I am 15 when my boyfriend starts acting oddly.
We sit on the edge of a browned oval, watching the other boys kick a tattered football between them. His eyes follow it like liquid. I know that he wants to play, but he doesn’t want to be politely included and silently excluded at the same time. I link my fingers with his and grip hard, turning the skin under his nails white. He drops his gaze from the ball and smiles at me like he always does, like I’m some sort of miracle.
I look down at our entwined hands and know that we are.
I get sick often. On the bad mornings, my mother tells me that I look a hundred years old. She boils chicken soup and braids bells into my hair to ward away evil spirits. I laugh at her for her old superstitions, but I keep them in because I like the music when I turn my head. Malik comes to visit me. We kill time until I get better, playing computer games, telling stories on my bed. He tells the hardest stories.
One evening we lie in a circle on my coverlet, foreheads and toes touching. He tells me, dry-eyed, of the time he was on his way to visit his uncle. He feels the shock tremor of the drone strike one street away. People stumble and curse, a basket of grapes crashes to the ground and liquid spheres roll in the dust. He runs, expecting to find bodies, but finds only fragments. The only survivor is the baby. He finds her bawling underneath a slab of wall, one that would have crushed her if it hadn’t been for the sturdy cot built with dead hands.
The world always seems different after his stories. I don’t notice other boys slipping notes in my locker any more, or the feeling of not belonging when I glance in the mirror. I notice other things instead, like the way my shoulders curve as if they’re bearing new weight. I remember selling chocolates as a kid, piling up the empty boxes, so proud of the three hundred dollars that my mother counted out for me and then magically converted into a slip of paper. I think of myself then and shudder at my naiveté, at how many weapons three hundred dollars can buy.
I write letters now, with the heavy metallic pen my mother gave me for graduating primary school. I keep writing even when my eczema gets so bad that my skin splits and bubbles. I don’t know if the words are more substantial than hitting ’Sign’, or clicking ‘Like’, but at least they can’t kill anyone. I think.
These are the normal things.
This is the slipped note, the sudden sharp, the discordance. One morning I don’t see him at all, and then the next thing I know he’s waiting for me outside mathematics. Deep bags hollow his eyes. “Laura,” he says abruptly. “I’ve been reading stories again.”
I can’t imagine reading in a different language. I never have. Small wings flutter against my throat, as delicate as pride. “That’s amazing, well done!”
He doesn’t react to the compliment, doesn’t duck his head and blush in the way that I adore. His eyes bore into me instead, strange and insistent, and for a moment I think I see the aftermath of an explosion within them. “I need to know something,” he says. “Can fairies steal adults?”
I blink. He has a book in his hands. I crane my neck and consider the title. I worry my lips and think back to childhood. “You mean like… changelings?”
His eyes light and burn like chemical fire. “Yes.”
I know his parents as distant figures in the gravel car park, imagined spirits behind tinted windows and battered panels. We have an unspoken understanding that families are not a part of our relationship, that we’re trying to forge something new and fragile and independent. So something blooms sickly in my chest when he asks me to sneak home with him.
“I don’t know, Malik.” I twist a strand of hair around my fingers, bite at its tip. “We shouldn’t skip school like this.”
“School,” he says flatly. He crosses his arms. “My school was the first to be bombed, back home. We learned off burned textbooks and broken pencils. It’s my father, Laura.”
Shame crawls up my spine. “All right. All right. Let’s go.”
I expect sneaking, stealth, shadows. Instead, Malik grabs my hand and we stride out the front gates like we belong. I sweat underneath my checkered dress.
It isn’t far to the bus stop. We don’t speak for the whole ride. I watch the streets go by instead, pruned gardens and white walls blurring into bricks and shuttered windows. We get off the bus and walk until the streets are dead, lined with broken gates, shattered glass, and carefully tended wildflowers. Laughter and music drift from an open window. We turn away from it and into the house next-door.
Malik pulls me to a stop under the cracked-glass entrance light. In the daytime and the shadows, it looks dull and shadowed. “Before we go in,” he says, “I want to tell you something.”
I nod, feeling the new weight on my shoulders shiver in anticipation. “What is it?”
