October 8, 2073
That’s his name. That might be him, so I may as well say it.
I can’t just keep mouthing it and imagining breath, or just picturing the face he made when he’d get lost in his own head and stare at nothing. I can’t keep waiting.
I know he promised, and I promised, that we’d only come here together. That in this place, we’d never have to be alone. But she’s right, if that’s him, maybe nothing’s broken.
January 7, 2073
He’s leaning against the door-frame with his legs hanging off the floor’s edge. I can always find him here, in our new spot. I can always count on that.
I stop at his side, tilting my head, trying to read his face. His gaze is steady and fixed on the star far beneath us. Light dances across his face and the sea of a galaxy around us, smaller stars and violet and pink and gold dust spreading out of sight. The farthest dots circle slowly, but all else seems still. But still, there is so much noise. So many voices, a sea of yelling, laughing, whispering beings.
With my knee, I nudge his shoulder like a puppy would its mother, and with my chin ask, “What do you see?” He doesn’t respond but his eyes fill with the starlight and hatred. He inhales slow and deep, biting the side of his lower lip as if to say something but before he can, the light explodes over us, washing into our bodies. It floods out across the smaller stars, eclipsing any depth, turning the cold vacuum into searing flame.
Then, in an instant, it dies and sucks back out of my skull. A dark ring spreads outward, chasing the tail of old light. Beneath our legs, shining blackness pulls at us. And the sea begins moving, sparks jumping as stars collide, as planets and cities and people burn. All of it rushes towards us, right below his dangling feet. The drain of the galaxy opens, star dust cutting straight lines, hundreds of thousands of light years long, as it streaks into the collapsed hole. In another breath, I can see the edge of the galaxy as it falls towards us, the same ring wrapping around and closing in tighter. Until the obsidian globe disappears and the sudden jerk of emptiness thumps straight into my chest.
I don’t exit this world; it’s the only way I sleep. One of two boys in the darkness, hanging our feet off the ledge, staring at nothing.
“Abdou! Kai fi!” Come here! Ami yells through my bedroom door. “The thieb is ready!”
I hear echoes of her voice in my world, dampened by the waterfall behind me. As far as I can see, the savanna spreads out on the other side of the ravine. I can’t get the character rendering of the crowd just right though, there’s something about the way they’re supposed to move with the drums.
“Exit,” I whisper.
My world goes black and I slip off the headgear to return to this one: a small room with walls coated so thick in layers of white paint, it’s easy to forget what’s beneath.
I hear knocking on the front door, then the scratch of my father’s babouche sliding down the hall. There’s silence, for a long while, before a grumble I can’t understand, and the door slamming. I hear my mother ask a question, and picture my father’s dismissive hand wave through the walls.
A Bismillah slips under my door, and I follow it to find everyone seated around the bowl on the kitchen floor: my mother and Ami on poufs, my father in a chair that hasn’t floated properly in years. Ami smiles as I sit on the mat, happy that she got the tall red pouf today.
I scoop up the delicious, illegal meal. In the center of the bowl, extra-firm blocks cover the rice, probably around a quarter of our weekend’s rations.
“Have you heard back from Adama yet, son?” my mother asks as she savors the thieb.
“Not yet,” I mumble through a full mouth.
“Huh?” My father grunts but doesn’t look up, focusing instead on the piment that makes his eyes water. This is the closest he comes to tears.
“She hasn’t figured out the dates that she’ll be free to show me around,” I say, “but I should be able to go by the end of the rainy season, probably end of August.”
“So, can you fix my gear tonight?” Ami asks.
“I told you to do that yesterday,” my mother says.
“It’s not going to take me long,” I say, “I’ve been working on new designs.”
“Anything ‘cool’?” she asks.
“One you might like,” I say, “where I’m doing the waterfall scene from Black Panther.”
“Oh! That’s great, get some classics in your portfolio,” she says, “that’s very smart, the university is going to like that.”
