Climate change, slipshod authoritarianism, institutionalized Islamophobia—the future Omar El Akkad paints here is at once terrifying, plausible, and impossible to ignore. We're running his 'Riverbed' today to spread the gospel of A PEOPLE'S FUTURE OF THE UNITED STATES, in which it appears, alongside 24 other stories that examine the trajectory of this great ailing nation by the likes of N. K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders, and Charles Yu. Suffice to say that this unmissable anthology, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, is a collection after Terraform's own heart. This potent and gut-punching story should offer ample evidence why. Enjoy. -the ed
“Welcome to Big Sky Country,” the flight attendant said. Gently, the plane descended over browning farmland and desolate ridges of brush and stone where the prairies met the mountains.
Khadija Singh lifted the window shade and looked down at what had become of Billings. She saw the remains of the big mid-century developments, paid for with out-of-state developer money in the years when everyone thought the Deluge Bowl migration would lead right across the Rockies into Montana and Idaho and the unburned parts of the Pacific Northwest, the high sheltered places.
But it never happened. Instead, the displaced millions had fled the coasts to Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, because in those cities it was possible still to live within sight of the water and without sight of the country’s dying rural expanse. The coastal exodus never reached places like Billings, and all that developer money bought was a cluster of unfinished towers, whole suburbs curled up like shrimp tails around their own emptiness.
At the airport customs desk, the officer flipped lazily through Khadija’s Canadian passport. For a moment she thought he might ask her to remove her headscarf, but instead he stamped one of the pages with casual violence, slid the passport back, and waved her through.
Outside in the arrivals hall, she found a man holding a sign with her name on it. He wore an old-fashioned driver’s uniform.
“You Khadija?” the driver asked, mangling her name, flattening the i the way Americans do when they pronounce words like Iraq.
“Dr. Singh,” she replied. She set her bag on the ground and walked past him toward the exit, where a solitary old sedan sat parked. On the side of the ancient car were plastered the name and logo of the Riverbed Attestation Center.
“Hey, lady,” the driver began, but she did not respond. He sighed and picked up her suitcase and followed her to the car.
They drove toward Billings. She knew they would have to drive clear across town to get to the center. It was a deliberately unobtrusive place, nestled against a hillside amid otherwise uninhabited land.
“So you want to go straight to Riverbed?” the driver said, eyeing her in his rearview mirror.
“Yes,” Khadija replied. “No.”
“Well, which is it?”
“Take me there, but just drive around it, and then take me back to the hotel.”
“Lady, the hotel’s downtown, right off the exit here,” the driver said. “That’s an hour of extra driving you’re talking about.”
Khadija looked out the window, ignoring the driver. She’d forgotten how Americans spoke.
Along North 27th Street they drove past the remains of old Billings, the diners and auto shops and the sprawling offices of the Billings Gazette, all now plastered with FOR LEASE signs. The only pedestrian traffic trickled in and out of the pawnshops and the Hundred-Dollar-Or-Less stores and the immigration offices whose lawyers specialized in Canadian visas.
No sooner had the car reached the outskirts of the city than Khadija said, “Stop. Turn around.”
The driver glanced at her through the rearview. “What?”
“I changed my mind. Take me to the hotel.”
The driver tapped the steering wheel in exasperation. “Lady, I’m not …” he started, then fell silent. He slowed and turned into a clearing in the median, and soon the car was headed back to the city in which, fifty years earlier, Khadija once resided.
Father said he wasn’t worried. He said Americans are like this, brittle with privilege. Sometimes anger robs them of their senses and they make bad decisions, but in a way this was really just another testament to American greatness—how adept the United States was at surviving its endless self-inflicted wounds. We live in a good country, he said, and it will be good again.
On the television station that backed the winning candidate, the frothing pundit couldn’t stop talking, couldn’t even stop for breath, all his words like one long word. He said the people the everyday salt-of-the-earth people are angry do you hear that in the big cities in the ivory towers do you hear that the real people are angry and so what if the scientists had been right all this time what good is a temperate summer if all the good-paying refinery jobs are gone and Washington swipes half of every paycheck to spend on relocating some Fijian who didn’t know better than to leave that miserable little island before it sank into the ocean and anyway why’s that our problem it’s not our problem it’s not it’s not.
