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Misfit in Love

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In this fun and fresh sequel to Saints and Misfits, Janna hopes her brother's wedding will be the perfect start to her own summer of love, but attractive new arrivals have her more confused than ever.
Janna Yusuf is so excited for the weekend: her brother Muhammad's getting married, and she's reuniting with her mom, whom she's missed the whole summer.

And Nuah's arriving for the weekend too.

Sweet, constant Nuah.

The last time she saw him, Janna wasn't ready to reciprocate his feelings for her. But things are different now. She's finished high school, ready for college...and ready for Nuah.

It's time for Janna's (carefully planned) summer of love to begin—starting right at the wedding.

But it wouldn't be a wedding if everything went according to plan. Muhammad's party choices aren't in line with his fiancée's taste at all, Janna's dad is acting strange, and her mom is spending more time with an old friend (and...
Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
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To my daughter, Bili, because I love you, and because you love weddings

Bismillahi ’rahmani araheem

The honor of your presence is requested at

the marriage of

Sarah Iman Mahmoud


Muhammad Ibrahim Yusuf

Saturday, the seventeenth of July,

at five thirty in the evening

At the residence of Haroon Sultan Yusuf

700 Lakeview Road

Mystic Lake, Indiana

The couple requests donations

to Islamic Relief USA

in lieu of gifts

Part One



To do:

Chill while waiting for Nuah to arrive tomorrow

Go meet Mom at her hotel

Chapter One

I’m in the water. Floating on my back, staring at the bluest sky there must have ever been in the history of blue skies.

My burkini, almost all four yards of it, swells up around me and serves as a flotation device. I’m buoyed, but—secret smile—it’s not only because of the burkini.

Nuah’s coming tomorrow—for the entire weekend.

And I have a plan.

Now that I’m finished with school and will be starting college in the fall, I’m ready to actually tell Nuah that… that… well, I guess, that we can be a thing? I don’t know what else to call it when you say yes, I like you back to someone like Nuah, who’s interested in me, but also interested in following Islam.

Which means there are rules—but the rules will still lead to us being together.

I spread my arms out in the lake and let my secret smile take over my face, remembering the words of the scholar and spiritual poet Rumi.

“Rumi said, ‘Only from the heart can you touch the sky,’ ” I tell the sky, my eyes pro; bing the blue expanse, my left hand pulling up my burkini pants, which are beginning to ride low again, their waistline weathered from overuse. “And I believe him.”

“Janna, are you talking to yourself again?”

I don’t need to lift my head to know that it’s my brother Muhammad. And that he’s on the dock, throwing our two little half brothers into the lake, one by one, each time they scramble back onto the dock in turn saying, “Again!”

He’s giddy, my big brother.

In exactly two days he’s getting married to the love of his life, Sarah. And it’s all happening on the grounds of this lakeside estate house right here that Dad bought and renovated last summer in grand fashion.

I mean, there’s even a perfect white gazebo by the water. Dad had wanted it to be his wife Linda’s “sanctuary” space—with white couches and some kind of tulle hanging off the entire structure, doing double duty as a practical mosquito net and an ethereal fantasy thing.

But Linda is more of a chasing-after-the-kids-in-her-leggings person, so the gazebo is a neglected thing of beauty, lying in wait for its moment to shine.

That moment began a week ago when white-overalled workers descended on the gazebo to perk it up. Remove the couches, dismantle the net, give it a fresh coat of paint, fix the trellis roof.

This weekend everyone Muhammad knows, and I mean everyone, is driving up either three hours from Eastspring, our hometown, or an hour down from Chicago to see Muhammad and Sarah’s relationship get solemnized in that gleaming white gazebo.

It’s THE wedding of the Muslim community round these parts.

Wedding preparations have been going on for weeks now, led by Dad and Muhammad, as Sarah is scrambling to finish a master’s degree and her family is throwing an official reception of their own next year.

But this event here by the lake is going to be a monstrous affair, and it’s kind of unnerving. I can’t even move around Dad’s place without bumping into strangers measuring distances or erecting beams or looking me up and down as I flop around in my (signature) ripped, faded, slouchy clothes.

Big Fat Muslim Wedding is on everyone’s lips. Like three-hundred-guests big—which is huge for being a private wedding in Dad’s backyard.

Muhammad and Sarah are even letting me invite some of my friends, plus their plus-ones.

One of them is Nuah.

Who, being friends with Muhammad, is coming up to help him out prewedding.

Floating in the lake, I hitch up my burkini pants again, do a flutter kick to keep from sinking while doing so, and smile bigger at the sky above as I think about Nuah all dressed up for the wedding.

I haven’t seen Nuah in forever because, after his freshman year ended, he stayed in California, where he’d started college for engineering last fall. But when he comes up tomorrow, it will be for the summer.

Our summer.

I close my eyes because, sappy but true—as Rumi himself knew—the blue skies have moved into my heart now.

* * *

Water splashes on my face. A truckload.

Grunting and sputtering with frustration, I flail for a moment before reaching to clear my eyes, to get ready to deal with my super-immature, forever-goofy brother.

The guy is getting married in two days, and he can’t even let me float in peace?

Heaving and righting myself to stand in the shallow water, I open my eyes.

But not to Muhammad.

To a total stranger.

An unbelievably gorgeous total stranger.

I blink twice, but he’s still there. Standing in water to his knees, his legs encased in long shorts, his torso encased in… nothing.

Smiling a sheepish smile, hands on his hips, squinting into the sun behind me, squinting at me.

“Haytham, this is my sister, Janna.” Muhammad steps up to us and slaps this otherworldly creature on its bare back, and it nods at me, brown hair flopping ever so slightly forward. “Janna, meet Haytham, Sarah’s cousin. Here to help with wedding prep.”

“Sorry for splashing you like that,” the creature says, scratching a bare, flat stomach that I will myself not to glance at. “I couldn’t help it. You had this amazing smile on your face, and I wanted to see what would happen.”

“Oh yeah, Sarah told me you had impulse-control issues.” Muhammad starts laughing, while swatting at Luke, our youngest half brother, who’s pulling on his shorts. “But Janna here is all about the impulse control. And you made her mad before you even met her!”

“Sorry again.” The creature folds his arms across a chest that has seen many dedicated workouts. “Janna.”

I don’t say anything. Wrinkles of concern crease the wide and tall and majestic forehead belonging to the interloper. “Do you forgive me? Janna?”

(I have a thing for big foreheads. Everyone has things. Mine happens to be a frontal-lobe matter. Don’t judge, and instead reflect on your own fixations.)

I nod at the forehead and pull at my burkini, clinging to my body now that most of the excess water has dripped out. I tug the fabric to stop it from sticking so ferociously to me.

Which is not a thing you should do in front of a tall, handsome stranger begging your forgiveness.

The burkini, my formerly trusted flotation friend, immediately makes a squelchy farting noise.

The noise that always makes both my half brothers, those pudglings I (used to) affectionately call laddoos after those Indian dessert balls, immediately scream, Janna is farting!

“Janna is farting!” they both shout on cue now.

“I’m not farting!” I yell, tugging at my swimwear again in my nervousness. Another fart sounds in the summer air, weaker and not quite as dedicated to ruining my life.

As squeals of laughter greet the lesser fart, I’m in disbelief that “I’m not farting!” are the first words that came out of my mouth in front of Haytham.

I whip my head around at the squealing scoundrels, my half brothers, products of my father’s hasty remarriage, splashing nearby. “That wasn’t a fart, Luke and Logan!”

“Janna farted again!” Logan shouts.

“Atain!” Luke echoes. He advances his rotund self toward me, paddling furiously in the floatation device he’s permanently wedged into whenever he’s in the water, and pulls at my burkini pants. Lately he’s into disrobing unsuspecting humans of clothing covering their nether regions.


My old, unreliable burkini pants.

Before I have a moment to clutch at them, they fall off completely.

Haytham turns around quickly but not before letting out a laugh that he tries to cover with the back of his hand.

I am so thankful my burkini top is so long, so very, very long, that nothing showed. Thank you, Allah, for saving my butt, literally.

I slide down into the water. As low as I can in the shallowest part of the super-long shallow-entry lake.

And then, while trying to walk away in a dignified but quick fashion on the shifting sands of the lake bed, I trip on the pants swiftly gathering themselves under my feet and tip face-forward into the water.

Underwater, I pray that Haytham didn’t turn around again when he heard the new laughs Logan and Luke let out, Luke even clapping his hands with glee.

I close my eyes and stay in place, even though it’s so shallow. I have to sit cross-legged, and still my head rises in humiliation above the water, like a wounded giraffe.

One of the ways Muhammad is all right is that he gets my utter mortification pretty thoroughly. Even though he has no qualms about doing things to bother me when we’re on our own, he understands, sometimes, the preservation of my dignity in public.

“Okay, we’re going in! Logan, Luke, now! It’s almost dinnertime!” thunders my only dependable brother.

I hear screams of “NO!” accompanied by splashes and threats and grabbings of half brothers, and then silence.

When I open my eyes, they’re gone.

All of them, even him.

I stand and fit my feet through the legs of my pants, frowning as I struggle to find the holes at the hem.

Who is he?


I mean besides being Sarah’s cousin?

Besides being the guy I just got completely humiliated in front of?

Lifting my long burkini top and bunching it under my chin to hold it in place, I tug at the bottom’s waist and knot the excess fabric as best as I can. Mental note: Get a new burkini.

I’m just going to forget this “Janna farted” incident and go get showered and changed and then head to the hotel in town to see Mom, who’s arriving today to help with wedding stuff.

I haven’t seen her in almost a month now, so I can’t wait to catch up.

It was Muhammad who guilted me into staying so long at Dad’s. I hadn’t been sure I wanted to spend three weeks here before the wedding. I had originally wanted to stay home in Eastspring to work and just come up the week of the wedding to help him out, but then Muhammad had pouted, his lips drooping, and he’d slouched his whole self. So you don’t want to hang out with me at Dad’s before you go to college and before I become an old married man? Our last time as free siblings?

So yeah, I’d given in. And said good-bye to Mom. And a job.

I hung around here at Dad’s scrumptious home just resting and relaxing and eating good food and swimming every day and reading all the books and watching all the movies and shows I’d missed while finishing high school. And of course hanging around with Muhammad and Luke and Logan.

And it was fun. I’m glad I did it, actually.

But there’s something I like even more than the comforts at Dad’s: After the wedding, after Muhammad leaves with Sarah, everything goes back to normal. Exactly how I like it.

It’ll only be me and Mom in Eastspring once again, the way it used to be—well, the way it used to be since my parents got divorced when I was ten, and we moved apart when I was eleven.

Before the divorce, I used to think of myself and Dad as a team, as we’re kind of similar in our eye-on-the-prize way of seeing things. He applies it to the business world because he owns a food company, and I apply it to the getting-the-best-grades-possible-in-school world. Dad’s goal-oriented philosophy helped him become the number one prepackaged Indian dessert manufacturer in North America. And mine landed me a hefty scholarship to UChicago to study English.

Team Dad and Janna lasted only so long, though.

When a member of our mosque community assaulted me two years ago, Mom was the one who was there for me. She got me counseling with Dr. Lloyd, pressed charges, and wrapped me in relentless love, and so we became a new team, a championship team. Dad was just a ball of anger, blaming the mosque, wanting something bigger to be held accountable. I found it hard to connect with him then.

Like Mom, Nuah helped me through that time too. He was never far away and stood by me when some people in our community refused to believe what had happened. In addition to duas, he kept sending me memes to brighten my day. And specially selected cat videos—which I have no idea where he found, because they weren’t the viral ones.

