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 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11
Saturday, February 6, 1 pm
I stopped at the Salvation Army thrift store on Belmont Avenue not far from my office, where I bought a small wheeled suitcase. It was pink with purple polkadots, but it functioned. Maybe when Hajar started first grade she could use it.
Back at the office I showered – covering my bandaged arm with a plastic bag – and changed my clothes. My body felt fragile, as if my bones had turned to glass. I moved carefully, afraid that another dizzy spell might strike without warning.
I had a special pair of jeans with two hidden pockets sewed on the inside just below hip level. Safaa had made the pockets for me last year when I’d been hired by an Iraq war veteran’s family after the man suddenly disappeared. I tracked him to Los Angeles’s downtown Skid Row, where I went undercover for two days as a homeless person. I needed a way to store my cash and cards so they couldn’t be stolen or even seen. The valuables could only be accessed by taking the pants off or sticking my hand way down inside. It was inconvenient, but made the pants pickpocket-proof.
I had $2,200 in cash remaining out of the money Dr. Anwar had paid me, not counting what Jalal had deposited for me in the bank. I kept $200 in my wallet and put the rest in the secret pockets of the jeans, which I put on. I prayed dhuhr, then packed the pink suitcase along with the old high school backpack as my carry-on.
I thought my fedora might be a bit hot for tropical Panama, so I did not pack it. Maybe I’d buy one of those famous Panama hats instead.
Jalal showed up, looking morose as usual. I put up a hand to forestall the imminent lament of heartbreak and woe over his ex-girlfriend. “You’re better off akhi,” I said, wiping sweat from my forehead. I felt like I’d swallowed a radiator – I couldn’t seem to cool off – and my head was pounding. “Trust me. You’ll find someone better Insha’Allah. Get a good Muslim girl, and you’ll forget all about that ingrate.”
“I guess,” he agreed reluctantly. “Hey, you don’t look so good.”
“I know. I think it’s a cold, or the flu, or maybe I’m just exhausted.”
“I could take you to the doctor.”
“No time. I need you to take me to the airport.” I handed him two hundred dollars and my car key. “Then take my car to be professionally cleaned.”
“Can I clean it myself and keep the cash?”
I chuckled. “Sure. But it’s a bear of a job. Let me pack a bag real quick.” I threw some clothes into a backpack, along with my camera, parabolic microphone and accompanying noise cancelling headphones, and the remainder of the cash Dr. Anwar had given me. I would have loved to take my knife, but that was obviously impossible.
I locked up my office and got in the passenger seat of Jalal’s car. He drove a battered little green Toyota Camry that looked like it had been used as a football by giants.
“Stop at my place first,” I requested. “I mean my wife’s apartment, where I used to live, you remember?”
I needed to see Hajar before I left. If I asked Safaa first, she might say no. So I’d just stop by.
Ashlan Meadows was one of those rare apartment complexes that was almost true to its name. It was an older complex on East Ashlan near Maple, but was well maintained. With its grassy lawns and tall willow trees it was an oasis wedged between crisscrossing freeways, flood control basins, and the National Guard base. It even had a pond with fountains and koi fish – in which I had once seen a heron standing as still as a statue – and a nice playground for the kids.
Safaa lived in apartment 95B. In our family we always left our shoes at the door. I knew Safaa was home when I saw her neon orange sneakers and Hajar’s blue Crocs. I gave my trademark knock – tun ta ta tun-tun – and heard Hajar shriek, “Baba!” Running feet pounded their way to the door, a lock turned, then the door swung open and Hajar threw herself at my legs. I knelt down and embraced her. Hajar wrapped her arms around my neck so tightly I had to struggle for breath – the kid had a future as a wrestler – but that was fine with me. I felt such an aching mixture of joy and sadness in that moment. Joy because I held my sweet daughter in my arms, and sadness because it was such a rare event.
“You should have called first,” Safaa said from the doorway. “You can’t just drop by whenever you like.”
I almost laughed. Sometimes Safaa was so predictable. I was relieved, though, that she clearly had not heard anything about me being at the strip club. If she had, she’d be tearing into me like the big bad wolf into the first little pig’s straw house.
Ignoring Safaa’s comment, I pulled back from Hajar and smiled at her. Her curly brown hair was tied in pigtails – there ought to be a better name for that hairstyle, one more suitable for a little Muslim girl – and a wide grin stretched across her face. She’d been in the sun and her skin was dark, not quite as dark as her mother’s but a lovely shade of tawny copper. Her eyes were light brown, and she had the cutest little nose and perfect teeth. Such a beautiful child, subhanAllah.
