RR

Don’t Go Back To Sleep

I sit cross-legged on my grandparents’ balcony. My dark, scarred knees are warm against the hot stone ground. My little brother, Fajr, lies on his stomach beside me, trying to figure out what his playing cards mean. My grandmother always said that we should pretend to let him play with us, even if he’s too young and too restless to learn the rules. She sits before me in a long floral gown, her wrinkled face like a map of the country, pride etched into her skin in valleys and mountains. The valley between her eyebrows sinks deeper as she stares at the pile of cards. I know she is illiterate, as most old people were in 1980s South Lebanon, but she had learned her numbers and that was good enough on most days. I feel ashamed for knowing more than her, guilty of fluency in three languages even though I am decades younger.
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We are playing a classic game morbidly named “War.” The rules, as I explain them to Teta every time, are to put down random cards until equal cards align, and then strategically “go to war”: we put down two cards face-down, and a third face-up. The one with the greater open card emerges victorious, out of sheer luck rather than skill.

 

Teta plays a number 8, I follow with a number 8.

 

“Ha! War time!” I squeal, my interest finally ignited as I readjust my posture.

 

“Always competitive, like your mother,” Teta sighs, giving me a small smile.

 

We deal the next round of cards and let Fajr put in a card as well, so he can feel involved. When I win, I feel proud and haughtily boast my superior war complex.

 

Somewhere in the distance, three loud booms sound followed by a solid, nearly impermeable silence. Another two booms follow. They are far, so far away, but Teta registers them with a concerned look on her face.

 

I stare her down until she makes eye contact with me, and she smiles and says, “I suppose the water tanks are empty; they’re making that sound again.”
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I nod and resume the game. I want to be the child she expects me to be, but I know the sound the water tanks make when they’re empty. I also know that sounds far away sound fainter than the ones closest to us. I know that when my father listens to the radio every waking hour and smokes cigarettes with a relentless thirst, things are not entirely okay.
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The boom sounds one more time, and Fajr decides that he is disinterested with the war game, and so we leave, taking the road I had memorized since I learned to walk: up the hill, turning left when we reached the butcher’s shop, and straight on until we were greeted by the white stone house with the brick red roof, and my mother’s warm smile.
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That night, I watch Mama as she prays on the balcony, the sun painting a blazing canvas of red and gold behind her, a glittering sky streaked with scarlet blood. She turns her head from side to side, ending her twilight prayer, then pauses far longer than usual. She clutches her hands to her chest and prays with her eyes tightly shut. I count forty seconds before she rises again. Her prayers are in soft whispers, and I hear them in deafening screams.
.

*
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The booms continue, transforming from the disguised sound of empty water tanks to those of giant war tanks. In school, our books take a back seat and we begin to learn about war. Our science teacher teaches us about the different sound of bombs, how long raids usually last, and how to identify the distance of the bombing from the echo that we hear.

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“What’s the point of learning all this? We’re not going to hear the bomb that falls on our house, are we?” the coolest boy in third-grade asks.
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We all laugh because he is usually funny and we want to be liked, but our teacher cries, and we are all sent home for the day.
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When the first group of soldiers moves into South Lebanon, the villagers welcome them with open arms. Our neighbor, Abu Rasheed, sits on the balcony with Baba as the pair smokes their freshly-rolled cigarettes, watching the smoke they exhale dissipate into the air. They are discussing politics, as they always do, while my cousins and I play with marbles in the corner. Abu Rasheed is adamant, passionately explaining his views to my father.
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“They’re here to help us, Abu Fajr! The soldiers came from Israel to get rid of the Palestinians, finally. Wlaad el haram, those bastards!”
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Baba blows the smoke out of his thin lips slowly, taking his time, collecting his thoughts, and slowly shaking his head.
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Within the next year, young, uniformed men infiltrate our every corner like a rapidly metastasizing tumor. First, they cluster at checkpoints on the borders, then they start to stroll in at their leisure, and soon they are jeering at teenage girls, telling them to smile a little more.
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They speak in perfect Arabic accessorized with scowls and smirks. Most of the men were Lebanese villagers who joined the Israeli army to make money—some voluntarily, some to pay a ransom.
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After school, I regularly find Fajr standing in the corner with the soldiers. His smile is missing its most prominent teeth, and his bouncy curls always tickle his eyes. He is irresistible to everyone; his contagious laugh rubbing off onto the meanest helmeted fighters. Fajr asks questions about their big guns and shows them how he can balance a football on his head. I stand by the gate, waiting for him, too scared to step closer. He always waves goodbye and smiles wide, and the soldiers smile and wave back.
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One day, as we walk back home from school, I find a rogue bullet on the ground. It is shiny and gold, a code inscribed into the cool metal. I tuck it into my pocket.
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*
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The first time a raid flies over our village, I wet the bed in fear. I lie on my mattress, my strained knuckles pale against the quilted covers, holding on for dear life, thinking don’t drop it don’t drop it don’t drop it, my heartbeat speeding up with the piercing noise of the airplanes, the bombs, the crashes, my eyes blinded by the flashing white light.
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I look over to my left to find Fajr sleeping peacefully, his long, dark eyelashes resting gently against his rosy cheeks. He is only two years younger than I, barely-hatched at seven years old, always being compared to a duckling by Teta. I feel a desire, a responsibility, to protect him from the air raids—to protect him from all the terrible things in the world. I imagine how I would shield him if the ceiling crumbled over us like tea-biscuit crumbs. I wonder if covering his head with a pillow will make it less likely for my brother’s skull to be crushed.
/