“Can you load it to my gear tonight?” Ami asks with a big-sister smile.
“Mine too,” my father says, this time looking up from the thieb, smiling between wide-mouthed inhales. “But get in touch with Adama soon. Please, Abdou.”
“Yes, sir,” I reply. We all finish chewing in silence.
I slip on the slick sidewalk when the ndiaga-ndiaye roars past, barely catching myself on Ami’s arm. My father says that Dakar wasn’t built to handle such heavy rains so, for a season, the city coats itself in moss.
People my parents’ age remember when the ndiaga-ndiayes were on wheels, instead of this rail, and made of recycled German trucks. They say the look of them hasn’t changed though. After the government installed the floating tracks, most conductors repainted their pods white and decorated them with prayers to their marabouts and patrons and god.
“Calm down,” Ami says, shrugging my hand off and stepping ahead of me.
“Sorry,” I mutter, looking down and falling behind. My parents always make us use the top-walk, even if it’s raining. The sub-walk is where contact vehicles could still pass, but today, as usual, it’s mostly filled with people. A market stretches out in a straight line down the middle, made of stalls that vendors can collapse and rebuild in a few seconds, in case of a patrol. Closer to the walls, beneath the top-walk, are the homes that line each street. My father says thousands of people live there, even though they’re always nearly silent, most of them hooked up to their own worlds on cheap American equipment. I used to have gear like that, isn’t much to the designs. The worlds are crudely rendered, and barely responsive. Good enough for landscapes, though—or memories, for people who can hire a designer. Real enough to be worth a few days’ meals.
“What do you need this time?” Ami asks, as we turn the corner and I almost catch up.
My gear doesn’t take well to out-of-the-box programming, so every time I try working with a new parameter, I burn through one or two batteries.
“Then, you can build me another Dakar world, right? Sometime in the seventies again.”
“It’ll just be the same,” I say, “the discos and the hair and the old cars.”
“That’s perfect,” she says, “don’t forget the food.”
Ami’s a fan of my more experimental modifications. By rerouting waves around the olfactory bulb and hard-coding in better taste values, if you eat blocks while I simulate thieb, it’ll actually taste like oil and tomato paste and rice. I try to recreate other foods, but I’m never sure what I should be tasting, so I just keep testing settings on myself until I find something I like. Then I label that value as beef, or honey, or chips. Most of my ideas come from paper books my mother still keeps around.
I look down at the sub-walk again. My father says some people come here from the mines, escaping if they hadn’t gone by choice, huddling and cramming themselves into the corners of the city. He says they must have grown used to being close to people and close to walls, that’s why their tents are built one on top of the other. I don’t think you’d need a reason to want people and walls around you.
My mother hates it when I walk along the edge of the top-walk so I can see below. She says it’s disrespectful, but I don’t understand that either. It seems worse, to me, to pretend nobody’s there at all.
“You’re going to have to get me three batteries, then,” I say, looking up at the apartment building above us, so massive and so crowded and with so many windows, it looks like a glowing honeycomb against a muddy sky.
“You get two, that’s it.”
“Eh, if you want old Dakar, I’ve got to experiment! Plus, they’re only two-thou.”
“Still? They cost that much when I was your age.”
“Dad says the government pays for them, like blocks.”
“Cheaper to fuel fantasies than fix problems,” she whispers, “especially with all you fucking designers.”
I’m not sure if she meant for me to hear that, so we turn the corner silently. Streets in Dakar are only lit by boutiques along the upper sidewalks. Most places you go are filled with salty white light, but some neighborhoods still have a bit of color. Our boutique lights up the street in nostalgic orange.
August 17, 2073
I think I can see the end of the tunnel, but I’m not sure. Everything here’s a different shade of black, mostly made of old-world iron. The ceiling is three floors above me, and it’s the only part of the tunnel with raw ore, so it shines that dim blue-grey. Dust is everywhere, thin enough that it floats. The sides of the tunnel are made up of massive pipes and ladders and vents twisting around each other like vines, almost moving.
