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Photography by Matt Nager

Awake in the Night

Mary Kuanen escaped the violence of Sudan only to live through her husband’s murder in suburban Denver. Half a decade later, the single mother of five is still working to build the better life she was promised.

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She awakens in her youngest son’s bed. The glare from the lights outside shine through the small room’s window, casting shadows like tombstones across the walls. Her seven-year-old’s little chest gently rises and falls under the covers. She presses her palms into her eyes and wipes the sleep away, careful not to wake her boy. She silently lifts her head from the pillow and checks the clock on the dresser. The red numbers read 3:00 a.m. In that instant, she feels relief: Youn will be home soon.

Five years after her husband’s murder, this is still her nightly ritual. Few people know this about Mary Kuanen. She is strong: Everyone in her world acknowledges that. Her daughter, her neighbors, the people at the Catholic school where she works, the man who prosecuted her husband’s killers, the people who’ve given her small gifts. Yet Mary feels weak, especially at night. She prays for God’s protection, crosses herself in the name of Jesus Christ. Even so, she worries the void might swallow her. She knows bad things happen in the dark.

As Mary lies in her son’s bed, it takes a few moments for her mind to catch up. These are precious seconds, this foggy reprieve from reality. She’s come to see them as both a blessing and a curse. They allow her to believe life is as it once was. But then she is shaken into the present, and the loss is as great as it has ever been. Night after night, the finality overwhelms her. It bends and distorts her existence all over again.

She looks at the clock and the seconds pass, vanishing into the night. All she is left with is this quiet room, the rhythmic breathing of her boy, and her thoughts, which carry her, sleepless, toward dawn.

Her house is in a suburban development in east Aurora, less than 10 minutes from the apartment complex where Mary’s life changed forever. It’s a working-class neighborhood with ranch homes and pine trees that rise high above the roof lines. There are immigrants here, and like her, a good number are refugees from Sudan. Several members of her extended family live just a few blocks away. Her neighbor speaks Arabic—one of four languages Mary speaks fluently—and it reminds her of home.

She is a beautiful woman, tall and slender with deep brown eyes and smooth, dark skin that makes her look younger than her 37 years. Her long, black hair is, for the moment, pulled into straight, tight rows. She loves her children and would do anything to protect them. Youn’s son from a previous relationship, 21-year-old Monyindi Malual, is tall and handsome; 20-year-old Nyagai, Mary’s only daughter, is studying criminal justice at Metropolitan State University of Denver and has a wide, infectious smile; sons Bang, 13, Malual, 10, and Emmanuel, seven, are unfailingly polite.

Mary has a thick accent—from her mouth “church” sounds like “shh-oosh”—and it took her years to feel comfortable enough with English to speak to strangers. Still, she imagines she takes too long to summon the correct words, which makes her uneasy speaking more than a couple of sentences at a time. She comes off as shy, though she isn’t. She wants to open up. She can talk for hours about the citizenship test she passed in 2013, about East African politics and tribal traditions, about food, music, and language.

Her rented house is among the smallest on her block. It has a fading brick and beige exterior, torn window screens, and a chipped front door. Where the front lawn should be, there’s a small field of hard dirt, and it embarrasses Mary. Rent is $1,800 a month for this place—a portion of which is subsidized by Section 8—and there aren’t more than a few clumps of grass outside.

But she feels blessed. There’s an electric stove, a refrigerator, and a stand-up freezer in the kitchen that holds six small bags stuffed with lamb. Three bags of rice are stored in the cupboard. She has three sofas in the family room, which she’s decorated with hand-sewn pillows: the bright reds and blues give the house a feeling of cultivated love. She’s recently taken a light blue sheet and begun stitching outlines of large flowers on it. She’s proud of her work. In a month, she’ll have enough completed to show the guests who come to check on her.

