A housefly landed on damp brown skin. She swatted it away, her worried eyes fixed on glazed innocent eyes. She held a thin hand in hers, a small and delicate hand; she doubted the boy lying on the cot had ever had enough energy to lift his arms. He was three years old, a baby, she sighed, her thumb stroking over his wrist, searching for a pulse, always checking. His eyes kept staring at her, no longer begging.
His pulse faltered and a vice clamped tight in her chest. It faltered again and his eyes closed, his hand went limp and tears slid down her cheeks unchecked. She hated the relief that flooded her. Relief that he didn’t have to suffer anymore, have to be here going through this. She looked around the tent, raging against the injustice of it all. She was the only one to shed tears in this den of misery that had dried everyone’s eyes.
There was no one to cry and wail with her. Instead, a quiet desolation fell over the tent. She stared at the dead boy on the cot, her fingers sliding away as she sent a silent prayer after his soul. She moved to stand, and as she turned to find a volunteer nurse, a gasp escaped at the sight of the hundreds of children suffering in their cots all of them clearly close to death.
Someone help, she wanted to scream.
Someone please help!
How could she stop this madness? Their eyes on her, she felt the vice in her chest tighten more and fear flooded her veins. She wanted to run, but her feet were stuck to the ground. She tried to take a step back, a scream lodged in her throat, threatening to choke her….
Jade Sang sat up on her bed taking in a deep gulp of air as a sob escaped her lips. She opened her eyes and relief flooded her when she recognized her own bedroom.
She was home, safe, no longer in that place. She pressed her hand into her chest, dragging in another deep breath to ease the tightness in her chest. She pushed the light white sheets away and freed her feet.
A warm breeze swept into her bedroom and she stared toward the open terrace doors. The sun was rising in the horizon, turning the ocean water into a sparkling blue. She took another calming breath and swept hair away from her face.
She was safe at home.
She soaked in the sound of waves crashing against the shore, the call of seagulls in the distance, allowing it to dispel her vivid dream.
Jade got off the bed, picked up a white silk gown from the foot of her bed and slipped it on, covering her short sleeveless nightgown. A warm breeze swept into her bedroom again, sending the sheer white curtains at the terrace doors dancing. On bare feet, she walked to the open doors and stepped out into the warm morning.
At the terrace, she sank on to her favorite couch, the cool cushions welcome as she sat staring at the rising sun. Leaning her left arm on the back of the couch, her legs folded under her, she wondered when the nightmares would stop.
Two months had passed since her assignment at the refugee camp in Arsal. The boy who’d died in her arms had gotten to her, more than she had expected. He’d died of malnutrition after his mother had walked for miles fleeing war in Syria. The woman had done all she could to save her child, but by the time she’d reached the camp, his delicate health had failed. Her story had broken Jade’s heart. She’d promised to look after the boy as the mother rested. When the boy died, the mother had not shed a tear, not one. The woman had just looked at her son with a resigned glance and followed the volunteer nurse.
Jade had known that it wasn’t indifference causing the lack of tears. That woman had borne the weight of crippling despair so heavy tears seemed insignificant. That kind of despair came from losing after fighting so hard, that it felt like God didn’t know you existed.
Jade sighed heavily. She sometimes wished she hadn’t chosen to chase after Jihu Min this way. Chasing him had landed her in a world most people preferred not to see, including herself. For a long time, she’d lived happily in a state of ignorance, but now-, she frowned. Now she wasn’t sure what she was doing anymore.
Sunlight kissed the surface of the ocean; the sun had peeked over a cloud in the horizon. She smiled as the white sand on the beach below sparkled. She got up and walked down the short steps that took her to a cobbled path leading to the beach. Tying the belt on her nightgown loosely, she followed the path as she’d done thousands of times.
Everyone was asleep in the house; her housemates would wake up in another hour, so she had the beach to herself.
Jade rejoiced when her toes sank into the cool white sand.
White as snow, she thought.
The first time she’d seen it, she’d grabbed bunches of it and watched it sift through her fingers like a child. Diani Beach had that effect on her. So clean, pristine, and beautiful, it was easy to fall in love with this corner of the world. The waves swept in to shore and she smiled not yet ready to feel the water. She stood a few feet away watching the waves dance and play with the sand on the shore.
