A Road to Damascus

Set in con­tem­po­rary Beirut, A Road to Damascus is a faux-thriller about a reclu­sive botanist who wit­ness­es a polit­i­cal mur­der and is drawn into a per­son­al inves­ti­ga­tion.

CHAPTER ONE

Today began lat­er than yes­ter­day, but I’m in no hur­ry. It’s all rel­a­tive. One, two, three and part. Once more: one, two, three and part. The comb feels like a rake etch­ing lines through soil. I make a men­tal note to thank Nancy for it as I’m tempt­ed to run it through my hair one more time. But no: My watch reminds me not to push my luck.

Nancy says pho­tog­ra­phers call this time of day “mag­ic hour,” though it’s much briefer than that. It’s when the sun has start­ed to light the sky but has not yet dawned. Or for me, it’s the time when I can see with­out being seen.

Next, I pull at my bot­tom eye­lids. First left, then right. Not too long ago Nancy men­tioned in pass­ing that the whites of the eyes are the first to go when you hit thir­ty. Since then I’ve made it a part of my morn­ing rit­u­al to check mine. So far, so good.

Next I check my bag. It’s all there. No, wait — maybe not. Alright I’m a lit­tle off today. I’ll pick up pace soon enough, but first I slide back into my bed­room, care­ful not to wake her up. I throw a quick glance around the dim light. Good, I can tell from the motion of Nancy’s bare back she’s still asleep. Her clothes and under­wear remain scat­tered around the bed. Her foot is stick­ing out from under the cov­ers, which I tug down and tuck under her toes, care­ful not to wake her.

I glance around. There it is, on my desk where I left it just a few hours ago. I grab it and tip­toe back out. Another quick check in the mir­ror, I adjust my tie, and now I’m good to go.

I grab my bag and step out into anoth­er chilly dawn. The breeze feels good on my face, and I take it all in. It rained again last night. The grav­el feels squishi­er under my feet. My wind­shield is mud­di­er than yes­ter­day and my Volvo a dark­er shade of brown. It’s all rel­a­tive — that’s why I chose that col­or any­way. A per­fect cam­ou­flage. I turn on the igni­tion, and while my engine heats up reach again into my bag.

I ease the car onto the road, hit the gas and shift to sec­ond gear. I speak into the recorder: “Day 7 — Fuck.”

I almost run over some idiot on a bicy­cle. “Watch where you’re going ass­hole!” I yell out of the win­dow, but he swerves around the car with­out miss­ing a beat. Who still rides a bicy­cle in Beirut any­way?.

I con­tin­ue: “Day 7: November 1, 5:13 a.m. The Road to Damascus.”

.….……

The field is wet­ter than yes­ter­day. Skies clear though they appear to be cloud­ing up again.” I lock my car and as I walk towards the site I get a slight chill. I’ve made up the time I lost by doz­ing off at my desk ear­li­er, but some­how today still feels off.

I doubt these details will sur­vive the tech­ni­cal edit of this paper, but I’ve found in the past that my own moods affect the out­come of my stud­ies. Of course I don’t have sci­en­tif­ic basis for this premise, but I gen­er­al­ly find greater respon­sive­ness in my sub­jects when I myself am in a less dis­com­bob­u­lat­ed pre­dis­po­si­tion. I mean, in a less both­ered mood.”

There, I’ve arrived. This spot is marked by a sharp turn in the high­way. I still see it, but from where I’m stand­ing can bare­ly hear the occa­sion­al car speed past. Yet I can tell the day hasn’t start­ed yet. This road gets very busy in a few hours, as the main artery that con­nects Lebanon to Syria — I give my watch anoth­er quick glance — but now not even the first bus has passed through.

Of the sites we’ve stud­ied so far, the Acacia Geranium seems most pop­u­lous on this par­tic­u­lar patch of earth, and unlike its sib­lings in the Geranium fam­i­ly seems to thrive in the most neglect­ed areas pro­vid­ed it is ade­quate­ly irri­gat­ed. The slope of this stretch of high­way seems to lead all waste water to this par­tic­u­lar spot.”

I pause the recorder and pull out yesterday’s news­pa­per from my bag. I spread it on the ground, and put my bag on it. There’s no point in get­ting it scuffed up, even for a ground­break­ing research paper as this.

