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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 10 – Finding Tarek

The sun was going down. Safaa had never called me back. I should go home and rest, but I wanted to pursue this lead. My wounded arm throbbed with pain. I had a bottle of ibuprofen in the car. I took four and tossed them into my mouth, swallowing them dry.

Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

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

Zaid Karim Private Investigator is a full length novel. Previous chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9

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As of August 1st 2017 I’ve made many changes in the previous chapters, so you might want to go back and re-read. For those who don’t have time, here’s a summary of the most important changes:

  • Chapter 1 – I added the fact that Zaid received a presidential pardon for his crimes and was released from prison. The specific incident leading to this has not yet been described.
  • Chapter 4 – Zaid’s wife was previously a nurse. Now she is a teacher at FIA, the Fresno Islamic Academy. Previously they met for the first time as teenagers at summer camp. This has been changed so they met as children in elementary school, lost contact, then met again at camp.
  • Chapter 5 – A discovery Zaid made about Anna has been removed. If you know what I mean, please do not mention it. I apologize that the surprise is spoiled for you. This is one of the drawbacks in writing serially like this.
  • Chapter 5 – I added a new character – Yusuf Cruz, an old prison buddy from Panama.
  • Chapter 6 – In the fight with the Asian gangsters, the gangsters were specifically looking for Tarek, for reasons unknown.

Friday, February 5, 2010 – 4:00 pm
Fresno, California

The hotel lobby was a chamber of horrors. It was dimly and strangely lit by a few isolated slivers of sunshine that managed to worm their way through gaps in the boarding that covered the windows, and by the pale light of a butane torch that sat on the floor, hissing with a steady blue flame. Beside the burner a shirtless man slept half on and half off a mattress that was stained and sporting large burn holes.

The room reeked of bodily fluids, urine, burned plastic and cigarette smoke. Litter was strewn everywhere: empty liquor bottles, used syringes, crack vials of every color, latex gloves, fast food takeout containers, playing cards, cigarette butts and ash, bottles of malt liquor filled with what looked like urine, and other miscellaneous garbage.

There were also people. Some were teens, while others were as old as fifty or sixty – it was hard to tell, as they were all thin and aged, worn out before their time. Many were unconscious or asleep, sprawled on the few pieces of dirty furniture, or on the floor. Others stood against the walls, looking predatory and alien in the weird light. A few of these stared at me, and one made a move in my direction. I slid my hand down to my thigh to rest on my knife, and the man stopped, returning to his perch against the wall.

There were also scenes of depravity that I will not describe. Suffice it to say that desperate women trading their bodies for drugs has always been one of the sick pillars of drug culture.

I remained in that room only long enough to ascertain that none of the occupants were Tarek. Then I went down a corridor and past a restroom with a broken mirror, a shattered urinal and a foul toilet. I came to the hotel rooms and began to search room by room.

Many of the rooms did not have doors, and those that did had no working locks. Most were unoccupied and defaced with graffiti, littered with trash or fouled with waste. In a few, addicts slept on the floor or on dirty mattresses. Most ignored me. A few cursed at me. One threw an empty shampoo bottle at me. One young man with a pink mohawk and rotten teeth leaped up and attacked me the instant I opened the door. I drove him back with a hard kick to the belly and moved on as he lay on the floor moaning. I felt like I was in a horror movie: the last human in a world full of zombies, looking for one particular zombie who was not fully turned and could possibly be saved.

I completed my search of the first floor and moved on to the second. It was more of the same. Moving up to the third floor, I had to step over a family that was camped on the staircase. The scene was revolting and too miserable to describe. Finally I completed my search of the fourth and final floor. I felt overexposed and feverish, as if I’d been exposed to radiation. I desperately wanted to get out of that hotel of horrors. The words of a popular rock song came to me:

Welcome to California

“Looking for gold in the Golden State…”

Looking for gold in the Golden State
but the nuggets are piled on other men’s plates
and they’ll burn you out at half past eight
welcome to California

I practically stumbled down the stairs in my haste to flee that place. In the lobby, the drug dealers and addicts ignored me or watched listlessly as I pushed my way out through the boards.

