Forty-five in the shade, so hot the whitewashed warehouses vapored. Heat pressed down like a boot kicked hard. Josh felt it mostly in the crown, thinning there – and still so young too – but the heat made everything older and slower. He’d burn and peel; that fair skin had once seared during an Irish summer, the crown peeling off like a kipa. He wanted to be inside, get something to eat, but the restaurants in Stone Town were closed during Ramadan. Josh and his new bride had just exited an uncomfortably cold air-conditioned theatre, watching an enjoyable yet farcical Greek comedy shown as part of the international film festival, and were now aimlessly wandering the tight cobbled streets toward the beach, the stone buildings giving to bleached adobe shacks, and the sea. Could smell it like tears. Would float in it for days until discoloured by the waves, returning to land as a boneless thing, renewed.
Josh clutched Debs’ hand, unwilling even in this heat to separate his connection to her, like they’d cease to exist if the join were somehow severed. Two days in Zanzibar and this the first time they’d ventured out of their hotel room, this hermetically-sealed, chiselled and colonnaded resort – the new tucked and stretched face of an old dame.
Debs glanced at the sea but something rustled and jaunted the fronds of a palm tree above them now. A boy shimmied down the trunk and stared into her face, those sapphire blue eyes of hers. He drilled a hole through a coconut’s eye and slid a straw into it and placed it in Debs’ hand, his twiggy fingers holding hers a lingering moment.
“This is best coconut I find all day,” he said. “It is lucky coconut because I do not fall picking it.”
His knees and shins scabbed and pale-scarred. Debs lifted out of her shoulder bag a five-dollar bill. The boy pincered it and sprinted off, feet embroidering little stitches on the wet sand.
Josh should have chased after the boy and retrieved the note. It was dangerous to give so much, be so frivolous with their money – they’d been warned. Instead, he held her hand tighter, joined in some magnetic way, unable to break free. Never wanted to let go. She was his. He was hers. Youthful, fresh out of college. Could almost pass for teenagers. And madly in love. Madly, unequivocally entwined from the first moment they met, drawn to each other at a recital a semester ago.
She was watching him, his brown eyes like tough leather, then the softest velvet. He had to just had to kiss her and danced her a ways so their feet chimed in the wash of waves discoloured by sand.
Debs lifted an opalescent shell, rinsed it off, put it in her Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. They walked hand in hand for a stretch of coast, coral fringing out there, then came to the harbour with its grimy touts, stevedores and puttering cargo ships. Gasps of pungent sumac odour. They strolled on towards the jumble of Stone Town, the musk of warm bricks, and the spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral which heralded the location of their resort hotel where staff served western food anytime during Ramadan.
This narrow street of tall anorexic buildings, donkey droppings, cracked cement, clove-y breeze, sidewalk-less, women-less, pillared by couplets of tobacco-smoked men. Stone Town’s a warren; not like Zanzibar at all. More real. Diminished – yes, bygone and trodden … but real, realer than the modern facelift stretchmarks of the city.
Paradise, and he knew it too.
“I shouldn’t have been worried,” Debs said. “Everything you said about here was right.”
He recognized this street and in fifteen minutes they’d be back in their room. These ancient buildings heaved and wheezed, leaning, crouching over, like old men.
She said, “It’s all so quick.”
Joshua slowed his pace, but she chuckled.
“Marriage, you goof,” she said. “Leaving Ireland. Travelling, just us two alone, together.”
He met her eyes. Pulled her to him. Kissed. Hard and fast and full of fire. People were staring over, glaring. They’d been warned about that too – public displays of affection.
Josh led on, not knowing if this was the correct direction, these streets all the same. But he didn’t like the way the locals were pointing in their direction, and now he just wanted to get back to his room, have a beer. Debs’ grip tightened; she didn’t recognize this street either. He glanced at his watch, could see they’d been walking longer than they should have; and this street was deserted, just them walking on it, holding hands (warned against that too).
