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Death In A Valley Town, Part 3 – A Fighter And A Thief

Filing a lawsuit – against anyone at all – didn’t feel right, but the lawyer was an expert in these matters, and Samira seemed adamant as well. “Fine. We’ll proceed with the suit against the city. But not the kid.”

Axe

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

Previous Chapters of Death in a Valley Town1. Moving Day2. The Black Jesus

Zombies

AxeZombies were overrunning the world. Yahya was trying to hold his own, but it was hard. Hitting them in the head, like in the movies, didn’t work. To kill them you had to hack at the base of their spines with an axe or ice pick. Hack attack. The pick trick. It was brutal, sickening work. To make matters worse, many of them retained their minds and personalities, so they would try to negotiate with you, or plead with you to stop, but if you stopped they would attack and devour you. Yahya did not know if he could exist in this new, merciless world.

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But he had no choice. There were people he loved here, and he must protect them. That was what home was, wasn’t it? Being with the people you loved. Laughing and crying with them, fighting for them, dying for them. That was the only home that existed in this world, wasn’t it? And if they loved you back it was wonderful, but you couldn’t count on it, because orphans were unwanted. That was the essence of orphanhood: to be abandoned, to be alone.

No matter, no matter! He swung his axe, sweat flying from his face, zombie blood spraying. His sister Yusra possessed karate skills and had hardened her hand to the point that she could snap a zombie’s spine with a karate chop. She was cutting through the monsters like a harvester through wheat. His wife Samira was using her strict, motherly voice, commanding the zombies to “stop this horsing around.” That wasn’t working at all. A man’s voice came over the P.A., telling the zombies he would sue them for ten million dollars if they didn’t cease and desist…

* * *

His heart raced. But the smell in the air was not of blood, but of lemon disinfectant and laundered blankets. His twin sister Yusra was saying, “He’ll be fine, Samira. He’s been through much worse, trust me. He may not look it, but he’s as tough as they come.”

Was he still dreaming? What was his sister doing here?

His mouth and throat were as dry as moon dust, while his entire body ached as if he’d been tenderized with papaya juice and a mallet. He made an effort to open his eyes and immediately squinted, blinded by too-bright overhead lights. Blurred ceiling panels… everything white… This didn’t look like their little apartment in Fort Worth. Where was he? Oh, wait… that’s right, they’d moved to California. To… Alhambra. Alhambra! The memories rushed back in a flash flood. The cops, the beating, the jail. Did that really happen? Or was it a bad dream?

He tried to push up with his hands in order to sit up, and discovered that his left arm was encased in a black plastic splint and was cradled against his chest in a shoulder harness. Pain hit him like a matatu bus. His head hammered, his arm ached all the way to the bones, and the rest of him just generally hurt.

“Oh, ruh albi. Lie still.” Samira was there, sitting on the edge of the bed. She wore no makeup and, in his view, never needed it, since she was extraordinarily beautiful as is, as Allah made her. But her eyes were puffy, as if she’d been crying. Her long black hair was tucked away beneath a gauzy orange hijab. She loved wearing colorful clothing. She cupped his chin and kissed him with her full lips. Ouch, that hurt too! A sudden thought came to him and he blurted out, “The kids?” He was filled with an irrational fear. Had the kids been hurt? Had they been taken away?

“They’re fine.” Samira stroked his cheek. “I left them with Munirah. She’s been very kind.”

Munirah, he remembered, was a nurse who worked at ACH – Alhambra Community Hospital. Samira had met her on her first day at work, and they’d become instant friends.

“I had a crazy dream,” Yahya said slowly. His throat was so dry. “You were there, and Yusra too.” He rubbed his face, remembering. “You should have seen her. She fought like a machine.”

“Nice to know,” Yusra said. “That my talents are well regarded, even in your dreams.”

Yahya jerked in surprise and looked around the room for the first time. To his right a large window filled the wall from hip height to the ceiling. It had a wide sill on which one could sit and look outside. Someone had placed a profusion of flower vases there. His sister Yusra perched among them, looking sleek and sangfroid as always.

Yusra was his fraternal twin, and though shorter than him she still stood an imposing 5’10”. She was thin, her features chiseled and uncompromising, her hair straightened but short, Halle Berry style. She wore a navy women’s suit patterned with yellow flowers, and a yellow blouse that buttoned up to the neck. Knowing Yusra, that suit cost more than Yahya made in a month. No doubt it was made by Gucci or Armani, or some other designer whose name ended in a vowel. And no doubt it was either stolen, or paid for with the proceeds of something stolen. Though Yahya loved his sister, he was under no illusions as to what she was. She was a fighter and a thief, just as she’d been back when they were kids in foster care. Except that back then she fought and stole to protect and feed the two of them. Now, she just did it to do it. She was a lustrous, sinewy tiger with a taste for man-flesh, hunting for the savage joy of it. Thriller killer.

“What?” Yahya had so many questions crowding his mind, he didn’t know where to start. “What are you doing here? Where am I?”

“Be nice, honey.” Samira squeezed his hand. “You’re at ACH.”

“It’s wonderful to see you too,” Yusra said. “My little brother is arrested and nearly beaten to death. Of course I’m here. And I have news about Baba. I have a source-”

“Stop!” Yahya held up his right hand to silence her. The very last thing he wanted was to hear about her delusional, never-ending obsession with “finding” their dead father.

Yusra’s face went as hard as stone. He’d offended her. Whatever, he couldn’t worry about that. Arrested, she’d said… that’s right, he’d been arrested. This didn’t make sense. SubhanAllah, his throat was like the Mojave desert! “I need water, please.”

Samira poured him a cup of water from a pitcher that sat on a small table. He drank, then tried to get things straight. “Where am I? How did I get here? Why am I not in jail anymore?”

As he was speaking, the door opened and a tall, lean man entered. “I can answer that,” the man replied in a deep voice. He was clearly Arab, and GQ handsome. He wore a finely tailored charcoal suit and blue tie, and was clean shaven.

“As-salamu alaykum.̈” The man shook Yahya’s hand. “My name is Basim Al-Rubaiy. I’m an attorney with CAIR Sacramento. Initially you were charged with felony menacing, resisting arrest and burglary.”

“That’s nonsense,” Yahya commented.

“Of course. The night of your arrest – last night – the local news media aired a video showing the police beating you without justification. The police ROR’d you and transported you here. This morning I filed a motion to have the charges dropped, and posted bail. I’m currently drafting a lawsuit against the police department.”

“We’re going to sue them for ten million dollars,” Samira added.

“I don’t care about the money,” Yahya said reflexively.

Samira sighed. “I know you don’t, babe. You never do. But the money isn’t the point. The money is how we get their attention, make them take action against their officers.”

“She’s right Mr. Mtondo,” the CAIR lawyer added. “Lawsuits are the primary tool available to us to demand justice. Hit them in the pocketbook and they listen. Gives us leverage. We should also sue Chad Barber, the man who called the police on you for no reason.”

“Don’t worry about this Barber clown,” Yusra commented. “Point me in his direction and I’ll take him apart. He likes calling the cops? When I’m done his fingers will be pick-up sticks. Let’s see him call anyone then.”

“Yusra!” Samira exclaimed.

Yahya sighed heavily, already weary of his sister’s drama. Not that he didn’t take Yusra seriously. He knew she was quite capable of executing her threats. Violence triggered and excited her. But he needed facts. He looked to the lawyer. The man was confident, as if he’d been through this a thousand times before. Maybe he had. “Chad Barber. Is that the white boy across the street and two houses down? Twenty, twenty one years old?¨

“I don’t know, let me check.” The lawyer opened a briefcase that sat on a small table by the window. He looked through a file. “Chad Barber, 714 Minarets Avenue. I don’t have his age. And sister,” he added, addressing himself to Yusra, “I would caution you against illegal or precipitous action that could get you or your brother arrested, not to mention torpedo his legal case.”

Good, Yahya thought. Let someone else talk sense to her. 714 Minarets… Yup. That was the house. He was sure it was the young man who’d flipped him off. He pursed his lips. Filing a lawsuit – against anyone at all – didn’t feel right, but the lawyer was an expert in these matters, and Samira seemed adamant as well. “Fine. We’ll proceed with the suit against the city. But not the kid.”

Anger flashed on Samira’s face. “That man set this whole fiasco in motion. He endangered all of us, including our children. You could have been killed. And why? Because we’re Muslim. We can’t let him get away with it.”

“She has a point, Mr. Mtondo,” the lawyer added.

Yahya held up a hand to the lawyer, who was beginning to get on his nerves. The man seemed to take his point, and stopped talking. Yahya looked towards Samira. “I said no. The city I’ll go along with for now. But the kid, no.”

“But why not?”

Why not, indeed? Yahya’s eyes wandered around the room, taking in the line of flower vases and bouquets by the window. Who had brought those? Did they know that many people in Alhambra? “Do you know,” he said eventually, “about the Jewish woman, Zainab bint Al-Harith, who brought a poisoned lamb to the Prophet Muhammad as a gift?”

“He forgave her,” said Basim, the lawyer.

