Jessie Monaco is haunted by a recurring nightmare of Elliot, her old college friend and an environmental activist, running for his life on a remote mountainside in South India’s Kerala state. After five weeks pass without word from him, she reaches out to the only person she believes can help—Elliot’s estranged brother, Ben.
For three days, they poured over Elliot’s journals. The thoughts recorded in them were scattered, and they struggled to understand. In nearly spiritual silence, they read everything. What Ben read on the first day Jessie read the next day. They read with the solemn devotion of monks, speaking only when Rajini interrupted them with food or drink or questions.
Together, they embark on a journey that leads them across Kerala’s diverse face and into Elliot's strange world . . .
By the afternoon of the third day, Jessie was tired. Not tired of reading Elliot’s words—she could have read forever because the reading brought her closer to him. But she was tired of silence. Glancing up at Ben, she could tell that he was tired, too. She could see it in his face—in his eyes. The fatigue went beyond the lingering effects of jet lag.
When Ben noticed that she was watching him, he marked his page and closed Elliot’s journal.
“Want to get some coffee?” he asked.
Twenty minutes later, they were sitting at a table by the window in the Indian Coffee House. Because of the time of day, the coffee house was mostly empty. The majority of patrons had finished with classes and journeyed home to have dinner with their families. They ordered coffee and didn’t talk until it came to the table in two cups that steamed in spite of the hot weather.
“Who drinks coffee in this kind of heat?” Ben wanted to know.
Jessie just shrugged, irritated by his tone.
“Indians,” she said simply. “And travelers.”
She smiled at a memory that came to her suddenly.
Will you trim my hair, Jess? Just in the back. I’ll make it worth your while.
“Elliot is a coffee connoisseur,” she said. “He doesn’t drink anything but Starbucks. He brought an entire year’s supply to India with him. Once he asked me to cut his hair in exchange for a cup.”
“You guys are pretty close?” Ben asked.
Jessie took a sip of her coffee and found that it was intolerably hot. For a few seconds, she blew into it—as though that would make a difference. Then,
“We were close while we were here. During those months, I was closer to Elliot than to anyone else in the world. With friends back home, it takes years to get that close. An entire lifetime. But with him, it was instantaneous.”
“What about now?”
“We’ve kept in touch,” she said, and that familiar guilt began to creep in. They’d kept in touch, but just barely. And for all his elusiveness, it wasn’t Elliot who had slipped away.
She remembered a conversation they’d had just before Elliot graduated from the University of Maryland. He’d called her—this was back in the days when their India experience was still fresh and he called regularly. He wanted to make plans for the weekend.
Come see me this weekend, Jess. I’ll be done with finals. We can talk about the old days.
I already made plans.
No you didn’t. You’d just rather spend the weekend with Michael.
Is that so wrong?
It isn’t wrong. I just miss you, that’s all.
I miss you, too.
Then come see me.
But of course, she hadn’t.
Jessie cleared her throat, disturbed by the sorrow the memory stirred in her. Then, reasoning for herself as much as for Ben, she said,
“You know how it is with people you meet in college. You have all the best intentions, but you’re just starting out in life. You’re destined to drift apart.”
“You and Elliot drifted apart?”
“I think so. I mean—he was always in my thoughts. We were incredible friends. But as time went by I heard from him less and less. He heard from me less and less.”
“Well, you couldn’t have drifted too far. You’re here, after all.”
She looked at him for a long moment, gauging his sincerity. It was there, in his eyes, and this gave her the encouragement that she needed to say,
“I hope I’m not too late.”
Ben nodded, and leaned back in his chair to study her. A long moment passed that way, until he finally asked,
“Do you love him?”
Jessie raised her eyebrows. The question surprised her, although she knew it shouldn’t. It was a logical question for someone to ask, especially given all that Jessie was doing to find him. But somehow the question seemed to undermine what Elliot meant to her. Love! The word was an umbrella cast over a hundred different feelings with a hundred different meanings. And coming from Ben, who had the audacity to put it off and put it off then show up one day looking just like him, the question felt unearned. It felt like an invasion.
None of your business, Jessie wanted to say. If you really cared, you could have asked Elliot when you had the chance. You could have asked while he was still—not missing.
But all she said was,
“Of course I love him. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
Ben was patient.
“You know what I mean.”
“No. What do you mean?”
She was at least going to make him ask the right way.
“Are you in love with him?”
Jessie sighed and looked down into her coffee cup. The steam was dwindling. Soon she would be able to drink it.
“No,” she said at last.
“Is he in love with you?”
“Why? What difference does it make?”
Her tone was defensive, but she didn’t care. Weren't her feelings for Elliot clear enough? And how could she betray Elliot’s feelings toward her, even to his brother? Especially to his brother, whom Elliot barely spoke of. Who had barely seemed to care that Elliot was missing until his unexpected appearance in Kochi.
