“They’re coming for you,” says Housni, but the line cuts off before Abder can open his mouth. You get what you pay for, right, and five euros a month for a burner with unlimited calls to North Africa nets you zero reliability in the Parisian hood.
Abder hops on his scooter and guns it out of the public park where he was waiting for his customer. He speeds down the street, weaves through some cars, hits the pavement, zigzags through the local Auchan’s parking lot, and kickstands his ride in a small alley behind the supermarket. He keeps the engine purring and rings up Housni.
“Who’s they?” asks Abder.
“Cité Bleue, man. Ali heard from someone that you slept with his sister. He wants an explanation.”
An explanation is a brutal beating in a basement somewhere. Busted lips, shattered teeth, maybe some broken bones. Two words to describe it: not dope.
“Which sister? Fatima?”
Of course, Fatima. Prettiest Algerian girl since, well, ever. Makes Aladdin’s Jasmine look like Jafar. If he had done the deed, or even had a chance to shake her hand once, it would be worth the upcoming ass kicking. Except: “I didn’t sleep with her,” says Abder.
“All right, sure, but Ali? He’s out for blood, brother.”
“Who started the rumor?”
“Not sure. I heard it from Karim, who heard it from Zahir, who heard it from I don’t know who. Now Ali sent some people around to bring you back. You know how it is, man.”
Abder does know how it is, man. It’s called téléphone Arabe—a localized version of Chinese whispers. Information loses itself in the static and mutates into treacherous gossip as it passes through the filter of each player’s reality.
It’s always like that around here. Stories grow twisted, as if the teller just couldn’t latch on to the facts, or to one character. The current narrator is only as trustworthy as the preceding one. You’ve got interjections, weird asides, abrupt changes in tonality, and dubious events. The P.O.V. manages to mostly stick to the protagonist, but there are jarring slippages that might look accidental to the listener—except they’re not.
It’s all part of the game, so don’t worry about it.
“You want me to call some people? Make sure you’re protected?” says Housni.
It’s a tempting offer, but Abder already sees the potential road unfolding before him. He posses up, rallies people from the block. Ali and the rest of Cité Bleue do the same. They clash. Hammers and screwdrivers come out. People get hurt. A passerby summons the pigs. Everyone ends up behind bars for the night and dozens of mothers get worried sick about their sons. Plus, Abder’s gonna get people hurt over a lie? Add another night in jail to his record?
“You got Ali’s number?”
“Nope,” says Housni, “but I’ll see if I can get it. In the meantime, don’t come home. Tons of cars are driving around. Find a place to hide. Where you at?”
“Auchan, back-alley, near the bus stop.”
“Weak spot. Drive towards Fresnes.”
“Main avenue. I’ll pick you up. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Watch your speed.”
The sun? Forget it for now; it’ll be back. The sun has retired for the day, plunged somewhere into the horizon, gone home, altogether done with this particular part of the world, sick to its celestial guts of what its rays have been revealing: cracks in the pavement, parking lots where any car less than a decade old has had its windows smashed, two euro haircuts, Halal butchers, the city’s aqueduct and its parallel rows of crimson pipes glittering like bloody ribs, the abandoned swimming pool DIY-warped into a makeshift skate park, folks queuing up outside of city hall to get their immigration papers in check, and decrepit high-rises trying to spear the sky, their sides sequined with thousands of clothing items left to dry in polluted winds like the motley flags of a nation unable to agree with itself.
And the moon, she’s not down with any of this shit either, so what’s left is an endless bowl of blackness peppered with stars not trying very hard. Far down below, the occasional streetlight stands guard and spews electric blue. Cars materialize and disappear just as fast. Distant police sirens howl to coordinate their nocturnal hunt.
Nighttime’s bad mojo for Abder. There’s nowhere to hide, not really. His cité (La Plaine) could be crawling with people and it’s the first place Ali will look. Other cités can’t be trusted, even the ones he’s on friendly terms with, because anyone who’s anyone knows everyone. It wouldn’t take two minutes before some random hood rat spots his red Air Force One vintage sneakers from a window on the seventh floor and informs Ali in order to earn some favors. Plus, fueling drama is a fantastic alternative to a boring night of dealing or getting high with your friends or taking care of your siblings while Mom is pulling yet another triple shift this week.
