Hollow Fires


By Samira Ahmed

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This powerful, gripping thriller from New York Times bestselling author, Samira Ahmed, shows the insidious nature of racism, the terrible costs of unearthing hidden truths—and the undeniable power of hope.
Safiya Mirza dreams of becoming a journalist. And one thing she’s learned as editor of her school newspaper is that a journalist’s job is to find the facts and not let personal biases affect the story. But all that changes the day she finds the body of a murdered boy.

Jawad Ali was fourteen years old when he built a cosplay jetpack that a teacher mistook for a bomb. A jetpack that got him arrested, labeled a terrorist—and eventually killed. But he’s more than a dead body, and more than “Bomb Boy.” He was a person with a life worth remembering.

Driven by Jawad’s haunting voice guiding her throughout her investigation, Safiya seeks to tell the whole truth about the murdered boy and those who killed him because of their hate-based beliefs.
This gripping and powerful book uses an innovative format and lyrical prose to expose the evil that exists in front of us, and the silent complicity of the privileged who create alternative facts to bend the truth to their liking.




Fact: Something that has a concrete, provable existence; an actual occurrence; an objective reality.

Alternative fact: A disguised falsehood presented as true. See Orwell, George, doublethink: the simultaneous acceptance of two mutually contradictory “facts” without a sense of conflict or cognitive dissonance.

Truth: A quality or state in accordance with reality; the actual or true state or nature of a person, place, thing, or event. Fidelity. Honesty.

Lie: A false or misleading impression. A deception you tell yourself so you can sleep at night.


JUNE 1, 2023

Fact: The dead can’t speak.

Truth: Sometimes the dead whisper to you, in the quiet: Don’t let them forget I was here once. Alive. Young. I was like you. I believed I would live forever.

You never forget the first time you see a dead body.

It was warmish for a Chicago winter. If the temperature hovering around freezing is warm. (In Chicago, it is.) There was the sickly sweet rotting smell of leaves that had fallen from trees, mixing with mud, never totally drying up before the first snow. The odor filled the air around the sloping embankments of a crumbling stone culvert that was lined with steel. The pipe was hidden by overgrown limp grass, deep in Jackson Park, in the part where no one ever goes because there are stories of ghosts and Mothman sightings. It’s not the restored part of the park—the blooming Japanese garden, the shiny metal sculpture of giant petals, the bike paths, and the Illinois prairie popping with blue cornflowers. It’s the neglected area by the abandoned arched bridge that leads to nowhere. No one ever went there because there was absolutely nothing to see. Until the time there was.

The first thing I saw was a shoe.

A charcoal-colored canvas sneaker. It was damp, and there was a curved winter salt stain along its side, where the shoe had gotten wet and then dried. And another, higher water mark. Then another. Like the rings in a tree trunk that tell you how old a tree was, how long it lived before it was cut down. A passing of time. Three rings of storms. Three rings of floods. Weathering them all alone.

I remember thinking that canvas sneakers were not a good footwear choice. They weren’t warm enough, even for a mild winter day. Your feet would be cold. It was too wet. Silly Safiya. The cold and wet don’t matter if you’re dead.

That’s when I should’ve stopped. Right there. Right then. Literally. In my tracks. Called the police, moved backward and not forward into a crime scene. Would’ve saved me a lecture from the police. Would’ve saved me from the image etched forever in my mind. Would’ve saved me. Period.

But I didn’t stop. Couldn’t. I’d made a promise to a dead boy. And I was going to see it through.

I could say it was solely the hodgepodge of clues and half-baked theories that had led me there. Or my desire for justice. Or my needling curiosity that my friend Asma called nosiness. But I’m not that good a liar. There was a voice. His voice. The voice of a dead boy. I didn’t want to believe it. But it was there, pulling me forward, reeling me in, asking me to find the true story. And to tell it.

I shined my light into the steel-lined culvert.

The shoe belonged to a body that led to a face I’ll never forget.