Among the first things Mary did when she moved here was to hang two photos of Youn on the walls. It’s important to Mary that her youngest children know their father’s face. Emmanuel was two when Youn returned home the morning after Christmas in 2011, following a night cleaning RTD buses in Commerce City, and was shot in the head as he sat in his vehicle. Police say it was a case of mistaken identity related to a gang conflict that had nothing to do with Youn or his family. One of the photographs hangs in the front room near a small brass crucifix and wooden carvings of elephants and giraffes. The photo is from their 1993 wedding, which took place in a village east of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The other photograph was taken three weeks before Youn’s murder. Mary hung it in the hallway just off the bedrooms. In the photo, Youn stands outside the family’s church. He looks proud and strong, dressed in a gray suit that fits him well through his slender waist and solid shoulders.

After she hung the photo in the hall, Mary often stared at it. Tears would run down her face and stain her cheeks. When the first man who stood trial for Youn’s murder was acquitted late last year, Mary drove home and tore the photo off the wall. She smashed the glass on the floor. Soon after, her children took the photo and hid it. Mary didn’t ask where it went.

She is grateful for those who look out for her, and she likes having visitors at her home. Though her water was temporarily shut off a few months ago—though she has sometimes prayed for her family’s food to last the week—Mary gives visitors gifts, like beaded necklaces with white plastic crucifixes. Sometimes Mary invites her guests to sit on one of the living room couches. She pulls out her camera and shows a photo she took of the mango tree that Youn planted when he was a child, four decades earlier. When Mary buried her husband in his South Sudan village, she was taken to the tree. From the tiny photo, it looks like an unremarkable piece of foliage—a simple, sweeping stretch of green. But the leaves are camouflage. They’re there for protection. If you want to see the fruit hidden inside, Mary says, you have to look deeper.

There’s a gunshot, then silence. Mary punches 911 into the kitchen phone, her hands trembling, her legs giving way. Emmanuel is in the room with her, scared and wailing in a corner. Nyagai is at a window, peering through the blinds toward the apartment complex’s parking lot. It’s just after three in the morning, hours past Christmas Day. Youn’s SUV is parked out front, jagged-edged glass encircling the driver’s-side window, Youn slumped behind the steering wheel.

“Arapahoe County 911, what is your emergency?”

Mary’s words come out in a tangled rush.

“Somebodyshotmyhusband!”

“What?”

“Somebody shot my husband…NOW!”

“Somebody shot your husband?”

Mary screams. It’s a guttural noise.

“Please! Please!” she begs.

If you want to know what real loss sounds like—if you want to understand the depth of love—here it is, in these 11 minutes with Mary on the phone with this emergency operator. The woman on the other end of the line is pleading with her:

“Calm down, ma’am! You need to stop and take a deep breath! ma’am, what is your name?”

Nyagai takes the phone. She’s 15, a high school freshman. Her brother is sobbing, and she tries to quiet the boy. She watches her mother put her hands to her face, bend at the waist, shake her fists, and scream again.

Nyagai relays information to the operator: Gold Nissan. Parking lot. Dad came home from work. Someone shot him. Yes, we see Dad. He’s not moving. Nyagai’s voice cracks. Mary cries out.

“You need to move away from the screaming!” the operator orders Nyagai. “She needs to stop screaming!”

Bang, Emmanuel, and Malual rise at 5:30 a.m., and Mary is already in the kitchen, pouring bowls of cereal, recovering from yet another sleepless night. Her eyes are glassy, and she strains to smile in the predawn light. The three boys are dressed in their Catholic school uniforms—green polo shirts and navy pants—and they plod down the hallway, then take seats at the table. Mary lays out the bowls, heats some water, fetches four cups, and pours tea.

It’s late summer, a month into the school year at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, where her boys attend on scholarship. It’s Mary’s third year as a preschool aide there, and she’s in charge of the before-school program. The job pays enough for her to cover rent and food and bills, but not much more.

