FICTION: The Backpack by João Cerqueira

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Jim wears white shoes, beltless jeans and a black t-shirt. He carries a backpack. Behind a noisy group of girls, he enters the commercial center. Their laughter and perfume would have awoken his desire six months ago. He would have admired their bodies, tried to guess their faces, and perhaps would risk a compliment. But now he ignores them. With his blue eyes wide open, he walks slowly down the marble corridor without looking at the shop windows. Under the neon lights his hair becomes the color of an autumn leaf, between yellow and red.

His backpack has a bomb set to blow in thirty minutes.*Paul is seventeen and five years younger than his brother Jim. He runs into the kitchen, his hair in front of his face, his mouth open.““Is it ready?” he asks.The mother opens the stove, pulls out the apple pie and begins to cut it into slices.“Be careful, it’s hot.”Jim is attracted by the aroma of the pie and also comes to the kitchen. But Paul is already leaving with a big piece in his hand.“Are you going?” asks Jim.Paul slaps him on the shoulder and says something with his mouth full that neither Jim nor their mother understands. *It’s two in the morning and Paul is at a friend’s beach house party. A group of eighteen boys and sixteen girls seems to be listening to the singing of a mermaid. The music is at full volume and they jump and bump against each other with the fury of sea monsters thrown to the earth. After having drunk vodka and smoked marijuana, Paul is one of the most out of control among the horde of demented teens. However, despite shocks and blurred vision, he tries not to lose sight of Rachel. She also jumps and shakes her head, but keeps herself near him. In a moment when the music stops because a boy tumbles against the equipment, she presses one of her breasts onto his arm and puts her tongue in his ear.Fireworks burst in Paul’s head.He catches her hand and takes her away. Now they are rolling in the beach’s sand. They kiss and undress, but when they get naked, Rachel challenges him to make love in the water. Paul starts laughing, gets up and runs to the waves. Raquel runs after him shouting with her arms in the air, but she stumbles and falls on the sand. He moves away. She sees him enter the water and dive.Then there is only the darkness, the roar of the waves and a cold wind.   *His brother’s death shattered Jim. He left his parents’ house, got away from his friends, ended his relationship. Social contact became unbearable. In his loneliness, suffering and segregation, an acid corroded his emotions until only one was left, as intense as his affection for Paul: hatred. Jim found in his hatred the strength to survive by turning it against the world that had stolen his brother. He screamed at people, insulted them, and engaged in street fights. He ended up being arrested.  The detention was for only a weekend, but he left there more furious. In a vague sense, like a form that can only be guessed in the fog, he felt that he would fall again into prostration if his anger was over. One day, while googling violence, he discovered the propaganda from the Islamic State. He was surprised to see Westerners, of his age, speaking perfect English. Those boys shot weapons, detonated explosives and triumphantly entered the conquered cities. They were powerful and the whole world feared them. Fascinated, he watched those videos for hours and continued to in the days that followed. Gradually, the message began to make sense: the West was corrupt, the West embodied evil, Western youths had lost their sense of life and indulged themselves in degenerate practices. Yes, they were right: it was because of the corruption of Western society that drugs, alcohol abuse, and the wild parties where Paul had died were welcome. Yes, Western society pushed young people to a precipice where they would find death. Yes, Paul’s guilt being dead was from this sick society. It was true, the West was the embodiment of evil and deserved to be destroyed. On the other hand, Paul could not have ended like this, could not disappear forever, no. He continued to live in the other world because God existed, God had to exist, not the God who allowed the Western society, this false God, but the true and only God, Allah.He then decided to establish contact with the Islamic State through social networks. Although he had never been able to speak directly with the group, several sympathizers encouraged him to execute the message he had heard on the videos: “If you cannot go to Syria, make an attack in America,” followed by advice on how to achieve that goal. That’s how he started attending the mosque.Imam Abu Amhed was an elderly black man with a white beard, and his head was covered by a kufi. He was responsible for the only mosque in the city and his preaching attracted many Muslims. One Saturday afternoon, Jim went to listen to him for the first time. The sky was heavy with clouds and thunder. The mosque was a white building with a golden dome and a green minaret. After taking off his shoes, Jim walked into an empty hall with a red carpet decorated by geometric motifs. At first he tasted an intense bittersweet scent of bodies, then discovered that there were more blacks and Orientals than whites. That left him satisfied. Islam was the religion that received the excluded of the Western world. Jim imitated the faithful, kneeling as they did toward Mecca, and began to pray until he realized that he was praying to the Christian God. He became confused and wanted to leave.It was then that Imam Abu Amhed appeared. Leaning on a cane, he