Connect with us

#Culture

Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 8 – Badger

I was heartened by Badger’s prediction that Safaa and I would reunite. He possessed deep insights. His prognostications always came true, a fact that I could not explain but had learned to trust.

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 | Chapter 7

 

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.

“I do care,” I said, and it was true. I always cared. That was my problem. One of my problems, anyway.

I told Chausiki everything, narrating a very near version of the truth, leaving out only Imam Abdus-Samad’s name. I said I’d been recruited by Horse, whose real name I did not know, and explained how in my youthful stupidity and zealousness I’d believed myself to be a part of some greater Islamic struggle.

1967 Chevy Impala

“Red died in my arms, bleeding in the backseat of a Chevy Impala…”

I told her how Red had ultimately died protecting me. How he bled out in my arms, talking about his love for his family. How we left his dead body in front of the hospital. I looked down as I described this last part, my face hot with shame. “That was when I quit,” I said. “I loved uncle Malik. If I could go back and change – “

“But you can’t.”

She was right, of course. We sat in silence. I lifted my eyes finally and watched the winter sunlight sparkling on the surface of the pool. My hair was still wet, and every time the breeze blew a chill went through me. My life was in Chausiku’s hands now. If she told Badger, I was a moldering corpse waiting to happen.

Again she seemed to read my mind. “You are a husband and a father. I see how much you love your daughter.” Her tone was stiff, belying the kindness of the words. “In spite of everything, you are Amiri’s only true friend, or so he believes. Don’t worry. I’ll keep your secret. But don’t presume to judge me. You have no idea what I’ve been through. I lived by my ideals for thirty years, and what did it get me? A dead husband and a pile of unpaid bills. When Malik died, I was penniless. I went to the masjid for a loan and they turned me away. I was homeless for a while, did you know that?”

I shook my head.

Living on the streets

“I lived in a cardboard box…”

The corners of Chausiku’s mouth turned down in bitterness. “I lived in a shelter downtown, and sometimes in a cardboard box. Do you know what saved me?”

“No.”

“Amiri. My son. He stepped up, became a man, took care of me. So don’t you dare come in here and lecture. You haven’t slept in a box. You haven’t suffered the humiliation of relieving yourself on the street, having people look at you like you’re subhuman. I tried living a principled life. Then I grew up. Can you understand that?”

I nodded, saying nothing.

“Get dressed.”

I did. In the bathroom, I noticed that the strand of hair I’d placed carefully on my belongings was gone. They had searched my clothing as well, and perhaps looked through my wallet and phone. It didn’t matter. I had nothing to hide anymore.

When I returned to the patio, Chausiku said, “Be in front of the used bookstore at Van Ness and McKinley in an hour. Amiri will meet you there.”

“Oh, and Zaid,” she added as I turned to leave.

“Yes, Auntie?” I met her gaze, finally. She sat at the patio table with legs crossed and hands resting primly on her knees. Her spine was erect, her eyes as flat as flint stones.

I had a sudden memory of sitting at the kitchen table in the Sulawesis’ old house on First Street, along with Aziz, Amiri, Titus and Tarek – all five of the Five Musketeers. We chatted about baseball and skateboards and Kali, and ate hot cornbread with butter. Chausiku’s given name, I knew, was Amanda. She’d become a Black Panther revolutionary in the early seventies and adopted the name Chausiku, which, she liked to remind us, meant “born at night.” “What do you think?” she’d ask us. “Do you see the night stars in my eyes?” I would look at her and yes, it seemed like her sparkling black eyes held the answers to the mysteries of the universe, and that I could see the twinkling of the stars in their depths.

Now, there were no stars in her eyes. She sat there looking angry, rich and sadly pedestrian, seemingly unconcerned that she had betrayed everything she once believed in.

“You are no longer welcome here,” she said. “Don’t come back.”

* * *

Friday, February 5, 2010 – 11:15 am
Fresno, California

I had time for a quick detour before heading to the bookstore. I knew that Safaa would be in class, but I needed to see her.

The Fresno Islamic Academy was a small school, funded as much by donations as by the monthly tuitions. It was located on Shaw west of Cedar, not too far from Masjid Fresno, the oldest masjid in town. The front door at FIA was always locked during school hours. I knocked, and the door was opened by the receptionist, a young Somali woman named Asma. She knew me and greeted me with a smile.