Yahya was impressed. “Yes. The woman tried to assassinate him, and he pardoned her.”

Samira gave an annoyed cluck of the tongue. “Are you the Prophet now?”

“Though he later ordered her executed,” Basim added.

“That’s because Bishr ibn Al-Baraa’ died. He was the first to eat of it. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) forgave the attempt on his own life, but he could not waive the punishment for the murder of someone else.”

Samira raised a finger. “Hold on. Don’t I remember reading that the Prophet suffered the effects of that poison for the rest of his life?”

“Yes.”

“Aha!” She pinched his earlobe and glared. “You see what happens when you let bad people get away? We’re filing a lawsuit, not putting his head in a guillotine.”

Speaking of heads, his own head was pounding. Trying to escape this conversation, he said, “I’ll consult with Imam Saleh.”

Samira looked at him with eyes narrowed. “Okay, But you’re too soft on people, Yoyo. And look how they repay you.” She waved a hand at his ravaged body.

As if proving her point, he attempted to sit up and swing his legs over the side, only to find the world spinning like a merry go round. Without warning he bent over and vomited over the side of the bed. How embarrassing. In front of the lawyer and everything. Samira fussed over him, wiping his mouth and telling him not to worry about the mess. “Lie back down, baby.”

But he did not lie down. He insisted on checking out of the hospital, to his wife’s outrage. He didn’t want to leave the kids with strangers, or at least someone they were not familiar with.

Samira had brought a fresh set of clothing, since the lawyer, Basim, had taken the clothes he’d been wearing as evidence. They were little more than bloody rags, it seemed. A nurse brought a wheelchair. The attorney, Basim, shook Yahya’s hand, promising to check on him tomorrow. “By the way,” the lawyer added, “your shoes were not among the clothes the police turned over to me. They didn’t take them away, did they? If so I will add that into the lawsuit.”

“No. I gave them away.” From the corner of his eye he saw Samira’s sharp gaze, and knew he’d get an earful later.

* * *

Yahya sat in a wheelchair as Samira pushed him through the courtyard in front of the hospital, on the way to the parking garage. A woman in a hijab sat there, reciting Quran and tossing birdseed to a flock of tiny birds that hopped and flitted all around her. What a strange scene. And the sister looked so much like – wait a minute!

It was his older sister, Hafsa. Yahya was stunned. It was impossible for her to be here. Hafsa did not travel on airplanes. In fact she rarely left her small suburban home in Chicago. And she most certainly did not visit hospitals. She was terrified of germs. But here she was. Birds were gathered all around her. Yahya was no expert, but there were several of the tiny ones he believed were called sparrows, along with a finch – he recognized it because of the red scattered across its head and chest – and a bluejay that was trying to bully the rest. They hopped and flitted, trying to be the first to catch the seeds.

A handful of hospital workers – nurses and technicians – sat in the courtyard as well, eating or chatting, and many watched Hafsa curiously. Yahya had to smile. If this were a scene from a Turkish movie, he would think it cliched – the saintly hijabi, gathering the animals like some Sister Doolittle, charming them with the word of God. But it wasn’t a movie. It was just Hafsa. When she saw him she stood and rushed to him, then bent over to embrace him and kiss his cheek. She looked good. She’d always been chubby, but she’d lost a little weight.

“How did you get here?” Yahya wondered aloud. “I thought you didn’t do airplanes. Or hospitals.”

“Overnight flight. And for my little brother I’ll always make an exception. Actually I’m doing better with the phobias. Still couldn’t convince myself to go up to your room, though.”

The sun was going down, and Yahya shivered in the evening autumn air. “Come on, let’s go home. I’m excited for you to meet the kids.”

Try the Bak Bak

Chad’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw the silver Honda Accord pull up and the sand-chigger get out. Sitting on the porch, guzzling his sixth beer of the day – pretty much his everyday routine, he goggled at the scene, setting his beer down beside him. There were more Muzzies now! They were multiplying like rats. The Muzzie had his wife and kids with him, and also another Muzzie broad in a headscarf, and a tall, dark chick in a suit who was pretty hot, actually. I mean, Chad thought, she’s not white, but hey, a hot mama is a hot mama.

But that wasn’t the point, he reminded himself, renewing his sense of righteous indignation. Un-freakin-believable! Sure, he’d had seen the video that showed the rag-head getting his ass kicked. He was pretty sure Alan, the fairy schoolteacher, was the one who filmed it. And yeah, the liberal groups – like the NAACP, aka National Association for the Advancement of Commie People – were making the usual noises about police brutality. But so what? They were always squawking. They needed to have their heads cut off like the clucking chickens they were. But that was beside the point. The point was that he, Chad Barber, had helped to catch a rag-head terrorist here in his own town, and the cops had let the dude go! What the hell? In Trump’s America?

He watched the rag-head limp into the house with the wife helping him. The two little kids flanked them, one holding the mom’s hand and one the dad’s. Chad ground his teeth. Okay. The police had let the rag-head go. That was the reality. It was up to him now, Chad Barber, to make the next move. He knew exactly what he would do. He would get his friends together, and they would beat the truth out of the rag-head. It would be easy. Dude was an Uber driver, right? They’d call for an Uber to some remote location, like out in the country. When the rag-head showed up they´d lay into him with baseball bats. Break his arms and legs. By the time they were done he’s tell them all about his terrorist plots. He’d name names, give up the whole network. Then the cops would have to send him to Guantanamo for real.

A smile broke out on his face. He felt suddenly energized, like he wanted to jump up and run a mile. For the first time since he’d lost the Walmart job he felt filled with a sense of purpose. Damn, it was a good feeling!

The whole family went into the house, except the hot mama. She turned and stared at him from across the street. Chad sat up straight and sucked in his beer gut, trying to look manly. To his surprise, the woman began to cross the street, walking directly toward him. Her walk was athletic and poised, like a dancer. Damn she was hot. For a second Chad thought he’d lucked out. Maybe she wanted a beer. Maybe he could get some action going! But her stride was too rapid, too purposeful. Chad grew nervous. Then he saw her grim expression, and noticed that her hands were balled into fists. It occurred to him that her athletic, powerful walk was not that of a dancer, but a fighter.

“You little punk,” the woman growled. “I’m going to beat you bloody.”

Chad yelped and leaped to his feet, spilling his beer. The woman started up the steps and Chad turned and ran, dashing through the front door and locking it. Should he call the cops? But when he peered through the curtain the crazy bitch was crossing back to the rag-head’s house. She went inside, not looking back. Christ! What a psycho. What was her problem anyway?

Chad seethed. This was war. He considered. Who could he call? As he was puzzling over it, his little sister walked out of the house wearing slippers and pink pajamas that hung loose on her petite frame. Her mousy brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Carrying a plate of chocolate chip cookies balanced on one hand, she descended the crumbling porch steps and started across the lawn.

Chad stepped outside. “Where you goin’ with that? Can I have one?” Not that he always needed to know what Amelia was doing, but she was his younger sister after all, even if she was nineteen years old and technically an adult.

“Stuff it, you beer-blooded clownmeister.”

He grinned. Where did she come up with this stuff? She crossed the street, her slippers slapping the ground with every step. With a sudden sense of alarm, he watched as she made a beeline for the rag-head family’s house. “Amelia,” he called out, but she ignored him. She rang the doorbell. What the holy hell was she doing? Didn’t she know what had transpired yesterday? “Amelia!” he bellowed. “Get your skinny ass back here! That’s the enemy over there!”

He watched, stunned, as the rag-head wife opened the door, still wearing her stupid oppressed orange scarf. What, did she think her hair was some kind of holy relic that ordinary people couldn’t look at? Or did she imagine she was so stunningly beautiful – some kind of Muzzie supermodel – that her beauty would blind mere mortals? Morons.

Then, as he watched, Amelia entered the rag-head house! What was that pigeon-brained mouse turd doing? And was it his imagination or were those her slippers in front of the door? Why had she taken them off?

Chad paced the weatherbeaten porch, squeezing his forehead with one hand and ignoring the pool of spilled beer from earlier. He was going to knock his sister’s bowling ball of a head off her shoulders. She was consorting with the enemy. She was a traitor. She was-

She came out of the house. She was smiling – smiling! – and still carrying the plate, which looked like it still had food on it. Hah! They’d sent her and her infidel cookies packing. As she cut across the lawn, he lit into her, cursing her for consorting with the enemy.

Baklawa“I had to do something,” Amelia said, “to make up for that stupid stunt you pulled. Mama’s afraid they’ll sue us. She said we should try to make friends. Besides, look what they gave me.” She took a golden colored square from the plate and held it out to him. “It’s called baklawa. With a w, not a v. It’s delicious.¨

He knocked the small treat out of her hand, sending it flying onto the lawn. “Get that bak-bak crap out of my face. It’s probably poisoned.”

Amelia glared and held the plate with the remaining treats out of his reach. “If I had a lighter I’d set your stupid mustache on fire and watch you slap yourself to death, you rockwitted plague virus.” She stomped into the house, slamming the door behind her, at which point Chad heard their mother shouting at him – at him! – not to slam the door.

