The Pursuit at Dawn by Neena Halle
She wasn’t going to make it in time.
Deeqo raced out her room, gripping the edge of the wall to effectively turn faster towards the stairs. Her bag slapped her lower back with every step, jacket hanging off one arm. Her hijaab was barely pinned properly and her black skirt nearly tripped her.
An inhuman shriek pierced the predawn stillness of their home.
Deeqo froze on the last step, then turned sharply. Muku, their voluptuous ginger cat, flicked his tail in annoyance from above. She winced and clambered up to him.
“Sorryyyy! Sorry, I didn’t see you,” she whispered gently. But Muku wasn’t having it. He yowled and strutted his long-haired coat away.
“Naa Deeqo!! Hurry up!” Hooyo screamed from outside, not caring for the sleeping residents. Her mother would not be waiting a second longer and if Deeqo wanted to catch a ride, she needed to leave. Now.
Deeqo tugged her winter boots on, eyeing the kitchen. Did she have the two minutes to slap together a sandwich? A glance at the clock said no.
“Here, here! I made it,” Deeqo huffed as she climbed in and closed the door to their ancient Toyota Sienna. Red with peeling spots on the hood, the car was a member of their family just as Deeqo was the middle daughter of eight children.
The engine was already roaring, heat sputtering out the vents in an attempt to clear the early March chill coating the windshield. Deeqo shivered beneath her winter jacket. The old heating system wasn’t doing much as far as warmth went, but it sure sounded like it was doing extraneous work.
“You took ten extra minutes,” Hooyo announced.
“Sorry, Hooyo, I was praying Fajr.”
Right as Deeqo clicked her seatbelt on, she caught a glimpse of her gray knuckles. Winter was ashy season for Africans. My ancestors basked in sunshine, this Minnesota winter life ain’t for me.
Quickly, Deeqo whipped out her Vaseline from her pocket, applying it liberally to her dark hands, wide forehead and two-toned lips. No one would be catching her unmoisturized.
Hooyo shifted the gear to reverse. The car groaned from the effort.
“You’re the one that’s going to be late for…maxay aheed? Chemo? Ingriis?” Hooyo’s torso was twisted backwards, neck and eyes strained as they served as the rear-view camera. Her big maroon jilbaab looked like it was strangling her.
“Hooyo, it’s Chem, short for Chemistry. They love to start labs early.”
“Chem, chemo, whatever,” Hooyo muttered, waving a hand around in dismissal.
“They’re actually very different things, you know–” Deeqo started, then cut herself off with a sigh. She’d be the last one to correct Hooyo’s Somali-flavored English.
Hooyo had been living in America longer than Deeqo had been alive; Deeqo was sure if Hooyo wanted to, she could speak English perfectly. But stubbornness was a family trait.
Once Hooyo set her sights on accomplishing something, nothing and no one could stop her.
“If you can’t set your mind to do something and trust Allah, how will you get anything done?” Hooyo was fond of asking. It was the antidote to Deeqo’s self-doubt and fickleness.
At this early hour, their surroundings were a ghost town. The few street lights present flickered like dying fireflies. Their dim glow was barely visible through the dense fog blanketing the neighborhood.
Here and there a pair of glassy eyes would shine under their weak yellow headlights. Probably the stray cats. Hopefully. Poor Muku, Deeqo remembered, he probably hates me even more now.
“Allah!” Hooyo exclaimed, eyes widening. “I forgot my qahwo!”
“There’s a Dunkin up there that has an early open drive through,” Deeqo offered. And I can get some breakfast.
“No, no, waxaas majecli. Somali qaxwo is all I can drink.”
Deeqo shook her head. “That stuff is drugs, Hooyo. I don’t know how you can handle it.”
Hooyo pursed her lips and tsked. “Willi waa yartahay, that’s why.” You’re still young.
Deeqo shrugged. She pulled the sun-visor down and set about fastening her hijaab. The chiffon material pressed against her face nice and tight, just how she liked it.
The sudden press of the brakes made Deeqo lurch forward, seat belt choking her concealed throat. She was tossed back into her seat, not having a moment to process what was happening.
“Hooyo!” Deeqo screamed. “What’s wrong?!”
But her mom looked shaken too. Then angry.
