The book feels light in his hands. The gilded cover looks innocuous, a curlicue of that mysterious Arabic text lacing the cover. Or, as his father likes to call it, “That damn Moslem book.”
He runs his fingers against the embossed lettering.
His brother’s grin is wide. “Big day tomorrow,” he crows gleefully, as he carts in the last box of blasphemy. “We’re gonna give those terrorists what’s theirs!”
Luke looks up, and forces a smile onto his face. He can feel his heart clench in his chest. “They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
His brother lets out a whoop. “That’s the spirit little bro. Alright, stop groping the kindling.” Peter snatches the book out of Luke’s hands, and throws it onto the stack of other books. Luke resists flinching when it lands with a resounding smack.
Peter throws his arm conspiratorially around Luke’s shoulder, and steers him toward the steps out of the basement. “So Luke, man, what do you want for dinner?”
As they walk up the steps, Luke can feel his mouth shaping the words, his lungs forcing air past his lips. He can’t stop thinking about how heavy his hands feel.
When Luke was five, a little girl with caramel skin and hair the color of a raven’s wing walked into Ms. McCarty’s kindergarten class clutching her mother’s hand. Luke watched as her mother crouched before her, wiping away her daughter’s tears and kissing her cheek before she left.
Ms. McCarty led the little girl to his table. Her name was Layla, and she didn’t have any crayons.
Luke pushed a few stubby Crayola’s across the desk.
Layla solemnly selected one. Forest Green.
Luke smiled. His favorite color.
In 2nd grade, the kids at recess started calling Layla ‘Pocahontas’ because of her plaited hair. Luke watched from the monkey bars as she told the other kids that in her mom’s language, ‘nai’ means ‘no.’
“Neigh, like a horse?” one girl exclaimed gleefully. She reached out and pulled on one of Layla’s braids like a rein. “Neigh, neigh!”
The other kids joined in, crowding her. “Neigh, neigh!” they all chorused, yanking on Layla’s braids.
“Stop it!” she screamed.
Luke dropped down from the monkey bars, and it was nothing at all to let the momentum barrel him forward and give Chris Walker an almighty shove in the back. He slammed into Jennifer Morrisey and they both hit the mulch, hard.
The pitiful crying from the ground and the recess aide’s shrill voice asking what in God’s name was not enough to mask Layla’s whispered, “Thank you.”
He had detention for a week, but seeing Layla’s smile made it worth it.
In fourth grade, Layla didn’t bring lunch to school one day. Or the next day. Or the next.
“Why aren’t you eating?” asked Luke, his voice raised over the din of the cafeteria chatter.
“It’s Ramadan. I’m fasting!” replied Layla, as a dropped serving spoon resonated with a clang.
“Oh. What’s Ramadan?”
Layla told him.
The next day, Luke left his lunch box behind the potted plant in Mrs. Fields backyard.
At Layla’s look of surprise when he sat down empty handed in the cafeteria, Luke said, “I’m fasting, too.”
His mother gave him hell for leaving his lunch (Mrs. Fields had brought it over, perplexed by the sudden appearance of what she believed to be a polygonal lawn gnome) but dinner never tasted so good that night.
Next year, Mr. Wetzel called roll. Layla’s name was not on it.
She was gone.