Priyanka went to school every day, but she did not enjoy it there.
She had no one whom she could call a proper friend. She wasn’t lonely – there was a group she used to hang out with, but it was nothing more than that. In any given seating arrangement of this group, Priyanka would inevitably be the only one located too far to talk or be talked to.
One day, for the first time, someone made a conscious decision to sit with Priyanka.
Of course, it wasn’t one of the girls she hung out with. It was the new student, who had joined them that very day.
“May I borrow your sharpener?” she asked, smiling.
“Yeah,” said Priyanka.
And those were all the words they exchanged over the day.
Priyanka did not hate her – she had not yet assigned any emotional identifier to the new girl. That is, until the next time she met her group.
“Did you see that new girl?”
“She’s so creepy!”
“And so snobbish, oh my god!”
“When I asked for her name, she just said, ‘Anusha,’ smiled, and went back to her studies.”
“What a bitch.”
“Isn’t she sitting next to Priyanka?”
“Oh my god! What’s she like, Priyanka?”
“She hardly spoke a word,” said Priyanka.
“WHAT A BITCH!”
And that was all it took to condition her. It was, after all, logical – if they all hated the new girl, and if Priyanka were to be the best at it, then maybe she would be the centre of attention for once.
So she began to make sure that everyone, especially her group, got to know how much she hated her.
“Your name’s Anusha, right?” said Priyanka to the new girl, as the latter walked by the former one day.
“Yes,” she replied with a small smile, unable to meet the sneering gazes of Priyanka’s group.
“Anusha? That’s too long. You’re Anus.”
“Wait, what –?“
The rest of her words were drowned in a chorus of “URANUS!”
Priyanka ensured that the rest of the class picked it up within days. ‘Anusha’ was permanently changed to ‘Uranus.’
Priyanka was never particularly good at physics. She had started the current problem over an hour ago, and had already got no less than five wrong answers. Of course, she would not have touched it had her mother had not been shouting at her since dinner.
After a sixth wrong answer, she gave up. She tried reaching for her gaming console, but it wasn’t where she had kept it. In addition, the “where she had kept it” wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
It took her some time to realise that she was no longer in her own room.
She was in a deserted room full of desks and benches. Startled, she got up and looked around. The place seemed familiar… wait, wasn’t this her school classroom?
The lights suddenly went out.
Priyanka spun around.
The silhouette of a girl stood in the doorway. Her face was barely discernible.
As the door slammed shut, Priyanka could have sworn that she saw the flash of a sinister smile.
The atmosphere tensed up. The temperature dropped by five or six degrees. Terror engulfed Priyanka. Somehow, she knew that she wasn’t alone in the room…
She ran to the door. “ANUSHA! OPEN THE DOOR!” she cried, pounding it with her fists.
“Why?” came a deathly whisper from behind.
The windows blasted open. Moonlight spilled in, revealing Anusha standing among the rows of benches.
“You bitch!” cried Priyanka.
She ran and lunged at Anusha, grabbing her by the throat.
She had expected Anusha to resist.
She had not expected Anusha’s head to fall off, roll to the nearest desk, and face her with that same sinister smile it had worn earlier.
However, Priyanka didn’t scream until she saw the tentacles sprouting out of where Anusha’s head should have been.
The scream she let out was powerful enough to wake her up.
“Hnnh, Bujul, please let me sleep,” came her mother’s voice from the adjacent room. The sound of her nickname restored her senses.
Priyanka was unable to further sleep that night.
Priyanka could never quite get rid of the sight of Anusha’s decapitated form sprouting tentacles from its throat. Whenever she was alone with her thoughts, the events of her nightmare would continue from where they had left off. Sometimes, the tentacles would be throttling her. Sometimes, they would be tearing off her limbs. Sometimes, they would be forcing their way into her bodily orifices…
Worse, the images only intensified every time she saw Anusha in real life – often to the point where a comment like, “Hey Uranus, how’s your anus?” was an act of self-defence rather than an attack. One day, when she could bear it no longer, she went up to Anusha with a canteen and a burning desire to see her suffer miserably.
At that point, Anusha’s undivided attention was being commanded by a book. The book lost its command when both it and its reader were drenched by the contents of Priyanka’s canteen.
For a few seconds, the shock of what had just happened immobilised Anusha. She was left staring blankly at a pair of soggy pages, a forgotten smile stuck on her face. It was in this blank, defeated smile that Priyanka found a moment of victory and euphoria.
“You – why –?”
And she ran off with the book, crying.
Priyanka returned home that day smug and satisfied.
Priyanka was just about to fall asleep that night when she heard the footsteps in the hallway.
Registering the sound, she rose with a jolt. Sitting wide awake in the silent darkness, she shuddered, straining her senses to confirm it.
The darkness did not respond.