He sighed and smoothed his mustache. What had he been thinking about? Oh yeah, who to call. Why not his best friends, the guys he’d gone to high school with? His fellow track team members. Bram and Ames. Bram was very smart, which could be a problem at times. He didn’t believe in the separation of races like Chad did. Said it was “illogical and only the product of poverty-fueled desperation.” Idiot. Like those ten-dollar words actually meant anything. Just a lot of hot air. But in the end he was a follower, not a leader. A sheeple. He’d do whatever Chad said. Plus he was a big guy, not tall but thick and solid like a rhino. Could come in handy. On top of all that he was a pot dealer and always had money. The two of them got together all the time to smoke weed and play Call of Duty. Sometimes they went out to Rebel Saloon in Old Town – with Bram buying of course – and drank themselves off the stools.

Ames, though – he was a moron, but he was a karate guy. He went to tournaments and won trophies, the whole deal. He’d be a good one to have along. Kick that psycho hot mama’s skinny behind. Chad hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, and Ames might not be as down for the white race as Chad was, but surely he would understand the threat? This was about protecting the American way of life.

There was Mad Morry. They weren’t close anymore, since Morry seemed to spend more time in prison than out. But Chad was pretty sure his thuggish friend was out at the moment. Morry hung around with some scary dudes, and Chad was pretty sure Morry was tight with the Aryan Brotherhood. He would have no problem beating the blood out of a rag-head. Except… Morry scared him. Chad was pretty sure he had killed people, even women. He’d heard that Morry had been involved in the disappearance of a spook family in Oakhurst.

Jim might be down. He was three years older than Chad and had been a friend ever since Chad was eleven, when they’d been neighbors. Well, sort of a friend. Chad used to go over to Jim’s house to listen to music and lust after his busty older sister Cheri. Jim was a dope dealer and would give Chad free liquor, weed and pills. To be honest, Chad had never really wanted those things back then, but he’d taken them so he wouldn’t look like a pansy in Jim’s eyes. Jim was also a bully and a sadist. Once he burned Chad’s arm with a hot glue gun. Another time he used a nail gun to drive a nail through the back of Chad’s hand. But Chad never snitched on him, and as they got older and Chad filled out, the bullying mostly stopped, though it continued in verbal form, with Jim often calling him names.

No, forget Mad Morry and Jim. Screw them. Best to stick with Bram and Ames. Chad would be able to control them, and he’d be in charge. The boss of his own posse.

He tried Bram first, but got his voicemail, so he called Ames.

“Chad my man!̈”̈ Ames’s deep voice, midwestern accent – his family had moved here from Wisconsin – and enthusiastic manner made Chad smile. It was like nothing had changed and no time had gone by. Why had he and Ames fallen out of touch? The guy was always up for something fun. Chad explained to Ames about the rag-head, and how he wanted to lure the man to a remote location and beat him up. And maybe beat up the hot sister too.

“Dude, you been hittin’ the sauce or what? Let it go, brother. Live and let live. I’m a business owner now. I have my own dojo. I can’t risk my business over-”

“You have your own dojo?” Chad was amazed. He didn’t know anyone his own age who owned a business.

“Yeah, it’s on Second Avenue in Old Town. You should come by sometime.”

“Why do you have to call it a dojo? Isn’t that a Jap word? Why don’t you just say gym?”

Ames sighed. “I know it’s kooky but we’re traditional. We belong to a federation based in Japan. We take pride in maintaining the traditions of-”

Chad cut off the practiced sales pitch, realizing this was getting off track, and not really caring about this issue anyway. “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. But you’re missing my point. The ragheads are in my freakin’ neighborhood. They gave my sister bak-bak. They might sue me. They-”

“Whoa, hold up. Your sister? They what? What’s bak-bak? You sayin’ they did something to little Amelia?”

Chad realized that Ames had misunderstood him. “No, they-” He stopped himself, remembering that Ames had always had a crush on Amelia, God knows why. He could use this. “I mean, yeah. They did. They messed with her, man. She’s really upset.”

“What? What did they do?”

“You know. The rag-head tried to, you know, mess with her. Amelia barely got away. Had to take off her slippers to run.” Well… she did take off her slippers, right?

“Hold up, man, hold up.” Ames’s voice was angry now. “He tried to rape her? That’s what you’re saying, right?”

Chad felt a sense of unease creep over him. This white lie was going a bit further than he’d intended. But he was committed now. He couldn’t back up without losing all credibility.

“Yup. The guy’s a predator.”

“Did you call the cops?”

“Of course. They even arrested him.” That was true enough. “But the cops couldn’t do a thing. They let him out the next day. We have to do something.”

“Count me in, buddy. That sonofabitch won’t be able to walk when I’m done with him. I’m going to kick his nuts until they come out of his ears.” Ames’s voice held rage and firmness of purpose. Exactly what Chad wanted to hear.

When he was done with the call, Chad walked into the house, smiling to himself. Bram would be down too, he was sure. Dude was a sheep. Chad could manipulate him into anything. They would put such a beatdown on that rag-head. Chad considered… It would be cool to really crush the guy’s arms and legs, destroy them so he’d never walk right again. Stomp on his fingers too. And if he could get that hot mama psycho bitch alone, he could teach her a lesson too. Not rape her, just mess with her a bit. Show her how to respect the white race.

He spotted the tray of bak-bak on the kitchen counter. He was pretty hungry, actually. He took one and tried a tiny, testing nibble. Oh – my – God. It was delicious. The layers of pastry were crunchy and sweet, held together by honey it seemed like, with a dusting of crushed pistachios on top. Holy swastika. He devoured the little square pastry and grabbed another. As he ate, he considered. He’d need to make some notes and plan this thing right. It was finally coming together.

* * *

Next: Part 4 – The Psychology of Forgiveness

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.

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on 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.

Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDM?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1579756718&sr=8-1Wael 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.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Avatar

    R

    January 16, 2020 at 2:01 PM

    Alhamdullilah. I’m glad you’re back with the story! There was a comment in Part 2 about the mystical aspect of Yahya’s character. I got the sense that his sisters coming into the story may reveal more about that so I’m keeping posted on that. One thing I noticed and maybe misread, I thought the baklawa was knocked out of Amelia’s hand (“went flying”) but Chad was eating it at the end while contemplating his revenge…which I like the symbolism of eating the sweet gifts while pondering his unsweet plan. Looking forward to the next part.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      January 16, 2020 at 3:57 PM

      Thanks for the comment. Chad knocked away the one piece Amelia offered him, not the plate. I added a few words to clarify that.

  2. Avatar

    Fatin Asnan

    January 18, 2020 at 2:09 PM

    Assalamualaikum, I just found out about this series through the MM newsletter and mashaAllah I was glad I decided to read it. As a fan of short stories and fiction (I also write a few pieces!), this series is incredibly riveting with Islamic messages and lesson infused here and there. I especially love the plot because it doesn’t delve too much into political discourse but rather the plot evokes personal stories and relationships that are relatable. I am excited to read the next part inshaAllah!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      January 18, 2020 at 5:38 PM

      Sister Fatin, wa alaykum as-salam. I really appreciate your comment, since this is exactly what every novelist strives for – to impart excitement and knowledge, not through lecturing or discourse, but through the plot itself. May Allah grant you success with your own writing as well.

  3. Avatar

    Leanna

    January 18, 2020 at 10:35 PM

    As Salaam Alaykum again Brother Wael, looking forward to the next part, of course. I am curious how you write so realistically the skewed thought processes of a racist. It’s quite disturbing to read and know that people like this exist…may Allah protect and guide us all.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      January 22, 2020 at 11:42 PM

      Leanna, I’ll reply to you and Umm Ibrahim together, as she wrote:

      “Assalamu alaikum Br Wael, I really appreciate your purposeful fiction masha’Allah. Question: As a writer, how did you develop Chad’s character. How real of a depiction is he – do you see many Chads out there? His mannerisms, problems, thinking …”

      Chad was easy to write. I have known people like him, maybe not as extreme but along the same lines. He is a budding extremist, uneducated and ignorant, frustrated in his personal ambitions, justifying his failures by blaming others. Someone like this could go three ways in life: he could become educated and change; he could stay the same; or he could mix with the wrong people and become radicalized. We’ll see how it goes.

      I drive for Uber on Friday and Saturday nights. I based Chad on real people I have driven, especially young folks from the neighboring town of Clovis. I have received several one-star ratings based only on my religion or race. It may be that some older people feel the same way, but they have the common sense to keep it to themselves. The young racists have no such compunctions.

