Sami rode shotgun in a sunbaked Toyota pickup truck. Every time it stopped at a traffic light, he smiled and waved at the people outside. He needed to show everyone how happy he was to be on this long trip, the brave eight-year-old boy made famous by the American news. Before he left, that’s what his aunt told him to do. She held his face with frigid fingers. Tears hovered in her eyes. He told her not to cry, because he’d see her again in heaven.

On the freeway, it was easy to show people he was happy. Everyone drove fast and waved back. Fresh air crashed through the open windows. Now they were in Dubai. The heat was thick like the traffic. Skyscrapers seemed to be coated with mirrors. They cooked him from every angle while the old truck choked with exhaust. Fumes collected in his puffy black jacket. He asked to unzip it again, just a little bit, but Kalen shook his head ‘No.’ He was thirteen years old and in charge here. He needed to concentrate on driving.

Sami followed Kalen’s eyes to a police officer up ahead, standing on the corner of the street, staring at the truck. He wore a green beret and tan uniform. His gold buttons sparkled in the sunlight. Sami waved at him. The officer pointed one finger at the sky and shook it. 

Kalen flinched and sped up, tightly gripping the steering wheel. Veins popped on his hands under sunburnt skin. He glanced into the rear-view mirror before he jerked the truck into the next lane. Empty cans of Red Bull clattered across the floorboard. A white Mercedes behind them honked. After whispering a short prayer, he looked down at Sami. Hatred burned in his eyes like usual. He said, “Tadhakar walidak.”

Remember your father.

Sami did his best to remember the old days, when his dad was at the kitchen table, hunched over, typing away at words that would get printed in books all over the world. There was music in his voice when he shared what he wrote, waving his hands to the rhythm of the words. He once said that when people die, memories of them sparkle like stars in the mind. They can shine light from heaven in dark places. Dubai felt dark, even if everything was so bright. Sami slumped his shoulders, drowsy from the heat. He wanted to lay down, go to sleep and wake up in the past, all the way home before everything bad happened.

Sami closed his eyes, but he could only see the day his mom and dad died. He took an unsteady breath. The fumes smelled worse when he remembered the distant rumble and bomb siren. He had been at the grocery store with his aunt, when her phone rang and she answered. Her brown eyes drifted back-and-forth above the black veil, listening to someone. She dropped the grocery basket. They ran out to the car. She drove fast, slapping the steering wheel all the while. When they got home, it was a pile of rubble. Only two black brick walls were left standing. She climbed on top of the smoky wood beams and bricks and tossed aside anything she could lift. Sami thought his parents must be there, alive and buried, or they wouldn’t be looking for them. He believed this with all his heart, until his aunt collapsed, shaking, screaming at him. Screaming that they were dead. He tried to hug her. Tried to help. She didn’t hug him back.

The sun went down that day in a red haze. Later, an American soldier came to visit at the shelter, carrying an envelope. He said America was sorry. The bomb wasn’t meant to land there. In the envelope was a check that his aunt said was “la sha-ah.”


At the refugee shelter, nothing was good. His aunt just cried and cried or messaged friends on her phone, or slept. She told Sami he was adopted. His mom and dad didn’t want him to know, but she needed him to. He didn’t know why, or what that meant. He couldn’t remember another mom and dad who died. It didn’t make sense. Dad sometimes said she was crazy. She had to live with them because she made mistakes with men. No one wanted to marry her. But now, no matter what Sami said, she was angry. He eventually stopped talking to her. She’d tuck him in at night, like Mom and Dad used to, but her quick hugs made him shiver.

His aunt stayed angry until another American came to visit, a tall lady with yellow hair and lime green glasses. She took Sami back to the ruined home, snapped pictures of him in front of it. The tall lady paid his aunt a lot of money, enough to move to the mountain camp, where everything was better. It was like a new family. After they studied the Quran, Sami could play video games before bedtime. He often forgot about his mom and dad.

His aunt seemed to forget, too. She found a husband; a good one, she often said. He showed Sami how to shoot an assault rifle.

Kalen slowed down.

He told Sami to get ready. 

Sami opened his eyes into sharp sunlight and shiny cars outside. The vest under his black jacket was soaked with sweat. He wondered if it was too wet but didn’t dare touch it. He wasn’t supposed to do that. Messing around could make the bomb go off early.

