Stranger in a Foreign Land, by Christina Renee Milliner

        A few girls from my class and I were seated around one of the two long, worn tables, which, occupied the small classroom where I taught.  From where I sat, I could see the glistening oranges hanging from the only tree, which stood tall inside the schoolyard. From the scruffy old window, the hot Moroccan sun shone through, drying up the short rainstorm, and forming tiny beads of sweat on my forehead. The school day was over, and after dismissing the twenty students that occupied my classroom, five of my female students loitered around. They seemed nervous at first, each girl looking either at their bare feet or at the peeling cracked walls. However, they soon came forth, asking if we could speak in private. We sat in complete silence, until Rida began to speak, but Nadia, stopped her. 

       “Let her speak,” I said. I could tell by the expression on Rida’s face she was a little startled by Nadia’s interruption. Nadia was very outspoken for fifteen years old, but I sensed this wasn’t her idea.

       “Ms. Shaw…she can’t,” Nadia said. “We will get in trouble.”

      “What are you talking about?” I asked. My stomach began to twist in a bunch of tight little knots. I looked around the circle, staring at each delicate bronze colored face. Two of the three girls, Samira and Amina, were five months pregnant. Both girls’ faces were hidden under their hijabs, their bodies covered with long, loose, plain dresses, hiding their growing bellies.

       “Be quiet,” Rida snapped, frustration spread across her face.

       “How can I help you, if you won’t tell me what’s wrong.” I said, although I had a feeling of what they were about to say. A few months ago, I overheard some of the other teachers talking about Brahim, a local native and fellow teacher, who was rumored to be having sexual relationships with some of the female students. I didn’t put much thought into it, until I began to notice three of my female student’s pregnancy. Still, it was only a rumor.

      “Ms. Shaw, we come to you because we can trust you,” Rida said, her English improving.

      “Yes, you can trust me,” I said. “All of you can.” A year ago, when I joined the Peace Corp and started teaching, the students were distant, now there was a bond.

       Rida stood up, becoming the spokesperson of the group. “We have a problem.”

      “I understand,” I said, staring directly at her. “What is it?”

      “Sometimes we are forced to do things,” she said, her eyes wandering around the room.

      “No, Rida,” Nadia nervously said.

      Samira and Amina kept quiet.

      “What things are you all forced to do?” The knots in my stomach became tighter.

      “Things only meant for marriage,” Rida said, her eyes glistened.

       “Who makes you do these things?” I asked.

       “We are not supposed to tell,” she continued. The other girls glared at her.

       “But, we want it to stop,” Nadia said.

       “What do we do?” Fatimah asked softly. She was one of the smartest students in my class. She was excelling in her English, and even tutored some of the other students who were struggling with the language.

      I didn’t have an answer for them that afternoon. All I could promise was I would try my best to help. They needed hope and I was the one to give it.

       After the meeting with the girls, I became restless. The rumors were true, and I had the confirmation. What did they want me to do? I emailed The Moroccan Peace Corp Headquarters about the situation, hoping they would step in. A month of emails seemed to go unnoticed. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went as far as confronting Brahim.

    “Hello Brahim, can I talk to you,” I said, one afternoon after school let out

    “Ms. Shaw,” he said with a heavy Arabic accent. “Please come in.” He was sitting at his desk grading papers.

     I stepped into the small classroom. Closing the door behind me.

    He raised his bushy eyebrows as I approached his desk. “Is there something wrong?”

   “There might be,” I said.

   “Have a seat,” he said, extending his arm and pointing it towards one of the chairs.

   “No thank you,” I said.

   “All right,” he said, putting the papers on his desk in a pile. “What seems to be the problem?”

   “I overheard some students talking about a possible threat amongst them.”

   “I see,” he said. “What kind of threat?”

   “One of a sexual nature,” I said.

   “And do you believe it?”

  “Yes,” I answered. “It was talk amongst them. I have no reason not to.”

  “I see,” he said, standing up. “Of course with your Corp training, these matters are important.”

   I glared at him. “These students are my concern.”

   He walked from around the desk, rubbing his long chin.

    “What are you implying Ms. Shaw,” he said, as he sat on the edge of his desk, still rubbing his chin.

    “I’m not implying,” I said. “I’m just informing about an important matter.” I began to walk towards the door, but he grabbed me by the arm. His grip was tight. I looked up at him and he loosened his grip.

   “Ms. Shaw, it is very important to not let certain matters be of any concern to you,” he said, not letting go of my arm.