So it’s going to be a Nuah-and-me and a mom-and-me summer when we get back to Eastspring, insha’Allah.

And my world going back to being small and cozy like that is exactly what I need when this huge wedding is done.

Chapter Two

On the way back to the house a bit later, with a towel sheltering my shoulders, I notice there’s a gathering at the gazebo.

It’s Haytham and the laddoos, Logan and Luke. And is that Sarah’s little brother, Dawud? Lying down on the floorboards with a book open in front of his face?

Haytham, clothed now in a navy T-shirt and khaki shorts, waves me over.

I tuck in the tendrils of hair that made their way out of my burkini cap, hesitating a moment, staring at my feet in the grass leading up from the sandy edge of the shore, across the huge expanse of backyard, to the patio at the back of the house. Then I turn left and make my way to the gazebo, my eyes still on my black-polished toes in yellow flip-flops moving through the neatly mowed grass, which feels cool against the skin of my feet.

When I glance back up, I see that my little brothers are holding a silver tray between them, excitement on their faces. Logan beams while Luke giggles.

There’s a pink-frosted cupcake on the tray with a card beside it. In big crayon writing, the front of it says SORRY JANNA. Logan waits for me to reach the bottom step of the gazebo before speaking. “Janna, we’re very sorry. Really sorry for laughing at you. You didn’t fart.”

“Reawy sowwy,” Luke says, echoing Logan. “You didn’t fawt.”

“We were joking. But now we’re sorry.” Logan looks behind him at Haytham. “Is that good?”

Haytham shakes his head and points at me. “You’ll have to ask Janna.”

“Janna, is that good?” Logan says, walking over to me carefully with the tray. “Is the apology good?”

I climb the two steps to take the cupcake, nod, and look at Haytham.

He smiles at me, the edges of his eyes scrunching with mirth in the dappled light of the sun filtering through the leaves of the trees behind him, and suddenly the sky that was in my heart before when I thought of Nuah flies out and surrounds me.

It’s like happiness is everywhere now, not just secretly in my heart.

What is happening?

I drop my gaze to the cupcake in my hands.

“Wow. Wow, wow, wow!” Dawud suddenly shouts, his face still covered with what I now see is a super-heavy book, almost like a textbook.

It says WEDDINGS in big letters across the top. The bottom says TO DIE FOR.

“Can we get this flower-ceiling thing for the wedding? It’s like an upside-down garden! The one made from lilies is the best!” He lowers the book and looks at Haytham through round glasses askew. He’s eight years old, so he ignores me.

“Aren’t you going to say salaam to Janna?” Haytham takes the book from him and closes it.

“Assalamu alaikum, Janna,” Dawud mutters to the trellis above him. “We could have the flowers hanging from up there! It’s going to be so cool!”

I respond to his salaam and turn to leave. But then turn back.

“Okay, yeah, that was a good apology,” I say, putting an arm out for hugs from Logan and Luke, the two temporarily reformed hooligans. “Thank you.”

They descend the stairs toward me, Haytham standing proudly behind them, holding the wedding textbook.

“Ugh, you’re all wet, Janna!” Logan jumps back. Luke just squishes himself into my thighs, laughing as his shirt and face get wet.

“Well, that’s what happens when you go into the lake. But now let me go inside to shower and change maybe?” I dislodge Luke, who’s still rubbing his face in my burkini, and start walking toward the house. “Thanks for the cupcake.”

I say this to Logan and Luke, but I sneak a small glance at Haytham to acknowledge his part in reforming them.

He nods at me and smiles again, before saying, “Hey, just an FYI, don’t use the bathroom on the third floor. The one attached to the alcove guest room. It’s got a fan issue, and it’s still steamed up from my shower just now.”

I nod and head to the back patio.

Behind me, I hear Logan say, “Now finish the song, Uncle Haytham!”

Uncle Haytham? How did that happen so fast?

“ ‘I wanna live in a land called Paradise. Wanna see the birds fly…’ ”

His voice.

Haytham’s voice is unbelievable.

Deep, melodic, passionate.

I can’t stop my head from swiveling. He’s sitting on the gazebo steps, the kids gathered around him, and when he notices me, he lifts a pretend hat and continues singing.

Maybe I should choose a lighter, fresher color hijab to wear after my shower, instead of the raggedy black one I was going to wear today around the house and to go into town to see Mom.

I mean, I don’t even have a lighter, fresher color scarf in the stuff I brought here, but I can check my stepmother Linda’s closet. She doesn’t wear hijab, but she has a massive wardrobe with tons of accessories. And she’s always cool with me borrowing stuff—even without asking.

As I walk across the second-floor landing to knock on the master bedroom door, Muhammad emerges from his room. “Sarah’s downstairs in the basement. She said she wants to see you about something.”

“Okay, but then I might be late to go see Mom.”

“Mom’s not getting in until five—she made a stop on her way. Check your messages.” Muhammad looks at me carefully. “You okay? With the laddoos laughing at you like that?”

“They apologized. And gave me a cupcake.”

“Oh yeah, Haytham made those for their drive over. Sarah said he packed the car with his baked goods.”

“That was a good cupcake.”

Why is Muhammad peering at me more carefully now?

“Hey, listen—be careful around Haytham, okay? Especially since he’s staying here in the guesthouse. Him, Sarah, and Dawud.”

I turn from Dad and Linda’s bedroom door to face him. “Why? What do you mean, be careful?”

“I mean just know that he’s… really unaware of his magnetic qualities. On people.” Muhammad laughs.

“You mean, he’s a player?” I don’t let my heart sink. Because this is officially good news.

Haytham is a player. Which is UGH. So I’m on firm ground—not one iota near falling for a gorgeous, baking, chivalrous, singing player. Who’s great with kids.

“No way, no, of course not!” Muhammad looks alarmed. “Never. He’s the president of his MSA. Or he was last year. And he’s studying Islamic studies.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.” I frown. As if any of it proves anything. The monster who attacked me two years ago was considered a “pious good boy” at the mosque.

“I know, but in this case it does. He’s legit. The man doesn’t fool around at all. And is serious about stuff like that.”

“Oh.” I wonder if my face looks as contorted as my heart feels. It felt tons better when Haytham could be written off. Because I write off people like that immediately—people who pretend to be saintly.

“I mean Sarah’s told me he’s gotten into things where people have thought he was interested in them when he wasn’t. And it’s all because he’s cool and kind, you know?”

“Oh my God, Muhammad!” I open the master bedroom door, anger mixing with embarrassment. “Do you really think I think he likes me? I just met him! Plus, I don’t even find him interesting in that way?”

“I thought you might have, you know, fallen for the you know what.” He points at his brow. “ ’Cause I noticed the way you looked at that forehead. In the lake. It was in awe, Janna.”

I go inside and close the door in his face.

Siblings know all the unmentionables about you.

* * *

Somehow I find myself in the third-floor bathroom.

I have no idea why I gathered my clothes from my second-floor bedroom and bypassed its beautifully appointed en suite bathroom and lifted my feet up the steps to the alcove guest bedroom.

It is steamy, but the fogged-up mirror is slowly clearing. At the edges, not the middle.

Are those words?

Someone’s written something onto the mirror, into the fog.

The weight of your soul

Joined with its many kindreds

Will light upon

The rest of the verse disappears into the now reappearing mirror.

I look at my reflection in the clearing parts.

My face is lit by the light of intrigue, the beginnings of fascination.

On top of being a kid tamer and a baker and a singer, he’s a poet, too?

I can’t wait until Nuah gets here tomorrow.

* * *

After my shower I find Sarah in the basement, in the storage room, counting boxes of something. She immediately wraps me in a hug. “Janna! Assalamu alaikum, my Janna!”

Sarah Mahmoud, my sister-in-law-to-be, is beautiful, kind, and completely determined in a steely, iron-grip CEO kind of way, while radiating positivity. Even her clothes beam joy—right now she has on a bright mustard-colored shirt over jeans, topped with an even brighter chiffon-mustard scarf, perfectly peaked at the top of her head à la the latest hijab style, round sunglasses resting atop it all.

Her entire vibe all the time is Joy to the World (That I Plan on Dominating)!

“Wait, you didn’t go into the room next door, right?” I say, worried she saw the way Linda and I decorated it for the henna party tomorrow night. It’s a surprise we organized under the supervision of Linda’s friend, Ms. Mehta, who’s super into the latest desi decor and fashions. She showed us how to throw the “most authentic mehndi party ever,” which included draping lots of brightly colored, long, sheer saris all over the walls, with twinkling lights in between them. My arms are still tired from all the work yesterday.

But, I have to say, Yay for Ms. Mehta! Linda and I aren’t well versed in desi things, since she’s from a Greek family and I didn’t learn any culture, with parents from two distinct backgrounds. Dad’s family is originally Indian, and Mom’s is Egyptian, but they were both born in America. So we really needed the “education” Ms. Mehta gave us; though, honestly, after a while, my mind got tired from hearing all the “rules” for a proper henna party according to her.

I went along with it all because of my love for Sarah. I wanted to surprise her with something spectacular, something theatrical, even though she’s Syrian American, Arab, and not desi herself. Even if she doesn’t understand all the mehndi party traditions, I’m banking on the drama factor to wow her.

Honestly, she’s been like a sister to me from the moment I confided my pain about the assault to her, so she needs to be blessed with an abundance of mirrored cushions artfully arranged, and a slew of Persian rugs littered with fake flickering candles.

“Why would I go in there? There’s a big sign on that door that says ‘No Sarahs Allowed,’ ” she says, her laugh turning to a frown as she opens a box to reveal bright blue party horns.

“What are those for?” I rifle my hands through the tassely, crinkly foil in the box, frowning too.

Sarah hefts another box up that’s labeled For Decorating and reveals its contents. “Look at this. Balloons. For making animals.”

“Like a clown does?”

Sarah nods and stares at me in pain. “This is why I came up early. With my brother and my cousin Haytham. You met Haytham, right? From Arkansas?”

“Yep. I sure did.”

“We drove up the minute I handed in my final assignments, Janna. Because I found out only this week that things have gotten out of hand.” Sarah frowns full blown now and directs it at me. “And you didn’t even stop it.”

“Me?” I make a scowly face back at her, confused. “Didn’t stop what?”

“How crazy this wedding has become. It was just supposed to be a simple nikah. A family-and-friends thing by the lake. That’s what your dad said.” She suddenly sounds like a completely different Sarah, frustrated and despondent. “That’s what he promised back in April. Remember? After the fight?”

Oh yeah. The fight.

Chapter Three


Muhammad: I got into law school at Stanford! And since Sarah’s also doing her PhD there, it’s perfect!

Sarah’s father: Oh no, not so fast, young man.

Dad: Why? He’s finally settling down to a real degree, after his aimless ways. I even moved out here to the less expensive countryside so that I can help fund his education again. And Janna’s, too.

Me: Thanks, Dad. Although I got a scholarship to college—but if you’d pay my dorm fees, that would be great!

Muhammad: We’re talking about me here.

Sarah: And me.

Sarah’s mother: There’s no way we will have you two going off to Stanford together without getting your nikah done.

Dad: Let’s get their nikah done, then.

Mom: We can have it at the Eastspring mosque with my brother the imam officiating.

Me: Aw, I love Amu! Yes, I like this idea.

Sarah’s mother: Yes, let us do the katb el-kitab with just family and friends. At the mosque where the kids met each other.

Mom: Yes, just warm and casual.

Me: Yay, so then I can wear jeans!

Dawud, Sarah’s little brother: Can I wear my Pokémon shirt?

