Panting heavily, the boy hops over piles of burning rubbish to chase his patched-up football. With each step he takes, his feet shift uncomfortably in his slightly worn sandals. He scans his surroundings, ensuring that none of the older kids are lurking in the forest of debris formed by collapsing hospitals and government buildings. He’s more cautious this time, the memories of his last stolen ball etched in the picked scabs covering his knees and elbows. In a makeshift cave, partially obfuscated by a screen of rising dust, the boy can hear the slurring sounds of a conversation between his older brother, Qasim, and a friend. They stumble out gripping a plastic bag tightly in their hand, both with rashes forming around the edges of their mouth.
“What are you doing?” the boy asks.
“Fuck off,” his brother replies. His friend chuckles slightly.
“I need to get my ball.”
“Fuck off from here. Go. Now.”
The boy looks up at his brother, eyes fierce, tightly scrunching up his fists. But the moment Qasim moves forward, he scrams.
As he finally approaches the street from which he came, he notices that the vendor, Abbas, has returned. Two large patches of sweat have emerged under his armpits. The collar of his shirt, discoloured in a brownish yellow tinge, presses uncomfortably against his neck. Placed on top of his cart is a chilled bottle of Coke, drops of water racing down it like beads of sweat. The boy licks his lips and practices a charming expression, reciting the words quickly in his head.
“Abi,” he chirps, looking up at the vendor with a sheepish grin then feigning a shy glance down at the floor.
“Oh don’t Abi me, take it and get out of here, you little rascal!” Abbas replies, chuckling to himself as he tosses the bottle to the boy, who barely catches it, struggling to wrap his little fingers around its width. He runs away as Abbas’ voice echoes in the distance: “make sure you bring me 40 rials tomorrow!”
As he tiptoes towards his house, the boy accidentally steps on a chipped grey brick, twisting his ankle and letting out a small yelp. Emerging through the front door, his mother, Aliye, shakes her head, telling him to wipe his feet at the door before entering.
“Don’t bounce the ball in the house,” she cries out.
She hobbles over to a corner with an exercise book and a woven mat, gripping her back with her right hand as she slowly sits down. The boy quickly settles himself onto her lap, as she gently places one arm around him and kisses him on the head. He leans back, nestling into her as she starts making him write each letter individually. His tiny fingers wrap around her hand as she guides him to write his name onto the sheet. They practise it five times and the boy counts out loud, ensuring that his mother doesn’t fool him into doing more than necessary. Then she asks him to practise on his own, sounding out each syllable as he clumsily grips the pen. Just as she begins to correct his mistakes, the boy’s eyes begin to wander, focusing on the single ray of light beaming through the window beside him.
“I’m tired,” he whines. “Enough for today, Mama!”
“Just three more times before your class tomorrow and then we will be done.”
It’s no use; the boy quickly jumps out of her lap, grabs the ball and runs outside. Aliye gently nurses a cut on her hand from a few days ago. The dying skin around the cut is beginning to blacken, sticking to the dust-covered rag she had hurriedly wrapped around it. She lets out a sigh and lies down, her eyelids finally fluttering shut.
The boy eventually returns, his shirt covered in brown strokes of dirt. His skinny arms shake gently as he struggles to lift a jug of lukewarm water off a table that comes up to his chest. The rustling sounds coming from his mother’s section of the house, as she twists and turns in the heat, catches his attention. He makes his way over to her, pulling away a sheet that separates the mat she sleeps on from the rest of the house. As he squats down next to her, she gently places her hand on his cheek and smiles in her sleep. The boy briefly lies down next to her, but can’t seem to fall asleep.
The boy gets up and picks up the pen and exercise book on which his mother had made him write his name a few hours ago. He spends hours tracing her writing, obsessing over each minor error. His focus is unflinching, broken only in brief moments where he fantasises over his teacher giving him a sticker for his perfect handwriting. In the fantasy, the other children in the class stare at him in awe at the perfection of his writing, admiring his intricate attention to each curve and perfectly rounded dot. They even start chanting his name, but he has no time for his fans. He races home and shows his mother, who smiles down at him, kneeling down and resting her forehead against his. Eventually, the fantasy draws to a close and he continues practising until he is satisfied. Exhausted he lies down, and finally falls asleep.
The boy is shaken awake the next day by his mother, who hurriedly places a glass of milk in his face.
“Drink every last drop!” she yells as he scrunches his face, pushing it away.
She takes the glass from him and hands him a plastic bag in which she has packed a pen, an exercise book and a biscuit.
“You’re going to be late!”
The boy rushes through the door. As he journeys to school, he entertains himself by trying to walk in a perfectly straight line, placing each foot immediately after the other. With his attention placed solely on his feet, he accidentally crashes into a well-built middle-aged man. The man screams at him, missiles of spit landing on the boy’s cheeks. Startled, he paces ahead, until the man’s booming voice fades into the car horns and bargaining street vendors. Passing through an unusually quiet strip, the boy notices an empty white van parked hastily on the footpath. He pauses to inspect it further before running away as quickly as possible.
When he approaches the school, the boy starts visualises the process of writing his name, mentally tracing each element. He finally gets to the classroom, taking his an expectant smile refusing to leave his face. Their teacher instructs the children to write their name down five times, claiming that the student with the best handwriting will receive a sticker. As he looks around the classroom, all the students rush to grab their pens, wanting to complete the task as quickly as possible. He makes a slow start, tightly gripping his pen to control each movement. However, his attention drifts to a whistling sound that is gradually getting louder. The boy looks up at his teacher, who is now looking at the roof, his eyebrows knitting together as he starts to frown.
* * *
Two workers cautiously make their way through a pile of rubble. Both of them clumsily cover their noses with their hands in a futile attempt to shield themselves from the rising clouds of dust. They make their way through the site, walking around piles of shattered glass. One of them kneels down and notices a scrap of metal that reads “Lockheed Martin”. He picks it up and places it in a plastic bag. Next to him, concealed poorly under two concrete slabs is an outstretched hand, gripping a scrunched sheet of paper. It belongs to a boy — the rest of his body lies a few metres away, covered in swatches of black and red. On the sheet of paper is a half-written name.
The workers cannot decipher it.