Kolkata was not at all what Alice had expected.
She wasn't really sure what she had expected, but she had felt it when she stepped off the plane, though the busy international terminal hadn't looked all that different from the other terminals she'd been in over the years; London, Paris, Sydney, Venice, just to name a few. Even now, staring through the window of the convenience shop, waiting for business, she could feel the mysticism, as if there were a power in the air and it was only waiting for her to find it and follow it. She twisted her fingers absently through the silver chain around her neck, the two plain gold wedding bands that hung from it clinking together rhythmically.
The bell above the door tinkled and she dropped the chain, her sharp, dark eyes flitting to the open door. She knew this man, one of the everyday regulars. He didn't even look at her as he grabbed a plastic basket and made his way down the aisles. It was Tuesday, shopping day.
Alice ran her slender fingers through her short brown hair making it stand up at odd angles. For all of the mystery and intrigue that she felt in the air, Kolkata had been decidedly less exciting than she'd expected. The same customers, the same street, the same routine, day after day, she felt as if she was always waiting for something to happen, and the anxiety sucked the energy out of her. She put her chin in her hand, leaned on the counter, and went back to staring out the window, but even the busy street outside offered no relief from the monotony. The crowd was made up of the same streaks of muddied browns, tans, and creams, mixed with the occasional bright spots of color from the more expensive saris. The shops and street vendors boasted all sorts of colorful wares, toys, food, clothes, but really it all blurred together in the end. They were located in one of the poorer parts of the city, close to the slums, and the people here made do with what they had, which wasn't much.
She saw the man approaching her counter out of the corner of her eye and straightened. Yes, she remembered him, medium frame, curly brown hair, glasses framing his dark eyes. He was quiet, barely speaking a word in the whole month she had worked there. He'd said enough for Alice to know that he was American, but on finding out that she was also American, he hadn't seemed interested in continuing any kind of conversation. She didn't even know his name. He was never rude, but he wasn't exactly what she would call friendly.
"Hey there," she said, putting on her customer-service face.
What might barely pass for a nervous smile fluttered over his lips, but he didn't say anything as he put his basket on the counter. Alice started to ring him up and put everything into crisp paper bags. Neither of them spoke. This routine was as easy as breathing to Alice now. As she rang up the last of his groceries, he also put a deli turkey sandwich and a Coke on the counter. She rang those up too and read him his total, which he paid without saying a word. As she handed him his change, she was treated to one of his rare phrases.
"Thank you," he murmured as he picked up his bags.
Those two words, as with every time she heard his soft voice, softened her slightly harsh assessment of him. She smiled, this time a bit more genuinely.
"Have a good night," she said.
That ghost of a smile passed over his face again, almost too quickly to see, and then he was gone. She watched him through the window, hurrying against the flow of foot traffic on the sidewalk, head down as if he wished he could hide in plain sight from the whole world. Alice knew how that felt. The only difference was she was succeeding.
Her shift was up at two o'clock and her relief came in promptly at five minutes 'til. The shop owner, Halim Takeri, was a young man, only older than her by a year at twenty-eight, but his hair was starting to gray at the temples and underneath his bright smile was a tiredness that never really went away.
"How are Ambi and Mika?" Alice asked, as Halim came around the counter, "Feeling any better?"
Rashmika, Halim's seven year old daughter, hadn't been feeling well for a week or so, and Ambika, Halim's wife, had been staying home to care for her. The look on Halim's face worried her.
"No Ms. Ripley," he said, in his thick accent, "Mika, she still has fever. She has strange dreams, she cries out. We…" His voice broke off and he gathered himself, "We are worried."
Alice felt a painful knot in her stomach. She had met Mika many times, had chased her on the sidewalk just outside this shop. She was a sweet little girl, mild-mannered and kind like her father and exotically beautiful like her mother, even covered in layers of dirt from playing in the street. And she was so small.
She put a hand on Halim's shoulder.
"I'm sure she'll be alright."
Halim nodded and went back to counting the money in the drawer. Alice knew her words sounded hollow, even in her own ears. The Takeris couldn't afford to take Mika to a doctor. They could barely afford to get by. They were paying Alice less than the going rate, and under the table, but she needed the work and she liked the Takeris, so she ignored it. She wished there was something more she could do, but she had very little money herself, and she wasn't a doctor. That didn't stop Halim's words from echoing over and over in her head.
