ALIYA KNELT on the hardwood floor. With trembling hands, she checked her scarf, careful to tuck every strand of hair beneath the fabric, almost as though she was getting ready to pray
Prayer was the last thing she should be thinking about tonight.
A crisp breeze swept in through the open window and blew over her knees, across the back of her neck. The wide sleeves of her abaya billowed out, and she caught a glimpse of her watch—11:58 and counting.
She unclasped the band and tossed her last link to modern technology under the bed. No clock ticking, no computer humming, no electric blanket toasting cold feet. Just the frigid air outside, roughing up the leaves, and the faint sound of an animal howling far away.
Her fingers stumbled as she struck the first match against the back of its wooden box. Strike one fizzled, but strike two caught and held. Aliya moved the flame from one candle to another until five lights glowed, safe and stable, at their points of the pentagram. The wooden floor gleamed in the dark.
She took a deep breath, flipped the Qur’an open to her favorite verse, the one about the elephant. Recite it backward, Great-aunt Reem had told her all those years ago. Letter by letter. Wasn’t this the kind of thing she’d go to hell for? Such an innocuous act, it couldn’t be.
She read the words under her breath. Wind whipped through the window again, fluttered the flames.
Start at midnight, Old Aunt had said. Carry on until you’re done.
Next up: blood. Aliya picked up the ice-cold silver pin, jabbed at her left index finger, and failed to make a dent. Freshman Biology all over again. Was she going to faint now, too?
Not the time for that, and especially not the place. If the thud of her head hitting the floor woke her parents, if they came in and found her out cold, surrounded by candles and a needle, dressed all in black, they’d think . . . Correct that. They’d know exactly what she’d been doing. Something good, pious Muslims never took into their own hands.
Though she hadn’t been much good as a Muslim lately, had she?
She jammed the pin into her left thumb with such force that the blood gushed out. A crook of her arm, and she found the scrap of cloth, pulled it forward. In pin and blood, she drew a series of careful strokes on the fabric. God help her, she was going to run out before she reached the end. Squeezing the thumb—oh, that hurt—she got the last few drops she needed.
Done. The letters of his name, etched in blood, made the fabric so beautiful it almost pained her to burn it. She fed it to the nearest flame anyway, a silver tray poised beneath the candle to catch the ashes. Almost there. She lifted the tray up to her face, puffed on the ashes once, twice, three times, watched them rearrange themselves. Then she mixed them with freshly ground tea.
All very simple, nothing gross or improper. Aliya scooped the mixture into a covered mesh teaspoon and dropped it into the teacup. She leaned between candles, stretched her hands to the wall, plugged in the kettle. No modern conveniences, Old Aunt had told her. But the kitchen door squeaked, and her mother slept in fits and starts.
Empty your mind. Let the jinn hear your call.
The kettle boiled. She flicked off the switch and poured the steaming water into her cup. Swirled the mesh spoon around till the water turned brown and browner still.
Blow across the top of the cup three times.
Recite the Beloved’s name three times.
Tell them what you desire.
"I need to speak to Trevor one last time. Five minutes, that’s all." Five centuries was more like it, but she doubted the jinn could bend the rules that far. "Five minutes."
She drank it all in a single gulp, not caring that the hot liquid stung her tongue. Stretching out across the floor again, she blew out the candles one by one.
Then she sat back to wait.
ALIYA GOT HER ANSWER the very next day.
The family room, center of the Najjar household— squabbling kids, gossiping aunties, the incessant TV talking to itself—was a strange place for the dead to choose to communicate. A strange place for Aliya to do her homework, too, but Mama insisted the computer stay in sight. "I know all those crazy things online kids do," she said. "Meeting up with criminals and sending secret sex messages. You don’t like it, work in your room." Try telling Mama that the teachers at Fillmore stopped accepting handwritten assignments back in 1992.
So Aliya struggled on in the family room. She reread the last line of her overdue History essay, a line she’d typed more than a week ago—Another terrible oppression of World War II took place in our own backyard, the Japanese concentration camps— then clicked back to her e-mail. Nothing.
"Hey, Aliya," called out Cousin Mariam. She sat on the couch, flipping through a newspaper. "Did you know this boy who died?"
Thank God, this once, for the noise. No one heard Aliya’s sharp intake of breath. No one could see her face, either, since she was practically pressed up against the computer screen. Calm yourself. She’d prepared for this. "How would I know him? He was a party boy, the kind of guy who’d throw bottles out of the back of a truck—not someone you’d find in AP classes."
