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Dream Quest One First Writing Prize Winner
Winter 2006-2007
Atossa Shafaie
Sterling, Virginia - USA

       Mind the gap. Mary stared at the words on the platform until they went blurry. Her wiry legs dangled over her bags, which were tucked away under the bench to keep from interfering with London’s busiest morning hour. She began to realize why her ticket back home was so cheap. (Jetting to Heathrow would be a nightmare! Morning commuters wrapped their anxiety around themselves as they shuffled on and off trains. Barely anyone looked up from magazines, palm pilots or novels. Mary always tried to see what people were reading. What people chose to spend their unassigned moments on could give her some small insight to the pair of eyes skidding across the pages.

       More than once, they would catch her staring, and she would always say hi, in hopes of starting a conversation. Rarely did it ever happen. Richard had been an exception. Many years ago, she traveled to Scotland, and found herself standing beside him, waiting for the public bus in front of the battlefield of Culloden. Richard had his nose buried in a book. He wore oversized khaki shorts, a button down pastel colored short sleeve shirt, and some very strange looking, but seemingly comfortable shoes. His brow was crinkled and his glasses were sliding down a very perfect nose. She leaned a bit closer, stretching her eyes as far as they would go without obviously interfering. “The Songs of Ossian.” Was he a musician? No, he didn’t look like a musician. Before she could form her next thought, his thick Scottish drawl interrupted.

       “Can I help you with something?’ His eyebrow was cocked and loaded, but there was a smile on his lips. They had remained great friends since that day. Richard was not, she soon learned, a musician. He had been studying to become a barrister, at which he had been very successful. Two years ago, he moved to London, hoping to save the world, or make a great profit trying, whichever came first. So, she would visit once a year, and get away from the cultural void of America. Mary dug into her bag and found the Cadbury Flake bar she had been saving for later. Her cell phone rang. After emptying the entire contents of her carryon on the tube station floor, she finally found it

“Hi Richard,” she said almost dropping the phone. “Miss me already?” “As if I have a choice.” He teased. “You forgot your book here.” Mary rifled through the stuff on the floor.

“Which one?”

“Some ridiculous book with fear in the title.”

“Oh, yeah, Feel Fear and Do It Anyway. It’s a good book, you should read it.” Richard laughed on the other end.

“I don’t feel fear. Why the hell are you reading it?”

Mary put her stuff back in order, balancing the cell phone between her ear and shoulder.

“Hello? How quickly we forget! I am afraid of flying.”

“And that book is supposed to cure you? Brilliant.”

“No, the Ambien cures me, usually within five to ten minutes. The book is supposed to make me feel better about being afraid in the first place.”

“I don’t know what’s worse, this self help nonsense or that bible you carry around with you. What about God, don’t you think he’ll be offended that you don’t trust him a bit more?”

A train rolled off behind her, generating a breeze flavored with dank tunnel smells. Mary shivered.

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       “God forgives me. That’s how it works Richard. I sin, go to confession, and God forgives me. If you weren’t so against anything Holy, you would know that.”

“Religious, I’m against anything religious,” Richard corrected. “Not the same thing at all...

Mary pulled on her sweatshirt, somehow managing to keep the cell phone in place. Her thin blond hair rose up seeking out the static in the air. She smoothed it down, and resettled herself. Another train grumbled through, and she ignored it

“Last chance to come back with me, sure you won’t take me up on it?”

“As tempting as the land of bikini contests and ‘Amish in the City’ is I think I’ll pass.”

Mary shook her head. She was smiling, though she didn’t know it

“I took you to ONE bikini contest. I thought you’d find it interesting in a National Geographic sort of way. And we saw Amish in the City here on your T.V. I’d never even heard of it until then.”

       Richard had, in an unprecedented move, surprised her by stopping over in D.C. on his way back from India. Mary thought the comparison between Sterling, VA and the Taj Mahal was a rather unfair one. Had it not been for Maryam, the whole thing would have been a disaster. Her best friend was a beautiful, far too smart Persian girl who swept the un-captureable Richard away with her smile. She was Muslim he was not, so nothing serious would ever come of it. But Mary had secretly thanked God that she had something other than tourist traps and sports bars to offer! Who knows what might have happened between them if he had not been forced to leave early. His mother fell ill and he flew out on September 09, 2001. Richard had not been back since.

“Call me when you get there, and tell Maryam I said ‘hi’.”

“Tell her yourself,” Mary teased.

“Be nice. I’ll talk to you later.”


