The next morning, I went to see Abdullah at home. The boy was fine. It was Mr. Ali who looked as if he had been defeated.
“Will you drive me?” he asked me with a broken voice. I helped the man into the car and put on his seat belt. He sighed as if he had been running.
“Are there any news on your family?” he asked.
“None”, I answered quickly.
“There must be something that can be done”, he said almost sounding confident.
“I wish”, I said, angry at myself for not having anything better to say.
“Hopefully, it will work itself out in the end”, said Mr. Ali as he fought the urge to fall asleep.
“Turn left”, he guided me, as dazed as he was.
“War destroys us all”, he said quietly, mustering up the energy to speak. “If you don’t die young, then you live out your days accompanied by nightmares as your hair becomes gray.”
His statement frightened me. I thought of Hannah and Mariam. I had mere weeks left and not a plan in sight.
We pulled up in front of a large building with a tall, black fence. A thin man in his late sixties opened Mr. Ali’s door. He helped the man out of the car and led him inside of the building.
“Pick him up in an hour”, said the man as they disappeared from my view.
I looked up at the building, bewildered by its sheer size. I began to panic. I couldn’t get back into the car. I started to pace around it. It has now become a matter of days. I couldn’t let my daughter go back. I had to do something.
It was at that moment that my phone rang. Thinking it was Mariam, I picked it up.
“When will you come?” asked Hannah in a cheerful voice. I got back into the car and did my best to not allow my voice to break. I didn’t want her to hear me cry.
“Daddy will come very soon”, I answered, desperately trying to find my cigarettes. She handed the phone off to Mariam. She said nothing. I could hear her breath into the phone. I had nothing else to say either.
“How are you?” I asked.
“We are fine”, she answered. “How are you? Are you eating?”
“I am fine. I am stuck. I don’t know what to do”, I said. There was nothing else I could say to her. “I will find a ticket and get back to you.”
She sighed deeply. Even in that one sigh, there was a river of disappointment.
“God has a plan for us all”, she said, mustering up the courage that I couldn’t.
About an hour later, Mr. Ali exited the building with the help of a different man. This man was young and robust. He helped Mr. Ali into the car, smiled at us, and walked away.
“Let us go home Mohammed”, said Mr. Ali as he closed his eyes.
For the next couple of days I drove Mr. Ali to the same place. Every time we went, Mr. Ali looked more tired. I didn’t want to ask where I was taking him, what that building was. It wasn’t my place.
“My father taught me to be an honest man”, began Mr. Ali as we left the house. “Today, honesty does not have much value.”
“It is hard to be an honest man”, I replied.
“Today more than ever”, he said. “Today, it is very difficult to be kind and honest. These traits are no longer admired as they had been.”
“Greed is admired today”, I said with a hint of anger.
“I try to teach my sons to be honest. I want them to value the same things I valued in life, the same things that my family taught me to value”, he said, groaning as he tried to adjust his position.
“I think you are one of the few Mr. Ali”, I said as I looked at him gaze out of the window.
“I fear for them, Mohammed”, he said. Their minds are occupied by promises of quick riches. Today’s children have more conversation in their heads than they do with real people.”
“I believe your sons will be honest men”, I said as I thought about Hannah. I wanted the chance to teach her to be honest.
“I pray that they will”, he said as if beaten by the conversation.
His wrinkle-clad face leaned against the car doors. I looked at the man before focusing back on the road. He was drifting off to sleep.
As I drove to Mr. Ali’s house I thought about what I did the night before. I reserved a plane ticket to Egypt. It was the only thing I could have done. I felt a mixture of guilt and anger come over me. I was guilty for not executing my plan to its end, but I was angry that I didn’t even get a chance to complete what I had sought out to do.
The other drivers on the road irritated me. They were on their phones, smiling, driving to where they needed to go. They didn’t have the problem I had. Misery does indeed love company.
As I pulled up to Mr. Ali’s house, I realized that I didn’t have anywhere to park. All of the parking spaces were filled, and many other cars were parked on the street that led up to the house. I was too angry to be curious.
I parked the car behind a black Lexus and walked out. My walk was faster than it usually was. I was going to tell Mr. Ali that I would be leaving.
Mai opened the door before I came up them. She lifted her face and I saw the tears that were running down her face.
“What happened?” I asked, thinking immediately that something had happened to either Abdullah or Omar. Mai’s tears and the solemn stare she gave me made me wonder about the many cars that had taken over the street.
I walked into the house with a hesitation. The silence was broken by Omar’s quick run down the stairs. He came up to me and hugged me. He broke down in tears. I hugged the boy, terrified to even look around.
“He is gone”, said Abdullah as he unsuccessfully tried to wipe the tears from his cheek.
“Who is gone?” I asked quickly, still holding on to Omar.
“Our father”, answered Abdullah quietly. I looked at Omar as he held me tightly, and tried to glance around the room. Omar let out a loud cry. He let go of me and without looking at me, ran back upstairs more quickly than when he came down.
I looked at John who had appeared from the kitchen. He noticed the puzzled look on my face and confirmed what Abdullah had said with a single nod. I stood rooted to the floor.
The murmurs started from the living room. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because it seemed as if everyone was speaking in unison. Out of the living room appeared Mrs. Ali. The death of her husband had taken its toll but took none of her grace.