Doors are evenly spaced between the pipes, all slowly opening and releasing bodies with broken faces. I step around them until I reach the front of the crowd.
The tunnel cuts to the right, into a towering room with walls lined by black holes, each a small entrance to tunnels that crisscross each other and dig further into the earth. As the crowd turns the corner, it breaks into a sprint, everyone trying to reach the richest corner of their tunnel for that day. Some will walk for hours before finding somewhere to dig.
On the far side of the site, I see the shine of the masks I’ve given the toubabs, white like the faces of Europeans we used to call by the same name. This one’s standing on a boulder, out of the way of the crowd, with enough height to see the whole cave, though it’s already at least two heads taller than anyone. I pick up my pace like the bodies around me, but feel the silent shift as the first miners reach their tunnels and find them blocked off, each by a toubab standing still. They’ve never needed weapons to intimidate.
“Stop,” a voice says out of nowhere. I try to think it’s a toubab, but I know it’s him.
His soft face appears in front of me. His eyes are wide and piercing, the kind that see everything, but still seem focused on me. He always kept his dreads shorter than mine, but just long enough that I could run my fingers through it. I see his arms appear, then feel heat and vibration where he grabs me.
The crowd shifts away from the tunnels, like they’ve collectively begun to understand the situation. I turn with the bodies around me, and see a line of toubabs blocking the tunnel we all came through, standing still.
“Stop,” he says, re-rendering—or reappearing—in front of me. Behind him, I know what’s about to happen to 34 of the miners, the dust their bodies are going to become.
Each time I see him, I un-forget how beautiful he is. Each time, I reach out—slowly because I know what’s coming—and just as I start feeling the heat of his skin, maybe the stubble, I stop.
“Exit,” I say, staring at him and keeping my hand on his face. But he stays. The walls of pipes and iron stay. The screams and explosions of red dust begin. My arms shake uncontrollably.
“Stop,” he repeats, I think.
“Stop? Stop what?” I ask, and he smiles that teacher’s smile.
I wake up and instantly forget my dream. All I feel is a gentle buzzing. I think I remember Ami’s voice saying something, but everything is quiet now. I roll onto my back, adjusting to the light before reading the message on my forearm.
Hope you’re well. We’re on the north side of Dakar this morning and I just spoke to your father. We’ll be there for lunch, excited to see you!
My ribs suck in, squeezing my lungs and crushing my heart.
“Abdou! Kay! Thieb is served!” Ami bellows from the hall. I look at the time beneath my wrist, and my head becomes a hollow skull filled with old sand. “Abdou! Adama and her family are here!”
The adults are seated around a larger bowl, the polished one that my father only takes out for guests, filled with rice, block, and eggplants Adama must have snuck in. Her sons sit around a smaller bowl opposite the adults, practicing their handballs of rice. They giggle and taunt each other with red oil-soaked palms.
“Hi cousin, how is Thiaroy?” I ask quickly as I sit next to her, hoping that if I keep her talking there’ll be no time for my parents to ask their questions.
Adama describes the new buildings. She talks about rebels and soldiers at the side of roundabouts, and the old guns wrapped around their backs.
“Worst of all are these new laws!” She says, “they keep chipping away at people’s rights.”
“Rights,” my father mimics, his tone merciless and clear. “We know what that means.”
“Dad!” Ami fires back, spitting out some block. Adama turns down to the bowl with cement lips.
“Dad what? We’re not doing this now, Ami.”
“Doing what? Having an actual conversation? Wouldn’t want that,” she glares down at her palmful of eggplant and rice. Adama continues eating quietly, while my father takes in huge gulps of air through his nose.
“I’m just saying, this is how democracy works,” he finally whispers. “Ndiaye won, this is what people want.”
“People?” Ami says. “It’s just old men and their marabouts, dreaming about the twenty-twenties.”
“And? What about it? We don’t all have to agree. You have your opinion, I have mine.”