The past year and a half was especially challenging for her. There were four trials—in November, January, March, and June—and Mary missed work for weeks at a time while she was in court. This summer, Mary promised herself this new school year would be different.

Three men were convicted at trial in Youn’s murder, and when the last was sent to prison for the rest of his life, Mary felt an overwhelming sense of joy—followed by profound emptiness. This, she was realizing, was her life, and no number of convictions could change that. Friends had come over to celebrate after each of the verdicts; Mary called Youn’s family in Africa to deliver the news. A juror in one of the trials sent her a $450 check. But the resolution of one moment quickly gave way to a different kind of uncertainty, a realization that just because one chapter ended didn’t mean the story was over. She was now left with the rest of her life.

It’s a 20-minute drive to Blessed Sacrament, in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, where Mary begins to check children into the before-school program that’s held in the basement. The room’s filled with long lunch tables at one end and children’s games on the other. On the far wall, there are paper cutouts of elephants and monkeys. A painting of the Virgin Mary and a sign with an eaten apple that reads “Jesus is the core to a great school year” are nearby. A video screen with a feed to the front door chimes to life as parents arrive with their children. Mary buzzes them in.

“Good morning, big girl! You look like you’re ready for the beach!” she says to a five-year-old with sunglasses and a floppy Hello Kitty hat.

“Hello, beautiful!” she says to another girl who’s clinging to her mother. “You want to give me a hug? No? That’s OK, I can wait.”

A boy with soft brown ringlets of hair walks in with his father and sees Mary. His eyes brighten. “Miss Mary!” he playfully screams.

“Well hello, good boy! I’m giving out hugs! Do you want one?” The boy wraps his arms around Mary’s waist, and she smiles.

At 7:40, Mary grabs an orange vest and a stop sign, then makes her way up the basement steps and out the front door. The air is warm. Bicyclists glide past as she takes her position in the middle of Elm Street.

A father in a minivan rolls down his window. “Hello, Mary!”

“Hello! Thank you! OK, have a good day!”

A mother passes. “How are you today, Mary?” she asks.

“It’s a good day! Thank you!”

Traffic begins to build. The parking lot adjacent to the school is filling with parents dropping off their kids. Mary throws up the stop sign to let cars pull out of the lot. Vehicles begin to stack up along the street. The drivers look impatient.

Mary holds the sign high and waves a mother and her children across the road. She looks at one of the drivers and shrugs.

“Sorry,” she says. “So, so sorry.”

Youn is never far from Mary’s mind. One night late this year, she’s sitting in her spot on one of the family room couches, scrolling through the digital photos on her camera. Dozens of images flash across the screen: Youn’s village, his mango tree, seven cows that were sacrificed before his funeral, Youn’s casket after it was placed into the ground. Mary sets the camera in her lap and exhales deeply. “He was a good man,” she says.

Their relationship had strengthened with time, and the thought of that both empowers and haunts her. There are small reminders everywhere. Youn always cooked breakfast, so Mary no longer eats in the mornings. She can’t bring herself to drive past the old apartment. She got rid of their bed. When she looks at her children, she sees the best of her husband in each of them: intelligence, thoughtfulness, hospitality, kindness. She is hurt once more. She continues in spite of the pain.

When she was seven, in what is today South Sudan, her father disappeared; the family believes he was murdered. As Mary tells it, he never came home.

Violence was part of daily life in Sudan, which gained notoriety for its civil war and the continuing humanitarian crises there. Death and fear permeate the psyches of those who inhabit the place. The scars run deep. When Mary was eight or nine, she says, her mother remarried, and she sent Mary and her sister to live with an uncle, in Port Sudan, along the Red Sea. At 16, Mary was promised to a government worker in his late 20s named Youn Malual.

