Michael closed his eyes and let the sun seep into his pores. The spring was unusually warm for New York, and his leather jacket enveloped him like a winter furnace. He took it off and slung it over his shoulder as he stood. He looked around the park. More people were making their way into the sun as the afternoon grew warmer. A group of college kids threw a lime-green Frisbee around in the grass. A young woman jogged by with her golden retriever dutifully leading the way. A high school couple walked along the path, joining hands for the first time.
Michael wondered how they did it. How they continued their lives. How they lived with themselves. Consciously, he knew none of these people had been responsible; yet he held everyone accountable. Everyone had played some role and he wasn’t about to let anyone get away with it. Rebecca was the first to pay. She had been nice enough, he mused. He might have even loved her at one point. But there was only so much CNN vomit he could take. He wished he could believe that was the last time he would see her, but he knew better. The long-standing relationship between his family and hers guaranteed them another meeting. Thomas would be infuriated. After he found out about Michael and Rebecca began dating, Thomas approached Michael and warned him about breaking his little sister’s heart. Dammit, he thought.
With his jacket slung over his shoulder and his sunglasses again placed over his eyes, Michael made his way back to the subway. His white v-neck t-shirt hung over his dark washed jeans, and he walked with an air of cool confidence. Michael always gave the impression that he had everywhere and nowhere to be, the kind of irresponsible know-all typically seen in teenagers. But he wasn’t a teenager. He was 25-year-old man, haunted by the ghost of his father’s death.
He contemplated lighting another cigarette but thought he would save it for later. His mother had begged him to quit, and in light of recent events he told her this would be his last pack. His mother was the only thing keeping him going. He knew with his father gone he had to keep it together, for her. He had taken the sudden death the hardest of anyone, but he didn’t show it. Apart from his fits of selfishness and self-pity, Michael had the best interests of his family at heart.
The subway was slowest in mid-afternoon. At least as slow as anything ever was in New York. The city that never sleeps. Michael hadn’t been sleeping as much—not since the bombing. When he did sleep it was littered with nightmares of protestors armed with weapons, storming his home and dragging his family into the street to be slaughtered. He woke up drenched in sweat, and developed a habit of walking around the house to check the locks on the doors and windows. They still knew his family was here, and Michael worried they would attack their home next. But his mother had refused to move, to go anywhere. She believed her husband’s death would be in vain if they abandoned their home and their efforts. So she still woke each morning and went to the synagogue, joining the supporters of what Rebecca had called religious tolerance. Peacefully fighting the protestors that had killed Michael’s father.
He knew his mother wanted him to come with her, but Michael’s skin crawled at the thought of picking up where his father had left off. Fuck that, he thought, I’m not going to be the next body blasted apart in the street, my fucking brains smeared across the sidewalk. His mother’s implied request wouldn’t be enough to have Michael join the cause. Even if she did ask, it might not be enough. Michael was not his father, and since his death he made a point of showing that to everyone.
Michael checked the time. 3:42 PM. Thomas got off work at four. Michael expected him to be at his house waiting to pummel him into the ground. But Michael was ready. He knew Thomas couldn’t wail too hard on a guy who had just lost his father, and Michael wasn’t afraid to use that to his advantage. He climbed the stairs out of the subway tunnel and returned his shades to his eyes. Instinctively, he checked his surroundings before turning down the street toward his home.
He stood outside and lit another cigarette. The house loomed over him, oppressive and judgmental. The plain, beige siding needed a fresh coat of paint, and the windows were dark, nearly angry looking. Michael remembered when they first moved into the home, their happy family. The house seemed happy then. Bright and colorful. Welcoming. Now it just sat ominously, expecting the worst. Michael inhaled the final drag and tossed the butt under the patio where his mother wouldn’t see it.
When Michael entered the house, he was fully prepared to face the wrath of his friend.
“Hello Michael!” This voice was familiar, but not the one Michael had expected.
“Ahmad? Is that you?”
“Why yes, Michael, who else would it be? Come, come, I have some very important news to share with you today.” Michael nodded stiffly and followed Ahmad into the kitchen. He was still unsure how to act around Ahmad. Of all the people he blamed for his father’s death, Ahmad was the man he held responsible above all others.
“Here, Michael, sit.” He did. “See these articles? These letters? All these people have written because of what your father was doing! They support us, Michael, they do! We aren’t as alone as we thought. So much work to be done, but now we know that more people are willing to help us! Just look!” A pile of letters covered the family dining table. Some had spilled onto the floor. A few of the envelopes had been torn open, the discarded shells on the ground next to the trash receptacle. The opened letters sprawled across the mound of envelopes, the chicken scratches and scrawls across the page dancing like a horde of troops ready for battle. At least, this is what Michael thought Ahmad imagined.
He picked up the nearest opened letter and read silently to himself.
Dear Erikson family,
I am deeply sorry for the loss you have suffered, but I want you to know that you are not alone. My husband died in Palestine last year fighting for equality among the religions and the tribes, trying to find a peaceful way to resolve the issues that surround these troubled countries. Mrs. Erikson, our husbands shared a dream—that all people, regardless of their beliefs, be treated equally. Like your Mike, my Jeffrey was not a Muslim, but believed strongly in the right to practice religion freely, no matter where we live. I was truly moved my your husband’s and your family’s story. Who ever would have thought that here, in “the land of the free,” such a tragic and hateful crime would take place. I want you to know you are not alone, and I share in your pain and sorrow. But I also share in your vision and your dream, and pray you will continue to fight the good fight—
“Isn’t this wonderful, Michael! All of these people have such kind words and such support!”
Michael stopped reading and crumpled the letter into a tight ball. Ahmad Hassan, his father’s Muslim best friend, droned on about the letters. The supporters. The do-gooders. Michael felt the heat rising in the pit of his stomach. It boiled there for a moment, then shot through his veins so rapidly he thought he was going to implode, caving into himself in a ball of fiery rage.
“Enough!” Michael shouted. Ahmad jumped and dropped several letters. They drifted to the ground in slow motion. “That’s enough! Don’t you think you’ve done enough already? The protests, the support, the fucking bomb!” Michael lowered his voice to a deep whisper. To that sinister tone. “All of it was because of you. You, my father’s best friend. You’re the only reason he supported that fucking synagogue in the first place. The only reason.” Ahmad’s eyes grew large and round. He took a few steps back as Michael stood and towered over his smaller frame. “You! You are the reason my father is dead! Fuck the supporters! Fuck the letters! But most of all, fuck you and your damn religion.”