Tierra peered worriedly at the small clock shaped like a black cat over her window. It was almost midnight and still no word from Master Hezek. He’d promised to tell her how his meeting fared with the elders that showed up earlier that evening but every time she glanced down at her phone, nothing happened. Were they giving him a hard time, or had he fallen asleep after escorting them out of the meeting hours ago?
She stood to her feet and picked up her phone, glaring at it. “Is this stupid thing even working?” she mumbled, turning it in her hands to study the front and back. Now that Yasser was home for a bit, maybe she could convince him to buy her a new phone before he headed back to Seattle. She pursed her lips, already imagining what her cousin would say and rolled her eyes. Shaking her head, she pressed a button on the phone and quickly dialed Master Hezek’s number. But before she could hit the call button, a number flashed on her screen.
Eyes widening in recognition, Tierra accepted the call and pressed the phone to her ear. “Brother Yasser, you kept your promise…”
“I told you I would,” he grunted and Tierra frowned at the chaotic noise in the background. “Are you still awake?”
“Uh-hmm,” Tierra replied, not bothering to speak further of the reason. She knew Yasser didn’t like when she spoke too much about Master Hezek. “Where are you? It’s noisy.”
“I’m by your neighborhood. Open the door in ten minutes,” he mumbled, his voice strained.
Tierra lifted the phone from her ear when the call disconnected before she could get another word in. Then she glanced around the small space filled with clutter. Her eyes widened as if just registering Yasser’s curt response that he was on his way over and she quickly dashed about the room, picking up her clothes.
As she wiped the surface of the counter top, a tell-tale knock on her front door sounded. Tierra tossed the rag into a small basket near the foot of her bed and ambled to the door. Pulling it open, she swallowed a gasp at the sight in front of her.
“Move,” Yasser groused, stepping around her into the small room.
Tierra numbly moved aside, gaping openly as the man stepped into the house, with someone slung over his back. She watched with her jaw slack as he turned his back to the empty bed and bending his knees, lowered the small person onto the bed. She finally came to her senses and closed the door before turning to face him again. “Brother…”
“Shh!” he replied in a low tone, peering down at the figure lying unconscious on the twin mattress.
“Brother…” Tierra stepped forward, staring hard at the girl now occupying her bed, a thin veil draped over her head and shoulders. “Who is this?” she whispered, glaring at the sleeping girl from her dusty clothes to her bleeding ankles. “Who is she?”
Yasser grabbed Tierra’s arm and pulled her away from the bed to the door. “I want you to watch her for a little while.”
Tierra shook her head without thinking. Her brows furrowed deeply as she stared at the face of a man she hadn’t seen in almost a year. Even though she would do anything for this man, how could he bring a complete stranger to her home? Her eyes widened, jerking her attention back to the girl before returning it to Yasser. “Is she a fugitive?” She swallowed a groan when she saw the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. “No,” she said firmly. “She can’t stay here!”
“She will and that’s final.”
Tierra scowled, jamming her hands to her sides. “In case you forgot, Brother, this is my house!”
“Shh,” Yasser said sharply, glancing down at the sleeping girl whose brow furrowed as if she was in pain. “Let her sleep.” Still holding onto Tierra’s arm, he tugged her away from the bed and toward the door, intent on speaking quietly so as not to rouse the girl awake. “Just do this favor for me.”
“Who is she?” Tierra asked, her voice as hard as her gaze.
He rolled his eyes and threw his head back in frustration, his dreaded ponytail whipping his broad shoulders. Then he looked down at her. “I can’t tell you right now. Just keep her with you. I’ll give you money to take care of her and yourself for a month.” His brows lifted, waiting for her to reject his generous offer.
Tierra inhaled sharply. “A month?!” When he scowled at her to keep quiet, she leaned in. “Are you crazy?” she hissed through clenched teeth, her eyes narrowed. “Why would I keep a stranger in my house for a whole month?”
“Because I’m asking nicely,” Yasser responded simply and glanced over her shoulder at the bed. His brow furrowed slightly and he turned back to Tierra. “Look, I have to go now but I’ll be back.” He started for the door, not waiting for her to respond. “Take care of her for me. Please.”
“Where are you going?” Tierra whispered fiercely, shuffling after him as he pushed open the door and entered the hallway. “You can’t leave me with this girl. Yasser, com—” she gritted her teeth as his long legs carried him down the hallway and she watched his figure disappear into the shadows, leaving her to make sense of what just occurred on her own. Scowling into the empty darkness, Tierra reluctantly pulled the door close and slowly turned to face the sleeping form splayed across her mattress. Her night had just gone from bad to worst. Heaving a sigh, she pinched the bridge of her nose and trudged back to the bed.
Quietly, she surveyed the girl’s sleeping frame, her brow furrowed at the thin, dusty blue veil that covered part of her face. Her scuffed-up jeans and cotton shirt were just as dusty and torn as if she’d barely survived a scuffle. Arms remained still at her side, bloody scratches marking her russet skin. One leg was curved under the other, the cloth over her knees was torn and bleeding. Not to mention her bare feet were badly cut with blood now staining the bed sheet under her.
Tierra scowled in annoyance, realizing just what Yasser had deposited in her house. This girl was now her responsibility and she couldn’t be more overwhelmed. Releasing a haggard sigh, Tierra turned toward the bathroom to find a clean rag.
A jabbing twinge at her shoulder lured Tierra to open her eyes and with the greatest hesitance, she pulled open her stiff eyelids. Bright sunlight pierced her vision and she squeezed her eyes shut again. The jabbing continued and Tierra groaned, her body screaming in protest for the interrupted sleep.