Driving around for a few hours isn’t safe either. Why? Because it’s post-September 11, of course. The bloody ripples have reached the other side of the pond and tainted foreign shores. Muslims in France are this decade’s version of Cold War Commies. They are something to fear, something to write about, something to rally against. Welcome to 2007, the victory year of Grand Wizard Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who promised to Kärsher the ghetto, clean it up good. Around these parts, Cachan, less than ten kilometers south of Paris’ kilometre zero, you sport anything other than white genes and you’re guilty of something. To be fair, the small hash brick Abder keeps tucked in his sock does mean he is guilty of something, but still, come on. And even without the contraband, his Algerian-brown skin and green Lacoste tracksuit—with matching cap—are to cops what a toreador outfit and red cape are to a pissed-off bull.
It’s just asking for trouble.
Speaking of which: a grey Fiat Tipo rolls by real slow, its headlights cranked up so bright they could pass for spotlights. The pounding beat blasting out of its trunk, if measured, would score a distressing number on the Richter scale.
The song is NTM featuring DJ Cut Killer’s Assassin De La Police. Abder knows the original is KRS-One’s Sound Of Da Police, but since no one here speaks English, assassin is ten times cooler and anyhow, who cares about incorrect translations when a chorus goes assassin of the police / woop, woop / fuck the police while Edith Piaf hollers in the background about regretting nothing, nothing at all? Everyone needs an anthem to riot to.
The car creeps along, darkness pulsating in its megaphonic wake. Abder freezes, stops breathing. The vehicle passes by in slow motion. Out of sight, finally. The volume is now tolerable. The ground quits shaking. Geologists in a two-kilometer radius go back to sleep. Abder gives himself permission to chill.
Bad move. The seismograph goes nuts and the music roars once more. The car backs up at an alarming speed. Doors open, and four guys rush out of the car. One of them drags the tip of a baseball bat on the ground. The driver stays at the wheel, making a call. The other dudes’ hoods are up. Abder can’t tell who they are. Ali’s boys? Rival dealers? Someone shouts his name. They shout other things, too—none of them nice.
Abder kick-starts the scooter, goes berserk on the handle and heads straight for the pack. Closer now, he screams as he makes a sharp right turn, barely dodging a kick and the swing of a bat, a hand reaching out to grab him. Abder squeezes the throttle with so much pressure the front wheel lifts off like gravity is nothing but another law waiting to be broken. He puts his weight forward, slams the wheel down and he’s on the road, burning a red light and planning to burn several more.
He knows the car is on his tail. A Fiat isn’t exactly a powerhouse, but his custom-tuned 50CC Peugeot scooter can’t even try to front. It’s a matter of time until they bump him off the road.
Relatively rocketing down the main avenue, no traffic to speak of. Headed for Fresnes. Within four minutes—if he hasn’t been caught yet—he’ll have to drive past the prison. Multiple police cars patrol the area. So, a seventeen year old kid driving by on a scooter? Wearing a tracksuit? It’s a moving target for the bacon squad and Abder, he’s Muslim, so he doesn’t vibe with any kind of pork. Maybe a change of plan is in order.
Or maybe not.
Maybe it’s precisely what he needs.
He turns his ride into the little scooter that could, doing the opposite of what Housni recommended earlier: respecting the speed limit.
He drives out of Cachan and into l’Haÿ-Les-Rose. There are no physical borders, just mental ones, different territories sharing a common skeleton. Past the roundabout on Rue de la Cosarde, past his little brother’s elementary school, past the park where he kissed his first girl and smoked weed for the first time. With one hand, he reaches into his sock and pulls out the small hash wrap, tosses it into the bushes. Abder dreads the idea of being back here tomorrow, rummaging through those bushes. Then again, it will mean that he made it through the night.
He checks his rearview and the pursuing car’s coming, its expanding headlights still at a safe distance but closing in too fast. At the far end of the avenue, the prison looms over the neighborhood. A police car is also there, coming from the opposite side of the road.
Their paths will cross within twenty seconds.
What Abder does then, it could be the stuff ghetto legends are made of. He puts his left hand up in the air, like he really doesn’t care, and gives the pigs a good old middle finger as he drives past them.
Classic teenage angst move, for real.
Blue and red lights illuminate the street. Sirens whine. Abder coolly pulls over by the side of the road, less than two hundred meters from the prison. The police car does a swift one-eighty and rolls up to him.
Still far down the avenue but unable to change direction, the Fiat Tipo is slowing down, trying to keep it cool, maintain.
