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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 7 – How Did My Husband Die?

To find Badger – he continually moved from place to place – I’d have to see his mother Chausiku. I dreaded the visit. I had not seen her since her husband’s janazah.

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 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

Friday, February 5, 2010 – 9 am
Fresno, California

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I patrol the city. Eons ago, I am told, there were billions of human beings on Earth, until they destroyed each other in the Eruption. Now, a supercomputer the size of a city runs the planet. Its name is Ai. My orders are issued by Ai each morning at 6 L.T., transmitted in image form to my retinal implant.

People are so difficult. They do not want to follow the rules regarding disposal of off-world materials. Too expensive, they say. They carry swords openly in the city limits. Hardly a day passes that I do not have to arrest someone. I find myself frustrated much of the time, and tired. Still, I try hard not to employ force. I do not want to become like some of the other Ai-garda, abusing people wherever they go.

Today I am arguing with a massively muscular man, his chest and shoulders twice as wide as an earth-bred man. He is one of the chimeras genetically bred for high-g worlds. I am filled with rage because the chimera has tethered his android horse in the center of the city square, tying it to the statue commemorating Ai’s inception. I realize that my anger is disproportionate, but my frustration has reached an incineration point and I cannot seem to control myself. I know that if this chimera becomes violent, he’ll crush me. I draw my cohesion disruptor and hold it next to my thigh, pointed at the ground. My hand shakes.

The creature known as Safaa sees this from her high perch and feels a surge of compassion for me, or so she tells me later. I have heard of Safaa, of course, though her true nature is shrouded in myth. She is an angel, or so most people believe. She has wings and can fly. She is ancient, and may in fact be a construct. She may also be one of the original AI programmers. It is said that she communicates with the computer on a purely machine level.

Safaa rarely interacts with us humans. Mostly she watches from a distance. But on this day she chooses to intervene. She flies down, alights and embraces me, and I feel the anger drain away like helium from a punctured high-atmo township. When I calm down I thank her, as I might have killed the chimera.

She tells me that she must create a child in order to continue her work, and wishes to marry me so that I may become the father.

I begin to weep. This is more than I could have hoped for, but I am afraid. “What if I have the disease?” I say. The Eruption left a legacy of genetic chaos. Most men are sterile.

“We all have a disease of one kind or another,” she replies. “But I know you are pure.”

“How?”

“Because your actions reflect your inner state. I see that you strive for understanding.”

“But -”

She cuts me off with a gesture. “You must have faith in Allah.”

“In Ai, you mean?”

“No,” she says. “In Allah the Most High, Creator of all.”

As I am trying to decipher her meaning, the sun begins to grow brighter, until I must shade my eyes. What is happening? Still brighter it grows, until the light penetrates the flesh of my hand, shining pink into my closed eyes.

*~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~*

Sun through window blinds

“I awoke to a ray of sun slanting through the window blinds.”

I woke for Fajr, feeling bruised and sore from head to foot. Forget practicing Kali. I prayed and collapsed back into the cot and slept. Hours later I awoke once again to a ray of sun slanting through the window blinds, shining full on my face. I sat up on the cot in my office, groggy and disoriented, the world of the dream dominating my mind. I was sore all over. My ribs were tender and throbbing, and I could feel my heartbeat in the bruise on the side of my head. Had I fought with the chimera after all?

I chided myself for being ridiculous. I wasn’t so far gone that I didn’t know the difference between dream and reality, at least not yet. That was a weird one. Maybe I’d managed to read some of that sci-fi novel last night after all, and it had seeped into my dreams.

Gradually the real world reasserted itself. The physical pain I felt was a result of the fight I’d had with the three Asian gangsters, not some fictional conflict in a crazy dream world.

I had followed my usual routine of praying Fajr and going back to sleep. I was buoyed now by the knowledge that I could afford – finally – to eat and to pay my bills. Alhamdulillah. If you trust in Allah, he will feed you as he feeds the birds. Indeed, and again alhamdulillah.

I wasn’t worried about the events of last night coming back on me, nor did I feel any shame over cutting and stabbing those thugs. Okay, I had a nagging concern that the leader who’d hit his head might be seriously injured. And maybe cutting the punk’s tendon at the end was excessive. But they attacked me without provocation. All things considered, they got what they deserved.

I made wudu’ and prayed Salat Ad-Duha. I rarely performed this prayer, but if there was ever a Duha moment, this was it. Hadn’t I walked through terrible darkness in my life? Hadn’t Allah found me lost and guided me? Hadn’t he found me poor and made me self-sufficient, at least for the moment? And now here I was, in the morning brightness – the Duha. Yeah baby. It was a Duha kind of day.

