THE PATH HOME by Nausheen Ahmed
Everyone had finished setting up their tents and were starting to gather by the fire pit. Sophie came out with a shawl draped around her shoulders. One would expect it to be warmer in June, but the spring chill seemed to be lingering around longer than usual. It was only about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and wouldn’t be dark for another few hours, but she spotted several campfires already burning in the distance. The Khan’s, who had decided to go camping for their annual family reunion this year, had also gathered around their own campfire with plates full of food. The grills had been churning out hara masala burgers, seekh kabobs, and Mama’s famous chicken tikkas non-stop since they got here. The sounds of laughter and family gossip kept Sophie distracted for a while, but seeing all the jovial children made it harder and harder to stop thinking of Ali. Sophie immediately tried to shake the thought from her mind.
“Hey, Sophie! I’m surprised you came. I know roughing it really isn’t your thing,” one of her younger cousins smirked.
Aleena, her twin sister, was picking up branches nearby for the fire pit and must have heard. Sophie noticed a smile on her face as though she wanted to say something, but knew better. Except for the striking similarity of their hazel almond-shaped eyes, no one could tell they were sisters, let alone twins. They had always been very different, but Ali’s death had put a distance between them that seemed to grow with each passing year.
“I couldn’t stay away from these dimples,” she got the last word as she pinched her cousin’s cheeks and watched him and his smirk disappear. He was right though--camping wasn’t her thing. Aleena on the other hand, a Gold Award achiever in Girl Scouts, thrived in the outdoors. For Sophie, mosquitoes, dirt, and make-shift bathrooms were not her idea of a vacation, but those things paled in comparison to the real reason she didn’t want to go camping. Thoughts of Ali started to fill her mind again. The wounds of losing their younger brother were still as fresh as the day the accident happened. It took her years of therapy to be able to get through a full day without having a breakdown. Why Aleena and her parents were looking so forward to this trip and how they all seemed to be having a great time was beyond her understanding. The last time her family went camping was when their lives had changed forever.
“Hey, let’s have a round of desi karaoke!” Waqas Uncle, Mama’s youngest brother, and the jokester of the family, brilliantly suggested—or so he thought.
“Uncle, none of us have a voice anyone wants to hear.”
“Aleena, dearest, you don’t have to sing, you can say a poem. Now our Sophie, she has a sweet voice—”
“So-phie! So-phie! So-phie!” Cousins, aunts, and uncles all started chanting.
“Can someone else go? I think I’ll pass.”
“Come on, beti, be a sport.” Mama, who was sitting next to Sophie, patted her on the back.
“I said I don’t want to, Mama.”
“Why do you have to baby her all the time? She said she doesn’t want to. We really won’t be missing much--“
“You know what, Aleena? I’ve had enough of your attitude—“
“Girls, I’m sure you can get along for a couple of days. Besides, haven’t you missed each other? This is the longest you’ve been apart since you started college—,” Baba gently reminded them.
“Aleena and Sophie, that’s enough,” Mama said in a firmer voice. This is not the place. You are spoiling the fun and embarrassing us.”
“Fun, Mama? How are you even having fun?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Mama immediately wished she hadn’t asked. She knew exactly where this was headed.
“Don’t you miss Ali? How are you sitting here smiling, laughing, singing? If Ali can’t laugh and sing anymore, none of us should be able to. Don’t you remember what happened the last time we went camping? Isn’t this place reminding you of the last time you saw him, Mama? The last time we all saw him?—“ Mama stared in disbelief, her eyes welling up with tears.
“Baba, please.” Aleena got up and turned to her sister. “How selfish can you be? To say that Mama doesn’t miss Ali? Everything is always about you, isn’t it?”
“About me? It’s like he never existed for the rest of you.”
“You are the one who doesn’t care about Ali. It’s because of you he’s not here.” Aleena had no sooner spoken the words that she regretted it.
“Because of me? How can you say that? Maybe you should take some accountability. If you hadn’t—“
Waqas Uncle came around to Sophie and tried to put his arm around her. Sophie looked to see Mama sobbing and Baba holding her. She felt overwhelmed and knew she had to get out of there.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, everyone.” She turned and ran.
“Sophie!” Baba called after her.
Aleena looked to see her sister going towards the north trail. “She’s just going to walk it off, Baba. Don’t worry.”