How would she know him? Little drawings she doodled on the side of her desk in Calculus—snails, seagulls, cranes. Two periods later, he’d add the captions: Supersnail’s cape catches on a clam shell, saves him from certain death; Wanted: Seagull. Stole a million sand dollars. And one day: Meet me out by the bus lanes, after all the idiots have gone home. I’ll be the one in the green hat.
"But you must have known who he was," said Mariam. She took a sip of tea, making a face because Mama was so stingy with the sugar. "It says here he was very popular, lots of friends, leaving some huge bash in Wilcrest when he drove through the railing and right over the cliff."
Almost a stunt car, he’d introduced her to Mitsu. Almost human. She could imagine it, couldn’t stop imagining it, Mitsu with her blue doors open like wings, soaring off the edge of the cliff, a daredevil at her wheel.
"Aliya?" Mama came into the room, set a glass of warm milk by her elbow. Felt her forehead for a fever. "Drink this, I know you’re not feeling well."
"Flu?" That was Mariam, from the couch. "Have you taken any Tylenol? Or you know what’s even better, Nabile told me about this, heat a towel over the radiator and then wrap it tight around your head."
"Have you tried it?" asked Mama, clearing a space on the couch and sitting beside her.
"Haven’t been sick," said Mariam.
Aliya clicked on her IM account. "U there?" she asked Sherine for the third time in twenty minutes. No answer. She tapped the edge of the table. Tabbed through a whole series of pages: MySpace, Facebook, Muslim Girl World, letting images flash across the screen, reading nothing. Out of the corner of her eye, she made sure that Mama was busy with her tea. Then she typed: Teenwidows.org. Not that she was a widow, not exactly, but it felt like it.
"I’m not surprised," said Mama to Mariam. "You’ve had a very lucky year."
Mariam preened on the sofa. She’d been married just three weeks. "I think the best thing was taking the semester off. The dean wasn’t happy about it, not happy at all, because I got into the honors program and everything, did you hear about that?"
He’s dead and I can’t tell anyone, she read in a forum entitled: Just Bereaved. I mean, everyone knows he died in a car crash, but they don’t know that he was with me.
"Oh, you did hear?" Mariam preened a little more, even though she’d told Mama the honors thing herself. "I figured I needed a semester to get used to being married. It’s a lot of work being somebody’s wife." Mama, married twenty years, kindly held her tongue. "Especially somebody like Nabile. He’s so surprised every time I mention takeout. He wants a hot meal every night and, by God, it better have meat."
"Boys raised in Syria are different from Syrian boys raised here," said Mama. "Of course, Nabile is a very good husband, and a doctor, and as soon as he gets his American qualifications, you’ll both be well off. And it’s nice that you didn’t make a fuss about him being an immigrant, like so many girls do."
Aliya paged down. No replies.
Mariam giggled. Last spring, frantic with exams, she’d holed up in Aliya’s bedroom with a stack of textbooks and growled when anyone came near. Nowadays, she talked a lot less about radiation and a lot more about relationships. "Arab-American boys don’t understand about the mahr. The dowry." Aliya felt Mariam look up at her back. No need. She knew what mahr meant. Bride-price. The amount a man paid for the right to touch you. "So helpful to make it college tuition, if you know what I mean. It’s lucky I have my scholarship, but med school will be so expensive. Girls back home, they go to college for free, but here, even the state schools . . ."
Mama’s mouth pulled in, not quite frowning. She blew across her teacup. "Your uncle wasn’t thinking just about your education when he suggested Nabile. He thought you’d fit together nicely and, from what I heard from Nabile’s sister, I thought this too."
Mariam’s bridal gold jangled on her wrist. "Oh, Auntie, I didn’t mean that. I love Nabile."
Loved him? Loved him enough to walk three miles to the only store that sold Worstley’s wool socks because he complained his feet were cold at night? Enough to set a paper bag of rose petals in his locker so they’d flutter down when he pulled open the door?
Enough to spend half her soul in salty tears when he died?
Aliya jammed her fingers on the keys as she typed, blocking out Mariam’s singsong voice as she said words Aliya couldn’t bear to listen to: so sweet, tender, devoted. Aliyaalnajemail@example.com—still nothing. Her fingers danced over the keyboard, and she wound up at her school e-mail. Somewhere she hadn’t been since . . .
