“So you’re saying you have superpowers? I think it’s time for you to stop drinking.” Celine said trying to keep a straight face.
Jesse was standing facing the giant window, looking at the city lights below. The smoke from his cigar was filling up the whole room, making the apartment even dimmer than before.
“Ever heard the quote- a moment can change your life? I know it sounds cheesy but it happened to me on my seventh birthday.” Jesse said while he walked over to the couch where Celine lay and sat opposite to her.
“Is that when you got your powers?” she laughed again; this time with a bit of curiousness.
Jesse looked at her and smiled, acknowledging the silliness of his claim; but he knew she wanted to hear more.
“I just had them for a day, but it was enough to change my perception about everyone else.”
“What did you have?”
“I could see their fears.”
The proverb that opposites attract is not quite as strange when you compare it to the fact – they end up staying stuck together. Celine had chanced upon that thought when she was 12.
After Uncle had lost his job, he fell into a severe depression. He would lock himself inside his study for hours not replying to her calls, neither those of Aunt May’s. A few days later he started complaining he couldn’t stay inside, although he wanted to. It was suffocating; he couldn’t breathe; he had to run out barely 5 minutes to his stay behind the closed doors. The doctor diagnosed that he had developed severe Claustrophobia; he needed to get outside.
“Why don’t you take him to the town?” He suggested, “It’s Carnival time. All the colorful people and bright lights would cheer him up.”
Aunt May had agreed. But Uncle refused.
“It won’t be easy, you know that.” He said.
“I don’t care.” Aunt May stared out of the window. “You need to.”
Celine was happy that they were going to the town. And it was Carnival time. She didn’t know she was about to learn something new.
Celine noticed the shift in Aunt May’s expressions and behavior as they moved further into the town. At first, she simply avoided staring outside the bus window; then she covered her ears with her palms and kept her eyes strongly shut; and by the time they got down from the bus, Aunt May acted hysterically. She shouted and wanted to run away and hide from herself – all at the same time. It was only after Uncle had taken her to a hotel room that she calmed down slowly. Celine was to learn Aunt May suffered from Agoraphobia. She was afraid of unknown people and places. Open spaces with lots of faces frightened her to death.
The Carnival outside seemed so far away to Celine. They stayed stuck inside the hotel room. In the midnight, he could sense Uncle was breathing heavily. She went to open the window but he gestured her to stop. “The sounds would be too disturbing for your aunt.” He was panting.
Despite that, the two went on to spend the rest of their lives together – one dreading the open space; the other, longing for it.
In the next few years, Celine became acquainted with their phobias. It became the fourth person and stayed with them. But then, a thought dawned on her – What if the phobias are contagious? What if she catches them too?
That thought had frightened her. And that fright had remained within her. She was always afraid of developing one or both of those phobias (and where would I go if I catch both?). She learnt they had a name for her disorder too. Phobophobia.
Lying beside Jesse she wondered if he already knew that she had the fear of fears, although she didn’t want to believe his words. He has no superpowers.
But what if he isn’t lying?
“Where is Jesse? I don’t know why he likes the woods so much. ” Ross said with his hands spread out; palms facing up.
“Who is Jesse? I thought there was only you and me.” His sister asked with raised eyebrows. The lines on her forehead and her bulging round black eyes surprised Ross.
“Why are you so scared? He is just my friend….” Ross’s sentence was cut short by a big flash of light followed by an immediate blasting sound from the woods.
They saw Jesse come running out of the woods. He was wearing a new sky blue T-shirt and matching shorts. His mom had brought him new fancy shoes that he wore for the first time today. He wanted to open the box only on his birthday and had been waiting for it.
“I saw them… I saw them…. they are there,” said Jesse with a big grin on his face. “I always knew.”
“What was that, Jesse?” Ross was still recovering from the shock. The sound was deafening.
“Who was the girl with you? She saw me and ran like I was some beast chasing her.” Jesse asked his grin disappearing.
“Oh her? She is my sister, May” Ross said searching her. ” She is here for the vacation.”
“Do you still have those powers?” Celine’s voice brought Jesse out of his thoughts. His cigar was half burnt.
Jesse was silent for a few minutes, looking out the window of their second story flat, the sounds of people rushing through the peak hour traffic coming loud in his ears.
“Jesse, you know we do not keep any secrets from each other,” Celine said.
“Ok, I will start right from the beginning then.” Jessie replied.
