“This is Gautam,” said Farah. Gautam had his finger stuck in his book, the bookmark flat on his thigh. Aaron’s arms were still crossed from his fit at the cafe, but he mumbled hello and sat down on Farah’s pillow.
“Gautam, this is Aaron.” She tilted her head down a little to look up at Gautam cautiously.
“I will talk to you tomorrow, alright?” she said quietly. Thoughts of a new life with this new child circled in only her head, but she wasn’t sure Gautam was ready for them, yet. Let them soak in and refine for her, first, before she tried to translate her plans to him, before she tried to coax him to love this boy, too. Gautam shook his head at her, sad eyes, but said,
“Okay, my love.” He passed a puzzle book to Aaron, but Aaron left it on the floor of the tent and looked up angrily at Farah.
“My mom would have let me have that cake,” he said.
“You said you didn’t have any parents.”
“My old mom,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” said Farah. “Let’s go to sleep for now so we can get up early in the morning.”
“I hate sleeping.”
“You can sleep in between me and Gautam, okay?” She tugged at the collar of the boy’s shirt, the habit of undressing a child flowing back into her fingertips. She remembered the very slight curves of her daughter’s body, and how Anjali felt warm against her back each night they fell asleep together. She was afraid to feel the skin of a strange boy, but told herself again to calm, to remember that this was what one did with a child. When Aaron resisted and kept his shirt pulled down, Gautam said,
“Leave him,” and finally slipped the bookmark back into his book. He rolled over to the very edge of the tent and faced the wall that flapped in sunset wind. Farah undressed as she did every night: camisole folded on top of khakis, mother’s pillbox nestled on top, shoes by the door, sleeping back pulled over the sheet pulled over her bare chest. She stayed awake for a long time, listening to Aaron’s stuffy breathing. He lay in between her and Gautam, touching neither of them. He was splayed out on his back; his arms took up most of the space. Farah pulled her arms in tighter toward herself and thought of Anjali until she fell asleep.
She dreamed in many places that night, but in every dream there were tiger eyes and shining silver circles. She felt again the warmth of her mother and daughter just behind her, maybe as close as to be just behind her eyes. They helped her steer herself between dreams. Brown arms reached out, delicate hands clasped to bridge Farah through the darkness between the moments of color.
The last dream before she woke was of a rustling in the underbrush. Something was moving and shaking leaves bigger than her head. She thought, in the dream, that it was Gautam, but she felt at the same moment her hand on his thick-furred back. And silver lightning shot through everything, waking her with a jolt.
A metal cart clattered by outside the tent. Gautam’s snore ripped through the air near Farah’s ear. But the boy was not between them. Farah looked for his shoes near the door, but they were gone. Dust and a clod of grass was left in their place. She pulled a blanket around herself and stepped outside to look, but in the light morning mist, everything felt like a packed-away carnival.
There was one gray figure moving in the stand where they’d eaten cake last night, but it was too tall to be the boy. The sky was wide and big and high: a high ceiling that Farah knew she’d never touch, but she felt the weight of it anyway. She slipped back into the tent to get away.
All that afternoon, Farah walked, but never too far away from the tent or from Gautam, in case the boy came back. She watched above the heads of people and looked for a small child running toward her, but everything was sleepy syrup moving forward, moving toward the dome at the end, sucking everything that way. Farah had planned to go the other way. She had planned to tell Gautam they were leaving, knowing he’d just close his book around his bookmark and stand up, ready, even if she hadn’t yet explained herself. But they couldn’t leave without the boy – the boy they’d just found. The boy she’d just found. Farah’s feet felt heavy and she found herself sitting on a high stool, ordering a hamburger.
Eventually, she had to walk again, but she could only go back to the tent. Gautam was not reading his book. He sat with his legs crossed, arms on his knees, and his dark eyes followed her as she came in through the zippered door. He’d pushed their sleeping bags and blankets off into one corner, rolled up, prepared.
“We need to leave,” he said. “I have to get back for work. Do you have everything?”
Farah nodded sadly, and reached into her pocket for her mother’s pillbox. She felt only grit in the lining of her pockets. She pulled her hand out and looked at the sand pieces underneath her fingernails as if they were pieces of magic. This was not right.
“Do you know–” She felt a catch in her throat. “Do you know where my mother’s box is?”
“The silver one?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Where I kept Anjali’s handkerchief.”
“I thought you took it with you when you went out.”
“No, I must not have.”
“Did you drop it?”
“I don’t remember it being here.”
“Did the boy take it?” Gautam faced Farah unperturbed. Farah felt the tent swim in front of her as she searched every corner. Gautam pushed his book into the front of their duffel bag.
“I’m sorry, darling,” said Gautam.
“No. No, just forget about it,” Farah said. She sat in the middle of the tent and closed her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Gautam said. He let his hand slide over the path of tears on Farah’s cheeks.