Now, to enter the fullness of the light, all I had to do was reunite with my wife and child, Insha’Allah.

It isn’t about me, I reminded myself. Before I became too giddy with my celebrations, I had someone else’s child to find. Anna.

I sent a text message to Jalal, a fellow-Palestinian American who I’d met only a few years ago at the local Muslim community center. He was the middle child of six brothers and sisters. His father had been killed several years ago in a freak highway accident when the branch of a tree that overlooked the highway broke off and fell through the windshield of his car. The family had been struggling ever since. Jalal was trying to put himself through city college – studying geology – and was permanently broke.

I have work for you,” my message read. “Two hundred cash for the day. Interested? I need you at my office ASAP.”

The response came back almost immediately. “Peeling rubber! On my way.” I shook my head. In his enthusiasm, the fool would have an accident on the way here.

Mexican food truck.

The burrito truck.

I peered out the window and saw that the burrito truck was already out there. I grabbed my wallet and went outside, tipping my head back and taking in the fresh morning air.

Along with the usual assortment of passers by and workers from local businesses, I spotted a homeless man – not Ghost Rider from yesterday, but someone else – standing on the traffic island out on Belmont, holding up a sign that said something about being a veteran, and eyeing the food truck wistfully. I whistled loudly and beckoned him over.

He was a lean, middle-aged Hispanic man with a watchcap pulled low over gray hair. His bearded face was weatherbeaten and tired.

“You want something?” I asked, gesturing to the food truck. “Quieres algo? It’s on me. Yo pago.” This was, after all, the other part of Surat ad-Duha. When Allah has found you, guided you and made you self-sufficient, then do not repel the orphan, and do not repel the petitioner. In other words, give. Be generous. That’s how you show your gratitude.

“Eh.. sí señor! Se puede un burrito pequeño? Esta bien?”

Having grown up in California I spoke enough Spanish to get by. He wanted a small burrito. I made an expansive gesture with my hand. “Sí, order whatever you want. Lo que quieres. Don’t hold back.”

“Eh.. okay.” He stepped up to the window of the food truck and in Spanish ordered a small breakfast burrito and a small coffee. I was sure he was hungrier than that, but he seemed afraid to infringe on my generosity.

I stepped to the window and instructed Miguelito, the food truck chef, to make the homeless man’s burrito large rather than small, and to add a Mexican apple bread to his order. For myself I ordered a large breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, cheese, pinto gallo, sour cream and avocado. I also bought a Mexican apple bread and a large coffee.

When the food came the homeless man took his meal and thanked me again without meeting my eyes, then shambled off to squat in front of a shuttered gold trading shop two doors down. Some people were so beaten down by the circumstances of life that even kindness felt foreign. I knew what that felt like. I couldn’t do anything about that, but I could at least fill the man’s belly.

As I ate my own food, I mentally catalogued all the things I had to do. Today was Jum’ah. I needed to speak to Tarek to see if he could tell me where Angie had gone. To find Tarek, I had to find Badger.

Badger robbed drug dealers for a living. Not the street dealers, but the stash houses, where large amounts of drugs and guns were stored. In fact the last time I saw him, he told me he’d put together a crew and robbed a distribution center. This was the single hub in the entire city where a particular gang kept their raw product, which would be pure heroin or cocaine from South America. From there it was distributed to local stash houses. Distribution centers also typically held massive amounts of cash awaiting shipment back to L.A. or Mexico, or wherever the particular gang was headquartered.

I knew all this from discussions I’d had with drug dealers in prison. At one point I’d had a high-ranking Colombian drug lord as a cellmate. He liked to describe himself as a business executive, and would point out the parallels between his organization and any other consumer products provider. When I once asked him if he didn’t feel the drug business was immoral, his face turned red, and he ranted about how his company’s product was outlawed for purely political reasons, and how his government had caved to American political pressure in allowing him to be extradited. I was afraid he might have me killed for offending him. I slept with my eyes half open for some time after that, and never asked such questions again.

After Badger robbed the distribution center, I heard a bounty had been put on his head by the gangs. Not that he cared. Badger was a charcoal-hearted killer. He probably had more murders to his name than half the gangsters in south Fresno combined. His name inspired terror among the entire criminal class.

He was wanted by the police as well, but it wasn’t like they had a task force to go after him or anything. All of Badger’s victims had been drug dealers, pimps, sex traffickers, extortionists and the like. What the cops called “NHI” killings. No humans involved. Some cops even felt that Badger was doing their work for them. I knew this from Titus, my buddy and fellow Musketeer, who was now a detective for the FPD.

