chapter 1

1. Strange Mist

Kazah, 20:46

Chris

Believe it, moron. He’s not coming.

Night in a stranded bus stand never bode well for anyone. I wondered if I should call, then decided against it. How was I going to call anyway? I didn’t have his number, and I didn’t know if he was even in the town.

Fog had started swirling in, and I sat down on the cold metal bench of the bus station, waiting again.  I was fifteen, but I felt so ageless…

I didn’t mind waiting much, usually, but this had been his idea. I had had enough but he had promised, this time it will be different. How it was going to be different, I had wondered even then.  Why bother? What did this school have that the others didn’t?

After the disaster at the last school I’d gone to…even the idea of school seemed torture. My grades were around twenty thousand leagues under the sea, I was having nightmares , a man had started following me…and then it had all become too much and I had decided to leave. Again.

Nicholas hadn’t given me trouble about that, but he didn’t want me coming home midway through eleventh grade. So this was what it was, usually…a way for him to get me out of his sight.

At least he could dump me in this new school, rather than dumping me in the bus stand.

Damn it, it’s not fair.

He knew I hated being alone for any length of time. He knew I’d start seeing those men and flip out. But here I was -waiting again, endlessly.

They followed me everywhere I went, those silent men in black. Always tailed me like invisible specters. Never touching, never hurting, but always watching.

Always following.

I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted from me. I couldn’t even recognize them beneath their thick black hoods. All I knew was that their shrewd eyes were anthracite black. Flinty and shiny and hard…and conscienceless. Nicholas said I was dreaming; that my mind was playing games with me. Maybe it was. My mind played lots of games, all the time. Hid my memories, gave me false ones. Made math seem like ancient Latin. Made music…but only the haunting kind that no one expected from a sixteen year old.

I was getting tired of it. But then I was getting tired of everything.

I hugged my bag to my chest and tried to see through the thickening fog.  It was almost impossible to see anything beyond ten feet. Behind me, beneath a billboard advertising paan stood a man dressed in black, with a hood over his head. His eyes, when I caught a glimpse of them, shone darkly. Anthracite eyes.

I was trying my best not to look at him.

These days, it was like there was something cold inside me. Every time I saw those eyes, everything became a little colder. And now, this icy town was making them look even more formidable.

I tried to read the school brochure, doing my best to avoid gazing at him.

ST AUGUSTINE INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL

Built in 1978, the school was the first of its kind in South India. Immediately prospering due to its devoted staff and excellent teaching facilities, by 1998, just twenty years after its humble beginning, the school had more than 1500 students studying in it. The school offers many facilities, such as the well-equipped library, and science labs, including state-of-the art IT facilities. Our founders laid a great emphasis on the importance of aesthetics in developing children’s minds and thus, the school was built on a hilltop and its campus encompasses a lake, a beautiful waterfall and virgin forests. We pay a lot of importance to extra-curricular activities, and many unique activities like swimming, gardening and horse-riding are promoted. Care has been taken to ensure your ward only the best facilities available in the country.

The rest of it continued in the same vein. There were pictures. Of the library, the computer lab, the swimming pool…According to the brochure, each person had only one room-mate. That was good; my nightly troubles would only be imposed on one unlucky individual.

I cast a wary glance towards the man beneath the billboard.

He wasn’t beneath the billboard anymore, but to my right, on the metal bench adjacent to mine.

More coldness crept up my spine. I hugged my bag even closer, wishing someone would come. Anyone.

What if I walked into the fog and tried finding my own way?

Would that work? I didn’t even know if the school was far from here. In the brochure, it was written: nearest bus-stop- Kazah, 15 km from the main gate.

This was Kazah, all right, but how would I get till the main gate? I couldn’t find any auto, and I was definitely getting this weird dead-town feeling.

What if I waited here till tomorrow morning?

I dismissed that thought instantly. I couldn’t even dream of waiting here with that man sitting right next to me, where he could easily hurt me.

I knew very well the ways I could get hurt.

If I could call the school, I could ask them for help.

I was already registered there anyway, and this was probably the best option. Probably the only real option.