“My opinion doesn’t involve sending people to mines,” she squeezes the ball of rice in her palm until it bleeds oil, “because I don’t like how they live their life.”
“So again, I ask, what would you have us do?” he yells. “Be like the old toubabs? Let our country dissolve?”
“Mon dieu!” Ami screams. “Their cities didn’t drown à cause des homos! We don’t have to eat these blocks because they smoked! But you’re all fine with the mines and the new toubabs and whatever it is they really want, as long as they tell you what you want to hear.”
I pretend to focus on the bowl, chewing one grain of rice at a time. Ami was always the fighter, and used to try to get me to scream alongside her. I only hold my breath, hoping my father will get up and go to his room , the way he likes to.
“Well, Uncle,” Adama says, and I smile, “I really should get back to–”
“Adama, I’m sorry about this,” he says, his voice suddenly much calmer, more terrifying.
“Oh, Adama knows what I think, Dad!” Ami says. “I don’t blame her for what her bosses do. I blame people like you.”
“Enough!” My father screams, like a wave finally crashing into a cliff, before turning to Adama and forcing a polite voice. “I apologize, Adama. Before you go, is there anything that we should send with Abdou?”
“Dad!” I interrupt. “She said they have to go.” He says nothing, too frustrated to acknowledge me, but not frustrated enough to leave.
“What do you mean, Uncle?” Adama responds, her confusion obvious.
“When he visits,” he says, and Adama opens her mouth for a beat, turning to me then back to my father.
“Uh,” Adama hesitates, “Uncle, if Abdou wants to visit he is always welcome.” My father stares in silent response, then turns to me.
“Abdou, what is this?” he asks.
I flash to when we were young enough that we could get by without looks. I flash to getting lost and finding our private place in the shadow of the ndiaga-ndiaye garage’s looming wall. I see him there, the silhouette of his body. I hear the roar of the ndiaga-ndiayes rushing in for maintenance or sleep, too loud and fast to notice two boys in the darkness.
I flash to the day his parents sent him to the mines and I said I’d find him. I flash to my father’s laughter.
I flash through all this and say nothing. I flash back to the bowl between us and his eyes and his question, and still, say nothing.
I hate this dust. Of all the things to include, some designer had to pick Harmattan dust. It used to roll from the Sahara down to Dakar, but even my parents barely remember that. I stopped trying to remove it though, the world always falls apart without it.
I did modify the sensors, so I can feel heat when the fire pours out of me in black flames. I can’t see but know that here, my dreads are wrapped in a tight top-knot, and my faded side-cut is turned to Fulani tattoos.
The dust begins blocking out light as it pours through the opening in the cave ceiling, and I know to run. Sometimes I like to let it fill the cave, but that isn’t why I came to this world.
I’m faster here. I modified the movement rate so my legs look like they cut from front to back and back again a bit too quickly, a bit too mechanically, to be all the way human.
The opening is just big enough to jump through, but I always overshoot, so I reach a few meters above the ground, and all I see is light.
I inhale and wait for my feet to crash into the ground. The bleeding dirt comes into focus and, across it, I see the man in white touareg robes pulled over his shoulders. The only exposed flesh is his arms, decorated in lines and patterns only slightly darker than him. His look is always the same, steady and hateful. His fists clench when I start running.
I jump off my last step and fly towards him. My shin connects with his chest and my knee with the side of his jaw. He raises his arms to push me back, and I land on my feet just as he leaps out of reach.
This is where his eyes always change to the solid bissap red that used to frighten me. His skin trembles and I can see his arms bubbling and his neck twitching from side to side. Then, bright red flames erupt from between the lines on his skin and through slits in his robes.
He rushes me now, pushing off hard from each step and leaping, disappearing somewhere in the sun. I sidestep as he brings a knee down, grazing my flames. Just as he lands, I wrap my arm around his neck, pivot, and bring my chest to my thighs, sending him flying over me, skipping over the dirt towards a stocky baobab. The tree’s soft wood would catch him nicely, and usually I let it.
