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Welcome to OBSCURUS, your weekly dose of paranormal fiction. Every Wednesday OBSCURUS features new short stories and serialized novels written by novelist, screenwriter, and voice-over artist Biswajit Banerjee. The realm of the paranormal stretches far beyond the usual horror story. So, while you will get to listen to lots of ghost stories on this podcast, there will also be many tales of lesser-known paranormal themes. To get us started, here's your host Biswajit Banerjee.
Hello and welcome to OBSCURUS. My name is Biswajit Banerjee, and I am your host for this show. What if you look up in the mirror to find a reflection without a head? Well, in today’s story, our protagonist finds herself in exactly that situation. We will know more about it soon when the tale starts.
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Now, it’s time to start the story. Samantha’s reflection in the mirror is without a head. She has no idea why? Come, let’s find out.
WHERE HAS THE HEAD GONE? 00:03:07
Written and Performed by Biswajit Banerjee
A sweet and uplifting folk tune played — it was the alarm. Samantha's fingers went over the clock, and when she was about to press the 'snooze' button, she remembered the visit to the steel sheet factory scheduled at ten-thirty in the morning. If Samantha didn't get up now, she might not make it in time to the factory.
"Monday is such a curse," she said and sat down. As she pushed the hair behind her ears, Samantha glanced at the picture of her parents on the wall to her right. "Hi Dad, hi Mom, be happy and blessed wherever you are now," Samantha said and tied her long hair. More than a decade back, she lost her parents to a plane crash. At that time, Samantha was an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. Her parents were on their way to see her but ended up as unidentifiable burnt bodies in an arid terrain. Wishing well for her departed parents had become a morning ritual.
After moving out of the bed, she put on her slippers and ambled across the bedroom floor to the washroom.
Samantha switched on the lights and made her way to the sink to wash her face. Splashes of cold water washed away the remaining sleep from her eyes. When she looked up in the mirror, she paced a step back at the shock of seeing an image without a head! But her head was in place — she moved her fingers over her cheeks and hair. Yes, indeed, she was alive with a head. But the image before her didn't show the head — it was as if someone had photo-edited her image in the mirror. Samantha rubbed her eyes and looked back at the reflection in the mirror. Now, the image was fine — the head was back.
What the hell just happened? Did she see the snippet of a horrific dream that would follow if she continued to sleep? Or was she sleeping now, and what just happened was a part of a dream world she was still in. No, this was no dream. Without a doubt, she was awake. Although her reflection was no longer headless, she couldn't put behind what she witnessed moments back.
As she got ready for the factory visit, Samantha kept thinking about the headless reflection. The breakfast of porridge and fruit juice seemed tasteless. How could what happened be explained? Or did it happen at all? Perhaps it was a false vision — some illusion. The ring of her mobile phone pulled her out of the ruminations. Oh, it was Mr. John Crawford, her boss.
"Hello, yes, John."
"Why haven't you come to the factory?"
"But you asked me to come at 10.30 a.m.; I will be there in time."
"Don't play these stupid jokes on me, Samantha."
"Check the time now — it is close to eleven."
"What! It was around nine a moment back."
"Oh yes, Samantha; that moment must have been a couple of hours back."
"Enough, you have let me down today, Samantha. This visit was important."
"Well, please be there ... I will join you in a while."
"How much time will you take?"
"Not more than forty-five minutes."
"Then, there's no need to come. The factory manager will leave in about half an hour — he has to attend a meeting in the head office. And he doesn't get late for site visits and meetings like some of my junior colleagues."
"Oh, I am really sorry, John. Maybe you could speak to the factory manager about the changes we need to make to the dimensions of the steel sheets. I promise — I will regularly follow up with him and visit the factory every week to ensure that the production is happening in accordance with the given specifications. Please, don't be mad at me."
A momentary silence followed, during which she sensed that John was still on the line.
"Okay, I will do what I can; see me in the office by one.
"Perfect, and sorry again for what happened."
The meeting in John's chamber didn't go well.
"As a subject expert, you should have been there to explain the things pictorially to the factory manager and the principal supervisors.