Sarah: But what about everyone we want to see at the wedding? Like our friends from Chicago?

Sarah’s father: We will do the real wedding next year. The official reception. I’ll host it, and it will be how you like it.

Sarah: You mean with a tasteful matte-gold-and-gray color scheme?

Sarah’s mother: Yes, and we’ll fly in all our relatives.

Mom: Yes, then Teta can fly in, too. For the nikah this year, we’ll share dates and simple food.

Sarah’s mother: Yes, it will be simple and sweet.

Mom: I can make basbousa.

Sarah’s mother: I can order baklava.

Mom: Then, as a family, we can go out to dinner at a restaurant of the kids’ choosing.

Dad: I have an idea.

Everyone: Yes?

Dad: Why don’t we treat our children properly? Instead of like their union is a sneaky secret? Why don’t we honor them with a real nikah party? I’ll host it on my property with a large backyard overlooking the lake and an adjacent field that can park a lot of cars. Then they’ll know that they’re loved from BOTH sides of the family. What about that?

Sarah’s father: You think we’re doing the nikah like it’s a shameful secret?

Sarah’s mother: You think we don’t know how to treat our daughter properly?

Sarah’s father: Have you even seen the wedding we’re going to throw them next year? How great it’s going to be? How many people we will feed and how beautiful the decorations will be?

Sarah’s mother: How dare you act like we don’t know how to honor our daughter!

Linda, my stepmom, Dad’s wife: Oh no, he doesn’t mean that. Right, Haroon?

Dad: A small nikah in a small mosque is not honoring my son properly!

Sarah’s father: How could you say we are not honoring properly? We are the most honoring parents ever, right, Sarah?

Sarah, to Muhammad: I have no idea what’s happening here.

Dad: Muhammad, would you like to do a nikah at the house by the lake, inviting any and all of the friends you and Sarah would like to see on your special day? Still a simple ceremony but at least honoring your union and guests with a full dinner? With Amu still officiating, of course?

Muhammad: Actually, that would be nice.

Sarah’s father: Why did you only ask your son? What about what our daughter has to say?

Sarah: I think that would be nice too.

Sarah’s mother, to Sarah: But you didn’t ask us!

Dad: It’s their nikah. Let them decide!

Sarah’s father: But you’re deciding this.

Dad: Like you’re deciding the reception next year!

Linda: We can have two parties. It will be fun.

Mom: But how will we plan such a thing so quickly? And afford it?

Dad: That will all be in my hands. It’s arranged, then. You are hereby invited to a nikah ceremony by the lake that will become a cherished memory for all who attend.

Sarah’s parents: And then you will see our wedding next year, how great that will be.

* * *

“So, in between, your dad gave Muhammad free rein to make it a full-blown wedding. Without me even knowing.” Sarah slides a phone out of the pocket of her jeans. Frown still on her face, she turns it on and clicks and scrolls to find something. “Look. I had to record it for myself when it got wild.”

She lets out a long sigh before pressing play.

Muhammad’s voice. “I can’t believe you’ve never heard of them, Sarah. The ’Arrys! Larry, Barry, and Gary! Really, I haven’t told you about them before? Look them up on YouTube. They’re hilarious, but also really musical. They have their own band, and the best part is that they’re friends of mine. When guests come in, they’ll sing improvised comments about them, and it’s insanely accurate—and funny! I don’t think they’ve done weddings, but I was thinking it would give off a real relaxed vibe. Sort of go with the whole happy blue-and-yellow color scheme, you know?”

“Blue and yellow? Like the Pacers, his favorite team?” I look at Sarah. “Is he talking about his bachelor party?”

She presses pause on the recording and leans against the massive shelving units lining the walls of the storage room. “He’s talking about the wedding. This is from our phone call on Monday.”

I lift my eyebrows. I really had no idea that Muhammad had actually been running the show.

I swear I thought Dad had hired a wedding planner.

“Oh my God. No wonder he asked me and my mom to wear blue. It’s to go with his color scheme.” I shake my head.

This is bad.

“He asked Haytham to wear blue too, and God knows how many others. But the true worst is that he hired the ’Arrys to perform this weekend. At my wedding,” she says, scrolling through her phone. She turns it to reveal a YouTube video of three guys in matching plaid shirts and plaid pants with Civil War–era bushy beards. One of them has side whiskers jutting out so long, you can see them sticking out from the back.

“Oh my God. No.” I grab the phone and watch in mortified fascination as the three guys call out random people sitting at tables, addressing them with cringey jokes. “They make fun of guests?”

“Muhammad thinks they’re hilarious.”

“So weird.” I give her back the phone. “I’m sorry you’re marrying him, Sarah.”

She lets out another sigh that sounds like it’s being strangled by a growl. “Janna, you have to help me take this wedding back from your groomzilla brother!”

I look at her. And see her pain.

But the wedding is in two days. “Isn’t it going to be a lot of work?” I whine, thinking of my plans to dedicate all my time to hanging out with Nuah when he arrives.

“I’ve organized it all. How we’re going to take back this thing,” she assures me.

“Don’t tell me you brought a clipboard.” I turn to stare at her. Clipboards are Sarah’s thing. Because they help her Get Stuff Done.

“Hell yeah. Five clipboards, five colors to divide up each task area.” A smile spreads on her face. Obviously at the thought of clipboards.

I like seeing that smile return.

I want Sarah to be really happy.

“Are you excited? I mean, besides this stuff, are you excited about getting married?” I ask, wanting to keep that smile of hers going.

“Of course! Other than his bad taste, Muhammad is seriously the best, and I can’t wait to make it forever. Insha’Allah.” Her wide grin and slightly blushed cheeks assure me of the truth of her statement as she peers at her phone and starts texting someone. “The minute we met, I knew he was the kindest person I’d ever encountered.”

Okay, that’s true. Muhammad is extra kind and caring, maybe even over-the-top caring, and he and Sarah make a good match—because they’re both extroverted do-gooders.

But the part of “making it forever” is giving me pause. Mom and Dad weren’t forever. Dad moved on to Linda, which, to be fair, seems to be headed to forever. Maybe.

Mom is still single. I don’t know what I’d do if Mom decided she was seriously into someone. This one time, a couple of years ago, I found a flyer for a Muslim singles meet-up in her dresser drawer, but nothing came out if it.

Sigh of relief.

I don’t want to be alone. And the thought about everyone pairing up around me gives me anxiety.

The thought of Nuah cures that anxiety right away too—because I know he likes me.

But then what happens next? Once I tell Nuah I’m interested in him, too? My plan only goes as far as telling him tomorrow before the henna party, before all the other guests arrive.

But I don’t think I want the next step to be to actually marry him.

More like I want us to be connected before I go to college. So that I feel—safe? I guess?

I know that in Islam, you don’t try things out with people—like there’s supposed to be no sex before marriage, so making out and things that potentially lead to sex are a no-no without a nikah—and that you’re supposed to find someone who suits your nature, has your values, and the same goals, and then, voilà, just make it work. That’s how Nuah wants things.

And I do too. I think.

So Nuah and I make sense.

I think.

Gah, things always make better sense in my head.

Muhammad and Sarah are lucky. They just happened to meet each other, fall for each other, and make sense to each other immediately. And now they’re making it real.

I look at Sarah as she continues texting with a frown again, and a sudden burst of love for her takes hold of my heart. “Okay, I’m in. I’ll help you.”

She looks up, face beaming. “Love you, girl. Welcome to Team Take Back the Wedding. We’re having a meeting in that gazebo in ten minutes, when Muhammad goes to get groceries. Me, you, and Dawud. And Haytham, of course.”

Chapter Four

For the gazebo meeting, just to prove I don’t have a thing for anyone (except Nuah, of course), I wear my ol’ raggedy black scarf, flung on my head, the ends lopsided, over an oversize but thin sweatshirt instead of the nice top I’d originally thought of wearing with my super-faded, almost-white jeans.

I brought a notebook with me for “notes.” But I snuck a copy of the latest Ms. Marvel inside.

I open the comic now to the first page as Sarah lectures to catch me up on what she, Haytham, and Dawud already discussed on their drive up.

Once in a while she paces the gazebo and then pauses to look out into the distance at Dad’s house, the huge white behemoth with columns in the front and back that everyone in our family unironically calls the White House.

I can see Sarah so well as the professor she’s studying to become.

Phrases like “color intervention at the party-rental place” and “paying off the ’Arrys” and “changing the balloon artist’s task to entertaining the children and not doing the decorating” float around me as I move my capped pen across the comic panels describing Kamala Khan’s latest escapades.

It’s a good distraction, because once in a while Haytham tries to include me in the proceedings, and I’m studiously avoiding looking at him.

Because he’s dangerous.

He came to the gazebo meeting holding Sarah’s five clipboards fanned out to serve as a tray for a plate of more cupcakes.

“Hey, Janna,” he said. “I saw that you liked the cupcake, so I brought the rest. These have messed-up icing. But now that I’ve won you over to my baking, you’ll overlook that, right?” His eyebrows had curled up almost against each other in eagerness.

I nodded, my heart sinking at his uncalled-for cuteness, and, thus compelled, I reached out for another cupcake, glad I had brought comics to read as a shield against him.

At the end of the meeting we get a clipboard each with instructions—Sarah gets two—and I scramble out of the gazebo in my eagerness to go read quietly in my room. I have a bit of time before I go see Mom in town.

* * *

In my room, I fling my green clipboard on the bedside table and flop into bed. Immediately two books fall off the other side.

I’m okay admitting I sleep with books. They collect in an almost-body-shaped mass beside me, one that I can hug, and I love it.

Books are tidy and contained and bring closure. Sometimes not full closure, but there’s an arriving at a destination that’s perfect.

Why can’t life be like that? And, really, why can’t love be like that?

School is, and that’s why it makes sense to me. It’s ordered and has a beginning and an end, and the in-between is split up by studying for this or handing these three assignments in to make up this much of your grade.

I can’t wait for college to start, to bring that order back into my life.

I reach for my phone and scroll through my personal guest list for the wedding.

Arriving on Saturday are some of my people and their plus-ones:

1. Sandra and her date: her grandmother, Ms. Kolbinsky. Sandra is good without having the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing going on in her life. And Ms. Kolbinsky is the best. (She already promised to bring me a container of her spicy Polish samosas.)

2. My partner-in-nerd, Soon-Lee, and her boyfriend, Thomas, the only forever couple from middle school that has lasted. They already have their own wedding date “circled” ten years from now.

3. Coming on Friday for the henna party: Sausun, this girl (way older than me, already done college) I edit YouTube videos for, for her extremely popular Niqabi Ninjas channel, and her plus-one, her older sister. Basically, Sausun saved her sister from a nightmare marriage, and now Sausun is not into marriages or coupling for herself at all, only into making sure her sister heals.

(Though Sausun did say in a recent Niqabi Ninjas episode that she wants to find someone in this vast universe—and she emphasized universe because she wasn’t ruling out aliens or jinns—who one day could be worthy of her. Someone who loved her personality, didn’t care that she covered her face as a niqabi and so didn’t put an emphasis on how she looked, who would be a good parent to the four kids she wants to have one day. “Thus far, I’ve never met worthy parent material. Truly. But there are unexplored parts of the ever-expanding universe, so I continue holding out hope—but only a sliver of it,” she ended the segment with.)

4. Also coming on Friday, of course, is Tats, short for Tatyana, my best friend, and her mysterious plus-one. Who I’m super confused about. I haven’t seen Tats for the three weeks I’ve been at Dad’s, but there’s no way she hooked up with someone new who I don’t know. Whenever I text her WHO WHO WHO, she changes the subject or replies with something wedding related (like we’re picking out a suit now) but random at the same time. And I just want to pull her long, glorious hair in retaliation for each cryptic message. But she’s in Eastspring, and I’m enjoying the good life under blue skies, so she’s too far away to beat up effectively.

