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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 4 – Be Somebody

Dr. Ehab had lied to me. Tarek didn’t have any job in Palm Springs. He was in a drug rehab facility. I shook my head in disgust as I drove away.

Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

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

Previous chapters of this story: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

***

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February 4, 2010
Merced, California

“Wow.” Dalya stared at me, seemingly at a loss for words. I saw a turbulent concoction of emotions in her gaze: attraction, fear, and maybe a wish that I would turn around and walk away. “It’s been a long time,” she finally managed. “What are you doing here? Do you need dental care?”

“Can we speak privately?”

Her eyes traveled quickly up and down my body, taking in my worn jeans, surplus army boots, button-up shirt that came off the rack at Walmart, and last of all the fedora. She frowned, deepening the lines in her forehead, then she gazed around the lobby of her office as if she’d find the answer in the potted plants or the flat screen TV that was showing an animated movie.

“It’s important,” I said.

She flashed a practiced, artificial smile, displaying pearly white teeth. “Sure. Come to my office.” She led me down a corridor to a small office across from a treatment room. There was little in it aside from a lovely wooden desk, a computer and framed diplomas on the wall.

“So,” she said when we were seated. “Prison, huh? You were in there what, ten years?”

“Six.”

“What was that about? What happened to you, Zaid? You were one of the smartest kids in school. I thought you would, you know, be somebody.”

I gazed at her without expression. “I follow my own inner starlight, and I don’t bother to hide the madness. Allah watches over me, as he cares for all lunatics.” Paraphrasing Ginsberg there.

“Pardon me?”

I enjoyed the look of consternation on her face, though later this entire conversation would probably bother me. “I am somebody, Dalya. I’m me, and I’m okay with who I am.”

“Yes, of course.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I didn’t mean anything, I just… they said you robbed banks. Is that true?”

“It was a long time ago.” Subjectively that was true, if not chronologically. In any case it was an easy answer.

“Yes, of course.” The fake smile again. “What can I do for you?”

I explained the situation.

“Wow,” Dalya said again when I was done. “My parents hired you? That’s unbelievable.”

“Yeah, right?” I knew she wasn’t trying to be unkind. She was baffled by everything that had happened to me, by the choices I’d made, as were many in the community. But I wasn’t here to explain my past or justify my present. “The thing is,” I went on, “I need to talk Tarek, but I can’t get ahold of him. Your father says he doesn’t have a phone.”

“Yes, they confiscated it for the duration. Standard practice.”

“Oh, you mean the people at, uhh…” I removed a small notebook from my pocket and pretended to study it. In reality I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Oasis Rehab in Palm Springs,” Dalya prompted. “It’s standard practice in drug rehab to remove the patient’s connections to the outside world.”

“Right,” I said, thinking, I should have known. “So he’s not working?”

She frowned. “Well, no. Like I said, he’s in rehab.”

“Uh-huh. And how long does Tarek have left in the program?”

“I have no idea. Didn’t my parents tell you?”

“They were less than forthcoming.”

She waved a hand. “They’re embarrassed. It’s supposed to be a big secret. They babied that boy, you know?” Bitterness crept into her voice. “Me and Mina had to study, work, behave ourselves, but Tarek could do anything and they’d say, ‘boys will be boys.’ And now look. His life is a disaster. You know, I still can’t get over the fact that they hired you. My mother detests you. Sorry.” She gave a nervous chuckle.

“Your father told me they wanted someone who cares.”

“And do you?”

“Yes, I do. I care about Anna… about Tarek. I even care about you, Dalya.”

“That’s generous of you, considering.” She pursed her lips. “I’m sorry I never wrote to you. None of us did.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. Mom forbade it. But I’m sorry. I heard you married Safaa Al-Yasiri.”

I smiled, thinking of my beautiful wife. “Yes. She’s a good woman. I’m crazy about her. We have a daughter, Hajar. And you? How’s your family?”

She glanced at her wedding ring, then looked away, blushing. “I’m divorced actually. No kids. I don’t know why I still wear this thing.” She twisted the ring back and forth on her finger.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Look at you, ma-sha-Allah. You have a successful business, you look amazing… Alhamdulillah, right? You still have your whole life ahead of you.”

She gave me a grateful smile. “Thanks. Uhh… I think Safaa made a good choice.”