“Who is this crazy car!” She yelled, pointing forward and flinging Somali curses at the sedan that appeared out of nowhere.
“It’s probably a drunk driver, Hooyo…” but as Deeqo said it, she didn’t believe it. Sure, it was at the crack of dawn, but on a Monday? Wasn’t that a bit much?
Hooyo shook her head viciously, wagging her finger. She repeatedly flicked her high beams to signal to the driver to turn their lights on. But they didn’t. Not wanting to stay behind a reckless driver, she quickly left the lane.
Deeqo rubbed her throat–it was a bit sore and most likely red now–as she looked at the window. They were passing the sedan now, and Deeqo was curious to see who could be driving that crazy.
But as they passed the driver’s window of the car, all Deeqo saw was a hunched over figure wearing a navy blue cap and dark clothes. Her eyes flitted to the steering wheel where white knuckles gripped it tightly. There wasn’t much to deduce.
Giving up, she leaned back into her seat. Hooyo inserted a CD and the slow melodious voice filled the car. Deeqo let the Quranic recitation flow through her, letting it calm her nerves. Hooyo sighed and relaxed her shoulders.
A gentle mist replaced the dissipating fog, but the promise of cold rain still held in the clouds. Up ahead, the lanes became one. The highway ramp was near and they were still good on time.
Screeeeeeeeeeeech! The squealing of tires on asphalt penetrated the peace.
The car had reappeared.
Hooyo slammed on the brakes. This time Deeqo was prepared; she snatched at the seatbelt protecting her throat.
“Xayawaan!” Hooyo cursed, punching the horn aggressively.
They were inches away from the sedan—a black Honda Accord—now at the red light. Deeqo noticed something strange. The car was…shaking? No, that wasn’t it. But it was moving somehow. She couldn’t hear loud music, so how?
It was the trunk. Specifically, the rear corner headlight. The trunk shook again. As if something was hitting it from the inside. Just as she thought it, the headlight broke and clattered to the asphalt below.
Deeqo watched in horror as a pale, slim hand burst free from the opening. The hand twitched, flashing a reddened wrist that seemed to scream from underneath their car’s yellow beams.
The fingers grasped.
Desperately reached for the air.
Then it dawned on Deeqo.
“Oh my God!” Deeqo screamed. “Hooyo! HOOYO!”
But Hooyo had already seen what Deeqo was pointing at.
“Allah rabbiyooo!” she exclaimed, eyes bulging out of their sockets. “Gabar yar aa la xaday! Kid-nabbing!”
Deeqo’s heart pounded in her chest. “We don’t know that! Maybe, maybe…”. She tried to rationalize the situation, find a possible excuse as to why a hand would be flailing desperately from a trunk at this hour of the morning.
Hooyo’s right. Someone’s been kidnapped. And we’re the only witnesses.
The light turned green and the Accord took off onto the highway ramp.
Hooyo gunned the gas.
Deeqo shrieked. “Hooyo! What are you doing?”
“We can’t let him get away, Deeqo!”
“Oka-ay,” Deeqo said shakily, eyes wide at the sharp, twisty ramp they were flying through, “I see your point, but what are you going to do? Follow him? Until when?”
“Until he stops! Someone’s daughter is in there!”
Deeqo shook her head, reeling from what was happening. Her mom was known to be impulsive, sometimes irrational, but it was usually Deeqo that found herself in the wrong situations at the wrong times. Doing stupid things like trying to save the day. Well. Now she knew where she got it from.
Deeqo didn’t want to ask what would happen if the man stopped.
911. I need to call the cops.
She nearly smacked herself with how long it took for her to make the realization. Deeqo switched her phone to speaker.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi, my name is–”
“KID-NABBING!” Hooyo yelled, interrupting Deeqo. “WE SEE KID-NABBING!”
“I’m sorry?” the female operator asked.
“We’re witnessing a live kidnapping on the I-90 right now.” Deeqo sounded dramatic even to her own ears. And yet this was real.
“Kidnapping? Are you sure?”
The Accord was still speeding ahead and Hooyo was right behind him.
“WE SEE HER HAND–”
“Hooyo, please. I’ll explain to her, focus on the road.” There were a few cars already on the highway and many more to come no doubt. She spoke back into the phone.