I stood up and walked over to the pay phone I’d seen earlier, checking my wallet for a one-rupee coin. I didn’t have one.

‘Oh, great’

There was no one I could even ask for help around here. Where had all the people in the bus gone? There was no point in asking them the way; I knew only English and Hindi, a little Sanskrit; they didn’t know any of these three languages.  But I could try getting a rupee….but they were nowhere.

All of them had disappeared the moment the bus had stopped.

I could see my own reflection in the mirrored counter. I looked white as a ghost, my strangely colored eyes standing out against my face.

People told me I had pretty eyes. Nicholas told me they were creepy, and I agreed. They were dark silver, with the curious ability to hold and reflect light, rimmed with rings of sloe black. I couldn’t understand my own eyes…sometimes they seemed to hold secrets. They had seen more than I could remember…and for the very reason, I didn’t think they were beautiful, they were more easily deceptive or frightening.

In the mirror, I looked very much like a ghost myself. With my kind of pale skin and sharp, small features and slight, tall build…not to mention all the thick wavy hair that was tumbling over my forehead…porcelain figure, Nicholas said sometimes. You look so breakable, like porcelain.

I wondered if he had forgotten that. Maybe he would have come if he hadn’t.

What was I going to do about my one rupee?

I turned and looked back at the bench. The man wasn’t there.

Almost relieved, I turned again, and saw him in the mirror.

Right behind me.

‘You want a rupee?’

Breathe, Christopher.

‘Y…yes. I…’

Don’t panic. Don’t pass out. Just take it.

The man was holding it out, his anthracite eyes laughing scornfully. Why could I see only his eyes?

Take it.

I reached out, palm facing up, as though asking him to drop it into my palm. He just held his posture, daring me: take it from my hand.

Breathe. Grab it.

I grabbed the money in one go, my skin barely brushing against his. In that small millisecond of contact, I knew he was nothing my mind had conjured.

He was real. He was cold as ice.

Put it in. Don’t look at him.

My hand shook badly. I checked the mirror again, forcing myself to look.

Nothing.

He was nowhere to be seen.

I dropped the coin, hugged my bag and dropped to the floor, shivering.

*

Kazah, 21:05

Kiran

VER R U? MSG ME.

I sighed and switched off my phone, then peered at my father who was calmly lying on the ground, beneath the car.

‘That was the fiftieth message from Sameer. Are we ever going to get there, Dad?’

He made an ambiguous sort of snort and shrugged his shoulders.

I tried to hide my frustration. Amy and Mom were sitting on the cement structures that banked the curving mountain roads, looking down at the deep drop on the other side. I shivered to myself. I hated heights, and sitting down on one of those things so I could fall all the way down if I got dizzy wasn’t an option for a borderline acrophobic.

I stared at Amy, wondering how she could keep staring into the abysmal pit. Her curly hair had grown even more curly and frizzy in the summer heat of our hometown and whipped about in the icy wind. She didn’t look frustrated- she rather liked vacations than school.

I love school, I thought frowning, and I want to be there now.

Dad pulled himself out and grimaced at a questioning glance from Mom.

‘No luck, Priya, the thing needs a mechanic’

Mom stood up; looking twice her size in a huge shawl she had wrapped around her shoulders and walked over.

She wasn’t my real mother, but she was the only one I had. I didn’t even remember my mother. She’d died before I was even one. By three I had Priya to look after me and Amy to play with, so they were family now. My mom, my dad, my sister.

Although I’d trade my dad for a good mechanic, right now.

We’d been stuck in this precarious bend forever. The car had spluttered, coughed, retched smoke and then just…died. And dad had been trying to prove his nonexistent mechanical prowess since then.

‘We could walk’ I repeated for what seemed like the thousandth time. ‘ To Kazah, I mean. It must be just five minutes from here. We could walk till there and then get a mechanic’

Dad sighed as though giving up. I hid a smug grin. Vinod dealt better with stethoscopes than screw drivers.

‘I don’t mind waiting’ put in Amy. I stuck my tongue out at her and then regretted it- I was sixteen, for heaven’s sake.

