Then Where Are You Going? (Story 22 HOW Series FINALE) 

Now a short MOVIE and bestselling novel!

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It all began with this widely popular short story series:

As we countdown to the  WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short MOVIE on January 27 & 28, 2018, we’re relaunching the 22-part series, one story per day:

Story 22 (Series Finale): Then Where Are You Going? 

Read full story (beyond Story 22) in His Other Wife, the novel

Aliyah dreamt that she was in sujood, her forehead resting on the soft grass of a lush green field as she prayed to Allah. She remained in prayerful prostration as the field expanded and stretched beneath her. “Fabi-ayyi aalaa’e rabbikumaa tukadh-dhibaan,” a voice recited in a strong, beautiful voice. Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?

There was a sense of calm in Aliyah’s heart when her eyes fluttered open in the comfort of her bedroom. As she recovered from the grogginess of sleep, she wondered if Jacob had already prayed Qiyaam al-Layl. Instinctively, she reached out to see if he was still lying next to her…

What?

Heart pounding, Aliyah sat up in bed and searched the darkness for signs of her familiar surroundings. It took several seconds before she was able to convince herself that she was fully awake and no longer under the inebriation of sleep. But even as her eyes adjusted and revealed that nothing was amiss, there was still the lingering feeling that she was married and had not spent the night alone.

Any closer to your decision about Jacob?

A feeling of sickness sat heavy in her stomach as she recalled her uncle’s text message—and her response: I can’t marry him. The brief text conversation with Benjamin seemed like something from the distant past, but it had been only the night before.

Aliyah leaned to the side and turned on the small desk lamp that sat on the nightstand next to her bed. Her mobile phone still lay where she had left it. She hesitated only briefly before picking up the phone and powering it on. She couldn’t remember if she had replied to Benjamin’s response: Can’t now or can’t ever?

Can’t now, Aliyah read her reply after she unlocked the screen. But the cursor was still blinking after the last word, indicating that she hadn’t sent it. Aliyah started to press the right arrow icon but withheld. Pray first, she said to herself. Then tell your uncle everything that’s on your mind.

***

Jacob’s mobile rang late Saturday morning as he was walking out the exit doors of the hospital after a brief visit to Deanna’s mother. He withdrew the phone from his pocket and looked at the display. Benjamin Nelson. A sharp pain stabbed Jacob’s chest. Aliyah said no, Jacob figured. A part of him didn’t want to answer the phone. He and Benjamin had already spoken briefly after Jumu’ah on Friday, and Benjamin had said that Aliyah was having second thoughts. “But don’t worry,” Benjamin had told him. “I’m working on it. She’ll probably come around, insha’Allah. She just needs time.” But even as Jacob held on to the barest of hope, he knew that Aliyah didn’t need time. She needed someone else, a man who could offer a peaceful, uncomplicated version of marriage life.

As-salaamu’alikum,” Jacob said as he put the phone to his ear. He tried to sound upbeat, but he was so distracted by the melancholy he felt right then that he doubted he even sounded cordial.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam.” Already, Jacob could hear the apology in Benjamin’s tone.

“Any updates?” Jacob said in lighthearted humor as he reached into his pocket with his free hand and withdrew the keys to his car.

Jacob heard Benjamin sigh. “I’m sorry, Jacob,” Benjamin said. “But she said she can’t…”

Alhamdulillaahi ‘alaa kulli haal,” Jacob said. All praise is for Allah in every circumstance.

“At least not right now,” Benjamin added. “But she might change her mind. I can see if—”

“It’s okay,” Jacob said sincerely, interrupting Benjamin midsentence. As much as he wanted to marry Aliyah, he didn’t want Benjamin to belabor the issue. If there was anything Jacob had learned about women, it was that they disliked persistent men. There was nothing admirable about a man who was so self absorbed that he refused to accept no for an answer.

While some men prided themselves in “the chase” and contended that women liked to play hard to get, Jacob believed that any woman genuinely interested in commitment wouldn’t refuse a man just for the fun of it. “I like a challenge,” Larry would often say, but Jacob felt differently. “I accept a challenge,” Jacob would say. “If it comes naturally,” he’d add. “But I don’t necessarily prefer it. A relationship isn’t a game.”

“But she didn’t say no outright,” Benjamin said, “so I still think there’s a chance.”

Jacob creased his forehead as he pointed the keychain remote toward his car and pressed the button to unlock it. “What do you mean?”

“I’ll just send you the screenshots of our conversation,” Benjamin said. “Then you can let me know what you think.”

Jacob tried to temper the hope that he felt right then, but it was difficult. He wanted to remain levelheaded about everything in case Benjamin was being overly optimistic. “Okay, insha’Allah,” Jacob said, his nonchalant tone veiling his true feelings.

“Will you be able to make it today?” Benjamin said after a few seconds.

Jacob drew in a deep breath and exhaled as he opened the driver side door and climbed into his car. “I should be able to,” he said, shutting the door. “Is it still after Dhuhr?”

“Yes, insha’Allah,” Benjamin said.

“I might be running a little late,” Jacob said as he buckled his seat belt. “I’m just leaving the hospital now, and I have a few more errands to run. Then I have to pick up Younus and Thawab from Larry’s.”

“How is she?” Benjamin asked, his voice subdued in concern.

“Deanna’s mother?” Jacob said.

“Yes,” Benjamin said.

Jacob coughed laughter as he put his key into the ignition and started the car. “You know how they say near-death experiences draw people closer to God?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, I’m not convinced that’s true.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing significant,” Jacob said tentatively. “Except she grew angry when I recited Qur’an.”

SubhaanAllah,” Benjamin said in dismay.

“And she started mumbling all this stuff about the blood of Jesus.”

“Allah guides…”

“Yes He does…” Jacob said as he opened the compartment next to his seat and took out the wire that connected to the auxiliary port. He set down his phone after connecting the wire so that he could hear Benjamin through the car speakers. “So I’m just going to keep praying for her.”

“Pray for Valerie too,” Benjamin said, his tone reflective.

Jacob immediately regretted his comments about Deanna’s mother. He had forgotten that Benjamin’s wife wasn’t Muslim. “Is she open to Islam?” Jacob asked as he backed out of his parking space, glancing in the rearview mirror.

Jacob heard Benjamin sigh. “Yes and no,” Benjamin said reflectively. “She’s probably the most devout Christian in her family.”

“Do you think that makes her more, or less open to Islam?” Jacob said as he drove out of the parking lot.

“In some ways, more. But because of her family,” Benjamin said, “probably less.”

Jacob frowned as he thought of his own family. “Family can make things complicated,” Jacob said. “There was a time I felt my father was close to becoming Muslim, but I think my mother dissuaded him.”

Jacob heard Benjamin chuckle. “Valerie tried to dissuade me too. It almost tore apart our marriage, but giving up Islam wasn’t an option,” Benjamin said. “At least not for me.”

“Allah guides…” Jacob said, echoing Benjamin’s words from earlier.

There was a thoughtful pause. “If things don’t work out with Aliyah,” Benjamin said, “will you look into other options?”

Jacob was overcome with melancholy at the thought. “What other options?” he said, lighthearted humor in his tone. “I don’t think there are any more Aliyahs in the world.”

Benjamin chuckled, but there was a tinge of sadness in that sound. “MashaAllah, I can’t disagree with you on that one.”

Jacob felt a lump develop in his throat, and he tried to distract himself by remembering that there was still a possibility, albeit small, that he could marry Aliyah one day. Whenever “one day” would be, only Allah knew. Jacob wished it were easier to extricate himself from the desire to marry Aliyah. He hadn’t lived with her a single day in his life, and still he couldn’t imagine life without her. It would be easier if the prospect of marrying other women appealed to him. But right then, a dozen beautiful women of high status, good character, and deep spirituality could offer themselves to him, and he’d say no to each and every one. Even if four of them would agree to be his wives all at once, he doubted that the prospect would appeal to him any more.

This must be how love feels, Jacob thought sadly.

He’d had his share of girlfriends before accepting Islam, and none of them stirred the part of him that Aliyah did. The closest he had come to what could be considered love was the relationship he’d had with Melanie in high school. As early as middle school, there was a part of him that knew what he wanted in a wife. He didn’t always know how to fully articulate it, but he felt his wife would be “educated and intelligent, yet humble and reserved.” And he’d spent most of his young adult life searching for that woman. But everyone he’d dated would have, at most, two of those qualities, and he’d started to wonder if such a woman even existed. When he became Muslim, his hopes were renewed, as he imagined that perhaps his past disappointments were due to the women not having Islam in their life.

