Her tired, gray eyes pierced mine, with more fear than anger.
I looked at my watch, holding it under a streetlight. 12:00 – midnight. I ran down the street, heart racing, shoes pounding against the wet concrete. Bleak, dull houses passed in a blur under the blotchy night sky as I gasped for air, checking the road behind me to see if anyone had followed. I reached the porch of our house, dim light visible through the cracked window in the door. I opened the door slowly to keep the creaks to a minimum.
I took slow, careful steps over the old wooden floor. I peered into the den – there, my mother was slumped in a chair, asleep, her hair strewn over her face. My little brother slept in a couch near her, a small white lamp glowing behind them both. I turned on the corridor light, moving towards the stairs little by little in the direction of my room. A little coffee table in the hall was in the way. It knocked over an overflowing stack of bills that kept growing, that wouldn’t stop growing.
“Karim?” My mother’s voice rang out through the house. I sighed deeply, and walked into the den. My mother struggled to stand, straightening the shirt she wore to her evening job. The chair she had been sleeping in shook on wobbly legs.
“Where were you, Karim?” Her tired, gray eyes pierced mine, with more fear than anger. “What were you doing that took so long?”
I hung my head. Untying my black and red bandanna, I brushed my hair back, lowering my eyes in shame. My mother worked two jobs – a clerk at the local Laundromat and a bagger at a grocery store. She didn’t need to be worried about me.
“I was at a friend’s house,” I lied, keeping my eyes downcast, “I forgot about the time.” My mother turned away, fixing my brother’s position on the couch so he wouldn’t fall out.
“Go to sleep,” my mother said. “You have school. This happens again, Karim, and you won’t be going anywhere anymore.” She fell back into her chair, draping a blanket over her frail body.
I nodded and slowly backed into the hall. Reaching into the pocket of my jeans, I dropped two hundred dollar notes on top of the bills on the coffee table. If anything, they would pay off something that could put my mother, at the very least, at ease. I ran upstairs.
Five hours, forty-three minutes. Sleep escaped me throughout the night. I was awake in my bed, fiddling with the straps of my watch while staring up at the ceiling, trying to form a picture in the cracks. This was my father’s watch that he had received from the Army. He was a doctor, deployed for a few months. He’d send us postcards every other week – like a picture of him smiling with the children he helped. One day, two officers came to our door. There was no explanation, no death certificate, nothing. We just received a letter that stated my father was dead and the only two things he left behind: a worn Qur’an they had found beneath his bunker pillow and this military watch. That was five years ago.
Our clock downstairs called for Fajr, the morning prayer. I rolled over, getting up to perform wudu with the cold, cold water from the faucet. I finished prayer and rolled up my worn rug, leaning it against the wall just as my phone vibrated. Daniel.
He was a guy I met at the park last year, about six years older than me. He had history with the state and had spent part of his life locked up, but he was my sole protection. I knew he was bad, but I didn’t mind, it didn’t matter. He looked out for me, I looked out for him, and that’s how it worked out with all of us. We were a group of guys, about ten or so, and we were a family – guys who stood together, fought together, fell together, whatever the circumstances. I hit his number on speed-dial and waited as the phone rang one… two… six times.
“You get my text?” Daniel sounded tired. It was nearly six in the morning. “My place, one hour. Where’d you go last night?”
I remembered the bills I had stuffed in my pocket the night before. “Nothing man,” I responded, hoping the tremor in my voice could be passed off as a symptom of the early morning. “My mom was waiting on me.” I threw on a pair of jeans, stumbling over clothes on the floor. I looked in the mirror, balancing my phone against my shoulders as I tied the red and black bandanna around my head. I pulled open the little drawer under my bed and shoved my small army knife into my pocket. “I’m on my way,” I said and hung up.
I opened my door softly, hoping the noises of the morning would block the sound of the creaky hinges on my door. I tiptoed down the stairs, one step at a time, peering over the edge to see if my mother was there. School didn’t start until seven-thirty, so that couldn’t have been an excuse. I hadn’t been to school for over three weeks.
I reached the bottom of the stairs, hitting the leg of the small coffee table by the door, which knocked more bills to the floor. The money I had put there was gone – perhaps my mother had already put it away. I poked my head into the living room, only to dart back out.
It was dark. I could hear nothing but muffled sobs. My mother was praying, her head on the floor, quietly begging for forgiveness from Allah. I leaned against the wall, listening to her cry. As I got ready to quietly walked away, I heard my name. My mother was hurting for me, she was praying for me. I felt something in my throat close up as I shuffled to the kitchen and stared into the mirror. I couldn’t be like this, I couldn’t act like this, not when she needed me the most. I took the knife out of my waistband and threw it in the trash can.
