Fiction

Channel 22
- Smita Bhattacharya

The TV came on at 2.00 am.

 

It was only by chance that the mother woke up. She was thirsty and needed a sip of water. As she got out of bed, she heard the faint sound of static from downstairs. Surprised, she walked out; noticed her son’s bedroom door open and his bed empty.

‘What the hell?’ she muttered. She hurried down the stairs, almost tripping over Happy Bunny.

 

She saw her son, standing still as a pole, as if rooted to the spot.

 

‘What do you think you’re doing, young man?’ she demanded.

 

She didn’t notice at first how close he was to the TV, how tense his body was, how focused his eyes. His palms were laid flat on the television screen, outspread, as if soaking in its warmth. The TV was an old analogue black and white model they were planning to sell off soon. Apparently, newer models had come into the market that displayed in colour and were sleeker in appearance. The neighbours had just purchased one. The father couldn’t wait to get his hands on a similar, hopefully better version.

But what was he doing here now, in front of the TV so late at night?

 

She rubbed her eyes and walked forward. On reaching him she pushed him away gently And bent down to look.

 

There was nothing extraordinary. Another one of those useless kiddie programmes he insisted on watching every day. they had snivelling kids in them. Silly laughter. Sillier games. Rhymes. Cartoons.

 

Except for…wait a minute…except…

 

…what was happening here?

 

It was 2.00 in the morning. Nothing was supposed to be on.

 

And why weren’t these two kids doing anything? They were just standing there, faces pressed against the glass. Palms on the screen. Bloodshot eyes. Pale, stretched skins. Swollen lips.

 

She looked closer.

 

There were two girls. They looked alike. Probably twins. They wore frilly white frocks and had white ribbons in their hair. They seemed to be seven or eight years old.

 

They stared back at her. Then…one moved closer. The other followed. Their faces grew in size, like balloons being blown up. Their eyes were unblinking. A placid, wondering smile played upon their lips.

 

The mother took a quick step back. Her skin crawled.

 

This didn’t look normal.

 

‘What’s the show called?’ she whispered to her son.

 

The boy did not respond.

 

‘Tell me,’ she snapped, sharper than she’d intended. But her heart had begun to thump hard in her chest and she couldn’t help herself.

 

He muttered something under his breath.

 

‘What?’ she asked. ‘Speak louder.’

 

‘Don’t know,’ he said, his eyes fixed on the screen. ‘There’s no name. Only them.’ Then he looked up at his mother with a question on his face.

 

‘How is the TV on at this time?’ she asked him sternly, with her hands on her hips. ‘Did you switch it on?’

 

He shook his head, looking sorrowful. ‘It was on when I came down,’ he said. ‘I heard it from my bedroom and woke up.’

 

She stared at him, wondering what to make of this story. He moved his eyes away to look at the screen. She turned hers along with his.

 

The picture was hazy now -- as though waves were crashing against the monitor.

 

Whine. Whirr. Static.

 

The girls were gone.

 

Then they came on again, parts of them, and then whole bodies.

 

A number of dots swam around them, sliced through them, cutting them into pieces. Then they put them together again.

 

Sliced again. Back again.

 

Crack. Rattle. Static.

 

‘Which channel is this?’ the mother asked.

 

The boy said nothing. He  merely stood there transfixed.

 

She fiddled with the TV’s knobs.

 

‘Twenty two,’ she murmured. Then her head jerked up. She had caught a movement from the corner of her eye. Her eyes were now riveted to the screen

 

The girls were moving now, swaying from side to side. They seemed to be saying something too, but no sound came out.

 

Then one of the twins reached out to wipe the screen in front of her.

 

Mother and son yelled together and took a couple of steps back. It was like the girl was reaching out of the screen. Reaching out for them.

 

But the screen had cleared. They could see the girls better now.

 

It was odd, the mother thought. She felt like she was looking at her own reflection. Only it wasn’t her on the other side. It was her split in two and turned back twenty years.

 

She moved closer. The girls moved closer.

 

She batted her eyes. The girls did too.