      • Avatar

        Leanna

        February 26, 2020 at 7:37 PM

        Thanks for answering

  4. Avatar

    Umm Ibrahim

    January 19, 2020 at 4:44 PM

    Assalamu alaikum Br Wael, I really appreciate your purposeful fiction masha’Allah. Question: As a writer, how did you develop Chad’s character. How real of a depiction is he – do you see many Chads out there? His mannerisms, problems, thinking …

  5. Avatar

    Moosa

    January 20, 2020 at 4:15 AM

    Assalamu Alaykum Br Wael. I have read all your previous work on Muslim Matters and I have thoroughly enjoyed them. It was easy to feel a deep connection with the protagonists and relate to them. I am finding that to be a bit difficult with Yahya, the main character. His actions seem to be too over-the-top to be realistic. His giving his shoes away while half dead and later discharging himself from the hospital without any pressing need to do so.
    I feel two-minded on his forgiveness of Chad. Yes, personal forgiveness is a great thing but the man is obviously a threat to his family as well.
    Just my thoughts. Jazakallah for the enthralling reads.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      January 24, 2020 at 2:54 AM

      Thanks so much for your comment brother Moosa. Yahya is not like most other people. Some people might consider him saintly, while others might consider his behavior irresponsible or extreme. We’ll see how it goes inshaAllah.

  6. Avatar

    Sehide

    January 20, 2020 at 1:23 PM

    Salam alaikum, thanks for continuing with this story! I really like how you make us live the characters´thoughts…i hear them speaking in my mind, and it sounds real and realistic!
    One q: Somewhere along the line its mentioned that Yahya was guided to Islam, but then his sisters have arabic names…so was he born muslim and came back to being practicing, or did he revert?
    I like how he has dreams and visions. And i like how clearly the hypocrisy and irony of Chad´s thoughts, ideas and actions come through.
    Keep going, I cant wait for Part 4.
    Wasalam.

  7. Avatar

    SZ

    January 22, 2020 at 10:32 AM

    After a long, really long time….

    MaShaAllah beautiful plot and style, as it always has been with your writings. I have the usual complaint, the length is too short and the parts should be more frequent.. 😅

    The mystical side of Yahya seems like something Hassan had, the “snaking”. As fictional it was, this seems similar. Like a super power. I am sure the further character development will enhance and deepen the story.
    Can’t wait to read all of it. InShaAllah.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      January 22, 2020 at 11:45 PM

      Nice to hear from you brother. I think you mean Hassan’s “ghosting”, heh heh.

      Part 4 is ready but there may be a delay until part 5 is ready. I am realizing that I don’t know Yahya well enough. I need to delve further into his childhood.

  8. Avatar

    Umm Ibrahim

    January 31, 2020 at 12:01 AM

    Part 4???

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      February 1, 2020 at 12:20 PM

      It’s ready to go. Just waiting on MM’s publishing schedule. I’m sure it will be posted soon inshaAllah.

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#Culture

River Delta: A Love Story

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time.

Sacramento River delta

They both have the day off. Jimena takes him to the Sacramento river delta, where the muddy shallows stretch forever. Mile after mile of wetlands, some preserved for migratory birds and small, wild creatures, and others claimed as farmland, growing rice in vast acres of standing water. They take off their shoes and she drags him into the calf-deep water, laughing. She is tiny, a small-boned woman of Mexican ancestry, and the water comes up to her knees.

A crisp wind sweeps across the open water, lifting the clothes from their bodies and drawing tears from their eyes. The air is brilliantly fresh, like he imagines air must be in the middle of the ocean, or coming off a remote glacier.

“This is the safest rice,” Faiz says, his toes sinking into the frigid mud. “Asian rice nowadays is grown in industrial wastewater and sewage. It’s full of heavy metals. And most American rice is grown in the South, where the land is tainted with arsenic residue from the cotton growing era. Only California rice is not polluted.”

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But she’s not really listening, and why should she? He’s prattling. There’s no one else in sight and she is splashing in the mud, shrieking with pleasure, not caring that her leggings and even her dress are soaked. “SubhanAllah!” she exclaims, bending over to pick something up. It is a tiny seashell, curled in on itself, burnished copper outside and pink outside. “Que bonita! What kind of shell is this?”

Faiz smiles and shrugs. He should know, but does not remember. And he is worried about how they’ll keep from tracking mud into the car.

‘You know,” she says, “My father used to bring me here to fish. I know this area like my own living room. See that deep spot? You’ll find catfish among the tree roots.”

“You mean like our living room.” They’ve been married two months, but he still feels she is a bright macaw that he has somehow tamed, and if he doesn’t pay close enough attention she’ll fly away.

“Right.” She begins to sing in Spanish, and the sound seems entirely natural, as if she is a creature of these wetlands.

He almost asks, “What made you want to be my wife?” But he has asked this question before, and does not want to annoy her. She’s my wife, he thinks. He likes the sound of that. “My wife.” It occurs to him that this is an odd way of expressing things. “My” husband, “my” wife. Possessive. As if we do not all belong to Allah, carried in His hand. Do we truly own anything in this dunya? Not really. All this will pass, and only the presence of Allah will abide. Take a breath, he tells himself.

Sacramento River delta

Sacramento River delta

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time. Overall it is better than he expected, Alhamdulillah.

Back on solid ground, covered in mud like a riverbank otter, she takes a notepad from the glovebox and scribbles a note, her soaked hijab dripping onto the paper and smearing the ink. She slips it into his shirt pocket.

“I wanted to drown myself in the deep part,” she says with a laugh. Only later does he realize that she meant it. Beneath all the wackiness and laughter, her sadness is a wide river. He has seen it in flashes, when she talks about her father, who was killed in a street mugging when she was a child, and her mother, who died of uterine cancer when she was in high school. There is a terror in her too, a dark chasm that he has only glimpsed.

There are moments when she does not know he is looking, when her eyes go wide and distant. He watches her, holding his breath. Her skin is dark, and he thinks she must have some Mayan ancestry. But she has a sharp Castilian nose and wide-set green eyes. She is captivating, way out of his league. Then she catches him watching and gives him a quizzical look, or she doesn’t catch him so he goes to her and rubs her shoulders, and she returns from wherever her reveries took her, sometimes grabbing him and wrestling him playfully to the ground.

They go home to the little green house Faiz grew up in and inherited from his parents. In the front yard is a Japanese-style arched wooden bridge over a pond, and a Zen sand garden. His father, a practitioner of Japanese martial arts, was crazy for everything Japanese, but Faiz never took to it.

A New Land

Thai restaurantThey shower and change, toss their clothes in the washer, then walk to the country-style Thai restaurant a block away. It stands alone between a house with peeling paint and an empty lot, and is covered in vines, as if it has been there for centuries. The sign looks hand-painted, and the brass Buddha mounted in a niche above the door smiles beatifically, as if welcoming all visitors.

Sant, the owner, in his sixties but sporting a full head of black hair, brings a bowl of sticky rice and a platter of salmon with cashews in yellow curry. As he sets the food down, Jimena exclaims, “Wow, this looks amazing!” and touches the back of Sant’s hand. Faiz flushes, but says nothing. He knows his jealousy is stupid. He loves Jimena and trusts her completely. He is grateful that no one notices his reaction.

Sant smiles widely. “In my country we have story of man who cannot taste food. All his life he wonder what the fuss is. He is bony and thin, because he have no interest to eat. Then he get married. The first time his wife cook for him, he taste everything. He weep with surprise and joy.”

“What’s the moral of the story?” Faiz asks.

“What you think?”

“The family that eats curry together, stays together.”

Sant grins. “Correct.”

“Also, love changes you.”

“Correct!”

“It’s more than that,” Jimena offers. “Love pulls you into a new land. You enter a trance state, like a dervish, where everything is possible through the love of God. Then you lose balance and come out of it and you don’t know your name, and don’t recognize the country in which you stand. You realize you died and didn’t know it, and that the oceans of this new land go on forever.”

Sant’s smile falters. “Ehh… Not so sure about that one.” He wanders off.

Faiz watches his wife licking yellow curry from her fingers. He knows that some of his friends do not approve. She’s a Hispanic convert, and was married once before.

“You can’t trust converts,” one of his friends said. “They might be Muslim now, but leave the religion later. It’s not in their DNA like us.”

Faiz does not speak to that friend anymore. There is no place for arrogant fools in his life. Let them look, let them whisper. He does not care. He is a poor man, still pursuing a masters in environmental studies and earning meager pay as a teaching assistant. He does not consider himself handsome.

In his first year of college he attended an Islamic retreat that affected him deeply. One of the scholars spoke of sincerity, and how this simple philosophy – to be sincere with God, with yourself, and with others – could transform your life. Since then he has strived to always be sincere. That is all he really has going for him, he thinks.

And yet, this beautiful woman married him. She is gorgeous, and smart – a Stanford grad. She’s petite but so strong. Sometimes she seizes his arms and squeezes playfully and it hurts. What she sees in him, he does not know. Later he comes to understand that she is deeply insecure. Would she still have married him if she actually knew how smart and beautiful she was? Did it matter?

Still, her faith is as powerful as the tide, and she loves him. What a miracle. Like Jibreel striking the ground with his wing to produce water from the desert. What an unexpected blessing. He never saw it coming.

At home, Faiz moves the clothes to the dryer, and they pray the night prayer. His wife goes to bed – she gets up early for work and always sleeps before he does.

