The pavement shimmers with the melted snow rush hour traffic has left in its wake. I cross the street and tuck myself inside the doorway of a closed office building. Flashing lights kaleidoscope from the alley leading to the back of the courthouse. I want to see the police car that will take Noor’s killer to the Massachusetts Correctional Facility at Cedar Junction. Even if that killer was her dad. Especially because her killer was her dad.
From the darkness of the margins, a voice reels me in from my vigil.
“Grace, is that you?”
My heart starts punching, even as the voice clicks into place so I recognize it.
“Geez, Cory, you scared me.”
“Sorry,” he says. “You had to see it, too, huh?”
Yes. I had to see it, too.
Cory and I have never been close. Not before Noor and not after. Not even during the trial. I guess we’d both been jealous of how much the other took Noor away from us. We each held our own separate piece of her, our own place in her life that was already segregated like a walled compound. I was her best friend since fourth grade; Cory was the boy she fell in love with eight months before her father stopped her life as easily as if he were stilling the pendulum of a clock.
I move over in the doorway and Cory stands beside me. I want to be hidden from Mr. Altameemi when the police car goes by. My heart still strums from the hate-filled stare he set on me while I testified. I had struggled so hard to keep my voice from quavering, tried so hard to use the anger to keep me focused on my testimony, just like DA Meyers told me to do.
“I wish they’d fry that son of a bitch,” Cory says, warm mist from his breath catching the orange glow of a streetlight. Cars and buses trickle by, but most of downtown went home hours ago. It had been almost five when the jury started to deliberate, and even DA Myers couldn’t believe they had come back in less than four hours.
“Noor wouldn’t want that,” I whisper.
“She forgave him no matter what he did, didn’t she?”
I shake my head. “She wouldn’t forgive him this. She hated how he was trying to make her live. But she wouldn’t want him to fry.”
I glance up at Cory and reach for a breath. My chest feels squeezed like I’m being crushed in a crowded elevator.
“He was her dad,” I say. But saying that feels like somehow excusing him. He was her dad, so how could he do this to her? How could he kill her in the name of honor?
Cory shakes his head, and the same frustration rises in me. The same hunger for retribution fills my stomach with a gnawing ache that never goes away. Losing Noor has been like losing my shadow, and I keep looking back for the part of me that’s missing.
“I can’t help thinking, Grace,” Cory says.
“What?” I ask, although I don’t think I’ll like what he’s about to say. He pulls his hands into the sleeves of his hockey jacket, the blue one Noor loved because she said it set off his fair skin.
“I can’t help thinking that you and I should have stood trial, too.”
I don’t disagree.
“Me, anyway,” he says. “You got it, even if it was too late.”
What was the use of getting something if it was too late? Cory and I had ignored so many clues, dismissed so many warnings as not really important. Noor’s parents were strict, like they hadn’t really ever left the place they’d come from, but they were living here, they sent her to school here. She wasn’t allowed to sleep over at my house and they wouldn’t let her go to parties, but she didn’t have to cover her head or dress in black or anything extreme. She played on the tennis team and wore makeup. She was the one every girl turned to when they needed a spritz of hairspray or some lip gloss. I had accepted every excuse Noor ever gave me for why we didn’t hang at her house, whether it was her mom’s supposed migraines or her brothers having to study. She didn’t like to be at home unless she had to be, but I had never understood it was because she felt watched like an animal in a research lab. Best friends for seven years, and she had hidden the worst of how controlling they were until the last few months. The months after Cory entered the picture. The months when hiding it had become too much of a burden.
I close my eyes, trying to shut out the view in my imagination of Noor struggling to pull out of her dad’s grip right before he pushed her from the bridge over the railroad tracks down by the river. He probably would have gotten away with it if a couple hadn’t been sitting in the dark on the back porch of one of the little brick row houses set on either side of the bridge like bookends. They heard angry voices and Noor pleading in English “let me go!” They saw Noor tumble over the railing, though they couldn’t say she’d been pushed. They watched her dad lean over as her body hit the tracks with a bouncing thud. They watched him turn and slowly walk away, leaving her there for the next train to hit her. But they hadn’t waited for that train. The girl had called 911 and the boy had run down and pulled Noor’s body from the tracks before the train that was due in a few minutes could roar through in the dark, thousands of tons, its whistle silent because there was no crossing to make it sing.
