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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 3 – $40 In the Hand

I needed information about Angie’s family. The most likely person to supply the information was Tarek, but I had no idea where to find him.

Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

Previous chapters of this story: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

***

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February 5, 2010
Fresno, California

The Anwars had three children. Dalya, the eldest, was a dentist. She lived in the Bay Area, from what I heard. Mina, the middle child, was a health and safety inspector for IBM, and had moved to New York. Neither of the two girls, I suspected, wanted to be near their mother, who was always trying to micromanage the lives of everyone around her.

The youngest, Tarek, was on another career path, to put it kindly. After he dropped out of high school he went through jobs like tissue papers, doing everything from sales at a used car lot to solar panel installer to selling perfume oils at the swap meet. He was never religious and at some point took up drinking and smoking, and possibly drugs as well. At the age of eighteen he moved in with a non-Muslim girl named Angie. She was five years older than him. The Anwars disowned him, but relented and repaired the relationship when Angie bore a child. That child was Anna.

Kali martial arts

“We met in martial arts class…”

When I was a kid, Tarek and I were two out of a group of five inseparable friends. The other three were a boy named Amiri Sulawesi, a Palestinian-American like myself named Aziz, and a non-Muslim called Titus Palumbo. We all met as little kids way back at West Caulfield elementary, where we were all on the school soccer team. In our second year of play the funding for the soccer program was cut, so instead we began studying Kali privately under Amiri’s father. Every day after school he spent an hour teaching us this little-known knife and stick fighting style from the southern Philippines. From the first moment the sticks were placed in my hands, I fell in love with the art and never looked back.

We five became fast friends. We hiked in the Sierras, pooled our money to buy a dirt bike that we raced in empty lots, climbed over locked fences on the weekends to swim in the high school pool, fished in the San Joaquin River, defended one another against bullies, and generally got into all kinds of trouble. Aziz’s mother liked to call us the Five Musketeers. Aziz and I did well in school but the other three struggled. In the end Titus ended up a cop, Amiri a criminal, and Tarek went from one thing to another, tetherless, not seeming to have any plan or to care what the next day might bring.

I studied the photo. It looked like a school photo. Fourth grade, maybe? Anna would be nine years old now, if I remembered correctly. Her dark brown skin was complemented by her long and straight brown hair. In the picture she wore a blue jumper over a white collared shirt, blue stretch pants, and a pair of white Adidas sneakers. She was thin and unsmiling. I’d met Anna twice, both times at Eid gatherings. I remembered her as a serious and reticent child.

No matter what I thought of the Anwars, their son Tarek – though we didn’t talk much anymore – was my friend. Even if that had not been the case, the child was an innocent.

I looked up at Dr. Ehab Anwar. “I’ve done a couple of missing persons cases, but it’s not my speciality. I usually handle insurance fraud jobs. I’m telling you this so you don’t feel misled in any way. A bigger agency might have a better chance of finding her.”

Dr. Ehab tipped his head in acknowledgement. “I understand. We want you.”

“Alright.” I nodded slowly. “I’ll take the case. My rate is five hundred dollars per day plus expenses. I’ll take this” – I indicated the envelope full of cash – “as a non-refundable retainer.”

“I will pay fifty thousand if you find her.”

“You said that,” I replied, aware that my tone bordered on harsh. I had little patience with people who thought they could motivate me by throwing money around. “My rate, however, is $500 per day. If you choose to pay a bonus, that’s up to you. Now tell me everything you can. When was she last seen? Who might have taken her? What do the police have?”

“We know who took her,” Dr. Ehab replied. “It was Angie, her mother.”

“How do you know?”

“Because she disappeared. Her apartment is abandoned. Her personal effects are gone.”

“What do the police say?”

“They cannot help. She’s the mother, and Tarek… well, he is unavailable.”

“Why, where is he?”

He hesitated. “He is… in Palm Springs. He has a job there.”

That was good to hear. Maybe Tarek had straightened his life out. I considered. “I don’t see a crime here,” I said at length. “Angie moved away. She doesn’t have to tell you her whereabouts. You don’t have any rights over her.”

“I understand,” Dr. Ehab replied calmly. “But she is a drug user. I only want to know that my granddaughter is safe. If you locate Anna and everything is fine, then alhamdulillah, thanks to God. At least I will have peace of mind.”

“And if everything is not fine?”

“Then bring Anna home to us. We will raise her.”

“I can’t simply take a child from her mother. There are legal procedures to be followed.”

Dr. Ehab sighed. “I understand. Just find her, law samaht. Allah yardaa alayk. God be pleased with you, Zaid. Find her first, then we can assess the situation.”

I continued to question Dr. Ehab, but found myself growing frustrated. The man had nothing useful to tell me. He didn’t know how long Angie had been missing, but the last time he’d seen her was two weeks ago when she asked the Anwars to babysit Anna for a few hours. He didn’t know Angie’s family, and didn’t know where she might have gone.

“Do you have a photo of Angie as well?” I asked. I’d met Angie and knew what she looked like – she was a short, naturally muscular Afro-Latina with long, braided hair – but I needed a photo to show around.

He did not.

“Give me Angie’s address and phone number.”

“She does not answer her phone,” Dr. Ehab replied. “And I told you, her apartment is deserted.”

“Give them to me anyway.” He gave them to me.

“Where does Angie work?”

He shook his head. “She does not. She collects welfare. We help her out sometimes.”

“Alright.” I picked up a pencil and tapped it on my desk. “What about Tarek’s phone number?”

“It is inactive. The service was turned off.”

“Why,” I put it to him, “didn’t you pay his phone bill? You can certainly afford it.”

Dr. Ehab’s expression was solemn. “Tarek must stand by his own feet. It is the only way.”

When I had no more questions to ask – I wasn’t getting answers anyway – I told Dr. Ehab that I would check in with him daily, and to call me if he had any more information.

***

Envelope full of cash

When Dr. Ehab was gone, I picked up the envelope full of cash and stared at it. Ten thousand dollars. It was mostly hundred dollar bills, with what looked like five hundred in twenties. It was heavy in my hand.

I’d had all these ideas for what I could do with this much money. Now, however, there was no time for any of that. In a missing persons case, time was critical. The longer the person was missing, the colder the trail got.

I moved three hundred dollars into my wallet, and stuffed the fat envelope into my front pants pocket. I clipped my pocket knife onto my other front pocket, then removed my gun from beneath the desk, slipped it into a holster, and strapped it around my ankle, underneath my pants leg. Technically I was breaking the law by doing so. I did not have a CCW or Carry Concealed Weapon license. I’d applied for one with the Fresno PD and – as a licensed private detective – should have received it by all rights. I’d been denied, however, with no reason given. Maybe it was my Arabic name, or maybe the FPD knew of my criminal conviction and didn’t care that I’d been pardoned.

This was one law I would have to break. Ninety nine percent of the time I did not need my gun to do my job. It was the other one percent I worried about.

Opening the locked drawer in my desk, I removed my camera, handheld camcorder, binoculars, flashlight, and digital voice recorder, and stuffed them all in a threadbare school backpack. I added a few pairs of socks and underwear and a change of clothes.

Lastly, I donned the fedora that hung from a hook next to the door. The hat was made of black wool felt and sported a two and a half inch brim, with a gray ribbon and bow around the crown. It was an ancient thing, made before World War II and given to me as a gift by an old private eye named Langston “Lonnie” Brown, with whom I apprenticed for a year before going into business on my own.

I didn’t come out of prison intending to be a private detective. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I wanted to do aside from marry Safaa and earn a decent living. I drove a taxi for a few years, until one day I ferried an elderly, square-bodied African American man who wore shades, a golden-brown suit and a fedora. We got to talking, and I learned he was Muslim and owned his own private detective agency. He kept apart from the Muslim community. I gathered he’d come out of the Nation of Islam and while he’d made a nominal transition to Sunni Islam, he was in reality stuck in the middle, often waxing nostalgic for the good old days in the Nation.

I confessed to Lonnie that I was desperate to do something more fulfilling than cabbing. He in turn told me that he needed someone young to run the legwork that he was too old and tired to manage. A week later I was thrilled to call myself an apprentice private eye.

I learned almost everything I know about private sleuthing from Lonnie. He knew I was an ex-con and didn’t care. He’d been way up and way down in his day, living through times so rough that the best he could hope for on any given day was a hungry belly and a set of bruised knuckles.

I think he saw himself in me. When he died of a heart attack while sweeping leaves in his driveway on a winter morning, I was informed by his attorney that Lonnie had left me ten thousand dollars, all his surveillance equipment, and his treasured brown fedora.

Lonnie used to love to quote “Mother to Son,” a poem written by his namesake, Langston Hughes. In the poem, the mother tells her son that her life has not been a crystal stair. It’s been rough, with tacks and splinters, and boards torn up – but all along, she’s kept on climbing, even in the dark, when she couldn’t see what lay ahead.

Lonnie would recite lines from the poem, and say, “Keep on climbing, Zaid. You have far to go my brother, but you will get there one day.”

Whenever I wore the old hat, I could almost hear him looking over my shoulder, saying, “Keep climbing, Zaid, and don’t let anyone stop you.” Remembering those words I’d get choked up and feel tears come to my eyes, but no matter the challenge my resolve would firm, and I’d know that the odds against me didn’t matter – I would keep moving forward.

People sometimes made fun of my hat, and a few Muslims had told me I should wear a kufi instead – but I wouldn’t part with my fedora for all the oranges in California.

With the beloved hat firmly on my head, I proceeded to lock up my office – a time consuming process that involved locking the window bars and triple-locking the door – then headed to my car, very conscious of the nearly brick-sized pile of loot bulging in my pocket.

Clouds were moving in. A chilly breeze swept down from the north, stirring the litter in the parking lot. Sadly, I doubted it would rain. My car could have used a wash. But California was in the midst of a multi-year drought. Rain was as rare as a Muslim at a Vatican sausage roast.

1969 Dodge Dart GTS

1969 Dodge Dart GTS

My car, an olive green 1969 Dodge Dart GTS that I’d purchased a few years back, didn’t have an automatic door opener. I was about to slip the key into the door lock when I was assaulted by a powerful stench. I’d smelled this particular eau-de-body-odor before. I began to turn, but a hand seized my shoulder. At the same time, I felt something cold and sharp press against my neck.

“Gimme all your money mister private defective,” the homeless man growled. It was the same man who’d come to my office earlier, trying to sell solar garden lamps. “I seen people goin’ in and out o’ your place,” he continued. “I know you gots to have some dinero. And gimme that backpack too. And that hat!”

Little did he know that with that last demand he’d made a fatal mistake. Even if I’d been inclined to give up the ten thousand dollars in my pocket, not to mention the surveillance equipment in my pack, there was no way this side of the grave I would surrender the hat.

But perhaps I could find a solution less severe than either getting robbed or dying.

