Hello and welcome to this week’s Tuesday Tales. If you haven’t visited before, this is a weekly blog created by author Jean Joachim. Once a week, a small group shares a scene from their current unpublished work based on a word prompt. Each month, we do a flash fiction entry based on a picture. For almost a year now, I have been sharing from Wedding Bell Blues, and I’ve only a few posts left before I will discontinue it to edit the book for publication.
Today’s word is LAKE and I think I’ve been quite clever in its use. Enjoy.
Paul swallowed the bile in his throat and turned on the tap, splashing cold water into his face. He’d hurt her, far more than she was letting on. Could he tell her about Fiona? She deserved to know why their marriage didn’t stand a chance.
Exiting the bathroom, he made his way back to the bed where MJ sat up against the headboard. He settled beside her and when the thunder boomed again and she started, he pulled her into his arms.
“Hell of a night, isn’t it? And after the day you had … Maybe you’re right and talking will help. I mentioned some of this in the interview before the wedding. Maybe that and the storm brought it back.” Or it could’ve been facing Mark and defending her like he’d tried and failed to do for Fiona.
She nestled into him. “I didn’t realize you’d mentioned your time in Afghanistan in that interview. I’m wide awake and since this storm seems intent on staying around, I won’t be able to sleep anyway. I’m all ears if you want to talk.”
He nodded. “Fiona Lake was one of the UN teachers working in Kabul. She was friends with the ambassador’s wife and I got to know her when she came to the embassy to visit. It isn’t common knowledge, but there was a system in place in Afghanistan similar to the underground railway in the United States during the Civil War. I don’t know who ran it, but Fiona was quite involved with it as I discovered. Their goal was to smuggle vulnerable young women and children out of the country. It wasn’t a government sanctioned activity, but more often than not, those in power turned a blind eye to it.”
“It should’ve been,” MJ said, the indignation in her voice reminding him of Fiona once more. “I’ve read about the atrocities against women and children there.”
“Fi asked the ambassador’s wife to help her with a couple of girls … hide them in the embassy for a few days until they could be moved out of the country. According to Fiona, Anoosha, the oldest, was brilliant and wanted to be a doctor. The ambassador’s wife agreed and convinced her husband to give the girl and her six-year-old sister asylum. Usually, he would’ve refused to get involved in local politics, but the girl’s uncle, a warlord with Taliban connections no one could prove, had arranged her marriage, which would effectively put an end to any dreams she had. MJ, she was only ten.”
MJ pushed away from him, and even in the dark he could see her flaring nostrils and jutting chin.
“My God! That’s a crime. Not only shouldn’t one person have that kind of power over another, but Paul, she was just a child. How could that society condone such a thing?”
He pursed his lips. “It’s a tough thing to swallow by our standards, but it apparently happens quite often and to girls even younger than Anoosha. It isn’t so bad if the groom is a child as well and the marriage is meant to cement an alliance, but this time, the groom was a man old enough to be her grandfather. I realize that cultural differences have to be tolerated, but that’s just wrong on any level. Here, the guy would be locked up as a pedophile.”
“And he should be. So what happened? Did you get her out?”
“Plans were made to get them to the embassy and then later fly them out of the country in a private plane along with another half-dozen girls. The day everything was supposed to go down, Anoosha and her sister didn’t show up at school. Fiona was worried, and asked me to go with her to see what had happened. They could’ve been sick … The old woman who usually brought them to school answered the door, and I could tell she was scared. She and Fi argued back and forth in Farsi, I didn’t really understand what they were saying, but in the end, the old woman let us into the house. Apparently, the uncle had insisted they stop attending school, and the girls had argued the matter. Justice is swift and men rule with an iron fist.”
MJ gasped, and nestled into him more deeply.
“Within seconds, she came out with Anoosha in her arms,” he continued. “She was too badly hurt to walk. I carried her out to the embassy car while Fi carried the six-year-old. Those poor girls had been beaten so badly, it was amazing they were still alive. The grandmother was crying, no doubt because she figured she’d get beaten too, but when I looked at her without a mark and down at those kids … I swore I would do whatever it took to get them to safety.”
