The Color of Regret by Carrie Patel
Sefid’s aura was the same luminescent gray as storm clouds. “You will not regret this.” Yet he said it in that tone that people used when it was certain you would.
Nasrin cleared her throat. “What is there to regret? I am grateful for the matches.” She shifted on the concrete bench and slid the matchbox into the pocket of her faded corduroy coat. As a city bus rolled around the corner, commuters across the street pressed closer to one another, blending the colors of their own varied auras.
Sefid’s smile was merely a bristling at the center of his thick, black beard. It didn’t distract from the quick glance at his wristwatch. “You know as well as anyone how few of us there are in this province. Iran needs more people like your father. We trust that a daughter of Azad Rajavi won’t fail us.”
Nasrin hated hearing others talk about her father as if he were already dead. Martyrs were only romantic to people who didn’t have to carry their memory.
“I know my duty,” she said. The bus rolled to a stop with a hiss of exhaust and hydraulics. The commuter line shuffled forward.
“Good. Any instructions we have for you, or any messages we need you to pass along, will be left in the alley. You remember the procedures we discussed?”
She did. Still, she wanted to go over them again, one more time. She wanted the reassurance of seeing him nod along as she listed the dead drop signals: gray-coded messages came from Sefid, blue-coded messages came from Farhad himself, and anything else was a decoy. But her talents were rare, not irreplaceable. If he detected any uncertainty on her part, he’d call the whole thing off, and the resistance would move on without her. Chances were, this was another test. Everything else with Sefid had been.
So she said, “Of course,” and clutched the matchbox in her pocket. Sefid rose from the bench, crossed the street, and melted into the glowing crowd boarding the bus.
Nasrin waited for another three minutes, as she’d been instructed, and counted the beads of sweat that rolled down her neck.
Her sister was waiting when she returned home.
“So? How did it go?” It was impossible to keep anything from Leila. Her powers of perception were rivaled only by her lack of discretion.
“Fine,” Nasrin said, shoving her hands deeper into her pockets. “How’s dinner coming?”
Leila watched her gesture. “It’s close.”
Nasrin ducked into her bedroom, hoping to shut the door before Leila could follow. “Don’t let it burn.”
“It’s simmering. I’ve got time.” Leila, her face aglow, was halfway through the door by the time Nasrin turned around.
Nasrin’s hand tensed around the matchbox, and her sister’s gaze dropped as if she could see it through the corduroy coat. Nasrin sighed. “Shut the door behind you.” She pulled out the matchbox and opened it as Leila hovered next to her.
A withered cigarette butt, smoked down to the filter, lay in a sparse bed of matches. Farhad’s scent—or what must have been his—clung to the box: earthy and musky, a mélange of sweat and gunpowder. More importantly, his aura stuck to the cigarette, which glowed a dappled blue and threw off sparks like a severed cable. She was careful not to touch it, lest she wear it away.
Leila peered over her shoulder. “What’s it look like?”
Nasrin forced a shrug. The movement felt jerky and unnatural. “Fiery. Bright,” she lied. “Just what you’d expect from a resistance leader.” She looked at her sister’s face to see if she’d said what Leila wanted to hear.
“You’re lucky to have the Sight, you know.”
“Not if the Clerics find out.” Auras were like fingerprints. No two were alike, which was why the resistance had begun recruiting Seers to verify the origin of hand-coded messages. Inevitably, the Clerics would start to hire, or conscript, their own.
“But you can make a difference.” Leila’s brilliant teeth appeared in a slowly widening crescent. “Father would be proud.”
Father, the local hero, the only man in town who’d refused the monthly home inspection. Father, sitting in the Clerical Enforcer’s prison. With all the talk, you’d think he’d single-handedly liberated Markazi province. It was hard to see how such a small act of defiance was worth any of it. Nasrin grimaced and slid the box shut.
“Does this mean you’ll start delivering messages?” Leila asked.
“It means you need to be more careful.” Nasrin felt her sister’s zeal like a noose tightening around her neck.
Leila clucked. “I’m not the one getting involved with the resistance.” She said it with more pride than Nasrin liked. It suddenly felt as if the steam from the kitchen had boiled into the bedroom. Nasrin glanced at her watch and adjusted her coat.
Leila frowned. “Where are you going?”
“Clear my head.”
Her sister jerked her chin toward the door. “Dinner’s in ten.”
“Don’t wait up.”
Leila left the room, and Nasrin waited until she heard the clatter and scrape of pots and spoons in the kitchen before lifting a loose floorboard under her bed and tucking the box underneath.
The streets were quiet and dark, owing in part to electricity rationing and in part to the simple fact that there wasn’t much to do in Arak, or any other town outside of Tehran, after nightfall. There was an even chance that any civilian on the street at this hour was a Clerical informer, a dissident, or both, for the right price.
