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Kalil Nasri is technically an abomination, because he began life (and continues life, in most places) as a TF2 OC, but everybody has to come from somewhere.

The 7 train rattling over Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside was too loud, and so Kalil’s father had bought a space for the store a block over, where it was quieter. It was a corner store with a modest selection, where Kalil’s parents made enough money to take care of the family. His parents took shifts watching the store, and sometimes an uncle that paid Kalil no attention would help, too.

He went to elementary school in Manhattan, and in the mornings Kalil’s mother would take him on the 7 to Times Square to transfer to other trains. The trains were pretty-ugly on the inside, vortexes of artistic expression and territorial tagging that hurt his eyes some days. The outsides were not much different; sometimes it was hard to see the powder blue paint under the graffiti. In the afternoons a tall cousin would come pick Kalil up, drop him off at the store.

Most of Kalil’s family looked the same—black hair, black eyes, light brown skin. The men grew curly beards and loud voices, and the women were no quieter. Most of his older cousins wore trendy boot cut jeans and corduroys, and were allowed to smoke outside the store so long as they bought their cigarettes from Kalil’s father. Essentially, the store was the nucleus around which the family revolved.

It was Kalil and his mother that stood out, with clear brown eyes and brown hair. Her siblings had the same sort of coloring, but the problem lay in that his mother’s family didn’t live in Queens. They didn’t even live in the state. Most of them had stayed behind in wherever they all came from—and Kalil kept forgetting where, which he knew upset both sides of his family, so he tried to avoid the subject.

What he knew was that he was glad to be in Woodside and not there, because the stories his uncles loved to tell made it seem like a savage place that had gotten stuck in time several centuries ago, but with modern weaponry. Whatever problems the city might have, Woodside was peaceful in comparison.

Of course, a seven year old like Kalil was only marginally aware of what racism was, and what forms it could take.

He was outside when he saw the men coming, playing with the stray dog his cousins fed. They’d named it something mean like Shithead, but he called it Shadi because his mother had said it was a better name. They were running hard, and they seemed to be coming right at him, but Kalil thought they might be running from the cops—in which case he didn’t want to be around. He’d heard enough stories on the news about stray bullets. He shooed Shadi up the street (dogs weren’t allowed inside), and ducked into the store.

"Kalil-jan, stay outside," his father said absently, poring over a newspaper at the counter. "Play with Shadi."

"Shadi ran away," Kalil said, watching his breath fog on the freezer where they kept the ice cream bars. "There’s men running outside."

"Running?" His father didn’t look up.

"From the cops."

"Good you came in, then." His father’s accent was better than his uncle’s, mostly because Kalil’s uncle thought the English language was worthless.

"Where’s Shadi?" his mother asked, coming from the back of the store.


The first bomb came smashing through the window just over his father’s head, an ugly silver-ish thing that Kalil barely had time to register before it exploded.

He was blown out of the store onto the street, and he recognized the men who’d been up the block earlier, pale and out of shape. One of them had another bomb in hand, a homemade-looking cluster of metal. They were shouting, angry, but all he could hear was an even ringing noise that seemed to rob him of his sense of touch, as well. The one without a bomb looked like he was laughing, and Kalil left a bloody smear on the sidewalk as he launched himself at the laughing man.

The laughing man dealt him a swift kick to the gut that ended Kalil’s attack, and he saw that his accomplice was no longer holding the bomb. Another explosion rocked the store, and then they were off running, leaving Kalil deaf and bleeding.

Other people were starting to come out of the other buildings now, but none of them looked like they were going to help, so Kalil picked himself up off the ground and barreled back into the store. Fire was eating at the counter and shelves, had already gone through the cigarettes that Kalil’s cousins liked to smoke. It fell from the ceiling like water leaking, and it snaked across the floor like it was coming to eat him next.

The shelves had fallen on top of each other, and under a big pile of them he saw a hand, limp and feminine. He thought he might have been shouting for his mother then as he ran across the flames, but it was like the lack of sound had taken his coordination, too. He was clumsy as he fell to his knees by her hand, weak as he pushed at the shelving that seared the palms of his small hands. He couldn’t stop coughing. He felt himself sobbing, but the fire evaporated his tears before they had a chance to fall. When he gave up and held her hand, he felt warmth, but he couldn’t tell if it was a sign of life, or if it was only the fire’s heat that permeated everything.

