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Chapter 2 by Surabhi Choudhary

Nadia froze. Her hand hovered over the hook on the wall where she usually hung the house keys. She went through the text message again. Could it be a prank? Maybe it was just some friend goofing around using a number she didn’t know they had. The message itself was intriguing enough. But what made it outright eerie was the fact that it had been sent to her by a complete stranger. A loud whirring noise broke her reverie. She pulled the blinds away from the windowpane to see a surveillance drone flying over their neighborhood just like Rob had said. Looking down, she could spot a handful of soldiers milling around the crossroads that had been barricaded since the lockdown. They were checking all the vehicles passing through which, admittedly, weren’t many. Even as Nadia continued to watch, a driver was escorted to a van emblazoned with the insignia of the Republic of Matana Armed Forces stationed near the curb to get his credentials verified. Life, as she knew it, had changed so drastically since the pandemic. She sighed. She was overthinking again.

She had to talk to someone about the odd message. Praying she hadn’t gone to bed yet, Nadia swiftly dialed Tara’s number and waited for her to answer her phone. Her heart sank deeper with every bell that went unanswered until the line got disconnected. She didn’t want her parents to get worried when the times were troubled already. Who else could she talk to? “Adi,” a voice said in her head. Her cousin was a very kind person and Nadia knew he would patiently hear her out and not make fun of her later, in case the message turned out to be a silly prank. The burden pressing her down ever since she’d received the text message seemed to be lightening a little already. Yes, she could talk to him. 

Stepping out of her apartment, Nadia couldn’t help but look out of the corner of her eye at the only door to the left of the floor that she and Adi lived on. It stood in semi-darkness at the end of the dimly lit corridor. Just looking at it sent a shiver down her spine. Closing her eyes, she turned around and began making her way to Adi’s apartment at the other end of the hallway. She couldn’t help but feel she was being watched until she reached his place.

“There you are! I thought you’d ditched me and my Arrabiata,” Adi answered the door with a broad smile on his face. His brightly lit drawing-room immediately made her feel better.

Nadia gave cousin a watery smile as she sank into a sofa. With his intelligent eyes behind the rimless glasses, chiseled jawline and curly hair, Adi could easily pass off as a model. Except that he wasn’t. He was one of the most promising young scientists that LifaLabs, Matana’s biggest pharmaceutical company, had. A brilliant pharmacologist whose job it was to create and test new drugs, Adi was on the HealPlus team that was trying to find a remedy for Budlyt-19. This meant that most of his days were spent in the laboratory and he was buried under his books, journals and laptop whenever he could get a chance to come back home for a few hours. Feeling calmer, Nadia decided that the story could wait until they’d had dinner. 

They did the dishes after polishing off the excellent pasta and moved back to the sitting area when Nadia decided to broach the topic. However, Adi spoke up before she could even open her mouth.

“We’ve initiated human trials for the vaccine against Budlyt-19,” he said opening a bottle of wine, oblivious to her discomfort. Downing her drink in 2-3 gulps, she couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“Adi, I got a text today. I’m scared,” she blurted out the entire story.

To her utter disbelief, she saw his expressions shift for a moment. There was a knowing gleam in his eyes that vanished almost as soon as it’d appeared. He cleared his throat and forced a laugh.

“It has to be a prankster, Nadia. Do you want more wine?” he changed the topic abruptly, raising her suspicions.

She shook her head and thanked him for the dinner.

“Forget that it happened. Okay?” his words echoed in the silent corridor as she left.

Adi knew something that he wasn’t ready to admit. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that she’d actually sunk further in the quicksand. Nadia felt confused and lightheaded as she reached her apartment. As if being drawn by a magnet, she felt an urge to find out what was hidden beyond the sinister door. She began walking to the end of the corridor, the sound of her footsteps bouncing off the dark, peeling walls. The lone, flickering light cast long shadows across that seemed to move. Nadia wiped the sweat beads on her forehead as she approached the door. Was it the deathly silence playing tricks on her ears or was there a harsh, guttural groaning emanating from beyond? She swallowed a couple of times, wiped her sweaty palms on her shorts and reached for the doorknob. “I told you to forget about this door,” whispered a voice into her ear.

Nadia jumped out of her skin, screaming out of fright and dropped her phone. Her heart thumping wildly, she turned around to find Adi who had sneaked up behind her noiselessly.

“You know what’s in there?” she croaked.

Adi nodded and fished out a key from his pocket.

“And since you’re so nosy about this, let me show you,” he said offhandedly.

As the door creakily swung open, a scene so macabre greeted Nadia that she fainted.

Adi reached down and pocketed her phone. Then he dialed a number, surveying the gruesome room.

“Yes?” a voice answered in hushed tones.

“We have a situation here,” Adi said staring at Nadia.

About the author:
Surabhi is a 27-year-old self-confessed icecream addict staying in Mumbai, India with an undying love for books, travel and adventure sports. She says the creative writing bug bit her during her teens and some of her poems and short stories have even been published as a part of various anthologies so far. Should she ever get lost somewhere, Surabhi's family and friends know that they’d find her at the nearest bookstore. Surabhi also holds a Master’s degree in Perfumery and Flavour Technology from the world-renowned Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai and works as a Flavour Technologist and Sensory Scientist with an MNC for a living!
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