Short Story 2018 Longlist Shubhi Goel

THE WAITING ROOM

It wasn’t any noise but the absence of it that woke me. I blearily rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, head still disoriented enough to not know where I was. I sat up, my eyes scanning the surroundings only to be met by a woman blinking owlishly at me.

“Good, you’re awake. We’ll be with you as soon as we can. Try not to freak out.”

I probably wouldn’t have, if she hadn’t just told me not to. Instantly, I was on high alert. My eyes were flitting around wildly, desperate to put a name to this place. There was a long, brightly lit corridor that seemed to go on forever— white walls punctuated by (somehow even whiter) doors and chairs lining the space in between. A woman sat with a measly-looking child who looked one coughing fit away from kicking the proverbial bucket. The woman who had spoken to me earlier sat behind a large desk that hid everything but her face. It looked like some sort of waiting room. Why was I in a waiting room? And more importantly, how did I get here?

I latently registered the pounding in my head that had steadily gone from bad to worse to help-I-think-someone-is-squeezing-my-brains-out. I pinched the bridge of my nose and bit my lip to keep from crying out. Clutching my hoodie with the other hand, I tried to focus on slowing my breathing.

It all started coming back to me in flashes. Road trip with Parag and Mikita, singing in the car. A truck approaching at marvellous speed. My hands on the wheel, swerving wildly to avoid it. A blinding flash of light, and then, an ear piercing screech.

So I was in a hospital? Where were Mikita and Parag?And then, a horrible thought struck me.

Waiting room. Accident. No Mikita and Parag. My pulse quickened, my thoughts spiralling to a singular conclusion that my heart was too weak to consider. But it must be true, then. Somehow I must have come out unscathed enough to be on the right side of the waiting room. Tears clouded my vision as I tried not to hyperventilate. I needed some answers. Now.

I looked back up at the woman who seemed to know what was going on around here. “Ma’am, excuse me—”

She tapped her finger the board on her desk that said ‘PLEASE MAINTAIN SILENCE’, and gave me a reproachful look. I stared back incredulously.

“Ma’am, my head is already killing me. Where are my friends? And just what the hell in going on?”

She gave a put upon sigh, and grumbled, “Don’t worry, your friends are in good hands. The doctors are doing everything they can. And you are in the waiting room, obviously.”

So they were not dead. Yet. Taking a shuddering breath, I aggressively scrubbed my face with my hands to stave off such thoughts. Later. I would deal with the aftermath later. Right now, I only had to focus on keeping myself sane enough to take care of whatever legal formalities the hospital would eventually require of me. And pray for my friends.

I tried to focus on the rhythmic tick of the clock, but it only reminded me of exactly how slow time was passing. I tried reciting nursery rhymes in my head but that made the pounding worse so I gave up on that pretty quick. Tapping my foot earned me a dirty look from the receptionist so I did it more aggressively while maintaining eye contact. She rolled her eyes at my immaturity. I huffed. Isn’t hospital staff supposed to be more… hospitable?

Suddenly the room next to me opened and out came a man with a clipboard of what looked like Pretty Important papers in his hands. Yes, I capitalised that in my head.

I scrambled to my feet. “Are my friends in there? Do you have any news? Any update? Please, will they be alright?”

He seemed pretty seasoned to such panicked outbursts, and said nonchalantly, “Difficult to say.”

What kind of a hospital was this? Everyone was so apathetic, so cold. I clenched my jaw to keep from shouting at him. He was the one responsible for making sure my friends came out of this alive, and I wasn’t calling him unprofessional, but letting someone die was not the same as killing them, and I wasn’t going to piss him off anytime soon.

The man peered knowingly into my eyes and put his thumb and forefinger to my temple. “How’s the headache? Any better now?”

“I think I have a concussion or something because I think there are a few gaps in my memory. I don’t even remember telling you about the headache. Actually, I think I fell asleep after you must have looked me over, because I don’t remember that either. And I know you are not supposed to sleep after a concussion. Shouldn’t someone have tried to keep me awake?” I tried to infuse my voice with as much geniality as the situation allowed, trying my best to keep the accusation out of it. Parag and Mikita. That’s all that mattered right now.

 

He only smirked back at me. “Did all your medical knowledge come off of Grey’s Anatomy? Anyway, this memory loss is only temporary, you’ve been through a huge trauma, so it is to be expected. Now I have some work to do, so someone will be with you shortly. Please wait.” Were all doctors fluent in cryptic half-answers or was I receiving some special treatment?

 

I bit the insides of my cheek and gingerly sat down again. Nothing to do except wait. And much as it guilted me to admit it, I was bored. I remember reading about an experiment where some people had been left alone with nothing to do, and a machine that that gave you mild but painful shocks. They eventually got so bored that they deliberately chose those shocks over being left alone with their own thoughts. Back then, I had marvelled at the stupidity of some people, but as minutes turned to hours, I was ready to pay good money to shock myself with that machine.