The room disappeared, and he was back behind the wheel of the embassy car.
The sun has set and the street should be dark and deserted, but it isn’t. It’s hotter than hell and people have escaped the confines of their homes, hoping to catch a breeze. Driving slowly, he watches for pedestrians, uncomfortable with how long it’s taking. He looks up, certain the shadow he saw fall against the wall was that of an armed man, but the roof is deserted. An overturned cart forces him to make a right turn. He hasn’t gone more than a block or two when he notices that these narrower streets are empty. Where is everyone? His gut tells him to get back to the main street. They’re close, but not close enough.
“Stay low, Fi. I don’t like the looks of this place. Don’t give them a target. We’re about three blocks from the embassy.”
No sooner does he stop speaking that the crack of gunfire sounds, and the pull on the wheel tells him he’s lost one, maybe both, front tires. The next bullet shatters the windshield, embedding itself in the back of the seat where Fiona would’ve been sitting, had she not opted to get into the backseat and hold the children. Another bullet hits the glass again, sending shards toward his face. He ducks, but feels the sting and burn on his brow.
“Are you alright?” she asks, moving closer to the front seat.
“Stay back and stay down. I don’t know where the shots are coming from, but if we stay in the car, he’ll pick us off one by one. We’re sitting ducks. There’s some cover under the awnings near the edge of the houses. We’re going to have to make a run for it.” He turns on his radio, but the static is strong. He calls for help and hopes his signal will get through.
He stops the vehicle, gets out of the car, but before he can open the door for Fiona and the girls, a sniper’s bullets hit him—one grazing his head, another in the chest, the third shattering his leg. He falls to the ground beside the car. Fiona jumps out to help him, but suddenly there are legs all around him, stepping on him, kicking him. Blood in his eyes blinds him, but he hears Fiona’s screams, the sound of it something he’ll never forget.
“I must have drifted into unconsciousness, because I woke to vicious kicks in my side and children screaming. The two girls were kneeling on the ground beside Fiona’s body. A man, his face covered by a blue and white scarf, yelled at them. They bowed their heads, and he stepped behind them and fired point blank into their skulls. He stepped back, spat on them, and then on me, and walked away. I couldn’t understand why the bastard hadn’t killed me, but now I realize he thought he had. By the time help got to us, they thought I’d bit the bullet, too. It was touch and go for a few days, but I survived. For weeks after, every time I closed my eyes, I heard Fiona’s screams. I failed her and those two little girls when they needed me most. I learned that three days later, an older woman, wearing a suicide vest, walked into the school and set off the bomb. She killed fifteen students and four UN workers—all of the girls who would’ve travelled to England with Anoosha and her sister. That’s why I don’t deserve to be happy, don’t deserve you, and a life and family. I should’ve died on that street with them.”
He moved to pull away from her, but her grip tightened.
“Oh, Paul,” she spoke hoarsely, her throat clogged with tears he felt running down her cheeks onto his chest.
How long had she been crying?
“You didn’t fail anyone. You tried to save them from a fate worse than death, and you did. As awful as it sounds, a bullet in the head was far more merciful than the life they would’ve had at the hands of old men like that one. Even the grandmother, who probably was the one forced into that suicide vest, had to know that, which is why she let them go. My heart bleeds for all the innocent victims, but you almost died, too. The animal who killed Fiona and executed those girls will burn in hell for what he did. Not you.”
She put her arms around him and pulled him close to her.
He held her, powerless to push her away, knowing he should, and unable to do so, just as he couldn’t stop the tears running down his cheeks. As they sat like that, weeping for girls she’d never known, Paul realized the storm wasn’t as loud as it had been.
“It looks like it’s blowing itself out,” he said, knowing he should let her go, but terrified that if he did, he would be sucked back into the memories and the blackness once more. “We should try and get some sleep.”
“Okay,” she answered, but made no move to leave his side.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post. Don’t forget to check out all the other on Tuesday Tales.