Every house tells umpteen tales; we only need to have the right ears to hear them. If we are able to cut through the cacophony of the noise that surrounds us, we can hear these stories — stories of ecstasy and distress, stories of pride and humiliation, stories of inflicting and suffering pain. Houses also live with the people who live in them; if we could only hear them…
February 13, 11:00 p.m.
Mercy Gleeson went through her motions before she could tuck herself into bed. Her house was silent on this day, which was quite different from the previous year. For then, her house was filled with enthusiastic sounds — those of hers and her boyfriend Jake’s — and they had lent a different atmosphere to the house.
But now the atmosphere was somber. There was an ambiance of reticence and defeat all around. The musty air and dust balls didn’t help. Even the furniture seemed to creak with agony at odd hours of the night.
She had nothing planned for the next day. This wasn’t the right time to do anything. Jake had planned to make the big move on Valentine’s Day the previous year. There was no secret about it, and she knew she would have said ‘yes’ had he gone down on one knee before her.
However, that was a life that could have been. The reality she faced now was entirely different.
One accident was all it had taken to turn her life upside down.
That was the only scene that had played in her mind, in some kind of a bizarre loop, all through the last twelve months. Their rollicking adventure in the cottage in the woods, unknown to the world outside, the lying in each other’s arms unhindered and uninhibited, the drifting away to sleep, and then the fire…
Her instinct had helped her back then. She got up and ran, moving out in the nick of time. But before doing so, she woke him. He sprang out of the bed, and he ran out for his dear life too.
That was the last she had seen of him.
For long moments, she stood outside looking at the house burning down, praying at every instant that he would emerge from the fire. She didn’t have the courage to go in herself. All she could do was scream her lungs out for help, but no one came.
Valentine’s Day had begun for the rest of the world. People everywhere would be celebrating with their loves, but Mercy’s world had just collapsed around her.
She finished preening herself in the bathroom. The mirror showed her a haggard reflection of herself, but she didn’t care. The cold water helped her relax and, switching the lights off, she proceeded to her bed.
Her eyes had been closed for scarcely a minute when she heard the doorbell.
At first she thought it was a trick of her mind as it was drifting away into sleep, but then it rang a second time.
She got up now, put her feet into her slippers, and tiptoed to the door. Her meticulousness for silence was needless; there was no one in her house that she could disturb anyway.
The horror tales of single women being attacked and raped in their houses ran through her mind. Just two weeks ago, a woman had been ravaged by the security man of her own society. Standing at the peephole, she craned her neck to peer through. The lights in the corridor weren’t intense enough, and her eyes were half-groggy, but after she focused them for a few moments, she gasped.
There was no mistaking what she had seen.
Out in the corridor, stood Jake — the Jake she had not seen after the fire — dressed in a black tuxedo, holding a bouquet of white orchids in his hand. He was dressed for Valentine’s Day, just like the previous year.
“Who is it?” Mercy said in disbelief, with fear dripping through her every word.
“Open and find out.” The sound was distinct, clear, just as she had heard him always.
Since their first meeting, Mercy hadn’t stopped loving Jake for a minute. There was nothing she wanted better than to see him again, knowing that he had somehow escaped the fire. But now, really seeing him out there in such an abrupt manner made her goosepimply all over.
“I cannot wait here the whole night.” His voice brought back the memories. It was as though he had always been by her side.
Slowly, she moved her fingers over the latch and unfastened it. Lingering on for a minute more, she undid the lock.
“Oh!” he said, his voice dripping with dejection. “I thought you would like seeing me like this.”
The merriness in his voice goaded courage back into her. She felt her own voice returning.
“Shh!” he moved in and handed the bouquet to her. “You need to calm down first. Do you still keep drinks in your house?”
She pointed a finger towards a cabinet. Jake opened it. “Ah! Scotch!” he exclaimed. “Great medicine for frayed nerves.” He poured the liquid into two glasses, neat, and handed one over to her. “Won’t you close the door and come in?”
Almost mechanically, Mercy kept the bouquet on a table and closed the door behind her. Then she went and sat next to Jake on the couch, maintaining a safe distance from him.
“All right, let me explain,” he said. “First of all, sorry for giving you such a fright. I had forgotten what a sissy-pants you are. And, I also apologize for not being in touch.”
“Where have you been?” Her composure was slowly returning.
“I did escape the fire,” he said, “and I also saw you leave, but I was a bit too late in escaping. Got a few burns here and there. It took a while for those to heal and mend.”
“Was it bad?”
“Not much pain, surprisingly. And it healed well. Look.” He took off his coat and unbuttoned his shirt. “Nothing now. I am clean.”
Without meaning to, she found her hand moving towards his chest. It was perhaps the touch with his skin that did it, but something snapped inside her and she felt no fear anymore.
“The flowers?” she said. “What are those for?”
“Why?” he exclaimed. “Doesn’t Valentine’s Day start in an hour? Are you reneging on your promise?”
It came back to her. A few years ago, in the prelude to Valentine’s Day, they had promised each other that they would be each other’s Valentines forever.
