Edward Hamlin is a native New Yorker who spent his formative years in Chicago. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he studied Sanskrit, classical Tibetan and Buddhist literature before embarking on a career developing software for human service agencies, with a special focus on child welfare. Edward's writing has been published widely and recognized with awards including Pushcart Prizes, Nelligan Prize for Fiction and 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Prize. Edward lives with his wife in the Colorado Rockies.
The film that made her famous was the film of her death. Shot from a jittery cell phone in a roaring soccer stadium, the audio flaring into distortion whenever a nearby onlooker would denounce her, the grainy clip made its international debut on a Saturday in late July. Early that morning it surfaced on a Dutch website used by pro-democracy dissidents to publish atrocities to the world, installed among reasoned petitions and smuggled tracts and photos of imprisoned writers, adding its heft to eyewitness accounts of staggering crimes in far-off places of suffering, in filthy back alleys and freezing cells and roadside ditches on market day. Though it was barely nine minutes long, her video was granted pride of place thanks to its newness and brutality, like a notorious killer making his first appearance in a prison exercise yard.
The arrival of the film was announced through a mass email that offered a synopsis of the events and a link to the stark footage. Many must have clicked that link, because within a few hours one could Google execution by stoning and pluck it from the very top of the results. Stepan, too, must have clicked the link: hunched over a battered desk that smelled of cigarette smoke and soured food, he’d have begun his day, horrifically, by witnessing the death of the only woman he’d ever loved. No doubt he opened the email from the human rights group with trepidation, well aware that in doing so he might be adding a dangerous data point to a file on some far-off server; he was no fool. But the subject heading on the email would have made it impossible for him to skip past it. This was an email that must be read, whatever the risk.
It wasn't that her name was mentioned in the message. It was the nature of the supposed crime that would have caught him up short: Woman stoned to death for interfaith relationship. This would have stopped him cold. And so he must have clicked through to the video and viewed the events from his rank and disorderly apartment in an American city five thousand miles from the stadium where she died, his breathing shallowed by a decade of incessant smoking, his stomach leaden with fear. It was not a video one should watch alone, but what was his alternative? He was always alone at heart. Or had been, until he’d met her.
As the chaotic footage unreeled and subtitles in two languages jerked across the bottom of the screen, he would have realized that it was not simply a case like hers, but was in fact her case. And therefore his own. He hadn’t known that there was a case against their love, but here she was—for it was plainly she—paying the ultimate, unspeakable price for both of them.
Did he look away as the events raced across his dusty laptop screen? Did he sob? Curse? Hold his breath until he could hold it no longer? All this is unknowable. Stepan would never recount that moment to anyone. He wouldn’t say a word about her brutal death. To this day his silence remains an insurmountable wall. All that can be said with certainty is that he bookmarked the video and vanished from sight within hours, lost forever to the handful of people who knew him. He left behind a computer littered with strange artifacts of his private passions, along with a bare mattress, an impoverished refrigerator and a peculiarly fastidious wardrobe of French-cuff shirts and cufflinks forged from the coins of a half-dozen countries. Though these oddments were the sum total of his earthly possessions, he seemed to have abandoned them without a second thought.
It came to light only later that on his way out the door he’d taken time to write checks for his monthly bills, stamp the envelopes and mail them at the corner box. This detail seemed the strangest of all, given what he did later that day. But the more his small circle of acquaintances considered it, the more sense it made. Stepan was a man rigorous in his attention to detail and loyal to his own idea of order. This idea of order may not have extended to keeping a tidy apartment or especially clean teeth, but it prevailed in all his dealings with the outer world, and despite his eccentricities there was no one who didn’t find him to be reliable and considerate. He was a man who met his obligations and whose word was his bond. There was a chivalrous, old-world air about him, as if he were an exiled aristocrat whose reduced circumstances had not in any way tarnished his good breeding.
And so perhaps it wasn’t out of character for him to pay his bills on that devastating morning. Perhaps that simple act seemed like a small rebellion against the chaos into which his heart had been thrown. He knew his responsibilities: he knew what he owed and to whom he owed it, and he’d leave his accounts in order because it was the right thing to do.
Once, six months or so before her death, Dori laughed and pointed out to Stepan that the bond between them was in equal measure sexual and digital. She too wrote software, and brilliantly. Her natural aptitude was obvious from the moment her elder brother clandestinely introduced her to computers. Her first great love was mathematics; computer programming was simply the continuation of mathematics by other means. It thrilled her that she could make an algorithm speak, announce its result on the screen. Her brother did his best to hunt down books that would help her, but books were hard to come by, especially books from the West, and so she was guided mostly by her wits and curiosity.
As she learned her craft she came to love not only her creations but also the tools that brought them to life. Like a linguist drawn to a primitive tongue, she soon abandoned the higher level programming languages for those that lay closest to the machine itself, those used to direct the limbic system of the battered laptop she hid in a different place each night. She was happiest while unraveling the genetic code of her hardware. When she got her first cellular phone—a cheap Hello Kitty knockoff in bright pink—she set herself the challenge of reprogramming it, and within a week she’d disassembled its simple operating system like an anatomist dissecting the tiny brain of an insect.
