Cloth And Crucifix

People stared at us as we walked arm in arm down the street. The albino white blond haired blue eyed girl wearing a large crucifix around her neck, and the coca skinned girl wearing a hijab. Of course, that was everyone's reaction when they saw us together, and we were always together. My best friend, Aleena, and I were opposites in a lot of ways, especially through the eyes of someone who didn't know us very well. But people like parents, friends, and teachers knew that we were exactly alike. They knew about how we both liked to walk around in sandals, even in winter. And we both loved to read more than anything. We laughed at and told the same jokes, we danced liked demented chickens to the same songs, we even ate the same foods. One time I was at her house and her mother walked in on us both spreading peanut butter over our chocolate chip cookies.

"What are you doing?" She had demanded. It took a very long time for us to answer. I tried valiantly to unstick my teeth from the sticky peanut butter, I wasn't sure Aleena even tried, she just fell on her side in giggles. Aleena's mother liked me a lot, she invited me over any chance she got, half the time I spent there was by her suggestion instead of Aleena's. Her father was barely around, but he tolerated me. Mind, I had to be on my best behavior when he was around. He was a very strict man.

In fact, maybe the only differences between Aleena and me was my crucifix and her hijab. A Catholic and a Muslim, how odd. Obviously if you said that to our faces we would have laughed and laughed until you stepped back awkwardly, obviously wishing you'd never spoken. I often made teasing jokes about Aleena's hijab. I thought it was kind of hilarious, but when she explained it to me I had to admit I felt a bit jealous.

"Why do you wear the hijab?" I asked her on the way home from school one day. She hopped over a couple of cracks in the sidewalk before looking at me with a huge grin on her face, like she'd always been waiting for me to ask.

"It gives me freedom." She replied. I plopped myself down on a nearby wooden bench, let my backpack fall to the ground and crossed my arms.

"It gives you freedom?" I repeated skeptically, raising an eyebrow. "No offense but I don't really think that having a scratchy piece of fabric on your head because you have to really seems like freedom to me." Aleena giggled and sat down next to me, slouching against the wood. She casually and took my hand.

"Silly Lily." She giggled again when I wrinkled my nose. "Doesn't it make you feel better? If someone had to look at you judge you by what you say, not how you look. They have to look into your eyes and see who you really are."

"Not know how you look?" I couldn't help it, I snorted, "The thing only covers your hair. And your hair is pretty anyway."

"Now wait a second. My hair isn't that pretty." Aleena argued, completely diverted.

"Yes, it is! It's all curly."

"Anyway. Covering your hair makes you different, people remember you and remember your values. It's really important."

"Oh." I said, standing awkwardly. Aleena didn't release my hand.

"Lily." She said quietly, "Do you understand? The hijab defines me."

As my crucifix defined me. I nodded and picked up my bag, striding quickly back to my home.

That night I experimented wrapping pieces of cloth around my head. Covering my hair didn't make me feel any more confident. Silly Aleena.

The next day Aleena came over to my house to study. My father absolutely adored Aleena, he'd adopt her if her could. My mother didn't approve of her, at all. My mother seemed to be under the impression that all of my friends should be perfect Catholic children that pray every time they blink. I haven't gotten the nerve to tell her that nobody's perfect yet.

One day we were both draped across my bed with our books and papers spread out all over the covers.

"How do you solve this equation?" I asked, rubbing my forehead. Math was never my forte.

"I'll tell you if you help me study for the world war two test." Aleena wagered, she wasn't good with history. She didn't help me solve the problem, we were interrupted when someone knocked on my door. Aleena stiffened and I ran to the door, holding the doorknob to be sure it wouldn't turn until I let it.

"Who is it?" I called.

"It's Peter, let me in." My twin brother said from the other side of the wood.

"Hold on!" I said as Aleena jumped off the bed, scattering papers everywhere as she scrambled to put her hijab on over her head. I didn't really see the big deal about this situation, it was just my brother. But then again I knew how important it was to her so I kept him barred out. When I finally let Peter in he was frowning, then his eyes traveled across the room and when they landed on Aleena the frown disappeared as comprehension dawned on his face. "What do you want?" I asked.