“Hi, um, we were driving behind a black Honda Accord and a hand poked out from the rear headlights. The hand was waving around, as if calling for—ah!” Deeqo yelped as she nearly collided with the passenger window pane.
Hooyo was fully hunched over the steering wheel, eyes laser focused on the Accord not too far ahead. She used both arms to swerve left, then right, matching the car’s zigzag through the lanes. Visibility was still poor and Hooyo didn't want to lose him in the increasing morning traffic. He was onto them now. Deeqo was sure of it.
The operator’s voice came back to her. “Who am I speaking with?”
“Okay, Miss Muhammed. Can you describe the current situation? You said you’re on the I-90, correct?” The authoritative tone in the woman’s voice put Deeqo on high alert. She looked around.
“Yes, we’ve been on it for maybe five minutes now.”
“And can you still see the Accord?”
“Yes, the headlights are off, but he’s still in sight.” Then Deeqo had a thought. “I can get you the license plate in a second.”
Hooyo was already ahead of her, speeding up so they could get a closer look. The other driver floored it, tires screeching. Deeqo gripped her door handle. Their Sienna roared in challenge, sprinting to catch up.
From her peripheral vision, Deeqo spotted a car approaching. Fast. Her breath caught. As if in slow motion, she saw the driver widen his eyes in horror, veering his car to the right to avoid their speeding van. His horn blasted at them, followed by many other horns, but they had already sped away. Deeqo peered at her mom but her eyes were still glued to the Accord. Hooyo hadn’t even noticed the near accident.
“Miss Muhammed? I would advise you not to approach the car. Please keep your distance as this could be a very dangerous situation.”
Try telling that to my mom, Deeqo wanted to say, but it was too late. They were gaining on him. Deeqo leaned onto the dashboard, forehead pushing against the cold window and squinting to see the license plate.
“It looks like an older model. License plate is XRZ-8723.” Deeqo could hear the operator typing as she spoke. But what Deeqo saw made her breath hitch.
“The hand! The hand disappeared!” Deeqo said.
“Maxaa dacay?” Hooyo said, questioning what happened, but not reducing their speed. She was hitting close to 95 mph, Deeqo noted in alarm.
“Ma’am? Is everything okay?” The operator asked.
“No, no the hand isn’t sticking out anymore.”
“Are you the one driving, ma’am?”
“I AM DRIVER!” Hooyo yelled back.
“That’s my mom,” Deeqo explained, “she’s driving. We’re staying close to the Accord. A-are you sending people?”
“I’m on it, but before I can do that I’m going to need the both of you to keep your distance,” she warned. “This is most likely a dangerous individual, and if they catch on to your pursuit I cannot guarantee your safety. This is a risk to the person kidnapped as well, so please stay back. Help will be on the way.”
Too late. There was no way the man wasn’t aware of their pursuit already. It was probably why he was driving like a maniac. To lose them.
Deeqo looked to Hooyo to see if she heard. “Hooyo?”
Hooyo nodded. “I will slow down a little,” she said, nostrils flaring. Her chin rose up just a fraction. “But we will not lose him!”
Just as Hooyo began to build space between the vehicles, the Accord took advantage. Deeqo braced herself as Hooyo stayed in pursuit. She wasn’t sure how much more their van could handle, but Hooyo didn’t seem to care. It might as well have been a race car.
As the sun crept forward, more cars veered into the highway. Morning traffic had arrived. With growing horror, Deeqo watched the Accord weave recklessly through the cars. From the middle, to the right, back to the leftmost lane.
The Accord squeezed between a 16-wheeler and a Prius. It was too tight. He was crazy. The truck was huge. One glance at Hooyo’s strained eyes and Deeqo knew she was going for it.
The smell of burnt tires ignited Deeqo's nostrils and blaring horns assaulted her ears. Her eyes squeezed shut as she took in a lungful and screamed.
“HOOOOYYYYOOOO!!!” the last bit came out in a sob.
“Naa aamus. I saw the truck, don’t worry!”
“Hello? Hello?” There was another voice calling, somewhere in the car. The operator. Deeqo had dropped the phone to grab the handle above the door for dear life.
She scrambled to grab it now, hastily gulping to clear her voice.
The Accord veered right across the highway, crossing all lanes.
“Are you still in pursuit?” the operator asked.
“Yes!” There was no point in lying.
