“What time was I born?” Yashar asks his father.
“It’s 4:22 now. So in half an hour, I’m six. Right?”
“How old are you?”
“Are you ten times older than me?”
“No, almost six. Grandpa is ten times older than you.”
“How old is grandpa?”
“Sixty is six and zero. Right?”
“If he is six and zero, how come he is so much older than me?”
His father laughs. His right hand grasps Yashar’s shoulder and steers him into his room. Inside is a small bed and a dozen toys. A ragged crack zigzags from below the ceiling to the middle of one of the walls. It appeared after the explosion last month, around the time of the seventh anniversary of the war.
Yashar stands by the wall. His father produces a pen and writes the number six next to the crown of his head. Five and four and three are still there, lower down. Five is closer to six than to four.
“I didn’t grow much while I was five,” Yashar says. His dad doesn’t reply. He stares at the numbers, his eyebrows knotted, like he is deciphering a code.
“Ice cream time!” His dad says when they leave the room.
“Can I wear my new jeans?”
“Of course. It’s your birthday.”
The people of Ahvaz firmly believe that Amu Ghafour offers the best ice cream in Iran. His shop is an hour’s drive outside the city on the road to Abadan. Yashar’s family goes there a few times a year, depending on the intensity of the fighting around the city. They always go on his birthday. This year, his mom has to stay at the hospital for the evening shift.
Around the corner from the house, Naveed is sitting on the curb. The neighborhood kids show up every evening to play soccer in the street. Yashar checks the time on the dashboard clock. Naveed is early today. Yashar waves at him out the window, as the car turns onto the main road. Naveed waves back.
Yesterday, after the game, Yashar told him and other boys that today was his birthday. “Happy birthday,” the kids said. Naveed said nothing. He only vaguely shrugged his shoulders. There has been bad blood between them. Yashar doesn’t quite know when or why things turned sour.
“I don’t like Naveed,” he says to his father.
“Why?” His father slows down the car to smooth its way over a bump. Yashar opens his mouth to say because he is fat but decides to hold in the words. The other day his mother was furious when he said that about another kid.
“He pushes kids in soccer,” he lied.
“Well, it’s a tough game. He doesn’t mean it.” His father pulls the pack of cigarettes halfway out of his pocket, pauses, and pushes it back in.
On Seemetri Street the air is shot through with honks and tire screeches. Yashar tastes dust in his mouth. He smells fire and smoke. Not the coal barbecue smell, which he likes. It’s the acrid, metallic stink that fills the air after bombing, which he hates.
His father pulls out the pack of cigarettes again. The turmoil of traffic here always agitates him. He grabs the end of a cigarette with his teeth and carefully drags it out of the container. He blows smoke clouds out the window, scanning the street. They drive by heaps of shattered brick and broken concrete. The glass shards amidst the ruin flash like knives.
“Dad, what happened to those buildings?”
“It’s the war.”
Yashar is quietly pleased. He knew exactly what his father would say but wanted him to utter the words anyway. He finds it hilarious that his dad gives this answer to half of his questions. Dad, why is the bread today twice the price of yesterday? It’s the war. Dad, why did Reza’s family leave Ahvaz? It’s the war. Dad, why doesn’t so-and-so come to our school anymore? It’s the war.
At the Taleghani crossroad, the sidewalk is dense with people sitting on rugs. They have samovars and picnic fires. Water is boiling out of a kettle spout but no one seems to care. They stare ahead at the world with dead eyes.
“Dad, can we come here tomorrow and have a picnic with them?”
“It’s not a picnic. They used to live in those buildings before they were bombed. They have nowhere to go.”
His dad shakes his head and whispers something. He opens the glove box and grabs a bottle, takes out a pill and swallows it without water. He lights another cigarette.
Now they are out of town. The traffic subsides. The land rushes steadily by the car. Desert stretches out to the horizon on both sides of the road. Tall flames of burning oil stand up from the steel scaffolding over the wells like a scattering of candles on a vast birthday cake.