Titus, who was the most honest cop I ever knew, did not approve of the way Badger had been given an unofficial pass by other cops. “A killer is a killer,” he’d say. “One day he’ll mess up and gun down a civilian, and then the Hall will be falling over each other to cast blame.” He meant Mariposa Hall, where the FPD was headquartered.

What would Titus say, I wondered, if he knew Badger’s true identity? I was probably the only person in the world who knew that Badger was our old friend and fellow Musketeer, Amiri Sulawesi.

Titus would never learn this fact from me, that was sure. When it came to Badger, the old saying held true: “Them that knows don’t tell, and them that tells, don’t know.“ Anyone who started mouthing off about Badger – Muslim or not – was likely to wake up with the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun in his mouth.

I often wondered what Badger did with the bundles of cash he seized. It must have run to the millions. I knew he gave money to the poor and to neighborhood youth centers. He called it “redistribution of wealth from the criminal class, who are capitalist oppressors in disguise, to the proletariat.” That was his mother talking.

Even so, that would only account for a fraction of the money he’d stolen. I had no idea what he did with the rest.

The last time I saw him he asked me to join him. “You got nothing to lose but your self-imposed shackles, Stick,” he said, laughing through white teeth as he paraphrased Karl Marx. It was hard to know when Badger was serious. “Shed your past. It lies like a nightmare upon your present. Shed the heart of a heartless world.”

That was Badger. When he wasn’t talking like a street tough, he was spouting philosophy and quoting thinkers from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Kierkegaard, though always returning to Marx.

Badger was nominally Muslim. His father had been a convert, and his mother too, though his mother was never really into it, I think. Not since childhood, however, had Badger performed any kind of Islamic ‘ibadah or worship – not a single salat, nor a fasted day that I knew of.

“Ain’t no sense in frontin’,” he’d say, slipping into ghetto speak as easily as putting on a pair of shades. “I’m out here rippin’ and runnin’, gunnin’ playas down, and I’m gon’ pray? Act all holy like a busta? Nah.” Thumping his chest. “I’ma keep it real, between me and Allah. He can do with me how He do.”

I never would have predicted this path for Amiri. He’d been a happy kid, a perpetual honor roll student, and the most gifted martial artist out of all of us. When his father was killed, though, everything changed. Though the police never caught the killers, they did find the gun discarded in a dumpster. They ran ballistics and determined that it was the same gun used in two past killings, both of which were attributed to a gang called the T-Town Mob.

Amiri became a different person overnight. A college freshman at the time, he dropped out, adopted the Badger persona and joined a Fresno gang called the Rolling Southside G’s. This made zero sense to me, and I tried to talk him out of it, but it was like talking to the cold steel of a bullet.

The rest I know only apocryphally, from tales told by brother Derby, who used to be a gangster himself. According to Derby, Badger rose to lead the gang, then led the Southside G’s in a war against the T-Town Mob. It was the bloodiest turf war in Central Valley history. When the dust cleared, both gangs were shattered and destroyed. Badger quit the G’s and went solo, preying on the gangs like a lion on wildebeest. I was in prison when all this happened.

When I was released and learned what Badger had done, I was surely the only one who understood the ruthless logic. Badger had used the G’s to eliminate the men responsible for his father’s death.

I chose to distance myself from my former friend. I had not the slightest desire to get caught up in his one-man war against the gangs, and I certainly didn’t need to attract the attention of the police. Badger’s lifestyle was suicidal.

If anyone knew the ins and outs of the drug trade in Fresno, however, it was Badger. Even if he didn’t know where Tarek Anwar was, he could probably locate him easily.

* * *

To find Badger – he continually moved from place to place – I’d have to see his mother Chausiku. I had no idea where she lived, so to find her I’d need to see Imam Saleh at Masjid Madinah.

Aside from that, I had to check in with the Anwars, deposit money in my bank account, pay my overdue bills, and see Safaa.

The warm food in my belly was provision for a long journey, while the coffee was rocket fuel. I was ready to explore the galaxy and crack any aliens right on their green heads.

Yes, I needed a therapist.

Jalal showed up just as I finished my burrito. He was a third year college student with a sunny disposition, except when he thought about his former girlfriend Cindy, at which point he would become morose and weepy. He’d fallen in love with a non-Muslim girl last year and had a brief love affair. She ultimately broke up with him because she couldn’t see herself marrying a Muslim. Of course everyone told him it was for the best, but when it came to that honeypot he couldn’t see straight.