Two cops strut out of their whip and it’s the usual cowboy walk, them probing their peripheral vision, sniffing for an ambush–as if it ever happened like that. One white cop, one Arab. The same buzz cuts and muscles bulging beneath blue uniforms like those two may been cloned and painted different shades before leaving the factory. See, racial quotas matter to President Sarkozy.
“’Sup,” mumbles Abder, lighting up a cigarette.
The Arab cop opens with, “Where do you think you are?” It’s more of an accusation than a proper question, sounds rougher due to his French-Arab patois, the syllables spat out after getting chewed up by the meat grinder of a multicultural accent.
The Peugeot is getting close now. Abder very obviously nods at the approaching car, enough for both cops to spin around in unison.
Inside the car, the dashboard light is off, the music’s gone, but the police car’s lights paint the scene anyhow. Five hooded figures, cigarette smoke—or maybe another type of smoke. The car passes by, no one inside making eye contact or batting an eyelash. They must be praying hard.
Abder chuckles. The cops eyeball him. With an ear-to-ear grin, he says, “Hey, guess what? I’m just distracting you, fuckers.”
This is where it gets tricky. They can book him right on the spot and he’ll be safe for the night—although insulting an officer of the law means he’s going to suffer for a while.
Or they can do exactly as he had hoped.
Abder is one man, but the car is potentially loaded with hash and coke and illegal weapons and God knows what else. A high school punk insulting them? It doesn’t begin to compare. The cops got serious numbers to worry about. Trimestral stats dangle over their heads like numerical nooses. Why bother with the small fish when you’ve got a whole school within reach?
The cops don’t merely walk back to their car. They sprint for it, hop into their ride. Sirens split ears, tires squeal, pavement gets scorched, and they’re off. The chase is on. And this chase, it’s going to attract other patrols, instigate a blood hunt.
Abder waits until he can’t hear the sirens anymore. He then grabs his phone and dials. He cradles it between his ear and shoulder while he locks the scooter.
“Location?” he says.
“Roaming around Fresnes,” says Housni. “You there yet?”
Abder considers the surroundings. “Standing near the tobacco shop, down from the prison. Wait two minutes, then get at me.”
“Assuming you watch your speed,” says Abder, smiling.
Tonight, Housni is rocking a Bob Marley “Stand Up For Your Rights!” t‑shirt. It goes so well with his dreadlocks, but his skin is much darker than Marley’s. The inside of the car reeks of hash, cigarettes, kebab grease, and the expensive cologne Housni wears. Boss, by Hugo Boss. Ask him where he copped it and he’d tell you “fell off the back of a truck, brother,” grinning the whole time. It couldn’t have come from the fancy Sephora perfumery that got robbed in the Belle Epine shopping mall two weeks prior, right?
The soundtrack to this late-night ride is Laisse Pas Traîner Ton Fils. Lyrics: When you breathe that in, man, you may as well be stillborn.
The boys only talk once the instrumentals fade out. Anything but thoughtful silence would be an insult to these words—like snickering during prayer time.
“You okay?” asks Housni.
“Yeah. How’s the situation?”
“Getting worse by the minute, man. Ali is with his people, and our people are headed for Cité Bleue. It’s going down.”
“Wait, our people?”
Housni shakes his head, isn’t a fan of the idea. “They heard you were being hunted. They got your back.”
“I don’t want them to have my back, not over this bullshit.”
Housni laughs, and it’s the saddest thing Abder has heard all night. “You think any of this is about you?”
He’s right. It’s an excuse to get some aggression out, to bond with your friends, and collectively defend the honor of your hood.
Abder studies Housni’s face. He’s focusing on the road, chewing on his lips. There’s something else.
“What’s up?” says Abder.
Housni shrugs with his shoulders. “I’m single, I guess.”
“Man, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t gonna last, anyway. It couldn’t. I had to end it.”
The gender-defining words he or she are never employed, because Abder knows, has known for years, and Housni knows that Adber knows, and since they’re both technically Muslim, there’s no point in making a rough topic even rougher. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah, Allah’s judgment of Lut’s people. It’s ancient cryptic shit that would get Housni banished from the Mosque by pious men who have tasted tobacco, hash, alcohol, have played poker and bet on horses, abandoned their wives and kids but can somehow conjure up the hubris to cast judgment.
“Wish things were different,” mumbles Abder, and this gets a smile out of Housni, who nods, his gaze so far off in the distance.