She frowned and pointed to the bandage above my eye. “Baba, you got a boo boo.”
I smiled. “Yes. And my arm too.” I showed her the bandaged arm. “But they don’t hurt anymore.” This wasn’t completely true. The cut above the eye didn’t bother me much, but the arm ached and throbbed, and it was starting to feel stiff, like it was swelling up.
“What about your friend?” Hajar said. “Did he get better?”
“No honey. When someone dies they don’t get better from that.”
“Who was it?” Safaa asked. “Anyone I know?”
I looked up at her. She wasn’t wearing hijab, and was dressed casually in black leggings and a billowy blue top, but she stood well inside the doorway where passers-by could not see. I wanted to sit there and gaze into her amazing eyes, those black pools flecked with blue, like ice floating in a dark sea.
Like me, she wore a simple platinum wedding band on her right hand. My eyes flicked to it. I had a secret fear that I’d see her one day and she would have taken it off, and I’d know it was all over between us.
“It was Tarek Anwar,” I told her.
She gasped. “La ilaha il-Allah. What happened?”
Hajar gazed at me solemnly. “What’s a oh deed, Baba?”
I gave her a rueful look. “He died from using bad drugs. But you don’t worry about that, okay? What are you and Mama doing today?”
“My dolls are having a meeting. Come and see!” She grabbed my index finger and pulled.
I glanced up at Safaa, who shrugged in resignation and waved her hand to indicate my admittance. I shed my shoes and followed Hajar across the thickly carpeted room and through the small but clean apartment. The place was crowded with too much old fashioned furniture, including a pair of lavender-colored Bixby chairs, an Amish rolltop desk, and a sage green sofa that was probably worth quite a lot but looked like a refugee from a 1950’s movie set. Much of this had belonged to Safaa’s mother. When she remarried she sold her house, gave the furniture to Safaa, and moved in with her new husband – a much older, wealthy business owner who’d been married five times before.
The house smelled of burnt cheese. I guessed that Safaa had baked a frozen pizza for lunch.
Hajar pulled me along to her room, which was cluttered with toys and clothing. Against one wall stood a small wooden writing desk painted pink and white, and a bookshelf crammed with books that Safaa and I had acquired at library sales or yard sales. A small bed with Dora the Explorer sheets rested against another wall. The walls were decorated with Hajar’s own drawings and crafts. A ceiling fan turned slowly, making a tick – tick – tick sound.
In the center of the floor two semicircles of dolls sat facing each other. Group A were a mixture of stuffed animals – including a “Muslim doll” that wore hijab and said things like As-salamu alaykum and Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Raheem – and Hajar’s own handmade dolls, including a figure made of popsicle sticks and tape, another crafted from pipe cleaners and paper, and another from twigs she’d found outside. Group B consisted of plastic animal figurines and Magic Clips – little Disney princess dolls with interchangeable dresses, like the one I’d found in the sofa at Dr. Rodriguez’s apartment.
“You sit here Baba,” Hajar commanded. “These dolls” – she pointed to the Magic Clip and animal clique – “are from the bathtub. But today, they’re visiting the bedroom.” She addressed the dolls. “Bath animals, this is my room. Bedroom dolls, be on your bestest behavior because we have some animals visiting who have never been out of the bathtub, and they want to see what it’s like. Animals, don’t worry, nobody will hurt you or chase you, unless if you are playing tag. You are just in time because we were about to have a meeting, and there will be food and drinks. I don’t have enough food for everyone, but don’t panic, I have drinks, and you can all share. I’m going to get them. Don’t panic, I will be right back.”
At this Hajar grabbed a toy teacup set and ran off to the kitchen. Safaa came into the room and sat on Hajar’s bed. “So what happened?” she asked, gesturing to my wounded arm and eye.
My eyes traveled up her body, taking in the firm shapeliness of her calves beneath her leggings, and the dark smoothness of her toned arms. Her eyes were as deep and dark as the Euphrates River, with those captivating specks of blue like the glistening of moonlight on the water. Her long black hair was a nighttime desert breeze, admitting no flaw. How I missed this woman. I remembered a trip we took to Baja California before Hajar was born, and how we’d lain out on the beach at night, watching the bright bustle of stars, listening to the lapping of the waves, and talking about our dreams for the future. How happy I’d been then. How full of excitement for the future.
Safaa met my frank gaze and held it. Her face was unreadable, showing no irritation but conceding no love.
