Huda will ask again and again.
She will ask it on the first night at the summer place, the porch steps creaking like an old-timey pirate’s ship beneath their knees. She will ask it when they see the Amelia Earhart house way down the harbor, a curled finger, creepy, shuttered-off, and full of promise. She will ask it in pig Latin to piss off their nine-year-old brother, who literally jumps up and down and shrieks, Stop making up words, you stupid earworms! She will ask it in the drowsy, ethereal mornings after Fajr prayer, she will scream it above the furious wingbeat of July rainstorms, and giggling as they sneak chocolate chip cookies from a cupboard in the new kitchen where chocolate chip cookies aren’t supposed to exist. She will mutter it in Amina’s ear as her sister pretends to sleep, trying—Amina can always tell—to study the frowning flutter of her eyelashes like a logic puzzle she can solve. She is testing, testing. Always with a mad scientist gleam in her eyes, to see if another answer will come.
On the way to the summer place, in the backseat of the car, she asks Amina for the first time. They are listening to the heartbeat of the highway reverberate below them, ka-thunk, ka-thunk, all the way to Whitfield Beach. The car sags with the weight of their world, garbage bags soft with supermarket summer clothes, school assignments sticky with Elmer’s glue, disfigured tin pots and gently chattering plates making an untidy symphony of noise in the trunk.
She whispers below the fizzy strains of the singer on the radio: “Are you afraid of dying?”
And she’s so solemn that first time, Amina almost laughs, and then she arranges her face into the face of a serious person and whispers back, “Shhh.”
Their mother, her whole body clenched with impenetrable worry in the driver’s seat, has put all three of them in a talking freeze. Which means they’re not allowed to say a word, not one word, and ideally if they could refrain from sneezing or hiccupping or even breathing, all the better. At one point earlier in the day, she even says, “I can hear you blinking, Huda,” in an especially aggrieved tone. It’s not her fault, they know. It is no one’s fault. The world has cracked open and claimed their mother, and the best they can do is let her be.
“You have to answer,” Huda hisses now.
And Amina, looking at her older-but-just-by-a-year sister, whose face is owled in her hijab, her eyes ballooning beneath her wicked-thick nerd glasses—she knows that her sister isn’t asking because she’s curious. Huda is asking because she has to know, because the weight of their summer hangs in that one question. Fear blooms in her, everywhere at once: in the arches of her feet, in the snails of her ears, in the paunch of her shoulders.
“Well?” Huda whispers. “Are you?”
“No,” Amina says when she finds enough saliva in her mouth, “of course not.” And then, because she can hear how unconvincing her own voice sounds, she says fiercely, “I’m not afraid of anything.” They glower at each other from across the backseat of the car, trying to believe in a world where they aren’t afraid of anything. Not of insects with too many scuttling legs or ghosts scratching at their window or the silent sorrow that imprisons their mother. Not even afraid of dying themselves.
In the front seat, Sameer squirms against the seatbelt that’s garroting him and howls, “Mom! I can hear them! They’re breaking the freeze! They’re breaking the freeze!”
Amina, eleven years old, becomes an Amelia Earhart scholar overnight. Those early weeks of the summer, before they pack up their home in boxes and trash bags and drive up the lakeside to join their father, she conspicuously carries fat-volumed biographies everywhere she goes, perches their frowzy library spines against the dinner table, reading out passages even when no one’s listening. Except Sameer, who thinks her name is Amelia Bedelia, or is maybe just trying to screw with her.
She is an encyclopedia of miscellany, and she imagines Amelia Earhart’s life in snapshots, the kind where the prints are still steeped in a chemical bath, taking form. Amelia has a mouth full of gaps, she is a sorcerer of the sky. She has a husky, faraway voice, like she already knows that she’s going someplace no one else can follow. Amelia buys a house in Whitfield Beach, a lakeside town in the boot-heel of Ontario, where she once spent a summer with her beloved sister. (“She loved her brother, too,” Sameer adds helpfully. “She didn’t have a brother,” Amina says.)
Amelia is fearless, or paralyzed with fear, or something in between. In death, she is caught between the pages, suspended in every moment of her life at the same time, an infinite of possibilities. Looking at her goofy, grinning face makes Amina’s heart ache. She thinks, Come back, you bozo, your house is waiting and your sister is waiting.