Now she could experiment freely. She reprogrammed the phone to display its menus in French, to trill its ringer every five minutes for no particular reason, to perform a half dozen meaningless tricks just to please her. Each small achievement was a delight. Months later, when her brother bought one of the first phones with a built-in camera, she borrowed it and delved into its more sophisticated operating system, extending her skills while staying close to the backbone of the machine, as always.
Though she couldn’t have known it, she was steadily becoming one of the best hackers in her country—not a trivial feat now that the state universities were grooming their top students to out-hack the best of the Americans, even the Ukrainians. The first crop of brilliant young men, and they were only men, had carried their new skills into government ministries desperate to block internet access and harvest email and otherwise throw digital razor wire around the nation. The young men were clever, but no cleverer than she was in the hidden laboratory of her bedroom. Only her brother had an idea of what she could do. Amir! Look at this! she’d call out indelight, springing from her room with her pink phone in hand, and with a few clicks of the keys another clever marvel would reveal itself. He was proud of his sister—deeply so—but warned her sternly to keep her skills to herself. It was not a time or place in which a young woman should reveal such genius, much less a young woman who was attractive and of marriageable age.
It was surprising, then, when her brother brought home a friend—someone he'd played soccer with when they were boys, but who’d since disappeared into the world—and after drawing the blinds insisted that she come out to the front room to meet him. She saw Stepan for the first time in a darkened apartment above a traffic circle clogged with buses and scooters and old Soviet-era cars: both of them dry-mouthed, both bowing their heads deferentially and then glancing up at the shy eyes across the room.
“You are two brilliant computer people,” her brother declared, as if no more need be said, and disappeared into the kitchen to make tea.
So it was left to them to discover for themselves that she was a passionate student who could not attend university—being a woman—and that he’d been sent to San Francisco as a teenager to spend a summer with his uncle, only to be stranded there by the Revolution. In the intervening years he’d gone to college and become an American citizen and now was visiting his mother country for the first time since that raucous and bloody and heartbreaking summer. Wasn’t it risky to come back? she asked in a nervous voice. He hoped not; he was traveling on an American passport because he was now an American. Time would tell, wouldn’t it? Avidly she listened to him talk on, her wide-set eyes focused on his mouth with its close-cut black goatee and full lips. It was the first time she’d been left alone with a man who wasn’t a relative. She liked the way he spoke, his slight formality and gentle voice, the American words and gestures he tossed off so lightly, as if she would understand. He spoke his native language perfectly but with a faint accent that sweetened it in unexpected ways. He was a foreigner, but at the same time not a foreigner at all. There was a reasonableness about him that marked him as a man who came from a world in which men were not always right.
After only a few minutes in his presence she felt that she already knew a fragment of his true heart. She could sense his kindness, his reserve, his intelligence, and was already hungry to hear more of his stories. His life had been more interesting than hers. He had gotten out, even if he hadn’t intended to, and knew the world; before moving to Chicago he’d worked in Silicon Valley, which, as he patiently explained to her, was the center of the digital universe. She repeated the name of the place back to him as best she could, making him smile.
When her brother returned with the tea and they began to talk about software, they discovered that their intellectual passions were almost perfectly aligned. He too was an expert in firmware, the Ur-code that controlled the machine itself. For a few unguarded moments they compared notes on the rigors of learning machine language and shrinking the footprint of drivers and embedding micro-databases, until her brother threw back his head and laughed, teacup and saucer in his hand, delighted by all the inscrutable banter.
“You see?” Amir said to his guest. “I told you my little sister was a genius just like you. But a woman!”
It would be left to their next meeting—this one in a shuttered fabric shop owned by a friend of her brother’s who’d been arrested some months before—for her to produce her pink phone and show off a few of the tricks she'd taught it to perform. It rang on command when she said a certain word; vibrated to the rhythm of a popular song; flashed its display with a stutter when she pressed a particular key. In a final tour de force it spelled out, almost perfectly, ten words she spoke into its microphone.
“That's fantastic!” he said, genuinely impressed. For a long moment they watched one another at close range in the muted light at the back of the shop, a certainty growing in each of them, until he said he needed to tell her something.
“Anything,” she said, and stifled a giggle.
“I'm a Christian.”
At this she tilted her head back as if to regard him from a higher vantage point. He saw her thoughts written on her dark forehead. He saw the calculations, the analysis, the problem seeking its solution. And then he saw her eyes brighten in the half-light, the scent of the stacked silks and cotton bales suddenly intoxicating. In an instant of recklessness she took his hand in hers and brought it to her cheek.
“Why should that matter unless you're already falling in love with me?” she asked in a hush, like a woman in a banned romantic film. “Have you considered,” she asked, “that you might be falling in love with this simple girl?”
And so it begins. He’s staying for only three weeks and there is no time to lose. They meet every night, each time in a different place: in her brother's Renault with the tinted windows, parked in the garage beneath her building; in an abandoned guard house behind the boarded-up girl's academy; among the hyacinth bushes down along the river, with the coolness of the water at hand and the birds shuffling sleepily in the trees. They are very careful, knowing the consequences of discovery, because what they are doing is illegal and deeply against the grain of the regime.
