Sumita Dutta: The Earbud Chronicles

A horror story from the Duckbill Workshop in Chennai–for exciting weekend reading!

Dainagri: Police and government officials admit their miserable failure to dispense justice. This morning, as the Town Hall was besieged by angry protesters waving placards and demanding answers, our elected leaders hung their heads in shame. They have no answers, only promises. Meanwhile, there is no relief in sight for the parents of the dead children or the residents.
Once famed for its quaint beauty, the unsolved deaths have shrouded this town in despair, even wilting plants and emaciating animals. For three consecutive times in the past two months, like clockwork on New-moon nights, first one little girl then two young boys, have gone missing from their beds. The next morning the bodies were always found lying inside the ruins of the old deserted hospital.
To pacify public outrage and prevent pandemic fear, politicians are working overtime at their speeches. Promising instant action, they haven’t even been able to demolish the old hospital. After the police investigated it high and low, desperately and fruitlessly searching for clues, it was ordered pulled down. The demolishers stormed it ferociously, but were halted in their tracks when the ground started crumbling beneath their heavy-vehicles’ wheels. Geologist apparating instantly at the scene, have suddenly discovered evidence of seismic activity underground and advised the area be pronounced ‘Protected Zone’.
The only clues existing, our hardworking police claim, are some ear-buds. On the pillow of every child that disappeared, there was always left a single blue ear-bud. Our sources inform us that the detectives have wracked their brains until they are pulling out their own hair in great tufts, but the ear-bud clue seems to lead no-where…
*
“Ha, atlast! They’ve got back the report from the DNA testing on the ear-buds,” exclaimed Rishabh, his small body almost hidden deep under the newspaper.
“These rookie journalists! All they care for is sensationalism,” Alka shook her head at the lurid headlines on her spread. “Well, have they got any leads?” she asked looking up.
“Only that the ear-buds were produced from re-used cotton. Now they are questioning all street vendors who sell ear-buds! Wow, didn’t expect that,” Rishabh put away the newspaper with disgust.
Sara backed into the room with a tray piled high with finger-chips and bowls of dipping sauce. “Why the long faces, boys and girls? It’s time for action, so let’s get our act together and start.” She placed the tray on the table and took the only empty chair left.
“Yum, I love these,” rotund Naveen was of-course the first to jump on the refreshments but the others were quick to follow. Swirling the fries in the drippy sauce, they made quick work of it and were soon sitting back ready for the next step of the ritual.
Ali, the eldest, led the chanting. Their clasped hands resting on the table, the five children, closed their eyes concentrating on the name they had chosen. The sounds of their chanting rose and fell; at times echoing off the white walls and ceiling then dropping to a hushed whisper. A chill started spreading along the room, frosting the steel surgical table they sat around. The broken panes on the medicine cabinet glazed and cracked. The tiled walls chilled, droplets of moisture bedewing them, then streamed down in rivulets of tears. Silvery wetness streaked the children’s faces too, as they lost themselves in their chanting. A single blue ear-bud, rose from the centre of the table and wafted out through the shattered window.
*
Far across town in the Inspector General’s house, little Bela got out of bed leaving behind a blue ear-bud on her pillow. As the clock tower in the central square tolled the midnight hour and the town slumbered in a comatose sleep, she slipped the latches and unlocked the bolts fixed by her cautious father on their front door. Silently she moved down the street, her feet apparently gliding a few inches above the dusty road, her white nightgown trailing behind her in a ghostly train. She soon reached the ruins of the deserted hospital. At her approach the gates, hanging shut lopsidedly, suddenly creaked and tried to part. The large sealed lock that the police had placed, trembled, shattered and joined the shards of its brethren on the ground. The rusted chain holding the gated closed, suddenly slithering like a live snake, unravelled, and the gates swung open on creaking hinges. In a flash, she was across the ground and in the crumbling ruin. Through dusty, dead leaves strewn corridors, their walls pockmarked, mildewed, sagging and in places completely collapsed, she moved with regal calmness until she came to the door where the five children waited. The door opened and then she woke up.
Her face scrunched in a rictus of fear, she opened her mouth to scream but no sound emerged. She barely saw the five children rising to welcome her. Petrified, her gaze was locked on the horrific sight of men and women hanging from the wall in chains. Tattered remnants of their uniforms – that of doctors’ and nurses’, hung in shreds from their emaciated bodies. They were bleeding, covered in sores and ripped open abdominal cavities showed missing organs. They writhed in their restrains, screamed and shrieked, cursed and cried out their very real pain to a deaf world.
Bela’s eyes closed in a dead faint. The five ran to her and embraced her; they tried to explain, to comfort, but to no avail. At their touch, her body shuddered and her innocent soul left the Earth to ascend to a heavenly abode.
“We must not touch them. We can’t touch them. I told you we should not touch them,” Ali reiterated in despair.
“Not another child. Oh Bela, don’t die, come back to us. We need you,” cried Rishabh disconsolate.
“Oh Bela, Bela. We are so sorry we called you, but what are we to do?” wailed Sara rocking the fragile little dead girl in her arms. Alka and Naveen chaffed her hands, but it was far too late.
*
A fortnight later, on the subsequent New-moon night, the five were doggedly fixed round the surgical table again, crunching the doctors’ fried fingers dipped in the nurses’ blood. It was this diet, obtained from those who had caused their own deaths, that enabled them to gather the strength to summon a living human-being. As children themselves, and incomplete at that, their powers were severely limited. It would have been so much easier if they could have called an adult human and handed over the evidence that proved how these doctors, abetted by their nurses, had kidnapped them from their villages and killed them so that they could sell their organs to the highest bidder.
They had been orphans, living on the street and no one had missed them; but they had avenged their own deaths. They had brought the hospital crumbling to its knees and the heinous murderers, to fitting justice. Once the media caught the story and publicised how such criminals suffered in purgatory for all eternity, the five could ascend to heaven knowing that the world had been well warned, a severe deterrent laid in place so that those of weak morals wouldn’t be tempted.
Transporting a child, though, was the limit of their powers. They had tried to lead the police, through the clue of the ear-buds, to the dump at the back of the hospital. The rag pickers collected the cotton from there, washed and re-used them in the ear-buds – a dangerously unhealthy practice that needed to be stopped. The doctors had also hidden all the incriminating evidence in that dump, but the detectives were yet to solve the mystery of the ear-buds. Now they were left with no other option, they had to keep on trying until they found that one child who was brave enough to enter that room and not die of fright. One who would be able to listen to their story and carry the evidence to the necessary authorities. Only then would they be able to move on, only then would this town regain its health.
Now dear reader, you are ready to hear the truth. This story has been a test. You have been brave to read through to the end and I am sure you will be eager to help these children. Do not be scared when a blue ear-bud floats in through your window tonight.
***

