Thursday, September 13, 2018

THE GIRL SHE USED TO BE: a short story

(Note: This tale is from my short story collection: HAY MOON AND OTHER STORIES.)


Jim had loved Allison then and he would always love her. That was why he recognized her now, even though he had not laid eyes on her for nearly thirty years. 
She was sitting there by herself in the train station with a large shopping bag at her feet and a leather-bound book in her lap. For some reason, Jim found that strange. But so many things about Allison’s situation were strange—everything really. Why had she disappeared all those years ago? And why had Jim not known that she was back—back from wherever she had been? 
Although he would never have told his wife and two children, Jim still executed search engine queries for her name from time to time. She was his first real love, after all; and when she had stepped out of that restaurant, never to return, she had taken a part of him with her.
As he walked over to where she was sitting, a local politician began making a speech that was broadcast via the speakers overhead. The high-speed rail system was new for the city. Today was its inauguration day, in fact. The rail line was touted as an economic boon to this part of the Ohio rust belt. 
He passed a newspaper vending machine that dispensed copies of the local paper: HIGH-SPEED RAIL OPENS TODAY DESPITE SECURITY CONCERNS the main headline said. There had apparently not been sufficient funds to install the sort of security systems that (supposedly) protected air travelers from terrorist attacks. But Jim was not concerned about his train ride to Pittsburg. There were plenty of more likely places for terrorists to strike; and right now Allison was the only thing on his mind, anyway. 
“Allison!” Jim said, standing before her now. He gripped the handle of his briefcase with a sweaty palm. What would she say to him, after all these years? And would she still find him attractive? He was no longer the slender young man he had been all those years ago, in college. He had lost much of his hair; and he knew that the skin on his face had become baggy and fleshy.  
He noted that she was still as beautiful as she had been—though she had undeniably aged since then. When she looked into his eyes, there was immediate recognition—and another emotion that he thought he recognized as—
Dread?
Why should she feel that way? Did she know that he had planned to propose to her that very night? He had had the ring tucked away in his jacket pocket. But then Allison had disappeared, and the ring had been sold for sixty cents on the dollar to a pawnshop.
“Jim,” she said. Her eyes fell to the book on her lap, and she immediately slammed it shut. She laid her hands across its cover. She pulled the shopping bag on the floor closer to her body. “Is that you? Is that really you?”
“It’s me, Allison. Yes, it’s me.” He wanted to hug her, touch her hand, something. But she did not seem inclined toward any form of intimacy—even intimacy of the platonic sort that passes between old friends. 
She could not have forgotten how much more they had been to each other. Or could she?
And then she gazed down into her lap again. Her intentions were clear: She wanted him to go away. She wanted to pretend that he did not exist, and that the past did not exist.
“Where have you been?” he asked, dropping all pretense of making small talk. “What happened to you? We were having dinner at that little restaurant near campus. You were tipsy from the wine and you said you needed some air. You stepped out into the parking lot and I never saw you again.”
“Jim—”
“As far as I know, no one ever saw you again. The police grilled me. Then the FBI. And your family never forgave me. They believed that it was my fault, somehow. That I should have been there to save you from—whatever or whoever it was.” He glanced down into her shopping bag. It contained a plastic and metal device that was wrapped in masking tape. There was a button on the top of the device. 
“Perhaps they were right,” he said.
“Jim,” she began again. “I did love you. You must know that. But I am no longer the person I was back then.” 
He noticed something unusual about her voice—no, not her voice; but her speech. She was speaking awkwardly, as if she had to consciously choose each word. She also spoke with an odd inflection, as if—
As if she was speaking a foreign language. Of course that was crazy. Jim didn’t know where she had been for the past three decades; but Allison had been born and raised here in the Midwest. 
“What did your FBI say about me, Jim?” she asked in that unfamiliar inflection of hers.
Since when is it my FBI? he wanted to ask. But he let the question slide.
