“THAT IS the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever laid eyes on!”
Did I say that out loud? Or did I just think it? Whatever. I’m standing here, at the end of the first day at my new school, gazing across the commons at a guy who is mesmerizing. His slender stature—straight and tall like a soldier and muscled like one as well—says he has the confidence of a lion. His jaw is square, his closely cropped black curls shine, and even this far from him, I see eyes as black as midnight that sparkle as he laughs with his friends. I can’t look away from him.
“So how was your first day?” I hear my cousin’s voice, and I want to respond, but I am entranced by this magnificent specimen across the way.
“Gabe?” Shaun is almost shouting in my ear, but I continue to ignore him. “Earth to Gabriel, Earth to Gabriel.” Shaun’s call pounds into me, but it doesn’t break my concentration.
Not taking my eyes off the god I’ve just discovered, I say, “What, Shaun?” trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
“What’s up, Gabe? I’m trying to get an update on your first day here, and you’re blowing me off.”
Shaun is right, and to be fair, I shouldn’t be doing this. But my eyes don’t want to leave this vision. They’re glued to the guy.
“Oh, I see, you’ve discovered our resident towelhead.” His use of that disgusting slur rips me away from the object of my attention for a moment.
“Shaun, you know as well as I do name-calling is lower than low. I’m surprised at you.” My cousin and I have never been close, but we’ve been raised in the same family with the same values—or at least I thought so. I’m reasonably certain my aunt, my dad’s sister, would not like hearing her son say what he did.
“Look, Gabe, I’m only calling it like it is. That guy you have the hots for is a Muslim. Is that the term you’d rather I use? Either way, he’s just one jihad away from blowing this school sky-high.”
“Are you kidding me? You really believe that about all Muslims? That they are all waiting for the chance to strap on a bomb and take out the world?”
“Gabriel, my man, this ain’t the little town you spent your life in until now. We don’t leave our front doors unlocked. We don’t ask just anyone into our lives. We’re cautious. And when someone like him, the one you’re drooling over right now”—he points to the object of my fascination—“is around, you need to be on your guard. No telling what’s going on in his mind.”
I truly want to go off on Shaun right now. He’s being blatantly bigoted, and it pisses me off, but Shaun has been so good to me this past summer. When my dad announced we were moving here and I wouldn’t be graduating from my school back home, leaving the friends I’ve always known, Shaun took it upon himself to make the transition easier for me. He spent the entire summer texting me and skyping with me, trying to get me ready for the day I’d just spent. I stayed with Gram and Pop while Mom and Dad moved here at the beginning of summer. I’d spent the last three summers teaching little kids how to swim at the Y, and I wasn’t about to give that up. So my parents told me I could live with my grandparents while they got the new house set up and Dad started his new job. He was an insurance salesman in our hometown, but now he’s working at his company’s headquarters here in the city. A big promotion for him. So I didn’t raise much of a ruckus when I was told I’d be moving. And Shaun’s wrong about our “little town.” It has a hundred and fifty thousand residents, give or take a few, so it’s not a tiny place; granted, it’s not as big as this ginormous city.
Anyway, given my status as the new kid and my cousin’s eagerness to make me feel welcome, I had no right to deal with his attitude at the moment. That might come later, if he kept it up.
“Okay, okay,” I say. “But who is that guy?” I had to know more.
“Off-limits to you, gay boy.” I have to give Shaun this: he isn’t bothered by the fact that I’m gay. I guess that’s a big-city thing.
“Sure, Shaun, sure. But just tell me a little about him.”
“Okay, but only so you’ll point your dick toward some other guy.”
That was pretty crude, I think, but again, I’ve only been in this town for two days, so I need to get the lay of the land before I start popping off.
“That guy”—Shaun’s contempt is palpable—“is the senior class president.”
Well, that blows my mind. Does Shaun hate him because he’s Muslim or because he’s popular? Even though my school back home was much smaller, I know how teenagers think.
Shaun continues, “I don’t know how he got elected, but I guess he has everyone else but me fooled. They’ll live to regret it. You know, that camel jockey”—I wince at the term—“disappears every day at lunchtime. Some say he works in the library, but no one I’ve talked to has ever seen him checking out books or anything. If you ask me, he meets with his buddies to plot.”
I try not to sneer at Shaun.
“Anyway, his name is Kerem Uzun, his dad’s a heart doctor, his mother’s a lady-parts doctor, and he’s the only one of them in this school.”