A small Pakistani-looking boy sat in a chair in the reception area, rhythmically filling his mouth with air and making popping sounds with his lips. I wondered if he was waiting to see the principal for some infraction.

“Ali,” Asma commanded the boy. “Go get sister Safaa.” Pleased at this reprieve from whatever doom awaited him, the boy leaped up and dashed through the open door that led into the school corridors.

“Cool hat,” Asma commented.

I nodded but said nothing. The last thing I needed was for Safaa to accuse me of flirting with the receptionist. Sensing my mood, Asma went back to work, and I took the boy’s chair and waited.

Time ticked by. I checked my watch repeatedly, aware that I had an appointment across town with one of the most dangerous men in America.

“What is it?” Safaa stood before me, arms akimbo. “I’m in the middle of class. This had better be important.” She wore a long black skirt that was a little too tight for my liking – I mean, I liked it fine, but I didn’t think it appropriate for everyone else – along with a long-sleeved blue blouse and a burgundy hijab. She looked and sounded about as happy to see me as a judge staring down at a repeat offender who stood before the bench accused of yet another crime.

In spite of the irritation on her face, she was a vision. Her skin was dark for an Iraqi, somewhere between copper and coffee. She’d been teased about that as a child, she once told me. She had often complained about her nose being too big as well, as well as other imperfections that she saw or imagined in herself.

“In my eyes, she was lovely as a tree.”

In my eyes, she was as lovely as a tree. I found her utterly beautiful from crown to roots.

I stood. “Could we talk in private? I have something for you.”

“What is it? I’m busy. If you can’t respect my job and my time, I might have to file a restraining order.”

“It’s important.”

She clucked her tongue. “Fine.” She turned and walked away. I followed her into the unoccupied computer room two doors down from reception. The computers sat on long tables that circumnavigated the walls. The FIA had come a long way since I was a student there. Back then it was bare bones. No computers, no science lab, no athletic equipment. Just pure academics, and a couple of ping pong tables for fun.

“How have you been?” I said. “I’ve missed you.”

Safaa pursed her lips and made no reply.

“You’ve been so cold and angry lately,” I commented.

She didn’t like that. “Why is that a problem?”

I opened my hands in a helpless gesture. “Because we’re husband and wife. Because we have a daughter together. Because I thought we loved each other.”

“This is outrageous,” Safaa snapped. She turned to leave.

“Okay, hold on!” I withdrew an envelope from my pocket and handed it to her.

“What is this?”

“Five thousand dollars. That’s my child support backlog, and a little extra. I’d like to set up a regular visitation schedule with Hajar.”

“Wow.” The anger was replaced by surprise, at least momentarily. “You’re on a case?”

“Yes. Can I tell you one more thing?”

Her jaw tightened. “What?”

“I’m disappointed in you.”

Her mouth fell open and her eyes widened. “You’re disappointed in me? In what bizarro universe does that make sense?”

“I’ve never been unfaithful to you. Wallahi I never wanted to, or even considered it. You and Hajar are everything to me in this dunya. I love you. When I pray, I pray for you to fulfill your dreams. When you smile, it heals my heart. Just thinking of your laughter makes me happy. When you feel the chill of the world upon you, I yearn to warm you with my arms. When you’re tired, when you’re down on yourself, I have enough faith in you for both of us.”

I hadn’t planned this lyricism or memorized it in advance. Safaa had always brought out the poet in me. I wished that I could turn my words into almond blossoms and scatter them at her feet. I wanted to feel her head resting on my shoulder once again. I wanted to be a shelter and a garden for her when dark days came, as they always do in this life.

I had to drop the hammer, though. I had to shake her up.

“Yet,” I continued, “you choose to listen to rumors and gossip spread by people with bad intentions, rather than believe in me, your husband. I thought you were better than that. In fact, I know you are better than that.”

For the first time since our separation, I saw a chink appear in her armor. Uncertainty passed across her features like a cloud across a winter sky. Her mouth opened but no words came out.

She found her tongue. “I’ll email you about visitation.” With that she turned and walked away.

I counted it as a victory. One does not traverse Antarctica in a day. There were a lot of people in the community who mistrusted me, a lot of voices arrayed against me. That didn’t matter. In the end, all that mattered was trust. If I could somehow open Safaa’s eyes and restore her trust in me, the love between us would return like spring rain after a drought, I was sure.

