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When The Air Strikes

By Mariya Nadeem All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Mystery

One

1

There are a million ways for a story to start- the beginning, the middle, the end, because we all choose a different point in time to be immortalized as the opening line. It’s the crazy ways the human nature works. Some people like to very scientifically progress with whatever it is that they want to share, some people like to absorb all your attention, so they start mid-scene, pulling you in and others just want to make sure you can handle the weight of their entire story so they start with the finale as a slight warning. I can start with a poem, with the letter, with an airstrike or the Arabic alphabet ‘Ain.’ but by the end, you will know why I didn’t. I could pick up the hospital room and the disgust hidden behind the midwives’ smiling faces as they pull out a lump of flesh and bones covered in blood from my mother’s belly as the beginning of my story, but that would be lying. And to all the authors, glorifying the beauty of being born, in the face of honesty, I say- I REMEMBER NOTHING ABOUT BEING THE EMBRYO IN ITS EIGHTH WEEK LIVING ON THE FOOD AND OXYGEN BROUGHT BY THE PLACENTA. NOTHING.

“Showing off knowledge is downright hot. It’s all the makeup you’ll ever need,” my mom claims. No, mum. It’s not. Also please, never use hot and knowledge in the same sentence ever again. Not all kinds of knowledge are good and let me initiate my narration with that piece of information.

I am not a very knowledgeable person, but I have a little data that not most people in the world have. I know what dirt tastes like. Now isn’t that hot?

I don’t mean dirt as in the spiritual metaphor of belonging to the Earth. I know dirt, as in mouthful of blood and a chipped nail. I used to play street football. Every second Friday of the month, I would have to go for the big match in the street, parallel to mine. It was the most lit up place in London. Street football is not half as friendly as it sounds. As opposed to popular belief, it is very professional. We were leading by 3-1 when a shoulder hit my spine and I hurled down to the ground. My tongue was covered in grainy dirt before blood started oozing out of my gums, turning everything metallic.

Street football rule #1: An injury ranging from a scraped knee to rushing to the hospital would result in instant abortion of the game. Major damage would mean score at the time of the mishap to be final.

I lie down on the stretcher smiling. We won. In the hospital, I wake up to find my mom and dad huddled around my bed. There are bright lights all around me and a nurse wearing flip-flops that thud against the ground hard every time she puts one foot in front of the other says, “You’ll be out in a while. Your mum’s been driving the whole faculty crazy.” Mom has a tissue wrapped around her thumb. I make a mental note to not touch it. She hugs me, “We were so worried. I am not letting you go for another one of those barbaric games again.”

“But mum, it was an accident. I didn’t even hurt myself. Look.” I say turning to the side so I can get up, walk and prove. But a searing pain rises in my left scapula and I fall back.

“See, you can’t even put yourself together.”

“That’s because the hospital vibe is taking a toll on me. Dad!”

“The doctor says you can’t go back to the ground, uh, street, whatever for another month. But mom rules,” he says very quickly before motioning towards the ward’s door, “We’ll come back in a while to pick you up. Get to know your visitors till then.”

Get to know? Don’t tell me the queen is here to ask me to give up on my passion too. I groan and sit back, resting the end of my spine on the pillow. My parents exit the room and two people walk in. I am scared a part of my brain is hurt too, because I can’t recall the names of the two faces I see. I make quick deductions. A girl and a boy. Very alike, siblings probably. Tall for their age. Toned muscles. Army kids? Maybe. I rack the files in my head, searching for an indication. That is when it hits me, a little too literally, as I butt my head against the wall. This is the girl from the opposition.

“Hi, are you alright?” she asks in a voice too sweet for her personality. I nod mutely. What is wrong with me? “Sorry about the push. I didn’t do it on purpose.”

To make up for my previous wordless insanity I mumble, “No, it’s fine. Happens all the time. But we won the game, so yay.” They both look at me seriously doubting my mental condition. “I mean not the hospital part. Players get hurt, you know.”

She tentatively sits down on the sofa placed near the opposite wall, “Yeah. Anyway, I am Hanna. This is my brother Luke. Again, I am really sorry about tonight. I did not mean for any of this to happen.” Then she shoulders her brother. What is this girl? Your signature move?