There was a lot that wasn’t being said. When Safaa and I married, Dalya and her husband were invited to the wedding. Not only did they not attend, they didn’t have the courtesy to RSVP. More than that, the same community that had ostracized me had punished Safaa for marrying me. She wasn’t invited to parties, weddings or even Islamic halaqas. Dalya was a part of all of that. As a result, aside from Safaa’s relatives, most of her friends were non-Muslims.

Though Dalya and I had once been close, I felt nothing for her now. I didn’t hate her. I just wasn’t impressed by her success or the size of her diamond ring.

Safaa was worth a thousand Dalyas, a million even. I thanked Allah for making her my wife. I believed in my heart that she and I were written on the face of the sea and in the mist of the highest mountains. We were chosen for each other before we even thought to choose. There was no one for me but her.

I didn’t know what to say to Dalya’s comment, so I brought the subject back to the case. “I understand Angie has a sister? Do you know where she works?”

“No. I was never close with Angie or her family. We weren’t supposed to-” She looked away, embarrassed. “We weren’t supposed to be nice to her. Mom wouldn’t stand for it.”

There was little else to say. I stood, thanked Dalya for her help, and left.

* * *

Driving away, I shook my head in frustration. Dr. Ehab had lied to me. Tarek didn’t have any job in Palm Springs. He was in some ten thousand dollar a month resort rehab facility doing group therapy with junkie celebrities. I mean, good for Tarek. I was glad he was getting help. But I was disgusted at the Anwars’ unwillingness to tell the truth. Was it more important to the them to protect themselves from shame than to find their granddaughter? What else had they lied to me about?

It didn’t matter. I would do my job. When I stopped at a red light I took the photo of Anna from my pocket and gazed at it. She was not smiling, but there was a twinkle in her eyes, as if she were thinking of a joke she’d heard, or a secret she knew.

Angie was Anna’s mother and had a right to go where she wanted and do as she pleased. Dr. Ehab was right, however. There was no telling what a drug addict might do, or what danger Anna might be in. I’d promised to at least find Anna, and that was exactly what I would do.

Now that I knew how to find Angie’s sister, maybe she could provide useful information.

Taking out my phone, I googled Alejandra Rodriguez but found no listing in San Francisco. In the past I would have used LexisNexis, a private, subscription-based information service that provided complete reports on anyone in America. The last time my subscription had come up for renewal, however, I’d been too broke to afford it. I could have renewed it right then if I’d deposited some of this cash in my bank account, but I hadn’t had a chance to do that yet.

I tried a few other search engines, including Bing and even Yahoo – a desperate measure, that – and finally got a hit on an old news story about a doctor Alejandra Rodriguez who had spent a year in Kenya, working for Doctors Without Borders. The article mentioned that she was a neurosurgeon with the Sequoia Surgical Center. I looked that up and found an address in San Francisco’s expensive Pacific Heights neighborhood.

Almond orchard

The almond trees were in bloom…

I drove west, leaving Merced behind. The weak afternoon sun broke through the clouds and shone palely on the almond orchards and tomato farms. The almond trees were in bloom, each tree bursting with hundreds of white blossoms. I’d read in the Bee that some farmers, unable to pay the rising costs of water, were abandoning their crops. If I came back here in a few months, I might find acres of unharvested almonds rotting on the ground.

I passed fields of dessicated grasslands grazed by sprawling herds of sheep. Lambs trailed after their mothers and gamboled about. In places the farmers had laid out lines of feed to supplement the dry grass. The Eastside Bypass was a wide, dry gulch, and the San Joaquin and Fresno Rivers were thoroughfares of parched sand. I had not seen water flowing in those channels since I was a teenager. It was – once again – a dry winter in California, and all living things were struggling to survive.

I thought of the last ayah of Surat al-Mulk: “Say, ‘Have you considered: if your water was to become sunken [into the earth], then who could bring you flowing water?’”

SubhanAllah. Here I was in the richest state of the richest nation on earth. Yet if Allah chose to withhold his blessing, who could speak a word in protest? The American government, with all its power, all its aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles, could not produce the water to irrigate one tomato plant. We were all dependent on Allah’s mercy in the end.

As a child of Palestinian immigrants, I had to believe the reverse was true as well. My people, the Palestinian nation and diaspora, were a defeated, oppressed and demonized tribe. Our nation was stolen, our very homes occupied by strangers. We were prisoners in our own land and refugees in the lands of others. But if Allah chose to help us, if He sided with us and marked our path to victory, then who could stand in our way?

I would pray Dhuhr and ‘Asr – the noon and afternoon prayers – by the side of the road, taking advantage of the Islamic dispensation for travelers, allowing them to combine prayers for convenience. I should arrive in San Francisco by sunset, Insha’Allah.

I missed my wife and child. I missed having a home to return to. I missed the presence of someone – anyone – in my life who genuinely cared about me. Someone I could talk to, someone I could love.

The desire to be with my family, to see them and hold them, expanded in my chest so hard and fast that I had to choke back a sob. I needed my wife: the clean scent of her black hair, her lean and dusky arms, her warmth, her ready laugh… It had been a long time since I’d heard her laugh, and a long time since I’d held her in my embrace.

Hajar too I needed. She was my darling, my sweetheart. Big, looping brown curls, and light brown eyes the color of the irrigated earth of my native Palestine, or so I imagined my homeland, since I’d never seen it and likely never would. Hajar liked to make up jokes and stories, could create her own dolls and doll furniture out of anything handy – from popped balloons to twigs from the yard – and loved to run toward me and throw herself at me like a roller derby queen. I needed the way she wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed so tightly I could hardly breathe. The way she’d lie on the floor, idly kicking her bedroom door so that the stopper bounced off the wall, no matter how many times I told her not to.

Her love, her stubbornness and even her tears – they were all precious to me.

I glanced at the clock: 2:30 pm. Safaa would be teaching the second grade class at Fresno Islamic Academy. Hajar was at preschool.

I took my cell phone out of my pocket, plugged in my ear piece and hit 2 to speed-dial Safaa. I knew she didn’t want to talk to me. Her instructions were to call only in case of emergencies. Anyway she’d be busy in class and her phone would probably be off. I just wanted to hear her voice on the voicemail, and leave her a message.

To my surprise, she answered after three rings. “What? Is something wrong?”

Her voice was a clear mountain spring. It was sweet to me, and pleasant. I smiled.

“As-salamu alaykum sweetie. There’s nothing wrong. I just miss you, that’s all. I have some good news. I’m on a job. I received-”

She cut me off with an exasperated sigh. “I’m in the middle of class. You can’t just call whenever you feel like it. And don’t call me sweetie. Phone one of your other women, why don’t you?”

“Honey, there are no- “ Dead air. She was gone.

***

Doha, Qatar

“A year later my family went to Qatar…”

I’ve known Safaa since we were little, when she saved me from a schoolyard bully. I was eight years old and my family had moved to Fresno from Santa Cruz two years previously. I was in third grade at Caulfield Elementary School. During recess period one day I was playing a ball game called three flies up. I kicked the ball but it went wild and struck a big, beefy sixth grader squarely in the back. The next thing I knew he was charging toward me, his face red with fury. He tackled me and began to pummel me, striking me in the face ruthlessly. I’d been practicing Kali for a year at that point, but this boy was twice my weight.

The next thing I knew the bully yelped and fell back as a dark-eyed little girl in a blue jacket, her long black hair tied in a ponytail, landed on his back with a shriek and sunk her fingers into his florid cheeks. She’d bought me a moment of respite. I leaped to my feet. As the bully turned to smash the girl into the ground, I kicked him squarely across the jaw, knocking him out cold. The girl and I ran away, she giggling madly, and me holding a hand to my nose, which was pouring blood. The girl, of course, was Safaa.

I was suspended for a week. I was utterly mortified that a girl – a first grader! – had saved me. Why did she have to interfere? I’d seen her around – for example at a Quran reading my family attended, a memorial service for one of the elders at the local Shiah mosque. The little girl was there with her family, and she kept smiling at me then looking away whenever I met her eyes. But I thought nothing of it at the time. Just some weird little kid.

The other boys teased me endlessly about being saved by a girl, even my best friends Aziz, Amiri, Tarek and Titus – the other four of the Five Musketeers, as we were called. I did my best to avoid the little girl after that, but it was difficult because anytime I played a school sport she was always there on the sidelines, watching me, embarrassing me with her presence.

