Ravi Mahavira was pulled aside at 9:22 A.M., groggy and jetlagged, while making his connection at Liberty International for the Chicago O'Hare. It hadn't been long, but after a week of interminable days, he was ready to go home. His layover was an hour, and he wasn't in a rush, and he had just purchased a cup of Seattle's Best when he felt a hand at his elbow and a voice asking if he wouldn't mind coming this way, please, that they would like to ask him a few questions.
Ravi Mahavira, 28 years old, was dark and thin, his body made up of a sequence of odd and protruding angles. He wasn't very tall, but just tall enough that he folded in a strange way as he was asked to take a seat, back curved and head bowed, brow hooding his eyes from the bright and impersonal lights. He was in a back room, after plodding, apprehensive but silent, through the grid of hidden hallways, past doors others passed daily without thought as they glided from one gift shop to the next. The very people with whom Ravi had been standing in line at Seattle's Best might never have expected such doors led to such hallways, led to such cold rooms.
Someone had taken away his freshly brewed organic French roast, and they now supplied him with an hours-old Folgers drip cup. Ravi Mahavira didn't care for black coffee, and he stared down into it, wondering if suspected terrorists were offered cream and sugar.
His father had always taken black coffee. Manu Mahavira, who had been working his way towards his sixties just a short month ago, had always appeared distressed when Ravi's childhood milk-with-coffee ritual was little varied by the edge of age. Manu never said anything on the matter, but Ravi liked to think occasionally that maybe he was ashamed to have a son who was not strong enough to take black coffee. Ravi also liked to think that some different day, someday like today, after his father was gone, he would take black coffee. He liked to imagine himself breathing in its scent, deeply drawing its steaming flavor into the cavern of his mouth, cooling it with the passage of air before allowing its dark and bitter tang to trickle into his stomach. But the coffee the airport security personnel set in front of him now quivered in little frightened ripples, encased in a timid styrofoam cup, and twenty-eight years of conditioning made him shy of this bitter black liquid, which smelled just like his father had.
It had been an hour, it must have by now. He could imagine his connecting flight taking off without him, with nobody at all the wiser, except perhaps the woman in the next seat, who would have taken advantage of an empty middle seat, setting her purse up in it after takeoff. Nobody had come into the room since they had brought him the coffee, and the silence was beginning to compound against the walls. Ravi wondered if this was a tactic, to place him alone with his own thoughts, if they were watching him through their cameras, waiting for him to give something away. He guessed that it was more likely that they were busy with other dark men in other bright rooms here in the catacombs of the terminal.
He wasn't even sure why they had pulled him aside. He had an idea, but he wasn't sure. It might have been anything. A cell phone number he might have had registered once could have received a call from someone who might have been related to someone who had suspected ties to a terrorist organization. Yes, it could have been anything, Ravi thought, but more likely than not, it was the as-yet-unidentified brown grainy substance in the jar customs would have found in his checked baggage and tagged as suspicious. They would have pulled up Ravi's information, seen his face, name, age, destination, the single bag he was taking from one disparate end of the globe to the other. All the most innocuous details in Chennai are the most dangerous in Newark, and some security official with twenty years on the task under his belt would have made the educated decision to wall Ravi into one of these rooms, for a while at least, until tests could confirm the true nature of the light brown powder. Ravi looked up into the corner of the room, near the ceiling, at where the security camera perched, watching him. He looked down the barrel of it, gaze direct, somehow both tired and unwavering.
"He isn't even Muslim," said Officer Barry Hanan, staring down at the detainee through the eye of the camera, from several rooms away. Something in him stirred, watching Ravi Mahavira watching him. "He's Hindu. Isn't 'Mahavira' a Hindu name?" Hanan shifted in his seat, leaning forward and then back again. He was himself an Israeli-American citizen, nearly thirty years of age. He had grown up hiding the stigma of his name behind a mask of cultural apathy and mercifully light skin. Now, the only evidence of his heritage he bore with him were his sharp features and his unusual name, and the unfortunate and embarrassing family he struggled to escape. But ever since his start working at Newark's Liberty International Airport, he had woken up in a sweat many nights, heart racing, tearing his consciousness from dreams of himself, left alone in the bright and inescapable silence on the other side of this very camera.