 

I was slowly stewing away in a cauldron of dread and fear and irritation, when a door at the other end of the hall opened and a man peeked his head out. He narrowed his eyes at the receptionist pointedly, as if he could bore holes through her head by sheer will. Eventually, she looked up and noticed him. He gesticulated wildly for a minute while she stared, perplexed. Sighing, he turned to me, “Excuse her, she’s new. If Natasha here,” he spat out her name, “was concentrating during the induction, she would know that that,” he twisted his finger in a V and wiggled them about, “means call the next one in.”

 

Natasha the receptionist’s face drained of all colour. She blinked once, twice, then turned to me. She looked disproportionately stressed at the rebuke, her expression falling in sympathy. This was the first time I had seen her icy exterior crack, and I was instantly on edge. My heart was hammering so fast that it was sure it would leap out of my chest. Wiping my clammy hands on my jeans, I pushed myself off the waiting chair. My legs weighed like lead, perhaps because of exhaustion, more likely because dread kept me rooted to the spot. Suddenly waiting seemed like a great idea. Nevertheless, I put one foot in front of the other and reached the end of the hallway.

 

To call the man old was like calling the ocean kinda-deep. This man had wrinkles that had set so deep into his skin that he might as well have been born with them. And yet, his face radiated a certain charm, a brightness almost like a halo of light. I envied his skincare routine.

 

The interior of his room was like a delirious psychedelic dream. My headache returned with a vengeance. “Are hospitals rooms allowed to be so garish?”

 

“Well, actually,” he began, but suddenly thought better of it and pursed his lips. His eyes narrowed and nostrils flared, his gaze turning unfocused, as if working out a very complex equation in his head.

 

Why was everyone so evasive and mysterious here? Couldn’t they hire just one normal person? “Um okay, I’m guessing this is about my friends? They were being operated on? The car accident victims. I pulled them out… I think I brought them here. Just—how—” I struggled to keep my voice level. “Are they okay?”

 

His forehead pinched, as if he had not considered that at all. “Oh, your friends? You did not pull them out. Or bring them here. They are completely ok, though, so don’t worry. I guess that’s a small consolation, huh?”

 

That was all it took. The tears that I had been desperately holding back flooded my eyes and I finally let my self cry it out. The stress of the day, the confusion, the fear and exhaustion, all bled out of me in huge, gasping sobs that were more relief than grief. My friends were safe. We were going to be okay.

 

Then I reconsidered his words.

 

“What do you mean I didn’t bring them here? And consolation? What was that about a consolation?”

 

His eyes widened as his head reeled back in surprise. “Oh, you haven’t figured it out? But of course you didn’t!”

 

Figured what out? “Figured what out?” Wasn’t this about the accident?

 

A strange sensation was slowly gripping me, like a pin pricking somewhere behind my neck. As if I was forgetting something important, but couldn’t remember what.

 

He casually folded his arms and leaned back on the desk. “Got a headache, right? Any gaps in your memory? Remember how you got here at all?”

 

That pinprick sensation was slowly crawling to the rest of my body. Cold dread gripped my stomach. I was definitely missing something. The feeling was in equal parts frustrating and chilling. He was right on all accounts, though. And now my traitorous mind was jumping to impossible conclusions, ones I couldn’t even let myself consider, let alone voice.

 

His eyes were positively glowing now. His gleeful smile, just shy of sinister, seemed to split his whole face, as he giggled and said, “Ya I think you’re getting it now. Don’t worry, at least this part I am used to handling.” He tilted his head in mock sympathy. “They are all always so confused about this place, you know. Thinking it’s a religious thing. As if anybody got any right to judge your life’s actions!”

 

Judge your life’s actions? A faint memory was resurfacing to my mind, of all those mythological shows talking about karma and damnation and whatnot. But that meant— was this—no it couldn’t possibly be—

 

Oblivious to my inner turmoil, he went on. “This isn’t some utopia or punishment or any of that crap. It’s actually not that different from what you’re used to. Well, apart from the obvious,” he snickered.

 

No. No. N. O. No. I was not dealing with this right now. This was not happening to me. I pinched myself to check if this was really happening. It was. My brain was dangerously close to shutting down, edging towards insanity. I let out an incredulous huff of laughter. “What. The. Hell. Is this. Place,” I ground out shakily.

“Well everyone has a different name for it, but they’re all wrong, you see. The religious ones cannot fathom it past their own holy books. The atheists can’t fathom it at all because they can’t explain it. But this place is beyond all that. You see? Do you finally see?

“You didn’t pull out your friends from the accident. But they’re safe. You don’t remember coming here. You, a victim of a car accident was in a waiting room.”

He halted his tirade to take a deep breath. In front of me stood a showman an this was his stage. “Welcome,” he declared, as he theatrically spread his arms, “to Afterlife.”

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