Prologue Lying on his back, Yousef stared at the stars, trillions of miles away. The warm and giddy hues of white, yellow, and orange seemed out of place against the ferocious navy blue; as mismatched as if a five-year-old had clothed the universe. But creation has more order than that, and so the lights are no match for their evil canvas, and without squinted eyes are dismissed as a piece of dust clouding the cornea. Crooked branches rustled in the feeble wind, barely visible against their dark background; trying to stay put but being tormented by a power far greater. As Yousef splayed his thin limbs across a cold patch of Earth, watching the shadows he owned shape-shift, he contemplated existence; remembering everything leading him to this moment. Skydiving in Fox Glacier, New Zealand; hiking in Camino de Santiago, Spain; finding his true love in Florence, Italy; dancing with her in Prague, Czech Republic; losing her in Bruges, Belgium; and now, somewhere in Russia, he lies trying to escape death. But the sun had left long ago and little did he know, darkness would never release him from its tight grasp.
Chapter One As Yousef awakes to the sweet sounds of chirping birds, he realizes his eyes had closed without command (glancing at his watch) 6 hours ago. The little clearing he had taken refuge in slowly fades into his vision; it was in fact not a tranquil meadow oasis he had stumbled upon, but a patch of dirt and garbage. How fitting.
The barren clearing, however, is cornered by a lush forest on all sides; pine and spruce trees line one side whereas oak and ash border the other. Remembering reading up on the dangerous wildlife to Russia’s Far East forests, namely Amur tigers and brown bears, Yousef jolts up, shocked at his vulnerable figure, alive and untouched. His hands reach up instinctively to rub the last remnants of sleep out of his eyes but stop at the last moment remembering a video Aminah had shown him about how far back you push your eyes by rubbing them. After standing for only a minute but what feels like 10 in isolation, Yousef gives in to his eyes’ desire; anxious to gain clear vision; afraid of what might suddenly lunge at him, and succeed in sinking its carnivorous teeth with his half-awakened senses.
Yousef looks up at the sun, shielding his eyes with his hand like the rim of a baseball cap, and tries to determine how far he hiked the night before. The sun however is not a good indicator of direction but time and that he already knew- for now. Yousef feels a sharp twinge of regret for not splurging the extra $50 on a watch with a compass. What would that money do for him now?
He makes his way to a tree, remembering something about moss growth indicating North or South. The sturdy tree has deep lines, wrinkling its skin like a senior citizen. Only the true age for this organism could be found inside, instead of a digital document. The branches spin-off in every direction, overflowing with full and curvy leaves. Yousef reaches out to pull one-off, for no reason other than instinct. The leaf is thin and large. He tears it into pieces, each one smaller than the last, pulling away from the stem until only that remains. Dropping the viny middle, he picks at another leaf out of pure boredom. Yousef does this for a few more leaves before walking deeper into the forest. His shoes, once white and sparkly, now a shade of yellow and brown, kick up detritus. Trees surround him like a fence; keeping out the unwanted as Yousef traps the deluded. He takes notice of all the shades of green, yellow, orange, red, and brown the living leaves take and the stages of decomposition the fallen ones are in. Yousef hears a light babbling sound coming from some distance and picks up his tourist pace but suddenly reverses his body, slowly, like a future mugging victim faced by his burglars. Hands held up defensively, he speaks in hushed tones,
“Come on now, come on.”
For right in front of him is a monster with striped clothing, worn since his birth; starting off as more black than orange or white and slowly accepting his more fiery demeanor through the years. A beast of possibly about 170kg eyes Yousef up and down, calmly prowling forward.
It’s an Amur tiger.
Or, well, a Siberian tiger, if that’s the terminology preferred.
The black lines stroked across the animal are fierce and remind Yousef of Aminah’s black hair. The fiery fur reminds him of her bright scarves, capturing his attention the first time he ever saw her. While other men at the ball swiveled around bare-backed ladies with eccentric hairdos, only one woman could enchant him; fully clothed but in a gorgeous, shimmery, night black, high-necked, and long-sleeved dress, her warm chocolate eyes trapped him. Paired with her bright red scarf- she was night and day; moon and sun; good and evil yet so clearly pure, and at that moment, Yousef’s future was doomed.
But fortunately, in front of him stood an Amur tiger, and not Aminah. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of tigers would know they don’t attack humans. Or at least not if they have fulfilled their basic survival needs and don’t feel threatened. Humans, in general, are pitiful to tigers, much too small to cause any fear. Yousef specifically couldn’t scare a flea, his lanky arms and toothpick legs made him a 130-pound man at 6 feet. He used to be strong and stand tall. Now his neck seemed to have a permanent curve to it.
