Sobbing, Sophia wiped the tears from her eyes with her left hand and asked her ex-husband over the phone, “What have I done to you? How could you leave me and the children like that?”
“I don't have to explain anything to you,” he answered.
Sophia sniffled. “You have to say something. You just left us without any explanation.”
He sighed and spat, “You were a bad Muslim woman and a bad mother, that's why.”
Sophia gasped at the accusation and fresh tears flowed. “What do you mean I was a bad Muslim woman and a bad mother?” She started to cry louder, and tears blurred her vision. “I worked hard every day; you had no job. I supplied everything. I went to law school while you stayed at home with the children. I provided for the family and not once did I throw it in your face.”
He sighed and said, “Listen to me—”
Sophia cut him off. “For once, I want you to listen to me. I provided since day one. You told my parents before we got married that you would try to do better and get a job in teaching. You tried for a little bit and then stopped. I never cheated on you. I took care of the children. I helped you when you needed, and I supported you when you needed it. I have never disrespected you—and even now I’m not disrespecting you—and all I ask is why?”
There was a long pause. Sophia teared up some more. “So, you’re just gonna leave me here with the children? Does she have more money than me? Is she prettier than me? So, you’re not gonna say anything? I need help. I've been laid off while looking for a job, and you know how hard it is to raise the children on one income.”
The connection terminated and the phone fell silent. Sophia closed her big, bright eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose as more tears dripped down her cheeks. She delved deep into her conscience to figure out what she did wrong to explain why her husband had left her for another woman. Perhaps it was just him. She lived a clean life: no drinking, no smoking, no partying. She took care of her family the best she could. She didn't understand it all.
It was just after sunset, time for her fourth prayer of the day. Sophia washed her face and hands, then got on her prayer rug in the study where she wept and prayed. After five minutes, she walked over to the desk and looked at a picture of her mother and father. She rubbed her index finger over her father’s cheek, forehead, and heart. A few more tears ran down her face as she whispered, “May Allah make your grave spacious, full of light, and a place of comfort. May Allah forgive his sins and ours and grant him Jannatu-al-Firdous. Amen.”
She sniffled, few more tears falling as she smiled and rubbed the picture. “I asked if Mother could recite Surah Fatiha for you, Father.” She stared at the picture and reminisced about her father's kindness and love for her and her sister and his grandchildren. She smiled gently at the photograph, rubbing her fingertip over his heart and dropping a couple more tears, and whispered, “Ya Allah, forgive his sins, open the gates of Jannah-tul Firdous for him, and may he be at ultimate peace in the grave with no torment. May his reckoning be swift and full of mercy. Jazakum Allahu Khairan.”
Sophia let out a deep sigh, wiped her eye with her index finger, and mumbled, “It's been four years since you left us, Father. I need your guidance.”
She looked at her Koran, which was sitting in a clean space on the desk next to a Bible and a Torah. She picked up the Bible and opened it to a bookmarked page in the Book of Titus and read:
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
She set down the Bible, then picked up the Koran and opened it. Placing her index finger beneath the text, she read line for line, mumbling under her breath,
In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.
1. Successful are the believers.
2. Those who are humble in their prayers.
3. Those who avoid nonsense.
4. Those who work for charity.
5. Those who safeguard their chastity.
6. Except from their spouses, or their dependents—for they are free from blame.
7. But whoever seeks anything beyond that—these are the transgressors.
8. Those who are faithful to their trusts and pledges.
9. Those who safeguard their prayers.
10. These are the inheritors.
11. Who will inherit Paradise, wherein they will dwell forever.”
A knock at the door interrupted her whispered prayer.
Sophia forced a smile and answered, “Come in.”
Her daughter and youngest child, Asiya, ran up to her and climbed into her lap. In a high-pitched voice, she asked, “Mama, what you doing?”
Sophia bent her face close to her daughter's bright, cheerful face and rubbed her nose to the girl’s. “I'm reading and praying. What are you doing, my love?”
Her daughter fiddled with her tiny fingers and replied, “I was playing and drawing.”
Asiya looked into Sophia’s face and wiped her mother’s rosy-tan cheeks with tiny hands that smelled like strawberry candy. “Why you crying, Mama?”
Sophia tried to stay strong and hide her hurt, but couldn’t prevent new tears from welling up in her eyes.
“Mama's fine, sweetheart,” she said in a low-pitched voice. Holding her daughter, Sophia couldn't wipe the tears away.
Asiya wiped her eyes with both hands, the child’s gentle touch making Sophia laugh.
“Hold on, Mama.” Asiya jumped off Sophia’s lap, ran to her room, grabbed three blades of grass, a daisy, a dandelion, and a drawing of her, Sophia, her father, and her two older brothers all holding hands. She ran back into her mother’s lap, extended her arm, and said in gentle glee, “For you, Mama.”
Her daughter’s sweet thoughtfulness brought a smile to Sophia’s face.
“For me?” she echoed, her voice shrill. “Aww, thank you, my lovely.”
She embraced her daughter then put flowers and grass in a glass cup. “Mama's gonna put it here for now and plant them later.”
Her daughter grinned, putting her index finger in her mouth. “It make you happy, Mama?”
Sophia’s eyes brightened and cleared. “Yes, you made Mama happy, thank you, my lovely.”
Her two sons, Hasan and Umar, walked in with their heads titled back and arms outstretched like zombies.
