Mandira walked back to her bedroom after supper and opened her laptop. She had to file that report about the school valedictory the next morning. She navigated to the folder where she usually stored all her extra-curricular files and frowned.
The valedictory file was missing. That’s strange. She rummaged her bag for the pen drive and plugged it in.
Nothing. No files.
She sat back and rolled her eyes. She could’ve sworn she’d copied the file from Shwetha at lunch break. Where the hell was the file?
She ran a search all over again. She had named the file ‘Valedictory_0125’. Nothing came up. Still frowning, she picked up her mobile phone and dialed Shwetha’s number.
“Helllo, darling,” Shwetha said in her usual cheerful tone.
“Hi..had supper?” Mandira asked.
“Yeah..just about now..so, what’s up? Jittery about tomorrow,huh?”
“Arre, no. But you remember you gave me the presentation file during lunch break?”
“Yeah, you copied it in a thumb drive if I’m not wrong?”
“Yeah, but you know what..I don’t seem to have it now. I mean..it’s not on the thumb drive as well yaar.”
“Really? That’s strange.”
“Do you have it on your system, sweety?” Mandira asked, biting her nails. Shwetha lived a stone’s throw away from Mandira. “I’ll come over and copy it, if you don’t mind?”
Shwetha exclaimed. “Shit, the laptop’s with my sister, Mandy.”
“Oh no,” Mandira groaned.
“Yeah. She said she’d drop by to school tomorrow and return it. It had some movies Atul had stored, and neither of us had a hard drive. You know the old one’s conked, don't you?”
“What do I do now?” Mandira said. It was more a question to herself.
“There’s another way, but I don’t know if that’s a very wise thing to do,” Shwetha said.
“It is on the office system. I saved a copy there.”
“Oh, bless you child,” Mandira said. “I can collect the keys from Sumana and..”
“Yeah, all office keys are with her. At least a duplicate I think. We can do the paperwork tomorrow. I can cite the Valedictory reason, do some pleading and head over there now. Do you wanna come?”
“Umm…Meeta’s sleeping, and Rohan also isn’t around…” Shwetha started.
“Ok, no problem. I guess I’ll go alone then,” Mandira said, shutting down her laptop and getting up to go already.
There was a pause.
“You sure you want to do that?”
“Yeah, yeah. There’s no other way. I have to make those changes tonight. I don’t have time tomorrow. I’ll just copy it on the thumb drive. It’ll not even take 10 minutes.”
“Hmm. Ok..” Shwetha said.
“Chalo, I’ll update you with whatever, yeah?”
“Yeah. Take care, baby.”
Mandira smiled. “Yeah..bye.”
Getting the keys from Sumana wasn’t a problem. After about a half hour, Mandira parked her scooter in the school compound and walked to the main entrance. She looked at the time. It was almost 10 pm. This would have to be done fast. She explained her situation to the school guard and got entry into the main lobby.
“Ok, I’ll take it from here,” she told and proceeded to the staff room.
The school was square in shape with a courtyard out in the front. There were four floors of classes facing the courtyard on all four sides. The main office and staff room were on the ground floor on the far east. The security guard switched on the lights of the main corridor. She didn’t want all other lights to be switched on.
Keys dangling in her hand, she briskly walked to the staff room. The tapping of her sandals reverberated in the empty corridor. She looked around and suddenly realized the school looked quite ominous at this time of the night, with no lights on. She felt the shape of the right key and was about to enter the staff room when she stopped, and craned her ears.
Somebody was laughing.
Since the school was closed on all sides, except for maybe loudspeakers, no sound could enter the premises, not even the sound of traffic. It was like a fortress. Moreover, it was too late for any special classes, which ended latest by 8 pm, according to school policy.
She decided to ignore it. She fiddled with the key bunch, selected her key and bent to open the lock when it came again. A little louder this time. Sounded like several people laughing together. Huh? She quietly placed her bag and keys on the corridor railing and slowly stepped out into the courtyard, looking up on all four sides.
It was dark everywhere, except for the one side of the lit corridor on the ground floor, near the entrance. She was about walk back towards the staff room when a classroom light came on, up on the fourth floor.
Maybe the guard knew something about it. She walked across the courtyard to the security booth. But there was nobody there.
She waited a couple of minutes, and then decided to investigate it herself. That was the only thing to do. She cursed the security guard for having vanished just like that. Probably went out for a smoke. And she didn’t want to waste time hunting for him.
She took the flight of stairs and reached the fourth floor, slightly out of breath and walked over to the side where she thought the light had come on, and stopped. It was all dark. Strange.
Maybe a faulty tube light? It had happened a few times earlier. The housekeeping staff forgot to switch off lights simply because at the time all lights seemed off, but suddenly, one light that wasn’t working properly, would come on after a while.
She slowly walked to the right wing, above the staff room. She stood there in the darkness feeling a little stupid now. She turned to leave – when the light came on again. Ah, there. She walked over. Definitely a bad tube light.
The door was half open, though. Great, they had forgotten to lock it as well. This was going straight to the weekly report. But as she went nearer, she heard the same laughter. Coming from in there. She stopped dead in her tracks, her pulse racing now.
“And..now, we will begin with…” somebody was saying. She couldn’t hear properly. She took a step and then stopped.
Hell, it was a special class – but surely the security guy knew about it? Maybe he thought that she knew too. She slowly edged towards the light.
The voice continued speaking. Every once a while, she heard another voice, and some other voices too, like they were discussing something. An entire class was here. She was confused. Nobody told her about this. She was the teacher - student co-ordinator, and the least she expected was the Principal telling her about this ‘evening’ class for the teachers. It didn’t make any sense.
She decided to peep in. Worst case, she could excuse herself out. The talking grew louder as she slowly inched toward the door.
The door creaked softly as she pushed it open. The room grew silent. Obviously they knew someone was there.
Damn, this was embarrassing.
She then opened the door fully wide. A gust of cold wind struck her face, making her shiver for a second.
The classroom was empty.
What the hell…
Confused, she took a step out and looked at the neighboring classrooms.Closed. She could have sworn this was the room. The lights were still on. She stood there, her eyes panning the length and breadth of the room. There was an open book on the teacher’s table. The other desks had books as well. She slowly stepped inside and walked to the table. She stood over the book and looked at the open page. Strange. She was about to pick it up when the door slammed shut, making her gasp. She quickly walked over and pulled the door knob. It was locked. Panicking, she tried to pull it with all her might. Nothing. She banged the door several few times, calling out to the guard.
A while later, the security guard descended the staircase, puzzled.
He could’ve sworn he heard a door banging on the fourth floor. But all the rooms were locked and the lights were off.
He cursed himself for stepping out for a smoke. The lady had left without returning the keys to him. He shrugged. Maybe she kept it so she could complain about him the next day. He decided not to think about it a lot. Switching off the corridor light on the ground floor, he walked out of the building.
Across the courtyard, in the darkness, lay a bunch of keys and a handbag.