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The Black Dress
The big villa in the neighborhood across the street is never dark. It is also never silent. The residents of the house are always inside entertaining guests, hosting parties, or sitting around lazily all day. This means that no one is ever outside in the glorious flower garden that is grown and tended by the maids. No one walks around them, taking in their sweet scents and beautiful colors. In this garden, these flowers are merely an unnecessary waste of space, so what do I do?
I steal them.
Stealing flowers is easy. They are plentiful, and no one misses them. Sneaking in through the gates of a villa unseen by security cameras, unnoticed by guard dogs, and out of sight of the people who work there is another story. I don't even know how I manage to do it, but I do. How else am I supposed to get by when I live with my elderly father in what basically is a tiny attic of a crumbling building? How am I supposed to do my share in feeding us?
I wake up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning and turn around on my mattress to face my father. He is already awake and is sitting up, muttering a prayer. "Good morning," I say softly.
My father looks at me with his gentle, twinkling eyes and smiles. He ends his prayers and opens his arms, gesturing for me to hug him. He kisses my head and whispers what he says to me every day: "I prayed for you this morning." When I was thirteen, right when I started stealing, these words made me feel so guilty I would burst out crying. Now, at sixteen, my heart is as cold as a stone. Lying comes naturally to me now, and there's no going back. I smile up at him as genuinely as I can, then I get up and start getting ready for my day. My father heads to the door and waves. "Have a great day at the restaurant, Mona!" he says and walks out.
As far as my father knows, I work at a restaurant serving and making tea and coffee. My shift ends before his at the factory does, which explains why I am always home before him. He knows nothing of the girl sitting on the sidewalk somewhere near the metro station selling beautiful things at prices the people of Cairo can't believe.
I sigh as I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. Under my first mattress and inside my slightly hollowed out bottom mattress is where I keep all my stolen goods. Most of the flowers survive, since they're only there for a few hours after they're taken. The hiding place is ideal for everything else I take: jewelry, old toys, old cups and plates, and basically everything that rich people have but don't need and is accessible to me.
The weather is nice today. I hug my bag tightly to my chest and take a deep breath, trying to enjoy the fresh air before the traffic starts and the air is replaced by the smell of petrol.
I run to my spot on the sidewalk and begin setting up my things. Soon, the early Sunday crowd begins approaching, and my money jar slowly begins to fill up. Of course, most people at the metro station are in a hurry, but I am grateful for the few who take some time to consider buying from me.
After seven hours of work, morning slowly bleeds into afternoon, and I pack my things, giving myself a lunch break.
Looking suspicious as I walk around doesn't worry me anymore. I definitely would have felt safer if I were working legally at a restaurant, but in the end it doesn't matter. In the crowded areas of Cairo where I like to walk around, everyone has a story, and there's much worse than a teenager who steals things for a living.
Which is why today, when I walk into a little shop, I am taken aback when the store owner approaches me and begins to question me.
"Do you plan on buying anything?" she asks, crossing her arms.
I narrow my eyes. "I'd like to look around before I decide, if that's okay with you."
She shrugs. but when I begin walking around, looking through clothes, she follows me. I do my best to ignore her and look as though I really am here to buy something, although I don't have the slightest intention to do so. Not until, at the back of the store, I see the prettiest black dress I have ever seen. I rush to it and finger the tiny embroidery on the sleeves. I spread out the skirt, and I am transported to the best day of my life.
I was eight years old, and my mother was still alive. We lived in an apartment that had a beautiful view, and my father managed a supermarket. My mother was standing in front of a full length mirror in her bedroom wearing a dress that looked almost exactly like the one I am standing in front of. It was a gift from my father. He had saved up for months just to buy it for her, insisting that everyone should own something that could make them feel special.
Two years later, our building burned down with my mother, her dress, and all of our money inside. My father had taken me with him to the supermarket, and we only found out later that night, five hours after it had happened.
When I look up at the mannequin that wears the dress, all I see is my mother's face.
I look at the price tag and close my eyes. I could sell things forever and still not have enough to buy the dress. I look back at the store owner behind me and smile. I can see sympathy in her eyes when she smiles back, but I take it as a good sign. It will be easier to steal the dress and get away with it if I look weak and emotional. I rub my eyes and walk out of the store slowly.
I don't go back to the metro station that day. Instead, I go back to our rooftop home and lie down on my mattress.
I begin having wild daydreams where I use the money I have to buy my father and I plane tickets to another country. I think of how different I'll feel, boarding the plane in my black dress, and how much richer I will feel when I bid the alleys I've lived in Egypt farewell.
I don't realize that I've fallen asleep until I am woken by the sound of my father letting himself into the room. I sit up and wave at him.
"How was your day?" he asks as he sits next to me.
"It was okay," I say nodding.
My father leans back against the wall and crosses his legs. "I was offered another job today," he says.
My eyes widen in surprise. "So you're leaving the factory?" I ask.
"No, it's a part time job. I'll be going after my shift at the factory. It's at a supermarket, so it shouldn't be too hard for me,"
I stand up. "Dad, you get tired easily. You can't come home later than you already do. It'll be too much!"
"But it won't go to waste!" He protests. "Think about it, Mona. Think of all the money I'd earn at the supermarket, added to what I already get at the factory and what you get at the restaurant. We could actually afford a decent life," he sighs, gesturing around him.
I shake my head. "I don't want all that if it means risking your health."
"Mona, isn't there anything you wish you could have?" I think about getting an education and I think about the dress. I nod slowly. "Well, you can have that! We can do anything if we resolve to work hard! When we have the money, I promise I'll get proper medication."
Reluctantly, I nod. My father opens a bag of food he brought home with him and we have a small dinner. As I eat, I think of my father's willingness to work as hard as he has to to give us a dignified life. I think of how special the dress would be if I could pay for it, have it put in a proper bag, then carry it around with nothing to hide.
That night, I decide to sell the last of my stolen goods, buy the dress with all the money I have, then try to get a job at the restaurant I should be working in.
It feels good to have ambitions, and it feels really nice not to feel guilty for once in my life. I am still smiling when I fall asleep.
Two weeks later, I sell my last flower. I stand up and stare at my empty bag, then look around at the metro station, mentally saying goodbye. I throw the worn-out bag in the garbage bin and walk away.
I walk through a street where a bazaar is going on. I don't see anything of interest until I reach a stall that is selling fabrics. I look through the different colors and pick one up to feel it. I must have taken a little too long with it in my hands, because a lady next to me turns around and asks, "Are you going to buy that?"
"No," I say, putting it down.
She looks at my untidy hair and my dirty clothes. "You were going to steal it," she says.
This is the last thing I want to be accused of doing after today. "I wasn't going to steal it," I say calmly.
"Don't lie!" She shouts. She slaps me and I gasp. "It's people like you who ruin this country's reputation! Leave my stall before I call the police!"
I run away with tears in my eyes and anger boiling inside me. I keep running until I reach the store with the dress. I stop at the door and catch my breath. All the things I talked about with my father suddenly don't matter to me. I walk into the store, pick up the dress, and put it on in one of the changing rooms. Then, I stick my head out of the changing room, making sure the store-owner has her back turned, and I rush to the door. I run out into the summer air.
As I run, I keep looking back to make sure the store-owner isn't behind me. I keep my ears alert for police car sirens. I avoid looking at the other people, but a girl in a dress running as fast as I am looks suspicious anyway. As far as I can see, though, no one is surprised by me. No one stops to wonder about the girl in the black dress.