Faruq rushed to her. “Mama,” he said, his voice cracking on the word. He touched her cheek, and then jumped back when her eyes flew open.
“Oh! It’s just you, Faruq.”
Faruq exhaled long and loud. “Praise God,” he whispered. “Mama, where are Baba and Thamina?”
She oofed as she pushed herself upright on the thin mattress. “Your Baba is working and Thamina is shopping… Faruq are you all right?” She put a hand to his face and her thick eyebrows furrowed.
“Yes…I’m fine. Sorry to wake you Mama.”
She arched an eyebrow but said nothing. Instead she rocked forward, stood and stretched. “That’s alright, it’s high time I started dinner.” A mewling cry had them both turning to the kitchen, where a scrawny brown cat stared curiously at them. His mother loved animals, and she always put out milk and food for stray cats, and so the creatures were forever traipsing in and out of their house. His mother seemed to be able to tell them all apart, and even went so far as to give them names.
She went over and bent down to stroke the brown cat. “Isn’t that right, Karim? Why didn’t you wake me, hmm?”
His mother cooed and fretted over the cat as usual, and a slight headache began to throb behind Faruq’s eyes as the adrenaline drained from his limbs.
She looked up from her petting and frowned at him. “You know, Thamina should be home by now with the groceries. Faruq, run to the south end of the market and see if you can find her. She should be on her way home so help her with the bags.”
The relief was so overwhelming that it wasn’t until he was back among the yells and chatter and spicy scents of the market that he remembered the guardsman, and instantly dread gripped his insides. As he stood fighting back his panic, Faruq heard his sister calling his name. He turned, trembling when he saw that beside Thamina walked the very same guardsman he’d left behind, and two drooping bags hung from each of the man’s fists.
“Faruq, what are you doing here? Oh no, did mama send you?”
The guardsman squinted at him, and Faruq found he couldn’t look away even as he answered his sister.
“Yes, she’s waiting to start dinner.”
“This is your brother?” asked the guardsman. Faruq tried and failed to read the expression on his face.
“Yes. Faruq, this is Abd-al Malik. He saw me struggling with the groceries and was kind enough to offer to help me take them home.” She flicked her eyes up to the guardsman and back down again, smiling.
On the way home, neither Faruq nor the guardsman mentioned the wish. In fact, Abd-al Malik ignored Faruq entirely in favor of his sister. And when they reached home he politely addressed their mother, asked Thamina if he could come see her again—to which she blushed and said yes—and left, saying he had to return to his duty.
Soon after, his father returned, and at last they sat at the table scooping up lentil soup with grainy pieces of bread. Faruq could still feel the warm stones of the floor through his thin cushion. He fought back tears for the second time that day, only this time they were tears of relief. He couldn’t believe his luck. Everyone was fine, and the secret of the wish remained intact. Perhaps…they need never know.
Once dinner was over, his father stood, groaned and ran a hand through the mass of tight, graying curls on his head. “Back to the shop,” he said.
“What? But the sun is almost set,” said Faruq’s mother.
“Yes, but Bashir’s wife went into labor today, so I said I would come back and finish off the bed stand he’s been working on, otherwise Ghanim wouldn’t have let him leave. Can you believe that?”
“Ghanim is a slave driver,” grumbled his mother as she cleared the table.
“Hmm,” his father hummed in agreement, and then he grinned, his dark eyes twinkling in his sun-worn face. “But you should have seen Bashir. I didn’t know until today someone could look both joyous and terrified at once.” He laughed his deep, hearty laugh. “And the way he ran out of the shop! It reminded me of when Thamina was being born.” He smiled fondly at his daughter, and then at Faruq.
“Well, off I go. Good night my dears, I fear it will be a long night, but no longer than Bashir’s I’m sure.”
Despite his relief at dinner, when night came Faruq couldn’t sleep, no matter how he twisted and turned and squeezed his eyes shut. He lay on his mat listening to the crickets, the bleating sheep and Thamina’s soft snores beside him, staring up into the darkness. His family lived, but he knew the wish had been somehow subverted, and time alone would reveal what curse the golden Djinni had worked on him.
In fact, he would learn the true nature of the wish the very next day.