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A novel by
© Ahmed Khalifa. 2009-2010.
For my mother, who taught me never to stop dreaming.
He looked out the window. He had heard it again. The scratching. Followed by a sort of whistling. He had got out of bed, out from under the warm covers, out from under their safety. But he’d had to check it out, had to see what was causing that terrible noise. He wondered why nobody else in the house had woken up. Hadn’t they heard it, too? He was now standing before the window, looking out, into the night. It was two in the morning, way past his bedtime. He was supposed to wake up in about four hours, get dressed and go to school. And here he was, wide awake, trembling with fear, checking for monsters
outside his window. He had to grow up, he told himself, he had to act his age. Another scratch, this one coming from behind him. He quickly turned. He couldn’t see a thing. The room was drowned in total darkness. Damn it! Ever since he had turned ten he had stopped using a night light. He wasn’t a baby anymore. He was almost a young man. But now he wished he could see, wished it more than anything in the world. Wished it even more than having pancakes double dipped in chocolate syrup with strawberries on top. He was getting distracted. He had to focus. He had a monster in his bedroom! He took a couple of steps forward. Slowly. He waited for his eyes to adapt to the darkness that surrounded him. He was only a couple of feet away from the light switch. Only a couple more steps and . . . Something rose out of the darkness. A huge shape. A man in a black cape. His face so pale it looked like the face of a corpse. And his eyes . . .
His eyes were horrible. They were red and they glowed in the dark. Pits of red fire. He felt his body freeze. The man came closer, opened his mouth. Inside it were two snakes, black and writhing frantically. They hissed at him. Ahmed woke up with a scream. The room was shaking; something was making a horrible noise. Something was ringing inside his head. He turned around and saw that it was only his alarm clock. It was going crazy. He pressed down the button, silencing it, and looked around him. It was morning. His room was bathed in golden light. Everything looked normal. No monsters anywhere. And no snakes! Thank God. Ahmed got out of bed and saw that he was soaking wet. That dream, no, it wasn’t a dream. That nightmare had scared him senseless and he had sweated like crazy. He quickly got out of his wet clothes and went into the shower. Five minutes later, he was dressed in his stupid school uniform, ready for another day of school.
At the thought of school he felt a sense of boredom descend upon him. He didn’t hate school, but he didn’t actually like it. It was weird. Then he thought about it for a moment longer. He asked himself: If I woke up tomorrow and found out that school was out, forever, how would I feel? Happy, that’s for sure. But he felt slightly bad about thinking this way. Here he was, an eleven year-old boy, only two weeks away from turning twelve, and he was having daydreams about escaping from school forever. Very immature, he thought. He should know better. But just think about it, he thought. Maybe if school was out only for a month or two. Yes, that would be it. It would be a blast, and he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it. A fair deal. ‘Ahmed, breakfast is ready. And your bus should be here in five minutes. So you better hurry,’ his mother shouted. ‘All right, all right. Coming,’ he said, sounding like a whiny eleven year-old and hating himself for it.
He ran out of his room and into the dining room. His mother was dressed in her usual pink bathrobe, looking like she hadn’t slept in a week. Her eyes were puffy and she was scowling. She always looked like that when she woke up in the morning. But miraculously, Ahmed knew, an hour later, after she’d had her coffee and cream cheese sandwich, she would look great. With her curly brown hair and hazel eyes that always made him smile. Come to think of it, they made him smile because they reminded him of his own eyes. He looked so much like her. He plopped down onto one of the seats, pushed away the plates filled with different kinds of cheeses – which he absolutely hated – and grabbed a piece of whole-wheat toast and drowned it in strawberry jam. In a few seconds he had devoured the piece of toast and his mouth was covered with crumbs and red jam. His mom frowned at him. ‘Ugh. Ahmed, I told you to eat slowly and wipe your mouth. You look like some sort of jungle kid.’
‘But I love strawberry jam. You know that. I can’t help myself,’ Ahmed said and smiled. His mother smiled and then jokingly pinched his arm. ‘That’s no reason to act like a savage.’ ‘A what?’ But before his mother could answer, Nora, his older sister, came into the room. Instantly, Ahmed rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue, which was still red with jam. ‘Gross!’ Nora said. ‘Good morning to you too, dear sister.’ ‘You’re disgusting, you know that,’ she said. ‘And you are sooo sensitive, sis. Well, it’s nothing but jam. Not blood or anything.’ Ahmed looked and saw that his mother’s back was turned to them. She was busy making coffee. So he dipped his finger in the jam jar and smeared his neck with jam, making a gurgling sound. It looked as if his throat was cut. Nora backed away from the table. ‘Mom, he’s scaring me again.’
