He received a call. “Hussein speaking.”
It was the receptionist. “Hey Hussein the news dudes are here.”
Hussein jumped to his feet as soon as he put the landline back on its receiver and walked out of a door that read ‘Executive Director’ into an adjacent lobby. He swung his head around to avoid touching one of the two sky blue UN flags that cornered his office.
A spindly-twenty something with a cart full of electronics and a short-haired reporter stood in front of the barely attentive receptionist’s desk, already smiling at him.
He lumbered over, his left leg dead while his right hand shot right out to accept them. He spoke loudly; hearing loss yet another one of his war deformities. This one was easy to hide. With his thick accent, it just made him seem excitable.
They did their small talks. Eventually, the camera woman asked where the interview would be located.
“My office is right there, but it’s very cramped.”
“How ‘bout conference room one?” the reporter asked, having done a few interviews there before.
Hussein didn’t care, but he smiled as if he did. “Conference room one works.”
While the camera woman with the BMI of silly string set up, the reporter went over with him what to expect, what she’d ask, even suggested things to talk about. After that a light came on and the reporter read off-screen from the script:
“With the Arab Spring and the crisis in Syria approaching its fourth year, the rise of refugees in the world has grown astronomically and, in turn, so has the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric. Today we are here with Hussein Ostojic, the Executive Director at Uncanny’s Canning Factory, to discuss, not only the need to help but also to talk about how America was there when he was in need…
“Hussein, a Bosnian refugee himself, Hussein fled to Utica after Serbian armies and has since made great efforts to employee refuges within the community giving them jobs, 75% of which makes up his working staff…”
Drowning underneath the natural light, a ghost from within him bespoke in his ear and he was hearing that last sentence echoing again and again. In the back of his eyes, dusty, dreadful memories filtered in him like cheap cigarette smoke.
The reporter’s dulce voice simpered through this barrier though and he felt himself say, despite it all,
“I think it’s critical for our country to take in these refugees. You just don’t understand what kind of horrors they are running away from…Of course I speak from personal experience. I came to this country because of the war, because of the terror…”
This was, and still is, a semi-truth.
In the interview he told one story. In his mind, he told a different story.
His mind was going over what had happened, as if he wasn’t there. About how during the war, there was no color. The theater of war had taken away all the blues and yellows from everything. Even the stars at night were eradicated. Everything was just gray. Shitty and gray.
While Hussein’s situation wasn’t any different in regards to loss, desperation and starvation, he wasn’t being outright persecuted. Not exactly. His neighbors and his friends, those were the ones being attacked and forced from generational homes. And they were being driven out by the hands of his father, who even in his mind his name he erased.
He was 20 during most of those atrocities but even then he understood the cruelties and the crimes that that man and his people were unleashing onto women, children and old friends. At some point, Hussein made a pact to do what God and the American armies weren’t going to do—he was going to kill the man.
Like in every war, there are the devastated then there are the pissed off and mad about it. The need for vendettas and vengeance were so common during that time that there was a whole pole for making such deviant advertisements (think Craiglist but instead of the anonymity of the internet, you have a pole in the middle of a half-leveled town).
Hussein stood in front of the Revenge Pole for three days. His proclamation attracted many (It was a simply read: ‘COFFEE, CASH OR BEER TO ANYONE WHO HELPS ME KILL MY DAD’). That is, until they asked who his dad was. After that the only offers his sign garnered were for getting his ass kicked.
At last, just when he was at his lowest, someone dumb and reckless came to his rescue.
His name was Admir Ludovic. He himself still on the ground, worn out from broken expectations and too many punches when this contemporary with curly hair and limpy gait strolled by.
Admir took one glance at Hussein’s disheveled state then to the simple sign that hung above him.
“So…Who’s the guy?”
Exhausted, Hussein said the name, already preparing himself for another beating. But that didn’t happen with Admir. Instead, his eyes were teeming with interest.
“That’s your dad?” He asked, aghast.
Hussein didn’t remember if he nodded or not but the gasp that tumbled out of Admir’s mouth was forever seared into his skull.
“No way! Your father killed my father!” Admir replied, a small smile splayed across his pale face, as if he just found out per chance that their fathers were once friends way back when.
Hussein never forgot how quickly they bonded over how badly they both wanted to kill his dad. He should have known back then that it wasn’t wise to forge friendships on such tumultuous connections. But he didn’t know back then. He thought this is how relationships formed during chaos. That in this world of blood and decimation it wasn’t odd to become friends with your assassin for hire.
A plan was forged. Unyielding hatred for his father didn’t prevent Hussein from knowing a great deal about him. He knew the little dictator’s habits, his favorites, even of his routines.
Their plan was set weeks after their first meeting. Hussein was going to ask his father to spend the day with him. He was going to liquor him up and drive him out to a medieval forest about thirty miles from his home. The rest was going to be up to Admir.
