(Recipient of an Honorable Mention in Best Horror Of The Year Volume One, edited by Ellen Datlow)
The town was called Pushkar and it clung to the edge of the desert near the shadow of Nag Pahar, the Snake Mountain. Pushkar circled a lake, an oasis supposedly formed from a lotus blossom dropped by Brahma, if you believed in all that shit. I wondered why high white walls crowned with broken glass surrounded the New Sunrise Hotel.
The only reason I was there was because I couldn't stand another six hours on the road to Jaisalmer. I had been suffering from the joys of exotic travelâ€”hot flushes and chillsâ€”and desperately needed to find accommodation for a few days until my affliction passed.
A brawny Indian sweating in a faded uniform guarded the iron gates leading to the courtyard. He ushered me inside with a grunt. The shotgun he brandished did little to alleviate my unease. The hot winter sun glared off its shiny barrels.
The courtyard inside was surprisingly lush, with low wooden seats nestled amongst manicured gardens. Large palms provided shade from the persistent heat, and the rooms on the second floor had balconies overlooking the courtyard. A stone fountain gurgled in the centre of the garden. Several Westerners clad in colourful hippy gear lounged around smoking cigarettes and eating fruit.
A young boy in the early bloom of acne leaned on the reception desk reading a comic. Behind him, a cheap-looking scimitar was mounted on the wall, partially obscuring a faded poster of Vishnu. The boy pushed the guestbook lazily towards me without looking up. I wrote in a fake name.
'Single, fifty rupees. With bathroom, one hundred rupees,' the boy droned.
'Bathroom.' I pushed a pile of dirty rupees onto the page of his comic.
He looked up and stared at me with dark, lifeless eyes. The edges of the room seemed to twist and then snap back into reality as he dropped a key onto the counter. I reached for the key, needing its cold metallic touch, suddenly unsure of myself, of where I was and, even more importantly, who.
Something large moved in the shadows of the reception room. Something watching, wanting....
A knock at the door. I awoke with a dull ache in the back of my head.
Dusk had crept into the courtyard and shadows fluttered into the room. The air inside was cooler than before. Another knock, this time harder.
'Hello?' I climbed off the bed and pulled on a shirt.
'It is me,' said a voice behind the door. 'Harry.'
Christ, what was he doing here? I hid the whiskey bottle under the pillow and hoped the room didn't stink of hashish. 'What do you want?'
'I have a gift for you.' A pause. 'And we need to talk.'
She sat cross-legged near the water's edge, up on the ghats, staring at the sunset. She waved and beckoned me over. I climbed up the steps, the stone worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims' wet feet. My stomach fluttered as I approached and again I had that sense of the surreal, as if I'd been here before, with her blue eyes locked on mine, an embrace deeper than a lover's.
Sometimes, in a moment of vulnerability, I'd experienced this when meeting someone for the first time. That deep acknowledgement, a subconscious pull of mutual attraction. But never the feeling without meeting first.
'Hi,' I said, trying to keep my voice cool, staunch, wise. Travelled. 'I'm Shane.'
'Hello,' she said. A soft English accent, maybe London. 'Please sit; we don't have much time.'
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