January 7th, 4:13 a.m.
“What was she saying?”
Stumbling and mumbling in the dark, he searched for the door in vain, trying to locate the voice he heard minutes ago.
Funny that he couldn’t find it. He tasted the black smoke of air on his tongue again and finally, his hands found the cold, metal knob. He threw the door open and light reflected on his face, sparkling in his squinting light-brown eyes. He stopped as if surprised by the block of an unexpected arm. He laughed, giving up. The light was not of the outside illumination. The fire he was trying to escape from welcomed him with the creak of burned furniture. A warm embrace searching for a soul to kindle, a spirit to warm.
Ironic it should be the same day, he thought: the 7th of January.
12 hours earlier
A life for a life. It made sense.
She searched for the lamp model a client inquired about, remembering those two years and 364 days. But her thoughts kept going back to the two by two inch picture in the pocket of her jacket. She stopped and took the photo out. Contrasting feelings rushed over her when she gazed at it: hate, pity, sorrow, affection, revenge, doubt. Not all of them were directed to the same person.
A familiar, acute feeling reappeared. A masked hand held her neck tight and made her grasp for breath. What if all goes wrong? What if I can’t do it? What if?
“Randa!” a loud voice coming from the lower floor startled her, breaking the chain of imprisoning thoughts.
“Randa, where are you?” the voice asked in a standoffish manner.
Randa stared at her hijab on the windowsill, as the white snow fell to the ground.
Running downstairs she almost bumped into a customer and in the attempt to change direction, skidded over five stairs before regaining control over her feet. She instantly spotted Adam’s towering figure in a corner near the massive construction. He had curiously small eyes for such a broad and long face, but his anger transformed them into two black and red scars under unruly eyebrows. Randa always wondered if her boss could actually see her while in that state. Almost as if to answer, he turned towards her with a deliberately (or at least so she fancied) slow gesture. No wonder he was edgy, she reasoned. He had to travel that day to discuss the opening of another branch with a potential investor. She sighed, wondering what she had done this time. Dragging her feet, she prepared to bear him for one last day.
January 6th, 8:02 p.m.
“Did he do that to you?” asked her mother, Layla, on the verge of tears.
“Huh?” muttered Randa distantly as she took off the scarf and sat heavily on the sofa.
“Ah no, I just fell from the stairs, almost twisted an ankle.”
“Randa, look at me,” Layla said. “You don’t have to do this. I know it seemed a good idea at the beginning but we don’t need it. We’ll just make some adjustments and you won’t need to work at all.”
“I know I don’t have to, mom, I want to do it.”
“Why don’t you search for another job, at least?”
“Yes,” Randa said, looking at her mother with a smile mixed with triumph and fear. “Yes, mom, I will find another job. I’m finally done with this.”
“Alhamdulillah!” Layla exhaled in relief, kissing her daughter’s forehead. She was too relieved to detect anything wrong, but her little sister’s big, brown, puzzled eyes had left her for a second.
January 7th, 2:42 a.m.
She was staring at the ceiling, not that she could actually distinguish it. She had just turned off the lamp and her eyes hadn’t adapted to the darkness yet. She kept seeing her sister’s smile. It reminded her of their father’s so much, the same way of bending the head, the identical, determined eyes. But that evening there was something different.
Sara remembered her father mainly through flashbacks, and the memories she had of him were so different that she couldn’t arrange them in any meaningful order. She couldn’t tell what type of man he had been, but she remembered the tickling sensation of his beard when he’d kiss her goodnight, the delight in his eyes after she’d proudly recite new verses from the Quran she had learned. In those moments, she sensed how fond he was of her. But then there were days – weeks – that she would see nothing but his shadow silently haunting the house, barely acknowledging her presence.
Sara perceived something was wrong when he had stopped praying qiyamul layl. The sound of his footsteps passing by her room used to wake her up every day at 3 a.m. Not anymore.
The first week she heard him weeping, she couldn’t help crying too. She discovered a truth she couldn’t have guessed by herself. Her dad, with his strong hands, jovial yet impenetrable eyes and commanding voice, was afraid too.
Every morning she would look at him, almost withholding her breath with searching eyes, wondering which path the tears took, anxious he’d tell them at any moment that something terrible had happened.
Instead, she’d find him more radiant and affectionate than ever. She gradually understood that he carried his burdens alone, knowing only in prayers he could feel free of them. He carried the weight on his shoulders in silence, even though he lived with a fear that made him infinitely stronger in her eyes. Now, she welcomed his footsteps and revered the time he’d make to prostrate to his Lord, void of any pretension of infallibility, seeking help from the One who could grant him assistance.
When the horrible news came, he wasn’t around anymore. His words came from a mute letter that made them wail instead.
Her senses suddenly grew alert. Someone was walking carefully in the corridor. She unconsciously glanced at the clock: 3 a.m. She cut short a nervous laugh and before she could think any further, got up to peer outside. A dark figure flew down the stairs. Sara followed it, mustering courage from the certainty she was dreaming. The front door clicked as it closed. Sara peeped through the window. It was dark, but there was no mistaking her sister hurried way of walking, carrying her old blue high school bag on her shoulders.
– – –
Randa felt that she had always known Adam was wicked. Walking slowly in the silent night she recollected his every action, every word. Sure he seemed courteous and kind – even charming at times. But he was her father’s best friend and partner, so generous to offer her part time work at the furniture store. Her father always praised him, saying he was so committed to his job that he’d made a home out of a few rooms connected to the store, when, he could have easily bought himself a house or two,
Once, while registering the daily sales, she saw a red agenda on the table. Believing a client had forgotten it, she opened it, looking for a name, and indeed she found one: her father’s. His scrawny handwriting stopped one day before his death, January 6th. The rest of it was Adam’s fluid calligraphy.