“What do you wanna do?” asks Housni.
In that splinter of time, it’s clear to Abder. The sun will be back in a few hours and there are thousands of ways out before the clock resets. Ask Housni to drive him back to the scooter, maybe grab a bus, or hop on the RER into Paris, head for Charles De Gaulle airport, fly to North Africa and get a job in Algiers, maybe take a train to the south of France, anywhere, please. And then, what? Your name’s Abder and you’ve got that skin and that name and more tracksuits and caps than shirts and ties. There’s Mom and his little brother, Youssouf. There’s Housni, the living proof that water can run as thick as blood. There’s school in the morning and a diploma to get, although that piece of paper is simply a government-sanctioned prop for the untapped possibilities lurking behind it: a shot at not becoming his father.
“Head for Cité Bleue,” says Abder, lighting up another cigarette.
“No way,” says Housni.
“I gotta talk to Ali. It’s the only way.”
Housni doesn’t try to fight it. He takes a left and the car is back on the main avenue, the prison receding in the background. The in-dash CD player skips to the next track, Aesop Rock’s Babies With Guns, and you don’t need lyrics for this one.
The title is enough.
You know, when a storm hits, how the air carries the scent of rain? Petrichor and rolling thunder, ozone and pungent zing, noses genetically attuned to geosmin for survival reasons?
Well, it’s the same thing with bad blood.
Housni and Abder smell it the second they slam the car’s doors. They’re wired to that permeating tension, spent their whole lives bathing in it. They know where it comes from. And off they go, into the lion’s mouth, its gums peeling walls, its teeth the grey buildings around them.
In the grassy area at the heart of the block, two groups face one another. They stand close to a nearby lamppost. It’s rows of hooded men, caps, multicolored tracksuits tucked into socks, baggy jeans, and burning embers glowing red in the darkness. Several of them hold weapons in their hands. Abder spots baseball bats, crutches, and crowbars. He expects concealed weapons too. Pepper sprays, brass knuckles, butterfly knives, the occasional screwdriver. Hunting rifles? Not yet, but if things get worse, they’ll come out for sure.
The crowd splits, lets Abder walk to the center of the proverbial ring. Housni joins La Plaine’s ranks, reconnects with his pack via the twenty-first century urban version of growls and face-rubs: a quick handshake, two palm-slaps, and a fist bumping the spot where the heart beats.
Abder joins the fray and the pressure increases. His rival rises up to the challenge. The numbers don’t work in Abder’s favor. Both boys are Algerian, but only in the same way both a lion and a hyena are cat-like carnivores. Ali has twenty centimeters on him, plus twenty or thirty extra kilos. He’s wearing a black Wu-Tang sweatshirt with the hood up and a cap pulled tight over his head. A nicotine grin peeks out from a mask of shadows. It’s a plumage so ominous Abder has to assume it took years of sculpting.
The crowd closes in on them. Abder has seen how those encounters end. A punch will get thrown. The fight begins. No one helps until one of the fighters is down. Then, both cités will be at each other’s throats.
Abder is not in the mood for that. Not tonight. Not ever. What he says is the only thing he can come up with to avoid bloodshed. “Bring Fatima down, man.”
Ali quickly eyeballs his friends, then shifts his focus back to Abder like he can’t believe he dared utter her name. “What’d you say?”
“I said get her down here. I didn’t do shit, she didn’t do shit, so let’s sort this out proper. I don’t know who started this mess, but I’m gonna end it right now.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“No reason to. But maybe you’ll believe her. Man, you even asked her about this? You think your sister’s gonna mess with a bouffon like me?”
Buffoon, yeah. This gets laughter out of the crowd, some people echoing the word. Abder may have earned himself an unfortunate nickname.
Ali stares at him. He reaches for his phone. “Come down here,” is all he spits before hanging up.
Two minutes creep by, no one talking, just smokes being chain-lit up and hooded faces considering one another.
Fatima walks into view. The crowd moves, although not with the same motion they displayed for Abder. There is reverence here, an important social cue that should not be ignored. It shows itself in how the crowd doesn’t part but visibly opens and welcomes her.
Fatima is more beautiful than what Abder remembers. She’s taller than he is. She is taller than most of them. Her dark hair hangs loose, down to the small of her back. She’s wearing one of her brother’s sweatshirts, baggy pajama pants with floral patterns, and Nike sneakers.
