It was after two in the afternoon and Sul was dismayed to find the food court more crowded than before. Don’t people have jobs to go back to anymore? To hell with these jobless losers, he thought, maybe I should just go ahead and do it now. He placed his right hand into the pocket to fish out the disposable cell phone but changed his mind and instead made a sharp turn left toward Macy’s.
For a city of this size the mall is huge. The device strapped to his right shin was beginning to grate the skin, and he regretted not having walked around a bit in Malik’s apartment to make sure the strap wasn’t put on too tight. Wafts of cinnamon assaulted his nose as he walked past a Cinnabon. There’s an empty bench close by. It was the exact spot where he first met Malik about two months ago.
“Are you Suleiman Bashir?” That was Malik’s icebreaker. Sul didn’t say anything at first, and gave only a nod when Malik asked again. After only a minute of extremely awkward exchanges Malik invited him to his study group. Sul remembered saying it was nice talking to you but I’ve got to get back to work but Malik blurted out “burning charcoal doesn’t make enough carbon monoxide.” Sul recalled blood rushing to his head when he heard this, and demanded to know what he meant, but Malik only handed him a piece of paper with a number on it, asking him to call after work.
He met the “study group” that evening. The meeting took place in a small one bedroom apartment next to a Laundromat. There were three others besides Malik, including a man with graying beards named Iman Hasan who said almost nothing. Malik admitted that he was the volunteer who took Sul’s call at the Suicide Hotline, and that he learned of Sul’s plan of making carbon monoxide by burning charcoal from the online forum Sul mentioned in his call. Since there was only one posting from this city on that week, they didn’t even need to hack into the server to get the IP address.
He got down to business quickly. He knew that Sul’s mother has been laid off and his father was having trouble paying the mortgage, on top of his sister’s tuition and Sul’s student loan. They also knew about Sul’s lackluster employment history after quitting med school last year. He then proposed a mutually beneficial arrangement.
It would never work. Sul remembered saying. Too many people in this town know I’m not remotely religious.
Not a problem. Malik had said. We have a list of web sites and online forums that you’re going to visit regularly from your home computer over the next two months. You’ll also start corresponding with an iman in Yemen. We don’t need to do much. You’re already half guilty in most Americans’ eyes because of your name and ethnic heritage.
Why don’t one of you do it? He remembered asking. We each have a unique set of skills that were purchased at great expense and are better used for other assignments, Malik explained.
My father brought us to this country to get away from the fundamentalists. If I do this it’ll break his heart. Malik was quick to point out that he was already planning on killing himself. Wouldn’t that break his heart too? This way you get to take care of your family’s problems too.
He bought an ice cream cone and went to sit on the bench, events from the last few hours replaying in his head. He remembered copying the letter Malik gave him to the Desktop of his home computer, and going to Malik’s apartment to get ready. Afterward he drove to the nearest ATM to make sure there’s thirty thousand dollars deposited in the checking account he opened last week. He remembered putting the ATM card and the passwords for all of his bank and brokerage accounts into an envelope, and mailed it to his sister. Nothing was overlooked.
He left the bench and began to walk back. There were fewer people in the food court this time, and the only uniform in sight was that of an army recruiter standing in front of the arcade on the other side. A table near the center of the food court was empty. He jumped on it, held out the cell phone, squeezed his eyes shut and shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he pressed the send button.
He opened his eyes and saw the four teenaged girls at the next table turn to glare at him, one of them still sucking on a straw. The elderly couple at the next table had a puzzled look. What did Malik say to do if the phone detonator doesn’t work? There’s a small black knob on top of the thing. He reached down to the bulge on his right leg, grabbed a hold through the denim, and yelled “Allahu Akbar” again as he gave it a twist.
The girls jumped to their feet and began to back away very slowly, like they’ve just seen a mountain lion. The old lady began to scream and everywhere people scrambled to their feet. He saw a mall cop walking toward him in a sluggish pace, unsure if this situation is within his pay grade. The army recruiter didn’t move, but seemed to be shouting.
With great effort Sul pulled the pant leg up to uncover the bomb, located the knob visually, and twisted. It wouldn’t budge. Maybe it turns counter-clockwise. He reached for the knob again. From his peripheral vision he could see the security guard scrambling away while on the right the army recruiter was dashing straight toward him. Everything began to take on a fluorescent pallor as the shouts and screams grinds to total silence. I hope this is what it’s like when a bomb goes off, he thought as he began to lose consciousness.