Dare from Deep Within
Three young women from varying backgrounds risk everything to help a friend escape her abusive family.
Still at odds with her own Muslim parents, Layla faces unexpected challenges when her childhood companion shows up on her doorstep. As Fatima risks everything for freedom, her desperate circumstances draw a new circle of friends who will be forever changed by her plight.
Layla, the Muslim-background believer, turns to a forbidden boyfriend for the guidance both to protect Fatima and to find her identity apart from her parents and her former culture.
Rain, the bi-racial hippie chick, secrets Fatima away from her violent family, but as the experience draws her closer to Christ, Rain’s own relationship with her significant other, James, will suffer the consequences.
Sarah, an ultra-conservative Christian on the surface, is torn between a desire to help Fatima and a need to conceal her shameful double life and dangerous habits from her older sister Allie.
As they struggle to safely guide this courageous young woman through a maze of intrigue and terrorism, all will be forced to ask what they are willing to risk for love, for each other—and for God.
This is killing me!
Curling deep into a corner of the worn couch, Layla Al-Rai blinked away tears and reread the text message from the man she had hoped to marry: This is killing me! Then she hit delete. She needed to put Mo far from her mind, forget about what she couldn’t have and focus on what she could.
Somehow forget that this was killing her too. Valentine’s Day without him had provided a special kind of torture. Things could only improve from here. Right?
Swiping her newly cut black layers from her eyes, Layla surveyed the cozy living room of her little bungalow. She searched out her friends gathered in the well-lit kitchen and honed in on their smiling faces. Allie and Rain had been her strength and comfort throughout the tumultuous first semester of college. These returning students, both independent women in their mid-twenties, showed her what life could be like beyond the veil.
Surely miracles did exist. Despite the fact that Layla was an adult of twenty-two, if anyone had told her six months earlier that her Muslim parents would allow her to share a house with a group of Christian college girls, she would have cracked up laughing. Yet here she was, not only sharing a home but a new Christian believer herself.
“Coffee, Layla?” her roommate Allie called from the kitchen.
“Sure. Plenty of cream and sugar.” Coffee, another thing to be thankful for. Nice light American coffee wafting through the air, not her auntie’s syrupy Lebanese version. Layla took a deep breath and attempted to ignore the stab of longing in her chest, as if a caffeinated beverage could replace the love of her life.
Layla’s good friend Rain plunked down on the arm of the rust-colored couch, pregnant belly and all. Rain didn’t live with Layla, but she folded her legs Indian style and wiggled an indentation for her burgeoning rear as if she did. Hugging an oversized coffee mug to her chest, she took a hard look at Layla’s face in the dim lamplight. “Hey, we’re happy tonight, remember. No more tears.”
“I’m not crying.” Layla grimaced.
“Then what’s that wet thing on your eyelash? You should know better than to try and fool me. The wise, all-knowing Rain sees everything.” She took a sip of coffee before hollering into the next room. “Allie, we might have to break out the big guns. Any ice cream in that fridge?”
As if Rain needed ice cream. Layla’s lips quivered into a grin. The all-knowing, New-Age hippie guru evidently didn’t see that she was about to break the couch. Although Rain looked prettier than ever with her café-au-lait skin, corkscrew light brown curls, and peasant blouse that matched her golden-green eyes, she needed to slow down on the weight gain if she wanted to continue perching herself in such precarious positions.
“Never mind, Allie. I’m fine, really. Rain has no idea what she’s talking about.”
Allie and her little sister Sarah came to join them. Sarah, wearing a long beige skirt and turtleneck sweater against the winter chill, settled herself primly on the edge of an overstuffed chair. Meanwhile, Allie handed Layla a steaming mug of amaretto-scented coffee and plopped onto the couch, stretching her bare ballerina legs onto the glass-topped table.
Could the sisters possibly be more different? Despite their matching blond coloring, Sarah represented everything Allie had left behind from her ultra-conservative past. At least they were getting along these days. Hopefully Allie could help Sarah unwind a bit before she snapped.
