When I seriously considered writing a book, I knew that in any story, characters have to become alive, invoke emotions, reactions, and thoughts from readers. Whether the character is the main one in the story, or secondary in a subplot, it doesn’t matter. All the actions and dialogue coming out of the character have to be convincing. I had a general idea of who the characters were, and how they interacted with each other. Developing the specifics of how they went about their daily lives, their views of the world they lived in, and their convictions became my true challenge.
It is important to pin that down to create a character that readers could connect to, if not personally, then to someone they know. Real people, with quirks and shortcomings, weaknesses and strengths, dreams and aspirations, successes and failures. Even if the plot doesn’t call for all the details, writing them in brings the character closer to the surface, to be understood, accepted or rejected, despised or fevered, whatever the reaction from the reader maybe, a reaction nonetheless. I found as I developed my characters, they pushed me to a different angle, a different scene or a new problem that wasn’t in the plot to begin with. This approach may not work with all genres, and every writer has his or her method.
It was also very important to pin down the physical image of the character. I’m one who doesn’t cut out pictures from magazines and stick them to a board or in a sketchbook to help with images, though I think that is an effective way to go about it. I’m one who keeps everything in my head, which may explain the lost look I sport around when I’m developing a scene. I got in the habit of observing people. Wherever I am, I take in details: facial expressions, hair styles and colors, manicured fingernails, scruffy beards, the way a tall man walks, how a plump lady tries to cross her legs, the small gestures between couples they try to hide in public, yet fail. To me, it’s more than hair and eye color, skin tone and body structure. It’s more about how the characters carry themselves, and most importantly, what they try to conceal.
Bullet wounds, torture and oppression aren’t the only things that keep a man—or a woman—from being whole.
Debt. Honor. Pain. Solitude. These are things wounded war veteran Adam Wegener knows all about. Love—now, that he is not good at. Not when love equals a closed fist, burns, and suicide attempts. But Adam is one who keeps his word. He owes the man who saved his life in Iraq. And he doesn’t question the measure of the debt, even when it is in the form of an emotionally distant, beautiful woman.
Yasmeen agreed to become the wife of an American veteran so she could flee persecution in war-torn Syria. She counted on being in the United States for a short stay until she could return home. There was one thing she did not count on: wanting more.
Is it too late for Adam and Yasmeen?
Baghdad, Iraq, Summer 2006
M4 Carbine rifle ready, Sergeant Adam Wegener scanned the street, skimming from window to rooftop. Nerves on edge, his neck and shoulder muscles strained to keep him focused. His heart thumped against his ribs.
Patrol leader Lieutenant Clifton moved his troop with caution through the street, Adam’s fire team at the rear. They’d done street sweeps many times before, but this one was different. Something was not right. Apprehension took hold of his insides and squeezed tight with every step.
Adam turned and walked backwards a few steps, establishing eye contact with Corporal Scottsdale. He nodded at the big guy’s expressionless face, assurance at having Big Scott cover his back. He checked on the other two members of his team trailing his left, Corporals Andrews and Bradley, and faced forward again.
The neighborhood seemed unnaturally quiet. No children walked to school, no laundry hung outside windows on this breezeless day, not even alley cats explored the overflowing garbage containers.
From a corner of his eye, he caught a movement in one of the windows. Wood shutters slammed closed against the windowpane.
A loud boom burst the air. Adam hit the dirt, his head pounding the pavement. The world went silent. He spat blood mixed with something solid. Parts of his body armor and uniform had been ripped off, along with patches of skin. He rose to his knees, his hands searching for his rifle. Finding it, he clasped the rifle in his arms and crawled. He moved as if swimming in a viscous liquid, not knowing which direction to take. He saw only clouds of smoke.
He screamed the names of the soldiers in his team, not sure if his voice even worked. He couldn’t hear a damn thing. His elbow landed on something hard, a boot. He moved his fingers up the leather, across the twill fabric of the pants, until his hands sank in soft flesh and wetness. The man mumbled something, his voice muffled and distant.
“Big Scott, that you?” Adam shouted.
A shower of bullets rang by his side. Helmet gone, he ducked and covered his head. His ears popped from the pressure, jump-starting his hearing.
“Take cover.” Big Scott’s voice penetrated the sounds of warfare.
