Suha huddled over the hand-drawn map, wishing the shadows from the candle would stop dancing across the page and thankful that the sandstorm had finally ceased. The cadence of helicopter blades grew closer. She blew out the candle and stared into the darkness of the makeshift tent, fingers clenched, eyes wide, certain that her end had come. Samira and her three children lay sleeping on blankets they'd strewn across the sand, oblivious to the sounds of their hunters. The chopper's rhythmic thumping passed overhead, then faded slowly into the distance.
Suha allowed herself to breathe once again. She unfurled her fingers from the edge of the thin blankets beneath her, her only cushion from the dense sand. One hand covered her racing heart, the other held her balance. Suddenly an explosion broke through the silence. Suha scrambled on her hands and knees toward Samira.
"Have they found us?" Samira asked Suha, pulling her daughter against her side and taking quick inventory of her two young sons, both also fast asleep.
"Shh," Suha commanded. She ran out of the tent and into the black of the desert night, pulling her frayed sweater tight across her plump body. Plumes of smoke rose in the distance. She whispered a fast prayer. Her heart pounded against her ribs as she spun around, looking for insurgents. The distant smell of sulfur assaulted her senses, a smell she'd become far too accustomed to since the beginning of the war. She hurried back into the tent and grabbed a flashlight.
"Suha! No!" Samira said in a harsh whisper.
"Shush. It's far away."
"Please!" Samira begged.
"Stay with the children." In the two months that they'd been on the run, Suha had worn the hat of both mother and father to Samira, and jadda to Samira's children. She'd never imagined herself as a grandmother, and bore the weight of the responsibility proudly. She would die before letting any harm come to them.
Outside the tent, Suha shivered from cold and fear as adrenaline carried her in the direction of the smoke. A mile away, she estimated. The tension in her shoulders eased. She listened to the darkness-her panting breath the only break in the silence. A deep, low moan came from her left. Suha froze. She raised the flashlight, illuminating a path on the sand before her and then whipped the light to the sides, behind her. The shelter was nowhere in sight, tucked perfectly behind an enormous dune. She was alone.
Praying that she'd made up the noise in her own mind, she inched toward the west, using her hands to pull herself up a small hill. At the peak, she crouched, catching her breath, straining to hear any sounds; she was met with silence. She waited until the sound of her heart beating behind her ears calmed. Satisfied that they remained undiscovered, she turned back in the direction of the shelter. The light swept over a dark lump in the sand. Suha gasped, jumping backward and expecting a siege of insurgents to appear. She flattened herself to the dune and thought of the children-better her than them. She pulled her body up, hoping her shaking legs would sustain her as she moved forward. She'd make her father proud, rest his soul. Gathering courage like a cloak, she lifted the light once again. A man lay in the sand, blood pooled around him, his arm cocked at a painful angle. The physician in her took over, propelling her to his side. Male, early thirties. Pulse. Broken arm and leg. Contusions. Alive. Arabic flew from her mouth, "Hello. Can you hear me? Hello." There was no response.
Suha rushed back to the shelter, her sixty-five-year-old body aching and heavy. As she flew into the tent, Samira's eyes shot open, "What is it?"
Suha bent over the blankets, rifling through them, casting away the smaller ones and collecting the longest, strongest ones. Her fingers worked furiously, tying them to two walking sticks as she spat orders, "An injured man. You must help me. Do not wake the children."
"Man?" Samira moved protectively closer to the children.
"Aagh," Suha swatted at the air. "Don't be foolish. I'm alive, aren't I? He's American, not Iraqi." She stood, dragging the crude stretcher behind her. "Come! Now!" she ordered.
Tess sat across from the doctor's desk, her legs crossed, her heel kicking up and down. She bit her lower lip and wished he'd hurry up. The urge to pee was just nerves, she told herself. She'd just given a urine sample, after all. Her hand moved to her abdomen, and she closed her eyes. It's just stress, she thought. Tons of women miss their periods because of stress. Five-year plan ran through her mind like a dull ache.