I sighed and looked away. “Just work stuff. I have to talk to you about something. The Anwars hired me to find Anna, Tarek’s daughter. I have reason to believe she’s in Panama. I’m leaving in a few hours. Farah Anwar is very upset with me right now. She’s behaving strangely. You might hear some things.”
Safaa waved this off. “You mean Panama, like the country? Is this job dangerous?”
I considered this. “Honestly, I don’t know. There’s a lot about this case that doesn’t make sense. Anyway, I want you to think about what I said earlier. I love you, Safaa. You and Hajar are the center of my universe.” I did not look at her as I said this, not wanting to witness any expression of displeasure she might reveal.
Before she could reply, Hajar returned with a serving tray and the little plastic cups.
“Is that milk?” Safaa demanded. “Oh, sweetie. That’s a waste. You should have brought water.”
“But they’re guests!” Hajar protested. She sat down and began to set the teacups before the dolls. “Now dolls, there’s not enough cups so you have to share like the muhajideen and ansar.”
This made me smile. “Muhajireen,” I corrected.
Hajar gave me a snooty look. “That’s what I said. You’re old so you don’t hear.” She turned back to the dolls. “Baba is visiting too, see?” She turned a few of the dolls to face me. “Does anyone have any questions for Baba?”
One of the dolls, a stuffed bear wearing a snow hat, stood – with Hajar’s help – and waved a paw. This one, I knew, was named Brown Bear. Hajar made her voice a little deeper: “I have a question.”
“Yes Brown Bear,” I said seriously. “What is your question?”
“Are you going to died in Panama like your friend?”
I pursed my lips and closed my eyes. Hajar had obviously been listening to our conversation. When I opened my eyes she was watching me solemnly. I leaned forward and scooped my daughter and Brown Bear in my arms. I didn’t want to kiss Hajar’s face in case I was sick, so I kissed the top of her head, then held up brown bear and addressed him. “No Brown Bear, I will not die.” I knew I could not make this promise, but I did anyway, because sometimes you have to say what you have to say. “My friend died because he was using bad drugs. I don’t do that. I’m smart and strong alhamdulillah. I’m a good private detective. I will solve this case and I’ll be back soon, I promise. Okay?”
Hajar grasped Brown Bear’s head and made him nod up and down. “Okay.”
Safaa walked me out. “Take better care of yourself,” she said at the door. “You look like a dog’s dinner.”
“Thanks for that,” I said lightly. “I have a nervous disorder. It’s called missing-my-family-itis.”
Safaa made a clucking sound. I expected her to say something critical or shut the door in my face but instead she merely stood there looking at me, saying nothing.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you remember when we were kids, and you attacked that bully who was beating me up?”
Safaa gave the faintest trace of a smile. “Sure.”
“And how you used to write to me when I was in prison. The high point of my day was 4:30 mail call. The guards would set the mail sack on a pool table at the center of the unit, and everyone would gather round as they drew out letters one at a time and called out names. Anytime I heard my name my heart would practically leap out of my mouth with expectation. Sometimes it was a book from my dad. But most of the time it was you. I’d take the letter back to my cell and read it again and again, until I knew it almost by heart. I was in rough seas and those letters were beams of light from a lighthouse, calling me back to shore. I’d smell the paper too, did I ever tell you that?”
She made a face. “No.”
“The letters smelled like you, like spice, oranges and lavender. All the sweetest scents of Iraq and California, left on the paper by your fingers. I was thinking about all that recently. You’ve always been loyal to me, from the very beginning. When nearly everyone else abandoned me, you were there. I don’t know if I can convey how much that means to me. I’ve-” I choked up, trying to get control of my emotions. “I’ve been needing a friend. And I’ve never had a better friend than you. Trust your heart, habibti. Trust your instincts.” I clamped my mouth shut, not trusting myself to say more.
Safaa looked away, the muscles in her jaw working. I thought she would retort with the same old accusations, but instead she threw up her hands and said, “I don’t know, Zaid.”
I nodded. Progress. That was progress. I walked down the steps, feeling the weight of Safaa’s gaze on my back, and fantasized that she would suddenly call me back, tell me she loved me, and embrace me. When I reached the bottom of the steps and looked back, the door was closed.
* * *
Back in the car I reclined the passenger seat and closed my eyes. That visit was harder than I’d expected. Saying goodbye was the hardest part of all. Every time I left my daughter, not knowing when I would see her again, it felt like leaving a piece of my soul behind.
