At twenty-two, we are crones, becoming dust, tasting bitter. We watch Moscow burn on the lounge TV. We hold each other’s hands, we say, What will happen now.
Moscow burns the way everything burns—beautifully, from a distance. Bochka roofs evaporate into smoke. Cathedral roofs spew sideways, spitting pimento tiles into the streets. Low-storied apartment buildings sink to their knees, folded in their own embraces, Soviet concrete crumbling upon prehistoric wallpaper, pulverizing babushkas in their Soviet frocks. In the street, men writhe in hats of fire. They clutch their flaming heads. They look like they are dancing the oldest and ugliest dance in the world.
Every so often, the ancient TV gutters out, and Aisha smacks the bulbed glass in that precisely irritated way our uncles used to do when a football match went black, back when we had uncles and they sat on our couches. The image skitters: off, on.
The sticky horror in our throats is not just for what we see, but for ourselves. We long to be there, in the heat of it. It is spiteful to leave us here, wasting away. We feel in ourselves a nuclear fire, always on the verge of explosion.
Mary Grace is crying silently, which is what she’s best at doing. She’s got a Medal of Honor in crocodile tears.
“All—of—the—children,” she manages in gasps. “The—little—the—little—children.”
“It’s a bit late for that,” Gina says. And, because she’s annoyed, she cups Mary Grace’s brown chin with all the kindness of a storybook mother hen. She holds Mary Grace’s shivering face, a constellation of pure, sad girl tears, and she sets it on fire.
Nabeela is the first to get sick. It’s just like her to want to try something new. To beat us to the punch. Cancer of the soul, she calls it. Somewhere over the years, unbeknownst to her, to us, her body has become poison to itself.
“It turns out the call was coming from inside the house,” is how she explains it, and when no one laughs, she gets peeved and makes endless, petty demands. Get me some ice chips. The sun is too bright, it’s hurting my head. Play a song, will you. No, not that song. Jesus God in the sky, anything but that stupid song. It’s like a coffin in here, can we get some light? I’m not dead yet.
The inconvenience of illness is an insult to her very being. Every day, she’s a new kind of cranky. Her skin is slipping along its sharpest points, accumulating folds—beneath her eyes, around her mouth, at the base of her wrists. Even so, she has just enough pep to be pissy.
At first, they wear Hazmat suits around her. They press rubber fingers along her wan veins. They collect blood. And hair. They take a piece of tissue. They take a piece of her bone. They make the corniest jokes, trying to be kind. They say things like, “Just adding this to the Nabeela shrine,” and “Just auctioning it off to your fan club.”
Their endless crinkling irritates her. “They’re so creepy,” she mutters when they’re not around, and especially when they are. “I don’t even think they’re very good at their jobs.”
Eventually, they wear Hazmat suits around all of us.
In the early days, we are young enough to think of ourselves as young. Still heartsick when we remember the acne-scarred boys and girls in the high schools we left behind. The little sisters whose hair we yanked one last time for good measure, muttering in their ears Don’t fuck this up by way of goodbye, because the distance between our grief and our fortitude would unravel if we had to hear our own stupid hearts beating. In the early days, we still wear uniforms and stand at attention. We are still part of an us that is bigger than ourselves. This is the choice we make, our bodies for a way out of our lives. A chance at a future.
We travel to places on maps we can’t even spell. Dimashq. Beirut. Ghazni. Qom. Put your finger on a globe and spin. We leave behind us irradiated neighbourhoods, post-apocalypses. Deserts where once there were no deserts. We go where we are told to go. We have not graduated high school, and already we have toppled buildings, laid waste to city blocks, upheaved countries, immolated hundreds of militants and the people around them. What our handlers call the bad guys and their peripherals. We smell of soot, always.
In our dormitory, we are homesick, bored, snappy. The doctors test our blood pressure. They smile when they see us looking, but still we see the way they eye us, like we are wild things. Geiger counters click and spit readouts on each of us, every day, every night. We squabble over who used the bathroom, and for how long. There are entire geological periods shorter than the showers that Mary Grace takes.
The rules are endless. We are not allowed to paint our nails. Or smoke cigarettes. Or eat less than three meals a day. Or stand in the sun too long. Or use lighters or matches or most kinds of microwaves. It’s for our own safety, we are told—it’s for everyone’s safety. We are unstable, and we know it not because anyone says anything, but because of the ways in which we are constrained. The way that our doctors and handlers look at us and don’t look at us.
We pretend not to hear Yaya weeping into her pillow after dark, and ignore Aisha gnashing her teeth in her dreams. We eat out of tin cans every day until all we can taste is the aluminum lining.
It’s Jack, wispy little white girl Jacqueline, who yanks us out of it. One day, Nabeela pauses by her bunk and says in a voice that is almost angry with incredulity, “Is that a recipe book? Are you reading a freaking recipe book?” and Jack gets kind of prickly and says, “So what? It’s my gran’s.”
