WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE
I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000 at age 15. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles into Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.
The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Madame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose vodka in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“You mean the one with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and that Celine Dion song?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Never heard of it.”
He laughed, a common stupid joke we shared.
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for the metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The Statue of Liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes were swollen with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a Band-Aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multi-colored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon.
The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.
The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.
“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, and the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it. He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile.
“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “As a vet, you must be used to dealing with bitches. But since there ain’t no bitches here, how about you fuck off?”
The cooks separated them and escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I cried for the metal.” He wiped his eyes on the back of his shirt, buried his face in his hands. “I cried for the metal.”
We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well-mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake. We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.
On his last night Gaz stayed with me in a cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus bookstore. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudi Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we called him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… “We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.
“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.
“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”
There was a long silence.
“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”
“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”
“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”
He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.
“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”
“I knew I could rely on you.”
I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.
“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”
He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.
He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”
“I like you too, Gaz.”
“I’ll try, my friend.”
“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… The criminal would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”
I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop.