man! I dont get a kick out of doing this shit!
“You need to trust me! I saw it!” Nikhil
insisted.
Just go. Just leave me alone, man!” he said shutting the door close.Nikhil sighed and started moving ahead. At times he would reach a divide and he would stick to the left, and twice he was led to those small rooms with 3 other doors to choose from, once again, choosing the door to the left. He wondered for a moment if he might end up going in circles. About a half a dozen times he was scared out of his wits by props jumping down from the ceiling in front of him, which after a few seconds will automatically retract back up into the ceiling where they went back into hiding. They seemed to be doing this at random times even when there weren't anybody to scare. Nikhil guessed they must be timed to drop down every few minutes or so.

Nikhil stopped in his tracks when he saw a lump of shadow
far ahead of him. He squinted at it. He realized it was a group of people. He was relieved it wasn't some guy in a scary costume trying to stand flush to the wall so that he can jump at him when he got closer. The truth was, even if he saw it coming, he would still feel frightened. Nikhil was starting to really hate this place.For a moment, Nikhil found himself cursing Neha under his breath. He suddenly felt this was all her fault. It was never his idea to go into the Hall of Mirrors. This was supposed to be just a day spent relaxing and helping Sachin get his mind off from missing his dad. But then she had to point out the Hall of Mirrors and suggest that they go in. The guys had readily agreed. They said they hadn't been in it for many years. This was followed by a long awkward pause as they all waited for Nikhil's vote. Then Neha had interrupted with,
“I guess
the ones who are scared can stay back.”
And Nikhil felt
it prick his ego. Without losing a beat, he had said,
“Lets go!”
Unsure, Nikhil began to quietly walk towards the shadows about 20 feet in front of him. He could feel a drop of sweat travel from his forehead, down his cheek, and lodge itself, unfortunately, between his lips. He wiped it off quickly with his sleeve, but not in time to stop the salt taste spread through his mouth.
As he got closer to them, a sense of relief washed over him. It was 'them.' They seemed to be walking in a file with Neha walking behind Mukesh who was pushing Vishal ahead as if he was a human shield.

Nikhil ran up to them saying, “Guys! Oh, thank....”
Neha turned around and let out a scream. They almost stumbled into each other and fell. Nikhil stood stunned at their response, then had a grin on his face as he saw them struggle to get on their feet.
“What the hell, dude?!” said Vishal grabbing his chest.
Neha slumped against the wall, breathless.
“You guys alright?” said Nikhil, still grinning.
“We are fine. But this thing is endless dude. I mean, its like a fucking maze in here!” said Vishal.
“Well, it technically is. I mean, it 'was.' It was a maze before they converted this into a “House of Mirrors”. But obviously things seemed to have changed since then.” said Mukesh wiping his glasses with the end of his T-shirt as they had become slightly foggy.
“How are we going to get out of here??” said Nikhil.
“Well, I think all the paths converge together towards the end. We just need to keep going forward. The different choices are more or less just an illusion. I think it's just a gimmick to keep the people coming in again and again. Make them think they are going through a different path each time,” said Mukesh.
“Guys!” Nikhil said. “I lost Sachin!”
“What??” Neha said searching behind Nikhil for Sachin.
“He was with me, but then the group I was with went inside this hidden room and then we ended up.... oh my god!! THE TIGER!!!”
Everybody just looked at him, confused.
“What?!?” Neha shouted.
“Guys, we need to get out of here! Remember the tiger in the news?? I saw it in here! I think it killed the rest of the group I was with!”
“A tiger?” Neha said, her eyes turning into 2 huge globes of white which seemed to be strangely bright in the dim red light of the corridor.
“Yes. I know what I saw, but... but I dont know. May be I imagined it??” Nikhil sat down on the floor beside Neha, exhausted. For the first time, he wondered the possibility that may be he had imagined everything. He wondered may be the place was fucking with his head. Then he realized that he now had a splitting headache and his shoulder hurt even more.

The guys huddled around him, trying to cheer him up, even though they were still trying to figure out what the hell was happening.
“Okay, just relax. We will tell those park people outside about Sachin. I am sure they will find him.” put in Neha.
Nikhil nodded and let out a sigh.
“Alright, lets get moving,” said Nikhil suddenly realizing that no matter what, he had to either find Sachin or get out of here quickly and get help.

Getting back with the group seemed to invigorate Nikhil. He was no longer scared of hidden guys in masks jumping out at him or mirrors confusing their paths or freaky noises or scary realistic-looking photos on the walls. They kept moving ahead ignoring all these or pushing the props aside with Vishal almost punching one getting a bit too excited.

After a few minutes of this, they saw a bright light at the end of the path they were in.
“Oh, thank god! I think we reached the end.” said Vishal.
“Finally!” said Mukesh who then began to cough. He felt a burning sensation in his chest. Like his lungs were on fire. May be the place had bad ventilation he thought.

They all rushed towards the bright light and ended up walking out into a perpendicular well-lit corridor. They looked around and saw that both the ends of the corridor had a door. Besides the door of the path they had walked in from, there was 2 more open doors from other paths.
“May be all the paths converge here!” exclaimed Mukesh with a victorious smile.
“So, this is the exit??” said Neha.
“Why 2 doors?” said Nikhil confused.
“So that you can use the one closest to you?” said Mukesh turning to the door to their left which was the closest. There was a piece of paper stuck on the door and getting closer to it, he realized it had something scribbled on it. The lights flickered. They stopped and looked up at the bright lights on the ceiling. Unlike the paths which had dimmed red lights, here, there were bright LED lights. Four of them. Well spaced out through the length of the corridor.

Just when they were about to shrug it off and continue towards the door, the lights flickered again.
“That's kind of creepy,” said Neha.

A few seconds later, the lights went out altogether and they were left with a blue tinged light coming from the wall to their right. The wall was no longer dark blue like it had been when the lights were on. They realized that it was more like a one-way mirror. But the glass was dirty. There seemed to be a lot of, what seemed like mud, covering it from the other side. Further proof of the park's poor maintenance.

Nikhil and the others moved closer to the glass. They could make out that this glass separated them from a room. And high on the wall of that room was a huge blue-tinged moon. And in the room were what looked like artificial trees. Plastic ones. There also seemed to be lots of undergrowth and large dirty grass. They also noticed lots of pieces of wood and old wall sections all thrown around. It almost looked as if a huge earthquake had hit just this room.

The huge blue-tinged moon keep them in awe.

“Cool!” exclaimed Vishal who was trying to get as close as he can to the glass being careful not to actually touch its surface even though most of the dirt seemed to be on the other side of it. Someone had at least been doing a cursory cleaning of the glass on this side.

“What is it?? Some kind of LED?” put in Vishal.
“Looks more like a huge hole in the wall.” said Mukesh frowning at it. Nikhil took a step closer to look at the numerous trees and what looked like bushes strewn around. Just then, he heard something move in there.
“Did you guys hear that??” said Vishal.
“What??” exclaimed Neha who was started to get more creeped out.
“Shhhh....” said Vishal who turned on his phone's flashlight and tried to point it onto the other side, but was having trouble getting a good look thanks to the dirt on the glass.

Then, they heard it again. This time, much more clearly. Then, a growl. Nikhil was the first one to jump back from the wall followed by Neha.

Mukesh stood stunned, but Vishal continued to move the flashlight around trying to pinpoint the source. Nikhil rushed at him and pulled his hand holding the phone away from the mirror.

“It could be the tiger!!” Nikhil whispered in shock. Nikhil quickly rushed to the door and tried to open it, but the knob was stuck. He used all his strength to turn it, but it refused to turn all the way.
“I can't get it open!” exclaimed Nikhil.
They heard the growl again.
“That doesn't quite sound like a tiger.” said Vishal making note of the low pitch of the growl. Then they started to hear barks.
“Okay, that's definitely not a tiger.” said Vishal finally pinpointing a dog on the other side of the glass. He noticed something funny. Its saliva was oozing from its mouth. It started to bark more rapidly now and seemed pretty pissed off.
“Its just a dog!!” said Vishal with a smirk.
“A rabid dog!” put in Mukesh, then looking at it more said, “Thank god its on the other side.”

Just when they were starting to let their guard down, the dog ran closer to the glass and disappeared under it. They heard frantic scratching and growling behind the wooden panels beneath the glass.