The Note

Sea shellWaking in the morning, he notices the little seashell that Jimena found in the delta. She has placed it atop their bedroom dresser. The morning light illuminates it, making it look like a museum piece. How amazing to think that something lived inside it once. Some tiny creature manufactured this shell as a home. That creature is long gone now, dead. No one but Allah knows what it was, or when it lived.

Looking at the shell, he remembers the note Jimena wrote. The clothes they wore yesterday are still in the dryer. He knows the note is in the pocket of his blue shirt, and may be ruined, or illegible. But he forces himself to fold the clothes one at a time, tapping his foot nervously. Finally he removes the note. The paper is crumpled and fragile. He unfolds it gingerly. The writing is faded and smeared, but to his surprise he can read it. “You will always be my hero,” it says. “Be patient with me. I love you.” He is so moved that his face grows warm and his eyes well up. He performs wudu’ and prays two rakahs out of sheer gratitude.

Two months later Jimena goes through her first serious depression, at least that Faiz has seen. She weeps, rocking back and forth, and will not let him touch her. Back when she found the seashell she wove a cord through it and hung it around her neck. Now, as she weeps, she clutches it tightly, as a drowning woman might clutch a life-ring. She draws the curtains and barely eats. It lasts almost a week.

Aside from her job as a nurse, she is an activist, always raising money for one cause or another. She paints, writes poetry and plays the guitar, singing Los Lobos songs in a lovely, clear voice. At dinner parties she is the center of attention, telling anecdotes and jokes, and laughing along with her audience. Faiz knows that some of the stories are exaggerated, and he thinks she laughs too loud, but he does not say so. People tell her she is an inspiration, the most positive and cheerful person they have ever known.

Those people are not there when she slashes her own paintings with a box cutter, or strides through the house raging and screaming at Faiz for not supporting her, or locks herself in the bathroom until Faiz has to break the door because he fears she might harm herself. Though she never actually goes that far.

These depressions come along every three or four months. Anything can trigger them. A criticism by a work supervisor. One of her experimental vegetarian dishes not coming out right. One time she is talking about a patient at work, a child who had been abused by a parent, when Faiz receives a text on his phone. He checks it, and that is enough to send Jimena spiraling into the howling tunnel of depression.

Faiz, in his typically rational way, tries reasoning with her. He praises her, pointing out her many good qualities, and tells her how many people love her, including himself. None of it works. Then one day he is texting with his cousin Saleem Haleem, who has dedicated his life to working with the homeless but also possesses a wacky sense of humor. “Try dressing up in a bunny suit,” Saleem suggests, “and run around hopping and shrieking, ‘stop eating my chocolate eggs!’”

Faiz laughs it off, but then thinks, why not? In a desperate fit completely unlike himself, he pulls on a swim cap, paints his face red with Jimena’s lipstick, and runs into her bedroom shouting, “I am alien. Where is leader? Bashooomdafaaaah! Oueeegamaaala!”

Jimena stares wide-eyed, looks for a moment like she might attack him, then bursts into uproarious laughter. And like that, she is back to her usual creative, bubbly, hyper-social self.

Faiz begins to think that this is why he was blessed to marry her. It’s a bargain that Allah has made with him. A trade. She is too beautiful for him, too witty and charming, it is true, but he is patient enough for her. He can bear the insults she flings. He can comfort her when she rages that life is dark and useless, and that she is ugly and alone. She may be the woman he desires and dreams of, but he is the man she needs.

She loves to sit on his lap and kiss him until his lips are sore. She cooks his favorite foods. She writes love letters that he reads again and again, saving them in a sandalwood box, along with the note she wrote at the delta. She brags to her friends about how smart he is. She prays with him, and asks him to teach her Urdu and Quran. And through it all, she does not lose her faith. Just the opposite. When all else seems bleak to her, she still believes in Allah, still prays.

Hard Times

Empty walletJimena becomes pregnant but miscarries. She is plunged into postpartum depression that continues for a year, during which she cannot work. An economic recession hits. Faiz loses his job and takes consulting work when he can find it. They buy used clothing at thrift stores, and shop for groceries at the dollar store. There are times when they have no money in the bank, and Faiz’s wallet is empty. He is reduced to selling his childhood baseball card collection and his father’s old coins. Jimena castigates him: “You’re not a man. A man provides for his family.” She blames him for her miscarriage, saying that the stress of poverty caused her to lose the child. This last accusation wounds him to the quick, but he knows she doesn’t mean it. It’s the depression talking.

He goes for aimless drives in the foothills, letting the curves and angles of the road rock him like an infant. Sometimes he stops the car and presses the heels of his palms into his eyes as hard as he can, so that his eyes ache and strange shapes appear. Dark hands reaching for him. Exploding suns. Ghosts with no arms. Jimena is big on healthy eating and will not tolerate junk food, but when Faiz is out driving he goes through the Taco Bell drive through and binges on nachos and soda. Then he stops at the car wash and vacuums away the crumbs, eliminating the evidence.

When he feels most frustrated with life and with Jimena, he opens the sandalwood box. Beneath all the letters is the note she wrote that day at the delta, the words barely legible. He reads it and thinks of all the love Jimena has given him. He holds a picture of her in his head, a shining image of the woman he fell in love with, and his love returns stronger than ever, like a river replenished with the spring melt. Holding that bright image in his mind, he goes to her and takes her in his arms.

Jimena’s depression passes, as does the recession. She goes back to work for the hospital, and Faiz gets a government job as an environmental compliance inspector. Jimena has one sibling left, an older sister named Mariela. One evening the phone rings. As Jimena speaks to her sister, her face goes pale. Mariela has breast cancer. The doctors don’t know yet how advanced it is. Further testing is needed.

Jimena cannot stop weeping. “I’m alone now,” she moans. “There’s no one left.”

Faiz urges her not to imagine the worst. “Maybe they caught it early. Be patient. Trust in Allah.”

It turns out the cancer is advanced. Mariela undergoes treatment, but in three months she is gone.

Things are never the same between them after that. Jimena has it in her head that he told her Mariela would be okay. “You always make promises you can’t keep.” She stops writing love letters, stops sitting in his lap. She works overtime, returning home late. Faiz orders takeout and eats alone. When Jimena’s depressions descend she checks into a hotel, telling him she can’t stand the sight of him. Whenever she leaves he checks to make sure she has taken the seashell necklace. It is the only thing that gives her comfort anymore. She holds it obsessively, kisses it like a talisman. As long as she has it with her, he believes, she will not harm herself, and will come back to him.

Goodbye

One day he comes home and the necklace is hanging on the coat rack by the front door. There is a note on the kitchen counter, scrawled on computer paper:

“Don’t come looking for me. You’re better off anyway. You know it. Let go of your worries and be clear hearted. Goodbye.”

Sandalwood boxHe takes out the sandalwood box. Her love letters are there. Also the old note, yellowed now. “You will always be my hero. Be patient with me. I love you.” Faiz does not know what to do. After all they went through together, she is gone. So what was it for? He thought this was his test, his bargain, his gift, all rolled into one.

He wants to burn the letters. He wants to go after her in spite of her warning, convince her that they belong together, prove his love and his patience. What does she want, for God’s sake? What does that mean, let go of your worries and be clear hearted? Is it a puzzle for him to solve? No one will ever love her like him, doesn’t she know that?

He decides to wait. He will be patient, and she will return. She has blocked him on all the social media networks, so he creates a fake profile and befriends her, and learns that she has moved clear across the country. There are photos of her with people he does not know, looking happy. She posts about her usual activist causes, shares messages from her favorite religious teachers. Nothing about Faiz. It’s as if he never existed. Her profile status says, “single.”

Every day he takes out the sandalwood box. He selects one of the love letters at random, unfolds it. Her cursive script is flowing, loose:

Rumi wrote, “This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.” I thought true love was a myth, but you, my darling Faiz, have caused the veils to slip from my eyes. The veils of cynicism, bitterness and despair, lifted by the wind of your love and carried away. Now I see the hidden heart that beats in the forest of bones, the intoxicating air that only lovers can breathe, the hushed and peaceful path that only reveals itself to four feet that walk as two.

How could someone say such things and not mean them? Or if she meant them, how could such love disappear? Shaking his head, he folds the letter carefully and returns it to the box.

Six months later he receives divorce papers in the mail. All this time he still believed she would return. He is dumbfounded. Why is Allah doing this to him? What terrible thing did he do, to be punished this way? Why does Jimena not love him anymore? How can she be happy without him? Who will love her as he did? In a fit of pique and resentment, he signs the papers and mails them.

He tumbles into his own emotional hole, where he has thoughts of suicide for the first time in his life. He imagines stabbing himself in the throat, or maybe taking some pills, that would be easier. He doesn’t do it, and would never do it, he knows that. His faith in Allah would never allow it. No matter what else he might be, he is still a Muslim.

A month later, he learns from a mutual friend that Jimena has married a wealthy restaurant owner with grown children. Faiz is shocked and angry, and blindingly jealous. He wants to find her and scream at her, insult her, but he knows this is useless and stupid. Instead he begins taking hour long walks before Maghreb, feeling the breeze in his face, exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods, admiring people’s gardens, thinking of nothing.

