This story is by Rashmi P. Menon and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There is no fire like the one raging through a wounded mind. The yellow flames hungrily licked the swirling darkness of Laila’s subconscious in a dance of destruction.
She dragged herself into the bathroom, catching sight of her reflection in the mirror. A ghastly grin tore through her thin, dry lips. Gaunt and skeletal, she saw nothing but gloom and despair in her steel-grey eyes. The figure looking back at her was a shell of her former self, tainted gray by the agony of recent events. Time had only festered the wound. All she felt now was barren and dead. The tragic image pierced her soul. Laila took a deep breath, adjusted her hijab, and returned to her bedroom.
If only there were a hijab to hide the torrent of emotions going through her mind right now.
She picked up the loaded gun next to her school bag and checked its safety clip before putting it into her backpack. Laila walked towards the kitchen, the bag heavy with the explosives instead of her usual school books.
Abba was sitting in his usual spot, eating porridge. His eyes bore into Laila’s for a mere second. She noted the same steel-grey eyes and hollowed expression in them. Sitting next to Abba was Ahmed. Her cousin had followed them from Syria when Laila had escaped with her family to the States, hoping to start over finally. His family was collateral damage in a shootout between a gang of terrorists hiding in his village and the American troops that raided it.
Laila was twelve when they had landed at the nation’s capital along with the other refugees. Although excited, she was also afraid, always waiting for the next disaster to strike–waiting for the officials to turn them back from the airport, waiting for a mine to go off, waiting for the plane to plunge into the ocean or worse into another building. Despite her tender age, Laila was aware of how the citizens of another country would perceive her family. When their own nation was not accepting of them, how could she expect strangers to receive her?
But then they had reached the airport without any mines going off and ushered on to a plane that brought them to their intended destination. The immigration officers were kind, leading her to the charity workers who would help her family settle down.
For the next couple of years, she spent her time learning English and adapting to American ways. She started school at the elementary level as she severely lacked the basics. Laila did not mind. She was grateful for the opportunity and thankful for the peaceful life she finally had. Besides, she was a smart girl, and within a year, Laila was at her age-level grade in middle school and preparing for high school. Even Ammi had picked up the language. She’d urge Laila to practice with her so she could go to the grocers by herself. Life was finally looking promising from where she stood.
Yes, she was grateful for those three years of peaceful living until two significant events changed her world forever. One Ahmed came to live with them, and two, she started high school. Both substantial changes that turned her life upside down–again!
Laila looked at Ammi in the kitchen with her younger brother, Karim, who was eating breakfast before the school bus arrived to take him to Kindergarten. Karim’s sweet innocent face brightened as he laughed at the cartoon playing on the small wall-mounted TV. He had no idea their world was about to crash around them one more time, perhaps for the last time. Ammi approached Laila with a cup of tea and a plate of scrambled eggs.
“Eat…you’ll need it,” she said, choking back tears.
Laila shook her head and lowered her eyes. She silently wiped the tears that were threatening to flow. She raised her face and looked at Ahmed. He tilted his head in a slight nod. Abba closed his eyes, murmuring a prayer, his lips quivering as he recited the verse.
With one last look at Ahmed and her family, Laila stepped out of the house and walked to school. She replayed the instructions in her mind.
Walk in, find the bully, shoot him down, then a few more, and before the frenzy begins, detonate the explosives.
“That’s how you ensure you get them all,” Ahmed had said.
The bag felt heavy against her tender 5’ 2” frame. She wiped the sweat forming on her palms on her skirt. Ahmed’s words replayed in her mind. “You can use this opportunity for payback on your bullies, and I will let your family go, or I can get your little brother to do it for me and ensure your whole family pays for your defiance. You choose!”
Laila remembered staring at her cousin, her eyes wide and brow furrowed, unable to comprehend the depth of his words. It was the first time he had offered to help her with the bully problem she had in school. Was he serious? She had asked herself until she saw his jet-black eyes narrowed, penetrating into her. She had scoffed and laughed at him and excused herself uneasily from his presence.
Everything changed when, four weeks prior, a few of his colleagues came over and took possession of not just her home but also of her body and soul. She recalled the horror, the screaming, the pain, before she had finally broken down and agreed to their plans, bargaining with them to spare her family. She squeezed her eyes shut to erase the memories.
The shrill sound of the bell ringing in her ears brought her back to the present. Laila realized she was on the school grounds. She had to hurry, or she would be late and perhaps miss her targets. Laila quickened her pace and entered the halls of her high school. The hallway, decorated in black and white with checkered floors, sent a chill down her spine every time she arrived. But not today. There was an eerie calmness to her demeanor this time.
Laughter sounded off the walls, joined with animated conversations, and shouts. A couple made out by the corner of the lockers. The stench of stale urine curled from under the restroom doors, mixed with deodorant and body odor in equal measure.
Laila walked to the center of the hallway and stood watching the chaos of the morning. She pulled her backpack off and hugged it close to her chest. One of the boys she recognized skated by and pulled at the end of her hijab. “Whaddup curtain girl?”
A few students laughed, pointing at her. She hated them. Every one of them. They were not her friends. Nobody in this place deserved her friendship. But did they deserve to die for what they were doing to her? The thought sent a bolt through her, and she pushed it away lest it festered and made her weak. She didn’t need that now; she must only think about saving her family. With her sacrifice, her family would be safe again.
They will be safe. Ahmed and his colleagues had promised.
She smirked at the thought. Whose word was she trusting? The cousin who’d thrown her to the animals? Or the terrorists forcing children like her to carry out their dirty tasks in the name of jihad? She was no terrorist. She believed in her almighty and condemned acts of hate in His name. Yet, here she was ready to do just what she condemned, albeit, in the name of love, if not hate. Hot tears pricked the rim of her eyes.
“Get to class, kids! Didn’t you hear the bell?” the voice of her school counselor emanated from behind her. Chaos erupted as everyone pushed their way through the sea of mostly dejected faces.
Laila stood rooted at her spot. Her hands slipped into the bag and grazed the handle of her semi-automatic pistol. She startled and whirled around as a hand laid on her shoulder.
“Laila, are you alright?” her counselor asked, his words laced with concern that reflected in his eyes. “Do you want to talk?”
She nodded and followed the counselor to his office across the hall. He opened the door for her, and they both stepped inside. Without waiting for him, Laila pulled the gun out of her bag and placed it on his desk. The counselor gasped and stepped back.
Laila opened her bag wider and showed him the explosives. “Call the cops. I am no terrorist,” she said. Laila knew she had just signed the death warrant for Karim, Ammi, and Abba. And perhaps, a life worse than death for herself. Yet, she smiled.
The terrorists might’ve owned her body, but her mind…her mind was unbound. If her sacrifice was what they demanded, then that’s what she’d give them, but on her own terms. If her sacrifice could prevent a disaster, then that’s the path she would choose.