       Two trains had come and gone while she spoke to Richard. Mary wasn’t in a rush. The very thought of getting one step closer to an airport, where she would be forced to take the walk of doom down a flimsy extended corridor and onto a plane made her stomach lurch. She began biting her nails. Her bracelet stroked her cheek and she examined it with a smile.

“Take it,” Maryam he said. “And wear it all the time. It will keep you safe.”

       Maryam’s grandmother was making them more food. And inevitably, Mary would eat it to the last bite. No human could resist Papi’s cooking. The spices gently reminded her of places she had never seen, hot summer nights amidst ripe pomegranate trees, fields of sunflowers. The rice was fluffy and soft, it’s own texture, and the Tadig, Mary’s favorite, was the crunchy hard burnt layer of rice at the bottom of the pan. Without fail, before she served it, Papi would apologize for the less than perfect meal, which was indeed always perfect, and wait for the expected contradictory compliments. Maryam’ s mother was burning rue for Mary, another act of protection.

       Apparently the smoky soily smell of dried rue as it burned kept the evil eye away. The evil eye was very big in Maryam’s culture. Maryam gave Mary the silver charm bracelet in a beautiful pouch of colored material. She had brought it back from Iran, and was saving it for just the right moment. It was a hand palm outward with an eye in the center of it. Maryam promised Mary that if she never took it off, she would make it home just fine. Her hair


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smelled of Jasmine, and Mary could remember dark, long, perfect curls pushing against her face as her best friend hugged her. It had been fifteen years since Mary had walked up to the new girl in school and introduced herself. They had been instantly inseparable.

“You are Muslim?”

       The deep cadence of a stranger’s question snapped Mary out of her remembrances. He was a handsome African American, well, not American, his accent was clearly British.

“You are Muslim?” he repeated.

Mary followed his gaze to her wrist.

“Oh no, no. I am not Muslim. My good friend back home is. She gave this to me because I’m afraid of flying. It’s for protection.”

The man arched his brow and shifted his backpack to the other shoulder.

“Do you know what we call it?” he asked.

“She told me it was the Hand of Fatima,” Mary answered.

“Very good,” the man said and smiled. “Also known as the Khamsa”

His eyes met hers, and she shivered. They were deep and clear and for a moment, a flutter of recognition passed through them.

She showed him the gold crucifix around her neck.

“I’m Catholic,” she offered. Her crucifix was handed down, from grandmother to mother, to her. “Every Sunday, church.”

Mary immediately felt the space between them grow cold.

“Then you should trust in your God, and not be afraid for your life.”

       It was a common argument. But somehow not comforting when Mary envisioned dangling thirty two thousand feet above ground.

“Of course you are right. But, I’m sure that is what all the people on all the planes crashes thought,” she answered half jokingly. The man smiled and Mary thought she saw a veil of a secret in it.

“And your god doesn’t mind that you wear a Muslim charm?’

Mary grew silent.

“There’s only one God,” she said. “And I think he sees The Hand of Fatima as I do, a beautiful gift to keep me safe.”

The man seemed surprised.

The train rattled down the track.

“You are American?” He asked, trying to hide an accusation.

“Yes,” she said defensively.

The man looked at the ground, mumbling something inaudible. There was a strange pulse in his voice. The hair on Mary’s arms prickled.

“Going to Heathrow?” he finally said.

       “Yes,” she answered and without thinking started biting her nails again. There was a short pause, and the rumbling of their train sounded from deep inside a dark tunnel.

“I heard today, on my way here, that the train to Heathrow is not running. You’ll have to take a cab at some point anyway, better do it now and save yourself the time.”

       Richard had not mentioned anything about the trains. He was a news addict, and never missed a hit in the morning. She didn’t want to be rude, and contradict the man. She actually didn’t want to be near him at all. So, with a sigh of relief that confused her,


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she thanked the stranger’s back, as he squeezed his way onto the train along with hundreds of strangers on their way to life and another day.

       Mary didn’t want to wait for the next train. The thought of having to sit next to all those people as they intruded on her private fear festival exhausted her. And, having waited around too long at King’s Cross, she might miss the plane if the man had been right about trouble with the trains. Mary sighed, and grabbed her things, dreading the long haul back to the street. She hailed a black taxi and dragged her bags on behind her.

“Where to Luv?”


“All the way?” the cabbie asked surprised.

“Since the trains aren’t working I don’t have much of choice do I?”

Mary hoped she had enough pounds left for the ride.

“I never heard anything about the trains, but all the way it is.”

She sat back and wondered if she packed her Ambien in an easy to find place.



