by Swagato Chakraborty
THE BUILDING down the road was on fire.
A sooty smell invaded the house. Now and then, screams from afar jarred my ears. From the window, I could see the rest of the city. It was in a decaying silence. A city that did not even rest in the dead of night, was now in deathly slumber. No lights could be seen anywhere, except the houses that burnt like fireflies over a still bog. All the street lamps were long pulled down—we thought we could stop them this way. So very naive!
Rishi came and stood by me.
He has grown so thin. Just yesterday, he was complaining about that pain in his stomach. He looked a shell of a man now, no longer having the enthusiasm or the gait of that handsome gym instructor.
‘Don’t go out,’ he said, his voice rather harsh. Maybe it was another manifestation of his illness?
‘I must, my dear,’ I said, making my way to the kitchen and lighting a candle. Electricity has long been cut off from the city. The candles are now our only illumination. At first, the candlelight dinners were romantic, now, they only ignited hopelessness and frustration.
Dinner! How many days it has been...?
‘I SHOULD BE heading out,’ he said ‘I am supposed to do this.’
‘You are unwell, honey,’ I reasoned ‘I will be fine.’
He looked at his shoes and muttered ‘We’ve talked about this. This isn’t right.’
‘Look, we need food,’ I reminded him, as if he was oblivious to the fact ‘We will starve at this rate.’
‘Plus, you need your ulcer medication. It would have been better if Dr. Singh could take a look, but we don’t know... if he is...’
‘Alive,’ my husband finished.
I nodded and began to prepare my backpack. I planned to bring only packaged food, as everything raw in the city was well beyond spoiling. Trucks carrying fresh vegetables into the city had long ceased to operate.
Rishi sat down on the floor by the window and I ran to him.
‘Are you feeling ill?’ I asked, concerned.
‘It isn’t your job to do this. It is mine.’ His eyes burnt like coal under the moonlight.
I pulled him into a hug, knowing words would not reach him.
THE ROAD WAS absolutely dark and yet I was afraid to use my pocket torch. Even a little bit of light could betray my position to them. Fortunately for me, it was a full moon night. I was walking by the lake. Before all this mess, Rishi and I used to go jogging down this road, and it was a popular place to hang out. Tonight, there was no one but me. I looked at the lake and was met with a startling sight. The moon, as big as a dish, floated just above the lake. The celestial orb’s light danced on the water, throwing coruscant light all around.
The lake was pristine and it beckoned me. As if in a trance, I began to walk towards it. I left its bank and started to descend further and further into the water. Only when chest deep, did I realize what I was doing. I swam ashore and laid down on the bank. A fear now gripped my heart and threatened to rip it apart. Yet, I got up and continued forward. I had to. Rishi’s condition worried me. He needed enough food and medicine. I could not just sit down and let fate blow me apart. I was never that kind of a person.
YET, FEAR, FEAR, fear. It replaced the blood in my body and occupied every inch of my nerves. To take my mind off, I began to think about how we got into this mess in the first place—a sort of mental historiography.
IT BEGAN WITH the billionaire J.D.C. Dutta and his medicine company—Sunshine Biotech. Apparently, they found a hitherto undiscovered protein in cotton that could rapidly replicate human genes and neurons. Sunshine Biotech believed that the protein could be used to clone human beings. Initial experiments were successful on cotton. They gathered a few bales and soaked them with an advanced variation of the liquefied protein. Surrounded by reporters, scientists, and investors, the cotton bales stood erect, and began to move around. As The Daily reported—’Physiotherapists praised the walk of these cotton bundles as being more accurate than most of their patients.’
Sunshine assured everyone that even though the cotton bales were able to acquire the power of independent movement, they could never be sentient. Now, for the final product, a vessel was needed. A vessel that was not ugly like stacks of cotton. A vessel that had a predefined shape.
Yes, what could have been better than stuffed animals?
Sunshine Biotech began to sell DIY kits on the market for people to replicate themselves. Many started to buy and it soon became a trend. Soft toys and stuffed animals began to disappear from the market as more and more people tried to replicate themselves. It now feels so stupid. Why was there such a craze? Why could we not perceive our oncoming doom? Some pointed to Plato and others scratched their heads. The result? These stuffed animals began to come to life, walking and behaving like us.
