The Super Secret International American Time Box
The strangest story I ever heard while working as a police liaison was from this schizophrenic Iraq War veteran who took a bunch of hostages at a Whataburger on Christmas morning two years ago in Houston, Texas. She was convinced that she was a time traveler.
Usually, my Christmas tradition is to spend the entire holiday high as a hawk, watching old cartoons and eating breakfast cereal. I fucking hate Christmas. I close down my office and I tell all my patients that I am spending time with my family.
In fact, this particular Christmas, I was more depressed than I had been since junior high school. I was not actually suicidal yet, but I could feel suicidal coming, the same way that people up north start feeling the winter coming as soon as the leaves start turning brown. When the phone rang, I was lying on the floor, naked, going over all the mistakes that I had made in my life.
However, instead of throwing my cell phone at the wall, I checked the number. I was too depressed to fight my cell phone.
“Oh wow,” I said when I saw who it was. “Police business.”
I felt a small squirt of joy in my brain, like mustard squeezed into a tub of lukewarm bathwater. I sat up and crossed my legs and answered the phone.
“You were the last name on the list,” said the detective in charge, somebody named Ramirez. “If you didn’t answer, we were going to have to fly somebody here from Austin.”
“I’m on my way,” I said, already slipping a pair of cow-spotted boxer shorts over my pasty thighs.
The Whataburger parking lot was full of cop cars and ambulances. I threaded my way through the madness, holding my driver’s license high above my head and asking every police officer I saw for Detective Ramirez. I found him in front of the Whataburger entrance, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup as big as my face and filling out paperwork. Beside him was a SWAT team guy wearing a backwards baseball cap and squinting through the scope of a rifle.
“You the hostage negotiator?” asked Detective Ramirez without looking up from his clipboard.
Detective Ramirez was clearly a control freak trapped in a preanal state. Every button on his uniform shined. He had one of those mustaches that must be clipped and combed three times a day. Taking care of such a mustache was like taking care of a newborn.
“Sure, I can negotiate,” I said. “I’m the mental health liaison.”
“You were the last name on the list,” he said. “Sorry we had to wake you up. I know that it is Christmas.”
“What’s the situation?” I asked.
A young cop who looked like he was fourteen came up behind me and lifted my arms up, pushing my shirt up to my neck. He held a microphone to my sternum with one hand and then spooled electrical tape around my torso. Finally, he slid a bullet-proof vest over my head and cinched the straps tight across my chest.
“The perp is an unidentified Arab woman in there with a pistol,” said Detective Ramirez. “She’s got everybody in that place down on the floor with Whataburger bags over their heads and she’s saying that she’s not coming out until Christmas is over. She says she won’t shoot anyone if we don’t bother her, and that on December 26th she’ll come out quietly.”
“We want to deal with this as quickly as possible,” said the SWAT team guy without looking away from his scope. “Nobody wants to spend Christmas in this parking lot.”
A true sociopath. He probably had a very lovely wife and very lovely children.
“How many hostages?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” said Detective Ramirez. “That’s why we’re sending you in.”
“She said we could send someone in to make sure that the hostages are safe. She won’t know you are a psychologist. Find out everything you can. Get her trust. We’ll be listening. If something goes wrong or we see an opportunity, we will rush in there and take her out.”
I’d only been involved in a few police operations since I’d agreed to work as a mental health liaison between the police department and the Houston State Hospital. I had talked a man out of shooting himself, and I had talked a woman out of stabbing her husband to death at a Little League game by yelling platitudes from a negotiation textbook until she relented and broke down sobbing.
“Are you sure I’m qualified to do this?” I asked.
“I’m not risking any of my own men,” said Detective Ramirez, looking up from his clipboard for the first time. “This is your job, isn’t it?”
“If you say so,” I said.
“You’re not chickenshit, are you?” asked the fourteen-year-old cop.
I looked at him over my shoulder. A suppressed homosexual with a reverse Oedipal complex. I smirked at him. I knew that he wanted to fuck me for displaying weakness but that he would hit me instead if given half the chance.
