By JESS BEEVIS.

Seclusion. It’s a gift. A rare commodity in this life. That’s why my place is so special. I can escape from the world, no one can find me, no one can hurt me. Surrounded by cinder blocks, a small opening concealed by a lifeless shrub acts as my entrance way. Barely big enough for a stray like me to squeeze through anymore. A shiver runs down my spine. He’s coming. I can feel it. His booming voice speeds across the sand, hitting me with its full force and striking the breath from my lungs. “Shatha get back here! You know I didn’t mean to hurt you, come back home to Papa now.” 
There it is. Despite his best efforts to sound calm, anger seeps into his voice. It’s a constant cycle. Anger. Attack. Apology. But, this time, I’m not going back. No matter how much he begs, no matter how hard existence gets, I’m not going home. I swoon to the thought of an Iraqi soldier sweeping me off of my feet, taking me away from him. But I know nothing like that happens to garbage like me. I had a best friend salvaged once. He had broken. So much so, he resembled the scrap metal lining the streets, barely moving, his skin rusted from years of sand and little water to clean. But he just disappeared, his mother explained it as “a rescuing”. I wonder where he is now. I wonder if he’s thinking about me, too.

My unruly hair flicks across cheeks burning red from the sprint. The dark strands sting at my eyes. Sweeping it away, I squash my face up to a hole in the mortar. The desert stretches for miles. Interrupted only by a lonely tree, its branches intertwined, twisted upwards, as if it is screaming to the heavens. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I often stare out towards its gnarled branches. The only vegetation brave enough to take a stand against the force of the desert. I hear father retreat to the shack, rusty hinges moaning under the weight of the door. Didn’t take him long to give up on me this time.

These days I find my eyes drawn to a new addition to the landscape. The Americans have arrived. Their camp sits like a scar, blemishing the terrain. My first encounter with them had been in Basrah. It had taken days to travel to a cousin’s wedding on a cramped bus. Seats meant for two, were instead crowded with four. I had been trapped between a rickety window, and father, who didn’t appear to have changed his clothes in days. My stomach ached with hunger pangs. A familiar feeling. Overwhelming heat engulfed the bus, as we navigated the miles of desolate desert track.

I’d been to a city before. I thought I knew what to expect. But when we rolled onto the urban streets, I couldn’t help but gawk out of the window. Buildings rose high above the avenues crowded with people. Their colourful abayahs blending together into one. It was sand yellow, nothing like the cold grey of our village. We passed shop windows brimming with a plethora of luxurious Hijabs and teeming restaurants with expensive meals served at the click of a finger. Picturesque parks were interspersed throughout the city, interrupting the expanses of dry, bare earth with a million shades of green. Water available at the turn of a tap, only to be sprayed onto grass. With suspension protesting every movement, the bus had bounced into the depot. We poured out, instantly relieved to be in the fresh air. Absorbed in the atmosphere, I had darted off down the street. Only to narrowly avoid a collision with a monstrosity of a vehicle. Effortlessly drifting to a stop, a small number of men emptied out. Positioned next to our bus, it was undoubtedly four times the size, its body was undented, wheels a bright silver, no rust in sight. Each man looked identical to the next, all with short cropped hair, rugged features, green shirts and khaki pants. I wanted to talk to them, ask where they were from, ask if they were amazed by the city as well, but Father had pulled me away, muttering something about senseless American Soldiers. Towing me down the street in his usual swift stride, always the impressionist. If only people knew what he looked like behind that façade, when doors were tightly locked, and it was only us trapped inside. Someone would rescue me then.

I can watch the Americans from my special place. Remaining hidden, whilst observing the world. I have learnt so much of their strange customs just by sitting here and examining their everyday habits. They don’t pray. I wonder how they have survived this long without begging forgiveness from Allah. Clear excitement runs through them today. Maybe they’ve been given some rice. Congregating around a cardboard box, they grapple with each other to get closer. I feel a gasp escape me as the contents are emptied onto a metal bench. Enough food to sustain the whole village pours out. It’s better than rice, it’s cuisine. Shiny wrappers tumble from the table. I watch their faces. Wait for that flash of delight. But instead, disappointment is echoed in their features. They rummage through, tossing most to the side. Dispersing with their chosen treats, they leave the discarded scraps in the sun to spoil.

A loud thud sends me jumping into the air. Every nerve tensed, I hold my breath, pausing. Anticipating the thumping footsteps of Father. I crawl back into the corner, pressing my back against the cold concrete. I’m not going back there. No matter how much he screams, no matter how relentless he is, I’m not going home. Jarring footfalls shatter the silence, looming ever closer. A calloused hand twists its way through the cavity, rupturing my treasured solitude, splintering my serenity. He’s found me. And I know it’s over.

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