Mom smiled quietly. ‘Kiran will blame us for every cold he gets for the rest of his life if we don’t get him to Kazah soon’

I frowned a little. Okay, I could be impatient. But this was a lose-lose situation which demanded impatience.

‘Kazah, Daddy. Please. Now’

Dad ran a hand through his curly hair and scowled a little. ‘Fine. Go with him, Amy’

Amy rolled her brown eyes and tugged Mom’s shawl off her, wrapping it around her shoulders. ‘I’m going in exchange of chocolate’

I moaned once. She was round as it is, and she still wanted chocolates? The girl didn’t seem to give a damn about anything except music and books.

‘Yeah, okay. Chocolates for you. Now please act like your age and come with me?’

She grinned the standard Amy grin and sauntered over to me.

AIS was more than a school to both me and Amy. Dad and Mom mostly worked outside the country, catering to a few rich patients. There was a word for that kind of doctor, something I couldn’t remember. We had joined AIS three years ago, and still loved the serene, totally untouched delicate beauty of the surroundings and the insane kids who were very much in contrast to those surroundings.

Kazah was fifteen kilometers downhill from the AIS campus and the nearest town. We had partial ownership of the big old British-established library there, and access to the town and its movie theatres, shopping centers and food courts on weekends. I knew Kazah by-heart, and I knew where we could find a mechanic.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the fog.

‘Wow’

Amy slipped her fingers through mine. ‘Cool. Fog’s early’

I shivered a little, peering through the thick white mist. ‘I can’t even see’ I muttered to her. The fog basically obscured everything, leaving us with only the bright gleam of gold filament lamps to lead us through.

‘Told you we should have come here long back’

Amy grunted.

We walked through the mist, keeping our eyes on the highest light we could see- the three bulbs that lit the metal star on top of the library.

‘Dad would kill us if he knew we were walking through this’

At least there were no vehicles around. What was going on with the fog?

My phone rang loudly in the eerie stillness, making both of us jump and Amy squeal loudly.

‘Hullo?! Crap, AV, you scared the heck outta us!’ I hissed, recognizing our caretaker’s voice on the other end of the line.

‘Yeah, where are you two? Everyone else is already here’

‘I know! Car’s dead, we’re in Kazah…what’s with this crazy fog?’

AV snorted. ‘Creepy mist…they announced it on radio, didn’t you hear?’

I groaned into the phone, frustrated. ‘No. Dad says he can’t concentrate on driving if we put on the radio’

‘Town’s deserted I think, everyone’s closed up for the day’

‘What do I do?’ I asked, tugging on Amy’s sleeve; she was going out of my sight.

‘I’ll message the mech’s number to you. Call him up. Kiran, don’t stay on the road- find some shop front or something to stay in’

‘Yeah, all right’

I heard the click of the phone as he hung up and then made a face for Amy. ‘Everyone’s closed because of the mist; AV’s going to send us the mech guy’s number’

‘Till then?’

‘Let’s find some place to stay out of the cold and then call Dad’

We were both shivering pretty violently by the time the Kazah bus stand came into view.

Fog swirled through the deserted stand, and the counter-glass was all misted up. The steel pillars that held up the asbestos sheet roof of the stand felt frigid- I couldn’t even think of sitting down on one of those metal benches.

I called Dad, giving him a quick run-through of events and assuring him that we were fine, they could come get us in the bus-stand when the car was all right. I forwarded him the mech guy’s number, and then leaned against a pillar while Amy chatted to our friend Hima on her cell.

Amy exaggerated the whole story, and I felt myself grinning. The way she was telling the story of our trip into misty Kazah, she made it sound like it had been a walk through an African rainforest with a few thousand snakes thrown in the path.

‘Ames, I’m going to find the coffee machine’

She made a gagging gesture at the westernized nickname I called her to annoy her and then went back to chatting at hundred kilometers per hour speed.

Girls talk so fast.

I walked through the stranded bus-stand. Where was that coffee machine? There was one somewhere, unless they had removed it during the summer. I didn’t think they had- Kazah was freezing cold a lot, and a cup of coffee kept the doctor away most of the time.

Near the counter, I told myself.

