By Ammar Al Naaimi
The following short story is from Majan Chronicles, a newly published collection of short stories that explores the daily dramas of people’s lovely lives in Oman.
Majan Chronicles by Ammar Al Naaimi. Cover art by Nof Al Zadjali. Image courtesy of Ammar Al Naaimi.
Basil’s first mistake was his timidity. As a twenty-five-year-old student at the Middle East College, he’d built up something of maturity in comparison to the full-time students. In contrast, Basil felt young, like a baby seal, compared to the grizzled part-time students, most of whom were employed like he was.
And so, Basil felt timid that evening at 8:53 on a Tuesday night, when he drove away from the college and towards his home in Al Mabaela.
There was only one road away from Middle East College. This road—a single two-way path connecting the college to a traffic light—was like a line drawn in the wastelands with a black pen. Mostly dark and lonely, Basil felt like that road was five-hundred meters of solitude. Often, to cheer himself up, he would lower the windows down and listen to the radio. So, on Tuesday, this was what Basil did.
For the last ten Tuesdays that semester, when Basil left the college, the black road was completely empty. Today, however, he saw someone standing on the dirt on the side of the road. A figure in blue overalls.
As Basil drove and watched curiously, the figure waved. Basil coughed gently, a remnant from a virus he’d caught last week. I can probably stop, just to see where he’s going, he thought to himself. After all, maybe the man just wanted to go down the road.
The car slowed down to a halt, giving the man space to come up to it. When he neared, Basil realized the man was an expatriate worker—maybe a builder, or something similar. Odd, he’d never before seen a builder hitchhiking.
“Salam, friend,” Basil said. “Where are you going?”
“Uh, Rusayl?” the man replied in rather broken Arabic.
“Rusayl?” Basil asked, not sure what the man was saying.
“Uh, Hail?” the man replied uncertainly.
“Is it Al Rusayl or Hail?” Basil asked, then realized the question was moot. “Brother, I’m going to Al Khoudh. I can’t take you there.”
The look in the man’s eyes changed, shifting through at least three different emotions before settling on a pleading look. The look, as well as the preceding change, set Basil on edge, as if the man wasn’t being particularly honest. “Please take me, Rusayl Roundabout.”
“But…” Not knowing how to say no again, Basil nodded hesitantly. The man nodded back with a big smile, then got into the car. “I will open the window because of Corona, okay?” Basil said, then stifled another cough. “Rusayl, yes?”
The car pulled back onto the road, and Basil turned right, already feeling slightly nervous. Why was a builder hitchhiking? What could the man possibly want in Rusayl Industrial Zone at night? The man’s flitting expression ran again through Basil’s mind.
I’m doing something good, Basil reminded himself. How many times had he needed a ride as a teenager? There’s nothing wrong with picking up someone here, especially if the bus was far away.
The car moved through total silence, save for the sounds of other vehicles around them. Basil sniffed, then coughed. The silence between Basil and the builder grew denser, almost thick enough to cut. Basil could make out the individual veins on the man’s hands, which rested on the knees of his blue overalls. “So, what are you doing in Rusayl?” hoping to sound friendly.
“I, uh,” the man said, then launched into a number of phrases which increasingly made no sense whatsoever to Basil.
The man’s words were running in aimless circles. Alright, it was time to change track.
Basil asked a more common, easier question: “What do you do for work?”
The man’s eyes brightened. “Yes?” he said hesitantly in broken Arabic.
Basil motioned the shape of a vague square and asked, “Builder? Houses?”
“Umm… Carpenter,” the man replied, and the two of them smiled to one another for one, glorious second, proud of their ability to bridge the gap between cultures. Then, the silence rose once more, awkward and heavy.
They were now half of the way towards Al Rusayl, and Basil began to notice—out of the corner of his eyes—strange movement. The man was scratching his knee.
Or was he?
Basil’s mind kicked into overdrive. Oh no, he’d just heard rumors of hitchhikers robbing a man in Al Sharqiya. What if this man was a thief? He could be just scratching his knee, but what if he was retrieving something? What—heaven forbid—what if that something was a knife?
What if he wasn’t a hitchhiker, just a thief? He’d initially need to go to Al Rusayl, but then changed his mind and said Al Hail. That was a red flag. Maybe the man was, right now, surveying the car for valuables.
I need to be ready to protect myself, Basil thought. He was trapped in a car with a man who could be a murderer, for all he knew. It might not be about the money. This innocent looking man with heavily tanned skin and waxy hair could be a full-fledged killer. A villain running across the country, spilling blood as he leapt from car to car.
The man brought his hand to his face. Basil’s eyes widened, trying to catch in their suspicion the smallest sudden movement.
Alright, okay, what was the game plan? Basil needed to be ready for anything. If the man moved… His hand would come up in a sideways motion, ready to plunge the knife into Basil’s chest. It was the quickest sort of underhanded trick. In that case, Basil needed to keep his hand free to block.
As the car moved through the road and went into a darker area, Basil took his precaution. He took his right hand off the steering wheel and drove using only the left. If the man attacked him, Basil could use his right hand to block the assailant’s deadly blow. Simultaneously, he would ram the car into the nearest pavement or streetlamp. Let them both crash.
I have my seatbelt on; he doesn’t, Basil thought with triumph, then went into a short, panicked coughing fit. But he couldn’t cough, he knew. He needed to suppress it. Basil had to be ready at all times.
The man began to fidget now, putting Basil even more on edge. The silence was electric. He felt a lazy droplet of sweat make its way down the right side of his forehead, towards his eye. Basil tried his hardest to blow the traitorous droplet away, fighting to keep his eyes open. The fear in him mounted his head like a shadowy, horned thing.
The man suddenly moved, startling Basil. The man pointed out of the window. “Here,” he said, his voice and finger shaking.
Basil couldn’t quite believe his ears. “What?”
“Here is okay brother. T-t-thank you,” the man said again.
Basil’s car slowed to a halt in a well-lit area near a roundabout. They still hadn’t reached Al Rusayl.
“But we—” Basil started, but the man had already hastily given him a half bow and a terrified smile, slammed the door shut, and ran away in the direction of the industrial area.
Basil drove away, confused and relieved. Okay, so at least the man hadn’t been a killer, intent on ridding the world of students who helped hitchhikers.
But what was happening? The pieces of the puzzle scattered across the back of Basil’s mind as he drove. The youth thought about this as he went through a roundabout and towards a more well-lit area, driving home finally.
Basil’s confusion became like an itch, intense and sharp. Why had the man acted so suspicious in the car? Why move his hand over his knees, and across his mouth? Why had the man run away? He’d grown increasingly fidgety every time Basil had coughed, as if—
Suddenly, three realizations hit Basil like a brick, causing him to open his eyes wide.
A: The man had been confused. Maybe the man hadn’t known the name of Al Rusayl. This was easy enough to imagine, considering he wasn’t a local.
B: Basil himself had been coughing. Coughing meant COVID-19. Maybe the man had been just as afraid of Basil’s hands as Basil had been of him. Maybe the man had been scared because Basil had been coughing next to him.
It was the third realization that shocked Basil. Why had he been suspicious of the man’s clothes, his accent, his movements? Why had he been so sure that the man meant ill?
“Am I a racist?” Basil asked out loud, incredulously.
Had he been suspicious of the man just because he wasn’t a local? Had he been fooled by the man’s clothes and accent? Had the man been local, would Basil have been suspicious at all?
He didn’t know anymore. The youth drove, trying not to think about it.
Majan Chronicles is available to purchase through Amazon.
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