“Thank you for coming”, she said quietly. “There will be no need to drive anyone today.” The words seemed to echo throughout the mansion.
I made my way towards the exit, thinking about Mr. Ali.
“He had lung cancer”, said John as he met me by the doors.
“I didn’t know”, I said, ridden with guilt.
“We didn’t either”, he said glancing at Mai.
“How long?” I asked.
“He was sick for over a year”, John answered.
“Why hide it?” I asked, trying to figure out the answer to my own question.
“He was a proud man Mohammed. He never wanted any pity.” John said with a sense of admiration.
I nodded and walked out. I was going to miss him.
I sat in the apartment, surrounded yet again by nothing but my thoughts and the new furniture. I had given up on anger. I had a new plan. I was going to wake up in the morning, pay for the plane ticket I had reserved, drive the car back, take a cab back to the apartment, and wait until it was time to go. It was a solution that I had not hoped for, but it was a solution nonetheless.
I thought about Mr. Ali. He was a proud man. I thought about our conversations. He was wise as he was proud. Sadness took over. It was time to get up and get out of my head.
I took the Nissan to the carwash and left it there. I was going to pick it up after buying what I needed. I walked on the main street, now accustomed to the sights and sounds of it. I was going to miss it.
I entered the supermarket and headed towards the toys. I bought Hannah a toy doctor’s set. My stomach began to ache. The thought of not having Hannah here, not giving her the opportunity to live out her life crippled me. I began to panic. I felt the sweat take over my body. I should have stayed in the apartment. I quickly grabbed the toy and made my way towards the cashier. The young man smiled as he waited for me to pay for the item he had scanned. His thick beard adjusted to his smile. I gave him the money and placed the toy into a bag. The young boy who usually bags the bought items was not there. I don’t know why, but I looked for him before I exited the store.
I walked back to the apartment with a quicker pace. I had to pack and the car would have been washed by now. I tried my utter best not to think about the impending trouble that would come my family’s way. The thoughts began to weigh on my mind. My chest began to ache.
The ringing and the vibration from the phone brought me back to reality. I found myself standing between the garbage and the barber shop. I felt sick.
“Mohammed, are you there?” asked John on the other end of the line.
“Yes”, I muttered.
“Can you come to the house? We need you”, he asked calmly.
I got into the car and headed to the house. The phone call was a break from the agony. I drove trying not to think about why I was needed. I needed to slow down.
I pulled up to the house and parked in the one free parking space. I walked towards the house and at that moment it was that I realized that I wasn’t shaved, nor presentable in any way.
“Can you please go to the airport?” asked Mrs. Ali quietly.
“Of course”, I answered quickly.
“My husband’s friend is landing in less than an hour. We don’t want him to take a taxi”, continued Mrs. Ali as she handed me the envelope with the salary. It was to be my last salary.
“Thank you”, I said.
“He is a very tall man. You will not be able to miss him. His name is Mohammed”, said John before I walked out. I tossed the envelope Mrs. Ali gave me next to the bag from the supermarket that I accidently brought with me and pulled out of the parking space.
I parked the car and quickly headed towards the airport, dodging the bag-filled carts that squeaked as they passed me. The people around me were in a hurry, hailing cabs or running towards the bus stop that wasn’t far away from the airport entrance.
I stood at the arrival gate and waited. The crowd around me didn’t seem to get smaller. If one person left, at least two came. While I waited, I thought about what I had to do once I got back to the apartment. I still had to pack. I had to make sure that the apartment was clean before I left it. At least there was something to do. Thinking about sleeping terrified me. My mind would not let me sleep. It would torment me until the Sun comes up. I wasn’t ready for it, no matter how sure I knew it was going to happen. The gut-wrenching pain that I was now familiar with now took over. I tried to focus. I was on the lookout for a tall man.
I looked towards the sliding doors and saw Hannah looking around her. She held Mariam’s hand. Mariam noticed me, and smiled. I was filled with disbelief. As they made their way through the doors, Hannah noticed me. She freed herself from Mariam’s grasp and ran towards me. I bent down to catch her as she threw herself at me. I hugged her, still unsure of what was happening. Mariam came close to me. Sobbing, I extended a hand towards her. I held Hannah in one hand while hugging Mariam with my other hand. I felt her crying. I looked at Hannah. My palm made its way across her cheek. She smiled, only adjusting her face to my many kisses. I couldn’t speak. I tried to say something, but the words didn’t want to make their way out of my mouth.
“How?” I finally asked.
“We were asked to go to the consulate by a man that came to our home. He took us there, took our pictures, and a day later, we had our visas and the tickets”, Mariam explained.
I held Hannah as we walked out of the airport. I got into the car, while Hannah and Mariam sat in the back seat. I reached for the bag that had Hannah’s toy in it, and gave it to her. I opened the envelope that Mrs. Ali had given me. There was a piece of folded paper in the envelope.
Teach her to be honest.
I wiped the tear from my face and turned around. Hannah was admiring the toy that she had just taken out of the bag and Mariam sat back and exhaled as she looked at me.
Asmir Dzankovic was born in 1984, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1995, he moved to Chicago with his family. It was in Chicago that he found his love of writing. In 2012 he graduated from the University of Sarajevo, with a degree in English Language and Literature. Today, Asmir is teaching Creative Writing at a private school in the Middle East.
Photo: Blake Burkhart