“Whats it doing??” said Vishal bending down to shine the light to look below the glass. They saw that the glass wall didn't go all the way down to the floor. There was about a feet of wooden wall beneath it, and the dog was now trying to push its way through a loosened panel which was starting to give away. As they watched in horror, the dog with its frothy mouth successfully squeezed its head through the panel and was now struggling to push the rest of its body in. The noise of its nails scratching against the floor filled the dark corridor while everybody started frantically shouting at Nikhil to get the damn door open.

Unsuccessful with the knob, Nikhil was now kicking at the door with no success.

The dog seemed to be having more success as it growled and pulled half of its body through the stubborn panel. Neha shone the flashlight on her phone at the determined dog, and she could feel its gaze piercing her, long strings of thick saliva flying of its face and landing on the floor as it swing its head around struggling to get the rest of its body in.

Nikhil and Vishal kicked the door together, and the door finally gave out and flung open. Neha saw the dog successfully get out of its predicament and charge at her. She stood stunned, unable to move, but felt herself being pulled by someone and dragged out to the other side of the door, and the door being slammed shut. They heard the dog scratching against the door, barking. Mukesh was holding the door close as the lock was broken. Vishal noticed a huge stone on the muddy ground beside the door. Trying to pick it up and finding it too heavy, he rolled it to the door and set it leaning against it. Mukesh let go of the door to see if it would hold. The door shook like it was possessed, but it held.

“Whats a freaking dog doing in here??!!” exclaimed Vishal standing back up, feeling exhausted. Nikhil wasn't surprised. The structure was so old, there must have been lots of sections of the walls that were broken. Easy shelter for homeless dogs. He guessed that must be how the tiger had gotten in.

“Guys! I think that was the wrong door.” said Neha who was surveying the huge room they were in now. Her phone vibrated. She took a look at it surprised thinking that may be somehow she got a signal and realized it was just a warning that her battery was down to 5%.

Vishal looked around the room with his flashlight and recognized the plastic trees and plants similar to the ones they were staring at a few moments ago. He realized that this room was an extension of the one they were staring at on the other side of the glass.

“Shit! I think the door wasn't stuck. It was locked. This is a dead end!” said Vishal.
“Now what??!” said Neha sounding very frustrated. The scratching of the dog continued on the other side of the door. Neha turned her flashlight on the door. The door stayed shut.

“There's something here.” said Mukesh moving towards the wall to the left of the door which was covered with creepers.

Neha moved to the other side of the room because she saw a bright light. She realized that the room they were in now met the room that they were looking at from inside the corridor at a right angle. The huge moon came into her view. Mukesh was right, she thought. It was just a huge hole in the wall, and there was nothing blue-tinged about it. She turned to look at the wall to her right and realized that it was the glass they were looking out of that was blue-tinged. She could make out clouds as she squinted at the hole. About 20 feet in front of her, the room ended. It looked like a dumping ground for the park. More than twice, she almost lost her balance because she stepped on some broken pots.

“At least we didn't get bit,” Neha heard Nikhil say who happened to be standing right next to her. She almost jumped with fright, but quickly recovered, and looked around frowning, debating how to respond to him. Suddenly, it seemed like an important decision. Should she sound mad or pretend like she wasn't interested in talking to him. “Yup.” she finally said.

They heard the barking again. Frightened, they looked at the wall and realized that the dog was probably looking at them now from inside the corridor. Probably mad. Probably thinking that we outsmarted it. But they could not see nothing but a black wall of tinted glass. They heard growling, and then scurrying, and then they heard it scratching at the wall again, this time from the inside to get back out.

“Shit!” exclaimed Nikhil realizing what was happening. Then things got even more worse when they heard growling from somewhere within the room. Neha cringed. It came from somewhere within all that mess. Then barks. There were at least 2 more dogs in here with them. It seemed as though the dog's entire freaking family was in here, and they had just walked into their living room.

Nikhil pulled Neha and ran around to the where the guys were, but there was no sign of Vishal or Mukesh.
“GUYS??!” shouted Nikhil, but there was no answer. He saw a glint of something metallic to the further right of the wall. He ran to it and pushing away some of the creepers was pleased to find that it was a knob. He turned it, pulled, and the door opened without any effort. Neha ran inside, Nikhil followed, and shut the door behind them.