 

So odd. So…, she swallowed, so off.

 

Then clearing her throat, she turned to her son.

 

‘Go to bed.’

 

‘But Ma…’

 

‘Now,’ she ordered. Then she reached out to turn off the TV. ‘Go.’ Her voice was tight with tension. She held his shoulders, turned him around and prodded him to leave.

 

Throwing a baleful glance at his mother, he walked up the stairs slowly. After a few minutes, she followed. Once midway up the stairs, she looked down once. But the TV just sat there, its pale green glass gleaming gently in the dark.

 

The next time was four days later.

 

The three of them were up this time -- Mother, father and son -- staring at the screen with their chests puffed up and arms stiff by their sides.

 

‘Are you going to do something about it?’ the mother asked the father.

 

‘I’ll call the cable guy today,’ he muttered. He hadn’t believed her when she had told him.

 

They had woken up at 2.00 am for the last four days, but the TV had been off. Their son had been asleep. There had been no disturbance.

 

But today…

 

The sound of static pushed in through the fog of her sleep; she had begun to sleep lightly anyway. She walked down to find her son there already. The father followed soon after.

 

It was the same two girls on the screen. The mother saw them more clearly this time. They were twins, no doubt. Two ponytails of shiny hair. Doe like eyes. Pug noses. Thin lips. Boyish, waif like bodies. Faces pale and blemish free.

 

Even though she saw the features better now, a thin cellophane like sheen covered everything. A greenish-purple shade. As if a bucket of dirty water had been poured over the screen. Or over them.

 

Her pulse raced.. The gooseflesh refused to settle.

 

‘What’s that behind them?’ she asked, pointing to the screen.

 

The father peered closer. A frown sprang on his face. ‘It looks like an open notebook,’ he said, ‘but the top….is like a TV screen and the bottom has buttons…And those things on the screen…they….’ He squinted and saw lights flicker, patterns form, points shift. ‘…seem to be moving.’ His eyebrows arched up in surprise. ‘Is it a TV? Or a toy of some sort?’ He scratched behind his ear. ‘Never seen anything like that.’

 

‘The set looks…,’ the mother started.

 

‘It’s their room,’ the boy interrupted her.

 

‘Yes, but they’re on TV. So, it’s a set, right?’ the mother said with a slight edge to her voice.

 

‘And it doesn’t look like your room at all.’

 

It didn’t. It was a room of straight, clean lines unlike the boy’s pastel, patterned one. In fact, everything around the girls had a strange shape. It was sleek, pointed and austere. Long tubular lights instead of lamps. Shiny fixtures on the walls they did not recognize. Posters with people in funny clothes; fancy cars, odd shaped buildings. It was not like anything they had seen before.

 

‘Like a sci-fi movie,’ the father breathed. ‘Is it a sci-fi channel?’ He turned to his son. ‘Is it?’

 

The boy shook his head.

 

There was a brief silence.

 

‘What’s happening on the show?’ the father asked. ‘What’s the story?’

 

The boy shrugged. His mother shrugged. They went back to staring at the screen. Scowls appeared on their faces.

 

The two girls stared right back at them.

 

At exactly 2.30 am, the television turned off on its own. When they switched it on again,there was only snow and static on channel 22.

 

The next time was five days later.

 

The three were up again, staring at the television screen.

 

The visual was muddled this time, more so than usual. As if it were raining hard on the other side. Drops of water appeared and disappeared. The girls wiped them away with their hands. Flat, white palms pressed against the screen, moving from side to side. Ghostly white on murky green. So close that one could see the lines on them.

 

The father had told the mother already but said again, ‘Nothing’s supposed to be happening on channel 22. No channel’s broadcasting on it.’ At least that’s what the cable guy had told him. He couldn’t explain it. And the father hated anything that couldn’t be explained. ‘No one else has complained either,’ he added.

 

‘Then what…?’ But the words wouldn’t come out. She struggled to speak.

 

It didn’t come as a surprise to her when he told her. She knew something odd was happening from the moment she had laid her eyes on that damn channel, at the two pale, ghost-like girls who appeared to be sleepwalking.

 

‘Zombies,’ her son whispered as if he’d heard her thoughts.

 

She shivered. Her husband shuffled his feet, looking worried.

 

After that, they saw the girls again five more times. They woke up at 2.00 am as a ritual, as if to attend a midnight movie screening. Invisible fingers pried their eyes open, pushed their bodies from the bed and prodded them downstairs. When they came down, the TV was already on, and the girls were on it, moving, swaying, pointing, sometimes making faces, sometimes mouthing words they couldn’t hear.

 

The three stood transfixed, watching, their minds numb and bodies stiff.

 

At exactly  2.30., the TV went off.

 

The mother wondered if they should talk to someone about it. But they would be considered mad.

 

Are we going mad?

 

Then the last time was a month from when it all started.

 

‘Ma! Ma!’ the boy screamed.

 

‘What?’ The mother hurried down the stairs to join him.

 

‘Ma, they’re disappearing,’ he shouted, pointing at the TV set.

 

‘What’s disappearing?’ she asked, not comprehending yet.

 

‘The girls,’ he yelled. ‘They’re going.’

 

She ran to him. The father followed.

 

There was a loud crack. The screen seemed to go opaque.

 

The girls were nowhere to be seen.

 

‘Where are they?’ the mother asked and blinked hard. She realized it was panic rather than relief she was feeling.

 

 

Therewas a sound of the shattering of glass. Then…something else…like a clap of thunder. She almost jumped out of her skin.

 

 

The screen grew dark.

 

Then they saw it together…a small hole appear at the centre. Cracks sprang from it and spread all over.

 

The mother reached forward and touched the screen.

 

There was a loud boom.

 

They stepped back in shock. The boy toppled over and fell on the floor.

 

They screamed together.

 

***

 

They screamed on the other side. Fifty years later. There was a tear in the space-time continuum.

 

‘What are you doing?’ the girl yelled.

 

‘They have to go,’ her twin yelled back. ‘How else can we make them go?’

 

‘Not like this,’ she gasped as the second crack appeared. ‘What will mom say?’

 

The hand with the hammer stopped midway.

 

‘I don’t know,’ her twin mumbled. ‘We’ll tell her the storm rattled the windows and made the glass break.’

 

They had been watching the ghosts grow, first as shadows, then as fully formed beings -- with faces, eyes, expressions, movements.

 

Almost human. But they were not. How could they be?

 

The boy came first. Scraggly hair, watery eyes, plump cheeks. Purple lips agape. He wore a striped yellow shirt or an oversized blue shirt. He had tried to touch them, reach out to them. Once or twice, he had said something but they couldn’t hear him.

 

The woman came next. She always looked angry. She wall, thin and bony. She was in a shapeless brown nightdress, staring at them with shifty eyes, pointing her fingers At them and moving towards them as if to wring their necks. She scared them.

 

The man came last. He was short and stocky. Curious. He had tapped on the window one time, and the sound had rattled them. They had had nightmares for days after that.

 

When she saw them the first time, she thought she was dreaming. Her mother told her she was. Then she showed her sister and she confessed she had been seeing them for a while but was afraid to talk about it.

 

They didn’t tell anyone. No one believed in ghosts anymore. They would only be laughed at.

 

And now this was the only way.

 

Holding the hammer together, they struck the final blow. The glass shattered and fell on the lawn below. A shower of shards followed. Tinkling. A pleasant, musical sound.

 

‘There,’ she said, rubbing her palms together, staring into the darkness outside the gaping hole on the second floor of their house. The window on which the ghosts appeared. ‘They’re gone.’

.........................................................................................

Smita is an award winning short story writer based out of Mumbai. Her short stories have appeared in Indian and international newspapers, publications and anthologies. Though, seeking to write the next big novel, she considers short stories her pièce de résistance. Smita works as a consultant and travels the world. When not working, and sometimes even when, she stares out of coffee shop windows and wonders about the hidden stories behind the passing faces.