    “Let go of me, please,” I said.

    He let go, taking a step back. “Don’t believe everything little girls conjure up.”

   I quickly walked to the door, my heart pounding so loud, I was sure he could hear it.  Little girls. I never said they were girls.

  “Ms. Shaw,” he called. I turned around. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

  I didn’t respond back as I turned the rusty knob, thankful for the squeaking

                                                                          

 

                                                                                                  ***

 

      I knew I had to confront him again. I went to his apartment, not knowing what to expect.  I just need to talk again.  After the first confrontation with Brahim in his classroom and Rida suddenly stopped attending class, I became worried. Feeling hopeless, I confided in my host brother, Omar, about the confrontation.

    “I don’t know about this,” I had said.

    “You need to take it,” Omar said. He was rummaging underneath his bed. I could only see his legs as they dangled from the side. He finally emerged holding a medium sized brown box.

     “Does Umayma know you have a gun?” I asked, knowing his mother would not approve.

      “No, but she suspects,” he said, sitting on the edge of his twin size bed.

      He opened the box and took out a small black pistol. “Look, you don’t have to use it. But just take it and keep it for protection.”

     I reached out my hand as he handed the gun to me. It was light and the steel felt cold in my hands. “Is it legal?”

     He gave me a look that told me otherwise.

    “Here,” I said, handing it back to him. “I can’t take this.”

    He stood up and shoved the gun back at me. “Look, you don’t know Brahim…he can’t be trusted…you have to understand.” There was a mixture of concern and fear in his voice; he seemed to be pleading with his dark eyes.

     I’m just taking it. I shoved the gun into my bag. I won’t ever use it.

    I noticed the glowing light coming from under the door, assuming he was home. I paused. I could just keep complaining to Headquarters; but they weren’t doing anything. The longer they continued to ignore my pleas, the more time he had abusing female students. I knocked on his door.

    “Ms. Shaw,” he said, partially opening the door, looking over his shoulder at something in his apartment. “What brings you to my home?”

   “We need to talk,” I said.

   “Now” he asked.

   “Yes, now,” I answered.

  “Can it wait until morning?” he asked. He didn’t move, instead glanced away, then back at me.

  “I think it’s important we talk now,” I said.

 “It can wait,” he stated. “Goodnight.” He close the door, before I could protest.

       I slowly walked away. What was he hiding? His building was an exact replica of mine, each apartment having one single window that was connected to a fire escape. I ran down the two small flights of stairs and around to the side of the building where the windows were. Thankful for the darkness and loneliness of the street, I climbed up onto the fire escape to the window that was his. His curtains were closed but the sheerness of them gave me a decent view of his living area. I knelt to the side, carefully positioning myself to peek into the window and not be seen. I couldn’t hear anything, but it seemed as if he was talking to someone by the hand gestures he was making. Carefully lifting myself up a little, I saw him standing near his cot, but I couldn’t see the other person.  He was blocking whoever it was. Immediately I jumped back. He was walking over to the window. As he opened it halfway, my heart began to pound. Please don’t look out.  To my relief he walked away from it. I could hear inside now.

     “I didn’t say a word,” the shaky female voice cried.

     Her voice sounds familiar.

    “So why did she come here?” He asked. “I assume she will have to be taken care of as well.”

     I inched closer to the window, determined to hear more.

   “No…please…” she pleaded.

   “Shut up,” he yelled.

   

   I watched him walk away, giving me a clear view of Rida sitting on his filthy looking cot, the bottom parts of her clothing were off exposing her undergarments. I knelt down a little lower. Being exposed was no longer a concern. I lifted the window up more and climbed into the apartment. Rida jumped up from where she sat. He turned swiftly towards me.

   “Ms. Shaw,” he said, a surprised look overtaking his long sunken face.

   Rida ran over to me, fear spread across her face.

     “You’re a sick man,” I said.

     He inched towards me. “You are a very nosey woman. I think you need to be taught…”

    “Stay back,” I shouted fearfully, grabbing Rida’s hand.

    “And if I don’t?” he asked.

    I started to back up closer to the window, never letting go of Rida’s hand. He charged, knocking me onto the hard dirty floor. My back hit the floor with a thump.

   “You stupid American bitch,” Brahim said, spitting into my face.

    I felt the thick salvia trickle down my face. I needed to get up but I couldn’t. The pain in my back was piercing and numbing.

    “Ms. Shaw, please get up,” Rida screamed.