“It’s better than that, brother!” I exclaimed, filling my voice with feigned enthusiasm. “Remember how you told me to defect the Powerball number and cut you in?”

“Yeah,” he replied slowly. “Whatchu sayin’?”

“I did it, man! I totally defected it. We won! Not the big one though, one of the smaller ones.” I had to keep it believable, after all. “Half a million bucks. I’m on my way to cash in the ticket. I think we should split it fifty fifty, what do you say partner?”

“Oh, dude!” The pressure of the hand on my shoulder lessened. “Are you serious?”

“As a cardiac arrest.”

“Say what?”

“A heart attack.”

“Oh. So this is for real?”

“Would you put away the knife?”

“Oh, yeah o’ course.” The knife was withdrawn, as was the hand on my shoulder. I turned to see Ghost Rider, the homeless man in the jeans and dirty yellow sweatshirt. His face was beaded with sweat in spite of the cool weather. As I watched, a shudder ran through his entire body, starting at the greasy locks atop his head and flowing to his feet. He grimaced in pain, then recovered and grinned at me, exposing several missing teeth.

“I’m sorry about this-” he waggled the knife, and I saw that it was just a standard dinner knife, barely sharp enough to cut a brick of cheese. “Nothin’ personal.” He tipped his head to one side, his eyes pleading. “I’m jonesin’ man, you know? I’m sick. I need a fix real bad. You know what that feels like, right?”

I wanted to say, “Does it feel anything like this?” – then slam a hard roundhouse kick into his inner thigh. Though I’d play-acted to get him to lower the knife, in truth I was filled with rage. I had offered the man the last bite of food I had, and here he was holding a knife to my neck! The rage roared up inside me like lava in a volcano. I expanded internally, growing hot, breathing hard. My hands twitched and my vision narrowed. All I saw was the man standing in front of me, holding the knife.

I would put my hips into the kick, so that the it would nearly lift him off the ground, then I’d come down with a vicious slap to the back of his neck. The back of the neck is a knockout point and potentially worse. A sufficiently hard blow could cause permanent spinal cord injury and even death. If that didn’t do it, I would deliver an elbow strike to the jaw, reap one of his legs, stomp the back of the knee to drive him to the ground, and then stomp on the ankle to crush the bones there. I would leave him broken on the ground. It would be easy.

But no. The man standing before me swayed as he squinted at the graying sky. He looked like he might collapse at any moment. The knife in his hand wasn’t even sharp. He wasn’t going to hurt me. I could lie to the police and say I was defending myself, but I couldn’t lie to Allah or to myself. Sincerity with Allah, sincerity with myself. That was my motto. It had served as my guide through difficult days, allowing me to walk forward with my head held high, even when my stomach was empty.

I pushed the rage down, forcing it into my belly and screwing the lid on tight. I shuddered as I brought my breathing under control. My hands stopped twitching and my jaw relaxed. It scared me how much effort this took. For a minute it was very close.

“Listen,” I breathed. “I’m not a hundred percent sure about the Powerball thing. I might have the number wrong. Take this for now.” I withdrew my wallet and gave him $40. “Get something to eat, alright? Seriously. I know you’re going to get high, but get some food too. You need it.”

“Aww, thanks brother.” The man seemed genuinely touched. “You a hell of a dude.” He didn’t seem terribly disappointed that the Powerball might not pan out. It seemed the $40 in his hand was worth more than a half million in the bush.

***

Sitting in the car, my body felt as heavy as stone. I’d been a hair’s breadth from destroying the homeless man. I’d been out of prison for five years, and still had trouble controlling the violent impulses that had seeped into me during my incarceration.

I went to prison at the age of nineteen and was released at twenty five, so in many ways I came of age in lockup. I learned what it was to be a man from men whose only response to conflict was to kill.

Five years after my release, I still had nightmares. I couldn’t walk five paces without turning to look behind me, and I experienced surges of nearly uncontrollable rage whenever someone violated my personal space, whether by threatening me or simply standing too close behind me in line at the grocery store.

I balled my fist and struck the dashboard of the car. This wasn’t me. I cared about homeless people. I helped them when I could. I knew that but for Allah’s grace, that could be me. Ghost Rider had been driven to a desperate act by his addiction, but he wasn’t evil.

I didn’t want to be a walking pressure cooker. My greatest role model, my hero, was the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, a man who was the living embodiment of gentleness and compassion. I wanted to be worthy of him. I wanted to be someone my wife and child could trust. I wanted to be able to trust myself.

But how? What steps should I take to change? How could I get rid of all this rage?

* * *

Six years of daily humiliations by guards, living under threat of assault and fighting for my basic human rights had changed me.

Even though that six year stay in prison represented only a fifth of my life to date, it felt like much more. There was something about the nature of prison life – the unique combination of tedium and sudden, ferocious intensity – that burned itself into one’s memory. I could remember every day of those six years, every book I read, every friend I made, every khutbah I gave during my time as a convict Imam, every killing I witnessed – and some were horrific – and every act of violence I was forced to commit. I carried it with me every day. I’d eat a meal and find myself comparing it to prison food. I’d see a certain shade of color in the sky and remember a similar day on the prison yard.

On the other hand, my life from before prison felt distant and nebulous. Whenever I ran into Aziz or Titus and they began waxing about the old days, I found that I could hardly remember.

Sitting in the car that morning, I considered that until I could shake my prison behaviors, until I could leave that life behind me and become someone new, I was still in chains.

I knew I could never go back to being the carefree young man I had been. But could I just come to a point of emotional stability? Could I stop being a walking landmine?

* * *

I activated the secret compartment in my car. It was built for me by a former client, a sound system installer named Alfredo. His shop was broken into, and valuable speaker components stolen. The insurance company denied his claim and the police charged him with fraud. I was hired by Alfredo’s defense attorney. I normally worked for the insurance companies, so that was a turnaround, but I investigated and was able to prove Alfredo’s innocence. Turned out it was his nephew who had done it.

Aside from his stereo installations, Alfredo had a thriving cash-only business building hidden compartments, which he called traps. He couldn’t pay my full fee, so he offered to build me a trap.

As he explained it, modern traps tap into a car’s internal electrical system. They are connected to relays, which are electromagnetic switches that allow low-power circuits to control high-power circuits. A car’s ignition is one example. Alfredo had figured out how to wire a car so that a specific set of electric circuits had to be activated to open the trap.

In my case, the trap was built into the space where the passenger-side airbag would go. Except that there was no airbag. To open the trap, I had to follow four steps. One, close all the doors. This meant that the trap would almost certainly not be discovered by the police, since they tended to leave the doors open when they searched a car. Two, there had to be someone sitting in the driver’s seat (the pressure sensor beneath the seat was part of the circuit). Three, start the car and activate the rear defroster. Step four involved a credit-card sized magnet that Alfredo had given me. I had to swipe this card across the airbag compartment. This would cause a hidden magnet to disengage, and the trap would spring open. If any one of the steps was ignored, the trap would remain hidden.

Yes, Alfredo was a genius. Sadly, I didn’t see a good future for him. Most of his clients were drug smugglers. The government wouldn’t stop looking for a way to lock him up. I tried to warn him that he should stick to stereo installations and quit building compartments, but when it comes to money, the lure is too strong for some men to resist. Like the Prophet said, if a man had a valley full of gold he would want two, and nothing fills the mouth of a man but the dust of the grave.

I followed the steps to open my compartment, looked around carefully to make sure no one was watching, then deposited the bulk of the cash in it, along with my gun.

Arco gas station

“I drove to the Arco station down the street…”

I’d hardly driven the car in days because I was almost out of gas. I drove to the Arco station down the street and filled the tank. I had a feeling this case wouldn’t be as simple as finding someone who’d changed addresses or moved from one city to another. It felt like I was being given only a small part of the picture.

That wouldn’t stop me. For better or worse, once I began something I did not stop until I finished it.

* * *

The address Dr. Ehab had given me for Angie was an upper floor apartment in a dilapidated complex near 9th and Ventura.

I made a quick pass through a fast food drive-through and ordered a fish sandwich, large fries, mini apple pie and diet soda. No, I’m not on a diet, but I’d seen in an article that a single can of regular soda contains the equivalent of ten cubes of sugar. That’s crazy. If I wanted to destroy my body’s ability to process sugar, I could just stab myself in the pancreas.

Usually fast food sits in my belly like an anchor, leaving me bloated and disgusted with myself. This time, though, I nearly rolled my eyes in pleasure with every bite. Of course this food couldn’t approach the deliciousness of Safaa’s home cooking, but hunger is the best spice, and I was as hungry as I’d ever been.

By the time I arrived at my destination ten minutes later, the food was history.

This was a rough neighborhood. I considered taking my gun out of the trap, but chucked the idea. The gun was for emergencies. Hands, heart and knife, that was all I needed ninety nine percent of the time.

The packed earth between the buildings – there was no grass – was littered with fast food wrappers, broken children’s toys, a punctured inner tube and a discarded watering can. The balconies were mostly empty or cluttered with junk, though a few had been turned into tiny outdoor gardens. In one I saw a rusted bathtub. The overall effect was grim.

Three Latino gangbangers loitered in the shadow of one of the buildings. They were decked out in red and white, and one was shirtless. One wore a red bandana pulled low over his eyes. The shirtless one bore a large chest tattoo that said, “Fresno” in gothic script, and another tattoo of a bulldog’s face on his shoulder. The third was swollen with muscle and had a pencil mustache and neck tattoos. They eyed me balefully.

They were members of a local gang called the Bulldogs, I knew. This was also the name of our local university football team. The gang was named after the team – much to the university’s consternation – and wore team colors and jerseys.

I let my gaze sweep across them and beyond, not meeting their eyes but not ignoring them either. I walked with shoulders back and chin raised, my expression deadpan, my arms loose. I looked ready to take on an army. Prison swagger 101. My unspoken message was, “I acknowledge and respect your existence but I’m unafraid and possibly crazy.” Which I was.

The young toughs watched me pass but made no move. Their career choices might be crappy, but they weren’t entirely devoid of common sense. I would have either torn them to shreds or died myself. That was always the choice with me, and sometimes I wasn’t sure I cared which way it went.

I found Angie’s apartment and knocked. No answer. I looked around. No one was watching. I took a small lock-picking set from my pocket, and, shielding my actions with my body, quickly jimmied the front door lock. This was a skill I’d learned many years ago from Malik Sulawesi, Amiri’s dad. That’s another story.

Slipping in, I flicked the light switch. Nothing. There was no power. I slanted the blinds to let in sunlight. The apartment stank of mildew and sour milk. The yellowed vinyl flooring was littered with the scattered debris of a life that had been shed like a snakeskin. Dirty dishes in the sink. Worn and stained furniture. A few items of discarded clothing: socks, a child’s t-shirt, an old shoe. Aside from that, it was empty. Nothing in the closets, no silverware, no TV or computer, nothing of value.

