My End Is My Beginning
You begin with knowing the air, dust-thick and fog-like from the fluorescents, the air that hovers between ceiling and floor littered with the little you have brought with you. Bags upturned, books and socks scattered. You walk out with the others into rooms you had been a half-hour before. Before you had seen the figure outside the window, heard the sound of a single gunshot, your father yelling — out of fear? Out of pain?
You had found yourself alone, alone on the other end of the hall. Your family across the way, crying but you couldn’t fit in the crevice where they hid. So you tried to stretch yourself across the wall, not to be seen by the windows. Tried to melt into the cream-colored wall, chameleon your skin so that it fits the safe borders.
But the figures outside, no longer one, gather at the kitchen door, and with a single shove of the crowbar, the kitchen gate clatters to the cracked patio.
You scurry with the others into the darkest bedroom. You recognize more than your parents — friends? Your father’s coworkers. Their children. How much did you realize each of them was there? In this moment, you were only shadows scuttling along the silent cement floor. In the bedroom, one of them fiddles with keys, his hands shaking so strongly he can’t find the right one, can’t get you out.
You hear the figures come into the kitchen, then the hall where you just were. You watch your father walk out to meet them. You hear them speak to him, muffled. You do not know what they are doing but you hear the scuff of their sandals. You find out later they were speaking to your dad and hitting him. Show us where the money is. Hit. Car keys. Hit. Laptop.
You come face to face with a figure. A boy, just like you. He is wearing a zipped-up soccer jacket. Nervous, because he did not expect to find you, hiding with the others in the back bedroom. He stands taller, wets the dry roof of his mouth. Asks for all you have. One man gives him his advance of three month’s salary, just received in a paper envelope. Another, a cell phone. The boy takes these. He looks to his right, opens a desk drawer, stares at what’s inside. Shuts it without taking anything.
He is gone. They are gone. One by one, vehicles out in the yard light up, back out until the yard is empty. The rooms, empty. Only the air is full. Latent, static.
You walk out with the others, adrenaline anointing your shoulders like holy water. The house has been overturned — in minutes made to look like harmattan-swept fields. Scattered, a fresh layer of dust caking the soles of your feet. Above, the lightbulbs buzz. A moth taps the glass, desiring to be let in.
You go to your small backpack where you left it. Its contents are missing except for the toothbrush, change of clothes. You are grateful for the breath you take, the heart whose rhythm’s slowed.
We’ll go to the landlord’s, someone speaks. The voice so loud it seems gun-fresh, like the looters’ warning shot.
Alleycats, you and the others peer out the street gate. Empty. You scurry across the way. The landlord’s son comes out to meet you. Knew something was wrong when the shot sounded from this street and not the other streets, the ones still covered with today’s bullet casings. You file in with the others. Into the yard — mango tree, a radio with a wire stretching up to the tip of the brick wall, glass shard guarded. A woman’s voice on the radio, French. Sounding off the world’s news. A football transfer. A monsoon in India. Another war a thousand kilometers away.
With your mother, you are invited into the room of the landlord’s wife. Plush carpets. Low couches covered in pink polyester and gold trim. She gives you biscuits. Guava juice. You thank her. She turns on the television. A soap opera. Tomorrow you will watch the same screen as Gaddafi shakes his fist, says he has negotiated a ceasefire between your president and the rebels. You will see this news as a helicopter is hit by a rocket-propelled grenade above you. You will hear the clips emptied again in the streets. You will feel the walls shudder like ribcages.
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