“Mama, we’re hungry. Can we have something to eat, please?” Hasan asked with a theatrical groan.
Uman copied his older brother. “We’re hungry, Mama. We haven't eaten in days.”
Sophia embraced her sons, stroking their stringy, dark hair. “Oh, stop it. You ate a couple hours ago. Mama will make you something soon. We have to go to the grocery store.”
Hasan tilted his head forward and whined, “Are we gonna eat rice again, Mama? I'm tired of rice.”
Sophia raised her eyebrows and chided, “Don't complain. There are people who don't eat at all and don't have very many options when it comes to food, so be grateful for what Allah has given us.”
Hasan sighed shook his head, and said, “Yes, Mama.”
Sophia gently eased her daughter off her lap, rose to her feet, and said, “Okay, everyone, grab your shoes and coats. We’re running to the store.”
Everyone put on their woolly winter coats and got in the car.
“Seatbelts, everyone,” Sophia reminded her children.
“Mama, why don't we walk like usual?” Uman asked.
She smiled, adjusting the rearview mirror, and answered, “Because it's cold outside and I don't want you to catch a cold.”
“Ahhhhhhh, leave me alone!” Asiya shrieked at Hasan as the car rolled into the street.
Hasan shoved her lightly with one hand, not enough to hurt her, and shouted, “Well, move out of my space. You’re too close.”
Asiya stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry, spittle spraying Hasan’s face. Hasan put his hand over his sister’s mouth and Asiya started to scream.
“Shut up!” Umar yelled at Asiya.
Sophia stopped the car. The driver behind them honked his horn repeatedly and shouted slurs as he swerved his vehicle around hers.
Embarrassed and not a little exasperated by her children’s unruly behavior, Sophia ordered, “You guys stop right now. You be kind to one another.”
Aiming puppy dog eyes and pouting lip at his mother, Hasan griped, “Well, she started it. She's in my space and she smells bad.”
Asiya screamed in Hasan’s face. Sophia caught her eye and held her attention. “Asiya, stop it now.”
Hasan held his sister down with both hands, and Asiya started kicking, flopping like a fish out of water and crying. At the top of his lungs, Hasan yelled into her the girl’s face, “Shut up!”
That made her cry even louder.
Sophia looked at Hasan and said, “Don't make matters worse. Do I need to tell your father?”
Boiling over, Hasan looked out the window and grumbled, “What father?”
Sophia closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh of frustration. “ Hasan, come up front, please.”
Hasan took his seatbelt off and climbed over and into the front seat, scuffing his knee and worn sneaker against Sophia's hijab. Tilting her head out of the way, Sophia said to herself, “Allah, please give me patience and wisdom with my children.”
She looked at her Uman through the rearview mirror as he stared out the back window, then at her daughter who finally started to calm down, sniffling and wiping slimy snot from her nose with the back of her small hand. Hasan wisely turned his face toward the passenger window. She put the car in gear and resumed the short drive. Sophia thought that perhaps they should have walked, despite the cold weather.
“We made it, guys. Can we please behave and be obedient inside Mr. Mohammed's store? Thank you,” she said to her children.
They all got out of the car and walked past two white men, one large and the other lean, standing in front of a blue 1977 Ford F150. They wore dingy, dirty jeans, buttoned-up, long-sleeve shirts, and muddy cowboy boots. Both were smoking Marlboro cigarettes. Sophia smiled, holding Asiya's hand tightly. The boys followed behind.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Sophia politely greeted them.
The heavy-set white man nodded and took a long drag on his cigarette. The tip turned to ash and blew away in the wind.
“Good afternoon, sweet cheeks, won't you show some good ol’ country boys a good time and show us what you got underneath all those curtains and sheets you Arabs like to wear. I bet you look real nice underneath there,” the fat man said, laughing and nudging his skinny friend on the chest with his elbow.
Sophia’s jaw dropped. She stood in complete shock and disbelief and met their gazes with her own angry eyes.
Both men laughed, the skinny one grabbing his friend’s shoulders and stomping his feet. “Oh, look, she knows proper English. I thought she was gonna just pull a string or something and blow us up.”
Both men held their stomachs, laughing.
Outraged, Sophia forgot about her children for a second. “I can't believe you just said that. I'll have you know that I went to law school and I graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law.”
The skinny man's face turned as red as a cherry lollipop. He pointed at her and spittle flew from his mouth as he snarled, “You watch your tone with me. This is our land, not yours, you and the rest of you Mussie, dirty, raghead, Osama bomb-wearing, carrion-reading or whatever that book is called--you’re not welcome here. This is our America, you hear me, so take your little desert rat children back to where you came from!”
Sophia’s mouth opened to respond, but caught herself and thought about the safety of her children. A scripture crossed through her mind: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” Taking a deep breath to compose herself, she stopped a tsunami of angry words. She collected her children, stared the men down, and murmured, “Let's go, children.”
She herded her children in front of her and followed them inside the convenience store.
“Mama, who are they?” Umar asked, his tone quiet and uncertain.
Sophia sighed and looked at the floor. “America, sweetheart, America.”
Her son looked perplexed, not fully understanding what was going on.
“Good afternoon, Sophia and little ones,” Mohammed greeted them, his cheeks darkening with a faint blush.
Sophia hid her pain and put on her usual cheerful face and bright smile as she settled her daughter in the child’s seat of the bascart. “Hello, Mr. Mohammed, how are you today?”