“I’m all for ice cream.” Sarah brushed her twill skirt down flat. “I don’t need an occasion.”
Allie took a long sip and sighed. “You’ll all have to be content with amaretto creamer tonight. The teenyboppers wiped out the fridge. I swear those girls swarm like locusts.”
Layla nodded. “A real-life biblical plague.” Allie’s nickname for their roommates certainly fit. Those four freshman girls bopped in and out all hours of the day and night. “At least we have some peace and quiet for the moment.”
“I don’t know how you guys do it.” Rain shook her head. “They give me a migraine.”
“They aren’t so bad once you get used to them.” Allie laughed. “Besides, I only have to put up with them until summer. Save your pity for Layla.”
Layla didn’t need pity. Truly, she was still overwhelmed by the wonder of it all. “The girls are kind of fun. You can’t imagine how amazing it is for me just to be on my own, with no auntie watching over my every move.” Not to mention having the pleasure of attending a real, live church or the joy of praying when and where she pleased and feeling like someone actually listened.
After twenty-two years in a restrictive culture, Layla was finally free—the constant, nagging fear of Allah’s judgement gone from her life—and of course she had her amazing new relationship with Christ, which she was still discovering. Surely giving up Mo was a small price to pay.
“Yeah, I guess surviving a murder attempt puts everything in perspective.” Rain placed a warm hand on Layla’s.
“Oh my goodness.” Sarah’s blue eyes grew big and round, all the more obvious beneath her tight chignon. “I forgot about that. You must have been terrified.”
The last thing Layla wanted to talk about tonight was her uncle’s botched honor killing. “It’s over and I’m safe now. That’s what matters. I doubt he would have gone through with it, but I’m sure you can understand the teenyboppers look pretty good to me after all that.”
“And things are okay with your parents? They didn’t disown you?” Sarah sat up a bit taller and leaned in.
Layla couldn’t help but feel sorry for the girl. Unlike Allie and Layla’s friends at her new church, Sarah looked quite bound by religion herself.
“No, thank goodness,” answered Layla. “They didn’t disown me. I still can hardly believe it. My mom wouldn’t speak to me for a while, but my dad’s moderate in his beliefs. He’s all for religious reform. I mean, they aren’t happy with me, but for now they’re paying the bills. So my dream of an engineering degree is still alive. And they’ve dropped the subject of an arranged marriage, which is way more than I expected.”
“Yeah, but she’s not supposed to tell anyone. And they made her give up her boyfriend in exchange for tuition, which totally sucks.” Rain slammed her cup down on the end table, causing the lamp to shake. “I swear, Layla, you’re a grown woman. You should find a job and be done with them.”
Rain wouldn’t understand. She’d been living with her significant other, James, since she was eighteen. Her parents were off on perpetual safari somewhere in Africa, but Layla needed her family. She loved them, and she longed to honor them in whatever way she still could. Not to mention that boyfriends really didn’t even exist in her culture.
Sarah tilted her head and tightened her lips. “We’re supposed to honor our parents, Rain. The Bible says so. Layla’s doing the best she can in a hard situation. Besides, this is not the right time in her life for a boyfriend. She should focus on God.”
Somehow hearing her thoughts filtered through Sarah’s judgmental mind made Layla question her own reasoning. “Mo was a huge part of why I came to Christ. So it’s not that simple. Without Allie and Mo, I might never have found him. That has to count for something.”
Sarah gazed at her sister skeptically. Layla knew the women well enough to decipher the look. How could a heavy-metal loving, short-shorts wearing, so-called Christian lead anyone to Christ? Layla stifled a giggle.
Not so successful at restraining herself, Rain snorted. “How about you, Sarah? Any hot guys in your life?”