Kalen fumbled around with tangled wires under the dash. Then he pointed to a big building ahead, on the other side of a forest park. It looked like a shard of jagged ice stabbing the sky. A sea of people swelled around it, overflowing everywhere.


Kalen pulled over. Sami knew what to do. He opened the door and jumped into the hot sun and air. He ducked into the shadows of the crowd as the truck sputtered away. Between all of the people and legs in shorts and summer dresses, he spotted soldiers in camouflage. Some of them watched the dirty Toyota turn around. They talked into radios. One of them looked like the Incredible Hulk with black skin. There was a badge of the American flag on his shoulder. Sami dipped low, away from the Hulk, weaving his way through the thicket of legs and fog of foreign perfume and cologne. He did everything he was trained to do, even as the legs got dense and the people looked down. He smiled and waved, like he had done in the truck. Most of them smiled and waved back. They said things in English and hardly opened their mouths. It reminded him of robots.

Like who’s that

Hey, hey there, little guy

He’s in a hot hurry…  

He slipped past a woman wearing a black abaya and looked back up at her veiled face and blue eyes. She carried a baby in a pink bonnet and reminded him of his mom. None of these people looked like they killed his dad. 

The sky thundered. The ground shook.

Sami stopped.

Everyone turned towards the source–except for him. He knew what had happened. Kalen had set off his bomb. He was dead. Now it was Sami’s turn. This was his signal to go to heaven.

His stomach knotted up, thinking about the power behind the test bombs they’d set off outside the camp, those rumbling towers of dust. The one on his chest was so big, he was told, it would send him straight into his mom and dad’s arms.

He felt dizzy.

He pulled out the cylindrical trigger from his sleeve and thumbed at the red button. He was supposed to push it . . . right now, no matter what. He looked back at the woman holding the baby as she gazed at the growing plume of black smoke. The baby never hurt anyone.

Sami bit his lower lip. His eyes stung with sweat. He needed to be pure of heart, he remembered. Listen and obey. Fear was the test. To be a true martyr, to walk alongside rivers of milk and honey, he had to pass.

He had to push the button. But he kept thumbing at it without knowing why. The crowd twitched and squirmed.

What’s down there?

The mall

Could we be next?

A deep voice, right next to him, spoke Arabic. It sounded like his dad.

“Ant rajul saghir shah jahan.”

You’re a brave little man.

Sami looked up, wondering if he’d already pushed the button, if his dad had spoken these words in heaven. No, it was a man talking to a little boy who wore a red Detective Korombo shirt. Sami liked that cartoon, too. 

What’s under his jacket?

It’s bulging

Pretty heavy for the heat

The man looked down at Sami. His eyes squinted with confusion–or recognition. He asked, “Min ‘anti?”

Who are you?

Sami felt too scared to answer. Slowly, the man took one slow step closer and gently put his hand on Sami’s shoulder. He asked again. All of the people in the crowd were watching them like birds ready to fly away. Some of them were backing away, clearing a space. Sami swallowed dry before whispering his own name with a stutter. The man’s eyes widened with surprise. He asked, “Hal qusaft manzalika?”

Was your home bombed?

Sami dragged his left foot back and nodded. His aunt was right. He was famous in America. The tall lady’s pictures made him famous everywhere.

Check his jacket

Isis uses kids

What’s in his hand?

The man took a knee. His home was destroyed in the Mosul airstrikes, I think. This was all over the news. His dad was someone important. He reached out, and when he did, Sami thrust up his fist with the trigger.

The man stood straight up and stepped back. Others screamed.

Get back



Sami began to cry and said something he’d been taught to pray if he felt scared today, “Allah akbar min kuli shayin.”

Allah is greater than everything.

He stomped his feet. It didn’t help. 

The surrounding people pushed in a panic, toppling over each other.

Sami’s triggered fist was like a rock thrown into a lake, muddy and rippling everyone. Almost everyone. The man stood against the waves and the steady push-and-pull of people. The little boy hugged his leg tight. The woman with blue eyes clung close beside them, holding her baby, staring at Sami, worried; not mad. Not like his aunt would be. His aunt would say to be brave, fight back, push the button and meet in heaven. Everyone counted on him. Even Mom. Even Dad.

He almost pushed the button.

“No–no,” the man said. “Ana asifaton jiddan.”

I’m really sorry.