It was thirteen years ago that, for the first time in his life, Jacob felt intensely connected to a woman he had never even spoken to. Ironically, it was the day he and his future wife had met; and Jacob had only reluctantly attended the MSA dinner that Deanna had invited him to. Yet till today, Jacob’s fondest memory of that evening was of the woman in a green hijab. She had been leaning against the wall reading a book, oblivious to all the commotion and chatter around her. He remembered how her expression was one of thoughtful intrigue, as if the words on the page offered a perspective she hadn’t considered before. Educated and intelligent, and humble and reserved, he’d thought to himself; and the realization seemed to spring more from his heart than his mind…

Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of what your [own] hands have wrought. But He pardons [and forgives] much.

Astaghfirullah,” Jacob muttered in regret as he recalled the Qur’anic verse that most certainly explained his current fate. It was heart wrenching to realize that a moment of carnal pleasure—with a woman to whom he had no meaningful attraction—would render a lifetime of heavy consequences. Would that he could remove that filthy stain from his heart. Would that he could take back the moment and refuse Deanna’s invitation. Would that he could go back and speak to the woman in the green hijab. Would that he could walk up to Aliyah today, right then, and make her his wife…

“What’s that?” Benjamin’s voice said from the car speakers, asking Jacob to repeat what he had said. Jacob started, having forgotten that he was still on a phone call with Benjamin.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob said. “I got distracted.”

“Well, I’ll let you go,” Benjamin said. “Insha’Allah, we’ll talk more once you get here.”

“Okay, brother.”

“Don’t forget to read the screenshots I’m sending you.”

Jacob forced laughter. “I don’t think there’s a chance I’ll forget that.”

“Okay, then,” Benjamin said, laughter in his voice. “As-salaamu’alaikum wa-rahmatullaah.”

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam wa-rahmatullaahi wa-barakaatuh.”

***

Aliyah arrived to the masjid at a quarter to ten Saturday morning. As she entered the musallaa, she told Ibrahim to pray two units of prayer before sitting down and waiting for her in the front section of the prayer area that was reserved for brothers. She watched as Ibrahim walked swiftly to a space near the mimbar and raised his small hands as if in surrender, signaling the start of prayer. Aliyah smiled to herself then silently recited a du’aa that Allah would bless her son and preserve him upon Islam. She then walked to the sisters’ area and prayed two rak’aat herself. After praying, she sat down in the section where there was no partition so she could see Ibrahim while she waited for Jasmine.

There were about fifteen men and women scattered throughout the musallaa reading Qur’an and praying. It had been months since Aliyah had come to the masjid herself, and she was surprised at how peaceful she felt. She had imagined that she would never again feel comfortable in the masjid after the “hot Muslim mistress” rumors were spread about her. Oddly, since the moment she’d offered to meet Jasmine here, she had thought nothing about the rumors. But even now, as she remembered everything she’d gone through, she didn’t feel anxious or ashamed. She felt only relaxed and at ease, as if she were returning home after a long absence.

A shadow of a smile lingered on Aliyah’s face as she saw Ibrahim shake the hands of two older brothers who had been reading Qur’an. He then walked over to the small floor shelf and removed an English translation of the Qur’an before sitting down and reading himself. The scene touched a soft spot in Aliyah, and there was a twinge of sadness that she hadn’t thought of her son when she’d made the decision to stay away from the masjid. Ibrahim wouldn’t always be a little boy, she thought to herself. One day he would be a young man, and he’d need the company of Muslim brothers to help him hold on to his faith.

“Aliyah?”

Aliyah was removing the small Arabic-English Qur’an that she kept in her purse when she felt someone standing near her. She looked up to find Juwayriah looking down at her with an expression of confusion. An awkward smile formed on Aliyah’s face. “As-salaamu’alaikum,” Aliyah said as she set the Qur’an on her lap and reached up to shake Juwayriah’s hand.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam wa-rahmatullaah,” Juwayriah said, her handgrip loose and reluctant. “What are you doing here?”

The question sounded like a rebuke, and for a fleeting moment, Aliyah felt offended. But the feeling passed as quickly as it had come. Though the inquiry was ostensibly rude, Aliyah sensed that Juwayriah hadn’t meant it that way. In that moment, Aliyah was reminded of her sister, Cassie, who was uncomfortable with open displays of kindness and affection. Perhaps Juwayriah too masked her vulnerability behind grimaces and harsh criticism. Perhaps she too felt the need to carry herself like she had it altogether, while she was fragile and insecure like everyone else.

Why hadn’t Aliyah noticed that before? It was confounding how someone who once seemed so overpowering and threatening suddenly appeared so tenuously human.

“I’m waiting for someone,” Aliyah said. She paused before adding, “You?”

“Girl, I’m here almost every day,” Juwayriah said, waving her hand dismissively, a mixture of a smirk and a frown forming on her face. Aliyah sensed that Juwayriah was attempting to be friendly, as if to tell Aliyah she no longer harbored ill feelings.

“You know you don’t have to be a stranger,” Juwayriah added, lighthearted teasing in her tone. She kneeled until she was eyelevel with Aliyah so that her voice wouldn’t carry throughout the musallaa. “Nikki told me you’re still upset about all that Facebook drama.” She rolled her eyes and waved a hand. “But girl, it ain’t that deep.”

Aliyah’s lips formed a thin line in an effort to maintain a smile. While it was comforting to know that Juwayriah had a conscience, it was troubling that she wouldn’t take full responsibility for her actions. It reminded Aliyah of high school, when attempts by bullies to make amends were merely alternate forms of castigation. Why you gotta be like that?” they would rebuke those who avoided them. “Ain’t nobody thinking about you like that.”

Now, in the social media age, bullying took the form of blatant or passive aggression via online posts and tweets. On the rare occasions that bullies actually acknowledged wrongdoing, they made light of it by painting those they harmed as overly sensitive or paranoid. And like Juwayriah’s “it ain’t that deep,” they favored condescending dismissiveness over contrite apology. Why is it always the ones inflicting the harm that trivialize the extent of the wound? Aliyah often wondered.

“Well…” Aliyah said to Juwayriah, “if it’s on the record that the angels record for us, it is that deep.” She offered Juwayriah a closed-lipped smile, purposefully shifting blame back to where it rightfully belonged. “At least to Allah,” she added, surprised and pleased by the frankness with which she spoke.

Juwayriah coughed laughter. “Girl, I’m not getting into all that,” she said, smirking. But Aliyah could tell Juwayriah was more embarrassed than amused. “I’m just saying we moved on, so you should too.”

Yes, of course, Aliyah thought to herself in amusement. Bullies also dictate how long you can hurt—while there were no time limits or conditions on their self-assigned prerogative to “call people out,” even on things as petty as grammar and communication skills.

“So no more Facebook posts?” Aliyah asked, raising her eyebrows as if in pleasant surprise.

Juwayriah twisted her lips to the side, lighthearted humor in that gesture. “I don’t know about all that,” she said, a hint of sass in her tone. “I still got my opinions. You know how it is.”

Aliyah smiled knowingly. “And I still got my feelings,” she said.

Self-righteous, the term came to Aliyah right then. That was probably the description that Juwayriah and her friends would adopt for her from now on. Aliyah’s refusal to accept Nikki’s botched apology, compounded with Aliyah mentioning to Juwayriah the Book of Deeds and her right to her feelings, would almost certainly earn her the label that had been effectively coined by people who wronged others. Reminders about their souls didn’t inspire self-reflection or temper their dismissiveness of wrongdoing; the reminders merely incited their insistence on shifting blame to the ones they harmed.

“Girl, you a trip,” Juwayriah said, friendly teasing in her tone. But Aliyah could tell it was Juwayriah’s way of evading the issue.

“What’s Deeja up to these days?” Juwayriah said, changing the subject. “I keep calling her, but her phone is off. I don’t see her on Facebook anymore.”

“I don’t know…” Aliyah said, casting her eyes to the side. “I haven’t heard from her either.”

“Well, if you see her, tell her I’m trying to reach her,” Juwayriah said.

