Chapter 1

I woke up in a cold sweat. Another bad dream. I try not to let nightmares bother me because I have so many of them, but seeing those horrifying images every night is hard to shake from memory.

My eyes wandered across the ceiling, marking traces of its textured ridges in the darkness. The deep crevices reminded me of his sick smile. I should have forgotten his face a long time ago. Every part of me trembled to erase from my mind the first twelve years of my life.

I rolled over and gently kissed my beautiful new bride on the forehead, careful not to wake her. Though I’ve been married a little over a year now, I still like to call her that. I brushed away the dark strands of hair from her cheeks, revealing an unsettled appearance on her face. She was worried too. Christianity meant the world to both of us, but it was also a constant concern.
You see, we live in Pakistan.

I get tired of being hated. I don’t know why people here despise us so badly, but they do. Here, Christians only make up about three percent of the population, so you see where we stand. Persecution is only half the suffering; death is the ultimate blow. How I wished I lived in America or at least some other nation that didn’t hate the name of Jesus Christ as it’s hated here, but we can’t leave. We’re literally trapped inside of our own country, like being encased in a death trap.
I pushed myself to a sitting position in bed, content to stay and listen to my breathing relax until it matched Jakira’s. My heart felt strangely heavy, but I tried to dismiss it as being a normal emotion considering the nightmare I just faced.

In the dim light, I saw her wake from her sleep and smile weakly at me. “What’s wrong, Shakir?” she whispered, sliding closer to me until our bodies touched. “You look like you didn’t sleep well again last night.”

“Same dream,” I answered, my mouth suddenly dry.

She sighed and pushed the thin covers off her body. “What do you think it means?”

“Danger, that’s for sure,” I said, staring off somewhere in the distance. “I always see his hateful eyes staring at me. He wants me dead. I just know it.”

Jakira reached for my hand and squeezed it as she forced another smile. “It’s just a dream, Shakir. Your father can’t harm you. We’re safe here.”

I nodded despite my fears and gazed around at our pitiful bedroom. Small and cramped. No sunlight ever hits our skin because we spend most of our lives underground with other Christians like us who want to stay alive. Every week, food has to be delivered to us from the outside by a few men who aren’t suspected of being enemies of Allah, the false god of Muslims. There is one toilet, a couple of beds for those who are sick or have injuries, and a small well dug that only produces a few gallons of murky water each day. I had dreamed of living a better life than this with my wife, but what we have here is more than most other Christians have. At least we have our lives.

“You’re probably right,” I finally admitted to her, massaging my closed eyelids. “It’s just hard to shake that cruel, icy image of him from my mind after I see his red eyes glaring at me night after night . . . ” Coldness filled my blood and gave my entire body the tingling sensation of numbness. I recognized the familiar stench of hatred that had managed to erupt once more in my emotions, but I wasn’t going to waste my time wrestling it down this time. “I sometimes wonder what he’s doing right now,” I continued, feeling as if I were spitting each word from my mouth. “If he’s dead or alive, I don’t care. The most devoted Muslim of them all. Could you imagine if he ever did find me?”

Jakira didn’t answer.

I snorted and pressed my tongue hard against the roof of my mouth. “Cut my throat in a second. I’m not even his son anymore.”

Jakira lowered her head, sadness etched all over her face. She clutched a handful of the blanket beside her as she searched for words. “Try not to think about it,” she said gently. “I don’t like seeing you worried like this.”

I heaved a long sigh and clenched my teeth. It would be easier for me to dig this underground grave we called home a hundred times deeper in the ground than to forget the smallest shred of my past. My father was never a father to me. The meaning of the word was just a cheap definition that meant nothing to him. Real fathers encourage and help their children. That was never the case with mine. He tore down any relationship we ever had when he threatened to take my life away if I ever left the Muslim faith. He said prison would be too light of a punishment for me, so he was going to make sure his little boy grew up by his rules and worship Allah all his life, even if he had to do the punishing himself.

If I hadn’t been twelve years old at the time, I wouldn’t have cowered at his every word. I would have argued, pointed out all his flaws instead of letting him slash open every one of mine. But after I met Jakira, everything changed. For the first time in my life, I found out the truth about the true Messiah, and there was nothing my father could say or do to stop me from believing in Jesus Christ. I never told him about Jakira or her missionary parents, of course, knowing he would kill them if he had the chance, but I made the mistake of telling him that I was a Christian.