I make a mental pledge to teach Shaun a thing or two about tolerance or die trying. “Well, I’d jump him if he was willing.”
“I’d jump him too,” Shaun says, “if it wouldn’t get me arrested.” He quickly changes the subject. “Did you find all your classes without a problem?”
He knows I did because he’d shown up at my locker or accosted me in the halls a zillion times during the day. But I smile and say, “Yeah.”
“And your teachers? Okay? I’ve never had Bergen, but I hear he’s a real hardass.”
“He was okay. Seemed to have pretty high standards. Time will tell.”
Shaun suddenly yells at someone passing by. “Kramer, come here!”
A good-looking guy stops, glances over at Shaun, and then changes his trajectory and heads for us.
“Kramer, this is my cousin Gabe; Gabe, Lou Kramer.”
As my father taught me, I reach out my hand for this guy to shake. He takes it and smiles as he gives me a hearty shake and greets, “Welcome, welcome. You’ll like Compton High. Junior? Senior? When’d you get to town?”
He’s friendly, I’ll give him that. “Senior. And I just got to town yesterday. I was tying up loose ends back in my hometown. My folks moved at the beginning of the summer. Thank God I had grandparents I could stay the summer with.”
“Glad you’ve joined us. You play sports? Band? Drama? Debate? Art?”
This guy is bordering on being nosey, but I chalk it up to his just trying to make me feel welcome.
“Gabe’s a swimmer,” Shaun answers for me.
“Great swim team here,” Lou Kramer says. “I’ve got a couple of friends on the team, and they love, love, love the coach. They say that all the time, just that way. You know girls. I’ll introduce you to ’em. You might hit it off with one of ’em. Some great guys on the team too.”
Shaun doesn’t point out that I would be more interested in the guys than the girls, and I figure it’s too soon for me to make that known to this virtual stranger.
“Well, it was good meeting you, Gabe,” Lou says. “I gotta run. My boss’ll kill me if I’m late to work.” And he rushes off.
“I’m pretty sure he bats for your team.” Shaun winks. “That’s why I hooked you two up. Who knows, if all goes well, you two might hook up.” He piles on every bit of sleazy sexual innuendo he can muster. “Come on. I’ll Uber you home.”
I glance over and see Kerem start to walk away from his friends. “No, Shaun. I’ll walk home. Beautiful day. I need the fresh air after being cooped up all day long. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Whatever. If your ass is draggin’ by the time you get home, don’t blame me.”
I watch until Shaun is safely gone, and then I scan the landscape for Kerem. A canvas cylinder of some sort and a backpack now both slung on his shoulder, he’s on the sidewalk and strolling away. He doesn’t seem to be walking with much purpose, so I can easily catch up to him. But what will I say when I do? Hi, I’m the new guy. I want to have sex with you.
Good luck with that, Gabe.
I swear I’m not a sex-crazed stalker, but I find myself following him. As he meanders, I stay far enough away that he’s oblivious to my attentions. I talk big, but at this point, I’m not really looking for someone to date, much less bed. There’s something about him that draws me. I just want to get to know him. To gaze in his eyes. To stand close enough to feel his breath. To sidle up close to that perfect body.
We’ve been walking for a good ten minutes or so when I see we’re at a park. There are no signs, so maybe it’s not an official park, but it’s a heavily wooded area. I know from studying Google Earth that we’re about a half mile from the school, and these woods have a stream running just behind them, on the east side. Why has Kerem stopped?
He turns and walks with purpose toward the trees. I stand a moment, my eyes tracking him like an undercover detective stalking his prey. He disappears into the woods. God help me, I can’t let him out of my sight, and if I don’t follow him, I will lose him.
With the stealth of a leopard, I approach the trees, and when I get close, I spy him, in a small clearing just out of sight from the sidewalk. I slip, like a Native American brave tracking his dinner, past the first trees and hide myself, but I take a position that gives me a clear view of Kerem.
He takes a small packet of something from his pack. I can’t read what it is, but he pulls a white square from it and begins wiping his face, his arms, his hands—so apparently it is a Handi Wipe. We aren’t generating much sweat out here on this relatively cool day. Maybe he feels dirty for some reason.
Next, he pulls the drawstring on the canvas cylinder and takes out something that is rolled up. Facing the stream, he unrolls his cargo. It is a small rug, which he places on the ground. He steps from his loafers and stands on the carpet.
