The smile lingered on her face and was impossible to control or wipe away. The rational side of her wanted it to stop and have her come back to her senses, because everything was just far too new, difficult and fragile, but the overwhelmingly emotional side of her just couldn't care less.
She felt happy for the first time in years. Really truly happy. Not just happy-with-a-but-stuck-in-the-back-of-her-mind. Carefree. Not that all of a sudden there was nothing to worry about; that wasn't the point. The point was that the worries for once didn't control every tiny part of her. She knew the paralyzing feeling of that just too well. Instead, it was a certain lightness that she was infused with now, and it tingled like a sensation long missed but never forgotten.
He was back and he was getting better, but most of all: He was hers. It was all she had hoped for, dreamt of, but not really believed in anymore.
So while sunlight flooded her office, she happily blew out some more birthday candles on top of a gorgeous cake that Sarah had made for her. And when one of her patients cancelled an appointment last minute, she took out the notebook from him again. A beloved companion after just two days.
He must have suffered writing it, but she could also feel him healing a tiny bit with every additional word eternalized on one of the many pages. Pages that used to be blank and were now filled with more than a lifetime worth of thoughts and feelings. She decided that the best thing about it was that now she could also heal together with him.
She looked for the page where she had stopped reading late last night, when his breathing behind her had become slow and steady. Her eyes fell on the chapter title she was looking for: 'Finding you 7,000 miles away.' What a distance to imagine.
—First of all and again: I'm sorry about the fight we had in the morning after I stumbled back to your home drunk and beaten. I was an arse. The jealous plonker you know me to be. The angry kind. I know it's ugly (and that it worsens my otherwise good looks), but it's who I am sometimes. Still hasn't changed apparently. I'm truly sorry.
You told me about how Dan helped you through the dark times. How he was there. I appreciated you telling me that in all honesty. And I'm glad somebody caught you falling. I never wanted you to suffer and while I was sitting somewhere 7,000 miles away, all I could hope for was for you to find some peace of mind.
That morning I also told you about the woman that helped me during a hard time. In her home and in her care I felt somehow safe for the first time in captivity. She radiated a warm kind of serenity, even though I knew that she was afraid of the same men as I was: The men who had captured, hurt and taken me from one place to the other like a piece of luggage you just toss around. She still managed to be the calm eye of the tornado in all that.
I told you that she reminded me of you. Nothing about her appearance did, but I guess it was the openness of her heart and the willingness to help without asking for something in return that did. A certain gentleness but with the firm belief of having an impact on the world. Of making it a little better.
Her name was Zuleikha. It means 'the radiant one' in Arabic and she carried the glow that her name promised with her whenever I watched her. Carrying a tray with tea or just simply turning the pages of a book when she was sitting on the bench in the garden that I could see from the window of my room.
When I first woke up in that house, she treated the wound on my back that left the scar you probably saw. Later she told me that she had trained as a nurse in Tehran and that her dream was to become a doctor one day. Female doctors are still a minority in Iran or other countries of the Middle East, even though many are highly qualified. The Iranian government placed a quota on how many women could be accepted into medical school some time ago, as they want to keep women from pursuing independence. But that certainly couldn't keep her from still going after that dream.
She wanted to change the world, even if it was in just the tiniest way. Leaving a small, positive mark was better than leaving none at all.
One day she gave me a book about a woman called Badri Teymourtash, the first female Iranian doctor. She had gone through quite a journey from being born to an influential Iranian family somewhere around 1910, to studying in Europe, undertaking humanitarian work in Africa, and later returning to her home country where she was put under house arrest after her family had fallen from grace. Later she helped found a medical school and fought for more women to work as doctors. Her story inspired Zuleikha greatly.
Still, she wasn't a dreamer. She was realistic enough to know that her dream was far, far away. She was stuck in the back-country of Afghanistan with a husband deeply entangled in terrorism schemes. A husband who wanted to keep her ambitions low and her dreams unreachable.
We were alone in the house with just a couple of unthreatening watchdogs for some days. She was afraid to let me out of the upstairs room at first and locked the door every time when leaving the room. It took me a while to realize that it wasn't because she was afraid of me, but because she was afraid for me and feared what might happen if somebody saw me outside of that room.
Some days later when I was a little better, she would let me leave the room from time to time. I sat with her in the kitchen while the radio broadcasted news in a language I couldn't understand. She would translate what was going on in the world and we both felt so detached from it that it was hard to understand that we were part of that very same planet after all.
She also let me take my first real shower in months. Heavenly, I tell you.
After a week or so, her husband returned with an entourage of his henchman. She was different then, but I couldn't blame her. Just like her, I tried to keep a low profile and do whatever they said. She seemed to be able to disappear and although all of a sudden the house was full of men carrying guns and arrogance around, nobody truly seemed to notice her. The walls were thin and I didn't hear her talk a lot. It was her survival strategy.
I tried to sleep most of the time. First, to get better and then to make it seem like I was pretty useless to them. I was afraid of what would come next.
Sometimes her husband would step out in the little garden and speak to someone in English on an old satellite telephone. I could hear him through the open window. It sounded like innocent trade business, but I'm sure it wasn't. Weapons, drugs, hostages like myself—those were most likely the goods he traded.
As sudden as they had come back, the men also disappeared again. The house was quiet once more. I asked her whether she knew what was happening. What would be happening to me. But she just shook her head. "I'm sorry, I know nothing. I can't and I don't want to."
