This story won me the coveted Gitesh Biva Memorial Award
The sun peeked into her basement apartment from the window high up, near the ceiling. It was the only time that she got any sunlight, in the late afternoon.
Sitting at her desk Anne opened an unread mail in her inbox. It read…
I am getting married in a couple of weeks. I love my fiancé dearly and yet I feel inexplicably drawn to my fiancé’s brother. I know his brother feels similarly for me. He has hinted at it. Do you think I should have a tryst with him to get it out of my system? One final fling before I get hitched for good?
Please help. I’m in a fix.
It was at times like these that Anne wished she was anything but an agony aunt. Well actually that was not accurate. Technically speaking, she was a columnist and a widely successful one. She wrote a weekly column called “Ask Melanie” for a leading women’s magazine. Ask Melanie (Melanie being her pseudonym) was an advice column wherein people could send in queries about and get answers to relationship tangles.
Fresh out of college Anne had initially started her career as a correspondent with another magazine, a society tabloid published in California. It had been a dreary job covering high society events. A few years down the line an incident had made her abandon her career and shift base across country. That had been the turning point in her life, both personally and professionally. It was then that she had transitioned first into features and subsequently into column writing.
Now as a column writer, in her line of work, she received hundreds of emails on a daily basis. And although she painstakingly read and reverted to each individual, only a few of the mails were chosen every week for publishing in the magazine. This was her life, the life she had built for herself and “Ask Melanie” gave it purpose.
Anne sighed now as she glanced at Abby’s mail.
“Well, time to get back to work,” she thought and started typing in her reply.
Distressing as it is, your dilemma seems self created. Are you perhaps not happy with your decision? Did you rush into accepting the proposal?
I would advise you to proceed with caution. Do not forsake one relationship for the whimsy of another, if you truly love your fiancé. Ponder the consequences; you will get your answer.
“Why do people self create problems?” thought Anne as she hit send on her email to Abby. “Relationships are complicated enough without the added drama. Why is human nature so fickle?”
She sighed and opened the last unread mail in her list. It was from a man called Oscar.
“Well, that’s refreshing, a man seeking advice,” she thought, scanning through the mail.
I need your advice.
“Well, sure. Nothing new there.” thought Anne, rolling her eyes. She read further…
I work as a junior level executive with a reputed company. Last year I met and fell in love with the most beautiful woman. I am crazy about her. I recently proposed and I am happy to share that she has accepted.
However, now that we are engaged, she demands to know everything about my past. She says that if we are to marry then we must both be completely honest with each other.
Is that really important Melanie? Frankly speaking there are some things I did in my past that I am not proud of, some misdemeanours. I would rather not share those details with her. But, I don’t want to base our marriage on a lie as well.
I want to come clean but I fear I will lose her if I do. Tell me what to do? I need your advice.
“Well Oscar,” thought Anne removing her glasses to polish away a speck of dust. “At least you are mature enough to know that you need to fix the problem before marriage.”
Perching her glasses back on her nose she typed in her reply
True love is not based on the past or what could come in the future. If you are ashamed of your past then find comfort in the fact that you overcame that past. Today, you are on the path to success and happiness. If your fiancée truly loves you, then she would understand. She will find it in her heart to accept. But, you have to take that leap of faith. It is ultimately you who needs to decide whether to tell her or not.
Think about it. Your future happiness may depend on it.
Anne hit send on her reply to Oscar and leaned back in her chair. There were no more unread mails for now. She was all caught up on work.
She lifted her head at the sound. Ms Belle, her cat was pawing at her food bowl, mewing to draw her attention.
“Oh! You’re back, are you?” said Anne, getting up from her seat to pick up her cat. “Come; let’s go get you some food.”
Ms Belle was another lost soul who had found her way to Anne’s doorstep one rainy evening. Anne had given her shelter for the night but Ms Belle had stayed, making the basement her home. She now lived with Anne permanently.
“Come eat.” said Anne, pouring some kibble into the bowl.
Swirling her hair up into a loose bun she thought, “Well that’s it. I’m done for the day, time to unwind with some coffee.”
The ping of an incoming mail halted her hand that was stretched to pick up a mug.
“Oh well, perhaps not. I guess I’d better see what it’s about.” She thought walking back to take her seat.
There was another mail in her inbox. She clicked it open. It read…
I don’t know who to turn to.
Two years back I met my boyfriend. He came across as charming, extremely courteous and caring. I admit I was swept off my feet. A year and a half into our relationship, I moved in with him. However, since then he has turned into a person I no longer recognize. He controls me, my activities and my entire life. I am neither allowed to work nor have friends. From a caring boyfriend, he has turned into a possessive manic. He has become physically abusive.