I prop two pillows behind me and get comfortable to scroll and tap slowly through all of Tats’s social media stories and posts in another attempt to suss out information on this date of hers. A knock interrupts me while I’m rewatching her latest TikTok ode to Billie Eilish, this one for “Ocean Eyes.”

“Janna?” Sarah’s voice.

It’s Sarah and Dawud. He blinks at my unhijabbed head as I swing the bedroom door wide for them to enter.

“Can you give Dawud a ride when you go into town? He’s already made an appointment with the florist Muhammad hired. To ask about the flower ceiling.” She pats his head, and he beams while still staring at my uncovered hair. “I’m proud of him.”

“Sure.” I grab my scarf from the foot of the bed, where I’d thrown it. “We’d better leave now then. But is he okay with me staying in town for a while? I wanna hang with Mom for a bit.”

Sarah shoots a questioning glance at Dawud. “You okay with that?”

“As long as we get back here for the movie night Uncle promised us.” He continues staring at me, almost unblinkingly. “You guys have such an awesome theater in the basement!”

“Oh yeah, my dad. I have to actually check with him if it’s okay we use one of his cars. He’s sometimes not cool with it.”

“Just use Haytham’s.” Sarah holds out the keys. “He’s okay with it.”

I take them and slide them into my tiny backpack purse. “That’s nice of him.”

“I’ll talk to Muhammad to get the rest of the wedding details. He and Haytham are hanging out on the front porch right now. Perfect place to tease out information!” She lights up. “I already found out the ’Arrys are free tomorrow, so maybe we can get him to switch them to perform at the bachelor party instead of the wedding!”

Dawud scrutinizes me as I wind the scarf on my head. Geez, hasn’t he seen Sarah put on her hijab before?

I shoot him a scowl. I hope he’s not one of these creepy eight-year-olds who has a thing for older women. Ugh.

“You have purple icing on your forehead,” he announces. “And I don’t even know why. Because none of the cupcakes we had at the meeting had purple icing.”

I look in the mirror. There is purple icing on my forehead. So weird.

“There was pink icing and blue icing, so they must have mixed together. On your forehead.” He breaks out into a big grin and turns to leave, clipboard in hand.

I grab my own clipboard and head to the en suite bathroom to take care of my forehead before Haytham sees it.

Tats texts me while I’m in the bathroom.

I’m changing my dress for the wedding! When we were looking for a tie for my date I found a dress JUST LIKE THE ONE LINDSAY LOHAN WORE TO THE MTV EUROPE AWARDS!!! But it’s yellow not metallic gold.

Tats is going through a huge Lindsay Lohan moment. We’ve been watching Lindsay movies every weekend since May. She even dyed her hair ginger. Which means there’s a lot of ginger around her, because Tats has huge hair.

Can I see a pic of you in the dress? And your date in his tie? I smile at the way I slid that in so deftly. Maybe I’ll finally find out exactly who Tats is bringing to the wedding.

Is it okay that the dress is above my knees and off my shoulders?

Avoidance in action.

Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?

Because when I go to the mosque with you I don’t dress like that?

It’s okay. We’re not at a mosque. Something dawns on me. OMG, you and I are going to match the wedding decor now. Blue and yellow.

Blue and yellow? That’s kinda ew, tbh?

Don’t worry, Sarah’s here and we’re working hard on the ew factor. Really hard.

* * *

Haytham’s car is a Honda Civic, which I’ve never driven in my short six months of driving, so I’m kind of nervous.

As I prepare to ease it out of the long driveway, he saunters over from the porch and approaches the rear passenger’s-side window, which Dawud has rolled down all the way. “Would you guys be able to pick up some Gatorade? Need it for after bench-pressing. Cool gym your dad has by the way, Janna.” He holds out a fifty. “The blue kind or, if they don’t have it, white. And only Gatorade, please. I’m a purist.”

Dawud snatches the bill. “Perfect. This leaves enough for ice cream after.”

“You guys are getting ice cream, too?” Haytham raises those compelling eyebrows at me, and I fiddle with the keys in the ignition. “I love ice cream.”

“We are?” I say, shrugging, turning to Dawud.

“Yeah, that’s why Muhammad thinks we’re going to town, so we have to,” Dawud says, folding up the fifty smaller and smaller.

“But the ice-cream truck comes by here almost every day. Because of the laddoos.” I close my mouth. Oops, I didn’t want Haytham knowing my endearing name for my little brothers. It feels kind of private.

“Oh man, I love ice-cream trucks more than ice cream itself!” Haytham laughs. “Did you ever notice the people who drive them fall into two categories: jolly happy souls or mean uncles? But mean uncles holding out ice-cream cones, which is the best.”

I can’t help laughing. Because it’s true, our ice-cream guy is a mean uncle.


“Actually, our ice-cream guy is a mean uncle, but he gets excited and ho-ho-hos when he hands you your ice cream. Like serious Santa-level excited.”

“I need to see this. When does he come around?” Haytham leans his elbows on the door next to Dawud and peers across at me. “I can get your brothers their ice cream and also get further data for my ice-cream-truck hypothesis.”

“Usually around seven. But he came by yesterday, so it may not happen today.” I kind of want to stay home now. To wait for the ice-cream truck. With Haytham.

Of course it’s only to see what he thinks of our ice-cream-truck uncle who completely defies his theory.

Maybe we can finish everything in town and make it back before seven.

While slowly rolling the car out onto the road in front of the house, I can’t help glancing in the rearview.

Haytham is sprawled on the porch hammock, the one I like to read in during the day. But he’s not reading, or even paying attention to Muhammad and Sarah talking at the table nearby. He’s waving at us.

Chapter Five

I turn on the car stereo, and after a few piano notes, Haytham’s voice enters the car. “ ‘When I was young on the Fourth of July, I’d go outside and watch the show in the sky…’ ”

It’s a haunting antiwar song set to a simple piano accompaniment. I listen in silence and then turn to Dawud. “That was amazing.”

“It’s Haytham’s entry for the Muslim Voice competition.”

“Oh, he’s going for that? That’s impossible to win.” I play the song again. “It’s a global competition. Thousands and thousands of entries.”

“But he’s got a lot of votes! He’s in the top five!” Dawud crosses his arms to say this. “And he’s going to get more. Like you, right? Can you vote for him?”

“Okay. Because he—it’s really good.” I play it again. The words are amazing. We can bend iron with our prayers at night. “Did he write the song?”

“No, it’s from one of Haytham’s favorite singers.”

I nod and play the song a third time, wondering what else there is to learn about Haytham.

* * *

It ends up being a fail for Dawud at the florist’s, Ravson’s Ravishing Ready-Blooms.

The owner, Hope, is all game to discuss details about Muhammad’s floral order until Dawud inquires about pricing for a ceiling of lilies. “Calla lilies,” he specifies.

“A small ceiling arrangement of yellow callas?” Hope looks curious. She’s a dead ringer for the Disney princess Merida, an older version, so her curious look is slightly scowly. “Or white ones with blue centers? Because you realize I can’t get blue ones, right? Not enough lead time.”

She talks to him like he’s a CEO in a business suit and not a kid in a blue T-shirt that says S’OREO FOR EATING THE LAST ONE.

“No, we actually want a big ceiling of…” Dawud pauses and looks at his clipboard. “White flowers only. With green foliage.”

“But the order said no white flowers. Only a yellow-and-blue sprig for each table and a blue-and-yellow arch for the entrance to the path to the gazebo. I thought the theme was blue and yellow.” She turns from the cash register to look through a wicker basket holding file folders. Her curly and mountainous red hair masks her peripheral vision, so I’m able to make frantic stop motions with my hand to Dawud, unbeknownst to Hope.

I risk mouthing, She may call Muhammad!

Dawud looks at me blankly and pushes up his glasses.

“Muhammad Yusuf is the name on the file. Are you Muhammad Yusuf?” She pushes up her own glasses and stares at Dawud. “Are you the groom?”

She says this with a steady glance, without irony.

He shakes his head and points at me. “Nope, that’s her brother.”

“And where’s Muhammad Yusuf? And the bride, Sarah Mahmoud?” Hope turns to me and finger-stabs the names on the file. “Because this is their wedding order. That I’m delivering in two days.”

“Oh, we were just thinking of doing a surprise for them. And just wanted pricing on it. Because they both love the idea of a floral ceiling but didn’t think it was in their budget.” I talk quickly and confidently.

“Ah, so you wanted to do a surprise floral gift?”

Dawud nods his head enthusiastically.

“Sorry, we don’t allow that. Too risky to interfere with the wedding plans of the bride and groom.” She turns to put the file back in the wicker basket.

“But how much would it be? In case they do want to order it?” Dawud is holding a pen poised over his clipboard, and I can’t help but think that he’s learned the determined, decisive ways of his sister.

“Oh, depends on the flower variety, the number, and kind, as well as size, but anywhere from a thousand for a simple cluster to ten thousand for the full deal.” Hope takes her glasses off to rub her eyes. “And that’s with at least three weeks’ notice. No one can pull off an entire ceiling in three days, sorry to tell you.”

I swing my backpack to the front and take the car keys out of it. “Thanks so much.”

But Dawud doesn’t budge. “What if I help? To make it?”

Hope breaks out into a grin, then gives a full-bodied laugh. “You must really love the bride and groom!”

“No, I just really, really want a flower ceiling,” he says solemnly, clutching the clipboard to himself.

“Sorry, dear, I can’t teach you how to be a florist’s assistant in a couple of days.” She continues laughing while tidying up wisps of ribbons and snips of stems on the counter.

“Dawud, I gotta go meet my mom. Let’s go!” I hiss as nicely as I can. “Thanks, Ms. Ravson!”

I head to the door and then, seeing Dawud still standing motionless, push it wide open and go right out. Maybe if he thinks I’m driving away, he’ll start moving.

I’m in the car with the engine running when Dawud runs to the back door and opens it. “She said I can have all the leftover flower and leaf cuttings from all her other orders. So we can make our OWN ceiling.”

“Oh no,” I say. “No, Dawud. I’m so not doing it.”

He just writes something on his clipboard, and I see the beginnings of Sarah in him again.

But he is so not going to boss me around.

* * *

Since we arrive at the hotel early, Dawud and I wait in the lobby for Mom.

It’s a lush lobby meant to mimic nature in a very unorganized way, so there are tons of large plants, fake and real, as well as seating made to look like it was hewn from white birch tree trunks. In the dead center, right before you get to the elevators, there’s a tree that almost reaches the high ceiling, obviously fake, its branches sprouting big fluffy balls of red cotton amid the dark green leaves. I don’t know what that’s about, unless it links with the name of the hotel, the Orchard.

I’m scrolling through Instagram—Tats posted a picture of her prewedding look—when I see Mom enter through the automated double doors, wheeling a large suitcase behind her.

I jump and practically run over to hug her.

She looks so good, her smile, her eyes, her entire face. Like she’s rested—and like I’ve missed seeing her for almost three weeks. We texted and talked on the phone every day, but nothing beats being back in her presence.

“How are you, sweetums?” She strokes my face and kisses a cheek before ruffling in the pocket of her thin windbreaker to find and hold out a pack of halal gummy bears. The quality, imported-from-a-Muslim-country kind.

I seize it and am about to rip it open when I remember that I’ll be seeing Nuah tomorrow. Insha’Allah.

