See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
* * *
On the front porch I stumbled and almost fell when I stepped on something small and round. It was a white shotgun cartridge of a type I’d never seen before. I bent quickly to the big Samoan, who looked like a beached alien whale in his purple tracksuit, and pressed two fingers to the side of his neck. His eyes were closed and he made no movement. I was prepared to give him CPR if necessary, or to try to stop the bleeding from his wounds.
His pulse was steady. Nor was there any sign of blood or injury on him. I found this baffling – I’d seen Jelly fire into his gut at point blank range – until I spotted a small white packet on the ground nearby.
A beanbag. Badger and Jelly were firing beanbag rounds. I’d heard of these but had never seen one before. They were non-lethal, non-penetrating shotgun rounds. Supposedly just one was enough to drop a man where he stood. I guess that didn’t apply to Samoan giants.
“Jelly!” someone shouted from inside, and I recognized Badger’s voice. “Report!”
“I’m hit!” That was Jelly, and there was a note of pain and panic in her voice.
Gunshots, loud and rapid, made me duck low and cover my head. I heard wood splintering, and ringing noises as bullets bounced off something metallic.
“I’m pinned down!” Badger called back.
Damn. I had to go in. I had to. I saw all my resolutions – my determination to leave prison in the rear view mirror and live a better and more peaceful life, to love my wife and daughter, to build a career and a future for myself – go up in smoke in an instant. Here I was, back in the game as Badger called it, back in a life of crime. How had I let this happen?
It was what it was. A purple bandana poked its way out of the Samoan’s pocket. I took it, sniffed it – it smelled clean enough – and tied it around my face, covering my mouth and nose. I couldn’t risk any of these gangsters remembering my face.
Moving to the door, holding my gun in front of me in a two-handed grip, I glanced quickly inside and pulled back. There were bodies everywhere, most of them duct taped at wrists, ankles and mouth, just like the whale at the door. There must have been at least ten, all Samoans it seemed, some hugely muscular, most heavily tattooed. Why on earth would Badger and co attack such a well manned house?
Several of the men stirred and uttered muffled groans. One thrashed in place helplessly.
The house looked a hurricane had whipped through. Guns of all kinds were scattered everywhere. I saw a gold-plated machine pistol and a shotgun with a shimmering abalone stock. Cartridges and beanbag rounds littered the floor. Bills of various denominations plastered every surface in green. There was a mangled money-counting machine that looked like it had taken a direct hit, as well as shattered beer bottles, smoldering cigarette butts and fluffs of furniture stuffing still drifting through the air. The walls were half destroyed by gunfire.
One of the men on the ground began to grunt and strain, uselessly trying to break his bonds.
I pulled my head back when a burst of machine gun fire split the air in two. My heart galloped like a horse on the final stretch. I took a shuddering breath and glanced inside again. There was a small lobby just inside the door. It opened onto a living room on the left, with the kitchen beyond that. On the right there was an office, then a short corridor leading to a bedroom. Two or three bodies sprawled in the office, and many more in the living room.
A female voice moaned from the direction of the kitchen. It sounded like Jelly.
Suddenly Badger stuck his head up from behind a nearly demolished sofa that stood against the left wall of the living room. Seeing me, he pointed to the hallway on the other side of the office.
I nodded and began tiptoeing through the office, moving around two unconscious men and trying not to give myself away by stepping on any of the discarded ammunition cartridges. One of the men, who must have been faking unconsciousness, seized my ankle. I stumbled and fell. The gangster – a muscular man wearing overalls, black gloves and no shirt, with his black hair tied in two long braids, glared silently at me and tried to belly crawl on top of me, where he could perhaps crush me with his weight. His wrists and ankles were bound, though, and he could not do much. I lashed out with the butt of my gun, striking him on the forehead, and he passed out. A nasty bruise instantly swelled up on his forehead. I hoped that I had not hit him hard enough to do any lasting damage.