“Of course I’m not chickenshit,” I said. “I just don’t want any of the hostages to get hurt.”
“My kids are going to wake up soon and open their presents,” said the SWAT team officer. “I want to be there when they do.”
After another briefing about protocol, I walked across the parking lot toward the entrance to the Whataburger, shielding my eyes from the police floodlights with my forearm. Then I stood in front of the doors, holding my hands out in front of me, trying to look as non-threatening as possible. I peered through the dark windows, looking for signs of life.
“WE’RE SENDING SOMEONE IN,” yelled Detective Ramirez through a bullhorn.
I took a deep breath and opened the door.
The Whataburger was in utter disarray. There were upended trays and smashed hamburgers all over the floor, and there were thirteen people huddled down in front of the cash register with big white Whataburger bags pushed down over their heads.
The “perp” was standing on top of the prep counter, holding a handgun and wearing a rubber Saddam Hussein mask. She kept her pistol pointed at me as I slowly made my way across the restaurant.
“Stop,” she said. “Don’t come any closer.”
I held up my hands and tried to smile.
“I’m here to check on the hostages and to make sure that they are okay,” I said. “Please don’t shoot me.”
“I’m not going to shoot anyone,” she said. “If you do what I say.”
She leaned forward, still keeping the gun pointed at my chest.
“You’re not a cop,” she said finally.
I didn’t answer her.
“As you can see, the hostages are fine,” she said, climbing down from the prep counter and walking toward me without lowering her gun. “But that’s not why you’re really here. You’re here to assess the situation and to see if I can be reasoned with. Listen, those cops are going to have to shoot me or let me stay in here until Christmas is over, and that’s all there is to it.”
“Why don’t you let some of these hostages go, then?” I said. “Do you really need thirteen hostages? Wouldn’t five hostages be better?”
“They are fine,” she said. “I am letting them eat as much Whataburger as they want, as long as they don’t move or talk.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked. “What do you have against Christmas?”
She took off her Saddam Hussein mask and licked her lips, allowing me to take a good look at her. She was fine-featured and pretty, with dark skin and pink lips and big bright black eyes. She looked sleep-deprived, but not haggard.
“You are Indian,” I said. “Muslim, from Mumbai.”
“Wrong,” she said. “Atheist, from Memorial. My mom and dad both work for NASA.”
“What’s your name?” I asked. “You can tell me.”
“You can call me Priya,” she said.
I held out my hand for her to shake and she pointed her gun at it.
“Put your hand down,” she said. “I think it’s time for you to get out of here.”
“Wait,” I said. “You were right. I’m not a cop. I’m a psychologist. And I’m going to tell them that you don’t seem crazy at all.”
“I just want to get through Christmas,” said Priya.
“Hey, me too,” I said. “I fucking hate Christmas.”
She smiled at me sadly. It was true: she didn’t seem crazy. In fact, she seemed very calm and intelligent. But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t dangerous.
The more intelligent a schizophrenic is, the tighter they weave the narrative net that keeps them a prisoner of their own fantasies. Smart people outsmart themselves.
The more charismatic they are, the more they reach for plausible fictions that will convince others. They confirm the errors of their psychotic state by spreading these errors to willing believers.
Then there is the third case. The rare case. If a schizophrenic is both extremely intelligent and extremely charismatic, then you see the kind of rare psychological phenomena that steers civilization. You see the awakening of new religions. You see the birth of new artistic media. Treating these people is difficult, if not outright impossible. Genius and illness become one and the same, and the medical duty “to cure” runs right up against the scientific duty “to know.”
“Listen,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me what you want and then maybe we can release a few of these guys back to their families? Do you really need all of these hostages? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Priya stared at me. She stared at me for so long that I became uncomfortable and my palms started to itch.
“I should tell you why,” said Priya to herself. “I should tell someone. This might be my last chance.”
I didn’t interrupt her.
She walked behind the Whataburger counter where there was a pot of cold coffee sitting on a cold industrial hot plate. She poured the cold coffee into the water reservoir of the coffee maker and then dumped two bags of coffee into the filter armature, recycling the old coffee for a fresh pot. After only a few seconds, the coffee began to drip as black and thick as demon blood.
