| Manisha Sukhyani | January 2024 | Short Story |
Chapter 1: The Tattoo
It’s 7:30 a.m. I have to reach the school by 9 a.m. And it’s a half-hour drive. Better early than late. Besides, I need an extra hour to calm myself down and prepare for the lecture.
I gather the notes I prepared on the one of the most trending topics in psychology these days, “How to Control Your Mind.” Even though I did all my research, including the data and the real stories, I am still not sure whether this topic will help me get a teaching job again. Fifty students and three teachers will be present in the class. Everyone will judge my every move and decide whether I deserve to be there or not.
I check my reflection in the mirror, hoping a black pencil skirt paired with a white shirt will make me look like a teacher. It wouldn’t have been this hard if I hadn’t been kicked out of my job as a teacher two years ago due to my lack of empathy. I was shocked to hear that. After being a psychology teacher for five years, a lack of empathy was the last thing I expected as the reason for losing my job. I heard students had complained about me for shouting at them when they asked questions. I don’t blame them as I was going through a breakup. A breakup from a relationship that lasted five years. I should’ve taken a break. Instead, I decided to keep working so that I could keep my thoughts at bay. But it only made matters worse All my frustrations and heartbreak poured into my students in different ways.
“Mitali, are you ready?” comes my mother’s voice from the hall, jerking me back into the moment.
“Yes, Mom. Coming!” I reply. Taking one last glance at the mirror, I hold my file tightly and head out to the hall.
Mom is sitting in a chair, making a sweater out of colorful threads for the upcoming winter. Her breakfast is still sitting there, the two fried eggs untouched. Ever since her legs weakened, she’s been doing more work that requires sitting. She needs a knee replacement as soon as possible, the doctor said. Otherwise, she’ll never be able to walk again. For two years, my mom and I have been surviving on loans. After I lost my job, the pandemic hit, and I lost any chance of getting the job back. I tried online teaching, but failed to keep students for long. They quit after attending the first free session. At last, I gave up and took a few loans to keep afloat.
But last month I exhausted all my credit card limits and available loans. So I had no choice but to go out and get a job. I applied for every available teaching job in psychology. After waiting for a month, I got this opportunity which has the potential to help me pay back my bills and cover my mother’s health expenses.
“Good morning, Mom!” I sit down on my knees, put my hands on her lap, and greet her with my best smile.
“You are tense,” she says as soon as she looks up from her threads. It’s next to impossible to lie to her.
“A bit,” I say. “You haven’t eaten yet,” I remark, turning her attention away from me.
“It’s still too early,” she says, setting the threads aside. She takes my face in her hand and looks into my eyes. “Don’t worry. You will get it,” she says. I smile while doubts creep into my mind.
“I will give it my best,” I say, although I am not sure. I wish I had the same confidence she has in me. I squeeze her hand. “As soon as I get the job, we will save money for your knee replacement, and you’ll walk like me.”
She smiles. “I am not worried about my legs. All I want is for you to be happy again.”
This is her only wish I can’t fulfill. In the last two years, I tried everything to make myself happy. From joining support groups and traveling, to picking new hobbies and reading, nothing helped.
Still, I manage to say, “I will. As soon as I get this job, I will finally be happy.” If there’s something I learned from my past, it’s that external things don’t give you long-lasting internal happiness.
“I should go,” I say, standing up. I kiss her forehead and bid her goodbye while instructing her to finish breakfast before it gets too cold.
My two-wheeler is resting peacefully in the parking lot, collecting dust. I’ve never cared to clean it once, even though the cleaning cloth is tucked in the storage compartment. I take out the yellow cloth from the trunk and wipe off the dust from the mirror and the seat – I don’t want it to stick to my pencil skirt and ruin my first impression.
Once satisfied with a clean seat, I throw the cloth back where it belongs in the trunk along with my file. I take my favorite white helmet and secure it well on my head. Now it feels like I am going to war.
I insert the key, turn it, and the engine roars to life. Off I go to face the world again.
While driving I can’t help thinking – What if I get rejected? What if they know that I was fired from my previous job? What if I won’t be able to pay my next EMI?
My thoughts and I come to a halt when the signal turns red. I hear the whistle of the train coming from the far end. Soon the train rumbles down the tracks. Passengers peer out of the windows and open doors, their eyes filled with curiosity. I check the time. It’s 8 AM. Within fifteen minutes, I will be at the school, and I’ll have forty-five minutes more to calm my nerves.
“Uff, I’m running late,” murmured the lady waiting beside me in her two-wheeler. I turn to her, but my attention is caught by something else. The tattoo on her wrist is shining under the sun. “Beware of thinking about thoughts” is written there. I wonder what it means. The train passes by, and the signal turns green. The gates are opening up. The lady turns her engine on and moves forward. I am curious to find out more about the tattoo, so I follow her. A quick two-minute talk won’t hurt my teaching demonstration today. Besides I have a feeling that I need to understand this.
I tighten my hands around the handlebars and follow her. She moves faster. I pick up the pace, my focus laser-sharp on her vehicle. In my haste, I fail to notice the silver sedan emerging from the side street. Its tires screech. I clutch my brakes hard, but I fail to stop my vehicle. My determination turns to despair in an instant. The car’s front end connects with the side of my two-wheeler. The metals collide. My two-wheeler twists. And I, once helmeted and unyielding, am sent airborne. I crash onto the asphalt, pain exploding through every fiber of my being. The street falls eerily silent as onlookers rush to my side. And suddenly it all goes black.
My head is throbbing like hell, as if loud drums are playing. I rub my temples to silence the drumming but it’s of no use. Wait…
I have to reach the school. I open my eyes. But I am not on the road. It’s all blurry. I stand up, and my eyes adjust. The view becomes clear. What the hell?