Sami didn’t know why he’d be sorry unless he killed his mom and dad. He didn’t drop a bomb from the airplane, did he? The man gently caressed the boy’s head, who must be his son. He looked at the woman and said, Honey, Google Mosul bomb professor.

She pulled out her phone and quickly thumb-tapped on it.

The man held out his hands, palms out, and told Sami his name. “Ramin.” He took a short step closer and asked if he could see under the jacket.

“Ziad Baz?” she said.

Sami lowered the trigger, slightly, when he heard his dad’s name.

Educated at Cambridge, she said. She held her phone close to her eyes. Historian. Oh! Killed by an American airstrike last year. She looked down at Sami. I see. He understood some of her words, where Dad went to school and what killed his parents–the angry place, sometimes in the sky–America.

Ramin took a knee in front of Sami again.

Ziad adopted him, she said, after his parents were killed by– she gasped, one hand over her mouth. His biological parents were killed in the twin bombs of Baghdad in Jadida. She dropped her hand and stared at Sami, shaking her head. A suicide bomber. He only understood the name of the city where his home used to be, so he nodded, slightly. He wanted to go home. Her eyebrows narrowed, looking puzzled, and softly, she asked, “Hal yurid waliduk mink ‘an tafeal hadha?”

Would your dad want you to do this?

His lips trembled because he didn’t know anymore. Tears streamed down his cheeks, which were still sore from smiling in the truck. He started to shake. He didn’t know he had to pee, until he felt it warmly run down his leg.

Ramin shook his head, whispering Fucking terrorist fucks as he unzipped Sami’s jacket, slowly. Sami wasn’t allowed to see the bomb when it was put on. Now it looked like a bird’s nest of wires. He was like a robot. Ramin carefully pulled the trigger out of Sami’s hand, repeating, “No, Sami.”

The woman put away her phone and said, Is he a symbol? A message?

Look around, Ramin said. I bet you’ll find someone filming from far away. We need to take him to the hospital to get this off.

Can they trigger the bomb remotely? she asked.

Not seeing a transmitter.

A booming voice called out, Stop! All of you!

It was the American Hulk, looking angry, running straight towards them. 

Great, now there’s this idiot, Ramin said.

The sky seemed to roar. When Sami looked up, a helicopter swooped down in the distance, firing a machine gun at a distant rooftop. Ramin yelled at the Hulk and everyone, including the helicopter. The baby wailed. The shouts and cries were drowned-out by the chopper’s ear-shattering cracks. The mom held one hand up. The Hulk didn’t slow down. He threw open his arms and tackled all of them at once: The mom and baby, Ramin, his son and Sami with the bomb.

Sami’s head hit the pavement. Heavy heat slammed through his chest.

There was a flash of yellow light.

He lost time in the dark.

Eventually, he felt warm all over. His head throbbed with something thick around it. He felt snug in a bed, hearing his dad’s voice, muffled and close-by. He wondered if he was back home or in heaven. The back of his head hurt from the pavement, as if resting on a pillow of nails. His mouth was dry. When he blinked open his eyes, the world emerged with a white blur and bright ceiling lights. He rubbed his eyes and looked down. He was in a hospital bed under a blue blanket. His eyes adjusted. People were in the room. A police officer with a green beret, drinking coffee out of a styrofoam cup; the woman in the black abaya, seated in a corner, feeding her baby with a red bottle; the boy with the Detective Korombo shirt played on the white floor with toy cars, a red firetruck and police car, clicking them together and making crashing noises with his mouth. His shirt looked dirty.

The bomb never went off.

Sami sighed.

There was a TV mounted on the far wall. His dad was on the screen up there, speaking from behind a podium in front of a crowd outside. There were a lot of people watching him, holding countless signs in different colors, white and yellow, black and red. He recognized the sign for peace, which used to hang in the hallway at home. Dad looked young and spoke in English, sounding familiar and foreign at the same time. The footage was grainy and old, maybe from a time before Sami was born. Rounded English letters were on the bottom of the screen, right-corner: C-SPAN. Below that was a red and blue banner, slowly scrolling words he couldn’t read.

