Short Stories

Breath of Death

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It’s funny, how we live life fretting over the pettiest things, and not fretting over the important things. For example, this past Saturday, I had a panic attack because I was denied a trip and was convinced my life was over. Yet I never really considered preparing myself for when my life will actually be over, and I will meet my Lord. That is, until, I smelled the breath of death. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

My life hung on my parents saying yes. Folded paper slips they needed to sign rested in my hands that I kept behind my back.

“Morning habibti,” Mama says, a glass of smoothie in her hand. “You want some? I added a new secret ingredient.”

“Morning. Um, maybe in a bit.”

Baba looked up from his work computer, raising a single eyebrow, a trick everyone in my family could do besides me. “Maimuna, refusing her mom’s famous berry-mango smoothie with a mysterious new ingredient? What type of alternate reality is this?”

I take a breath. “An alternate reality in which I need to ask you two a very important question. Vital, actually.”

Mama puts down her glass, and Baba swivels his office chair to face me. “Yes?”

Casting the paper slip onto the kitchen table, I launch into my spiel. “So my Spanish class at school has planned a fully paid trip for their advanced class, which, as you know, I’m a part of. Mr. Diego and his wife are chaperoning, and the trip will be extremely beneficial, offering a rich experience of the language and culture that can’t be taught in a classroom.” I parroted the last part from Mr. Diego.

My parents were squinting at me.

“And where is this trip to?” Baba asked.

I bit my lip, crossing my fingers in my pocket. “Spain. Barcelona, Spain.”

“Oh, yes, I got an email about that, but with my sister’s wedding it just slipped my mind. I’m sorry Maimuna but your Baba and I already discussed it. Not this time habibti.”

I blinked, hearing the words but not wanting to comprehend them.

“We just don’t feel comfortable sending you thousands of miles away and—”

“No?”

My mom nodded. “And we hardly know your teacher and the students you’ll be sharing a room with—”

“Why?”

“I’m trying to tell you sweetheart. We aren’t comfortable with our fiteen year old daughter practically on the other side of the world with no one we truly know.”

“But, but, everyone’s going. Everyone else in the class, even Iman!”

“Well, that was their parents’ decision. This is our decision.”

Tears brimmed my eyes. “But I’ve spent months preparing for this, and—”

“Maybe next time Maimuna. Right now you should wash up and get ready to go. Your aunt wants us to help choose a wedding cake.”

“There’s not going to be a next time,” I argued, shooting a desperate look at my dad, but he simply offered an apologetic smile. Their calmness mocked the way they made my insides feel like a teapot of hot water had been poured into it. I stormed from my seat, kicking the table and flipping over a chair, stomping to my room and slamming the door locked behind me in my Baba’s face.

He kept knocking and calling my name, but my head was in my pillows, and I was wheezing. I didn’t understand how they could let my three months of pinning ideas onto my ‘Trip to Spain’ board, spending late nights pouring over Spanish textbooks, podcasts, and shows, and chatting excitedly with my classmates about the trip like I was going, go to waste. I didn’t understand how they could let me be the only person in the class with parents that acted like I was a baby and deprived me of a once in a lifetime chance. My mind wandered to the paper slip left abandoned on the table. I wish I could forge their signatures, but Mr. Diego said he had to receive the slip from the parents themselves.

When my breathing finally became semi-stable, I pulled my phone from underneath my pillow. I pulled up a recent text conversation with my friend Iman, which consisted of her trying to convince me to come to Jana, the most popular girl at my school’s beach party. I had refused because I knew there’d be music, dancing, boys, and whatever else teenage parties consisted of. Basically, everything that would make my parents freak out if they found out I went. But if they weren’t going to be considerate of me, there was no reason I had to consider them.

I changed my mind about the party. Can u pick me up now?

Three blinking dots.

Iman: Be there in ten.

I jumped off my roof. Which, at least from the part directly outside my window, wasn’t much of a drop at all.
Although Iman was only a year older than me, she already had a license and the newest model of a Chevy to her name, vis a vis her dad being a doctor, and her mom being a lawyer. And yes, before you judge my friend choices, she is a bit spoiled, but also the most honest person I know, which was important to a girl in middle school surrounded by false smiles and deceiving motives. She rolled down the window of the passenger seat, eyeing my sweats.

“You’re not going dressed like that.”

I got in the car and placed my bag between my legs. “I was hoping you’d help me find an outfit at the mall before we go.”