"Well, Tess, it looks like you and Beau are going to have a little Johnson running around." Dr. Robert's deep voice startled her.
Tess stared at him. Pregnant. Pregnant! Pregnant?
"Tess? Are you alright?"
Suddenly, Tess's throat felt as if it were closing. She focused on street noises that snuck in through a crack in the window, magnified by the silence of the room. Pregnant?
"Tess?" Dr. Roberts said softly. "Do you want to talk about this? Should we discuss...options?" Dr. Robert's concern only heightened the ache in her belly that had been there since she'd missed her last period.
"Beau's away," Tess muttered. Where did that come from? God, now I'm turning into one of those flighty women I can't stand. "Um, Beau's in Iraq, on a photography assignment."
Dr. Robert nodded, "Yes, you mentioned that earlier."
"I did? Sorry. I'm fine, really." Aren't I? "He'll be back in six weeks, and I'll tell him then. I'm sure he'll be fine...good...happy." Tess feigned a smile and began chewing on her fingernail.
Tess stared out the window of her Bethesda, Maryland office, her mind as cloudy as a November sky. A baby. She lowered her face into her hands. In the four years they'd been married, she'd never once questioned his five-year plan. Five years to establish himself as a photographer and gain international exposure, then they would think about having a family. It all seemed reasonable, until now. Now she wanted him here, not off gallivanting through a war zone taking pictures of someone else's family. She pushed her chair back from the desk, swallowing against a wave of nausea that pushed at her sternum. Tess had always considered herself lucky to be married to a man of the arts rather than a businessman. One meticulous, Type-A businessperson in the family was enough. Now, she wasn't so sure "lucky" was the right word.
Her eyes drifted to a framed page of NewsTime magazine which boasted one of Beau's photographs. Layla, the little girl in the photo, was the daughter of Hakim Fulan, the owner of Wartime magazine. Beau had been documenting three-year-old Layla's life since birth, and the shots he'd taken had been picked up by several national magazines. It made sense for Mr. Fulan to hire Beau to document the changes in Iraqi family life since the inception of the war, and Mr. Fulan's position with Wartime magazine practically guaranteed the acceptance of Beau's photos. Yes, Tess was sure these six weeks in Iraq would finally lead to the international exposure Beau craved, and, with that accomplished, how could Beau be anything less than thrilled about the pregnancy?
Tess looked at their wedding photo, then sat down on the edge of her desk, suddenly feeling very alone.
"You miss him, don't you?"
Tess turned toward Alice's breathy voice and smiled at the woman who had been her assistant for the past six years. Fighting the urge to confide in Alice the news of her pregnancy, she answered, "I do." She'd save the news for Beau to hear first.
"He'll be okay, you know," Alice said.
Tess nodded. She was right, of course. Beau would be fine. If only she understood that his leaving wasn't her main concern. "It's still a war zone," she said.
Alice handed Tess a warm French vanilla cappuccino and set a light blue coaster on her desk. "When are you Skyping again?" she asked.
"He said it could be a day or two before he'd have access again."
"Bummer. Wanna catch dinner tonight?" Alice asked.
"What, no nameless men available?" Tess joked.
Alice guffawed, "Hey, just because I'm not into commitment doesn't mean I'm not choosy."
"Right." Tess chewed on her fingernail, eying the cappuccino that she had a feeling she shouldn't drink. "Doesn't it scare you sometimes? Taking men you don't know back to your place?"
Alice smirked, tucking a lock of straight blonde hair behind her ear. "I'm not twelve. Dinner?"
Tess shook her head. "My stomach's been a little off. Rain check?"
"Sure," Alice said and left Tess's office.
