By Jennifer Zeynab Maccani
Before I could read, Sitto used to tell me stories. She used to tell me that if you didn’t like a story, you could tell it in reverse and give it back. Then you could make up your own story with your own words. She said you could be whoever you wanted to be, just like you could tell any story you wanted.
Sitto is in heaven now, and anyway the other kids don’t call their grandmothers Sitto, like I do. I miss her stories. They were better than the one I have now. Baba asked me to be brave, but I can’t be brave anymore.
I want to give my story back.
Baba leans forward and makes himself heavy. He does an awkward dive from his wheelchair into the deep end of the YMCA pool.
I ask him to come up again.
“Come back up, Baba. Come back up.”
But he doesn’t.
Baba is quiet and stays in the living room all night. Miss Rachel, the lady who helps him get dressed and get into bed and do all kinds of things he used to do by himself, asks if he wants to go to bed. He always says no.
I pretend to go to bed when he tells me to but then I wait for him to fall asleep in front of the TV. Then I sneak into the living room and curl up behind his wheelchair where he can’t see me.
I sleep there all night until Miss Rachel knocks on the door. Then I get up so Baba doesn’t see I’ve been crying.
Baba goes to the pool where he used to swim when Mama was still here with us. He looks at the water.
When he thinks I’m not listening, I hear him whispering, “Never again? Never?”
I ask Baba what happened to Mama in September. He says she came running down the hallway when they heard the plane hit. The building was falling apart. It was full of smoke. He tried to jump on top of Mama so she wouldn’t get hurt by stones falling down but the floor shook and she landed on top of him.
I ask him what happened to his legs and his arm. He says some heavy rocks fell on him and he was lying at the bottom of a big pile of them all night. Then the firefighters found him and brought him home. Baba says the place where he used to work in New York is ruined. He says he might never be able to work again.
Firefighters only came to our house once, when I was a baby. They covered up a fire on the stove. I didn’t know people could catch fire, too.
The doctor says Baba won’t ever swim again. The doctor says if Baba ever gets into a pool by himself, he’ll drown.
Principal Thorn comes to my house and tells me Mama isn’t coming home anymore. Principal Thorn says Mama’s with Sitto in heaven. She says Mama died when the planes hit the buildings in New York City, but Mama didn’t feel any pain. She tells me Baba is alive, but he isn’t the same.
Then Baba gets out of a van. He’s sitting in a chair. I run to him, but he doesn’t pick me up like he used to.
He’s sitting on wheels. He says the chair runs by itself. He says it has to because he can only use one arm now. Both legs and the other arm don’t work.
I tell Baba I don’t mind. I tell him I’ll get the sugar from the top shelf from now on.
Two weeks into kindergarten, Principal Thorn comes on the loudspeaker and tells us somebody has flown a plane into the Twin Towers in New York City.
“My Mama and Baba work in New York City,” I whisper to my friend Sarah in the next row.
Why would anyone fly a plane into a building? Did they forget how to drive it?
Mama and Baba don’t come to pick me up that night, so Principal Thorn drives me home. She asks if there’s anyone to take care of me, and I say maybe Mama and Baba are waiting for me in the house.
I get the spare key from under the flowerpot, but when I open the door, Mama and Baba aren’t there. Principal Thorn has already started the car. I watch the headlights turn out of the driveway.
Baba says he feels happy. He says he hasn’t felt so alive since the 1988 Olympics.
Mama says Baba used to swim. He used to dive from this really high board, up in the air, down into a deep pool. Mama says he almost won a bronze medal once, for America. She said he would have been the first Syrian-American diver to win a medal at the Olympics.
“Why didn’t he keep trying?” I ask Mama.
“Because he wanted to be with us,” Mama says. She scoops me up and kisses my hair. “He loved us more than the water.”
I start kindergarten. Mama and Baba put their suits on. Baba says they’ll take MetroNorth into the City from now on.
Baba asks me to be brave. I tell him I’ll try.
Baba gets a new job in the city. He looks happy. Then he says they hired Mama too.
I’ll miss them when I get off the school bus. They used to stay at home with me all the time, even if sometimes they said they were busy working. Now they’ll be far away.
“At least we will all see each other after school now, Omar,” Baba says. “Don’t be afraid.”
I turn five. Mama and Baba buy me an ice cream cake.
“What year was I born?” I ask.
“Well, it is 2001,” Mama says, “and this is the fifth August since you were born. So you came to us in 1996.”
“Oh,” I say. That seems like a long time ago. A whole other set of numbers without a two in them at all.
Everybody sings Happy Birthday, and then I go to blow out my candles. I can only blow out four candles at a time. I blow out the fifth one afterward.
I hope I can still get my wish, but I don’t know.
I go to the mailbox. I take the envelope that Baba put his rezu-may in and rip it into a hundred pieces before it goes to New York City.
Mama and Baba drop me off on the first day of kindergarten. Baba says he feels more alive than he did at the 1988 Olympics. He says he loves Mommy and me more than the water.
On the eleventh of September, the principal comes on the loudspeaker and says that two planes flew over the Twin Towers in New York City. He says they dropped oceans of flowers. Everybody in the city is happy.
Mama and Baba and I go into the City and take some of the flowers back home with us. We put them on Sitto’s grave and make a big circle out of them. Mama takes some and makes a crown for me and puts one behind Baba’s ear. We laugh and Sitto is in heaven and she’s happy that we’re laughing together.
Mama and I watch Baba swim at the YMCA, and the bleachers are wet from lifeguards sitting there. Every time Baba gets to the end of the pool we cheer.
“Hooray, Baba!” I cry and clap my hands. “Hooray!”
The mayor of New York City throws a big parade because the city is covered in flowers instead of ash. Somebody paints the Twin Towers pink because pink is a happy color.
The firefighters drive their truck in the parade. We all get to ride in the truck, and the siren sounds so loud and red.
Baba gets a checkup, and he asks the doctor if he can go swimming. The doctor claps him on the back and tells him he’ll live forever. The doctor says he can swim every day if he wants to.
Baba dives from a really tall ladder. A man in a suit comes and gives him a medal. Not a bronze one or a silver one but a gold one. And Baba gives it back to the man in the suit and comes to the bleachers and gives Mama and me a hug.
“I love you more than any medal,” Baba says.
“Always?” I ask.
“Always,” he says, “always.”
At home we watch my favorite movies and eat popcorn. When it’s time for bed, Mama and Baba tuck me in and tell me a bedtime story.
I close my eyes. I know if I get scared I can just run to their room because they’re right down the hall, and they always will be.
Baba takes me to the pool, and we swim around together. He picks me up out of the water and throws me into the air. I feel light as a balloon. When he catches me, I ask him to toss me up again.
“Throw me back up, Baba! Throw me back up!”
So he does.
I wait by the pool, but still Baba doesn’t come back up. Nobody drops flowers over New York City. There’s no parade. There’s only a flag in a pile of rocks, and a city covered in ash, and one more kid whose parents never come home again.
I am tired of crying. I am tired of waiting for help to arrive. The water is too deep for me to reach the bottom.
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani is a Syrian-American writer living in the greater Hershey, Pennsylvania area. Her short stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, The Normal School, Mizna, Sukoon, and elsewhere. She won an Honorable Mention Award in the Maine Review’s 2015 Short Fiction Contest. She is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, Third Point Press Art Editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.