The counter was almost in darkness, save for a tiny blue bulb flickering behind the hazed over glass. I walked to it, my shoes making too much noise in the stillness. Heck, this is like that dead-town movie.

I half expected someone to jump out at me.

I found the coffee machine, and switched on the power button at the top, nearly jumping when the thing lit up. I pressed Latte, put in a couple of coins and waited while the machine whirred and hissed. I wondered if it had enough milk and water to brew…these things totally blew my mind, this kind of machinery…

I watched the counter glass reflecting the steel’s cold gleam absently. Something else caught my eye, something that made my heart thud to a stop…a face.

I peered harder, trying to avoid the sudden clench in my stomach. Yes, I had seen right. Almost impossible to make out because of the ghostly translucent complexion, but a face alright, and a human one.

Think. It can’t be a ghost, ghosts don’t exist.

‘Amy?’ I called shakily.

The person, whoever it was, looked as close to a ghost as he could get. White skin, long lashes, a curiously beautiful face.

He’s like those vampires in Amy’s novels.

I wondered if I should scream, then decided against it. No use getting Amy killed too.

I swallowed quietly, and forced the words out. ‘Who are you?’

The specter-boy moved into light. Not a ghost, I told myself, more than a little relieved. He looked even more frightened than I was, his dark eyes enormous against the paleness of his face.

‘Real?’ I heard him whisper.

What?

I turned around slowly. ‘Um…what are you doing? You scared the hell out of me’

He shrugged, playing with a silver ring that was on his forefinger. ‘He forgot me; I’m stranded. The guy just…disappeared’

‘Who? The one who forgot you?’ I asked, confused.

‘No, the one who followed me’ he sounded a bit muddled.

What?

‘Um…you all right?’

Was he all right in the head?

‘I don’t know. I’ve never known.’

Bitterness. Obscurity. A case of social withdrawal? Mild dementia?

I shook my head to clear out the psychiatric mumbo jumbo being a shrink’s son had automatically infused into my brain.

‘I need to go to the school. Everything’s deserted here’ the boy said, very softly.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Great. He’s a student.

‘You’re new? I go to AIS too. So does my sister’ I said, a slight shakiness to my voice. I hadn’t gotten over the fright he’d given me.

‘Your sister?’

‘Amrita. My name’s Kiran’

‘Chris Johnson’ the boy said, with an attempt at a smile. Ridiculous, how the smile transformed him. He looked almost human now, unlike the vampires. Amy appeared beside me, a quizzical expression on her face.

‘New boy’ I explained. She grinned the Amy-grin, and I could see the visible relief on the boy’s face.

‘Thought I’d be stranded here forever. A guy scared me- he was there one moment, gone the next’ said Chris, sheepishly, explaining the weird dialogue he’d said before about the one who followed me.

I laughed. ‘The fog can do that. Which grade are you in?’

‘Eleventh. You?’

‘Same. Where are you from?’ I asked, trying to make small talk.

He gave a non-committal shrug. ‘Here and there. I don’t know, we moved a lot when I was a kid. Born in Mumbai, I think’ he said, rolling his eyes.

‘Don’t classes start earlier for you over there?’

‘Went for three weeks before I decided to move’

‘We could take you up to school- when our car’s fixed, that is. That could be anytime’

Chris hugged his bag to his chest and smiled strangely- an almost grateful smile. ‘Thanks…I don’t really like being alone’

Amy shivered. ‘Yeah, the weather ain’t pretty’

‘Awww, Ames, dump the cowboy accent thing!’

‘It’s cute!’

‘No, it isn’t. It’s cheesy’

‘You’re insufferable’

Guys!’ interjected Chris, grinning a little. His eyes caught the light and glimmered with a strange light. What color was that? Grey?

A comfortable silence fell. We are all glad of each others’ company, I realized.

‘Who left the coffee machine on?’ drawled Amy in a bored voice.

Oops.

I turned to turn it off, frantically replacing the overflowing cup with another and scalding myself in the process. I caught sight of the counter mirror again, and for a minute, I thought I saw someone else- someone in black with dark as a hole eyes. Then the person disappeared and I shrugged to myself.

Strange mist.

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