Under several pieces of paper and a few used coffee filters, lay two one-hundred dollar bills. I pushed them deeper in, and left. I walked down the broken concrete on our driveway, kicking rocks as far as I could. Rainwater came down lightly, but my face was already wet.
I took my time walking, as it wasn’t far to reach Daniel’s house. I glanced up at the sky. It was a bad habit of mine, to always look up, like I had anything to look up for. The sky was red, yellow and purple, an everyday sunrise at its finest. I thought about my family: my mother, crying on her knees, and my brother, still asleep. The amount of grief in my house was immense, but I was trying my best, we were all trying our best. Bills were piling up, and we couldn’t afford the school my little brother went to – it was an institute for other children like him, and the fees they charged sent my mother to a second job. I had been pulling orange notices off of the door to our house for a month, but both my mother and I knew what was going to happen if we didn’t make enough money. Being a part of this brotherhood helped pay the bills, but my mother refused to use the money. By the looks of it, she figured it wasn’t mine.
I tightened my bandanna as I reached Daniel’s place. It was a quarter to seven, and I could hear the guys inside the old house, a two-story mess a few miles down from the train station. Moss grew over the house, and weeds poked out of the cement blocks. I avoided the broken beer bottles on the porch. An overwhelming smell of smoke hit me hard, but that was the usual. I covered my face as I walked into the house.
“Karim, my man.” Daniel stood up and slapped hands with me while the other boys nodded. I sat down on one of the cushions on the floor. One of the guys brought in a tray of drinks, and threw a soda at each one of us. I caught mine and popped it open as Daniel stood up to address the group.
“There are some issues,” he began, “Someone dropped the cops, and we got caught. That’s never happened. On top of that, money is missing. Which one of you is the snitch?” Daniel paused, pulling a handgun from inside his jacket. Loaded or not, Daniel usually messed with our heads like this – with rock hard, violence. It was his only way of knowing that we stood with him. I suddenly wished I hadn’t thrown away my knife. “Don’t make me come after you,” he continued, tapping the gun against his open palm, running his eyes throughout the group. We all understood that Daniel could not be crossed. People were under the ground because of him.
“Last night, we got in, we took what we wanted – and then some of you went running away, without looking out for your brothers.” Daniel stopped. Two of our guys were taken in last night for robbery and assault from the house we tried to rob. He was right – there were those of us who ran away and I was one of them. He just didn’t know about the money I had taken with me.
Daniel took a swig from his bottle. I glanced at the door, wanting a way out. I had been trying to leave the group for weeks, but I knew that if I left, I wouldn’t leave with these secrets alive. It was hard enough to get in, but to get out would prove impossible. One of the boys, a kid still in middle school, piped up.
“We didn’t find any money last night,” the kid said. Daniel cursed, smashing the bottle down against the floor. Shards of glass came flying in all directions of the room.
“We’re missing money. You find it before I find who took it.” Daniel left the room, his boots pounding against the wooden floor. The slam of the front door echoed throughout the house.
Daniel’s younger brother, Chris, stood up. He was a little older than the rest of us, and had a deep scar running down his face – a gift from glass in a gas station we once robbed.
“We’re planning something big,” he said. “Daniel needs this one to go right. We hit this place up and we won’t have to steal again.” Chris pulled a few papers out of his back pocket. “Stand up,” he said. We crowded around Chris as he detailed our next robbery. It was going to be our biggest yet and by far the most dangerous. No witnesses, Chris read. But I paused. No one had ever died in the hands of the group as a whole, but this time, the money was the goal. Stealing was one thing, but a life was a life – it was worth more than all we had ever stolen. We had one week to plan, one hour to perform, and the rest of our lives to remember.
“I don’t think we should do it,” I said. “The witness thing. It’s two different things to steal and to hurt.” The other boys turned to look at me, their eyes wide and their faces incredulous. Chris cleared his throat and squared his shoulders.
“Karim, let me make this clear,” he said. His eyes stared right into mine, unblinking. “You’ve been with us too long. There’s no choice.” The others nodded. I stared back at Chris and nodded as well, but there was a feeling in my gut, a voice nagging in my head telling me to back out. I couldn’t do this.
The meeting was adjourned a half hour later. I left Daniel’s house with unbearable dread, a copy of the plans clutched in my hand.
Will Karim find a way out, or will he be responsible for murder?
The story continues in ‘A Mother’s Gift: Part II’.