See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella. Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16
“We both live, or we both die” – Omar
Omar was afraid, but not totally panicked. He believed he could outrun his pursuer. His exercise program had fallen by the wayside lately because of all that had happened since Hani and Halima came to visit, but normally he ran twice a week at the park. And he was thirty years younger than Nemesio. Also, he had learned from years of karate training to keep cool in the face of physical confrontation. Though in karate class he’d faced boys and men who wanted to punch or kick him, not a psychopathic murderer who wanted to slice him to ribbons.
As he ran, he took his phone out. Police emergency response in Panama was abysmal, but he had an idea that he could call Samia, and have her alert the cops in the cruiser outside the house. They could be here in ten minutes. When he opened the phone, however, nothing happened. It was not one of the newer smartphones, but an old-fashioned flip phone, and was definitely not waterproof. The rain had gotten in and ruined it. Feeling stupid, he thrust it back into his pocket.
If there had been any kind of building to run into, maybe he could have sought shelter. Someplace with people, maybe a security guard. But this stretch of Punta Pacifica was completely undeveloped. The skyscrapers were all behind him. There was nothing for the next few kilometers but barren fields on both sides of the road, with construction materials piled up in places, and cranes standing like silent and uncaring witnesses to whatever human carnage might take place in the world of humans below.
The rain descended in a deluge. He couldn’t see three meters ahead. Looking back, he could not see Nemesio through the liquid curtain, though there was doubt the madman was there. He should get off the road, change directions, maybe lose Nemesio in the downpour. But there was nowhere to go. He didn’t want to run into a muddy field and get bogged down. If Nemesio saw him, he’d be stuck. A wrestling match in the mud was no good when the other guy was holding a knife that could disembowel a bull.
He looked back again, and to his shock, Nemesio was only a few meters behind. What Omar had thought was a big knife was actually a machete. It looked new and sharp. Nemesio held it comfortably, and it caught the faint light of the street lamps as he ran. That weapon was big enough to enter Omar’s chest and split his heart in two like a bloody strawberry. And there was no doubt that the man behind him was Nemesio. He’d thrown the hood back, and his close-set black eyes were wide and unblinking, glaring with such burning hatred that Omar could feel it like a laser cutting into his skin.
Nemesio’s scalp was shaved and marked with a tattoo of some kind. He was a short man, and had once been stout and fat, but had transformed himself. Yes, he was older, with sagging jowls and deep lines along the sides of his mouth, but he was in tremendous shape physically. His shoulders were wide with muscle, while his stomach was flat. Had he been training and planning for this day? He ran with his mouth open, and Omar saw the gleam of his gold teeth.
Omar thought Nemesio might call out, maybe hurl insults or threats, but the man only widened his nostrils and increased his speed. Somehow this was even more frightening. Nemesio was not here to posture, inspire fear or demand anything. The only thing he wanted was Omar’s life.
Panic swept through Omar’s veins like a flash flood. His breathing became irregular. Crossing a stream of mud that ran out of a field and across the road, he slipped and turned his right ankle. He recovered, but now his ankle threw up a shot of pain with every step. He kept looking back over his shoulder, which threw off his stride, and every time he looked Nemesio was closer. Considering the length of the machete, the older man was almost within reach. Omar could hear the man’s shoes striking the pavement, pap, pap, pap, like nails being driven into a coffin.
Empty your mind, he told himself, employing a mental tool that Sensei Alan had taught him. No thought, no pain, no emotion. The technique failed. His skin crawled with a sudden prescient fear that the machete was about to enter his back, hot and cruel, and sever his vertebrae. As if his thought had conjured the action into existence, a sudden line of pain shot across his upper back from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, as if he’d been lashed with a whip made of fire. He realized that Nemesio had just slashed him with the tip of the machete.
His panic bloomed into full-on terror. He stumbled, his stride breaking into a confused stutter. About to fall, he spun his arms like one of Nur’s homemade pinwheels in a hurricane. If he fell, he was dead. Somehow he recovered his balance and ran on.
He remembered Samia saying, “What about us? What about us?”
What would happen to them if he died here tonight? They would survive – Samia was strong – but, he suddenly realized, Nur would grow up without a father, just as Omar himself had done, and as Omar’s father had done – a history of loss repeating itself through the generations. That was not acceptable. That could not happen.