Jalal had a crewcut, green eyes and an athletic frame that had once been quite heavy. Last year he got serious about fitness and began running laps and leaping hurdles at State. His limbs had grown lean and strong, but his belly still bulged slightly, as if he carried a few loaves of Arabic bread in a belly pouch.

He smiled as he came through the door, but the corners of his mouth were turned down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He shrugged one shoulder. “Oh, you know. Just feeling down about Cindy.”

“Brother,” I began in irritation, before taking a breath and calming myself. “You have to put that aside. I have a lot for you to do today.”

He nodded, straightening his shoulders. “Okay.” He nodded again, seconding his own motion. “Okay.”

Envelope full of cash

Removing the envelope full of cash from my desk, I counted out two thousand dollars and gave it to him. He whistled, his eyes opening wide.

“First,” I instructed, “go to the bank and deposit a thousand in my account.” I handed him a slip of paper with the account number. “Then pay my bills. Go to the PG&E office in person and get my electricity turned on, then the phone company, then the waste management company. I want receipts for everything, not because I don’t trust you but because my office expenses are tax deductible.” I handed him a stack of bills. “Then a grocery trip.” I handed him another paper, on which I’d listed a variety of foodstuffs, including snacks for Hajar when she visited next.

I had a thought. “Hey, when’s the last time you saw Tarek Anwar?”

He frowned. “I mean, I know who he is. But we’re not friends. My mother wouldn’t like it, and anyway what do I need to hang around a junkie for?”

I didn’t like him calling Tarek a junkie. It settled heavily on my heart. “Your mother doesn’t like me either,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, but you pay me. And she’s wrong about you.”

Once Jalal was on his way, I packed up my stuff and headed out. Imam Saleh lived in a rented house a few blocks from Masjid Madinah, which itself was just across the street from Fresno City College. I called him first. I asked if I could come over and he said sure, he was reviewing his khutbah but could take a break.

Ten minutes later I parked in front of his home. This was an interesting neighborhood, with stately old homes that were among the first built in Fresno. Large trees shaded the streets. At the same time there was a thriving counterculture and no shortage of homeless people.

Imam Saleh answered the door right away. He was a tall, rangy African-American brother with skin so dark it was almost purple. He typically wore a long Arab shirt over blue jeans, and a colorful Kufi. He met me with a smile and shook my hand warmly.

We were so lucky to have Saleh here in Fresno. He was highly educated, with a degree in international relations from UCLA, and a masters in Islamic history from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. He was currently working on a PhD in Quranic exegesis (tafsir) through a distance program with the Islamic university in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I considered him a good friend, and had tremendous admiration for what he had done with Masjid Madinah. He’d originally been hired by the board of the Fresno Islamic Center, the biggest mosque in the city, to run their center and revive their flagging community. When he tried to implement reforms there, they decided he was too progressive and fired him.

Some of the community members supported what he’d been trying to do, and funded the creation of a new masjid, which became Masjid Madinah. At Masjid Madinah, Imam Saleh had created a community in which immigrants, African-Americans and other converts worked hand in hand. Half the board of directors were women, and women were active in planning events and programs. The masjid held regular “open house” days in which non-Muslims were invited for talks, meals and special events. It was a living community, full of enthusiastic young people. There was a sense that people were a part of something real, something that was changing lives.

Imam Saleh was also not afraid to address contemporary issues. On the one hand he denounced terrorism unequivocally and described it as a plague upon the Muslim world, one that must be eradicated through education, spirituality and social and political reform. On the other hand, he wasn’t afraid to call out the U.S. and other superpowers on their exploitation of the Muslim world and the disastrous consequences of their interventions and misadventures. Lastly, he took a public stand on social issues such as civil rights and violence against women.

The man was a hero to me.

Saleh invited me in for tea, but I told him I was on a tight schedule. “I’m here because I need to talk to Chausiku Sulawesi,” I explained. “I don’t have her contact info. Do you?”

He tipped his head to the side and regarded me. “I think,” he said, “you’d better come in for that tea after all.”

I shed my shoes at the door and took a seat in his living room, which was clean and sparsely decorated with family photos and a few Islamic wall hangings, along with a large framed photo of Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah.

Tea serving

The Imam went to the kitchen and came back a few minutes later with a tea serving on a platter. He poured my tea and his, and sat.

“You’re not on an insurance case this time, are you?” he asked. “It’s something more important.”

“Why do you say that?”

