The big news at school on Sunday morning was Natasha Sherif and her brush with evil.
This wasn't your ordinary earthly evil – it wasn't internet social networking sites, road tolls, racism, or classism. This was pure, raw, unadulterated evil from a base dimension. The kind that humans and angels alike have been contending with since getting kicked out of the garden.
Koneko walked into the commons area before school and found kids from all walks were crowding around Natasha, who was telling and re-telling her frightening tale in her Singaporean accent.
“I was driving to Emirates Towers on Thursday night, when demons overtook me.”
Koneko said loudly, “Did they overtake her on the left or on the right? Because if they overtook her on the right, that's just plain rude.”
A couple of people – including Martin and Hisham – cracked up but tried to stifle their laughter with their hands. But a larger contingent shot her dirty looks. This was no time for joking, their eyes said. Evil was no laughing matter, especially not when it manifested right here in our little town.
Throughout the day, conversations kept coming right back to Natasha's demons. People wanted to know what kind of demons they were. Why did they choose to overtake Natasha? Would it happen again?
Some had questions for her. “What did it feel like?”
“It was like they gripped my neck so I was almost choking. I felt their claws in my throat. Then they took control of my hands and the steering wheel. I mean, they didn't make me change my course. I still went to Emirates Towers. But I wasn't the one driving the car.”
Some sympathized, telling their own stories. A guy named Royce said, “The same thing happened to me in my house once. A demon – I think it was a djinn, actually – came in through my windows.”
“Microsoft Windows?” Koneko couldn't help saying.
“Shut up, Koneko,” said a girl named Aisha. “You're not funny. This is important.”
Koneko argued, “It's stupid! Do you people really believe all this?” But of course the question did not need answering. Evil was serious business.
At lunchtime, Koneko was relieved to find that all her lunch table friends were with her on the whole demon issue. “Okay, then, I'm going to take a survey,” Koneko said. She drew neat columns on a sheet of paper and wrote out two questions.
“Do you believe demons (the metaphysical kind) occasionally visit Dubai?” The answer choices were yes, no, or unsure.
“Are you an atheist?” Again, the answers were yes, no, and unsure.
The results were interesting to all seven people at Koneko's table. They unanimously and emphatically answered “No!” to the first question, but the answers to the second question were a complete assortment. This got a few small good-natured debates going. Koneko felt they were all a bit relieved to agree about the demons – to disagree on such an obviously sensitive issue might cause a rift.
Koneko invited the kids at the next table over to answer the questions. Everybody at the table was Filipino.
“Fascinating!” Koneko said when she returned to her own table. “They answered exactly opposite to us! For the demon question, two answered 'yes,' two answered 'no,' and two answered 'unsure.' But for the atheist question, they all emphatically answered 'no.'”
They all looked over to see how the divide in beliefs would affect their neighboring clique. The Filipinos were laughing their heads off and teasing each other about their answers.
“Hamdulallah,” said Hisham. “But I think you should be careful about whom you ask those questions, Koneko.”
Koneko and Martyza looked at each other and said in unison, “Deshou!” Agree!
The bell rang and they all stood up. As they headed out of the cafeteria, Koneko spotted Probal heading in. She pretended not to see him and asked somebody her survey question. Then when Probal was very close by, she acted surprised to see him.
“Hey!” she said. “I'm conducting a survey. 'Do you believe demons (the metaphysical kind) occasionally visit Dubai?'”
“Phh.. no!” Probal sputtered. Koneko ticked the appropriate column.
“And 'Are you an atheist?'” she asked.
“Yes!” said Probal, as if it should be obvious.
“Thank you for your participation!” Koneko said, and gripped his hand in a fiercely firm handshake.
When she turned around, she saw Martyza smirking at her. “He's so sure,” Koneko said with a sigh.
* * *
Koneko was immensely relieved when school was out, she was hanging out with her friends, and there was no talk of demons. The day was getting better and better. She was slurping a Frappucino through a big green straw – that was a good thing. Hisham had invited a really pretty girl named Jennifer to come along, and Jennifer seemed really to be flirting with Hisham - an interesting development, and also undoubtedly a good thing. And Probal was there, and seeming to become a more permanent fixture in their group – a very good thing!
“No shopping bags today?” Hisham asked Koneko and Martyza.
Koneko told him, “My parents suspended my allowance.” And Martyza said, “I'm taking a day off from shopping, out of solidarity.”
“It's very sad,” Koneko said. “I wanted to buy a lot of black clothes before Ramadan starts.”
Hisham shrugged. “I'll buy you something. What do you have in mind?”
“I don't think so,” Koneko said. “I'll let you buy my cinema tickets, but I don't think I can let you buy me clothes.”
“I'm serious,” Hisham insisted. “I just bought Jennifer this insane handbag... look at this thing! I don't get it! Why does it have all these things hanging off of it? Anyway, if I bought my new friend a crazy designer bag, I can buy my old friend some baggy ass clothes.” He tossed a crisp blue and purple 500 dirham note at Koneko.
“You just literally threw money at her,” Jennifer teased him. “I'm not sure how to feel about that.”
“Hey, what are you going to buy me? Huh?” Probal joked.
Martyza suggested, “Buy Probal some clothes that aren't three sizes too big.” Koneko thought to herself, deshou! Probal had to be the only male in the mall who wasn't wearing skin-tight jeans and a child sized t-shirt. Not that Koneko minded using her imagination.
Koneko held the 500 dirham note out toward Hisham. “I can not let you give me five hundred bucks.” But Hisham made no move to accept back the money. Koneko tried to physically put it in his hand, but he wouldn't grasp it.
“How much are the clothes you want?” he asked her.
“About two fifty.”
“Go then. Bring me back the change if you want. And hurry up. I want to go upstairs and go bowling.”
Koneko was about to say something about how the bowling at Magic Planet was overpriced – but stopped when she realized the redundancy of such a remark. As she at Martyza headed off toward Debenhams, she heard Jennifer saying to Hisham, “That was really nice of you!” It was nice of him, Koneko agreed. But at the same time, she knew that it was no great sacrifice on his part. His father probably behaved the same way – only with figures in the ten-thousands, not mere hundreds. She had been to his house before. His family had a separate building for their kitchen, and that building was probably as big as Koneko's entire flat. And that was nothing compared to how Ahmed Mostafa lived.