Nikhil stood against the closed door, catching his breath. They could hear faint barking on the other side of the door.

Where ever they were now, it was completely dark. There was no source of light whatsoever. Neha quickly took out her phone and switched on the flashlight again and shone it around. They were now in another path. She shone it ahead in the path to see if Mukesh and Vishal were there with them, but no sign of them.
“I think they went through some other door!” she said.
“Well, I am not going back in there!” said Nikhil slumping down to the floor.
“I thought we were at the end! How much more should we go??” she said pointing the flashlight ahead to see how far the path went, but something seemed to limit their vision. There was something in the air. Like fog.
“Whats with the lights??” Nikhil said.
“Probably a power failure. But they should have an emergency backup, right?,” said Neha who sat down beside Nikhil.
“I would be surprised if they actually had an emergency backup.” said Nikhil with a chuckle.

Neha felt her throat itch and realized that her throat had been burning for sometime. She coughed uncontrollably. Then she realized that she smelt something burning. She shone her light again and realized that the fog like thing was actually smoke.

“What the hell!” she exclaimed turning her light towards the ceiling and seeing thick black smoke flowing in through hidden vents. “I think we have something way more worse than just a power failure going on here.”

She noticed the smoke was only coming in from the vents on the wall on the left. She gently touched the wall with her palm. She had read somewhere that in case your building was on fire, you could touch the wall to get a sense of how far away the fire was. The wall felt warm. She then pressed her ear against the wall. She heard faint crackling noises and some faint screams. Only this time, the screams weren't followed by laughter.

Her phone vibrated again. “Battery Low. Connect your charger.” It was down to 4%.

“Shit! I should've charged my phone!” she said turning off the flashlight leaving them both in darkness.
“Wheres 'your' phone?” she asked turning to where Nikhil would be.
“I lost it. I think Sachin has it.”
Neha sighed. Then coughed once again uncontrollably.

Nikhil got up on his feet saying,
“Lets just keep going! We must be close to the exit.”

They both extended their arms out and began walking ahead feeling the walls. Neha would intermittently turn on the flashlight with hopes that she would see a door a few feet ahead of them with “EXIT” written in big red block letters, but she was always disappointed. The smoke was starting to burn their lungs. The more they walked ahead, the more it seemed to be getting thicker.

“Do you think we are walking 'towards' the fire??” said Neha.
“Well, we know for sure that back there is not the exit, so this is our only choice, right?” said Nikhil.

They kept walking ahead. They braced themselves for mechanical props to jump at them from the walls or the roof and scare them, but nothing seemed to happen. Its seemed like the entire place was dead. Nikhil felt his lungs burn and starting to feel short of breath. He heard himself start to wheeze.
“May be this is all fake, you know? Like the smoke is some kind of organic nontoxic thing, and this is all just some crap to scare us.” said Nikhil with a chuckle, breaking the uncomfortable silence between them.
“It seems more like the park has gone insane and is trying to kill us!” said Neha. “And in sometime my phone is going to give up and we might as well die wandering around here in the darkness.”
“Were you chatting with someone special and forgot to charge the phone?” said Nikhil trying to get back at her, but instantly regretting it.
“May be I was. Why? Are you jealous?” she said with a sarcastic tone.
“Yeah, right!” said Nikhil smirking. He forced himself to smirk as loud as he can so that she can hear him doing it.
“I am not surprised. Being jealous has always been your thing.” she said.
“You went on a date with that guy when we were 'in' a relationship!” said Nikhil in a way as if he had been wanting to say it for a long time.
“That 'guy' was a friend from my calligraphy class. And that wasn't a 'date.' It was a meetup.”

Back when they were in a relationship, Nikhil had spied on her phone and read their messages. The calligraphy guy had been sending her flirty messages. Neha seemed to have ignored them for sometime, but then eventually she responded with, what Nikhil felt, were flirty messages of her own. And he had asked her about it. She was pissed that Nikhil was reading her messages. And she had pointed out the times he had flirted with other girls. It had led to them to making strict 'rules' for their relationship, which they eventually broke and led to more fights. Things escalated a month before their final semester, and they broke up.