I loved Safaa, but I didn’t understand her sometimes. I’d found as I got older that I was beginning – just beginning – to know myself, to know who I was. Unfortunately I still had no idea who anyone else was.

* * *

In spite of its expansive name, the Bookazon was a cluttered corner of tranquility a few blocks from City College, not far from Masjid Madinah. Formerly a three bedroom house, it was jammed from floor to ceiling with mostly used books, though there was some new selections as well. In spite of the crowding, the owners had managed to fit several comfy armchairs into corners here and there. I sometimes went in after Jum’ah. I’d sit in one of those comfy chairs and read for an hour or more, and the management never seemed to mind.

I arrived five minutes ahead of my appointed time to find that the sign on the door had been turned to the “Closed” side. That was unusual. The Bookazon didn’t normally close at lunchtime. Two women – one a hip-hoppy Asian, the other an attractive Latina – stood near the entrance, one on either side.

Fresno Grizzlies baseball cap

“Her hair was tucked under a Fresno Grizzlies cap.”

The Asian woman was small and could have been any age between twelve and twenty five. Her hair was either cropped short or tucked under her Fresno Grizzlies baseball cap. She could almost have passed for a boy in her baggy basketball shorts, gray sweatshirt and black Adidas hi-top shoes.

The Latina was my height. She had lustrous black hair, full lips, and a hard cast to her hazel eyes. She was dressed like a college student in jeans, a City College sweatshirt and stylish brown boots.

I approached the door to try the knob and maybe peer through the window, but the Latina stepped to bar my way.

“Closed for lunch,” she said in English that might have sounded unaccented to anyone else. I have a good ear for accents and could hear her Mexican ancestry in the slightly lisped “s” in “closed” and the o-sounding “u” in “lunch.”

“I’ll look myself if you don’t mind.” I moved to step around her but she blocked me again and – like a Vegas magician doing a hey presto – pressed the barrel of a silver automatic pistol against my forehead, jamming it into me hard enough to tip my head back. She was fast. I hadn’t even seen her draw the gun.

“You best get steppin’, cabron,” the Latina said quietly but intensely. “Before I drill your dome. We’ll see what comes out. Brains or frijoles negros.”

My nostrils dilated and my teeth clenched, not because of her calling me a bastard or saying I had black beans for brains, but because of the gun at my forehead. I had a vast internal reservoir of anger, love, guilt, grief and outrage, and it was never more than a nerve’s length away. I could access it in an instant, for good or bad, like a tap that is under pressure and needs only a quarter turn of the handle to send forth a geyser.

Dale cabron,” I snarled in Spanish, returning the insult and daring her to shoot. “But you best look down before you pull that trigger.” The full-lipped Latina glanced down to see the blade of my knife pressed against the inside of her thigh – my own hey presto to match hers. Her eyes widened slightly. The knife was angled up, so that the Latina could not step away without cutting herself.

“That’s your femoral artery,” I informed her. “I cut that and you’ll bleed out in six seconds. The knife is razor sharp. It’ll go through your jeans and skin like a bullet through paper. Even if you shoot me, I’m gonna slice you open on the way down.”

A gun cocked and I felt yet another steel barrel press into the base of my skull beneath the brim of my fedora.

“Don’t you hurt her!” the Asian girl screamed. “Put the knife down or I will freakin’ cap you right now.”

“Go ahead,” I said, fighting to keep a grin from breaking out on my face. I wanted to laugh, not because I didn’t take the Asian seriously, but because I always wanted to laugh when my life was on the line. “If you do, your girl is dead.” Then I recited the shahadah – the Muslim testimony of faith – in Arabic, out loud. I was fully prepared to die in that spot, standing on the sidewalk on Van Ness Avenue on a cool February morning.

My behavior made no sense. In prison I’d survived by being ready to die. When a man sees that you are willing to die to defend your property, your dignity and the smallest right that he might seek to infringe, he turns around – if he has any sense – and walks away.

Now, though, things were different, I had a wife and daughter who I loved. I had a career, shaky and erratic though it might be. I had freedom, relative youth, the wispy sunshine on my face, and the blessing of faith. I had everything to live for, but here I was, challenging this woman to pull the trigger because I didn’t know how to conduct myself as a free man, and could not shut off the electric thrill that ran through me at the prospect of violence.