A week later he hears that Jimena and that man have divorced. He can make no sense of it, but feels bitter satisfaction. How is it possible that he loves her but is happy at the news of her failure? Does he really love her, then? He doesn’t know anymore. Love is all fake nonsense. He deletes the fake social media profile and shuts down all his own pages.

He is sure that one day she will show up at his door again, and he fantasizes about what he will do or say. In one fantasy, he spits on her and screams in her face. But he would never actually do that. In another, she starts to beg forgiveness, and before she finishes her apology he snatches her into his arms and embraces her, and they resume their relationship of adoration and madness. In yet another scenario, he invites her in and they have a civil conversation in which they agree to be friends.

Japanese Garden

His walks lengthen to two hours, then three. He stops at the masjid to pray Maghreb in the middle, then resumes walking, going on until his feet and calves ache. His legs grow muscular. His body feels light and strong. He thinks of Jimena every day, but he can live with the ache and loss. He has learned this. He hears that she has married again. A white convert this time, a sufi. Faiz feels some jealousy but not like before. If jealousy is a green-eyed monster, then what he feels is its pale-green ghost.

Six months later she is divorced again. Faiz feels only sadness and confusion.

He usually pays little attention to the Japanese garden, but one day he gets out a rake and begins drawing patterns in the sand. He remembers his father trying to teach him: “Don’t drawing anything real,” he’d say in his sharp Pakistani accent. “Just moving the rake in random patterns. Seek for symmetry.” Faiz does so, and is happy with the design he creates. Then, as his father taught him, he erases it and starts anew, ending up with something different but lovely.

As he gets into bed that night, a thought makes his breath catch. He used to believe that Jimena was a gift from Allah and a test. He imagined he was the man she needed, the man who could handle her. No one could love her like him. But how arrogant these ideas were! How insincere. She was not a wild animal, and he was not her caretaker. Nor was she a child. Who was Faiz? He was not some living key to Jimena’s joy. He was not Jimena’s god. He was just a man. She had a life before she met him, and she would have a life after.

This leads him to another thought: he too can be happy without her.

Two months later an old friend named AbdulMalik calls him. “Guess what I heard? Jimena-”

Faiz cuts him off. “I don’t need to know.” It is true. It’s not necessarily that he doesn’t care. But he has achieved some measure of hard-won inner peace. Why mess that up?

Four years pass. In the beginning he thinks of Jimena often, remembering intimate moments they shared, conversations, the way her chin dimpled when she smiled, and the curses and weeping as well, the accusations. And their lost child. That is the most difficult of all, for the pain it caused and for what could have been.

One day he realizes with surprise that he has not thought of Jimena in quite a while. He’s pleased by this, and rewards himself with a pint of premium vanilla fudge ice cream – something Jimena never would have let him get away with.

Be Sincere

At the masjid after Jumah prayer, the Imam signals him to enter his office. A sister has recently moved to town, a white American woman named Anamarie, with two small children. She converted to Islam a year ago. The father of her boys is in prison. Would Faiz be interested?

The offer is not exactly tempting. If his parents were alive it would be a non-starter, as they would give him blazes over it. Raising someone else’s kids? A frightening thought. What if he doesn’t love them, or they don’t love him? What if he has no idea how to treat them? What if he disciplines them and the mother gets mad because he’s not their dad? Stop, he tells himself. What’s the harm in meeting her?

He meets her in the Imam’s office, with the Imam present. She is his height, not fat but a bit chubby. She breaks the ice by inquiring about his work, and is surprisingly interested and informed about science and the environment. She has a slight southern accent, and eyes the color of a winter sky. He asks hesitantly about the kids, and what she would expect of him. Evan is three years old, and Ellie is one and a half. Anamarie can see, she says, that he is a kind hearted man. She would not expect anything more from him in the beginning than to be present in their lives. “Be sincere with them,” she says. “That’s all you have to do.”

They meet for lunch next time, still just the two of them. Being around Anamarie is strangely easy. Why is he so comfortable? Maybe because she is nothing like Jimena. With Jimena he was always giddy, nervous or dejected. Anamarie, on the other hand, is a calm summer sea. You could lay out on your boat and relax on a sea like that, and not have to worry about hurricanes or whirlpools.

Oh, there are things she is passionate about. She is a teacher, and loves her work. She is also an aspiring novelist, and speaks wistfully of being able to earn a living from writing one day. She is not an activist of any stripe, and Faiz likes that, as he has come to associate activism with instability.

Meeting the kids is easier than he expected. Evan is serious but friendly, surprising Faiz by taking his hand as they walk through the park. The boy’s hand is warm but dry. Ellie is wacky and easily entertained, ready to laugh at any funny face Faiz makes.

Their nikah is held on the shore of a nearby lake. There are only a dozen people in attendance: Faiz, Anamarie and the kids, the Imam, and a handful of Faiz’s friends and co-workers. He rarely thinks of Jimena anymore, but can’t help wondering on this day whether she is happy somewhere. He hopes so.

He has saved quite a bit of money over the last five years. He sells the tiny house and buys a modestly sized Mediterranean style home with arched doorways, a sunny breakfast nook and a large backyard.

A week after the wedding he takes a drive out to the river delta by himself. Squatting at the water’s edge, he burns Jimena’s letters one by one, watching the ash spill into the water and dissipate like breath on a cold day. He feels no anger. Standing, he takes the seashell necklace from his pocket. He studies it one last time, admiring the perfect smoothness of its inner curves. Something lived here once. But now it is gone. He draws his arm back and throws the necklace far out into the water. It floats on the surface, buoyed by the cord, then sinks.* * *

A year later he, Anamarie and the kids are seated in the nook, eating spaghetti and meatballs for lunch. They are planning to visit the airplane museum tomorrow and Evan is excited about the planes they will see. Faiz smiles to hear him talk about wing designs and aerodynamics. A budding engineer, mashaAllah.

Spaghetti and meatballsEllie is on Faiz’s lap, and he is struggling to increase the ratio of spaghetti that goes into her mouth versus onto her shirt. “The flyer is returning to the mothership,” he says dramatically. The forkful of spaghetti swoops and dives. “Open the bay doors so it can land.” Ellie shuts her mouth tightly. “Open the mothership,” Faiz urges.

“I’m not a mother,” Ellie pouts, turning her face away.

“Ships in space don’t land,” Evan says. “They dock.”

The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” Anamarie offers.

Faiz waves her off. “No, I’m on it.” She is seven months pregnant. Getting to her feet is a struggle. He hoists the little girl onto his hip.

When he opens the door he feels the blood drain from his face. It is as if an angel, a devil and a ghost have all combined into one person and materialized on his doorstep.

“As-salamu alaykum,” Jimena says.

It has been five years since she left. He has forgotten how tiny she is. Yet she is as intense as ever, even just standing there. Her eyes are forest green, her teeth white. She wears an orange hijab, blue jeans and a “Save Gaza” t-shirt.

“Who’s this?” Jimena nods at Ellie and smiles, but there is tension behind it. Is that jealousy Faiz sees in the set of her jaw? Disappointment? Unconsciously, not knowing why, he shifts his hip slightly, moving Ellie away from Jimena.

A flash of anger crosses Jimena’s face, then vanishes. “You look good. You’re fit. Do you think we could talk? I have some things I want to-”

“I didn’t know if I would ever see you again,” Faiz interrupts calmly. Sincerity, he tells himself. That is all. “I am glad you are here so I can tell you that I am grateful for the love you gave me, for as long as it lasted.” His voice is soft, gentle. “I was angry, but not anymore. I only think well of you. I wish good for you in the dunya and aakhirah. May Allah bless you in everything. That is all I have. Please don’t come here again.”

He steps back into the house and begins to close the door. He is afraid she might throw a tantrum, maybe push her way in. But she stands in place. Her mouth turns down in an expression of utter dismay, and Faiz feels a terrible flood of guilt. He never could bear hurting her. He closes the door all the way. His hand trembles on the doorknob, and his breath is ragged. He locks the door.

Back in the nook, he takes his seat.

“Who was it?” Anamarie asks.

“Oh. One of those people, you know, the people who come to the door?”

“What people? Missionaries?”

“Daddy didn’t let her talk,” Ellie says.

“That doesn’t seem like you,” Anamarie remarks.

Faiz picks up the fork. “Open the bay doors. The flyer is coming in for a landing. I mean, to dock.” He glances to Evan, who nods approvingly.

Ellie turns her face, and the fork pokes her in the cheek.

The End

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

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

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No, My Son | A Short Story

It was pure happenstance that Payedar Olan was sitting near the entrance of the masjid on the day the gunman entered and shot him. He had forgotten that here in America they changed the time twice a year…

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

It was pure happenstance that Payedar Olan was sitting near the entrance of the masjid on the day the gunman entered and shot him. He had forgotten that in America they changed the time twice a year, so he was an hour early for Friday congregational prayer. The little masjid at the top of a hill was almost empty, with only a few brothers praying, and one washing up in the ablutions room. So he sat with his back against the wall to relax and wait.

Such a strange thing, this time changing. The sun rose and set. How could men change it? But in America they believed they had power over all things.

