Cool air from the street slinks in after them, crawls along the walls. There are only two this time, drifting through my shop like coils about to strike at anyone, anything. My customers cease their conversations, stare down into their tea. The men circle, sunken eyes above strong white teeth, scars that disappear under their sleeves.
The breeze flattens one’s robe against his heavy stomach, reveals the bulging metal underneath. He sees my eyes widen. These men see everything.
I turn quickly and put another pot on the hot plate. Their gaze bores into my back, smolders there, pins me against the wall to be examined. A chair drags against the floor, but no one will leave. These men want an excuse. They want us to leave.
My fingers jitter, reaching for a tray. I fumble a handful of teabags into the pot.
They come here because I offer whiskey from a hidden box. Because I speak English, and won’t tell the jihadis who comes in and out of my house. Because I have a television, tuned now to some dubbed American movie where men with guns sit in a room and talk.
I do all of this because it seems the safest course. But I do not love them.
American. English. Canadian. There are no uniforms, but they are all soldiers. A curse. They sit back to drink their tea and wait for a gesture, a shrug, a lifted eyebrow. Then they disappear into the hustle of the village streets. Minutes, hours, days later, a donkey will pull a body past my door, its head down low, licking at the dust in the road.
Then the soldiers will return with brutal smiles, ask for my special brew from the box. And the jihadis will visit me in the night.
The teapot begins to scream.
This time, I am judged harmless. The thicker soldier has longer hair receding at the temples. The bridge of his nose crooks in three places across his wide face. He nods to his companion, who finally releases me from his watch. They will remember my face, even in the darkness.
Two days ago the jihadis smashed my windows. Now my customers cluster around a dim handful of tables and stools, spreading papers with election news where my few lamps reach. The soldiers sit down to blow smoke rings at the ceiling. I bring them their shai.
“You know what I never understood about hit man movies,” the older man says to his companion.
“No,” the other mumbles. He is leaner, hungrier, dirtier. The look of the mountains. They spend weeks, months there, hunting jihadis, turning into the same animals they fight.
“These guys,” he says with his eyes on the flickering screen, “They show remorse. There’s always something that stops them at the end.” He sips at his tea, grimaces. His arm jabs at me through the shadows. “You just kill them, and walk away.”
The street crackles. Both men stiffen, hands snapping to their legs. Blind, they peer at the bloody sunset that dribbles between cracks in my window boards. Silence stretches for a long minute. Two. The thin one balances like a razor at the edge of his seat. I watch the cords of muscle pulsing in his hands.
“Easy now,” the older one finally says to him. “Have some tea.”
Outside I imagine the children skipping home from school after learning their letters. The animal hawkers calling for parrots, monkeys, chickens. I feel the held breath of the streets, the years of murder in their heart.
The men smoke. I serve tea, hummus, khabob from the kitchen. My shop is clean, well lit. For ten years, I had windows with my name painted on them in my son’s hand. These soldiers are new, but they are no better. They all come to kill.
Gunfire crackles again, closer this time. The thin one winds tighter. His tea spits a whisper of steam into the air.
“It doesn’t stop,” he murmurs.
My eyebrows raise. Soldiers never speak like this. The younger one’s fingers shudder against his cup.
“It just doesn’t stop,” he repeats.
The thicker one bares his teeth. “Hit them hard enough, they’ll stop.”
I go to the window, squint through a crack. The school’s torn pillars curl into the sky across from me. The building lost its roof and collapsed, years ago, after a rocket attack.
“No mercy,” I hear behind me.
Snaps shatter my ears. Plywood splinters shower my face, and hoarse yells tear down the street. The foreign soldiers shoot upright, float to opposite corners of the room. A distant crumbling explosion shakes us. Voices in the street climb.
Somewhere a teapot gathers its breath. The newspapers whisk away from the breeze. I tear splinters from my clothes, wide-eyed in the dark.
Two men kick down my door, drag a body into my tea house.
“Not in here. Not in here!” I scream.
“He’s been shot!” one back. Desperate spittle flecks his beard. His brown jacket is open, revealing grenades, a kalishnakov.
“Not in here!”
They heave the wounded man onto a table, open his robe. Deep red blood seeps out of a hole under one dirty rib. The other friend friends slaps his hand on the stream, looks at me. “My brother, help us. Towels and water!”
I am still, paralyzed. The foreign soldiers creep closer, the younger one’s hand at his leg. The older one holds his pistol hidden behind his back. I know he will finish this.
The wounded man’s hand drops off the table. Blood drips from his fingers. I catch the arm of the jihadi. “Please, not in here.”
“Who are you to refuse us?” the fighter growls.
The younger solider reaches them. Both jihadis notice his white skin for the first time. The one in the brown jacket brings his rifle up, but the thicker soldier’s pistol taps against his ear and freezes him. The jihadi’s eyes roll back, but his friend keeps his hand on the bleeding.
I circle them, feel tears roll down my cheek for everything that I’ve tried to hold on to. It will never stop. Never.
There is suddenly a medical bag on the table. The young soldier bends over the wounded man with steady hands.
A halting breath escapes me, and I wonder what it is worth to be safe. I wonder when I can breathe again.