Mohammed waved. “Good, thank you, how about yourself?”
Maintaining her forced mien of cheer, she nodded and said, “Good, thank you.”
She walked away, leading her children. Hasan tugged on her silk shirt and asked, “Mama, can we have something sweet?”
“No, honey, Mama's low on money right now,” Sophia replied softly.
Hasan tilted his head back, stuck his tongue out, and started groaning.
As Sophia walked through aisles, she thought about her finances and how she could make her money stretch. She didn’t want to ask her ex-husband who occasionally took care of the children and didn't work, even though they’d been divorced for over a year. She had no family in town to help out, and the food kitchen only supplied so much food at certain times.
She was searching for another job in law but hadn't received a reply in months. She had no income coming in, and rent, bills, college debt, and other expenses hung over her head. All she could think about was how her husband abruptly left her without saying anything, leaving everything behind and her stranded with the children.
She looked at a bag of rice with a blank expression on her face and said, “Rice again, I guess.”
Hasan turned his lip up. “Rice again, Mama? I'm tired of eating rice every day.”
Sophia corrected him. “I said no complaining. There are people in our homeland—in Africa, India, and even right here in America—who do not eat. Remember, in ancient times, there were periods of great famine. Be grateful that Allah has placed a roof over our heads, given me the opportunity to go to college, and we’re here able to buy something to eat. We have to do the best with what we have.”
Hasan grumbled and held his mother's hand, bringing his other arm to his mouth. He mumbled into his sleeve, “Okay, Mama.”
Sophia went over to the meat section and saw some chicken. She looked at the price, comparing it with the cost of the rice. She looked to the right and to the left, then nervously put the chicken in her jacket. Her daughter aimed big, puppy dog eyes at her and asked softly, “Mama, are you taking things?”
Embarrassed and ashamed, Sophia replied, “This is what not to do, children. We always pay with money.”
She corrected her behavior in front of the children, putting the chicken in the cart. She sighed, closed her eyes, shook her head, and chastised herself, “What are you doing, Sophia? This is not you, and you’re setting a poor example for your children. Allah does not approve of stealing.”
She looked around the store, tempted to take some food home for her children.
A woman wearing a short leather dress, long weave, black high heels, and a big leather bag raised her eyebrows. She pursed her thick, red lips and said, “I seen you, girl.”
Sophia smiled nervously. “Seen what?”
The woman, smiled again, her sly expression knowing. “Put that chicken in your jacket. Desperate measures for desperate times, huh? Let me guess: husband left you for another woman and left you with the kids?”
Sophia blinked in shock, the other woman’s accuracy catching her off-guard, “How did you know that?”
The woman looked at the meats in refrigerated case and said, “Because you got a sweet face and good English and your children looked well-behaved. I seen how you handled yourself outside. I would have cussed them both out, and um ... well, just say that I worked with a lot of men over the years and I know the game.” Then she winked.
Sophia realized she was talking to a prostitute. “Oh, wow, you must be very perceptive or intuitive.”
The prostitute shrugged her shoulders. “That's anything in life: you be around men long enough, you can read men, just like men who hang along women long enough can read women. When you out in the street, you always gotta watch your back, and you look like good people.” She shook her head, making her large, ostentatious earrings sway, then added, “That ain't your world, you can't do what I do.”
Sophia was curious. She thought that if she really had to, she would prostitute herself a couple of times for money. “How much do you make, if you don't mind me asking?”
The prostitute spun on her heel, licking her lips. “Depends. It can be a low off the street or someone who got money, like Mr. Mohammed, and you show him a good night.” She winked again, smiled gently, and licked her lips. “You might come home with four digits, and if you lay it down really good on him, he'll keep coming back for—”
Sophia cut her off. “Okay, I get it, thank you. I think I'm okay, though, but is Mr. Mohammed like … I know I probably shouldn’t be asking such questions … but, does he ... you know, mess around with other women?”
The prostitute frowned. “Girl, please. You know how many times I flirted with him, had my chest out, and that man won’t move an inch? He's one of the most devout men I know.” She lowered her voice and raised an eyebrow and went to the end of Sophia's cart. “I'll say it like this, girl, the pastor is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or an angel but a devil in the sack, and um ... I took them to my dark hole or abyss and they never returned to heaven.”
The prostitute spewed a smoker’s hard, heavy laugh.
Sophia raised her eyebrows and put her hand over her mouth, “Oh, my!”
The woman walked past her and opened her big leather bag. “This how you take some food, girl. Make sure you mix it with a little bit of money.”
She gave that big, husky laugh again and slowly walked away, looking into the refrigerated case as she delivered her parting words.
“You look like a sweet girl. I can tell you’re thinking about it, but don't do it. You ain't ready for it, girl. This world will eat you alive.”
Sophia pushed the nearly empty cart to the front counter, accompanied by her children. She smiled gently and blushed as she greeted the storekeeper again, “Hello, Mr. Mohammed.”
Mr. Mohammed gave her a warm, gentle smile and nodded, “Hello, Mrs. Sophia, how are you?” He looked over the counter at the children and his smile got wider. “Hello, little ones, how are you?”
“Say ‘hello, Mr. Mohammed, how's your day?’” Sophia instructed her children.
All three in sync, the children dutifully repeated, “Hello, Mr. Mohammed.”
