Fallujah in a Mirror

James Janko
Photograph by Batuhan Doğan on Unsplash

November 2004



Jack Sheppard

The View


The stars are numberless, the earth lit with fires. A bridge is burning. A minaret is burning. A hospital is burning. A school is burning. Every bomb is accurate if the target is wide enough. Fallujah is a flame.

We, the Americans, have technology, every conceivable weapon, as well as those that confound even their inventors. They, the insurgents—whoever they are—fight back with stones and prayers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), shining swords and rocket-propelled grenades, plus enough rage to one day fill the desert with fire. Tonight, however, they dig holes, retreat into bunkers, crevices, the remnants of a city. I watch from a sandbagged roof as an F-18 fighter jet bombs a nearby neighborhood illuminated by white phosphorous, a row of middle-class homes with balconies, a new office building, a police station, a newsstand, a hint of civilization that twists into a tower of flames before collapsing in rubble. The war is physics. Heat rises, stones fall. My knowledge is spare after eight months of war.



I am a Marine, a rifleman, a mirror of countless others. Two of us died before we could secure this three-story building, this sandbagged roof. PFC Hernández bled to death on the third floor, in a small bedroom. Sergeant Dombrowski died on the stairwell between the first and second floors when he triggered an IED. PFC Kairns, who can sniff out traps better than any German Shepherd in the USMC, should’ve walked point. Dogs often work with us, but they lack the range and subtlety of a human being gone mad. Dombrowski, on the eve of his death, offered Kairns one hundred dollars if he could tell him “in plain English what an IED smells like.” Kairns seldom speaks. He must have needed those greenbacks because he rubbed his hands briskly, then folded them as in prayer. “Sparks,” he said. “A hint of warmth. Electricity.” But how can a man smell such things? How? Dombrowski kept asking till Kairns shut him up with a glare that could peel paint. To speak of magic is to lose it. He’d already said too much.

Dombrowski refused to pay. “Plain English,” he said. “I don’t hear it yet.” My main job, and more essential than being a rifleman, is to remember names, conditions, plus a few words that might be salvaged from wreckage. I’ve learned that language, at best, is approximate. We lost a Marine yesterday, PFC Andy Summers, in an alley four blocks away. At this point, there aren’t actual blocks in West Fallujah, just debris, enormous heaps of cinder and stone and metal, gutted vehicles littering streets and intersections, and here and there a tree, skeletal, its trunk scarred, burned, streaks of gray and black at its base. This city doesn’t know it’s dead. Now and then some fanatic cries “Allahu Akbar” and fires a rocket through the smoke.

Dombrowski and Hernández will fly home in caskets because Lieutenant Sanderson, who thinks too much, refused to let Kairns walk point. Sanderson decided to give Kairns “a much-needed rest.” Our spectacled leader forgot, or never knew, that the best of us become calm and clear when we’re almost dead, when a wayward step or a stray thought may be our last. A Marine, especially a point man, should never think in terms of an entire war, or a battle for a city, or even a firefight, a skirmish. His mission is to survive this moment and this and this. To concentrate is to constrict, to abide in the present. No one has keener senses than a man almost dead.

This is the hardest truth to tell. Kairns, during a lull, sweats and shakes and sometimes needs our assistance just to light a Marlboro or untie his boots. In those easy hours, he shames us. He holds up for us a looking glass we would rather avoid. Kairns—because he can’t help it—widens his focus, loses his pinpoint concentration. He becomes frail, vulnerable, obscene. A common fate for a soldier: He’s flat-fuck worthless unless he’s almost dead.


Radio static. LT Sanderson cradles the handset, listens, tries to catch the words. Base-ment. I hear this twice, the syllables broken. Sanderson, bent over, his body the shape of a question mark, hears it too. Now a message arrives in code, radio jargon, but we know what it means: Search the basement under you from gullet to gut…. One squad, two others in reserve. Engage but capture alive. Use necessary restraint.

There’s a little roundelay of bitching and blustering, mainly in whispers. First, the brass ordered our platoon to go up, secure three floors, whatever it takes (two expendables), and now a few of us will go down, find the fiends who made the mistake of surviving, maybe rough them up a little, but keep them alive for interrogation. High-value combatants, if handled correctly, may provide useful intelligence. This three-story apartment complex and its basement will be razed after the intelligence is removed.

