She didn’t notice that the front door was slightly ajar when she walked past it on her way to the kitchen that morning. Perhaps because she was still half- asleep, or even slightly distracted after having missed her fajar prayers. Who looks closely at the front door in the distance when the kettle needs to be put to boil, breakfast to me made, people to be woken up?
But when she called out Hammad’s name several times with no response, first in a loud whisper so as not to awaken her husband and then with a kind of exasperation in her voice, her heart skipped a little beat. She was loth to admit that she’d always been paranoid about her darling son, born after two miscarriages and countless fights with Mohammad who didn’t understand why a woman couldn’t do a simple thing like get pregnant. She rushed from the kitchen towards the stairs that led to his bedroom but there stood the slightly open front door mid-path, mocking her. It seemed to be wide open like a hungry mouth, even though it wasn’t.
How had she not seen this before? Why had the security alarm not sounded if someone had opened it in the night while she and Mohammad were asleep? She refused to think who may have opened the door, preferring to consider robbers and murderers than what she knew in her heart of hearts had really happened. Hammad had walked out, fast asleep.
Galvanized into desperate action, she ran up the stairs to her son’s bedroom, shrieking Hammad! and Mohammad! over and over in a hoarse voice. No use, her baby’s bed was empty, full of pillows and blanket crumpled up during a typically restless night. He hadn’t walked around in his sleep since last summer, and the doctor had finally but reluctantly told them the worst was over, they didn’t need to padlock the doors and windows any more.
There was a movement and then a tense call from downstairs. Mohammad wasn’t happy to be woken up so unceremoniously, without breakfast or tea or loving words. For the first time in fifteen years, she didn’t care about him, or what he thought. She stared at the unkempt bed and felt herself sinking. Mohammad was coming up furious, and she grabbed the wall for extra support, waiting.
He was an astute man, that was for sure. Greying hair and pot belly notwithstanding, he understood as soon as he saw the bed what it meant. “How did he get out?” it was a quiet question, almost distracted, as he pulled out his cell phone and dialed.
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” Finally she was breathing again, although her chest was so constricted she thought she would faint. She sank down onto the beige carpet, the one Hammad had begged so many times to change. “Ummi I want something nice for my room, something with super heroes.” She had always swatted his demands away, worried that he would grow up to be a bully who fought with his fists instead of his brains. Now, she wondered why she had ever denied him. Better a bully than just vanished.
Phone call finished, Mohammad was glaring at her with bloodshot eyes (his insomnia was getting worse, she knew) demanding to know how something like this could have happened. “You’re his mother, you’re at home all day. Why didn’t you know he had walked out?” She ignored him, of course. What did he know? If he had been awake last night, why hadn’t he heard anything? But she knew she couldn’t say that, oh no, so she kept quiet. What was there to say, anyway?
He told her, “I’m going outside to find him,” and plodded downstairs, his footsteps so different from the ones he had entered the room with. How can footsteps seem sad? she wondered fleetingly as she laid her cheek on the carpet and closed her eyes. She wanted to pray but the words seemed lost, sticking in her throat refusing to come out. Allah knows what is in your heart, she told herself, but still the words refused to be uttered. I try to pray regularly, I give money to charity, Then why didn’t Allah stop Hammad from leaving the house? Why didn’t Allah wake me up when the door was flung open and my soul walked out into the black night?
She stayed in the room until afternoon, ignoring the sounds of her husband wandering both urgently and aimlessly outside, talking to neighbors. She knew she should be doing something, making flyers, calling people. The ladies at the mosque would flock to her in an instant if they knew she needed them. But no. They wouldn’t understand that she didn’t need anyone, except Hammad. She never had, he was her one and only love. Served her right for loving someone so intensely, so jealously. She bitterly wished he had never been born, or that she had died in childbirth. Anything would be better than knowing he was gone, not knowing where.
The police came later in the afternoon, a tall suspicious white man who wanted to inspect Hammad’s room as if he was still hidden somewhere inside. His questions made her first uneasy and then angry. “Do you know what your son was involved in, ma’am? Was he talking to people on the phone or watching videos online?”
Mohammad turned out to be the more innocent of the two. Or perhaps he was trying to be courteous. “I don’t understand, officer. What people, what videos?”
The officer coughed, but his expression was hard. “These days terrorists have become very savvy in recruiting young people online. We will probably need to confiscate your son’s computer.”
She was incensed, wanting to tear this man’s eyes out for suggesting such a stupid thing. “Hammad is ten years old, he doesn’t even have a computer of his own!” She was tired of pretending that men were clever and respectable when she knew how slowly their brains worked, if at all. Allah had not created the two genders equal, she had often laughed in private with her friends in merrier times. Who would have known that today the thick skull of a police officer would stand between her and her son?
Mohammad touched her on the shoulder to calm her down. No need in antagonizing the only person who could help them. “Officer, our son has a medical condition and he often walks in his sleep. I can give you the phone number of his doctor who will confirm. We are sure he walked out of the house while he was sleeping last night.”
The officer looked at Mohammad disbelievingly. “Yeah okay, get me that number. I still need to look at the boy’s room.”
She closed her ears and eyes as he rummaged through closets and clothes hampers and toy buckets. She held her tongue with biting teeth as he swept Spiderman action figures aside and dropped underwear to the ground. A clay model of the solar system was smashed to ensure no drugs or weapons were hiding inside the hollow planet-balls. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she hid her face again in the carpet’s shaggy fibers and begged God to make this ugly officer leave. She couldn’t pray for Hammad’s return, but this she could ask for.