Back in my car I sat breathing raggedly and obsessively cleaning my hands with a packet of wet wipes that I kept in the glove box. I hadn’t known that such places existed. Drugs, man. Drugs. What a foul, evil thing the drug business was. Kids who thought drugs were cool, fun or glamorous should be brought to places like this and given a tour of hell on earth, so they could see where the drug trip inevitably led.

Thank God I’d never gotten sucked into that. Alhamdulillah for the mercies we take for granted.

And yet I was not done. When I had my composure back, I exited the car and went in search of other drug houses.

Over the course of the afternoon I managed to find two more drug dens. In the last one, I was attacked without warning by two heavily tattooed Hispanic men in their twenties – dealers, I think. One – a burly bald man who looked like he couldn’t walk without his thighs rubbing together – tried to open my throat with an eight inch hunting knife, presumably in order to rob me.

Only my years of training saved me. I instinctively side stepped, just as I’d practiced a million times. I threw up an arm and managed to block the slash, but took a deep cut across the back of my left forearm in the process. An instant later I kicked the outside of Baldy’s knee as hard as I could and heard something snap. He went down with a scream, and I stomped on his ankle to seal the deal, feeling the small bones crunch and shatter. He screamed again at an even higher pitch, as if auditioning for a soprano gig with the Fresno opera.

I picked up the dealer’s hunting knife and held it before me. My nostrils were dilated. I was as calm as the eye of a hurricane. The second attacker – a thin man with a scraggly goatee who looked more like a junkie than a dealer – backed up with his hands in the air in surrender. I kicked the downed man for good measure, one hard soccer kick to the base of the spine with the toe of my shoe, causing Baldy’s entire body to spasm. Then I motioned to his friend and snarled, “Get your friend to the hospital.”

I went on my way, holding the knife in a reverse grip so that it lay alongside my arm. I searched the rest of the den as blood dripped from my left arm. I encountered a few residents but none were Tarek, and none bothered me.

I felt like a man standing at a dry well, pulling up one empty bucket after another. Doing the same thing again and again and hoping for a different result – wasn’t that one definition of insanity?

I returned to my car. I tossed the knife into the trunk and took out the first aid kit I kept there. I disinfected my wound liberally, then bound my forearm tightly. The cut was bad. I could have used Badger’s surgical stapler right about now. I should have gone to the hospital but I was exhausted and traumatized by all I’d seen that day, and not in the mood to sit around a waiting room for hours.

I started the car and drove away. Two blocks down the street I noticed a group of about a dozen homeless youths who had gathered in the entrance of a derelict art deco building that had probably been beautiful once.

I parked the car and went to talk to them. They were teens, with one or two who might have been as young as thirteen or fourteen. Runaways, I figured. Wearing rags and leather, some looking like hippies while others were more punkish, they sat huddled in a tight circle, talking quietly and passing around a single cigarette. Several had the symbol for anarchy – a capital A in a circle – hand drawn on their clothing. A few kept dogs on leashes. I greeted them and showed them Tarek’s picture. A few muttered, “No, sorry,” or shook their heads. One cursed at me. Most ignored me.

“Spare some change?” one asked. He was a curly haired boy of fifteen or so.

Seeing my hesitation and no doubt deducing the reason, he added, “It’s for food, man. We’re hungry.”

“I’ll buy you food,” I offered. “Give me a grocery list.”

They all turned toward me. “Bread and cheese,” the curly haired boy said. “And baloney.” Someone else requested chips and bananas. “Tampons,” a pink-haired girl said. Peanut butter, canned tuna, dog food – the requests went on.

My offer to go grocery shopping had been a bluff, and they’d called it.

“I don’t have time,” I confessed. “I’ll give you the money.” I took a hundred dollars from my wallet. “Who should I give it to?”

“Doesn’t matter,” the pink-haired girl said. “We share everything.”

This reminded me of the Muslim brothers in prison, the way we used to support one another. We always had welcome packages ready for brothers who were newly incarcerated or transferred in from other institutions. The packages included hygiene supplies, foodstuffs that could be purchased from the prison commissary, and maybe even a prayer rug and kufi cap. No prisoner was allowed to hoard goods, so the care package would be distributed among several men, to be assembled when needed.