Tracers web the sky in green and white. This is West Fallujah, a neighborhood called Jolan. Thin red letters on Sanderson’s map; fire and smoke outside the map, with fingers of darkness. Just ahead, a bright flash buckles the earth and bellows. White phosphorus (“Whiskey Pete”) must have flushed some low-value combatants from spider holes and into the ruined streets where HE (high explosives) finished them in the flash we observed from this rooftop. Few combatants are worth the ammunition that kills them. They’re killed because weapons and manpower are in place, and because we have the capacity, the intelligence, the habit. I’m not brass, but I can think like brass. Whiskey Pete, then HE. The generals call the Battle of Fallujah Operation Phantom Fury. Most names mark the beginning of a fairy tale, or a blatant lie, but not this one. Phantom Fury defines an obsession. Ghosts will battle ghosts.


Sanderson orders Sergeant Lidle’s squad, six of us, to search the basement. No dallying, no last smoke, no letters to the horny girls of our imaginations, the jezebels who don’t exist. We get in a few minutes of moping, though, and I for one ask in silence, Why us? Why not some other squad? We’re already light. I feel better when Kairns, who’s not in our depleted squad, volunteers to walk point. The company corpsman, Doc Shapiro, nineteen years old, watches the sky, the tracers outshining the stars, and then he says every sorry-assed operation needs a corpsman so he’ll go, too. I wonder if I’ll ever betray my father and tell this brave boy we share something important: a name.

They call me Sheppard, PFC Jack Sheppard. My grandfather buried our real name—Shapiro—in Germany, in 1941. My old man kept this a secret till the night before I left for Iraq. We were in his den, drinking Jameson whiskey on ice. I remember him looking at me a long while, not blinking, then looking past me, blinking, before his eyes closed and he told me what he could. Several deaths in the camps—he wouldn’t give an exact number—but many survivors, too. He called his mother, who died in Auschwitz, “a strong and quiet woman.” As always, he was brief. He said a Marine should know his name before he sees combat. He said keeping our name a secret might improve my chances for survival. Dizzy and drunk, I didn’t press him to reveal more of our family history and he wouldn’t have anyway. My old man, who long ago became an American first, a Jew last, volunteered for Vietnam in 1967. A Marine, of course. A lieutenant who led a platoon. He would return to a Chicago suburb with a Bronze Star for Valor, a taste for whiskey, and a shaky confidence that he and his wife (I came later, unplanned) had found a place within which to disappear, if not belong. Does he trust anyone beyond his family? Probably not. He needed twenty-three years to trust me with the secret of our name.

“Is mom’s maiden name really Connors?”

“No, it’s Klasky.”

“She’s Jewish?”

“Of course.”

“Were you in a camp, Pop? Auschwitz?”

“A few months, but not Auschwitz.” He clears his throat. “I was four years old. I barely remember it.”

“Then why can’t—”

“What do you expect me to say? What would it mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“The silence tells you more.”


So far this basement is like any basement: quiet. Steep stairs lead to a cramped room. The walls, the earth, muffle the sounds of war. A bomb that may weigh a ton is like a shovel slapping the sand at a distance. Kairns, on point, slips through a door slightly ajar, then leads us through a labyrinth of rooms, all of them empty but for dust. He uses his headlamp sparingly. He’ll flash it on for a millisecond, sniff (sometimes scent and sight are inseparable), then return us to the dark. He refuses to wear the customary night-vision goggles because they distort depth perception and may cause him to shoot at the wrong angle. I swim through the near dark behind him, the dark in front of Shapiro. Some of us wear goggles, some don’t. They are more effective out-of-doors.

To follow requires no thought, almost no will. I stumble forward, guided by the scuff of boots, the purr of breathing. For seven months now, the brass have wanted to know who killed the Blackwater boys—Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, Michael Teagu—the contractors whose SUVs were ambushed, who were shot, burned, beaten with shovels, who were truly and fully dead before two were hung from the green bridge over the Euphrates. The brass want precise information: names, locations, future plans. They want specifics that increase their hatred and justify the complete destruction that shall happen—with or without specifics—in the coming hours, days, or weeks. If they could, if technology were a more willing partner, they would reduce Fallujah to human size, render it full of holes, burn it, smash it with shovels, then swing it from the green bridge over the Euphrates. I know, however, our descent into a cellar will reveal no intelligence of value. A few Marines may die, myself included. Sheppard? Shapiro? Will it matter? In Iraq, every American is a Jew.


Eight of us blend with darkness, a void. I hear Kairns sniffing, so I sniff, too. I smell my sweat. I smell metal. Kairns stops breathing. None of us moves.