I look up once again just in time to catch the glint of the first rays of sun­light reflect­ed on the wind­shield of a Honda Civic CRX rac­ing by. That was my first car, and I rec­og­nize it from the dis­tinc­tive growl of its 4 cylin­der VTEC engine. I then hitch up my pants and kneel onto the news­pa­per to get a clos­er look. “The leaves appear to be brown­ing out, prob­a­bly due to the heat wave we had just last week. It’s all rel­a­tive, and this species is affect­ed by even the small­est fluc­tu­a­tions in cli­mate, espe­cial­ly…”

Thunder.

I look around. No shel­ter. I set down my tape recorder, reach back under the col­lar of my jack­et, and pull up my hood. “I knew some­thing was off today. The fore­cast wet night, dry morn­ing. It’s not the first time they’ve been wrong. But this is unex­pect­ed.”

The first droplets land with a pit­ter pat­ter on the news­pa­per, form­ing small pud­dles and warp­ing yesterday’s words and faces into car­ni­val mir­ror pat­terns. The Acacia gets its first drops too, and I enjoy watch­ing its lit­tle leaves bounce back up after being hit with water. “Rain. Should make a move soon. Final notes of the day: I expect our sub­ject to exhib­it health­i­er shades of green over the next few days, hav­ing received a fair amount of rain­fall. I am still con­fi­dent that my dis­cov­ery of the plant in this part of the world is not a freak occur­rence. However, why this par­tic­u­lar growth here seems so unhealthy remains a mys­tery.”

I must move fast. Botanists these days are so hun­gry for new dis­cov­er­ies, that they wouldn’t stop at eat­ing each oth­er to get one. Each new find must be snared from the jaws of a beast.

It’ll be dawn soon and if I’m noticed skulk­ing here in the mid­dle of nowhere it’ll raise too many ques­tions. And soon enough the Journal of Botany will learn about it, and the study of my career will be out in the open, fair game for all those rabid hounds to snatch at.

Back to the busi­ness at hand, I put on my plas­tic gloves and pull out my spade. I draw a cir­cle with it around my Acacia. “Two foot spread for this size sub­ject.” I dig in, first gen­tly then with more force. The moist soil gives in quite eas­i­ly and in a few sec­onds I have reached the roots of the plant. I pull out a translu­cent garbage bag, brush off the excess soil weigh­ing down the roots and place my sub­ject inside.

I make room for it in my bag and tuck it in. “Subject col­lect­ed. Hush now there, we’ll have you as good as new.”

I look up and in the dis­tance a bus appears around the bend. Again feel­ing that off-ness I run my hand over my face. My palm feels warm. I close my eyes, hold it there for a few sec­onds, and press my tem­ple with my thumb and fore­fin­ger. The thun­der is get­ting loud­er and I can bare­ly think.

.….……

I’m not sure how long I close my eyes. An eter­ni­ty or a few sec­onds. When I open them the first thing that strikes me is the sun has bro­ken through the clouds, strik­ing the wet high­way with a mer­ci­less glare. The sec­ond is the bus.

It’s now much clos­er. And some­thing is not right.

From where I’m stand­ing it looks like a visu­al echo. It gets clos­er then bounces back and gets fur­ther. It does anoth­er S curve across the width of the high­way then comes clos­er again. During the instant in which this hap­pens, I won­der why that could be since it is not going too fast and even a punc­tured tire would still allow the dri­ver enough con­trol to stop.

I take a few steps for­ward, but before I draw any con­clu­sions, the bus col­lides with a bill­board on the left edge of the road side and comes to a pathet­ic stop.

In a few sec­onds, right on cue, steam ris­es from the front of the bus. I take a few steps back, throw my spade into my bag and pick it up. I don’t know what most peo­ple would do in this sit­u­a­tion, since the only frame of ref­er­ence I have are movies. But those aren’t peo­ple — they’re just movie peo­ple. I just get a gnaw­ing feel­ing in my side. Scientific curios­i­ty per­haps. Nancy warned me yes­ter­day that the first rain show­er of the sea­son is the most dan­ger­ous. “The roads are like soap,” she fol­lowed (as if for the first time).

Scientific curios­i­ty. Roads are like soap + Driver los­es con­trol = Accident. Or, Visibility is bad + Driver falls asleep = Mistake. It’s all rel­a­tive, but I need to know which it was.

I scan around for any­thing I might have left behind, then I begin to walk toward the high­way. It feels so far away, and I know the lat­er I arrive the more steam there will be to obscure the scene. My walk picks up pace, now it’s a skip, then a trot, then a run, and now a dash.