“That kid got five times what the coconut was worth,” he said. “I couldn’t afford that markup back in Dublin, but out here … we’re all rich. Like you.”
Debs came from old money, the type of fortune protected by the pre-nups he’d been forced to sign by her father.
She reached into her shoulder bag and lifted a makeup compact out, powdered her pale somewhat luminous face. Her sarong worn all the way to her ankles fluttered in the gasp-y breeze; she also wore a veiled blouse to ensure she was completely covered (as per the tour operator’s instructions). She scratched at the collar, revealing her Star of David necklace. Josh reached to tuck it out of view, but something came at them from behind. A buzzing drone like a vuvuzela. A dried pea rattling inside a can. It was a moped barrelling towards them –
Josh looped his arm around Debs, dragging her back against the wall. The moped slowed, driver and passenger glaring over, studying them. The passenger held a small gas canister. Both young men, shoeless, tattered rags for clothes. The moped sped up, rounded a corner and disappeared.
Light glinted off Debs’ necklace and Josh tucked it inside her blouse. Then they met each other’s eyes, and her lips turned up at the corners, revealing a beautiful grand piano smile, and then they were laughing, hanging off each other, barely able to catch breath.
A moped buzzed towards them. The same moped. The passenger upended the contents of the gas canister, a clear liquid dousing the couple, then sped off.
Josh stared after it, wondering about this bizarreness. Hoped to catch Debs’ eye and laugh about it.
But she screamed. Grabbed at her face. Blue smoke coiled off her cheeks. Melting. Too unreal to be anything other than a movie effect. Like that scene in The Wizard of Oz.
Josh yelled, collapsing to his knees. Chest, back, hands burning but no fire there – no flames. The liquid seared like acid.
She clawed at her face and her hands melted too. Her clothes disintegrated. People all around, now. Lifting them. Hoisted by many hands. Traversing the shaded streets, then careering into the light. Josh cannonballed into the water, twisting farther out into the sea, the waves slapping him, taking the burning away.
Debs was sitting cross-legged on the edge of where the ocean met the beach, arms out like a child reaching to be lifted. Water had been splashed over her and the burning now was gone. She couldn’t understand why those around her were wailing and crying, and she shushed them, saying Please calm down, everything’s fine. Skin hung from her face in ribbons.
Fire woke him. Hurt pulsed through his torso, ending at his neck. The acid had missed his face. His arms, hands and chest were bandaged. Needed to rip it off, let the fire escape.
A nurse entered his room and took his hands and placed them by his side, speaking in a language he didn’t understand. She put her hand on his head, ran it through his soft brown curls. Then she went to the IV drips and changed the bags.
“Where’s my wife Debora? Is she…?” His voice was croaky. “Deborah Malloy, my wife, take me to her.”
He struggled to sit up and collapsed back onto the bed, panting, and he shuddered as if he were crying except there was a hollowness within, and no wetness in his eyes. The nurse called out and went to the door. A tall black man wearing glasses entered, his lips pressed tightly into slits. He went alongside the bed and filled a glass with water, placed a straw into it and helped Josh upright enough to drink, and he drank greedily but the doctor took the glass away before he consumed more than a few mouthfuls. Josh wept, chest shuddering, eyes hot as tar pits.
“You are too dehydrated to cry,” the doctor said. “But drinking too much too soon will make you sick.”
He explained about the attack that used sulphuric acid from a car battery. He said there was almost no morphine used and the reason Josh did not feel much pain was that his nerve receptors were so entirely damaged they no longer functioned. They would never regain. A serious trauma, yes, but he would survive. And lucky, too, that none of it had gotten on his face.
And then the doctor looked far off, at some point in the distance, unable to make eye contact while he spoke about Debs.