When you see a dead body, you freeze, a layer of ice forming under your skin. You stare one second longer—too long—and that ice shatters, and the truth of what you’re seeing cuts you in a million places. The body you’re looking at was a person who lived and breathed and was part of this world. And even though your brain can’t form a single clear thought, one idea burrows its way into your bones: This body—this person—is now part of you, forever. Not merely the memory of those empty, dark-brown eyes, or their crooked blue fingers, or the rigidness of their jaw, half-open in a silent scream. No. It’s not what they looked like that you never forget. (Even though you never forget that, either.) It’s that they never leave you. They are a part of your air. Your sweat. The blackness behind your eyes when you try to sleep. They were young. Too young. And now their too few memories are yours to protect. To hold. Their entire life was a beginning rushed to an end. They never got a middle. They never got the heart of their story.

At first you ignore it, the echo. But it never goes away. It’s quieter at times. The voice. And then louder. Pleading. Plaintive. Angry. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a metaphor. Sometimes the voice sounds like your own.

I’m more than lawyers’ exhibits presented at trial.

I’m more than the stenographer’s click-clack.

I’m more than the sum of small facts.

I’m more than a body.

My Journalism Ethics professor tells me that I can’t report on this story—I’m too close, even now, sixteen months after I found the body. He says my job is solely to find the verifiable, immutable facts. But those facts don’t give you the whole story. They don’t distill the truth of how it all happened, of why it was him. Of why it was me. Of what we owe the dead. Or how one death can change the way you look at the entire world.

Some facts barely scratch the surface of the truth.

Some facts obscure it.

Some facts are lies.

Some lies are necessary.

One fact that is the truth: Jawad Ali was fourteen years old when he was killed. And I’m the one who found him. One day he was a ninth grader. Then he was accused of being a terrorist. Then he was murdered. This isn’t my story to tell, not exactly. But I’m here, trying to gather the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Tugging at tangled threads of memory while the jury is still out. I could claim to be objective. But that would be a lie. And lies are what got us here in the first place.

News/Crunch Online Magazine

October 20, 2021


When Jawad Ali arrived at school Tuesday morning, he was excited to show off a cosplay jet pack he’d put together in an after-school class. But things didn’t go exactly as he’d hoped. His English teacher mistook the costume accessory for a bomb and alerted administrators, who called the Chicago Police Department.

In the transcript of the 911 call released by the police, English teacher Patricia Jensen can be heard frantically describing Ali as “an Arab student” who was wearing “something like a suicide bomber vest.”

“We’d been working on building new things from scraps and discarded items in the makerspace,” Ali, the son of Iraqi refugees, told reporters after he was cleared and released from custody. “So when I finished the jet pack over the weekend, I was super excited to show it to my teachers and the other kids, even though it wasn’t Halloween yet.” He continued: “I’m sad my English teacher thought I’d bring a bomb to school. Maybe she thought I was a terrorist because of my religion. Or because I’m Arab American. Why couldn’t she see me as a good student, though? A good kid.”

Chicago Police Department spokesperson Jim Leary told reporters, “Police attempted to question the juvenile multiple times, but all he kept saying was that it wasn’t real. He declined to give further details.” Ali was taken into custody to ascertain that he wasn’t “a sleeper, taught to blend in or distract,” Leary went on to say.

Upon the teen’s release, the police said he would not be charged with any crime for bringing a “suspicious object” to school.

Commander Phillip McCarthy said Ali should have been “more transparent and forthcoming” rather than repeatedly describing the device as a “jet pack.” McCarthy continued: “The department is cognizant of his age and, at this time, will not be charging him with any crimes, including a possible felony count of planting a hoax bomb.”

Ali is pleased he was cleared of all charges but remains suspended from school until Friday. “I don’t get it,” he said. “If the police cleared me, why can’t I go back to school? I have an algebra test this week.”


I made a jet pack. And they killed me for it.

It wasn’t even real. It was plastic and tubes, glue and paint. I wanted to be a steampunk inventor for Halloween because I’d seen this awesome old anime called Steamboy about a kid who liked to tinker and create stuff, kinda like me.

In fifth grade, some of the kids started calling me Contraption Kid because I loved inventing things. Because someone gave me a stick of gum, two paper clips, and a string, and I invented a tool to sneak Starbursts out of the bowl on the attendance secretary’s desk. It definitely wasn’t as quick and easy as walking by and pocketing a candy when her head was turned, but it was way more fun. She only bought the original flavors. But that was fine by me because orange was my favorite anyway. I wish I could taste orange now. I wish I could taste anything.

