The air was heavy with heat and smoke; my lungs pulsated in my chest like caged birds. My hijab had crawled down my forehead, I fixed it to see better. Not that there was much to see. A heavy grey haze hung around me; screams and prayers pierced it as if they were far away in the distance. Gunshots, too.
A few milliseconds and a single hateful yell had separated everybody’s lives into Before and After. I was standing next to Jenny, chattering about work, excited to go on our long-planned trip. We were next in line to check in.
Where was Jenny?
“Jenny?” my voice was hoarse and pained. I might have been injured. “Jenny, where are you?”
I remembered being swept up and then slammed ferociously back down onto the marble floor. Jenny could be anywhere. Jenny could be —
“Aaah.” The moan came from underneath a pile of rubble.
“Jenny!” I threw myself forward and began to dig through the wreckage, shoving heavy pieces of masonry aside with my trembling hands. Blood was pumping against my temples, compounding my dizziness; I felt I could have shovelled whole cities out of my way to get to my friend. “Hold on, I’ll get you out.”
The gunshots and screams seemed to be approaching. Perhaps I should just leave her. I dismissed the thought with a quick shake of my head. I didn’t think I could breathe properly until I saw her face.
“I can’t feel my legs.” The weak voice from beneath the pile wasn’t Jenny’s.
“You’ll be okay.” My confidence was returning — it was easier to reassure a stranger than it would have been a friend.
The right sleeve of my shirt was torn. Blood was trickling down my exposed arm — thick, maroon, nauseating. Both my palms were bloody, as if sheathed in red leather gloves. Why didn’t I feel anything? I picked up another piece of heavy plastic and tossed it aside. Keeping my hands busy somehow prevented them from growing weak. I could see a crop of ginger hair and a pale blood-smeared forehead.
“You alright?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she spoke with an accent so light I couldn’t discern its origin in the cacophony around us. The girl stirred and looked up at me. Her eyes were startlingly blue, like particles of sky seen through thunderclouds. Particles of hope.
“What’s your name?” I asked. She winced in confusion, as if struggling to remember.
The angry rattle of raised voices captured my attention. I looked up and inhaled sharply.
“Shh,” I whispered. Lucie’s face froze with terror.
A few feet away from me stood two men. Heavily armed, they were holding a heated discussion in Arabic. At times it was mixed with a European language I couldn’t quite recognize — so distorted it sounded coming out of their angry mouths. Behind them stretched a trail of bodies. Some may have still been alive.
With my heart hammering, I grabbed a large piece of rubble and placed it as carefully as I could over Lucie’s head.
“Stay quiet, Lucie.”
The gunmen fell silent abruptly, as if they heard my desperate murmur.
“You!” one of them barked as they came closer. “Stand up.”
My Arabic was pretty poor even on a good day, so I was glad I understood him. I got up and straightened my skirt automatically, as I always did in front of strangers.
Both men were tall, with thick eyebrows and beards. Blood was spattered across their faces like dirt. Not their own, I thought, suppressing a wave of nausea. Both pointed handguns at me.
Growing up, I’d moved from dangerous areas of Queens to even worse parts of Brooklyn and back again. Despite this, I’d never been held at gunpoint before. The barrels stared at me like two hollow eyes, numbing my every joint. I couldn’t move, couldn’t blink, couldn’t breathe.
“Pray to Allah,” one of the terrorists ordered. His brows and beard were blond, his eyes venomous green. His handgun-free hand was caressing a rifle strapped across his chest.
Instantly, I dropped to my knees, terrified that they’d shoot me otherwise. I pressed my forehead against the dusty floor that reeked of blood and chemicals. The prayer came out in ripples, the plea of a stutterer. The terrorists listened to me wordlessly.
Before my eyes was the image of my mother, who’d taught me how to pray, how to pronounce every single word correctly. I was very young, only just learning to open myself to God and my heart to love and light. Now, at gunpoint, it was impossible to concentrate on anything other than the dread my heart was swathed in.
