“Stop!” a voice like sandpaper yells from behind us, flooding the darkness with a cruel light. We keep running, faster now.

“Go!” David shouts to me as he slows to swivel around, pulling his hand away from mine.

I stop, almost stumbling over myself. “I can’t leave you.”

David pushes me into the darkness. “It’s not me they want. Run!”

Tears blind me while I race home. As I approach my yard, it dawns on me that I might be able to outrun the person who was chasing us, but no matter how fast I sprint, I can’t escape this new reality of curfews and clandestine meetings and cinders rising in the air.

I push through the front door and slip inside, quickly shutting it behind me. I’m panting, my heart racing, wiping the tears from my face with my sleeve, terrified out of my mind that David might’ve been caught by whoever was waving around that flashlight in the darkness. I’m smacked with the smell of frying onions and adrak lehsan. The smell of home juxtaposed with the sweaty, breathless odor of desperation and the taste of rust in my mouth.

My parents rush out of the kitchen. My mom’s mouth falls open. The blood drains from her face, and she rubs her eyes with her hands, clearly wanting to erase this moment. She steadies herself against the whorled bird’s-eye maple console table in our foyer, my parents’ first flea market find as a couple, years before they had me.

My dad is every inch the professor. Thin but not muscular, with wavy hair that always looks a bit messy, grays sprouting up here and there among the dark chestnut brown, and black-plastic-framed glasses that he prefers to contacts. He takes his glasses off and rubs the little reddish indentations along the sides of his nose. He always does this when he’s contemplating something deep or worrying.

“Layla,” he says, “explain yourself. Were you outside? Now? At night?” His voice is firm, but he doesn’t yell. My dad is not a yeller. He barely raises his voice at me, even when I deserve it. This is clearly one of those moments.

My mom’s voice, however, is less restrained than my dad’s, as always. She doesn’t wait for me to answer him. “You were supposed to be in your room. It’s after curfew. What were you thinking? I can’t believe you would do something this foolish. Do you know what could’ve happened?”

She shakes her head, clenching her jaw, fury and fear flashing in her eyes. They’re lighter brown than mine, with specks of hazel and green, what she claims is the assertion of her distant Pashtun blood.

My mom’s voice trails off because we all know what could’ve happened. There are whispers of Muslims who have disappeared. Muslims like us, who answered the census truthfully when asked about our religion. Muslims who refused to hide.

I stare at my worn gray Converse All-Stars and try to scrape off the dirt from one scuffed toe with the other.

“Layla. Answer your mother,” my dad says. Mother. He might not yell, but he uses formal titles when he’s really mad.

I answer, my voice barely a whisper, “I was with David.”

“David? You broke curfew to see David? Are you crazy?” My mom turns her back to me, pauses, then walks into the large main room of our house, a living room that flows into a sunroom in the back. She falls into a cream love seat tufted with multicolored cloth buttons and stares into the fireplace. She’s like me; I know that her synapses must be on rapid fire, but my mom’s practiced meditation for years. She says it’s the only way she’s found to calm her mind. Wordlessly, she reaches up to the nape of her neck and undoes the loose bun she wears when cooking. Her dark hair, accented with the occasional gray strand, falls around her face, shielding it from me. I see her fingering her rosewood tasbih bracelet. I don’t need to see her mouth to know she’s uttering a prayer.

“Beta,” my dad says, using the Urdu word for “child.” If “mother” and “father” are signals of his anger, “beta” is the clearest sign of his love. “I know this is hard for you, but understand that David won’t face the consequences you will. You can’t take these risks. Your mom and I, we’re afraid for you.”

“I know. I’m afraid, too. But David is the only bit of normal I have left. Please don’t make me give that up.”

My dad winces a little, like my words have struck him. He glances down at the tan leather Indian khussa slippers he wears inside the house, like he’s measuring them up, as if he’s wearing them for the first, and not the millionth, time. Even though he’s not going to work anymore, he’s still in his teaching uniform: navy V-neck sweater and jeans.

“Beta, you can’t leave again so close to curfew. It’s too dangerous. We know it feels like prison. But it’s for your safety. It’s not up for discussion.” Dad prides himself on being even-keeled, even when he’s angry. Now, as he stares at me, it’s like looking into my own wide, dark brown eyes.

I nod like I agree, which I don’t, but I need this conversation to end because I’m desperate to text David to find out if he’s okay. I’m not sure Dad believes me, but he accepts my nod as acquiescence. More pretending. More lies we tell ourselves because reality is too much to hold all at once. He gives me a mirthless smile and walks toward my mom.

I make my way to the foot of the stairs and take a seat. I dig my phone out of my pocket. I need to tell David that I’m home, I’m safe. He’s probably out-of-his-mind worried, too, like I am about him.

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