This story is by Samran Akhtar and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The names of missing persons were listed in alphabetical order. Each one had a grainy, black and white photograph next to it.
While the pot of water boiled in the kitchen, Nadia scanned her finger down the newspaper page, stopping on her husband’s name. Waleed Rauf.
His round face, bold eyes, and a forced smile stared up at her. She double-checked her house address and phone number underneath his picture.
It had been three years since Nadia started living alone in her three-bedroom house. She spent the winter sitting on the two-seater couch, imagining her husband beside her, watching the snow gently fall outside the window.
She poured the water in a mug along with a teabag, feeling a sudden urge to open the dusty shoebox resting above the fireplace.
She’d watered the white orchids on the kitchen island and fed Dalia, her goldfish, who’d hidden behind the plastic ferns as if afraid of Nadia’s figure looming over the bowl.
Nadia wrapped a shawl around her skinny body, put on her snow boots, and unlocked the trunk of her old Toyota. She fingered through the stack of posters that she’d printed. In the photograph, her husband stood next to a frozen creek.
Slamming the trunk shut, she crawled into the car, drove past the children’s playground, and parked next to the curb. She stapled posters on the lampposts and left a handful on people’s welcome mats.
Her car tires nearly skidding at the bend in the road, she stopped at the convenience store on the corner.
The man behind the counter with stringy black hair pressed his lips together and shook his head in frustration.
He handed the customer a box of Marlboro before shifting his attention to her. “I told you I’m not taking any more of those flyers.”
Nadia felt her body stiffen, her hands began to shake. No one would speak to her in that tone if her husband were here. “It’s not a flyer.” Nadia stood in front of the large board covered in job flyers, lawnmowing services and other useless ads with strips of numbers ready for people to grab.
“Leave. That board isn’t for the dead.”
“Please, I’ll just put one.” She frantically flipped through papers on the board and found last year’s poster with a different picture of Waleed. She ripped it, replacing it with the new one.
“Don’t come again!” the man shouted after her as the door chimed shut.
Nadia shivered from the cold. Her skin, paper-thin. She left a few posters at the community mailboxes before parking the car on her driveway.
“You’re at it again, I see,” Mrs. Fauzia said. Nadia hadn’t noticed her neighbor sitting on her front porch. Mrs. Fauzia marched down her steps onto Nadia’s driveway and took the last poster from her hand. The silence stretched between them, but Nadia said nothing. “Do you want to come in? We’ll have tea and something to eat.”
“I can’t.” Nadia felt the evening breeze brush through her hair.
“Okay, maybe I can come over for a bit. Keep you company?” Mrs. Fauzia enjoyed her front porch even in the cold, spending most of her time on the rickety plastic chairs.
“I have to go. The calls will start coming soon.”
But then Mrs. Fauzia gave her a look filled with disappointment, and Nadia anticipated the words that followed. Words that she’d heard from others.
“Look, I know it’s been difficult for you, Nadia, but you’re draining yourself. It’s unhealthy. You’re growing thin, waiting for something that just won’t happen.”
“They never found the body. How do I know he’s not out there?”
“Nadia.” She paused as if searching for the right words. “He died along with four other men. The report made it very clear.” Her tone became a low murmur. As if saying the words brought her discomfort. “My dear, obsessing over it won’t make him walk through your front door.”
“You don’t know that.” Nadia marched up her front steps and locked the door behind her.
She shuffled into the kitchen, fed Dalia again and poured an entire jug of water into her potted orchids until the pots overflowed onto the counter.
Nadia couldn’t silence her thoughts. As if her grasp on the truth had unraveled. She began to grow impatient. An hour passed, but no calls.
She clung to the pieces of her husband like trying to grip water in her fist. Nadia grabbed the shoebox from above the fireplace, blew the dust off the lid and opened it. A black and white photograph of herself thirty years younger smiled up at her. She barely recognized the woman in the picture. Beside her, Waleed stood handsome and tall in his beach shorts.
She took out the newspaper from three years ago, unfolded it, and read the article about the Searchlight Coal Industries disaster. After a mining accident, the authorities had searched for ten days but found nothing. A man in uniform with a shiny badge pinned to his chest showed up two days later and gave her the news. Her husband, including four other men, had suffocated when the tunnel they’d been working in collapsed.
The phone rang. Nadia jumped at the sudden intrusion. She launched herself at the receiver like her life depended on it. “Yes?”
“Today’s the day, dear.” It was a man’s voice, raspy yet distant. Nadia had clearly misheard. It couldn’t be. She imagined it.
“Who’s this?” She felt the sweat sliding down her hand onto the receiver.
His faint chuckle triggered something deep inside her. “You should be ashamed of yourself for prank-calling a senior citizen.” She hung up the phone, but a part of her couldn’t deny the fact that whoever it was sounded exactly like Waleed. It couldn’t be. Why would he call? Why not just come home?
Pouring another cup of tea, Nadia tapped her fingernails on Dalia’s fishbowl, but the goldfish didn’t budge. Her tiny fins weakly fluttered in the water, fighting to keep her from sinking.
When the phone rang again, Nadia let it ring, hoping the caller would hang up, but it kept ringing until she couldn’t bear it anymore. She set her teacup on the table and picked up the receiver.
“You hung up on me, dear,” he said.
She suddenly didn’t like answering the phone. “If you’re not calling about the poster, then don’t bother because I’m not interested.” Nadia wanted to slam the receiver back into place, but some part of her wanted to hear his voice.
“I know you’re afraid. It’s okay, I’m here. I can talk to you like this.” The voice nearly had her, but she pulled herself back, forcing her heart to fight it.
“You’re not him. You can’t prove it.”
“July 14, 1964. The day I saw you standing outside the school gate. You braided your hair that day, tied them with red ribbons.”
The more she pulled, the more he tugged at her. “Who are you?”
“I told you. I can talk to you this way.”
“Why didn’t you come home?”
“I’m with you, Nadia. Always.”
When she looked outside, the day had escaped from her. The sky had turned dark with the moon, only an idea behind loose clouds.
When she hung up the phone, she felt a burst of energy, unwavering joy wrap itself around her heart. Every nerve in her body throbbed with excitement.
But the reasonable part of her kept fighting hard. To pull her away from the idea that it had been her husband on the phone.
She grew thinner, started neglecting her meals, and mold began to spread on the dishes in the sink. Dust collected on the kitchen tiles. Nothing mattered for her but the phone call.
Her potted plants drooped over the counter. The leaves had turned yellow, and Dalia swam around her bowl in erratic patterns like a prey lashing out defensively, trying to escape the inevitable.
But Nadia now expected the phone to ring every morning. She wanted it to.
She’d combed her hair, tightly knotted it into a braid. She wore Waleed’s favorite dress, blue with shimmering rhinestones embroidered on the front, and positioned herself on the two-seater beside the phone.
When it rang, she watched as Dalia floated to the surface, her orange belly facing up toward the ceiling. Nadia fixed her eyes on the stillness around her. A solitude that felt like an object without form and shadow. She felt the emptiness push itself into every crevice in the house, threatening to press itself right next to her, on the two-seater like an old friend.
She realized that humans were split into those who wished to move forward and ones that chose to move back.
The phone kept ringing as snow quietly fell outside, making everything look bigger than it seemed. Nadia picked up the receiver held it tight to her ear, not wanting to miss a single word, and said, “Good morning, my dear.”