Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category

By: Monda Mahmoud

His steps were rather slow, like he was strolling casually along the narrow, tranquil side streets of Zamalek. Treading softly on the brisk leaves scattered on the road, he was cautiously treading into his memories.

Youssef got off his bicycle and parked it against the fence. He could hear loud tones coming from inside the house. Unalarmed, he dusted his backpack, straddled it on his shoulder and rushed to meet Karembu. He hated to keep his best friend waiting.

Youssef adored Karembu. They were inseparable, spending every waking minute with each other, studying, playing, or just chatting. Karembu captured the true essence of a bohemian spirit. He brought out the best in Youssef, making him savor the life of a normal seven year old.

They spent hours in the garden exploring everything in sight. They built a tiny house from cardboard boxes. It was their private workshop and a creative outlet from the monotonous adult life at home. They cherished this place, full of warmth. They would build objects, recreate structures, or make new shapes from Lego pieces, rocks and stones. It was a haven, whose rhythm was set by their dreams.

Both seemed unaware of how ridiculous they looked together, having never been mocked about it. Karembu, constantly fiddling with a straw in his hand, always wore brown. He had a poetic explanation, saying he belonged to the Earth and paid tribute by dressing in its rich shades. He topped his signature look with a red cap. Youssef was ordinary looking; his dimples being his most striking feature. Neutral to colors, he opted to complement Karembu’s earth tones, donning soft whites and subtle blues.

Youssef shared his secret with Karembu, the one person he could talk to and who would actually listen. He knew his parents were unhappy; he could hear their heated arguments almost daily. He couldn’t remember ever seeing them laugh.

The divorce was harsh on Youssef, but it was his parents’ attitude that broke him. An only child, Youssef became the grand prize of the divorce, a possession each was determined to win.

“I don’t know why they argue. They always find something to fight about. They don’t notice me when I’m there. They never talk to me Karembu. They don’t ask how my day was, or what I want to do. They spend all day and night talking about me!

He sighed. “My very own parents ignore me. Sometimes I wonder if they even love me. If you love someone you don’t ignore him, right. They hardly spent time with me. I don’t understand why they fight over me all the time. We live together, in this house of noise, but they don’t see me. They don’t hear me. I might as well not be. I make no difference to either.

Last night before I went outside to play, I hid behind the terrace door. I sneaked a look through the glass window. I shut the door behind me, but they didn’t budge. Dad was occupied as usual; his full attention on the TV news, and mom was painting her nails. Mom didn’t look up. It was dark outside. She didn’t tell me to wear a jacket. They hate me Karembu. It is my fault. They fight because they don’t want me.”

Youssef sighed, deeply appreciating the breeze of soothing memories. His casual footsteps came to an end in front of the gates of an old, empty house. He knew the place inside out; seven cracked steps to the door, the sweet strong scent of the mango trees, and the secluded roof where he would lay down and simply gaze at the magnificent stars.

A smile spread across his cheeks, and his dimples graced his mature innocence. He walked into the Zamalek Villa of his childhood. This is where his best days always happened.

Karembu was sitting in the corner, painting a large piece of cardboard. Youssef walked up and sat beside him quietly. Time had not robbed this place of its allure. Here is where calm resides. He closed his eyes, deeply engrossed in thought.

Karembu broke their silence. “You tried. You know you did.”

Youssef opened his eyes. “I did. I lost. It is really over. That’s what she kept repeating. It’s over.”  His gaze was fixed into the distance. “I might as well not be. I make no difference to her. Twelve years end today – twelve birthdays, wedding anniversaries and Ramadan sohoor gatherings. I lost my own family.”

Youssef was unable to silence the raging daemons in his head. At the age of thirty-two, his uncontained feelings left him scared. He had fallen prisoner to a painful past.

“Adam should have me in his life. Doesn’t every child deserve both a mom and a dad! She wouldn’t even try for Adam. Aren’t families made for life!

I doubt she even loves him. If you love someone you don’t ignore him, right. She only wants out of the marriage. She gave no thought to how a divorce might hurt him. He’s only eight. He should be happy, not grow up broken. I don’t want Adam to live in a world without me.”

“You told me Adam is your butterfly, remember. He spreads joy into your life. You make him happy. You make him smile. ” Karembu said.

Youssef looked across to his friend’s seven-year-old figure, the figure he so carefully designed and brought to life. “All I want is for Adam to be happy. Just like you and me, Karembu. We’re Dimples and Straws. We’re happy here. We play. I just wish I can be part of his happy.”

Youssef was overwhelmed. “I can be a part of his happy. Adam can be with me here!”

He lay down on the ground and felt the earth warm and solid beneath him. All alone in the garden, Youssef grinned at Karembu, the figment of his imagination he pictured clearly in front of him.

“It’ll be the three of us; Dimples, Straws and Butterfly.”


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