Now he flicks on his light. His left hand has almost disturbed a spider in its web. Kairns steps aside and keeps going. Given a choice, he’ll break nothing, keep the web whole. I brush a finger over a thin strand. I touch delicate things for luck.

The moments pass, and we survive them one at a time. I sing in silence our psalm of blasphemy: Kairns is our shepherd and we shall not want. He turns off his light. We pass through rooms the man feels, rooms that none of us see, or need to see. We are harder to kill than spiders. Only now, in this blind dark where he halts to draw a slow breath into his nostrils and down his throat, I fear we’ve stepped inside a trap. A single IED could finish us, collapse the unseen walls, the ceiling, and bury us beneath three stories. Maybe our shepherd has strayed too far.

Kairns turns on his headlamp. This room is more spacious than the others. We see a table for four, its rough surface scarred by a knife. The words etched into blond wood are in Arabic, which none of us can read. Kairns leans closer, sniffs, sighs. In slow motion, he pivots toward two folding chairs arranged back-to-back in a corner. Beneath the nearest one is a spool of detonation cord, a metal-and-plastic packet that may include a timing device, a frazzled coil of wire––none of them joined. Kairns sways, swallows (the sound seems loud), and again chooses darkness. If someone was constructing an IED, he left his work undone.

There is a sound from below. I feel it as a pulse in my feet, my calves, and a slight warmth at the base of my throat. No breath or tongue of a girl could be as intimate. My body is hideously soft, pliant. Death may come before the next breath, or not at all. A dud IED? Crossed wires? A bomb searching for its fuse? Kairns remains silent. Sergeant Lidle, crawling up behind Shapiro, whispers what we already know: Something’s under us. That sound came from farther in, lower, maybe a second cellar. Or a cave, a spider hole. A last hideaway for Hajjis. Kairns tells his superior to Shut the fuck up. I can’t see our point man, only picture him. He seems to lower himself slowly and brush his hands across the floor.

I drop to one knee, aim my rifle at darkness. I want Kairns to zip on his headlamp, but he won’t. Our squad has rifles, grenades, Ka-Bars, weapons for close quarters, which are often useless. Our commanders, who have everything, sometimes employ devices that explode upon detecting the heat of blood, animal or human. They plant such contraptions in places known to be dangerous. Downtown Fallujah, for example. Or East Fallujah. West Fallujah. North Fallujah. South Fallujah. The Green Bridge. The mosques and minarets. The meeting places. The markets. The restaurants. The General Hospital. The labyrinths of alleys. Anyone, a general or a pawn, knows this of the enemy: he is warm-blooded, elusive. Some heat-sensing devices are so small they can be strapped to a helmet. We have no such devices in this cellar. We are to engage the enemy, show restraint, and bring him up alive.

White noise blows away the silence. Squelch. Radio static. Babble. Kairns whispers, “Lidle, you best turn that sumbitch off.” Our squad leader is behind our corpsman. I’m blind in this dark, but I believe he’s pressing a palm to the speaker to soften the noise. It is too late. We are known. The radio keeps talking, crackling, and his hand is small, just so much meat. Kairns whispers louder, “Lidle, you worthless shit, turn that sumbitch off or I’ll turn you off.” Well, the radio spurts its babble, then enlightens us with three intelligible words: “…give precise location.” Shapiro groans. So do I, as I take one step backward. Lieutenant Sanderson, who plays war by the rules, wants “a situation report.” Lidle grunts, then speaks in code: “Foxtrot-six… expect SR soon. Hold on.” We hear more babble before he finds the switch up his ass or somewhere and turns the radio off.

Beneath us, again, I hear movement. The sounds are so small I think of insects, a colony of ants. Bomb the fuckers, flush them with phosphorous. The sounds are infinitely delicate compared to white noise.


Moments later, Kairns zips on his headlamp and we see a closed hatch. He crawls up, sniffs, zips off his lamp, sniffs again, and then I feel him straining and hanging his tongue like a dog sampling the air for clues.

Lidle: “Who’s going down?”

I shut my eyes. I think we all shut our eyes.

Kairns, sucking a slow breath, turns his light on, then off. The dark feels safer. Moments pass. Nothing happens. We survive this moment and this and this. I cup a hand over my groin.

Lidle, who like Kairns has a headlamp strapped to his helmet, switches his on and says, “Goddamn it, you heard me. Somebody’s got to go down.”