In the bathroom I found empty bottles of cough syrup and ibuprofen, along with a burnt spoon and a scorched piece of a car antenna. So Angie was a junkie after all. Drug addicts downed cough syrup and ibuprofen when they didn’t have money for dope. The spoon was held above a flame to cook down heroin. And the car antenna, I suspected, was a makeshift crack pipe.

This was bad. Little Anna could be in any kind of danger. I had to find this child.

In the movies, the detective continues searching the crime scene determinedly, even when everyone else has given up. “There’s always something,” he mutters to himself. “There’s always a clue.” And of course he finds something in the end.

In real life it’s not always like that. I searched from one end to the other, but found nothing that would tell me where Angie and Anna had gone. No photographs or mementos, no receipts or letters. And I didn’t have a television CSI team to come in here and analyze the soil on the carpet, and tell me that it came from the northern shore of Shaver Lake, where Angie must undoubtedly have a hideout, or some such nonsense.

I sighed. Alright. Where would Angie go? Maybe to stay with parents or a sibling. I knew nothing about her family. The most likely person to supply the information was Tarek, but I had no idea where to find him. His father was clearly holding something back.

I decided to pay a visit to Tarek’s sister Dalya. I hadn’t seen her in eleven years, and all I knew about her was that she was a dentist, had a couple of kids and was divorced. I did a quick internet search and her website came up right away. She owned her own dental practice, called Lovely Smile, in Merced – a medium sized city sixty miles to the north. Closer than I’d thought. Good.

* * *

I hopped onto 180 west then merged onto 99 north, driving exactly at the speed limit. As I drove, I practiced drawing my knife with one hand while I steered the car with the other. I mean, I wasn’t practicing steering the car. I knew how to do that. It was the knife draw I was working on.

There are many people who carry knives but never practice the draw. One day they are mugged or attacked and find themselves fumbling for the knife, trying to open it with trembling hands – if they remember it at all.

This particular knife was a small Kershaw folder with an extremely sharp three-inch blade. The handle was an innocent-looking sky-blue. Switchblades and other automatically opening knives are illegal in California, but this was what is called an assisted open. You use a thumb stud to start the process of opening it, then an internal spring takes over and snaps it open.

I did this often when driving long distance. I clipped the knife low on the seat belt to simulate it being in my pocket. I drew and opened it with my right hand, then – still using only one hand, and doing it all by feel, without looking – depressed the lock-release lever and closed it. I clipped it back onto the seat belt and repeated the process. In the course of ten minutes, I drew the knife a hundred times.

Kali and its sister art Eskrima are popularly known as stick arts. The heart of Kali, however, is the knife. Even the stick is considered only a training substitute for a sword or machete. The techniques range from basic to highly complex. We train empty hands versus knife, knife versus knife, forward and reverse grip knife, and even double knife. I have been doing this since I was seven years old.

We do have some purely empty hand techniques in Kali but they are only a small part of the art. Put me in a ring against a journeyman boxer and I give myself even odds. But put a knife in my hand and I’m as deadly as a rattlesnake in a phone booth, even against other knife fighters.

After a few wrong turns, I found Dalya Anwar’s office in Merced. The receptionist, a young Latina dressed all in black and wearing a trace of glitter on her eyelids, told me I had to make an appointment.

“I’m here on a personal visit,” I explained. “I’m an old friend. Tell her Zaid Al-Husayni is here to see her.”

My full name is Zaid Karim Al-Husayni, but when I became a private eye I made a choice to use my father’s name, Karim, as my last name. I felt that “Karim” was more easily understood and remembered by Americans, and less alienating. I know it’s a cop-out, but it’s my livelihood, and I need whatever edge I can get.

Dalya would know me by my proper last name. The last time I saw her, we were both nineteen years old.

Dalya and I had a history. I remembered her as a small-boned girl with wavy brown hair, thick glasses and a serious demeanor. When we used to have community get-togethers and the other kids were playing volleyball or chatting about music, she’d be off in a corner somewhere, reading. I made it a point to always talk to her, at first because I felt sorry for her. Dalya had little interest in movies or music. She was more interested in trends in sustainable energy, preserving the rainforest, or the life cycle of a cicada. She read biology textbooks the way other kids read Superman comics. Other kids thought her nerdy, but I found her interesting, and knew she would do well in life.

As for me, the assumption was that I would become either a doctor or an engineer. I wasn’t terribly interested in either of those professions, though I did find biological drawings fascinating. But everyone thought I had a bright future, and our families began to discuss a possible match between Dalya and I once we finished college.

Some kids rebel at the thought of arranged marriages, but at the time I didn’t mind. Like I said, I found Dalya intriguing, and she was certainly cute beneath those soda-bottle glasses.

Then I went to prison, and all of that ended. And when I got out I married Safaa, and never regretted it, even when she broke my heart by splitting up with me.

The side door opened, interrupting my reminiscences, and Dalya Anwar emerged wearing a white medical coat, black slacks and soft-soled black shoes. I would have recognized her instantly, even without the nametag on her coat. She no longer wore glasses – no doubt she’d upgraded to contacts – but aside from that she’d hardly changed. She was still tiny, with large brown eyes and delicate hands, though frown lines marked her forehead now.

I’d heard that she was divorced, but a large diamond ring glittered on her right hand. Maybe I was mistaken.

“Zaid?” She squinted at me as if I were a puzzle she was trying to figure out. “Stick Man Zaid?”

Aziz and I used to sometimes practice our Kali at community picnics and Iftars. The other kids gave us mocking nicknames. Mine was Stick Man, as much for my skinny frame as for my talent with a stick. Even though the name was intended to tease, I liked it. What martial artist wouldn’t want be named after a weapon?

Later, though, “Stick” became my criminal nickname, and now I detested it as a reminder of a foolish and painful past. But I knew Dalya didn’t mean anything by it.

I gave her a genuine smile. “It’s me.”

Next: Zaid Karim Private Investigator, Part 4 – Be Somebody

(Your comments and constructive criticism are a big part of why I publish here, so please do comment, thank you!)

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDMWael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com.For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

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                  #Culture

                  Day of the Dogs, Part 4: You Are the Miracle

                  Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did?

                  Goat standing on a cow's back

                  See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

                  This is chapter 4 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

                  Krägä Bianga

                  “Fear no one.” – Samia

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                  Hospital IV bagLIGHTS IN HIS EYES AND PAIN EVERYWHERE… warmth pouring into his veins like liquid honey… his mother’s face close to his, saying his name… darkness…

                  His mother and a doctor talking… everything blurry… his face hurt. He tried to touch his face, but his mother grabbed his hand and stopped him… sleep…

                  Someone sobbing… why?… pain everywhere in his body. He moaned then fell into darkness…

                  A nightmare, hands dragging him down into a well, and at the bottom of the well, sharp teeth and claws. He struggled, until a warm hand took his, and he settled into silence…

                  An old woman in a red Ngäbe dress standing over him, singing. Her skin was walnut colored and deeply seamed. Her long ebony hair hung free, falling below her waist. She spooned something into his mouth and he swallowed. It was bitter, but as it slid into his stomach he felt it nourishing and strengthening him. The woman’s night-black eyes stared unblinking into his as she whispered a single word in a language he did not understand. His eyelids came down like shuttered doors, and once again he was asleep…

                  The next morning he was somewhat aware. It was the third day after surgery. His mother and a doctor spoke at his bedside. He tried to eat something but could only manage a cup of pudding.

                  “There was a woman,” he said, and his voice sounded like radio static. “Singing.”

                  His mother touched his forehead. “A krägä bianga. A healer of my people.”

                  “But we’re Muslims.”

                  “Hush,” Mamá said. “She is a krägä bianga, not a curandera. Medicine, not magic.”

                  That evening, Omar’s mind was completely clear for the first time. The doctor spoke to him personally about his surgery and recovery. He was able to eat some solid food. Samia came for a visit as well, and he learned about what had happened to her. At some point, as Samia was speaking, he fell asleep.

                  The Old Nightmare

                  The fourth day, the old nightmare returned. The spiders.

                  Red boxing spiderTHE SPINIFLEX RUBIROSA LARVAE WERE IN HIS BODY, and they were hatching. They ate their way out, chewing through muscle and cartilage, fat and veins, destroying his body as thoroughly as if he’d stepped on a landmine. There was no point calling out for his mother. She was nowhere to be found.

                  The spiders burst out through his skin, blood pouring from a thousand wounds, and through a crimson curtain of pain Omar saw that they had the bodies of spiders, but the heads of vicious dogs. Dewed with his blood, they growled, thousands of tiny dog voices joining into a single rumble.

                  He rolled onto his back and saw that he lay on the muddy, putrid stretch of beach below the Panama City seawall. The ground was littered with rotting seaweed, plastic bags and used diapers. Above the seawall, the city was burning. Flames engulfed the tall towers, pouring from shattered windows. Smoke darkened the sky. Not a soul could be seen. The metropolis was dying.

                  The Spinifex hatchlings advanced up his body toward his face, intending to eat his eyes. Their little dog eyes were solid ruby red, as if filled with blood. Omar thrashed, slapping his own face and crying out in terror.

                  Where was Mamá, where was Papá, where were Samia, Halima, Hani, anybody? Anybody anybody the Ruby was killing him…

                  Eighty Seven Bites

                  “Hey. Wake up.” Someone touched his shoulder.

                  Omar’s eyes flew open and he gasped as he shot up to a sitting position in the bed, looking around wildly. His racing heart began to slow as he realized that he was still in the hospital, of course.

                  Samia sat in a chair beside his bed, wearing a fluffy gray robe and an orange hijab, and still reading Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. One side of her face and head were completely bandaged, so he could only see her mouth, nose and one eye. Her skull had been fractured in two places from the attack. The doctors had shaved her hair, she had told him, but she wore her hijab on top of the head bandage, which made her head look about the same as usual.

                  “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

                  “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

                  Omar’s mother slept next to Samia in a chair, her head tipped back against the wall, her mouth slack. She wore black pants and a dark blouse rather than her traditional dress, with a gray hijab. She looked exhausted, with purple circles beneath her eyes.

                  He groaned and sank back. He hurt everywhere. It was not the pain of the Ruby hatchlings burrowing out of his body, but of the wounds from the eighty-seven bites he’d received in the dog attack. It must be almost time for his pain medication.

                  He’d been here for five days. When he’d first arrived at the hospital, his organs had been on the verge of shutting down due to massive blood loss. He’d been in surgery that entire first day and halfway through the night, they told him.

                  It hurt even to breathe, as he had a tube in his nose to prevent his nasal airway from collapsing, as Dr. Medrano had explained to Omar and his mother. A jaunty, heavyset man with thick black hair, Dr. Medrano had smiled and rocked back and forth on his heels as he detailed Omar’s injuries and the surgeries that had repaired him.