“This is how we used to make coffee in Fallujah,” she said, crossing the restaurant and then sliding into one of the Whataburger booths.
“You were in Iraq?”
Instead of answering me, Priya indicated that I should slide into the booth opposite her, waving her handgun at me as casually as waving a flag.
I sat down and looked over at the rows of hostages. They were all patiently sitting there with bags over their heads, neither speaking nor moving.
A few of them were shivering, probably from the adrenalin that was running through their body. You could tell they were terrified. The whole restaurant smelled like fear sweat and urine.
We listened to the coffee brew for a moment and then there was a crackling noise and Priya jumped up and pointed the gun across the restaurant.
But it was only a water bug scurrying awkwardly across the counter. The water bug fell to the floor, then scrambled into the kitchen and disappeared.
“You’d think they’d keep this place more clean,” said Priya.
“It doesn’t matter how clean they keep it,” I said. “I worked at a McDonald’s when I was in high school. No matter how much they fumigate, every single fast food restaurant must be completely renovated every five years because they are utterly infested with vermin. This is policy. Usually, the food at these places is stored in frozen bags so that the roaches don’t end up in the burgers. Usually.”
“Iraqi restaurants are so clean,” Priya reminisced. And then: “Tell me the truth, are you wearing a wire?”
“Yes,” I said.
I didn’t see any point in lying.
“Now you tell ME the truth,” I said. “Why do you hate Christmas so much?”
Priya smiled. And then she stopped smiling.
“Twenty years ago, on Christmas morning, I was abducted by a woman who was dressed all in black and who raped me with her rough fingers and took away my only virginity,” said Priya, staring at me without blinking, trying to see how I would react.
I didn’t say anything.
“I had just woken up and I was bleary and excited to open my presents, because even though my parents did not believe in any God, they still loved to celebrate Christmas,” said Priya. “My parents were still asleep, and I was walking from my bedroom to the living room when the woman came up behind me. I did not know what was happening. She clamped a strong hand over my mouth and pulled me into our hall closet, which was more empty than usual since all of the decorations stored there were now all over the house, including our fake Christmas tree. The woman was fast and strong and I never saw her face, though I remember that her cheeks were wet as if she had been crying. She got my pajama pants down around my ankles and then she lubed me up. She kept her fingers in my mouth the whole time and I did not think to bite her until everything was done. There was not as much blood as you would expect and it was over before I knew what was really going on. I lay there with my pajama pants around my ankles, sobbing for what seemed like hours, and by the time my parents found me, the woman was long gone.”
I tried not to show any facial expression while Priya talked. Something told me that showing sympathy was not a good idea. What she was saying was not something I should pretend that I understood anything about.
“I spent the rest of Christmas at the police station, talking to a police psychologist while my terrified parents wept and cursed themselves. The police never discovered my attacker. The woman who raped me left no physical evidence behind and the police could not even figure out how she had gotten into our house. Suspicion fell on my own mother and father. This sent each of them into a panic, planting seeds of doubt against each other. However, nothing could be done and no charges were filed, and so we were all forced to cope with what had happened without any answers. We moved away from our urban Houston home to the suburbs, where my father installed a massive security system and bought many firearms. The tensions between my mother and father became unbearable, though they stayed married that first year. I became more and more withdrawn, retreating into my one true love, science.”
Priya was silent, as if waiting for me to say something.
“That’s horrible,” I said finally. “The only reason I don’t like Christmas is because it makes me lonely.”
“That’s not all,” Priya said. “It didn’t stop. The next year on Christmas morning, I was raped again.”
Priya studied me. I swallowed and put both my hands on the table.
You must never call a schizophrenic a liar. They believe what they are saying, no matter how impossible. Even if they know themselves to be liars, their words have a special magic to them that must not be contradicted.