I was a mess. I knew that. I was a flawed personality, a damaged machine. All my cylinders were firing, but something was busted in the gearbox, and the grinding of my spirit was so loud I wondered that the whole city couldn’t hear it.

The Latina and I were so close our noses almost touched. I smelled lemon and chiles on her breath. Her eyes were large and dark, and I thought that if I stared into them I might become mesmerized and forget who and where I was. Then, to my surprise, the corners of her mouth turned up in the barest hint of smile. “You wouldn’t happen to be Stick, would you?” she said softly.

“You know my name,” I assented. “So you must know whether you plan to kill me or not.”

The Latina withdrew the gun and stuffed it in her waistband, hiding it beneath the baggy sweatshirt. “Yo, it’s cool, Pinkie,” she said to her friend. “Put the gun away.”

The pressure of the gun disappeared from the back of my head. I folded my knife one-handed and stepped back where I could see them both. Pinkie was – true to her name – pink-faced with fear or rage. She’d tucked her gun away but still had her hand on the grip, I could tell.

The Latina nodded in greeting. “I’m Jelly. This is Pinkie.” She inclined her head toward the bookstore. “Badger’s waiting for you inside.”

I turned my back on the ladies, feeling fairly confident that they would not shoot me. As I opened the door and entered the store, an argument ensued between Pinkie and Jelly. Apparently Pinkie was angry because she thought Jelly was flirting with me. I supposed the two of them were a couple.

Only in Badger’s world – or in an elliptical orbit around his world – could I meet people for whom threatening to kill someone was a form of flirtation.

* * *

The bookstore was deserted. The lights were off and there were no customers, and not even a salesperson or cashier behind the register. I found Badger in one of the back rooms, sitting in an armchair with one leg draped casually over the arm, reading The Downfall of Communism and Capitalism by Ravi Batra.

My old friend Amiri Malik Sulawesi, who went exclusively by the name Badger these days, was shorter than me at 5’6” or so. He was the color of cafe au lait, and was wiry and strong. He wore black slacks, comfortable-looking brown walking shoes, and a blue trenchcoat over a white t-shirt and bulletproof vest. I had no doubt that he had one or two guns secreted on his person somewhere.

I wasn’t surprised to see him reading a treatise on economics and social philosophy. Badger was the most brilliant human being I had ever met. In school he’d achieved straight A’s even though he barely studied. He could glance at a page and absorb the content in seconds. Furthermore, he would remember it years later. I recall seeing him at the age of ten, sitting on the playground during recess, reading Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding – a memory that came back to me years later when I had to study it in university. In Kali class he always beat me during sparring sessions, not because he practiced more than me – no one in the group practiced as obsessively as I did – but because he was able to instantly internalize whatever was taught, intuitively grasping the underlying principles of body mechanics, so that he did not have to remember specific techniques per se.

He could have been anything he wanted. Neurosurgeon, astronaut, technology innovator, anything. He could have changed the world.

“Seems to me that book is obsolete,” I commented by way of greeting. “Communism has already fallen, and capitalism is taking over the world.”

“Yeah homey,” Badger replied, “but you know this book was written in 1978. Batra said Communism would fall within twenty five years, and twelve years later the Berlin wall come tumblin’ down. Man was a genius. He predicted that capitalism was doomed to extinction as well. He says here that money was meant to serve man, not the other way around, and that the abandonment of spirituality and social justice under unregulated capitalism is unsustainable. He proposes a quadrivisional model of society with acquisitors, money lenders, thinkers and warriors. He says capitalism is run by the money lenders and acquisitors, and out of the rubble of its collapse will come the rise of the warriors and thinkers. Basically he suggests that these four cultural classes rise and fall in cycles.”

“Some of that sounds like Islamic philosophy,” I pointed out. “I mean the part about spirituality and social justice. Capitalism and Communism are flip sides of the same coin. They’re both systems based on the distribution of wealth. Islam instead proposes a society based on human values, where everything begins with submission to Allah and compassion for one’s fellow man. Instead of allowing people to hoard wealth, or forcibly taking it away, Islam establishes systems, like zakat and the abolition of usury, that prevent the accumulation of too much wealth in the hands of a few. Plus, Islam encourages people to share their wealth fee sabeel-illah.”

