He had stalked me for days. His lips were rubbery, too large, too wide open, hot-wet and slimy. Gross didn’t begin to describe it. He was taking his time too, as if he was wooing some swooning heroine in some crazy version of a Brontë romance. The worst kiss ever. And his limbs were like bloody suckers, I pushed at him hard but he hung on like one of those tree-huggers. How could this be happening? Why had I allowed it in the first place? I groped for the knife, found it and slashed upwards. He broke away with a repulsive sucking sound that made even my toenails curl.
I sat up, my chest heaving, my heart beating a frantic tattoo against my ribs. My head swam with a potent mix of emotions – disbelief. disgust, outrage, abject terror. I shut my eyes and tried to get a grip. When I opened them again, everything was quiet. Moonlight came in through the blinds and lay in deep slices on the floor. I could see vague dark stains on the bedclothes, they were twisted around my torso in a python-coil. The rest of the room was strangely and chillingly untouched by the upheavals I had just experienced - my clothes were still on the pegs, my books as I had left them on my desk. Only Toddy had fallen out of the cubbyhole and lay spread-eagled on the papers.
I untangled myself slowly from the snarled sheets. Piled the pillows behind my back and half-lounged against them. Not to sleep for the rest of the night felt like a sensible decision.
“Oh look, aren’t they cute?!” Aditi exclaimed.
“Now don’t start that again, Addy,” I was not particularly taken with the clumps of teddy bears and alligators and giraffes the vendor was hawking in the train. She was obsessed with soft toys.
“Aw, c’mon,” she cajoled. “Just look at them. Let me get you one, please. One for you, one for me. Just as a souvenir. Just one last time, okay?”
“Oh, yeah? One last time?” I was sceptical. She said that every time. On every trip.
The vendor meanwhile had spotted a pushover and made his way to where we were sitting. He pointed out the awesomeness of his wares with exaggerated, faintly effeminate gestures, adding fuel to an already blazing fire. I gave in, it was useless to resist. Deal done, Aditi sat back with a sigh and a smile clutching the toys as though she were five instead of twenty-five.
“Oh, they’re just too cute. Don’t you love this vest?”
“Hmm,” I really couldn’t match her enthusiasm.
“What shall we call them?”
“Froddy? Frodo? Freddie? Anything. Your choice, really.”
“Are they frogs or toads?”
“I don’t think frogs come in that muddy colour.”
“I know,” Aditi said with the air of someone having an epiphany, “Toddy! Let’s call this one Toddy. And this can be Muddy.”
I woke abruptly. Daylight was streaming in at the window. The clock on the night-stand read 6:16, the dots pulsing each second, like a pair of blinking evil eyes. A flock of crows had started up their raucous commotion somewhere just outside.
My mouth felt like a dozer had smashed into it. My whole body was a disaster zone, as if it had come through a wringer. Every bone ached. I flung the bedclothes back, there were weird dried stains on them. There was no time to change the sheets. If I didn’t hurry, I would be seriously late, the pick up came at half past. I briefly wondered what kind of night Aditi had had. I pushed away the thoughts that wisped unbidden into my mind. No, that was beyond crazy. I shuddered. Was I going out of my mind? There was little time to ponder, and the workday soon pushed the night’s events out of sight if not completely out of mind.
I saw it when I came back from work and went to lay my bag down as usual. He wasn’t on the desk, not inside the cubbyhole, not where he had fallen on the papers last night, nor on the floor underneath. Not anywhere visible in the room. Scrunched up on one side was the vest, slashed open in a ragged cut where the knife must have gone in and caught the seam. There were dried bloodstains on the vest too. Mine? I swatted away the thought they could be anyone else’s. I picked it up and smoothed it out. The front, I had never really noticed the front, it was the back that was constantly on view as he sat low, squat and fat on all fours. The writing glittered, still undamaged, the words gleaming in the last of the daylight. Prince, in disguise. I read them for the first time. Mouthing the words like a child learning to read. Prince. In. Disguise.