That particular school building had always been a mystery. Rumours surrounded it, resulting in multiple stories circulating among the students like folklore among ancient villages. Although similar in appearance to the rest of the school, it stood at the far end of campus- separated from the students’ daily classes by a huge sprawling field containing the playing courts.
Not to say that the building was abandoned, as it was still occasionally used. Those who had been in there at some time or the other reported seeing rows of dusty wooden doors set into the brick walls of the corridors- doors leading to rooms that held outdated textbooks, old exam papers, and piles of broken furniture. Now and then, a professor would go in there to get one of the old textbooks that he or she had used in their own schooldays, to read from it to their classes. Their modern classes, comprising teenagers who seemed more interested in social media than memorising poetry from Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The Memorial School in Delhi had begun in 1890, and hence, retained its old-fashioned manners of teaching and curriculum. Whereas the other private schools in the area were attended by the children of wealthy households, Memorial’s student body mainly constituted the kids of the more conservative families. This conservative atmosphere reflected in everything from the modest, plain classrooms, to the grey salwar-kurtas mandated as the female uniform.
It was one winter morning, and the entire student body of some six-hundred students sat fidgeting in the lecture hall that was far too cramped to accommodate such a crowd of restless teenagers early in the day. They were all talking to each other, woeful about being made to wait to greet the new teacher who was to arrive. Being quite old, the school seldom had new teachers joining the staff, so times like these were treated specially. This time, the new teacher was rumoured to teach English, and very few of the students were excited. “I heard she got divorced,” said one of the students, and immediately gasps flew around. “I wonder why,” said Aashi, a normally quiet girl sitting in the corner. Everyone turned to look at her.
“Why, Aashi, do you and your rich parents support it?” said another girl, and the whole group laughed while Aashi turned away.
It was no secret that Aashi was from a well-to-do family, unlike most of the other kids in the school, and they never missed a chance to make her uncomfortable. The cause of their resentment was known only to them, but the continual taunts made Aashi feel out of place. When she was younger, she had pleaded with her parents to enrol her in a different school, one where there were more children of her status, but owing to her parents’ humble mindset, she had been sent to Memorial to mingle with poorer children. However rich she might be, she was often bullied by the other kids, who envied her clothes and possessions, and most of the teachers also disliked her, despite her timid and generous nature.
The various conversations were interrupted by the principal making an announcement onstage. “Quiet please! Ina Ma’am will be joining us shortly. I want you all to be polite and helpful to her because she -”
The speech was interrupted by the new teacher arriving. She walked onstage where the principal and other teachers stood in a line, and stopped when she was near the microphone. Graceful in manner and appearance alike, it caused several of the students to label her as the typical arrogant rich woman. She was clad in a plain long yellow kurta, and her brown hair was braided into a long braid hanging down her back. Her intelligent eyes scanned the hall.
“Good morning, everyone,” she spoke in a sharp, clear voice, and paused, expecting a response. But the hall remained silent, most of them internally despising her just because of the assumptions they had already made about her. Only Aashi spoke out, not expecting the rest of them to stay silent, and her soft ‘good morning’ sounded loud in the silent hall. Everyone sniggered.
“Look, Aashi’s already best friends with the rich teacher,” said Eesha, whispering loudly to her neighbour. Ina looked in her direction, and lowered her eyes, but not before glancing at Aashi.
Ina stepped away from the microphone and silently stood. The principal cleared his throat and stepped up to the microphone. In a tight, clipped voice, he dismissed the children, avoiding Ina’s gaze.
Aashi lingered behind the other students, walking slowly with her head hanging down. Ina walked up to her. “Hello. What is your name?” she asked, tapping Aashi on the shoulder. “Aashi, Ma’am,” she replied. Ina smiled at the girl’s introverted nature. “Aashi, I need to get to my class. Can you tell me where room 105 is?” Aashi froze. Her eyes widened, and she slowly turned to look at Ina.
“But . . but Ma’am, that room is in that building.” Ina smiled again. “Don’t you worry, Aashi. Thank you for telling me.” Aashi tried to hold her back. “No Ma’am, you don’t know. Please don’t go there, Ma’am.”
“Aashi, I will be taking classes in that building. All the English classes. I understand that there may be no other classes there, but I will be fine, I assure you. Go to class. I’ll see you during the English period.”