He felt a thudding in the always-creaky floor behind him, and when he turned to look he saw his father through the smoke, mouthing his name. Kalil-jan! Kalil!

Papa! he hoped he shouted back, and he started pushing at the shelving again, heedless of the pain of burning wood pressing into his already burnt skin. His father was here now, he would step over the fire in big strides and push the shelves up in one big heave—

The floor under Kalil’s foot gave, and he sank ankle-deep into the charred wooden floorboards. He thought he heard the faintest cry of his name, and then the legs of another shelving unit gave out, the entire thing coming down to crush him flat.

Kalil’s mother was not the only one to die in the fire. His cousin Rashid—the tall one who picked him up from school—had been in the stockroom, and had died trapped within it. The funerals were a day apart, but Kalil got to attend neither of them. The fire had melted off the thin shells of his ears, and had only just missed his eyes. Burns ran along his jaw, down his neck and across his shoulders and back. He couldn’t walk for the burns on the soles of his feet, though they were less severe than the ones on his upper body. His hands were tightly bandaged, leaving him unable to even feed himself.

He stopped talking. Kalil’s father asked the doctors to check repeatedly, to see if the fire had damaged his lungs enough to rob him of his voice, despite reassurances that no such thing had happened. One doctor diagnosed him with elective mutism, gave Kalil’s father some longwinded explanation about how trauma could cause these things, a lot of which Kalil’s father just nodded through. But Kalil thought that the doctor was wrong; it wasn’t being mute if he just had nothing left to say.

When he was finally released from the hospital, when he could finally walk on his own and was finally let out of his father’s sight for up to five minutes at a time, Kalil got into the habit of checking doors. Any door he might go through needed to be checked for malcontents on the other side, and a single check wouldn’t do it. It exasperated his father, but Kalil heard little about it other than I promise you there’s nobody there.

The mutism alienated him from his family. His older cousins stood by him for a while, but they found husbands, wives, jobs, had their own children in time. His cousins his own age didn’t understand what he’d been through, and those that did stayed away just as much. His adult relatives tried to be patient with him, but more than one saw the mutism as an act of a willful child, and grew fed up with him. A few others simply couldn’t stand to look at him.

Children at school were no better—no, worse, because he became a game to them. Who could touch Scar Boy before he noticed? Who could get him to talk? Anything could be said to him, anything could be done away from adult eyes, and he’d never tell. Kalil wished he could wear a mask to school, or one of those Hazmat suits he saw in TV shows. His teachers took to keeping him in empty classrooms with them during recess.

Kalil’s father didn’t recover financially for years; the store didn’t get reopened until after Kalil’s sixteenth birthday, with help from the family. Kalil sat in the stock room during the grand opening festivities. Emotionally, it seemed like his father never recovered from his wife’s death, but when he and a couple relatives stocked the shelves while Kalil sat on the sprinkler outside, when he rang up customers with a big grin, Kalil’s family pointed out to him that his father knew what was important, knew better than to wallow in sadness. So why couldn’t he?

Nobody really wanted him working in the store, where his scars would probably frighten customers off—ears seemed to be a very necessary thing to most people—so Kalil looked into other ways to bring money in when the economy started to tank in the 80’s. He took the money his father gave him to eat lunch, and instead he bought torches from a Halloween store. He spent hours at a time at Coney Island watching the fire eaters, but when he tried to write down questions for them, they only shook their head. Of course it was silly to think that a kid with melted skin would want to breathe fire.

So he taught himself. By the age of eighteen, he knew all the basic tricks, and he’d performed at least one successful fireball. He also lost his senses of taste and smell, and added a few more scars to his body. He performed on the street in downtown Manhattan in only jeans and sneakers. He would make a little cash every time until the cops showed up, and then he would throw his whole operation into a backpack and run for it.