She’d lived in Diani for five years now. She’d come here chasing after a dream promised her from her teenage years. The beach house behind her was a gift from her father. Worried that she’d live a hard life, he’d purchased the one-acre of land with a ranch-style beach house. At the time, she’d thought her father controlling, but now, the house had turned into her sanctuary.
She was born in Seoul, to an affluent executive named Taeyong Sang and a high school teacher named Minjin Kim. At thirty years old, Jade was the youngest in a family of three siblings. Her two older brothers were married and living in Seoul with their families. She was single and ‘essentially gallivanting around the world acting the hero.’
She smiled at the memory of her maternal grandmother saying those last words. Jade had wanted to remind her Grandmother Kim that she was technically a married woman in the eyes of the law, but her mother had warned her not to. Grandmother Kim had a bad temper and liked to have the last word.
Jade shook her head thinking about her arranged marriage. In typical tradition, her parents had promised her to the son of a close family friend. In their eagerness to see the two families join, her parents had registered her marriage to Jihu Min, the only son in the Min Family, when she’d turned twelve years old.
To make the transition easy she and Jihu had gone to the same schools, spent holidays together, most of her teenage memories involved Jihu. She’d grown up idolizing him. In her mind, he’d been the picture of elegance, handsome…passionate. When he’d joined medical school, she’d joined to share in his life.
She’d hoped Jihu would start caring for her as she had for him. But, when he finished with med school, he’d decided to join the Doctors without Borders program to escape her. The day she’d discovered what he’d done, she’d confronted him at the hospital where he worked in Seoul. She’d demanded to know why he was leaving her. Why he wasn’t taking their marriage registration seriously, as she and their parents did. He’d accused her of being a sheltered and oblivious child.
Jade took the few steps closer to the waves and sighed when the cold water swept over her feet, firmly grounding her in the present.
Jihu Min, her husband, thought her a spoiled brat.
He wasn’t wrong.
Growing up, she’d lived a privileged life. She hadn’t questioned much of her parents’ decisions, even their arranging her marriage to Jihu; she’d accepted it without question. After all, her parents always wanted the best for her. But to have Jihu throw her life back at her so crudely, she’d felt small and insanely insignificant. It was the first time she’d discovered Jihu didn’t want their arranged marriage.
In a bid to prove him wrong, she’d given up her comfortable life in Seoul, joined the Seren Foundation and plunged into aide work.
Jihu moved around the world with Doctors without Borders and she followed when she could, though she was careful not to end up in the same camp.
Two months ago, Jihu had landed in Daadab on the Northern border of Kenya. She’d immediately left the camp in Arsal to return to Kenya.
She looked up to find her best friend and housemate running toward her. Tao Kim was a tall lanky man who worked at Seren with her. He handled logistics and could procure anything needed for a project in minutes.
She watched him jog toward her with a small smile. She’d known Tao for eight years. He was the son of a doctor and had joined the Seren Foundation at the same time she had. They worked most projects together, which she was grateful for because he kept her grounded.
“I’m seriously out of shape,” Tao huffed when he reached her. “One hour and I’m sweating like a pig.”
Jade chuckled. Tao liked to joke. He was tall, lean and fit despite his complains. He kept his hair military short, because of the tropical heat. His skin had turned a lovely golden brown, which made Tao very handsome.
“Checking my buns out?” Tao asked when he straightened up, a hand on his stomach as he took in deep breaths.
“Yes actually, why don’t you have a girlfriend?” she demanded.
Tao laughed. “How do you know I don’t have one?”
“I’d have heard something by now,” Jade said with a frown.
Though, maybe not, she’d spent so much of her time fighting her own nightmares lately, she’d barely paid attention to Tao.
Tao placed an arm over her shoulder and dragged her to his sweaty side.
“Don’t worry, you haven’t missed much,” he assured her. “How are the bad dreams going?”
She shrugged her gaze returning to the horizon. “It could be worse.”
“I suppose,” Tao agreed. “Hungry? I can whip up an omelet.”
Her stomach chose that moment to growl and she laughed.
“That’s a good answer,” Tao said turning her away from the rising sun.
They headed back to the house.
“What are you up today?” Tao asked.
“Grocery shopping,” she said. “You promised to go to the market with me. Julie won’t come even if I beg.”
Julie Kang was their third housemate. She worked in the public relations office and was always working.
“If you agree to stop at the port first, I’ll take you to the market.” Tao led her into the house through the living room terrace doors.
