My name’s Alex Whalen and I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games. I’m also a writer, so I end up going overboard on backstory to the point of writing actual stories. Now I’m sticking them here.
My name’s Alex Whalen and I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games. I’m also a writer, so I end up going overboard on backstory to the point of writing actual stories. Now I’m sticking them here.
Total Word Count: 214,804
Total Stories: 47
Shortest Story: 537 words
Longest Story: 19,173 words
Average: 4,570 words
A Liar Should Have a Good Memory 18 MINUTE READ
The sun set slow behind the mountains and through the smog. Najma watched the shadows stretch among the tight-packed buildings below, the heart of Tehran, from the terraced garden behind her home. She sat on the dry grass, hands and feet and her whole little body hidden beneath the sheltering tent of her khimar. From the house came the smell of lamb and spices, the maid making herself a simple meal from the leftovers of the family’s dinner to eat before she needed to close up the house. The sound of conversation and the clinking of bottles came from the doors of the living space open onto the yard.
Najma picked at grass with one hand and remembered what Agent Ebrahimi—her mâmân—told her. There was no alcohol in the house. She was the daughter of a rich Tehrani family. She was a normal little girl.
With the other hand, she played with the star around her neck under the khimar.
Agent Soroush—no, amu, paternal uncle—laughed from his gut loud enough to carry out to Najma’s quiet spot. The sun was setting so slowly. It would be hours before people started making their excuses to leave, and she couldn’t be present for any of it. She wiggled her arm free and picked up a pebble. From this angle, thanks to the steep streets, she was positioned perfectly to stare down the rows of posh—if aging—American cars lined up in the driveways of their neighbors. She glanced towards the open doors as she heard another laugh. Then she threw the pebble. It pinged off the windshield of a gleaming 1973 Lincoln Continental.
“Nice shot,” said a voice from the fence on her right. Najma startled and hid her arm again, looking around wildly. It took a little laugh for her eyes to pick out the speaker in the gloom. One of the boards in the fence was pushed aside and a little boy’s face looked through. His skin was darker than hers and his features seemed a little different, but he spoke in perfect Persian and grinned to show off two gaps in his teeth. That was one more than her. Najma was intrigued. She stuck to the shadow of the house as she made for the fence.
“Who are you?” she asked. “I’ve never seen anyone else around here before.”
The boy laughed and covered the right side of his face with his hand. “You’ve never seen anyone?You must be as blind as me!”
Now that she was closer Najma saw his left eye was clouded and didn’t track her movements. She still couldn’t help a stab of irritation. She pushed against the fence.
“You know what I mean!” she grumbled. “I’ve never seen any other kids. Who are you?”
“Just like you, I think,” the boy said, dropping his hand from his face and tugging at something under his shirt. He held up a pendant on a leather cord, shaped like a star. Najma had to reach in from her neck but managed to pull her necklace out too. Her star was on a more delicate chain of gold, more suited to a wealthy little girl, but it was identical.
“The agents are drinking tonight,” the boy said. “Do you want to play?”
“I can’t,” Najma said. “Mâmân will notice if I leave.”
“My agents never notice when I leave,” the boy said. “Look, you just sit out here, yeah? I’ve seen you a few times.”
Najma frowned but nodded. She couldn’t play with other children in the city, but she couldn’t be inside when the agents discussed their work for fear of her letting something slip, so she was stationed in the yard with some toys every Friday evening after prayer services and her lessons. Most of the time she couldn’t be bothered to pretend to care about blocks or her little 45 player, so she sat and watched the city until the maid called her in.
“Okay,” he continued, pointing out the toys in the yard, “so take your khimar and put it on that big doll, then put the doll in the little chair, and let’s go.”
Najma looked at the toys. She looked at the boy. Then she yanked at her khimar and pulled it off over her head. It took a minute to set up the toys to look like her, sitting alone, and another minute to squeeze through the fence. Then she paced the boy as they took off down the steep streets, wind pulling at her short hair and the loose legs of her pants, free for the night. With a block between them and Najma’s house the boy whistled, fingers jammed in his mouth to produce the loudest sound Najma had ever heard, and there was a clatter from an alley on their left. Two more boys erupted from it, one hopping as he yanked a stray plastic bag off his foot from the garbage they leapt over.
“Who’s this?” one boy called. He had hair shaved close to his head and ears way too big for it. The one-eyed boy with Najma grinned and yelled back.
“She’s one of us! She has the star!”
