At four o’clock, I got up to answer a knock at the door with Abe following close behind me. My mouth dropped. Rana looked like her picture, but she wore a baby strapped to her chest. Her eyes grew wide and she gasped as she closed her arms protectively around the baby. She looked from me to Abe and back to me. “J—Jackson telled me to come.” Her English wasn’t as good as Abe’s and Mirriam’s.
“It’s okay. His room is upstairs.” I opened the door wider, so she could come in. Then I stepped closer to Abe and slipped my fingers through his. It was the first real contact we’d had in a while, and my heart jumped. But mostly, I needed his strength. I wanted to know about this baby strapped to my brother’s mystery girl’s chest, because I had put up with a lot from Jackson, but if I found out he abandoned a kid, I’d kick his ass.
I closed the door behind us and locked it. I walked toward the couch, and Abe moved in front of the door, blocking it. “Why don’t you come sit down?” I said. “Jackson’s not here.”
She looked back to the door, ready to bolt. Abe crossed his arms and made no effort to move away from the door.
“But I got an email,” she said.
I sat down. “I sent the email.”
A wrinkle formed on her forehead, and her face tensed. “Why would you do that?”
“Jackson is in jail for the fire, and you’re the only other person who was there. He won’t tell me anything, and I know my brother didn’t set the fire. What happened?”
“Jackson’s in jail? Oh, this is bad.” She clasped her hand over her mouth.
“You didn’t know?” She’s not letting him take the fall.
She shook her head. “He will not talk to me. I keep trying to talk to him since I got here, and he will not listen.”
“What do you mean since you got here?”
“I tried to call since I come to U.S. I got him to meet me one time. I wanted to tell him, but he showed up angry and then I knocked over the lamps. We had to leave.”
Things began to make sense. “The mosque. You knocked over a lamp? Is that what started the fire?”
“Four lamps. Kerosine lamps from different parts of the Arabic world. Jackson was so mad, and I was nervous. I didn’t have much time before the lady keeping the baby would need to leave. I needed to tell him. He wouldn’t let me talk. I backed into the table. They all came crashing down.” She sobbed now, and the baby started crying. She cooed at the baby through tears. Her uncontrollable sobs upset the baby.
“Can I hold your baby?” I asked.
She shook her head and wiped her eyes.
“You’re upset. Please, let me hold the baby until you calm down.”
She nodded and worked to remove the baby from the blanket holding it to her chest. She handed me a small baby in a blue onesie the same color as his eyes, and I knew I’d kill Jackson.
Abe came to sit down beside me.
“This is Jackson’s baby.” It wasn’t a question.
“Where are you staying?”
“A homeless shelter and my time is almost up. That’s why I have to talk to Jackson.”
The baby was beautiful with coffee skin, black hair, and the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. I held him closer to my chest. “Jackson isn’t helping.”
She wiped her eyes and looked at me. “He doesn’t know, and I’d like to be the one to tell him.”
“Why doesn’t he know?”
“We got in a fight. He told me he never wanted to see me again.” She shook her head. “His whole company was gone the next day. If I didn’t have a baby, I wouldn’t come looking for him.”
“Whole company? He met you in Afghanistan?”
She covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Jackson will go to jail. We can’t talk about this.”
“He’s already there.”
“He told me if anyone found out he met me in a warzone and promised to marry me, they’ll throw him in the brigs. When I asked what a brig was, he said ‘hell’.”
“What’s his name?” I asked, looking at the baby.
I nodded. “But my brother’s been back for six months. You didn’t know before then?” This baby wasn’t a newborn.
She shook her head. “I thought I was getting fat, because Jackson brought food every time he came.”
I didn’t know why I was about to tell her this, but I said it anyhow. “My mom left when I was three and Jackson was six.”
“I know,” she said.
“If you admit to starting the fire, Jackson will take care of you when he gets out of jail. I’ll make sure of it.” I shook my head. “He’s a bum, but we have money.”
“Kailee—” Abe started.
“If I admit to starting the fire people will ask why I was there. Why was he there? How do we know each other? What I tell them?”
“Tell them you’re his girlfriend and you met in Austin. He’s always partying there.”
“How do you explain the baby?” Abe asked.
I hadn’t thought about that. “Where did you have the baby?”
“Here. In a hospital.”
I nodded. “Is Jackson’s name on the birth certificate?”
She shook her head. “I was afraid he would get in trouble.”
“Then don’t mention the baby.”
“Kailee, that kid is half white,” Abe said.
“It’s not like someone is going to come poke him to do a DNA test.”
Abe put a hand on my knee. “But he’s obviously part white.”
“How many white guys are there in the world?”
“That’s true and a lot of them went to Afghanistan.” Abe looked to Rana. “He promised to marry you and left you?”
She shrugged. “We always knew he would leave. He got a week of extra duty to give me his dog tags. He made sure I had enough cash, and all of his information so I could find him when I got here. That was the plan. He’d leave. I’d go tell the missionaries that I wanted to convert but feared for my life, and they would bring me here. We’d find each other and get married. But after the fight he asked for everything back and said he never wanted to see me again. I told him I saved his life and he owed more than he gave me. He could hate me if he wanted to, but I wasn’t giving him anything.”
“You saved his life?” I held the baby tighter.
“I found him beaten and bloody in the street. I pulled him into my cave and bandaged him up. If I had left him there, the raiders would have picked anything valuable off of him and finished him off.”
“You can stay here tonight,” I said.
“I have to return the car,” Rana said.
“Well, if you ever need a place to stay, you can stay here. I’ll help you in any way I can.”
“What do we do now?” Abe asked once Rana was gone.
“Come up with a cover story and make her confess. She’ll do it. She needs help taking care of that baby.”
“How are we going to make their stories match?”
I sighed. “I have an idea, but I’m not sure it will work.”
He nodded. “We’ll try.” Then he shook his head. “I need to call Caleb before work.”
“Make sure that punk knows what will happen if he leaves my sister.”
I laughed. The way Abe took care of Mirriam was so cute.