The first bomb falls, and the house shakes with the sound, a flashing light illuminating the world before me. Tears gush out of my eyes as a warmth spreads between my legs, dampening the mattress. My parents run into the room, finding my older sister, Shams, hugging her knees in bed, too stubborn to admit she felt fearful, and I, weighed down with shame, fear, and urine.
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“Layla? Are you okay?” Mama asks as she rushes to hold me.
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I nod, my eyes betraying me with a fresh income of new tears.
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Mama bathes me, dresses me, washes my sheets and mattress, promising that she will not tell my siblings. We don’t speak, but she holds me in a tight embrace until the sounds stop. By then the night is starting to lift, and my tired, fearful eyes struggle to stay open. As I start drifting off, I hear Mama whisper that everything will be okay.
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The first lie of many.

*
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The next morning finds me standing before the dresser, staring blankly at my tired mirror ref lection as Mama brushes my hair and braids it into one thick plait. She takes her time, caressing my temples and twirling the strands of hair between her delicate fingers.
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“Mama?”
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“Yes, habibti?”
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“I’m sorry I wet the bed yesterday… I was scared. I’m sorry,” I sputter.
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“I know, habibti. It’s okay.”
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“You’re not angry with me?”
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“No, I’m not.”
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A weight is lifted off my shoulders. Mama finishes the braid and seals it with a polka-dotted pink hair tie.
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Done, the same routine every weekday morning. The same steps as though the air raids stuck in my eardrums are normal and everything is fine. Everything is fine and I will eat my zaatar and labneh sandwich and hold my brother’s hand when we walk to school. We will walk to school and cross the road and life will be perfect like it was before.
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“Mama, do you get scared?” I ask quietly, my tone pleading for reassurance. She sighs, and thinks. I know she wants to tell me that nothing is worth fearing.
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“Yes, Layla. I get scared. Baba gets scared, too. We get scared that something will hurt our children. Shams, Layla, and Fajr. Sun, night, and dawn. You are our sky, ” she says, kissing me on the forehead, her lips lingering a little longer than usual.
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I want to tell Mama that the sky is not beautiful. The sky is raining bombs. The sky is bleeding shrapnel. The sky is taking people away.
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Instead, I tell her that I love her, I promise her to be brave, and I eat my zaatar and labneh sandwich and act like everything is okay.
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*
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In small close-knit villages, word-of-mouth is the fastest mode of transport. Every day, a virtual telegram reaches each house:
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Did you hear what happened? Abu Sameer’s cow was killed in the explosion, haram.
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Najla’s daughter is getting married to a wealthy man!
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The other day, a bullet grazed past Talaat’s cheek, swear to God.
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She’s dead.
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Her son died.
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Your uncle stepped on a land mine and lost a leg.
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When our plump, rosy-faced neighbour would show up on our porch for morning coffee, I never knew what kind of news to expect. I wished I could tell her that no one cared about the newborns and the newlyweds. How petty, how trivial, to celebrate these milestones when the village was clad in mourning black. Tell me, Em Rasheed, who’s dead now? Who was killed yesterday?
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One day, Em Rasheed came to tell my mother that our other nosy neighbor had heard from her son who had heard from his classmate that Shams was still seeing that ibn el haram, Ali.
,

