Asab reached for the lighters, intentionally fiddling with the basket, making his movements known, but not too obvious. He pretended to be a regular customer, grabbing a few lighters and pausing, attempting to assess them with trivial standards. He let the pile of lighters slip from his hand until there were only two remaining, and made a swift movement, his left hand sliding them into the back pocket of his baggy jeans. The lighters were jumbo-sized and fit just right, settling into the crease on the bottom half of his pocket. The familiar smell of smoke clung to him, wafting into his nose as he pulled his hood tighter around his face, and glanced behind at the register.
The man behind the counter was conversing eagerly with a woman who didn’t seem to be interested. She provided only the occasional, subtle nod, one that was forced simply out of fear of awkwardness. A thick accent coated the owner’s voice, making his English sound choppy, yet deliberate. It reminded Asab of his own, during the rare times when he spoke. In retrospect, he realized that was what had drawn him to the store. He reasoned he could take advantage of the owner’s seemingly vulnerable state, believing he would be drawn to trusting a familiar face like his own, someone from the same country. Specks of guilt blotted that idea, but he attempted to gloss it over with the fact that he considered himself to be torn apart, broken, and quite frankly a bad person. He lifted his eyes from the owner and glanced at what the lady was buying—keychains and candy bars, postcards and various tubes of lotion and perfume. Next to this cluttered pile of objects were not one, but two cases of beer. Last-minute Christmas gifts, and plenty to celebrate for afterwards, he assumed. He had never ceased to notice the little things—a skill that was required for his craft.
Judging from the looks of it, he had time to snag one more thing. The store owner went through the price tag on each item, sticking to an old-fashioned way of writing the numbers down and adding them up, occasionally stopping to push his glasses up over the bridge of his nose. Perfect.
Asab adjusted his hood to cover the side of his face and used the sole of his shoes to spin around, a habit he had grown up with. The metal chain on his neck slightly rattled, syncopating with his spin. He eyed the mini-fridge full of beer cans and water bottles. Those were too risky. He instead turned into the next aisle and his eyes scoured for something he could eat for dinner, although it was almost midnight. He searched for the kind of ramen he used to get at his last store before the store owner had threatened to call the police and kicked him out. The funny thing was, Asab had paid for everything at that store. The owner had been a man whose skin resembled the pale, uncooked noodles he had been purchasing at the time. But that was a long time ago, too long to think about. It was a time before he was living on the streets of New York City.
He pushed away this unwanted memory and the ramen that came with it and picked up a pack of chips instead, salt and vinegar—the only thing that would end up on the checkout counter. As the woman left the store, she sent the bells hung up on the door instantly chattering away into the night, provoking a startled Asab who instantly jerked away from the chips. It was out of habit, the fear that lurked in his craft that he hadn’t overcome yet. He looked up. The store owner was rustling with some papers, bending down to pick up a scattered pile that had danced their way to the ground from the gush of cold, bitter air that had come racing in. He was an aged man—in his sixties probably. He brought back vague memories of Asab’s own father back home. This thought left him astounded, as easily as it loitered in the back of his head. He had tried to forget about his father ever since he left Syria. Forgetting was the easiest thing he could do. It was the only thing he knew how to do. So he tried to stop thinking about Syria, his home. Until friends and family had become a salty afterthought from the past.
“Hello!” the owner cheerily called to Asab. “Can I help you?”
Shoot. He made the slightest movement with his head, invisible under the hoodie. He could feel the owner’s eyes on him for a couple more seconds, burning into his scalp, tension building up in his veins. “Let me know if I can help you!” he said once again, his tone and energy unchanged by Asab’s lacking response.
He couldn’t go check out right now, they had made an unexpected interaction. Asab dragged his feet across the floor as if he was burdened with heavy weights attached. He took a look outside, peering up from a shelf full of postcards. Flashing Christmas lights were the only thing saving the streets from utter, dark despair. A sort of eerie silence lurked in the air, interrupted only by the occasional footsteps or rattle on the sidewalks. The world yelled Christmas, everywhere except this store. This store whispered Syria, to him. The whole atmosphere of it. It was the closest he had ever felt to home. Without even realizing it, he felt a change in his heart—something that felt like it could be warm. It shocked him, making his heart pound faster as he tried to figure out what this strange feeling was. That was when he heard their voices.
It happened incredibly quickly.
One moment, yells and shouts were heard in the otherwise empty, silent streets. The rattling, squeaky turning of bike wheels blasted through the air. The next, a slur, a phrase, that he had heard much too often. And then, something shattered, it had come flying through the air and Asab had ducked, the same rush of adrenaline he got when he feared he would be caught rushed through his bones faster than ever. The voices turned into laughter—cruel, drunken laughter that echoed through the streets.
Go back to your country. Get your ass out of ours.
