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The room is too hot.
Avery has finally cried himself to sleep on my lap, there is blood splashed across the white wall of the hallway outside our room like a distorted Jackson Pollock, there is a man with a gun standing just outside the open door, and all I can think about is the heat, pressing down from all sides in a thick gold haze. They shut the window, not that we could jump out of it; our room is on the third floor of the Embassy. Not to say that I haven’t considered it, but a jump would mean broken legs at the least, and even if we survived the fall we’d still have to get past the men camped in front of the embassy’s main building, holding their rifles at the ready. The machine guns erected in front of the closed front gates aren’t comforting either, though I don’t know if they’re meant to keep us in or other people out.
Shots slam through the air distantly, somewhere in the building. See me: a skinny fourteen-year-old sitting fully dressed on a bed, shrinking back against the headboard and digging her fingers into her sleeping brother’s arms, imagining blood splashing onto the beautiful wooden walls of the Embassy. The headboard shudders against the white-painted wall, the afghan shifting slightly and brushing across the game of Monopoly lying forgotten on the floor, paper money strewn in bright piles. See Avery: small for seven, eyelids flickering, tear tracks spelling fear on his cheeks, one hand knotted in his sister’s sleeve.
A rifle fires once again, and a scream tears through air. See a girl, trying her hardest not to imagine to parents a word she can’t say, can’t think. Please, God, she’s praying, please let it not be them. Let them have gotten to the safe room. Let them have escaped in the helicopter. Just please, God, don’t let it be them.
I want to rip the sheets, or cry, or slam my skull into the headboard. I want to be doing anything but sitting and praying to a God I don’t believe in.
I have never understood how people can be so fervent without any proof, how they can be faithful enough to slaughter thousands in hope of reclaiming a Holy Land or righting the wrongs done by those unfaithful. Sometimes I wonder if they don’t even actually believe in God, if it’s just an excuse to kill. And I do believe humanity would make up excuses to kill. I don’t think there’s much we humans won’t do.
But whether or not they truly believe, they’re here. See my city, early this morning: the Taliban is storming into it, overpowering the Embassy that has been my family’s home since the end of the War in Afghanistan. See the American Embassy: people are screaming and running, helicopters are taking off, and two children are in the wrong room at the wrong time, listening to solitary rifle shots and the pattering of machine guns and shouts in English and Farsi and Pashtu.
What’s worse than screams is when they’re cut off.
There are footsteps in the hallway, bringing me back to the present. I straighten automatically and watch the doorway as a man with a grizzled beard walks into view, says something to our guard in quiet Farsi, then stumps away, his heavy shoes tapping on the floor as slowly and steadily as what I imagine the beat of a funeral march would be like. I want, suddenly, to hear a funeral march, so that I can know if my comparison is correct.
See me: wondering distractedly about funeral marches. I don’t know why I’m sitting here calmly, still but for the shaking of my left hand, instead of curled up and sobbing like Avery was. I’ve always hoped that in this kind of situation—though I’ve never imagined this exact scenario—I would find some miraculous and heroic way to escape and bring my brother and myself to safety right under the nose of the enemy.
But that won’t happen. At least I’m brave enough to know it.
I wipe my sweaty hair off my forehead, the heat shackling me to the wall. I look up to the ceiling, and I pray.
I don’t know how much time has passed when Avery begins to stir. “Mommy?” he asks sleepily, eyes still closed.
The word is soft in the air, floating up to brush my face and punch me in the stomach. “Mommy’s not here, Avy,” I say quietly.
His eyes flutter open and fix blearily on my face. He looks confused for a moment, then jerks upright and stares around the room. He fixes on the man standing in our doorway, comfortably holding his rifle and staring at us with impassive black eyes. Avery’s breathing accelerates. “Emma,” he says, “I want Mommy.”
I wrap my arms around him. “We can’t have Mommy right now.”
His eyes are wild with fear, his small body shivering as he twists around to look up at my face. “Why not? Where is she?”
I don’t know. “She’s with Daddy.” See me: lying to my brother with a hollow voice.
“Why can’t she be here?”
Because she might be safe in a helicopter heading back to the U.S. Because she might be a Taliban captive, held somewhere else in the building. Because she might be—
“She just can’t, right now.” I try to keep my voice low and soothing. It doesn’t work.
Avery turns back around to look at our guard, and his eyes fall onto the spattering of blood staining the wall of the hallway. He goes stiff for a moment, and then, very slowly, turns around and buries his face in the crook of my elbow. I wrap my free arm around him. “Shh,” I murmur. “Shh, Avy. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”
I’ve always been a good liar.
Avery has once again cried himself to sleep, after eating half of the granola bars stuffed in our bedside table’s drawer. I ease him slowly out of my lap, a badly jointed rag doll, and onto the bed covers. I stand and walk forward to stand in the doorway, my blue-striped socks gliding over the floor. The guard turns toward me.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I say in very quiet Pashtu, not meeting his eyes.
