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By:Jeff Abbott

But I am a different boy in that backseat as we trundle toward fate, and I say, “So, what, Hezbollah not good enough for him?” Like I am making a joke.

Samir and Gebran don’t laugh.

“Your friend is, what, a terrorist?” Try using those words together, terroristand friend in the same sentence. Putting breath around those words feels like a pipe inching through your throat.

“Terrorist, no, it’s the wrong word,” Gebran says, in the patient voice he uses to teach guitar chords to ten-year-olds. He doesn’t suggest an alternate term.

“You said you wanted to have peace in Lebanon,” Samir says, watching me. “So do we. Peace across the Arab world.”

Sweat lies cold against my ribs. I thought we were going to his friend’s house for a casual dinner, nothing more. This is more. A whole new world of more, and I want no part of it.

I want to say, Mama and Papa will kill you for buying into this, which is true, but I don’t. Maybe the trick is that I need to see this friend of my brothers. See how he’s played them into joining his cause and then dismantle his approach with reason and a dose of brotherly guilt, convince them both it is a bad idea.

Strange, how a stray thought, a word unspoken, a whim followed, can change your world. If I’d told Gebran to pull over. If I’d told them, no, turn the car around, I want to go home. If I’d had a bit of courage to stand up to them immediately.

Husayn lives in a small apartment a couple of blocks away from Rue Hamra and its busy stores and crowds of tourists. The apartment reeks of onion and cinnamon and cigarette smoke but is well furnished. Books, in Arabic and French and English, crowd the shelves. Husayn looks like a man who practices his scowl in front of a mirror. He is thin like a weed, dark, with a soft, fleshy mouth. But in his eyes a flame stands, a fire that makes your bones twitch under your skin. I wonder if he is high or crazy.

Only eight or nine people are at the apartment; the only one I talk to for longer than five minutes is a young man with a scar marring the corner of his mouth; his lip looks twisted. He tells me his name is Khaled, same as mine. He seems nervous, also like me. Food and drinks, and I am introduced all around, the baby brother. Or am I the promising candidate? I nod and smile and shake hands and try to keep my hands steady.

They talk, but they do not start chatting of plots or bombs or retribution. They talk of politics—hatred for the Israelis, disdain for Syria, aggravation and fury with the West. They sound like old men, not young firebrands. The cigarette smoke thickens like a cloud because the windows are kept shut at Husayn’s insistence. I notice, after twenty minutes, that I am the recipient of many sidelong glances.

This is a test.

Fine. I wish to fail the test. I smoke my last cigarette, sip at tea, and tell Samir that I’m walking down to the corner store to get some more cigarettes.

“I have cigarettes,” he says, fumbling at his pocket.

“Not the kind I like.” Whatever brand he offers, I will instantly hate.

“Poor students shouldn’t be picky,” Husayn says. Next to him, the boy with the scarred mouth nods, gives me a nervous smile, and offers to walk with me.

“No, I’ll just be a moment,” I say. I give a false-note awkward laugh. I want out of the room. Maybe I’ll take a bus home and tell Mama and Papa that their two oldest sons have lost their minds. I excuse myself and walk into the rain.

The store sits on the corner. I buy the cigarettes and I stand under a store awning, the warm honey of smoke calming me, in no hurry to return, watching the pedestrians a block away on fashionable Rue Hamra. My brothers. Getting involved with a wannabe terrorist-slash-bookworm who lives in an expensive apartment. Madness. I start to build the arguments in my mind, the words I will use to tell them they’re making a mistake. Blood of Fire, what a name. I imagine the drive home as my brothers will try to convince me that they’re serving justice. Perhaps they are. Yes, I understand their frustrations with the political system, with the West, with the rest of the Arab world, and . . .

The blast sounds more like a truck coughing up a ton of grit, more a rumble of machinery than death. I have heard explosions before. This one’s boom grabs my bones. I freeze and then horror fills my skin. I am running down the street, the cigarette crushed between my fingers and I don’t feel the cinder scorch my hand.

The boy with the scarred mouth, the other Khaled, smacks into me, knocks me down, slams a foot into my chest as he keeps running. I get up and run toward the apartment building.

Smoke from Husayn’s building roils into the rain. The third floor, where Husayn’s apartment is. Was.