Most of this was knowledge I had acquired from Shaykh Rashid during my time in Qatar. He’d been keen to teach us the Islamic worldview, rather than just halal and haram.

Badger pointed at me and clucked his tongue. “You’ve been reading Sayyid Qutb. That part about human values is straight out of Milestones on the Path.”

Milestones on the Path, by Sayyid Qutb

Milestones on the Path

He was right. Milestones was one of the books I’d studied in high school. But it surprised me that Badger recognized it. “I didn’t know you read Islamic books,” I said.

Badger stood from the chair and stretched. “Of course homie. Ain’t nothin’ new under the sun.” He waggled the book back and forth. “Whatever solution these thinkers stumble on, Islam beat ‘em to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ravi Batra read Milestones too.”

“And what’s your take on it?”

“Oh, Ravi Batra is right. Modern capitalism is unsustainable, not only for the reasons he described. Technology gonna snatch the means of production away from the bourgeoisie and put it in the hands of the common man. It’s already happening. A child can write code. Anyone can set up an online store, any writer can indie publish. Open source software be better than commercial. And 3D printing gonna do the same for physical goods. It won’t be long before you can download open source digital blueprints for any object, then print that object in plastic. Even a open source house. You’ll download digital plans into a CNC machine that’ll cut the wood. The pieces come out numbered and built to slot into each other. No tools required. Voila, instant house.”

“That’s incredible.” I didn’t ask Badger if he was sure that such a thing was possible. If he said it, it was almost certainly true.

“Yeah homie. So what happens then? A lotta manufacturers operate on razor-thin margins. People start making their own stuff, these vertically structured corporations topple like dominoes. What other things nations war over?”

I tongued my front teeth, thinking. “Energy. Land. Water.”

“Precisely. In twenty years, solar and fuel cell technology gonna be so efficient, oil and coal will be obsolete. That’ll turn the world upside down right there. That leaves only land reform, since the means of food production is soil and shovel. If every homeowner start plantin’ vegetables and fruits ‘stead of grass, these corporate growers and their patented GMO crap go belly up.”

“What about water?”

Badger nodded. “True dat. Future wars gonna be over water. Thing is,” he went on, “these trends gotta play themselves out. Before capitalism falls we’ll see extreme separation of rich and poor. Think Brazil, China, South Africa, but worse. Riots, chaos, anarchy. I’d say fifty years ‘fore it all crashes down. What do I care, though? Men like you and me thrive in chaos.”

I shook my head and laughed. “You maybe. Not me. I have a wife and child.”

“Yeah, how they doin’?”

“Safaa and I are separated.”

He curled his bottom lip in surprise. “Hmm. That won’t last. Keep doin’ what you do, she’ll come around.”

“Why do you say that?”

“‘Cause you a good man and she a good woman. One in a thousand, both of you.”

“Huh.” I was heartened by Badger’s prediction. He possessed deep insights. His prognostications always came true, a fact that I could not explain but had learned to trust.

“What about you?” I asked. “What are you up to these days?”

Badger shrugged. “Rippin’ and runnin’ like always, how I do. Git up to git down.”

Badger’s broken speech annoyed me. He’d grown up speaking the King’s English. He was perfectly capable of grammatically correct syntax. He was playing a part, I knew. Showing people what they expected to see, or maybe allowing people to underestimate him so he could spring the whammy at the right moment. In any case it wasn’t my business to tell him how to talk.

I rolled my eyes. “I meant aside from that. Don’t you have anything else going?”

“Just the game, brother. Always the game.”

I looked around. “What’s with the store? Where is everyone?”

“Oh you know, I shut the place down to browse. I can’t be mingling with strangers. The bounty on me is up to a million dollars.”

“And the owners let you do that?”

“I am the owner, or my corporation anyway. I own lots of businesses this side of town.”

That made sense. How else could he launder all that cash he stole? He couldn’t funnel it all through his mom. That would attract attention.

Badger shelved the book, approached me and without warning threw a straight right cross, not pulling the punch at all. I parried it easily, and came over the top with a forearm strike that would have smashed him in the nose if he hadn’t blocked it. Badger caught my strike, rolled his elbow over my arm and pulled me into a hug.

“You a sight for a tired heart, brother,” he said, then stepped back.

“You don’t want to pat me down?”

