Isaiah lifted his head. His thin body heaved as the terror slowly faded from his face.
"Come on," said Joseph. Isaiah slid out of the truck and the three of them began walking to create a breeze for themselves in the motionless air that clung to their faces like a wet towel. It was too hot and humid to stand still. Perhaps the rains would come tonight at last, or tomorrow. The rains! They walked to the end of the alley and turned into the dusty main street, glancing about them instinctively as they went. Lamps from windows cast a faint light into the smothering shadows. They had to be careful not to trip over fallen bricks and masonry. A few people moved in and out of the darkness, some on foot, occasionally on a bicycle. At the corner, some men sat around a fire they had lit in an old oil drum, boiling water for tea and cooking something on the end of sticks. Their caps identified them as government soldiers. The rebels, for the most part, wore no uniforms.
The rebels had not controlled the town for long. Within a week of the attack, government soldiers were back on the streets. And then suddenly they had just stopped fighting. Nobody knew why, any more than they knew why they had started. Certainly nobody knew who had won. Joseph had seen pictures of rebel leaders in the newspapers above captions with the words "Minister of Agriculture" and "Minister for Development." The government soldiers were still everywhere. But here and there groups of 12 and 13 year old boys could once again be seen gathering at street corners, carrying kalashnikovs and machetes, talking in incomprehensible dialects, stirring memories of the horrors of that week four years earlier. Nobody seemed to know what would happen next, but violence seemed as inevitable as the rains that swelled the great sagging clouds hanging over the sea to the west.
They walked past the soldiers and drifted in the direction of the UN relief center, as they did each morning, rice buckets slung over their arms. They passed the Baptist Mission, its windows boarded up now. The foreigners, it appeared , were more afraid of the peace than they had been of the war. This made Joseph ashamed in front of Ibrahim, but his friend never said anything. The mosque at the end of the street was open.
They were about to turn back when they felt the first drops of rain. The great beads of warm water splashed on their noses and cheeks, mingling with the sweat and trickling down their open collars on to their chests and backs. Within seconds, the lazy drops had turned to driving shafts of solid water, bouncing off their faces and arms, pinning their shirts to their bodies, turning the dusty street instantly to mud. Ibrahim shouted something which was drowned out by the drum roll of rain on tin roofs. Joseph nodded and they started to run for the cover of the nearest of the shacks that lined the street opposite the mosque.
A small crowd of people thronged around the entrance to the little building, pushing through the doorway. The smell of wet cotton mingled with cooking odors coming from inside. Peppers, garlic. Sweat. Joseph edged through the crowd, pushing Isaiah before him, and found himself carried into a large room. The floor was covered with woven straw mats. A lantern hung from the roof, casting its flickering light on a number of large tables scattered around the room. Someone had jostled the lamp, for it swung back and forwards in a great arc, drawing shadows behind it. Men sat at the tables, kalashnikovs propped against their chairs, faces intermittently illuminated by the swaying lamp, laughing and shouting over the roar of the rain on the tin roof.