by Maryam Shadmehr
Trigger warning: This story contains references to child abuse.
Ms. Fatemeh visited our second-grade classroom every Tuesday to teach us English. She wore a bright yellow tunic and had the most exotic accent when she spoke English. Even Ms. Yasmine, our regular teacher, would soften her usual stiff demeanor and watch with her lips slightly parted as the foreign words flowed like caramel from Ms. Fatemeh’s mouth.
Ms. Fatemeh was brave for wearing that yellow tunic to this part of Tehran, where men gobbled you up with their eyes if you didn’t hide under a chador. Or maybe she didn’t grasp the full extent of the men’s desperation on our side of the city. Or how each puddle of water could stain her tunic black, or the smoke from each vehicle’s exhaust would immediately turn into a solid mass in her lungs. Yes, she acted with a carelessness suggestive of her North Tehran upbringing, perfect and unstained.
On my way home after school, I usually got a glimpse of her scuttling through the narrow streets, gripping both straps of her backpack and guarding it as if it were gold. Her spotless tunic and fancy watch showed she didn’t care that her money could be stolen. And at the end of the day, she had already passed out the candies and prizes she’d brought us. I could only assume she was protecting the drawings I gave her. Between each Tuesday and the next, I always drew something new for her. All of them included the two of us. In one, we would be shopping. In another, eating out. Even once, I went as far as drawing her with my family, like she was my older sister.
On one of Ms. Fatemeh’s days, Masoud from fourth grade burst into the classroom holding a pistol.
“Nobody move, or I’ll shoot!”
We all knew the pistol was fake; Masoud acted out whenever his dad beat him up, so we got at least a weekly dose of the performance. But it was a first for Ms. Fatemeh. Her eyes darted from the pistol to me. That was the only time I saw Ms. Fatemeh blanch. Not when two men stalked her for at least four blocks from the school—where my path diverged from hers. And not when a car barely missed hitting her turquoise hatchback at the Crossroads on the other side of Tehran where I worked, and where she presumably lived. Ms. Fatemeh acted nonpartisan towards her students, but I knew from the worried glance she threw at me that day—the glint in her eyes desperate for my safety—that she cared for me as much as I cared for her.
I never found the courage to ask her if she actually lived near the Crossroads. But the extravagance in those streets, which played out in fashion and car models, fit her looks perfectly. Not to mention I’d already seen her there too often to call it random. The first few times she stopped by the road—turning on the hatchback’s hazard lights—and asked me about school and how I was doing at home. I always said everything was fine, even if it wasn’t. Later, when she noticed the two men watching me to make sure I did my job, she quit stopping. Instead, she wrote me encouraging notes and hid them between pages of English books she donated to me through her window while the traffic light was red. I assumed they were donations. I never returned them, and she never asked.
A few weeks after the pistol incident, I made up my mind to tell Ms. Fatemeh the real stuff happening at home, particularly about Agha Naser, the scruffy guy who lent my family a room in exchange for labor. And he didn’t care if it was child labor. It was a business. He was in competition with some others who, like him, housed needy families, or Afghans like mine, and made them work. I was lucky to live with Maman and Baba, unlike so many of the other working kids who were separated from their parents because of their imprisonment, deportation, or simply, abandonment. Actually, I was lucky to even go to school. Yes, Agha Naser—though scary and strict—was a generous man.
Each child under Agha Naser’s territory had a duty. My job was to wash windshields at the Crossroads. My brother, Heeraud, sold cigarettes at the doors of a high-end mall in the same area. Each afternoon a truck would load us children in the back and drive us an hour north to the Crossroads. In the heavy traffic, with each brake, our bodies would slam into each other in the back of the truck the way sheep did when being transported for slaughter.
Ever since Agha Naser had hernia surgery, nursing his stitches had also become part of my duties, opening the way for endless nightmares in which pink skin throbbed out of proportion and blasted blood on my face.
I was hoping Ms. Fatemeh would understand, and maybe—given how brave she was—she would help me become less terrified of tending to Agha Naser. I debated whether to tell her at the Crossroads or at school. I wasn’t sure if or when she would show up at the Crossroads, and in case she did, I still had to avoid Agha Naser’s men who kept watch on the kids. On the other hand, the school was too crowded, and everyone listened in on everybody else’s conversations.
The day I finally decided to approach her after English class, she didn’t show up. She didn’t show up the following week either. Nor the week after. The principal said it was because we were bad. We didn’t study hard enough and misbehaved, so she left. Later, I overheard the principal telling another teacher that Ms. Fatemeh had gone to college overseas.
I continued to study English at night, in the metro, and at the Crossroads when Agha Naser’s men weren’t keeping watch. I shuffled between the pages of the books Ms. Fatemeh had given me, keeping her notes where she originally put them—my only way of keeping her in my life. In two years, I was as fluent as Ms. Fatemeh—to the extent that a hard toffee is fluid like caramel.