“He’s headed for the exit! How far away are the cops?”
Hooyo swung her head right, throwing an arm across Deeqo’s chest, “MOVE!”
Car horns blared like trumpets, but somehow Hooyo made it across onto the exit ramp with only a car in between them and the Accord.
“Hello? Ma’am are you still there? What’s going on?”
Deeqo tried to catch her breath. “W-w-we just took the exit to Walney road. I can still see the Accord ahead of us.”
They were at a sleepy intersection. The early sun rays illuminated an empty gas station. Deeqo was familiar with the area. Ahead of them the road would reduce to only one lane through rolling hills. It was a rollercoaster of a ride.
But before that road was a—
“RED LIGHT, HOOYO RED LIGHT!”
At the last possible second, Hooyo slammed on her brakes. But the Accord had made it through. They watched in despair as a breath later, cars crossed the intersection and little by little they lost sight of the kidnapper.
As far as she knew, the road ahead was one-way. The man had no choice but to continue straight. He couldn’t have possibly known where he was going otherwise why make such a poor choice?
They weren’t out of this yet.
Deeqo relayed what she knew of the road to the operator.
“I understand, thank you. The cops have been dispatched but are still on the I-90. Thanks to your information, I’m sure they will be able to locate the vehicle. Now, I strongly advise you and your mom to stop pursuing and leave it to us.”
Stop? The thought hadn’t even occurred to Deeqo. But the operator was right. Sirens sounded in the far distance, but too faintly. At the speed the kidnapper was going, he could get far enough into the pockets of forest ahead. The police wouldn’t be able to track his location there.
Deeqo looked at Hooyo, an unspoken question on her lips. But Hooyo’s jaw was set. They had said their du’aas already.
The light turned green and Hooyo drove on.
Barren tree limbs snaked downwards on either side of the lonely road, choking out the early morning light. The crest of the first hill made Deeqo’s stomach flip upside down. She fought back the nausea rising with the panic. It was like they had plunged into a dark ocean with rollicking waves. The only sounds filling their ears were the whooshing of the wind and her mother’s supplications.
The operator was gone. Deeqo had simply said okay and hung up the phone. She wouldn’t be of much help going forward. They were on their own now.
Their eyes swept left and right. The uneven roads had forced them to slow down significantly.
“Is that..?” Hooyo asked, pointing ahead.
Hooyo rolled the car off the road onto the narrow dirt path at the foot of the forest. There was the Accord, engine shut off, driver side door left open.
The trunk was also open.
Deeqo and Hooyo crept up to the car. Their footfalls were that of an elephant’s. The hem of her skirt kept snagging on the debris.
Hooyo's eyes darted everywhere and Deeqo tried to remain vigilant but she was shaking so badly from fear she decided to concentrate most of her efforts on clutching her skirt.
The trunk was empty except for a pair of red mittens, peeking through black garbage bags. Deeqo knew better than to touch anything. In the midst of the fear and panic, sadness settled in.
They were too late.
He had taken her.
Deeqo had assumed the victim was a woman from the little she saw of the hand. Dread weighed her down. She heard her mother sigh and Deeqo knew the same questions were running through her mother’s mind.
What was the likelihood the woman was still alive? To her untrained eyes, there was no blood. No obvious weapons. But she’d listened to enough true crime podcasts to know that didn’t mean anything.
Hooyo pointed to the ground. Look.
Footsteps in the mud. Leading into the woods.
Deeqo heard it first, a rustling of the leaves that sounded suspiciously like dragging. She paused and grabbed a hold of her mom’s overlong jilbaab. Deeqo pointed to her ear, then the direction in which she heard the sound.
There was no mistaking the muffled scream.
Fear took hold of her ankles, rooting her to her spot. This was real. The woman was still alive. Deeqo scanned the woods, searching for any more clues. It wasn’t in her mind. Hooyo had heard it too.
Oh no. Where was Hooyo?
A hand gripped her shoulder.
“Get in the car, Deeqo. Lock the doors.”
Deeqo knew that look in her mother’s eyes. It was the same one she’d had when the ambulance had carried away her father after the accident. Eyes of steel, unwavering. It was a look that said, “It’s all down to me now.”