They both know that as an American citizen he is in some degree immunized against harm. If they’re found out, he’ll be expelled from the country, leaving her to face the authorities alone. And so in his impeccable way he reins her in whenever she’s about to take an unnecessary risk—walking half a block beside him before parting, for example, or giggling a little too loudly. He quells her with a finger to her flushed lips because he knows she’s risking everything just to be with him.
Stepan is astounded by her courage. She is young and a little hot-headed, but also fearless. Her self-confidence is arresting. If he were in her place, he would not be able to do this night after night. Perhaps not even once.
One moonless evening they’re thrown into panic when they realize that the glow of the laptop is illuminating them through the grimy window of the defunct machine shop that is their temporary hiding place. They’ve already made love—she brings an embroidered comforter to all their meetings, spreading it on whatever patch of floor they can find—and now he’s been teaching her the basics of cryptography, showing her how to unravel the code that wraps an internet transmission in a sleeve of security. It’s a skill that has been inaccessible to her because the internet is inaccessible to her. Sitting on stools in the dreary shop, the laptop poised before them on a scarred workbench, they’ve been too absorbed to realize that the screen is throwing a nimbus of faint blue light around them, framing a perfect portrait of their criminal union.
Suddenly he swears in English and slams the laptop shut, pulling her down to the cement floor.
“It's okay,” she whispers. “There's no one around here at night. It's just a factory district.” She touches his lips with her fingers. When she tries to kiss him he pulls away in distraction. Only gradually does she calm him down, and at a certain point it all spills out—his terror that they’ll be discovered, his deepest fears for her, his loneliness and pain in knowing that it will be impossible for them to create any semblance of a normal life. She rocks him, crouching in the pink tennis shoes he's bought her at the bazaar, and is astounded to realize that he is crying.
She doesn't know what to make of it. Men do not cry over women in her world. For a moment it’s almost offensive to her, but she quickly decides that this is another sign of his wonderful difference, his strangeness and magic. She kisses his tears to see how the tears of a man taste.
As the days of his visa dwindle, their talk turns more and more to the future. At first he says they shouldn’t discuss it, but then he says they must. Their love is too real to be abandoned.
They pick apart cases they're familiar with, stories and rumors they've heard. The young man who attended medical school in Leningrad and was permitted to marry and emigrate after first serving a two-year stint in the army—in the course of which, regrettably, he was shot in the genitals and left sterile. The gay son of a notorious profiteer whose exit papers were obtained through extravagant graft. The orphan girl who was permitted to leave the country to marry a rich Chinese businessman three times her age. None of these cases yields anything useful for their own.
“Maybe we need false papers,” he suggests after some thought. “False papers wrapped in money.”
“What kind of papers?” she asks.
“An American marriage license. A fake American passport for you. There must be a way to buy these things here.”
She twines her fingers through his nervously, looking away. In a small voice she says: “Do you know what they do to women here when they arrest them?” He sees that she’s trying to hide her tears, but they come through in her voice. “What could I say to my family afterwards? What would happen to them?”
He’s been away from his native culture for so long that he’s almost forgotten this second dimension, the public shaming. In America it would be far down the list of worries. But what jars him is an image that flashes through his mind: Dori in a stifling, fluorescent-lit room in the bowels of a police station, naked and bruised and terrified, some government thug buckling his belt and laughing. Stepan lays a hand on her cheek and finds it moist. “No,” he says, “I can’t stand the thought of you being hurt. It’s too much to ask.”
Dori meets his eyes, her gaze suddenly clear and sharp.
“It isn’t that,” she says. “I don't care what happens to me. They can tear me apart if they want to. But I won’t shame my family. I can’t. Do you understand?”
“Of course I do. Of course.” For him it is not about her family’s reputation, but her safety. It doesn’t matter that they read the danger differently: they’re each entitled to their fears. For some minutes they hold each other, lost in thought, Stepan silently talking himself out of the idea of forged papers. As she breathes lightly in his arms, her skin redolent of almond soap, he brings himself around to her point of view, if not for her precise reasons.
He is shocked, then, when she says: “But maybe we wouldn’t be caught. People must do it all the time. I don’t know how to judge the risk. How would we know?”
“It’s too dangerous, Dori. We can’t.”
“We can try.”
She wipes her tears away deftly and does her best to smile. “We shouldn’t rule anything out, my love. Why assume the worst?”
He wants to trust her. Her courage leaves him little choice, but his gut tells him to tread very carefully. He says, “Okay. Maybe. I’ll try not to rule it out yet.” It’s the most he can promise.
They agree to confide in her brother. He tells them that the idea of using false papers is a death sentence, pure and simple.
“Do you think those guys are stupid?” he says hotly. “They’re wise to this kind of thing. They’ll see through it in a heartbeat and it will be the end of you.”
“What about if some money changes hands?” Stepan asks.
Her brother shakes his head. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on who checks your papers. You have the corrupt guys, but you also have the zealots in all the ministries, posted out at the airport for this very reason. Everyone’s being watched. You can’t count on buying your way out.”
“But sometimes it does work?”
