See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is a multi-chapter novel. Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17
“This really throws the mango.” – Ivana
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Omar threw himself atop Celio, covering the old man with his own body. Blazing heat washed over his back, making him groan with pain. Once the blast passed, he fell back into the mud, letting it soothe his back. The heat was still intense, but he had no strength left with which to drag Celio further, or even to move himself.
Unlike the day of the dog attack, he did not pass out. He lay shivering in spite of the roasting heat. His body was lit up with pain, sizzling and popping like a jumbotron on the fritz, causing his jaw to clench as tightly as a wrench. In spite of the blazing heat from the burning car, he was cold down to his bones. SubhanAllah, it was so cold!
Beside him, Celio moaned nonstop. Why had he deliberately driven off the bridge? He couldn’t have known that Omar would manage to save himself. Was it an expression of blind faith, maybe inspired by Mama Tada, the cult that some Ngäbe followed? Or was he simply mad, as many Panamanians believed?
The rain had stopped, but Omar’s teeth chattered and he couldn’t catch his breath. The world felt wobbly, as if the earth were a grapefruit hanging on a slender tree limb, bobbing in the wind. The sirens grew loud, but he could not lift a hand to alert them to his presence. What if they didn’t see him and ran right over him?
Celio, Omar knew, was much worse off. He was badly burned, especially on his legs, most likely, since his pants had caught fire. And he wasn’t even a liar. Or was he? His thoughts degenerated into disconnected streamers as his mind spun like the grapefruit. What grapefruit? He couldn’t remember.
An officer leaned over him, telling him it would be okay. He was a big man with skin like an overripe avocado, jaw muscles that bunched as he spoke, and kind eyes that swam like stones in a moving stream. Omar had the feeling the cop would have given his shoulder a friendly squeeze, if it had been safe. He appreciated the man’s presence, and wanted to tell him, but couldn’t coordinate his tongue, lips and throat.
Ambulances arrived. He was lifted onto a stretcher. An IV went in his arm and he was surprised he didn’t feel it. A paramedic slipped an oxygen mask over his face, and draped a blanket over him. He wanted to say, “It hurts, it hurts,” meaning everything. But nothing came out.
In the ambulance, the EMT informed him that she would leave the tourniquet in place on his leg. “Looks like you saved your own life,” she added.
Hospital, bright lights, people talking. All this again. Was this a repeating pattern, to destroy his body every fifteen years? Would it happen again at 45, and 60, and 75, and 90, and… 122?
Warmth flowing into his veins. He remembered this. This was the good part.
He was a cyborg on a faraway world. All biological matter had been removed from his body, and his chassis had been filled with superconducting artificial blood, transforming him into a walking ultracomputer.
A liquid methane tidal wave roared up from the sea. It lifted him up, and slammed him into the side of a building. His torso cracked open, and the superconducting blood caught fire. He became a flaming torch, carried away on a sea flotsam. Even as he died he thought, Why didn’t I see that coming? My algorithms should have predicted it…
* * *
He was a soldier in an army of spiders, but as he looked at his red and black compatriots arrayed for battle around him, all he could think was, Who are we going to fight? And why? He didn’t want to battle but only to rest and live in peace. He raised his voice and said as much, trying to explain nonviolence to his arachnid brethren, but they turned on him and tore him apart.
* * *
He was stranded on a planet where it rained nonstop. His ship was crushed and burned, and offered no shelter. Every inch of his body was soaked and wrinkled, and the water was rising on the endless plain. A small white spaceship appeared in the falling rain, hovering above him. He saw that his dog Berlina was piloting the ship. Since when did she know how to do that? Tio Melo waved from the co-pilot’s chair, while Ivana stood half out of the sunroof, dancing in the rain. The ship turned in the air, the rockets ejected jets of flame, and the craft shot off, leaving him to drown in the rising tide.
* * *
He was semi-awake several hours after the initial surgery, with the dreams merging and changing in his memory. He was a spider on a rainy planet. A cyborg who refused to fight. A pilot pursued by a tidal wave. The pain medication pulled at his eyelids, and he crossed dimensions into the land of clouds and dreams.