"My highlighters. My history teacher assigned us a huge writing assignment and…" I cut him off by shoving the fluorescent markers in his hands. I began to push Peter out the door and he muttered, "Did I interrupt something?" I dropped my arms immediately, he went off balance for a moment, then looked at me.

"No, not really. But you're my brother. You're not supposed to be in my room." I said thoughtfully. Peter rolled his eyes at me, nodded to Aleena (Peter and Aleena had always had a polite almost-friendship) and left. Aleena was picking up the papers she had scattered in her haste to put on her head scarf. "So," I said casually, "Is everyone in your parent's hometown a Muslim?" She looked up, surprised, we barely ever talked about religion for fear of disagreements.

"Well, not everyone. I think mostly though." Aleena answered, her eyebrows pulling down as she gathered up the fallen books. I felt a little embarrassed that I had asked her. She had only been there a couple of times, her parents had moved to America before she was born. I then noticed that Aleena was flipping frantically through the papers she had collected and checking between the pages of her books. She looked at me in desperation. "Lily! I think I left my math worksheet at school." She cried, jumping up and already halfway to the door before I could even answer.

"Well, it's okay. You can copy my answers during first hour." I suggested. She glared at me, of course Aleena wouldn't cheat. Really, what was I thinking? Then again, most of them would probably be her answers anyway.

"Please, Lily? It won't take long. I promise." Aleena tugged on my arm. I sighed in resignation and she clapped her hands enthusiastically, "Great!" I followed her down the stairs where we both put on our jackets.

"Mom! Leena and me are going to school to get something. Be back soon!" I called. My mother shouted a reply and Aleena and I walked out into the chilly evening air. The sunset was beautiful, red streaked with purple and yellow like finger-paints smeared across the darkening sky. I stared at it for a moment before Aleena called for me to hurry up and I rushed to catch up with her.

True to call the math sheet was in her locker on the second floor of the high school. We were just leaving when we heard voices calling around us. The light was nearly gone and I squinted to see where the noise was coming from. A group of rowdy boys that we were only slightly familiar with had congregated around the flagpole, laughing rambunctiously and moving unsteadily about the nearby grounds. I took a deep breath and took Aleena's hand, hoping that we could get by them without being seen. These boys had never eased their insults of Aleena's head scarf, or my crucifix, for that matter. We were nearly past them, nearly home free when one of them called to us.

"Hey! Hey everyone! Look who's out past their bedtime!" All of the boys laughed as we were brought to their attention. I would have run, but Aleena had frozen beside me. I swallowed loudly, afraid to turn around but I heard them approaching behind us.

"Hey there little girls." One of them said, walking to stand in front of us, making escape impossible even if I could have gotten Aleena to move. Others sauntered around, forming a circle around us. Aleena's jaw was tight, her eyes wide with horror, I imagined I must have looked the same. "Never thought we'd see you two pious little freaks wandering around after dinnertime."

"Go to hell!" I shouted, sounding braver than I felt. I immediately sent up a quick prayer of apology, I never talked that way. I grabbed Aleena's wrist and tried to pull her out of the knot of boys but they just closed in around us.

"Aw, don't be like that sweetie." The one that appeared to be the leader said, grabbing my face along the jaw bone and pulling me closer to him. I tried to pull away but he grabbed my wrists with his other hand, I was so close now that I could smell the whiskey and alcohol on his breath and see the stoned looked in his eyes.

This could be very bad. I started to fight desperately, afraid for my life. What if they had broken bottles? Or worse, guns? I wouldn't put it past these boys.

Two of the boys grabbed me by the arms and I could not escape no matter how much I struggled. The others were laughing profanities at me, I broke free of one of them and punched him in the face. He lost his balance for a moment, then leaned back towards me, sloshing half of his whiskey from the bottle on me, it reeked as it soaked the front of my shirt, face, and necklace. Coughing I stumbled from the strong odor, giving the boys a chance to grip me again. I struggled and something hit me, hard and sharp. It hit me again and again. I blinked rapidly, trying to stay conscious as it hit me again. My tears went unnoticed as they dripped down my cheek mixing itself amongst the blood and booze that covered my face. I was seeing spots when they got bored and turned to the still-frozen Aleena. I felt the blood on my face and the sharp pain in my nose but I couldn't help but watch the boys gather around her. Wolf-whistling and asking horrific questions.

