“My name is Ahmed,” the boy said. He was seated on the sofa. Robert had dressed him in some of his clothes. They hung on him. “I escaped from Green Island three days ago.”
“What were you doing on Green Island?” he asked.
“The took us there from the camp.”
Ahmed looked at Robert. “The camp where I’ve lived for the past two years. We were taken there after the National Security Act was passed. It’s near Ft. Hunter.”
Robert felt a chill. “You’re a Muslim?”
Ahmed hesitated. “Yes, I am, we are, were. My parents emigrated from Pakistan. I was born here. We lived in Brooklyn before all this started.”
Robert recalled the near panic that had ensued after the bombing of the Mall of America by the Islamic Brotherhood for the Caliphate. President Spencer reacted quickly. It was no longer safe for Muslims to move freely among us, he said. He pressed for quick passage of the National Security Act. They would be cordoned off into their own neighborhoods, patrolled by the NaHoSePo, the National Homeland Security Police. It was only temporary, he claimed. Each family, each individual would be vetted. If they passed security they would be reintegrated into American society in special settlement zones.
“Where were they taking you?”
“I’m not sure. They loaded us onto a train and said we were to be transferred from Green Island to a new community near Fredonia. We would be given jobs in the factories there and housing.”
“You look like you’re starving.”
“I am starving. There isn’t much food in the camps. Many died, my younger sister, my grandparents. We sleep in huts. There is no work, or school. We just wait for death.”
Robert felt as if he would vomit but he wanted to keep control of himself in front of the boy. “Why did you jump from the train?”
“My parents told me to run. The train stopped and it was night and we were near the door. 'Get to Canada,' they said. 'Walk north, stay off the road.'
I said, 'No, I want to stay with you' and they said 'no, it’s better for you if you don’t. Get to Canada and then bring us to you.' "
“So you jumped off the train?”
Robert took a deep breath. He glanced at the cable box. It was almost 2:00 AM, too late to call the police. They would ask him why he had waited hours to turn in the boy. “Well, I guess you’ll stay here for the night. I work for Homeland Security. I should probably turn you in.”
Ahmed nodded his head.
“Follow me. Keep out of sight tomorrow and when I get home from work we’ll figure something out.”
Robert stared at his computer screen. He tried to concentrate. Ahmed’s story troubled him. He knew about the vetting of Muslims. It was necessary. There was no other way to stop the attacks. It was unfortunate, but at least for a while they needed to be kept in their own communities. They would be happier there, as the President said, where they could live according to their own rules and traditions, free to live according to their religion. That was what religious freedom was all about, wasn’t it?
“May I have everyone’s attention for a moment?” the Director said.
Robert looked up. The Director was standing at the door of his office. The man in the black uniform was standing next to him.
“I would like to interrupt your work for a moment to introduce to you the Director of Fulfillment Services for the Northeast Region, Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Johnstone. He would like to speak to you.”
Robert felt the butterflies flutter in his chest. He looked around. His co-workers, to the last, rose. He did the same. He watched Johnstone scan the room, smiling. Johnstone removed his cap and shouted, “America First!”
“America First,” the crowd responded.
“I want to thank you for your dedication to the future of our country. I don’t know that you fully realize how important your work is to the achievement of security for our nation. It is as important as the wall we built at the Mexican border. It is the means by which we keep danger screened, caught and accounted for. Though you are not on the front lines nor on the news you are the unsung heroes of our future. You are the net by which we catch the threats we face. Thank you!”
The room erupted in applause. Johnstone smiled broadly. He raised his fist. “America First!” he shouted again.
“America First,” Robert shouted back, his fist and voice raised.
Johnstone walked through the room stopping at every few desks to shake hands.
“Robert,” the Director said.
Robert smiled. “Yes sir.”
Johnstone extended his hand to Robert. “Great job you’re doing here.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Robert is one of our best technicians,” the Director said. “He works quickly and efficiently.”
“That’s excellent,” Johnstone said. “Keep up the good work.” Johnstone began to step away then stopped. “Robert is it?”
“Where do you live?”
“Are you from the Capital Region?”
“I grew up in Yonkers.”
Johnstone smiled. “Me too. I thought you looked a bit familiar. Where did you go to high school?”
Robert swallowed hard. “Roosevelt.”
Johnstone nodded. “I went to Lincoln.”
Robert thanked himself for lying.
“Perhaps we crossed paths in the past.”
“Perhaps,” Robert said.
Johnstone smiled and moved on.
Robert looked at the clock. It was 4:45. He was dead tired. He picked up the stack of reports he had printed and assembled for the Green Island facility and walked to the Director’s office. He tapped on the glass door. The Director gestured to him to enter.
“Where shall I put these?”
“Over there,” the Director said, pointing to the credenza against the wall. “Small world, Robert.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“You and Johnstone, him recognizing you.”
Robert’s heart rate jumped. “Yes sir, but to tell you the truth I didn’t recognize him,” Robert lied. “I didn’t want to insult him though.”
“Good move, he’s an important and dangerous man.”
Robert hesitated. “Sir, may I ask you a question?”
“Yes, of course.”
“In these reports, I’ve been producing them for eight months now, there are a couple of codes I don’t understand.”
“Which would those be?”
“XX, XY SR and CH”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because all the other codes have definitions.”
The Director smiled. “Why do you think that is?”
Robert stood uncomfortably. He felt the perspiration begin to form on the back of his neck and under his arms. “They’re classified?”
“Yes.” The Director smiled. The 5:00 alarm sounded. “See you tomorrow.”
Robert neared his house. He had stopped at the diner to pick up dinner for himself and Ahmed. Bethany teased him about the second dinner. She asked him if he was hiding a wife somewhere. He blushed. “No,” he said. He wouldn’t have time to cook tomorrow since he would have to work late. He hoped she didn’t know the work hour rules for his department at Homeland Security.