For a whole year, everything was fine.
And then, it happened.
THE YEAR IN which Sunshine Biotech recorded their highest ever turnover, the stuffed animals rebelled. It began as secluded incidents, spread as urban legends all over the city. Even I was a sceptic. However, the death of my friend, Sarah, challenged my assumptions. She was discovered in her apartment, looking completely fine from the outside. However, the autopsy report shocked us. Inside Sarah, there was only cotton. Her nerves, veins, organs, bones were all turned to cotton. They found six bite marks on her body, made by tiny but sharp teeth. Sarah owned six cloned stuffed animals. We could not find any of them in her home.
Within a month, all speculations were proved right. There were so many deaths that medical services were paralyzed. The connection between the soft toys and the deaths could no longer be denied. The stuffed animals too, gave up on hiding. They began to roam the streets, biting the careless pedestrian, turning their insides into cotton, giving them a quick but agonizing death. The city soon overran with marauding stuffed animals and dead, cotton people. Rest of us survivors barricaded ourselves into our homes and spend our time in dreadful anticipation. ‘Time has stopped.’ I remember reading somewhere in Beckett at the time. From our homes we heard that Sunshine Biotech was still operating. The profits from the clone kits enabled them to buy a distant island for further development of their products.
‘It is not death that bothers me,’ I remember discussing with Rishi once ‘But the manner. I don’t want to be turned into cotton. I don’t want my insides to fill with cotton. It is like losing a part of me, like giving up my essence. It is dreadful.’
‘You won’t be,’ Rishi had assured me.
DISCOVERING THE GLASS door smashed, I carefully went through it. This was a small, two storey ‘showroom’ of Sunshine Biotech—one of many established around the city. These were to serve as an outfit to sell more kits, while making money on the side with selling regular medicines, dry food, toothpaste, stationery and other day to day items. The ground floor had half of its lights working. In the dying glow of a blinking tube light, I shoved packets of biscuits, chips, and boxes of melted chocolates in my bag.
Yes, these would keep our bellies quiet for the week. Next, I needed to find Rishi’s medication. A poster marked ‘Pharmacy Upstairs’ was loosely pasted on the wall by the staircase. I followed its directions and climbed up the stairs.
Soon, I found myself in a dark corridor. Familiarizing themselves with the dark, my eyes noticed an ajar door. Unfortunately, it was blocked by a fallen shelf. I kept my bag down and pushed at the shelf with all my might. It took a while but I was able to create a large enough gap to slip through.
Inside, all the lights were on vacation.
I could just about make out the individual aisles but I needed a light to find my husband’s tablet. So, I turned on my pocket torch.
What I saw made my body numb.
The shelves were filled with stuffed animals, of varied shapes and sizes. It was then that I remembered. This showroom had a stuffed animal section. Sunshine believed that by selling their cloning kits and stuffed animals under one roof, they would be concentrating profits.
I slowed down my breathing and tried to calm down. Who could say which cotton animal here is alive and which one is dead? Maybe none of them were alive, or, maybe...
I shuddered to think.
However, I could see a sign labelled ‘Pharmacy’ just up ahead. The pharmacy was after the toy section. It meant that to reach it, I needed to traverse through these aisles filled with the stuffed animals. I could hear my heart beat in my ears. Yet, I did not want to go back. Rishi needed his medicine urgently.
Very carefully, putting all my attention to my steps, I began to walk forward. I felt the animals’ sewed eyes boring at my skin. How easy would it be for them to jump and pierce me with their fangs! How easy would it be for them to turn me into cotton!
The pharmacy section was drawing close but I did not let down my guard. My eyes frantically searched every corner, looking for monsters that did not exist.
It was then that I heard the sound.
It was sort of a shuffling noise, and it was approaching me from behind. My instincts made me turn and I threw my torch’s light against the intruder.
‘Rishi!’ I struggled to keep my voice down ‘Why are you here?’