Amu Ghafour pats Yashar hard on the back. Yashar yelps. “What are you screaming for?” the old man laughs heartily. “At six, you are a man. When you’re hit, you should fight back. Come on, fight! Imagine I’m an Iraqi soldier. Come here, punch me in the stomach!”
Amu Ghafour stands fast and traps air in his belly to tighten his stomach muscles. Yashar punches him and the hard surface bounces his hand back. “Come on, harder!” the old man says. Yashar tries again and the old man doesn’t budge. Yashar pretends to be distracted by the yellow Persian cat wandering around the store.
Amu Ghafour goes to the machine and comes back with a large cone of ice cream. Yashar takes an enormous first bite and lets it melt in his mouth while he listens to the adults talking. His dad is insulting Khomeini and Amu Ghafour is nodding. Yashar can never understand why everybody on TV loves Khomeini but in his family, everybody seems to hate him.
Back in their neighborhood, the car shudders violently. It feels like someone has hit them from behind. Yashar and his dad turn around at the same time to look. There is no one behind them. The car convulses again. His dad slams the brake, throws open the door, and drags Yashar over the gear shift to his side. Yashar hits his knees and shins against the wheel. He starts yelling. His dad throws him onto the grassy turf at the side of the road and jumps on top of him.
Something howls across the sky. An explosion behind them. An explosion before them. The world becomes blindingly luminous. The ground trembles, setting his flesh and bones vibrating. His dad screams and presses down on Yashar’s frail body. Dust and trash fly past them. Through the gap made by his father’s armpit Yashar spots the bomb cloud. It leaps from the ground and becomes large rugged balls. Yashar cocks his head for a better view. The cloud is burnt orange in the middle and dark gray at the edges. It rains down pulverized debris, which lands around them and on the back of his dad. He shouts and presses down harder on his son. Yashar can feel his father’s heart pounding into his back. He opens his mouth to ask his dad what is going on. Before he utters a word, he gets a mouthful of dirt. He spits it out and cries.
When the debris stops falling, Yashar’s father lifts himself up. He sits cross-legged on the ground and looks at the cloud. The orangeness has faded. The cloud is broken into two dark-gray distorted columns. His dad’s fingers are laced on his head. “Stay right here!” He says as he stands up to run towards the smoke.
Yashar spits out more grit from his mouth. His new jeans are stained green at the knees. He is mad at his dad for ruining them. He looks around and realizes that the cloud is over Mr. Zanjani’s house, where Naveed had waved at them earlier. He runs towards it.
People have encircled the heap of rubble. Yashar struggles to understand why houses look so different when they are erect but so similar when they have been blown into pieces. He sees his dad with the other men. His dad’s shoulders jump up and down. He is crying, which annoys Yashar. His dad uses his sleeve to wipe tears from his eyes. He looks around. Yashar hides behind a man before he is spotted.
The heap is hot. Small fires bloom on top of the rubble. A group of men in red shiny jackets and thick gloves arrive, carried in on two shrieking fire trucks. They push through the people to get to the wreckage. They start picking their way through the concrete and glass and brick. One of them kicks aside a big piece of shrapnel, which lands right by Yashar’s feet. The neighborhood boys have been collecting shrapnel since the war began. This is larger than anything Yashar has ever seen. He doesn’t have his own collection, but it’s an excellent bargaining chip. He can exchange it for Naveed’s coveted remote-control Lamborghini. He bends over to pick it up. The hot metal sears his fingers. He snatches away his hand.
A man shouts something. Others rush over and begin to frantically kick and throw pieces of debris out of the way. Two men carrying a stretcher disappear into the shallow passage they have created into the rubble. They come out carrying Naveed.