This time, the jabbing moved to her side and Tierra snapped her eyes open, moving her body from the intruder. Once her vision cleared, Tierra almost forgot to breathe. A heart-shaped face half masked by a thin veil with wide, dark eyes stared down at her. She blinked and the apparition mirrored her. Then she remembered last night and pushed out a deep breath of relief.
The girl made a face and moved away. Tierra slowly lifted her stiff body from the mattress and stared at the girl sitting cross-legged beside her, her face downcast. “You are awake?” Tierra asked hesitantly.
She nodded quietly and Tierra sighed with relief. The girl understood their native tongue.
“Are you in pain?” she asked in a soft voice, glancing down at the dressed wounds. Her fingers still hurt from working all night to clean her up.
This time, the girl didn’t respond. Instead, she drew in her bottom lip and squeezed her fingers into her palms.
“Yeah, stupid question,” Tierra mumbled to herself, watching in dismay as tears rolled down the girl’s cheeks. She felt like a terrible person for wanting to tell the girl to stop crying and instead turned her face away, feeling helpless and annoyed all at the same time. Why did Yasser ask her to babysit this little girl? “Who are you?” Tierra forced out, her tone hardening.
Again the girl refused to speak and just sat stiffly, her shoulders bowed as if to protect herself from being hurt.
“Look, you can’t stay here,” Tierra snapped. When the girl didn’t even look up, Tierra narrowed her eyes at her. “Where are you from?”
Tierra’s blood went cold. She blinked at the girl, unsure if she heard her right. “Where?”
This time, the girl lifted her watery gaze to Tierra and repeated with her voice shaking. “America.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you here then? And why are you like this?” she gestured to the girl’s torn garments.
The girl lowered her head, shaking it solemnly. “I don’t know.”
Tierra snorted in disgust and pushed herself off the mattress, scowling when the girl stiffened at her abrupt movement. “Bathroom,” she answered curtly and pointed to the door across the room. “You need a bath and new clothes.” One quick glance at the cat clock, Tierra groaned inwardly. She was going to be late for work. Yasser, I will never forgive you for this.
When the girl hesitated from standing, Tierra clucked her tongue and glared down at her. “Get up now. I don’t have time to waste.” She watched with a stern gaze as the girl slowly rose to her feet, every movement arduous as if her body was still ridden with pain. “Use the bucket and soap. I will bring you clothes to wear,” she instructed firmly as the girl shuffled to the bathroom with her head bowed over her slumping shoulders.
Rue told herself not to cry, not to even breathe as she slowly lowered her bare bottom to the cold metal surface of the large, curved basin. Every nerve and muscle throbbed with excruciating pain as though someone had taken a hatchet to her body. Even her bones squeezed and stretched agonizingly. She clamped down her teeth against her bottom lip and pushed herself onto the basin.
Tears streamed down her face but she ignored it, lifting the plastic pail filled to the brim with cold water. Bracing herself, Rue closed her eyes and tipped the pail toward her. Inhaling sharply as the cold water hit her skin as if slicing it open, she clenched her teeth and drew blood from her lips.
Even though the bone-piercing pain that assailed her body almost sent her reeling, Ruelle was grateful for the momentary solace. At least it was better than thinking of everything else, like losing her best friend to death. She would take this pain, even if it kept her from facing the truth of her pitiful reality.
Tierra bit her thumbnail as she leaned against the counter, one hand holding the folded garments while the other held the phone to her ear, listening to the droning dial tone. She quietly rehearsed what she would tell Hezek, knowing he would be highly strung and probably angry that she would be coming in to work late. But she had no choice, thanks to Yasser and his mysterious, frustrating package. At the third ring, Hezek answered with a clipped tone.
“Where are you?”
Tierra’s face fired and she straightened her frame. “I-I’m sorry, Master Hezek. I’ll be late getting to work today.”
“You’re already late,” he snapped and Tierra could hear the squeaking of the chair, imagining the agitated young man had stepped out of his chair and was probably now pacing his office. “You were supposed to be in an hour early. We have an important client coming in today. Did you forget?”
She shook her head, guilt gripping her insides. “I-I didn’t forget. I just–” she bit her bottom lip.
His tone was dry but cutting all the same. “No,” Tierra bit through clenched teeth. Why did he act as if she wasn’t working as hard as she could given the circumstances surrounding his replacing Jahal? “I did not oversleep. I just have a visitor here.”
“Who?” He then snorted derisively. “Your brother Yasser?”
Her face warmed further and she drew in her bottom lip. “I’ll be at the office as soon as I can.”
“See that you do, Tierra,” Hezek replied, his tone losing some of its hardness and he sighed. “I need you here.”
Tierra couldn’t help her heart skipping several beats at his sheepish admission. She bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from smiling, still feeling slighted for his lapse of confidence in her. “I’ll do my best, Master Hezek.”
“Okay, hang up so you can get ready. I’ll be waiting.” Hezek promptly disconnected the call and Tierra’s shoulders slackened with relief. His reprove hadn’t gone as badly as she’d expected.
With a renewed smile of confidence, Tierra replaced the phone and strode across the room to the closed bathroom door. Pausing for a brief moment, she perked her ears to hear water splashing. Her brow furrowed with concern at the silence on the other side and Tierra quickly reached for the doorknob, jerking the door open. Her eyes widened at the empty tub and she quickly glanced up to the window left open, the plaid curtain flaying against the morning breeze. Her stomach plummeted. The girl had disappeared.