"I have already apologized for what happened in the morning, John. I am genuinely upset about the morning events."
"You being unhappy does not help the company in the least. I am warning you, Samantha — do not let the company and me down like this again."
"Hold on, John, don't you think you are getting too harsh with me. Look at all the good work I have done so far. Only because of the innovative designs I suggested for the moderate-sized steel sheets, the company made huge gains in the first quarter of the year."
"Oh, come on, that was the first quarter …"
"And how about my suggestions about the coating changes on the steel sheets? By following these suggestions, the company increased its sales considerably. And this happened in the second quarter."
"Yes, I know, but why would you wish to bask in the past glory rather than focusing on the future. Samantha, you must give a hundred percent of yourself to the present and the future."
"No, John, this is unacceptable. The warning was a big insult; someone who has contributed so much to the company's growth doesn't deserve to be warned like that. And what you just said is a bigger insult. Are you suggesting I am not giving my hundred percent to the company? So, what if I have missed one important meeting with the factory manager and the principal supervisors?"
"Well, I believe these arguments are leading us nowhere. Let's get down to work."
With her heart burning with the affronts, Samantha walked out of John's chamber.
In the evening, she went to see Dr. Joseph Andrews, a renowned and probably the senior-most ophthalmologist in the town. The junior doctors first performed the basic eye tests. About fifteen minutes later, a clinic attendant asked her to meet Dr. Andrews in his chamber.
Samantha knocked at the chamber's door and pushed it open.
"Good evening, Doctor," she said, walking in.
Dr. Andrews must have been close to seventy. The unkempt gray hair and eyes with deep-set bags visible through glasses gave him the appearance of an old intellectual.
"Good evening, Miss Cameron, please sit down."
After Samantha narrated her morning experience to him, the old ophthalmologist spent a minute pondering over what he heard.
"Well, Miss Cameron, I have looked through the reports of the junior doctors who performed your basic eye tests. Those reports are normal. Apparently, there's no defect in the eyes or the visual mechanism that could trigger the terrible morning experience. One possible reason why it happened could be the blurriness in a part of the field of vision. Perhaps the blurred head of the image gave the impression it was headless."
"Such a thing never happened before. What could cause such blurriness, Doctor?"
"Several reasons could cause blurriness in vision. For example, sleeping on one's face might result in a condition called floppy eyelid syndrome, causing blurry vision in the morning. Some people take antihistamines, sleeping pills, cold pills, or blood pressure drugs before sleeping. Such medications can also cause blurry visions after they wake up."
"But Doctor, neither do I sleep on my face, nor do I take any medicines before going to bed."
"Sorry about asking this — did you take alcohol last evening?"
"Do you have any issues with blood sugar?"
"At least I don't know of it."
The doctor gazed at the ceiling, almost seeming to scan the list of possible reasons.
"Okay, tell me, Miss Cameron, do you sleep directly under a fan?"
"Well, the fan is not too far off from where I sleep."
"Sometimes, a ceiling fan could dry one's eyes even when they are closed. This could also cause blurry vision."
"Doctor, are you suggesting a ceiling fan caused the experience?"
"No, Miss Cameron, I can only speculate. There's no way I could give you the perfect reason as to why the strange experience happened."
Samantha went over the explanations given by Dr. Andrews in her mind — none of the possible causes explained by him sounded convincing. It also struck her that the problem couldn't have been caused by blurriness in vision. The head of her reflection wasn't blurred or smudged — it was simply not there!
"With all due regards to what you said, Doctor, the head of the image didn't appear blurred. Instead, there was a blank transparent space. The things through the transparent space were clearly visible — I saw the open door and the bedroom wall that faced the door. Also, I remember spotting the digital calendar on the wall. All these images were visible through the blank space."
"Is your professional life stressful, Ms. Cameron?"
"Yes, it is, Doctor."
"Then the best explanation I can give you is what you saw was an optical illusion caused due to stress. A human brain is a powerful instrument — it can play strange tricks on a person, which are in reality no more than illusions but appear to be real. It seems you need proper rest, Ms. Cameron. Though I understand the office work is demanding and often beyond your control, you should make a conscious effort to keep your nerves cool. I hope you won't see a headless image of yours again."