Ya Allah, he pleaded silently. Help me. Help me, help me, help me.
In response, he seemed to hear Samia’s voice, as clear as a birdsong, speaking in his ear. “You might be short, Omar, but you’re a giant. Eres el milagro. You are the miracle.” When had she first spoken those words? A long time ago. Just after the Day of the Dogs. But the words flowed into his muscles like warm honey, giving him strength. I am a giant. I can do it.
No more looking back. He faced forward and channeled every shred of energy into pumping his legs. He breathed rhythmically, as when running at the park.Two breaths in through the nose, one out through the mouth. His feet splashed through deep puddles, and he leaped over a wide pothole, clearing it smoothly. His ankle throbbed with terrible pain, and his right foot felt numb, like a clod of earth stuck to the end of his leg, but he ignored it. He risked a quick glance back and saw with tremendous relief that the gap was growing. He was going to make it!
Then the white Mercedes appeared.
Hammer and Anvil
The Mercedes roared up the road from behind them, passing Omar, splashing water onto him as it sped by. He’d always thought it was Nemesio behind the wheel, but now he realized that his crazed uncle was not acting alone. He had a henchman, a partner in villainy. Omar knew exactly what would happen. The Mercedes would cut him off ahead. The partner might have a machete of his own, or a gun, and Omar would be caught between the hammer and the anvil.
Not fair, he thought angrily, knowing this was a childish thought. It’s not fair.
Just as he’d expected, as soon as the Mercedes passed him, the driver hit the brakes. The car went into a skid on the wet road, fishtailing, and came to a shuddering stop about ten meters ahead, at which point the engine promptly died.
Omar looked around desperately, and like a miracle another street appeared on his right, a narrow road that branched off Avenida Bolívar at an acute angle. Without hesitation, Omar altered direction, taking the other road. Maybe he could lose the Mercedes, at least. Behind him, he could hear the Mercedes’s engine stuttering as the driver tried to start it. Good, he thought triumphantly. Finally something breaks my way.
The new road began to slope upward and curve left, and Omar realized instantly what this was: the freeway on-ramp, leading to the Corredor Sur. But that wasn’t right. The Corredor Sur on-ramp was in the other direction, on the other end of Punta Pacifica, wasn’t it? Since when was there an on-ramp here? In any case, this was a good development. There would be other cars on the Corredor. Maybe Omar could flag someone down. Plus, about a kilometer down the highway – if Omar could survive that long – there was a manned tollbooth.
The rain had lessened a bit, increasing visibility. Omar hugged the inside line of the on-ramp as it curved and climbed, digging into his well of strength to maintain his speed on the upslope. Finally the ramp levelled and straightened out, and Omar saw something confusing. A line of orange traffic cones ran down the middle of the ramp. Was there an accident ahead? If so, there might be police, in which case he was saved. He looked back: Nemesio was still there, but quite far behind, maybe a hundred meters or so. He seemed to be slowing.
Looking forward, Omar saw something that made his heart sink into his sodden shoes. Now he understood. No, he thought. No, no, no.
Fifty meters ahead, an orange-painted wooden barricade blocked the on-ramp. A sign said, “ROAD CLOSED.”
Omar had seen this so-called on-ramp from the Corredor many times, but he’d forgotten until now. It was still under construction. Beyond the barricade was nothing but a sheer drop to a muddy field. This was a dead end.
He was trapped.
Nevertheless, he ran toward the barricade, squeezed through a gap at the side, and dashed the stone’s throw to the end of the road. Rods of rusty rebar projected like crocodile’s teeth from the unfinished end of the bridge. He peered over the edge. The muddy, rain-pelted field was perhaps twenty meters below. Much, much too far to jump. He’d break half the bones in his body.
He ran to one side of the ramp, then the other, thinking maybe there would be a crane he could leap to, or a tree, anything. But no, there was nothing but some equipment and an earth mover far below. He looked back the way he had come, and there came Nemesio, just arriving on this flat stretch of the ramp. The man was sauntering now, relaxed, swinging the machete easily. He knows, Omar thought. He knows this is a dead end. Maybe he’d even planned this, he and the Mercedes driver together, channeling Omar where they wanted him to go, just like the natives of North America used to herd the buffalo into gullies to be shot.