But today, I run besides him as he pummels forwards, and catch him before he hits the grey bark, pressing both my feet off the trunk and standing, for a breath, totally horizontally. I spin us around the tree, launching him into the opening between two other baobabs. He disappears into the shrinking cloud of red dirt picking up around him. I know he hits the ground somewhere near the horizon when the world goes black.
“Exit,” I whisper.
I’m in my room again and still as angry, though my hands are shaking a little less. I return to balling up shirts and stuffing pants into my bag.
“Stop it,” my father says from behind me. I turn to see him closing the door and leaning against the frame. “What was your plan, Abdou?”
My mouth turns to the consistency of dry block again, but with less fear than before. His voice is cracked, and I can smell some of the homebrew on his breath. His eyes reach through some other dimension to the clothes in my hand. With his head still tilted down, he looks up to me. I feel warmth on my cheeks and taste salt on my lips before realizing why.
“I’m going to find him,” I say, and he looks back down.
“You don’t know what the mines are like, Abdou,” he whispers, almost begging. “Or which one he’s in. There’s no way to look through all of them,alone, and find one person. Where were you going to sleep?”
I stand up straighter and face him with what courage remains.
“So, the interviews aren’t real then?” he asks. “There’s no internships?”
“No, Dad,” I try to sound steady. “There aren’t.”
“Well!” He throws his head back and lets out a confusing laugh.
“I’m going to leave, Dad,” I say again, and he quiets. But again, his face twists into a surprising, almost kind smile.
“Alright,” he says, and comes nearer until he’s looking directly down at me, as if I were still his child. “Alright.”
I flash to when my father would carry me on his shoulders after work and walk down the dusty creek behind our old house outside of Dakar.
“I’m going to find him.”
He says nothing but places one hand on my shoulder, not gripping as tightly as he used to. I see him forming his mouth to say something more, but then he seals himself back up.
October 8, 2073
“Abdou,” Adama’s voice rings out in the dark. “When are you going out today?”
I stay silent, keeping myself closed a little while longer.
“What do you mean?”
The door closes, and I hear her babouches slide over to the me.
“I won’t find him. I’ve been to every mine twice or three times. Every day. I’m tired.”
She sits quietly beside my feet.
“Abdou,” she says. “Who is he?”
“My friend,” I say, reflexively. “I told you, his family used to live next to ours.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Adama says, staring at me in a way I don’t recognize. I stare back, but break first. Her face comes too close to my father’s, with unbelieving eyes.
“I’m just tired. I’m not going out today.”
“Abdou. It’s alright.”
“I know it’s alright. I’ll just go back tomorrow.”
“No, I mean, Abdou, I just—it’s alright,” she says. “You don’t know me very well, little cousin, but I think I know you.”
My chest feels cold, like it knows she’s planning on exposing my bones to the air, and I want to say stop.
“I used to watch you two playing at your house,” she says. “I don’t remember his name, but I still remember the way you looked at each other, even then. We’re the same, sort of. What is it, his name?”
“We’re not the same,” I say instead of responding.
“You’re thinking of Ahmed? It’s not always so simple, Abdou, the way life works. But before him, your father wouldn’t speak to me. You probably don’t remember, you were so little. With Ahmed, he thought I’d gotten over it, that’s when he let me come over and meet you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry, Abdou,” she says, taking my hands in hers. “I was too, too—I just couldn’t keep fighting your father, and my father, and our whole family. And at lunch that day, I didn’t recognize what you’d told them all, I didn’t realize that I could help. Everything just—it was just too much—and I just … froze.”
I feel sweat starting to fill the space between our palms. “His name’s Mamadou.” I say and she nods.
“My father’s father was part of the mobs that attacked people in the 2000s,” she says, “After Icone, did you ever learn about that?”
I shake my head, imagining a different Dakar.