"Thank you, Doctor."
The job pressures mounted up as she had to pay visits to the steel factory almost every second day over the following weeks. Besides, she also spent a considerable amount of time each week to check whether the changed dimensions of the thick sheets of steel were useful for the various purposes for which they were being manufactured. Keeping one's nerves cool in such difficult professional situations was easier said than done. While the strain and the tight deadlines were already difficult to deal with, John made her job stiffer by asking her to submit weekly progress reports, which needed a considerable amount of time to prepare.
Samantha joined weekend classes on yoga and meditation, but they didn't help her relax in the stressful office atmosphere. One day while she was working on a high-end software in her chamber trying to see if minute alterations to the design of the steel sheets could make them more durable and useful, Samantha got a call on her intercom. John wanted to see her at once.
"Look, you didn't mention in the last weekly progress report if you are meeting the factory manager and the two principal supervisors on a regular basis."
"Isn't it obvious, John? Without meeting them, how could I have reported on the outcomes of the tests we performed on the sheets?"
"Don't expect me to read between the lines, Samantha. The report must be explicit — it must be in the shape of a speaking note, a note that tells me what you are doing."
The impulse John's words generated in Samantha was to hit back — to tell him to stay out of what she was doing as it was too technical for him to handle. But deeds of that nature went against the State's company employee conduct rules, the rules she had agreed to abide by when she accepted the job. Misbehaving with an immediate senior would be construed as a violation of one or more of the conduct rules with the result that her job would be terminated. This being one of the major companies that dealt with the work she had specialized in, Samantha couldn't afford to get removed. Termination would spoil her professional record to the degree whereby no other company dealing with the kind of work she did would employ her. The State company rules often favored moron bosses like John, who had little idea of the technical skills of workers like Samantha that went into running a company. All these bosses knew were generic management principles they picked up from the business schools they studied in. Why do generalists often rule over specialists was beyond Samantha's understanding.
The same piece of rural music woke her up the next day. After wrapping the gown around her, she turned towards the photograph of her parents. "Hi Dad, hi Mom, be happy and blessed wherever you are now," she said, tying her hair and moving out of the bed. After sliding her feet into her slippers, she slowly walked into the washroom and splashed foamy cold water on her eyes. Horror followed when she looked up in the mirror!
No head again! Samantha moved her fingers over her cheeks and hair. Well, she had a head, no doubt, but it didn't show in the mirror. And through the transparent mirror space where the image head should have been, the open door and the part of the bedroom wall that faced the door were visible. So was the digital calendar on the wall. Something was wrong with the mirror image of the date it displayed. Within a second, Samantha realized that the date it showed was the nineteenth of August, whereas the correct date was the ninth of August. The display of the digital calendar, it seemed, had gone defective.
Samantha turned around to check the date displayed on the calendar. Ninth of August! But the mirror image she just spotted wasn't that of the ninth of August. Now, she turned towards the mirror to check the mirror image of the date. Well, Samantha couldn't see it. The reflection of her head blocked what the digital calendar displayed. Yes, indeed, the image of the head was back! So, she moved her head a little to check the reflection of the date in the mirror. The image she caught in the mirror was that of the ninth of August! Everything had gotten back to normal.
At the breakfast table, as she bit into the toast slices, with the thoughts of the second experience hovering in her mind, in a near replication of what happened on the day she had the first horrific experience, the ring of the mobile phone brought her out of the musings. Yet again, the screen flashed 'Mr. John Crawford.'
"How long can the company pay the price for your indiscipline, Samantha?"
"What? I don't understand, John."
"Shame on you, Samantha. Are you not aware of the meeting with the senior executives?"
"Of course, I am aware. It is scheduled at ten in the office conference room."
"So, why are you not here?"
"John, it is just about nine. Rest assured, I will be there in time."
"What the hell, Samantha; it is ten-thirty already."