Jalal drove to the airport. Along the way, he asked about my arm and forehead. I told him what had happened and he whistled. “So do you still have a case? Or did the Anwars fire you?”
Good question. It wasn’t clear whether I still had a client, and whether Dr. Ehab would reimburse any of my past or future expenses. What I did have was a missing girl, and as far as I was concerned I was still on the case.
I took out my phone and googled Yusuf Cruz. I was fairly sure he’d be out of prison by now. Even though his sentence had been longer than mine, he’d been on the tail end of it when I knew him. Before he was imprisoned, he was – to hear him tell it – one of the most powerful crime lords in Panama, running everything from illegal cigarette imports and gambling to prostitution and cocaine exports. He wasn’t bragging about all of that. Just being honest about his sins.
Yusuf always used to say that when he was released he would return to Panama and open a chain of internet cafes. No more crime. If he was indeed back in Panama, maybe he could meet me at the airport there and help me out.
I couldn’t find anything. There were zero results for Yusuf Cruz in Panama. I tried “Yusuf Cruz Miami” and got a million results, none of which had anything to do with my Yusuf Cruz. I tried his pre-Muslim name, Jose Cruz, and received 15,800,000 results, the majority of which related to a Puerto Rican baseball player.
Giving it one more shot, I tried his full name, Jose Arosemena Cruz, and encased it in quotation marks to limit the responses to that exact phrase. This time there were zero results. Crazy technology. It either gave you millions or nothing. I sighed in frustration and shut off the phone.
“I admire what you’re doing,” Jalal said out of the blue.
“What do you mean?”
“Going all the way to Panama to find that missing kid. Dude, you’re like a U.S. Marshal in the Old West. I know it’s not easy. I mean, just look at you.” He gestured to my face and arm with one hand. “But you’re unstoppable.”
I chuckled. “That’s kind of you, Jalal, but I’m far from unstoppable, and I’m no one to be admired. I’m a mess.”
“It’s not just me,” Jalal insisted. “A lot of the younger brothers think you’re cool as ice. You’re a self-made man, following your own path.”
I shook my head, thinking of all the suffering I’d experienced, the years of loneliness and regret, the pain I’d caused to others and the pain I had lived through myself. “Let one of those young brothers walk in my shoes,” I countered, “then see if they think my life is cool.”
At the airport Jalal pulled up in front of the terminal. “I’ll go with you if you want,” he offered. “Just say the word. I’ll back you up.”
I smiled, “Thanks brother. But your mother and your brothers and sisters need you. Besides, do you even have a passport?”
“Oh. No I don’t.”
I left Jalal my office keys and asked him to water my plants and keep an eye on my car. I took my pink suitcase and school backpack and headed into the airport. I checked the suitcase, which held my surveillance equipment, a few changes of clothing, and one of Hajar’s stuffed animals – a little spotted deer that she’d left at my office on her last visit. In my carry-on I had a pack of gum, a bottle of ibuprofen and little else.
I felt like a wet rag that had been twisted dry and tossed in a corner. I was hot and sweating, my throat was sore, and I was racked with waves of nausea. Apparently the TSA screeners were used to seeing sick travelers. They waved me right through.
The flight to Los Angeles was quick. From there I had a two-hour layover before my connection to Panama City. My stomach was utterly empty, but just the thought of food made me feel like putting myself into cryosleep and waiting for more advanced future human beings to thaw me out. I spent the layover time huddled over my phone, searching uselessly for information on Yusuf Cruz, and every now and then rushing to the bathroom, as my body had decided all my symptoms weren’t bad enough, and I needed a case of diarrhea thrown into the mix. I took a couple of ibuprofen and soon felt marginally better.
I had the idea to try an image search. I tried Yusuf Cruz, then Jose Cruz. The first two pages of results yielded nothing, but on the third page I saw a photo of two men shaking hands in front of a construction site. They wore suits and hard hats.
The one on the left was thin and goateed, with hollow cheeks and a long nose that had been broken at least once. It was Yusuf. The one on the right was short and round, like a Latino Tweedledum. The caption on the photo read, “Jose Cruz, presidente de Construcción Yuza, con Gobernador Camacho de la provincia de Coclé.” I translated in my head: “Jose Cruz, president of Yuza Construction, with Governor Camacho of Coclé Province.” I clicked on the link to the accompanying article, but the link was invalid. There was no additional information.