       They told her at Scotland Yard that the man that had spoken to her was a terrorist. That the backpack she had paid no attention to carried explosives. Twenty minutes after he boarded the train, he took his own life, along with 26 others. It would have been 27. It should have been. Mary went cold. They said he saved her because she must have reminded him of his wife. They showed Mary a picture and it was true, she did look like his wife, his pregnant wife.

       He was Jamaican born, but raised in England. His mother and he both converted to Islam. His wife was a Brit who did the same. They rambled on with facts and questions and she drifted further away. It didn’t matter to her where he was born, or who he was. After it was all done with, every stone unturned, every question neatly put away, Mary was left alone in a room to “compose herself” Mary didn’t know where to begin. She sat in silence biting her nails and crying. She remembered the strength in her mother’s arms as they nearly embraced the breath out of her.

“Thank God you are safe! I have gone to church and given alms. Thank God, thank God!”

       It was Allah that Maryam gave her thanks to. She had attributed Mary’s safekeeping to the charm; after all, he wouldn’t have talked to her if not for the Hand of Fatima. It became a very important fact to Maryam, who had been put, in the last few years, in the repeated position of having to defend Islam, and explain that not all Muslim’s believed in terrorism. Not all Iranian’s hated America. She could manage being a good Muslim and loving America at the same time.

       Mary felt a strange tug of war begin in her life. God, Allah, she was a prize both sides wanted credit for. She went to church, sat in the pew and thanked God. For the first time ever, it was an empty gesture, void of shape or form. She knew the truth. A man had decided. The priest had revered her as if she were some sacred thing he was afraid to touch.

“God has saved you,” he said with his best sermon voice. “You were in the presence of evil, and God kept you from it.”

“Where was God when that evil took the 26 people who did die?’ she asked.

“Child you must never question God’s will. He will always know what is best.”


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       She looked around her at the gilded worship of Jesus, the pious silence of God’s place. That silence could not live in her anymore. She had lost weight she could not afford to be rid of, and her face had become a grey shadowy thing void of sleep. When she shut her eyes, she saw his. The crucifix around her neck felt heavy. Everyone was so relieved, so happy, but all she could hear was the question that plagued her.

“Why me?”

She thought of the wife, the one she must have reminded him of, the baby that was waiting to be born, the one that would never know its father, or might get to know him as a murderer, a monster, maybe even a hero.

“What was he like?” Her aunt had asked her wide- eyed.

       “Excuse me?’ she whispered. It was the thing everyone wanted to talk about most. What was the terrorist like, what kind of man could do what he did? They wanted to hear about a monster. How could she answer? Pedophiles don’t have two heads, rapists don’t have horns, and terrorists don’t look any different than you or I. They don’t sound any different At least this one didn’t

“It all happened so fast. I only talked with him for two minutes. I don’t know what he was like.”

       What was I like, she would wonder, that he kept me off that train. Had she been an inexplicable hiccup in his finite world of monotheistic manipulation? What could he have thought of a young woman who wore a Muslim charm and a Catholic one on the same body? But it was Richard that gave the explanation that fit most comfortably. Perhaps it was just a case of seeing in her the reflection of the woman that he loved as his wife. Perhaps, Mary was to him just a person, someone worth saving.

“If only,” Richard had whispered, “we could all always see everyone that way.”

        His hug had been the most healing of all, he who didn’t have a side to pull her to. And maybe that is why she had come back here against the wishes of her family and friends. She hoped she could find her silence somewhere between Richard’s wisdom and the place where her life was spared. Standing at the same spot, she looked up at the arches, still there, still ignored, still beautiful. Around her, people moved on, and whether they forgot or paused in memory, whether they refused to fear, or felt hesitation, they showed nothing. Mary was no longer interested in what they read. As Mary stood there without any ceremony, she slowly understood. She could wonder all she wanted, she could thank God, or let it be Allah that took credit for her, it would make no difference, it would bring her no answers. God wasn’t speaking to her, Allah wasn’t watching. What happened that day was not borne of divine intervention?
      It was Maryam’s belief in the Hand of Fatima, it was her own faith in the crucifix, but more than just these things, it was her inability to see the man that spoke to her as a threat, her instinct to answer him, to interact with him. It’s how she met all the important people in her life, by talking to strangers, exactly as she was taught never to do. Richard had been right. They were, for one short while; just two people, and that had changed his mind about her. The world would see it differently. Its soul could not carry the belief that a man like him could have a moment like that.
       And so, it would continue to go on. Mary sat down on the bench and put her head in her hands. Through tears, her eyes caught the warning laid out before her. Mind the Gap. Mary stared at the white words on the platform until they went blurry.
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By Atossa Shafaie