The TV said the bombing was claimed by the Taliban, who’d convinced the informant—a man, a doctor, a father—to kill himself for the greater good of killing high-ranking U.S.intelligence officials who believed he was on their side, a Taliban supporter turned CIA aide, though in truth he was a triple agent, as the TV now calls him, his mix of allegiances complex and uncertain.
I am led into a small room that seems sloppily arranged and unprepared for my visit. I expected bodies to be visible—more than one—including tags on the toes like I’d seen on TV. Julia is here, in this building, as far as I understand, but I do not have to ID the body. Apparently they had records on her so extensive there was no need. I am left uncertain with this news, standing straight, arms at my sides, staring at the natty white toes of my own New Balances. I don’t say anything, though I am thinking many things. For one, what exactly brought me and my wife here? How have I reached this point in the path, having never known the road leading here?
I would have preferred the cold comfort of one of the chrome places, the drawers, the little tufts of breath escaping the living in the refrigerated depths of some hospital, rather than this arguably sweat-smelling room-temperature office with its bad fluorescent lighting. I finally manage to ask can I see my wife. The man looks back at me—his rheumy eyes nearly empty of expression and essentially yellow—and says they don’t have her here. For a moment I question this news, want to demand some sort of answer, but feel the floor beneath starting to give way, the world opening up. I know not to ask any more questions. I try waiting for the sensation to pass, but nothing changes. It is like a dizziness that comes from outside of me. He nods and stands, retrieves something from a low cabinet behind him. The man motions for me to sit and begins pulling pages from a manila envelope.
There is paperwork to fill out.
My wife is dead.
My wife was killed three days ago. I am finding out so many things this morning—once the news leaked the names of the victims—that I cannot begin to file them away. I want to discretely tag every item, like the toes of the waiting in the morgue I’d imagined. I want to file all the information away, to mark it with asterisks, to have it discrete and orderly, to know where it is coming from.
My daughter is still at school. I have taken the day off work, was told to take the day off work. I stand still for a moment more, the world still tenuous beneath me, my own existence seeming to deliberate, to balance between unknown poles, and I wait.
The front page of the newspaper shows my wife’s picture and describes her as “the highest ranking officer killed,” and says she “initiated contact with the informant through his handler, who was also killed in the explosion.” The man had supposedly turned against his compatriots, been convinced to offer information on al-Zawahiri, had visited the FOB where my wife was working enough that he could enter without being searched, without anyone finding what was pressed between his shirt and his heart. He walked in and took my wife from me in a sharp flash of dust, chemical, and air.
Michelle’s classroom is well-lit, a wall of windows showering the rows of knee-high desks with afternoon sunlight. Along the wall above the windows runs an alphabet, letters marching in lines the way they tell children to, the way crosswalk signs signal to drivers.
There is a chalkboard at the head of the room, which I find so quaint it seems fake, out of place. It is green, with pastel lettering smudged across the upper right quadrant, names listed under a line reading CHECKS, in all caps. Michael, David, Surhi, Alicia, Racquel, Michelle. There are tidy, furious checks beside the names.
I am called here today because of an incident.
Michelle’s name, as her teacher explains, has never yet been on the chalkboard.
After entering, I am ushered to a short chair. Michelle’s teacher Ms. Winters is likely no older than I am but somehow everything about her seems to have been subsumed to her job, to the role of kindergarten teacher. She is dressed in a jumper, a coral cotton turtleneck beneath it bearing an image of a kitten batting at a ball of yarn. Her hair is brown, a bun at the back tied tight to her head. The lines around her eyes and the way she smiles suggest to me she is an inauthentic person; I know this is not fair, but I have a strong sense about her just upon shaking her hand and being welcomed into the room. She is not just what she seems; somewhere someone else hides deep inside her.
“You know, I’ve always thought it was just so sweet of Michelle,” she says, about the incident. My daughter apparently has a habit of telling her classmates she loves them. “All the time, I mean, I hear her during recess, telling the boys and the girls and everybody that she loves them, ‘I love you, I love you;’ that they’re her best friend.”
I am distracted. I keep wondering whom this woman was years ago, whom she may have been when she was Michelle’s age, when in college. What kind of life she’d led and who she was when she went home, whether she could act one way around these children and inside be thinking completely other thoughts.
“But, I’ve also noticed, she doesn’t always catch on when the kids lie to her. This one or that one will tell her to say something, to do something, tell her some mean joke, and she never suspects, never doubts them, no matter how clear it is that what they are telling her is not true.”