Kairns volunteers, but then he’s done. In Lidle’s cone of light, a stage of sorts, our point man stiffens. Moments unravel into minutes. Kairns holds up a hand like a schoolboy eager to answer a question, but then he starts shaking and blubbering. I wish Lidle would turn off the light. Up to now, Kairns has fallen to pieces only when the dangers have passed, not before. He says something that sounds like Sorry, then something that sounds like Fuck you, Jack, and fuck Jill, too. He squats and hugs his chest. His back is against a wall.

Lidle whispers, “Okay, Kairns, you’re relieved. We’ll make you our advisor.” The sergeant inches forward in a crouch. “You smell anything? Can you talk plain?”

Kairns makes some sounds, but they’re a good distance from words.

“Never mind,” says Lidle. “Just nod your head if you smell… what the fuck is it? Electricity? Sparks?”

Kairns doesn’t nod. The shakes, the gyrations—they can’t be counted. Lidle sucks a deep breath through his nostrils. “Roger that. Let’s all bend down for the same supper: eat the apple and fuck the Corps.”

The sergeant has a piece of paper. He squats, presses it to his left knee, and begins to write. A short while later, he tears the paper in sections. “Fuck your luck,” he whispers. “Whoever draws number six goes down the hole.”

Sarge shakes the scraps of paper in his cupped hands. He shuffles from man to man, and we each take a number. Kairns is ineligible, as is Shapiro, who is unarmed. This leaves six players. Lidle keeps the last scrap, the number no one chose.

His handwriting’s so messy my number’s more like the letter C than a goddamn 6. I know what I got, though, the unluckiest number in Fallujah. Shapiro, I love Shapiro, says, “Wait a sec. No one’s got to open that hatch and go down. Our mission is to search the basement, not some spider hole underneath.”

Lidle, a lifer, says, “Everything down here is the basement. Sheppard, let’s get this done.”

Fuck you, I’m thinking. Fuck you and your loved ones. I hope you die slow.

Kairns lifts a hand, then cradles it to his belly. He has something to say, but the words won’t come.

Lidle loops a rope around my left ankle. Twenty-five meters, that’s the range of this probe. He gives me his M9 pistol, then covers my cold hands with his. “If it helps,” he says, “just know we won’t leave you in some godforsaken hole.”

Before I go down, he rigs a wire to the handle of the hatch and we all move back, me and Shapiro dragging Kairns who’s stiffened up again, the statue of a squatting Marine. The sonofabitch doesn’t make a sound. The air’s in his open mouth, but he doesn’t shag it, just lets himself be breathed. That’s the quiet way, maybe the best way. But I feel my own breath snake hard and cold over my tongue and down the pipes. It seems loud enough for the whole desert to hear. We’re maybe twenty paces from the hatch when Lidle jerks hard on the wire and the lid opens like a mouth. A creak of hinges, no explosion. Not yet. Lidle says, “Capture alive if possible, avoid extreme risks.” I manage to restrain a giggle. Jack Sheppard, Jack Shapiro. My name doesn’t make any damn difference. I’m going down under Babylon, going down twenty-five meters. Not very far really. Maybe a third of a football field. The one thought in my head is—Pop would be proud of me. A secret Jew with a rope ’round his ankle. A secret Jew with a mission. How many thoughts would I shoot and kill if I could? It comes again, though, in rushes, and I can’t stop it. Babylon, Pop. Babylon. We are almost dead.



Saeyah al-Farraj



We are good at hiding. We slip into the smallest corners of our homes, our schools, our mosques, and become as invisible as prayer. We scrabble behind mud-brick walls, vanish down crooked alleyways, take refuge behind gutted cars, downed telephone poles, collapsed roofs, tangles of metal. Our fresh water, which my mother captured in a plastic jar, rose from a crater, the reckless blessing of a bomb that birthed a spring. Despite our skills, we sometimes fail. My brother lay still beside the corpse of his father before he was prodded with a boot, kicked twice, then killed. Marines and mercenaries, in their raids and assaults, target the men first, but we, the women, may be their truest enemy. We have eyes. We have tongues. We have words. We may live to tell the truth.

Four of us hide in a tunnel beneath the three-story mansion of Hashim Dawai: my mother, Maryam, my little sister, Aisha, my Auntie Nuriya, who wants nothing more than to visit Mecca before she dies, and me, Saeyah, who wants to live one thousand and one years and love a beautiful boy. We have done our best to slip under the war as under a carpet. Now, however, we hear footsteps in the room above us, and muted voices. I’ve never held a rifle, but I wish I had one, or at least a knife, a stone. My mother turns on her flashlight and leads us farther inside the tunnel. She has left behind her candles because their scent leaves a trail.