As a teenager, Youn had fled his village in the south and walked for a week before reaching Khartoum, where he finished high school. Youn was short—at least by Mary’s standards—and had the composed demeanor of someone who understood the innate unfairness of life. Neither Mary nor Youn spoke each other’s native language, but they both knew Arabic. Mary moved into Youn’s home and was charged with helping raise 11-month-old Monyindi. She hated it. Every few months, she’d run away—sometimes back to her mother’s—and each time, she was told to return to Youn. One day after Mary’s 17th birthday, she gave birth to Nyagai.

It took a year before she told Youn she loved him. By then, Mary had escaped several times, but Youn always welcomed her back. He understood the circumstances of their relationship, the difficulties of an arranged marriage, and how hard it must be for a teenager to help rear two children. Youn never lifted a hand in anger. Though it was custom, he did not take another wife.

The couple moved to an Egyptian refugee camp in 2002, nearly a decade after the United States government declared Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism. The situation in their home country had become untenable for Youn and Mary, and neither wanted to raise a family there. When they were granted refugee status in the United States in 2005, Mary was overjoyed. Some of Youn’s family members had moved to Denver, gotten jobs, and raised kids here. Youn and Mary decided Colorado would become their home.

Theirs was a typical immigrant story. They’d arrived in America for opportunity, for a chance to live in safety, for the education of their children. They eventually settled in a place called the Arapahoe Green apartments, and Youn got a job as a hotel janitor downtown. Monyindi was 10, Nyagai was eight, and Bang was two. Malual and Emmanuel would come later. For the first 30 days after Emmanuel’s birth in 2009, Youn spent his nonworking hours at home. He cooked meals for Mary and changed the baby’s diapers. He poured hot oil and water across Mary’s stomach, a Sudanese custom to flatten the belly. He promised she would never have to worry about anything. He would protect her and their children; he would take care of her forever.

Mary learned to drive, got a job at a daycare, and learned English by throwing herself into the family’s new life in Colorado. Youn didn’t discuss his past with the children, but there was always an unspoken message: There was no reason to have left Sudan if his children weren’t going to take advantage of their opportunities. Youn quit working at the hotel in late 2006 and got a night-shift job cleaning RTD buses in Commerce City. He never complained about the late nights or his paycheck. The job left him tired, but his family could pay rent, they had food on their table, and the kids were going to school.

Without Youn, Mary felt scared at night. When Youn would leave for his shift, she’d lock the door and slide a couch in front of it. Hours passed. In the early morning darkness, Youn would call Mary from the parking lot. She would move the couch and unlock the door. Only when she saw Youn’s face did she allow herself to feel safe again.

Around noon at Blessed Sacrament, Mary heads to the playground with a few preschool classes. Children twirl around her on fake grass and roll in an adjacent pit of wood chips. Mary sits on a railroad tie at one edge of the play area, near a shed that gives her a sliver of shade. Most of the teachers sit a few yards away at a picnic table.

Mary’s life is easiest when she’s here. There’s direction and purpose, interaction. She’s almost always smiling. She thanks God that her children attend school here. She doesn’t know what she’d do without this lifeline, and she considers herself fortunate to even have a job. Still, the deep contrasts between the lives of those who are more fortunate and her own life are most visible at school. Here, there are lush lawns and million-dollar homes. Most of the faculty and staff are white, as are most of the students. She sees husbands and wives together, fathers dropping off their children in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon. She is reminded of dinners and Sunday Masses with Youn. The world she wishes for is right in front of her, but it seems so out of reach.

Mary tugs at the bottom of her black blouse. She thinks it’s too short, and it makes her self-conscious. A boy dumps a plastic bucket of wood chips on a friend’s head and then runs toward Mary. She sticks out an arm and stops him. Mary asks the boy what he hoped to accomplish by dumping the chips on his friend, but the words come out garbled. The boy stares at her.

“Be a good boy,” Mary finally says. “I know you’re good.”

As recess winds down, three boys run in circles in front of Mary, their index fingers extended like gun barrels. The boys jump and twist and laugh as they chase one another in the sunlight. One of them falls to the ground, splayed across the fake turf.

