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Things They Would Never Know
It was early morning, the sun rising over the busy place that was New York City. Even in the half glow of the summer sun, the city was buzzing. Wide awake. It was not a coincidence, then, that John Alli happened to be wide awake too. Awake for 24 hours, maybe more, he thought. The thought of his destiny had creeped up on him, making him unable to sleep.
His palms were sweaty, and he wiped them on his khaki pants, trying desperately to gather his thoughts. Even now, he couldn’t keep himself from taking side glances at the briefcase sitting innocently in the corner of the room.
The window from his hotel room gave him a perfect view onto the city, reminding him again that he was only a visitor. He’d been staring out the window for hours, watching the people of the city hurry by. Maybe they were going to their jobs, or going home to their families after a long night shift. Now, as he watched, he saw small children, their tiny hands clutched tightly around their mothers slightly larger ones. Going to school, he thought. A feeling of grief wretched his stomach, but he pushed it down as he stepped away from the window.
“No turning back,” he whispered to the empty room. He knew what was at stake.
He gave a quick glance to the gold watch on his wrist, realizing he was running behind. He put his coat on and prepared to leave, knowing all to well he needed to be in the middle of the city at noon. They hadn’t let him forget.
He moved to the door, and contemplated ‘forgetting’ the briefcase at it’s place by the coat rack. It was a bad idea, he knew, and wouldn’t make a difference. It would happen exactly how they wanted it too, either way. He stared down at the case, mulling over his situation. He had so much to lose, it seemed. So, in the end, he picked it up. The leather case felt heavy in more ways than one, like lead.
Then, with no allowance for a second thought, he tightened his sweaty grip on the handle and walked out the door.
Across the city, Elizabeth and George were fighting again. Slamming of pots and pans could be heard through the thin walls of their small apartment, and the yelling was so loud and frequent, it was a wonder they still had any neighbors at all.
They had gone to bed angry last night, which only led to a heavy, uncomfortable silence that always seems to follow them the morning after. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife, George had thought humorlessly.
Halfway through breakfast, someone had inevitably mentioned the elephant in the room, and the screaming started all over again.
“I’m not doing this right now, Elizabeth!” George yelled with a finality that had made her hair on her arms stand up. George rarely ended the fights. In fact, if everyone was being honest, he was the one that usually started them.
He closed the door to their bedroom with a slam, leaving Elizabeth alone in the kitchen, stabbing violently at her scrambled eggs with her fork. She wondered why they even bothered to call it their bedroom anymore…they hadn’t slept in the same room in weeks. Her eyes moved to the tangled sheets on the couch, as if trying to prove what her mind was thinking, what her heart was feeling. She looked helplessly in the direction he had left in, trying to remember a time when they weren’t fighting all the time.
She drew a blank, and threw her fork down in frustration. Her appetite had left when he did, and she didn’t find any point in pushing her cold eggs uselessly around the plate. The clock on the counter indicated it was just after nine. Not too early for a walk into the city, she thought. Maybe fresh air was just what she needed to clear her head. She grabbed her white jacket off the coat rack, and considered whether or not she should tell George where she was going. Would he care, she thought bitterly, was the much better question. Her bitter laugh echoed through the living room as she left, shutting the door loudly behind her.
Jane stumbled into class twenty minutes late, cheeks as red as her hair, probably from running. A star bucks cup was clutched tightly in her hand.
This wasn’t unusual, given her track record, and hardly anyone looked up as she slid into her seat. The teacher stood at the front of the class, going on about the invention of the atomic bomb, unfazed by her arrival.
She pulled an orange notebook out of her bag, and opened it to a random page. Her purple pen left doodles scribbled on the page where her notes were supposed to be, and she wondered if she was doing a good job at looking like she was paying attention. Probably not, she thought to herself. She wondered why they even bothered teaching the class about it; as if her generation had to worry about some stupid bomb.
Her school was placed smack dab in the middle of the city, and the view out the windows of the classroom was the worst form of torture. The streets outside were busy with taxis and buzzing with importance. Always moving, while Jane was stuck in a stuffy classroom learning about the effects of the atom bomb until the bell rang.
She sighed loudly, and the teacher glared at her in annoyance. He seemed to be under the impression that she should care, but she just couldn’t find it in her. Sure it was interesting, but they were worried about all this in the 40’s. What did we have to worry about one now? No one wants to blow us up when we can do it right back. That’d be pointless, and so not worth the energy.
The clock told her she only had 20 minutes until lunch, and for the next 20 minutes, that’s all she could think about.
John pushed his way through the crowd, constantly checking his watch, worried he was going to be late. He didn’t want to know what would happen if he didn’t do everything exactly how they asked. What they had threatened was bad enough. He sped up his pace, wishing the last hour would drag on. Then he thought better of it. He wished they would go by as fast as possible, knowing he wouldn’t enjoy them. No matter what he did, he couldn’t seem to be able to escape his thoughts. That was the worst…knowing his thoughts made so much more sense than all of this.
Elizabeth tossed her head back so the sun could reach her face. New York was such a gorgeous place in the summer, which was what made the brutal winters worth it. At least she thought so. George seemed to hate the place, no matter what season. She could never quite figure out why, and she didn’t feel the need to pry. This was where his job was, so this is where they would stay. In the rare times where they would talk civilly, she felt that George wanted her to ask, but she never did. She refused to let George ruin the city for her, and learning the reasons for his distaste would inevitably make her see it differently. He had a way of doing that, she knew. If he wasn’t happy, no one was. That’s one thing she hated about him, amongst all the things she loved.