Pandemonium breaks out. The men bear Naveed past Yashar. There is a blue bag under his right eye. On his forehead a large blood smear has curdled into the shape of an undiscovered continent. His clothes are ripped up and covered with dust. The hand that hangs down from the stretcher oscillates like a confused pendulum. It is connected to his body by skin tissue only. He looks fatter than before. He looks relaxed.
“I forgive you for not saying happy birthday to me yesterday,” Yashar says in his head. “I forgive you for that time you kicked my new football under a passing car. I am sorry for lying to my dad that you push kids in soccer.” His eyes are wet.
Another round of yelling rises from the circle. Two men come out of the rubble with another stretcher, carrying another body. Yashar stands up on his toes for a better view, but before he can see anything, his dad grabs him and turns him around.
“What are you doing here?” he yells. “Didn’t I tell you to stay where you were?” Yashar has no time to answer. His dad hauls him away from the scene and hoists him into the car. Then, he sits behind the wheel and sobs like a newborn.
His mother opens the front gate. She is seven months pregnant. Every day, when she opens the yard door, Yashar stands at the threshold to see how the arc of her belly where his unborn sister is sitting enters the house first. Every day he finds this to be unbelievably hilarious and doubles over with laughter.
Not today. Yashar can see right away that something is off about her. The corners of her mouth are drooping. Her sleeve is stained with food. Her eyes are bloodshot.
Her heart is broken, Yashar thinks. He learned the expression from TV the other day. He looks at her chest, picturing her heart split in half, large teardrops rising from the crack and bifurcating into her eyes.
She drops down to her knees and hugs him so tight he can’t get air into his lungs. “Mom! I can’t breathe!” he protests. She doesn’t let go. Her shoulders quake. He feels the warm wetness of her tears seeping through his shirt to his skin. His throat itches like a bug is trapped in it.
“Mom! Today a bomb fell on Mr. Zanjani’s house,” he says to distract her.
She lets go of his shoulders and pulls back her head.
“How was your ice cream?” she asks.
“Delicious. On the way back we saw Mr. Zanjani’s house. Two doctors took Naveed away on a stretcher. I think he was…”
“He’ll be okay,” she interrupted him. “He was just… unconscious. He’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” she exhales noisily as she fishes out a napkin from her purse and dabs at her eyes with it. “Time to go to bed.”
“What? You said I can watch TV tonight because it’s my birthday!”
“I know, I’m sorry. I have to talk to your dad.”
“You guys can talk. You won’t bother me.”
“It’s not for kids to listen to what we are going to discuss.”
“Where’s my birthday cake?”
She bites her lips.
“You didn’t buy me a birthday cake?”
“I did, but I left it at work. We’ll have your birthday cake tomorrow, okay?”
“Tomorrow isn’t my birthday. I’ll be six and one tomorrow.”
“You’ll be six and one tomorrow at 4:45. Before then, you’re still six. We’ll have your cake before that.”
She puts him to bed, pulls the blanket up to his chin, and leaves without reading him a story.
Hashim comes early. He is an invisible eagle with brown feathers and red curving beak and blue eyes too large for a bird. He visits Yashar every night before Yashar falls asleep. Tonight, he begins his routine flight around the room, brushing his wings soundlessly against the lamp and toys while he listens to Yashar telling him about the mark on the wall, Amu Ghafour’s ice cream, the clotted blood on Naveed’s forehead. Then he lands on Yashar’s head and spreads his wings over his eyes.
“Fine. Go ahead and kill us!” his dad yells just as he is settling into sleep. Hashim disappears.
“Be quiet!” His mother snaps, then lowers her voice. “You’ll wake him up.”
Yashar gets out of the bed and opens the door, begging the hinges to be quiet. Through the crack he can see the profiles of his parents. They are sitting on the couch. Across from them the TV is on mute. It shows an anti-aircraft fusillading at the sky, then cuts to a bomber nose-diving, its wings on fire.