I watched, hypnotized. Father sat in his easy chair, occasionally shaking his head and saying how this was just the way the cycle worked—one time they vote for what they believe themselves to be and the next they get angry and vote for what they really are. You can’t let it bother you, he said.
I saw John outside, playing catch with his friend in the backyard, oblivious in that way only fifteen-year-old boys can be. And I was happy for his obliviousness, because although I was only three years older than him I’d learned by then to see obliviousness as the surest sign of belonging, and I wanted more than anything for him to feel he belonged.
I thought about what Mother would make of him, of all this, had she lived another year. I thought about the day she sat me down and said, Take care of your brother, Lydia, and take care of yourself; be at all times guarded. And never forget that this country despises above all else this thing they call people of color, sees them not as people at all but as harbingers of a future it can’t control. I remember liking that moniker: Of color. What a thing to be in a country so black and white.
The man on TV said Americans are good people you know but they only vote one of two ways with their hearts or with their heads and let’s hope it’s not too late let’s hope it’s not too late but thank the Lord this time they came to their senses and voted with their heads.
But it didn’t seem to me like they voted with their heads. It seemed like they voted with their fangs.
Two days later, Father went outside in the morning and our neighbors who were out mowing their lawns and washing their cars were all looking at him in a nervous, sidelong way—the way passing motorists look at a driver who’s been pulled over.
We lived back then in one of those suburbs where all the streets are named after flowers and the houses all look alike. The houses were descendants of the old Sears Craftsman homes. You used to be able to order them straight from the catalog. They were defined by their sameness, and in their sameness was a kind of evidence that you’d arrived in America—that you were finally done swirling around in the pot, that you’d finally melted.
At first my father didn’t understand why his neighbors were looking at him this way. Then he turned around and saw what had been spray-painted on our garage door. Two words in bright red, the tails of the letters melting like candle wax, the paint still fresh. The second word took up the entire width of the door and bore within it a history of cruelty so thick it became a compendium in itself—a word the saying and thinking of which had been the source of so much debate but whose saying and thinking had never been outlawed or even really punished, only the volume at which it could be said and the outward glee with which it could be thought. The second word spray-painted on our garage door was the only truly American word.
And the first word was SAND.
In the months that followed, the rumors started. You’d hear other kids and sometimes even the teachers whispering about it in school, about some oversized semis they’d seen coming down the 94, hauling prefabricated vinyl sheets and guard-tower platforms and reams and reams of barbed wire, going somewhere deep in the canyons. Best for everyone, they’d say. Keeps them safe, keeps us safe.
But at first it was just background noise.
Then one Sunday those six men walked into the stadium the day of the big bowl game, and when the dust settled and the bodies were counted there was no doubt the president would follow through with his threat. The executive order came out a week later, and a week after that the soldiers showed up at our door.
I remember the strangeness of that day, the absurdity that seems to accompany all violent beginnings. They came in a convoy of sorts, a black paddy wagon sandwiched between two cop cars. Four officers emerged from the cop cars. I recognized two of them from the previous November, when Father had called to report the vandalism of our garage door. Then the wagon door was flung open and out spilled a gaggle of reservists—they didn’t look like soldiers; they looked like armored accountants, flabby and uncomfortably corseted in their flak vests.
I think a small part of my father believed, right until that moment, we would be safe. Sure there were things said, slurs hurled across shopping-mall parking lots. Sure he’d decided to cut his hair and shave his beard, resigned now to the fact that so many of his countrymen could not distinguish one religion from another. And even before all that, back when this particular flavor of national paranoia was still in its infancy, he had decided to take precautions—to give his children Westerners’ names and teach them to speak and dress and think in a way that rendered them in the eyes of the majority benign, normal. He’d done all these things and in the end none of it mattered.
Still, he was calm until the very moment they ushered him onto the truck. I remember he asked for a few minutes to lock the doors and windows. He ripped a sheet from one of John’s notebooks and wrote our lawyer’s name and phone number on it and taped it to our front door, but just before they drove us away I saw one of the officers tear it down.
John squeezed my shoulder and said, A week, tops.
It was only at the very end that my father’s calm veneer finally evaporated. He turned to one of the soldiers, pleading. We’re from here, he said. We’re Americans. The soldier looked straight through him, and it occurred to me then that in this country it has never really mattered what you are, only what you’re not.