Ahmed quickly wiped the jam off with his finger, stuck his finger in his mouth, and licked it clean. There, no trace of the crime, he thought. His mother turned and saw him smiling. She was about to say something when the sound of the school bus’s horn reached their ears. Ahmed and Nora quickly pushed back their chairs and got up, Nora holding a buttered toast in her hand. ‘Bye, mom,’ they both said and stepped out of the dining room. But before they got out of the apartment Ahmed stopped Nora with a worried look on his face. ‘What is it?’ She said, annoyed. ‘What’s that on your face?’ ‘What?’ she said and instantly started feeling her face with her hands. Ahmed slowly reached out and rubbed his index finger against her cheeks, then showed it to her. It was covered with something gooey, something red. Nora looked at his finger in horror. ‘My God, what is that? Am I hurt?’
Ahmed lifted the smeared finger to his mouth and licked it clean. ‘If so, your blood sure tastes like strawberry jam.’ ‘You creep, I will. . . ‘ But she was interrupted by another horn blare and they both had to run out the door.
Ahmed sat in the classroom, waiting for the inevitable. It always scared him, that moment before the truth. Today, they would get the results to last week’s algebra quiz. Although Ahmed wasn’t a total loser when it came to math, he wasn’t a star student, either. That honor went to his best friend, Amr. Amr was now sitting next to him, looking calm, not a worry in the world. Amr was like that. Sometimes he would be as calm as a beetle, and sometimes, if something bothered him a lot, he would be nervous, moving about restlessly, as if he were waiting for a catastrophe to happen. For Amr, there was no middle ground; he was either calm or mad.
But Ahmed liked him very much for two reasons. One, he was a fun guy to be around, a know-it-all who wasn’t boring or stuck up, but an actual well of knowledge who seemed to know something about everything. Two, because he was a good friend, there when you need him, and a good listener. For these reasons, Ahmed was willing to tolerate Amr’s moodiness. It was a small price to pay for having such a good friend. ‘Quiet now,’ Mr. Essam, the math teacher, said, waving a bunch of papers he held in his hand like a flag. The class became silent, went still. This was it, the dreaded moment. The moment of truth. The moment that decided whether you would get an extra ten pounds added to your allowance or an order to stay home during the weekend to make up for not being a good student. That bunch of papers Mr. Essam held in his hands was the key to everything every student held dear. It is so unfair, Ahmed thought, that one man can hold our fates in his hand like that.
‘As always, I will announce the grades in alphabetical order.’ Ahmed swallowed. That meant his was going to be the first to get the news. His name was Ahmed Akram. A. A. He was doubly doomed. ‘Ahmed Akram, 23/40. As always, you started brilliantly, then, halfway there, you lost your focus and started making stupid mistakes. I haven’t given up on you, yet, but you need to show me some improvement. Soon.’ Mr. Essam walked toward Ahmed and gently put the paper before him, giving him a look that made Ahmed wish the ground would open up and swallow him. He looked to his right and saw Amr looking at him, smiling. Ahmed couldn’t help but smile back at him. Amr could always do that. When Ahmed thought he was going to die of shame, Amr made him feel better, with a word, a look, a smile. It made Ahmed feel that things were going to be OK, that it wasn’t the end of the world. All he had to do was work harder, focus as Mr.
Essam had said. Next time he would do better, he promised himself. After going through all the Ahmeds in the class – and there were a lot of them – Amr’s turn finally came. ‘Ah. Mr. Amr Badawy. 35/40. Good, but disappointing. I was hoping you would get the full mark like you always do. I hope this isn’t the start of something bad. Next time, back on form, please.’ Mr. Essam handed the paper to Amr and Amr grabbed it, his face calm, betraying nothing. He didn’t look toward Ahmed. He just looked down at the paper, studied it for a moment, and then put it inside his backpack. Then, he looked around him, made sure no one was paying attention, and took a small chocolate bar out of his bag. It was already half-open, so he broke two small bits off of the bar, threw one bit in his mouth and handed the other to Ahmed from under the desk. Ahmed grabbed it, put it in his mouth and quickly chewed, feeling the smooth chocolate melt in his mouth, making his taste
buds go crazy. It was something Ahmed and Amr always did. When one of them was having a bad time, chocolate was the answer; it made any problem go away with its chocolaty goodness. Just as Ahmed was swallowing the last bit of chocolate, Mr. Essam turned and looked at him and Amr suspiciously. Ahmed swallowed, coughed a nervous cough and smiled a wan smile at the math teacher. The teacher narrowed his eyes at him a moment, then turned around, handing another graded paper to another helpless student, then making a remark about how she could do better if only she stopped talking so much during class. Ten minutes later, with all the papers handed out, with more than half the students in class looking like they were about to cry, Mr. Essam sat behind his desk and opened his text book. ‘Today we are going to solve that quiz. See why many of you did so poorly. I am disappointed, very disappointed. Here we are, almost halfway through the year and you seem to be losing energy already. This is unacceptable.’
Ahmed was already tuning out the lecture. He tried to focus, but found out that he couldn’t. He couldn’t help thinking that he could be doing something better with his time. Maybe playing a video game, listening to some music, or watching some action cartoons. He knew school was important, no doubt about that, but he also knew that spending years of your life trapped inside a school room eight hours a day had to be unfair. There must be another option, another way to learn that wasn’t so, well, boring. But he couldn’t think about it any more. As suddenly his stomach contracted, made a strange noise, and then he felt that it was about to explode. He had to go to the bathroom. His face green with nausea and pain, he raised his hand. Mr. Essam stopped talking. ‘Yes, Ahmed?’ ‘Mister, can I please go to the bathroom?’ ‘Yes, Ahmed. I am sure you can go to the bathroom. But you also may.’ ‘Thank you, sir.’
Ahmed jumped out of his seat and ran out of the classroom, down the hall and into the boys’ bathroom. A couple of minutes later, he came out of the bathroom, exhausted and sick. Toast, strawberry jam and double cream chocolate sure didn’t go together very well. He should be more careful next time. But that chocolate Amr had given him sure had tasted great. He was about to turn and head back to class when he saw a boy, slightly younger than him, standing in the middle of the empty hall, looking ahead, looking at nothing. The boy seemed to be lost in thought. He was standing in his place, very still, like a statue. Ahmed shrugged and was about to walk away, when the young boy suddenly laughed, a small, short laugh. For some reason, that laugh scared Ahmed. Ahmed walked toward the boy, who remained standing still. Ahmed reached the boy. ‘Are you OK?’
The boy didn’t answer, didn’t even look at Ahmed. ‘Hey, are you all right?’ The boy blinked, then, slowly, as if he were just waking up from a deep sleep, turned to Ahmed. He was smiling. ‘Didn’t you hear her?’ ‘Hear who?’ Ahmed responded, looking around him, confused. There was no one but them in the hall. ‘Her. The woman. She was singing. She was singing to me. Ahmed decided that the boy must have been daydreaming or something. ‘I didn’t hear anything. I think we need to get back to class before they give us detention. Come on. Which class is yours?’ ‘Class 2-E. But . . . are you sure you didn’t hear her?’ Ahmed started walking, the boy following him. ‘I am sure.’
‘She was singing a beautiful song. I think I’ve heard it before, maybe when I was younger. When I was a baby, you know.’ ‘OK.’ This is getting weird, Ahmed thought. ‘Yes! I am sure of it now. I know that song. You might know it, too.’ ‘What’s its name?’ ‘The stranger in the red dress.’ For Ahmed, it didn’t ring a bell.
