Roderick Byrne ran and hid behind a cart in the marketplace. Crouching low, he managed to peep his head slightly over the edge.
"Who are you hiding from today?"
Rod looked up, grinning at the woman who owned the cart. She was a native, but she didn't ever mind playing along with Rod's games. "Today I'm a bandit who stole money from an old man, and she is the police trying to catch me."
The woman smiled. "You're lucky to have a friend who will play such things with you. When I was a little girl, about your friend Lila's age, I wouldn't have wanted to play bandits and police. I would have wanted to play with my dollies."
"Oh, we do sometimes. Because I am a boy and she is a girl, we have to compromise about how we play."
"And you don't mind playing with a girl?" asked the woman.
Rod shook his head. "Before Lila came, I had no one to play with. But now we can play all we like. Lila's grandmother doesn't need her home much and my parents really don't care when I get home. It all fits together perfectly."
"I see," the woman said quietly.
"Yesterday I had to play house with Lila. Only I didn't mind it so much because I got to be the father. It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, but-"
"Got you!" Lila sprang up from the other side of the cart. She grabbed Rod's arms and pinned them behind his back. "You're captured!" She let go and started to bob around excitedly on the balls of her feet. Her lavender dress fluttered as she jumped, and her tight brown braids bounced about her shoulders.
"Alright, already! You found me!" Rod put his hands up. "I'm done for. You want to give it another go, Lila?"
"No," objected the little girl. "It took me nearly an hour to find you this time and I don't want to wish to do it again."
"You're acting childish."
"I am not!" cried Lila, indignantly. "I'm almost as old as you are!"
"Not by three years. Seven's a long distance from ten," Rod argued. "And your age doesn't matter by how childish you are."
"I don't think that my not wanting to play your game again makes me childish!" Lila's eyes flamed with anger and at the same time welled with tears.
Rod instantly felt ashamed. He should have known better than to make his friend cry. After all, she was only seven, and small at that. He also knew enough about her family to know that her parents had died when she was only five years old and she had been separated from her brother and sister to go live with her grandmother in India. Still, she was a playful person who had to be sorely hurt to cry.
"Sorry, Lila. Please stop," Rod asked of her, a pleading expression upon his face.
She looked away from him. She was still angry.
Rod sighed and tried again. He put his hand out. "Lila, we're friends, aren't we?"
She bit her lip and nodded. "Best friends."
"And you promise we'll never stop being friends?"
She nodded again. "Never." She took his hand.
"There's a good boy," the woman from the cart said. She picked up a braided leather bracelet from her cart and handed it to Rod. "Here's for being such a good boy, you. And for little lovely Lila," she picked up a jar of beads from her cart, "any bead she likes."
Lila wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She then closed her eyes and reached in the jar, pulling out a bright blue bead, the color of the spring sky. "Thank you," she said in her little clipped voice.
"Yeah, thank you," echoed Rod as he slipped the bracelet on. Suddenly, someone shoved past Rod as he hurried to the woman. He was a native, shouting in his tongue.
He was yelling something to the woman at the cart.
"What's he saying?" asked Lila, her eyes as round as saucers.
Rod listened hard. Although he wasn't fluent in the language, he had been in India long enough to understand some of it.
"He's...he's saying someone sick...very sick...they're vomiting and worse...it's someone in his family..."
"She looks worried," commented Lily, staring at the woman. She clutched at her braids.
"He's saying that he doesn't know what to do."
Lila's eyes widened. "What's going to happen, Rod?"
"I don't know, Lila." He shook his head. "You know how it is here. If one person gets sick, they all get sick. And everyone in the village either flees or dies."
"What are we going to do?" asked Lila, her lips trembling.
"I don't know, Lila. I don't know."
"Stop! I'm not going! I have to go talk to somebody!"
"Roderick Byrne, I am not arguing with you. The entire town is in an uproar and I can't be worrying about you. We need to get you safely to your boarding school in London before it's too late."
"But Father!" cried Rod. "I need to speak with somebody before I go!"
"No, Rod! We need to get you to the boat now!" Rod began to sprint off. "Rod, no!" His father took him by the arm. "Stop!" But Rod wrenched his arm away and ran, bolting out the door of his family's bungalow.
He pushed and shoved his way through the streets of the village. They were crowded with people trying to flee. "Lila!" He would never be able to find his small friend in the midst of such chaos. Rod raced to the market cart where they had been playing only a few short hours ago. He searched for her in panic, feeling very hopeless. "Lila!" he yelled once, again, his voice strained with despair.
But then, he heard "Rod!" cried out a small voice from the crowd.
"Lila!" Rod pushed his way through a group of natives to get to his friend, who looked very much lost and frightened. Her dress was wrinkled and dirty and her tangled hair hung loose. "Rod!" she cried and ran to her friend, throwing herself into his arms.
After holding her for only a moment, Rod pulled away and looked at her very seriously. "Listen, Lila. My parents are sending me away from here so that I won't get sick. I'm being sent to a school in London."
"I'm being sent away too!" cried Lila, her face contorted with fear. "My grandmother and I leave for France in an hour! She thinks I went to the loo, but I couldn't leave without seeing you!"
"I had to escape from my father to come here. I'm sure he's only a bit behind me," he told her, with a quick glance over his shoulder. "But I had to tell you something, Lila."
"What is it, Rod?"
"We made a promise just a few days ago that we would forever be friends, didn't we?"
"Promise me you will never forget that. Promise me you will never forget me."
"I promise." Lila's lip began to tremble.
Rod could hear his father calling his name from behind. "And quick, Lila, promise me that one day we'll find each other and we'll be best friends again, forever and ever. Do you promise me that?"
Tears fell from her eyes. "Yes."
"Good." He slipped the leather bracelet around Lila's tiny wrist. "This is for you to remember our promises. Don't take it off. Never forget, alright?"
"I'll never forget," nodded Lila, fingering the leather.
"Roderick!" yelled his father, grabbing his shoulder. "Let's go now." Rod felt himself being dragged by his father away from Lila, but he couldn't take his eyes from the sad little girl, tears streaming from her eyes, her purple dress billowing in the Indian wind. He watched her silently cry until the crowd closed in on his view of her and he could see her no more.