Khadija lay in her hotel bed, the window open to give some relief from the heat and the room’s mildew smell. At dawn she gave up on sleep and got up and dressed and went for a walk around the perimeter of the property. The sun came up over the barren hills.
The driver showed up at eight-thirty, as she’d instructed him to do.
“Mornin’,” he said, handing her a paper cup. “Coffee?”
“No thank you.”
The driver tossed the cup away and got in the driver’s seat.
“You mind if I stop for gas before we go out there?” the driver asked.
“Fine. Quickly, please.”
They pulled into the station at the edge of town, where in one corner of the lot sat an old gas pump, the only one left in Billings. The driver set the nozzle in the tank and walked around the side of the car and wiped down the front and rear windshields.
Khadija lowered her window. The smell of gasoline was sharp and reminded her of her childhood.
“Every time one of you folks comes to town, they take this piece of junk out of the garage,” the driver said. “I guess they think anyone who’s coming to visit is probably one of those people who spends a lot of time thinking about the way things used to be, so they’ll feel more comfortable in one of these cars. I keep telling them to sell it to some antiques dealer in Detroit, but they won’t do it.”
She ignored the driver. Save for a couple of old men sitting on lawn chairs under the awning of a nearby kiosk, there were no signs of life, no cars at the station, new or old.
She had expected to find more young people. But instead Billings seemed populated almost entirely with members of her generation. The young had left, that much was clear. Probably they’d gone to Canada or, if they couldn’t afford the cost of the visa, to the big Midwestern cities. Others probably went south, into the furious furnace of Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, to earn the state minimum tearing apart the wall their parents and grandparents once earned the state minimum to erect.
One of the old men sitting under the awning snapped his fingers at her. “You here for the anniversary thing?” he asked.
She said nothing. The old man pointed at her headscarf. “They gonna pay you, I suppose?”
“Shut up, Billy, for Christ’s sake,” the driver said. “You got nothing better to do than badger people all day?”
“I’m just saying, I’m just saying—you get one of those big-shot Chicago lawyers, might be good money in it. I mean, that’s how these things work, right? Big ceremony, big apology, big check?”
Khadija rolled up her window. The driver got back in the car. They drove away. Soon they’d left the city, and after a few minutes of driving down a deserted highway that ran through the middle of the old reservation, they reached the Riverbed Attestation Center.
At first, she didn’t recognize the place. The old dirt road had been widened and paved over. Where the reservists once stood guard at the entrance, there was now only a small blue highway sign that labeled the center a POINT OF INTEREST.
They turned onto the driveway and rounded a curve where twin concrete pillars leaned against one another like the lines of an upside-down V. It was a sculpture of sorts, set in a small circular green space around which the car turned to park at the front entrance. The entire perimeter, which had once been a mesh of chain-link fencing, had been replaced with thick adobe-colored stone. The new wall was high and adorned with etchings that didn’t seem to belong to any artistic or cultural tradition, a strange smattering of doodles and curving lines that in some places formed into the shape of crescents or stars but elsewhere was inscrutable.
The driver got out and opened the door for Khadija. “Take your time,” he said. “I’ll be waiting out here.”
She emerged into the early-morning light, dizzy. She walked past the sliding glass doors. A wave of cool air met her.
The woman at the reception desk looked up, frowned, then smiled.
“Good morning,” she said. “Are you here for the guided tour?”
“No,” Khadija said. “I’m here to see the director.”
“You have an appointment?”
“So he’s expecting you?”
“That’s what an appointment means.”
The receptionist asked her to wait a moment and typed a message on her tablet. A few minutes later a man emerged from the back offices. He shook Khadija’s hand and introduced himself as the Riverbed’s director.
“It’s a pleasure to have you visit,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure when you visit.”
He spoke quickly, confidently, so much so that at first she did not understand what he meant.
He led her beyond a set of turnstiles and into a wide central room with large floor-to-ceiling glass walling off an outdoor space.
Inside the enclosure sat a rounded tile-and-alabaster fountain. The tile was painted a too-bright shade of turquoise and decorated with vaguely arabesque geometric patterns that repeated too often and too obviously, like the stitching on a cheap kitchen tablecloth. Spouts were dug deep into the fountain’s mouth, such that they were invisible to observers standing behind the glass. The water, bubbling up weakly, seemed to appear out of nowhere, to have no beginning.