Cory’s voice rushes through the fire in my head.
“Why didn’t you tell me any of that stuff?” he asks, pulling me back to the doorway’s dark cold. I don’t have to ask what stuff. He means my own testimony.
“I couldn’t talk about it.”
I’d sat on the witness stand for nearly two days, reliving my friendship with Noor in pieces of montage. Photographs and text messages, conversations and Facebook posts. The pattern of Noor’s efforts to keep her two worlds separate became so clear when I looked at it from the vantage point of too late. The police had retrieved our texts, the ones about Cory in which Noor confessed how much she liked him and told me how sure she was that he really liked her, too. She had used me as a cover with her parents when she wanted to spend time with him. She’d tell her parents she was with me so they wouldn’t know she had a boyfriend. DA Myers couldn’t use everything, some of it was hearsay she said, but she combed through my life with Noor as if she were a homeless person picking through trash to find the useful bits. Combined with Cory’s testimony and what the boy and girl by the bridge saw, it was enough.
Cory leans back against the shadows.
“Sitting in that courtroom, it felt like yesterday instead of nineteen months ago,” he says. “If I had listened to her, maybe he wouldn’t have done this. She told me not to let her family know about us. I thought she just didn’t want to deal with a hassle. She should be applying to colleges with us now, not this—” his voice falls away.
“I should have called the police when she told me she was scared that night. I should have gotten someone to help her, or at least check on her. I didn’t understand.”
No one would have understood. The police would’ve arrested me as a prankster if I’d told them I thought my best friend was going to be killed by her dad because a delivery boy brought her a bouquet of chrysanthemums and Gerber daisies.
A week before she died, Noor told me her dad said I was an “unsuitable friend” because I sing in a garage band “like one of those loose whores in the magazines at the grocery store.” Noor’s white smile had spread like pearls across her argil face. “What kind of whores are tight, do you suppose?” she’d asked and we’d laughed. The irony was, there was nothing wild about Noor or me. But she had fallen for Cory’s easy personality, and she’d just wanted to go to the movies with him, or watch him play hockey, or grab a burger with him. She’d just wanted to be like any other American girl. She’d just wanted to be a little bit in love.
Then Cory had sent flowers and Noor’s dad had snapped.
I start coughing and put my fist up to my mouth.
“Your asthma bothering you?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “Stress.”
Cory laughs in a sour, candy-apple kind of way and offers me his inhaler.
I slip it from his hand and raise it to my mouth. The breath I blow out makes me light-headed. I take a puff and hold it. Letting it go feels like watching confetti flutter from a bridge.
“The thing that pisses me off most is that Noor is probably up there right now forgiving that bunch of animals she called a family.”
“I don’t think so,” I say, handing the inhaler to him. “One of the last things she said to me was—”
“‘I’m scared, Grace, they live by rules you don’t understand,’” Cory interrupts me. “Yeah, I was there when you testified. You should have told me that.”
A red light begins to spiral around the buildings across the street as a police car slowly makes its way up the alley. A bunch of reporters and cameramen race along the sidewalk following it, shouting things. Cory and I step forward to the edge of the doorway. I have to see Mr. Altameemi.
The car stops at the alley entrance and the driver looks both ways. Then he turns the car left into the lane in front of us. Mr. Altameemi sits in the back in his orange jumper, his chained hands held up. It’s an ugly orange, embarrassingly bright, the color of hell fires. He looks up as the car passes and his eyes lock on mine as his mouth forms words at me through the closed window. I pull back, hiding a little behind Cory, defiant and scared all together. Then the car is past us, rolling down the street.
“Did he just say what I think he said?” I ask.
“He did, if you think he called you an American slut.”
“Yeah,” I say, shoving my freezing hands into my pockets. “That’s exactly what I thought he said.”