Badger began to shout. “Yo busta in the can! Give up, dude. All your homeboys is down. It’s just you left. You got no flex.”
He was answered by a two-second roar of machine gun fire. Undaunted, Badger continued to shout, alternately insulting the man and exhorting him to surrender, two strategies that seemed mutually conflicting to me.
I realized that Badger was giving me the location of the shooter – the bathroom – and providing cover to mask my approach. I stood and moved quickly through the office, rounded the corner and stepped through the bathroom door before I could second guess myself.
A hulking Samoan crouched against the wall of the bathroom. He was naked. The entire surface of his body was covered in gang tattoos. His chest bore a grinning skull wearing a cardinal’s hat, while the word “Samoa” was scrawled in gothic script across his belly. Traditional Samoan tribal patterns sleeved his bulging arms. Even his face was not immune to the spreading ink, with a sun symbol on one cheek and a leering face on the other. His black hair was long and kinky, and his mouth was full of gold teeth.
He cradled a gun that was smaller than the .50 caliber belt-fed monster I’d imagined. This compact, wide-barreled thing was only as long as the Samoan’s forearm.
The gangster shouted in surprise when I appeared, and began to pivot toward me. I lashed out with a vicious front kick, catching him on the corner of the jaw with the toe of my shoe. His head snapped back and he collapsed, unconscious.
“All clear in here, Badge,” I called out.
“Yo Jelly!” Badger called out. “Pinkie. Move out.”
“Gonna need some help,” Jelly called back in a strained voice.
I turned away from the Samoan gangster to go in search of Jelly – and a metallic sound behind me froze my blood. It was the sound of shower curtain rings sliding on a metal rod. I turned in time to see a naked woman step out of the shower stall. I hadn’t thought to look there. She was a young white woman with red hair and freckles, no more than nineteen or twenty I thought. Her blue eyes were wide with terror. She screamed something I didn’t understand and raised a large blue handgun, a .357 from the looks of it.
I could not move. I could not bring myself to shoot this young woman. I saw my own death, standing there in that bathroom. I saw my body sprawled on the floor, a gaping hole in my forehead or chest. I saw the newspaper headlines – “local P.I. killed in drug robbery” – and the shame it would bring on my family.
The redhead pointed the gun at my face. As in a dream I saw her finger tighten on the trigger. My breath caught in my chest and my heart seemed to stop as I awaited my demise.
There was a terrible crack in my left ear and the redhead flew backward. Blood erupted from the center of her chest as she tumbled into the shower curtain, tearing it loose. She fell lifelessly into the shower, her eyes as wide and blue as a cloudless February sky.
I turned to my left to see Pinkie standing there, the big pearl-handled revolver extended in her left hand. She had a black eye and a cut on her scalp from which blood poured down the side of her head and neck. Her face was pink again – not with fear this time, but with excitement. She enjoyed this insanity.
The next few minutes will never be more than a hazy jumble. The four of us got out of that house and back to the car. Jelly had been shot in the calf, and Badger in the shoulder. My head rang from the shot Pinkie had fired. I took off the bandana and threw it out of the car.
I did not drive. Instead Pinkie took the wheel as I sat in the back seat, too stunned to speak. I had just killed a girl. I did not pull the trigger, but I was a part of it. I was responsible morally and legally.
Felony murder. I’d just committed felony murder. Under California law, a defendant could face a murder conviction even if he did not pull the trigger – in fact, even if the death was an accident – as long as the death occurred in the commission of a felony. Badger and crew went into the stash house to rob it; I went in to help; a murder resulted. Therefore we were all guilty of felony murder.
The penalty for felony murder in California was either life in prison without parole, or the death penalty.
That frightened me only in the abstract. What rocked me, what put me on my heels and made me feel like I’d just fallen into a yawning crevice in the middle of an earthquake, was the image of that young woman collapsing backward, the terror in her blue eyes frozen there as in ice. She might not have been a gangster. She could have been a prostitute or the girlfriend of the guy in the bathroom. She was someone’s daughter, maybe even some little kid’s mother. She would never fulfill the promise of the life that Allah had entrusted to her; and someone somewhere would surely mourn her death.