“A simple plan makes everything simple.” They reasoned the night before and they raised a glass at their own brilliance but while Hussein downed his drink he missed how Admir’s eyes and how they were drowning in complications.
The next afternoon, Hussein and the man went to the bar as planned. Hussein pretended to get drunk while the old monster really got drunk. The more he swigged, the louder he got and the more often his bumptious laughter crackled throughout the bar. To old menace, the sound of his own laughter was music but Hussein could see how the barmaid’s hands shake when she handed him a frothy drink. Or how the old drunk men who hadn’t moved from their designated stool in decades dipped out one by one with each guffaw. Or how the windows no longer showed passengers’ feet because his voice could be heard from the outside and it made the street they were on to become sparse. His laughter was paltry puissant and poisonous. It was all Hussein could do to not bash his bottle against the counter and tear his tongue out with the glass shards.
Finally, it was closing time and the old man was rightly smashed and Hussein became a designated walker for the old man to get into his car. Hussein didn’t complain though. It would be the last time this man would downgrade another person.
The drunk devil beside him slept as they headed south west instead of south. Hussein smiled down every extra road he took that his passenger merely snored throughout.
Despite the rattles and constant lurches from poorly-handled car, he was able to make in half a mile inside the forest with the man beside him waking.
Eventually, he picked a spot and slapped the headlights dead. He turned off the car and stepped out into the black trees and star-raped skies. It wasn’t until he purposefully slammed the door shut that his father jerked awake.
“Where am I?” He must have said seeing unable to see where he was, unable to see the butt of a revolver slowly being raised outside of his window.
He’d notice it soon enough when the weapon would rap against his glass and a man on the other side would overpower his drunken ass forcing him to the ground.
Hussein didn’t remember much of their exchange. Just a lot of cursing and crying, mostly ‘shut the fuck up’s. He remembered Admir being decidedly dramatic about the whole thing, taking way longer than needed be. But he also remembered that it was a part of their pact: That Admir would get to do what he wanted and Hussein would get to watch.
Finally a gun was raised to the blithering blight’s head and Admir started taunting him.
“Hey. Hey.” Admir commanding, snapping his fingers at him like a dog owner, until his demand was met. The old man raised two sniveling, weeping eyes to him and that is when he saw, in the indomitable darkness, his son standing right behind him.
It was Hussein who had the voice that he’d heard last.
“Vidimose,” he sneered, vowing to see him soon.
A single round of thunder came.
The war lord was dead.
They left with his body unburied and to added humiliation shot of couple of rounds into his car for the hell of it. Admir wiped down the handle of his gun and heaved it over his head carelessly against one of the trees that concealed his deed.
They emerged from the woodland murderers. Happy, happy murderers.
Neither of them spoke again until they found security at Hussein’s home. Hussein tried to discuss payment but Admir, whose eyes were wet when he looked upon him, clasped his shoulder blades and said no to the money.
“Think of it,” he said with great emotion, “as an act of love.”
He interpreted that as an act of love for Bosnia and Hussein embraced him warmly. Hussein entered his home thinking he made a blood brother that night. Admir left thinking (knowing) he was in love.
Several weeks went by and the eventual news of his father’s death shocked the populous. But, not enough for a thorough investigation.
Both men were at Admir’s home listening to the radio report of how the police decided to blame it on the gypsies. Needless to say, they were overjoyed. In celebration they got liver-killing-drunk that night.
“To the gypsies!” Hussein remembering praising at some point with a raised glass. “God’s greatest scapegoat!”
He remembered saying that joke a hundred times before Admir said something about it.
“I think we should raise our glass to another cause this time.” He said half-slurring.
“I agree.” Hussein said before he straightened his elbow up and said, “To Admir. The best friend a man could ever ask!”
He remembered Admir staring at him, looking saturated with great feeling. He remembered the man hadn’t touched his glass after that. But Hussein was selfishly drunk and too obtuse to recognize his friend’s agony. It wasn’t until Admir spoke that he realized Admir wasn’t happy.
“I love you Hussein.”
Hussein knew what kind of love he meant instantly. Simply because there was no chuckle at the end, no merriment in his tone. He heard that kind before but out of unrequited lovers’ mouths. Out of silly, sad ladies maws, not out of a man’s.
Despite being drunk, there was still a fondness for his friend. A fondness that made him want to spare him from hurt. It was the reason he put down his drink first before he said to him,
“I’m sorry Admir. But I’m not gay.”
“Gay? Who said anything about gay?” He replied, a little forcefully. It was at this point that he slithered beside him. “Two good looking men like us…It wouldn’t be gay. It’d practically be art.”
Hussein tried to laugh but went on to rationalize with Admir:
“Admir, I’m married.”