“I was twelve years old at the time, and the carnival was in town, so my whole family went there to spend the day. When we got there, I went out looking for an ice cream, because it was rather hot. I somehow got myself lost, and soon found myself in front of a brightly colored caravan with the words ‘Madame Florika’ emblazoned on the door.”
Celine listened intently as Jessie continued.
“So like a magnet, and as though in a trance, I was sucked into this caravan. It was dark and it took me a few minutes to adjust to the surroundings. The walls were decorated with weird photos of strange animals. A round table was in the middle the room, and in the center of the table was a round glass receptacle containing a red-looking liquid, with bluish, grayish smoke coming out and making uneven circles in the air.”
Jesse lit another cigar and took a deep pull on it.
“As I was about to turn and get out of this strange place, the door shut. Sitting behind the table was a gypsy woman, with the most beautiful face I had ever seen, and she was wearing a brightly colored floral dress, that matched her face and her name. As I stood there dumbfounded, she opened her mouth to speak.”
“‘I’ve been waiting for years, just to meet you, Jesse,’ she had said. I didn’t know how she knew my name but there was something in her hypnotizing eyes that had drawn me in. I had walked to the table in a dream when she mumbled some mystic words and the crystal ball came to life.
“Celine, that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Mesmerized, I looked into those lights as they danced around; I was completely lost into the heavenly symphony of the lights and colors; I was inside it and it was inside me; whatever it was, I was floating in pure ecstasy. I am not sure for how long it lasted, maybe minutes, maybe hours. Once I came out, there was no sign of Madam Florika in the van.
“But something had changed in me. As I roamed around in the carnival and looked at people, I could see them for what they really were. Inside. A collective of their emotions and feelings. Each mind looked like a palace to me with hundreds of rooms, occupied by varied emotions and connected by intricate stairways to each other and to the consciousness.
“But of all the emotions there was one that was distinct than the others. Crouching in the deepest depths of the palace, hidden far below all the rooms, in the dungeon of that mind palace, was a dark creature with thousand tentacles, wriggling like a hungry monster. It was FEAR.
“For that one day, I could see everyone’s fear, guiding all the consciousness and struggling with the will. For that one day, I felt like God.” Jesse sighed. He put out his cigar that was almost finished. Celine’s mouth was open.
For the first time in the evening, Jesse hesitated. But it was time. He had spent last 10 years working towards this moment. He ran his fingers through Celine’s hair.
“But that was not the only thing the crystal ball gave me that day. You know Celine, when I sat there watching the misty lights inside the crystal, I saw something that I recognized only years later. I saw a glimpse of the future. I saw…”
“I saw you. And how our lives would be entwined, like strings of wool, hard to separate, without leaving traces of fibers on each other. I saw how our paths would cross and what significance it would hold. How, May would meet Evans in that summer school which they had both joined. Fate had designed the whole structure as inevitable. Yet, it had been so predictable. They had eloped that autumn, returning, only after wearing wedding bands on their fingers. They had been the talk of the entire town.
“By the next winter, May had already suffered two miscarriages. But suddenly a cousin of Evans died during childbirth. And that is how, you, ended up with them,” Jesse looks at Celine fondly, now caressing her face.
“I saw the entire thing, so much before it had happened. And I was just twelve years old then. They married when I was fifteen.”
By that time, Celine was gaping at him. She couldn’t believe her ears. She had never shared these details with anybody, not even with her best friend at school. Jesse goes on.
“I have waited so long for you. So long,” he seems almost hungry when he looks at her. There is an eerie aura around him, something she can hardly place. Jesse, her Jesse, seems a bit off today.
But, he knows that he can’t share everything with her. No matter how much he loves her, she is a prey. Like the others. Just like Evans and May had been.
The Agoraphobia and the Claustrophobia had been his continuous food. He had preyed on their fears, their difficulties, their weaknesses. This had made him strong. Stronger than most men. Stronger than everyone. And in his lap, lay the girl who was special. A girl who had feared Fear. Feared the opposites. A girl in whom the dark being had already spread its tentacles, almost making it imperceptible to sunlight. A girl who depended on him to show her the light of the world, little knowing that the more she associated herself with him, the more lightproof her brain became.
The cigarette was still in his hands. Neglected by the very lips that were chastising it a few minutes before, it let out a solitary trail of smoke, disappointed. The almost empty bottle of whiskey lay forgotten by his side.