The truth is, she never finishes any of the books. Instead, she squints at passages until the microscopic text makes her eyes swim. Meanwhile, Huda only surfaces from the bowels of the garage to inhale meals and go to school, like a clockwork version of herself. She is working on something mysterious, something she won’t even tell Amina about. What Amina calls her science gizmo. What Huda calls her mechanical marvel.
In the privacy of the summer place, they tug off their sweaty hijabs and socks and shoes and explore room by room, Sameer at their heels. City kids in their blood and spit, to them this house resembles the exoskeleton of a prehistoric tree, petrified into place, seeping the sweetly mineral odor of living wood.
They find their mother in the basement, sitting on a cardboard box with the telephone cradled in one hand and a ten-dollar phone card clenched in the other. She flaps them away, mouthing Go, go, her face incandescent with tears.
“Have you been taking good care of her?” their father asks later.
“Yeah. Someone had to,” Sameer says.
“Someone had to,” their father agrees.
“Maybe you can do it now,” Sameer says.
“Maybe,” but he doesn’t sound so sure.
“Are we going to visit the Amelia Bedelia house today?” Sameer asks the girls.
“Huda.” Their father crinkles his eyebrows at her.
“I just meant, it’s too late to go.” Huda does her best innocent-face blinking, her eyes magnified one million percent behind her glasses, insect-wide. “Also, we’d never take you, not ever.”
It’s like something has curled up and died, and it’s on Sameer’s face.
“I don’t even want to go with you,” he says. “You’re only being mean because you’re boring and ugly. You’ll talk too much and they’ll ban you forever.”
Later they will sit beneath a lapis lazuli sky, listening to the feral whooping of tourists downwind, the glitter of beer bottles clinking against one another, the black thunder of some awful nineties rock band thumping from a faraway radio. A language of spectacle and celebration that might as well be Ancient Greek to them.
Here on the porch steps, their knees knocking absently against each other, Huda asks again, “Are you afraid of dying?”
“Yes,” Sameer says.
“No,” Amina says at the same time.
“Yes,” Sameer says.
“Stop it,” Amina says.
“Tomorrow.” Huda props her glasses up with one imperious finger. “Tomorrow we see what it can do.”
“What what can do?” Sameer says, his voice a whine. But the sisters, they know.
At night, trying to fall asleep in a new bed, Amina touches the blackened splits in the woodgrain of the walls. She imagines that the petrified house or tree is crawling with sound. That her fingers are vibrating with the low tones of her mother, carried all the way up from the basement where she is still curled up at this late witching hour, still on the telephone to India. Traveling across entire oceans with only the sound of her own voice to guide her.
If Amina has a superpower, it’s that she can tie her hijab so fast her hands become a blur of motion, a brown kid contemporary of The Flash, but only with this one, impossibly mundane task. It’s her best party trick. When other people see her do it, it looks like she’s sprouted four more arms with four bonus hands and they’re all moving together in violent asymmetry. Huda says her hands aren’t actually moving at the speed of light, just faster than the human eye can follow. It’s kind of a big difference, she says. Her voice gets extra nasally when she corrects Amina. It’s Amina’s private revenge that she never tells Huda how stupid her voice sounds.
Their parents have evaporated by daylight, each to their separate summertime jobs. They leave scribbled instructions on the dining room table. Sameer is wormed in bed, curled up in sleep like a little boy lizard, so they tiptoe out of the house, fists clenched from trying to contain their laughter.
This early, the beach is a tawny wilderness, uninhabited, pockmarked with the flotsam of yesterday’s tourists. Moulting sandcastles, their morose towers askew, crumpled ice cream wrappers, a discarded hotdog bun being pecked to death by seagulls. A lone jogger bobs in the distance. It’s just the two of them, wading through sand in their sneakers and jeans.
“This isn’t the place,” Huda says, wrinkling her nose.
Neither is the fringe of wispy deciduous trees along the border of the beach. Or the far tip of the shore, from where they can see Amelia Earhart’s shuttered summer house, manacled in grief, a rickety horror-movie apparition. It takes every filament of willpower in Amina to ignore it. In the distance, thunderclouds flower. Huda licks her finger and tests the air. (“Does that work?” Amina says. “Of course it works,” Huda says irritably. But Amina’s pretty sure it’s just something they once saw on TV.)
