See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
Previous chapters of this story: Ouroboros Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Author's note: Because part 8 is short, and because some readers are growing anxious – :-) – I've decided to publish parts 8 and 9 together as one post. Note that this post is divided into three pages. This is a one-time deal, however. Subsequent chapters are longer than usual so we'll go back to one at a time next week insha'Allah.
Ouroboros, Part 8 – The Man Who Might Have Been
March 23, 2010 – 5:30 am
West Oakland BART Station
Jamilah crawled to Hassan's prone form and shook him. “Hassan, get up. Wake up, wake up.” There was no response, not even a flicker of his eyelids. Glancing up, she saw the Crow approaching slowly but deliberately, gun in hand. He was still some thirty feet away, though Jamilah had no doubt he could shoot them both from that distance if he wished.
To her surprise, the station agent groaned in pain and rose to his feet, clutching a bloody shoulder.
“Help us!” Jamilah cried, but the man looked up, saw the Crow approaching, and ran toward the escalator to the elevated platform.
Jamilah had no thought of fleeing. Even if she had not been badly wounded, she would never abandon Hassan. What was it that Layth had recited back in the apartment? O you who have believed, when you meet those who disbelieve advancing for battle, do not turn to them your backs in flight. Just as Layth had done, she would face the threat head on.
But what could she do? The Crow was a trained killer with a gun, while she was a university student, wounded, unarmed – wait! She had completely forgotten the gun. The Sig Sauer, Hassan had called it. She lifted up the back of his shirt and snatched it out of his waistband. The weapon was warm from his body heat and streaked with blood. It felt heavy in her hand.
She did not hesitate. Hassan may have taken a vow, but she had not. She drew the gun, aimed at the Crow, and fired.
The weapon recoiled powerfully and struck her in the face, opening a cut on her forehead and knocking her to the ground. Dazed, she came back up to one knee. Hassan lay still insensate on the ground beside her. She wiped the blood from her brow before it could run into her eyes, held the gun firmly with two hands and braced herself. She aimed carefully and pulled the trigger. She missed. She fired again, and again, to no effect. She couldn't understand it. The Crow moved in a way she had never seen, presenting the slimmest possible profile, constantly changing angles, leaning, tilting, and coming closer the whole time. Every time she took a bead on him and fired, he wasn't there anymore.
Finally one of her shots struck home! The Crow stumbled backward and fell, dropping his weapon. Jamilah aimed carefully and fired again, intending to finish him off, but the gun only clicked dryly when she pressed the trigger. It was out of bullets.
The Crow stirred. The maniac would not die – why wouldn't he die? As Jamilah watched, the Crow searched for his weapon, found it, and raised his head. His eyes settled on Jamilah like a pair of green lasers.
Jamilah felt a rumble from the ground and heard a high-pitched fluting call. Was it another earthquake? No, the ground was vibrating, not heaving. Her ears still rang from the noise of the shots she'd fired, but as the sound grew louder, it hit her: the train! The BART train was approaching.
If she could get Hassan to the train… It was a slim chance, but she would not sit here and let him be killed. Not as long as she had breath in her body.
She struggled to her feet. Grasping Hassan's arm, her body shaking from pain, exhaustion and effort, she dragged Hassan's limp form across the station. His body left a streak of blood on the station's white floor tiles. Ignoring the turnstiles, she used her back to push open the handicapped gate as she backed through it and dragged Hassan after her.
She looked around wildly. She could not drag him up the escalator. He might be injured by the steps or caught in the gap… The elevator! It wasn't far. She managed to get Hassan into it, and pressed the button for the second level. As the elevator rose she fell to one knee and put a hand on the ground, gasping for breath. Her muscles trembled. She spoke to Allah silently: O Allah, I don't have the words. I don't have knowledge. But you know I believe in you. My heart is with you, and I need your help.
At the upper level, she pulled Hassan onto the platform. The train was stopped beside the platform, waiting for passengers to board. Digital signs flashed, and a recorded voice announced, “Four car San Francisco train. This is a four car San Francisco train.” Passengers inside the train were gathered at the windows, staring out at a scene on the platform.
A knot of early commuters stood around the station agent, who was sprawled on a bench, holding a small towel to his shoulder. The commuters had not noticed Jamilah and Hassan. A few were on their phones, perhaps calling the police or recording videos.
Looking out over the dark streets of West Oakland, Jamilah spotted blue and red lights flashing a few blocks away. The police and ambulances were coming. If she waited here, Hassan would receive treatment soon. On the other hand, the trip to the Embarcadero station in San Francisco would take at least fifteen minutes, with no intervening stops and no chance of help, because the train passed beneath the waters of the bay to get to SF. The delay could kill Hassan, and maybe her too.
