An Excerpt from “This Is What We Could Have Been”

Roohi Choudhry

Army rangers patrolled the school’s perimeter, Kalashnikovs tight against chests. Nadeem had to fight his way through an assault of argument and barricades to the commotion within: parents jostling, wailing, demanding answers. But no one appeared in charge. Soldiers merely shook their heads. Journalists, their backs to the chaos, told cameras: today, this school belongs to all of us. These extremists have taken Karachi’s children hostage.

Desperation rising, Nadeem searched the crowd for his neighbor, Zubeida, who walked his daughter and her own younger brother to school every day. Just when he thought he would never find her, she touched his shoulder.

“I dropped them off this morning.” Zubeida didn’t meet his eyes as she spoke, her voice dull. “They’re inside.”

A kind of stillness descended on him, disconnecting him from the noise. He began walking toward the road but found himself back at the school instead. A soldier held out a hand. Nadeem retreated and stumbled the other way but was met by yet another soldier, another school wall. He spent minutes this way, like a blind man, clutching at fistfuls of air for support.

Zubeida finally caught up with him and led him across the street, where they both leaned against the back of a news van. She huddled into herself, crying, inches away from him. If only he could touch her, stroke her back, and stop that shaking. No one could shake like that without snapping in half. But touching her would be unseemly. Even at this most unseemly time, touching his neighbor was unthinkable.

He had to do something. He couldn’t just stand there, as if Marya, his daughter, would come running up any minute, trailing her school bag and laughing at their long faces. But minutes passed before he could convince his muscles to work again. “Come,” he gestured toward the gates. “We’ll make someone tell us what’s going on.”

Nadeem pressed through the crowd once more, Zubeida at his side, and this time, they spotted a man in a suit speaking to a reporter. Even from a distance, his expression was too measured for one whose child might be at stake. Not a parent, then; instead, someone who mattered.

They rushed up to the man, and Zubeida grabbed his jacket with both hands. “What’s happening to the children? Can you tell us anything?”

The man stared at her hands clutching his sleeve. “Yes, ma’am, I understand your concern. I am the army liaison for this crisis. We are telling the others also, the families must not come here like this. You are risking exciting the terrorists, you might be in the way of a necessary action against them. Kindly fill out the paperwork with my secretary over there, and then I must insist that you leave and await our instruction at home.”

Still, they waited for hours with the other families in the street, avoiding cable news reporters swooping in for sound bites. As the afternoon sun shone ever more vicious, an older man fainted, from exhaustion or the heat. The soldiers shepherded everyone behind the barricades, then, and roped off the whole length of the street. Nadeem could do nothing more.

. . .

Read the rest of this story in the Kenyon Review Nov/Dec 2015 issue, on sale now!

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