“We came here to start over. But we built the new world in our own image. So we made all the same mistakes.” –Colonist. The final days at Roanoke.
Two rows of resting suburban houses line the empty street. Mostly green grass. Sloping black roofs. Trees wearing the oranges and reds of the season. All masking a dormant machinery that’s waiting to be summoned. A small brown girl staggers down the road, blood dripping down her arm, struggling to breathe, her eyes wide. She’s never seen a place like this. As she moves toward the one house—the one on its last legs—she hears sounds of laughter and of glass breaking and something else.
The two workers are taking batting practice with a kid’s abandoned Slugger and a box of dinnerware. Goggles on, gloves, long sleeves,they are whacking away at cups and spoons, laughing, drinking beer, and wishing their friends would ditch work.Jack announces he’s winning six-three, and his sister Sarah nods, but neither knows where the points come from. Jack has just swung through a dinner plate and is taking an impromptu victory lap around the living room when the doorbell rings. He drops the bat and picks up the broom, then sweeps the glass under the couch as Sarah hides all the beer bottles. Both fix their shirts and lace up their shoes. The bell rings again, and now there’s a knock at the door.Sarah nods her head, and Jack reaches to open it.
“Oh thank you. Thank you, Mister. I didn’t. I was worried. I didn’t see anyone and I was worried.”
She’s about half Jack’s height if he can eye it, near twelve years old he thinks. She’s wearing a torn gray denim jumpsuit and muddied white canvas shoes—all of which are too big for her—and she’s got a rubber band around each wrist. Jack and Sarah recognize the uniform immediately.
“Can we help you with something?”
“Oh yes. Oh please yes. It’s not too bad but—well I don’t know. I just don’t know. A thing like that. I didn’t.”
Jack sees she’s squeezing a wound on her arm, and she’s not breathing right.“Did you fall somewhere?”
“My name is Adala. I can leave. You don’t have to . . .”
She trails off, and Jack looks her over, wishing that she had never come here, that he didn’t have to make this decision. He checks across the street to see if anyone else is watching
“Why don’t you come in. We can take a look at your arm.”
Sarah grabs her brother’s shoulder.“We can’t let her in. Look at her. You know where she’s from. It’s too much trouble.”
Jack pauses for a moment but shakes his head. “She’s a kid, Sarah.” He turns to the girl,“We won’t hurt you, Adala. Let’s just get you off the street before someone sees you.”
“My sister here is quite good at cleaning those types of wounds. Aren’t you Sarah?”
Sarah shakes her head but relents. She tends to Adala’s injury, minor as it is, with great care, while Jack moves from window to window closing the curtains. Sarah brings her some water when she’s finished. The child looks her caretaker in the eyes and smiles, and Sarah feels something inside her that she’s not comfortable with. Pretty soon the girl’s all patched up and well hydrated. She sits back, slips her shoes off, and stretches to the middle cushion. Sarah eyes the girl’s feet touching the couch and again feels uncomfortable.
“Thank you for helping me. Do you mind if I just sit here for a little while? Catch my breath.”
Jack looks again to her arm, then glances at his sister.“You don’t look like you’re from around here, Adala. And these clothes you’re wearing. To be completely honest, they look like what people have been wearing at the detention sites downtown.”
Adala keeps her head down. Sarah takes her phone out.“I’m calling the police.”
“I’m not dangerous. I promise I’m not dangerous. What could I even do?”
Sarah puts her phone down. “Two hours,” she says. “We’ll be done in two hours, and then you go.” She sounds definitive, but looking at the child smile in relief, she’s not sure she means it. The two siblings go back to work uneasy. They clean out the attic and the last remaining bedroom.The young girl sleeps straight through the noise. They walk past her maybe three dozen times carrying desks and dressers, but she doesn’t flinch or make any sound at all.
“Adala. You need to wake up now.” Jack pats her on the shoulder, and she turns.
“Oh, thank you, Mister,but would you mind if I took a few more hours?Maybe spent the night?”
“Oh no no. You don’t understand. We don’t live here. No one lives here. Not for a few weeks now. We’re just tidying up.”
“Why don’t you two just go home? I can leave in the morning. Nobody will know.”
Jack looks to his sister. The two move in to the kitchen and whisper about what to do. Surely they can’t leave a young, injured girl in an empty house all night. Especially not this girl.
“We can take her home with us,” Jack suggests.
“They’ve arrested others.”
