“Mummy promise Hundred Taker has seven lives, dyude!”

I could barely make it out in the darkness, but I bet it was Karthik who had uttered that because no one else called The Undertaker “Hundred Taker” with such confidence. My classmates – Karthik, Rohit and Sandeep – had come home for group studies. We had midterms coming up and, as a reward for, well, “studying”, Mi let us play cricket with the rest of the Kalpavriksha gang in the evening. The game had almost wound up by the time we made our way downstairs. In any case, the power had gone out in the whole area, plunging the colony into darkness. Us teenagers weren’t very picky, so we decided to pass the time by playing a game of Trump Cards. Since I was still the new kid on the block, having a reliable backup would hold me in good stead, I thought. Then, my good friend Karthik in all his chutzpah decided to embarrass us newcomers with the “Hundred Taker” remark. Thankfully, I could hide my face better in the darkness.

“Hundred … Taker?” Sriram rolled his eyes. “Yeah, dyudes. From Death Valley, weighing in at three hundred and twenty pounds, etc.…You guys don’t believe me, no?”

“He set his brother on fire it seems!” exclaimed Victor.

“Yeah, he’s a demon from hell it seems,” Chuppu chimed in. Rohit shuddered. The group looked at him quizzically. “The term ‘Demon from Hell’ gave me flashbacks of my old house.” He squirmed. “I’ve seen one.”

“Oh! The graveyard story! That’s a good one, da!” Sandeep nodded encouragingly.

“Well?” Sriram prodded. Everyone was looking at Rohit now. The tone of the conversation had taken a turn as sudden as a motorist going the wrong way on a one-way street and then spotting a cop lying in wait. A transition from the campy and joyful pro-wrestling and pop culture to one of my least favourite genres – creepy campfire tales – was in effect. “When we used to live in my old house, I could see the neighbourhood burial ground from my bedroom window. One evening, I saw an agitated crowd and some police milling about there. It turned out that some idiot from the neighbourhood had buried his wife alive. They were trying to get the body out or something. Crews with machines worked for hours, but they didn’t find anything.” Victor gulped. If I knew my genres, and unfortunately I did, this one always relied on escalations. Presently, one such arose. “That night, the locals lit a few torches and candles around the site. I was staring at the flames from my window 25 for quite some time when –”

“When …?”

“I saw something come out of the ground.”

I admired how Rohit emphasised the disconcerting word masterfully. I may not have been a fan of these stories, but I did love a good storyteller. Rohit certainly was one. What’s more, the crowd was lapping it up. Since it was my friend holding them in thrall, I was looking cool by association. “What was it?” Victor asked eagerly. Time for cooler heads to prevail, I thought, and blurted, “Probably a rat or something.” I could feel the group staring daggers at me. “What, you guys believe all this?” I scoffed, feigning equilibrium. “What, you don’t?” Sriram shot back. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” I was proud of my comeback. It had enough bravado to mask my trepidation for such stories. “I’ll give you points for the reference. But you can’t call yourself a member of this colony, temporary or otherwise, and not believe in the paranormal.” Sriram narrowed his eyes. He shifted in his seat and began.

“Okay, let me initiate you then. Have you heard of Uppavoo’s Fire Dog?” he said ominously.

“Uppa-who?” I was still new to the territory and hence found myself unfamiliar with the characters that came with it.

“Our watchman, Uppavoo,” Sriram illuminated. I nodded. “He used to have a stray friend he called …” He gestured us all to close in. He continued in a hushed tone, “Dragon.” I couldn’t help but let out a tiny chuckle, for which the group shot me disapproving looks again. The crows in the trees around the colony had long ceased to crow, the residents had all retired to their homes. It was just us and the faint clanging of Uppavoo’s staff against the rusty colony gates as Sriram continued.

“Dragon was named so because of a flaming red patch on his back and a bark that was more like a hiss. No one dared go near him – even Uppavoo would only go to him to feed him. This dog showed no affection and asked for none. But Uppavoo, and many of us in the colony, believed that he was our only true watchdog. So many would-be intruders have been dissuaded from entering because of his snarl. The ones that found themselves lucky to have actually made it in, paid a heavy price. I remember once a burglar was trying to scale the pipes at the back of M6. We believed he was going after Seth Ji’s locker.

I remember his screams – like a scalded banshee’s. When the police arrived, they didn’t cuff him. They tried to wrap his legs in blankets. Finally, when they took him away, we saw bite marks on his ankles that looked more like burns.” Audible gasps emanated within the group.

Excerpted with permission from A Boy Called Dustbin, Arjun Krishnakumar, illustrated by Yamini Ravichandran, HarperCollins India.