Nodding nervously, Aashi tried to quiet her unvoiced concerns, and instead went back to school with the crowd. Later in the day, Aashi made her way towards the building for English, along with a group of other nervous-looking students. “I don’t like the teacher, and I don’t like this place,” Zoya, a girl walking behind Aashi, said loudly to her friend Vanya.
Once everyone entered the building, they huddled together as they walked towards room 105. Aashi walked separately from them all, a scared look on her face. Zoya noticed it and felt sorry for the girl. “Aashi, come walk with us. This building is not safe, so don’t walk alone,” she said, a smile on her face.
Aashi obliged, as she had been feeling very frightened as well. She walked with Zoya and the others in silence till they entered room 105. The room had been converted from one of the dusty storerooms to a classroom. In the dimly lit room, Ina sat at a wooden desk surrounded by bookcases. Stained and cracked tables and benches filled the room in rows, and a dusty blackboard hung on the wall.
“Sit down, children,” said Ina.
“Yes Ma’am,” they chorused, filling the benches. Aashi took her place beside Zoya and Eesha, and the latter shot her a glare. The class commenced, and they spent nearly a half-hour reviewing words for the weekly quiz.
As the class talked and studied, Zoya put her hand up. “Ma’am, may I go to the restroom?” said Zoya. Ina looked up from the textbook. “Yes.”
Zoya walked to the door and then turned back. “Ma’am, can someone else come with me?”
“No,” replied Ina, frowning. “There is nothing to be afraid of Zoya. Go. You are not a small child.” Aashi looked up, worried. It wasn’t safe to roam this place alone. But she said nothing. Zoya turned and walked nervously out of the room.
For twenty more minutes or so, the class went on with their work. Nobody noticed Zoya’s prolonged absence and it was Aashi who noticed first. She called to Ina.
“Ma’am, Zoya is not back yet. Should I go and see if she is alright?”
Ina looked up at the class. Some of the girls were listening, no doubt concerned about Zoya.
“Don’t worry, everyone,” Ina said indifferently. “I’m sure she’ll be back when she’s done.”
. . . . . . .
Zoya stepped out of the classroom. She couldn’t understand why Ina Ma’am would not let anyone else come along with her. Everyone knew the building was shady, and Zoya’s heart thumped as she made her way down the dark, gloomy corridors. She was suddenly even more nervous, as she realised she didn’t even know where the restroom was. In the other buildings, there was one at the end of every other hallway, so Zoya turned right, and entered a long corridor.
She hurried, shivering at the sight of the old, barren rooms, some of them lit with an occasional eerie lantern, and heaved a sigh of relief when she saw two doors at the end of the corridor with the male and female signs above them.
She pushed open the door to the female restroom. It creaked, and Zoya jumped. The inside was lit by three flickering lamps above the cracked mirrors, and as she stepped in, the door closed behind her, slipping out of her grasp. She breathed in and out, trying to calm herself. She gripped the basin with her white fingers and looked in the cracked mirror. Her distorted reflection stared back at her, but so did something else. She could not find her voice as she stared into the mirror, seeing someone else standing behind her, a devilish grin on her face.
. . . . . . .
In the classroom, Ina Ma’am continued to write the list of words on the blackboard while the children copied it down.
. . . . . . .
Class ended, and the girls trooped out of the classroom, whispering about Zoya. Aashi started gathering up her notebook and pencils and putting them into her bag. As the other girls walked off, Ina came up to her.
“Aashi, can I speak with you for a moment?”
Aashi turned. Ever since Ina had seemed indifferent about Zoya’s absence, Aashi had felt a bit distrustful towards her.
“Yes Ma’am,” she replied, not looking Ina in the eye.
“Aashi, is something worrying you?”
Aashi started nervously fidgeting with her fingers. “No Ma’am, just . . . just that Zoya hasn’t come back,” she said to Ina.
“Aashi, I’m worried too. I just didn’t want to worry the girls. Now, go home, and if I don’t hear from Zoya soon, I’ll investigate. Okay?”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” She picked up her bag and left the classroom.
. . . . . . .