Iman’s fingers tap-danced against the wheel. While I had no idea what I wanted to do, Iman was already looking into fashion schools, and any mention of clothes or the mall made her giddy.“I know the perfect dress. Pray they have your size.”

“Yeah.”

There was an interval of silky silence. “You can’t go, hmm?”

My staring moodily out the window answered her.

“I’m so sorry May. Maybe this party will make up for it a bit.”

I snorted. “Well, it’s getting away from my parents.”

When we got to the mall, Iman knew exactly where to go, dragging me to some obscure corner of a store I haven’t even been inside before. Hangers rattled against each other.

“Here it is, and in your size,” Iman gushed, waving a glimmery and turquoise dress with lace sleeves in my face. “It matches the ocean and brings out the green in your eyes, it will knock everyone’s sandals off!” She giggled at her own joke. “Perfect for a beach party if I may say so myself.”

I glanced at the sleeves cut just below the elbows with uncertainty. If my parents saw me in this dress, I’d be grounded for life. “Yeah,” I said. “Perfect, o great fashionista.”

She made an attempt to flip back her scarf as if it was hair, but it didn’t work so well.

I purchased the dress and a simple blue scarf, and changed into both of them. It took a whole five minutes before I could finally force myself out of the dressing room. I looked like an undercover Cinderella. I had to resist trying to cover my arms. “Alright,” I told Iman. “To the first place I’ve been without my parents knowing.”

The beach seemed to be its own world, Jana and her friends its queens and kings. A tingle traveled up my spine as I realized that as soon as I stepped out of the car, I was one of them. A few girls swayed and giggled near a boombox playing one of the newest hits. Boys and girls faced off in an intense volleyball game, sending sand flying. A few waded in the shallow part of the sea, and if I could see correctly it seemed two boys were having a sandcastle building competition. But the largest crowd was around a gaggle of foldup tables covered in lacy white table cloths, and on those sat drinks, snacks, and Jana, her blond highlights, brilliant smile, and yellow one-piece swimsuit dazzling in the sun. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the swimsuit. Jana came from an Arab family like myself, but unlike me she was the first generation to be born in America. While her parents seemed to hold onto religious and cultural customs, they didn’t push anything upon their children.

I’m sure her parents would allow her to go to Spain.

When we approached, Jana seemed to be finishing off recalling a memory that must’ve been enthralling, because the listeners hung onto every word, their eyes dancing. But perhaps that was simply because they were in Jana’s presence. I was wrong. Jana was the queen. We were simply ladies and lords honoured to be invited to her royal event.

“Oh my gosh,” she said when she saw us. “I’m so happy you could make it!”

Although she’d probably said those exact words to everyone here, I couldn’t help but feel special. Maybe Iman was right about this party being the escape I needed.

“Your dress is so gorgeous Maimuna. It really suits your eyes.”

“Thank you, and yeah that’s what Iman said. She picked it out actually.”

Jana gave an approving nod to Iman. “Well I know who to call during my next fashion crisis.”

I side glanced at Iman. She was failing at trying to hide her giddiness at someone like Jana noticing her fashion sense.

“No. Way,” Jana said, a smirk on her face.

“What is it?” I asked.

She leaned towards my ear and whispered. I ignored the squints I got from everyone else at the table. “That boy over there, by the water, Zaid. He is totally staring at you. He’s on our school’s basketball team and is really cute. I told you that dress is eye catching.”

I gaped, not because I didn’t know who Zaid was— everyone knew Zaid, he was like Jana’s counterpart— but because I didn’t believe her. Though sure enough, when I turned around, he was looking this way.

“Oh, he’s probably looking at you.”

“Nah, I discovered long ago we’re not each others’ type. You should go talk to him.”

Before I could protest, she was already leading me to him. I shot Iman a ‘help me’ look, but she was too busy attacking the snack table and chatting. Besides, even though Iman didn’t understand Zaid’s appeal, no one contradicted Jana.

“Hey guys,” Jana said, drawing her words out a bit slower than usual. “What are you up to?”

“You see that rock island thing over there?” Zaid said. I followed where he pointed to a cluster of rocks, in the middle of the water, placed a ways from all the people, seagulls dancing around it. “I wanna swim over there, but the twins don’t want to come because they didn’t bring swimsuits.” He rolled his eyes grandiosely.

The twins, who were the boys building sandcastles, shrugged.

