This Life Will be the Death of Us

May 7, 2010
I roll over in bed and pull the covers on top of my head, trying to block out the sounds of my sister making breakfast in the other room. I marvel at her ability to get up before the sun every single day. I'll never be able to wake up early without complaining, but I've pushed it as late as possible this morning.
I tuck my hair into a sky blue hijab and wiggle into the hot, concealing clothes that women in our country wear nearly constantly.
“What's for breakfast, Sissy?” I demand, rounding the corner to the kitchen. Our tiny Afghani house has only 3 rooms, like all the others on our street: kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. None are very luxurious.

“You'd know if you ever got up early enough to help,” my older sister replies, crossly. I stick my tongue out at her but she ignores me, throws a pan into the leaky sink and stalks out of the room. Pretending that nothing happened, I grab a bowl out of our one cabinet and go on with my breakfast until I hear loud gagging noises from the other room. I jump up and dart to the bathroom where I find my sister violently throwing up into our shabby toilet.
“Um, Mei? Are you??” My concerned question is cut off by another round of vomit in the toilet. Realizing this must be why she was so cranky with me; I squat next to her and gently rub circles on her back.

“I don't think I can go to the school today . . . “ Mei mumbles as she lays her pale face on the cool, cement floor.

“Obviously,” I reply. It's not that I'm not concerned for my sister, she just gets sick so easily. “If you can walk back to the bed, I'll cover your class this morning and go get you some stomach medicine from the market strip later.”

Mei's closed eyes flutter open in panic.
“Yes, yes, and NO. You are not going there by yourself in the middle of the?” Her warning is cut off and she ducks her head back into the toilet, gagging. With a sigh, I grab a, hopefully, clean rag off the side of the sink, wet it, and press it to her face.
"Come on, to the bed. I'll get you a bucket."

I help my sister down the hall into our tiny bedroom dominated solely by our double bed and a lopsided dresser pushed up under the window. I tuck her into bed and kiss her forehead before grabbing our schoolbags and rushing out the door.

Out on the street I pass our neighbors; women sweeping the ever-present dust off their porches, dirty children chattering in Arabic, and the common goat or chicken rooting around for something to eat. I make sure to call greetings to everyone in English, since it's my job to make sure everyone in our town is fluent in the language.

“Lein!” The woman who lives in the gray house on the corner catches my attention and waves me toward her. “You see American truck go by?” She demands, pointing down the road to a cloud of dust that unmistakably belongs to an American tank. Instead of correcting her broken English, I switch to Arabic and spend a moment gossiping about the increased number of troops in our little South Afghanistan town. I don't know much about the war, but even I can tell the fighting is getting closer. It makes all the women uneasy, which is why Mei says our class sizes are shrinking. People are too scared of terrorist threats to send their daughters to be educated.

I say goodbye to the neighbor-lady and rush the rest of the way down the wide, dusty block to the pathetic two-room schoolhouse. Pulling open the door, I'm greeted by a happy chorus of little girl voices. I can't help but smile. I love my job.
* * * * *

I lurch over the side of the bed as I feel my stomach heave in preparation for another bout of vomit. This is awful. I haven't been able to leave the bed since my sister left me here three hours ago. At least she actually helped me before she left this time. My baby sis has no concept of caring for someone. Of course, that’s never been her job. I’M the older one, and so I’ve taken care of her our whole lives.
Finally, FINALLY I think my stomach has expelled everything possible. I trudge out of bed and practically crawl back down the hall to the bathroom. Propping myself up on the sink, I peer into the foggy mirror. My long black hair is dull and caked with drying puke. Despite having spent my whole life in Quandahar, I still succumb easily to common desert illnesses.

After rinsing my hair to the best of my ability, I pull it back into a tight bun, tug my violet hijab over my head and kneel right there on the bathroom floor to say morning prayers. I know Lein must have forgotten hers, because I was too sick to remind her. What time is it anyway? Shouldn't she be out of the school by now? “Dammit, she better not have gone to the market,” I mutter to myself, gathering the strength to wobble to the front door. I had never let my younger sister go there by herself. It just wasn't safe. If the American troops weren't dangerous enough with their paranoid, ‘shoot everything’ attitudes, stupid radicals who liked to strap bombs to themselves had been known to frequent our village. I try very hard to shield Lein from the war. I don’t want her to be ignorant to the danger around us, but I will always, ALWAYS feel the need to protect her from such horrors.

The light outside is blinding and gives me an instant headache. I glance down the street and force my hoarse throat to project words to the nearest visible neighbor, "Did Lein leave the school yet?" Everyone on this street knows everyone else, and the man whose gardening I've interrupted shields his eyes from the sun as he looks over at me and answers in Arabic.

"Yes. She went into town. My wife was going to come check on you in a moment."
He seems concerned for my always-frail health, but before I can even thank him, an Earth-shaking BOOM interrupts me. The explosion sends people who were milling about outside ducking for cover, and it's followed by two smaller blasts.
Panic seizes my chest and my big sister instincts kick in. That explosion came from the area where Lein is. I can see black pillars of smoke rising up just a little ways away from fires caused by the explosions. My weak body and constricting clothing protest as I jump off the porch and bolt down the road, but I ignore it. In my head, I'm praying every prayer I've ever learned from a lifetime spent in the mosque, trying to plead for my only sibling’s safety.

The wreckage becomes visible as I approach the market and main part of town. Buildings have been reduced to crumbled cement and the dust is making my lungs scream in agony. But that's nothing compared to the screams I hear around me. Unsuspecting pedestrians are bleeding on the sidewalks, and mothers are crying over dead or wounded children. A smoldering car about 100 yards away is the most likely cause of the initial explosion, but I also see the barrel of an American tank emitting smoke. Who blew up what first? I'm too panicked to think straight. Where's my sister? Is she hurt somewhere, dying because I can't get to her fast enough? I feel tears from all the smoke stream down my face. Where. Is. My. Sister? I stare at every passing face, trying to locate her.

Then, as suddenly as the first, another BOOM shakes the street. I'm lurched off my feet and hear my head crack on the ground before everything goes black.

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