Daylight ebbed into night, Hammad was still lost somewhere. Why hadn’t he phoned home? Was he sick, had someone offered to take him for a ride? The questions speared her heart and made her feel nauseous, faint. She didn’t know when Mohammad picked her up and took her downstairs, and she insisted on lying down not in her own bed but on the couch in the living room, in plain sight of the front door. She wanted to be the first one to see Hammad when he walked back in, perhaps sleeping, perhaps awake.
The ladies from the mosque had heard the news and they came at night, bringing food. Some were crying, imagining their own boys missing. A few were tight-lipped, wondering what kind of parents she and Mohammad were. The next door neighbor, the one whose son George used to ride his bike on the street outside with Hammad on weekends, came by to express her concern. She had never trusted this Christian woman before, yet today out of all the well-wishers she found a bit of solace with George’s mother. But the other ladies, in their hijabs and their Arabic accents made the neighbor uncomfortable and she scurried away after a few minutes.
Mohammad spent the night in their bedroom alone, staring at the ceiling. She herself slept on the couch, wrapped up in her grandmother’s shawl even though it smelled musty. The door remained ajar throughout the night; she didn’t want Hammad to have any trouble opening it with his small fingers. He was short for a ten-year-old and not very strong.
Her sleep was filled with dragons and vampires, even though she never watched those horrible shows on television. She was bleary eyed and still nauseous the next morning, but sometime after a cup of weak tea and a cracker, her mood changed slightly. For the morning brought news reporters, probably alerted by the police. Mohammad was incensed, but she realized that they were a blessing in disguise. Maybe Allah had heard the prayers she had not uttered. She gave the reporters a picture of Hammad in his school uniform and a toothy grin, begging them to issue a missing person’s alert in the news. Surely someone had seen him sleepwalking. Surely.
The reporters left, but the evening news was horrifying. “Muslim Parents Negligent of Son with Sleep Disorder” the headlines blared on all four local news channels. Before long the story was picked up by CNN and FOX, and she screamed at the television until she blacked out. Mohammad hugged her for the first time she could remember, and he had tears in his eyes. They cried locked together on the couch with the volume muted, watching their own haggard faces flash on the screen and wondering who these tired looking brown people were.
The imam of the mosque called them soon afterwards, saying he had sent an email to the entire congregation requesting special prayers. As if that would help. She laughed inwardly and bitterly. She hated a god who could do this, but she hated herself more. She didn’t deserve to be a mother if she couldn’t even take care of her only child. She should have slept in his room, she should have locked his door. She should have disappeared instead of him. They were right, she was negligent.
The third day a Pakistani lawyer from D.C. arrived, explaining that they needed to file a lawsuit against the reporters for misrepresenting the situation. He showed them his laptop. Overnight, dozens of writers had written articles defending Islam and the Prophet’s teachings about children’s rights, and hundreds of activists had held vigils the night before protesting against this injustice. The entire country was in an uproar: would the same headline have been used if the parents had been Christian?
Her head swam but she had had enough. She told the lawyer harshly to get the hell out of her house. When Mohammad protested she told him to shut the fuck up. Men were idiots and should stay quiet. Who cared about religion, about politics? Why wasn’t anyone looking for her son, for God’s sake? Were they all mad? Or was it simply her, who had woken up in alternate universe where up was down and in was out, where her only reason for living had disappeared without a trace yet she was still alive?
Finally, they were all gone. Everyone went away, even Mohammad who feared he would lose his job at the auto mechanics if he stayed home any longer. She spent her days and nights on the couch, refusing to eat, to drink, to pray. She watched the news incessantly, realizing that the news cycle was even more uncaring than the lawyers and the police officers. Who cared about her, about Hammad? People wanted some other news to entertain them, shock them.
Ten days passed, then ten weeks. Mohammad lost his pot belly, she almost fifty pounds. They often sat on the couch silently, holding hands, heads bowed. She had hidden her prayer mat, her praying beads, even her scarf. She had no need for all that anymore. Their relatives stopped visiting, whispering that the house seemed too depressing. The street outside echoed with silence. But she waited patiently on the couch. If Hammad was dead, she wanted to know. If he was alive, and ever came back through that door, she would probably kill him for making her live through this hell on earth. But first she would kiss him, oh she would kiss his lovely smiling face a hundred times if she ever got the chance again, run her fingers through that curly black hair and feed him his favorite chicken kebabs with all the ketchup he desired.
Three months later, the police officer came by, looking much less severe. A ten year old boy had been found in the downtown homeless shelter, refusing to speak. A spark burst in her dead heart, and she hurried downtown with Mohammad. At the station they found not the apple of their own eye, but someone else’s little boy, beaten, raped and wildly silent. He looked Arab, and she wondered how hard his mother must be crying on her own couch in front of her own door, waiting for this bloodied boy to walk in any minute.
She straightened her back, looked into Muhammad’s eyes and nodded slightly. They weren’t going to go back empty handed. They signed some papers and took the boy home. She bathed him, bandaged his wounds, put Hammad’s Green Ninja pajamas on his skinny body and oiled his hair into a silky mass. She lay with him on the small bed, kissing his face and promising to replace that ugly beige carpet tomorrow. She didn’t ask him his name, or what his favorite food was. There was plenty of time to get to know him. Maybe he would call her Ummi one day.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American writer of fiction and nonfiction from Houston, TX. She is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in several literary magazines including Catch & Release, On the Ruskand Belle Reve Literary Journal. Her collection of short stories titled “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan” was published in June 2015. She tweets from @saadiafaruqi.