If Huda has a superpower, it’s a kind of X-ray vision where she can always tell when someone is looking at them. In this little town, up to its ears in sand and freshwater, pebbled with wealthy cottagers and beach-bound tourists and all of the people who fill in the cracks between, it’s a mathematical certainty that the two of them in their violently floral headscarves and sweatshirts and jeans, the only brown kids in a tide of beige unless you count Sameer, will earn stares.
Like when they stop in a convenience store for a box of Kraft dinner and the man behind the counter follows them with his eyes, his mouth hanging ajar in the way of a sweaty dog, such that Amina is surprised that he isn’t drooling all over his chin.
“It’s because we’re defying their expectations of what it means to be a human being,” Huda always says. But Amina thinks that’s more optimistic than likely.
When Amina sees them, which is rare, she likes to fix them with a kind of simmering stare, the kind that could vaporize them into atmospheric dust with a bit more voltage. She likes that feeling. Out-stared by an eleven-year-old. On their way back to the summer place, an elderly, wrinkly-elbowed couple in cargo shorts gawks at them openly, and Amina gives them her patented scowl with all of the fury she can find in herself. I hope all of your children have disappointed you, she thinks. Trying to melt it into their brains with the laser force of her eyes. Before they get too close, the couple looks away.
What no one has said but everyone knows, in the telepathy that comes with sharing a roof over their heads and common genetic material, is that their mother’s sister, whom everyone calls Munni, is ill. What she is sick with, they don’t know, only that by some kind of sympathetic sisterhood it seems to have travelled across telephone wires and satellites and inhabited their mother, so that she smoulders with a kind of detached melancholy. Like all of the bones in her body have been fractured, imperceptible to the untrained eye but radioactively vivid to the three people who are microcopies of her chin and her droopy sad eyes and her sometimes-sharp tongue.
They met their mother’s sister a million years ago, and they vaguely remember the brittle architecture of her birdlike face, the way her British Indian-inflected words curled up stiffly, the crushed rose fragrance that lingered for days after she flew home. The part that always gets to Amina is: how can her mother feel such complete devastation for a woman that Amina and Sameer and Huda only met once and can hardly remember?
It feels painful in a way she cannot put her finger on. Like beneath the surface of their mother lies another woman they have never met. Who wears the mask of her mother, whose face is different, whose fears are alien. Whose memories of home and family and her own dreams are an indecipherable mystery. Like this other, submerged woman is rising up to claim her body back, limb for limb, to become unknown again to the people she loves.
When they come home for Zuhr prayer armed with the box of Kraft dinner, Sameer is so furious, he kicks their sandy heels anytime they approach him.
“You were asleep,” Amina says.
He aims another kick at her, his entire face scrunched in rage.
Later, when he’s calmed down enough to speak instead of punt, he tells them it doesn’t matter. Because while they were away, scouting for a place to test Huda’s mechanical marvel, a woman stopped by the house to see who had moved in. An old woman, so old she might as well be dead. She said she was Amelia Earhart’s sister.
“How do you know it was her sister?” It’s Huda who asks, because Amina is too busy dying of embarrassment—he still thinks her name is Amelia Bedelia, how does he get to meet her sister?—that it doesn’t even occur to her Sameer might be lying.
“What’s her name?” Huda asks.
“I don’t remember.”
“It’s Grace,” Amina says.
“Yeah,” Sameer says, nodding. “Grace.”
Huda, ever the skeptic, narrows her eyes. “Isn’t she dead by now? Amina? You’re the expert.”
Amina shrivels. “I don’t know.”
“Why would she still live in this garbage town?” Huda says.
“I don’t care if you don’t believe me.” Sameer scowls. “It’s true. She said I could come by anytime.”
“Well, good,” Huda says. “Then maybe you won’t be such a little pest.”
She nudges Amina. “Isn’t that good?”
Lightning spiderlegs across the falling sky. The setting of their experiment is beneath a hunched oak, their personal Frankenstein’s monster. An opalescence of clouds looms above them, so ominous it might as well have its own orchestral soundtrack. Huda’s eyes, beneath her bug-eye spectacles, are filled with a kind of maniac glee.
She says, “Are you afraid of dying?”
“Would you stop asking that?” Amina asks.
For all of the world, the gizmo looks like the dissected fishguts of a record player. It sits in its suitcase three feet away from Amina, beetling with cogs and wires. Strapped to the center is a radio tower appendage, with a parabolic dish that points directly at Amina’s chest. It’s the kind of thing you might find at a science fair, if your science fair was populated by loony prodigies.