Red crept up from the edge of Sarah’s turtleneck to tinge her face. “No guys at all, hot or otherwise.” She patted her fastidious hairdo. “I have no need for men right now. ‘Awake not love before it pleases’ and all that. Really, Layla, your parents are doing you a favor. I have no intention of dating. After college I’ll consider courtship.”
Despite Layla’s new appreciation for the Bible, Sarah’s habit of spouting scripture left a bad taste in her mouth. She took another sip of amaretto coffee to wash it away.
“Courtship!” Rain laughed out loud this time.
Heat emanated from Sarah’s face, but she had no way to stop it. They probably figured she was embarrassed by all this talk about guys. Better they imagine her a pious fool than suspect the truth. Jesse’s sexy smile flashed through her mind along with his searing eyes that turned her to melted butter. Sarah gulped and attempted to steady her breathing as guilt washed over her in torrents.
Allie cleared her throat and looked to be choking back a giggle. “So have you decided on a school yet, Sarah?”
Thank God, a change of subject. Although, on second thought, Sarah doubted God deserved any credit for her relief at the moment. Surely he was standing on alert to zap her with a lightning bolt. She smiled her appreciation to Allie. “I’ve been accepted here at Old Dominion University and also at a Christian college near Roanoke. But I’m leaning toward ODU. I plan to study languages, and they have Arabic classes, which are hard to find.”
Allie twisted to recline her long legs over the back of the couch behind Layla’s head. How did Allie do it? Looking relaxed and happy as she lounged in her little hot-pink dancer’s shorts, somehow at peace with God and suddenly engaged to the assistant pastor of Sarah’s own conservative church in Virginia Beach. Surely Allie was delusional—kind-hearted but nuts. Things just didn’t work that way with God.
“Wait a minute.” Layla seemed to shake off the funk she’d been in all evening. “Did you say Arabic? Hal tatakalame Alarabiya?”
“Naam ya habibti. Ftakartic betaerfi,”Sarah answered.
Rain threw up her hands. “Translation please.”
Layla sat forward. “I asked if she spoke Arabic. She said yes. She thought I knew, but I had no idea. How’d this happen?”
“I go to a high school for international studies. I hope to be a missionary someday.”
Rain sucked in a sharp breath. Layla glanced from Allie to Rain and back again. Allie just shrugged her shoulders.
The heat returned to Sarah’s face. Did they suspect she was nothing but a sham? A failure of a Christian? She had planned to be a missionary for years. She wasn’t ready to give up her dreams over one little stumble.
“You know, Sarah…” Layla smiled encouragingly. “You could learn a lot from Allie in that department. The way she was just herself and open about both her faith and her struggles meant a lot to me when I was searching for the truth.”
“Yeah.” Rain contentedly rubbed her protruding belly with her ringless left hand. The woman had no shame. Sarah should be glad Rain chose life, but still. She twisted her purity ring around her own left finger. Thank God she would never have to deal with the shame of an unplanned pregnancy.
“I’m not as into all the Christian stuff as Layla,” Rain continued, “but Allie definitely gave me a better perspective on it. She really changed my ideas about God.”
Oh, so they didn’t think she’d be a good witness, not as good as Allie. No matter how hard she tried, she’d never be as good as Allie. A heavy lump filled Sarah’s stomach.
After eight years gallivanting the globe, living life on her own terms, Allie had returned home to the proverbial fatted calf. Okay, so she was on a dancing “mission” trip and not quite the prodigal child. But after Sarah killed herself to be the perfect daughter and meet every last one of her parents’ high standards, it stung to see her free-spirited sister accepted so easily back into the fold. They even bought Allie that flashy red Mini Cooper, while Sarah had no car of her own.
“Hey, Sarah,” Rain said with an evil grin, “if you end up going to school here, you could take Allie’s bed after the wedding. I’m sure she’ll be occupied in a much warmer mattress.”
“That would be fun.” Layla nudged Rain, otherwise ignoring the inappropriate innuendo, and perked up even more. “I’d love to share a room with you. I could help you with your Arabic.”
