"...passionate, romantic, and moving. A vivid story of loss and hope - a fine read for a wide audience." Midwest Book Review
"...a hauntingly beautiful love story against the backdrop of betrayal in a broken world." Sue Harrison, Bestselling author of MOTHER EARTH FATHER SKY
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Suha huddled over the hand-drawn map, wishing the shadows from the candle would stop dancing across the page and thankful that the sandstorm had finally ceased. The cadence of helicopter blades grew closer. She blew out the candle and stared into the darkness of the makeshift tent, fingers clenched, eyes wide, certain that her end had come. Samira and her three children lay sleeping on blankets they’d strewn across the sand, oblivious to the sounds of their hunters. The chopper’s rhythmic thumping passed overhead, then faded slowly into the distance.
Suha allowed herself to breathe once again. She unfurled her fingers from the edge of the thin blankets beneath her, her only cushion from the dense sand. One hand covered her racing heart, the other held her balance. Suddenly an explosion broke through the silence. Suha scrambled on her hands and knees toward Samira.
“Have they found us?” Samira pulled her daughter against her side and took quick inventory of her two young sons, both also fast asleep.
“Shh,” Suha commanded. She ran out of the tent and into the black of the desert night, pulling her frayed sweater tight across her plump body. Plumes of smoke rose in the distance. She whispered a fast prayer. Her heart pounded against her ribs as she spun around, looking for insurgents. The distant smell of sulfur assaulted her senses, a smell she’d become far too accustomed to since the beginning of the war. She hurried back into the tent and grabbed a flashlight.
“Suha! No!” Samira said in a harsh whisper.
“Shush. It’s far away.”
“Please!” Samira begged.
“Stay with the children.” In the two months that they’d been on the run, Suha had worn the hat of both mother and father to Samira, and jadda to Samira’s children. She’d never imagined herself as a grandmother, and bore the weight of the responsibility proudly. She would die before letting any harm come to them.
Outside the tent, Suha shivered from cold and fear as adrenaline carried her in the direction of the smoke. A mile away, she estimated. The tension in her shoulders eased. She listened to the darkness—her own panting breath the only break in the silence. A deep, low moan came from her left. Suha froze. She raised the flashlight, illuminating a path on the sand before her and then whipped the light to the sides, behind her. The shelter was nowhere in sight, tucked perfectly behind an enormous dune. She was alone.
Praying that she’d made up the noise in her own mind, she inched toward the west, using her hands to pull herself up a small hill. At the peak, she crouched, catching her breath, straining to hear any sounds; she was met with silence. She waited until the sound of her heart beating behind her ears calmed. Satisfied that they remained undiscovered, she turned back in the direction of the shelter. The light swept over a dark lump in the sand. Suha gasped, jumping backward and expecting a siege of insurgents to appear. She flattened herself to the dune and thought of the children. Better her than them. She pulled her body up, hoping her shaking legs would sustain her as she moved forward. She’d make her father proud, rest his soul. Gathering courage like a cloak, she lifted the light once again. A man lay in the sand, blood pooled around him, his arm cocked at a painful angle. The physician in her took over, propelling her to his side. Male, early thirties. Pulse. Broken arm and leg. Contusions. Alive. Arabic flew from her mouth, “Hello. Can you hear me? Hello.” There was no response.
Suha rushed back to the shelter, her sixty-five-year-old body aching and heavy. As she flew into the tent, Samira’s eyes shot open, “What is it?”
Suha bent over the blankets, rifling through them, casting away the smaller ones and collecting the longest, strongest ones. Her fingers worked furiously, tying them to two walking sticks as she spat orders, “An injured man. You must help me. Do not wake the children.”
“Man?” Samira moved protectively closer to the children.
“Aagh,” Suha swatted at the air. “Don’t be foolish. I’m alive, aren’t I? He’s American, not Iraqi.” She stood, dragging the crude stretcher behind her. “Come! Now!” she ordered.
Tess sat across from the doctor’s desk, her legs crossed, her heel kicking up and down. She bit her lower lip and wished he’d hurry up. The urge to pee was just nerves, she told herself. She’d just given a urine sample, after all. Her hand moved to her abdomen, and she closed her eyes. It’s just stress, she thought. Tons of women miss their periods because of stress. Five-year plan ran through her mind like a dull ache.
“Well, Tess, it looks like you and Beau are going to have a little Johnson running around.” Dr. Robert’s deep voice startled her.
Tess stared at him. Pregnant. Pregnant! Pregnant?
“Tess? Are you alright?”
Suddenly Tess’s throat felt as if it were closing. She focused on street noises that snuck in through a crack in the window, magnified by the silence of the room. Pregnant?
“Tess?” Dr. Roberts said softly. “Do you want to talk about this? Should we discuss…options?” Dr. Robert’s concern only heightened the ache in her belly that had been there since she’d missed her last period.
“Beau’s away,” Tess muttered. Where did that come from? God, now I’m turning into one of those flighty women I can’t stand. “Um, Beau’s in Iraq, on a photography assignment.”
Dr. Robert nodded, “Yes, you mentioned that earlier.”