And it’s obvious that the boys with the weapons and kickboxing-bodies, the street fashion, the hard-luck stories and the petty crimes have nothing on this girl. The way she strolls past them, head held high with no nervous glances to the sides—she has the power. She is in complete control of herself, and by extent, of them.
She stands next to Ali. Her green eyes meet Abder’s.
Ali says, “You know this guy?”
“Yeah,” she replies, “Abder, right? He goes to my school.”
The crowd goes oooh, because apparently it’s getting real now.
Ali’s voice thrums with anger when he asks the next question. “Is there something between you two?”
Abder closes his eyes.
“You think I’d do that?” she tells her brother. “Don’t insult me.”
It’s a political answer that doubles as a defiant one, a clever manner of saying she knows better. If she did do it, Ali would have to admit that he, along with his parents, have failed at raising her right.
Then Fatima laughs. Hard. Hard enough to hurt Abder’s feelings. It’s a laughter so unexpected and honest it shatters the tension. He opens his eyes and she’s pointing at him. “And with him?” she says. “W’Allah, you can’t be serious, look at him. Have you seen how skinny he is?”
What she says, in original French, is maigrichon-–something in between scraggy and gangly. It sucks because it’s both demeaning and true. Fatima doesn’t just think she’s out of Abder’s league—she’s way out of his sport.
It doesn’t help, either, that maigrichon rhymes perfectly with bouffon.
When someone from Ali’s cité shouts it first, it doesn’t surprise Abder. “Hey! Bouffon maigrichon!”
Then repeated louder, his newly appointed title: le bouffon maigrichon. Laughter, and the words being passed around, swished around mouths like champagne, shouted out from both sides. Hands pat Abder on the back, shoulders bump into him and make him sway. Laugh, it’s funny, brother. Even Ali is smiling, considering Abder with his head crooked to the side, probably thinking, “How could I have been so stupid?”
And everyone laughs, because everything’s okay, the situation has been defused, so let’s laugh, and they keep on going, on and on, all the way up to the point where police sirens invite themselves to the party.
Down in the street, blue lights blink and car doors slam.
Both cités turn around as five figures sprint towards them, yelling, “Police! We got police!”
These are the men from the Fiat Tipo. The same cloned cops are running after them, and boy do they have backup. A whole damn gang of cops is converging on them.
Which means that Abder’s trick from earlier boomeranged back here, ready to slam in his face.
He’s not sure who cast the first stone. Whether one of the youths hurled an insult or an object at the cops, or if the cops decided they had a riot going and it needed to be squashed post-haste, or if they simply got sick of chasing the guys in the car through three different cities and decided it was time for some payback.
The group of cité boys splits in multiple directions, as if a smoke bomb had landed right in their midst—which, yes, it did.
Abder runs, the skinny buffoon trying to bulldozer through the chaos, hoping to see where Housni is, where anyone he might know is, but he doesn’t have time. Loud bangs explode around them.
Firearms? No. Guns are the dominion of the U.S.A. and we’re French, man—we’re not even gonna go there, we’re somehow better, although not a single soul in France could explain why. The weapons they’re equipped with are called flash-balls. They are non-lethal hand-held guns about the size of a double-barreled sawed-off and with the stopping power of a .38. Ammo? Sure, take your pick. Flexible plastic (de-facto load, never fails), cluster-balls (nine at a time, son), splash-paint (leaves an oily residue on the target’s skin, doesn’t wash off, makes for easy tracking), or gas-filled (perfect for crowd control).
Tonight, the cops have come equipped with both plastic and gas-filled bullets. Each shot of the former hits with the power of a heavyweight boxer’s punch. The bullet crushes itself on impact and in turn spreads its joules over a surface area roughly the size of the average human head. Each shot of the latter creates a localized fog poisonous enough to corrode the skin, claw at the retinae, napalm-scorch the throat.
When Abder tries to make his escape and gets slugged in the back by a plastic bullet, he lets out a yelp of pure pain and crumbles to the ground because it has become impossible to breathe. He can’t feel his neck. The top of his head has gone numb. A morally dubious Samaritan with Puma shoes lifts him up, forces him to his feet and disappears into the artificial mist. Abder woozily aims for the closest building he can glimpse through weeping eyes. He limps toward it with the treacherous balance of a man with a serious inner-ear disorder. Somewhere behind him, he hears a few of his friends or potential rivals being forced to the ground, told not to fucking move. Others fight, thrashing against the invaders, refusing to be put down like rabid dogs. The world is smoke and gas and desperate screams.
