by Terry Sanville
“Holy crap, Hussein, why are you so freaked out?” Leo asked. “Ya gotta lay off the caffeine.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. But I get nervous when I travel.”
The young men huddled at a window table in Starbucks, not far from the University, laptops glowing, smartphones within easy reach. They’d been close friends and roommates since freshman year, studying chemistry and spending long hours in the labs, with graduation just weeks away. But Hussein had to leave early.
“Why is it so damn important?” Leo complained. “Can’t your Uncle wait a week or two?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve got a crazy family spread all over. One of my cousins is getting married in Zinjibar the day after I arrive in Yemen. I think my Uncle wants to show me off as his rich nephew.”
“You, rich? That’s a good one. But why do you have to go at all? Don’t the Feds have some sort of advisory against going there?”
“Tell me something I don’t know. But the thing is, they’re my family and my Father can’t travel anymore…Mom won’t let him.”
“But I thought we were gonna hit the road, ya know, cruise down to Palm Beach and hang out before grad school starts.”
“There’ll be plenty of time when I get back.”
Leo grinned, remembering how the two enjoyed their breaks from school. Together, they seemed able to overcome their innate clumsiness around women, while flying solo each became a stumbling fool.
“So you’re just gonna leave me here with my freakazoid parents while you’re off drinking camel’s milk and trying to speak Arabic?
“Yeah, something like that. Hey look, I don’t like it any more than you. But family…” Hussein shrugged and threw up his hands.
“Well I hope you have your passport in order. The way Homeland Security is acting, those TSA goons give guys like you a body cavity search.”
“What do you mean, guys like me?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Hey, I don’t look any less American than you. Do I hafta have blond hair and freckles to be legit? I was born here.”
“I know, I know. But it’s your name, man. And you’ll be coming back from Yemen where there’s all sorts of nut jobs.”
“Great. Maybe I should change my name.”
“It wouldn’t help. Once you pull out your prayer rug in the terminal, they’ll know what’s up.”
“So, I’m a Muslim. Is that a crime? Are we becoming like Saudi Arabia where Christians can be arrested for practicing their religion in public?”
“Don’t be absurd. You can be whoever you wanna be. But you gotta keep a low profile, man, both here and in Yemen. Just don’t do anything, ya know, stupid.”
“Hey, I read the news too. I’m not about to piss anybody off. Besides, you’re as white bread and Christian as they come. You’d vouch for me with the TSA, wouldn’t you?” Hussein stared into Leo’s eyes and frowned.
Leo cleared his throat. “If they think you’re a terrorist or somethin’, they’ll think I’m one too. We could both wind up in Guantanamo or chained to a wall at some CIA black site.”
Hussein gazed out the window at the throng of young people passing along the crowded street. “I can see it now. They nab me and within an hour you’ll deny even knowing me…over and over and over again.”
Leo felt his face burn. “That’s not gonna happen, Hussein. You’re getting yourself all worked up. You’re gonna come back five pounds fatter and we’ll bake it out of you on some Florida beach. Jesus, just relax, will ya? Try the decaf.”
A month later, Leo hung out at Starbucks and stared at his laptop screen, not really seeing anything. He’d promised Hussein he’d give him a ride home from the airport and he waited for a call, text or e-mail. Finally his smartphone buzzed.
Leo checked the incoming number and grinned. “Yeah, whaddaya want?”
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m surprised you’re not speaking Arabic.”
“Just shut up, will ya. I’m on EgyptAir Flight 287 from Cairo. I should arrive in about an hour.”
“How’s traveling been so far? Any hassles?”
“I’ve gotten the enhanced security treatment at every boarding. They pat me down and go through my luggage. And in Cairo they made me check my laptop. What’s that about?”
“I don’t know. Anyway, you ready for some fun in the sun in Florida?”
“I’m ready for the fun part. But I’ve had enough blistering rays to last a lifetime.”
“So, I’ll see ya at the terminal.”
“Copy that. Over and out.” Hussein laughed, sounding happy to be almost home.
Leo collected his gear, gulped the remnants of his mocha and headed for the airport’s terminal for international flights. The early morning crowd filled the causeways, surging toward gates where planes arrived or departed. Leo let the flow carry him along until reaching the EgyptAir counter. Their board showed Flight 287 arriving on schedule at Gate 70.
He made his way to the gate’s entrance and sat in a plastic-backed chair, his legs jouncing with excitement. A huge digital clock on the wall clicked off the minutes. The flood of people coming and going, the emotional meetings and separations of lovers and family members always excited him, provided glimpses into the lives of strangers when their inhabitations deserted them. Leo imagined himself kissing the pretty women goodbye or hello and squirmed in his seat.
A garbled voice announced the arrival of Hussein’s red-eye flight. At a little after nine, Leo stood and walked to the rope barrier. At the far end of the gate’s boarding/arrival area, a line of passengers exited the jetway and surged toward the Immigration counters, too far away for him to pick out Hussein.