* * *
Pinkie drove us to the Q-Ball towing yard on the southern outskirts of town. It was a sprawling place with piles of junked cars everywhere, some in stacks five high, and the entire yard surrounded by a ten-foot wall topped with concertina wire. You’d think it was Fort Knox, not a weatherbeaten junkyard on the edge of an economically depressed farm town.
A tall black man wearing a blue jumpsuit and heavy black boots greeted Badger with a warm handshake. Badger and Pinkie pulled everything out of the yellow Corvette, Badger working with one arm only, still bleeding where he’d been shot in the shoulder. Jelly sat on the ground and began to bandage her calf, grimacing as she worked.
The junkyard operator, the eponymous Q-Ball, climbed into a large tractor on caterpillar treads, with a huge claw-tipped arm. He expertly maneuvered the tractor up to the Corvette, and seized it with the claw hand, lifting it into the air. He then wheeled the tractor over to a massive orange machine that looked like a dumpster on steroids. with a chute running out of each end. These chutes extended over smaller green dumpsters.
Q-Ball dropped the Corvette into the top of the orange machine. Massive iron wheels with cogs the size of a man’s arms began to spin. They bored into the Corvette and pulled it deeper into the machine, grinding it inexorably into rubble.
It was like watching another death. The car groaned and squealed as the wheels gripped it. The noise was terrible. The car bounced and twisted as if trying to escape, but piece by piece it was sucked in, the metal twisting and crumpling, the glass shattering.
As the car was seized and ground into the machine, its remains began to pour down the chutes. There must have been a sorter of some kind inside, because larger fragments – by which I mean the size of a hand or a bread loaf – poured down one chute, while the other chute carried away rubble that had been pummeled to the size of gravel.
I watched with grim fascination, wincing at times, wanting to look away but unable. I felt as if the day’s events had crushed me in the same way, grinding up my heart and spitting it out.
“Dat’s phat, huh?” Badger was at my side, his face impassive, showing no sign of the pain he must be feeling. He indicated the car that was now almost fully obliterated. “Badger posse leave no trace. First rule of the game is don’t get caught.”
“I don’t get it,” I said dully. “Wasn’t that car worth a lot of money?”
Badger shrugged. “Maybe thirty g’s. Ain’t nothin’ compared to the cheese we took off them Samoans.”
Q-Ball gave us an old Buick sedan. It was light brown and nondescript. Badger’s crew moved their belongings to this car and we all piled in, with me in the backseat. I didn’t know where we were going and hardly cared. My mind was still stuck in that bathroom, seeing the young woman collapsing as the bullet threw her backward, the look of shock in her blue eyes, the sound of the shot ringing in my ears like a fire alarm.
* * *
Jelly pulled up to an abandoned fig factory a few miles southwest on 41. She unlocked the rusted front gate, drove straight up a ramp into the loading bay, unlocked a rollup door, and drove the car right into the factory itself.
Inside, I sat on a wooden packing crate as the three members of Badger’s robbery squad set to work tending each other’s wounds. In a corner of the warehouse they had a makeshift clinic already set up. It contained everything a regular doctor’s office might have: anesthetic, scalpels, suturing tools, bandages, even an IV pole. Badger drank from a bottle of whiskey as Pinkie dug a round out of his shoulder and stitched him up. Then it was Jelly’s turn.
Jelly’s messenger bag rested on a low coffee table. It bulged with whatever they had taken from the stash house: money or drugs, I didn’t know which.
Badger limped over to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “You represented, brother. You saved our butts back there. Wasn’t s’posed to be so many of ‘em. We was told there’d be three. They musta been havin’ a war council or su’m.”
I stared into his eyes and saw no trace of concern for the dead woman. It was as if we’d just returned from a picnic at the park. He’d been doing this for so long that human life had become meaningless to him. Was there anything I could say that would reach him? I didn’t think so.