“Okay,” Aliyah said, opening up the small Qur’an on her lap and turning to the page in Surah Al-Baqarah where she had last read.

Juwayriah rolled her eyes playfully. “But let me get out of here,” she said, standing. “I’m supposed to be helping with this new Muslim class.”

“It’s today?” Aliyah asked curiously, looking up from the Qur’an. The last time Aliyah had heard anything about the class was a year ago, and she had been hoping that the class was still Saturday mornings.

Juwayriah glanced at her watch. “It’s supposed to start at eleven,” she said.

“You might have a new student today,” Aliyah said, grinning.

“Who?” Juwayriah said, creasing her forehead.

“It’s a new sister named Jasmine,” Aliyah said. “Or Yasmeen, as she calls herself now.”

Juwayriah raised an eyebrow. “Larry’s Jasmine?” It was odd hearing Juwayriah mention Larry’s name, but then Aliyah recalled that Juwayriah had been at the restaurant when Aliyah herself met Larry for the first time.

Aliyah drew her eyebrows together, not wanting to reveal that she knew about Larry and Jasmine. “Larry’s Jasmine?” she repeated as if in confusion.

Juwayriah waved her hand, a grin on her face as if enjoying a private joke. “Never mind,” she said, turning and walking away. “Insha’Allah, I’ll talk to you later,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.

After Juwayriah left, Aliyah looked toward where Ibrahim was sitting and found that he was in an animated conversation with a few older brothers, who seemed to be enjoying the banter. Aliyah smiled to herself then picked up the Qur’an and started reading the Arabic and then the English.

And of mankind is one whose speech about this world’s life may dazzle you, and he calls God to witness about what is in his heart; yet he is the most contentious of enemies. When he turns his back, his aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and cattle. But God loves not mischief. And when it is said to him, “Fear Allah,” he is led by arrogance to [more] crime. Enough for him is Hell, and worst indeed is that place to rest.

“O Allah, protect me and forgive me,” Aliyah muttered a silent prayer as she reflected on how easy it was to respond to reminders about Allah and the Hereafter with arrogance.

And of mankind is one who dedicates himself to seeking the pleasure of God, and God is full of kindness to [His] servants.

“O Allah, make me amongst them,” Aliyah prayed.

O you who believe! Enter into Islam wholeheartedly, and—

Aliyah’s cell phone rang and vibrated, and she immediately set the Arabic-English Qur’an on her lap and reached for her purse, embarrassed that she’d forgotten to turn off the ringer before entering the musallaa. Aliyah rummaged for the phone and pulled it out before it could ring a third time. A number appeared on the display that she didn’t recognize, and Aliyah assumed it was Jasmine’s since she had not saved Jasmine’s information in her contact list.

“Hello?” Aliyah whispered as she put the phone to her ear and ducked her head so that her voice wouldn’t carry throughout the prayer area.

“Salaams! I’m here,” a cheerful female voice said. “Where do I go?”

***

I can’t marry him

Can’t now or can’t ever?

Can’t now

Why not?

Bc it’s too much to deal w right now

When would be better?

Idk. Maybe 5 or 10 yrs

5 or 10yrs?!

Or 3 maybe

What would change your mind?

What do u mean?

If everything worked out how u wanted, how would it look?

Deanna is fine & the boys r happy

And if Deanna is never fine?

[sad face emoticon]

It’s OK to think of yourself, Ally

I know but it’s hard

Do u like Jacob?

Yes

Enough to marry him?

Yes but it could never work

Allah knows best

Yes He does and I think this is best

U sure?

Yes

OK

But I think J will make a woman really happy one day [happy face emoticon]

I wish that could be u

Me too

But?

LOL, Uncle B. But life happens. We already talked about this

OK Ally. I’ll tell him isA

Thanx

Yw

Jacob frowned thoughtfully at the mobile display from where he sat at the kitchen table in Larry’s home. He set down the phone on the table next to him and continued eating the tuna sandwich in silence while he waited for Younus and Thawab to finish a video game they were playing.

“Visiting that woman ruined your day, huh?”

Tuna sandwich still in hand, Jacob turned and saw that Larry had entered the kitchen. A smirk was on Larry’s face as he opened the refrigerator and removed an apple before joining Jacob at the table.

Jacob made a weak attempt at a smile as he set his sandwich on the glass plate in front of him. “No, I’m just thinking about Aliyah.”

Larry exhaled in a single breath, as if to indicate that the topic was weighty. “Good luck with that, man.” He shook his head then took a generous bit of his apple.

“I think I’m going to need more than luck,” Jacob said in lighthearted humor. “She thinks marrying me will complicate her life.”

Cheeks bulging as he chewed, Larry shrugged. “She’s right,” he said, his voice slightly muffled. He chewed and swallowed before adding, “But it’s worth it, so I think she’ll marry you eventually. Aliyah’s a smart girl. She’s not going to let you go.”

Jacob coughed laughter. “She already did,” he said. “Twice.”

“You know how women are,” Larry said, gesturing dismissively with the partially eaten apple in hand. “They keep saying no, hoping you’ll convince them to say yes.” He shook his head as if amused before taking another generous bite of his apple.

“I don’t think so, man,” Jacob said sincerely. “Or at least not a woman like Aliyah. If she says no, she means it.”

Larry nodded as he chewed, his expression suggesting that he was genuinely considering what Jacob had said. “Maybe…” he said finally. “Aliyah isn’t your average woman.”

“No she’s not,” Jacob agreed reflectively.

“But you’re not your average man either,” Larry said. “So you both can come up with something that works for the both of you.”

Insha’Allah,” Jacob added, but he didn’t sound optimistic.

Insha’Allah,” Larry agreed.

There was an extended silence as Jacob finished his tuna sandwich and Larry his apple.

“So what’s up with you and Jasmine?” Jacob wiped the palms of his hands together, removing breadcrumbs from his hands. “You’re getting married, now that she’s Muslim?”

Larry angled his shoulders so that he could see behind him, then holding the apple core, he lifted a hand as if preparing for a jump shot and released the core toward the open trashcan. Hand bent at the wrist for the follow-through, he watched as it landed in the bin with a soft thud. “Nope,” Larry said matter-of-factly, turning back around to face Jacob.

Jacob’s eyebrows rose in surprise, and a confused grin formed on his face. “You serious?”

“As a heart attack,” Larry said.

“Why the change of heart?”

Larry pulled his head back in surprise. “Change of heart? Who said I ever wanted to marry her?”

Jacob lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “I don’t know…” he said. “I guess I just assumed.”

“You know what they say about assuming?” Larry asked in friendly banter, a humored grin creasing one side of his mouth.

Jacob laughed. “I think I do, bro.”

“But seriously, man,” Larry said after a few seconds, his voice subdued and reflective, “I don’t trust her.”

Jacob was silent for several seconds, as if lost in thought. “Because of what Mom and Dad asked her to do?” he said, a somber expression on his face.

“I don’t know…” Larry contorted his face, as if finding difficulty expressing what was on his mind. “She’s just too eager, you know?”

“In what respect?”

Larry grimaced. “To get married,” he said. “But she was like that before I became Muslim, and it was annoying even then.”

Jacob shrugged nonchalantly. “She loves you, man. What do you expect?”

An expression of distaste lingered on Larry’s face. “It doesn’t feel like love,” he said.

“Really?” Jacob said, growing concerned at his brother’s sentiments. “On her part, or yours?”

“Both, I guess,” Larry said. “She’s been talking to Mom about joining the business, and it makes me uncomfortable. I feel like she loves what I can offer her more than she loves me.”

Jacob huffed as if he’d never considered the possibility.

“So I don’t know, man,” Larry said, slight frustration in his voice. “And now she’s suddenly Muslim when she realizes I’m not willing to marry a non-Muslim or give up my religion?”

“Most people go through a mental tug-of-war before they accept Islam,” Jacob said reflectively. “I know I did.” He lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “So maybe she just finally gave in. Becoming Muslim isn’t an easy decision.”

“But she was trying to get me to denounce Islam, man,” Larry said, his face pinched in distaste.

“Benjamin’s wife did the same thing,” Jacob said. “But they’re still married.”

Larry grunted. “Benjamin was married for years before he even thought about Islam.”

Jacob nodded. “That’s true.”