The bell rang. School was out. For now. Students hurried out of classrooms, teachers sighed with relief, and parents stood at the school’s gate, each waiting for their child’s face to appear. Another school day was over. Almost. Ahmed walked in the hall, waiting for Amr. He hadn’t seen him since Science class, which was very unusual. Ahmed and Amr were in the same class, 4-F, and Amr never, ever skipped a class. Besides, in this school, no one would skip a class without consequences, dire consequences that involved punishments that were almost inhumane. Like staying late after class, a call to your parents to say how undisciplined you were, or, worst of all, suspension, the thing that made
you become known as one of the school’s bad boys or girls; something which would feel cool for a short while - becoming an outsider, a member of an elite gang - but which soon became annoying when students and friends would start avoiding you, avoiding hanging out with someone with a criminal past. Ahmed knew how that felt. He had gotten suspended before and it wasn’t exactly as advertised. Cool at first, for sure, but later you felt lonely and guilty when you sat home alone, missing classes and feeling the weight of the accumulated homework that was awaiting your arrival to school to greet you with open arms and a stifling hug. Ahmed wondered again where Amr was. He glanced at his wristwatch and saw that it was almost half past three. He was going to be late and miss his bus. He had to leave. He looked over his shoulder one last time, at the empty hall, and decided that he had to leave and that he would call Amr as soon as he got home, which, considering the Cairo traffic, would be in no less than an hour and a half. If he was lucky. An
hour and a half of sitting next to his sister, hearing her talk to her friends about things that made his mind go numb with boredom, and sometimes made him want to throw up. Girls! He stepped out of the ancient school building, walked toward his bus, and was about to reach it when thunder tore the sky and a flood of rain descended upon the world. Ahmed looked up, letting the rain drench his hair and clothes and wash his face clean. It felt cool, clean and refreshing. But it was weird. In Cairo, it usually didn’t rain before late December, sometimes not even before midJanuary. It was November now. Too early for this kind of rain, any rain. The sky was now a dull gray. It had shifted from day to almost night in an instant. Ahmed looked around him and saw his schoolmates screaming and shouting, pretending it was a big deal. Some enjoying the rain, others very annoyed by it. He felt the cold wetness reach his bones and decided that it was enough. He had to get inside the bus or else he would catch a cold,
and he usually didn’t manage colds very well. He hated being locked inside his room, nose runny and throat sore. He was about to enter the bus when he saw the young boy he had seen earlier inside the school, in the hall, standing alone, daydreaming. The boy who had said he’d heard a woman singing. Now, the boy was standing in the rain, soaking wet. He was alone, in the middle of the street, looking straight ahead. Ahmed swore. The boy was daydreaming again. Something must be wrong with that boy, he thought. Ahmed argued with himself about what to do. He could just leave the young boy. His parents must be coming to get him. They must be. Then again, they could be a little late and the boy would be left standing there, in the rain, soaked to the bone. He would surely catch a cold. Ahmed looked around him, saw a teacher he knew and shouted her name. She ran past him, not seeing or hearing him because of the pelting rain and roaring thunder. She quickly got inside her car and started the engine. No luck there.
Ahmed blew out his breath, angry, and decided that he would have to go help the boy himself. Ahmed walked toward the boy, noting how the boy never moved, never even blinked. Something was very wrong with that boy, he must be sick or something, Ahmed thought. As soon as Ahmed reached him, he saw what the boy was looking at. A few feet away from them stood a woman. She looked as old as his mother. She stood there, a strange smile on her face. She had long dark brown hair, wore maroon lipstick and wasn’t carrying a purse, which Ahmed found strange. To his knowledge, no woman ever left home without taking her purse with her. It included the things a woman considered absolutely necessary for survival: Tissues, make-up, a hand mirror, that sort of stuff. The woman leaned on some sort of cane, made of shiny, brown wood. The way the woman held it, leaned on it, made Ahmed wary. To him, it looked like the woman wasn't holding it for support, but as a weapon.
And she wore a long, red dress. She began walking toward them. Ahmed froze in place. He didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t afraid, wasn’t nervous. He was just unable to think. It was as if he were hypnotized. Then he heard her beautiful voice, heard her singing: Come to me, young one Come to me and look Come to me, young one Come to me and listen I am the bringer of gifts I am the bringer of wonders I am the one who will let you Have whatever your mind conjures Suddenly the singing stopped and the woman stopped moving. Ahmed shook his head and discovered that he had a terrible headache. He looked down at the
boy and saw that he was now shaking in the rain. The boy was shivering, in shock. Ahmed looked up at the woman and saw that she was looking at something past his shoulder, behind him. Ahmed turned and saw an old man in torn clothes, a beggar known to everyone in school as Am1 Abdo. The woman was looking at him with hate and fear. Ahmed couldn’t understand. The boy fell to his knees and started crying. Ahmed fell down beside him. ‘It’s OK. It’s going to be OK,’ Ahmed said. ‘Why did she stop singing? Why?’ the boy said through his tears. Ahmed shook his head, unable to respond. He then looked up and saw that the woman was gone. He turned and looked behind him and saw that the man, Am Abdo, was also gone.