She sat like that for half an hour. When reasonably confident that the sound had been an illusion, she lay down supine on her bed, and pulled the sheets back up over her face.
She lay still for some time with eyes shut and ears alert. After a few minutes of silence, she decided to turn sideways and wrap herself around her body pillow.
Except that she didn’t. To be precise, she couldn’t.
She was fully paralyzed.
As if on cue, she heard the footsteps again. Their maker strolled casually into her room and stopped only when they were at her bed.
The far end of the bed tilted upwards. Priyanka’s bedsheet pressed against her face tightly – as tightly as a pillow needed to be to smother her.
What followed was torture.
Out of nowhere came water, pouring onto Priyanka’s face from over the sheet. The sheet itself did a pretty good job of cutting off the air supply.
She was being drowned.
Once her lungs began to draw in the water, panic gripped her. She knew she was dead. There was too much water. She tried frantically to move, to escape, but she was bound by her bedsheet like a shroud! She tried to scream, but her mouth wouldn’t open.
STOP IT! she thought. PLEASE, STOP! I’LL DO ANYTHING, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP, PLEASE!
“No,” said a familiar voice, as if the speaker could hear her thoughts.
ANUSHA? ANUSHA PLEASE STOP, I’M SORRY FOR EVERYTHING! I PROMISE I WON’T DO ANYTHING TO YOU AGAIN! STOP THIS, PLEASE, I BEG OF YOU, ANUSHA! PLEASE STOP! I’LL DO ANYTHING, JUST STOP THIS, PLEASE!
Priyanka woke up screaming, with tears in her eyes.
“Bujul what is this nonsense you’ve started every night?” came her mom’s sleepy voice.
“Mom, I had a bad dream,” said Priyanka, crying.
“Serves you right,” came the reply. “That’s what happens if you play that stupid Pokémon game all day.”
Priyanka cried herself to sleep that night.
Priyanka’s day was no better.
When the last teacher before recess left the class, she took out her lunchbox and placed it on her desk. She did not want to be in school in the first place – her mother just happened to be exceptionally skilled at glaring.
She opened her lunchbox, expecting food – not a giant, hairy tarantula.
It was a toy, of course, but it was also the end of the world.
Priyanka let out a scream of pure terror. She flung her lunchbox into oblivion and drew back, cowering.
The sound of snickering laughter drew her attention. She saw her group huddled together a few benches away. One of them mimicked throwing something away with a horrified expression on her face. It was only when the snickering resumed that realisation dawned upon her.
Her shock was swept away by a wave of pain, leaving her numb and devoid of feeling.
These were people who were supposed to be her friends.
Friends. Friends. Friends. Friends…
After echoing around in her head a bit, the word lost its meaning. Priyanka was stranded like a lone actor on stage who suddenly realises that she does not have an audience.
She turned to the toy. It lay upturned on the floor before a petrified figure.
She looked up.
It was Anusha.
She seemed terrified, too. Instead of panicking, though, she was trying to calm herself down. Taking deep breaths, she bent over, picked up the toy spider, walked over to the nearest window, and tossed the thing outside. Stunned, Priyanka’s group watched the entire sequence of events unfold.
Finally, one of them spoke up.
“You,” said she, going up to Anusha. “Do you have any idea how much that cost?”
Anusha turned towards the girl, smiled, and then she did the extraordinary.
Priyanka was sure of one thing by the end of that day – she would never, for as long as she lived, forget the oddly satisfying sound of Anusha’s slap as it landed on the cheek of her ‘friend.’
Priyanka‘s problems, however, were only just beginning.
In the evening, when she was playing a Pokémon game, her mother marched into her room and snatched the console from her hands.
“Enough is enough,” she said.
Priyanka looked at her in a mix of shock and anger. She could not recall the last time she had saved the game.
“No!” she protested. “What did I do now?”
“When was the last time you touched your books?” said her mother. “You don’t know how you’re damaging yourself! Have you seen your marks last time? Not even a 90%! Bujul how can you keep playing that childish, stupid game? You should give up on studies and learn household work, since after this you’ll have to work as a domestic help! Or better, get married to someone – and see how he keeps you!”
“At least let me turn it off!” cried Priyanka, hoping to save the game before doing so.
“You are not touching this thing again,” said her mother firmly. “It has spoiled you enough. I’m going to lock it up in the almirah.”
“But the cartridge –“
“I don’t care. You are not touching it again.”
And she left the room.
Priyanka did not follow her. She knew it was useless, like Charizard facing Tyranitar.
Priyanka had dinner early, and went to sleep early. She was sorely waiting for the day to end.
She didn’t pull the sheet all the way up, though. No way. Never again.
She didn’t need to, this time.
Soon enough, she was immobile in the dark once again.
“Hello, Priyanka!” said a voice.
