Short Fiction ~ Riham Adly
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 15
The siren lights from the police car parked outside colored our white-washed living-room with its angel-topped Christmas tree in red and blue. I watched Habiba as she stared at the hysterical woman screaming outside, and for the first time I noticed that our eyes were the same shade of hazel. Habiba watched in panic-stricken silence as the woman’s eyes darted between us.
“Which one are you? I want my daughter back!”
Mother gripped Habiba’s hands as if to say-you’re safe-you’re not leaving-you’re mine.
I waited for her to look at me, but then I knew it, that unfurling truth, like the telling of secret.
A year ago, back in school, in the locker room a figure emerged like a shadow.
“Hi,” She started, singling me out.
She had shoulder-length auburn hair, wore a floor-sweeping skirt and a long-sleeved shirt, all in black. It made her look small, infantile, like a lost child in a funeral.
“You a nun or something,” someone said, and everyone started laughing.
I wore black, too. Mine though didn’t hide as much.
“I’m Ursula.” I flaunted my name like royalty, like I was a better, perhaps more benevolent version of myself. I felt compelled to do so, like someone under a spell. Looking at hair though with those long auburn tresses made the inside of my palm itch and my skin sweat. I was all jumbled-up inside, while she looked solid, all-smiling.
“I had hair like that a long time ago.” I slipped a hand through my cropped hair.
“We look alike you and I.” She dared.
“No we don’t.” Tiny sparks ran over my neck raising every hair.
She stood right next to me. We were the same height.
“Habiba, benty, come back to me.” Her mother pleaded over and over.
Outside the sirens had stopped. The Christmas tree was itself again and our living-room walls turned white — the color of the season. Everyone’s breath turned visible and words mother would utter sometimes like imposter, changeling, not mine crowded my throat.
Sheriff Crowley let himself in. “Hilda, this woman outside claims you kidnapped her daughter.”
Mother and Habiba’s boots coiled deep in the cold soil outside the house as they watched him take a peek at the ginger bread house and ginger bread men they built together.
At the age of twelve I was already attuned to the distance spilling between us all. Daddy had ambitions that turned to ice and melted every year. I had been a good girl for both of them. Mother loved brushing my auburn tresses after her one-sided fights. He took me on hunting, fishing and even mining trips that lasted for weeks leaving her alone. Every year she would build a better and prettier gingerbread house for Christmas. When he left, I ran away after my Daddy. I looked for him in the nearby mines, at the lake, and in the far away woods on the outskirts of town. But he was gone for forever. The day they found me I opened my eyes and found her looking at me. She had eagle eyes, and claws that pulled at me and my hair. She wanted to keep on brushing and brushing till she was all good, but I wasn’t, so I looked for Daddy’s shears and hacked it off.
When Habiba’s skirts got shorter and her tops tighter everyone at school started staring.
“Are you doppelgangers now? That’s just creepy.” Ellen from Chemistry class pitched in, adding a whistle for dramatic effect, her glasses nearly falling off.
“We don’t look alike. She has long hair!” It was just plain infuriating. Couldn’t they see?
A couple of weeks before Christmas I invited Habiba over to my house. I was drawn to her the way a moth is drawn to flame light. I knew there was much to lose or was it?
“Is your mom alright with you staying over?” Mother asked when Habiba came over.
“My mother is busy. Would you like to braid my hair?”
I saw it happen, the edging in of that withered smile, rekindled hope—a transformation. Mother touched Habiba’s hair with such longing it almost hurt to look at her.
“Child, who works on Christmas?” Mother started brushing.
“She works to forget. She hardly notices...” And just like that Habiba started telling her story.
“We were deep in international waters. Men tried scooping out the water from the boat. My baby sister wouldn’t stop crying. She slipped. Baba jumped. Mama tried to jump but couldn’t and I didn’t jump.”
The story ended there.
“What do you celebrate then?” Mother didn’t stop brushing.
“The Breakfast feast. We eat sugar cookies after the fasting month, but I don’t like them anymore. I’d rather eat gingerbread cookies.”
I had let my hair grow back in an attempt to win my mother over again, but it was too late.
“Habiba, please come back.” Habiba’s mother pleaded before reaching out for my arm.
Riham Adly is an award-winning flash fiction writer from Giza, Egypt. In 2013 her story “The Darker Side of the Moon” won the MAKAN award. She is a Best of the NET and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work is included in the “Best Micro-fiction 2020” anthology. Her fiction has appeared in over 50 online journals including Flash Back, Bending Genres, New Flash Fiction Review, Flash Frontier and Litro among others. Riham’s flash fiction collection “Love is Make-Believe” was released and published in November 2021 by Clarendon House Publications in the UK. She is the first African, Arab woman to have a flash fiction collection published in English.