by Carmella Bauman, 1797 words
Like everyone else, Bilan and her daughters had woken to an acrid sun.
“What’s going on, Mama?” Astur asked.
Bilan’s brow furrowed as she looked at the sky outside. “I don’t know, Habiib. Let’s get ready for school. I don’t want to forget the bus.”
Aamiina giggled as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “’Miss,’ Mama,” she corrected, “not ‘forget.’”
Bilan felt her furrow soften as she smiled at her daughter. Cradling her tea as the twins wandered to get ready, she wondered how much longer she’d have her sweet girls. They were cresting into their teenage years and yet, though they corrected her English, they never seemed embarrassed by it. Or by her.
This temporary joie de vivre was replaced by concern. The sky outside was dark, but not in a stormy manner. What was going on? Though she had missed the hardship of the refugee camp, she heard stories growing up, and she had not forgotten them. Vacillating between guilt and relief, Bilan knew she was glad to have not witnessed the despair and destruction that her brother had seen. She had always thought this part of the United States as safe. Was it? She absentmindedly touched the lump in breast. Was she?
A sound roused her from her thoughts. A zipper. Then another. She must have been lost in thought for some time because Astur and Aamiina were already putting on their coats by the door.
“You have all the things?” Bilan asked, moving close.
“Yes, Mama,” they responded in unison, the way twins sometimes do, as they swung on their backpacks.
“I’ll find out what’s going on,” Bilan said in a tone she hoped was reassuring.
“Oh, don’t worry, Mama,” said Astur with the confidence – arrogance? – of an American. “We will, too.”
Bilan looked startled for a moment and then laughed. Ah, yes, she thought, her twins were living in a small town.
* * *
After the girls left, Bilan refilled her mug with spicy tea and sat down to complete her thirty minutes of Duolingo. When she finished, she sighed. She knew she would find out about the darkness when she arrived at work and there wasn’t any sense in delaying the enviable – no, that’s not right… inevitable. But the closer she approached the diner, the more worried she became. Trucks, crowd, commotion. And, most importantly, no diner.
Bilan was stunned. No diner. Despite all she and Tawfiiq had done to carefully orchestrate their lives in the Pacific Northwest, she hadn’t considered what the loss of this simple, yet precious, waitressing job could mean for her and her girls. Or, heaven forbid, her health.
As she took in the scene around her, she couldn’t help but do math in her head, calculating her finances. She had always been good with numbers. Given they were able to rent the cabin for half of what Tawfiiq could afford, that would buy her a little time. But Bilan wasn’t one for risk. She wanted a quiet, safe life.
A little time, she thought to herself. Though the thought was comforting, she couldn’t relax. The lump in her breast didn’t allow for relaxation – didn’t afford her the luxury of a metaphorical deep breath.
She shook her head to no one but herself. Bilan didn’t need to continue to witness the destruction. She didn’t understand this American ideal of guffawing – no, gawking – at tragedy. She had found Meghan and Dwayne amongst the onlookers. Meghan had looked wild and wired, hollowed out from weeks of missing her mother, holding the reigns of the family business during tragedy, and… something else. Bilan could sense that Meghan was drawn in another direction, too. Dwayne, usually quiet and reserved, seemed almost animated. Bilan had watched him carefully. He appeared overcome with adrenaline, talking with nearly everyone on the scene.
Meghan had said that she would call tomorrow with news. Nothing left to do, Bilan could go home, call Tawfiiq, plan, and wait for the girls to return home from school.
But as she turned to leave, Dwayne caught her eyes. Or was it just “eye”?
“Hi Bilan,” he said as he sidled up next to her. She noticed that he sounded almost cheerful. “Can you believe it?” he asked, nodding at the rubble as he thrust his hands in his pockets.
Though Bilan’s English wasn’t perfect, she was expert in communication unsaid. Body language held meaning that the speaker often didn’t realize they were relaying. Bilan was sure she picked up on things others couldn’t, unburdened by her imperfect comprehension of the spoken English words.
“It is terrible,” she said, after a pause. She felt her fingers twitch above her jacket, wanting to caress the lump; looking for comfort. She just wanted to go home and plan.
“Have you seen Jerome?” asked Dwayne.
Bilan frowned as she glanced around the dispersing crowd. “No, but I have not been looking.” She gave Dwayne a curious look.
Dwayne shuffled in an awkward manner. “It’s just, you know…” he trailed off, as if he was trying to find something reasonable to say. “We work together in the kitchen, and I want to…”
Bilan gave a faint nod as if she understood.
“Do you know where he lives?” Dwayne asked.
Bilan looked at Dwayne, her big brown eyes taking him in. She sensed his eagerness. Was his enthusiasm apparent to everyone else? She paused.