“They won’t find her. We’ll be careful. She’ll sleep in Mom’s old room. Just for one night. She’s just a kid, Sarah. Wouldn’t Mom want us to do this?”
“Would she? She’s not mykid. She can stay for one night. Then she’s leaving.” The two return to Adala and walk her to the car, careful to shield her from view as they move.
That night, Jack stares up at the cracks, sleepless and high,connecting the bumps and holes in the ceiling like stars, tracing some constellation of this young girl through the smoke. She never seemed afraid, he thinks, not even alone with two strangers ten minutes past tipsy, but that can’t be true. He knows where she’s from. How could he not? He’s been watching the news like everybody else in town, listening to the radio as soon as it all started. He could call the police right now, and this would all end. They’d take her away, and he’d never have to worry about any of it. He’d keep his job, keep saving up for Sarah’s school. She could start next year maybe. He closes his eyes and hears sirens. He sees them coming for her. He sleeps.
Adala scans the old family pictures in the next room. Two kids making goofy faces, climbing their mother. She opens the closet and runs her hand across dresses and blouses and tee shirts and sweatshirts, untouched, collecting dust. She looks at artwork she doesn’t understand, hanging there without an audience. She takes a few of the smaller clothes from the closet and stuffs them in to a bag she finds nearby, steps down to the kitchen and packs some food from the fridge and a few items from under the sink, then walks out of the house.
Before the sun rises the next morning, Jack knocks on his mother’s door three times to no answer. He calls Adala’s name. Nothing. He finally enters the room to find the bed exactly as he left it. She hasn’t touched a sheet or moved a pillow. She’s gone. This comforts him for a moment. She’s someone else’s problem now. But he remembers her darting, covetous eyes.
The way she scanned that house.
The way she asked multiple times to stay.
Twenty minutes total on empty streets, he thinks. He’ll just drive over and see that everything’s still there. It takes him half that going thirty over, and as he turns the final corner, he sees lights haunting him from a distance. He stops at the curb to see every room lit and a tiny silhouette shifting from window to window downstairs.
He steps to the door, and there’s feet moving again, another twitch of the locks, the door opening, and Adala beaming at the sight of him.
“Oh look who it is. What can I do for you, Mister?”
He looks over her shoulder to the hissing of a teapot, and he can tell by her hair that she’s showered. The girl is wearing one of his mother’s old sweatshirts.
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I’ll be gone soon. Almost gone now, I promise. Did you want to come in for some tea? I’m making some tea.”
Jack walks in and sees that the house is not quite as he left it. The couch, which he had hoped to take today, has been folded out to bed length, complete with new sheets, and beside it is a blue duffle bag that he recognizes. The girl hands him a cup of tea, and his eyes circle the room as he sips. The two of them sit in the kitchen, in silence at first, but then Adala begins asking questions. Jack is surprised at how vocal she is, given all that she’s been through. But she doesn’t discuss what she’s been through. She only asks about him. He tells her he’s been taking apart people’s houses for three years now, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood. Each time, some bigger, fancier, more expensive house springs up in its place. Hulking, mechanical things. Adala closes her eyes and sees them aloft, suspended. Before that Jack was in maintenance, before that high school. His sister just started after graduating, but she’ll move on before long. She’ll go to college as soon as they can afford it.
“We’ve been getting on as best we can, the two of us on our own. But she’s smarter than me,” he says. “She should be doing more than this. It’d make her mother proud, wherever she is.” Jack tells the girl about his mother’s addiction, about how she couldn’t manage both drugs and kids and chose the former over the latter. She left.
Adala perks up at these last sentences. She wants to tell him about her own mother, about her wisdom, about the jokes she used to tell, even until the end, but she doesn’t tell him any of that. Because what could he know of broken brown bodies? She tells him instead that taking down someone’s old home is an important job, tells him it’s not all that different from the Egyptians sending their dead to the afterlife with food and drink. He doesn’t follow the analogy and assumes she must have misunderstood the meaning from some story. As she talks, she stretches the rubber band around her left wrist and snaps it against her skin.
