Time seemed to stand still as he examined the books. He would pick them up one at a time and admire their textures and covers. He would carefully open them up and start reading in search of just the right characters to speak to him and extend their invitation to him to join them on their journeys to far off places.
Christopher is a Son, a Father, and a Mentor. His goal is to breathe life into the characters that he creates and for their lives to have as much meaning as his own. His wish is for the characters that he writes to become cherished souls in this lives of his readers.
It wasn’t their words that hurt her. They always said the right things. They were always in the audience to clap when she won an award or reached a milestone. No, they hid their disappointment well. The giveaway was how their eyes lit up when Jenna entered the room. It was how their voices rose another octave when they greeted her. While her sister had always seemed to have an innate ability to elicit joy in others, she felt like her own smiles were often halfhearted or forced. It seemed obvious to her that everyone knew this. Her parents loved her, of course. It was just that she wasn’t their number one favorite child. She knew it wasn’t real, but she almost felt like her parents had named her “Breckon” because it sounded like “Second”.
Now here they were, forced to decide how best to handle two conflicting events. They had all talked about the big day when she would turn sixteen and get her driver’s license. They had promised her that the day was going to be all about her. But now the announcement had been made and Jenna’s high school graduation ceremony was the same day. They couldn’t change it, of course. That decision was out of their hands. The ceremony was going to take place as scheduled. Breckon could see her parent’s minds searching for a solution that could somehow make everything okay, but it was nowhere to be found. She knew that she would have to at least share the spotlight on the one day that was supposed to belong to only her.
Breckon’s body was waking even before her alarm sounded. The family’s morning ritual was so entrenched into her psyche that she was just basically sleepwalking through it. She didn’t have the zeal and commitment that the rest of her family had with their faith. It was just one more thing that made her feel so different from all her other classmates. Her mother had told both her and her sister that the first words that were spoken to them after they were born was her whispering the Call to Prayer in their ear.
Even though Jenna always seemed so cheerful, she seemed especially excited this morning. Breckon looked on as Jenna washed her face and then her hands up to her elbows. She then washed her head and her feet up to her ankles, as was their religious custom. Once they had both completed their ritual cleansing, both girls grabbed their headscarves and covered their bodies except for their hands and face. Their mother, Celmira, had been born in Damascus in the country of Syria, but lived most of her adult life in the United States. For as long as the girls had been alive, their mother had made their headscarves by hand. In some instances, she would choose one single color for the scarf and on other occasions she would spend long hours painting designs on them. The time, energy, and craftsmanship of her work displayed both her level of expertise in her art and her love for the girls.
As a group, the family completed the first pillar of Islam known as Shahadah before sunrise as was the practice. The custom was to complete the ritual pillars five times each day. The second pillar, the pillar of salat, needed to be completed midday when the girls were often at school. Breckon could feel the eyes of her classmates staring at her as she stopped what she was doing each day at noon to perform the ritual. She could almost hear their thoughts about how she must have looked so peculiar and archaic to them. After finishing, she sometimes left her headscarf around her neck – pulling in up slightly so that she could feel more hidden from everyone. One of the scarves that Breckon often chose to wear was one that her mother had made a very deep black color. When making it, her mother had chosen to hand paint gladioli flowers on it. Some of them were painted orange and others were painted turquoise. Breckon would fold the scarf in a way that covered the flowers up, showing only the jet-black color itself.
There had been some instances, while at school, where she and Jenna were in close proximity to each other when it came time to perform their second pillar. While Breckon was uncomfortable performing the spiritual acts in front of others that did not share her religion, Jenna seemed to somehow remain unphased – often times rising from kneeling with a smile on her face and seamlessly sliding into the fun conversation that her friends had been having. Jenna usually chose to wear some of the very bright-colored scarves that their mother had made. Sometimes she chose orange and other times yellow or violet. These selections made the already bright sapphire color of her eyes that much more vibrant. Both of the girls had carried on this eye color from their mother. The majority of their population had the same chestnut-colored eyes that their father had. Breckon did not see herself as deeply religious and often wondered if she would maintain the customs of her Muslim religion when she was an adult. That said, she still found herself being envious of her sister’s faithfulness.
The girls were back at home after finishing school and their other activities. The family had talked at dinner about how they would get an early start on Breckon’s birthday. They had managed to make arrangements so that she could be the first person to take their driving test that day. The graduation ceremony was in the early evening and her parents promised her that they would make sure that she would not feel as if her birthday was upstaged by the event. At one point, Jenna put her hand on top of Breckon’s. She looked at her and told her that she never had to worry about being outshined by her.
It was time for their final pillar of Islam for the day. They each took their customary spots and began their movements. Breckon once again could sense that Jenna had even more energy than she usually did. She heard the excitement in her voice as she spoke, “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah…”. She seemed to stand more still when the ritual called for it, and when she bowed, she did so with an almost militaristic level of precision.
As the night closed out, Breckon was in her room getting ready for bed. She heard a knock on her door. She looked up and saw Jenna peeking her head inside the partially-opened door. Jenna began walking towards the bed while asking if it was okay to come in. She sat down next to Breckon, halfway facing her and halfway facing the rest of the room.
“I meant what I said at dinner – you don’t need to worry about being outshined by me.”
