If I asked you, when did you last feel most vulnerable, your last Thai massage session or the last time you lay bare on the second date night itself would probably hit you instantly. Makes sense. What sure does not, is the last time I felt so was when I stood in front of the newly installed air conditioner in my own room.
The heat wave the decade-turn brought about was killing, to say the least. Tearing through the 38 degrees mark on the Celsius, it could safely be the sole reason for a thousand or so deaths in the country, more than two brimming prisons combined. Undying thirst and unstopping sweat drew me from the comfort of the house out into the heat and then dropped me into the enviable luxury of the electronics showroom, where I managed to grab a 1.5 tonne split for a bargain of less than 20 k INR!
I stood there the entire two days, watching the stenchy labourers go about installing the monster, facing my bed directly. No setbacks, nothing, except for a slight cut on the thumb of one while fixing the angles, but all that could be forgiven; it looked grand, as though it belonged right there, in my room, facing me like a mate. The men left and I powered the monster on. A soft gurgle and it grunted to life.
For the next few days, it ran smoothly. There were times, when I would return from the office, undress completely to the underwear, climb up on the bed and feel the cool winds splash against my bare, perspiring, stinking body and throw me into a state of never-return. The colleagues knew about the air conditioner, the envy writ large across their stupid faces, as we struggled under a croaking fan from the British era. “If I could afford one, I’d get one,” remarked Roshan, as we sat in our respective cubicles swirling ice in our Colas. I smirked at him in acknowledgement.
“Come and see what I got,” I boasted and a hundred or so turned up at my flat that night with food from the dhaba right across the street and more Colas.
The machine whirred to life, followed by a thunderous applause. As soon as the applause died, the machine died out too. Confused, I started pressing buttons on the remote control, hitting it hard and following the necessary protocol but to no avail – the machine stared back at us silently, with a few glugs and splits. I frowned at it. And then widened my eyes in shock. In that moment, it seemed – it really seemed – that the machine was breathing. Frantic, I switched the main power off.
We ate under the fan. Silent, not a word spoken in front of me. And then they all filed out, one by one. Some embarrassed for me, some cursing me, some indifferent completely. I could hear a loud cacophony as they emerged out from the building and dispersed.
That night, I took off every bit of clothing from myself and turned the main switch on. The air conditioner spat out some water that landed on my bare chest and that was it. I hurriedly called up the service center. The bloke could not be available before tomorrow morning. I groaned, but I let it happen anyway. I slept under the fan that night, but I swear I could hear it make the spitting and gurgling noises. Like it was ill.
The next morning, my anxieties soared higher. My mind shot back to my room, where some random dick from some random place would be unmanning the machine, tearing it apart to look for the flaws in it.
I dropped files in the process, dipped the pen into my Cola and swivelled around in my chair without realising the boss stood at my neck, waiting for my reverie to finish. I dashed back home as soon as the bell sounded and ran to my room, flinging my shirt and my vest away. And I stopped dead in the tracks when I saw it.
Shreds of human clothing hung on the wooden ladder. With shreds of human flesh. All painted red. And the air conditioner – it spat as usual. But what it spat out – made me yell to no extent. It landed on me. Bits and parts of human tissue, soaked in blood, darted towards me and smacked me across the face.
It stared back at me. Spitting. It’s flap formed a smile from its vent, from which it shot out more tissue. Looking at me, smirking at me, telling me you’re next. A blood trail strolled in a single line from the flap, through the body and dripped on the ground.
I screamed. I screamed my lungs out and I ran.
I ran and ran and ran, outside the house, outside my lane, anywhere far away from that despicable machine.
That incident happened a good eight years back, and right now, I am meeting my therapist as part of my mandatory wellness programme. They keep me in an institute, as they call it, where I am kept well away from those machines.
But I cross them every time I am moved through the corridors or, like now, to the therapist. The old man’s room contains one such monster. I whimper at it, I am scared of it, as it grunts on. Fresh rose fragrance, mingled with the demon calls of the monster. I never felt more vulnerable.
I was improving, they told me. I was doing good. Letting the past fade out. But whenever, I heard the grunts of the air conditioning machine anywhere, be it in the corridors or at the therapist’s, it all came gushing back to me. And I screamed, kicked everything away, threw anything that was in my hand and I screamed. Nevertheless, I was improving.
I was shifted to another ward in the summer time. Where there was no air conditioner. All hidden behind cages in the ceiling. They called it centralised air conditioning systems, where not a bit of those monsters could be seen by the naked eye. It was getting easier for me thereafter. Easier as a whistle. I mingled with the wards there, we played carrom and we drew sketches on the canvas. We were even allowed to piss on the walls of the urinal in a game. Anything that made us happy.
I was improving. I was better. And then, the night before they drew up my discharge papers, I came back into my room. One look at the faint line of red on the body, and I screamed again.
Vishal Bagaria is an avid reader of dark fiction and has contributed to a couple of critically and commercially successful anthologies in the past, including Time’s Lost Atlas and Shades of Life. His current story based on midlife crisis shall feature in a new anthology, The Fence, releasing on August 21st 2016. Among his other hobbies are travelling, photography and cooking.