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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