                  A stent had been placed under Omar’s left eye. It drained out of his nose to keep his tear duct system from collapsing as well. He’d lost a piece of the upper half of his left ear. He had lines of stitches everywhere, like Frankenstein’s monster. Several parts of his body, including his face, had required primary reconstruction during surgery, to repair or replace flesh and skin that had been torn away. Much of his body was still purple and swollen with bruising. He was receiving aggressive antibiotic treatment to prevent infection from the many deep punctures. His left forearm might never recover to full strength.

                  He would require multiple follow-up procedures, including secondary face, hand and calf reconstructions, as well as fat grafting to fill in depressed areas, cartilage grafting to reconstruct his nose, and ongoing scar treatments.

                  Goat standing on a cow's back“Hey,” Samia said, interrupting Omar’s morose mental review of his Frankenstein-like reconstruction. Samia had been in his room daily, when she wasn’t in her own. “Remember we were talking about unlikely things? You know what else is unlikely? A goat standing on a cow’s back. But I saw that once.”

                  Omar turned his head to look at her. The girl was certifiably crazy. He felt a laugh begin to form inside him, but it hurt to laugh, and it came out sounding like a cross between a chuckle and a moan.

                  Bruises

                  The sound awakened his mother. She stood with a soft exhalation of, “La ilaha il-Allah.” She came to his bedside and bent over him, gently stroking his cheek, taking care to avoid his injuries. “¿Cómo estás mi amor?”

                  Omar began to reply, but then, seeing his mother’s face up close, noticed something. The discolorations beneath her eyes were not the result of exhaustion. They were bruises. Her cheek was bruised as well, and she’d made an effort to conceal it with makeup. She’d been beaten.

                  Tio. Omar’s face settled into a hard mask. He seethed, wishing he could leap out of this bed and go thrash the little rat, taking the man apart limb by limb. For a moment these thoughts surprised him, as he had never been inclined to fight back against Nemesio in the past. Something had changed inside him.

                  Beating up Nemesio was not the solution, however. Omar had bested him that last time because Nemesio had been drunk. But the two of them fighting sober would turn into an all-out brawl. He needed another solution.

                  Mistaking his expression, Mamá said, “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. You’ll be as strong as ever. And these scars will fade.”

                  Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

                  “I’m going to go to the cafeteria,” Mamá said. “Can I bring you some guava juice?”

                  The doctor had prescribed a post-op dietary regimen for Omar, but it was so bland it was like eating paper. Normally Omar would have said yes to some tasty tropical juice, but he was too angry right now.

                  “I don’t want anything.”

                  Mamá hesitated, looking between him and Samia. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll be back soon.”

                  When she was gone, Omar spoke to Samia without looking at her. “You should leave now.” His fists were curled into balls beneath the blanket. Seeing the bruise on his mother’s face had brought it all back, pushing his rage to penetrate his very bones. His nightmare of a life just went on and on. Oh, you need something to break up the routine? life said. How about a dog attack? Okay, now back to the daily mess.

                  It wasn’t only his foul excuse for an uncle he was angry with, but everyone who was supposed to have been responsible for him, who was supposed to have cared. He resented his mother for not being strong enough to protect herself, or him. The principal and teachers at his school had surely seen the bullying directed at him year after year, and had done nothing. Even his father he blamed for dying and leaving him. Why had his father done that? Why had it been more important to stop the mugging of some stranger on a bus than to survive for his own family? And lastly, Omar blamed himself for being a victim. His father would have expected more from him.

                  He had to do something. Life could not continue like this. He heard Sensei Alan saying, “The only failure is the failure to act.” But what could he do here, in this bed, with his body torn half to shreds?

                  Fear No One

                  “I’ve been reading Surat An-Najm,” Samia said, hefting her book. “You want to hear?”

                  He had forgotten she was there. He wiped his tears with jerky motions. “No, I told you-”

                  Samia recited:

                  “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses, and Abraham who fulfilled his mission; That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another; And that there is nothing for man but what he strives for; And that his effort will be seen, and then he will be rewarded for it generously?
                  And that to your Lord is the final return; And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep; And that it is He who causes death and gives life…”

                  A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Al-Ghazali says,” Samia went on, “that we must recognize Allah’s power over everything, and know that no man can control another’s fate. There is nothing for man but what he strives for. If you want something, make a plan and go after it. Fear no one.”

                  “Do I even have to tell you this?” she continued. “Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did? How many did? Nobody. Only you. You might be short, Omar, but you’re a giant.” A tear ran down one cheek and she wiped it away.

                  She finished in Spanish, something she almost never did: “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Rolling her Spanish r’s hard, sounding almost like Halima, and almost bitter. How strange.

                  “Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.” Samia commanded.

                  Omar did so, then Samia stood and shuffled away slowly, one chubby hand grasping her book.

                  Omar felt like Samia had taken a hammer and smashed the diamond-hard shell of fury that had encased him, shattering it. She was somehow able to see through his emotional walls as if they did not exist. Was she like this with everyone? And had she really just happened to be reading that surah, or had she chosen it specifically for him?

                  Alone in his room, Omar began to think. He was still angry but it was cold anger now, the kind that did not interfere with his ability to reason. Make a plan. The only failure is the failure to act.

                  Friends

                  When Mamá returned from the cafeteria with cups of mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese for him – he could only eat soft foods for now – Omar said, “Tell Nemesio to come see me.”

                  Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

                  “Just tell him.”

                  “He will not come, I think.”

                  “Tell him I know a way to profit from this thing.” He waved a hand to indicate his ravaged body. “I want to consult with him.” That’ll get him here.

                  She studied his face uncertainly. “Your friends are here again. The doctor says you are ready for visitors now, but only two at a time, and only ten minutes each.”

                  He nodded his head, and his mother and Samia withdrew.

                  First in were the three Muhammad sisters, all with large black eyes and rings in their left nostrils. Nadia and Naris were decked out in colorful shalwar khamees outfits,  looking like young mahogany trees hung with bright fabrics for a festival, while Nabila wore jeans, a band t-shirt and hi-top sneakers. One or all of them wore a musky, jasmine-scented perfume that filled the small hospital room.

                  Many of the teachers and students at IIAP could not tell the sisters apart, but Omar always could. Nadia was quick to laugh, goofy and wide-eyed, as if constantly surprised. Naris was solemn, and asked hard questions, or gave uninvited criticism. Nabila – she of the band shirts and hi-tops – couldn’t stand still. She danced to her own music, ran when other people walked, and rarely spoke. Even now she was swaying her hips and rotating her hands Bollywood style. She had her own Youtube channel where she showed off dance moves. Omar had heard she was making money with it.

                  “I thought it was only supposed to be two at a time.”

                  Nadia grinned. “We dazzled them with our triplicate identicalness.”

                  “They wanted to know,” Naris said seriously, “if we were Hindu princesses.”

                  “Did you tell them you were Muslim princesses?” Omar asked. Nadia giggled, while Naris looked at him solemnly, as if he’d said something profound.

                  “We’re sorry about what happened to you and Samia,” Nabila broke in, ceasing her dancing momentarily. “Our family’s been praying for you. Everyone has.”

                  “Thanks,” Omar said, and he meant it. “So what’s new?”

                  “Árabe Unido beat FCDeeeeee,” Nabila sang, and she did a little dance that ended in a victory pose, her fingers in Vs.

                  “Halima and Hani are here to see you too,” Nadia said. “And the principal, and a couple of teachers, and the TV news people.”

                  Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

                  “And if you’re wondering if Tameem is out there,” Naris added, “he’s not. He wouldn’t dare show his face. He and his coward sidekick Basem.”

                  Not surprising. Tameem would never bother visiting him. “Why do you call them cowards?”

                  “He was the one who said to run, wasn’t he?”

                  “Didn’t you all run too?” Omar was not accusing, just trying to understand.

                  Nadia let out an explosive laugh. Naris shot her sister a chiding look, then said, “Yes, but we came back. Tameem and Hani kept going. I think they ran all the way to the main road. We haven’t seen them since the Day of the Dogs.”

                  When Omar raised his eyebrows she added, “That’s what we’re calling it now. You know what, I heard they were laughing about it later. If I ever see them again I’ll stick kebab skewers in their eyes.”

                  Omar sighed and adjusted his head on the pillow. His pain level was increasing, and he was tired.

                  “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

                  Omar thanked them for coming, and asked them to send in Halima and Hani. He was exhausted just from this short visit, but he needed to see those two. His memories of the attack were a mayhem of images and sensory impressions as overwhelming as a fireworks show. Teeth and claws, pain, slick blood on his skin, the hot metallic taste in his mouth, the smell of dog fur, the sound of Samia screaming, others shouting… a knife and a gun. People standing around as if they’d just witnessed a massacre. And Halima and Hani right there, above him. He needed to talk to someone who’d been there.

                  Panama Rainforest

                  Halima and Hani would not meet his eyes. Hani with his long face and nose that reminded Omar of a horse; shoulder-length greasy hair, and persistent acne. Halima, as lovely as a daydream, her eyes as green as the Panamanian rainforest.

                  Omar remembered his fantasy of marrying Halima one day. If she’d been out of his league before, how about now? He was a mangled mess.

                  He tried to put such useless thoughts out of his head. “What’s the matter with you two?”

                  “We’re sorry about what happened,” Halima said. “I’m the one who pressured you to come. If I hadn’t done that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

                  “If you hadn’t done that, Samia might be dead,” Omar countered, then immediately realized he’d said the wrong thing by reminding them that they had done nothing to save Samia.

                  “It was all Tameem’s fault,” Hani said, glancing up to meet Omar’s eyes, then looking away again.

                  Omar said nothing.

                  “I know what you’re thinking,” Hani went on. “I’ve been following Tameem like a robot. You and I were friends, and I abandoned you. I’m sorry. I know he’s no good. I can’t explain, man. He’s rich, and everyone admires him, and when you’re around him you feel important. But I’m done with him now. My eyes are open.”

                  “Hani,” Omar said kindly. “My memories are mixed up, but I remember you standing there at the end with a bloody knife in your hand. What happened?”

                  “Hani killed the one dog,” Halima said fiercely. “And the cop shot the other.”

                  “But I ran away first,” Hani said dejectedly.

                  “You were there when it counted. Whatever happened in the past, a lo hecho, pecho. And you, Halima, are a good soul. I remember you standing beside me when everyone else ran away. The Day of the Dogs is done. Let’s look forward.”

                  He began to realize that he had changed. In his mind he heard Samia saying, “You might be short, but you’re a giant.” He was not speaking as one in need, but as one who held power, and therefore possessed the ability to forgive. He felt a core of iron within himself, yet strangely enough, from that iron flowed benediction. Cowardly Tameem and Basem didn’t matter. Omar saw now how meaningless they were, how petty.