Mud builds up on the soles of my shoes and my entire body seems to get heav­ier with each stride. I feel like I’m in slow motion, com­plete with the stretched out low-pitched audio that accom­pa­nies it. “Botany Life, Soil Section: I’m com­ing!”

The street is emp­ty, except for the bus. It’s still ear­ly, and the sud­den burst of sun­light through the clouds is the only sign of oncom­ing day­break. This must be the first bus of the day, prob­a­bly on the first half hour of its dri­ve between Beirut and Damascus.

I’m close enough now to make out its out­lines through the now thick shroud of steam. It rest­ing on three wheels, hav­ing sunk in slight­ly into a ditch on the side of the road. The front is almost unaf­fect­ed by its impact into the bill­board, which reads “Beirut Night. LIFE!” as if telling every­one on the right side of the road to make a U-Turn and head back there. Funny.

Still on the left side of the bus, I kneel down and check the left tire. No skid marks. I straight­en myself out and pull off my hood. I then scan the line of win­dows, now almost at eye-lev­el because the bus had sunk into the ditch. I remem­ber that there must be peo­ple on board already. The dri­ver of course, and by this time five or six pas­sen­gers.

Enough steam has leaked into the inside of the bus to make it almost impos­si­ble to see inside. I con­tin­ue scan­ning and notice some mud on one of the panes. Strange.

I reach out to feel it but then real­ize it’s on the inside of the glass. That can’t be right. How could mud have got­ten to — no, wait. That’s not mud. It’s blood. A streak of blood that was smudged and had almost coag­u­lat­ed into brown muck on the glass sur­face. I lean in for a clos­er look.

A palm thwacks flat on the inside of the win­dow, adding fresh blood. It rests there and press­es into the glass. Someone’s inside. Badly injured. I cir­cle around the back of the bus onto the road. No oncom­ing traf­fic. The front wheel is almost half a meter off the ground. I rest my bag next to it, take a deep breath and climb on.

My eyes take a few sec­onds to adjust to the dim inte­ri­or of the bus. But even then, it’s hard to see with all the steam. I waft it off and lift my hood back on. I then cup my palm over my nose and mouth and take the first few steps for­ward. The first per­son I notice is the dri­ver, slumped over his steer­ing wheel. And the blood. Lots of it. All over the dash­board. Too much blood for a minor acci­dent, I think. Then I see why.

The back of the driver’s head is: gone. He has no back of the head. Whatever it was, it damn near blew half of his skull away. He is — I strug­gle to find the right word — dead. Plants die on me all the time. Sad, but it hap­pens. Dead human being: first time.

I inch for­ward, and the steam seems to be get­ting thick­er. The source is not the engine as I had thought, but some­where clos­er to the back. Deeper inside the guts of the bus. I slice my palm through the air, but it makes no dif­fer­ence. Luckily, as it turns out, because I then see the sec­ond body. A woman, around 50, knees hitched up, body con­tort­ed in a grotesque fetal posi­tion on the seat. Her back is soaked with blood.

More blood on the floor. I thought it was water at first, but the sticky pools of liq­uid under my feet are red. And then moan­ing. It’s com­ing from the back. It must be the hand.

I squeeze my way through and see anoth­er body, chest wide open. I trip over some­thing. An arm. A young man in the alley­way at the foot of a seat. Dead. That’s three now. But the sound in the back belongs to some­one. Alive. I make my way towards the voice. More bod­ies: four, five. I get to the back. There he is, bare­ly vis­i­ble.

Please.”

No, that can’t be right. A hefty man, thick mus­tache, dark suit, healthy look­ing, but also dead. I just heard him. Then I glance to his left and there he is. In his twen­ties, bloody, shiv­er­ing.

Please,” he croaks again. It was him.

I slide my arms under him. He weighs close to noth­ing, limp as a with­ered leaf. Careful not to trip again, I wrap my arm around his back, drag him to the front of the bus, and step off.

I lay him against the front wheel and wipe the grime off his face. Then I rec­og­nize him.

Tariq? Tariq!” I shake him by his white shirt, now translu­cent and decked with dry­ing blood, sweat, and mud.

If he does rec­og­nize me, it doesn’t reg­is­ter through his delir­i­um.

“Please,” now bare­ly a sigh.

You’ll be OK,” I lie.
“My cat.”
“Your cat’s fine.”
“She’s alone. Maurice.”

He exhales. Then silence.

This is the first chap­ter of Meedo’s upcom­ing nov­el, A Road to Damascus. Read anoth­er excerpt or con­tact us to learn more.

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