“This time, it was more brutal,” said Priya. “My parents were afraid that Christmas would be a dark time for me, and so they did everything in their power to make me feel good and special. My mother slept beside me in case I had nightmares and my father stayed awake in the living room, drinking whiskey and keeping a lookout. When I woke up, my mother held my hand, taking me to open presents as if I were a puppy on a leash. Our new living room in the suburbs was much bigger and much more lavish, and I got so many presents that I thought they would never end. My parents were so happy that I was enjoying myself. Then, when I went to go change clothes in the bathroom so that we could go visit my Aunt Naden and Uncle Joe, the same woman was waiting for me behind the shower curtain. I tried to scream, but she grabbed my neck, killing my voice in my throat like popping a soap bubble. She bent me over the bathtub and had her way with me, stuffing a washcloth in my mouth. I knew it was the same woman. She smelled the same, like sandalwood and roses.”
Priya watched me carefully and then she got up from the booth and walked across the restaurant. The coffee was done brewing and she poured cups for both of us.
“Would you like some onion rings?” she asked me. “There are onion rings still leftover here in the hopper.”
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Would anybody else like any onion rings?” she asked.
All of the hostages shook their heads, making the Whataburger bags rustle like wrapping paper.
Priya brought the coffee over to our booth along with a basket of cold onion rings.
“My mother and father got divorced after that,” said Priya. “They each blamed the other for what had happened to me. There was another police investigation. Once again, the police couldn’t come to any conclusions and didn’t have any physical evidence or suspects. Nearly every adult in my life was interviewed, but the police were not able to pin the blame on anyone that I knew. I was insistent that the rapist was a woman, but they found this hard to believe and kept asking me over and over again if I was sure.”
Priya ate an onion ring and looked out the windows of the Whataburger, squinting at the flashing lights.
“I don’t like police very much,” said Priya. “I’m glad you are not police.”
“Me too,” I said.
“As a result of my second Christmas rape, I withdrew from the world even further. Yet, I felt my powers of perception and reason increase by tenfold. My parents took me out of school and I was allowed to study whatever I wanted. I added another obsession to my obsession with science: I became obsessed with war and combat. When I was not studying science or reading science fiction books, I was studying military history and martial tactics. These are strange subjects for an eleven-year-old girl -- even in Texas. Yet, my parents were both very encouraging, too proud to force me to live a normal life. I excelled in my standardized tests and I quickly advanced to college levels in the sciences.”
“The third time that I was raped on Christmas morning, I didn’t even tell anyone about it. I was expecting it. In fact, I spent that entire year training for it. I trained to fight. I trained on the little boys in my neighborhood, kicking the shit out of them, always more vicious and cunning than they could ever imagine. I was in a state of feral panic by the time Christmas rolled around. Yet, there was nothing I could do against my seemingly supernatural opponent. While I was moving from one room to the next -- out of my mother’s sight for only the blink of an eye -- the woman swooped down from the ceiling, carrying me into the backyard and forcing me down in a pile of cedar chips behind some sweet olive bushes.
“I dusted myself off and went back inside, not letting myself cry this time. When my mother asked me where I had gone, I didn’t tell her anything. In fact, I never told my parents about my Christmas assaults ever again. I knew that no one could help me now but myself.”
I tried not to stare at Priya in disbelief. As far as I was concerned, there were only two explanations: either she had imagined all of this, or her parents had conspired to serially rape their own daughter every Christmas morning during her childhood. Either one of these possibilities was difficult to imagine.
“For several years after that, I didn’t even fight back. I studied physics and I tried to be reasonable. When I turned fifteen, I tried to figure out if it was possible to negotiate with the woman. I tried to figure out who she was and what she wanted, though she always wore dark sunglasses or a mask. On my fifteenth Christmas, while she was raping me in my bedroom full of action figures and lab notebooks, I begged her to stop, asking her question after question which she would not answer.”
“I spent my sixteenth year ravaged by depression and anxiety. I tried to kill myself several times, but there was always something to save me at the last possible second. Someone would come home and find me or I would discover that all the pills that I took were expired and no longer effective. I’ve never felt so miserable: I had visions of vultures dropping out of the sky to tear me apart and feast on my dead heart and dead brains. Slowly, however, ever so slowly, my depression began to change. It transformed into something worse: a ravenous blood lust that I could neither control nor satisfy. The year that I turned twenty, I vowed to myself that I would never get raped again.”