For our elementary school engineering contest, I made a bridge out of Popsicle sticks and tape that held 150 pennies! Twenty pennies more than anyone else’s. The trick was to turn the bridge upside down to hold the cup of pennies, to work against its natural bend. I got a ribbon for it and won a book about how to make cool stuff out of recyclables, called Hey! Don’t Throw It Away! My parents were so proud. Baba always used to say that flipping your thinking was sometimes the best way to come up with an answer to a tough problem. Building that bridge was the first time I understood what he meant. My dad used to say a lot of stuff that went over my head.

Then this fall, right after I started ninth grade, the physics teacher organized an after-school club in the makerspace where we could work on our own projects. When I decided I wanted to build a jet pack for my costume, Ms. Ellis was totally into it. Recycle! Reuse! Repurpose! she’d always say. She knew exactly what I was doing. Saw my sketch and approved it. We’d been taking apart old electronics, like radios and TVs with dials and antennas, and Ms. Ellis said I could use any materials I could salvage. I was so excited, I took the whole project home to finish two weeks before Halloween.

My jet pack turned out so cool. I built it from two empty plastic soda bottles that I turned upside down and glued together, then linked with black plastic tubes—the stretchy kind you sometimes see on a vacuum. I added a TV knob and a dial from an old radio that had numbers from 88 to 108—its little needle was stuck on 96. Glued the whole thing to a ripped backpack I found in the trash.

I painted the pieces bronze and silver with leftover paint Baba kept in our building’s basement, the same colors we used to upcycle the old pink bike our neighbor gave me when I was seven and we didn’t have money to buy a new one.

I couldn’t wait for Halloween to show Ms. Ellis the jet pack, so I took it in early. She loved it. “Being creative takes courage,” she told me. “Never forget that.” She had that look in her eyes that teachers sometimes get when you surprise them in a good way. I had the jet pack with me in English class, but when Ms. Jensen saw it, she said it looked like a bomb. I thought she was joking at first. I mean, it was painted soda bottles! I didn’t even know what a real bomb looked like. But she kind of freaked out. Not the yelling kind of freaked out. The real quiet kind. The kind that’s so much scarier. Her face turned gray, and she started stepping away from me. I shrugged and headed to my next class.

They walked me out the school door on a bright October day in handcuffs. Hands behind my back, like I was a criminal. I told them over and over that it was a jet pack for my Halloween costume. But it was like they didn’t understand English. I was trying so hard not to cry. All I kept thinking, kept saying, was It’s not real. It’s a jet pack. It’s not real. It’s not real. Please. Kids were in the hallway taking pictures, livestreaming, whispering.

I thought that was the worst day of my life. Turned out, I was dead wrong.


The news reports kept calling us Iraqis. Eye-rack-eez. That’s how they said it. Like we weren’t Americans at all. Like my parents and I didn’t have US passports. Like my mom didn’t protect them like prized possessions. But that wasn’t the story the reporters wanted to tell. This was:




In my real life, on my first day back from my three-day suspension for the “bomb hoax,” someone had taped a shooting target—the kind that looks like a bull’s-eye—to my locker. Then someone yelled at me. Others started yelling, too. Like a chant: Bomb Boy. Bomb Boy. Bomb Boy.

At that moment, right then, it felt like I was dying inside. Turns out, that’s not what dying feels like at all. Dying was fast, but also slow. And cold. And hard. I barely had time to scream for help before it all ended. Before all my words were ripped away from me.

When I went back to school after the bomb hoax suspension, my parents told me I couldn’t go to the after-school makerspace club anymore, at least for the rest of the quarter. Even though I’d been cleared. Even though I promised not to make anything else that could seem suspicious. When I went to tell Ms. Ellis, I thought she was going to cry.

“Don’t let hate crush your creativity,” she said. “Don’t let them take away your shine.”

I looked down at my shoes and whispered, “It’s that… my parents want me home right after school from now on.”

Ms. Ellis nodded her head. “I understand. I’m sorry for… everything. It will get better. I promise.” She put her hands together like she was praying.

Now, even though it’s too late to matter, I realize that sometimes adults—even the good ones—make promises they know aren’t true. Promises made of fancy words they know they can’t keep. I think they mean well. They probably think the truth is too sharp. But false hope cuts, too. At least it did when I was alive to feel things.

