My sister was shaking my shoulder, and not gently.
I opened one eye. According to the clock on my bedside table, it was quarter to six a.m. I’d dropped off sometime after two.
“Please let me sleep, Reem,” I mumbled, rolling toward the wall.
She jabbed my ribs. “Wash up.”
There was no getting out of it. Last Friday, I hadn’t gone to mosque for Jumu’ah, the main group prayer of the week. And even though Muslim women didn’t technically have to go, it made Reem about as happy as a cat in a kennel when I skipped. “I can’t force you to believe what you don’t, Lettie,” she’d told me once. “But you have to commit to something, even if it’s only showing up for Jumu’ah.”
Now it was just before sunrise, and she wanted me up for the first of the day’s five prayers. Plus, she’d made sure I had enough time to perform wudu, the ritual cleansing every good little Muslim kid learns to do before they unroll their prayer rug. Considering how much she let me get away with in general, it really wasn’t a lot to ask. But that didn’t make getting out of bed any easier.
The wrist I’d hurt the night before was as big as a baseball, so I threw on an oversize sweatshirt and let the sleeves hang low. As for Abbi’s missing bottle, there was no hiding the fact that it was gone. I’d just have to hope Reem wouldn’t notice. Skirting the truth with my sister was one thing; outright lies were another. If she asked, I’d have to tell her about Asim. God knows, part of me wanted to anyway.
I washed, prayed, folded up my rug, and tried to crawl back into bed. Reem caught me by the arm. “No way. I’ve got an hour before work, and we’re going to spend
“Come on,” I said. “I barely slept last night.”
“Join the club, Lettie. Now move it.”
Reem was short and tough, and had the muscled legs and hard head of a soccer player. She was the strongest person I knew. The prettiest, too, though most people never bothered looking past her hijab to notice. The day after our mother died, Reem put on one of her headscarves and hadn’t gone out uncovered since. Before that, my sister had worn her hair loose and her jeans tight. Now that she was covered, only the skin of her hands and face showed.
“Where were you Friday?” she asked.
“Rescuing a kitten from a tree.”
That bought me a look, and not a nice one.
“Working, okay? I was working.”
I sat down at the kitchen table. Reem cracked eggs into a bowl. There was a bag of my favorite croissants in front of me. She must have picked them up on her break the day before.
“Hunting Abbi’s killer again?”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Dad died seven years ago, Lettie.”
“And they still haven’t caught the guy who did it,” I shot back. “Doesn’t it bother you that Abbi’s killer is out there right now, laughing at the police? At us?”
“ ‘Hold to forgiveness, command what is right, and turn away from the Ignorant,’ ” Reem said. “Like the Quran tells us.”
“Whatever.” I got up and tossed the croissants into the oven. Reem sighed and broke up the yolks with a fork.
“I think it’s time we found you a college, Lettie,” she said. “It was the right thing to do, letting you finish high school early. But you’ve got too much time on your hands now, and that’s no good for anyone in a town like Las Almas.”
“We can’t afford college,” I said.
“No, not if we have to pay. But you’re smart. Plenty of places would give you a scholarship. Or we could take out another loan.”
“We have to pay off med school first.”
“You’re stalling,” she said.
“Yeah. I am. But we agreed I’d stay here until you finished your residency.”
“I know.” Reem shook her head and pushed her hair behind her ear with the back of her hand.
“Anyway,” I said, ready to change the subject. “I’m on a new case. A little girl wants me to figure out why her brother’s acting funny. She’s worried about him.”
Reem smiled and poured the eggs into the pan. “Sounds harmless enough. Think you can help her?”
My sister was a sucker for sob stories.
“I’m going to try.”
She nodded. Gave me a sly sideways glance.
“And do you have any idea why Delilah was so worked up when she called me yesterday?”
Maybe Reem wasn’t such a sucker after all.
“Delilah called?” I tried to sound innocent.
“Right after you left the Rubicon. She said she was worried about you, that you’d taken a case she thought was too dangerous. When I pressed her for details, she said it was just a feeling she had. She thinks your obsession with Abbi’s murder has started to cloud your judgment.”
“Delilah’s a worrier,” I said. “You know that.”
Reem frowned at the eggs. “I do, but I agree with her that you’ve got to find a way to make peace with Abbi’s death. You have to let go.”