A porter pushed Josh’s wheelchair into Debs’ room and then went back out. She wouldn’t look at him, eyes downturned off to the side fixed on a spot on the white plastic-y wall, focused as if reading words. Her entire head was bandaged, hands and upper body. Even the exposed skin around her eyes was blistered and raw, an oozing wound.
The television was tuned to the BBC world news service:
A young Irish couple on honeymoon have been attacked by acid in Zanzibar, Tanzania. It follows an identical assault on a Catholic priest a month previous. Two men on a moped hurled battery acid at them. Locals came to the couples’ aid, immersing them in the sea.
Josh recalled a short man splashing water in Debs’ face and rubbing it on her face, growling each time he splashed her face with the sea water. Unfortunately, the sandy water wasn’t as effective as the water farther out from the shoreline. The acid had burned her for longer than it had burned him.
“When I close my eyes, it’s like I’m watching a news report,” she said. “Like it’s someone else’s story on TV. Nothing’s real anymore.”
“That’s morphine,” he replied. “Makes it seem like a dream.”
She said, “I want more morphine.”
It all felt like a waking dream to Josh too. He couldn’t understand why they were targeted, why them in particular? They had dressed appropriately. Hadn’t openly shown they were Jewish. What could have provoked this attack?
“I don’t know,” he muttered. “I don’t know. I don’t. I really don’t. Don’t know.”
“They targeted us,” she said. “The way they stopped, to look. They were looking for us.”
She glared at him, a distillation of hurt and fear in her smoky eyes. Then she picked a spot on the wall and stared absently.
“They carried me up on their shoulders and brought me into the water and washed me, and all I kept thinking was why are we doing a mikve, why now?”
Josh’s hearing hummed. A lead weight creaking pendulously through his skull.
“Just before the moped, why did you check your watch?” she asked.
“I knew we’d been walking too long,” he replied. “Should have been at the hotel already—”
“You checked your watch,” she said with realization, “and then led me onto that deserted street. I knew it was the wrong way but didn’t say. But you took me onto that street, and checked your watch … like you were late for something.”
He glared at her. “I had nothing to do with that attack,” he hissed. “I can’t believe you’d ever think I could have… Are you serious?”
Her shoulders bunched up and she whimpered, tears disappearing like steam.
The nurse dialled the number and passed Josh the phone, which he held awkwardly to his ear, hands wrapped like mittens. He was in his wheelchair at the nurses’ station. The hallway was various shades of white, hard to tell the walls from the floor, and an elderly man with a walking stick wavered near the doorway, wet gushing from his gown, pooling around his feet, lapping along the hallway. A porter went to him.
The call connected and a man spoke curtly. It was Josh’s father-in-law Michael. He had wanted to speak to Sarah, had always gotten on better with her. He took a short breath, scar tissue banding his chest.
“Did you get the flight booked, Mr Resnik?”
Michael sighed. Cleared his throat. “Oh, it’s you.”
He’d never before heard a woman wail so ferociously; this guttural, animal-like scream, and then the phone had fallen away, cracking on the ground. She’d been yelling for Michael then, and the two of them sobbing, and the line had disconnected. Josh had tried several times since then, always getting a busy signal. Until now.
“I’ve spoken to Police Commissioner Faki,” Mr Resnik said. “Got the real details from him. All the details.”
“Debs, she’s saying some crazy things, Mr Resnik. Saying I’ve planned all this, Michael. I need your help.”
The line clicked dead.
Josh’s wheelchair banged into the doorjamb and he slung it to the side, crashing through the double doors and exiting into the hospital car park. He fumbled at a pack of cigarettes he’d purchased from the gift shop with money he’d borrowed from his nurse, tearing the plastic off with his teeth and chewing the paper and foil off in a chunk, rattling the packet until a cigarette fell onto his lap. Double-handed, he lifted the cigarette to his mouth, glanced at the box of matches, and wept uncontrollably. A short fat man came alongside and laid his bandaged hand on Josh’s back; he’d been the one who had rubbed dirty water in Debs’ face. The woman with him put Josh’s cigarette in her mouth, lit it, drew smoke deep, then placed the cigarette in Josh’s mouth. He puffed and puffed like a locomotive, the coal a red eye. He hadn’t smoked in three months, since meeting Debs, and now spluttered, the cigarette coughed to the dirty cement. The woman lifted it and put it back in his mouth.
