In that moment, I had forgotten about these past two days and how my life took a complete turn. After what seemed like an eternity, my mind finally wasn’t questioning the events that happened and somehow in this foreign town with these two strangers, I felt at ease.
I stood there tired and helpless but wide awake; completely at the disposal of the man standing in front of me whose name I now knew. Before he turned to walk back to the table, Ahmed put his hand out as a gesture to guide me to our seats. I slid my soft pale left hand onto his and he grasped it lightly while striding us back to the table he was sitting at. His touch was soft and his hands were warm next to mine.
All this while, I did my best not to look at him and instead focus my attention at our surroundings. His friend was conversing with the hotel manager in the corner of the room. I turned my neck back to look at him as I sat in my seat and somehow I could feel the gaze of the man sitting in front of me. This time I didn’t hesitate and looked back at him mainly for the reason of wanting to know more about him. He somehow read my mind and as I turned to look into his eyes he gave me a soft smile and said “I hope the travelling wasn’t too much for you”. I stared into his handsome face while keeping my face collected and replied “It was just fine. Why did you bring me here?”
I don’t know why I asked so abruptly but maybe because it was in the back of my mind that I had to let it out. His subtle smile had not left his face but his eyes changed to look now at the table instead of me. “My companion and I set out of Cairo to travel to Luxor for business two days ago. We had boarded the train when we began to hear sounds of crossfire and hurried to look out of the window at what was happening. During all the chaos, people began entering our cabin and soon we could not find each other in the midst of all the confusion. When things got settled, Zahir found his way back and we began our journey but the collapse of the train left us stranded and we had to leave quickly in order to stay clear of any harm”.
He paused as the waiter brought over a glass filled with a light red liquid. Zahir, whose name I now knew, was still standing with the hotel manager and conversing lightly about something serious. After we took a few sips of the sweet drink, Ahmed once again began narrating the events of the past two days “The middle of the desert is a dangerous place to be and the power line of the train had been cut thus no communication could be made with any neighboring stations. Staying put and waiting for help would have taken at least a week when the next train would have come by but we would either be starving or attacked by wild animals by then or would have become infected with the virus even if one person on the train was a carrier.”
I knew when I walked towards this man in the moonlight last night that I had made the right choice instead of walking back to the train. But a part of me trembled at the thought of choosing otherwise and being stranded in the desert right now instead.
“Have you found out about what happened to the train?” I asked. He shook his head lightly in disappointment, “Zahir is informing the hotel manager about it so he can send for help. We also let the man at the cargo station know so that he could send reinforcements. We have managed to find someone who could take us to Luxor. We leave tomorrow.”
All the while we were conversing, I waited for him to tell me why he chose to bring me along with him on this journey and whether or not I was to accompany them tomorrow or if this dinner was a last goodbye. As I tried to get my thoughts in order, Zahir came and sat to the left of me on our four seater dining table “Good evening. I hope I was not long” he said curtly.
The waiter brought about our dinner which included rice with roast chicken and a chickpea salad. I thought that we’d be eating in silence given our long day of travel but instead, Zahir’s cheerful and buoyant character kept the conversation going. “We must apologize for the kind of introduction and preceding events that led us here. I wish it were better but unfortunately times are difficult. I have notified all I could of the train but the circumstances are not allowing anyone to forge risking their lives on private transportation to help those stuck”.
The virus was the cause of many deaths and people choose their own safety and those of their families before anything else. It was the leading cause of unemployment in the country and also the reason why most private owned businesses had shut down. The crime rate was higher than ever before and day by day people had been dying of starvation.
We conversed for a while discussing the economic situation and the war that was going on in the country. All this time no one disclosed any personal information nor asked about it. It struck me a few times to ask them about their lives and travels but every time I tried to, some other topic of discussion came up.
After our meal was over, we got up to go back to our rooms. Ahmed walked me to mine and the whole while I meant to ask him why he had brought me with him. But when we got to my door, I turned to look at him and caught him watching me carefully. My treacherous heart once again gave me away by beating so hard that I thought all other sounds had muted. It was just as I got the courage to open my mouth to say my final goodbye to him that we heard the sounds of gunfire so loud that it made me gasp and my body tremble.
It all happened so fast. Ahmed flung himself to open the door of my hotel room which we closed and locked shut after us. He picked up the coat from my bed and ran to open the windows of my room as I heard the stomping of feet get louder and quicker. “Trust me” he said as once again he put his hand out for me to grasp. For a split second of disbelief I stood there taking in the scene of this handsome man standing in the balcony of an unfamiliar place once again looking at me to follow after him in the middle of this muddled night and so I did.
We climbed down the ladder next to the balcony onto the pavement. As soon as our feet were on the ground, the light from my room shone with shadows of men drawing nearer each second. We ran into an alleyway in the dead of the night, not turning back even once.