A voice shatters the static hum of downtown at night. “Hey, that’s the dead girl’s best friend!” A middle-aged woman is pointing at me from across the street. The reporters twist around and move like a pack, lifting themselves onto the sidewalk in front of us in what seems like one single step. I back away from the blinding cameras.
Cory pushes me behind him. “She’s not giving interviews.”
“He’s the boyfriend,” the woman says, as if she’s announcing a winning lottery ticket. A man shoves a microphone into Cory’s face.
“How do you feel about the verdict?” the woman asks.
Cory pulls away, telling them it was too late, weaving a few angry swear words into his answer.
“We can’t use that,” her cameraman growls, “it’ll never edit right.”
Cory grabs my wrist and darts around them. We head down the street in the opposite direction the police car went.
“I’ll make sure you get home,” he says.
We walk the two blocks to the outbound bus lane heading west.
“I’d better text my mom,” I say, pulling out my phone.
“How come she let you stay down here by yourself?” Cory asks. “Noor told me she’s the overprotective type.”
“She is,” I say. “But I told her DA Meyers needed to talk to me.” I didn’t like to lie to my mom, but I had wanted to see them take Mr. Altameemi to prison so badly. I needed to see it. It was the kind of white lie Mr. Altameemi would probably have placed on his list of reasons why it was better to kill Noor than let her be westernized, like me.
Heading home on the bus with Cory. He’ll make sure I get home safe. I hit the send button and shove my phone back in my pocket. My mom will be relieved. She told me to call when I needed a ride, but my little brother is home sick and my dad’s out of town.
We shift on our feet and watch as a bus that isn’t ours comes by. A man wearing a Boston Bruins jacket walks up and stands beside us.
“What position d’you play?” he asks Cory, his voice crunchy with the cold.
“Right wing,” Cory answers, before looking past me toward the next bus heading up the street.
“Is that a travel team?” the man asks, pointing at the logo on Cory’s jacket.
“Yeah,” Cory answers, and I wonder if he’s thinking about being in Canada with his team when I called to tell him Noor was dead. “No,” he’d said, “you’re lying. Why would you say that? That’s not funny.” But when I told him she’d fallen from a bridge, that the police thought she’d been pushed, he had started crying and asked, “It was her dad, wasn’t it?” Why had it been so clear to us after it was too late to stop it?
Our bus whooshes up, and I blink to keep from crying.
Cory puts his hand on my back and guides me onto the bus. We dig out money and feed it into the box, which drags in the dollar bills we give it like waves sucking everything back from the shore. We sit down as the bus lurches into drive and bounce along without saying anything.
We get off three blocks from my house.
“You want a coffee or something?” Cory asks, nodding at the coffeehouse halfway up the street.
“I hate the stuff,” I say, but maybe he isn’t ready to go home. “I could go for a hot chocolate, though.”
He smiles a little. “I’ll buy.”
Wind whips the collar of my coat as we head up the street. My phone buzzes and I pull it out to check the message. I stop when it’s a number instead of a name.
It’s Hadi. I need to see you.
“What’s wrong?” Cory asks.
I turn the screen so he can see the words.
I still have to pass Noor’s cousin in the halls at school every day, but we haven’t talked since Noor was killed.
“What’s he want?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he wants to yell at me for getting his uncle convicted,” I say, but then I think maybe what he really wants is to hurt me. Noor’s brothers and mother had been at the trial, supporting her dad. As if he had brainwashed all of them into believing that what their extended family and neighbors thought of them was more important than Noor. It had taken me so long to wrap my mind around that idea, to get that they cared more about what people might think about their daughter than about their daughter.
My phone buzzes again. Please Grace.
“Tell him to go—” Cory starts to say.
“He’s just going to keep bothering me. If not now, then he’ll track me down at school or somewhere worse. What if he finds me someplace where I’m alone? What if he wants to get back at me for testifying against his uncle? That wouldn’t be much different than killing someone for honor, would it?”
Cory sweeps his gaze up and down the street. “Tell him to come here,” he says, “to the coffee shop. While I’m here to confront him, too. We’ll call the cops if we have to.”
I look around and then nod and text Hadi. Whatever Hadi wants, it’s better to get it over with.