Life here was bewildering. People zipped around on electric scooters, in Uber cars and in trains that rumbled beneath the ground. Skyscrapers blocked the sun. People wore strange costumes, and one could often not tell a woman from a man. The markets contained more food than anyone could need, much of it artificial, tasting too salty or too sweet. People smiled for no reason, while crazy people wandered the streets, shouting at nothing.

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This city and country had taken him in and given him shelter when his own homeland was being devoured by evil men; so he was grateful. Still, it was perplexing, and so far removed from his experience that sometimes he felt he was on a different planet.

The Kurdish Heart

A Kurdish village

Kurdish village

Payedar had been born in 1953 in Iraqi Kurdistan, in a mountain village called Gur-e-Sofia, reachable by traveling first on the Ruwandiz road from Erbil, then by a three hour climb up a mule track. His bav was a duck hunter, and his dê a midwife.

In his village, whitewashed homes were built into steep hillsides in tiers, facing the sun. The mud of the roofs had to be rolled anew every September, before the winter rains, because in summer it would crack. Sheep and goats dotted the slopes. Most people grew barley or bearded wheat, and tobacco in summer, using oxen to plow the fields. Every family knew precisely how much water they could take for irrigation, and no one took more than their share, for fairness was ingrained in the Kurdish heart.

Walnut trees grew everywhere, and Payedar would shake them to bring the walnuts down, then crack them between two stones. Because of this he was never hungry, alhamdulillah.

He remembered his bav, his father, sitting at the village coffee shop, smoking rich Kurdish tobacco from a hookah pipe, and shouting exultantly as he won a round of backgammon. At home his dê cooked spiced kofta meatballs, bulgur pilaf and flatbread, with figs and sweetened black tea for dessert. Payedar, his parents and six siblings ate on the floor, sitting around a clean cloth. At night Bev led them in prayer, reciting the Quran in his powerful voice.

It was life, and he was happy, until he was eight years old and the Kurdish-Iraqi war began. His three older brothers and one sister went to fight and never returned. The village was bombed. Many were killed and many homes were destroyed. Even the small masjid was reduced to rubble. His bav fell into despondency, and one day went out to hunt ducks and blew his own head off.

Payedar, the eldest remaining child, became the breadwinner. Twice a month he loaded up a mule with white grapes, tobacco and walnuts and traveled over the mountain to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he sold them at a good profit. It was hazardous work. More than once he was injured. Three times he was robbed.

These dangers were balanced by getting to see Erbil, a city of a million people. A million! Where ancient Assyrian and Roman monuments and citadels mixed with four-story buildings and a modern soccer stadium. Women went out with their forearms uncovered, people wore Western jeans and shirts, and music played from boomboxes sold in shops filled with electronic goods. At the same time, Erbil was a frequent target of Iraqi bombs, and it was not unusual to see bodies in the streets.

The Dying and the Dead

The war ended when he was seventeen, and began again when he was twenty one. This time he joined the Kurdish peshmerga and fought the Iraqi invaders, sending his salary home to his mother.

Female peshmerga fighters

Female peshmerga fighters

It was in the war that he met his wife, Letya. Her name, which meant tiny and womanly, matched her stature, if not her personality, for she too was a member of the peshmerga, and the first time he saw her she was in a soldier’s uniform with a Soviet rifle in her hands, her fierce black eyes promising death to the enemies of the Kurds, and her long black hair streaming in the hot southern wind.

He killed many men, and saw many die. Back home in Sofia-e-Gul one of his two younger sisters got married and moved away, while the other, out one day foraging for food, was kidnapped by Iraqi soldiers, raped and killed. Shortly afterward his mother died of loneliness and heartbreak. He returned home to bury her, his tears falling into the rich mountain soil atop her grave. Sofia-e-Gul was now populated only by old people waiting to die, and by the dead in the cemetery. The fields lay untended, many homes half-destroyed, the animals lost. He prayed, begging Allah’s forgiveness for leaving his mother alone. He did not ask for Allah’s mercy on his mother, for it was unnecessary. She was a saint, and if anyone in the world deserved Paradise it was her.

He left Sofia-e-Gul and never returned.

Payedar and Letya were married as the war raged, and when the Kurdish militias lost and the Kurdish region was overrun by Iraqi troops, they fled to the Kurdish border region in Iran. There Payedar worked as an assistant to a stone mason. He and Letya raised two boys and a girl.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

These were the things Payedar was thinking about as he sat with his back against the wall in the little masjid. Lately it seemed his mind dwelled more in the past than the present. Sometimes he found himself standing on a street corner in this American city, thinking about the feel of his father’s bristly mustache when he kissed Payedar goodnight, or the smell of his wife’s hair, redolent with the day’s cooking – or, if she had bathed, with the scent of fermented rice-water shampoo. Then someone would interrupt his reverie, some Spanish girl with green hair, or a goateed man with earrings and a baby in a belly sling, and ask if he was alright. And he would smile and thank them.

He had no complaints about the way his life had turned out. He’d lost so much, yes. But he’d been a fighter all his life, and what more could any man do? Everything was in Allah’s hands. Whatever had happened was always going to happen, and whatever had passed him by was always going to pass him by. There was nothing he could say in the end but alhamdulillah. And if he was fortunate, he would meet his lost ones in Jannah, and all would be well.

Boots On

The gunman entered with his boots on. That was the first thing Payedar noticed, glancing to his left and seeing the military boots on the plush carpet of the prayer room. His eyes shot up to take the man in: tall, white, with a powerful frame. Green eyes and a scattering of freckles across his cheeks. Brown hair in a buzz cut. Dressed in green army fatigues, and carrying a semi-automatic rifle. The gun was pointed toward the mehrab as the man’s head swiveled, taking in the interior of the masjid.

The man seemed confused. Maybe he too had been fooled by the time change, and was expecting to find a full congregation. Maybe his eyes were adjusting to the gloom, for the interior lights had not yet been turned on, and the masjid was all cool shadows and lazily spinning ceiling fans.

The gunman’s hesitation gave Payedar the time he needed. He leaped up and embraced the man tightly, throwing his arms over the man’s arms, pinning them to his sides so that the rifle pointed at the ground. “No, my son,” Payedar said intensely, whispering in the man’s ear as if telling secrets to a confidante. “No.”

“Get off me you goddamn terrorist!” the man bellowed. He struggled, nearly falling. He was strong, but Payedar also was strong, for though he was sixty seven years old he had been a stone mason for decades, and the work had given him a broad back and muscular arms.

“No, my son,” he said again, his voice rising. “I will not allow it. I cannot, I cannot.” He heard other men shouting in panic and confusion, but he did not turn to look.

“I’ll kill you!” the man drove forward, but Payedar held on. The gun went off. The sound ricocheted off the walls like the roar of a cannon. Someone screamed. Payedar’s foot exploded with pain. Starbursts appeared before his eyes. Yet he kept his arms clasped. “No, my son,” he said again, desperately. ‘No, my son.” He was pleading, but not for his life. He and death were old friends or old enemies – he could not tell anymore. Sometimes you hated a man but admired him. So it was with Payedar and death. No, he was pleading for this man to understand, to stop before it was too late.

“GET OFF ME YOU CRAZY OLD MAN!”

Again the gun fired, and this time it was as if a sword had been driven into Payedar’s thigh. He closed his eyes and groaned in agony, but held on. Again he pleaded, his voice filled with something that might have been anger but might also have been love, and this time it was a shout, driven by pain and desperation. “No my son!”

The gunman stopped struggling. Payedar felt the man’s body go limp within the circle of his embrace. He opened his eyes to meet a gaze filled with hatred and rage, but also confusion and shame. Now that the man had stopped struggling, Payedar seemed to have lost his own ability to fight, as if he had drawn his energy from the other’s seething will. His arms grew slack and the world turned monochrome, as if he were seeing everything on the old television he and Letya had purchased when the children were still small and still alive. Pain filled his mind, and he could not stand.

Arms seized Payedar and the gunman. Both fell. Men were atop them, shouting in Arabic and English. Payedar’s mouth fell open as his eyelids came down like steel doors.

His Young Prince

Hospital IV bag

Two surgeries and a week in the hospital, and he was on his way to recovery. People said he was a hero. Visitors from the masjid were allowed in two at a time, but Payedar found their visits tiring. Reporters wanted to see him, but his son Ekrem shielded him. Payedar had no desire for fame. Police came as well. He told the story in halting English, and picked the gunman out of a selection of photos on a card.

Sometimes he did not know where he was. A hospital, but he had been in many clinics and field hospitals. He had been shot twice before, bombed, struck with grenade shrapnel, and tortured in an Iranian jail, where he was accused of being a Kurdish separatist.

When he became confused he remained silent and waited stiffly. Eventually Ekrem would appear, sometimes with his beautiful wife Amirah, and Payedar would relax, for even if he did not know where he was he knew that Ekrem was his young prince, his joy and legacy, and that if Ekrem was there then everything was fine.