Yesterday, I was late coming home from the grocery store. When I got back he took a knife to my throat, accused me of cheating on him and threatened to kill me. He monitors my every move.
I have tried to leave, to run away but he finds me every time. His buddies help him to track me. Recently, I learnt that he did this to his wife too, before she disappeared.
I am petrified. I was raised in foster homes. I have no family to turn to. What should I do? I have no money and no resources. I fear that one day he will kill me.
Help me, please.
P.S. – I forgot to mention, my boyfriend is a police man.
Anne’s blood froze as she read the mail. Memories of a previous life came rushing back. The walls of the basement seemed to close in on her. She clutched a hand to her throat, a vain effort to get more air. She felt claustrophobic. Unsteadily she got up from her chair, stumbled, and then steadying herself she walked and poured herself a glass of water. She was suddenly parched.
Gulping a glass and a half she dabbed at the cold beads of sweat on her forehead. Her heart was racing. The mail told a story she knew only too well.
“God. No, no, no.” She whispered in a daze.
She closed her eyes, a vain attempt to ward off the memories but her mind flew to the past, back nearly a decade to the first time she had met him.
“Hey, watch it or you’ll get crushed in this melee,” said someone.
“Thank you,” said Anne accepting the proffered hand. She looked up. Blue eyes dipped in concern gazed back at her. “He’s dreamy,” she thought mischievously, taking in his uniform.
“You have to be careful at these society galas. The fans will go to any lengths to catch a glimpse of their idols,” he said, clarifying.
“Oh I know. I am used to this. I work as a correspondent for Idolize Magazine. I’m Anne, by the way.” She said by way of introduction.
“Officer Richard Martin.”
“Well, thanks again officer. It was nice to meet you.” Anne said, bidding him bye.
Little did Anne know that this would be the first of many meetings. Officer Martin sought her out via the magazine office. She had been flattered. No one had ever shown such interest in her. She had been raised in foster homes and had worked at multiple jobs to pay for college. Love was an emotion that she was not well versed with. No one in her life had ever shown her any.
Officer Richard Martin had come across as a charming and caring man. Initially gun shy about a relationship, Anne had let down her defences eventually. He had inundated her with flowers and candle light dinners. She had been literally swept off her feet. No one had ever cared this much for her, ever. For the first time in her life she felt like she belonged. The feeling had made her feel special. He too had grown up in the foster system. They had bonded further over a common background. They had connected.
“Is this what love feels like?” she had mused once basking in the glow of Richard’s attention.
Soon Richard had proposed marriage. She had been elated. Being married to him and having a decent job was what she wanted at that point in time. It was like a dream come true. Life was finally paying her its dues.
The initial few months of matrimony had been bliss. Richard proved to be a considerate husband. He was extremely protective of Anne, always calling to check up on her at work and at home. She had never had anyone care so deeply for her or check up on her. She had found that quality endearing.
What had seemed like protectiveness had turned to possessiveness. Richard started exhibiting a controlling streak that bordered on sociopathic behaviour. Matrimony soon became a nightmare for Anne. She was forced to give up her job. Richard started controlling her movements. He started drinking and was mean when drunk. From an easy going, charming person, he became hot headed and verbally abusive.
Anne had grown up in New York. She had relocated to California for her job, met and married Richard there. The few friends that she had were back in New York. With nowhere to go, she had initially dismissed Richard’s attitude, had even tried to help him but she could not ignore it after he resorted to physical abuse.
She had tried to end the marriage then but that had infuriated Richard. It had led to another inevitable round of physical abuse. She had tried to file a police complaint too on a couple of occasions but Richard’s buddies at the station had laughed at her. To them he was the most easy going and courteous guy. They refused to believe her.
Richard was crafty. He knew exactly where to hit her so the bruise would not show. His abuse did not leave any physical marks, just deep emotional scars.
Finally left with no other option, one day she had packed her bags and run. Run from his clutches. Run from her sorry life. She had literally fled across the country, finally landing back in New York at her college friend Sarah’s doorstep.
That had been seven years back. Sarah had been a gem. She had bolstered Anne’s spirits and helped her build her life back. She had shared her story with and introduced her to Lydia, the editor of a leading women’s magazine. Recognizing her talent, Lydia had offered her a job as a features writer. Anne had accepted on the condition that she be allowed to work off location, from home.
Lydia in an effort to shield her further had given her the pseudonym Melanie. She had even helped Anne rent a small basement apartment under the magazine’s name. No one could link Anne to either the magazine or the apartment. Lydia made sure that her identity remained safe. She had been a God send to Anne.