She educated me on some history of the country. I asked a lot of questions about the things I had encountered. Like why the hell 'goat-grabbing' seems to be a national sport (it involves riders on horseback competing to grab a goat carcass and gallop clear of the others to drop it in a chalked circle – yeah, don't ask).
Just like Rahim, she described Afghanistan, Iran and other countries she had been to in beautiful pictures to me from time to time. The landscapes, the people, the traditions, the food, the colours, the smells. Hard to imagine that these two realities—the wonderful and the ugly—exist side by side.
"Do you feel like he owns you? Like they own you?" I asked her one day. The question was somehow important to me, because it certainly was how I felt about myself.
She shook her head, though. "It might seem that way, but my mind is free. Nobody can control what's inside my head. My mind is free like a bird."
These sentences changed something inside of me. It was the first time in captivity that I realized I could take control of my thoughts, too. It was just a small change in my mindset, but it was a big difference in the end. Her words rang through my head whenever I was subjected to a difficult situation.
Just like your words always did.
Do you remember the case about the kid that got institutionalized after allegedly killing his baby sister? It was just our third or fourth case when we started out back then. We were still getting to know each other, trying to put the puzzle pieces of one another together.
And the case was a tough one. A little boy in the middle of a spider net of lies and cover-ups. The most ugly nature of humankind was revealed in it and although we'd both seen it before, it was a taxing experience feeling it so close and brutally. The cases before were more of the cheating-spouse-caliber. Nothing too serious. This one was, though.
In all that, you were so great with the boy. Even when you couldn't be sure whether he had done it or not. Even when everybody around us put pressure on you and the tug-of-war for the truth threatened to rip it all apart. You stayed calm and serene, continuing to believe in the good.
I couldn't stop looking at you during these days. Your truly caring nature that didn't ask any questions or subject your counterpart to any conditions was fascinating. It still is. Somehow, I had to think back to that case a lot during this period. I don't know why.
You probably do, 'cause you're the smarter one of the two of us.—
She remembered that case. Most of all she remembered the puzzled fear in the eyes of the boy. Not knowing what exactly was happening to him and how it would all end. How it would impact his world and most likely change it forever. She sometimes wondered, whether he grew up to be a young man with just the same puzzled fear in his eyes.
She could see some remnants of that fear in Cal's eyes, too. From time to time and when he didn't realize she was looking at him. It's a kind of fear that will probably never leave you.
She imagined Zuleikha from his stories for a moment. Golden skin, long brown hair, an emerald green gown gently enveloping her figure. She became alive in his stories and every word just proved how much she meant to him.
Just like he was glad that somebody caught her falling, she was glad for him, too. Finding someone like this in the middle of all the chaos seemed like something impossible, yet it had become a precious reality. Just like the impossibility of him ever returning had become her most precious reality.
She just sat quietly for a while, thinking about what help she maybe had to offer. An idea had entered her head, but she wasn't sure if it really was one of her better ideas. It involved biting the bullet in a way and going back to a place that still made her heart ache a bit.
But the desire to help was stronger than her hesitation. She picked up her cell phone and navigated to an entry in her contacts that she hadn't called in a long, long time. Still, she never had had the courage to delete it for good.
The time waiting for him to pick up was long and uncomfortable.
"Hey Gillian," he greeted her.
"Hey Alec." The memories came rushing back. Apparently he still had her number saved as well.
"How are you?" he wanted to know and there was some honest concern in his voice.
"I'm okay." She hesitated a little. "He's back."
"I heard," he just said and she didn't need to specify more.
Alec didn't work at the State Department directly anymore, having moved from the Far East desk to a position at the Agency for International Development a couple of years ago. But he still held up good ties to his former colleagues that had probably kept him in the loop with news regarding the Lightman case.
"It seems everybody has heard by now."
"Yeah, gossip in D.C. travels fast. The juicy bits at least do." She wasn't exactly sure whether she detected a bit of disdain in his voice. Probably so.
She gulped down her pride. "I'm sorry to call you about this, but I need your help."
There was silence on Alec's end and she couldn't really blame him.
"Cal stayed with a woman called Zuleikha in Afghanistan. She helped him. Is there any way to find out if she is alright?"
"They already tried tracking her down."
She was confused as to how they would even know about her. "Why—, I mean how—?"
"Lightman spoke to Frank Mulley a couple of weeks ago. You remember Frank? Lanky guy who would eat all of the food from every buffet he could get close to?"
Oh yes, she remembered him. Mostly from a dinner party in their own home where he had raided the plates of food before she could even think of serving more.
"Yeah, I remember him. Sorry, I didn't know Cal had already asked him."
"No worries. I don't think they found her, but I'll see what I can do."
She wondered if he really meant it or whether it was just an empty shell of words used out of politeness. Alec had despised Cal ever since he had entered her life. Whether it was because he was close to her and him feeling jealous and threatened by it, or whether it was the way he behaved and sometimes forced his science on to other people including Alec, she never was able to truly figure out. She had avoided the topic when they had still been married and she surely wasn't going to go there now.
"Okay, thanks," she replied to his offer. "How are Denise and Charlotte?"
"Good. They're good. Charlotte has started kindergarten."
"Wow, time flies." It did. Being married to Alec seemed like a lifetime ago now. But it didn't prevent the hurt from still creeping up her body to the little spot on top of her breastbone where it reminded her of once being parents to a wonderful little girl together.
"Look, I gotta go to a meeting, but it was nice talking to you, Gill."
She remembered how her name sounded when rolling off his tongue. And still it felt like a life lived by another person, not by her.
"Bye," she said and couldn't wait to get home to her new life—with the man that had stolen her heart long before he had returned from the dead.