"It might be." Detective Kirk Braddock, standing behind Hanan, sipped coffee from a steely silver thermos. His sharp eyes narrowed at the screen. "We'll ask him some questions once we finish testing his things. Let him sweat it out until then."
"He doesn't look like he's sweating too much."
"He might be trying to intimidate us. Make us think we've got nothing on him."
Barry looked at the security display screen, at that tired young man in that grey box of a room. He knew Braddock had been on the job for at least a decade. He knew Braddock knew the score. Hell, he probably had known exactly how the day would turn out as he had poured his coffee into his thermos that morning before work. Barry knew all this, and deferred to the detective's authority, but something inside him could not reconcile these words with this man. Ravi Mahavira was from Chicago - he had lived there his entire life. He was not a Muslim, let alone an extremist. He had come from Varanasi, to Chennai, had worked his way all the way to Liberty without arousing suspicion, only to be detained for questionable materials now. There was nothing intimidating about him. He was only a man going home, who looked like he would suffer through whatever he had to, just so long as he could, at the end of it, get back to his own bed.
Within another hour, test results returned. The powder found in Mahavira's baggage had been nothing but about twenty dry ounces of dirt, pure and simple. Barry looked on from a distance as Detective Braddock stepped into the room where Ravi Mahavira sat, unmoving, a statue of reluctant patience and dutiful pain.
"Ravi Mahavira." He looked up. "I'm Detective Braddock. I hope you won't mind answering a few questions."
"Not at all." Ravi looked Braddock over, up and down, the way he stood like a firmly-rooted tree, and was even rigid when he sat. Ravi straightened a bit, spine cracking as it uncurled.
"Where you flying in from, Ravi?"
"But you also spent some time in Varanasi?"
"My family went to the Ganges." Ravi shifted in his seat. "To scatter my father's ashes."
Braddock hesitated visibly. Even from his view of the back of Braddock's head, Barry could see the uncertainty in the way his shoulders suddenly moved. "I see. And your family didn't come back with you? Do they live in Chennai?"
"No. They left directly after. They're back in Chicago now."
"Why did you stay behind?"
"My father kept a storage facility in Chennai. I had to settle some of his affairs there."
"Where were you born, Mister Mahavira?" Braddock flipped to the second sheet on the clipboard he had carried in, not looking up at the man across the table from him.
"Yes." Ravi guessed that they must have tested the dirt by this point. If they had still thought it to be anything but what it was, Detective Braddock's questions would certainly not be nearly this gentle. At this point, it seemed like he was only being interrogated because he had been pulled in, merely as a matter of form, so that he could be released.
"Customs found something out of place in your luggage - put up a red flag for us." Braddock looked up at Ravi, eyes sharp. "Do you know what that was, Mister Mahavira?"
"I'm not sure."
"A mason jar. Filled with dirt." Braddock scanned Ravi's placid face. "At first, officials thought it might be some kind of pressure-sensitive explosive. We had it tested. Now, we don't usually make official inquiries about harmless personal items, but maybe you'd like to clear up for us why you have a jar of dirt in your luggage?"
