The Ride Back Home

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"Walk the path of righteousness, walk the path alone if you must"

"You really didn't have to drive me back home, you know", she said looking at me. I was squinting my eyes to look through the drops that had accumulated on my windshield. It had been raining heavily and my wiper blades seemed to be performing the perfunctory role of sweeping over the glass without doing much in the elimination of the water. "That's not a problem. It's quite late and autorickshaw drivers love the combination of rains and nights. It's rabbit season for them." As I threaded my car through the traffic, guessing half the time, my phone blared out "In 500 metres, turn right". I was wondering what I'd have done if it wasn't for my phone. "Stop the car near that yellow car over there", she pointed. I brought my car to a gradual halt in front of her house. "I had a great time. Thanks. When are we catching up next?" she asked with a sweet smile. "I'd a good time too. I'll plan something" I replied. Waving goodbye, she opened her gate and went inside.


I had a long drive back home and I needed my GPS to guide me back. As I punched in the address of my house, I noticed that the charge on my phone was at the halfway mark. The lady in the navigation app started directing me as I eased my car out. After driving for around fifteen minutes, I started getting bored. The rain continued to pound the roof of the car. It was sounding like pebbles being showered on a tin roof. I thought of listening to some news on the news app. But my iPhone supported only one app at a time. I did have another phone, but that one didn't have an internet connection. Suddenly it hit me. Why don't I create a hotspot? Ah, but the charge wasn't high enough to support a hotspot with navigation along with streaming video. I remembered another hack - the navigation system didn't need the internet once a route had been established. As long as I didn't deviate from the standard route, I could manage.


Pleased with myself, I juggled across the two devices, turning on the hotspot on one, punching in a famous temple near my house as the destination and turning off the hotspot again. I kept my backup phone on the dashboard to guide me while listening to a panel arguing about the newly elected government and the failure of the opposition. As I climbed over a flyover, I was surprised when my phone asked me to skip the exit on the left citing heavy traffic, and insisted that I drive straight. I remembered turning left in the previous times, but I continued onward not wanting to deviate from the map. I was impressed that the app could get me through poor traffic despite being disconnected from the internet.


The debate was going along an expected fashion with the usual suspects supporting their respective teams. The roads were dug up and the water accumulated on the road was high enough to make it seem like I was on a motor boat. The roads around me were unknown to me, but I diligently followed the maps. I have been a huge fan of Google maps for a while and had used it extensively to navigate through unknown cities abroad. I was confident that the map would lead me home. As I deftly avoided potholes and turned around the corner, I came at a familiar junction. There was a flyover in front of me and I knew that I had to take the road next to it and turn to the right under it. But the map insisted that I drive straight. In that split second, I was in two minds - Should I go right and follow the directions that I know? Or should I follow the map?


My faith in the map was so high that I decided to climb the flyover and drive on. The map seemed to be pleased with my decision, for the screen readjusted and indicated that I had to drive straight ahead for another 9 kilometres. I felt that it was strange that I was asked to drive in that direction - In a way, it was in the general direction of my house, and I decided to give it the benefit of doubt. I did raise my eyebrows when I started seeing signboards of the national highway indicating distances to other cities. I brought the car to a halt on the side of the highway and checked the entire route. I was irritated when I saw that I had selected a different temple with the same name. I had been driving to an entirely different destination. Punching in the right destination, I continued my journey. It appeared that the map was insistent in having me drive along the same highway for a few more kilometres until it reached a major intersection where I was asked to turn right. Dutifully, I followed on a wide road until I reached a toll booth. I groaned and pull out my wallet. Usually I don’t carry much cash and I was certain moths would fly out the moment I opened my wallet. Fortunately, I had enough to pay for the toll. Throwing the receipt on the empty seat next to me, I continued driving, wondering when I’d reach home.


The rain continued to batter the windshield as my wipers pretended to perform their duties. There was a mist forming on the insides of the windscreen further occluding my vision. With an exasperated sigh, I turned on the air conditioner and rotated the knob until the air was blowing from behind the dashboard onto the glass. It seemed to work, albeit slowly, as my fingertips began to freeze. The phone suddenly rang. “Did you reach home yet?” She asked. “Ah, not yet. I seemed to have punched in the wrong destination and got lost. I am on my way back though. It shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes” I answered. “Oh no, it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have asked you to drop me back” she said. “Nah! That’s alright, the road is great and I have plenty of fuel in the tank. So, it shouldn’t take much time” I said as I squinted through the drops on glass. The only way that I could make out that there were any vehicles on the road was from their rear lights. It was pitch dark otherwise. Fortunately, there weren’t too many vehicles on the road at this hour.


She kept talking when the navigation system on the phone said something. “You know what? I forgot to turn off the GPS on the phone. Actually, I don’t need it anymore - It’s a straight road from here. This GPS lady keeps talking over you. Listen, why don’t I talk to you tomorrow?” I said as I was annoyed with the multitasking. “Alright. I’m going to sleep then. Just leave me a message after you reach” she said and hung up. With one eye on the road, I decided to kill the app on my phone, wondering why it had asked me to turn left on a straight road. Just when I was about to kill the app, I noticed that it hadn’t been my imagination. The app was showing a left ahead. I was surprised. I didn’t even know that a left turn existed at that point, let alone a turn that led to my house. I turned on the blinkers on my car and stopped at the side again to inspect the app. I double checked the destination to be sure. It seemed correct. “Interesting”, I thought. Could it be a shortcut?