Tess closed her office door and made a beeline for Google. She pored over the pages of information relating to pregnancy. At six weeks, her baby would look more like a grub than a human. She stared at the images on the screen, each depicting a different stage of pregnancy. She didn't even want to think about the creature the baby would morph into in weeks seven, eight, and nine. At least by week ten it would look more like a recognizable...alien. Alien. That word kind of fit the unplanned pregnancy, like she'd been implanted by an alien that she'd somehow, miraculously, grow to love. Were they kidding? How could she grow to love this thing inside her? Most women gushed over their pregnancies. She'd heard them. "I fell in love the moment I found out I was pregnant." What was wrong with her, she wondered. Why did she feel so disconnected? She flipped forward to sixteen weeks-finally, an image that resembled the tiny person the baby would become. She touched the screen, her eyebrows furrowed. She sat like that for almost a full minute, until she let out a long sigh and simply gave up. Her heart had not fluttered one bit. What is wrong with me?
Tess clicked on an article called "What to Eat When You're Pregnant." This should be easy, she thought. The left side of her mouth lifted into a crooked smile. Tess had a healthy appetite, and she had no intention of changing, even if she did feel a bit nauseous in the mornings. "Skip sushi, fish, and soft cheese," she read. What? Her heartbeat quickened. There it was, staring at her in bold type: "Limit caffeine." The cappuccino Alice had brought her vied for her attention. She pushed it over to the side of the desk and turned back to the monitor.
The cappuccino still called out to her. Warm vanilla wafted directly from the cup to her nose.
"Ugh!" She stacked books in front of the cup. There, she thought, out of sight, out of mind.
She turned back to the article. "The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that moms-to-be who consumed 200 mg or more of caffeine a day had double the risk of miscarriage compared with those who had no caffeine." Miscarriage? Jesus, will I have to watch every little thing that goes into my mouth?
She clicked on another article, "Pregnancy and Exercise." At least that article offered some good news. Riding a bike was considered safe until it became uncomfortable. Tess's head fell forward with a loud sigh-weight gain, the bane of her existence. She'd never been thin, and once she'd hit twenty-nine, she swore her middle had expanded overnight. Beau called her shape womanly. Chunky was a better description, and even that was borderline. Suddenly the caffeine sounded good to her-a way out. She could drink this baby away, and Beau would never have to know. She began calculating how many cups of cappuccino would equate to two hundred milligrams of caffeine.
"Marhaba," Suha whispered with a modicum of hope. "Welcome," she tried in English.
The man's eyes remained closed.
Suha muttered under her breath with a sense of urgency and shuffled across the tent, retrieving a small bucket of water. She placed a wet cloth upon his forehead, praying that he would soon open his eyes. She checked his pulse, barking orders and concerns to Samira in their native Arabic tongue.
Samira hung back from the injured American man as if he might suddenly wake up and pounce on her.
Suha had been at his side around the clock, tending to him, administering what little pain relief medication she could, and nursing his bloody wounds which covered the majority of his body. The makeshift cast that she'd secured to his left arm and leg were holding up well. As much as she'd wished he'd wake up, she was thankful for his slumber. It made the healing easier. She worried about infection and took every precaution to avoid such a fate. In her sixty-five years of living in Iraq, the latter of which were spent as a hospital physician, she had never dreamed that she would be caring for a wounded American while living in hiding.
The conditions of their dwelling were ghastly. Dirty sheets, the color of sand, were tied together to form walls, held up with sticks and brooms, whatever they'd been able to scrounge during their travels. The thin walls were sheltered within monstrous sand dunes and shoved into cracks and crevices for stability. The dunes provided ample camouflage from passing helicopters and other aircraft, but the damp, chalky smell and dust-filled air left a film on everything and, Suha was sure, coated her lungs. She was thankful for the people of the underground who had helped them plan and execute their escape, enlisting the help of others whom they knew were safe to help them along the way, putting their own lives at risk by bringing more food and supplies to them. She was riddled with guilt at the mere thought of another person risking his life for her, but she was too concerned for the safety of Samira and her children to forgo the risk. Staying at the safe house had been out of the question. As a physician, she was particularly at risk of death. Insurgents had already killed five doctors who had been aiding Americans, and as a hospital physician, she was bound to help the injured, regardless of their origin.