The mood had become somber. Most of the adults went off into their own little circles, and the kids ventured out to the playground by the lake. Waqas Uncle eventually managed to get a game of badminton going. The laughter cautiously resumed, except in the case of Mama and Baba who were looking at their watches and whispering with a worried look. Aleena knew exactly what they were thinking—she was thinking the same thing.
She walked over to her parents, “You shouldn’t worry. Ali was just a little boy. Sophie’s a big girl. The trail has plenty of signs--there’s no way she can get lost.”
“Still, it’s been over an hour. We know you are able to handle yourself in these surroundings, but Sophie--I think I should go and find her,” Baba started to get up.
Aleena shook her head and knew her parents would continue to worry until Sophie came back. Plus, she hated to admit it, it was going to get dark soon and Aleena found herself feeling a little concerned too. “It’s ok, Baba. I’ll go get her.”
Aleena had been walking for over 20 minutes and her sister was nowhere in sight. The trail wasn’t as easy as she had initially thought. She had expected to see Sophie sitting under the shade of a tree not too far onto the trail--instead, all she saw were people starting to head back to the campgrounds. The brightness of the sun was dimming much too quickly for her comfort. Aleena paused and took a deep breath as she looked around for some clue as to how far her sister could have gone. Was she supposed to keep walking, go back, call for help? As an Ambassador in Girl Scouts, she knew the rules of safety when it came to hiking, and many of them were being broken right now. She should never have let her sister go off alone. Not only that, but Aleena realized she had left her cell phone back at camp.
“I can’t just go back without her. Wait. What if we just missed each other and she already went back? Dammit Sophie, put yourself and everyone around you in danger—again.” She looked back to see the flames of several campfires visible--one of them shining especially brighter than the others. She took a deep breath and thought to herself, “Even if it gets dark, that light is a good landmark. All I have to do is stay on the trail.”
Just as she picked up her bag to continue ahead, Aleena noticed a cell phone at the bottom of the ditch to her right. She recognized the bright red cover which stood out as sharply as the campfire flames in the distance. Aleena picked up the phone and brushed the dirt off to reveal a gold “S” on the back of the cover. There was no doubt it belonged to Sophie. Immediately, she tried to turn the phone on, but it was dead. She looked around not sure whether to be worried or angry. “Did she drop it while she was walking on the trail, or did she get off the path?—I have to make sure. Besides, I have a better chance of making it in the woods than she does.”
She looked up to make sure she could still see the bright light of the campfire. “That’s strange.” Aleena did see it, but now it seemed to be the only one. There had been many more when she had looked just a few minutes ago. “Where did they all go?” She had no time to figure that out right now. She had to find Sophie. “One landmark is all I need.” Keeping her eye on the one bright light that would be her guide back home, she slipped Sophie’s cell phone into her bag and hesitatingly got off the trail.
Surrounded by trees, the blackness of the night sky had intensified. Even the stars were now covered by a blanket of darkness. With no watch or phone, Aleena could only guess at how long she had been searching for her sister. “Sophie!” Her voice was muffled by the trees which were becoming denser the further into the woods she got. Aleena had used her compass to walk in several different directions turning around each time only when she was sure the ground was undisturbed and no one had set foot there recently. The brightness of her flashlight was beginning to dim. With no spare batteries, she was starting to feel nervous. She turned it off and sat down at the foot of a tree as she contemplated what to do. Sophie could be back at camp for all she knew. “This isn’t helping anyone. Mama and Baba must be so worried by now. I have to go back. If Sophie’s not there, I can come back with some help.” With a plan in mind, Aleena stood up ready to head back, but the faint, cloudy light of the dying flashlight, made it impossible to make out the direction of the arrow on her compass. As the flashlight flickered before leaving her in complete darkness, she found herself solely at the mercy of that one campfire she was careful not to lose sight of.
The campgrounds were south of the trail. Aleena felt reassured she was walking in the right direction as the light of the campfire became larger and brighter with each step. Suddenly, it felt almost too bright—she shielded her eyes. “What the?---Light!” She quickly pulled out her compass, which she had rendered useless in the overpowering darkness of the woods. “Yes!” The red arrow glowed as brightly as Sophie’s phone had in the glare of the sun. She took a closer look. “This isn’t possible.” Her excitement turned into confusion. She shook the compass. “It must be broken. It has to be broken.” The arrow was pointing north. “But I was following the campfire!” How long had she been going the wrong way? She turned around and started walking in the opposite direction. The arrow didn’t move. She turned left, she turned right--the arrow continued to point north. She had no idea where she was.