“If I die,” Amina says, “I’m coming back to haunt you forever.”
Huda reaches over and squeezes her hand, cold clammy skin meeting cold clammy skin. “You’re going to be in history books,” she says, so intense that Amina almost believes her. And then it occurs to her, don’t people who die go in history books?
“If this works,” Huda says, “we’re going to be bazillionaires.” And Amina believes her again. She watches her sister tug on cartoonishly large rubber gloves. In the ebb of the lightning storm, the world becomes cobalt. Even Huda is blue shadow and fire. Looking spooky and spectacular, brimming with unearthly magic.
“Ready?” Huda says.
“Ready,” Amina says in a voice so small she isn’t even sure it’s there.
Her madcap, mad genius sister flings the switch, and Amina cringes deep inside herself, and thinks, It was eleven years. I had a good run. She wants to cry. The air is humid and dire, or maybe Amina has forgotten how breathing works.
Electricity crawls in turquoise worms along the radio tower, and for a moment Amina really does forget how to breathe. It fills the mechanical marvel, an ocean of light, blazing and furious and impossible, turning the gears until they are a blur. Huda’s face, it is a study of joy. A picture that Amina photographs in her head, to keep inside of her forever, so brilliant and ecstatic it transmutes the fear in her bones into brightness. Everything smells like burning plastic. The parabolic dish begins to spin. A hum starts, somewhere in the gizmo, traveling all the way to the disc.
But the gizmo starts to spark, and then it starts to hiss. Huda shrieks and launches herself at it. The electricity sputters out. The gears grind. The dish stops spinning. The sky warbles softly with thunder and Huda, she is clenched over her mechanical marvel, her body folded around it like it is her own baby child.
“Huda?” Amina says. Kneeling down to pry her sister up.
There is a scorch mark on Huda’s shirt, but she is unhurt. It is the mechanical marvel that is crisped into chaos, its gears chipped, its wires in shreds.
“It didn’t work,” Huda says.
“It didn’t work at all.”
“It almost did.”
The storm shudders, all around them, far away. Huda looks up at her. She says, “But how will we become bazillionaires?” And Amina takes her rubber-gloved palm in hers, and they sit in the grass, the wind lapping at their hijabs, the sky gnashing its teeth in warning above them, watching the world until the gizmo stops smoking, until the storm passes them by.
“Amelia Earhart’s sister says there’s ghosts in their house,” Sameer proclaims at dinnertime.
“You can just call her Grace,” Amina mutters. “If she’s really real.”
“She goes by Ethel now,” he says primly.
“Do you think she’s real?” Huda asks their father.
Her father says, with a kind of twinkling innocence, “Isn’t everyone real?”
“Oh, come on.”
Sameer bares his teeth in a magnificent alligator grin. “She gave me this,” he says. He thumps a tin airplane on the table.
“Why would she give you that?” Huda says, somewhere above the roaring tide of Amina’s jealousy.
Sameer shrugs. “She’s old. Why do old people give you stuff?”
“Sameer,” their father says.
Their mother is an absence they all dance around. If they fall in, there is nothing to be done. She does not come up for dinnertime, not even as they drift off to bed and the house shudders into silence. Amina wonders, doesn’t her mother’s sister have anything else to do? She tries to imagine spending hours on the phone with Huda, but it fills her with an unbearable sadness she can’t begin to think about. And what could they say, that they don’t already sense? They know each other like the scabs on their ankles, the zits on their arms. How can it be, that one person has so much left unsaid, to pour into a telephone across the world?
In the dark of night, Amina wakes up to find a glacial hand clutching hers, and it takes her a few lurching moments to realize that the chilly body of her mother is fast asleep beside her. She must have crept into bed as Amina slept, their own familiar vampire, invited and uninvited. Even with her eyelids fluttering and her breathing calm, her face is serious, frowning.
Huda, too, is wide awake across the room. They try to hand signal to each other, but it’s more like waving. Hello, hello, how are you. Whatever do we do with her.
The world of adulthood unfurls before them at the discount grocery store. Even though Amina’s a full eleven years, there is nothing more glorious than pedaling the cart at a run and hopping on the grilled undercarriage as rows of rustling pasta and tinned tomatoes sail past her in a beautiful blur of poison-yellow no-name packaging.