“Let’s go find our boy Tarek,” Badger said.
I shook my head lifelessly. “I don’t want anything from you. I should never have come to you.”
“What you mean, Stick? How come?” Badger looked genuinely hurt and confused.
I held my hands out. “We killed a woman back there, Badge. She was barely out of her teens. A human being who never did anything to you or me. I don’t even know her name.”
“Crab had it comin’,” Pinkie muttered as she tended to Jelly. “Come out of the shower like psycho, ank ank ank!”
I ignored her.
Badger’s eyes on the other hand, showed a touch of genuine regret. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. But you know, ain’t no mercy in the game. Just by bein’ where she was, with the people she was with, she on the grind. Don’t put yo’ foot in the game if you can’t handle the consequences. Did I tell that chica to be in a stash house? Naw, man. She woulda killed you, Stick. The game is the game.”
“Really? Then why were you using bean bags? Don’t tell me you don’t have a heart!” My voice had risen to a shout.
Badger’s expression grew hard. “The gangs murdered my father. You know that. I could have massacred every one of those savages and I’d still sleep like a drunken baby. I don’t give a damn about them. They can rot in whatever underworld Samoans are destined for.”
I’d noticed this about Badger, that unlike some people whose speech degraded when they were upset, Badger reverted to proper English and even waxed poetic. I stared at him. There was something about the way he said, “you know that” that seemed to imply a deeper knowledge on his part than what he was saying. Did he know about the role I’d played in his father’s death? That was impossible. Badger had slaughtered dozens of men to avenge his father’s murder. I surely would have suffered the same fate.
“Then why the bean bags?” I demanded.
He waved this off. “Bodies bring investigations. That’s bad for business. Just playin’ the game, Stick.”
There was nothing else to say. I turned around and began to walk toward the door.
I looked over my shoulder at Badger, not turning my body.
“Su’m about yo’ case you ought to think on.”
“The cheese, man. Follow the money. Where’d the forty five large come from? Did Angie steal it? If so, who from? Or did someone give it to her? If so, why? Forty five g’s don’t just appear outta thin air.”
I walked to the door and opened it.
“Don’t you want a ride back to your hooptie?” Badger called after me. “What about the dope? You want your share?”
I walked through the door and closed it behind me.
* * *
I don’t know why the death of that woman hit me so hard. After all, I’d stabbed a man in the belly just the night before and thought little of it. Was it because the redhead was young, and had her whole life ahead of her? Was it because she was white, and if so was that an unconscious expression of racism on my part, thinking that a white life was somehow more important than an Asian one? Was it because she was a woman? Was it because she was naked and therefore vulnerable, and somehow childlike in her vulnerability?
All these things, perhaps. After all, the Cambodian gangster I’d stabbed would live – I was fairly sure – whereas this young woman was as dead as a winter night. And the Cambodians had attacked me, whereas in this case we – Badger’s crew and myself – had been the aggressors.
There was no justification. I could not defend this young woman’s death before Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. I could not defend it on Yawm Al-Qiyamah. And I could not defend it in a court of law.
It took me over an hour to walk back to my car. I passed through rough neighborhoods, receiving hard looks and the occasional catcall. I paid no mind. I walked on autopilot, my feet reckoning the path while my brain cycled through guilt, blame and recrimination, again and again. I saw the shower curtain tearing free. Dead eyes as blue as a glacier. A spray of freckles and blood on white shoulders.
Had I pulled the trigger? I couldn’t recall. It felt like I had. My fingers twitched, remembering.
At some point I could not take any more self-castigation. Like fog hitting a prison wall, my mind drifted sideways. Walking mile after mile, I found myself thinking about Salman Al-Farisi’s journey. I had read the story many times, and knew it by heart:
After his father chained him up, Salman sent word to the Christians through an intermediary to notify him the next time a caravan was going south to Ash-Sham (Syria). They did so, and Salman freed himself from the chains and signed on. He was a mere child traveling into the unknown, driven by a burning need to find the truth about the Creator.