Breaking News: Deceased Father of Dubai Child Bomber–2003 Anti-War Demonstration

A female’s voice talked over his dad and Sami heard his own name and the words ‘airstrike’ and ‘Americans’ and ‘home.’ The TV flashed a picture of him at the ruins. It was the one taken by the yellow haired lady, the same picture from the cover of the American magazine, where he stood on rocks between two blackened brick walls, arms loosely crossed, wearing his NY Yankees baseball cap. His aunt showed him this picture before he left for Dubai, when she told him to wear the same hat on this trip. He tensed up. Now he was on the news, where everyone would know what happened. His aunt would know he failed. He couldn’t go back to the camp; he didn’t want to. Kalen was dead. A lump caught in his throat. Tears rolled down his face as he watched the TV switch back to his dad, where a new banner with words unspooled.

Breaking News: Bomb Attack at Dubai Mall–Child Suicide Bomber Stopped at Burj Khalifa

Those words looked sharp and dangerous while his dad’s English sounded alien and rocky:

A modern map of the world is a cobweb of imaginary lines, like the first global map etched in clay, circa six-hundred B.C., depicting present-day Iraq. The Babylonian Map of the World split Mesopotamia in two with the Euphrates. Cities and the surrounding sea were carved circles.

But his voice still felt like home, even if Sami couldn’t understand the words. His gestures and facial expressions were like the old days when he’d read to Sami out loud.

Beyond that territory were the triangles and places of legend, where birds couldn’t fly and the sun couldn’t shine and horned bulls attacked. Today, all of this is inside out . . . upside down.

Dad rotated his fingers beside his head with both hands. He used to do this to tell Sami something was wrong or someone was crazy. Yes. Everything was crazy, Dad. 

American war maps depict Iraq as the place of legend, where civilian planes can’t fly, darkness descends with a desert storm, newcomers come under attack. But let’s remember how Iraq is everyone’s home, the cradle of civilization, where foundations were born, the wheel, writing, where the first schools taught the earliest strides in math, medicine and astronomy. Ahlan wa-sahlan wa-marhaban bikum.

Dad said Welcome in the long way, where everyone was like a family returning home. This made Sami wish he could go home. He touched his aching head with his fingertips. There was a bandage on it. Ramin’s son spotted the movement and ran out of the room, holding the firetruck in his hand. He’s awake . . . he’s awake!

In our homeland, you’ll find no weapons of mass destruction, but you’ll find a people with the same tenacity that spurred our ancestors, who sweep away old boundaries like cobwebs, who fiercely protect their freedom–just like Americans do.

Dad scanned his audience after saying this. He then looked directly at the camera, as if peering into Sami’s hospital room, looking into the future and the eyes of his son.

So, when you come home without a secret agenda to dominate resources or people, with no guns, no thoughts of war, you’ll be greeted as a fellow human being . . . with the most welcome of words.

Dad lifted his hands up from the podium and opened his arms, as if he wanted to hug everyone. “Ahlan wa-sahlan wa-marhaban bikum.”

Cheers from the audience blared through the TV as Ramin carried his son into the room. The woman with blue eyes stood up with her baby and walked towards the bed. Ramin held Sami’s hand with a firm grip. The mom put her hand on Sami’s head, as if checking for a fever. The ceiling lights flickered and sparkled between them for a moment like stars.

The mom asked if Sami was all right. He nodded. His headache was getting better. The boy held out his firetruck to him. Sami let go of Ramin’s hand and grabbed the toy, running its wheels up and down the blanket. On TV, Dad said, Maps and boundaries, oil and money are never as valuable as human lives–when every woman is like a mother. Every man is like a father. Everyone is a brother or sister. Kawkab wahdun. Hayat wahidat. Eayilat wahdat.

One planet. One life. One family.

Sami nodded and thought he understood. As the crowd cheered through the TV, he looked around at the people here. He imagined that Dad just told him this could be his new family. Ramin patted him on the chest with a heavy hand. The message from heaven felt true.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Jay Hagen

Jay Hagen is an emerging writer in the Pacific Northwest. In the wee-hours of each morning, he tends to write friction as dark as the forest outside of his window and by the break of dawn, he works as an Industrial Engineer for a Fortune 100 company. When not otherwise engaged in writing or statistics, Jay enjoys long walks with his wife, jogging in the mountains, or sipping Willamette Valley wine with friends. His stories have been published in Close to the Bone, Literally Stories, and longlisted for the 2020 F(r)iction Short Story Award, 2022 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, and 2022 Exeter Story Prize.