And then my mother . . . she was almost as corrupt as he was. She never questioned my father, never even considered the fact that he might be wrong. Her mind was as deceived and enclosed as her face was under the veil. Every time I needed her the most, she wasn’t there to stand up for me. Instead, she watched in silence as my father beat me night after night with a rod, demanding that I renounce my faith.

But one particular night was different. One that will always remain untainted in my mind for as long as I lived. I remember being hunched over on my bed with my elbows on my knees and chin hidden in my cupped hands, waiting an eternity, it seemed, for my father to come give me another beating. The room was hot and musty. With every violent beat of my heart, I sensed my back releasing tiny beads of blood. Blood that kept coming, kept coming. Every night brought screaming. “Repent!” my father would yell, hitting me harder. I didn’t know what I had done to deserve that breed of hatred.

So I waited. Waited for whatever cruelty he had in store for me that night. To this day, though the past years have helped to somewhat disguise the ugly marks, those scars are still on my body.

I stood up and closed my eyes. This was the part of my nightmare I hated the most. I remember my door creaking open with a sickening sound. A shadow filled the floor of the room, then I saw my father. He walked over to my bed and stood over me like a towering tombstone, brandishing his favorite knife in front of my face. He told me that unless I confessed to him who was responsible for deceiving me and thereby bringing shame forever upon the family name, he was going to kill me. He left with the warning that I had until morning to make my decision. Well, before he even left my room, my decision had been made. I was leaving that horrible, wretched home and never coming back. I took out the little map Jakira had scrawled for me out from under my bed, cracked my window, and disappeared into the night. It was only after I found her and her parents here that I finally realized I was safe.

Jakira’s arms encircled me from behind. She made the coldness go away again. “It’s okay, Shakir,” she said kindly. “We will always be safe.”

Somehow, she knew my thoughts had drifted back to the past again. I turned and embraced her. “Thanks.”

Jakira swept a few stray hairs away from my forehead and stared into my eyes until she was sure I was listening. “Try to take your mind off your dreams and think about today. Forget about your father. See how God is using you now with all these people.”

“I wish all of them could have Bibles,” I said, shifting my weight against the dirt wall beside me. “Instead they read handwritten copies of paper blackened by smoke and . . . It’s just, every day, they rely on me to tell them what the Bible says. I often wonder if I’m even doing a good job anymore.”

“You’re risking your life for them every time we meet together. I’d say you’re doing a very good job. And as far as the Bibles go, Benny and Toby have been working to smuggle a few more into the country.”

I wrinkled my eyebrows. “Any success?”

Jakira tried not to let her doubt show through. “They aren’t saying anything. I know they have to be scared. If security found a hidden Bible entering the country through their suitcase or bag, it could mean their lives. Even though I know Benny and Toby are doing it for a good cause, I almost wish they wouldn’t take the risk.”
I sighed and shook my head sadly. “We take risks every day. I don’t think one more would make a difference.”

It was almost time to begin. Thirty-four people sat with wide eyes on the cool dirt floor, earnestly waiting to drink in more of God’s Word. Sometimes I feel like I should be the one sitting down and listening to someone else get up and teach, but God’s had to teach me that just because I’m eighteen years old doesn’t mean my words have any less meaning. Maybe that’s another reason God sent me Jakira. She may be a year younger than me and a lot shorter, but that girl can sure set me straight when I start complaining about myself. She keeps me going when no one else can.

The room was small—only able to hold maybe ten more people if everyone sat close—and was lit by short, hand-made candles lined against the wall. I won’t even go into the smell; you can imagine for yourself what kinds of odors exist in a cramped room full of people who haven’t bathed in months.

Yet even though the atmosphere around us may have appeared bleak and uninviting to some, it was beautiful to us. Everyone’s weary but expectant faces staring back at me every day gave me the encouragement I needed to keep teaching, even though most of the time I didn’t even feel like waking up in the morning. Still, after being confined in my small bedroom day after day, this was the only thing that always seemed to revive me and bring me back to life again. I love sharing the Bible with others and watching their excitement as they grasp more of its truth for the very first time.