“Naw homey. If I can’t trust you I got nothin’ left.”

“Your mom’s bodyguard patted me down. In fact your mom made me take a dip in the pool, I’m guessing to make sure I wasn’t wired.”

He grinned. “The higher the bounty go, the more paranoid she get.”

“You could do something else with your life, you know. You could do almost anything.”

He waved this off. “Anyway watchu need? Mom say you need help with a case.”

I told him about the case and everything I’d learned. “Do you know why the Cambodian Bulldogs might be looking for Tarek?”

He shrugged. “Sound to me like T-Bone maybe scored some dope on consignment and didn’t pay up. Or he borrowed money maybe.”

Apparently everyone knew Tarek’s nickname but me. “Okay, well what about Angie? Do you know where she might have gotten the forty five thousand? Have you heard of any dealers getting robbed recently?”

He shook his head. “Ain’t no one crazy enough for that.”

“Except you.”

“Fo’ shore. Why you think they call me Badger?”

“Because you’re short and fuzzy headed?”

He laughed. “You know, anybody else talk to me like that I put a bullet in ‘em.”

“Must be nice. Well, I need to find Tarek ASAP. I hear he’s living in one of the drug dens on Jamestown. I don’t know that area.”

“You need a guided tour.” He nodded. “I can do that. Come on.”

Badger stuck his head out the front door of the bookstore and whistled loudly through his teeth. Then he threaded his way through back through the store. I followed him through a yellow wooden door into a small stockroom, and from there through a rear exit that consisted of a thick wooden door with a vertical deadbolt and a heavy duty metal screen door. He peered out the back window for a moment, then exited through the door.

Yellow Corvette convertible

“Jelly sat behind the wheel of a yellow Corvette convertible.”

In the parking lot behind the store, the women were already waiting. The Latina – Jelly – sat behind the wheel of a yellow Corvette convertible, parked back-in against a low brick wall. Pinky stood beside the passenger door, her hand tucked beneath her sweatshirt, no doubt gripping her gun. She flashed a hand sign to Badger, which I assumed was the all-clear.

It wasn’t unusual for Badger to take on helpers. I wondered what had happened to the curly-headed Mexican youth he’d been working with last time I saw him. Badger’s partners were not jumped in or beholden to him in any way. They were equals, free to depart. Maybe the boy had gone back to school, or moved away. Or maybe he was rotting in an early grave. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know.

A young white guy with acne and black hair tied in a ponytail stood in the parking lot, smoking an electronic cigarette. The smoker gave Badger a genial nod. “You done Mr. Badger sir?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Jerry.”

“Anytime, Mr. Badger sir.”

I chuckled at that. Mister Badger. Like he was a character from Wind in the Willows. “How much you pay that kid?” I asked when we were seated in the car, Badger and I in the backseat and the women in the front.

“A lot more than he used to make at Barnes and Noble, tell you that. Listen here, ‘fore we go looking for Tarek, I need your help with a li’l su’m su’m’.”

“What?”

“Little job we got planned.”

My internal alarm bells began to ring as if the entire neighborhood were burning down. There were no “little jobs” where Badger was concerned.

“Hold up,” I objected. “You want me to help you move furniture or wash your car, I’m down. But if you mean what I think you mean, forget it. I’m on the straight and narrow, Badge. Sirat al-mustaqeem. I have a family to think about.”

“It ain’t all that. All you got to do is drive. You come ‘round askin’ for my help, well I need yours.”

I rubbed my hand over my cheeks and forehead. This was a bad idea. Everything I was trying to cultivate in life: compassion, patience, sincerity – all these qualities were like trees struggling in a drought, while Badger was a forest fire that would incinerate them in an instant. I shouldn’t have come to him. I could find Tarek on my own. It would just take longer, and wear out a lot more shoe leather, and be more dangerous.

But no. I didn’t have time for that.

“Okay,” I said.

Que bien,” Badger enthused in perfectly accented Spanish. “Good man. Andale, Jelly. Vamonos!”

“Pull around to my car for a sec,” I requested. My car would probably be safe parked in front of Bookazon for a few hours, but I wasn’t leaving the money and gun. I activated the trap and withdrew the remaining cash. It was just under three thousand. I also took out my gun, which I strapped to my ankle.