Wandering down the snacks aisle, their own personal paradise island, they pass two white girls plucking at their mom with some plaintive inquiry. They are the kind of girls that make Amina aware of her own body, its fumbling movement, how clumsy it feels to live inside it. They are the kind of girls that every story is about, long-legged, coltish, their faces and arms forming entire star systems of freckles. If they owned horses, it would not be a surprise. Their faces go weird when they see Huda and Amina. The face you make when you swallow a bug without meaning to.
“Say hi,” their mother admonishes, as if they’re babies incapable of their own human behaviors. She smiles at Huda and Amina and they smile back the stiff paper smiles that make their faces look like clown masks. Her smile lasts a flicker too long. Her eyes linger. No one says hi.
As they turn the corner, they hear the mother stage-whispering to her two children. She says, in a tone of voice that adults reserve for orphans and injured cocker spaniels, “Oh, such nice little girls.” Huda and Amina eye each other, those two nice little girls. They practice their best clown mask smiles until they are grimaces, full of teeth and spite.
They try again.
They stand in the furrowed trail of a thunderstorm, wet grass slapping their ankles, Huda’s glasses speckled with rainwater. Overhead, clouds lean forward, anguished, grey. Their black garbage bags capes billow magnificently around them.
Amina’s guts start to curdle when her sister opens the case and her mechanical marvel spills out. A mouthful of copper wire and plastic knobs. She tries to think of what a brave person would do. Wasn’t Amelia herself comprised of forceful decision and skybound courage? Didn’t cosmic joy radiate from her every molecule?
Huda lurks over her science gizmo, practically rubbing her hands together with uncontained delight. She says, “Are you ready?”
Amina’s answer comes out as a sullen mumble.
Huda starts to say, “Are you afraid—?” but Amina says, “No.”
Huda’s shoulders slump. Amina sighs.
“You don’t have to say it every time.”
“But I have to ask,” Huda says. A leak has sprung, and some of her glee seeps away into the atmosphere. This way, she looks like their mother in miniature, leaning on the precipitous edge of her own anxiety, and it’s too much. It makes Amina want to cry. There’s nothing worse than watching Huda deflate. No, there is: it’s being the one to do it.
“Fine,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you afraid?”
Amina says, trying her best not to sigh between her words, “If you’re gonna ask, you have to sound less depressed.”
“Never,” Amina lies. Thinking of how, for all her daredevil spirit, her skybound courage, Amelia Earhart fell out of the heavens into the hands of fate. How she’s decomposing somewhere in the sightless depths of the ocean, her skin peeling away, the plane her sarcophagus. The creepy, gaping eyes of her aviator goggles the last piece of her to go. And then Huda flings the switch, and the marvel begins to hum. All the wires murmuring together in choral harmony, deep in the heart of Huda’s machine.
Amina scrunches her feet, as the dials begin to spin and the gears begin to turn, as whiskers of electricity fill the gizmo. The dish turns, faster, faster, and Huda screams with excitement, actually screams, and the dish begins to glow. The glow fills out, takes shape, into a beam of white light that travels out of the machine and right at Amina.
“Huda,” Amina says. Her voice comes from the opposite end of the planet. The hum of the machine is in her ears. She is trying to breathe but it comes out in little, stupid gasps. The garbage bag presses sticky against her skin, forming around her, and the light, it is warm, not the warmth of an indolent sun but the warmth of your hand above the flat spiral of a stove burner.
Huda screams, “It’s working!”
“Huda,” Amina says again, except that the light is filling her skin, and her ears, and her brainstem, and her eyes, and it is all she can see, the light and Huda, and then even Huda is swallowed up, gone, and it’s her and the light at the end of the world.
She finds herself face-first in the wet grass, Huda howling at her side. Mud soaks through her scarf. When she opens her eyes, the world slides away. She has to close them again. Stars rage across her eyelids, leaving pale blue streaks behind.
“I’m okay,” she mumbles.
Huda is crying. She says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” grasping at her hand.
“It’s fine,” Amina says, even though it’s not fine.
“I’ll fix it, it’ll be better, I promise. Next time.”
“Oh, good,” Amina says, “there’s a next time.”
But Huda, holding her hand and weeping, does not hear.
