Aneesa sat with her legs tucked into her chest, her chin sat limply on the worn denim that covered her knees. Her shoes were a well-loved pair of classic black Converse, the rubber parts entirely decorated with Sharpie. Her dark brown hair, so dark it looked black at first glance, hung over her face, putting a veil between herself and the world. She always wanted a cover from the world, even if it was just a hood or something small. She felt very delicate compared to the vast world so brimming with dangerous, frightening, unpleasant things and ideals. She felt that life had already taken enough blows at her, and she never wanted to be caught unarmed again.
She pressed her cheek against the car window, watching her breath creep across the glass and then drawing spirals in it with her fingertip. Right now she hated this car, this vehicle that was driving her away from her home and bringing her to yet another unfamiliar place. She took a glance at her brother, who was rubbing his thumb back and forth over the left ear of his raggedy old stuffed rabbit. It had once been terry cloth but was now almost completely threadbare. She looked at him, thinking about how lucky he was. He hadn’t even known Daddy, she thought. He was only six months old when it happened.
* * *
It had been four years and she could still remember, exactly as it happened, that day, the day he died. She, her brother, and her mom were eating dinner when the phone rang. Her mother had just stared at it for several seconds before she hesitantly and slowly got up to answer it, as if she knew it would be simply awful news.
“Hello,” she said.
Aneesa and her brother couldn’t tell what the person on the other line was saying but they didn’t really need to. Their mother’s lips clenched into a tight, white, thin line and her eyes had a petrified glimmer that neither of them had ever seen before. Her polished fingers trembled horribly on the phone until finally she dropped it. In the utterly silent room the clatter was like thunder.
“Mrs. Ahmed? Mrs. Ahmed?!” shouted the man on the other line.
“Yes, I’m sorry.” She picked up the phone again. In a shaky, weak, almost defeated voice she asked, “What hospital did you say?” She took out a pencil and paper, briskly wrote an address down and hung up the phone.
“Mom,” Aneesa asked, “is everything… OK?”
“No, hon, it’s not,” she replied, running her fingers through her daughter’s hair. Suddenly tears were rapidly streaming down her cheeks.
“Your father,” she said miserably, turning to Aneesa’s brother and kissing him on the forehead, “your father got into a car crash, a very bad car crash. He suffered massive internal bleeding and they… they don’t think he has more then a few hours to live.”
Aneesa remembered thinking about how in movies, when parents die, the children just feel numb and don’t cry until someone tells them it’s OK. She remembered wondering if there was something wrong with her because the moment those terrible words left her mother’s lips she had broken down sobbing. She had sat almost limply on her chair with the tears relentlessly gushing from her eyes. She remembered her mother holding her, trying to comfort her, but she too was sobbing hysterically. Aneesa remembered her mother’s cheek pressed against hers, and remembered wondering if it was her tears or her mother’s she felt on her skin. She remembered that her brother, a mere infant, who couldn’t have possibly known what was going on, began crying, just because he could feel the despair in the room. She remembered the horribly, devastatingly silent car ride to the hospital. She remembered the hospital lights were so bright, the walls were so white, and the floor was so clean it was like some disgusting alien world that she certainly didn’t want her dad to spend his last moments in. She remembered dashing out of her dad’s room the moment she saw him, and waiting right outside the room for her mother to say goodbye, with her back against that whiter-than-white hallway wall. It was just too much to bear to see his body so immobile and riddled with bandages, blood, tubes, and beeping machines.
* * *
Yes, Aneesa remembered that day exactly as it was, and it tortured her. “Hey hon, you OK?” her mother asked, running her fingers through her daughter’s hair.
“I’m fine,” Aneesa replied.
“I know you’re only nine, and your brother’s only four, and I know this is hard to understand, but I am very sorry that we’ve had to move so much, it’s just that, houses are so expensive these days, and on only one income it gets hard to pay the rent. This new house is a little smaller, but it has a backyard, and don’t you think it will be fun to have a little garden? And with some outdoor space I might even consider getting you that dog you were bugging me about a year ago.”
“It’s all right Mom, don’t worry, me and Jakeem are fine.”
“I love you more than anything, you know.”
After a thirteen-hour car ride, Aneesa, Jakeem, and Mrs. Ahmed arrived at their new home. It was a pristine fall day, with a playful breeze, a glowing blue sky, and crisp leaves gently descending to the ground. It would have been a very pleasant day, Aneesa thought, if not for the fact that her life was being shifted once again. This house was in a small apartment building in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Aneesa studied the contents of the windows of the already-inhabited apartments. One was lined with stuffed animals and children’s drawings, another had dully colored, half-open curtains that revealed a windowsill filled with books. Mrs. Ahmed opened the noisy metal door and the family walked into the hallway. She took out a silver key, put it through the keyhole of the door to their new home and struggled with the lock for several minutes before getting the door open.