I don’t know if it has anything to do with my wife, if it has anything to do with anything, but sitting here across from this almost caricature of a woman I feel the cruelest parts of me emerging. I feel bigger than her, stronger than her, and want for some reason to be mean, to hurt her in some sense, indicate to her how in control I am, how petty everything about her is.
“But, today we had an incident, and I thought you should know. I gave Michelle a check so she would know to not do that again.”
My wife, I think. You don’t understand, you don’t get to tell me anything about my daughter. You don’t know us, don’t have the least little idea about anything you’re talking about. “What was the ‘incident?’”
“We sometimes will get bothered. By passersby, visitors, you know.”
I have no idea.
“During today’s recess, we were outside and—there’s little we can do to prevent this type of thing, you understand—but a man approached the outer fence and he started speaking with her and apparently told her to come out around the fence to meet him, to leave the school and follow him, and she did, she started to leave—”
“Where were you? Who was supposed to be watching her?”
“Well, it wasn’t like we let her leave. She was way off in the corner of the playground when she started speaking to him, but when she started trying to walk her way around to the fence’s gate, we immediately stopped her, and she explained that the man had asked her to leave with him, but by that time he had seen us and taken off and, well. That was that.”
I don’t understand. She called me here because someone almost took my daughter? Did he almost take my daughter? I mean, who was he? I think suddenly of the Pied Piper, entrancing children and leading them away with a song. “Don’t you find that unnerving? She had no worries, no second guesses, she would have walked out and away and followed him just because he asked her to. Doesn’t that seem odd to you, at her age? Doesn’t that scare you?”
Scare me? Does that scare me? Isn’t that just a kid thing to do, to trust people and follow people you shouldn’t? Isn’t that also the basic premise of every parent’s nightmare, that some lurking evil would one day come up and steal his kid away, take all he had left?
But I also knew this could happen, I had been warned. Our pediatrician sat us down a long time ago, Julia and I, and explained a condition he believed Michelle had. It was so long ago I’d forgotten, and had started to hope there was nothing to remember, that everything was going to be fine.
“Why is this,” I start to say, but can’t get the sentence out. Worth my time, I might have finished the thought, worth you dragging me down here like this. There is nothing wrong with my daughter, nothing that merits you calling me up, you questioning whether I think this odd, whether this scares me. Of course it scares me. Everything scares me. My wife is dead, someone killed my fucking wife, do you understand? But I refuse to believe there is any threat that comes from inside my daughter. It is all out there, it is what she needs to be protected from, by me, by you. I cannot believe the problems are in us; it is the things we don’t know about that we must be most afraid of, not the things we trust the most. But I can’t say anything. I am crying. It has been a bad week already.
She looks at me, but just sits there. I would like to think she empathizes, understands what her news has brought to the surface for me. Nothing is safe anymore.
Some minutes pass, and I become aware of my breathing, and am able to focus on that and bring myself back, calm my thoughts down. She sits there, her arms crossed over her breasts under the kitten on her shirt.
“My wife,” I start to say.
“I know.” She sits, impassive, a minute more, then stands and returns with a Kleenex in her outstretched hand.
I reach up and take it, swallowing my own hard breaths, trying to recover myself. “Well, what do we do now?”
The radio says about the suicide bombing by the time my wife and her colleagues died, Afghanistan was a forgotten war, an effort that had lost all sense of purpose. While a nation fought over how to end—one way or another—the fraudulent war in Iraq, my wife had been seven months among a dwindling force working to gain some ground against invisible, ubiquitous enemies by forging real human connections, or trying to, with the ravaged faces of those whose country they awoke in, went to sleep in, evidently offered futile prayers in.
Nightmares are just dreams. In my bed, my eyes rolling open to scan the dark shapes of the room, I dream intermittently of the unknown man’s face, looming suddenly up at me, death in his eyes, death in everything about him. In my dreams, he is a shapeless, malevolent terror, without purpose. His face emerges terribly close to me, but I can’t move away, can’t do anything about it. The dream is mostly made up of the anticipation of his face, which brings its own end. I never feel heat or burning or pain or shrapnel in the dreams; never see anything other than the proximity of his face, its awful gaze.