I decided to venture on this new route. I carefully placed the phone on the seat next to me with the angle just right for me to see, turned off the blinkers and eased out again. Within a few moments, I was at the exit indicated by the map. It was a narrow road that looked like one that was used for maintenance. It was too narrow for my liking and I slowed down the car wondering if it was a great idea. I could see the top of the toll booth, but the lights seemed to have been turned off. Suddenly a red coloured car zoomed past me on the narrow road. Something about the confidence of the driver renewed my interest in the lane. I pressed the pedal and continued onward as the narrow lane curved ahead. I could see the toll booth ahead. I bent forward to reach for the receipt to get it validated. I had the glass next to me rolled down and the receipt in my hand by the time I drew next to the checking counter, only to be greeted by a glass pane. It was completely dark inside and there was nobody around. The translucent pane of glass and the varied shades of grey inside gave me an eerie feeling. The raindrops on my arms were making me uncomfortable.


Shrugging, I threw the receipt on the seat next to me and continued, wondering if I could have saved some money by claiming to have wanted to exit much earlier. Damn. The road continued to wind under the highway that I had been on until it merged into a wide road. My phone indicated that the road was called Martyr’s Road. I thought that it was a strange name for a road. I was, however, quite pleased with the road. It was incredibly wide - perhaps 4 lanes. And there was not a soul in sight. I thought that it must have been a new layout, what with all the vacant plots around me. The racer spirit in me was aroused and I pushed the pedal hard. As the car zoomed ahead, I realised that the roads could be slippery and decided to ease up a little. I was cruising at an even 70. The median had nice little reflectors on them, and I thought that driving a few feet to its left should keep me confortable.


I continued to drive along the road when my phone passed another comment. I looked over on the seat to see what manoeuvre I had to make. I turned to look at the road again but I saw her too late. The car jostled violently with a bang as it went over some uneven surface. I slammed the brakes and the car screeched to a halt. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. It was thumping, drowning even the drops battering the roof. My mouth went dry as I tried to make sense of what just happened. The abrupt halt had pushed my phone off the seat onto the floor. My hands were shivering from the shock. Finally, I gathered some courage to look into the rear view mirror. I could see a lump on the ground a few hundred feet behind me. The rain continued to pour and didn’t seem to care. A flash of lightning at a distance revealed some human features. I looked around me. The entire road was empty and there was not a soul in sight. I didn’t know whom to call out for help...


And then it hit me. What if I had killed this woman? There was not a soul in sight, and maybe that was not such a bad thing. All I had to do was just drive along, and nobody would know. I had not done anything wrong. I was driving at a constant speed with my headlights on, right along the median. She was the one who had run in the middle of the road. She could have seen me approaching. I, on the other hand, couldn’t have. Besides, it would be impossible trying to convince the police or anyone else that it hadn’t been my fault. All I had to do was turn on the ignition and drive along, and not a soul would know.


I took in a deep breath. No, it wasn’t the right thing to do, said an inner voice. What if you were the one who had been hit by a car. Wouldn’t you have wanted help? What about her family? As a moral citizen, it was your duty to help her. It was an accident and you didn’t do it on purpose, did you? Go back and check on her. I didn’t like this preachy voice, but I knew, deep inside, that it was the right thing to do.


Turning on the blinkers, I pulled out the key and slipped it into my shirt pocket. With a deep breath, I got out of the car and instantly began getting wet. Squinting my eyes as the rain water sprayed across my face, I shut the door and started jogging towards the woman. The night was silent, save for the constant pattering of the rain. The pale yellowish orange of my blinkers were the only sources of light, and that too for only a few metres. I continued jogging for a few hundred metres and then I stopped. Where was she? I should have seen her by now. She must have been somewhere around here. I tried looking a little farther behind and the roads seemed empty. I knew objects appeared to be farther than they really were in mirrors, but not farther than this. I looked at the space between the car and me, just to make sure that I had not passed by her. It would have been impossible, but I wanted to double check. She was nowhere to be seen...


What was going on? Did it really happen? Or was I imagining it? Did I really hit someone? I stood on the median and looked around once again. There was nothing - vacant plots, empty roads, tiny reflectors synchronously lighting up with my blinkers. I scanned the ground to see if she crawled and collapsed on the pavement... There was nothing around. I was sleepy, but not that sleepy to have dreamt up a vivid sequence of events. Besides, she had appeared in the rear view mirror. The lightning had revealed her outstretched arms. Feeling rather dazed, I proceeded towards my car. I was in no mood to jog back now. There was no urgency anymore. Nobody to save and I had already gotten wet. As I trudged back, I saw something strange. The blinkers revealed something moving inside my car. Every time the light shone, I could make out a silhouette, a head with long hair, moving inside the car. And then the blinkers abruptly stopped working. The car was pitch dark.