Asab stayed ducked for a long time. His arms covered his head and he held them there, tightly. His heart was sprinting away and pounded everywhere it wasn’t supposed to. His fingers burned and tingled until he could no longer feel them, just as he could no longer feel any sense of control or sanity or even the state of being. His eyes were squeezed shut, harder than they were supposed to be, pressing down and warping his eyelids into the shape of almonds. His breath came out shakily, in halted beats, sending him gasping inwardly for a single bite of air. His mind was disconnected from his body, flooding him with the feeling he was up in the air floating. He knew something bad was going to happen. He envisioned buildings falling, cement landing and crackling down, sirens blasting and screams, from men and children alike. He heard sounds of bombs and the screeching of fire, the deceiving smell of smoke invading his every sense, choking him until he fell down, clasping his stomach and begging for mercy. His hands went down to his feet and he gritted his knuckles, punching the ground. His eyes remained closed. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder, softly, gently pulling itself up.
“Hey,” it said softly, the same cheerfulness as before appeared more subtle, but lurking in the voice, nonetheless.
Asab opened his eyes. He found himself staring at the mini- fridge again, full of water bottles and beer cans. He felt the hand slide slowly off his shoulder and could see the store owner next to him. His pack of salt and vinegar chips was lying to his side. He mumbled something, in shock and embarrassment.
“It happens,” the owner said. “It’s happened to me too.” He said this quietly, still gazing right at him.
Asab looked at him. “I’ve tried so hard to forget,” he said, his lip trembling and his voice shaky. He hadn’t talked in so long. The owner chuckled.
“If you try so hard to forget, you will only remember,” he said, his eyes sparkling. Asab could see crease marks on his face, marks that his endless smiles had probably left behind.
“Forgetting is hard for those who have heart,” the owner said, delicately, opening the mini-fridge and pulling out a bottle of water. He screwed the top open and handed it to Asab, who hesitated for a second, startled. No one had ever handed him anything like that, so easily, before.
“Take it,” the owner persuaded. Asab took the water and gulped it down in one sip. The cold tinge brought him back to his senses.
“Thank you,” Asab said, crushing the plastic in his hand. He stood up. The owner walked him away from the aisles, where the damage was visible. A window had shattered. Shards and specks of glass dotted the floors, sprinkled all over. They were costumed as something beautiful, but evil lurked behind their fluorescent gaze. Two rocks, the size of baseballs, jagged and sharp, lay slightly farther away from the glass. These were what had come flying in, carrying hate in all forms, crushing and destroying everything in its path. As Asab looked at the trail of glass, he realized something.
The owner had been directly across from the window. The two rocks had come flying at him. One wrong move, and . . . he took another shaky breath. He didn’t want to think about it.
“Sorry about that,” Asab muttered. The owner took a deep breath in. “Oh,” he said, pausing faintly. Asab saw a change in his eyes, a look that flooded his face for less than a second. He went back to flicking his hand as if it was no big deal. “It’s nothing. I’m grateful for my life!” he said lightheartedly, still joking. Asab smiled, and then stopped when he felt the turn of his lips against his rigid skin.
“I should get going,” he said.
Asab watched him step over the glass and scribble something on a piece of paper. The owner looked straight at him as he handed him the odd slip.
“Call me,” he said. “I was in your place not too many years
“I need some help in the store,” he said. Asab nodded. He didn’t know what to think. He shifted uneasily on his heels a few times, and eventually headed towards the front door. The lighters were still in his pocket. He paused, the shards of glass reflecting in his eyes.
“Wait,” he mumbled and reached for his back pocket.
“Ah,” the store-keeper laughed once again. They locked eyes for a quick second until Asab broke their gaze.
“Keep them.” The storekeeper said, flicking his hand out into the air again. Asab opened his mouth, shocked, but he closed it before anything had a chance to slide off his tongue. The look on the storekeeper’s face, and the flicker of something in his eye, and he knew. The storekeeper knew.
Asab stood there in shock and embarrassment, shifting on his feet, unsteadily. The storekeeper handed him the pack of salt and vinegar chips.
“Take these with you too.”
Asab took them and stood there a little awkwardly. His face was a dark shade of red under his black hood and he wasn’t sure how to refuse. He mustered up a subtle nod to the store owner and pushed open the door, sending the bells once again prattling into the cold night air. Only this time, Asab didn’t mind it.
He breathed in the cool night air and glanced at the piece of paper. He folded it carefully and put it into his back pocket with the lighters.
The corner of his mouth turned up slightly and this time, he let it stay there. White specks came floating down and brushed his shoulders and cheeks.
It was Christmas indeed.
Dedeepya Guthikonda is a fifteen-year-old high school student from Edina, Minnesota. You can find her at any time reading, writing and occasionally binging Netflix (don’t worry, it’s for inspiration). This past summer she attended the Summer Writing Residency at the University of Iowa.