The cut on his back had been stitched. The cut on his foot was infected, and was being treated with an aggressive course of antibiotics. The thigh wound was deeper and would take time to heal. His hair and eyebrows had been burned off. His upper body, especially his back and hands, had suffered first and second degree burns, but they weren’t too bad. However, his pants had caught fire and melted into his skin in spots, so his legs were more badly injured, especially his knees.
The doctors grafted artificial skin onto his knees. Omar didn’t remember this, but was told later. They initially wanted to use something called porcine collagen sheet – pig skin – but Samia told them no, absolutely not. So they used a synthetic skin made of nylon mesh and something called silastic. It would adhere to the wounds until his body repaired its own skin. His health insurance didn’t cover this, but Mama said not to worry, Puro Panameño would take care of it.
Only immediate family were allowed to visit. Samia never left his bedside, even at night, when she slept in a chair beside him, with a baby blue hospital blanket pulled up to her chin. Mamá took Nur to school in the morning, brought him to the hospital in the afternoon. Omar embraced Nur when the boy climbed onto the hospital bed and talked about his school day, but he didn’t have the energy to be enthusiastic or even interested in what Nur had to say.
After a few hours in the hospital in the afternoon each day, Mamá took Nur to her house to spend the night. Omar knew his mother would have liked to spend more time at his bedside, but time spent with his mother was always awkward, for reasons neither of them could explain or cared to explore. Also, Samia felt, and Omar agreed, that it would not be good for Nur to spend all his free time in the hospital. It was better to let the boy go home with his grandma. Though she hadn’t been the best mother to Omar, she was a caring grandmother who loved Nur with her whole heart, and Omar appreciated that.
Celio Natá was in the intensive care unit, with no visitors allowed, and all Omar knew of the man’s condition was that it was critical. This information was supplied to Samia by a floor nurse. Omar overheard but was barely able to process it.
With the doctors and nurses, and even the police who came on the second day, wanting to know the details of what had transpired on the bridge, Omar was mute. They’d speak and he’d close his eyes. Part of it was the pain medication. It made him feel he was walking underwater.
A bigger part was that he felt on the edge of something penumbrous and terrible. Nur was a Spongebob fan, and Omar had watched the Spongebob Squarepants movie with him a few times. In it, Spongebob and Patrick were framed for stealing Neptune’s crown. They vowed to retrieve it, embarking on a long, perilous journey. They were already underwater, of course, but they came across a deep and impassable undersea trench, filled with opaque clouds, lava geysers, and the growling of beasts. Spongebob was forced to acknowledge that his quest had failed.
In Omar’s mind he stood on the edge of that trench, trying to keep his balance. He kept seeing Nemesio’s body torn in half – his own uncle, who had bullied and haunted him all his life. The stench of roasting human flesh filled his nostrils. He saw Celio burning and heard his screams, and remembered the agony of the flames melting his own skin.
For some reason he also kept recalling the dog attack twelve years ago: the teeth penetrating and tearing; the layer of blood coating his body, the hot taste of it in his mouth; the pain that penetrated to his bones, like the radiation of an atomic bomb; and the thunderous gunshots that killed one of the dogs. He even remembered his own father’s death as if he had seen it, though he had not. He thought of Melo, his father’s father, who had abandoned not just one family but two. And his mother, who’d failed to protect him when he needed it most. And even Hani, who’d once been a friend, and had become a bully and wife beater.
Did life always come down to this? People betraying the ones closest to them? Pain and ugliness? Who would want this life?
The Black Knife Strikes Again
On the third day, two police detectives in cheap suits entered the room. One had unnaturally pale skin – a rarity in Panama – and yellowish eyes behind a pair of round spectacles. His tie was spotted with mustard, and an unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth. He looked like a man entrenched in a lifetime of bad habits. His partner was a fit black man in his thirties with semi-straightened hair that billowed in waves to his ears.
The pale detective held up a newspaper. The headline blared, “THE BLACK KNIFE STRIKES AGAIN!”