She turns the brittle pages with fingers that somehow reek of cigarettes. She reads, “Lauren’s Favourite Banana-Mango Birthday Cake. Four cups, chopped mango. Three cups of banana, fresh sliced.” When she lowers the book, we see that each page bleeds with spatters of sauce stains, phantom thumbprints of flour. “Vanilla ice cream, five cups. Crumbled graham crackers. Chilled butter, cut into cubes.” We can smell sunny bananas, can taste the tart sweetness of the mangoes with an intensity that makes our cheeks hurt. We spoon up our shitty dinners and imagine we are at Lauren’s birthday party, feasting on her favourite banana-mango birthday cake.
When you live the way we live, the people around you are the world you inhabit, and they are your own private hell. We become sisters, of a sort. We borrow each other’s magazines. We let Mary Grace take her stupid eternal showers. We listen spellbound to Jack, reading quietly to us from her grandmother’s deteriorating recipe book. When Yaya weeps at night, one of us reaches out in the dark and holds her hand until she is quiet.
To make ourselves laugh, or when we are angry, or to show affection, or to say we’re sorry, we set each other on fire. All it takes is touch. When one of us ignites, the others can’t help it. We hoot with laughter, we gape, we marvel at the wonder of ourselves. It snaps the tension of our waiting days clean in half. Sometimes it sets off a chain reaction, one girl, then the next, then the next, becoming fire, burning up. In those brief, beautiful moments, we are something else. We become impossible.
It never lasts long, not like our city-burning fires. We leave singe marks on the ground, on the walls. The doctors cough when they walk through our dormitory, then they wear masks. Sometimes, before we go to bed, we sing together. Wistful pop songs from our childhoods, camp ditties from when we went to camp. A chorus of girls, too young to vote, too poisonous to be anywhere else.
These are the days we will think of, forever afterwards. The days when we were youthful and useful and burned brighter than anything else. At nights, we dream of blood and fire and smoke and screaming, but in the morning, we never remember.
Those were the old days. Now it is not the days that are old, but ourselves.
In the third year of our service, a nosy journalist from a national newspaper finds out. Suddenly everyone knows. They call us weapons of mass destruction, or military mad science experiments, or a new generation of suicide bombers, or just bombs. They want to know, is this how science was meant to be used. Are we even human. Suddenly, everyone’s a philosopher. They interview scientists who drone in endless columns about the ethics of human experiments, the tremulous line between willing participant and hoodwinked lab rat. They ponder if it is a human rights violation, chemically altering bodies to obliterate cities, to become fire. They get our names wrong.
Gina, who knows how to pronounce unpronounceable words, who reads the best, keeps us in the loop. She says, “I guess we’re victims today. Coerced by circumstance, that’s what they’re saying.” Or, “Now they think we should be in a laboratory.”
“Where do they think we live, in paradise?” Aisha says.
They are curious, ravenous for anything about us. They print our enlistment mugshots, they profile the falling-apart highrises and rundown neighbourhoods from which we came. The newspapers unearth photos of our families. Sisters we no longer recognize. Mothers whose smiles are grainy and stilted, like they were caught unawares. The newspapers want to know, Who would choose this? Why would our families let us go? We grow weepy. We bicker with our handlers. We say, “Don’t we have any rights? Don’t we get to speak?”
“They’re afraid of you,” they tell us. “Do you really want to rile them?”
In the end, our handlers relent. Not for us, but for themselves. They let a television station interview Nabeela. We watch it on the piece-of-shit lounge TV. We are so proud, we are sick with envy. Nabeela is dark and lovely and crisply suited, not a hair out of place. They even let her paint her nails red. She speaks quietly and urgently. Her eyes say, What choice did we have?
The anchor does not call us women, but girls. Like we did not sign up for this. Like we did not know. Like we are still babies, and maybe we are, and maybe we are not. She looks into the camera, into our eyes. She is old enough and pretty enough to be every mother we never had. She says sternly, curiously, “Who are they, these poor young girls?”
It is only years later that we find out. Too late. It is our mistake. It is everyone’s mistake.
The anchorwoman who interviews Nabeela. The woman who does her makeup. The nice man who leans over her and asks if the studio lights are too hot. The people who huddle behind the cameras. The studio audience. The assistant director. The security guard who signs Nabeela into the building, who shakes her hand and smiles so brightly, who says, “It’s just TV, it won’t kill you.”
It happens one by one, long afterwards. After they leave their jobs or get promoted or move cities or go broke or marry someone and change their names. It takes a long time to connect the dots. To bring them back to that one moment in their life, that day in the studio with the girl who was a bomb.