He appreciates real gummy bears.

I pocket the pack and give Mom another hug before following her to the front desk.

She has on a white sporty pull-on hijab, the kind she wears when she’s doing a long drive, and, under her light pink jacket, black track pants and an old gray T-shirt with faded words, I DID 10K FOR ALZHEIMER’S.

I’m kind of surprised she’s so slouchy-looking, as she’s really into being presentable. Not fashionable, but neat and ironed.

The opposite of me, in fact. Except for tomorrow, at the henna party, and at the wedding itself, when I’ll be in two of my favorite outfits ever. Mom and I spent a lot of time finding fancy clothes I actually liked.

“You brought my clothes, right?” I ask as she waits for the hotel personnel to activate her room key.

Mom turns to me and nods and then squints at something beyond me. “Isn’t that Sarah’s brother?”

Dawud is coming out of the hotel shop cradling six Gatorades in his arms. He spots us and bounds over while trying to balance the drinks. “These were almost thirty dollars!”

“What! WHY DID YOU BUY THEM HERE?” I’m incredulous. “That’s so irresponsible! I was going to stop at the grocery store! Where the whole thing would have been ten dollars at the most!”

Mom looks at me with her eyebrows raised, the edges of her mouth moving up slightly, before nodding, proud-like.

Wait, did she just give me a mom-to-mom-approval look?

I turn back to Dawud, who’s trying to push his glasses up while holding on to the Gatorade. I poke his glasses onto the bridge of his nose so I won’t have to pick up the bottles he’ll spill should he fix his own glasses. “I can’t believe you! Wait until I tell Sarah!”

“I just wanted to make sure we get back quickly! So we don’t miss movie night,” he whines, while tolerating Mom’s hand reaching over to tousle his hair, to say salaam. He responds to her with a peppy “walaikum musalam!” before lugging the Gatorade bottles to the chair he’d been sitting in before Mom entered the hotel.

That kid.

Just wasted Haytham’s money.

I’m done babysitting the twerp with a mind of his own.

The automated hotel doors open again at that moment, and a tall man in a dark suit, with hair graying at the temples and a beard similarly salt-and-peppered, steps inside and gives the hotel lobby a once-over. Behind him are two girls, twins, who almost reach his height. They appear to be around my age, and I can’t help staring, because they’re in hijab, one with breezy red fabric flung on her head casually and the other in a dark purple trim turban worn tight.

Which is a rare sight—two more hijabis—in a town that’s almost as small as a village.

My eyes trail the girls following the man, who’s now headed to the counter beside Mom. They don’t notice my stare, though, because they’re whispering to each other intently.

They look like they just stepped out of a fashion magazine. One is wearing loose and flowy light brown pants that go all the way up high on her waist to disappear under a short, white, squarish top with military-looking details on the shoulders and front pockets. The other girl, the one in a turban, has on a loud jungle-leaves-print jumpsuit that flares, with a matching cape attached at the shoulders that hangs behind her almost to the floor.

They walk confidently, like they’re on a runway, their clothes fluttering in sync with their strut, their luggage streaming behind them.

Who are these girls?

“Husna! Assalamu alaikum!” It’s the man. Talking to Mom. “Thought you were getting here earlier?”

Mom turns to him, and her entire face lights up.

Chapter Six

“Bilal! Walaikum musalam!” she says with gusto. “I stopped to check my car fluids on the way, so I just got in.”

“Well, I’m so glad. You’ll get to meet the girls earlier than dinner, then.” The man takes out his wallet and hands his credit card and ID to the front desk attendant before turning back to Mom, a smile taking over his previously pensive face. He notices me. “Oh, masha’Allah, is this Janna?”

Mom motions for me to come stand beside her. I move in, and she puts an arm around my waist. “Janna, this is Uncle Bilal. He and Dad and I went to college together a long time ago. He’s here for the wedding, and these are his daughters, who’re coming to the henna party tomorrow. Assalamu alaikum, girls!”

I straighten and nod at Bilal. Uncle Bilal, I mean. “Assalamu alaikum.”

Uncle Bilal smiles at me and says salaam back and introduces his daughters. “Dania and Lamya. They’ve heard so much about you, Husna. And you, Janna. And they’re good friends of Sarah’s from college, just like your mom and I were, Janna. Subhanallah.”

Dania (purple turban) and Lamya (red scarf) smile big and lean in for hugs with their salaams with me and Mom in turn, and I involuntarily stiffen.

I’m not a cuddly person in general. It’s only recently that I’ve learned to relax with Mom even, to let her hug me and show an affectionate touch. I don’t know why, but it definitely isn’t natural for me to just melt into hugs with people, especially people I just met. So I pull away from Lamya’s and Dania’s embraces quickly. They don’t seem to notice and go back to smiling benevolently at me, but not talking.

“This is perfect. Now we can all sit for dinner together.” Uncle Bilal beams at Mom. “I got my nephew to join us too, if that’s okay. He was driving through.”

Mom beams back at Uncle Bilal but suddenly looks nervous. “Janna, is that okay with you? Or do you have to go back to Dad’s? Because Dawud is with you? And you might be expected back?”


Does she want me to?

Go back to Dad’s?

While she has dinner—that’s obviously been preplanned—with Uncle Bilal and his runway-model daughters? Who’ve heard so much about Mom and me, while I’ve never heard of them?

I need to check on something my gut is raising low-key alarm bells about.

Like where’s Uncle Bilal’s wife?

“I can stay for a bit. I don’t need to get back right way,” I say, before smiling friendly-like but tentatively at Dania and Lamya. “And what about your mom? Is she going to join us?”

There’s a second of silence before the three of them, Uncle Bilal and his daughters, speak all at once. “Mom’s in England. With her new family.” “Mom’s remarried.” “Mariam and I divorced when the twins were six. Then Dania and Lamya moved back here from England to go to high school, and have been with me since. It’s just us three, our family. For now.”

This last part trails from the joined voices.

Why do they look kind of confused by my question?

And, for now?

Mom grasps the handle of her luggage and glances at her room key. “We’ll meet at dinner then, insha’Allah? I’d better go get settled in. I had a long drive up.” She adds an awkward laugh to this. “And you had an even longer journey.”

Why are her cheeks flushing? I put my arm through hers and speak confidently, not giving in to the weird vibes I’m getting here. “Where did you guys come from?”

“I flew into Chicago from New York, picked up the girls, and drove here in a rental car. We wanted to be sure to make it in time for dinner,” Uncle Bilal says, his eyes lingering a bit too long on my mom’s face, like he’s trying to figure out what Mom’s feeling—but in a tender way.

“Okay, Mom, we better go unpack. Insha’Allah, we’ll be seeing you.” I smile and wave at Dania and Lamya, and then take the handle of Mom’s luggage and begin to roll the bag toward the Tree of Red Fluffs. Nearing the elevators, I glance behind. “What floor, Mom?”

“Fifth.” She waves feebly at Uncle Bilal and his daughters as she leaves to follow me.

But they’re right behind us. “We’re on the fifth floor, too!” Uncle Bilal beams again and… is that a flush on his cheeks too?

I grab Mom’s arm tighter. I don’t realize how tight until she wiggles out of it as the elevator doors open.

“Janna! We have to go!” Dawud appears in front of the elevator we’re assembling in, still cradling his Gatorade bottles. “It’s almost six, and your dad said the movie is going to be after dinner! Which is at six! You said you’d get me back!”

We all stare at him before Mom nudges me. “Go, Janna. Maybe you can come by later? And I’m coming to the house tomorrow really early, anyhow. To help with wedding prep.”

Uncle Bilal puts a hand on the elevator door to hold it open, and I hesitate before stepping out. When I turn back, it’s to watch the door close on Mom and them.

To watch the door close on Mom, flushed and smiling funny, and them, flushed too. Well, one of them, that is.

The tall guy who called Mom one of his best friends from college.

Who’s also divorced.

* * *

I drive back slowly, my mind turning things over, making whole scenarios up—like Mom and Uncle Bilal and Dania and Lamya having dinner together at the hotel. And then taking a summer evening stroll through the “quaint” town. And then eating ice cream at that ice-cream place by the side of the road beside the largest lake here, the one the town’s named after: Mystic Lake.

Ice cream.

I glance at Dawud, who’s waving his arms out the window like he’s one of those floppy air-filled figures businesses use to advertise their wares.

He’s the one who prevented me from spending more time with Mom. “Too bad you didn’t get your ice cream.”

I just want him to squirm a little. Feel a gut pinch.

But he doesn’t and just smiles goofily, pointing ahead. I turn my eyes back to the road, and there, way up ahead, is the ice-cream truck, driving the same direction we are. On its way to the end of the road, which runs through a peninsula of houses filled with kids, after which he’ll circle back to our place.

I speed up. I want to get home in time to prepare for jolly mean-uncle ice-cream man. So I can show Haytham the truth of the matter.

But when I pass the truck and make it to Dad’s driveway, there’s a car parked in the spot where Haytham’s car was before.

And I forget all about the ice-cream-truck theory.

It’s a car I know really well.


He got here early. Today. For me.

Chapter Seven

Dad’s house is quiet when we enter. Like no one is home.

But when you step into the hallway from the foyer, there’s a direct view to the huge glass doors to the patio that take up almost the entire back wall, and I see Dad and Linda out there in front of the barbecue. The doors are open, and I can smell the burgers they’re grilling.

I leave Dawud behind and make my way to the backyard. Everyone must be outside, getting food.

It’s just Dad and Linda out there, though. And the laddoos, who are both working on wrecking a bubble-blowing machine by pushing each other to try to stand and balance themselves on it.

“Just in time for the first burger!” Dad, in his regular summer uniform of a buttoned-up dress shirt with shorts, flips a patty and snaps the long tongs at me. “Cheese melted on it or no?”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Went for prayer.” Dad peels a slice of cheese from the stack by the condiments on the long outdoor table and holds it over the grill. “Cheese?”

“No thanks, Dad. I’ll eat after. With everyone.” I’d better join them for Asr salat, too. “Are they praying in the family room?”

“No, they’re in the basement. More friends of Muhammad and Sarah drove up.” Linda holds a container out for Dad to put the burgers in. “You sure you don’t want to have one with us now? They’re beautifully done.”

“I have to pray too. But maybe he’ll have one with you guys?” I point at Dawud, who’s just stepped out, a big smile growing on his face—maybe because he saw the burgers.

No, it’s due to the bubbles desperately escaping from the machine under attack.

Linda nods, and I head inside to make wudu in the main-floor bathroom.

We’re taught at the mosque that prayer with others, in congregation, is rewarded twenty-seven times more than prayer alone. This is a compelling reason to hasten to the basement.

Let’s call my first glimpse of Nuah in six months, since he last came up to Eastspring for Christmas break, a bonus.

* * *

I joined the prayer late, so I’m still in prayer mode, catching up on the rakats I missed, my eyes closed because that’s the only way I can come even one iota close to concentrating on salat, when I hear everyone else begin to shuffle up the stairs.

I finish and sit alone on the white sheet that has been spread on the carpeted floor.

I need to make dua. I need to make sure I talk to God before doing this.

Ya Allah, make this go right, this thing with Nuah. When I tell him.

I know one thing: I’m pretty sure God loves Nuah. He’s kind and humble and always smiling, always friendly. That’s the type of person my mom’s brother, Amu, the imam at the Eastspring mosque, always says is gold to God. Whenever he says this, though, he always peers at me and not Muhammad, who already goes around with a goofy grin plastered on his face. Whereas I’ve been told my resting face is a perpetual pout, which is the opposite of my middle name, Ibtissam, meaning “smile” in Arabic—Mom’s choice for my first name until Dad overrode her for the more anglicized Janna.