“Uh, hi,” he says placing himself beside his sister, “Hanna can be a little ferocious, forgive her. But you won the game, so yay.”

To cut through the serial progression of embarrassment I foresee at the back of my head I say, “Actually I am not feeling very well. Do you mind if we meet some other day? Say, tomorrow?”

“Yeah sure,” Hanna answers standing up fast, “After school, we can drive to whatever place suits you the best. Here is my number. Okay, bye.”

“Bye,” I force a smile. I take the piece of paper that Hanna has her number scribbled on, crumble it and toss it in my pocket, reminding myself to throw it on the way back to home. I turn around in my bed and let out a loud scream into my pillow. My parents enter the ward at the same moment. “Are you feeling comfortable?” my mom frowns. “Yes, mom. Totally.” I shout violently, sending them both into fits of mad laughter.

We get into our sedan. The freshness of the outside world feels good. It’s weird to be drawing air out of the nothingness that the starless sky is. Weirdly good. But my mother makes me roll up the window, “You’ll catch a cold too.” Dad parks the car below our apartment on Westminster Street opposite the tube station.

On Monday, my mom assures me that it’s totally alright if I want to stay back at home and not go to school. She says she can take a day off too. I deny the acceptance of her proposal. The comforter on my bed tempts me but I march away. After school that day, my mom is at the reception to pick me up. I usually take the bus, so it’s hard for me to follow the steps of dispersal. Just as I am about to get into my mom’s car I see something that changes my life. Not a thing to be very specific, but two things- two people. It’s Hanna and Luke. In that moment I realize how we go about life leaving so much unnoticed. It’s still acceptable if you do not register the presence of stars in the sky or the way people stammers too much when talking about the things they love or the little sounds that wash over silence or the shrinking of pupils or the sudden growth in height of a person when standing around people to tall for them or the inevitable constant rise and fall of chests, because we’re humans and it is only human to ignore things that require a little more attention to be noticed than it is normal to be paying. But these were two fully grown fourteen-year-old kids we were dealing with. The same age as me, then. I don’t know what life would have turned out to be if I had just shut the door and asked mom to drive us home. Rather, I froze in place looking at the two pairs of eyes staring back at me.

That evening the three of us met at the local café, near my house- Forein. Luke and Hanna are army kids. Their father, General Hood and Mrs. Hood live with them in Holland Park. Since then there’s been a lot of information I have collected about them. Hanna hates apples. Luke plays basketball. Hanna runs a mile every day. Luke cannot stand silence. Hanna thinks braces are a little frightening. Luke is a poet. And that was something I did not see coming. Because Luke and poetry is like Luke and poetry, there isn’t a better mismatch. He also performs spoken word at the poetry slam with the Somnambulist, third Friday of every month. Somnambulism is defined as sleepwalking. And performers at the slam are proud to be sleepwalking through the pool of poems.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I write too. But that never in a thousand worlds and a million years means that I’d like to put my work- uh- series of words, up for display, leave alone letting it out of my own mouth.

There’s another little detail about the meeting that seems capable of holding attention. We were seated around a round table finishing up our coffees when suddenly Luke’s eye caught the reflection shimmering on the huge glass that covers the best part of the west wall, of the hoarding in front of the café, “What the hell does Forein even mean?” I feel very stupid about not knowing the answer considering I’ve skipped a hundred lunches to have the dark chocolate nougat from the place, “I don’t know, maybe it’s just an illiterate miscellaneous choice of word or the result of an epic failure at trying to sound posh.” To my rescue then Hanna walked back slamming her hand on the table transferring the little lines of her palms onto the wooden top, “Do you see the old man there? He owns this place. I asked him about the christening of the café. He says when he first came to London, he was a passionate young fellow who wanted to give everything he had towards his work. Then the cafeteria came up and he thought it was only mandatory to give a part of him to it. So the next thing you know, he takes a paper, scribbles down every word that comes to his mind when he looks at himself in the mirror. Next, he circles the most appropriate adjective- foreign. But, sadly the first time the menus were printed, there was a typing error. It has been this way for ages.”

So much for social interaction. I didn’t even know the old guy could speak.

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