"We are worried…"
The next morning, Alice opened the shop in a haze. Her sleep had been restless, full of nightmares, Mika's pale face mixed with screams and darkness that didn't make sense, but were all too familiar to her. As she mechanically stacked shelves and checked inventory, she kept seeing Halim's haggard face.
"We are worried…"
She kept telling herself Mika would be fine, she would be better today. But worry in her gut still hung over her like a dark cloud. Then the call came.
The old rotary telephone on the wall had never rung, not in the whole time Alice had worked at the store. It hung next to the cash register, cream plastic under a layer of dust from disuse. When it jangled next to her ear at a quarter to two, Alice felt like she might jump out of her skin. She stared at the phone, confused. For a moment she forgot how to deal with it. On the second ring, she picked up the receiver.
The soft voice belonged to Ambika Takeri. Though it trembled it still held a musical quality to it.
"Ambi? What is it? What's wrong?"
She heard what might have been a suppressed sob on the other end. Alice felt the knot in her stomach clench painfully.
"Alice… Alice I'm so sorry, but Halim… Halim will not be in today. He said you can close the shop early when your shift is… is over."
Alice could hear the tears in Ambi's voice and she fought to keep her voice calm.
"Ambi? Is everything okay?"
Another stifled sob.
"I… We do not know… Mika… She is very sick."
"Is there anything I can do? Do you need anything?" Panic was creeping into her voice.
"No… No, we… Alice, I am sorry, I must go."
But the line was already dead. Alice held the silent receiver to her ear for a good ten seconds, trying to process what she'd heard. Mika wasn't getting better. She was getting worse.
She had an immediate urge to leave the store, to run as fast as she could to the Takeris' house, to do something. She was just a little girl, just a baby, somebody should do something! But her rational mind told her there was nothing she could do. She didn't know anything about sickness, she wasn't a doctor. Hot tears of frustration spilled onto her cheeks and she swiped them away as she slammed the phone back onto the wall and turned.
A man was standing at the counter. Alice hadn't even heard him come in and his sudden appearance frightened her. It was the quiet one, the American with the glasses, holding a wrapped turkey sandwich and a Coke. He looked like he was trying not to notice that she was crying. She sniffed and rubbed at her tear streaked face quickly, trying to compose herself.
"Sorry, I didn't hear you come in," she said, putting on her customer facade as easily as slipping on a pair of sneakers.
He didn't say anything as she rang him up. He didn't even look at her. He handed her the money for his lunch, then turned away, not even waiting for a bag. He was almost to the door, when he paused. He took another hesitant step, then he sighed, sounding almost frustrated. He turned back and finally looked at her.
"Are you… Are you okay?"
The question startled Alice so much that for a moment she didn't say anything. Then words began to pour out of her in a rush.
"Their daughter, the shop owners' daughter is sick, they don't know what's wrong, but I think she might be dying and I don't know what to do, they can't afford a doctor and I don't know how to help them, but she's just a little girl and I'm so scared that she's going to die…"
Tears had started to slip down her cheeks again she brushed them away furiously.
"And all I can do is sit here and cry, while she's out there, dying!" she said, frustration and guilt seeping into the words.
The man stood very still while she spoke, just watching her with deep brown eyes. When she finally paused to catch her breath, he sighed again, pinching the bridge of his nose like he had a headache.
"Where is she?"
Alice balked at the sharp question.
"The little girl," he said, "Where is she? Do you know where they live, can you take me there?"
Alice didn't answer right away. The man rolled his eyes and gestured to his clothes, a pair of dirty jeans with a rip in the knee and a gray t-shirt that looked like it had seen better days.
"Okay, I know I don't look it, but I'm actually kind of a doctor. I might be able to help your little friend if I can see her."
A doctor. He was a doctor. Alice gave him a long look. He was right, he didn't look like a doctor. But he was offering to help Mika, and that was more than she could have hoped for. She started scrambling for the key to the cash register.
"I… hold on, I just… I just have to lock up."
She was stuttering, terrified that if she took too long the man might change his mind. He didn't really look too pleased with the situation to begin with. She finally managed to lock the drawer, then grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulder, rushing past the doctor almost at a run, the key to the door in her hand.
"Come on," she said breathlessly, "It's just a few blocks away."