Ghosts don’t have to go to school. I’m not saying that because it’s the silver lining. It’s that we don’t have to go anywhere. But I visited Bethune anyway. I wasn’t sure where else to go. It was the morning. First period. And I was never late to school. I guess habits stick around even when you don’t need them to.

But going back to my old school, standing in the middle of the hall with everyone walking by me, almost made me feel actual pain again, like that thing when you lose an arm but feel it anyway. A phantom limb. In some ways it was barely different from when I was a real boy. No one really saw me then, either.

Except Ms. Ellis.

I thought maybe she’d be able to see me now. Hear me. She looked sad sitting there at her desk. I got kind of close to her. For a second, she stopped her grading. Almost looked up. I was so close. But then she shook her head and picked up her pen again. I think she blames herself for what happened to me, because she ran the makerspace club after school, because she encouraged me, because that was the beginning of my end. I don’t blame her, though. It wasn’t her fault at all. She was one of the kind adults, the ones who cared. I never told her that I knew she was on my side. That I appreciated her. Maybe she knows? I hope she knows. I hope she won’t let them take away her shine, either.

Then I visited my old locker. They never reassigned it. Maybe they think it’s haunted. (Spoiler: It is.) It’s empty. A shell. Three days after my suspension had ended, someone duct-taped another sign to my locker: Go home, raghead! I peeled it off, but sticky residue from the tape is still there. That stripe of tacky gunk outlasted me.


JANUARY 18, 2022

Fact: Seeing is believing.

Truth: Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Sometimes your brain tricks you by showing you what you want to see, even if it’s not real.

I didn’t see it until they took the boy away… took Jawad’s body and loaded it into the back of an ambulance.

When they turned it over—turned him over—I noticed how gentle they were. The rubber-gloved hands of the EMTs worked in unison, like a machine, but softly, with their voices hushed, making no unnecessary sounds. As if he could feel the pressure on his cold, bruised skin; as if his ears could be damaged from loud noises. Even still, when they moved him from the culvert to the stretcher, his body landed on the vinyl green pad with a quiet thud. I cringed.

Right before they covered his body with a gray blanket—the kind they’d wrapped around my shoulders because I couldn’t stop shivering—I saw a tiny glint of silver and blue dangling from his belt loop, a flash in the cold sun. A flicker of something vaguely familiar, a dulled hook snagging at a wisp of childhood memories. I shook my head and closed my eyes, in case I’d imagined it, but when I opened them, it was still there: a key chain, a small silver hand of Fatima, a blue and white stone at its center. A promise of protection.


The police never gave me my jet pack back. Guess they destroyed it to make sure it wasn’t a bomb. It meant I didn’t have a costume for Halloween, which was okay because I didn’t feel much like dressing up anymore. A couple weeks after I got back from suspension, things finally started quieting down. “Bomb Boy” stuck, but mostly life was getting back to normal. My parents even said I could maybe go back to makerspace club after winter break.

That’s when I started getting the texts. I ignored them. I’d gotten real good at ignoring things I didn’t want to see or hear. I never told my parents. I didn’t want to worry them even more. I was trying to be a good son. They both seemed so tired after my arrest. Even their bodies moved slower, like they were kind of broken. Like they got old overnight.

I guess I should have told them about the texts. I guess I should’ve told someone. But it was easier to pretend that nothing was happening. That everything was okay. All I needed to do, I thought, was keep my head down. Keep my eyes on my own paper. Keep my mouth shut. Disappear. I tried to make myself invisible. Turned out I was too good at it. Turned out vanishing was my superpower.

I died clutching my key chain. That silver hand of Fatima I’d held on to for so many years and always had with me. I thought about the last time I needed it, when I was a real boy.

Now all I am is a whisper in the dark to a girl who doesn’t want to believe in ghosts. How do I get Safiya to believe in me? I need someone to believe in me.

State’s Exhibit 1

Text messages sent to Jawad Ali, Nov 8–11, 2021, via Burner app

Stare into the abyss, and the abyss stares back

This is the way the Bomb Boy ends. This is the way the Bomb Boy ends. Not with a bang but a whimper

Nobody is more inferior than those who insist on being equal

Bomb Boy. Bomb Boy. Tick Tick Tick Tick…

If you want me to believe in your Redeemer, you’re going to have to look a lot more redeemed


JANUARY 3, 2022

Fact: There are no monsters under your bed at night.