A light. There’s either a light ahead or Abder is passing out. He trips on air, wills himself not to fall, stumbles forward instead, splats against the wall of the building. He pushes the door open with his left shoulder. Once inside, he can’t imagine climbing the stairs to the upper levels. Basement it is. Three steps down and he grants himself a minute to vomit by the busted mailboxes. Black suns drift through his vision. When he’s done, he wipes his mouth with a sleeve and lights up a smoke. He opens the door to the basement. It’s pure dark in there and the light switch isn’t working, probably never has worked, so he places his hand on the wall and navigates through the maze. He hobbles along until he reaches a square room where the light from outside sneaks in through the window. It’s a bike room, where bikes would be technically parked if anyone dared leaving them here. Abder thinks it’s a perfectly adequate place to pass out for a while, maybe throw up some more.
He’s not alone, though. Someone is crouching in the corner, a phantom shape, hiding from the light and everything else happening outside. The shape hugs its knees. Its hair is unmistakable.
She angles her head up. He doesn’t sit down; he merely allows himself to fall on his ass. He hands her the cigarette. Fatima takes it. Their fingers graze.
“I don’t mind skinny guys,” she mutters, and brings the smoke to her lips.
They huddle in the dark until things grow quieter outside, until there are no more shots. A certain calm washes over the room and at some point Fatima rests her head on Abder’s shoulder. She breathes slow and deep. Abder’s t‑shirt feels warm and sticky. The skin on his back may have broken under the plastic bullet’s impact. He thinks it might be a good idea to sleep here for a while, quietly bleeding.
And he may have slept for a spattering of minutes, he’s not sure, because the next time he pays attention to the outside world, there is a new sound. It’s a distant warning. It intensifies until its message becomes unavoidable. It’s the shrieking two-tones of an ambulance’s sirens. Abder nudges Fatima awake, gets up and runs.
People from all over the cité have left their apartments. Fathers with cigarettes dangling from their mouths stand with their sons. Mothers and daughters wearing djellabas watch the event from a distance, some of them wailing in despair. Three black riot vans are parked close to the street. Next to them, squadrons of cops watch over a dozen kids who are on their knees, handcuffed and hurling insults.
Abder dives into the crowd of gathered men, pushes them aside until he manages to make it through and his right foot lands into a puddle of blood. Abder doesn’t recognize the face, only the stained Bob Marley t‑shirt and wet dreadlocks. Blood leaks out of Housni’s left eye, his nose. EMTs kneel by his seizing body. Hands on his chest attempt to pump life back into him. Cops hold their flash-balls tight, keeping people away from the medics doing their jobs. Abder howls Housni’s name. He gets closer and a cop blocks his path, all bulletproof vest and helmet. He says, “Move back.”
So Abder knees him in the crotch and utterly loses it. He screams, “Why?” He throws wild punches and kicks. A hand grabs his shoulder and he bites it hard enough to taste rust. He’s trying to get to Housni but armored men swarm him and Abder doesn’t stop punching and kicking until the butt-end of a flash-ball connects with his face, and somehow he still screams, thrashing and spitting blood and curses as he feels himself getting dragged away from his friend.
Two days later, after Abder has been booked for attacking a badged officer, for insulting government officials, for trying to disrupt police and medical forces doing their jobs, for spitting in a cop’s face, for resisting arrest, and so on, and so forth. The list is too long for him to remember. He’s lucky they didn’t book him for attempted murder, because that’s what he had in the back of his raging mind. There will be a court date to worry about later, but he’s free for now. Free to wander the halls of the hospital, free to walk past mothers and sisters shrouded in sorrow, free to smell the couscous they brought for Housni’s parents in the hallway, free to suffer the judgment of doctors questioning his ruined face as if they could treat him—please. He sits next to Housni’s parents and shakes the dad’s hand, hugs the mom. He’s known them since he was this tall. He wants to tell them sorry, sorry, sorry, I’m so fucking sorry, we’re all sorry.
All he manages to say is, “Can I see him?”
Housni’s mom, she hasn’t heard, her thoughts way too loud. The father nods with a glazed-over, faraway gaze. He says, “There’s one of his friends in there already, so knock first.”
Abder thanks him, and does as instructed. From inside, a voice says, “Yeah.”