A boy calls out: “Got you!”

John Kellner had been a prosecutor with the 18th Judicial District for two years when he phoned Mary and asked to meet with her in July 2014. He’d come across Youn’s file as part of his job investigating cold cases, those unsolved criminal investigations that had languished because of lack of evidence. In his previous job as a prosecutor in Boulder, Kellner had gotten a conviction in an 18-year-old murder case that had been thought unsolvable. Here, he thought, was a similar opportunity.

He’d looked through Youn’s file. Early 40s. Wife. Five children. Refugee. Shot in the head at close range. Wrong man. For Kellner, the irony was inescapable: A man flees violence at home only to be gunned down in his adopted country.

Kellner pored over thousands of pages of documents and eventually came upon Mary’s 911 tape. In nearly a decade working as a prosecutor, he’d heard hundreds of emergency calls—screams and cries from mothers and wives. Mary’s was different. He’d never heard pain like this.

He picked up the phone.

By then, Mary and the kids had moved to a townhome. The parking spot where Youn was killed sat 50 feet from their apartment door, and her family couldn’t stand walking past it every day. She invited Kellner and his team into her new home. Then she listened.

There had been indictments brought against five men believed to have killed Youn, Kellner explained, and there was new evidence. They showed photos of the men to Mary. She recognized one of them from around the apartment complex. His family had also fled Sudan.

Kellner knew the bullet that killed Mary’s husband was matched with a gun that a gang member had recently used in an Aurora shooting. The district attorney’s office and the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office began looking through one of the men’s phone calls and texts from the early morning of December 26, 2011, which led them to the other suspects. Interviews with witnesses informed a fuller picture that involved retaliation from a different shooting earlier in 2011, one of a series of incidents between rival gangs. The coincidences were almost uncanny: The intended victim drove an SUV similar to Youn’s; he looked like Youn; and he lived in the same apartment complex as Youn. In the end, Youn simply had the misfortune of arriving home at the exact time these men were hunting their target.

Mary told Kellner she’d had a dream the other night, a vivid one that had given her hope. An angel would come to her and help fix what had been broken. Kellner, Mary realized at that moment, was the angel.

The trials wouldn’t be easy, Kellner explained. Regardless of the work, regardless of the hope his visit might bring now, there was no guarantee the men responsible for killing Youn would be convicted. There could be a lot more grief ahead, he told her. Things might not work out.

By the fall of 2015, one of the five men had pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder after the fact and was given three years’ probation in return for agreeing to testify against the others. The first trial began on October 29, 2015. This was perhaps the weakest case of the remaining four because they only had circumstantial evidence regarding identification. Mary was inside the Arapahoe County District Court most days for the next three weeks, sitting in the gallery behind the prosecution. She testified about how she heard a gunshot outside her apartment and rushed to a window; how she looked closer and realized her husband’s vehicle was parked outside but Youn was not yet at the door.

When the verdict was read, Mary was in an office at Blessed Sacrament. She got a phone call from one of the prosecutors. Mary turned on her phone’s speaker so the other women in the room could hear too.

Mary, I’m so sorry….

The failure of the first trial devastated her. She’d raced home in her vehicle, screaming and cursing the entire way. She smashed Youn’s photo. Not long after that, some of Youn’s family arrived and they ate dinner together. Nearly four years had passed since Youn’s murder, and still no one had been held accountable. Mary returned to court in January 2016 for the trial of 28-year-old Amin Elhoweris. Elhoweris’ trial carried the most meaning for her because, like Mary and Youn, he was from Sudan. His family had escaped the same life they’d fled, had come to the United States for the same opportunities. But Youn and Mary had gone to work; they put their children in school. Elhoweris joined a gang. As she did during the first trial, Mary testified—she would do it twice more in the trials for the other two defendants, Brandon Jackson and Devon Grant-Washington. Again, she left the courtroom when the autopsy photos were shown. And she met with prosecutors and listened to them dissect the day’s events, how the jury reacted to details, the defense team’s tactics, and what that meant for the next morning.