“I told you a thousand times that I can’t travel with this,” his mom points to her bulging belly. Yashar imagines his unborn sister, sitting there listening, watching the TV through his mother’s navel. “I can’t sit in a car for fifteen hours.”
“Fine,” his father said. He squirmed to the edge of the couch. “But you’re happy to sit here and wait for bombs to come and kill us.”
“More than a million people live in this city.” Her voice is weak. She also comes to the edge of the couch and puts her hand on her belly. Baby sister’s view is blocked. “Why don’t we wait until they finish fixing the airport? It was in the news that it will be open next month.”
“They have been saying that every month for the last year. They won’t let commercial planes fly here when Iraqi bombers come and go every day. Do you realize that if he’d gone to play today he would’ve been dead now?”
“Please don’t be cruel. Don’t do that to me!” She breaks into tears.
Who were they talking about? Yashar does and doesn’t know. The “he” in question routinely plays every day but didn’t play today, and that saved his life. Yashar knows this “he” all too well, but he can’t quite believe that he could have died like that. It would be too random. Too pointless.
“What am I going to do with my mother?” His mom chokes out the words through sobs. She cleans her nose with her sleeve, which shocks Yashar.
“She’ll will follow us. She’s only here because we’re here. Listen,” he tries to hold her hand but she pulls it away. She leans back and closes her eyes. “Listen to me…” he says but her raised hand silences him. He leans back against the couch. They watch the newsman’s mouth twitching in silence. Then she leans forward, grabs her knees, rises, and walks towards the bathroom. Both her hands are on her sides. Yashar’s room is between the bathroom and the sitting room. He tiptoes back, jumps into the bed, and pulls up the blanket. She peeks into the room on her way. She doesn’t suspect anything.
Yashar waits in his bed for her to come back. His head is exploding with questions. But his mom stays in the bathroom for too long. Hashim returns and glides around. Yashar tries to stay awake but the eagle lands on his face and covers his eyes with his wings.
The next morning Yashar finds his father in the sitting room, smoking and drinking tea. He looks at the clock on the wall.
“You aren’t going to your oil well today?”
His dad shakes his head, extinguishes the cigarette and gets up. He takes a few books off the shelves and puts them into cardboard boxes.
“What are you doing?” Yashar asks.
“We are going to travel to Tehran today.”
“Yes. It’ll be fun.”
“Why are we taking those books to Tehran?”
His dad looks at the books in the box like they got in there without his permission.
“We’re not taking them. I’m just putting them away. Go eat your breakfast.”
In the kitchen, his mom is placing the dishes in another box.
“Don’t they have dishes in Tehran?”
She says nothing. She puts butter and honey and bread on the table and goes back to work, wrapping the bowls in old newspapers and setting them on top of the plates.
Yashar smears butter and honey on sangak bread. His mom isn’t watching, so he takes an extra half spoon of honey. He gobbles it down when he hears his dad’s footsteps approaching the kitchen.
“Do you want to take that Kerman rug, too?”
She nods without looking at him. His dad looks at the boxes.
“You already filled three of those?”
She doesn’t reply. He comes over to look into one of the half-filled containers.
“We don’t need five bowls,” he says. She stops working but continues to ignore him.
“Go to your room when you’re done with your breakfast,” she says to Yashar after his dad is out of the kitchen.
In his room, he grabs the remote control for the police car. The car takes off and crisscrosses the rug like a headless chicken. Yashar runs it into the edge of the wall. The car’s nose presses against the stone, and the front wheels spin in their places. The roar of the engine sharpens into a shriek, as if it is begging Yashar to let up. The imploring sound excites his nerves. He presses the button so hard the tip of his thumb hurts. He sits there a long time, watching the little machine struggle against the wall until its batteries die.
Yashar leaves his room around noon. Half of the house has disappeared. In the sitting room, boxes are piled up in a corner. His dad is taping one of them up. His mom is in the kitchen.
“Dad, why did you put the whole house in the boxes? You can’t fit them in the car!”