In real life, the man who killed my wife was just a man. His purpose was not terrible as much as ugly, pitiable, the desperation of a man in a desperate and endlessly unforgiving situation. A man who had nothing, whose thoughts were turned toward redemption, toward doing some lesser evil—killing the killers was an act of least wrong in a world where there was no right, no morality left—in the name of god and country, who believed to sacrifice what scraps remained of his own life would perhaps help end the endless war, save some one, or some few, of his countrymen, his neighbors, his family. In real life, he was a man who was given a burden by others, and who wore a vest of cheaply constructed bomb, whose body was torn apart as his burden was discharged, probably in great pain. I wonder, did the bits of shrapnel and the force of the explosion that were directed out at those he killed carry parts of his flesh? As his body was bombed into nothing did it envelop all those around him in the same scorching pain? As the bomb destroyed each of them, did it make a new whole, a unity? Or did the bomb only break everything down, make everything farther apart?
And how long did it take my wife to die, once he’d set off what he carried?
I get out of bed. Michelle is asleep in her room. It occurs to me I will never know the thoughts of my wife’s murderer, of my wife, of my daughter. All I have is the world of these bodies, occupying space. I wish just once I could know what thoughts run through Michelle’s head, how it is she understands the world. I wish I could understand the moment of my wife’s death, when the man’s suicidal murder was clear. I wish I could know that through her thoughts. I would like to think I could take some solace from something there. In truth those thoughts were likely banal, without shape.
The glow of the TV leaks into the kitchen as I take a bottle of water from the fridge, hold it to my head. The nightmare’s creeping sense of the man’s face appearing at any time lingers well past my waking up, extends to me now in the cold kitchen. The TV does little to take this away. The sound of the TV in the otherwise empty house is a comfort, a connection, a reason not to sleep. I change channels, and continue, looking for nothing in particular.
As the doctor described Michelle’s disease, William’s disease he’d called it, he said this—however improbable it might seem to me—is a symptom: she does not distrust, she lacks the ability to doubt, to question what information is given to her, from whatever source. He asked if we noticed her telling people and things she loved them often. We thought maybe he was an asshole. He put forth she didn’t, know exactly what love meant, but that in her way she did basically feel it, feel a complete openness and trust with the people and objects she was surrounded by. I didn’t believe what he’d said, disbelieved that it was a real thing. What kind of disease is defined by someone’s—and especially a child’s—tendency to be trusting, to be kind?
I take Michelle to get ice cream. I am trying still to figure out how to explain to her that her mother is not coming home. She orders cookie dough, I get a watermelon lemonade. We sit outside; it’s sunny and hot. Michelle is the type who licks her cone and takes cautious bites with no strategy, no attempt to keep the melting ice cream from running over the rim of her cone and down onto her hands. Which is exactly what it does. She is six. I don’t blame her for this.
I consider again what exactly I should tell her about her mother. About where we’ll each be going tonight—me to the wake, she to her friend’s house for an overnight—about where we’ll be tomorrow. I’m debating whether she shouldn’t go to the funeral. I don’t think she needs to be there tonight. Her mother’s body won’t be shown, anyway; my wife’s body—her remains, as they keep saying—will be hidden, already buried, during the gathering and the obligatory Our Father. Art in Heaven. We will be burying an empty coffin, a surrogate.
Michelle insists on holding my hand as we get up and start walking along the sidewalk, back toward the car. “Hey, how’d you like to go to Shay’s tonight, Shell? Spend the night at her house?”
“Sure,” she chirps. Unquestioning. She is not anxious to be away from me, but is not anxious to stay either. We walk hand in hand to the car.
“Hey, Shell,” I say, starting the car, pulling out into traffic. “I have to tell you something.” It feels like the words aren’t mine, like they’re a script, something I’m performing, something I’ve heard someone else say. I should be kneeling, doing this someplace else. Sit her down, kneel before her or sit beside her, eyes at her level, I can picture this, have maybe seen such a scene before. I understand at some level I am not doing this right. My own parents are still alive. I’ve never lost anyone close to me, haven’t had to go through anything like this before. All I want to do is lie in bed; I long for it, to just say forget it, Shell, and take us both home and pull my knees to my chest under the covers, pull the duvet over my head, huddle there tight like that for as long as it takes, shutting out the light. It’s already been four days, four days since every small detail of my life changed from what I knew to this sinkhole feeling of uncertainty, the overpowering awareness of how small I am, how big the world around me, how many things are out of my control. I can’t imagine returning to work. A gut-level feeling of dread rolls nauseatingly up. I talk to keep from thinking about it now.
“Okay,” she says, her voice childlike and unaware.