Maybe that’s why Mom didn’t get the smiley daughter she’d always wanted. Because I’m Janna.

Whenever my uncle sees Nuah, his face lights up and he slaps him on the back, and while talking to him, he does that nonstop smiling nod that I’m pretty sure Amu isn’t even aware that he does. Whenever I see Amu like that, I get all glowy, because I know Nuah’s already mine. So it’s like someone is admiring something that belongs to me.

The way I’m laying it out, it’s like he’s perfect. Nuah. But he does have his faults.

Like sometimes he can laugh at something you said so much and so long that you wonder if he’s laughing at you, too. Like his smile is ever present, so it’s hard to know where the default ends and the appreciation begins. Like I’ve taken a while, a couple-of-years while, to get back to him about his feelings for me because, truthfully, sometimes my gut will whisper, How for real is his thing for you, Janna?

And sometimes it will also say things like, He’s on and off in talking to you, Janna.

And, girl, doesn’t he always keep it light and fluffy when he does talk to you?

How for real is his thing for you again, Janna Ibtissam Yusuf?

I push delete on the comments from my mean gut and fill the space with evidence. Such as his I-stand-by-you texts exactly when I needed them.

And the truth that he’s never treated any other girl at the mosque the way he’s treated me.


* * *

Everyone’s outside on the patio, and I freeze the image like it’s a photo.

Muhammad and Sarah are sitting across from each other at the long table with bench seating, a plate of burgers in front of them. Dad and Linda are still at the barbecue, now grilling corn. Haytham is kneeling in the grass, bending over the bubble machine like he’s fixing it, with Luke, Logan, and Dawud peering at his tinkering.

And then there’s Nuah. He’s by the condiments, dressing his burger.

He’s still his lanky self in a white T-shirt and gray shorts that look like they’re cut-off track pants. He’s grown out his Afro above his medium-size forehead. (A forehead that I’ve accepted with dedicated resilience because it goes hand in hand with an awesome personality.)

I even glimpse the wooden tasbih necklace he always wears, its threaded ends disappearing into his T-shirt.

When he smiles a secret smile at his burger for some reason, a smile that ends in a dimple on the right side of his face, I feel that blue-sky feeling again—but this time it’s intensified by a thousand.

I’m about to slide the patio doors open when I hear steps. Behind me.

I turn.

“Hey, assalamu alaikum! Janna! Long time no see!” I’m surprised to see Khadija, Nuah’s older sister.

I move in for a side-hug, relieved she takes it, instead of doing the whole big-bear-hug thing most people at the mosque are into.

I haven’t seen Nuah’s sister in a while as she lives in Missouri now, but I like her a lot.

Before I became old enough to join it, she used to run the teen study circle at the mosque. Whenever she found me and my friends hiding in the bathroom, “taking breaks” from our Sunday school classes, she’d tsk, shake her head, and laugh to herself, but never, ever tell on us. Then she got married and moved away from Eastspring.

She’s like a taller, girl version of Nuah. Well, except for the pink scarf she’s wearing.

And the huge baby bump she’s sporting.

Seeing my eyes land on it, Khadija rubs her belly. “Due in a week.”


“Yup. That’s why I came up from St. Louis. Mom wanted me to have the baby with her, at home in Eastspring.” She continues rubbing it, and we watch the scene outside quietly for a bit. “The only way she was okay with me coming up here for the wedding was that I had to promise her I wouldn’t have the baby in… what’s this place called again?”

“Mystic Lake.”

“Well, that’s a pretty name. So maybe I wouldn’t mind Maysarah being born in Mystic Lake, actually. Maysarah of Mystic Lake.” She laughs, and I get that warm feeling again of being a little girl giggling in the mosque bathroom, of being accepted with no expectations.

Linda slides the door open. “Corn’s ready now.”

I let Khadija lead the way and put my hand in the pocket of my hoodie, my fingers finding the gummy bear package.

Nuah’s sitting beside Muhammad now, his back to me and Khadija.

When Sarah waves at us, he turns around, and I do the only thing that feels right at the moment: I immediately hold out the gummy bears, my eyes darting between them and Nuah’s face.

He smiles and takes it. “Hey, assalamu alaikum, JY,” he says, turning the package over in his hand. “Ah, the best ones. Haribo halal.”

He hands them back to me.

“They’re for you,” I say.

“Me? Aw, thanks.” He nods and smiles again.

Muhammad laughs. “What is it with you guys and gummy bears? Didn’t you bring some for her last time, Nuah? At Christmas break?”

“They were for both you guys.” Nuah turns back to his burger. “My roommate’s Turkish, and he brought tons of halal ones from Turkey. And I unloaded some on you guys.”

“Naw, there’s something between you two kids. Admit it.” Muhammad looks at me.

I head to the barbecue to get corn, to get away from Muhammad making things more awkward than they already are.

More than I already made them by just wordlessly handing Nuah gummy bears.

When I bring back my plate of corn, Nuah’s ripped open the bag of gummies, and it’s now being shared by Sarah, Khadija, and Muhammad.

I take a seat beside Sarah, which puts me right across from Nuah. And then of course, me being me, I move over so I’m directly opposite Khadija, who’s beside him, instead.

Muhammad doesn’t miss this. “Why’d you move over? Now you can’t do the gummy bear thing with your pal Nuah. Actually, NA to you, JY.”

He picks up a red gummy and a yellow gummy and does a fake conversation between them, asking each other, NA and JY, how many gummy bear packages they’ve exchanged.

I ignore him with nuclear-powered strength, concentrating on nibbling my corn.

“Okay, cut it out, Muhammad. It’s not funny,” Sarah says.

“Wrong move. Surprised you haven’t learned this, and you’re marrying him in two days,” Nuah laughs, and picks up a colorless gummy bear. “You tell him to stop it and that at least doubles his buffoonery. And yeah, Muhammad, this would be… um, I don’t know, the tenth pack of gummies we’re trading?”

He nods at me and hands me the colorless bear. “Your favorite, pineapple.”

I take it with a smile and set it down on the edge of my plate. That simple move of his just made this whole thing better—me not saying hello, salaam, how are you, how was the drive, what’s happening at school, et cetera, et cetera.

Me just gummy-bearing him has been erased by him handing me my favorite flavor.

I stare at my pineapple bear and almost tear up thinking of how much Nuah gets me. And lets me be my awkward self.

And still likes me.

“When did you get back to Eastspring?” I ask, picking a corn niblet up from my plate.

“Tuesday. Then hung out with my parents and little brother and now here we are.” He’s picking through the candy, separating the pineapple ones. “Your dad said there’s wedding-favor assembling happening tomorrow?”

I nod and glance at Sarah. I wonder if she knows that the favors include little blue chocolate basketballs. This I knew from Muhammad yelling “YES” last week and sharing his “amazing online discovery” with me.

Khadija beams. “And tomorrow is the henna party. I can’t wait. I even splurged on a dress for it, and it’s not a tent like the one I’m wearing to the wedding.” She winks at me and Sarah. “I want at least one cute pic from third trimester.”

“Oh yeah, I can’t wait to see your foxy dress,” Sarah says, laughing.

Nuah pokes Muhammad. “What are we doing? When they’re henna-partying?”

“We’re outta here. Maybe go into town to eat?”

“No, I’m throwing something for you and your friends. A party in the barn.” Dad brings a platter of corn to the table.

“I thought we were just going to eat?” Muhammad raises his eyebrows. “Eating is fine. Eating is enough, Dad.”

“There’ll be eating, don’t worry. I run a successful food company—you don’t think I’d have thought of the eating?” Dad laughs.

“Let’s keep it simple,” Muhammad mumbles into his burger.

“Want some gummy bears, Uncle?” Nuah indicates the package that’s now half-gone. Then he reaches over to my plate and deposits all the colorless bears on it with a smile.

Dad shakes his head and does a whistle. It’s his call-the-laddoos whistle.

Linda hates it. The whole time I’ve been here at their house, I’ve seen her getting upset about it, about how it’ll make the kids think they’re dogs, but now she just calls out, “Luke, Logan, come and eat. Dawud, you too, and—I’m so sorry—I forgot your name.”

“Haytham, no problem.” He comes over and sits on the other side of Sarah. “Hey, are those halal gummy bears?”

“Appetizers.” Nuah passes the pack over.

“You mean Nuah and Janna’s code for I missed you, boo.” Muhammad guffaws, and Sarah suddenly flexes herself from the hip down, and, from my brother’s abrupt laugh shutdown, my guess is that she stepped on his foot hard.

I’m going to like having Sarah in the family.

I scoot myself over closer to her. Now directly across from Nuah again. I can’t stop myself from smiling at him.

Dad, who’s right behind Nuah, stares at me with his eyebrows raised.


“Hey, where are all the pineapple ones?” Haytham is peering into the gummies bag, tossing its contents. “Those are my favorites.”

“Nuah gave them all to Janna. I mean JY, as he calls her,” my brother volunteers.

I make a mental note to never ever be nice to Muhammad again. I’m about to pick some pineapple gummies to put them back in the bag for Haytham when I hear it.

It’s the ice-cream truck. On its way back from its first stop at the end of the road, where a cluster of houses sits across from a small restaurant overlooking the water.

“ICE CREAM!” Logan yells when he hears the “Pop Goes the Weasel” jingle, after which Luke echoes him. “ITE CWEAM!”

Linda immediately moves into place to stop Luke from running to the front of the house. Now I get why she’s always wearing leggings.

Dawud sets down his plate and makes his way to Sarah, little-brother pout on. “Can I get ice cream? I’ll eat dinner after. Please?”

“Let’s go check this ice-cream guy out.” Haytham stands up and motions to me. “You coming?”

I look at my pile of pineapple bears and then at Nuah. He’s chewing the last of his burger and gazing behind Sarah at the water.

I want to stay with him. He’s just so calm, and that’s what I want right now. “No, I’m going to finish eating dinner.”

“Okay, then I’ll report my findings.” Haytham puts a hand in his pocket and pulls out his wallet. He nods at Linda and bends to scoop Luke up. “I’ll take the boys. Who else wants ice cream? Dawud will help me carry it.”

“I’m done with my burger, so I’ll come see what they’ve got.” Nuah wipes his face with a yellow napkin, one of the thousand Dad ordered and has now put to use in the house because he realized we didn’t need a thousand for the wedding.

I stand too. “I’ll come as well, then.”

Muhammad lets out a loud laugh.

Nuah and Haytham and the kids have already started walking, so I turn to glare at my brother. “You are so unbelievably immature! Sarah, you don’t know what you’re getting into. You can still opt out, you know.”

Sarah flexes herself again, and it must have been for a hard stomp, because Muhammad whispers “sorry” to her and then makes a please-forgive-me face at me. “Sorry, Janna. I mean, JY,” he adds with a giggle.

I turn and stalk off. At least he won’t be there at the ice-cream truck.

It’ll just be me and Nuah. And the little kids.

Oh yeah, and Haytham, too.

Chapter Eight

The jolly jingle stops, the window slides open, and the ice-cream-truck operator appears.

“What do you want?” his mouth, under a lush gray mustache, demands, while his eyes, under lush gray eyebrows, stay still and drooping. His face muscles are so unmoving, the only way we know he just spoke is by the words we heard, which he repeats louder now. “What? Do you want?”

The gruff words we heard.

Haytham looks at me pointedly and pulls out money. “Tell the nice man what ice cream you want,” he says to Luke and Logan.

“Ite cweam!” yells Luke, in Haytham’s arms, reaching pudgy fingers toward the window.