Mr. Mohammed behind the counter and got three chocolate bars, handing one to each child and saying, “Here you go, children.”
Sophia looked at her children and reminded them, “What do you say when someone gives you something?”
“Thank you,” the children chorused.
Hasan fiddled with the candy bar and whispered, “Mama, I don't like this chocolate.”
Sophia kneeled in front of him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Hasan, that's rude. When someone gives you something, you say ‘thank you.’ Remember those who don't eat, so be respectful.”
Mr. Mohammed smiled, put his hand out, and asked, “What do you like, young man?”
Hasan pointed at a Butterfinger. Mr. Mohammed grabbed it and gave it to him, saying, “Here you go.” He looked at the other children. “One more for you two as well. What would you like?”
Sophia looked at her children again and prompted them, “What do you say?”
Together again, they said, “Thank you.”
Sophia smiled brightly, eyes shining with gratitude. “How are your children, Mr. Mohammed?”
Mr. Mohammed checked her food out on the scanner and replied, “They are good, thank you. The oldest one is playing basketball, the middle one is in a scholarship program, and my sweet baby girl is being a sweet baby girl.”
Sophia looked at a gold-framed photo on the wall of a beautiful, light brown woman with long black hair wearing a wedding dress. She smiled and commented, “That must be your wife.”
Mr. Mohammed walked towards the picture and stroked the woman’s face with a fingertip. “Yes, yes, this is my beautiful wife, the best wife a man could ask for. How’s the situation with your ex-husband?”
Sophia smiled at his obvious affection for his wife. “Aww, that's sweet, I'm glad to hear that, and … um ...” Sophia giggled, embarrassed to talk about her ex-husband. “… um, well, it’s the same.” She sighed and her expression went blank. She was still trying to figure it all out. “He just left us. It’s been a year now, but I don't know, I really don't. My children and I are making it and I’m looking for work now.”
Mr. Mohammed grabbed a plastic bag, waved it up and down so the air could open it, and said, “Well, stay strong and keep the faith. That will be seven dollars, Sophia.”
Sophia smiled and handed him two $5 bills. “Here you go.”
Mr. Mohammed smiled, “Three dollars is your change. Thank you, Mrs. Sophia, please come again. May Allah bless you and your children.”
Sophia smile and nodded as she took the bag in her hand. “Thank you, you take care.”
She looked at her children and said, “Come on, let’s head home”
She tapped Hasan and Uman on the shoulders and made sure her children buttoned their jackets so they wouldn't catch a cold. She looked outside where the two white men were still standing. She glanced at Mr. Mohammed in hope of some type of protection, but she he was busy with another customer. She caught her sons’ gazes and said, “Get on this side of me, boys, and stay with the cart.”
The two boys obediently gripped the side of the bascart. Sophia was prepared to rush past the two men in an attempt to avoid their notice. The front door opened. The two men watched her, but she avoided any eye contact. The skinny one sipped at a can of light beer and remarked, “Oh, look who's back. Hope you’re going back to sand land where you belong.”
Sophia repeated to herself, “Almost there, almost there.”
As she moved past the two men, the fat one chimed in, “Yeah, sand nigger, go back to the desert where you starve to death and where you belong.”
Sophia refused to make eye contact with him and tugged her children along.
The skinny man stuck his foot out. Sophia tripped and fell, hitting her face on the curb. She cried out. The cart tipped over and Asiya fell with it, hitting her head on the concrete. The child wailed loudly. Hasan mustered his courage, pressed his lips together in an angry line, balled his small fist, and hit the man in the arm. From behind his brother, Uman stared him down.
The skinny white man shoved the boy against the store’s brick wall, then got on top of Sophia and grabbed her hijab. “Take this do-rag, wash rag, or whatever this is off your head. Let’s see what you look like, sweetheart. This is Christian America. Won’t you go ahead and show yourself? Let’s see whatcha look like underneath these here curtains.”
Sophia struggled to free herself, but the man gripped her around the neck with his right hand, trying to take her hijab off with the left. Sophia looked at her children and cried out, “Get in the car, kids!”
Hasan and Uman didn't listen. They ran towards their mother, but the fat man blocked them so they wouldn't interfere. Hasan and Umar tried to fight back, but their tiny punches and small fists had no effect on the man’s large belly. He laughed as they fought back.
Everyone but Sophia looked toward the loud blast. The bitter smell of cordite lingered but a second before the winter breeze blew it away.
“Get off of her now!” Mr. Mohammed shouted, waving his pistol in the air. He looked at the children and ordered, “Get in the car.”
The children gaped at him.
“Now, children,” he ordered.
Hasan pulled his sister from where she still lay wailing in the bascart seat and led her by the hand. They followed Umar to the passenger door and clambered inside the vehicle.
The two white men had their hands in the air. The skinny man knocked Sophia’s face into the ground as rose to his feet, then he stepped on her as he moved aside.
“Calm down there, mister sand man,” he said in a calm, slick voice.
Mr. Mohammed kept his eyes on the two men, occasionally darting a glance at Sophia. “Sophia, are you okay?”
Trembling, Sophia got up and turned around. She held her hand over her left eye. Abraded by the asphalt, her cheek throbbed. In a hoarse voice, she replied, “I'll be fine, thank you.”
Mr. Mohammed pointed the gun at the two men. “Why do you hate us so? What have we done to you? You know nothing about us, you know nothing about our people, you know nothing about our culture, but you hate us. Please tell me why,” he shouted and waved the gun.