Her brother flings his hands in the air, exasperated with his stubborn American friend. “You don’t know how it is here. You’ve been away too long. You asked me for my opinion. Now you’ll do what you’ll do. Just don’t get my little sister killed, Stepan. Don’t.”
Later, alone with her lover in a darkened grocery warehouse, Dori says: “We can’t risk it, Stepan. Happiness isn’t being murdered together, you know. You shouldn’t worry about me here.” She kisses his mouth, his serious eyes. “It won't always be like this. The government will change, things will loosen up. We’ll be together. We have to be patient, that's all. Won't you wait for me?”
They spend almost the whole night in each other's arms, tender and devastated, mice scurrying among the barrels of olives and hundred-kilo sacks of flour and green festival banners rolled up and tied with ribbon. Just before dawn Stepan sends her home through the shadowy streets and goes off to slip through the loading dock of his hotel. He knows to conceal his movements in the city. So it’s with alarm that he opens the door of his room to discover a piece of paper on the floor at his feet—an irregularity in a place where irregularities are nearly always a warning—but it’s only a letter in risible English expressing the hotel's wish that he’s enjoying a pleasant stay. He climbs into bed and lights a cigarette, his hands shaking, his heart in pieces. In three days he’ll go home. In three days they’ll both be alone again.
She won’t see him now. It’s her brother who delivers the message that she can't bear the pain of a last meeting, that she knows it's for the best. “I'm sorry,” Amir says, touching his shoulder. “I'll keep talking to her, try to bring her around.”
Stepan spends a day and a night in a state of high anxiety, sadness shearing away at him. He’d take any risk for her now, but knows he must keep a low profile. He can’t do anything that might expose them. It would be playing into the regime's hands, sentencing her to death or some fate worse than death. There are many fates worse than death in her country.
Very early on the day of his departure he’s startled by a brisk rap at his hotel room door.
He’s certain they’ve come for him. He is packed and ready to go, but perhaps now his destination is to be changed from the airport to the police station, or some lethal prison, or a killing ground. There is a cramped balcony outside the room, behind a sliding door; he nudges back the curtain to judge the likelihood of surviving a jump. Again comes the sharp, authoritative rap at the door, and in his dejection he can’t fight it any longer. Throwing back the latch he opens the door wide.
It is not the secret police but only her brother. He steps aside to let the tall man enter the room and the two of them stand facing one another in the early sunlight, neither speaking for a long moment. Amir’s eyes scan the corners of the ceiling, the moth-eaten carpet hung on the wall, the shoddy furniture, everything. When he gestures toward the balcony there is no need to ask why. They step outside and Stepan slides the door closed behind them. The balcony faces the windowless rear wall of a warehouse that was once, before the Revolution, the local branch of a Swiss bank.
“It’s likely there are listening devices,” Amir says.
“I’m glad you came.”
“I have some things for you, Stepan.” Dori’s brother reaches into his shoulder bag and withdraws a sealed envelope, a small gift box and another gift, this one in the shape of a compact disc.
“Dori asks that you wait until you're back in America before playing the disc, and that you play it on your computer. I don't think it will play correctly on your stereo.”
Stepan studies Amir's eyes, trying to divine the meaning of this odd statement, but senses that it’s better left unexplored.
“Amir,” he says, “is she alright?”
Her brother’s eyes shift away, peering over the railing and down into the dismal air shaft as if looking for a dropped letter. “Stepan,” he says, “you’re not asking for my advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. Forget my sister. It’s an impossible situation. A dangerous situation. You know that. There will be no happy ending.”
“You make it sound simple, but it’s not. I can’t just forget her. And she won’t forget me. She loves me, Amir. You remember how love is, don’t you? She does.”
Amir shakes his head, then lays a hand on each of Stepan’s shoulders. “It’s up to you to end it, my friend, not her. Who is the man here? You have to make the decision. She’s only a girl.”
“You underestimate her.”
“And you underestimate the police.”
“Dori is unique, Amir. There’s no one like her. I’m going to find a way, whether you like it or not.”
Amir smiles without humor as a sickly grey pigeon lands on the adjacent balcony. “She’s a good girl, it’s true, but there are other good girls. One flower does not a spring make, Stepan.” The pigeon tilts its head as if the better to listen in. “Find an American girl,” Dori’s brother says. “A Christian girl.”
“It’s not just the two of you in this, you know. It’s everyone you touch. Me; our poor mother. Even the staff of this hotel. Everyone is a target. Remember that, Stepan. If you care for us at all.” Amir zips his shoulder bag closed and slides the door open, stepping back into the room. “Safe travels, my friend,” he says, and with the traditional double kiss he is gone.
Dori’s gifts brighten the room with a brittle cheer. The compact disc and the gift box are wrapped in shiny paper printed with marigolds, blithely upbeat. He sits on the bed and opens the letter, an ornate apology for not seeing him and a vow to keep in touch—this despite the relentless censorship of all means of communication, the blocking of the internet and the opening of letters and rifling of packages. Despite all this, she insists, she will find a way to stay close to his heart. Her spirit will follow him to America. She will do it.
In a postscript she repeats her brother's instructions: Don’t play the CD until you get home. Then play it on your computer. He tears off the wrapping paper and it is a disc from a popular singer, a trashy, gone-to-seed diva whose giddy posters they've laughed at more than once. Did she give him this CD to lighten his heart, to remind him of those moments of laughter? Why can it be played only on a computer? He can't puzzle it out.