When Salman arrived in Ash-Sham, he asked for the most religious among the people. They pointed him to the bishop, and Salman became the bishop’s assistant.
He soon learned that the bishop was corrupt. The man had hoarded charity donations into seven jars of gold and silver. When the bishop died, Salman revealed his corruption to the people, who reacted by crucifying and stoning the bishop’s body.
The people replaced the bishop with another, who turned out to be sincere and righteous. Salman would later say that he never met a better non-Muslim than that man, nor a man more detached from the dunya – the material world – and attached to the afterlife, nor a man more devoted to righteous work. “I loved him more than anything I loved before,” Salman said.
When that bishop’s death approached, Salman asked him to refer him to someone else. The bishop complained that the people had altered the true religion of Allah. “I do not know of anyone who is still holding to what I follow except a man in Al-Moosil (Iraq),” the bishop said.
So Salman traveled to Iraq, whereupon he met that priest and served him until once again the holy man’s death approached. The priest recommended Salman to another in a city called Nasiyebeen. The story repeated itself. Salman found the man in Nasiyebeen and served him until he in turn was on his deathbed. Salman asked him where he should go. The man referred Salman to a teacher in Ammooriyyah, a city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Salman found the man in Ammoriyyah and served him, and again the man grew elderly and his death neared.
Now Salman’s path changed, for when he asked where he should go, the teacher said, ‘O son! I don’t know of anyone who is on the same (religion) as we are. However, the time of emergence of a Prophet will shade you. This Prophet is on the same religion of Ibraaheem.’
The teacher had a deep understanding of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and had seen within them the clear signs of the approach of a true Prophet.
“He comes from Arabia,” the teacher continued, “and migrates to a place located between landscapes of black stones. Palm trees spread between these stones. He has certain well known signs. He (accepts) and eats (from) a gift but does not eat from charity. The seal of Prophethood is between his shoulders. If you can move to that land, then do so.”
The holy man died. Salman stayed in Ammooriyyah until one day some merchants from the Arab tribe of Kalb passed by. Salman said, “Take me to Arabia and I will give you my cows and the only sheep I have.” The Arabs agreed. Salman gave them his possessions and they took him along. When they reached Wadee Al-Qura (close to Madinah), they betrayed him and sold him as a slave to a Jew.
Salman stayed with the Jew and worked as a slave, for he had seen the palm trees of Madinah and hoped this would be the place described by the holy man.
* * *
I thought about Salman’s willingness to completely sever himself from the misguided people of his past in order to serve Allah as purely as he could. Nothing motivated him but the truth. He traveled from one land to another, leaving behind whatever friends he had made, keeping no attachments to anything worldly, placing himself completely in Allah’s hands. When the time came he gave up everything he owned, all his animals, and consigned himself to an unknown fate, just to get closer to the Prophet he believed would soon appear.
Even when he was sold into slavery he did not rebel, did not run away, and why? Because he believed himself to be in the land of the coming Prophet, and that was all he cared about. The truth, the truth, the truth. That was his obsession and his dream, his mission and his sole care in this life.
I did not know how to apply the lessons of Salman’s life to my own. I did not know what I should do, or where I should go. I already had the truth that Salman had so desperately sought. I had the Quran and the Sunnah. I had Islam, and a good and kind-hearted teacher in Imam Saleh. So why was I such a mess? Why did I keep stumbling into these terrible situations? Why couldn’t I divorce myself from my misguided past as Salman had done?
I resolved to be done with Badger. Yes, I was responsible in a way for Malik Sulawesi’s death. Yes, Amiri was one of my oldest friends. But he was on an express highway to self-destruction – no rest stops and no detours – and I could not ride it with him, not if I hoped to stay sane. Not if I didn’t want to be altered into something I myself would not recognize.