“I didn’t know there were girls in this,” said the other newcomer, a quieter boy with skin so black he almost melted away into the shadows around them. Najma snorted.
“Well there are,” she said, “and I can kick your butt!”
“I like her!” the big-eared boy said. He looked up as they ran around a corner and pointed out a darkened house a little closer to the city and its filth than the ones Najma knew. “Can I call him?”
“Did you teach yourself to whistle while I slept?” the black boy asked, dodging a thrown elbow and laughing as the house grew closer. The big-eared boy spat at him for good measure and then pursed his lips. What came out was a weak tone, wavering and spluttering, but a figure taller than all of them stepped out from the side of the house.
“What was that?” he called. “A bird dying in the street?”
The big-eared boy huffed as they clambered to a stop and caught their breath. “Shut up, you overgrown weed!”
The last boy was obviously a few years older than them, maybe a young teenager, and looked more like the one-eyed boy in features and skin tone than any of the others. He laughed at the big-eared boy before he spotted Najma, then shook his head. She bristled.
“She needs a scarf at least,” he observed, waving at her loose hair. “I don’t care if she’s seven, we’ll get snagged by the Morality Police.”
“I’m nine!” Najma snapped. The older boy held up his hands in surrender but motioned back at the house.
“One minute,” he said, and ducked back inside. He emerged with an ugly paisley scarf, slightly moth-eaten, and wrapped it around Najma’s head while she pouted. “There. Little hamshira must have a scarf.”
“Little hamshira,” the one-eyed boy repeated with a snicker. Najma spat at him like the big-eared boy had, making them all laugh.
“What’s your name anyway?” the black boy asked her.
“Who are you?” she retorted, crossing her arms and looking over the group. “You all have stars?”
“I’m Shahab,” the black boy said. He pulled a dog tag style chain out from under his shirt to show off the star at the end. He pointed at the big-eared boy, the older boy, and the one-eyed boy in turn as he added, “and this is Mohsen, Ahmad, and Anush.”
They all produced their pendants for her to see. She studied each of them anew, filled with wonder.
“I thought I was the only one,” she said. “You all get the lessons?”
“Hiding, lying, math,” Mohsen said, ticking them off on his fingers and saying the last one in disgust. “Plus English and Arabic.”
“Tactics and combat,” Ahmad added. “Though maybe not yet for you. I’m eleven.”
“Scripture,” Shahab said. “Don’t forget that!”
“How could I, living with you,” Mohsen grumbled.
“So,” Anush prompted, “what’s your name?”
“I’m Najma,” she said. “My favorite is history.”
They all groaned and Mohsen kicked a can.
“Bo-ring,” Shahab said, hands stuffed in the pockets of his cargo shorts. “Ugh. So what are we doing tonight?”
“Steal some snacks, hang at the usual place, home before Najma’s maid realizes there’s a doll in her khimar?” Anush suggested. Mohsen pumped a fist in the air.
“Yes! Let’s go!”
In apparent agreement, they struck out from Ahmad’s house, descending from Najma’s wealthy neighborhood in North Tehran into the city proper. Traffic picked up, cars jammed in gridlock as working people fought to get home, and wading through with the boys was an exercise in terror. It seemed every inch she moved there was some new car, trying to do eighty in the city, roaring up to hit her. Ahmad took her by the hand and pulled her through. She would’ve been embarrassed, but he didn’t say anything about it to the others, and Najma decided he was the best. They ran through alleys and past other children playing pick-up games of football in the street.
“Take some of these,” Anush said, stuffing her arms with flowers from a basket discarded by a sleeping teenager, a bottle of Russian vodka cradled against his chest as he slept against a dumpster. All of the boys were taking some. “Tonight, we’re urchins selling flowers. Keep up!”
Najma played the part with the best of them, hawking wilted but fragrant hyacinth to pedestrians, gridlocked motorists, and people idling in doorways waiting on family members to return. She sold three, making a handful of change which the boys crowed over. They left the flowers in a heap next to a trash can a block out from Vali Asr Street. When they turned the corner onto it Najma saw why. They needed to move faster.
Vali Asr was a mirage of engine exhaust and glimmering neon lights, lined with grocer stalls closed for the night, boutiques, twenty-four hour stores, restaurants, and the few boarded-up facades of night clubs. Everyone was moving fast on the sidewalks, talking faster, and Najma had to push herself not to get separated from the others by the waves of adults in suits and hijabs.
“See that shop?” Anush said, falling back into step with her and pointing out a twenty-four hour store with a counter and display open to the sidewalk. She nodded. “Pick out what you want now, and memorize where it is. Once Ahmad goes in, we’ll have a second. Maybe.”