By now, Agha Naser’s stitches had healed, but I still had to put Vaseline on them. I couldn’t see the scars anymore; every time, it seemed I had to reach farther before he declared my success. After each “healing session,” I scoured the Crossroads for Ms. Fatemeh’s turquoise hatchback, daydreaming and sometimes praying for her return.
Surely she would want to come back to visit her family and friends. She and Ms. Yasmine had become close friends before Ms. Fatemeh left. Maybe she would come to visit her at the school. Maybe they were still in touch, though I didn’t have the guts to ask Ms. Yasmine.
Yesterday, I turned twelve, and as a birthday present, Agha Naser asked Baba for my hand in marriage. He said I wouldn’t have to work at the Crossroads anymore. Instead, I could cook for him and have babies of my own. Back in our room, as I imagined such a future, Baba said it would be good for our family.
At the Crossroads, I move between the cars, spray bottle in one hand, rag in the other. I’m cleaning the windows of a BMW, wondering if this will be my last day doing this. Wondering if I will enjoy tending to babies instead. Before I know it, the light turns green, and an impossible current of vehicles rushes by. Agha Naser’s men seem more irritated than worried for my well-being.
“Get out of there, toolesag! Naser’s not going to want you distorted,” one of them yells over the honking. In my dizzy attempt to escape the traffic, I catch a flash of turquoise. It must be the rotten-egg smell of sulfur and gasoline making me see things. I bump into the back of a sedan as it slows down in the congestion. Holding on to the trunk—the driver screaming for me to get my dirty hands off her car—I make my way to the curb and sit down, taking deep breaths, hoping for air but only getting smoke.
In the gap between one moving car and the next, I see a turquoise hatchback parked on the other side of the Crossroads and Ms. Fatemeh running against the honking traffic. She pulls me in her arms before I can keep my hands from smudging her yellow tunic. My heart plummets when she suddenly pushes me back and looks at my face as if realizing she’s made a mistake. But Ms. Fatemeh holds my cheeks long, and I see that glint of worry in her eyes, which she had tossed at me four years ago in the classroom.
The cars stop again as the light turns red. Our gaze shifts to Agha Naser’s men who are strolling over the crosswalk toward us like civilized pedestrians. Ms. Fatemeh grasps my hand, and we run to the hatchback, locking the doors. I frantically look behind as the men—no longer in their nonchalant gait—snake their way between the cars, but in my peripheral vision, Ms. Fatemeh is composed. She’s even holding her phone, her eyes shifting back and forth between the scrolling numbers on her screen and the rearview mirror.
Agha Naser’s men are at my door now, failing to force it open, but not giving up. One of them wraps a loang, a grimy flannel handkerchief, around his fist, but before he can punch the window open, a man on a motorcycle next to us jumps off and pulls him away.
“You son of a bitch!”
And then a fight breaks out, with random men coming to the biker’s rescue and women holding their phones up to film the chaos.
I have to get out. Ms. Fatemeh didn’t sign up for this. I reach for the door when I hear unanswered beeps on the speakerphone and turn around to steal a glance at the phone screen. Yasmine. Without a title or a last name.
The light turns green before I can jump out. Ms. Yasmine answers. One of Agha Naser’s men kicks the bumper before the hatchback bolts.
“She’s with me,” Ms. Fatemeh says. “She’s safe.”
“Good. I’m waiting in the lobby at your apartment.”
Through the rear windshield, I watch Agha Naser’s man jump on the abandoned motorcycle and follow us.
“You have to keep waiting. We’re being followed.”
In Tehran, motorcycles always have the right of way. The bike drives through sidewalks and passes red lights to keep at our tail.
“Are you sure you want to keep going?”
“We’ve been through this, Yasmine.” Ms. Fatemeh swerves the hatchback into a narrow street and then another. Every street looks like a dead-end before she turns into another, going uphill and then downhill until there is no sign of the motorcycle. She’s claimed the streets of this part of the city as her own, but she keeps moving.
“The family is on board, right?” Ms. Fatemeh asks as if the two of them are planning this over a cup of tea.
“For all they know, she’s been kidnapped. Except for the brother. He dropped off her documents at school this morning.”
Then I remember Heeraud’s look in the truck that afternoon when he got off at the mall before the rest of us were taken to the Crossroads. He never says goodbye, but today, he scruffed my head as he jumped off the back of the truck and glanced back to wink at me before we were shepherded away.
Maryam Shadmehr is an emerging writer who lives in Walnut Creek, California, with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Cider Press Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Overtly Lit, and elsewhere. Maryam is the recipient of the Writing Scholarship at Left Margin LIT in Berkeley, CA. She can be found on maryamshadmehr.wordpress.com or on Twitter and IG @maryamshadmehr.