Dust We Are | Aneeka Usman

It is dead dark, and the air tastes of debris and flavors unknown, she says. Even her saliva has dried out.

 I press harder on the pen I am holding till it breaks, its tip pierces my thumb, lets out a thin streak of blood. 

At times, she says, she feels she’s already dead, but the feeling of something crawling up her skin reminds her she’s still alive. My throat constricts. I swallow my tears and nod.  She wants me to stay strong, stay positive for our kids. She’s glad that the rescue team found them. She couldn’t imagine having them with her down there. How are they?  How are they feeling? Couldn’t they talk to her? She wants to know. 

 Yeah, they are safe with my parents; are slowly recovering from the shock; miss her, and cannot wait to see her again. One by one I address all her fears. I am careful with my voice and leave no traces of lies. Don’t want to tell her how my fingers are numb from digging and dialing numbers after the disaster relief team told me their heavy loaders and excavators are out of repair and the new ones are on the way—but they are doing all they can. She doesn’t need to know or I would lose her, us—what’s left of us. I want to remind her, once again, that she needs to quit talking to save her phone battery, but I don’t.  Being alone is worse than death, she has told me before. I cannot muster up a goodbye, not when she is recalling our firsts: The first time we met:  how she helped me recover the assignment I accidentally deleted; Word doc was a new thing back then. Our first night together: how my hands trembled when I unzipped her blouse. Our first baby: how nervous I was of holding her, of hurting her. Old memories: good times. I am listening, but my mind is foggy with images of the camera shaking, the earth cracking, and buildings falling to bits on the TV screen. A haze of emotions falls over me. My body burns thinking of the corrupt government officials and politicians. It’s all because of them; only if they had done their jobs right, our building would have survived the earthquake. I would have been with my family right now. I am cursing them out loud, wishing them death, threatening to make their lives living hell as soon as I find out their addresses. 

And then these flashbacks from the two nights ago black out every other thought: I am wasted at the party; the girl in the red dress is whispering something in my ears; I wrap my arms around her; draw her closer; whisper back; we leave to go to my room. I woke up late the next morning and missed my flight. At the airport, the news of a 7.2 magnitude Earthquake in the northern region of Pakistan was flashing on the TV screens. Then I saw Margalla Towers tumbling down as if it was nothing more than my son’s Lego creation. 

It’s all a dream now.

I feel as if it was I, and not her, who was caved in, trapped in dark, without any hope of rescue.

I lose myself, tears flowing down my cheeks. I am asking for her forgiveness, saying I am sorry that I wasn’t there with them.

She doesn’t understand. She says I shouldn’t feel that way. It wasn’t my fault. Besides, she will see me soon.  She can tell the team is getting closer. They probably cannot hear her: her throat hurts from all the yelling. But she can hear their machines drilling everyday. It throws down more debris which scares her that she may fall further down, but she doesn’t want them to stop—it’s the sound of life for her.

They don’t have the new excavators but they are digging up fast. Right? She asks. Her voice sounds as if she’s talking in a tunnel: hollow, base.


Yeah, right! And they should get the new excavators by tomorrow… I hear my voice dropping in a vacuum.

Aneeka Usman is a mom, a teacher, a writer, and a realtor from Chattanooga TN. She teaches first-year college writing at Dalton State College. Her work has been published in Litro magazine. 

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