You have 1 new message.
Click. Open. Big, black, bold letters jumped out: Trevor Sanders. Of course, it could have been, must have been, sent before . . . what was the date?
He’d set his computer to the future on purpose. I don’t want my mom tracking me down—‘You sent this on day X, when you were supposed to be in detention.’ You know what I mean. Plus, now my e-mail will always go straight to the top of your inbox. He’d kissed her on her forehead. That had been near the beginning of everything. She’d swooned.
She was swooning, now. Good thing for Mariam’s babble, or someone might have noticed her hands frozen above the keyboard. Could she read this? Not like she had a choice. After all, she’d set it all in motion: blood, candles, pentagram.
Hey Aliya, it began.
You’re probably pissed that I didn’t show up last night—but please don’t be. There’s all kinds of crazy going on here, shit you wouldn’t believe. Shock you out of your pious Muslim girl mind. Look, can you do something for me? That envelope in your locker, can you give it to Gillian Smith? She’s in your Am Civ class, tall black girl with a funny accent, the one who never takes her coat off. And don’t get your knickers all crumpled thinking something crazy—you know I don’t kiss girls with attitude. This is business baby. Tell your parents you’re meeting Sherine to study and take it over this afternoon—don’t worry about wasting the Sherine excuse, because I can’t come tonight either. But soon. I promise.
She read it again. A third time. No protests of undying love, no sonnets about how much he missed her? Not even a rhyming poem—Roses are red, violets are blue, heaven is stinky, because I’m without you? Sent before, it must have been.
Back in the day, when she and Trevor were young and in love.
"Aliya? Is everything okay?"
That was Mariam, emerging from her rhapsody on her oh-so-breathing husband. Lines of concern etched the edges of her mouth. Aliya clicked the corner of the screen and killed the evidence. "Just an e-mail from school," she said. She stared hard at the desktop, then managed: "About that boy, there’s going to be a memorial service. It is sad. Even though I didn’t know him, I can’t imagine what his mom must be going through."
Except that she had an excellent imagination. Every other moment she imagined that the phone was going to beep, that the text would be from him.
She found herself at Peoplefinder.com, typing in a name: Smith, Gillian.
"The boy who died?" asked Mama. "What was his name?"
"Trevor Sanders." The screen in front of her blurred at the words. "A kind of stoner who blew off class and grabbed girls in the parking lot." Not girls, a girl. A girl named Aliya. Not in the parking lot, either, but over at Stoney Community Par-k, in the shelter of the gazebo. With sun shining through, like the last page of a romance novel.
Why couldn’t she think about something, anything else?
The page came up. Smith, Gillian: 42 Roosevelt St.
"I’m going to Sherine’s to study."
"Now?" said Mama. She looked around the room, still searching for the clock they’d moved last August. "We’re having rice with bazalia tonight." A handful of green peas. Not long ago, that’s all it took to keep Aliya home.
"I’ll eat there," she said. She took her green jacket off the back of the couch and slid her arms into the sleeves. Mama didn’t protest; Sherine was the only approved friend left on the list. At the door, Aliya remembered her cousin. "See you later, Mariam."
"Don’t you need your books?" Mariam called, her voice as suspicious as her eyes. Or maybe it was all concern. Either way, the front door had closed behind her. Aliya wasn’t going back.
Sherine would be hunched over her computer right now, researching colleges west of the Mississippi. "No way in hell I’m going anywhere within a day’s drive of home," she said every day at lunch. "I am so sick of playing the dutiful Arab daughter and sleeping three to a room. I’m going to get to the dorm and think it’s huge." Sherine covered her hair and never missed morning prayers, but she was adamant: "Only God has the right to tyrannize me."
Aliya trudged down the driveway, out into the street, dodged a couple of puddles on her way to the corner. Not Sherine, not today. Take a stretch around the block to work her legs, that’s what she’d do. Tell Mama that Sherine’s family was having beans with lebin—why was it everyone gobbled up that fool yogurt dish except her?—and come home in time for the peas she loved. She would. She wouldn’t go anywhere near Gillian Smith’s house. What would she say to her? I got this ghostly e-mail . . .
Gillian Smith—what had Trevor been thinking, hooking up with her? Not hooking up, hooking up, but "business baby," he’d written.
Excerpted from Three Witches by Paula Jolin.
Copyright © 2009 by Paula Jolin.
Published in August 2009 by Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.