By Natasha Maya
The sudden eruption of applause brought Yusef back to his senses.
A shower of confetti rained onto the stage, a clear signal for him to make an appearance. Despite the three long rehearsals from the day before, he still could not make his legs move the rest of his body out of the comforts of backstage. His heart beat painfully against his chest, like a bird trying to escape its cage.
Before he could even take a deep breath, his manager had already shoved him out of the wine-coloured curtains. Blinding lights greeted him, burning his eyes as he nervously fidgeted to fix his loose tie. His haste caused him to tighten it too much, making it feel like he had a noose secured around his neck instead.
The air tasted of smoke, dehydrating his throat and choking him with every inhale. Claps echoed throughout the hall, blurring the faces of the crowd as he made his way to the center of the stage. His sweat glistened under the merciless lights and his navy cashmere suit felt like it was coated with poison ivy.
Despite the nerves, he ran his hand through his hair, sneakily wiping the sweat from his forehead, and gave the audience the most charming smile he could muster. It was the same smile he spent hours that morning perfecting in the mirror. To him, a liar’s smile serves the same purpose as a soldier’s callous palms, biologically crafted for survival.
“There he is, the man of the hour. Everybody, show some love to the hero who single-handedly saved hundreds of lives, Yusef Khan!”
He forced a lighthearted chuckle in response to his dramatic introduction. The confetti had finally stopped falling, some taking refuge on his slicked-back hair which reeked of chemicals.
“Thank you for having me today, Brad,” Yusef said, winking at the host. Brad Mojo was arguably one of the best talk show hosts of his generation. He remembered the nights when he would spend an hour just standing in front of electronic appliance shops, watching Brad Mojo’s 9p.m. shows through a glass display. Who knew he would have gone from a homeless boy religiously watching his idol on television to being a national hero interviewed live on his talk show?
“Have a seat, mate,” Brad said, gesturing towards the iconic lime green sofa that had made contact with hundreds of other global celebrities before.
He sat as gracefully as he could, a stark contrast from plopping on the sofa during his first two rehearsals. His eyes met Brad’s grey-coloured contacts and soon enough, the questions began firing.
“So Yusef, tell us how it feels to save the whole country from its doom while its citizens were probably busy ordering in a McDonald’s drive through,”
Laughter erupted from the audience, overly exaggerated as they were paid to do so. He forced out a chuckle, “Feels good, but I can’t take all the credit. I mean the police-”
“Woah, no need to humble yourself kiddo. You did stop a suicide bomber from entering the Empire State Building!” Brad leaned back, his notorious grin plastered on his clean-shaven face, “Roll the clip!”
The screen behind him flashed, displaying a shaky video – probably taken by a bystander – of Yusef crouched on the floor with a bloodied man laying limp beside him. “He has bombs on him,” panted Yusef in the video, causing uproar among bystanders who were crowding the scene.
The videographer scurried away with the rest of the bystanders as police quickly ushered them away with bright yellow caution tape barricading the whole perimeter. Yusef in the video looked dazed until his eyes looked straight at the camera, “I stopped the man.”
And the video was paused, zooming dramatically to Yusef’s sweaty face. The crowd cheered. It was exactly what the world wanted to see. A white-arabic homeless man, selflessly saving society from a terrorist attack, a real hero. But that was not who he was.
“So Yusef, can you share with us how did you suspect that the man was armed?”
Days had been spent jotting down a script, rehearsing a carefully articulated lie for this moment, and yet his tongue felt like sandpaper. Gulping, he opened his mouth to speak but all that came out was a choke.
He was thirteen again, staring straight into his mother’s eyes as she ate the stale soup he had prepared for her. “It’s delicious,” she said, her tired brown eyes twinkling at him.
“Why do you lie, mama?”
“Son, why do you accuse me as such. There is more to this soup than its ingredients, I can taste the hunger you’ve felt when you chose to keep your money instead of buying breakfast, I can taste the minutes you’ve spent at the grocery aisle deciding which soup to get for me, I can taste the love you’ve poured in every stir but most importantly I can taste the water you accidentally spilled because you really diluted the soup, son.”
“But I believe with my heart that it is delicious, so therefore it has become my truth.”
“I believe that the God above has provided me with a sixth sense to stop the bombing.”
Brad clicked his tongue. Obviously, it was not the answer he nor the crowd was looking for. America is a land of many things, but spirituality is not one of them. Nonetheless, Brad smiled, allowing his shoulders to stay at ease, “A man of religion, I see,” a few chuckles could be heard from the audience, “Tell us about yourself, Yusef.”
“Mama, what are you doing?”
His mother froze, her hand tightly clutching onto the diamond necklace. Shoving the luxurious accessory into her pocket, she hastily shut the top drawer filled with other pieces of fine jewelry.
“Close the door, son,” his mother whispered harshly. He complied, staring straight into his mother’s tearful eyes. He was fifteen, he fully understood the situation. A housekeeper and her son hiding in their employer’s bedroom with the wife’s treasured necklace missing from its box.
“I-I had to,” she cried out, clutching at her pocket. “I came to this country to give you a good life-I-It’s not what it looks like.”
