A morning sky cloudless and blue. Seared cliffs flashing past. From the corner of his eye Aashir caught glimpses of the ocean’s sparkling web far below as he weaved the car along the coastal road toward Baniyas.
“Do you think Nithar can see us?” one of the boys in the back seat asked. Aashir did not know the two martyrs that remained and the children had said little on the overnight ride other than to mumble their prayers. It seemed strange to think of them as people. For so long their kind had been nothing more than scared faces on blurry recordings to him. But these two had lives, like anyone else. They asked ten year olds’ questions.
“Nithar reached paradise yesterday,” Mahaz answered from the passenger seat. “He cannot turn back, but he will be waiting for you.”
Aashir ground the gearbox, pushing the rattling Toyota up the final hill before they’d reach the city. Nithar’s screaming yesterday still rang in his mind, the words incomprehensible. The boy had pressed his vest’s trigger again and again but the blast hadn’t fired. A loose wire maybe, or a bad terminal. Tears streaming down his face, he’d taken a frightened step backward. Then another before the bullets had torn him into gobbets of track shirt and denim and flesh. And while Aashir had vomited on the rooftop Mahaz, playing the rebel captain, had taken the binoculars to watch what the soldiers did in the aftermath of a failed bombing.
The car crested the hill. Aashir pounded the brakes, screeching to a halt at the end of a line of cars that snaked toward the city. Scooters buzzed past on the road’s shoulders, their riders smoking and dangling suitcases, sadaf, baskets of bread and figs. Ahead the road narrowed to a single lane where an apartment building had collapsed. The government’s counterattack had driven the rebels from the city weeks ago and left its buildings devastated. It seemed now as if the slightest tremor would send the battered city tumbling into the ocean. Aashir imagined seawater frothing over the city’s parched stone, dust settling to blur what had once been its ancient foundations. This is what bombs do, he thought. They erase.
“Al’ama!” Mahaz swore and dialed his phone. “There’s traffic,” he said. “We’re going to be late for supper.” He stared at the cedars that marched the hills above the city, listening for the coded response. “I know. I know father will be upset.” His voice rose in anger. “I know! We will be there!” He hung up and slapped the door panel, “Drive Aashir! Get them out of the way.”
Aashir shrilled the horn but it was no use.
“Will we miss the General?” one of the boys asked.
“No, no child,” Mahaz said. “We will have our revenge today.”
“Are you still so eager?” Aashir asked.
Mahaz glared from behind his sunglasses, then fished a cigarette from his pocket. Smoke leaked from his lips and washed over his mirrored lenses, giving him the eyes of a ghost.
“We cannot win the way this war has been going,” Mahaz said. “You of all people know why I am eager to see this done. And if your bomb had not failed yesterday we would not even be here.”
Aashir twisted the steering wheel in his damp palms. Sweat ringed his neck and the reek of exhaust and tobacco was making him ill. Accelerating, he merged behind a panel truck but could go no further. A ghost of breeze whispered through the windows but the air was not enough to cool him. Waves of heat like the last gasp of reason rippling over the traffic. A boy, a family, a General. Lives and guilt pressing in on him until it seemed there was no option.
“Mahaz they swept Nithar up with a broom. They put him in a bin.”
The captain twisted to face him, glaring from behind his sunglasses.
“You said you could do this thing. You swore to me.”
“That was before,” Aashir said.
“Before what? Before they….” Mahaz sprung forward, peering through the windshield. “What is that ahead?”
Aashir craned his head out the window. He caught a faint stench of garbage or rotted food from the lorry but could not see around its ass end.
“What is it?”
“A checkpoint,” Mahaz said. “Khara. Khara khara khara! There are dozens of them. I told you we should have brought weapons.”
“To do what?” Aashir asked. “Announce ourselves? Let them shoot us?”
Mahaz checked the time on his phone and cursed.
“The General will be gone in 10 minutes.”
The truck groaned forward. Aashir could just see soldiers at the door of a Mercedes five cars ahead. The driver and his passenger stepped out with their arms above their heads. A soldier with a metal detector wanded them while another bent to search the car’s interior. Two more carried long mirrors to check the underside of the vehicle. Aashir tried to make out the men’s faces but too many cars remained in the way. Students of military age would be searched. The soldiers knew too much of death to believe in innocence any longer.
The stuttering breeze shifted, and the odor seeping from the truck’s wood slats grew more pungent. Aashir could not see what was inside. Something pale brown. Leather perhaps, or straw. In his rear view a sea of cars. They could not back up. The ancient stone wall that bordered the coastal road made a u-turn impossible. The only way was forward.
“What are we going to do?” one of the boys asked.
Mahaz dialed his phone. “We will not make dinner,” he said. Aashir closed his eyes and gave thanks. But then screams roared back through Mahaz’s earpiece. Coward, they called him over and over. Traitor. A knot of muscle rose at Mahaz’s jaw. With his free hand he twisted the car’s side mirror up and down, up and down. The sky and the road and the sea flashed in the corner of Aashir’s vision. The sea and the road and the sky. “If that is your wish then we will find another appointment,” Mahaz said. “Please give our respects.” He hung up and turned to face the martyrs.