"But my watch …"
"Get your watch repaired, Samantha. I am giving you the final warning. If you miss another meeting or site visit, I will ensure that you get terminated."
John disconnected the phone. Samantha glanced at her wristwatch. Indeed, the time was ten-thirty. Oh, she got so absorbed in her thoughts that she lost track of time. But John's reaction was again harsher than required. Everyone present in the conference room for the meeting must have heard John yelling at her. How humiliating!
By the time Samantha arrived at the office, the meeting with the senior executives was over. She went straight to John's chamber.
"Sorry again, John, this shouldn't have happened. You know ..."
Samantha resisted the impulse of telling him about the experiences. If she told John, he would make a laughing-stock out of her in the office. With her falling reputation, she could ill-afford further dent to her stature.
"Is something wrong with your health?"
"Yes, you could say that ... I am a little unwell these days."
"Then consult a doctor. Maybe you could take a day off. Do whatever you need to do to do the office work to the best of your abilities. At the moment, your performance graph is falling."
What a sick thing to say! What a terrible boss to be working with! For sure, except for missing out on the factory visit and the meeting with the senior executives, Samantha's performance had been top class. To be branded as one whose performance graph was falling for these relatively minor issues and ignoring the great things she was doing for the concern revealed John's mindset. No matter what, John would always project her in poor light.
"Are you following what I am saying?"
"And remember, on the third Friday of this month, we have scheduled another factory visit. The purpose is to explain the production process of the steel sheets to the junior executives who have been appointed recently. Although the factory will deploy a production engineer to explain the process as the new entrants watch it happen before their eyes, your presence is also a must. The junior executives might ask questions relating to the production process in the context of our company's work and marketing prospects. Being the subject expert, you will have to answer those questions."
"Indeed, I understand, John. I shall be there without fail."
Training the recruits was not a part of Samantha's job. But to add to her work pressure had been John's old habit. So, the instruction that she should be present at the factory to address the doubts of the recruits, which would surely happen at the cost of her time, thereby making it all the more difficult for her to meet other work deadlines, didn't come as a surprise.
In the evening the same day, she went to see Dr. Andrews again.
"This is no problem with your eyes. What's happening could be illusions."
"You mean I am hallucinating, Doctor."
"Please understand, Ms. Cameron, I cannot tell you for sure what's happening. All I can say is your eyes are fine."
"Then what is your advice for me, Doctor?"
"Perhaps you should seek psychiatric help."
"Can you suggest a doctor to me?"
"Sure, you could meet my good old friend Dr. Rudolf McKenzie. I will send the contact details to your phone."
"Thank you, Doctor."
On the following Saturday, Samantha saw Dr. McKenzie, a senior psychiatrist of around the same age as Dr. Andrews. After a lengthy discussion with her, Dr. McKenzie said, "Miss Cameron, I gather you are under a lot of mental duress. Possibly, this is being caused by your job. The pressure of constantly meeting deadlines and other difficult aspects of your job have badly affected your psyche. That's the reason behind the strange visual hallucinations."
"So, my experiences are hallucinations?"
"Well, they appear to be so, Miss Cameron. Sometimes visual hallucinations are accompanied by auditory hallucinations. Under such conditions, one also hears strange voices and sounds apart from getting to see illusions that appear real. Of course, in your case, there have been no auditory hallucinations either in isolation or in combination with the visual hallucinations, but do not be surprised or afraid if such a thing happens. Such experiences are often caused by a prevalence of negative emotions in your mind. These negative emotions can also be caused by alcohol or drugs. But since you don't have these vices, I conclude the negativity is being entirely caused by your job."
"But Doctor, I cannot afford to quit the job."
"Of course, you cannot quit the job, Miss Cameron. But you got to learn to relax despite the professional pressures you endure."
"Well, I have tried yoga and meditation, but they didn't help me much to deal with the pressure."
"Perhaps you should practice more. It is a good idea to be taking private meditation sessions with a guru. Also, you must sleep well. Remember, any compromises with the sleeping time of eight hours could cause irreparable damages to your psyche. So, please be careful."
"I will try my best."