“We’re only taking a few of them to Tehran. Most of them will go to the basement.”
“So people won’t steal them.”
“Are there bad guys in our neighborhood?”
“It’s the war.”
He lights a cigarette and, holding it between his lips, picks up a box and goes into the yard. Yashar follows him.
In front of the house, the white Nissan is sitting forlorn, its trunk and its four doors all open. It looks like the disemboweled carcass of a beast.
His dad puts the box next to three others already in the trunk. There are two more in the backseat.
His mom calls him from inside. She is in his room standing by two empty containers, one small and one big, surveying the toys.
“We have to pack your things.”
“Jeep and red snake and spaceship can’t be in a box.”
“We can take only a few toys. Fit as many as you can in the small one.”
“It’s too small!”
“That’s all the space we have.”
“What do we do with the rest of them?”
“Put them in the other box. We’ll leave them here.”
“But they can’t breathe in there! What if they die?”
“Toys don’t need air to live. They will play with each other in the box. They’ll be fine.”
“When are we coming back?”
“Stop asking questions. Fill up those boxes.” She leaves the room.
Yashar puts the favorites in the small box: Jeep, Javad Dinosaur, the tall cowboy, and the police car. There is space for two more toys. He is not crazy about Alligator Ali, but the eyes of the plastic animal, widened in judgment, give him pause. The alligator is afraid of the dark and will suffer in the box. The spaceship is among his favorites, but he learned the other day from TV that outer space is pitch black all over. The spaceship probably wouldn’t mind the darkness inside the box. He doesn’t care much about his plastic gun, but it’s the war and he might need it. He wishes that he had bargained for Naveed’s Lamborghini. If he owned that supreme toy he wouldn’t have doubts now.
He eventually settles on Alligator Ali and the plastic gun. He puts other toys in the big box and takes it out to the sitting room. His dad tapes it up and puts it on top of the boxes in the corner and leaves. Yashar goes up to the box and lays his hand on it. “Goodbye truck. Goodbye spaceship. Goodbye Akbar locomotive. Goodbye helicopter. I am sorry I broke your blade the other day. Guys, I’m so sorry you have to be in the dark. Talk to each other and don’t fight. I promise to come back soon.”
His dad’s cutter is on the floor. He picks it up it and makes a few small holes around the box. His mom sounded sure that they don’t need air, but you never know.
“You sit in the front,” his mom says. A pleasant surprise for Yashar. He has never been invited to sit in the front seat with his both parents in the car. He walks around to the door with a swagger and slides in. He is slightly embarrassed that his mom and his baby sister have to be squeezed in the small space between the boxes and the door, but not embarrassed enough to give up his spot.
His dad places two large padlocks on the screen door, gets into the car, and backs it out of the yard. “Goodbye guys,” Yashar whispers, imagining the toys in the box waving back at him.
They cross the Karoun river towards Kianpars and hit the Andimeshk road. There is unexpected traffic on the way, near the police station.
“There must be an accident,” his dad says, though no one has asked him.
A soldier is walking down the line of cars and talking to the drivers one by one. After the soldier finishes talking, the driver he has spoken to turns around and heads off in the opposite direction.
The soldier gets to their car and looks in at each of them. Yashar smiles at him. The soldier smiles back.
“Sir, you need to turn around here.”
“We have received intelligence that the Iraqis have plans to bomb the road to Andimeshk within the next twenty-four hours. We need to keep the road completely dark so they won’t be able to see it from the sky.”
“I can’t turn around. My wife is pregnant. She is in bad condition. We barely survived the attack yesterday. I need to leave tonight.”
“Mom,” Yashar turns to the back seat and whispers. “Are you sick?”
His mom shakes her head hard and puts her index finger across her lips.
“I am sorry, sir,” the soldier says. “It’s impossible.”
“I’m not going to stay in this city tonight. You can’t force me to go back.”
