Several days passed since I saw Saif. I was afraid to go to their home, I even faked illness to avoid going to school and seeing him, and pretended to be asleep whenever he came by to ask about me. I couldn’t even imagine looking him in the face. I was the one who exposed his sister’s secret, which was perhaps the only thing that brought her to love herself a little bit. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror, I was full of shame and disgust, for myself and for Nora, I couldn’t look at her, I couldn’t stand her voice, and for the first time in my life I allowed myself to think that I hate my sister. For the first time in my life I could understand how my mother felt, to have such an unspeakable bitterness in your heart for your own flesh and blood.
Several days have passed and I thought I couldn’t get away with my faked illness anymore. I knew that the next day I should go to school and see Saif. I was thinking the whole time about what I was going to say to him. I thought the best thing was to never bring up the subject, as if nothing had happened. I thought that the best thing was to forget about the whole thing. I also thought about Nimrah, perhaps this was what’s best for her. I told myself that she’ll eventually forget about it and go back to her normal life.
I sat in the living room, watching my mother cooking in the small kitchen passively. I was counting the seconds, hoping tomorrow will never come. I watched my mother stir the reddish broth in the huge pot, and all of a sudden I found myself counting the rounds she gave, slowly, indifferently. I think it was perhaps after 15 or 20 rounds that she lift the spoon to her mouth and slurped, tasting the hot stock.
“Ah, I knew the salt wasn’t enough!” She exclaimed. “Nora, go to the grocery and get me some.”
“But I just went there few days ago and seeing that despicable old thing twice a week is more than I can tolerate.” Nora replied as if she had the words prepared at the tip of her tongue, waiting to be unleashed. And then with the same readiness she suggested, “Let Layla go”
“I can’t let your sister go there alone!” My mother said in a tone that resembled a squeal. “It’s almost dusk.”
“Don’t worry about her.” Nora fired back. “I really can’t think of a reason that would make anyone want to kidnap her.”
My mother gaped at her angrily, and I saw where that was going so I decided the best thing was to say that I would like to go because I haven’t left home for a few days because of my sickness and I needed some fresh air. My mother hesitated at first but I convinced her that I was big enough and knew my way, besides it wasn’t dark yet. Nora had already left the room as if she had made up her mind not to go anyway.
I made my way to the grocery worrying with every step that I would run into Saif on my way. I tried to walk faster to go there and back home as quickly as I could to avoid any awkward encounter.
When I reached the grocery the place was shadowy and dim, since there was only a small window that allowed little light in, especially in the last hour before dusk. Something about the place felt evil and threatening, and I could hardly stand to talk to Abu Ashour, with his picture connected in my mind to that of Nora and Saif.
There was no one but Abu Ashour in the store, which made it feel even more daunting. I walked in with heavy steps, trying to stay as far as I could from his desk, and with a voice that hardly amounted to that of a whisper, I told him what my mother wanted.
“What?” He said with his usual yellowish smile. “I can’t hear you. Come on, come closer.”
I felt uneasy and tried to raise my voice a little bit more, but he insisted that he couldn’t hear me and asked me to get closer to him. I walked a little bit closer to him and raised my voice.
“Ah, salt!” He said as if he already knew it. “Well, I have none here but I could get you some from inside.”
He then walked toward the inner store, and after a few steps he turned around and said, “aren’t you coming with me or are you still afraid of the dark?”
I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but the look in his eyes and his malicious smile made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t move. He rolled his eyes and yelled at me again. I looked at the darkened store inside and felt a shiver down my spine, and before I knew it I found myself running away.
I didn’t know where I was going but I knew I wasn’t heading home. I didn’t know it until I found myself standing before Saif’s house, panting, knocking on his door.
He was so happy to see me, which made me feel even more guilty, but I couldn’t think of that because my mind was fixated on one thing. I was terrified, and I needed Saif to feel safe.
I didn’t tell him what happened, I let him think that I was shivering because I was still feeling sick. He brought me a scarf that belonged to his mother and Nimrah made me some hot tea. I looked at them and it hit me then, like a bolt from the blue, how much more I felt at home with them than with my own family. A family that I could only remember by the salty taste of tears rolling down my lips.