He raised his chin, studying me. “There’s a fire in your eyes I haven’t seen before. Whatever you’re pursuing, you’re committed. You remind me of Salman Al-Farisi on his search for the truth.”

His mention of Salman amazed me. The Persian sahabi had always been a personal hero of mine, which was why I’d called my summer camp kids the Salman Squad. I reviewed what I knew of Salman, trying to figure out why the Imam would say that.

Born in Persia to a doting father who was the town chief and a Zoroastrian priest, Salman was never satisfied with the fire worship of his people. One day he passed a Christian church and heard the sound of prayer. He was impressed, and told his father about it. His father, who considered his only son his greatest treasure in the world, locked him up inside the house to prevent him from learning about other religions.

Thinking of this, I said, “Salman’s father at least loved him.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. It was a childish and petty thing to say.

Imam Saleh, however, took my words seriously. He nodded and sipped from his tea.

“Can that truly be called love?” he said eventually. “He chained his child in a room to prevent him from seeking the truth.”

“His father didn’t see Christianity as the truth. It was something foreign that he wanted to protect Salman from.”

“Perhaps. Or he was simply closed-minded. If you recall, what the father said to Salman was, ‘The religion of our father and forefathers is better.’ That is the classic fallback position of anyone who holds blindly to inherited falsehoods. And Salman, who up to that point had been an obedient and dutiful son, defied his father. He said, ‘No, By Allah, it (Christianity) is better than our religion.’ His thirst for the truth was such that he was willing to discard the traditions of his ancestors, challenge his father, and disrupt his entire life.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Didn’t you tell me once that your father sent you books while you were in prison?”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“What kinds of books?”

“All kinds. The complete works of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Poetry anthologies by Palestinian poets, and by American poets like Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg. Philosophy books, a translation of Al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ Ulum al-Din, Maudoodi’s tafsir of the Quran, mainstream novels. A lot.”

“Do you think your father read those books himself?”

I’d never considered this. “I doubt it.”

“Then why did he send them to you?”

I sat back in the chair, thinking. “I guess he picked books he thought would help me. Or someone picked them for him.”

“And did the books help?”

I nodded grudgingly. “Yes. Tremendously, actually. Solzhenitsyn’s work made me realize that my suffering was miniscule. The Palestinian poetry gave me a language with which to frame my pain, and gave me perspective. Langston Hughes and Sandburg leavened my hardship with – what do you call it when you approach normally serious subjects with humor?”

“Irreverence?”

“Yes. Irreverence. And Al-Ghazali changed how I saw Islam and opened my heart.”

“So what I see,” Imam Saleh said, “is a father who is willing to venture outside his comfort zone, and to reach into a realm he does not personally understand, in order to help his son. Doesn’t that sound like love?”

“But they hardly talk to me anymore!” I protested.

“Maybe they don’t know how. It could be they don’t know what to say. Maybe they look at you and no longer see the son they knew, and that’s not entirely their fault, is it? Maybe the road life has taken you down lies too far afield for them to understand. Maybe they interpret your past actions as a rejection of their teachings and love, and that causes them pain. Maybe you have to be the one who makes the effort to bridge the gap. Perhaps that’s a part of your penance, or a lesson you must learn. Parents do not simply stop loving their children. Maybe they are hurting as much as you are.”

I sat back and covered my face with my hands. I was nearly overwhelmed by these words. For so long I’d been internally devastated by the certainty that my parents no longer loved me, and that I was nothing but a shame to them, someone best avoided and forgotten. I liked to pretend – even to myself – that this did not affect me, but it had been like an oil slick covering my heart, affecting everything I did.

I lowered my hands and took a shaky breath. “That may all be true,” I said finally. “I don’t know. But I don’t have time to contemplate it right now.”

“Why do you need to talk to sister Chausiku?” Saleh asked. “She’s a very private person. Reclusive, even. She wouldn’t appreciate me giving out her contact information.”

“It’s personal,” I replied. “You don’t have to give me her info. Call her and tell her that Zaid Al-Husayni needs to see her.”

He nodded slowly. Imam Saleh had come to Fresno when I was in prison. He wouldn’t know about my history here, like the fact that the Sulawesis had been a second family to me all through my childhood.

“Hold on.” He disappeared into another room and came back a minute later with a small notepad. He looked surprised. “She’s very excited to see you. Here’s her address.” He tore a sheet off the notepad and handed it to me.

“Before you leave,” Saleh added, “there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“Sure.”

“Well.” He tapped the floor with one foot. “A brother showed up in our community about six months ago. Khalil Anderson. You may have met him.”

I looked up at the ceiling, thinking. “White guy? About thirty years old? Wears a thobe and a black kufi?”