His hand grips mine. “The only reason we are alive is because of my father,” he says quietly. Each word is low, vehement, a bullet. “No other family I know escaped with everyone. I have my mother, my sister, my grandmother… even my cousin. The only people we lost were his brother’s family.”
I nod again, even though I can’t possibly understand everything. He exhales violently, leans against my shoulder. Automatically, I hug him. He speaks into my dress, muffled. “I just want you to know that he is a strong man.”
“I know,” I say. I feel him shake against me, and I hug him again, and then step back before I lose my nerve. I grip his hand tightly. “Let’s go.”
Malik’s house is a home. As soon as I step inside I feel oddly warm. Even empty, it breathes with family and life, with memories and the present. The scent of mint tea lingers in the air, and there is a pile of colour next to the old sewing-machine in the hallway. I know enough about Malik that I can guess his sister is still at school, his mother at work, and even his grandmother at 70 has gone to help in the small shop and look after the toddler.
His father, however, is right in front of me.
Malik breathes. His lips are tight with worry. “He’s been like this since yesterday.” He seems smaller suddenly, much younger. I forget, often, that he is the same age as me. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have dragged you out here like this. I just didn’t know what to do.”
Neither do I. Malik’s father sits slumped in a chair, facing the front door. His eyes are vacant. One hand dangles limply by his side, outstretched to the floor, and I see a plastic cricket bat caught between the chair legs.
I wipe away the sweat sticking to my scalp. “We need to get him to a hospital, now.”
Malik looks torn. He shakes his head slowly. “No, we can’t…”
I stare at him incredulously. My nerves, frayed already by rule-breaking and knowledge-blanking, snap. “Why the hell not?” I demand. “He obviously needs help! And more than just the two of us! We need to call an ambulance and then…”
I stop suddenly, instinctively. A vacuum roars around my ears and I feel a lurch in my stomach, like I’ve stepped on a landmine.
“No! No! Hospitals are places where you go to die!” The chemical burn is back in his eyes. When he gestures, his skeleton jerks and ripples underneath his skin. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his father watching us war like a broken puppet. I look back and see them mirrored in each other’s faces. Malik’s chest heaves like he’s been running. “I am not losing him now!”
I close my eyes and inhale heat. I shake my head. The bells in my hair chime softly, and the memory comes to me suddenly of being bitten by a frightened dog abandoned in the street. I exhale and try not to speak between clenched teeth. “Then what, exactly, do you want me to do?”
Malik opens his mouth and then stops. He swallows. In the silence, the heat builds. He reaches into his bag, and I see the book that he borrowed from the library.
After twenty minutes of searching through nails and packaging, tools and junk, we head to the kitchen. The cast-iron pan is old but clean. I rinse it in the cracked kitchen sink just to steal more time. The fear tastes like blood at the back of my throat. I have no idea what I’m doing.
My hands are cold and dry when I approach Malik’s father. I glance at Malik and he nods, troubled. I take another breath, step forward, and then gently place the pan against his father’s brow.
I half expect sizzling, shrieking, ash. But nothing happens. I let it rest there for a few moments, as if time will change everything. Finally, feeling stupid, I pull away the pan. Malik’s father stays catatonic, the skin on his forehead unmarked.
But the pan is a different story. Where it touched him, the iron has reddened like blood. Malik and I watch as it pulses, glows, and then slowly turns black again.
We stare at it, and then at each other. The pan weighs heavy in my palm. I switch hands and then slowly, I reach out to touch his father’s forehead…
I drop the pan. It crashes to the ground, inches away from crushing my toes. I don’t care. My fingers are blistering. I look up through tears of pain. “Malik, he’s burning!”
Malik’s hands twitch forward compulsively as if to touch, but he wisely pulls back. He runs to the kitchen. I clutch my wrist and suck on my burned fingers, and the idea comes to me like a light-storm.
When Malik returns with ice and water and apologies, I ask him to get my phone from my bag. He reaches for the buckle and then stiffens. I stare at him blankly, and then sigh through my teeth. “I’m not going to call the ambulance,” I say impatiently. “I need to look something up.”
We go over my data plan. Neither of us care. As we wait for the sites to load after our various searches, I fire questions at him. “What else? Where else? When else?”
