This story is by Maggie Bowling and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The pounding stops long enough for Sarah to at least open her eyes and look around her room.
Her things are intact. The cinderblock walls are free of hairline cracks, as much as the weak light will reveal. The small metal bookshelf still boasts an assortment of escapist paperbacks. And most importantly, Sarah’s tablet—her lifeline to another world—is unharmed and functional. Just to be sure, Sarah taps it and the screen glows to life. She sighs.
A knock sounds on the thin aluminum door. “Sarah? Are you okay in there?”
It is Dean, the team lead. Sarah walks over to the door and pulls it open. “That was a big one.”
He stands taller than the doorframe, and easy in his own skin, the years he has done this job sitting well on him. His grin is quick and meant to encourage, but it doesn’t stick. “Yes. But it also sounded farther away. Don’t you think?”
“No,” Sarah said, her eyebrows raised. “But I appreciate your optimism.”
She steps away from the door to allow Dean inside her room. He holds a flashlight aloft and shines it across the walls and corners, as she had done. “Your walls look fine,” he fixes his gaze on her. “Are you ready to go?”
A medium-sized roller suitcase is parked next to the narrow, less-than-twin-sized bed. A faded Vans backpack leans against the extended handle. “Yes,” she bites her lip for a second. “But are you sure I should? I mean, don’t you need me to…”
Dean places a hand on her shoulder. He is a comfortable age for an older brother or an uncle, and he wears the persona well, especially to a staff with an average age of twenty-three. “Sarah, of course you are vital to the camp. All of us are. But you’ve been here for six months without a break, which is three months longer than you’re supposed to be. It’s Christmas. Go home. See your family. Go to Starbucks, go shopping, or go to a bar with some frat boy you dated in college. While you’re there, you’ll remember why you’re here, and you’ll come back refreshed.”
It was hard to think of those things—Starbucks, really?—while Sarah stood just miles from so much devastation and sadness, but the rule Dean had cited–all NGO workers must exit the camp for two weeks or more every three months for a respite—is undeniable.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “I’ll go. But don’t you think Starbucks is pushing it?”
A grin spreads across his face. “You know you will. Enjoy every overpriced sip, and don’t think about how your Gingerbread Latte could buy twenty pounds of rice.”
She throws her hands up. “See! That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about! You can’t just…”
Dean laughs and squeezes her shoulder. “Kidding, I’m kidding. When you do what we do, you have to have balance, you know. We hold in tension the life we know exists back home, and the one we live when we’re here. They are both real. We can’t deny America just because of what exists in Iraq. Right?”
The pep talk has ended; he drops his hand and turns away, affecting the brisk movement and ability to shift into action that makes him a good leader. “The car will be here in fifteen minutes. It’s supposed to park at the mess hall. You’ll be fine from there.”
She watches him go. At the door, Dean pauses and glances over his shoulder at her. “Merry Christmas, kid.”
When he is gone, Sarah sits on the bed to wait, but the minutes seem interminably slow. The Wi-Fi is out, so she can’t check her messages. Most likely, her mother has sent her a dozen by now, asking for updates on her progress, the forty-eight hour journey from Iraq to Chicago. In this moment, suspended between her two worlds, the anxiety spent on her behalf would be a comfort.
There is a scratch at her door. She stands. “Dean?”
The aluminum sheet creaks open once more, revealing a small child. Sarah’s weak lamp barely illuminates the girl’s wide dark eyes and round cheeks. “Farrah. Here, come on in.”
Sarah beckons with her hand, and Farrah rushes to her side, wrapping her thin brown arms around Sarah’s waist.
“Boom,” she whispers.
“Yes,” Sarah pats her back and lifts her onto the bed. “Your English lessons have at least taught you that important word, huh?”
She points to her stomach. “Food?” This is accompanied by an impish smile. There are children by the hundreds running around the refugee camp like it is their own personal city. In a place where a normal childhood is impossible, Sarah has seen the Iraqi children make the best of it with games, songs, and spontaneous, creative fun.
Sarah laughs and pulls a sleeve of rice crackers from her backpack. She hands them to Farrah, saying, “You must share with your mother, right, Farrah?” Pointing to the crackers, she repeats the word ‘mother,’ in all of the dialects she’s picked up in the past six months, hoping one of them will stick. Farrah grins and nods.
As the child chews her first cracker, Sarah watches that moment of euphoria that hungry people experience the first minute the food hits their tongue. And energy is created when the salt mixes with the saliva, and that energy creates movement on the face. The eyes widen, pleasant smile lines appear around the mouth. There is a joy in eating that other people take for granted; unfortunately, Sarah had seen it reflected in the expressions of hundreds of faces over the months.
“I have to go now, Farrah.” She touches her watch, and then brings a finger to her chest. “I’m going, but I’ll be back.”
They stand, and Farrah watches as Sarah pulls her backpack on over her heavy coat and wraps a gloved hand around her suitcase handle. “Come on, let’s go.”
Farrah slides her hand into Sarah’s free one. “Go?”
Nodding, Sarah starts moving to the door. In the hallway, Sarah pulls it shut behind her and bends down to look into Farah’s eyes. The dormitory hallway is only barely lit, but Farrah knows the way back to her family’s tent.
“Go back to your tent,” Sarah points to exit door that leads to the rest of the camp. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Back?” Farrah says, either knowing the word or parroting Sarah. It doesn’t matter, really. It hits its mark.
“Yes,” Sarah presses her lips to the tiny forehead. Farrah turns and pads down the hallway swiftly, her tiny feet barely making a sound on the concrete floor. Sarah watches until she is out of the building, knowing she will make it back to her family easily. The kids in the camp are survivors.
It is late at night, and so silent in the dormitory that the only sounds Sarah hears are the squeak of her wheels and the tap of her boots on the floor. Outside, the sky is a study in contrast. Towards the empty desert to the northeast, total blackness boasting an array of stars that God must have placed by hand. Even after six months living under the same sky, Sarah is moved almost to tears.
To the southwest, where Mosul lay only a few miles away, the heavens are painted with orange flames from the latest round of bombs. This, too, never fails to bring Sarah to tears.
A five-minute walk takes her to the car, a sturdy SUV that makes this drive several times a week, trucking relief workers from the many NGO camps to nearby cities for supplies, meetings, and every so often, a trip away from the beautiful terror of the refugee situation to their comfortable homes.
Sarah settles in the backseat and exchanges a hello in dialect to the driver. There is one other worker there; Ian from England, also bound home for Christmas. Although a tired smile passes between them, they don’t speak. They are both feeling the pressure of leaving: how lucky they are to have the ability to step away from all of this and into a completely different world, one not fraught with bomb schedules and how to best distribute food, one in which logistics is a word used only at work and not the lifeblood of daily operation.
A world that desperately needs compassion but nonetheless must be run by organization.
Twelve hours later, Sarah and Ian wheel their suitcases wearily across an airport in Turkey. They will fly together to London, and Sarah will go on alone to Chicago. The airport teems with well-dressed people on cell phones, pulling their suitcases along to their final destinations. Many of them juggle shopping bags in festive paper, a reminder that Christmas is coming.
They stop at Starbucks to buy a coffee.