Never in my life – before prison or after – have I encountered the kind of solidarity that I experienced while incarcerated. Anytime I entered a new penal institution – and I had been in several, with the way the feds liked to transfer prisoners like pieces on a game board – the first thing I did was look for the Muslims. If I found Muslims there, I knew I was safe.

I gave the money to the curly haired boy.

“Hey,” he said. “Why you looking for that guy? You a cop?”

I shook my head. “He’s a friend. His daughter is missing and I’m trying to help.”

“If he’s your friend, what’s his nickname?”

“T-Bone,” I said without hesitation.

“Anybody might know that,” the pink-haired girl objected. “If he’s really your friend, what kind of cigarettes does he smoke?”

I raised my eyebrows, then chuckled. That was an easy one. Tarek began smoking when he was thirteen. I tried to talk him out of it many times, but he said it made him feel good. He only ever smoked one brand.

“Camels,” I said. “He always used to say-“

The homeless youths all chimed in: “What else would an Egyptian smoke?” They laughed.

“Yeah, we know T-Bone.” Curly pointed west. “He shares food when he has it.” He pointed west. “He stays in a boarded up yellow house a couple of blocks that way. There’s this weird ditch in the front yard, like someone was trying to dig up the pipes or something.”

* * *

Sunset over downtown Fresno.

Sunset over downtown Fresno.

The sun was going down. Wispy white clouds were finger-painted across an orange sky. To the east, the buildings of downtown Fresno loomed darkly against the sky like black-painted cutouts. The air smelled of fireplace smoke and farm dust. Good God, I wished it would rain. Just a little clean water to cleanse the air, cleanse my skin, cleanse the world.

Safaa had never called me back. I should go home and rest, but I wanted to pursue this lead. My wounded arm throbbed. I had a bottle of ibuprofen in the car. I took four and tossed them into my mouth, swallowing them dry. I knew that taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach could damage the stomach lining, but the pain was so distracting that I couldn’t think, and I didn’t have any food at the moment.

I drove around and found the yellow house without difficulty. I keep a small, high-powered LED flashlight in the glove box. I took it and approached the house. Holding my arm close against my side so as not to injure it further, I tried the front door of the yellow house. It opened a tiny bit then stopped, apparently barred by something heavy. I put my shoulder into it and managed to open it enough to slip through. It turned out someone had pushed an old oven in front of it.

I shone the light around the house. The interior was nearly bare, and layered in dust. The air smelled rotten. Someone had torn open the walls to steal the wiring and pipes. There were scorch marks on the floor, maybe where someone had made a fire. I went through the entire home. The sound of my feet shuffling on the floor seemed very loud. Shadows leaped as I moved the flashlight about. But there was nothing in the house but the old oven, a wooden chair with no legs, a greasy orange rag in the kitchen, and a broken-down refrigerator lying on its side in one of the bedrooms, close to the wall.

Another dead end. I sighed in weariness and frustration. Maybe Tarek wasn’t here in Fresno after all. Maybe when he’d fled the rehab center in Visalia he’d gone no further than that city’s own drug dens. Or maybe he was in Fresno but in some other part of town. This wasn’t the only street with dope houses. He could be anywhere. Maybe he’d hooked up with Angie and the two of them had taken off for strange horizons, spending that bundle of money that Angie was hauling around.

But the homeless kids said Tarek stayed here. It didn’t make sense. Had they lied to me?

I was about to turn away and leave this minor waystation on the road to hell when a thought occurred to me. The old refrigerator. It had been lying with its back to me. I had not seen inside it. A refrigerator was highly insulated and would make a good shelter against the cold. Only someone small could fit inside it, of course. A woman or a child, or a short man. Tarek was only 5’7”. I went back into the bedroom and looked at the old refrigerator, then walked around it slowly. As I did, I saw something sticking out. I shone the light on it. The bottom of a tennis shoe. I took another step: there was a leg attached to the shoe. The rotten stench that filled the house was stronger here, so much so that I had to breathe through my mouth.