Priya punctuated this by pointing the gun at my forehead, clutching the grip with both hands.
“When suicidal turns to homicidal, that’s when you know you’re getting better,” I suggested.
She lowered the gun.
“Perhaps,” said Priya. “Luckily, however, the year that I turned twenty was also the year that everything changed. That was the year that I made my amazing scientific discovery. That was the year that I discovered how to travel through time.”
I blinked. I did not expect this one. It is always a sad thing when a tale of trauma becomes a tale of insanity. We see the damage so clearly, yet it is invisible to the one whose heart is suffering.
“You discovered time travel?” I said.
“Yes,” said Priya. “Because my parents both worked for NASA, and because I was a young female physics prodigy, I was able to go wherever I wanted in NASA’s research facility. I knew all the secret pass-codes and I knew all of the dankest corners where the most interesting things would wash up. One day, in a restless fugue, I went exploring in one of the subbasements, looking for things that went into space during the Apollo missions. I wanted to hold something in my hands that had once been on the moon. Perhaps I thought that something from another world would cure me. I did not find anything from the moon. However, there in that dank subbasement, I uncovered something better. I found NASA’s Super Secret International American Time Box, codenamed “Project Pocketwatch.”
“I see,” I said. “A time machine.”
“It wasn’t a real time machine,” said Priya. “At least, it wasn’t supposed to be. It was a science joke, based on discredited theories and silly thought games.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Super Secret International American Time Box was a gag created by aerospace scientists in the seventies who were trying to amuse themselves while working on a ballistic missile defense shield. They drew up the plans and then got some engineers to weld it together one weekend while blitzed on Texas liquor and Mexican cocaine. They presented the time box to a Senate subcommittee as a joke when the committee came to look at their laser array. After everyone had a good laugh and the Senators left, they put the time box in storage, next to old crates of forgotten moon buggies and rocket suits. But then I found it again.”
“What is it?”
“It’s just a big aluminum box with a digital clock inside that is attached to a car battery. There is a metal sign on the outside that says “Super Secret International American Time Box” in big stencil letters.”
“When I first found it, the time box was littered in empty beer cans and old condoms. I threw away all the beer cans, but I had to pry the condoms from the walls with a metal spatula. They were as hard as plaster.”
“And how does this time machine work?”
“It doesn’t work,” said Priya. “It’s a joke. There are no moving parts. The idea is that those who sit inside the time box and who are fated to travel through time will have a place to do it. The idea is that the laws of causality are so unbreakable that building a place that “might as well be a time machine” is just as good as building an actual time machine. The idea is that the only people who would ever be able to travel through time are people who already did and so there is no need to make anything fancy. A big aluminum box with a digital clock on it is good enough.”
“So it was a joke,” I said.
“Yes,” said Priya. “A science joke about causality. But I didn’t see it as a joke. I saw it as an answer to my prayers.”
“Well, I believed in it,” said Priya. “As soon as I discovered the box, I knew it was exactly what I needed. I realized that I wanted nothing more in the world than to go back into the past and face my demons. I wanted to travel back in time to that first Christmas and find out what had happened to me and why. I wanted answers and I wanted revenge.”
“But the time box wasn’t real,” I said. “It was a joke.”
“I visited the time box every day,” said Priya. “I brought candles and icons. I sat in the time box and I prayed to Ganesh and Buddha and Mohammed and I made deals with the Christian God and the Christian Devil. I did yoga in there and I chanted in Latin and I did mushrooms. I spent an entire weekend on my knees in the time box, praying rosaries and weeping. I knew it would work eventually. It had to work. I was out of options. And then one day it did work. One day, I stepped out of the box, and it wasn’t 2010 anymore. It was the year 2000. The Iraq War had not yet started. Everyone was talking about the Internet. My prayers had been answered.”