Omar stood with feet spread and knees bent, poised to run or jump. But there was nowhere to go. Nemesio came on, still silent, not lording it over, but intensely focused, his face set in a mask of rage.
Calmness came over Omar unexpectedly, as if the sun had emerged from the dark, rain-filled sky to shine directly onto him. He squeezed past the barricade again, so that there was nothing between him and Nemesio. No obstacle, no shelter. Nemesio saw this and grinned. It was less a grin of mirth than a grimace of fury. Nemesio had always been violent, selfish and vain, but this man was someone entirely different, as if the old Nemesio had been possessed by a demon. Omar wondered what had happened to him in prison to turn him into this twisted, malevolent creature.
There was no point pleading with Nemesio, or trying to negotiate. Everything about him communicated a remorseless thirst for blood.
Instead, Omar faced his uncle in a relaxed pose, hands hanging at his sides. He blocked out the terrible pain in his ankle, and the lesser pain in his back. Laa hawla wa laa quwwata il-la billah, he said out loud. Then he called out to Nemesio: “Come, on then.” A surge of emotion rose inside him like a geyser and he bellowed, “COME ON!”
In response, his uncle began to run, charging straight at Omar from ten meters out. As he ran he let out a cry of his own, the words thundering and attenuated: “HIIIJOOO DE PUUTAAAAAA!”
Nemesio closed the distance like an angry bull. Omar waited, standing on the balls of his feet, his muscles loose but poised. When Nemesio was almost on him, the older man swung the machete in a downward vertical chop, aiming from the top of Omar’s head. Omar sidestepped the blow easily, snapping a quick front kick into Nemesio’s kidney, causing the man to arch backward in pain. Omar felt a moment of elation, thinking that maybe he could actually win this fight. Nemesio may have conditioned himself physically but he was not a trained fighter. Besides, Omar had a clear path behind Nemesio now. He could run back down the ramp, escape this trap. If the Mercedes was still there, he’d deal with that.
His moment of confidence came too soon. Even as Nemesio clutched his back where Omar had kicked him, he flung out the machete in a wild horizontal slash that caught the front of Omar’s right thigh, slicing through the muscle as if it was made of sponge cake.
The pain was instant and enormous. Omar’s leg gave way and he half stumbled, putting a hand down to catch himself. The machete came flashing downward at his neck and he rolled. He felt the blade strike the top of his shoe and go through, slashing the top of his foot open. La ilaha il-Allah. He was being cut to pieces, like a victim in a horror flick.
There would be no running away now. He put a hand to his thigh and felt hot blood gushing. The wound was bad. He crawled toward the barricade. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Nemesio triumphant, raising the machete high. His uncle brought the blade down, aiming for Omar’s calf, trying to hack Omar’s leg off. Omar log-rolled sideways and the blade missed, clanging on the asphalt. He looked again and saw that Nemesio had dropped it. Omar reached for it, seized it. The handle was cold and slick, but when Nemesio took a step forward Omar returned the favor, swinging at his uncle’s leg. The blade struck home and bit, sinking into Nemesio’s calf.
Nemesio threw his head back and roared in pain, pivoting away. The blade was embedded in Nemesio’s leg and it went with him, pulling out of Omar’s grasp. With a curse, Nemesio yanked the blade out of his own leg and limped toward Omar.
Omar crawled again, slipping around the barrier, leaving a trail of blood. He had no plan beyond putting some space between himself and Nemesio. His uncle’s torso was as wide as a barrel. Maybe he wouldn’t fit through the gap.
It was hopeless. With a grunt and a shove, Nemesio made it through. In spite of the terrible pain in his right leg, and the fact that it was nearly useless, Omar climbed to his feet. He would either fight, or meet death standing.
Nemesio approached slowly, warily. “I have waited for this moment,” he said quietly, “for so many years. Do you know what happened to me after you forced me out? How miserable my life became? How the world spit on me? God Himself tortured me. The only thing that sustained me was the thought of destroying you and your whore mother.” He must have seen the look of alarm on Omar’s face, because he said, “I haven’t visited her yet, but I will. But you first!” He lifted the machete.