As he's pondering this the front desk calls to say his taxi is waiting, and a few hours later he’s in the air, lofting over the thronged city with its bluish plumes of smog, the slums and shanties spiraling around stained marble domes and congested squares, and he relaxes just a little when the American captain addresses his passengers in a voice with a faint trace of Texas in it. He’s on his way home, but he’s left the better part of himself behind.
This much of their story Stepan told me over an Indian dinner one night, not long after his return to Chicago. At first he gave only the outline, but more and more details spilled out as the night wore on, some of them private enough to be embarrassing to both of us when we arrived at our desks the next morning.
“I'm sorry about last night, Tim,” he said quietly. “You asked a few simple questions and I gave you a whole Shakespearean tragedy.”
“I’d rather know the truth. And your trust means a lot.”
He and I had become friends of a sort. I'd traveled in his country long ago, before it was cut off from the outside world, and my interested questions softened his formality and gradually released something in him. I liked him—there was something oddly elegant about this modest, unfailingly polite man who signed emails Cordially yours and kept to himself as if to minimize his footprint in the world, to leave oxygen for others more deserving than he.
But there may have been another reason for his candor over dinner. Although I hadn't quite pieced it together yet, he’d begun drinking heavily. I'd noticed him chewing breath mints but thought nothing of it; there was no slur in his speech, no drunk walk, no sign of trouble. It is true that he kept ordering beer that night, dispatching a quart bottle of Kingfisher and then most of another, but I assumed he was just friendless and lonely and in need of something to calm his nerves as his story spilled out. All this was true; but it was also true that he’d probably been drinking all day. After his disappearance the hidden cache began to emerge: the liter of potato vodka buried under papers in his desk drawer, the hip flask of rum stashed under a computer magazine at the bottom of his briefcase, the recycling bin full of empties.
Yet somehow he’d kept writing code at his usual fast clip; there must have been solace in it. I saw no change in the quality of his work. Nor had any of his outward habits changed. As always, he’d stop on the hour and go out to the parking lot for a cigarette, pacing in tight circles in a private ferment or standing at the guardrail, cigarette smoldering in his hand, to look down at the stagnant green river that ran through a ravine next to the building. When the cigarette was finished he’d go straight back to his desk in the dark—he preferred to work with lights out and blinds down—and dig back into the work, far and away the best programmer I’d ever worked with.
At the end of that long dinner, with the story of their dangerous love dangling between us, he asked me what I thought he should do. I had no advice other than the advice Dori herself had given him. It seemed to me that all they could do was hope for a political thaw that might enable him to get her out. It wasn’t the answer he wanted, but he took it in stride, as if he’d expected nothing more.
“Well,” he said finally, “at least she and I have found a way to communicate.”
I asked what he meant. It seemed that when he inserted the CD she’d given him into his computer—fully expecting to be met with raucous pop music—he realized that it wasn’t a music CD at all. Instead it contained a small number of files, snippets of source code that would have made sense to very few people but made perfect sense to him. In a matter of minutes he’d stitched together a small program that would enable him to decode her encrypted emails and encrypt his own. Any government drudge opening their electronic love letters would see only a solid wall of letters and numbers—nothing of the endearments or despair or erotic meanderings that lay hidden within. He told me with pride that she’d absorbed his lessons perfectly, creating a private communication channel that deftly skirted the censors.
“But what about an email address?” I asked. “It does no good without one.”
“That’s exactly what I asked myself,” he said. He knew she’d already hacked into the state university's network—still porous to intrusion—but doubted she could have hijacked an email account without detection. He’d paced his apartment trying to puzzle it out. He had the key to the lock, but could not locate the door.
The answer arrived a few days later. Checking his email, he found a message from an email address modeled on the name of the gaudy singer on the cover of the compact disc. A look at the message’s internal headers showed that it had been routed through servers in Shanghai, Manila, San Francisco and Topeka before reaching him. When he opened it he discovered a block of encrypted text which, when run through the decryption tool he'd built, resolved into a love letter from her. You found me! it exulted. Here I am, thinking of you and wishing I could be there with you in Chikago.
With a feeling of pure delight he wrote her a long note on the computer, encrypted it with their secret tool and fired it off to her on the other side of the world. In less than five minutes the reply came back. The scheme had worked flawlessly. As he told me the story of that triumphant night he seemed to rise above his low spirits for a few moments. It was a breakthrough made possible by love, the brainchild of their union.
“But now,” he continued, “she's working on really dangerous stuff. That was child's play. Now she's playing with fire. I'm frightened for her.”
He finished his beer with one long swallow while I tried to think of a discreet way to ask for further details, finally deciding to let it lie.
“She’d better watch her step,” he said, “because I can't keep an eye on her from here. I can't protect her. She's a little reckless, you know, a little young. I worry.”