Of course this was locking the hangar after the jet had taken off. A woman was dead. She was possibly innocent and possibly not, but she was dead and I had been a part of it.
Finally reaching my car, I drove. I wasn’t sure where I was going until I looked up to see that I had – completely without conscious thought – driven to Masjid Madinah. Furthermore, the parking lot was full.
Of course. Today was Jum’ah. I was late, but the salat was apparently not over. I parked a block away and walked to the masjid, where I weaved my way through the packed congregation. I was focused on finding an empty spot in the rear and was not yet paying attention to Imam Saleh’s khutbah, until a word penetrated my fogged brain and froze me in place as if I’d just stepped in cement. “Murder.”
I turned my head toward Imam Saleh, who stood atop a small minbar at the front of the masjid. I half expected him to be pointing at me in accusation. But he stood tall in a gray thobe and white kufi, his hands animated but not singling me out. He went on:
“Murder is wrong. Attributing such crimes to Islam is despicable. The slaughter of innocent people is barbaric.”
I was a marble statue. In my confusion and fear – and I was indeed afraid – even my breathing seemed to have stopped. Was Imam Saleh speaking directly to me? Did he somehow know what I had done? Was he exposing my sin to the world? Was everyone looking at me, and seeing the stain of blood on my hands? I took off my fedora and held it to my chest, as if I could use it to shield myself against his words.
“The Messenger of Allah” – the Imam continued – “peace and blessings of Allah upon him, said, ‘No one of you murders at the time that he murders and remains a believer. Therefore, beware, beware!’ Ibn Hibban, 5979. One version of this Hadith mentions, ‘Faith is stripped from him like his trousers. When he returns to faith, it returns to him.’ In other words, as long as he is engaged in murderous acts, he cannot claim to be a man of faith. If he were to die in such a condition, he would die a disbeliever.”
Still I stood. Someone tapped me on the leg, no doubt because I was blocking his way. The Imam went on:
“The Prophet (peace and blessing of Allah upon him) mentioned, ‘A Muslim is one from whose tongue and hand all of the people are safe.’ Ahmad, 6753; Tabarani, 3170. This hadith tells us that anyone who unleashes words of hate against people, or commits acts of violence against them, is not a true Muslim. Rather, such a person is a hypocrite, shaming himself through his actions.”
Again someone tugged on my pants leg. The pull seemed to draw the energy out of me, so that I suddenly felt weak and dizzy. My legs gave out, and I reached for the ground with one hand as I sank heavily. A middle aged brother with a black beard shuffled to the side with a grunt of displeasure. I managed not to fall right on him. I sat cross legged and covered my face in my hands, breathing hard. Someone touched my shoulder in concern but I paid no mind.
Imam Saleh continued to talk. At some point it dawned on me that he was not speaking specifically about me. He was referring to acts of terrorism committed by so-called Muslims.
“All these narrations,” the Imam went on, “make it unequivocally clear that the depraved murderers who have embarked on a campaign of terror and war against their hosts, neighbors, fellow citizens, the innocent public, and against guiltless men, women and children, have joined the ranks of the devils and betrayed everything Islam stands for. Faith has died in their hearts. They have abandoned their religion and forfeited their humanity. They do not act in the name of Islam. They have no honor, and deserve only contempt.
“Confronting the rising scourge of terrorism is one of the great challenges of our age. To defeat it may require sweeping changes within the Muslim world – social changes, economic changes, political changes, and most of all spiritual changes. We must return to an understanding of Islam as a religion of compassion, kindness, and civil discourse. We must honor our relationship with the Creator, worshiping Him sincerely, and we must then extend that sincerity to our interactions with all people. May Allah give us the strength to complete this task.”
When the khutbah was over I stood and prayed mechanically with the congregation. I wanted to break down and plead with Allah for forgiveness, but I feared to release my emotions, for doing so might lead me to a complete breakdown.
When salat was over, I sat again, my eyes fixed on the heavy carpet as men shook hands, chatted and filed out of the masjid. A few brothers greeted me and tried to speak to me but I did not respond.