“Priya, I don’t think…there’s no way…”
“I know I wasn’t the first person to travel through time,” said Priya. “For instance, in 1898 a man named Morgan Robertson wrote a novel called “Futility.” The book is about a massive, unsinkable ocean liner named the “Titan” which hits an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sinks, killing all of the indigent people on board because there are not enough lifeboats. The novel “Futility” was written 14 years before the sinking of the “Titanic.”
“A coincidence…” I said. “A big fat coincidence.”
“No, I think there must have been some kind of time box on the “Titanic,” said Priya. “While the ship was sinking, some poor illiterate woman got into the time box and traveled to the past. She tried with all her power to prevent the building of the “Titanic,” but no one would listen to her except some hack novelist. Perhaps this time traveler worked so hard trying to prevent the “Titanic” that she inspired investors to build the monstrosity in the first place.”
“Priya, just because some asshole wrote a book, that doesn’t mean…”
“I bet many time travelers don’t even know they are time travelers,” said Priya. “It happens to them at the same time that their mind breaks. They know they must fix something. They know something must be stopped or prevented. But they are driven insane by the paradoxes. They don’t know how to act when they arrive in the past or in the future and so they are useless. They become complete psychos.”
Priya picked up the last onion ring and then crunched it with her mouth open, staring into space. I shifted in my seat, nervous, not knowing what to say.
“But I did not become a complete psycho,” said Priya. “I knew exactly what to do. I had a year until Christmas, and I wanted to make the most of my time by learning how to destroy my attacker. Also, I knew there was a war coming, and I wanted to be a part of it, so I went out and joined the Army. I was not able to serve in a combat unit, but I went through basic training and went into communications. I learned how to do recon and I learned how to use a gun. I learned stealth and surprise. I was not afraid of anyone, and I knew that my attacker would be no match for me now. Also, I knew exactly where my attacker would be, and I knew that she would not be expecting me. This time, she would be the victim.
“I got out of the army for Christmas vacation and I went home to Houston. I treated myself like a recon target, looking for clues and trying to find the woman who ruined my life. I kept my distance and I was very discreet. It was easy. After all, who knew my habits and my family better than me? I saw things that I shouldn’t have seen. I saw my young parents make love late at night as I peered through their blinds. I watched myself sleeping, as innocent and pure as milk. I envied my younger self, but I knew I had to protect her. She was precious. She was perfect.”
I wondered who Priya had really been watching. What young girl had really been the object of her sick desires?
“As Christmas approached, I grew more and more anxious. I found no trace of anyone stalking me. There was no evidence of anything out of the ordinary in my life. This indicated that my rapist had been a random stranger. All these years, I had at least taken comfort in the idea that my attacker had some special relationship with me, even if I couldn’t understand it. But now I tried to come to terms with the idea that I wasn’t special at all. I was just a name picked out of a hat. This made me even angrier, and it hardened my resolve to punish my assailant.”
“I could travel backwards through time, but I couldn’t slow it down, and so Christmas Day finally arrived. I broke into my house and hid myself, knowing now that I would have to catch my attacker in the act. I watched myself sleep for awhile, feeling even more bitter and angry at my perfect youth. I hid in my closet and saw myself wake up and rub my eyes. This child was so happy that Christmas had come. I watched myself put on clothes and stumble toward the living room where my presents waited.”
“As my younger self traversed the long hallway between the bedroom and the living room, I crept up behind her, tense as a snake, waiting for it to happen. Waiting for my rapist to arrive. I began to panic. I was almost to the end of the hall. What if there was no rapist? What if I had imagined everything? What if I was crazy?”
“Suddenly the truth came to me in a flash of blinding light that nearly knocked me unconscious. There had been no rapist. It had been me all along. In a surge of rage and confusion, I darted into my bathroom and grabbed a tube of Vaseline from the medicine cabinet. And then I pounced, grabbing myself and dragging myself into the hall closet.”
“It was such a release. Such bliss. I was no longer a victim! I had never been a victim. I had always been the attacker. My rape had all been an illusion. It was nothing but self-rape. It had never been anything but cruel, demented masturbation!”
Priya was ecstatic. There was froth on her lip.