I hopped back into the convertible, and ten minutes later we sidled up to the curb in a quiet residential district off Kings Canyon Avenue. This was a lower-income neighborhood, but the residents took pride in their smaller sized homes and older cars. The homes were well maintained, and the yards neatly mowed and trimmed. At this time of day, with the adults mostly at work and the kids at school, the neighborhood was quiet.

Badger took a pair of binoculars from the seat pocket in front of him and handed them to me. “Green house halfway up the block, other side,” he said.

I peered at the house in question. It looked like any other house in the neighborhood, except that a tall, heavyset bald man in a purple track suit sat in a rocking chair on the front porch. He looked like a Pacific Islander, maybe Samoan or Tongan. He was reading one of those little Archie comic books that are sold on the aisle racks at the grocery store.

Moving the lenses around, I saw that the windows of the house were heavily barred.

“You see the front door?” Badger asked.

I studied it. “Looks like an ordinary wooden door.”

“It ain’t. That’s a veneer. Underneath it’s heavy duty steel.”

“So?” I didn’t need to know how he knew that.

“So what do that tell you?”

“It tells me,” I said flatly, “that it’s a stash house, and whatever you’re up to I don’t want to be involved.”

“Once me and Jelly effect entry,” Badger said as if I had not spoken, “you pull the car directly in front of the house and wait. You know the Q-Ball towing yard two miles southeast of here, by 99?”

I nodded.

“Once we all in the car, you burn rubber straight for that yard. That’s all you gotta do.”

With that, Badger, Jelly and Pinkie exited the car. Pinkie stripped off her outer garments and tossed them into the front passenger seat, revealing a slender, feminine body in a black mini skirt and semi-transparent black sleeveless blouse. She took off the ball cap and shook out a mane of long, silky black hair. Lastly she shucked the Adidas sneakers and slipped on a pair of black high heels that she took from under the car seat.

I averted my gaze, aware that it was rather a strange situation in which to practice Islamic modesty. It was easy to look away. Pinkie at her best couldn’t compare to my wife Safaa. Safaa was a true beauty. If my life were a fairy tale, Safaa would be the princess, and I’d be the toad.

As Pinkie strolled casually up the sidewalk toward the stash house, Badger and Jelly opened the trunk of the car and began their own transformations. Jelly donned a bulletproof vest and black ski mask that she pulled over her face. Badger was already wearing a vest, and he too added a ski mask. Both of them strapped on utility belts. To the belts they attached holstered 9 mm Glock pistols and green canisters that looked like Thermoses with pockmarks and handles.

“Are those grenades?” I asked, stunned.

“Flash bangs,” Jelly replied. “M84’s.”

“I can’t be a part of this, Badge. You have to do this some other time.” My heart was beginning to thud in my chest. I’d been a part of operations like this many, many times, and I’d paid the price. This was the last place in the world I wanted to be.

Badger worked the slide on his Glock, popped in a magazine and slid off the safety. “Ain’t no other time. There’s normally two guards, but one of ‘em make a lunch run every day at this time. You in it to win it, Stick. We movin’ and groovin’.”

Badger and Jelly completed their ensembles by hefting short-barreled Mossberg shotguns with black pistol grips. They looked like commandos about to take on the army of a small European nation. Last of all, Jelly slung a large black messenger bag over one shoulder.

“I suggest you take off that Fedora,” Badger said, “and put on Pinkie’s ball cap. You stand out like Omar Sharif at a KKK rally.” With a last nod to me, Badger said, “Eyes open, Stick.” He and Jelly ducked low and scurried up against the houses on the same side of the street as the stash house. Keeping low, they hugged the walls of the houses and slipped forward, darting across open spaces and using trees and shrubbery as cover.

Cursing under my breath, I scurried into the front seat. The engine was still running, never having been shut off.

Not for the first time in my life, I asked myself how I kept ending up in these preposterous situations.

Peering through the binoculars, I saw Pinkie stroll right up the short flight of steps to the stash house’s porch, her slim hips swaying, her long black hair stirring in the late winter breeze. She began to flirt with the big Samoan in the rocking chair. She smiled, flipped her hair, and touched his arm lightly. After a few minutes the Samoan stood and knocked on the front door. Someone inside must have said something, because the Samoan called out a reply, and the door opened.