                  He thought of the verses of Surat An-Najm: That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another... And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep…

                  Let Tameem and Basem bear their own burdens, laugh their own laughter, cry their own tears. Omar would be his own man, in the universe of his own soul.

                  A nurse came with Omar’s medication, and instructed his visitors to leave. On the way out, Halima turned back with a quizzical expression and said, “Day of the Dogs?”

                  Omar shrugged. “That’s what we’re calling it now.”

                  Get Out

                  He was awakened by a rough thumping on his shoulder. Nemesio stood there with his short, barrel-body and gold teeth, dressed in an expensive but rumpled yellow suit, the broken veins in his nose betraying his alcoholism. His breath stank and his cheeks were shadowed with a week’s growth of beard. A fat canary on a bender.

                  “What’s this nonsense ‘bout making money?” Nemesio demanded. “You thinking to sue? The dog owner is a policia nacional captain. Sue him, you bring a heap of trouble on your head. Stupid boy.”

                  In spite of Nemesio’s words, the man must have thought the possibility of a lawsuit held some promise, or he wouldn’t have come. Omar was going to have to disappoint him.

                  “You know,” Omar said casually. “The police captain came to see me. The one whose dogs attacked me.” This was not true, but Nemesio would not know that. “He was extremely apologetic. He said if I ever need anything, I should only ask.”

                  “Ah, I see.” Nemesio nodded knowingly and stroked his chin. “You wanna ask for compensation for the attack.”

                  “No. I want to ask him to investigate the fire that burned down your gas station.”

                  “Whaaa?” Nemesio’s eyes bugged and his cheeks turned beet red. He seized Omar’s bandaged wrist. “Watchu talking, you little bastard?”

                  Omar ignored the pain flaring in his wrist from the puncture wounds there. He kept his tone calm, and began a carefully rehearsed speech. “I seem to recall that gas prices were at rock bottom around the time your station burned. And you were always complaining about your employees stealing from you. You couldn’t have been making much of a profit. What did the fire inspectors say? An electrical problem? Did you bribe someone to say that?” This was pure speculation on his part, but he saw Nemesio’s eyes widen and knew he’d struck pay dirt. “Then you had a huge insurance payout, but you didn’t restore the station. You abandoned it. I think the police captain would find all this very interesting. And you don’t have anything left to bribe him with, do you? You’ll end up rotting in La Joya for fraud.”

                  Still gripping Omar’s wrist, Nemesio raised a fist.

                  “Go ahead,” Omar said. “The captain can add assault to your charges.”

                  Nemesio released Omar’s wrist and stepped back, looking as if he’d just released a viper. His chin trembled and a speck of spittle dribbled from his bottom lip as he spoke. “Watchu want?”

                  Man walking away, leaving Omar brought his voice to a low hiss, letting some of his rage show. “I know you’ve been beating my mother again, Nemesio.” Normally he would never dare to call the man by his given name as it would bring a terrible beating, but now he spat it like a curse. “I want you gone, today. Pack your things, leave and never come back. If I ever see you again I will beat you to a pulp myself. If you don’t think I can, wait and see. Then I’ll report you to the police.”

                  “I-” Nemesio stuttered. “I don’t got nowhere to go.”

                  “That’s your problem. Leave today, you understand? And don’t you dare touch my mother again. Now get out.”

                  Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 5:  Sorceress of the Forest

                  * * *

                  Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

                  See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

                  Avatar

                  Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

                  Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

                  MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

                  The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

                  Continue Reading

                  #Culture

                  Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

                  The dog spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face…

                  Doberman pinscher

                  See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

                  This is chapter 3 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

                  Stop Pitying Yourself

                  “I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” – Samia

                  Playa Santa Clara, Panama
                  Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

                  MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

                  The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

                  Playa Santa Clara, Panama

                  OMAR DID NOT FIND A SEASHELL. At one point he heard the sound of muffled sobbing, and followed it to where Samia sat in her cabana. She had her face tucked into her knees, her forehead pressing against the book she’d been reading. When Omar said, “What’s the matter?” she looked up with a startled, tear-streaked face.

                  “Nothing.” She wiped her face with her scarf.

                  Omar shifted his weight and looked at the ground, unwilling to either press her or leave her alone.

                  “My parents are getting divorced,” she said finally.

                  “Oh. Sorry to hear that. I thought you guys were a perfect little Islamic family.”

                  “Yes, well. Things are not always what they seem.”

                  That sure was the truth. “Will you go back to Malaysia?”

                  “No. My dad’s going back. I’ll stay with my mom.”

                  That struck Omar as odd. Wasn’t it usually it was the man who traveled to work and the woman who accompanied him?

                  Seeming to read his mind, Samia explained: “She’s an executive for Petronas. She interfaces with oil company executives from all over Latin America. My dad owned an electronics shop back home, which is fine, you know, it’s a good, halal business. I just think…” Her mouth twisted to one side as she tried to hide her distress. “I think he was happier back home.”

                  Omar pointed with his lips to her book. “What are you reading?”

                  “That’s so Panamanian. Pointing with your mouth.”

                  “I am Panamanian.”

                  A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Oh yeah. It’s Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. Hey, can I give you a little advice?”

                  Uh-oh. Omar’s shields went up. Samia always thought she knew best. Before he could say anything, she went on: “You should stop pitying yourself.”

                  He glared. “Excuse me?”

                  “How long have I known you? You think I don’t see you’re miserable? I know there’s something wrong.”

                  “That’s not your business.”

                  Samia sighed. “Would you listen? I’m trying to say that you’re so strong and smart. Almost as smart as me.” She grinned. “Whatever’s going on, you’ll get through it if you stop pitying yourself and just keep on working. You’ll come out on top. You’ll see.”

                  “Unlikely.” She sounded like Sensei Alan, but he’d never give her the satisfaction of telling her so.

                  “Is it? I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” Seeing his quizzical look, she added, “Halima told me you were reading Alice in Wonderland.”

                  He wasn’t reading it. And if he recalled correctly, the White Queen believed in six impossible things before breakfast. But whatever. “That’s fine for you and Alice. You don’t have my life.”

                  “Oh really?” Her voice was sharp. “Where’s your imaan, akhi? Allah always makes a way, don’t you know? You want to know something else unlikely? I’m unlikely!”

                  “What do you mean?” he muttered, chastised.

                  “One: My family comes from Kedah province, on the coast of Malaysia. On December 29, 2004, my father, who was not my father yet, was invited by my grandfather to go sailing on a boat he had bought. They were boarding the boat when my father received a mobile call from the wife of his best school friend. The man had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital at Jitra, an inland city. My father said goodbye to my grandfather and went to see his friend. One hour later, you know what happened?”

                  Omar shook his head.

                  Indian Ocean tsunami

                  Indian Ocean tsunami

                  “The Indian Ocean tsunami. One hour later! You may have heard of it? It killed a quarter of a million people, including my grandfather, who was never found.”

                  Omar made a sympathetic face, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry,” he managed.

                  “Two.” Counting on her fingers. “My father’s taxi was buried in mud, and he should have died, but the mud left his face exposed. He was able to breathe, and to lick rainwater that ran down the inside of the crushed car.

                  “Three: He was rescued by a volunteer relief worker. She was my mother. Soon they married.

                  “Four: My mother’s pregnancy was difficult. The doctors said she might lose the baby. I was born premature. In fact I was not breathing, but the doctors revived me.

                  “Five: I have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

                  “Six: When I was five I had bacterial meningitis. My body didn’t respond to treatment and at one point the doctors told my parents I would die by morning. I remember hallucinating that the doctor was a wolf with a muzzle and huge black eyes. I tried to scream but didn’t have the breath. It was terrifying. My mother told me later that she spent that entire night making dua by my bedside. In the morning my fever broke and by noon I was walking. No one could explain it.”

                  Seven.” She paused, touching index finger to index finger, then shrugged. “I don’t have a seven. But my point is, you say it’s unlikely that your life might improve? My entire existence is unlikely. But Allah does what He wills.”

                  Omar hadn’t known any of that, and didn’t know what Samia was trying to tell him.

                  Samia snapped her fingers. “I’m saying, the unlikely happens every day. And you know what else? Ramadan is coming. Ramadan is about not only the unlikely, but the impossible. Miracles. Angels pouring out of Jannah by the millions. The battle of Badr. Think about that, akhi. Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.”

                  Omar said it.

                  “Go back to your wanderings.”

                  The Gate Opens

                  It was funny how people kept telling him to go away. What was he, a bad smell?

                  At noon, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, the kids ate at a beach restaurant that served only fish and chips. Omar didn’t have enough money for that, but that was okay. He sat in a cabana eating the peanut butter sandwich from home. It was smashed into a trapezoid and the bread was soggy, but it tasted fine.

                  They prayed Dhuhr in congregation, with Tameem leading. Omar didn’t mind. It was not about who stood in front, but about his personal connection with Allah. Though sometimes he wondered about that connection. Not about Allah, but about his own heart. The Creator felt distant sometimes, and Omar knew that was his own fault. But he didn’t know how to fix it.

                  The group headed back up the road at two o’clock, wanting to make it to the highway before the afternoon rains came. As they passed the house with the vicious dog, the creature was nowhere in sight. Tameem kicked the gate and shouted, “Oye perro estupido!” and the dog came running, barking like firecrackers going off.

                  Doberman pinscher

                  Doberman pinscher

                  This time a second dog, a tall doberman pinscher with alert ears and a black muzzle, rounded the house as well and sped toward them on the other’s heels. Drool flew from its mouth as it growled and bared its terrifying teeth. Again the kids screamed and ran, except for Omar, who only shook his head and trotted away quickly, and Samia, who was not a fan of running.

                  A few houses further up the street they stopped and watched a massive silver-colored 4×4 truck cruising down the road. It might have been three meters tall, jacked up on oversized tires, with chrome running boards, and a top-mounted light bar that could probably turn night into day. On the front were bull bars that could be used to ram another vehicle.

                  As it passed they saw it bore the logo of the National Police, and had a rifle mounted in the cab, though the driver was not wearing a police uniform. He was a youngish man, in his late twenties maybe, sporting shades and a cowboy hat. Spanish gangster rap battered its way out of the truck’s speakers. Heading right for the awestruck kids, the truck blasted its horn. The kids jumped out of the way, a few of them cursing the driver.

                  The truck stopped in front of the house with the dogs, and the driver must have hit a remote control, because the gate began to roll quietly open.

                  The two dogs came flying out, snarling, and charged straight at the kids. The German shepherd was in the lead, its large fangs flashing white in the sun, but the doberman was gaining ground. Both dogs were enraged, in full attack mode. The driver yelled at the dogs to stop, but they were so inflamed by Tameem’s provocations that they ignored him.