The hospital room smells of what he expects. The overpowering vapors of cleaning products fail at suppressing a bouquet of bodily waste. Housni has his own room, not because his parents have a premium health insurance, but because the machines he needs to keep on living occupy too much space. By the bed sits a man Abder has never seen before. Early twenties. He’s white and muscular and clean-shaven and wears a brand-less black tee. It makes Abder think the guy might be a cop who came to pay his respects. Then comprehension hits and Abder unclenches his fists.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I know.”
The man looks up. He waits for more, not daring to hope. His eyes are as blue as the sea north of Algiers.
“I know about you two, and I’m sorry,” says Abder.
The man reaches for Housni’s hand and grasps it, squeezes it tight, what he must have been doing before Abder entered the room. Abder sits on the opposite side of the bed.
“What’s your name, man?”
“Oh,” says Julien. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Julien stares down at Housni’s face. Abder doesn’t dare to, although he can see a tube from the corner of his eye. “I told him, I swear I told him. We didn’t have to break up. I told him he could just come live with me in Paris. That we could be happy this way, maybe.”
“Man,” says Abder, “you don’t leave it all behind so easily.”
Clearly he doesn’t, but it’s fine. It’s okay to not know that, to have never known that, to never have to.
Julien brings Housni’s hand to his lips, plants a kiss inside the palm rather than the top of it, because otherwise the IV drip would get in the way. He stands up and nods at Abder, ready to leave.
Abder pulls out his phone and says, “Give me your number.”
Julien does so.
“I’ll keep you updated, okay?”
A smile. “Okay,” says Julien. “Thank you.”
Then he’s out of the room and it’s only Abder and his best friend.
“Man,” Abder says, smoothing away the creases in the thin sheet covering Housni’s torso. “You sleeping with a white boy? You got vanilla fever? You naughty bastard.”
He laughs, but without Housni’s laughter to go with it, only a monitor beeping, his chuckle turns into a sob that doesn’t seem like it will stop any time soon.
And it doesn’t.
He cries. He cries so hard he doesn’t hear when someone enters the room. He cries until he feels a hand on his shoulder. Abder wipes his face with a sleeve, hard and fast. Don’t let it be seen, even though it’s too late—a reflex one only learns from time spent with bullies or demonic parents. He turns to see who’s standing next to him.
It’s her. She has come to pay her respects. Fatima pulls up a chair from a corner of the room and brings it close, sits down. Side by side, they share the same silence as in that basement, two nights ago.
Abder prays, then. Not because it’s midday, but because it’s right. He has no doubt that Fatima is also praying, though he isn’t sure what she prays for. It doesn’t matter—just like cleanliness and purity and ablation, or the order of the Raka’ah, or the absence of a mat.
Not to him. Not anymore.
Abder prays for guidance with his eyes wide open, not paying attention to the grey Parisian skies but zeroing in on the greyer buildings down below and hoping to see through them, no, beyond them.
And the dying sun is back again, as promised. It’s trying once more, giving it a half-hearted go, its weak rays sieving through the windows.
Today, this is what it shows.
(Oh, Allah! I seek Your guidance by virtue of Your knowledge, and I seek ability by virtue of Your power…)
A man breaks the lock on Abder’s scooter and rides away.
(…like what happened to liberty, equality, fraternity?)
Local printing presses belch out headlines where history is depicted in black and white.
(…do I suffer from the same affliction?)
A bleary-eyed Ali walks out of the police station with his hood already up and comes face-to-face with his father.
(…did You guide the cop’s hand?)
A man from the block stands outside of a record store with his résumé clutched between trembling fingers.
(…did You distort gravity in such a way that the bullet struck Housni’s eyeball?)
A high school teacher entering a classroom realizes that three quarters of the chairs are empty.
(…was it Your will that intertwined Cité Bleue and La Plaine and made them bond not out of mutual love but out of shared anger?)
Abder’s little brother brings a joint to his lips for the first time.
(…are You fanning the flames that threaten to consume my friends when they say it’s now time to riot and make the cops pay?)
Lines form outside of bakeries, banks, clothing stores, unemployment agencies, city halls.
(…I do not want your guidance. I shall find my own and may peace be unto every single one of us, whether You will it or not.)
Fatima reaches for Abder’s hand just before an electrocardiogram flatlines and roving clouds gather in front of the sun, choke its light, gone.