Written by Alaa A. Rahman
Adam’s head was throbbing. He was surrounded by darkness but could very well feel the pull of reality all around him. He was laying on a soft mattress-like surface and was covered with a blanket or two. A canister was placed by the side of his head and Adam knew it wouldn’t be wise to spill it over. Heavy breathing, shouts, thumps, and sticks hitting against each other reverberated around him, making his head hurt more than it already did. He rose up slowly to a seating position, holding his head and struggling to open his eyes against the sunlight, slipping through the large windows. A man could be heard yelling out instructions and tapping with a heavy stick on the floor.
Where the fuck am I?!
“I see you’re up!” yells the man from across the room. Adam could literally feel his neurons explode from the sound and the throb increase in magnitude.
“Could you PLEASE not shout!? God, I feel like a bulldozer ran over my head” Adam exclaims, as he grits his teeth and puts his head between his knees, in a failed attempt to contain the headache.
“Alright, dragons! Take five and Billy, no more hitting your opponents when they’re down otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a similar situation. Remember – “
“Our decisions are our consequences,” mutters Billy, as he and the rest of the team salute their sensei and head off to rest for a bit. Adam manages to witness the discipline that radiated from mere teenagers; they all look that age where, “No” is an automatic response to anything grown-ups tell them to do, say and feel, but not here. They are subdued, obedient, calm, serene, and strong.
“Sorry about the noise and…well, the setting,” says the man as he stands up and grabs a cup of water from the water cooler next to him.
“Where am I?” asks Adam, still hooked on the image of the master and his students.
“The Cavern. The Dragons’ Cavern to be more precise but I prefer to just call it Cavern. Has a more mysterious ring to it. Here drink this. It’ll help with the headache.” The Master hands him the cup of water after spilling a powder like substance into it. Adam looks at it, feeling a bit uneasy about drinking something from a total stranger, especially with powder involved.
“Don’t worry. It’s an extract from an old Chinese plant that helps with hangover headaches and such” smiles the man, as he turns away from Adam and makes his way into a kitchen-like room. Adam takes a quick whiff of the drink (a habit he acquired from a young age whenever he ate or drank foreign foods or drinks) then gulps it down; tasteless, cold and refreshing.
“So, what’s your name son? If that’s not asking too much that is…”
“Fady. Fady Ibrosen” replies Adam automatically as he stands up and walks around the room. “Fady” is Adam’s alias whenever he ends up meeting strangers and finding himself in situations where he has to make small talks or do business as usual. Not that a mere 19 year old Law student would be doing business, but Adam always felt like giving out his real name would be giving out too much of him, an “in” to his personality, to his personal space, to his life. He never liked to be exposed to others. He felt like one should earn that privilege and not just have it easy.
Adam felt a weird sense of belonging to a place he has never visited before. He realized he was probably on the ground floor of a small building, a somewhat spacious area with lots of mattress-like padding for the floor. Sandbags hung low from the ceiling, heavy, torn and still, waiting to toughen the fists of the young. Long windows expanded from the ceiling to the floor, letting in the sun. In the summer, the room would feel like a furnace and during the winter, the temperature of the room would be just right, heated up by the action of the students’ fighting and training. Adam’s eyes divert to the framed pictures and certificates on the wall. Many of them showed the students during competition in fighting poses, alongside their acquired medals. Most of them were ranked and apparently very good at fighting. An array of Chinese quotes and writings on parchment decorated the walls as well, adding a sense of authenticity to the place.
But one picture stood out the most to Adam. It was in the center of the wall at the far end of the Cavern. The Master, a plump man with a round belly, stood in the middle of the picture holding his wooden rod as well as a big trophy with the words “Sensei of the Year” engraved onto it. He had a big smile on his bearded face; his eyes were glinting with pride and joy as he was surrounded by his students, hugging him and jumping on him in their fighting uniform, with their medals around their necks, messing up his wavy brown locks. One could almost hear their laughs echo from the picture.
A sense of warmth engulfs Adam’s heart. He feels a smile spread across his face and his heart skip a beat. He couldn’t discern the warmth he was feeling but it felt nice. It felt like something he never felt, something he never knew, something he never had. The laughter, the embrace, the closeness and the bond that seemed to come alive from the photo were all too real and heavy for Adam to bear. As much as he loves the photo, Adam turns away from it as quickly as he spots it, an ache replacing the sense of serenity and happiness he felt a few seconds past. He will never get to feel something like this ever. Not with his family. Not with his state.
“Fady, I made us breakfast in the kitchen” the Master says as he stands at the door of the kitchen-like room, “You must be feeling hungry after whatever you’ve been through last night”
“I must be going. I’m already late as it is and my folks must be worried sick about me.” He knew it wasn’t true because his phone hasn’t rung all night; that he was sure of because it never left his pocket.
“Of course, of course…Well, at least wait till I pack it for you. You need your strength –“
“No really it’s fine. Thanks anyway”
Adam grabs his shoes, which were placed in a shoebox down a step from the padded floor. As he was putting on his shoes, a small creature runs past him and jumps on the Master.
“Hey there, kiddo!” says the Master gleefully, “ready for school I see?”
“I don’t want to go to school! I want to train with you today, daddy!” responds the kid, as he runs across the floor and starts punching the nearest sandbag.
“Now, what was our deal, kid? School first then training! Come on, your mom is waiting just outside!” The sensei lifts up his son with ease with one hand and places him on his shoulders as he walks out of the Cavern to meet a small lady, holding her son’s backpack. He was taller and larger than she was, apparent from the way he bent over and kissed her on her forehead. The kid was holding onto his father’s head while smiling at his mother. The image stung Adam even harder in his heart, holding back tears as hard as he could but nevertheless, a sense of warmth and joy filled his body at the scenery. A loving father and mother with their son, feeling protected, loved and happy. He couldn’t help but smile at the small family as he stood up and made to leave. The man was waving goodbye to his family and turns around just in time to see Adam walk past him.
“Hey, Fady! Why the hurry!? At least, wait till I pack you breakfast.”
“It’s fine really. I still need to get home and I have classes –”
“Where do you study?” asks the Master.
“Perfect! The Cavern is in El-Mesaha Square, a couple minutes away from the university. Why don’t we meet after you finish your day? Say at 8 this evening?”
“Really, there’s no –”
“I promise it’ll be worth your while and besides, the team needs to expand a bit and with your physique and all, you could be a great addition to the team.” The sensei extends his hand, the same smile he had in the picture in the Cavern spread across his face. Adam looks at the Master, incredulous to how a complete stranger would be this nice and welcoming to another completely unknown person. For all he knows, Adam could rob him, beat him or even worse, murder him.
“What do you say?” The man’s hand still outstretched.
Adam locks eyes with the sensei and reluctantly shakes hands with him.