I stopped for a moment, feeling my heart sink with dismay and dread. I didn’t want to see what was lying inside that refrigerator. I didn’t want to look. If I didn’t look, maybe it wouldn’t be real. If I didn’t look, maybe I wouldn’t have nightmares about it later.

My breath caught and I had to stop myself from turning away and leaving this place. The owner of the leg might not be Tarek, I told myself, and if it was, he might only be asleep.

But no. This was my job. This was what I did. I followed clues and walked down dark paths that showed me the worst of human nature. I faced the stark truths of life dead on, and did not flinch. I’d found bodies before. But it had always been someone else’s spouse or child. Someone else’s friend. Ah, subhanAllah. La ilaha il-Allah.

I stepped slowly around to the other side of the fridge.

It was Tarek, of course. He wore tattered jeans, a red t-shirt with a torn chest pocket, and boat shoes with no socks. He lay on his side inside the refrigerator, only his legs sticking out, his body curved like a comma, as if this were only a pause in motion before his story continued.

Except that it would not continue. Even before I knelt to take his pulse, I knew he was dead. There was a quality of utter stillness to his repose that he had never possessed in life. Tarek was darker-skinned than either of his parents, and the lean angles of his brown face – for he was very thin – almost seemed to shine, even in the dark, and even with the sores and ulcers that disfigured his features. His left arm was tied off for an injection, and the needle was still embedded in his forearm. His arms were studded with track marks – old needle injection scars and abscesses.

Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez had gotten her wish, it seemed. Tarek had indeed come to a ruinous end.

I studied Tarek’s face. His lips were dry and cracked, while his dark, half-lidded eyes seemed to gaze at me with a combination of reproach and vindication. You always knew I’d end up this way, his eyes seemed to say. But it’s alright. I finally caught that high I’ve been chasing.

I knelt beside him and felt along his neck, flinching at the deathly cold of his skin. There was no pulse. I felt in front of his mouth and nose for breath. But no. He’d been dead for days was my sense of it. His body was loose and relaxed, which meant that rigor mortis had already passed. So thirty six hours at least.

I called emergency services and reported it. While I waited for the ambulance – they always sent an ambulance first, just in case – I checked his pockets.

It wasn’t that I was cool headed, or so accustomed to death that this horror did not faze me. I was stunned. I had known Tarek since I was a kid. We’d had so many adventures together, spent so many afternoons talking about the things we’d do one day, the places we’d see. But a preternatural stillness had settled over me – the proverbial calm before the storm. I had a job to do.

I searched Tarek’s pockets, taking care not to puncture my hands on any spare needles. I found a pencil stub, two individual Life Savers candies coated in lint, four pennies, an uncancelled stamp torn from an envelope, a pack of Camels with two cigarettes remaining – what else would an Egyptian smoke, I thought crazily – and a book of matches.

The matchbook was adorned with a graphic of a woman slithering around a pole, kicking one leg in the air. “Chi-Chi’s,” it said. Obviously a strip club. In tiny gold lettering it gave an address on Golden State Boulevard, outside the city limits.

I studied all these objects, then put them back in Tarek’s pockets just I’d found them.

I took Tarek’s cold hand and held it between mine, as if I could warm it. “Wa lal-aakhiratu khayrun laka min al-uwlaa,” I recited. Surat Ad-Duha again. “And the Hereafter is better for you than the first life. And your Lord will give you, and you will be satisfied.” I prayed that Tarek, who had never found satisfaction in anything in life, and who’d spent every day of his existence chasing something he could not name, had finally found a place of peace.

I remembered the rest of that song I’d been thinking of earlier:

Looking for love at the edge of the West
running out of time, can’t catch my breath
liars and players walk ten abreast
welcome to California.

Lord don’t make me a player too
I’m not staying, just passing through
On my way to find You, to love You
beyond California.