She couldn’t meet his gaze and he couldn’t look away from her. Before him stood the shell of a selfless warrior who ran away from her country to give her son a better chance in life. Before him stood the shell of a child of God, who covered every inch of her skin even when the sweat had caused blisters upon them. Before him stood a stranger in the form of his mother.
“Why do you lie, mama?” he said.
Her hijab went limp, covering her eyes as she hung her head in shame. This was not how she wanted her son to see her. “I’m not lying, son. I just want the best for you, for us.”
“Would you really like my whole backstory? It’s rather dark I would say.”
“Well, I am the result of my mother’s affair with a white man, an American. And my mother ran away from her country to find my father, but I guess America is bigger than we both thought.”
The audience casted sympathetic stares at Yusef but none of them showed any shock at the absurdity of his situation. Immigrants take solace in their country every day. Parents abandon their families all the time. People suffer, it was nothing new.
“I understand that you’ve been living on the streets for the past few years, can you share with us how you got there?”
His manager had warned him that Brad would be digging up personal details of his life and that he should be prepared to use this opportunity to paint himself as an underdog who became a hero. This was all scripted, the questions were chosen specifically to build Yusef’s image in a way that the viewers would admire. But no matter how many times he tried to convince himself, he knew that he was not a hero.
Gulping, he turned to the audience. Dozens of eyes were glued at him and yet he could not feel a single presence in the room. It felt staring at a void.
“My mother was murdered by her employer and I was left in the streets.”
The blood his eyes consumed from countless gory movies could not prepare him for the sight before him. His mother laid sprawled on the marble tiles, her blood oozing and staining her lemon yellow blouse into a painfully bright red. The blood did not look real.
Even as the blood spread, seeping into the white fur carpet beside her, it did not feel real. Even when the metallic stench struck his nose, it did not feel real. Even when the colour on his mother’s cheeks slowly drained away with every breath, it did not feel real.
Their employer stood frozen at his spot, his silhouette casting a grim shadow over his mother’s body. The murder weapon, a simple grey vase broken into two was dripping with blood – his mother’s blood. The man stared straight at him, towering above both of them with his fist clenched.
“Look what you two have done,” he growled. “Selling my wife’s necklace and staining my floors.”
The boy was shaking, he did not realize it until he felt warm liquid spreading in his pants and dripping onto the floor. Pathetic.
The man snickered, “Clean this mess up, boy.” He walked closer until he was towering over the shivering boy. “Don’t even think about calling the cops, you filthy immigrants.”
He threw the vase to the ground, allowing it to shatter into a million pieces. Yusef flinched at the sound. “You deserved this,” the man said. And just like that, he left the house, calmly, with no remorse on his shoulders as though he did not just end two lives.
When the door slammed shut, Yusef cried as he crouched beside his mother. Tears rolled down his cheeks, mixing with the pool of blood.
“Mama,” he croaked out, holding her cold hand and pressing it on his cheeks, desperate to find the familiar sense of warmth. He wanted her to say something, tell him that she’s fine and that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. He wanted her to tell him that he was a brave boy and that she’s proud of him. He wanted her to reassure him that everything was going to be okay and that they’ll get the justice they deserve. But instead his mother was selfish and she mourned for herself.
“I leave this world with nothing, not even my integrity.”
He longed for a last piece of warmth to remember his mother by, but all he was left with was ice in his veins.
The crowd gasped and he could see Brad’s gaze structurally morph into a sympathetic expression. He suspected that underneath the look of sorrow was a man rejoicing from the revenues he would earn from this interview. Afterall, a tragic backstory was exactly what America’s hero needed.
“My condolences. I’m sure she’d be proud to have a savior for a son,” Brad said, offering a pat on Yusef’s back, “You also won’t be living in the streets anymore.”
The change of topic was abrupt, awkward even, but this was a lighthearted family show where they brushed off real-world struggles and portrayed it in a way that it seemed like a mere scenario instead of real life. He knew what was coming, but his manager had told him to act confused and surprised for dramatic effect.
“Your fundraising campaign has raised up to FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS!”
More confetti rained and the screen behind him flashed, revealing a big bold $500,000! In bright red. The audience cheered, clapping and whistling.
This was the part where he was supposed to put on an act. To jump or to cry or both, his manager had said. Half a million meant the world to the young man who had nothing throughout his life. It promised him a normal future with a chance of living comfortably, at least more comfortably than when he was living under a bridge. But half a million dollars also came with a hefty price tag – his integrity.
Blood was pumping loudly in his ears, this was it, all he had to do was stand up and shake Brad Mojo’s hand and seal his life as a liar, a rich liar.
With shaky feet, he stood up with a million thoughts racing in his head like the flies that would often bother him when he slept. He choked out the words, as though it was burning his throat, “I didn’t do it.”
The applause ceased. The confetti stopped. Brad Mojo frowned.
“I-I…Someone else stopped the bomber. I j-just happened to be there.”
And he ran off the stage, his future shattered like the grey vase that ended his mother’s life. But at least he left with his integrity intact. If he could not be financially rich, then he would choose to be rich in his faith, for that was all he could leave this world with.