Still, it seemed easier to keep her new involvement secret from strangers on the street than from her sister in the apartment. Home had ways of disarming a person. Her father had learned this the hard way.
The air was heavy with diesel fumes even though most of the cars and buses were parked for the night. Nasrin passed Shohada Square, where even the fountains were empty. So too were the Chahar Fasl baths.
At least the darkness hid the more depressing developments in her hometown: bullet holes scarring the walls from the uprising five years ago and banners praising Arak’s new Clerical Enforcer, all strung across the alleys like clotheslines. It was amazing how the force of an army could influence public opinion.
Nasrin had worked in a factory building boilers and turbines both before and after the revolution. The final years under the old regime had been lean, much like the last five under the new one. The slogans and political parties were new, yet their promises were the same. So too were their methods: secret police, interminable incarceration, and the watchful eye of censors and inspectors.
Somehow, securing a better tomorrow always required momentous sacrifice today.
Nasrin focused on familiar cracks in the pavement. People seemed to think that Seers viewed the world in a violent explosion of color, but for the most part, Arak was just as mute and gray to Nasrin as it was to everybody else. Still, the romanticism was understandable.
For Seers like her, people bore halos of color and light, each with its own shape and pattern, but it took sustained contact for those auras to rub off on anything else. On the streets, Nasrin glimpsed patches of color on discarded tissues and wads of chewing gum. These were as commonplace to her now as cloud streaks and the morning fog. What she hadn’t gotten used to was coming across something of her father’s at home—his pillow, his pipe, a wild-bristled toothbrush—still radiating traces of rippling green.
Nasrin followed Beheshti Street to Shokrael, trying to glance into the alleys without moving her head. She knew not to pass her dead drop site more often than normal, but the spot was like an itching scab, impossible to leave alone. It was too soon for her handlers to have left anything, which the crooked address plate hanging by the teahouse confirmed, but she told herself that this was good practice.
She continued a few blocks more until she could pass through Jannat Park and conceivably turn back for home.
Pots of eggplant stew and rice were waiting on the stove when she returned. She ate quickly, thankful that the food was already cold. She was too exhausted to taste it, anyway.
The next three days introduced Nasrin to her new routine: passing the dead drop morning and evening on her way to and from the Zarab factory and dodging Leila’s persistent questions over dinner.
It wasn’t until the fourth evening that things changed.
Nasrin almost missed the straightened address plate. The dim streetlamps seemed to conspire to throw as little light as possible beyond Shokrael’s cratered pavement. They urged her home, to a rushed dinner, evasions with Leila, and the blissful oblivion of sleep.
But she saw it and felt a hitch in her chest.
Ducking into the alley, Nasrin fished a cigarette and lighter out of her pocket. Getting out of the wind to light a smoke was as natural as anything. Nevertheless, her hands trembled as she held the flame to the tip.
She moved closer to the pockmarked wall. A loose brick near the trashcan came away in her cold-numbed hand. She dug into the gap and closed her fingers around an envelope even as she felt her knuckles scrape the pitted wall.
She slipped the letter into her pocket and casually shoved the brick into place with her hip while her right hand held the cigarette to her lips. She turned.
A guard was standing at the entrance to the alley, his silhouette a throbbing purple.
“Late to stop and admire the scenery, sister.”
She lifted the burning cigarette for him to see and willed her hand to remain steady. “A little company for my walk, sir. Father doesn’t allow it at home.”
He watched her and said nothing. The Clerical guards had a way of prompting you with silence. It was as if all of them had been schoolmasters before the overthrow.
Nasrin clutched at her coat with one hand and passed him the cigarette with the other. Her knuckles were raw and lined with blood and mortar grit.
The guard took the cigarette and looked at it as if it were a trampled coin that he could not decide whether to keep.
She dug into her pocket and handed him her box of cigarettes.
He took it and nodded. “My father is also strict.”
“God’s protection on you, sir.”
Nasrin finished her route home, her legs shaking. She didn’t take the letter out of her pocket until she had locked the bedroom door behind her. She read slowly, willing her mind to focus on each word.
Farhad must have slept with it under his shirt to give it such a thick halo of blue. She distantly wondered whether the letter and the cigarette really came from Farhad—whether the resistance was desperate enough to trust someone as new to the cause as she was—or whether her orders came from someone expendable.
In the end, it didn’t matter.
She buried the letter under the floorboard beneath her bed where it spent the night like a telltale heart. When she finally slept, her dreams were shaded with green and blue.
The sun was a dull smear against the frozen sky when Nasrin began her pilgrimage the next morning. Past Shohada Square, now full of silent pedestrians and coughing cars. This time, she continued down Malek Street.