“Take your brother and go to Teta’s, Layla,” Mama ordered, her lips pressed into a thin line.
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When Shams would come back late from school (a common occurrence), Mama paced the hallway, wringing her fingers and muttering prayers under her breath. Shams went to high school outside the village, beyond the checkpoints overpowered with men clad in green army helmets. She would come back with a story every time, Fajr and I longing to hear of the soldiers’ shenanigans. One day, they made the students strip down and stand in the cold. On another, they threw their schoolbooks into the lake. One time, they even took Shams into questioning, pointing a gun between her eyes and asking her about Baba’s visitors. Fajr and I listened intently, drawn into our elder sister’s world like it was a work of fiction. We tried to predict the outcomes of the story, turning the experiences of our tortured neighbors and family into a guessing game.
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I stopped being fascinated by the news when Shams would come back with the color drained from her pale face and her breath in shaky hiccups. Shams stopped entertaining us with her rebellious adventures after Ali was taken away. I heard Em Rasheed telling Mama that the soldiers marched into Ali’s home and dragged him out like a sheep for slaughter. She said his mother was crying so hard that she passed out on the stone pavement.
,

“Serves them right,” Em Rasheed muttered. “Family of traitors.”
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No one likes to share bad news with the ten-year-old, but no one notices how much the ten-year-old listens.
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Behind the scenes, Mama cried for her broken daughter, always asking me to check up on her, but when she spoke to Shams, she goaded her on about the “good riddance” that boy is, never saying his name, as though the denial of his parenthood would erase his memory from her daughter’s mind.
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“Do you know who his father is, Shams? Do you want to marry a spy? No no, habibti, they are not like us! They’re not from us!” She would ramble, seemingly trying to convince herself more than anyone else.
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At night, as I pretend to sleep, I can hear Shams stifling her sobs. In a desperate attempt to comfort her, I join her in bed, and she smiles—that smile, when someone is crying, her face streaked with tears, her throat hoarse, her heart tearing open, and she smiles, letting out a short laugh, as though hysterically wondering what there is to even smile about, a despairing moment of elation, that kind of smile—and holds me closer.
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“Shams, why does Mama hate Ali?” I ask, trying to understand.
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“Akh, Layla, you’re too young to understand. She thinks his dad is a bad guy. She doesn’t like his family.”
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“But do you think he is a bad guy?”
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“No, of course not.”
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“Do you love him?”
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“Yes, I love him.”
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“Do you kiss?”
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“Layla!”
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“Sorry. I hope he comes back, that’s all. Will they bring him back?"
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“I don’t know. Maybe.”
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“Maybe if you ask them nicely. That’s what my teacher says.”
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“Sure, Layla. Go to sleep.”
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I dream that a tank of Israeli soldiers stops by our house to drink some Turkish coffee. Our house is full of people—our people, and their people. The people who are not like us, the ones Mama doesn’t like. Shams and Ali are holding hands in the corner.
/