“We’re stealing?” Najma asked, eying the rows of canned and bottled sodas, candy bars, and wrapped snack foods. Her dinner was starting to seem far away, after all the running to get down here.
“If you want something, then yeah,” Anush said. “Don’t worry about it. Just pick something and get ready to grab it.”
Ahmad nodded to them and stepped into the shop. The shopkeep, who’d been leaning on the counter facing the street to yell at potential customers, ducked back inside.
“Go!” Mohsen called, running at the display. He took a glimmering blue drink in a glass bottle and hoofed it. Shahab grabbed a wrapped sandwich. Anush lifted two candy bars and a can of soda before taking off too. Najma sped up, clumsily grabbed for a bag of candy and a slender bottle of grape soda, and, in her rush, opened the hand holding her flower money into the display. Coins clattered against the bottles and cans, grabbing the shopkeep’s attention.
“Hey, you!” he bellowed. “What are you doing, you little rat?”
Najma caught a glimpse of Ahmad scrambling for the door before she ducked and ran straight ahead, parting the oncoming crowds with her headlong rush. She started past an alley and someone grabbed her arm and pulled her in. She almost screamed before she caught sight of Shahab’s eyes and smile in the darkness.
“Calm down, hamshira, you made it,” he said. Behind him, Anush and Mohsen were opening their prizes. “Where is Ahmad?”
“Right here,” the boy wheezed as he ran up, hands stuffed into his pockets, “but we need to move. That shopkeep’s going to skin us!”
“This way!” Mohsen called. “I know a shortcut!”
They took off again, and though just a minute ago Najma would’ve sworn she was too tired to run further, the sprinting felt like flying. She laughed as they jumped over and ducked under obstacles, hopped fences, and tore through narrow streets headed somewhere she’d never been. Finally they came to a door which seemed locked. Anush turned the handle and it opened, leaving them to climb through the boards over it before shutting themselves inside.
“Hang on a sec,” Shahab called as he stepped into the darkness of the building. “I remember where we stashed the flashlights.”
Sure enough, he returned with three heavy-duty metal Maglites, the likes of which Najma had sometimes glimpsed in her agents bags when they did a routine check of their equipment.
“Things get lost,” Anush said, with a grin. He flipped his flashlight on and shined it down a short hallway. When they came out the end, he swept it around a cavernous room.
“Used to be a disco, before the Revolution,” Ahmad explained, motioning to the strange floor, the precariously hanging mirror ball on the ceiling, and the gutted bar. “Now, it’s ours.”
“And we dance all night!” Mohsen yelled, jumping up onto the raised dancefloor and striking a pose. Shahab whistled at him and tore off a corner of his sandwich to throw. Mohsen kicked the scrap back at him, catching him square in the eye. Anush and Ahmad burst out laughing, egging Shahab on as he clambered up on the dance floor and wrestled Mohsen to the ground, both boys throwing weak punches and kicks as they rolled around in the dust.
“They’re very bad at dancing,” Najma observed. Anush, who’d begun to take a sip of his pilfered soda, snorted it through his nose. Ahmad laughed again, prompting the other two to break apart and demand to know what was so funny.
“Najma here does not admire your skills,” Ahmad said as he stepped away and boosted himself up to have a seat on the bar. Shahab sat back on his heels and laughed while Mohsen hopped to his feet and puffed his chest out.
“Then let her test them!” he called, pointing a finger dramatically at Najma. “If you can put me on the floor, hamshira, you can redeem yourself for failing to steal some snacks. And you can have my soda!”
“And my sandwich,” Shahab offered, waving the half that was left. “I want to see this.”
“I add a candy bar to the pot!” Anush announced, waving his extra.
Ahmad laughed at them. “Look at this, Najma. All you have to do is make an embarrassment of Mohsen, which he does of himself every day, and you have a whole meal!”
Najma glanced from Ahmad to Anush to Shahab, expectant face after expectant face, then to Mohsen, who was hopping around a little foolishly. He threw a few short punches at the air and then squared up with a weird, pouty look, like that famous American boxer Najma had seen some of the agents watching a bootlegged tape of. Najma giggled and stepped up onto the floor. She paused a few feet away to consider her opponent.
“Come on, hamshira,” Mohsen teased, “or are you worried you’ll muss Ahmad’s beautiful scarf?”