“Think. Think.” What use was her proudest achievement if she couldn’t even navigate her way through the woods? There had to be a way out. She looked up. Still no stars. Only the blinding light of the campfire. Campfire? In the sky? The light seemed higher than before—much higher. As panic started to set in, the question that had been haunting her all evening seemed to echo through the blinding light itself. What did happen to all the other campfires? The answer became clear—the light wasn’t a campfire and it wasn’t going to lead her to the campsite. The landmark she had hastily chosen was as unknown to her as the whereabouts of her sister, and now her own self.
Aleena started to feel dizzy. She placed her bag down and sat on the trunk of a fallen tree. The darkness once again resumed as the light of the strange constellation blurred and hid behind the branches she had taken refuge beneath. The eerie silence led her to believe even the tiniest creatures of the woods had deserted her. Her stomach was in knots, her throat parched. She took out the extra granola bar she had kept for her hike and welcomed the sound of the wrapper as it broke the silence and gave her company. Then she heard another sound from further away. It sounded like the rustling of leaves. She paused, hoping it was just the echo of the wrapper, but the sound continued. “These are footsteps for sure. Sophie?” No answer. The granola bar crumbled in her hands. “What if it’s a bear?” She had seen bears before and knew the meager food in her hands would be enough to catch its attention. She threw the bar and brushed the crumbs off. She quickly picked up her bag and started to inch back, away from any evidence of the repast that may lay at her feet. The footsteps continued to get louder. “If it is a bear, running won’t help.” Where would she run to anyway? She kept quiet and crouched behind a tree.
Suddenly, a light as bright as the strange flame in the sky went on in her bag which still happened to be unzipped. Wasn’t the flashlight dead? She peeked inside to find the source of the distraction, still wary of the footsteps coming towards her. “It can’t be,” Aleena couldn’t believe her eyes. Sophie’s cell phone was on. The footsteps stopped. This was her chance. She didn’t care how or why it had turned on, she just had to get through to Mama and Baba. She entered the passcode. “Wrong?” She had seen her sister enter it a thousand times, 0404, the month and date of their birthday. She tried again. Still wrong. “Oh sure. She changed it now? The first time since she got the phone? Figures. What could it be?” She had remembered her sister telling Mama to “choose a date that matters” whenever she needed to set up a password for something. Aleena exhausted every possible date she could think of—anniversaries, special firsts, graduations, birthdays---there was only one date she hadn’t tried. Her fingers shook as she entered 0-4-0-5. Family camping trip. Spring break. The day after their birthday. The day Ali died. The phone unlocked.
Hands still shaking, Aleena dialed Mama’s number. “Call Failed.” She dialed Baba’s number. “Call Failed.” There was no signal, she couldn’t get through to anyone. She looked at the phone wondering what to do. “Maybe there is a compass on the phone I can use. Maybe--“
All of a sudden, the phone began to vibrate. Aleena’s jaw dropped as she saw the name on the screen. The caller id was flashing Sophie’s name. “How was she calling her own phone?”
She had no choice. She had to answer. “H-h-ello?” her voice quivered. No answer. “Hello?? Who’s there? Sophie? Is that you? Where are you? Are you ok?” Silence. “Sophie??”
This time she heard something. It was a sobbing sound. A child crying? It was a familiar cry. Her heart started beating so loudly, her ears began to pulsate. Her mind must be playing tricks on her. She was hungry, tired, disoriented. But she knew this cry. Her mouth could barely form the word--“Ali?” The crying stopped. She couldn’t bring herself to say his name again—it made no sense. She didn’t have to—the phone disconnected itself, leaving only it’s bright light on once again.
Aleena could no longer hold back the tears. She felt weak. She must be losing it. Her entire body was shaking. Everything came back to her like a flood of water gushing forth from a dam just released.