They had traveled for many days, far outside of the active war zone, mostly at night, led by members of the underground group who had been helping women escape the harsh realities that had become their lives since the beginning of the war. They took routes that were not well traveled, and disguises had become commonplace among the travelers. Suha knew safety was an illusion during the war, and in their temporary shelter, she clung to that illusion like a lifeline.
Tess hadn't even heard the door open, much less Alice walk across the room. She clicked to her home screen and began shuffling papers.
"What's up with you today?" Alice stood beside Tess, looking from the computer to Tess, and back again. "Are we going to do any work, or have you been overtaken by sadness because your dear, sweet, handsome husband has left you for a faraway land?"
Tess fumbled with the papers and stood, glancing quickly at the computer. The word pregnancy was nowhere on the screen. "I'm just...uh...looking for the Caton file."
Alice held up the file with a smirk.
Tess walked toward the door, hoping Alice, in her perfect taupe pencil skirt and crisp white blouse, would follow. The sound of Alice's Jimmy Chu heels on the wood floor eased Tess's panic.
She forced herself to focus on Mr. Caton. Eventually, thoughts of her pregnancy were replaced with the comfortably-familiar contemplations of her client's staffing needs, fee schedules, and prospective applicants.
Several hours later, Tess pushed back from the conference room table and stretched. She and Alice had been poring over potential clients' files for hours.
"I'm beat, can you close up?" Tess asked. She was dying to run into the bathroom again, but she'd gone so many times that she was afraid Alice might start to ask questions, and not the comforting, warm, concerned questions, but the efficient, cold type, like, Do you have diarrhea? or Perhaps you need some Senekot? Alice may not be warm, but she was sharp as a tack and tirelessly efficient.
Alice looked at her watch. "It's only six. Your stomach again?" Tess hadn't left the office before eight o'clock since Beau had left town.
Something like that. She put her hand on her stomach and nodded.
"No problem. Want me to drop by some Pepto?" she asked. Then she added, "Wait, Kevin called for you while you were in the bathroom earlier."
"I'm fine. I'll call him later," Tess said. Sweet, caring, Kevin, Beau's best friend, best man, and the lucky recipient of the daunting task of making sure that while Beau was away, he took care of anything Tess wasn't able to do, a.k.a. move boulders or perhaps scale the side of Mount Everest.
Tess clicked through her emails, her right toe perched on the ground, bouncing her leg up and down in short, fast motions. It had been six days since she'd heard from Beau, and she didn't know if the burning in her chest was from worry or anger. Now she understood what her mother had felt like when she'd stayed out overnight as a teenager without calling to check in. Sorry, Mom, she thought, missing her for the umpteenth time since she'd passed away.
Why had they been so damned frugal? They should have just paid for international cell phone coverage. She could have gone without her cappuccinos, hell, she could have gone without groceries if she'd known it would have meant going this long without contact. She pushed away from the computer and paced the small den. She'd expected a day or two without contact, but six? Six! All in a row? Her mind fabricated scenarios ranging from Beau wandering the streets of Iraq, unable to speak the language, lost and hungry, to his being holed up somewhere with a gorgeous young woman, using her wiles to entice him into a world of lust and debauchery. Her face grew tight. She hated when her mind strayed into ridiculous territory. Great. I'm here waiting day after day, while you're off gaining international exposure.
Tess stared at her reflection in the window. She lifted her hands to her hips, turned sideways, cocked her head, then faced the window head on again. She wrinkled her nose at her reflection. Her pursed lips and strained forehead looked more like an angry schoolteacher's than a woman who had recently found out she was pregnant. Fatigue followed her from morning until night, but there was no other indication of a baby-no bump, no heavy breasts, just dark arcs under each tired eye. She could end this now, and he'd never know. Why should she give her body up to this baby if he didn't even care enough to call her and let her know he was okay?
"Damn it, Beau!" she spat into the empty room. "Where the fuck are you?"
Tess rode her bike through the neighborhoods, her eyes trained on the strip of pavement before her. She peddled fast, weaving in and out of joggers and past other cyclers. She rode until every movement of her legs took insurmountable energy, panting, drenched in sweat.
