The smell of burnt rubber hung in the air. Sasha winced as a ten month old let out a wail for the fourth time in two hours. Forty people were scattered around trying to amuse themselves, as the bus driver and cleaner changed the two tires that burst. It was a wonder the bus did not topple the driver said.
The baby finally drifted into a sleep feeding on her mother’s milk. Sasha let out a deep sigh as she checked her watch. She would be late for the wedding. Her sister would create a scene. Dramatics were very much a part of her family. She was tired of it.
“Bus breakdown. Will be late. Low battery.”
Sasha sent her father a text and turned off her mobile. Her eyes skimmed over the faces of her fellow passengers when a sudden movement caught her attention. She tilted her head to left and saw a brown frock disappear behind the trunk of a huge tree. With a shrug, Sasha went back to reading the mystery novel.
Ten minutes later, she snapped the book shut. The brown frock girl was nowhere to be seen. Sasha knew it wasn’t her problem, but something made her uneasy. Stuffing the book inside, Sasha pulled the backpack over her shoulders. She would make sure the girl was alright.
No one noticed her vanish among the trees covered with moss. She walked for a few meters finding no trace of the girl. The kid was barely seven years old and had no right to wander in dangerous places such as this. Sasha did not even know her name.
She scanned the damp earth. In less than a minute, Sasha set out following a pair of footprints that went deep into the forest. The birds chirped, monkeys shrieked, and rabbits scampered away as she increased her pace. A sense of trepidation filled her. She ruthlessly forced it down. She would find the girl. Why weren’t her parents concerned?
A rustle among the bushes made her stop. Sweat dripped down her forehead. Without making much noise, Sasha pulled a flashlight from her bag. It wasn’t a formidable weapon, but it had to do.
“Argh!” A flash of brown whizzed past her. It was the girl.
“Hey! Wait.” Sasha yelled and ran after her.
“Damn! Where did she vanish?” Sasha muttered panting. Though she worked out regularly, the girl proved to be far better than her. At least she was wearing sneakers and jeans.
Sasha walked noting the crushed shoots and broken stems. Chipmunks snickered when she poked her head behind another bush. A snake hissed at her from behind. She jumped and shooed it. After another hiss, the snake slithered away taking pity on her.
“Come on, we are in a forest. Stop playing games, you silly girl.” Sasha shouted. To say she was annoyed would be an understatement. Taking a sip from her water bottle, she searched around her for any sign of movement. They had to get out before the night fell. Sasha did the only thing she could think off.
“Ouch! My leg.” She yelped and fell to the ground holding her right ankle. Maybe she wasn’t that bad an actor since a head peeked from the bushes at a distance.
Sasha continued to sniffle in pain. The girl slowly stepped forward and crept towards her.
“Did you fall?” Her voice was low.
Sasha nodded biting her lip.
“I’m sorry. Aunt Nellie says I always cause pain to others.” A faint tremor shook her small frame.
Sasha looked up to see two sparkling drops streaking down the pale face. She looked vulnerable. How could a child have so much sorrow in her eyes?
“Can you help me up?” Sasha held out her hand.
The girl nodded.
Sasha stood and wobbled a little. She had to act her part. “Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Gloria.” The girl replied still holding her hand.
“I’m Sasha. Let’s go back, or the bus will leave without us.” It was a wrong this to say. Gloria dropped her hand and took a step back.
“I’m not coming. You go away.” Gloria replied shaking her head.
Sasha rocked on her heels unsure of what to say. Fresh tears trickled down the girl’s face.
“This place is full of wild animals. You aren’t safe here.” Sasha warned her.
Gloria only shook her head. She would not go back.
“They must be looking for you, Gloria.” Sasha tried again.
The girl took another step back. “NO.”
“Don’t run!” Sasha ordered and softened her voice. “I’m staying with you. Shall we find a better place to sit for a while?”
Gloria looked torn. Sasha gave her a reassuring smile. Finally, she asked. “What about your leg?”
“Umm… I’m fine now.” Sasha lied.
They walked into the thick vegetation. A gazelle darted out of nowhere. Gloria ran after it.