greeted the faithful and began preaching. Jim listened attentively, and when the Imam began to criticize the spiritual decadence of society and the departure from the teachings of Muhammad, Jim was sure that he had found the right place; soon there would be a call to holy war against the West. However, the Imam continued to speak but there was no incitement to violence, nor a word of hatred, only appeals to the faithful to live according to the teachings of the Koran and, even worse, to forgive the offenses of the infidels and to practice charity without discriminating against anyone. Jim was disappointed. The old man was a fraud.Outside, the storm had passed; the sky became orange and some stars sparkled. Jim was heading for his car when a man of his age approached. He was dark-haired, with curly hair and gray eyes. ““Hello, my name is Yuri. Did you like the Imam?”Jim looked at him suspiciously and continued walking without answering. Yuri insisted. “By your face, you don’t look very happy…”Jim stopped and clenched his fists ready for another fight. “What do you want?”“Calm down, I just want to talk to you. If you came here, that’s why you’re looking for something. Listen, I am a true Muslim and I belong to a group that is not satisfied with Imam Amhed. For us, he does not represent Islam.”Jim opened his fists and took a deep breath. He measured the man before him before he spoke.“And what does Islam represent to you?”Yuri smiled.“For us, true Islam means fighting against your enemies. The West is killing our brothers and it is the duty of every Muslim to fight back.  Jihad…”The conversation continued in Yuri’s car. At the same time that he introduced Jim to Islamic radicalism, he told him about his life, mixing matters like two pieces that fit together. More than by religion, Jim began to take an interest in Yuri’s past. He saw himself in the sufferings confessed by Yuri – humiliation at school, discrimination at work, the parent’s death in a car accident – and whether it was because he felt compelled to say something, or because he had not spoken to anyone in a long time, he also let off some steam. Yuri, seeing that behind the aggressive man there appeared a lost boy, he gave Jim the question. “And you?”Jim didn’t intent to go that far, but like a scream that caused an avalanche, it was enough to start talking about himself – leaving home and finding it difficult to get a job – for Paul’s tragedy to tumble. At first he tried to control the flow of repressed emotions, biting his lips, taking deep breaths and pausing, but soon he lost control and ended buried by the pain. First his voice changed, then he began to stutter, and at last, shamelessly, he wept for his brother’s death.Yuri’s face changed as well, and the anguished expression, with a twisted mouth and wide eyes, gave way to an inexpressive mask. He no longer had to play the role of American society’s victim. Now, he had the cold stare of a recruiter who had found someone with the right profile. When Yuri felt he had him at his mercy, and could already enter into the crying boy’s room for consoling, he hugged Jim and called him brother. At the end, it was agreed that Yuri would introduce him to his group to listen to another Imam, a genuine supporter of Islam. * Three days later, Jim went to meet Imam Youssef Ibrahim. Yuri appeared with a man with brown eyes, shaved hair and a black beard and presented him as Rachid. Then, with Jim sitting in the back of a car, the three left the city. To his surprise, Yuri and Rachid spoke only about football during the trip – and they were both from his club, who would suppose? Half an hour later they entered a wooded area and stopped in front of a white house with a garden. The sky was clear and the sun shone on the facade. Jim heard birdsong and felt the fresh scent of cut grass. A girl with her head covered waited for them at the door. Yuri waved her a finger and she looked down. Then she led them into the house mutely. Jim walked carefully to make no noise. When the girl left them in a room, he stayed still with his hands behind his back. He looked around: a television, a sofa, a closet with books, and a clock on the wall. He expected something different, though he was not sure what.The only sound in the room was the tick-tock of the clock. Imam Ibrahim appeared minutes later. He was a middle-aged man, short and fat, who limped. He wore a kufi, but had no beard. His black eyes scanned Jim from head to toe like a metal detector. He spoke to Yuri in an unknown language, and only then, with a kind of snort as he breathed, did he approach Jim. “As sala’amu alaikum,” he said. Though he had already heard the greeting at the mosque, Jim looked at Yuri for help, and he answered for both.“Walaikum as sala’am. This means peace be with you. Don’t forget.”Imam Ibrahim ordered them to sit and questioned Jim for a while. He had a nasal voice. Sometimes he spoke in the unknown language with Yuri appearing to reproach him for not being satisfied with the answers given. Jim tried to be honest, but he stuttered and his fingers felt like entangled snakes. Explaining the reason for his conversion to Islam proved more complicated than he supposed. Sweat ran down his forehead. Suddenly the Imam ceased his interrogation, closed his eyes, and stood silent for a few seconds. His breathing mixed with the tick-tock of the clock produced a strange vibe. Then, with half-closed eyes, he began to speak. “I have fought the infidels in Chechnya and now I am fighting them in this country. There is no difference between Russians, Israelis and Americans because all are killing our Muslim brothers. They kill women and children every day, look.” And he showed shocking pictures on a cell phone. “It is our duty to kill as many infidels as possible. However, Western society also destroys itself. Their young people are lost in alcohol and drugs, suffer from depression and commit suicide. This is also why we have a duty to free them from materialistic oppression and their false god to impose sharia…”The speech against the West went on for a few more minutes, and Jim listened intently. Although the Imam never encouraged him to commit violent acts, Jim thought he had found the right man to avenge Paul’s death. Yuri then told Jim that he had to deal with other matters with the Imam and that Rachid would take him home.