“I was never convinced I should marry Jazzy in the first place,” Larry said, his eyes distant and conveying disappointment as he shook his head. “She never really felt like ‘the one,’ if you know what I mean.”

“I thought you really cared about her.”

“I do…” Larry said. Several seconds passed in silence before the shadow of a smile formed on his face, suggesting he was about to make a wry joke. “But what’s love got to do with it?”

Jacob chuckled. “Well, if you ask the world,” he said, “everything.”

Larry huffed and shook his head, the beginning of a grin on his face. “I don’t believe that.”

Jacob’s lips formed a thin line, unsure how to respond. He was thinking of Aliyah.

“I just can’t picture her as the mother of my children,” Larry said, frowning doubtfully. “That can’t be good.”

“People change…” Jacob offered.

“Not really,” Larry said. “We are who we are. The only thing you can change is whether or not you’ll end up in Hellfire at the end of it.”

Jacob drew his eyebrows together as if perplexed. “You don’t think Islam changes people for the better?”

“It changes people for the better,” Larry said tentatively. “So that’s why I mentioned the whether you end up in Hellfire part,” he said. “But it doesn’t change people.”

Jacob nodded thoughtfully. “So what is it about Jasmine that makes you doubtful?”

Larry pursed his lips as if carefully considering the question. “She’s not always forthcoming.”

“In what way?”

Larry huffed. “In any way.”

Jacob didn’t know what to say.

“You know how some people have this deep, spiritual conscience?” Larry asked reflectively. “Jazzy never had that.” He drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “She’s more opportunistic than anything. So if she’s doing something, there’s always a carefully thought out reason why.” He shook his head as his eyes grew distant. “And man, I don’t even know what the reason is half the time.”

***

Jasmine looked different from how Aliyah remembered her at the mall. Her face was framed by an off-white khimaar that was carefully wrapped about her head and secured in place by a scarf pin, and she wore a knee-length button-up blouse (or maybe it was a dress?) that fell over a wide floral skirt.

MashaAllah,” Aliyah said, a smile forming on her face after she exchanged the salaams with Jasmine in the lobby of the masjid. “You look…”

“Muslim,” Jasmine finished, a proud grin spreading on her face as she extended her arms, as if inviting Aliyah to admire her attire more closely.

Aliyah’s previous misgivings about Jasmine faded as she realized how much care Jasmine had taken before coming to the masjid. Though Aliyah wouldn’t think less of any Muslim woman based on her appearance, especially a new Muslim, Aliyah couldn’t deny that it was admirable that Jasmine had taken the time to not only research proper hijab but to also learn how to wear it as well—and for her first trip to the masjid.

“So what do you think?” Jasmine said, glancing down at her outfit and pulling at the sides of her skirt so that it flared. She twisted her torso to the right and left before letting go of the skirt.

“I love it, mashaAllah,” Aliyah said sincerely. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you had been Muslim at least a year.”

“Good,” Jasmine said. “I don’t like making a fool of myself, so I did my research.”

“Where did you study everything?” Aliyah said as she walked toward the musallaa, Jasmine falling in step next to her.

Jasmine shrugged. “Books, blogs, YouTube,” she said, “wherever I could.”

“So do you need any help?” Aliyah said jokingly as she opened the door to the prayer area and gestured for Jasmine to enter before her.

Jasmine chuckled as she stepped inside. “I need a lot of help,” she said, lowering her voice as she glanced over her shoulder at Aliyah.

Aliyah took off her shoes as the door to the musallaa closed behind her, and she immediately looked toward the men’s section and spotted Ibrahim still talking to the brothers. She smiled inwardly, pleased that he was comfortable in the masjid. Jasmine took off her shoes too as Aliyah kneeled to pick up hers and place them on the shoe shelf.

“Do you know about wudhoo’?” Aliyah asked in a lowered voice after Jasmine too had placed her shoes on the shelf.

“Is that the ritual washing before you pray?” Jasmine asked.

“Yes,” Aliyah said. “Do you know how to do it?”

“I’ve watched some YouTube clips about it,” Jasmine said tentatively.

“Maybe we can start with that,” Aliyah said.

“But I did the ritual bath before I came,” Jasmine said. “Isn’t that enough?”

Ghusl?” Aliyah asked as she walked across the soft carpet.

Jasmine hesitated. “I guess…” she said. “I read I should do it before coming to the masjid.”

Aliyah shrugged. “That’s fine then,” she said. “But it’s not obligatory unless there’s a reason.”

“A reason?” Jasmine repeated, confused.

Aliyah sat down near the partition and motioned for Jasmine to do the same. She made sure to sit where she could see Ibrahim while Jasmine could be behind the partition if she wanted. “Ghusl is obligatory after you finish your menses and after having relations with your husband.”

“Relations?” Jasmine looked perplexed as she sat next to the divider.

“Sex,” Aliyah said, an uncomfortable smile on her face.

Amusement glistened in Jasmine’s eyes. “That sounds like fun,” she joked.

Aliyah cast her eyes to the side, the shadow of a smile still on her face. She found Jasmine’s joking unsettling, but she didn’t want to discourage the relaxed mood. “MashaAllah,” Aliyah muttered.

“So Muslims don’t have to remain celibate for life or anything like that?” Jasmine asked, humor in her tone.

Aliyah couldn’t tell whether Jasmine was asking in earnest or jokingly. “No, alhamdulillah,” Aliyah said, erring on the side of clarity and truthfulness.

“Whew,” Jasmine said as if relieved, humor still in her voice. “Then it’ll be just like old times when Larry and I get married, huh?”

Aliyah shifted uncomfortably and glanced toward where Ibrahim was sitting and saw that more brothers had entered and were reading Qur’an and praying. “Have you studied anything about Tawheed?” Aliyah said, intentionally changing the subject. She refused to entertain inappropriate joking in the prayer area, even if it was from a new Muslim.

“So I take it, talking about sex isn’t allowed in a Muslim place of worship?” Jasmine said, a smirk on her face.

“Look, Jasmine,” Aliyah said, exhaustion in her tone. “If we’re going to—”

A’oodhu billaahi me-nash-shaytaanir-rajeem,” a youthful voice reverberated from the masjid speakers.

Instinctively, Aliyah looked to the front of the musallaa and saw a boy who appeared to be about ten years old standing at the mimbar reciting into the microphone. Everyone in the prayer area had grown quiet and was facing the front, their attention on the thin boy in the white thawb and skullcap.

Bismillaahir-rahmaanir-raheem,” the boy continued, enunciating every syllable in a measured tone. “Edhash-shamsu kuwwerat…”

Aliyah immediately recognized the beginning of Surah Al-Takweer, a chapter of the Qur’an she had memorized some time ago. She bowed her head humbly and listened to the beautiful, captivating recitation. As the boy finished, she glanced toward the entrance to the prayer area and saw Juwayriah standing at the door, smiling proudly, as if she had come only to hear the recitation before returning to her duties. Aliyah was confused momentarily when Juwayriah spread her arms wide. But a second later, Aliyah saw that the boy had walked toward Juwayriah and was met with an embrace. Juwayriah kissed the boy on the top of his kufi before releasing him and disappearing behind the door while the boy returned to the prayer area and sat down with the rest of the brothers.

JazaakAllaahukhairan to our young brother, Bilal,” a deep male voice said into the microphone.

“Are you okay?” Aliyah heard a soft voice say in a hushed tone. She turned and saw Jasmine looking at her with a concerned expression on her face.

Embarrassed that she had been unable to hide her feelings, Aliyah nodded quickly and averted her gaze, her face aflame in shock and shame. “I’m fine,” she mumbled as she pulled her purse onto her lap and opened it absently. But she had no idea what she was looking for.

“He’s one of our top hifdh school students,” the male voice continued, “and he just finished the Qur’an last week.”

Takbir!” one of the men called out.

Allaahu’akbar!” the crowd shouted in unison, exclaiming the greatness of God for the blessings He had bestowed on Bilal.

“I asked him to open up this Ta’aleem session for us,” the man continued, “and I’m honored that he agreed.”

Aliyah glanced up and saw that the man who was speaking was the masjid imam. “But why can’t we marry for our nafs?” Aliyah had asked the imam so many years ago, when she had been indecisive about marrying Matt. “My nafs has to live in the marriage. I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting something for myself,she had said to the imam. “If you truly believe in Allah and the Hereafter,” the imam had replied, “a good Muslim brother is all you’d want in a marriage.”