“Careful,” Sasha called after her.
“Wow! See this.” Gloria hoped back.
Sasha let herself be dragged by the girl. “Oh, my!” She breathed, her eyes widening.
Right in the middle of the forest was an enchanting paradise. A thin brook rippled through the hills. Wildflowers grew in abundance, their fragrance sweet and heavy in the air. Hundreds of butterflies and bees buzzed around them. Sasha pulled Gloria closer, shielding her. She wasn’t even aware of her act.
Small flat rocks were scattered around allowing the hares and porcupines to use them as play stones. A half-ruined hut stood to a side surrounding by weeds. There was no door, but it could be rectified. The place was perfect.
“I will live here like the boy in Jungle Book.” Gloria declared coming to a halt.
The statement jerked Sasha back to reality. “What? No, Gloria. We cannot live here.”
“Not you, only me,” Gloria replied and added. “Maybe, I will let you visit me if you keep this a secret.”
Sasha clamped her mouth shut. If Gloria was adamant about not going back, she had to find the reason. She could hardly drag the girl back. It was an unseen complication. Still, Sasha felt drawn towards Gloria. For someone who was always content being alone, it was a strange situation.
“Why don’t we rest for some time?” Sasha said and slumped onto a rock. The sky was a soft shade of orange as the sun hid behind the hills.
Gloria sat facing her twisting her fingers. Her curls no longer bounced. She had a smudge on her cute nose. Even her hands and legs were streaked with dirt. Sasha knew she looked no better. Her stomach rumbled. She cursed herself for not thinking about it.
Taking a parcel from her backpack, Sasha offered half of it to Gloria. “This is all I have. I’m sorry I didn’t ask you before. You must be famished.”
Gloria hesitated before taking the sandwich. “Thank you. It’s okay. I’m not hungry.”
Sasha raised her eyebrows. “Why?”
“Aunt Nellie says I eat too much.” Gloria choked.
Sasha forced herself to ask. ”What else does she say?”
”She says mommy and daddy were killed because of me. Her boyfriend left her because I have to live with her. I am the reason for her troubles. ” Gloria recited the words from memory. She heard them a thousand times.
Sasha blinked back her sudden tears. It explained why Gloria was intent on not going back.
“I miss my mommy,” Gloria whispered.
“Since when are you living with your aunt?” Sasha asked in a soft voice.
“Aunt Nellie says it’s the worst eight months of her life,” Gloria responded.
Sasha wanted to kill that woman. Instead, she took a deep breath and composed herself. She knew how heartless some people could be.
Gloria stuffed the sandwich into her mouth. She was hungry. Her legs hurt from running for so long. Taking the bottle from Sasha, she gulped the water. Sasha was a nice person, Gloria decided. Others would have left her in the forest or scolded her for taking bad about her aunt. Gloria hated to admit it, but she was terrified of being alone. Sasha’s presence soothed her.
”Sunsets are my favorite,” Sasha said conversationally. She had no experience with kids and had no idea if the girl would like to be hugged by a stranger.
Gloria looked at the red-orange sky. Hills sparkled; treetops glittered and the brook shimmered resembling a golden drape. Her eyes slid to Sasha who sat staring at the hills. The frizzy auburn hair created a halo around her head. She looked like an angel without wings.
“My angel.” Gloria amended.
”What, dear? ” Sasha asked.
Gloria shook her head. Sasha hesitated and hugged her. She felt the slender arms close around her waist. Tension drained from her body.
”Doll, do you know where you are going with your aunt?” Sasha asked.
”Yes… Aunt Nellie wants… I heard her… speak.” Gloria replied yawning. Her eyes began to droop.
Sash knew she had to let the girl rest. She laid her on a bigger rock and went to inspect the hut.
Using the flashlight, Sasha noted a torn straw mat rolled into a corner. Thanking her stars, she laid it on the ground and spread her wrap on it. She then carried Gloria into the hut. Something pressed against her. Carefully laying Gloria’s head on her lap, Sasha patted the frock. She found a crushed envelope in a pocket and placed it aside.