The Mercedes. Omar wanted to laugh. Was it not enough to have him at the end of a bridge, wounded and helpless? Wasn’t this a bit of overkill?
“You can’t handle me on your own?” Omar said bitterly. “You had to bring your friend?”
Cautiously, trying not to lose sight of Omar, Nemesio angled his body so he could see the oncoming car. Omar saw now that the tattoo on Nemesio’s skull depicted a dragon with a man’s body in its mouth, and below it the words, VENGEANCE IS MINE.
The Mercedes was growing rapidly closer. What was the crazy driver doing? The vehicle wasn’t slowing down at all. In fact, it was accelerating. The motor roared, and the Mercedes hurtled directly toward the barricade. It would never stop in time, especially with the pavement slick with rain. The lights grew bright. The Mercedes flew toward them, gaining speed. It was almost on the barricade. It was going to crash right through and smash them both to pulp.
Nemesio was frozen in place, apparently confused. At the last instant he raised a hand as if to stop the oncoming juggernaut.
Omar dropped to his belly and rolled off the unfinished end of the bridge.
He caught one of the lengths of rebar that jutted from the concrete. A split second later, Nemesio’s scream was cut short by a massive crashing sound as the Mercedes smashed through the barricade. It sailed directly over Omar’s head, accompanied by fragments of wood and steel from the barricade. For one surreal instant in time, hanging there in space, gripping the rebar with all his strength, Omar thought he saw Nemesio pinned to the front of the vehicle. Then car and man were gone, sailing through the air and plummeting toward the ground. Omar twisted his head and saw the Mercedes smash into the muddy field with a horrific shattering and rending sound.
With a tremendous effort, Omar pulled himself up high enough that he could then push with his triceps. He swung a leg up onto the ramp, scrabbled at the asphalt with his fingernails, and pulled himself up and over. His breath came in desperate gasps. The ramp was covered with the wreckage of the annihilated barricade, and Omar himself was lying on a chunk of wood. Still, he wanted to lie here and rest, or even sleep, but he knew that if he didn’t stop the bleeding from his thigh wound, he’d be dead in ten minutes.
He took off his shirt and tried tearing it into strips to make a tourniquet, but found he didn’t have the strength. Remembering the machete, he crawled around in the wreckage, found it, and used it to cut a long strip of cloth. He tied this tightly around his leg, above the wound. Cutting another strip, he bandaged the wound itself. By the time he was done, his hands, arms and chest were covered in blood.
Now the foot. He pulled back the top of his shoe, wincing at the intense pain, not only from the cut but from the ankle, which was now swollen and blue. To his relief, the cut on his foot wasn’t that bad. The bleeding was already slowing. If he took off his shoe to bandage it, he’d never get it on again because of the swelling. He left it alone.
He was exhausted. He remembered learning in school about the mitochondria, the power plants of the cells, they called them. Well, all his mitochondria were on strike. He wanted to lie there forever. But no. There was no guarantee that anyone had seen what had happened, or that any help would come. Even more than that, he had to verify that Nemesio was dead. He knew it was irrational. No one could have survived that accident. But Nemesio was like a fire that kept springing up again, even after you’d doused it and stamped it out. Omar had to see with his own eyes.
Shakily, feeling like a sapling that has somehow survived a hurricane, using the machete for support, he climbed to his feet. Bare chested, he walked down the ramp, hobbling badly, trying as much possible to keep the weight off his right leg. He carried the machete limply. The rain had lightened to a drizzle, but it was enough to begin to wash the blood from Omar’s arms and chest, though no doubt much of it ran down into his pants and shoes.
Allah had saved him. He’d cried out to Allah for help, and the Lord of the Worlds had answered. That was all Omar could think. It had always been that way in his life, hadn’t it? He’d find himself in a desperate situation, and Allah would rescue him. It didn’t matter that Omar himself sometimes had to do the work to save himself, or that sometimes the rescuing came at the hands of a friend or even a stranger. Allah was the prime mover, the One who orchestrated events and either directed people’s hands or stayed them. People did the work, but Allah furnished the tools and opened the way. SubhanAllah wa bihamdih.
It seemed incredible that no one had witnessed all that had happened, but why would they? This was an unfinished bridge, in the rain at night.