“So am I.”
“I have kids.”
Admir grinned. “Two sons.”
His entire arm was hanging off of his shoulder by then. His eyes inches from his own. He could feel his breath. It was the first time in his life that a grown man had made him feel uncomfortable.
Strangely, the ‘no’ had no effect. Admir didn’t relent. He didn’t respect his decision. He laughed.
“Now you’re starting to sound like a woman.”
Hussein remembered feeling like a woman in that moment. He remembered a very real fear seizing over him. A primal fear where even the body, the core of yourself, knows there’s a very real danger emanating. Hussein remembered a very conscious voice telling him, either run or be raped.
He pushed Admir off of him and made a hasty retreat but the man with the limp was surprisingly fast and somehow his drunkenness overpowered Admir’s disability. He remembered furtive hands reaching for what they shouldn’t have. He remembered piercing panic. He remembered the freezing fear. He remembered how hard he headbutted the fucker as just to get those hands away from him. It worked for a second until Admir recovered fast enough to punch Hussein in the mouth. He remembered being shocked by how fast so much blood poured into his mouth. It was then that Admir’s hands went from wanting his pants straight to his throat and Admir started squeezing so hard that he was screaming.
But Hussein held his breath, he swallowed what little air he could, and he took his aim.
He spat the tooth straight directly into Admir’s mouth.
Instantly, Admir started choking. His face and his eyes were turning red. He gulped for air like a lung cancer victim. It was then that Hussein used all his strength to push Admir off of him. He scrambled to his feet, raising one leg and kicked him once in his bad leg.
Admir dropped to the floor fast, face-first. Another man’s tooth rolled out of his mouth and onto the floorboard.
Hussein stood over him, a trail of blood streaming out of his mouth and nose, his front tooth gone but his victory conclusive.
Hussein wanted to curse him. To beat him lifeless. To scream out at him the betray that he felt eat away at his insides. But with all the Epinephrine surging through his body he physically couldn’t stand there any longer. He merely picked up his tooth and ran out of the front door.
He could heard Admir’s voice screaming at him from the front door, two words over and over at him in cruel taunting (“Vidimose Hussein! Vidimose Hussein…!”) Hussein refused to look at the man. He remembered being proud of himself for keeping his head straight and maintaining stamina despite the drunkenness. But for also running in spite of his heavy bleeding, his heart wrought with betrayal and disgust at having found out someone he valued saw him as something to fuck…
Somehow Hussein was able to run the entire night without his body failing and he managed to make it a mile from his home. In his mind he saw himself barging into their home, shaking his family awake and getting them moving when—CHABLAM—his foot lost the ultimate game of minesweeper and he was sent skyrocketing into the colorless sky like in a cartoon.
He woke up in a temporary Red Cross shelter on a refugee island off the coast of Croatia. He found out later that if it wasn’t for a nearby farmer catching his chickens pecking at a disembodied leg, he would be dead.
Just like that, he was resettled and with less than what he started.
“And…that’s it!” announced the camera woman.
Hussein clapped when it was over. The reporter shook his hand.
“Thanks,” he replied awash with relief. “I was so nervous.”
“Really? You’ve ever done an interview before?” the reporter asked.
“No,” he said laughing. “I’m too shy usually.”
“No, I am!” He argued, laughing. “I feel like I am so bad with words.”
The reporter smiled with sincerity. “You did great. Besides, this is just a PBS branch-off. Nobody watches are stuff.”
“It’s true.” The camera woman interjected. “We get less viewers than those Spanish soap-operas that only run at 3am.”
Hussein smiled, thanked them both, shook both their hands and then excused himself to return to work.
Assholish afflatuses aside, he walked away from conference room one satisfied.
Syracuse, New York—
In a tan-and-salmon house, a woman named Ilma sat on her veranda scrolling through Facebooks on her iPad.
She scrolled past news reels of bombings, mass-murders, endless streams of the asinine controversy surrounding the 2016 election until she found clips of something less depressing.
After one titled ‘Boy Teaches Tiger How To Love Again’ presented a local segment. The words ‘refugee hiring refugees’ caught her attention and she was delighted after watching for a few seconds to see someone she once knew!
She paused the video and went into the house, calling out, “Honey! Come here, you have to see this!”
A pinched-up Bosnian voice greeted her from the living room, “What woman?”
“Look who it is!” she announced, handing over the electronic slab.
She watched the impatience fall from her husband’s eyes and reform into bulging bewilderment.
“Can you believe it, Admir?” She said, chuckling at the serendipity. “25 years you haven’t seen your best friend and here he was, an hour away, the whole time!”
Admir didn’t answer immediately, his tepid blue eyes focused hungrily on the 6×6 screen. Eventually though, he came to and his face was beaming.
She, understandably, misinterpreted its meaning.