"What's this?" One of them asked thickly, the others began to claw at her hijab, pulling it from her hair bit by bit. She screamed and tried to stop them, I could hardly see them hit her, they closed in around her so tight and two of the boys were still holding my arms, the only reason I was still standing. I was only semi-conscious as I heard Aleena start to shriek hysterically. I forgot how close I was to dying, I knew I was in pain and in trouble but none of it mattered because Aleena was hurt. I didn't matter, I had to help her.

But I couldn't. Suddenly I was no longer aware of Aleena's cries. I wasn't aware of the gashes on my cheek and forehead or my broken nose or even the boys holding me up. Everything around me went dark and all I could sense was the smell of whiskey.

I didn't open my eyes right away. The intoxicating alcoholic smells were nearly gone, but it still lingered on my skin. I didn't hear anything but my breathing. Someone else nearby was breathing too, but not moving. Then slowly, I started to register my body. My nose didn't hurt as much but I could feel something heavy on it. My face and sides ached with bruises and gashes that I dreaded to see. It was a minute still before everything flooded back into my consciousness. I sat bolt upright with a startled gasp, my breathing sped and I looked around frantically. I was in a hospital room. I wasn't hooked up to any machines, neither was there an I.V. I was just laying there as though I had decided it seemed like a good place to take a nap. Peter was sitting next to me, eyes wide and a hand on his chest as though I had frightened him with my sudden hysterics, which, after a moment of consideration, was probably the case.

"What?" I asked, confused. My voice was gravelly and dead sounding. Peter's eyes tightened with concern.

"The principal found you outside the school this morning. What happened?" He asked. I just shook my head. The movement hurt. I put my finger to my nose, finding a cast there.

"They were drunk they attacked us, we…we.." I interrupted myself, "Where's Aleena? Is she okay?" I asked suddenly. Peter bowed his head.

"She'll be fine. She got it worse than you did though. The police want to talk to you."

"I'll talk to them later. I want to talk to Leena."

"She isn't awake yet!" He snapped, almost angrily but immediately appeared apologetic. My gaze shifted to the nightstand where my necklace lay next to a glass of water. I picked up the necklace, fingering the sticky crucifix. It still smelled of…of the night before. I threw back the thin sheet that was over me and quickly dumped the entire glass of water on it, using it to wipe off the tiny figurine. "What are you doing?" My brother demanded. Poor Peter, I must have been really freaking him out by acting so strangely. I shrugged, I didn't have to explain myself right now. His eyes went to my necklace, the sight seemed to make him awkward. Without thinking I was in hysterics again. Drunk? They hurt me, they hurt Aleena. They tore off her Hijab and… and I was unconscious for most of it. For all I knew they could've…they could've…

"OH HOLY CRAP!" I shouted in horror. Peter jumped and stumbled out of his chair and backed away from me a few steps. "Did they…what did they…Peter?" I choked each time I tried to ask a question. He was confused. I put my hand to my throat and, since I couldn't form the coherent question I just looked at him, all implications in my eyes. His face let slip disgust and comprehension before answering me.

"No." I was relieved. I sank back into the bed, not feeling very well. I felt very…hateful. I was always tolerant but at that moment I hated everything. I hated those boys, my life, my home, my family, Peter, I even hated the feel of my own flesh as it hung on my bones. I stared, glared, at the foot of my bed.

Peter left to go tell mom and dad that I was alive. I stood up and walked to the curtain on the other side of the room. When I pulled it back I found exactly was I was looking for…in a way. Aleena laid there, her hair a mess and her dark skin covered in rusty dried blood. Her face and fingers were all black and blue. Her body was limp, and there were a few pieces of machinery hooked up to her. I sighed. Even though I hated everything under God, even myself, I couldn't hate Aleena. She just seemed as helpless as I was and I was sure that my hate was nothing compared to hers. And nothing would be excluded from her hatred.I felt guilty almost to tears, but I didn't cry. I couldn't cry. Not yet.

Aleena opened her eyes slowly and reached for me weakly. I went to her side at once. She clasped her scarred hand around my crucifix.