If he is surprised that I speak his language, he doesn’t show it, the eyes between the wiry black beard and wrapped head covering impassive. “Where is it?” he asks. I point to the door, two steps past him in the hallway. He opens it, looks around, and nods once, curtly. I walk past him with my back tingling and aching from imagined crosshairs, but then I am inside, and I close the door quietly before sinking down to the floor, my back against the wall. I stay there for a few moments, concentrating on nothing but the warm darkness against my face and the cold tile underneath my socked feet.
On my way out of the bathroom, I look into the mirror hanging over the sink. See the girl staring back at me: it is a girl I don’t know, with ravaged eyes and dark hair stark against her skin. A girl with the face of a corpse, with nothing in her gaze as she stares at me.
I don’t try to make any emotion show on my face. I don’t try to convince myself that I really am living.
I turn away from the mirror and walk out.
I spend the night huddled on the bed with my brother. Our guard has faded into shadow except for his quiet breathing. My eyes are fixed on the constellations past the closed window, studying the stars that show above the mountains that edge the city. I don’t know if the gunshots have deafened my ears or if the heat is blocking all sound, but I can’t hear the always-present thrum of cars, footsteps, and trains, honks and shouts, the feral mountain wind rattling through the windows. The city is silent, so silent that I am certain that I will pray through the night instead of sleeping, but wake up in the morning to bright sunlight slanting across the bedspread and angry shouts in Pashtu and Farsi. A man in a traditional white robe and dark vest hurries up to our guard, who is standing with a worried, confused expression on his face. “What is it?” our guard asks in Pashtu, so fast that I can barely understand hi. “What’s going on?”
“Its those damned Americans,” the newcomer says in a voice reminding me forcibly of the lions in the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan. When I was younger, Dad would take Avery and me on weekends, since the zoo was so close to our apartment. “During the night they attacked Mullah Latif Fahran’s camp in Khayrabad. Took it over. And now the Americans are demanding an exchange of prisoners.”
Our guard lets out something I suspect is a curse, but I don’t know. I can hear, think, and breathe nothing but the man’s sentence: the Americans are demanding an exchange of prisoners.
“Did they capture Mullah Fahran?”
“Yes, but he was the first exchange they proposed. The Mullah for the American Ambassador and his family.”
I can’t feel anything, and then, slowly, relief seeps in. They’re not dead. They want to exchange us. They’re not dead.
“The Mullah for four people? Everyone knew it was a bluff, and when we refused they agreed to exchange him for the Ambassador and his wife. They’ll be taken by helicopter to Bagrame.”
See me: a broken girl with a frozen heart.
“What about the children?”
“The next exchange, perhaps. I know that they’re a high priority for the Americans.”
“And the other prisoners?” There is worry in our guard’s voice, and the other man looks at him curiously. “My brother’s in Khayrabad,” he says quietly.
“I assume they, too, will be exchanged, in time.” They talk for a while longer, but I cannot hear. I cannot move. I am pinned to the bed. It is only when Avery wakes up that I realize I am holding my breath.
“When do we get to leave?”
He’s been asking me this question repeatedly for the past hour, and I’m starting to wonder if it was a mistake to tell him that we’re a high priority for the Americans. He’s been growing steadily more agitated, and all I can say is that I don’t know.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know. Hopefully.”
“And then we can see Mommy and Daddy?”
He huddles close to me. “That man scares me.”
That man doesn’t look at us, just stares at the wall as he guards, holding his rifle comfortably. I wonder if he understands English.
“Me too, Avy.”
He’s quiet for a minute. Then, “Can we go to Daddy’s study? I put the Uno cards there.”
I’m saved from banging my head against the wall, because just then, a man I haven’t seen before walks up to our guard holding two trays. He hands one to our guard, and slides the other into the room. I pick it up and carry it back to the bed, after a quiet thank you in Pashtu. They barely turn to me; they are talking quickly, too quietly for me to hear.
There are two spoons and a medium sized bowl of palau. Usually the dish has vegetables and meat too, but this is just rice and spices. My stomach doesn’t care, though, and I hand one of the spoons to Avery and shovel rice into my mouth, breathing in the thick scent of saffron.
Avery looks at the food. “I don’t want to eat it,” he says petulantly. “I don’t like rice.”
“It’s the only food they’re going to give us. Eat it.”
“But I don’t want it. I want Daddy’s soup with the noodles, or Mommy’s omelets.” His voice is rising in pitch and volume. “I don’t want it! I want Mommy, and I want to go home!” His breath is speeding up. “I want to go home!”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Avy. Calm down.”
“No!” He screams the word. “I don’t want it! I want to go home!”
The men turn to look at us, and Avery snaps. He leaps up from the bed and runs to the window, gasping with exertion as he tries to push it up. Our guard shouts and runs and I scramble to my feet; he grabs the back of Avery’s shirt and hauls him backwards, flinging him away from the window. My brother falls to the floor, crying.
The other man, the visitor, storms over to me, shouting in Pashtu. He raises his rifle and levels it at me. “Control your brother!”
I hear the shouts of the men and Avery’s sobs as if from a distance, everything muffled as if snow has suddenly fallen in the room. I stare into the barrel of the rifle pointed at my face.