He scrambled to his feet, hoisted Big Scott on his shoulder, and dashed to the nearest house. He kicked the door and threw himself and Big Scott inside. Propping the injured soldier’s back to one wall, away from the windows, he snatched the M9 Beretta pistol from the holster mounted on his chest rig and forced it into Big Scott’s hands.
“Cover the door.”
Rifle raised and ready, he moved from room to room to secure the small house. He entered the kitchen, coming face-to-face with an old woman. Sitting motionless on a wooden chair, hands clasped on the Formica table in front of her, she stared down Adam’s raised barrel.
Keeping an eye on the wrinkled, tanned face, he scanned the kitchen. No place for anyone to hide, not even a closet door to check behind.
“Anyone else in the house?”
She held her stare, unflinching.
Adam tried to recall Arabic words he heard Fadi, the interpreter assigned to his patrol unit, say in situations like these. But he couldn’t recall a single one.
“Where’s your husband?”
The woman blinked. She craned her neck to one side, looking past him toward the front of the house. The white scarf covering her hair slipped down to her shoulders, revealing gray strands pulled back in a tight bun. She lifted the scarf and refastened it under her chin.
His hand shook. He aimed a loaded weapon at a woman the same age as his mother. Hell, she even resembled her.
“Rajul? Rajul?” Was that the right word for man? Why was she so calm?
The only point of entry was the door he came through. He heard heavy movement outside. The sounds of shouting men grew closer. The old mother could yell to alert the insurgents any second. He snatched a towel hanging on a hook to his left, and held his index finger to his lips, motioning for the woman to go with him to the front room.
She followed without uttering a sound.
Adam pointed his weapon for her to sit on the cement floor. He tore the towel into strips and kneeled in front of her.
Big Scott moaned. He slumped to one side, pistol aimed at the door.
“I got you, man. Have to secure the old mother first.” He used a towel strip for her hands and tied another around her mouth.
He turned to Big Scott, got his first aid kit out of a side pocket on his torn pants, and dug for supplies. He applied bandages to Big Scott’s bleeding midsection. Keeping pressure on the wound with one hand, he pulled the radio from his pack and reported to his platoon sergeant they were trapped inside one of the houses.
“Damn it, which one?” Lieutenant Clifton’s voice crackled.
“Don’t know. Scottsdale’s injured. It’s bad.”
“Andrews, Bradley?” The lieutenant screamed back.
“God damn IED was right under them. Can’t confirm.”
“Second platoon’s six blocks away. They’re en route and—”
A loud explosion silenced the radio. Cursing, he flung the radio across the room.
“Hang in there, big man. QRF’s on the way.” There was no way the Quick Reaction Force could come to their rescue if they didn’t know where they were.
“How long?” Big Scott’s voice came out calm, surprising him.
“Ten minutes.” He fumbled with more bandages. Could second platoon make six blocks in ten minutes? It was possible. “Stay with me. Think about that sweet girl you got back home. Sandy, right?”
He slumped beside Big Scott. Sticky stuff on his back squished. He closed his eyes, hoping to God the sensation resulted from an injury he hadn’t yet felt, rather than the blood and flesh of his missing team members splattered all over him. He needed to find a way to signal their location.
Big Scott clamped a charred hand on top of his. “Won’t make it.”
“The hell you won’t. Sandy’s waiting for you.” He pulled himself to his feet and approached the door. “You’d better not disappoint her.” If he opened the door and his patrol didn’t spot him, the insurgents would be alerted to their position, and that would be the fucking end. If he didn’t do anything, Big Scott would bleed out. He looked back at the corporal. His friend didn’t have much time. There was only one thing to do.
“We have to get out of here.”
He propped Big Scott on his shoulder and opened the door. Clouds of smoke blocked his view. Using the cover of smoke, he edged his way along the side of the house, unable to see a yard past his face. His foot stumbled over a chunk of cement, and he collapsed against the house, slumping down on the dirty street, overcome by how absurd this mission was.
A clomp of boots on the gritty pavement caught his attention. They were trapped. They could not fade into the concrete, not a car nor a bush to hide behind, and he didn’t have time to retrace his way back to the door. He aimed his rifle in the direction of the approaching boots and counted the steps. One man, probably a scout. Shots would draw others.