‘I told you,’ he said ‘This is a man’s job.’ His face was dripping sweat and he was hunching forward. I could see that he was in physical pain.
‘Again with that nonsense,’ I scolded ‘I told you I can do it. You are unwell and this is dangerous for you.’
‘Did you get food?’ he asked.
‘Was about to get it.’
‘Go home. You should be home,’ he said in a voice that sounded discordant ‘I can take care of it.’
He shoved past me and began to walk forward.
‘Ridiculous!’ I cried out and followed him into the pharmacy.
IT TOOK US quite a while to find the medicine. Rishi kept on confusing other boxes for his own medicine and scattered them on the floor. Despite my insistence, he looked through the wrong shelves and started to shout when he could not find it. Finally, it was me who discovered his tablets.
‘Here they are,’ I said, with a triumphant smile.
Rishi snatched them from me in such ferocity that his nails left a wound on my palm.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ I shouted, rubbing the spot.
‘Let’s just go,’ he negated my inquiry and started walking back.
‘Why are you being so horrible?’
We were now out of the pharmacy, walking between the aisles of soft toys.
Suddenly, I heard some shuffling in the shelves.
I froze. Rishi had not heard it and he kept on walking. Turning on my torch, I pointed it at the shelf. Fear spread in my heart like a drop of blood in water.
Among the many, apparent lifeless cotton toys, one was slowly standing up. It looked straight at Rishi’s dilapidated figure, and was getting ready to pounce on him, its fangs glowing in the torch’s light.
Something clicked in my mind and I threw the torch at the stuffed fiend. It knocked against its head, toppling it down.
‘What’s going on?’ Rishi asked, alarmed. I did not need to answer. The aisles seemed to shake as more and more stuffed animals began to come to life. They shoved each other and knocked down those who failed to rejuvenate like them. They had all seen Rishi and fancied cotton streaming down his bones. By now, Rishi too was aware of his impending doom.
‘Help me,’ he cried, pathetically.
Panic gripped my body. For a second, the image of Rishi’s cotton body flashed before my eyes. All seemed to be lost. Yet, in the deep recesses of my mind, a solution presented itself.
I picked up the pocket torch and pointed its harsh beam at the menagerie. The sudden arrival of illumination in their dark world, was most unwelcome to their buttoned eyes. The cotton animals screeched in unison, unable to proceed forward or backwards.
‘Rishi! Follow me!’ I shouted and began running back to the pharmacy. Driven by fear, Rishi followed me. The stuffed horrors, slowly recovering from their daze, jumped down from the aisles and followed us.
WE WERE THE first ones in the pharmacy. I did not stop till I reached the giant glass windows, behind the payment counter.
‘What now?’ Rishi shouted.
‘We need to break the windows,’ I suggested ‘Then, we can jump. The height is not lethal. If we are lucky enough to land on one of the abandoned cars below, we might save even the scratches. C’mon, hand me that chair.’
Staggering on his legs, he picked up the chair. However, instead of handing it to me, he threw it himself at the glass. There was a gross miscalculation on his part, as the angle of the throw broke only the lower part of the window. None of us could squeeze through that. The chair was gone.
‘You and your stupid ideas!’ Rishi screamed, as if it was my fault.
‘Hold on.’ My eyes played around the room ‘Let’s get that table there.’
We ran to the middle of the room where a table was set up to display products. We threw all that paraphernalia down, and began to move the table.
But it was too late.
The stuffed animals were already in the room, making their way toward us. It was going to be real close, my mind whispered to me. We were very near to the window when I felt a powerful shove. It was so unexpected that I scarcely believed who pushed me—Rishi.
‘What the hell?’ I cried, falling on the floor with a thud.
‘They are almost here,’ he said ‘We can’t escape.’
‘That is, unless one of us sacrifices themselves,’ he said, and I failed to recognize the familiar features of his face ‘And I am not going to be turned into cotton!’
‘Besides,’ he said ‘I told you, it’s a man’s job. But you wouldn’t listen.’
The stuffed animals surrounded me like a deluge surrounds a river bank. As they sank their teeth into me, I saw Rishi breaking the glass and disappearing into the night.