                  The hair raised up on Omar’s arms and neck. He stood rooted, unsure what to do. Watching the dogs come was like watching a pair of nuclear torpedoes shooting at him. Living torpedoes of bone and claw, muscle and sinew, burning brain and vengeful heart. Their feet flew across the dirt, and their eyes were filled with rage.

                  The Attack

                  SAMIA HAD STOPPED TO CATCH HER BREATH after her brief trot and was now at the tail end of the group, closest to the dogs, with Omar just ahead of her, and Halima beyond him. All the kids froze utterly for one second, as if they were playing a game of red light green light where the losers would be shot dead. In that numb, dumb moment, the dogs covered half the distance from the gate to their motionless victims. Then Basem made a wordless whimpering sound, and Hani whispered, “Oh my God.” One of the girls screamed.

                  Halima started to say, “Nobody run,” but was cut off as Tameem bellowed, “RUN!”

                  Omar shot a glance in the direction of the group and saw they were all fleeing in a panic, led by Tameem and Basem. Only Halima was hesitating. He turned back toward the dogs and saw instantly that Samia wasn’t going to make it. She was jogging toward him but her run was little more than a fast waddle. The dogs were almost on her as they blazed forward with ears tucked and teeth bared. They would kill her.

                  He could not let that happen. It was not even a decision – there was no decision to make. The believers are a single body. The only failure is the failure to act. He ran toward Samia and the charging dogs.

                  Seeing him running toward them, the dogs hesitated, slowing just enough to buy Omar the time he needed. Samia’s eyes were wide with terror, and she looked like she might have a heart attack.

                  Just as Omar reached Samia, the German shepherd leaped at her from behind. Omar tackled Samia, taking her to the ground. The dog sailed over them where they lay in the dirt. He shrugged off his backpack and thrust it at Samia, shouting, “Shield your face!” Then he turned toward the other charging dog and started to rise, bringing his arms up defensively, with a crazy idea that he could use his copper bracelet to block the dog’s teeth – then the animal was on him, crashing into him with the force of a sledgehammer, knocking him back to the ground.

                  German shepherd

                  German shepherd

                  Pain exploded in his forearm as the dog’s fangs stabbed deeply into his flesh. He grunted in shock, but remained clear-headed. Falling back to his years of karate training, he used his free arm to deliver powerful elbow strikes to the dog’s nose and eyes. Not releasing its bite, it snarled and shook its head as if trying to rip the meat loose from Omar’s arm. He screamed as he felt the muscles in his forearm begin to tear.

                  The doberman, meanwhile, had overshot. It turned and charged back. Samia lay on the ground just behind him and to the side, calling out loudly for help. Goaded by her cries, the doberman aimed not for Omar but for Samia.

                  As the doberman raced past him, Omar shot out his good arm and made a desperate grab for the dog’s spiked collar. He caught it! But the dog’s momentum stretched his arm out until he felt something pop in his elbow. Between that and the spikes digging into his hand, he could not hold on. The doberman pulled free, and an instant later Samia cried out again. This time it was not a cry of fear, but a chilling wail of pain, shock and horror. Omar turned his head to look. Oh God. Samia must have begun to roll away before the dog reached her, because the beast straddled her side, and was biting the top of her head as she clutched the backpack tightly to her face.

                  Desperately, with every shred of strength he possessed, Omar struck the German shepherd repeatedly in the face with his wrist, using his copper bracelet as a weapon. Dazed, the dog released its bite and stood over him, swaying. Anguished over Samia and given fortitude by this outrage, Omar pushed, flinging the monster off him. He turned and scrabbled toward Samia. The doberman straddled her, not biting once and clamping down like the shepherd had done to him, but biting repeatedly about her head and shoulders, and sometimes biting the backpack as well.

                  The neighborhood Omar lived in was poor, and there were plenty of stray dogs, many of them hungry, rabid or vicious. He’d seen dog attacks, and knew what to do. He seized the doberman’s sleek black tail, and pulled it backward and up as hard as he could. The big black dog gave a yelp of surprise as it was dragged away from Samia’s weeping form. Then it spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face, penetrating his forehead and cheek. At the same moment the German shepherd, recovered now, bit his calf, its teeth sinking into the muscle like the jaws of a bear trap. The pain was so shocking that he could not even draw a breath to scream.

                  They were both on him. He rolled and fought as best he could, punching, kicking, clawing at the dogs’ faces, even biting the shepherd in the neck at one point. And the whole time the dogs were biting him. He felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood.

                  The blood in his eyes blinded him, so that he saw the world faintly, through a sheet of stinging red. He tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.

                  Some of the kids must have come back to help, because he heard voices shouting and crying, men and women, but above them all he heard Halima very near, screaming, “What do I do, Omar? What do I do?”

                  “Knife,” he managed to croak. “Hani’s knife.” Then louder, mustering his panic and fright, “Get me Hani’s knife!”

                  The dogs continued to bite and tear at his flesh, and he fought, but his strength was giving out. His arms wouldn’t work properly. Then the doberman yelped in pain and was gone, pulled off him. The shepherd was still on top of him, its teeth deep in his upper arm. Omar put a thumb in its eye and it yelped and released his arm, then went for his throat. He turned, and felt its teeth sink deeply into his shoulder. His body went slack. He couldn’t fight anymore. Cold seeped into his body and mind. Even the pain was beginning to recede.

                  Drifting Out to Sea

                  A tremendous blast rang through the air. The shepherd wailed in agony and released his shoulder. Another blast, and the dog was gone. Not on him anymore. He heard terrible, anguished weeping, and realized after a moment that it was him. Tears flooded his eyes, clearing the blood, and he saw people standing over him, their faces registering horror and disbelief. Halima and Hani were closest. Hani’s knife was in his hand, and the blade was bloody to the hilt. His eyes were wide with shock.

                  A man in a cowboy hat also stood over him, and Omar saw that the man was carrying a pistol, and that smoke wisped from the barrel. The man’s face was drained of blood, white as a bone. Who was he? Omar couldn’t think. He wasn’t even sure where he was anymore, or why he was lying here on the ground, burning with agony and covered in something wet.

                  “Samia,” he managed to say, and wasn’t sure why he said that. Then his body began to shake. His teeth chattered and his limbs convulsed, and he couldn’t stop. He was cold, and didn’t understand why. Panama was not supposed to be cold. His heart raced and he could hear it thrumming in his ears, pulsing and crashing like ocean waves.

                  He was half-conscious through all that followed. Hands doing something to him. Sirens. Someone wrapping him in something and lifting him up. Moaning rhythmically, asking for his father. A ride in the back of a vehicle, rocking. The pain going away, ebbing like the tide, to be replaced with a feeling of warmth and comfort, and a deep drowsiness. Something over his face, forcing air into his lungs.

                  Then he was gone, lying on the deck of a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, drifting out to sea, borne on the back of a giant, warm wave. He would live on this sailboat, and Allah would provide for him as He had provided for Maryam, and he would be content. He would sail the world with Alice and Halima and Niko and the white rabbit, and…

                  Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 4:  You Are the Miracle

                  * * *

                  Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

                  See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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                  Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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                  Day of the Dogs, Part 2 – Spiniflex Rubirosa

                  He felt a need for Allah, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he prayed Isha’ on the grass that bordered Avenida Balboa, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

                  Puente de Las Americas, Panama

                  See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

                  This is chapter 2 in a multi-chapter novella. Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

                  A Kid Doing Yoga or Something

                  “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you.” – Sensei Alan

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                  The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

                  Old tennis shoes shoesAFTER GRADUATION OMAR TOSSED HIS GOWN INTO THE DUMPSTER in the school parking lot and went walking through the streets of the city, still wearing his school uniform of navy pants and white shirt, along with a pair of ratty old sneakers that were separating between the uppers and the soles.

                  He had a little money in an envelope that his mother had given him as a graduating present. Remembering what Halima had said about Black Panther playing at the cinema, he took a bus to Multicentro mall, bought a large bucket of popcorn and sat in the very front row, letting the noise and light of the movie drive all thoughts from his head.

                  After the movie he wandered into an electronics shop in the mall. Árabe Unido was playing Alianza on the large screen TV, and a knot of men were gathered. Árabe Unido, founded by Arab immigrants to Panama, was Omar’s favorite football team. He stood wedged between a burly man with the forearms of a construction worker, and a middle-aged man wearing shorts, flip flops and a polo shirt. They watched as Leslie Heráldez lofted a high shot to the brilliant Carlos Small, who stopped it with his chest, deftly steered the ball past two defenders, then banged it into the goal. All the men cheered, and Omar threw up his arms and shouted, “Goaaaaal!”

                  A moment later a grasshopper-faced salesman, decked out in a cheap suit and obviously trying to mask his utter lack of interest in the game, stepped in front of the TV to begin his pitch.

                  “You see how amazing this television is? Doesn’t it feel like you are right on the pitch? It includes built-in wifi and the highest LCD picture quality. You can own this TV today with a monthly payment of only $49.95…”

                  The men groaned their displeasure and wandered off.

                  “Sorry,” Omar offered, consoling the salesman. “It’s a nice TV, though.”

                  The salesman waved him off.

                  Stepping outside the mall, he was surprised to see that it was late afternoon. The sun would be down soon. Was it a coincidence that malls had no windows? He prayed ‘Asr in the small grassy area outside the main entrance, leaping over a low wall to do so. In the middle of his prayer, a mall security guard walked up to him and said, “This area is off limits, kid. Move along.” When Omar did not respond, the man keyed his radio. “Pereira here. I need backup. I got a kid doing yoga or a protest or something.”

                  By the time Omar was on the last rak’ah another guard had arrived.

                  “I’ll grab his hands,” the original guard said, “and you take his feet.”

                  “Wait,” the newcomer said. “He’s not causing any problems.”

                  “At least let me taser him.”

                  No, Pereira.”

                  “It’s not fair,” the first guard grumbled. “We never get to do anything.”

                  Omar finished his prayer and stood. The original guard, a thin young man with a scowl that looked superglued into place, stepped back, startled. The newcomer, a fit black man in his fifties, merely raised his eyebrows.

                  Omar smiled. “I was praying. You wouldn’t want to stop a kid from getting into heaven, would you?”

                  The older man laughed. When Omar hopped back over the wall and strolled away, the younger guard shouted after him, “You better not come back!”

                  Karate is Life

                  DojoHe took another bus down to the Carolina district, and walked into the karate dojo as class was bowing in. The dojo was small, with pear-colored tatami mats on the floor, traditional weapons mounted on racks, and a Japanese flag on one wall. At the moment there were fifteen students training in the cramped space, ranging from thirteen years old to twenty-five. The dojo had no air conditioning, and the room was ripe with the tang of sweat. Shedding his shoes at the door, he bowed to Sensei Alan.

                  Sensei was a muscular, smooth-faced man in his forties, with an oddly contrasting head of white hair. “What are you doing here?” he asked in Spanish. “I thought you were taking the day off for graduation.”