The skinny man gave him a sinister stare and spat, “I don't have to have a reason to hate you. We hate niggers, we hate Jews, we hate spics, and we hate you sand niggers.”
Mr. Mohammed shook his head in sorrow.
“I don't understand your ignorance. You live in the middle of nowhere and hate us. I don't understand.” He then looked at Sophia and said, “Go now, I'll take care of this.”
Sophia didn't hesitate. She joined her children in the car, started the engine, and slowly drove off. The skinny white man stared at her as she drove away and lowered all his fingers except the middle finger on his right hand. She didn’t see the rude gesture.
Sophia took a deep sigh and glanced back at her sniffling children. All of them wore gloomy expressions, traumatized, trying to figure out what just happened. She looked forward at the road and asked softly, “All of you okay?”
She glanced in the rearview mirror and met the boys’ gazes. “Thank you, boys, for protecting Mama and Asiya. You were brave men today.”
They didn’t respond, but only looked out the window.
“Asiya, is Mama's girl okay?” she asked.
Asiya sniffled a couple of times, put her index finger in her mouth, and nodded.
When they arrived home, everyone walked inside feeling dejected. The children sat on the couch. In the bathroom, Sophia rinsed her scraped cheek with cool water and winced at the pain. Hasan’s stomach rumbled.
“Mama, I’m hungry,” Hasan complained.
Emerging from the bathroom, a cool washcloth pressed to her face, Sophia rubbed her chin with her free hand. “I know, sweetie.” She looked around the living room and at the children’s hands. “Did any of you grab the food?”
The children shook their heads.
Umar bit on the zipper of his jacket and said, “It fell out, Mama, when that man made you fall over.”
Sophia sighed. “Okay, I'll see what I can find.”
She pulled out a DVD of Disney cartoons and stuck it in the player. “Watch this until Mama finds something for you.”
She walked into the kitchen, looked in the freezer, and found the last two bags of green beans. She pulled them out and threw them in the microwave. With no money, food was scarce. All the canned goods had been eaten, none of the food pantries were open, no prospective employers had called her in months, and her ex-husband paid no child support. Adding to her distress, she’d long since emptied her savings account and 401k. She needed to figure out where she was going to get her family’s next meal.
The microwave beeped. She pulled out the steaming green beans and portioned them into three bowls, one for each of the children. She poured three glasses of water with ice. Setting everything on a tray, she took it to her children and said, “This is all we have right now. Mama's gonna get us some food soon, okay?”
Hasan moaned in disappointment, “Green beans?”
Sophia gave him a hard stare. “Do you not want to eat at all?”
Hasan tucked his head into his jacket and muttered an apology, “Sorry, Mama.”
Sophia went upstairs and looked in the mirror, examining the dried blood around her swollen left eye. She considered pressing charges for assault, but wondered if doing so was worth the time and hassle, especially with bills, debt, and no money lingering over her head. Asiya’s sudden screech broke into her thoughts.
Sophia yelled from the bathroom, “What are you guys doing down there?”
Umar’s voice echoed, “Asiya took one of my green beans!”
Sophia shouted while examining her eye, “You guys better stop right now, or I'll have to discipline you. Now eat your food and watch your cartoons.”
Sophia looked for toilet paper, but there wasn't any. She sighed, “Oh, great, we ran out of toilet paper.”
She opened the cabinet and grabbed the bottle of rubbing alcohol. She dabbed a little on her finger and rubbed it over the abraded skin, hissing as it burned on contact. She used her shirt to wipe the excess alcohol off. She walked to her room and plopped down on her bed, listening as her children started bickering again. Her cheeks puffed red as she blew out a gusty sigh. Ignoring the kids and stressed by financial worries, she wondered if she were on the verge of a mental break down. She rolled over, the cotton pillowcase smooth under her cheek as salty tears slowly dripped. Her own belly rumbling with hunger, she dozed off.
When Sophia woke, moonlight spilled through the bedroom window into the dark room. Worries and doubts flooded her mind. She headed downstairs to find her children snuggled with each other like bear cubs, snoring away as cartoons played on the television screen. She let out a harsh sigh and walked back upstairs.
She went into the bathroom and stared at her own reflection and thought, “My children need to eat. What am I gonna do?”
She thought about what the whore said to her earlier. “Maybe I should prostitute myself.”
She tapped her nails against the sink, still staring at herself in the mirror. She then turned her upper lip up and thought about the deadly consequences that came from being a prostitute. She then mused, “Maybe I can get me a sugar daddy?”
Her stomach churned. Still staring in the mirror, she thought about how it would feel to sell her body to rich men and pondered the emotional reward in the long run. What if she were kidnapped? What would happen to her children? She considered something potentially less risky: pornography. That led to memories about an article she read about a porno production company called GirlsDoPorn. Young women who needed money were lied to and manipulated by the company’s owner and two other men. The duped women endured public embarrassment that tore them up so badly they went to court. The men involved were convicted of sex trafficking and sentenced to life in prison. Her stomach lurched again, and she gulped down sour gorge.
“Do I want to be exposed like that?” she asked herself, caught in a dilemma between morals and need. She let out another aggressive sigh and whispered at her reflection, “What are you thinking, Sophia? That's not you. This is not what Allah wants. Why are you letting your mind go there? You need to repent for this type of thinking.”