At some point it sank into my awareness that someone had been repeating my name insistently. I raised my eyes to find Aziz Al-Qudsi crouching in front of me, dressed in a beautiful gray suit and yellow tie. Like me, he had straight black hair, though he kept his very short. He was a handsome man whose appearance was marred only by the prominent bend in the bridge of his nose, from when Amiri had broken it in a sparring session when we were kids. Martial arts had never come naturally to Aziz, and he’d been the first of us to give it up, which he did when I moved to Qatar.
I was surprised to see him, since Aziz lived in Menlo Park, about a half hour south of San Francisco, and I had not seen him in at least a year. Taller than me at about six feet even, Aziz seemed to have it all. One year older than me, he was the eldest of the Five Musketeers and by far the most successful. In school he’d been the one student whose grades I could never beat. He’d gone on to earn an MBA from Stanford and at the age of twenty five had created a messaging app similar to Skype, which he later sold to Microsoft for a large sum of money. He then started his own venture capital fund. I had no doubt he was a multi-millionaire.
He was also an Islamic scholar in his own right. He’d become fascinated by traditional Islamic scholarship when we were still in high school. When the rest of us wanted to go to a movie, or ride our dirt bikes in the foothills, or practice Kali at Roeding Park, Aziz wanted to sit at the masjid and read 12th century Islamic texts in Arabic. Later, between earning his Bachelor’s degree and his MBA, he managed to earn a distance degree in Islamic studies from IIUM in Malaysia.
On top of everything else, he was happily married with three children.
He grasped my shoulder, his eyes wide with alarm. “Zaid! Shu feek? What’s wrong?”
I gave him a weak smile, but I think it must have looked ghastly, because the worry on his face increased.
“Marhaba, Aziz,” I said finally.
He let out a sigh of relief. “I’ve been saying your name for five minutes, man! What’s going on?”
“Nothing. What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for the FIA fundraiser tomorrow.”
Of course, I thought wryly. Aziz and a sister named Kawthar had comprised the entire first graduating class of the Fresno Islamic Academy. Kawthar went on to earn simultaneous degrees in medicine and law. Unbelievable, right? Who does that? Aziz and Kawthar were both frequently invited to speak at FIA fundraisers. They were held up as shining success stories and proof of the school’s academic excellence.
I’d attended FIA as well in my youth, though not in high school. I wasn’t holding my breath waiting to be invited to a fundraiser. Not that I cared. I thought it was funny, actually. We’re not all success stories, folks! But never mind that, hand over your money and your gold…
“Are you sure you’re okay, Stick?”
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped. “I despise that name.”
He withdrew his hand from my shoulder. He looked dismayed. “I’m sorry, Zaid, I -”
“No, no,” I cut in. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m just tired. It’s good to see you Aziz, but I don’t feel like talking.”
I did not resent Aziz’s success. Truly, I was happy for him. But our lives had gone in such wildly divergent directions that he could never understand who I was now. How could I possibly tell him about the things I’d seen and done? Can a man who’s never been uncomfortable understand what it is to shiver in cold all night long, or to spend the entire night awake in the dark with a homemade knife in your hand, waiting for the attack you know is coming?
Aziz said something about me attending the fundraiser. I did not respond, and at some point he moved off. After a while the lights shut off in the masjid. My mind drifted. The shot that Pinkie had fired still echoed in my head. I saw the redhead falling, the look of disbelief in her wintry eyes, the freckles on her shoulders like a field of wheat… I kept thinking of the ayah from Surat Al-Baqarah where Allah says, “wa laa tulquw bi-aydeekum ilat-tahluka…” – and do not throw yourselves with your own hands into destruction… Again and again these words played in my head, as I saw myself being cast by two fierce and terrible hands – my own hands, magnified into clawed horrors – into the fires of Hell.
At some point my vision focused and I saw that Imam Saleh sat cross legged in front of me. He watched me, saying nothing. My fedora sat on the ground between us.
