Fiona Sweeney shoved a pair of rolled-up jeans into the corner of her purple duffel bag. Outside her bedroom window, a siren's wail sliced through the white noise of a wet snowfall. Those eerie man-made moans were part of New York City's wallpaper, a signal of trouble commonplace enough to pass unnoticed. But Fi registered this one, maybe because she knew she wouldn't be hearing sirens for a while.
She turned her attention back to her bag, which still had space. What else should she take? Lifting a framed snapshot, she examined her mother as a young woman, wading into a stream, wearing rubber boots and carrying a fishing pole. Fi cherished the photograph; in real life, she'd never known her mother to be that carefree. The mother Fi had known wouldn't want to go to Africa. In fact, she wouldn't want Fi to go. Fi put the picture facedown and scanned the room, her attention drawn to a worn volume of Irish poetry by her bedside. She tucked it in.
"How about the netting?" Chris called from the living room where he sat with Devi.
"Already in," Fi answered.
"And repellent?" asked Devi.
"Yes, yes." Fi waved her hand as though shooing away a gnat-a gesture that Chris and Devi couldn't see from the other room. "Should have kept my mouth shut," she murmured.
Early on in her research about Kenya, she'd discovered that the country's annual death toll from malaria was in the tens of thousands. She had pills; she had repellents; logically, she knew she'd be fine. Still, a figure that high jolted her. She became slightly obsessed and-here's the rub-discussed it with Chris and Devi. Mbu-mosquito-had been the first Swahili word she'd learned. Sometimes the insects even dive-bombed into her nightmares. Eventually, mosquitoes became a metaphor for everything she feared about this trip: all the stories she'd read about a violent and chaotic continent, plus the jitters that come with the unknown.
And what wasn't unknown? All she knew for sure, in fact, was why she was going. Fi's mom had never been a big talker, but she'd been a hero, raising four kids alone. Now it was Fi's turn to do something worthwhile.
"Fi." Chris, at the door of the bedroom, waved in the air the paper on which he'd written a list of all the items he thought she should bring and might forget. Money belt. Hat. Granola bars. "Have you been using this?" he asked half-mockingly in the tone of a teacher.
"I hate lists," Fi said.
He studied her a second. "OK," he said. "Then, what do you say, take a break?"
"Yeah, c'mon, Fi. We don't want to down all your wine by ourselves," Devi called from the living room, where an Enya CD played low.
Pulling back her dark, frizzy hair and securing it with a clip, Fi moved to the living room and plopped onto the floor across from Devi, who sprawled in a long skirt on the couch. Chris poured Fi a glass of cabernet and sat in the chair nearest her. If they reached out, the three of them could hold hands. Fi felt connected to them in many ways, but at the same time, she was already partly in another place and period. A soft light fell in from the window, dousing the room in a flattering glow and intensifying the sensation that everything around her was diaphanous, and that she herself was half here and half not.
"You know, there's lots of illiteracy in this country," Devi said after a moment.
"That's why I've been volunteering after work," Fi said. "But there, it's different. They've never been exposed to libraries. Some have never held a book in their hands."
"Not to mention that it's more dangerous, which somehow makes it appealing to Fi," Chris said to Devi, shaking his head. "Nai-robbery."
Though he spoke lightly, his words echoed those of Fi's brother and two sisters-especially her brother. She was ready with a retort. "I'll mainly be in Garissa, not Nairobi," she said. "It's no more dangerous there than New York City. Anyway, I want to take some risks-different risks. Break out of my rut. Do something meaningful." Then she made her tone playful. "The idealistic Irish. What can you do?"
"Sometimes idealism imposes," Chris said. "What if all they want is food and medicine?"
"You know what I think. Books are their future. A link to the modern world." Fi grinned. "Besides, we want Huckleberry Finn to arrive before Sex in the City reruns, don't we?"
Devi reached out to squeeze Fi's shoulder. "Just be home by March."
Home. Fi glanced around, trying to consciously take in her surroundings. She'd considered subletting, which would have been the most economical decision, but she'd gotten busy and let it slide. Now she noticed that Chris had stacked her magazines neatly and stored away the candles so they wouldn't collect dust. After she left for Kenya, Chris had told her, he'd come back to wash any glasses or plates she'd left out, make sure the post office was holding her mail, and take her plants back to his apartment. He'd thought of that, not her. A nice gesture, she kept reminding herself. Still. She gave Chris a wicked grin as she reached out to mess up the magazines on the coffee table. It felt satisfying, even though she knew he would just restack them later.
Chris was deep into what his colleagues called "groundbreaking" research on the human brain-specifically the hippocampus-at NYU Medical Center. He wanted a shared home and, eventually, kids. Her siblings thought they were a well-suited couple, but that was hardly persuasive. Fi's brother's wife's cousin was married to one of Fi's sisters, and they all still lived within eight blocks of their childhood homes. They considered Fi a wanderer for moving from the Bronx all the way to Brooklyn. They wanted to see her "settled," and she doubted that it mattered much to them who she settled with-or for.
Excerpted from The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton Copyright © 2007 by Masha Hamilton. Excerpted by permission.
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