Malik blinks. He looks rattled, hollowed out. I know how he feels. “Uh… Assyria,” he says. “Babylon.” A question mark. “Sumeria?”
Still, there’s hope beneath the bewilderment. After all, there are no changelings in Iraqi lore. But there are gods.
We compile a list. We stand in front of Malik’s father and read them out like prayers. “Gibil!” Malik cries. “Gerra!”
“Nusku!” I try, “Nuska!”
On the last syllable, Malik’s father jerks. His body straightens like cords, his eyes widen and turn golden. Malik’s hand tightens on mine and slowly grows hot. I turn and see his face shining like the sun.
“Nuska,” he repeats. His voice goes hollow, is echoed by ten, a hundred, tens of thousands more. The voice of a civilisation. “Patron, Mediator, Protector of families.”
Each invocation fires the light. I half-close my eyes against the glare as father and son face each other, transfixed in the unearthly glow. “God of our people,” Malik whispers. “We are safe now. You can leave.” His voice trembles like water. “Thank you for guiding us home.”
Heat spills across the room in waves, like sunlight. For a moment I see nothing but the purest white, the combined brilliance of every star. And then I’m blinking away dancing spots as the light fades, as the shadow of the real world returns.
Malik’s father stirs. He looks at his empty hands, dazed, and then up at his son. For a moment, it’s as if I’m watching from outside a thick glass window.
Malik’s hand unfolds from mine. “Papa,” he says. His voice trembles. They reach toward each other like a lifeline. I look from one to the other, pick up my bag, and make my escape.
After about ten minutes, Malik meets me outside. I’d planned to go back to school, really. But I made it less than ten metres. Three steps past Malik’s gate and the sound of laughter and music hits me like a slap. Back in the real world my legs root into the ground, heavy with mortality. I find myself frozen, trembling, listening to the laughter. A young girl, I think, deciphering the pitched squeals of delight and the clatter of feet on wooden boards. Dancing.
Time passes. Warm arms enfold me from behind, and my body melts. I turn and clutch him fiercely. He still smells like the sun.
“Is he okay?” I ask into his shirt. “Are you okay?”
Malik pulls gently away from me. He cradles my hands. I can feel the tenderness leaking from him, touched with guilt and relief. “Yes,” he says. “And yes. Thank you.”
Our foreheads meet. He speaks softly, intensely, like he might break something. “I owe you another story,” he murmurs. And before I can stop him, he’s breathing it into me.
“The day I went to visit my uncle, we were meant to get out. My father sent me to collect him and his family while he made preparations.”
He pauses. I feel his skin against mine, purified.
“I didn’t know that he went to pray,” he says. “I didn’t notice that he seemed different when I came back. I thought it was because everyone was dead. But he was so strong.”
I think of dusty streets under a merciless sun, of the burden of a family and a new baby and the terrifying journey across the sea. For a moment, my shoulders struggle, and then I remember that they’re all here, they’re all safe, finally. And then I stand straighter. Lighter.
I breathe back my own truth. “It’s not your fault,” I tell him. “And you did notice, today. You brought him back.”
Malik pulls away. For a moment, I miss the warmth, and then he kisses my hair. The bells ring. “You’re magic,” he whispers.
The memory of the light glowing from him and the reverence in his voice fills me with heat. Blood pools in my cheeks. Smiling, I look down at our clasped hands and my burned fingers. Funny. Both my hands are aching now, where I gripped the cast-iron pan. A familiar rash peeks at me from underneath my sleeve.
I stare at it for a moment, and then I blink. The realisation spreads through me like sunlight. My smile widens.
“Yes,” I say simply, and kiss him back.
Lee S. Hawke attempts to write misshapen and thought-provoking fantasy, science-fiction, and poetry. Lee is also in the process of building a treasure trove of awesome writing links and documenting the bumpy ride towards becoming a writer at leeshawke.com. If you’re on Twitter, get in touch and say hello @LeeSHawke! She says:
When I was a child, my sister and I wrote to refugees locked in Australian detention centers. More importantly, they wrote back. As an adult, I am now constantly fascinated by the gap between reality and the way that culture, race, and asylum seekers are portrayed. This piece came from me trying to explore and bridge that gap through fantasy.