“We managed to get the architect of the Rose Bowl memorial to design it,” the director said. “He came out of retirement to do it. I think it was very big of him, a really nice gesture.”
The director slid a keycard into a slot on the wall, and softly the front of the glass split into two sheets and parted to form a passageway.
“Please, come inside,” he said. “Only former protectees are allowed to step inside the enclosure.”
“I’m not interested,” Khadija said.
The director smiled and stammered. “Then perhaps… would you like to see the sleeping-cabin exhibit? The insides have been preserved with great care.”
“I don’t want to see the cabins,” Khadija replied. “Do you think I forgot what the cabins looked like?” She pointed down the corridor from where the director first appeared. “I want to see the repository,” she said. “The storage room.”
The director quieted. He still wore a smile on his face, but its fraudulence seemed to Khadija especially glaring now.
“I thought you might be interested in some of the exhibits,” he said, “the lengths to which the government has gone to commemorate and celebrate—”
“Let’s not waste each other’s time,” Khadija said. “I’m here for my brother’s things.”
The director appeared to be looking past her now, to the lobby, where a group of high school kids were beginning to file in, shepherded by a couple of teachers and one of the center’s volunteer guides.
“Yes, about that,” the director said. “Do you mind if we go to my office?”
“I do mind,” Khadija said. “I don’t want to go to your office; I want to go to the storage room. Now, please.”
“Dr. Singh, as I tried to explain in our correspondence, this isn’t a straightforward matter. There are … rules, provisions in the federal code.”
“This place turns fifty next Sunday,” Khadija said. “You know full well it all becomes public record that day. I don’t want to see this garbage, these stupid exhibits and friendship fountains. I want my brother’s things. You’re going to find them and you’re going to give them to me. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”
“Do you mind,” the director started, then paused. He lowered his voice. “Do you mind at least giving me some time to make some inquiries, then?”
“You knew I was coming,” Khadija replied. “You had six months to make inquiries.”
“Then another day won’t make much difference, Dr. Singh. I’ll try the commissioner’s office again, ask for an exception. But as I told you before, if they do this for you, who knows how many people will come forward with similar requests.”
“I’ll be here at nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” Khadija said, turning to leave. “Do your job, Director.”
On the drive back to the hotel, she felt an attack of claustrophobia. Her chest tightened. She rolled down the window and turned her head against the wind. The air smelled of dust and manure though she could see no farms or even homesteads, just the endless undulation of rural Montana, hills swallowing hills.
“It’s the ugliest goddamn thing, isn’t it?” the driver said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That museum. I was there the day they unveiled that fountain. The designer they hired was this crazy old man. They asked him to say a few words and then they had to cut his mic when he started going on about the natural resiliency of the Middle Asiatic. Total shitshow.”
“It looked exactly how I thought it would,” Khadija said.
They drove into town. In the lot of an unused strip mall, about fifty men and women stood in line to visit a pop-up charity dental clinic, shuffling slowly through the entrance of a repurposed big-top tent, silent.
“Did you grow up here?” Khadija asked the driver.
“You remember a neighborhood called Lewisia?”
“Sure. Down by the island, south side of the river.”
“Is it still there?”
The driver laughed. “What’s left of it. Been rotting away thirty, forty years now. Even the freight-train crowd won’t spend the night there.”
“Do you mind taking me there?”
The driver shrugged. “Sure. Don’t know what you’re expecting to find, though.”
They crossed the bridge where a few tiny offshoots split from the heart of the river. Near a tire yard and a couple of fenced-off weed fields, the driver turned onto a series of interlinked crescents that terminated in small culs-de-sac.
They drove past houses all identical and in identical states of ruin. The roofs of the Craftsmen sagged, the shingles mostly gone or dangling like dead skin. Large gashes in the walls marked the places where the copper had been torn out. Couches and hubcaps and broken windowpanes littered the driveways.
“I remember at the peak you couldn’t get in here for under two million,” the driver said. “And that was a lot of money back then. These days the city will pay you just to take it off their hands.”