Mrs. Ahmed pointed out things about the house to Aneesa, trying to sound positive, but she just stared at her shoes. Every one of her friends had signed them. She sighed and crossed her arms, thinking of how she would have to make new friends at a new school in a new neighborhood all over again, she would have to explain her life to the kids at school, why she didn’t have a dad, why she moved so much. She bit her lip, but then quickly released it, realizing that she had drawn blood.
* * *
Aneesa, Jakeem, and Mrs. Ahmed had lived in their apartment for a month now. They had generally settled in, although a few unpacked boxes remained. Although the house was small, the family had decorated it fabulously and it looked very homey. In Aneesa’s opinion, the best things about the house were the gorgeously embroidered traditional Arabic pillows, which Mrs. Ahmed had kept since her childhood. Aneesa liked the fact that her mother had grown up in Rumalah and was quite proud of her Arabic heritage.
Aneesa sat on the bright orange couch with her knees tucked to her chest, staring rather blankly at the television.
“Hey hon, why don’t you do something besides watching TV, I feel like that’s all you’ve done since we moved here,” her mother said.
“Whatever,” she replied.
“You could go do something in the backyard. I’ve been working on it; I think it looks much better than it did before and you haven’t been out there much.”
Aneesa bitterly grabbed her Calvin and Hobbes book and briskly walked to the backyard.
Mrs. Ahmed sighed and put her face in her hands, thinking about how lately her daughter had been so unhappy and she just had no idea what to do about it. Jakeem was OK, she thought, he was young and adaptable, but Aneesa was taking moving so much harder, she was getting tired and worn down.
Aneesa sat outside, reading her comic book. She wondered why her mom had wanted her to come out here; it was almost winter. Then she figured that her mom thought she was pretty secluded lately, maybe her mom thought the fresh air would do her a bit of good.
She heard a small, odd sound she couldn’t quite recognize, it was coming from under the stairs that led to the house. She peered over to see what the noise was. She was amazed when she saw a tiny nest of young mice. She looked around, but there was no mother mouse to be found.
“Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed. “You little guys are all alone, aren’t you?”
She ran inside, grabbed a carton of milk, and ran back out. She dipped the fingertips of her right hand into the milk and offered it to the mice. She giggled as their tongues ran along her skin. She went inside again and came out with a piece of bread. She pinched crumbs off the slice and threw them to the mice.
“You could have died if I hadn’t discovered you,” she said to the tiny animals.
Aneesa continued feeding the mice milk and bread as well as some lettuce for the next two weeks. Mrs. Ahmed noticed that her daughter was a bit perkier lately. Aneesa had begun to regain that glimmer in her eyes that only belongs to people who rather enjoy life. She hadn’t been watching as much TV and she had been out and about more, no longer so secluded.
Aneesa got home from school, threw her backpack on the couch, and went outside to check on the mice she cared for. She realized that ever since she had discovered them, she had been happier. She felt that she had a purpose now, and the fact that something depended on her made her feel responsible, and she thought the idea of dwelling on her own issues irresponsible. She decided that she would name the five mice. She went outside and looked at them, trying to decide what each of them should be called. Eventually she chose Itchy for the all brown mouse, Moosy for the all white mouse, Phoebe for the mouse that was almost all brown except for a dot of white on its forehead, Gigi for the mouse with a white body and a brown belly, and Rosie for the mouse with a brown body speckled with white all over.
* * *
The next day the weather had begun to take a turn for the worse. Mrs. Ahmed had made Aneesa and Jakeem wear their winter coats, and even though there was none, the weather forecast had predicted snow. When she checked on her mice, Aneesa was devastated to find Gigi’s body limp and motionless. With tears running down her cheeks, she went inside to find her mother. 3
“Mom,” she said desperately.
“Oh, hon, what happened?”
“Well, you know those mice in the backyard?”
“One of them died, Mom!”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry. But you know they would have never gotten as far as they did without you, with their mother gone and all.”
“I want to get a cage for them. There’s still four left and I want to get a cage for them or else they’ll die from the cold too. It’s pretty much winter now and if I don’t take them in they won’t have a chance.”
“Well, OK, I guess, I know how happy these mice make you. But you know they will be all your responsibility.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“We’ll go to the pet store tomorrow.”
“No, today, we need to go now, Mom. Moosy and Itchy and Rosie and Phoebe need me.”
“Can’t it wait just a little?”
“Mom, please, if I wake up tomorrow and another one is dead it will be all my fault and I don’t think I can bear that.”
“All right, go get your brother and I’ll get the car started.”
* * *
It had been one year since the mice that Aneesa had cared for had moved into her house when all finally seemed well. Her mom had found a stable job with a good salary and the family was able to stay in their house. Although Aneesa was still a little secluded and still liked to be a little shielded from the world, she was generally happy, was making many friends at school, and enjoyed showing her mice to them. One day as Aneesa went into her room to feed her pets, she realized that she had not saved them, they had saved her.