She hated the way they were. The envy she felt when she saw couples hold hands in the park was enough to tell her something was missing. She might have not been able to remember in the moment, but now, she could remember very well all the good times she and George had had, before the fighting. Sometimes in between the fighting, back when the fights were few and far in between. It left an aching in her chest that she could not ignore.
When she was in the fresh air and breezy summer sun, it was so much easier to block out the anger; to think clearly. She loved George, and with the summer day as her witness, she resolved to fix their marriage, whatever it took. It wouldn’t be quite so hard, if they both promised to stop trying to get under each other’s skin so d*mn much.
She smiled, knowing there was still time to fix it. Everything would be okay. Of course it would be. It was her and George. They always seemed to work out in the end, through the rough patches, like some kind of story book. Her favorite flower shop was just around the corner, and Elizabeth stepped into it, darting directly to the back of the store, where she knew they kept the roses. Receiving flowers had always been a silly thought to George, and she knew the reversed roles would make him laugh out loud. She paid for one dozen red roses, and stepped back onto the sidewalk with pride. There were still a few things she needed to pick up in town, then she would head back home. She could picture the surprised on George’s face as she handed him her apology flowers. She would make everything perfect again, if it was the last thing she did.
Jane wasn’t the kind of girl you would see ordering an entire foot long sub at Subway. It always threw the workers off when she stepped up to make her order, and they always looked at her skeptically before they finally started piling ingredients high on her sandwich. She was so small, and it was apparently a foreign idea for a short person to eat so much. The thought plagued her mind as she stepped out of Subway and back onto the busy sidewalk. Why did people always assume that tiny people eat such a tiny amount? She may only be five foot and a half, but when she was hungry, she could easily eat more than any other boy her age.
The comparison made her laugh at loud as she journeyed further into the city, not really caring whether or not she was back in time for the beginning of her fourth period class. Life was short, and people watching was much more fun.
She settled onto a bench out of the way of the moving crowd, and bit into her sandwich as she watched them come and go. Sometimes they all looked the same to her, all talking on there cell phones and walking fast with serious expressions on their faces. Then, slowly, she would begin to pick out the differences. The woman walking closest to her was on her cell phone, but she was speaking in a language Jane didn’t recognize. A man was using a wet cloth to rub a stain out of his expensive suit, with a look the resembled fierce concentration. There was a tiny woman who was smiling slightly like she had a secret, a bouquet of red roses in her arms. She wondered who had gotten them for her, if they were married or dating, or if they had been best friends for years, and he had just confessed his undying love for her. Her thoughts about the woman faltered as a nervous looking man in a trench coat came into her line of vision. At first the idea stuck her as funny- why would a person wear a coat in the middle of the summer? She noticed then that the man was sweating, and she wondered why he didn’t just take the jacket off. It all seemed rather silly to her, maybe he’s trying to not be noticed.
The thought entertained her for a while, and she finished her sandwich as she came up with the most fantastic possibilities. In her mind, he was an international super spy whose leather briefcase held top secret files to some ancient, CIA treasure. She thought about following him, out of sheer curiosity, but immediately thought better of it. Her mother had always told her not to talk to strangers, and following strangers seemed like an equally bad idea. Stalking strange men who wore trench coats in the summer and carried around leather cases was not a good idea- no matter what she thought he did for a living. It was like asking for trouble, she thought, amused as she tossed her wrappers into the nearest trash been. She slowed the process of gathering her things, not yet ready to go back to school. She could stay in the city for days and days, she mused to herself, and she was sure she wouldn’t mind at all.
John scratched at his neck, even though it didn’t itch, and proceeded to check his watch for the umpteenth time. Ten minutes. That’s all he had left. With his hand that wasn’t holding the briefcase, he reached urgently into his pocket and pulled out a beaten up photograph of what looked like a happy family. His family, he told himself, sadness taking over where the nerves had been.
The only condolence he had in all this was knowing it wasn’t his choice. If he had any other option, he was sure he would have taken it. He knew, without any hope, that no one would know that. After he did what he was being forced to do, he was sure he would become the bad guy. When the atom bomb that had been strategically been placed into this briefcase went off- he knew a war would plague the world. He knew that he would not be John Alli, a hard working man from Pakistan- but a enemy of the worst kind. A terrorist who blew up New York City. He knew there would be no mercies made for his country- as no mercy had been made for theirs. He knew no one would care what had led to this decision, or the innocent people of his country that would surely suffer the consequences of his actions. He knew that he would die just as all these people would, but would not be looked at as the victim that he was. He also knew that they would never know that he could see each and everyone of those victims clearly in his mind, going on with their day, having no idea it would be their last. He praised them on that- on their ignorance, for he knew that knowing brought him the worst kind of pain. He knew that all the work to strengthen the countries relationship would vanish in an instant. He also knew that his family would be safe and sound as soon as the crisis made the news in his home country.
He knew all this- and yet, they would know nothing. They would never know how this decision plagued him. They would never know that, just a few weeks ago, he had been walking his young daughter through the village- sweeping her giggling form up in his arms- as they approached. He knew with a slight pang to his heart, that they would never know what they had threatened to do to his family if he did not comply. They would never know that the trip to this country had been the first time he had ever been in a plane, and that for moments, he imagined surviving this, and becoming a pilot. They would never know how little of a monster he actually was.
They would never know that, on August 15th, 2014, he did as the terrorists had told him to give his children the ability to look forward to a better future. They most certainly wouldn’t know the peril he faced, as he settled himself onto a park bench in the middle of New York City- shutting his eyes and clutching the picture tight between his palms- waiting hopelessly for the clock to strike noon.