Strewn among the lawns were various signs from old election campaigns, a rolling history of the people who had taken turns running the country through its century of decline—the Wall-War Republicans, the Compassionate Re-Segregationists, the No-Government Party. Each one less a social or political movement and more of a doubling-down, a rejection of some previous generation’s conception of what constituted the limits of decency and reason. Here in these dull insulated places, descendants of the first white-flight suburbs, it was easiest to look around and see proof of a whole nation run straight off the edge of the cliff, and yet still running, certain of no greater sin than to ever look down.
“So I guess this was home for you once?” the driver asked.
“No,” Khadija said. “I used to live here.”
The only one I felt sorry for was a Jordanian named Yassir. He said he was a cleric and community leader, but in truth he was some retired agricultural engineer they rounded up in Boise. Every morning he took a stroll by the edge of the fence and waved good morning to all the guards. He called them all Brother and held his hand to his heart whenever he greeted them and always said Thank you for your service instead of Goodbye. Everyone at Riverbed hated him.
Much later, all the reporters came to us looking for horror stories, stories of the cages in which they kept us, of sleep and food deprivation, of holes for toilets. But in reality the place felt more like a demented summer camp, full of faux-wood cabins hastily erected. Most of them were sleeping quarters, built in clusters around the largest building, a long narrow mess hall.
They built the place against the side of a hill, a quarter mile off the main road down a thin dirt path. There was no signage anywhere, and well before you reached the high chain fence that pinned the camp against the hillside you’d run into a phalanx of guards stationed at the intersection where the highway met the side road. It was a place designed to be nowhere, and we its uninhabitants.
Of my father, my brother, and I, I fared the best. From the moment we arrived, everyone there knew we didn’t belong, but the women didn’t care one way or another, and quickly they took me in rather than have one more headache to deal with in the form of a disgruntled nineteen-year-old. But the men wanted nothing to do with Father, and the boys wanted everything to do with John. Every night he came back to the cabin bearing the marks of their interest, bruises from fights that started the day one of the boys said John was not Muslim at all but a secret informant, a Sikh sent to spy on them. John said he didn’t mind the fistfights—it was something to do, at least—and I believed him. But you could see, every time, the confusion in his eyes when they called him these things. To be different among the different is an unwinnable state.
Nothing else bothered me. In time you learn to get by, you learn to accept the ugliness and the ignorance, because what else is there to do? Take on the whole country? But to see him like that, the boy who was of me and I of him, the boy I’d come to know before he even came to know himself—to see him carry the weight of his loneliness, the light of him dimming—it hurt.
On a corkboard near the entrance to the mess hall, the guards pinned a copy of Executive Order 1116, and on the ground every morning a delivery boy left a stack of Arabic newspapers published by some group in Virginia called the Institute for Harmonious Relations. Most of us didn’t read a word of Arabic, and the rest didn’t care.
For a while, early on, you could hear them out beyond the fence—protestors who’d come to Riverbed banging drums and waving banners. This was back during the golden years of ineffectual demonstration, and I think some of these people, if they didn’t go out to the streets and rage at whatever it is they refused to believe their country had become, would probably have suffered aneurysms or grown a gut full of ulcers. Mostly they were old white folks, the COEXIST bumper-sticker crowd. By the second week they’d all gone elsewhere, lured away by some other outrage. Only one woman kept coming back every day for three or four months. She came up to the checkpoint near the fence and said she’d converted and wanted to be let in to live alongside her brothers and sisters. And every day the reservist stationed at the checkpoint, a man who once worked with my father at the sun farms, would shake his head and say, Go home, Karen.
It was the guards who fascinated me. They weren’t real soldiers, just men who played the part for a few weeks a year—accountants, salesmen, high school coaches—overweight, milk-smelling men with ham-slice complexions who turned to puddles in the summer sun. They rotated the guards so often that in a few months it became impossible to tell them apart. Every now and then somebody would stray too close to the fence and they’d yell at them to get back, and once a couple of them were disciplined for stealing jewelry from one of the detainees’ foot lockers. But for the most part they did nothing. They seemed to take a perverse kind of comfort in their laziness, as though when the history of this place was written, their passiveness would shelter them from judgment. They sat in their guard towers and officers’ quarters and counted down the hours, same as the rest of us.