“I need you to understand something,” I tell her, still driving, not looking at her. “Mom’s not going to be coming home.” I’ve said it before I really meant to, I’ve taken the cowardly route, telling her while I’m driving, my senses basically numb, my eyes not even registering the road in front of me.
A car behind me pulls past, close. I have to step heavy on the brakes to stop at a red light. I wait too long after it’s turned green.
“Do you want to know what happened? I mean, do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I guess so.” She is nervous, but it is because of me, not what I’m saying.
“Well, honey,” I consider this for a moment, pausing between words. I don’t believe in anything—God, heaven, an afterlife. I don’t believe in any of it, know better than that, but I guess maybe I always held out some sliver of hope that maybe there was something that could give life purpose, meaning, help anchor us in our careening through time and space like cars without brakes, objects thrown that meet no resistance. But what am I supposed to tell her, tell Michelle about a man who killed himself and her mother for a cause farther away from her world than I can begin to map?
“Did she die?”
I can’t recreate those words, can’t take them in, can’t repeat them back out. They’re just words that way. No intrinsic value or meaning or significance. But what they were like when she said them was more than I could take. I pull the car to a curb. The ice cream has now carved a sticky net over Michelle’s hand.
“Yes,” I say, “she did.” I try to turn to Michelle, to say something more, to sooth, to explain. The feeling of the void opening all around me is intense and sudden, an anchorless, directionless floating sensation. “She’s gone,” I say to neither Michelle nor myself. To no one, who is the only one left.
Julia’s coworkers—fellow agents—shake my hand and tell me she was a strong woman, great sense of humor, that she was a tireless leader who cared about everyone (stories are told, anecdotes about this other woman), knew even the lowest contact’s name and background, cared about details, never forgot a thing, a loving and a charitable woman, who spoke often of me and of Michelle, our daughter, who served her country, who was faithful and loved her god. This is not what I remember, not the woman I knew.
I tie my tie with shaking fingers. Michelle is kicking her legs over the edge of my bed in the mirror, idly watching me. She wears a black dress.
“What do you think happens to us when we die?”
“What do you mean?” I’d largely neglected talking about this though I had meant to, to resolve something about what I should say to her, know enough at least to lead her in the right direction—psychologically—to not fuck her up somewhere down the road by answering her questions in damaging ways.
“Well, Shay’s mom said when we die we go to Heaven, that God wanted Mommy and so I shouldn’t be sad, that she’s in Heaven now.”
“Some people think that’s what happens, that after our bodies die our spirits live in Heaven.”
“Do you think that?”
“I don’t know, Shell.” I’ve stopped tying my tie. The idea of Heaven seems so artificial I am angry Shay’s mom would do this to my daughter. My daughter who doesn’t know better, who is incapable of realizing it is a lie meant to make her feel better.
“I think there is a heaven because I dreamed of mommy last night.”
I look at her. Her face and features don’t betray any sense of self-awareness, of guile or irony. “You dreamed about her?”
“Well, what was she doing in your dream?”
“She was making breakfast.”
Once we step outside the light is raw and colorless, the world bleached and nauseating. I strap Michelle into the passenger seat and we drive to the funeral home. We’ll have time with Julia’s parents and mine, with friends and family, to see the empty casket and the flowers that surround it before this is moved to the church down the street. We’ll watch the pallbearers—these other agents, military people I’ve just met—carry and load it into the hearse, and we’ll lead the line of cars. A priest will speak about her, about her undying faithfulness, service, charity, and honor. A flag will be folded and presented to me. I will not know I am crying until I can’t breathe, as a teenage-looking corporal plays Amazing Grace. Lost but now am found. Grace, my fears relieved. The hour I first believed.
Thankfully, I am not expected to do much. Her colleagues and brethren at arms speak on her behalf. I am lost, bright shining as the sun; I am blinded. They talk about America, about the war, about heroism, patriotism, the ultimate sacrifice for her country. I am alternately angry and dull drunk, my anger numbed by the certain sense of a mistake: this is not the woman I met, I lived with, loved. This is some abstraction; an empty coffin. They aren’t talking about any person. They are talking about some no-person that makes this easier for all of them. A flawless woman who died like a hero serving her country. What does that mean? There are so many layers of lie, I can’t catch my breath.
What about me? What about what she told me? How she was with me, who she was with me? What about our daughter’s trust, our daughter who doesn’t know yet how to distrust, can’t possibly be expected to just accept that her mother lied, was filled with lies; that she lied for her country and was killed by some other liar, lying for different reasons? Who will answer for these questions?