He slung the rifle across his chest and let it hang. Clamping a hand on Big Scott’s mouth, he stifled the soldier’s agonized moan. Adam stretched to full height, flattened his back against the wall, and pulled his knife.
Heavy fire erupted around them. Bullets shattered the wall to Adam’s left. He hit the dirt again. Big Scott’s limp body fell on top of him, pinning him down. Knife gone, he tried to push Big Scott off. Pain shot through his body like electricity. He doubled over and collapsed once more, trapping his rifle under him.
Leather boots slammed right next to his face. He wrapped his hand around the ankle and tried to topple the guy down.
“Don’t fight me, Adam. I’m here to helb you.”
“Fadi? That you Fadi?”
“Shut ub before zey hear us.”
Fadi took hold of Big Scott’s shoulders and pulled him into the house. He returned to Adam and dragged him until they were inside. He checked their injuries.
Multiple holes on Adam’s left side bled. Big Scott lay flat on his back, praying aloud.
“Clifton knows where you are now.” Fadi applied bandages to Adam’s leg.
He sucked in a sharp breath and tried to stay alert, his eyelids too heavy to keep open.
Fadi shook his uninjured shoulder. “Do what you always do to stay awake.”
Adam opened his eyes. “What?”
“Count, man. Count za bains. Double za number if zey were very bainful, half if zey were minor,” Fadi urged in his particular accent.
Adam’s mind kicked into counting mode. Shit, was he crazy?
“How’d you know where we were?”
“I heard za insurgents shouting to each ozer.” Fadi moved fast to administer the articles in his first-aid kit to Adam’s other wounds.
Crunching numbers didn’t do much to alleviate his pain, but the process helped him filter through Fadi’s heavy accent.
“At first I didn’t understand the words they were using for directions,” Fadi explained. “Arabic has two words to indicate left. One can mean north, depending on the dialect. I had to get closer to figure it out, and that’s when I saw you. Clifton was very mad. Didn’t want me to leave the team, but hey, I’m a contract interpreter, not one of his soldiers.”
The woman moaned from her corner. Fadi shot his head up and approached her.
“Who did this?”
“Needed to make sure she didn’t scream.” Adam tried to lift himself on his elbows. He groaned, the full force of deep searing pain setting in.
Fadi untied the woman’s mouth, released her hands, and spoke to her, his tone low and gentle.
“She’s an old woman, Adam. She’s trapped here just like we are. This is her home. No one and nothing is going to drive her out of it. You didn’t need to tie her up.”
“Not taking any chances.”
Scott’s praying voice disturbed rather than comforted Adam. He concentrated on breathing. Why couldn’t he just pass out and be spared this agony?
The woman placed her hands in her lap, flipped her palms upward and muttered something.
“What’s her problem?”
“She’s praying,” Fadi said.
“I didn’t hurt her. See what else you can do for Big Scott before I lose it.” Adam found it hard to formulate his words.
Fadi kneeled in front of Big Scott, tore a bag with his teeth, and spread its contents over his gaping wound.
Adam’s eyes darted between the old mother and Big Scott. Never hesitant Scott. Never questioning and never smiling either. Were they praying to the same God? Would He listen?
“Tell her I’m sorry I tied her up, will you?”
“Itlaa barrah balady,” the woman responded to Fadi.
“What the hell did she say?”
“She wants us to leave.”
“We wouldn’t be here if her people hadn’t planted that Goddamn IED. Tell her that.” Adam spat blood.
“She meant leave her country.”
Darkness closed in on Adam, the bliss of unconsciousness threatening to take over. He closed his eyes.
“I’m okay with that . . .”
Lilas Taha is a writer at heart, an electrical engineer by training, and an advocate for domestic abuse victims by choice. She was born in Kuwait to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father, and immigrated to the U.S. as a result of the Gulf war in 1990. She earned a master’s degree in Human Factors Engineering from the University of Wisconsin- Madison. There, Lilas met her beloved husband and true friend, and moved with him to Sugar Land, Texas to establish a family. She is the proud mother of a daughter and a son. Instead of working in an industrial field, she applied herself to the field of social safety, working with victims of domestic violence.
Pursuing her true passion for creative writing, Lilas brings her professional interests, and her Middle Eastern background together in her debut fictional novel, Shadows of Damascus.
Author Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/LilasTahaAuthor
Twitter: Follow @LilasTaha https://twitter.com/LilasTaha
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