“No,” Bilan said. Dwayne looked crestfallen.
“… but Flora does.”
* * *
“What?” asked Dwayne, dumbfounded. He must’ve heard Bilan wrong. “Flora knows where he lives? Are you sure?”
How could he have missed this? he wondered. Of all the employees, he worked closest to Jerome at the diner. How could Bilan know something so basic that he didn’t? It couldn’t be possible. He thought he had been paying attention. And he had the closest proximity to Jerome…
“Where who lives?” asked a light voice. Flora emerged through the thinning crowd, a concerned look on her face.
Dwayne felt both confused and fortunate, at the same time. He had wanted to sneak quickly and quietly away to check up on Jerome and write down his observations from the scene, but connecting with a regular and his colleague could prove helpful. Maybe he could get a little more information before slinking off to snoop. And, realizing he didn’t know where Jerome lived, it would help if he could find out where to do said snooping. He didn’t have access to the databases of an actual cop. Yet.
“Hi, honey,” Flora said, offering reserved Bilan a warm hug. “How are you doing?”
Bilan accepted Flora’s embrace, albeit a bit rigidly and nodded. Dwayne wondered if this was because of her limited English, or, if it was because there wasn’t really anything to say. Flora seemed to accept Bilan’s quiet response as the later, gave her arm a squeeze, and turned to Dwayne.
“So, I know where who lives?”
Dwayne swallowed. He needed to stay on high alert; needed to remember everything. Every bit of information was valuable to him right now if he wanted to prove himself worthy of joining the force.
“Jerome,” he said, carefully watching Flora for her reaction. “I haven’t seen him this morning. Have you?”
* * *
Later that evening, after several discussions with exhausted surgical-medical-resident Tawfiiq (between patients, of course), Bilan felt equally exhausted. She and her brother had done nothing to come up with a plan for her future. There were too many unknowns tonight. They simply illuminated all the difficulties that could be before them, like two children with flashlights talking about unseen, scary monsters in the dark.
As her daughters worked on their homework at the kitchen table, Bilan sank into the soft, overused chair in the sitting room. She watched a bit of stuffing protrude from the soft fabric and felt a kindred connection with the chair. Both of them were a bit worn, though Bilan didn’t show it. She appeared intact. Bits of soft stuffing weren’t coming out of her – yet.
Her brother had promised he would speak with his mentor, Dr. Schwartz, about any possible, local opportunities, and Bilan resolved to reach out to Flora for ideas. She hoped Tawfiiq wasn’t so tired he’d forget. The surgical community in Seattle was tight-knit. While Tawfiiq was a student at the University of Washington Medical Center, he met Dr. Schwartz at a three-day conference on emergency obstetrics surgery. Dr. Schwartz had taken a shine to Tawfiiq once he learned about his immigrant background, took him under his wing, and helped him secure a residency at Swedish Medical Center. Dr. Schwartz was invested not just in Tawfiiq’s success – he never failed to ask how Tawfiiq’s twin nieces were doing.
Wasn’t it Dr. Schwartz who had pointed them in the direction of their little sleepy town? Bilan thought she remembered hearing that he had family in the area. She didn’t think much of it, though – she often felt like she misheard – and Schwartz seemed to her to be a common surname in America. Wasn’t Dwayne’s last name similar? She couldn’t remember – he mostly kept to himself, until today.
Bilan closed her eyes and wrapped her hands around her hot cup of tea. Usually, she tired from communicating in English. Today, she tired from witnessing the nuance of communication unsaid. She had watched Flora go white when Dwayne asked if she’d seen Jerome that morning. She hadn’t understood what Flora said in response – she had seemed to stammer – but then Flora’s eyes flashed in anger – or, was it passion? defiance? annoyance? – and she had seemed to tell Dwayne off, hissing at him in tones and glances of disapproval. Dwayne tried to protest but seemed to think better of it, then grumbled and grimaced as he hustled away, muttering to himself.
The small scene happened so fast, that Bilan wasn’t sure what to make of it. Did she need to make anything of it? She was just so grateful to rest.
There was a knock at the door. Bilan stood, and from her vantage point, she could see through the window that it was Ted. Big Ted with his big heart. He looked serious. But then again, it was a serious sort of day.
She opened the door, and behind her, the girls paused their homework to listen.
“Hi Bilan. Sorry to drop by unannounced. Can we talk?” asked Ted.
Bilan looked him over. After a full day of reading people, Bilan surprised herself. She couldn’t read Ted. Not one bit. He was unlegible.
As she welcomed him into the cozy cabin and he took off his hat, she realized that she didn’t know if he was arriving with an offer… or a warning.