Priyanka raised and twisted her head, trying to find the source. She had a pretty good idea who the owner of the voice might be, and was only surprised to see that Anusha was in full school uniform. A smile adorned her face.
“What do you want, Anusha?” said Priyanka, unable to tolerate her presence any longer.
“Are you afraid of me, Priyanka?” said Anusha, her voice a cold whisper of death. “What have I ever done to you?”
“You’ve been giving me nightmares for months!” cried Priyanka.
“And that’s my fault? Even though you’ve been having them after completely alienating me?”
Priyanka searched for an answer, but none came… wait a second!
“How do you know that?”
“How do I know what?”
“That my nightmares began after I met you?”
Silence, except for Anusha’s footsteps as she approached the bed. Bending over, her cold breath chilled Priyanka as she whispered in her ear.
“Maybe because I engineered them?”
Priyanka turned to look at the bearer of this revelation. Her eyes dilated – initially in disbelief, subsequently in realisation and horror.
Anusha straightened up, and put her hands over her ears. Still smiling like a maniac, she twisted her head off her neck, and placed it on Priyanka’s chest. Out of her ‘wound’ sprouted huge black tentacles, which slowly coiled together and re-formed her head exactly as it was before. The original, meanwhile, was rapidly turning into a white spherical mass.
“Who – what –“ began Priyanka, but trailed off when Anusha snapped her fingers.
The spherical mass on Priyanka’s chest cracked open as innumerable arthropods poured out of it – fire ants, cockroaches, spiders, centipedes, wasps, and other assorted nightmares. Those with wings – including the cockroaches – flew angrily around her, while those without crawled all over her body.
Priyanka’s blood turned to water. There was nothing she could do about the itching and tickling sensation that was now all over her. And there was nothing she could do about Anusha’s smile.
Get them off, get them off, get them off, please, Priyanka prayed.
As if on cue, many of the bugs chose that very moment to sting her.
It was a world of pain. Priyanka screamed. Her eyes watered. Her skin turned red with rashes and toxins.
Please get them off, please!
In the background, Anusha started laughing.
“YOU MONSTER!” cried Priyanka.
“Am I, though?” replied Anusha. “I don’t remember drenching Anusha’s favourite book! Nor do I remember giving her a sick nickname and setting her up to be bullied by the entire class!”
I’ll kill her, thought Priyanka. I’ll take a knife, and –
Another round of stings. Another scream.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT, BITCH?” cried Priyanka, tears streaming from her eyes.
“I want you,” said Anusha.
Priyanka stared at her.
Get them off, please get them off!
“I want you,” repeated Anusha. “I live off the resentment that lives inside everyone’s heart. Somewhere, deep inside the dark recesses of every human mind, lies a trigger. A trigger to get back at the world for every time it was unfair. A trigger to release your true self, the self you hide behind layers and layers of convenient lies. A trigger that can only be set off by one specific emotion.
“Fear comes in many forms. Insecurity, for example. I made full use of your insecurity. It was child’s play, getting all your so-called ‘friends’ to hate on me. Your downward spiral was inevitable, provided I played along. And play along I did. Look at you now.”
You’re dead, Anusha. If I ever make it out –
Third round of mass stinging. Third blood-curdling scream.
PLEASE GET THEM OFF ME, ANUSHA, I BEG OF YOU, PLEASE!
“But you know what’s the most lethal kind of fear?” Anusha went on, unconcerned. “It’s the irrational fears. A fear of the dark. A fear of ghosts. Or in your case, a fear of bugs. Of all its incarnations, fear is strongest when irrational – for it leads to behaviour that is irrational. The tightest control over our actions is exercised by the irrational fears.”
She yawned. “Come on, I’m starving!”
“Think bad thoughts! Like how much you hate me!”
Wait… could it be…?
No, it has to be. There’s no other option anyway.
Priyanka turned to look at her torturer.
“Anusha?” she said.
“Hm?” said Anusha.
The crawling stopped. The flying insects froze in midair. So did Anusha.
“What?” she said. Her smile was gone.
“I’m sorry,” repeated Priyanka.
The insects crawled away from her.
Priyanka closed her eyes and continued, “I’m sorry for being a total jerk. I’m sorry I ruined your school life. I’m sorry for drenching your favourite book. I’m sorry for isolating you.”
“NO!” cried Anusha suddenly.
Priyanka opened her eyes – just in time to see the smile gone from Anusha’s face. The swarm of bugs completely engulfed Anusha, turning her into a buzzing, squirming mound.
Before Priyanka could do anything, the swarm dispersed. Anusha was gone, and so were the bugs.
Priyanka stared at where Anusha was standing moments ago, unable to think. Her eyes wouldn’t stay open much longer. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had a good night’s sleep.
Priyanka closed her eyes, and fell asleep.
Priyanka was not at school the following day. Neither was Anusha.
Written by Sayar Banerjee