In disbelief and utter amazement, she read about their agreement on completely funding the project of the other in case of death – she read about Adam’s debts and her father’s newborn gambling addiction. What could have led Adam to keep such a dangerous thing? Remorse? She quickly discarded that possibility, she was sure people that did what he did were unable to feel something like regret. In this diary’s sullen pages, there had been an agenda in the works. She stopped reading, leaving the mantel of outside darkness to hide herself in the dimness of the furniture store.
“You’ll pay for everything you have done,” she promised.
The suicide letter was written by Adam, of course. That’s why he stole the agenda.
“He trusted you, we all did, and you killed him! You killed my father! And for what? You deserve all the misery you’ll get!” She cried aloud with rage, holding the lighter with perfectly still hands. She knew she should have been careful, but the adrenaline was now at the maximum and she found it difficult to control the volume of her voice.
A second before giving light to a thin paper, she thought she heard something like a thud against the wall, but she shook away the idea, knowing no one else had the keys except the owner, and he was two time zones away at the moment.
She placed the paper on one of the most elegant pieces and watched intently as the fire began eating away the product of hours of dedication.
– – –
Everything was over. Everything was over now.
The night breeze soothed her burning cheeks, the falling snow cooling her fevered head. She was stuck in the night’s surreal silence on the outskirts of the city. She should have run, gone as far as she could get, but she remained there, frozen in time. The small flame she had started inside was growing at its own pace, letting Randa enthrall in her victory. She had already ruined the man financially, transferring modest amounts to various charity organizations over time; most of the property he had would vanish that night, along with the registers.
Finally, she awoke from the spell that kept her mesmerized and picked up her bag. As she bent downward, she noticing the glints of a shiny, silver bicycle.
She stared in horror at it. It was her bicycle. A bicycle which she didn’t bring all along.
– – –
Sara tried to find the way to the exit in vain, feeling lost in a huge and sinister shop. From where she was, she could just feel her sister words without actually seeing her. When she understood the meaning of Randa’s angered speech, realized what she did, she had already left. The child proceeded gropingly, her sleeve against her mouth, keeping low to avoid the smoke. In the obscurity, she saw a rectangle of light pierce the air; someone just opened the door! She quickly reached for it and froze, recognizing Adam’s face.
“You!” she shouted in panic.
“You?” he exclaimed, bewildered. “What are you doing in here?”
“What did you do?” she retorted before turning back to run. The fire was growing, gleefully.
“Wait! You’ll get hurt!” He yelled, going after her.
– – –
He found Sara under a mahogany table, her leg trapped between the strips of the parquet.
“Don’t do it!” she yelled in confusion, sure he wanted to harm her as he harmed her father.
“I’m just trying to help, what are you doing in here anyway?” He growled, breaking a tile.
“My leg, I can’t move it… don’t do it, I know you killed my dad. I know it was you,” she said hastily between tears and coughs.
Adam’s face slumped, lingered in the smoke and disappeared. Now she could observe only a hollow expression in his eyes. He slowly and steadily moved away from her. She would have to die alone.
It was not the flame that would burn his spirit, but the memories. One soul in his conscience was a soul too much already. He had worked so hard, until exhaustion, to forget his crime, to prove it had been worth it, that it really was his only choice. Debts, greed, jealousy all played a part in it.
Adam had killed him, a father, a husband, his friend, before he’d lose all the money in gambling. He didn’t deserve what he had, instead of being grateful, he was wasting it away.
Adam knew no reason could justify his action, and even if at the beginning these excuses had any effect in lessening his guilt, now they provided him only with additional pain. He discovered he had been too cowardly to be honest with himself.
And yet another person was to be sacrificed for him to go on. He wished he hadn’t canceled the flight.
– – –
Could it really be that her sister had followed her? How? Why? Only then Randa noticed the little footprints partially covered by the snow that were directed to the store.
“No…” she whispered, remembering the noises she heard while she was inside.
Her legs suddenly failed to sustain her while she witnessed the fierce power of the natural element fueled by human emotions, making more victims than intended. She wanted to shake off the desperation, so she stood up and ran to the building.
A soft sobbing captured her attention, making room for hope again.
A little dark figure was sitting back against the wall, hands embracing her knees.
“Sara…is that you? Are you alright?”
The kid looked up, her face still in stupor. ”Adam saved me,” she said plainly.
Randa’s jaw dropped, “He was inside?”
“I heard what you were saying before. Randa, but you have to help him. I told him I knew what he did and that I would tell everyone, but he just smiled, and got me out.”
“Is he still inside?” Randa inquired, an involuntary tremor shaking her hands now.
The child fixed her eyes in the floor. “I think he wants…” Sara started. Randa held her breath afraid of hearing what would come next, the sentence just died there. And it was ok, she understood anyway what her sister mean to say.
Wasn’t this what she really wanted? What he really deserved? Paying for the life he had taken and those whom he had ruined forever?
“A life for a life,” she murmured while reaching for her bag again.
– – –
“Stay here. I’ll be back in a minute,” Randa ordered without looking at her. Randa’s voice cracked midway as if she trying hard not to cry.
Sara saw her sister take out a red agenda before entering the furniture store again, at some point Randa flung it away with a resolute face.
Sara thought she heard her say something; it took her a while to comprehend what it was.
She took a deep breath and started, her voice crystal clear while the snow liquefied and the first timid rays of the sunrise surprised the grim purple clouds.
مَنْ قَتَلَ نَفْسًا بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ أَوْ فَسَادٍ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَمَنْ أَحْيَاهَا فَكَأَنَّمَا أَحْيَا النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا
“If anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (5:32).
Her dad would have been fond of Randa too, she thought.