But, the others will never let Ian go. He’d never make it past the school grounds before fainting. He’s kind of like the omega wolf; the rest of the pack protects him. Anyway, Ian’s got the best pedigree--someone’s removed second-hundredth cousin to the Queen or something.
Me, I’ve got the worse lineage. Not brown enough to hang with the local Egyptians, and not pale enough to blend with the English set. No, in fact, I’m pretty sure they’ll rig the straws so I’ll get the short shaft. Nobody left at Maadi British International School likes me much. Except maybe Tom, he’s the only one of them that never called me a towel-head or jumped on me in the shower, nearly drowning me, telling me my skin was still “dirty.”
“My mum is probably flying in right now,” Ian says. Ian’s pointy chin presses into his clasped arms. The sun brightens his hair until it’s almost as white as his skin. We gathered in the cafeteria because of the windows. There are rows of them, looking out at the carefully manicured courtyard. It’s hard to believe we’re in the desert, except that scrubby date palms ruin the otherwise perfect lines of the English garden.
Except we all know the planes stopped coming days ago. I’m the only one to say something, though. “In your dreams.”
“You know, Chris, you could be a little nicer.” It’s Mike. He’s our American, big and broad, and always wearing fancy white running shoes. In front of him sits the tea candle he always carries. The cafeteria is light enough that he doesn’t need it, but it’s his insurance policy against the blackness. It’s also the symbol of his power. For a guy afraid of the dark, he’s got a lot of charisma. He’s become our kind of de facto leader. Mike’s is also the oldest. In a couple of months, he’ll be fifteen. Fifteen is the age of majority, and, that’s when his nexus will activate. He’ll be on the LINK. I’ve got far too much time of silence. “Just because you know your mom is dead, doesn’t mean it’s true for all of us.”
I’d be hurt, but my mom’s been dead for years. She got herself accidentally shot while covering a story on Israel and Palestine for Al-Ahram Weekly. My dad... well, the only thing I ever knew about him was that he was white and non-Muslim, which is how I got saddled with the given name Christian. My mother’s idea of a joke, I guess. Good one, mom—we’ll all be laughing when I go on hajj and become Mohammed Christian El-Aref.
But, even though I knew she was gone, at first—just like everybody else--I still expected someone to come for me. My great-aunt Fatima has been paying to keep me in Hell, er, I mean Maadi British International School. And, even if Fatima couldn’t come, my mother’s family is pretty extensive. I thought one of the El-Arefs would come and pick me up eventually. I guess they forgot. Or they really are all dead.
It’s just us ten now. Even the headmaster left a week ago. He’d agreed to soldier on, wait with us stragglers, but his wife came and took him away in the dead of the night. They’re probably half way out of the country by now.
“The airport could be underwater,” says Tom in his usual compromising way. His dad is a diplomat, and it shows. “Maybe they’re waiting for the water to recede a little.”
I shake my head. “Recede? Don’t you remember our geography class? The Aswan dam was one of the biggest man-made structures in the world. The Aswan lake held something like one hundred and sixty-six tons of water, and that was before the rain overfilled it. Downtown is a swamp.”
“See that’s just it, isn’t it?” Mike says, leaning in closer. “We don’t know. That’s why someone’s got to go scout things out. Report back.”
Ian sucks in a sniffling breath. “What about the deadboys?”
We’ve heard rumors about how, after the darkness hit, what was left of downtown Cairo was overrun with riots, pillaging, raping. The newest, biggest gang—the deadboys--had this weird, quasi-religious thing about the resurrected Osiris. The deadboys, someone said, had been sacrificing castrated penises to the black water to try to appease the Nile. We all shiver at that thought.
“Well,” Mike says, “whoever goes will just have to be back before dark.”
Mike shoots me a look, so I bite my tongue. I really want remind everybody that getting to downtown and back before dark is impossible. Maybe, when the trains still ran, but on foot? No way.
It’s time for the straws. Mike reaches in the front pocket of his white shirt and pulls out some grubby toothpicks. He turns his back to us, and starts arranging them. When Tom tries to peek, Mike gives him a hard kick in his shin. Everybody cringes.
This whole place is becoming very Lord of the Flies. Of course, it always was. I mean, this is a British boarding school for Allah’s sake. But, I’m not sure I can take added stress of being stuck here waiting for someone else to come back with news that the world is over and it’s just us and a whole lot of water. Pretty soon we’re all going to be wrestling over Mike’s tea-candle the way those creeps in the book killed each other over that conch. I know which character I am, too: the fat kid who lost his glasses. First to die.
They all stare at me like I said I wanted to do something rude to their mothers. So, I stand up, to show them I’m serious. “I’ll need water. As much as I can carry. And food. And what am I looking for exactly?”
“A sign,” Ian says.
“Somebody in charge,” says Mike.
“Help,” says Tom.
I have doubts I’ll find any of that, but I just kept talking because that was the only way to keep my nerve. “Okay, then. I should probably get going.”
Even Mike looks kind of surprised, with his bullyish square jaw hanging open, like he might protest because I’m starting to look a bit like the heroic leader he’s supposed to be. To hold off any argument, I hit them with the clincher: “Anybody else here speak Arabic? Right. Then, I’m the one to go.”
Turns out the headmaster locked the gates, so I have to crawl under dip in the chain link fence out by the rugby field. It’s a good thing I volunteered. Mike would never fit through the hole, not loaded down with an army pack full of thermoses of water. I’m only five foot six and skinny to boot. As it is, I have to work to pull the pack through after wriggling myself out first.
I take a moment to catch my breath and brush the dirt off my school uniform. The air already smells foul, like someone forgot to flush the toilet. Under my breath, I mutter a quote from one of my favorite old flats, “I have a very bad feeling about this.”
Even though the sidewalk is empty, I check behind my shoulder every other step. The sensation of being exposed haunts me. I wish there were cover to hide behind or a wall to keep at my back. I have to satisfy myself with the shade of the sparse fig trees. The manicured grass of the boulevard slowly browns without the constant tending of the gardener and his irrigation system.
I get to the train station in ten minutes, never loosing that creeping sensation of being too visible. The clock tells me it should be rush hour, but I’m the only one staring at the printed schedule as if trying to divine my future in the departure times. Jumping the turnstile makes me feel a twinge of guilt, but there’s not a soul to see or comment.
More bizarre is the strange blinking light where the LINK trigger should be. I’m mesmerized because I’ve never seen one broken before. The one time I took the train into Cairo to celebrate Ramadan with my aunt and her family the trigger looked like a glittering blue patch on the wall and all the connected passengers nodded their payments or blinked through schedules as they passed by. Now it seemed to be flashing out “doom” in some kind of twisted Morse code.
Looking down the dusty length of rail, I wonder what in Allah’s name I’m supposed to do next.