                  Omar shrugged. “Graduation is crap. I’m only graduating tenth grade, it doesn’t mean anything.”

                  Sensei addressed Evangelista, a short woman in her 20’s who sported a blue mohawk and was one rank below Omar himself. “Get class started. Forms one to five.”

                  Sensei took in Omar’s school uniform, the popcorn butter stain on his shirt, the bruises on his face… Sensei Alan had known Omar’s papá, and since his passing had witnessed the changes in Omar’s life.

                  “You will always be you,” Sensei said without preamble. “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you. If you live in an abusive situation, with people who do not care for you, you are still you. Not in relation to them, but in the chambers of your heart. When you leave that abusive situation behind, as I guarantee you will, and if you end up wealthy, or happily married with kids, you will still be you. Not as others imagine you, but as you exist in the sanctity of your own mind. I could say that I admire you, and I do, seonbae-nim. But if your happiness is dependent on my admiration then you have failed, because what if I did not respect you? So the question is, who are you? Not in relation to anything else. But alone, in the universe that is your soul.”

                  This was the longest speech he’d ever heard Sensei give. And why did the man address him as seonbae, an honorific given to a prized student? Usually he just called him Omar.

                  “That is not to say,” Sensei continued, “that the outer world does not exist. It acts upon us. But you know how to handle that.”

                  Normally Sensei did not like questions, but this statement seemed to invite one. “I do?”

                  “Karate is life. When an attack is imminent?”

                  “Hit first and hard.”

                  When the attacker pushes forward…”

                  “Yield and counter.” Sensei had repeated these aphorisms many times.

                  “The only failure…”

                  “Is the failure to act.”

                  Sensei waved a hand. “Come back when you have considered my words.”

                  Omar was confused. The dojo had classes every day except Sunday. “You mean…”

                  “You will know.”

                  The discussion was over. Omar bowed. “Oss!”

                  It was fully dark outside now. He walked around the city thinking over all that had happened that day. As he walked, women of the night propositioned him, calling out, “Oye, chiquito! Quieres dulces?” Gangsters shouted out insults, street vendors tried to sell him mangoes or cigarettes, and always the traffic ran through the concrete gulches of the city like great schools of fish in the sea: swarming, racing and pulsing, though unlike fish the traffic was never silent, but hooted and blared perpetually.

                  He puzzled over Sensei’s statement. You will always be you. Was that a Zen thing Alan had learned in one of his visits to Japan? Like the story about the man who came to a wide river that had no bridge or ferry, and called out to an old man on the opposite shore, wanting to know how to get to the other side. And the old man said, “You are on the other side.”

                  But Omar didn’t want to be on this side.

                  Night rainLightning flashed, thunder rolled across the city like a steamroller, and the skies opened like the floodgates of a dam, dropping water by the ton onto the rich and poor, bloated and starving, arrogant and desperate. Within a minute he was waterlogged, water squeezing out of his shoes with every step. But the rain was as warm as blood, so he walked on.

                  He felt a need for Allah, a need to be comforted, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he made wudu’ with the rainwater and prayed Isha’ on the grassy strip that bordered the Avenida Balboa embarcadero, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain percolating into his skin and maybe into his bones, washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

                  Rogue Planets

                  HE ENDED UP IN CASCO VIEJO, TO HIS OWN SURPRISE. Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived nearby, and he realized that his feet had been taking him there of their own accord. But it was late, he was dripping wet, and he did not want to drop in on them unannounced. So he walked down to the tip of the small peninsula, where the seawall looked out over the entrance to the Panama Canal.

                  Casco Viejo, Panama

                  Casco Viejo, Panama

                  The rain had stopped, and he stood watching the gargantuan ships queued up in the bay, waiting their turns to enter the canal. Fog lay upon the water, so that Omar could see only the lights of the ships hanging in the darkness. He pretended that each ship was its own rogue planet inhabited by jinn, elves and fairies. They only appeared at night, in the fog, and would disappear by day, or so he imagined.

                  If he could swim out to one of those ships, and climb up onto its deck, the strange inhabitants would welcome him as a refugee from the crumbling civilizations of humankind. They would grant him asylum, and set him up in a job tending to the elfin gardens, or teaching karate to the young fairies. He would become a part of their world, their rogue planet, and over time the memories of his past life would fade. Flashes of his mother’s and father’s faces might come to him now and then, but they would be like images in a dusty book, yellowed around the edges, the paper flaking away.

                  He would be a unique figure – the only human in an inhuman reality. Some would hate him and plot against him, but many would love him. He would become advisor to the fairy king, and marry a fairy princess. And if he ever heard the word Panama, he would pause, his head tilted to one side, trying to recall where he had heard that name before.

                  He sighed. It was late, and he was far from home. He had enough money left for a taxi, so he flagged one and closed his eyes, letting the motion of the vehicle rock him. The driver left the windows open, and the night air hit his wet clothing and chilled him. By the time he arrived home he was shivering.

                  He lived in a rundown seaside barrio on the eastern edge of Panama City. It was called Panama Viejo, named after the ruins of the original Spanish settlement of 1519. It was the kind of neighborhood where a stranger would be robbed in the first ten minutes. But Omar knew everyone here, and knew which streets to avoid, and when to duck into the shadows.

                  The front gate of his home was secured with a combination padlock, and the front door had two separate locks. When he let himself in, Mamá emerged from her bedroom, wanting to know why he was so late.

                  He told her of his day’s travels. He hoped that she would say something to assure him of the future. Some promise, even a hollow one, that life would be different. But before she could say anything, Nemesio came barging out of his room. His open shirt revealed a mat of curly chest hair and a belly that hung over his waistband. He reeked of alcohol and dried sweat.

                  “You little bastard,” Nemesio snarled. “Stay out late, worry your mother. Watchu doin’? Selling drugs? Gimme the money.” He came forward, arms outstretched to seize Omar. Always Omar had let him do so, willing to be the object of Tio’s aggression as long as the man left Mamá alone. But this night, Sensei’s reminders were fresh in his head: When the attacker pushes forward, yield and counter. The only failure is the failure to act. So when Nemesio came at him, Omar sidestepped deftly and gave the man the slightest push, adding to the momentum he already had.

                  Nemesio careened past Omar, out of control. He tumbled into the sofa, which overturned, dumping him over the other side where he crashed head-first into the wall, and was knocked unconscious. Mamá screamed and ran to him. She probed his skull, then said with relief, “He is fine, I think. Just knocked out, or maybe passed out from the alcohol.”

                  “Who cares?”

                  “Omar!

                  He looked at Nemesio’s sorry form, lying crumpled against the wall. His head had made a dent in the plaster. The man would be on a tear tomorrow, ready to commit serious violence. But at that moment, Omar was beyond caring. He was tired, and wanted only to go away and never return. He imagined himself sitting on the beach on one of Panama’s Pearl Islands – a place he’d seen on the map but never with his own eyes – sheltering in the shade of a tree. Like Maryam when she retreated from the people and clutched a palm tree, and Allah provided her with water and fresh, ripe dates, so Allah would provide for him too.

                  But he was not Maryam. He was a kid that no one wanted. He trudged to his room, stripped off his wet clothes and dumped them on the floor, then toppled into bed.

                  Spiniflex Rubirosa

                  That night, Omar awoke with a terrible burning on the back of his neck. He knew instantly what was happening. Anyone would. There had been nothing else in the news for the last two months.

                  A new and deadly spider had appeared in the world, perhaps a mutation, or perhaps something ancient uncovered beneath the melting ice of the glaciers of Asia or Europe. It was a tiny thing, less than half the size of a fingernail, pink and red, and almost pretty if you didn’t know what it could do. It was called Spiniflex Rubirosa, though most people just called it the Ruby.

                  Red boxing spiderThe Ruby reproduced by crawling onto a sleeping or unaware human, extending a tiny tubule from its abdomen, and injecting a spray of thousands of eggs into the human’s skin, preferably on the back of the neck or between the shoulder blades. Sensing the warmth of their host, the eggs hatched immediately, and the larvae burrowed down into the hypodermal layer, where they fed on rich blood and tissue fat, growing larger.

                  As the larvae burrowed in, the infected human experienced a terrible burning sensation, as if the affected area were on fire. It was not uncommon for sufferers to scrape away the outer layers of their skin with their fingernails or even with knives. This, however, only prompted the Ruby to burrow deeper.

                  Once they were in place, however, the larvae secreted an anesthetic, so that the pain faded, and sufferers often thought their initial symptoms had been a false alarm.

                  The larval stage lasted three days, after which the larvae would cocoon for a week then hatch. Thousands of spiders would emerge from the cocoons and – using sharp pincers – chew their way out of the infected person’s body, resulting in massive blood loss.

                  Panicked crowds fled at the rumor of infestations, carrying the spider or its eggs all over the world. In a matter of weeks, half the world’s population was dead or dying.

                  Now the Ruby was on Omar. He felt it on the back of his neck, the scorching pain flaring higher and higher as the larvae burrowed into his body. He cried for his mother and she came running, but froze in place when she saw him frantically clawing the back of his neck, scraping away his own skin until his fingernails came away bloody.

                  “Do something!” he pleaded. “Get it off of me!” But she only stood and stared, her expression wide-eyed and stunned. Why wouldn’t she help him? She could not become infected unless the Ruby laid eggs on her. She had to help him, he was dying!

                  * * *

                  He woke thrashing in bed, reaching for the back of his neck, panting in terror. But he made no noise. He’d learned over the years that waking up loudly from nightmares would bring beatings from Tio, so he had somehow taught himself to dream silently, even when the dreams were visions of darkness and dread.

                  It was early, just a glimmer of pale blue light easing through the window. He’d shed his clothes last night before bed but had not showered, and somehow the scent of rain had transferred to the bed sheets, so that his bed smelled like ozone and musk. The house was silent but for the hum of the refrigerator and the air conditioner in Nemesio’s room. Mamá preferred not to use the AC at night to save money, but Nemesio insisted he could not sleep without it. What did that bum care? He didn’t pay the bill.

                  Omar dressed quietly, putting on a pair of old jeans and his blue and white Árabe Unido jersey bearing number 58, Carlos Small’s number. He performed wudu’ and prayed Fajr, then quietly made himself a sandwich, stuffed a towel into his school backpack, and slipped out the door.

                  Chicken Heart

                  Panama Viejo was a long walk from Albrook. Omar could have taken a bus, but he’d found that sustained exercise cleared his mind and settled his spirit like nothing else. Two hours later the sun was hot enough to fry a fish on the pavement as he arrived at Albrook Mall, which doubled as the national bus terminal. Scores of buses departed constantly for every part of Panama and beyond, even to Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Playa Santa Clara was two hours and twenty minutes away. You had to take a $4 bus to Santiago, then a $4 taxi to Santa Clara village, then walk. It was a lot, but Halima said Playa Santa Clara was the best beach on the Pacific side of Panama. A hidden gem.