“Do you remember your training?” he asked them.
“Mahaz what are you doing?”
“Yes!” from the back seat.
“Now you will use it. We have a new target – the soldiers there. Prepare quickly.”
Plastic cracked behind him. In the rear view mirror Aashir watched one of the boys lift his vest from the hidden compartment at his feet.
“Mahaz the soldiers won’t know where to look for the vests. We will get through.”
“And if we get through then what? The General is gone. We’ve failed twice. I will not allow a third.”
Aashir focused on the road. The day no longer seemed real. Below the ocean alive with shards of sunlight and the other drivers’ faces shimmering in mirage. They could have been spasming bodies spitting up their lungs. They could have cried tears of blood and died frozen in agony while he’d been away watching the Premier League. He shook his head, clearing the memory. They were not, they were the living.
Traffic lurched forward. Three cars and the lorry separated Aashir from the soldiers.
“I cannot do this Mahaz.”
“So you are a coward? They gas your family and still you won’t fight them. Go then. Get out the car and run. Boys hurry.”
“The light isn’t on,” one of the martyrs cried. He’d slipped the vest over his shoulders and held the dead man’s switch in his rough palm. In the sunlight the grip looked crude, blunt. These were simple designs, spring loaded so that a release of the fingers would be all that was necessary to trigger the vests. The plan had been for the first boy to run toward the General when he left his residence and trigger the vest as close to him as possible. The second would wait to see what happened and strike again if the General had survived. It had been a good plan, they’d all agreed with Mahaz. Even a boy shot and dying could still carry out the attack.
“What is wrong with your bomb Aashir?” Mahaz hissed. The last car before the truck stopped at the checkpoint.
“Hide that vest,” Aashir fired back, “or I will step out and…” Cold metal rasped against his neck. One of the boys held a blade against his windpipe.
“I will slit your throat if you run bombmaker.”
This is what he’d made with Mahaz. A boy not too much younger than he who held a knife to another’s throat because he wanted to die.
“So you’re ready to die then?” Aashir asked. “You believe in this?”
“I give my life to Allah in the struggle against oppression,” the boy repeated the first line of the martyr videos he’d watched so closely. In the rearview mirror Aashir saw scars that crossed the boy’s hands. The ugly half moons of bruised fingernails. Nithar had been proud of his skill with a soldering iron. Happy to have had a purpose.
“And you?” Aashir looked in the mirror at the other boy. Tears streamed down the child’s face. So many tears that he would erase from his memory if he could. The knife owner glanced at his partner and recoiled.
“You are weak!” he cried.
Aashir remembered the soldier who had dumped Nithar into the bin. The man had sat on the curb and hidden his face. No one in this country knew what to do. They killed and killed but revenge was never exhausted, victory never achieved.
In front of them the truck squealed to a stop and the soldiers gestured at its driver to exit the cab. The tip of the blade flicked against Aashir’s neck.
“The button should be lit but it isn’t. What is wrong?”
The driver stepped out of his truck and limped to the rear with the soldiers. He dropped the gate and stepped back.
“God is great,” Aashir whispered.
The truck was carrying dozens of dead goats into the city for God knew what purpose. Rigor had stiffened the animals’ bodies in unnatural angles, splaying their broken legs and craning their necks against their spines. Their muzzles bore the bloody froth of death from a chemical attack and a part of Aashir thought that this was the perfect way to smuggle bombs. The part of him that had gone to war to erase the hate and guilt and loneliness he felt after his family was murdered by animals.
“Give me the vest,” he said.
“It needs a battery,” the bombmaker said. “The signal needs a power source.” The knife slipped away from his neck. Aashir held out his arm and felt the heavy weight of the C4-lined vest drop into his palm, then shifted into park. The soldiers looked bored, not yet aware of what was happening when he stepped out of the car.
“Will he do it?” one of the boys asked. But if Mahaz answered, Aashir did not hear. Salt breeze swept his face and he tasted the clean air against his skin. The ocean glossed like a thousand mirrors under the limitless sky.
“Hey! Hey you!” a soldier called. “Where are you going?”
A chorus of horns blasting at his back. He ignored them, thinking instead of Mahaz’s laugh the day they’d brought their neighbor Nithar with them to watch the football match at the café and returned home the only three survivors of the poisonous shells that had ripped through the day’s clear sky. Now only two remained. Who would give that day meaning if they both disappeared?
He stepped over the stone wall and stood just a meter from the drop. Hardscrabble rolling down the cliffs as far as he could see. Waves erupting against the cliffside and then falling away just as quickly.
“Come here! What do you have there?”
Aashir ignored the soldiers, ignored Mahaz. He reached back and hurled the vests over the edge. They fluttered through the sky like two great black birds diving for the water and he watched them fall, these imperfect instruments, these final memories against a blue sky in a coward’s eyes. Then he turned to face the running soldiers.