A pounding knock at the door brings my head up from the pillow. I get my second shock of the morning when no one answers it.
No guards staked out in the living room while we sleep. No announcement of who’s at the door.
“Ms. Jones, it’s Dane and Erick,” I hear a voice announce in the distance. “We’re under strict instructions not to enter the suite until you say it is okay for us to come in.”
I look down at myself still naked from the night before. Then call back, “Hold on!” as I stumble out of the bed and paw through the closet until I find a kaftan. I haven’t answered a door in so long, it feels surreal and foreign as I turn the knob.
“What’s going on?” I ask the two muscular men with shaved heads and Bluetooth ear pieces who stand on the other side of the door.
“We’re not sure. The sheikh and his men left in a rush. There was some kind of emergency back in Jahwar. The sheikh is on a plane back to his kingdom right now…” Dane answers.
Oh, God. I reflexively reach for my phone only to realize the only numbers I have are for two of Zahir’s personal guards, both of whom are on the plane back to Jahwar.
“The twins…” I realize we didn’t meet them for the pre-dawn breakfast this morning.
“Don’t worry. We let the girls know there was an emergency and drove them to school,” Dane answers.
“Mind if we turn on the news?” Erick asks.
Ten minutes later, I’m standing between my American security watching BBC World, the only channel broadcasting about what happened in Jahwar.
“…terrible accident at the site of what was billed to become the UAK’s biggest shopping mall and entertainment center.”
I gasp, covering my mouth with both hands when I see the collapsed wreckage of the entire right side of the Kingdom Mall.
“… Indian billionaires, Najib Zaman, and his grandson, Rashid Zaman, were believed to be in the building at the time of the collapse, along with Rashid’s wife and young daughter, who are members of the Ardu Alzuhuwr royal family.”
“No…no…no…” I whisper behind my hands, thinking of elegant Mahirah and lively Aisha as they show images of several men in pale blue uniforms and hard hats searching through the wreckage.
The disembodied British newscaster’s voice continues, “The crew is still searching the wreckage, but none are believed to have survived.”
My heart withers in my chest when three pictures appear on the screen: a black-and-white photo of Mahirah in her hijab, and corporate headshots of Rashid and an older man who must be Zahir and Rashid’s grandfather, Najib.
The British newscaster goes on to say this September would have marked the tenth anniversary of Princess Mahirah’s marriage to Rashid Zaman. That Rashid became a tech billionaire in his own right before the age of 30, but recently took the position of Chief Technology Officer at the international conglomerate, the Tourmaline Group, at his grandfather’s behest. According to sources, his grandfather had been grooming him to take over as CEO of the Tourmaline Group and had plans to retire within the next two years. In accordance with the BBC’s protocol on handling juvenile details and in respect of the family, they are not showing photos of little Aisha. But the newscaster tells us the family was in the building for what was supposed to have been a simple photo-op in front of the mall’s pre-built storefronts.
This is as close to an obituary as the news will get without officially declaring someone dead. However, I watch the coverage throughout the day, hoping to God they’re wrong.
But eventually, tears blur my eyes as body after body gets pulled out of the rubble. Only Rashid and one of his guards are unearthed alive. And they’re in such critical condition, the newscaster doesn’t sound optimistic about their chances of survival, even as she reports they’re being rushed to the hospital.
“Did you know any of them?” Sasha asks when she and Kasha return from school.
“Yes—” I start to answer, only to stop when an image of Aisha doing her great-aunt’s 60s Bollywood dance punches me in the heart.
“We should call Zahir,” Sasha says, as Kasha holds me and rubs my back. “Can we do that?”
The complicated answer to her question is no. Erick and Dane have been told to stay with us, but other than that, it’s radio silence. And when I try texting Zahir’s personal guard, I don’t receive a message back, not even a gray dot-dot-dot, though I know the plane is equipped with Wi-Fi.
The twins grimly study for and take their SATs that Saturday. To everyone’s surprise, including her own, we’ll find out three weeks later that Kasha scored in the 1500s. Much higher than her twin sister, and way beyond the bare minimum they’d been told they’d need to get to go to Manhattan University.
This is about the only laugh we have in the weeks after Zahir’s departure. There’s not much joking or singing, for that matter. My ability to study is shot and the lyrics in my head have dried up like an ink bottle left out too long in the desert sun.