“I’m Detective Sosa.” The cop’s voice was slow and tired. “My partner, Detective Ramirez.” He jiggled the newspaper. “This is the narrative, unless you tell us otherwise. Celio Natá murdered Nemesio Bayano, and tried to kill you too. If he survives, they’ll crucify him.”
These words penetrated Omar’s fogged brain, and even in his stupor he could not let this stand.
“He saved my life.” The words emerged cracked and dry, like a man crawling out of the desert. “Nemesio tried to kill me. Celio saved me the only way he could. I’d be dead without his intervention.”
The black detective nodded as if he’d expected nothing else. “That’s your story?”
“It’s the truth.”
Sosa took the cigarette out of his mouth and looked at it as if trying to figure out why it wasn’t working properly, then returned it to his mouth. “Truth is overrated.”
Omar’s mother was permitted to see Celio after that, and returned with news that Celio had severe burns on much of his lower body. In order to see him, she’d had to wear a gown, gloves, cap and mask. Mamá was sure he would survive. “My brother is not a man who simply dies,” she insisted. “He is king of the jaguar throne. Allah will have to pluck his soul personally.” Omar did not tell her that it didn’t work that way.
Save the Darien
The next day the hospital allowed Omar to receive visitors in limited numbers. He had no interest in speaking to anyone, but Samia insisted. He knew she was concerned about his state of mind, and the strange fugue that had overtaken him.
Nadia and Naris Muhammad came in first, Nadia in shalwar khamees and hijab as usual, and Naris in jeans and a t-shirt bearing an image of the map of Panama bursting with trees, and a slogan that said, “Protect our legacy: save the Darien.” Omar hadn’t seen Naris in a year and a half. She looked tired and thin, with lines parenthesizing her mouth. He felt concern, but regarded the sisters impassively.
Naris was too self-controlled to stare at Omar’s injuries, but Nadia gaped openly. Omar knew he looked like a goblin. His eyebrows and hair were gone, exposing his mangled ear. His skin was raw and peeling where it wasn’t bandaged.
“It’s like a circus out there!” Nadia exclaimed when she’d recovered from her shock. “You wouldn’t believe it. News vans, camera crews.”
Nur was at school, but Samia stood beside Omar’s bed, one hand on his arm. “I haven’t told him.”
Omar’s eyes flicked to Naris, who said, “Sorry I haven’t been around. We’re trying to save the Darien. There’s so much corruption. These people want to sell Panama’s future for a suitcase full of money. They don’t care that a road through the Darien would be disastrous for the nation.” Her tone was bitter. She seemed to realize this, as she forced a smile and said, “Trying to get Nabila down here to make a film about it.”
Omar was familiar with the issue. The Darien forest was the last old growth forest in Panama, and served as an impassable barrier between Panama and Colombia. A road would speed the destruction of the forest, and would bring a host of ills, such as allowing Colombian drugs and arms to infiltrate Panama. There was also concern that hoof and mouth disease, which had historically decimated South American cattle, would have a corridor to pass into North America.
Nadia was carrying a food tray. She set it down on the small table beside Omar’s bed. “I made you gulab jamun. I know how you love it.”
In truth, Omar didn’t care for the Fijian Indian sweet, a finger-shaped cake made of evaporated milk and sweetened with syrup. It was too gummy and cloying. But he’d never had the heart to tell Nadia, and she’d gone on making it for him all these years.
Saints and Devils
“Why a circus?” Omar said finally.
For a moment they were stymied, then Nadia laughed. “Oh, right!” She drew a folded newspaper from her purse and handed it to Omar. The headline screamed, “FORMER TEENAGE HERO AT CENTER OF COMPLEX DRAMA.”
The story went on to lay out everything that had happened, and all the strange connections of Omar’s life. The fact that he’d won the Manuel Amador Guerrero award twelve years ago for saving a teenage girl’s life, and that the girl was now his wife. That he was the son of a man who died a hero while stopping a robbery, and that the escaped killer, Nemesio Bayano, was that hero’s brother.
