Chapter Sixty Eight
I sighed happily as I swiped away the strands of hair that had escaped from the messy bun-like structure sloppily piled atop my hair.
And not a moment too soon. I heard Rayyan’s footsteps echo on the landing and cast a worried eye over the spread laid out in front of me. I wasn’t modest enough to pretend that I wasn’t a decent baker. I’d tasted the things I’d made and they’d passed my own fussy standards, after all.
But today – tonight? – was special. My brother was leaving for a different continent in a few hours. I didn’t want to give him food poisoning.
I’d had absolutely no idea what to do to mark Rayyan and Amira’s departure until the very last minute. I couldn’t buy them anything, they wouldn’t be able to take it with them unless it was small and relatively devoid of value. I couldn’t make them anything because, well, I couldn’t make things.
Eventually, I’d settled on baking madeleines. Rayyan had eaten the little sponge cakes constantly on a trip to France with Mom when he’d been eleven and had come home begging Hajra to make them for him again.
I’d been five at the time and my parents had still been paying careful attention to my sugar intake but I had, of course, thrown a colossal fit at being left out and my brother had shared with me before our parents could stop him.
The sight of madeleines still made a reflexive smile tug at my lips and I could never eat the chocolate chip embedded ones without remembering the way that very first, shared one had melted in my mouth.
I’d called them marshmallow cookies for the longest time, taken with their softness and Rayyan had even been able to use them to make me do his bidding when I’d still been small.
Hajra had been warned that I was going to turn her kitchen into a shambles while Azmiah was taking her morning nap because I was determined to send her uncle off with fresh baked goods and nostalgia.
“Hey,” Rayyan greeted. “What’s all this?” He picked up the gift box I’d set aside for him and began to pick at the wrapping paper.
“Not for now! I smacked his hand away. “You open this after you leave.”
I picked up the small plate I’d kept aside and thrust it under his nose. “But you get this now.”
“Madeleines! I haven’t had these in forever.” He bit into one happily. “Do you remember how much you used to love them?”
He looked between the plate and me. “Aren’t you gonna have one?”
“They’re for you. As a goodbye present.”
Rayyan held out the remaining half of his madeleine. I took it and then pretended to complain. “Your half-eaten one?” I wrinkled my nose in mock-disgust.
“You don’t remember?” My brother’s face fell.
“How you sacrificed half your dessert because I was losing my mind?” I pretended to think. “Yeah, I remember. That’s why I made them for you.”
“You were a little kid, you wanted to be included. I made such a fuss about them…” Rayyan shook his head in amusement. “I don’t know how I didn’t get sick to my stomach.”
He fiddled with the ribbon on his present. “Wait… you made these?”
I nodded. “With my own two hands.” I held them up proudly. “I didn’t know what else to get you and we used to fight over these so much, it seemed like the thing to do.”
“You did great, Az,” Rayyan assured me through a full mouth, having just picked up another little cake. “They’re perfect.”
“Good.” I picked up the box. “Assorted ones for you guys.”
Rayyan pouted. “I have to share?”
“You can’t eat all of those by yourself,” I giggled. “They’ll go stale.”
“You underestimate my appetite. I used to be able to eat an entire cake all by myself.”
“Gross,” I wrinkled my nose. “Just share with Amira or you’ll go into a sugar coma or something.”
Speaking of Amira, I had yet to give her her gift. I’d fretted far less over it because she, at least, didn’t have everything she wanted already. I’d seen her looking intently at my grandfather’s journals ever since the first time she’d seen one when I was still pregnant and had taken a chance on buying her a pretty, patterned journal of her own alongside some heavy duty pens.
Rayyan left to say goodbye to Zaakir and Hajra and I took advantage of the time to find Amira. Her bedroom door stood wide open and she was fussing with her new phone when I walked in. I handed her the gift bag, feeling oddly shy. “I hope you use them.”
She peeked inside the bag and gave what I could only call a squeal of delight. “Wow, Azraa!”
“I’m glad you like them,” I laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard your voice go that loud before.”
Amira tucked her loose hair behind her ears. I’d only caught a few glimpses of it since she usually braided it tightly if ever she didn’t just have a hijab tied but as she’d slowly begun to relax in her bedroom and take advantage of the privacy, I’d seen the curls more often.
“Literacy’s a big thing where I come from,” she explained. “I was lucky to be taught to read and write.” Her eyes turned distant as she stroked the journal’s cover.
“And now you’re gonna help change that.” I reminded her, trying to distract her from the past.
Amira tried to smile. “I hope I can help,” she whispered. “I hope I’m useful enough.”
Less than an hour later, as I watched her prepare to leave, I found myself praying silently. Not just for Amira and my brother but for all the little girls and all the women who’d once been those same girls. For everyone who’d had opportunity snatched from them or been treated as a burden just because they were born with the ‘wrong’ parts.
I don’t know how to help. I told Allah, for once not stifling the urge to speak to Him. But you know what they need. So, please? Pretty please?
I watched Rayyan embrace my parents tightly, obediently promising them he’d be careful and tears pricked my eyes.
And one other thing. Keep them safe.
*sniff sniff sniff* No more Rayyan and Amira!