“This is so all of a sudden!” she said. “What if I were seeing someone else?”
“But, why would you?”
“Because I didn’t hear from you.”
“So? Oh, I see. Did you think I was dead?”
There was silence in the room. It couldn’t be heard, but it could almost be seen.
“I couldn’t fault you for that,” he said, now sounding like a schoolboy who has been reprimanded. “I never thought… I was healing too; so, maybe I wasn’t in a position to face you. Yes, I think it’s that. That’s the reason I didn’t contact you earlier.”
“So,” he said, getting up, “will you be my Valentine…” He checked his watch. “…eleven minutes from now?”
She got up, her eyes flooding with tears of joy.
“Yes,” she said.
The embrace they had following that was one of the longest they had ever had.
“Let me just go and put on something presentable,” she said, getting out of the hug. “And you tell me later what your big plan is.”
February 14, 0:00
Mercy put herself into the red dress she was saving for an occasion, without really knowing what that occasion would be. And now, that the occasion had arrived, she found it was the best it could be.
Thus dressed, she came out into the room where he was still sitting on the couch.
“That’s amazing!” he said. “You are looking younger than you did last year.”
She nodded and sat down next to him. “Now tell me what your plan is.”
“I have come to take you with me.”
“Don’t know for sure. But, let’s start by going back to the cottage.”
That made a shudder run through her spine. The mention of the cottage took away the composure she had gained, causing her to breathe heavily once again.
“Why the cottage?” she mumbled.
“Let’s make it as though this year never happened,” said Jake. “I think we should pick up from where we had left off. The same bed, the same stance. It will be like we never missed anything.”
“Why do you want to do that?”
“To remove the sense of loss.”
“But the cottage won’t be there. It must have burned down.”
“It is there,” he said confidently. “I know it is.”
A few minutes later, he was driving her on the freeway. It was the same old car they had had so many passionate moments in. Nothing had changed about it, not even the tickets shoved into the glove compartment.
As they drove, they saw motels decked up with bright heart-shaped signs, shops with blinking love lights, and advertisement boards spreading the love in their own commercial way.
An hour into Valentine’s Day, they reached the cottage. Mercy skipped a few heartbeats as she saw it.
It stood just as it had on that fateful day, though the signs of the fire were evident in its burned windows.
“It is still empty,” she said.
“Yes. Let’s go and check if the bed is still intact.”
They went in, hands tightly clasped with each other. Most of the furniture had burned down to ash. However, the bed still stood in an inside room, though parts of it had been irrevocably singed.
“Is that it?” Mercy said. At that moment, a strong wind rattled the already broken window panes and made her jump. “I think we should leave now.” Her tone was insistent.
“There’s no hurry,” he said, making her sit on the bed. “I have to do something first… some unfinished business.”
She kept looking at him, her heart still thumping wildly, but now in a good way. Anticipating what was to come, she primed herself in her sitting position.
Her hope wasn’t belied. Jake went down on one knee before her, and thrust his hand into his coat pocket. She held her breath as he extracted a small square box and opened it to reveal an ornate ring.
“Here it is then,” he said, holding out the box. “Mercy Gleeson, my one and only true love, on this Valentine’s Day, I ask of you — will you be mine forever?”
The whole experience had been ethereal so far. A couple of hours ago, she had been wallowing in her misery, shunning the world as she could not face its sympathetic stares, rarely going out of her house; and now, her love was back — in such a real way, that too. In that moment, nothing else mattered to her. The past was too far gone, the future held a distant promise. It was only the present moment she wanted to live in.
He was still there, his handsome face eagerly awaiting an answer.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes!”
He put the ring clumsily onto her slender finger, and lifted her in his arms. Holding her like that, they kissed, his warm lips feeling like summer dewdrops on hers. And then he whirled her round and round, till she felt she would collapse with the happy dizziness.
It was then that the light began to appear.
She didn’t notice it at first, but when he stopped whirling her, the glow behind his head was quite apparent. He smiled, and the smile was surreal, unlike anything she had seen before. She struggled in his arms, and he kept her down.
“What’s this?” she said, referring to the halo.
But he only smiled.
“No, tell me. What is this?” she repeated.
And then, he led her by her hand.
“Come with me,” he said.
Not understanding a bit of what was happening, she let herself be led by him. He brought her out of the house, treading carefully over haphazardly placed pebbles, and took her to the gate.
“Why does your face shine?” she asked. “What is all this, Jake?”
He didn’t utter a word. He took her outside the gate, and made her stop. Then, he pointed a finger at a board placed on the fence.
“What?” she asked.
He pointed harder, and she looked.
It was a notice-board. On it was written:
Fire Casualty: Stay Away
Following the accidental deaths of two young people, Jake North and Mercy Gleeson, this house has been cordoned off by the municipal authorities. The cause of fire is not yet ascertained.
Now, she felt the warmth grow within her too. She looked up, and a luminescence was beginning to appear.
“You see,” he said. “We kept our promise. To be each other’s Valentines forever.”
More love stories with a twist await you in Neil D’Silva’s acclaimed book Bound in Love. Check out the book now!
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