In late January, Mary got a call from the DA’s office. When she heard the news, she screamed—this time, for joy.

For Elhoweris’ sentencing, Mary dressed in an olive skirt and black blouse. For the first time she could remember, she let her hair fall below her shoulders. This was a celebration—Elhoweris would receive life in prison without the possibility of parole—but it was also her time to be heard. There would be two more convictions, and two more life sentences without parole. But the first was the most important to Mary. The first made her believe in America. No one was ever made to answer for her father’s disappearance in Sudan, to see the lives that had been torn apart. Now, though, she’d come upon a concept she never considered possible back home: justice.

Inside the courtroom in Arapahoe County, she walked to the lectern in the center of the room. She took a breath. She thanked the police, the prosecutors, the judge, and the jury. She thanked the American judicial system for giving her this bit of resolution. “Today,” she said, “we witness the rule of law has taken its course, a principle which we have come to deeply appreciate and dearly uphold.” She then asked God to bless Colorado and her adopted country. For many people who knew her, it was the most they’d ever heard her speak.

She turned to Elhoweris. “Your relatives will come to visit you in prison,” she told him, her voice measured. “Your merciless act with your accomplices has deprived my children of their beloved father, Youn. I never would have thought of the very people of the North Sudan, from whom we experience torture—and some of us have run away from for safety—would still be on our heels, killing us here. …Yes, the truth cannot easily be buried. Here, I would say God has his own ways, and thanks to Him. Before God, I forgive you, but the rule of law takes its course.”

Nyagai has seen her mother change. She can’t pinpoint the day; there wasn’t a moment when everything snapped into place. But gradually, eventually, Mary took hold of her family’s life and her own.

Mary struggles. She sometimes sits on her couch and considers the day ahead, prays for a little help to get things done. She’ll come home from work, see her dirt lawn, and wonder why she’s working so hard—if this is what her life will always be. If she’s being honest, she’ll admit she once considered gathering up her family and returning to Sudan.

Nyagai is happy here, though, and maybe that’s one of the reasons Mary stayed. Nyagai provided support when Mary felt most lost. She was there with a hug or a kiss on the cheek, a word of encouragement. She still is. Nyagai is responsible, and Mary sees hope in her, a future. Shortly after Youn was killed, Nyagai was the one who ironed Bang and Malual’s school uniforms and who cleaned the house. She sacrificed a part of herself for her family.

She and Mary argue, because that’s what mothers and daughters sometimes do. Mary clings to tradition, thinks a young woman should live at home until she gets married. She thinks her girl should not venture too far, that she should stop spending money on the new clothes she buys on the internet. Nyagai is a typical American college kid, with schoolwork and friends and a job at the mall. She wants to work for a police department and help victims like her mother. Mary doesn’t like the idea. She wants her daughter to stay away from dangerous things, places, and people. Nyagai thinks her mom needs to let go.

Mary won’t, though. The truth is, they will never let the other go. Like all mothers and daughters, they see a little of themselves in each other. Mary, with her caring and determination. Nyagai, with her selflessness and sense of purpose. In quiet times around the house, Mary will say her daughter was sent to her from heaven.

And Nyagai knows she wouldn’t be the woman she is without her mother. One day, Mary simply got up and just kept going. There’s a lesson in that. Her mother stepped out of her house and knew she had to make it further than the day before. Mary set to work, readying breakfast, getting out the door by 6 a.m., checking in with teachers, preparing dinner, making sure homework got done, focusing on the ways she could make her children’s lives a little better, a little more manageable. There was a time when Mary was so grief-stricken she couldn’t get off the floor. Then, with her daughter’s encouragement, she realized she couldn’t afford to fall down anymore.

