THE OLD MAN

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CHAPTER 9: THE LONELY HIGHWAY

They steer on to the highway and the comforting breeze beckons Pritam to close his eyes. He obeys the gentle caressing of the breeze. From the rear view mirror, Prem observes Pritam closing his eyes.

Prem: Don’t fall asleep...and hold on to me properly...

Pritam: I am trying to cool my head off, with the help of the soothing breeze… not sleeping…

Prem: Ok then…but don’t doze off.

Far away, the old man senses their arrival and stops walking… His face lights up with happiness. He stares at the wild dogs and they fade away into the bushes by the roadside. The old man with a devilish smile awaits his free ride.

With eyes closed in bliss, Pritam is enjoying the breeze and the ride. But disturbing his joy ride, Prem stops the bike. With a frown on his face, Pritam opens his eyes to enquire about the matter. In an instance, his frowned face morphs into a startled one. To his horror, an old man with a huge lathi, is approaching them for hitch hiking.

Pritam (scared): Holy shit... He is the same man they were talking about…

Prem: Cool it off… They were just kidding...

Pritam (scared and looking at the old man advancing): No…no…no… You are a foolish rationalist trying to save his foolish ego. Just step on the paddle and let’s go.

The old man is coughing very often.

Prem (irritated): There’s nothing like that and do you think that I am foolish enough to stop here if Amol was serious about his story?

Pritam is not fully convinced and still very scared. (The old man is nearing, so whispers): You just leave … I don’t want to take any risk….

Prem (sneering): If anything happens… just act like you are fainted… You will be saved…

Pritam (desperately whispers): I beg you my bro… you son of a bitch... please drive off…

But by then the old man is already there.

Prem (adjusting to accommodate the old man): Pritam, adjust yourself, let him sit behind you… (Pritam, in a disgruntled mood, positions himself to the center.) You should sit between us. (Pritam is irritated as the old man grasps him on his shoulders and coughs in his ears, as he tries to accommodate himself). You will be safe; if at all you fall asleep, enjoying the cool breeze…

Pritam is very angry, but as he is very scared too, he doesn’t converse with the old man. But he, somehow, vigorously wriggles his shoulders out of the old man’s grasps.

Pritam (finally settling in his position, angry and scared): Like hell I would sleep, let alone enjoy the breeze…

Old man (making himself comfortable): I am comfortably seated son, let’s go (coughs)… There is a small tea shop at the village outskirts... Drop me off there… (Coughs)

Pritam (whispers): Speedup, let’s drop him there ASAP…

Prem (smirking): Your chicken heart won’t budge (Then addressing the old man) Sir… please hold yourself firmly, the road ahead has a lot of pot holes.

Heeding Prem’s advice, the old man once again grips Pritam’s shoulder, which irritates him to no end.

Pritam (finally mustering up some courage and sternly): Take your hands off me and grip on to the backrest.

Old man (coughs): Ok (grabs the back rest).

As the journey proceeds, Pritam, as expected, waits in anticipation for something spooky to happen. There is a shallow silence in the ambience, when, out of nowhere, a group of stray dogs attack them. In the fracas, they zoom past the undone, pot-hole-ridden patch of the road with great speed.

Pritam (panicking): I had told you, there is something fishy about him…From where the hell did these stray dogs appear… I have never seen them… At least, speed up, now…

Prem (doubting): That’s true…

Because of the sudden appearance of so many stray dogs, a drop of suspicion splashes into Prem’s inebriated consciousness creating ripples of fear.

Prem (little bit frightened and growing suspicious): Perhaps you were right, in a matter of minutes, we will be at the tea stall.

Pritam tightly holds onto Prem, and, true to his words, Prem drives like a racing maniac and stops the motorbike right at the tea stall.

Pritam: Sir? We are at the teal stall. Please alight.

Getting no response, Pritam turns back to check on the old man and he heaves… THE OLD MAN HAS DISAPPEARED!

Pritam (getting down from the bike): I had warned you, but you were adamant to give a free ride.

Prem (mounting the bike on its side stand and getting off): Now, what happened?

Pritam (pointing towards the pillion seat): He has vanished…

The ripples of fear now soar very high, forming enormous waves of panic and terror. Prem starts to tremble with horror, and even before Pritam could apprehend, Prem faints.

Pritam (with tension): What’s happening to you? (Then shouts) Help… Somebody… Please help…

The tea stall owner, his helper and two-three customers come running for help. They take Prem to the nearby Trauma Centre. On their way, Pritam informs others about the ghastly incident.

Pritam (restlessly to Pradeep on phone): Please come to the Trauma Centre near our village, quickly.

Pradeep (anxious): But what happened?

Pritam (restless): The story about the old man that Amol had told us… It has actually materialized… And Prem is unconscious.

Pradeep (shocked): What the hell? We will be there in no time…

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