“Make for him a mixture of dried garlic, lemon juice, honey, tamarind, and wild turmeric. Have him drink it four times each hour.” He then handed the man two shining circles from the black pouch. The coachman, the white man had called him. He nodded once and lifted the reins.
“Wait.” The Man in Blue held up his hand.
The coachman waited.
“Were you present when they found the girl?”
The coachman’s black eyes shifted to mine, then darted away. He shook his head slowly. “No. But my friend, a porter in their group, was.” He said nothing more but extended his hand to the Man in Blue, who sighed and placed two more silver discs on the coachman’s calloused palm.
The coachman smiled, revealing many missing teeth. His eyes flicked to mine. “I do not like her listening.”
The Man in Blue turned to me. “You may go explore,” he said, and urged me toward the ships.
Yes, I nodded, and pretended to leave. I made myself flat against the other side of the carriage instead. They could not see me. I waited and listened.
The Man in Blue spoke first. “What did you hear?”
The coachman’s voice was low. “They were hunting a tiger a few days’ journey from Prayaga. They followed it into the trees on the backs of their elephants, but without warning, the beasts stopped. Nothing could urge them forward—not sweets or sticks. This fool,” he said, tapping on the carriage, “insisted they continue on foot, but only three men would accompany him. One was a stranger—the white man’s guide, perhaps. Another was the cook. The last was a hunter, the brother of the porter, my friend.”
“They followed the tracks of the animal into a sea of tall grass. All hunters know tall grass conceals death, and the brother, the hunter, wanted to turn back. The other man, the stranger, urged them forward, and the white man listened. The cook followed them, but the hunter refused and left alone. He was never seen again.”
“What happened?” The Man in Blue sounded curious, not afraid.
“The three men followed the tracks of the tiger for hours, until they vanished in a pool of blood.”
“From a recent kill?”
“No,” the coachman said. The horses stamped and snorted uneasily. “If it had been a tiger’s kill, there would have been tracks leading out of the pool of blood. There would have been bones and flesh, skin and hair. But there was nothing. No carcass. No hide. And no flies would touch it. They circled the pool and examined the grass. That was when they saw the footprints. A child’s footprints, soaked in blood.”
“And they led to this girl?”
“Yes,” the coachman said. “She was curled up in the roots of a tree, asleep. And in her fist was a human heart.”
MY EYES FLEW OPEN. THE VIVID COLORS OF MY nightmare were washed away by whiteness.
I was in bed, staring at a ceiling. But I wasn’t in my bed; I wasn’t at home. My skin was damp with sweat and my heart was racing. I reached for the dream, tried to catch it before it drifted away.
“How are you feeling?”
The last traces of it dissolved with the voice. I let out a slow breath and leaned up on stiff, creaky elbows to see who it belonged to. A man with a brown ponytail edged into my field of vision. I recognized him, but didn’t remember his name.
“Who are you?” I asked cautiously.
The man smiled. “I’m Patrick, and you fainted. How are you feeling?” he asked again.
I closed my eyes. I’m feeling sick of feeling sick. “Fine,” I said.
Dr. Kells appeared behind Patrick then. “You scared us, Mara. Do you have hypoglycemia?”
My thoughts were still slow but my heart was still racing. “What?”
“Hypoglycemia,” she repeated.
“I don’t think so.” I swung my legs over the side of the hard little bed. I shook my head but that only intensified the ache. “No.”
“Okay. The blood work will let us know for sure.”
She glanced at my arm. A piece of cotton was taped to the crook of my elbow; someone had taken off my hoodie and draped it over the foot of the cot. I pressed my hand against the sensitive skin there and tried not to look freaked out.
“It was an emergency. We were concerned about you,” Dr. Kells felt the need to explain. Which meant I apparently did look freaked out. “We called your mother—she sent your father here to pick you up early. I’m sure it’s nothing, but better safe than sorry.”
I stewed in silence until he arrived. He smiled widely when he saw me, but I could tell he was worried. He hunched down.
“How’re you feeling?”
Upset that they drew blood. Angry that I fainted. Scared it will happen again, because it happened before.
It happened before a flashback at the art exhibit Noah brought me to, and after a midnight hunt for my brother. It happened after I drank chicken blood in a Santeria shop that no longer seemed to exist. And each time I fainted, the borders of reality blurred, leaving me confused. Disoriented. Unsure of what was real. It made it hard to trust myself, and that was hard to bear.
But of course I couldn’t tell my father any of this, and he was waiting for an answer. So I just said, “They drew blood,” and left it at that.
“They were scared for you,” he said. “And it turns out your blood sugar was low. Want to go for ice cream on the way home?”
He looked so hopeful, so I nodded for his benefit.
He cracked a smile. “Fantastic,” he said, and helped me up off the cot. I swiped my hoodie and we moved toward the exit; I looked for Jamie on the way out but he was nowhere to be found.
My father leaned over a hutch by the front door and pulled out a thick-handled umbrella from a bin. “Cats and dogs out there,” he said, nodding through the glass. Sheets of rain battered the pavement and my dad struggled with the umbrella as he opened the door. I hugged my arms across my chest, staring out at the parking lot from our haven beneath the overhang. I wondered what time it was; the only other car in the lot besides my father’s was an old white pickup truck. The rest of the spaces were empty.
My dad made an apologetic face. “I think we’re going to have to make a run for it.”
“You sure you can run?”
He patted the spot beneath his rib cage. “Fit as a fiddle. Are you sure you can run?”
“Otherwise you can have the umbrella.”