“Got it. Anything else?”
“Yeah . . . be careful. I got a bad feeling about this Johnson character.”
WHEN Hakim finally woke up he made no attempt to open his eyes. His head hurt too much. His body hurt too much. It seemed that everything hurt too much. Slowly, his senses started to send reports back to his brain. There were bruises and cuts and scrapes and maybe some breaks. He kept his eyes closed, not because he didn’t want to see where he was, but he thought it would hurt too much to open them. Without forethought his brain decided to take inventory. He wiggled his toes and was pleased to see they worked. His left foot rolled outward and everything felt as it should. When he tried the same thing with his right leg his knee sent back signals of sharp pain. He couldn’t tell the extent of the injury but nothing felt broken. His torso ached, but it was nothing compared to the pain he suddenly noticed in his arms and face.
Hakim tried to open his eyes, but nothing happened. It was if his eyelids were glued shut. He tried again, and with a little more effort he was able to get his left one open a sliver. It felt as if something was weighing down his eyelids. He was surrounded by a soft natural light. Somewhere in the distance he heard a throbbing hum that was faintly familiar. His sense of smell slowly came back and he picked up the weak scent of a campfire.
Hakim managed to get his left eye open a bit more and after staring at the strange wood grain pattern for a while, he realized he was in the back of the RV lying on the bed. He tried to roll onto his side, but didn’t get far. He let out a small gasp. It felt as if he had been stabbed. Things slowly started coming back to him. He had no idea how long he’d been out, but the last thing he remembered was Karim on top of him, his fists rising and falling with crazed rage.
Remember those punches, it suddenly occurred to Hakim why he couldn’t open his eyes. With dread, he brought his hands up to touch his face. It was one of those things you never thought of. What your own face felt like. Mostly, because you didn’t have to. You touched it so frequently throughout the day, for so many reasons and over so many years that every centimeter of it was imprinted on your brain. You could feel your way to the slightest blemish or new wrinkle. Hakim gently touched the area around his left eye. Everything was foreign. It felt like a ripe tomato, plump and smooth. His fingers continued their search. His lips were even worse, and his right eye felt twice as bad as his left.
Then, as if a switch had been thrown, the pain started. It was both specific and everywhere at the same time. As if his brain were stuck in a circular loop of agony moving from one area to the next and then back again, running faster and faster, until he felt like a thousand fire ants were feasting on his face. He started to moan and after a good five seconds he stopped himself. The thought of Karim hung above him like some awful nightmare. He did not want to feed the man’s arrogance any more than he already had.
How could one friend do this to another? Hakim lay there and asked himself the question over and over. The answer was so obvious that he was no longer able to ignore it. The truth was now staring back at him like an old, wise parent telling him he had been warned long ago but had been either too stubborn or too immature to heed the advice. Hakim felt his puffy face again. Was it true? Had he been so blind for so many years, or was he suddenly in full martyr mode— casting himself as the ultimate victim and his friend as the archvillain?
Hakim knew he wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind to be dealing with such a question, but it was no longer possible to ignore the obvious. Had he been the one who had changed or was it Karim? Was it both, or had he simply drifted away from their radical world-view—the myopic one the Wahhabi clerics had brainwashed them with? It was so foolish, Hakim thought as he looked back on his testosterone-laden late teens and early twenties. They had been indoctrinated like brainless fools.
Even so, there was another question that was more troubling. Was Karim a monster? Hakim thought of the father and son who had showed up at the farmhouse and asked permission to hunt by the river. He had had the situation handled. They were not federal agents or local law enforcement. They were just a father and a son such as you would find anywhere in the world, and if Karim had been able to keep his ego and anger in check everything would have been fine.
The sinking feeling he’d had when he heard the screen door open came back. Hakim replayed it all in his mind, but without any sound. For some reason the audio wouldn’t play. It was just the cold, harsh visual of bullets hitting flesh and bodies falling in slow motion to the gravel. The agony on the father’s face. The fear on the son’s. And all for what? What had they gained? What had Karim gained with his obtuse, inflexible methods? They were now on the run—foreigners in a land where everyone was looking for them.
Hakim had calculated their chances of escape many times, and he was convinced that nothing offered more hope than the house in Iowa. It was the last place anyone would look. He had even told Karim not to worry if someone should stumble upon them. He and Ahmed were to stay out of sight. Hakim’s cover story was solid. He would be able to deal with anyone, possibly even law enforcement. It had all been discussed a
nd rehearsed many times.
Hakim was in the midst of asking himself why his friend would be so reckless when the floral curtain that separated the rear sleeping area from the rest of the RV slid back a half foot. Hakim looked up to see a pair of large, almost childlike eyes staring down at him. It was Ahmed. The Moroccan pulled the curtain back a little more and then stepped into the sleeping area and let the curtain close behind him. He had a damp washcloth in one hand and a bottle of water in the other.
Ahmed placed the washcloth on Hakim’s forehead and then, holding the water in front of him, asked, “Thirsty?”
Hakim began to shake his head but it hurt too much. He winced in pain and tried to speak but that hurt as well. He moved his tongue around in his mouth and realized he was missing at least two teeth.
Ahmed leaned in close and softly said, “I am sorry for what happened.”
It was obvious by the way he spoke that he was afraid of being heard by Karim. Hakim saw fear in his eyes, the kind of fear a man shows when he is in over his head. Through puffed lips caked with dried blood and a swollen and possibly broken jaw he managed to ask, “Where are we?”
“I am not sure. I think still in Iowa.”
“How long have I been unconscious?”
“I’m not sure. But it was a long time. I was afraid you might be dead.”
“What time is it now?”
Ahmed held up his black digital watch. It was twelve-fifty-six in the afternoon.
Hakim worked his way backward and figured he’d been out for over five hours. “How long have we been on the road?”
The Moroccan shrugged.
Hakim suddenly noticed a familiar, but much stronger odor on Ahmed. “You smell like a fire.”
After looking over his shoulder, Ahmed nervously said, “Karim had me put the father and son in the house. The basement. I then set fire to it.”
“Why?” Hakim asked in near disbelief.
“He said it would destroy the evidence.”