“Yes. He’s been talking to some of the younger brothers about politics. That in itself is not a problem, but I heard from a few of the youth that Anderson’s been pushing this idea that the U.S. and Islam are waging an apocalyptic battle. I’m concerned that he’s radicalizing them. I want to know who he is. Where did he come from, is he employed, does he have criminal record? What’s his real agenda? If necessary I’ll go to the FBI, but first I want to know what I’m dealing with.”

“Have you asked him?”

“Of course. He says he’s from L.A. and that he converted to Islam five years ago. He says he gets SSI payments from the government because he injured his neck in a workplace accident, and he came to Fresno because his aunt died and left him a house.”

“But you don’t believe him.”

“I don’t know. I’m concerned. I’d like you to look into it. I’ll pay you of course.”

I shook my head. “I won’t take your money. Of course I’ll do it ya shaykh, but it will have to wait. I’m on a time-sensitive case.”

“Jazak Allah khayr ya akhi. When do you think you’ll be able to look into it?”

I stroked my beard. “Give me a week.”

***


Parking in a huge circular driveway, I stared at the house before me in amazement. This was Chausiku Sulawesi’s house? I doubled checked the address. Yup. It was a palatial home perched on the bluffs overlooking the San Joaquin river, at the far north edge of Fresno. The estate must have covered 15,000 square feet, with towering palm trees all about and wild grasses that grew up to a stone footpath. The footpath circumscribed a perfect expanse of green lawn.

The house itself was a massive modern style home, with stone walls supporting high slab roofs, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows. The path to the front door passed through a gap in a huge waterfall-style fountain, with a semi-opaque wall of water tumbling fifteen feet through the air.

I did not want to see Chausiku Sulawesi. Just thinking of it made my heart race with anxiety. I sat in the car, taking deep breaths, my hands clammy on the steering wheel.

* * *

The last time I saw Chausiku was at her husband’s janazah twelve years ago, before I went to prison. The police had investigated Red’s death, of course. They never caught his killers.

I attended the janazah because I was expected to. I was practically a member of the family. The July sun drummed down onto the mourners gathered at the dusty expanse of the Madera Islamic Cemetery. We gathered beneath a green canopy as Red’s body was lowered into the grave. Amiri and another brother – AbdulWali, the one whose leg was torn off in an accident not long after – lowered the body into the grave and positioned it on its right side. I heard the rattling of the gravel as they arranged it to support the body.

Amiri was one of my best friends and one of the Five Musketeers. I tried to imagine what he must be feeling in that moment but I could not think past the dark, churning foam of guilt and shame that felt like it would squeeze its way out of my very pores and manifest as red ink on my skin.

Chausiku – who wore a long-sleeved black dress and black turban – almost collapsed. A tall, strong-looking African-American sister – whose name I did not know – caught her and held her up.

“Why?” Chausiku cried to the assembled mourners. “Someone tell me why. I want to know why my husband is dead!”

From beneath lowered brows I glanced at Imam Abdus-Samad, who had given the janazah khutbah – the funeral sermon – and led the salat. He stood there like a paragon of leadership, a pillar of the community, supporting the widow in her grief. I hated him in that moment, as I hated myself. I was still overwhelmed – had never stopped being overwhelmed – by the memory of Malik Sulawesi dying in my arms. I remembered the heat of his blood as it soaked into my pants and shirt sleeves. I remembered the wheezing of his breath, the way it sounded like the whine of a failing machine. I remembered the bits of black fuzz from his ski mask caught in his red hair, and the fear in his wide green eyes, filled with the knowledge of his own death.

* * *

Would Chausiku see this memory in my eyes? Would she look through me, recognize my guilt, and know me for what I was – a liar and a hypocrite?

I passed a hand over my eyes and smoothed my beard. My cousin Jamilah’s words came back to me: “I believe in you. I always have.” Just the memory of those words made me sit up straighter and raise my chin. I could do this. No problem.

I got out of the car, walked up the driveway and through the fountain, and rang the doorbell.

The door was answered by a burly African-American man in a too-tight gray suit. He was maybe 6’3”, with a long head and an oversized jaw. He wore an earpiece, and his jacket bulged over what had to be a holstered gun. He looked ready to either give me a massage or break my back – whatever his employer commanded.

“Are you Zaid Al-Husayni?” he asked. When I said yes, he gestured to me to spread my arms. “Sorry chief,” he said. “Gotta search ya.” He patted me down and removed the knife clipped to my pocket. “You’ll get this back.” Then he removed my fedora, turned it upside down, ran a hand along the inside band, and placed it back on my head.