“Oh, my gosh.” Sarah blinked vapidly a few times and squealed in imitation of Allie’s eighteen-year-old roommates, wiggling her fingers beside her head. “Like, I so totally get more of Britney and company than I can stand at church every week. Like, I might just die or something.”
“That is so her.” Rain clapped in delight.
Although only eighteen herself, Sarah had no need for a bunch of immature, boy crazy roommates. This recent incident was just a blip on the radar. She’d get things under control soon enough and had no desire to surround herself by such worldly influences.
“Look, there she is now!” Allie teased.
Sarah turned to the dark window. A shadowed figure stood on the sagging front porch, barely discernible against the soft glow of the streetlights. Her heart sped, but surely it wasn’t Britney. The person was alone, and Britney always had a posse in tow.
A soft knock rapped against the door.
Allie stood and shot a questioning glance to Layla. “Too quiet for the teenybopper crew. You expecting anyone?”
Layla just shrugged.
Allie called, “Who is it?”
“Help me, please.” A pleading, accented voice filtered through the crack. Its broken timber tugged at something deep in Sarah’s being.
Allie shot a questioning glance around the room. Rain hurried to stand behind her, cupping her shoulders.
“Let her in,” Sarah whispered. Allie opened the door. Through it stumbled a slight figure shrouded in black.
“Layla? Is Layla Al-Rai here?” emanated the familiar voice from the black fabric.
Layla jumped from the couch in response. “Fatima? Is that you?”
A sob broke through the slit of the niqab.
The poignant sound rang all too familiar in Layla’s ear, a cry she had heard far too often. She ran to her dearest childhood friend, picked up the heavy hem of the full-body veil, and threw it over the woman’s head—revealing a golden-haired beauty, stunning despite a split lip and the purple smudge rimming one of her hazel green eyes.
“Oh, Fatima. What have they done to you now?” A wave of nausea rolled over Layla. She gathered the shaking bundle carefully into her arms.
“I am just glad I find you. I was so scared. I could not stay one more minute.” Fatima’s English sounded rusty. But then, she’d barely spoken it since high school.
“Shh, shh. You’re safe now.” Layla shot a frenzied glance around the room. How on earth they could protect a battered Saudi Arabian woman from her fanatic father and brothers, she had no idea.
Cold fear crept through Layla as images of her uncle holding a knife over her head flashed through her mind in sharp detail. She shook the memory away. Risking her own life had been hard enough. Layla couldn’t bear the thought of Fatima going through that. Somehow Layla had survived, but what if Fatima’s story didn’t end as well?
Nonetheless, she gathered her courage for Fatima’s sake. “These are my friends.” Layla gestured around the room and introduced the girls by name, but Fatima didn’t seem to register a word. A glazed expression covered her face.
The other women stared on with muted curiosity.
“Remember, Fatima? You’ve exchanged emails with Rain and Allie. They’ll help take care of you. Don’t worry. And Sarah is Allie’s sister. Sarah, this is my dearest friend from childhood, Fatima Maalouf.” Layla stroked Fatima’s shoulder, hoping to infuse life back into her.
Fatima blinked and her eyes focused this time. “Rain, Allie, yes. Allah be praised. It is so good to finally meet you.”
Rain and Allie had been writing to Fatima for months. The girl was desperate for any sort of interaction since she became a prisoner in her own home.
“We’re here for you.” Rain approached and gave Fatima the standard three Middle Eastern kisses. “Just like I said we’d be.”
Layla winced. So this was Rain’s idea. Didn’t she understand the repercussions? Surely Fatima’s family would trace her here. The girl had traveled in full veil for crying out loud, and where else could she possibly have gone? Fatima’s family only permitted her to associate with the strictest of Muslims. Layla had been accepted as a neighboring child, but they hadn’t even let her visit this winter when she was home for Christmas break.
Allie lightly kissed Fatima’s cheeks as well. “How did you get here?”
“Bus,” Fatima said through chattering teeth.