“So?” Ben asked, watching her.
“So what?” she asked back.
She was surprised when the question that followed had slipped away from the uncomfortable probing of a moment ago. Perhaps Ben sensed that Jessie had raised the walls, and he was backing off. Instead of pursuing the question of Elliot’s love, he simply asked,
“Where do you think he is? What do you think happened?”
She sighed, relaxing a little. Letting her guard down—a little.
“I’ve been wracking my brain. I just don’t know.”
“That guy in Karavala had no idea?”
“None—at least not that he was admitting to.”
“And you believed him?”
Jessie thought for a moment—recalling Ganesh’s open and friendly face and his words of fondness for Elliot.
“Yes. I believed him. We’ll have to look for answers somewhere else.”
“The journals don’t help.”
“No. They’re actually kind of obscure, don’t you think?”
“Obscure?” Ben asked, as though the word surprised him. “Yeah, I guess. But they’re also brilliant. Mind if I read something?”
He retrieved the journal he’d been reading before they left for the coffee house and opened it to the page he’d marked. Jessie leaned in on her elbows to listen—curious which passage had captured Ben’s attention. They had all captured hers. Then, he began,
“Today the world was robbed of another tiger. I know, because I felt the tiger get struck down. The sensation that came over me was like the flickering of a flame just before it is swallowed by darkness. I felt it in my heart. It felt like incompetence, like the weak flutter of a heart murmur. The world was robbed again, and I sat in a chair in the library like I was doing something purposeful and good. But that’s a lie. I did nothing at all to save the tiger, and the incompetence is mine.”
Marking the page again, he closed the journal and looked up at Jessie.
“See? Brilliant. My little brother. Who knew?”
A lot of people knew, Jessie wanted to say. But she didn’t. Not out of kindness, but because it occurred to her that this might not be true. A lot of people were touched by Elliot’s passion, like the vendor in north India with the baby monkey. But whether they were touched in a positive or negative way was another issue altogether.
“He’s so passionate,” she said at last. “He taught me so much about what it means to feel, and to act on feelings. He has the courage to do that, you know. That’s what sets him apart.”
“Is that what it is?” Ben asked, and in his eyes Jessie could see that he was weighing the possibility of this with great care. Then, “Isn’t it strange how people grow into different kinds of people? You know, the first time I ever got arrested, it was with Elliot. He was nine and I was twelve. It was early in the summer. School had just let out. Things between our parents weren’t good that summer. Well, they were never good, but this summer it was worse than usual. They were talking about getting divorced, and Mom decided to spend as much time with Elliot and me as possible so we’d pick her over Dad if it came down to deciding custody.”
“Really?” Jessie asked, taken aback. “Elliot never mentioned that your parents are divorced.”
“Well, technically they’re not. It’s a long story. Trust me, you’d rather hear this one.”
Jessie nodded, encouraging him to go on.
“Anyway, one of her ideas was that she could take us somewhere educational every week. One week we went to the library. Another week we went to the aquarium. And this particular week, we went to the local animal shelter. What a place to take two kids without pets. It was torture! And when the lady giving the tour told us that the dogs and cats that don’t find homes ‘go to Heaven,’ I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it. I thought they died from broken hearts.”
At this, Jessie couldn’t help but smile.
“What did you do?”
“There was only one thing we could do. We organized a jail break.”
“You broke them out?”
“Well, we tried. We did manage to break in. We were just so pumped up on our own heroism that we didn’t realize the real world has things like alarms that go off when bricks go through windows. The cops showed up within ten minutes. There were dogs and cats everywhere, just wandering through the building. We never even had a chance to open the front door.”
“If you’re going to tell me Elliot persuaded you to do this at nine years old, I’ll have a hard time believing it.”
Ben just shook his head.
“That’s just it, Jessie. I persuaded him. So what the hell happened? How come Elliot kept chasing tigers and I stopped? We were raised by the same people, and we had the same friends. We went to the same schools. When did I lose the ability to feel and act on feeling?”
“I think a lot of us lose that as we grow up. As children, all we can do is feel. We have no schooling, no sense of reality as we come to know it as adults. Feeling guides us.”
“We learn to shut it off. We do what we have to do, not what we want to do. We rely on our intellects instead of our hearts. That’s what makes Elliot so special. He never went through the transition. I don’t know why. Maybe his heart is too big to be ignored. Maybe he’s just brave.”
Ben tipped back his coffee—now cool—and finished it in one gulp, then gave Jessie a long and thoughtful look.
“I wish I had his courage,” he said. “I wish I had what it takes to go to the other side of the world and fight for something I believe in.”
They looked at each other in silence for several beats, during which something in Jessie softened.
“You’re kidding, right?” she asked after a moment. Then, “Look at you. You’re here, too.”