This wedge-shaped man, this fat man with a moustache that looked like a fat fly squatting above his lip, had he taken Debs out a few feet more into the clear ocean waters, her face wouldn’t have been ruined… Josh made fists, those fist already in boxing gloves. He’d been a Golden Gloves champion. Knew how to clatter some fat little man like that.
“You helped us,” Josh said. “Thanks.”
The man licked his lips and wiped them on the back of his bandaged hand. “You’re Irish and a Jew,” he said.
With the news, strangers knew everything like they were friends.
Joshua Malloy. Irish.
“I’m what you might call a Catholic Jew.”
“Something like that, shouldn’t have happened anybody,” the man said. “Nobody deserves to be burned.”
The woman said, “Did you really pay to have your own wife killed?”
Josh was hunched over in his wheelchair, the pain in his chest like magma, stealing the wind from his lungs, and a thick-shouldered man with oily black skin dragged a hardback chair closer and sat. They were in the hallway near the toilet, where he’d been sicking up for the past few minutes. This commanding man wore a black beret and a brown short-sleeve shirt with an official insignia stitched across the lapels.
“I am Police Commissioner Samuel Momose Faki.”
“Did you catch them?” Josh’s words tumbled out. Had to repeat himself after Commissioner Faki raised a thick eyebrow and lilted his head to the side like a puzzled Doberman.
Josh had described his attackers to a police artist and the image had been transmitted on the news stations. They looked more ominous that he remembered, more vile.
Commissioner Faki sucked his teeth. “We will capture these men. Then we will have the truth from them. The whole truth.”
“Debs was wearing a Star of David. They saw it and attacked us.”
Commissioner Faki sweated profusely, his shirt wet from the armpits out, almost connecting to the dampness at his chest. He fanned air in his face with a newspaper but did not remove his beret. The headline on the newspaper: Husband Implicated In Newlywed Wife’s Acid Attack.
A police line had been erected at the hospital entrance to keep reporters out. A dozen of them camped outside. They had climbed up to his window and shouted questions inside. Now, he had to keep it shut. The heat, it made everything soft and out of focus. Just like he felt.
He heard the paint-can-marble rattle of the moped. Those bastards, they smirked at each other, smirked, he saw it now – glared at me and Debs, then dumped battery acid on us. It was no accident. Those animals were looking for victims, searching.
He needed them found. Needed their confession. Needed Debs not to hate him for this. Without her he was nothing, and he’d already considered the sturdy metal railing above the toilet to attach a belt loop and end it all.
“If you think I did it, arrest me then. Get it over with.”
“I do not believe this to be a religious crime,” he said. “And I will find the truth. And it will take the time it takes…”
Commissioner Faki stood up and peered into the toilet, glancing up at the metal railing near the ceiling. Then he moved in front of the wheelchair and placed his meaty hands on the armrests, leaning into Josh’s face, reeking of spicy, bitter onions.
“I read a story in a newspaper about a newlywed couple on honeymoon in Turkey,” Commissioner Faki said. “During this honeymoon the wife she dies, she is murdered. It is a senseless crime. Seemingly unprovoked. But it is later discovered that the husband kills his wife for her money. For her money.”
Debs’ parents were clinging to each other outside Debs’ hospital room. Sarah was borrowed into the crook of Michael’s neck, and when she stood back his shirt was sooted with mascara. Michael straightened and moved in front of his wife, like he was expecting to protect her from attack. Josh was nearby, and backed off a step, considered running away. But there was a commotion in Debs room, with several nurses and porters inside.
Josh stared pleadingly at Sarah, whose mouth was turned down at the corners as if she wanted to speak, to intervene, but instead made a choking noise like a cat about to hairball.
“You’re moving Debs,” he said.
“For reconstructive surgery in London,” Michael snapped. “She’ll get the best help there is.”
“I’ll pay whatever I have,” Josh said. “Whatever I have, all of it, I’ll give it.”
Michael brushed past and Sarah trotted after, then she stopped and returned, leaned close to Josh and kissed his cheek.
Josh entered Debs’ room. She was sitting upright in bed, staring off to the side, looking at some spot on the wall. The nurses and porters left, wheeling out a medicine cart. A nurse lingered at the door, and Debs’ glanced at her, pointing her eyes off. The nurse left.
“In London, they’ve scheduled five surgeries,” she said. “For starters.”
He went to her and fell onto her side of the bed, leaning across, and he was muttering about everything being okay and how they’d pull though all this if only they stuck together, trusted each other. They had each other and that’s all that mattered. Whatever else, they’d get through it.
“Look at my face,” she said. “I couldn’t be with someone like me,” she said. “Leave me and I won’t hold it against you.”
“I won’t ever leave you. I promise.”
“You don’t really even know me,” she said. “We’ve only known each other a year. Only really known each other three months. You don’t know me at all.”
“I know your favourite colour’s green. Your grandma taught you how to knit. You want to learn how to spin yarn. You watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding when you’re sad. And you’ve never had a TB shot—”
The television was muted but the news report was about them. The suspects were still at large.
She said, “Tell me you didn’t do this to. Not for money.”
In a couple of hours, Debs would be airlifted to a specialist trauma unit in London. Her father entered Josh’s hospital room, carrying a briefcase.
Josh said, “I didn’t hurt Deborah. I’d never let anything bad happen…”
But it was too late for that. The badness had already occurred and now it was time for resolution, such was the stern countenance to Michael’s grey face. He placed a contract, three-pages long, printed in a dense paragraph-less stream, on the sliding table Josh had yet to use, having refused to eat since the attack.
Michael Resnik was lead partner in a lawyers firm in Dublin. He said that Josh could have the contract looked over, but the gist of it was that by signing it he’d receive fifty thousand pounds. Sign it, and Deborah would be out of his life forever.
He placed a pen in Josh’s mitted hand.
He said the settlement was at Deborah’s request. If Michael had his way, this vile little bastard would never see a penny. Even if he wasn’t involved in the attack, he’d failed Deborah, couldn’t protect her. What kind of man was that?
Josh pushed the page off the table and dropped the pen, then picked a spot on the wall and stared at it.
Police Commissioner Faki issued an arrest warrant for Muslim extremist Sheikh Sulaiman al-Suhaymee, who had incited the violence that led to the horrific acid attack. Five men had been arrested, linked to Al Shabeeb militants, who had also been implicated in an acid attack on a Catholic priest a month previous.
“An hour before the acid attack,” Commissioner Faki said, “a woman fitting your wife’s description got into an altercation with a local woman. She had been singing, which is not permitted during Ramadan.”
Debs would never sing in public. It wasn’t her. And they’d also been in the movie theatre.
“However, the two men on the moped were incited by Sheikh Sulaiman al-Suhaymee and went looking for anybody who looked like this woman. Your wife looked like her.”
Josh fell to his knees, only now realising he had gotten out of the wheelchair, and fatigued he stood up, stumbling against the wall, then lurched into the hallway and his chest thrummed, banded by scar tissue hard as steel, but he ran anyway and was next to Debs’ bed and all he wanted to do was take her in his arms, hold her. I won’t leave you. Won’t ever let you go. No matter what.
Michael McGlade’s been published in Shimmer, Saturday Evening Post, Downstate Story, Spinetingler, and Grain. I hold a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Ireland. He is represented by Isobel Dixon of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency.