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*Opening Pages provide setting, tone, and main conflict of story.

Chapter One

Turbulent waves crashed against the inflatable raft brimming over with bodies, the midnight odyssey void of cover and captain. Sixty-one passengers huddled together, bruised shoulders overlapping, salt-encrusted eyelids heavy, and frigid feet spent. No one on board spoke of the belongings abandoned at shore to lighten the load. Not one complained of the icy wind slicing through their wet clothes, the Mediterranean both their salvation and their tormentor. And no one dared mention the two-year-old who fell overboard to retrieve his ball. 

A frantic rescue attempt nearly overturned the boat, water flooding in when the little boy’s father stabbed the sea with his arms in search of his son. Thirteen-year-old Samira Minashi on the adjacent side thought she spotted him in the dark waters. Several passengers plunged themselves into the sea up to their elbows, but the shadows dancing on the waves made a mockery of their efforts. Their hands gripped only moss and driftwood. 

More arms scoured the black sea like octopus tentacles hell-bent to lasso the boy. In minutes the splashing and struggling slowed to a stop, and the father pulled his boy atop the others. Samira imagined she heard the gurgle of the boy’s final breath; it could have been the wind. Time stopped when the boy’s mother wailed into the night, announcing his demise. 

As the woman rocked her dead son, Samira couldn’t help but stare at the boy’s feet. He wore only one waterlogged shoe. Samira spotted the other shoe floating away in the inky water. Perhaps others noticed the lone shoe growing smaller as the space widened between them. 

Isaak Ibrahim, Samira’s best friend Rome’s father, leaned in and whispered into her ear. “Maybe he needed one shoe for his journey to paradise.” Samira didn’t know what to make of Rome’s Baba’s words, but she understood wanting to escape the hell they were in. She and Rome sneaked off to the beach all the time, but that was in the before. Before the war. Before the exodus. Before this.

Rome and Sam were like hummus and pita, so much better together than apart. Rome called Samira “Sam,” and sometimes Sam called him Romeo, but only when family was not within earshot. Thinking of Rome distracted her now from the uneasiness of the cloudy night that blurred her sight, the long, slowly passing minutes, and her sad thoughts of a dead boy. 

Hours later, their boat still floated under the charcoal canopy. Sam, unable to sleep, lay her head in her mother’s lap the best she could in their cramped quarters and listened to the adults murmur. Sam’s mother, Fatima, quietly cursed the water, and Sam only made out a few of her mother’s words: “photos,” “ruined,” and “forever.” Isaak’s wife, Rahil, rubbed her eyes, the dark unable to hide the exhaustion and worry on her face. Sam called Rome’s mother Khalto, although she wasn’t technically Sam’s aunt. 

Khalto slipped her own small golden hoops on Sam’s ears back at the beach, maybe hoping they would be spared. It felt like ages ago when the man on the beach promised them a yacht after they handed over the last of their savings to him. Sam winced as she recalled the man leering at her ears like he meant to eat them. Isaak calmly stepped in between the man and Sam, gently unhooked the gold, and shook the man’s hand as he left the jewelry in his palm. Sam’s ears were left frigid and naked, but no one could steal the gift Isaak gave her: Sam was worth protecting. It wasn’t the first time. 

Squished between Fatima and Rahil, Samira wrapped her arms tightly around herself to quell her rumbling tummy, two fingers pinching her nose. The scent of the drowned child had grown pungent like rotten pears. 

“You paid for the passage with your wedding jewelry?” Fatima whispered to Rahil. Rahil answered by opening her fist, a faint tan line on her ring finger in place of a gold band. Sam glanced at her own hands, void of nail polish or anything sparkly, then resumed squeezing her abdomen.

“What choice did I have?” Rahil said, looking to the sea. “Everyone gave up something.”

Isaak shushed the women. Curious heads turned in the dark. The woman clinging to her dead son wept softly. Her husband held onto both of them. Sam caught Isaak staring at the boy’s foot without a shoe. Sam wondered if Isaak was thinking of Rome when he was little. 

The raft hit a swell and a rush of water splashed over those on Sam’s side of the boat. The mother of the dead boy sat up, shivering. Sam wondered if the sea fanned her sorrow, because she began to wail again, rocking her son while pleading for him to wake up. Rahil wept too. Others joined in, an orchestra of pain, a crescendo over Mare Nostrum. 

“What if he thinks we’re dead,” Rahil said, loud enough for others to hear.

Angry glares and gasps seemed not to faze Khalto. Sam knew she was talking about Rome. But Sam had a plan to find Rome, if she could just stop feeling nauseous long enough to tell Khalto.

“Or worse….” Rahil spoke as if she were alone on the raft. “That we forgot him.” Isaak shushed her again, and she lashed out. “You don’t know what it was like to leave him.” 

“Don’t tell me what I don’t know,” Isaak shot back. 

Rahil hung her head. Sam wanted to hold Khalto to comfort her. Tell her the same lie adults told kids all the time: that everything would be okay. But all Sam could do was swallow her saliva, respite from nausea as impossible to find as a shoreline.  

“Khalto,” Sam said, tugging on her sleeve. The nausea rushed in and overcame Sam like a tidal wave. Samira buckled over and vomited, her reach missing the edge of the raft by inches, her stomach’s contents purged within the boat and all over Fatima and Rahil.

“Oh!” Rahil said as she caught Sam in her arms. 

“Samira!” Fatima said, her apologetic eyes no match for the disgust that circled them. 

Isaak removed his scarf and covered the mess. Sam knew that nothing could camouflage the odor.

“I’m…sorry,” Samira whispered, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. 

The rubber dinghy, filled with Syrian refugees, coasted toward Greece and stunk of sulphur seawater, a dead boy, and Sam’s vomit.

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