Mid-lunch at a rustic eatery in Houston’s Theater District, Hamaad surprised himself by saying far too aggressively that the keto diet was absolute nonsense. Three out of eight at the table had ordered bun-less burgers, served in small cast-iron skillets. What he really wanted to say was: “Can you guys find something new to talk about? Every fucking time!” But if he did that, they would all just stare at him—and then at his sister, Madiha—and leave it alone because they were her friends and he was just visiting. But everybody ignored him anyway. Hamaad—relieved—returned to his meatball appetizer.
How very, very boring, he thought. Day in, day out, old shit, new shit, almost none of it matters. Thank god we lose our memories of most days. Most days are so ordinary, if we remembered them all we’d never get up in the present. At the moment, the meatballs were making him nauseous. He remembered the box in his sister’s kitchen. He’d found it in the morning: flapjacks and waffle mix that boasted 14g of protein. The back of the box claimed that American colonists—‘pioneers’ and ‘lumberjacks’—ate flapjacks along the American frontier. They looked delicious, but then Madiha kept insisting they had to leave for lunch, even though it was 10 AM.
A man entered the restaurant, Hamaad saw him as he walked towards their table. “Nate!” Madiha jumped to her feet to hug him. Tall, chiseled, in a tight t-shirt and sweatpants, Nate apologized for being late. “Oh it’s fine, we just got our food. Just order, you can share my fries.” A male friend across the table who everyone found inexplicably funny exclaimed, “Nate, my man! It’s been ages, bro.” Hamaad struggled to remember his name. He’d never met him before but his name felt on the tip of his tongue. “Yeah, well, you never want to hang out now that you have your new friends,” Nate smirked. He grabbed the chair next to Hamaad and put his phone on the table. iPhone home screen. He tuned out, wearied.
But something in him was jumping—a gnawing, like tapeworms stitched across his intestine. He spat the meatballs into his napkin. He looked down at the napkin: things moved, brown-black creatures that wrapped around the meat.
He looked around, scared. Marjorie, to his left, was talking to Madiha. Nate was still talking to the man whose name he couldn’t remember. Nate was belly-laughing about something, and his t-shirt went up, exposing a dark-haired happy trail.
“So! Nice to finally meet the brother.” Hamaad, unbalanced, took a moment to realize Nate was talking to him. “We haven’t met before?” Hamaad asked. Nate, unfazed: “I don’t think so. Actually—were you here on New Year’s? Maybe I missed you at the party.” But, no, Hamaad hadn’t been there.
The man with the elusive name jumped in. “So, Hamaad, where exactly is your boyfriend? Did he get in late?”
“My boyfriend?” Hamaad exclaimed. “There’s no—. I’m not—!”, aware of how wounded he sounded. The restaurant went silent. A beat. Madiha rolled her eyes, and it was as if she were the impatient ferryman between the real and the surface of the real at which he lived. “Hamaad, everyone’s met Caleb, remember? He came to Houston for that interview, but you had work—?”
“Who’s Caleb? Hah, what are you talking about?” Hamaad’s voice was high, artificial, waiting for a laugh to break out. “C’mon, guys—you know I’m not even gay. Nice try.” Everyone silently shifted in their chairs, over the jingling of the opening restaurant door.
“Speak of the devil!” Nate exclaimed. A pale, pudgy man with a trim beard and a side-part slick-back hugged Nate: Nate, the impossibly woke, beautiful straight man.
“We were just asking Hamaad where you were!”
Smiling, Caleb came around the table—hugged Hamaad’s shoulders. No words came to Hamaad fast enough; Caleb’s grip tightened and tightened. “Hi, sweetheart. Sorry I’m late. They’ve grounded the flights, I’m lucky I got out.” He knelt over and kissed Hamaad tenderly on the lips.
Hamaad jerked violently back from the table, retching. “What the—? What the fuck was that?” Caleb looked flustered but also…bored?
“Hamaad, what’s wrong?”
“Who are you?” Hamaad’s stomach turned. He pushed his chair back, and rounded towards the restroom. Everyone stared back, like actors who’d forgotten their lines, and he thought he caught a faint, vicious sneer on Madiha’s face. “Why’re you being so awful?” she demanded.