Their relationship lasted almost 3 years. They had met on the first day of class. Nikhil, Neha, Mukesh, and Vishal were a closeknit group.

After the breakup, Nikhil had been trying to avoid her. Whenever she met up with the group, he would pull away at the last minute because of something 'urgent.' This had been going on for the last 3 months. This is the second time they had met since finishing their final semester. The first time was when Mukesh and Vishal had called Nikhil to go for the Mad Max movie, and upon reaching the theater, he realized that they had invited Neha too.

Right now, Nikhil was regretting more that he brought this up.
“And you starting keeping tabs on me. All of a sudden you wanted to know where I was and who I was with! I mean, I was starting to feel it was going a bit too far. I was actually relieved when you said we should break up,” she said.

Since the breakup, Nikhil had gone through periods where he blamed her, then he would go through a phase where he blamed himself. Its almost as if it had given him more clarity. He was wrong on few things. But so was she, and he debated whether this was a good time to bring those things up.

“Not to forget the.....” Neha stopped midsentence when she heard a faint voice. Nikhil heard it too. It was coming from somewhere on the other side of the wall to their left, and it was someone calling out for Nikhil. And Nikhil instantly recognized the voice.

“Sachin!” Nikhil exclaimed moving closer to the left wall and pressing his ear against the wall. He began shouting for Sachin, but then the voice had stopped. There was no reply. Just more crackles and a loud crashing noise as if the roof was caving in somewhere far away on the other side of the wall. Nikhil realized the place was breaking down. He started banging on the wall furiously and calling out for Sachin. Neha joined in. This went on for about a minute before they stopped when they heard a roar. It too came from the other side.

“The t... tiger!?” Neha whispered to Nikhil, her voice breaking. Neha could hear Nikhil swallow hard. Deep down, Nikhil felt a bit relieved that he wasn't going insane. There 'really' was a tiger. Nikhil grabbed Neha's hand and started pulling her along saying,
“We need to find a way to help him get out of here!”

They were running ahead in the dark with the now even more thicker smoke choking them. Neha turned on the flashlight on her phone to make sure they didn't end up running into a wall.

They heard a loud thump from behind them. They both stopped in their tracks. Neha held up the phone's flashlight, but the light barely penetrated a few feet through the smoke filling up the corridor. Nikhil quickly grabbed Neha's phone and pressed his hand against the flashlight blocking the light.
“What are you doing??” said Neha.
“Shhhh...,” Nikhil whispered. She realized what he was thinking. They heard another thump and a loud crack. They just stood there as if waiting for the tiger to find them. To kill them. It seemed as though they had no other choice. Of course, they could run, but for all they knew they were going to run right into the fire. It seemed like they were dead anyways.

A few globes of light appeared to be floating in the smoke before them. Nikhil and Neha looked at them unsure. The globes started to shrink in size and become brighter to form the heads of hand-held flashlights, and out of the smoke, holding onto one of the flashlights, appeared the guy who had frightened Nikhil with the dragon mask. The guy stopped, startled to see them, shone the light at their faces while they tried to look away from the light, and said, ““Good! Now just follow me and you will all be safe.” He then walked past them and a dozen or so people followed him, many holding onto similar flashlights.

The guy walked about 10 feet ahead and started knocking and feeling the wall on the right.

“Nothing to worry people. Once I find this door, we will head to an emergency exit,” he said as he pulled out what looked like a small metal ruler, and with his flashlight in his mouth between his teeth, he began to wiggle the ruler into the wall. Few of the people coughed and some whispered curses.
“I am sure the fire guys must be outside right now trying to get the fire under control. Ah, here it is!” the dragon mask guy said as the borders of a door popped into view, and he pulled it open.

The dragon mask guy walked in, and the people followed suit. Nikhil was searching between the people as they went through, seeing if Sachin was with them. He heard Neha exclaim something in excitement followed by familiar voices.

“We just walked in and this idiot didn't hold the door open! Once it shut closed, we realized we didn't even have a knob on our side. So, we thought you guys will find it anyways.” Mukesh was saying to Neha.

“Comon!!” Neha said nodding towards the door, excited, and walked along with the rest of them towards the door. Nikhil nodded, but he wasn't comfortable going along until he had at least a glimpse of Sachin.

