I CAUGHT UP with Ezekiel Erikson in the student commons. He was a good looking black kid sitting alone in a corner booth, his head buried in a book. When I got closer, I could see the title. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.
“Are you Ezekiel Erikson?” I asked, even though I knew he was.
He glanced up, did a double take, his expression a combination of disdain and not a little fear. “Did somebody call the cops on me?” He put his book down, placed his hands on the table. “I go to school here. There’s my I.D. I’m enrolled. I’m a student.”
I don’t know what was more disconcerting; that he had nailed me for a cop, or that he had his student I.D. out, face up, at the edge of the table.
What a fucking world we live in. “No, no. It’s not like that. I’m here because my wife found a diary in our new house. She thinks it might belong to your girlfriend.”
He looked confused. “Girlfriend? I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Maybe an ex-girl friend?” For whatever reason I added, “Petite, long dark hair, large eyes?”
His jaw dropped. “Where’s your house?”
“Meadowbrook, on the west side.”
“Fatima? You found Fatima’s diary?” He blinked. “That’s not… she wouldn’t have left that!”
I pointed at the empty seat across from him. “Do you mind?” When he shook his head, I slid in. “Her name was Fatima?”
He nodded. “Fatima Zaidi. She went back to Pakistan, but she wouldn’t have left her diary!” He shook his head and clenched his fists. “No way she would have left her diary!”
I glanced at the book. The Problem of Pain. Suddenly things were making sense. “Tell me about Fatima.”
“She was… ” He paused and got a faraway look. “We met in biology our freshman year. We were both pre-med. When I first saw her, I tried to steer clear. She was one of the few girls here who wore a full burqa, you know? I tried to respect that, but we were in the same study group, and one thing led to another.” His eyes grew bright. “We were in love… I wanted to marry her.”
I got a feeling in my gut. “I gather that didn’t go over well?”
He shook his head. “It was bad. We were going to run away. My uncle’s a doctor in Indianapolis… we were going to get married and head down there. But then her family found out and shipped her back to Pakistan.” He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “At least, that’s what her parents said… but she wouldn’t have left her diary. I know she wouldn’t have.”
I pulled out a notebook I always have with me and wrote down what he said. “Do you know when she left the country?”
“No.” He slumped in his seat. “It’s been almost three years, and it still feels like yesterday.”
I noted the three years. “Are her parents still here?”
He nodded. “Her father’s an Iman… a big name in the community, I think. Her brother, though… ” He paused for a moment. “He told me if I ever tried to see Fatima again, he’d kill me.”
“What’s the brother’s name?”
“Tariq.” The kid fiddled with cleaning his glasses. “Tariq Zaidi… you have her diary… is it okay if I have it? I get it, if you don’t want to, but if not, could you burn it?” He got that faraway look again. “If you give it to her family, I’m afraid they’ll hurt her… they… they weren’t the nicest people. They didn’t seem to like her very much.”
I stopped writing. “Why do you say that?”
“The way she talked about them. The way they treated her. I remember one time she was a little late coming to the parking lot and Tariq punched her in the stomach. She came back the next day with a cast on her arm.” He looked at me, his eyes wet with tears. “How do you do that to your own flesh and blood?”
After ten years on the job, I still haven’t been able to work that one out. “I have no idea.”
“I hope she’s okay.” The kid was on the verge of bursting into tears. “I’ve had this feeling ever since she left that… I don’t know… that something happened.” A sob broke through, leading to a flood. He buried his head in his hands and wept. “I feel this emptiness… it’s not… I don’t know how to describe it. My parents think it’s a broken heart, but I think she’s… I think she’s gone.” He wiped his eyes. “Sorry. I know. It’s stupid.”
I put up my notebook. A father who was an Iman, a brother who thought nothing of physically assaulting her in public, and a black Christian boyfriend? I’d be worried, too. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll pull her immigration records, okay? Anything that’s happened since, we’ll never know, but at least you’ll know that she left the country.”
“You will?” His face brightened. “Maybe that’ll help.. I haven’t been able to move on… it’s like I’m stuck. Thank you.” He wiped his face with a napkin. “I’m sorry for this, by the way. I don’t know… does it ever get easier?”
I’m a cop, not a therapist, but I do know a thing or two about heartache. “No. But you get stronger.”
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