We lead the train of cars once more as we make our way to the cemetery itself. There is little left here to do: a consecration, much more weeping, I stand in the awful daylight, stare into the offal laid bare by the hole the casket will be lowered into, is lowered into, a stand of flowers on an easel to the side of the golden-looking rails as it is lowered through.
Michelle and I are hugged, touched, have our hands clasped, by loved ones, strangers, officers, agents, friends. A lone photojournalist lurks distantly.
My wife’s tombstone is as raw white and migrainous as the rippled cirrus above and the blank chalky light that radiates through it. The air breathes empty—not crisp, but empty, the chemical nonsmell of a dead place. This is a field of stones, each marking some lost memory, occluding some last moment. I hold Michelle’s hand. Her grandmother holds the other. We begin, as the others do, to leave, to turn from the false green of the turf lining the mouth of the open grave, to turn from this pretense of a burial, this translation of what’s real into symbols, concepts, encomia, elegies, and as we do Michelle lets go my hand and her grandmother’s and moves to her mother’s stone, the marker that remains. She leans down and kisses the face of it. “I love you,” she says.
Her grandmother is wiping tears through thick makeup now, as Michelle returns to walk with us. We make our way through a lane of headstones toward the paved roadway and the line of cars. We are halfway there, walking through the grass, when Michelle lets go our hands, stops, and kisses a stone—this time that of a stranger, an object that means nothing—and says, brightly but earnestly, “I love you.”
The news reports this quote from the soon-to-be bomber from a jihadi internet site interview supposedly conducted some months before the attack: “They say ‘there’s love that kills.’ I see that as true in the love of jihad; this love either kills you in repentance for choosing to sit away from jihad, or kills you as a martyr for the cause of Allah if you choose to go to jihad, and the human must choose between these two deaths.”
It is days later and I am laying here, on top of the covers on my bed, diagonal across the space two bodies used to occupy, and thinking of Ms. Winters, Michelle’s teacher. Her self-effacing kitten shirt. I have to assume it is ironic. It just doesn’t make sense for a grown woman to wear overalls and a kitten shirt and oversized white sneakers like that unknowingly, meaning the opposite of what she’s saying, being the opposite of what I’m seeing. I know no one is that sincere, is true to that self. She has to be ironic, has to be lying. I am not stupid and clearly she isn’t either. She can’t possibly mean what she says, what she is. Or is it not her, but me? Am I incapable of understanding she really can be this person who without guile wears this kitten shirt, is this earnest, unembarrassed self.
And, then, I think of Julia, the first time she took her shirt off in front of me, turned her back to the closet. Her bare beautiful back. Her arms draped across her chest when she turned to face me. I felt then like I really knew her. We were just dating at that time. Like I really knew her, like we were together and connected and everything else was out there, was other, was far away from us, we two. I picture her, that same beautiful woman, that face, as she sees the man approaching; I picture her at the moment she understands he is going to kill her, kill himself, however exactly that becomes clear to her. I picture her coming forward to greet the man, and then seeing what he is there to do, what he is revealing. I picture my wife’s desire to stop the man from doing this, to reason with him, to talk to him about life and death and what he is giving up and for what reason. To make him understand, to make him feel, to stop his fear and tell him he doesn’t have to do this, no matter what else, he doesn’t have to die now, to choose to die, right now. I picture the moment she knows it is too late. Knowing that after this comes nothing. Knowing that the man does this act on his own, that they die all at the same time from the same force but they die alone.
I roll to my side, pull my knees up, and I let the feeling come over me, the world dropping away, everything certain disappearing, the floor beneath the bed absent, invisible. There is nothing there now; there is nothing where there once was something. It is just emptiness, space, endless falling.
An hour later, I am still there, the world still tenuous, the floor somewhere impossibly far away, all I can see is the window which shows nothing, my knees clenched to my gut, my arms tight, my head thick with spin, an unknowable is taking over my thoughts, an endless emptiness, the vertiginous sense that everything is dropping away, and I almost don’t hear Michelle’s voice, don’t register her entering my room, I almost don’t even know she is there as she comes to the bed, as she reaches out and puts her hand on my shoulder, as she says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Michael Sheehan is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute in Liberal Arts. He is a former editor-in-chief of Sonora Review, and currently the reviews editor and an assistant fiction editor for DIAGRAM. He was a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, where he was the founding fiction editor for Devil’s Lake. His fiction and reviews have appeared recently in The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, and Conjunctions.
Photo credit: Alamy, telegraph.co.uk