Fareeha had been put in bed and Ana and Sam were exhausted enough to go to bed themselves, but they had resigned to slumping against each other in a half-asleep haze on the couch together. Their holovid screen was casting dancing blue lights on both of them. They knew the smart thing was to go to bed, but with Fareeha in her demanding toddling years, they hardly got much time just to be together alone like this. Neither of them was paying particular attention to what they were watching, but the stream was pleasant background noise.
At 10:37 it was cut short by a blaring beep, so loud and grating that it jolted both Sam and Ana awake.
“This stream has been interrupted by an emergency broadcast,” an automated voice blared from the holovid screen as Ana seized the remote and turned down the volume, “Please stand by.”
Both Sam and Ana’s phones started buzzing with a spill of messages. Their group chats with various colleagues around the world were suddenly bursting to life, messages of “Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” “I can see the smoke!” “Has anyone gotten in contact with Fatih? I can’t get a hold of him” “How close were you to the first attack site?”stacking on top of each other down the phone’s screens. The holovid screen cut to a news reporter, shivering in smoke and snow flurries as a column of fire.
“Oh no,” Ana said quietly.
“I’m here live in front of the site of a devastating series of drone strikes that have caused yet-untold damages to the Detroit-Windsor area. Authorities are still evacuating the area and—”
“A terrorist attack?” said Sam.
Ana put a tense hand on his shoulder and he fell quiet. She could feel his eyes flicking between her and the holoscreen.
“Satellite imaging indicates that the drones were short range, likely within the Detroit area.”
“What–Why would the states strike us and themselves?” said Sam.
Ana glanced down at her phone. “What did they mean by ‘First attack site?’” she said aloud.
Sam looked over at Ana, then changed the holovid channel where a news reporter was speaking urgently in Korean, subtitles translating is words rapidly in a red line underneath him.
“Just minutes ago Busan suffered a–”
Sam changed the channel again.
“London has not seen an attack of this scale since the second World War–”
He changed it again.
“As favelas do Rio estão no caos enquanto as autoridades lutam para entender-”
He changed it again. Ana’s stomach lurched at the sight of the familiar scroll of arabic at the bottom of the screen, and at the skyline of her own birthplace.
“Cairo was not equipped to handle an attack of this magnitude,” the reporter was saying, “We’re looking at a strike of unimaginable destruction. The human death toll is–”
Ana broke her eyes away from the screen and Sam turned it off.
“…they’re going to ask for you to come back, aren’t they?” his voice was quiet.
“They’re going to need me,” said Ana, her voice strained.
“We need you,” the words fell out of Sam and he instantly regretted them, “I’m sorry–” he added quickly, “I know it’s…” he took a deep breath.
“I know,” said Ana.
Sam clasped a hand around hers.
The next few hours were spent anxiously watching the news reports and desperately calling and texting friends and family, bouncing between stories of devastation from all around the world. The attacks were indiscriminate–striking global population centers hard and fast. It was 3 AM by the time Ana and Sam were finally able to tear themselves away from the screen and catch a few hours of light, dreamless sleep–a sleep that was more about keeping exhaustion at bay than getting actual rest. The next day they told Fareeha they were going on vacation, loaded up the car, and left Vancouver, heading for Sam’s cabin up north. It only took watching the news for a little while to know they had to get away from the cities and fast.
The call came a few days later. The flight back to Cairo was all prepped, they were even sending a car for her, Ana only needed to ready herself. Ana didn’t have much to bring with her aside from some photos of Fareeha and Sam, her old fatigues, and a handful of toiletries and other necessities. She was a minimalist like that.
“But you said when we’d go back to Egypt, we’d all go together,” Fareeha pouted.
“And we will, ḥabībti, one day, when it’s safe,” said Ana.
“Are you going to be in trouble?” Fareeha’s small hands were wringing the fabric of Ana’s fatigues.
“Mummy’s going to be saving people” said Sam, kneeling down to Fareeha’s level.
Ana dropped down to one knee as well. “Fareeha, I’m going to be gone for a long while,” she said rifling through her pockets, “I’ll talk to you and your father through the holo every chance I get, but you have to promise me you’ll be strong, all right?”
Fareeha’s pout turned into a tense, thin-lipped expression, weighing Ana’s words. “How long?” there was a shake to her voice.
Ana stroked the side of Fareeha’s face with her other hand. “I… I don’t know yet. But I’ll come back to you and your father the first chance I get.”
Fareeha looked down.
“Habībti,” Ana spoke gently and brought a hand up under Fareeha’s chin, “I have something for you.” She pulled four gold beads from her pocket and pinched a lock of Pharah’s hair between her fingers. Ana couldn’t cook worth a damn, but when it came to braiding hair, she was almost as good a braider as a sniper. Her fingers worked quickly. “These were on a necklace of your grandmother’s,” said Ana, tying off the gold beads at the tips of Pharah’s braids, “It fell apart when we moved up to Vancouver, and I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, but I think that must have happened for a reason.” Fareeha’s hair was so soft and thick between her fingers. Ana tried not to think of how long she would go without touching it, without brushing it. Without brushing her teeth next to her daughter in the morning with foam running down Fareeha’s chin. She tied off the last braid. “Our ancestors believed that gold was divine and indestructible, that it was the light of the sun and the flesh of the gods made tangible. That the gods would bless and protect the kings and queens who wore it. When you miss me, I want you to look at these and know that no matter how far I am from you, I will do everything in my power to protect you. Do you understand?”
Fareeha’s small hand went up and felt at the beads, still warm from her mother’s touch. She gave a hesitant nod. Ana was littering her daughter’s face with kisses as the jeep pulled up to take her off to the airfield.
Fareeha was hugging at Ana’s knees when Sam took her in his arms and kissed her.
“There’s gotta be a better way than this,” said Sam, tucking back Ana’s long black hair.
“The second I find a better way, I’ll let you know,” said Ana, kissing him on the cheek, “Keep her safe for me.”
“Always,” said Sam.
Fareeha valiantly stuffed back her tears for the last few goodbyes. Ana felt her stomach drop as the door of the jeep closed and they started pulling away down the cabin’s dirt road. Ana gave a shuddering breath and sniffled, stuffing down her own urge to cry as she turned and looked at the pines rolling past the jeep. She caught sight of something in the rearview mirror and her breath caught in her throat. Fareeha was running after the jeep, her face flushed and wet and the dust of the dirt road the jeep was kicking up sticking to her tear tracks. Sam managed to catch up to Fareeha and hold her and Ana could hear the wail of Fareeha’s cries. Ana bit the inside of her lip hard as both of them shrank into the distance behind her, before the road curved and they disappeared completely.