*When Jim left, Yuri spoke.“What do you think of him, Imam Munir?”The Imam shook his head.“Omar, you only bring me poor devils. He’ll never be a true Muslim.”“Maybe, but he’s full of hate and that’s what interests us.”“Hate is important, but don’t change his habits. Let him continue to drink alcohol and eat whatever he wants. Avoid talking about his brother’s death, too. He might suspect something. Once in a while, speak about the victims of this society and that should be enough to keep him enraged. Also, lend him some money, he looks like a bum.”“I already lent him some. Right now he has no job, no friends, no girlfriend. He barely speaks to his parents. I am the person who is closest to him and our cause makes him feel powerful. He will collaborate because he is obsessed with revenge, but also because he has nothing else in life.”“Maybe, but stay alert and watch the questions he asks.”“Don’t worry, he’s not very talkative and we know his routines.”“You have six months to persuade him to place the bomb. If he refuses, get rid of him and bring me someone capable.”  * During the return journey, Jim was tempted to ask Rachid to give him a mission that would show his worth, but he stayed silent. Rachid, for his part, only told him about the tasks he would have to fulfill in order to become a true Muslim: read the Koran, pray five times a day, observe Ramadan and, most importantly, come every week to listen to the teachings of the Imam. And only then, –  Rachid had said – they would see if he was prepared to fight against the infidels.*That night Jim has a dream.It is a sunny day and he walks on a beach by the water’s edge. The sea air was fresh. The waves crash against his legs and his feet bury in the sand. Dozens of people pass him and Jim observes the women’s bodies. Sometimes, he turns his head to appreciate their butt. A couple of lovers that were kissing collide with him. But the collision was like a caress and he smiles. Suddenly he hears shouts behind him. He turns and sees a crowd by the water: someone is drowning without anyone helping him. It is a boy. Jim starts running in that direction. “I have to save him, I have to save him,” he says to himself, hearing at the same time the tick-tock of a clock. He pushes whoever appears in his path until he gets near the place of the accident. Then he throws himself into the sea and begins to swim. The water is cold and the current is strong. The boy convulses and screams desperately, while his body is shaken by the waves. Jim lifts his head to see his face, but the water forms a mirror of light that forces him to close his eyes. Jim swims around the boy to grab him by the neck. When he is about to lay his hand on him, the boy says something he cannot understand, then sinks and disappears into the sea.Jim wakes with a start, bathed in cold sweat.*For five months, Jim came to attend the preaching of the Imam. These were very similar: after demonizing the western enemy and referring to the obligation to fight against it, he spoke of the delights in a paradise where the martyrs of this struggle were welcomed. But time passed and the Imam gave him no mission. Jim viewed the ISIS videos and the news of terrorist attacks in Europe and admired their authors in the same way he had admired football players before. However, there was a rule in this new sport that he was not able to accept: to blow himself up. He constantly reflected on this possibility and always came to the conclusion that he had no faith, or courage, to do so. But not all had to be martyrs. To avenge Paul’s death he did not have to die, either.But what if they demanded his sacrifice? What would he tell them?One day Yuri asked him to go to an unknown address. It was a cloudy afternoon and it was cold. Jim found a rundown area, with holes in the sidewalks, trash scattered on the floor, and stray dogs. He was approached by prostitutes, drug dealers and beggars, which made him confirm the decay of American society. Then he entered an old building without a lift, climbed a wooden staircase to the fifth floor and knocked on the door. Yuri opened it and a musty smell emerged. There was Rachid and another man who was introduced as The Engineer. He was a middle-aged man, with gray hair and yellow eyes, who wore gloves. They were in a room with the windows closed, lit by a lamp in the ceiling where there was only one table with a gray backpack. The engineer opened it and showed the bomb. “It was made for you,” Yuri said. “Are you ready to carry out your mission? Will you help us to destroy our enemies?”The three men’s gaze concentrated on Jim and he felt cornered, as if he was at a dead end. He began to sweat and bite his lips but he was not able to find the answer. His voice came out as a murmur. “I’m not ready to be a martyr yet…”, and he bowed his head.He hoped to be criticized, perhaps kicked out of the group, but Yuri, Rachid, and the Engineer began to laugh.