“Oh, crazy stuff,” he said. “They seemed to believe you had been abducted by Iranian agents, of all things. It was only a few years after the hostage crisis in Tehran, you’ll remember. The Iranians were kidnapping young Americans, to use them as terrorists someday, the FBI guys said.”
She sighed, and shook her head. “Jim, since you did love me once, I feel I owe you an explanation, even if it is very late in coming. The girl I used to be—the one you used to know—is dead,” Allison said. “My new name is Leila.”
“Leila?” Jim asked. He was starting to piece things together. “So you did go to Iran, then? Was that true, after all?” 
She smiled weakly. “I’ll tell you about it; but it will be hard for you to understand what I’ve been through. Like I said, the girl you knew back then is dead. She’s been dead for years.”
“I don’t believe that. I could never believe that. But tell me anyway.”
“When I stepped outside the restaurant and into the parking lot, I was in fact feeling the wine. I was a little dizzy. So I barely noticed the van that had pulled up beside me. The men grabbed me, put a gag over my mouth and then took me….I don’t know where exactly, it was some apartment. A horrible place, really. I remember holes in the plaster, and cockroaches all over the floor.
They violated me—over and over again, as men who follow the true faith are deserving to do with an infidel whore. That’s what they called me as they were doing it: a whore. This went on for….I can’t say …Several days, at least. 
Then a few days after that, we went on a long journey. I don’t remember much of that part—I was drugged and blindfolded for most of the trip. 
When I came to, we were in Tehran. There were more beatings, more well….you know—but finally they gave me my redemption. They allowed me to convert to the one true faith. And then they found a husband for me.”
“You’re married?” Jim asked. 
“My husband was one of the students who captured the embassy of the Great Satan in 1979,” Allison said. “A true hero of the glorious Islamic Revolution. He instructed me, guided me to become the new person I am today. My eyes have been opened, Jim. Wait until you see the truth, and you’ll understand how much of your life is actually just a big lie.”
“This husband of yours,” Jim said. “Where is he now?”
Her hands still atop the leather-bound book, Allison made two fists. Jim was able to partially see the gilt script on the cover of the book. He was of course unable to read it; but apparently Allison could now read whatever language that was. It looked like Arabic. No—it would probably be Farsi, the primary language of Iran. 
“Two years ago,” she said. “My husband died in a shootout with agents of the Great Satan in Istanbul. But at least I know he died a martyr. I also have a son, Jim. And God willing, he will become a martyr someday, too.” 
“Allison, this is nuts,” Jim said. “Can’t you see how these people played you? All this ‘Great Satan’ nonsense. Your dad was a U.S. marine, for goodness sake. As American as apple pie. And you were a cheerleader in high school, Allison. We used to go to rock concerts together. You used to wear that blue bikini of yours, and every guy on the beach would turn around and stare at you. You were fun, Allison.  You loved life. I don’t see how could you could become one of those death worshipping fanatics—no matter what they did to you.” 
“I already told you,” she said sadly. “Allison is dead. And if you can’t see the sinfulness around you, then I’m afraid you’re going to hell, Jim. To Jahannam. Along with the rest of them.”
She stood abruptly, placing the book into the shopping bag, alongside the object that was already there. Jim looked at the metal and plastic device again. And the single button on top of it.
And suddenly, he completely understood.
“Yes, Jim. I know that you know. There’s nothing you can do now. So walk away from me, and save yourself. That’s the only choice left to you.”
Without another word, she turned away from him and began walking in the direction of the Chicago-bound train. As she walked by a uniformed security guard, she clutched the shopping bag tightly with one hand, so it would be difficult for the guard to see inside it.
I’m going to hell, Jim thought, as he watched her walk away. And you’re going to detonate a bomb on a train full of office workers and grandmothers and schoolchildren. 
Jim had been young then; but he was in midlife now; and he was no stranger to loss and death. He knew that there were many ways that you could lose a person you loved, and that death was not always the cruelest way.

The woman named Leila neared the platform where passengers were boarding the train for Chicago. And Jim—still very much in love with the girl that Leila used to be—dropped his briefcase on the floor of the train station and ran in the direction of the security guard.

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