"Miss Cameron, I will only prescribe a low-dose medicine to help you relax. High doses could make you dizzy and less alert. Consequently, your work could suffer. But I guess things will improve for you."
"Will the medicine stop the hallucinations?"
"When you are relaxed, the chances for hallucinations go down. So, yes, the medicine will help you, but I can't guarantee it will stop these experiences altogether. But even if hallucinations happen, do not be too perturbed. You know the probable cause behind them, don't you? The calmer you manage to keep yourself, the lesser is the possibility for hallucinations."
"Yes, Doctor, I understand."
"Just one more thing — these hallucinations will be inconsequential if you choose to deal with them bravely. Rest assured, these visions are no paranormal activities. No demon or ghost is out there to hurt you. It is just your mind playing tricks. So, you should also learn to live with these experiences if they continue and not let them affect your lifestyle as far as possible."
"Thank you so much, Doctor."
Dr. McKenzie's advice helped. The medicine, too, seemed to be very effective. It made her sleep well without feeling dizzy in the morning. Samantha also started taking private meditation sessions with a learned lady. Within days, she felt calmer and more in charge of herself. And her productivity also went up. The designs she made found appreciation with all her seniors except for John. Besides, the tests on the steel sheets with the new dimensions she had suggested were going very well. Altogether, things appeared to be going her way.
The uplifting folk tune played. As Samantha's fingers moved over the 'snooze' button, she resisted the impulse of pressing it. Time for waking up — it was an important day. The newly appointed junior executives were scheduled to watch the production of steel sheets. Though it wasn't her job to be imparting training, John had instructed her to be present at the factory during the demonstration of the production process of the sheets. But she wasn't too upset about the factory visit. Over the last ten days or so, Samantha had completed most of her projects much ahead of their deadlines. So, helping the young boys and girls understand the production of the sheets wouldn't quite hurt Samantha. Powered by her regular meditation practice and Dr. McKenzie's medicine, she could now take any challenge.
After sitting up, she pushed her hair behind the ears and tied them. "Hi Dad, Hi Mom, be blessed and happy wherever you are," she said and wrapped the gown around her. Samantha got down from the bed and wore her slippers. A body stretch helped her get over the dizzy feeling of the morning. Then she ambled to the washroom.
The splash of the cold water was soothing as always. When she looked up in the mirror, the horror presented itself again. No head! Through the transparent space where the head should have been, the digital calendar on the wall was visible. The mirror image of the date — the nineteenth of August — was easy to read.
"Sick, this is sick," she said and splashed some more water on her eyes.
Samantha checked her reflection. No, the head of the image had not returned.
"Oh, this is all because of mental stress. No, I shall not be afraid — let a million more hallucinations happen. I must get ready for the office — missing the factory visit would give John the opportunity to terminate me. Maybe the fear of the termination is causing the hallucination."
She turned around to move out of the washroom, but somebody pushed her from behind. With a thump, she landed on the bathroom floor. In the next second, all went dark.
A little later, a spot of light emerged in the field of her vision. Soon it got brighter, and Samantha realized it was a lantern in a man's hand. The man raised the lantern. Now Samantha could see the man and the woman standing next to him.
Her parents wore a beatific smile.
"Oh, now I know what has happened," Samantha said, "I am dead, and the two of you have come to take me with you. Thank you, Dad and Mom. In any case, without you, my life was meaningless. And most people around me are like John ... disgusting. Wow, it feels so great to be dead. Let's go; I am ready."
"No, my baby, you are not going anywhere," her father said.
"You are not dead, darling." Samantha's mother responded.
"We are here because you didn't take the hint."
Now, the light turned dimmer, and in a while, her parents were no longer visible.
Samantha got up from the floor.
"What the hell is happening," she whispered as she looked in the mirror again. The image was still headless! Again, she moved her fingers over her cheeks and hair. Her head was in place, but the image didn't have one. As Samantha pondered what she should do next, a new visual drama unfolded. A vague impression of her head appeared in the mirror. Slowly, the impression gained intensity to look like a translucent version of her head's reflection. The intensity grew further till the image of her head appeared fully solid. Now, Samantha's mirror image seemed just the way it should have — a body with a head.