“Like you let go of Ummi’s?” I said. “Trying to save every person who walks through those emergency room doors?” Reem stiffened.
“That’s not fair.”
She was right. So was I.
“Losing Abbi and Ummi wasn’t fair,” I said. “Forcing ourselves to accept their deaths and move on wouldn’t be fair, either. We’re both dealing with things the best we can. I respect your choices. You need to do the same for mine.”
She turned off the burner. “Get plates,” she said.
The bunched-up muscles in my shoulders relaxed. If Reem was willing to back off, so was I. Besides, the kitchen was warm, the sky was getting lighter outside, and it was hard to stay tense with a percolator gurgling in the corner.
I took down two plates and pulled the croissants from the oven. Reem brought over the eggs. “Bismillah,” we said over our food. Then we ate.
It would have bothered our mother if she’d known how rare a thing it was for Reem and me to sit down together for meals. Ummi always made sure the three of us were at the table for breakfast and dinner. And for a while after her death, Reem and I had kept up the tradition as best we could. Reem was only twenty then, finishing college and trying to raise me and mourn our mother all at the same time. But once she got into med school and her clinical rotations started, we were lucky if we saw each other more than a few minutes a day. It got worse during her internship. And now that she’d started her residency, I barely saw her at all.
“Tell me more about your case.” Reem spooned jam onto her croissant.
I told myself to stick to the basics. Just the bare bones.
“I don’t know much yet. Supposedly the brother started going out a lot with new friends, spending all his time on the streets. His sister thinks he got mixed up with some bad stuff.”
“That can happen when kids are left on their own too much.” Reem smiled at me with her clear, honest eyes.
I didn’t respond. I didn’t have to.
“You think you’re so hard, Lettie,” she said with a sigh. “But you haven’t seen the kinds of things people do to each other, to themselves… ”
She stopped talking and rubbed at a spot on the table that wasn’t there.
“Tell me about work,” I said, realizing only after the words had come out that I wasn’t really changing the subject at all.
Rueful. That was the word for the look she gave me.
“Gunshot wounds,” she said. “Overdoses. Heart attacks. The usual.”
She stopped talking and pushed bits of egg around her plate.
My sister looked as wrung out as an old dishrag. Still, I knew she needed to be at the hospital, doing her heart’s work. Ummi had put off going to the doctor when she lost weight for no reason, had kept quiet through weakness and fatigue because she hadn’t wanted to wear a skimpy hospital gown. There were no laws in Islam forbidding women from going to the doctor when they needed to, even when only a man or a non-Muslim was available. She could have gotten help right away. Should have. But a lifetime of worrying about modesty and rules and putting other people’s needs ahead of her own made her keep the illness secret. It wasn’t until she’d started wandering away and getting lost, weeping for no reason and babbling about jinn and ancient curses, that Reem had dragged her to the hospital. By then the cancer had spread too far to stop. The ummi we knew was gone even before her body died three months later.
That was when Reem decided to become a doctor. She wanted to start a clinic of her own where traditional women like Ummi would feel comfortable going before they were too sick to help. But it was hard, the work she did. Hard on her mind and body, hard on her soul.
“Hey,” I said gently. “Do you know what happened to Abbi’s old copy of One Thousand and One Nights?”
She took a deep swallow of coffee, grateful not to have to talk about work anymore.
“I was just thinking about it last night,” I said. “Remembering Abbi sitting here, reading to us from it. I miss those stories.”
She put her cup down and picked at the cuticle on her thumb.
“I miss him,” she said.
“Yeah.” She started to stand up. “It’s in the drawer of my bedside table. I’ll get it for you.” I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Sit. Have another cup of coffee.”
Reem smiled. She had no idea how beautiful she was.
“Remember the rest of your prayers today,” she said. “All of them. And you need to run some laundry.”
“Sure,” I said, meaning that sure, I’d do the laundry. I wasn’t going to have time to pray four more times, but Reem didn’t need to add that to her list of worries.
“Anything else on your schedule?” she asked.
She didn’t buy it.
“Tell Mook where you’re going, Lettie.”
“Let Emmet worry about tracking down Abbi’s killer. He cares about you—about us. And he promised Ummi he’d keep looking, even after the case went cold.”
“I mean it.”
From the book Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham. Copyright ©2015 by Jennifer Latham. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved. Appeared in This Land: Spring 2015.