She was careful to cast her eyes down as she passed government offices. Here there were no bullet holes in the walls, no medallions of gum on the street. One of the girls on her shift at the factory swore that a sister-in-law’s uncle had been detained for sneezing here.
All of the buildings in front of her were tall and clean, and none more so than the Hall of Clerical Justice. Here, men and women lined up to pay fines, appeal Clerical rulings, request permits, and otherwise prostrate themselves before the whims of the local Clerical Enforcer and his men.
Nasrin handed her papers to the guards standing on the steps. Her forms requesting holiday travel to Kashan were standard enough, and none of the guards seemed to recognize her as Azad Rajavi’s daughter. And why should they? However the dissidents fawned, he was nobody to anyone except her and Leila.
The hawk-nosed guard nearest to her shoved her papers back into her hands and waved her through the doors. Inside, a long row of service windows was lined with orderly queues and punctuated by more guards. The man standing just inside the building checked her papers again and pointed her to the kiosk midway down the long lobby. Nasrin risked a quick look around the place. She knew the face of the man she needed to find.
All of Arak did.
He was sitting, as she’d expected, at a desk at the far end of the hall, surrounded by bulletproof glass and an aura like a mottled bruise. Where he could see his domain and his domain could see him.
She kept her hands visibly in front of her and her head down as she marched to the other side of the lobby. Her pace remained steady and even as she passed the queue that the door guard had told her to join.
The people waiting for their turns at the windows were silent and still, which made it easy to notice when three of the guards turned their heads to examine her.
She caught an edge in the tile and stumbled. Two other guards peeled off to follow.
She was now past all of the windows; there was nothing but twenty yards of open floor between her and the man behind the desk. When the guards sped up some thirty feet behind her, she quickened her pace. She just needed to make it to the desk.
Clerical Enforcer Shirazi looked up at her approach and, to his credit, his eyes didn’t waver from her face, not even as the guards broke into a run.
The click of safety levers. She was close enough to see his chin pucker at her approach. It was still a desperate gamble.
The bulletproof glass loomed in front of her, and she pressed Farhad’s letter to it. Shirazi’s eyes, already moving to the armed men behind her, told her to speak quickly.
She panted into the tiny holes pocking the glass. “Enforcer Shirazi, I have a message tied to the rebel Farhad.”
His eyes darted back to her.
“I am prepared to identify any other intercepted communications for you and ask only that you release my father in return.”
The Enforcer’s frown curdled into a smile. “And what’s to stop me from throwing you into a cell next to your father and cutting the bones from your fingers until you do this for me?”
She swallowed. “Only your sense of mercy. I bring this to you freely, and I make no demands. Only requests.” Her hand, still pressing the letter to the glass, felt heavy.
He reclined in his high-backed chair and waved the guards away. “Relax, Miss Rajavi. I’ve no wish to discourage loyal citizens from their civic obligations, nor dutiful children from honoring their parents.” He stroked one clean-shaven cheek. “You will give me the letter, and you will scan other messages we have intercepted for auras. To thank you for your patriotism, we will release your father to you.”
She ducked her head to show gratefulness and humility, but not fast enough to miss the Enforcer’s victorious smirk.
“In addition,” he said, “we will recognize you and your father during next month’s Republic Day celebration. God willing, we will have made progress thanks to your efforts, and we can showcase our trophies alongside you.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. Did he want to drive her father to another act of rebellion? “You honor me too much, sir.”
“It is hardly enough, sister. In time, I am certain we can think of more.”
Five hours later, after interrogations and cross-interrogations, Nasrin led her father home. The walk seemed longer than her journey to meet Enforcer Shirazi. Even along the row of government offices, pedestrians stopped to stare. Passing cars slowed to watch their progress. And why not? She’d spoken with the Enforcer in full view of the Hall of Clerical Justice before disappearing into its labyrinth of offices. The news had had hours to circulate.
The only person who wouldn’t look at her was her father. He shuffled along next to her, bird-thin and seemingly anchored to the ground by his gaze. Maybe it was the pain of fresh cigarette burns and an empty stomach, maybe it was shame and horror at what she’d done, but he hadn’t once met her eye.
He would forgive her one day, when scars knit his wounds and covered his sorrow. For now, this was enough.
Nasrin turned the key in the lock and opened the apartment door. Leila’s day of teaching was long since over, but home was empty and dark. Nasrin rushed to her sister’s room while her father lingered behind. The bed was made and the dresser clean. Only her shoulder bag, her coat, and a handful of shirts and pants were missing.
Nasrin found her father in her own room. He knelt, staring at something under her bed. The loose floorboard was gone, and the box with Farhad’s cigarette was missing.
Nasrin gasped. But her father only smiled.
It was the smile of a younger man, defiant and proud.