   “Shut up,” Brahim said. I could see him walking over to Rida. He grabbed her by the arm throwing her onto the cot. “Put the rest of your clothes on and get out.”

      “No,” Rida shouted.

     “You will do as I say,” he said.

      I closed my eyes, hoping the throbbing would subside, and then suddenly, a loud cracking noise rang in my ears and I opened my eyes to see Rida holding the left side of her face.

     Brahim turned around and came towards me. Getting up I dug into my boot, pulled the small pistol out, and pointed it at him.

     “Don’t move,” I shouted.

    “Give me the gun,” he said calmly.

     My hands shook uncontrollably.

    “Listen you filthy American tramp—”

     “Shut up.”

     I looked at Rida standing by the door. She held on tightly to her hijab.

    “We are leaving,” I said, and walked over to Rida, still aiming the gun at him.

    His eyes followed me. He moved towards me. “I’m going to kill you, you little bitch.”

    I shot him twice in the chest.

   He fell to the floor with a loud thump. He lay there, his eyes staring up at the ceiling.

  Rida ran over to me, throwing her slender arms around me, her face was wet and slick. “Ms. Shaw.”

     “It’s ok,” I said, feeling the tears fall from my eyes as I looked away from the corpse. “We need to get out of here.”

     “Wait,” Rida said, picking up the gun that lay beside my foot, handing it to me.

     I took it, making sure to keep a firm grip.

    She grabbed my free hand, placing her other hand at the middle of my back, as we walked out of Brahim’s apartment, promising to keep this night between us.

                                                                                                   ***

      Brahim’s cousin found his body the next day. He didn’t show up for school, and being that no one had heard from him, his cousin decided to go by his apartment. The town went into silence, once the news was broadcast.

     “Did you hear?” Omar asked. He and his sister, Adara, had come over to my apartment that afternoon, after school let out.

     “Yeah,” I answered, glaring out the dingy window of my apartment. The sun was bright as I watched the town people below going about their routine business.What if someone finds out what happened? Would Rida break her promise? He was going to kill me… it was self-defense. My main reason for joining the Peace Corp was to help people, not hurt them.

     Are you ok?” Adara asked, breaking my thoughts. She took my hand and led me to the couch. “You’re shaking.”

     “I’m fine,” I said anxiously. “So, I suppose they are going to be investigating?”

    “They might,” Omar said, eyeing me shadily. “Brahim wasn’t the most liked person in this town.”

    His answer helped me relax a little.

   “Why don’t you go home,” Omar said to Adara, who, sat beside me, on the battered couch, picking the seams.

    She looked from him to me, her brown eyes questioning. But, she stood and obeyed. Once she was gone, Omar sat next to me.

    “Did you want to talk?” I asked, my breathing becoming shallow.                      

    “I wanted to ask you about the gun, I need it back,” he said.

    “Oh, sure,” I said, standing up and walking down the small hallway, which led to my bedroom. I opened the old, two drawers, dresser, which stood beside my cot. I carefully retrieved the gun from under the pile of letters I kept from back home.

   When I returned to the living area, Omar was now standing beside the window.

    My mouth quivered as I handed him the gun.

    He took it from me slowly, his hands lingering on mine, as his stare intensified. “They say Brahim was shot twice in the chest.”

     “I didn’t hear that,” I lied, walking away from him and into the kitchen. He followed behind.

  “Do you want something to eat?” I asked, feeling hot and sweaty. I quickly grabbed my hair and put it into one big braid, letting it cascade to the middle of my back. Maybe it’s time for a haircut.

   “You look flushed,” Omar said. “I’ll get you some water.” He walked over to the molded sink, letting the water run a couple of seconds until its natural colored appeared. He took one of the round glass cups that sat by the sink, filling it up halfway, before handing it to me.

   “Thank you,” I said, drinking the water.

   “I guess if I had murdered someone…I would be worn down too,” he said.

    I choked. “What…I didn’t murder–”

  “My gun is missing two bullets,” he said.

  I couldn’t dispute. “It’s not like that,” I stuttered, feeling the tears streaming down my face as I sunk to the floor, crouching down into a tight ball. “He was going to kill me…he said it.”

   Omar came and knelt beside me. “Look, it’s ok, I believe you.”

  “Thank you,” I whispered.

  “We’ll figure it out,” he said.

  “What do you mean,” I said, standing up. “You said they wouldn’t investigate.”