“Zaid, is that you?” Chausiku Sulawesi called from somewhere deeper inside the house.

“Yes ma’am,” I called back. “Just going through Checkpoint Charlie here.”

Chausiku strolled into view. She looked like she had not aged a day. Her milk chocolate skin appeared unlined. Her perfect ivories flashed as she smiled widely.

Aside from that, however, everything about her was different. She wore an olive pantsuit that looked like it cost more than I made in a month, and black high heels. Her hair, which in the past had always been combed out into a big Afro, was now straightened and cut into a short bob. All of this surprised me. The Chausiku I had known used to wear African dashikis exclusively, often paired with a turban, and used to preach at length about how black women should adopt natural hairstyles and not be ashamed of their heritage.

She came directly to me and threw her arms around me in a tight embrace. She smelled of floral perfume, and her arms were as strong as they’d always been. With her heels, she was exactly my height.

She pulled back and studied me. “Little Zaid Al-Husayni,” she said admiringly. “All grown up now. But still too thin! Are you getting enough to eat?”

I shrugged and began to formulate a reply, but she interrupted me.

“I know it’s early for lunch, but let’s get some food in you. Rosa!” she called out.

“Si señora,” someone replied from within the house.

“Bring lunch for two,” Chausiku called back. “Tuna sandwiches and whatnot. We’ll be on the back patio.”

Mrs. Sulawesi took my elbow and led me through an incredible home interior that included a soaring ceiling supported by square-cut timbers. In the main room, a series of ten-foot-tall paintings depicted birds in flight, and a stunning green leather sectional sofa that must have been twenty feet long wrapped around two walls.

The back patio, shaded by a slanted overhang, featured hardwood furniture arranged around a rectangular stone firepit. Beside the patio, a long swimming pool extended to the edge of the bluff, so that it gave the illusion of disappearing over the cliff. These were called, I knew, infinity pools. I’d seen photos of such pools in the Home and Garden magazines that Safaa subscribed to.

This was so strange. The Chausiku I recalled was a card-carrying member of the Communist party who used to espouse the principles of frugality. She’d converted to Islam nominally for the sake of her husband, but I’d never seen her pray, not even at Eid time, whereas I’d heard her quote Marx, Lenin and Mao a thousand times. She used to ridicule the acquisition of material luxuries as bourgeois corruption and capitalist waste.

Now here she was living in a virtual palace, and wearing costly designer clothes? Besides, how could she afford a home like this? She was a seamstress. She used to earn a meager income hand-sewing African outfits, doing alterations, and making prayer rugs that Amiri and Red would sell after Jum’ah prayer.

Malik, I corrected myself. Not Red. I must never refer to Chausiku’s late husband as Red, not even to myself. I’d gotten in the habit of calling him Red during our years on the robbery squad, but there was no valid reason for me to use that nickname. He must always be either Malik or Abu Amiri, as some of us used to call him when we were kids.

I was beginning to think that I now knew where much of Badger’s money had gone.

I sat on a chair with Chausiku opposite. The weather had warmed up a bit but was still cool. Goosebumps rose on my forearms.

She leaned forward with her hands on her knees, studying me. “I’m so happy you’re here,” she said. “You should visit more often. How’s your family?”

I told her about my separation. I spoke about my daughter, describing Hajar’s wit and penchant for arts and crafts. Chausiku listened, smiled, asked a few questions, but volunteered little about herself.

“So,” she said at length. “I hear you’re a private detective now, is that true?”

I shrugged and smiled. “It’s a living.”

“It’s so exciting.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You’re not here on a case, are you? Investigating me, maybe?”

I lifted one eyebrow. What an odd question. “Should I be?” I replied jokingly. “No auntie, I’m not investigating you. But I am actually here on a case. I need to talk to Amiri.”

She nodded. “I thought that might be the case. It will be a few minutes before lunch is ready.” She waved at the pool. “Why don’t you take a swim? I have this beautiful pool and hardly anyone uses it.”

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m pressed for time, and anyway I don’t have anything to wear.”

Chausiku sat back in her chair. Her expression became hard. “I insist. Amiri has some swimming trunks. Rosa will show you.” She called, and Rosa appeared immediately.