"Who is this?" She asked, delicately stroking the cross. I gaped for a moment, she didn't know because she never asked.

"It's Jesus." I replied.

"The prophet."

"Yes. But also, we believe that he was god."

"Why does he look so sad?" Aleena asked, frowning.

"He's dying. He's in pain."

"Why?"

"They're killing him."

"If he's your god, why is he dying?" Aleena demanded, "Allah has never died."

"Jesus died so we didn't have to." I didn't want to talk about this right now. Her curiosity seemed delusional to me.

"Your god died for you?" She whispered in awe. "He loves you that much?"

"You too." I said, deciding to take the chance to give her as much of a Sunday school lesson as she would accept.

"But I'm not a Christian. Why should he love me when I don't love him?" Aleena asked.

"Because he's bigger than us. He created you. So he loves you."

"The Allah I grew up with didn't care." She grumbled. That ended the conversation.

A few days later I walked with Peter to Aleena's house. She had just gotten released from the hospital and my father sent us to cheer her up. We were silent on the walk there, all the way until I knocked on Aleena's bedroom door. When she opened it I gasped. There was Aleena, but something was wrong. She knew that Peter and I were coming and yet she stood there with her hair uncovered. Neither did she make a move to cover her head, she just stood back to let us in silently. Peter was staring. The three of us sat down on her bed. I was holding Aleena's right hand, Peter holding her left. I looked around the room and noticed it's odd disarray. Drawers had been emptied and random pieces of cloth laid about the room. And then I saw that Aleena hadn't just put away her hijab, but abandoned it completely.

"Mom's gonna let me get home schooled." Aleena said at last. I nodded, expecting nothing less. I didn't know what I was going to do yet, but first I had to worry about my best friend. I'd worry about myself later.

"We'll miss you." I whispered.

"Yeah." Peter agreed quickly. Aleena shifted and I saw that she was sitting on something. A red, cloth bound notebook and a pen. "Aleena, I hope you're okay." Peter continued, "If you need to talk…" That opened up the flood gates. Aleena fell into his side, sobbing and choking. With a look of supreme surprise he wrapped his arms around her trembling body and looked at me for help. I couldn't help him. I crawled up behind them and leaned on him too. It only took a few moments for the tears to come. Peter stayed with us, not saying anything but comforting us with his presence, for which I was grateful. This once, I did not think I would be able to be alone with Aleena, trying to act strong as a rock, she'd never heal that way. After what must have been an hour, Aleena straightened and my tears ceased.

"Excuse me." She said, wanting to recover from her rare lack of self control. As soon as the door closed behind her I snatched Aleena's notebook and opened it, staring at the first page with awe.

"What is that?" Peter demanded.

"It's her prayer journal." I whispered, flipping through the pages. I wasn't enough of a snoop to read all of her prayers but I skimmed them and saw that my name turned up a lot, as did Peter's and my family. For the first half of the journal I saw that each entry began with "Dear Allah." But then, over what looked to be the past couple of weeks she began to title them "Dear God." There was even one titled "Dear Lily". I couldn't bare to read any of that prayer, sent out to me. The last one, the very last prayer in yet not-yet-completed journal was titled "Dear Jesus". Hope swelled within me as I remembered that I had not even intended for this to happen.

Then I read the prayer. A single line under the salutation it read: Help me. Just help me.

As Peter and I walked home I pondered that. We could help Aleena, we could help her heal, as I felt I was already healing. Yes, this was doable, and I was glad. Aleena would be happy again if it killed me.

I never saw Aleena at school again, but we remained best friends. And I never saw her wear her hijab again. She was bolder, I saw that when Peter and I paid her regular visits. After only a week she was smiling again. Telling Peter jokes and laughing at mine. That day before we left Aleena rushed over to give me the usual hug goodbye and then surprised everyone by turning to Peter, standing on tiptoe and pecking his cheek with her lips. Eyes wide we all froze. Even Aleena seemed surprised. Slowly, I smiled. We were silent as we left. It wasn't a bad thing. Even the whole situation barely seemed awkward. This was the first moment I had felt happy since the attack. Dear Jesus, I thought to myself, Thank you, just thank you.