Her family had lost everything when they lost Ali. She blamed Sophie. The twins were 10 years old when the family had last gone camping. Sophie had wanted to stay at the playground, but Aleena insisted they play hide-and-seek. Ali, just 4 at the time, went to hide with Sophie who told him to find another spot so they wouldn’t be seen. That was the last time they saw him alive. Once Mama got through the initial shock, she kept telling the twins that neither of them were responsible—that nobody goes before their time and that was all the time God had intended for Ali. But Aleena never let Sophie forget.
She realized now if anyone was to blame, it was herself. It was her idea to begin with, and she was the one who insisted, not Sophie. Could she be the one to blame now too? Is she the one who put Sophie in danger and not the other way around? Aleena remembered searching all night with her family and the rangers for her brother. She also remembered the horror of finding his small body floating in the lake the next morning. She couldn’t keep out the terrifying thoughts that were now infiltrating her mind. What is she going to find after this search? The similarities of the two situations pointed to the same culprit. Why did she have to say anything? Mama knew how to handle Sophie. Would it really have been such a big deal if she didn’t sing? If only she hadn’t insisted then, if only she hadn’t insisted now. How would her family deal with this a second time?
She no longer cared about the footsteps, the bears, or the light of the phone that seemed to have replaced the unexplainable campfire that was now nowhere to be found. According to Sophie’s phone, it was around 3 a.m. It seemed about right, but she had no way of knowing for sure. The phone seemed to have a mind of its own. She felt sick and had to rest.
She woke up about 2 hours later and, though still hungry and exhausted, seemed to be thinking more clearly. The phone lay next to her, it’s light much dimmer than before. It must have been on all night. Aleena had fallen asleep looking at the light the phone cast above her, through the trees and onto the night sky. The events of the night came back to her. “Was that really Ali on the phone?”
The darkness of the night was starting to lift as the sun made its way above the horizon. Aleena sat up with a jolt, she had to get out of here and find Sophie.
She had barely stood up when the sound of rustling leaves from last night returned. It was the same sound of footsteps, but unmistakably louder—much louder than yesterday. This time, however, there was another muffled sound along with it.
“Help! Is anybody there?”
Aleena looked closely to see the figure of a girl appearing then disappearing as she weaved her way between the trees. She recognized the figure. “Sophie?”
“Sophie!” She ran to her sister. They locked in an embrace she didn’t want to let go of. It had been years since she hugged her sister—years of bitterness and hurt between them seemed like time wasted. Aleena had been wrong. “Sophie, I’m so sorry for everything.”
“I’m sorry too.”
“Listen, first tell me how you called on your own phone last night.”
“I called? On my own cell phone?”
“Yes. Your name was on the screen when your phone rang.” Sophie just stared at her. “Let me show you.” Aleena reached in her pocket, but it wasn’t there. “It must be in my bag.” She dumped everything out on the ground. No cell phone. She ran back to where she had slept, to the log where she had placed the phone and watched it’s glow light up the night sky. It was gone.
“My phone is right here.” Sophie took out her cell phone.
“That’s impossible, I have your phone--somewhere. I found it by the ditch.” Aleena noticed there was a different cover on the phone. “What happened to the red phone case with the gold “S”?”
“I got a new one and switched it yesterday before leaving home. My phone has been with me the whole time, and it was dead—as usual.”
“But I got a call. Sophie, I heard Ali last night. On your cell phone—or whoever’s phone I found by the ditch. He’s sad. I didn’t understand it then, but when I woke up…Sophie, when we fight, not only does it hurt Mama and Baba, but it hurts Ali too. Nothing is your fault. You have to believe that. It’s like Mama said, no one goes before their time. There was nothing you, or I, could have done to change what happened.”
Sophie stood shocked. “I heard him too,” she whispered. His sobs were coming through this bright orange light I had been following. That’s how I got lost. Then in the middle of the night I saw what looked like the glow of a flashlight, and I started following that. It led me to you.”
The twins took hold of each other’s hands and had taken but a few steps when they abruptly stopped short. The bright flame of the mysterious campfire had returned. It was getting larger and larger even though the girls weren’t moving. They looked at each other, unable to move. They started to hear faint voices in the distance. Someone was calling their names.
“We’re here!” The twins ran towards the light. The faces of their parents, aunts, and uncles emerged from behind the orange flames of the tiki torches they were carrying.
They had made it out of the darkness.