It fit Tarek to a T, so to speak. He was beyond California now, that was sure, and I could only hope that he had found mercy with Allah at the end of the journey. My hands began to shake. I sat and hugged myself tightly, feeling suddenly very cold. After a moment I stood and went outside. I needed fresh air, and felt it would be best if I were outside when the cops arrived. I began to practice Kali on the dead grass of the front lawn, moving in the pale light of a distant streetlamp, doing the footwork – forward V, backward V, side to side, diamond pattern, hourglass pattern, star pattern, faster and faster.

The shakes passed. Standing in place, breathing hard, I took the photo of Anna out of my pocket and shone my flashlight on it. She stood in front of a tree covered in purple blossoms, wearing her school uniform and white Adidas sneakers with black stripes. As I looked at her she looked right back at me, solemn, her dark eyes conveying a message that I could not read.

I put the photo back, and addressed Tarek, wherever he might be. “I will find your daughter, akhi,” I said softly. “That’s the only promise I can make. Allah help me.”

1969 Dodge Dart GTS

1969 Dodge Dart GTS

I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the cops. They were certainly taking their time. I guess a dead addict didn’t warrant an emergency response. My phone rang. It was Safaa, finally calling me back. It was Hajar’s bedtime, I knew. At least I would get to speak to her before she slept. I answered, and Hajar greeted me with “Sala ‘laykum Baba!”

I smiled, and felt emotions roiling in my chest – embarrassment and shame at the fact that I was able to smile with my dead friend lying inside a refrigerator, along with detached amusement at the unpredictability of my own heart. At the same time, I breathed a sigh of relief. There were times when I thought my heart would throw up its arteries in frustration and sheer weariness and resign without the courtesy of giving notice. Sometimes it felt like the only thing keeping me going was Hajar.

“Wa alaykum as-salam, honey. How was school today?”

“It was fine. Mama’s taking me to buy new shoes ‘cause my shoes have holes like the moon.” This was followed by a burbling sound.

“What’s that sound?” I asked.

“I’m blowing in the milk with my straw. It makes bubbles.”

“You shouldn’t do that, honey. It’s not good to play with your food.”

There was a pause during which I knew that Hajar was thinking of a response. She never liked to admit that anything she did was wrong, and would always find some way to debate the issue. “Kids do that,” she said finally, “to keep the milk healthy.” She went on, not giving me a chance to dispute this. “You know Baba, I’m only gonna drink milk today.”

“Oh yes? Why is that?”

“Because that’s my padwen.” I didn’t know what this meant, but I figured it out as she went on: “I drink milk one day, then water one day, then juice one day. That’s my padwen.”

I smiled. “Okay, sweetie. That’s a good pattern.”

“You sound sad, Baba.” This caught me off guard and jarred me. I’d been trying hard to sound cheerful, and thought I was succeeding. Before I could wrestle myself back under control, tears sprung from my eyes and I choked back a sob.

“I am,” I replied, my voice quavering. “But not because of you.”

“Then why are you sad?”

“One of my friends died.”

“Oh.” Hajar’s voice was solemn. “Like the dinosaurs.”

“Yes, honey. Like the dinosaurs.” Lights flashing, an ambulance approached. “I have to go now kiddo. I love you forever and always. You’re my number one kiddo.”

“I love you forever and always Baba.”

* * *

The paramedics arrived first, followed a minute later by two uniformed police officers who asked me a few questions about my presence here, then instructed me to wait for the detectives.

The detectives arrived a half hour later. One was a heavyset, middle-aged white man in a nicer suit than I would have expected on a civil servant. The other was a hard-faced young black woman with her straightened hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.

I remained outside while they went in to examine the scene and the body. One of the uniformed officers stayed with me to make sure I didn’t leave.

When the detectives emerged about ten minutes later, they studied my P.I. license and badge. I told them forthrightly that I’d been hired by Tarek’s parents to find his child, and that I’d worn down some shoe leather to locate Tarek here. I gave them the Anwars’ address and phone number. The white cop in particular seemed bored and ready to write the whole thing off as another junkie O.D. The black cop asked a few questions about Tarek’s habits and friends. I knew little about such things, and told her so. She asked about the bandage on my arm and I told her about the attack in the drug den, leaving out the part where I kicked Baldy in the spine after he was down.