I instantly froze. Who was in my car? How did she get into my car? The keys were still in my pocket. Was it the same lady I ran over? How did she get past me? I couldn't see a thing inside, but I could feel a pair of eyes staring at me through the darkness. The cold wind blew past my ears and I shivered. I was unsure if it had been the wind that made a chill pass through my body. The rain continued to batter the earth. I stood staring at the car for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, I clenched my fist and decided to walk towards my car.


I reached the door on the driver's side and peered into the car through the window. There was a girl in the passenger seat, looking at me. I inserted the key into the door and twisted it confidently. No movement. I opened the door and poked my head inside. "Who are you?" I asked her. She had a pale, white face, blanched by the rain. She seemed cold. "I am sorry, I got into your car without your permission, but it was cold and I was wet and needed some shelter" she replied. "I need a ride home. I hope you can help me. I know I am troubling you, but I'd certainly appreciate the help".


I pulled my head out and looked around. There was not a soul in sight, not a house in sight. For a long distance. I couldn't leave this girl here. But there was something odd about her. My shirt was drenched and was clinging to my skin. I began to feel uneasy. I got into the car and shut the door. "What are you doing in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? How did you even get here?" I asked her as I slid the key into the ignition. I desperately needed the heater, and by the looks of it, so did she. "Oh, I followed the instructions on my map and this was supposed to be the shortest way home. I passed you sometime ago. But, you see, my car broke down and my phone's dead. So, I didn't know what else to do. I was walking down the road when I saw your car. I was relieved" she replied.


The warm air from the heater began to thaw my bones. I rubbed my hands together and blew some hot air into my palms. I turned to look at her. She had a pretty face, proportional, and her hair seemed to frame it well. She had soft features. She looked awkwardly and said "My house is just around five kilometres from here. Can you drop me there? If it's too much trouble, I can use your phone to place a call and ask my brother to pick me up" I nonchalantly waved my hand at her and replied "That's no problem at all. I'll drop you off" I gently pressed the accelerator and drove at an even 40. "You'll have to guide me. I'm not familiar with the roads" I said. As I drove following her occasional instructions, I stole a few glances at her. She had a few scratches on her arms. "You seem hurt" I said. "Oh yeah, my car skidded off the road. Just a few scratches. Nothing to worry about." she said. A few minutes later, we had entered a dark lane. There were high compound walls on both sides of the road, and a few tall gates. The road was gravelled rather than tarred. She pointed and asked me to stop in front of a dark house. A single lamp seemed to be lit inside. "Looks like the power is off. Thanks a lot for your kindness. Please follow the road back and you will reach the main road. Turn right and you will meet the technology road" she said as she gave me a warm smile.


Thanking her, I turned the car around and continued down the road. I looked at the rear view mirror to get one last glimpse at her, but she had disappeared. I found my phone in the cup-holder. It looked like she had picked it off the ground. I turned on the map and resumed my way home. The road curved around and after going through a few corners, I finally hit a broad road. It looked familiar. I looked at the map again and it said Martyrs' road. I was certain she had said technology road, but considering that I was no worse off than before, I continued driving, reaching an even 60. As the reflectors on the median zipped past me, I saw a policeman in a long raincoat inspecting a car that had gone off the road. I slowed my car and came to a halt a few metres ahead of the crashed vehicle. It was the same red car that she had been driving. I thought of informing the officer about the owner of the car and assuage him that the owner was safe. He looked up from his phone as I approached him. "Sir, this car..." I began to say as I looked at the driver's seat. The door had been ajar and the driver had been dead. Her body was slumped across the steering wheel. "Oh dear!" I exclaimed. "What happened? Is this an accident?" I asked as I felt a chill down my spine.


I moved closer to get a better look at the face of the young woman in the driver’s seat. She didn’t seem familiar to me, but I noticed a giant gash in her neck. “This is no accident, mister” replied the cop. “There is a killer who roams the streets here. Heed my suggestion and go home without stopping anywhere. I think that the killer pretends to be a hitch-hiker, and then stabs the drivers in the neck when they least expect it. This is the fifth case in the last three months. Go home now, and don’t stop for anyone along the way.” he replied brusquely. The hair on the back of my neck were standing straight as I walked back to my car, dazed. I started driving towards my house following the map. A few minutes later, the voice in the phone said that the Martyrs’ road was merging into the technology road. As I turned the car to the right, I looked into the rear view mirror and saw her standing at the intersection, waving at me. Without a second thought, I pushed the pedal hard and gunned ahead.


The next morning, I grabbed a cup of hot coffee and decide to peruse the morning news. I was aghast when I read the article at the bottom. It read that a woman was found murdered in her car with a deep gash in her neck. The incident happened, it read, in the middle of the Martyrs' road. What was more perplexing was that a second woman was found murdered at the end of the Martyrs' road. Police investigation had shown that there were two sets of footprints near the first body and one pair near the second. The police, it said, are on the lookout for the two killers involved in the Martyrs' road double murder case.


*****
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