Ina was now tremendously worried. It had been ten minutes after school was over, and there was still no trace of Zoya. Zoya’s bag and notebook lay on the desk in the front row. Ina decided to go to the restroom to see for herself. She picked up her handbag and walked out of the room. She looked down the corridor. No restroom. She walked along the hall, and turned right, and down this corridor, she could see a couple of doors. Assuming those to be the restrooms, she hurried along. On the way, she passed old rooms. She now regretted having forced Zoya to go alone. At the time, she had thought the girls’ fear silly, and had tried to make them see that there was nothing to be afraid of.
She now realised that any girl would be scared in such an ancient and mysterious place.
She opened the door to the ladies’ room. The flickering lamps cast a dim, eerie glow over the cracked mirrors. Ina gasped as she spotted someone lying in a heap on the dirty floor. “Zoya!” she exclaimed, running over to the limp body. Zoya’s long black hair covered her face, and her eyes were closed. Forcing herself to look away from Zoya’s face, Ina grasped Zoya’s wrist and sobbed when she felt a weak pulse throbbing. No matter how much she called, Zoya would not awake, and in the end, Ina carried her out of the horrific place.
Half-dragging Zoya along the corridor, Ina felt her heart racing. The building was completely deserted by this time, and the occasional lanterns hanging continued to flicker in the dim surroundings.
At last, Ina reached the door of her classroom with a still-unconscious Zoya and heaved a sigh of relief. The shock awaiting her did not come immediately- it was only when Ina she looked up that she saw that her classroom was now in pitch-black darkness, although she was sure she had left the lights on only a few minutes ago.
. . . . . . .
As she walked home, Aashi could not ignore the niggling concern she felt. Something did not seem right about the place. All the old rumours about the building now came to mind, and although they had seemed ridiculous at first, she could not help thinking that none of them were impossible now.
And most of all, she felt rather empty after the incident. Almost as if . . . something was missing from inside her.
. . . . . . .
For the thousandth time that day, Ina’s hand grew cold from fear as she stood outside the open door of her dark classroom. The scanty daylight that had filtered in during the day was now replaced by the gloom of dusk, and the only light in the building came from the sparse lanterns. Ina debated whether to go inside the room, not doubting the frightening aura of the place that she had previously been so skeptical of. She looked at Zoya still unconscious beside her and tried to convince herself that her fears were false. Trembling, she stepped into the room.
Having spent no more than a day in the classroom, Ina was still unfamiliar with it. In the pitch darkness, she bumped into the corner of a desk, the sharp wood digging painfully into her thigh. She bent down to see if her leg was bruised. In the dark, as she bent down to hold the side of the table, her hands instead clutched something far more strange. Her fingers closed around something which felt astonishingly like . . . hair. Ina squinted, and her eyes fell upon a long black braid that she now held in her hand. A braid belonging to someone who was sitting under the table at this very moment in the dark classroom.
Ina could not find her voice as she bent down further to find out who was underneath the table. Her heart was thumping madly in her chest, and she knew that it was a precarious situation- her in an empty school, in a dark and ancient building, inside a pitch-black classroom, with an unconscious girl outside the door, and a stranger whose hair she clutched in her hand.
A sound outside the classroom door startled Ina. Looking back, she saw Zoya move from where she had been lying on the floor. Thank god, thought Ina. At least I am not alone anymore. Zoya slowly stood up, her face in shadows, just a silhouette from where Ina stood and stepped into the room slowly.
Ina’s relief froze in her mind as she glimpsed Zoya’s bright shining eyes, except that there were no black pupils on the smooth and glossy white surfaces of her eyes. Zoya’s long black hair swung around her face, although there was no wind inside the building. Ina silently gasped, as she felt the braid slipping from her hand on the other side of the room from under the table. She whipped around and didn’t believe her eyes as she saw the second girl who rose from under the table.
In a flash, Ina suddenly knew the answers to all the questions that had been buzzing in her mind from the time she found Zoya in the restroom. Ina closed her eyes in defeat, and slumped onto the floor of the classroom, as with blindingly white eyes, Zoya and Aashi closed in on her.
. . . . . . .
In a room in a two-storey house not far from Memorial School, Aashi sat beside her window, smiling that finally, there was someone at school who cared about her enough to be her friend.
– Aliyah Banerjee, Round Rock High School, Texas1 Like