Novel (in progress)

After thirty years publishing non-fiction (technical, industry, academic, and business), and more than a decade writing and publishing short stories, I have completed a contemporary novel, The Moment Before, and am seeking representation and casting about with Indie publishers. Below is the log line, the description, and the first five pages from the first chapter(which is a split scene with the last chapter, both constituting the “end” of the story). I will be enlightened by your feedback.

Logline:  A woman and her beloved Syrian father, separated forty years earlier when he is swept up in a geopolitical odyssey from hell, are almost reunited by a lawyer struggling to save his Illinois hometown from financial ruin.

Summary: Tricked by a trusted priest working for the FBI, and betrayed by his wife, ELIAS HADDAD leaves Chicago and his beloved daughter, CHERYL HALIA, for what he believes is a short trip back home to Syria to visit his dying father. Somewhat of a dreamer, Elias is largely ignorant of the political realities of the Middle East. He is confused when he is detained upon arrival at the Damascus airport, then subsequently conscripted into Assad’s army in 1973, beginning a forty-year geopolitical odyssey from hell which culminates in his captivity in Guantanamo as an enemy combatant in America’s post 9/11 War on Terror. In her search for information about her father’s disappearance, Cheryl meets JOHN VERANDA, a Senator’s aide in Washington, DC, who is originally from the southern Illinois town of Saluki. Moved by Cheryl’s story, John attempts to find information about Elias, but is thwarted at every turn.

Suspecting her mother’s complicity, Cheryl leaves home in disgust and drifts aimlessly through life, eventually taking the name Holly Chicago. Years later, Holly and John reconnect in Saluki where John, now an idealistic small-town lawyer, finds his political career and his hopes to revitalize the town by building a medical center in shambles—until he gets a call from STUART EISENSTAT, his old law school buddy. Stuart, a lifelong bureaucrat now working for Homeland Security, is looking for a “shovel ready” site for a new federal detention facility to house the remaining prisoners from Guantanamo—among them an elderly man who both Stuart and John come to believe is Elias. Stuart, who has begun to feel the extraordinary human toll of the War on Terror, risks his career to track Elias in order to make things right, even if just for one man. John sacrifices his family’s land, his marriage, and his aspirations for the town to help reunite Holly with her father. Ultimately, the enduring love between a father and a daughter prevails while John and Holly’s relationship moves towards a romance neither of them fully comprehend.

The Moment Before

by Jason Makansi

 

PART I

The end

(November 2012)

The first thing he notices is the frigid, sanitized air chilling his skin. He pinches the bridge of his nose, fighting a sneeze. He’s always been allergic to these cheap motels, never properly cleaned, dust accumulated over the decades in old air conditioners with suspect thermostats that rattle and whir like a turbo prop at close range. He pulls the blankets up. The dream he wanted to remember fades with the blur he rubs from his eyes. It’s time, but he hesitates, burrows his head in the pillows.

Three minutes of mind time, twenty minutes of clock time later, his first clear thought crystallizes: Banal discussions of people in the aggregate eventually boil down to one person whose life is forever fucked by decisions made by others. He commits this to memory.

For Stuart, the judgment begins now. What comes after, he doesn’t know. Today he faces Elias, one person who embodies the vengeance of a nation, a man for whom words have not been invented to convey his suffering, whose life, history has not yet judged.

He throws the blankets forward, then, out of habit, immediately tries to fold the top layer to neatly match the bottom.

In two steps, he draws the blinds, shields his eyes with his arm. Today, the man, the abstraction, becomes real. Resolve descends upon him like faith surely does moments before death. He is ready to see the man’s face. Elias Haddad.

 

Later, as the bus ambles towards the prison Stuart feels his throat constrict, chaotic flutters in his gut, decades of professional confidence in his duties leaking into a pool of doubt. He feels the burden of his own people, the centuries of persecution, the weight of his family’s past in Europe. It straightens his back as he steps down into a blustery Midwest autumn breeze whipping around the bulky front of the bus. Behind him is his crowning bureaucratic achievement, the Saluki Federal Repatriation, Rehabilitation, and Detention Facility.

“Banal discussions of people in the aggregate…someone forever fucked by others…” He shows his government identification and security clearance to the burly guard armed with a pistol at his side and an automatic rifle slung across his chest. The man wears a bullet-proof vest, a helmet, and a visor over his face. Where the man’s gear ends and his body begins is hard to tell.

For ten years, Stuart has been an enlisted bureaucrat in the domestic army responsible for the safety and protection of three hundred and fifteen million Americans. Enthusiastically, he’d transferred out of the Department of Energy into the newly created Department of Homeland Security. His family and friends, even his wife, were not happy with his move. Stuart had shrugged it off. He wanted to make a difference. He wanted to keep the American people safe.