  “I said they might not,” he said, standing as well. “We don’t know for sure.”

  I began to pace back and forth, twisting my hands together. Omar stopped me, placing both his hands on my shoulders.

  “Who else knows besides me?” He asked.

  “No one,” I lied.                         

  “Ok good,” he said, relief spread across his face. “For now, you act normal…and we have to find a way for you to leave.”

       “Wait…why do I have to leave?” I asked.

      “You can’t stay here,” he said. “No one knows because it’s still early, but it doesn’t mean if they do an investigation they won’t find out…it’s safer to go back home.”

      I wasn’t ready to go home, I still had another year to serve.

                                                                                                  ***

      Three weeks went by after Brahim’s murder. The town ceased the little talk there was about it. A relief and panic came with it. The police were not doing much of an investigation. Maybe their daughters were victims of his as well. I took Omar’s advice, going about my normal life. The days I could get through, teaching my students. The nights troubled me. I could see Brahim’s lifeless body every time I closed my eyes. It became unbearable, so, I would lay awake. One night, it was so bad, I got out of my bed, went into the bathroom, and cut my hair off. I didn’t have a mirror to look into, I didn’t need one. With every piece of lock that fell into the sink brought a sense of relief to me. That night I actually slept.

      My distraught appearance over the weeks, which led people to believe I was becoming ill, was enough to get me the approval I needed to go home. Making the announcement to my students was hard. But, with each day that passed, I felt more like a stranger here. Samira and Amina stopped attending class. I overheard from the other teachers, their parents were just too embarrassed of their pregnancies. I thought Rida would come back but she didn’t.  After school, the day before my departure, I decided to stop by her house.

    “Ms. Shaw,” Rida said, as she stepped outside into the humid air. We were standing outside her small home, where she resided with her grandmother. There was something different about her.

    “I wanted to tell you goodbye in person,” I said.

    “Yes, Fatimah told me…you are leaving,” she said, looking at the floor.

    “Is something wrong?” I asked

    “The police…they came to me…asking questions,” she said, nervousness spread across her face.

    I began to panic. “What did you tell them?”

   “I’m so sorry…. we shouldn’t have said anything to you that day.”

   “Rida…what did you say?” I asked.

   “Nothing…just I was with Brahim before he died…that’s all…I would never tell on you,” she said in a doubtful tone.

    “I have to go,” I said, beginning to walk away.

    “Ms. Shaw…wait,” Rida said. She embraced me. And that’s when I felt it. I pulled away and looked at her closely. Her loose fitting clothes made it hard to notice, but her stomach was growing.  She turned away, shame spread across her face.

    “Your hair is different,” she said.

    “I’m leaving tomorrow,” I said, walking away from her.

   The following day, as I packed the last of my belongings, I thought about what I was going to tell my family about my early homecoming. Making my way to the living area. I ran over to the window, I could see the taxi pulling up to take me to the airport.  Time to go, I grabbed my luggage, closing the door to my apartment for the last time.  As I descended the flight of stairs, Omar met me.

   “I’m glad I caught you before you left,” he said. He was breathing hard as if he had been

running.

     I wasn’t expecting to see him. I had said my goodbyes to his family two days ago. “I’m

still here.”

     “Brahim’s cousin…he wants the police to investigate more,” he said.

     “I’m going to jail,” I said.

     “No, you won’t,” Omar said.

     “How do you know that?” I asked, feeling frustrated. I shoved past him, but he blocked me

    from going down the remainder of the stairs. Didn’t he understand? I killed someone.

     “I don’t know…but it won’t happen.”

    “I have to go,” I said, walking past him and down the rest of the stairs. He followed behind.

    “This is goodbye,” I said, turning to him.

    “Yes, only for now,” he said. “You will be ok.”

    “I don’t think I will,” I said, walking towards the taxi.

   “Trust me,” I heard him say, not bothering to look back.

    I loaded my bags into the trunk. Then I looked up into the clear blue sky, the clouds caressing it lightly, the sun peeking its way through, the rays beginning to burn my face. I could hear the early morning rush of cars, the toxic fumes filling my nostrils. I heard the driver calling me, not realizing I was just standing there, watching everything familiar slip away from me.

#

Christina Renee Milliner lives in Brooklyn, New York where she is currently writing her first novel. She has a MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University and a BA in English Literature from University North Carolina Charlotte. When she isn’t writing she is working at a homeless shelter in Washington Heights, drinking lots of tea, traveling, and enjoying all things art related.
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