In the Yard

Ahsan opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. He inhaled deeply and broke into a cough. The air was thick, murky and filled with an unrelenting stink—as if a gang of motorcyclists had fired up their engines and aimed into the yard. Ahsan covered his mouth and walked out farther. His mother had explicitly instructed him to play in his room with the air filter on. He tried to keep himself busy but none of it felt right. He needed the wickets.

Roobi had gone into her bedroom to take a short nap but had fallen into a deep sleep. The conversation from the night before continued to circulate in her head.

Someone did this, Layth said over dinner, his words filled with spit. The guy was a religious fanatic and all the neighbors knew it.

Roobi didn’t respond. If it wasn’t this, it was some other gripe about work or neighbors or parents.

Some guy, pale as the white sand, lights a fire leaving half of the state to burn and all they call him is an arsonist. A goddamn arsonist.

All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.

Roobi shushed him.

Goddamn, Ahsan repeated and laughed.

Don’t use that word, Layth said in a scolding tone.

Ahsan’s face dropped. Roobi glared at her husband. His harshness had grown since they’d moved to the Villa compound. They had left their life in the city for Ahsan. Their crew of friends—rising editors, media-makers, producers—were all about outdoing each other with their weddings, home purchases and now their children. But with Ahsan, Roobi suddenly didn’t fit in. She found herself shutting down when they talked about how quickly their children were walking, swimming, or riding horses. The schools and the doctors pushed Roobi to put Ahsan on an alphabet of drugs but she resisted. She found a special program near the Villa compound. She realized Layth had acquiesced to the move but not fully agreed.

Can I see the red balls of fire? Ahsan asked.

No, Ahsan. It’s not something to see, Roobi responded.

But what about storm tornadoes?

It’s not here, she said.

Then where? he whined.

Just finish your food, Roobi said curtly, then regretted her tone.

Back in the bedroom, Layth continued to complain. I’m sure they’re going to cancel our fire insurance. Why wasn’t this in the brochure when they sold us the perfect community—prone to fire damage.

We should leave, Roobi said.

What do you mean?

Evacuate. We could rent a place back in the city for a week or two.

They’ll tell us when to go. The river protects us. Plus, the weather is cooling down.

I’m surprised you’re not jumping at the opportunity to move back to the city, she said.

What about Ahsan’s school?

Roobi felt her anger rise up. All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.

Layth didn’t respond. He was in bed and on his phone. Roobi left the room and sat at the kitchen table. She pulled out her laptop and searched for short-term rentals. The next morning, she and Layth barely spoke. He left for work even though it was a Saturday and she spent the morning with Ahsan. By mid-afternoon, she was exhausted. She instructed Ahsan to stay indoors and went to her room.

Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth.

The wickets were lying flat on the ground. Ahsan picked them up and stuck them into the dirt. When they’d gone to Pakistan the year before, he’d seen the kids playing cricket in the streets and wanted to join. His father told him he couldn’t and Ahsan was devastated. Later that day, Layth came home with a cricket set. The bat was too heavy so they created their own version. They set up the wickets in the grass and Ahsan threw a football until they fell down. When they got back home, his father played with him every weekend. As the year passed, Layth made excuses and soon, Ahsan was playing on his own.

Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth. Leave, leave now, get out, run. The winds had shifted, the fire had taken a turn, jumped the river and was heading towards them.

Still disoriented, she felt a stillness in the house. Then she realized, she couldn’t hear Ahsan. She called out his name, running from room to room. She looked out the back window and saw red storm clouds rising across the horizon. Down below, she saw her son.

Ahsan threw the ball and the last wicket went down. Now, his day would be okay. He looked up at the sky. It was bursting bright crimson, as if the sun had descended down on earth. Ahsan was mesmerized, he was finally seeing the fire tornadoes. Then, what was cities away was right on top of him. He heard his mother scream and felt her grab his arm, and they were running.

 

Saba Waheed won the 2016 Water~Stone Prize in Fiction and was a finalist for the 2018 Reynold Price Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Southeast Review, Hyphen Magazine, Cosmonaut Avenue (fiction prize shortlist 2016), and others. She co-produces the radio show “Re:Work,” winner of a Gracies by the Alliance for Women in Media. Saba works as the research director at the UCLA Labor Center using research as a tool to elevate community stories.