The coffee shop fireplace is turning its sterile flames neatly in motion as if they’re a rotating picture instead of actual heat. We order hot chocolates and Cory gets a couple of snowman sugar cookies. We sit away from the few other people in the place.
Cory takes out a cookie and slides the bag over to me.
“I don’t think her dad had any idea how south that trial was going to go,” he says. “Did you watch him? One minute he was looking around the courtroom like he looked at you tonight, defiant and superior, like no one had the right to tell him what to do with his own daughter, and the next he was trying to play the part of the grieving dad who just ‘accidentally’ pushed his kid off a bridge.”
The sugar cookie turns dry in my mouth, and I drop it onto the bag.
“This is America,” Cory says. “They can’t do anything they want just because it’s family. She wasn’t his property.”
“They let no one in,” I say. “And no one out.”
That’s what Noor told me about her community a few days before she died, when she finally admitted to me that she was worried. She loved being American, but she wanted to please her family, too. “I live in two worlds,” she told me, “but I don’t feel like I belong in either of them.”
She had tried to explain why she had to keep those worlds separate. She’d tried to let me know how dangerous it was, but I had never imagined her father would kill her rather than let her be who she was, the girl he had chosen to raise in America. The girl who wanted to be American.
Noor had always seen beyond limitations. “A voice like yours shouldn’t be hidden behind a veil,” she’d tell me whenever I had stage fright. After I joined my band, she’d sit there listening to us, telling us what songs went best with my voice, making our lead guitarist, Jonah, change keys to suit my singing.
Noor was filled with so much conviction about everything that you just believed her. “Start with ‘Stars in the Daytime’,” she’d told Jonah when we’d played a local band jamboree. “Grace’s voice will wow them so much on that one, they won’t care what you play next.” We got four more gigs from that performance. Now Jonah complains that I haven’t sung right since Noor died.
“You want another?” Cory asks me, pointing to the half empty cup in my hands.
I shake my head no. Cory goes back to the counter. I glance at the door, almost hoping Hadi doesn’t show. The street is a dark hole against the lighted interior of the coffee shop.
Cory comes back and the door opens. His head turns at the same time mine does and we watch Hadi walk in, his curly, dark hair sticking out from a knit Patriot’s hat. He’s got a blue and white cotton keffiyeh around his neck. He pulls off his gloves as he zeros in on us. He doesn’t seem surprised Cory is here. I wonder if he stood outside and watched us before coming in.
Hadi stands in front of us, nodding uncomfortably. He doesn’t look angry, but my heart is still beating double-time. I tilt my head just a little to tell him to sit down.
He scrapes the chair across the floor as he sits next to me.
“So what do you want?” Cory asks, sounding like the side-kick in a Robert De Niro movie. I wish he and I were on the same side of the table. I slip one hand around my phone.
Hadi moves his gaze from Cory to me and back to Cory, slowly, as if he’s as on edge as we are.
“I just needed to see Grace,” Hadi says. “But I’m glad you’re here, too.”
“Your uncle got what he deserved,” Cory says, the resentment in his voice preemptively striking at anything Hadi might have to say. I grip my phone a little tighter.
“I know,” Hadi says. “I wanted you and Grace to know that I’m grateful you testified against him. I want you to know not everyone in my community believes Noor should have been punished for being westernized.”
“What does that even mean?” I ask, surprising myself with how angry I sound. “What did she do that was so bad? Crush on a boy? Go to a few movies? Have a best friend who doesn’t even have a boyfriend? What’s so terrible about how I live?”
“Nothing,” Hadi says, shaking his head, his eyes fixed on the table. “In my uncle’s eyes, Noor was westernized for having friends who aren’t Arab, having friends who are boys, hanging out with people from other cultures.”
“But you don’t believe that,” I say, sounding almost as accusatory as DA Myers on a cross-examination. “You have American friends at school. Or is that all fake?”
“Lots of people don’t believe it. My uncle is old-fashioned. He comes from a certain place and time, like a conservative redneck American.”