I think that’s why they missed it, the night my brother crawled out the window and through a tear in the fence and out into the wildland. The last night I saw him.
The driver dropped Khadija off again at nine the following morning, and this time the director was waiting for her in the lobby. He ushered her to his office.
“There are complications,” he said.
Khadija did not reply.
The director sighed. “When your brother… when he left the facility prematurely, his file was transferred from Civilian Protection Services to Internal Security. And, well, files in the criminal stream aren’t subject to the same sunshine provisions as regular archival—”
“For God’s sake,” Khadija interrupted. “Do you have his things or not?”
“Yes,” the director said. “But they’re not going to be made public next Sunday, or next year, or maybe ever. I’m sorry, Dr. Singh, I just can’t help you.”
Khadija breathed in slowly, held the air in her lungs for a moment, let it go in a long cleansing exhale. She took in the room. It was a bureaucrat’s office, its blandness intentional and methodical. Framed photos of the president and the secretary of heritage hung on the back wall. Beneath them a half-open window looked out at the center’s small outdoor space, a parkette lined with plastic grass, every blade identical in color and dimension. A handful of tourists sat on benches, basking in the sun.
“Tell me, where are you from?” Khadija asked the director.
“I beg your pardon?” the director answered.
“Where are you from?” Khadija repeated. “Where do you come from?”
“Billings,” the director said, uncertain.
“No, I mean where are you really from?” Khadija pressed. “Where are your parents from?”
“And their parents?”
“I … I suppose they settled in Wyoming somewhere. They came from Norway. I don’t see how this is relevant, Dr. Singh.”
“It isn’t,” Khadija replied. “For you it isn’t. But for every single person who ended up here, it was. They were made to carry every last ancestor. They carried it in the color of their skin and the flaws in their accents and in their foreign-sounding names and their strange and dangerous religions, and you have no idea—you have no idea—how heavy a weight that is.”
Khadija slammed her hand on the desk. The director jumped in his seat.
“In a room in this ugly little tourist attraction you’ve built, there’s a box with my brother’s wallet and his clothes and a couple of old baseball cards his grandfather gave him. These things belonged to him and now they belong to me. Now, I need you to grow a spine and give me what belongs to me. And then I can leave this place, and as soon as I leave this place you can go back to being a good little soldier.”
“There’s no reason to get personal, Dr. Singh,” the director said.
Khadija laughed. “God, what I wouldn’t give to be so oblivious. It must feel like floating.”
The director got up from his seat. He pointed out the window, waved his hand as though showcasing a parcel of land or a pleasing vista.
“Is this not enough for you?” he asked. “They could have just torn it down, you know. They could have bulldozed all of it and not put up a single sign and people would have forgotten it ever existed. It was only temporary, after all, just a couple years. Nobody was mistreated, nobody was tortured, nobody was executed. In fact—and I think you know this, deep down—this place saved lives.”
“This place killed my brother.”
“This place did not kill your brother,” the director said, shouting now, a few of the tourists outside turning to listen through the open window. “Leaving this place killed your brother. He was safe here. You were all safe here.”
“So it’s his fault, then?” Khadija said. “You’re saying he should have stayed here in this prison? You’re saying he should have allowed himself to be the monster his country made him out to be?”
“I’m saying he should have known his place.”
A silence filled the room. The fire went out from behind the director’s eyes. He sat back down.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that.”
“Don’t apologize,” Khadija replied. “That’s the only honest thing you’ve said.”
They told us he’d made it all the way to someplace called White Bird, out in western Idaho. They never said how he got there. They never said a lot of things, only that at the end he was hiking through private land and someone—they used the word homeowner—mistook him for a wolf. They were careful how they said it, careful to stress that what had happened was inherently tied to the most inviolable thing in the whole of this country’s history, the self-evident commandment without which they were honestly, religiously certain the whole of civilization would fall apart: that a free man, threatened, is allowed to stand his ground.
They said they’d already buried him, in a cemetery a couple of miles from where he was shot. I asked if we could see him and the commander said normally no but he’d see what he could do, and then he stood there looking at me, waiting on gratitude. When I showed none he turned a shade colder, the way people do when they’re used to being praised for doing anything north of nothing. None of you believed us when we told you this was for your own protection, he said.