“I am a little worried I’ll somehow make your face uglier,” Najma shot back, trying to imitate the stance she had seen Agent Ebrahimi use in the rare sparring practices with other agents she’d peeked in on. Body low, feet planted, nothing like the gleefully bouncing Mohsen. She waited for him to make the first move. After a tense moment of bored grumbling from their spectators, and on gauging the vaguely worried look on Mohsen’s face, she realized he wasn’t going to.
For all his bluster, he was afraid to start a fight with a girl.
Najma relaxed a little, stepping closer, which he seemed to take as her surrendering before they’d even begun. Mohsen opened his mouth, probably to laugh, and Najma struck. She grabbed for his belt and his collar, using just a little force and his own poor stance to throw him off balance and put him on the floor with a thud.
“Oho!” Shahab crowed, waving his sandwich in a way that endangered what was left of her prize. He seemed to choke on a bite and pounded on his own chest to force it to go down. “Mohsen, you clown!”
Anush cheered and threw the candy bar to her, which she caught as she stepped back. Mohsen lay on the ground looking up at the ceiling in shock.
“You barely touched me!” he yelled, affronted. Najma laughed.
“I’m not as strong as you,” she said, “but I think I’m smarter. Did you think you were Rocky or a rabbit, with all that bouncing?”
“I’m a hero,” Mohsen grumbled.
“You look like it,” Ahmad teased. He waved to Najma. “Leave him to die, Najma. Collect your spoils.”
Najma stepped down from the dancefloor and walked over to take a seat on the bar with Ahmad after collecting the bit of sandwich Shahab left for her and Mohsen’s blue drink. The few hours they had passed quickly as they snacked and Najma watched an only slightly more impressive struggle between Anush and Shahab for Anush’s remaining candy bar. Mohsen snagged one of the Maglites and shined it on the dangling disco ball as they fought, casting glittering reflections over every surface.
It was too soon when Ahmad glanced down at his wrist and whistled for attention. The sky when they made their way out of the old disco was completely black and Najma’s heart clenched in her chest. Was it too late? But Anush gave her a slap on the back.
“We’ll creep back like mice,” he said as they started the trek back to their homes. Ahmad peeled off first, then Shahab and Mohsen, who, surprisingly, did manage a degree of silence Najma hadn’t thought possible from the squabbling boys. Then she and Anush were back at her home and he was grinning at her, teeth and blind eye shining under the streetlight.
“Next time, I won’t come talk to you,” he said. “Just listen for the whistle.”
“Are you going to teach me how to whistle like that?” she demanded. He laughed.
“Teach yourself, hamshira,” he said. “From what we saw tonight, you have talents no one could have guessed.”
Then he turned and took off running, disappearing into a dim alley behind two houses.
Najma squirmed through the fence into her yard, landing on her feet and ducking over to her khimar, still draped over the doll. She kicked the toys away and tugged it on as fast as she could and threw herself down. Her heart raced. There were still sounds coming from the living area, but they were much quieter. Had she been found out? No, someone would’ve fetched her khimar in, surely. She sat on the grass, the night finally cold enough to make her shiver, and looked out over the city again. Night had truly fallen and the city was no longer full of shadows, but dusted with glittering lights in a thousand different colors.
The door to the kitchen slid open behind her.
“Najma, it’s time to come in,” the maid called, softly. Najma got up and dusted herself off with shaking hands. As she approached the house the maid gave her a smile. “Did you have fun in the yard, little one?”
Najma’s voice quailed from answering. She’d practiced reciting falsehoods for Agent Ebrahimi a thousand times, but none of her learned smoothness was coming to her. She glanced inside at the bottles washed and lined up in the kitchen to be broken and disposed of in the morning.
There was no alcohol in the house. She was the daughter of a rich Tehrani family. She was a normal little girl.
Najma took a breath and beamed up at the maid.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I always have fun in the yard, even on my own.”
“I know you do,” the maid cooed, pulling her inside, “which is the only reason I allow it. Your parents, I swear… But that is nothing. Go up to bed, Najma. Remember your du’a.”
Najma ascended the stairs as the last of her shakes faded, padding past the doors to the separate rooms of her false mâmân and bâbâ. She entered her room and shut the door. Her back against it, she lifted her hands out from under her khimar and buried her face in them with a smile. They smelled of hyacinth and chocolate.
Later that night, if one stood closely against her closed door and strained to hear past the muffling blankets Najma piled over herself, they might have caught a few wavering notes. Just a quiet sound against the background noise of the city at night, like a bird dying in the street.
Or someone learning to whistle.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 2015 | REHOSTED 7/12/2022