Deeqo remained frozen, but Hooyo had run to the trunk and gotten out her younger brother’s baseball bat. It hung low on Hooyo’s side, clasped in her right hand.
Deeqo held her mother back. “I’m not letting you go alone.”
Quick as a flash, Hooyo threw off her hand and started down the forest trail. “No time!”
Deeqo had only a moment to look back and visually mark their location. Ya Allah, please protect us.
Hooyo was practically flying through the forest. Twigs and branches caught on her clothes and she tore away, not caring for the holes. Hooyo was right, there was no time for stealth. Straining her ears, Deeqo struggled to hear beyond the heavy footfalls and heavier breaths.
Hooyo gestured to the right where the forest rose to a slight hill.
“Let’s look from there!” Hooyo said then stumbled. Deeqo reached out to grab her mother by the elbow. Once again, Hooyo shrugged her off.
“No time, Deeqo! Dhakhso!” Hooyo hiked up her abaya and took giant leaps.
The cold engulfed them, numbing the tip of her nose and freezing her hands. Iced over dirt cracked beneath her boot. Every crunch sounded like a gunshot. No. Deeqo refused to let her mind clamber into a dark place. She scanned through the debris for a pale hand, any bodily shaped object. The woman had to still be alive. The man couldn’t have possibly had time to bury her.
The woman was here somewhere.
A drizzle started, enhancing the earthy scent of damp wood.
Hooyo hiked higher and higher up the forest, creating a path of her own through the terrain. Deeqo stayed close on her heels. Did she look down at the ground for signs or did she keep eyes glued ahead anticipating any attack on them? It occurred to her, if the driver had a gun they were as good as dead. She shoved those thoughts away.
Hooyo’s breathing became labored, small white clouds puffing from her chapped lips. They had already stopped for a break twice.
“Hooyo do you see anything?”
She shook her head as she gazed around. “Nothing. I will go down to see better.”
Down? Deeqo turned around. All that was behind them was a mess of icy rock, roots, and unanswered questions.
Deeqo thought again. “Hooyo, the police will be here any minute now. We did everything we could. The rain’s picking up, we should go back before it gets worse.”
Hooyo flung her head around, droplets trickling down her face.
“Naa, bax! What will I tell Allah on the Day of Judgment? That I saw someone getting hurt but got too scared and walked away?” She marched down the hill, the bat steady in her hands.
Deeqo followed her. “Allah is watching us now and is fully aware of the efforts we’ve made. We were scared, but we still pursued. Look at us now!” Deeqo paused, slightly panting and stretching her hands out, eyes wide. “We’re in the middle of a forest hunting down a dangerous kidnapper and potential killer with nothing but the clothes on our back and a wooden bat. It’s freezing cold, we have no clue where we are and we still tried!” She took another breath. “Wouldn’t you say that’s enough to answer with?”
Hooyo paused as well, looking up at the darkening sky for a moment. Deeqo was right and Hooyo knew it. Deeqo also wanted to continue, to find the kidnapped woman and possibly rescue her. But someone had to be rational here…right? It was all so confusing. Her quads pulsed, reminding her that she was not an athlete, only an undergrad skipping her Chem lab trying to be a hero.
Then she heard it. A heavy thump. Her mind jumped to an unsettling conclusion.
Hooyo looked Deeqo square in her eyes. “How about now? Is it still enough?”
Yes. We’re not obligated to any of this. We could leave now.
But her body betrayed her. Looking at her mom–her warrior, her hero–Deeqo couldn’t run away. Not after all this.
Deeqo went first down the hill, skidding here and there on the slippery ground despite her caution.
“Maxaan ku sheegey? Gabadhaydi aa tahay,” Hooyo muttered close behind her. What’d I tell you? You’re my daughter.
Even through her terror and fear, Deeqo felt pride shine in her chest. This was her mom who had escaped the death helicopters of Mogadishu raining down destruction, the brutality of refugee camps and the uncertainty of starting anew in America.
One bad guy wouldn’t—couldn’t—stop her.
The sky cried heavily now. Distant thunder grumbled from beneath the stormy gray clouds. Not much else could be heard aside from the dudu-dudu-dudu of the rain and occasional bird cry. The forest was a maze of ragged brown bark and muddy habitats for insects and fungus. Everything looked the same.