“It’s a shame what’s happened to all of you,” he says finally. “But what could we do? Some things are just impossible, you understand?There’s not enough to go around. There was nothing we could do.” Adala doesn’t respond, doesn’t move. Jack stares on for some capitulation, but he doesn’t get one. The girl sits firm, anchored in her seat. Jack’s sure now that he’ll have to make that phone call. There’s no other way. He closes his eyes and hears sirens again, sees them coming. Something about that feels right, he thinks. Feels just. He’s not sure why, but for some reason he can’t think of Adala the way he thinks of the other kids he sees playing around town. There’s something unfashionable about her. Something unclean. When he looks at her, he thinks of the dog that limped onto his lawn two summers ago. He thinks of mistakes.
So he’ll make the call, and they’ll come for her. But as he plans the words over, playing the conversation out in his head, a strong sleepiness catcheshim, a heavy fatigue springing suddenly and spreading through his head and neck and chest, pulling him down. He can’t shake the weight of it and asks the girl if she wouldn’t mind him resting his head for just a few minutes as he recuperates. She pours out her tea as he sleeps, careful not to touch it.
That morning, Adala can’t help but slip out for a little while to see the rest of the neighborhood. She knows she shouldn’t linger long, but she passes beautiful houses, and she can’t help but marvel at them. The heavy lights, the glass windows and towering chimneys. Brick, wood, tile, marble.The girl looks on in wonder. She sees grand, dormant space ships, each one of them. This long stretch of grass is one big shipyard, she thinks, constructed by NASA years ago. She imagines some covert escape plan decades in the making, some future Earth meeting its end, and each family ejecting from the planet on one of these suburban ships, a fleet of houses across the country blasting up from the grass, each trailing a spear of smoke behind it, painting the blue sky white, whole neighborhoods emptying to the stars.
She catches eyes staring at her, sizing her up. She’s not supposed to be on this street. We don’t look like that here, the eyes say. We don’t move like that here. So she keeps walking. She remembers how she got here, remembers the water spilling over the boat and soaking her small brown feet. Her sick mother hiding from the bright sun under the blue tarp. Her little brother scanning the waves for shark fins. And her uncle’s smile. She remembers him wearing that smile the whole way. Even at her young age, though, she knew he wore it just for her. Their smiles masked terror, masked grief, and they wore them for each other as they entered the water fleeing fire.
More than anything, she sees the light. They all stopped what they were doing when they saw it. That bright, soaring light, that wonder of science leaving the planet.It’s all any of them talked about for weeks afterwards, all of the families huddled together in the camps. Their first image of America was someone leaving it. Her uncle pointed skyward then and told Adala she could always do the same. “You will have your own family here,” he said. “Your own children and nieces and nephews. And if the bad men come for you one day, as they came for us, you hold your family tight in your home and you fly away in your spaceship,up to the stars where they can’t catch you.”She looked up at the fire and smiled for him at that, and it wasn’t a mask. Adala heard later on that NASA’s nearest launch site was hundreds of miles north of where they sat then, paddling towards the shore at the end of their journey, but that didn’t make sense to her. She remembered seeing it clearly—the rocket and the smoke—as if it were right above her.
Maybe she imagined the whole thing.
What she didn’t imagine were the interrogations:
Why are you fleeing your home country?
What does your uncle do for a living?
Are you a devout Muslim?
Is your uncle a devout Muslim?
What Mosque do you go to?
What role does religion play in your family’s life?
Do you support the President of the United States?
What she didn’t imagine were the separations:
Her uncle to one part of town—detained and never heard from again—her brother to another, carried away crying. She was left alone to care for her mother during her dying days at the camp, then left alone entirely when she passed. Perhaps because of the elder’s failing health, the two of them were spared the worst abuses of the place, but Adala looked on as others suffered. She contorted herself towards comfort with 300 people in a room meant for 50. Bodies on top of bodies, competing for oxygen, sharing some sort of shame.All the while she watched each berating and beating—the touching too, under clothes, behind closed doors—studying the tight white faces of her captors, reading those wild eyes, wondering where the violence came from, and when it would come for her.
Adala reenters the house and stares a while through the window to make sure no one has followed her. She walks through the empty rooms smiling, knowing this is all hers. That afternoon, Sarah arrives and tries to enter, but her key doesn’t work. She knocks on the door, and Adala welcomes her inside. Sarah sighs at the sight of her, walks in, and sits on a wooden chair in the living room. She asks Adala where Jack is, and she freezes when the girl tells her she doesn’t know.
“You don’t know? You mean you’re here alone?” Adala nods and sits on a stool by Sarah’s side as she continues. “I haven’t been able to reach him all day. But his truck is outside. So he must have been here at some point.”