"What is this?" his father asked when he found the duffel bag at home. "You’re doing fire tricks?" He shook the bag at Kalil. "You think this is funny? This is a good joke?" Kalil tried to give him the wad of cash he’d been saving to give to him, but his father only shook his head, snorting. "Unbelievable."

Kalil’s father threw out his torches and fuel, but he only bought new ones. His father couldn’t understand the control he felt when he manipulated fire—when he dictated the fire’s life instead of the other way around. His father routinely refused the money Kalil made, and what little relationship they had left started to dissipate. It faded almost completely when Kalil got arrested.

Someone had been mocking him during a performance. The man started with his scars, his lizard ears, and Kalil ignored him, swiping his tongue across the flames like nothing was amiss. The man started calling him a shirtless faggot when Kalil didn’t react, making rude suggestions about what else he liked to swallow. Kalil relit his torches, filled his lungs and took a big swig of fuel. Then the man called him a camel fucker, and when Kalil blew out, the fireball that bloomed from his mouth engulfed his aggravator. When he screamed, Kalil opened his fuel bottle and upended it over him, the fire rising to lick at the undersides of Kalil’s forearms.

The cops didn’t take long to appear and tackle him to the sidewalk.

When he sat in the interrogation room, though, the first person through the door wasn’t a cop. Instead, a neat man in a neat suit took a seat across from him, patting his red pocket square just enough to bring Kalil’s attention to it.

"Kalil Nasri," the man said, opening a thin folder and smiling close-lipped. "I pronounced that correctly, didn’t I?"

Kalil said nothing.

"I can help you, Mr. Nasri," the neat man said, steepling his fingers. "I can get you off these charges, keep you out of jail. Save your family’s honor." When Kalil still said nothing, the smile grew a little tighter. "Mr. Nasri—Kalil, if I may—have you heard of Reliable Excavation Demolition? Perhaps you’ve had our bread?" A pause, presumably for effect. "Lately, we’ve been having some… conflicts with another company. They’re illegally trying to infringe upon company property, and as you can imagine, we simply can’t allow this to happen."

Kalil cocked his head, and the man relaxed again at once. "You see, Kalil, RED would like to have you released in exchange for working for us. The job is simple enough—you’ll be doing more sitting around than anything, at our outpost in the disputed land, protecting RED’s interests. Easy stuff. The hardest thing you’ll have to do is some occasional pyrotechnics, but it’s just for show, I promise you. Nothing dangerous."

The man pulled a crisp sheet of paper, crammed with text, out of the folder and pushed it toward Kalil, sliding a ballpoint pen along with it. "If you’re interested, all you have to do is sign, and you’re free."

Kalil leaned back, and the man frowned. "Think of it this way, Mr. Nasri. We can pay you enough to save your father’s store. Because," and he gave the pen another push with the tip of his index finger, "it’d be a damn shame to see him lose that store, wouldn’t it? Break the poor man’s heart, and Lord knows he’s already had it broken once."

Slowly, Kalil picked up the pen and signed the bottom of the paper.

"RED is happy to have you," the neat man said with a even bigger smile than before, tucking the signed sheet back into the folder and the folder into his small briefcase. "Don’t worry, everything will be taken care of from here. You won’t be here much longer."

Kalil was allowed one phone call before leaving for the Fort. His father picked up with a standard store greeting.

"I’m going away for a while," he said, and it was the first thing he’d said in years. His voice was like a stream of nails passing through his throat.

"Who is this?" his father demanded to know.

"I’ll send money home, but you won’t see me for a long time, Papa," Kalil said, each word a long slice of physical pain.

"How did you get this number?" Kalil could hear the anger rising in his father’s voice. "Who is this? You think it’s funny my son cannot speak, you think that’s a good joke? You are scum, you are a motherfucker! Do not ever call here again!"

"Goodbye," Kalil rasped, and he dropped the phone onto the receiver.

"Put this on," a man said, holding out a filter mask. "Your identity at the Fort is important, don’t forget." Kalil nodded, and pulled it on, fingering the clasps shut around the neckline of his new chemsuit.

Another man stood just inside the door of the train, gesturing him inside. "Welcome aboard, Pyro. You’re gonna like this job."

June 2011

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