The maid was short and dark skinned, with chiseled cheekbones and straight black hair tied in a pony tail. She wore jeans, a white blouse and leather sandals that looked handmade. Chausiku spoke to her in fluent Spanish, and the maid escorted me into the house. She pulled a pair of neatly folded red and yellow swimming trunks from a hall closet, then led me to a huge bathroom that was perhaps three times the size of my office. Sunlight streamed in from a skylight. The bathroom contained a large, glassed-in shower, a jacuzzi, and a sofa that sat beside a window with a view of the San Joaquin River. A stand of bamboo trees in a massive stone planter towered against one wall.

When Rosa left I took off my clothes and folded them neatly, then put on the swimming shorts. Amiri was shorter than me and his swimming trunks only came halfway down to my knees. How could I go out in front of the women in this? I wrapped a large towel around my waist to cover myself.

Before leaving the bathroom I plucked a single hair from my head and set it carefully atop my folded clothes.

I knew what Chausiku was doing with this whole swimming thing. She wanted to be sure I wasn’t wearing a wire. This precaution, along with the presence of the bodyguard, answered some questions and prompted others. It also stung. How could she think that I would betray her? She was like family to me. Why was there so little loyalty in this world? Why was I the only fool stumbling around, still believing in friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, and love?

Chausiku wasn’t around when I came out. I dropped the towel at the edge of the pool and dove in. Thankfully the water was heated to perhaps 75 degrees of so. Still, the cool shock of it hit me and somehow washed away my anxiety. I swam hard, warming myself up and working the kinks out of my muscles. I completed a lap, somersaulted and pushed off the wall, and swam another. By the time I’d done ten laps my shoulders ached and I had a stitch in my side. I grabbed the edge of the pool and leaned my head against the tiled lip, gasping for breath.

“Come on out,” Chausiku called. “Lunch is ready.”

I climbed out, wrapped the towel around myself again, and squeezed the water out of my hair and beard. Rosa had prepared tuna sandwiches with sliced carrots, pickles, potato salad and what looked like sweet potato chips, along with tall glasses of iced lemonade.

The cold water had revved up my appetite. I ate with gusto. It didn’t hurt that the food was delicious. Rosa knew what she was doing in the kitchen.

“So,” Chausiku said when I’d finished my sandwich. “Is it really Amiri you need to talk to, or is it Badger?”

I paused in the act of biting a pickle spear and stared at her, feeling like a rabbit in the beam of a powerful spotlight.

She tipped her head to one side. “Did you think I didn’t know? My son tells me everything. Including the fact that you know his nom de guerre and what he does for a living.”

Nom de guerre? I thought. Was that what Chausiku told herself, that Badger was some kind of guerilla fighter? Everywhere I turned in life it seemed I was confronted by hypocrisy and self-deception. I was sick of it.

“What happened to you, auntie?” The words emerged from my mouth unbidden. “What happened to your principles? How many times did I hear you say that private property is based on the exploitation of the many by the few? That private ownership of the means of production represents the appropriation of the labor and wealth of the poor by the rich? And look at this.” I waved my pickle spear at the luxury surrounding me. My speech would not help me get the information I needed to solve the case, but the swim had energized me and washed away my self-restraint.

“Is this all from Badger?” I continued. “Where do you think that money comes from? From the poor. I know you know this. The drug industry sucks wealth out of the ghetto like a Hoover vacuum. It’s the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history. And what do the rich do with it? They cycle it among themselves. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. It’s against everything you stand for.”

“You don’t know what I stand for!” Chausiku snapped. “You don’t know anything about me. You want to be honest? You want to drop the pretense? Tell me how my husband died!” She slammed a palm onto the glass table. The plates jumped. My sweet potato chips scattered, while Chausiku’s lemonade tipped over and poured across the tabletop, spilling over the side like a small waterfall.

I froze, staring at her. My tongue was a block of wood in my mouth.

“That’s right.” She glared at me as if her eyes could bore holes through my head. “My husband. Your uncle and teacher. Do you think I’m an idiot? His body is dumped on the sidewalk like a week old fish, and the police tell me they suspect he was part of a robbery crew. A year later you go to prison for robbery. You think I can’t put two and two together? And you come in here talking about hypocrisy and values, while you’re lying to my face?” She sneered. “I can see it in your eyes right now. You’re wondering if I told Badger. If I had, you’d be floating in pieces down the San Joaquin River.” She made a motion with her hand like a fish swimming.

“I don’t -” I began, intending to deny everything, but she snapped her fingers to cut me off.

“Don’t even try. You want Badger’s help? And my silence? This is the price. Tell me how my husband died.” Her tone softened. “You owe me that much, Zaid. If you still care.”

Next: Zaid Karim Private Investigator, Part 8: Badger

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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

      Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

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

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

      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.

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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 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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      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.

      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.

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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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      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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