He raises his hands in the air and speaks, quietly. I’ve never heard the language he is using. It sounds vaguely Middle Eastern, like something I’ve heard on the nightly news. Yes, it is something I’ve heard. “Allahu Akbar.”
He folds his hands on his chest and speaks a short speech, still in the foreign language.
Then he bows three times, each time speaking a short phrase, again the same language—or at least I assume it is the same.
Again, he says, “Allahu Akbar,” and then he falls on his knees, puts his hands flat in front of him, and leans over, placing his forehead between his hands. Again, he repeats something three times.
I watch in wonder. Was Shaun speaking truth? What is this ritual? Surely it’s not some private terrorist thing.
I stand, quiet and still, peering at him, feeling a mixture of wonder and embarrassment and a tinge of fear that I hate myself for. I’m witnessing something that looks to be very private. I’m intruding. I shouldn’t be here. But I can’t pull myself away.
He stands and again performs the entire ritual. Then he sits on his heels and recites more strange words. Finally I hear him breathe, a long, cleansing breath, and then he turns his head to one side and speaks, then turns his head to the other and speaks again.
My stomach growls, and it is a growl to wake the dead. If a walker were nearby, he would instantly head my way to feed on me, and I’d be forced to shoot him in the head. I’m a huge Walking Dead fan. I pray the gurgle was just loud to me and Kerem didn’t hear it.
But he jumps up. “Who’s there?” There is fear in his voice. Do I keep quiet and hope he ignores what he’s heard? What if he finds me here? What will I say? I want to run, but I think, Well, bozo, you wanted to meet him. Now’s your chance.
Like a dork, I say, “I come in peace,” hoping to make light of my eavesdropping. But it comes out like a line from some old movie where the settlers are huddled around the campfire and Chief Running Deer shows up.
“Why are you following me?” Kerem’s voice this time is fear mixed with anger—not a good thing for me—but it does show that he has a backbone. I like that. Even though I could get my block knocked off at any minute.
I hold up my hands in surrender and take two steps out of my hiding place. “I’m sorry, guy.” I think quickly and lie—not a good first move, but it might be self-preservation time. “I saw you up ahead going the direction of my house—I just moved into a house on Eden Way—and I thought maybe this was a shortcut.” Lame, lame, lame. Not even a total imbecile would believe me.
He looks at me, sizing me up. “Eden Way? Where on Eden Way?”
“I’m at two-three-two-four—right across the street. There’s only a man and a woman living at two-three. They moved in at the beginning of June. I’ve never seen you before.” He is still cautiously assessing me. And rightfully so. I could be a rapist.
“They’re my parents. I’ve been at my grandparents’ house all summer. I only got here yesterday.”
“Well, this isn’t a shortcut. And I don’t appreciate your interrupting my prayers. I was just finishing, thank Allah.”
“Prayers? That’s what you were doing?”
“What did you think? That I was planning a jihad?” The fear is gone; the anger remains. “You know, we’re not all terrorists. And a jihad is not always a bombing. That’s what you people think, but jihad, for your information, means a search. Most of the time, it’s a search for meaning and purpose in life.” He pauses a millisecond, like he’s trying to figure me out. “But why am I telling all this to a rapist?”
“No—no, no, no. You have me all wrong. All right, I admit I didn’t think this was a shortcut home.” He takes a step away. “But I didn’t follow you to harm you. I heard a little about you today in school, and I wanted to know more. Granted, stalking you is not the best way to foster understanding, but as clumsy as I said it before, I do come in peace. Let’s start this over. Whaddaya say?” I step toward him, and I smile with my hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Gabriel, and I want to know more about you.” With that somewhat inarticulate greeting, I guess I get through to him. I’m told I have an engaging smile. By Gram and my mom, but still….
“We don’t shake hands,” he says, “but we fist-bump.” He holds his fist up, and I bump it. “My name’s Kerem.”
“Good to know you, Ker.” His face squinches up. I guess I shouldn’t have shortened his name like that. But it’s what I do. I determine to pile on the charm and make it all right. “Gabe. And I am sorry. About before. And shortening your name like that.”
“The name thing’s okay. I’ve just never had anyone do that before.” He smiles. “But I kinda like it.”
I breathe a tiny sigh. Of relief? Of happiness? Of what?