When I reached middle school my family moved from California to Qatar. I’d already been bumped up a year, from 5th to 6th, as I was considered gifted. The private Islamic academy that I attended in Qatar kicked me up another year. So I effectively skipped two years of school and graduated high school a month before my sixteenth birthday. I had applied to several U.S. universities and received letters of admission to two Ivy League schools. My true desire was to study at the International Islamic University in Malaysia, but my parents were adamantly opposed. My father felt that the pursuit of Islamic studies at a university level was a waste of intellect. I think they also feared that without supervision I might run off to Bosnia to join the fight against the Serbs. They were right, I might have.

In the end, my parents – who remained in the Middle East themselves – pressured me to attend university back in Fresno. They had friends there who could watch over me, and of course I had friends there as well.

The next summer I attended a Muslim youth camp that was held in the mountains every year. I was invited as a counselor and given a cabin of boys to guide, ages nine to thirteen. Some were dedicated Muslims, while others knew nothing, not even the shahadah.

For one month I tried to teach my boys about Islam and prevent them from getting lost in the woods, getting hurt or missing home too badly. I woke them for Fajr and took them on morning hikes. One of the kids taught me “Mighty Mighty Muslims,” so we’d climb gray boulders the size of buildings, ford icy streams and march through the tall trees chanting, We are the Muslims / mighty mighty Muslims / Everywhere we go / people want to know / who we are / so we tell them / We are the Muslims – and repeat.

I named them the Salman Squad – after the sahabi Salman Al-Farisi – and taught them about Salman’s lifelong search for truth. During the day they attended prayers and classes. After sunset the entire camp attended a campfire. With the flames warming the night and sparks rushing up like laughter, the kids told jokes and stories and performed plays and skits.

One evening I was approached by a boy named Jihad. A ten year old with sturdy shoulders and curly black hair, he was captain of the cabin baseball team. He’d give the other kids pep talks, urging them to show that Salman Squad was the best. It made me laugh, how seriously he took it.

He confided that he was forced to work in his father’s liquor store every day after school. He was his father’s only son. He knew that alcohol was prohibited in Islam. He wanted to be a good Muslim. He’d been telling his father that he didn’t want to work in the store. But his father, who was diabetic, insisted that he could not manage alone.

Though Islam considered selling alcohol a sin, how could I advise a boy to abandon his struggling father? I told him I’d think about it.

Meanwhile, I was shut out by the other counselors, maybe not deliberately but the result was the same. They’d been attending the camp since they were kids. They formed a tight clique. I was a stranger. None of the other five musketeers – my old friends – had wanted to attend, and I knew no one there.

During classes, when the counselors had free time, they’d have group discussions, go for hikes, or drive to the nearby mountain town of Shaver Lake for burgers or pizza.

Lightning-scarred oak tree

“I’d sit with my back against a lightning-scarred oak tree…”

Alone with nothing to do, I’d sit with my back against a lightning-scarred oak tree at the camp’s high point, with a sweeping view down the mountain, and memorize Quran from a small, zippered mushaf with a green leather cover.

One afternoon I was surprised to see a teenage boy and girl climbing the hill toward me. I recognized the boy as Ishaq, one of the other counselors. We’d spoken a few times, but never about anything of substance. They greeted me, and sat on a fallen log. They looked nearly identical, and were obviously brother and sister.

The sister was slender, with rich brown skin and mesmerizing black eyes that were flecked with blue, like stars in the night sky. I’d never seen that before. I had to work to control my gaze. Her demeanor was reserved but warm, like a fireplace burning low, ready to blaze up if one added wood. Her hair was concealed beneath a blue hijab over a black skullcap. She had long fingers and the kind of grace that only a few young women have. She was very beautiful, and I found myself suddenly self-conscious about everything: my scraggly beard and skinny shoulders, even my beat-up sneakers.

The sister was also vaguely familiar. I tried to think of where I might have seen her. At some Islamic event maybe? I couldn’t pinpoint it.

The three of us spent the next hour talking. I was tongue-tied before this beauty, but she was articulate and interesting. I found myself blurting out my worry about Jihad’s situation (I didn’t mention him by name).