We have never been here. None of us knew that Hashim, who was killed in April, built this passageway beneath his home. The tunnel slips inward like a stiff snake and ends where I draw a star.

\            \

       \             \ _ _ __ __

             \ _ _ _ __                 \

                                    \              \

                                          \             \

                                               \             \ _ _

                                                    \ __ ___          *

We are dazed when my mother aims the light at a gilded mirror, a copper pot, a can opener, a jar of garbanzo beans, the label half ripped away, and a large box with a golden clasp. “Oh,” I say, “jewels. May I open the box?” She orders me to hush.

Auntie Nuriya is praying for Hashim’s wife, who seems to have hidden her keepsakes in this tunnel. I don’t believe my auntie has ever worn valuable jewels, or prettied her eyes with kohl, or painted her lips. Some of the more pious men of Fallujah recently beat an old man who sold lipstick at the market. I’ve never worn lipstick, only imagined my lips as bright as the sun. I’m fascinated by jewels, too, and mirrors, because I am pretty. Hashim has a son, Ziyad, who is nineteen, almost twenty, and may still be alive. My secret wish is to marry him when the war is over. He would see lips the color of the sun when I lifted my veil.

We are hungry for beans, but opening a jar would make too much noise. My mother orders me to touch nothing. “Might be a trap,” she mutters. “Stay still.” We huddle in this cavern barely wide enough for our bodies. One grenade would deliver us to Allah, but right now we hear no enemy moving toward us. One enters this tunnel through a hatch that Auntie Nuriya closed after straining to push her thick hips through the opening. Most Marines are tall and muscular, and a few are wide through the middle. We pray that none will be able to squeeze himself through the opening to butcher us in this hole.

Aisha says she’s hungry.

“Not now,” says my mother. “We have to wait till the Americans go away.”

Minutes later, my mother doesn’t stop Auntie Nuriya from touching the jar, the label with the picture of beans. There is no trap, no explosion. Nothing is wired. The beans, the copper pot, the can opener, the jewels (if there are jewels) are before us. I want to see what Hashim’s wife has hidden inside the box fastened with a gold clasp. My family was poor before the war came, but we were never hungry. Hashim, a tribal leader, sometimes helped us, and he and his son brought my family food and tea. This is how I met Ziyad. In his presence, more than once, I lifted my veil so he could glimpse the fullness of my face, the curve of my lips. To flirt is to sin, but I did it anyway. Ziyad always smiled before he lowered his gaze.

Auntie Nuriya touches the jewelry box with a thin finger. “Not a bomb,” she says. “Perhaps a few valuables.”

“You’re sure?” asks my mother.

“Would Hashim place explosives in such a place?”

“I don’t know.”

“No, and neither would his son,” says my auntie. “This is the last safe place.”

A moment later, she lifts the gold clasp and opens the box. On top, there are sheaves of papers, documents with red seals. Auntie hesitates, then sweeps these aside. “Ah,” she says, and holds a hand to her throat.

There must be a dozen rings, toe rings and finger rings, and gold trinkets like those parents sometimes receive to celebrate the birth of a child. My auntie removes a toe ring, puts in back, then takes up a spool of colored threads. Red. Green. Gold. Blue. Yellow. White. She and my mother believe, or try to believe, that threads of different colors can be used as charms to shield us from the jinn, the se’ir, the realm of spirits. They also believe in the protective power of metal to ward off evil. I would never tell my mother or auntie, “I’m smarter than you,” but I am. I’ve studied in school and at home, in secret, and am smarter than my teachers. I can read the most complicated books. I can think. I can do math. I am good with language. I learned English from a cousin who lived in Baghdad as a girl. In turn, I taught her the stars, the constellations, when we slept on our rooftop one summer. Colored threads and gold rings are useless against evil, but I love jewelry, or anything pretty. All of us may die soon. We should open a jar, slurp beans and their juices, and adorn ourselves with rings.

We hear voices above us, but they are distant. My mother has Aisha stretch out a leg in front of her. Nuriya holds the light, which is fizzing off and on, a dull strobe. Aisha, who is nine, whimpers as my mother ties colored threads around her right ankle. A few years ago my skinny sister wore janajil, anklets with silver bells so mother could find her when she wandered into the alleys to play. The bells, speckled with rust, made a dull, clanky sound. Now my mother wraps the other ankle in lucky threads: red, yellow, blue, gold.