Aliyah thought of Jacob and was overcome with sadness. He was right, she said to herself as she reflected on the marriage advice that the imam had given her. It was just that she had been too disconnected from reality to understand that getting religious advice came with the implicit understanding that the weightiest responsibility rested on the shoulders of the one seeking it.

The imam hadn’t been incorrect in asserting that ultimately marrying a good Muslim brother was what was most essential in a marriage. It was just that the definition of “good” was much more complex than Aliyah had initially assumed. In the context of marriage, the concept of good encompassed more than superficial—or even genuine—Islamic traits. It further included compatibility, mutual physical attraction, and the actual desire to spend your life with the other person. If any of those factors were missing, then the man (or woman) was not a “good Muslim” for marriage.

No, the imam was not completely blameless in the ambiguous advice he had given, Aliyah thought to herself. But ultimately, the person seeking the advice understood his or her situation best—and that person was the only one who had to live with the consequences of the decision.

Perhaps when Aliyah had mentioned to the imam marrying for her nafs, he had misunderstood her to mean marrying only for her desires. What if her mentioning marrying for her nafs had inspired in the imam a similar discomfort and concern that Jasmine’s joking about sex had inspired in Aliyah? Naturally, he would want to point Aliyah in a more spiritually healthy direction.

“…and in this Surah,” the imam continued, and Aliyah realized she had missed what he had just said, “Allah, subhaana wa ta’aalaa, is evoking for us a vivid image of the Day of Judgment, and He begins by mentioning when the sun kuwwerat. And this term indicates that the sun is effectively folded or wound up.”

Am I ready for this Day? Aliyah wondered to herself.

“Then He goes on to mention how the stars will fall and lose their luster,” the imam said, “and how the mountains will vanish like a mirage, and how the pregnant she-camels will be neglected, and how the wild beasts will be gathered together…”

As she listened to his words, Aliyah reflected on her life thus far. How much time and energy had she wasted stressing over the wrongs others had done to her? Or worrying about what others would think of her?

“…And Allah goes on to say, ‘And when the scrolls of deeds [good and bad] are laid open. When the sky is torn away. When the Blazing Fire is kindled to fierce heat. And when the Garden is brought near, [then] shall each soul know what it has put forward…’”

Instinctively, Aliyah glanced in the direction of Juwayriah’s son, Bilal, and she felt a pang of guilt in her heart. Whatever faults Juwayriah had—and they were many, no doubt, Aliyah thought grimly—she hadn’t sacrificed her priorities or those of her children in the face of them. And in that respect, she was better than Aliyah, mashaAllah. Perhaps Juwayriah had as many (if not more) gripes with the community as Aliyah had, but she still came to the masjid and benefited from her fellow believers. She had enrolled her son in a Qur’anic memorization program, and she volunteered to help new Muslims.

But what are you doing? Aliyah asked herself in self-rebuke. And how much Qur’an does your son know?

How was it that Aliyah could go to work every day and work alongside people who disbelieved in Allah, alongside a supervisor who scoffed at religion and openly plotted against her and her Muslim brother, and alongside a colleague who was known for sexual harassment—all for the sake of a paycheck? Yet she avoided the House of Allah and her Muslim brothers and sisters—and for what? Yes, she had to pay her bills, but she also had to save her soul and the soul of her son from the Hellfire.

“…Verily, this [Qur’an] is the word of a most honorable Messenger,” the imam continued translating the Qur’an, “endued with power, with rank before the Lord of the Throne, with authority there [and] faithful to his trust…”

We put too much pressure on our imams and scholars, Aliyah realized in regret. No soul can bear the burden of another, the Qur’an taught. Then why was it that Muslims expected so much from each other? She would stand in front of Allah alone on the Day of Judgment, so she should start taking that solemn reality more seriously.

Astaghfirullah,” Aliyah muttered in a low whisper, invoking Allah’s forgiveness.

Fa’ayna tadh-haboon,” the imam recited in a slow, measured tone. “In other words,” he said, “Allah is saying… ‘Then where are you going?’”

***

Reem was quiet as she stared out the passenger side window from where she sat next to Sayed, who was listening to a Qur’an CD as he drove. The truth was, despite all of her ostensible firmness in supporting Mashael’s decision to be with Sheldon, Reem was terrified that she was making a horrible mistake. What if Sheldon turned out to be a child molester or serial killer? Yes, he had seemed like a respectable young man when Sayed and Reem met him the other day, but that didn’t mean much, did it? To all outside accounts, Reem’s half brother Fahad was an upstanding Arab Muslim man.

“What’s this gathering about anyway?” Reem said, turning her head to Sayed as she looked at him through the opening in her niqaab.

“Benjamin just wanted to have a barbeque before the end of summer,” Sayed said.

“You sure it’s okay that we invited Sheldon?” Reem said doubtfully. “You don’t think Benjamin will mind?”

“He said I could bring a friend if I wanted,” Sayed said.

“And they have accommodations for children?” Reem glanced to the backseat where Hana and Muhammad were sitting looking out their windows.

Sayed chuckled. “Accommodations?” he said.

“You know what I mean,” Reem grumbled.

“Well, I’m sure children are welcome,” Sayed said.

“Did you ask?”

“No, but with Americans, that’s pretty much a given.”

Reem frowned, unsure as she glanced at her children again.

“Most of them don’t have live-in help or family that babysits for every occasion.”

“I know that,” Reem said, slight offense in her tone.

Sayed smiled as he looked at his wife. “You’re welcome to sit with the children if that makes you feel any better.”

Reem didn’t respond and instead resumed looking out the window. She knew why Sayed felt the need to reassure her, and it was difficult to accept that she actually needed the reassurance. Dr. Goldstein had told Reem that it was natural to have trust issues after what she had gone through, so Reem reminded herself that her anxiety was natural. Reem had always told herself that the reason she allowed Hana and Muhammad to be cared for by only her mom was that she wanted them to preserve their Arabic dialect. But now Reem knew it was more than that. She didn’t want her son and daughter to be exposed to anyone who could harm them. Reem doubted she would feel comfortable leaving her children with her own father, but since her father worked a lot and was rarely home (not to mention that he wasn’t exactly fond of children), she was able to leave Hana and Muhammad with her mother without being weighed down by too much distress.

“Is Mashael coming too?” Sayed asked.

“She didn’t say,” Reem said, still looking out the window.

“Well, I’m sure Sheldon probably told her he’s coming.”

Reem cringed at the mention of Sheldon possibly speaking to Mashael without her family’s knowledge, especially in front of Hana and Muhammad. But it wasn’t like they hadn’t heard their aunt mention Sheldon herself. Mashael wasn’t one to hide her views.

Reem sighed. Why couldn’t Mashael have picked an Arab boy to fall in love with? she wondered. Their parents would still be furious, but at least then, it would make a whole lot more sense than the confusing mess they were getting into now. Their parents were right. There really was no way to know if Sheldon’s interest in Islam was sincere. And what if it wasn’t?

Mumken…” Reem said. Possibly.

“Hopefully, meeting some American Muslims will convince him to go ahead and accept Islam,” Sayed said.

Reem groaned and rolled her eyes. She didn’t like the idea of a religion becoming more appealing just because people who shared your nationality were part of it. “Hopefully, realizing Islam is true will convince him to go ahead and accept Islam,” Reem retorted.

Reem felt her husband looking at her briefly, but she refused to meet his gaze. In her peripheral vision, she could tell he was grinning at her, and she didn’t feel like amusing him right then. I love you too much, she heard his voice in her head. And despite her grumpy mood, she felt the tiniest hint of a smile find its way to her lips.

***

Aliyah left the masjid later than she had planned because she had stayed for the entire Ta’aleem session then introduced Jasmine to Juwayriah so that Jasmine could attend the new Muslim class from then on. Fortunately, Jasmine and Juwayriah seemed to like each other right away, so Aliyah imagined she wouldn’t be asked to be Jasmine’s personal teacher anymore. She doubted she would be a good teacher anyway. Mathematics and computer science were her forte in the teaching field, but she had absolutely no idea where and how to begin helping someone learn the basics of Islam.

