Quiet. Pale, freckled skin and light brown curls. Narrow shoulders. Legs stretched long by adolescence. Sweatpants and sneakers. Bulky winter coat and cap. He was not the kind of boy who stood out in a crowd. Later, when the cops discuss the incident, they will confirm this. Just another figure in the mass of sweat, nylon and slush on the 501 streetcar that evening. The knife, they determine, was pulled out a stop before Jarvis Street.
A stained, four-inch paring blade the boy now points at the cop standing outside the automatic doors.
He stole the knife from his mother’s kitchen. If he holds it close, he can smell the apples she cut that afternoon: Granny Smiths sliced thin and baked between phyllo, baklava style. He smelled the apples throughout the streetcar ride. The knife was tucked inside his coat, edge outwards, in a pocket that normally held pencils. It was not the first one he’d carried. The first had been given to him by his father, a serrated switchblade that peeked in and out of thick black plastic, during the early days of the Syrian civil war, several months before the Anti-Assad protests pissed off the government and the Arab Spring turned into a spring of Arab blood. After that, arrangements were made to send the boy to Beirut, and from there, to his mother’s house in Toronto. The boy’s father had taken the knife away. “You will not need this where you are going.”
Outside, where the cops are standing, it is cold and the boy’s breaths emerge in hard, white puffs. The knife was unsheathed that night because of the man in the suede coat. A well-dressed man with slender hands and clean nails. A man who first brushed his groin against the boy’s hips when the streetcar swayed on a turn, and later sat next to him, trying to inch a hand up the boy’s thigh. The boy reacted: slowly twirling the knife the way he did his HB no. 2s. The thigh-grabber’s hands quivered at his throat like white lilies. A woman at the front of the streetcar screamed. Chaos quickly ensued and there were shouts to the driver, followed by a mad rush to the doors. Somewhere in the melee, someone dialed 911.
From the top step of the streetcar, the knife reflects streetlights. Yellow. Bronze. A blink of neon green.
“Drop your weapon!” The voice that emerges from the cop sounds robotic, not entirely human. “Drop your weapon, now!”
Beyond the barricade of officers, some of the passengers huddle close, their phones raised into the air, neon rectangles glowing in the dark. When nothing happens for several moments, one of them yawns. “This is so gay,” he says.
This is so gay.
The boy had heard this for the first time at his new school in Toronto. An English phrase the students used in reference to anything they found annoying, though not necessarily homosexual. One of them stared at the boy’s narrow jeans and skinny frame and asked him about the men in his country: “Is it true that they like men better than women?”
When the rebels sprung up against the Ba’athist regime in Syria, the boy’s uncle said that men were taken to jail and raped by the guards. His father sent the boy away from the room when the conversation took place, unaware of, or perhaps ignoring his presence outside the door, his ear pressed to a crack in the wood.
The boy had known it was rape they were discussing, even though they never used the word. His uncle was one of the few rebels who had been arrested. Released from prison just the day before, he had lost half of his body weight in a month’s time.
“Once they did it in front of a woman,” his uncle said. “A poor village girl from the mountains. They handcuffed her to a chair and made her watch.”
The executions were what the boy had always feared the most: government supporters stripped of their shirts and made to kneel, blind-folded, before a group of masked men who called themselves freedom fighters. Before leaving for Toronto, his father had taken him to one of these executions.
“Remember,” his father had said.
“Always remember this.”
Bullets had cracked through the bodies like fireworks on Eid.
Friends back home think that he has it all in Canada. Hot showers, breezy summers, gorgeous girls with long blond hair. One winter, he goes snow tubing with his sister and her friends and posts the pictures on Facebook: apple cheeks; hot chocolate smiles. They do not know of the trouble he has had during classes. The way everyone snickered when he stumbled over an unfamiliar language. One morning, when he opened the door to his locker, he found the words “towelhead” and “faggot” spray-painted inside.
Kevin Mathews was the only one who hadn’t laughed at the boy’s accent. “In-tyoo-ish-un.” He’d gently corrected the boy, stretching out each syllable. “Not in-tyoo-shun.”
The boy had not replied. Kevin was tall and limber with a walk that looked like an elaborate dance: a reed swaying in the wind. He made the boy uncomfortable with his friendliness, with those blue eyes that looked deep into his soul.
Though the boy never spoke to Kevin at school, he often watched him walking home alone, his blond head bent, books clutched to his chest. Sometimes, when he missed the bus, he followed Kevin at a distance, their paths diverging at the park a few blocks away from the school, where kids played hockey on a frozen pond. One afternoon, a pair of boys sat on a bench outside the park and tapped the ground with their hockey sticks. The boy had not liked the way they watched Kevin – how their eyes had trailed him as he made his way to the end of the block.
When the boy’s mother took him to church in Toronto, he would not kneel in the pews.
“What are you doing?” His mother’s nails dug into his arm. “Do you want to embarrass me?”
She’d used the same refrain when he’d started dressing like some of the kids at school: baggy pants belted at the hip, a long football jersey, a chain around his neck, a baseball cap shaped like a bowl. The boy’s sister had disagreed. “Thank God,” she’d said. “Those skinny jeans of yours were so gay.”
Whenever his mother talks about Syria, she talks about the mountains and the souks. She remembers eating booza in Damascus – bowl upon bowl of rich vanilla ice cream coated green with pistachios. Like the ice cream, she wants to freeze her memories; she wants to savour them again and again. “I miss that Syria,” she says sadly. “I miss the Syria of my youth.”
The Syria of the boy’s youth is training them for military warfare. The boy’s father sent him pictures of the child soldiers in an email. Thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds carrying Kalashnikovs and hand-grenades. Smooth faces that would soon crease with grime and blood and sudden age.
It has been thirteen years since his parents’ divorce, twelve since he saw his sister. Though she is younger, she looks a lot like him. So much that they could be twins if he grew his hair. She is as Canadian as he is Syrian. She does not wake up the way he does some nights, eyes wide open, shirt sticking to his chest.
He has not told anyone about what happened to Kevin Mathews a month earlier in the park. About the boys with the hockey sticks and ski masks. About Kevin’s whimpers, his muffled animal cries.
Outside the streetcar, arms remain extended into the air, their tops white, luminous. Between those puffy, sleeve covered limbs, the boy sees the man in the suede coat again. The man has blond hair and blue eyes and his face is covered with blood.
Months later, the officer who fires the first shot will testify that it was an accident. That the bullet was intended for the boy’s hand, not his heart. News channels will re-air YouTube videos of the incident. The police shouting ultimatums at the boy. The boy, silent at first, shaking, then suddenly screaming, slashing the air with his knife. “We gave him chances,” the cop will say. “So many chances.”
By bringing artificial intelligence into chemistry, Prof. Aspuru-Guzik aims to vastly shrink the time it takes to develop new drugs – and almost everything else