From Chapter Four of Forest of the Dark
The only thing Maya had always cared for was the approval of her mother. When she was barely six, her father had left home. She still remembered that fateful night. She had been in bed, cuddling her favorite doll, when the screaming had begun.
Her father had used a word to describe her mother that her young mind had been unable to comprehend. Then the door had slammed and she had heard her mother sobbing loudly. Maya had not wanted to move from her bed.
Clutching her doll in her arms she waited for the sun to rise, after which she crept out of her room to find her mother smoking in the balcony.
“You’re up already?” she had asked between puffs. Her mother’s eyes were red and swollen and the ashtray by her elbow had ten cigarette butts in it already.
Her mother had put out the cigarette and gone into the kitchen to make breakfast. Maya wanted to ask about her father, but was afraid of the answer. Two days later, after she had finished drinking her milk in the evening, her mother told her in a somber tone that her father wasn’t coming back.
Maya had cried herself to sleep that night and from then on, immersed herself in every book she could find. Her father called, but it was only for two minutes and to ask her how she was doing. When he called next, her mother had picked up and she had screamed at him never to call again. Then she said something that had given her shivers.
“She’s not your daughter! Don’t you dare call again!”
As years passed, Maya assumed that her mother had said that only to cut all ties with her husband, but when she saw her with another man, her thoughts went where she could not stop them. Her mother remarried and she had a new husband, but Maya didn’t have a father.
The new husband, as Maya called him in her mind, never cared for her. Six months later, following another heated argument, he left too. Her mother was back to smoking in the mornings and ignoring her.
When she turned sixteen, her mother married yet again. She was happy and Maya was too, seeing her like this. The new husband had a courteous relationship with her, but that was about it. Her mother was so deliriously happy that she started to ignore her completely.
Maya would come home from school with her problems, and her Mother wouldn’t be there. She would bring home a certificate for winning an essay competition and her mother would be dressing up to go out. When Maya felt sick one day, her mother was out on a romantic weekend.
Maya would cry all night, wishing her mother was there to soothe her fever, but she would never even call.
College was when she had made new friends, and Maya finally found happiness. Her friends never made her feel lonely and Preeti especially had become more like a sister.
When she graduated with distinction, she ran home to find her mother crying and screaming that all men were cheats. Maya had gone into her room, closed the door and placed her graduation certificate on the table where it laid for two days before she picked it up and went off to look for a job.
The Gazette, immediately hired her after she produced two articles and Maya finally thought that life was getting better. She would go home and keep to herself while her mother took up drinking. Deep inside she longed to share the glorious first day she had, only to find her mother in a drunken stupor.
Maya decided that she didn’t need to tell her mother anyway. She would go on living her life and excelling at her job. A year later, Maya received the promotion she was hoping for. She became an assistant editor and couldn’t be happier.
You’re progressing fairly quickly,” One of her coworkers remarked.
Maya had only smiled and went back to work. She was still writing articles while assigning stories to the other writers.
A walk one evening, inspired her to write an article that she thought would be worthy of an award. She worked on it day and night and when it was finished, she rushed out of her room to find her mother so that she too could see what a terrific writer she was.
A noise in her mother’s bedroom directed her there, and when she opened the door, she saw her mother with another man. That had been it for her.
She screamed at her, venting all the frustrations and anger she had buried all these years. Her mother tried to interrupt and tell her that she was only talking to the man who was a lawyer, but in Maya’s eyes, he was just another person who her mother was going to neglect her with.
Maya had stormed out of the house and walked down the streets aimlessly. She then went to Aksh’s house who lived just a few kilometers from her.
Aksh welcomed her with a smile, but she could the tense expression on his face. His hair too had thinned. When he gave her a glass of water, Maya burst into tears. Her friend put his arms around her and after she had managed to control her tears, she drank the water in the glass.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Aksh had asked.
It’s nothing I can’t handle. I just don’t want to go home,” she had told him.
Aksh didn’t persist. He let her sleep in the sofa that night and the next day asked her if she and the other friends could go on a get-together.
“I could use a break,” He told her, rubbing his forehead where she saw more of his hair had fallen. “And it appears you could as well.”
Maya had agreed. She had only one condition- that none of them would talk about their troubles. Her phone had buzzed with numerous texts from her mother, but she ignored them.
She called Preeti first who didn’t pick up. After several tries, Maya just left a message, telling her about the plan. As the other friends were informed, Maya grew curious about Preeti and eventually realized that she too must be going through something. She guessed it was her boyfriend who Maya thought wasn’t good for her friend anyway.
When Aksh found out that Preeti hadn’t responded, he called her and was able to get through. The trip away from home was about to begin and Maya pushed aside her remorseful thoughts.
Everything was going smoothly, then of all her friends, Aksh had snapped and they had hit something. She raised her hand to support herself, but ended up hitting her head on the back of a seat.
Maya felt herself being thrust out of the car. At first she thought one of her friends had pulled her out. She imagined smelling smoke and thought she heard a cry.
Was the car in flames? Was everyone safe?
Her mind couldn’t seem to process these thoughts without her wanting to throw up from the headache she was getting.
When she was able to open her eyes, she found herself lying in the middle of the road, staring at the starry night sky. Getting up, she checked herself and saw a gash on her left arm and a large bruise forming on her right leg.
She winced as she got up and putting a hand to her head, looked around. She was all alone on the road where the woods began. There was no car and none of her friends beside her.
“Hello?” she called. “Preeti? Aksh? Where are you?”
Limping down the road, she shivered when the fog started to settle all around her and envelope the woods.
“Help!” she screamed. “Where are all of you?”
The rustling of leaves caught her attention and she turned. Through the thick fog, she made out a figure walking in front of her. It looked like a woman and she guessed it must be Preeti.
“Preeti?” she called and went after her. An owl hooted and she jumped. Beneath the soles of her feet the dry leaves made a crackling sound, while the wind wailed in her ears.
“Preeti!” Maya called again. The woman in front of her continued to walk deeper into the woods and Maya stopped herself. The old man’s words resounded in her ears—Don’t go ahead!
She was already in the neck of the woods. Taking a deep breath, Maya called again, but the woman didn’t turn. Realizing that the figure was only a figment of her imagination, Maya turned to go when she heard soft music playing.
Taking a few steps back, Maya saw the woman sitting under a tree and bringing her long hair to one side. She started to plait it while singing and Maya felt her heart stop.
In the moonlight she realized it wasn’t Preeti, but someone else. Someone who could perhaps help her.
She made her way soft-footed, feeling her heart thudding in her chest. Her mind screamed not to proceed, but the song... it was drawing her in. The words weren’t coherent to her yet, but the music and the woman’s soft voice was mesmerizing.
It was as if she were singing a lullaby. Maya came to where the woman was sitting and walked through the fog. The woman was dressed in a white dress and had long grey hair that she was slowly plaiting with every note she sang.
When Maya came to stand before her, the woman stopped singing and plaiting her hair. She raised her head and Maya felt her mouth drop open.
Continue Reading: FOREST OF THE DARK