She turned on the spigot and splashed water on her face and looked back into the mirror. She pondered another idea: “Maybe I can sneak into Mr. Mohammed’s store, grab some items, and then leave?”
She stared at the hot water rushing from the spigot and circling down the drain. “I’ll take a backpack and the little change from earlier, just in case he asks questions.” She bit her bottom lip, then looked into the mirror and back into the sink. She mustered some courage and said to herself, “Okay, Sophia, just this one time for the children.”
She ran into her room and dressed in all black: sneakers, yoga pants, shirt, and black hijab. She wondered if she ought to put on a burqa.
Looking at voluminous garment in the closet, she said to herself, “No, he always sees me in my hijab. I don’t want to look to suspicious, just in case he sees me.”
She grabbed a black book bag from the closet. Puffing her peachy tan cheeks with air, she let out a deep breath, then slung the book bag over her shoulder and slowly tip-toed downstairs. Passing the sofa, she looked at her sleeping children and debated waking them up and putting them to bed.
“It would be a shame to disturb their dreams,” she thought.
She looked at her oldest child, Hasan, who was 11, and debated waking just him, but she didn't want to disturb his peaceful slumber. She walked into the kitchen, got a black marker and scrap piece of paper, and wrote, “Hasan, watch over your little brother and sister. Mama has to take care of something. I promise you Mama will be back. Love, Mama.”
She carried the note into the living room and slid it into his small hand. She looked at them, bent over, kissed each on the cheek, and rubbed their foreheads. She looked at the time and realized she had less than fifteen minutes to get to the store before it closed.
Sophia rushed out the front door. As she was walking, she kept saying to herself, “What are you doing? What are you doing?”
She couldn't believe she was going through with this hasty plan, but neither could she stop thinking about the well-bring of her children. She made it to the store. There was one car in the parking lot. She poked her head around the corner and saw a woman checking out at the front counter. Sophia watched the woman grab her bags and walk towards the automatic doors. Sophia got closer to the doors. When the woman walked out and Mr. Mohammed turned his back to the door, Sophia darted like a cat down the closest aisle. Nervous and jittery, she thought, “I can't believe I'm doing this.”
She took a deep breath and silently asked herself, “What sticks? What sticks?” She considered taking potatoes, sweet potatoes, or yams, but she couldn’t figure out how to remove them unseen from the store. She sighed and said to herself, “Rice, beans, and peanut butter again, I guess. It's food.”
She went down the rice and pasta aisle and stocked up quickly on white rice. She moved swiftly to the beans aisle, nervously looking for Mr. Mohammed at each corner. She stocked up on dried beans. She then went to the meat section and stuffed four frozen Cornish hens in the book bag, filling it up. She looked down the aisle that headed straight to the automatic door when Mr. Mohammed popped out of nowhere and locked it.
Sophia clenched her teeth in disbelief and scuttled back quietly, like a solider trying to find the enemy. She put her hand on her chest. Her heart beat a million miles per minute. The store got dark. Sophia’s jaw dropped. She felt stuck and lost all train of thought. She didn't know what to do, because it wasn't like her to do something like this.
Panicking, she sneaked into the warehouse where she saw some big boxes and hid behind them. She kept saying to herself, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God, why did I do this?”
Mr. Mohammed walked through the double doors to the warehouse, whistling and singing to himself the lyrics of Masher Zain’s “Insha Allah” as he put boxes away. He walked out. Sophia spied a yellow ladder and climbed to the top where she hid behind some boxes in the corner, thinking she’d be less likely to be discovered there. Mr. Mohammed returned, entering and leaving the warehouse while whistling the same tune. Sophia’s gut clenched when she heard the storekeeper climb the yellow ladder. Her heart raced as she sat in the dark and silently prayed, “Allah, I'm wrong. Please don’t let him catch me. I'll never do it again. Please, I don’t want to go to prison and lose my children.”
“I found you, my little friend. You aren't going nowhere,” Mr. Mohammed said.
Fearing discovery, Sophia closed her eyes, bit her bottom lip, and silently begged, “No, no, no, no, no.”
She then heard squeaking noises.
“I have you, my little friend,” the storekeeper crowed as he grabbed a rat from a trap baited with peanut butter. “I'll let you live, but you’re going to the trash. You can eat whatever you like there.”
He threw the rat into the Dumpster out back, then locked the chains on the rear entrance when he returned. He collected a box to restock a shelf and carried it from the warehouse into the shop.
Sophia thought she could leave, then wondered how quickly Mr. Mohammed would come back. She stifled a groan, remembering the front door was locked. She rested her forehead on her knees and bemoaned her decision: “I'll never get out of here. Why did I do this?”
Mr. Mohammed returned. There was dead silence for about 30 seconds, suddenly interrupted by loud, echoing flatulence. Sophia tried to hold back laughter, although a slight chuckle came from her mouth. She clapped both hands over her mouth. Nearly hysterical tears watered her eyes.
Mr. Mohammed waved his hand behind his buttocks and said, “That is good.” His heavy accent made the situation even funnier. He walked out. Sophia continued to stifle her chuckles and couldn't believe that something so random just happened.
Sophia continued to sit in the same spot, curled in a ball in the dark under the moonlight beaming through a broken glass window as she thought upon her actions and, most importantly, her children. She prayed, hoping she wouldn't get caught and wishing she hadn't done it, but not knowing what else to do to provide for her children. Hunger, stress, and exhaustion soon had her head nodding as she drifted off to sleep.
