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Page 5

"I do not need much. "

  "What do you want from me? I do not have enough to just give you food or money all the time. "

  I do not know how to say it. The words will not come. Instead, I reach up and unwrap my hijab. I shake my hair out and look up at him through the waves of black. "Please?"

  He sighs and flicks his cigarette away. "No. That was a one-time thing. I was drunk. I did not mean to turn you into a prostitute. "

  I shrug. "I do not know how else to get food. No one will give me a job. I have looked. I almost got caught stealing. He almost cut off my hand. "

  "It is no way for a girl to live. " He looks uncomfortable. "I felt bad, after you left. "

  "What choice do I have? Should I just lie down and die? I do not want to do this, you know. But I do not see how else to survive. "

  He blows a breath out through his teeth. "All right. Fine. Where do you live?"

  I shift uncomfortably. "Nowhere. My house got destroyed. "

  He curses. "There are plenty of abandoned houses around here, girl. Come on. Ill find you something. "

  He stalks ahead of me, mumbling something to himself. Eventually he finds a house that is empty and in reasonable condition. It is next to a bombed-out mosque. The window has no glass, the door is broken off its hinges, and the electricity does not work. But there is running water. A real shower. A real toilet. The soldier fidgets around the house. I do not know what he is doing, so I get to work clearing the dirt and debris. The kitchen, living room, and bedroom are all one room. The kitchen part has some cabinets, a stove, an empty refrigerator. I hear a crackle and a hum, and then the single bare light bulb in the ceiling flickers to life.

  He comes back, wiping his hands on his pants. I stare at the bulb in awe.

  "I was an electrician before the war started," he says by way of explanation.

  "Thank you. "

  He shrugs. He fixes the door, then stares around at the little room. "It is not much, but it is something. The mosque next door is not used, obviously. You could. . . work there. Sleep here. It helps to have somewhere safe to go. "

  I laugh. "Safe? What is safe?"

  He laughs, too. "True. But it is better than the streets. "

  The silence is awkward. I do not know what to do. Neither does he.

  "Are you serious about this?" he asks. "Once you start, I do not think it will be very easy to stop. "

  "Do you have a better idea for me?" I say. "I told you, I do not want to do this. It makes me sick to think about. But. . . I dont have any other choice. I have tried everything else. I have not eaten in a week. I stole a piece of bread a few days ago, and almost got my hand chopped off for it. No one will help me. I do not know what else to do. You. . . you gave me money and food for—for that. Maybe someone else will, too. "

  He rubs his face with both hands. "Whats your name?"

  "Rania. "

  "Rania, Im Malik. " He takes a step closer. "You are a very pretty girl, Rania. I am not your father or your brother or your husband. I cannot tell you what to do. I am just a soldier. I would not want a girl in my family to do this. "

  "You would help her, though. If she was desperate. "

  "Yes, I would. "

  "There is no one to help me. You have helped me. I do not want to, but I have to, to eat. "

  "I guess I get that. I wish it did not come to this for you. I like you. You have spirit. You are very beautiful. "

  He takes another step, and I force myself to hold still. His eyes look me over, head to toes. His hand drifts up to touch my hip. I refuse to shudder. He is nice about it. Not forceful, not moving to make me before I am ready.

  "I do not know what to do," I say.

  "You will learn, I guess. "

  I hear it, the sound that will become my life: a belt jingling.

  It is not so bad this time. It does not hurt like it did the first time. He is gentler now that he is sober. I close my eyes and hold still. It is over quickly.

  He gives me money before he leaves. He stops and looks at me. "Rania, if you are going to make money doing this, you have to pretend to like it. It will go better for you. " He rubs his face like he did before. "I will send someone to you, for work. A client. "

  He turns away.

  "Thank you for helping me, Malik. "

  He shrugs. "I will not be back. I have no conscience left, I thought, but this. . . it is too strange for me. I did what I could for you. Perhaps Allah will forgive me, perhaps he will not. "

  "Do you believe in Allah? I do not think I do. "

  "I do not know,” he says. “I want to, but the things I have seen make me wonder. I do not want to think an Allah who loved us would let a nice girl like you have to resort to such things as this. "

  "That is why I do not believe. I was a good girl. I went to mosque. I prayed facing Mecca. I wore the hijab. I respected my parents. But here I am. A prostitute, now. " It hurts to say those words. I say them again to make it hurt less. "I am a whore. "

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  Malik cringes. "Yes, I suppose you are. " He looks at his dirty thumbnail rather than me. "There are worse things to be. "

  I stare at him. "Like what?"

  "A soldier. A killer. " He pauses, staring at his dirty thumbnail. “It is worse to be dead, too. ” He is gone, then.

  I buy food, blankets. I set up a little nest in a corner of the mosque, in the shadows. It is dark, so I find candles. Malik is true to his word and sends a friend, an officer in the government army. He is not so nice as Malik. He is not so gentle. I try to pretend to like it, although I am pretending to do something I do not know anything about. He does not seem to notice, and he gives me money. As he leaves, he tells me how much I should charge for the next time, since I did not ask, and the amount seems a lot. The next man who comes, another officer, I charge him that amount, and he pays it without complaining.

  I am no longer hungry.

  Now I only wear the hijab when I go out, so people do not ask me any questions. I feel like everyone who sees me knows what I am. As if it is written on my forehead in bold black ink.

  Perhaps it is written on my soul, now, and they can see it in my eyes, those windows to my soul.

  * * *

  I do not see Hassan for a very long time.

  I am sitting outside my home, waiting for my next client, as I call them. I have told the clients my name is Sabah. No one has heard the name Rania in a long time now, for there is no one who knows me except as Sabah.

  My hair is down, now. Long black waves hiding my face. I see the man striding down the street, a young man, youthful, skinny, confident. I do not look at him, but take his hand in mine and lead him to the mosque. Something about the feel of his hand in mine seems strangely familiar. I turn to peek at him and my heart stops.

  We are at the nest of blankets and I can feel his hard manhood pressed against my hip. My flesh crawls in disgust, and I move away from him. I turn, push my hair back away from my face.

  Hassan curses, eyes wide. "Rania? What the—what the f**k is this? I thought—Sabah. . . "

  I tilt my head up, refusing to be ashamed. "I am Sabah. "

  "No. No. You. . . you cannot be. I have heard the officers talking about Sabah. How. . . what they did with you. " He seems about to vomit.

  "And you thought you would try her for yourself. " I push past him and walk back toward my home next door. "Go away, Hassan. Forget you saw me. "

  He follows me. "How could you do this? Rania, this is wrong, you are my sister, you should not be—I cannot let—"

  I spin around and slap him across the face. Rage is boiling in me. "You turned your back on me, Hassan. You chose to be a soldier. I was starving. I had to survive somehow. This is how. Go away. "

  "No, Rania. I cannot believe. . . "

  "There is nothing to believe. Can you afford to keep me alive? Can you give me enough money to let me stop?"