So Yusuf was indeed back in Panama, and apparently was head of a construction firm – more money in construction than in internet cafes, no doubt. Even feeling as sick as I did, this made me smile. Yusuf had kept his word and gone straight. He was a legitimate businessman and his life was apparently going well, alhamdulillah. I was happy for him.
I ran a search for “Construcción Yuza”. At first I found nothing, but deep in the results I found a link – construccionyuza.com – to a defunct website. I checked the WHOIS record to learn the owner of the domain name, but the record was private. I found all this very odd. A successful construction company should have easily accessible public records. Unless… unless the company was a front for criminal activity, such as a money laundering operation. I really hoped that was not the case.
I tried archive.org, also known as the Wayback Machine. This was a tool that took periodic snapshots of every website in the world, and could show you what that website looked like in the past. I inputted construccionyuza.com and found the bare bones of a website that had been taken down a couple of years ago. In it, I unearthed a telephone contact number. I called the number.
I used my sleeve to mop sweat from my forehead and the sides of my nose as the phone rang several times. Just when I thought it would go to voicemail, a man’s voice answered. “Digame,” the man said in Spanish. Speak to me. His voice was deep and rough. He sounded like someone I would not want to meet in a dark alley.
I put a hand to my stomach, which was sending sudden and urgent signals that something bad was imminent unless I ran to the bathroom again. Not now, I told myself.
“Hola,” I said in what I hoped was a cheerful and confident tone. “Es esta la oficina de Construcción Yuza? Habla usted Inglés? You speak English?”
There was a long pause. I wondered if the line had been disconnected, when the man replied in heavily accented English: “Who is this? How you get this number?”
My stomach wouldn’t wait any longer. I began to walk toward the bathroom, anticipating the awkwardness of carrying on a conversation while sitting on the toilet. “I’m trying to reach Jose Cruz,” I said. “I’m an old friend of his. I’m coming to Panama, I’d like to see him.”
Another long pause ensued, during which utter silence came from the other end, as if the phone had been muted. My stomach sent up an urgent protest and I began to run, my backpack bouncing on my back. At the same instant I heard them call over the intercom that my flight was boarding.
Finally someone came back on the line. “There is no Jose Cruz here,” the rough-voiced man said curtly. “Who are you? How you get this number?”
“My name is Zaid,” I said with as much patience as I could muster. “Listen, just tell him-” a dizzy spell snatched my equilibrium away and I nearly fell over. I dropped the phone, and it shattered into three pieces. I shouted in frustration. I managed to recover the pieces, stuff them into my pocket and stumble to the bathroom just in time.
When I was done I washed up and hurried back to the gate. I was the last to board. One of the flight attendants – a slightly chubby, fortyish blonde who wore a silver and turquoise brooch in the shape of a hummingbird and a name tag that said Marsha – was presiding over an argument between two women. The overhead storage bin was full, and one woman was complaining that the other had taken her space. Her bag jutted out so that the compartment would not close. Other passengers watched in amusement or annoyance. One was actually filming on his smartphone.
“I’ve got it,” I told Marsha. I studied the bags and saw that with a little maneuvering they would all fit. It was like a game of Tetris. I shoved a few bags around and closed the bin.
The attendant gave me a sunny smile and beamed with kind blue eyes. “Thank you so much sir.” She had a southern accent, maybe Alabama or Georgia.
I had a middle seat all the way at the rear, which was good because it was next to the restroom. I buckled in and inspected my phone. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. The back cover plate had come off and the battery had fallen out, that was all. It was a simple matter to fix.
“Turn your mobile device off sir,” Marsha reminded me gently.
I sighed and shut it off. I felt woozy and thick headed, as if a scorching July day was in full bloom inside my head, complete with clouds of gnats and the smell of hot asphalt. I sighed, sat back in my seat and fell asleep. That’s an extraordinary thing for me, as I normally have trouble sleeping upright. My body must have been exhausted.
* * *
@@@ The year was 2000. In that year, the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon after twenty two years of occupation, the 87th Tour de France went without a winner when Lance Armstrong was disqualified, and Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a former Black Panther once known as H. Rap Brown, was arrested and framed for murder.
I was twenty years old, locked up in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, a maximum security pile of stone and steel set amid the rolling grasslands of northeast Kansas. It was winter, the ground outside was white with snow, and a riot was coming.