Arabic for Uncle
‘What were you thinking?’ his mother shouted at him. ‘I was trying to help that boy.’ ‘Why didn’t you call for help? There weren’t any teachers around? You were just outside the school for God’s sake!’ ‘I tried! I called out for Mrs. Samia and she just walked right past me. She couldn’t hear me through the rain,’ Ahmed said, almost shouting. He was starting to get angry. He had done the right thing; he knew it, yet his mother was giving him a lecture to end all lectures. ‘I don’t believe this. You were just outside the school, in the middle of the day, and you couldn’t find a single adult to help you? And why did you
go help that boy anyway? His parents said that he was fine, that he wasn’t even sick.’ ‘Why did I help him? Can you hear yourself, mom? I helped him because he was just a small kid standing in the rain catching pneumonia or God knows what. He was just standing there in the middle of the street. Even if he hadn’t caught a cold or something, a car would have come and hit him sooner or later. He was out of it. It wasn’t the first time.’ ‘What do you mean?’ His mother was calming down, or trying to. ‘I found him earlier today, in the middle of the hall, just standing there looking at nothing. I think he is sick or something. Maybe he has a condition or something. I don’t know. I am just a kid! I only wanted to help him. I thought he needed help. Something is not right with that boy,’ Ahmed said and then dropped onto one of the nearby chairs in the kitchen. Why do all the fights take place in the kitchen? He asked himself.
His mother walked closer to him and he could see that her face was softening, losing that angry edge that transformed her face when she was furious. He didn't know what she was going to say. He hoped it wouldn't be another order to ground him. He really he hoped that wouldn't be it. His mother patted his cheeks gently and then took a seat beside him. She smiled at him, and that instantly made him feel better. There weren’t many things in the world that could make him feel as good and safe as his mother's smile. It made him feel like a child, but in a good way. 'Ahmed, I am proud of you. I am proud that you decided to go help that boy. I am not sure what was wrong with him, but I believe you. I believe that you saw that he needed help for one reason or another and that's good enough for me. 'But I am angry with you for not being careful. You ran to the middle of the street and stood there . . . just the thought of it makes my throat
go dry. I can't believe you could be so careless. You could have been hit by a car and you could have caught a cold, too!' 'What was I supposed to do, mom?' 'You should have just grabbed that boy and walked back to school and asked for help.' 'Which I did,' he interrupted her. 'I know, but not soon enough. Not before staying there, in the middle of the street for a couple of minutes, daydreaming yourself!' 'How did you know that?' 'I have my sources,' his mother said confidently. 'Mothers!' 'Yes, we help each other out. But more importantly, we take care of our children, and part of that involves scolding them when they act bravely but stupidly.' She gave him a look that made him feel like he was five instead of almost twelve. 'I am proud of you, Ahmed. But I am also worried about you. Your grades are slipping, your behavior is getting unpredictable and you aren't even a teenager yet!'
Ahmed squirmed in his seat. Here it comes, he thought. 'I want you to focus, Ahmed. You are a good boy, a smart boy. Act like it. Now, go wash up for dinner. What did you have for lunch?' Ahmed got up off his seat and was about to say “chips and chocolate” when he caught himself. Because he knew that if he told her the truth about what he’d had for lunch, she would feed him greens and milk to make up for “the poisons” he’d ingested. 'I borrowed some carrot sticks from Amr.' Just a white lie, he thought. His mother gave him a knowing look. 'Really? How good of you, Ahmed. Then you won't mind a little Spinach casserole along with some boiled chicken for dinner, will you?' Ahmed swore under his breath. His mother laughed, 'Just kidding. Omelets and some Alexandrian foul2. ' Ahmed sighed with relief. It wasn't Burgers and French fries, but it was good enough.
A traditional Egyptian dish, made with beans and spices.
He ran to his room, changed his clothes, and then remembered Amr. He hadn't called him. He wanted to know where he had gone off to after school. He also wanted to tell him all about what had happened after school, about the strange woman, about her song. But before he could pick up the phone to dial Amr's number, the phone rang. He heard his mother pick it up, a moment later she called out to him. It was Amr. Ahmed grabbed the phone. 'Got it. You can hang up now.' He waited till he heard the click of the other phone being hung up, then spoke. 'Where have you been? Did you really skip classes today? Did you...' But Amr interrupted him with a voice that chilled Ahmed's blood. Something was very wrong with Amr. 'Ahmed, I need to see you as soon as possible. Something's happened. Something is happening.'
About the author
Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and writer based in Cairo, Egypt. He is the writer/director of WINGRAVE, the first English-Language Egyptian Feature film in history. He has also published several short stories, and is currently working on the next book in the Beware series. His first Arabic language novel, The Diary Of A Dead Young Woman ( ,)مذكرات ميتةis coming out soon. You can contact him at: email@example.com Please visit his official website: www.Wingrave-Film.com
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