The antiquated house that Amelia Earhart purchased, almost seventy years ago, sits on the cliffside, drowning in its own peculiar ghosts. It has the feeling of a house that leans sideways, even as it stands perfectly still. Amina and Sameer venture as close to the cliff’s edge as they dare, which is not very close at all. Huda is at home, wrist-deep in repairing the gizmo. Amina would rather jump off the cliffside than admit it, but it’s a temporary relief, not to have her nearby.
They try to peek through the window cracks, they knock on the door but no one answers.
“You promised,” Amina says, hating the whine that creeps into her own voice. Sameer says that Amelia Earhart’s sister said she would leave the key under the stone, but there is no stone, and no key.
“I guess she forgot,” he says, shrugging. So Amina has to content herself with skulking in the shadow of the house, breathing the same salt air that Amelia once breathed. She thinks of Amelia’s sister, a begrudging accomplice. Did she ever pass out because her sister was tunneling science rays into her brain?
She asks Sameer, “Is Grace real?”
“You don’t believe me.” He shrugs. “It’s okay. One day you’ll know and you’ll feel bad.”
She says, “Sorry,” and she is. She wants to believe that Grace is here, somewhere in this town, still haunting this house, still wandering along the tourist-strewn beaches. If Grace is here, it means that there is something precious that runs through them all this summer, sister to sister, Grace to Huda to Amina to her mother, all caught up in the same spiderweb.
“Amina?” Sameer says.
“If I was dying, would you visit me?”
“What kind of stupid question is that?”
“It’s not stupid.”
She looks at him. He is as serious as a bad joke. “Because of Mom and Munni?”
“She’s not dying, dummy.”
“Yeah, she is. Don’t call me dummy, dummy.”
Amina does not know what to say to that.
“You’d visit Huda, of course,” Sameer says thoughtfully. “But me, I don’t know.”
Here they are, Munni and their mother, frozen in place. Their mother, trying not to smile at the camera, her sister, the doofiest grin in the world. Munni is younger, that’s a given. She’s got a trickster heart, a pickpocket’s fingers. Her schoolteachers say, Perhaps you could emulate your sister’s good behaviors. In return, she comes home with their wristwatches, their billfolds. A picture of innocence, if that’s what you want to believe.
In the photograph, Munni is taller. She eclipses their mother, not only in height but in pure energy, like she is powered by the heat of the sun. Which Amina can’t help but resent her for. Doesn’t she know that their mother is falling apart slowly? Doesn’t she know that their mother needs all the strength she can get?
“I promised I’d fix it,” Huda says. “Didn’t I?”
“That’s true,” Amina says.
Thunder howls outside. At three in the afternoon, the world is deepest indigo, set fire with bursts of blistering lightning. On the table, Huda’s machine is sheathed in a clear plastic bag, to brave the sputtering rain which promises to become a gale force. But Amina, she does not want to brave the sputtering rain, or the world on fire, or the machine.
And more than that, she is not brave enough to tell Huda, who has spent these hazy summer days on her gizmo. She can count every time in her life she has disappointed her sister. For eleven years of life, it is already an impossible burden.
Huda says, oblivious as always, “I should invent water-resistant hijab ponchos. We would be so rich.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this today,” Amina mumbles.
“The water-resistant ponchos?”
Huda shakes her head. “We have to.”
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
“But I fixed it.”
“But—” And Amina wants to say, I don’t want to die, but isn’t that what Huda has been asking all along?
The sky pulsates with light, turning Huda’s face grey. She says, “I don’t know why you have to be like this.”
“I asked you,” Huda says, like she can read her mind. “I asked you every day. If you’re afraid, you should just say something.”
“I’m—not—afraid,” Amina grits. Lying to the bitter end.
“Maybe Sameer will want to help instead,” Huda says. The way she says it, she doesn’t mean to be cruel, it’s clear; she’s just being Huda, thinking out loud, pondering the possibilities, an endless algorithm in perpetual calculation running through her head. But that’s what pisses Amina off. She has a momentary urge to fling the machine across the room, watch it burst into a thousand pieces.
“Yeah, sure,” she says instead. “That’s a great idea. I hope the gizmo fries both of your stupid brains.”