“What are you going to do at the port?”
“Signing documents for a shipment cleared yesterday afternoon,” Tao said. “A truck is collecting the container today and we need to clear with the Kenyan ports authority.
He ran a hand over his sweaty face and grimaced. “Look, why don’t you start the coffee and I’ll grab a quick shower. I’ll be back before you know it to do breakfast.”
He hurried down a long corridor to his room and she entered the kitchen with a small smile. She filled the coffee pot with water and started the coffee maker.
Julie walked in just as the coffee started trickling into the pot.
“I figured coffee would wake you up,” Jade teased.
Julie yawned and stretched her arms over her head dramatically. Dressed in a hello kitty t-shirt and black tights, her curly red hair around her shoulders. She barely resembled the no-nonsense feisty woman who led a huge public relations team.
“I’ll give you my first child if you give me coffee,” Julie said as she slid on to a stool at the island table.
Jade laughed and reached for a mug in the cupboard above the coffee maker. Julie liked her coffee the way she did her life. Straight, with no frills attached.
“Tao is making breakfast,” Jade said holding the mug of black coffee to Jade.
“That’s a relief,” Julie said after two sips of the fragrant coffee. “No offense but I can’t face your runny eggs this morning.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jade said sliding into the stool across her friend to wait for the coffee. “I didn’t hear you coming in last night.”
Julie yawned. “I came home late, almost close to one o’clock. Crisis in South Sudan, refugees are pouring into Dadaab. The case managers have asked for more staff and supplies but the security situation up there is making access difficult.”
“What do you mean?
“Two convoys were attacked yesterday on the way into Dadaab. Militia,” Julie said quietly. “The security officers managed to save our people, but the supplies weren’t saved.”
“What’s the government saying?”
“Their own soldiers were in danger. They’re doing the best they can but flights to Dadaab are once again cancelled.” Julie sighed. “The higher ups want to take time and gauge the situation. No one wants to send staff into imminent danger.”
“Great,” Jade said with a sigh of her own. She hoped Jihu was safe and taking precaution.
“Don’t worry.” Julie said reaching to touch her hand. “The staff is safe as long as they stay within the compound. Jihu is okay.”
“Easy to say,” she said with a small shake of her head. “I still worry.”
“They would call me if something was wrong,” Julie promised. “How was your night?”
Jade slid off the stool and walked to the coffee maker. She poured herself a mug of coffee and spent a few seconds adding two creamers and sugar.
“Jade,” Julie prompted when she didn’t answer the question.
Jade leaned on the counter and sipped her coffee.
“My night was easier than others this month. I can’t kick the nightmares. I keep dreaming about those children, all of them dying or dead. It is so real in my head, and that helpless feeling just keeps growing-,” she stopped and shuddered. “I don’t know why it’s not getting easier.”
“Arsal was bad, Jade,” Julie said trying to reassure her. “I wish you’d agree to stay in the office. Field work is slowly eating away at you.”
Jade shook her head. “If I do that, I won’t be able to keep up with Jihu.”
“Jihu is not going to change his mind, Jade. Sometimes, I think he goes to the worst places because it has become an addiction for him. He can’t stop. You, on the other hand, can. Get your stupid marriage annulled and find another guy.”
Jade stared into her coffee. She’d thought of that but how could she give up on Jihu?
“Please think about it, Jade,” Julie urged when she didn’t respond, “for the sake of your sanity if nothing else.”
Tao walked in then thankfully ending the conversation. He looked freshly showered and handsome in a light white t-shirt and blue jeans. He retrieved eggs from the fridge and got a frying pan.
“Julie-bean, want some eggs?” he asked winking at Jade.
“As long as they’re not runny,” Julie said with a teasing grin.
“I’m going to stop making breakfast if you keep this up,” Jade warned.
“Can you?” Julie begged. “Let Tao handle the cooking.”
Jade gaped. “Just for that, you’re getting runny eggs ala Jade for dinner tonight.”
“I’m eating out,” Julie said laughing.
Tao shook his head when Jade hurried to the table to tug Julie’s hair. She grinned when Julie ducked and held up her hands in surrender.
“Stop fooling around you two or I’ll be forced to get my whip,” Tao warned. “Behave if you want omelets.”
Jade laughed when Julie pulled her into a tight hug.
All Rights Reserved 2014 © Suilan Lee
To be continued….