As the detectives were questioning me, two people arrived from the coroner’s office. A tiny, slim redhead and a blonde fellow with a waxed mustache went inside then came out with Tarek’s body bundled into a bodybag and lying on a stretcher – I was surprised that that the little redhead could handle her end of it. They loaded him into the ambulance and drove away.

Eventually the detectives let me go, with the usual admonition that they might want to speak to me again in the future. Standing in the early evening air, I felt small and humbled, unnerved by being in the presence of so much death lately, and very aware of my powerlessness in the face of Allah’s might and decree.

This wasn’t the first time I’d found a body in the course of an investigation. I knew that Tarek’s body would be taken to the Fresno County Coroner’s office. It was very unlikely that the cops would investigate the death, or that the coroner would perform an autopsy. They’d write it up as an O.D., notify the next of kin, and release the body after 48 hours to a funeral home of the Anwars’ choosing. That was fine with me. It wasn’t like there was any question about the cause of death. Not about the obvious physical reality anyway. As for the true cause of death – not the how but the why – I would always have questions about that, I was sure.

Ah, Tarek. You stupid, self destructive fool. Why, man? Why?

* * *

I headed west to the club on Golden State, the one from the matchbook in Tarek’s pocket. Tarek had never struck me as the strip club type, and I wanted to know what that matchbook was doing in his pocket. Clubs like this only operated at night, so I might as well go now.

The matchbook was almost certainly nothing, but one never knew. Everything was a part of the pattern of life, part of the ebb and flow of energy and matter that made up the universe, and sometimes a little thing turned into a big thing, and vice versa.

The Chi-Chi club was on a country road all by itself, surrounded by almond farms and orange groves. The parking lot was a field covered in gravel. It was no place for a Muslim, and I didn’t want to go in. But I had to follow this lead. I would keep my head down, do my business and leave.

As I headed toward the front door it opened and a woman exited in a wash of garish purple light. Thumping music poured out through the open doorway, along with the sounds of cheers and whistles. The woman was African-American, about my height, maybe thirty years old, with straight hair cut in a bob and glitter on her eyelids. She wore a trench coat that hung to her knees. Even with the coat pulled tightly against the evening chill, her muscularity and grace were obvious. It didn’t take a genius to deduce that she was one of the club’s dancers.

“Excuse me,” I called out.

The woman looked up in alarm. One hand shot into her coat pocket, no doubt reaching for pepper spray or maybe a gun. Her face was all sharp planes and uncompromising lines, her eyes dark and hard. She made me think of a fortified castle – a place of beauty surrounded by walls and moats. A place where archers manned the ramparts and would shoot anyone who approached unannounced.

“Whoa!” I stopped and raised my hands. “I’m a private detective. I just want to ask you a few questions. I can show you my badge if you like.”

She jerked her chin in my direction. “Show it.”

I reached into my pocket slowly and drew out my wallet, then opened it, showing my badge and P.I. license. The young woman nodded, and I took that as a cue to approach her. I smiled and introduced myself. “Sorry I scared you,” I added.

“I’m just jumpy. We get stalkers.”

“Right. Well let me show you a picture.” I took Tarek’s photo from my wallet and held it up. “Do you know this man?”

She looked from the photo to my face, giving me a penetrating stare, then looked away. “Why do you ask? What is it you want?”

So she knew something. She recognized the photo. “He’s dead. Heroin overdose. I found a matchbook from this place in his pocket. I’m trying to find out what business he had here. Was he a customer?”

“Damn,” the woman said. She bit her bottom lip. “Yeah, I know him. That’s Tarek.” She pronounced it Tareek, rhyming with “meek.” He’s Glitter’s boyfriend. She’s one of our dancers. He used to pick her up sometimes, but she hasn’t been in lately.”

“You mean Angie? Angie Rodriguez? She’s Glitter?”

She eyed me sharply. “You didn’t say you knew Angie. What are you investigating exactly?”