I walked carefully around little children tossing beanbags to each other as I made my way toward the front of the room. I turned, gazing long and silently into the eyes of those watching me. My wife sat in the front, wearing a simple brown dress with tiny pink beads sewn along the edges. Don’t start tearing up. God only knew how much these people meant to me.
I stole a quick look at the children again and felt a sudden strength flare up inside me. The biggest turning point in my life had happened when I was at that age. I prayed God would help me teach them just how precious they were in His eyes.

“Once again, welcome everyone,” I said, struggling to keep a positive face. Because we were underground, even the sound of a dog running or a child playing above us was enough to send a chill through everyone’s body. Any noise halfway threatening would cause all of us to stop and study the ceiling above us—every bone in our bodies petrified. After a few minutes went by, I would resume talking again. I hoped today would go smoothly without any interruptions.

I cleared my throat and leafed through the thin pages of what remained of my Bible. “I’d like to start the morning off with prayer, so if anyone has a prayer request, please slip up your hand.”

As usual, nearly half the group of people lifted their hands. “Yes, Azim?” I said to an older man seated near the back. “What is your prayer request?”

Azim rose to his feet with difficulty and suppressed a cough. “The pain in my chest has gotten worse,” he said weakly. “No amount of medicine seems to ease the pain anymore, so please continue to pray that the Lord will heal my body. Like everyone else here, I cannot risk leaving this place and trying to find a doctor. I am afraid someone will recognize me and turn me in.”

“Of course we will pray for you, Azim, and we believe that God will heal your body.” I nodded toward a young woman. “Yes, Marya?”

Marya stood up, her voice trembling as she said, “Pray that my sister will come to know Christ as her Savior. She is the only family I have left, and it is hard for me to accept that she still believes in a false religion.” She sniffled and said, “I want to see her in heaven.” Unable to compose herself any longer, she buried her face in her hands and began to cry.

Jakira briskly moved from her place on the floor and squeezed in beside Marya, closing her eyes as she gave her a long hug. Silently, I breathed my own prayer for her that her sister and others like her would find the truth. After the crying subsided, I looked toward someone else raising his hand. “What would you like prayer for, Haphiz?”

Haphiz stood up slowly. Something was clearly wrong. His pallid hands were locked tightly together as he glanced around the room at the others. His eyes quickly darted from person to person, almost as if he were seeing their faces for the first time.

Then he looked at me. He drew out a long breath and held it as his eyes continued to stare into mine. “I’m sorry, Shakir. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

I stopped breathing. What could he have possibly done that was so terrible? I couldn’t imagine, and questioned if I really wanted to know. After spending six years of my life underground, my nerves were pretty well shot. Hearing Haphiz’s statement only made a new surge of fear run through my body. “What do you mean, Haphiz?” I said, my voice cracking slightly. “What is wrong?”

Haphiz swallowed and stared down at the floor. “I left here the night before last,” he said.

The expression on my face fell to a frown, and I felt my blood begin to boil. “You did what?” I said, almost yelling.
“I’m sorry!” he said defensively. “Both of my children were ill, and I needed medicine for them.”

I tilted my head back and sighed painfully. “We have people here for that purpose, Haphiz! They get food and supplies and medicine and whatever else they can.”

“But they only get a limited supply of it!” Haphiz argued. “They didn’t have what my children needed!”

Intolerance rushed to my voice as I said, “Well, did you tell them what your children needed? How are they supposed to know if you don’t tell them?”

“I don’t know! I suppose I figured that they had enough on their minds as it was.”

“Yeah, and I’ve had enough on my mind as it is without people sneaking out at night and carelessly endangering the entire group!”

“Shakir, please,” Jakira said, standing. “There’s a better way to handle this.”

I calmed myself and tried to rephrase my words a little softer this time. “Haphiz, I’m sorry. I really am. But you can’t go risking the lives of everyone else here just because of your two children. If you would have told someone about it instead of trying to handle it yourself, I would be a lot calmer about this. As I said before, I’m sorry. We will remember your children in prayer and try to get medicine to them as quickly as possible.”

Tears stung Haphiz’s eyes. “That was only part of my prayer request, Shakir. Yes, I want you to pray for my children. Please do. But also pray for the safety of our group.”

I looked out once more at all the faces and nodded my head. “Of course. We always do. Why would you ask that?”

Haphiz looked down again. “Because I think I was followed.”