                  The group boarded one of the buses. Omar sat alone in the back, taking a window seat. He hadn’t been out of Panama City in years, and wanted to see the sights.

                  Aside from Omar and Halima, Samia was there, the three Muhammad sisters, Tameem, and two other boys named Hani and Basem. Nine kids altogether. Hani, a thin Egyptian boy with long hair and bad skin, was Omar’s age and from the same neighborhood. When they were younger they used to play football together in the street, or chess on rainy days. They’d been good friends back then.

                  Tameem was the real games expert, though. His game consisted of playing people against people, shaming them for their choices of friends, and forcing them to compete for his attention. Eventually Hani, embarrassed to be friends with the “Patacon,” had moved into Tameem’s orbit and cut Omar out of his life.

                  Basem, a chunky Emirati boy with a surly attitude, had arrived only last year. He laughed at everything Tameem said, bought the same brands of clothing as him, and copied him in bullying Omar. Interestingly, when Tameem was not around, Basem ignored Omar completely. Either way, Omar wanted nothing to do with him.

                  Those three boys – Tameem, Basem and Hani – sat together now, speaking loudly over the reggaeton music pounding from the bus’s speakers. The five girls sat in a group as well, chatting and laughing. Samia did not acknowledge Omar, but Halima and the Muhammad triplets turned and waved to him. The triplets were Fijian Indians, slender and chestnut-skinned, with shining black hair that cascaded to their waists. They could have passed for indigenous Panamanians, Omar thought. Because they were all identical, they drew looks wherever they went.

                  Puente de Las Americas, Panama

                  Puente de Las Americas, Panama

                  Pressing his forehead to the window, his breath condensing on the chilled glass, Omar watched as the bus threaded its way past El Chorrillo, where his Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived. Then they crossed over the Puente de Las Americas, and he gazed down at the navy blue water of the canal, surrounded on both sides by thick emerald jungle.

                  A gargantuan container ship – perhaps one of the same ones he’d seen in the queue last night – was traversing the canal, piled with thousands of shipping containers. Omar had heard that these vessels were run by skeleton crews, since most of the ships’ processes were automated. For a moment he wondered what it must be like to work on such a ship, hardly seeing a human face, wandering alone through the decks, hearing your voice echo off the vast steel bulkheads. Then he realized he knew exactly what it was like.

                  He’d worn a light windbreaker in case of rain. He zipped it up all the way to ward off the chill of the bus’s AC, which must have been set on “Mt. Everest” or “Viking Warrior.”

                  At Santiago they crowded into two taxis, boys in one and girls in the other. Hani sat in the front passenger seat, while Omar was in the back seat next to Basem, with Tameem on the other side. “Don’t worry, Patacon,” Tameem sneered. “I’ll pay for the taxi. My father is rich, unlike yours who – oops!”

                  Basem sniggered at this.

                  Hani turned around in the front seat, said, “Hey, that’s not cool, man. That’s going too far.” Hani shot Omar an apologetic look, but Omar ignored him. They may have been friends once, but Hani was just another of Tameem’s toadies now.

                  “Shut up, Hani,” Tameem said roughly. “Or you can get out and walk the rest of the way.”

                  Like a good toadie, Hani shut up.

                  “I’ll pay my share,” Omar insisted. “And as for my father, he’s in a place you’ll never see, you ghoul.”

                  Tameem shot Omar a look of furious rage, then pretended to laugh it off. “Good one, Punching Bag.”

                  “I may be a punching bag, but I’ll never be your punching bag, chicken-heart.”

                  Tameem made no response, as Omar knew he would not. The boy could toss out whatever insults he liked, but it would never be more than that. And that was fine, Omar told himself. He could handle insults. Sticks and stones, and all that. But then why was he so full of anger?

                  The Blue Express

                  The taxis took them as far as the end of the paved street. From there it was a fifteen minute walk through the village of Santa Clara and down a dirt road. They trooped along, Omar bringing up the rear. The village homes were traditionally Panamanian: small, cement-block houses with tiled floors, shuttered windows and corrugated zinc roofs painted red.

                  Many of the doors stood open, the inhabitants sitting in plastic chairs on the patios. The older women were attired in colorful pollera dresses, while the men sported straw hats. The younger women wore t-shirts and jeans so tight he wondered how they even managed to put them on. Children played marbles in the dirt, rode bicycles, or kicked soccer balls. The smells of cooking food filled the air- arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, tostones, grilled fish with garlic and tomatoes.

                  People greeted the teenagers, wishing them a good morning. If anyone thought Samia and Halima’s hijabs were strange, they didn’t show it. One middle-aged man in a rocking chair called out to Omar in Spanish: “Go Árabe Unido! We are having a good season, eh?”

                  Omar pumped his fist. “El Expreso Azul!” The Blue Express, the fans’ nickname for the team.

                  Mango treeThe road was lined with thick-limbed mango trees. The mangoes were in season, hanging heavy on the branches like Ramadan lamps. Many had fallen into the road and lay there, whole or split, exuding a scent so rich you could almost see it, like a sweet orange mist in the air.

                  Omar watched Hani pick up a mango, rub it on his shirt, then stab into it with his little pocket knife. Omar remembered that knife. Hani had received it as a gift from his father on his tenth birthday – one of the few gifts the boy had ever been given by his dad, who paid him little attention. It had a wooden handle into which Hani had burned his own initials, and a dull little blade that could barely cut.

                  Hani sliced the mango with some difficulty and passed pieces to the other boys (Omar not included) and they ate as they walked.

                  In front of a house with peeling paint and listing window shutters, an anorexic woman smoked a cigarette and argued into a cell phone as her dusty-faced toddler sat in the dirt. As the teens walked by, the little boy watched them. When Omar approached, the toddler stood and reached out his arms to be picked up. Omar’s feet faltered. Why was the boy reaching to him?

                  Noticing him, the smoking mother said, “¡Piérdase!” Get lost.

                  Omar wanted to move, but his feet wouldn’t budge. The boy’s eyes were brown and pleading. His little arms reached skyward. From the corner of his eye, Omar saw the boy’s mother begin to move toward him. She was shouting something.

                  A hand tugged on the sleeve of his windbreaker and the spell was broken. He looked at the person pulling him forward, expecting to see Halima. It was Samia. She was breathing hard just from the exertion of this walk. The girl seriously needed to exercise more.

                  “You can let go,” Omar said.

                  “That wasn’t very funny what you did with the cockroaches.”

                  “What do you mean?”

                  “The cockroaches in my school bag yesterday. I thought we were past that kiddie stuff.”

                  “Oh!” Omar said indignantly. “Naturally you accuse me?”

                  “Well…” Uncertain now. “I’m sorry, I just thought-”

                  “Besides, it was only one cockroach.”

                  Samia’s mouth fell open. “You jerk! You had me feeling sorry for you.” She stalked ahead to join the others, leaving Omar in the rear again.

                  The Muhammad sisters began singing a nasheed.

                  Peace be upon the bringer of light
                  his turban black, his jubbah white,
                  when round the ka’bah he turned,
                  by his people mocked and spurned,
                  while others came in the depths of night,
                  whispers they’d heard
                  of a Prophet
                  reciting Allah’s word.

                  Just before they reached the beach, they passed a cluster of wealthy homes with landscaped gardens and fountains in the yards. Many were weekend homes for rich Panama City families. One had a high brick wall with an arched steel gate topped by a family crest. As the three boys in the lead passed the gate, a huge German shepherd came running up, barking ferociously. The dog was tall and barrel-chested, with lustrous golden fur on its chest and legs, and a black face and back. It wore a collar studded with metal spikes that gleamed in the sun, but this didn’t restrict its voice, which was explosive and penetrating.

                  The girls screamed and darted away. Tameem laughed and kicked the lock, enraging the dog who threw itself at the gate, snarling and baring his teeth. Tameem bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it into the dog’s face. Rather than shy away, the beast went into a frenzy. It lunged, trying to force its head between the bars to bite Tameem. Saliva flew from its mouth.

                  “Stop that you idiot!” Samia shouted. “What if it gets out?”

                  Tameem laughed. “Okay maestra chub-a-lub.”

                  Omar shook his head as he gave the dog a wide berth. Why had he agreed to come on this trip?

                  This Time for Panama

                  Playa Santa Clara, Panama

                  Playa Santa Clara, Panama

                  The beach was deserted aside from a few families whose parents sheltered in the free cabanas set up in two long rows, while the kids built sand castles or played at the edge of the surf. Omar rolled up his pants and strolled on the wet sand, squinting against the light that reflected off the sea. He could not swim, and contented himself with enjoying the cool water on his feet and the smell of salt in the air, and looking for shells. The other boys ran into the waves.

                  The Muhammad sisters changed into knee-length shorts and t-shirts and played in the shallows. Halima wore an Islamic style swimsuit, what did they call it? A burkini. She dove into the water and swam powerfully to the deeper water past the surf break, cutting through the water like a swordfish. Omar watched her. He hadn’t known she could swim like that. She was amazing. As for Samia, she spread out a towel in the shade of a cabana and sat cross-legged, reading a book.

                  Maybe Samia was right about Ramadan. Maybe it was a time of miracles. Only a few days away now. But Omar could not imagine what shape a miracle might take. Why was Samia suddenly so concerned about him, anyway? Did she like him? He tried to imagine himself, five or ten years from now, married to Samia. Ugh. No. It wasn’t her pudginess that bothered him, but her pedantic bossiness, as if she were an Imam or life coach on a world tour, making a side stop in this Central American backwater to set Omar’s life straight.

                  Halima, on the other hand… He could definitely see himself married to her. Whew! What an intriguing and exciting trip that would be. He chuckled at his own foolishness, knowing that Halima was out of his league. Might as well try to marry Shakira. Waka waka eh eh. This time for Panama.

                  He remembered a trip to another beach with his parents when he was small. He built a sand castle with Papá, then went beachcombing with Mamá. Mamá found a perfect conch shell. She squealed with excitement and blew into it, but nothing happened. But when Papá blew into it, a sound like a ship’s horn burst forth. Little Omar was in awe. They took the shell home and put it in a display case in the living room.

                  But after Papá died, and before Nemesio came, Mamá sold the shell to buy food.

                  Omar hoped he would find another such shell today. He pictured the way his mother’s face would light up. Or would it make her sad, remembering that long-ago day? As he searched, the waves pounded in, undeterred by their failure to mount the land and claim it all for their blue depths. Your time is coming, Omar thought. You’ll drown us all like the people of Nuh one day. He imagined the waves were speaking to him, exhorting him in thunderous tones to do something dramatic. CHANGE, they were saying. And then shhhhhhh, as the water receded across the sand. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. But he did not know what change they demanded.

                  Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 3:  The Attack

                  * * *

                  Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

                  See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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                  Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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