Slowly, the last batch of people drained into the hidden door, and there was still no sign of Sachin. Nikhil stood there, lost. He heard the noise of chatter die down. He was once again alone in the path.
Nikhil considered may be running ahead and catching up with his friends and asking them for help to search for Sachin. But what if he was leading them to trouble. May be even to their death. He couldn't do that to them. He had to do this by himself.
He also realized that the source of hif light was Neha's phone which he had grabbed from her when he thought it was the 'tiger' behind him a few minutes ago. He walked back down the path and saw an open door. The guy with the dragon mask and the group of people had come in through here. And he had heard Sachin's voice from somewhere in there earlier. He once again debated whether he should go out and seek help.

But what if Sachin wanders away during the time he was away trying to get help? What if he walks right into the fire? Or the tiger?

Nikhil walked in and instantly his lungs were hit with hot burning smoke and he coughed hard. The smoke was much thicker in here. He shone the light around, but could not see more than a couple of feet in front of him.

This place was not a path or a corridor. It was much more wider and there were old wooden cases and props all over the place. Another hidden room, he thought. He pulled up his T-shit over his nose hoping that will help.

“Sachin, are you here??!” Nikhil shouted well aware that the tiger might as well be somewhere in here and he was calling attention to himself.

After walking blind for a minute through the smoke, he finally heard someone cry. Someone sobbing.
“Sachin, is that you??” Nikhil shouted, and the reply was an instant, “Nikhil!!”
“Can you see me, Sachin??” Nikhil said trying to point the phone's flashlight towards the direction where he thought he heard Sachin, but seeing nothing but smoke.
“Sachin??” said Nikhil and no sooner had he said it when something jumped at him from the smoke and almost knocked him off his feet. Nikhil was stunned, but then realized it was just Sachin who was now hugging him around his waist. Nikhil let out a sigh and kneeled and hugged him.
“Where the hell were you, Sachin??!” said Nikhil. Sachin was sobbing.
“Okay. Its fine. Its going to be fine.” said Nikhil hugging him again, and as he did so, Neha's phone started to vibrate wildly and the flashlight went out. Nikhil panicked and looked at the phone screen and it read, “Battery 0%. Switching off.” As he watched in horror, the screen went blank leaving them in complete darkness. Nikhil realized that he had been wandering around in this place for sometime now, and now he had no idea where the door was.
“Turn it on!” Sachin said squirming. Nikhil wasn't sure what to say. That's when remembered about his phone.
“Sachin, do you have my phone?” he asked.
Sachin continued to cry as if he hadn't heard him.
“Sachin! Do you have..... “ Nikhil got frustrated and started feeling Sachin's pockets and there was nothing. May be Sachin lost it, or may be Nikhil had dropped it after he had crashed into the mirror.
“Its okay, Sachin.” said Nikhil soothingly, trying to hide the fact that he was really scared himself.

Nikhil stood up careful not to let go of Sachin's hand. He looked around and could not make out anything useful to guide him back to the door. The crackling noise of the fire burning through seemed to have become much louder and closer. Nikhil turned around and started walking with his free hand extended in front of him so they wont walk into a wall.

They heard something crash down from somewhere behind them. Nikhil felt Sachin cringe at the noise. They could now feel the smoke getting hotter, and it was becoming much more harder to breath. Nikhil realized that the fire was burning up the oxygen. They had to get out of here before they suffocated. He picked up his pace even though he was starting to feel dizzy and couldn't feel his legs anymore. He almost walked into a wall. Shit! He didn't remember where he was. Was he even walking in the right direction. With the last ounce of strength he had, he started feeling along the wall and walking to his right hoping that he will come across a door or a way out.

They stopped when they heard it. A loud roar sending shivers down their spine. It was no longer somewhere on the other side of the wall. It seemed to be from about 20 feet away, and it felt directed right at them. A roar of victory? Was it about to kill them now? He wondered if it can smell them, or may be even see them. He had heard that cats can fully dilate their pupils to let them see better at night.

Nikhil heard Sachin sob and starting to cry in a low voice. Nikhil stood with his back against the wall, and slowly felt his legs give away and he slumped down to the ground. He covered Sachin's mouth with his hand to quieten him.