Two years before, a man named Hassan Amir had almost single-handedly crushed the Aryan Brotherhood at USP Atlanta. Whether this was truth or a legend, no one knew for sure – the stories about Hassan Amir sounded more like myth than reality – but since then the Muslims and the AB had been in a de facto state of war in prisons across America. Here in Leavenworth, they’d killed one of ours, and we’d retaliated in kind. All the gangs were choosing sides. Then, like a spark flying toward a barrel full of fireworks, the hacks – the guards – killed Halfway Willie, a universally respected convict who had been working to put an end to racial conflicts here in Leavenworth.
The prison was ready to explode. There was no mistaking the feeling of supercharged fury, as if the storm to end all storms was bearing down. Men pounded the floors with their feet and chanted. The steel of the tiers rang and vibrated. A prison riot was the ultimate paroxysm of violence. In a riot, it was said, every imaginable atrocity could and would be committed. Myself and my cellie – a long-haired, taciturn Navajo who always tied a blue bandana around his forehead – maneuvered our lockers against the bars of our cells, then armored ourselves by tearing our blankets in strips and tying magazines to our chests and backs.
There was snow piling up on the floor of the cell. Why was their snow in the cell? I was cold, so cold. I looked up, imagining I’d see that the riot had begun and the ceiling itself had somehow cracked open to let the freezing weather in. @@@
* * *
I woke to find myself shaking violently. My body shuddered with spasms as my teeth chattered. I was on a plane. Reality seeped back into my awareness. Panama. I’m going to Panama. The people on either side of me were gone, and someone had draped a blanket over me. My left arm baked with pain, and was so stiff I could hardly bend the elbow. There was a foul, rotten odor in the air. I hoped it wasn’t me.
“Oh you’re awake.” The blonde attendant bent over me, adjusting the blanket. “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Do you have any medicine you need to take?”
“I don’t know,” I said through a quivering jaw. “Flu. I’m so cold. I have some ibuprofen.” I reached weakly for the backpack I’d stowed beneath the seat in front of me.
“I’ll get it.”
Marsha unzipped my backpack, found the pills, fished out three ibuprofen tablets and brought a cup of apple juice and another blanket.
The rest of the flight was a cross between a fever dream and a peyote trip, or at least what I imagine a peyote trip might be like. The captain came into the cabin to see me and promptly struck me across the face. Spit sprayed into my face as he screamed that I was a living bomb, and that because of me the airplane was doomed, and all the passengers would die. An alligator slithered down the aisle, then turned and regarded me with huge mournful eyes before hissing, “What have you done with my pale baby?” Chausiku Sulawesi sat saucily on my lap, then choked me with two hands and demanded to know what had happened to her husband. A passenger far in the front had her back to me and I was sure it was Anna Anwar, but whenever I tried to make my way up the aisle to see her face, the aisle itself twisted back on itself, and I found myself back in my seat. A voice boomed over the intercom, saying, “Your mother kept the wrong child! She should have kept the lame one and aborted you!” What does that mean? I moaned in response. Who is the lame one?
I’m sure I babbled, and possibly shouted once or twice. I remember Marsha being there, wiping my forehead with a wet cloth, and saying soothing words.
The plane landed. I was loaded onto a stretcher and strapped down. I bucked and writhed, then settled down as a needle penetrated my skin and something warm and comfortable rushed into my veins. All my aches and pains faded away. After so many years of struggling against my past and present, bucking the earthly bonds that always seemed to want to drag me to the ground, I was at peace with the world. I loved everyone and was happy to be alive.
Bright lights in my eyes. The bandage was removed from my arm. I heard a gasp and an exclamation in Spanish as the stench of rot and disease assaulted my nostrils. “Podría perder el brazo,” someone said. Might lose the arm. Someone else barked something in rapid Spanish, of which I understood none except “cirugía inmediata.” Immediate surgery. They were talking about cutting off my arm.
Panic badgered its way into my haven of tranquility, my mental clearing in the forest of life. Not my arm! These barbarians were going to hack off my arm! NO! I struggled to get free. Blurred faces swam before me. I heard a shout and felt arms holding me down.
More warmth whispered into my veins. My muscles went limp. Warm, so warm. The strident objection – my arm! – was still there, but I let it go. What would happen would happen. Trust in Allah and he will feed you as he feeds the birds. Would he also heal me as he healed the birds? Did he heal the birds? I could not think. I was at peace in my sunny haven, my little place of shelter against the dangers of the world.
If my arm had to go, so be it. I would wish it well. Perhaps it would make something of itself, achieve great things, become the arm of a doctor or scientist, and my parents would finally be proud.
My eyes closed against the overhead lights, and my bright little haven faded to black.
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Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.