“Then don’t think about it. But our fathers are a lot alike. I’ve been tired like you’re tired now, and I never tried to help you. I’m sorry.”
For a while, all we hear is the steady hum of the air-cleaning-and-conditioning unit.
“I don’t know where to go,” I say. “I’ve been to all of the mines, all the ones in Dakar, and nobody recognized him. People in the offices started getting mad at me, and the miners all ignore me and—”
“I had someone like Mamadou, too, once,” she whispers. “Someone I loved. Her name was Fatimah.”
“Where did she go?”
“Nowhere.” Adama says, looking across the room, but seeing none of it. “She didn’t have anywhere to go. Nobody who would take her. And my father wouldn’t let her stay with us. They wouldn’t even say her name, pretending like she’d never been born. She lived on the sub-walk.”
“Did you ever see her again,” I say. Almost a question, but not fully.
“Of course!” She seems insulted. “I went to see her every day, she always wanted to meet at this place on the top-walk so I couldn’t see the place she slept. She almost starved, even though I kept bringing her my food and we’d share it. We’d sit on the ledge with our feet hanging over. She pretended to be alright for so, so long.”
“A year, maybe, before your father found us, when he still lived with my parents,” she says. “After that, I couldn’t go anywhere alone for the rest of my schooling.”
“But you still saw her, right?”
“Fatimah came to my parents’ home one day,” she says, the tears losing their grip. “I answered the door first—told her to go away before anybody saw her—but your father came up behind me.”
I flash to the way the world seemed to tilt at this strange angle, this way that was so wrong, when my father got home and found us lying on the floor, counting the stars projected on my bedroom ceiling, arms around each other.
“He was so quiet,” Adama says. “So quiet. Just pushed me to the side, shut the door.”
“That was it?”
“He said something. But it’s like I forgot right after he said it, my heart was beating so fast, I was crying so much. I know he must’ve told her to never come back. I only saw her once after that, at our spot on the edge of the top-walk.”
I flash, again, to the last time we kissed by the ndiaga-ndiaye garage.
“I went back there—must’ve been weeks later—when I managed to get away from your father and mine.”
“And?” I ask, trying to see the last time I’d been to our spot.
Adama just closes her eyes and lies back on the mattress.
“I haven’t been back to our spot since he left.” I say, and the energy building in my chest makes sense, “we promised.”
She turns to me, and smiles when she sees my face.
“Do you want to go?”
“I promised him,” I say. “We promised we’d only go there together.”
“But do you want to go?”
I remember the day we made that promise, and the way I smiled so much my face hurt, and laughed so much my throat stung.
“Yes,” I say, “I want to. Of course I want to, but I promised.”
“Oh, Abdou,” Adama says. Like my father, she forms her mouth to say something, but then doesn’t. Instead, she sits up and reaches out, holding my head with both hands, like it might fall over if she let go, and says: “If he’s not there, then you and I, we’ll keep looking, I promise you this. But if he is, well, then your promise isn’t broken.”
Everything around the garage wall is thick with grease; it floats on the air and clings to my throat. The faraway yellow light of Thiaroye outlines my body and Adama’s as we step around piles and pieces of darkness—maybe garbage, maybe dirt, maybe people. She almost trips over a piece of something round and firm.
“We found this place the day after our first kiss,” I say. She puts a hand on my shoulder. “We were walking at night and didn’t want to turn around. We stopped somewhere around here, but there weren’t all these people back then. There never used to be anybody.”
I keep her hand on my shoulder and guide her along until I can see the ledge looking over the tunnel where ndiaga-ndiayes pass, where he’d always sit with his legs swinging over a bright blur of speeding white pods and electricity sparks. My chest thumps loud enough to drown out the noise.
Adama stands still as I move forward, my hands beginning to tremble. Clumps of tents line the wall beside me, but only one is right up on the ledge, filled with the tunnel’s light.
Through the fabric, I see the shape of a body.
“Please,” I whisper, and run.
Please, tell me this is still ours.