The fate of a dying Syrian inventor—and his potential world-changing creations—hangs in the balance in the war-torn nation.
At dusk the boy peeks through the gate and scans the length of the rubble-choked alley. He knows this through the tint. Which is red. The tint is what tells the time these days when the sky is obscured by bomb-bloomed dust and smoke. Less than year ago, with his skies ruler-flat and child’s painting blue and untroubled by regime planes, the buildings unbroken and uninfested by snipers, the boy could walk to university, some days grabbing a ka’ak from his favorite street vendor, sometimes flitting closer to the girls’ college.
He steps out into the alley where the cold and dark fall together. He zips his jacket all the way up to his neck.
in the old days he would have taken the avenue that runs the length of the city like a spine, now crushed by the regime and made impassable by debris, wreckage, and drums of smoking oil. Segmented by the vertebrae of tank-mounted checkpoints. Shabiha roam the streets now. Snipers leer over the streets like statues and watching always watching with their fingers melded to triggers. Frozen Azraels. Once one had gotten a headshot in on a boy who ran just ahead of him, splattering blood and brains onto his face, on the tongue hanging out of his mouth, on which his comrade’s last thoughts and visions dissolved. He had run on and not looked back.
It is two hours until he stands before a building with its bombed back half caved in like a rotted tooth, exposing the raw nerve of the lives within. From the front the facsimile of grandeur is complete, but the stairways smell like piss as he goes up to the top. The walls are splattered with blood and shit.
A girl opens the door he knocks on. Her eyes are older than his.
Sadiya, it is I, your cousin Masud. Come to see you from the village.
He has time to wonder if he said the right words the right way before the girl embraces him, placing under his fingers her scapulae, the hunger-exposed geography of her back.
She says the requisite words she is meant to say. Dust plumes up from the carpet when he walks in, finding a path around furniture of dark heavy wood. Scents of sumac, coriander, shisha, olive brine linger. When she asks him how the weather is outside he says that the skies were calm as he travelled but that there might be rain ahead. Staccato bursts of Kalashnikovs outside. Screams that arc high and trail off.
He tells her that he has something for the inventor and she takes him to the end of the short hallway to a bedroom with a large bed on which the inventor lies gaunt and halfway up, more leaning on the headboard than lying on the mattress. The knobs of his shoulders are hoisting up the material of the thin black sweater. His eyes are closed. He wears round rimmed glasses on a thin face sheathed in silver-grey whiskers, IV drip attached to an arm that moves with the rise sink rise sink rise sink rise sink rhythm of his narrow chest.
A clatter of bottles in the boy’s backpack as he hands it to the girl. He asks her what is wrong with him and she tells him that it is cancer of the pancreas and that he has only days now.
Why not take him to the hospital?
He doesn’t want to take a bed. I’m here for him. I was studying medicine before the war. I was supposed to begin my residency this year. The morphine will help. Shukran.
She leads him to a room aglow from the many computer monitors set up on long-wheeled tables that line the walls. Computer casings, DVD drives and other hardware shoved underneath. Ethernet cables hanging from the ceiling like vines. A generator in the corner thrumming out petrol smoke.
She sets the beam of her flashlight on the large bag at the end of the room.
Go fetch it please.
He does. It is heavy. Whatever is inside like a load of bricks.
Take one out.
The device is long and smooth. The boy has seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and the device resembles the black monolith before which humanity’s simian ancestors prostrated themselves. He explores its body. There is a single concave button on the top face that can only be felt by hand in the dim light.
What is it?
Walkie talkie. He’s integrated the antennas into the casing so they don’t stick out. The body’s painted a matte black so it doesn’t gleam in the dark. Doesn’t the range suffer?
Try it and see.
He swings the pack over his shoulder intending to leave but the girl suggests that he spend the remainder of the night there and slip out at dawn. He agrees, thinking of the noises he heard outside.
She brings him stale bread, cheese and boiled beets. They eat in a corner of the darkened drawing room.
Is it true what they say? He asks after some time.
What do they say about him? That with a circuit board and a screen, he could create anything. That he is a magician who can conjure wonders. That he was born in America, that he could have gotten an American passport if he wanted. That he could have lived a life other than this one? It is true.
In the first months, you and your father could have fled, gone to Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon. Gone to Europe from there. He could have gone to the American Embassy and asked for protection.
He said he didn’t belong in a country where he wasn’t raised. He said there was a problem of greater design here.
Does he regret it?
Things are as they were meant to be.
He finishes his meal and wipes his hands on his trousers. She brings him water that will look rust red in the daylight but in the dark only tastes rich and gritty.
I wish to show you something.
They return to the room with the monitors and the girl opens a drawer and removes something small and oblong. Another smooth device. This one made of glass and metal.
He turns it over in his hand to appreciate the air of thoughtful design. The body machined with exquisite care.
Switch it on.
He presses the button on the side and gasps when more than half of the front face lights up like a glittering doorway to another world, the screen sharp, bright and far larger than he expected. A stylish logo sweeps in glitters and vanishes. Tufaha? Why that name?
He’s a fan of The Beatles. It is the name of their record label.
The boy continues to hold the device close to his face as a grid of colorful icons tumble onto the screen.
Is this supposed to be a phone? How do I make calls with no keypad?
There are just two buttons. One to turn the phone on, and the other to return to the home screen. My father believes in simplicity. If you touch the phone icon, a numerical keypad will come up.
I have to press the icon?
When he does the screen blooms into a dial pad as though his finger has given it life.
She holds out her hand.
It won’t work of course. He hasn’t finished working on it. Likely never will.
The boy thinks of the phone in his pocket, bought during a fit of extravagance by his father as a reward for his results in university, the latest model, then worth a month of his father’s government salary. Now his Nokia feels festooned with needless buttons, encumbered with a solitary horn of an antenna and a dim gritty window of a screen. A lumbering dinosaur to this sleek panther.
I studied computer engineering. I’ve seen every piece of technology you can think of. There is nothing like this in the world.
When the girl speaks she must raise her voice to be heard above the hum of bombers that are slashing the air above, the shivering whining mass that will shatter when the payloads hit the ground.
Take it with you. Show it to another. To many. He calls them baubles now. Toys. But his best invention shouldn’t die with him.
The boy considers. How bright could the inventor’s star shine in a sky unoccluded by the smoke of war? How deep could his roots sink into soil that wasn’t clogged with blood? He considers what the inventor could have accomplished if he were on the other side of the shadow-thin curtain that divides destinies.
He tastes the word in his mouth. It has a playfulness that mocks this grim world. A beacon alight with chance.
Arif Anwar lives in Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming novel The Storm, jointly published by HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster.