The word whistles through the air and pricks the back of my neck. I turn to find Aunty’s black eyes fixed on me. She was snoring loudly when I crept into her room just a moment ago. That gave me the courage to pull a chair over to the mountain of boxes and stuffed plastic bags she keeps in the corner. At the very top of the mound of junk is a wire birdcage that’s shaped sort of like the Taj Mahal. I need it--and I need it now.
I inch up on my tippy-toes and reach for the birdcage. My other hand sinks into the soft, squishy contents of a yellow plastic bag that’s wedged between two boxes. I don’t know what’s inside the bag, and I don’t care. Mummy would never let me keep my room like this, but no one ever criticizes Aunty--Papa won’t allow it. She’s the oldest person in our family and spends almost every day buried under the heavy, colorful quilt that covers her bed. Sometimes she hums to herself and stares out the window. Other times she watches game shows on the little black-and-white TV that sits next to her bed. Now I see her pointing a wrinkled brown finger at me.
She says it louder this time. I feel my cheeks burn with shame.
“No, Aunty--I--I . . .” By pressing my hand deeper into the squishy plastic bag, I manage to steady myself and turn all the way around to face her. “I just need to borrow-- Whoa!”
I was so close to reaching my prize, but then I lose my balance. I fall off the chair, bounce off the foot of the bed, and land on the floor with a thud. My fall brings down an avalanche of boxes, and so I cover my head with my hands. When I open my eyes, the empty birdcage is rolling on its side next to me.
“Tut-tut-tut.” Aunty makes the strange sound without opening her mouth. “What a mess you’ve made.”
“Aunty? Is everything all right?”
My eyes open wide. If Mummy comes upstairs, she’ll want to know why I’m in Aunty’s room. And if I tell her the truth, she’ll want to know why I need an old birdcage. I can’t tell her that there’s a dragon in my bedroom. I can’t tell anyone that I’m a dragon thief!
Aunty watches me with a slight smile on her face. Against her dark skin, her black eyes sparkle with amusement. I don’t think she’s angry with me, so I decide to plead for help.
“Please don’t tell on me, Aunty! I’ll clean everything up--I promise.”
We both know Mummy’s standing at the foot of the stairs. Her hand is probably on the railing, and she’s wondering whether she needs to come upstairs to check on Aunty. My heart is pounding fast and hard, but I don’t yet hear Mummy’s slippered feet climbing the stairs. “Please, Aunty,” I whisper.
Aunty clears her throat and calls, “I’m fine, dear. I just knocked over some boxes. Kavita’s here to help me.”
We wait, frozen and silent, until we hear Mummy’s voice floating upstairs. “Okay, Aunty. I’ll be up soon with your lunch.”
Because she’s an elder, Aunty doesn’t have to do much around the house. She really only leaves her room to use the toilet and take two-hour baths. Aunty doesn’t even come downstairs to eat with us unless we have company over on special occasions. Mummy brings Aunty’s meals up on a tray. I scan the messy room for a clock and find one on the nightstand next to the bed. It’s a square digital clock that Vik and I gave to Aunty last Christmas. Its giant blue display reads 11:38.
I hop to my feet and scramble to pick up all the things I’ve just knocked down. Aunty waves her hand at me and says, “Leave it, child. It makes no difference to me whether they are up against the wall or on the floor. What is it you came to borrow?”
I feel guilty, so I set the chair back on its legs and stack a couple of boxes on its seat. Then I point to the pink wire cage and say, “I came to borrow your birdcage, Aunty.”
Her dark eyes narrow as she squints at me. “You don’t have a bird.”
My cheeks burn again, and I dig my toes into the thick green carpet. “No, Aunty.”
After studying me for a moment, she says, “Do you have some other kind of pet?”
I nod without looking up. How much should I tell her?
“I put it in a box, but . . .” I stop and decide not to tell Aunty that the dragon set the cardboard box on fire. “I need something stronger.”
Aunty leans back against her pillows and smooths the quilt with her hands. “I see. And your mother doesn’t know about this new pet of yours.”
It’s not a question. I nod again and dare to glance at Aunty’s face.
“Then you’d better take it,” Aunty says with a nod at the cage on the floor. “I had a songbird once, but I set it free before I left India. I only keep the cage to remind me. . . .”
I pick up the cage and hold it to my chest. “Remind you of what, Aunty?”
She sighs and closes her eyes. “That every living thing wants to be free.”
I look down at the cage in my arms. It might be shaped like the Taj Mahal, but it’s not a palace and certainly not a good home for a baby dragon. My cheeks burn again, and this time tears spill from my eyes.