They transported the hobbling Fatima to the couch, and Rain tucked in her shivering form with a throw blanket from a basket on the floor. Beneath the niqab that had shrouded Fatima in black from head to toe, leaving only a small slit at the eyes for her to see, she had worn a simple pair of jeans and a long sleeved T-shirt, but they did little to keep her warm on this wet, blustery winter night. Sometimes Layla missed the honest snow of Detroit. At least it didn’t soak through your clothes like the cold drizzle in Norfolk, Virginia. She could hardly believe Fatima had traveled all this way on her own.
Rain chafed Fatima’s fingers with her hands. “You poor thing. You don’t even have a coat. Tell us the whole story.”
“I’ll get you some coffee,” Allie offered. “That will warm you up.”
“Thank you.” Tears streamed down Fatima’s face, but the chattering had subsided. “Thanks to all of you.” She sighed deeply. “I thought I would not make it.”
“So you traveled by bus,” Layla prompted, not wanting to overwhelm the young woman.
“Yes.” Fatima relaxed into Rain’s side embrace and rested her head against Rain’s shoulder.
Layla laid her hand on Fatima’s knee. “How? Where did you get the money?”
Fatima bit her swollen lower lip. “I stole it.”
“It’s okay. You can tell us.” Rain gave her a squeeze.
“Eiy!” Fatima shrieked, grimacing in pain.
Gently pulling the cotton of Fatima’s purple T-shirt aside, Layla revealed a bruised shoulder. Her stomach clenched. “Where else are you hurt?”
“My ankle is sprained, I think. And my ribs. Something is wrong with my ribs.”
“Dear God.” Rain pressed a hand to her mouth.
But it came as no surprise to Layla. She’d seen Fatima roughed up before. Just never this bad or all at once.
Allie brought the coffee. The heat and sweet amaretto creamer delivered the desired effect.
On her own, Fatima began to tell the story. “He’s been threatening for months. Father insisted I go to Saudi Arabia and marry some middle-aged stranger who would lock me up for good. He could never risk dishonoring the family by marrying me to a kind American man who might let me run wild, and yet he will not even tell me what number wife I will be to this man. He insists my ‘wicked’ beauty must be guarded. But he knew he could not force me through an American airport, so he has been punishing me, not letting me leave the house, threatening me, hitting me.” She sniffled and took another drink of coffee.
“I’m so sorry.” Allie snuggled with Sarah in the armchair.
Sarah shook her head, her mouth gaping.
“Then yesterday I hear him speaking with my brothers and asking them to find something to drug me, to make me calm and sleepy. Roofies, he said. I panicked. Mother was back in the kitchen. My brother’s wallet was on the bureau by the front door. I grabbed it, my shoes, my purse, and my niqab, and I ran out of there before it was too late. I cannot go to Saudi Arabia and be a man’s slave. I simply cannot.” Fatima dissolved into sobs.
Sarah spoke up. “We won’t let that happen. We can fight this in court if we need to.”
“No!” Fatima shrieked even louder than when Rain squeezed her injured arm.
“Let’s get you to a hospital and document your injuries. We’ll take out a restraining order.” Sarah crossed the room and knelt in front of Fatima, beside Layla. “I know how these things work. It will be all right. We have laws.”
“You think they care about your laws?” Fatima pressed herself deeper into the couch like a cornered animal. “They will kill me without a second thought. I would disappear and that would be the end. My family can never find me, never know where I am.”
Layla agreed. Fatima’s family could never know where she was. “Oh, Fatima. I just wish you hadn’t worn your veil. You could have blended in so easily without it. No one would know where you went.”
“I was…I was scared. I did not think. I just ran. I was feeling safer with it.”