In the complete darkness, they heard another growl. It was much closer than the first one. Nikhil's eyes had been burning for sometime now and he closed them tight. This only made his eyes hurt more. His lids felt like sandpaper rubbing against his eyeballs. Nikhil waited for it pounce on them. What seemed like a minute passed by. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw a faint globe of light. Someone was walking towards them with a flashlight. Nikhil felt a tinge of hope.

“Nikhil?” the voice called out. It was Neha. Nikhil tried to answer her but realized that he had lost his voice. He felt a tinge of pain below his diaphragm.

Just when Neha's form was becoming visible to Nikhil, a lot of things happened in a few seconds. At first, Nikhil thought he felt faint thuds on the ground, then something huge jumped up at Neha. She seemed to have seen it at the last moment and ducked away. Her flashlight fell down to the ground and broke with a loud crack. This was followed by an even louder thud of the tiger crashing against the wall that Nikhil was sitting with his back propped up against. Nikhil felt the wall jolt. He realized that underneath the rough wallpaper, the wall was more or less made of sheets of wood. Even though the flashlight was broken, now they had a new source of light. About 5 feet to his left, Nikhil saw that the wood on the wall had buckled a bit and split open. A thin line of bright sunlight poured in. He wasn't the only one who saw this. The tiger was now aggressively clawing at it until it managed to lodge one of its paw in it and pulled at the sheet until it gave away creating a small hole in the wall.

Nikhil realized for the first time that the tiger was not out there to get them. It had stopped being a predator. He realized that it too was a victim. It too was stuck with them in this cursed place with a fire burning away. He felt like he should get up and help the tiger break open the wall, but before he could finish that thought, the tiger had bitten at the sheet of wood above the hole and successfully broke it open to create a sizable hole in the wall. Sunlight reflected off the its face. The tiger took a breath of fresh air and suddenly turned to look at Nikhil as though it hadn't noticed him before and was surprised to see him sitting there. Nikhil swallowed hard. The tiger with blood stains on its face stared at him from barely 5 feet away. More noises of things falling apart from somewhere far away. That seemed to have ticked the tiger off. Without another glance, it squeezed itself through the hole and was gone.

For the first time in what seemed like an hour, Nikhil saw sunlight. He heard screams from outside and faint sirens. The light burnt through the smoke and made it possible for Nikhil to see Neha's limp body on the floor. He rushed to her. She was unconscious. There were no signs of blood, but her left arm was rapidly bruising into a sick red color. He rushed to the hole and peered out. He saw the tiger running away towards the 'cursed roller coaster' and disappearing underneath its metal frameworks while the crowd of people, who were probably spectators to the fire, scattering away all over the place. Nikhil turned towards the other side and saw firefighters. He put his hand out and frantically waved at them.

*

A few minutes later, they were in an ambulance, one among the many that were at the scene right then, and many more rushing in. After they got out through the hole, the EMT had given them small oxygen masks to help them recuperate from the carbon monoxide poisoning. Neha hadn't woken up, but the EMT guy told Nikhil that she was fine, but that it would be better to get her checked out at the hospital to be sure. She was lying on the stretcher in front of him. Luckily the tiger hadn't mauled her. Nikhil guessed that may be the tiger had jumped at the flashlight. May be it thought the light was somehow its way out.

Nikhil's aunt joined them in the ambulance. She held onto Sachin and readjusted his oxygen mask and he tried to irritatingly bat it and her hands away. The EMT guy closed the doors and the driver started the ambulance. Mukesh and Vishal were shouting from outside that they will follow the ambulance on their bikes.

Nikhil felt exhausted. His muscles sore. His eyes, nose, and his lungs were still burning, and his heart seemed to be beating erratically. He heard even more sirens, and he peered through a window to see a few forest department vehicles rushing towards the park.

“Oh God! They should have shut this place down years ago! ,” said the EMT looking out the window.
Nikhil was feeling too groggy to answer, but then realized the EMT wasn't exactly talking to him. Then he felt something touch his hand and he pulled it away in shock. He looked down and realized it was Neha. She was awake now and was grinning at him through her see-through plastic oxygen mask. Nikhil realized that he had been unconsciously frowning at her wondering if the entire thing had given him a case of PTSD. He forced a smile and held her hand.

***
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