The story went on:
Have we ever seen such an incredible convergence of uniquely Panamanian characters? A poor indigenous woman, Ximena Bayano, rises above her circumstances to found one of Panama’s most successful companies. A young hero, the son of yet another hero, and heir to the Ngäbe-Buglé throne, comes face-to-face with one of Panama’s most dastardly villains. A Panamanian legend, Celio Natá, indigenous rights champion to some and murderous rebel to others, sacrifices himself in a fiery crash to save his nephew, and miraculously survives. This weaving together of larger than life characters, some of them saints and some devils, in a fabric of familial love and hatred, has captured Panama’s imagination like no story since the fall of Noriega. In all of Panama today, there is one name on everyone’s tongue: Bayano.
Omar groaned. This was a disaster. He’d never be able to live a normal life, at least not in Panama. He was exposed, all the secrets of his life revealed like bones under an x-ray. He noticed the next paragraph:
I had the privilege of meeting this extraordinary man once, in a cluttered kitchen on a sunny afternoon twelve years ago…
His eyes flicked to the byline. Eric Jackson. The same middle aged journalist who’d interviewed him at his home after the Day of the Dogs. The man was making a point of following Omar’s life, as if Omar was an endangered animal to be examined and documented. Why should they care about his life? Didn’t people have more serious things to worry about?
The paper slipped out of his hands. His friends waited for him to say something, but he only gazed at the tray of galub jamun. He was underwater, standing on the edge of the trench, about to plummet into an inescapable hole. Naris excused herself, saying that she had to be in court. Nadia pulled up a chair beside Samia and chatted with her. Omar ignored them.
A knock sounded, and Tio Melo walked in carrying a potted amaranth. He was dressed in black, as if coming to a funeral, but his white teeth flashed as he grinned, greeting Omar with, “You don’t know how to stay out of trouble, do you my friend? Like father, like son.”
The old man greeted Nadia and Samia and sat in the last available chair, holding the plant in his lap like a baby. “You look like the dog’s dinner, Omar. But don’t worry, you’ll get back to your usual handsome self, I’m sure.”
When Omar did not reply, Melo looked inquiringly to Samia, who of course could not see him looking at her.
“I think he’s feeling down,” Nadia explained.
As if I’m not sitting right here, Omar thought. As if I’m another potted plant. He felt he should be angry with Melo. He remembered that he had planned to hate the man. But that required too much energy. It required him to participate in the affairs of the surface world, rather than the undersea world in which he now lived.
“Well,” Melo said awkwardly. “I’ll leave you alone.”
“Stay,” Samia urged.
The door opened again and Ivana walked in, looking like a fashion model in a gray crepe pantsuit with a belted waist. She froze as she saw Omar’s condition, then stood just inside the door, seemingly unsure of what to do. She hadn’t brought any gifts, but Omar saw the old photo album in her hand, and knew why she had come. As usual with Ivana, it was all about her.
“Hello?” Samia inquired.
“Oh! It’s me, Ivana, sorry. Qué bolá?” She looked at Omar. “My beautiful love is in the waiting room, but they wouldn’t let him in. Too many visitors.”
“I’ll leave,” Melo said again, but Samia commanded him to stay put. Omar knew what she was thinking.
“Then I’ll go,” Nadia offered.
“You stay too,” Omar whispered. Somehow when Nads was around, everything was easier. Of course Samia was his wife and he loved her totally, but Samia could be intense. Nads, on the other hand, was a kid blowing soap bubbles. You could never see a kid blowing soap bubbles and not smile. Though Omar was definitely not smiling, there was some part of him that needed the soap bubbles.
The Man Who Was Sitting Here
Ivana approached Omar’s bed, moving the table slightly to stand beside him, opposite the other three and in front of the window. “I have been saying a prayer they taught us in the Catholic church when I was young. I light a candle, and I say, Almighty and merciful Father, by the power of your command, drive away from Omar all forms of sickness and disease.”
Omar looked at her. Maybe he’d judged her too quickly. He had a habit of doing that, he knew. She’d changed in the last year. Fuad’s love and patience seemed to be working in her heart, molding it. Or maybe it was Allah’s hand, guiding her in His time, His way.
“You have a question.” Omar’s voice was very soft, and at first Ivana leaned in and said, “What?” When Omar did not repeat himself she shrugged and opened the album. She pointed to the picture of the young Melo standing with Fidel and Che, the three of them laughing like best friends.