We thought we were safe. Or, no: we didn’t think we were so unsafe. Or, no: we didn’t think we could be so unsafe without even knowing it.
But of course, we are. And the anchorwoman, the makeup lady, the nice man with the studio lights, the security guard, the studio audience bussed in from small towns and suburbs and other cities—the unlucky ones, the cancer takes them slowly, and the rest of them, they die before they even know what’s happened.
You are standing on the outskirts of a city you can’t name. There is dust in your nose and sun in your eyes. The people, they look like you. When they talk, they speak the language of your childhood. They could be your cousins, or your uncles, or your brothers, or your grandmother. You remember that your grandmother had wide, warty arms and an anxious way of being. Each old woman you pass, you see her. You want to help them with their bags. You want to take them home in your arms. You want to sit at their feet, and say, I’m sorry I didn’t listen, I’m listening now.
You lived in a city like this, when you were very young, a refugee girl on the ragged edge of town. Only later, when you are older, on the other, wealthier side of the world, do you realize how young you were, how poor you were. How small the four rooms were, that you shared with your mother, father, siblings, aunts, cousins, grandparents.
When you see the little girl, you think she is yourself. You think you are dreaming. The drugs your handlers give you, they make the world hazy and unclear, so it’s harder to remember afterwards, what you have done. But she is real. She is here, the girl. With her oversized clothes, and her underfed shoulders, and her face, so open to the whole wide world. She sees you looking and bursts into a grin, and it’s like the heat of the sun, that smile on that child.
You smile back at her. You say, “It’s okay, don’t worry,” even though she does not understand English, and she cannot possibly know what is about to happen. The drugs make you slur. Your handlers, they would call her a peripheral. The bad guys and their peripherals. You are not yet twenty, and sometimes you think yourself a child, and sometimes you do not. You could almost be her mother. How did you end up here, how did she end up there?
You kneel in the sandy street, you reach out your arms and you hug the girl who is yourself, and then you do what you came here to do. You become annihilation itself, you explode into fire and light and death.
Nabeela’s beautiful face is blistering. Her skin glistens, scabbed and slippery with scarlet pustules. We try not to look, and she rasps, “Don’t be babies,” and when we look, she says, “I’m not a zoo animal, thank you.” We see the way her hair has thinned, how her scalp is moulting and uneven, like the back of a salamander. We hold her arms. We sit on her bed. We try not to notice the peculiar way she smells.
She wants to know about Moscow. She says, “Does this mean it’s over?” and we want to know what it means, as if there is truly an end point to any of this. She shakes her head and asks, “What is the world coming to?”
And later she says, “They should have let us do it. We could have burned it better.”
We ask the doctors how she’s doing. They say, “It’s good that you care about her so much,” and that’s it. We try not to look at the little plastic bowl on her bedside table, swimming with the cereal texture of her vomit. We ask her about her life after us, after she left. She perks up in these moments, her voice gets a bit of boast back in it. We try not to remind her that she is back with us, back here. All that climbing led nowhere. There are no winners here.
We sing her favourite songs. We pretend we are anywhere but in this hospital room. We feel pious. We watch in horror when she sleeps, not only for her but for ourselves, as she wastes away, as her face oozes. As her teeth begin to fall out.
When she leaves us that first time, we are furious. She says, “I’m sorry, don’t we all have to move on at some point?” She is breaking three rules when she tells us: hairspray in her hair, nails painted, leaving for indefinite periods of time. Of course, our handlers let her. Star power is its own kind of weapon. People in cities and small towns, they look at her and they don’t see the things we’ve done. She is a war veteran, after all. A world-famous talk show host starts crying when she meets Nabeela. She says, “You’ve been through so, so much. You mean everything to me.”
“It’s good for you, too,” our handlers tell us. “Can’t you see?”
What we see is that Nabeela is free. She calls herself Bee, now. She’s on television all the time. She has pruned herself into perfection. She wears too much makeup. She speaks in full, clean sentences. No swear words. She is relaxed and easy. Bright. She is more radiant than we ever knew we were allowed to be.
In our dreams, we dream of hellfire and blood and limbs. We dream of faces peeled open, red and raw and boiled. We dream of the little girl we hugged, and how we incinerated her in our arms. How we watched everything go up in smoke, with the powder of her bones drying upon us. We dream of the looks upon all of their faces, in the moment of fury. Mostly, we dream of the corpses.
In the mornings, we can never remember what we dreamed, only that our throats are raw and our eyes are dry and our nails are damp with our own blood. In the dreaming night, we scratch at our own bodies, claw at our own hands, try to tear our own human skin away. Trying to reach the thing that lies on the other side.
The beginning of the end happens in the plainest, most ordinary of ways. An American boy goes backpacking around the world. He is a wandering spirit, this boy, he has a streak of adventure in him. He wants to write a novel, we learn later. About the things he’s seen, the things he’s done. He ends up in a country he shouldn’t be in, a city he shouldn’t be in. Where one of us was already dispatched a week ago, only days from detonation.