“I know that it’s not anyone’s fault that your graduation fell on the same day as my birthday. It just happened. It probably works out best anyway. I despise watching Mom and Dad faking their emotions and acting as if their whole world revolves around me. This will give them, and me, a break from their pretending.”
“Don’t’ say that! You are everything to them!”
Breckon’s gaze dropped down to her feet – she started making an imaginary circle on the carpet with her big toe. “I wish I believed that…” Jenna reached out to her sister and hugged her lovingly. “Don’t ever forget that I love you. Allah is great. I testify that there is no god but Allah!”. With that, she got up and left the room, turning in the direction of her bedroom.
Breckon woke the next day. She walked out of her room just as she had done every other morning, but Jenna wasn’t there. Her door was closed. Thinking that she may have overslept, she went and knocked on her door. Opening it slightly, she peered in. Jenna’s bed was still made. It was clear that it hadn’t been slept in. Breckon then made her way through their home. She checked all of the rooms and looked outside as well. Fear rising inside her more and more with each empty space. Her head was swimming. Jenna was nowhere to be found.
Watching as her parents stood with the police officer, Breckon could see her mother shaking as they answered questions about what they knew about where Jenna went, and who she was with, in the last 24 hours. The officer asked for pictures of her and what she had been wearing when they last saw her. Was she mentally impaired or had she been threatened by anyone? He asked questions trying to determine if Jenna had had a pattern of running away or disappearing. Was she a runaway, or was this an abduction? The officer came and sat with Breckon also. Asking many of the same questions that had been asked of her parents. Did Jenna confide things to her that she didn’t share with their parents?
Breckon didn’t see anything out of place in their home, or in Jenna’s bedroom. More and more individuals showed up. Some were in uniform and others wore suits. A man who identified himself as Detective Michael Hawkes with Missing Persons Investigations had taken lead of the situation. He entered Jenna’s information into the National Crime Information database and provided the family with steps on how to contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Breckon realized that this had been the first day that she could recall where she hadn’t performed Shahadah before sunrise.
The detective had already begun reviewing Jenna’s social networking and had put together a list of her friends and family. He reviewed the family’s financial records to see if anything unusual had occurred. His team searched the neighborhood, and the surrounding area. They looked for any cameras that may have captured what happened and spoke with the neighbors to see if they had noticed anything unusual.
Jenna’s cellphone had been found in her nightstand. Wherever she was, she didn’t have her phone with her. Their parents had set a rule that they always had to have record of their girl’s passwords and pin numbers. The task had now begun to try to find what may have happened to cause this young woman to vanish. Each of her text messages and phone calls were reviewed. Her apps were documented, her activity timeline accessed, and her web search examined.
After a while, the detective came out of Jenna’s bedroom. His face had a very somber look on it. He had Jenna’s cellphone in his hand and walked over to the family. He showed them some pictures saved in Jenna’s photos. At first glance, they seemed innocent and pleasant. There was a picture of a basket with some fresh vegetables in it. Another was a photo of an apple pie. Some were pictures of couples smiling and appearing happy. Breckon didn’t recognize anyone in the pictures.
It wasn’t until the detective asked them to look more closely and to search for anything unusual that Breckon stopped and caught her breath. She had noticed something unusual in the vegetable basket. She pointed it out to her parents. Inside the basket, tucked away as part of the vegetables, was a grenade. In the picture of the apple pie, there was green placemat beneath it and silverware neatly rolled up beside it. However, sticking out of the top of the rolled silverware was the tip of a very sharp blade. The detective then used his fingers to magnify the pictures of the smiling couples. The young women were wearing gold jewelry, and some had collars. One of them had “lioness” written on the collar and another wore a collar with the words “high priestess” inscribed on it. Breckon’s father’s face turned pale. Breckon was still confused, but her instincts were making her very scared. Celmira let out a sob of agony that Breckon had never heard her utter before. Her mother grabbed a nearby scarf to cover her face. It was one that she was still working on and the ink had not yet fully dried. Breckon could see that her mother’s tears had caused the green color to bleed from the scarf onto her fingers. Breckon looked to the detective, “what does this mean?” It was then that he explained to her that what she was seeing were pictures of propaganda that was used to recruit young women to become brides within the terrorist group known as ISIS.
The family was speechless for a long moment as the reality of the circumstance crashed into them. Detective Hawkes had stepped away from them and was contacting authorities. As he turned away, Breckon could see that he was carrying a black gun on his belt. Her father was a man of peace and had never brought weapons of any kind into their home. The sight of the gun caused goosebumps to rise up on her arms. She was brought back to reality when she heard the detective say “We have reason to believe that Jenna Jassim needs to be looked upon as someone with ties to terrorism or that she may be capable of performing or orchestrating terrorist acts herself”. Her mother was shaking and tears were streaming down her face. She placed her hands in a prayer-like gesture and cried out to the detective.
“You have to save my baby!”
“We are doing everything we can.”
“She would never hurt anyone! Someone must have made her do this! She doesn’t understand what all of this means!”
“Does your daughter have a passport?” “Do you know if she owns a gun, or any other weapons?”
Celmira stared at the detective for a moment - stunned by what he had just asked. She took a moment to collect herself. She righted her shoulders moving all of her attention to the detective. Her response was very matter of fact. “Yes, she has a passport. No, she does not own a gun, or any other weapons.” The air in the room seemed to have suddenly shifted.