“He always wants whatever Logan gets. So let Logan choose first.” I hoist Logan up and point at all the pictures on the side of the truck, like I do every time it comes around. And, like every time, he pronounces a new choice and then changes his mind last minute to a chocolate Drumstick. I announce two of those to the guy, who’s scowling now, his eyebrows closing in on each other.

I choose a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate. Haytham mouths great choice to me and picks the same.

Dawud can’t choose, so Haytham lets him get all three of his choices, a Firecracker pop, a Choco Taco, and an ice-cream sandwich, if he promises to share the ones he doesn’t end up wanting.

Nuah goes with an orange Creamsicle. “What?” he asks Haytham when Haytham shoots him a look.

“Dude, I’ve never seen anyone buy those except my grandma once.”

“Your grandma has good taste, then.” Nuah unwraps his treat and watches Haytham paying. “Next time, it’s on me.”

The ice-cream-truck guy hands Haytham back his change and grunts before closing the window again. At no point did his mustache move up to allow a smile or even any sort of mouth movement.

“Aha, so I’m right. We were just served by mean-uncle ice-cream-truck guy,” Haytham says as we walk back across the long lawn. He cracks the side of the chocolate shell on his cone with his teeth and scoops into the vanilla underneath. The ice cream starts running immediately, and he begins twisting his tongue all over the cone in his hurry to get all the drips.

I’m shocked at his eating manners.

“That’s not how you eat those. You work your way down,” I say, holding up my immaculate cone, getting slowly consumed, top down. “And you’re so not right. Today was an off day for the ice-cream guy. Maybe something happened to him. Maybe to his family.”

“Okay, if that’s the case, we need an ice-cream-truck watch set up.” Haytham shifts his cone into the hand that’s holding Luke at his hip and pulls out his phone. “Write your number in here, and I’ll text you if I see the truck. And you do the same. Then we meet the ice-cream guy again and settle this once and for all.”

I take his phone and send myself a message, an ice-cream cone emoji. When I give the phone back, I see Nuah smiling at me, or maybe it’s us.

He’s gotta know this is a dumb sociological thing that Haytham’s trying to prove, so I address Nuah. “Just so you know, Haytham thinks ice-cream-truck drivers are all either mean uncles or the nicest people in the world. And I’m trying to tell him ours is both. He usually smiles when he gives us our ice cream. Right, Logan?”

Logan turns around from where he’s walking with Dawud.

“The ice-cream man is nice, right? The other days? When he gives you your ice cream?” I prompt.

“I don’t like him,” Logan announces. “He always has the same ice cream.”

“That’s his truck’s fault. But he smiles at you, right?” I try again.

“No, he’s mean. He always gives me the same ice cream.” At this, the top of his Drumstick falls off and lands on the grass, leaving him with an empty cone. We gather around, and I see that only the chocolate chunk at the very bottom remains inside the waffle still in his hand. He looks up at me, his eyes growing larger, his mouth opening into an O at the same rate.

The lip tremble will come next. And then it’ll be a wail that will echo like a police siren.

I know him too well from these last few weeks.

“Here.” Dawud thrusts the Choco Taco toward Logan. “You can have this one.”

“I want the same one!” Logan says, crossing his arms. He throws down the empty cone in his hand with a great flourish, and it lands pointy part up, a pitiful distance from its departed friend, the mound of melting ice cream.

A trickle, which will erupt into waterworks soon, begins falling from his eyes.

I pass my cone to Nuah and bend to grab Logan’s shoulders to get him to look at me. “But remember, you didn’t want the same one? You said you always got the same one from the ice-cream guy. Now you’re getting a special one.”

“I want the same one!”

Still holding Luke, Haytham slides down onto his knees until he’s almost eye-to-eye with Logan. “It is the same one. But you know how the bubble machine makes different bubbles, big bubbles and small bubbles and medium bubbles?” He waits until Logan nods.

“But they’re all still bubbles? The same bubbles?” He waits again. “This is the same ice cream that you like but just in a different shape.”

“But you don’t have a different shape.” Logan points at Haytham’s cone, now running all over his right hand. “You have the same shape. Like mine.”

“Exactly. And look what’s happening to it. It’s wrecking my hand. And look at Luke’s face.” We all turn to Luke, who looks like he just got back from World War I, like something brown and muddy exploded in his face and he survived but is now irrevocably changed as evidenced by the kooky smile on his upturned face, his eyes blinking with maniacal glee. “Look at his ite cweam. Is that the same one you want?”

“No! I don’t want ice cream all over my face!” Now Logan starts sobbing at the stressful idea of potentially looking like Luke.

Haytham nods to Dawud and motions to him to pass the Choco Taco over to Logan. “And with this Choco Taco, you will never look like Luke here. It’s made for big boys and big girls who don’t get ite cweam all over their faces.”

Once Logan takes the Choco Taco, I hand my cone to Nuah again and help Logan unwrap his.

He tentatively takes a bite, and, amid the tears still glittering on his cheeks, the trace of a small smile breaks out before he turns to skip off with Dawud toward the house.

“Man, that was gooood,” Nuah says to Haytham as we follow behind. “What are you, some kindergarten teacher or something?”

“Nope, just an uncle of over twelve years. I’ve got ten nephews and nieces.”

“Uncle of over twelve years? How is that even possible?” Nuah stares at Haytham before slurping the last of his Creamsicle. “You’re, like, my age.”

“I’m the youngest of five—way youngest of five. So I became an uncle at seven.”

“Is that why you’re holding Luke on your hip like that?” Nuah asks, laughing. “Like a seasoned parent?”

“The best thing for your back.” Haytham laughs too. And then he proceeds to hoist Luke onto Nuah to show him how to do it, but Nuah flips Luke to do the football hold, at which point Luke’s ice cream falls on the ground.

Nuah, Haytham, and I look at each other with bated breath.

But Luke just giggles, flails his arms, and says “atain” to Nuah.

He’s passed back and forth like a heavy football between Nuah and Haytham the rest of the way to the patio, Haytham’s ice cream gulped along the way, while I finish my cone slowly and think about how people can be so crazy different.

Good thing for me that, like how I choose my ice-cream flavor, I prefer to stick to only those who make sense.

* * *

Right before we turn the corner of the house to go out to the backyard, Nuah says to me, “So when do we practice the roast?”

Haytham lets go of Luke, and he runs ahead, following Dawud and Logan. “Oh yeah,” he says, “you guys are doing a roast of Muhammad. I’m running the wedding toasts and performances, and you’re on my clipboard.”

I nod. “It’s a take on his favorite YouTubers, the Hearty Philosophers. They do this thing that’s like, when you consider this aspect of life, blah blah blah, it’s weird. But when you consider this aspect, blah blah blah, it makes sense. And they keep going, bringing up the bad and good of everything.”

“And Janna and I worked out this whole routine, based on Muhammad’s profile,” Nuah says, laughing. “Like about his feet unsocked, their potency. And his midnight ketchup, pickle, and peanut butter sandwich runs, and other things to alert Sarah about.”

Haytham laughs too. “My poor cuz.”

“Hey, you should join us,” Nuah says. “We need someone to pop up once in a while, like the Hearty Philosophers do, and say AND THAT’S LIFE. But adding WITH MUHAMMAD! We were going to try to recruit someone.”

We were? Maybe my face looks obviously surprised, because Haytham takes a glance at me and shakes his head. “I think it sounds perfect with just you two. And besides, I’m scheduled to sing a song for Sarah. I don’t want to hog the stage.”

“You sing?” Nuah asks, beginning to walk.

“Yeah. Hey, can I get you guys to vote for me in the Muslim Voice competition?”

“You going for that, man? That’s wild.”

“He’s good, too,” I add. “Really good.”

Haytham turns to me. “Ah, thanks. You heard me?”

“Yeah, in the car.” I smile at him, and he smiles back. “And you got my vote.”

“Awwww,” Nuah says, grinning. “You got Janna’s vote, you lucky dude.”

I shake my head. Why would he even say it like that—with raised eyebrows? “So you want to practice later on? The roast?”

“Sure! What about tomorrow after Jumah? Muhammad’s got me on a packed schedule before then.” We’re almost at the patio table, so I nod quickly, and the three of us make our way to everyone else.

After Jumah.

Me-and-Nuah time.


Chapter Nine

I’m staring at the ceiling of the gazebo in a reverie, my half-eaten burger on a plate on the floor beside me, when I get jolted back to the present with the words “Nuah won’t be able to stay after the wedding. He’s going back to Pasadena on Sunday.”

Sarah lured me to the gazebo again to talk wedding, with Khadija this time, and I reluctantly came—only because Nuah had gone to town with Muhammad to pick up snacks for movie night.

Now Khadija was saying Nuah wouldn’t be in Eastspring when I got home from Dad’s.

I right myself. “Why? I thought he was back for the summer?”

“He got a job. It’s warehouse job, but it’s at the company where he wants to work when he graduates, so he’s excited.” Khadija shifts herself in the deck chair Sarah brought for her to sit in. “He’s going to make it for a quick visit again a bit after the baby’s born, but other than that, he’s gone until Thanksgiving.”

“Aw, then that he made it a point to come for the wedding makes me so happy! He’s such a sweetheart.” Sarah turns to me. “What do you think, get him in on Team Take Back the Wedding or not?”

“Maybe.” I want to know more about Nuah not being in Eastspring, so I slide my butt closer to Khadija, my heart beginning to thud with worry. “So he’ll be working the whole summer?”

“The entire summer.” She crosses her hands on top of her baby belly and addresses Sarah. “Don’t get him involved in the prep. The guy can’t keep anything to himself. If you tell him it’s a secret, he’ll just avoid being around anyone and everyone, because he knows he’s going to leak the information.”

Really? I’m surprised. He’s always struck me as someone who you could trust with your biggest secret. Well, that was because he did keep mine before, the terrible secret of my assault, while helping me feel ready to talk about it.

But, of course, Nuah’s sister would know him best.

“He’s such a cutie,” Sarah says, writing on the purple clipboard she’s assigning Khadija. “He must be a hit at college, especially at the MSA, being so sweet and with those eyes.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it. Though he’s into someone. Majorly.” Khadija rubs her belly now in slow, circular motions and turns to me. “Don’t mind me. This is something I’ve read is good for the baby. You know, like a massage. Especially while I’m talking, so Maysarah knows it’s her mama who’s showing her this love.”

“Absolutely adore that name. Especially since it has SARAH in it,” Sarah laughs.

“It was Lateef’s choosing,” Khadija says. “He’s lucky I liked it right away.”

I want Khadija to back up.

Nuah. Into. Someone.


Nuah told his sister about me.

But how to get her to pedal back to the topic without giving myself away?

Lucky for me, Sarah saves the day. “You said he’s into someone? That’s so cute! Who?” She turns to me. “We get Nuah gossip! Which is rare. The guy keeps such a low profile.”

“I don’t know who it is. All he said is that she’s really hard to get. And he’s worried about that.”

“Khadija. I’m so shocked you wouldn’t ask details. Come on, what kind of big sis are you?” Sarah tut-tuts and crosses off something on the clipboard. “When Dawud grows up and confides something like that in me, I will immediately set out to amass a wiki’s worth of information on the girl.”

“He told me just as we were arriving here, like literally five minutes before we opened the car door. I’ll take my big-sis cred back, thanks.” She stands and stretches. “And that, girls, is not the most comfortable chair. Especially for my butt right now.”

I hope I’m not turning red, or even slightly pink. Though I don’t know if anyone would see. It’s almost Maghrib, so there’s darkness descending.