He moved down the causeway to the walled-off room containing baggage carousels and waited near its exit. Time pushed forward like a bicyclist into a strong headwind. Finally, a tall guy with dark olive skin and a heavy five o’clock shadow moved to one of the carousels and struggled to recover a huge bag. It took Leo a few moments to realize that he stared at Hussein. Jesus, the guy looks fried. He musta spent the entire trip outdoors.
Two TSA agents in blue uniforms with black vests stopped Hussein. He handed them his passport. A third official in a gray suit joined them. His friend looked stunned, wide-eyed and scared. Hussein stared at the scattering of people waiting beyond the baggage room exit. Their eyes met. A broad smile cracked his face and he waved frantically. The agents took him by the elbows. The suited official looked in Leo’s direction before saying something to the uniforms who spirited Hussein and his baggage away.
Mr. Gray Suit approached. “My name is Agent Sheldon with Homeland Security.” He flashed his badge with ID. “Do you know Mr. Burkan?”
“The man we just took for questioning. He looked your way and seemed to recognize you?”
“No, I don’t know him. We’ve never met.”
“What are you doing here? Are you waiting for someone?”
“No. I…I come to the international terminal to watch the big planes take off and land.”
“Well, you won’t see any in the baggage room. Can I see some identification?”
“I locked all my stuff in my car.”
“What’s your name?”
“Come with me, Leo.”
“Hey look, dude, I haven’t done anything wrong. What do you want me for?”
Mr. Gray Suit took him by the elbow and guided him down a corridor lit by greenish florescent lights. The agent nudged him into a featureless room with a table and three chairs but did not enter. The door clicked shut behind Leo. He tried the knob; the door had locked. He checked his watch and paced back and forth before finally sitting at the table and resting his head on his folded arms. What the hell are they doing with Hussein? Will he tell them we’re friends? Will they lock us both up? Damn it, we should be in Palm Beach. What did Hussein do, anyway?
The door opened and Gray Suit and a TSA agent entered and sat across from Leo. Gray Suit clicked a couple pictures of Leo with his smartphone while the agent spread a series of colored photographs on the table. “Do you see anyone you know in these photos?” Gray Suit asked.
Leo stared at the images of a squad of men, each holding some kind of automatic weapon. He counted three bloodied bodies on the ground and guessed them to be soldiers based on their camouflaged uniforms. A tall dark-complected guy stood over one body; he looked a lot like Hussein. The ruins of buildings filled the background. Could that really be my friend, fighting with Al-Qaeda insurgents?
“Well, do you see anyone you know?” Gray Suit repeated.
“Who are these people?”
“Don’t worry about that. But this guy looks a lot like your friend.” The agent pointed to the tall figure.
“No, I don’t know him.”
Gray Suit bowed his head then pushed back his chair. “Just sit tight.”
The agents left him to wonder what their next move would be. But the images of the dead soldiers and of Hussein or his double moving through a bombed-out village stuck in Leo’s brain. Was this why Hussein went to Yemen, why he’d been so nervous? Was all that stuff about his Uncle and the wedding just a front for his guerrilla activities? And if so, will the Feds come after me next?
The door swung open, but this time only Agent Sheldon entered. He set a tablet on the table and tapped its screen. “Watch this,” he ordered.
A video clip showed Leo standing behind the roped barriers of an airport gate.
“That’s you in the video, correct?” Gray Suit asked.
“You’re standing at the very gate where Hussein Burkan departed for Yemen over a month ago.”
“Yeah, so? A whole bunch of people stood at that same gate. And I already told you, I like to come and watch the planes. I’m here most weeks.”
“That’s funny, because our cameras hadn’t picked you up before.”
“I can’t help that.”
“So you deny ever knowing Mr. Burkan?”
“Yes, damn it, I don’t know the guy. Give me a fucking break. Do I look like I’d know someone like that?”
Gray Suit sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t believe you. But we don’t need you anyway.”
“Can I go now? Are you charging me with something?”
“No, you may go. But we know where you are.”
Leo hurried from the room, not stopping until he reached the main concourse. The clock showed a little before ten. He huddled in a corner and searched the river of faces flowing past for Hussein’s. But the colored images of the Al-Qaeda fighters and dead soldiers in Yemen interrupted his search.
Then he remembered what Hussein told him: “…within an hour you’ll deny even knowing me…over and over and over again.” Something seemed familiar with that phrase, something he’d learned in Catholic School…when Peter denied knowing Christ three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, the night before they crucified Jesus.
Leo jumped to his feet and walked toward the baggage room, hoping maybe Gray Suit might still be around. But then the shame and fear hit him and he retreated once more, tears streaking his cheeks, knowing that if the Feds ever released Hussein, he could never be close to him again.
About the author
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 270 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Literally Stories. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes for his stories “The Sweeper” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.