My friend’s worry was not misplaced. It would later emerge that his lover, not content with defeating the email censors, had begun to work at scrambling cell phone transmissions too. It was territory she knew well: she'd spent so much time retraining her pink phone that she knew its workings inside and out, and between her new knowledge of cryptography and his coaching she had everything she needed. It was a challenge she couldn’t resist. Secure in the knowledge that their email was safe, they worked through the technical details together at a rapid clip, half a world apart in their brutally staggered time zones.
It was ten o'clock on a warm June morning when the consummation finally came. His cell phone rang from the bedroom as he smoked a cigarette on the back porch. He reached it just in time and was astonished to hear her voice on the other end.
“Good morning, my love,” she said calmly, as if they’d talked only the night before, and then melted into the giggle he knew so well.
Her voice was crystal clear. He activated the speakerphone so that it could fill his apartment. They talked for three hours that day, in awe at what they’d achieved. He slept well that night for the first time in weeks, his heart lighter than air.
The next morning he combed through her source code to make sure there was no flaw that could admit the government spies. She agreed to do the same. They saw nothing; it was airtight. Eventually, of course, any code could be hacked, and the government technicians would catch up in due time, but for now they were several steps ahead. As an extra measure of safety they quickly decided that she would be the one to originate their calls, blocking her outbound phone number, because if the government were to detect an international caller looking for her number it might lead the secret police straight to her door. And so she would call him every night at a set hour. It seemed a simple enough precaution.
She felt confident enough in her breakthrough to share it with one other trusted insider, partly in thanks for all he’d done to make it possible. With some difficulty she was able to modify her brother Amir's more sophisticated phone—one of the new Korean models, only recently available on the black market, that featured a camera and all sorts of other gadgets—so that it too was equipped with the code that would defeat the censors. She was sure that in the entire country there were only two ordinary civilians who could call abroad from a cell phone—a stealthy pair who, from their apartment over a clamorous traffic circle and a shoe bazaar, were thrillingly in touch with the outside world. At night her brother would stand by the smutty window, talking at length to Amsterdam or San Diego or Munich, to old friends who’d escaped the regime by various means and were now living on the outside. He asked them question after question about their worlds, and they in turn asked about the country they’d abandoned, trying to picture the grimy and confused and fearful world he described as he peered down at the street below. He was limited to words, because as clever as his sister's hack was it could not yet slip a digital photo, let alone a video, under the censors’ radar. But this was a small concession to make when he could talk with his distant friends for hours without fear of detection. They became his lifeline, just as a solitary man in Chicago had become hers.
And so it seemed that they were mastering their difficult situation. To hear one another’s voice again—to talk freely—was a breakthrough of immense proportions.
My usually somber friend couldn’t contain himself. I could see all the signs: no longer did he pace the parking lot, smoking dejectedly. No longer did he slump at his desk in the dark, preferring to raise the blinds and bask in the sun. One night he confessed the whole scheme to me, swearing me to secrecy. It was the last I was to hear of their private rebellion until it reached its conclusion some weeks later.
The degree of their naïveté wouldn’t become clear until high summer muscled into Chicago with a string of sweltering days and long, humid evenings. It was a July of record heat; the city parks were nearly emptied by it, transformed into deserts of scorched grass and scalding park benches, stray vagrants left to camp out under scattered locust trees like stranded nomads. The libraries, on the other hand, were full, and the cafés, and every artificially cooled place. Shut-ins were dying in stifling apartments because they couldn’t afford to run their air conditioners. It was a miserable season in every way. It hit the city hard.
Nevertheless, it seems that Stepan spent every free hour sequestered in his third-floor apartment without once turning on the air conditioner. When the super let the police into the apartment later they found the thermostat still set to Heat; switching it to Cool revealed the fact that the air conditioning was broken, and probably had been since the summer before.
Why had he suffered through the heat wave without it? Certainly the electric bill was no concern. Was he imagining Dori in her faraway city, its own climate made even more oppressive by the fumes of buses and scooters and decrepit cars? Was he denying himself comfort in solidarity with her? When his email archives finally came to light there wasn’t a single comment about the terrible weather. If he was inflicting pain on himself for her, it was with the secret pride of a true devotee. Night after night he must have stewed in that suffocating apartment, talking on his scrambled phone, tying himself in knots at the sound of her unreachable voice.
But then Dori’s calls abruptly ceased.
We know from his email history that it was on July 11th. On that day he dispatched a series of increasingly frantic messages to her:
Where are you? I'll wait for your call.
Then, forty-five minutes later: Call me right away—I'm worried.
Then, only ten minutes after that: What's going on over there? This is crazy! Please call or email and tell me you're alright, even if you only have a minute!!!
Then: I won't leave the computer until I hear from you, okay? Something isn't right.
This last message was the one that bounced. There in his inbox, exactly four seconds after it was dispatched, sat the stark technical message saying that her account had been disabled. He must have stared at the message like a soldier watching an incoming rocket. He knew exactly what it meant.
Although I knew him slightly, I can’t imagine how he reacted in that moment. Did he collapse into tears? Pound the walls? Bolt from the apartment and go running through the night?
Whatever happened in those first chilling moments, we know that he eventually drank himself into a stupor—that night, and for several nights thereafter. He called in sick for a solid week, pleading a summer flu, and no one, not even I who knew a little of his situation, suspected anything out of the ordinary. I meant to call and see if he needed anything, but never picked up the phone.
And so we all left him alone to chain smoke and drink himself blind—and as a reckless last resort, perhaps under the influence of rum or vodka, to break their strict rule and dial her cell phone, knowing that the incoming call might lead the authorities to her. The number sat in the outbound call log of his phone like a prisoner's number in a Nazi ledger. Her silence must have made him frantic. I’m sure he would have done anything just to know that she was alive and safe and still his.
By the time he called her, though, she was none of these things.
He wouldn’t learn the truth for another nine days, until that Saturday morning when he clicked a link in an email and saw his Dori in a grainy video, buried up to her breasts at the edge of a soccer field, her head bared and her face already bloodied by a hail of rocks. As the video played on, the inflamed crowd jostled the cell phone camera constantly, jerking her agonized death in and out of view. Her torso was more broken each time it reappeared. Dori’s dark hair had been cropped, a detail no doubt horrible to her lover since he’d always told her she'd look sexy, more Western, if she'd cut it shorter: had she finally done so, for him, or had this been done to her as a prelude to her humiliation?
The roar of the crowd was rising, overwhelming the tiny microphone until it squawked with distortion. They were murdering her before Stepan’s eyes and the eyes of thousands of her countrymen. After several unbearable minutes the crowd seemed to sense with a thrill that the attack was reaching its consummation. At some point a bulky man whose shoulders kept blocking the camera shifted abruptly and there it was, the moment of her death, the final impact of a jagged rock directly to her temple. From his desk in Chicago Stepan must have watched his lover pitch over suddenly, just as I later would, blood pouring from her head in a fatal stream.
It was finished. The crowd erupted in chanting, a slogan that condemned their love and celebrated its undoing. And then suddenly the chanting went absolutely silent. The choppy video halted without warning or commentary and the frame filled with blackness. Her murder had been compressed into nine terrible minutes.
Within an hour of viewing the video my friend Stepan dressed, paid his bills and stepped out onto the street, dropping his mail in the corner box. In time we’d learn that he waited outside the locked door of his mother country's shabby consulate until ten o'clock, when a surprised bureaucrat admitted him and heard his confession. It was carefully taken down, but with a phone call the functionary confirmed that as a United States citizen he could not be deported for trial. Though the infidel was sitting at their very own conference table, having sought them out to admit his complicity in a crime for which one of their citizens had been executed, they couldn’t touch him. Justice could not be exacted upon this shameless fugitive who’d defiled one of their women—not in this life, anyway. Stepan was chased from the consulate like a thief.
My friend’s movements over those next few hours aren’t clear. At a certain point his whereabouts and actions can’t be traced. Thwarted in his attempt to share in his lover’s fate—to join his destiny to hers and somehow expiate the sin of dialing her cell phone directly—he must have wracked his brain wondering what to do. I imagine his first thought was to kill himself as ruthlessly as she was killed. If the authorities wouldn’t put him to death, what was to stop him from carrying out his own sentence? He would mete out his own brand of justice. Perhaps he paced back and forth along an El platform, staring down hungrily at the third rail. Perhaps he lingered in a pawn shop looking at revolvers under glass. His thoughts must have been a blur of lethal possibilities. Yet somehow he survived the long day. I’ve come to suspect that my friend decided that a conventional suicide would be too easy, too prosaic: the heft and span of his guilt demanded something more. Dori’s death had been outrageous, blazingly public; why should his be any less so?
All we know is that by late afternoon he was sitting at the bar of a restaurant near Wrigley Field, drinking scotch after scotch, when two dozen drunken baseball fans poured in after watching their team lose a double header. How oddly right it must have seemed to him that this disappointed crowd was wielding clubs—actually pint-sized baseball bats, this being Bat Day at the ballpark—and that the mob quickly erupted into a furious chant, a kind of war cry against the opposing team. There had been a string of bad calls in the final innings; the home plate umpire was either blind or on the take. The postgame show was still blaring on a dozen televisions, replaying the worst moments of the disaster. Shouts filled the restaurant like the roar of an army girding for battle. Revenge was the order of the day. After six hours of drinking cheap beer in the sunstruck bleachers, the fans were out for blood.
The solution to Stepan’s dilemma must have come to him as he watched the rabble with the simplified concentration of a drunken man. According to the police report, he managed to scramble up onto the bar and pump his fist and shout something that I knew to be as far removed from his true feelings as any curse one could possibly imagine or invent: Death to America! Death to America! Allahu Akbar! Stepan roared, until someone swung a bat and cut his knees out and toppled him to the floor.
My friend was set upon like an assassin under the claws of an avenging mob. Later they’d say that he made no attempt to defend himself, only lying face down on the filthy floor while they beat and kicked him. The attackers were given free rein for several long minutes, their victim a silent accomplice to his own undoing. Eventually the bartender waded in to break up the melee, but at the last instant the blow of a bat struck the base of the fallen man’s skull, almost as an afterthought, and he lay utterly still.
By the time the police arrived it was over. Dozens were arrested as the bar was sealed off with yellow police tape, news cameras clamoring at the perimeter while he was carried out in a vinyl body bag and vaulted into the upper reaches of a notoriety that would have embarrassed him deeply. I believe that if he could have spoken, Stepan would have said that justice had been done—no more and no less. It was all he’d asked.
