“She’s not here!”
Heavy boots clomp away.
The light from the flashlights has been reduced to pinpricks in the distance, and the harsh cries of the men have faded. Lying flat against a shallow embankment, still paralyzed with fear, a mother clutches her daughter to her chest. Both mother and daughter are filthy, clothed in sweaty, blood-hemmed rags. The child begins to whimper from being held too tightly for too long. The woman dares to bounce up and down softly, and the baby’s cries subside.
They are safe. For now.
. . .
The noises had ceased drifting off the street. Sonia lay with her daughter on her chest, little Lola’s pudgy fingers curled loosely around her hijab. Despite the danger, Yara had been gone since the morning, slipping out yet again to glean whatever news she could. Sonia’s uncle, Tamer, had gone after her, shaking his head.
Alysha, who shared a house with Sonia along with her husband, who was Yara’s older brother, and their three children, had been busy cooking and cleaning with Hamila. The housework became an outlet for their pent-up worry, over the war, over Yara’s rebellion.
“Mrs. Abboud.” Issam, Alysha’s youngest, was crouched beside Sonia. Her peaceful haze lifted for a moment as the grubby child gave her a gap-toothed smile. “Anzur, zahrat. Lak.”
Sonia smiled as the small boy held up a perfect jasmine bud, a miracle in frigid late February.
Then the door flew open, the panes set into it smashing with the impact.
Yara stumbled into the room, breathing heavily, her hijab askew. Sonia caught sight of a single dark curl hiding against Yara’s neck, hardly visible against the black fabric. Yara’s cheeks were flushed, and her hands were pink and frozen against her tattered clothing as she took ragged breaths in an effort to speak.
“Sonia,” Yara gasped. “Your husband is dead. Bassam was caught trying to pass information to the Americans . . . he’s been doing it for months and we had no idea. Tamer was shot.” Hamila gasped. “We must flee. ISIS is coming for you, for me. I heard their men speaking of it in the marketplace and now they know that I know. They will be here in a matter of hours.”
Sonia’s blood ran cold.
. . .
It was three months after they had fled. Yara and Sonia walked slowly towards the safehouse; the pickings at the market had been slim, and they had been lucky to fill the basket dangling from Yara’s arm. Lola gurgled contently, tugging at the blanket that secured her firmly to Sonia’s chest.
Sonia was about to speak when she heard it. An explosion, coming from the direction of the safehouse. She and Yara locked eyes.
“No,” said Yara, knowing what Sonia was about to say before she could say it. Sonia took off running towards the safehouse. She made it only a few paces before Yara’s wiry hand wrapped around her wrist.
“We have to help them! Al'umu!” Sonia cried, struggling.
“No.” Yara’s voice was as firm as her grip on Sonia, but Sonia could sense the anguish behind her words. “Think of Lola, Sonia.”
Sonia tucked her head, looking down at her baby. Lola stared back up at her, confused by the fear in she saw in Sonia’s eyes. Sonia’s heart clenched, but she had no other choice. Her baby needed her.
“Go,” Sonia said, and they ran.
. . .
Sonia presses herself against the concrete wall. Yara is beside her, clasping the small basket from that day at the marketplace that is now filled with everything the two women own.
A door slams below them. Sonia holds her breath as she listens.
“Check the building!” It is a man’s voice, harsh, and very close. Footsteps echo through the empty rooms, coming ever nearer to where Sonia and Yara are hiding.
Suddenly the door to the room bangs open, and heavy boots clomp into the room. There is no more hiding. Yara springs to her feet, seeing the gun clasped in the man’s hand. She hurtles toward the man, knowing that if she can get that gun, they will survive. The man is surprised, and stumbles back as Yara grapples for possession of the gun. Sonia yearns to help, but knows that she must protect Lola.
The gun goes off, and the floor of the warehouse disappears underneath the man’s feet. The bullet must have gone through the floor. For a heartstopping second, Sonia is sure that Yara fell through with the man. But as the cloud of dust clears, Yara is lying beside the hole, pushed away from the edge by the man as he fell. Sonia rushes to Yara’s side, laughing in relief, but a dark stain has spread across Yara’s side and her breathing is ragged.
Cries come from the street. The men heard them, and it won’t be long before they are here.
Yara opens her mouth to speak, barely forming words. “Go. You must leave here.”
Sonia’s hands clutch desperately at her skirts, trying to stop the flow of Yara’s blood, but it is useless. Sonia’s heaving sobs wrack her body as hope dwindles away. “I love you.”
Yara laid a hand against Sonia’s cheek as Lola starts to whimper. “I love you, too,” she says, mustering a smile.
“Not— not as a friend,” Sonia manages, holding Lola closer. “l—I love you, Yara.”
Yara is calm, but the look in her eyes is heart-wrenching. “I know. I love you too.”
“I can’t leave you,” Sonia whispers.
Yara smiles up at her for the last time, knowing that she must. “Don't let the past pin you down, Sonia. You have wings, even if you can't see them yet. Fly for me, won't you?”
A sob claws its way out of Sonia’s throat, and she runs, clutching Lola to her chest.
. . .
The light from the flashlights has been reduced to pinpricks in the distance, and the harsh cries of the men have faded. Lying flat against a shallow embankment, still paralyzed with fear, Sonia clutches Lola to her chest. Both mother and daughter are filthy, clothed in sweaty, blood-hemmed rags. Lola begins to whimper from being held too tightly for too long. Sonia dares to bounce up and down softly, and the baby’s cries subside. So close now . . . so close . . .
. . .
The rocky beach is peaceful in the early morning light, an absurd contrast from what Sonia and Lola have experienced. They are as safe as they can be here, just another two among the ragged band of desperate faces.
Sonia keeps Lola close to her as they board. The tiny boats sit low in the water, and as Sonia closes her eyes, she can almost imagine the water spilling over the sides of the boat and pouring into their laps, a death sentence from the sea. A likely future, and an unavoidable one.
But somehow, in spite of the danger, Sonia’s heart lifts as they push away from the shore. Turning back, all she can see of her home are the thorny bushes that protect the small, stony beach, and behind them rough trees, their branches extending to the sickly-blue sky. She thinks of the people she left behind; Maisha, Hamila, Tamer, Bassam, Yara. But most of all, she thinks of Lola.
Sonia thinks of her daughter, a daughter who will never have to face the terror of a war-stricken world. A daughter who has a future somewhere else, somewhere free. A daughter who sleeps in Sonia’s arms, waiting for Sonia to bring her home.
Sonia’s eyes leave the beach and focus on the horizon in front of them as a pink glow spreads across the sky, a path of light glistening across the water in front of them. The sun is rising.
And so is Sonia.