Sophia's eyes shot open as the warehouse doors were flung open. From her hiding place, she watched two policemen enter, guns drawn. They swept the area with beams from their flashlights. Sophia’s heart raced. One police officer started climbing the ladder. Sophia froze, shaking like a scared cub alone in the wilderness. Tears trickled down her face, because all she could think about was going to jail and her children.
Mr. Mohammed entered behind the cops and said, “I have nothing up there except old boxes and an upright stand covered in a black veil.”
The cop climbed down the ladder and said, “Well, we searched. It looks like the men who harassed you from earlier just broke your windows. We’ll take care of it.”
The three men left the warehouse.
Terrified, Sophia trembled, staring into the moonlight at the wall in front of her. Hours passed as Sophia watched Mr. Mohammed through the plexiglass window between the shop and the warehouse as he restocked the shelves and cleaned. She sighed, rocking back and forth, and finally nodded off.
When Sophia woke the second time, sunlight and cold air beamed through the broken clerestory windows. She looked at her cell phone; the time read 9:02 a.m. She looked out the plexiglass window to see shoppers roaming the aisles. She climbed down the ladder and tried to look through the plexiglass, but the window was placed too high for her to see through it from the ground. She popped her head out and, while no one was looking, returned the half-thawed poultry, rice, and beans where they belonged. She walked towards the front as if nothing had happened.
“Sophia, please wait,” Mr. Mohammed called out as he attended a customer.
Sophia froze and put on a big smile as she turned to face him.
“Hey,” she replied, hiding her nervousness.
Mr. Mohammed walked from behind the counter, looked at his teenaged son who was wiping down a counter, and tossed him the keys. “Watch this for me, my son.”
The boy smiled, gave him a thumbs up, and took over the cash register. Mr. Mohammed approached Sophia and asked, “Are you busy at the moment? I have something for you.”
In shock, she asked, “Who, me?”
He looked her in the eyes and asked, “How did you get here?”
Sophia looked around nervously. “Um ... I walked here.”
Mr. Mohammed waved his hands and said, “Come with me.”
She followed him to his car. He popped the truck open to show her bags upon bags of groceries.
“This is for you and your children,” he said.
Sophia gaped. She put both hands over her mouth and repeated in stunned amazement, “Oh, my gosh.”
She felt terrible, because of what she had nearly done, but at the same time she didn't know what to say or do. All she could do was tear up.
Mr. Mohammed said, “I will take you home.”
They hopped into his car. Sophia didn't speak the whole time for fear she would start babbling and not be able to stop. She just stared out the window as cars passed by and wiped her tears with her hands.
At Sophia’s home, the children rushed outside to greeted her with joy. Sophia kneeled and embraced them, crying, “Hello, my lovelies, how are Mama’s babies?”
Hasan captured his mother’s gaze with his own. “Mama, where were you last night?”
Embarrassed, Sophia got quiet. Instead of answering his question, she said in a soft voice, “Go inside, children, before you catch a cold.”
The children turned to greet the storekeeper. “Hello, Mr. Mohammed!”
Mr. Mohammed smiled. “Hello, children, how are you?” Then he directed his attention towards their mother, raised one eyebrow, and asked, “Yes, where were you last night, Mrs. Sophia?”
Sophia bowed her head in shame. She was about to speak when Mr. Mohammed lightly tapped her on the shoulder and offered, “Let me help you with the groceries.”
Expression brightening with anticipation, Hasan cheerfully said, “Let me help.”
His younger brother and sister followed his example. They each grabbed a bag, making a couple trips to the car and carrying the bounty inside.
Sophia and Mr. Mohammed adjourned to the front porch. Sophia shut the door to keep the heat inside the house and for private conversation. Mr. Mohammed cleared his throat and was about to speak when the children appeared in the window, smiling, giggling, kissing the glass, and blowing hot air onto the windows, drawing hearts in the condensation. Mr. Mohammed blushed. Sophia leveled the stare of death at her children and pointed at them to go away. They shut the curtains and disappeared, giggling. Sophia opened the door quickly and stuck her head inside, saying, “Can you three help Mama and put the food away, please?”
Asiya, with her index finger in her mouth, bounced on the couch. “Mama, are you in love?”
The boys started to laugh and make kissing sounds. Asiya started laughing, too.
Sophia blushed and said, “Please do what Mama asked. I'll help in a second.”
She shut the door.
Mr. Mohammed cleared his throat and put his hands in his pockets to keep them warm. He smiled gently and commented, “Ah ... cute babies.”
Sophia smiled and said, “They’re a handful.”
Mr. Mohammed cleared his throat again and, looking nervous, said, “So, Mrs. Sophia, I have been watching you for the past several years and you seem like good woman. I wanted to know if I could take you out for a date sometime. I know it’s not standard Muslim tradition, but can I take you?” He sighed, and blinked rapidly, then made direct eye contact and spoke softly, “I ask you in honor. I have no women on the side and, of course, would not dishonor you by asking for sexual relations before marriage. I mean that with deepest sincerity.”
Sophia heart sank in disbelief and shame. “Yeah, that would be nice. I would love that. Wow … um, thank you?” Then Sophia remembered about the photo of his wife. “But aren't you married?”
Mr. Mohammed swallowed and looked at the ground. “No, no, my wife died of cancer several years back.”