It goes without saying, this boy was not a peripheral. He was supposed to go to college, after his trip. He has already written the first chapter of his book. His teeth were straight and white. His eyes were a wilted green. He had that thing we all want, a future.
His grieving family says, “This can’t happen again, not to anyone else.” The government hems and haws. Furious op-eds are penned at the speed of light. Nabeela is replaced, talk show after talk show, by the boy’s mother, his sister, his father. Her time in the sun is up.
Suddenly, we are not called those poor young girls, they do not make us sound like babies. Overnight, the newspapers remember that we chose this, we signed up for it. We enlisted, didn’t we. Overnight, we find ourselves newly named. Now we are the dragons under the bed.
The grieving family tries a new way. They file a lawsuit against the military. Files are declassified. Our handlers are asked to testify. We watch it all from the television set in the lounge. Sometime during all of this, Nabeela comes slinking back to the dormitory. She goes from Bee to Nabeela again. We do not gloat, we do not preach. Mostly, we are glad to fill the hole. We are birds of fire, birds of a feather, an endangered species. We flock together. We hold each other in our wings. We watch ourselves fall apart. We are hollow on the inside, we are all we have. And even that, it’s not much to write home about.
It is Yaya who goes out the last time. She says to us, “See you on the flipside,” and we say, “Sure, fine, whatever.” We try not to look too deeply into the blood red of her eyes. Or the rusting brown scratches on her arms. We all have our own nightmares to deal with.
Afterwards, we imagine it a hundred different ways. We imagine it often. We see Yaya in an empty street on the other side of the world, her headwrap slipping in the sweaty heat of the day. We see how tired she is. How chapped her lips are. How she has stopped caring for herself in the simplest of ways.
We see the girl. In our minds, she looks like the girl we hugged, all grown up. Still a version of ourselves. She grins at Yaya as she approaches, and perhaps Yaya is startled, perhaps she smiles back.
“It’s so good to see you,” the girl says to Yaya, and before Yaya can say, I think you’ve made a mistake, the girl is folding her into a hug. In that moment, crushed against the weight of the girl, perhaps Yaya feels it. The wires running all down the girl’s arms and torso, the bomb strapped right to her chest.
In our minds, Yaya tries to pull away, but it’s too late, of course. In our minds, Yaya thinks of us, or of a family long-forgotten, or of the girl we hugged, who is so like this one. None of us imagine another possibility, one in which Yaya does not struggle, does not fight. Where Yaya just sinks into the girl’s embrace, and waits for what’s been coming to her this entire life.
These days, we spend most of our time in Nabeela’s room. Sometimes we share sips of cheap booze beforehand, swallows of bargain-basement vodka that tastes like rubbing alcohol. We have an unspoken pact, where Nabeela doesn’t notice the liquor on our breath and we don’t notice the odors of her body as it fights itself. These days, there is no need for handlers—not after Yaya. After Yaya, we are done.
Nabeela’s jaw is falling off. When she opens her mouth, you can see the sticky white bone gaping out. She spits out bloody gum tissue into her congealing bedside bowl. We stop talking about the world. There is no point: not for us, who are not in it. We hold her hands, the way we used to hold Yaya’s hands at night, and Jack reads from her gran’s recipe book. There are fewer doctors now. Mostly it is quiet. Just us, biding our days.
In her hospital room, we talk about the futures we will never have. We talk about when, not what-if. Already, we are starting to spot the sickness in one another, the thing on the inside of us that we claw towards in our dreams, the poison at the heart of our hearts.
Jack says, “You know, someday soon they’ll have the technology to take regular people to outer space,” and we say, surprised, impressed, “Like, to the moon?” and she says, “No, way out. Imagine taking a ship all the way out to the edge of nowhere.” We are silent, dreamy with the possibility, just us and our impossible spaceship and the expanding wilderness of the universe.
“Just think,” Aisha says, “someday there will be space kids.”
Gina mutters, embarrassed, “My sister has three kids. Three chubby little idiots.” She does not say anything else, but there’s nothing else to say. There are no chubby little idiots for us.
Now that Nabeela is sick, the country is on our side again. They say that we have been used, abused. We are victims again. They compare us to the radium girls, the women in World War I factories who used to paint watches with glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint. Who painted their faces and their lips until they burned bright, until they were luminous with poison. We, too, are the glow-in-the-dark girls. We, too, are sick with ourselves.
In Nabeela’s last days, we sleep on the floor beside her. We hold her up when she cannot sit by herself. We feed her ice chips when she cannot lift her arms. We comb what’s left of her perfect hair. We set ourselves on fire, to make her laugh again.