Gula said she was a ghost. It was the last two weeks of summer.
“So how did you die?” I asked. We were sitting under a willow tree in the pasture, making a list of supplies we needed for our hideout. The sun blazed like a scourge.
“I climbed out the window.”
“And then what?” I asked.
“I crawled over to the edge and slipped off.”
“What did it feel like?”
“It was like floating.”
“So are you an angel now?”
“I can’t say. Not allowed.”
We shook our heads, chuckled. The sun moved behind a cloud. A crow cawed in the distance. Katydids chirped. A mother called a child home. We lived on Sigourney Drive, all three of us—Gula, Trey, and me. We clung to each other like timid mice, convinced terrorists were invading soon. Trey was the only boy. But we never thought about that. He seemed like one of us, until he pulled out his penis. “Hey, my dad said men can do it this way.”
We were eleven years old, on the cusp of puberty. We spent our remaining days of summer in the pasture behind our homes, up a hill, under the barbed wire fence, a mile or so from Peterson’s Farm, and Ronald Peterson, the senile old man who once shot a trespasser. That was scary enough, but innocuous. The war in the Middle East, on the other hand, with blood and gore, real images we glimpsed on the news, was something else.
The terrorists were coming. We were building a hideout. “It’s only a matter of time,” Gula said. She was the deciding factor. Gula was born in Afghanistan and lost her parents and most of her relatives there. She was the tallest and skinniest of us. She barely ate. She said she was named after Sharbat Gula, a famous girl who had her photograph on National Geographic. “We have the same eyes, and her parents were murdered like mine.”
“That’s sad,” I said, unsure of how to respond.
“That’s why I don’t eat much. I think I should honor her. She never had food.”
“Can you eat chocolate at least?” I asked. Gula shrugged her shoulders and smiled. She rarely showed her teeth and always wore a scarf she called a hijab. It was pale green and matched the color of her eyes.
“Why don’t you wear a different color?” Trey asked one day. I wanted to hit him.
Gula smiled. She was so forgiving that way. And a few days later, she wore yellow. But on the way to our hideout, we got attacked by a swarm of bees. Gula was stung four times—she was the only one that couldn’t run fast enough. We didn’t wait for her. I kept thinking she was a clumsy American, not at all like Sharbat Gula. I never told her that though. It was Trey’s fault. He kept poking at a bee hive. But Gula blamed the yellow hijab, and went back to the green.
The hideout was in the beginning stages. We found an upturned tree to use for the base and started a pile of downed limps and brush for the wall. It was the last day we were together. Gula had stuffed a tarp and some twine in her backpack, and Trey brought his pocket knife. He kept taking it out of his pocket and opening it.
“You’re not going to cut anything with that,” I said to him, smugly.
“You know how sharp this is?” He took it out again. “See the hair on my arm?” He grazed his arm with the blade. “Look…look how clean.”
That’s when we heard a loud popping.
“The terrorists,” Gula said.
“It could be fireworks,” I offered.
“No, I know, “said Gula. I’ve heard it before.”
“You’re an American,” I said.
“It’s in my subconscious mind. I know by instinct. I know the sounds of enemy fire.”
“Do you think they’re here?” I asked. I felt my heart in my chest. Even though I knew it was all a game, and I was placating Gula, some part of me imagined it could be real.
“Not the terrorists, you idiots. But maybe that crazy old man,” Trey suggested.
“Either way, we need to hide.” My eyes darted, nervously. The hideout wasn’t built. I considered climbing a tree.
“I’ll stay here. I’m dead already. Ghosts can’t die,” Gula said. She wasn’t laughing.
The popping sounds grew louder.
“There’s no time.” Gula started gesturing madly as if some unseen force was about to rain down on us. Her hijab was slipping from her head. She struggled to adjust it; her hands shook—too much so for a ghost, I decided. But, I trusted her. She had Afghan blood. She was born there, like she said, born into strife, war, so maybe she had a stronger sense about it all.
“Let’s go!” I yelled.
It was dusk. The air was heavy, a fever of heat bore down on us. We ran. At one point, I looked back and saw Gula; she was a smudge of green. She was not even trying. Did she actually think she was dead?
“Gula, come on!” I heard Trey yell, saw the vein bulging on his neck. I noticed he was crying. We were a mile or so from Sigourney Drive, just a bit more and we’d be safe. The popping didn’t let up.
I envisioned enemy soldiers behind us, closing in, clad in camouflage, guns strapped, pointed, flushed faces, boots stained with blood and dung. I knew then, our hideout was ridiculous and that nowhere was safe. I looked back before crawling under the barbed wire. Gula was gone.
When I finally did see Gula, a few weeks later, we passed in the hallway of Saint Ives Middle School. She was wearing a purple hijab. I smiled at her. She cast her eyes downward and walked right past me, as if I was the enemy.
Elizabeth Brown is a native of Connecticut. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Milo Review, Sleet, Bartleby Snopes, and elsewhere.