Nathu carries his three-year-old son Himesh down the path towards the lake where he thinks they might find a safe place. He doesn’t care if it is too late, but he cannot sit at home anymore.
In a final, desperate act, with wide-eyed Himesh clinging to his neck, Nathu hurries away from the two-room shantytown hovel belonging to his cousin, in which they’ve temporarily been living. A month ago, he had arrived in the city with his only child after a dengue outbreak in their village had claimed his wife’s life.
“Saab, what will happen now?” Nathu, with a stack of dirty plates in both hands, had asked his boss—the owner of the restaurant where he’d begun working a week ago. The television screen on the restaurant wall flashed, scrolling announcements about the approaching meteor. The newscaster’s voice shook as she spoke about a failed international space mission to counteract impending disaster.
Ten minutes to impact.
Two nights ago, Nathu’s cousin and his family had run away, abandoning Nathu and Himesh, before the riots and pillaging on the streets began. Father and son cowered in a corner near sacks of rice and lentils, behind a rickety bed. Screams, shouts, and explosive noises rained outside their door.
But now, everything is quiet as Nathu scrambles down a sloping path. His cousin, who is a municipality worker, had mentioned a manhole with a removable cover under a culvert near the lake, which could provide shelter. On reaching level ground near the water, Nathu wipes away the sweat from his brow and looks for the culvert, but there’s only a solid wall, covered with graffiti and torn posters. Maybe they plugged up the opening, and his cousin hadn’t known.
Eight minutes to impact.
All is lost, thinks Nathu, his legs giving way. He sits down with Himesh still in his arms.
“Ice cream,” Himesh says suddenly, pointing to a man standing under a tree next to a cart with a red metallic box attached to it on top and a small bell on its side. The man is balding and has white eyebrows. His lips are hidden under a bushy gray mustache curling over his cheeks. He looks lost and confused.
“Ice cream,” Himesh says again and bounces in place against Nathu.
The man pushes the cart towards them and stops. Nathu stands up.
“Uncle,” Nathu says, “is there any place to hide here? A safe place nearby?”
The man shakes his head sadly. Nathu curses and spins in place, scanning his surroundings like a cornered animal looking to escape. All around him are trees and the waters of the lake shining in the spaces between their trunks. He finds it hard to breathe.
“Ice creaaaam,” Himesh’s voice rises in a plaintive cry, mocking Nathu’s desperation.
Nathu strikes a blow across his son’s back and Himesh starts to bawl. The man opens the lid of the red metallic box. Cold vapors rise out as he dips his hand inside to retrieve a plastic packet. Himesh stops crying. The man rips open the packet and hands Himesh a bright orange ice cream bar.
Six minutes to impact.
The man reaches out his hand and pats Himesh on the head. His mustache quivers.
“You remind me of my grandson back in my hometown,” he says.
In a daze, with Himesh in his lap, Nathu sits down and leans against a tree trunk. His head hurts, and his heart is beating too fast. He pulls at his sweat-soaked collar and licks his dry lips. A breeze wafts towards them, leaving ripples on the surface of the lake.
Nathu closes his eyes. He’s a child of six, back in his village, bare heels digging into mud, looking out across the filthy pond near his hut with the sun blazing above him. It’s not the sun’s heat that burns him but the welts on his back where his father had given him a beating for stealing a lump of jaggery, leaving one less to use among their hungry family of eight.
Nathu stayed on the banks of the pond long after his tears dried. The water had turned dark and was interspersed by pinpricks of light from the stars above. His anger burned and burned, threatening to swallow him whole, a fireball crushing his body and unable to stop there. He imagined it ramming into his helpless father, his poverty-ridden family, their hopeless smidge of a village where nothing grew and far, far beyond.
A glowing streak shimmered across the surface of the still water, and six-year-old Nathu looked up just in time to see a shooting star make its way across the sky.
Four minutes to impact.
Back beside the lake, Nathu opens his eyes and wipes away tears he hadn’t realized he was crying. The ice cream vendor kneels beside him and places a hand on Nathu’s shoulder. Calloused hands, rough like his father’s used to feel, whether he hugged him or hit him. He’d struck his own son moments ago. Nathu’s heart twists with regret. He kisses Himesh’s sticky cheek and pulls him close, burying his nose in the nape of Himesh’s soft neck, which smells of coconut hair oil and orange ice cream.
Two minutes to impact.
The birds have gone silent. The insects have stopped making their noises. The only sound is the wind in the leaves.
“Pappa, ice cream?” Himesh turns to Nathu and offers the remaining half of the melting bar.
Smiling, Nathu shakes his head no. Himesh snuggles closer and resumes licking his ice cream. Something flickers in the sky at the edge of Nathu’s vision, but he doesn’t want to look up. His eyes are fixed on Himesh’s sweet, round head as he strokes his son’s back with one hand. A whistling sound starts up and increases in volume, drawing closer. With his other palm, Nathu grips the top of the man’s hand that’s squeezing his shoulder and shuts his eyes tightly, waiting for impact.