Sasha hoped the owners of the place or the animals wouldn’t make an appearance. She was sure the hut did not belong to the natives since they usually lived and moved in groups. Maybe someone must have camped recently. The hut wouldn’t have weathered in the harsh conditions for long.
The sky turned a dark shade of blue. Stars twinkled as the mild breeze blew through the entrance. Gloria shivered. Sasha dug out her silk dress from the backpack and covered Gloria. It’d have to do. She pulled on her coat and sighed. Sasha resisted the temptation to check her mobile phone though she doubted she would get the signal.
She was twenty-eight, for god sake. She lived in her apartment and worked as a senior accountant for a reputed law firm. Yet, Sasha surrendered to the pressures from her family. No matter how much she tried, they refused to understand that she did not want to attend the wedding. The resentment of having her sister steal her fiancé bubbled to the surface.
A part of her knew they deserved each other; two selfish people who thought about nobody but themselves. She had to attend the wedding to prove to the world that she harbored no ill feelings. Her parents supported her sister. Well, they could go to hell. Sasha had enough of them.
“Don’t… leave me.” A soft murmur reached her.
Gloria was mumbling in her sleep. Sasha groped in the dark. Her fingers skimmed over the soft curls of her hair to her wet cheeks.
She eased the girl over her legs to hold her closer. The bus would have left without them. Surprisingly, Sasha wasn’t as worried as she thought she would be. She’d find a way out. But, she was appalled by Nellie’s behavior. Then, she remembered the envelope.
Using her flashlight, Sasha opened it. Her eyes blazed as she read the contents. How dare the woman do this to a kid? Sasha knew what she had to do. Moreover, she had the resources.
Sasha groaned as she felt a tug on her shoulder. She rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn.
“Wake up,” Gloria’s soft hands touched her face.
Sasha smiled at the image of an emerald-eyed imp peering into her face. “Good morning.”
“Good morning.” Gloria promptly replied. She looked relatively clean.
Sasha sat straight, wincing at the pain in her neck. “You went to the brook?”
Gloria nodded. “I was thirsty.”
Sasha remembered the papers. But first, she had a pressing matter to attend. Ten minutes later, she felt marginally better.
“Gloria, I need to talk to you,” Sasha said sitting on the rock. She noticed how the spark vanished from her eyes.
”I don’t want to go back.” Gloria pouted.
”It’s not that, dear. Where did you get these papers from?” Sasha asked.
Gloria stared at the envelope. Gulping, she replied. “I stole it from her bag. I heard her saying these were important. She cannot give me away without these.”
Sasha extended her arms. She was right in assuming that Gloria knew what they were. The girl threw her hands around Sasha’s neck and began to sob. No child deserved this.
“Shh… It’s okay. You don’t have to get scared.” Sasha soothed her.
“I don’t want to go to an orphanage,” Gloria mumbled.
Sasha held her by the shoulders. “Listen to me, Gloria. I have a plan.” Making sure that the girl was following her words, Sasha continued. “Since your aunt signed these papers, it’ll be easy to prove in the court that she is not the right guardian for you. I will make an appeal stating I am willing to adopt you. When they ask, you have to tell them that you want to be with me.”
Gloria stepped back and stared at her. “Why do you want me?”
Sasha wiped her tears. “I like you. I hope you like me too. Having you with me would be a gift. Will you give me that gift, Gloria?”
Sasha prayed Gloria would understand. “You cannot live alone in a forest. If you want, we can come here occasionally.”
Gloria nodded at last. “I like you too.”
Sasha breathed a sigh of relief. Things wouldn’t be easy. She admitted she had no idea how to raise a child. But, she would do it. The little girl wormed her way into her heart and refused to leave.
“So, shall we get going? We need to go back to the city.” Sasha asked.
Gloria looked uncertain. “You won’t let Aunt Nellie take me away, will you?”
Sasha shook her head. “I know how to handle her. Trust me, dear.”
Gloria smiled. Hope lit her delicate features. Hand in hand, they walked through the woods towards their new life.