In her mother, Nyagai now sees strength. She never hears her mother complain, and that means something. Mary hangs on to her faith in a way most people could not. She lost her father, then her husband. She never blasphemed God. She forgave her husband’s killers.

Nyagai tells her mother that their family is cursed, and it breaks Mary’s heart to hear this. Mary lost the most important men in her life, and Nyagai has worried she will too. She will marry someday, and her husband will die. Nyagai’s told her mother this many times. Mary wraps her daughter in a hug and tells her not to think bad thoughts.

But even in Mary’s mind, those thoughts swirl and churn. They’re inescapable. And in those times, it is Nyagai who tells her mother not to worry. When Mary feels most vulnerable—when she’s thinking of Youn or paying a bill, or when Emmanuel asks her about his father and where people go when they die—when it is impossible not to cry, Nyagai does the comforting. We’ve been through so much, she tells her mother. It has to get better.

Yet in private moments, it’s sometimes hard for Nyagai to stay positive. This is her family’s life, and they have to accept some part of it. In the end, maybe things will never be OK. But how could she ever say that to her mother?

It’s Boy Scouts night, and Mary’s just finished dinner with Emmanuel, Bang, and Nyagai. They had lamb with okra and potatoes and a tomato salad. Mary and the boys ate with their hands. Nyagai used a fork.

Mary bought a whole lamb a few weeks ago for $130 and got it butchered and bagged for another $20. By the month’s end, she’ll have gotten nearly 20 dinners from the lamb. Mary is good at making her budget stretch. She buys in bulk, and the family rarely gets a meal out. Every dollar she saves is one that brings her closer to a nicer rental, maybe one nearer to work and school.

At the table, Nyagai talks about a trip to Arizona she’s taking with some college friends. It’s her first time traveling outside Colorado as an adult, and Mary hears the excitement in her daughter’s voice when she talks about visiting an In-N-Out Burger, about walking around the mall in Scottsdale, about hanging out with friends in a place other than school. Mary has wondered why her daughter needs to go so far, worried that it will not be safe. Nyagai ignores her mother’s concerns. She’s going, and Mary knows it. There won’t be a debate tonight.

After the plates have been collected and the table cleaned, the house phone rings. It’s a friend. Mary asks Nyagai if she can take Emmanuel to his Boy Scouts meeting, and Nyagai goes off in search of the car keys. Bang and Emmanuel ask to play out front, and Emmanuel grabs the handle to the storm door. Before he can push it open, Mary snaps her fingers and shakes her head. Too dangerous. As she slips into the kitchen to talk on the phone, her boys sneak out.

Nyagai finds the keys and leaves with her brothers a few minutes later. Mary’s off the phone soon after. She pours herself a cup of tea and stirs in two scoops of sugar. She sits in front of her television and turns it to a channel that plays music videos from Sudan. She smiles when the female backup dancers shake their hips.

The house is mostly quiet. Monyindi is at work; Malual is on a class trip in the mountains. This is the first time Mary’s been alone in weeks, and she’s starting to feel uneasy. She sips her tea and watches the music video. A few minutes pass. She already misses her children.

It’s these rare moments that get her thinking: about her life in five years. In 10. In 15. Several of Youn’s male cousins now live in the city, and relatives have suggested that Mary get to know them better. Mary’s been in the United States for 11 years now, but she still clings to tradition. Youn’s family has already tried to arrange another marriage. Mary said no. She got lucky with Youn, and she can’t imagine that happening again. Still, it would be nice to have a man around the house—someone to help pay the bills and watch the kids and keep her safe at night.

Her oldest son will soon be home, and Nyagai will arrive with Bang and Emmanuel. For a while at least, the house will burst to life with chatter and laughter.

She sets her teacup down on a small table and leans back into the couch. For now, Mary’s alone in her thoughts. She closes her eyes. “I really miss him,” she whispers, and then waits for her family to finally come home.

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