“Who is this man? You played it off, but something happened when you saw him. I saw your face.”
From the corner of his eye, Omar could see Nadia and Melo leaning forward to check out the photo.
“It’s your grandfather,” Omar said. “And mine.”
Melo made a guttural sound and sat back in his chair, the color drained from his face, his mouth open.
Ivana’s face, on the other hand, darkened with anger as she took a half step back. “You’re talking nonsense. My grandfather was Marcos Arron Navarro. I remember him well. Are you trying to grab my behind? Why? Still because of the shooting thing?” She was working herself up, getting madder by the second. “When are you going to -”
“No,” Omar interrupted. “The man in the photo is your grandfather. But he left your grandmother, possibly before your mother was born. Or when she was very young, I don’t know. Then Marcos Arron Navarro came along and married your grandmother, stepping into the role of husband and dutiful father, raising your mother like his own. I would guess that your mother never knew.” This was the longest speech Omar had made since the fire, and it exhausted him.
Melo stood suddenly, and the plant fell to the floor, spilling out of the pot, soil scattering. He walked unsteadily out of the room, one hand to his mouth like an epileptic trying to catch his own drool.
Ivana blinked rapidly, and said, “What happened?” When no one answered she returned her attention to Omar: “How can you know that?” she spat. “You weren’t there.”
“I told you,” Omar replied patiently, softly. “The DNA. The rest is guesswork. I don’t want to talk anymore.” His burns were beginning to hurt as the medication wore off. He was finding it difficult to think. He pressed the button on his armrest to call a nurse.
“Then who is this man you claim is my grandfather and yours?” Ivana said bitterly. “Where is he?”
Omar slid down in the bed and did not answer. The pain was a distant forest fire, coloring the sky orange, coming closer with a roar.
“Ivana,” Samia said. “He’s the man who just left. The man who was sitting here.”
Omar saw Ivana look to the door, then back at the photo in the still open album, then to the chair where Melo had been sitting. It was as if she were comparing the photo to the memory of the man who’d been sitting there. “By the virgin,” she breathed. “You’re telling the truth.”
The nurse entered, wanting to know what was wrong, and Omar told her. “No more visitors,” the woman snapped, shooing Nadia and Ivana with her hand. “Go.” She scowled at the plant on the floor. “What is this mess?” Turning to Omar, her tone became gentle as she touched his arm. “I’ll be right back with your medication.”
“This really throws the mango,” Ivana blurted, then spun on her designer high heels and stalked out of the room.
Nadia appeared over him, the overhead lights shining through the fringes of her lime green hijab, making her face look like a plum on a tree branch, with sunlight shining through leaves. She grinned. “Like I said, amigo. Life is interesting when you’re around.”
The Quality of Kindness
After he received his medication, Samia leaned over him and kissed his cheek gently. “It’s good you told them the truth,” she said, “even if for the wrong reasons.”
He turned his cheek away. “What reasons.”
“To shock them.”
“Not only that,” he said defensively.
Gently, she turned his face back to hers. He looked into her eyes – eyes as sweet as chocolate, and as rich as coffee. The sunlight from the window was in her face, and Omar could see his own silhouette in her pupils. Those eyes were like wells brimming with love, patience and faith. It pained him to know that as he gazed into her eyes, she could not see his. But let no one say that Samia was blind. She saw more than anyone he knew, and it shamed him.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “One thing I’ve always loved about you, Omar, is your kindness. The Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said, ‘Allah is kind and loves kindness.’ Because you are kind, I see Allah’s love in you, so I love you too. I know you’re hurting, not only from the burns but in your heart. But don’t lose the quality of kindness. Okay, buster?”
He wanted to answer, but didn’t know what to say. The medication was making him so sleepy. As the pain of his injuries receded, his connection to the waking world dissolved along with it. As his lids closed he seemed to see an after-image of Samia’s tender brown eyes. She was traveling with him into the dream world, slipping underwater with him. He was moved that she would do that for him, but wanted to warn her that his dreams were strange and perilous, and that she must be on her guard from beginning to end.
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 – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.
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