Ishaq said I should counsel the boy to refuse to work at the store. The sister disagreed, saying that it would create conflict in the family. She suggested that I speak to the boy’s father and advise him to look for another line of work. Maybe they could open a gas station or a restaurant.

I thought that was a smart suggestion. I thanked the two of them, and as they rose to leave, the sister said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Uhh… I was just trying to think of where we’ve met. Have I seen you at some Islamic event?”

She shook her head and grinned, then shaped her hands into claws and let out a sudden shriek that nearly made me fall over. I stared at her like she’d gone raving mad. She laughed and shook her head. “Caulfield Elementary,” she said. “Remember? I dragged that big bully off you. What did you do to make him so angry, anyway?”

My mouth fell open and my face turned beet red. This ravishing young woman was the same annoying kid who I’d found so embarrassing back then?

She grinned. “Anyway, my name is Safaa. We’ll see you around.” She and her brother walked off down the hill.

Oh, and as for Jihad? When Jihad’s parents came to pick him up, I spoke to the father discreetly. He was a short man with rough skin and a heavy accent.I told him of Jihad’s anxiety. He in turn accused me of being an extremist. He said that the people he sold the alcohol to were not Muslims, so it didn’t matter. Lastly, he snarled at me to stay out of his family’s business, and that he would not bring Jihad back to the camp.

He was right about that last point. Later that winter I heard from Ishaq that two men had gone into Jihad’s father’s store to rob it. Jihad’s father reached behind the counter for a weapon; the robbers shot him, then shot Jihad as well. The father survived; Jihad did not.

* * *

I think I started falling in love with Safaa even back then, though I didn’t recognize it until later. Between the two of us she was always smarter, and still is. A few years later, when I went to prison, almost everyone I knew cut me off. I received Eid cards from Aziz twice a year, and my father frequently sent me books. About a year after my incarceration I received a letter from Safaa out of the blue. She said she’d just returned from camp, and it made her think of me. She thought I must be lonely, and wondered if I needed a friend.

That letter was like a bluebird swooping out of a gray sky into my cell and singing a song just for me. I couldn’t stop smiling for days. Safaa and I began a correspondence, and by the time I came out of prison at age twenty five, I loved her like the sea loves the sky. And like a blessing on the wing, she felt the same. Three months after my release, we were married.

Now, five years later, I love her more than ever. There is a stretch of countryside north of Fresno, along 41 as you near the tabletop mesa, that turns bright with poppies every spring. As soon as the rains fall, the entire area becomes a bright sea of orange and yellow. You can’t look at those flowers without feeling hope rise in your chest. That’s how Safaa is to me.

The kindness that brought Safaa to me was one of the things that I loved about her, though it exasperated me at times. She never passed a homeless person without emptying her pocket change; she never held a grudge against a friend; and never tolerated cruelty in her presence. She taught me to talk about my problems rather than shut people out. She taught me that family never stayed angry with each other.

Why could she forgive everyone else, but not me? Why had the well of her kindness run dry? What could I do to reach past the thicket of thorns that surrounded her heart?

It’s said that we always hurt the people we love, and that such wounds are the hardest to forgive. Driving west beneath the gray winter sky of the Central Valley, leaving Dalya’s office and the city of Merced behind, I hoped that Safaa would disprove that aphorism by taking me back into her life and her arms.

***

Yellow farm dog

“The yellow farm dog watched me quizzically.”

I pulled up beside an almond grove and used the cool, clear water of the irrigation sump to perform wudu’ – ritual Islamic washing for prayer, where we wash everything from the hands to the face to the feet, letting the sins of the day be carried away with the water. Then I prayed Dhuhr and ‘Asr in the soil. I stood, bowed and prostrated on the dirt and leaves, feeling my connection to all living things under God.

When I was done I brushed the dirt and leaves from my forehead, put my hat back on, and found a large yellow farm dog sitting on its haunches several paces away, watching me with its head cocked, trying to decipher what manner of creature I might be, kneeling here in the dirt.

“As-salamu alaykum doggie,” I greeted it.

“Whoof!” Its single bark was loud but not unfriendly. It turned its head and looked at me sideways. As I drove away I looked in the rear view mirror to see the dog still sitting there like a sentinel, guarding its owners’ almonds.

The road was straight as a ruler, passing through mile after mile of farms growing corn, cotton, tomatoes, almonds and grapes. I took out my phone and called San Francisco directory assistance. The automated system gave me the number for the Sequoia Surgical Center.

I didn’t want to talk to Dr. Rodriguez on the phone or at her office. I wanted to meet in her home. People in offices maintained professional, reserved demeanors. They were on their guard. In their homes, however, people tended to relax. They were more open to sharing personal information. It was as if, just by virtue of being in their home, you were given the status of a friend.

Also, people’s residences could be revealing. Were they ordered or messy? Modern or old fashioned? What pictures did they have on the walls, what artwork, furniture, technology, pets, decor? Put these together and you could learn almost everything about a person.

I called the surgical center.

“Ma’am,” I said to the hospital operator when she answered, “This is Ben Bova with the SFFD.” I’ve found that posing as a fire department official creates a sense of urgency that fosters compliance and gets me through bureaucratic barriers quickly. “Put me through to Dr. Rodriguez’s personal secretary immediately please.”

I knew that many hospital doctors did not have personal secretaries, but considering this was a private surgical center, I was betting that Rodriguez did. As for Ben Bova, I chose that name at random from among the roster of science fiction authors whose work I enjoyed.

“Oh! Yes sir,” she replied. “Transferring you now.”

I’ve been told by some Muslims that my occupation is haram because it involves lying and spying, two activities that are forbidden in Islam. I’ve wrestled with the morality of this myself. Yes, my job requires a certain amount of deception. Whether I’m trying to find a missing person, catch an insurance fraudster, or even find out who committed a murder – and yes, I’ve done all the above – the job requires me to obtain information that people will not give out willingly. That’ s why law enforcement agencies everywhere consider deception to be an acceptable investigative technique.

I once spoke to a shaykh who told me that lying is not sinful in and of itself, but that it depends on the reason for the deception. For example, if a man’s wife says, “Do you think I’m attractive,” that man had better say yes, no matter what!

I reason that since my intention in telling a lie is to promote good and prevent evil, I’m okay.

Maybe this is all just rationalization. Maybe I’m a bad Muslim. I don’t know. What I do know is that when a child is missing and possibly in danger, if I have to tell a few harmless lies to find her, then I will. Allah knows my intention and my heart.

“Dr. Rodriguez’s office, Katherine speaking.” The secretary’s tone was clipped, making it clear that she had no time to waste.

“Hello Katherine.” I tried to sound authoritative and solemn at the same time. “I’m afraid there’s been a fire at Dr. Rodriguez’s residence. We managed to save the building, but the residence has been badly damaged by smoke and water.”

“Oh my gosh! That’s terrible. Did anyone die?” All trace of professionalism was gone from Katherine’s voice. She sounded more fascinated than horrified, in my opinion.

“No ma’am. Though the building manager – who apparently lives next door at 2525 Union – was taken to the hospital with chest pains.”

“Wait a minute. Did you say 2525 Union?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“That’s not Dr. Rodriguez’s address. She doesn’t live on Union Street at all.”

“Ma’am, I’m calling all the residents of the building, and it clearly says here on my paperwork-” I rustled a newspaper on the passenger seat beside me – ”Dr. Rodriguez, 2500 Union Street, apartment 5C.”

“You must have the wrong Dr. Rodriguez. Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez lives at 1310 Jones Street.”

I rustled the paper again. “Dr. Alejandro Rodriguez is what I have. Chiropractor.” I drawled the “o” in Alejandro so she couldn’t miss it.

“Mr. Bova, you’ve made a mistake.” Katherine reverted to her clipped tone, with a measure of annoyance mixed in. “This is the office of Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez, not Alejandro. And she is a neurosurgeon, not a chiropractor. Check your facts more carefully next time.” She hung up.

A bit of social engineering there, as the hackers say. If it seems strange that a secretary would simply give away her boss’s home address, keep in mind that she believed me to be a person of authority, carrying out municipal business. She trusted me and therefore thought nothing of telling me whatever I needed to know. I looked up 1310 Jones on my phone, and found that it was an apartment building called the Crest Royal, right up on swanky Nob Hill.

