I wrap my arms around myself in an attempt to keep warm. Even here, in the hottest of deserts, it gets chilly after the sun makes its departure.
I look down at Sam, contentedly sleeping with his head in my lap and stroke his fine, white hair. I always thought that it would darken into a light brown or sandy blonde one day, but at nine-and-a-half years old, it looks like he’s stuck with his old man colouring.
“Sarah,” I hear him whisper, eyes still closed against the billowing sand and biting wind.
“What is it, baby?” I ask, still petting him like a cat.
“I know,” I tell him. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get lucky and someone will come for us.”
“Local villagers, or maybe a search party. Someone’s bound to have noticed we’re missing by now.”
He opens his big brown eyes and looks at me.
“What if they don’t?”
“Then we keep going,” I say firmly.
I brace myself for more questions, but to my surprise, he just nods and falls back asleep.
I carefully angle my body so that it covers his, but we’re both shivering nonetheless. Tears form behind my eyes, but I cannot afford to let them fall. Those drops of water are precious to me. Possibly, the last in my system. I tilt my head back until the feeling subsides.
Three days. Three days since our caravan ran out of gas, three days stranded in the Sahara, two since we lost my mother.
My stomach lurches, both from hunger, and the deep sensation of loss that I know will never fade. She was a wildlife photographer, my mother. Apart from maybe us, there was nothing in the world she loved more than animals. She always said she wanted to die at the hands of one.
Well she got her wish.
The night ticks away almost without my knowledge. I know that we should probably be travelling right now, when the sky isn’t burning with the heat of a million suns, but night-time is the only time Sam can sleep, and I can’t have him collapsing on me. He’s too big for me to carry and I’m already exhausted down to my core.
So, when dawn comes, as it always does, welcome or not, I gently shake him awake and we begin our excursion anew. I cross my fingers, hoping and praying that we are headed south, away from the desert and toward civilisation, and not west, further into the Sahara. The honest truth is, I have no clue. I was never a girl scout, and my only experience with this kind of terrain comes from brief outings meticulously arranged by my mother, always returning to our cushy hotel at the end of the day.
We have water, but not much. We barely have three sips left.
Sam and I down it before it can evaporate.
We walk in silence, our throats too dry to produce coherent words. Somewhere along the line I feel myself starting to slip away. I can recognise the tell-tale shimmer of mirages swirling in my periphery.
I need to lie down.
“Sam,” I murmur in my sandpapery voice. “Go find us a spot to rest.”
He nods and then leads me away. I follow without really seeing anything. All I am aware of is a sudden chill piercing through my body, a stark contrast to the heat that I know is surrounding me. The world goes black.
I stand on a precipice. Below me, I can clearly make out Sam, lying huddled in the sand with the sun beating down. I lie just a few feet beside him, still as a statue. The sight makes me unbearably sad, not for my own sake, but for Sam’s. Without me, he’s got no chance out here. Heck, he barely had a chance with me.
Then my eyes catch sight of the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
An army-green Jeep crawling across the rough terrain. Inside are six men, four with dark skin and two with light. All of them with heads dangling out of the vehicle, scanning. One of the men shouts, catching sight of my lifeless body peeking out from beneath the dune.
In that moment I feel a presence materialise behind me. I have a choice to make, but it’s not really much of a choice at all.
I watch for a few more moments, making sure that Sam is safe and tucked into the back seat of the Jeep, a fresh bottle of water tucked tightly into his tiny, sun-burnt hands before turning away and hurling myself into my mother’s waiting arms.