Now, the question, Are we safer now than we were ten years ago?, torments him, occupies a growing volume in  Stuart’s mind, as if he’s cowering in the corner of a room filling with poison gas. This is the central question, the existential question, of his department, his livelihood. Until Elias, he would have confidently answered yes. There have been no major attacks on the homeland.

We are safer. But at what cost?

The accounting hasn’t begun.

Perhaps it begins today.

The misery inflicted on this man hasn’t found its way into the national ledger. Forty years it took for the country to apologize for the internment of Japanese citizens after Pearl Harbor! A century and a half later, an apology came for the systematic destruction of Native American lands. When will atonement for Elias Haddad begin?

Sometimes, the cost measured in human lives, the full accounting, never takes place.

One by one, the prisoners exit, hobbled by leg irons, navigating the steps. Each takes a careful glance towards his new home, away from the crater of suffering, injustice, and denial of constitutional and international human rights. Each one of them is a line on the ledger. They are the externalities of a safer homeland. Stuart once loved this word: externality – the cost or a consequence of a product or a service that is not factored into its price. It seemed to explain so much in his old world of energy. He had loved it when it had to do with pollution, with safety. Carbon dioxide emissions are an externality of energy production.

Human externalities had only recently occurred to him.

“Banal discussions in the aggregate…”

He watches as the men blink in random patterns against the brightening Midwestern sunshine, getting their first look at their new surroundings, men of all ages, dark complexions, heavy beards, days, weeks, or months unshaven. One looks hostile, another perplexed. Stuart excavates their expressions, the subtle lines and angles of their faces, the palate of skin tones, etched and eroded like sandstone on canyon walls, searching for signs of their suffering, for the history behind their arrival here today. Stuart contemplates the cultural biases that make him and his fellow Americans see all these swarthy men as sinister. Would a line-up of British or Scandinavian prisoners invoke the same impression? He shakes his head and bites his tongue, wishing he were not so susceptible to the same prejudices that for centuries confined his own people as second-class citizens in Europe.

A second, equally large security guard follows the last two prisoners off the bus. One of the two is noticeably older, much older. He’s smiling. Somehow his smile is contagious. Stuart can’t help but crack a sliver of a smile back. He sees this man’s smile as an infinite number of points along a curved line oscillating with joy and relief, a thousand points of light beaming upon his new world.

Stuart squints up into the mid-morning sun and waits for his eyes to adjust. He smells the faint hydrocarbon vapors emanating from the freshly poured asphalt. Squiggles of heat rise mirage-like into the cooler air above. He starts to sweat. It’s too warm for the camel-colored overcoat he’s brought with him from D.C. He feels silly wearing it. Is he sweating from the heat or from what others might think of him for dressing inappropriately? He sheds the coat, placing it over the crook of his elbow. Immediately, he is more refreshed, but the crook of his elbow sweats profusely.

Stuart stretches one arm over his head, then the other after transferring his coat, twisting his body to relieve the kinks in his spine from the long, uncomfortable ride. He often forgets that he’s not a young man anymore. Chronic aches and pains are permanent features of his physical landscape. The smiling prisoner is shackled at the ankles, handcuffed, hands bound to his waist by a thick metal belt. Still, he smiles.

The accounting begins now.

The guards in the security detail carry enough weapons to suppress a small insurrection. They unnerve Stuart, though as a Homeland Security operative, he’s loath to admit it. Security personnel in potential target cities are one thing, but here, in the agrarian calm of the Midwest, they feel intrusive, like he’s watching a grainy video from a Cold War satellite nation.

The armed men begin to herd the prisoners toward a wide door into their new home, built on land taken through eminent domain. Sunlight beams off the structure to who knows where. Stuart wishes he could concentrate the rays through a magnifying glass and vaporize his guilt about John Veranda’s property. He’d have to sort that one out later. Heap that onto what he feels about Elias, his “career,” and he might just break down right here, right now.

Sort it out later? Who was he kidding? After this, he’d have to confront Veranda. An evening in Saluki wasn’t in his travel plans but if not now, when? The inevitable cannot be postponed.

Stuart walks by the men once more. Awkward doesn’t come close to describing how he feels, but he forces himself to embrace it. There’s relief here, too. A tension that’s been building for months finally ready to dissipate, a fever on the verge of breaking.

Stuart wants to say something, but he doesn’t know how. What do you say to people who have been abducted from distant parts of the globe, swept away from their homes and families, detained for years against their will, with no explanation or justification, held captive for reasons no longer understood? What do you say when indefinite detention turns into hundreds of wasted lifetimes, into men grown old in prisons for reasons that have faded with years not even sufficient to qualify as history?

 

 

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