The Vengeful Five
“Make way, make way, hot crunchy finger-chips on the way,” sang rotund little Varun. He backed in through the door with a large tray piled high with their favourite fries.
“Yummmm…that smells delicious,” chirped Alisha, skipping to the table.
“And here’s the sauce,” Poonam, placed the bowl with a flourish. “OK now, everybody, gather around. The midnight hour is tolling and time is ripe. Let’s begin our party! ” She was the eldest by a whole year and made sure the others followed her lead.
“Where’s the magic ear-bud?” Prashant demanded impatiently.
Sri burst through the door panting, “Here.. here. The tip is dripping fresh. Let’s begin.”
During the day the town hummed and buzzed with life but at night it was a perfect haunt of ghosts. The innocents always slept blissfully though, while the guilty shuttered their doors and windows tight and cowered indoors. The little town, quickly rising to infamy because of its ghosts, was the worst on moonless nights. Clouds shrouded the starlight and as the clock tower in the central square tolled signifying midnight, street dogs always set up a peculiar unearthly howl. The town children huddling under their bed-sheets, before they fell into peaceful sleep, often recognised the howls of ghouls in pain. Ghost children, on the other hand, knew that such nights were perfect for their job – Child Calling.
Having polished off the tray of fried fingers, a necessary diet to process an important ingredient for their potion – Varun spitting out a stubborn nail that refused to be masticated – they were ready and assembled around the steel surgical table in the middle of the room. Sri placed the ear-bud reverently on the table and they raised their arms and stood ready. At the count of six, they started. Clap, swing arms, a half turn to slap their neighbour’s palm, back, clap, turn the other way… At the same time they chanted:
Lizard stools and tadpole slime,
Mix in a villain’s blood with sprig of thyme;
Rat droppings and pig’s tail hair,
Burst balloon from a children’s fair;
Temper with the spice of mice,
Cool it smart with a smelly fart!
Just a drop on the ear-bud’s tip
Will knot a villain in our whip.
Now Aditya, do jump out of bed
You’ve been chosen to avenge the dead.

As they chanted, and hopped and skipped and swung round the surgical table, the rhythmic clapping of their hands seemed to cause the sky to rumble and the Earth tremble. A cool breeze rose in the room, picked up the ear-bud and carried it out through the broken panes of the large plate window. The ear-bud floated through the crumbling corridors of the ruined hospital, a site of the heinous crime of organ smuggling, it was rumoured. A trail of rustling dead leaves followed its progress out of the hospital until it disappeared into the night sky.
Across town, ten years old Aditya, jumped out of bed. A blue ear-bud seemed in a tearing hurry to shove itself up his nose if he did not act sharp. Plucking it out of the air, Aditya was immediately aware of the course of action that needed to be done. He sprinted out of his house to the ramshackle cottage on the corner of the street. It stood in a sea of stinky garbage, rusty junk and over-grown thorny shrubs. The children of the neighbourhood always avoided this house and its lone resident, a pot bellied giant of a man.
Tonight, Aditya did not think twice as he ran up to the door and hammered until it was opened in a fearful rage. To be woken up in the middle of the night by a small kid! But before the angry man could begin to bawl him out, Aditya shoved the drippy end of the ear-bud into the fat gut in front of his face. Then with a quick about-turn of his heel, he returned to his bed to dream of deeds of great valour in which he saves the world.
At the other end of the ear-bud, though, it wasn’t at all a pleasant sight. A spiny whip had materialised out of the ear-bud and lashed itself painfully tight around the man. He opened his mouth and shrieked in pain, but a swift wind carried it away, leaving undisturbed all innocents’ slumber. The whip dragged him out of the house, thrashing and wrestling and screaming, through the junk in the yard and down the gravelly road, to the ruins of the old hospital. There the five ghostly avenging angels awaited, ready with fitting retribution. They were God’s helpers, sent to rid the world of crime. The man they had trapped tonight was an organ smuggler.

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