But Aliyah was glad that she had agreed to meet Jasmine at the masjid. It had been a cathartic experience. Had she not met Jasmine that morning, Aliyah had no idea when she would have gone to the masjid. She still felt plaintive about “the Facebook drama,” as Juwayriah called it, but the saga didn’t bother her so much anymore. Aliyah had no idea if she was ready to forgive Juwayriah for the part she played in inciting gossip and slander about her, but Aliyah couldn’t deny that, after today, there was a soft spot in her heart for Juwayriah. How could she not feel softened after hearing the beautiful recitation by Juwayriah’s son, Bilal, mashaAllah? Aliyah thought to herself.

“We have a part-time and full-time hifdh program,” the imam had told Aliyah when she had stopped by his office to ask about the Qur’anic memorization programs available for Ibrahim in the fall. “But the best option for a boy as young as your son is the full-time program,” the imam said. “The part-time students are mostly adults, and though Ibrahim is welcome to join, there are more children his age in the full-time program.”

“But what do they do about school?” Aliyah had asked.

“Officially, our full-time hifdh students are homeschoolers,” the imam had said, apology in his tone. “But we do offer basic classes in mathematics, English, and science depending on their grade level. However, we tell our parents not to depend on these classes alone because they won’t cover everything your child is required by law to learn.”

As Aliyah slowed her car to a stop at a traffic light, she glanced toward the passenger seat, where a hifdh school pamphlet lay. Sadness weighed on her as she saw the photo of young children reading Qur’an in the musallaa. Though she was sure Matt would pay the tuition fee for the program, she knew it was unrealistic to imagine that she would have the time and energy to homeschool Ibrahim after she returned from work. Already, with her schedule, he would have to remain at the masjid for at least three hours before she could pick him up after work. Though it was a blessing that the masjid wasn’t far from the college, she couldn’t expect a five-year-old boy to be willing to study school subjects after waiting for her so long. And what would happen when she couldn’t leave work at exactly five o’clock, which happened often?

It could never work, she thought in regret as the traffic light turned green. Unless she could quit her job, or work part-time at the most, enrolling Ibrahim in the full-time hifdh program just wasn’t realistic. She had to pay bills so that they had a roof over their heads, so she should just forget about it.

“The brothers said I read the Qur’an really nice,” Ibrahim said from the backseat, as if on cue.

Aliyah glanced at her son through the rearview mirror and smiled at him with her eyes. “MashaAllah, Himy,” she said. “And maybe one day you’ll know the whole Qur’an without even looking at it.”

“Wow,” Ibrahim said, beaming and grinning. “That would be cool.”

Aliyah forced laughter, her heart warming at how her son found the idea appealing. “Yes, that would be cool, wouldn’t it?”

As Aliyah turned her car onto the street of Benjamin’s house, she heard the distant sounds of excited shouts and laughter, and she saw a line of cars parked in front of his house. She creased her forehead curiously, wondering whom Benjamin and Valerie had invited to the gathering. Aliyah had been under the impression that it would be relatively small and informal.

The sweet scent of barbeque tickled Aliyah’s nostrils, causing her stomach to rumble in hunger as she and Ibrahim walked up the walkway leading to Benjamin’s front door. But as she heard the bustling excitement coming from the backyard, she wondered if it was best to just walk around the house instead of knocking or ringing the doorbell. The front door opened just as she lifted her hand to knock.

“Aliyah and Ibrahim!” Valerie greeted them with a wide smile. “I saw you drive up.”

Aliyah smiled in reply and embraced her aunt warmly, and Ibrahim did the same. “How was your trip?” Aliyah asked as she stepped inside.

“Wonderful,” Valerie said, beaming. “I have to tell you all about it when we get a chance.”

Aliyah glanced around the living room.

“Everyone is out back,” Valerie said over her shoulder as she walked toward the kitchen. “I’ll be out there myself after I finish preparing this chicken.”

“Do you need any help?” Aliyah asked, following her aunt into the kitchen, Ibrahim closely behind her.

Valerie laughed. “Don’t try to escape the excitement on my account,” she said. “Ben has been asking about you for the past two hours.”

It was then that Aliyah had recalled turning off her phone at the masjid after Jasmine had called. She hadn’t wanted to risk any ringers or alerts sounding while she was in the musallaa.

“He was under the impression that you would be here earlier,” Valerie said.

“I’m sorry about that,” Aliyah said, a half smile on her face as she watched Ibrahim approach the open back door then push open the screen door and rush outside. She had agreed to come early and talk to Benjamin and Valerie before the guests arrived and to help prepare for the barbeque, but she had been so distracted by the imam’s talk and wanting to enroll Ibrahim in Qur’an school that she had forgotten.

Valerie waved her hand dismissively and chuckled. “Don’t apologize to me,” she said as she removed a tray of marinated chicken from the refrigerator. “Talk to your uncle.”

An embarrassed smile lingered on Aliyah’s face as she walked toward the back door. “Okay…”

“I’ll be out in a bit,” Valerie said.

Aliyah stood looking out the screen door briefly and saw the edge of the pavement basketball court where it appeared like a group of brothers were in the middle of a game, but she couldn’t see everyone from where she stood.

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Aliyah heard someone call out as she stepped outside and let the screen door close behind her. She looked in the direction of the sound and saw Mashael approaching, waving a hand, a wide grin on her face. Dressed in a T-shirt and baggy jeans, Mashael looked happier than when Aliyah had last seen her.

Aliyah smiled in surprise. She hadn’t expected to see Mashael here.“Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” she replied once Mashael was in front of her.

“You missed it!” Mashael said, grabbing Aliyah’s hand and pulling her toward where Reem and Salima were sitting on a blanket on the grass.

“Missed what?” Aliyah said, walking quickly to keep up with Mashael.

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Salima and Reem said in unison, lifting their hands in greeting as Aliyah approached.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Aliyah replied before turning her attention back to Mashael.

“Sheldon said the shahaadah!” Mashael said as she sat down on the blanket and pulled on Aliyah’s hand, urging her to join her.

Aliyah squealed as she sat across from Mashael. “MashaAllah!

“Can you believe it?” Mashael’s eyes glistened in happiness. “Now we can get married.”

Aliyah’s smile faded only slightly as she tried to maintain a pleasant expression for the sake of Mashael. Given Reem and Mashael’s family, Aliyah doubted that it would be that easy, but she didn’t want to dampen Mashael’s spirits. Mashael’s happiness was so consuming that Aliyah wanted to hold on to this moment, Mashael’s face glowing and her eyes alight. There was plenty of time for reality to set in, Aliyah told herself. It didn’t have to be now.

“When did he say the shahaadah?” Aliyah said, careful to keep the excitement in her voice.

“About an hour ago,” Mashael said, her voice still giddy.

“An hour ago?” Aliyah repeated, her eyes widening in genuine surprise. “How did you find out?”

“Find out?” Mashael said, laughter in her voice. “I was right there when it happened.”

“We all were,” Salima chimed in, a smile of satisfaction on her face. “Except you of course,” she teased Aliyah good-naturedly.

An excited grin still on her face, Aliyah shook her head. “But where?” She stole a glance at Reem, whose gaze was elsewhere, as if she wasn’t particularly excited about joining in the discussion.

“Right over there,” Mashael said, gesturing to a place behind Aliyah.

Instinctively, Aliyah glanced behind her and saw the barbecue grill about ten feet from her, where her uncle stood arranging the coals with a wood-handle spatula.

“At the basketball court,” Mashael added.

Still smiling, Aliyah turned her body so that she could see the basketball court, and Aliyah immediately saw a man with blond hair and a beard with his hands high in the air as he moved from side to side trying to block a shot. But before she could ask Mashael if that was Sheldon, she saw that the man opposite him dribbling the ball was Larry, and feet from him was Jamil, who appeared to be signaling for a pass. Sayed was standing on the sidelines, appearing to be enjoying himself watching the game. And near the basket was Jacob. He was wearing a sleeveless basketball jersey and knee-length shorts.

Aliyah’s breath caught at the sight of him. Cheeks aflame in desire and embarrassment, she looked away and absently noticed that Haroon, Ibrahim, Younus, and Thawab were running through the yard alongside Hana and Muhammad, playing a game that Aliyah couldn’t quite process right then.

“Aliyah, is that you?”

Aliyah glanced toward the sound and saw that her uncle, grill spatula in hand, was gesturing for her to come to him. Still distracted by thoughts of Jacob, Aliyah got to her feet and was careful to avoid looking toward the basketball court as she walked up to her uncle.

