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An uncomfortable truth, that's what Haroon Ibranov was. My aunt would have called him a s'ka, and there was no denying that he was one. His gaunt figure, his tattered jacket, his sarval that was too thin to wear outside in the November weather. Even his tobacco-stained teeth.

S'ka is not a word I can translate. The stress on the 's' stings with the same velocity as a viper, and it's just as venomous. I remember how the two syllables chafed against each other as they left my aunt's mouth—the way they had sounded like a word of caution as much as they did a scolding. I couldn't have been more than six years old at the time of the incident.

It was one of those rare years the snow reached up to our ankles. Fat snowflakes, which resembled cotton wads, settled on top of the two unmoving bodies outside the grocery store in Stan.

Hidden behind my aunt's skirts, the two men hadn't been visible to me when we had entered the store. I didn't notice them until I snuck away from the cash register where my aunt was catching up on the town gossip. I strode over to the gumball machines by the store's exit with a coin in my hand. The automatic doors pulled apart--triggered by my closeness. In my hurry to distance myself from the frigid gust, I slipped on the wet, linoleum floor. It was in those frightening, disorienting, seconds that I caught a movement from the corner of my eye. I startled, thinking that the figures beyond the doors were a figment of my imagination, but that wasn't the case. They were human—more specifically put, two men who sat huddled together on a bench.

Most of the things I knew at that age was not because I had lived to experience them, but because I had inherited the worldview of the adults around me. I couldn't tell you how I knew that these men were Brommian, I just did—instinctively.

The double doors closed in my face, yet my attention never strayed from the men's miserable frames. The thrill of spinning my coin in the machine and chewing away at the hardened ball of gum died on my pallet, replaced by a tangy taste of pity. I sensed something was wrong by the way their heads slumped against their chest with even intervals. Their necks went from flaccid to rigid as they dozed off and lurched awake in cycles. They shifted and huddled closer together to keep warm.

The snow in the background was idyllic; pristine whiteness that had yet to be sullied. I was six years of age, which is to say, I wasn't as naive to convince myself that the men were sitting outside in minus celsius weather because they enjoyed the view. Another person might have found it in their heart to extend a helping hand. I, on the other hand, drew closer to the windows until my breath fogged the pane—content with watching them from afar.

I grew up shielded in the fortress that was Ljerumlup. I didn't have the literacy to place what I was seeing in its right context: why were two grown men sitting outside in the cold? Why didn't they retreat inside?

One of the men, the one closest to me, had wrapped a knitted shawl around his head. His friend wasn't as fortunate. His dark hair was speckled white with snowflakes, some which melted atop his crown. Water dripped down the length of his matted hair. He wore a jacket, but no scarf, no hat, no gloves...nothing else to protect him from the assault of the wind.

The guy in the shawl was the first to startle from his restless slumber. He righted himself on the bench, pulled his knees up to his chest, and nudged his friend. The friend woke with the same alertness as he had done times before. He said something to his assailant. They growled at each other in Brommin. Their exchange ended when the friend, now clearly displeased, scooted away from the guy in the shawl. His shoulders were set in irritation. He repositioned himself, extending the other man a cold shoulder.

Seemingly wanting to console, the guy with the shawl pulled forth a dirty plastic bottle from inside his jacket. It was crumpled and bent in places—indicative of its reuse. He handed it over to his friend, who snatched it from his grip as if he had been offered gold. He put the rim to his nose and sniffed its contents. His breaths were deep and desperate and reminded me all too much of my last asthma attack. His head lulled backwards in euphoria.

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