By that time, Badger and Jelly were already in position, crouching beside the low wall that edged the steps up to the porch. As soon as the door opened, Jelly stood and fired her shotgun into the Samoan’s belly from less than five feet away. I almost dropped the binoculars in shock. I don’t know why I was surprised. I knew what Badger and his people were like, and I’d certainly seen – and committed – my share of violence in the world. But to be so outrageously cold-blooded! I made up my mind to simply drive away. I’d never agreed to be part of a murder.

Binoculars

“I adjusted the binoculars…”

I adjusted the binoculars and saw to my amazement and relief that the big Samoan was not down. His face twisted with rage as he reached behind his back, presumably for a weapon. Jelly charged up the steps and fired into the Samoan’s chest from almost point blank range. The man folded almost in two and collapsed to the ground. Jelly fired into him once more for good measure.

Meanwhile Pinkie caught the door before it could close, pulled it all the way open and propped it open with the chair the Samoan had been sitting on.

By this time Badger was up the steps as well. He and Jelly hugged the wall on each side of the door. They both removed flash-bang grenades from their utility belts, pulled the pins and threw them into the house. A second later there was a tremendous crack of noise and a burst of light through the window and open door that made me wince even in broad daylight.

This entire operation, from the first shot fired to the tossing of the flash bangs, had taken no more than seven or eight seconds. It was obvious they had practiced this maneuver many times.

Badger was first in. He charged in crouched low, firing his shotgun as he went, and Jelly followed immediately, pausing only to unclip her roll of duct tape and toss it to Pinkie. The slender Asian girl rolled the Samoan over and duct taped his hands behind his back, then his ankles and finally his mouth. What was the point of that if the man was dead? Lastly she took a huge pearl-handled handgun from his waistband, and followed the others into the house.

I scurried around to the front seat of the car and pulled up in front of the stash house. Gunfire had erupted inside the house, along with shouts of anger and screams of pain. I reached down to my ankle and drew my gun. The gunfire inside the house intensified, and what sounded like a fully automatic machine gun roared into life. It was hair-raisingly loud, shattering the stillness of this neighborhood like a bomb. My heart raced and my hands jittered.

The gunfire went on. I heard the pop of handguns, the booming of shotguns, and the continued scream of the machine gun. The windows of the house shattered. Chunks of wood flew from the walls as bullets tore through. A bullet struck the car with a loud pang, and I ducked low in the seat.

Gradually the gunfire diminished until it was just the occasional shotgun blast, punctuated by ripping volleys from the machine gun. Someone screamed something that I couldn’t make out.

This wasn’t right. They should have come out by now. The continued gunfire was a bad sign. There was no doubt that some of the residents would have called 911 by now. Multiple police cars were probably already racing this way. If I remained here, I’d be nabbed as an accomplice to whatever had happened inside the house. I could very well spend half my life in prison.

On the other hand, I could not abandon Badger. He was a bad man, I was under no illusions about that. One might even call him evil. But he was my friend. I could not leave him here.

I also could not leave the big Samoan dying on the front porch.

I put my hands on my head and squeezed. La ilaha il-Allah, I said to myself. La ilaha il-Allah.

I am a man of action. I don’t always make the right choice. Sometimes I make dismayingly bad choices. But I don’t sit still and wait for the world to decide on my behalf. Right or wrong, I act.

I opened the car door, stepped out and ran toward the stash house.

***

Next: Zaid Karim Private Investigator, Part 9: Stash House

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

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.

18 Comments

18 Comments

            Leave a Reply

            Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

            #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.

            Avatar

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

            Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

            Continue Reading

            #Culture

            Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

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

            Doberman pinscher

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

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

            Stop Pitying Yourself

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

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

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

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

            Playa Santa Clara, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I am Panamanian.”

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

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

            He glared. “Excuse me?”

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

            “That’s not your business.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Omar shook his head.

            Indian Ocean tsunami

            Indian Ocean tsunami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Omar said it.

            “Go back to your wanderings.”

            The Gate Opens

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

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

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

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

            Doberman pinscher

            Doberman pinscher

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

            German shepherd

            German shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Drifting Out to Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

            * * *

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

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

            Avatar

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

            Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

            Continue Reading

            #Culture

            Day of the Dogs, Part 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

            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.

            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.

            Avatar

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

            Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

            Continue Reading
            .
            .

            MuslimMatters NewsLetter in Your Inbox

            Sign up below to get started

            Trending