A few hours later I was heading over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco when my phone rang. The timing was awful, since driving on the Bay Bridge scared me enough. It was windy up there, there were no shoulders, and some drivers sped by like their seats were on fire. A few minutes ago a red Porsche had come roaring through traffic, changing lanes faster than a pediatric nurse changes diapers.

I’m not a great driver anyway. I only drove for a few years before I went to prison, and when I was locked up I got used to life moving extremely slowly. Speed makes me jittery.

So I let the phone ring and heard it go to voicemail. As I descended from the bridge onto Ninth Street, however, it rang again. I shot a glance at the screen. It was my friend Saleem, the young Pakistan-American brother who ran the homeless shelter.

San Francisco driving – with all those one-way streets – is tricky, but Saleem was a good friend. He wasn’t one of the Five Musketeers – he was several years younger than the rest of us – but he and I just seemed to sync.

I greeted him with the salam and he started up right away, pitching yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes. I could see him in my mind, a short, chubby brother with a curly black beard like a Pakistani leprechaun, waving his hands animatedly in the air.

“Listen to this. Prison insurance! Have you heard of that?”

“You mean insuring prisons? Like, the buildings?”

“Naw, man. Insuring people against prison. If you go to prison, we pay the settlement to your family, so they can support themselves.”

I laughed. “You’ll have burglars and gangsters signing up.”

“No way. They’re high risk. No pre-existing convictions allowed.”

“That’s a problem. Ordinary citizens don’t see themselves going to prison. They wouldn’t want your product.”

“You’re missing the point, bro. I want to sell it to Muslims. You know every Muslim in America is terrified of ending up in Guantanamo. Tell me you haven’t imagined yourself kneeling on the floor, wearing an orange jumpsuit.”

I craned my neck, reading the street signs as I took Larkin Street through Civic Center Plaza, flanked by the massive stone edifices of City Hall on one side and the Asian Art Museum on the other. I was pretty sure this street would lead me right up to Nob Hill, but I didn’t know where to turn from there. I was familiar with the broad outlines of San Francisco’s geography, but actually getting around this city was like navigating a maze.

I’d made good time coming here, and the sun was just beginning to set. San Francisco was a city of working class immigrants side by side with wealthy entertainment and technology types, topped off with an endless stream of tourists from all over the world. Pedestrians bustled on the sidewalks, waited in line in front of restaurants, and passed by the invisible panhandlers that manned the corners like silent members of a jury, holding up the handwritten signs that pronounced sentence on us all.

This particular neighborhood seemed run down. I saw street people sitting in the doorways of shuttered buildings and calling out to each other on the sidewalks. In some places they clustered in groups where they talked, shouted and – presumably – bought drugs.

“You with me?” Saleem demanded.

“Yes. I don’t have to imagine being locked up and wearing an orange jumpsuit.”

“Oh, right.”

“Your idea is like life insurance,” I observed, “except you’re covering people against life sentences. Anti-life insurance, you could call it.”

“Yeah man. The Guantanamo plan is the most expensive. If you can’t afford that, you could opt for the maximum security plan, or just start with the Club Fed. You wanna invest?”

“What makes you think I have any money to invest?”

“‘Cause I know you, bro. If you don’t have money now, you will soon. You’re sharp. You could have a mountain blocking your way and you’d chop right through it with one of your Kali moves. Kaboom! Then you’d moonwalk through the debris and tip your fedora. You’re the man. You’ll always come out on top, ma-sha-Allah.”

I smiled, then saw something that made my eyes open wide. I swerved into the right lane, eliciting loud honks from other cars, and parked in a loading zone. I hadn’t reached my destination yet, but I’d seen something unbelievable. “Thank you, akhi,” I said quickly. “I have to go. I’m on a job.”

“See! What did I tell you. Think about my idea. Prison insura-”

I hung up the phone and stepped out of the car. I didn’t mean to be rude with Saleem, but I was staring at something so unexpected that if my family tree had contained any history of mental illness, I’d have thought I was hallucinating.

An old stuffed chair sat in the middle of the sidewalk just past Geary. A young woman relaxed in it, looking bedraggled but utterly confident, as if she were the queen of Larkin Street holding court over her domain. Pedestrians flowed around her as she ignored them, unperturbed.

The young woman was my cousin Jamilah.

Next: Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 5: The Chair

(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
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          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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          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.

          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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