This story is by Gregory Faraone and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cheap white paint lines the cramped interior of a dimly lit, eight-by-eight room. The only light comes dangling from a cord above a table in the center of the room. Silently, two men sit facing each other from opposite sides of the table. A tape recorder sits atop the table between the two men. Both men rest their hands on the table, until one reaches to pull a cigarette from his breast pocket just below his badge. The other’s wrists are cuffed to the table and bruised from straining to pick at his own fingernails. The frayed nerve endings of the cuticle are like blood to a shark for the man as a cigarette slips into his mouth and ignites, the flick of his finger submitting the fire to his will. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be doing the same with the specimen sitting before him.
“So… Bassaym, are you ready to stop bullshitting me, and tell me what’s really going on?” the man says through an exhalation of smoke that pools into a hazy fog around the dangling light. As the light sways in the smoke, shadows dance a sacrificial ritual across the greyed landscape of dimly lit walls to the ceremoniously steady hiss of the tape recorder.
Bassaym stares through the man at the door behind him. With each second’s tick in Bassaym’s internal clock, the only exit slips further and further away into a murky sea of inescapable shadows. He knows this might be it. He thinks he might even deserve it. He ponders how naïve he could be to believe that he could make it into America. To someone who’s already made up their mind, Bassaym—a Middle Eastern man in his early-thirties who wears a turban and sports a large beard—looks unmistakably like a terrorist.
Bassaym knew this was a bad idea from the beginning. He sat there at the terminal in the Madrid airport next to his fiancé, Jenny, biting his fingernails and looking around anxiously. She placed a steadying hand on his shoulder. “It’s ok babe,” she whispered soothingly. “I know this is scary, but you’ve made it through far worse and you’re better for it. There’s nothing to worry about”
“But I look like a terrorist. Even if they let me in, they’ll never actually let me stay.”
“You’ve been spending too much time on twitter lately. Besides, you’re my terrorist,” she teased.
“That’s not funny,” he tried to remain stern, but couldn’t help starting to crack a smile.
“Maybe you’re actually just scared to meet my parents? I mean, they are fond of waterboarding,” she mused with a raised brow. And with that, Bassaym’s levy had broken and he let out a giggle. She leaned in and gave him a reassuring kiss, knowing the battle was won. With her bright blue eyes, short brownish-red hair, supple figure, and exuberant cunning, they both knew she would have her way. They had only met ten months before in Germany, but now there was no turning back—love, the most addictive drug of all.
“Listen, we know who you really are. The two of you are looking at hard time, but if you cooperate, maybe you make things easier on the both of you.”
“Leave Jenny out of this.”
“Maybe I can. Maybe you can protect her if you tell me everything.”
Earlier in the same room, Jenny sat at the table facing the man, exasperated by the situation. It was just the two of them in the room, alone in the silence. As the man turned on the recorder, the shadows began to dance to its steady hiss.
“How well do you know Bassaym?”
Jenny rolled her eyes, “He’s my fiancé…”
The man stared back silently, unsatisfied with her response.
“You’re making a big mistake. You can’t detain us like this. This is illegal. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Listen, miss, I’m just doing my job, and my job is to save lives and keep this great country safe. I have the authority to hold the two of you for as long as I see fit. Now, would you care to answer the question?”
“I want my lawyer.”
“Not going to happen, we’re outside the jurisdiction of conventional laws on this one. We have proof that your fiancé is not who he says he is.”
Outside the jurisdiction of conventional laws, she thought. “What have you done with him? Is Bassaym ok?” Jenny blurted out frantically. “If you hurt him—”
“He’s fine… for now, but it’s time you learned who your fiancé really is.” Considering whether she already knew, the man paid careful attention to her reactions.
“Neither of us have done anything wrong,” Bassaym pleads with the man. “Search our luggage, we don’t have anything. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
Raising his voice, “You were a hit in the Interpol database. Some illicit financial transactions raised red flags. You came into a lot of money recently. So why would a known terrorist financier be lining your pockets?”
“You’ve got this all wrong. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you’ve got the wrong person—”
“Perhaps Jenny is just a pawn in your plot to set up an American operation. Some young American girl naïve enough to fall for your ruse and marry you into citizenship. Once you had her convinced, your handlers provided financing to help you seal the deal and start the next phase. Any of this sounding familiar?”
“What? No! I love Jenny, I would never do something like that to her. I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”
The man gets up out of his chair. He begins to pace around the table, inevitably passing behind Bassaym. Fully engulfed in the shadows, a familiar flicking conjures a rosy aura around a fresh cigarette pressed in between the man’s lips.
“I don’t believe any of this garbage,” rebuked Jenny, “Bassaym didn’t receive money from terrorist financiers.”
“And your engagement ring? It’s looking quite expensive. Jewelry would be a pretty convenient way to transfer a lot of value without having to carry cash.”
“It’s a piece of costume jewelry for god’s sake! I was with him when he bought it. None of this proves that Bassaym is guilty of anything.”
The man sighed and began flipping through a folder on the table. “Interpol sent over photos of Bassaym withdrawing the illegal funds. Here, have a look.” The man slid the photos across the table into Jenny’s restrained hands. She gasped at the uncanny resemblance.
“N—No, that’s im—impossible,” she stammered, struggling to untie the knot in her throat. Overcome with a burst of anger to hide the fear, she cast the photos away. Desperation written on her face, she saw only two choices—try to save herself, or fight for her fiancé. She took several deep breaths. As she made up her mind, the image of her happy family disappeared like the last glimmer of light slipping behind the event horizon into the omnipotent darkness of a black hole.
The man sets one hand on Bassaym’s shoulder and removes the cigarette from his mouth with the other. “I’m going to give you one more chance to tell me the truth. I feel for you in this situation, I really do. It’s not too late to cooperate, but if you don’t cooperate with me here—and I do mean right fucking now—then you’ll leave me know choice but to escalate things, so start talking.”
Bassaym looks up at the man who’s both claiming to offer him a lifeline and threatening to burn him with his lit cigarette. The duality in this offer strikes Bassaym as the same pitch terrorists might offer, to reach for salvation or get burned. “I’m ready to cooperate.”
Bassaym tries to fight back tears. Unable to wipe them, they stream down his cheeks. Succumbing to the sacrificial hymn of the shadows circling him, Bassaym begins confessing, “You’re right about Jenny being a pawn. She never knew anything…”
Jenny’s face portrayed a wave of revelation. “How could I have been so fucking stupid,” Jenny sobbed convincingly to the man, knowing that the only way to carry out the next phase of the plan would be for Bassaym to take the fall. After all, that’s why she picked him in the first place. The disillusionment of being a refugee and his dissident-leaning demeanor towards America made it all the easier for her to manipulate him. Jenny knew Bassaym would never betray her. Sure, she felt bad, for a moment, but they both knew the risks. If a sacrifice must be made, it shall be made for the cause. To know that absolutely, one mustn’t look further than the carefully choreographed movements of the shadows to a steady hiss in a smoke-filled room.