Two splitting pops crack the air, pierce my thoughts, and rattle me out of my waking nightmare just in time to hear my roommate ask a second time, “If you could go back in time, would you stop 9/11 from happening?”
Of all the people sitting at this rinky-dink card table, he asks me.
“I was born here in the US, just like you.”
“Jesus, Samir, don’t make it political.”
“Why do I get the terrorist question?”
“I’m literally going down the list.” He taps his phone, and the Google search result for drinking game ideas lights up. “I could’ve asked anybody.”
“Then ask anybody.”
“Fine.” He turns to Sarah. “Well?”
She twists her mouth and shrugs. “I don’t know. I’d probably let it happen.”
Everyone but me takes a shot. I blank on what the rules are, but it doesn’t matter. Apart from the very real risk of getting caught underaged drinking on campus, consumption of alcohol is forbidden in my religion. And Rick, my roommate, knows this.
“Care to explain?” I ask her.
“Now you want to participate.”
“I can’t ask her a question?”
“I couldn’t ask you a question.”
“It’s okay, I’ll answer,” Sarah says, playing mediator. She and Rick have been going out since the beginning of the semester. Being the neutral party between our constant bickering is familiar territory for her by now.
“I guess,” she starts, “so much of American life and psyche today has been shaped by 9/11. Even if I could change it, what would I be coming back to? A completely different world. Unrecognizable.”
“But safer, no?” I interject.
“Debatable. Who’s to say it won’t result in another 9/11 somewhere else, and then that one’s catastrophically worse? Maybe they get the White House that time. Maybe they hijack Airforce One.”
“So, I’m guessing you would try to prevent it then?” Will asks me. He lives in the dorm three doors down. A classmate of mine and Rick’s in Poli Sci and Business Economics.
“Of course you would.” Rick rolls his eyes. “Look, we don’t need no Muslim savior. Just tell your people to stop blowing shit up.”
“Rick!” Sarah shrieks.
“Uncalled for, bro.” Will chimes in.
“I have no interest in saving people like you anyway,” I say to Rick. People with the same ethnocentric judgement in their eyes, the same hateful speech, the same misplaced patriotism that only honors countrymen with the same shade of white skin.
“Don’t need it,” he says.
I pretend not to hear him. “I would only go back to change one thing.”
“And what’s that?” asks Masha, the quiet one with kind eyes, the only reason I’m here at this table when I should be studying for finals. She’s a Psychology major. An understanding soul. Even the most vicious of humans she desires to study, to comprehend how their minds work and what drives them to commit the sins they do.
There’s a recurring dream I wish she’d interpret for me and hopefully make it stop.
“Islamophobia,” I say. “It’s a disease in this country, and it killed my parents.”
It’s so quiet you can hear a pen drop. Rick doesn’t speak, I imagine, only because Sarah has her knee shove into his balls under the table. Successful buzzkill delivered, I excuse myself and make my way from the common area down the hall to my dorm, room 22. I twist the knob and pause, readying myself for what waits for me on the other side. The rerun of my parents’ murder that has plagued me since childhood. Every night it runs, like a flickering black and white film projection from my brain. The man with the shaggy ponytail, the American flag patched on the front of his leather jacket. My father finding a hidden inner strength, despite being skin and bones, to shield me behind him and keep me in place under the barrage of bullets, no matter how much I pushed and tugged. Even as my image ages with me from a scrawny, frightened eleven-year-old to the 6’5 200-pound athlete that I am today, the result is still the same. I can’t jump in front of them, I can’t protect them, I can’t save them.
I crack the door open and hear the first lines of that familiar script. “Go back to your own country!”
A tap on my shoulder brings me back to reality. I pull the door shut and turn.
“Hi.” I’m greeted by Masha’s warm welcoming eyes. “I think the Basement Cafe is still open in the library. Wanna grab a coffee?”
She offers her arm, and I loop mine in hers. “By the way, I’ve been having this dream.”
Pick any Twilight Zone episode about time travel and haunting dreams. Pick any episode that covers the topics of hate, war, and racism. The above story pulls elements from all of them. The original series was full of social and political commentary, exposing some of the worst parts of humanity, often in the most horrifying and spine-chilling ways.