Ravi remembered the dirt. He remembered the sun bearing down on him, bright and oppressive, and standing up to his knees in the Ganges. The water was so putrid that the legs of his white linen pants were dark brown with it after, and the air so hot that his white linen shirt was stained with sweat. He remembered the weight of the urn in his hands, the weight of his father, and remembered looking back over his shoulder at his family standing, gathered together, swathed in blinding white, waiting for him. The moment he had received that early morning phone call, Ravi had felt his duty as the oldest son hang upon him like a steady weight. It was his place, as the good Hindu son, to scatter his father's ashes on the River Ganga and release his soul into heaven. He remembered that weight, too, warm and constant in his sweating palms, digging him deep into the muddy river bank, loose white pant legs flaring out like flags of surrender in the natural downstream trickle. He shouldn't have had to think about it. It should have been the most natural, loving movement--to release his father's soul, to allow him into the realms of heaven. The chanting from the river bank behind him, from those close to his family who gathered to watch, built to a buzzing crescendo. Let go, Ravi told himself again and again, but his body refused to act. Heaven, the afterlife, the next life, or whatever was out there waiting, Ravi could not release his deepest and most confusing memories onto this mighty river.
It had been too long, his family left standing there, watching him tremble. Finally, with firm and heated steps, his brother waded into the river next to him, taking the urn from Ravi with furiously shaking hands, and did what any good son would do--he upturned it, and the ashes fell out, catching the wind as they flew out in a cloud, soft and appalling and quickly vanishing. Ravi watched it desperately, as though his mere wishes could collect every single particle and store it, suspended, in the urn once more. As he looked on, Madhur turned to him, urn still clutched in his hands, upside-down. The chanting behind them had only wavered, never broken, but now it fell and fell and fell until there was silence, up and down the river, oppressive and all-encompassing. The two brothers locked eyes, breath coming fast and filling them with the warm spice of Indian air, until Madhur placed the urn, now upright, in Ravi's hands once more, and waded out of the river. Ravi stood, rooted to the spot, as his family and friends walked away from him.
Ravi left a few short minutes after. He stood, drying, on the bank for a while, wondering if he was wanted or needed anywhere, wondering what his family thought of him now. He looked into the urn. It was entirely clear of ashes. Strange, but the river looked no darker with filth than it had before. Ravi crouched to the ground, heart pounding. Just standing on the land of his fathers was not the same as feeling it, and pieces clung to his wet palms as he ran his hands over the ground. He placed the mouth of the urn against the sun-warmed Indian earth, pushed a few handfuls of it in, and then stood, body uncurling with unconscious slowness. Feet aching, Ravi Mahavira walked back down the streets of Varanasi, back the way he had come.
Braddock stared as Ravi straightened his back, wiped his eyes and his brow. He was pulling himself together, piece by piece, his aged face becoming younger and younger. "The jar seemed safer," he said simply. "It wouldn't tip out, and it would travel well, I thought, so long as I kept it wrapped up in something." Ravi paused, looked at Braddock, at the camera, and back to Braddock once more. "Is that it? Am I free to go?"
The detective stood, hesitated, and then left the room without a word. Barry watched the camera's display screen, watching the immobile Ravi so raptly that he jumped when Braddock opened the door over his shoulder.
"Show him out. Help him to his connecting flight."
"It wasn't anything but some dirt. Just show him out." Braddock turned and left the room.
Barry got to his feet and walked around to the holding room. Ravi looked up at him. Able to see Ravi's eyes for the first time, Barry thought there was something stirring in their depth.
"You can come with me," Barry said.
"Am I being let go?"
Barry nodded. Ravi stood. In silence, the two padded through the intricate passageways hidden deep in the airport, until they emerged in the busy terminal. The smell of coffee from Seattle's Best flooded the air.
"You had a cup of coffee, didn't you?"
"When you came in. I can buy you another one. You look kind of tired."
Ravi studied Barry for a moment. "What's your name?"
Barry hesitated, but the force of Ravi's gaze forced him to speak. "Bariah. Bariah Hanan."
A few pilots and businessmen pushed past. A restaurant a few feet away was overflowing with lunchtime patrons. Ravi looked at Barry steadily, and then nodded his head. The two stepped over to the café, joining the end of the line, standing together, Ravi's tired eyes scanning the posted menu, Barry's gaze at the floor at Ravi's feet.
Rachel Cochran is a student of creative writing and literature at the University of Evansville. She writes stories, novels, and songs.