Their mother forbids them from coming to the airport, even their father. She says, “I only have so much willpower in my body. If you come, I won’t go.” So instead, she boards a bus to the train, takes a train to the airport. She will fly, like witches in moonlight, like businessmen with briefcases, like Amelia herself, across oceans so vast they swallow up the entire earth, dispersing the distance between her and her sister until it is nothing but the span of their hands, the breadth of their bodies. She will sit in her chair in the sky, with the blackness of night caped around her, listening to the snores of her fellow passengers, and she will be alone in the world.
The kids know that she wanted them to come with her, to see Munni one last time. It was an idea that crept upon her these last few weeks. Their parents sit up all night in the summer place, a bank book in one hand and a notepad in the other, calculating, scratching out numbers, penciling in new ones. The final sum is trivial. They only ever meant to send her.
Sometimes all of the hopes that contain you are so fragile that there is a numerical value to them; for seeing your sister at the end of her life, for bringing your children to meet her anew. This dwindling version of her that will forever war with the person she was. Sometimes the weight of your hope is too heavy, it fills up too much space, it suffocates. The truth is that they will never meet Munni again, that when she dies she will leave a gap in their mother. Their mother’s sister will always be a woman whose absence is its own brutal presence.
When their mother leaves for the airport, they gather around their father, red-eyed, snot-nosed, like the warmth of all of their bodies will erase her sudden disappearance from their lives.
He says, “She’ll be back soon, and you’ll have to be nicer to her than ever. That’s the rule.”
“She doesn’t like it when we’re nice,” Sameer says. “She puts us in talking freezes. She did it on the way here.”
Their father says, “Well, we’ll have to find a new way to be nice, won’t we.”
Huda, pulling Amina away, says: “I didn’t ask Sameer to help, you know.”
“We live in the same house,” Amina says. “I know.”
Huda puts on her most serious face, what their mother calls her professor’s frown. She says, “I promise I would never let the marvel kill you.”
And Amina, thinking of Munni, says, “I don’t think you can say that.”
“Sure I can,” Huda says. “I’m doing it now.”
“Well, anyway I’m not afraid of dying.”
Huda doesn’t even flinch. “I know.”
Amina says, “When is the next rainstorm?”
And she adds: “We should bring Sameer anyway.”
Sameer has owl eyes when he sees the mechanical marvel. “You made this?” he says. His voice so full of admiration that Amina thinks she should probably take notes.
“Uh huh,” Huda says.
“Wowww,” he says. “What’s it do?”
She says, “You’ll see.”
The lightning-scarred tree is ultramarine in the twilight of the storm. Sameer is brimming with inquisition, why near a tree, why do they wait for storms. Huda answers vaguely, science-teacher answers about atmospheric electricity. But Amina does not care to know, because the weird alchemy of it all is a kind of experimental magic of its own. The air is iridescent with mist. When she flings up her head, she can see the arachnid crawl of lightning, filling the sky.
“Amina?” Huda says.
“Do you want to do the honors?”
Amina looks at her sister, garbed in a garbage bag, rubber gloves up to her elbow, part witch doctor, part science magician. She thinks of their mother, who is in the sky somewhere so far from them it is almost inconceivable, the jet propulsion of her sorrow carrying her as much as the aircraft she flies in. She thinks of Munni, who will always be a mystery to them, part mischief-maker, part invalid, the sister-shaped key to her mother’s heart. She thinks of Sameer’s ghost, Grace or Ethel or whoever she is, wandering the town in search of something she, Amina, already has. She says, “Yeah, I do.”
Sameer hops up and down, screaming, “I want to see I want to see!” Huda flicks the switch and they smile at each other, sister and sister, briefly, in collusion. The sky sings with thunder. The mechanical marvel crackles with electricity. The dish begins to spin, and spin, faster than the speed of light, or the speed that a human eye can follow, and light pours out of it, out of the gizmo, haloing Amina. The machine hums, and the clouds mutter, all in syncopation, all in song.
If only Amelia could see this, the miracles Huda is capable of making. Did Grace share this joy of witnessing her sister? Did she understand that there was only one such Amelia on the planet, a rarity of her own? Did she know?
When she begins to rise, she does not even realize, except Sameer’s stunned, beautiful face is slack with awe, and Huda is pumping her arms like pistons, an engine of glee. She is floating in the air, caught in the glowing beam of the mechanical marvel and the twin grins of her siblings. She is flying, the garbage bag curling around her, the fringes of her hijab trying to reach the sky with her. She is leaving gravity behind.
© 2019 Senaa Ahmad