The soldier is getting irritated. His lips quiver to say something but he swallows his words.
“I’m just doing my job,” he says. “You can park here as long as you want. Please pull over and let the other cars through.”
His dad drives the car into the gravel and turns off the engine. The desert silence bears down on the car. His dad takes a pill and lights a cigarette. His mom is looking out the window in silence. Yashar watches the other vehicles arrive one by one, have a brief chat with the soldier, and turn around. He is embarrassed by his dad’s unreasonable defiance.
“Dad, what are we waiting for?”
“Why did that man tell us to turn around?”
“It’s the war.”
“I’m hungry.” He’s not, but he wants to bother his father.
“Wait a little bit. We’ll eat soon.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t we go back home?”
“Because it’s not safe.”
“Everybody else is going home.”
“We’ve packed everything.”
“We can unpack.”
“Hey! Nasser!” His dad has spotted someone he knows. He yells out the window, then throws the door open, jumps out and runs, pebbles leaping in all directions from under his feet. The man turns towards his father. They are around the same age. In the dim light, Yashar can see the three chips of a colonel twinkling on his uniformed shoulder.
The men hug each other. The colonel pats his dad hard on the back. His dad begins to speak, his hands flying around, his head nodding animatedly. The colonel’s smile dries on his lips. He shakes his head. His dad keeps talking excitedly. Yashar has never seen him like this.
“What is dad saying to that soldier?” he asks. His mom seems resolved to silence today. She has rolled down the window to eavesdrop on their conversation.
His dad’s body language grows increasingly aggressive. He makes a fist with one hand and smashes it against the palm of the other. He laces his fingers around the back of his head when the colonel talks. The colonel avoids his father’s eyes. He shakes his head, his eyes fixed on the pebble that his boot is playing with. His dad takes hold of the colonel’s hand and shakes it hard. The man says nothing. His dad gets down to his knees.
“Mom, what’s going on?” Yashar asks, afraid.
“Your father is losing his mind.”
Their interaction has attracted other guards and soldiers. Another officer emerges out of a small building near the gate. He speaks with the soldier who told them to turn around, then approaches his dad and the colonel. The colonel introduces the men to each other. They shake hands. His dad begins to gesticulate wildly, pointing back and forth to the car and to the road to Ahvaz. Both men, carrying twelve chips between them, listen without interrupting. The colonels move aside to speak privately. His father turns to the car and smiles furtively at his family. Yashar hardly recognizes him.
The colonel comes back. He puts his hand on his dad’s shoulder and looks at the car hard and long. He says something. His dad throws up fisted hands, like he has scored in soccer. He bends down, trying to kiss the man’s hand. The man pulls it away and hugs him instead. His dad runs back to the car.
“Did you recognize him?” His dad asks his mom. His cheeks are flushed.
“I don’t know him.”
“Remember I told you once I saved a kid’s life?”
“What does ‘vaguely’ mean?” Yashar interrupts. They ignore him.
“When we were sixteen he was swimming in Karoun and we were on the bank. He was drowning but no one noticed. I saw him and jumped into the river and saved him. That’s him.”
Yashar watches the colonel talking to the soldier who told them to turn around. The soldier listens in stunned silence.
“So, he owes me. He told me from that day to the end of his life I could ask him whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and he wouldn’t say no. Isn’t that amazing that, of all days, I should run into him now? It’s a sign.”
“So, what now? He’s going to open the gate for you?”
“What? He can’t do that.”
“He’s the superior officer here. He can do anything he wants.”
“But the other guy said Iraqis are looking for lights to blow up the road.”
“I’m not going to turn on the lights.”
“How are you going to drive then?”
“I just need to see the edge of the road. There are no other cars out there. The light from the stars is enough.”
“You’ve lost your mind!” she screamed. “You’re out of your fucking mind!”
Yashar starts crying. His mom punches at the back of his father’s seat. “Turn around! Turn around right now! I want to go back home! You’re insane!”