“I-” my voice came out in a croak. I cleared my throat and and tried again. “I’ve made bad choices. I have destroyed myself.”
The Imam was silent for some time. Finally he leaned forward and tapped my chest. “I believe in your heart, akh Zaid. I look at you and see a good man. If all the world were arrayed into three camps: the forces of good, the forces of evil, and those who merely stand and watch, I would look for you within the camp of the forces of good.”
“You wouldn’t find me there,” I said bitterly.
“Come now. If you approach Allah with repentance, He will come to you with forgiveness even greater than it, no matter what you have done. And you know what, akh Zaid?”
“I still behold that light in your eyes. You have not completed your work. You’re in pain, I see that. Spiritual pain is a wake up call. It is a motivator to change. It is not there to cripple you, but to drive you toward Allah, and to stimulate you to act. Replace a bad deed with a good one. That is the way forward. Call upon Allah, dig deep within yourself, be courageous as I know you are, and act. I know no one else like you brother, but I know that the world needs more such men.”
I didn’t know what to say. For the second time in as many days, here was someone expressing faith in me – first Jamilah, and now the Imam. In the past I’d gone years without hearing such words. But they didn’t know. They didn’t know how many terrible mistakes I had made.
Imam Saleh picked up my fedora, and, extending his arm, rolled it up his arm to his shoulder. It was just like a professional magic trick, and I was amazed that he could do that. Smiling, he placed the hat on my head and clapped me on the shoulder. “I’ll be in my office,” he said. “Stay as long as you need.” With that he departed.
I stood on shaky legs and prayed. I took my time, holding each position for long minutes and fighting not to break into tears, for though I was not ashamed to cry before Allah, I feared that if I allowed the tears to spring forth, they would never stop.
When I was done I stood and walked out of the masjid. No answers had spontaneously manifested in my heart. No voice whispered to me, no vision appeared. Had my prayer been answered? Was I forgiven? I did not know.
What I did know was that there was a child out there who was afraid and abused. I had been hired to find her, and that was exactly what I would do Insha’Allah. Come burning sun or raging river, bad men or bad blood, I would find this child. I could not resurrect the redhead who’d been shot in the shower. I could not change what had happened to Malik Sulawesi ten years ago. I could not save any of the millions around the world suffering from tyranny, torture, starvation, disease or drought. I could not reverse time and prevent the catastrophe that had befallen my Palestinian people.
But I could find one child, God help me.
Find Tarek, I told myself. Find the father first, then the daughter.
Thinking of Anna brought to mind my daughter Hajar. School at the FIA ended after Jum’ah prayer on Fridays, so Hajar would be home now. In the car, I took out my phone and called, only to get Safaa’s voicemail. Most likely she didn’t want to answer. Probably thought I was going to pester her again about our marriage. I texted her: “Please have Hajar call me when she’s free.”
I drove down to Jamestown Street. Like I’d told Badger, I did not know this area. No matter. I would use my eyes, ears and shoe leather, like any gumshoe. I parked in a shaded spot and watched the life on the street through the binoculars. There were homeless people everywhere in this neighborhood, standing about in groups, wandering singly with shopping carts piled high with belongings, or coming and going. Men who were clearly drug dealers stood on the corners, selling their wares with impunity. I observed the patterns of movement, noting the buildings that attracted the most traffic.
I noted a shuttered four-story building a block from my location. It was a weathered wooden structure that might once have been painted red but was now a drab grayish-pink. Some windows were boarded up, while others simply gaped open, the glass long vanished. A faded sign painted on the side announced, “Sheya Gardens Hotel.” Piles of litter were strewn about on all sides. I’d seen many people slipping through a gap in a loose board that covered the door.
I locked up my car, walked to the Sheya Gardens Hotel, and squeezed my way through the boarded up doorway. What I found inside was a world unlike anything I’d ever imagined.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available for purchase on Amazon.com.