“I didn’t say because I didn’t know she worked here.” I laid it all out for her, explaining that I’d been hired to find Anna, and that Angie had gone missing, and that Tarek was in fact my friend. When I said the word “friend” I felt a surge of emotion and my voice caught, just for a split second. Zenobia noticed it. She looked at me and truly relaxed for the first time, the tension falling away from her face.

“The thing is ma’am,” I went on, “Angie’s sister says Angie showed up with a backpack full of money. And little Anna was in bad shape, beat up and hungry.”

The woman shook her head. “I don’t know about any of that. I mean, Angie always had problems. The dope, you know. I tried to get her into a program but that girl was a helicopter spinning out of control. Get too close, you’d get cut in half. She always chose the worst men. And you don’t have to call me ma’am by the way. My name is Zenobia. My real name.” She smiled, and it transformed her. All that hardness, all those defensive walls, melted away. I suddenly realized that she was younger than I’d first thought – no more than twenty two or twenty three.

“By worst men, you mean Tarek?”

She shrugged. “Tarek was a dope fiend, but at least he wasn’t violent. But Angie was never one for fidelity. She went home with customers, if they paid her. She was beaten up more than once.”

“Could she have stolen the money from one of the men she went with?”

“How much money?”

“Forty five thousand dollars.”

Zenobia whistled softly. “I don’t know. If you’re asking was Angie capable of it, then I’d say yes. She was certainly larcenous enough – no one loved money more than Angie – and probably stupid enough.”

“It doesn’t sound like you think highly of her.”

She smiled ruefully. “I’ve always been one for lost causes.” Again she studied me, her eyes roaming from my worn shoes and bandaged arm to my battered fedora. “Lost puppies too,” she added.

The club door opened again and four young Arab-looking men exited, laughing and clapping each other on the back. One glanced my way and I realized that I knew him. His name was Yahya. He was an Iraqi brother who used to be quite active at Masjid Madinah. In fact he used to open the masjid every morning for Fajr prayer. Then his cousin came to stay with him. His cousin was a boozer and a partier, and he sucked Yahya into his lifestyle. I hadn’t seen Yahya in over a year.

Yahya was also the brother-in-law of Safaa’s second cousin, or something like that.

When I met his eyes he gave me a wide grin and said something to his companions, who all turned to look at me. A few of them laughed. I could only imagine what Yahya had said: “See that guy, I know him. He goes to the mosque, pretends to be religious. He’s married to my relative. Just wait until she hears about this.”

The four Arabs continued on their way to the parking lot and I cursed my bad luck. Just what I needed. If Safaa heard that I’d been spotted in a strip club, that was it. She’d never trust me again. Our marriage would be over for sure. La hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah. Maybe I should never have come to this place.

“You alright?” Zenobia asked. “You know those guys?

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. I exhaled and tried to get back on track. “Where would Angie go if she came into a lot of money?”

Zenobia fingered the buttons on her coat. “She used to talk about Panama. How she and her sister would play in the plantations, eating bananas and mangoes whenever they were hungry. How she used to swim in Lake Gatun but had to watch out for crocodiles. She sounded so wistful whenever she talked about it.”

I asked a few more questions about Angie’s possible acquaintances or friends, but Zenobia had little more to offer. I stood to leave, thanking her for her time.

“Hey, uhh, Zaid? Is that how you say your name?”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t you supposed to give me your card? In case I think of anything else? Or in case I just, you know, want to call you?” She gave me a shy look and I found myself surprised by human nature all over again, how the child within us, the innocent and bashful soul, never truly departs.

Of course as a professional I should give her my card – just as she said, in case she remembered anything else. But she was a very attractive woman, and intelligent. The kind of woman who could tempt any man, especially one separated from his wife and desperate for a little love.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. Take care, Zenobia.”

“It’s Michelle.” The bashful smile again. “My really real name, I mean.”

* * *

This had been one of the longest and most difficult days of my life. In a single day I’d alienated Chausiku Sulawesi, participated in a gun battle in which a woman was killed, damaged my friendship with Aziz Al-Ansari, seen more horror than I ever wished to remember, been wounded, and found my friend lying dead in a refrigerator. I was so tired and emotionally exhausted I could barely stand.