I spend most days sifting through news sites on Sasha’s laptop computer, scouring the internet for any news about the mall collapse.
The Jahwar news is tightly controlled—the only reason my kiss with Zahir received any attention was because a tourist leaked the video to social media and the national news station was forced to respond.
This means there isn’t much being said in the Jahwar English language media other than there is an ongoing investigation and the president of the UAK decreed a three-day mourning period for the entire country of kingdom-states. I get the sense that the photo opportunity was a move on the grandfather’s part. Zahir had been dragging his feet about going forward after a building audit concluded that the infrastructure’s steel quality wasn’t matching what the construction firm specified in the initial plans. So Zahir’s grandfather attempted to drum up local interest with the photo shoot. And perhaps pressure the new king into finishing what his father started.
But that’s all I can sort out with the smattering of news I find. Once the initial devastation is over, the story is pretty much dropped by all news outlets, except for a random pop up about a week later with the news that Rashid will require extensive surgery and physical therapy but has officially survived and been taken out of ICU.
I believe you met my daughter. I remember my introduction to Rashid with a pang. The way his gaze softened when he spoke of Aisha told me how much he adored his little girl. I can’t even imagine what he’s going through. Or Zahir.
“I wish we could call him,” Kasha says two weeks after the collapse, over yet another gourmet hotel dinner that doesn’t taste nearly as good as it used to when it was the three of us and Zahir.
“Or at least move back to the house,” Sasha says.
We’re all suddenly sick of living in a hotel.
I call one of the few numbers I do have and ask Johnny when he thinks he’ll be done with the house.
“Not for another couple weeks, and that’s only because your sheikh gave me double the usual crew to make sure it was done by the time the twins graduate from high school,” he answers. “But the major renovations are done. If you don’t mind playing bedroom shuffle and sharing while we get wrap up the rest of the work, you can move back in this weekend if you want.”
We don’t mind, and we do want.
We say a sad good-bye to Erick and Dane, with a reminder tacked on that there are laws here preventing them from following us to our private property, no matter who’s footing their bill. They seem to understand. But proving just how well they’ve been trained, they accept hugs from Sasha and Kasha while only nodding at me.
But even after moving back into the house, we still don’t return to our work on the twin’s demo album. And not just because of the 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM construction noise.
“It just doesn’t feel the same without him,” Kasha complains the one time we go out to the music set up in the detached garage and give rehearsing the two songs I wrote a shot.
I agree, though Zahir has nothing to do with the music and probably wouldn’t enjoy the twins brand of urban pop even if he did.
“Why don’t we give it until the construction work’s done?” I suggest. “He’ll probably call us by then.”
“Yeah,” Kasha says, her voice straining with forced enthusiasm. “And he wouldn’t miss our graduation, would he? He said he’d get us a car as a gift if we did well on our S.A.T.s”
“He said what?” I ask, alarmed.
“Kasha! He also told us not to tell Prin,” Sasha points out to her sister.
“Sorry, Prin,” Kasha says with a cute apologetic moue, “But, he promised…”
Sasha screws up her mouth and crosses her arms. “How have you not learned by now that dudes are always making promises they don’t keep?”
And though she is looking at Kasha, it feels like she’s talking to me.
But Sasha is the one who ends up shouting on the morning of their graduation in late June when she glances through the kitchen window to see a white Mercedes Maybach Landaulet with royal Jahwar license plates pull into our new circular driveway, followed by two matching white Aston Martin DB11s.
Sardonic teen act abandoned, both she and Kasha run out the front door, screaming at the top of their lungs.
However, they stand there deflated when I finally arrive on the scene. And I immediately see why when Luca, not Zahir, steps out of the backseat of the Landaulet, one of his Jersey boys is driving.
“What’s what, girls? Now which one of you is Kasha, and which is Sasha?” he asks, holding up two silver and black key fobs.
Neither of the girls say anything. They simply stand there looking so despondent at the sight of a gorgeous man holding key fobs for their dream cars that Luca asks, “Wait…did I get the date wrong? Today’s your graduation, right?”
Sasha speaks first, her expression morphing from sad to angry like a decision made. “You know what? Tell him he can keep his damn car!”