This was hardly the time to give Fatima a lesson on Western culture. Logically, after almost two decades in this country, she must understand that American men were used to seeing female faces and that there was nothing sexual in a woman’s facial features to them. She would have been safe enough on a public bus, but a lifetime of cultural training kept her from accepting those facts, especially at a frightening time like this.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter. They’re going to guess you’ve come here. Eventually they’ll show up. We need to find you somewhere safe to stay.” Although Layla doubted such a place existed when it came to radical Middle Eastern men whose honor was at stake.
“You can stay with me, Fatima.” Rain laid a gentle hand on Fatima’s wrist. “No one in your family knows me. I’m a couple of miles from here, and my boyfriend James has dealt with a few thugs in his time.”
Fatima’s eyes grew big.
Layla studied the protective way Rain sheltered Fatima in her arms. Staying with Rain and her boyfriend—albeit her committed boyfriend of many years—would be a shock to Fatima, but the plan had merits.
“Or she could stay with my family,” Sarah offered, sitting on the floor at Fatima’s feet.
“I think Rain’s place would be best.” Layla nodded. “It’s closer in case of an emergency, and the fewer people who know, the better. Besides, James’s thug training could come in handy.”
“Are you sure you won’t go to the police?” Sarah pleaded. “I’ve studied these cases in school. There really are laws to protect you. You’re over eighteen, right? If you weren’t it could be tricky, like that poor girl Rifqa Bary, but the courts still figured out a way to help her.”
“No, no, please. I just want a place to hide and feel safe. Maybe later I will have no choices, but not now.”
Tears welled in Layla’s eyes, and as she glanced around the room the malady looked contagious.
“Are you hungry?” Allie stood. “Can I get you some pizza?”
“No. I could not eat.” Fatima buried her face in her palms.
“When was your last meal, young lady?” Rain attempted a smile.
“You need food to keep up your strength.” Sarah reached toward Fatima but let her hand fall.
“I think we should get her settled at Rain’s place first.” Layla’s mind spun at the potential disaster of the situation. These girls had never met Fatima’s family. They couldn’t begin to understand. Middle Easterners had their own sort of mafia, and although she didn’t know for certain, Layla wouldn’t be surprised if Fatima’s family was involved in terrorism. They were certainly quick enough to terrorize their own women. “I don’t mean to be alarmist, but they could get here much faster by car, even if she had a decent head start.”
“Oh, sorry.” Allie sat back down. “I didn’t realize.”
“It’s okay. It’s a lot to wrap your mind around.” Layla gathered up the moist niqab.
“Can I use the restroom first?” Fatima whispered.
“Of course. It’s right this way.” Allie ushered her down the hall.
The rest of them sat in silence for a moment, digesting the enormity of the situation.
Sarah pressed a hand to her mouth. “She’s so beautiful and so tragic.”
“And her hair—it’s almost blond,” Rain added. “I thought she’d look like you, Layla.”
“I think she has a Syrian grandmother. Middle Easterners come in all sorts of packages, but who would ever know it when they keep half the population hidden behind…what did you call them, Rain?”
“Exactly.” Layla loved aspects of the Middle Eastern culture, but she never could stomach the subjugation of women, no matter the excuses.
“Any special instructions?” Rain stood to gather her purse and coat.
“Just be a mother to her. You’re good at that. Lord knows her own hasn’t done a decent job since she hit puberty.” Layla pinched her nose. The whole issue gave her a headache on top of her upset stomach. Which came first? The religion or the culture? It was the chicken and the egg all over again. She was thankful to be done with it.
“Is there any way I can help.” Sarah’s tears spilled down her face. “I want to help.”
“Maybe you can bring her some clothes. You’re both tiny, and she’ll like the modest cut. We’ll need to get her some basic supplies tomorrow.” Layla put on her coat and pulled out her keys. “I’ll drive her and get her settled.”
“Okay, I’ll head over.” Rain waved and walked out the door.
Allie escorted Fatima back to them, wrapped in a warm winter jacket.
“I am ready,” Fatima said.
Were they all ready to deal with the consequences of this evening? Layla didn’t know, but there was no turning back. If only she could talk to Mo—he’d know what to do.