Alex stirred the concoction rigorously. The ingredients inside the mug, had been carefully measured by him. Once the colour had changed to his satisfaction, he handed over one mug to Zakir and kept the other for himself.
“Is the sugar too overpowering?”, asked Alex.
Zakir took a sip from the mug and replied, “No. It’s perfect. A good cup of coffee is just what I wanted”.
There was silence, as both drank from their respective coffee mugs.
“How are you so sure, that I was bathing from afternoon till late night?”, asked Alex, suspiciously.
“Well, you were taking a bath, when I fell asleep in the afternoon, and you were still taking a bath, when I woke up late night. Now tell me, what am I supposed to assume?”, replied Zakir, with a gleeful mordacity.
His taunting humour was too biting for Alex to handle. But Alex chose to remain silent.
“Once I had woken up, I called out to you, multiple times. But you didn’t respond. You were under some bizarre spell, oblivious to my shouting and kept on bathing.
Then, that owl appeared, and my attention got diverted to Anand, and all that was unfortunately happening to him.
But once, the UFO was gone and things had calmed down, I broke the door lock and dragged your naked body out. Then, I dried you up with a towel and wrapped you in a blanket.
You are still draped in it, and if you don’t believe me, the door lock that is lying on your bed, fully testifies what I have just uttered”.
Saying which, Zakir took an intense deep breath and clenched his fist in anger. He made no bones about the fact, that Alex’s foolish act, may have cost them dearly.
“Damn! I can’t remember anything. I am sorry, that I put you through this!”, said Alex.
Zakir looked Alex straight in the eye, devoid of any expressions on his face and replied, “I am sure you are!”.
The air outside was beginning to get warmer, adding to the discomfort. The cool breeze had given way to warmer winds. It was 9 am and nine hours had passed, since the events of the previous night.
As, Zakir wiped the sweat off his temples, he noticed someone peeping into the room, from one side of the front door. Only his face was visible. But upon realizing that he had been noticed, the man disappeared.
“There is someone listening to our conversation”, said Zakir, secretly hinting the direction to Alex, through a movement of his eyelid.
“He could be a witness”, whispered Alex, cajoling Zakir to head to the front door, with a nudge of his hand. The two tip-toed to the front door.
They couldn’t find anybody. Hence, they made their way to the balcony outside the door, which was shared by all the rooms on that floor. But there was no one. Much to their disappointment.
Just then, they heard footsteps, the sound of which was coming from the stairway.
“Did you hear that?”, asked Zakir.
“Yes”, replied Alex, turning his head cautiously towards the stairway. The sound of the footsteps intensified, and its frequency tripled!
“He will escape. Let’s get him”, yelled Alex, as the two ran down the stairs.
“Look, it’s the security guard”, said Zakir, noticing that the man was wearing a uniform.
The two hurriedly made their way down the stairway, covering each floor in a jiffy, before they finally reached the ground floor.
“There he is”, said Zakir, pointing his finger, towards a man who was frantically running towards the main gate.
“I’ll get him”, replied Alex, saying which he sprinted towards the man. Zakir stood on and watched in silence. He realized that being the lighter one, Alex stood a better chance of getting to the supposed witness.
Alex did! Albeit after a brief struggle. But he had to run a good 100 metres to get to the assumed fiend. He grabbed him by his collar and dragged him to the ground in one swift movement of his shoulder. The man tried desperately to set himself free, but Alex managed to subdue him, by putting his weight on his back.
Zakir rushed to the spot.
The man was covered in dirt from head to toe and was lying head down on the ground, with Alex’s big palm covering his head.
“Why were you trying to escape and where is our friend Anand?”, asked Alex, loosing breath as he said that.
“How could you do this being a security guard?”, added Zakir.
“I am not a security guard! Let me go!”, shouted the man.
There was silence. Alex immediately, let go off the man’s head, which he was rubbing against the sandy turf. The man turned around and took deep breaths, while still lying on the ground. Alex and Zakir stood beside him and stared at his frail body, which was not suited for a security guard.
“Tell me who are you?”, asked Alex.
“Who am I? Don’t you recognize me?”, replied the man with a counter question.
“No, we don’t, and don’t you try to fool us”, warned Zakir.
“You fool! I am your driver. I am the one who got you here yesterday. Remember?”, asked the man.
This was beginning to sound all too familiar again. Alex’s eyes fell on the white SUV parked under a tree. It too was covered in dust. A shiver went down the spine of the two young men. Alex noticed, that the man was wearing a white uniform, which was what typically, the drivers wore. How did it not strike him? He wondered.
Both helped the man to get up.
“We are sorry! Could you please tell me your name?”, asked Alex.
“My name is Tarak. It was my bad luck that I agreed, to drive the three of you, to this god-forsaken place. You don’t remember a thing, do you?”, replied the man, dusting the dirt off his clothes.
“Please help us find our friend. We have no idea where he is and we can’t remember a thing”, pleaded Zakir.
“Could you please recount everything that you saw yesterday? That’ll help immensely”, added Alex.
“Your friend was in the car yesterday, when we started from Varanasi in the morning. He was there, when we reached this place. But when you both returned to the guest house a few hours later after a a visit to the sanctuary, he wasn’t there with you!”, replied the driver.
“He wasn’t there!”, exclaimed Zakir, nervously.
“I was asked by you to wait at the guest house, while you three ventured to the sanctuary. All throughout our journey from Varanasi, you (pointing towards Zakir) were repeatedly talking about aliens and a cave expedition, while this man (pointing towards Alex) was excited to bathe under the waterfalls”, said Tarak.
The two men were left speechless. Their story was beginning to get murkier with each revelation.
“I never thought that a few glasses of “bhang lassi” (a tangy drink mixed with edible marijuana) could hurt us so much”, said Alex.
“Don’t you dare utter that! You were the one who came up with that brilliant idea. It is all your mistake”, replied Zakir, angrily. Alex was lost for words.
“Don’t you dare take the moral high ground, when you are equally guilty”, said Tarak, pointing his finger towards Zakir. His face was blazing in anger. Zakir was taken aback by the unexpected reaction.
“Why do you say that?”, asked Alex, while secretly glancing at Zakir, from one corner of his eye.
“I am sure, he is the one who dumped Anand, somewhere in the middle of the jungle”, replied Tarak.
“Could you please elaborate?”, asked Alex, this time in a slightly sarcastic tone.
Tarak stared intently at Zakir and replied,
“You both were back to the guest house at around 2 pm in the afternoon. Surprisingly, both of you, did not have your shirts on!
Alex, you were singing a song, while Zakir was waving Anand’s shirt in the air and dancing away to glory. Both of you were drenched from head to toe. Since, there was no one else in the guest house, the management staff did not object to your behaviour.
When I asked about Anand’s whereabouts, Zakir replied by saying that he is seeking nirvana and that he should not be disturbed. I didn’t understand what that meant, but given the state you both were in, I didn’t venture to enquire further.
Then, Zakir pulled me by my collar, took my shirt off forcefully, and asked me to wear Anand’s shirt. He insisted vehemently that I oblige, even though I was resisting. He said that by doing so I will compensate for Anand’s absence. He also renamed me Anand, just for that day. I had no choice but to oblige”.
There was silence for a few seconds, which was then abruptly ended, by Alex’s loud laughter. He even clapped his hand a few times while looking at Zakir. The laughter was more out of relief than joy. Zakir in contrast was speechless and expressionless.
“But I have a question?”, asked Zakir, in a mellowed tone.
“What is it?”, asked Tarak, sternly.
If Anand is missing since yesterday afternoon, how come I saw him last night”, asked Zakir.
“That wasn’t Anand but me who was lying on the bed”, replied Tarak.
“And, did you manage to see some aliens last night, like our good friend here did?”, asked Alex, in a clear taunting tone.
“No, but I did hear a mad man shouting about them in the middle of the night”, replied Tarak, while staring at Zakir.
Sweat trickled down Zakir’s temples, as Alex burst out into an uncontrollable laughter. The sound of which reverberated within the entire guest house complex.
The tables had turned again.