He had thought about it all the way home. XX and XY. No one could be that obvious, but wasn’t hiding in plain site the safest way to hide? Male and Female, were they accounting for people? Almost 90% of the count in those categories went on to a processing facility a few miles up the river to be incinerated. The remaining 10% were dispatched to a warehouse in Fredonia.
He pulled into the driveway. The dogs were in the yard. When they heard the car they began barking. He grabbed the bag with the food. The dogs jumped up. He held the bag over his head. They smelled the food and were hungry.
“Shhh,” he said, “Down boys.” He patted them on the head. “You stay here for a few minutes. I’ll be right back.” He entered the house to find Ahmed sitting on the couch with the shades drawn. He looked at him. “How are you feeling?”
“A little stronger. I hope you don’t mind I ate some of your food.”
“No, that’s all right.” He held up the bag. “I brought us some more.”
Ahmed looked at him. “Thanks,” he said barely above a whisper. “I’ll leave tonight. Just explain to me which direction Canada is.”
Robert put the bag down on the coffee table. “We need to talk.” He pulled the chair from his desk and sat opposite Ahmed. “Go ahead, open the bag, eat.”
Ahmed reached for the bag tentatively. He removed the two Styrofoam containers.
“They’re the same,” Robert said.
Ahmed handed one of the containers to Robert and opened the other. Inside was a thick hamburger on a bun with French fries. The food was still steamy. He lowered the container to his lap and lifted the hamburger out and to his nose before taking a bite. “I haven’t eaten meat in three years,” he said.
Robert watched him as he took the first taste. He bit into the burger slowly and savored it. His second bite was slightly faster than the first. Robert could see the pleasure on Ahmed’s face. The third bite and the fourth came close to devouring the burger. “Slow down,” Robert said, taking a bite of his own.
“You’re right. I could get sick.” He put the remaining portion down into the container and nibbled at the French fries.
“Have some ketchup,” Robert said. He pointed to the packets on the coffee table that had slipped from the paper bag.
Ahmed reached for one. He tore it open with his teeth and squeezed it into a corner of the Styrofoam.
“Tell me what happened to you,” Robert said.
“I already did.”
“I need to hear it again. Explain to me what happened when you were taken from Brooklyn.”
Ahmed took the Styrofoam container from his lap and put it on the table. He looked off toward the darkened stairway at the other end of the living room and began to remember.
“I was born here. My parents were students and met in college. My father got a job so he was allowed to stay. He was an engineer. He married my mother and she went back to Pakistan. He brought her a year later along with his parents. She became pregnant with me shortly thereafter. We lived in a house in Flatbush. My father was very proud of that house. He said it made him an American.”
Robert thought of the little house he had lived in as a boy in Yonkers. “Did he own it?”
“Yes, of course. We lived there together, all of us. After the Mall of America bombing you know what happened. There were attacks against Muslims, people who looked like us even if they weren’t Muslim all over the country. The President said we had to be concentrated, for our own protection. Our house didn’t fall within the protection zone, there weren’t enough Muslim families in the neighborhood so we were moved first.”
“Where was the protection zone?”
“Jackson Heights in Queens. They moved all the non-Muslim people out of the neighborhood then moved us there. We were given an apartment.”
“What happened to your house?”
“They were supposed to give us a new one. They gave my father some money instead, much less than the house was worth. We stayed there for about six months. The area was cordoned off and patrolled by police. It got too crowded. Then they came one afternoon and asked for volunteers to be moved the next day upstate. We would have better housing and could practice Islam freely, they said. We were happy about it. It had to be better than the tiny apartment in Jackson Heights.”
“We did. They came the next day with buses. We were allowed two suitcases each and two large boxes of household goods. We had no idea where we were going exactly. Military vehicles escorted the buses. A few hours later we arrived at the camp. They led us into an open area and registered us. There were some temporary barracks where we stayed the first night, the men and women separate. They said they knew we preferred that because of our religion. My father said nothing. The next day we were given some breakfast in the barracks, bread and tea. My father had had enough. He was angry. There was an announcement for all heads of families to come to the arrival area.”
Ahmed stopped for a moment. He took a sip from the can of soda he had been drinking before Robert returned home.
“They told us to line up. When we reached the head of the line we were given an address and a map. On the map was a large red dot. That was where our new house would be. We had to find the lot and build the house for ourselves. The barracks was only for the first night. Other refugees would arrive that day.”
Robert’s mind was racing. Was the boy making this up?
“They told us building materials and tools would arrive later that day as well. It was a week before the first shipment arrived. We slept outside that night and until we built shelter.”
“What did you do about food?”
Ahmed began to cry. “There was very little. The women went to cook in a large kitchen every day to prepare the food. What they gave us for six was enough to feed one. My grandparents refused to eat. They became sick and they died a short while later from starvation and broken hearts. They weren’t alone. We made a cemetery at the corner of the camp. The old went first.”
Robert looked at the half of the burger he had left in the container and nearly vomited.
“Eventually we collected enough wood to make a hut and we lived there. My parents, my sister and me. That winter my sister died. She contracted a cold. It turned to pneumonia. There were no doctors except for those among us trained as such and there was no medicine. My father hacked at the frozen earth to bury her wrapped in a shawl without a coffin.”
Robert felt the tears flow down his face as he watched Ahmed’s tumble from his eyes.
“That was six months ago. A few nights ago they rounded us up in the middle of the night and told us we were being sent to a larger, better community in Fredonia. They put us on a train to Green Island. Fredonia was in the opposite direction. My father knew what was happening. He had heard rumors. He told me to run. He wanted me to live.”
Ahmed’s body crumbled, wracked by sobs.
“I’m sorry,” Robert said.