A talented Anne had soon proven her worth. Lydia had suggested she take over the advice column when their regular columnist had resigned. That is how “Ask Melanie” came to be.
Bit by bit Anne had picked up the pieces of her life. She rarely left her apartment for fear of being recognized. What if, Richard found her again? The very thought made her shudder, gave her sleepless nights. Even though she had not heard from him in years, she still lived in abject fear. Her fear made her wary of strangers. She was constantly looking over her shoulder, constantly alert. The basement apartment was her haven, her refuge. It was small and sparsely furnished but it was home. In there she found both solace and purpose via her column.
“Trrriiiinng. Trrriiiinng.” The ring of the telephone jolted Anne out of her reverie. The glass fell from her grasp and smashed on the floor, breaking into shards.
“Damn!” she said a hand to her heart. The sudden ring had scared her.
“Hello?” she spoke into the receiver, picking up the phone at her desk.
“Anne? It’s me Lydia.”
“Lydia! Hi! How are you?” said Anne, relieved to hear a friendly voice at the other end.
“Anne, it’s over. It’s finally over.”
“What’s over Lydia?” asked Anne, momentarily nonplussed.
“Richard, Anne. Richard’s over. You are free. You don’t have to squirrel yourself away in that puny basement apartment. You don’t need to hide anymore. You are free Anne, free,” finished Lydia, her voice laden with emotion.
“Whaaaat?” whispered Anne into the phone, falling into her seat. “What happened? How can you be so sure Lydia? Is it really true?”
“It’s all over the news Anne. I just caught a report. Richard was stabbed last night by his girlfriend. Apparently, it was self defence. She claims that he was drunk, held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her. She grabbed a kitchen knife to defend herself. One thing led to another and she stabbed him. He’s dead, Anne, really dead.”
“Lydia, Oh my God. I don’t know what to say. Oh God, Lydia, really?” asked Anne, babbling in her bewilderment.
“Yes! Yes! Sit tight. I’m on my way over, be there in ten minutes.”
Transfixed, Anne held on to the phone for a while even after Lydia disconnected. Her eyes welled up and tears of relief cascaded down her cheeks. She felt dazed and numb. Could it be true? Could Richard really be dead? Was she free? Really free, finally after all this time?
Gradually sanity returned. Cradling the receiver she steadied her frenzied nerves. Her gaze returned to her computer screen.
“Oh my God. No, no. Please God, don’t let this be this girl,” she moaned fearfully, clutching the armrest of her chair.
Frantically she scanned the mail for clues. There were none to the identity of the sender, or her location. There was no clue to connect Grace to Richard.
“Could there be a connection? Or am I over thinking this?” thought Anne, painfully aware of the fact that even though she was free, Grace, if she was indeed Richard’s girlfriend, was stuck for life. Thinking of Grace’s plight brought forth a fresh wave of tears. She sank her head down on her desk and sobbed. Relief mingled with concern bubbled up to release wave after wave of misery and the tears just flowed, until she lay with her head on the desk, spent.
The knock at the door startled her, even before she heard the peal of the bell.
“Anne, open up. It’s me, Lydia,”
“Oh Lydia,” said Anne opening the door and literally flinging herself into Lydia’s arms.
“Whoa! Get a grip on yourself girl. I know the news is a shock but good riddance, right? Richard does not deserve your tears,” said Lydia, holding her close.
“No, No. It’s not that. I received a mail from a girl called Grace. She describes her boyfriend as someone who could be Richard, a policeman, who threatened to kill her. I, I think she could be Richard’s girlfriend.”
“What? When did you receive this mail?” asked Lydia, a frown of concern on her brow.
“Just a while back, do you think it could be the same person?” questioned Anne.
“Dear Lord, girl. Get a grip on yourself. Richard was killed last night. His girlfriend has been in police custody since then. No way is she this Grace,” said Lydia, relieved. “Seriously now, you need to get back to your life Anne. You are finally free. No need to hide anymore in this basement apartment.”
“Oh thank God. I feared for Grace.”Enlightened, Anne looked at Lydia. “You are right Lydia. I don’t need to hide anymore. I don’t need to live in perpetual fear.”
“Yes Anne. Life beckons, sans the shadow of the past.”
“Yes Lydia. It’s time to start living.”
Later that evening Anne wrote back to Grace pledging her support. Over the course of the next few days she researched about organizations rehabilitating domestic abuse victims. She contacted “Futures Without Violence” (FWV – a global organization aiming to advance the health, stability, education, and security of women and girls worldwide) and successfully rehabilitated Grace into a protective skill development program.
Image – Clint Patterson via unsplash