It fell to me, a few days later on a brilliant August morning, to unravel the last thread of their tragedy. I’d just arrived at work when my boss appeared with Stepan’s laptop in her hands; they’d given me his sunny office.
“A favor?” she asked. “Can you weed through this before we wipe it? Anything useful you find, move it to the server. They unlocked the administrator account for you.”
She left it sitting there on the edge of my desk and it struck me that the machine looked like a distraught man trying to find the nerve to jump. With trepidation I opened it and stared for a long time at the keyboard clogged with cigarette ashes, the smudged screen and the photo of a cresting wave, perhaps a reminder of his years in California, that my friend had chosen as his desktop image. I could almost feel him hovering beside me in his quiet office. But at the same time I sensed that he wouldn’t object to my presence in his world. If any living person could understand something of his final days, I would be the one.
And so I spent an hour wandering through his work files, copying a few unfinished things up to the server, and then turned my attention to his email. There was a folder under his inbox called Dori; when I opened it I saw two copies of each message from her, one nothing but a block of random-looking characters, the other the clean text produced by the decryption program, which seems to have been set to run automatically each time a message from her arrived.
I spent the rest of the morning browsing through the history of their love with the exquisite guilt of a man reading a dead friend's diary. The laptop was an endless trove of love letters, some in uneven English and others in a language impenetrable to me—interspersed, as I might have expected, with technical disquisitions on various topics in computer programming. I kept reading while my coworkers left to have lunch on the sunny patio, my stomach too sour for food.
When I came to the abrupt finale of their story—Stepan’s last desperate email to his lover, bounced back by a distant server because her clandestine account had been discovered—I sat for some minutes in shock, imagining what he must have felt when that ominous message, that bland repudiation, arrived. And then I had to get out of his office. I found a pack of Camels in the box of things I'd cleared from the drawers of his old desk and went out to the parking lot and sat on the guardrail that overlooked the sluggish river, cicadas chirring in the undergrowth. I hadn't smoked in years, but the nicotine helped me get through that sad moment, and it felt like a small homage to my friend, the lighting of a memorial flame. I imagine that he would have been as surprised as anyone to see me perched there with one of his cigarettes between my fingers, but also somehow pleased.
Soon I was back in front of his screen, and turned now to his regular email. It was plodding work compared to the riveting experience of reading through their private messages, but at a certain point I came upon a message that made me sit up in my chair. Its subject was Video sent from my OneGlobeNet phone, the kind of automatically generated header one saw when transmitting video from a cell phone. The sender's address was a string of sixteen digits followed by oneglobenet.net—clearly the number of a foreign phone, much longer than an American phone number. The body of the email contained nothing but the name of the attached video file.
When I opened the attachment, my heart racing, the face of an attractive young woman filled the screen. There could be no doubt whose intimate smile it was. Dori was younger than I’d pictured her, with a girlish roundness to her cheeks and clear brown eyes the shape of jasmine leaves, her thick hair held back loosely with a scarlet comb. She appeared to be in her bedroom, a poster of the Chicago skyline visible on the wall behind her. Her eyes were quick and bright as she began speaking into the camera. “So, my love,” she said in English, “now you can see me! I got it—I solved. I can send. Picture, video, everything. They can't see it. Now we are under their noses! Your idea about the micro packets—”
But before she could finish her sentence the phone was abruptly jostled and she lurched out of view for a moment, leaving only the wall with the Chicago poster and the pale green digital counter in the lower left corner of the frame that ticked off the seconds of the video. A male voice said something off-camera in a sharp tone, in her own language, and when she came back in view her head was bowed, though her eyes peered up impishly at the camera.
“Well,” she said, “Brother says I shouldn’t talk about that. You always know what I want to say anyway, don't you?”
Dori raised her head and looked straight into the camera, her gaze suddenly that of a mature woman, her smile reserved and strong. “That’s all for now, my love. But more will be to come. Many more will be to come, if someone ever give me this phone back.”
At this the off-camera voice said something that made her laugh, and there the video ended.
With barely a moment's thought I knew exactly what it meant.
I’d found the nerve to watch that other video—the video of this same warm-hearted, playful woman’s death—only once. But I remembered that it too had displayed a time counter, in pale green digits, in the lower left corner of the frame. Of course it might have been coincidence that the two films were shot with the same brand of phone, but I knew that this was no ordinary phone. No: the phone that shot those films was the only one in that miserable country capable of slipping a video past the censors, and all thanks to the ingenuity of the young woman whose death it would finally record. And just as there was only one phone that could have recorded and then transmitted those videos, there was only one man who could have shot them.
I unplugged my friend’s laptop, hid it inside the day's Tribune and walked straight through the back door to the parking lot. Quickly I made my way to the guardrail that separated the pavement from the steep bank that led down to the river. At the spot where Stepan had once liked to stand and smoke I slipped over the barrier and into the trees, making my way down the slope in silence, and with a kind of small prayer for the two lovers I flung the machine—that jewel box that held the riches of their love—into the opaque green waters, where even the sun had lost its way.