“I was so happy that I began to weep. As my younger self struggled and screamed, pinned down like a butterfly, I took my own virginity with two stiff fingers and no remorse. All these years, my sexuality had been an angry abyss full of scorpions and darkness. But now, my sex was wet and throbbing. I knew sexual passion for the first time. I was in control. I got myself off with my other hand while defiling myself on the closet floor. I was fixed. I was pure. There had never been any physical evidence because we were one body and we shared the same DNA. One soul, split in half by time. And now I was whole again.”
As Priya talked, she grew more and more animated. She leaned closer to me. Her eyes were shining and moist. Her gun was forgotten in her hand.
“After that, I knew what my life would be like for the next ten years. I would be the greatest warrior of all time, because I knew for a fact that I could not die. I realized that there was no way to prevent anything bad from happening, but that I could definitely be a part of good things that had taken place. I tried to get myself assigned to a combat unit in Iraq, but the military wouldn’t listen to me. Still, I always volunteered for the most dangerous assignments and I got a reputation for being fearless, dependable, and extremely lucky. When Baghdad fell, I was assigned to guard the Mother of All Battles Mosque, where the coalition forces were keeping Saddam Hussein’s Blood Koran. Have you heard of the Mother of All Battles Mosque and the Blood Koran?”
“No,” I said.
“In order to commemorate his war with Iran, Saddam Hussein built a mosque with minarets shaped like SCUD missiles and the barrels of machine guns. He also had 127 pints of his own blood drawn and he commissioned a Koran to be written in this blood, in order to give thanks to Allah for his victory. He wanted to give Allah the blood that he should have lost in the war.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“The Blood Koran is beautiful,” said Priya. “The Arabic words seem to glow on the page with divine light. It is a masterpiece of calligraphy and design. However, after Baghdad fell, most Iraqis saw the Blood Koran as an abomination. Nobody knew what to do with it. The religious Iraqis were torn. Though it was an abomination for Saddam Hussein to write a Koran in his own blood, it was even more of an abomination to destroy a Koran. A compromise was reached. The Blood Koran was sealed away inside the Mother of All Battles Mosque behind three different giant steel doors. One key was given to the Imam of the mosque, one key was given to the chief of police, and one key was given to me.”
Priya reached into her shirt and brought out an ornate silver key that dangled between her breasts. It could have been a key for an old barn or a gym locker.
“When dignitaries would pass through town wanting a private viewing of the Blood Koran, the three of us would gather together to open the doors and let them in. Many people tried to steal the Blood Koran and many people tried to destroy it, but I defended it with my life and I made sure that it was always safe. I had a feeling about the Blood Koran. A “time” feeling. Why would the world’s greatest warrior be chosen to guard this book? I felt like the Blood Koran could be the precise thing that triggered a reformation in Islamic thought. It could be a catalyst for flexibility and subtlety in an otherwise coarse and inflexible religion.
“And every year, I received a furlough at Christmas, allowing me to return to Texas and continue my journey of healing. I knew that I would never be caught. I knew how my assaults had happened, and so I knew how they would happen again. The assaults were etched into my brain like blood into vellum.”
“This is madness,” I said.
“Which brings us to today,” said Priya. “To this current Christmas.”
“These hostages are terrified,” I said. “If we let a few of them…”
“During the past ten years, there was one question that still haunted me. What happened to me after I disappeared from the time box when I was twenty? Where did I go? Did people look for me? Did someone else come out again?”
“A logical question,” I said, resigning myself to the fact that we would never get anywhere until Priya was done telling her story.
“A very logical question,” said Priya. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to expect. All of my years of military training while working as a guard made it easy for me to break into NASA and stalk myself again. I was there, watching from behind a pillar on the day that my prayers were answered and I disappeared into the time box. I saw myself go in and then an hour later, there was a noise in the box. A clanging. And then I saw someone emerge.”
“It was me, of course. But it wasn’t me now or me from the past. It was me from ten years in the future. Me at age forty. I was so shocked that I left my hiding place. We saw each other. I wanted to ask her where she had come from. I wanted to know what would happen to me. But there was a fierceness in her eyes that made my words freeze on my lips. There was a horrible strength inside her. And I saw that she hated me. I knew that this woman -- me in ten years -- wanted me dead with every fiber of her creation. She stared at me, unblinking, and then she spoke."