“He was. Earlier this morning. He brought me back here and we had tea together. Do you want to wait for him and have some tea with me?”
“No. No I don’t think I’ll be having any tea. You are leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not supposed to be here. I didn’t think you’d still be here.”
Snap. The rubber band makes a particularly loud noise this time as it smacks Adala’s arm red. Sarah flinches at the sight of it. “Why do you do that to yourself? Doesn’t it hurt?”
The young girl lifts her head at the question and looks straight into Sarah’s eyes. Adala had picked up the habit during her last weeks at the camp, but nobody had stopped to ask her why. She scans Sarah’s face, wondering why she cares now all of a sudden, wondering if she’d ever act on that concern, ever do something real about it, something uncomfortable, or whether she’s like all the others. For a second, she sees Sarah on a raft in some alternate universe. Drifting across the ocean with Jack and their sick mother, six sunken eyes. Shivering, scared. Their island burning in the distance.She decides to tell her something true.
“If you feel the pain here,” the child says finally, pointing to her wrist, “you don’t feel it as much here,” she says, pointing to her head. “You don’t feel it as much here,” pointing to her heart.
Sarah stops at that. She thinks of her mother injecting a needle in her arm. She thinks of ruined bodies and families. But something is different about Adala. Something she can’t place. When she looks at the girl, she thinks of the woods. She feels unsafe. And that’s all there is.
“Look, I don’t enjoy doing this. But I have to say I’ve done it before. I’m calling the police. It’ll be okay. I’m sure they’ll treat you well enough.” Sarah turns and picks her bag up off the ground, then sifts through it until she finds her phone.As she dials, she feels a sharp pain shoot through her head, and she falls off her chair to the ground. Her vision blurs, and she sees Adala standing over her holding a pot in her hand.
That night, Adala entertains her two new guests and prepares vegetables the way her mother taught her. They both protest, pleading that they should go home, but they eat the meal as their hunger catches them. She feels edified with purpose and imagines her uncle feeling the same way months earlier, unearthing his buried raft from its secret spot, gathering the family as the military set fire to the mosques across the island, as the gunshots and screams started and people ran towards the shore. “Movement is the only home,” he told her that day. “Movement is the love. If you stay in any one place for too long, they’ll devise a way to destroy you.” Adala cleans the table. She’s glad to be settled and ready at last.
The following morning, a man rings the bell, and Adala answers wearing a dress that’s several sizes too large. The man is shocked at the sight of her, as if she’s some ancient ghost, still haunting the grounds. His large face crumples in on itself, with two horizontal creases and two vertical mapping his forehead like a sweaty tick-tack-toe board. She can’t help but smile at this miserable man, and he starts his interrogation as soon as the corners of her lips rise.
“Who are you? Where are your parents? This house is set to be destroyed. You’re not allowed here.”
“You must be making a mistake,” she says. “This is my home.”
He takes a long look past her. Adala’s eyes follow his, and she sees her now fully furnished living room, complete with long red rugs and colorful art on the walls that she can’t name. The man sees something else. He tells her she’s trespassing on private property and needs to gather her things and go.
“I’m not sure what trespassing is,” she says, “but you must be doing the same or worse. This is where I live. This is where I live.Now please leave me alone.”
“If you don’t cooperate,” he says, “I will call the police, and they will arrest you for trespass.”
She laughs at that.
“Try it, oh just try it,” she says. “I’d love to see the look on their faces as you try to take my home from me. No one takes my home from me.”She slams the door and locks it twice, then peeks though the glass to see him reaching for his phone.
He’s fooling, she tells them, but she’s clearly rattled. “The police won’t come,” she says aloud. “No one will come.”Because who would drag a young girl from her home?But they do come. She hears the sirens first, that dreaded sound. Her muscles tighten to it and her chest sinks heavy. She knows that sound, knows what it signifies for people like her. It’s the sound that greeted her when she first arrived in this country. It’s the sound of death. And sure enough death comes. The black and blue cars arrive. The men step out wearing uniforms, wearing guns. But they’re not all men this time. And they’re not all white. Some look like she looks. For a second, she sees her Uncle’s face on one of them, and his eyes rise to meet hers, but she blinks and he’s gone, altered. Why would someone who looks like us wear a uniform like that?
