Lights out was never the end of it. Hafiza made sure of that. On weekend nights, my sister would light a candle in our room while she did her makeup and prepared to sneak out. School nights were no different: Hafiza would light the same fuse over her math textbooks and poetry while she studied. I suspected that our mother knew, but she let it go. She probably burned just as many secret candles in her time.
The girl mastered order and chaos. Her studying was nothing like the painstakingly repetitive spelling exercises I went over at the kitchen table. I could see the fire in her eyes. She always sat cross-legged on her bed, surrounded by random books and papers. Occasionally, when I couldn’t sleep, Hafiza would read out bits of poetry or lecture me on some theory of astronomy that was far beyond my mind’s grasp. It was soothing, in a way, to be reminded of how small I was in such a large universe.
On weekends, her habits were flipped. She had a careful routine that she executed on the nights she left. My father’s footsteps would grow louder, then quieter, and she would know he’d gone to sleep. She sprung into action as quietly as she could. She’d pull her clothes from their hiding place in the back of our closet. Once dressed, she’d retrieve the plastic bag with her makeup inside from a hole in my bed frame. She applied her foundation with care and painted her eyes with a quick but steady hand. She’d blow out the candle, and she’d be gone, just like that.
When I started sneaking out years later, I always felt a frenzied kind of excitement, but if Hafiza was the same way, she hid it well. I never fell asleep right away after she left—the smoke from the candle always lingered for a moment in the room, and as it dissipated, so did my consciousness. It confuses me, now, the degree to which Hafiza showed care for my sleep even as she was the cause of my insomnia. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand my sister at the time—I was intrigued by her makeup and her knowledge of the stars. And so, I didn’t question Hafiza when she told me that her nighttime adventures were our little secret.
August was the beginning of it. Hafiza, at seventeen years old, had gained a new layer of confidence. My mother could only turn a blind eye so often. One night, the woman slipped into our room. Or, rather, she tried to—our mother had none of Hafiza’s light-footedness. I was half-roused from my sleep, and so, I half-heard the conversation that took place when Hafiza climbed back inside through our cracked window.
They spoke in hushed tones. I didn’t particularly care what they were saying, but the moment stayed with me in the way a dream lingers after it is forgotten. In the morning, I sat with Hafiza at the dining room table as I dragged through my required schoolwork.
“What do you think it would be like to live in the ocean?” I asked her. I flipped through my textbook.
“Probably pretty short,” she responded, focused on a spot of ink on the wood.
“You’d suffocate in minutes.”
“But, like, if you could breathe like the fish, wouldn’t it be cool?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“I wonder if baba would let us.”
Hafiza snorted. “Definitely not.” She wrapped a strand of hair around her fingers. I settled on the correct page in my book. Exhausted with my work, I buried my face in its worn pages. I felt Hafiza stroke my hair.
“Keep going,” she said. I lifted my head and saw her reach over and scratch out a mistake in my notebook. “Just focus on the next problem.” I let out an exaggerated sigh and focused my eyes on the ink.
Next Saturday, Hafiza woke me up early. I pretended to fall back asleep. Hafiza groaned. I turned over to face her bed and raised my eyelids a couple of millimeters. I saw a sliver of Hafiza’s back hunched over her backpack.
“Stop being annoying,” she yelled over her shoulder. I let out some noises in response.
The door flew open and my mother tossed something at Hafiza. I sat up. My mother pulled me out of bed.
“You’re going on errands with your sister,” she said. I let out more noises.
“No yelling. Just go. Yalla.”
Hafiza pulled me by the hand. She wasn’t particularly gentle, and she never let me slip from her grasp. I stumbled into the hallway behind her. My mother sat in the living room and watched us leave.
We walked down the road, and the best footpath was the middle of it. Even though the thick asphalt was clearly designed for machines, not people, cars rarely came through. I stumbled over a crack. Hafiza threw a glance over her shoulder.
“Why are you hopping like that?” Hafiza had asked me on a walk to the grocer two years ago.
“Because you can’t step on the cracks,” I said.
“Why not? It’s more efficient,” said Hafiza.
“Noor says if you step on the cracks, a ghost will take away your family,” I said.
“That’s stupid,” said Hafiza. “Ghosts aren’t real.”
I looked down and hesitated. I stepped on the next fracture in the road. Hafiza smiled at me, but I was still worried. I went to sleep praying that the ghosts would forget about me. Sure enough, my mother and sister were in perfect health the next morning. I never avoided the cracks again.
I always liked walking through the city with my sister. When our mother would send us to the baker or the post office, I would always end up lagging behind Hafiza. I would focus on touching all of the branches of the bushes. Normally, Hafiza would cut me some slack—she’d only scold me if our family had other business to attend to that day. But even though today was a slow Saturday, Hafiza kept her head forward and walked quickly. I turned away from a grapevine wrapped around a neighbour’s fence to see her nearly two blocks ahead of me. I jogged to catch up.
“Why are you going so fast?”
“Because we shouldn’t be late for things,” snapped Hafiza.
“What are we late for?”
“I’m not late for anything,” she said, “because I’m focused on getting there instead of picking leaves.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Hafiza.
We turned right onto the main street. The world smelled like burnt meat and sounded like a million things. This wasn’t the route to the bakery. A woman held up a pair of red dresses as we walked by her shop. A cart selling gas cans played a metallic melody as it drove by. Hafiza stopped in front of a barber shop. Old papers with pictures of models’ heads printed onto them peeled off the walls. A beaded curtain hung in place of a door. Hafiza pushed inside. I followed.
“We only cut men’s hair,” said a voice from the back.
“Seems like you don’t cut anyone’s hair anyways,” said Hafiza. It was a fair remark. Only two of the sixteen round chairs were occupied. One of the seated men was chatting with a young man—probably the barber’s son. The barber emerged from the back of his store. His head was bald and shiny. I thought that was funny, so I started laughing.
“What do you want?” The barber walked past Hafiza and towards the man awaiting his haircut.
“I know your men are going bald,” said Hafiza. She twisted her hair into a rope and held it out to her right. It had to be at least four feet long. “I’ll sell you this for six hundred.”
“Six hundred!” The barber started laughing. “You think anyone has that kind of money around here, you’re crazy.”
Hafiza’s expression did not change. “Five hundred then,” said Hafiza.
“This is a men’s shop,” said the barber. “Get out.”
“Fuck you,” said Hafiza.
I ran out of the shop, and Hafiza followed. She kept walking down the street.
“Go home,” said Hafiza.
“Don’t we have more errands to do?”
“No,” said Hafiza.
“Then why are you walking the wrong way?”
“Go home,” Hafiza repeated. “You know the way, right?”
“Then you’ll be fine.”
I ran back home. Hafiza did not return.
I thought I saw her once. I had left through our window at night, glancing back to see the look in my mother’s eyes that was once reserved for Hafiza. Walking down the cracked road, I focused my eyes upward. I saw happy families and lonely old men in the windows of the four-storey buildings. In the top-floor window of an old cement apartment, I saw candles and a head full of hair. The woman was hunched over a desk, so I didn’t catch her face. I dismissed the thought for a moment—surely my family would have found her if she’d been so close by. But Hafiza always lived in a separate world right next to mine.
Jaleelah Ammar is a Palestinian-Canadian student pursuing a degree in computer science. Her writing has been published digitally by The Atlantic and CBC Books.