If she stayed, however, the Crow would kill them both. The psycho was probably marching up the escalator right now, with evil in his heart and death in his eyes.
She had to get Hassan onto the train. “Help me!” she shrieked. One of the women who'd been assisting the station agent screamed, and all of them flinched. A man wearing a bicycle helmet and a reflective vest, his trouser legs secured to his ankles with rubber bands, scurried over to her.
“Is he dead?” He stared at Hassan's unmoving form.
“Help me get him on the train.” Jamilah's commanding tone brooked no disagreement. The man grasped Hassan under his arms.
“I… I can't lift him,” the man grunted. “Shouldn't you stay here? We've already called 911. An ambulance -”
“Drag him!” Jamilah shouted. Realizing that it would do no good to appear hysterical, she brought her volume down and spoke with intensity. “The man who did this will be here any second. Help me, or get out of the way.”
Together they managed to drag Hassan onto the train. Jamilah collapsed onto the floor of the BART car beside Hassan and curled into a fetal position, clutching her belly. She heard exclamations of surprise and fear from the passengers on the car.
“Doors closing,” the voice announced. “Please stand back.” It was a pleasant, female voice, though clearly robotic, and was used in all the BART stations. Jamilah had sometimes imagined that the voice belonged to a plump middle-aged women who baked pies and served them in her kitchen, saying – in that same robotic voice – “Now serving four chicken pot pies. Please sit down.”
Now, lying on the floor of the car, she heard someone moaning in pain, then realized it was herself. She didn't know how much more she could take.
The train began to move, swaying gently. No doubt a human conductor would have halted the train in response to the emergency at the station, but these early morning trains were automated – a little factoid she'd picked up from one of Mo's occasional discourses on all things transportation.
Someone screamed. Jamilah opened her eyes to see the Crow standing above her, blood staining his hip and his left shoulder as well. Somehow he kept his balance as the train picked up speed and rocked back and forth. Behind him, the other passengers were backing away, hurrying to the opposite end of the car then stepping through the door into the adjacent car.
The Crow pointed his gun at Jamilah's head. “That's a good look for you,” the Crow said. “Curled at my feet like a slave.” He nodded to Hassan. “Is he dead?”
Jamilah climbed to her feet, one hand squeezing her wounded belly tightly. The Crow placed the hot barrel of the gun against her forehead, but she smacked it away defiantly.
“What he is or is not is none of your business. Go back where you came from. They call you the Crow? Fly away!”
The Crow's mouth twitched in a thin, cruel smile. “What was he babbling about back there? Do you know?”
“Go!” She put a bloody hand on the Crow's chest and shoved as hard as she could. He stepped back, a look of angry surprise on his face. Off balanced by her own shove, Jamilah seized one of the vertical metal poles positioned along the length of the car. The train was underground now, racing faster, dropping deep beneath the waters of the bay. Jamilah felt the pressure building in her ears. Outside the windows, lights stationed on the inside of the tunnel flashed past.
“How dare you put your hands on me?” The Crow's eyes narrowed. “If you had an inkling of who I am…” He pointed his gun at Hassan, but his eyes stayed on Jamilah.
She stepped between the Crow and Hassan and jabbed the assassin in the chest with a stiff finger. She didn't know why he didn't simply kill them both, but she was not afraid any longer. If she died then she would die protecting Hassan, and would meet Allah without shame. She marshalled her breath and put all the force and resolution she possessed in her next words: “You – will – not – hurt – this – man! He's worth more in one finger than a million of you. There is nothing for you here. Go away!”
“It's alright, Jamilah.” She'd not thought Hassan was even conscious, and was shocked to see that he had somehow risen to his feet behind her. His face was crimson and blue with blood and bruises, his left eye swollen shut. Where his skin showed beneath the blood stains, it was pale as salt. He stepped forward awkwardly, dragging his injured leg behind him, and stood beside Jamilah, gripping another of the metal poles with both hands, practically hanging from it. “Let me talk to him,” he said gently. “It's alright.”
Hassan turned to the Crow. Jamilah saw that Hassan's eyes were shining, not with tears of pain or anguish, but with – it seemed to her – compassion and love.
“Why do you not know who you are?” said Hassan. “What did they do to you?”
The Crow's glacial expression did not change, nor did the contempt in his voice disappear, but he did not shoot Hassan, or make threats. With his gun still pointed at Hassan, he answered the question.
“I am a Kopis. We have no past. Emotional entanglements weaken a man. We are unencumbered.”
