Austin is a college-aged American kid, on a study abroad in Africa.
Rashid is Austin’s college-aged friend of Arabic descent (name pronounced “Rahsheed”)
Salim is a Pakistani classmate of Austin, turned jihadist (pronounced “Sahleem”)
Dr. Kassis and Najid are both mature and Arab (“Kassees” and “Nahjeed”)
Olivia is 29 and American, Austin’s sister
Dr. Wheeler is 40 and American, and works for the CDC as an expert in infectious diseases. He’s kind of cocky.
Forty minutes on the dusty, bumpy, red clay road was bad, but the single-track through the bush was worse.
The boda driver turned to yell over the whine of the engine, “Hold on.”
They bounced over a h**p in the trail and Austin nearly went off the back.
Rashid looked over his shoulder at Austin. “Not so tight.”
“I don’t want to fall,” Austin told him.
“D**n, dude.” Austin wiped his face on Rashid’s shirt. “You got that all over me.”
“You should have let me ride in back.”
“What? You sneezed on me on purpose?”
Rashid sneezed again.
“D**n. Turn your head, Rashid.”
“Turn it the other way. I’m on your left.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
The jungle on both sides of the trail closed in. Leaves big and small brushed Austin’s knees. Thin branches scraped. And it all grew thicker the higher up the side of the mountain the trail wound. The boda’s engine whined as it pulled the three young men up a particularly steep section of the trail, and the tires skidded down muddy tracks as the driver uselessly squeezed the brakes until the wheels locked. Miraculously, he kept the motorcycle upright.
More than once Austin wanted to pull his phone out of his pocket to check the time and see how much longer they had to risk breaking their bones on the trail, but feared that pulling one hand away from Rashid’s waist would result in him being bounced off the back of the bike.
They’d been on the trail for at least a half hour, maybe twice that long, when it smoothed out on a gentle upward s***e. They were going slow enough by then that Austin figured he could have a conversation with Rashid and not have the words lost in the wind. “Hey, what do you think of this Ebola thing?”
At first, Salim hated Pakistan. Every single thing about it was unlike America. Of course, he expected that. But after living nineteen of his twenty years in a Denver suburb, and only one year in Hyderabad, the romantic idea of Pakistani life—the basis for his expectations—was nothing like the reality.
From the moment he landed in Lahore and walked off the plane, it started. The air was pungent with the smell of curry, diesel fumes, a whole range of plant smells, and even a bit of rotting garbage. All the smells of a city that one gets used to and doesn’t even notice, until suddenly replaced by a whole different set of smells, becoming a constantly noticeable reminder of alien-ness.
But that was just the first thing.
The people spoke English with an accent that Salim had a hard time following. Of course, his parents spoke with a similar accent. However, they used good grammar in calm, slow, educated speech—not the rushed slang of people on the street.
Salim’s accent was distinctly American, and that earned him suspicious glances from everyone he spoke to. His sense of alienation made the suspicion feel like hate. Back on that day, as he waited three hours for his tardy contact to come forward and collect him, he sulked near a ticket counter, trying to figure out how to turn his meager cash into a ticket back to Denver.
In fact, he’d been looking at his watch as he sat there, and had picked the top of the upcoming hour as the time when he’d stop waiting and call his father to beg him for money to buy that ticket. But ten minutes before the hand reached twelve on the clock face, a man walked up to him. “Salim?” he asked.
From there, Salim and his bag were hurried out of the airport, rushed into a taxi, and dropped off on a crowded street. He was hustled through block after block of pushing and shoving people, and finally trundled off in a rickety white van. Five others, silent young men with worried faces, shared the rear seats of the van with Salim. A driver and the man in charge sat in front.
Standing on the porch, evaluating his options, Najid waved his men away. “Dr. Kassis, stay up here with me.”
The other six men spread out by the Land Rovers and took to keeping lookout over what they could see of the village in the dark.
Najid turned to Dr. Kassis. “Do you think they are lying?”
“Who is to say? I was never good at reading other men’s hearts.”
“Always loathe to commit.” Najid’s derisiveness came through. He had respect for the doctor, for his skill and his loyalty, but deep down the man was never brave enough to speak his mind. “What they were saying about the virus being airborne. Does that make sense?”
The doctor looked back at the door they’d just come through. A ward full of dying townsfolk lay beyond. “I have no reason to believe they lied about the rapidity and seeming universal spread of the disease. If I accept that—” he looked back at the small collection of houses and businesses that made up Kapchorwa, and took a deep breath, “—I would have come to the same conclusion.”
“Would you be right?”
“Maybe,” the doctor replied.
“That is a guess even I could make. Tell me what you think the chances are.”
Dr. Kassis looked at the porch and used the toe of his rubber boot to grind something into the concrete while he thought. “Tomorrow’s reality—if this is an airborne strain of Ebola—is so horrific that it begs me to hope the evidence I seem to see here is wrong. But if these were our people, and this outbreak was in our homeland, I would say the same. I would beg for help from the WHO, even the Americans. I would beg you not to take Rashid out of here until I knew the disease was not airborne.”
“And how can I find out for sure?” Najid asked.
“That would be a long process with many tests and many specialized doctors, and he could die before we find out. Otherwise, we may not know for months.”
“But if it is airborne, that knowledge will come too late for these people, am I right?”
“You are correct.” Dr. Kassis nodded obsequiously. It was a habit of Kassis’s that irritated Najid endlessly.
“Dr. Wheeler, may I come in?”
Dr. Wheeler looked up from his laptop.
Olivia walked into the conference room. “I was on my way to the cafeteria, and I saw you in here.”
“I should have closed the door.” Dr. Wheeler smiled widely enough to let her know he was joking. “CDC doctors have lots of groupies.”
“I’m Olivia Cooper.” She pointed in some direction she doubted meant anything to Dr. Wheeler. “I was in the seminar, in the small theater?”
Wheeler nodded. “I remember you.”
“No.” He smiled again. “There were a hundred people in there. But I can go on pretending, if you’d like.”
Olivia scooted a chair back and sat on the opposite side of the table. “Are you flirting with me?”
“I am, if you’re open to it, and won’t tell my wife.”
“You’re flirting with me, and you have a wife.”
“No, I’m divorced. But we both know I’m old enough to be your dad, and I don’t have a chance at getting anything out of this besides a s****l harassment complaint.” Dr. Wheeler made an expansive gesture at the building surrounding them. “I assume you work for the NSA.”
Olivia looked around the room and gestured at the walls. “This is their building.”
“Cagey.” Dr. Wheeler smiled again. It seemed to come very easy to him. “Okay, I assume you have questions about the Filovirus presentation. Since you appear to have made yourself comfortable, maybe you have a lot of them. What can I help you with?”
“I’m sorry.” Olivia started to stand. “If you don’t have time, I can—”
After motioning for Olivia to keep her seat, Dr. Wheeler pointed at his computer, “I’m just answering email. I rode out here from Atlanta with a coworker. He’s still in his meeting. I’ve got some time.”
Olivia lowered her weight back down on the chair and smiled. “I’m worried about my brother.”
Wheeler leaned back in his chair and looked over his reading glasses. “Because I have a genius-level IQ and I just gave a talk about Filoviruses, is it safe to assume that despite your blue eyes and blonde hair, your brother is an African bushman in Sierra Leone?”