Shipra picked up Neelam from college at 6 pm sharp.
“Can we stop at Neetu aunty’s for a while, babe?” Shipra asked. Neelam smiled and shrugged.
“Meanwhile I also need to pick up my top from the tailor. Aunty might’ve made her heavenly pakodas, so gorge all you can,” Shipra enticed Neelam further.
“Oh, chuck it. You don’t have to give me any incentives to spend time with Neetu aunty. But, I can as well come with you to the tailor, no? Why do we have to go to…” Neelam said, raising her voice against the wind.
“I need to hand over some cash to Neetu aunty. She’s been having some money problems lately. Her drunkard husband died leaving a cartload of debts, which even she wasn’t aware of. Poor thing.”
Neelam nodded. ‘Oh.”
They arrived at the front gate about 25 minutes later. Shipra dropped Neelam and turned her two-wheeler on to the main road once again.
Neelam waved at Shipra and turned to open the creaky gate. The lawn hadn’t been mowed for a while, she noted. She was about to climb up the short flight of stairs when she spotted Neetu aunty smiling at her from the kitchen window.
“Hi, aunty,” She said, waving at the older woman.
“Hi beta. Come.”
Neelam walked into the living room.
Neetu aunty peeped from the kitchen, smiling. “Some water?”
Neelam crinkled her nose and smiled. “Thanks, aunty.”
Neelam looked around, and noticed the living room was slightly untidy. It was unlike Neetu aunty. She was always spick and span, and kept her house likewise. Maybe she wasn’t keeping well. She did look a little tired. She wondered what it was about the money. She picked up a magazine from the center table and started flipping the pages. She craned her neck towards the kitchen every few seconds.
About 10 minutes later she frowned and kept the magazine on the table.
“Aunty?” She called out.
Aunty never took this long to get a glass of water. Was she cooking something?
Curious, Neelam went over to the kitchen. Neetu aunty wasn’t there. It couldn’t be. She’d not seen her coming out. She hadn’t been so immersed in the magazine. Then, where was she?
She checked the bathroom, the laundry area and the small store room adjacent to the kitchen. Aunty wasn’t there either. Odd.
Neelam came back to the living room. She stood blankly for a few seconds, and then switched on the lights; it had gotten dark, both in and outside. She switched on the light in the front porch as well. She then went to the bedroom. Maybe aunty had gone in to change. She knocked twice and called out gently. The door wasn't fully closed. She slowly pushed it open... and gasped, covering her mouth.
Neetu aunty was hanging from the ceiling fan, her blood-shot eyes staring straight at Neelam.
Neelam felt the ground beneath her suddenly give away and she sank, her breath coming in short bursts, her voice dying to come out of her throat but unable to. Her head reeled.
The lights went out.
Just then, from the kitchen came Neetu aunty’s voice – “I’m making some hot tea and pakodas, you’ll have na, dear?”