“But no one from your community would even testify for Noor,” Cory says, and the rage in his voice is pulsing through me, too. DA Myers told us the police couldn’t get anyone to cooperate with them. Not one of them would come forward to admit her father had told everyone she’d dishonored her family, even though Noor told me he’d been complaining about it nonstop.
Then Cory says the thing that is running through my mind as if he can see inside of me. “Not even you.”
Hadi stares at the table. “My mom,” he says. “She told me it wouldn’t bring Noor back, and what were all my cousins going to do if my uncle went to jail for what happened.”
He looks up at us, his gaze darting from Cory to me, tears brimming in his eyes. “What did I have to say that could’ve helped?” he says. “I never heard my uncle threaten her myself. I never realized how bad it was until it was too late. If I had testified, my mom would have been ostracized from the only community she has. She doesn’t know how to fit in here without the rest of them.”
Cory shakes his head to tell me not to buy into Hadi’s sob story.
“But you knew it,” I say, the anger gone, replaced with hopelessness. “You know in your heart that he killed Noor for honor. His definition of it, anyway.”
Hadi nods slowly. “But knowing something in your heart isn’t the same as having evidence,” he says. “I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of what was going on with Noor and my uncle. Just suspicions and overheard innuendos. I didn’t think he’d actually hurt her. It’s like an unwritten law that we grow up knowing about, but I didn’t believe would happen. But not everyone from Iraq is like that. You have to believe me. Some of us know better.”
“Knowing better doesn’t change anything if you won’t testify,” Cory says.
Hadi hangs his head like a dog that’s been yelled at for something he knows he’s not supposed to do. “It’s not as easy as it seems,” he says. “That’s why Noor hid her world from you for so long.”
He looks up at us. He’s right. Cory and I are as guilty as he is. We didn’t know how to stand up for Noor any more than he did. We’ve all gained the strength we needed after it was too late. I touch his sleeve with my fingertips.
“Anyway, thank you, Grace,” he says, choking on the words. “You, too, Cory. Thanks for getting justice for Noor.”
So much pain feels as if the three of us might shatter in one single explosion. “Justice isn’t as good as not letting it happen in the first place,” Cory says. “We should have been able to stop this.”
We sit there quietly for a long time. I pull a piece of paper from my pocket and push it to the middle of the table. It’s a page from the dictionary, and Cory and Hadi don’t have any trouble finding the word that matters.
Honor takes up almost an entire column of Webster’s: (on′er), n. 1. honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions. 2. a source of credit or distinction. 3. high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank.
It goes on from there, a long list of all the things honor is.
“You won’t find the answer in there,” Cory says.
“It was the only place I could think to look,” I say. “Noor was so many of these.”
Hadi sniffs. “What you did in the courtroom for Noor. That was honorable.”
His gaze locks on mine for just a moment.
“I should go,” he says, rising. Cory slowly holds his hand out to Hadi. They shake and Hadi turns once before walking through the door into the darkness. But the light lingers behind him.
I fold up the page from the dictionary and slip it into my empty cup.
“After Noor died,” Cory says, “I felt like I was all alone, like no one understood.”
“Like an animal in the zoo, living in a solitary enclosure.” Cory tilts his head and nods. Cory and Hadi and I have been aching in the same way, all along, but each of us alone. Tonight, watching Mr. Altameemi go to jail, it’s as if someone has opened our cage doors to let us out if we dare.
A flash of cold air hits us as Cory opens the door and holds it for me. The street is nearly empty, the store windows lit up with twinkling lights and brightly colored displays like a movie set from a romantic comedy. Noor would have loved walking with Cory like this.
We turn toward my house. There’s a cleanness to the cold. It’s like walking over a bridge with the wind at your back. Cory walks me up the sidewalk to my house. I turn around to thank him for walking me home, my gaze drawn to the strip of sky where the trees that line the sidewalk break apart. The milky blue night, softened by the countless city lights, is bursting with stars as if they were glitter someone had tossed up and the sky had swept it all into its arms. For the first time since Noor died, I feel like maybe I want to sing again.
He tilts his chin to the beauty of it and takes a deep breath.
“For Noor,” he says softly.
“For Noor,” I whisper.