"Is it some damn Hollywood movie going on? This illusion will beat the work of the topmost visual special effects professionals of the movie industry."
She moved her fingers over the swell of her forehead. The image did exactly what she did.
"Dr. Andrews said no demon or ghost is out there to harm me. Then who pushed me to the floor?"
The mobile phone rang to break her train of thoughts again — was there a bigger monster than the phone? And then it struck her — she was supposed to visit the factory. Was she late for it? Perhaps John was on the other side, all ready to load her with stinkers.
She hurried back to the bed and picked up the mobile phone, but the ring died out before she could check the caller's number. The top right corner of the phone's display showed the time — 11.45 a.m.
"John will kill me today," Samantha said as she opened the call log.
There were ten missed calls — all from one number, and the number wasn't that of John. Maybe John didn't have his mobile phone with him and calling from another number. Perhaps this was the production engineer Peter's number.
Samantha dialed the number.
"Hello," she said when the one on the other side accepted the call.
"Hello, Miss Cameron."
"Is it you, Mr. Peter Burke?"
"Yes, Miss Cameron, it's me."
"I am so sorry I couldn't come to the factory today. Actually, I slipped on the washroom floor. Tell John I have a bad injury on my forehead."
"Miss Cameron, please listen to me first ... something terrible has happened."
"What, Mr. Burke?"
"Since you were not here, Mr. John Crawford took it upon himself to answer the questions of the junior executives. He was standing in the place meant for the speaker a little distance away from the production unit. Somehow, the unit malfunctioned, probably caused by the clogging of input data in the command transfer digital device while Mr. Crawford was talking to the recruits. And this caused a sharp steel sheet to rush at him. Then …"
A few moments of silence passed.
"Why aren't you speaking, Mr. Burke? What happened then?"
"A terrible accident — the steel sheet passed right through Mr. Crawford's neck beheading him."
"Are you serious, Mr. Burke?"
"Miss Cameron, I witnessed the dreadful thing happen … so did the twenty junior executives and other people working in the factory. Mr. Crawford met a terrible end."
A few quiet moments passed as Samantha tried sinking the shock in. "Mr. Burke, is that the position where I would have been standing if I were present?"
"Yes, Miss Cameron. You would have been standing in the exact same position where Mr. Crawford stood to interact with the recruits."
"So, that means …"
"Yes, Miss Cameron, if you had come, it would be you instead of Mr. Crawford lying there on the floor with the head separated from the body."
"You mean … I … am alive because I didn't go to the factory."
"Yes, correct, not coming to the factory saved your life. Thank your stars! By the way, I called up not just to inform you about the terrible event but also to tell you that the factory will remain closed for a few days to facilitate a police investigation. Accordingly, your visits to the factory scheduled in the coming week to discuss the sheet designs with the manager will have to be deferred till we are back in action. Don't worry; I will keep you posted on the developments. And again, thank your stars — you are a lucky woman. Bye."
"Bye, Mr. Burke, and thanks."
After hanging up the phone, she strode up and down the room for a few minutes and then stationed herself in front of the photograph of her parents. Now, she knew the reasons behind the headless image in the mirror.
With tears welling up in her eyes, Samantha said, "Dad, Mom, so, the headless image and the reflection of the nineteenth of August in the mirror were hints you gave me. Oh, yes, I understand now — I would go headless if I visited the factory on the nineteenth of August — that's what the two of you wanted to tell me. After John died in the morning today, and I was safe, the head of the image reappeared — an indication that I was safe now. Also, the vision I had of you when I was unconscious was not a dream — you two were really here! Though John's death is disheartening, I guess destiny had decided one of us would go today. And you ensured that I lived. Thanks, Dad, thanks, Mom!
Thanks for listening to OBSCURUS. If you like what you heard, please subscribe and visit biswajitbanerjee.com for more information about Biswajit's books, movies, documentaries, and other creative pursuits. We shall see you next Wednesday with another episode of OBSCURUS. Till then, take care!