“— wa lillahil hamd,” I exhaled hard, forcing out the last air in my burnt-out lungs. I looked back up into the dark metal eyes.
The men’s faces were deprived of emotion as they nodded.
“You can live.”
I collapsed to the floor, my back convulsing with every silent sob. Perhaps I heard a chuckle, but nothing seemed certain any more. The men walked past me, kicking lumps of broken furniture out of the way.
“So… what do we have here?”
I sat up and turned around. The second terrorist, his coal dark beard powdered with dust, was leaning over the refuge I’d hastily created for Lucie. Why had I even tried to free her? She would’ve been safer buried.
The slab was torn to one side and a wide grin spread across the terrorist’s face. His eyes, two black holes, suddenly lit up. His snake-eyed comrade idly pointed a handgun at Lucie.
“Pray to Allah,” they said in horrifying unison. Lucie shuddered at the sound of Arabic. She looked up in confusion, creasing her freckled forehead.
“I — I don’t understand,” she said. The handgun threw a shadow over her terrified face, resting on its pale canvas like a bruise.
“Pray to Allah,” the blond snake repeated in broken English. Lucie’s blue eyes widened, two bottomless lakes.
“I don’t —”
My heart sank like an anchor with a broken chain. I moved closer to the girl; the men didn’t acknowledge my presence in any way. They were staring expectantly at Lucie, their faces bored and triumphant.
“I don’t know any prayers.” Every word was a needle driven into my eardrums.
The men moved forward an inch, both their weapons now pointing directly at Lucie’s head.
Non, s’il vous plaît, non, she whispered and shut her eyes. She had nowhere to run. She couldn’t even move.
Their voices drowned out everything else: every moan and scream and plea were beatboxing tragically somewhere in the background. Why had I done this to Lucie? Why couldn’t I have let her
be saved by someone else? For a second, I thought I could see the blue underneath her pale eyelids.
It’s all my fault.
I wasn’t thinking, not really, as I threw myself forward, shielding Lucie from the monsters. Or maybe I was thinking too much.
“Akbar!” I finished their exclamation, now more than ever knowing that God was great and He would help me. After all, he’d been guiding me my whole life.
The terrorists fell silent, staring at me, perhaps actually seeing me for the first time. And then they grinned. Murkily. They don’t care, I realized. My insides twisted and froze.
The shots ripped through the haze. I didn’t see them, but I felt them, drilling into my flesh, shattering my bones. The men stared down at me, poison ivy and lifeless onyx. I was choking on blood.
The onyx leaned over me, and I felt the hot mouth of his weapon kiss my forehead. Lucie sobbed somewhere underneath me. I must have fallen on her. My blood was probably raining all over her little face.
No! I wanted to scream, don’t dare say His name as you kill me. But my lips were numb and unresponsive. The terrorist’s face was uglified with something similar to joy as he prepared for my execution.
Each second is an eternity when you’re about to die. In the instant between the two words of his proclamation the handgun seemed to drill a hole in my forehead deep as a grave. I accepted the inevitable as the hole was about to be filled with a lead coffin.
Then I was spared.
Chaos exploded around us, new screams and violence shattering the air more thoroughly than ever the gunshots had. I could no longer feel the burning against my forehead, just agony in my bullet-riddled body. The onyx was shooting at someone else now.
“Police!” Some words you understand, no matter what language they’re yelled in.
The blond man dropped next to me, blood pouring down his forehead and into his still open eyes.
Fire raged inside my chest, consumed the sides of my face, my shoulders, my arms. I choked again; metal burned my tongue and palate. Had the bullets boiled my blood?
“Police!” Another shout. More noise, a few shots, then bliss. It was finally over. As I allowed myself to slide into oblivion, I heard Lucie stir somewhere nearby.
Lada Redley draws inspiration from her travels, the people in her life, and events in the world. Lada writes both prose and poetry and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster, London.