“I did? Sorry. I’m fine, really.” Aren’t I? “He’ll be back in six weeks and I’ll tell him then. I’m sure he’ll be fine…good…happy.” Tess feigned a smile and began chewing on her fingernail.
Tess stared out the window of her Bethesda, Maryland office, her mind as cloudy as a November sky. A baby. She lowered her face into her hands. In the four years they’d been married, she’d never once questioned his five-year-plan. Five years to establish himself as a photographer and gain international exposure, then they would think about having a family. It all seemed reasonable, until now. Now she wanted him here, not off gallivanting through a war zone taking pictures of someone else’s family. She pushed her chair back from the desk, swallowing against a wave of nausea that pushed at her sternum. Tess had always considered herself lucky to be married to a man of the arts rather than a business man. One meticulous, Type-A businessperson in the family was enough. Now, she wasn’t so sure “lucky” was the right word.
Her eyes drifted to a framed page of NewsTime magazine which boasted one of Beau’s photographs. Layla, the little girl in the photo, was the daughter of Hakim Fulan, the owner of Wartime magazine. Beau had been documenting three-year-old Layla’s life since birth, and the shots he’d taken had been picked up by several national magazines. It made sense for Mr. Fulan to hire Beau to document the changes in Iraqi family life since the inception of the war, and Mr. Fulan’s position with Wartime magazine practically guaranteed the acceptance of Beau’s photos. Yes, Tess was sure these six weeks in Iraq would finally lead to the international exposure Beau craved, and, with that accomplished, how could Beau be anything less than thrilled about the pregnancy?
Tess looked at their wedding photo, then sat down on the edge of her desk, suddenly feeling very alone.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
Tess turned toward Alice’s breathy voice and smiled at the woman who had been her assistant for the past six years. Fighting the urge to confide in Alice the news of her pregnancy, she answered, “I do.” She’d save the news for Beau to hear first.
“He’ll be okay, you know,” Alice said.
Tess nodded. She was right, of course. Beau would be fine. If only she understood that his leaving wasn’t her main concern. “It’s still a war zone,” she said.
Alice handed Tess a warm French vanilla cappuccino and set a light blue coaster on her desk. “When are you Skyping again?” she asked.
“He said it could be a day or two before he’d have access again.”
“Bummer. Wanna catch dinner tonight?” Alice asked.
“What, no nameless men available?” Tess joked.
Alice guffawed, “Hey, just because I’m not into commitment doesn’t mean I’m not choosy.”
“Right.” Tess chewed on her fingernail, eying the cappuccino that she had a feeling she shouldn’t drink. “Doesn’t it scare you sometimes? Taking men you don’t know back to your place?”
Alice smirked, tucking a lock of straight blonde hair behind her ear. “I’m not twelve. Dinner?”
Tess shook her head. “My stomach’s been a little off. Rain check?”
“Sure,” Alice said and left Tess’s office.
Tess closed her office door and made a beeline for Google. She pored over the pages of information relating to pregnancy. At six weeks, her baby would look more like a grub than a human. She stared at the images on the screen, each depicting a different stage of pregnancy. She didn’t even want to think about the creature the baby would morph into in weeks seven, eight, and nine. At least by week ten it would look more like a recognizable…alien. Alien. That word kind of fit the unplanned pregnancy, like she’d been implanted by an alien that she’d somehow, miraculously, grow to love. Were they kidding? How could she grow to love this thing inside her? Most women gushed over their pregnancies. She’d heard them. “I fell in love the moment I found out I was pregnant.” What was wrong with her, she wondered. Why did she feel so disconnected? She flipped forward to sixteen weeks—finally, an image that resembled the tiny person the baby would become. She touched the screen, her eyebrows furrowed. She sat like that for almost a full minute, until she let out a long sigh and simply gave up. Her heart had not fluttered one bit. What is wrong with me?
Tess clicked on an article called “What to Eat When You’re Pregnant.” This should be easy, she thought. The left side of her mouth lifted into a crooked smile. Tess had a healthy appetite, and she had no intention of changing, even if she did feel a bit nauseous in the mornings. “Skip sushi, fish, and soft cheese,” she read. What? Her heartbeat quickened. There it was, staring at her in bold type: “Limit caffeine.” The cappuccino Alice had brought her vied for her attention. She pushed it over to the side of the desk and turned back to the monitor.
The cappuccino still called out to her. Warm vanilla wafted directly from the cup to her nose.
“Ugh!” She stacked books in front of the cup. There, she thought, out of sight, out of mind.
She turned back to the article. The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that moms-to-be who consumed 200 mg or more of caffeine a day had double the risk of miscarriage compared with those who had no caffeine. Miscarriage? Jesus, will I have to watch every little thing that goes into my mouth?
She clicked on another article, “Pregnancy and Exercise.” At least that article offered some good news. Riding a bike was considered safe until it became uncomfortable. Tess’s head fell forward with a loud sigh—weight gain, the bane of her existence. She’d never been thin, and once she’d hit twenty-nine, she swore her middle had expanded overnight. Beau called her shape womanly. Chunky was a better description, and even that was borderline. Suddenly the caffeine sounded good to her—a way out. She could drink this baby away, and Beau would never have to know. She began calculating how many cups of cappuccino would equate to two hundred milligrams of caffeine.