But Deeqo and Hooyo kept going in the direction they had last heard the thump come from. They were close now, she could feel it.
Close to…what? she thought, but kept her feet moving. One in front of the other.
Something small skittered right in front of Deeqo and she nearly screamed, thinking it was a rat. Hooyo was right at her side, abaya clutched in her hand and jilbaab flowing stoically behind her.
They walked in unison.
Then Hooyo fell.
“Hooyo!” Deeqo cried, reaching and failing to catch her.
Hooyo yelped and grabbed her ankle, wincing in pain. Deeqo kneeled down into the mushy, cold mud next to her, trying to inspect the injury. When Deeqo extended her arm, her elbow hit something hard. And bony.
But it wasn’t Hooyo’s leg she had bumped. It was someone else’s.
Deeqo stiffened, too shocked to move. Hooyo was faster. Her hands swept away sheets of caked dirt, exposing two slim legs clad in jeans.
“La hawla wa la quwata illa bilah!” Hooyo exclaimed in horror. There’s no might or power except with Allah.
The sound of Hooyo’s words snapped Deeqo out of it. She stood and took over, swiping the layer of dirt and mud concealing the top half.
The face-down body of a woman lay before them. A woman with a wrist that seemed to scream.
If she was dead…they needed to leave ASAP. This was no longer a live chase but a crime scene.
“Ma neefsanaysa?” Hooyo asked. Is she breathing?
Deeqo crouched next to the body, reaching to check for a pulse, but recoiled. The woman’s hand was so bruised and reddened, Deeqo was scared to touch her. But she had to do it. As gently as she could, Deeqo lifted the hand and put two fingers to it.
Just as she made contact with the woman, the woman’s body shuddered. Instantly, Deeqo dropped her hand.
“Flip her over!” Hooyo ordered, struggling to get herself up and closer.
“Hooyo, stay! I can do it.”
Scared, but not sure of what, Deeqo turned the woman over. Her chest rose, albeit slowly and shakingly, but she was surely alive. The woman’s face was caked in mud, pale skin peeking through. The mud had entered her nostrils, framed her eyes. She must’ve been breathing through the slight gap of her open mouth. But she was unconscious.
Deeqo could see streaks of blood mixing with the dirt running down her face. It was difficult to tell where the injury was from; her dark curls were matted with mud, blood, and rain.
Deeqo could only guess that she had a head injury of some sort and prayed that flipping her over hadn’t been a mistake. Surely if they had left her alone, she would’ve eventually choked to death.
Something sounded from behind them. Deeqo snapped her head around so fast, something in her neck popped. The rain draped across her eyes, and no matter how fast she blinked she couldn’t see anything nearby.
Her heart rate escalated, electrifying her nerves. Their situation was
horrible. Behind Deeqo was her mother, sporting a sprained ankle
and calling on Allah to help them. In between them was a victim
barely alive whose ails and story were unknown to them both. But
they had saved her nonetheless.
Deeqo was terrified and defenseless. What should I do, what should I do?
The baseball bat.
Deeqo searched the ground, where was it... there! She grabbed it and stood up straight, facing the direction of the sound. Facing the unknown enemy.
Deeqo recognized the sound. It was footsteps, plucking and un-plucking its way through the wet ground. The footsteps were hurried, bound to get closer any moment now.
The rain poured with a vengeance, darkening the sky and her hopes. It soaked her clothes and joined fear in weighing her shoulders and legs down. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears and her hands shook. She gripped the baseball bat with the last of her willpower. Hooyo reached for her arm, and they glanced at each other.
Together. They were together.
Their day had begun with an innocent ride to school. A conversation about coffee. Now Deeqo stood, feet planted and molded into the drenched mud below her. Baseball bat positioned before her as though it were a sword.
Deeqo and her mom were no heroes; just regular Somali Muslim women that didn’t know how to back down or run away. Now it was on Deeqo to protect them somehow. She had said her du’aas. With Allah watching them, surely they would prevail.
The rain pounded around her ears, washing away her doubts. Deeqo clenched her jaw, tightened her grip on the bat until she felt her palms pulse. She lasered her eyes and focused through the downpour. Evened out her breathing as best she could.
The footsteps were close. Very close.
Deeqo blinked. A silhouette appeared from behind a tree trunk. It was a man.
Deeqo was ready.