I drove to my office on autopilot. The electricity was back on – Jalal at least had not let me down. I removed the bandage on my arm, washed and disinfected the wound, and used superglue to seal the edges of the cut. Then I performed wudu’ and rebandaged the arm. There had been no opportunity to pray Maghreb, so I prayed Maghreb and ‘Isha, willing my eyes to stay open. Even so, I think I might have fallen asleep in sujood at one point.

When I was done I collapsed into my cot. I closed my eyes and for some reason remembered an incident from when Tarek and I were young, maybe seven or eight years old. Back then Farah Anwar used to bake pies and cakes for the Muslim women’s halaqas that she held in her house.

Cookie dough

“Tarek had a fascination with raw dough.”

Tarek for some reason had a fascination with the raw dough. Whenever possible he would steal handfuls of dough and we’d play with them, fashioning them into snakes or tiny people. One time, Tarek’s grandmother was asleep on the sofa, and Tarek had the brilliant idea to make tiny dough caterpillars and stick them in her nostrils. I knew this would end badly, so I held back and watched as Tarek carried out his plan. Next thing we knew, his grandmother was up off the sofa, screaming in Arabic at the top of her lungs, batting her nose frantically and chasing us around the house.

Tarek put the blame on me, saying it was my idea, and his mother believed him. My father took me home and whipped me with his belt so badly I could not sit down for days.

Tarek Anwar’s days of getting into trouble were over. Any trouble he faced now existed in a dimension and on a scale beyond human perception. I could do nothing for him, but I would honor his memory by finding his daughter. O Allah, I prayed as sleep came over me, forgive my friend and protect him, and make him among the people of Paradise, and give me the strength to carry this task through to the end.

***

Next: Chapter 11 – Zaid, the Son of Islam

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

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            #Culture

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

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

            Goat standing on a cow's back

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

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

            Krägä Bianga

            “Fear no one.” – Samia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “But we’re Muslims.”

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

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

            The Old Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Eighty Seven Bites

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

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

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

            “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

            “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Bruises

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

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

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

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

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

            Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

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

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

            “I don’t want anything.”

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

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

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

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

            Fear No One

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

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

            Samia recited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Friends

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

            Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

            “Just tell him.”

            “He will not come, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

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

            Panama Rainforest

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Omar said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Get Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            * * *

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

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

            Avatar

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

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

            Continue Reading

            #Culture

            Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

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

            Doberman pinscher

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

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

            Stop Pitying Yourself

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

            Playa Santa Clara, Panama
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            Playa Santa Clara, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I am Panamanian.”

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

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

            He glared. “Excuse me?”

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

            “That’s not your business.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Omar shook his head.

            Indian Ocean tsunami

            Indian Ocean tsunami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Omar said it.

            “Go back to your wanderings.”

            The Gate Opens

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

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

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

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

            Doberman pinscher

            Doberman pinscher

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

            German shepherd

            German shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Drifting Out to Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

            * * *

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

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

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

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            Day of the Dogs, Part 2 – Spiniflex Rubirosa

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

            Puente de Las Americas, Panama

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

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

            A Kid Doing Yoga or Something

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The men groaned their displeasure and wandered off.

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

            The salesman waved him off.

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

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

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

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

            “At least let me taser him.”

            No, Pereira.”

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

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

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

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

            Karate is Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Hit first and hard.”

            When the attacker pushes forward…”

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

            “The only failure…”

            “Is the failure to act.”

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

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

            “You will know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Rogue Planets

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

            Casco Viejo, Panama

            Casco Viejo, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Who cares?”

            “Omar!

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

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

            Spiniflex Rubirosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            * * *

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

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

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

            Chicken Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Puente de Las Americas, Panama

            Puente de Las Americas, Panama

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

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

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

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

            Basem sniggered at this.

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

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

            Like a good toadie, Hani shut up.

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

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

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

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

            The Blue Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “You can let go,” Omar said.

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

            “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

            “Besides, it was only one cockroach.”

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

            The Muhammad sisters began singing a nasheed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            This Time for Panama

            Playa Santa Clara, Panama

            Playa Santa Clara, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            * * *

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

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

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

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