…of what’s to come. Enjoy! Feedback is always welcome.
Photograph and text by Hope Batterson
He thought about his family often, though they were no longer around. Why had he not spent more time with them? He loved them so. Not a day went by he didn’t think about them, his heart aching to hold them again, to kiss his Awa and hold his Atia and keep her safe. Atia. They said she was a war criminal, enemy number one, but he couldn’t believe that. There was no way his little girl had turned into such a horrific monster, a traitor to her country, a liar, a murderer…there was no way. Had he not spent enough time with her, to teach her peace? He blamed himself. Stricken with grief after his Awa’s passing, he shut himself away and drowned his guilt, often forgetting about his little girl. His guilt over his negligence haunted him every night. Atia had not asked for this…she deserved so much more, a mother, a better father, a happy home and love. She was innocent, and he failed her.
Now the television cried out for her head, demanding she stand trial for the slaughter of millions and for instigating the war, all for her own selfish reasons. They likened her to a madman, to history’s deranged assassins and mass gunmen, using insanity as her motive. And as she had eluded capture, she was considered still at large and very dangerous. Neighbors moved, relatives stopped checking in, and pretty soon he found himself entirely alone. No one spoke to him, some claiming they never even knew him in the first place, and all out of fear he might snap like his daughter had. No one wanted to be considered an enemy of the state, especially not in times of war. And this war was different, massive in scope, and completely without safety of any kind. Everyone was at risk of dying since the whole globe was a warzone. The best way to keep yourself and your family safe was to cooperate fully with the newly established government, which meant fraternization with Enemy Number One’s family was out of the question.
And now they were coming for him. He had known it was only a matter of time, given Atia’s prominent military career and impressive academic performance prior to criminal activity. Everyone around here knew Atia Mehtab, the sweet little girl of unnatural beauty, the unfortunate offspring of a dead mother and an alcoholic father. Still, she strove to be perfect, to show the world she would not be held back by her familial history. Atia tried so hard to impress the world, and he was so proud of her. She took care of him when he should have taken care of her. At the time, he blamed the whispers that urged him to drink, the words of evil itself leading him astray. As time passed, he recognized his own failure, his failure to his wife and his daughter and to Allah. No one but himself led him astray. He repented, and asked forgiveness. On that day, he devoted himself not to his own grief but to his daughter, who at the time had already grown to be fourteen. Despite her age, when she saw him throw out all the bottles from the house and awkwardly asked if she wanted to go to the park, her eyes welled up with tears. She wept, clinging to his neck, and he wept with her. He held her hand as he walked her to the park down the street, where he should have taken her as a child to let her play, and there they sat swinging and talking and laughing and crying.
He had not realized that Atia had not grieved for the loss of her mother; she was six when Awa died, and because he had failed them both Atia was forced to grow up. No youthful ignorance of adult responsibility, no innocence or playtime, no friends…just Atia, star pupil and caretaker for her drunk father. But he could not allow his shame to overwhelm him, lest the evil return. He took his daughter in his arms every chance he could, telling her stories of her mother and reminding her how loved she was. Atia’s eyes glowed at the mention of her mother; he remembered his Awa, the most beautiful woman he had ever met, who somehow loved him so much she converted in order to be with him. He never understood what Awa had seen in him, but he wouldn’t question it. He took her, an American, as his wife, and pledged his life and love to her. She pledged her life and love in return. He had never felt as lucky as he had in that moment, save but one other occasion: the birth of their daughter, Atia, their little miracle.
He and Atia held a small memorial service to Awa, just the two of them. They remembered her beauty, her intellect, her laughter, and her love, honoring her memory by sharing stories about her life with one another. They laughed, they wept, but most importantly they found closure. He knew Atia was his only priority now, and looking upon her he knew his responsibility towards her would not be easy. She was growing into the beautiful woman Awa had been, determined, ambitious, brilliant and idealistic. His heart swelled with pride when she enlisted at age eighteen, but he also ached knowing his time with her was limited. She’d grown up too fast, and he hadn’t been there for half of it.
Now, he didn’t know what to think. He heard what the television said, he saw the wanted ads, he knew people whispered behind his back. His Atia, his pride and joy, his miracle, his gift, had become a murderer and started World War III. But he couldn’t believe it, no matter how many times he was called in for questioning or his home was raided. There was no sign of Atia, and she had made no contact with him since the scandal happened; perhaps she was trying to protect him by severing ties, but all he had wanted was to protect her. He wanted her to come home, even if it meant his death. He went to great lengths to try to find her, and eventually he was noticed. He became a target, but he didn’t care if he died. He just wanted his daughter back.
And when he found her, the glow in her eyes had dulled. Instead of weeping and allowing him to hold her again, she ordered him away and became coldly detached. What had happened? Who was this woman? What had become of his daughter? He begged her to come home with him. She responded with a glare and told him she would not. Any action of hers made him vulnerable, and she would not drag him into her mess. He cried as a child would, shamelessly, beseeching her to stay with him. If they died, they died together, he said. He wanted nothing more than to live his final moments with his daughter.
But she refused. She forced him out, pushed him away. After that, he never found her again. She had relocated, far away if the authorities were to be believed, and he wandered aimlessly for two years as the war dragged on, moving from one hiding spot to the next. He never told anyone his name or made mention of any family, and never stayed in one spot for more than a few days. They were right on his tail, he knew, always looking for him in the hopes that he might lead them to her. Nowhere was safe for him anymore, but perhaps that was what he deserved for spending so many years in his own selfish sins. And every night he cried himself to sleep in deepest sorrow, wishing he could have done more yet knowing he couldn’t change the past.
Today, he would die. He had no doubts. He was tired of running. He found his way back to their house, the most appropriate place for his death. Rundown, overgrown with weeds, the once modestly cute house now looked almost unrecognizable. But as he approached the door, the familiarities became apparent: careful on that third step up to the front porch, as it was loose and wobbled dangerously when weight was put on it; hold the door handle still and jiggle the key in the lock to get the door open, otherwise the key won’t turn; duck so as not to hit one’s head on the low doorframe. As he stepped inside, he realized that things were exactly as they had been when he’d left. They knew he had abandoned the place, so they had forsaken it as well. No more raids, no more broken furniture or missing valuables, no more spying. Good. He wanted to be alone with his memories in his final moments.
Not bothering to lock the door behind himself, he walked slowly through the rooms, pausing at pictures of he and Awa on their wedding day, of Atia at her high school graduation, all the while reflecting on his life and the choices he made. Once again, he prayed for forgiveness, but accepted whatever fate awaited him beyond. He made his choices, good and bad. There was no going back now. He sat in his armchair and waited.
It wasn’t long until they arrived. Although his eyes were closed, he knew they were there, opening the door to the house for the last time. He breathed deeply, slowly opening his eyes to see the men standing before him. They encircled his chair and remained silent. The man directly in front of him was the leader of the new Republic, fighting bravely against the enemies who slaughtered trillions of innocents. His daughter was apparently among those enemies. It seemed fitting that Nelson, the very man who condemned his daughter to death, should be the one to pull the trigger.
“I will only ask once, since you and I both know that no amount of torture will break you.” Nelson straightened his tie, pristine in his suit. It seemed a shame to get blood on that suit.
He blinked, nodded, and then leaned back once more in his armchair, closing his eyes. He heard a sigh, some shuffling, then felt the cold metal of the barrel pressed against his temple. He crossed his fingers in his lap, once again prayed for forgiveness, and prayed for Atia. He heard the trigger pulled, and embraced peace for the first time in twenty long years.