Her legs ached as she peddled up the monstrous hill that led to her house. A car sped over the crest of the hill, catching air and heading directly toward her. She swerved behind a parked car. "Slow down!" she yelled. She'd been yelling at airborne teens for so long that it had become second nature. She usually raced down the street behind them, hollering, and secretly praying that they wouldn't die right before her eyes. When they'd first bought the 1950s bungalow, she'd inquired at the county about putting in speed bumps and cautionary road signs, but the county had denied her requests, blaming budgeting and the poor economy.
She crested the hill and peddled into the driveway, propped her blue Schwinn up by its kickstand, and sat down on the concrete stoop. She picked a leaf from the ivy that had taken over half of the front stoop and rolled it between her fingers. Tall grass sprouted up through the patch of mulch around the weeping willow they'd fallen in love with when they'd moved in, four years earlier. Maybe Kevin could mow and weed the yard, she thought, and immediately chided herself for relying on a man. You'd think she'd never started her own consulting business or had a life of her own. She could do this. She'd mow the damn yard.
Tess closed her eyes, wishing she could fall back in time-to a time before their five-year plan had been knocked out of the water.
By Sunday night, Tess had already straightened, vacuumed, dusted, and reviewed her files for the next morning. She sat at the round kitchen table and lined up her collection of coasters, a ritual that she'd used to soothe her anxiety since she was a little girl, first organizing them from light colors to dark, and then from largest to smallest. Anxiety still gnawed at her. Her feet tapped beneath the table. Tess opened the drawer with the take-out menus, leafed through them, and threw them back in, slamming the drawer much harder than she'd meant to, flinching in reaction.
She stomped to the living room like a child having a tantrum and sat in front of the television, flipping through stations. It was no use. Questions about Beau's whereabouts riddled her mind. She went to the den and checked her computer for the fourth time in the last hour. Her fingers pecked quickly at the keys, nails chewed down to nubs. Skype worked. Email worked. She threw herself back from the desk with a loud sigh.
Tess had a love-hate relationship with Skype. She could tell when she looked in Beau's eyes if he was paying attention to her or had his mind on something else. She'd seen people walking around behind him in the small internet cafe, and pangs of jealousy had ripped through her. She wanted Beau home-with her. She wanted him to forget his five-year-plan and embrace the pregnancy.
The last time they'd Skyped, she'd almost told him about her period being late and her upcoming doctor's appointment, but she hadn't wanted to make him feel guilty for being away, just in case she was pregnant. This was his chance at international exposure and no matter how difficult it might be for her to wait for him, he'd worked hard, and he deserved the chance to gain the recognition. The desire to blurt out her secret had taken all of her concentration. By the time they'd signed off, the mantra, "Don't tell him," raced through her mind, their conversation swiftly forgotten. Had she misunderstood? Could he have told her it could be a week or two instead of a day or two? She stifled the urge to scream and checked her hair in the mirror. Mousy brown and fine as thread, she knew any amount of coiffing was useless. Tess turned her back to the mirror and leaned against the porcelain sink.
"He's in a war zone and you're the one stressing?" she said aloud. She rolled her eyes at her ridiculous insecurity.
In the bedroom, Tess pulled a journal from her underwear drawer and opened to a clean page. She wrote the date and pressed the pen against the paper, but no words came. She flipped backward through the pages, skimming through the first few days he'd been gone. Waking up alone had been a guilty pleasure of which she'd quickly grown tired. She couldn't count the number of times she'd picked up the phone to tell him about a new client, or a big contract, and then remembered that he wasn't reachable. She flipped backward through the journal and read an entry about a silly fight they'd had. I wish Beau would just go away so I wouldn't have to look at him!
Tess slammed the book closed, her chest burning. If only she'd told him about the baby. Maybe he'd have left Iraq immediately, photography assignment be damned. Maybe he'd have been happy to change his five-year plan.
... continued ...
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