There was cake in the fridge. I knew there was one piece left over from dinner. I slid around the assortment of containers and stainless steel ware, guided by the jaundiced luminescence of the fridge, in graveyard stillness of the sleeping kitchen. I couldn’t see it. A few minutes later, my fingers ached from having prised open every container in the fridge, but the closest I’d come to scratching that itch under my sweet tooth was finding a mouldy, half-eaten doughnut at the back of the bottom-most shelf. Shubham’s stash. Obviously hidden away for later consumption, before promptly being forgotten about.
There was only one explanation for the absent cake. Shubham. I stormed to his room, in as silent a fury as a sneaking teen could manage. Don’t wanna wake up the house. His bedroom light was still on. Gotcha, boy. There were only two things my brother could be doing up at 3 AM. One- eating stolen dessert. Two- this was a rather indelicate affair that involved the incognito tab of his laptop and lots of tissue paper. I half-hoped it was number one.
I didn’t bother knocking before entering; I wanted to catch the bugger red-handed. There was no one in the room- his bed was messy, and papers lay strewn across the floor. I felt like Alibaba in the secret cave; finding access to Shubham’s room in such a fashion was rather rare. He usually lived with the paranoia of an absconding felon; his room either had him it it, or was locked. I snooped about, looking for nothing in particular, simply reveling in the glory implicit in forbidden behaviour. My gaze fell upon something caught between his sheets. I wrested free a stained handkerchief from a tangle of bed clothes. It was crumpled as old papyrus, and stained brown… a familiar brown… Aha! I’d got him. He’d obviously enjoyed the cake- my cake, a piece I’d called dibs on- in bed and wiped clean his filthy hands of the crime on the tell-tale white cloth. I stuffed the evidence of his treachery into my pocket and trotted back to my room, just as I heard the flush sound in the common toilet, outside. Judging by the amount of time my little brother had spent in the bathroom, I was guessing the commode was clogged with a wad of tissue paper.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of screaming.
A flurry of blankets and hastily donned specs later, I was tumbling out of my room towards the source of the commotion. Mom stood in the common bathroom doorway, hyperventilating into her hands.
“Mom! Mom, what is-”
My mother, Mrs. Sinha, lady of the household, for the first time in her disciplined life, did not admonish me for the profanity that then burst from my lips. My brother lay sprawled beside the commode, limp and white as sodden wool. The bathroom tiles were smeared with blood, and I noticed, through swimming eyes, that a trail of dried blood led all the way from Shubham’s body into the hallway. Later, on further inspection by professionals I didn’t care to acquaint myself with, little spatters of blood were found to lead out of our ground-floor apartment and into the building compound.
Two hysterical women have a way of attracting the attention of prying neighbours without any conscious effort. Soon- or maybe eventually, for I had lost all sense of time- our spacious apartment was cramped with policemen, paramedics, concerned neighbours and friends. Different pairs of strong hands guided me around the house, settling me into chairs and forcing water to my lips. Unheard consolations were whispered into my ears, and unanswered questions posed at a face that looked like mine, but belonged to an unselved being floating in a limbo. My mother’s ceaseless wailing was probably the only thing that kept me partially rooted to reality.
They took him away on a stretcher with the white sheet pulled over his head. I did not say goodbye. Later, we were told that they had found a single stab wound right above his abdominal aorta. It had taken him hours to bleed out. Hours spent lying on the bathroom floor. Hours after I had heard that flush sound in the dead of the night. Hours I had spent sleeping, dreaming of chocolate cake. Hours…
No one knew what had happened. The teenage son of the Sinha household in Delhi had been vagabonding out one April night, and had been stabbed mysteriously, only to have limped home and been found dead near the toilet the next morning. It was labeled one of those freak incidents that shook the urban middle class every few years, and had paranoid parents warning their children not to wander the streets after dark. We had to have our names changed for the press.
I spent the days after that particular morning locked away in my room, weeping between bouts of catatonia, into the stained handkerchief I had found on Shubham’s bed the night of his murder. I don’t quite remember when it was that I figured the brown stains on his handkerchief weren’t chocolate, but coagulated blood. Mother disappeared into her job, staying back late in an office that she hated, but nonetheless hated lesser than the growing lacuna at home.
We never brought chocolate cake home again.
Two summers later, when my brother was fading into memory and photographs, I sat talking to the single mother of the little girl I babysat over the weekends.
“I have never told anyone else this, Sanaya. I hope I can trust you…” I could see unspoken words burrow into her flesh from the inside out. A feeling I was all too familiar with. I encouraged her to speak. Maybe… Maybe I’ll tell her my story, too…
“I almost lost my little girl that day, Sanaya,” she rasped. I hugged her, feeling my own eyes well up with tell-tale water.
“I don’t regret stabbing that bastard, son-of-a-bitch. I did what I had to do when I saw my baby unconscious in his arms,” she continued. I froze.
“Yes. He then jumped over our garden fence, the way he came in, and got away. Never saw his face in the dark, but he was a young chap.” I felt insects crawling up my throat.
“B-But what was he doing to her? What happened?”
“Two years, and we have never told anyone the truth… When we had her checked at the hospital later, they found a saturation of tranquilizer in her bloodstream. The bastard. He fed it to her in a piece of chocolate cake-”