“I don’t want to be on a dark road!” Yashar wails at the top of his lungs. His screams harmonize with his mother’s shouts.
“Shut up!” His dad yells, his voice rising above the noise. “Shut up! Both of you!”
Yashar cuts off his sob in fear. He keeps crying quietly, his hands shaking, making small bursts of noise.
“This is a sign! Don’t you see that? Of all the thousands of people trying to leave this hellhole tonight we are the only ones who get a chance. You have to be blind not to see that God put this man in our way.”
“You have lost your mind. You have lost your mind!”
“Listen,” his dad leans over the backseat to hold her hand.
“Don’t touch me!” she pulls her hand away and recoils into the corner of her seat. The baby is hanging from her like an oversized melon. His dad raises his hands in surrender.
“In three hours we’ll be in Andimeshk. By morning we’ll get to Tehran. Things will calm down soon, I promise you. In a few months we’ll be back in our own house. But we can’t stay here now and get killed for nothing.”
“Oh god!” She shifts in her seat, unable to find a comfortable position. “Do what you want. Just don’t talk to me again. I’m not feeling well. Don’t talk to me. Oh God, why are you doing this to me? Go. Just go. I feel like shit. Go!”
“Okay, okay.” His dad musses Yashar’s hair and squeezes his shoulder. Yashar tries to make sense of the new reality he is hurled into, where his parents have become creatures he doesn’t recognize. They are like familiar people seen in a dream.
His dad shifts gears and pulls away from the side of the road. The colonel is waiting for them at the gate. He turns the handle and it groans open. His dad waves at the colonel, but the colonel doesn’t wave back.
The lights of the car go off on the other side of the gate. It is not as dark as Yashar expected. He had imagined the blackness he experiences when he shuts the closet door. But now he can see the edge of the road and the eyes of desert foxes. His dad hunches over the wheel, his head cocked to one side, following the white road line His mom leans back in her seat and closes her eyes. Nothing changes for the next half an hour.
“Dad, when are we eating?” Yashar asks. He can hear his stomach.
“I’m sorry. You have to wait a couple of hours. I thought we would be in Andimeshk for dinner, but it’s going to take a little longer.”
His dad takes a pill from his little bottle, then produces the pack of cigarettes and lights one, rolls down the window, and blows out the smoke.
“What are you doing?” His mom says. Her eyes are wide open now. His dad looks into the back mirror.
“Are you smoking? Are you crazy? You are fucking crazy! You are out of your fucking mind! You are killing us! Put that out! Put out that fucking cigarette you idiot!”
“Okay, okay! You’re right. Sorry!” He throws the cigarette out the window.
“Did you just throw a burning cigarette on the road? What are you doing?”
“Stop the car! Stop the car! Go back and put out your cigarette! Oh god, why are you doing this to me! Stop the car!”
“Calm down! It’s already burned off! It’s fine.”
“Stop the fucking car right now! You’re killing us!”
His dad says something back that is drowned out by a howl from the sky. A deafening noise shakes Yashar’s ear drums and reverberates in his skull. His mom’s face is twisted in terror. His dad presses the gas pedal. The howl is plummeting downwards. The car shakes violently.
The edge of the road and the eyes of the foxes disappear. Yashar can no longer see his family. He calls them but he doesn’t hear his own voice. The surrounding darkness gathers weight and presses down on him. It is thick. It is tangible. He reaches out to scoop a fistful of it. He feels the weight of it in his palm but he can’t see his hand. The darkness comes closer, squeezes his head, sits on his eyelids. He tries to keep his eyes open but they are too heavy. His eyelids fall and his heart pauses.
The pitch dark lifts. A blinding whiteness explodes across his vision. His father’s car emerges out of the light, speeds down the road, and stops where the bomb landed. Yashar gets in.
They are back on the road. Yashar checks the dashboard clock to estimate when they get to Andimeshk. The clock is not working. It shows the same time it did a few minutes after they crossed the gate.