Chapter 2: The Corridor
I see myself sitting on a chair in an office. Three teachers are sitting opposite me across the desk. The same teachers who said they would observe my first class. One is a distinguished looking older woman, while the other two are men who appear to be in their forties. We appreciate your interest in the position,” says the woman while sliding her specs up her nose, “but we have decided to move forward with another candidate who we believe is a better fit for our current needs. Thank you for your time and effort in the interview process.”
My breath quickens. My palms get sweaty. I look around to see whether it’s really happening. But it doesn’t seem like I am in a school. I turn around, and there is a corridor going God knows where. It’s dark there. But I have to try. I have to get out of here. I check my watch, it’s 8:15 a.m. I still have time. I run toward the corridor. Inside, I find many doors on both sides. They are all black and the walls are black too. I walk further, but the corridor seems to go on forever. Maybe. Maybe the way out is through these doors. But which one? If I open all these doors, I will find out.
I open the door beside me. As soon as I enter, I see myself again. I am shouting at a student who said going out with friends isn’t working for him and he doesn’t feel happy. I am blaming him for not enjoying his time with friends and for not being thankful for having friends in the first place. Sadness crosses his face and he leaves. The Principal notices me from the far corner. I struggle to breathe. I leave the room and open another door.
Here the Principal is handing me a termination letter and pointing out my lack of empathy as the key reason. I leave the room and enter another one. My mom is sleeping on the hospital bed, and the doctor is saying, “I am sorry she won’t be able to walk ever again.” My anxiety picks up, and my legs turn wobbly. I leave the room and enter another one where I am handing over my property papers, my only home, to a man in exchange for money.
I open another door where I am pinning all the blame on my boyfriend for being the reason for all this chaos. I slam the door and crash down to the floor. I can’t take it anymore. I simply can’t. My head is spinning. Tears stream down my face. It can’t be happening. It can’t happen to me now. After spending two years recovering, I am finally ready to go out and face the world. How could this happen to me? God, where the hell am I?
“Help me!” I shout at the top of my lungs, “Somebody please help me.” My own voice echoes back to me. I check my watch. It’s 8:40 a.m. There’s no way I’m going to get this job if I’m late. I don’t know whether I can escape this hell or reach the school at all. If I can’t escape now, everything will come true. Everything hidden behind these doors will come true.
What should I do now? Crying is not going to help. I calm myself down through a few hiccups. “Breathe,” I say to myself and take a deep breath. It helps me focus on the present. I breathe deeply again and again. I focus on my breathing. Wait…
This is not the truth. Everything behind these doors is not true. It’s something happening in the future or something that happened in the past. It’s not happening now. They are visions of my thinking. Worries of the future, regrets of the past, and much more.
“The tattoo,” I say, almost to myself. “Beware of thinking about thoughts,” I murmur. It’s all thinking. All these worries, regrets, what ifs, what went wrong. Everything. These are all products of my thinking. “But I wonder, if this is the thinking, what exactly is the thought?” I ask myself.
The original thought I remember was the fear of getting rejected I had initially when I entered this hell. I stand up and look down the way I came from. A light illuminates that side. I run toward it. The thought of me getting rejected is still playing there. But it is just a thought. I give it power by analyzing it, adding what ifs, if onlys, and all sorts of thinking. This place is the creation of my thinking. I fuel the thought with the fire of thinking. What would I do if I didn’t add what ifs and if onlys to my original thought? After all, it’s natural to be afraid of getting rejected.
What would I do?
I would accept it and let it pass just like any other thought.
With that in mind, I enter the thought of getting rejected without fearing it and come to a door. I open it, and a sharp light blinds my eyes.
Chapter 3: The New Light
I open my eyes and see a few people surrounding me. I find myself on a bench surrounded by flowers.
“Thank God, you are okay,” sighs a woman standing beside me. She’s wearing a faded red sari. “You lost consciousness,” she says, handing me a glass of water. I take the glass and gulp down, which helps me come to my senses. The lady tells me she rescued me. I thank her a ton. She gives me the key to my two-wheeler, which is standing beside the shop.
I check my watch. 8:45 a.m. I can still make it. After thanking everyone, I quickly take my two-wheeler, which is scratched on the side and limping a bit. But I will take care of it later. I fasten my helmet and rush past all the vehicles.
At 8:59 a.m., I reach the college and park the vehicle. After one minute of running, I stand outside my class. I calm down my huffs and puffs, take a few breaths, and enter with the brightest smile I have given in two years.
“Good morning,” I greet, receiving a greeting back from the students. Three teachers sitting in the corner smile at me. I smile back and pick up the chalk, about to write my topic on the board. But something stops me. I am conscious of all the eyes on me. But I am done fueling the thought with thinking, so I focus on my feelings, which tell me not to write the subject “How to Control Your Mind”.
I turn toward the students, give them a warm smile, and say, “I am not here to tell you how to control your mind. Rather, I will teach you how to set it free so you can live in the moment.” I notice that the students are listening to me with rapt attention. It gives me enough courage to write a new topic. I take the chalk and write, “How to Set Your Mind Free”. To back my subject, I tell them the story of the corridor of thinking and how to escape it by accepting your thoughts the way they are instead of giving them power through thinking. Just be aware of thinking even if it comes.
By the end of the lecture, everybody is asking me questions. They are happy to get a fresh perspective on an old topic. Deep down I know I cracked it. Later a person from HR hands me the letter of appointment.
Manisha Sukhyani started her writing career in her twenties. To pay the bills, she took up a non-fiction writing job for five straight years. After that, she continued her journey as a freelance writer and began following her dream of becoming a full-time fiction writer. Curse of the Woods is her first short horror story for children.
Photo via Unsplash
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