He talked about me to his sister right before he got here.

Something that feels like it’s flicking on and off takes over my body. I pull my knees up close to my chest and hug them to keep the feeling from exploding out of me.

It’s joy.

How am I going to make sure I don’t burst with joy being around him this weekend?

But he thinks I’m hard to get.

No. I’m going to make sure he knows that’s not true.

I’m going to let myself be got.

“Janna? Have you heard anything we’re saying? About organizing Logan, Luke, and Dawud to pass out the wedding favors?” Sarah waves her hand in front of my face.

“That’s on my clipboard. I already know about that.” I let go of my legs and stand up slowly to join Khadija. The floorboards are definitely not good for butts, even unpregnant ones, either.

“But could you update it that they’re to pass them out the minute the nikah is done? Because I’m adding a slip of paper with a dua we want everyone to say right after, so we have to make sure people have it on them. So they can join Amu.”

I write this to-do down in my phone, smiling at the thought of seeing my uncle again. Besides officiating, he’s also giving the wedding sermon—which I helped him edit.

A message pings on my phone. It’s an unfamiliar number.

I open it just as Sarah’s phone rings. She takes a look at the ID and moves off the gazebo to answer.

My message is from Haytham.

Taking votes for movie night: Star Wars or Stardust?

Princess Bride

Oh ok

It’s on the movie schedule

Sorry, didn’t know there was a schedule

On the basement fridge

Right. Ok setting up princess bride

Before I click off, I hesitate on whether to save Haytham’s contact on my phone.

When I look up from adding it, Khadija’s staring at Sarah. Well, Sarah’s back.

She’s wandering farther and farther away, phone to her ear, not toward the water or the house but to the far right of the house, where the neatly mowed field ends at the beginning of the forest that leads to a second beach, one with a firepit. Then she abruptly turns around, conversation ended.

Khadija and I watch her come back, and as she gets closer, it’s obvious that she’s upset. “I gotta go. I can’t stay here.”

“What?” I gather the clipboard and our plates and position them so I can take them back to the house. Sarah reaches over to help me, but I shake my head. “What’s wrong?”

“My parents don’t like the idea of me staying here, where Muhammad is, before the nikah.” She begins to make a face but then clears it. “It’s okay—I should listen to them. Not get them upset before the wedding. I mean, more upset.”

“But don’t they know you’re staying in the barn guesthouse?”

“It doesn’t matter. They don’t like us being in the vicinity of each other overnight without being nikahfied.” She grabs the chair Khadija was sitting in, folds it, and tucks it under her arm.

We follow her quietly until we reach the patio. Then she puts the chair against a pile of others leaning against the house and shrugs. “It’s okay. I’ll check myself into that hotel your mom’s at. And then I’ll make sure to get here first thing in the morning.”

“If it’s the Orchard hotel, Nuah and I already have a room there. Maybe you can just stay with me, and Nuah can stay in the… is it really a barn?” Khadija asks, curiosity flickering on her face in the patio light.

“Really? That would work. But first check with Nuah if it’s okay? It’s much nicer than a barn. Loft bedrooms, just no bathrooms.” Sarah turns to me. “And check with your dad, too, of course.”

I nod, not sure how to feel about this new development. Nuah is going to be staying here?

It makes me feel excited but also weird, because of the potential of him seeing me in my pj’s. Which are really old, preteeny clothes that aren’t flattering.

“I’ll ask Haytham to drive us to the hotel, after Maghrib.” Sarah pulls on the patio door and steps aside to let Khadija in.

The hotel.


Uncle Bilal.

I stop Sarah before she goes in after Khadija. “I can drive you guys, if Haytham’s okay with me borrowing his car again. I’ll stop by and see Mom again too. I didn’t get my clothes for the wedding from her before.”

“You going to be okay driving back alone?” Sarah asks, her face wearing a slight frown. “I don’t like it. You alone in the dark on those roads. I’ll ask Haytham.”

“But I’d like to see my mom.” I think. “Wait. What if I text Muhammad to wait for me before coming back from town? And then I can follow him?”

Sarah nods, and we pass the kitchen where Dad and Linda’s live-in help, Florence, is cleaning up, and go downstairs to pray Maghrib.

Perfect. Now I get to see Mom and Nuah in town.

* * *

I’m dropping Sarah off at the hotel. So I’m coming back to see you Mom!♥

Perfect. I can’t wait sweetums! And we changed our dinner to later, at 9:30. So join us at the hotel restaurant okay?


Is that okay? We can talk after. Just us two.

But I’m going to need to come back here before it’s too late.

I can make sure dinner is quick.

I shake the feeling of Mom possessiveness that the message activates in my heart and, instead, try to fill it with happy thoughts. Nuah is here! We’re going to have fun at the wedding!

It doesn’t work.

Mom takes up a different chamber in my heart, impenetrable by Happy Nuah Thoughts.

I really don’t have that much time. I frown and add, So it’s okay, I won’t come.

There’s a pause before she replies.

Oh, then I’ll cancel the dinner.

I stare at my phone, satisfaction at her answer quelling the weirdness rising in me just a moment ago. Do I reply with Great! See you soon?

I start typing it and then pause and scroll up to our texts now.

My insecurity shows big time.

And I hate that.

Why do Uncle Bilal and his family have to be so disruptive?

I can just imagine Mom’s face falling at the fact that she can’t go through with her plans.

Janna, she just wants to meet up with an old friend and laugh about the good old days. Like if you grew up, and Thomas, Soon-Lee’s boyfriend, showed up with their kids, graying at his temples, and you wanted to find out what he’d been up to all these years.

Sighing, I erase Great! See you soon!

No, it’s okay! I’ll meet you at the restaurant! Love you.

Because I do love her.

Maybe too much.

Chapter Ten

All through Maghrib prayer a thought keeps beginning to interrupt me before I shut it down repeatedly because I’m praying: If Nuah thinks I’m hard to get, then—

When Haytham, who’s leading us in salat, says salaam to end the prayer, I let the rest of the thought invade: If Nuah thinks I’m hard to get, then who will tell him I’m not?

Well, besides me—but it’s not going to be me. Because the minute I saw him, and his cool, chill self, my brave intention to reveal my feelings to him in person retreated.

Add to that the zoolike conditions around us, with little kids crying over ice cream and a big brother bent on ruining such delicate matters, and there’s no way this is going to turn out well.

I need a new plan. I need someone to help me.

I turn to Sarah beside me. She’s already started making dhikr.

On the other side of her, Khadija, who’d been praying in a chair, has already started sunnah prayer.

I wait until Sarah’s finished her tasbih and then touch her arm. And point to the stairs.

I don’t know if this is a good idea, but maybe Sarah, with her clipboards, can help me out with a new plan.

* * *

“So you’re the one who’s hard to get for Nuah?” Sarah asks, crammed into the cleaning supplies closet in the kitchen with me. It smells like bleach.

I nod. “Because I never show my hand. So I guess he doesn’t know how I feel?”

Sarah cracks up at that for some reason. “Sorry, it’s just funny the way you nodded just now. So solemnly. Like it’s not love we’re talking about.”

“Oh,” I say, wondering how you nod at something that important without being solemn. “I mean, it’s a tricky situation. Maybe that’s why I’m being serious.”

“No, it’s not. It’s beautiful! Nuah, the amazing guy that he is, likes you, Janna! And you, amazing you, like him back. How’s that not the best thing?”

“Sh, keep your voice down!” I hiss at her. I open the closet a crack and see Florence’s back as she wraps up food. She’s got her headphones on like usual—she’s big into podcasts—and seems to be the only one in the kitchen, so I think we’re okay.

“Janna.” Sarah starts giggling again. “It’s so hilarious. Your face.”

“Will you stop, please?”

“Can you lighten up, then? It’s fun that you found out someone you like is into you. It’s not an exam, Janna.”

“He liked me first. And he’d text me wondering if I was ready. But I wasn’t then, and now I feel like I am.”

“Aw, that’s the sweetest.” She stares at me for a minute and then bursts into laughter again.


“Your face is that way again. Like you’re facing a firing squad.” She stops laughing suddenly. “I’m sorry. I forgot what it was like to be seventeen and unsure about love.”

“Yeah, especially because you were dating then. And had lots of experience,” I add with my eyebrows raised. I found out a couple of years ago that Sarah, who I used to call Saint Sarah due to her ultra-religiosity, had actually been a different Sarah before she moved to Eastspring and took over the mosque’s youth committee. That’s why I’d opened up to her about the things I was going through back then—and I guess now, too.

“I didn’t have lots of experience, but I did know how to navigate guys and relationships more than you, I guess.” She opens up her arms as much as the confines of the closet allow. “Hug? Along with a promise I’ll help you with this?”

I succumb, and as she envelops me, her shoulders start shaking.

She’s laughing. Again.

“So sorry, Janna! It’s just that I can’t forget the way you leaned over and said that to me so gravely. I’m the girl Nuah thinks is hard to get. You’re so cute, I love it.”

I let go of her. Telling her had not been my best idea. “Can you stop? It’s so easy for you to laugh when these things are simple for you. I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. With anyone, in any way.”

“Janna, it’s never simple. No relationship is. It’s a back-and-forth dance where sometimes you give more, sometimes you take,” she says, her face turning serious.

“Well, I wouldn’t know.” All I know is that I’m comfortable with Nuah. “Like, I get why in Islam it’s the way it is. No dating and stuff. But—”

“What do you mean? Technically, a date is a time you make to meet someone to get to know them, to assess whether they’re right for you. It’s not about sex, you know.”

“I mean the sort of date where you’re with someone and there’s expectations.”

“Yeah, that’s why rules exist in Islam. Like don’t be completely alone, in case the expectations trap you in something you don’t want. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just like old-fashioned courting.”

“Ugh, like how you and Muhammad had me around when you guys met to get to know each other more.” I wrinkle my nose. “I hated chaperoning you guys.”

“We knew. But you did such a good job, and now here we are getting married.” She smiles. “And here you are asking for my help with your boo. See, I’m paying it back.”

I roll my eyes. But I guess it must have been gravely, because Sarah starts laughing again.

“Oh. My. God. STOP,” I command.

“No, now I’m laughing about something else. It’s because Muhammad was so right about you two, JY and NA. You know what I’m figuring out more and more? That he’s often right. Even though he acts all over-the-top sometimes, or most of the time, he’s actually very on the mark about stuff. He’s really intuitive.”

“Okay, now that’s really funny.” I burst out with an expertly faked peal of laughter.

There’s a clamor heading to the supplies closet, and then the door swings open to reveal Dawud dressed in knight gear from the laddoos’ toy box. “Hey! What are you guys doing in here? It’s time for The Princess Bride. Haytham said there are a lot of sword fights in it, so you better get your gear on!”

Before I head out with a sigh, Sarah stops me. “You know, Nuah is, like, the best, right? He’s got the sweetest heart, and he’s going to be so good to you, insha’Allah.”

I nod, happily this time. And she hugs me for real when we get out of the bleachy closet.

* * *

The road ahead of us is winding and dark with no streetlights, and suddenly I’m glad Sarah intervened on me driving back alone. I’d have turned back to town if I’d had to come home solo.

Khadija is beside me, her seat pulled all the way back, her legs spread wide, her seat belt pulled slack with the positioning of one of Sarah’s pillows just so. She’s looking out the window, trying to tap her fingers to Haytham’s voice that came on when I turned the ignition.

When I was young, on the Fourth of July, I’d go outside and watch the show in the sky.

“Mournful. This is mournful,” Khadija announces, after her fingers give up trying to find a quick beat.

“This is Hay