“You don't remember your parents, or your childhood?”
“Irrelevant! We do not dwell on such things. We serve the Kataeb and the house of Haddad.”
“I am a Haddad.”
“I was not aware of that until tonight. It is said you are a traitor. You converted to Islam, yes?” The Crow sneered. “Treason runs in your family. Your father was a traitor as well.”
Jamilah saw Hassan's expression waver, as if he'd been struck a blow to the heart, but his voice, when he spoke, was firm: “Kamal Haddad was a hero and a wonderful man. I am proud to call him father, as you should be. Your name is Charles Nader Haddad. You're my brother.”
The Crow flinched as if Hassan had struck him across the face, but the loss of control was fleeting. His face grew hard as granite once again. “Lies!” With his left hand he rubbed his chest, as if troubled by heartburn.
Hassan tipped his head slightly and regarded the Crow. “Lift up your right shirt sleeve.”
Hassan shrugged slightly. “A hunch.” He swayed on his feet suddenly and would have fallen, but Jamilah caught his arm. She could not hold him up, however. The strength seemed to have gone out of his legs, and she herself was in too much pain to help. She steadied him while he lowered himself to one knee.
“His upper arm was tattooed with the image of a serpent eating its own tail.”
The Crow watched this scene without emotion. With his gun still trained on Hassan, he lifted his sleeve. His upper arm was tattooed with the image of a serpentine dragon eating its own tail.
“May I ask where you got that tattoo?”
The Crow lifted his chin, looking down his nose at Hassan. “It was given to me when I was a young man in training. It is a special mark of distinction, due to my excellent performance in languages and combat.”
Moving slowly, Hassan pulled up his own sleeve. “The Ouroboros,” he said. “This is Boulos' idea of an inside joke. Sarkis had one too. We Haddads destroy each other – or Boulos kills us as he killed our father and Uncle Sami – and he is left alone, with no one to contest him for control of Lebanon.”
Jamilah saw the wintry callousness in the Crow's expression and knew that Hassan was losing him with this talk of tattoos and plots. She was still not convinced that this man was indeed Charlie, but if he was then Hassan would not reach him this way. He had to connect with him personally. He had to make him remember.
She almost said something to Hassan, but held her tongue. Hassan was trying to mix a delicate and dangerous medicine to soothe decades of pain and loss. One wrong word and it would explode. At any moment the Crow might grow tired of talking and kill them both. That was, after all, what he had come here to do.
Hassan must have seen it too, because his tone softened. “Do you know why you rub your chest that way?”
The Crow stopped rubbing his chest and dropped his hand. “An affectation. So what?”
“You were asthmatic as a child. You carried an inhaler everywhere. Baba used to sit you on his knee and rub your chest just like that, do you remember? He'd kiss your cheek and tell you Joha stories, and it always worked. You'd calm down and breathe easy. You loved him so much. He was wounded in Beirut and he walked with a limp. Anytime he tried to stand you'd say, 'Wait!' and you'd run to get his cane.”
The Crow said nothing. Hassan put a hand on the ground and lowered himself to a sitting position, his legs splayed out before him like a child. His head wobbled to one side and the other with the rocking of the train.
He was dying before Jamilah's eyes. She didn't know how much longer he could last. As for Jamilah herself, she sweated and trembled with pain, barely staying on her feet. She began to recite Surat-al-asr to herself, not knowing what other du'a' to use. “By the time. Surely humankind is in loss; Except those who believe, and do righteous deeds, and strive together for truth, and strive together for patience.”
Patience. Endurance. Don't surrender to the pain. Stay together. Stay on your feet, for Hassan's sake.
“Our mother,” Hassan continued weakly, stopping frequently now to catch his breath. “It's amazing. You look… just like her. Her name was Evelyn. Slender, with… green eyes and blonde hair, like you. So beautiful… Baba used to say she was a movie star… you thought she really was. Mom was… confused. Do you remember how she always… got lost… when driving? She used to make animal pancakes for breakfast… dinosaurs for you, fish for me… blueberries for eyes. Taught you to dance… the debke. She had a business selling purses through the mail, and… you used to help her label the packages…”
“Stop,” the Crow said quietly.
“Do you remember my fish tank? The blue streak cleaner… the six line wrasse… such beautiful fish… after our parents died and we were taken to Lebanon… Boulos had a dog. You… loved that dog. Played every day. Name… Sarookh.”