Truth: The monsters are all walking around in the daylight.

No one wanted to talk about the letter our mosque got the week before Christmas. No one, not even my parents, wanted to consider it a real threat. But “threat” was the only way to describe it:

Dear Muslim Scum,

We will be coming to your mosque. It will be a massacre on a scale never seen. Christchurch will pale in comparison. You can pray all you want to your God.

But God is Dead.

Everyone wanted us to go around like it was a regular December. Fa la friggin’ la. Deck the halls. Down the eggnog. Fire up the TV yule log. A normal winter break—for Muslims whose mosque had been sent a letter about a possible mass shooting. Nothing to see there, I guess. The note had been postmarked on December 16 in London. London. Why the hell would anyone in England want to threaten a small community mosque on the South Side of Chicago? How did they even know we existed? The police gave us extra patrols at Jummah after the community pushed for it, but generally the police department was treating the letter like a prank.

All the adults kept saying we shouldn’t let them scare us. Ummm? Why not? It was scary. I panicked when I first heard about the note. A massacre worse than Christchurch? Over fifty people were killed there! Our mosque was basically a neighborhood storefront. Even for Eid we probably didn’t get more than fifty or seventy-five people for prayers. Why target us?

My parents kept reminding me that we’d seen worse. They remembered 9/11. I didn’t, so I wasn’t around to witness that fallout. But I was here for the first Muslim ban. And the second. And America’s ongoing, relentless wars in the Middle East that started before I was born and that, honestly, I’ve never been able to fully distinguish or understand. One giant, endless conflict with a lot of nameless dead civilians. Killed by drones, which somehow made Americans feel less responsible, because drones aren’t people. But only a person can issue a kill command.

Was it comforting for my parents and the aunties and uncles to know we’d been through worse? Maybe there was some twisted adult logic to that, but it didn’t exactly feel like a warm blanket on a cold night.

That was the first week of winter break, and it was quiet after. I started thinking that maybe my mom was right: It will pass, beta. Anonymous haters are all bark and no bite. Aside from the weirdness of her casually dropping “haters” into the conversation, I started to forget, too.


  • "With Hollow Fires, Samira Ahmed offers us an impossible-to-put-down thriller that is both spectacularly haunting and deeply thoughtful. Safiya and Jawad are not narrators we usually see, and their harrowing story is a wholly original commentary on perception, community, and the way society weighs one life against another." —Sabaa Tahir #1 NYT bestselling author of An Ember in the Ashes
  • "A powerful, timely, and relentlessly compelling read. Hollow Fires burns brightly with Samira Ahmed's trademark blend of thought-provoking social relevance, heartfelt coming-of-age, and whip-smart plotting."—Karen M. McManus, #1 New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying
  • "The book presents a ripped-from-the-headlines story that will be an easy sell both in terms of theme and topic."—School Library Connection
  • "A deeply chilling, inventive, and timely page-turner."Kirkus, starred review
  • "Weaving alternating perspectives with articles and other media quotes, both real and fictional, this drives an all-too-real story that educates as much as it enthralls."—Booklist
  • "Ahmed weaves evocative prose with images, articles, and text messages to explore with skill and depth the twining of social media in an age of misinformation, alt-right political movements, and racism and Islamophobia."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "Ahmed offers up a twisty, thrilling mystery while deploying the details of the crime as a framework for her exploration of Islamophobia and how wealth and privilege shield criminals from suspicion. The Chicago setting and the ultimate revelations of the horrific act call up elements of the Leopold and Loeb murders... it also makes a timely whodunnit that will satisfy any reader looking for a mystery, rich in secrets and social commentary."—BCCB
  • "In a novel that cleverly uses time jumps; alternates narration (between Safiya and ghost Jawad); and occasionally incorporates text messages, newspaper articles, and the like, Ahmed positions her story in the larger context of a racially divided world."—Horn Book
  • *"Her devastating and inspiring book is at once a gripping thriller and a passionate call for change that’s urgent and timely—and sadly, also timeless."
     —Book Page
  • "This impassioned ride toward the truth, based on a true story, will make readers think about the media bites they consume and white youth’s easy access to radicalization."School Library Journal, starred review

On Sale
May 10, 2022
Page Count
416 pages