Later, he awoke on the sofa in Ekrem’s living room. Usually he slept in a tiny upstairs room, but he had a titanium rod in his thigh and a cast from knee to toe. He let out a groan. His leg and foot ached as if a lion were gnawing on the bones. He’d experienced worse pain in life. But he was old now.

Amirah stood over him, speaking. “Apê. Tu dixwazî hin çay bi şekirê dixwazî? Dem dema dermanê we ye.” Uncle, would you like tea with sugar? It’s time for your medication.

Payedar smiled at this princess, this beautiful African-American Muslim woman who had given him two grandsons and had even learned Kurdish!

Trying not to show how much his leg hurt, he rubbed his eyes and yawned. “How about some mast-aw?” he replied in Kurdish. It was an old joke. Mast-aw was a Kurdish favorite: heated goat’s milk mixed with sour goat’s milk to curdle it, then with cold water. Of course it could not be found in America.

“Honey,” Amirah called in English. “He wants mast-aw.”

“Coming up.” Ekrem emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray with a single glass of milk perched in the center, and four pills beside it. The boys trooped at his heels, grinning. Payedar looked at his son, with his curly hair and long, proud nose. He was sturdy, for he too was a stonemason, having learned at Payedar’s side.

Payedar smiled at this prank. The pasteurized, homogenized milk sold in America was a far cry from mast-aw. But he took the glass without complaint, and downed a few pills. His eyes widened. The drink was thick and tangy, rich with the flavors of his homeland. It was mast-aw! He had not tasted it in many years, and for a moment the flavor took him back, so that he was a child, sitting on the floor with his parents and siblings after a long day of trooping over the mountains with his bav. The children enjoyed mast-aw and boiled wheat with sugar, and when his older brother tried to talk about the war Bav shushed him. His sister told a joke about a cat that tried to ride a bicycle, and Payedar laughed.

Remembering this, he laughed again, and witnessing this, Ekrem and his family laughed as well, and Payedar returned to the present. “This is miracle,” Payedar said in English, and his family grinned and told him how they had sourced all the ingredients.

Moments like this were a barakah, and Payedar was filled with gratitude to Allah. If only… he faltered, his hand shaking, nearly dropping the glass, so that Amirah took it quickly. A tear ran down his cheek. Ekrem was beside him, touching his shoulder. “What is it, Bav? Is something wrong?”

Payedar shook his head. “You are the spirit of my heart, Ekrem. All of you.” He reached a hand to his grandsons and they piled onto the sofa. “I wish…” He could not continue. He wished Letya, his wife, could have lived long enough to see this new land. And Sara, his daughter, gassed by Saddam Hussein along with her husband and children. And Baz, his firstborn, a lifelong soldier.

Ekrem rubbed his shoulder. “I know, Bav.”

“Can I try the mast-aw?” This was Ibrahim, his youngest grandson, a wide-faced boy with curly black hair and dark eyes, only four years old. His mother gave him the glass and he took a sip, then coughed and grimaced. “Eww!”

Payedar chuckled. “You are American boy. You better stick to apple juice.”

* * *

An assistant district attorney came to see him. A rail-thin blonde woman with spectacles like tea glasses. The gunman, whose name was Amundsen, had so far refused to speak to the police. He said he would only speak to, “the old man.”

“Meaning you, Mr. Olan,” the ADA said. “You’d be doing us a favor.”

Good Crazy or Bad Crazy

They met in a room in the county jail building. It was painted steel gray, with a thick window beyond which a tall black guard watched. There were no cameras or listening devices, as far as Payedar could tell.

The gunman, Amundsen, sat across from Payedar at a metal table that was bolted to the ground. The man wore orange jail coveralls with “JAIL INMATE” printed on the chest and back. He was handcuffed, his ankles shackled, another chain connecting hands and feet to a belly chain, and the whole mess chained to a steel eye loop welded to the table. The man was unmarked. No bruises or burns. Back home he would have been tortured until he confessed. Here they had to appeal to him, negotiate, reason. America was crazy. But good crazy or bad crazy? Both, Payedar supposed.

Payedar wore the traditional clothing of his homeland: a dark vest over a white robe, a black turban, and boots. He did not always dress thus. Sometimes he wore typical Western clothing. He was not sure why he had chosen to dress this way today.

The gunman eyed him. There was some hostility in that look, but not as much as Payedar had expected. The man seemed almost curious. “You speak English?”

“Yes. I learn.”

The chains rattled as Amundsen gestured to Payedar’s leg. “You gonna be alright?”

Payedar nodded.

“You really messed me up.”

“You mess up yourself.”

“Yeah.”

Neither of them said anything for a while. Payedar studied the gunman. The man’s eyes were intelligent, his jaw set tightly. A forearm tattoo peeked out beneath the sleeve of his coverall. His torso was as wide as a barrel. Payedar was amazed he’d been able to hold the man. In fact, he could not see how it was possible.

“Why did you say that?” the gunman wanted to know.

“Say what?” Though he knew.

“You know. You called me your son. You kept saying that. Even when I shot you. What the hell, man? I’m not your son.”

Payedar flushed with embarrassment. But he had agreed to talk to the man, so he answered. “Sometimes I get confused. At that time I thought you was my son, Baz.”

Amundsen stared, then shook his head and laughed. “Unbelievable. I got stopped by a senile old kook. Do I look like your son?”

“Little bit. Big and strong. He was soldier, fighting the Iraqis. Seven years ago, when ISIS start to invade our land, Baz come to me, say he going to fight them. I did not want. I lose so many people already. So I hug him, I tell him, no, my son. Do not go.”

Amundsen frowned. “Your son was going to fight against ISIS? I thought you Muslims supported ISIS.”

“You are fool!” Payedar snapped. “Never say this. Do you understand what ISIS did to my people? They attack the Yazidi villages because the Yazidis are Christian, not Muslim. So ISIS kill the men, take the women and rape them. My son cannot accept this, so he go to fight, to protect them.”

“So…” Amundsen’s mouth hung open as he took in what Payedar was telling him. “Your son fought to protect Christians?”

“Muslim, Christians, one people. They are Kurds.”

“What happened to him?”

“What you think?” Not wanting to speak it out loud.

The room fell silent. Payedar looked around absently, taking in the clean floor and walls, the even light from the fluorescents embedded in the ceiling. He looked at the jail guard on the other side of the window, who stood calmly, watching them both. Payedar’s mind wandered, traveling through time, crossing borders and eras in an instant, feeling the touch of his wife’s lips on his cheek, whispering her love. She had loved him like a fighter, fiercely, unreservedly. Then his mind swept forward like a flash flood in a mountain ravine, and he was once again in the present, in this tiny room in a foreign city far from home. His gaze returned to Amundsen, who in turn studied him silently. No one spoke.

The end

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

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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The Conundrum | A Short Story

disaster

It was all over the news. The earthquake had wiped out whole towns. The entire country was in shock. Upcoming festivals were cancelled and citywide donation drives were springing up everywhere. Charity organizations were activating their networks and sending teams of volunteers to help in the rescue efforts.

“This is God’s punishment for all the evil things we do,” her uncle said mournfully.

She was confused. If they were doing bad things, then shouldn’t they be dead too? She looked at her father to see what he would say. He shook his head and countered, “That’s not true, you know. This is a trial from God. And it is a reminder for us to be conscious of Him and be aware of His power. So that we may worship Him more.”

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“So, you’re saying that bad things don’t happen because of our wicked deeds?” her uncle challenged his brother.

“No, they can, but we have no way of knowing for certain. After all, God also promises us that He will test us to see which of us is better in action. As a reminder of His presence and power.”

“So, you prefer to turn a blind eye to God’s punishment just because you’re not sure?” He asked incredulously.

“Of course not. All I am saying is that I don’t know – and neither do you! So, instead of delving into God’s matters and condemning everyone, especially the victims, we should focus on rectifying our own selves! This is a time for astaghfar, for asking forgiveness,” her father shook his head again.

“Well, that’s precisely my point! If we see this as punishment, it will strike fear in our hearts and make us change our ways, so we can avert another disaster!”

“Yes, but the problem with that logic is that, in the process, you have denounced whole swaths of people who may be completely innocent. Only God knows,” he emphasized.

She was so proud of her father. His explanation made so much more sense, but she couldn’t resist asking, “Baba, why would God let such a terrible thing happen?”

“Because He is angry,” her uncle immediately responded. Apparently, he hadn’t changed his mind.

“My dear,” her father began, ignoring his brother.

“God’s plan and vision is much greater than what we see. Life and death are a reality of life. Every person must die. It is really sad what has happened to all of these people, but we must also remember that God gives us the reassurance that if believers die in such a state, they are martyrs. What a high station! Which is why it baffles me every time I hear that somehow this was a punishment,” he pointedly remarked, looking at his brother who stayed quiet.

He sighed and continued, “For those who are gone, we must pray for their souls. And take care of the survivors. As for us, we need to draw ourselves nearer to God and follow His guidance, so that when our turn comes, we are ready.”

He pulled her close to him and she felt safe.

-end-

“The author is grateful to Prof. Ovamir Anjum for his kind assistance during the writing of this story.”

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