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She merely said the word ‘Christmas,’” said Priya.
“Christmas,” I repeated.
“I’m not going to let her hurt me,” said Priya. “Never again. I have been hurt by her before, and I have done the hurting and so I know how easy it is. If she tries anything, I’ll kill one of these innocent people. I don’t care.”
“This doesn’t seem like a very good plan.”
“It is an act of desperation,” said Priya. “But it was all I could think of on such short notice.”
“Priya,” I said. “This is all in your mind. All of it. I don’t know what really happened to you, but if you were really a soldier in Iraq, then believe me there are things we can do for you. If you let everyone go and give yourself up, then a judge will…”
But I didn’t get to finish my sentence because right then a lot of things happened all at once. There was a flash of light and the doors blew open. The SWAT team came pouring in, and the hostages started screaming, ripping the bags from their faces and running in every direction.
Priya stood up on top of the table and started firing wildly at the doors of the Whataburger. The SWAT team returned fire, but Priya dropped down and found cover behind a trash can, managing to crawl into the Whataburger kitchen without taking a bullet.
I saw her go. I saw the SWAT team converge on the kitchen, but there was so much smoke and noise. I covered my ears and ran out of the Whataburger along with the other hostages, glad to be alive.
I was wrapped in a towel and taken to an ambulance. I must have been delirious for a time, because I don't remember anything.
Later -- much later -- they brought me a body.
It was her.
There were two gunshot wounds though her clavicle, inches apart.
It was definitely Priya, but there was something different about her that took me a few seconds to place. When I figured it out, I laughed like a lunatic and then clamped a hand over my mouth. Detective Ramirez stared at me, but I refused to tell him what I saw. Every reasonable bone in my body rebelled and I couldn’t say the words.
The dead woman they brought me to identify looked ten years older than the woman who had taken the hostages. Her eyes were harder. More haunted. More cold.
My head began to spin. Had there been a showdown in the Whataburger kitchen? Had Priya from the future cornered Priya from the past and lost a gunfight?
What would happen to Priya now, knowing that she would inevitably kill herself in the future and there was nothing she could do about it? Would she become this hard-eyed woman in front of me?
I reached down and pushed aside Priya’s collar. The key that had hung around her neck was missing.
“Is it her?” asked Detective Ramirez.
“Great,” he said. “Fantastic. Now go home. It’s Christmas. You did good work. All of the hostages are safe.”
I shook my head, trying to clear my mind.
“Did you hear her story?” I asked him. “Did you listen to what she said?”
“No,” said Detective Ramirez. “I was too busy trying to figure out how to kill her. Who cares about her story? She was one crazy bitch.”
Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I told all of my colleagues about the time traveler, asking them if they’d ever heard anything like it. No one had any advice for me, although everyone told me that I should publish the case study immediately, while it was still fresh in my mind.
I listened to the recording of our conversation over and over again, trying to corroborate every detail. Then the Army came and took my recording away and told me not to worry about it anymore.
I did what little research I was able to do. There were no records of any young women disappearing from NASA research facilities in the past ten years, nor in the past twenty. I looked at Priya’s police file and there were no records of any rapes, molestations, or assaults.
However, the Blood Koran was real, the book “Futility” was real, and after weeks and weeks of unanswered emails, I finally got somebody at NASA to admit that the Super Secret International American Time Box was real, too.
According to the record that I was able to put together, Priya had been unremarkable -- just another suburban Houston girl who had gone into the Army and then been shipped overseas in a time of crisis.
But had she also been the greatest warrior ever to live, charged with single-handedly guarding a sacred document that would someday change the world?
Or had she just been another lonely soul on Christmas Day, tired of it all, broken-hearted, and ready to die?
Or perhaps she had been both: a broken soul, made briefly whole again to serve a purpose, and then discarded when she was no longer useful to history, as disposable as fast food to the uncaring, brutally efficient universe.