“We don’t want you to become a martyr,” Yuri said. “Your mission will be to take a backpack to a certain place, place it there and leave.”“Very simple and nothing will happen to you,” Rachid added.The Engineer snaped his fingers and said “Buum.”Jim took a deep breath. His blue eyes widened.“Yes, I am ready to carry out this mission. When will it be?”*Two hours later, Yuri took Jim home. Jim had learned to program the bomb and was instructed to place it the next day at eighteen hundred hours in the restoration area of the Cesar Pallace mall. Then he would go to the parking lot where Rachid was waiting to take him out of the country. When they reached the destination, Yuri stopped the car and turned off the lights. It was a moonless night, and Jim could only see his eyes shining in the dark. And it seemed to be those silvery eyes that spoke to him. “I know what you’re thinking, but remember this: they aren’t innocent, they are our enemies. American civilians are as guilty as the soldiers who kill our brothers. Attacking them is a legitimate act of war.”“I know,” said Jim.“Death will set them free because they are nothing more than slaves. Our fight is the only hope for the American youth. You must be proud of your mission. May Allah be with you.”They hugged and Jim got out of the car.At home he put the backpack next to Paul’s photograph, as if the emptiness caused by his death could be filled by that object. He experienced a comfort as he had not felt since, almost a joy, for now he knew his brother’s death would not go without reply. Then he stared at his backpack, fixedly, like a believer before an idol. In his eyes, this was no longer a vulgar object made of cheap materials, not even the wraparound casing where the explosive device was, but something that made him powerful; as powerful as the boys who frightened the world in ISIS videos.When he lay down, fireworks burst in his head and revenge shone in many colors.*At dawn, Yuri, Rachid and Imam Munir left the country.*Jim walks slowly down the aisles of the mall without seeing anyone. He passes hundreds of people, brushes his body against some of them, collides against an old woman, but his gaze traverses living beings and objects as if transparent, as if the true reality were beyond where he was. His ears, too, let in and out all the sounds and words that the mall and its customers emit. They could shout at him, throw him the worst insults or even place him under arrest though he would not react, as if they were speaking in an unknown language, as if they were not talking to him at all. The reason that diverts him from reality and blunts his senses doesn’t reach, however, the smell. Jim senses the odors that pass him by: perspiration, perfume, food. At some point, when approaching the coffee area, he captures the aroma of apple pie. His nostrils dilate and seek the smell in the air. His steps become slower, and he drags his feet, until he stops.He starts to notice people: men, women and children of all ages, of all ethnicities, fat and thin, handsome and ugly, some well-dressed, others not.“Slaves.”Faces gain intense sharpness, like high-definition images on a television, and everyone looks happy. Jim hates them. He hates that fat man eating popcorn, hates that pair of boyfriends who exchange kisses as they walk, hates that smiling woman loaded with sacks, hates that old man who twists his neck to peep at a girl’s bottom, hates that woman who puts a baby on her lap and also hates the little creature with the pacifier in its mouth. “Paul.”Suddenly, the name and the image of his brother appear like waves crashing on a beach. Paul hits the shore. Jim listens to his voice and sees him at various moments in his life. He recalls the last time he saw him in the kitchen: the hair in front of his face, a slap on the shoulder, and the sound of his mouth full saying something incomprehensible. The backpack feels heavy on his shoulder and his feet hurt. His body is full of sweat and he feels cold. Then, a few meters ahead, a boy falls and starts to shake. His eyes roll back and he foams at the mouth. He raps furiously with his heels on the floor and moans. No one has the courage to help him. People stand back, watching the scene from a safe distance. Someone takes a video with their mobile phone.Jim starts running through the sea of people, pushes those who appear in front of him and dives onto the boy. For a moment he does not know what to do. Then he quickly takes off his backpack, puts a flap between the boy’s teeth, and tries to immobilize him.“Call an ambulance,” he says.João Cerqueira


João Cerqueira  is the author of eight books.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013, the Beverly Hills Book Awards 2014, the Global Ebook Awards 2014, was finalist for the Montaigne Medal 2014 (Eric Offer Awards) and for The Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards 2014 and  was considered by ForewordReviews the third best translation published in 2012 in the United States.

Jesus and Magdalene won the silver medal in the 2015 Latino Book Award, the silver medal in the 2016 Hungry Monster Book Awards, the silver medal in the 2017 Feathered Quill Book Awards, was nominated for the official selection of the New Apple Book Awards 2016, was finalist for the Chanticleer Book Awards 2017 and was nominated book of the year 2016 by Latina Book Award.

The short story A house in Europe received an honorable mention in the Glimmer Train July 2015 Very Short Fiction Award.

The short story The dictator and poetry was published in the 2016 Bombay Review Anthology.

If you enjoyed The Backpack, leave a comment and let João know.


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