He went in to the restroom and the meatballs came out. Above the toilet, the wallpaper, a repeating photo of cherry blossoms, seemed to deepen away from him. Get yourself together, it’s just a stupid joke, stop it! He stared at himself in the mirror and didn’t recognize himself. The mirror blinked back, and his hands slipped. His head hit the sink hard as he fell, bolts of agonizing pain coursing through.
Pulling up, he headed back and overheard his sister. “Sorry, guys. I don’t know what’s up with him. He’s been acting strange all day.” At Caleb: “Did you guys fight?” But Caleb seemed only mildly baffled. “No! I mean, the last time I saw him was two days ago, he was totally fine. We did a whole Valentine’s Day thing!”
Hamaad, half-delirious: “This—this isn’t funny anymore.” He wiped his lips, furiously—to get the Caleb off him. “What is this about Hamaad?” says Madiha. “You don’t remember being with him two days ago?” “What? Dia, how?! Valentine’s was a week ago—it’s the 23rd!” There was that hush again. That ashen blankness.
Madiha broached him slowly. “OK, listen, whatever’s going on, we’ll fix it. It’s the 17th, sweetheart. But let’s leave. Guys, I’m sorry, let’s do this again next week, same time?” Everyone folded back into themselves. Marjorie, mid-conversation, stole nervous glances at Hamaad. Everything was off, and everything was perfect. Perfectly choreographed. Madiha tried to usher him toward the door, but he pivoted, grabbing Nate’s phone. “See?! 23rd! You’re lying!”
Madiha looked more terrified than he’d ever seen her. He reached for her phone, but she threw all her weight on him and pinned him to the ground. It happened so fast, Hamaad was too stunned to resist. “Don’t you ever, ever fucking try that again!” she said, steely. He pulled her hand with the phone closer—home screen: February 23rd 2019, 1:42 PM—but Nate grabbed his arms, pushing him back down. He’d coughed up blood: little droplets that radiated away on the ground like rooted veins.
“OK, I think—” Madiha looked at Nate with an expression that said what-now? “Don’t worry, I’ll just get him home.” Hamaad, dazed, let himself be taken out. He looked back at the table and they all looked back, eerily, until they snapped back, like human-sized marionettes. He passed out.
He woke on his sister’s living room floor. His head like a power drill in his skull. He tried to move. Madiha stood above him. “You didn’t eat, so I made waffles.”
All over the world, people were waking up, every day, to do the same things over and over. Mean little groupers were storming the reef right now, aggressively ambushing some crabs. Deer and stags were standing quite still as jackdaws pecked all around them, their eyes, their nose, picking out the ticks. Somewhere, men and women were beginning their morning rituals. Somewhere, Hamaad was walking the same street he always did, noticing a graveyard he had never seen before next to a condo he knew like the back of his hand. It was enormous. Covering over a block, stretching out beyond where he could see. He went in, walked past the tombstones. Some were just smoothened rocks, the graves had aged out and space was needed for new ones. But most had names. Some even had family trees, or birthdays. Most had been born in the 1940s and 1950s, some with ornate stones, others bare, swept clean by the wind. Rows and rows and rows of them. One: Marble. Mr. Keith Baker, 1952-2001, loving husband to Mrs. Lola Baker, devoted father to Lina and Clara Baker. Another: Stone. A Muslim plainness. Mrs. Rahima Shaukat Ali, 1939-2016. Another: Stone, taller, darker-colored. Miss Madiha Shaukat Ali 1983-2018. Survived by father Mr. Imtiaz Shaukat Ali and brother Mr. Hamaad Shaukat Ali.
“Waffles. Get up!” Madiha grit her teeth, but otherwise she wore an ordinary expression, like screensaver mode. “Dia…” Hamaad said pathetically, his head thrashing, ten thousand rats squealing below his cranium as someone in his brain held a flame at their tails. “Why are you lying to me?” His feet slipped as he tried to get up, and the pain coursed through him again, paralyzing him. Madiha walked slowly towards him and turned to her right. “This is getting really fucking annoying,” she said, to no one he could see. “Just restart the damn thing.”
Kamil Ahsan is a queer biologist and historian with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, he is also a journalist, writer, and Reviews Editor at Barrelhouse. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Hobart, The Rumpus, LARB, The Masters Review, The Millions, Chicago Review, The A.V. Club, and others. You can find him on Twitter @kamuleosaurus