Our graduation ceremony was held in the Big Hall on a tepid summer’s day. The mothers cried and the fathers tried not to as the Headmaster told us that in front of us stretched a brocade of untrammelled possibilities upon which we could walk, run, or eschew altogether for unworn paths of our own choosing. Next to me, I could see Alvin M. looking up “untrammelled” on his phone. We mingled for the last time on the vestibule outside the hall, ties askew as we ribbed our teachers (“yeah Sir, cool tie!”) and discussed summer plans and generally steered clear of our tearful and increasingly maudlin parents. All the boys were going out for dinners and movies and under-age clubbing that night, but I felt this restlessness in my gut and besides I hadn’t been invited by any of them anyway, so after dusk I took Dad’s car and drove out to the spot in the mountains where no trees grow. The hawk and the jihadist’s ghost were playing sic bo with ivory dice on the stump of the thousand-year oak.
“I’m just saying poker is a far better test of skill,” the jihadist’s ghost was saying.
“And how am I going to hold my cards?” asked the hawk. “Get the bear to embroider them into my feathers, is it? Hey, want to take old Assad’s place? He’s getting all radical on me.”
“No thanks, guys,” I told them, sitting down with my back to the stump. “I’m just a bit out of sorts today, that’s all.”
“You okay, man?” the jihadist’s ghost asked. “I can give the phoenix a yell if you’d like.”
“It’s cool,” I said. “I just had my graduation today, is all. And everyone seems so happy and excited but I can’t help thinking that it’s like a little death, you know? Not knowing what comes on the other side. I have to pick my university, courses, all of that – it’s like character selection in Kingdom Hearts except there’s no save point to go back to.”
“Did you know I used to be the CEO of one of Japan’s largest telecommunications companies?” the hawk said. “No, shut up, Osama, he obviously hasn’t and it’s very relevant to him. Now, after university I bummed around for ages, just playing video games and hunting pigeons and all that. I tried applying for some jobs, of course, but it just didn’t work out, and I kind of just gave up after the 52nd rejection letter. One day, my friend tells me there’s an opening in the mailroom where he works, and I manage to make it to my interview and end up getting hired. 25 years later, I’m sitting in the chair opposite the one in which I got interviewed, looking at a photo of old Junichiro-sama on the wall, and I suddenly have this epiphany, that there’s nothing more I can or want to do to serve my empire. So I smash my window and turn into a hawk and fly away.”
“Is there a moral to that story?” asked the jihadist’s ghost.
“Hey, patience, Bomber al-Bashir. What I’m saying, friend, is…well, I’m not going to say Do what you want, because you probably don’t know what that is and if you’re anything like me or 92 percent of the general population, you probably never really will. You should find something that interests you, but don’t let it define you. I think just do whatever, and remember that what you do is only who you are if you let it be.”
I looked at the jihadist’s ghost.
“Don’t look at me, man,” he said. “I waged war on infidels like you for the promise of an eternal caliphate, and look where I ended up. If you see any sexy Persian sprites, send them this way, will you?”
That night, I laid out my course preference form on my table, closed my eyes, and placed a dot on the page with my fountain pen. It fell next to Mechatronic Engineering. I looked it up on Wikipedia and it sounded like a pretty okay choice.