Sophia blinked. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Mr. Mohammed sighed and raised his eyes skyward. “Yes, Allah does what he wills. She was good to me. We had three children, as you know. She got sick.” He paused, then said, “Yeah,” and looked at the ground.
Again, she said, “I'm so sorry to hear that.”
Mr. Mohammed raised his eyes and stared into the distance. With a small shrug of acceptance, he murmured, “It's life.” He paused, gave Sophia his business card with his number on it, then reached into another pocket and said, “Here, please take this as well.”
Sophia asked, “What's this?”
He opened the envelope in his hand to reveal a bunch of $100 bills. Sophia gaped and, shaking her head, handed it back to him. “I'm sorry I can't accept this. Thank you, though, that's very kind of you.”
Sophia started to tear up and put her hand over her mouth. Mr. Mohammed asked softly, “Why are you crying?”
Sophia rubbed her hands up and down her thighs. “Because you've been so kind to me and my children, and I feel bad because I was about to ...”
Mr. Mohammed put his index finger over her lips. Looking into her eyes, he said softly, “Listen, I know everything. I come from a big family. My mother worked hard for my 21 brothers and sisters, so I know. I have watched you, and you are a woman with a good conscience. If I didn't think so, I would not ask you out. If I were in your shoes, I would do the same thing. My mother did the same thing, so I understand.”
He took her hand and closed her fingers over the envelope. “I will call you Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Bring your children. If you don't want to go, that’s fine, too. Please don't feel obligated because I gave you these things. Allah instructs us to help those in need, and are you not in need?”
Releasing her hand, Mr. Mohammed started to walk away. Sophia called after him, “I'll show you the receipts. Thank you kindly.”
Mr. Mohammed waved his hand, got in his car, and drove off.
Sophia’s phone rang. She looked at the caller ID which showed an 800 number. She answered the call, “This is Sophia. How may I help you?”
The caller, a woman, spoke, “Yes, Sophia, you applied for a position at the attorney general’s office here at 30 East Broad Street?”
Sophia confirmed that with a smile. “Yes, ma'am, I did.”
The woman asked, “Can you come in at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow for an interview?”
Sophia wanted to jump with joy. Instead, she exerted rigorous civility and replied, “Yes, I can, thank you.”
The woman enthused, “Great, everything looks great. My brother went to the same law school as you, and you have great credentials. We need people like you.”
Sophia didn’t know what to say to that. “That's awesome and great to hear, thank you!”
The woman replied, “Awesome, see you then.”
Sophia jumped up and down, then headed inside to help the children put the groceries away, but the children had already finished the job. She smiled brightly at them and announced, “Guess what, kids, Mama has an interview on Monday!”
Sophia and the children started jumping around joyously. Her daughter grabbed her leg, looked up at her with bright eyes and a few missing baby teeth, and asked, “So, you can buy us candy now?”
Sophia giggled, “Let me see if Mama has enough. First, we need to use this money wisely!”
Sophia looked at them and said, “I'll be back. Thanks for putting the groceries away.”
Hasan asked, “Can we eat, Mama? We’re hungry.”
Sophia smiled. “Yes, I'll make you something. Be patient.”
“Okay,” Hasan drawled.
Sophia ran upstairs, laid the business card on her dresser, and took the money out of the envelope. Counting it, she whispered, “One hundred dollars, 200, 300 ...” She paused when she finished counting and sighed, “Wow, $500.” She put her hands together, bowed her head, and whispered, “Thank you, Allah, for showing me and my children love and kindness; and, thank you, Mr. Mohammed, for your kindness and love. May Allah bless you.”
As she wiped the tears from her eyes, she looked at the money and thought, “I'll take this right to the bank, pay my mortgage and utilities, and show the receipts to Mr. Mohammed so he can see I put the money to good use. I’ll treat the children with whatever is left.”
Sophia pulled her phone out, looked at the business card, and sent a text to Mr. Mohammed: “Thank you so much, Mr. Mohammed. I cannot thank you enough for your kindness. May Allah bless you. You don't know how much your generosity means to my children and me. I am eternally grateful. I look forward to breaking bread with you at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday. Thank you!” She added a smiley face emoji and three heart emojis, then thought, “too much,” and erased them.
She stared in the mirror, gleaming with joy, and thought about what Mr. Mohammed had said about her not worrying about anything. She remembered the food he had gathered the night before during his trips in and out of the warehouse. She recalled the words he said while he was in there, the flatulence, the food, and the song that he sang. She smiled remembering when her son asked about where she’d been and how the storekeeper responded to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She smiled because she now knew that he knew she was there the whole time. She also figured out that he was playing with her and testing her at the same time. She put her hand over her mouth, blushing and smiling as she thought about the episode of flatulence and said under her breath, “That crazy, sweet man.”
Her phones beeped and it read, “I'll steal you a meal.”
She smiled at the winky-face emoji he added after the sentence and sent a response that read, “You’re not stealing if it's giving back.”
Thirty seconds later, her phone peeped again with another text that read, “A woman with a sense of humor. I like that. Yes, see you then!”
Sophia replied with a smiley-face emoji.
A week after Sophia’s interview, the attorney general’s office hired her. Two years later after careful courtship, Sophia married Mr. Mohammed. He still worked at the corner store and opened two more. They moved into a big home where they could raise all their children. Sophia loved her husband, and Mr. Mohammed adored his wife and treated her children with affection.