See it: a beautiful object, really, smooth dark metal reflecting the light, the trigger and handle curving gracefully. Pieces and gadgets, incomparably crafted into a single, complex mechanism that will, with a flick of the finger, exhale fire from its glossy round mouth. It is a small metal dragon, breathing out flame, or maybe some modern god, spewing out thunder and lightning to smite all those in its path, to destroy the non-believers and leave the righteous as the rulers of the earth. He could move his finger, right now, and everything would be over. A relief.
Sound comes back on as if a switch has been flicked. “Girl!” the man is shouting, eyes black with fury. “Do you understand me?”
I look into the eye of the only god to be found in this room, pointed at my face, then up at the man who holds it. I nod.
He lowers the rifle and spins to stride out of the room, the other man following after slamming the window shut. I run to Avery, curled up on the floor, his tears darkening the wood.
“Avy,” I say, on my knees beside him. “You can’t do that again.”
He doesn’t look at me. I take his face in my hand, turning his head so that his gaze meets mine. “Avery. Don’t do that again. If you do that again, they might not exchange us.” That, part of me thinks sardonically, would be the least of it. “You want to see Mommy and Daddy again, right?”
He nods wordlessly, tears leaking from his eyes.
“Then you can’t do anything like that again. If you do, we might not see them again.”
He nods again. In a very small voice, he says, “I want to go home.”
“I know,” I say. I know. Believe me, I know.
I’m re-reading Watership Down, Avery asleep on my lap, when the man with the voice like a lion’s roar comes to talk to our guard.
“More exchanges,” I hear the man say, his voice low. “The American Ambassador wants to make a trade for his kids.”
I go very still, every muscle in my body tightening. A trade?
“What does he want to trade them for?”
“Turns out two of Mullah Latif Fahran’s daughters were at the camp the Americans—” he pauses to spit on the ground—“took over. They proposed a trade: Mullah Latif’s children for the children of the American Ambassador.”
“What did he say?”
“What do you think he said? They are only girls. He told the Americans they’d need a better bargaining chip than that. He made military demands.”
My whole body is cold, and I wonder numbly if it’s no longer hot in the room. But it is, I know it is. My brain is working in terrible, crystalline clarity, registering everything, and I am no longer sad, no longer scared. I feel only pity, a deep, terrible pity for these two girls.
I fall asleep wondering if the Mullah’s daughters play Monopoly.
Avery is in the bathroom. I am almost done with my book when the sound of running feet in the hallway catches my attention. A man I haven’t seen before, huffing like my uncle without his inhaler, stops by our guard. “It’s just come through,” the man says, voice slightly hoarse. “The Mullah’s brother—his son Mehran was also at the camp. So they’re going to exchange him and the two daughters for the Ambassador’s children. And the Americans agreed to a few other demands.” He smiles at that, then jerks his head towards where I am sitting frozen on the bed. “The helicopter will be here soon. Can you bring them out?”
The visitor moves on, and Avery comes out of the bathroom. He sees me sitting stiller than stone on the bed, and stops. “Emma?” he says, voice quavering.
I turn my head. The skin of my face feels odd, tight, but I don’t know why. See me: smiling.
The rest is a blur. The whirring of the helicopter landing drowns out our guard’s harsh voice as he leads us out of the building that has been our home for the past seven months. We step into the helicopter, our guard still behind us, and we are in the air, in a tiny metal container high above the earth, with maybe seven members of the Taliban. The air is fresh and metallic, like new braces, the wind roaring past at unconquerable speeds.
It is a very strange world.
The helicopter lands just east of Bagrame, in an open stretch of field. The American helicopter is already waiting, and my heart does an odd jumping thing at the sight of it.
Our guard slides the door open and motions with his hand. “Out.” Avery holding tightly to my hand, we climb down out of the helicopter and into the field. Dust settles over my shoes, speckling them black and brown.
I turn around and look up at my guard, meeting his liquid dark eyes for the first time. “Thank you,” I say to him in Pashtu.
He just blinks. This man has the best poker face I’ve even seen. His chin jerks slightly as I turn away, and I don’t turn back to see if it was a nod or a challenge.
The Americans, maybe thirty feet away, open their door, and an Afghan boy who’s about thirteen steps down. He’s dressed in a traditional robe, and is looking back at the American helicopter with cold anger in his eyes.
The girls step out next, both wearing full burqas. One is maybe five, hanging tightly to her sister’s hand just as Avery is clamped onto me.
“Walk forward,” our guard says. We do so, just as the others do. We meet them in the center of the field.
The boy strides past, not sparing us a glance. The girls walk more sedately. I can’t tell how old the older girl is behind her veil, and she doesn’t meet my eyes. The younger of the two does, just for a second as we pass her. There is a curiosity in her eyes that makes my heart twist painfully.
I boost Avery into the American helicopter, climb in myself, and the metal rumbles under my feet as we rise into the air.
One of the American soldiers is asking us if we’re alright, and Avery is chattering to him at top speed, but I don’t hear. I realize, in this moment, that I don’t need to believe in God. Humans, perhaps, are enough, because see me: alive.