The tiger warily glares at Yousef before bounding away into the wild.
Hands outstretched, Yousef screams into the expanse, “Oh yeah, I’m your biggest predator now.”
Yousef stares at the sky; a pale blue stretch extending miles in every direction. Leaves fall in a rhythmic dance, leaning side to side, following a tune with a pitch too irregular for humans to hear. The sun continues beating down on him and he lets out all his pent-up agony in a big scream.
To the right of him, leaves rustle, though not by wind, and a big fleshy hand appears.
“Yousef, there you are.” A heavily accented, pink pot-bellied Serbian materializes in front of him.
“Josef, how did you find me?”
“Well, you were screaming like a madman.”
“True, but still, Russia’s forests are massive.”
“Yes, more than a fifth of the world’s forests. Although not at this rate- what is this wasteland?” Josef kicks his black boot, trying to get a silver wrapper off. It flutters away a few feet like a sick butterfly, slowly but gracefully.
Josef nods his head.
Yousef lets out a cuss.
“We had to-“
“No, you didn’t. We helped you, my wife was murdered, I couldn’t solve it alone, I broke, and then I left. I’m of no use to you anymore and life is of no use to me. So leave me alone.”
“But that’s just it, Yousef, we’ve gotten intel that Aminah’s alive. She was spotted in Pakistan.”
“What? No, that’s ridiculous.”
“Yousef, you’re forgetting, there was never a confirmed body.”
“It was close enough.”
“It’s not hard to find a 5 foot, 6-inch woman with black hair. In just one country there’s like 500 million of them.”
“What? Oh, am I not allowed to say that?”
“What? No, it just couldn’t have happened. She would have left behind some clue, or contacted me, she would have found some way to let me know.”
Whipping out his sleek phone from his denim pocket, Josef shows Yousef a grainy video, half-covered by his meaty fingers.
“This was taken two weeks ago in a Faisalabad tea shop. There’s Aminah walking in, escorted by two men.”
Josef continues talking, but Yousef stops hearing. Everything fades until only Aminah is in his vision, and that too fades away. Weak-kneed and heart beating fast, he falls. Black.
Leaves crunch and a slim lady appears from the belly of the forest.
“What’s his deal?” She asks, aggressively munching on some chocolate-covered pretzels.
“I showed him the clip.”
“Oh my god, and they say women are light-hearted. Come on, get up you big baby.”
The lady kicks Yousef’s unconscious arm.
“Come on, we don’t have much time.”
Josef gestures to the giant bag of pretzels in the lady’s tiny hand, “What? They’re low calorie ok. Plus, we got a lot of walking ahead of us.”
Josef shakes his head with a gruff laugh, “No you don’t need to diet, I’m just surprised you gave up on that juice cleanse so quickly.”
“You really think people like us can live off a juice cleanse?”
Yousef springs up with a red face. The pair of them brush off Yousef’s temporary blackout like a cookie crumb.
“You said this was recorded two weeks ago?”
“Shit. Did I say that? No, I don’t think I said any time.”
“Josef, why did you wait this long to tell me? You should have reached out to me as soon as this happened. You obviously knew where to find me.”
Josef fidgets with the buttons on his fur coat and averts eye contact. The brutish man is suddenly reduced to a schoolgirl caught with her hand in the cookie jar. A light breeze ruffles Yousef’s thick hair but has no luck of penetrating Josef’s gelled do. Leaves rustle, creating a perfect soundtrack of nature sounds one might find on YouTube. Josef bores a hole in the ground with his eyes and Yousef, having enough, grabs at his collar and shakes him, forcing Josef’s eyes to meet his own.
“Why? Answer me that simple question, you owe me that much.”
“You don’t think we noticed how her disappearance broke you? How you threw all your skill out the window and acted on pure desire?”
“Then why are you here? No wait, let me guess, you sent some men and there was a massacre?”
“Well then, seems as though you’re just as invested in this as me now. So, if I come back, as you obviously need me, you have to remove the tracking device.”
Josef hesitates, “You know they’re not going to go for it.”
“Hadhira, when did you get here?” Yousef’s incredulous face instantly lightens.
“I was always here, you sexist. What, can you not see women?”
“Hadhira stop. We don’t have time for this.”
“Ugh Josef, you never let me have any fun. Ok, well let’s get going. It’s not that easy to drive through a forest, so we parked really far. We better hurry if we want to make it before sunset. And here, take a granola bar, you look like you could use it.”
Tossing him a granola bar, Hadhira and Josef purposefully return the way they came- only this time, Yousef is with them.