She locked up the shop behind them, and they started weaving their way through the lunchtime crowds. Alice was still almost running, dodging in and out of the foot traffic easily. She kept checking behind her to make sure the doctor was still following, but he seemed to have no trouble keeping up. They raced down the busy shop filled street, then turned sharply and after only a few blocks they were in a small residential neighborhood. It wasn't much better than a slum really, but it was a bit cleaner and the houses, such as they were, were all intact. She led the doctor to a small tidy home in the middle of the street and pounded on the door, hard and loud, desperation in ever strike of her fist.
"Halim!" she called, "Halim, it's me, open the door!"
She heard scrambling inside, then the door opened and Halim stood there, looking ragged.
"I've brought help," she said, "For Mika. This is Doctor…"
Alice felt a fleeting moment of panic when she realized she didn't even know the man's name. But he stepped in smoothly to cover her pause.
"Banner," he said, taking Halim's hand, "Bruce Banner."
Halim looked him up and down skeptically, but Dr. Banner barely seemed to notice.
"I hear you have a little girl who's sick. May I see her?"
Halim hesitated, "We… We have no money to pay you, Dr. Banner…"
But the doctor stopped him before he could say any more.
"Let's just take a look at what we have first."
Halim hesitated still, then glanced at Alice. She nodded to him. After all, it couldn't make it much worse, could it? Finally, Halim stepped aside and led Dr. Banner and Alice into the back room of their small home. Mika lay curled up on a mattress in the corner, shivering under a thin blanket. Her long black hair was tangled and sticking to her round face, flushed under her dark skin. Ambi sat beside her daughter, pressing a damp cloth to Mika's forehead. The little girl moaned and muttered something in Hindi that Alice didn't understand. Ambi brushed her long slender fingers against the little girl's cheek and hushed her gently.
Dr. Banner wasted no time. He knelt beside Ambi, touching her shoulder gently and speaking a few soft words of Hindi. Ambi looked alarmed, but a glance at her husband and she stepped back, letting Dr. Banner examine Mika. The parents of the little girl stood with their arms around each other, watching the doctor work with fear and hope mixed in their eyes. Alice felt like she couldn't stop fidgeting. She wanted to pace, but that seemed like the worst thing to do. So she stood to one side, twisting the silver chain around her neck, the two gold rings clinking together over and over and over again.
Suddenly she felt a soft touch on her elbow. It was Ambi, looking up at Alice with those big doe eyes.
"Whatever happens, Alice, I want you to know we are so grateful."
Alice nodded, but she didn't trust herself to reply. If she had brought this man here and the little girl still died, she knew she would never forgive herself. She could add it to the list of things she would never forgive herself for.
After what felt like an eternity, Dr. Banner stood up and pulled a grimy little notebook and a stub of pencil out of his pocket.
"I'm going to need to run to the pharmacy and get a few things…"
"I'll go," Alice interrupted, dropping the chain she was worrying.
Dr. Banner glanced up at her over his glasses, but Alice held her ground.
"I can't just stand here when I could be doing something useful. I'll go."
He didn't answer, but he turned his eyes back to his notebook and started scribbling furiously. Ambi took Alice's hand in hers and gave it a squeeze.
Dr. Banner ripped the page out of his notebook and handed it to Alice.
"Give that to the pharmacist, they should be able to find what you need."
Alice nodded, folded up the paper and slipped it in her bag. Dr. Banner was already scribbling on another page.
"Now, I'm writing down some instructions…"
"Is our daughter going to be alright?" Ambi asked, her voice trembling.
The doctor stopped scribbling and looked up at Ambi. His dark eyes were kind and his voice was gentle when he spoke.
"Your little girl is very sick," he said, "But I'm going to do what I can to get her better."
Ambi smiled, though her eyes had welled up with tears. The doctor returned her smile briefly. Then as if he'd just realized what he'd done, he dropped his eyes and started furiously scratching in his notebook again.
"You better get going."
He never looked up, but Alice knew he was talking to her.
She slipped out of the room and rushed out the door, hitting the street at a hard run. She sprinted all the way to the pharmacy, her heart pounding the way it had in Spain with a herd of stampeding bulls on her heels. She paced and fidgeted as the old man behind the counter shuffled back and forth, collecting everything on her list. After paying a total that Alice knew the Takeris could never afford, she was off again, racing back to the house and bursting through the door, holding the bag up like a prize.
"I got it! What do we do now?"
Panting, Alice looked for the doctor, but the Takeris were alone. Dr. Banner was gone.