She scans those faces, those eyes, and she remembers when the raids first started on her island, when whole families would be taken from their homes in the middle of the night. Her uncle refused to sleep then. He stood watch for days at a time, mostly in silence. One night, Adala’s mother stayed up with him.“The people in power were not always in power,”she told him. “The problem with going anywhere is that you take yourself with you. Now get some rest. I’ll stay up.” Adala lay nearby sleepless, listening to it all, trying to make sense of it all. She’s still trying, but she doesn’t have time to make sense of it. They’re marching towards her now, towards the door. They’re coming for her, and the girl is forced to play her final hand.
“I wanted to wait until nightfall,” she says.“But we’ll be long gone in a minute.”
Jack and Sarah sit and look on as this young girl bounces about from one end of the kitchen to the other. They pull their wrists apart, but the binds won’t break.
“It’s almost time.” She opens a closet, takes out two helmets, and places one on each sibling’s head. “Sorry if I hurt you, Sarah. I never meant to hurt either of you. And I don’t hate you for what you’ve all done here. I just wanted you both to see it. To see it the way we saw it.”
She opens the back door near the kitchen, and in walks a little boy. He smiles when he sees Adala and takes a seat at the counter. Another boy walks in, then a girl behind him, then others. Dozens of young brown and black children entering the house—long ago separated from their families—nodding to their host and finding a seat. They’re all wearing baseball helmets or catchers’ masks or some other makeshift headgear for protection. Most are dressed like Adala was when she first knocked on the front door, but some wear plastic hospital gowns. Others are naked. Some are bruised. They each leave footprints of evaporating water behind them as they walk, as if they’d stepped straight out of the sea.
Adala straps on a helmet and closes the kitchen door behind the last child. She runs back to the oven and flips a switch, and as she does, the whole house begins to shake, the floor rumbling a metal thunder at everyone’s feet. Jack and Sarah can’t make any sense of it. They look at the children surrounding them and feel the floor shifting beneath their feet. The paintings are all nailed secure, and nothing’s left to slide loose or fall on top of anyone. Everything stays in its place and vibrates, buzzes, the house thundering violent. The kids sit smiling. Some are on the floor holding hands, excited for what’s coming. The police officers are approaching the porch outside, Mr. Tic-Tac-Toe pointing on behind them, and they all freeze when they finally hear it. A red flame roars up into the air from the chimney, so loud is splinters car windows and cracks lamp bulbs. The structure itself begins to shift upwards and back downwards and then back upwards again, ever so slightly, as if stretching before a sprint, struggling against gravity, and at last, it lifts off the ground completely, wobbling a moment as large chunks of mud crumble and fall below, an entire house hovering above the grass.
Neighbors look on in wonder. The structure clears its engines and settles into a soft balance. It stays there, suspended ten feet off the ground, as everyone stares on, too shocked to move. They wait for what’s next, but they all know what’s next. The buzzing returns, the vibrating, the roar. It grows louder and louder, and as the sound becomes almost too much for any ear to bear, the house launches upwards past belief. Up. Up. Up.
The officers stare skyward as this white light escapes the neighborhood. It shoots through the clouds, higher and higher, past birds and helicopters, past planes and now satellites, through the atmosphere and out towards the moon, towards the stars. Adala and the children scream and clap and cling to each other in delight, and as the blue Earth fills every window in the house, Jack and Sarah can’t help but join them. They’re overcome. They see it. They all sail higher and higher and laugh harder and harder. Below, now lit with the sun’s glare, the faint red discolorations of Xs and Os become visible on the miserable man’s forehead, some ancient schoolyard torment, and he looks to the sky and smiles.
That afternoon, the police officers file their official report. It describes them responding to a phone call about a trespasser, speaking with a contractor outside a house, and breaching the front door. The place is mostly empty, with shattered glass and broken dinner plates cluttered in the corners. The walls and floors are bare. There’s a baseball bat, a couch, used pots and pans, burned cigarette butts, some mice scurrying about, and not much else.
They find three people inside: two workers—a brother and a sister—bound to their seats, their eyes wide and red with a specific kind of rage, both wearing hockey masks, struggling against twisted plastic, screaming rabid, racial epithets towards the kitchen, and a young girl standing on a step stool wearing an oversized football helmet, bent over an oven adjusting its many dials, laughing wildly through tears and spit, her brown feet soaked in seawater.
Vinay Krishnan is a writer and an attorney living in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in Decomp Magazine and Chicago Literati. His non-fiction has appeared in Slam Magazine. Follow Vinay on Twitter: @vinayrkrishnan.