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Aliyah greeted her uncle once she was close enough to feel the heat of charcoal on her face.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam wa-rahmatullaah,” Benjamin said as he set the spatula on a plate on the glass-topped patio table behind him. “Where were you?”

“At the masjid,” Aliyah said, casting her eyes aside in embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I lost track of time.”

Benjamin placed the round wire tray back on the grill then closed it. “What were you doing there?”

“I had to meet a sister this morning,” she said, apology in her tone. “But then I ended up staying for Ta’aleem, and—”

“So you’re going to the masjid again now?” Benjamin said, a pleasant expression on his face.

A hesitant smile formed on Aliyah’s face as she met her uncle’s gaze. “Yes, I think so…”

Alhamdulillah,” Benjamin said, nodding and smiling. “I’m happy to hear that, especially for Ibrahim.”

Aliyah glanced toward her son, who was calling out something to the rest of the children, and she felt happy for him right then.

“He was with you?” Benjamin said.

“Yes,” Aliyah said, her eyes lingering on Ibrahim for a few more seconds. “That’s what took me so long,” she said. “I was trying to find out about their hifdh program.”

Benjamin’s eyes widened in pleasant surprise. “You’re thinking of enrolling him?”

Aliyah’s expression grew serious as she drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “I want to…”

“Then you should,” Benjamin said. “This is the best time to memorize Qur’an, while he’s young.”

“But it’s full-time,” Aliyah said. “And I work.”

Benjamin frowned thoughtfully as he looked briefly in the direction of Ibrahim and the other children. “They don’t have a weekend program?”

“Yes…” Aliyah said tentatively. “But it’s mostly adults, so I don’t know if he’d feel comfortable.”

Benjamin nodded as if in understanding. “I see…” he said. “But it’s better than nothing.”

“I know…” Aliyah said, exhaling the words. “But I really want him to be with children his age.”

“Won’t he be with children his age at school?”

Aliyah grimaced. “But it’ll be public school.”

Benjamin drew his eyebrows together in concern. “You’re not putting Ibrahim in a private school?”

She shook her head. “I can’t afford it.”

“What about Matt?” Benjamin said, his words thinly masking his disapproval. “Won’t he be paying?”

“I don’t know…” Aliyah said. “We haven’t spoken much about it. He didn’t even offer to pay for Ibrahim’s summer childcare.”

Summer childcare?” Benjamin creased his forehead in confusion. “I thought he was with Nicole during the week.”

Oh. Aliyah hadn’t told her uncle what had happened, she realized just then. “Nikki’s having a difficult pregnancy,” Aliyah said, “so she’s on bed rest now.”

Benjamin shook his head, as if having a difficult time understanding. “But you work full-time.”

Aliyah coughed laughter. “I know… I was thinking the same thing,” she said. “But Matt said it was too stressful for Nikki to have Ibrahim around.”

“Too stressful?” Benjamin said, disapproval on his face. “That’s her stepson.”

Aliyah smiled knowingly and shook her head, but she wasn’t in the mood to rehash the subject. “But alhamdulillah, Larry takes care of Ibrahim for free while I’m at work.”

Benjamin raised his eyebrows suspiciously. “Larry?”

Aliyah laughed and waved her hand. “It’s nothing like that, Uncle Ben,” she said. “Trust me.”

“You sure about that?” Benjamin said doubtfully, folding his arms over his chest. “Larry’s a full-time businessman at his mother’s company. I don’t see how babysitting fits into that.”

“He’s already taking care of Younus and Thawab for Jacob,” Aliyah said. “So it’s not a big deal.”

Benjamin’s expression relaxed somewhat, but it remained doubtful.

“Here we go,” a female voice called out, and Aliyah and Benjamin looked toward the house and saw Valerie coming outside carrying a baking tray of chicken.

Benjamin took the tray from his wife and set it on the patio table as Valerie went back inside.

“I don’t like the idea of Ibrahim going to public school,” Benjamin said as he opened up the grill and peered inside.

Aliyah sighed as her gaze followed her son for a few seconds. “I don’t either…”

“You sure there’s no way you can enroll him in private school?” Benjamin said as he arranged the chicken on the grill. “Or at least the full-time hifdh program you were looking at?”

Aliyah shrugged. “Even if Matt agreed to pay for everything, it’s probably too late to apply for private school at this point. School starts in about four weeks, and those schools usually have waiting lists. Then I’d have to figure out a way to get him to and from school. But with public school, he can take the bus, and there are free after-school programs I can put him in so he’s not just hanging around waiting for me until I finish work.”

“What about the full-time Qur’an school?” Benjamin said. “Even if there’s no after-school program, at least he’s at the masjid amongst Muslims.”

“But then I’d have to homeschool him,” Aliyah said. “And I could never do that while working at the college.” She huffed. “Not to mention helping him review his hifdh on top of that.”

“What if you worked part-time?” Benjamin said, still arranging the chicken on the grill as he talked. “Then we could see how much you’d need to cover your bills after that.”

Aliyah’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “I couldn’t let you do that.”

“It would be only until I had a talk with Matt,” he said.

She pulled her head back in surprise. “You’re going to talk to Matt?”

“Why not?” Benjamin shrugged. “Ibrahim is his son. He has to be willing to contribute significantly if he expects you to care for him full-time.”

Benjamin was silent momentarily before glancing at Aliyah. “You know people go to court for things like this?”

Aliyah grimaced. “Not me…”

“Then you’ll need someone to speak to him on your behalf.”

She frowned and shook her head. “I don’t feel right about it… Nikki will probably convince him I’m just trying to take advantage of him or something.”

There was a thoughtful pause.

“Then maybe you should go ahead and marry Jacob,” Benjamin said as if it were the most natural solution in the world, his gaze on the chicken he was arranging. “That way, you can be a stay-at-home mom and not worry about work at all.”

It took several seconds for Aliyah to register what her uncle was saying.

“I know you said you wouldn’t be ready for another three to five years,” Benjamin said as he closed the grill. “But I’m sure Jacob would be willing to wait to live together until then.”

Aliyah coughed laughter. “You can’t be serious,” she said, disbelief in her tone. “Nobody’s going to get married and live separately that long.”

Benjamin regarded Aliyah skeptically. “Would you?”

Aliyah pulled her head back in surprise and pointed to herself. “Me?

“Yes, why not?” Benjamin said. “It was your idea.”

Aliyah coughed laughter again. “I was talking about getting married period.”

“But I thought the point was you didn’t want to make any drastic changes to your life too soon?”

“That’s true…” Aliyah said tentatively.

“This way, you can do that without the demands of a normal marriage.”

A disbelieving smirk was on her face as she shook her head. “No man would agree to that.”

“I think Jacob would,” Benjamin offered sincerely.

“I don’t think so,” Aliyah said, still smirking. But even to her own ears, she didn’t sound convinced that it was impossible. Instinctively, she glanced to where Jacob was dribbling the ball and running toward the basket, and in that moment, Aliyah remembered the feeling she’d had when she woke up that morning. Had that been some sort of sign from Allah?

“Well, he’s not planning on marrying anyone else,” Benjamin said. “So I think it’s fair to say he’s open.”

“Who told you that?” Aliyah said, unable to temper the flattery and hope she felt swelling in her heart.

“He did,” Benjamin said simply.

Aliyah looked toward the basketball court again, and her heart raced in excitement at the possibility of being married to Jacob while changing little of her life at the same time. “No he didn’t…” she said, hope and doubt in her voice at the same time.

“I’m serious,” Benjamin said. “We spoke about it this morning.”

Aliyah didn’t know what to say.

“He loves you, Aliyah.”

Her cheeks grew warm at her uncle’s words, and she looked away.

“And I think you love him too,” Benjamin said, his voice soft in sincerity. “You’re just having a difficult time admitting it to yourself.”

Immediately, Aliyah thought of Deanna and felt a tinge of guilt. But oddly, the feeling was not as strong as before. No soul can bear the burden of another, a voice said in her head.

“If you have a difficult time thinking of yourself,” Benjamin suggested, “then at least think of your son.”

Aliyah bit her lower lip as her gaze rested on where Ibrahim was playing with the children.