“I said STOP!” the Crow bellowed. “None of that matters! That is someone else's life! You are lying!” His cool, unruffled expression was gone, replaced by reddening cheeks and ruffled brows. He looked confused and angry, like a young man who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He adjusted the aim of his gun slightly, and Jamilah thought he might shoot Hassan out of simple anger. She tensed her legs to throw herself at him, but her body would not obey her commands. All it gave her in return was pain. She'd been hollowed out.
“Cowabunga!” Hassan raised a fist in the air for a moment, then lowered it.
The Crow stared at him. “What did you say?”
Hassan smiled. With his deathly pale pallor, it looked like a mortuary smile. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… you were crazy about them… Michaelangelo… you used to drive me batty… leaping out… cowabunga! Scaring me… that's how you got… the scar on your forehead… playing with nunchucks like Michael… angelo.”
Something flickered across the Crow's face as he touched his own forehead with a finger. A look of pain, Jamilah thought. An instant of anguished recollection.
“I loved you, Charlie… you helped me so much… I was messed up after our parents' deaths… I didn't talk, remember? You and Tant Gala… were the only ones -”
“You never came for me!” The Crow's face turned beet red. His chin trembled, and tears glistened in his eyes. The change in his expression was shocking. It was as if he had transformed in an instant into a frightened, angry child. His outstretched arm trembled, the gun shaking in his hand. His voice became pleading and accusatory. “Where were you, Simon? I thought you would come for me. They did things to me. No one came!”
Jamilah stared at the Crow, stunned. He truly was Hassan's brother. He was Charlie.
Hassan's voice was hoarse with sadness and regret, but he remained in control. “I didn't know… Boulos told us… you were dead… I swear… I would have moved… the earth itself… I would have fought… would have found you… I love you, Charlie.” Hassan's voice finally broke, and he began to weep. “I love you so much. I don't care… what you've done. I -”
“You don't know what I've done.” The little boy was gone. The Crow's features were once again hard as Mount Lebanon and cold as snow. His arm no longer trembled. The gun pointed at Hassan's forehead, steady as a cedar tree.”You cannot imagine what I have become.”
Jamilah sensed that the Crow was very close to killing Hassan and herself. Somehow she found the strength to move her feet. She did not attack the Crow – that was impossible. She took a few shuffling steps and positioned herself in front of Hassan, facing the Crow. Let the assassin take out his fury on her. Let him kill her. Not Hassan. She said the shahadah to herself. She would die on her feet.
Hassan slumped to the ground, lying on his side. “It doesn't matter, Charlie,” he said from behind Jamilah. “Come… into Islam… with me. Say… La ilaha il-Allah. Your soul… will be pure… you're already… changing… didn't kill me… didn't kill Jamilah… not too late.”
Hassan's eyes closed and his body became still. He was unconscious again, or dead – Jamilah did not know which. She stood rooted to her spot in spite of the pain. If Hassan could not stand, she would stand for him.
The Crow gazed down at Hassan, ignoring Jamilah altogether. When he spoke, his voice was altogether different. Jamilah tore her eyes away from Hassan and regarded the assassin. The cold, cruel mien was gone again, replaced this time by an expression that might have been regret, even love. He looked altogether human. This, Jamilah thought, is what he would look like if he had never gone missing, never been perverted into something evil. This is the grown-up Charlie who might have been.
“You are wrong, Simon,” Charlie said softly. “It is far too late for me.” His gaze shifted to Jamilah. “Do not pity me,” he said softly. “That would be intolerable.” The Crow – Charlie Haddad, Hassan's little brother – put the gun to his own head.
Jamilah realized what the Crow meant to do. As much as she personally wanted to let him kill himself, so that she and Hassan would be free of this monster once and for all, she could not. It would destroy Hassan.
There was no time to consider her next choice. Her legs were devoid of strength. She could make no movement toward the Crow. She could, however, allow herself to fall, and she did, collapsing forward into the Crow as he pulled the trigger.
The crack of the gun was deafening. Blood sprayed into Jamilah's eyes, momentarily blinding her. She screamed as she fell on top of the Crow then tumbled off, her knee striking one of the metal support poles. She had failed to stop the Crow from shooting himself, but she might have prevented his death. She did not know. He lay unmoving on the floor of the car, his face obscured by blood, unconscious.
Pain hit her like an avalanche. Now that the immediate threat of death was removed, she had no strength left to fight the pain and horror. She groaned loudly and crumpled to the ground, clutching her belly with both hands. The world went dark. She was aware only of the agony, the motion of the train beneath her, and the noise as they rumbled through the tunnel deep underground.
Dying is like being born, she thought. Pain, pressure, and motion. I'm going back where I came from. Souls are troops collected together. Her last thought was a prayer: Let him live, Ya Allah. And if not, then let me find him in Jannah.”