I am next. She does not need my permission. As she winds red and green yarn around my left ankle, I ask if I can try on a ring.

She nods her yes. “Just one,” she says. “But afterwards you must put it back.”

Soon, in the dimmest light, I am wearing a fatkhat, a toe ring, and I wriggle my pinkie and raise my leg toward the mirror. I expect my mother to order me to return the jewel, stop clowning, but instead she picks up a fatha, a finger ring, and holds it in the cone of the flashlight. Aisha takes a gold trinket and tucks it into the folds of her abaya. Nuriya gives the flashlight to my mother. She begins to bow, as in prayer, but then she too takes a fatha and slips it over her right forefinger. We women are jeweled. Each, at different times, glances at the mirror, lifts a hand or a foot to the glass. We are magicians. The war disappears in the mirror. Our last trick is to pretend we are safe.

We hold still when we hear the sharp, creaking sound of the hatch swinging open. My mother turns off the light. How many minutes to live? One? Two? Before these questions paralyze me, I slip forward in silence and do something that may save our lives.

Kneeling, I take the mirror, swing it to the side and into the corridor, and prop it against the wall. I hear someone crawling toward us. Someone who breathes hard enough for us to draw in the scent of his fear. In my mind I can see the length of the tunnel, its angles and width, and I mark the position of the invader with a star.

\            \

      \             \ _ _ __ __

             \ _ _ _ _*_                \

                                    \              \

                                          \             \

                                               \             \ _ _

                                                    \ *__ ___

The second star marks the mirror that may startle him when he turns.




Jack Sheppard



I’ve fired four shots at what? I turn off my headlamp and point Sergeant Lidle’s pistol at the dark. My eyes are clotted with dust. My ears ring. “Goddamn silly son of a bitch,” I mutter, and fire one more round that ricochets off stone and reverberates. Senseless. Absurd. Maybe I have winged a ghost.

I snake my way back toward the hatch that opens to the cellar. Marines are yawing and yammering the way they always do when something extraordinary is underway. Except for Kairns and Shapiro, they’re hooked on this war: the mystery, the vibes. I should scrape my knee so they can smell their desire—blood.

I’ve got a coil of rope round my left ankle. I have a notion to untie it, slip free in this dark, and a stronger notion to let myself be gathered to light. Sergeant Lidle calls down the hatch, “Shep, you hear me? You okay?” I hold still till I feel a tug, then another, and then I help him by crawling toward the opening, the faint star of his headlamp. I suck a long breath and holler up the hatch, “Fuck it, Sarge. Fuck it every which way.”

Gutter talk informs a Marine that another Marine is A-OK.

Sergeant Lidle needs to know what happened. He and four others surround me. Shapiro crouches over an aid bag that he won’t need till sunup. PFC Kairns, leaning against a wall, drools and whimpers. I can’t look at him for long.

Lidle says, “You opened up with my pistol. What the fuck you shooting at? Shadows?”

“Wish to God I knew.”

“Your orders were to take prisoners. You forget what I told you?”

“None to take, Sarge. ’Live or dead.”

“You kill a few Hajjis? Waste them?”

“Hard to say.”

Lidle kicks some dust on my filthy boots. “Goddamn you, say something that means something.”

“I wish I could.”

“No kills? No wounded?”

I shrug.

“You’re flat-fuck worthless,” he says, and shoves me against a wall.

Lidle turns on his radio, but now he can’t rouse the lieutenant. We backtrack through the maze of walls and rooms till our squad leader is able to make contact. “Should we go back down?” he asks the lieutenant. “Make one more probe?”

We are advised to hold our position. I hear little noises in the walls.

I don’t know how much time passes before I know a simple, obscene truth. A mirror, a pistol, a face—that was me, no one else. Me. I should laugh, make a joke of it. I shot myself in a mirror. No harm done. But I feel what’s broken, little veins and things, little bones in the skull, the throat, the chest. No X-rays for this sort of breakage, no MRIs. Ask PFC Kairns. A typical war wound, though. Nothing special. Maybe every squad has someone like me.

James Janko’s novel, The Clubhouse Thief (2018), won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Prize for the Novel and was published by New Issues Poetry & Prose (Western Michigan University). An earlier novel, Buffalo Boy and Geronimo (Northwestern University Press/ Curbstone), received the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. A new novel, The Dark Between the Stars, is forthcoming from University of Wisconsin Press.