It took only fifteen minutes to walk all the way down to the field where the Mercedes had crashed, but it felt like the longest walk of his life, as he battled pain and weariness at every step. As he approached the Mercedes, he saw that the engine block was crushed and compressed. Low flames licked out from under the crumpled hood.
The field was littered with pieces of the barricade. A large, lumpy object lay in the mud. As Omar neared, he saw that it was the upper half of Nemesio’s body, minus one arm. The man’s eyes were wide with terror and rage, his lips pulled back in a rictus, so that his golden teeth shone in the light from the flames. His chest was caved in, and rain had begun to pool in the depression.
Omar turned away and vomited, his stomach contracting uncontrollably, heaving again and again until nothing was left. He spat and stood there, not knowing what to do.
The driver of the car moaned in pain. Omar was stunned. How could the man still be alive? He limped toward the vehicle, his ankle throwing up gouts of pain every time he pulled the foot from the sucking mud.
The driver’s side airbag had deployed, and the driver was enveloped by the still-inflated nylon. Omar couldn’t see the man’s face. He could feel the heat from the flames lapping out of the engine, and the air was filled with some kind of smoky powder. The whole area stank of gasoline. He smelled roasting flesh as well, and guessed that at least one of Nemesio’s body parts was in the engine compartment, getting cooked. His stomach lurched again, and he gagged, but did not vomit.
The driver might suffocate with his face in that bag. True, he’d stalked Omar for days and tried to kill him, but that didn’t mean Omar could stand by and watch him die, no matter who he was. Carefully, Omar used the machete to puncture the air bag. It deflated with a whoosh, and Omar saw the man behind the wheel.
It was Celio Natá.
Blood streamed from the old man’s mouth, staining his chin and chest. His entire face was bruised from the air bag impact. Omar stood frozen with shock. His mind was like a computer with sludge poured into it. Nothing made sense.
His uncle’s eyes opened, and he saw Omar. “Get away,” he muttered. “Car is going to blow. Don’t you… smell the gas?”
“What – “ Omar stammered. “What are you doing here? It was you, following me?”
“Had to – protect you. Knew the cops… couldn’t. I saw Nemesio… machete… about to kill you. Didn’t know… what else to do.”
Omar was overwhelmed. Celio had done this, driven his car off the end of a bridge, to protect him?
The flames intensified. Omar had a feeling that the fire would spread to the cabin in a minute, burning Celio alive. If the whole thing didn’t explode first. The cabin was already filling with foul smoke that smelled like burning plastic. Celio shook with great, hacking coughs that brought up more scarlet blood.
Omar tried to open the driver’s side door. The door handle was hot, but not yet scalding. The door was jammed. He tried the back door, and it opened with a groan of protesting metal. He crawled into the smoke-filled car. His wounded leg burned with agony as he shimmied through the gap between the backseat and the front. He tried to release Celio’s seat belt, but it too was jammed.
“No,” Celio protested between coughs. “Car’s… going to explode. Leave me.”
“Quiet!” Omar barked as he yanked with both hands at the seat belt. The smoke was acrid and burning. His eyes were filled with water, he coughed almost constantly. “Save your breath. We both live, or we both die.”
As quickly as he could, Omar exited the car, retrieved the machete, and crawled back in. The fire had spread to the cabin. The seats were beginning to burn. Celio screamed. Kneeling on the passenger seat, sawing at the seat belt, Omar felt his knees burning. His uncle’s clothing was on fire.
Shouting out loud, feeling his hair catch fire, Omar cut through the belt, saw that the passenger side door was ajar, and kicked it open with both feet. His own pants were burning. With every ounce of strength and willpower he possessed, he dragged Tio Celio out through the passenger side door, rolled the old man in the wet mud to put out the flames, then did the same for himself.
His body was a mass of pain. It was almost as bad as the dog attack. He could smell his own scorched flesh. Not this again, he thought. Not this again. He coughed convulsively. The fire in the car intensified and Omar knew it must blow soon. They were much too close. Crawling, gripping Celio by one arm, he dragged the old man away from the car. He heard sirens in the distance. Help was coming. He crawled on, pulling, pulling, ignoring Celio’s protests of pain.
The car exploded.
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.