*
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By the time I turn eleven years old, the box of bullets under my bed had transformed into a museum of war artefacts. Our visitors get a special tour every time they pass by: gold bullet, silver bullet, bronze bullet, rusty corroded bullet, a bullet with blood on it, how fascinating!
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I collected bullets, Fajr collected shrapnel, my cousin Zeinab collected flyers, my mother collected anxiety.
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Three years into the war and subsequent occupation, when the mosque was calling out the names of the dead day after day, people stopped pretending that the Israeli soldiers were here to save us. We glared at them and they scowled back. The village became completely shut off from the rest of South Lebanon, the checkpoints turning into crime scenes. We rose with the dawn, and sought shelter when the night fell, illuminating the darkness only with flickering wax candles.
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Strange men weave in and out of our home at all times to visit my father, bearing news and updates. One day, as Fajr and I are playing hide and seek to kill time, I end up in the attic, surrounded by gunpowder and firearms, stumbling upon a hidden storage of weapons that talkative, precocious children are not allowed to see. Mama and Baba converse in hushed voices and decide that my brother and I (Shams was old enough to keep her mouth shut) should stay with my grandparents for a while — just to keep us entertained, my mother reassures me.
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That spring, Teta worked in the yard, showing me how to grow and harvest my own produce. Our parents came by every day, and Shams spent the weekends with us. She said she preferred it here because our home was filled with Baba’s visitors now. Jeddo watched us from the porch, his memory disintegrating into oblivion, always a serene smile on his face. Fajr and I pick the oranges that our little hands can reach and eat them high up in the fig tree, comforted by how small everything seems from above.
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I wake up one day feeling like a thousand suns had imploded in my skin, my head double the weight of my body. Teta spends the remaining hours of the night placing cold water cloths on my forehead and neck as I shake with fever. She squeezes my hand gently, murmuring her little prayers, saying habibti habibti habibti…
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“Teta, I feel better. I have to go to school. We’re making cards for Mother’s Day. Please, Teta.”
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Teta gasps dramatically in response, shaking her head with stubborn intent.
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“You’re staying here, you can’t even walk straight!”
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“Teta, pleaaaaaase!” I beg, “We’re not walking back anymore, remember? The bus will drop me off.”

>

“Layla. If you want to love your mother on Mother’s Day, you need to take care of yourself. We will go get her a present in the afternoon.”
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Her words are final, and so I surrender.
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When I wake up, I sit outside and read the English poetry book that I snuck out of the older students’ bookshelves in school. Today’s poem is “The Breeze At Dawn” by Rumi:
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The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
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I dog-ear the page, marking the poem as something I don’t understand.
/

Moments later, the sky roars with the sound of raids. I am accustomed to the sound by now, but the chill that rattles my spine is as strong as ever. Breathe in, breathe out, count the seconds like Shams taught me. It will pass, they will go, we will be okay.
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The airplane targets and shoots. The shutters on Teta and Jeddo’s house shake, opening and closing, as the beautiful blue sky flashes with lights and chokes with black smoke. Teta runs out of the house, bismillah bismillah bismillah, she says as she tries to find where the bomb fell, who the victim was.
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Teta asks me to stay with Jeddo as she leaves the house to help her fellow villagers. I sit next to my confused, scared grandfather, trying to comfort him but feeling bitter at not being comforted. I am the child, I think, I am the child and I deserve to have my shoulders rubbed and my head patted and someone telling me it will be okay.
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Two hours pass, and the sun sets, the bright sky burning a f iery gold before it dissipates into darkness.
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The mosque call begins, the same introduction every time. Dear soul, reunited with your God, enter His Heavens….

>

We regret the death… the great loss… Sara, Ahmed, Fajr…
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Fajr.
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The Earth falls off its axis, the sun swallowing me whole, the moon crushing my lungs.
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My bare feet pound on the gravel as I run, ripping the air apart, screaming his name over and over again into the cold unforgiving world as my throat rips into shreds.
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*
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The human body is designed to withstand immense amounts of pain. When a person experiences physical distress, their senses are heightened, their body more receptive to stimuli. When a person’s soul is stripped from their body, their body is numb.
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They will say that scars heal. They will not mention how your hands will trace the gash on your skin and peel the scabs of dried blood off your wound so that it reopens and heals and reopens and heals—ending in a misshapen broken fragment of your body, a crevice you will run your fingers over every day, accepting that some holes will never be filled in. Do scars heal, or do we just get used to them existing?
>

Years after the war, after so many more losses, and after the Israeli soldiers finally leave Lebanon, voices still speak of the bus that was bombed on Mother’s Day, of the little children holding handmade cards in their tiny dead hands.
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Watching the sunrise from the top of the fig tree, I finally understand Rumi’s words. The breeze at dawn has so many secrets to tell me, the winds of the morning fajr brushing my hair, tickling the tree. Is he there? Is he going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch, or has he already crossed? The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell me, and I won’t go back to sleep. I can’t go back to sleep.

Contributor
Nour Annan

Nour Annan is an 18-year-old English Literature student at the American University of Beirut. She is an aesthete by nature and a lover of the written word. Her ambition is to be a writer, an artist, a star-gazer, a Disney princess, and a lonely shepherd in Iceland. But first and foremost, a writer.

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