And when the scrolls of deeds [good and bad] are laid open. When the sky is torn away. When the Blazing Fire is kindled to fierce heat. And when the Garden is brought near, [then] shall each soul know what it has put forward…

“What do you think?” Benjamin said.

Aliyah was silent as she reflected on whether or not any of her misgivings were based on what she truly believed Allah wanted for her and her son in this world, or in the Hereafter.

Fa’ayna tadh-haboon? Allah asked in the Qur’an. Then where are you going?

If you’re not following the path that Allah has laid out for you, Aliyah asked herself, then where are you going?

“You sure he doesn’t mind living separately for a few years?” Aliyah asked tentatively, glancing up hesitantly at her uncle. “I mean… That’s not exactly what a—”

“I’ll ask him now,” Benjamin said, a smile of triumph on his face as he interrupted Aliyah midsentence. He turned his back and walked toward the basketball court before Aliyah could stop him.

Her face grew aflame in embarrassment as she saw her uncle waving to the brothers and calling out to Jacob. Instinctively, Aliyah rushed into the house, the screen door closing behind her.

“Is everything okay?” Valerie asked, a concerned expression on her face.

Aliyah had forgotten her aunt was in the kitchen right then. “He’s asking Jacob to marry me,” she mumbled, peering outside uncertainly.

“What?” Valerie said, laughter in her voice.

“Uncle Ben,” Aliyah said nervously, folding her arms over her chest. “He’s asking Jacob if he wants to marry me.”

“I thought Jacob already wanted to marry you,” Valerie said, confusion in her voice.

“Yes, but…” Aliyah’s words trailed as she lost her train of thought.

There was an extended silence.

“Go wash your face,” Valerie said, a maternal smile on her face as she looked at Aliyah warmly. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Aliyah nodded absently and walked toward the bathroom.

***

“You serious?” Jacob said, his heart nearly leaping from his chest in excitement as he wiped the sweat from his head with the back of his hand, a disbelieving grin on his face. His first instinct was to make sajdah al-shukr, prostration in gratefulness to Allah. But he wanted to make sure this wasn’t some sort of joke, though rationally, he knew that Benjamin wouldn’t make light of something like this.

“Dead,” Benjamin said, smiling. “At least for the next twenty minutes,” he added, lighthearted humor in his tone. “But after that, I can’t make any promises.”

“So what are you thinking?” Jacob said, creasing his forehead in curiosity.

A mischievous grin formed on Benjamin’s face as he held Jacob’s gaze.

Jacob’s eyes widened in disbelief as he translated the tacit message, but he couldn’t keep from smiling. “You’re serious?”

“Why not?” Benjamin said, a smile lingering on his face. “I’m here, so that takes care of her wali.” He shrugged and gestured behind him. “And we have much more than two witnesses.”

Jacob raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “If it’s okay with Aliyah…”

“But just so you know,” Benjamin said, humor in his tone, “you just agreed to let her be a stay-at-home mom before you can even live together.”

“Whatever she wants,” Jacob said eagerly, a disbelieving grin on his face.

“And for the mahr?” Benjamin asked, referring to the obligatory dowry that a man paid to a woman upon marriage.

“Whatever she wants,” Jacob said again, shaking his head.

“You mean that?” Benjamin said, his voice serious.

“Absolutely.”

“What if it’s a million dollars?” Benjamin said, raising an eyebrow jokingly.

“Then it’s hers,” Jacob said.

“But do you have a million dollars?” Benjamin asked, laughter in his voice.

“No,” Jacob said, coughing laughter. “But I’m willing to pay in installments.”

“Seriously?”

“No joke,” he said sincerely.

“Then let’s have a wedding.” Benjamin clamped Jacob’s shoulder briefly before walking toward the house.

“Oh yeah,” Benjamin said, gesturing toward the grill. “Keep an eye on the chicken in case I’m gone too long.”

***

By the time Aliyah had washed her face and emerged from the bathroom, she was filled with nervous excitement. It was still difficult to believe what she had just agreed to.

“He’s ready right now.”

Aliyah looked up and saw her uncle standing in the living room as she entered.

“Who’s ready?” Aliyah said, confused.

“Jacob,” Benjamin said. “He’s ready to marry you right now.”

Aliyah’s eyes widened. “Right now?” she said.

“It’ll just be the nikaah,” Benjamin said. “You can do a wedding party later. But we have all the witnesses, so that’s taken care of.”

“But…” Aliyah looked down at herself and frowned. “I’m not dressed for a nikaah.”

Benjamin shrugged. “You look a whole lot better than Jacob,” he offered. “And you smell better too,” he added, prompting Aliyah to laugh.

“But we haven’t discussed anything…” she said.

“He’s willing to provide for you so you can stay home even when you’re not living together,” Benjamin recited as if from memory. “And he’s willing to pay any mahr,” he said. “But only up to a million dollars.”

Aliyah laughed and shook her head. “Ha ha ha,” she said, her tone flat, letting her uncle know that she knew he was joking. “A million dollars?”

Wallahi,” Benjamin said, swearing by Allah, the shadow of a smile on his face. “He said he’s willing to pay in installments if that’s what you want.”

Aliyah couldn’t keep from smiling. “What would I need with a million dollars?”

“How about we settle for a home in your name?” Benjamin said.

Aliyah started to refuse then thought the better of it. A home would be expensive, but it was definitely practical. “Okay…” she said tentatively. “But a simple home.”

“Sounds good,” Benjamin said, clasping his hands together then walking toward the door. When Aliyah didn’t follow, he looked behind him. “You coming?” he said. “This is your wedding, you know.”

***

After Salima had taken the children inside to watch a movie in the den then returned to be one of the witnesses, Jacob and Aliyah were married outside near the basketball court in Benjamin’s yard. The nikaah was so brief and simple that Aliyah wondered for a moment if it had really happened. Her uncle had merely stood in the center of the yard as Valerie alternated between smiling at Aliyah and managing the grill, and he’d asked Jacob and then Aliyah if they agreed to be married. When they both said yes, Benjamin asked if they had agreed upon the dowry, and when they said yes, he said, “Then as the wali of my niece, I announce in front of Allah and the witnesses today, that Jacob Bivens and Aliyah Thomas are husband and wife.”

Someone called out, “Takbir!” and everyone shouted “Allahu’akbar!” Or at least it sounded like everyone. Aliyah couldn’t be sure. She was so distracted by her excited disbelief that she was only vaguely registering what was happening around her.

“Go take a walk or something,” Benjamin whispered to them before joining his wife at the grill.

***

Aliyah was overcome with shyness as Jacob took her hand and walked her to the house. Her face grew warm as she felt the strength and firmness of his hand holding hers, and her heart pounded in excitement. He let go of her hand briefly as he held the screen door open for her as she stepped inside. He gripped her hand again as the door closed behind them, both of them conscious that the children were in the house. Eyes cast down, Aliyah followed Jacob through the living room and out the front door. At the end of the walkway, hand-in-hand, they walked down the street.

They walked for some time until they came upon a wooded park and sat on a bench next to each other. Aliyah was grinning, but she was still unable to look Jacob in the eye.

“Tell me the rules,” she heard Jacob say as he continued to hold her hand. “I want you to be one hundred percent comfortable.” Even the sound of his voice sent her heart racing, and she wondered if she would last even one year living separately from him.

She shrugged, still avoiding his gaze. “We’ll take it one day at a time,” she muttered, surprised that she found her voice.

“No problem,” Jacob said. “I’ll do whatever is most comfortable for you.”

“Okay…” she said, a shy grin on her face as she looked at a patch of grass.

“But can you do me a favor?” Jacob said.

“Okay…”

“Can you look at me?”

Aliyah coughed laughter, but she still couldn’t look at him. A second later she felt his hand softly gripping her chin as he turned her face toward his. Hesitantly, she met his gaze, and he held her face between his palms.

“You are so beautiful, mashaAllah,” he said in soft voice, their gazes locked.

She cast her eyes down again, but he gently lifted her chin until she looked at him again.

“Can I kiss you?” he said.

Aliyah’s heart raced in embarrassment, and she instinctively glanced around her, making sure no one was around.

“I don’t mean right now,” Jacob said. “But whenever.”

Aliyah smiled and nodded. “Now is fine too,” she said, avoiding his eyes briefly.

A second later, she was wondering how she could have ever given up this beautiful moment for anything.

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