Celine had been quiet for a long time now. Maybe she was musing on his story. Her eyes half closed, she lay on his lap, a shadow falling on her face.
Quietly, through the huge glass window, he stared at the distant sun, now looming over the horizon, threatening to disappear any minute. Any minute now, darkness will cover them both, overwhelming him. He has always been the creature of darkness. He has to feed, he realized.
Slowly, he remembers the day of the hike, so many decades ago. The day he had spent with Ross and the day when the explosion had occurred. The day when he had met his sister. May.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door. Celine felt a chill running down her spine as they got up in panic. Jesse stood between the door and Celine. He stretched his hand across so as to shield Celine further. Bang! The door fell down as if it was a weak plank of wood. They saw a familiar face.
“Uncle Ross!” said Celine with a big grin.
“You are not supposed to be here,” Jesse said gnashing his teeth; his eyes red.
Ross reached Jesse and knocked him down with one blow. Jesse was on the ground holding his face, gasping for breath with blood gushing out from his left eye.
“Celine! He is a monster. Let’s go.”
“No… He is a great person. We love each other.”
“Stupid Lady.” Ross said dragging Celine out of the room. “He killed May and Evan. He is a vampire. He fed on them. He becomes stronger by the day”
“What? This cannot be true. Tell him, Jesse,” Celine said adding wrinkles to her forehead. Tears rolled down her cheek as she looked down at the fallen man. He was still in no position to respond.
“He must have faked stories to get your attention.”
“He told me all about Aunt May and Uncle Evans, my childhood; Things that I didn’t tell anyone.” Celine jerked out of Ross’s clutching hand.
“Because I told him all that,” Ross said with a raised voice. Jesse was still recovering from the punch. Ross held Celine again and started pulling her across the room.
“Is this true? Jesse, say something.”
“Do you know what I see written all over him?” Jesse said with a weak voice. The excruciating pain had drained him completely. “I see a fear of getting caught.”
“Another story, Celine. Quick. Let’s go.” Ross was getting ready to pick her off her feet.
“Wait!” Celine pushed Ross away. “Go on Jesse.”
“May had inherited fortune worth millions from her father. Their Father.” Jesse said pointing at Ross with his other hand. “He knew May was the sensible one. He knew Ross would burn his hard-earned money on gambling and drugs.”
“Shut up! You…” Ross lunged at Jesse with clenched wrist.
Out of nowhere, Celine charged at him like a raging bull and pushed him hard. Ross hit his head against the wall and fell.
“Ross told me about their fears. I am a psychiatrist. I have researched fear. Micro-expressions; that’s how I see people’s fears.”
“Ross. This is wrong.” Jesse said putting his new apron on.
“That money is mine. Get the couple to be scared to the core. All their lives. I want them locked in a room.” Ross said with a weird smirk. He held a rolled twenty and was about to suck the white powder through it. “I’ll give you five percent.”
“What about the girl?” Jesse asked swallowing.
“She will have the same fate as her unborn cousins. What do you think? Those miscarriages were a coincidence?” Ross said with a monstrous laughter.
“But I decided to heal them. I asked them to go to the carnival. You were a little girl, then.” Jesse’s collar was completely soaked in blood. “They were showing signs of recovery. Seven years and I could get them out of their phobias.”
“Jesse I will kill you. We were on a bustling street and May was OK, today. You are healing them, aren’t you?” Ross said. His malnutritioned body shivered.
“Ross. I am a doctor. I am under oath. I am doing what is right and….” Jesse looked startled at Ross coming at him with a knife.
“Then I ran. Far away from him.” Jesse was now sitting up still holding his wound. “May and Evans went missing after some days. I was scared and came back.”
Celine held him with both hands. “For me?”
“May was my best friend. I did not want the same for you. I had to get your attention. I knew you loved occult sciences. I told you about superpowers. All those stories.” Jesse said shaking his head. “I am sorry. I tricked you.”
Celine put his head on her shoulder. “To save me.”
“I am going to heal you, too. Ross is right. I grow strong. My strength is my will to do the right thing.”
“And Madame Florika?” Celine managed to smile.
“Just another story. I had seen gypsies in the woods since I was a kid. One of them tried to scare me away on my seventh birthday.” Jesse said with a full-blooded laughter.
“Florika? Really?” Celine picked him up and they started limping out of the room. “How did you even…. Forget it” Celine joined Jesse in the laughter riot.
Ross lay unconscious while the room darkened.