“The stalking thing? We can’t be too careful. Lots of haters out there. Some of them at Compton.”
“But I hear you’re class president, so there can’t be too many of them.”
“Only takes one, Gabe; only takes one.” As he talks, he takes up his prayer rug, rolls it, and puts it back in its canvas bag.
He turns toward the sidewalk and motions for me to join him.
“So tell me about these prayers. What language was that?”
“Arabic. My dad’s Turkish, and I don’t speak Arabic fluently, but the Holy Quran was given to Muhammad in Arabic, so Muslims always pray in that language because our prayers are verses from the book. At the end, we can speak in our native language to ask Allah for favors or blessings or whatever we need to say to Him.”
“But you didn’t say anything after you did that thing where you turned your head to the sides. What’s up with that?”
He laughs. “Tell you the truth, when I heard you—that’s some stomach you got there; it would attract a hungry walker in a millisecond—I was praying silently, ‘Please don’t let him hurt me, please don’t let him hurt me.’ I’m not exactly trained in tae kwon do.” He laughs again, and it’s a joyful, at-ease expression that tells me we are going to be friends, Ker and I.
“You like The Walking Dead? Best damn show ever.”
“Wouldn’t miss it. I watch the streaming episodes over and over,” Kerem says.
“You’re kidding. That’s about the only show I have on my Netflix watch list.”
“Be still my heart. A Dead fanatic like me.” He puts his hand on his heart. “But I didn’t answer your question. The head-turning thing?” He looks at me with a smile. “We’re talking to angels who sit on our shoulders. I know, I know… it sounds weird, but it’s just part of our religion, and if you know anything about any religion, there are a lot of unexplainable things going on in all of ’em. Besides, when we pray in groups, like in our mosques—that’s what we call our churches—we are actually speaking to the people on either side of us, wishing them peace, for the Arabic words translate to ‘may the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be upon you.’”
“Just like in our church. At the end of the service, we do what we call ‘giving the peace.’ We turn to the people near us and wish them well.”
“Only we worship God. You worship Allah.”
“Allah is Arabic for God. We worship the same God you do. You know Abraham? In your Bible?”
Despite the fact Mom and Dad have always taken me to church, I’m not much of a Bible scholar, but I do know that story. “The guy who God told to sacrifice his son, and he almost did it.”
“Yeah, that’s him. Forgive my guessing that you’re a Christian. I suppose you could be an atheist, Buddhist, or whatever, but we don’t have a lot of those, if any, in our school. What denomination?”
“Methodist, born and raised. But my parents aren’t the kind to be at the church every time the doors are open.”
“Mine aren’t either. Some Muslims are at mosque half their waking hours, or at least it seems, because they are so devout.”
“Sounds like my grandparents. I think their devotion pushed Dad away from the church until he met Mom. Now they go regularly, but they’re not church-crazy.”
Kerem smiles at that. “Sounds a lot like my family. Oh, we do go to mosque regularly, but our traditions are pretty modern—American, you might say. There are a zillion different ways to be Muslim. Each country, sometimes each community, and yes, each family, has their own traditions. I suppose my family has adapted—a little bit old-world, a lot new.
“But we were talking about Abraham. Muslims are descended from Abraham, just as Jews and Christians can trace the beginnings of their beliefs to him as well. Lot of similarities. I’ll tell you sometime if you’re interested.”
“Ker,” I say again, and he smiles at me. “We’re on.” I would listen to him read the dictionary to me if it meant I could hear his voice and be in his presence. “But maybe right now, you can get me up to speed about Compton. Seems like a good school. Of course, I’ve only been there one day. My cousin Shaun—Shaun Gray, you may know him—” A slight quiver in Ker’s body stops me.
“Oh, I know him.” I can’t read much into his tone, but from what Shaun was spouting earlier, I wonder if Kerem has either heard something about Shaun and his attitude or actually encountered Shaun at some point. I do know that I want to distance myself from that sort of thing.
“Look, Ker, Shaun can be a hardass. I don’t know him real well. He’s helped me a lot, easing me into this move, but before that, I’d only seen him a couple of times a year as we grew up. Just know that whatever you think of Shaun, I’m not him, I’m not like him, and apparently I wasn’t raised like he was. ’Nough said?”
“Okay. Good to hear. Because if you’re going to be living right across the street from me, we’ll be seeing a lot of each other. Who knows? We might feed our addiction with a Walking Dead date in our future.”