“The water’s chilly,” said the one with the tallest castle.

“My shorts won’t dry off quick enough and I hate wet things in a car,” added the one with the more elaborate castle.

“Divas,” retorted Zaid. “Will you come to the island with me?” He was staring directly at me, and I didn’t know where to look. Although the weather was warm, I felt like it wasn’t warm enough for the ocean. However, something about him didn’t let me refuse.

“Uh, let me just change into my swimsuit.”

Jana laughed. “Well you two have fun.” She waved and returned to the tables.

“Even this fine lady isn’t afraid of the ocean,” Zaid said to the twins pointedly, trying to get a reaction.

They kept nonchalantly building their sandcastles.

“It’s Maimuna,” I said, and promised to be right back.

Iman had left her car unlocked like I knew she would, and I quickly grabbed the bag I’d put my swimsuit in.

There was a restroom building on the beach, and I put on my swimsuit faster than I ever had in my life, probably because I was sure Zaid would leave without me, perhaps finding another girl to go on island escapades with. My swimsuit covered everything but my hands and feet, and I wore a scarf made for swimming. I felt like I contrasted starkly with Jana, but there was no time to be self-conscious about it.

Zaid was miraculously still waiting for me, giving me a lopsided grin, when I arrived panting.

“I thought the fine lady was going to bail on me for a sec there.”

“I will if you keep calling me fine lady.”

His eyebrows shot up. I’m guessing few girls objected that nickname. “Ahh, so you’re a feisty one.”

“Well when your parents crush your dream, I guess you’re pushed to be brasher than usual,” I muttered.

“What?”

I shook my head, going ahead into the water. My toes wriggled, the sting of the chill bringing a layer of reality to this afternoon that had been passing by like a hazy dream. A few minutes in, and my shivering subsided. I put barely any effort into swimming, but the waves were dragging us towards the island.

“Do you think we’ll find a treasure map in a bottle?” Zaid joked.

I smiled, half at his humor, half at the warmth on my face. It wasn’t Spain, but it was something my parents would never let me do, and the feeling of freedom was almost similar. Except one had an undertone of guilt and the other wouldn’t have. I shook that thought from my head. “Mm, yeah the dotted line will lead up to an X,” I paused dramatically, “-box.”

Zaid chortled. “The best type of treasure.”

It was probably the first time I had made a male outside of my family laugh, so I smiled brighter, letting my eyes close as I soaked in the moment.

When I opened them again, we were closer to the island, the people of the party merely moving forms.

“I think we’re too far from the sand,” I told Zaid, but he shrugged, so I stopped worrying, and re-entered my bubble of peace. Then the tide changed that peace to chaos.

“I can’t swim forward,” Zaid said, panic in his voice.

I gave a start. The island was only a few yards ahead of us, but somehow we were pulled behind it. Within split seconds I was thrashing against the waves, alarms wailing in my head. I didn’t understand how I didn’t notice that we got this far away from the beach. I didn’t understand how my heart could beat too fast and too slow at the same time. I didn’t understand how the water was so warm and so cold. I didn’t understand how a refusal from my parents lead me to placing myself in a position where I was going to die. However, I clearly understood that I was drowning.

“Help!” I wailed continuously in between choking, waving my hands as desperately as, well, a drowning person. But the ladies and lords and queen were far off, out of earshot, enjoying their world of sunshine and laughter and music. Snot and tears ran down my face, the salty water stinging my eyes. My voice didn’t sound like my own. I glanced at Zaid with hope of help but it immediately flickered out; he was in a just as miserable a state as I was.

I can’t tell which one of us repeated, “I’m going to die.”

With every inch I swam forward, the waves pushed me back three, so I gave up, exhausting my breath and strength to keep myself above water. I wouldn’t last much longer. The seagulls squawked, their white slender wings mocking me.
I realized then that there was only one thing that could help me. One that can always hear my calls of despair, always see my state. The same One I’d truly been disregarding all day.

Ya’Allah.

When the thought entered, I instantaneously felt like an angel had embraced me, smoothly transitioning my body to where I was laying on my back— something I would’ve never thought to do. My memory is like a grainy photograph beyond that point. The next thing I remember clearly is crying into my mother’s shoulder, apologizing, to her, to myself, but mostly to Allah.
It is sad, how I have lived life fretting over the petty things and not fretting over what matters most.

Top 10 Contestant for the 2017 Muslim Youth Musings Ramadan Writing Contest!