The Sarit Centre by Jennifer Martin
He is only a boy – sixteen or seventeen – but his hand does not shake when he points his gun at Emma. He looks into her eyes and his smile grows as hers fades. He murmurs words in Somali or maybe Arabic as he steps closer to her with the AK-47. A long scar winds around his wrist like a handcuff. He is standing only a few feet from her on the ground floor of Nairobi’s Sarit Centre while all around them shoppers scream and run and fall dead and wounded to the floor in bursts of Al-Shabaab gunfire. Over the mall’s speakers, John Lennon sings about the moon and the stars and the sun, his voice mixing with cries and pleas for mercy followed by single gunshots and the ghastly cadence of machetes chopping through to the tile floor.
When the Somali teenager aims his gun at the spot above Emma’s nose, the chaos in the mall evaporates. There is only the AK-47’s nozzle and the boy’s huge, implacable eyes. The eyes burn from within, lighting his gaunt face. Emma tastes blood as she bites her tongue. Her knees turn to water and she sinks to the floor. Her purse and her new gold bracelet from Jewelart and the mangoes for Chloe’s oatmeal slide from her hands along with the shillings she was giving to an old man beggar.
She raises her arms above her head and tries to speak, tries to say please, I have a child, but the only word that comes out is, “Please…” She is going to die.
He pulls the trigger, but his gun jams. For a second, Emma is too stunned to move. The boy glares at the AK-47, his eyes black grenades. He points the gun at her again and this time she thinks only, Chloe, as she waits for the explosion, for the white nothingness.
Where is the white? The gun hasn’t fired again and Emma feels her reprieve as if she has jolted awake mid-nightmare. She gasps and stumbles to her feet, but she slips on the wet, sticky floor. When she pushes herself up, her hands come back red. The old man beggar is lying face down next to her. She sees him suck in a tiny bit of his own blood from the floor with a shallow breath as if he is trying to pull his life back inside. His fingers twitch above the money she was handing him. The 40-shilling coins are crimson now. The old man’s blood is painting the silver face of Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s president, the sender of troops to Somalia.
Emma leaps over him. The Al-Shabaab teenager tries to grab her as she flees, but she knocks his hand away. She sprints past Jewelart. Where is the exit? Emma has shopped in the Sarit Centre almost every Saturday since arriving in Nairobi over three years ago after the post-election violence to set up nutrition programming. Before Chloe. Before Samuel left her for a Kenyan woman who cooks ugali and tolerates the stink of his unshowered dalliances.
Why can’t she find an exit? Emma knows this mall. She knows the exits. She runs around the Nokia Shop toward Uchumi Supermarket.
Is the boy following her? Her breathing is like thunder in her ears. People who still can are running for cover – up the stairs to the first floor, into Uchumi, into The Text Book Centre to seek shelter in algebra, economics, and Voltaire. The woman from Jewelart who sold Emma her bracelet five minutes ago beckons to her from a ladies’ room doorway. She is going to hide inside, but Emma shakes her head no. The woman will be trapped. Her white sweater is already stained red.
The exit is to Emma’s right, but a man with a gun and a scarf wrapped around his face blocks it. She watches as he points his weapon at an older couple cowering in front of Uchumi. Their hands are raised just as Emma’s were a few seconds ago.
The husband moves to stand in front of his wife. He is wearing a Yankees cap. “We’re just visiting. We have nothing to do with your argument with the Kenyan government. Please allow us to leave.” The man’s voice is reasonable, it is calm, and it is American. The Al-Shabaab fighter guns the couple down.
Emma stuffs her hand into her mouth to stop a scream and tastes the blood of the old man mixed with her own bitten-tongue blood. Chloe. Chloe is waiting for mangoes. She must get home to her.
The Somali boy appears behind Emma. His burning eyes search for her. He is walking quickly and reloading. Maybe his gun hasn’t jammed. Maybe he is just using dozens and dozens of bullets.
She can’t get to the door. The only way is up. The Sarit Centre has four stories above the ground floor. Emma runs for the stairs. As she stumbles up the first steps, she glances into Uchumi’s window. A mannequin with blue eyes and a white dress on top of white skin is showing shoppers the advantages of a long-handled broom and now it is 2009 just after Kibaki and Odinga have signed the peace accord. The post-election killing has ended and the streets of Nairobi are flooded with cheering people, and their brooms. Friends and enemies alike sweep dirt and dust, air and puddle, sidewalks and cars and roads and the dancing feet of their neighbors. Emma joins them. They brush far into the night, sweeping dark memories into the past, freeing roads and yards of the swings of machetes and bricks and of burning-tire necklaces.
The eyes of the mannequin follow Emma as she bounds up the stairs and onto the first floor. John Lennon is recognizing his brothers, everyone he meets. The Food Court with half-eaten chapati and overturned chairs is in front of her. Swahili Plate with its bowls of ugali, beans, and sukuma wiki. Chicago Pizza. Tastes of Lebanon. Southern Fried Chicken. The mall lights on this floor are bright like white stars. The old man’s blood tastes of salt on Emma’s tongue, of mineral and earth as if she has consumed his essence. A loud rattle comes from Chicago Pizza as its owner yanks the metal gate down, locking himself inside. A teenaged boy, probably Kenyan, in a Swahili Plate uniform – they’re usually maroon but today it is white – jabbers on a cell phone as he peers over the railing to the floor below. Emma’s phone is in her purse on the ground floor. The boy’s shaved head is sweating and it shines in the overhead lights.
He points to the bottom of the stairs and shouts, “Take care!” As Emma turns her head back to the ground floor, he rushes over and shoves her sideways. A bullet flies past her head.
Her would-be assassin, her Al-Shabaab hunter, is coming toward the stairs. The second boy, her savior in white, flees toward Swahili Plate and Emma starts to follow him, yelling, “No! No! You’ll be trapped in there! We can only go up!”
Gunshots are starting below again, and screams. As Emma dashes for the stairs, a grenade or bomb goes off somewhere on the ground floor. She hears the shattering of glass as windows explode. She is up the steps and onto the next floor in seconds.
The movie theater is in front of her. Alice in Wonderland – the one with Johnny Depp – is still playing. It’s too old for Chloe, she thinks absurdly. The White Rabbit will scare her. Should she hide in the cinema? It is dark, but she will be trapped. She runs forward and pulls on one of the doors but it is locked. Not yet 10:30. The Cineplex doors open at noon on Saturdays. She jumps at the sound of more gunfire below. She has not heard any from above. She must go up. There is no other way. Emma turns back toward the stairs – is he coming up them? – and sees movement out of the corner of her eye, a flash of white in front of the Arena Health Club next to the movie theater.
A baby! A toddler, a little girl maybe eighteen months old, in a white diaper and red t-shirt is wandering in front of the Club’s store window. Her fat legs and bare feet totter along. She looks into Emma’s eyes for just a second with her big brown eyes devoid of fear. They are the eyes of all the toddlers in the feeding center and in Chloe’s play group and they are Chloe’s eyes because they haven’t yet seen what can happen in the world, they haven’t yet seen mercy denied. It is two years ago and Emma is in labor and the pain is exquisite and Samuel is still holding her hand while she holds Chloe against her chest. Chloe’s heart is beating in rhythm with hers and she falls in love with her daughter for the first time.
Emma runs toward the little girl, but the child disappears around the corner. By the time she gets past the Health Club and around the corner herself, the girl is nowhere to be seen. Emma is at the stairs again back where she started. She seems to be going in circles. Could the child have gone up so quickly? Or down?
No, not down, not down, Emma thinks, her breath coming in gasps. She glances over the railing. It is darker below, but she can make out several Al-Shabaab huddled in a group. No sign of the little girl.
A soft voice coming from above. The light from the third floor shines behind the head and shoulders of the whisperer. “Hey, you there.” A Kenyan voice. A woman’s voice.
Emma whispers back, “Is it safe up there? Is there a little girl in diapers up there?”
Before the woman can answer, Emma hears a gunshot. She flinches as a bullet hits the wall behind her. When she glances back over the railing, the three Somali fighters, among them the teenaged boy, are staring up at her. The boy is pointing. The other two, probably in their mid-twenties, are aiming. Another bullet flies past her as her feet hit the staircase. Chloe, she thinks. It will be okay. I will come home. I will.
She sprints up the steps two at a time. When she reaches the top, she looks both ways down the long corridor – the third floor has offices at either end rather than shops – but sees no trace of the little girl. She glances back over her shoulder at the second floor. Nothing. Has the child wandered back into the Health Club? From here, the Club is dark. Perhaps someone has turned the lights out. Perhaps someone thinks that will keep them safe, that a blanket of black will keep the monsters at bay.
“Should we go up?” The Kenyan woman whisper-yells as she hurries down the hallway toward Emma.