“Sasha…” I start to say, but she turns and runs back into the house, probably searching for a place to hide. Like she always does when she doesn’t want people to see that she has genuine emotions.
And to my surprise, the normally brightside-all-damn-day Kasha says, “Yeah, tell him to keep both of them.” I see tears in her eyes before she follows her sister back inside.
“Wow…that did not go nearly the way I imagined it would in my head,” Luca says in their wake. Then he looks over his shoulder and makes a “cut the engine” motion to the guys in the front seat of each Aston Martin.
I shake my head because it’s the last week of June. Meaning Zahir’s been gone without a word for over a month.
“He’s not coming back, is he?” I say quietly.
Luca shakes his head. “Doesn’t look like it. He’s dealing with a fucking shit storm over there. He hasn’t even sent for the car he left behind, just told me to take care of it…and you. You know, keep on Johnny to make sure the place’s done on time, make sure he gets paid, make sure the twins get the cars…stuff like that.”
I nod, understanding. I want to feel grateful he even bothered to follow through on his promise to the twins. Or made sure everything he started got finished. I don’t want to be selfish, I don’t, but it’s been weeks and I have to ask, “Did he say anything about sending for me? About me coming back?”
Luca pauses, the way people do when they’re trying to decide how much to share. Then he says, “No, he didn’t say anything one way or the other. But Jersey guy to Jersey girl, that extended family of his makes mine look like a bunch of rainbow-hugging Quakers. I’m surprised he got away with as much as he did, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for him to bring you back over there anytime soon.”
As soon as he says this, I release a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.
Luca looks around. “I didn’t really see it before, except on paper, but the house looks really nice from the outside. Like, the color you chose to replace the white.”
I look up at the house’s muted yellow exterior and say, “Kasha’s idea. I like it, too.”
“And I hear you guys have a full studio in there now.”
“Yeah,” I say with a crooked smile, but this conversation is already too sad, so I don’t tell him we haven’t even used it.
“What do you want me to do with the cars?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I guess keep them for a bit until the girls aren’t so sad about Zahir.”
“When do you think that will be?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say again, and though we’re talking about the girls, it feels like we’re talking about me.
The girls stop bringing up Zahir after that. They throw their caps at the graduation ceremony and act like the cars never happened. Sasha tells me I should either sell the house or start looking for work, and as if on cue, the associates manager from Liederman-Frankel calls to tell me my job will be available if I want to start back in September after I take the bar.
The formerly hostile associates manager sounds suspiciously chipper about the prospect of my return and I don’t have to guess why because I know Zahir’s hand is somewhere in the background of this call.
“Thank you,” I say, my voice subdued and soft. Like I’m still in Jahwar and watching Zahir eat while I’m sitting hungry on the bed.
I make myself think of Aisha, and how Zahir must be feeling, and how I am probably the furthest thing from his mind. As it should be…I guess. I’m some random woman who kissed him, and no matter what we shared, we were never a real husband and wife.
Except on paper.
A contract signed, the same as IP paperwork. I belong to you. But you don’t belong to me…
That one lyric takes me by surprise, but then my mind goes silent and I tell the associates manager I’ll see her in September.
Back to square one for real this time, I think as I get off the phone. But unlike my earlier thought, the words don’t come on a melody. It’s just a thought. A dead thing in my head.
And then one day I come down to the kitchen to find the twins at the island’s new brushed steel counter. They are both looking at Kasha’s phone, their expressions stricken.
“What’s going on?” I ask, afraid some beloved celebrity has died.
But after exchanging a look with Sasha, Kasha hands me the phone. “I created a Google Alert before I decided he was no longer our cool brother-in-law. But I forgot to turn it off…”
The rest of her sentence is lost to the roaring ocean that appears between my ears as I read an online UAK Woman’s Magazine article announcing HH Sheikh Zahir’s engagement to HH Sheikha Hessa, a member of the Ardu Alzuhuwr royal family.”
“I’ve brought some champagne back from my visit with the royal family of Ardu Alzuhuwr. Would you like to share a glass with me at dinner tonight?”
Suddenly, I feel sick. Everything clicks. Why Zahir left for that two-day “business trip” and why he had champagne when he came back.
And in a strange twist of fate, that is when my phone goes off. I take it out of my back jeans pocket and see a number that starts with the country code for the UAK.