The moon and the stars are out. The edge of the road and the shadows of the hills are back. So are his mom and dad. His dad has a beard which he didn’t have in the morning. He is leaning back and watching the road over the wheel.
His mom makes noises. “We are almost there,” his dad says.
A little animal jumps on the road. Its eyes shine in the headlights. His dad drives through the animal. The car doesn’t shake. His Mom taps on Yashar’s shoulder.
“Say hi to your little sister,” she says. A baby is sucking on her breast and looking at Yashar with eyes too big for her face. “Hi,” Yashar says. The baby pulls her head away from the nipple and cries.
Yashar shuts his eyes but feels dizzy and opens them at once. On the side he sees the silhouette of a town. He turns to his dad to ask where this is. His dad’s hairline has receded to the middle of his head. Deep wrinkles crisscross his face. Yashar turns to his mom to ask what happened to his dad.
His sister is sitting next to his mom, swinging her legs. Her hair is divided into two ponytails hanging over her ears. She sticks out her tongue.
“What are your plans for college?’” His dad asks him. His voice is shaky and raspy.
“I don’t know.”
“You need to figure it out soon. Time flies.”
Yashar wants to ask “why” but he knows that his dad will say “it’s the war.” He turns back to his mom to ask what she thinks he should study at college.
Her hair has turned gray. His sister is still sitting next to her. She is now larger than her mom. With all the boxes on the backseat there is not enough room for both of them.
“Are you comfortable back there?” Yashar asks.
“Yes,” his mom says.
“Not really,” his sister says. “But you are not going to give up the front seat, are you?”
“Son,” his dad says. He had never called him “son” before. He gives Yashar a toothless smile. “Take care of your mom and sister.”
“Okay,” Yashar says and turns back to see what they need. His mom’s hair is white like snow. His sister looks like his mother when she was pregnant with her. They are crying. First quietly, then out-loud. Then his sister screams. Yashar turns to his dad but he is no longer at the wheel. The car moves on steadily.
He hears a moan from the back seat. It’s his sister. Now her belly is as big as his mom’s belly when they left Ahvaz. The backseat is very tight for both of them. Yashar reminds himself to switch seats with them as soon as the car stops.
The moon goes out and comes up in a blink. Yashar hears a cry from the back seat and turns. A baby is sucking on his sister’s large breast, looking at him with big eyes.
“Say hi to your nephew!” his mom says. Yashar says hi. The baby stops sucking but he doesn’t cry.
“Mom is not doing well,” his sister says. “You’ve got to help us.”
“Okay.” Yashar says.
The moon vanishes and the car sinks in darkness. His sister screams when the moon comes out. His mom is not in her seat anymore.
“Where is mom?” Yashar asks.
“Where have you been?” his sister screams. Dry tears have left thick marks on her face. “Where the fuck have you been?”
Yashar turns to the window. His stomach feels weird, like a worm is frolicking around it. The moon comes up. The worm multiplies into thousands of worms. They wiggle out of his stomach and crawl into his legs and hands.
Yashar spots the shadow of Zagros mountains on the horizon. They are near Andimeshk. Yashar turns back to tell his sister that they are almost there. She is sitting in his mom’s spot. Her hair is gray. Next to her sits a young man. He looks like no one Yashar knows. “Happy sixtieth birthday uncle,” he says. Yashar wants to tell him that he is six, that his grandpa is the one who is sixty. He feels too weak to talk. He is drained. His eyelids are too heavy to keep open. He lets them fall. The world behind his eyelids is full dark. Then an explosion of whiteness illumines his vision and overwhelms darkness. His eyes burst open. The first houses of Andimeshk emerge.
Near the Andimeshk road police station the car pulls over. The door opens noiselessly. Yashar gets out to switch seats with his sister. The door slams shut. The car moves on, leaving him on the roadside, alone.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.