Emma smells fresh paint and realizes she is standing against a newly-painted corridor wall. There is white mixed in with red on her hand and arm now. Lennon is still singing, still shining on. She stares at her hand – she can’t seem to help herself – until the woman grabs her arm and shakes her. “Are they coming?”
Together, they look below. The two older men are running in the other direction firing at someone. The woman sighs with relief, but Emma shakes her head as the boy starts to follow the men then stops. “They’ll come. He’ll come.” She hears herself say, without knowing why, “He’s always been coming.”
The woman is older than Emma first thought, her hair as white as the paint. Her face is wrinkled and her cataract-cloudy eyes stare into Emma’s and it is last year and Emma and Chloe are in South Boston visiting Emma’s parents. Her father has cancer. Emma is jogging with Chloe in her stroller past a local pub, Murphy’s Law. A woman Emma’s age, younger than this Kenyan woman but wearing the wrinkles of years of smoke and drink, sits behind a table in front of the pub next to a pro-impeachment poster of Obama with a Hitler moustache drawn onto his face. She sees Emma’s “I love Kenya” t-shirt and her premature wrinkles from the sub-Saharan sun. Then her eyes zero in on Chloe’s light brown skin. In the seconds it takes Emma to jog past, the two women stare at each other. Can they really be two women living in the same world?
The boy is staring up at them. Emma can’t really see his eyes in the darkness below, but she knows he stares with an unblinking fury, knows he wears his own certain early death like a medal of honor, his violence like a flak jacket, knows she has somehow become the enemy of young men scattered across the globe.
The old woman clasps her hand. “There is only one floor above us.”
“Is there a fire escape? An outside fire escape?” Why doesn’t Emma know this? For years, she’s been bringing Chloe to a mall with five floors without making sure they can escape a fire, or this.
The woman stares at her blankly then tugs on her arm. “We must go now!”
The fourth floor is where the doctors’ offices are. Emma brings Chloe to Dr. Barad for her check-ups and shots and lollipops.
They climb the stairs together, the woman still holding Emma’s hand. She slows Emma down, but her grip feels both soft and firm. It is a hand that has given much comfort over the years, a mother’s hand. John Lennon shines on and on as Emma glances at the woman’s misted eyes and it is six months ago. Emma holds her mother’s hand at her father’s funeral. Her brother stands on the other side. They prop their mother up between them easily, her body so light it seems most of her has already followed her husband into the next world.
Emma glances back down the stairs. She does not see the Al-Shabaab boy, but he is there. She feels him below. He is reloading, he is coming, he is relentless.
They reach the top of the stairs and Emma’s knees are weak again. Her heart is racing. As they turn down the white hallway toward the doctors’ offices, her vision blurs with tears. The corridor is too bright. Dr. Barad’s office is in front of them. A lab coat is thrown across the back of a chair next to the door. Chloe doesn’t like lab coats. They make her cry and this one is so white it sparkles like diamonds. Emma pulls her hand from the old lady’s to wipe her tears and feels her fingers shake across her eyes. Chloe needs her. Chloe will be crying right now because Emma is late, but she can’t be very late because Lennon is still playing, still shining on. She looks for the old lady, but can’t see her – where has she gone?
The boy is coming down the corridor toward her. He is marching and smiling and aiming in the brilliant white light. There is a window above Dr. Barad’s door, a window Emma never noticed before. It is a skylight and it is open. The sun streams in. The moon and the stars and the sun stream in. Without another thought, Emma uses the last of her strength to vault up onto the chair and pull herself up and through the skylight. She sees the lab coat puddle into white nothingness below her, and she sees the boy’s inescapable eyes grow larger and larger. She feels herself falling into them and she is back on her knees on the ground floor and the old man is dying next to her and the gun isn’t jamming and there is only the nozzle’s flash of fire and the burning eyes and the no Chloe and the white.
Jennifer Martin is a recent graduate of the UMASS MFA creative writing program. She also has a master’s degree in international nutrition from Tufts and an earlier BA in English from UMASS. She has long been torn between humanitarian aid work and writing and for many years was an aid worker in the field of emergency and public health nutrition before joining the MFA program. Jennifer has lived and worked in many countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. She has been writing fiction since she was a child and co-edited her high school and undergrad literary magazines. She has published short stories in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction From a Small Planet and (Un)civil Magazine and was the recipient of the Mary Doyle Curran Scholarship in her thesis year at UMASS. She is currently a writer at Northeastern University and hard at work on new novel.