That night I went to see Yassir the Jordanian. He was in the mess hall, listening to the news on an old windup radio. That week the big foreign investors had decided to call in their loans, the ones with which Washington had tried to pay for all the damage from the six big hurricanes the two summers prior. The stock market was in free fall, the bank branches closed and barricaded.
Now they’ll let us go, Yassir said.
I asked him to walk me through the conversion rites. He said it was easy, everything in Islam is easy—only a matter of a single declaration, sincerely made.
He said rebirth is a matter of identity as well as faith. He helped me pick a new name for myself, and from the ones he listed off the top of his head I picked the one that sounded most foreign: the wife of the prophet. But when he started suggesting surnames, I told him I’d never give mine up.
But what is the point of embracing the religion, he asked, if you’re not willing to commit yourself completely? Don’t you want to become your true self as fully as you can?
No, I said. I want to become the thing they hate.
Two days later, in the early-morning darkness, the guards opened the gate. They let us free without explanation, without instruction, without even looking at us. Just as on the day we arrived here, we had no time to take anything; we walked out armed only with nightgowns, sandals, the blankets they didn’t want back.
By the side of the road we saw this strange white sea of people who wanted to hug us and people who wanted to spit on us and people who offered to give us rides to the border. We huddled on the backs of trucks and let ourselves be taken anywhere else. And deep against the bone, underneath the fear and confusion and cold bottomless rage, it felt good. We would shed this country, go anywhere else, become citizens of negative space, and in this way we were finally free.
The box contained an empty wallet, nothing else. She had expected clothes and keepsakes, but these, the director admitted, had almost certainly been lost or stolen. He said this was just what happens in these kinds of situations, but she was not upset. All that mattered was that nothing that belonged to her brother remained in this place.
“So, you staying until the anniversary next week?” the driver asked as they drove back into town.
“No,” Khadija said. “I’m leaving tomorrow night.”
“You get what you came for?”
“That’s good, that’s good. You know, sometimes people come here and they don’t feel what they expected to feel. One time, a few years back, I was driving this old man named Khalid, and—”
“Do they still have liquor stores in this town?” Khadija said.
“Every other corner,” the driver replied.
“Take me to one.”
He drove her to a store downtown, barricaded behind bars in a lot once occupied by a credit-union branch. She gave him a five-hundred-dollar bill and sent him in. He emerged a few minutes later with two large bottles of some cheap malt liquor called End Times. They sat on the concrete barrier by the side of the road and drank under the noonday sun.
“This tastes awful,” Khadija said.
The driver shrugged. “I thought you people didn’t drink,” he said.
“I bet you think a lot of things.”
When they finished their beers, the driver went back inside and bought two more. They watched the slow trickle of traffic, the cars driving themselves. Occasionally the vehicles slowed and swerved to pass one of the antique trucks and sedans that had started to become obsolete in the middle of the previous century but could still be seen in towns like this because progress is a cannibal and here there had never been much worth eating. Overhead, a billboard cycled through ads for silencers and sex drugs and Europe.
“Does it feel different,” the driver asked, “all these years later?”
“No,” Khadija replied. “It feels exactly the same.”
“You think the midterms will change anything? My son says now that the Social Democrats picked up a couple more seats in the House, they can try to reinstate the healthcare act, maybe cut a deal on tax reform.”
Khadija broke into laughter.
“Tax reform, Jesus Christ,” she said. She set her beer on the ground.
“You know what this country is?” she said. “This country is a man trying to describe a burning building without using the word fire.”
She stood up and walked to the car. She motioned for the driver to pop the trunk. She took her brother’s wallet out of the box in which it had been filed away for a half century, and she threw the box out on the street.
“I have one more place I need to go,” she said.
“All right,” the driver replied.
“It’s a long drive, west into Idaho.”
“That’s fine,” the driver said. “What you got waiting for you all the way out there?”
Khadija Singh tucked her brother’s wallet into her breast pocket and got into the car.
“A burial,” she said.
OMAR EL AKKAD was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up in Doha, Qatar, until he moved to Canada with his family. He is an award-winning journalist and author who has traveled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. He is a recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Edward Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. He lives in Portland, Oregon. His first novel, American War, was a New York Times notable book and was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, NPR, and Esquire.